Contact: deborahocarroll@yahoo.com

Girls, Spies, and Other Things the Faeries Stole

by Deborah O’Carroll

©2021 Deborah O’Carroll. All Rights Reserved.

Cover art by Deborah O’Carroll (images from Unsplash.com) made with Krita and Canva.com

This story is available at Wattpad HERE.

Synopsis:

The name’s Sean. All I have to do is solve a mystery about twelve disappearing girls, find and haul back a certain annoying missing agent, and make sure I don’t run into any of those important selkie shifters I offended. What could possibly go wrong? Honestly, probably everything.

(A five-part serial short story. 1,000-2,000 words each. Urban fantasy with a fairytale twist.)

PART 1

OPERATION TWELVE DANCING DAUGHTERS

I dismounted from my old motorcycle and surveyed the huge mansion silhouetted against the lake. The location being near water was less than ideal, given the rather important selkie shifters I had offended, but this job shouldn’t involve going near the water. I hoped.

Stepping into the sunset shadow of the looming mansion, I pulled off my sunglasses and hung them on my collar. I knocked on the huge elegant doors at the top of a stairway I tried not to let impress me.

A man in a suit opened the doors almost at once and looked out. “Good evening, sir. How can I help you?”

Sir, indeed. My battered leather jacket and torn jeans didn’t exactly look like sir material, and the man was three times my age. But I let it slide, just this once.

“I’m here to collect that half-million reward,” I said.

“That would require solving the mystery.”

I smirked. “Oh, I intend to.”

“And where did you hear of this opportunity?”

“Craigslist,” I grunted. He didn’t need to know that an . . . acquaintance of mine had already come trying to solve this and had disappeared.

Satisfied, he nodded and stepped back. “Right this way, sir, and I’ll introduce you to Mr. King.”

“Name’s Sean.” I adjusted the handgun tucked into the back of my jeans under my jacket as I stepped through the doorway. “Don’t ‘sir’ me.”

“Of course not, sir.”

I followed him into the depths of the mansion, shaking my head. Butlers.

My interview with Mr. King was brief. He was bored and impatient, and since I like to think that people don’t react that way just because of me, I figured he was getting kind of tired of this whole business after all the others who had come in search of the reward and gotten nowhere—or if they had, nobody knew where, since they’d all disappeared.

Honestly, you’d think that would be more worrying than a billionaire’s twelve adopted daughters wearing out their ballet slippers every night, but there was no accounting for the rich.

He said they couldn’t perform ballet in the daytime if they danced all night, and the stage was missing them.

Whatever he wanted to do with half a million was his business, and I could certainly use it to take care of a few things, on top of tracking down my . . . acquaintance.

So here I was, in a corner of a room full of chattering teenage girls. Pretty much the last place I wanted to be. Well. Other than somewhere near water.

At least the invisibility cloak I wore kept them from knowing I was here. It had been helpfully provided by Mr. King to aid in the investigations, with an enchantment on it to return to its proper hook, hanging on a wall in his office, at sunup every day to prevent unwarranted thefts. Otherwise, I’d have suspected the previous investigators of having made off with it—that would explain their disappearances, and one of these was worth a fortune.

As part of the prearranged plan, I’d slipped in while the butler brought an evening snack to the teens—well, maybe a few of them were a smidge older, closer to my age; I was terrible with ages—and waited, Mr. King’s weary “good luck” still swirling in my ears. I guess if neither the wards around the house nor the security cameras could figure out where his girls were going or how, and they seemed to be in their room from ten p.m. until morning, that had to get kind of stressful.

The girls were either chatting, reading, engaged on phones or laptops, or doing some kind of crafting. One practiced ballet steps in the corner opposite mine.

Absolutely nothing interesting happened until the clock hit midnight.

They all stopped what they were doing and watched the huge wall clock finish chiming, then stood up—all except the one who seemed to be the youngest, who had fallen asleep reading a book.

She woke up and groaned. “Just one night. Can’t we sleep for just one night and forget all this?”

The eldest snorted. “Sounds great. Except for the part where we’d all wake up as ghosts.”

“Come on, you don’t really believe that, do you? Just because she told us—”

“I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that faeries can’t lie,” said another girl.

“And I’m pretty sure that’s just a rumor they spread to make themselves sound trustworthy. Have you seen how sarcastic some of them are? I’m pretty sure sarcasm is a kind of lie, and I doubt they could be that sarcastic if they had to tell the truth.”

I smirked. That was definitely true.

“We won’t leave you behind, and you usually love it. If you’re tired, you can just as easily nap there. Let’s go.”

The other girl got up and they all put on their ballet slippers, then lined up, following the first girl.

I tensed, ready.

They walked right into the wall and vanished.

Well, then.

I quickly slipped after them. The wall let me through, fortunately. On the other side, a dark shadowiness waited. I could feel that we had passed through a barrier and were now somewhere else entirely. The fae world. This was going to be interesting. I spied the girls disappearing in a long twist down a spiral staircase with a gleam of light waiting at the bottom.

About to slip after them, I paused. A scratch on the banister at the top caught my eye. A symbol I knew well. Riel had been here. And the only reason he would have left that mark was if he was in trouble and thought I’d be following and would find it. Of all the entitled—

I growled. What did that idiot get into now?

I pulled my cloak of invisibility tighter around myself and stepped onto the spiral stairs, following the twelve girls toward the source of light—and what sounded like waves.

Which meant water.

I groaned. This was not my day.

PART 2

In Which Agent Riel Annoys Me (As Usual)

I nearly turned around when I saw the lake. Lights gleamed gold on the dark water’s surface, reflections from a palace of some kind on the opposite bank. One by one, the twelve girls stepped into twelve small elegant boats which began crossing the river—soundlessly, fae, not propelled by anything I could see.

I could leave. I should leave. Going near the water wasn’t worth it—not for the half-million reward or to solve the mystery of where these girls went at night. I knew already. I could go back. I glanced back up the path lined with trees that looked like they were made of jewels, silver, and gold—fake. Fae illusions. My training would have told me that, even if experience hadn’t.

The foot of the winding staircase was just visible through the trees, waiting for me to dash back up it and get out of there.

But the symbol I’d seen etched at the top was burned in my brain. It meant Riel needed help and that he was expecting me. Finding him was the real mission anyway, and now I knew he was here—or had been.

And much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just leave him.

Not even to save my hide from those important selkie shifters.

“Kelpies take you, Riel,” I muttered, and jogged to the end of the dock, where I managed to slip into the back of the last tiny boat, just as the final girl sat down in it.

It rocked slightly and she glanced over her shoulder—straight through me.

At least the invisibility cloak, slung over my battered leather jacket, was doing its job. She had no idea there was a guy crouching behind her in the boat—the last place I wanted to be.

I wiped my palms on my torn jeans, resisting the urge to check that my gun was still tucked behind me, and avoided looking at the water as we crossed. Maybe the selkie shifters wouldn’t sense that I was near water if I didn’t touch it.

When we reached the shore, if I’d had my motorcycle with me, I’d have roared up the winding path to the palace, away from that lake faster than a faerie from iron. I had to content myself with stalking quietly up the icy bridge to the palace, behind the twelve dancers, to the double doors flung wide.

They were ice. The doors, not the girls. Well, as far as I knew; I hadn’t had time to assess their personalities. The whole palace was ice, or looked it. I slipped inside after the young women, past the fae guards who didn’t see me—although one was busy muttering into a cell phone pressed to his ear (yes, faeries have technology too; they just magic it), so it wasn’t like he was paying much attention anyway.

Once inside, I took in the scene from the shadows. A habit of mine, hard to break even while wearing a cloak that made shadows redundant.

A vast, cold, vaulted hall. A ballroom of ice, filled with dancers—faeries and at least a few other species I didn’t have time to study, and the girls I’d followed, who immediately swept into the dance. Elegant icy pillars ringed the room, carved with wolves and roses, moons and ravens, snowflakes and reindeer and mountains and vines of ice. Music filled the air, as cold and beautiful as the palace was. The lighting overhead resembled the northern lights and I wasn’t sure how it was done. Faeries. Typical.

The floor was like a frozen lake—I hoped it wasn’t actually a lake—and on a dais in the center stood a throne, like frozen blocks of ice with the throne’s back tipped with icicles pointing the wrong way.

It didn’t look terribly comfortable, but the woman sitting on it didn’t appear to care. And neither did the young man next to her on a smaller seat of ice, sprawling comfortably with his legs crossed and his arm thrown across the back of his chair.

Gabriel Kenworth. Right in the middle of everything, like he always had to be.

I shoved down the rush of relief at seeing him alive. On the one hand, at least I didn’t have to go looking for a dungeon somewhere to find him. On the other hand, it was almost annoying how easy it looked. And I didn’t trust that one bit.

Pulling the invisibility cloak tighter, I reluctantly left the shadows. I crossed to the center dais with the throne, quickly, avoiding the dancers sweeping this way and that. Hopefully my reflection, which stared furtively up at me in the mirror-like floor, was only visible to myself.

I stopped on the steps to one side of the dais, planning my next move.

Close up, the queen on the throne was as perfect and stunning as you’d expect a fae queen to be. Almost carved of ice, she seemed. She wore a gown that looked like it was made of a million snowflakes, with a white fur wrap around her shoulders. She was young but ageless, despite the white hair twisted elegantly on her head. A silver-white crown coiled around that. Her eyes were silver starlight, but sheer cold, directed at Riel sitting next to her.

She laughed. “Go on, Kay.”

Kay.

At least he had the brains to use a false name.

Not that being here in the first place showed that he had any brains at all.

Then again, I was here too.

“Oh, I was finished,” he said pleasantly. “That was the end.”

“Mm. A fine story,” the queen said. She fell silent and watched him.

He watched her back, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly under the wave of blond hair over his forehead, as if in question.

“Well, are you going to kiss me or not?” she said finally.

Riel flashed a smile which didn’t reach his eyes, but it was all charm. “We’ve been over this, Your Majesty. Kissing you would kill me, and I happen to value my life right now.”

I snorted.

The queen looked up and glanced around. She shouldn’t have heard that over the music. Riel didn’t react much but a very slight smirk grew in the corner of his mouth. Come on. He couldn’t have heard either.

But the queen didn’t see me and looked back at him after a moment. She stood quite suddenly. “I’m going for a drink. Care to join me?”

Riel straightened the cuffs of his nice charcoal suit coat, nodding toward a drink on a small table next to him, still full. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll wait here.”

She awarded him a dazzling smile, gorgeous and deadly, and swept off down the steps and through the dancers, who parted before her.

Riel sat like an ice statue. I climbed the steps and stopped by his chair, still invisible.

“Ah, Sean. How are you?” he said, not looking toward me.

“Better than you, Gabe,” I said, “by the looks of things.”

He frowned almost imperceptibly at my barb and the nickname he disliked. “It’s good to see you too, old boy.”

“You can’t see me,” I growled. “And you’re older than I am.”

“Figure of speech. Both of them,” he said, unfazed. “I knew you’d come.”

I snorted. “Oh, did you?”

“I figured I’d be missed.”

“Nobody missed you,” I lied.

“And yet here you are.”

I folded my arms, even though he couldn’t see me. “You think you deserve to have everyone running to the end of the world to find you?”

He smirked. “Not everyone. Just you.”

“When we get out of here, I swear I’m going to punch you.”

“Yes. Well. There might be some difficulty with that,” Riel said, his expression strained for the first time.

“I don’t see why. You have a face. I have a fist.”

“I meant the getting out of here part.”

I huffed a breath, frosty on the frigid air. “I knew it. Well, out with it. Tell me what you’ve gotten yourself into this time, so I can get you out of it, as usual.”

Riel gave a tense smile. “I think it’s out of your league.”

“It can’t be worse than the selkies,” I muttered.

His shifty look told me more than I wanted to know. It was worse.

“Oh, come on,” I said.

PART 3

How To Make A Deal With An Ice Queen

“What’s so complicated, Riel?” I demanded. “The way I see it, we just have to find out what’s up with the girls coming here to dance, and then get out of here.”

“Oh, well, the first part’s easy. I already know that.”

That shouldn’t set my teeth on edge, and yet here we were. Of course he did. “Do tell.”

Riel settled back in the ice throne as he explained what he’d learned. “They love dancing but they’re tired of the pressure of dancing on the stage. Their adoptive father never would take a hint, and they stumbled through to here one day, where they rediscovered the fun of dancing. They vowed to continue to dance here for fun every night, a going-on-strike sort of thing, as long as their father continued not to understand.” He picked up a glass from a small ice table beside him and swirled the ice cubes in the drink with thoughtful clinks. “That turned into a sort of fae bargain—you know how the fae are—and, of course, they can’t tell their father, to get him to understand, because that would be telling about this fae court, which the queen made them promise not to do before they realized what that would mean. So they dance here each night, and while I haven’t actually verified if they’d stop if they could, they do seem to like it.”

I shifted where I stood, folding my arms, even though he couldn’t see me at the moment because of the invisibility cloak I wore over my battered leather jacket. “And the second part?”

“Second part is going to be a lot harder,” Riel confessed.

“Why haven’t you just gone back?”

“That’s the second part.” Riel sipped from the glass and eyed the queen, visible across the dance floor at a refreshment table. “Turns out, the fae queen took offense at my trying to get the girls out of here. Something about thieves in the fae court and meddling and trying to break magical agreements.” He gave a dismissive shrug. “Anyway, to avoid execution or something nastier, I foolishly agreed to a bargain with her.”

I shut my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Riel . . .”

He gave a tense smile. “I know. I knew better. Long story short, I haven’t actually cashed in on that bargain yet, but when I do I’ll either be dead or belong to her forever. You know the drill.”

I sighed another foggy breath. “What about the other would-be rescuers?”

Riel waved a hand around the icy ballroom filled with dancers. “Enchanted, ensnared, or various other fates; none as horrible as mine, though.”

“Mm-hmm. Enthroned and sipping drinks and engaged to a beautiful queen is such a terrible fate.”

“Hey, come on, now, Sean,” Riel protested.

“Complain about it later, once I get you out of it,” I said, starting to move down the steps of the ice dais.

He sat up straighter. “Wait, what are you doing?”

“You’re not the only spy in the guild, Riel, even if you are the flashiest one.”

He grinned and saluted in my general direction.

I paced through the dancers and paused in the shadow of an ice pillar. After pulling off my invisibility cloak, I left it tucked at the base of a northern lights tapestry—which was actually glowing. Because fae magic. I paused a moment, the magic reminding me of the wards around the room of the girls in question. I glanced down at the cloak. I wouldn’t need it again if everything went as planned, and it might get in the way, but it was going to reappear back in Mr. King’s office come morning, anyway.

That gave me an idea.

I pulled my cell phone from my back pocket—no human cell service here, just fae—and typed something. I slipped the phone into the cloak’s pocket.

Then I stepped back onto the dance floor, fully visible, and cut in on the fae man dancing with the eldest of the twelve teen girls. He glided off for drinks and she accepted my hand, smiling curiously.

“You know it’s dangerous here, right?” I said.

Her eyes showed only the briefest flicker of surprise before she rolled with my unusual opening. “No more than in any other fae court.”

“That’s dangerous enough.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What do you want?”

“Why do you and your sisters dance here?”

She gave a light shrug of her shoulders. Her shimmering purple dress brought to mind the color of a different girl’s eyes . . . I pulled my attention back to my dancing partner as she spoke. “It reminds us of when we were children and could dance free of scrutiny. When you do something you love until it becomes work, you may love it, but it’s still work. Father doesn’t understand that. There’s no pressure here.”

“Being trapped in a fae bargain isn’t pressure?”

“It was freely entered into.”

“But your father doesn’t know.”

The barest hint of a frown creased between her eyebrows, the only indication that this fact bothered her, but I could see it did, at least a little. She wanted to tell him, and was somewhat displeased that she couldn’t.

We danced in silence for a moment across the gleaming icy floor.

“If you could go home and your father would allow you to go back to the life you remember before the stage, would you do it?”

“Of course,” she said. “But he doesn’t know, and we can’t tell him, and nobody else who’s come looking for us has done anything about it.”

“But would you agree not to come back here?”

“It’s beautiful here. Perilous, I know, but beautiful. I think I would miss it,” she said, glancing around.

I started to speak.

“But,” she went on, “I’d still give it up in a heartbeat if we could all be a happy family again.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, bowed as the dance finished, and stalked off toward the refreshment table, leaving the young woman staring quizzically after me.

The fae queen was just turning to leave, a drink in each hand, probably to go back to her throne and Riel.

“Evening,” I said, taking one of the glasses unceremoniously from her hand and drinking half of it in one go—after the barest pause to smell whether it was fae or enchanted, which it wasn’t.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” she said, her slightly icy tone and cold eyes the only indication she gave of her annoyance.

“We haven’t,” I said. “Why are those twelve girls dancing here every night?”

She tilted her fair head. “All are welcome to come to my court.”

“Not the ones who came looking for them,” I said.

She gave a thin, cold smile. “I said all are welcome to come. Not always welcome to leave.”

“Here’s the thing,” I said, hooking my thumbs into the belt loops of my jeans. “I came to get them back to their father, and also to release the others who tried to rescue them and failed, but I don’t intend to sneak around like they have. No tricks. I don’t step on your toes (figuratively), you don’t retaliate, we make a deal, they walk out of here and don’t come back, and everyone’s happy. I’ll do whatever you like. Almost whatever,” I amended. “Just let the twelve girls go, and the people who came looking for them, including the pompous clod with the blond hair who’s currently lounging on your throne pretending he’s important.”

I waved a hand in Riel’s direction. He saw me pointing and lifted his glass in a sort of wave/salute with a smirk.

“All I wanted was a kiss from him,” the fae queen said.

“Well, he’s stalling, and he’s very good at that, believe me. Anyway, he said it would kill him.”

She shrugged. “It would make his heart—and by extension, his life—belong to me, or turn it to ice. One or the other.”

Well, that was cold. Literally. “Fifty-fifty chance, hmm?”

She smirked. “It depends on whether his heart already belongs to another. If it does, I cannot truly take it, merely turn it to ice.”

I let this information spin around in my head for a moment until it clicked into place. So if Riel, or I, already loved a girl, we’d end up dead. Unless . . .

“And would I be a suitable substitute?” I asked.

She eyed me. “Well, that depends what you have to offer. I don’t know you, you see. And I know that Gabriel Kenworth has a large fortune and a good deal of prestige in the human world—fortune and prestige that could be mine.”

So she wasn’t taken in by his false name. Too cunning for that.

“And who are you that I should care?” she asked.

“My name’s Sean,” I said stiffly, giving her the least information possible.

“Oh,” she said, “you’re one of Gabriel’s coworkers, then. I’ve heard of you. Not from him,” she added. “But you’re an agent, then, like he is.”

My teeth clenched.

“Well, this is interesting.”

“An acceptable trade? You’d let them all go if I took his place?”

She nodded slowly. “I would. I give my word. Of course, the same rules would apply for you. One kiss. Your heart, one way or another. Still interested in taking his place?”

Here went nothing. “Deal.”

The queen gave a slow smile. “Splendid. They’re free to go. As soon as you’re ready, then.” She tilted her head, eyeing me with those ice-cold eyes.

I worked my jaw. “Give me a minute.” I set the glass back on the table with unnecessary force and stalked off, back toward Riel.

“So how’s that whole plan to rescue me coming?” Riel asked, a teasing tone in his voice to cover the tension beneath.

I blew out a breath. “Look, I’m only here because your sister will kill me if I don’t bring you home.”

He gave a knowing, sage nod. “Naturally.”

I rolled my eyes and rubbed my forehead. “Just take the girls and the would-be fortune seekers across the lake. I’m dealing with it.”

“I told you, I can’t leave.”

“You can now. I dealt with it.”

Riel frowned and straightened in his seat. “What did you—?”

“Later. Just—just go.”

“Sean—”

“And leave some of the reward for me,” I added.

“Hey, I’m the one who solved the mystery,” Riel said, grinning.

“Yes, and I’m just the one who saved your sorry hide and made it possible for you to leave. I’m serious. I could really use it to help with some . . . things.”

He smirked. “To get those selkie shifters off your back, hmm?”

I sent him a flat look and waved my fingers. “Don’t you have something to do? Bye.

Riel pushed himself to his feet, standing from the throne and adjusting the cuffs of his charcoal suit. “Right you are.”

I waited until he was occupied apparently talking with the sisters in the midst of the dance floor before I strode around the edge and back to the fae queen.

“One kiss, as promised, my lady,” I said stiffly.

She smiled and tilted her face toward me.

Her lips were ice cold on mine for just a moment.

We pulled back. Nothing happened—and then pain exploded through my chest in the general vicinity of my heart.

I staggered back a step with a gasp and gritted my teeth, tossing a look toward Riel and the girls and several others, who were all disappearing together through the exit.

This had better be worth it.

Time to see if my backup plan was going to work out like I planned. If it didn’t, I was going to be very sorry or very dead.

Then again, if it did work, I would likely be one or the other, anyway.

I never said the backup plan was a good idea.

PART 4

In Which My Past Catches Up With Me

I reeled back, clutching at my heart which felt like it was being stabbed with icicles. Particularly cold and sharp icicles. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea. My backup plan had better pull through—

A soft whooshing sound—a portal opening—met my ears. Perfect. The pain stopped and I straightened, drawing in a long, ragged breath.

The fae queen frowned, studying me. “What is—? Why didn’t that take?”

Footsteps approached across the icy dance floor and she looked past my shoulder.

“Well, you see, I already have . . . a prior deal that might interfere with it.” I forced a smirk and tried to resist turning around to look.

Too late. A hand seized my shoulder from behind and spun me around with iron force, nearly knocking me off-balance. I tried to steady my footing and grin disarmingly at the same time, not an easy thing while looking up at a hulking, muscular figure with shaven head, blue swirls of tattoos up his neck, and wearing a snug-fitting leather jacket twice as large as my own.

“Heya, fellas,” I said breezily, tipping my chin up in a nod at him and sending a half-wave, half-salute toward the half-dozen similar figures behind him—five men and a woman with streaks of blue in her battle braids. “Fancy meeting you here—” I cut off and choked as Laker’s fingers closed around my throat and I was shoved up against one of the ice pillars.

“You talk too much,” he rumbled in his raspy voice I’d hoped not to hear again for a really long time, if ever.

I had a response to that if he’d care to listen or let me say it, but clearly he had no intention of doing either.

“And what,” the fae queen said, in a tone which practically made hands propped on hips audible, “are selkie shifters doing in my court so suddenly?”

Laker’s fingers loosened enough that I could rasp a breath, though still pinning me with my back against the icy support column, and his sea-colored eyes glowered down at the queen. “If you were planning on taking him, you should know that this . . . nuisance is already previously indebted to my people. Magical attempts to control him or kill him are not allowed until he has answered to us.” He lowered his voice on the last word, ending in a hiss of animosity and turning his gaze to my own. “Isn’t that right, Sean?”

So, yeah. Those selkie shifters.

I’m not saying it makes sense, but my thought process went roughly like this:

Since I already love a certain girl back home, Her Royal Iciness here can’t take my heart so she’ll turn it to ice and I’ll die.

At least, I think I love her . . . How do magical curses decide for sure? What if it doesn’t count because I haven’t told her yet?

Alternately, in that case, I would belong to the fae queen, which is not on my to-do list.

But, either way, whatever happens, (which one had happened? I wondered—that would be useful to know, but was a little lower on the importance list than surviving this encounter), the selkies aren’t going to let it go through, and they’ll sense it and show up to do something about it.

Enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

Even if it’s just going from one insurmountable problem to another.

Riel was so going to owe me for this.

“You lying—” The fae queen appeared in my peripheral vision, cold and angry. “This is your version of ‘no tricks,’ is it?”

I swiveled my head in her direction as much as Laker’s iron grip let me. I left off clawing at his choking fingers to lift my arms slightly in an exaggerated shrug. “Hey, all I recall agreeing to is a kiss in exchange for releasing everyone else. Not my fault if it didn’t go off quite as you planned.”

“Devious trickster.” She pursed her lips, looking like she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or be livid.

I’d gotten quite good at creating that sort of response in people—aside from certain selkies, who were nowhere near laughing.

“It’s not like I’m enjoying this any more than you are,” I added, side-eying Laker and his death grip.

“Oh, take him away and save me the trouble.” She waved one pale, delicate hand decorated with jewelry apparently made of ice.

“Our pleasure,” Laker growled to her next to my ear. He released my throat—truth to tell, kind of a relief—and shoved me toward the exit.

I turned my stumble into a half bow in the fae queen’s direction. “Your Royal Iciness.”

“Mm. Maybe if there’s something left to you when they finish, I might see if my luck holds better on you next time.”

“Luck’s my middle name so . . . tough for you.”

“Shut up,” Laker said, grabbing me by my jacket’s collar and shuffling me out through the icy gates. No sense of humor, this guy. “Come on. You’re coming home to our boss.”

“Can we talk about this—?” I began.

His tone was as flat and unamused as he was. “No.”

Parked on the ice bridge before the palace—past the fae guards eyeing us as we trooped out—were seven motorcycles. Selkies’ transportation mode of choice—when on solid ground. The six others mounted their rides. I eyed the dark lake beyond the road winding down from the castle, and the small boats that had just landed on the far shore with Riel and the billionaire’s daughters—safe.

“Sure we’re not swimming back instead?” I said. So much for avoiding water all this time, just to call the selkies right to me after all.

“Get on.” Laker shoved me toward his motorcycle.

“Happy to,” I grunted, vaulting onto it a split second after landing a solid kick to his middle that launched him over the short ice wall of the bridge we stood on, sending him plummeting toward the moat below.

I didn’t wait to hear the splash, revving the motorcycle’s engine and spinning the vehicle in a screeching circle on the groaning ice. Simultaneously, I flicked my left wrist forward with a flinging motion of my hand, activating the emergency portal-generator I kept literally up my sleeve.

A spiral of swirling smoky-blue light flashed out from the portal wrist-band and in a blink had expanded into a revolving blue-edged circular door to the human world, a trailing tendril of light still anchoring the portal to my wrist.

“Sean!” Laker’s voice—even deeper in the seal form he’d transformed into when he hit the moat—bellowed furiously from somewhere in the water below. The others started either turning their motorcycles in my direction or drawing handguns.

I was out of here.

Selkie motorcycles are fast and I roared toward the portal, snatching my own gun from the back of my jeans to shoot out the tires of the two nearest pursuing motorcycles just before I went through.

A whip of water lashed viper-fast from the moat beneath the bridge and slashed the back of my hand—a parting gift from Laker, making me drop my pistol. I yelled something uncomplimentary and slammed the button on the back of my portal armband a second after I roared through the gateway.

The portal swirled shut and its smoky light sucked itself back into the device on my wrist, but not before four of the selkies had also blasted through the portal on their motorcycles in pursuit.

Well, four was better than seven, I reflected, as I hastily wrenched the handlebars of my ride to the left to avoid driving over the edge of the rooftop I had landed on.

Oh, yeah. That’s a thing about portals.

I hadn’t had time to recalibrate it to a specific location, so it landed me in the last place I’d been when I’d used it before.

Namely, on the roof of a several-story building under renovation in the middle of a city halfway across the world from where I lived.

Long story.

Riel, you owe me big-time.

PART 5

Of Portal Chases and Chocolate

A rooftop motorcycle chase, pursued by angry selkie shifters, was not on my to-do list for today—but then, what ever was?

I shot over the edge of the roof, aiming for the convenient scaffolding on one side of the building which was still under repairs from the last time I’d been here. I glanced back for a split second. I’d lost one of the four selkies on the rooftop, but the selkie woman and two of the men still followed grimly on their motorcycles as we zoomed down the scaffolding, ramp-like, and shot onto the busy streets below.

Blinking against alternating building shadows and afternoon sunlight—it had been night in the fae world, but wasn’t here—I wove hastily through traffic and foreign signs and cars, with the selkie bikers in hot pursuit. I kept one hand on my handlebars as I used my other fingers to hastily punch in new coordinates on my wrist portal-generator. You learn to multitask in this sort of business.

I roared around a corner into an alley and flicked my wrist, opening a new blue-edged swirl of portal in front of me. I sped through it, but not quickly enough to escape two of the selkies, although I left behind the third when I closed the portal.

Green light surrounded me and high-soaring trees whipped past as I gunned my motorcycle down a winding forest path, a jarring transition from the grey-and-black cityscape of concrete and metal of a moment before. Back into the fae world, but in a different place than where I’d left it.

Evening sunlight streamed through pine branches. I calculated back through my stops of the day. Night in the human world, almost morning in the fae world, back to our world but in a different timezone due to being halfway across the world, evening back to the fae world . . . what time, and what day, would it be when I got back to the human world again? I’d probably lost an entire day.

Blast portal jumping. There’s a reason it’s not the best idea under normal circumstances. Of course, when does that ever apply to my life?

I glanced behind again at the two selkies who still followed—nope, one now, since the other skidded off the treacherous forest path and into a tree. Six down, one to go, her blonde-and-blue battle braids whipping behind in the wind of her speed.

I faced forward again and a branch slashed my face. I growled, jamming my sunglasses onto my face to protect my eyes from future branch attacks.

We sped along the path winding its way through the trees, and I didn’t like to think about it but she was definitely gaining on me. It wasn’t like we were near water, though— The thought screeched to a halt like I was tempted to do with my motorcycle as the path opened out onto an ancient mossy stone bridge arching over a stream ahead of us.

No, no, no.

Water shot from the rushing brook in long reaching arms coiling above the bridge, waiting for me to speed headlong into it and be trapped.

The selkie warrior behind me closed in, controlling the water and accelerating on her motorcycle at the same time. Guess I wasn’t the only one good at multitasking.

I hastily set new portal coordinates and accelerated toward the portal as it opened just before I reached the bridge and the tendrils of water.

She shot my tire out. The gunshot rang through the woods as my motorcycle jolted and skidded sideways. I launched myself off in a flying leap, diving straight through the swirling blue portal. I tucked into a roll to lessen the impact as I hit pavement on the other side.

As I regained my feet in a quick motion, I twisted around and slammed the button on my wrist, catching a final glimpse of the selkie woman through the portal. Seconds before she could reach it, the portal shut in her face.

I swayed, then leaned over with my hands on my knees, breathing hard. Scraped and bruised from my dive through the portal, but safe at last. About time. Water droplets from the bridge trap gleamed on my jacket’s sleeves and misted on my face. That was close.

I caught my breath and straightened, where I now found myself . . . back where it all began, in the paved circular drive just before Mr. King’s mansion, where I’d shown up to chase down the mystery of the twelve dancers and find a missing agent.

The sun set slowly in a haze of red across the lake by the mansion. Late. I’d parted from Riel probably not long before sunup, human time, so that left a whole day I’d been gone.

Mentally cursing timezones and portal jumping, I limped over to my own motorcycle which was still parked out front, then hesitated. I jogged up the huge steps to the mansion and knocked.

The same butler opened one of the large doors. “Good evening again, sir.” If he was surprised to see me, he didn’t show it—but then, that was probably against butler code.

I was too tired to say not to “sir” me. “Was a guy named Gabriel Kenworth here recently?”

“Yes, sir. He brought back Mr. King’s daughters and then left, only this morning.”

Well, that was all right, then. Unless, knowing Riel, he’d managed to get into more scrapes that day. I grunted my thanks, shuffled down the steps, and mounted my motorcycle for the long drive back home.

***

It was well past midnight, and I was feeling it, by the time I arrived back at the flat I stayed at with some other agents, including Riel. The spy guild rented it—from Riel, ironically. I parked my motorcycle, dragged myself up all the stairs—with only a brief sidetrack to tell the banshees on the next floor to keep it down (midnight partying banshee neighbors leave a lot to be desired)—and let myself in. The lights were on, so hopefully someone was home.

I was starving and the first thing I did after stumbling into the kitchen was to pull open the fridge. I grabbed the first thing I saw, namely two large squashy eclairs, and started munching on them alternately, one in each hand. Food. Or close enough.

Wandering into the living room, I met Riel setting a thick folder on the coffee table and coming in my direction. “Sean! What—” His eyes dropped to the chocolate eclairs I held and his expression turned horrified. “Don’t eat those—she enchanted them!”

I blinked. “Who?”

“The ice queen—she was just here looking for you. I told her you weren’t here and she finally left, but not before she put an enchantment on those to try to, I don’t know, ensnare one of us or something.”

I gave him a miffed look. “Why does no one ever tell me these things.” But I kept eating. It wasn’t like it mattered, not with the selkies and the already sort-of-deal I’d made with the queen to rescue Riel and the twelve girls. Riel didn’t know about that, and it was going to stay that way. “How’d she get past the wards around the flat?”

Riel raked his fingers through his expensive blond hair. “I don’t know. We should find out. Would you stop eating that?”

I shouldered past Riel, heading for a couch. “I’m immune,” I shot over my shoulder. It was almost true.

“You are not.”

“It’s just really good, okay? And I’m hungry.” I juggled the remaining eclair from one hand to the other to free alternating hands so I could shrug wearily out of my leather jacket, which I let drape on one arm of the couch. “How’d it go with Mr. King?”

“Good. I got his daughters back safe and he seemed pleased. He already knew what had happened with his girls—”

I blinked.

“—because of a note you apparently sent back on your phone explaining it, in a pocket of the invisibility cloak. Which, I might add, arrived back in his office minutes before we got there. Nice one. Not sure why I never thought of that.”

I smirked. “And the reward?”

“Your half is in your room.” Well, that was something, anyway. “So that should make your selkie problem happy.” He grinned.

My jaw twitched. Maybe. Maybe not. I wasn’t sure about that at this point. Between selkie shifters and the ice fae queen, I’d probably lay low for awhile until I could see where things stood. What else was new.

“I’ve been hanging on to your phone while you were missing today,” Riel went on, waving the phone at me.

I glanced between it, my chocolaty fingers, and my jacket.

He left the phone in the jacket’s pocket at the end of the couch. “How did you get us out? And where were you, anyway?”

I ignored the first question and mumbled something halfway incoherent around my eclair about portal jumping.

Riel folded his arms across the charcoal vest that matched the suit he’d worn earlier. “When you didn’t come back we were ready to send in the cavalry.”

“We don’t have cavalry,” I said.

“Well, Kelso,” he amended.

Okay, Kelso pretty much was the cavalry. I had also caught the plural. “We?” I said.

“Sean?” said a voice, answering my question for me as Riel’s half-sister entered the room and I temporarily lost the ability to breathe. Maven does that. To me, anyway. “You’re back,” she said, and I found myself the recipient of a brief hug before she pulled back. “Are you okay?” Her violet eyes were fixed on my face, or part of it.

I sent a glance at Riel’s mirror between Kelso’s bookcase and my computer monitor and caught a glimpse of my messy brown hair, exhausted eyes, dirt smudges, and trails of dried blood from a cut on one cheek. Right, the slash on my face from that woodland motorcycle ride.

“Got in a fight with a tree,” I grunted.

Maven’s dark eyebrows shot up then down in a quick succession of surprise and concern. “Dryads attacked you? That violates the treaty of—”

“No—not dryads. Just a tree, okay?” I sighed. “Look, it’s fine. I’m fine. Everything’s . . . fine. I’ll report back tomorrow about everything.” I collapsed onto the couch. Everything hurt, and I was exhausted. I needed a break. Or possibly coffee.

Her frown faded and she hooked a wave of dark hair behind one jewel-studded pointed ear. “Right. Well, I’m glad you’re okay, and thanks for saving Riel’s hide.” Maven nudged her brother in the ribs with an elbow and perched on an arm of the couch, her jean-clad legs crossed. “I appreciate it.”

“Anytime.”

Riel draped himself elegantly on the couch opposite us, grinning at my answer. I caught it.

“No—NO.” I pointed an accusing forefinger at him. “That is not permission for you to get into more scrapes. You owe me big-time. I only did it under orders from the guild.”

“Yeah. Well. Thanks.” Riel finally seemed halfway decently grateful, for once.

I kicked his leg. “Good to have you back, idiot.”

“Idiot? I’m not the one eating enchanted eclairs.”

I finished the last bite and raised one eyebrow. “Oh, you wish.”

He sent a pointed look toward my hand. “Wash that chocolate off before you hit me.”

“What?”

“You said you were going to punch me after we got out of that.”

I groaned and dropped my head against the back of the couch. “Work, work, work. I’m tired. And not with your sister around.”

Maven smirked. “I might just do it for you.”

Riel started making an innocent protesting sound.

“Or I might just clean this off on your sleeve,” I suggested, comparing the chocolate on my fingers with the crisp immaculate whiteness of Riel’s sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

“You wouldn’t dare—” Riel began before catching my smirk. He settled smugly back into his couch. “You’d have to get up to do it, anyway.”

He had a point.

Maven laughed and stood up, pushing back her leather jacket’s sleeve to check the glowing smart watch on her wrist. “I have to run—got a meeting with the guild. You boys be good, okay?”

“Never,” we said in unison.

She laughed. “I’m glad you troublemakers are back—yes, both of you.” She clicked the toes of her black combat boots together and they changed into bunny slippers. She frowned and gave me a warning look while I pushed my suddenly amused expression into something neutral. “That’s what I want, not what I need,” Maven sighed, and tapped her toes together again. The enchanted footwear transformed into a pair of converse, then black high heels. She paused as she walked past, leaning over to give me a quick hug. “Thanks again. And I want to hear all about it later, now that everything’s normal again.”

“Yeah,” I choked out. “Sure.”

Everything being “normal” was a stretch, but, then, when wasn’t it? What with selkies probably even more annoyed at me—I wasn’t sure if my portion of the reward was going to be enough—and who knew what had even happened with the ice fae queen and her bargains. Or maybe it was all fine—I could hope.

At any rate, I’d escaped, as usual, so my luck hadn’t run out yet, and I’d completed my mission to retrieve Riel. I was finally home and could rest. Normal . . . or close enough. I sank my head back against the cushions, nearly melting into the couch with exhaustion.

“You should get cleaned up,” Riel remarked over his shoulder as he disappeared into the kitchen. I think he meant my face as much as my hands. He emerged briefly to toss me a roll of paper towels, which I caught half-heartedly. He disappeared again, adding, “Better get some shut-eye. Kelso said we have a new mission in about-four hours now. Should be a tricky one.”

I shut my eyes. I definitely needed coffee. “Do I want to know?”

Riel called back cheerfully, “Nope.”

Lots of coffee. I sighed. Oh, yeah. Definitely normal.

***

Author’s Note

That’s it for now! This concludes the Twelve Dancing Princesses mission arc. I have plans for the next mission but it may be awhile before I can share more, since this is as far as I’ve written. I hope you’ve enjoyed this. Thanks so much for reading!