Ryld must learn to control his dangerous shadows before they kill someone he cares about or someone unscrupulous learns how to control him.
AURA’s offices have been quiet since the mage tower incident—as quiet as they can be for an agency dedicated to policing holes in reality—and the department heads have been free to turn their attention back to mundane matters. The return to quiet bureaucracy gives AURA’s Director of Research, Kai Hiltas, the time to turn his energy to a new issue—a young drow with unusual and dangerous powers named Ryld.
Though his shadows always lurk at the edges of his vision, Ryld does his best to live peacefully and not let them hurt anyone. He has his work, his apartment and a succession of minders assigned by AURA who are, ostensibly, there to keep him safe in his new world and to prevent him from causing any scenes with his shadows. Most of the time, the arrangement works. But one disastrous incident causes Ryld’s minder to leave him unattended and lost—the precise thing he was hired to prevent.
To replace the faithless minder, Kai suggests Hank, a half-goblin accountant recently in the middle of a string of terrible luck, while Kai works out how best to get Ryld the magical training he so desperately needs. For his part, Hank truly likes Ryld and insists he would be happier working as Ryld’s companion rather than as a controlling minder.
As Hank and Ryld slowly come to terms with sharing space—and eventually more—Kai’s search for a teacher for Ryld takes them out west on the invitation of the Elvenhome’s aelfe queen and right into the lap of inter-elven feuds, ancient prejudice, conspiracies and trafficking rings. What should have been a pleasant visit soon turns into more than even forever-scheming Kai can handle.
Reader advisory: This book contains references to past trauma and PTSD, kidnapping and kidnapping of a child.
General Release Date: 8th March 2022
“I thought you guys were supposed to be more…buff.”
Ryld looked at the man blankly.
“Oh. Yes. Most of the aelfe are, as you say, buff. My kind, the drow, are as tall, but usually lighter in frame.”
The man took a sip of his beer. “So what happened to you? Did you miss the call when they were handin’ out the tickets for the tall and ripped lottery?”
Ryld processed that for a moment. None of that made much sense. Nothing had happened to him, he’d missed no calls as far as he knew, and he wasn’t sure what gambling had to do with anything. He wasn’t sure how, but his best guess, given the previous question, was the man was asking why he looked different from other elves he must have met.
“Simple genetics. I was bred for certain characteristics. My coloring. My…ability with magic.” Ryld took a sip of his own beer. “Those genetic traits also carry markers for a smaller height and build.” And madness. But Ryld had already learned humans had a deep fear of madness, so he kept that to himself.
“Yeah, no shit. You can’t be mor’n five and a half feet and a buck fifty, if that.”
Ryld blinked again. Five and a half feet was an Imperial measurement, presumably of his height, which, while accurate, was terribly inefficient. Since they were discussing his size, the other observation should have been about his weight, but instead he spoke of money.
“I have more than a dollar and fifty cents with me. The drinks here are known to be expensive. I made sure I brought enough.”
His drinking companion laughed. “Never mind. You’re a funny one.”
That was odd. Usually, he didn’t understand human humor and they could be more uncomfortable with his presence than amused by it.
“It’s time to go, Ryld.”
Ryld looked up from the human he’d been studying into the face of someone who had exactly the elven characteristic the human had commented Ryld lacked. Tall and broad shouldered, with dark, ash-blond hair, and a countenance that made sure all but the most inebriated of bar patrons stayed well out of his way. Ryld sighed and set his drink down half finished.
He stood without argument and bid the human good night, as was their custom, and followed his minder outside. As he crossed the threshold, a small flicker of dark caught his eye, but he ignored it and kept moving.
“The establishment isn’t closed for the evening yet,” he pointed out as they walked down the row of vehicles in the parking lot.
Cress gave his own sigh. “No, but it will be very soon. We’ve been over this, Ryld. You don’t have to stay until everyone else has gone, and they kick us out.”
“But…there were still a few humans I hadn’t spoken to.”
“Nor do you need to speak to everyone in the place in one night.”
“Oh. Did I transgress? Make a mistake?”
“I know what transgress means, and no, you didn’t. They don’t have a rule dictating how many people you should or should not speak to.”
Ryld stopped. “How do they know then? How many is appropriate? Without a rule, how do they know?”
Cress stopped too and turned to look at him. Ryld managed to meet his eyes for a moment, then shifted his gaze to a spot over Cress’ shoulder. Better to look at a point over the other person’s shoulder than drop his eyes, he’d learned. A downward-cast gaze was viewed as subservient, rather than simply respectful.
“When there isn’t a rule, they decide for themselves how many people they speak with, and who.”
Ryld caught another flicker out of the corner of his eye and swallowed. “If there were a rule, it would be so much easier to know.”
“I know, but that’s how it is. Sometimes there are rules, and sometimes there aren’t.”
Cress spoke in a low, soothing tone. The one he used when he was being extra patient. When he wanted to avoid a scene. Ryld didn’t want there to be a scene either. His head would ache for days after, and sometimes he couldn’t even get out of bed if it had been particularly bad. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t had this conversation about rules before. There was no reason to get upset.
“Okay? Are you ready to go now?” Cress asked.
* * * *
“Another one, Brady. I don’t have all night.”
The bartender sighed when Hank thumped his fist on the bar. That crack was already there. I know it was.
“One terabin per customer. You know the rules.”
“I’m not even close to drunk enough.”
Shaking his head, the bartender put a glass of water in front of Hank. The water swayed. Maybe the bar swayed. A single terabin would’ve taken down a human and sent them to the ER. A second one would even put a troll on the floor. Hank was pretty sure he could manage another.
Brady put his hands on the bar and leaned in. “What’s happened, Hank? This isn’t like you.”
Hank tried to answer, his short tusks getting in the way of his words. That hadn’t happened since he was a teenager.
“What was that?”
“They fired me today. Fired me.” Hank gave up trying to look menacing and put his head in his hands.
“Did you screw something up? Lose a decimal place or something?” What Brady knew about accounting probably wouldn’t have filled half a jigger.
“No.” Hank gulped a breath. “I did my job. I worked hard. But the new manager… She said I wasn’t commensurate with the company image.”
“Wait. Just ’cause of how you look? You could file a complaint?”
“Sure. Right. The pretty sylphs in the non-human rights office are gonna get right on that. Far as they’re concerned, the only place I should be is locked up.”
The bartender winced in an uncomfortable way and patted Hank’s arm awkwardly. “Not like you’re riding a varg down the street swinging a battle-axe. You’re, you know, civilized. Still can’t serve you another one.”
A bitter smile curled Hank’s mouth as he took the water and chugged half of it down. “Thanks, Brady. I feel so much better now. I’ll… I guess I’ll find something. Somewhere.”
Out on the sidewalk, Hank breathed in the relatively fresh air. Poisoned with exhaust fumes and all the reek of too many humans in too small a space—still it was cooler and not the close, claustrophobic smell of the bar. He probably shouldn’t have let Brady’s racist comments go, but tonight he was too damn tired to deal with it, and Brady needed to count his lucky pebbles that Hank wasn’t some thin-skinned goblin kid with a chip bigger than his head. You’re okay, Hank. You’re one of the few good goblins. Not like those other filthy barbarians. Pat the half-gobbo on the head and smile.
He wanted chilies, huge bags of them, wanted to drown in the capsaicin high they’d bring. But he had enough sense, even this drunk, to know he’d overdo it in his current state of mind and probably end up in the ER from a ghost pepper OD again.
Once was enough.
No. Go home. Get some sleep. Figure it out in the morning.
He’d manage. He always did.
It was just that this time he thought he had managed. Found a place for himself. Reached the spot where things could be routine, and he could be normal. Just another worker bee in the crowd.
The screech of tires on pavement yanked him out of his reverie and just about made him jump out of his skin. His reactions were muddled and slow, but the shot of adrenaline racing through him as he stared at the truck only inches away was almost enough to knock him sober.
The driver’s door opened, and a tall elf got out. His face was full of haughty arrogance and disdain, as was usual for aelfe, but his words were even and neutral as he asked, “Are you all right?”
Before Hank could answer the passenger door opened, and another elf got out, this one a drow. “You are walking where vehicles are supposed to be driven.”
“Get back in the truck, Ryld,” the first elf said sternly.
“But, he’s walking where vehicles are driven. That’s against the rules.”
“Get. In. The. Truck. Ryld.”
The drow cut his eyes away. He made some odd gestures but sat back down and closed his door. Even from behind the windshield Hank could pick out how unnaturally blue his eyes were. He’d only ever seen drow with red eyes or white.
“Are you all right?” the blond elf asked again.
Hank pulled in a slow breath, then two more. The rising nausea settled, and he leaned a hand against the lamppost on the corner. “Fine. I’m fine. You stopped in time.”
The elf stared at him, maybe thinking Hank owed him a thank you for not ploughing over him. Finally, he gave a sharp nod. “Okay. Good.”
That was it. He climbed back into the truck, shut the door, said something sharp to the drow and drove off.
Weird. That was…weird. Though maybe the terabin had made the whole interaction so strange. Maybe there hadn’t been any blue-eyed drow insisting on road rules. Hank shook himself, hurried across the street and reached his apartment building without any further bizarre incidents.
He’d go to AURA in the morning. To job placement. He hated doing it since it always felt like such a failure. He should be able to find work on his own. Make his way without the help of bureaucratic agencies. But rent would be due soon. He could stop paying the utilities for a bit. He’d done it before.
No. That’s going backward. Not going back to scraping by day to day. Just no. Go to placement. See what they can find. Job hunting while you have a job is always better.