You can find the earlier snippets here…
Morning came far too early, after that late of a night. Ellie didn’t come in with the coffeepot as she often did, and not for the first time I wondered just how connected she was to the house, to know when entering our bedroom would be indiscreet. I decided, as I opened the door and found the tray on folding legs set up there, and the coffee smell hit me, that I didn’t want or need to know.
Bella whimpered a little when I pulled back the curtain and the light fell on her face. She rolled over and burrowed under a pillow, until all I could see was a heap of tousled, silky black hair. I poured a cup of coffee and sat at my desk. I was in no hurry to waken her.
Peaceful, but under the surface my mind was racing. I knew why Dionaea was acting now, to precipitate matters before the coronation. But why me? Especially since everyone Underhill had known until yesterday morning that I had no magic at all, not even the traces I’d had after the elfshot. I should have been out of the equation all together as far as she was concerned. I didn’t believe she was obsessed with me as a person. Not after a century of silence.
Bella. Margot’s body was to have been a message to Bella, not me.
I looked over at my wife’s slim body, barely a lump under the down comforter, still sleeping. I was contemplating joining her, when there was a pounding on the door. Bella sat bolt upright, her hair spilling over her bare breasts.
“Wha?” She started to ask, but I was already at the door. I looked over my shoulder.
She might have argued, but I was following Ash down the stairs at a dead run. Others, disturbed by the noise, were coming out of doors. Dean was right behind me, fully dressed already. Ash led me straight for the front door, which stood wide open. As we reached it, the cloud of sprites parted and revealed what laid on the ground.
This was not how I wanted to wake up. I knelt next to the wretched body. I knew who it was, even in this ruined state. The stench was truly horrible, but then, he’d never smelled much better while alive. Ghouls are alive, and some of them are decent folks, even if you can’t walk downwind of them. I pounded the ground with my fist.
The last time I’d seen him, in Seattle, he’d sold us weaponry. And he’d warned me bad things were coming. Looked like Georgio had met them before me. I got to my feet, feeling weary, old, and useless. Bella slipped under Dean’s arm at the door, why he was trying to keep her from seeing this I didn’t know, and looked down.
“Oh…” was all she said, one hand pressed to her mouth. That would be from the smell.
“I have to go. Now. Do you understand what this means?” I pointed downward, at the mangled remains of Georgio, the ghoulish arms dealer I’d made a deal with. He got me what I needed, when I needed it, Above where weapons are hard to come by, and he got to stay up there and live where his beloved neon lights glowed.
She nodded. “They are working Above and Underhill. This is bad, yes?”
“It means they are escalating. And if they draw attention to us, Above…”
She shivered. “You have to go. Do you want me to look – like I did for Margot?”
I didn’t. She didn’t need to be out here in the chilly damp morning wearing only a silk robe and her feet bare. Ellie pushed a pair of slippers into Bella’s hands just then. There was a small mob of people around us.
“Yes. Please… I’m sorry. But I need as much intel as you can give me.”
She bent to put the slippers on, and held her hands out, not touching Georgio, just being close to him. I turned to look at the others. I kept my voice down, but time was of the essence now.
“I’m going. Dean, you know where, as does Alger. I won’t say it out loud, we don’t know who’s listening or watching. Ash, Daffyd, Ellie…” I pointed at Bella, kneeling at my feet and ignoring all of us.
They nodded in concert. The wood elves as a community had flocked to me after Dionaea’s actions toward Ellie had become known, and I had personally paid off indenturements for dozens of them out of my bounties. They had, in a century, transitioned from virtual slaves to respected craftsmen, and they credited me for it. I didn’t think it was me, I was just a catalyst, they’d have done it for themselves anyway. But their loyalty was unquestionable and I was leaving them to guard my most precious lives.
“This may keep happening again, them throwing bodies into our garden. Be on guard. Alger may come to see if he can indict and intercept a bubble, it take a lot of skill or power. Bella can…”
“And Bella will.” She held up a hand and I gave her a steadying arm to get up from the cold ground. “The same, I think. It’s… veiled, somehow. Like maybe I’m seeing the inner reality and it’s wearing a glamour.”
I pulled her close. She murmured. “You will be here for the coronation. I’m not doing that alone.”
“Yes, my queen.” I whispered for her ears alone.
Bella pushed me away gently. Her eyes were dry, and I knew she was holding it together for the benefit of everyone watching us. “Keep your powder dry.”
“I’ll be home soon.”
I turned and walked toward the gate, my hands empty, but I bubbled and traveled before I reached it. Everything I needed was with me, just not visible to the prying eye. If someone was watching, I wanted them to think I was blindly rushing off in a rage. I’d built that impression with my reaction to Margot, and I’d use it, now.
In the bubble, I pulled clothing from the rucksack I’d had stashed in nospace – useful word, that – and dressed. Even I was never so reckless as to run into battle in flannel pajama bottoms and nothing else. I’d only had those on because it was cool in our bedroom, and I was in the habit of slipping them on as soon as I got out of bed. The house slippers were replaced with wool socks and heavy boots. Then, I focused my mind and started the bubble toward my real destination, strapping on a holster before sliding a dirk into the top of my boot.
By the time I’d reached my destination, I was ready for anything. With a shield in place, I dropped the bubble and braced. The shotgun blast rocked me hard, even so.