I close my eyes and try to swallow the faery’s power. The chemical tang in my mouth is so sharp that I want to cast my accounts over the ballroom floor. Heaving once, I lose my footing and pitch forwards.
‘Oof !’ I careen into the lady nearest me. The wide skirts of our dresses collide and we almost topple onto the marble tiles. Just in time, I grip her shoulders to steady myself.
‘My apologies,’ I say, my voice hoarse.
I look up at the woman then. Miss Fairfax. She regards me with well-controlled mild distaste. My eyes dart to the other dancers. Many couples in the strathspey crane their heads to see the commotion. Though the jaunty music plays on, everyone – everyone – is staring at me.
Some of them whisper, and I catch their accusations again. Or I think I do. Murderess. She went mad. The marchioness’s death was—
I pull myself away from Miss Fairfax. It takes every ounce of effort to tamp down the memories that threaten to surface, to stay where I am and not run. I know what Father would say. He would tell me that I am the daughter of a marquess, and I am responsible for representing the family name at all times.
‘So sorry, Miss Fairfax. Lost the count,’ I say.
Miss Fairfax merely straightens her skirts, pats her mussed brunette hair and lifts her chin as she rejoins the dance.
‘Lady Aileana?’ Lord Hamilton says. He appears quite con- cerned. ‘Are you all right?’ I force a smile and speak without thinking. ‘I’m terribly sorry – I must have tripped.’
Oh, dash it all. I feel faint, I should have said. That would have been the perfect excuse to get up and leave. How could I be so stupid?
Too late now. Lord Hamilton simply smiles, grips my hand and guides me back to the line. I avoid the prying gazes of my peers and swallow down the last remnants of power on my tongue.
I have to find the blasted creature before it lures its victim. My instincts tell me to leave the dance, find the faery and slaughter it. I spare a glance towards the exit. Dash my reputa- tion and the idiotic notion that a gentlewoman shouldn’t cross a ballroom – or leave it – unescorted.
I feel the dark part inside of me stir and rise, desperate to do only three things: hunt, mutilate, kill.
Oh, I want to, more than anything. The faery is nearby, just outside the ballroom. I step out of the strathspey and head towards the door. Lord Hamilton intercepts me and asks a question. I can’t hear it over the pounding need, my murderous thoughts.
Responsibility, I remind myself. Family. Honour. Damnation.
I reply to Lord Hamilton’s question with a simple, ‘Of course.’ He smiles again. I feel sorry for him, for all of them. They think I’m the only monster in their midst, but the real danger is the one they can’t even see. Faeries select their victims and compel them with a small push of mental influence, then feed
from them and kill them.
Five minutes. That’s all I need to find the creature and shoot
a capsule into its flesh. Only a little time unobserved to—
I grip Lord Hamilton’s hand hard. I’ve been out of society so long, and the hunt has become second nature. I have to hush my barbaric thoughts or I’ll act too soon and lose myself. My etiquette lessons repeat in my mind. The daughter of a marquess does not charge out of a ballroom. The daughter of a marquess does not abandon her partner in the middle of a dance.
The daughter of a marquess does not hunt faeries.
‘—don’t you agree?’ Lord Hamilton is asking, pulling me back into the dance.
I shake myself. ‘Of course.’ I actually manage to sound re- assuring.
Lord Hamilton pats my wrist and I grit my teeth against a violent response as we circle another couple.
The strathspey seems to go on for ever. Left foot hop, right foot back, left foot into second position. Instep, third position. Right knee bent, second position. Over and over again. The music doesn’t register any more; it has become a background of screeching strings, and the dance is only halfway over.
My hand brushes the side of my blue silk dress, right over the spot where my lightning pistol is hidden. I envision myself hunting in the corridors, taking aim—
Calm, I tell myself. I study the fine details of the room again, the mosaic lanterns that continue to float over our heads. Above them are the clicking brass cogs and wiring along the edge of the ceiling, all of it connected to New Town’s electricity system.
I focus on the clicks, on mentally reciting my lessons. Pro- priety. Click. Grace. Click. Smile. Click. Kill. Click.
Hell and blast.
The fiddles screech on. Lord Hamilton says something else and I manage to smile and give a non-committal nod.
I try again. Politeness. Click. Modesty. Click. Civility—
At last the music stops, and I turn to Lord Hamilton. He offers his arm without comment and leads me to the perimeter of the ballroom. I eye the door again.
‘I say,’ Lord Hamilton murmurs, ‘where is Miss Stewart? I
shouldn’t leave you alone.’
Thank heavens Catherine is nowhere to be seen. She is one less person I have to excuse myself from.
‘You’re forgiven,’ I say in that charming voice I hate. ‘If I might beg your pardon, I must take my leave to the ladies’ par- lour for a few minutes.’ I touch my temple lightly. ‘A headache, I’m afraid.’
Lord Hamilton frowns. ‘Tch, how dreadful. Do allow me to escort you.’
Once we reach the double doors that exit into the hallway, I stop and smile. ‘There’s no need for you to leave the ballroom, my lord. I can find the parlour on my own.’
‘Are you certain?’
I almost snap at him, but force myself to breathe deeply and regain some composure. My desire to hunt is pounding, un- relenting. If it consumes me, politeness won’t deter me. I’ll want nothing but blood and vengeance and release.
I swallow. ‘Indeed.’
Lord Hamilton doesn’t appear to notice a change in my behaviour. He simply smiles, bows from the waist and pats my wrist again. ‘Thank you for the pleasure of your company.’
He turns to leave and I step into the hallway, breathing a sigh of relief. At last.
As I tiptoe down the corridor, away from the ballroom and the ladies’ parlour, my mouth tingles when the faery power re- turns. My body is growing more used to the taste after its initial violent response, and I recognise the particular breed it comes from. A revenant.
I have only ever killed four revenants, but never on my own, so I haven’t yet grown as accustomed to the potent taste of their power as I have to that of the other breeds of fae I kill more often. In my limited experience, they have three vulnerabilities: an opening along the thoracic cage, just over the left pectoral; an abdominal cavity with a slight soft spot in otherwise impene- trable skin; and rather sub-par intelligence.
Revenants make up for their weaknesses with solid muscle, which makes them difficult to kill. Then again, I do love a chal- lenge.
I reach into the small pocket sewn into the folds of my ball gown and pull out a thin, plaited strand of seilgflùr. A rare soft thistle nearly extinct in Scotland, seilgflùr gives me the ability to see faeries.
The thistle was almost entirely destroyed by faeries thou- sands of years ago to prevent humans from learning the truth
– that the plant is a faery’s only true weakness. Oh, they all have some spots on their bodies that can be punctured by an ordinary weapon, but that would still only injure one of them. Seilgflùr, though, is deadly enough to burn their fae skin and even inflict a mortal wound. I use it in the weapons I make to hunt them.
I tie the seilgflùr around my neck and start forward again. My muscles are ready, relaxed, honed from twelve months of gruelling training with Kiaran. My techniques have improved during the nights when I have slaughtered faeries without his help. Kiaran claims I’m not ready to hunt on my own. I have proven him wrong a dozen times. Of course, he doesn’t know I’ve been disobeying his direct order not to hunt alone, but I have a distinct tendency to disobey him when the opportunity arises.
The taste of the faery’s power leaves another strong pulse against my tongue. It must be somewhere around the next corner. I stop abruptly. ‘Brilliant,’ I mutter.
The corridor leads to the bedrooms. If I’m caught inside, there would be no preventing the ensuing scandal. My reputation is intact only because the rumours about me haven’t been proven. Being caught nosing around the Hepburns’ private quarters would be a real issue my already questionable reputation can’t afford.
I shift on my feet. Perhaps if I’m very quick—
I whirl. Oh . . . hell.
Catherine and her mother, the Viscountess of Cassilis, stand in the corridor behind me by the double doors leading into the ballroom. As they approach, Catherine stares at me with sur- prise and confusion, and her mother – well, she regards me with blatant suspicion.
‘Aileana,’ Catherine says again when they reach me. ‘What are you doing over here?’
Both women share the same shining blonde hair and wide blue eyes, though Lady Cassilis’s gaze is shrewd rather than in- nocent. She has the keenest ability to notice even the smallest infraction in propriety. Nay, even the merest hint of disgrace.
Dash it all. This is bad, being caught heading in the direction of the Hepburns’ private wing. This isn’t where a respectable woman would be. Or, at least, she wouldn’t get caught here. That’s the important bit.
‘Catching my breath,’ I say hurriedly, breathing hard for emphasis. ‘Lord Hamilton is very quick on his feet, you know.’
Catherine looks terribly amused. ‘Oh? Well, for a man of his age, I suppose.’
‘So,’ I say, narrowing my eyes at Catherine, ‘I’m here to relax a moment. That’s all.’
‘My dear,’ Lady Cassilis says with heavy emphasis, ‘you should relax in the ballroom, which is this way.’ She inclines her head towards the doors down the hall.
The faery power leaves a distracting pulse against my tongue
– it must be extending its powers again to draw someone in.
My body tenses in response. ‘Oh, aye,’ I say. My voice sounds strained. ‘But—’
‘Yes,’ the viscountess corrects. ‘“Aye” sounds so terribly un- sophisticated.’
Lady Cassilis is among the small but growing number of Scottish aristocracy who believe that if we speak like the English, Scotland will be considered a more civilised nation. It’s a load of rubbish, if you ask me. We’re perfectly urbane as we are. But I’d rather not debate the matter in a hallway while there’s a bloodthirsty faery on the loose.
‘Aye, of course. I mean, yes,’ I respond. Heavens, isn’t there any way to gracefully extricate myself from this conversation?
‘Mother.’ Catherine inserts herself between us. ‘I’m certain Aileana has a reasonable explanation for . . . loitering here.’ She turns to me. ‘I thought you promised this dance to Lord Carrick.’
‘I have a headache,’ I say, trying to sound as innocent as pos- sible. ‘I was searching for the ladies’ parlour to rest.’
Catherine raises an eyebrow. I return it with a glare.
‘Well, do let me come with you,’ Catherine says.
‘Ah, the ever-persistent headache,’ Lady Cassilis says. ‘If you intend to nurse it in the ladies’ parlour, you’ll find that at the other end of the corridor.’
The viscountess narrows her gaze at me. I have no illusions that if she had proof of my ill behaviour, Catherine would have been barred from spending time with me long ago. Lady Cassilis might be my escort to formal functions, but only because Catherine asked her to, since the viscountess and my mother were friends. I can’t imagine what on earth they had in common.
‘Regardless,’ Lady Cassilis says, ‘a lady ought never to leave a ballroom unescorted. As you well know, Aileana. Need I remind you that this is yet another breach in etiquette, being alone in an empty corridor?’ She sniffs. ‘I fear your mother would be quite aggrieved, were she still with us.’
Catherine sucks in a sharp breath. I clench my fists and gasp. Grief rises briefly inside me, quickly replaced by rage and the overwhelming desire for vengeance. For just one kill to bury the painful memory of my mother’s death once more. Even my careful control has its limits – I must find that faery before my need consumes me.
‘Mother,’ Catherine says deliberately, ‘if you could wait for me in the ballroom, I shall be there directly.’ When Lady Cassilis opens her mouth to protest, Catherine adds, ‘I won’t be long. Just let me see Aileana safely to the parlour.’
The viscountess studies me briefly, lifts her chin a notch and strides to the ballroom.
Catherine sighs. ‘She didn’t mean that.’
‘Aileana, whatever you’re planning – be quick, or I may be unable to visit for elevenhours on Wednesday. Mother—’
‘I know. She thinks I’m a bad influence.’ She winces. ‘Perhaps not the best.’
I smile. ‘I appreciate you lying for me.’
‘I never lie. I merely embellish information if the situation calls for it. For example, I intend to tell Mother that this head- ache of yours is severe enough that you may miss a few dances.’
‘How very tactful of you.’ I pass Catherine my reticule.
‘Would you hold onto this for me?’
Catherine stares at it. ‘I do believe the ladies parlour allows reticules.’
‘Aye, but carrying the reticule might make my headache
worse.’ I press the purse into her palm.
‘Hmm. You know, someday, I’m going to ask questions. You might even answer them.’
‘Someday,’ I agree, grateful for her trust.
She flashes a smile and says, ‘Very well. Go off on your mys- terious adventure. But at least think of our luncheon. Your cook is the only one who knows how to make proper shortbread.’
‘Is that really the only reason you visit? The blasted short- bread?’
‘The company is also quite agreeable . . . when she isn’t having
She departs with an unladylike wink and saunters through the double doors into the ballroom.
Freed at last, I advance down the corridor again. My skirt rustles, its deep flounces fluffed by three stiff petticoats. Since I began training a year ago, I’ve become keenly aware of how limiting a lady’s wardrobe is. The adornments are all beautiful – and absolutely useless in battle.
As I round the corner, the faery power returns in force. I let the burning tang wash over my tongue; I thrive on the anticipa- tion. This is one of my favourite parts of the hunt, second only to the kill itself. I imagine myself shooting it again, feeling the calm release at its death . . .
Then, all at once, the taste tears out of my throat so fast, I
bend over and gag.
‘Damnation,’ I whisper. The abrasive absence of its power means the revenant has found its victim and is drawing in human energy.
With another muttered oath, I gather my bulky skirts and petticoats, slip the stole off my shoulders to tie around my waist
– propriety be damned – and bolt up the stairs. I glance about in dismay when I reach the top. So many doors. Now that the power has gone, I have no way to tell which room the faery is in.
I walk quickly down the hallway. The corridor is quiet. Too quiet. I’m painfully aware of every swish the fabric of my dress makes, every floorboard creak beneath my satin slippers.
I press my ear to the nearest door. Nothing. I open it to be certain, but the room is empty. I try another door. Still nothing.
As I palm the next handle, I hear a low gasp. The kind of breath someone takes with only scant moments of life remaining.
I consider my options carefully. I have but a single chance to save the revenant’s victim. If I charge in, the faery might kill the person before I shoot.
Quietly pushing my petticoats aside, I draw the lightning pistol from my thigh holster. I grip the handle of the weapon as I nudge the door open to peek inside.
Next to the four-poster bed in the corner of the room, the re- venant’s behemoth form is bent over its victim. At nearly seven feet tall, the muscled faery resembles a rotting troll. Stringy, limp dark hair hangs in patches around its scalp. The creature’s skin is the pallid shade of dead flesh, speckled with decay in some places and peeling off in others. One cheek is open and gaping, exposing a jawbone and row of teeth. Faeries can heal most injuries in less than a minute, but this is the natural state of revenants. They are utterly disgusting and corpselike.
The faery’s fingertips are sunk deep into the chest of a gentle- man I immediately recognise as the elderly Lord Hepburn. His waistcoat is soaked through with blood, and his skin has a bluish cast.
When a faery feeds from a human’s energy, they are both enveloped an astonishing white light. Lord Hepburn isn’t that far gone yet, but almost.
I hold my breath and ease up the lightning pistol until the sight is level with the revenant’s pectoral, just over its thoracic opening. My grip tightens, my thumb tracing the ornate carv- ings on the handle of the pistol in a soft caress.
Move, I think to the revenant. Just a bit, so I don’t injure my gracious host.
The faery doesn’t move and I don’t have a clean shot. Time to intervene.
I lower the pistol and step into the room, shutting the door behind me with a loud click.
The revenant’s head snaps up. It bares two rows of long pointed teeth and gives a low, rumbling growl that makes the fine hairs on my arms stand straight up.
I smile sweetly. ‘Hello there.’
I detect some small movement from Lord Hepburn and I relax slightly. Still alive, thank goodness. The revenant’s black gaze tracks me as I move to stand near the velvet settee, but it stays where it is, still greedily drinking the poor man’s energy.
I need to force its attention to me again. ‘Drop him, you ghastly thing.’ The beast hisses and I step forward. ‘I said drop him. Now.’
My grip on the pistol tightens again as the creature releases Lord Hepburn and rises to its full height. Now that the faery has stopped feeding, the ammonia and sulphur flavour is back, scorching. The creature towers over me, muscled and dripping with some repulsive clear substance I would rather not inspect closely.
I’m filled with a familiar rush of excitement as the faery snarls again. My heart pumps faster. My blood rushes and my cheeks burn.
‘Aye, that’s it,’ I whisper. ‘Take me instead.’ The faery leaps forward.