I turned to find Lea facing me, her hands on her hips. She wore a slender, strapless dress of pale blue, which flowed over her curves like water, crashing into white foamy lace at its hem. She wore a cape of some material so light and sheer that it seemed almost unreal, and it drifted around her, catching the light in an opalescent sheen that trapped little rainbows and set them to dancing against her pale skin. When people talk about models or movie stars being glamorous, they take it from the old word, from glamour, from the beauty of the high sidhe, faerie magic. Supermodels wish they had it so good as Lea.
"Why, Godmother," I said, "what big eyes you have. Are we straining the metaphor or what?"
She drifted closer to me. "I don't make metaphors, Harry. I'm too busy being one. Are you enjoying the party?"
I snorted. "Oh, sure. Watching them drug and poison children and getting roughed up by every weird and nasty thing in Chicagoland is a real treat." I turned to Susan and said, "We have to get you out of here."
Susan frowned at me and said, "I didn't come here so that you could hustle me home, Harry."
"This isn't a game, Susan. These things are dangerous." I glanced over at Lea. She kept drawing closer. "I don't know if I can protect you."
"Then I'll protect myself," Susan said. She laid her hand over the picnic basket. "I came prepared."
"Michael," I said. "Would you get her out of here?"
Michael stepped up beside us, and said, to Susan, "It's dangerous. Maybe you should let me take you home."
Susan narrowed her dark eyes at me. "If it's so dangerous, then I don't want to leave Harry here alone."
"She has a point, Harry."
"Dammit. We came here to find out who's behind the Nightmare. If I leave before I do that, we might as well never have come. Just go, and I'll catch up with you."
"Yes," Lea said. "Do go. I'll be sure to take good care of my godson."
"No," Susan said, her tone flat. "Absolutely not. I'm not some kind of child for you to tote around and make decisions for, Harry."
Lea's smile sharpened, and she reached a hand toward Susan, touching her chin. "Let me see those pretty eyes, little one," she purred.
I shot my hand toward my godmother's wrist, jerking it away from Susan before the faerie could touch her. Her skin was silk-smooth, cool. Lea smiled at me, the expression stunning. Literally. My head swam, images of the faerie sorceress flooding my thoughts: those berry-sweet lips pressing to my naked chest, smeared with my blood, rose-tipped breasts bared by the light of fire and full moon, her hair a sheet of silken flame on my skin.
Another flash of image came then, accompanied by intense emotion: myself, looking up at her as I lay at her feet. She stretched out her hand and lightly touched my head, an absently fond gesture. An overwhelming sense of well-being filled me like shining, liquid light, poured into me and filled every empty place within me, calmed every fear, soothed every pain. I almost wept at the simple relief, at the abrupt release from worry, from hurt. My whole body trembled.
I was just so damned tired. So tired of hurting. Of being afraid.
"So it will be when you are with me, poor little one, poor lonely child." Lea's voice coursed over me, as sweet as the drug already within me. I knew she spoke the truth. I knew it on a level so deep and simple that a part of me screamed at myself for struggling to avoid her.
So easy. It would be so easy to lay down at my lady's feet, now. So easy to let her make all the bad things go away. She would care for me. She would comfort me. My place would be there, in the warmth at her feet, staring up at her beauty -
Like a good dog.
It's tough to say no to peace, to the comfort of it. All through history, people have traded wealth, children, land, and lives to buy it.
But peace can't be bought, can it, chief, prime minister? The only ones offering to sell it always want something more. They lie.
I shoved the feelings away from me, the subtle glamour my godmother had cast. I could have taken a cheese grater to my own skin with less pain. But my pain, my weariness, my worries and fear - they were at least my own. They were honest. I gathered them back to me like a pack of mud-spattered children and stared at Lea, hardening my jaw, my heart. "No," I said. "No, Lea."
Surprise touched those delicate features. Dainty copper brows lifted. "Harry," she said, her voice gentle, perplexed, "the bargain is already made. So mote it be. There is no reason for you to go on hurting."
"There are people who need me," I said. My balance wavered. "I still have a job to do."
"Broken faiths weaken you. They bind you tighter, lessen you every time you go against your given oath." She sounded concerned, genuinely compassionate. "Godson, I beg of you - do not do this to yourself."
I said, struggling to be calm, "Because if I do that, there will be less for you to eat, yes? Less power for you to take."
"It would be a terrible waste," she assured me. "No one wants that."
"We're under truce here, Godmother. You're not allowed to work magic on me without violating hospitality."
"But I didn't," Lea said. "I've not worked any magic on you this night."
She laughed, silver and merry. "Such language, and in front of your lover too."
I stumbled. Michael was there at once, supporting my weight with his shoulder, drawing my arm across it. "Harry," he said. "What is it? What's wrong?"
My head kept on spinning and my limbs started to shake. The drug already coursing through me, plus this new weakness, almost took me out. Blackness swam in front of my eyes and it was only with an effort of will that I kept myself from drowning in that darkness or giving in to the mad desire to throw myself down at Lea's feet. "I'm okay," I stammered. "I'm fine."
Susan moved to my other side, her anger pouring off of her like heat from a desert highway. "What have you done to him?" she snapped at Lea.
"Nothing," Lea replied in a cool voice. "He has done this to himself, the poor little one. One always risks dire consequences should one not keep a bargain with the sidhe."
"What?" Susan said.
Michael grimaced, and said, "Aye. She's telling the truth. Harry made a bargain last night, when we fought the Nightmare and drove it away from Charity."
I struggled to speak, to warn them not to let Lea trick them, but I was too busy trying to sort out where my mouth was, and why my tongue wasn't working.
"That doesn't give her the right to put a spell on him," Susan snapped.
Michael rumbled, "I don't think she has. I can usually feel it, when someone's done something harmful."
"Of course I haven't," Lea said. "I have no need to do so. He's already done it himself."
What? I thought. What was she talking about?
"What?" Susan said. "What are you talking about?"
Lea's voice took on a patient, faux-sympathetic tone. "Poor little poppet. All of your efforts to learn and you still know so little. Harry made a bargain with me long ago - and broke it, once then, and once a few nights past. He swore to uphold it again, last night, and broke it thrice. Now he reaps the consequences of his actions. His own powers turn against him, the poor dear, to encourage him to fulfill his word, to keep his promise."
"They weren't doing it a minute ago," Susan said. "Only when you came up to him."
Lea laughed, warmly. "It's a party, dear poppet. We're here to mingle, after all. And I have lifted no weapon or spell against him. This is of his own doing."
"So back off," Susan said. "Leave him alone."
"Oh, this won't ever leave him alone, poppet. It's a small thing now, but it will grow, in time. And destroy him, the poor, dear boy. I'd hate so much for that to happen."
"So stop it!"
Lea focused her eyes on Susan. "Do you offer to purchase his debt away from me? I don't think you could afford it, dear poppet ... though I think surcease could be arranged."
Susan shot a quick glance at me, and then Michael. "Surcease? Purchase?"
Michael watched Lea, grimly. "She's a faerie - "
Lea's voice crackled with irritation. "A sidhe."
Michael looked at my godmother and continued, "A faerie, Miss Rodriguez, and they're prone to making bargains. And to getting the better of mortals when they do."
Susan's mouth hardened. She was silent for a moment, and then said, "How much, witch? How much for you to make this stop hurting Harry?"
I struggled to say something, but my mouth didn't work. Things spun faster instead of slowing down. I sagged more, and Michael labored to keep me on my feet.
"Why, poppet," Lea purred. "What do you offer?"
"I don't have much money," Susan began.
"Money. What is money." Lea shook her head. "No, child. Such things mean nothing to me. But let me see." She walked in a slow circle around Susan, frowning at her, looking her up and down. "Such pretty eyes, even though they are dark. They will do."
"My eyes?" Susan stammered.
"No?" Lea asked. "Very well. Your Name, perhaps? Your whole Name?"
"Don't," Michael said at once.
"I know," Susan answered him. She looked at Lea and said, "I know better than that. If you had my Name, you could do anything you wanted."
Lea thrust out her lip. "Her eyes and her Name are too precious to allow her beloved to escape his trap. Very well, then. Let us ask of her a different price." Her eyes gleamed and she leaned toward Susan. "Your love," she murmured. "Give me that."
Susan arched her brows and peered over her spectacles. "Honey, you want me to love you? You've got a lot of surprises coming, if you think it works like that."
"I didn't ask you to love me," Lea said, her tone offended. "I asked for your love. But well enough, if that is also too steep a price, perhaps memory will do instead."
"Not all of it," Lea said. She tilted her head to one side and purred, "Indeed. Only some. Perhaps the worth of one year. Yes, I think that would suffice."
Susan looked uncertain. "I don't know ..."
"Then let him suffer. He won't live the night, with those arrayed against him. Such a loss." Lea turned to leave.
"Wait," Susan said, and clutched at Lea's arm. "I ... I'll make the trade. For Harry's sake. One year of my memory, and you make whatever is happening stop."
"Memory for relief. Done," Lea purred. She leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss upon Susan's forehead, then shivered, drawing in her breath in a swift inhalation, the tips of her breasts hardening against the silky fabric of her dress. "Oh. Oh, sweet poppet. What a dear thing you are." Then she turned and slapped me across the face with a sharp sound of impact, and I tumbled down to the ground despite Michael's best efforts.
My head abruptly cleared. The narcotic throb of the vampire venom lessened a bit, and I found my thoughts running again, slowly, like a train gathering momentum.
"Witch," Michael hissed up at Lea. "If you hurt either of them again - "
"For shame, Sir Knight," Lea said, her voice dreamy. " 'Tis no fault of mine that Harry made the agreement he did, nor fault of mine that the girl loves him and would give anything for him. Nor was it my doing that the Sword fell ownerless to the ground before me and that I picked it up." She fixed Michael with that dazzling smile. "Should you wish to bargain to have it returned to you, you have only to ask."
"Myself, for the Sword," Michael said. "Done."
She let her head fall back and laughed. "Oh, oh my, dear Knight, no. For once the Redeemer's blade was in your hands again, you would find the shattering of our pact a simple enough matter." Her eyes glittered again. "And you are, in any case, far too ... restricted, for my tastes. You are set in your ways. Unbendable."
Michael stiffened. "I serve the Lord as I may."
Lea made a face. "Faugh. Just so. Holy." Her smile turned sly again. "But there are others whose lives you hold and can bargain with. You have children, do you not?" She shivered again and said, "Mortal children are so sweet. And can be bent and shaped in so many, many ways. Your eldest daughter, I think, would - "
Michael didn't snarl, didn't roar, didn't make any sounds at all. He simply seized the front of Lea's dress and lifted her clear off the ground by it. His voice came out in a vicious growl. "Stay away from my family, faerie. Or I will set such things in motion against you as will destroy you for all time."
Lea laughed, delighted. " 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, is how the phrase runs, is it not?" There was a liquid shimmering in the air, and she abruptly stood upon the ground again, facing Michael, out of his grasp. "Your power weakens with rage, dear man. You will not bargain - but I suppose I had plans for the Sword in any case. Until then, good Knight, adieu." She gave me one last smile and a mocking laugh. Then she vanished into the shadows and the darkness.
I gathered myself back to my feet, and mumbled, "That could have gone better."
Michael's eyes glittered with anger beneath his helmet. "Are you all right, Harry?"
"I'm better," I said. "Stars and stones, if this is some kind of self-inflicted spell ... I'll have to talk to Bob about this one, later." I rubbed at my eyes and asked, "What about you, Michael? Are you all right?"
"Well enough," Michael said. "But we still don't have a culprit, and it's getting late. I've got a bad feeling that we're going to run into trouble if we don't get out of this place soon."
"I've got a feeling you're right," I said. "Susan? Are you okay? You ready to get out of here?"
Susan brushed her hair idly back from her face with one hand, and turned to stare at me, frowning slightly.
"What?" I asked. "Look, you didn't have to do what you did, but we can work on getting it taken care of. Let's just get out of here. Okay?"
"Okay," she said. Then her frown deepened and she peered at me. "This is going to sound odd, but - do I know you?"