The heat lay on the students and me like a layer of half-melted taffy, sticky and unpleasant. The fan and open windows didn’t touch it, and the school only had working air conditioning in the administration and science blocks. Fancy that.

This late in October it should be nice and cool, but we were experiencing a heatwave. I expected the trick or treat and party costumes would be even skimpier than usual.

Priya, a new transfer student, shook her head. “Why are commas and semicolons so complicated, Mrs. G?” Her words lilted, which made her accent pleasant and enchanting.

I smiled at her. “You just have to practice a little more. You’re doing really well.”

She widened her brown eyes at me and made a face, standing with her tablet tucked against her waist. She was the last student I was working with. Soothing her worries about the test on Monday had taken more time than it should, but she understood the material.

When she’d left, I consulted the list I’d made for closing up the room. Details slipping had dogged me for years, and I fought back with checklists. The little things were what always got me.

There were moments when I wished my Friday afternoons didn’t include tutoring teenagers in grammar and writing, but you do what you’ve gotta. True, I could manipulate magic, but all that had ever gotten me was hunted. Teaching paid the bills.

I checked for my car fob before I locked the room, then set off at a good pace down the hall, hoping to avoid anyone calling my name for a volunteer opportunity. The vice principal was like an evil jack-in-the-box with extra work clenched in his damp fists.

The coast was clear. Outside the doors, my old Malibu, beat up but bright blue, gleamed like a hope of escape in the parking lot. A couple of the other teachers were staying even later than I was. Their cars sat in the parking lot, looking lonely and sad, but I was free! As an added bonus, I still had a little extra time to shower before my sort-of date.

We were going to a Halloween party. I even had a costume I’d bought in a fit of whimsy at the Ren faire at my daughter’s encouragement.

I started the car and swore. The gas gauge read close to empty; I’d forgotten to fill it this morning. Once again, I would have to support the local extortionate prices at the gas station down the street.

The gossamer strands of loose magic tangling through the air reached out for me as the tank filled. The world was full of it, but only those who could perceive it could use it. The movement of putting the pump nozzle back into the pump holder helped me shoo them away. I wanted them, every moment, so much it sometimes hurt.

I knew better. The last time I truly called the magic, I’d ended up in a dungeon—and not the kind in romance novels. Even if I would risk capture for me, I wouldn’t risk my kids.

Once in the car, my hands tightened on the steering wheel, and I inhaled deeply. The magic tangled and fizzed around me, wanting to be let in; I kept it out with the determination of long practice. There were days when I was weak and sifted a little so I could use it for a tiny will working, but not today. I was going to be going out on a date, and I didn’t want to smell of magic at all in case any of the many kins were around.

While this world was humanity’s territory, humanity’s home, it touched on all the other dominions. Almost like a crossroads, and so the inhabitants of other dimensions often travelled here, finding thin spots in the barriers between their dominions and ours. Thus, legends of elves and vampires and so many other creatures sprang up behind them. Together, they were the kins, humanity’s brothers and sisters, each kin with their own gifts. The lilim, famed for their looks, could influence emotions and feed on them; daoine sidhe were strong, attractive, and deadly fast; fé created illusions more real than reality.

Humanity’s gift was to manipulate magic to create whatever effect we desired if it lay within the strength of will of the mage. It only manifested in a few of us. The kins who could tell when magic was being used hunted mages; all kins wanted us as servants or slaves. Magic was a powerful and frightening talent and our hunters found it incredibly useful once we were controlled. I’d escaped after being taken and now I hid in plain sight. Calling myself a thin blooded lilim, human enough to have none of their emotion influencing abilities; this gave me the ability to monitor what various factions were doing. If a hunt came to town or suspicion drifted in my directions, I and my family would be gone in moments.

I pushed the memories back and headed for home. My house lay in the depths of a housing development that saw better days long ago. Small lots, weather-beaten exteriors, and elderly vehicles predominated. But it was mine.

Liz’s tiny orange car was already parked on the street. She was my son’s girlfriend, a tall, blonde athlete and one of the sweetest girls I’d ever met. I had no idea what Jimmy had done to catch her attention. He’d inherited his good looks from his father but his personality from me. Introverted and quiet.

Both were in their senior year. Jimmy had only just started looking at colleges.

Dara, my daughter, had flapped out of the nest so fast she almost ignited her feathers. She was taking a semester off school. I wasn’t sure what the allure of a bartending career was, but she seemed to enjoy it right now.

The basement door had been left open, as per the house rules when they were down there. The faint whiff of incense and hum of low voices confirmed their presence. They’d be leaving for the football game soon.

In my room, I stripped out of my sweaty work clothes, removing my bra with a sigh of pleasure. I’d have to put on another, but for the moment, it felt so good.

After showering, I considered my costume. Puffy white sleeved low-cut shirt, front lacing corset, wide ankle-length skirt in vivid green – I’d even bought shoes to match. Dara had helped pick it out with me – a happy memory. She was busy enough that we didn’t see each other too often.

The corset was made of tan leather and felt soft under my fingers. I wanted to look good, but I didn’t want to look quite that available. When I mentioned it, Dara had rolled her eyes.

It’s not that low, Mom. You look great!”

Why not? I put it on, tugging the blouse a little higher, and applied some makeup. I did look nice. My hair was naturally red, though it held some gray strands now, but I’d dyed it black when I’d escaped and gone into hiding. The creamy blouse flattered my freckled skin.

Banging on the front door brought me back out into the living room, prompting the skirt to swish around my ankles.

When I opened the door, the handsome face of my visitor knotted my stomach with annoyance. Bleys was the representative of the lilim who dealt with me and other thin-bloods. Some of the kins interbred with humanity, though the children were almost always less powerful or entirely lacking in the kin’s power. Lilim accepted those children and made extensive use of them.

The claim put me under the purview of the lilim, not Schmidt, the fé who claimed this territory. I’d gone to him to get a new identity when I arrived in the city, and while I’d liked his subordinates, he’d annoyed me to the point of madness.

The thin-blood lie explained any minor slips of knowledge I might make, and Jimmy had been fathered by one. It meant he couldn’t be a mage, but that was better for him. Dara hadn’t inherited the talent either, though her children might.

A consequence of the lie was that I had to pay a portion of my salary to the organization of lilim in the area and be available to run errands for them. In exchange, they were supposed to protect me from predators in other kins. Like the changing kins; there was a new pack of werewolves in town.

Normally they confined their hunts to those who wouldn’t be missed, but they also preyed on humans who found out about the kins and had no protector. I had no wish to be their prey.

I shivered and covered it with a huff of unfeigned annoyance. “Bleys. I’ve already paid my monthly tithe. What are you doing here?”

His perfectly arched brows shot up as he took in my appearance. “Are you going to let me in?”

Sighing, I opened the door enough for him to enter.

You look lovely, Ceri.” He strolled into the living room. “The costume suits you.”

I tensed as steps thudded on the stairs. Please don’t come up; please don’t come up…

Liz emerged from the basement, already dressed in her cheerleader outfit, and hurried for the door. Bleys’ eyes were fixed on her, and I could almost see his gears moving as he watched her move—young, pretty, and enthusiastic.

Jimmy followed her, flicking an annoyed glance at Bleys.

Liz did a double-take. “You look really nice! I forgot what time it was, Mrs. G. We have to get to the field. Is it ok if I come here to shower after the game?”

Sure. They’re traveling again?”

She nodded. Her parents were entrepreneurs who spent a lot of time away from home; she had standing permission from them to stay here in Dara’s room. It helped alleviate her anxiety.

Liz and Jimmy ran out the door. Bleys’ eyes remained on her in a way I really didn’t like.

“My son’s girlfriend. Don’t even.” I glared at him. Lilim were like psychic vampires, consuming emotional energies. Far too many of them chose to use sex as a primary feeding method.

“Very nice.” There was amusement in his glance and a purr in his voice. “You both look like a dream.”

No, Bleys.” While he was low status in the city (hence, him riding herd on thin-bloods), Bleys at least understood no meant no and had only tried once to use the emotion influencing powers on me. It ended badly. Nowadays, I refrained from assaulting him with my heavy bag, and he didn’t try to mess with my head. That relationship worked for us.

The new boss is throwing a party tonight and wants everyone to show up so he can meet them. Mandatory, Ceri. Eight sharp. I’ll text you the address.”

I bit my lip. “I’ve already made arrangements.”

Bring your date too if you want. Just show up.” Bleys shrugged. “There’s going to be a billion people there, but I don’t suggest you start your relationship with the boss by ignoring orders. He doesn’t seem the forgiving type.”

That would attract attention I didn’t want. I’d have to let Nick know plans had changed. If it was like other lilim gatherings, the people would be pretty and the food good, and if we exited quickly, we should be fine.

Fine,” I grumbled.

“Thanks so much, Ceri!” His mocking voice faded as he strolled out of the house.

I straightened and poured two glasses of wine as I waited for Nick to arrive.

Nick pulled up a half-hour later, just as the sky began darkening. He waved as he got out of the car, which was parked precisely parallel to the curb. He was always punctual; I’d never known him to be late. He was a metallurgist and worked for an Institute that contracted with the federal government. He didn’t look the part, though. He was in good shape, tall and thin with lightly grayed, brown hair. No glasses.

“I’ve already poured a glass of wine for you,” I said. It was an old joke between us. I had one or two brands I liked, and I always ordered them. He’d taken to ordering them for me at restaurants before I arrived since I tended to be late. I laughed at him as he mimed shock and sipped.

Sorry.” I drained my glass.

Surprise flitted across his face. “Bad day?”

“Trying. Just found out I need to show at a work function. Another costume party.” The grimace on my face welled from someplace deep within me. “Mandatory. We can meet up and go to the other party after?”

He gazed at me, and then his eyes shifted to my wine glass. I looked down to find my fist was clenched on the stem.

I would like to go with you if it’s bothering you this much, Ceri.”

It warmed my heart, but when he said Ceri, I missed my real name, Ceridwen. Ceri was close, but I’d never liked it much. The rest of his statement caught up with me…I’d only heard that tone rarely from him, but it was determination. We’d be here hours, discussing it to death, if I tried to dissuade him.

Do you have a costume?” It was the first step to giving in. If we were just in and out, he should be safe. Nick was solid and average and quiet; not the lilims’ preferred meal. And Bleys, while an ass, would help get him out if one of the nastier lilim decided to bother us.

I have a mask. I’ll say I’m an actor.” He smiled at me. The smile said the conversation was over and done with. I sighed. I liked his stubbornness, except when it was directed toward me.

Shaking my head, I put the glasses in the sink. “Fine.”

“Bets on where Liz will end up after the game?” Nick gave me a wry smile as I sat next to him on the couch.

“No bets. She gets nervous when she’s home alone.”

“She’s going to college?”

I nodded. “She’s deciding which one suits her best; and getting Jimmy to apply for himself, which is more than I’ve succeeded at.”

He’s a good kid. Some people just aren’t as well organized.”

I eyed him. “I bet you fold your socks, and I know your books are in alphabetical order on the shelves.”

Yes. Doesn’t mean I don’t understand disorganized people.”

Rising, I held out my hand. “Let’s go.”

The address was in an old-money suburb, a large house next to a golf course. Stone built, it was enclosed by a stone wall as well. The gate across the driveway had been swung back, and Nick drove us in. The driveway curved farther and farther into the property, shaded by old trees and landscaped to within an inch of its life.

Cars that didn’t fit on the extended parking area were parked on the plush velvety grass.Like weeds, they were more akin to my car than the expensive sports cars parked in the driveway.

Jack-o’-lanterns grinned on the ground, and orange fairy lights and silvery spiderwebs decorated the trees and plants. Hardy autumn flowers, asters and mums, bloomed in fanciful pots situated on the grounds. A flagstone path led to open French doors.

Early as we were, I saw most of the lilim in the city had already gathered inside. It looked like a model convention; overly pretty people wearing expensive clothes. It turned out being beautiful and able to make people fall in love or lust with you was good for the bank account. Who knew?

Worry clenched my gut as Nick’s sleeve brushed my arm as he took in the room. I set my phone alarm for five minutes and hurried to the door. I spotted Bleys and veered toward him.

These are your coworkers?” Nick sounded bemused.

Second job, they aren’t educators. I just have to show up for a few minutes.”

Bleys met me halfway, glancing at Nick, brow furrowed. “Good. This way.”

For his sins, Bleys did try to shelter thin-bloods from the predatory full lilim…who were all in the house. He kept a hand on my arm, leading me to the side of a blond man, who was clean-shaven and of average height.

He didn’t look as scary as he must be to keep this many lilim in line. Lilim followed the strongest, which meant he’d beaten their old leader. Susan, a woman whose cruelty was legendary, had vanished from public view a few months ago. I didn’t want to know what had happened, although I could guess.

Mr. Pryce, this is Ceri Gault. She’s one of the thin-bloods who serve the family.”

Shrewd, penetrating blue eyes met mine, and I fought the urge to step back. That bright intelligence felt threatening. Luckily, my outfit hid the sudden outbreak of sweat.

Pleased to meet you.” His voice was low and pleasant. “And your guest?”

Nick extended a hand. “Nick Damarian.”

Pryce’s interested gaze at Nick made me even more nervous. My text notification pinged.

Oh, no, we need to go!” I frowned at the phone, grabbing Nick’s hand as I backed up. “Jimmy needs a ride to the urgent care center.”

Poor Jimmy. As far as they knew, he was one of the unhealthiest children ever. That lie and a programmed ping had saved me from so many awkward situations. Prevarication was my friend.

The eyes on my back pursued me to the door, and I worked to keep my knees tight to prevent them from shaking.

“Do you want to visit for a bit before the kids get home?” I looked up at Nick’s face, my voice shy. “I’d like some time to recharge before going to the other party.

Nick smiled back at me. “Of course. I’d love a break.”

I could feel heat rising in my cheeks and glanced away into the sea of people in the yard. It had been a long time since I took a risk like this. We made our way to the door and departed, avoiding more groups of people as we trekked down the place to where Nick had parked.

Once we were in the car, he turned to me. His tone was very quiet as he said, “There’s something I need to tell you.”


I think you’re aware that the world has room for lots of different…kins? Since this party establishes that you know about them. I hope never to see so many lilim in one place again.”

My muscles stiffened, and my voice chilled, despite my best effort to remain casual. “I might be.”

Was he a real thin-blood? Why had he waited so long to tell me?

I’m not entirely as I appear.”



What kin are you?” Anxiety made my palms damp. I liked him, and I wanted to continue as friends. I hoped he wasn’t a troll. Though I was fond of him, I was also superficial. I didn’t want a meat-eating giant around my kids.

A svartalfar.”

I groped for what I knew about them…metalworkers, which made sense. He was a metallurgist, who worked for a local think tank. I’d never seen or met one before, to my knowledge.

Are you a remarkably restrained lilim or a thin-blood?”

Thin-blood,” I lied automatically. I couldn’t keep the laugh out of my voice even though I’d have to think long and hard before I told him the truth, if ever. I wanted to see his true appearance but didn’t want to risk a spell to give me truesight here.

Little shivers of anxiety fought with memories of Nick going back years…he’d always been kind, and we’d been friends a long time before he tentatively suggested a date three months ago. We’d only dated twice since then as I worked past my anxieties. It had taken me years to learn to trust men, even a little, after my husband handed me over to the kins in exchange for money and status.

It was a very quiet drive.

When we pulled up at home, we noted Liz’s little car was already parked in the driveway. My worry spiked and made me get out of the car quickly. They’d left the game early, which Liz would only do if injured.

Nick trailed me heading in. On the porch, magic scraped at me, demanding and thick. It had an edge that I had last felt a long time ago when enemies had come for me. Magic wasn’t sentient, but I had a low level of foreseeing that warned me if I might need it. A deep sense of foreboding weighted my stomach.

I frowned. This close to home, I accepted a trickle of the power and used it to turn on my alternative vision, truesight. It would let me see what was real and what was not.

Jimmy sat on the couch, unusually far from Liz, staring at her and frowning. She had her leg elevated, her ankle and knee wrapped in bulky elastic bandages.

Liz flashed Nick and me a thousand-watt smile. “Hi! It looks worse than it is.”

Beneath the smile, truesight sketched an unformed face beneath hers, a lanky body expanded to match her athletic form. A fetch had copied Liz’s shape.

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