Homelands Pt. 03 Ch. 09byjdnunyer©
When I finally left the palace to start my shift patrolling the court, I was so full of energy that I had trouble forcing myself to walk on the ground rather than thin air. Nat and I had fed each other insane amounts of energy as we made love again and again and again.
After the tenth interview with someone who'd heard a lot of rumors, but hadn't themselves actually seen anything, the smile my sister had put on my face began to fade. Refugees had been disappearing, at a rate of one or two a night. But no one knew what was happening. Well, they all knew that they were being preyed upon by someone looking to jump up in power by Devouring immortals whose families didn't care enough about them to retaliate. But none of them knew what this mysterious serial Devourer looked like.
After the twentieth such interview, I decided I was wasting my time.
I was about to turn invisible and start walking through the crowded streets of Safe Haven haphazardly in the wild hope of seeing something when Mel showed up.
"Hey Uncle Frank!" she said, bouncing up and down on her heels.
"Mel," I said, looking her up and down. That pink t-shirt was insanely tight. If her nipples got hard, it might rip. Her jeans weren't any better. I had no idea how she even got them on. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I swung by your cottage, but Brie said you were out on patrol."
"You...went by...how'd that go?"
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say she doesn't like me." She shrugged. "You know, usually, when I'm talking to someone and they won't look me in the eyes because they're too busy staring at my girls," she gave her big breasts a gentle squeeze with both hands, in case I didn't know what she meant by that, "it's because I'm talking to a guy. But your cousin is seriously obsessed with them."
"Not in the way you think," I said.
"Actually, I kinda picked up on that when she did her best to tenderize them like a bad cut of meat, thank you very much," she said. "Anyways, how goes the patrolling?"
If it were me, would I be able to take Brianna's behavior in stride like that?
"Not well," I said. "Everyone is convinced that there's a serial Devourer. But no one's seen anything. Really isn't very helpful. Not like there are any bodies or crime scenes or anything either. I don't know that I'd know what to do with one if there was, but still. I wish I had something to work with."
"Can't you summon a floating eyes? The way you sometimes do hands and mouths?"
For a moment, I was too dumbfounded to respond. Eventually, I said, "Huh. Yeah. I totally can." Why hadn't I thought of that? "Good idea."
Melanie twirled a ringlet of red hair around one of her fingers. "Sooooo, as payment, I'd like to pick your brain for a few minutes. Think you can shirk your duties for a bit?"
I laughed. "I'm not sure what I'm accomplishing as it is."
So we went to a coffee shop around the corner.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Mel asked as we made our way there. "Safe Haven looks like a city from the mortal world. Except that it doesn't."
"That's about right," I said.
In many ways, it did indeed. But every single person who lived there was gorgeous. Every one. You didn't get that in the mortal world. And while some, including Mel and I, were dressed more or less the way people you'd cross on the streets of a typical mortal city would dress, others looked like they just came from a photo shoot for a lingerie catalogue. Or a fetish magazine. Still others were dressed like they'd stepped out of a bad fantasy novel. Some looked like faeries of various kinds, indicating they were from the lands of Spring. And, surprisingly enough, I even saw a couple of people with the telltale blue skin of the Shadowed Glade or the gold skin of the Eternal Garden.
"And it's growing so fast," she added. "Do you think Nat made the right move by-"
"Stop right there," I said. "I don't know what my sister's doing, and I think both she and I would prefer to keep it that way."
"Right," Mel said. "Sorry." She fretted at her lower lip while her fingers drummed against the plastic lid of her coffee cup. "Maybe I shouldn't ask you this after all."
"Ask me what?"
She looked out the window at the cars driving by. That was another thing that made it seem less like we were in the Homelands than the mortal world. Though mortal cars didn't look quite like these. The streets were filled with vehicles that made the concept cars auto makers unveiled at auto shows seem unimaginative. And you couldn't find a gas station anywhere in the Fourth Autumnal Court. Like just about everything here, the cars worked because the people using them wanted them to, and that was that.
I took a sip of my coffee while I waited for her to reply.
"Well," she said, at last, "it's about Troy."
"Okay," I said, in a tone that invited her to elaborate.
"Actually, it's not about Troy, so much as his father."
"Is he hurting you?"
"No," she said. "He doesn't really hurt anyone, actually. But they're all terrified of him."
"Really? Didn't seem that way."
"I shouldn't say all of them. Sebastian and Tulip aren't. In fact, they couldn't be more loyal. Course, he's good to those two, unlike everyone else, so it's no wonder they don't feel the same way as the rest of the kids."
"And Rose?" I asked.
"She fakes it well enough," Mel said. "And that earns her better treatment than most of the rest. But if Sean doesn't get accepted to the Brotherhood, the way she's promised her father that he will, she's going to fall out of favor again."
"I see," I said. "Have you told your father this?"
"Of course not," she said. "He'd try to stop us from going back."
"Then none of us would be safe," Mel said.
She had a point. Shit.
"But I've got a plan," she added.
"And that is?"
She tasted her coffee. "You're not going to like it."
"Try me," I said.
"I'm going to Devour Lord Furcas."
"You're right. I don't like it."
"Hear me out," she said.
I gestured for her to continue.
She dropped her voice, though it seemed to me like it was the last statement that had really called for a hushed tone. "I know how strong he is. I'm not stupid. The plan is to turn invisible, hide out in his room, and do it while he's asleep."
It suddenly struck me as completely absurd that we were sitting at a squat little table in a crowded coffee shop, discussing how to assassinate a demon lord. It was all just too surreal. That was the first time in a long time that I thought, even for a moment, that maybe none of this was real. Maybe I was just an ordinary mortal, living an ordinary life, daydreaming about a world where all my fantasies, sexual and otherwise, could come true. Maybe not daydreaming. More like tripping balls.
Then the moment passed. My niece really had just told me she was going to Devour Lord Furcas. Crazy as that sounded.
I reached across the table and placed a hand atop hers. "Mel, sweetie, that won't work. I already tried the whole invisibility thing. Doesn't work with him."
"Did you try it the same way you would here?" she asked.
"Um," I said. There was no way to answer that without sounding stupid. I washed the rest of the sentence down with more coffee.
"They don't see the same way we do," Mel explained.
Of course. Why would they? Where they lived, it was always night.
"Night vision?" I asked.
"Not sure it's quite that," she said. "Maybe something like it. Better though. At any rate, it took a lot of practice, but after I snuck up on Troy a few times, I finally tried it out. Just walked around the palace, minding my on business. If Lord Furcas noticed me, he didn't say anything. And he always does. So I'd say it works."
"Color me impressed," I said.
Mel blushed, averting her eyes. "Stop."
"Anyway, that's the plan."
"And then what?" I asked. "Troy becomes the Lord of House Furcas?"
"No. Sebastian, I'd imagine. He's not as strong as their father, but he's still stronger than Troy. And older. Reasonably well respected within the court too. Besides, Troy doesn't want to rule. He just doesn't want to be scared of his father anymore. And, more importantly, doesn't want his wife and sisters to be either."
That was pretty hard to argue with.
"What will happen to Sean?"
"What do you mean what will happen to him? Nothing. Why would it?"
"What if you fail?"
"Sean won't have had anything to do with it," Mel said.
"Will Lord Furcas believe that? Or care?"
"It won't come to that," Mel said.
I felt like I should have had more to say. Should try to talk her out of it. But she wouldn't listen anyway. No more than I would have, once upon a time. She had something to prove, and anyone who told her that she didn't know what she was doing would only further motivate her to prove it.
"Here," I said, reaching inside my chest.
"What's that?" she asked.
The leaf pendant came into view, passing through my skin like tissue paper. The hole in my chest bled a little, but sealed itself back up a moment later.
A few people gave me strange looks, but I ignored them.
Placing the pendant down on the formica tabletop, I slid it across to Melanie. "A gift. It'll help keep you safe."
Mel stared at me, eyes wide. Waiting for an explanation. Or maybe a punchline.
"All the major families in Autumn have them," I explained, echoing my mother's words. "It marks you as Autumn's favorite daughter."
"And how many does House Orwin have?" she asked, regarding the pendant warily.
To the best of my knowledge, just the one. But I didn't say anything.
Mel's nod told I didn't need to. "You should keep it. Give it to Val."
"If she were going to the Shadowed Glade of the Moon, with the intention of assassinating Lord Furcas, perhaps I would."
My niece shook her head and pushed my hands away. "I know what I'm doing."
I pushed back. Gently. "Then call it my attempt to make sure you remember where you came from. Something you can keep close to your heart to remind you that no matter how successful you are in scaling the ranks of power there, and I'm sure that you will be, Autumn will always be a part of you."
This time, Mel sighed, then nodded.
Unlike me, she didn't let the pendant sink into her chest. She simply slid it down the front of her shirt, allowing it to nestle between her breasts.
"Promise me you'll watch out for Sean."
She offered me a faint grin. "I will. Don't worry."
"And...when you do it, could you whisper in his ear that Lily sends her regards?"
Mel's grin grew fainter still. After a fashion, she said, "Sure thing, Uncle Frank."
It was just after midnight when I got back to our cottage. Brianna answered the door, wearing a pair of baggy sweatpants and an oversized, threadbare t-shirt. She looked me up and down, muttered, "humph," then turned her back on me and returned to the couch.
"And how was your day, dear?" I asked as I closed the door.
She had one of those wretched reality TV shows on. I came up behind her, leaned over, kissed the top of her head, and asked what the couple on screen was fighting about.
"Don't know. Maybe his mistress came to the house looking for him, and she answered the door. Or maybe I'm getting confused with another show. Or something."
Right. My mistress.
I kept my face buried in her hair. I loved the way it smelled. Meanwhile, I started to give her a gentle back rub. "Baby, we talked about this. You said that as long as it wasn't just for sex, it was fine."
"And that's what you heard? Exactly what I said, and nothing more?"
I sighed. "Fair enough," I said, then kissed her hair again. "You might be interested to know, we didn't even have sex. Just coffee."
My cousin had yet to take her eyes off the screen. "Really?"
"Really. She wanted to talk politics. Has some crazy plan for maneuvering her husband into higher position. Wanted my feedback. That's it."
Close enough to true. I didn't think I should be telling anyone exactly what Mel had in mind. All Brianna cared about anyway was whether we'd gotten physical.
"Well, then, I guess it's unfortunate that she's going to wake up bald tomorrow."
Panicked thoughts rushed through my mind.
"Now there's really only one redhead in your life," my cousin explained. She was going for deadpan, I think, but a hint of a snicker broke through her facade.
Before I could find my tongue again, she added, "Oh, stop. You know she can just grow it back. I haven't done anything worse than what your brother used to do to you and Todd."
I covered my face with my hands. I should have been more upset, because it was still cruel and immature, but she was right. Mel would freak out, shriek, then calm down, snap her fingers, and the problem would be solved.
She was also right that it was exactly the kind of thing Dom used to do to us. I'd hated it when he had done so, but it seemed so silly to have gotten upset about now.
Without wanting to, I found myself laughing.
It was just so ridiculous. As was the fact that, for a brief moment, I'd started thinking that this meant the old Brianna was back. The Brianna who had Devoured her parents and threatened to rape my mother and generally terrorized the whole family. Just because she'd played a sophomoric prank on my niece? How was that even remotely comparable?
Perhaps most ridiculous of all was that the way it made me miss Dom.
Not that I should be cursing his name and spitting on his grave. But of all the reasons to be sad that he was gone, the fact that he used to draw cocks on my forehead or write curses across my chest while I slept wasn't particularly high on the list.
As I laughed, I shook my head at my cousin. Unsurprisingly, the gesture didn't seem to have the humbling effect it might have otherwise have had, had I not been so clearly amused.
Brie smirked. "Sorry. I know I shouldn't have, even if you did fuck her. But I've been so good up til now. It's just one little indiscretion." She paused. "Besides. It is funny."
"No, it's not," I said.
But I was still grinning.
"Okay, okay." Brianna giggled. Then, in a more sober voice, she said, "I guess I just really miss you. We hardly spend any time together anymore, what with the pointless patrolling."
"I know," I said, wiping a tear from the corner of my eye.
A little part of me twitched at that. There were plenty of couples that spent even less time together. Some would even consider it healthy. People need their space, after all.
What did it say about our relationship that she was having such a hard time not being able to spend all her time with me?
Or was I making too much of this? Was it only in my head that this was an unhealthy, perhaps even abusive, relationship?
I thought back to what Nat had said about why she was in love with Todd. Because she could be herself with him. That didn't mean he was trying to trap her, or blackmail her. Why did I think that it was any different with Brianna? So what if she liked to remind me that my mother wouldn't react well to the truth about what had happened with Lily?
She wasn't wrong about that.
"I'm gonna fix myself something to eat real quick. You want anything?"
Brianna patted my hand. "No, thanks. I already ate."
"Of course you did. It's late. You're probably about ready for sleep."
"Not exactly," she said, sounding almost hurt. "Thought maybe it'd be nice to spend some time together. My shift doesn't start til noon anyway."
"Thank goodness Todd is such an early riser." I kissed her hair once more.
I padded over to the kitchenette adjoining our living room. If you could even call it a living room. Besides the bathroom, the interior of the cottage was all just one room.
After making a quick grilled cheese sandwich and warming up a bowl of soup, I returned to the couch. While we watched her trashy show, and I tried my best feign interest, Brie stole a few bites of both the soup and sandwich, and slid her cold feet under my legs.
She could be dressed like crap, wearing no makeup, and acting bratty, and I still thought she was the cutest thing ever.
Why couldn't I make up my mind about how I felt about her? About our relationship? Was I just looking for reasons to convince myself that things weren't working, so I could pursue my mother without guilt?
But that was silly. There was something powerful between me and my mother, to be sure. Could I ever really have anything remotely a resembling a healthy relationship with her either though? Could she offer me companionship? Friendship? Wouldn't she always talk to me like she wasn't sure if I knew how to tie my shoes?
Nevermind the fact that she'd made it pretty clear that she wasn't interested anymore. She was happy enough with Boring Bobby.
"That tat on his arm is so lame," Brianna said.
I must have been too slow to reply, because she quickly added, "I guess it's okay."
"What? No, I agree, it's lame." I focused my attention on the flatscreen TV. The guy's tattoo really was quite cheesy. Not that it mattered. "Sorry. I just zoned out."
"Is everything all right?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said. I finished the last bit of my sandwich and added, "I'll be right back." Then I went back into the kitchenette and washed my dishes real quick.
"Was your shift any more productive than mine?"
Brianna then told me about what had happened when she went into Safe Haven.
"Same here, I'm afraid," I said.
"How're we supposed to catch this guy?" she asked with a sigh. "If it is a guy."
I started to say that of course it was a guy, but stopped myself. I didn't know that. Most of the supposed victims were women, but some were men. Of course, there were no bodies, so it was hard to know who was actually a victim and who had simply decided to go back to where they'd come from. But still. There did seem to be a pattern.
"I don't know."
Brianna draped her legs across my lap. I took the hint and started massaging her feet.
That reminded me of the way I'd noticed my sister's feet earlier. If that was really my thing, I suppose I'd have thought my cousin's feet were every bit as arousing as my sister's. But as I worked my hands against her soles, I felt precisely zero arousal.
Did that just mean that what had happened with Natalie had been a weird, one-time thing? Or did it say something about my feelings for Brianna?
"Maybe we wouldn't be driving ourselves crazy trying to catch a serial Devourer if we didn't throw the gates wide open and tell every loser whose family would be glad to be rid of them that they're welcome here."
"Probably not," I agreed.
"Isn't your sister worried that maybe the court's growing a little too fast?"
"I don't know what she's worried about," I said. "And I'm okay with that."
My cousin rolled her eyes. "You make it sound like you're an alcoholic trying to keep dry. I get that you don't want to get too involved, and I don't either. But if she's going to tell us we have to do these stupid patrols, don't you think we have a right to be a little curious? Maybe even critical?"
"No one's saying you don't have the right."
"You just don't think I should exercise it."
I assume it was only by accident that, as she shifted her weight, the heel of her foot jabbed downwards and barely missed colliding with my testicles.
With a sigh, I said, "No, I didn't mean that. It's just that we don't have any context. What pressure is Iva putting on her? How seriously will the other courts take us if our population remains as tiny as it is? Or if Nat doesn't get more powerful? How many vassals is she taking on, and how few would she have if we didn't let in so many people?"
"Maybe someone a little more powerful should be on the throne then," Brianna said.