Lura slumped back against the front door, staring down at the dead pixie pinioned to the gate with pale, thorny vines, throat slit, green blood pooling like antifreeze across her mother’s pristine yard. The words “never return” and “death awaits” marred its gossamer wings.
This can’t be happening, she told herself.
Yet clearly, it was.
Lura scanned the front yard, the street beyond.
No sign of whoever had done this, and, more importantly, no sign of anyone—or anything—lying in wait to do worse.
Only the mundane sounds of an early Monday morning in suburban Michigan: the rumble of a recycling truck, the bark of a dog. And the gusting wind, catching at tired leaves and tossing them into the air. It caught at her hair, too, pulling it free from the braid hiding the tips of her too-sharp ears. She yanked her hoodie up, lest prying eyes see past her sloppy glamour to the elf-blood beneath.
Lura sighed. She’d spent two months languishing at her human mother’s house. And today, finally, Lura would return home. Home to Starkhaven, where her father ruled on the Council of Elves.
Someone there wanted her dead. Wanted it enough to risk traveling between worlds, dead pixie in tow.
And if they’ll kill a pixie, she thought, they’ll have no qualms about slaying a half-breed like me.
Then another, more urgent thought: I’d better clean up this mess before Mom wakes up or she’ll freak.
A few moments later, armored in thick plastic gloves, wielding the strongest kitchen cleanser she could find, Lura surveyed the scene of the crime. The poor pixie looked worse up close; its face frozen in a rictus of terror, eyes thankfully shut. So much blood spilled down the front of its tattered gown. A dragon’s worth of blood, still dripping from the wound on its tiny neck.
Something tugged at her. A memory, scraping at the corner of her mind.
She flinched back in sudden recognition.
Rinn, who worked in the kitchens of Havenhall, her father’s estate. Who often as not brought Lura her evening tea.
Who would harm someone as benign, as inconsequential, as Rinn?
Someone who wants you dead. The answer burned through her, hot and sharp as a tempered blade.
Suspects flipped through her mind like playing cards. The list too long to reckon. For Lura was half-elf, the by product of her father’s dalliance with a mortal woman. Her father raised Lura after her mother had fled, leaving the magic and torment of Starkhaven for a mundane life in Michigan. Yet half-breeds like herself were not well-tolerated in Starkhaven. And though her father wielded fistfuls of power, nearly every full-blooded Elf held a large measure of contempt towards her. She was used to brutal hazing at the hands of the elves. Weathered it, proving, if only to herself, that her black blood ran stronger than the iron flowing through her veins thanks to her mother.
The hazing had never seemed truly dangerous.
So who wouldn’t want her dead? Her father, for one, and Edmire, her father’s steward. Possibly a handful of others. Including, of course Maiele. Lura’s best and only real friend.
She sighed. The list was a short one.
Her thoughts tumbled along until two realizations emerged: someone wanted to keep her here, in the human world, and, until she figured out who, she’d never feel safe in Starkhaven again.
She looked back at Rinn.
Something was clenched tight in its fist.
She pried the fingers open.
A few strands of amber hair fell out. And a scattering of small metallic scales.
Many of the denizens of Starkhaven had amber hair. Sunset hair, her mother had always said with a trace of envy; her own auburn locks seemed faded by comparison.
The scales looked aquatic, could belong to anything from fish to sea dragon. Perhaps Maiele would know.
Setting scales and hair aside, she tugged at the vines holding Rinn in place. Thick and sharp, they glittered in the morning light, sending tiny reflections dancing across her gloved hand.
Rinn’s body twitched.
Lura sprang back, startled, as the pixie’s eyes flew open and met her own.
“Ha… Haven… haeaahh,” Rinn gasped, spraying green blood across Lura’s legs.
A last shudder and Rinn collapsed. Lifeless once more.
She shook her head. It made no sense. Why would Rinn warn her of Havenhall? Could the killer truly be one of her father’s own people? Her father, himself? She shuddered and picked up the bleach, hoping the thought would wash away more easily than pixie blood.
After depositing Rinn’s remains into the compost bin, she slipped into her mother's bedroom.
Rousing her, Lura spoke: “When my father’s people come for me, tell them I’ve decided to stay here, with you, until winter.” She hated to glamour her own mother, but she needed the murderer to believe the threat had worked.
Then, donning her cloak of shadows, she crept out the back door, heading for the nearest crossroads. At the corner of Birch and Hastings, she searched the shadows. The narrow shadow branching out from the stop sign would do nicely, she decided. Prying it open with bony fingers, she slipped inside, sighing as the familiar feeling of home wrapped itself around her like an old coat.
Stepping from the shadow road into Starkhaven proper left her breathless. She’d arrived in dense woods, far from Havenhall, where she expected her father to be. She wondered if he’d sent anyone to retrieve her yet. If he’d learned of her supposed decision to remain in the human world. If he were angry. Or pleased.
Lura shook the thoughts away and walked down a wooded path until she reached a small cottage. She knocked gently on the door. Hoping her dear friend Maiele was alone.
Instead, Maiele’s mother, Dittanette, answered the door.
“Lura, I didn’t know you were back,” she said, surprise writ across her face. Maiele and her mother could be sisters; both with long red hair, yellow eyes like a cat, and long lean limbs. The resemblance between them was so strong that from a distance it was difficult to tell them apart.
“Just arrived. Is Maiele home?” Lura asked, hovering in the doorway.
Her heart sank as the woman shook her head.
“Out, I’m afraid. Though you are welcome to wait.” Dittanette stepped back, allowing Lura access to the small sitting room beyond.
More cluttered than usual, the room held a handful of garments, which hung from the ceiling by delicate chains. Considerably more ornate than Maiele’s usual designs, the fabrics were embroidered with shimmering thread and adorned with gems of all colors. Elaborate masks hung alongside each dress.
Costumes, then. For a masquerade.
Lura wandered among the garments, fingering the fine cloth. “These are beautiful.”
It was an understatement. She passed an emerald dress that shone like a jewel bug’s carapace. Delicate gold sequins graced the bodice, patterned like dragon scales. A matching mask, also scaled, hung nearby. Lura studied it. Did those scales look like those Rinn had clutched?
Dittanette smiled. “They are exquisite, aren’t they? Maiele has outdone herself. She accepted sixteen commissions for Havenhell, all from the best households, including a few for your family.”
Dittanette continued, listing Maiele’s other patrons.
But Lura had stopped listening.
She was such an idiot.
Rinn’s last words: not Havenhall, but Havenhell.
The infamous Havenhell revel, the largest celebration of the year. Held at her father’s estate, it was a night of feasting and dancing as well as more furtive affairs. It was also a very important night of ceremony. For the folk of Starkhaven hated to attend to business when revelry could be had in its stead, so they bundled their council meetings with nights of folly. And no festivity or political ventures were as momentous as those that occurred during Havenhell.
Dittanette stood. Lura reeled in her scattered thoughts.
“I’m afraid—” Lura said, “—that in all my travels I’ve lost track of time. How long is it until Havenhell begins?”
Dittanette’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “Why, this very night. Did you not see the preparations upon your return?”
“Uh, I did not. Too eager to see Maiele, I suppose.” She smiled. “Where did you say she had gone?”
“She’s delivering costumes. Let’s see… I believe she mentioned Dirthweil, Wraithmuir and Magwallow.”
Magwallow, home to Dracmore family, one of her father’s fiercest rivals.
“I fear I must go.” She turned towards the door.
“Wait just a moment, if you would. I have something for you.” Dittanette slipped from the room, returning moments later with a bundle of cloth.
“Your gown. For this evening. Maiele planned on delivering it herself, but as you are here…” She shrugged a graceful shoulder.
Lura accepted the gift, admiring the confection of spider silk. It slipped through her hands, as cool and pale as water tumbling through rapids. The fabric caught the light spilling in through the open door and hundreds of tiny rainbows burst forth, dancing across the room.
Lura caught her breath. “It’s stunning,” she managed. “The color, I’ve seen nothing like it.”
“Shockvine ink.” Dittanette said. “It’s rare, you know, and poisonous when fresh cut. Maiele is the first to distill it for use with cloth. Oh, and lest I forget.” She placed a silver half-mask on the pile.
Lura stashed the garments in the hollow of a tree. With a word of binding to keep them hidden, she set out for Magwallow.
The Dracmore estate sat high on a hill overlooking the forest, a vast garden spread below. Rumor had it that they fertilized the gardens with the bones of their enemies. Lura shivered, imagining her own corpse feeding the hellebores. In the distance, two figures sat on a half-moon patio overlooking the grounds. Maiele, laughing at something her companion had said. Her companion, none other than Elkis Dracmore, heir to Magwallow.
She growled with disgust at the sight of him. Her father had arranged the match, much to her chagrin. A power grab.
Elkis was vile.
So vile, that if not for his hair, pale as the cloudy sky, he’d top her list of suspects.
Whenever she complained about Elkis, Maiele nodded along. Related her own stories of his wickedness.
So why did smiles now flit like shared secrets between them?
Using her cloak of shadows to stay hidden, Lura crept to the stone wall. Maiele and Elkis sat high above her, voices faint.
“Very cunning, I must say.” That was Elkis, his sneering voice unmistakable.
Maiele laughed again, her reply lost in the wind.
Lura needed to get closer. She eyed the wall. Could she climb the pale, thorny vines that wove their way up and over the ledge?
The voices caught at her ear again, too faint to hear over the gusting wind. She reached for the vine, anxious to pull herself up, to hear what poison Elkis poured into Maiele’s ear.
Then the clouds parted and the sun burst forth. Great spangles danced off the leaves of the pale vine, causing the wall to shimmer as if lit by a thousand lanterns.
She knew that shimmer. Had seen its like earlier that day.
Rare and poisonous, Dittanette’s voice echoed in her mind.
Shockvine. Used to color the fabric of Lura’s new gown.
And to bind Rinn’s bloodied body to the gate.
Lura sat heavily on the ground, the implications swarming around her like a nest of angered bees. She felt light, as if her body languished while her mind fled, running from the truth lay bare before her.
Maiele’s red hair clutched in Rinn’s fist.
Vines taken from Elkis' garden.
Lura could see it in her mind’s eye: Rinn tearing at Maiele in his attempt to flee. Elkis binding the pixie before slitting its throat. Maiele, stitching the warning into the wings with her deft fingers.
She thought she might vomit. Would have, if her stomach weren’t so empty.
Instead, she wept until her eyes bled.
The sun dusted the tree line as Lura reached Havenhall, much of the day wasted in travel and regret. The full moon crested the horizon—red as death—setting Lura’s shockvine gown aflame.
She’d debated not wearing the costume that Maiele had crafted. But in the end she’d slipped it on, knowing Maiele would learn of Lura's return from Dittanette. The gown’s beauty heightened her own, the mask disguising her deadened expression as she strode up the stairs.
To bring Rinn’s murderers to justice.
Though the moon had just risen, the revel was in full swing. Music rose and fell, spilling from the beaks of songbirds that soared high above. Elves, pixies, nymphs and nixies—and far stranger creatures—swayed in time to the music. The crowd grew wilder the deeper she plunged.
She felt adrift, like a boat without paddles. Maiele’s betrayal haunted her.
Her best friend, betraying her for a boy.
She scowled, anger hardening into something darker, like tar coating her heart.
All around her the energy grew, the crush pushing her this way and that as, in her anger, she lost her resolve. A hand grabbed her, twisting her arm until she crashed into a chest as wide as a mountain. A bearded face with eyes like falling stars glowered down at her.
Edmire. Her father’s steward.
Her body sagged with relief.
He spun, her body cradled against his as he rolled through the crowd like a boulder. “Your father wants you.” He ground into her ear. “In the council chambers.”
With a shove he let her go. She staggered through the thinning crowd to the far side of the hall, where the lights dimmed and the music gave way to murmuring voices.
“Lura!” A voice behind her said. Maiele.
Lura turned. Maiele stood, her gown achingly similar to Lura’s. Only green. To compliment her red hair.
“You look enchanting.” Maiele’s smile pierced through the grit lodged in Lura’s chest.
“I saw you.” Lura choked out. “With Elkis.”
Lura’s eyes shut. So it was true.
“It… It’s not what you think,” Maiele stammered.
“Not what I think? How could you betray me like that?” She broke off, the anger and sorrow getting in the way of her words.
“It happened this summer. While you were away. I didn’t think you’d mind. You never wanted him anyhow. Elkis and I… we love each other.” Tears streamed from beneath Maiele's gold mask.
Lura managed not to roll her eyes. “Love,” she spat. “And that it makes it okay to threaten me? To want me dead?”
“What are you talking about? No one wants you dead. He just doesn’t want to marry you.”
Lura waved her off.
“And what about Rinn?”
“The dead pixie you left on my mom’s lawn,” Lura bit out. “Wrapped in shockvine.”
“I know nothing of a dead pixie,” Maiele said. “But the shockvine… That, I got from your mother.”
The sounds of the revel fell away.
Lura shook her head, not understanding.
“She gave it to me when she came by to commission the costumes. Surely she told you? Shockvine for yours. Electric eel scales for hers. They glow in the dark, illuminating her hair so it looks like fire.”
The scales and red hair clutched in Rinn’s fist flashed through Lura’s mind.
“Where is she?” Lura choked out.
“I… don’t know. Maybe the council chambers?”
Lura spun, running down the hall.
The council was in session. Her father and a handful of others lounged around a broad table in the center of the room.
A woman, draped in glowing scales, stood before them.
“Therefore,” her mother said. “She belongs to me. Until her twentieth name-day, at which point she is free to decide for herself.”
Her father, stark in robes of deepest night, drawled, “I say she can speak for herself right now.” He met her gaze, one narrow eyebrow raised. “Can’t you Lura, dear?”
Her mother spun.
“What’s going on here?” The words dropped from Lura’s mouth like stones.
“Your mother,” her father spit the word like it was poison. “Is endeavoring to return you to the human lands.”
“She gave up that right when she abandoned me here.” Lura repeated the story she’d grown up on. “It is only by your kind forbearance that I am allowed to visit her at all.”
“Well, yes. And no.” Her father prevaricated.
“Lura, I thought you safe at home.” Her mother stepped towards her.
Lura stepped back, addressing her father. “What do you mean, yes and no?”
He waved a hand. “Each year—during Havenhell—you must stay by my side to renew our bond. It seems your mother contrived to keep you away, hoping to claim you in my stead. I knew granting her free passage to and from Starkhaven was a mistake.”
One by one the pieces fell into place.
“And Rinn?” Lura turned to her mother, voice cold. And deceptively soft.
“He owed me a life-debt.” Her mother shrugged, fear coiled behind her eyes. “I called it in. The shockvine made his death painless, if that’s any comfort.”
It was not.
“So it was all a ploy? The murder, the threat on my life? To keep me living in Michigan?”
Her mother shrugged, the fight draining from her until she seemed somehow diminished. Human once again. “Its so lonely without you.”
As if that excused murder.
Lura walked forward. Her mother’s breath caught, hope rising in her eyes. But Lura walked steadily on, past her mother, to take a seat by her father’s side. A true child of Starkhaven. No matter the nature of her blood.