The Angry Gift
By K.A. Faul
An easy enemy. Any enemy. That was all Mina needed and wanted. An enemy provided a target for her rage, a focus that could keep her going when she otherwise didn’t know what to do with herself. Her wolf instincts howled for her to tear out the throat of an enemy. Life in the forest might be brutal, but it was simple.
Ransetta and the Steward had served well as focuses of hate, but now they were both gone, free to continue screwing over other people. Mina wouldn’t see either faerie again until the Hundred Years Ball, which was months in the future.
Mina furrowed her brow as she stepped into a vast hallway, her footsteps echoing. The huge layered skirt of her emerald-brocade gown swirled around her ankle-high lace-up boots. The tight bodice did her figure a few favors, compared to her normal T-shirt and jeans, but she wasn’t looking for a faerie boyfriend, even if she was supposed to be bagging herself a king to save her own life.
Ransetta’s curse left her with less than six months to seduce Kailen, the fae king. Failure meant a slow and painful death from another of the Unseelie Queen’s specially crafted magical incentives. The whole situation was as absurd as it was terrifying.
The Seelie fae kept giving Mina mostly green gowns to wear, perhaps because she never removed Ransetta’s collar, which had been a green lace choker upon their first encounter with it. They hadn’t even bothered to ask her to try and take it off. It was almost if they were afraid of it.
Do they feel what it is? Do they know what it is, at least on some level? If they do, why don’t they do anything about it? Their stupid ball? How can they be divided enough to not talk more than once every century, but they’ll basically let her do what she wants otherwise?
A tall male faerie in a robe offered Mina a slight nod as he passed her in the hallway. Faint disdain remained in his eyes. Unlike the Unseelie, none of the Seelie tortured her or forced her into death matches, but their haughty looks or hushed whispers made it clear they didn’t want the wolf in the palace. They were mostly avoiding her as well, perhaps out of fear or disgust.
Mina stepped around the corner. Four faeries flew along the hallway in their tiny, winged forms. They didn’t bother to look her way. She didn’t recognize them. There were many faeries that came and went in both the buildings on the grounds, and the population seemed to constantly change. From what she’d been told, this entire facility was the rough equivalent of a vacation palace, which might explain the dynamic population, and that might also explain why she hadn’t seen Kailen since her arrival.
I’m trapped in the world’s most twisted Disney movie. How the hell did this happen? I don’t even know how long I’ve been here. It feels like a few days, but time is already starting to blur together. Haven’t these damned faeries heard of a clock? It might help if they all stopped trying to avoid me like I’m going to give them the wolf flu. I should shift and bite a few to give them an actual reason to fear me.
Mina stepped toward vast double doors of frosted glass. She pushed them open and stepped outside. A dense copse of tall trees lined the edge of the field. Several patches of colorful flowers lay interspersed in the area. Some of them were normal, like anything she might see outside someone’s yard in Golden Oaks, but others were unnatural, including roses taller than her or the multi-hued blossoms that twirled at the touch of the wind. Sweet, almost intoxicating scents filled the air. She had to shake her head to draw her attention away from them.
A quiet scoff escaped Mina’s lips as she reflected on her own interpretations. What did it mean for something to be unnatural on a place like Esper? Her first trip to the magical realm involved a pixie pretending to be a giant housecat. Plenty of people on Earth would say being a shifter was unnatural. She couldn’t even say they were wrong.
The small forest of trees in the distance didn’t look odd, nor did any of the trees dotting the rolling hills surrounding the palace. Mina couldn’t identify every species on sight, but unlike the flowers, everything resembled normal Earth trees. Nothing was gargantuan, oddly colored, or moving inappropriately. The occasional bird with too many wings might rest on a branch, but the trees themselves were surprisingly normal, not that she was a forestry expert.
The trees probably all wake up every five years and eat everyone, for all I know. No way to tell. No way to know. The simplest thing on Esper can be filled with bizarre magic.
The faeries hadn’t made it exactly clear how far Mina was allowed to travel, but someone always managed to show up when she walked too far and gently redirected her back toward the palace. She could attack them, but then all she would have accomplished was making enemies of the Seelie and Unseelie.
Mina hadn’t bothered to shift since arriving. In the back of her mind, she felt like if she shifted and ran and still got caught, even if she didn’t harm any Seelie, it would squash what little hope remained. For now, she would treat her shifting as a not-so-secret weapon.
I need more information. I don’t even have something as simple as a damned map.
Mina wandered over to a bed of yellow flowers. She leaned down to inhale their fragrance and laughed. “I’m finally taking the time to stop and smell the flowers. Not that I didn’t do that all the time in the forest back home as a wolf, but now I’m here talking to myself.” She shook her head. “Fun times.”
What the hell am I even doing? Kailen isn’t here, so I’m running out the clock on the stupid seduction plan. It’s not like I want to participate in this plan or I even could. Is Ransetta insane? She thinks I’m going to seduce an immortal faerie king who blew her off.
As Mina understood the plan, Ransetta wanted the wolf to seduce Kailen. At the Hundred Years Ball, the Unseelie Queen would then request Mina as a gift, and by the actual rules of the ball, Kailen would either give the gift to Ransetta or marry her. The fact she couldn’t fathom bizarre faerie rules didn’t matter. Her life was on the line. Failure to seduce the king would mean her death.
Ha ha, good luck, bitch. Just because a couple of these dresses make my boobs look bigger doesn’t mean anything. I’m a wolf, not some faerie seductress.
Mina stood and snorted. Her other option was almost as hopeless. She would have to try and escape, while also figuring out a way to get the collar off. If she could tell anyone about what was going on, that might have been possible, but Ransetta’s thorough magical control meant Mina couldn’t get out a single word about the plan. It didn’t help that all the Seelie faeries were firm in their conviction that Mina couldn’t leave, at least not yet. As a precious gift prior to the Hundred Years Ball, they claimed ancient magic required the shifter to remain under their care for a while, but no one was very specific about how long that would be. She began to suspect they didn’t know.
“They are beautiful, aren’t they?” asked a soft, feminine voice from behind.
Mina spun to face the new arrival, the fabric of her dress rustling from the speed of the movement. An auburn-haired faerie woman with emerald-green eyes stood there, her loose dress a thin fabric drape. The kindness in her eyes was welcome. Mina hadn’t seen anything approaching it since Kaela, her initial faerie contact among the Seelie, had departed shortly after Mina’s meeting with Kailen. It was almost as if they purposefully sent away the one slice of warmth to harden her against them, as if Ransetta were still pulling the strings. Mina wouldn’t have been surprised.
“It’s not as impressive as some others kept in different parts of our king’s lands,” the faerie continued, “but this place has always been a place he comes for reflection and relaxation, rather than a place of true indulgence. After all, we’re not the Unseelie. We might give in to the occasional excess, but we don’t revel in them.”
“Not to be rude, but who are you?” Mina asked, wariness underlying her voice. “I don’t know you. Not that I’ve memorized everyone’s face here, and people keep coming in and out, but I think I would remember you.” She frowned. “Unless you normally fly around in tiny mode. It’s hard for me to recognize a faerie when they’re small. Sorry if that’s offensive.”
“Wylia,” the faerie said, her warm smile remaining. “I’m not a stranger to this place, but I’ve been away for some time, so you would have had no opportunity to see me either at my full height or in my winged form. I’m a friend of Kaela, and she told me about you, so I decided to seek you out when I arrived. She said you seemed like you needed someone to understand your situation.”
Mina managed not to scoff. “And you understand my situation? I’m sorry, but there’s no way that’s true. I don’t want to be here. This isn’t my land, and this isn’t even my world. I got screwed over by the Unseelie Queen, and the Seelie King was too busy preparing for your party to care before, and too busy even now.”
“It might be better to say I understand your frustration.” Wylia held up her hand. A golden ring rested in her palm. “And as you noted, you’re a victim of Ransetta. The Dark Queen has few fans among loyal servants of the king.”
“What’s the deal with the ring?” Mina eyed the ring with open suspicion. “Do I have to go throw this into Mount Doom?”
Wylia blinked. “Mount Doom? I don’t believe I know that place. Is it on Earth?”
“Forget about it. It’s a movie thing.” Mina shrugged. “And I’m guessing you’re not the type of faerie who watches a lot of Earth movies.”
Wylia gestured to the ring. “It has an enchantment that will help you resist faerie persuasion. I’m not claiming it can help you defeat all magic the Dark Queen might use, but at least it might help if, by some chance, her minions attempt to manipulate you.”
Mina laughed. “Isn’t that a fancy way of saying you don’t trust me?” She took a deep breath and tried to explain about Ransetta’s plan and spell, but the words wouldn’t come out. The ring was almost a mockery.
“I believe that you don’t want to cause trouble,” Wylia said. “But I also know you might not be in full control of your actions.” She raised her hand higher. “That doesn’t mean I don’t trust you, more that it’s good to take additional precautions.”
Mina took the ring and slipped it on her finger. She attempted to relate the truth again. “Ransetta…” she began. The words were there at the edge of her tongue, so close to going out. The ring helped, and she pushed harder, but the truth still refused to escape. “Ransetta is a bitch.”
Wylia laughed quietly. “That certainly is one way to describe her.” Her smile faded into something apologetic. “Although Kaela asked me to come, and I did, I have my responsibilities given to me.”
“Responsibilities? What are those?”
“I know you want to leave, and as soon as it’s possible, you can leave without threatening the Hundred Years Ball. We’ll do everything we can to make that happen, but before then, I want to ensure that you’re both comfortable and as satisfied as possible before then so your suffering is minimized as much as the danger is minimized to the magic underlying the gift.”
Mina grinned. “In other words, you’re here to make sure I don’t cause too much trouble until you all can get rid of me.”
Wylia looked uncomfortable. “I truly do want you to be as comfortable as possible. I understand that you’re a victim.”
“A minimum-security prison with a lot of privileges is still a prison.” Mina nodded toward the flowers. “Even if it has pretty flowers.”
Wylia averted her eyes. “I don’t know all of what happened when you were with the Unseelie, but things don’t have to be the same here. You can enjoy your time here. It can be a pleasant time if you’ll allow it.”
“I just can’t return home or talk to my friends and family, can I?” Mina tried to keep the plaintive quality out of her voice but failed.
“That’s not my decision,” Wylia replied. “There are dangers to the gift magic.”
Mina chuckled. “You seem nice, and you probably even believe everything you’re saying.” She held up the hand with the ring. “You even showed up with a present. And I get you’re way down the list of the people responsible for all of this crap, so I’m going to try and not be a horrid bitch toward you, but I can’t help it if a little snark comes out.”
Wylia blinked. “Are all shifters as blunt as you?”
“No, even they think I’m a bitch.”
The woman laughed.
No one here is going to help me. They have no reason to help me, especially since their lazy-ass king needs me here. Fine. I’ll just escape myself and figure this out. It can’t be all that long that I’m hanging out on Esper if I want to have any chance.
Dad couldn’t help with Anna because the timeframe was too short. If I hurry my ass back to Earth, we’ll have plenty of time to find the solution.
I can’t depend on anyone here but myself.
Linh looked over at Yuriko and nodded. The werefox deputy wasn’t in her police uniform, instead wearing boots, dark jeans, and a flannel shirt. It was an outfit more appropriate for her tiny small town than downtown Seattle, but it wasn’t like they were going to a club, and there wasn’t anyone else around in the small parking lot to stare at them. They were there for the first step in a potential rescue mission.
After Alice Cartwell called and delivered her message, Linh had arranged a meeting, which was impressive considering Alice was willing to come halfway across the country for it. That lent credence to the idea of Mina still being alive. Linh had considered going straight to the wolf king and Sean to tell them, but she decided to wait.
It would be cruel to give them hope before she was sure that Mina was alive. No matter how much Linh wanted to believe, that didn’t guarantee the message was anything but a cruel taunt. If Alice were lying, then she would learn that wolves weren’t the only shifters who could get violent.
This has to be true, Linh thought. There’s no way that Mina would get taken down by a few random wolves. Or is this just wishful thinking? I want to believe it so badly. I want my best friend back.
Linh and Yuriko both waited, their hands in their pockets, as a blue rental Mazda pulled into the parking lot. A short-haired dark-skinned woman sat in the driver’s seat, her eyes darting back and forth, her face lined with tension. A thin gray choker lay on her neck, mixing well her gray pantsuit.
A choker, huh? Too many coincidences. Even if this Alice refused to give details over the phone. It’s got to be that bitch Ransetta. Or is that the point? Linh thought. You want us to see it? You want us to know you’re probably involved with faeries?
“Thanks for agreeing to help me with this, Yuriko,” Linh said. “And thanks for agreeing to keep it to yourself. I know you could have gone right to the king and told him.”
“Mina’s a good wolf.” Yuriko frowned. “She actually cared about Unturned. That’s rarer than it should be among wolves.” She shook her head. “I can only hope that she’s still alive. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up. This might involve shifters, but this wouldn’t be the first time in my career that someone claimed to know about a missing person but were lying. Such people aren’t always doing it to be cruel or malicious, but it hurts all the same.”
“We’ll see.” Linh sighed. “That’s all we can do.”
The Mazda finished pulling into the parking spot right in front of the two women, the driver eyeing them both with suspicion.
Linh waved. She’d already sent Alice a picture of herself, and the woman had replied in kind. The driver of the vehicle matched the picture, not that magic couldn’t be used to fake an appearance.
For all I know this is a fae trap.
The driver rolled down the window and waited for the two other women to walk to the side of the car. “You’re Linh, right?” the driver asked.
Linh nodded slowly. “I am. And you’re Alice Cartwell?”
The driver nodded. “Yes.”
Linh glanced over to Yuriko. The other shifter nodded. It was handy having a living lie detector when she needed to make sure someone wasn’t trying to trick her.
“Who is she?” Alice asked. “You didn’t mention anything about someone else.” Her hands twitched.
Linh laughed. “Given what we’re about to talk about, it doesn’t hurt to be careful, don’t you think?” She nodded at Yuriko. “She’s a cop in the know about the stranger side of the world, by the way. So if you try anything stupid, you’ll regret it.”
Alice frowned. “I’m just here to help you as best I can. I figure it was safer to talk in some rental car than go out to some coffee shop. I mean, we can’t exactly talk about what I think we’re going to talk about in a Starbucks.”
Linh headed over to the front passenger-side door. Yuriko moved to the back door. Both opened their doors at the same time and slipped inside.
“Whatever you think you know about shifters,” Linh began, “you should know that both Yuriko and I can shift instantly. So we can tear out your throat before you could hope to try something. Understood?”
Alice took a deep, shuddering breath and slowly let it out. “Understood.”
Linh narrowed her eyes and did her best to inject menace into her tone. “By the way, we’ll know if you’re lying. If you lie at any point, we’re done here. Understood?”
Alice nodded again.
“Just a little test,” Linh said. “I need you to lie about something. Just do your age.”
Alice blinked. “Huh?”
“It’s a calibration thing.” Linh shrugged. She needed to be sure that Yuriko’s ability actually worked on the woman.
“My name is Alice Cartwell, and I’m sixteen years old.”
Yuriko nodded to Linh in the rearview mirror. They had control of the situation for now. It was time to proceed with the interrogation.
I hope this chick’s on your side, Mina.
Linh cleared her throat. “When you called me, I was happy to think Mina was still alive, and it made me think about what might have happened. If this involved other shifters, I don’t think you would have needed to be so cryptic, but the fact that you’ve got your little choker deal going on with an otherwise professional outfit reminds me a lot of something I saw on Mina. Is that choker around your neck a faerie mind-control thing?”
“I don’t like chokers or collars,” Alice said.
Linh frowned and spared a quick glance at Yuriko.
“It’s true,” the werefox replied with a shrug. “I’ll let you know if she’s lying at all. It’ll be more efficient that way.”
Linh swung her head back toward Alice. “Do you work for Ransetta?”
Alice opened her mouth. She frowned and closed it after a few seconds. “I’m a college student, but werewolves are interesting.”
“What the hell?” Linh blinked. “Okay, so you know about Mina, but that’s not what I’m asking about, and I already knew that anyway, given your phone message.” Her breath caught. When Anna had been under Ransetta’s control, she retained varying levels of free will depending on the situation, but she wasn’t able to directly talk about what was going on. “Okay, what do you think about ravens?”
“Ravens are cool,” Alice said. “I’ve got nothing against shifters. I didn’t know about shifters until recently, though. Not exactly an expert.”
“You can’t talk about faeries, can you? Ransetta’s got control over you.” Linh blew out a breath. “Have any ideas, Yuriko? I think Ransetta’s stupid magic is making this a harder conversation than I thought.” She gritted her teeth.
So it’s not just battle plans that don’t survive contact with the enemy but interrogation schemes?
Yuriko shrugged. “I can tell you if she’s lying or not, but I don’t know anything about how to beat faerie magic. I’ve never dealt with faeries before. If any have come into my county or town, they did it without me noticing.”
Linh sighed and leaned back against her seat. “Great. We’ve got a willing witness, but short of her trying to go crazy like Anna did, she probably has no ability to directly tell us what’s going on. Wonderful. Perfect. Best lead ever.” She threw up her hands in disgust.
Alice sighed. “I’m sorry. I want to help. I really do.”
“Whatever they’re doing with you seems less like direct control than we saw with a friend of mine.” Linh took a deep breath. “Which means we can beat it somehow. We just have to think smarter about this.”
Yuriko snorted. “You’re going to outthink the Unseelie Queen? Good luck.”
“Sure. It’ll be easy.” Linh winked. “She’s already underestimating me.”
Alice stared at Linh like she’d shifted into an octopus. She opened her mouth again but closed it in silence, disappointment on her face.
“You two are thinking about this the wrong way,” Linh said. “You’re all thinking of Ransetta as some ancient, powerful super-faerie, and that’s true, and that’s why she’s vulnerable.”
“How does that follow?” Yuriko asked.
Linh pointed at Alice. “The fact she’s here already proves Ransetta’s magic isn’t absolute. She makes mistakes because of her arrogance. That means we have an opportunity to beat her spell by exploiting that arrogance.” She snapped her fingers. “I’ve got an idea. I’m going to ask you a series of questions. If the answer is no, Alice, you should nod. Otherwise, don’t say anything. It’s all indirect. I’m betting a lot of this faerie magic is more about making you do certain things than actively lying. Otherwise, it’d fall apart too quickly. The nodding goes against your natural tendencies, so we might be able to short-circuit this a little if we’re clever about it.”
Alice’s breath caught. “You’re serious? You actually think it will work?”
“It might work. It’s not like you’ll self-destruct if it doesn’t. You’ll just not say anything.”
Yuriko chuckled. “Huh. It’s worth a shot.”
“Mina should love my genius.” Linh rubbed her hands together. “This will definitely work. Screw Ransetta. That bitch isn’t all that. She needs to learn to fear the power of Linh Nguyen.” She smiled at Alice. “Remember, nod if the answer is no. Is your name Mina?”
“To the best of your knowledge, is Mina a prisoner of the faeries?”
Alice remained rigid as a statue.
Linh’s heart kicked up. “To the best of your knowledge, is Mina alive?”
Alice didn’t move.
“If we went to Esper, could you lead us to her?”
Linh took a deep breath and looked over at Yuriko.
“She hasn’t lied,” the other woman said. “Or if she has, it’s not been conscious.”
Linh let out her breath. “So Mina is alive.” She blinked a few times, tears welling up in her eyes. “I wanted to believe, but I had to be sure.” She smiled at Alice and dabbed her eyes. “Thank you for all this, but I’ve got another favor for you.”
“What?” Alice asked.
“Go back home and stay the hell out of this.” Linh furrowed her brow. “You did your part by smuggling the message to us, but Ransetta will kill you without a second thought if she figures out you’re helping us. The best thing for you now is to stay away from all of this as much as you can. Now that we know the truth, we can get some reinforcements. Big-ass wolves with sharp teeth and that kind of thing.”
Alice sighed and nodded.
“We’ll get Mina back or smuggle her an anti-faerie bomb or something.” Linh grinned. “And when she gets free, we’ll let you know.” She pointed at Alice’s choker. “And we’ll then figure out how to get you out of that thing.”