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In Sunlight and In Shadow

Less Than Three Press LLC

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 13,000
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Mobi

Bet is sworn to the service of the Last Court, a secret magical society that exists in the shadows of modern New York City—and her heart belongs to the Grand Sorceress. But her attempts to court Vivienne end in disaster, and disillusionment drives her from the Last Court.

The Court, however, isn't done with Bet.

Excerpt

The Lady Ysabet of the Sword had spent most of May and half of June hunting a manticore through the West Village and Soho, down to Tribeca. She’d gotten close enough to smell it several times. That had been her undoing. Manticores did not speak any of the languages of man, but they were as clever as any of the monsters of the depths, saving only the dragons.

At long last, she caught the heavy musk of the manticore on a homeless man near the pedestrian overpass on Varrick Street and had closed in for the kill. Ysabet was sure that what looked like a man lying under a filthy sleeping bag was the manticore crouched in a pit that it had dug, with a sleeping bag over its bulk, waiting for the right time to rise suddenly and feast upon a passerby.

Ysabet wore a scarf woven of shadows, so no one saw her as she approached her prey, sword light and bright in her hand, the virtue of the scarf pulling armor around her as she strode forward. The man, or the monster, was lying beyond the shadows of the overpass, and she came up behind him through those shadows.

Three quick steps, sword ready to strike. Ysabet saw the dead eyes in the face she had taken for the manticore’s, but it was too late—as she turned, the manticore was already striking from its hiding place beneath the overpass. She turned, too late, too slow. The manticore was half in shadow, half beyond it, its fur fire-red in the sunlight, clotted blood in the shadow, its human face placid, its lion’s body tensed for the kill.

Ysabet’s shield rose up, but the manticore was already striking, its paw hitting hard, pulling her shield down, the sting of its tail finding the gap between rerebrace and couter.

The sting burned like a white-hot nail driven into her arm, but Ysabet countered with Glad Tidings, her sword striking at the manticore, a glancing blow that cut both human face and lion’s mane. The manticore roared, tail rising up again, and Ysabet was forced to step back, her shield fading into ether, her arm no longer able to bear its weight.

If the manticore struck, she would strike back, slaying and being slain at once. It didn’t; it shook its head, spraying blood across the pavement. Then it turned and left, down toward the depths of the Holland Tunnel. Ysabet didn’t have the strength to follow.

What Ysabet had thought was the manticore was nothing more than bait. A head, taken from some victim she hadn’t saved, discarded clothing, crumpled newspapers, all fouled with the manticore’s stench. There was nothing she could do for him, and the manticore’s poison was pulsing through her arm.

A manticore’s sting was more potent than Ysabet’s charms against poison. That cut had wounded the monster, but if she didn’t get help soon, she would die. She turned and headed for the Last Court, holding her arm to her side as her armor faded and the shadows that sheltered her withdrew. People could see her now.

As she made her way down into the Canal Street station, Ysabet tried to keep her vision from swimming in and out of focus. It shouldn’t have happened—she was the Lady Ysabet of the Sword, sworn to the Pendragon of the Last Court to protect the innocent and to face down the monsters that haunted the shadows. She had three times bested Septimus Alabaster, Master-at-Arms of the Court, in single combat with the lance, with the sword and with the great-axe. She wore the favor of the Court’s Grand Sorceress, the Lady Vivienne. Or had worn. The wild rose from Vivienne’s hair had fallen in the fight with the manticore, left behind with the remains of the man who Ysabet had not saved.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs above her, and Ysabet pushed herself away from the wall and braced herself to run, but they weren’t after her. A group of college-aged girls swept by, chatting. A man in a button-down shirt and sharp haircut shouldered his way past without looking up from his phone. A train pulled up to the platform, and Ysabet could have gotten on it, lost herself in the crowd…

But Ysabet was still far from the Last Court, and its enemies were many, from the will-o’-wisps that flitted along the tracks to the great dragon Asag, who lurked in the farthest tunnels, and whose very name was a terror. A knight alone, unarmored, would be known by the tokens she wore, and would be brought down by a dagger in the back or a spell from the shadows. In years gone by, perhaps the ways were safe enough that they could ride the trains, but for now, it was best to avoid the populated ways below the ground. Ysabet ducked into a maintenance tunnel, wound her scarf around her neck once more, felt her armor settle heavily onto her shoulders and hips, and began the long walk to Court.

It was hours later, her armor weighing on her until every muscle protested, the pain from the manticore’s sting spiderwebbing its way up her arm and toward her heart, that Ysabet ducked her head to avoid an overhanging pipe and trailing wires and stepped into the grand hall of the Last Court.

“The Lady Ysabet of the Sword,” the herald boomed out.

The lords and ladies of the Last Court—the knights and sages, the conjurors and bright-eyed young pages—scarcely seemed to hear. A feast was in full swing, and the pages scurried between the tables with platters of roasted boar and peahen, refilling golden goblets from jugs of wine they carried on their shoulders. In the minstrels’ gallery, a sloe-eyed young man played the harp, gilding the laughter and conversations of the people below with music. The only ones who turned to look at Ysabet were those she jostled as she made her way up to the high table and fell to one knee, bowing her head over the hilt of her sword, at the foot of the dais where the Pendragon sat with the Midnight Queen at his left hand.