Having experienced a series of strange events, young school teacher Michelle Licciardi finds herself following a very handsome version of a white rabbit through a looking glass into the realm of the Fae. Despite the warnings of a knight who has lost his soul, she insists on pushing deeper into the lands of Fae to discover if what she is experiencing is hallucination or design.
Michelle stepped out into Times Square in stained glass. She gaped openmouthed at the contradiction of big, bustling city seen through what could only be described as a filter of Fae influence. People pushed past in a hurry or loitered in doorways and on corners, completely absorbed in their own business. Shadowed underneath towering skyscrapers, the streets were thronged with traffic. And yet... the buildings were all gothic and ornate, with elaborate blind arcades, pinnacles with bizarre crockets projecting from them, and gargoyles and other sculptures that ranged from the hideous to the sublime. The windows were mostly stained glass that leant the towering buildings a carnival air. Advertisements and signs ranged from ornately carved and painted wooden shingles to huge silken tapestries billowing down multiple stories and flapping gently in the wind. Dancing phosphorescent lights like will-o'-the-wisps took the place of neon lights.
No automobiles, but carriages and wagons of every size and shape, some lavishly painted with ornate woodwork, some crude, some as large as a garbage truck, hauled by teams of troll-like slaves, some tiny as rickshaws, pulled by a child. Bicycles, too, from wizened old women on three wheeled models with large baskets fore and aft to splendid looking gentlemen on precariously tall high wheel bicycles. And of course there were horses of every type imaginable, gorgeous white chargers with flowing manes and tails that could have marched with stately dignity out of a story book, evil looking black beasts with red eyes and smoke trailing out of their nostrils, common cart horses, shaggy ponies.
And the people! Young and old, peasants and princes, human and inhuman. A little girl skipped merrily by, her hand held by a shambling beast of cruel and hideous visage. A lady of unparalleled loveliness rode past on a curtained platform borne by four strapping men, naked to the waist but for ornately decorated skin. A pack of goblin-like creatures not three feet tall billowed past Michelle's legs, scrabbling and bickering over the cobblestones. A woman in high heels, a business suit and cat's eye eyeglasses, carrying a briefcase, marched smartly in the other direction.
A firm hand on her elbow and a strong arm around her waist guided her out of the throng and into a deep entryway where her senses would not be so assaulted. "You got lost in traffic." As usual, no real smile seemed able to survive the austere environment of DeSorcy's face, but he seemed amused by her discomfiture nonetheless. "I believe, if I am interpreting the vacant look on your face correctly, that you are surprised at what you see. Perhaps because you assume that a timeless realm would be frozen in medieval splendor and are therefore confused by more modern devices and styles?"
She bit her lip, still a little too astonished to get properly annoyed at her reluctant guide. "Well... yeah."
A humorless version of a smile twisted his mouth. "What makes you think the Sidhe stopped taking mortal playthings with fall of feudalism?"
"Oh. Er. You know about that, then."
Again he seemed tempted to laugh for a moment. Instead he responded dryly with a, "yes. I heard." Touching her arm lightly, he leaned out and then pointed down the crowded street to a monumental glowing building at the end. "That's a museum. Books sometimes come in with mortals or are stolen by the Fae and donated there when their owners tire of them or wish to curry some favor. I'm sure it's an eclectic collection and not a very good representation of how the world has progressed, but I've read a great deal over the years."
"No kidding." She was glad for his hand on her arm, grounding her amongst the bewildering sights. Her brain was coping because she had expected something like this, but she was still very close to being overwhelmed. "What kind of authors have you read?"
"Aristotle. Herodotus. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Thorne Smith. Salman Rushdie. Carolyn Keene. Stephen King. Tom Clancy..."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute," she interrupted, holding her hands up. "Carolyn Keene? As in... the Nancy Drew mysteries?" The tightlipped, faintly insulted stare was the only confirmation she needed. Patiently, DeSorcy held onto her arm to keep her from falling over as she burst out laughing.
"I fear a student of modern history does not have a great deal of choice in reading material." He looked offended.
"I'm sorry, I..." she burst out laughing again at the image of the bold knight turned sex toy avidly following the adventures of Nancy Drew and her pals. He waited while she buried her face against his arm to muffle her shrieks. When she bit down hard on her lip to stop the last of the giggles and ventured a peek at him to see how angry he was, DeSorcy was watching her with a wry expression of disgusted resignation. "Ah, you're a good sport, Ned. I mean Ed," she said and then dissolved into laughter again.
"Are you quite through?"
"I..." she paused to stifle a giggle again. "Yes."
"Very much, thank you."
"I'm so glad." Giving her a moment to wipe at her eyes, he looked out at the bustle of the street and then back to her. His tone was not unkind when he asked, "Have you seen enough, lady?"
That brought a measure of solemnity back to her. "No, Mr. DeSorcy, I'm afraid I haven't. Will you show me a bit more of the city?"
"If you are determined to see it." He did not take his arm back as he led her out onto the street again, and Michelle did not refuse the gesture. Most of the mortals she saw here were clearly with someone or something else. She had a feeling it might be all too easy to wind up as something's property.
"Do any mortals ever come here... unattached?"
He slid her a sideways look as if to say that was one of his reasons for concern. "No. Or if they do, it's not for long."
"How do they keep track of who belongs to who?"
"Magic, of course."
"Do mortals ever get... stolen?"
"Yes. If a more powerful Fae covets a mortal plaything that belongs to a lesser Fae, a human can find him or herself with a new master."
"Or mistress," he agreed with a dark look.
Using his arm to steady herself, Michelle was able to devote her full attention to looking about. So varied were the inhabitants that she really didn't feel out of place in a tank top and drawstring pants. There was something out here that was important, she knew it the way she had known she should pay her bills early so that she wouldn't be missed. They had not traveled far down the street when she spied steps leading down into a recessed stone doorway, much like the one they had exited to get here. The building above this one looked abandoned, windows gaping glasslessly like missing teeth in a skull. No one loitered near it, and traffic moved quickly by.
"What's that place?"
DeSorcy frowned at her. "The Sidhe Fae have no real knowledge of right or wrong and are therefore neither good nor evil. But there are things of this realm that know hate and are close enough to evil to please any but a canon lawyer."
"Canon lawyer. The canons of the Church...? Never mind. We're not going near there."
Switching so that he walked between her and the doorway, DeSorcy wrapped a protective arm around her and hurried her past. It was... very nice. She really couldn't blame whatever Fae mistress had taken this man as an amusement. If he did not seem so pained over his compromised virtue, she had to admit she would have liked to see if he would have been interested in being compromised a little more. That unproductive chain of thought was broken, however, when she leaned backwards to peer around DeSorcy's admirable shoulders to look into the mouth of the forbidden doorway as they passed.
COME TO ME.
Michelle stopped cold, stunned by the imperative. DeSorcy had spun and put both hands on her arms, leaning in so his face was close to hers. "Lady Licciardi, this is not a safe place. Things that dwell in places like that have a very particular hate for creatures with souls."
With some effort, she tore her eyes away from the dank, weeping stones of the doorway. "I'm sorry, Mr. DeSorcy," she said with sincerity. Any way she looked at it, this was going to be an imposition. "But I'm afraid that what I'm looking for seems to be down there. I think I can find my way back by myself if you don't want to come."
"You are certain?"
"I wouldn't ask if I wasn't."
He studied her face gravely for a moment. "Very well. Wait here for a moment." He indicated a spot against the wall and walked down the cobblestones a short way to where a man in multicolored silks was juggling flaming torches. He came back with a lit torch and spares. Handing her the burning torch, he gave her one last questioning look, then proceeded down the steps. He had to put his shoulder to the door several times to get it to open. Michelle glanced back up the steps to see how much attention they were attracting. Several child-like creatures with gossamer wings had gasped and fluttered away when they saw what DeSorcy was attempting. The door gave way with a groan and a rush of stale air. Glancing over his shoulder to see if she was ready, he took the torch from Michelle and lit a second one to pass to her, then entered.
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