I made a low growling sound. "This is insane."
"Fun," Maeve said, her nose wrinkling, "isn't it?"
I eyed both of them. "What are you holding back from me?"
Lily twitched again, and looked displeased at the question. "No one must realize that you know of the contagion," she said. "You cannot know which of your allies or associates it has already taken. If you demonstrate awareness, anyone infected will either remove you or infect you."
"Anything else?" I asked her.
"I will speak to Fix," Lily said. "Otherwise, no."
I nodded at her. Then I eyed Maeve. "What about you? Holding anything back?"
"I want to take you to my bower, wizard," Maeve said, and licked her lips. "I want to do things to you that give you such pleasure your brain bleeds."
"Uh," I said.
Her foxlike smile sharpened. "Also," she said, "my people are about to attempt to kill you."
Lily's eyes snapped toward Maeve, widening.
"I promised him nothing," Maeve said with a sniff. "And there are appearances to keep up, after all. I am certain my mother has eyes watching his every move. He can hardly meet peaceably with me without making her suspicious."
"Ah," Lily said, nodding. "Oh, dear."
Maeve leaned toward me, taking a confidential tone. "They don't know of the contagion either, wizard. So their attempts will be quite sincere. I advise you to resist. Strenuously."
Seven figures stepped around a corner of the garden on the far side of the bridge and began striding purposefully toward our little gathering. Sidhe. The Redcap strode along in the center.
"Hell's bells," I snarled, taking an involuntary step back. "Right here? Now? You could have given me a couple of minutes to get clear, dammit."
"And what fun would that be?" Maeve asked, pushing out her lower lip in a pout. "I am who I am, too. I love violence. I love treachery. I love your pain-and the best part, the part I love most, is that I am doing it for your own good." Her eyes gleamed white all the way around her irises. "This is me being one of the good guys."
"I'm so sorry, Harry," Lily said. "I didn't want this. I think you should go. . . ." She turned aside to Maeve. "So that the Winter Lady can introduce me to her vassals. This is the first time we've met."
Maeve blinked, and her expression darkened into a scowl. "Oh. Oh, you prissy bint."
Lily said, with utmost sincerity, "I regret that this inconveniences your enjoyment, Lady, but protocol is quite clear."
Maeve stomped one foot on the bridge, scowled at me, and then seized Lily by the wrist. She started dragging the Summer Lady toward her oncoming entourage.
Lily gave me a quick wink, the expression as pleasant as the warmth from a cup of hot chocolate, and I started backing off. Once I was off the bridge, I turned and began to run. There was no telling how long Lily's tactic would stall the Redcap and his buddies, and I wanted to be in the truck and gone before introductions were made.
That plan was going pretty well, right up until I passed a huge wall of thick evergreen plants of some kind. Then something small and blurry shot out of the brush about half a step ahead of me. I got a flash impression of Captain Hook in his miniature armor, trailing some kind of heavy cord, and then my feet were tangled in it and down I went.
I tried to be cool and roll into the fall and come back up on my feet, but that works a lot better when you don't have one of your legs abruptly jerked out from beneath you. So mostly I hit the ground in a clumsy sprawl, then slid several feet forward on the damp concrete with my weight on my chest and my cheek.
I got back onto my feet, moving as fast as I could. I didn't feel like getting stabbed with more of those steel nails, and my eyes went up to the open sky, scanning quickly for any incoming hostile Little Folk as I got moving again.
So I wasn't as ready as I should have been when a man in biker leathers emerged from the brush at my side and slammed a baseball bat into the base of my skull. My legs turned to jelly and I went down hard, landing on my chin.
I sort of flopped over onto my back, dazed, lifting my hands in a vague and useless defensive gesture. I took the tip of a motorcycle boot directly to the testicles, and my whole world went bright with confusion and pain.
"Yeah," snarled the man. He was of medium height, and had curly dark hair and a short goatee. "That's right, bitch. Who's crawling on the ground now?"
Asking the question seemed to infuriate him. He slammed a kick into my ribs, then another right into the breadbasket, and I curled around myself gasping.
I had to move. The Redcap was coming. I hadn't made any noise to tip Thomas off that I was in trouble-but even as heavily boosted as I was, it wasn't enough to instantly overcome the stunning pain of those blows. Shots like that mess around with your nervous system, disrupting the machinery that sends signals around your body. I wasn't going anywhere for a few more seconds.
"Nail him," the man spat, and those frozen spikes of raw agony I'd felt before blossomed into my body from my right arm, my left calf, and somewhere in my lower back. I heard the buzz of little wings as my attackers zipped past me, driving nails in like harpoons into a floundering whale. It hurt so much that I could barely open my eyes and look up at my attacker.
I recognized him.
Ace, a changeling, one of his parents mortal, the other fae. He was the onetime victim of Lloyd Slate, the onetime betrayer of Fix and Lily and a girl named Meryl. He stared down at me with hate-filled eyes and bounced an aluminum baseball bat a few times in his hand. "I've been waiting years for this."
And then he started clubbing me over the head.
Taking a beating well is not for amateurs.
You have to get started early, maybe by getting beaten up a lot as a child in school. Then you refine your raw talent by taking more beatings as you get older. Generally, you can seek out almost any crew of athletic types, and you'll find several willing to oblige you, under one guise or another. True craftsmen then seek out gifted individuals with a particular skill set to deliver the most skilled and professional beatings.
That's how you learn to fight, really. You take beatings, and you get tougher, and if you don't start avoiding all the fights, you continue taking beatings until you learn how it's done. Or they kill you.
Some guys are born lucky, with mad natural fighting skills, and they hardly ever take a beating-but that's never been me. I've had to learn the hard way.