Instead of what they’d been granted. Which had been too short, and too tragic.

What if this was the fate he had asked for being delivered unto him? What if… this was the only way it could happen, the only manner in which his prayers could be answered?

The reunion with his queen granted.

But only him knowing it.

“I’ll take it,” he said out loud as he clicked his phone off. “I will fucking take this shit a hundred times during the week, and a thousand times on every Sunday.”


The following evening, Trez all but skipped down the formal front staircase of the Brotherhood’s mansion. As he descended the red-carpeted, tsar-worthy steps, he was glad no one was hanging around down in the multicolored, marble-columned foyer: Even though he was whistling, very nearly skipping, and liable to high-five anyone in range, he didn’t want anybody to catch him in his good mood.

In fact, his body was bouncy and buoyant, a buoy on gentle seas, and his feet were all Fred Astaire, light and nimble. Then again, the incredible weight that had been sitting on his rib cage like an elephant had disappeared. In its absence, he could breathe for the first time since Selena’s death—and hey, another bonus, his heart wasn’t bleeding out in his chest anymore, either.

And it was funny. Even though he’d been so very aware of how badly off he’d been—because, hello, he’d been in so much pain, he’d had no choice but to recognize the major-organ-failure equivalent of his damage—he nonetheless had a fresh perspective on his mental and emotional states.

Not until the removal of the pain had he understood the depths of it.

Plus, check it, he was actually looking forward to something.


Was this what Rehv had been talking about when the guy had come and pressed the drug thing? Because if a person could get this effect by popping a pill every twenty-four hours? Man, sign his shit up. He just didn’t think it was that simple.

No, this optimism, this return to a normalcy he had never really had, was both complicated and simple. Soon, he was going to see his shellan, in the form she had been returned to him as. And what do you know, that solved so many of his problems—and the ones it created? Well, he’d spent all day lying in bed and thinking them over.

Yup, he was more than comfortable managing them.

As he hit the mosaic floor, he stopped and looked toward the cheerful sounds spilling out through the dining room’s archway. There was laughter and chatter, and the soft clinking of sterling silver on porcelain, and the occasional scrape of chair legs as someone got up or sat down. He could picture the people in there. See their faces, their smiles, their bodies in those hand-carved seats. Thirty of them, including the servants.

He had been avoiding mealtimes, not because he didn’t like who was in that grand room, but because he loved the people in there. And it was hard, when you were in a dark place, to be around those who were not. You didn’t want to bring anybody down, but you also couldn’t fake the happiness.

With his change in mood, he was tempted to go into the dining room, hug each and every one of them, and then plant himself at a vacant place setting. As he tucked into the roast beef he could smell, he would apologize for putting them all through what he had—because he knew the Brothers and their shellans, the other fighters, even Fritz and his staff, had worried about him. And then he would join the talking and the laughing.

Except… no. He couldn’t do that. This resurrected mood—natch—he was sporting was like getting rhinoplasty. Everybody was going to notice, and there was no not-explaining, not to the nearest-and-dearest crew.

It was better that he made a gradual reentry.

Yes, that was how this had to go. Especially as he started bringing Selena in her new incarnation around the Brothers. Thank God at least Xhex knew what was doing and could help frame the hellos.

Taking a deep breath, he headed for the door into the vestibule, and reminded himself that him knowing the truth was enough. Reality didn’t become more real just because he drew others in it—there wasn’t some kind of occupancy requirement to yup-this-is-happening. Besides, if anybody challenged his good news? He was liable to get defensive in a forty-millimeter kind of way—

Trez was just about to open the vestibule’s first door when something in the billiards room caught his eye.

Behind the lineup of pool tables, down on the floor, a couple dozen pages were laid out in a fan. There had to be at least twenty or so, and they were marked with splashes of bright red and green. Breathing in, he smelled paint, but not the stinky oil kind. It was sweet and—

“Bitty?” he said.

The little young, who was stretched out on her tummy and surrounded by open containers of tempera paint, looked up and smiled. “Hi, Uncle Trez.”

Walking over to Rhage and Mary’s daughter, he got down on his haunches. “Wow. This is some kind of work.”

“I’m doing Christmas cards for everybody.” She rinsed her paintbrush in a glass full of murky water. “It’s a human tradition.”

“So I’ve heard.”

As he inspected her work, he thought of her hard start in life. She had lost so much, been hurt so badly. But now she was on the far side of that, having been adopted by a father and mahmen who loved her like nothing else. She had a good ending, and it was nice to feel like he was with her in that.

Her lovely soft face became very serious. “My mom and Auntie Beth told me all about how humans do it. You get cards for the people you love this time of year and then everyone puts them on their mantelpiece so they can look at them every night. I saved up my babysitting money, and I went to Hannaford’s with my dad, but none of the cards for sale really fit any of us.”

Trez smiled. “Well, vampires and all. Some things don’t translate as well. But I know I would rather get a handmade card from you than a store-bought one.” He put his palm up. “Not that I’m taking for granted that I’m on your list.”

“But you are, Uncle Trez. Of course you are.” Except then her eyes grew sad. “I mean, both of you are.”

“iAm?” Trez nodded. “You know, it’s more efficient to give us both one—”

“No. He gets a separate one.” She hesitated. Then she sat up and leaned across her masterpieces. Picking one up, she offered it to him. “Here, this is for you. I’m sorry if it’s… not good.”

Without even looking at the artwork, Trez frowned and put his hand on her tiny shoulder. “Bitty. How can I not love what you’ve made me?”

She just indicated the card, so he focused on it.

As he went to take what she had made for him, his hand started to shake ever so slightly. The 8½-by-11 sheet was split in two, clearly with the intention that it was to be folded in half down the middle. Turning it around, he blinked hard. There was a pair of figures depicted, and they were holding hands, a gold star above where they were linked. On the right, the larger of the pair had dark skin, super-short hair, a green sweater, and red pants. On the left, the smaller of the pair was wearing a red blouse and a green skirt, and had long, dark hair. But instead of being flesh-colored, the arms and legs and face of the female were silver.

“I wanted Selena to be on your card.” Bitty reached across her collection and pulled another page over. “So I made her like I made my mahmen. See? And my younger brother. They are all silver because they are not here on earth, but they are still with us.”

Trez took the card she had made for her mahmen. There was a figure like the one that represented Selena, silver-skinned with a red-and-green dress, and in her arms, in a little red-and-green swaddling blanket, was a silver-faced young. Next to the pair, depicted with flesh-colored skin, was how Bitty saw herself, slim and in red pants and a green shirt. Bitty was not smiling, but she was holding her mahmen’s hand.

“I have another card, though.” Bitty brought a third sheet over. “I have this one, too.”

On the third one, there were three figures in the foreground, a huuuuge blond-haired one in black clothes with a red-and-green scarf, a small one that had short brown hair and green pants and a red shirt, and then the same depiction of Bitty that was on her mahmen’s card.

In this card, Bitty was smiling. Everyone was smiling.

Rhage was standing with his big arms over Mary’s and Bitty’s shoulders, and the two females were holding hands across his torso. Over their heads, there was another gold star, as well as two silver figures in white robes, their arms outstretched, smiles on their faces, trails from their flying done in sparkles that fell like snow from the sky to form the ground line the little family was standing on.

“That’s my mahmen and my brother,” the girl pointed out. “Up above.”

“Watching from the Fade.” He looked at Bitty. “I think these are all really beautiful.”

Bitty took the two cards she had done for herself back and tested the paint gently with her fingertip.

“It’s dry.” She carefully folded the piece of paper down the center. “See, this is how they are supposed to look.”

She repeated the bend-and-flatten routine with the other, and then lined the pair up. Sitting back on her heels, she frowned.

“I don’t know whether I should have done one for Mahmen and Charlie separately.” She glanced over. “I was to have a brother, you see. He came to me in a dream. So I know he’d have been a boy if he lived, and he didn’t have a name, so I gave him Charlie. At least in my own head.”

Bitty touched both cards, linking them as the figures were linked by hands and arms. “It felt wrong not to do a card for them. But it was a sad card. Then…” She pointed to the other. “Then I did this one, and I realized I could fit us all in. And this is a happy card, even if they’re not with us. Because they’re with us.”

Grave thirteen-year-old eyes locked on his own. “When I went to do your card, I thought maybe I would put Selena up over you, but… I just felt like she was on the same line. Next to you.”