Juliet pulled herself out of the Ottawa River, muttering curses under her breath and spitting to get the taste of metallic river water out of her mouth. She scrambled up the steep embankment, using stunted trees to help her balance, and turned at the top to make sure nothing had followed her out. When Mags had sent her to banish a mischievous Nixie—claiming she was still too weak to go out on the water, especially with her partner in bed with his own nasty version of the flu—she’d expected it to be a quick job. She hadn’t expected to be dragged underwater, where she’d had to work a banishing spell very quickly before the Nixie managed to drown her. The muscles in her arms were still trembling, and she could feel the start of a headache behind her right eye.
She sat down on a convenient patch of grass and swiped her wet hair out of her eyes, glad she’d left her cell phone with Mags. Her shirt was a write-off—the Nixie had torn the neck loose before Juliet had managed to shove it back through to where it belonged—but at least this time she hadn’t torn her pants. It was some small comfort when she was getting more and more homesick with every day that passed, and with each problem that popped up to delay her getting home.
When she’d caught her breath and dried off a little in the warm summer sun, she picked herself up and headed for her car, parked on the side of the road. Fishing her keys out of her pocket, she unlocked the door and found a towel to put on the driver’s seat before climbing in. Exhaustion swept over her as she sat down and she sincerely hoped she wasn’t getting the flu that had taken out almost everyone in the Ottawa Magia in the past week.
“Though maybe then they’d actually let me go home,” she muttered, shoving the key into the ignition and turning the engine on. She pulled out without bothering to check for traffic and turned the car’s nose towards Mags’s apartment, hoping that this time nothing else would have come up.
“You know I love you, right?” Mags said when she walked through the front door.
Juliet stopped in the doorway. “Oh fuck me, what now?”
“One last job, I swear to you.”
“You said that last time. Your Nixie almost drowned me, by the way.”
“This time I promise. Guelph’s put in a complaint that you’ve been away so long, so we really can’t keep you for more than this one job.”
“All right, what is it, and can I at least put on some dry underwear first?”
“Yeah, go change. Nobody wants to deal with you when you have a chafed ass.” Mags blew her a kiss.
Juliet flipped her the finger then continued through the apartment to the bathroom to have a hot shower. When she was finished washing the smell of river water and Nixie off her skin, she dried off and changed into dry jeans and a T-shirt, then went back to the kitchen, where Mags handed her a sealed envelope and a fresh mug of hot coffee.
“Am I delivering this?” Juliet asked after glancing at the name, address, and what looked like a room or apartment number on the front of the envelope. “I know Canada Post sucks, but I didn’t think it had gotten this bad.”
“Let’s just say this needs the personal touch. He’ll only let a Magia agent in, and I don’t think anyone would appreciate it if that agent ended up puking on his shoes.”
“What am I dealing with here?”
“Uh, a very, very old Fae lord.”
“There are faeries in the city?” Juliet waved the envelope. “Are you out of your mind? They’re giant dicks.”
“While that’s a hell of a mental image, this one just wants to live quietly. He came here asking for asylum.”
“You know, I’m all for immigration, but from other countries, not from other worlds.” Juliet glared at the envelope for a moment. “All right, fine. But this is the last thing I do. Then I’m going the hell home before my boyfriend forgets who I am.”
Mags blew her a kiss. “Yes, ma’am. I really do appreciate you coming, Jules. I’m sorry we’ve kept you so long.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just hurry up and feel better.” Juliet took her phone from the kitchen counter and shoved it into the hip pocket on her jeans. “I’d kiss you goodbye, but you’re still gross.” She lifted a hand instead and went back outside, sitting in her car for a few moments to try and get the GPS to understand where she wanted to go.
It led her eventually to the Lord Elgin Hotel on Elgin Street. She parked across the street and got out of her car, checking the front of the envelope again and rolling her eyes when she saw it was addressed to a Mr. Goodfellow. She went into the front lobby and took the elevator up to the suite marked on the envelope, bracing herself to be polite as she knocked on the door.
She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting to open the door, but it wasn’t an old man with a shock of white hair and a stooped back. She blinked, then hesitantly asked, “Mr. Goodfellow? I’m Jules. I’m a Magia agent.”
He squinted up at her, then shuffled back, gesturing for her to come in. Reminding herself that people knew where she was, she walked into the room, trying not to tense when she heard the door close behind her. She turned, ready to hand over the letter, and recoiled when she found herself face-to-face with a tall, willowy man with long hair almost as green as her own and eyes so dark she could barely see the difference between pupil and iris.
“We almost match.” He reached out to twist a curl of her hair around his overly long fingers.
“Mine’s dyed. And I didn’t give you permission to touch me.” She moved away from him and held out the envelope.
“I forget how touchy mortals are,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“Just take the envelope so I can go home.” Juliet waved it at him, making the paper rustle.
“Did they not tell you?” He gestured to the elegant tea set—white bone china, painted with tiny blue flowers—on the low wooden table in front of the living room’s loveseat and a pair of matching armchairs. “I do expect my messengers to indulge in some courtesy with me. Sit, mage.” He flashed sharp white teeth in a smile that reminded her uncomfortably of a barracuda. “Please.”
Gritting her teeth, Juliet took one of the armchairs, sitting right on the edge of the seat, and allowed him to pour her a cup of strong, sweet-smelling tea. The cup was so delicate in her hands that she was a little afraid she would break it if she breathed on it too hard. “Why? What’s the point of all this?”
“The problem with your modern age is that you lack manners.” He folded himself gracefully onto the loveseat and picked up his own cup, holding it between his hands to inhale the aroma. “There was a time, a hundred years ago, when even Magia would be honoured to sit and have tea with me.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re old as balls, I get it. Things change. Why are you here?”
He shrugged. “I despise my kind and they despise me. Be that as it may, however, I am lonely, and I am not ashamed to admit it. At least with an agent of the Magia, even one so... coarse as yourself, I am free to assume my own form and can discuss any matters that interest me.”
“Yeah? And what matters would those be?” She sipped at the tea and found it stung at her tongue with a flavour she couldn’t quite identify, but after the first taste the sharpness faded. It reminded her of evenings spent at home with her mother in the dead of winter, both of them drinking tea as they watched sitcoms on TV.
He smiled at her over the rim of the teacup. “Leafs, Sens, or Habs?”
She was surprised to find the sun setting when she left and had to check her watch to confirm that she really had spent nearly 5 hours enjoying the company of a Fae lord. He’d welcomed her to return and given her a beautifully carved wooden chest the size of a breadbox, packed with dried tea in small silk pouches, before shifting back into the shaky old man to walk her to the elevator. Part of her wanted to throw the box away—faerie gifts were notoriously dangerous—but she decided it was too beautiful to just toss out. She knew she could easily get it checked for traps when she got home.
“Well, somebody likes you,” Mags said when Juliet got back to the apartment. “Gone all evening, worrying me half the death, and you come back with a gift. What did you do for five hours?” Her raised eyebrow looked distinctly lecherous.
“We talked about hockey, tea, and astrology.” Juliet set the box of tea down on the kitchen table. “And I drank so much my back teeth are floating, so excuse me for a minute.”
She went to pack when she’d finished in the bathroom and hauled her battered old pack and the katana—now safely sheathed, thanks to one of Mags’s friends—to the front door. After kissing Mags goodbye and wishing her—and the rest of the Ottawa Magia—a swift recovery, she carried everything down to her back and packed it into the back seat. She told herself she would only drive half the 5-hour trip and then find somewhere to spend the night, but the urge to get home as fast as she could overcame her need for sleep. She could sleep in her own bed, with Dmitri, if she kept going.
She was a little over an hour from Guelph, half-asleep at the wheel and in the depths of the country, when something huge and hairy leaped out in front of her car. She slammed on the brakes and swerved, but not quite fast enough to avoid clipping the creature with the corner of her fender. The passenger side window shattered as the corner of the dashboard crunched inwards, and the force of the impact sent the car spinning helplessly across the road until it came to a rest on the opposite shoulder, still rocking slightly on its wheels.
It took Juliet at least a minute to force her fingers to release their white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, and another minute until the noise of her own pounding heartbeat started to fade from her ears. She got out of the car on shaky legs and went to inspect the damage, conjuring up a small light to see by. There was blood and tufts of dark hair tangled in with the twisted metal and when she brightened the light and looked across the road, she saw more blood leading into the woods. Pausing just long enough to grab her phone and the first-aid kit, she followed the blood-trail into the trees, hoping that whatever she’d hit didn’t have a lot of sharp teeth.
She thought it was a horse at first, when she came upon it sprawled awkwardly in a clearing, and her heart sank. When she took a step closer, she saw the rest of it: the torso of a teenage boy and a pale face under a shock of black hair that ran halfway down his back. He scrambled to get away from her, pulling with his arms and kicking with three of his four legs, but she could see that the fourth leg was sitting at an awkward angle.
“I won’t hurt you,” Juliet said soothingly, dropping to one knee in the damp dirt. The boy looked only a few years younger than Jesse, his terror lessening his age even more. “My name is Juliet. I’m sorry I hit you with my car.”
He laughed a little, a noise halfway between a giggle and a snort, and some of the tension went out of his broad shoulders. His eyes—dark brown and fringed by long dark lashes—were still wide and white as he watched her gently inspect his leg but he didn’t move even when she carefully probed at it to see if any bones were broken. She could feel swelling and sticky blood coated her hands, but she didn’t feel the ends of broken bones under the dark hair and heavy muscles.
“What’s your name?” she asked, opening the first-aid kit and digging through to find disinfectant and bandages under a package of wolfsbane and a small container of salt. As she worked on cleaning the wounds on the centaur’s leg, she continued, “I’m a mage, an agent of the Magia. You know who we are?”
“I know.” His voice still hovered between a child’s high notes and the deeper range of an adolescent. “My name is Jacob.”
“Nice to meet you, Jacob. What are you doing running around out here in the pitch dark at,” she checked her watch, “2:37 in the morning?”
“I went to see a friend.” He twisted his torso to try and see what she was doing. “Is it bad?”
“You’ll be okay, I think. Mostly just some cuts and bruises. I’m going to try to put some bandaging on, then we’re going to see if you can get up. Where’s your home?” Almost to herself, she added, “I didn’t even know we had centaurs around here.”
“Rasmussen Farms. Five minutes from here.” He gave her a wide-eyed look, lower lip trembling. “My father is going to kill me.”
“Probably not.” She taped on some bandages as best she could and wrapped more around other parts of his leg. “Not pretty, but it’ll do for field dressing. Come on, up you get.” She backed out of the way and watched carefully as he tried to heave himself to his feet, hoping she was right and his leg wasn’t broken.
It took him a few tries, but eventually he got himself up and stood, trembling pathetically and keeping his weight off his injured leg. Juliet put a hand just before the area where his horse half merged seamlessly into the skin of his human back and coaxed him back to the road, then grabbed a spare shirt—one of Dmitri’s T-shirts, left in the back of the car—and gave it to him to put on over his bare chest.
“Think you can walk home, or do you want to hide here while I go for help?” she asked, keeping an eye out for approaching cars.
“I can walk.” Jacob said it defensively and straightened his shoulders, but she saw him wince when he tried to put more weight on his injured leg.
“We’ll go slow.” She patted him absently. “Five minutes away, you said?”
“It’s the first farm on the next road over.” Swishing his tail, he limped forward. Juliet walked with him, keeping an illusion spell handy just in case they met some late-night traveller.
By the time they reached the neat wooden mailbox—Rasmussen painted in white on its side—at the bottom of the long gravel driveway, Jacob was soaked in sweat and Juliet was sincerely wishing she’d taken her own advice and pulled into a motel before midnight. She leaned on the mailbox to catch her breath, then pulled herself upright and checked Jacob’s bandages—already slipping on sweat-slick hair—before she started up the driveway. There were lights on in the house and as they approached, the front door opened and a young girl in Mennonite dress spilled out, hiking up her heavy skirt as she ran towards them. She threw her arms around Jacob and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, then gave Juliet a shy look, nervously tucking her dark hair back under her prayer cap.
“My younger sister, Rachael,” Jacob said, looking a little shame-faced. “Run and get Papa, Rachael. Tell him we have a mage as a guest.”
“I have to admit, Mennonite centaurs is a new one,” Juliet said as the girl ran towards the barn. “And yet it makes perfect sense.” She forced herself not to ask why his sister was human, and tried not to think about the logistics of interpersonal relationships between humans and centaurs.
Jacob shrugged, then looked up at the crunch of hooves on gravel. Three more centaurs approached them, two males wearing neat white shirts and one female in a modified tunic and prayer cap, and she guessed by his appearance that the one in front was Jacob’s father. His horse half was easily 17 hands, but the eyes above the bristly black beard were kind, and he greeted her with courtesy. He introduced himself as Onias and the two with him as his son Isaac and his daughter Miriam.
“I warned you that you would come to harm, roaming the countryside in the middle of the night,” he told Jacob mildly. “Lucky the one you caused trouble to is a mage and aware of folk like us.” Despite his words he was gentle as he stroked Jacob’s hair with one big, gnarled hand. “Go to your mother for tending, and tell her to prepare a bed for the mage.”
“That’s okay,” Juliet said, backing up so she didn’t have to crane her neck so far to look up at his face. “I just wanted to see him home safe. My car’s not too damaged. I can still drive.” Onias and Isaac snorted in unison and Miriam gave her a skeptical look. Juliet raised an eyebrow and stared back until Miriam bowed her head slightly. “I’m not that far from home, honest.”
“I insist, mage, please,” Onias said. “Allow us to repay you in some small way for my son’s negligence. A bed for the night and breakfast in the morning, and we will fetch your car now to see what repairs we can do.”
Juliet thought of Dmitri and how badly she missed him, then thought of how far she still had to go when she was so exhausted she was swaying slightly on her feet. “Okay. Fine. Only because I’m so tired I can’t think straight. Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Show us to the machine then,” Isaac said cheerfully. “Ride on my back, miss, there’s no need to walk.”
Miriam gave her brother a sharp look. “Safer and more appropriate if she is with me,” she said, moving past her brother with a swing of her rump. “Here, miss, I’ll help you up.”
“It’s Jules.” Juliet took Miriam’s hand and scrambled up onto her back, awkwardly wrapping her arms around Miriam’s waist. She held on as the centaurs trotted down the driveway, wondering if it was rude to point out how bumpy a centaur’s trot was, and gave directions down the road to her car.
They examined it for a few minutes, tutting over the damage done to the fender, then Onias sent Isaac back for ropes and harnesses. Too tired to keep her eyes open, Juliet leaned her head against Miriam’s warm back and dozed until Isaac returned with ropes to attach to the car so they could pull it. Onias and Isaac put the harnesses on and dragged the car back to the farm, where Juliet almost fell off Miriam’s back and let herself be led into the house. Rachael brought her bag to the neat bedroom she was given for the night and she took just enough time to change into the shorts and T-shirt she slept in before falling into bed and dropping almost instantly into a deep, dark sleep.
She woke to bright sun and the sound of quiet giggles and whispers. Opening one eye, she focused on the door, where she saw a trio of dark-haired girls peeking into the room at her. The two smaller ones ducked out of view, gasping, but Rachael gave her a nervous smile.
“Hi,” Juliet managed, rubbing at her mouth. Her tongue felt fuzzy and tasted like she’d slept with a mouthful of dirt. “Time is it?”
“Almost noon,” Rachael replied. “Mama sent us up to see if you were awake and wanted lunch yet.”
“Sh—” She caught herself. “Um, later than I meant to sleep. Tell your mom I’ll be down in five minutes.”
She hauled herself out of bed as the girls ran downstairs and staggered down the hall to the bathroom to empty her bladder and wash the taste out of her mouth. When she was done she pulled on the same jeans from the night before and a clean shirt, and took her bag downstairs to the bright, sunny kitchen. Before she could excuse herself, she found herself sat down at the long wooden table with Jacob’s three sisters and his mother. Plates of steaming food spread along the length of the table and Juliet heard her stomach growl in appreciation.
Giving up on protesting, she waited patiently for grace to be said, then dug in, eating until her stomach felt full to bursting. The girls giggled together and watched her with wide eyes but didn’t let it interrupt their own eating, under their mother’s indulgent eye.
“How’s Jacob?” she asked when she was done, accepting a slice of still-warm apple pie.
“Not badly hurt. He’s out helping to fix your car. I’m Sarah, by the way.” She smiled at Juliet. “We don’t often see Magia out here. And if you’re wondering, the girls,” she nodded at the three little girls on the other side of the table, “are mine. Jacob, Isaac, and Miriam are the children of Onias’s previous wife.”
Juliet felt herself blush. “I was a little curious. How did you meet? It’s not like there’s a singles dance for humans and centaurs.” She considered a moment. “Is there?”
“No,” Sarah said, laughing. “I lost my first husband when I was pregnant with the younger girls. A cousin brought Onias to help gather in the crop, and though I wasn’t supposed to look, I did.” She gave half a shrug. “We both had young children, and to be honest that was more of a thing in common than the fact that he’s half-man and half-horse is a difference. There are stranger things in this world.”
“I hope you’re always happy then.” Juliet checked her phone when it beeped. “Excuse me a moment.”
She stepped outside onto the front porch and called Dmitri rather than texting him back, pacing restlessly while the phone rang. From the barn she could hear the sound of something beating on metal, and in a field nearby a herd of cows grazed and flicked their tails at the flies. The heat washed over her even under the shade of the porch and she lifted her hair off the back of her neck, unable to keep from smiling when Dmitri picked up.
“Hey. I’m almost home, I just ran into a bit of trouble.” She glanced back into the house, where Sarah was clearing off the table. “Apparently there are Mennonite centaurs.”
“Makes sense,” Dmitri replied.
“They’re really nice people, but I’m out of here as soon as they’ve got my car going again. I miss you.” She leaned against one of the posts supporting the porch. “How’s Jess?”
“I think something’s bugging him, but he doesn’t want to tell me what it is. He’s home, though, want to talk to him?”
“Nah, I’ll talk to him in person. Easier to tell when he’s lying then.” She straightened up when she saw Jacob duck out of the barn and limp towards the house. “Give me an hour or two and I’ll be home. Love you.”
“Love you too, Jules. Don’t drive too fast. We’re not going anywhere.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She hung up and stepped off the porch to meet Jacob. “Hey, how’s your leg?”
“It’s okay.” He fidgeted a little, squinting in the sunlight. “Papa says he’s done what he can with your car, if you want to come take a look.”
She nodded and followed him into the barn, which was warm and smelled strongly of cow and hay. Jacob took her to a corner of the barn that had been closed off with newer-looking boards, and to her surprise she stepped into a blacksmith’s forge. It opened up at one end and her car had been pulled in under the high roof. She could still see the scratches on the fender but it had been hammered back out and both the passenger side window and the broken headlight had been replaced. Onias stood beside it, resting one hand on the hood, and wiping sweat off his face with the other.
“It looks great.” Juliet rubbed at one of the scratches. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad we were able to fix it.” He looked past Juliet to his son. “Jacob?”
“I’m sorry about the damage,” Jacob mumbled, his cheeks flaming red. “I won’t be going out at night anymore.”
“As long as you’re okay.” Juliet looked at the tools laid out on the table. “You do a lot of smithing?”
“I find it comes in handy. Mage, I would warn you that there are... odd things happening around Guelph. The land is unsettled.” Onias took off his heavy leather apron and hung it up on a hook on the wall. “If you need help, I will offer what I can.”
“Thank you,” Juliet said again, oddly touched. “Hopefully it’s just because I’ve been gone so long.”
“Then we won’t keep you longer.” He stepped back, hooves ringing on the concrete, to let her slide into the driver’s seat and carefully reverse the car out of the forge. She waved goodbye to him and Jacob, and paused at the house long enough to grab her pack and accept a basket of food from Sarah, then said her further goodbyes and left the farm, turning the car’s nose towards home.