Hundreds of years ago, the Selkies made a deal with the sea witch: they would have the sea for as long as she allowed it, and when the time came, she would call in all their debts at once. Many people assumed that day would never come. Those people were wrong…
The thirteenth novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye urban fantasy series, The Unkindest Tide publishes September 3rd with DAW—read the first chapter below!
When the Luidaeg—October “Toby” Daye’s oldest and most dangerous ally—tells her the time has come for the Selkies to fulfill their side of the bargain, and that Toby must be a part of the process, Toby can’t refuse. Literally. The Selkies aren’t the only ones in debt to the Luidaeg, and Toby has to pay what she owes like anyone else. They will travel to the fabled Duchy of Ships and call a convocation of the Selkies, telling them to come and meet the Luidaeg’s price… or face the consequences.
Of course, nothing is that simple. When Dianda Lorden’s brother appears to arrest Dianda for treason against the Undersea, when a Selkie woman is stripped of her skin and then murdered, when everything is falling apart, that’s when Toby will have to answer the real question of the hour.
Is she going to sink? Or is she going to swim?
SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE the rise of the cell phone—and the associated rise of the cell phone camera—must have been a boon for the private detective. After all, when your camera isn’t just handheld, but is also attached to a personal communication device, it seems like it should be easier to surreptitiously photograph people doing things they aren’t supposed to do. Like cheating on their spouses, or money laundering, or trying to violate the terms of their custody agreements. All those charming, frustrating little ways that people like to break the rules, captured for the courts with a single press of a button. No fuss, no muss, no need to get anything developed. Swell, right?
Not so much. The trouble is, cell phone cameras have a long way to go before they’ll match the capabilities of a good zoom lens or long-distance rig, much less exceed them—and that’s where I have a problem. I still need my good lenses, but the more ubiquitous cell phones become, the more your classic camera stands out to the curious bystander. I used to be able to wander around with my trusty Canon slung around my neck and be confident that anyone who saw me would take me for a tourist. Not anymore. These days, people notice. People talk.
Some days I wind up taking lots of pictures of flowers and graffiti and showing them to anyone who seems too interested. It deflects suspicion, and it’s surprisingly soothing, even if I’m not going to get a gallery show any time soon. More often, I use some of my precious magic to hide my camera behind a veil of illusion. It makes me look like some sort of bizarre mime whenever I take a picture, but somehow, this is less obviously weird, at least in San Francisco.
Humans are strange.
I’d been following a man around the city with my veiled camera for three days, trying to get pictures of him meeting with a group of “investors” who were planning to use underhanded means to buy shares in his company. I didn’t fully understand why they didn’t just call their stockbrokers, but the man who’d hired me was the first man’s business partner, and he was paying me well for my time and expertise. I don’t question the check, as long as it cashes.
I used to be a more or less full-time private detective. These days, knight errantry eats up a lot of time, leaving me with curtailed work hours. Knight errantry also doesn’t pay, not when you’re talking cash money, and I’d jumped at the chance to pad my bank account back to something resembling normal. I have a lot of mouths to feed at home, and that doesn’t even go into the cost of veterinary cat food for my two geriatric Siamese.
My patience had paid off. Patience so often does. After three days, several near misses, and two false positions, it had all come together in a photo opportunity so perfect that I’d checked to make sure it wasn’t being staged. I’d captured the pictures my client wanted without being seen by my target, and had dropped off the film in exchange for a lovely check, complete with hefty bonus. Not too bad for half a week’s work.
Depositing the check had been quick and easy and best of all, gave me an excuse to pick up burritos from my favorite taqueria. The scent of them filled the car, making me drive a little faster. Burritos are best when they’re hot, and I wanted to get these home to my family before they had a chance to cool.
Home. Family. Two words I used to think would never apply to me again, which just goes to show how much things can change. Sometimes they even change for the better.
My name is October Daye. I’m a changeling, which is a fancy way of saying “one of my parents was human, and one of them wasn’t.” It sounds simple. It’s not. Being a changeling means never really knowing where you belong. It means always feeling like you’re standing on the outside of two worlds, unable to commit to being a part of either one, equally unable to walk away.
It’s even more complicated in my case. I was raised thinking I was half Daoine Sidhe on my mother’s side, making me a descendant of Titania. Well, it turns out my mother, Amandine the Liar, is actually the daughter of Oberon himself. She’s Firstborn, and I’m…
I’m not completely new, but I’m not all that old, either. There are only three of my kind of fae in all of Faerie. We’re called the Dóchas Sidhe. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means.
To add another fun little wrinkle, my mother’s mother is a human woman, Janet Carter. Yes, that Janet, the one whose interference with Maeve’s final Ride led to the Winter Queen’s disappearance and changed the course of Faerie forever. So that’s something fun for me to live with. Janet is still alive, by the way. She married my ex‑fiancé after I disappeared for fourteen years. My daughter Gillian calls her “Mom.”
My family tree has a lot of thorns, and a tendency to draw blood.
Being a changeling usually also means living on the fringes of Faerie’s political structure, since the fact that we’re mortal is seen as a sign of weakness. Again, things are different for me. Duke Sylvester Torquill of Shadowed Hills stepped in as my protector and patron while I was still a child. Thanks to him, when I got tired of living on the streets with the rest of the changeling kids, I had someone to back me up and take care of me. Under his protection, and after I’d discovered a new knowe for the then-Queen of the Mists, I’d been able to study for and eventually achieve my knighthood—something that was almost unthinkable for a changeling, even one with my bloodline.
Being a knight gave me a place in the Courts. It was a low place, sure, and many people regarded it as scarcely better than being treated like a particularly clever pet, but it had been enough to give me something to hold onto. I’m surprisingly difficult to shake once I have something to hold onto.
I started as a knight, became a knight errant—sort of a fancy way of saying “odd jobs person for the fae courts of the San Francisco Bay area”—deposed an illegitimate monarch, and helped the true ruler of the Mists claim her family’s throne. It was a lot of work, and resulted in my being named a hero of the realm, which is sort of like being a knight errant, only more so. Heroes of the realm protect people.
And I have people to protect. Somewhere along the way, despite everything, I found my people. I have a squire. I have a Fetch. I have a man I love, who wants to marry me. I have a family, and they were all waiting for me to get home with dinner.
I drove a little faster.
The past three months hadn’t been perfect, but they’d been surprisingly peaceful, despite presenting their own unique challenges. Gillian—who had been born a thin-blooded changeling and then turned completely human in order to save her from a painful, elf-shot-induced death—was finally part of Faerie. I’d been resigned to the possibility that I’d never see my daughter again, that one day I’d have to add her grave to the list of those I visited regularly, decking them with rosemary and rue.
Only it hadn’t worked out that way. One of my old enemies, the false Queen of the Mists, had arranged for the kidnapping of my only child, and had nearly killed her by jamming an arrow dipped in elf-shot into her shoulder. Elf-shot is always fatal to humans. Gilly should have died. Gilly would have died if Tybalt hadn’t reached her before the poison could stop her heart. He’d carried her onto the Shadow Roads, which are only accessible to the Cait Sidhe, and from there to the Luidaeg, the sea witch of legend, and my mother’s sister.
Like I said, my family is complicated.
The Luidaeg had been able to give Gillian a chance to survive. She’d draped my daughter in a Selkie’s skin, chasing the mortality from her bones for at least a hundred years. Most Selkies don’t keep their skins that long, but in Gilly’s case…
The elf-shot would linger in her system for a century. That’s what elf-shot was designed to do. It puts purebloods to sleep, and it keeps them that way until the world changes around them, becoming something alien and strange. If Gilly set her sealskin aside before the poison faded, she would die. Her humanity was the price of staying alive. It was seeing her father, her friends, everyone she’d ever cared about grow old and die while she continued on. She’d chosen to be human when I gave her the Changeling’s Choice, and then the false Queen and the Luidaeg had taken that away from her, one out of malice and one out of mercy, and I had to wonder whether she’d ever forgive any of us.
I haven’t spoken to her since the day she woke up and realized her life had changed forever. I promised to give her whatever space she needed, to let her be the one to come to me. But really, I don’t know what to say. “I’m sorry I saved your life” is a lie. So is “It’s better to be fae.” And “I didn’t want this for you” just might be the biggest lie of all. Of course, I wanted this—or something like it. She’s my daughter. I want her with me.
But I’m not the mother she reaches for when she’s scared, or lost, or lonely. That honor goes to my own grandmother, Janet Carter, who stepped in and raised my child when Faerie conspired to take me away from her for fourteen years.
Sometimes I hate my biological family. Maybe that’s why I’ve worked so hard to build myself a new one.
It was simultaneously late enough and early enough that traffic was light. The Market District was closed for the evening, sending its burden of businesspeople and their support staff scurrying back to their safe, secure homes, while the bars and clubs downtown had yet to hit their full swing. I passed Dolores Park and pulled into the driveway of my old Victorian- tyle house in nearly record time. The kitchen lights were on. I turned off the car, opened the door, and was accosted by the sound of classic rock blasting through the open window. May was singing along as Journey asserted the need to continue to believe. May, like me, can’t carry a tune in a bucket. The effect was surprisingly charming. It said “you’re safe here.” It said “nothing is currently wrong.”
It said “welcome home.”
Since there were people home, the wards weren’t set; all I needed to get inside was my key. I stepped into the warm, bright kitchen, where my Fetch was dancing in front of the counter as she mixed a bowl of cookie dough. She turned and grinned at me.
“I hope you got extra burritos,” she said. “We have extra mouths in residence.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How many?”
“Dean and Raj.”
I raised the other eyebrow. “Raj got away for the evening?”
May nodded. “Uh‑huh. Gin told him part of kingship is being able to delegate every once in a while, so he’s our problem until midnight. That’s why I’m baking cookies. They’re working that poor boy to the bone.”
“That poor boy is going to be King of Cats; he signed up for this.” I swiped a fingerful of cookie dough as I headed for the hall. May laughed and hit me with her mixing spoon, getting more dough on my wrist. I grinned and kept walking, sticking my wrist in my mouth to suck off the sugary goodness.
As my Fetch—technically retired, since Amandine broke the connection between us when she changed the balance of my blood to save my life—May and I used to be identical. Now, years and quests and changes later, we still look like sisters, but we’re not twins anymore. Her face is the one I had when she was called into existence, soft and round and human in ways my own face has forgotten. Her eyes are a pale, misty gray, and her hair is the no‑color brown that drives a thousand salon appointments, a color she’s constantly at war with, covering it in streaks of blue and green and purple and, most recently, flaming orange. It makes her happy, and I like it when she’s happy. After all, she’s my sister in every way that counts.
Her live‑in girlfriend, Jazz, was in the dining room, sitting at the table and clipping coupons out of an advertising circular. She tensed and looked up at the sound of my footsteps, golden eyes briefly widening before she relaxed and offered me a somewhat weary smile. “Hey, Toby,” she said. “Need me to move?”
“Up to you.” I held up the bag of burritos. “As soon as I crinkle the foil, we’re going to have an invasion of teenage boys. Salsa may fly. Your coupons could get royally wrecked.”
“Yes, but I’ll have salsa, so I’ll live.”
I watched her gather her coupons as I set my bag down and unpacked its contents. Fortunately for my ability to eat my own dinner, I always make it a point to pick up a couple of extra burritos these days. My house contains between one and four teenagers at any given moment in time—more if Chelsea’s over and has decided she needs one or more of Mitch and Stacy’s daughters to save her from being outnumbered by the boys. If there’s one thing fae and mortal teens absolutely have in common, it’s the ability to eat more than should be physically possible. I once found Quentin absently gnawing on a stick of butter while he was doing his homework. It would be terrifying, if it wasn’t so impressive.
Jazz is a Raven-maid, one of the few types of diurnal fae. She and May make it work, mostly by spending their mornings and evenings together, then each doing other things while the other is asleep. For Jazz, “other things” usually means running her small secondhand store in Berkeley, on the other side of the Bay. Recently, though…
Recently, it’s mostly meant staying in the house with the doors and windows closed, steadfastly refusing to look outside and see the birds in flight. My mother broke something deep inside Jazz when she kidnapped her from what should have been the safety of her own home. It had been part of an effort to blackmail me into bringing back her eldest daughter, my missing sister, August. As usual, Amandine hadn’t cared who might get hurt, as long as she got her way.
She’d gotten her way. August had come home. And a lot of people had gotten hurt, including Jazz, who might never be okay again.
The smell of musk and pennyroyal tickled my nose a split second before arms slid around my waist from behind, pulling me against the solid form of a man only a few inches taller than I was. Tybalt buried his face in my hair, murmuring, “I was just thinking the house was surprisingly devoid of chaos, given its current occupants, and then you walked in the door.”
“Well, I do live here,” I said, continuing to lay food out on the table. “Plus I brought food, so this is about to be a battleground.”
Tybalt laughed, breath warm against my ear, and didn’t let me go.
Tybalt. My friend, who was never really my enemy, even when I’d believed him to be; my lover; my betrothed; and another victim of my mother’s petty determination to have her eldest daughter back, no matter how many people were collateral damage. Tybalt had been King of Dreaming Cats long before he’d been foolish enough to get involved with me. Now, thanks to my mother, he’d stepped away from his throne, allowing the daughter of an old friend to stand regent in his stead while he tried to put himself back together. Cait Sidhe choose their rulers based on raw strength and the ability to protect the Court. By admitting he was too damaged to rule, even for a short time, Tybalt might have lost his throne forever.
I’d never considered myself a person worth losing a throne for, but Tybalt thought I was, and I’ve learned not to argue with him about that sort of thing. Instead, I was doing my best to live up to what he saw when he looked at me. That seemed better for both of us. Healthier.
Footsteps thundered in the hall behind us. Tybalt laughed again, drawing me even closer.
“Prepare yourself,” he said, and the teenage wave descended.
Quentin Sollys, my sworn squire, who also happened to be the Crown Prince of the Westlands—meaning he’ll be High King of the fae kingdoms of North America one day—ducked past me to grab the burrito with the “Q” on the side, tossing me a jaunty wave before he snatched the entire bag of tortilla chips and took off running.
Raj was close behind him, taking one of the unmarked burritos and two containers of salsa before chasing after Quentin and the chips. At least he slowed down long enough to offer a quick, distracted wave, which was honestly more than I’d been expecting. I grinned, leaning against Tybalt.
“Try not to get salsa on the ceiling this time, okay?” I called after Raj. “My hearth magic isn’t good enough to deal with tomato juice on plaster.”
“No, but May’s is!” Raj shouted back, and was gone.
Dean was the last of our resident teenagers to reach the table. He hesitated, looking at the three remaining unmarked burritos.
Normally, we take a hands-off approach to feeding the teen swarm—leave the food unattended and they’ll take care of themselves. I stand in loco parentis for Quentin in many ways, but I’m not his mother, and as long as he doesn’t starve or get scurvy, I’ve done my job.
Dean, though… sometimes it’s necessary to intervene a little with him. He’s the Count of Goldengreen, not technically a teenager anymore—he’s a year older than Quentin, who turned nineteen on his last birthday—and raised in the Undersea by his Merrow mother and Daoine Sidhe father. Dean isn’t the youngest Count I’ve ever heard of, although he’s one of the youngest without a Regent to massage his decrees into something more palatable for the local nobles. His reign has been—quite literally—sink or swim, since he started it with no idea how things were done in the land Courts, and was given his position almost entirely to prevent a war.
But he’s done okay. His seneschal, Marcia, who was my seneschal when I was Countess of Goldengreen, has worked hard to steer him away from the nastier dangers of his position, and Goldengreen has always been mostly a show County, consisting of a knowe and a household and not much more. He doesn’t have land to protect or official duties to perform.
He also, from the way he was looking at those burritos, didn’t have much of an idea of how to deal with cylinders of food wrapped in nicely concealing layers of foil. I smiled, trying to seem encouraging rather than mocking.
“The narrowest one is vegetarian, the fattest one is chicken and rice, and the one in the middle is steak,” I said.
He shot me a startled look which quickly turned thankful. “Quentin says I need to eat more mortal food, since there’s going to come a time when Marcia is unavailable and I’m starving,” he said. “That doesn’t make it easy to understand the way they label things. Or don’t label them, as the case may be.”
“Well, I’d take the chicken and rice, since that’s sort of a good starting point for the whole concept of ‘the Mission Burrito.’ Quentin has pork and way too many bell peppers, and Raj took the chicken supreme. Get them to give you bites, figure out what you think you might like, and I’ll add your order to the list.”
Surprise melted into genuine delight. “You’d be willing to do that?”
“Sure.” I shrugged. “You’re pretty much part of the family. We feed the family.”
His smile was heartbreakingly bright. He grabbed the burrito I’d indicated and hurried after the others, back to Quentin’s room and whatever terrifying mischief three boys with noble titles and the anticipation of the weight of the world on their shoulders could get up to. As a rule, I don’t ask, and they don’t tell me. It’s safer that way.
With the teenage stampede finally out of the way, Tybalt removed his arms from around my waist and went to claim his own burrito. “I trust your evening’s work went well? I think I like it when you do human detective things. You come home to me not having bled on anything at all, and it’s delightfully novel.”
“It also pays for these burritos, which is a nice change.”
Tybalt sniffed. “Money is no concern.”
“It is when you don’t want to use fairy gold on the nice man at the taqueria.” I’d been there once with Simon, my stepfather. He had charmed the counterman with his breezy manner and fluency in Spanish. I still got asked about him when I went to order food. It was nice, in a way, to deal with someone whose only impressions of Simon were positive ones.
Simon Torquill has been married to my mother since long before I was born, even if I didn’t learn that fun fact until comparatively recently. He was, for a long time, my biggest bogeyman: the man who transformed me into a fish, abandoned me in a pond, and caused me to lose my entire mortal life. He’d taken everything I’d ever thought I wanted away with a single casual spell, and as far as I’d been able to tell, he hadn’t lost a minute of sleep over it. I had been nothing to him. Just one more inconsequential changeling.
Only later I’d learned that he’d done it to protect me from a much bigger threat: his liege lady, Evening Winterrose, more accurately known as Eira Rosynhwyr, Firstborn of the Daoine Sidhe. I’d learned a lot of things too late for them to do either one of us any good, and now Simon was lost again, captive of his own inner demons, bound by a bargain he’d made with the Luidaeg to save his biological child.
I was going to find a way to save him. I was. I was just going to focus on saving the people closest to me first. You can’t bandage someone else’s wounds while you’re bleeding to death from your own. It never works out the way you want it to.
Tybalt gave me a wounded look. I would have called it making puppy-dog eyes if he weren’t literally a cat. “No,” he said. “Money is no object. October, do you honestly think me such a churl that I would intend to live in your home in perpetuity, eat at your table, and not provide for you or your household in even a small capacity?”
“It never came up.” I picked up my own burrito—basically everything I could convince them to encase in a single flexible tortilla—and produced the second bag of chips from beneath the table before plopping myself down in a chair.
“I’ve brought groceries,” he protested.
“Yes, and I didn’t ask about where they came from, because if you were enchanting some poor clerk into letting you shoplift, I didn’t want to know.” The fae attitude toward property can be, well, flexible, especially when the property in question is in the hands of humans. Purebloods mostly don’t steal from each other unless they’ve got an army behind them. Everyone else is fair game.
“You used to work at Safeway, right?” asked Jazz.
I nodded. “I did, before May showed up and started helping cover the rent. That’s when we were in the old apartment.” The timeline there was skewed and simplified, but it was close enough to accurate. Sometimes things have to be condensed if they’re going to make sense.
That’s the history of Faerie in a nutshell, really. When you’re talking about people who live for literal centuries, entire dynasties can wind up shortened to a sentence tucked away in a paragraph about how nice the flowers look when the spring returns. Legends are true. History is a lie. Everything old comes around and becomes new again, and people who’ve witnessed linguistic and continental drift firsthand are standing right there to give their opinion on it.
“I bought the groceries,” said Tybalt, sounding only faintly offended. “I bought them with legitimate human currency, and did not rob anyone to get it.”
I blinked at him. “How did you—?”
“I arrived in the Mists over a century ago, when there was no indication that this small, provincial kingdom would become such a hotbed of activity,” said Tybalt. “I was in Pines before that, living among the mortals with my Anne.”
“Oh.” Anne, his first wife, had been a human woman. She died in childbirth sometime in the early 1900s. The local fae courts had been unwilling to step in and help her or their child.
It was because of that reluctance that Tybalt had disliked changelings for so long. A changeling took his wife away, even if it hadn’t been intentional or malicious. I’d known things between us were never going to be the same when he’d finally broken down and told me about Anne. That was when he’d let his grudges go. That was when he’d admitted that he loved me.
Life is never simple. I’d say “when Faerie is involved,” but I don’t think I need to. Life is never simple, period. All we can do is hang on and hope for the best.
He smiled, finally picking up his own burrito: chicken, pork, beef, cheese, and sour cream. “Anne was quite annoyed when I took things from local merchants without proper payment, and I’ll admit, I had a bit of a prior inclination toward paying, born of my time in the Londinium theater. It’s better to pay people for the things they make, assuming you want them to keep working. I’ve never been inclined toward learning a mortal trade, but I did odd jobs enough to keep her fed and healthy, and I learned your banking system well enough to acquit myself.”
I blinked at him slowly. “Tybalt. You didn’t understand what a car was until I started making you ride in one. You’d never been on a bus before.”
“Neither of those things is a requirement of banking, little fish. Money has many uses, and not all of them are related to transportation.”
“I don’t…” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I don’t know what to do with this. You have money?”
“How much money?”
“Sufficient that I can pay for groceries when I wish to, and I’ll expect you to allow me to do so.” He took a hearty bite of his burrito, chewed, swallowed, and added, “I am a part of this family. I will contribute, like it or no, and I will do so in ways that do not involve your bedroom.”
A harsh cawing sound rang out from the end of the table. I whipped around, nearly dropping my burrito. Tybalt flinched, unable to quite control the momentary flash of panic in his eyes. Then we both froze, staring.
Jazz was laughing.
May raced into the room, face pale and eyes wide, clearly ready to jump into battle against whatever was hurting her girlfriend. Then she froze as well, pressing one hand to her mouth. Jazz kept laughing, leaning back in her seat and tucking her hands behind her head, seemingly helpless against her own amusement.
“Honey?” asked May. “Are you all right?”
Jazz shook her head, still laughing.
I found my voice, tucked away in a corner where I hadn’t been able to reach it before. “I think she’s going to be okay,” I said. “I think… I think maybe we’re all going to be okay.”
May laughed once, and if there was a hint of a sob tucked inside the sound, none of us was going to point it out. She rushed to Jazz’s side, putting her arms around the other woman, and they held each other while they laughed, and for the first time since Amandine had shown up at my door, I started to feel like maybe things were getting back to normal. We were safe. We were home. We were together, and we were going to be okay.
Tybalt smiled at me across the table as he picked up his burrito. I smiled back, and everything was exactly the way it was supposed to be. Finally, finally, everything was right.
Excerpted from The Unkindest Tide, copyright © 2019 by Seanan McGuire.