Did You Fall at First Sight, or Did You Need a Shove?

The Queen of Air and Darkness sat in her garden under the stars, pondering recent events.

Maeve and Lily lay side by side, slowly being incorporated into the earth of Demonreach.

Sarissa lay somewhere in Summer, under Titania's tutelage, lost to her forever.

The child of a Knight of the Cross and a warlock who had plucked out her own power lay shivering in the dark, deep beneath Mab's feet; a problematic successor at best.

The Winter Knight brooded among his charges, surrounded by centuries' store of frustrated malice and power. His motley allies had scattered, back to their mortal (and not-quite-mortal) lives.

And somewhere, Mab felt, she had missed something. Something crucial.

She closed her eyes and brought their images before her, one at a time. The watcher, hands tied, mouth sealed, all redes refused, all roads rejected. The champion, bereft of her shield, refusing still to take up her sword. The pale hunter, unable either to embrace or to deny his nature, twin souls that grappled ceaselessly, each growing stronger in their strife. The beast, the guardian, who on a childish whim had claimed the wizard as his own, and who now, at the wizard's whim, was claimed for his child.

She smiled at the symmetry, then…

One more. The girl. Why had she been there?

Mab had overlooked her at the time. The vampire's scent was on her; obviously she belonged to him.

But why bring her? He clearly had more control than to drag his toys along on a matter of importance. Sarissa's presence had been a matter of Maeve's design, and (Mab grudgingly allowed) of fate. The Watcher had his own fate to bear, and periodically having his choice thrown in his face seemed to be part of it. But the girl….

Mab frowned.

Maeve's attentions had left the vampire unconscious. The girl had been neither panicked nor relieved, but had sat quietly tending the watcher, alert and calm.

Not a thrall, then. A… companion? Lover?

What kind of woman could seduce an incubus?

As soon as the question occurred to her, she dismissed it as foolish. Such a woman had passed through her realm only a brief while ago: this particular incubus's mother, as it happened. But this white-haired chit was no Margaret LeFay; there was no whiff of power about her. And Margaret's firstborn, a mere failed experiment—

Soft, now. The Queen of Air and Darkness paused. She had not attained her state by ignoring subtleties that might grow into mysteries. Or threats. She pondered the pattern as she knew it: dark, light. Failure, success. Constraint, freedom. Hate, love. Debt, payment. A heartbeat, a simple alternation, forth, back. Two brothers. Within the elder, two natures, two strands twisted.

Or was there now a braid? And this third strand, this insignificant mortal, was she a cord of cats' footfalls and fishes' breath?

Mab bent forward where she sat, inscribed a perfect circle in the ice of the garden walk with her fingernail, and spoke certain names. There was a faint rustle in the air, a fugitive gleam that flickered around her head, shifting colors reflecting off her hair and the whites of her eyes. Voices whispered in tongues unknown to mortals.

Mab smoothed a hand over the ice inside the circle, and it became a mirror. The faint lights darted down to it, and pictures began to form. Mab watched, becoming more and more interested as a pattern emerged.

Everyone who had tried to take the girl had failed. Quite a few of them had died.

"It seems you are best held with an open hand," Mab mused. She wondered how Lara Raith had reached that conclusion, or if she was even aware that she had.

Mab did not bluff. She had been quite sincere in telling her Knight that if he would not take the mantle, she might well take his brother in his stead.

It appeared that Winter might have two to keep in reserve, rather than one.

Mab closed her eyes again, delved into her memory.

The girl had sat still, her dark eyes wide, and watched both the Mantles pass.

Mab held that expression in her mind's eye for a time. Surprise. Fear.

Wonder.

She spoke to her subtle attendants again. Spirits of air circled her; she gave them their tasks, and one by one they departed. To the last and least of them she gave the simplest orders, using brief words and the images in her mirror of ice.

"These two," she said. "Listen for their names: Thomas Raith. Justine. If you hear them spoken, tell me. If either sets foot in my realm, tell me."

With a whisper of acknowledgement, her servants hastened about their task.

And Mab settled in to wait.