Wraith followed Brigid through the winding halls of the former Irish convent until they came to her office. It was modest considering the size of the house; maybe ten by fifteen. It was barely enough to hold the large desk and two club chairs with room to walk. One wall was nothing but windows that looked over the lush and verdant grounds of the house. Two other walls were taken up with bookshelves, almost overflowing, and the last wall bore portraits and a strangely annotated map of the United States. Brigid offered Wraith one of the chairs in front of the desk, then closed the door and took the other.
“Serious talk, then?” Wraith asked when Brigid had seated herself.
Brigid nodded. “Do you remember Caitlin and Edward?”
“Sure,” Wraith said. “That doctor and nurse who helped Con and Sprout back in Seattle. Edward’s a wizard, right?”
“That’s them,” Brigid said. “Caitlin’s daughter, Fiona, is very important to the Rogue Court. As are Edward and Caitlin, of course. They helped put down an attempted coup a couple of years ago.”
Wraith thought back to the little girl she met so briefly in Seattle and how clearly she could see the light in her.
“As such, Dante has them under court protection,” Brigid said. “There are at least six marshals watching them at all times.”
“And I take it that’s not a common thing,” Wraith said.
“For good or bad, the court tries very hard to stay out of the affairs of mortals. This is your world first, and we feel it’s very important you live freely, without any influence from us.”
Wraith tried to figure out where Brigid was going, but she could think of only one thing. “I get it; you want me to stay away from them.” She nodded. “I understand—”
“No, that’s not it at all,” Brigid said. “You see, Edward and Caitlin were married not long ago, and they’re going on their honeymoon soon.”
“Okay . . .”
Brigid looked away.
“They’re going to New Orleans,” Brigid said.
Wraith waited for the punch line.
“Okay,” she finally said into the silence. “I hear it’s a fun city. I’m still not sure what—”
Brigid let out a sigh. “I’d consider it a personal favor if, in your wanderings, you wouldn’t mind watching over them while they were there.”
Wraith blinked. “Me?”
“Okay, I give. What do you need me for that a squad of court marshals can’t handle?” Wraith chuckled to herself. Court marshals.
“The marshals won’t be there,” Brigid said. “The Rogue Court isn’t permitted to operate in the state of Louisiana.”
“Have you ever heard of the Cruinnigh?” Brigid asked.
“I’ve heard the term,” Wraith said. “But I don’t really know what it is.”
“The Cruinnigh of the Five Houses, its full name, is a sort of council. In fact, that’s what Cruinnigh means. The fae are the Fifth House, the Rogue Court anyway.”
Wraith’s eyes went a little wide. “Wait, you’re saying . . .”
Brigid nodded. “We’re only one contingent of the—let’s call them nonhuman groups—in the world.”
“Who are the others?”
“The First House is made up of beings native to this world. Most of them are shape-shifters, including some beings that most mortals think are fae, but aren’t: formorians, selkies, kitsune, and the like.”
“Does that include Native American spirits?” Wraith asked, thinking of her friend Shadow. She was a fifty, but Wraith always suspected her nonmortal half wasn’t fae.
Brigid nodded. “I seem to remember Dante saying you knew Ciye. He’s First House.”
“Iktomi,” Brigid said. “The Lakota trickster. He doesn’t usually use that name; it’s too obvious.” She smiled. “But I think it’s mostly because he thinks none of us know he isn’t Maca, the Lakota coyote spirit.”
A flood of realization hit Wraith, and she was suddenly glad she was sitting down. She remembered Toto, the huge coy dog that was so loyal to Shadow and then to Wraith when Shadow died. “Could he have meant Toto?”
“Toto?” Brigid laughed. “That’s a new one.”
Wraith shook her head. “That’s what I called him, but it wasn’t what he called himself.” She thought back to her friend Sprout, who had been able to talk with the big dog. What had she said his name was? “Hototo. That was it.”
Brigid paled a little. “Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. Why?”
“Hototo is an important Hopi war kachina,” Brigid said. “A very powerful entity. That means he’s stepping on some very big toes outside his tribe.”
“That sounds bad,” Wraith said.
“It’s not good,” Brigid said, then smiled and squeezed Wraith’s hand. “But I’m sure he’ll find some way out of any trouble he’s caused. He always does.”
“I hope so. I’d like to apologize for what happened to Shadow.”
“We’ve been through this,” Brigid said. “You have nothing to apologize for. Besides, if Ciye was with you all that time, he knew there was nothing you could’ve done to save his daughter or your other friends.”
Wraith wanted to believe that, but her lingering fight with depression made things like that hard. After a long moment, she looked at Brigid. “Okay, I think I’ve got it together. Hit me with the next one.”
“Are you sure?” Brigid said.
Wraith nodded. “Absolutely. I’ve learned more in the last five minutes than in the last five years. But how is it that I’ve never heard about any of this?”
“We share it only with those we know we can trust,” Brigid said.
“Oh,” Wraith said and smiled. “Thanks. That means a lot.”
“You’ve earned it,” Brigid said.
“Okay, so the First House are the spirits and creatures native to this world. But the fae aren’t?”
“The fae are from Tír na nÓg,” Brigid said, “though different cultures have different names for us. The Rogue Court makes up the Fifth House because we joined last; when the court was formed.”
“Right, then,” Wraith said. “If native spirits and the fae are the First and Fifth Houses, then who makes up the rest?”
“The Second House,” Brigid said. “Well, we call them the celestials.”
Wraith laughed. “I’m guessing you don’t mean the giant armored guys in the Marvel comics.”
“No,” Brigid said. “Not hardly.”
“So what—” Wraith’s eyes went wide. “You don’t mean . . . angels?”
Brigid shrugged. “They call themselves Seraphim.”
“Holy shi—” Wraith cleared her throat. “You’re saying angels are real?”
“It’s really not for me to speak of the other houses,” Brigid said. “Especially not the two whose seats have been empty for so long.”
“What’s that mean? Their seat is empty?”
“They haven’t been heard from in quite some time,” Brigid said.
“Are they, uh—?”
“Not dead, no,” Brigid said. “They and the Third House, the Draconius, tend to involve themselves less with mortals than the rest of us.”
“Draconius?” Wraith asked. “As in dragons?”
Brigid made a noncommittal gesture. “As I said, it’s not my place to speak of them.”
“Okay,” Wraith said, then took a few slow breaths. “Wow, okay, the world is suddenly a lot stranger, which is saying something after everything I’ve seen.”
“Now you see why we don’t usually talk to mortals about this.”
“Yeah,” Wraith said. “Sort of the definition of ‘blowing my mind.’ So who makes up the Fourth House? God? Superman? Santa Claus?”
Brigid laughed. “No, Claus is fae, of course.”
Wraith nodded and smiled. “Right, sure—wait. What?”
“The Fourth House is made up of the elemental spirits of earth, air, fire, and water,” Brigid said, oblivious to Wraith’s stunned expression. “Though technically there are only four of them, they exist beyond a single physical manifestation. Do you remember Elaine, the elf who helped you in Seattle?”
Wraith could only nod. Her brain had sort of checked out at this point.
“Well, she has a stone that lets her summon an earth elemental,” Brigid said. “She calls him Rolf. Anyway, it is the earth elemental but just a single manifestation of the larger being that is the elemental earth. Does that make sense?”
“Actually, yes,” Wraith said, still stuck on Santa being a faerie.
“I know it’s a lot to take in at once,” Brigid said.
“You think?” Wraith asked, but she couldn’t keep herself from laughing. “I have, like, a zillion questions, but for the sake of time, what does all this have to do with me watching over Caitlin and Edward?”
“The fae are only one house of the Cruinnigh,” Brigid said. “Before joining, let’s just say the fae didn’t always coexist peacefully with the other groups.”
“You fought each other?”
Brigid nodded. “Most famously was the war for Ireland between the formorians and the daoine sidhe. That was millennia ago, of course, but we’re all very long-lived peoples with very long memories.”
“But you’re in the Cruinnigh now,” Wraith said. “So there was some kind of peace treaty?”
“That’s part of the reason why the Rogue Court was formed,” Brigid said. “Suffice it to say that we’re the fae representatives in this world. The Dawn and Dusk Courts didn’t join the Cruinnigh directly, but when they come to this world, they’re bound by the same treaty—called the Oaths—as we are.”
“And the Oaths are what keeps you from going into a house uninvited and stuff, right?”
“Yes. It’s a set of laws we’re bound to follow.”
“And the Fianna are like the sheriffs? Going after the fae who break the laws.”
Brigid nodded. “That’s right. They aren’t a member of the Cruinnigh either, but they’re a recognized and honored group. Siobhan is a Fian, what individual Fianna members are called.”
Wraith almost asked if Brigid knew Brendan, but she didn’t. She couldn’t break the promise she made to not tell anyone about him. The two of them had become friends over the last six months, and while she didn’t know the reasons behind his desire for no one to know where he was, she would respect her friend’s wishes. Not that Wraith really knew where he was either. She could find the place, sure, but she wasn’t sure where it was.
“There was another condition to joining the Cruinnigh,” Brigid said.
Wraith snapped out of her reverie.
“We had to accept that some areas of the world are under the solitary control of one house or another.” Brigid shrugged. “In most cases the location is of no consequence to us, particularly those areas controlled by the elementals.”
“You’re saying the state of Louisiana is under the solitary control of another house?”
“The First House,” Brigid said. “And it’s not really the state as you know it, but a region that closely resembles the state in shape and size.”
“And you’re not allowed in the state?” Wraith asked.
“Rogue Court officials are permitted only with the express permission of the First House, and never armed.”
Wraith thought about that for a long moment. “You’re asking me to watch over—no, to protect—Edward and Caitlin because you can’t. Right?”
Brigid let out a long sigh and nodded. “Believe me, if there was any other way, I wouldn’t ask this of you. I can’t imagine anything will happen to them, but—”
“It’s the things you can’t imagine that tend to bite you in the ass the hardest.”
“Well put,” Brigid said. “And understand you can say no. It won’t change anything between us, or you and the court. We’re asking this as a favor. You’re free to refuse.”
Wraith thought about it, then shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?”
Wraith nodded. “Yeah. They took care of my friends. I feel like I sort of owe them.” She smiled at Brigid. “Besides, we’re friends, right? You help your friends out when they need it. You’ve certainly helped me out plenty.”
Brigid smiled. “Yes, we are friends. Very good friends, I like to think.”
Wraith looked away and chewed on her lower lip. “Speaking of helping out friends,” she said, not meeting Brigid’s eyes, “I, uh, I’ve sort of blown through that money you gave me last month.” She looked at Brigid then. “I know you gave me three hundred this time, but I swear I didn’t blow it on anything bad, like drugs or horse races or anything like that.” She didn’t say the vast majority of it had gone to buying cheeseburgers and MREs for Brendan. She was more than capable of stealing food for him—she did that plenty for herself—but she didn’t think Brendan would approve of her doing that for him.
“I trust you,” Brigid said as she got to her feet and went to a wall painting. She drew it from the wall on a hinge to reveal a large safe. “I figured you’d need some money for New Orleans anyway.” Brigid entered the combination and opened the door.
Wraith’s mouth fell open when she saw the huge stacks of cash inside. Brigid picked up two small bundles, closed the safe, and handed the cash to Wraith. She gaped at the two bundles of twenty-dollar bills and the $2,000 marker on each.
“Is that enough?” Brigid asked without a trace of sarcasm or humor.
Wraith just stared at the money. It was more than she’d ever seen—prior to seeing inside the safe, that is—much less had in her possession. She cleared her throat. “Um, yeah. I think that should cover me for a while.”
Brigid smiled. “Let me know if that changes.”
Wraith tucked the money into an inside pocket in her coat, then looked at Brigid. “Before I go, can we back up to the part about Santa Claus being one of the fae?”