John Charming isn't your average Prince...
He comes from a line of Charmings -- an illustrious family of dragon slayers, witch-finders and killers dating back to before the fall of Rome. Trained by a modern day version of the Knights Templar, monster hunters who have updated their methods from chain mail and crossbows to Kevlar and shotguns, John Charming was one of the best--until a curse made him one of the abominations the Knights were sworn to hunt.
That was a lifetime ago. Now, John tends bar under an assumed name in rural Virginia and leads a peaceful, quiet life. That is, until a vampire and a blonde walked into his bar...
CHARMING is the first novel in a new urban fantasy series which gives a new twist to the Prince Charming tale.
Pax Arcana CharmingDaringFearlessIn Shining ArmorLegend Has It
Short Fiction in the Pax Arcana world:Charmed I'm SureDon't Go Chasing WaterfallsPushing LuckSurreal EstateDog-GoneBulls Rush InTalking Dirty
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By Elliott James
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Elliott James
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A BLONDE AND A VAMPIRE WALK INTO A BAR ...
Once upon a time, she smelled wrong. Well, no, that's not exactly true. She smelled clean, like fresh snow and air after a lightning storm and something hard to identify, something like sex and butter pecan ice cream. Honestly, I think she was the best thing I'd ever smelled. I was inferring "wrongness" from the fact that she wasn't entirely human.
I later found out that her name was Sig.
Sig stood there in the doorway of the bar with the wind behind her, and there was something both earthy and unearthly about her. Standing at least six feet tall in running shoes, she had shoulders as broad as a professional swimmer's, sinewy arms, and well-rounded hips that were curvy and compact. All in all, she was as buxom, blonde, blue-eyed, and clear-skinned as any woman who had ever posed for a Swedish tourism ad.
And I wanted her out of the bar, fast.
You have to understand, Rigby's is not the kind of place where goddesses were meant to walk among mortals. It is a small, modest establishment eking out a fragile existence at the tail end of Clayburg's main street. The owner, David Suggs, had wanted a quaint pub, but instead of decorating the place with dartboards or Scottish coats of arms or ceramic mugs, he had decided to celebrate southwest Virginia culture and covered the walls with rusty old railroad equipment and farming tools.
When I asked why a bar—excuse me, I mean pub—with a Celtic name didn't have a Celtic atmosphere, Dave said that he had named Rigby's after a Beatles song about lonely people needing a place to belong.
"Names have power," Dave had gone on to inform me, and I had listened gravely as if this were a revelation.
Speaking of names, "John Charming" is not what it reads on my current driver's license. In fact, about the only thing accurate on my current license is the part where it says that I'm black-haired and blue-eyed. I'm six foot one instead of six foot two and about seventy-five pounds lighter than the 250 pounds indicated on my identification. But I do kind of look the way the man pictured on my license might look if Trevor A. Barnes had lost that much weight and cut his hair short and shaved off his beard. Oh, and if he were still alive.
And no, I didn't kill the man whose identity I had assumed, in case you're wondering. Well, not the first time anyway.
Anyhow, I had recently been forced to leave Alaska and start a new life of my own, and in David Suggs I had found an employer who wasn't going to be too thorough with his background checks. My current goal was to work for Dave for at least one fiscal year and not draw any attention to myself.
Which was why I was not happy to see the blonde.
For her part, the blonde didn't seem too happy to see me either. Sig focused on me immediately. People always gave me a quick flickering glance when they walked into the bar—excuse me, the pub—but the first thing they really checked out was the clientele. Their eyes were sometimes predatory, sometimes cautious, sometimes hopeful, often tired, but they only returned to me after being disappointed. Sig's gaze, however, centered on me like the oncoming lights of a train—assuming train lights have slight bags underneath them and make you want to flex surreptitiously. Those same startlingly blue eyes widened, and her body went still for a moment.
Whatever had triggered her alarms, Sig hesitated, visibly debating whether to approach and talk to me. She didn't hesitate for long, though—I got the impression that she rarely hesitated for long—and chose to go find herself a table.
Now, it was a Thursday night in April, and Rigby's was not empty. Clayburg is host to a small private college named Stillwaters University, one of those places where parents pay more money than they should to get an education for children with mediocre high school records, and underachievers with upper- middle-class parents tend to do a lot of heavy drinking. This is why Rigby's manages to stay in business. Small bars with farming implements on the walls don't really draw huge college crowds, but the more popular bars tend to stay packed, and Rigby's does attract an odd combination of local rednecks and students with a sense of irony. So when a striking six-foot blonde who wasn't an obvious transvestite sat down in the middle of the bar, there were people around to notice.
Even Sandra, a nineteen-year-old waitress who considers customers an unwelcome distraction from covert texting, noticed the newcomer. She walked up to Sig promptly instead of making Renee, an older waitress and Rigby's de facto manager, chide her into action.
For the next hour I pretended to ignore the new arrival while focusing on her intently. I listened in—my hearing is as well developed as my sense of smell—while several patrons tried to introduce themselves. Sig seemed to have a knack for knowing how to discourage each would-be player as fast as possible.
She told suitors that she wanted to be up-front about her sex change operation because she was tired of having it cause problems when her lovers found out later, or she told them that she liked only black men, or young men, or older men who made more than seventy thousand dollars a year. She told them that what really turned her on was men who were willing to have sex with other men while she watched. She mentioned one man's wife by name, and when the weedy-looking grad student doing a John Lennon impersonation tried the sensitive-poet approach, she challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest. He stared at her, sitting there exuding athleticism, confidence, and health—three things he was noticeably lacking—and chose to be offended rather than take her up on it.
There was at least one woman who seemed interested in Sig as well, a cute sandy-haired college student who was tall and willowy, but when it comes to picking up strangers, women are generally less likely to go on a kamikaze mission than men. The young woman kept looking over at Sig's table, hoping to establish some kind of meaningful eye contact, but Sig wasn't making any.
Sig wasn't looking at me either, but she held herself at an angle that kept me in her peripheral vision at all times.
For my part, I spent the time between drink orders trying to figure out exactly what Sig was. She definitely wasn't undead. She wasn't a half-blood Fae either, though her scent wasn't entirely dissimilar. Elf smell isn't something you forget, sweet and decadent, with a hint of honey blossom and distant ocean. There aren't any full-blooded Fae left, of course—they packed their bags and went back to Fairyland a long time ago—but don't mention that to any of the mixed human descendants that the elves left behind. Elvish half-breeds tend to be somewhat sensitive on that particular subject. They can be real bastards about being bastards.
I would have been tempted to think that Sig was an angel, except that I've never heard of anyone I'd trust ever actually seeing a real angel. God is as much an article of faith in my world as he, she, we, they, or it is in yours.
Stumped, I tried to approach the problem by figuring out what Sig was doing there. She didn't seem to enjoy the ginger ale she had ordered—didn't seem to notice it at all, just sipped from it perfunctorily. There was something wary and expectant about her body language, and she had positioned herself so that she was in full view of the front door. She could have just been meeting someone, but I had a feeling that she was looking for someone or something specific by using herself as bait ... but as to what and why and to what end, I had no idea. Sex, food, or revenge seemed the most likely choices.
I was still mulling that over when the vampire walked in.
THE LAST INTERLUDE, I PROMISE
This is how the Pax Arcana works: if one night you couldn't sleep and wound up looking out your window at three in the morning, and your next-door neighbor was changing into a wolf right beneath you ... you wouldn't see it. Don't get me wrong, the image would be refracted on a beam of light and enter your optic nerves and everything, but you would go on with your life without really registering that you'd seen a werewolf any more than you noticed or remembered a particular leaf on a tree that you'd seen that morning. Technically seen anyway.
This is not a dramatic spell ... it is simply an extension of how the human mind already works. If our brains didn't dump most of the massive amounts of sensory information that they take in every second, they wouldn't be able to function. We wouldn't be able to distinguish the present from the past, and our brains would overload like crashing computers.
This is why you occasionally see something strange or disconcerting in the corner of your eye, but when you whirl around, there's nothing there. The reason these experiences are so unsettling is that what you're really experiencing is an afterimage. Something you saw five seconds or five minutes or five days ago, without really registering it, was so disturbing that once the danger was gone, the subconscious memory briefly fought off the effects of the Pax Arcana and resurfaced like a drowning person breaking water ... before getting pulled under again.
But just suppose that you looked out your window and did register the werewolf. Let's imagine that you are unusually sensitive, or you have a head injury, or a dog attack traumatized you as a small child. For whatever reason, assume something went wrong with the spell, and you actually saw the werewolf even though it wasn't directly threatening you. Such incidents are rare, but they do happen.
Ask yourself this question: if you actually did notice your neighbor changing into a wolf, would you believe what you were seeing with your own two eyes? Seriously? I don't think you would.
I think you'd imagine you were having a lucid dream. Or you'd think your neighbor was playing some kind of elaborate prank with high-tech special effects. You might come up with increasingly far-fetched and paranoid theories about how drugs got into your system. Lacking a more rational explanation, you might even become convinced that you were losing your mind. Perhaps you might go to a therapist later or attempt to self-medicate. Most likely, you'd go back to your normal life the next day and wait cautiously for any further signs of mental breakdown, and as long as nothing else happened, you wouldn't say anything about it. To anyone. Ever.
Be honest. Am I wrong?
There are tens of thousands of people, all around you, maybe hundreds of thousands, who at some point have experienced something that they can't explain. And these people are silent. They are ashamed. They are afraid. They are convinced that they are the only ones, and so they say nothing. That is the real reason the Pax Arcana is so powerful. Rationality is king, and your emperor isn't wearing any clothes.CHAPTER 2
IF SHOVING YOU IS WRONG, I DON'T WANT TO DO RIGHT
The vampire didn't walk into the bar so much as flow. Like water. Like night. He was wearing a tight black T-shirt and dark jeans over muscles that seemed to have been sculpted from ivory. His hair was black and tousled, framing piercing green eyes that burned with banked passion in spite of the cold smile on his cruel slash of a mouth.
OK, just kidding. Sorry. That whole thing about vampires being übersexy Euro- trash? It's a myth. Vampires project a low-level mental command called a glamour that makes any mortal who meets them see them in the most attractive light possible. Personally, I'm immune to this kind of glamour—it's part of what I am. When I look at vampires, I see what's really there: walking corpses with pale white skin the color and texture of worm flesh, lank greasy hair, bad teeth, and breath that smells like a butcher shop.
Popular young adult novels notwithstanding, vampires only sparkle when they burn.
This particular vampire was wearing a T-shirt that was green, not black, and it was faded. There were indeterminate stains on the shirt where bleach had been applied to something that didn't want to come out—I'm assuming blood, although I might be stereotyping. His jeans were blue and showed signs of wear in the usual places, and like a lot of vampires he had shaved his skull completely bald. Unwashed hair gets grody fast, and most vampires have an innate phobia about being submerged in running water—anything even remotely symbolic of baptism or birth makes them extremely uncomfortable. Only the strongest-willed vampires force themselves to clean up regularly, and I could smell that this guy wasn't one of them. His eyes were close-set and his nose was bony, and they looked out of place on a face as broad as his was, as if his features had been pinched by a giant index finger and thumb.
What was really disturbing about the vampire was that those same eyes were bloodshot, his fangs were bared, and he was radiating hostility. He was so beyond normal, in fact, that he actually triggered the Pax Arcana.
Which was why no one was paying any real attention to him at all, at least not on a surface level. A few people who were texting frowned as the spell surge disrupted their signals, but that was about it. That's one of the things that sucks about magic: it moves molecules around; and when molecules move, electrons shift; and when electrons shift, the air becomes electromagnetically charged. This is why all of those reality shows about ghost hunters basically amount to a bunch of guys with science degrees getting excited while they talk about energy readings, and you're just sitting there bored watching a TV screen fill up with fuzz and static before the cameras go off-line.
This is also where all those old expressions like hair-raising and spine-tingling come from. They were coined centuries ago by people who didn't have the scientific terminology to describe air saturated with a low- level electrical charge.
Anyhow, the reason the vampire's behavior was self-destructive was that the Pax Arcana may be powerful, but it has limits. All acts of magic require energy, and if every supernatural creature on the planet behaved the way this vampire was behaving, the Pax would become overtaxed. Or, I suppose, overPaxed.
If the vampire persisted in this kind of reckless behavior, he was eventually going to attract the attention of a knight, or a supernatural being who didn't want his or her or its way of life disrupted. Some supernatural being like ... the blonde.
Which is why I said, "Oh shit." I had finally figured out what Sig was doing there.
Being a vampire, he heard me curse even though it was under my breath and across a bar. Being a vampire, a species that's only slightly less territorial than junkyard dogs or evil stepmothers, he took it as a challenge. And, being a vampire, he stopped staring at Sig and looked at me.
Being me, I returned the look. I didn't put anything overt into it, but just the fact that he could tell I was really looking back at him was significant. I held his gaze and let my body go completely still, which all animals recognize as a sign that someone is ready to either fight or flee ... and I wasn't going anywhere.
I'm kind of territorial myself. Granted, it wasn't my bar, but I was tending it. I was tending the hell out of it. And I wanted the vampire and the blonde to take it somewhere else, and fast.
He walked toward me, not stopping until he was at the bar directly across from me. "Give me whatever you have on draft," he rasped. Of course, he wasn't really ordering a beer. Vampires can eat or drink normal food, but they can't metabolize it, which means one way or another their bodies later wind up expelling their food or drink undigested.
No, when the vampire demanded I serve him, he was establishing a pecking order. Me badass. You Jane.
"Smell me," I invited quietly.
This guy was a newbie. For a second he thought this was some strange kind of insult, but he still hadn't gotten a good whiff of me, and when he realized that, his nostrils dilated. A vampire's sense of smell isn't as good as mine—he still hadn't smelled the blonde yet—but it's close.
"What the hell kind of a thrope are you?" he asked.
Excerpted from Charming by Elliott James. Copyright © 2013 Elliott James. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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