My head hurt like a bastard.
Nothing terribly unusual in that, but the fact that my wrist also throbbed like a Beast had chewed on it was disconcerting. If I’d drunk enough to set devils driving spikes into my brain and yet had still had to tighten the iron around my wrist, then the visions must have fought me yet again. Hard.
They were getting worse.
I lay for a moment, breathing cautiously, trying to remember. But the images of last night were hazy and blurred together with the past weeks. Each new day, harder than the last. Right now, I wanted to will myself back to sleep. And the oblivion it brought.
But just as I was savoring the thought, I remembered the ball.
The oh-so-respectable human ball I had promised to escort to Regina to.
Shal e’tan mei.
The muttered curse made my head pound harder. Couldn’t I just stay here in bed?
No. Veil’s buggering eyes. There was no way to do that without risking seeing that shadowed look that all too often haunted Reggie’s blue eyes since Holly had rescued her from Summerdale. I’d do many things to avoid seeing that expression. Reggie was still too quiet and a little too thin and the ball had been one of the few things that had seemed to genuinely engage her interest these past few weeks.
So I wasn’t going to disappoint her. Or Holly. A gentleman doesn’t let down his best friends—the closest thing I had to family—after all, and even though, in the eyes of most people who would be attending tonight’s shindig, I was very far from a gentleman, I liked to think I still knew how to behave.
I opened one eye and the headache redoubled its relentless jig inside my skull. Somewhere in my room was a vial of the foul-tasting hangover cure Madame Figg sold to her patrons. I didn’t know where she got it or who made it for her, but it worked if you could stomach the taste.
Tonight it was going to have to work its hideous magic quickly. The crack of sky showing through my crookedly drawn curtains was dark. I’d overslept. Not even started the day and already it was going to hell. I needed all the help I could get.
Five minutes later—once my stomach had apparently determined it wasn’t going to violently reject the hangover cure and the jig-dancing devils had quietened—I decided I might live.
After a quick bath, a shave, and several mugs of strong tea, I even looked vaguely alive. But my wrist still throbbed where the iron chain pressed against it. Madame Figg’s miraculous cure-all was no help there. Each link felt like a razor peeling my skin away with acid-bathed teeth, even though to the naked eye there was nothing to see other than ever-deepening bruises.
Despite the pain I couldn’t risk taking the chain off. Without the iron, the visions would knock me flatter than the hangover.
I gritted my teeth and untwisted the links, laying them flat against my skin before tightening the clasp. My hand shook a little as I slid a gold and jade hoop through my ear. Human men didn’t usually wear earrings, and doing so would, no doubt, earn me some dubious looks at the ball. But given that I had little chance of fitting in anyway, I might as well look like myself.
I drank more tea as I dressed. I couldn’t afford to start in on the brandy. Not yet. Not until the ball was well under way. Escorting Reggie, making sure that she felt safe and no one hassled her, meant I needed my wits about me. I allow myself a glass or two of whatever the DuCaines were serving, but nothing stronger until my duties were done.
Which was going to make the whole thing even less bearable.
I bared my teeth at my reflection and moved to set the mug down on my dresser. The chain bumped against the wood and the pain flared bright, making the room swirl around me. I sucked in a breath, cursing my clumsiness.
I was pushing too hard. Every night, out in the taverns and brothels of the border boroughs, loosening the chain a little and letting the visions rise, trying to see if I could glean anything useful.
I’d never loosened my control over the visions to such a degree and for such a lengthy period before. Every night, no matter how tightly I wrapped the chain around my wrist, it became harder to lock them away again, to push them back to the point where I had some peace and could function like a normal person. Every night it took more alcohol to offset the pain of iron and visions denied.
I didn’t know how much longer I could keep going. Not whilst keeping my sanity.
Too bad my options were limited. I could stop looking. But that might mean missing some useful snatch of the future. Something that might keep me alive. And if I confessed the truth to the human healers, then . . . what exactly? They could give me something stronger to fight the pain? Opium or worse? Something to knock me out and render me useless.
Humans didn’t have the Sight. They wouldn’t know how to help me. The problem was that my Sight had two possible sources. My Fae father. My Beast Kind grandmother. Going to either branch of my very estranged family for help was something I wasn’t yet desperate enough to try. Both sides would try and use me, try and tie me down. I’d spent most of my life staying out of their way. Keeping my freedom. I wasn’t ready to give that up.
There had to be another way. But damned if I knew what it was.
When my carriage door flew open, I knew my night was about to go to hell.
The thick stink of Beast rolled into the hackney as my visitor scrambled in, tugged the door shut, and seated himself opposite me, all while holding a gun at the ready. My hand drifted down to the gun concealed beneath my coat as I studied my unwelcome guest.
“I thought I made it clear last time that I wasn’t going to do this anymore?” I said, keeping my voice coolly polite.
Willem Krueger shrugged and smiled, revealing teeth a little too white and pointed. “It doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what my Alpha wants.”
“He’s not my Alpha,” I said in the same cool tone. I was a true City mongrel—part Fae, part Beast, and part human. I didn’t let any of them claim me, least of all the Beasts. My grandmother was one of the immuable, the unchanging.
Beasts who only knew human form.
They were often gifted with the Sight, as though the gods wished to compensate for their lack of access to the wolf side. My grandmother had been particularly blessed, one of the strongest seers in generations. The immuable are usually treasured by their packs, their powers invaluable, but my grandmother had defied her father to marry a human and had been cast out. Left to fend for herself, without the security and tight-knit obligations of the pack. She’d survived but she’d never forgiven.
But minor details like history and tradition seldom stopped Martin Krueger from making use of any tool he could.
“He’s my Alpha,” Willem said. “And he wants to see you.”
I bit back a curse. The Lady definitely had it in for me. “When?”
I gestured down at my frock coat. “I have a prior engagement.”
“Martin doesn’t care.”
I knew that all too well. Martin had been calling on me—or rather sending his bully boys to fetch me—from time to time since I’d been a teenager. Usually what he wanted was innocuous enough. Glimpses of things that I saw no problem in sharing.
But now things were different. So far, I’d managed to walk the tightrope and maintain the illusion that I was a neutral party. Nobody in the border boroughs or the Night World yet knew that I was feeding information to the humans through Holly where I could. They still just saw Fen, the feckless fortune-teller, drinking and whoring around. Business as usual.
I couldn’t keep up the pretense much longer and now, staring at Willem’s hostile expression, I wondered if the game was finally up. Had Martin found me out? If so, I should just shoot Willem and have done with it. Putting myself in the clutches of a pissed-off Beast wouldn’t be good for my health.
Martin had a short fuse. My ribs still remembered the last time he’d been unhappy with me. That had been just before Lord Lucius—undisputed lord of the Blood Court—whose disappearance had stirred the current tensions in the City to boiling point, had vanished. That time I hadn’t seen what Martin had wanted me to see and I’d paid the price.
I’d managed to avoid him since then, but apparently tonight my luck had run out. Still, the fact that he’d sent only Willem rather than a whole squad of guerriers suggested that maybe my secret was still safe after all.
Regardless, I didn’t want to face down Martin tonight. Not while I was feeling like the blighted depths of the seven hells. “I’m due at a ball thrown by the DuCaines. They’re not the sort of people you disappoint.”
“Neither is our Alpha.” Willem sounded casual but he shifted a little on the seat. Afraid to tangle with the sunmage and the Templar was he?
“Your Alpha,” I corrected. “Perhaps not, but Simon DuCaine’s invitation was polite. Perhaps Martin could learn from him.” Simon DuCaine was a sunmage, a gifted healer. He was innately courteous but that didn’t mean he was to be underestimated. Even Martin wasn’t thickheaded enough to aggravate one of the most powerful mages in the City. Or was he?
Willem bared his teeth again. There wasn’t the faintest trace of humor in his expression. “You can come voluntarily or I can drag you there.”
I thought of Reggie and Holly, waiting for me to show up. I had no doubt Willem would do exactly as he threatened. I couldn’t match the strength of a Beast. But I could outthink one. There might be something useful to be gained from a visit to Holt’s End. The Kruegers, like all the packs, were embroiled in all sorts of things, none of them good. Not quite on the level of the Rousselines, who were the closest to the Blood lords, or the Favreaus, who wanted to be, but no Beast pack in the City was entirely free of the Blood and their games these days. I might be able to learn something.
“How about a compromise? I’ll be done at the ball by two. Surely Martin can wait a few hours.” The Beast Kind, like the Blood, lived largely nocturnally.
As Willem’s expression turned grim, I drew the gun. “Let me phrase it another way. You can tell Martin that I’ll see him later or I can put a hole in you.” I was gambling that Willem wouldn’t actually shoot me. If Martin really wanted to see me, then Willem needed me alive. The sound of the hackney moving over the cobbles echoed loudly as we stared at each other.
Finally Willem blinked. “Fine. Three. No later or we will come to fetch you. You won’t enjoy it.”
I nodded. “I’ll be there. Now, get out of my carriage.” I pointed to the door with the tip of my gun. Willem snarled but pushed the door open and swung himself out. We weren’t going terribly fast, not enough to worry a Beast at least. I reached out and pulled the door closed before taking a deep breath, trying to take the edge off the adrenaline rush. Teasing a savage dog is never a good idea. My gamble had paid off for now. But it could still backfire later on.
Wanting to be sure Willem had actually gone, I stuck my head out the window of the hackney. Only to yank it back suddenly as a horn sounded and an autocab came careening past us, making the horses swerve wildly.
I caught a momentary glimpse of a woman in a dark cloak in the back of the ‘cab, staring at me in shock—eyes big against pale skin—before the ’cab had pulled ahead and I was left with the sound of the hackney driver’s curses ringing in my ears.
Muttering a few curses of my own under my breath, I settled myself back in the seat, trying to slow my pulse down. An ultimatum and a near decapitation. And the night had only just begun.
Sometimes even I can’t see the future. If anyone had asked me as little as a month ago where I would be tonight, there would have been no chance I would have picked my current location.
Standing in the middle of a grand society ball, of all things. Surrounded by humans in their pretty dresses and suits, pretending the world was perfectly all right.
Little did they know.
I swallowed more champagne, watching the smiling people swirl around me and wishing I had brandy. But it was still far too early for that. Not with Martin and the Kruegers to deal with later on.
The champagne did little to ease the pain in my wrist and here, surrounded by so many people, even doubled iron didn’t stop the visions.
Everyone was ghosted by the images of the futures that rose around them, so many that they blurred and mingled and, thank the Lady, made it difficult to get a clear picture of anything. Other than an omnipresent sense of darkness.
Darkness and flames, pressing around me so tightly I could smell smoke in the air. It made my stomach clench and my heart race with the suppressed urge to tell them all to flee.
My hand tightened around the delicate crystal glass. I focused on trying to feel the etched patterns in its surface, to connect to something real. To remind myself that the panic and doom I felt didn’t belong to this moment. This place.
It helped somewhat. Which was good, because here I was and here I had to stay since I was stupid enough to be a man of my word when it came to two particular people in my life.
Across this grand ballroom stood one of my best friends, Holly Evendale and her lover, Guy DuCaine, smiling and looking like they were having a perfectly splendid time. Guy in evening clothes looked only slightly less intimidating than he did in his Templar mail, looming tall beside Holly, his pale blond head bent toward her. As usual, the visions clustered strongly around them and I saw the gleam of gold on their hands where no rings yet existed in reality. They hadn’t made any announcements, but I was near certain they were getting married. If we didn’t all die in whatever darkness was bending the futures to fire and pain.
Next to them stood Simon, Guy’s brother, and Lily, his fiancée, all four of them listening intently as an elegant woman wearing a deep green dress, her fading blond hair piled in an elaborate coil, spoke. Stones the same color as her dress winked from her hair. Simon and Guy’s mother, Hilary DuCaine. She was the one throwing this particular folly. An extravagant celebration to herald the start of the treaty season.
Treaty season. A very frivolous name for a very serious time. Every five years the four races—humans, Blood, Beasts, and Fae—gathered to renegotiate the treaty they had forged centuries ago. The treaty that was the only reason the City was still standing and, quite likely, the only reason that the humans had survived here. The negotiations were vital. They determined the shifting lines of territories, punished violations, and maintained the balance between the races with a new law here or an adjustment of the rations of iron and silver allocated to the races who used them for protection and industry.
Crazy humans to celebrate the start of what could be the City’s downfall. But celebrate they did, which meant the DuCaine brothers were called to the social duties that came with their family’s place in the City. Where Simon and Guy went, so did Lily and Holly. And where Holly went, so did Reggie. Which, right now, meant that I was dragged along as well.
So here I was, watching over her, even though so far Reggie seemed perfectly at ease and in demand as a partner.
She was out on the parquet floor in the center of the ballroom right now, circling with some human scion, her pretty pale blue dress just one in a sea of pretty dresses. Which left me with not much to do other than drink champagne and tighten the chain around my wrist to try and stave off the visions swimming at the edges of my sight like ghosts.
Ghosts with teeth.
A thousand competing futures, all shouting for attention. Swirling together to funnel my sight toward the larger fate of the City. Different from when I was among fewer people, getting glimpses of individual futures. There were flashes of those here. The odd pleasant flash . . . a woman with a child or a man winning at cards, but mostly it was a haze of that unrelenting sense of doom. Sharper with each passing moment.
The end of the night couldn’t come fast enough. I drained my glass and gestured for another. Reggie and Holly would frown disapprovingly if they spotted me, but that was all the more reason to drink fast.
I raised the fresh glass to my lips, felt the prickly fizz of bubbles across my tongue as I let my gaze go unfocused. Sometimes that helped . . . not looking directly at anyone. Sometimes it didn’t. Tonight, it seemed, was going to be one of those times. The visions still hovered around me insistently.
Buggering Veil’s eyes.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds, denying them. I didn’t want to look, didn’t want to know what fate might await us all. Whatever happened in the City, it would be the people on the edges of society who felt the brunt of it.
As hard it was to be Blood or Beast Kind or even a human in the City, those of us who were half-breeds were the ones who were truly screwed. Betwixt and between and not really wanted by anyone. Mongrels indeed. Though some of the females I’d bedded in the past would’ve probably used “bastard” instead. Which was also true. My father never married my mother. The Fae don’t marry whores after all.
I looked across again at Holly and Lily. They knew better than anyone how I felt. Holly’s father, recently dead at Guy’s hand, was a true prick of a Fae lordling if ever there was one. He’d used and discarded her mother and tried to force Holly into betraying Simon to further a plot against the Veiled Queen. He was the reason for the shadows in Reggie’s eyes. If he hadn’t already been dead, I would’ve cheerfully cut his throat myself.
Lily was something different altogether. A wraith. Half Fae, half unknown. Reviled by the Fae for her ability to turn incorporeal and move through any substance at will, she’d been sold not long after she’d been born to Lucius, the late unlamented Lord of the Blood Court, who’d used her as an assassin, a tool of fear and blood to enforce obedience to his will. The fact that she’d moved from that world to this one after meeting Simon was probably the one thing stranger than my being at this ball.
But if either Holly or Lily was uncomfortable being here, they didn’t show it. Holly wore a deep bronze dress that was a little more conservative than those she’d worn when spying on the Night World amidst the theater halls and Blood Assemblies they frequented. Tonight her hair was glamoured to match the dress, and her eyes, happy as she looked up at Guy, glowed nearly the same shade. Lily, pale and redheaded, wore something soft and simple in a pale green that made her look innocent. If I’d had to guess, I’d have said that Reggie, who worked as a modiste, had picked a design for her that was intended to make people see something sweet and unthreatening rather than the trained killer she was.
It worked, to a degree. Lily was smiling, like the others. Her gray eyes were watchful, and I would’ve bet good coin that she could describe all the exit points to the room and likely had picked out anyone who was armed amongst the crowd. Holly probably had a good idea of that as well, plus she probably knew some interesting secrets about some of the starched shirts surrounding her. Since I’d known her, Holly had owned the modiste salon where Reggie worked. But that was only for appearances’ sake—her real talent lay in using her considerable skills in charms and subterfuge to spy for whoever paid the highest price.
But right now both Holly and Lily looked as if there were nothing more pressing in their lives than dancing and drinking under the elaborate chandeliers. I frowned as I swallowed more champagne. Enough alcohol and maybe I could look relaxed as well.
Reggie reappeared at my side. “Haven’t you had enough?”
“Not by half,” I muttered. I avoided meeting her gaze. Eye contact always made the visions worse when they slipped my control. I still caught glimpses anyway. As always, Reggie was surrounded by colors and textures—a sign of her vocation as a modiste—and images of dancing people dressed in beautiful clothes. There were Fae faces amongst them now, more than there had been before she had been held in Summerdale. Some danced, but some watched. The images had an unsettling mistiness. As though the fates weren’t sure of what they showed. But that was probably just due to the general uncertainty I felt right now.
Reggie flipped her fan toward me. “You’re meant to be dancing with me, not propping up the bar.”
I glanced at the nearly full dance card dangling from her wrist. “Doesn’t look to me like you’re lacking partners.”
“I saved one for you,” she said coaxingly.
I wondered if she’d done so in collaboration with Holly. A “let’s distract Fen to cheer him up” ploy. True, I wasn’t averse to dancing now and then, but tonight I wasn’t in the mood. “Ask me later.”
Reggie tossed her head, her silver and blue filigree earrings bouncing. “Who says I’ll still have any unfilled dances later?”
“Then that will be my loss.” I rubbed at my wrist absently, wishing the champagne would at least do something to ease the iron’s bite.
“It’s hurting tonight, isn’t it?” Reggie said in a softer tone. Eyes the same shade as her dress filled with worry. “Can’t you take it off?”
“Not here.” Not unless I wanted to cause a scene by screaming. I forced a smile. “I’m fine, love. Go and have fun.”
“The idea is for you to have some too.”
I just raised an eyebrow. She frowned, snapped her fan shut, then sighed and turned away. I watched her thread her way back across the ballroom to Holly and Lily.
Simon and Guy had moved out of my line of sight, leaving just the women, still talking animatedly. Beside Holly stood a girl I didn’t recognize. Her back was half turned to me, so all I could really see was the pale pink sweep of her dress and dark—reddish perhaps—curls falling down to hide the line of her face and neck. Both Holly and Lily were smiling at her—perhaps she worked at St. Giles Hospital, where Simon was Master Healer?
Reggie reached the group and obviously reported my recalcitrant behavior. Holly craned her neck to frown at me over the unknown girl’s shoulder. I tipped my glass to her, then turned back to the bar before she could send me any further indicators of her concern. The starched white linen covering the polished wood offered no reproval, at least. No answers to any of my problems either.
When I turned to look again, the girl in the pink dress had disappeared, leaving just Lily and Holly and Reggie clustered together. As I watched, a young buck in immaculate evening dress came up to Reggie and bowed. There. She had a partner. She was safe. No need to feel guilty.
“Don’t you like to dance?”
The voice came from my side, low for a female and somewhat amused. I turned my head. It was the girl in the pink dress. Tilted green-gray eyes watched me with interest and she smiled, revealing a dimple in her left cheek that only added to her prettiness.
I tipped my head, taking her in. The pink dress floated over sleek curves, to curl around her feet in a sea of flounces. Her hair was unadorned, apart from a single bar of pale pink pearls that matched those at her ears. Lovely. Lovely enough to distract me for a while at least. I smiled at her. “I don’t generally dance, no.”
Her smile widened—there was something vaguely familiar about that smile and the dimple. “Oh good. I hate it too.”
I blinked. Not what I expected a well-brought-up human female to say.
The girl turned to the barman and asked for champagne. Another blink. I would have thought her a little young to be drinking champagne. “Why are you at a ball if you don’t like dancing?”
She wrinkled her nose, sipped champagne, swallowed, and then sighed. “My mother requested my presence.” She flexed the hand not holding the champagne glass. She wore long gloves of an even paler pink than her dress . . . a pink that almost wasn’t. Her skin, bared between the top of the glove just below her elbows and the floating ruffled sleeve halfway down her arm, was faded gold, not pale white. And there were muscles under that skin, smooth curves revealed with the movement of her hand. Where had she got those?
“My mother has a way of talking people into things.”
“My sympathies,” I said. “I know a few people like that.” I cranked up my own smile a little.
A bored young thing at a ball. A bored, young, slightly unconventional thing. Perhaps my night wasn’t going to be a complete waste of time after all.
She laughed, then offered the gloved hand. “You’re Fen, aren’t you? I’m Saskia. Saskia DuCaine.”
I almost choked. Saskia DuCaine? This was Simon and Guy’s little sister? I took her hand gingerly and shook it, then released it as quickly as I could without being rude. The kid leather slipped over my skin softly, warm from her body as our fingers slid away from each other. I tucked my hand into my pocket before I could reach for hers again. That would be a very bad idea.
This particular bored young unconventional thing was not for the likes of me. For starters, her brothers were a sunmage and a Templar, respectively. I was fond of my head being unfried and attached to my neck. True, both Simon and Guy had chosen women who weren’t exactly the type that heirs of a powerful human family were expected to fall in love with, but I wasn’t stupid enough to think that the DuCaine daughters would enjoy the same leeway.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, after a moment of gathering my wits. “I know your brothers.”
Her tone held more than a hint of eye roll. My brain clutched for something else to talk about. “Did Holly send you over?”
She shook her head, setting long dark curls bouncing. They gleamed red under the light of the massive chandeliers. Now that I knew who she was, I could see the resemblance to her brothers in the dimples and the smile. The dark hair was her own, though—both her brothers being blond—and the angled grayish green eyes made her face more exotic than either of theirs.
“No, I wanted to meet you.”
Definitely trouble. I fought the urge to move backward. Retreat would be futile with the bar at my back anyway. “Why?”
“Because everyone else in my family has.”
“Not everyone,” I said. “I haven’t met your sister . . . Hannah, isn’t it? Or your mother, other than in the receiving line earlier.” I hoped it would stay that way. Mothers didn’t approve of me. I didn’t resent them for it. After all, I rarely approved of me either.
“Well, now you’ve met one more of us.” She took another sip of her champagne and studied me over the rim of the flute. “You look concerned.”
“Did I mention I know your brothers?”
“I’m not the sort of man your brothers want you talking to.”
That got me a dimple flash and another nose wrinkle. “My brothers don’t tell me what to do.” Her head tilted and her smile widened. “Or rather, they try to, but I ignore them.”
I ignored my desire to smile back at her. No good could come of it. “Really?” Not many people found Simon and Guy ignorable. “How do they like that?”
“Not very well. They seem to think I’m still sixteen.”
“How old are you?” She obviously wasn’t sixteen or she wouldn’t be at the ball. It wasn’t a debutante sort of affair.
“I’m twenty-three.” She shook her head. “If they had their way, I’d still live at home. Hypocrites, both of them. They were both Templar novices at seventeen.”
“It’s different for boys.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“Sometimes mothers make sense,” I said, more because it seemed the right thing to say than because it was anything I believed. What did I know of mothers? Mine was hardly a stellar example of maternity, but Saskia didn’t need to know that. Better she thought me boring and left me alone and I didn’t find myself being hunted down by Simon and Guy.
I looked past Saskia to see if I could spot Holly. She was still standing where she had been earlier and she raised an eyebrow at me as I caught her eye. I lifted my hand to wave at her, our long-standing “come save me” signal.
The movement made my coat sleeve fall back and for a moment my chain flashed into view.
Saskia’s smile died. “Why do you have an iron chain around your wrist?”
I smoothed my sleeve, hiding the chain from her sight. “How do you know it’s iron?”
“I can tell.”
“From one look?” I doubted it. It was only a glimpse, after all, and one dark metal chain looked much like another.
“I’m a metalmage . . . an apprentice, at least. It’s iron.” She looked confused. “But you’re half Fae, aren’t you? Like Holly? That must hurt.”
I’d known that, somewhere in the back of my mind. Holly must have told me. I tried to reconcile the young woman in front of me with my mental image of metalmages—which consisted largely of forges and flames and grime. It didn’t work. “Some of us aren’t affected by iron. Like Holly.”
“Holly’s immunity is pretty rare. Are you saying you have it too?” It was her turn to sound disbelieving.
The lie stuck on the tip of my tongue, caught there, perhaps, by the pain in my wrist where the chain bit. Luckily I was saved from answering by Holly’s arrival.
She looked from me to Saskia and back, eyes narrowing as they met mine. I kept my face carefully bland. After all, I was innocent in this particular situation. Saskia had sought me out, not the other way around.
“I see you two have met,” Holly said.
Saskia nodded. “Fen was just telling me how the iron around his wrist doesn’t hurt him.”
Holly’s eyes widened, her famous composure, for once, disturbed. “Was he now?” One hand strayed up to toy with the chain at her neck. Worried, then. “Saskia, your mother asked me to fetch you. The speeches will be starting soon.”
I knew that tone well enough to get the “you stay right here, Fen” intent. I was being warned away from Saskia, which I had to admit stung a little. For one thing, did Holly really think I was stupid enough to mess around with a well-connected human and, for another, if she did, did she really think I wasn’t good enough for her future sister-in-law?
I watched the two of them leave, my wrist throbbing and the taste of champagne sour in my mouth. I turned back to the barman. Fuck restraint and fuck Martin Krueger. I needed a proper drink.
The half-healed burn on my right hand itched under the leather of my glove. I resisted the urge to pull it off and scratch.
Young ladies don’t scratch in public. It’s impolite.
My mother had drummed that, amongst many other rules of correct behavior, into my head from the time I was big enough to appear in anything even vaguely resembling a public place.
Of course, I was hardly a polite young lady despite her best efforts. I had stopped being a polite young lady when my powers came in, but Mother did her best to ignore that and I did my best to pretend she was right when I was with her. It was easier that way, even if sometimes the pretense itched worse than the burn on my hand did. Itched and scratched and made me feel like I couldn’t breathe, as though I was wearing a too tight corset. Which I often was, around my mother.
Still, I could never quite banish her voice telling me exactly how I was falling short of her standards at times like these.
I tried to think of something else as I listened with half an ear to whatever it was the always dull Anthony Killington was pontificating on to his circle of admirers. The trouble with trying to think of something else at this point was that the only other things my mind kept returning to were the amused dark green eyes of the mysterious Fen and the iron chain wrapped around his wrist.
It only proved my point. He wasn’t the sort of man polite young ladies thought of. No, they would have the sense to give him a wide berth, to feel that hint of otherness about him and distance themselves. Men like him didn’t keep you safe from danger. Men like him attracted it. The same atmosphere that surrounded Holly and Lily—that same sense of potential for . . . mayhem? Danger?—hells, freedom—surrounded him like burning spice. Exotic. Enticing.
I wanted to let it surround me too.
But Fen wasn’t the right path for that. No, if I wanted to be finally allowed to do something and not be kept wrapped in cotton wool by my brothers, then my best chance was the Guild of Metalmages and mastery of my powers.
My hand itched again. The Guild. I couldn’t wait to get back there. Back to the power and fire and the place where I was valued for myself, not for some idea of who I should be. Back where the metal sang and everything seemed simple. Where no one looked at me with that polite face that said, “Oh, Saskia, she’s a little . . . odd.” At the Guild, those without powers were the odd ones.
Tomorrow Master Aquinas would be choosing the students who would be part of the Guild’s treaty delegation. Choosing me, if all my hard work had paid off.
One more night.
But first I had to get through this hideous ball.
The first ball of treaty season, thrown by my mother, as usual. Short of actually setting myself on fire, there was no way I would be able to leave until early morning. Not whilst Hilary was keeping her eagle eye on me. If I tried to slip out any earlier, I’d have to deal with weeks of lectures on my shortcomings. A few hours of pain now were worth avoiding that. Which was why I was standing in uncomfortable shoes, in an uncomfortable dress, pretending to enjoy myself while my hand itched and Anthony Killington droned on about his latest victory in banking in a voice that buzzed like a very dull bee.
Across the room, my mother smiled approvingly and tipped her head in Anthony’s direction, urging me closer. I resisted the desire to stick out my tongue in response. Surely one definite and one imminent engagement were enough? My brothers were settling down, hopefully ensuring the family line for another generation. Couldn’t my mother let that distract her from trying to match me up as well?
Apparently not, if I read the gleam in Hilary’s eyes correctly.
Perhaps because of the women Simon and Guy had chosen, my mother’s determination to marry me and, in few years or so once she turned twenty, Hannah, off to suitable—for which one could read human—men seemed to have intensified.
Well, she was just going to have to wait for any form of marital triumph when it came to me. I was only four years into my studies at the Guild. Marriage, if it ever did tempt me, would come after I became a Master.
Anthony changed the topic of conversation to currency valuation and the impact of the silver stockpiles. The itch intensified. It was warm in the ballroom, the candles in the chandeliers and the press of bodies heating the air to an unpleasant closeness. My hands were damp in my gloves, sweat stinging the burn. My fingers flexed unwittingly to ease the pain.
If I’d been sensible I would have asked Simon to heal it for me, but if I ran to my brother every time I had a minor scrape or burn at the Guild, I’d spend all my time traveling to and from St. Giles.
Hardly conducive to clinching the race for the top spot in my class and securing my inclusion in the delegation.
Beside which, I’d have to put up with Simon teasing me about a metalmage burning herself each and every time I asked for help. He knew as well as I did that, while metalmages can’t be burned by metal being worked with their power or fire they have called, we are perfectly susceptible to the whims of other sources of heat. But he was also my older brother and therefore duty bound to tease me when he could.
Determined to ignore my hand, I excused myself from the group of Killington hangers-on and made my way slowly through the crowd, trying to look like I had a destination in mind. My attention was only half on the endless parade of couples whirling around the room while I looked for a place to hide away for a few minutes. I didn’t understand how they could all be so cavalier. Acting as if they didn’t have a care in the world and as though the looming treaty negotiations were nothing to be worried about.
Denial seemed to be in fashion amongst my mother’s set. And she kept up the charade as well, moving amongst her guests, laughing and smiling and making sure everybody was having a good time, though in reality she knew more than most about the trouble that lurked in the heart of the City.
I caught sight of her across the ballroom, smiling determinedly. Trouble indeed. She only had to look at the women standing beside her sons to be reminded of that.
I didn’t know exactly what the trouble was. Guy and Simon both turned stony-faced and closemouthed when I asked. Yet here was Simon with Lily, a former Night World assassin and Guy had risked a trip to the Veiled Court to help Holly—a relative stranger at the time, not to mention half Fae—rescue her mother. Lord Lucius had disappeared around the time Simon had met Lily and there were all sorts of rumors flying about the Veiled World being in an uproar since Guy and Holly had been there. Whatever trouble was driving the undercurrents of unease swirling through the City, my brothers were at the center of it.
And totally determined to keep me ignorant in their knuckleheaded belief that it would keep me safe.
Stop me ending up dead like our sister Edwina.
But just as my mother was wrong in her belief that I was her perfect lady of a daughter apart from that whole unfortunate metalmage issue, Simon and Guy were wrong if they thought they could keep their secrets and keep me from helping them if I could.
I just had to find a way in to the truth.
Tomorrow, I reminded myself. Tomorrow I would have a ticket to the negotiations and they would have no excuse to keep me ignorant any longer.
I could make it through tonight—behave myself—to get to tomorrow. But even as I thought it, I found myself turning back to look across the room to where Fen had been, seeking another glimpse of dark hair and wild green eyes.
There. I spotted him just in time to see my brothers coming up on either side of him. My fingers tightened around my fan. What were they doing? My hand stung as I watched, wishing I could hear what they were saying. But for that I would need one of Holly’s charms. Instead, I just had to stand and observe as the three of them made their way across the ballroom to one of the doors. Damn. Where were they going?
I wanted to know, to follow, but any chance of escape was thwarted when Anthony Killington appeared before me, bowing low, and I remembered I had promised him the next dance.
The door shut behind me with a quiet click. I stayed where I was, close to the exit, as Guy walked over and lifted a decanter from a tray on a table near the window. “Brandy?”
I nodded agreement. I assumed that whatever was kept in the decanters here, in what looked like someone’s private study, was probably a step or two up from the liquor they were serving downstairs. And what they were serving downstairs was more than a few steps up from what Madame Figg served.
While Guy poured, I waited, still aware that Simon stood behind me, near the door. I’d never been in the DuCaine town house before. Too risky.
“I thought we’d agreed not to talk tonight,” I said. Letting Reggie and Holly talk me into this was one thing, but being seen going off with Guy and Simon was another altogether.
“It’s all right,” Simon said. “You’re glamoured.”
Holly’s work, I presumed. Well, that was risky too. “There are people who can see through glamours.” I examined the room, looking for wards. The drapes pulled tight across the window were dark red brocade and the furniture was deep brown, both wood and leather. A fire burned in the grate despite the mild night, faintly sweet smoke mingling with the smell of the gaslights. On the walls hung portraits of Hilary and Garret DuCaine and their children. The whole place reeked of elegance and wealth. The wards were elegant too, subtle shimmering layers of magic that would take a lot of work to break. I let myself relax a little.
Guy filled one glass, then put the decanter down and picked up another to fill a second glass with the whiskey he preferred. “Simon?” He looked past me to his brother.
“No,” Simon said. “I’m working later.”
Behind me a tingle of magic prickled my neck. Simon giving the wards another boost. Nervous, was he?
Apparently I was going to need that brandy Guy was holding out to me. I walked over and took the glass, feeling the weight of good crystal in my hand. Probably not good form to bolt the whole drink at a gulp.
I sipped it instead, watching the DuCaines warily. “I take it you didn’t ask me here just to share your family’s excellent brandy,” I said. “So talk.”
Guy looked at Simon, one of those inscrutable Templar looks he was good at. Apparently Simon had no problem interpreting it. He shrugged, then pointed to the chairs near the fireplace as Guy tipped his own glass and half drained it. Maybe I could have bolted mine after all.
I chose the chair closest to the door, mostly to watch Guy squirm when he couldn’t take the most obvious defensive position.
“The negotiations start next week,” Simon said, once all three of us were settled.
“Just as well, when your mother has gone to all this trouble with this ball,” I said.
“This ball might be one of the few pleasant things associated with the negotiations,” Simon said.
“This is hardly news,” I said. “Your point?” They wouldn’t risk dragging me in here for no good reason. I wondered exactly what Simon had to say that had him dancing around the subject like one of those silly girls who came to the Swallow and took several nights to screw up their courage enough to sit down at my table and pay to hear their fortunes.
“Do you have somewhere more important to be?” Guy asked, tilting his glass slowly so that the whiskey glowed red in the firelight.
I looked away quickly before the color could spark the visions to renewed strength. That happened sometimes. The insistent fog of futures had mostly dissipated here in the study, away from the crowds, but Simon and Guy had always been hard to be around. The futures swirled around them like moths circling a lamp. Men with destinies.
Destinies that, at this point, seemed as full of blood and fire as everybody else’s. I didn’t know whether I was seeing true or still picking up the overflow from what I was seeing from the masses below. Either way I wanted to close my eyes until I didn’t have to see any more.
“As a matter of fact, I do have another appointment this evening,” I said.
“Anyone we know?” Guy asked, head tilting like his glass. His eyes, paler than his brother’s, were suddenly coldly intent.
“I doubt it. She doesn’t move in these circles.” I lied glibly. No need to bring the Kruegers up at this point. If I learned anything useful about them, I would pass it on, of course, but until then what the DuCaines didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. I didn’t have the patience for hashing over whether or not I should risk a trip to Beast territory tonight.
Guy relaxed, mouth twitching. “I should have known.”
“Don’t tell Holly. She wants me looking after Regina.”
“Reggie’s doing very well,” Simon said. “Holly hovering over her isn’t going to help her.”
I tipped my glass in his direction. “I’ll let you tell Holly that. If you dare.”
“I’ve said as much to Lily.”
Braver man than I. I didn’t understand how or why, but Holly and Lily were friends. Or friendly, at least. A wraith befriending a half-Fae former spy. A dangerous combination. “Oh yes? What did she say?”
“That fussing made Holly feel better and that Reggie would put her foot down when she wanted to. And that we should stay out of it.”
We all sat silently for a moment, none of us wanting to contemplate crossing Lily.
Guy roused himself first, setting his glass down and leaning forward. “You won’t have to stay here until the end of the ball anyway,” he said. “Holly and I are staying here tonight and Mother has invited Reggie to sleep here as well.”
“Good,” I said with a nod. “Which brings us back to the topic at hand. Why am I here?”
“We want you to be part of the human delegation,” Guy said bluntly.
Brandy burned my throat as I coughed. “Me? Why?” I’d known they wanted to use my visions to their advantage, but I’d never expected this. It wasn’t completely unheard of—or against the rules—for members of other races to be included in a delegation, but it was unusual. Including someone like me, who didn’t even strictly belong to any race, would be even more unusual. Not that that would stop Simon and Guy from doing something if they decided it was right.
“We need every advantage we can muster, Fen,” Simon said. “Anything you see might help us.”
I swallowed as I regained my breath. “No.”
“Why not?” Guy asked. His voice had deepened, cooled. Not a good sign.
But still, was he seriously asking why not? Why not put myself in the very center of whatever it was that was coming? A healthy sense of self-preservation for a start. Feeding information to the DuCaines under the table was one thing. Being an acknowledged member of the humans’ side of the fight was another altogether. “We agreed that we would keep our association . . . quiet.”
Guy tilted his head at me. “We all knew that you would be discovered at some point.”
“Hasn’t happened yet.” I was stalling. Truly, I hadn’t wanted to think about what would happen if someone ferreted out the truth of what I was up to. I’d been telling myself no one would. Apparently I’d been happy to believe me.
“I don’t think I would be particularly helpful,” I said. I gestured toward the wall closest to the ballroom. “In crowds, my sight is less than reliable.” I wasn’t going to mention the pain. Not just yet. Not if I could talk my way out of this without giving myself away.
“Don’t you care about what happens?”
“I care about what happens to me,” I said. “And mine.”
Guy’s eyebrows lifted. “If ‘mine’ includes Holly, then she’ll be at the negotiations.”
Of course she would be. She’d thrown in her lot with Guy’s, for better or worse. And her skills as a spy and someone familiar with the players of the Night World would no doubt prove an asset to the humans. But just because she’d lost her head, that didn’t mean I had to volunteer to lose mine.
But what would she and Reggie think of me if I didn’t?
The brandy suddenly soured in my mouth.
I put down my nearly empty glass, then rose. “I need time to think about this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I promised Reggie a dance.”
For a moment I didn’t think they were going to let me go, but neither moved as I crossed the room. I kept my pace slow and steady, not giving in to my urge to run from the building. I didn’t think I had heard the last of this particular request, but for now at least I was still free.
The night air was cool as I stepped out through the double front doors several hours later and crossed the marble portico, feeling the weight of the visions ease like a change in weather. I let out a breath of relief. There was still a thunder in my head and flames flickering at the edges of my vision—after almost five hours surrounded by hundreds of people it would take a while for the visions to retreat—but it was easier to bear.
The second and third brandies I’d downed after leaving Simon and Guy helped somewhat . . . just enough to make the world feel a bit detached, as though I was part of the mist dampening the cool night air.
I sucked in a few more breaths, clearing my head. I still had Martin to deal with, after all. I checked my watch. I had paid the driver of the hackney to return for me at two thirty. I was about to discover if I’d thrown my money away.
The semicircular drive that curved around the front of the house was empty except for one thing.
She stood on the bottom step, watching the front gates. A dark cloak hid the pink dress, but her hair was uncovered and gleamed in the misty light. I could only see the side of her face, as she was half turned toward the house, or the warmth from the gas lamps that hung from wrought-metal poles and chains fastened to the marble portico above her perhaps.
I hesitated, debating whether I should attempt to remain unseen. Moving closer would only bring the visions back, plus she wasn’t the type of girl who loitered with men in the dark. I was surprised there wasn’t a servant waiting with her now. Perhaps she was sneaking away too. It was early for her to be leaving her own family’s party, but who was I to judge when I was making a break for it myself? The thought of her giving her family the slip made me like her even more than I did already.
I squelched the sentiment hard, but it refused to vanish. Stupid, Fen. Even Holly had warned me off this girl. A warning that right at this moment, the brandy seemed disinclined to heed.
After all, it said, it was only gentlemanly not to leave her standing out here unaccompanied at such an hour. It’s not safe out here. Of course, I didn’t imagine that Saskia DuCaine was headed off to a rendezvous with a pack alpha, or anybody else for that matter. Well-bred human girls didn’t do that sort of thing. No, she was probably trying to make her curfew at the Guild. If the Guild had a curfew. A safe destination, the Guild of Metalmages. Much like the drive of this house was, most likely, perfectly safe. Still, the stupid side of me set free by the alcohol latched on to the excuse to walk to where she stood.
“Miss DuCaine,” I said politely as I reached her side.
She jumped a little, then made a noise of apology as she turned to see who had spoken. A smile curved her lips briefly. “Technically the correct form of address is Prentice DuCaine.”
“I stand corrected.” I swept a bow, not sure why I felt the urge. “Prentice DuCaine. What are you doing out here all by yourself?”
I waited for the visions to crowd me, but it seemed that the iron was enough to deal with just one person and the air around her stayed almost clear. Flames flickered over her head but they were fainter. Much fainter. And really, flames around a metalmage were to be expected.
I was tempted to push, to look again and see what was to be seen now that her futures weren’t tangled and blurred by those of everybody else in the ballroom, but I stopped myself.
“Waiting for my ’cab,” she said. “It’s late.”
“Likewise my hackney,” I said. “Perhaps something is slowing their travels.”
“I hope not,” she said, frowning. “I have to be up early.”
Whereas I was unlikely to see my bed before dawn. A timely reminder that we were from two very different worlds. I took another breath of that cooling, calming night air. “I’m sure they won’t be long.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “Exactly how sure?”
I mirrored her eyebrow lift. “I can’t see them turning the corner down the street, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Pity.” She scratched idly at the back of her hand, then made an exasperated face and tugged off her gloves with impatient movements. Once her hands were freed, she shook them, flexing the fingers slowly before stretching her arms out before her. “Sainted earth, that’s better.”
A red weal marred the skin on the back of her right hand. A burn?
“Did you hurt yourself?” I didn’t reach to touch her. One didn’t take the hand of nice young ladies alone in the dark.
“It’s nothing. I was just a little careless.” She made a fist, then dropped her hand to her side. “It will be fine tomorrow.”
Looking at the angry red mark, I wasn’t so sure of that. Burns hurt—I knew that much. I thought of all the time she must have spent tonight with men’s hands pressing on the burn through her gloves as she danced. She’d either numbed it up with something or she was tougher than she looked. Something made me suspect the latter. “You should get Simon to look at it.”
She flicked her fingers in a gesture of dismissal. “We have healers at the Guild.”
“Then you should get one of them to look at it.”
The exasperated look returned to her face. “You sound like my brothers.”
I wasn’t sure if that was insult or compliment but before I could ask, a ’cab chugged through the gate and came to a steaming, heaving halt before us. I stepped down and reached to open the rear door.
“Prentice DuCaine,” I said and, unthinking, stretched out my hand to help her into the cab.
As her fingers touched mine, the thunder in my head disappeared, the flames flicking at my vision snuffed like candles. Stunned, I stepped back, releasing her hand, but before I could speak, the ’cab took off and she was gone.
“Did Saskia leave?” It was Holly.
I started, eyes still staring at the gate where the ’cab had turned and rumbled out of view. Had I imagined it? That sudden respite from the visions?
They were back now, back as soon as I had let go of Saskia’s hand, rising around me like shredded ghosts once more. I reached for my wrist to press the iron closer.
“Fen?” Holly’s voice sounded concerned.
I shook myself, trying to break the trance. There was no logical explanation for the touch of Saskia’s hand stopping my visions. I must have imagined it. “Yes. She left in a ’cab just now.”
“And you?” She tilted her head, eyes shining bronze gold in the gaslight, matching her dress. The unusual color didn’t distract from the worry they held.
I shrugged. “Reggie said she was staying the night here with you.”
“She is.” Her tone suggested that wasn’t the point.
“She had plenty of partners in there.”
“You said you’d stay.”
“I—” I turned back to the gate, my palm tingling with the remembered sensation of Saskia’s skin. “I have somewhere I need to be.”
“Fen, you’re not going to do something stupid, are you?” Her voice held more than a hint of censure.
My hand clenched, sensation fleeing. I turned back to Holly. “Such as?” I asked silkily.
She jerked her head toward the gate. “She’s not one of us, Fen. You can’t toy with someone like her.”
“Guy is hardly one of us,” I pointed out.
“I’m not toying with Guy.”
“You were when you first started.”
“She’s human. She’s grown up with all this.” Holly gestured at the pillars supported the domed portico. At the expensively intricate gas lamps and impeccably manicured topiary standing in enameled pots at their feet. It was a long way from the back alleys of the border boroughs, from the sweaty, stuffy attic rooms above the brothel where our mothers had worked, from hunger and learning survival the hard way. A long way from the childhood Holly and Reggie and I had shared.
“Too good for a gutter rat like me?” I couldn’t quite keep the anger from my tone. Holly was supposed to be on my side. Had always been on my side before now. Until Guy had come along.
“I think she could hurt you,” Holly said softly, stopping my anger in its tracks. She was worried about me, not about what I was going to do. Or maybe a little of both.
“What makes you think I’m even interested?”
Holly laughed. “I know you, Fen.”
“Do you?” I tilted my head at her. We’d shared that childhood and had kept each other safe in the years since then, but she was leaving our world now. Joining Guy’s. Keeping secrets.
She looked hurt and I regretted my temper. “Sorry.” I took a deep breath and pressed my fingers into the base of my skull where brandy and the visions had joined forces to make my head ache like hellfire.
Holly’s gaze followed my hand, narrowing as if she wanted to see through my shirt to the chain beneath. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“You have to do something about it, Fen. You can’t just drink yourself unconscious every night.”
“Why not? You don’t seem to approve of my other choice of distractions.”
“Screwing the entire female population of the border boroughs won’t help either,” she said tartly. “You need to learn to control your visions.”
“And would you recommend I go groveling to one of the packs or to the Veiled Court for that? Just whose slave should I become, Holly?”
She looked away, mouth twisted. “You’re going to kill yourself.”
“Then I’ll die free.”
“Don’t even say that.” She blinked rapidly, hugging herself, and I cursed under my breath. Holly had lost everyone except for Guy and Reggie and me. I didn’t want to be her next loss.
But nor was I willing to find the type of cure she recommended. My mother had been a whore, selling her body in lieu of any other talents; her life, after my appearance, governed by the demands of Madame Figg and the threat of being cast out into the streets. If I was going to sell myself, then it would be on my own terms and I would be the one to profit from it.
A clatter of wheels and hooves announced the hackney, saving me from having to figure out what the hell to say next. As it pulled up in front of me, the driver looking unrepentant about being so tardy, I touched Holly’s cheek. “I have to go. I’m late.”
“Is it worth telling you to be careful?”
I flashed her a meant-to-be-reassuring grin. “Maybe not, but do it anyway.”
For a moment an answering smile chased away the worry in her eyes before it blew back and her face turned serious again. “Be careful,” she said fiercely.
I nodded, not promising anything, and climbed into the hackney.
Twenty minutes later the hackney drew to a halt. I pushed the leather blind back and peered out. Orpheus Station. Holt’s End, as agreed. Hackneys wouldn’t go any deeper into Beast territory; there was only so much well-trained horses would put up with. Most of them would handle a few Beasts, but being completely surrounded by the stink of predators was too much to ask. The Beasts had their own horses, of course, and Lady alone knew what sort of magic they worked on them to keep them under control, but my driver was human and I couldn’t expect him to work miracles.
I checked my watch again. Five minutes before the bells would ring three and Willem would come looking for me. Just about enough time if I hurried.
I didn’t want to leave the relative safety of the hackney, where the visions had fled, leaving me in peace for the first time all night. But I had little choice. I checked the position of my gun on my hip and the knives beside it and in my boot, then opened the door.
The cabbie wasted no time in urging his horses back toward Mickleskin. I watched him go, then turned in the opposite direction, walking quickly through the night and trying to look not worth messing with. The streets were busy, as they always are in Night World boroughs when the moon is high, but for once my luck held and no one challenged me.
I reached the north side of the high stone wall that surrounded the Krueger Pack House with a few seconds to spare. Willem leaned against the wood and metal gate, near the guardhouse, eyes scanning the street. He pushed away from the wall as I approached.
“You’re on time,” he said. “Wise man.”
“Worried about me? How thoughtful.”
“Worried that I was going to have to waste the rest of the night hunting you down,” he retorted. “I have better things to do. Let’s go, half-breed. The Alpha is waiting.” He gestured me forward and I obeyed, not liking him walking behind me but unable to do anything about it.
I stood back when Willem pushed open the front door, but once again he jerked his chin, waiting for me to go first. I did but I dawdled, trying to delay the inevitable as I stepped across the threshold.
The pack house smelled like Beasts. Sweat. Fur. Musk. Earth.
The scent made the hairs on the back of my neck rise, as did the sight of gleaming eyes in the darkness. Beasts change unbidden under the full moon but also shift at will. And they are dangerous on two legs, four legs, or in their hybrid forms.
I kept my eyes on Willem’s back and acted like nothing was bothering me. There might be worse places to appear nervous or weak than a pack house after moonrise, but right now I couldn’t think of one.
The visions stayed under control, which made me think that most of the Beasts must be out in the night. A small mercy at least.
Willem led me down the hall, his boot heels tapping along the floorboards like a drummer beating someone to the gallows. I resisted the urge to loosen my tie. It wasn’t a rope and if anyone was going to hang this evening, it wouldn’t be me.
Mercifully, the next turn of the corridor landed us in front of a familiar door. Solid oak carved with snarling wolf heads, it led to Martin’s reception room. One of my least favorite places in the City. This was where I ended up whenever Martin got the yen to know the future. Tonight was going to be the last time.
Willem opened the door without any sort of announcement. Obviously we were expected.
I crossed the threshold and stopped as close to the door as possible. As always, the room was lit with lanterns rather than gaslights. Their flames flickered rapidly, making the shadows move uneasily. The walls and carpets were a deep dark red, combing to evoke a sensation of the room pressing unpleasantly close around its occupants. Carved wooden screens stood in the corners and along the walls. You could never be sure just what might be lurking behind them, waiting to spill your blood onto the carpets where it wouldn’t show.
Smoke from the lanterns and heavy spiced incense mingled in the air with the Beast smell. It made the atmosphere even more claustrophobic. Other than anyone who might be hidden behind the screens, the room was largely empty. Four Beasts stood in a semicircle behind the desk at its heart. Guerriers protecting their Alpha.
The man sitting behind the desk studied me as I studied him. The guerriers all stared at me too, eyes focused with predatory intent.
I was flattered that they thought it would take four—five if you counted Willem—Beasts to take me down. In reality it would probably only require one. Which Martin well knew. Which meant his display of force was a threat and that he was in no mood to be trifled with.
I wondered if anything in particular was raising his hackles or whether he was just infected with the general jitteriness of the Night World right now. Because he was nervous—that much was clear, even though his expression remained impassive as he beckoned me forward.
I narrowed my eyes. What did Martin Krueger have to be nervous about? It was a pity I couldn’t loosen the chain and see what I could see, but there wasn’t any time for that.
Martin’s face—black hair pulled back from deeply tanned skin that made his green eyes seem very bright—was still as I walked toward him. Yet there was something in the way he held himself that confirmed my instinct. He was definitely uneasy. In Beast form, his hackles would have been rising.
My stomach began its own nervous dance. What exactly was going on here?
Martin’s expression offered no clues. As always, the sight of him made my gut twist with anger. I might be only one-eighth Beast but pack blood runs strong. Looking at Martin, I saw echoes of my own face. My coloring was all Krueger, even if my eyes were a stranger shade of green than any human or Beast ever sported and I lacked the bulky muscles of a Beast. Set amongst the men standing here, I looked like a younger brother; one who had some growing to do but who was still undoubtedly blood. No wonder Martin thought he could call me at will like an unruly child. Perhaps it was time to disabuse him of that notion once and for all.
“Martin,” I said, bowing shallowly. No submissive acknowledgment of his superiority, just the minimum respect I could get away with. “You wanted to see me?”
“I wanted to see you several hours ago.”
“As I told Willem, I was otherwise engaged.” I stood my ground. No submission.
“Consorting with the humans. You think they’re going to take you in, a mongrel child like you?” His tone was scornful.
“No,” I said bluntly. “No more than I think you or my father’s family would acknowledge me. What do you want?”
He looked stony, then gestured at the others. “Leave us. Except Willem.”
The guerriers vanished, melting away at the too fast, too graceful pace that always made me see the wolves inside the men far too clearly. I stayed on alert, waiting to see what would happen next.
Martin rose from his desk, came around it. The gun and dagger at my hip suddenly felt too far away. I was fast but not as fast as a Beast.
“What’s this about?” I repeated, putting the edge of a growl into my voice. I was outside his pack, outside his authority. I wasn’t going to roll over and show my belly.
Martin halted, a few feet away from me. “I need some information.”
That much I knew already. “Information about what?” I wasn’t promising anything. I moved my left hand to my hip, nearer my gun.
“About Simon DuCaine.”
Buggering Veil’s eyes. I was the belle of the ball this evening. Everyone wanted to dance with me.
“What makes you think I have any information about Simon DuCaine?” I asked, trying to sound bored.
“Come now, Fen. Your little friend . . . the one who does the dresses, amongst other things”—his voice dropped, lower, edged with a threat—“she is keeping company with his brother. The Templar. And, in the past, it has tended to be true that where the dressmaker goes, there you are.”
I cocked my head. “The only things I know about Simon DuCaine are that he’s a healer and that he’s a brave man when it comes to choosing a woman.” A little threat of my own, reminding Martin just who he would be messing with if he went after Simon. The thought of incurring the anger of a wraith was enough to give any sensible man pause. And make him run fast in the opposite direction. Not that I’d ever known Martin to be particularly sensible. “And that his brother is, indeed, involved with my friend. Touchy man, Guy DuCaine. Both of them are, actually.”
“There’s more to the story than that.”
“So you say. But I’m telling you what I know.”
“You’re telling me you haven’t seen anything about him?”
I shook my head, “I’ve seen things. I see things about many people. But nothing that would be of interest to you.”
“Be sensible, Fen. We can help each other out.”
“I don’t need your help, Martin.”
“Oh no?” He closed the gap between us with one swift stride. His hand grabbed my forearm, wrenching it up. He pushed my shirt back with the other hand, baring the chain. “I’d say you’re in trouble, boy.” He studied the skin around my wrist, which was bruised and angry-looking. “Iron won’t help you much longer. You need to learn to control the visions. I can help with that.”
“If you had a seer, Martin, you wouldn’t need me now, would you?” I knew better than to struggle against his grip. A Beast was stronger than any half-breed. “Yet here I am. Which means you don’t have anyone who can help me.”
“There are other packs,” he snarled.
“Have you forged an alliance then?” For another pack to lend Martin a seer would take a very close bond, beyond the ever-shifting temporary alignment of interests that wove a web between the packs. And exact a very high price in return favors. Martin would need to be getting desperate to do that. “Risky times to trust anybody, these.”
His lip curled again, but his hand left my arm. I shoved my sleeve back down.
“Don’t make this difficult, boy,” Martin said.
“Believe me, I don’t want to.”
“Good. Then you will tell me what you know about Simon DuCaine.”
I fought the urge to reach for the gun at my hip. Two Beasts. I might shoot one of them at least before they got to me. Maybe. Even if the Lady favored me and I got them both, I wouldn’t get past the guerriers waiting outside the door.
“I’m telling you I haven’t seen anything.”
Martin leaned closer. “Then I suggest you take that chain off your wrist and look again.”
I stared at him. “It doesn’t work that way. I need to be close to someone.”
“You’re close to me. There’s trouble in the City, boy, and I believe that Simon DuCaine is tangled in it. If you look, you’ll see him.”
Fuck. He was probably right about that. “I can’t guarantee I’ll see anything.”
“I suggest you try very hard.”
There was no way out that I could see. Gritting my teeth, I opened the clasp on the chain and unwrapped it from my wrist. The room suddenly blurred around me, the visions pouring in with a force that made my head whirl greasily, pain and nausea rushing through me.
I bent over, trying not to retch. It felt like my head was trying to tear itself in two. I didn’t know how much more pain I could take. Saskia’s face flashed into my head, her and the weird moment of stillness I’d experienced at the touch of her hand. Maybe if—I pushed the thought away. No time to think about what might be. I had to deal with the pain now. I drew in a long breath, my head still screaming in protest.
“What do you see?”
“Right at this moment,” I managed to say, “your very fine carpet.”
Martin wrenched me upright. “Hurts, does it? Still think you don’t need my help?”
“I’m not an immuable, Martin. I’m a mongrel, remember?” One who was going to stay far away from anything that resembled a leash.
“If you don’t want my help, it’s on your head.” The grip of the huge hand on the back of my neck tightened, sharp nails pricking at my skin. “But I will know what you see. So look, boy. Look hard.”
I didn’t see any alternative. I didn’t have to tell him everything I saw of course, but I wasn’t getting out of here until I told him something. Something that would make it worth his while to keep me alive. After all, he lacked a seer and if I wasn’t going to fulfill that role for him, he had no reason not to indulge the anger that smoked his voice.
Martin was not the delicate type. He would hurt me or kill me with no compunction. The images that flickered at the edges of my peripheral vision, the ones rising in response to Martin’s proximity were littered with bodies and blood.
For now they didn’t contain anyone I knew, but that could change.
I swallowed hard, fighting the nausea, and opened myself to the visions. It felt like stepping off a cliff and falling into a nightmare. The room went away and I stood alone in darkness, watching the flickering show that only I could see. Images danced around me, almost too fast to interpret. Some were faded and indistinct but some flared almost too bright to bear. Flames searing bright across the City turning the moonlight to smoky orange. A broken sword lying on marble tiles. The face of Ignatius Grey snarling in triumph, eyes blazing as red as the blood that stained his mouth. A crumpled pile of white fabric. Ash falling over cobblestones. But no Simon. Not this time.
Thank the Lady.
I tried to find the Ignatius image again. If I couldn’t offer Martin the insights into Simon that he sought then perhaps knowledge of the Blood would be an acceptable substitute. Ignatius Grey was currently the Blood lord most likely to retake control of the Blood Court. The Blood had been embroiled in deadly politics since Lord Lucius had vanished. As far as I knew, Ignatius was allied with the Roussellines, one of the packs who had backed Lucius. Perhaps Martin could use some leverage to better the position of the Kruegers there.
I let my mind focus on Ignatius, remembering the last time I had seen him. At one of the Blood Assemblies, feeling sweat trickle down my back in the overcrowded, overheated room, trying not to breathe in the smell of blood and smoke and fear too deeply. Ignatius had passed just a few feet away from me, moving amidst a pack of his supporters as they walked toward the stairs that led to the private chambers above. He had scanned the room with arrogant brown eyes, the very image of a man well satisfied with himself and his place in the world. He exuded an air of casual cruelty, of belief that whatever he wanted should be reality, that made the crowds part to let him through. Even now the memory made my spine crawl.
I had told Martin that I needed to be near someone to see their future but that wasn’t strictly true. It was easier that way, but sometimes, if I caught a glimpse of someone in a vision, I could follow that glimpse and expand upon it.
I didn’t do it often. Hells, I did as little as possible with my power. Each time I used it, it grew stronger and the pain of resisting grew worse. The deepest I cared to go was the surface skimming I did to tell fortunes to foolish women and men. That had once been bearable, but lately even taking such quick glimpses was growing chancy, requiring more and more brandy to dull the pain.
I’d let myself go deeper over the last few weeks as I’d sought information for Simon and Guy while I was out skulking around the edges of the Night World, and I was paying the price for it in my constant headaches.
Tonight, despite the fact I’d already strained the limits of my tolerance by going to the DuCaines’ ball, it seemed I would have to risk delving even further into the depths of my abilities.
Ignatius, I thought fiercely. Show me Ignatius.
The images swirled around me, flickering like leaves in a storm wind. I searched them desperately, trying to find that arrogant face amongst the whirlwind. Other Blood came to me. The stark beauty of Adeline Louis and the cruel face of the late unlamented Lord Lucius. Not what I wanted to see at all.
And then, finally, another glimpse of Ignatius. I reached out my hand and grabbed at the image, drawing it closer in my mind.
The images multiplied around, rising like a swarm of bees. Full of blood and horror. Ignatius standing over corpses, Ignatius feeding, fangs buried deep in the neck of a weeping woman. Ignatius laughing as someone was killed in front of him. Ignatius seated in a vast hall, in a chair that had to be called a throne while Beast and Fae knelt before him.
What the hell?
I wrenched myself out of the vision, nerves screaming with the sharp pain of my resistance. Fae kneeling to the Blood.
Not possible. If that were a possible future, the City was in far worse trouble than I had suspected.
My heart pounded in my ears as the room reeled around me. I tasted bile and brandy in my throat and swallowed it back with an effort.
“What did you see?” Martin’s voice was eager in my ear. “What is it?”
I swallowed again, not sure I could speak without my voice shaking. “I didn’t see Simon DuCaine.” Fire rolled through my head, searing. Gods. I wanted the pain to stop. If I survived this night, I was going to see Saskia, find out if the effect of her touch had just been a coincidence
Martin growled. “I don’t believe you, boy.”
I opened my eyes as the sick burning feeling in my head receded. Turned my head and stared at him. “I’m telling the truth.”
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