NB: This is unedited and subject to complete change. FYI. Also there is a prologue which I'm not including here.
1:40 a.m. Four Days later. Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda, San Francisco, California
Durian kept his arms crossed over his chest while he waited for the human woman to come to. She felt enough like magekind to set off warnings, but he already knew he had nothing to worry about on that account. Magekind, yes, but she was something else, too. Something she shouldn’t be; and that concerned him more than her insignificant gift. Such as it was. Which was almost nothing.
That, in itself, was remarkable.
If he was reading her correctly, and he knew that he was, she was one of the kin. Just as he was. That ought to be near impossible. Unfortunately for her, there weren’t many ways— two or three at most —for someone born human to end up with magic from someone like him.
Her eyelids fluttered, but she’d been aware long before he saw the color of her irises. An icy blue, fittingly cold for what she was. Her eyes closed again.
"There is no point," he said, "pretending you’re not yet conscious."
She moved her leg and winced. Her eyes opened all the way. She looked at him straight on with her cold blue eyes. The anima behind her gaze fascinated him. "Is he dead?"
"Shit." She moved her other leg.
The situation, whether she realized it or not, was about as dire as it got for someone like her. "The only reason I haven’t terminated you, human, is my curiosity about why you tried to kill Christophe dit Menart."
She pushed herself to a sitting position. She made another face while she arched her back. "Does it matter?"
"Yes." He picked a speck of lint off his sleeve before he returned his attention to her. He held her gaze, but stayed out of her head. For the moment.
"What for?" She wasn’t trying to use her magic. Not any of it. Her right forearm and a quarter-sized area at her right temple were marked with a delicate green tracery that could have been mistaken for tattoos if the lines weren’t swirling under her skin.
"I am curious," he said in a low voice, "to know how someone like you got within inches of making today Christophe’s last on earth. He’s not usually so careless."
Sitting, she scooted back until she could lean against the base of the column. "Inches, huh?" Durian didn’t answer and she let out a puff of air. "Close but no cigar. Damn. Where is he now?"
"I am not at liberty to disclose that information." Knowing dit Menart was out there and pissed off didn’t do much to improve Durian’s mood. That was another disaster he had to deal with later. And yet, dealing with dit Menart was going to be a good deal more pleasant than the conversation he would have had to have with Nikodemus, the warlord to whom he’d sworn fealty, if she’d managed to kill the mage.
He took his time studying the woman. If all he had to go on was expression alone, he would have suspected she was serious. As it was, he had a great deal more to go on. He knew for certain that she was serious. "Who are you?"
The woman took her time looking him up and down. "I’m not at liberty to disclose that information."
He leaned toward her; just a tip of his shoulders in her direction, really, but enough to make his physical point. "Unless you are a bigger fool than I take you for, you know I can get the information without your cooperation."
Her eyes widened, and for the first time since she’d opened her eyes, he locked onto her emotions without having to try. Terror. Quickly suppressed.
"Fuck you," she said.
Durian shrugged. "This will go much better for us both if you answer my questions." He glanced down, saw that one of his trouser’s legs wasn’t falling in line with his knee, and reached to straighten the crease. "Now. Who are you?"
He arched an eyebrow. "And what am to make of that response, pray tell?"
"That’s my name." She rested the back of her head against the pedestal and stared at the rotunda ceiling. He’d dampened a perimeter around them that so that no human wandering by would see them. That meant she couldn’t see out. She was mildly claustrophobic but hiding it well. "Grayson Spencer." She lifted a hand and let it fall to her lap. Her mouth curved but the result wasn’t much of a smile. "You can call me Gray."
Interesting, her attitude was. She was a good deal braver than he would have expected from someone in her condition and predicament, confronted, as she was, with someone like him.
Gray brought up one knee. Pale knee cap showed through a frayed rip in her jeans. "Since we’re getting all familiar here, you?"
He tipped his head to one side. They were not at the point where he was going to even things by telling her his name. "Why did you try to shoot Christophe? Were you unable to use your magic against him?"
She snorted. "As if my magic would give Christophe anything worse than a hangnail."
Durian waited for something more to leak from her thoughts but nothing did. She had impressive control. Practiced, one might say. Curious. That sort of control generally meant a far more powerful witch than she was. A few more pieces of the puzzle clicked into place.
"Okay if I stand up?"
"Be my guest."
She did, and he got his first thorough look at her. Chronologically, she appeared to be in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. You never knew with one of the magekind how old or how powerful they were. Not from just looking at one. Dit Menart could pass for twenty-seven or eight, and he’d been living in Paris before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So, there was no telling what this human’s true age was.
Gray Spencer was tall for a human woman. Five seven or eight, if he had to guess. Her face was an odd combination of pretty and cute. She was too skinny and dressed like— he had no idea what to call it. Christ, it hurt his eyes to look at her.
A man could go blind from looking at her shoes, high-top canvas sneakers painted in interlocking puzzle shapes of neon orange, blue and purple that extended from the rubber trim at the soles to the aglets. With the exception of one lace that was nothing but shredded string at the end. Then there was the rest of her clothes.
Surely, no one dressed like that on purpose. Ragged black jeans faded to charcoal, a too small orange and green striped T-shirt that didn’t reach the waist of her tight jeans and short spiky improbably red hair that looked like she cut it herself. Without looking. Streaks of pink amid the red added to the virulent effect. In contrast to her hair, her eyebrows were dead black. The combination of all that wrongness was what made her face seem less pretty than in fact it was. A silver skull the size of his thumbnail dangled from the metal bar that pierced her navel. Not a ruby anywhere. Very curious.
He started a slow walk around the woman.
She tracked him so that she stayed facing him. The traceries on her arm and temple moved faster. "What else do you want to know?"
"How long were you apprenticed to dit Menart?"
Her eyebrows drew together in what appeared to be genuine confusion. "Apprenticed?" Her puzzlement came through clearly, physically and psychically. "To Christophe?" She laughed. A wild bitterness edged the sound. "Oh, God, that’s rich."
"If you weren’t his apprentice, how did you come by the magic that makes you one of the kin?"
Her black eyebrows drew together. A smudge on her cheek that he had taken for dirt was, in fact, a fading bruise. "You mean a fiend?"
"Yes." He focused on her traceries. The color deepened as he watched. The magic was reacting to him. To what he was.
"Admiring my tats?" She lifted her arm.
"They’re not really tattoos." She tipped her head. "Seems like you know that. I don’t know what they are." She sounded lost, unbelievable though that was. He jerked his gaze from her arm and studied her face. He thought about going into her head and just taking the information he wanted, but didn’t. Not yet. "I take it you know."
Durian nodded. "There is one obvious way for you to have come by those."
"Really?" She kept her arms loose as she moved with him.
"And, alas for you, not many others."
"I didn’t do anything." She lifted her arms and let them drop. "They just showed up."
He came close enough to take her right hand in his. She flinched at the contact. A flash of her fear came at him with the force of a freight train before she shut him out. Emphatically. That brief contact was enough to confirm what was already obvious. Durian pulled her hand toward him so her forearm stretched between them. His finger hovered over the inside of her forearm, but he did not touch her. Cold blue eyes stayed on him and for a moment, a moment only, she connected with him. He cut her off immediately.
Gray took a step back. He didn’t let go of her hand so she didn’t get far.
"These so very delicate colorings appeared underneath your skin in the forty-eight to seventy-two hours following your murder of the fiend whose magic you now hold."
Her eyes, huge and arctic blue, widened. The paleness of her irises made her pupils seem unnaturally dark.
"I hope the ritual was painful. Especially after you lost control and let it get away from you." He pushed away her hand. He was guessing about that, of course. "You deserve every agonizing moment you’ve experienced since then."
"I didn’t perform any ritual, and I didn’t kill anyone." Her eyes blanked out long enough for Durian to notice but not long enough to figure out what that meant. Not that there was any great mystery about that.
"What drugs did you take before you went after Christophe?"
"None." She shoved her hands in her back pocket. She shivered. Just once.
She didn’t look like or act she was coming off a copa-induced high. Copa would have turned her eyes from pale blue to turquoise. It would, however, make sense for a witch who’d damaged herself, which he now knew to be the case, to resort to copa in the hope that the drug would restore contact with her magic. She wouldn’t be the first. Or the last. He had no use for witches.
"I know what you are," she whispered. He didn’t need to be in her head to know she was terrified. Which, again, was interesting.
Still, he wanted to give her a chance before they did this the hard way, though, he had no expectation of hearing the truth. "If it wasn’t a ritual that burned you out, what did? A talisman?"
A talisman was an object that contained the spirit of a ritually murdered fiend. The magekind used them to enhance their magical abilities. It was possible for, say, a witch, to crack one open and take on the magic inside. The procedure was risky, but success conferred longer life and more power. Most mages of sufficient ambition considered it worth the risk, and there were indeed significant dangers. If failure didn’t kill them outright, they died after a degenerative period not unlike the woman’s current condition.
Her eyebrows drew together. "What? No. It wasn’t a talisman."
"Then we are back at the ritual, which you deny."
"I didn’t perform any ritual." She shook her head. "I couldn’t have."
He stared into her wide blue eyes and saw the lie there. "I ought to obtain a sanction on you right now."
"I don’t know what that means. Obtain a sanction on me."
"Request permission to terminate you." How could one of the magekind, possessed of enough power for a killing ritual, be so bloody ignorant? He tipped his head to one side. "I would receive it, I assure you."
"So, what, you’re an assassin?"
He didn’t answer.
She wasn’t stupid. She knew what his silence meant. The human ground her back teeth so hard he could see her jaw muscles contracting. "There wasn’t any talisman. And I wasn’t the one performing a ritual. It was Christophe."
She looked around the rotunda again, trying, he supposed, to penetrate the darkness around them. Her magic flared up— the magic she’d killed for, not the magic she’d been born with —but it was unfocused, as if she could pull, but didn’t know what to do next. She’d murdered for that magic, and she couldn’t use it. There was justice in the world because sooner or later that stolen magic was going to kill her.
He let his mind connect with hers until he felt the chaos of her mostly human reactions. Getting past her block wasn’t easy.
"Stop," she said.
Sensations came at him too fast to examine in the careful manner he preferred with a potential sanction. She felt human. She felt magekind. Most of all, she felt like one of the kin. What he didn’t get from her was any evidence that she was a liar. And yet she must be.
She clapped her hands to the sides of her head. "I said, stop it."
Something wasn’t right, and he disliked not knowing. He didn’t pull out of her mind, but he stopped looking around. The intensity of her panic unnerved him. "Start talking."
Her hands fisted at her sides, and her eyes flickered out again. Her breathing was shallow, her heartbeat a rapid thub-dub in the back of his head. She was seconds from some sort of psychic meltdown.
He took a step closer. She smelled, if not rank, then like someone in dire need of a bath. "Go on."
She raised her eyes to his, so full of anger and resentment that was not directed at him, that he cocked his head, far more interested in her now than he had been moments before. "Christophe killed one of his magehelds."
"And Christophe dit Menart" —he gave the name a subtle emphasis— "did not complete the ritual? Forgive me, but that is difficult to believe."
Her physical state stabilized, and, with that, her panic receded. She shrugged. "He didn’t."
"You," he said, "have the dead fiend’s magic, and that makes it next to impossible you didn’t do the deed yourself."
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "I didn’t kill Tigran."
Christ. Her vocalization of the fiend’s name came with a whole host of conflicting emotions. He didn’t say anything for half a breath. Outside the barrier he’d erected around them the chill night air penetrated like the memory of cold. Cold but not cold. The fog was coming in.
"I’m not saying I didn’t want to. But I didn’t kill him."
She wasn’t lying. Impossible as that was, Durian was sure of it. He was less interested in her denial than the way her voice sounded thick with emotion, the way her mouth thinned with, if her body language was to be believed, her effort to keep back tears. You’d think she’d been the victim herself.
"Who killed Tigran?"
"Christophe," she said in a choked off voice. Her hands fisted and unfisted at her sides, and her eyes stared blankly forward. At nothing. Her shoulders slumped. "I saw it happen."
"The ritual in question isn’t a trivial piece of magic." Even the late and unlamented Álvaro Magellan had been known to have help on hand for that sort of thing.
She ran a fingertip along her right eyebrow and then rubbed the whorl near her temple. Her hand trembled. Curious. Very curious. She was the color of chalk and that made the traceries stand out even more.
"Presumably, you were assisting dit Menart."
"Me?" Her gaze snapped to him and it was laser sharp. Whatever emotional low she’d hit earlier was over. Her expression hardened to ice. "I want to kill Christophe. So, no, I wasn’t helping. I didn’t want to be there."
"Then why were you?"
"He had a point to prove."
"Which would be?"
She shivered again, but it didn’t last long. She had a hold of herself now. "Don’t disobey. Ever."
"And why would he need prove that to one of his own kind?"
"His own kind. Is that what I am?" She walked to him and didn’t stop until mere inches separated them. "I don’t know what the hell I am anymore." Her eyes were an uncanny blue. "Have another look. I’ll let you just this once." One corner of her mouth quirked like she thought she was amusing. "If you find out what I am you let me know."
Durian gazed into her eyes. Her lashes were long and black as sin. He wondered if she was insane.
"Go ahead," she whispered. "You have my permission."
He touched the bottom curve of her eye sockets, pressing that tender skin to feel the shape of the bone itself. First the left, then the right, too. Humans were fixed to just one form. She had nothing but this so easily damaged, corporeal existence.
He stroked his fingers along the lower rim of her eye. "Gray," he said, and he heard in his voice the soft silk of a lover. "Don’t show me lies."
"You understand, don’t you, that if I find out you’ve lied, that if you did kill Tigran, I will terminate you without bothering to ask for permission?"
She held his gaze.
"Do you have a different story to tell me?"
"Nope." Her eyes, a lighter blue than the sky, met his without fear. This was not insolence from her. She had, he understood, made peace with death some time ago. Most of his sanctions never saw him coming, but this woman, she looked into the abyss of what he was with full awareness of the consequences. She was either stupid, insane or telling him the truth. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.
Her eyes lost focus again, and she stopped shielding herself at all. Not even the minimal protection the kin used as a matter of course. He eased into her head and found anguish. Such overwhelming anguish it was at first impossible to get anything from her but that. She swallowed, blinked twice and managed to pull herself together. Given the state of her emotions, he was impressed she could. Then more impressed when she focused on the events he wanted to know about.
The terror she’d felt that night flowed back to him. Sharp as a knife. Defiance, too. Hopelessness. An image came at him. Christophe standing over a body that was familiar to her. The mage’s arms were bare, and her memories were detailed enough for him see the words tattooed on Christophe’s skin.
Intimate. A lover. But not Christophe’s.
The words the mage had said that night carried power that resonated in her still. She’d known what was happening. She’d known Tigran would die. And she had both wanted him to die and been desperate that he not and unable to do anything to stop what was happening.
Other images cut in, but they weren’t from the night Tigran died. Her alone with Tigran. Touching. Bodies sliding together. A terrible, keening grief. She’d cut herself off from her emotions and lived when others hadn’t. A room. Bodies entwined. Horror and a cold, deep rage. Christophe’s knife descending. Such pain and anger, too. Everything mixed up, out of order.
Durian forced himself to retreat, if only to preserve the necessary detachment. His heart raced with hers, his breath catching in his throat. He kept his hands on her face. He could see and feel that she wasn’t here. Not present in the now. Her mind had stayed with Christophe and the mageheld who’d died that night.
She was breaking down before his eyes.
"Gray." He didn’t force their mental connection any deeper. He was afraid her mind might completely shut down if he did, leaving her no way back to sanity. She gripped his wrists and, hell, he was in danger of falling into that maelstrom of emotion all over again. He wasn’t in possession of her, that state of an indwell where physical boundaries vanished. Not yet. But he was at the razor’s edge.
Besides, he had what he needed. He knew what had been done to her.