Kaye Brand hid behind a fat cement pillar in the cellar, unable to wrench her gaze from the man hanging slack from his wall-chained wrists. Fear lashed her in place while her brain raced to figure out what exactly she was seeing, and what it meant.
The otherwise empty cellar was cold and musty, like old dirt, but with a sour body smell besides, which had to be coming from ... him. Darkness seeped into the corners of the room, licking the walls, tendrils reaching for the chained man. And in the air, the hissing whispers of the fae from beyond, who watched everything that went on in the great Houses.
She hid like a little kid, one eye peeking, even though she was fifteen and basically an adult. Even though part of her mind screamed for her to get back upstairs fast, lock the door, and pretend she’d never gone snooping in the first place.
The groom’s gift is in the cellar,
her dad had murmured to old lady Grey, who was just arriving at Brand House for the big event. He’d used his low voice, the one meant only for the ear he wanted, but Kaye knew she had to be listening to everything that went on today, and listening good.
A groom’s gift? Kaye looked it up online, since her dad hadn’t bothered to fill her in, though it was
groom. Turned out it was supposed to be a gift from her to her soon-to-be husband, Ferrol Grey. Like the marriage, her father had arranged the whole thing and left her out of it. It was medieval crap, but that’s what you got for being born a Brand with Shadow in your blood.
Of course she had to check it out, though it took all her nerve to steal Dad’s keys and try each one in the cellar door’s lock. She didn’t quite know what he’d do to her if he caught her, which was what made her hands shake, but this was her wedding, her life. The more decisions she let go by, the more he would make for her.
was on his knees, his arms strung out to the sides, manacles chaining him to the wall. The skin of his hands and forearms was riddled with black lines from the cuffs of his bonds, like poison leeching into his veins. His bare torso was flexed, muscle caught midripple. And his head hung forward, chin to his chest, as if he were that Greek god Atlas, the one with the world on his shoulders. Even though the cellar was dark, windowless, and otherwise empty, he was somehow lit by a soft glow that kept the reaching Shadows at bay. But not for long.
The man, her
had been tortured.
In her basement.
For her wedding.
The only thing she understood was that she’d better get upstairs, and fast. Her heart was pounding as if it had already taken off and had left the rest of her frozen behind, slick with sweat.
Because, umm ... Why was her father giving a tortured man to her soon-to-be husband ... and from her? And why would her soon-to-be husband want him?
The questions made her feel very small and stupid. And afraid.
She had to figure out a way to say no, even if the big event
tomorrow. She’d practiced, but the little word wouldn’t come out whenever she faced her father.
Maybe this chained guy was bad. Beautiful, but bad. He had to have done something wrong. Nobody messed with the Brands. And nobody even thought of messing with the Greys. That had to be it. The mage families never relied on human laws or authorities. Maybe this was some kind of justice. Medieval, like her arranged marriage. In which case, the prisoner probably deserved what he got.
The chained man lifted his head.
Oh sweet Shadow
Kaye’s world cracked open. She felt the change in a hot-cold shock wave over her body and gripped the cement pillar for support. Her life was over. Nothing good would ever happen to her, never ever, because she had never seen anyone so beautiful, and tomorrow she’d have to marry an old man.
Kaye blinked hard to stop her tears.
There was no way this man could be bad. Not him.
He had features like a poet: mouth full, cheekbones high and sharp, forehead smooth, with hair falling in waves around his face. His eyes were honey brown, warm, soulful, and terribly sad as he looked at her. From within, he gleamed. He was perfect. And he was also broken, a scarlet smear of blood across his jaw.
“You,” he said, voice rough, “shouldn’t be down here. It’s dangerous.”
Kaye trembled behind her pillar. It felt so stupid to hide like a kid while wearing high heels. The only thing the shoes were good for was looking her father in the eye. (Not so good if she couldn’t get her
out, though.) But here, towering over the chained man, those extra four inches felt more like dress-up. Either she should stand up straight or run away.
“Please,” the man begged, his tone clearing some. His head bobbed with the effort of looking up at her. “They will hurt you.”
They’d do worse than that. They would cut her off from the outside. Cut her off absolutely this time, which would be just fine by her father and soon-to-be husband. She was a dud. She might have Shadow in her blood, but if she couldn’t call fire, she was suited for only one thing. Hence the marriage, for the good of the family. She’d been promised comforts. And the Grey name would protect her from the rest of magekind. But it wasn’t what she wanted.
She had to say no. Tomorrow was coming. Tomorrow was just about here. But her dad would be so angry if he had to repay Mr. Grey for all the gifts and wedding expenses when she’d agreed to the thing in the first place.
Kaye looked at the man hanging in front of her; maybe Dad was already paying Mr. Grey back. And since her name would be on the gift tag, maybe she was somehow paying too. The thought made something in her go dark and cold, like a spark turning to ash. What exactly and how much did they owe?
The chained man shivered with her, his face haggard with pain, and Kaye wondered if he was going to speak again. If she should bring him water. If she should try each one of Dad’s keys on his handcuffs, as she had on the cellar door. This was trouble. Epic trouble.
She looked over her shoulder and up the dark, narrow staircase, considering. Dad would be in meetings by now, family business. If she was quick, maybe no one would know. (Someone would.) She could put the chained man’s arm over her shoulder. Help him up the stairs. She could set him free. (He’d never make it off the property.)
Still ... Only a bad person would leave him to die, because that’s what was going to happen.
Her stomach twisted, panic washing through her, but she raised her fistful of keys. Unlock the cuffs, leave the rest to him. She’d just have to get the keys back to Dad’s office before he found out. (Dad would find out anyway. He always did.)
“No.” The chained man shook his head, gaze sharpening for a second.
Kaye startled and stepped back. The keys shook in her hand.
“Child, please. Leave while you can.” His skin flushed while he gasped for air. “
But she wasn’t a child, not anymore. The guests arriving for the wedding could say it all they wanted—
she was clearly old enough to get hitched. Old enough for what came after too.
“And keep running,” he added at the end of his breath. The black lines on his arms crawled toward his elbows. The ends of his fingers went dead gray.
There was nowhere to go. Not for him. Not for her.
“Get away from here. If you are even considering setting me free,” he said, slurring, “this life is not for you.”
Wrong again. Kaye was a Brand. She was born to this life. Born to breed power, her father had said. She lifted her chin and let the fear within sizzle her nerves.
“No,” he said, going hoarse. “Not your responsibility. Not your fault either.”
Yes, her fault. The gift would be from her.
The chained man strained forward, his bonds taking his weight, arms extending farther to the sides, as if he were about to take flight. The glow around him brightened painfully, and the grasping Shadows reeled away from him. “Run away!”
She whipped to view the stairs, stumbling back, almost turning her ankle in the dumb shoes.
Someone had to have heard him. This was bad, very bad. She’d been there too long. What was she thinking? She couldn’t help him. They were in the middle of nowhere. In a house full of Shadow.
She dashed tears from her eyes.
She could only save herself. Pretend she’d never been here. And then hate herself forever.
The chained man sighed as if he divined her intention. Dimmed. “Go.”
Kaye forced herself not to look back as she lunged upward, but she could feel the beautiful, chained man behind her, and in her mind’s eye saw him looking after, watching his only chance to survive leave him to save her own skin.
If she had a soul, which for once she was glad she didn’t, she’d be going to Hell. Score one for the soulless mages, though it didn’t make her feel any better. Getting married tomorrow would be punishment enough. She was trapped, just like him.
Kaye trembled as she shut the cellar door behind her. Her guts and bones ached as if she had the flu. She looked left and right. Nobody in the hallway. Kitchen sounds beyond, the staff working up the night’s dinner. Smelled ... fishy, among other things.
She found the key and locked the door again, her throat tightening as the bolt snapped into place. The beautiful man was buried down there.
The keys. She had to get them back before Dad noticed. Drop them in his coat pocket before he knew they were missing. Or toss them out the window and look stupid if he asked about them.
Kaye smoothed her little black dress, reminding herself that she was the woman of the house. And a Brand.
Nothing had happened.
Please, please don’t let me cry.
She swallowed to wet her mouth, forced her chin up, and headed for her father’s study.
Kaye listened, forehead at the door, and hearing nothing did a quiet twist of the knob and a slow push. From the open sliver, she couldn’t see anyone. So far, so good. She eased it farther, then froze at the sight of the old lady she’d met earlier today, the groom’s sister. Ms. Grey was supposed to act as Ferrol’s proxy in the marriage because times were too dangerous for him to come himself, which meant that Kaye had to say “I do” to her, though it meant “I do” to him.
The whole thing was screwed up. Danger even on the inside of magekind. Whispers everywhere.
The old woman sat behind her dad’s new desk. Her face was deeply wrinkled like the up-down grooves of craggy tree bark, but with sour, thin lips. Her eyeballs were nested black marbles, hard and glossy, and they fixed on her.
Her dad had just turned from the bar cart with a couple of drinks. He had his usual cognac. And the old lady’s drink had a toothpick stuck in a drowned green olive. Martini. Once, secretly, Kaye had sampled all the booze. Most of it was nasty.
“Kaye?” Dad sounded polite, but he had that tight look that meant she was interrupting.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kaye said, not sorry at all. “I didn’t know you were busy.”
She started to retreat. The keys, out a window then. Or in the trash. Right now they felt terribly conspicuous in her hand.
“No, we’re not,” the old woman corrected. “Why don’t you come in for a moment?” She had a broken voice that added syllables and skipped others.
Dad’s lip twitched—he must be angry—but since he didn’t contradict the request, Kaye obeyed.
“Sure.” Kaye tucked the keys in her hand. There were more than ten on the ring. She stepped inside, sucking in her stomach and working on her shoulders. If she pushed them back, her flat chest stuck out, but any other way she stood was supposedly sloppy. Late bloomer, someone had called her.
The flames in the fireplace leapt as she entered, but then fire did that when she was around. It was a Brand thing, a
thing, and the reason her dad had fires lit in every room—to show off to his guests what she
Her dad’s office was old-school, like he was, dark-toned with lots of new, thick furniture brought in to make them look rich for the wedding, including the hulking desk. Their family might be old blood, but those heavy antiques weren’t, and probably weren’t even theirs to keep.
Standing behind the old lady was one of those sad, monster people, a wraith in a suit, who was supposed to be a bodyguard or something. Wraiths were horrible but couldn’t be beat in a fight. The old lady shouldn’t worry; the wraith looked scary mean, but it was his funky BO that would keep everyone away.
The wraith’s attention fixed on her, and his nostrils flared.
“Close the door, please,” Ms. Grey said, though it was not her door.
First the old biddy sat in Dad’s chair, now she gave orders? Last time Kaye checked, this was
house. Kaye swatted behind her, and the door shut just shy of a slam.