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Authors: Kalayna Price

Tags: #Urban Life, #Contemporary, #Epic, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General

Grave Dance (7 page)

BOOK: Grave Dance
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Malik read the skepticism on my face and shrugged. “If you bridle a kelpie, it’s obliged to grant you a request in exchange for its freedom. This particular bridle is enchanted. Toss it over her head and she’l be caught.”

Wel , that changed things. I held out my hand, but Malik frowned. He gripped the leather tighter.

“This is hard for me, Miss Craft. Speaking so freely and giving away treasures—it is not in my nature.”

Even though he was the one who wanted to hire me? “I’l return it.”

He perked up. “Twice-fold?”

Twice-fold? Like what, two enchanted bridles?
“No, oncefold.”

He frowned. “I could help you look for the kelpie.”

“That would be fine.” Appreciated even, but I couldn’t say

“That would be fine.” Appreciated even, but I couldn’t say as much—I didn’t want him twisting this around so he was helping me instead of vice versa.

Malik hesitated a moment more. Then, turning his head away as if he couldn’t bear to look, he handed over the bridle.

I smiled. “Wel , Malik, looks like you’re Tongues for the Dead’s newest client.”

It took another hour to work out a contract for the case—

and only a verbal one at that. Wording and phrasing were important with the fae. I’d known that. What I hadn’t realized was how difficult it could be to agree on a contract for hire.

A normal contract of service was a type of trade: I performed a service in exchange for payment for my time.

“That won’t work,” Malik told me. “It is my nature to get the better deal in any trade and then I’l stil try to trick you out of what you’ve earned.” He inclined his head. “It is who I am.”

Wel , at least he was honest.

Then there was the issue of payment. A song? The first snowflake of winter—I think that offer was meant to be ironic, al things considered. The first flower of spring?

Yeah, no. Not appropriate.

I would have lost my patience if Caleb hadn’t been present to arbitrate. In the end, I agreed to gift Malik my time on the case and Caleb agreed to gift me free rent depending on how many hours I spent on the case. I had no idea what agreement Caleb and Malik reached. Caleb also made a point of adding a verbal clause stating that any assistance—including information and magical help—that Malik provided wouldn’t put me in the fae’s debt. Malik looked miffed by the statement, but he agreed to the terms.

Once everything was settled, I moved to the door to show them out but stopped when a shimmering form floated through the wood.

“Hey, Al, I—Whoa, who’s the ugly guy?” Roy asked,

“Hey, Al, I—Whoa, who’s the ugly guy?” Roy asked, shoving his iridescent glasses higher on his nose.

“Malik,” I answered, and then winced when Malik turned at the sound of his name.

“Yes?”

I shook my head. Only I could see or hear Roy. I used to be so good at not talking to people no one else could see.

Of course, until recently, I couldn’t have heard Roy unless I’d tried. That was another thing that had changed.

“There’s a ghost,” I said by way of explanation. “He asked who you were.”

“A real specter?” Malik looked around, his dark eyes shining with interest. “Can he frighten the living by making the lights flicker or the table rock?”

“I don’t own a table.”

Malik frowned and glanced around the smal apartment as if he hadn’t noticed that before. “True.”

I turned back toward Roy. He’d been excited when he first floated through the door, before he’d gotten sidetracked by my visitors. “What’s up, Roy?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. So I was down visiting my grave, right?

They delivered the headstone, and I wanted to see it again.”

I nodded, waiting for him to get to the point. He’d spent twelve years watching his body walk around without him in it. Now that it was decaying in the ground like a corpse should, he visited his own grave regularly—kind of freaky in my opinion, but it was important to him, so I’d helped with the burial arrangements.

“So, yeah,” he said, continuing. “I was at my grave, and this couple entered the cemetery, looking a little nervous. I didn’t think anything about it, until I heard your name.”

I blinked at him. Then my mouth went dry. “Crap. The Stromowskis. What time is it? I was supposed to raise their grandmother.” I gave a glance at my slept-in clothes—I’d worn worse—and then I grabbed my purse. With al the excitement of Malik’s case, reappearing daggers, and excitement of Malik’s case, reappearing daggers, and Faerie courts, I’d completely forgotten I had another client.

Chapter 6

I
t was late afternoon before I drove through the warehouse district and headed for the old stone bridge to meet Malik.

Legal y I couldn’t drive for two hours after raising shades—

the havoc that grave-sight wreaked on a grave witch’s eyesight was wel documented—but even after I’d waited a couple of hours for my sight to recover, the dimness under the branches overhanging the road made me nervous. Of course, taking any of the back roads out of the city made me nervous.

Like any other large city in the nation, Nekros City had its bad neighborhoods and high-crime areas. But it was outside the city, once you left the suburbs behind, that gave most human citizens pause. The fae had initiated the Magical Awakening when they had come out of the mushroom ring, as some said, seventy years ago. Their announcement altered the course of the—until that moment

—technologyfocused world.

And that was only the beginning.

Ancient history might have been riddled with stories of witchcraft, but in the decades—maybe even the centuries—

before the Magical Awakening, magic was considered a myth. After the Awakening? Wel , then, as if the magic had just been waiting for humans to be primed to channel it, the veil between the Aetheric and mortal reality thinned. Magic was accessible, and a good third of the population proved capable of reaching it, of shaping it. When space unfolded, opening new areas, both the witches seeking a place where they could practice in peace and the norms who didn’t want to associate with the magical y inclined moved didn’t want to associate with the magical y inclined moved into the new territory. The two groups didn’t mix wel , and several violent clashes had occurred in the years fol owing the Magical Awakening, but witches and norms alike agreed on one thing—humans were safer in the city because strange, long-forgotten legends were waking in the wilds.

Now here I was, out in the middle of nowhere, searching for a carnivorous water horse.

I pul ed my car off the road and parked under a cove of tree branches at one side of the bridge. The bridge itself was a hulking gray stone monstrosity with no obvious seams, no bolts, and no metal infrastructure—just solid stone. As I pul ed up the soft top on the convertible—trees meant birds and I did
not
want to have to clean bird crap off my seats—Malik approached.

“Nice car,” he said, circling the little blue convertible.

“Thanks. It’s new.” New used, but it was stil a major step up from the hulking metal junker I’d driven until it had gotten stolen and stripped while I worked the Coleman case. Of course, since the Blood Moon, sitting inside my old car for an extended period of time probably would have made me retch. The convertible had been designed for the filthy rich or fae and had no iron in its construction. Even used, it hadn’t been cheap, and I was almost surprised it didn’t run on rainbows.
Actually, rainbows would probably be a pain-in-the-ass power source.
I’d used most of the money I’d made from the Coleman case on the down payment, and I stil owed the bank, but business had been good and as long as that lasted, I wouldn’t have trouble with the monthly payments.

Since Malik wasn’t glamoured, I pul ed the charm I’d made for detecting glamour from the cup holder and snapped it onto my bracelet. Better safe than sorry. I checked that the magic bridle was in easy reach in the top of my purse and then leaned across the seat to grab the plastic grocery bag on the passenger side. “I brought what plastic grocery bag on the passenger side. “I brought what you asked for. Do I want to know why we need raw hamburger meat?”

Malik’s thin lips cracked into a smile ful of smal , yel ow teeth. “We have to get the kelpie’s attention, now, don’t we?”

Great.

I fol owed him down the bank to the edge of the water.

When he held out one long-fingered hand I gave him the grocery bag. He dug inside, pul ing out the three pounds of raw hamburger. Tearing off the plastic, he studied the pink meat.

“Bloodier would have been better,” he said, “but this wil do.”

He sank his fingers into the meat, and after pinching off a clump, hurled it into the rushing water. It vanished into the current, and I waited, shuffling from foot to foot on the uneven bank.

Nothing happened.

“Now what?” I asked, staring at the water.

Malik flicked his fingers, dislodging bits of pink hamburger, but he continued to watch the river. After several minutes, he shook his head. “Let’s try farther upstream.”

The walk couldn’t be described as companionable. Malik hummed to himself, clearly not interested in casual conversation as he waltzed through the thick underbrush crowding the edge of the bank. My progress was considerably less effortless as dry twigs snapped under my steps and vines tugged at my ankles. This was the second time this week I’d tromped through the wilderness, and my boots just weren’t made for it. Then there were the bugs. I seriously should have packed an insect repel ent charm, or at least the spray that norms used. Not that any of this seemed to bother Malik as he led us farther upstream. In between swatting mosquitos on my bare arms and watching for raised roots waiting to trip me, I scanned the watching for raised roots waiting to trip me, I scanned the water, the banks, and the woods beyond, but nothing bigger than a squirrel moved in the wilderness.

We stopped several times, and at each stop Malik tossed more hamburger into the river. But no water horse emerged from the current.

“Do you think the court already captured the kelpie?” I asked once we’d exhausted al three pounds of meat.

Malik shrugged. “She might not be hungry.”

Maybe because she snacked on some human
remains?
Actual y, that theory didn’t hold with the evidence we had. Tamara had said there were no tool marks—or any other indication of how the feet were severed from the legs

—and I didn’t think she’d miss something like gnaw marks on the bones.

“So how can we draw her out?” I asked as Malik handed me the grocery bag.

“We could offer her something she’d find more appetizing.” Malik smiled, flashing discolored teeth. “She’s not my biggest fan, but I bet she’d find you . . . sweet.”

My stomach, already a little sour after tossing raw meat around, knotted tight. I backed up a step. “What are you suggesting?”

“Calm down. Kelpies are like sharks with hooves—they can smel blood in the water for miles. A few drops should be enough to get her attention.”

Right, a couple of drops of blood so the kelpie could get a taste for me—because that wasn’t creepy. I stared at the rushing water. The hope that the kelpie had information about the location of the crime scene was the only lead I currently had. I’d bled for worse reasons. Final y I nodded.

“So just a couple of drops in the water?”

Malik rubbed the point of his sharp chin. “Yeah, but it would be best if you could put them in at the middle of the river.”

Which meant trekking back to the bridge. Wel , that was where the car was anyway. If this didn’t work out, I had to where the car was anyway. If this didn’t work out, I had to leave soon. We’d been walking for at least an hour, and I stil needed to make it to—and out of—the Eternal Bloom before dusk. Driving after dark wasn’t an option with the extent to which grave-sight had deteriorated my night vision.

The walk back was no more companionable than the first part of the hike had been, and by the time I spotted the gray stone bridge, sweat coated my skin.
Gee, I’ll be pleasant-smelling company when I meet Rianna.
I wiped damp curls from my face and fol owed Malik to the center of the bridge. He turned to me, nodding without a word.
Guess I’m
on.
Most witches carried fingersticks for activating or personalizing charms, but the only spel s I used that required blood magic were healing charms, and, wel , I was typical y already bleeding if I needed one, so I didn’t have a fingerstick with me. I did have two daggers: the ceramic knife I used to cast circles outdoors and the enchanted dagger. I tended to drag the ceramic knife through the dirt, so it definitely wasn’t sterile, but I was reluctant to give a somewhat aware dagger a taste of my blood.
But I’m
willing to give a taste to a man-eating horse?
It was probably better if I didn’t think about that.

I dug through my purse and pul ed out the ceramic dagger. A quick examination of the blade showed a caked-on smear of mud. I scraped off as much as I could with my fingernail and then wiped the blade on the leg of my pants.

That was about as clean as it was going to get. I would definitely need a disinfectant when I got home.

After pricking my finger, I sheathed the knife and dropped it back in my purse. I squeezed my finger and blood wel ed from the smal wound. Holding my hand over the edge of the bridge, I squeezed until gravity forced a fat drop of blood to fal to the water below. Malik stepped forward after the third drop hit the water.

“That should be enough,” he said, leaning over the stone

“That should be enough,” he said, leaning over the stone railing to stare at the river’s choppy surface.

I dug through my purse until I found a tissue. Pressing the tissue against my finger, I waited, watching the water rush under the bridge. Nothing changed.

After several moments, I shook my head and dropped the tissue back into my purse. “I don’t think it worked.”

“No, look. It did.” Malik leaned farther over the edge of the bridge and pointed at a spot near the center of the river, almost directly where my blood would have hit the water.

I squinted at the dark shape. “That’s a turtle.”

He shook his head. “It’s the kelpie. You cal ed her. You need to identify yourself.”

“Uh, hi. I’m Alex Craft,” I said, feeling stupid talking to what I was pretty sure was a turtle or a fish. The shadow began to sink back under the water, and Malik’s head snapped toward me. His dark eyes went wide, and his hands fluttered as if urging me to say more. “I work with Tongues for the Dead, and I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

The smal shadow stopped. Then it grew larger. And larger. I could have sworn the river didn’t run too deep here, but the shadow grew to the size of a dog and then to the size of a cow. It headed for the bank.
Apparently not a
turtle.
I shouldered my purse and ran toward the bank, Malik at my heels.

A large equine head emerged from the water. The kelpie’s coat was a dank grayish brown like the dark silt and seaweed tangled in the slimy mane clinging to her long neck. She lifted one large hoof onto the bank, and then another, not so much as scrambling as she climbed from the water. Her hooves struck the ground like thunder as she trotted toward me, and I stopped short. She was massive, each hoof the size of a dinner plate, and even in my three-inch boots, I stood only as tal as her large back.

My hand twitched toward the enchanted bridle in my purse, and I forced my fingers away. I wanted to talk with purse, and I forced my fingers away. I wanted to talk with her, if she was wil ing, not jump straight to trickery. No use making an enemy if I didn’t have to. Nevertheless, it was hard to remain stil as the kelpie lowered her head and drew in enough air to make the curls around my face quiver.

She let the air out again, blowing her lips and revealing very sharp—and very unhorselike—teeth.

“You smel delicious, Alex Craft with Tongues for the Dead.” The voice that emerged from her horse mouth was surprisingly feminine and her enunciation perfect. “Sleagh Maith with a mix of mortal? Would you like to go for a ride, little feykin?” She knelt on her front legs to give me easier access, but I backed away.

“No. That’s okay.”

“More’s the pity.” She turned her attention to Malik.

“Oh, it’s you, Shel ycoat.” Her lips curled away from those sharp teeth. It was strange to see a snarl on a horse, but the expression was unmistakable. She huffed her breath and as the air rushed out of her the skin on her neck flared.

Gills?
“What an unpleasant surprise.” She tossed her head, flinging water and muck from her mane.

I stepped back, but I couldn’t avoid the spray. I wiped the muddy water from my cheek with the back of my hand and frowned at the dark spots dotting my top, but there wasn’t time to do anything about it as the kelpie turned back toward the river.

“Wait.” I reached out, my hand brushing her side. Her muscles quivered under my fingers and I jerked my hand back. What I’d original y taken as fur was actual y hundreds of smal , sticky scales. I stepped back a bit, but didn’t move far. “I need to ask you some questions.”

The kelpie turned and studied me with one large, milky eye. “Part ways with Shel ycoat and come to my home for supper. You may ask me any question you wish during the meal.”

Was that a legitimate offer, or would I be part of dinner?

Either way, she lived under the river, and I definitely couldn’t Either way, she lived under the river, and I definitely couldn’t breathe water. I shook my head. “I’d prefer to keep my feet on dry land.”

“Then why should I answer your questions, Alex-Craftwith-Tongues-for-the-Dead-who-prefers-to-keep-her-feet-on-

dry-land?”

I blinked at the title and glanced at Malik. He rol ed his shoulders and stood straight so that he matched the kelpie’s impressive height.

“You should answer because Ms. Craft is working to protect the independent fae in Nekros from the grasp of the Winter Queen.”

Pale skin flashed beneath the kelpie’s gil s. “And what care I for the troubles of other independents?”

“You’l care if the queen saddles and stables you.”

It was hard to read the kelpie’s equine features, but I think she glared at Malik. After several silent seconds, she turned to me, her large eyes unblinking.
That’s as close to
permission as I’m likely to get.
I asked my question.

“A group of feet recently floated down the Sionan River and washed up in the floodplain to the south. They were tossed into the river sometime in the last four or five days.

BOOK: Grave Dance
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