Authors: Carolyn Jewel
’M NOT USED TO HAVING SOMEONE SO CLOSE TO ME
Gray looked into his dark eyes and found she couldn’t look away.
Durian smiled. “This is good for me. For us.”
They stood there like that, separated by inches, his hand on her cheek. He took her right hand and pushed up the sleeve of her robe until her forearm was exposed.
A flicker of arousal started up in her. She considered pretending she wasn’t thinking about sex, except it was already too late. Her chest felt like something inside was breaking apart…
He kept touching her and she didn’t want to do anything that would make him stop.
He raised her arm between them, bringing her forearm to his mouth. Gray held her breath as he pressed his lips to her skin.
She knew what was coming, and she braced herself. His teeth scraped her skin, and then he pulled. She felt Durian’s reaction as he drew her blood into his mouth.
The taste echoed in her, too, as did the roar of his magic moving through her…
San Francisco, California
igran lay supine on a metal table in the room, unable to move. There was almost nothing he could do but stare at walls covered with writing so old almost no one alive could read them. As one of a race of demonkind thought to be immortal, Tigran had been alive long enough to be familiar with the language. He understood all too well that the dire curses were meant to damn what he was, just as he understood the benedictions intended to protect the human mage who was preparing to kill him.
His movements were limited by the magic the mage had called down. Though his heart still beat, breathing strained the muscles of his torso. The mage lifted his hands over his head and Tigran understood the breaths left to him could be counted on two hands. When Tigran drew air into his oxygen-starved lungs, his chest rose slowly toward the instrument of his destruction. When he exhaled, the moment of his death receded.
He averted his eyes from the soot-blackened knife the mage held over his chest, but an afterimage of the blade burned in his head. Death was inevitable. Inescapable. This moment had been his fate since the day he’d been taken into slavery. He welcomed his freedom and embraced the cessation of his physical suffering.
So far, he’d pushed away the terror of being unable to move, of knowing that soon that honed and gleaming edge would slice through his chest. This life would end in a river of his crimson rage.
The human woman was here, and though he was horrified to think she would witness his death, he was glad not to be alone. Because she was here, there was a way in which he would live on. She wasn’t one of his kind, but he regretted none of his decisions. He couldn’t move his head to see her, but she was here, more terrified than he was. His. Strong enough to keep her wits. He’d chosen well. In his soul, in the very marrow of his being, she was his. There had been days when he imagined meeting her in a life in which he wasn’t enslaved. How different things might have been. Without regret he had done the unforgivable to her. He’d destroyed her then remade her and she had survived and changed them both.
When he told her what was in his heart, when he entered her body with passion and desire that was more than what was required of him, even when he confessed his gratitude and admiration that she had lived through all that he had done to her, she hated the result at the same time that she loved him. She understood how little had been in his control, and that she was alive because of him.
He loved her with the cold ferocity of a knife blade through his heart.
Light flashed on the descending metal and arced away in a rainbow of impossible colors.
He opened his mind to hers, this human woman he had changed, so that he would die having done exactly what he had been commanded he do. She was the instrument of his revenge and his immortality. She was a lie that wasn’t. A deception that had allowed him to defy the mage. And she had agreed to do this for him. For them both.
He reached out to her in the last moments of his life. For the final time, he told her that he loved her.
The knife descended.
His magic boiled up, resisted the pain until even he broke. He screamed into eternity when the mage’s hand closed around his heart. Tigran triggered his magic and pushed out to her.
With his last breath he exulted.
He died knowing she had saved his life and praying he had given her the power to save herself.
Four days later.
Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda, San Francisco, California
urian kept his arms crossed over his chest while he waited for the human woman to come to. She was flat on her back right now, in a rather inelegant sprawl. She felt enough like magekind to set off warnings, but he already knew he had little to worry about on that account. Magekind, yes, and therefore she was his enemy, but she was something else, too. Something she shouldn’t be; and that concerned him more than her insignificant talent as a magic-using human. Such 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 also one of the kin, one of a species of demonkind better known to the magekind as a fiend. 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 that could only have come from someone like him.
Her eyelids fluttered, but he knew she’d been conscious long before he saw the color of her irises. An icy blue, fittingly cold for what she was. Her eyes closed again, but her thoughts and emotions were alive in his head.
“There is no point,” he said, “pretending you’re not yet awake.”
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?”
He straightened his sleeve in order to hide his surprise at the question. “No.”
“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. In these days of the kin enforcing the rules against harming humans, a surprising number of the magekind—demonkind’s traditional enemy—were ignorant about the kin. He had to allow that she might, possibly, be one of the ignorant ones. He waited until she had more of her wits about her before speaking again.
“The only reason I didn’t terminate you for what you did, human, is my curiosity about why you tried to kill Christophe dit Menart.”
She pushed herself to a sitting position and looked around. She blinked a few times but didn’t, as he well knew, see much of anything useful. “Where the hell are we?”
Durian didn’t answer since it was abundantly clear she was no longer at the site of her assassination attempt.
She made another face while she arched her back. If she knew what he was, she wasn’t showing the usual attitude of the magekind toward the kin. She did, however, block his psychic connection into her head. Rather neatly. As if she’d had practice. “Well,” she said, affecting a perky smile. “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Interesting,” he said. “Were you ever?” 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.
“No.” 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. “Just trying to make a little conversation, that’s all.”
“I am curious,” he said in a low voice, “to know how 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 exhaled. She patted the ground around her, then looked around as if she’d lost something.
“I disposed of your gun.”
“That cost me good money.” Emotion flashed across her face, gone too quickly for him to identify without a link into her head. “Where is the rat bastard 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.
He took his time studying the woman. Like most fiends, he was not adept at interpreting the nuances of human expression without a psychic link. Her psychic blocks were quite effective. She looked serious enough, but he couldn’t be confident he was right. He said, “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 point. “I can get the information without your cooperation.”
Her eyes widened, and for the first time since she’d stopped pretending to be unconscious, he locked onto her emotions without having to try. Uncertainty. Then, terror. Quickly suppressed by bravado. Her block clicked back in place. “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 trousers’ legs wasn’t falling in line with his knee, and reached to straighten the crease. “Now. Who are you?”
He arched an eyebrow.
“All right. Gray
“What am I to make of that response, pray tell?”
The merest beat passed before she answered. Durian was inclined to think she was about to lie to him.
“Grayson,” she said. “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 so that no human wandering by would see them. The precaution also meant she couldn’t see out. She was mildly claustrophobic but hiding it well. “Fine. 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 attitude. She was a good deal braver than he would have expected from someone in her predicament, confronted, as she was, with someone like him. He had no doubt now that she knew exactly what he was.
Gray brought up one knee. Pale knee cap showed through a frayed rip in her jeans. “Since we’re getting all familiar here, your name is?”
He tipped his head to one side. They had not reached a 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.”
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 indicated a far more powerful witch than she was.
“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 them. Dit Menart, for example, could pass for twenty-seven or -eight, and he’d been living in Paris before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. There was no way to guess her true age.
Gray Spencer was tall for a human woman. Five seven or eight, he estimated. 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 this 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 made her face seem less pretty than in fact it was. A silver skull the size of his thumbnail dangled from a metal bar that pierced her navel. Not a ruby anywhere, and rubies were a gemstone known to enhance magic and therefore prized by the magekind. Very curious that she had none.
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 just from the arrangement of her face. “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?” A smudge on her cheek that he had taken for dirt was, in fact, a fading bruise. Another bruise purpled the back of her other arm, the one without the markings. Durian 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. He saw another bruise on its underside.
“They’re not really tattoos.” She tipped her head. “Seems like you know that. I don’t know what they are. When they showed up, there wasn’t anyone around I could ask.” She sounded lost, unbelievable though that was. He jerked his gaze from her arm and studied her face and the bruises. He thought about going into her head and just taking the information he wanted, but didn’t. Not yet. “I take it you know what these are?” she said.
Durian was struck by the plaintive note in that simple request. “There is one obvious way for you to have come by those.”
She kept her arms loose as she moved with him. The bruise on the back of her arm continued upward and disappeared underneath her sleeve.
“And, alas for you, not many others.”
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 to him; psychically, she was a desperate mess. Durian pulled her hand toward him so her arm 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.
She’s done this before,
he thought. 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 for you, especially after you lost control.” He pushed her hand away. 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. Magically speaking, she was stressed out and it was taking a physical toll. Chances were high she was self-medicated.
“What drugs did you take before you went after Christophe?”
“None.” She shoved her hands in her back pockets. She shivered. Just once.
She didn’t look like 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 had damaged her access to her magic by calling on too much too soon, to resort to copa in the hope that the drug would restore her abilities. 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 afraid. Which, again, was interesting. Not many of the magekind were afraid.
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, despite the danger. 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 beyond the perimeter he’d established 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 but couldn’t use it.
Durian smiled. 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 psychic block wasn’t easy.