Tigran 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 almosre meant to damn what he was. The benedictions were 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.
He pushed away the terror of being unable to move, of knowing that honed and gleaming edge would slice through his chest. This life would end in a river of crimson rage.
The human woman was here, and though he was horrified to know she would witness his death, he was glad not to be alone. Because she was here, he would, in a way, live on. She wasn’t one of his kind, but he regretted none of his decisions.
Though he couldn’t move his head to see her, he knew 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. She would stay 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. In that final second, the very last to be his, Tigran triggered his magic and pushed out to her.
His last breath came, ended, and he exulted.
He died praying he had given her the power to save herself.
Durian kept his arms crossed over his chest while he waited for the human woman to come to. Right now, she was flat on her back in a rather inelegant sprawl. She felt enough like magekind to set off warnings, but he had little to worry about on that account. Magekind, yes, and therefore his enemy, but she was something else, too. Something she shouldn’t be; and that concerned him more than her talent as a magic-using human. Such as it was. Which was insignificant.
That, in itself, was remarkable.
She was also one of his kind; a species of demon reviled by human magic users for their ability to resist and defy and live in freedom. Her mixed state of existence was highly unusual. Unfortunately for her, there weren’t many ways for a born human to possess magic that could only have come from someone like him.
Her eyelids fluttered, but she’d been conscious since 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 remained alive in his head.
“There is no point,” he said, “pretending you are unconscious.”
She moved her leg and winced. Her eyes opened all the way. She looked at him straight on with 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.
Here in San Francisco, the demonkind enforced the rules against harming, or attempting to harm, humans, whether magic users or not. In turn, the human born were not permitted to harm demons who lived free. The rules were so new that he had to allow she might be one of the ignorant ones. Not everyone knew or accepted that this territory was now controlled by Nikodemus, the demon warlord who had put those rules in place.
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 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 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 hostility of the magekind toward the free 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.”
“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 also 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 in a circle around her. He’d brought her to the Palace of Fine Arts rotunda, an open-air structure of designed to look like a ruin from Greek antiquity. There was nothing of any use to her here. He’d also dampened a perimeter around them so no human wandering by would see them. The precaution also meant she couldn’t see out.
“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?”
Knowing dit Menart was out there and pissed off improved Durian’s mood a good deal. Christophe dit Menart was a problem. The mage was a vocal opponent of the rules and of the very existence of free demonkind. He just barely adhered to the rules when he was San Francisco and not at all anywhere else. The mage had homes in the City and in the East Bay. “I am not at liberty to disclose that information.”
He took his time studying the woman. Like most demons, 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, but enough to make his point. “I am authorized to 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 straightened the crease. “Now. Again. Who are you?”
He arched an eyebrow.
“All right. Grayson.”
“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 of the column she was leaning against and stared at the rotunda ceiling. 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 kneecap 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. Either she already knew who he was, or she really was ignorant. Genuine ignorance was to his advantage, and he had no intention of giving that up. “Why did you try to shoot dit Menart?”
“You a friend of his?”
“Does it matter?”
“I tried to kill your friend because he’s a murderer.”
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.
“And a kidnapper. And a rapist. I think that covers the lowlights. Okay if I stand up?”
“Be my guest.”
“If he’s really your friend, I don’t think much of the company you keep.” She stood, 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 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 the woman’s 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&emdash;he had no idea what to call it. It hurt his eyes to look at her clothes.
A man could go blind from just her shoes, high-top canvas sneakers painted in interlocking puzzle shapes of neon orange, blue, and purple that covered every available surface. It must have taken someone hours to complete. One of the laces was nothing but shredded string at the end.
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 a mirror. 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 his route to stay 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?” The smudge on her cheek he’d 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 bite marks and another fading bruise on its underside.
“They’re not really tattoos.”
“I do not understand your charade of ignorance. You have those traceries, therefore, you know exactly what they are.”
She stared at him, eyes wide. Her lashes were as dark as her eyebrows. “I don’t. I really don’t. 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 needed, 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. A mostly healed cut snaked its way along the side of her throat.
“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 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 demon 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. There was no great mystery about that. Magically speaking, she was stressed out, and it was taking a physical toll. Chances were high she had recently been self-medicated.
“What drugs did you take before you went after dit Menart?”
“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 with compromised access to her magic to use copa. She wouldn’t be the first. Or the last. He had no use for witches, and less for the copa addicted ones.
“What are you?” 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. Not even when they should be.
He wanted to give her a chance before they did this the hard way, though he had little-to-no expectation of hearing the truth. “If it wasn’t a bungled ritual that left you in this condition, what did? A talisman?”
A talisman was an object containing the spirit of a ritually murdered demon. The magekind carried them to enhance their magical abilities. It was also 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 to 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.”
“Confirm my permission to terminate you.” How could one of the magekind, who had obviously once possessed enough power for a killing ritual, be so bloody ignorant? She had to be lying, but he did not understand why she was bothering. “I will receive it, I assure you.”
“So, what, like you’re an assassin?”
He didn’t answer.
She wasn’t stupid. She knew what his silence meant. The only surprise was that her question had been sarcastic enough for him to catch. 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.”
“We are back to my question about your apprenticeship with him.”
She looked around the rotunda, trying, he supposed, to penetrate the darkness beyond the perimeter he’d established. Her magic flared up&emdash;the magic she’d killed for, not the magic she’d been born with&emdash;but it was unfocused, as if she knew how to draw on the power but didn’t know what to do next. How ironic. She’d murdered for that magic and 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.
“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 evidence that she was a liar. 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 what. 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. 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 was in serious need of a bath. “Go on.”
She raised her eyes to his, full of anger and resentment that was not directed at him. He cocked his head, more interested now than he had been moments before. “Christophe killed one of his magehelds.”
“And Christophe dit Menart”&emdash;he gave the name a subtle emphasis&emdash;“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, her bravado back in place. “He didn’t.”
“You,” he said, “have the dead demon’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. Her eyes got big and a bit too focused. “I didn’t kill Tigran.”
Her vocalization of the demon’s name came with a 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.
She wasn’t lying. Impossible as that was, Durian was sure of that now He was less interested in her denial than the way her voice sounded thick with emotion, how 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.
“If not you, then who?”
“Christophe,” she said in a choked voice. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, and her eyes stared blankly forward. At nothing. Her shoulders slumped. “I saw it happen.”
“The ritual in question isn’t trivial magic.” Even the late, great, and unlamented mage Álvaro Magellan had been known to have help on hand for that sort of thing, and Magellan had been considered by most to be the most powerful mage ever to have lived.
“No kidding.” 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 that bastard. So, no, I wasn’t helping. I didn’t want to be there.”
“Then why were you?”
“Christophe 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 to 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. He did not find her the least bit amusing. “If you find out what I am, let me know.”
Durian 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. Humans were fixed to just one form. She had only 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. “You understand, don’t you, that if I find you’ve lied, that if you did kill Tigran, things will not go well for you?”
She held his gaze.
“Do you have a different story to tell me?”
“No.” Her eyes, a lighter blue than the sky, met his without fear. This was not insolence from her. She’d 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.
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. Dit Menart standing over a body that was familiar to her. Tigran. The mage’s arms were bare, and her memories were detailed enough for him to see the words tattooed on the mage’s skin.
Intimate. A lover. But not dit Menart’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 that she could do nothing to stop it. 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. Dit Menart’s knife descending. Such pain and anger. Everything mixed up, out of order.
She gripped his wrists hard. She was breaking down, psychically and mentally. Shaken and horrified by what he’d found there, he withdrew from his link to her. She wasn’t lying about what dit Menart had done or about her lack of participation. She had been as much a prisoner as Tigran.