House of Slide: Wilds Part I
A Prequel Novella
By Juliann Whicker
Copyright © 2015 by Juliann Whicker
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Of the four suits created by the Nether, Wilds are organized into Houses where they work to promote various schemes as declared by the Head of the House. White Houses refer to those houses that prefer to follow Code and focus on more traditional threats of demons and rebel Hybrids. Red Houses follow the mandate of the Head, however unconventional, vying for position and power over other Houses.
Wild’s Nether gifts have power over the physical world, manipulating different elements as well as foretelling. Wild ability is determined by how much Nether still flows through the family, those with more recent infusions of Netherblood having greater talents in wind, water, earth, stone, fire, glass, ice, blood, metals, bone, wood, etc. Wilds can enhance their talents with runework either as embedded tattoos or incantations.
Unlike Wilds, Hotbloods live in constantly shifting clans. Loyalty is based on respect instead of blood. The Nether gifts to the Hotbloods is their fury: a metabolic change that increase physical size, speed, and heightened senses. The fury, if left unchecked, will burn until the Hotblood becomes consumed.
Of the four suits, Hotbloods are most likely to become Hunters, or those dedicated to combating demons and demonkind. Hotbloods can increase their abilities and skills by performing bloodwork on another person, absorbing their longevity and skills. Otherwise, Hotbloods live short, violent lives.
Generally peaceful with mostly defensive skills, they live in communes or wander on the fringes of society. They can manipulate the emotions and thoughts of others; some of the most powerful can control other’s actions. They can bond with plants or animals and have the longest life spans of all the suits.
They absorb the skills of those they are raised with: Wild, Hotblood, or Cool. When they mature (turn), they can manipulate souls. A few turn later, and the later they turn the more souls they can hold. They sometimes become possessed by lost souls, or Hollows who were killed but whose souls linger, waiting for vengeance on those who destroyed them.
The dinner club in the heart of London felt rich. The jazz music in the background, melancholy oboes and sincere trumpets, lulled me into relaxation against the supple leather bench while I studied the black and silver reflective wallpaper, seeing shapes and dreams that weren’t there. I leaned over the metal table, running my fingers around the lip of my glass, staring into the golden depths as though I could read my future in it.
The front door opened. The sound of honking and laughter spilled from the street while a slight draft crawled through the club, curling around my bare ankles. I didn’t need to look directly at the door to see who had entered from my position at a corner table, not when I could glance up at the reflection behind the bartender.
The large man with piercing blue eyes who had entered moved slowly, searching the room before settling on a tufted leather stool at the bar. I heard a clatter of silverware and a woman’s laugh from the dining room behind me that made the man look up with eyebrows lowered towards the sound while I forced my gaze on my hands until his attention returned to the bar and his own drink.
I exhaled, forcing my heart to steady and my breathing to remain even. If he recognized me, he’d run and it would be nearly impossible to track him through the warrens and tangled streets of London.
I sipped my drink delicately while I flexed my toes inside my black pumps. I kept my gaze on the vase holding orange poppies in front of me, the fractured glass reflecting the enormous man’s back where he still sat, murmuring to the bartender every few minutes.
The door opened, the draft once again competing for my attention. I sat still, swirling my glass around while I watched the man turn to give a suspicious glare with his bright blue eyes at the newcomer, then freeze and stare openly with a slack mouth at whoever had entered.
It was enough of a reaction that I had to glance up, to turn my head and see her at the same time she stepped past a tall, pale man and our eyes met.
I tried to sink into the floor, to deflect her gaze with indifference but it was too late. Camilla trilled the unnerving laugh that had always made me shudder when we were in school together, the laugh that rang as false as it did malicious. How quickly could I brush her off before I followed the man when he left, as he was certain to do if he recognized her—and how could he not?
Camilla of the House of Carve looked even more stunning than I remembered with her thick golden hair accented by the gold of her slinky gown. The gleam of her smile matched her gown, the mirrors reflecting her perfection into infinity while she stalked towards me, holding out gloved hands with an expectant look on her face.
“Helen, is that really you?” She turned to put a hand on the chest of her companion—a pale man in a tuxedo who looked like nothing more than an accessory. “George, go get us drinks. I haven’t seen my dearest friend for ages.”
I rose as she turned to me with an expression of bliss on her face. I didn’t expect the embrace, not when Camilla hated sentiment of any kind, not when the last time I’d seen her had been years and years before when she’d left the appropriate ladies boarding school for our kind.
“Camilla,” I murmured through teeth that remained unclenched. I felt her bony chin dig into my shoulder and made myself smile at George while the man, the Hotblood I’d come across an ocean to find had already disappeared. He’d managed to vanish in the brief moment when he and his reflection had been hidden by George, the oversize accessory.
“You smell lovely,” Camilla said pulling away. “Not a bit of demon taint. It seems like everyone I see these days is involved in hunting demons.” She wrinkled her delicate nose before she replaced her smile. “What are you doing in London?” she asked still gripping my hands in hers. I glanced at the mirror beside me and forced my smile to shift from a grimace to delight. That image, the flash of golden Camilla beside my black hair, pale-skinned self, wearing a simple black suit showed me at distinct disadvantage. I felt a surge of competitiveness that I’d nearly forgotten I’d had back in school. We had both been exceptional, perfect, but different as night and day. I was daughter of a white House and she the daughter of a Red. I hadn’t seen anyone from a Red House since I’d started my medical training.
I laughed lightly while I squeezed her hands, but it sounded forced even to me. “I’m here to meet you, apparently.”
She laughed as though I’d said something genuinely hilarious, throwing her head back to expose the long column of throat that I had a sudden and irrational desire to strangle. I was running out of time. I shoved down my nausea brought on by frustration and forced myself to consider how I could use this twist of fate to my advantage.
“Hi there,” George said, setting drinks on the table while he gave me a glance that became a leer. “I was beginning to wonder if all of Camilla’s friends were men.”
He blended in the way I tried to blend, but men had it easier in public, looking like they belonged when women stood out. I should have brought someone, my own accessory to use the way Camilla always had. It had seemed like such a straightforward mission: Find my oldest brother and bring him home. I hadn’t imagined that Hotbloods and Hunters would be so antagonistic towards me.
Camilla put her hand on his chest, once more capturing his attention. “Darling, George. I’m going to have dinner with my friend, to catch up. Be a dear and meet me later at the party.”
She threw herself elegantly in the chair across from me, ignoring the look of humiliated adoration that I’d always seen on the faces of boys who found her irresistible after she was finished with them. There hadn’t been many boys available at school, but she’d burned every one of them. She took a swallow of her drink then swirled the contents of her glass around in her slender fingers while she stared at me, dissecting every iota of my appearance.
“George seems very nice,” I murmured, setting my drink on the table, ready to wrap up the encounter.
“A girl of my station requires an escort.” She took a sip of her drink while she cocked her head at me, golden brown eyes sparkling with amusement. “You didn’t misplace yours, did you?” she asked with a faintly mocking smile. “That would be clumsy. Maybe I can find you a spare. There are certain to be countless Hotblood Hunters at the party, like the one at the bar when I came in, who could provide you with the desired muscle.”
I swallowed when I realized that she suspected that the Hotblood was linked to my visit.
“I’m not used to frequenting parties where Hotbloods socialize, as enlightening as such a thing would be. As for desiring Hotblood muscle, you’ve always been much more interested in exploring muscle than I was.” I forced myself to relax and not take her bait. I hadn’t come there to compete with Camilla in some power struggle boarding school reunion. “As charming as it’s been to see you again, I’m afraid I have an appointment that I have to keep.” My voice came out as indifferent as hers had been condescending. I moved to rise, letting a slight smile that may have been tinged with mockery play on my mouth.
She shrugged negligently as she rose with me. “I’d hoped you weren’t on a dull assignment, but if you must go, I’ll come with you. First I have to drop Jarvais’s letter off for him.” She pulled a slim envelope from her bag with an innocent smile that made my skin crawl, or maybe it was the envelope in her hands that made my heart pound and the room become unfocused.
I lost sight of everything besides the white rectangle she held so casually.
“What’s wrong Helen? You look a little ill.”
Her look of concern was much more convincing than it used to be, but she knew my stomach had twisted, had shown me the letter in order to get a reaction out of me. She was the same Camilla.
“I believe I am, a bit,” I said sinking back down at the table fighting off nausea. I hadn’t felt so sick for a very long time. It was the worst timing considering how on guard I’d have to be to deal with someone like her, and in the wrong country. I had to say something, something clever to put her vin her place but she kept waving the letter in front of me.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” she said putting a claw-like hand on my shoulder. “While you rest and recover your strength after your exhausting trip. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”
“Can’t you?” I murmured, but she had already left. I took four deep breaths then stood feeling lightheaded as I walked to the bar. I ran my fingers casually over the leather stool where the Hotblood Hunter had sat, feeling the heat from the Hotblood’s body. The remains of his drink had already been taken away. I inhaled deeply while the bartender stared at me, like he was wondering if I was going to throw up. I smiled at him.
“My friend left before I got a chance to talk to him. Did he happen to tell you where he was going?” I let my eyes widen, looking as harmless as possible.
The bartender shifted, wadding his towel tighter in his hands. He didn’t like talking about any of his customers. I might be a jealous wife, jealous girlfriend, or who knew what else.
“Helen,” Camilla said from behind me. “If you wanted to know where he was going, you only had to ask.”
I froze as she put her hand on my shoulder.
“I suppose he’ll be at the fantastic party you were telling me about.”
“Of course,” she said, trilling as I turned to stare at her.
She wanted to take me somewhere, but why? What was in it for her, and what chance did I have that it would lead me to my brother? How much risk did it involve? She wasn’t the same girl whose actions led to broken bones and detention. The games she played now would be life and death. She met my look levelly, allowing me to check her eyes for any signs of lying.
“I suppose I have some time to spend with my oldest and dearest friend,” I said smiling at her. This was her territory. She would know the locations of local Hunters. One of them would have to tell me where I could find my brother.
I followed her. Knowing that my distaste for letting her lead the way was highly irrational didn’t keep me from wishing I could turn around and take the back exit instead.
“You should meet the rest of my family, you know, my brother.” Camilla threw the words at me over her shoulder while her hips swayed in the clinging gown. “Unfortunately, Jarvais spends all his time up at the House with his guests these days. There’s a girl that he’s Intending. She’s perfectly lovely.” The word perfect was accompanied by an icy tone that made my spine prickle.
I tried to focus on the other customers in the bar, the way that they watched us with uncomfortable fascination as we passed towards the door instead of the dizziness and nausea that once again swarmed over me. How long had it been since I’d gotten a letter from him? I gritted my teeth and began counting my breaths. I had no business having thoughts like that. That part of my life was gone permanently, swallowed by the agony of being runed, of having my soul stripped bare while I trained. I was a member of Slide, most prestigious White House on the American Continent. There was nothing else, even my medical schooling was to serve Slide. I was there for the sole purpose of bringing my brother back home, back into the House where he belonged, where we needed him. I had no business allowing weakness like emotional pain cripple me. It didn’t matter that Jarvais, Son of Carve had an Intended.
“She’s everything he’s ever wanted. Who knew he’d find true love in Romania. Such a backwards place, but apparently one shouldn’t judge because she truly is divine.”
I ignored the bait. “Where are we going?”
She glanced over her shoulder at me, showing her wide-eyed innocence. “To the party of course, to find the Hotblood you’re looking for.”
“Why do you want to help me?”
She laughed, throwing her head back like she didn’t know how to do it without making it a performance that passersby stared at. “Helen, you’re too sweet. I don’t want to help you. I simply think it’s in everyone’s best interest if you complete your business as soon as possible. I’d hate for Jarvais to be embarrassed by an old romance when he’s finally found someone worthwhile.”
Could that possibly be her actual motive? I wasn’t sure if I should be more humiliated, but I was still fighting nausea. “I see. Thank you so much for you timely intervention.” She wouldn’t explain herself; I just had to trust her. At least I’d pretend to trust her as long as she didn’t try to lead me out of the neutral territories.
I took a deep breath of the damp air, trying to shake the residual sickness that the thought of Jarvais gave me.
“Tell me more about this party.”
She shrugged as she gave a sidelong glance and a coy smile at a man passing by who wore a tuxedo. He looked her over appreciatively, ignoring me. “It’s technically a Wild’s place, a cousin of mine, but he’s not really in the House so that makes him more fun. You’ll like him.” She cocked her head at me, her long blond hair cascading over her golden gown provocatively. “On second thought, maybe you won’t. Either way, you’ll see some Hotbloods. That much I can guarantee.”
I followed my old ‘friend’, letting gusts of night air swirl around me, spinning my hair around my face, lessening the nausea and helping me focus. I wasn’t technically there on House business, not when my father had made it clear that Saturn had made his choice that he was free to act as he wished. He’d refused Grim’s offer to find Saturn, so I hadn’t asked. I’d simply followed my one lead without telling anyone. I had to try to save my brother if I could, even if it was from himself.
Now I was in England, London, a place where I should be relatively safe from the machinations of the three competing Houses that dominated the city, but I was on my own without any actual experience, only training. It would be beyond stupid to be caught in Bliss, Harding, or Carve’s domain.
“Where is your cousin’s house?” I asked, walking briskly beside her beneath the streetlamps. I had greater chances getting lost and wandering into forbidden territory in the dark. She seemed to move languidly, her dress glistening in the reflected light of the golden street lamps, but there was nothing slow about her pace. Camilla tilted her head back and looked up at the sky, like she was going to swallow the night. I didn’t try to see the stars in the city.
“It’s in neutral territory,” she said to me, almost quietly. Her voice echoed strangely in the night while fog crept along the edges of the street, the fingers constantly trying to slip under my cuffs or down my collar intrusively. I was tempted to raise a little wind to chase the fog away, but I settled for raising my lapels instead.
“That’s convenient,” I replied, not bothering to put any kind of inflection in my voice. I took a step too quickly and felt my heel catch nearly making me fall.
“Careful,” she sing-songed. “Cobblestones are so charming, don’t you think?”
I limped until my ankle straightened out. The pain, the burning took the edge off my anger giving me more focus, more perspective. I stopped walking. I’d been following a map in my head and was almost certain I knew where I was, but the streets were so twisting and narrow I couldn’t be precise—something that Camilla probably knew.
“Camilla,” I said, brushing my fingers against a brick wall. “I hate this. I haven’t seen you for so long, and now it’s almost like we’re strangers.” I swallowed any sarcasm that threatened to creep into my voice. “Let’s stop somewhere, a café or something and just talk.”
She shrugged easily as she continued walking then swung around a banister and up some steps to a yellow front door. The night was quiet, only mildly filled with ordinary evening city sounds of traffic and distant laughter. Behind the quiet Brownstone was a Hotblood party?
“What a great idea. We’ll have to meet tomorrow. Tonight,” she turned and gave me a smile I knew and feared. “Let’s find you a guy who can introduce you to a little more fun than you’re used to. I know that you’re not interested in the general men that are available to women of our social standing, but tonight, you can experiment with others.”
I climbed the stairs while I gave her my coolest smile. “It would be senseless to leave without saying hello.”
Camilla laughed—a trill that gave me chills. “It’ll be a party you’ll never forget.”
To Jarvais, Son of Carve
Dear eldest brother,
This week has been dull, dark, dreary and besides which, entirely despondent, except for the trip to the Maynard mansion last Tuesday. I went with my dear friends and classmates, all of whom enjoyed gazing at the superior and illustrious portraits of Wild’s from days of yore. Nary a nostril hair, not a whiff of wrinkle or a smidge of sallowness, but of course, that’s what you get from Wild portraiture: miles and miles of endless perfection which I endured as long as possible then made my escape in an entirely seemly manner out of an unwatched side door (I would hate to give the impression of scaling a wall) out into the winter garden.
I liked the bare bones of it, like a corpse laid out to rest, peaceful, without expectations of perfectly clippered nostrils, I mean yews, the bits of green poking out weeds that will be yanked from the earth without hesitation, the only time when the earth is left alone, left to think, to be, to rest. The dead brittle grass scratched the back of my neck while I lay, staring at clouds the color of hesitation, birds making sounds, caw, or braw, or gecko echo mecho, the crows aching to pick a fight, or maybe that’s them being polite. The wind silvered the branches over one another, the motion softer than feathers. Are there feathers so straight and spiny? Maybe trees grow backwards, starting with fluff and ending with quill. Why shouldn’t a bird be so, to enjoy its own down instead of spreading it around for everyone else? I should be more generous. If I were a bird I’d rip out all my feathers and stuff them in backwards. Of course then I couldn’t fly. I’d be relegated to my nest, consoling myself with the hideous sounds only the dead can bear without laughing.
Yours always in common paternity,
P.S. Isn’t my handwriting beautiful? I’ve been practicing all winter.
Dearest, charming sister,
Your handwriting is certainly an improvement over former correspondence, however your I’s might reflect too much buoyancy considering the gravity of your topic.
Winter seems like death, still, bare, solemn, but that is the time when nutrients and minerals are absorbed, storing up, like a spring rolling tighter and tighter. It might not look like much from the outside, but without the compounding of reserves you would never have anything to see come warmer weather. Looking isn’t the same as seeing. Maybe death is like that—more to it than meets the eye.
My days here are spent much the same as every other day. In the southern hemisphere summer heat makes me envious of your winter, itchy grass and all. It’s not all sunshine and sweat though for I found a species of variegated reticulatis that I’m shipping home with explicit instructions for planting. I hope the new gardener is more open-minded than the last one. One person’s variegated reticulatis is another person’s weed.
Peacocks seem all feather until they branch out, stick-like before the final tuft. I think you’re describing porcupines but they’re all spine, no feather. I like the idea of trees though, hiding their softness on the inside, but of course when they bloom and leaf out they share their beauty and softness more than birds which are likely to give you lice. I eat a mango as I write. I’m grateful for the fruit of the tree’s generosity. If I had room in the greenhouse then I’d send a mango tree. I wonder what the gardener would do with that.
With much affection and even more mango juice,
Your Eldest Brother
The house was laid out along a central hall, but there were hideous sculptures everywhere that lent a sense of chaos to the symmetry. To the left of the entry, a couple sat on a set of stairs kissing as though they were the only people in the world. It didn’t shock me exactly, but it made me feel uncomfortable. The party would not be a Wild affair with chamber music and tea.
Camilla didn’t seem to notice them as she took off her jacket, draping it over the face of a sad-looking lopsided plaster man then led me across the pale parquet floor past dark doorways to the kitchen. She looked different with her bare arms, bare except for the black metal runes embedded in her skin. It reminded me that she wasn’t Camilla from school but a full grown Daughter of a House. In other words, if she’d been dangerous then, she was deadly now.
The kitchen was a pale green color that made even Camilla look sickly, but we didn’t stop there. Camilla didn’t pause until she had her hand on the back door.
“Helen,” she said, looking at me with a strange intensity. “I’m glad you came to London.”
With that, she opened the door and stepped outside, leaving it open for me. I followed cautiously. Peering out, I tried not to stumble as I passed through the invisible barrier that kept the noise, light and energy from the rest of the world.
After I’d blinked a few times, I could make out the yard. It was ordinary enough, grass, hedges, flower beds here and there, but the lights, the music, the people dancing and laughing had so much color, so much intensity, I wasn’t sure where to look or whether I should turn and run. A stage set up on the right side of the yard, more like scaffolding than an actual stage, held the musicians playing their instruments to an unfamiliar beat. I heard jazz, but the drum beat too insistently while the guitar wailed in my ears. The musicians seemed caught in their own spell of sound, playing off each other like no one danced or listened. Maybe they’d never rehearsed together before.
I stepped off the stoop and stumbled on the last step. I bit my lip as I quickly straightened, looking around to see who had noticed my misstep. No one met my gaze except the guitarist, the one who played with excessive zeal. He met my eyes and sneered as his fingers flew over the frets. The musician stared at me while I hovered on the edge of the party, unable to move while he held me in his gaze.
I looked away, breaking contact and forcing myself to focus instead of letting precious seconds of my mission slip away. That was all the time it would take for the Hotblood to see me and disappear. Again.
I walked forward purposely, searching the yard. Camilla was right—the place was buzzing with people, Hotbloods, Wilds, all with too much energy and too much intensity. I felt the beginning of a headache behind my eyes. The Wilds were beautiful, perfect, but the Hotbloods were alive. There was more than one Wild flirting with a Hotblood, and not only men; I saw a Wild girl who laughed up at a well-muscled Hotblood with glowing dark brown eyes before sliding a hand up his bare arm.
I wrapped my own arms around myself instinctively for a moment, almost feeling the contact between the two. The crowds were dizzying, or maybe I was still dizzy from earlier. Hotbloods didn’t give me a second glance as I slid around groups as they laughed and jostled each other, the violence in their every movement as natural to them as breathing.
One stepped back suddenly, knocking me to the side. I should have seen him coming, should have been faster in my reactions, but everything around me spun. He grabbed my arm as if to keep me from falling over, apologizing as his heat sank through my sleeve. The burning of his jade green eyes, but most of all, the regularly spaced scars that criss-crossed his bare arms made me jerk away from him.
“It’s nothing,” I said with what I hoped was a calm, in-control smile before I turned away, my heart pounding in my chest. He could probably hear my heart race, see the pulse jump in my throat, but what other reaction was I supposed to have after running into a Bloodworker? They were to the Hotbloods what Heads of Houses were to Wilds. Powerful. Dangerous. This was not the time to show weakness.
A red-haired Hotblood girl stepped in front of me, blocking my way as she lifted a plastic cup to her lips, drinking while I stood, unable to edge around her with the various Hotbloods penning me in. I could have shoved my way through the way they did, but that much contact with that much heat would overwhelm me.
When she was done drinking she focused her green eyes on me, green like the bloodworker’s had been, glowing eyes that matched the long dress she wore. Unlike most of the Hotblood dresses, it had sleeves.
“I like your dress,” I said, giving her a smile as I attempted to edge by her, but she didn’t move.
“Do you?” She looked down, frowning, like she hadn’t remembered wearing a dress. When she looked up she was still frowning. “Are you looking for someone? Maybe I can help you.” Her voice was a little bit rough, but richly vibrant.
I smiled easily. “I’m here with Camilla, but I’ve lost track of her. Maybe you’ve seen her?”
“Camilla of Carve? What is she doing here?” The voice came from behind me, a low growl that made my heart pound and the hairs rise on the back of my neck. When I glanced back, the bloodworker stood behind me, impressively muscled arms crossed over his chest blocking any move in that direction.
I stared at him, for a moment mesmerized by the bright green gaze that held mine as though he were the leader of the pack, the alpha male who everyone there had to answer to. I’d never really thought about the hierarchy of power in Hotblood clans. I should have. What did I know about Hotbloods other than that they were the quarter of the Nether who were physical/emotional? Maybe I could charm him like that other Wild woman I’d seen. Maybe I could convince him that I was only there for a good time, with no ulterior motives.
I smiled up at him as I slid my hand up his chest. The heat of him, his heart where it throbbed beneath the skin spread through me, chasing away the chill I’d had since I’d come to the foggy, damp country.
“Probably looking for a Hotblood to dance with,” I said hanging onto the smile even as the heat built up in my hand to uncomfortable levels. Hopefully this wasn’t someone who had already been burned by Camilla.
The girl behind me gave a gruff laugh. “You’ll have as much luck seducing me as you would my brother.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the Hotblood responded, catching my wrist in his huge hand, forcing it to stay pressed against his chest while jade eyes burned down at me.
I felt a blush creep up my neck. I wasn’t trying to seduce anyone, much less a Bloodworker. I only wanted him to feel like I wasn’t a threat. Camilla would have seduced him. Of course, telling them that I was with Camilla would make them think that I was like her.
He stroked the back of my hand with my thumb which made my throat tighten up the way it did when people got too friendly. It happened in my med classes sometimes. I looked directly at the Hotblood, fighting the need to pull away.
“I don’t want any trouble here. All I wanted was to have fun and enjoy the company.” It wasn’t technically a lie. Fun for me would be enjoying the company of the Hunter who could tell me where to find my brother.
“Are you sure you don’t want trouble?” The jade-eyed Bloodworker asked, pulling me a little bit closer. “Because you look like the kind of girl that could handle it.”
I could smell the heat on him. Had that been a compliment or an insult? Maybe a joke. Whatever it had been, nothing was helping me disentangle myself.
A man stepped beside me and put a slender hand on the Bloodworker’s shoulder. The jade-eyed Hotblood blinked a few times while the heat from his eyes faded until he stepped back, letting go of me.
“You said you wanted to have fun?” The man asked at my ear, sending shivers down my spine.
I turned towards him instinctively. The sound of his voice was like music, like the wind making me want to melt, to agree, to do anything and everything he suggested. I shook my head, even dizzier as I tried to focus, to remember why I was there in the first place. He had to be Cool the way his voice affected me. I sidled away from him until I was brought up short by the Hotblood girl where she still stood, obstinately in my way.
I would be humiliated if I ran away from a Cool, considered the least dangerous of our kind, when I represented Slide. I forced myself to stand up straight and turn to him, frowning at the newcomer who proved to be the dark haired guitarist. The music was different without him. I should have noticed. I swayed dizzily while his skin changed colors, reflecting the flashing bright lights of the stage.
“We’ve got everything under control here,” the redhead in the nice dress said to the musician, leaning towards him with a threat in her smile.
“That’s mahvelous. We wouldn’t want to lose control, would we, Cami?” he drawled. There was nothing crisp and British about his southern drawl. His heavy lidded eyes laughed at her, mocked her. He didn’t act like any Cool I’d ever met. Not that I’d met a lot, but he seemed darker, edgier, dangerous instead of soothing.
“She says she’s here with Camilla of Carve,” Cami said, crossing her arms over her chest. The sleeve of her dress pulled up enough that I caught a glimpse of scar tissue. Usually Hotbloods wore their scars with pride.
“Well why wouldn’t she? Camilla has no problem crashing parties.” He turned his smile at me, his teeth looking sharp and dangerous beneath the curve of his lips. His eyes gleamed with intensity as he studied me with blatant interest.
I fought the urge to shy away from him again. “Camilla wasn’t invited? She said this was her cousin’s house.” My jaw tightened as I struggled against the dizziness. It didn’t matter whose house this was. What mattered was finding a Hotblood who knew my brother. I turned to the girl, to search her face for signs of friendliness, but she only scowled at me.
The musician raised an eyebrow. “Camilla never lets an invitation, or lack thereof, stand in her way.” His smile shifted while I tried to stay standing up straight.
His face weaved in front of me. I grabbed the front of his jacket, trying to hold him or me in place. His face was wrong somehow, or maybe that was the pounding in my head. Cools had unobtrusive features that blended with their passive energy, not crooked noses, ugly grayish eyes and sharp cheekbones. He covered my hands with his and said, “This is a wedding party. No one minds a few extra guests, do they, Cami?” He slid one arm around me. “After this dance we can scour the place for Camilla. No doubt she’s found a dark corner with a Hotblood.”
Dance? I shook my head then found myself blinking to clear my vision with his arms around me, holding me against his body closer than I’d ever let another man come, close enough that his belt dug into my hipbone.
“I think moving your feet would help give you the appearance of dancing instead of being unconscious,” he whispered, his mouth brushing my ear while his hands firmly held me against him.
I gasped when I realized that I’d actually fainted in public, in front of a party full of Hotbloods. Humiliation didn’t cover what I felt. I, Helen of Slide, Daughter of the House, fainted at a party?
I moved my feet, letting him hold my body against his cool, lean lines as though I really were there for that kind of good time. It was better than the alternative, at least I thought that until his thighs brushed mine as we started moving to the music. I became more and more aware of him as we moved, bodies together, in time. His Cool energy seeped into me, but it wasn’t peaceful. My nerves became strained, raw as I swayed against him, his hand at the base of my spine, our bodies throbbing as one.
I tried to pull away, but either he was stronger than he looked, or I still was weak and pathetic.
“They’re still watching you,” he said mildly, but it sounded like mockery. Maybe he couldn’t talk without a slight sardonic tinge. I looked up at him, at the flinty brown eyes that watched me steadily.
“Don’t you like dancing?” His southern drawl was as out of place as the rest of him.
“I think I’d rather be unconscious than dance with you.”
He slid his hand down my back, pulling me even closer as he murmured. “This is the kind of party where that could be easily arranged. The Hotbloods are wondering what you’re really doing here.” He moved slowly, side to side to the rhythm of the rhumba.
I glanced at the band, wondering what had brought on the unfortunate change in tempo that only made me more aware of his thighs brushing against mine.
“The last party Camilla attended was more exciting than even Hotbloods enjoy for a wedding party, and she usually avoids the company of women as beautiful as she is.”
“Then I’m glad I’m dancing with you who has no curiosity about me instead of a Hotblood.” I smiled up at him, nearly as mocking for a moment as he was. “By the way, if you’re going to call a woman beautiful, it’s less of a compliment if you tell her that she’s as beautiful as someone else.”
I shivered as his hand slid up my back, cradling my body against his, all hard lines and angles to my soft curves.
“It would be more compliment and less observation if it came from someone else. I’m interested in beauty a little less blatant than Camilla’s.”
I raised my chin and my eyebrows, close enough that I couldn’t help but brush against his rough cheek. “Excellent. I admit preferring insults to compliments.”
His smile looked almost pleasant for a moment. “Then we shall get along very well.”
“That’s doubtful. Why would someone so comfortable delivering insults catch an unknown girl instead of letting her fall on her face?”
His thigh brushed mine, sending a rush of something tingling through my body. My body did not tingle. Was he doing that to me with his Cool abilities, making me respond to his body for some unaccountable reason? Maybe Camilla had paid him to do it or blackmailed him, except the musician for all his weak Cool blood didn’t seem the type to be easily manipulated.
Maybe awareness of his body had something to do with the nausea. Maybe I needed to engage with members of the opposite sex more often so that when in close proximity I didn’t immediately faint.
He shrugged, sliding his hand over my hip and raising his eyebrow suggestively. “Apparently I’m more of a gentleman than I thought I was.”
“If your hand moves much lower, you won’t be.”
He smiled a slow, sultry smile. “You’ll know the truth: that I’m only being overly familiar to save you from the humiliation of losing consciousness in public.”
“You must be the first altruistic man I’ve ever met. That’s the only reason?”
“When is there ever only one I admit, I have rarely enjoyed being overly familiar with a perfect stranger so much.” He slid his hand from my hip across the bottom of my spine, sending a ripple of panic along with chills.
I bit my lip as I swayed against his chest, gripping his shoulders while I studied the man with stubble on his chin, stubble that destroyed the formality of his necktie. Formality. I would never crash a party. I didn’t need to. Any civilized event that I wished to attend would be more than honored to have me.
“Do you think everyone here was invited, except Camilla and I? It’s not a very formal party.” I glanced over his shoulder where the Jade-eyed Bloodworker had his arms folded across his enormous chest, staring at me. When he’d grabbed my wrist it had felt like he wanted to rip my arm off. I should feel more grateful to the guitarist than I did. He’d saved me from more than humiliation.
The Cool guitarist looked down at me, caught my eye then shook his head slightly. “It’s as formal as anything involving Hotbloods could be. Would you like an invitation? I’m going to a party, May 17th. There will be dancing, drinking, the odd outburst of violence; if it sounds at all appealing, I’d be delighted if you were my date.”
“You’re inviting me to the party I’m already at?” The formality of his words didn’t match the way he held me against him, gazing down at me as though he could read my thoughts. Maybe he could.
“It makes things simple. That way we don’t have to worry about where to meet, if I have to take you to dinner first, or what food allergies you have, if any. I have to warn you though that I’m going to be playing in the band for the first set, so you’ll have to entertain yourself until I finish up.”
I stared at his grayish eyes, wary of him manipulating my emotions, but the only thing out of place seemed to be a slight flicker of amusement I felt. “I thought the whole point of the band was to entertain everybody else. Having to entertain myself while you play for me seems redundant. Of course, so is inviting me to a party I’m already at. Are you always so mind-bogglingly over-efficient?”
He grinned, showing white teeth. “Always. So, do you have any food allergies I should know about?”
“In spite of the fact that you made such a strong point about why you don’t need to know those tedious details, no. I’m not allergic to anything other than party crashing which is why I accept your only slightly belated offer. It’s a date.”
He blinked, as if surprised I would agree instead of insulting him. He cocked his head to the side as he studied me, so close I could see the specks of brown in his eyes. “You don’t seem like the type of woman who needs to rebel against the strictures of her House.”
“You question my inherent need to lose myself from the duties of the House in the arms of a Hotblood? Next you’ll be saying that itinerant musicians aren’t my type.”
“What makes a musician itinerant rather than the garden variety?”
“Perhaps it’s the garden,” I said, nodding to the grounds behind us.
He winced even as he brushed my shoulders with a touch so light, it shouldn’t have made me shiver. “Then it’s good I’m the garden variety. You know, you never told me your name.”
“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name…”
“Rose? I would have thought something a bit bolder like Cressida.”
“Cressida is a bold name? I always thought it sounded like a salad.”
“Salads can be very bold. I’ve faced many a salad which took their imminent absorption without so much as wilting.” He spoke intently, as though how one faced one’s salad was extremely important.
“That’s because you’re Cool and salads like you. All the salads I’ve eaten began boldly but ended limp and pathetic, drowning themselves in dressing before I had the chance to finish them off.”
He wrinkled his nose a little bit. “You’re one of those girls who drowns their salads in dressing?”
“I don’t drown them; they drown themselves.” I shook my head slightly as I realized the sort of conversation we were having while I let my chance to find my brother slip away. “Thank you for not letting me faint on the ground and get trampled to death by the teeming Hotbloods, but you’ll have to excuse me.”
I pulled away and felt a wave of nausea that had me struggling to breathe.
“Are you all right?” He sounded genuinely concerned and his sneer vanished as he put his hands on my arms, pulling me back upright and against him.
“Would you rather I apologize before or after I was sick on your shoes?” I looked down and saw that he wasn’t wearing any shoes. What kind of person went to a party without shoes? My own pumps pinched my toes. I’d been wearing the heels for days.
“Take a deep breath,” he murmured once again far too close to me, running his hand down my back. His touch was soothing this time, the way I expected Cools to feel. I found myself relaxing in his arms, soothed by his voice and his touch enough that the nausea faded into something closer to exhaustion.
“This is ridiculous,” I whispered, wanting to laugh or cry. “I’ve never been sick in public.”
“Maybe I should take you to your hotel.”
“No.” I straightened, but trying to move away from him brought back the nausea and dizziness full force. “I have to…” I stared into his concerned eyes and broke off as I felt tears prickling. I couldn’t cry on someone I didn’t know. Then again, who better than someone I didn’t know and would never see again to cry on?
He moved suddenly, whirling me while bending over, close and personal. Before I could push him away, I heard the sound of shattering glass followed by cursing. My partner wove us through the crowd, away from the angry Hotblood demanding who had thrown a perfectly good drink at his head while the band played louder.
“You have very good reflexes.” I hadn’t seen the flying glass coming out of the darkness. Why hadn’t I seen something he’d seen? I had to get out of this place, find somewhere quiet and dark where I could refocus.
“Thank you. Next you’re going to be admiring my courage for attending Hotblood gatherings.”
“The only thing I admire is your lack of intelligence for coming to a Hotblood party in the first place.”
His lips twisted into a smirk. “We stand in mutual admiration.”
“You’re not like most of the Cools I’ve met.”
“Naturally. Hunting demons brings the Nether out in all of us.”
I stared at him, seeing the hardness around his eyes, the edge that made him more than a Cool musician. I needed a Hunter to tell me about my brother. My heart pounded in my throat as I searched for words that wouldn’t put him on his guard.
I swallowed hard. “So you’re here as more than entertainment? What do you do in a Hunting party?”
He frowned and pulled away slightly. It was my turn to tighten my hands behind his neck to keep him close. “Demons can’t sense those who are with me. It tends to keep my friends alive.”
“How convenient for your friends that you’re willing to Hunt.” I slid my hand up his neck, feeling the skin beneath my fingers, softer than Wild skin to the strands of his soft and silky hair.
He inhaled slightly as his pupils dilated. In a sudden move, he pulled me close as he ducked down behind a large group of Hotbloods.
He’d pressed me against his chest while the sound of shattering glass and angry Hotbloods came from very close. I tried not to notice his heart thudding against mine.
When he pulled away, giving me space to breathe, I asked, “Is someone trying to hit you, or me?”
We moved behind another group of Hotbloods away from the house and into the shadows, arms still wrapped around each other. The attacks weren’t anything really, glass, alcohol, nothing lethal, but for some reason my heart pounded and my veins filled with adrenaline.
He shrugged as he let go of my waist. I stumbled, falling to my knees as the world flipped upside down and I stayed there, trying to breathe and think as drums beat inside my skull. I didn’t faint that time. Eventually I was able to stand, crossing my arms over my chest to hold myself together while I stared at his shadowy features beneath the large oak tree.
“Better?” he asked as I tried to straighten even more.
“Yes, thank-you.” I had to say something, to ask him if he knew my brother, but how could I be subtle while my head felt like someone was beating my brains to pulp?
“Would you like me to find Camilla for you?”
I shook my head, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. As I looked up at him, the color of his eyes lost in shadows I asked, “Do you hunt with any Wilds?”
His lips twisted, but my head wasn’t pounding quite so hard. “Are you volunteering?”
I smiled. “Think how useful I’d be, fainting on demons.”
“Tell me,” he said, moving closer, pressing me back against the rough bark of the tree. “What do you want?”
I gasped as his body pressed against mine, a challenge of the sort I had not been prepared to deal with. I could have fought him, kneed him in the groin and called down lightning, but that wouldn’t help me find out what I needed to know.
“I’m not like Camilla. This isn’t an appropriate position for a Wild girl to be in.”
He bent his head and actually grazed my ear with his lips as he whispered, “If you were like Camilla, it would be me pressed up against the tree instead of you. I’ll ask again. What do you want? I’m feeling rather generous at the moment.”
I opened my mouth, bewildered by the look in his eyes, the heaviness mixed with dark intensity. Before I could say anything, a wave of dizziness had me falling limply against him, my head too heavy to hold up as it lolled on his shoulder.
He sank down, holding me in his arms while I tried to gain control over my idiotic limbs.
“Have you drunken anything lately from questionable sources?” he asked, holding me on his lap.
I tried to push away from him, but I only ended up patting his chest. I felt like the world had turned upside down and I was sliding off. “I don’t know. I felt dizzy earlier, in the club when I saw Camilla.”
He leaned me forward with his hand holding my head, like being bent in half over my knees would help me breathe.
“Camilla could slip you any number of exciting elements, but I don’t think that’s what this is.” He brushed my hair out of my face while he helped me straighten. The dizziness disappeared for a moment and I felt completely fine, only completely not fine because I was on the lap of a Cool musician instead of finding my brother. I didn’t want to move, not when I’d probably fall on my face, but I hadn’t come all this way to give up.
I looked at him, studying his eyes. Could I trust him, a musician Hunter? I didn’t have any other Hunters holding me on their laps. “I wish I knew your name. It’s hard to trust you when I don’t know anything about you.”
He shifted and my headache immediately rebounded. I put a hand to my forehead wincing as I tried to breathe through the renewed nausea.
“I really think you should lie down somewhere dark,” he said. The words were concerned, but the tone and the fingers that trailed across my cheek sent a different message through my body.
I shivered and grabbed his fingers. “I’ll be fine. I only need a moment. Tell me who is throwing drinks at us? Is it the Bloodworker taking it out on the party crasher, or is it a scorned woman you’ve left behind?”
He sighed, leaning against the tree while looking down at me. “I am the one drawing the attack. If you’d like, I’ll leave, drawing fire while you escape. I’m a very dangerous person to be friends with.”
I swallowed, for some reason unwilling to drop his hand. “I thought that you protected your friends.”
He leaned closer until his cheek brushed mine, his stubble rough against my skin. “Only from demons.” His words were barely more than whisper, his breath skimming over my hair like a cool breeze. I shivered even as I tried to maintain control. He acted as though he were aware of me, resting his eyes a little too long on my mouth, as though he were wondering how I would taste. I swallowed the vivid image I had of his skin against mine. I had to focus.
“Do you work with many Americans?”
His mouth twisted with amusement. Why did I find the contours of his lips so fascinating? Maybe because his mouth looked so soft, compared to his rough skin. “Wild Americans? Like you?”
I blinked as I realized how apparent I’d become. He’d distracted me more than I’d distracted him. “Yes,” I finally said, giving up on discreet. I reached up to smooth his hair away from his eyes. “I know that Hunters don’t like interference from Houses. I’m not here to interfere; I swear it.”
“The person who is throwing drinks at me is a hot-tempered Hunter that would be able to help you,” he said, catching my hand in his and pressing a kiss against my knuckles that left me dizzy and gasping, or maybe it was him standing, pulling me to my feet with him.
I licked lips that were suddenly dry as I wondered if I could trust him. “I’m Helen,” I said impulsively, putting out a hand as though we were at a Wild function instead of beneath the spread of an oak tree.
“Matthew,” he said, barely brushing my hand with his, but the awareness of the touch, the rise and fall of dizziness, left me breathing hard as I leaned against the tree, struggling to stay upright.
“So, I’ll go find the Hunter, then.” I said and with a deep breath, I peered around the tree, studying the layout of the yard, the groups of Hotbloods and where they’d been and where the projectile must have come from. I couldn’t see any Hunter with full glasses, watching for Matthew. The projectiles probably came from the balcony where people milled around, none of them looking particularly volatile, but who could tell?
I turned back to Matthew. “I have an idea. You’ll probably think it’s insane.”
He smiled a slow smile that made my heart beat a little faster. “I am partial to whimsical notions.”
“I’ve heard of Cools that could bend reality, making someone see something other than what’s there. Do you think you could dance with someone, someone you made appear like me?”
I blushed as I spoke, feeling like I was discussing a ‘cunning plan’, like the ‘cunning plan’ when I was fourteen, home during a school break while I tried to convince my brother Stanley to help me sneak into the cabinet at the bottom of the stairs. That plan had landed him in the hospital with a broken leg. He’d gotten off easily though. He didn’t have to face the weight of my father’s disappointment.
The musician nodded. “I could most certainly create a diversion with your sister the dryad,” he said nodding up into the tree.
I stared up into the dark branches as he reached up with his long arm, but the closest branch was out of his reach. I smiled as I realized what he planned. I slipped off my heels, sighing a little as I wiggled my toes in the grass then put my foot on the knee he bent for me. I rose as he boosted me up with his hands clasped together. I tried not to think what it would look like if anyone from my world saw me like this, climbing a tree with a random Hunter. It was hard to think of anything as I felt his breath on my body when he lifted me higher. He held me closer than I’d ever been to anyone who wasn’t related to me, but of course it meant nothing, not when I was the Daughter of a House and he was an itinerant Cool musician, or had we decided he was a garden musician?
I gasped, trying to maintain my balance in spite of dizziness. He wasn’t strong like my brothers and weaved a little bit like a tree in a breeze holding me up. I grabbed a handful of his hair, making him grunt before I took aim and leapt, grabbing a branch that held me for a moment before it cracked and split. He tried to catch me, but I only knocked him down, landing on top of him covered in twigs and leaves.
“You killed it,” he gasped with a ragged laugh while he tried to breathe around where my knee was in his stomach. His breath was on my neck as I lay sprawled over him. He put a hand on my knee to push it out of his gut, startling me with a touch that sent a rush of something unnamable through me that had me needing to move away, to safety, but also to stay exactly where I was with twigs jabbing into my thigh.
“Maybe it’s too violent for you, desecration of trees and all that.” I smothered a laugh as I tried to get all of this back under control.
“Pruning is the International Cool pastime.” He smiled at me while his eyes sparkled, silvery and alive as his voice.
I shivered harder as I smiled back at him. I held out a hand. He took it, the feel of his palm against mine a tactile sensation I tried to analyze. He had cold skin that vibrated at a nearly immeasurable level, energy that worked its way through my skin, travelling through neurons up my arm until I felt goose-bumps run down my spine. It didn’t actually mean anything, so why was it so hard for me to let go of that hand? He didn’t move away as we stood there while shivers spread through me in time to my pulse. My breathing grew more rapid until with a start I pulled away from him, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Let’s get pruning,” he said covering up the awkward silence after I’d finally stepped back. I felt awkward and irritated with him in spite of the fact that he’d waited for me to pull away. How could I justify holding his hand by arguing that I had to analyze his temperature? Of course he felt Cool. That’s what he was called: Cool.
He picked up the branch, not mentioning anything about my delayed hand drop. I was overanalyzing. It had probably only felt like I’d held his hand for a long time.
He seemed to forget me as he shaped the branch into the likeness of a body, running his hands over the wood instinctively, bending it this way and that, whispering to it until the only leaves left were where hair would be, with two twigs sticking out for arms in the dancing position.
“Give me your jacket,” he said. I shrugged out of my jacket, handing it to him, feeling self-conscious in the camisole that bared so much skin as well as my runed arms. He took it without seeming to notice my black twisting runes or anything else about me as he dressed the branch. What was I doing, dressing up a branch when I had important things to do? It wouldn’t work anyway.
Suddenly the branches came to life, moving as the leaves flowed into hair that covered a face while arms wrapped around him.
“How did you…” I gasped reaching out to touch a strand of hair.
He looked over at me as I pulled at leaves. The branch had become nothing more than a bit of wood wearing a wool jacket. “It’s an illusion,” he said as though that should be obvious. “If anyone looks too closely it’ll be broken, but I’m counting on you to be stealthy and quick. You’re very brave, hunting a Hunter.”
I took a quick breath as I studied him, wondering why he would help me, actually using his gifts for someone he didn’t even know. “Thank you, Matthew. Getting to know you makes me think that I need to meet more Cools.”
He grimaced, like I’d insulted him. “The illusion won’t last forever,” was all he said.
My headache throbbed as I moved through the shadows at the edge of the yard. I fought off nausea as I slipped around couples who were entwined as though they were the only people in the universe. I tried to ignore them as I dodged around blooming lilacs and a trampled peony. I finally had only six feet between myself and the trellis I would climb to the balcony. With coarse laughter around me, I doubted anyone would think it was too strange to see a runed girl scaling a trellis. Not that a girl in a jacket would be any less noticeable but if I’d still had my jacket, no one could see my runes, or the camisole that Hotbloods leered at. I felt a juvenile thrill as I made that last dash under the bright lights, leaping for the trellis, catching the gaps in the frame with my bare feet.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d climbed something, maybe back at school when I’d carried the goat up the side of the building to leave it in Madame Duparde’s dressing room. Now that had been a good time. I paused for a moment caught by a thorn from the bush twining in the trellis.
Camilla had used that to blackmail me. I hadn’t known the goat would eat half of Madame Duparde’s hats. She’d been furious, so angry with flashing black eyes holding up a ruined hat that I hadn’t dared refuse Camilla, not when her conditions seemed so harmless. Writing her letters home for her was better than facing Madame Duparde’s wrath. Of course, Camilla had told Madame Duparde that it was me the day she left school, anyway. The memory came back with a clarity I didn’t expect, the look in Camilla’s eyes bringing back the confused betrayal I’d felt along with a wave of dizziness.
I swallowed down a wave of nausea as I continued to climb in my skirt. I carefully eased the thorn out of the fabric then continued carefully the rest of the way until I slid over the edge of the balcony to stand nonchalantly at the edge of the crowd with only a few people giving me puzzled looks. I smiled at them confidently, hoping that I wouldn’t faint again as I pushed gently around the too warm bodies to find the glass flinging culprit and the Hunter.
No one looked like they were interested in anything more than flirting with their neighbors. I smoothed my hands over the railing while I looked down. Maybe the Hunter wasn’t on the balcony after all. I searched the crowd until my gaze was drawn to a shockingly intimate dance between the Cool guitarist and the tree branch that looked remarkably human, female, and like me.
I swallowed an unexpected wave of embarrassment. I would never be so close against his chest, leaning my head against his shoulder while his hands caressed my back. I stared at the blatant desire on display, feeling hot shame at the same time a tentacle of jealousy wormed its way into my stomach. Had he danced with me like that or did he find it more natural to express desire with a tree?
I heard a familiar growl to my right. I stopped breathing as I turned my head in time to see a large bald man clench his teeth on a cigar while he gripped his glass, pulling back to launch it at my date.
I grabbed a bottle someone had left on the railing and brought it down over his big, ugly runed head. I’d searched continents for him, and here he was, at a party? Throwing drinks at my date as though I hadn’t been worried sick to death for months? If anyone was going to inflict bodily harm on my date it was going to be me, not my big, stupid, idiotic brother, former Son of Slide. He looked less than happy to see me. Of course, blood and champagne were running down his bald head and into his eyes so I couldn’t really blame him.
“What happened to your hair?” I demanded at the same time he grabbed my elbow, dragging me through people who moved away from us, some lifting glasses in giddy cheers. I would have struggled to get away from him except that would defeat the purpose of all that time spent trying to find him. If he was hanging onto me then I wouldn’t have to hang onto him. He didn’t say anything until we’d gone inside, through the sound blockage that left the party and music a world away from us. He marched me down the hall, throwing open a door that revealed a small but quite pleasant study with green leather furniture and bright white paint.
He propelled me into a chair, pushing his enormous weight down on my shoulders as though he didn’t believe I’d stay there before he folded his arms across his chest exactly the same as the Bloodworker had done earlier. It was too bad that the blood and champagne ruined his fierce scowl.
“What are you doing here?”
I blinked at him, startled at the question. Was he an idiot? Did he think I’d come all this way to dance with the Cool that he apparently didn’t like? I sat up in my chair while I fixed him with a polite smile. “It’s nice to see you, too. I could ask you the same question. What are you doing here other than throwing drinks at perfectly nice musicians? I’d thought you were raised better than that.” I lifted my eyebrow while I channeled the infinite disdain of my grandmother.
“Perfectly nice? That…” He sputtered for a moment, clearly overcome by my counterattack.
“As the only male who asked me to dance, yes, I’d say perfectly nice.” I wasn’t about to reveal my irrational jealousy at seeing him dance with a tree. “I don’t understand you hemorrhaging about whoever I danced with. You’re still bleeding. Maybe I should get a towel.”
He wiped his hand over his head distractedly. “It’s fine.” He picked a chunk of glass out, and I watched a large drop of blood drip onto the dark floor. I blinked at that clumsiness—that he’d sprinkle his blood around so carelessly.
“I didn’t mean to break it over your head,” I said, half an apology, rising from my chair to do something about it, but he shoved me back down, leaving a red smear on my shoulder, but at least not staining my camisole.
“The last time you ‘accidentally’ broke something over my head…”
“You’re going to say you didn’t deserve it for…” I trailed off, studying my hands in my lap. This was not going any of the multiple ways I’d planned for finding my brother. I couldn’t remind him of that time after mother got sick, right before the first time he’d left the House to go Hunting. I had to remind him why he wanted to stay with the House, to come back.
“Helen,” he said quietly, sitting down across from me. “This isn’t a safe party for you, in fact, I don’t think there’s anywhere in this country that’s going to be safe right now.”
I fought down the urge to argue that I could take care of myself because I needed him to feel like I needed him to come back with me, to be part of the House even if it did feel broken without my mother.
“Maybe not,” I said slowly. “But it’s not safe anywhere, is it? No matter where we go, or what we do, we can’t escape death.” I reached out and put a hand over the clenched fist on his knee. I hoped this worked. I’d tried to understand why he’d left, why he’d finally not come back. I think it was the realization that it was all a lie. The runes, the power, the security didn’t matter, because however long you lived it wasn’t going to be forever, and what else was enough when it came to someone you couldn’t live without? I felt a pang in my chest that made it hard to breathe.
“Well,” he said, putting my hands back on my lap. “Maybe you’re going to die, but you don’t have to run into the arms of the first unstable Hybrid you come across.”
Hybrid? What was he talking about? The Cool musician, had he lied to me about being Cool? No, because he’d never specifically said that he was Cool, only referred to their tendencies. I stiffened in my chair as I mentally reviewed our conversation. I’d danced with a Hybrid? I’d been vulnerable and trusting of someone who could lose control at any moment? I blinked Saturn back into focus.
“It says something about a party that the most pleasant person there is a Hybrid. What are you doing at a wedding party anyway?” I was proud of how steady my voice came out because even though he’d ended up being trustworthy, pointing me in my brother’s direction unlike all the other Hotblood’s I’d tried to deal with, the idea of dancing so close to a Hybrid, the reality that I hadn’t even known what he was or why he’d singled me out, disturbed me.
He glared at me, cracking his knuckles before he cleared his throat. “It’s my wedding party.” In the silence after those words I listened to the clock, ticking loudly in the corner of the room.
It couldn’t be true. They’d said it was a Hotblood’s wedding party, a Hotblood, nothing about a Wild. Camilla, somebody would have mentioned the Wild. It explained why there were so many Wilds. The idea of my brother marrying a Hotblood, of having Hybrid children who would manifest unknown traits, most of which would get the child killed, chilled me. There were enough unpleasant ways to watch the people you loved die.
“Well.” I stared at him, at his bald head and the unlit cigar still in his teeth. “I can’t say it’s agreed with you, marriage I mean. Congratulations.” My voice was empty of emotion. I stood up, smoothing down my skirt. “I’d better not take you away from your guests any more than I already have.”
I was halfway across the room when he snorted, taking the cigar out of his mouth and rolling it between his fingers. “You’ll never understand.”
That stopped me. Of course I’d never understand how he could turn away from his family whatever the reason. Losing mother had made it clear how precious every member was to the whole. The House without Saturn would leave another gaping wound.
I slowly turned around. “Saturn, you’re right. I don’t understand. You didn’t invite me to your wedding, and when I stumble onto it, instead of coming to meet me, you try to kill my date. I don’t know you at all.”
“Date? You’re Matthew’s date?” His face turned a reddish purple color while his eyes which were too large in the first place got even bigger. “You didn’t even know he was a Hybrid. You’re dating someone who could paralyze you with the touch of his fingers, slip into your thoughts and make you do anything, can read every intention you have. He has no moral inhibitions about using his gifts against anyone. I’m supposed to sit back and let a filthy Hybrid sully my sister’s reputation?” That last bit came out a roar. Apparently he’d been spending too much time in the company of Hotbloods if he couldn’t have a civilized argument without raising his voice. It was all about inflection.
I crossed my arms over my chest before I realized I was copying his pose. “Your hypocrisy is incredibly annoying. You can marry a Hotblood girl and that’s just fine, but heaven forbid if I, someone you’re no longer even willing to be related to, dances with a Hybrid. Would you prefer I take up with the Bloodworker I ran into?”
“Anyone, anything would be better than a Hybrid. You can’t trust them. Who knows why they do anything? Bloodworkers can be trusted to hate Wilds. I’d thought Matthew hated everyone, but apparently he gets some sick thrill out of putting his filthy hands on my sister.”
“Your concern is touching, or it would be if you hadn’t decided to cut all affiliations with my House. My safety is no longer your business. I don’t know which bothers you more, if I danced with someone inappropriate or that I enjoyed it, but either way, I’ll dance with every Hybrid, Hotblood, and Bloodworker I want, and you can’t stop me.” My voice rang as clearly as his did.
I ran across the room, yanking the door open. The red-haired Hotblood in the green dress tumbled in. She looked slightly guilty while I stared at her, realizing that this was no doubt the Hotblood Saturn had abandoned the House for.
“Congratulations. I wish you every happiness.” I tried to push past her but her hand gripped my arm.
“Are you leaving so soon?” She sounded sincerely disappointed, a complete revolution from the way she’d talked to me outside, when she must have known who I was and what I wanted. Now I wanted to rip her auburn hair out by the roots.
“Not right away,” I said reassuringly, forcing a smile at her. “I have to get back to my date before he leaves me for a tree.” I glanced back over my shoulder at my brother, well, the man who used to be my brother, before I slipped past the girl who had destroyed his future.
I would probably have walked out the front door at the bottom of the stairs, around the couple still in the same position, if I’d had my shoes and jacket. It was either wander the streets barefoot and bare armed or go back through the charmingly repulsive kitchen and into the yard. The sound, the laughter and music felt like an assault as I stood on the steps with my stomach churning.
I’d come so far, only to fail.
This time the Hybrid musician, Matthew, stayed on the stage where he performed, not seeming to see me as he lost himself in his music. I had no idea where my jacket or shoes were. I wandered through people, trying not to look as sick and abandoned as I felt, searching the crowd for Camilla. She would have known that this was my brother’s wedding party. I couldn’t decide if I were more angry at or grateful to her for bringing me there to face Saturn.
Eventually, I found myself edging away from the crowd until I stood beneath the cover of the oak tree. No shoes, no discarded branches, there was nothing but the bark against my back as I slid down the trunk to sit with my feet tucked under me, watching the musicians in the distance.
The Hybrid, Matthew, stood in the front, staring down at his guitar while his fingers flew over the frets. The intro wasn’t really my thing, too current and slightly pretentious, but when he began to sing with a voice that was more compelling than before, I felt a tug in my chest as the emotion he expressed touched a chord in me. People turned to the stage as he sang a song I’d never heard before. The laughter, the loud talking faded away as the Hybrid caught their attention and held it.
The words filled my heart to overflowing, the sound of his voice electrifying my veins until I couldn’t stay where I was, couldn’t hide in the shadows and observe. My brother had left us. Me. I couldn’t feel that anymore. I had to replace it with this. I joined the throng of swaying bodies, closing my eyes and letting go. The song wasn’t sad exactly, but it was certainly bittersweet, about holding on to nothing, not enough, and too late.
I hated sentimentality. I hated songs that made people cry, but then I felt the words and music move through my body as it became an extension of me. I danced, spinning and moving, ignoring the people around me. I didn’t dance like the Hotbloods, or Wilds, or anything at all. I danced like the song, letting go of my inhibitions and losing myself in music.
The beat of the drum, squeal of guitars and his voice, low and deep, made the rest of the world disappear, including the dizziness and nausea as I felt and floated on that feeling, a kind of loose and lucid dream with blurs of people, sparks of light and energy that flowed around me, through me.
His voice rose and fell until with a whisper the music faded, leaving me blinking the world around me into focus. The first thing that I saw was his face, Matthew’s the Hybrid where he stood on the stage not too far away from me, staring at me, into me, like he wanted to strip through everything extra and suck out my marrow.
The second thing I noticed was the circle that had formed around me of dangerous looking men who I couldn’t tag as Hotbloods or Wilds with various expressions on their faces, not the least of which was leering.
I turned away from the stage and walked, raising my eyebrows at the skinny man with bright red tattoos on his forearms who blocked my way back to the oak tree.
“Pardon me,” I said, waiting for him to let me pass.
“I didn’t know that Satan had a sister,” he said giving me an up down glance that made me wish for more coverage.
“And if he did, that she wouldn’t be as ugly as he is,” the man beside him said with a thick brogue, his purple mohawk setting off his nose ring.
“You’re friends of his?” I asked, hesitating.
“I have your jacket with my motorcycle,” Matthew whispered in my ear as I felt his hand slide around my waist.
“You shouldn’t go anywhere with the Hybrid,” said the man with red tattoos as he shifted back and forth, like he was loosening up for a wrestling match.
I smiled at him as I slid my hand around Matthew beneath his jacket. “No? How awkward then, that I came here with him as my date. So nice to meet all of you,” I said as I stepped past them Matthew in step with me.
“Hunters,” Matthew said with a sneer in his voice.
“You have a very unsavory reputation,” I said, tightening my hold on his waist as we passed through crowds of girls who scowled at me and reached out to touch Matthew like he was a celebrity.
“And you have none,” he said in a low voice before turning and grabbing a girl’s hand which was aimed at his chest. The girl froze up and fell over, forcing us to step over her prone body.
“It is you,” I hissed, glaring at him. “You make me dizzy and faint.”
He smiled down at me, his hand brushing my cheek for a moment. I felt a tingling thrill at his touch that sent goose bumps over my skin. “That’s paralysis, not fainting.”
“That’s your Wild skill? You can manipulate nerves?”
I instinctively pulled away from him, but he only smirked me and let me go.
“I can. I could make you feel things you’ve never dreamed of. Usually that’s one of the things women find appealing about me.”
“Unless you paralyze them.”
He shrugged. “I tend to enjoy my personal space.” He continued walking into the shadows beneath the tree, away from the lights and noise while I followed at a distance. The magic of the dance was fading away, leaving me with a relentless ache in my chest as I thought of my brother abandoning his family for that circle of Hunters none of which seemed particularly hygienic or civilized. I didn’t understand.
“Matthew,” I said, stretching my legs to catch up to him and slipping my arm in his. “Do you understand?”
He glanced at me and frowned. “Why I’d prefer to be alone when I have so many women throwing themselves at me, offering to buy my services?”
I gave him a pointed look. “No. Why my brother abandoned the House for a girl.”
“Ah,” he nodded and walked slower. “Your brother is a romantic.”
“There’s something romantic about blowing up demons?”
He smiled slightly. “Sacrificing everything for love is romantic. I believe that’s the way he sees it, his grand sacrifice for his love, Cami.”
I shook my head. That wasn’t the Wild way. We had obsessions, not romantic notions. The very idea made me question my brother’s sanity.
“Maybe he’s obsessed with her,” I said in a quiet voice.
Matthew slowed down, taking my hand in his. “She’s like a ticking time bomb that could explode at any time. That’s right up Satan’s alley.”
“Why do you call him Satan? His name is Saturn. For a nickname it isn’t even any shorter than his given name.”
He laughed a slow languid laugh as he turned towards me, looking down through heavy lidded eyes. “He’s the very devil in a fight. Seeing you smash a bottle over his head was the most pleasant thing I’ve seen in a very long time. At first there were whispers that you were another lover he’d scorned, but he muttered to someone that you were his sister, I think to keep Cami’s brother, Jayden, from smashing his face in. Cami was very clear about not wanting a bloodbath at her wedding.”
“And everyone does what she says?”
Matthew shrugged. “Married to your brother and with her brother, Jayden to back her up, the only ones she has to worry about are those two. That’s enough since there’s enough bad blood between them to drown a continent.”
I imagined my enormous, bald and smoldering big brother fighting the hulking jade-eyed bloodworker. “It would certainly spoil the wedding.” I smiled slowly as I glanced up at Matthew. “I wonder if Jayden’s still here. I have this uncontrollable urge to take his temperature.”
The dark haired musician shook his head, looking at me with amusement in his slate eyes. “If you’re trying to stir up trouble, you’ll have to make do with other Hunters. Jayden took off while you and Satan caught up.” His accent had changed, shifting from a drawl to crisper consonants.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
He quirked an eyebrow. “Does it matter?”
“Your accent changed. Do you pretend to be a Southern gentleman to attract women, or is it the British that they find compelling?”
He laughed, a low growling sound that sent shivers chasing down my spine. “On the contrary. I was raised in two countries. Music brings out the Southern, Hunting brings out the other. As for women, it’s not my accent that they notice.”
“No? It must be your meticulous grooming,” I said, sliding a hand up his prickly cheek. “Or maybe your naked feet. It’s terribly sensual, all those toes and toenails. I have this incredible urge to paint them all dark blue to match my eyes.” With every ridiculous word we moved closer together until his chest brushed mine.
“Only if I get to paint yours,” he murmured, turning his head to take my hand in his mouth, biting down on the skin slightly sending a shocking awareness of him through me.
I gasped and pulled away, cradling my hand while I stared at him, aware of how very dangerous he could be. I kept the Code. Meticulously. I did not engage in any sort of untoward behavior towards the opposite sex. This flirtation had to end before I made a mistake as irreversible as the metal runes twining down my arms.
“Did you do that with your abilities?”
He raised an eyebrow and leaned away from me. “What?”
I frowned at him. “You know what.”
“Yes. I do. But only because I’m leaning you and can feel every particle of desire you have towards me. It’s a perk of being Cool. That’s why I knew when to duck. I could feel your brother’s protective anger before it exploded into action.”
I stared at him, struggling with the humiliation of being so clearly transparent when I’d been trained my whole life to contain my feelings. I shrugged and brushed my fingers through his hair, reveling in the silkiness. “It’s as I thought. I need to be exposed to more human contact so that I’m not overwhelmed and confused when natural desires arise.”
He smiled. “If that’s an invitation, I admit that you have a certain appeal.”
I smiled back at him as he wrapped his hands around my waist. “Think how furious Satan will be. He’ll probably kill you.”
He paused for a moment before he shook his head slightly and leaned down, his breath brushing my cheek. “Oh, the vain promises women make,” he murmured before he slid his hand up my back, bare palm between my shoulders at the base of my neck while his lips lowered to mine.
The feel of his lips, soft and gentle, melted away the shock as I gripped his collar, hanging onto him while I kissed him back. The pressure of his lips intensified filling me with a dizzying thrill until with a sudden lurch, the world disappeared and I felt lost instead, clinging to reality with that thin thread between us—such a tentative tie. I slid a hand up to hold his head, pressing my lips against his, tasting lemons and rosemary on his tongue. Desire more intense than anything I’d ever imagined flowed through me leaving me weak and trembling as I craved more of the taste, the feel, the soul of him. I needed him. More until there wasn’t anything left of him for anyone else. That slender thread grew into a rope of electricity as the world around us caught on fire and imploded as the crack of thunder swelled around us.
I pulled away from him, desperately channeling the blue lines of lightning into the earth, forcing down the rippling wind and sky as it crackled above me. After a few minutes of intense near life and death swirling around us, which Matthew endured with barely a flicker of alarm in his eyes, we were left in the darkness more complete in contrast from the recent light show.
“Well, that was certainly the most electric kiss I’ve ever had,” he said with a flicker of a smile as he took my arm and led me towards the back fence while I breathed hard.
“I clearly need more experience,” I said breathlessly.
“I’d be happy to oblige you,” he said, glancing at me with his heavy-lidded eyes.
“You’re not repulsed by electrocution?”
He opened the back gate and gestured me through before closing it behind us. “Quite the contrary, I assure you. I believe we’d be fused together, a blackened sculpture that centuries of lovers would stop and kiss beneath in reverence to a passion so great.” He spoke solemnly, his hand on his heart.
I sighed. “Satan’s not the romantic. You are. No wonder you think that he would betray his House for love. That’s what you would do.”
He looked at me, steadily until I felt uneasy beneath the weight of his stare. “If only I had a House to betray,” he said and turned away, heading towards a motorbike with a pack on the back. He fumbled in the dark until he turned on the headlight. “Would you like some tea?” The light reflected off a pale wall giving him enough visibility to rummage through the pack. He handed me my jacket and shoes which I frowned at. I didn’t want to put my heels back on.
“I’m half Wild, half Cool. Unfortunately that means I’m always cold. I keep a thermos close at all times.” He smiled at me as he held up the silver container he’d pulled from the pack then opened it while he leaned against the seat of the bike.
“Is it lemon and rosemary?”
He gave me a quizzical glance. “What rare ability is this? I have to say, it’s extremely exciting.”
I laughed. “That’s what you tasted like, lemon and rosemary. I think for the first man I’ve kissed in years, I’ve had surprising good luck in flavors.”
“You like the way I taste?”
“It’s preferable to cigarettes and beer, or sardines and cantaloupe.”
“You dislike cantaloupe? I’ll have to make a note of it. Tell me, Helen, how far do you intend to allow this flirtation to progress?”
I blinked at him, at his long lean body where he lounged in a sultry and seductive pose. “Do you always ask women that?”
“I don’t have to. I can read their intent. Yours is all over the place. You want to infuriate your brother. That much is completely understandable, and believe me, I would love to help, but the other ache, the desire to be loved, adored and desperately needed could be a problem.”
I opened my mouth and closed it. I snatched the thermos out of his hand and drank, burning my tongue, but enjoying the burn. I drank the sweet and delicious elixir, the flavor bringing back the unforgettable kiss.
I closed the lid slowly until I could look up at Matthew. “My parents loved each other. He didn’t marry her for love. He never looked at her until my grandmother foretold that she would give him eight children, if left unruned of course. No runed woman could conceive and bear that many times. He couldn’t help falling for her. They adored each other. She loved us all so much. Most Wilds hold it back, feelings that are raw and real, but she never did. She cried whenever any of us broke a bone. She yelled any time any of us did something stupid and dangerous and then she’d crush us with these hugs that were impossible to breathe through. She loved us so fiercely that nothing could ever make us doubt that. When she died everything fell apart. That’s love. It makes the world unbearable when you lose it. Yes, Matthew, I desire love, that uncontrollable passion and desire that swallows all pain, despair and misery. But I’m not my mother. I don’t feel like that. Maybe it’s my runes. Maybe it’s who I am. I might electrocute you, but I won’t love you.”
We looked at each other in the dim light while a cold breeze gave me goosebumps before he stepped up and cupped my face in his hands.
“I saw you dance. No one can dance like that without a heart designed to be adored.” He smiled slightly before he brushed my cheek with his lips and pulled away. “Besides which, I heard a story about a girl who crashed a ball, declared her love for the Son of a Red House for the world to see. I am not the only romantic here.”
I stared at him while the world around began to spin, faster and faster. I remembered flickers of images, a ball with warm lights and music from an orchestra rose and swelled in the background, while a face, the male version of Camilla, gold, beautiful Jarvais glanced at me with cold eyes and a dismissive smile.
I gasped and fell to the ground, gripped in uncontrollable tremors that had me striking my fists against the pavement. The pain in my head made me scream when I never screamed. I forced it back into a whimper while my brain, my body revolted against me.
It took a long time to feel Matthew’s hand on my shoulder, hear the words he murmured soft and low. They didn’t make sense until I realized that he was speaking Cantonese. I sobbed, shuddered then finally raised my face to Matthew’s.
He winced and brushed my cheek with his hand. “That must sting.”
I shook my head, feeling numb in the middle, but around the edges it hurt. Everything inside and outside hurt. What pain was this? How could I survive it?
“I must have a brain tumor,” I whispered.
Matthew shook his head, smiling. “With runes like yours? Doubtful. They’re beautiful, by the way. No, I’d say you have a different kind of problem. I think you’re running up against blocks someone put on your mind. I may be able to help, but first, you need to rest.” He left me, going to his bike and rummaging in the pack until he knelt down beside me holding a key in his hand.
“What’s this?” I whispered taking the key and almost dropping it in my still trembling fingers.
“My room. Second floor. Third door on the left. I have somewhere else to be tonight. Hunting duties are nocturnal. I’m actually late. Helen,” he said, leaning forward until our foreheads touched while he put a palm against my face. “Go to my room. Lock the door. Sleep and dream of happy things until you need to rest no more.”
I stared into those eyes, neither gray, green or blue and nodded. “All right.”
We stood together, his hands on my arms like he was afraid that I’d fall, then he walked me to the back gate and watched as I crossed the grass, towards the party and the people who didn’t seem to notice me as I stumbled through them. Second floor. Third door on the left. A brass doorknob turned in my hand and then sleep.
Satan asked me to be his best man. He asked me in that solemn voice of his that he used when he wanted to look more serious than usual. I took my job as seriously as he wanted me to, determined to make sure that everything went smoothly at the wedding party after the quiet ceremony downtown. My duties included hiring a band and making certain no one spilled blood. Dozens of Hotbloods mixing with Wilds, Hunters, Hybrids, and all I had to do was make certain that none of them felt like killing someone.
How ironic that Satan broke the peace throwing glasses of whisky at my head. I couldn’t blame him. I also had no intention of allowing Helen to collapse in the arms of anyone else.
Satan had assured me that none of his family would be present. He didn’t mention his sister, but the way he glowered at me, chomping on his cigar while Cami looked at him with a raised eyebrow and a hand on his arm, was better than words. I hadn’t kept my interest a secret. His sister had gone to school with my sister, Camilla. The stories Camilla told about her best friend, Helen had amused me when so few things penetrated the numbness.
I shouldn’t have kissed her. I never should have played the song that she’d danced to. Her song. And yet, I couldn’t help smiling.
“Where were you?” Jarvais demanded, his voice outraged from the shadow along the drive where he held a gun, standing over a dead body.
“A wedding,” I replied, irritated. “I mentioned it. You could have played your little game a different night.”
He took one step towards me, shoulder length blond hair flipping from his jerky motion. “Little game? Now is the time to strike, before the title of Head of House can transfer to the little brat. The old woman’s breathed her last. I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”
I shrugged and stepped past him, reading his intentions with the brush of our shoulders. The sooner we got this finished, the sooner I could return to the house where Helen slept in my bed. I closed my eyes for a moment, recalling the scent of her skin and the taste of her mouth, like violets and lightning.
Harding House loomed ahead, surrounding iron fence barely a deterrent. The monstrous Georgian manor would be simple enough to conquer, as long as everything went entirely according to plan. Jarvais had spent months planning, obsessing about how to remove Harding from the picture, a white House that he felt looked down on all the murderous Reds around it. If there was one thing Jarvais disliked, it was feeling looked down on. It was one reason he disliked me as well as he did. Not only was I clearly superior to him at killing people, one of his favorite things, my father, our father Head of Carve looked at me as his firstborn. The scars up and down my spine could attest to that.
I took a deep breath and prepared for death, slaughter, mayhem, the ordinary things one experienced around my brother.
“Hey there,” a woman’s warm voice said, coating my skin with an icky layer of her desire. I did not want to lean Bliss. The woman had no sense of decorum. She should be married and leave all the vulnerable assassins like myself alone.
She put her hand on my arm, sending me an image of our attack which she coated in that same sticky desire. Her brown hair, brown eyes were all very appealing if you liked that sort of thing. I did not. I’d never given her any encouraging signals.
I stepped away from her. “Forward left.”
“Rear right,” she said with the leer in her voice. Comparing her to Helen wasn’t fair. Helen was perfection, innocence, beauty, grace, passion, whimsy, everything that spoke to my heart, everything Bliss wasn’t with her calculated appetite. She would suit Jarvais. They’d consume each other leaving the world vastly improved in their absence.
Death sprang from my hands, a knife of Nether, a touch of death and a thought of shadows. They didn’t see me coming. I pushed myself further than usual, intent to destroy quickly and thoroughly. After the frontal assault where we led the members of our Houses against those members of Harding, Bliss and I separated as I ran up the wide marble steps three at a time heading towards the soul that I could sense in a corner opposite of the action, where Bliss was a screaming ugly violence.
I opened the door of a large bedroom with an open window, white gauze curtain rustling and billowing. I ignored the movement and walked unerringly towards the cupboard where he hid.
I opened the cupboard and into the dark blue eyes of a child. Harding couldn’t have been more than seven.
“Hello,” I said, after we’d stared at each other for a few moments.
“You’re Carve. The assassin,” he said with a frown.
“And you’re Harding.”
“How many of my people have you killed?” he asked with a panicked whine that he tried hard to hide.
“Tonight I forgot to keep count. Dozens of bodies litter the ground in my wake.”
He reminded me of her; innocent with those dark blue eyes. He jumped out of the cupboard, slicing at me wildly as he fell. I felt the pain on my shoulder and barely grabbed him in time. I paralyzed him, sending a wave of ice through his veins that would keep him still.
I pressed my forehead against his and leaned him, creating a picture of me trying to kill him but him escaping heroically. It wouldn’t do for him to think that I’d rescued him. I put him to sleep and walked to the window, holding his body in my arms. Beneath the window the earth had already parted for him. Six feet under and he would be buried, captured, protected until someone else could save him. Not me. Not anyone connected to Carve.
I dropped him and watched the earth swallow him, rolling over his body with enough of an air pocket for him to breathe for hours as long as he lay still and unconscious as I’d left him. I turned and continued to search the house.
After ages of fighting, violence blended from one splash and spray of blood to another, one dislocated shoulder to a broken femur, not mine of course. I made certain that a lot of the fighting took place on top of the boy, packing down the crust of earth, hardening the lower pocket where I’d hidden him.
“Where’s Harding?” Jarvais demanded, walking up to me with his golden eyes wild and unfocused. Blood did that to him, made him less stable than usual.
“Someone beat me to him,” I said with a shrug.
He tried to punch me, a straight shot to my face that would break my nose. I did not look good after being punched in the face. I twisted out of the way and deflected the blow.
“If you need to strike someone, focus on one of your allies who can heal instantaneously. You’ve taken the House. Harding won’t be a threat without a House.”
He leaned forward, smiling at me with that wholesome glow that entire misrepresented his nature. “You let him go.”
“So did you,” I replied and turned away. “The rest is cleanup.”
Jarvais hissed, but then an explosion on the edge of the yard caught his attention along with dozens of Hotbloods who felt like they needed to object over Harding’s fall. This wasn’t my obligation. I slipped away from the House, riding my motorbike through the streets, taking turns slow and wobbly. My vision began to blur until I couldn’t tell which lights were for my road. I kept riding, carefully. I had somewhere to be, something to do for the first time in a long time. Helen.
I drove into the alley behind the house and sat there for a moment, the ache in my shoulder spreading as I remembered her face, her laugh. I hadn’t expected her to laugh. I’d never heard anything so perfect. I fumbled as I unlocked the gate and locked it behind me, almost as though I were drunk before I went to the back door where I’d seen her stand, hesitating, vulnerable and lovely, searching for her brother.
I could feel her imprint through a swirl of other imprints as I grabbed the handle. Inside, I stopped in the kitchen to grab a bottle of Springtime and mix the bright green contents with the container of iced lemon rosemary tea in the refrigerator. After the drink I looked down and saw my bloodstained hands. I shook my head. I should have washed before I came in the kitchen, leaving smears of blood on the handle of the curved glass pitcher and the door. Not my blood.
Helen wouldn’t like it. I didn’t like it. Harding hadn’t been a threat. Carve and Bliss had taken them because they could. Even Red Houses shouldn’t upset a House for no reason. My hands were stained in blood. Dried blood and gore caked the cuffs of my jacket while the white shirt beneath was pink overall with dots of red. I couldn’t touch Helen with bloodstained hands.
I walked up the flight of stairs and paused in front of the third door on the second floor. I leaned my head against the wood and could sense her presence, calm and steady. My heart pounded, the world swam, and my eyes couldn’t focus very well. I continued to the shower, hot water stinging on multiple wounds I’d forgotten about. The small cut the child had given me had become the worst of them all, cutting through muscle and tissue too deep for me to use that arm much until it healed. If it healed. The wound already smelled off, festering.
I wrapped a towel around my waist and staggered up the stairs to the third floor where I’d get to interrupt Satan and his bride on their wedding night. If he didn’t kill me, we might be able to save Harding.
I knocked. I heard an expletive. I knocked again. This time Satan’s roar came at the same time Cami opened the door, her bright green eyes glowing in fury her body loosely draped in a provocative robe.
“Cami,” I said, passing her and entering the room. “You look incredible. I’ve never seen such eyes.”
Her mouth dropped open as she stared at me.
“Carve?” Satan said, his anger interrupted as he looked at my festering wound. He rotated on the bed and pulled on his pants.
“This isn’t a good time,” Cami hissed, a few heartbeats away from ripping off my head with her bare hands.
I smiled at her and leaned her emotions. I didn’t have to touch her, not when I knew her so well. She liked me. Not like Bliss liked me, but like she liked anyone who had saved Satan as many times as I had. He didn’t fear death or taint nearly enough. The heat gradually faded from her eyes until she tightened the robe and looked down at my towel pointedly.
“I can’t put on my pants. Helen’s sleeping in my bed.”
“What?” Satan growled, not his usual roar, but more dangerous.
“Helen, your sister. She is so beautiful. All women are beautiful. I’ve never seen so many beautiful women in my life. I wanted her to sleep in my bed so that I can have her imprint there while I sleep. Such things should last forever.”
“Are you trying to get me to kill you?” Satan growled, grabbing my shoulder, the one with the puss oozing out of it. I would have winced, but everything seemed so unimportant, other than Helen, of course.
I patted his head, feeling the metal swirls under my fingers. “You have beautiful runes. Did you know that I leaned Helen into my bed? I’m not sure why I did that. I leaned her there. She might get into trouble wandering around London tonight. Harding fell.” I leaned Satan’s bare head, showing him the havoc, the destruction, and most importantly, the patch of earth where Harding was buried.
“On my wedding night,” Satan growled, pulling away from me. He looked from me to Cami where she watched me with concern in her green eyes, then back at me. “How bad are your pants?”
“My pants will never be the same again. I believe that after a good cleaning they may be wearable, but they’ll always be stained with death and despair.”
“That’s too bad,” Satan said shaking his head. “I dislike having men in my room without pants. Sit. You’re going to need something on that shoulder.”
“My shoulder is fine,” I said, dropping down on the end of the bed. My shoulder began to throb, as though mentioning it had reminded it to hurt. Dull pain intruded on the strange Helen fueled euphoria, unless it wasn’t Helen but something else, something to do with knives and wounds and infections. I couldn’t die from a scratch, not when Helen was sleeping in my bed. I should die for doing something worthy and important, like running away with her to Argentina. She’d kill me if she woke up in my bed with me. Wouldn’t she? She’d been so warm and uninhibited when she wanted to annoy her brother.
“Stop smiling,” Satan growled as he cleaned my wound with straight alcohol that burned. “You’re thinking about my sister.”
“Did you see her dance?” I asked, ignoring the pain. “It wasn’t very good, but it was very good.”
“What does that mean?” Cami asked.
Satan growled. “Everyone saw her. She should be locked up in a nunnery.”
“Didn’t you decide to become a Hunter because the rules of your House were too strict?” Cami asked, crossing her arms. She was beautiful in the way of Hotbloods, overblown and sensual.
“Satan, you are so lucky to have a beautiful woman at your side. If my heart weren’t already taken, I would have fallen for Cami long ago. Seeing Helen, it makes me want to be electrocuted and eat flowers every day.”
“He’s completely delirious,” Cami said, staring at me intently. “What poison did they use on him?”
Satan grabbed the back of my head and dragged my face to his so that our gazes were level. For a moment I thought he would kiss me. “She’s going home. You won’t ever see her again. Put her out of your mind.”
“It might be easier to do when she isn’t sleeping in my bed. What poison?” I added when he squeezed my neck so tight I wondered if he might accidentally pop off my head. It would be a fairly painless way to die, but messy. Cami would hate it if my blood stained her bed.
He gritted his teeth before he backed off, glanced up at Cami and said, “Babe, run down and get the big green box, please.”
She left, knowing that if we needed the big green box, she’d have to move fast for it to be any use.
“Harding cut you? It’s a rare, slow moving toxin called Featherbane. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
“Ah, Featherbane.” I nodded. I’d used it a time or two. It would infect a victim without any symptoms until it was too late. That would not be a pleasant death. “How can you tell?”
“The scent. Also the coloring of the wound and the fact that you’ve been hitting on my wife in front of me while professing your love for my sister. You know Featherbane. Gets in your head. You know, Carve, I don’t know if I shouldn’t let you die the death you deserve for touching my sister.”
I smiled at him taking in his haunted dark blue eyes, so much like hers. “Of all the things I’ve ever done, touching, dancing, kissing your sister is better than I deserve. Yes. By all means. You should kill me. It’s either you or Grim at this point.”
“Grim?” he frowned at me, not the blustering anger, but the Wild cunning and analytic skills he used so rarely. He studied me then raised his chin like some mystery had cleared up. “You’ve been stalking her.”
I felt a wave of agony in my heart, guilt, despair, futility. “No. I just killed her. But,” I said, patting Satan on his shoulder, “Grim brought her back to life, so it’s not a problem. I think I’m going to faint.”
He gripped my chin, holding me upright. “She used to be different. Years she’s been out of it, a shell of who she was before my mother died. Are you what happened to her?”
I frowned at him and felt all the irritation I’d carried for years well up around me, blocking out the pain like a warm cocoon. “If you can’t be clever, I’m not up to this conversation. I saw her. She didn’t see me. I helped your brother bring her back from the dead. I couldn’t save her, but I could save you. I hope that draws the picture clearly enough for you because while being poisoned I lack motivation to elaborate.” I slipped through his fingers down onto the bed. The imprint of their passion had me groaning. I did not have the energy for that.
“Here,” Cami said, entering breathlessly with the green box filling her arms. “What’s the poison?”
“Featherbane,” Satan growled, opening the box and rifling through the contents. He took out a small vial in the very bottom with what looked like mercury in it.
“Featherbane? No one uses that anymore. Isn’t the plant extinct?” she asked as I slid off the bed bonelessly onto the floor.
“How long since you were cut?” Satan asked, holding my head back before he dumped the silver contents in my mouth.
I swallowed the strands of death and life, so fresh and crisp it burned my nose but also so dark and dank, like swallowing sewage. There was nothing else like it in the world, thank all that was holy.
“I’m not certain. I rode my motorized bicycle back here, but it took such a long time. I drank, showered, stood outside of the door where Helen sleeps, and of course before that we were fighting Hunters and not killing Jarvais. It takes so much energy to not kill Jarvais.”
“I could never manage it,” Satan growled.
“I couldn’t either,” Cami agreed, nodding. “You shouldn’t let him treat you like that. Just because he’s Son of the House doesn’t mean that he has the right to treat you like an indentured servant. You could take him.”
“I have no desire to take Jarvais anywhere. There’s only one person I’d like to take out. Do you think your sister would like a jazz club, or the circus more?” I asked Satan.
He only growled in response.
“But doesn’t your father want you to take your place as Son? That’s what your scars are from, right, from trying to rune you?” Cami asked, her face alight with fascination.
“I’m delighted you noticed,” I said, smiling at her until I felt my veins burn. I closed my eyes and only thoughts of Helen kept me from screaming and clawing out my own blood. The Nether would either kill me or save me.
The cure Satan had given me was moving through my body, a rare substance that would kill most of the people who took it. It was undiluted Nether taken from those with inherited Netherblood and distilled to this potent substance that those with less already in their blood could not assimilate. It was a form of poison in its own right. I gasped and jerked while agony spread from my chest and through my veins. So fast the burning, the agony.
I bent over my knees, fingernails scratching the wood as I stared at the cracks in the floorboards while the iron bed creaked behind me.
“I think that you should bury him,” Cami said, her voice coming from far away.
“He’s wearing a towel.”
“I sent his clothes out to be cleaned.”
“Thoughtful of you.”
“Wasn’t it? Seeing Matthew like this makes me feel all maternal.”
I heard sounds of kissing and could feel their rising ardor. Helen. If I were to die this night of this wound, it would be a good end to a life only briefly lit by moments of glory and wonder, those moments when our lives were intertwined.
“Come on,” Satan growled, pulling me on my feet and slinging me over his bare shoulders. Cami got the door for us, holding it open while we passed, her worried face upside down from where I could see her.
“I need your consent,” I said, as Satan carried me down the stairs, past the second floor where she slept. Helen. My love. I couldn’t breathe. The burning went on and on. If I only saw her again, one more time, my life would have meaning.
“You don’t have it,” he growled as he stalked down the stairs. “If anyone sees us like this I’ll tell everyone that you busted in on us looking for a ménage trois. That will get the men and women crawling out of the cracks for you.”
“I think that’s only fair,” I said, solemnly. My legs hit a plaster bust and knocked it down the stairs where it smashed into a million pieces.
“You’re the one driving,” I replied, glad when he put me down in the kitchen and proceeded to drag me across the room and out the back door by my elbows. “Why are you having your way with me?” I asked when I stumbled to my knees on the grass, littered with bottles and the odd piece of clothing.
He lifted me up beneath my armpits. “If I were having my way with you, my fist would be impacting your face.”
“I can walk.”
“Right. Featherbane. You can walk. You not dying is about all we can expect from you. I wish it had shut you up. You’re not usually so chatty.”
“She’s glorious. She stepped into my life. My life is a dream. No reality could contain such perfection, even if my veins are filled with lava and acid.”
Satan growled as he frowned down at me, his face an ugly scowl set off by the black metal runes above his eyebrows. “I’m going to dig you a hole. If you get out of this hole and find my sister before morning, I’m going to dig you a permanent hole. Understand?”
I sighed. “How can death be a threat to me? My life is empty, meaningless other than her. I’m the music, she is the lyrics. That’s what she is, lyric. Every movement, every expression, all so lyrical.”
Satan shoveled dirt beneath the oak tree while I waited for death, or Helen. My angel. Satan grabbed my arms and dragged me into the hole, filled the dirt up, but left my head above ground. Having soil press around me released some of the pressure in my veins.
“If you bother me again tonight, I’ll put you in cement,” Satan growled, walking off with the shovel slung over his shoulder, glinting in the faint moonlight. His digging had only begun. Perhaps I should have killed the child as Jarvais wished. I didn’t want to kill him. I’d killed enough. And Helen wouldn’t like me killing innocent children, even if they did poison me.
I let my head flop back, staring up at the moonlight. Music flowed over me, music that I hadn’t heard for too long. Killing desensitized you. I’d never intended to play at Satan’s wedding, but when the guitarist didn’t show, I played until the alternate could make it. I wanted to play, to write the music of the moon, the touch and taste of Helen, music that didn’t need words, or if they did, she could write them. How would she write our kiss? I closed my eyes and relaxed, letting the tree above and the earth beneath pull out the poison, exhaustion and pain.
I barely heard footsteps before my brother slapped me. I opened my eyes, frowning at Jarvais. He liked so much physical contact, but all of it violent.
“Where’s Harding?” he demanded, tightening his hand on his knife, an overt threat.
I would have shrugged, but my shoulders were under the ground. “I told you. He escaped I believe with the help of a Cool one. I don’t recall the events exactly.”
“I thought you left to find him.”
I shook my head. At least I could do that. “I wasn’t feeling well, so I decided to go home.”
Jarvais stared at me, at the open cut on my chest. “You let him cut you? That’s more clumsy than usual. Maybe you were distracted by a woman. I heard that you were dancing with someone at the wedding last night. That’s why you ignored the summons. Who is she?”
I scowled at him. “Next time you decide to destroy a House, you’re welcome to find the heir and his guardian yourself. Featherbane isn’t pleasant. I’m having regrets towards all the people I killed using it. It’s very unlike me.”
“Featherbane?” Jarvais frowned thoughtfully. For all his annoying bordering on evil attributes, stupid was not one of them. “How did you get here if you were infected?”
“I had a most delirious ride on my motorbike, and then I interrupted the Hunter’s wedding night. I think I’m running out of my slip-out-of-the-fingers-of-death cards.”
Jarvais studied me, squatting on his heels over me, holding the knife like he would really like to slice it through my neck before he stood and turned away from me. “And the woman?”
“She’s a Hunter’s sister. Her brother requested that I keep her out of trouble. Any other questions about my love life? Perhaps you want pointers on how to keep a woman satisfied.”
He smiled, sheathing his knife. “That’s never been an interest of mine. I’ll return later. Maybe you can introduce her to me.”
I grunted and closed my eyes, wishing he was a bad dream. He did not belong in any world involving my Helen. Not my Helen. I couldn’t think about her like that, not when she was so close to me that I could taste her. No, that was the rain on my lips. She tasted like rain. I let drops of water fall on my face, into my eyes, until I dreamed of burning and lightning.
Dear eldest brother,
I appreciate the mango juice. I licked the paper and came away with an ink stained tongue, but ink has its own deliciousness, particularly mixed with mango and the taste of a mysterious southern hemisphere. That’s half the world you occupy with one single statement: the southern hemisphere. I could do that too, I guess. My days are relegated to not much of interest in the Northern hemisphere… I feel more expansive already. One should always live expansively, unless you’re right on the equator and then what would you be?
Looking is not the same as seeing? Of course not. Overseeing, overlooking, season and look son, good seeing, good looking, sea worthy, look worthy, it’s all topsy turvy different any which way you look at or see it. Look and see here! And here.
I received my worst grade so far last week, albeit was an A, it was a very crooked one. Mrs. Heppelmeir should practice her handwriting. My best A came from Mr. Zimble. I like his name; it practically rings in the mouth. He hands it to you with a nod and an, “Excellent work miss so-and-so”. We’re all excellent, it’s true. What else would you get in a school seething with perfectionist daughters of Houses who strive to overachieve the other overachievers? Stalemate. Perfection. Stale perfection. Doesn’t that sound appetizing? We’re having a practice ball this coming weekend. They’re importing boys for the occasion. We will be a stunning spectacle of stale perfection. So sad you can’t make it, except you’ll be tangoing in Argentina. A shocking, stunning spectacle of Wild abandon. Send me a photo.
Your always appropriate if slightly apropos sister
Whatever about you is apropos, I would do nothing about. Apropos is far too hard to come by whichever hemisphere you navigate, or circumnavigate if you have the misfortune of being relegated entirely to the equator. That would be an interesting rune binding. I might have to develop it in my spare time.
So much of business is the waiting of it. So much of life really, a few bangs then what? The what keeps me awake sometimes. So many possibilities, so few knowns, the unknowability of it keeps me fascinated. The interim, the dead space between here and there doesn’t intrigue me but the further reaches of the what, the purposes of it tantalize me. There ought to be some purpose, but I don’t know if happiness, the heaven state would hold my interest.
Teachers don’t have to have impeccable handwriting. In fact, the worse it is, the more challenging to decipher. I approve of an education that includes deciphering among its tenets. As for Mr. Zing, if there isn’t a musical instrument with that name, there should be. If he didn’t object we could assemble an instrument out of him. Some donate their bodies to science, how much greater to donate it to art?
Stale perfection sounds like the whisperings of madness tinged with resignation. Cheer up. Even in perfection there is room for diversity, vibrance, individuality. I’ve met enough Heads, the epitomization of all things Wild, to know that there is no death in perfection, only in self-mutilation for the purpose of conformity.
I’ve enclosed yucca fronds. They are beautifully spiny.
I didn’t want to wake up, not when I could burrow deeper into the soft warmth of heavenly down and stay insulated from everything that I didn’t want to face. I opened my eyes a slit to see sunshine then rolled over, slipping back into hazy dreams of pleasant things like lemon shortbread and rosemary tea, but finally, I opened my eyes and they stayed open. A buzzing warmth filled my limbs as I blinked at the ceiling hung with vines. I heard footsteps crossing the floor above me while birds chirped outside the window.
Where was I?
I sat up, throwing back the heavy duvet before I jerked it back over me, covering my nudity. Where were my clothes? They should have trailed across the floor like they were when I’d taken them off, but the floor was bare other than the pots of plants, and so was I, completely naked in the Hybrid’s bed. I swallowed as I tried to stay calm, but the wind was already picking up outside the window. I took a deep breath as I forced myself to push the blanket back so that I could stand up, naked, in someone else’s room.
It all came back as I stood there, goosebumps popping up on my arms. I looked at the bed, white duvet calling to me, but I couldn’t forget. My brother’s wedding party, his wife, Cami, and of course, the Hybrid who must have leaned me, making me unthinking enough to fall mindlessly to sleep. I dug my nails into my hands as I struggled to stay calm, to breathe deeply enough that I wouldn’t panic. I was in a foreign country, without my father’s consent, having failed miserably at finding my brother before it was too late. It hardly mattered that the Hybrid had leaned me for whatever irrational reason. I’d failed.
I glared at the bed and a dresser while plants dangled from the ceiling in corners, growing over each other in cheerful chaos. I slammed open drawers, looking for my clothes. All I saw were a few t-shirts, a pair of pants ripped beyond belief and a long sleeved men’s shirt in pale blue. I pulled on the shirt, fumbling with the buttons as my hands trembled and the wind outside the house howled. I ripped the legs off the pants, enjoying the sound of shredding fabric.
Once the holes were no longer part of the pants, I pulled them on, trying not to notice how tight it felt in the hips while the waist gapped. I let the jeans settle around me, fighting back the sneer as I recalled the girls who wore that sort of thing, girls who would have tied the men’s shirts to reveal smooth bellies and worn short shorts to show off tan legs so that men would like them. Girls like Camilla, who crashed parties so that she could tangle up the hearts of Hotbloods. Girls who danced with strangers and let them kiss them when they didn’t even know their last names.
I sighed and leaned against the dresser, while the anger leached out of me. I was only human, and I’d been alone for too long. Losing Satan hurt. Kissing Matthew didn’t. It was simple self-medication for the wound to my heart. I had to go home and really pursue an appropriate alliance. I’d stopped going to the balls and musical evenings where Sons gathered. I’d focused on my education, medicine, but if I’d been so easily seduced by a Hybrid who hadn’t really tried to seduce me, not if he’d sent me to his bed without him then I clearly needed companionship.
I shook my head as I forced myself to leave the room, out into the hall where I might bump into my brother or his wife. It didn’t matter what I wore in this house full of people I would probably never see again. I stopped outside the door in the hall, the feel of the rug under my feet rough, jarring. Whoever had taken my clothes hadn’t left my shoes.
I had to leave, to go home and stop all of this insanity, but first, I had to find my clothes.
The hall was empty, clean, bare of any adornment besides the odd sculptures that looked badly done. I searched the house, knowing that I’d heard someone in the room above me, hopefully someone who could tell me where I could find the Hybrid.
I hesitated outside of the room right above the one I’d slept in, frozen when I heard my brother’s laugh, a real laugh that made me stumble backwards, blinking away tears. My brother had really decided to abandon the House. He’d found a home, a life with a Hotblood so alien to everything I loved and understood.
I ran down the stairs, soundless on my bare feet, through the kitchen and out the back door. I had to get out, to be in control for a few minutes before I forced myself to get on a plane and go home, to face my father’s disapproval and let the knowledge of my failure sink into my bones.
I slipped out of the door into the embrace of the cool morning breeze. I stood on the top step with my eyes closed, letting the breeze swirl my hair while clouds raced above me.
I let myself breathe, deep breaths while I tried to clear the adrenaline from my system. I had to accept the loss of Saturn. I had to accept the reality of my position as Daughter, next in line after my father.
After I had myself mostly under control, I let myself look at the lawn and garden appalled at the mess scattered across the yard from the Hotblood party. After a Wild gathering there was no sign of it afterwards, but this lawn had discarded plates, clothes and shoes. As I searched the yard, I noticed a shadow under the oak tree, a slight figure that had me walking across the yard as my banked anger flared furiously to life. I didn’t notice the glass until I stepped on it. I ignored the burning, but my smooth pace was interrupted as the fragment embedded deeper into my foot.
The sharp sting subsided to a throb by the time I made it to the tree, forcing my hands to remain uncurled and the words when I reached him, to come out a purr instead of a snarl.
“You have a death wish.”
Matthew sat against the bark of the tree with his head resting on his knees until my voice made him raise his head, eyes larger than they had seemed the night before, filled with a world of weariness.
“Good morning. I’d lend you my knife, but I’d hate to give you ideas.” He smiled at me, a smile that made my stomach twist and my anger fade away.
I fought to hold onto that anger. He must have leaned me or I’d want to strangle him, not soften and comply.
“I’m afraid I’m already filled to the brim with all sorts of ideas.” I had to remember that he’d stolen my clothes and done whatever else I couldn’t remember when he came for them.
He said glancing pointedly at my foot, “You shouldn’t step on broken glass.”
“Whether I step on glass or drink it, it’s none of your business. Tell me what benevolent cause excuses the theft of my clothing, not to mention the inappropriate manner in which you lured me into your bed.” I lifted my chin, refusing to look embarrassed by the fact that I hadn’t made it very difficult for him. “My shoes wouldn’t even fit you yet you are responsible for the glass in my foot.”
He rubbed a hand over his face, a hand that bore fresh signs of bruising beneath the sallow skin, but he grinned at me while his eyes drank me in. “You’re more beautiful in my clothes than I am. I believe you’re trying to damage my ego.”
I fought back my blush. I was not trying to look cute. Clearly, or I would have brushed my hair and washed my face, and put on some lipstick so I didn’t look half dead. I licked my lips. “You’re not allowed to flirt with me when I’m wearing your clothes. It’s entirely inappropriate.” I took a step closer to him and touched his hand. “You should put a compress on it to help with the bruising. Do you have any comfrey in your garden?” I forced my hand down to my side and studied the wreck of a yard around me. I’d noticed a garden area last night that had looked like it might contain your basic herb remedies.
I took a step away from him then pulled up as he caught my hand in his. “Helen.” His voice was only a whisper, but it pierced my heart like soggy tissue. “Why do you think that I leaned you to sleep?”
“In your bed? I don’t know. I don’t know what happened after I was unconscious either. I haven’t had the pleasure of associating with Hybrids before. Tell me. Why did you?”
“Are you sure it was only one night? You could have been sleeping for weeks for all you know, months.” His eyes looked so tired, with heavy eyelids that needed to close, to rest while I wrapped my arms around him and… No! I swallowed and stepped away from him, fighting the feelings that weren’t mine, that couldn’t be mine.
“That explains how hungry I am. I could eat foie gras and mongoose,” I said, trying not to look at Matthew where he stood, his hair down over his cheekbones while he stared at me, fingering a knife in his long fingers.
The knife glimmered oddly in the light, the metal not quite gold and not quite silver, a bit like his eyes. I tensed as he came closer before he dropped on his heels beside me. “I would be willing to take out the glass for you.” His voice made everything sound sensual.
“Do you enjoy cutting people?”
“It depends on the person,” he said in a low voice that I strained to hear, like I might miss a syllable otherwise. “Your blood smells sweet, far sweeter than your brother’s. Like violets and wind.”
I put my hands on his shoulders, feeling the muscle of them beneath his shirt, looking down at him until I smelled something. Blood. Rich, heavy blood full of Nether. I pulled away and looked at my hand, stained with red. I fought the bewildering urge to taste it, to smell it, to drown in it. I gasped as I looked up at his face, at the Hybrid with more Nether in his blood than anyone I’d met.
I held my shaking hand out to him, until he took my wrist and pulled me to my knees in front of him, burying my hand in the freshly tilled earth until it had soaked up the blood. After I pulled my hand out of the ground, with dirty fingers, I unbuttoned his shirt until I could see the wound on his shoulder, a line of red that looked poorly healed.
“What happened? You need to take care of this. You should get stitches.” I knew that look on his face, the pain, the exhaustion, the weariness of more than physical exertion. He reminded me of my uncle Grim when he came back from one of his trips.
“You’re touching me. It’s easier for me to lean you if there’s physical contact. That doesn’t make you nervous?” he asked, his mouth twisting into a sneer. He wanted to pull away, to shut me out, to keep the pain in his shoulder and his soul to himself.
I smoothed his hair with my hand, stroking it like I would a testy cat. “If you want me to go, I will as soon as you tell me where my clothes are. I’d hate to disturb someone who clearly needs the healing powers of the mighty oak. Are you bound to it, or is it bound to you?”
He sighed. “I don’t know what happened to your clothes, and no. I don’t have enough Cool to officially bind a tree.”
I frowned at him. “You’re saying another Hunter came into my room while I slept to steal my clothing?” I glared at him. “Tell me before I do something you’ll really hate.”
He closed his eyes, shaking his head. “I might like whatever you had in mind, particularly if it involved sleep, long, permanent, blissful rest.”
I touched his face, realizing that his cheek was smooth, silky instead of prickly.
He didn’t seem to notice my touch; at least, he didn’t open his eyes. “I showered too. For a long time to get off all the blood.” He sighed. “Harding fell last night. One night, so much death. One less House.”
I swallowed. “You’re a Hunter, a musician. What do you have to do with Houses?” The fact that a House had fallen was too much to process. Harding’s fall meant that neutral territories would shift, that the process of clean up—catching all the members who slipped through the first slaughter—would probably shut down all of my routes home. I could be stuck there for days, weeks even.
“Are you sure you want to know?”
I fought the rising panic that sent the wind swirling around me, tangling my hair. “No. I’m not. I’m not sure of anything other than the fact that I’m completely out of my depth here. I have no idea why I haven’t stabbed you already. I should. That’s the rational thing to do to someone who can lean you to do whatever bizarre and confusing thing you don’t understand. Why did you lean me into your bed? What do you have to do with Carve? How hard will it be for me to get home now?”
He looked at me for a long time, a frown between his dark eyebrows. “I work for Carve. They’re relatives on my Wild side. It might be days, weeks until you’re able to leave. You can look at it as a vacation.”
The world spun, and I found myself unable to breathe, to choke in any of the air that was suddenly too thick, too heavy, too viscous to take into my lungs. I had to go home. I had to clear my head and shut down the ache in my chest and the pain in my heart. As for Matthew, he couldn’t be part of Carve. He couldn’t be related to Jarvais and Camilla with their identical golden hair and brown eyes. Matthew’s skin was wrong, his eyes were wrong, his mouth… too soft and full for the rest of his angular face and jutting cheekbones, a mouth Camilla painted red and made the most of, a mouth Jarvais…
I put my head on my knees as I tried to breathe, to think, to function normally as the sickness swallowed me again from the night before.
“You’re part of Carve?” My voice came out small, vulnerable, uncertain. I forced myself to look up at him, to glare at him in spite of the cloud of black spots filling my vision.
“A very small part. Just a knife, really.”
A knife? Like Grim. “You’re the knife of Carve, the official assassin for one of the deadliest Houses in the world? I’m astonished that you’d bother mentioning it. You can’t imagine how bored I am hearing about utterly nonessentials like that. I slept in the bed of Carve’s musician assassin. I’ve officially lost my mind.”
His eyes reflected nothing as he gazed at me until I threw myself at him, the soulless assassin who I’d let get inside of me, my head and my defenses. I hit him filled with budding fury that barely realized when he twisted, pinning me down against earth that rose around me, swallowing me with nowhere to go unless I went through him. The prison of earth, cool and heavy around my body like a grave, made me fight harder against his hard lines, lines against me as unmovable as the earth.
“Helen,” he said in a soft voice that I could not ignore however much I thrashed against his touch, against the ground that he controlled. “I’m worried that if you don’t stop fighting me, I’m going to kiss you. Satan would hate that. You can’t fight me here, not buried beneath your element. I think Cami must have taken your clothes. I’ve been otherwise engaged from the poison. Otherwise…” He smiled at me, a smile so completely sweet that my heart started pounding and the anger had no chance. What was wrong with me?
“Why?” I glared up at him, hating the feel of his hands against my shoulders, his body against mine as I struggled. I shouldn’t have been so weak and pathetic, so unlike myself. “Why would Cami take my clothes?”
He frowned at me, his body relaxing against mine as I stopped fighting. “She had mine cleaned last night. Maybe she did the same for you.”
“For someone else’s wife, she shows a lot of concern for you.”
He smiled slightly. “Cami’s tough, there’s no mistaking that, but she’s also kind. I think she regrets how things went between the two of you.”
“You really associate with Carve, you know Camilla and the Son?”
“Jarvais. I am related to them both on my father’s side.”
His name triggered a wave of pain and nausea. “How distantly?”
“Some things are too close for comfort. Some things will never be close enough,” he said, looking down at me with heavy lidded eyes, his glance falling to my mouth.
I became blindingly aware of his body, of the earth around me, against me, holding me while his gaze made my mouth itch, bringing back the memory of our stunning kiss.
“Get off me.”
He raised an eyebrow, a flick that conveyed his amusement. “So that you can attack me again? I admit I am tempted.”
“This is unseemly behavior for the Daughter of a House. I’m sure that your experience with Daughters is flawed if you’ve seen Camilla in action. Not all women live to seduce men.”
“Camilla doesn’t live to seduce them, but to manipulate them. I believe there might be a difference.”
“You’re still on me. I’m going to have to hurt you if you don’t let me go.”
He frowned at me, searching my face until he said, “How do you feel this morning? Are you still unwell?”
I shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position beneath his weight, but only became more aware of him. “I felt fine before I saw you. Are you doing this to me?”
He shook his head, his hair tickling my face as it swept over my skin. “Jarvais. Carve.”
I felt a wave a nausea after each word.
“It’s not me, it’s my House, who I’m connected to, connections that were blocked in here,” he said, sliding the tips of his fingers against my face. I felt his touch with every nerve, unable to miss a single sensation.
“I have blocks… you mean parts of my mind aren’t accessible to me? Who did that?” My breathing became jerky again as I struggled against him, trying to hurt him, but I couldn’t move. My frustrated roar as I bucked beneath him was the only thing I could do.
“Helen,” he said patiently. “For all I know, you did it to yourself. Not many Cools would put blocks on someone. It’s not considered ethical to alter someone else’s memories, but removing entire pieces without their consent…” He shook his head. “Either it was an extremely desperate Cool, and Cools are rarely desperate, or you requested it.”
I stared at him, suddenly seeing more of Carve in him. He had the same hairline, a widow’s peak like Camilla. His eyes, while the wrong color, were the same as hers when he glared. If he was right, if I’d asked to forget something, would it be in my best interest to go home without ever remembering, or would it be better to face up to whatever it was that had me so sick, confused and weak?
“Are you sure? How can I trust you?”
His mouth twisted in a smile. “You can’t. You shouldn’t, but if you wish to leave the blocks alone, you should leave Carve alone. What I know about you…”
“What? What do you know?” It was impossible that this Hybrid would know something about me that I didn’t know myself, inconceivable that he could be allowed to think that he knew me when bits of myself were tied off from me.
He eased off of me, but the earth still held me back. I felt the wind with a shock. How long had it been howling above us? It whipped his hair into his eyes, flapping his loose clothes against his body as he stood, watching me with a calculating stare. Finally, he nodded as though he’d come to some conclusion.
“I know that you corresponded with Jarvais when you were in school with Camilla. I know that the inappropriate contact between a Daughter and Son of White and Red Houses went on for too long. There were entanglements. It ended… badly. Whether you wanted to be blocked from the humiliation of such an end or whether Slide instigated the blocks…” He shrugged, a slight lift of his shoulders to express how little any of it mattered to him.
Of course it didn’t matter if parts of my own mind were held hostage while I charged through my life entirely oblivious while those who knew laughed at me. This Hybrid, a stranger, should not be more aware of my life than I was. It wasn’t only humiliating, but dangerous.
“Tell the ground to let go of me.”
He raised his eyebrow. “Tell the wind to stop whipping me.”
I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes and forced my body to relax, to allow my struggling muscles to rest in the earth’s embrace. The wind faded to a gentle breeze, caressing my closed eyelids while the smell of dirt reminded me of death, of burial, a memory that had me struggling up, but this time the earth didn’t hold me and I was able to escape from the shallow grave, but the image, my mother’s coffin as my brothers lowered it into the ground, the smell of death and decay stuck with me.
How had I forgotten my mother’s funeral? It was still only bits, pieces of pain that fit together roughly leaving jagged chunks, but it was the tip, the edge of the memories I’d lost.
I stumbled into Matthew, gripping his arms to hang on, not only to him but to the memories.
“I want you to take the blocks off of me. You are, without even trying.”
His eyes narrowed as he tilted his head, examining me. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
I pushed him against the trunk of the oak tree. “I need to remember. It’s not safe for me to run around with these huge gaps…”
“Go home. Away from here, you won’t need to remember,” he said mildly, allowing me to push him around without resisting.
“It would be lovely to know whether or not that was true, but unfortunately, I don’t know what I don’t know. It could be something life threatening. I’m Daughter of the House. I can’t have unknown vulnerabilities. I shouldn’t have any. I can’t believe Satan left me to this.” I shook my head. “I would never have wanted to forget my mother, however much it hurt. I have so few pieces of her. I can’t believe that would be my choice. Please, Matthew.” I lifted my hand to push his hair away from his eyes, behind his ear, hesitating over the silky skin.
He swallowed and I realized how close I was, pushing the boundaries of space between us, but I needed him to see, to feel, to understand.
“Go home, Helen. I’ll come later. If the blocks are still there, I’ll remove them then.”
“I can’t go home. Not with Carve and Bliss fighting over Harding’s remains, and I’m not leaving until I understand what’s missing. Even if I have to go to Carve himself, I’m not leaving without answers.”
He smiled slightly. “And shoes, because there’s a lot of glass between here and Carve.” He shook his head, as if irritated that he’d gotten amused. “No, you can’t leave right away, but taking down your blocks could make you more sick and vulnerable than you are right now. You don’t want that, not when you’re at the mercy of an unstable Hybrid who can’t be trusted.”
I stepped away from him, crossing my arms over my chest, over his shirt. I should go inside, take a shower, wash the dirt off of me then figure out a way to get home. I shouldn’t want to be at his mercy, not when he could mess with my mind already, not when he could lean me, make me aware of him in a way I hadn’t thought possible for me.
I shrugged helplessly. “Matthew, do you want to hurt me? You could have. I don’t know. Maybe you’re setting me up for a big painful finale, but you’re not like them. You’re not one of the Wild Sons who have an agenda for everything they do.”
“I have an agenda, it’s simply inconsistent and irrational.”
“You refuse to help me? Fine. Lovely. I’ll call up Camilla and ask her if she’d like to go shopping. Maybe she could set me up with Jarvais and I can break the blocks on my own.” Saying the name made my breath catch.
“Helen, it would be the wisest course of action for you to remain here as quietly and unobtrusively as possible until you can go home.” He looked so serious, concerned, sincere.
I hadn’t asked for him to take care of me. My brother, Saturn should care, not an assassin Hybrid. I lifted my chin. “Like a tame little mouse? That doesn’t sound very interesting. Matthew, you’re supposed to be a dangerous and wicked influence on me. Where’s the bad advice, the seduction and the instability? I’m disappointed in you. I’m going to have to find another Hunter with fewer scruples than you have. Maybe you can point me in the direction of someone who would be interested in giving me a good time while I’m stuck in your fair city.”
His eyes glimmered silvery as he gave me a wolfish smile. “The first thing that you should know about Hybrids is that they have a deplorable lack of wisdom. I would be delighted to show you everything from the tower to the dungeon. What would you like to do first? Circus, or jazz?”
I raised my eyebrows. “First?” I stared at him, at the musician hands that had held a knife not too long before. I sat on the ground, extending my foot towards him, the one with the glass embedded inside of it. “Cut it out of me.”
He raised an eyebrow as he dropped on his heels, a hand on my ankle, the feeling of his skin a cold shock that faded into numbness. “You trust me with a knife?”
I stared at him, at his eyes that however mocking seemed safe. “I asked you to invade my mind. Apparently I trust you more than anyone else on this continent.”
He smiled a little wider as he raised an eyebrow. “Even after I leaned you to sleep?”
I blushed. “I’m not feeling like myself. I don’t seem to mind the invasion of my privacy and your deplorable lack of delicacy. I usually hate men touching me. I can’t remember the last time I met someone who didn’t feel completely wrong. Maybe it’s over. Maybe now I can go home and find a nice Wild that my father will approve and take my place as Daughter. Doesn’t that sound appetizing?”
“Terribly. Think of all those nice Sons laid out on a platter for your consumption. All you have to do is pick a flavor.”
I shrugged. “I am hungry. I haven’t eaten for ages.”
He frowned. “The first thing, after I cut the glass out of you, will be dinner. There are peas in the garden and some carrots and beets from last year. We have a wide range of gourmet salad greens to choose from.”
“Sounds like a regular buffet,” I said with a smile.
He shrugged modestly. “Not very regular. I have collected specimens from all over the world. It will be a unique gastronomical experience, even for someone who drowns their salads in dressings,” he said with a grin.
I touched his face while I shook my head. “You’re not going to live up to your reputation, are you?”
His eyes narrowed as he cocked his head. “I’m ravenous, but for a taste of your slender throat, the skin of which has been beckoning me all morning.”
I laughed while he kept touching me, rubbing my ankle so lightly and delicately that I should barely have noticed it.
“Are you a cannibal then? How uncivilized for someone with Cool blood. That’s much better.”
He swallowed, shaking his dark head slightly. “Are you sure you’d like me to remove the glass? I’ve had more experience than I’d like to admit fishing shrapnel out of people, but most Wilds are reluctant to let anyone smell their fresh blood.”
I fought the urge to blush, uncertain why that would embarrass me. “The taste tangles my thoughts until vanity slackens.” I frowned at what I’d just said. I shook my head trying to clear it. “Try not to cut off the whole thing, please. I’m rather attached to my foot.”
He pulled his knife smoothly out of the harness beneath his shirt with the blade touching the skin on my foot, staring at me with something inscrutable in his eyes. “You trust me with your blood and your poetry?”
I smiled sweetly. “I also want you to take remove whatever blocks are keeping my memories away from me. My blood isn’t seething with Nether, like yours that makes me a target for the few insane Nether addicts. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
My heart pounded as his eyes glimmered.
“Such expectations,” he whispered. “I will do my best not to disappoint.”
I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. “I don’t mind being disappointed. It keeps things interesting.”
“You shouldn’t trust me.”
I shrugged. “I don’t, not really, but at the same time you haven’t taken advantage of me when you could have, at least,” I added, remembering the dancing, the way he’d held me a little too firmly against his body, “Not much.”
“I’m glad you find that reassuring,” he said before he moved the knife, drawing it over my flesh, releasing a trickle of blood while he spread the skin with his fingers, probing inside the gash he’d made. His fingers moved with assurance, the pain I’d expected nothing more than a distant hum until the chunk of glass emerged. He didn’t stop after the large piece was out, instead doing a thorough examination of my foot, pulling out a few other slivers.
Finally he pulled back, cleaning his knife in the earth that seemed to lick the blood from his blade while I waited for the pain.
Being a Wild with runes, you become accustomed to pain, accustomed to the compounding of sensation as runes speed the healing. It hurt with a shrieking ache that I’d been trained to endure. Healing hurts more than the accident, but this time, I watched my skin knit itself together, muscles and tendons wrapping over each other until the flap of skin closed, leaving nothing but a pool of blood on the grass beneath me. During the entire process, there wasn’t so much as a breath of pain, nothing but a slight tingling in my foot as the wind whispered its soothing melody to me.
I stared at my foot. “How did you do that? How did you take away the pain?”
“Paralysis, numbness; it’s part of my skill set. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d rather shave Satan’s head for a month than cause you pain.”
“Satan?” I looked up at him, at the way he didn’t quite meet my gaze, like looking at me was as uncomfortable for him as it was for me. “You have gifts with nerves and a bond with the earth?” I shook my head and felt a flutter in my stomach. “How did you get more than one skill?”
“I killed someone to fulfill my duty to Carve. Taking the skill was an unexpected, unasked for ‘bonus’.” He glowered at me as if daring me to judge him. “My father enjoys experiments in human nature.” He stood up, slipping his blade back into its sheath, on his back beneath his shirt. “As fun as this has been, I’m here to rejuvenate, not to chat.” He glared at me, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Rejuvenate?” I noticed the way he leaned against the tree, as if he were tired, but the exhaustion didn’t show through the scowl on his face. I crossed my arms over my chest, giving him a condescending look my grandmother would have been proud of. “By all means, go ahead.”
He gave a slight shake of his head. “Your blood is pooled on the ground.”
“It smells of violets and wind.” He examined his fingertips where they were stained red from my blood. He sniffed, cautiously at first then with a long inhalation that I thought would never end while my heart pounded.
“Exquisite bouquet,” he murmured, just loud enough for me to hear. “Sweet with Nether, but with something else, an undercurrent of something…”
I felt dizzy, weak, like he was inside my veins, stirring things around, things that pulsed with pain but were too rich to turn away from. The smell of blood, the taste of my own blood in my mouth…
I grabbed his arm. “It’s another memory, isn’t it? Something about my blood? What stupid thing did I try to do? Was I reckless enough to try and blood bind myself to Jarvais? Is that what you’re saying?” I felt a wave of pain as I struggled to breathe, to hang onto him when his face came from further and further away.
The wind wrapped around me, carrying me away from the pain, from the potent scent of my blood, strands of silk and ice that spun around me as I rose with them, leaving my body as I lost myself to the wind and sky that stretched out, an escape from the beating pain, instead, free, exhilaratingly free from the bonds of earth and flesh, of body and passion until with a jerk, I found myself back in my body while Matthew pressed me against the tree, the roughness solid behind me while his flesh molded to mine. He was closer, harder against me than he’d been during the dance. I could feel his heart pounding against me, his rapid breath whisper against my neck and shoulder.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he whispered raggedly, like he’d run for miles.
I looked up at him, at the eyes that blazed silver. “What?” I said, but the word trembled on my tongue. I’d forgotten that feeling, the flying with the wind that had always been forbidden, not because it was a Wild gift, but because it was something else, something to be hidden in the deepest, darkest recesses of my soul. Soul. Soul-flight. Hollow touched. For a moment I saw my mother holding out her arms to me, arms pale white silky skin without the runes embedded into them that would keep her alive, keep her from dying from something as stupid and human as cancer.
I collapsed against Matthew, fighting the nausea, not only from blocks but from the knowledge I’d forgotten, been forced to forget, knowledge about my very nature. I felt his cool lips pressed against my hair, but it came from far away, like his voice and the words I couldn’t hear past the buzzing. I had Hollow blood. I was a walking target, living under the protection of a House that had participated as eagerly as any other in the massive slaughter of the Hollows, the breeds of Soul. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything as I hung suspended in the awareness.
“Helen,” his voice whispered through the numbness, piercing the clouds of horror. “It’s all right. You’re safe. Your blood holds barely any traces of Hollow.”
I was breathless when I looked at him, Matthew’s face white with effort or shock as he studied my shoulder, and he didn’t stop leaning against me, holding me between himself and the oak while his arms locked me against him. A rumble of thunder was the only warning before rain began to fall, a gentle rain that I tilted my face up to catch, barely anything penetrating the thick oak leaves to fall on my cheeks and lips. Matthew was too close to me but I didn’t move even as his legs pressed against mine while his heart pounded too quickly against my chest. I wasn’t sure how long I stayed like that, with my head back, feeling the rain and wind while his cool body held me against the wood.
What was he waiting for? I felt weak, so weak and afraid. This should never have happened. If I hadn’t been blocked, I would have known not to soul fly, particularly in front of someone with Cool blood, someone who could see souls, someone who might be bracing himself to grant me a cold, quick death.
Death would be a mercy compared to other things that had been done to Hollow touched. I had to destroy him, to kill him before he betrayed me, my brothers, my House, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t struggle away from his beating heart, his smooth cheek against my ear.
“I’m a Hybrid,” he whispered. “I swear to you, your secret is safe. Your House is safe. I already knew your brother’s blood before you came here. I have never willingly hunted Hollow blood, and won’t begin…”
“Why are you holding me here?” My voice trembled instead of coming out strong and cold.
“I don’t want you to fall and…”
His words faded as I felt the touch of his mouth, his lips silken fire against my neck. I swallowed, closing my eyes and trying to focus, to block out the sensations that chased down my arms and spine, weakening my knees even worse than they’d been before.
“Matthew.” My whispered gasp sounded nothing like me while my hands, hands that should have shoved him away from me clutched his shirt as though he were the only thing stable in my suddenly shifting world.
He stepped away suddenly, turning from me while I clenched my fists and focused on his shoulders, the line and slope of them, ignoring the black around the edges of my vision, ignoring the weakness I felt to my core.
“I won’t hurt you, Helen,” he said before he left, slipping away as quickly as shadows from the sun, leaving me gasping, aching, and feeling utterly alone.
As I entered the kitchen, shaking out my wet hair, holding a bouquet of lettuce, I heard, “Here’s a towel.”
Camilla’s voice made me stiffen as she handed me a white terry cloth towel that I took, staring at her.
“No one else can carry off the drowned rat look as well as you,” she said with a sultry smile as she flicked the ends of my hair with the tips of her perfectly manicured fingers. “Did you have a nice time at the party last night? From where I was standing, you were much more interested in the musician than any muscled Hotblood.”
“The knife of Carve.”
Her eyes hardened slightly. “He’s much more than that. Jarvais is so upset with him. He lost Harding, didn’t stay to clean up the mess, for you I presume.”
I shrugged and tried to look nonchalant as I turned on the sink, running the clear water over the different shades of green. “He is interesting. You were right about that. I suppose you would know.”
She laughed a trilling little laugh as she tossed her perfectly coiffed golden hair. “You can’t imagine that we were ever that friendly. He’s a Hybrid.”
I ripped the salad into a bowl in little pieces with a little too much enthusiasm. She hadn’t said that they’d never been together, only what I should think. “That’s a pity. I could use some advice about how to manage him.”
She raised her blond eyebrows as her golden eyes dissected me. “He’s not easy. I suppose there’s something worthwhile in rising to a challenge. If I were you, I’d walk around in his clothes in the rain picking lettuce. It’s frankly bizarre yet impressive how well you read him.”
I tried not to snarl at her insinuating that everything about me was trying to manipulate him. Of course she wouldn’t understand why I’d be caught looking like a drowned rat in his clothes without an extremely compelling reason.
I didn’t like her smile.
“You knew my brother would be here.”
She shrugged elegantly. “Of course. Your brother has created quite the scandal.”
I forced a tight smile to stay on my face. “Not like destroying a White House before transfer to new Head, though. Your brother will be remembered for that.” I didn’t say the word, but ‘coward’ hung in the air.
Her face tightened, but the smile stayed frozen on her mouth. “I’m here to accompany you to a café, like you suggested yesterday, but maybe we should catch up another time when you’re less damp.”
I took a bite of salad without dressing and chewed slowly while she stood, slipping her gold purse over her pale gold chanel jacket and gave me her best calculated smile.
“That would be delightful,” I muttered with my own painfully appropriate smile before she turned and left the hideous green kitchen.
I found a lemon in the fridge and squeezed it on the otherwise completely dry lettuce. However marvelous the greens, I needed dressing. I added pepper and ate, feeling a little more settled with every bite. I took deep breaths and tried to get her out of my system. How distantly related was she from Matthew? I frowned as I analyzed my feelings, the anger, possessiveness and jealousy. I had no business feeling jealous of Matthew. We’d kissed once and I’d nearly electrocuted him. I fingered my neck where he’d tasted my skin, completely making me forget that I might have to kill him.
I’d never killed anyone before. Unless he was a certain threat, I couldn’t start now. I’d mangled this trip. Not only had I failed to rescue Saturn from his ineligible match, but revealed myself as part Hollow to an assassin. I straightened up, but in the soaked shirt I hardly looked respectable. I’d have to find Cami and my clothes.
I left the room, feeling a headache crowd behind my eyes. I heard something from a room along the hall, a murmur that sounded like Matthew. I moved like a Wild daughter should, making my way to the door soundlessly as I slipped over the parquet floor in my bare feet.
I heard another murmur, definitely Matthew’s voice as unmistakable as the goose-bumps on my skin. I opened the door soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. The room was dark while rain slashed against windows, but a bright lamp with red fringe lit up Matthew’s arm where he held it out for the needle in his vein. I couldn’t see more than the outline of the man taking his blood, a halo of golden hair above strong, wide shoulders that tapered to narrow hips. His suit was impeccably tailored, a camel color that would show blood.
I stood there while Matthew’s head lolled against the back of the chair, eyes closed with dark circles that darkened as the man took another vial of blood from his veins. Matthew grew paler with every drop.
“Next time you avoid a summons, I’ll take it all,” the man said sounding warm and modulated as he turned to pack the vials into a small case. I saw his face, golden eyes, soft, sensuous lips that smiled even while my heart jerked to a stop.
I staggered as the world flipped upside down and inside out, my head pounding until even the dim light felt like stabbing knives in my brain. I reeled, hitting a solid piece of furniture that I held onto, trying to not slide to the floor.
I struggled free of the nausea, dizziness, and the agony of seeing the planes of Jarvais’s face, a face I’d had as many dreams and nightmares about as I had drops of blood in my veins. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do more than hang on for dear life with my eyes closed and hope I didn’t faint.
“Pardon me, miss,” I heard Jarvais say in his impeccably respectable accents. “Are you all right?”
I forced my eyelids open and saw his golden eyes close to mine, gazing at me in amused concern. I closed my eyes as the pounding in my head resumed.
“I don’t feel very well,” I managed to whisper.
He took my arm, his touch terrifying and paralyzing and horribly fascinating. “A bit worse for the better of last night’s party? Let me help you,” he said, assisting me into a chair that I gripped while he went to a well-stocked bar against the wall and began mixing me a drink. I blinked rapidly trying not to stare at him, his golden beauty unnatural in its dizzying perfection. He smiled as he turned back to me.
“Here,” he said, handing me a glass half full of golden liquid, golden and glowing as he was. “I’ve been hung over more than a few times myself.”
I opened my mouth and drank the stuff in one big gulp. Liquid fire trailed down my throat while I tried not to choke. “Thanks,” I gasped when I could speak.
“Not at all. What you need to do is find a quiet, dark place to rest until your head feels a little less like exploding.” He smiled at me showing his perfect white teeth and taking the glass in one hand and my hand in the other. He helped me to my feet, gripping my hand a little tighter as I swayed.
I felt like hyperventilating as I nodded like an idiot and stumbled towards the door, ripping my hand out of his grasp. “Good idea,” I said as I went to the door while the floor tipped sideways slowly enough I got out of the room and closed the door behind me before I collapsed against the wall until I could get it together. When I could see past the flickering black specks, I turned to the stairs, taking them two at a time until with a thump I ran into someone at the top. I rebounded against a solid, hot body with as many curves as I had, flinching against her touch as her hand came around my arm.
“Are you all right?” Cami asked, her green eyes glowing slightly.
I put a hand to my chest where my heart pounded so hard. I’d actually met Jarvais face to face. And he’d been taking Matthew’s blood. Was he a Nether addict or simply taking samples to check for taint? What did Matthew think of my idiocy? He knew about my humiliation from the time I’d gone to the Wild ball to find Jarvais. What other things did I not remember? What could be worse than that?
“Fine, thank-you. Where are my clothes?”
She blinked, dropping her hand by her side at my icy tone. “I already put them back in Matthew’s room, hanging up. I had them freshly pressed,” she said with a forced smile as she fiddled with her belt with nervous fingers.
I wanted to hate her, parts of me did, but at the same time, I needed all the allies I could get. “That’s very thoughtful of you. You shouldn’t have taken time out from your wedding night to do something as trivial as my laundry.” And Matthew’s. I felt that same surge of jealousy as when I’d thought of Camilla and Matthew being close, part of the same House.
She shrugged, the gesture larger than life coming from the tall Hotblood. “Satan was busy taking care of Matthew. It gave me something to do besides murder him.” She shook her auburn head, her freckles speckling her fair skin.
She grinned. “Both. When Matthew stumbled in infected with Featherbane, I almost ripped his head off. If he’d been wearing clothing I definitely would have. Luckily for him…”
“The sight of a naked man gives you pause?” I interrupted feeling that same smoldering jealousy flare ridiculously to life.
She cocked her head at me. “You smell jealous. Matthew doesn’t wander around unclothed, which is a pity if you ask me. Men should take off their shirts now and then, for ventilation if nothing else. It was the unusualness of him stumbling in with nothing but a dishcloth that kept me from rendering him senseless. At any rate, the entire time he went on and on about how beautiful you are and how you are the music missing from his life, and how death would come sweetly after kissing you.”
“He told Saturn about us kissing?”
She shrugged. “Featherbane.”’
“I thought it was supposed to be a truth serum more than an aphrodisiac.”
She gave me a pointed look. “Exactly.”
I shook my head, for a moment speechless. It simply made absolutely no difference whether or not the Hybrid/Assassin/Musician liked me. Absolutely none. So why did I feel a slight thrill in my stomach? “Thanks for that. I suppose you mean well. Of course, I’m not my brother. I’m not going to fall for a Hunter and abandon my family, so maybe you could just keep all your good intentions to yourself.” I crossed my arms over my chest while she looked at me, a Hotblood that I’d treated less than delicately.
She smiled. “You like him.”
“What? No, I don’t.”
“If you say so,” she said with an ever widening grin. “Since you’re going to be staying here for some time, I thought you might like more than that very chic but dull suit you were wearing. I have a lot of clothes that I’ve never gotten rid of in spite of the fact that they haven’t fit me since I was fourteen. I shot up and out, you know how it is,” she said with a vaguely flirty look.
“Not really,” I said with a frown.
“Satan said your favorite color is red. I used to wear it all the time, because you know, it’s the color of passion, but it really clashes with my hair. Green is so much better for me. If you’d like to take a look, anything you’d like, including undergarments which I think most Wilds are kind of obsessed with, my room is right here,” she said, walking to the room across from Matthew’s. I wanted to tell her no, to throw any overtures of friendship back in her face, but honestly it wouldn’t be respectable, appropriate, or intelligent. I didn’t like being a drowned rat compared to Camilla.
I nodded reluctantly, unable to say ‘yes, please’ when she’d taken my brother from my family. Her closet was overflowing onto two racks in the room with boots and bags cluttering every available surface.
“You must enjoy shopping.”
She shrugged. “Not really, I just hate to get rid of anything. You never know when someone shorter and with smaller feet will need a pair of knee high boots,” she said with a grin while she began sorting through a box, exclaiming in triumph when she pulled out a pair of black boots that would certainly cover a lot of leg. “These have pretty good balance and thick enough leather they can withstand a lot of impact. They’re really good boots. I had them runed for extra protection.” She handed them to me and began digging around in the back of her closet. “Where did I put it? Aha!” She turned to me holding a deep red leather jacket with sleek lines that I could imagine conforming to my body.
“That’s beautiful,” I said, touching the supple leather.
“Good. I’m glad I can find it a good home,” she said dropping it into my arms. “You’ll need a few drop dead dresses, some killer dresses, and of course a catsuit with built in holsters.”
I stared at the growing pile of clothing she was throwing onto the bed. “That’s very thoughtful, but I’m a little more classics than catsuits.”
She stood up, sending her voluminous red hair in a stunning arch before she looked at me. “Like red leather pants to match the jacket?” she asked with a sudden grin, holding up a pair cheerfully. “I could have sworn I got rid of these. They’re tiny. You must be one of those women who only eats salads.”
“I’m perfectly capable of putting away a steak.”
“Oh, good,” she said, throwing the pants onto the bed. “Look. We’re going to eat dinner here tonight. The other Hunters took off after Harding fell, you know, so they wouldn’t get stuck here, so it’ll just be you and your brother and me. I don’t cook that much, really at all, but Satan does, so If you think a good steak dinner…”
“No. Absolutely not. I’m going out to dinner tonight and every night as long as I’m here. I can’t intrude on you any more than I already have, except for one little thing I need to talk to Saturn about.”
“He’s in the study. You know, the one where you talked earlier. Are you sure you don’t want to have dinner with us?” she asked, sounding slightly hurt.
She had feelings right out there for everyone to see. How bizarre. “I think it would be incredibly rude for me to intrude on your honeymoon any more than is absolutely necessary. I’m sure you understand.”
She nodded, piling clothing into my arms. “Well, maybe you can have breakfast with us in the morning,” she said frowning.
“Okay,” I said after a long pause as we walked across the hall to Matthew’s room. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to.
“Why don’t you get changed out of those soaking wet things and then talk to Satan. I don’t think it’s the best idea for him to see you in Matthew’s clothing. You know your brother. He’s seriously considering killing Matthew.”
I stared at her. “Right. Thank you. I will put something on and then talk to him.” After Cami flashed her teeth at me and left, I rifled through the dresses and very few pants and tops in black and red that she’d given me. I ended up pulling on the red leather pants, simple black boots, and black top. I brushed my fingers through my damp hair. I’d have to get some basic hygienic supplies like hair brush and toothbrush.
I took a deep breath before I left the room, walking up the stairs purposefully to find my brother. I entered the study, watching my brother’s face fall when he saw me instead of Cami.
“We need to talk,” I said, leaning against the door until it closed with a soft click. I shut my eyes as I wove a rune. Green sparks I could see with my eyes closed created patterns that would block anyone from this conversation.
He was standing when I opened my eyes, feeling dizzy. I hadn’t thrown a rune with my eyes shut since I’d been blocked, but it came naturally to me. With the Hollow tinge, I could see the energy better with my eyes closed. How quickly it came back to me, how natural. Strange to think what else I’d ‘forgotten’.
“Why did you tell me not to trust Matthew?”
I wanted to say more, to tell my brother about what Matthew knew, but some part of me instinctively wanted to protect Matthew if I could, to keep him safe if somehow he wasn’t a threat. The image of him limp in the chair, losing blood made my stomach ache.
Saturn walked around the desk where he’d been sitting, moving to the windows to look out before he flicked the blinds and came around to me. He bent over and moved a piece on the chessboard left out on the low sofa, an opening move I copied, fingers sliding over the familiar smoothness of a pawn.
“Why do you want to know about the Hybrid, and what are you doing here?” He sounded more reasonable this time, but his massive body and bald head were a physical denial of his Wild heritage that grated.
I gave him a cool smile. “I stayed here last night, in the Hybrid’s bed.”
He ground his teeth together for a second before his face became impassive again.
“He wasn’t here last night.” He sounded like a Son, certain, confident, assured. He sounded nothing like he looked. He glowered down at the board and shoved another pawn with his meaty fingers.
“I heard that he interrupted your wedding night,” I murmured as I paced, back and forth, pausing for a moment to slide another piece forward.
“Startled me more than anything has in some time. I take that back. Seeing you dance with him at my wedding party blew my expectations spectacularly. What were you thinking?” he asked scowling at me. “Helen, why don’t you sit down? Your pacing is making me nervous.”
I sat for a moment on the opposite side of the chessboard, made my move then stood. “Do you trust Matthew with your life?” I finally asked, shoving a hand through my damp hair. It was a mess.
He blinked, studied me for a moment with a frown then shrugged. “I trust Matthew with my life. I don’t, however, trust him with my sister, particularly if he’s inviting you to take naps in his bed. Do you know what he can do with the imprint you left in his bed?” He ran a hand over his bald head then stopped, like he just remembered that he had no hair.
“What can he do with an imprint?” I asked, trading his rook for my castle.
He stared at me like the answer was obvious then moved another piece. “He’s half Wild, so very physical, Helen. Having the imprint of a woman in his bed could be entertaining to an amoral Hybrid, like him.”
I felt a rush of embarrassment that I drowned in calculating the best way to defeat my brother before moving my piece. “You think he wants to seduce me? Doesn’t have much follow-through, does he?”
“What game are you playing?” Saturn asked, glaring at the board before he looked up at me, his dark blue eyes glittering with sudden excitement.
He moved suddenly, hands around my neck before I could blink, boring into my eyes with wary fascination.
“What’s happening to you?” he growled.
I shoved him off of me, hearing the pieces clatter across the floor as I rubbed my throat, glaring at him. “What’s wrong with you? You don’t instigate a tussle in the middle of chess. It’s uncivilized.”
“You haven’t played like this since before mother died.”
I swallowed hard as I looked from him to the chessboard where the pieces were knocked over and scattered. “It’s a game.”
“You played brilliantly.” He sounded proud, and I felt a tingle of pleasure from my big brother’s approval. “With soul.”
I froze, staring at him while he stared back. “Have you told Cami?” I finally asked. “About the soul?”
He shook his head. “With her it’s about living in the moment.”
“Lovely,” I couldn’t help but mock. “As long as it isn’t the moment when they come to kill the unstable Hybrids the two of you produce.” I began putting the pieces back on the board, in their starting positions instead of where they’d been before.
“So, you’re throwing runes with your eyes shut, playing chess creatively; any other old habits coming back to you?” He studied me, eyes dark blue like any of my brothers, but with so much confidence and awareness in them. Why had he chosen love over his House?
“Yes. Do you know anything about who put blocks on my memories, and why?”
He shrugged, but I knew when he was angry, really angry, without the bellow and bluster that was mostly for show. “I wasn’t there when it happened. I missed the funeral, the accident, the debate about whether it was in your best interest to change you.”
I frowned at him. “But you knew about the blocks?”
“I knew that you were different. Everyone said it was from grief, that you’d lost your poetry, your spark when mother died, but when I looked at you, I didn’t see grief. I didn’t see you at all. Now this,” he said with a gesture at me, red leather and messy hair. “Is you. Not public you, of course, but the parts of you that you’d let us see. Matthew hasn’t seen you wearing this has he?”
I blinked at him. “No, but he has seen me soul fly.”
A quick indrawn breath was his only sign of shock.
“He probably enjoyed that.”
I shook my head slightly trying not to feel sick. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It came out without any intention. What else can’t I remember? If I’m going to be Daughter of the House, thanks for that, by the way, I have to know what I am at the very least so that I don’t put the House in danger. Does he need to die?”
He stared at me, considering. Finally he shook his head. “I’ve been Hunting with the Hybrid for a long time. After all the times that he’s saved my life, it would be rude to kill him.”
“You are no longer part of the House. Your life has nothing to do with it.”
“Helen, don’t try and be slow. He always knew about the Hollow tinge. He gets a twisted thrill out of knowing that we are what we are, safely protected and part of a prestigious House. You don’t have to try and kill him.”
“I wouldn’t try.”
His face became grim. “Matthew would not be an ideal first kill.” He stared at me while I stared back.
“If you trust him so much with your life, why don’t you think that I should trust him with mine?”
He shook his head. “It’s not your life I’m worried about with him. Matthew doesn’t express emotions. You should have heard him last night. Sounded like a Hallmark card. You need to stay away from him. He’s not a halfway kind of person. The way he danced with you got everyone’s attention. You need to get away from here before his enemies turn up wanting to hurt him through you.”
I stared at him, his intent expression. “He doesn’t usually dance like that?”
“No. He doesn’t dance like that, or sing like that, or give a woman his bed. A woman touches him and it takes a long time for that touch to wear off. He’s very particular. Don’t smile. Being special to a killer like him isn’t safe for you.”
I lifted my chin slightly. “I’m not made out of glass.”
“You didn’t even know what you were,” he exploded, striking the table with his fist.
I frowned at him. “I can’t be Daughter of the House, next in line to Slide without learning how to take care of myself. That means that I need his help to take down the blocks as well as his help to learn how to be an effective killer.” I nodded satisfied, particularly when I saw the horrified expression on his face.
“You’re kidding me.”
I shrugged. “I think I’ll ask him to take me Hunting. It could be very interesting.”
He glared. “When someone I don’t know works so hard to keep me alive, I start to get curious. You don’t know him like I do. His behavior shows signs of obsession—with you.”
“He really did save your life? He said you were suicidal.” I tried not to let his words worry me, or worse, make my skin tingle.
My brother pulled out a lighter then held it to the end of his disgusting cigar. “Suicidal and apathetic aren’t the same things. Wanting to die and being willing to die…” He shook his head. “This isn’t about me. You have to be careful, Helen,” he said, putting his huge hand on my arm. “The two of you won’t end well.”
I sighed and sank down on a chair to stare at the chessboard. “I don’t remember mother’s funeral. Why would I block that out?”
“Go home. Ask Slide.”
I laughed. “Right. Dear old daddy will greet me with open arms and an open straight jacket. Sounds like I’d better make the most of my time trapped here before I’m trapped there.”
He sat down beside me, making his chair creak from his weight. “Hel…”
“That’s funny,” I said, turning to him. “You’re Satan, and I’m Hel. Don’t you think that’s hilarious?” I laughed and shook my head, getting to my feet. “So, you think he’s safe with my secrets.”
“In a word, yes, but don’t trust him with anything else,” he growled glaring up at me.
I patted his head. “You’re so sweet. It’s almost like you’re my big brother. I’ll see you later. Apparently I’m having breakfast with you tomorrow,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “Try not to kiss between bites, all right?” I closed my eyes for a moment, pulling down the runes so the green sparks went out like a bubble popping.
“Do you need anything?” Saturn asked, still glaring at me from his chair, holding his cigar while his bald head with swirling runes did look demonic. “Money? Weapons?”
“Don’t worry about me. Enjoy your honeymoon.”
I left with him scowling at my back. I felt a wave of relief that I didn’t have to kill Matthew. I wasn’t certain I’d be able to do it. It gave me enough space to think about Jarvais. I shook my head as I descended the stairs. I couldn’t afford to think of him, not when the very idea of him, the memory of his hand holding mine made me ill and weak.
I walked slowly, carefully down the stairs, keeping my boots soft against the wooden steps. At the bottom, I hesitated before I turned right and looked through the open door to the library where Matthew still slumped back in the chair. Otherwise, the room was empty. With a pounding heart, I crossed the floor, watching Matthew for signs of life.
I saw a slight pulse in his neck that had me exhaling in relief. His face looked hard, like it had been coated in a layer of plastic. When I touched his cheek, I felt the barrier before it melted away under my touch to his soft, vulnerable skin. I’d heard about this. This is what happened when Cools went into hibernation, a healing state that could last an indeterminate amount of time.
I didn’t like leaving him there, leaving him where anyone passing could come in and touch him like I was doing. I picked him up carefully, his too long body making balancing difficult. I had the strength from my rune-enhanced arms, but maneuvering him up the stairs without knocking into any of the hideous sculptures took all my concentration. He slept through it all, looking corpse-like, his sharp cheekbones and deep circles around his eyes making me want to feed him. I settled him into his bed, cocooning him in the duvet. He felt cold. I should make him some tea so he could have something warm when he woke up.
I left him in his bed, carefully locking his door behind me then went down stairs and into the back yard. I crunched more glass on my way to the back fence, outside of which his parked motorcycle stood.
I searched his bag, coming up with an old envelope that looked softened from wear. I stared at the envelope, at the cursive on the outside that I couldn’t pretend wasn’t my own handwriting. What was Matthew doing with one of my letters? I swallowed hard as I opened it, fingers trembling as I pulled out a sheet of paper, creased and crumpled like it had been folded and unfolded a thousand times.
I can’t stop thinking of the beauty of roses in winter. November rose, December rose, January the ice storm captures the whorls and buds to spend an eternity encased in ice.
I began my runes two weeks ago. Why haven’t you written? Your words would soften the sting of knives and metal, steel and quire, bier and pyre. I lie on the table and they cut me apart. Pieces that don’t fit are pruned as heartlessly as if I were an unruly conifer. A month without a word. Two months. It’s for the best they say, to put you away, in the shadows and darkness behind me. But the darkness creeps closer and closer.
My mother is sick. She’s a rose with petals that fall with every brush of wind, the slightest gust. Blood red petals falling down until the world is blood and death and darkness with no words to cut through the pain and loneliness.
The letter tumbled from my fingers to the gravel. My mother. I could remember curling up beside her on the hospital bed they’d brought to Slide, hooked up to monitors and IV while I read her my latest poem. I remembered the last time, the way she’d looked at me with her sunken cheeks and luminous eyes, a fragile creature that would blow away, but she smiled, eyes bright and alive even while her body died. Her soul held on while we shared secrets. She didn’t precisely approve of my writing to Carve, but she’d said he had soul, brushing her fingers over his letter, her smile permission if not approval. It hadn’t mattered by then. I’d fallen hopelessly in love with his words, his soul.
I blinked back the tears as I bent down and grabbed the letter, stuffing it hastily into the envelope. Why did Matthew have my letter? I hesitated before I put it back in his bag, taking his thermos and going back into the yard. I walked mindlessly to the kitchen where I made tea and found garbage bags then went back outside. I cleaned the mess quickly and efficiently, glad to have something to occupy my hands while my mind raced, a tangle of memories and thoughts that I couldn’t organize.
Matthew must have read my letters. That’s how he’d known me, why he’d acted out of character with me. Who else had read my letters? I couldn’t think. I carried the garbage bags back to the alley and walked through the pristine yard to the house, anxiety mounting with every step, while clouds swirled above my head.
I passed through the mint green kitchen, up the stairs past the sculptures that seemed to mock me to his room where I held the key. Answers. My answers were in that room, with Matthew. I took a breath and opened the door, locking it behind me before I walked slowly to the bed where he lay, too thin to fill up the space.
I twisted my hands as I watched him sleep, picking apart his features, the hard angles at odds with the soft mouth, silky long hair brushed down over the high forehead. I bent over him, studying his face, smelling his peculiar scent, herbs and lemon. I sat down then curled up beside him, my head on his shoulder. His hibernation glaze softened until I could feel the beating of his heart beneath my hand, feel the skin of his neck against my forehead.
I wrapped my arms around him, closed my eyes tight, and felt the wracking pain of losing my mother. It hurt so much. I’d been left alone without anyone who understood me. My father, Slide had taken care of my problems by taking the memories and feelings away from me, but beneath the numbness, my heart was still broken. Once from losing Jarvais, twice from losing my mother. I felt burning hot tears trickle down my face and onto Matthew’s unresponsive form.
Seeing Jarvais with Helen destroyed me. He sickened her with every touch, every word as she stared at him with enormous eyes while her face grew paler every moment. I could do nothing. If I tried to stop him, he would know that I cared and destroy her to hurt me. I would have to kill him, my own brother. Struggling with blood loss, I wasn’t in the best condition to take out my brother who had been growing steadily stronger.
After she’d left, I faded into hibernation, pushing myself into that state so that he couldn’t question me about her. I woke to the taste of tears and the sound of even breathing beneath my chin. It smelled like sorrow and ink. I opened my eyes and saw a sea of black hair drowning me, waves crashing against my face and throat.
“Helen,” I whispered, my voice rough and dry. I should have drunk something before passing out.
She murmured and shifted, her body soft against mine. The down blanket came halfway up my chest separating us. Helen. Had I leaned her into bed with me? I couldn’t imagine any other reason she’d be sleeping with me. No one else could have penetrated my boundaries, the protective hibernation shell, none but her who flowed through my veins her imprint on my heart an everlasting mark.
Morning light spilled across the room, bringing out blue in her black hair. I lay there unmoving watching the light play. I wanted to remember this, let the imprint of her lying against me soak deep into me until I would never lose it.
I drifted, letting my mind run over the past few days since Helen brushed my life again; the dance, the song, the kiss, the taste of her skin, her smile, and voice. I never wanted to forget her voice, soft and low, sweet and husky.
The door flew open and Satan entered, glowing ember at the end of his cigar casting a red light into his eyes.
“Shhh,” I murmured, leaning him to silence.
He stopped and stared at me, at his sleeping sister who had clearly climbed on top of me after I’d already been tucked beneath the blankets, her boots still on. He could see at a glance that nothing against Code had happened, but his brow lowered down until I could barely see his furious eyes.
“What’s going on here?” he bellowed, his voice resonating against the walls until Helen started up, turning to look at Satan where he glowered at her.
“You woke her up,” I said feeling a wave of anger mixed with sorrow as I sat, putting a hand on her shoulder.
She stiffened, staring at her brother until she turned and gazed at me with large eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” Satan growled. “For interrupting my sister sleeping with you!” he ended in a bellow.
Cami came in behind him, rolling her eyes and putting a hand on his arm. “Nothing was going on,” she said. “Clearly.”
“My sister sleeping with a filthy Hybrid, is not nothing. You were hibernating in the library. That’s where I saw you yesterday after Jarvais left. How did you get into bed with her?”
“I carried him,” Helen said, a husky voice, rough from sleep. “He didn’t look comfortable in his chair.”
“Yesterday you were asking if we needed to put him to death, but then you decided to tuck him into bed instead? What’s wrong with you? Anyone who touches him while he’s sleeping gets paralyzed, anyone except you, apparently.”
“I must have forgotten to put up my guard,” I said, brushing her arm with my thumb. “You’re intruding, Satan.” The anger was just below the surface, anger fed by years of frustration as I’d lived in the shadows, doing my duty without hope of ever becoming part of the whole.
He looked at me, disgusted. “I said she was thinking about killing you. Don’t you think that’s a little bit interesting, Carve?”
“We both know that’s not an issue.”
Satan shrugged off Cami, taking two steps closer to the bed while he glowered down at his sister where she still sat beside me. “Why did you sleep with him? Did he lean you? If you think I’m going to sit by and watch a Hybrid sully my sister’s reputation…”
“He didn’t lean me,” she said in a dangerous voice with chips of ice in it.
“Then what possible reason could you have for sleeping with him? Did you hit your head?”
The silence grew until she said quietly, “I didn’t want to be alone.”
I saw a flash of pain cross his face, could feel the regret that mixed with shame before he shot a furious glance at me then turned and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Sorry about that,” Cami said, giving us both uncomfortable smiles. “He’s concerned about you both. Breakfast is ready whenever you are.” She turned and left me alone with Helen.
I could read her discomfort, her confusion. She held perfectly still, staring at the door until with a sigh she turned, letting her boots clomp on the floor. She reached down then handed me my silver thermos.
I unscrewed the lid while she untied her laces. I drank a mix of herbs that I recognized as a unique blend for blood loss she must have harvested fresh from the garden. After she took off the boots, she turned to me, staring at me silently. I began to fumble under the intensity of her expression, the way she searched my face and features for some clue. My thermos. She had gotten it out of my bag. No one else could have gotten past the wards. If she’d been in my bag, she’d seen the letter.
“Thank you for the tea,” I said softly. “It’s precisely what I need.” She was precisely what I needed. All of her. Her scent, her words, her mind, her touch, all a perfect match to my desire.
“Not at all,” she said crisply. “It gave me something to do. For someone I’ve slept with, I don’t feel like I know you very well. Tell me about yourself.”
This was my opening, or my closing. “My mother is Cool. My father is Wild. My mother died of taint shortly after I was born. My father remarried and sent me to live in Louisiana with another House that is closely allied to Cools. A white House, like Slide.”
She raised an eyebrow, but that was the only sign she made.
“She loved my father. I don’t know how anyone could love him. He’s insane. He loved her, though. Love is so destructive, don’t you think? I look at you and I see someone destroyed by love. My life is the consequence of mindless passion.”
“As though your life were not a positive consequence,” she murmured, cocking her head. “A bit self-effacing or are you genuinely your own worst enemy?”
“I am never self-effacing,” I said with a smile. “You read the letter. You must suspect that I am somehow involved with the debacle of your youth.”
“You mean the debacle I can’t remember?” She touched my cheeks with her fingertips, the physical contact distracting me from my purpose. I had to make her understand, hate me, and leave. For her own sake as well as my own.
“Your skin is so soft,” she murmured leaning forward and brushing my cheek with her mouth, more a taste than a kiss. I felt her breath over my skin, her imprint burning into me. I clenched my hands to keep from holding her, taking her into my arms and never letting her go.
“The gift of the un-runed is delicate, baby soft flesh,” I snarled, but she ignored my voice, still travelling my face until my eyelashes tickled her lips.
She finally pulled away, her eyes heavy and confused. “I’m trying to unsettle you, but it’s not working as well on you as on me.” She smiled wryly. “I feel connected to you. Are you the author of some of the letters sent to me under Jarvais’s name?”
“Some of the letters?” I demanded, trembling from holding still when I wanted to explode. “Have you met Sons of Wild Houses? Have you ever met one who wrote letters that weren’t a laundry list of demands and compliments in predictable patterns and designs intended to achieve their results without the slightest breath of poetry or even prose?”
She looked a little taken aback. “Considering that I can’t remember the letters, and the fact that I’ve never written to another Son of a House, I assumed they are deeper than they appear. My brothers, at least Shelley could certainly write a beautiful letter, so don’t assume I’m facile simply because I didn’t realize that a Hybrid Cool/Wild was in charge of Son of Carve’s correspondence.”
I took a deep breath. “I apologize. You had no way of knowing that I was not Jarvais. I knew you were not Camilla with the first word of the first letter.”
“I didn’t try. I was so irritated that she blackmailed me about the goat that I wanted you to realize right away that I was not her, so she’d be reprimanded and forced to write her own letters.” She frowned. “But then your letter back was so perfect. So alive and real and I remember holding it in my hand until it grew blurry from tears. Your letter made me cry.” She stared at me, bewildered.
“You were going through some difficulty,” I said. “And my letters always make people cry. Heads of Houses weep.”
“Right before you kill them mercilessly,” she said coolly.
“No. I do correspondence for the entire House, except Camilla. You have that pleasure. I don’t kill Heads of Houses. That’s a job for Jarvais and other overly ambitious while mutually uncreative Sons of Houses.”
“You take care of business for the whole House, as in Carve? You control Carve?”
I stared at her then shook my head rapidly. “That’s not what I said. Carve is unstable at best, insane at times. In his more lucid moments, he gives authority where he sees fit.”
“You’re Carve’s right hand man in spite of Jarvais being Son.”
I shrugged, uncomfortably. “My father gave my brother authority to destroy Harding. It’s his first carte blanche and it has gone very well for Jarvais. I see him taking over more subtle aspects of the House at any time.”
I stared at her. Had I said that?
“Your father is Carve? Your brother is Jarvais? That would make Camilla your sister.”
She took a shaky breath, then another, too shallow to give her much oxygen as her chest rose and fell. She slapped me, her palm striking my cheek, knocking me back on the bed, laid out. I put my arms under my head and stared at the ceiling. She would be leaving, furious with me and herself. I tried to recover an iota of defense against the pain to come. I would cushion it with the knowledge of her presence.
“Why did you stop writing? If you’re an unconscionable Hybrid who will continue a flirtatious correspondence with a child, why did you stop when I needed you the most? You got my letter. I begged you to give me your words. Why did you leave me alone?”
I sat up, slowly, cheek still stinging. “Would you like to see? It’s not for everyone, but if you’d like to know, unbutton my shirt.”
She frowned at me, glanced down at my buttons then up at my face. “You want me to take off your clothes?”
I smiled, thinly. “It will be less exciting than it sounds. My intent is not seduction.”
“Why not? What is your intent, exactly? I don’t understand you. Why would you write to a fifteen year old girl?”
“I didn’t know that you were a Daughter of a House for a long time. I thought you were something else, a maid or poor relation who Camilla brow beat into doing her duty for her. Your letters amused me.”
“Entertained, touched, interested, intrigued, tantalized, teased, whichever word you use, there was never any intention of anything other than an entirely appropriate correspondence. You were a child. I was a killer. What could we possibly have in common? I may be a less savory character, but I’m half Cool. Seduction of infants is not in my programming.”
She put her trembling hands on my shirt then proceeded to unbutton the top button. “What did we have in common?”
I swallowed as he fingers brushed my chest as she tugged on my shirt. “Plants. We both liked plants. And poetry. And music, and we both felt torn in two by our mixed blood. You didn’t feel at home anywhere you were. Always the Hollow, the poetry had to self-mutilate, so that no one suspected.”
“Poetry was my obsession,” she said, pulling open the next button of my shirt. “But you’re right. It never was respectable how emotional I got about it. I think it’s bizarre being unemotional about obsessions. What is the point of them if you can’t be passionate about it?”
I smiled, I couldn’t help it when her face lit up like that, emotion for something she loved infusing her features with life. “In this world it isn’t safe to care too much, to open your soul for the daggers of the world. I was vulnerable at that time, forced to kill for a House I would never truly be part of when every kill destroyed me, my music, my soul. I’d grown apathetic. Your letters saved me.”
She inhaled sharply as she undid another button. She was certainly taking her time. “But you stopped.”
I nodded and brushed her hands away, unbuttoning the shirt rapidly. Otherwise, I’d be forgetting the purpose of the strip tease, instead burying her in duvet and kissing her until we both forgot about the Code. She was too close, too soft and sad.
I shrugged off the shirt and turned, pulling my hair to the side so that she could see my back, the scars beginning at the base of my neck that went down to my waist. I felt her hands against my skin, tracing against the spirals and whorls that were scars instead of runes.
“Who did this to you?” she whispered in a trembling voice, so dangerous and dark that I closed my eyes, memorizing the sound of her, the feel of her touch as well as absorbing her imprint. No one else had touched my scars and lived.
“My father persuaded me that anything was possible. If I had runes, no one could dispute my place as Son of Carve. I could have it all, a place in the House, and you.”
I felt her shock, horror and something else, something soft that made her wrap her arms around my body, across my stomach and chest while she wept against my back. I covered her hands with mine, holding onto her. She wasn’t supposed to have empathy. She should be appalled that I’d be audacious enough to question my place as Hybrid. I was, but of course she did understand. She always had. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t control myself, not when I’d done my best for so long to do what was the only way. To keep her safe, apart from me, happy in a way, but she wasn’t happy, not when she sobbed like this, my own wounds matching her own internal ones.
I closed my eyes and leaned her, so slightly and carefully, easing back her sorrow, her misery, but what could I replace it with? Hope? What hope did we have? Her best safety was within the House of Slide. I could not give her what she needed. I had to let her go. I had to before it was too late.
“You were trying to get runes during those months? You couldn’t write to me?”
“I’d decided that if I could offer you a future, I could continue our correspondence. Otherwise, I would maintain the farewell I sent where I explained how sorry I was for entering into an unethical and inappropriate as well as unintentional alliance. I wrote the letter. I sent it. You ignored it completely. I sent another one, an apology, a farewell, and then I drowned in pain for weeks. I couldn’t read your letters, not when my eyes were swollen closed from the pressure.”
She nodded and pulled away. Reluctantly I released her hands before turning to look at her. She had her arms wrapped around her body, as though holding herself together. “I see. That explains it then. If you were determined to follow through on your entirely appropriate dismissal of me, why did you join my brother?”
I sighed and shook my head. “That, you’d have to ask Grim.”
“You know Grim?”
I shrugged. “We’re both killers. We have so much in common, except for everything else about us. He’s a bit mad, if you ask me.”
“Darling, aren’t we all,” she said, capturing my face in her hands. “Grim knows about the letters?”
I nodded only slightly, held by her grasp.
“He’ll be coming for you when he hears that you’ve been entertaining me.”
I shrugged. “That’s low on my list of concerns.”
“It shouldn’t be. Grim is very good at what he does.”
“But you’re better,” I replied, turning my head and kissing her hand.
“You make me forget my limitations. I don’t care about death or pain or anything beside you. It’s as thorough an obsession as any man has ever had, fueled by the constancy of my Cool blood. If I have to die so that you can go on with your life, so be it. This has been worth more than a million deaths.”
She pulled back as though I’d insulted her, fire springing into her eyes as she thrust my shirt at me. “Is that supposed to flatter me? No. If anyone kills you, it will be me, and only after you remove my blocks and join Slide.” She stood and smoothed down her clothing.
“That’s not a very well-envisioned plan,” I said delicately.
She lifted her chin. “If you’re trying to say that it’s impossible, then you don’t know me very well. There are millions of possibilities that include something other than you dying heroically and romantically to save me, or some other such rubbish. I do not accept your sacrifice, however charming it might sound to a fifteen-year-old, I’m not that person anymore. From you I’m going to demand practicality and intention.”
“Intention?” I asked, frowning at her.
She shrugged. “I didn’t mean it like that, but maybe. Otherwise, you’ll be my illicit lover. You’ve ruined me for any other man. You know that, right? You seduced me with yucca fronds and mango juice at my most impressionable age. You owe me a little follow-through.”
“If you put it that way,” I said feeling a little bit like I’d gotten hit by a truck. “You have exceeded my every expectation. Again. How do you do that?”
She smiled slightly as she got up and went to the door. “You should have met my mother. You would have loved her.”
She left the room, leaving me stunned and numb. The numbness changed as the seeds she planted in my heart began to swell. Hope. Hope would kill me if Grim didn’t get to me first, but how it felt, like wings, like flight, like anything at all in the world was possible.
I felt like someone else, like I’d been half asleep for years and only now opened my eyes all the way and looked at the sun, shimmering rays illuminating the world around me. I didn’t know what to think. I was Helen of Slide, Daughter to the House of Slide. But I also had Hollow blood and a weakness for poetry and plants. I’d gone to sleep uncertain and woke up beside Matthew knowing. I didn’t know what I thought, but how I felt overwhelmed my reason and left me with a certainty that had no practical basis.
I went into the green and white study, alone with a chessboard that I played against myself while I paced. He’d tried to get runed. He’d suffered for a dream that had shattered. I still didn’t know everything, know anything it felt like, but that dream had been resurrected when I’d seen him, felt him, known him. We had both suffered, but the pain diminished when we were together to the point of shifting to the other side, becoming bliss, peace, and hope. Hope. What hope could we have? Would I give up my place as Daughter, abandon Slide, my father, my heritage, all that I’d been born for simply because I felt something for a conflicted Hybrid, a killer, a soulful, musician who loved plants and guitars and me?
My heart pounded as I picked up a queen, smoothing the ivory in my fingers. I picked up the ebony king and closed my eyes. I felt more whole with him than I’d ever felt at the House. Could I go back to living a half-life out of duty? I shook my head and went to the phone on the desk, the glossy green receiver in my hand as I dialed with trembling fingers.
“Helen,” my father answered on the first ring.
“I’m safe,” I replied, trying to keep the quiver out of my voice.
“You’ll be safe when you’re home.”
I tightened my grip on the king. “I can’t come home.”
My heart pounded as the silence stretched between us for a decade.
He sighed. The sound made my heart ache and my knees weak until I sank down onto the floor, cord trailing above my head.
“I’m trapped in London,” I said after the silence beat at me for too long. “Harding fell and now I’m caught between Bliss and Carve.”
“You’re with Saturn?”
I nodded. “Yes. He’s safe.”
So much I wanted to say. The words caught in my throat, like they were caught at the top of a corked bottle. I wanted to ask why he’d put blocks on me. He must have. I wanted to demand that he take Matthew in the House. I wanted to tell him I loved him and the House and would never betray him. I wanted to tell him a million things, but all I could do was listen to my heart beat, and his silence.
“Please return,” he said in a soft voice with an edge of longing that made my heart ache.
“Of course,” I said, shuddering. “I’ll always come home.”
But when I did, I would not be alone.
First of all, thanks goes out to you, my readers. Thank you for reading, sharing and reviewing my books. I’d be writing in my closet without you.
I would like to thank all those who helped me create Wilds. It’s been a long journey, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Athens Writer’s Association, Jamie! Who read and gave me the feedback I needed to get this prequel out. My beta reader, Michelle, who let me know how very confusing the letters could be if you thought at the outset that Satan and Helen were writing to each other. Eek! And all other helpful feedback.
Thanks always to my husband who read so many scenes so many times in spite of his grumbled, “I hate prequels”. Thanks honey! Also, for letting me boss you around about the font.
Thanks to my kids who are so easily occupied by computer programming. They’re going to take over the world someday.
Thanks and glory be to my God who makes all things possible.
Juliann was born and raised in South Central Utah-the desert-and currently lives in the beautiful city of St. Louis. She studied, among more than a few other things, Creative Writing and Fine Art at the University of Utah. She also enjoys gardening, sewing, painting, fabric sculpture, and whatever else shiny or crafty you can think of.
Hang out with her online:
[+ Amazon Author Page+]
If you liked Wilds, Part I and would like to sign up for updates of New Releases go [+ Here+].
Wilds Part II comes out in March. Read ahead for a sample:
I stepped off the plane, leather bag slung over my shoulder, inhaling deeply the air touched on all sides by the ocean. Too long cramped on the plane, I stretched my legs as I walked across the pavement towards the woman who waited calmly, serenely, hands folded in front of her as though she were at a funeral.
I bowed when I reached her, taking my time to stand and meet her eyes with my own. Understanding passed between us, thoughts, flickers of emotion and intent until I more fully understood the situation. I saw a dark room, a door open and a killer enter, smelling of death, bringing terror to the child crouched in the cupboard across from me. The assassin walked directly to the hidden Head of a House, staring at the boy before he spoke.
“Hello,” he said with a Cool voice heavy with Nether.
“You’re Carve. The assassin,” the child’s fear filled his words, his being.
“And you’re Harding.” The man mocked with every drawn out word.
“How many of my people have you killed?”
“Tonight I forgot to keep count. Dozens of bodies litter the ground in my wake.” The words did not communicate the right emotion. The man did not want to kill. Reluctance gave the child an opening he used, slicing the man’s shoulder as he leapt on him. I felt the hair of the killer beneath my fingers as I brushed his mind, searching his thoughts for intent. He’d already paralyzed the child, but would hide him until he could protect. The Cool Hybrid would save Harding for no particular reason. Of course Hybrids didn’t operate on reason. That was one trouble with them.
“Harding is alive,” I murmured, my voice intentionally monotonous and low bringing back the cry of seagulls above us and the gray skies threatening rain.
“The Son of Slide took him away. For a White House, they have a unique reputation,” she said in a melodious voice knowing full well of my link to Slide. “The Hybrid has always been a concern, using his Cool gifts to destroy life, and yet he hasn’t killed for pleasure or ease, only for duty to serve Carve, his father’s House. This mercy goes against his duty.”
“The Hybrid has served more than Carve,” I said, looking past the car towards the sea where I could hear breakers distantly crashing. The small airport miles from the city was as close as I could get to London. I would not enjoy my time with dizzying lights and cacophonous citizenry, but no one else could save her.
This mission would be a delicate undertaking. Slide had warned me that the bindings were failing. I had to find her and ascertain whether or not the bindings could be reestablished without sacrificing her soul or loosen the remaining ties without losing her mind completely. I did not communicate my mission to the woman, the consul who wanted me to intervene on behalf of Harding. Negotiating with Houses was not on my agenda. However, ensuring the safety of a White Head of a lost house would be my pleasure.
I walked through the door of a small bar and grill, put my dripping umbrella into the stand by the door while I waited to be seated by a chirpy waitress who was as oblivious to Wilds as she was to Hotbloods, not that I looked very Wild wearing Cami’s red leather jacket. Hotbloods leered at me in an impersonal way. It bothered me less than I expected. Their nature had nothing to do with me.
My table was in the middle of the room where I felt on display, but once my food arrived, hot and deep fried, I barely noticed the Hotbloods around me who laughed and talked. There was so much talking, about the weather, the airport, demons, someone who’d burned out, and a new band that was going to play. I sat and ate, ignoring the glances thrown my way. I focused on taste, relatively alone while words and laughter swirled around me.
He would be here, watching, waiting, and eventually, he would come.
A House has contacts in every notable city, and many not so notable. I’d woken up in love with a Hybrid, Matthew, the man who had stamped me his with every letter, every word, every stroke of ink on parchment. After Harding’s fall, while Bliss and Carve ironed out the new territories, it wouldn’t be safe to leave. And I didn’t want to. I wanted the blocks gone. I wanted to remember who I was and most of all, I wanted to keep Matthew in my arms until we found a world where the two of us could be together. The idea that I could forget him terrified me. I’d spent my time thinking, plotting, planning, pacing, two chess pieces in my hand.
I couldn’t abandon the House. I couldn’t abandon Matthew. I felt torn between the two worlds, but I would never let go of either of them. I would behave like a Daughter on tour, as any person next in line would do, meeting established contacts while forging my own alliances, establishing myself as a legitimate and worthy heir to the House of Slide while my heart betrayed my House.
The idea of my father, or anyone for that matter, taking my memories, my mind into their hands made me lift my chin and return any gaze that dared linger for too long. I was not hiding; I was not slinking. Whatever my life became, it would be my choice, my life, even if that choice involved a disreputable Hybrid.
I felt a shimmer of unease. Was this the beginning? Had my brother felt like this; needing his independence until he abandoned the House completely? I shook my head and dug into the slab of red meat.
It was a far cry from the romantic dinner Cami was having at the Hunter’s house, a meal Saturn had made in the kitchen while I paced in the study. It was a strange honeymoon, staying with a sister and a killer, but Cami didn’t seem to mind. My mind turned to Matthew and how he didn’t seem like a killer, a destroyer, but an artist, giving the world beauty. Thinking of Matthew brought back the image of a different silhouette, golden head bent over Matthew as he drained the Hybrid, his brother. The room tilted slightly. I inhaled and focused on the band that had started playing in the end of the wood paneled room with frenetic energy on the tiny stage.
“Helen,” Jayden, the green-eyed bloodworker said, taking the chair across from me without asking if I minded, my new sister-in-law’s brother acting as though we knew one another. Other than a few sentences at the wedding party, we hadn’t shared anything other than animosity.
I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything.
“I hardly recognized you. Did Cami dress you up?” His tone was as mocking as his smile. He smelled like heat, alcohol, and danger. Jayden raised his hand, gesturing at the waitress. He was overwhelmingly large and powerful in a room full of large and powerful. Every movement screamed that he owned this place and everyone in it. “You don’t mind if I call you Helen, do you?” He turned to the waitress who approached beaming at Jayden. “We need drinks.”
“No thank you,” I answered, but Jayden wasn’t looking at me while he flirted with the waitress with his glorious eyes.
“Drinks. Cider will do for a start.” Did he wink at her? He certainly slipped bills into her skirt, like that wasn’t an invasion of personal space. “So,” he said turning back to me, propping his elbows on the table while he stared at me with those unflinching green eyes. They weren’t quite glowing, but they looked close to erupting into flames at any moment.
I blinked then smiled back at him, leaning over the table to get a better view of the scars, neatly criss-crossing his forearms.
“Tell me, Jayden, as a bloodworker, what could you do with blood besides steal someone else’s abilities?”
He started, blinking at me. Maybe the subject was taboo, or maybe he simply hadn’t expected it.
“You want a lesson in bloodworking? This place is a little crowded for that kind of thing,” he said pulling out a knife. I saw the move, the way he would grab me and hold it against my throat. His eyes weren’t serious, but the anger, the heat of him didn’t know rational limits.
I twisted as he moved, throwing runes at the same time I punched him in the throat, wrenched the knife out of his hand then planted it firmly in the fleshy part of his shoulder.
He blinked as green sparks floated around us, finally disappearing while I smiled sweetly and settled back in my seat. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly accept the blade of a Hotblood, however charming. Do you know why someone would take another person’s, a relative’s, blood?”
He blinked as he pulled out the knife, holding his hand over the injury while his eyes glowed and he burned, hot enough that I wanted to flinch away from the heat of him.
“Are you talking about bloodworkers?”
I frowned then shrugged. “I saw a Wild take someone’s blood. It made me… curious.”
He raised his eyebrows as he kneaded his shoulder, the one I’d left his knife in. “I suppose a nice girl like you, from a reputable White House wouldn’t know anything about Wilds who perform experiments with their blood. It’s taboo for Red Houses as well, but you know Reds. Anything marked taboo must be more interesting.” His mocking smile didn’t seem to be aimed at me. “As a Hotblood, I use my own blood for everything except the drainings. Wilds who don’t like the idea of draining themselves dry for the sake of an experiment might use a relative with similar blood while they tweaked their technique. I consider it cowardly, though. Why should you pluck the fruit if you never paid the price?” He pulled his hand away showing nothing but a red welt beneath the newly made slash in his black shirt. “You’re different tonight.” He smiled, and I felt a surge of adrenaline. “Any other questions I can help you with?”
He didn’t seem to notice the waitress as she set down our glasses then left. I glanced around me, noticing a particularly stunning Hotblood who laughed at something her companion said, throwing her head back to show off her effusive if scarred décolletage. Muscles, flesh, laughter, physical contact, it was all beyond me.
I turned back to him. “Are you the only Bloodworker here?”
“Why, are you looking for someone else?” he asked, brushing my hand with his thumb.
I stared at his hand, feeling the heat, aware of the not unpleasant burning. “A few minutes ago you tried to hold me at knifepoint, now you want to hold my hand? Are all Bloodworkers so changeable?”
He pulled his hand away, leaning on the table while he frowned at me. He seemed to be thinking, not angry. “I used to be allied with Harding. You’ve come here where those who cared remember, forget, or at least distract themselves from the pain. Losing my sister yesterday, losing my old allies last night, I can’t say that I’m as stable as I’d be on a good day after I’d had my fill of demons.”
I licked my lips, remembering my brother kissing his wife, Jayden’s sister.
“Love,” I whispered. “They love each other, don’t they?”
He pulled back, like I’d said the strangest thing. Of course I had. I’d sounded hopeful, as though love would make the uncompromising reality bend.
I shook my head. “Not that it matters. I didn’t think that Hotbloods would mind their union, not like Wilds.”
He sneered. “You met Matthew, the Hybrid last night. If his brother bled anyone else, someone would say something.”
I stared at him. What was he talking about?
“You’re saying that since Matthew’s nothing more than a Hybrid, he’s good for nothing other than a blood bank?” My heart pounded while I tried to keep from expressing the fury inside of me. No one was touching his blood ever again.
“I’m saying,” he growled. “That my nieces and nephews will be hunted and tormented just like Matthew. Hotbloods care about family. It’s more than duty, it’s love, the kind of love and commitment that Wilds can’t begin to fathom. My sister is throwing her life away.”
I bit back the automatic reply, the need I had to defend my brother, but I only closed my eyes and took a sip of the cider. I wasn’t ready for its potency. My eyes watered while I tried not to choke.
“English cider is the most full-bodied,” Jayden said, smiling at his glass like it was an old friend. Full-bodied was one thing to call it. It was closer to vinegar than juice.
Just like that, the subject of Hybrids and bloodworking was done, forgotten. If only I could forget things so easily.
“The band’s incredibly bad,” he said with a winning smile.
I smiled slightly. “You don’t seem to mind. I guess they make up for it in interesting hairstyles.”
He shrugged, frowning at someone behind me before he took a sip of his cider.
“No, I am not the only Bloodworker here.” He wasn’t happy about it.
“Why did you do it? I mean, it’s not a very safe vocation. Why did you become a Bloodworker?”
“I can feel where the lines must be drawn. There are patterns, an order to it that’s more chaotic than runes, but the chaos you see all has reason behind it. A really good rune artist, like the one who embedded your metal, is much like a Bloodworker. It’s as much instinct as it is trial and error. I’ve never not known which lines would work and which wouldn’t. One can study and memorize patterns, but each body is so different with an individual array of muscle, tissue, bone structure, it’s best to have an instinctive feel for it. I drew my first lines when I was six,” he said pushing up his sleeve to show me the inside of his elbow. “Can’t hardly see them anymore.”
His gaze had dropped down to my low necked tank beneath my jacket as he’d talked about muscle, tissue, and bone structure. I fought the urge to zip up.
“Have you ever heard of a Hybrid getting runes?” I asked trying to sound natural.
He raised an eyebrow, leering at me. “You think that Satan’s children are going to be Wild? You’re mistaken. Hybrids can’t survive runing without an incredible amount of Nether blood as well as the right variations of metal. Do you know how many variations there are of metal?” He shook his head. “You have to forget about him. He’s turned his back on his house the same way she’s abandoned her tribe. I know that you’re a White Daughter, but if you’re looking for a distraction, something to take your mind off your brother’s betrayal, look no further.”
“But some Hybrids have survived…” I began but was cut off as a Hotblood came up to the table with coal black hair and golden burning eyes.
He gave Jayden a slightly mocking smile with his glittering golden eyes, but his words were addressed to me.
“I can’t bear seeing a woman like you, wasted on talking instead of dancing.” He smiled when he looked at me, his eyes burning hotter every second.
I shook my head. “I’m not here for pleasure.”
“Otherwise,” Jayden said, standing to loom threateningly at the newcomer, “I’d be the one to offer it to her.”
Jayden’s movement made everyone glance over, to stare at me and pick me apart. Who was I that had attracted the interest of the local pack leader?
I put a hand on his arm, pulling him forcibly back down, glad for the runes twining my arms that gave me the strength of ten.
“I’m here on business,” I said, loudly as I shook my head at Jayden.
“What sort of business?” the other Hotblood asked with a suggestive smile.
Jayden jerked to his feet and had his hand around the other guy’s throat before I could blink.
“If you wanted to die, you shouldn’t have attacked Harding when their guard was down, when they had no chance of retaliation. The only reason you and your pack of curs didn’t leave blood on their grounds was because you struck when the Head was on her deathbed, before the power could transfer.”
I couldn’t help but notice the others who were gathering around us, Hotbloods who looked angry, eager, furious, or simply ready for a fight.
“If you were a real man…” Jayden began, clenching his teeth and flexing his enormous neck, corded and bulging.
I put a hand on his arm, then froze when someone else stepped beside him, brushing arms as he handed Jayden a drink.
Jayden released the other Hotblood’s throat in order to claim the drink and threw it back, giving the other guy the chance to leave. One look at Matthew where he glowered beside Jayden was all it took for the golden-eyed guy to disappear.
Matthew grabbed a chair from an adjoining table then sank down in it, backwards, leaning against the back heavily, still exhausted in spite of spending so much time sleeping, recuperating from his poisoning and being drained by his own brother.
I slowly sat down, looking between Jayden and Matthew, alert until everyone else had returned to their seats, pretending to focus on the band and the dancing instead of our small, very exciting table.
“You asked me,” Jayden said as he gestured at the waitress for another drink. “But he’s right here. Ask him.”
“What?” Matthew said, frowning at Jayden, then at me.
“Your eyes are the same as Camilla’s when you scowl,” I told him, then felt stupid. I had to focus. I took a large sip from my glass then frowned as my hands fiddled nervously.
“Why does Jarvais take your blood?” Jayden asked him, sounding far from disinterested.
Matthew shrugged. “He doesn’t inform me. For all I know, he’s raising an army of zombie dead with it.”
“Could he do…” I began then trailed off as they both looked at me like I was an idiot. Well as far as bloodwork was concerned, I was an idiot.
“As far as I know,” Matthew said, glaring at the table with a curl on his mouth like this was the most distasteful conversation he’d ever had, “He requires transfusions when he’s lost blood, after a battle for instance.”
Jayden licked his lips. “If you’re donating, I know a lot of people who would pay a nice price for what you have in your veins.”
I fought to keep my hands folded in my lap. I couldn’t show I cared however my heart twisted when I saw Matthew’s pale face.
Matthew smiled grimly. “Thanks. If I ever get low on funds, I’ll be sure to call you for references. Helen,” he said, turning to me. “I have a car out front to take you back at Satan’s request.”
“I’m here for business,” I said, pushing back my chair. “I want to meet Slide’s London man. If I can’t do that…”
“He’s dead,” Matthew said, staring at the table.
“He’s dead?” I asked. “How would you know?”
“I killed him,” he said sounding tired. “Slide is, was allied with Harding. I believe he also had a personal interest in one of Harding’s underlings.”
“You killed him.” My voice was flat. Stunned, I couldn’t do anything other than stare at the Hybrid. Satan was right. This tall, swarthy man with heavy lids and a sneer on his mouth was not a simple gardener or musician, but someone who would take life for no other reason than his House told him to. He paid the price every time he took a life, like the one of Slide’s contact. You could see it in his eyes, the way he kept a shield between himself and the world so that he didn’t care too much, didn’t feel too much. Otherwise, he would break.
“It’s his job. You can’t take it personally,” Jayden broke in, frowning down at his hands. “I’m sure it was more mercy killing than anything else. Matthew had some interests in the Harding House.”
I stood up. I wasn’t sure what to think or do. I knew he was a killer, the knife of Carve, the assassin like my brother, Grim, but knowing it was different than seeing it, feeling it. He didn’t belong in that position. He needed to be protected from the people who would use him so cruelly.
“I’ve never known a Daughter with such a delicate stomach,” Jayden said, derisively. “I suppose it’s the White House in you. You want to pretend that when a head makes a decree, it happens without anyone’s hands getting dirty. I know Satan. I’ve seen blood on his hands that would curl your toes.”
I swung around and slammed my fist against the table in front of him. “If you think it’s overwrought delicacy that has me leaving this club, you would be mistaken. I am far more interested in not wasting my time any more than I already have in this place. My brother is finished, my London man dead, what would you have me do under these circumstances? Drink? Dance? Kill something?”
His eyes had begun to glow as he stared at me, the look on his face growing more intense, personal.
“I’m not certain about White Houses,” Matthew drawled, his cool voice breaking in and making me shiver. “But most Wilds would seek direction from their Head about replacing their contacts then proceed to ally with whichever House had their common goals. Now that both remaining Houses are red, it’s difficult to say which Slide would prefer.”
His calm assurance startled me. That he would suggest that I contact my father again didn’t make any sense. Matthew and I were… What were we? We’d shared some moments, but the enormity of the obstacles between us I hadn’t begun to clear.
“You think that I should call my father?” I felt hurt as I looked at him, as though he’d already given up on any possibilities we might have.
He raised an eyebrow. “It’s common procedure. You seem a bit disoriented.” His voice was softer, more gentle than I knew what to do with.
I stiffened. “Where is the phone?” I asked Jayden, unable to interpret the meaning in Matthew’s eyes.
I found myself in a grimy phone booth where I stared at the numbers, trying to organize what I would say to my father. I could have called someone else, one of my brothers, but they would all simply ask him for further direction. It was fine, but I didn’t want to call him again with such bad news. Had he really chosen parts of my memory to remove, like a surgeon cutting out the parts that would make me less ideal a member of the House?
I gritted my teeth and dialed. He picked up on the first ring.
“Slide. The former contact has been…” What word did you use for ‘killed by the man I’m considering leaving the House for,’? “Do you wish me to recruit the next London contact, or discuss alliances with Bliss or…”
I inhaled sharply at the tone of that command, the underlying pleading.
“I lost Saturn. I can’t lose you too.”
They were the kinds of words I dreamed about him saying, but wondering if he’d put blocks on me, I didn’t feel as loved as I’d hoped they’d make me. I shook my head.
“I’d like to be of some use while I’m here. I’m afraid that Saturn is irretrievable, but surely there’s something that I could do for the House.”
After a long pause, a silence I could almost taste while my heart pounded, he said, “Bliss and Carve acted outside their precinct. Their behavior was utterly outside the Code when they slaughtered the only White House in the area. Slide will not be offering either Carve or Bliss an alliance. Their takeover was not respectable. No member of either remaining House can be trusted. I want you out of there. If you feel the need to travel, you can visit any of the Houses on the Continent allied to Slide, or White Houses, but the Red ones, the ones that are increasingly divergent from the Code cannot be.”
“I see. There is the slight problem with the city being closed off for the moment.”
Silence for a moment, then, “Have you made contact with members from either House?”
I looked up, through the grease streaked window in the phone booth and for a moment met Matthew’s stare, the Hybrid, son of Carve.
“Yes. I met Camilla, Daughter of Carve.”
His intake of breath over the line was so slight, something so far away, but it made my chest tighten.
I opened my mouth to continue, to tell him about Matthew, the Hybrid, to insist that he find a place for Matthew, but I couldn’t seem to form the words.
“Helen, if there is still some spark of feeling in your heart for…”
“No.” I said, my voice rough and loud. I took a deep breath. “Jarvais was nothing but an illusion, but I cannot leave London while the two Houses are finishing their takeover.”
“If necessary, I will send…”
“I can handle it.” My voice came out cool and calm, as efficient as I was supposed to be. “If you’re certain that you don’t wish me to act on any House business while I’m in the area, that’s all I needed to know.”
“Helen,” His voice came out gentle, but so intensely compelling that I could feel it in my bones, burned into them. “Be very careful.”
“Of course. Good-bye.”
I waited for his dismissal, and when it came, hung up the phone with a breath of relief. I leaned for a moment against the wall, catching my breath, like I’d been through a race. Had he put blocks on my mind? Was there another reason he didn’t want me to mingle with Carve other than the obvious danger? Was he worried about the blocks falling down, leaving me a helpless victim to my former obsession? I shook my head, as I straightened up, turning and seeing Matthew, his eyes still on me. He’d watched me, steadily, waiting for something, but what?
I left the booth and stood, again dizzy while the loud music crashed against my awareness. How ridiculous to be an unknowing pawn of my own father. I bit my lip before I pushed down all my uneasiness and went to Matthew.
“Come with me,” I said, ignoring Jayden.
“You don’t want to…” Jayden began then got a confused look on his face, like he’d forgotten what he wanted to say.
I didn’t wait to see if Matthew would follow as I turned and left, sliding between Hotbloods perched on benches and the small tables barely large enough for drinks. I’d had enough heat, enough laughter and music. I needed answers. I walked out the door, turning left and then another left at the alley that ran along the side of the building. Dark, but still throbbing with the music from the bar.
I whirled around once I was halfway down the alley, shoving Matthew against the wall, pinning him with my hands fisted in his coat.
“Tell me everything that you know about me.”
He looked down, eyes glittering brightly in spite of the shadows that spilled across his face, darker beneath his eyes and cheekbones.
I tightened my grip, pressing harder against the wall, but his mouth only twisted into a smirk.
“As interesting as it is to be bullied by someone a foot shorter than myself, it’s not safe. This place, this world teeters on the brink of darkness. I know that you want to remember, but wait. I think that you should go home, where you’ll be protected,” he said in a low voice as he brushed my hair back, fingers lingering on my face.
I shivered and leaned against him, pressing my cheek against his chest where I could hear his heart beat. “You’re the one that isn’t safe. I’ll leave when you come with me.”
He sighed. “You know that I killed the House’s contact. You should not…”
I shoved him harder against the waterstained bricks and pressed my mouth against his, cutting off his words.
The feel of his lips, his mouth, softer than I’d possibly imagined, had me sliding my hands around his neck, tangling his hair with my fingers, silk and sweet while he tasted of herbs and lemon with a hint of rosemary. My head filled with the most incongruous images, the smell of earth, the feeling of falling while my chest throbbed as my heart raced, thumping beneath my rib cage, struggling to escape.
I pulled away with a gasp, staring at him while the memories, the images made me dizzy, playing over and over again. I leaned against the wall with my eyes closed, wanting to flinch from the feeling of falling but also from the pain that welled up in my chest, pain and darkness that seemed to have no end.
“This is not the place,” he said, sounding strained. “No stable Daughter would kiss a Hybrid in a back alley. If you want to silence someone, cut out his tongue. I’m afraid that if you stay here any longer…”
I looked up at him, confused at the agony I could see in his eyes when he looked at me. I couldn’t stay in this crazy country with this unstable Hybrid. I had to go home. I had to go home. I had to go… I froze a dozen steps away from him, nearly to the entrance to the alley with my fists clenched barely recalling how I’d gotten there.
“Stop leaning me.” It felt like a betrayal, but he only laughed harshly while the need to flee, to escape faded but didn’t entirely disappear.
“I can’t make people feel something they don’t already feel, I simply amplified it. You do want to go home.” After a pause he continued. “You should, you know. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Now you’re a foreteller?”
He tried to smile, but I could see his exhaustion, the tension he dealt with, trying to do what he should when he wanted… What did he want?
I walked towards him, slowly at first but more steady and certain with every step until I could touch his face, straighten the collar of his long jacket, and take his hands in mine. “I don’t care.”
He frowned at me as I smoothed his hair back, brushing it with my fingers. “You don’t care? You lie. What did you tell your father? Did you say that you’ve decided to join Satan and marry a Hybrid Hunter and live in the woods on the flesh of demons and monsters?”
“Was that a test? I’m not abandoning the House, and I’m not abandoning you.”
He sneered down at me as he pulled my hands down, squeezing my fingers painfully. “Your pity is touching, however I assure you, I am not someone who needs rescuing.”
I swallowed and tried to think past the battering of my beating heart. “I want you. I want my House. I don’t know why. I don’t understand anything other than that I am emotionally attached to someone that I cannot have. I know that our worlds do not touch much less overlap, and yet I cannot turn away from you. Pity? You think that pity would move me to irrational behavior? Good. Call it pity, then. I pity you so very much that I cannot do my duty, cannot leave. No. I pity myself, torn for no sensible reason. Letters? How could letters cause so much havoc with my heart? I don’t feel. I didn’t. Now I don’t care about behaving and doing and saying and thinking what I should. My actions may threaten those I love. I love my brothers. I love my father. I understand that. I do not understand you. Feelings consume me. I cannot hold them all inside or I will surely shatter. Matthew, what should I do? I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to stop feeling and go back to sleep. I’m afraid that I’ll never remember again, that I’ll lose this small taste of life, of joy. What is the sense of it? Why live a life of nothing?”
“Helen,” he said smothering my sobs against his chest, smoothing my hair and whispering my name over and over again while I clung to him, needing his body, his soul, the soul I’d tasted in the letters, the soul that swept me away as lost as a leaf swirling in the wind.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, still holding onto him. “I’m not making any sense.”
He leaned down and brushed my lips with his, soft, sweet while I let my eyelids drop down and his arms wrapped around me. I felt like a pearl, precious, protected by his shell. “Logic is an illusion,” he whispered before he kissed me again, so carefully I barely felt his breath before he pulled away. “How you tempt me. I know that the end of this path is pain, but I cannot deny myself the pleasure. I do not love you enough to force you away, to make you hate me.”
“But you do love me a little?”
He looked into my eyes, his beautiful, shifting slate eyes gazing glistening in the dim light of the alley. “I believe you’re angling for a confession of love. How do those go, let me see if I can remember. ‘I know we’ve only just met, but my life cannot go on without you. My heart beats for you and only you while my body aches to hold you against mine. I want to fill my days, my nights with your sweet presence.’”
I shook my head at him, placing my palms against his chest. “Very pretty if a bit cliché.”
He raised an eyebrow as he brushed his fingers over my face. “I suppose you can do better?”
“I thought I did.”
He grinned at me, showing teeth before he leaned down, his lips brushing my ear. “Oh, no. That was a declaration of indecision.” He took my ear in his teeth, hard against soft, sharp against vulnerable before he pulled away.
I laughed breathlessly. “I see. You must get a lot of these if you’re so particular about it. Let’s start with your head. Such a head. On top of your neck and everything, with eyes of slate that shift from blue to gray to green and back again with every thought. Your eyes are almost silver right before you kiss me. Your mouth soft, mobile, sensual, the mouth of a musician or a gigolo. Maybe both. Your taste is green and earth and silver while your hair is silk and black as a lost soul. Your smile, when it flickers from the depths of the earth spills across your face like moonbeams, gentle, mysterious, wary of giving too much away while your chin…”
He glared at me, stepping back, but keeping his hands over mine. “That is not a declaration of love but a catalogue of exquisite beauty which only needs music to be complete. Of course setting music to my own unearthly graces may come across as slightly egocentric.”
I sighed. “Fine. You win.”
“Yes,” he said, pulling me against him while he gazed at me fierce in his expression. “I win your words and that, my love, is more than I ever dreamed I’d have on this bleak and hopeless occasion.”
I leaned against him, relaxing, letting go of the confusion, if only for a moment. I didn’t understand but I still felt, and that feeling wouldn’t let me leave him, not while I had a choice.
“I never got to finish cataloguing you,” I murmured as pulled away, smiling as I smoothed the line of his jaw.
“There’s only so much a man can take, and you are sleeping in my bed,” he replied, gazing down at me, eyes fastening on my mouth.
“Are you flirting with me?”
“I hope not,” he responded as he reached out and brushed my bottom lip with his thumb.
I gasped while shivering raced down my arms and the buzzing in my lips increased to throbbing.
“Now you’re leaning me.”
He smiled, his eyes heavy as he whispered, “I would never,” before he filled the distance between us, bending his lips to mine, a brush that became something else, a thrumming consuming fire that made my spine melt and my hands hold onto him so tight that he’d never leave me again.
“Is everything all right?” a man’s voice asked making Matthew jerk away from me, his face transforming into a cold killer.
“Fine. Thank you for your concern,” Matthew said, the acid in his voice bringing me blinkingly back to reality.
I turned away from Matthew to assure the newcomer then froze while my tongue turn to lead.
Jarvais stood in the half-light thrown from the bar, shades of green and red that did nothing to diminish his golden aura. His perfect mouth curved in a half smile as he took me in, then raised an eyebrow at his brother.
“Matthew, you’re presence is requested by Carve. I can certainly understand why you would ignore the summons. Good evening, my dear. Pardon the interruption. Looks like you’re going to have another hangover tomorrow. I can’t imagine anything other than far too much to drink making the cur attractive.”
“Thank you. I’ll be there shortly,” Matthew said, ignoring the insult as he stepped away from me.
“Excuse me?” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, hating the distance between us. “Apparently you haven’t heard of the cur’s reputation with women.”
Jarvais cocked his head and smiled at me while Matthew hesitated. Matthew shook his head slightly as he frowned at me, warning me against saying anything else.
“Tell me, miss… You seem so familiar to me.”
I tossed my head, feeling reckless. “We met. It was uneventful other than you insulting me in front of a room full of people. Matthew only insults people personally. It’s incredibly endearing.”
Jarvais frowned and I saw a calculated glance as he scrutinized me. “The ball. You’re the girl who declared her love for me.” He smiled broadly. “You must have been drunk then as well. Sobriety can be such a disadvantage for one. Tomorrow evening we shall go drinking together and see if we can’t land on the same page.”
I swallowed, the idea of Jarvais, someone I’d fantasized about asking to see me, even if he wasn’t who I’d thought he was made me dizzy. “Camilla told me that you have a Romanian Intended. Congratulations. I’d hate to disrupt your bliss.”
“Camilla.” An expression crossed his face, one of comprehending that dawned as he looked from Matthew to me and back to his brother, his eyes narrowing as he scowled. “Helen of Slide. Is that right?” he asked, turning to me. “You’re a Daughter of a White House, wandering the streets of London when there are so many ravening wolves waiting to rip you to shreds. Take Matthew, for example. He could kill you without blinking, with his bare hands, the brush of his fingers, the twist of a knife, but more than that, he could torture you for days, years, endless agony that he doesn’t deserve.”
I frowned at him, confused. He sounded jealous.
Matthew said in an icy voice, “You flatter me. The girl is the sister of a Hunter I owe. I’ll be at Carve after I escort her to safety.”
“Why don’t you both come? I’m sure that Carve would love to meet the Daughter of Slide,” Jarvais said, his golden eyes fixing on me like a very hungry, very inhuman wolf.”
I smiled blandly. “Thank-you, gentlemen, but no,” I said coolly as I stepped by Jarvais, but somehow my legs weren’t quite steady and I bumped into him.
His arms came around me, holding me up at the same time Matthew hissed and moved, ripping me away from Jarvais, shoving me behind him so I hit my head against the brick wall.
“I said that I’d be there,” he fairly spat at Jarvais, energy coming off of him in waves. Only a complete idiot would have touched Matthew when he stood like that, filled with destructive energy that would leave you far more than paralyzed.
“So you did,” Jarvais said in a mild voice as he backed off, apparently not a complete idiot. The look he gave me was different, penetrating, the kind of look that seemed to peel back a few layers of skin and poke around inside my soul.
“It was nice to meet you,” he said to me politely with a nod before he turned and left us, ducking into a cab that waited for him at the curb.
“How often do you see your brother?” I asked, still feeling dizzy.
“My brother,” he responded with a sneer. “Is none of your concern.”
I stiffened and took a step away from him. “I suppose it’s fine for him to bleed you out then. Well, you’d better be going. Carve has called.”
“And Slide told you to go home. We are such obedient members.”
He stared at me, his eyes glittery with some emotion I couldn’t name, or didn’t want to name while my heart pounded.
“Why are you here?” I whispered, looking away from him, watching the taillights of the car as it pulled away from the curb.
“Why not?” he answered, stepping closer to me, forcing me to look at him, to back away, or be closer than I’d like.
“If you don’t want to remove my block then you shouldn’t keep showing up.”
He sighed and took a step away from me, glancing into the street. “I’m here to escort you back to my bed. Your former brother, Satan asked me very nicely.”
“He would never ask you to tuck me into your bed.”
“Helen, we need to go now.” He grabbed my arm, the sensation of his fingers a not so unpleasant shock.
“Why do you do that to me?” I asked as I followed him, letting him keep his hand on me, mostly because of the dizziness.
He didn’t pretend not to know what I was talking about, which should have been less irritating than it was.
“Why are you suddenly in such a rush?” I asked as he stopped beside a motorcycle that looked vaguely familiar and threw his leg over it.
“Jarvais will not overlook the challenge. I’ve made you a target. Sorry. Get on.”
I sighed and climbed behind him, glad for the red leather jacket that covered my arms. “If I didn’t get so sick around him, I would never let you push me around so much.”
“It’s a healthy response towards my brother,” he said, kicking his engine to life.
“He seemed perfectly respectable,” I yelled over the engine.
His muttered answer was unintelligible as he revved the engine and pulled out, racing along the street like if he crashed he wouldn’t be smeared across the pavement.
I leaned forward to yell in his ear. “Be careful. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
He took a turn too fast and I put an arm around him, feeling the lean, long muscles beneath his shirt. I moved to pull my hand away, but he covered it with his own, cool skin encasing mine, pushing away fear, pain, sickness until all that remained was a euphoric sensation as the wind whipped my hair behind me, bringing tears to my eyes while I laughed, holding on with both hands, forget about my caution.
We passed through the streets like a blur, dodging between small cars and big buses, until one intersection when a dark car came plowing towards us, a dark blur that I could barely see beneath Matthew’s hair where it streamed into my eyes.
I could feel the tension in his body as he braced for impact. I didn’t need to see the other car, the one on the other side of the intersection with its intent to pin us, to crush us into two smears on the pavement.
I moved instinctively, wrapping my arms around Matthew at the same time I shoved with all my strength from the pavement, ignoring the pain as my ankles twisted against the ground. I could feel the runes burn into my legs, muscle and sinew stretching and bowing against the effort as I leapt from the motorcycle, taking Matthew with me.
We never got clear of the motorcycle, but when the metal struck, it was my legs that were tangled with metal, my body that hit the pavement first, letting Matthew roll clear of the wreck. The moments of burning as my skin melted onto the pavement blended with darkness as I lost seconds of consciousness, rolling at the last moment as another car joined the fray, losing contact with Matthew.
I heard the shriek of metal, the rumble of thunder, the smell of ozone right before lightning split the sky in front of me, white light dancing between the two wrecked cars a few feet away from my nose.
I took a breath, at least I tried to breathe, but I couldn’t feel my legs, and the smell of blood, mine, someone else’s, confused me. I had to stop the lightning. I had to calm down. It wouldn’t do me any good to electrocute myself out of panic. Where was Matthew? I took my eyes off the lightning, searching the shadows and saw a hand splayed against the cement, long fingers stretched out, still. Had I thrown him that far? What were the odds that he’d survive that accident without runes?
I could feel the burning in my own limbs as bones and muscle healed, burning and screaming at me as tissues and nerves came back to life.
I made a sound, a pathetic mewl as I pulled myself up, scraping my face against the rough pavement as I tried to untangle my legs from the wreck. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth as I kicked, ignoring the broken leg. Now I was at my most vulnerable. Now would be the moment where if I didn’t fight, I would find myself powerless, or dead.
I raised my head when I felt a cool hand grabbing my shoulder, jerking me out of the wreck and against Matthew’s trembling body where he crouched in a fissure in the pavement in bare dirt. I could feel the earth stir beneath him, could smell blood, his blood mixing with the soil.
The sky let loose a torrent of rain mixed with hail, a wild burst that I struggled to control. Everything moved so fast, but the two cars were no coincidence, and they weren’t the last of our problems. The building beside us, tall, modern, made of glass, began to shimmer and twist at the same time the cars slowly rose in the air, turning until they had revolved and blended to create one massive hunk of twisted metal.
“That isn’t supposed to happen,” I breathed as the glass building exploded, surrounding us with a vortex of slivers.
“Camilla,” Matthew said, a word half curse, half relief.
I bit my lip as I healed, trying to ignore the battle between glass, metal, and earth. Matthew focused on the movement, the intent of the glass mistress and Jarvais who could apparently levitate more than cars, as a telephone pole ripped itself out of the sidewalk and came towards us, like a spear.
I had enough of my abilities under my control that the wind blew away from us, keeping us from the shards of glass and helping Matthew deflect the manhole cover that came towards us.
“It seems like they’re fighting each other,” I said as the building, the glass whirled out, shattering against the brick wall where bricks were pulling free of the wall.
Matthew didn’t answer. I could feel his energy, his intention as he focused on the two battling. He couldn’t do much about the whirling glass or the matter that bent itself to Jarvais’s will, but he could bend their will, change the trajectory of the objects through leaning his siblings. The strain of that, of leaning others at a distance, of even that small push made him tremble and sweat, and I could still smell his blood.
It ended as quickly as it began. In the smoke, the dust, the dark light, I saw Jarvais, tall, proud, staring into the fissure where I huddled beside Matthew. I could feel his gaze, the weight of his anger, the promise that this would not end until he destroyed Matthew, then he was gone.
Camilla stepped through the wreckage like a fairy princess, gleaming gold as light played off her hair and perfect skin.
“Aren’t you two cozy,” she said as she perched on the cement that protruded above us. “I hate to disturb you, but Carve has issued an invitation. Daughter of Slide, you are invited to dinner. I know, I know, it’s too glorious an invitation for you to possibly accept, but I’m afraid I must insist. We all,” she said, glancing over her shoulder to smile at the others, members of Carve I supposed, who had appeared in the still shifting wreckage, waiting for her signal. She shifted her smile back at me. “Are honored to be your escort. We’d hate for any more unpleasantness to follow like this.”
“What happened?” I asked as I straightened, wincing as more layers of my skin healed.
“Matthew challenged Jarvais,” Camilla trilled, sounding genuine with her over-bright eyes and wide smile. “He’s the oldest Son.”
I stared at her. “You talk as though Matthew were to become the Son of Carve.”
She patted me on the shoulder, making me reel before she stepped forward and picked up Matthew as though he weighed nothing. I didn’t like the way his eyes burned at her, at me when he swung his head around. I didn’t like the way his pupils didn’t dilate when he stared at me.
“He’s not all right,” I said, pushing against Camilla so that I could take his hand in mine.
“Of course he’s not all right,” she said, laughing at me. “He finally challenged Jarvais. He’ll never forgive you for that.”
The final book in the House of Slide series will be released July 1st 2016. Read on for a look at [+ House of Slide: Hotblood+] the first book in Juliann Whicker’s epic House of Slide series.
“It’s been too long, boy,” Old Peter said, looking up at me.
I stood on the worn wooden floor of the hall and let the screen door snap shut behind me. I glanced around the small house purposefully avoiding his gaze, focusing instead on the faded wallpaper peeling behind the door.
In one of Old Peter’s large, gnarled hands, he held a knotted brown cane. I gritted my teeth as I studied the cane, the way he clung to it as he sat at the table off of the kitchen. The cane was a part of Old Peter, but usually it was leaning against a wall as a warning, not ready in his hand. The first time I’d seen that cane was the first time I’d met Old Peter, if you could call him hitting me between the eyes with the force of a sledge hammer a meeting.
I looked around the room again, more carefully this time, but I saw the same dull brown paper, the small adjoining kitchen with its rattling yellowed appliances, then the table. I took a deep, even breath as I stared at the table and the deck of creased, well-used cards spread across the warped wooden surface. I ignored the knot developing in my stomach even as his huge hands gathered them up, clumsily shuffling them into a pile.
“Nice hand,” I said, sounding casual however much I wanted to raise my voice. Old Peter had trained me, had treated me like a son of sorts in spite of the way he slammed his cane over my head when he wanted to get my attention. I respected him, loved him even, but I did not trust him. In my world, trust is the last thing you did with the people you love.
The obsolete cards showed four suits like they still existed: Hotbloods, Wilds, Cools, and Hollows. Obsolete, but my profile had been painted on one of them.
“Practically apocalyptic,” he said as he shuffled the cards into the pocket of his worn brown trench coat that didn’t fit him anymore. Already dressed for going, he’d only been waiting for me.
I edged around him towards the fridge, the sudden need for sustenance occurring at the same time I broke into a sweat.
“Do you have anything to eat?”
The chair groaned as he lurched to his feet and straightened slowly “Grab something then come along, boy. We’ve got places to go.”
“Yes, sir,” I said as I rummaged through the fridge coming up with a couple of chicken legs and some sausage rolls. It looked like he’d been stocking up for me. We were right back where we’d left off: him feeding me, me saying, ‘yes, sir’. Yeah. Like old times. I could already feel the beginnings of a headache.
“Where are we going? To feed the animals?” I asked as I followed him out to the porch where he stood bouncing slightly to get the circulation going. Of course he didn’t need my help with animals. He hadn’t asked me to come, only been expecting me. Old Peter had a way with wild creatures that few could match, and however ancient, did not need any help with his small hobby farm.
He shook his wizened white head as he handed me a thick gray hoodie he’d had in his lap all along, just for me. “Funeral,” he said, slowly moving down the steps.
“Funeral? Is it anyone I know?” I shrugged on the old sweatshirt, trying not to notice how hot I was already, how little I needed any extra layers on a nicely overcast spring day. I followed him as he ambled down the gravel drive with the inevitable rolling gait of someone who would get there, however long it took.
“The corpse is not the interesting one—well, not anymore,” Old Peter said as we walked past my beautiful car, a restored Mustang, a dark purple color that looked practically edible, with more than a few tricks under its hood. When I’d brought it down from the city, I was certain Old Peter would want a ride, knowing his love for interesting cars, but he didn’t give it a second glance.
“Why don’t we drive?” I asked hesitating by the door. No one walked slower than Old Peter when he wanted to drive you insane. I shoved another sausage roll in my mouth.
“Keep walking,” he said shortly. “What kind of accent is that anyway?”
I took my time answering as I finished chewing. “South African. Do you like it?”
“Hmmph. Doesn’t sound very South African to me. Won’t go over too well around here, anyway.”
“I didn’t think much of me would,” I muttered then more loudly, “What would you suggest?” I paused, trying to breathe the right way through my nose before quoting; “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; It’s loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness, but still will…”
He glowered at me from beneath his bushy eyebrows.
“Not that one. Suppose someone were to hear you and your awful posh British accent? I thought I taught you better than that.”
I scowled as I looked around at the unimpressive low-slung building that gazed back at me dully. The green lawn was as dull as the suburban housing. Not a soul was in sight—not any bodies either.
“How terrible the need for solitude: that appetite for life so ravenous a man’s a beast in his own house, a beast with fangs, and out for his own blood…” I took a breath, mildly surprised he hadn’t cut me off yet. Old Peter was not a fan of Roethke. “Dream of a woman, and a dream of death;” I finished but the words left a bitter taste in my mouth. My accent was a flat American that could have come from anywhere and nowhere. Old Peter looked at me for a moment and nodded.
“Now that’s the right one. Tell me what you know about Sanders?”
“This town? You should tell me. You’re the one who retired here.”
Sanders was as dull as it was avoided at all costs. For Old Peter to leave the action and find a nice quiet spot like Sanders had felt wrong since however old he got, he’d never seemed tired of the game played out between the remaining suits.
I shrugged as I gave another look at the quiet houses crouched beneath the trees, the woods omnipresent in the background while a towering gothic relic from another world stood out in the distance. The little town had grown on the back of the pharmaceuticals company founded two decades before. There was not much interesting to see, not when everything had been brushed thoroughly ordinary, but I could feel the wildness of the woods on the other side of the river as it longed to cover the current residential housing.
The Wilds of the world would like its original story forgotten, the bones and spires burned and buried, but of course I knew its history. My father would have done most of the burning. Like me, he left burying to others.
Old Peter let the silence grow between us until I finally answered his question.
“Sanders is a new name for an old place; it used to be called Hollow Haven. What used to be the cathedral is the only thing left from Haven. This area is highly defensible, surrounded by the rivers and the woods. The woods across the river are old. They’re a refuge for some of the most dangerous creatures known and unknown to man. It’s a very good hunting ground.”
“Get that smile off your face. We’re not here for fun and games,” he snapped, his tone crusty.
“No?” I studied him for a moment where he ambled beside me, cane clutched in the crook of his arm.
Old age creased every inch of his skin. He seemed to move by sheer will, well, will and momentum. He moved with the confidence of experience and the knowledge that he had in his hands a leveling tool that would work on any playing field. Not a lot of things could knock me out cold, the cane, innocuous looking as the old man, could with ease.
“If we’re not here for fun, what are we here for?” I asked, looking up at the sky where dark low lying clouds scudded, ready to break at any second.
“What?” He blinked at me with blue eyes so intense that I forgot about the age, the stooped frame and the paper thin skin. “How would I know?” he asked with a shrug while his large hands tightened on the cane.
I sighed only once before I shrugged back.
“Oh I don’t know. You seem to be pretty well informed for an old guy. If you wanted an escort to a funeral, I could have worn a suit.” I glanced down at my nondescript jeans.
“Put up the hood, and you’ll be fine. Shut up now, and listen closely.” He frowned at me to make sure I was paying attention.
“Sanders was established twenty years ago or so by Alex Sanders and his lovely wife Helen. Helen is the daughter of the House of Slide. Keep up, boy.”
I glanced up at the sky and knew why the clouds looked so ominous. From the unfortunate times I’d spent dealing with Wild Houses, I’d heard about Slide and the deep talents of its members. I should have known that Old Peter wouldn’t retire far off the beaten track.
“She married a warm blood? I’ve never heard of Sanders House.”
Old Peter glared, irritated with my interruption. “No. He’s Cool. They came here to raise a family away from the complications of a mixed marriage.”
I stopped walking again, scowling after his ambling figure before I caught up with him in a few long strides.
“A Cool and a Wild? Why haven’t I heard about this? Slide is a white house that follows the Code, don’t they?”
“Nothing technically in the Code about marrying outside of your suit,” Old Peter wheezed.
“Wilds don’t marry Cools. It’s illegal.”
Peter made an ambivalent sound. “Maybe so, but this isn’t just any Cool. Besides that, they’re soul mates.”
I snorted. I couldn’t help it. The idea of a daughter of any House, least of all The House of Slide, giving up her birthright for love, was ridiculous.
“You’re telling me that the Daughter of Slide married a Cool, and that they weren’t destroyed by every Wild House on this continent? Really?”
“He didn’t used to be Alex Sanders. That’s a nice new name that makes people a little less nervous around him.” Old Peter chuckled like he was looking forward to the time when people got nervous again. He sounded less and less retired all the time.
“Oh? Do you know him?” Old Peter knew practically every dangerous Bloodworker, Hotblood, or Hunter you should avoid.
Old Peter chuckled. “Know him? He thought he killed me a few times.” Old Peter was not easy to kill. “He’s even harder to kill than I am,” he said almost reading my mind. “He’s an interesting man. I can’t quite make out what he’s got going on right now. You need to stay far away from him at the funeral. Shouldn’t be a problem though since he’s likely to be otherwise occupied.”
“You’re taking me to a funeral so I can avoid the people who are there? That sounds like your idea of a good time. Why don’t you tell me exactly what I am doing here, Old Peter? Oh that’s right, because then you’d have to explain things instead of just leaving me to blindly wade into all kinds of trouble. Wouldn’t want to spoil your fun by turning on the light every now and then.” All right, I did sound a little bit irritated, but with Old Peter I had to stay on my toes, and I was already getting a headache from trying to keep my temper.
“You’re not still bitter about that time in upstate New York?” He chuckled. “You handled yourself very well, boy, considering how far you’ve gone.”
Boy. He’d called me boy three times already, reminding me of my place and his. The ‘boy’ and the reminder of the last time I’d come into contact with him and his cane did not help with my temper or the heat behind my eyes.
“Thanks. The compliment makes me all warm inside.” I wouldn’t have had to handle myself well if Old Peter hadn’t dragged me into the middle of a Hotblood war, one side led by an obnoxious Bloodworker I’d let think had killed me to end the war, a war that we could not afford any Wilds knowing about. Hotbloods with too much ambition usually died before they got so irritating. That was the best thing about them.
I grinned at Old Peter, letting him see the unmistakable signs of my Hotblood fury. I wasn’t kidding when I said I felt warm, not when I could feel my heart race, beating faster as my entire body heated up. The fury was controllable, of course. I’d been working on it for some time, but the headache was something I could live without. The terrible migraines were the worst part of having a fury—unless it was waking up covered in blood, unable to remember the events in the previous 24 hours; that took some getting used to.
“You came here fast, boy, faster than you should have if you’ve been loafing in South Africa pretending to be dead. What brings you to the area? Good hunting?” His voice quavered, but the steel carried through the words.
I gazed at him levelly before I shrugged. “For somebody.”
He knew I would come—he’d been waiting for me. If I were patient and didn’t lose my temper first, he might tell me why. Old Peter glanced at me, a quick darting glance with those sharp blue eyes that made me feel like the rabbit instead of the hawk. My temperature rose a little bit more.
“I’m here. You don’t have to play games with me,” I said having a difficult time keeping my voice level. Apparently, I’d spent too much time with rational people if I’d already had enough.
“But you’re so good at playing games. Listen, Lewis…” I jerked my head up when he said that name, a name no one else would have dared call me, a name worse than boy, a reminder of someone I tried hard to forget.
I hadn’t heard that name in a long time. It brought back the kind of memories that spread the heat in my chest through my limbs. For a moment I saw a face, perfect beauty that would have looked much better if I weren’t dangling upside down from the ceiling, wrapped in chains, listening to her lecture on my heritage and the pride I should take in my dead father and his fine reputation.
I forced my shoulders down and my hands to relax from the instinctive fists ready to smash and crush. Being a Hotblood got rather tedious some days. Maybe it was being a disciplined Hotblood that was so annoying. If I ripped off Old Peter’s head like I wanted to, then it would be more fun.
He loved testing me, seeing how far he could push me. Like old times.
“It’s Lewis now, or it will be soon. Listen Lewis, the cemetery’s getting close. Can you smell the rain and feel the electricity in the air? This is going to be some storm. Who knows when it’s going to end? Whatever happens, stay with me. Do you hear me, boy?”
I nodded and closed my eyes trying to slow the beating of my heart. I hadn’t had trouble with a fury for years. It wasn’t simply that Old Peter knew how to get under my skin when he wanted to. For the past few months, I’d been tracking but it felt more like being baited, led from one clue to the next. If I weren’t careful, all the plans I’d carefully made would unravel leaving me with nothing but my father’s dark legacy.
I let the fury build up until my head pounded in time to my pumping heart. I concentrated on the heat and let go of my will, becoming lost as I submitted to the consuming rage. For an instant there was that feeling that my body would fly apart under the strain, but with the next breath the anger was gone leaving me a little light-headed.
As we neared the cemetery, I noted the long line of parked cars that stretched out as far as I could see. People hurried through the windy May morning towards the iron gate that clanged against an ivy covered wall with each gust of wind. At the end of the wall to the right was a slope dotted with headstones, and dead center was the coffin where people gathered, pale faces and hands in stark contrast to their black clothing. There were countless faces, each wearing an expression of deepest sorrow as they gazed at the coffin.
We joined the civilians, late to the party and didn’t slow down until we reached the fringe of the crowd. I still had no idea what I was doing there. All I really wanted was to get the names from him I needed to continue my hunt then get out of Sanders. Getting the names would take persuasion though, patience, and a ridiculous lack of dignity.
“We are gathered together,” began the priest. In spite of his weak voice we heard him clearly, his quavering voice carried to us on the wind.
I let my eyes and attention wander to take in the crowd. It looked like the entire town and then some had turned out for the event. I saw a few high schoolers standing around the coffin. A girl whose white blond hair stood in sharp contrast to the requisite black.
When I looked past the coffin, a flash of lightning illuminated a line of seven men with umbrellas held over their black hats. It took that flash of light for me to see them in the growing darkness from the imminent storm. My body filled with heat and a rush of adrenaline as my body prepared to fight. I tried to breathe evenly as I fought with the assault of their Wild blood.
If I didn’t contain my irrational anger they would kill me, or worse. I’d put a great deal of effort into convincing Wilds that I was already dead in order to stay out of their manipulative clutches. The dead were the only souls they didn’t meddle with. It was the only good thing about the suit with a tenacious belief that whatever they were doing was morally justified. After all, they had the power to manipulate the very elements of nature: wind, fire, earth, blood. Surely that gave them the inherent right to use their abilities on anyone who got in their way.
House of Slide had a different kind of reputation. Each of them were soldiers in their own right, trained to kill. The Slide brothers fought hand to hand in real battles. The big one, the one called Satan had taken out more lives than I cared to think about. His reputation for craving the fight, whatever your blood, made him almost liked and mostly respected in Hotblood circles. Wilds usually looked at Hotbloods as disposable firepower. I wasn’t sure which was worse. At least Wilds who didn’t look too closely at Hotbloods were less likely to single you out as particularly good at what they wanted you to do.
I struggled to smother out the heat in my eyes. Old Peter had warned me about the father, but he hadn’t said that every one of the legendary House of Slide brothers would be in attendance. It was the kind of thing he would have enjoyed not mentioning.
The black-haired woman in the center shared their blood—I could smell it. She must be Helen, former daughter to the House of Slide who had given up her birthright for love. I studied the Wild woman. She looked as calculating and icy as any Wild I’d known.
The whole thing made my head ache. Why would Slide make such a big show for someone who had been disowned? The tall man to her side opened an umbrella and covered her and the slumped person between them. I shifted trying to make out the figure, but it was impossible.
The wind began to pick up, and I could smell the sorrow in waves and gusts as the grieving people looked yearningly towards the coffin. I’d known more than enough Wilds in my time, but I’d never been to a packed funeral where everyone felt real regret at the loss.
“Who’s in the box?” I whispered.
“Devlin, Son of Helen and Alex Sanders.”
Devlin of Slide I had heard of. The lesser known grandson of the Head of Slide had left an impressive wake of fear in the short time he’d spent enforcing Slide’s law. The Hybrid had been on the way to having as fierce a reputation as his uncle, Satan. His wild blood had made him a foreteller, or seer, and as a Cool he had the ability to make you do whatever he wanted while thinking it was your own idea, leaning. It would have taken someone even more special than he had been to kill him.
I didn’t like it. I hated the Wilds and the people with their scent of sorrow, sharp and poignant in the cool air, too many notorious Wilds for a simple ceremony. They had a purpose here that I didn’t know, and I certainly would end up paying for that lack of knowledge. I studied the gray umbrella over the central group and felt a wave of irrational anger.
“It’s not even raining yet. What does he think the umbrella is going to protect them from?” It wasn’t the umbrella that irritated me. I should have left as soon as I’d seen the line of men in their nearly invisible coats, guarding the trio in the center. I should stay as far away as possible from the people who’d created someone like Devlin, a foreteller who could have told Old Peter when I’d be coming by. Being known, being seen by a Wild, even a dead one made me tremble with the effort to contain the rage, the need I had to burn until there wasn’t anything left of me or them.
Old Peter glanced over at me, and I tried to shake it off. I wasn’t ready to burn out, not yet.
“Who’s the other one?” I muttered. The third figure, the one that Old Peter hadn’t even mentioned, worried me the most.
“Daughter,” he said, short and to the point without actually giving me any information.
If she was anything like Devlin, like her mother and the rest of the House, she was beautiful, gifted, dangerous—the kind of girl I’d spent the better part of my life actively avoiding. It was fine though, hardly something to worry about, only Devlin’s family, I thought.
I breathed deeply and tried to focus on her scent, the scent I’d been unable to pick up before. It would give me something to distract me from the Wilds who made it so difficult to stay cool. It was something to do, to trace one flavor while the wind blew hundreds of different smells at me. I had the strong odor of the woman Helen to guide me. I caught a flash of something enticing from the mystery girl just before the subtle scent of the man holding the umbrella struck me like a physical blow.
I exhaled and closed my eyes as the first spattering drops fell from the sky. I let my senses become blind in the smell of ozone. When I thought I had myself under control, I opened my eyes and studied the threesome closest to the casket. The man’s silver hair trailed down the back of his black suit, as much as I could see for the umbrella. His scent was difficult to pick up like all Cool ones, but he was much more than simply Cool; he had an especially high dose of Nether blood—the blood that created all of us and our gifts.
As a rule I stayed far away from Cools. They manipulated the world around them so subtly that no one even noticed much less minded. Most of them weren’t that bad. They’d be more likely to live and let live unless a recent infusion of Nether blood like this Cool had would make his traits stronger, his powers greater, and bring out his aggression. Some people thought Wilds knew how to play games and scheme, but they were nothing compared to motivated Cools.
Old Peter hadn’t mentioned why he was so dangerous; if he had, there was no way I would have come. He was tall and slender like all Nether. I couldn’t be certain at this distance, but I had a strong suspicion that his face was on the deck of cards in Old Peter’s pocket. Cools lived a very long time even without the Nether blood. Did the woman beside him know what he was? She watched nothing and everything like a Wild, but she always kept her body protectively between the slight figure beside her and everyone else.
The crowd began shifting as the wind picked up speed, flapping dresses against legs. The sound of rain beating its way across the hills triggered a running exodus towards the cars.
Not a lot of people had brought umbrellas and this wasn’t going to be your run-of-the-mill May shower. Old Peter didn’t flinch as we were pelted with rain that stung my cheeks. It felt good. I would have found it refreshing if I weren’t still preoccupied with the brothers of the House of Slide, a Nether Cool, and her, the unseen daughter.
When the hail began, I shifted to block Old Peter from most of it. Another flash of lightning illuminated the seven Wild brothers of the House of Slide as they gathered near the grave in their nondescript trench coats. The largest of the brothers, Satan, motioned and two others lowered the casket.
I flinched as a hailstone struck me on the neck through my hood with the steady slopping sound in the background as they shoveled mud onto the coffin. The seven of them made quick work of the job until nothing was left of Devlin Sanders besides a mound.
The other guests would be disappointed when they emerged from their cars and found the service finished. Helen stepped forward, and I kept my eyes trained on her, waiting for the moment I would finally get a clear view of the girl. It was no use; she moved with Helen. I clenched my fists as waves of fury rose inside of me.
I felt a tightening in the air a moment before a brilliant flash of lightning exploded into the earth. Helen kept her feet but the girl fell to her knees allowing me a glimpse of her outline before the uncles and the mother helped her to her feet. Alex Sanders, the Nether Cool walked with her away from the grave and towards the gate. At the last moment the girl turned to take one last look at the grave.
I knew that face in spite of never seeing it before.
I reached out with my other senses, past patience, needing to use every tool I had in my arsenal to understand the expression in her enigmatic eyes. The world around me disappeared into a blurry melding of inanimate and animate as everything reduced to its basic energetic structure. The brothers and Helen became darkly burning sparks with red lines twining where their bodies would have been. Where the girl had been, I found nothing. I stared blindly in front of me, hardly noting the flashing silver fire of the father, Alex, before he ducked through the iron gate.
I turned to Old Peter and stared at him dumbly as the sparkling of his soul faded and I could see him with my eyes.
“Huh.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I stared into the distance instead. When I looked at the world through that sense, I could usually see people’s souls. It wasn’t something I used often however useful it could be. From my limited experience with soul sight, every living person had a brilliant burning soul that gave them life, well, everyone except for this one girl.
Old Peter turned and started walking back home, following the lines of trees towards the road and well away from the Wilds.
“Well?” he asked, the question cutting through the streaming rain.
I started after him and felt a building fury that would no doubt leave me with a headache.
“Well, what? Not that it wasn’t an enjoyable afternoon, but I have no idea what I was supposed to learn from that sermon. I feel like I’m dealing with Wilds again. I’ve successfully avoided Wilds for how long, and now I have to go right back to the beginning? Do you know how frustrating that is? I don’t even know who she is. I don’t know why I care. Every time I run into you, things get complicated.” I realized that I was pointing a wet finger at him, and I shoved my hands in my pockets and focused on my steps across the unstable graveyard. Water streamed beneath my feet towards the road, but at least the hail had quit.
Old Peter shuffled along with me and put his hand on my arm when he slipped in the mud. “You didn’t see it. No, you’re not losing your mind. You didn’t see it because it wasn’t there. So the question now would be where it is.”
No one liked to talk about this kind of thing. It was brave of Old Peter to bring it up, and I should appreciate his efforts at clarity. I should not want to pound him into… I slumped slightly and tried to submit but the fury wasn’t hot enough. It was burning steady just below submission, the most dangerous levels of heat. Irritating.
“It was not just a trick of the light? She really doesn’t have a soul?”
Old Peter shook his head sadly.
I looked at him waiting for more then impatiently prodded him. “Just one day she woke up missing her soul? Did anyone check the lost and found?” I winced when the words came out of my mouth while he scowled at me. I had a tendency to make bad jokes under stress. “Sorry. Did she lose it when her brother died?”
He shook his head, white brows pulled low over his eyes. “She’s been soulless for a decade or so.”
I stared at him then looked forward through the driving rain. Impossible. Without a soul no one could last so long. Good people, bad people—one thing they had in common was that they had a soul. Some people’s souls were barely alive, some people fed their souls to demons, but there was always something. People couldn’t live without their souls at least not long.
If I shut my eyes, I could easily recall her face—beauty and burning. Other than an impression of shocking beauty her sunken eyes, the pallor of her skin, and the way she’d trembled as she moved, proclaimed a life near its end. It was possible to survive a few days without a soul, a few weeks if someone knew what he was doing, but anything longer than that simply couldn’t be.
“Interesting,” I murmured before falling into silence broken only by the splash and lash of a mother’s furious rain. Old Peter had more gifts than an ordinary Hotblood. He’d survived far too long to not have picked up some unusual skills along the way. He could see souls better than I could. He’d been here for less than a decade, so his hand probably wasn’t involved in the actual soul removal, but maybe he had helped her stay alive. If the brother had seen me coming to his funeral and told Old Peter, you would have thought he would have gotten cold feet and backed out.
I rubbed the scar across my chest until Old Peter caught the motion with his piercing gaze then forced my hand back to my damp pockets. I glanced at Old Peter and his lowered head covered in sodden white hair, his scalp visible beneath the thin strands. He moved slowly, more slowly than I’d ever seen. For a moment I felt concerned that he might catch a chill in the rain before I reminded myself what he was capable of.
“Aren’t you going to ask how she lost her soul?” Old Peter finally asked.
“What happened?” I didn’t expect him to tell me something that should be a closely guarded secret. Wilds were famous for their closely guarded secrets.
“Her brother took it.” He looked at me and gave me a gummy smile. “Yep. Her brother took it and kept her alive. I don’t think she’s had any human contact besides him since then. Not that she’d care,” he finished gazing at the road in front of him.
I slowed and let him get ahead of me while I struggled to understand why I was anything other than vaguely interested with a clinical detachment that would be wondering how you would be able to keep someone alive without a soul, instead of what I wanted to do with the person who had. I burned with a fury that made clear thinking next to impossible, but I tried. I had an irrational urge to turn around and do something with the grave; what exactly, I had no idea, but I was sure I could come up with something. I wasn’t used to digging up graves and messing around with corpses, but I had a few friends… I took a deep breath and let the fury fill me and dissipate. It would do no good to bring someone back from the dead just so I could kill them again.
“Do you want dinner before you head back to the city?” Old Peter asked briskly.
“Yes. I’d like that.” My head pounded, and although I could handle it, Old Peter made a near magical elixir for Hotbloods and the aftereffects of the furies we dealt with. “I may hang around for a few days. I’d like to see how this turns out.”
Only then, I realized that I hadn’t gotten the information I’d come for. I’d completely forgotten the reason I’d sought out Peter in his out-of-the-way town.
Old Peter shook his head then shrugged. “We’ll slaughter something. What are you in the mood for?”
Old Peter liked his dinner to go from kicking to the table in an hour. Keeping fresh meat meant that it bleated at you when you walked up with a knife. Three hours after we got back to the house I was still in the yard packaging meat when Old Peter leaned out of the screen door to see if I’d lost the fight with the goat. It wasn’t like me to be so slow, but I was in a careful mood.
The fury lurked right behind my eyes, and I couldn’t get the idea of visiting the gravesite out of my head. It wasn’t a good idea. It was one of the worst ideas I’d ever had, and I’d had some bad ones. The girl’s uncles would be hanging around for at least twenty-four hours. They had sealed the grave with lightning, an extraordinary precaution most people wouldn’t take to keep a dead body in its grave. Wild traditions weren’t always as relevant as this one but from what I’d learned about the son, it was in everyone’s best interest that a body with those capacities stayed dead.
Who would think a Wild son would mess around with souls, particularly his sister’s, someone he should be sworn to protect? After I’d seen his father firsthand, I shouldn’t have been shocked about Devlin’s abilities since not only did his Wild blood give him foretelling, but his father, Cool and extra Nether, would have given him the ability to bend people to his will. I still couldn’t understand about the soul. Cools were in the realm of the soul, but that meant they did soul sight, not that they stole souls from someone else. Hollows were the suit who borrowed souls, or had been before they’d been wiped out.
It didn’t make sense. Why would a Hybrid son be accepted by a white House after he’d stolen his sister’s soul?
For the next few evenings I lay awake in Old Peter’s cramped spare bedroom determined that it would be my last day in Sanders, but eventually find myself pacing the woods outside her house, waiting.
In the morning when I saw Old Peter he’d say, “Well?” In that gruff voice of his, and I’d find a reason to get out of the room without admitting that I’d spent all night camped outside the Sanders residence. Of course, he knew, and I could see the intense amusement he got out of the situation.
I was not amused. I had better things to do than watch a stranger die, slowly. Every glimpse of her verified that fact. The Nether blood kept her alive for now, but not even that would keep her for much longer.
Days of lurking went on until one evening I sighed as I pushed a branch away so I could get a clearer view into the house. I sat perched forty feet off the ground, spring growth exploding around me making spying on the Sanders’ mansion difficult. It wasn’t really a mansion in Wild terms, but it stuck out from the modest housing of the rest of Sanders. The lights came on one by one, and I could see through the glass doors as the uncles gathered in the stark living room.
Helen stared out the wall of windows oblivious to her brothers. It didn’t seem possible that all those men could fit into one room, however large it was, but eventually they took seats leaving the couch empty. Satan, the biggest brother, came in wearing his slouchy hat but not the trench coat. Ahead of himself he prodded the slight figure of Dariana Sanders, dressed in gray sweats and a black hoodie. Her eyes looked enormous in her lifeless face.
She sat, a dismal figure curled around a steaming teacup, looking like it was the only warmth she’d ever known. Eventually it cooled, and the cup fell limply from her fingers as she stared at nothing.
Hours passed until a thick fog obscured my view. I minded more than I should have. Nothing was happening besides the brothers talking and gesturing while Satan sat and watched Dariana. The mother never looked away from the window. Suddenly Dariana jerked twice and stumbled to her feet. She said something and walked from the room. The discussion went on without her, and I closed my eyes and felt my stomach churning.
I couldn’t do it anymore.
I slipped down from the tree and started walking in the direction of Old Peter’s, determined to leave the town for good. I hesitated when I heard raised voices for a moment before the sound cut off. Someone had opened a door or window of the Sanders’ residence.
I was grateful for the fog as I made my way through the formally laid out garden, making my way by memory until I reached the gate to the front yard. In the low visibility, I couldn’t see anything until I focused on the muted sound of something dragging in the road.
I followed that sound until I nearly ran into her when she stopped to stare at her bare feet, the only things I could see at the bottom of her borrowed trench coat. After a slight shrug she kept going, not noticing me where I stood two short steps away. I stopped breathing until she was at a safe distance. For days she’d been in the house surrounded by the Slide Brothers. The idea that if I wanted I could reach forward and lift a strand of hair off her shoulder made me tremble. So close, she was not close enough.
I waited until she was far enough I could only hear the coat dragging on the pavement before I continued after her.
She followed the road through the town, seeming oblivious to everything around her until she stopped near the bridge at the edge of Sanders. She stood still until with a lurch, she stepped off the road and into the woods. I followed hurriedly. In her uncle’s coat and with the dense fog, she was nearly invisible.
My palms grew sweaty the further I followed her into the dark woods. When someone finally missed her I would have uncles raining down on me. Being so close to the river, I might be able to make my escape into the dangerous woods on the other side, but seven Wilds against one me didn’t sound like good odds. I couldn’t leave her alone in the woods where things might be waiting to hurt her. Some would argue that you couldn’t do anything to her that wouldn’t be a mercy. Some would say that she needed to be put out of her misery. In my past I might have offered my services for a small fee.
I’d explored the woods in the past days to know where her direct route would take us. A ledge hung over the river where the drop was fast and far to the cold waters below. Some people liked to picnic there, but it would be a cold death for others. However lifeless, I couldn’t stand by while she ended her life.
I smelled something rotting carried to me by a gust of wind. Scavengers, scarecrows, whatever you called them, they shouldn’t be on this side of the river. The lifeless girl would be easy prey for them. My fury flared as I searched the woods until I saw a face through the fog, tinged green with a gaping mouth in an approximation to a smile.
How had they gotten through the thickly laid runes, heavy to keep the monsters and nightmares at bay, safely away from the people who lived in Sanders unaware of the terrors that lurked across the river? Scavengers weren’t the worst out there, in fact they were practically harmless against anyone who would fight back; they didn’t like losing their loosely attached body parts, but Dariana wouldn’t fight. She could barely stumble through the woods.
I broke into a run, glad for the coat that camouflaged her. If she could stay hidden for a few minutes then she’d never know how close she’d come to danger.
One of them held a torch high above his head, waving it back and forth in his loosely jointed hands. There were others; scavengers never hunted alone, but their leader with the torch would be the only one I needed to convince. I didn’t have time to try and reason with them—reason not being the strongest talent of scavengers—not when I had to find the girl, to save her from herself.
My knife, the nondescript curve of metal that I’d managed to keep track of for months, cut through the tendons of his knees before he saw me. It gave a staccato-like shriek before it tumbled over. I didn’t even need to bring out my lighter, not when the torch lit his ragged shirt, setting him on fire.
The others didn’t run like I’d expected, instead turning on me with hisses and curses that were almost intelligible. One of them managed to wrap her hand, with the talon at the end of it, around my arm, slicing through my shirt before I grabbed her throat and burned, letting the fury consume me as she struggled, the fury driving my metabolism, building up the proteins until the cut was gone, and so was she, burned out from the inside. Most of them ran then, the few left were quick work to undo. Fury is good for some things.
When the scavengers were disassembled, I turned back to Dari. I searched the woods as panic grew inside of me. The Scavengers shouldn’t have been on this side of the river and they hadn’t acted right, slowing me down more than they should have. Maybe the scavengers were a diversion for something worse, something that wanted the girl as much as I did. I inhaled deeply smelling the wet woods but nothing human. I began to move faster towards the clearing hoping that she hadn’t changed direction. When I reached the edge of the woods before the clearing, I let out a breath I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding.
She sat still, perched on the ledge to look up at the moon. Pale threads of light broke through the mist enough to light her still face. I paused. Even if she did fall, I would manage to pull her out of the river in time.
I heard an ear-shattering scream from the other side of the river. A certifiable nightmare wanted some company. I should get Dariana back home, but how could I get her attention without startling her? I could grab her and carry her home. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds, not that weight mattered when I was burning fury, but it seemed like it would make a bad first impression. The first impression seemed important, particularly considering the fact that there likely wouldn’t be a second.
I stared at her, watching through the fog, and wondered if I’d been mistaken the first time. Did she really have no soul? I concentrated until I could make out the life that flickered from the plants and across the river the red brand of the eager nightmare. Everything else, all the life in the world disappeared when I saw her soul hovering around her. She had a soul, or at least she’d had it at one time, but it was outside of her now, a quivering iridescence of perfect purity and breathtaking beauty. I stepped forward without thinking and snapped a stick beneath my boot. I blinked her back into focus and saw her staring in my direction as if she could see me in the dark. I took a few steps forward until she saw my outline.
“What are you doing here?” I asked and realized how gruff I sounded.
She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
“It’s probably not the best idea for you to wander around in the woods at night.”
She looked down and hunched deeper into the trench coat.
“You look cold. Maybe I can make a fire for you.” A fire was a terrible idea but I couldn’t stand to watch her shiver. A fire would draw her uncles. It would draw all sorts of unwanted attention but in the meantime it would get her warm. It seemed like the least I could do.
She nodded, and I started moving, gathering sticks and putting them in a pile while I tried not to stare at her. In a few minutes I was crouched over some pine needles blowing on a spark. Her hair brushed my cheek as she leaned over me. I dropped my lighter from suddenly clumsy fingers as I struggled to bring the fire to life without looking up at her soul. I finally got it lit. As I fed twigs to the flames, I noticed how heavy the silence felt between us.
“Do you come up here often?” I wasn’t sure if she could even answer questions.
“With my brother Devlin.” Her voice surprised me. It was a little like hearing a corpse talk, only corpses probably didn’t have such nice voices. It was husky but sweet. When I looked up at her she looked confused like her voice had surprised her as well.
“Good. It’s good to have family. At least that’s what they say. So do you go to high school here? It’s a beautiful building. It’s always nice to see old architecture so well preserved.” I paused for a moment then kept talking, mostly to distract myself from her soul. “I love woods. I love to walk around in the darkness never knowing what kind of dangerous thing I’m going to run into. I like fast cars too. Do you… never mind. I saw you at the funeral; that was quite a storm.” Even as I said those last words I realized what I should have already noticed. The wind had picked up, thinning out the fog. I heard lightning from the direction of Dariana’s house. Her mother had found out that she was gone. We probably had some time since she would not be easy to track, as I knew from experience. Of course, I had a bright fire that would draw them right to me.
I hesitated to douse the fire, caught in the girl’s gaze. Flickers of firelight reflected in her eyes as she stared at me, her hands over the flames. When I realized that she was going to burn herself, I reached forward without thinking. When I caught her hands in mine to pull them away from the fire she gasped, and I had trouble breathing as her soul slid between the skin of our hands. I tasted her soul through that touch.
She leaned towards me over the fire never dropping her eyes from my face. I pulled my hand away and felt a bitter taste in my mouth. I moved quickly to put out the fire while she watched me with a desperate hunger that matched how I felt. Her soul was the most beautiful, sweet thing I’d ever seen and now tasted. It would take all the willpower I had to leave without it. I had built up a remarkable reservoir of willpower but it was vanishing the longer she looked at me, strands of her hair standing out dark against her pale skin, her lifeless eyes begging me.
“You’re warm.” It was half whisper as she made a helpless gesture towards me with her hand.
I sat for a moment trying to think what could possibly make a situation like this right.
“I’m sorry about the fire but it looks like rain. I think I’d better take you home now.”
“Oh.” She sat there staring at me looking even more dejected until I reached a hand to help her up. She took it quickly, grasping it with both hands as I pulled her to her feet. I stood for a moment trying to ignore the taste of her soul while she clung to me, then turned and started through the woods. I tried to block out the taste, the sight of the dispossessed soul hovering between us, but with every step her hands crept higher up my arm, until at some point she put her freezing cold hand on my back. I think I kept my manly calm, but I may have yelped.
She had one arm wrapped around me, and the other hand clung to mine. Her head rested on my upper arm while we walked. She moved her legs, but mostly, I pulled her along. I felt a rush of anger at the stupidity of it all. Here I was dragging her home so she could be cold and die there slowly instead of out here quickly. I slowed then stopped and turned to her so I could look down at her face. She had more color to her cheeks. She almost smiled as she leaned towards me rising on her tiptoes.
What was she waiting for? I was no prince charming with a happily ever after to offer her. Her soul hovered between us, making a sound of indefinable sweetness. A soul had never sung to me before. In a few days it would fade, her life would snap, and her soul would vanish.
Her eyelids drifted shut, and her cold breath touched the skin of my neck. I realized my hands were tightening on her arms, feeding my heat into her. I felt her soul, sweet and tantalizing around the edges, but the real brightness and beauty was deeper.
I didn’t make a decision to kiss her. One moment I was a breath away, and then her mouth was on mine, her breath became mine. Her soul sang, the taste sweeter than I’d imagined. I felt it wrap around me along with her arms, tangling fingers in my hair until something changed. The sweetness became too sweet, an ache that grew along with the coldness, as I drowned in her flavor. I realized that it wasn’t me doing the tasting. She was taking my warmth.
I tried to pull away but she held on as she ripped all the heat, rage, and life out of me. I lost the feeling in my legs and slid down her, feeling the buttons of her coat scrape my cheek. I tried to hold onto something, but everything disintegrated as I slid into darkness.
House of Slide: Wilds, is the Prequel Novella in the moody and evocative House of Slide Paranormal Series With her powers of the wind and lightning at her fingertips, Helen leaves the safety of the House of Slide and arrives in London, prepared to dissuade her brother from a catastrophic decision to abandons his place as Son of the House of Slide. Only hours later Civil War erupts between competing Houses and she's trapped in the city at the mercy of an unethical Hybrid, Matthew, who knows more about Helen than she knows about herself.