AN: A little shorter this time, but at least I've posted it. Hurrah!
Nine o'clock the next morning found me at The Garden Path, a quaint little flower shop on the outskirts of the city. The owner, Rose Farthing, was a friend of mine. And no, the irony of a woman named Rose owning a flower shop does not escape me. And I learned very quickly not to point that out. She gets a little touchy.
I leaned one hip against the counter at the front of the shop, my hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. The light scent of vanilla drifted up toward my nose.
"Thank you, have a good day now," Rose was saying to a graying old woman at the register. The woman gathered her little bag of seedlings and trundled out the store, setting the bells at the top of the door to ringing.
As soon as the door had shut fully, Rose turned her full attention back on me. She had a solid frame, but she carried herself well. Her hair was pulled back into a long russet ponytail, and her brown eyes, liberally flecked with gold, snapped intently.
"What do you mean you've been summoned?" she demanded.
I shrugged my shoulder a little. "Just that. I got a little visit last night from a Kiraugha emissary." I smiled, just a little, to take the bitterest edge off my words. "My brother."
I'd come to Rose's shop because she was pretty much the only person I trusted this side of the realm lines. Rose was part of the Nine Houses too. House Maersk, to be exact. She was a bloodsinger, a healer of incredible power far beyond the doctors in this realm. In fact, Rose was the reason I came to Seattle in the first place. The night I left my House, I opened a portal to this realm with no idea of where in this world it would put me. A little town in Minnesota, as it turned out.
I had no job, no usable currency, no friends. I didn't even speak English. I was fluent in all three languages of the Houses, but I couldn't even do something as simple as ask for directions in this realm. Things were pretty hairy for the first couple days. At first, I stole. I stole clothes to blend in, food to survive. After I while, I started moving around. A stranger, even a pretty young girl, who can't speak the language, doesn't seem to act quite right, to fit in, arouses suspicion in small communities. I sought bigger cities, more people, where I could get lost in the crowd. I hung around public parks, museums, cafes, anywhere where lots of people gathered. I would sit there and listen and observe, slowly learning the language and customs. I can still remember the first time I bought my own lunch without having to point at the menu board.
Eventually, though, I always moved on.
That is, until I met Rose five years ago. Rose was visiting her sister in Cincinnati, and I was working in a little diner downtown. The vinyl on the booth seats was ripped and stained and the windows were perpetually filmed with grime, but they hired me and for that I was grateful. I was still a pretty poor conversationalist at the time, but I could poor coffee well enough and the diner was the kind of place that the owner didn't much care about my lack of work history.
The first time I met Rose, I saw a woman in her forties with a pleasant smile and an open manner. Nothing especially interesting. The first time Rose met me, she knew immediately I was of Mehrein. Or so she says. Bloodsingers, she says, have a certain empathy about them. They sense things that go unnoticed by many of the other Houses. It's part of their gift, I guess you could say. And after having seen some of the things she can do, I'm inclined to believe her.
She came in every day for a week after that. Whenever she was there, I knew she was watching me carefully. I could feel it, like an itch between my shoulder blades. I may not have a bloodsinger's empathy, but curious surveillance doesn't go unnoticed by people trained like I was.
At the end of that week I'd made up my mind to move again. I would leave that night, after my shift. I would regret the loss of the job and income, but there would always be another diner and another city.
I was just refilling her cup of coffee when Rose, as if it were perfectly natural to begin a conversation this way, said, "You don't have to hide here, you know."
I managed to keep my grip on the coffee pot, but only just. "What are you talking about?" My voice was neutral, masking the way my heart suddenly started to pound.
Rose just smiled and said she thought she might stick around for a few hours. At the end of my shift, she was still there. I hung up my greasy apron and we left together, not without a substantial amount of distrust on my part. We walked, and she talked. She told me that she too was from the Houses, that she had left Mehrein a number of years ago and lived now in a city called Seattle. She never told me why she left, and I've never asked.
Seattle, she said, was a natural gathering point in this realm for those who belong to the Houses. Something about the alignment of realm lines makes it attractive for those who have magic in their blood. There are other nodes like it scattered across the globe. The little town in Minnesota where I'd found myself over a year before was, as it turned out, another of those nodes. If I'd stuck around long enough, I probably would have run into House members sooner or later.
"Those of us who belong to the Houses and yet choose to live in this realm are comparatively few," she told me as we walked down the street in the balmy summer night air. "Have you ever laid awake at night, feeling that horrible certainty that you don't belong here, not really?"
I felt my jaw twitch. I had. I'd always dismissed it, though, blamed it on recurring nightmares and bad memories.
"A realm line node alleviates that for our kind," she went on. "You'll be happier. At peace."
I didn't even try to stop the sour laugh that escaped.
Rose just looked at me, sympathy warm in her brown eyes. "Think about it."
That night, lying in bed, I tried to ignore the sense that Rose had made earlier. I didn't want to be around more of my kind. They were the reason I'd left Mehrein in the first place. I turned restlessly, unwilling to admit even to myself the whole truth. I didn't sleep at all that night, and by dawn the next morning I was on a bus bound for Seattle, Washington.
Now, five years later, I couldn't shake the feeling that my past was closing in on me with sharp, vicious teeth. "And," I said, "there's more. House Sareille is gone."
"What?" Rose rocked backward, her expression blank. "That's…not possible. How?"
Lukyan's name zinged through my brain, but I held my tongue for now. "No one's sure. Not yet." There was no way, I kept telling myself. No way Lukyan could have done that. "That's why the whole House is being summoned. The Triumvirate has summoned everyone to the estate in Mehrein."
Rose stared at me for a second, then went over to the door and flipped up the closed sign. I glanced over my shoulder at the clock on the wall. 9:15. Not going to be a good day for business, but then, some things just take precedence.
Without a word, I followed Rose into the back of the store, where she kept surplus merchandise as well as a little kitchenette. She bypassed the nearly full pot of coffee on the table and got a bottle of whiskey out from under the counter. She plunked the bottle and two glasses down on the table and sat down.
"Tell me everything."
So I did, starting with how the assassins had shown up at my apartment the night before, followed closely by my brother and the Rifter child.
"So Kiraugha has taken to using enslaved Rifter breed to help hunt down one of their own," Rose muttered, taking a swallow of whiskey.
I suppressed a feeling of unease. Even Rose didn't know about my secondary Rifter talent. I trusted her, sure, but I never told anyone about that particular ability. Only my father, brother, and a few select members of House Kiraugha knew what I could do, and I intended to keep it that way.
Over the course of the six years that I'd known her, Rose had come to know a lot about my past before I escaped to this realm. So, when I finally did mention Lukyan's name, she gave me a hard look over the rim of her glass.
"Lukyan Sareille. Your Lukyan?"
I winced. "Don't call him that. Please." I glanced down at my coffee cup, pushing it away in favor of pouring a generous shot of whiskey into the second glass on the table.
"Anyway," I went on, "it's not like it could be true. I mean, think about it. Lukyan was a talented Darkwalker, fine. But there's no way he could have killed all those people."
"Why, because it actually isn't possible or because you don't want to believe that it's possible?"
Dammit, sometimes I hated talking to Rose.
"Because…both," I said finally, sounding petulant even to myself. "I know him." I shook my head once, firmly. "No way."
Rose didn't look convinced. "Assuming you're right, and it wasn't Lukyan, who would have done this? And why?"
"I have no idea. I've been gone from that realm for six years, but I doubt the political climate has changed much. House feuds, family warfare—the good old days. Now Audun expects me to help House Kiraugha find out."
"Why make this your fight?"
I made a sharp sound that might have been a laugh. "If you'll recall, two men tried to kill me last night. It's already my fight."
"Well, you've certainly made other enemies in your time, Emma."
"Maybe. But enemies who suddenly, after six years, want me dead right after an entire House is wiped out?" I shook my head and sipped more whiskey. "That's not a coincidence."
Rose conceded the point with a nod. "And will you?"
"What, help them?" I looked over at Rose. The worry and compassion in her eyes was clear enough. "I don't know how I can. I left, Rose. For a reason. What they did to me…my whole life. What they turned me into…. I can't go back and pretend it didn't happen."
"No," Rose agreed, standing and putting her empty glass next to the little sink. She draped an arm over my shoulder and kissed the top of my head. "But you can go back and show them what you've become in spite of them. Prove your strength."
I considered the half-empty glass in front of me. "What if I don't feel strong?"
"Well then," Rose said, and I could see the familiar glint in her eyes, "you bluff."
I left Rose's shop around eleven o'clock, after more conversation and a little more whiskey. Rose opened the store to customers again, and I headed to a local hardware store to get some drywall spackle. No sense in giving my landlord an aneurism if I could fix the damage before he ever saw it.
By two, I'd had lunch, spackled and painted the damaged walls, and managed to get my apartment looking halfway decent again. I was pretty damn proud, actually. So proud, in fact, that I decided to take a nap. Call me crazy, but I hadn't exactly managed to get a good night's rest the night before—imagine that.
The way it turned out though, I would've been better off without the sleep. Funny thing about being an assassin for a good chunk of your adult life is that you have a lot of dreams. And I'm not talking the ones where you can fly or even the ones where you're naked in public. I'm talking the ones with lots
of blood, the ones where people die and all you can do about it is watch. The ones where people die and you're the one doing the killing. Memories.
I'd take being naked in public over my dreams any day.
This time it was Lukyan. In a dull, hollowed-out kind of way, I wasn't surprised. I hadn't killed him, not directly, but I might as well have for the metaphorical knife I'd slid between his ribs the day I left.
It was dark. The barest gleam of moonlight gilded the lines of the buildings of the House Kiraugha grounds before me, turning their marble facades and tall towers into something even more ethereal. A warm autumn wind sighed through the open window, and I breathed deep, trying to calm rattled nerves. My fingers inside their gloves were slick with sweat.
I was twenty years old at the time, and looking back on that night now, I ached inside for both how bitter and innocent I'd been then. I'd killed already, more than once. But I'd never felt the guilt of betrayal running thick and hot through my veins. Never looked someone I'd liked, trusted—maybe even loved—right in the eyes and known, horribly, that they were going to die because of me. I'd still clung to the idea that somehow it would all be alright if we could just escape the influence of the Nine Houses and find better lives in better realms. By the end of the night, I would find out just how incredibly wrong I'd been.
When the moon hit just the right spot in the sky, I knew it was time. I slid my pack over my shoulders, smoothed down my tight-fitting assassin's clothes, and slipped out the window. The stone blocks of our manor house made it easy enough to find hand-holds on the way down, and soon I was running silently down the path that would take me to the Altar of Winds. It was far from the rest of the complex—five minutes at a flat run—so I figured it would be secluded enough for our purposes. I could open a rift and we could be gone before any of House Kiraugha, all of whom would sense the instant an unsanctioned rift opened on their land, could stop us.
Lukyan was already there and waiting for me when I arrived. Dressed the same way as me and carrying a single pack, he was leaning against the massive blue-black slab of marble that made up the Altar of Winds. An open dome let in the moonlight, and the nine pillars ranged around the altar cut up the moonlight into white shafts that fell across the polished floor.
"Right on time," he said, a grin spread tight across his handsome features. Dark hair fell over his forehead, shadowing eyes that I knew from past experience were the most amazing shade of storm blue.
"Punctual as always," I muttered, casting a nervous glance around me. I was sure I hadn't been seen or followed, but it never hurt to be careful.
He stepped forward, into a shaft of moonlight. "You ready?"
I turned back to him, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. "Yes."
"Let's get to it, then," he said, rubbing his hands together. "What do you need me to do?"
I pointed to the edge of the circle of pillars, away from the altar. "Stand there and don't move."
"I love it when you take charge," he murmured, moving to where I'd pointed. He let his arm trail down my spine as he passed, and I didn't stop the smile that curled my lips.
I closed my eyes and tried to settle all the worries and what-ifs storming through my thoughts. What if I couldn't open a rift? What if we were caught first? I let it all go, focusing everything I had on calling the power that I had but shouldn't. The ability to open a rift that only a precious few new about. The power that made me an abomination. Hunted.
The power I'd summoned shimmered through my veins like liquid heat. I raised my hands and forced that power outward, concentrating on the space just in front of me. A jagged streak of black split the air, and my ears popped with the sudden pressure change. I spread my palms and the blackness widened, forming a door of curling black nothingness. Colors slowly seeped through the shadows as the world beyond the portal began to resolve itself.
I smiled and turned to Lukyan.
Just in time to see the dark form standing behind him raise a fist of crackling energy.
"Look out!" I screamed, diving for him.
I crashed into him and we hit the ground in a heap, a bolt of hot white power skimming just over my head as we fell. In my haste, my grip on the portal slipped, and the rift I'd just opened flickered and shorted out with an angry pop, like a blown light bulb.
I rolled to my feet in time to intercept a bolt of lightning with a shield of my own. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lukyan adopt a fighting stance, his back angled toward mine. The shadows surrounding us made it hard to be sure, but I guessed there were half a dozen or so attackers, no doubt seasoned fighters from one of the Houses. I knew, even then, that the two of us had no chance against them. It was go down swinging or run.
I chose to run.
Summoning every extra ounce of power that wasn't currently keeping my shield up, I threw it all into ripping a portal open. The portal was clumsy at best, shining an angry red around the edges of the void. I wasn't sure where it would take us, and at that point I didn't much care.
One of the attackers darted forward, abandoning magic for a more straightforward fight. Moonshine glinted on the edge of a blade, aimed low for a crippling but nonlethal blow.
Curious, a detached part of my mind thought, even as I moved to block the attack. They still want us alive.
I could hear Lukyan grunt as he took a hit. I spun around, picking off one of his attackers with a lucky shot of rage-inspired lightning.
"Kyan, go!" I managed, dodging a dark figure who tried to tag me while I was already wrestling with another attacker. "Get through the rift!"
Someone swept my legs out from under me, and I went down hard. My head hit the ground, and white stars fizzed across my vision. A hand clamped around my arm, the fingers tightening painfully. No way, I thought. They weren't going to get us now. I wouldn't let them.
I popped my smallest blade from the sheath on the underside of my wrist and brought it up, jamming it clean through my attacker's forearm. With a pained yelp, the man loosened his grip on my arm. Taking advantage of his distraction, I aimed a kick at his midsection that sent him tumbling back and into a pillar.
"Kyan!" I screamed again. I picked out his form struggling against four others in the darkness. I leapt for him and managed to grab a fistful of his shirt, intending to drag him with my through the rift, ambush be damned.
I almost managed it, too. We were close, about a foot away from the sullen glare of the rift, when a force shocked through me and I lost my grip on Lukyan. I glanced back to see two figures pinning him to the ground. Power glowed around their hands, and I knew they were using a suppression spell to immobilize him. Painful, and very effective. One more trick I'd learned during my training.
Unfortunately, my momentum carried me forward, into the portal. My ears popped as I crossed the threshold between normal space and the rift, and the world beyond took on a violet-red hue. My mouth opened in a scream, and I tried to pull myself backward and out of the rift. It was like trying to run underwater, all resistance and muffled sound. Time stretched forever in a single second. Wetness streaked down my cheeks, and my throat felt raw.
I could have gone back for him. I know I could have. If I'd been just a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, I could have broken the rift's bond. I could have saved him.
I wasn't, and I didn't.
My last memory of Lukyan is the look on his face as the portal closed around me. His eyes slitted closed in pain, his head tilted toward the cloudless sky.
There was a sound like a sonic boom in reverse, and then black.
I didn't scream when I woke. I don't anymore. Instead, I woke in terrible silence with my heart thumping and a familiar, crushing weight.
After a minute, I rubbed the unshed tears from my eyes and sat up. The last rays of sunlight slanted through my window, the sky beyond shining a tarnished gold. I sighed, feeling the minutes until sundown tick away, taking with them any hope for a way around what was coming.
Man up, Emma, I told myself sternly as I got to my feet and padded to my closet. There's only one person who can deal with this, and it's you. And you're damn well going to.
Half an hour later, I was standing in the middle of my living room in front of the second portal I'd opened in as many days. My fingers were curled into fists at my side, the nails digging painfully into my palms. I blew out a controlled breath.
Then I stepped through the rift, back into the realm on which I swore I'd turned my back all those years ago.
Yeah. Life's a bitch that way.