CHAPTER TWENTY

1

For the first time in her life, Draumr whispered to her, I’m ready.

And with that message came the music, always the music, thick and heady, drawing her in a straight line to a pair of lonely mountaintops and then down, down a tapered chasm that widened into a gorge below, a river of green ice moving with winter sluggishness around boulders and decaying logs.

The mountains were hollow. She felt it, the bitter channels that burrowed through them, connecting in warrens of wasted water and ore, splitting off again.

Draumr called, Yes! Here!

But she didn’t need the stone’s guidance by then. Very few paths cut through the firs and austere pastures; a parcel of men gathered along one of them, standing outside a square, gaping hole in the mountainside.

Lia shot toward them, very fast. A few looked up and pointed, but she was too high, too swift. She passed them in a gray arrow, soaring straight into the tunnel.

There were lanterns set about on the ground, picking out the lines of an old iron track. They showed her the narrow confines of the mine, the flaked rock and inky depths. There was a rope snaking alongside them, descending into the unknown. Lia followed it.

The air about her grew close and humid, cold enough to freeze crystals into the wooden beams and along the chipped walls, arabesques of light in glittering crevices. As smoke the cold meant nearly nothing to her; she could still slice through it, she could still maneuver and duck and turn. But she began to wonder what it was going to be like when she had to Turn back.

Don’t think about it. Just get that stone.

The rope kept on, occasionally lit by those lanterns. She was moving quickly, so quickly that when she passed Imre he barely had time to glance up at her-but he did. The tunnel was tight and she could not avoid him: he lifted his hand to her, the cuff of his coat falling back, his fingers opening a wake through her center as she flew past.

Damn it. She floundered, swirling, struggling in her velocity to pinch herself back together. He vanished as she fell down another level of the mines, and the diamond’s song shuddered through her, the notes pitched sharp and painful. She clouded against an empty shaft, hanging there until the ache began to weaken.

The rope dropped straight downward. The glow of another lantern rose up like hellfire from the bottom of the earth.

She slithered down. Draumr echoed in widening waves, bouncing back off the vertical tunnel, doubling, tripling, louder and louder, and Lia understood what Mari had been trying to tell her: to go farther would be madness.

But she did.

Zane was with the light, in a small landing littered with rocks and the rusted remains of a toppled cart. He was staring up at the shaft she was descending, the rope wrapped in coils around his arm. He was breathing frost, his hair pulled back, his eyes narrowed. He wore heavy boots and gloves and a fur coat and hat she had not seen before-all courtesy of Imre, no doubt.

“Amalia.”

She did not stop. She hardly slowed. Draumr sucked her down past him and she let it, almost floating. She was ahead of him now. She was going to win. She was going to reach the diamond before anyone, take control of her destiny, and save her people and the man she loved, and if anyone tried to stop her-

But she had forgotten something important. Something she’d known, and had forgotten.

It was a peculiar limitation of the dr?kon that actual sight was necessary for the Turn. The sages said that for every Gift there was a balance, and for Turning it was this: all surroundings must be visible. Without sight, this Gift was gone. The surest way to constrain her kind was with a blindfold or a hood. It was used as one of the harshest punishments in Darkfrith, on runners or the particularly wicked. A very few offenders were offered the choice between permanent blindness or death. Most chose death.

As a dr?kon who could not Turn, Lia had never deeply considered it. Her world had been smaller, and far more human. When her brothers and sisters put their heads together over tea or backgammon and compared their limitations, Lia had only sat apart, watching them, thinking, So, so lucky…

It happened that a pitch-dark cavern eliminated her sight. As the last of Zane’s light faded behind her, Lia found herself gathering, a raincloud set to descend. Before she could control it, she Turned back into woman, staggering against the uneven floor.

She fell to her knees. She scraped her palms. She caught herself against a wall-she thought it was a wall-and knelt there, panting, the utter darkness wrapping around her.

Draumr showed no mercy. The song was a hammer inside her head, thunderous and unremitting; her skin went to gooseflesh and her body began to clench. She staggered to her feet, using the wall to guide her upright. She took a step forward and sank calf-deep into glacial water, the cold so fierce that for a full second she didn’t even feel it. And then-

She began to stumble ahead, one hand still tracing the wall. Nine hitched breaths-long enough to numb her to her knees-and she was out of it, climbing atop a pile of chipped stone, hugging her arms to herself, bowing her head.

I’m here, here, here, Here, HERE, HERE-

The diamond wasn’t far; the song was screeching through her in something close to agony. Surely it was nearby, not even in another shaft. She took a blind step forward, and then another. On her fifth step, she splashed down into a lake.

Perhaps it wasn’t a lake. It felt like one. There was no bottom, no sides. Only water. And she could not swim.

HERE, HERE, HERE-

Draumr rested at its bed, she was certain of it. Lia flailed and struggled, finding her head above water for a few precious seconds-enough to gulp a lungful of air-and sank again. She lost the feeling in her legs and fingers. She lost all direction. She held her breath and let gravity steal her weight, controlling her panic. Pressure at her ankles, solid stone: she had reached the lake bottom.

She bent down. She stretched out her arms. With her lungs burning, she crept and crawled like a crab, searching, following the song-she was so near-

But it had taken too long. She ran out of air.

Stupid, stupid-and too late. She tried to push up against the bottom, but it wasn’t enough to break the surface. She was being pressed thin in the icy water, suspended, and no matter how she fought, there was no longer any up or down. There was only black liquid, and Draumr retreating into silence inside her head, the opposite of her booming heart.

…here…

With the last pulse of the diamond, Amalia succumbed. The air left her body in a rush of gently rising bubbles.

Something grabbed her by the neck. She was jerked upward-tugs and pulls. Then she could breathe again, and the something turned out to be an arm clenched around her, and a solid man at her back.

She made no noise beyond purling water as Zane hauled her to a precipice of rock.

“Get up. Get up there! Goddamnit, Lia, wake up-”

He climbed out first, dragging her after him. She rolled onto the stone and retched. She was coughing, freezing, and Zane was hanging over her with his hair dripping onto her face.

“Lia!”

She realized that she could see him. There was a lantern chucked sideways in a pile of gravel-the same pile she must have mired through before; there were her footprints-its light spitting and threatening to die. But she could see him. The space of the cavern, huge and ominous, chunks of rock and ore glistening. The rough face of the lake-God, it was a lake-still blackly chopped, his coat and hat tossed at its brink.

His palms chafed her cheeks. His lashes were wet, he was scowling and saying words she no longer heard.

Lia Turned. She rose up in an arc and poured herself down to the lake, pushing hard at the thicker water, forcing herself beneath the surface skin.

Smoke was not meant to divide heavier elements; it took velocity and focus and great determination. It took desperation and Draumr singing her on. But she knew now where she was going. She would get as close as she could, Turn to woman, reach the diamond, and bring it back to the air, throw it somewhere high where Zane could not reach, Turn again-

Just a few feet under, the water pushed her back into her human shape. She kicked downward, sinking again into the frigid depths.

She felt, rather than heard, the impact of Zane’s body striking the surface. She felt him above and behind her, moving more swiftly than she.

Zane, of course, could swim.

But Draumr wanted her to win. She knew it. It was what kept her falling into blindness, and silence, and pressure, until there was only the diamond again in her head.

HERE HERE-HERE-HERE-HEREHEREHERE!

And there it was. Even through silt and the baleful black waters it shone, a spark of pale blue, a call and a cast of light that drew her forward. Her arm reached out. Zane was on top of her.

From the edge of her vision she saw his hand, his movements barely perceptible yet matched to hers so perfectly it was as if they had rehearsed it, a slow water dance, their fingers open, their wrists straight, trajectory and purpose exactly aligned, and only the split-second advantage she had over him, the fact that she was a foot lower, meant her fingertips touched the diamond first.

Lia closed her hand over it.

Pain exploded through her, instantly, horrifically. In a storm of silt she thrashed and screamed, her fingers clenched around Draumr, and she could not let go, she wanted to let go but her fingers would not open again-

1

Rue was in her garden at dawn. She enjoyed its early-morning hush just as much in the winter as in the full bloom of summer. Winter brought its own gifts, holly berries, dried grass that crushed beneath her feet as fragrant as straw. She enjoyed the notion of the world tucked asleep, of the plants holding their lives curled tight and safe inside their stems, waiting for spring.

She walked alone this morning, a bengal shawl about her shoulders, witnessing the salmon-pink light lift into blue. Behind her slumbered the gilded cage that was Chasen, holding dr?kon servants and her husband and two of her children. This early in the day, only the restless and the chambermaids were up.

Something sparked overhead, not a dragon. She looked up and caught the tail of a comet, a blaze of fiery gold streaked across the heavens, widening and fading, a thousand fireflies falling to earth.

For no reason at all, it sent a needle of panic through her heart.

Amalia, she thought.

The marchioness let loose her shawl. She picked up her stylish skirts and ran back to the manor house.

1

She Turned to dragon. Right there beneath the lake, writhing in silent fury. As a dragon Lia released the stone, pushing past the human man who bobbled at her side, using all her might to erupt up into the cavern, fountains of water streaming from her wings and neck and scales. She smashed into the ceiling, unstoppable, slapped along the walls, still screaming without voice. True dragons made no sound; she only smacked, over and over again, against the confines of the hollowed rock.

Another man stood watching at the mouth of a tunnel, a tiny black figure edged in light. She howled toward him, Turning to smoke only at the last instant, raging out past him toward fresh air and sky.

1

She’d struck his head with her tail. He’d thought it was her tail, but it could have been a wing, or a leg-it was enough to disorient him, to leave him floating too long without breath or measure. In his daze he thought he saw the diamond drifting past him from where she’d dropped it, rounded blue light, a crystal star trapped with him in these dark waters. He reached for it and missed, his fingers sweeping across nothing. The light faded.

Zane grimaced and swam after it. He would have to breathe soon, it was hurting too much, but if he looked away from the diamond now he’d likely not find it again. It was too dim here, the waters too deep. It might take weeks to search the lake.

He did not have weeks. Judging by what happened to Lia, he had barely minutes.

He began to curse in his mind, every filthy word in every language he knew, mild oaths, dirty ones, the crudest street slang he hadn’t let himself use in years, all distractions to the fact that his body was dying, that his lungs were collapsing, and soon he’d have to give it up or give up his life, because he couldn’t find it, it was gone, and he was done, he was exhaling-

There. There it was, a glint of blue. With a last surge of strength Zane stretched for it-and got it.

His legs worked. Pressing his lips closed was the most heroic thing he’d ever done in his life, because every part of him was clawing for release, for breath, for air

The water broke around him. He sucked in a mouthful of lake with the air and coughed it back out, still wheezing, still grateful, and fumbled his way over to the ledge he’d found for Lia. He forced his body to the rock, rolling, dragging his legs from the water, his ears ringing and the light from his lantern beginning to die.

But…there was a diamond in his hand. It was heavy and even colder than the atmosphere. When he could, he lifted his arm and squinted at it, a smooth, uncut stone, breathtaking even without facets, sending a buzzing nearly up his arm.

He had the strangely random thought that since Draumr was here, the dead princess would be too. In his exhaustion he sent up a prayer for her, just a few words, as the water streamed from his clothing along the rubbled stone, leaking around him in puddles and dripping back into the lake.

Thank you.

“Thank you,” echoed a voice above him, but in French. “You’ve done what I could not. I appreciate it. I admire your courage, my friend. Almost I regret to kill you.” The prince stepped into view, smiling, a pistol leveled in his hand. “Almost.”

“Stop,” Zane croaked, and again felt that buzzing in his fist. The prince paused, then shook his head.

“It’s no good.” He began to creep down the sharp slope of the entrance, raining pebbles upon the mound that held the lantern below. “One of the discrepancies in my blood, I think, but Draumr won’t work on me. Yet I have no doubt it will do very well for your wife and mine. I’m quite eager to meet my new English family.”

The Shadow of Mayfair had a bounty of three hundred fifty pounds upon his head, and that was only because he’d been diligently bribing the deputy mayor not to make it more. He’d been imprisoned twice and walked out both times with a fresh cadre of men at his back. He owned watchmen and magistrates and three quarters of the shares of a very respectable textile factory to cover his tracks.

He was not entirely credulous.

There were weapons hidden about him, small deadly things concealed on his body, in his clothes, none of which he could reach in time. But in all his plans, in all his calculations, Zane had been certain the conditions of the tunnels were too humid for gunpowder to ignite properly.

He’d been wrong.

He hurled the diamond at the lantern just as Imre fired. For a fleeting second the cavern flashed white with the spark of the pistol, then dissolved into pitch.

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