Chapter Eight

He remained with her through the city streets, stealing along from window to window, and at times—once the sun grew higher and the day began to warm—following her through the flat smooth puddles dotting the roads. She was easy to find. It was growing easier and easier to find her, to think of her colors, her light. And there she’d be.

Right now she was crossing a busy intersection with a hand pressed to her hat, her skirts lifted to show a flash of ankles and silver-buckled shoes as she hurried along, dodging mules and carts and another carriage, this one drawn by a team in blinders that snorted and scrambled by her with only inches to spare. Her purple dress was pulled nearly sideways with their passage.

It about stopped his heart. If he’d still had one, that is. Bloody foreigners. He’d never seen such abominable driving, and he himself had come to his skills strictly by way of the inebriated mercies of the ostlers at Cambridge, none of whom had proven amiss to a bribe of guineas, no matter how the cattle protested.

She’d reached the other side of the intersection. He found a new set of windows fronting a tooth-puller’s shop scribbled in florid red paint—Monsieur Beland! Le Dentiste Celebre!—and kept by her side.

The symphony hounded him much as he hounded Zoe, slinking ever closer to his heels with its alluring siren call. The best he could do was to outrun it, or push it to the edges of his awareness. When he stilled it hovered, sometimes softer, sometimes aggressively forte, and always so spellbinding that if he devoted even a thread of himself to the flow of the notes, he was lost.

He was back in the assembly hall in Soho, or stranded on that gray little street.

But Zoe helped keep it at bay. Naked or dressed, she was his beacon. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t care. She kept the music away. That was enough.

It was a strange sort of death. There was no pain, no joy, no bright pleasure but what she brought him, and even that was more Rhys savoring her than Zoe attempting to bring him any manner of relief.

It had been so long since he had allowed himself truly to look at her. It was odd to realize that. They’d known each other forever, had been friends once, and then a little more than that. He imagined he knew her face and figure nearly like he knew his own. He knew her walk—gads, how many times had he watched her walk away from him back home? That sultry sashay, that swish of her skirts with her heels clicking like Spanish castanets against paving stones.

How many times had he spotted the radiance of her hair in a crowd of darker blondes, heard her laughter in the village tavern above all others, silvery and bright? How many times had he caught himself staring at her from across a room—common places, amicable places, the library or the tea shop or confectionary—simply absorbed in the complexity of her expressions? The way her lashes lowered when she was pensive and thinking. The pink curve of her lips when she was pleased, or pretending to be pleased. The flex of her fingers when a suitor bowed over them: ladylike, relaxed, not quite bent enough to be a true grasp in return. Not quite stiff enough to dash all hopes, either.

He’d grown up watching her yet keeping apart. In a way, this was no different. And so Rhys supposed if this was to be his eternity, he could have done far worse.

Except for the nudity. That bit was rather more hellish than not.

It seemed she truly was invisible, at least to human eyes. He couldn’t imagine any other reason for a gorgeous, unclad woman to be publicly ignored, even in France. And it made sense that if she wished to remain unseen, she would have to undress. Indeed, now that he thought about it, it reflected a certain lovely symmetry with the whole notion of the Turn, that to fully accept the wonders of this Gift, human things would be perforce left behind.

But she was not invisible to him. She was gloriously, achingly in sight.

He could not count the number of dreams he’d had about her over the years. Certainly he couldn’t count the daydreams, the hot fevered adolescent fantasies of her. They usually involved him and her and Fire Lake at home, the cool shady part of the lake. Swimming. The blue-green waters and the two of them splashing, and then there would be sun between them on the waves, a little blinding, and she would magically be without clothes, without the grave and unsmiling inhibitions that had kept him at arm’s length for so long . and they would come together with slippery arms and legs, and kiss .

Never in those dreams had he seen her as he did today. Unabashed. And—ah, God, his throat closed just evoking the details—running. Naked.

It aroused him. It frightened him. It left him nearly dizzy with agitation.

Invisibility. Of all the damned Gifts . It figured that Zoe Lane would get the one that left her unclothed and vulnerable, without even the ability to lift from the earth as smoke to escape their enemies.

Invisibility—and him: a ghost without freedom, the memory of a man. So not just one Gift, he realized, but two. With all the simmering power of their sires and dams, with all their generations of deliberate breeding to hone their skills, Zoe had these two.

Something had to be her shield, then. Something had to protect her.

Somehow.

He was tied to her for a reason. He could feel it.

Hell, it wasn’t as if he had anything more pressing to do.

Slipping into Tuileries by day was slightly more tricky than at night. Usually she managed it by waiting until the streets were a little more clear, and the shadows of the trees sent a pattern of dark confusion across the walk and walls. But the day was warming rapidly, without a cloud across the scrubbed blue sky. She simply had to brazen it out; the fact was, she wanted back in her rooms. She needed peace and calm, far from people and trembling animals, to think about what to do next.

If anyone saw her slip through the gate with the broken lock, no one said anything. Metal met metal with only small, musical chimes, and then she was gone to the trees.

She knew this place by now. She knew where to find the walks without gravel, when to remain behind tree trunks or overgrown hedges. The gardens themselves were vast and eerily haunting; it was easy to imagine kings and queens taking their leisure here, once upon a time. There were massive Egyptian statues of black basalt tucked away in overgrown arbors, ponds with lily pads and algae spreading green across once-polished pink alabaster. The lawns were still weeded but the fountains and jets bubbled with water no more; their pumps were frozen shut.

There was even a labyrinth of hawthorn hedges with shoots that had poked out and blossomed untrimmed. She’d memorized the path from her room, then tried it one night, just because. In its center she’d discovered a bronze sculpture of Venus, a magnificent web of moonlight and dew fanning from her ear to her shoulder, the spider a dark round dot by the loop of her earring.

Barring the occasional bored soldier walking about, the royal gardens of Tuileries remained deserted. But for today.

Far off in the distance she could make out the blue-and-gold coats of an army company, a huge group clustered by the central entrance to the palace. It startled her enough that she withdrew behind a chestnut and remained there, watching.

One of the soldiers was standing on a box and speaking to the rest, his words nearly loud enough to make out. At a barked command the mass of men fell into order, their stamped boots echoing across the air.

Zoe sighed and began once again to remove her coat and the lavender gown. At least it wasn’t as chilly as this morning.

When she stepped out of the trees the sunlight felt like welcome on her back. She’d tucked her clothing beneath a bench so forgotten by the groundskeepers it was more moss and lichen than iron filigree.

Her feet had picked up more filth. It was the only sure way to follow her, the strangely inverted soles of grime that pressed into the grass and rocks. Perhaps no one would notice.

Or perhaps they would.

Zut.

She was seated invisible at the edge of a reflecting pool that held the rainfall from last night, rubbing her feet together beneath the chilled water, her skin goose-pimpled, when he spoke.

“What did we learn this morning?”

She took a good look around before answering him, but the soldiers were still acres away.

“I have the name of the man who drove Hayden to Dijon. Later on today .” She paused, thinking about it. “Later today I’ll go back. If he’s in town, I’ll find him.”

“Back to the stables.” “Yes.”

“With all those quiet, peaceful horses, which aren’t at all horrified by the mere hint of your presence.”

Rhys was a dark ripple across the surface of the pool, a handsome silhouette just visible, gray smoke writhing like tendrils, overlapping where her own image should be.

“The coachmen can’t spend all their time in the stables,” she mused. “If he’s here, he’ll want to go out at night at least. Men like to gamble. Men like to drink. Cards. Women.”

“Yes,” drawled Rhys. “We men are funny like that.”

“Well, then. I’ll simply go out with them.”

“Splendid.”

“I am female. I’ll be where they are, happy to engage with them. What could be more natural?”

“Great God,” said the shadow, faint. “And then what? An interrogation over whist and port? You’ll charm the truth out of him?”

She leaned forward to see him better, and the water sloshed around her ankles. “You think I’m a child still, don’t you? You think I’m weak.”

“I think,” he said carefully, “that you have a somewhat elevated sense of your own ruthlessness. Zoe, consider it. Until the sanf arrived, you’d never even left the shire. You have spent your entire life cocooned in a place designed strictly to enforce your own sense of security, to remind you of your matchlessness. This”—he lifted a shadow arm, a dark stabbing slash across the shining blue sky—”all this is the human world. It’s rough and raw and it stinks and it cheats. And their rules are not like ours.”

“No,” she murmured, watching the soldiers march smartly in place, bayonets flashing in the distance. “Their rules are more honest.”

She actually felt his anger. It rolled over her like a winter storm, prickling her skin worse. “Damn it, Zee, why do you have to be so stubborn? What do you honestly think you can do against them?”

“A great many things,” she answered calmly. “Invisible, remember?”

He seemed to grow thicker upon the water, more opaque. “Have you even thought this through? What were you planning to do after?”

“After what?”

“After everything.” He waved a hand. “All this. Your search. Your vengeance. Death to the sanf inimicus, all glory to the drakon.

She stared at the smear of him upon the pool.

“Don’t you ever want to go home?” the shadow asked, more gently. “Doesn’t home matter to you?”

He saw her look away, her jetty gaze searching the horizon, then dropping down to her hands flat upon her thighs. She hadn’t even realized yet how he had found her. That she was supposedly unseen, and yet he was here.

“If Hayden is dead …” she began, and swallowed, and for some unknown reason Rhys’s heart clenched. She took a breath and went on. “If he’s dead, then I don’t really know what home is left for me anywhere.”

“Zee. The shire is your birthright. Your family’s still there. You’re young and beautiful. You’re Gifted, Gifts like no one else’s. There’s not a chance in Hades you’d be left .”

Alone,he almost said. Unwed. And then he realized what it meant.

She was Gifted, extraordinarily so. She would belong to the Alpha. But not to Rhys’s father— wed—and not to his brother—engaged.

To him. The sole male of his line yet single, yet unattached. To him.

She was still staring down at her hands. He saw the corners of her lips quirk, a cynical little smile that managed to reveal a flash of dimples.

Oh, God. Oh, God, she was pretty.

“Yes,” she murmured, as if she’d read his mind. “I know. In some ways, we’re less enlightened than the Others, no matter how you protest otherwise. By a twist of chance, I can do this.” She lifted straight a lovely long leg that dripped water but cast no shadow, left no reflection upon the pool beyond the diminutive, spreading circles of falling drops. “And so in the eyes of the tribe I become less than a person. Less than even a female. I become a belonging. Chattel.”

“No,” he whispered. “You’re precious, don’t you see? Like a diamond. Like treasure.”

“Or like a well-bred sow.” She came to her feet, stepping delicately from the pool.

Sunlight blazed across her, every naked inch of her. She stood still and held a hand to her eyes to shield them—would that even help?—staring hard at the men now marching in an infinite square around the front of the park to the shouted orders of their leader.

Her breasts. Rosy nipples tight with cold. The enticing curve of her waist. Her legs slightly apart, her hair flowing and stirring against her hips, that sweet patch of curls lower down, brown like her lashes. She was a stern Diana gazing out at her domain, preparing for the hunt.

Holy hell. If only he were still alive.

“I’m going in now,” she said.

He nodded, then cleared his throat. “Yes. All right.”

She walked away. He watched her, slipping from pool to pool, then to the windows of the palace, until she was past the soldiers, all the way inside.

* * *

The girl was different from all the others.

She wasn’t wearing white, for one thing, the standard style of dress for young women inclined to dance. Her frock was instead a sober dark gray shot with some sort of glisteny blue thread; every time she moved the dress changed colors, shifting from gray to sapphire beneath the light of the sconces set high along the walls. And although she sat at a table with a group of other laughing, sweating girls and quite a few beaux, she didn’t speak to them. She barely glanced at them.

She did wear the same colorful coronet of paper flowers across her brow that nearly all the girls here did; they were handed out at the door, so that wasn’t too surprising. But on her the stiff orange and violet blooms seemed more vivid, more like real flowers than not.

Yet what set her apart most of all from all the other bright-eyed jeunes femmes in the dance hall tonight was simply her looks.

She was the most beautiful woman around, by far. Beneath the flowers, beneath her loosely pinned and powdered hair was a face unmatched by any he’d seen in years. And he’d seen quite a few faces. No sweat, no wine-flushed cheeks. Just pure … ice.

He was a man from the countryside, not the putrid city. He’d grown up amid fields of wheat and poppies and placid cows. He was still most comfortable there, out there on those endless roads that rambled through the seasons, and to him, this girl had a winter kind of beauty, like snow falling thick and hushed in the woods. Or stars twinkling against an ebony sky.

She’d been asked to dance at least five times since he’d first noticed her, and she’d refused them all with a dazzling smile, gathering men around her as easily as if she’d beckoned them with the crook of her finger.

He took a swig of his beer. The beauty leaned back in her chair and threw him a sidelong look; he caught a glimpse of that smile again, this time aimed straight at him.

One of his fellows gave him an encouraging kick under the table. Alain dropped his eyes and scratched at a sudden itch beneath his hat.

Tres bien.

* **

The dance hall was in what appeared to be the shell of a medieval chapel. The pews had been torn out to make way for the tables, but the floor still revealed traces of their anchors, the uneven edges of stone tripping up the unwary. There was a rose window above the musicians, a stained-glass medallion still blossoming with color, blood-red and cobalt and goldenrod, a weeping saint in the very middle gazing down at the merrymakers below.

The ceiling was arched and hazed with pipe smoke. A woman in a citron gown and spangled wrap was singing up on the dais, her palms spread, her throat arched; the beads and feathers decorating her wig swayed impressively every time she moved her head. Zoe couldn’t really tell if she was any good. The woman sang and the people clapped and stomped and prattled; the limestone walls and floors muddled everything into a constant roar. She imagined the couples dancing in their lines managed it by the rhythm of the violoncello alone.

The barkeep behind the counter set up in the vestry never stopped moving. Mugs and glasses clattered against wood, beer and wine from the casks behind him leaving a wet sticky mess across every surface.

She’d never been to a dance hall before. The closest thing Darkfrith had to one was Cerise’s tavern, which on special occasions would accommodate a revelry if all the tables and benches were pushed back. Zoe was comfortable enough amid the smoke and shouting and noise; at least she wasn’t having to serve the crowd.

It was largely working-class, a sprinkling of young noblemen here and there, their shiny coats and waistcoats more garish than the plain tans and browns of the woolens most of the men wore. For the price of five sous she’d slipped easily into the chaos, sipping at her glass of watered red wine, watching the coachman and his friends across the chamber.

All the narrow windows to the chapel were shuttered. If Rhys lurked somewhere in the stained glass above her, she couldn’t see him.

There were five men from the yard. She’d stolen enough of their thoughts to follow them here; by the time she was certain of the address, they were on their third or fourth beers, which made their minds brightly sloppy but surprisingly easy to perceive. The one named Alain, the one from the book entry, was the most subdued of the group, hardly speaking. He had a plait wrapped in a brown ribbon, pocked skin, eyes as black as her own. And he’d been stealing glances at her from behind his mug for nearly half an hour now.

If she glanced up, straight up, she could see the cloak of blue darkness hovering over her like the spread wings of a hawk. She could feel it, the silence of it, the hunger. The spirits trapped inside. To the people jammed around her it was as invisible as Zoe herself could be. Yet to her it hung opaque, sharpened to life by the strength of her own nerves and ire.

“I never knew you to dance,” said a familiar voice.

Her gaze returned to the rose window, but the only shadows there were still thrown from the sconces.

“Doesn’t seem your style,” Rhys continued. “All that frolicking about. All that fun. Where’s that dour little bluestocking who’d rather read Sophocles than flirt?”

The wineglass. He was there, small and curved, just beneath her fingers.

“I doubt most sincerely you fathom anything about my style,”she muttered under her breath, although there was little chance of being overheard.

“Zee,” said the shadow against her wine. “Truly. I have an odd feeling about all this. I think you should leave. We can—we’ll make a better plan tomorrow.”

She set down the glass and smiled at the black-eyed coachman who’d finally walked up, bowing low before her.

She lifted her hand to him and allowed him to lead her out to the floor, the indigo cloak trailing in a long arcing scythe behind.

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