Breakfast was a quiet affair. By the listless light of the kitchen hearth, she’d slapped together a meal from the sole items left in the larder: poached eggs and olive oil, a crumbly white goat cheese, and sausage links fried in cast iron. Coffee and milk and the last lemony wedge of the
So the eggs were overdone. She’d disguised it by adding more oil to them than they required, but the results were adequate.
If Hayden and the Zaharen wanted an actual chef, they should have hired one.
Both were up and dressed by the time she was finished. She was on her second cup of coffee when they joined her in the dining room. She was seated upon the bench of the bay window with a hand lifted to hold back the lace panel curtain, watching the people leave their houses, sleepy-eyed maids and wives off to buy bread. Footmen walking dogs. Shop girls. Knife grinders hauling clunky wooden carts. Errand boys in ragged shirts and loose stockings. The sun was rising into a sharp new sky, layering shadows tinted lapis across the trees and sidewalks and everyone below.
She could not see Rhys. It was strange, though, because she could feel him. That touch of glacial cold, a subtle shiver to the air. But she did not call to him, and he never showed his face.
That was fine. Better than fine. For what she was about to do, she needed no distractions.
Hayden and Sandu fell upon the dishes she’d brought to the sideboard. The poached eggs were the last to disappear, but in the end, there wasn’t even the smallest speck of cheese left.
“I’m going out today,” Zoe said into their silence.
Both of them only looked at her. She was wearing her lavender gown this morning, a necklace of amethysts and sapphires that sparkled with her every breath. The matching ear bobs were heavy but she wore them as well, and a bracelet of solid worked gold.
“I can’t stay locked up here any longer. I’m useless and I’m bored. I want to come with you. I want to hunt. No—” She lifted a hand as Hayden opened his mouth; she could almost hear his
She Turned invisible. The prince started in his chair and exclaimed something in a flowing, unfamiliar language; Hayden only blinked a few times at her necklace.
She’d wanted to be clearly seen both beforehand and after. She’d wanted the jolt of resplendent jewels floating in midair, for there to be no mistaking what they were witnessing. From the expressions on their faces, her plan was successful.
Zoe willed herself visible. She looked directly at her fiance, into his shocked gaze.
“That’s how I did it. That’s how I escaped Darkfrith. If we return there unwed, they’ll take me from you, Hayden. They’ll give me to the Alpha. To someone in his line. I don’t want that. I hope that you don’t, either.”
“Zoe.” He pushed back his chair and crossed the room to her, kneeling before her. He took her hand in both of his; the bracelet slid back upon her arm. “For the second time in too few days, you’ve handed me the revelation of a lifetime. You’re Gifted. I had no idea. Darling.” His voice sank into a hush. “I had no idea.”
Rhys was there. Suddenly, a mist against the wallpaper, standing alone.
“It was a revelation to me as well,” she said. “And I wanted to tell you before. Truly.”
“Are there more like you?” asked the Zaharen prince eagerly. He leaned forward with his elbows on the table, his thin face alight. “More females in your tribe who can do that?”
“No,” answered Hayden and Rhys together, and when she looked at him, Rhys lifted his chin and curved his shadow lips. His gaze swept her from head to toe from beneath thick lashes. “She’s the only one.”
It was agreed that she would go out to replenish their supplies. She’d expected that much; they would consider shopping a feminine obligation, and the prince at least appeared cheerful enough to have her take it over. But both Hayden and Sandu balked at anything more daring. They refused even to consider taking her along on their stalking of
True, she could not fly. But if she were to decide to follow them anyway, she doubted very much either of them would notice. Definitely a human would not. But it would be ruddy cold stealing about Paris all day, through back alleys and passageways and God knew where, without a scrap of clothing to shield her.
She agreed to shop for them. She deftly did not agree to anything else but turned the conversation sideways whenever Hayden seemed about to grow adamant that she not place herself in danger: crowds, streets, the Seine, churches, docks, anything involving public gardens or theatres or musicians. That would eliminate about 98 percent of the city, she reckoned.
She was in her room, removing the jewels, when he tapped at her door.
Yet he hung back at the doorway, looking decidedly awkward. He wore a lawn shirt that needed bleach and a vest of dull bronze satin. She turned amid the pink-and-yellow frill of her little chamber and waited for him to speak.
“I don’t know if you ever received my last missive to you. I franked it from this dot of a town near the coast … It was a long while ago.”
“Yes,” Zoe said. “I still have it.”
He flashed a quick smile. “Do you indeed? You might recall I mentioned finding something for you.” The floor squeaked when he shifted his weight; he came forward only a few steps. “It’s nothing much. Certainly nothing compared to what you already have, but when I saw it, I was reminded of you. I was hoping it might please you. I planned to give it to you once back in England, but I thought that now might be a better time.” He delved into the slit pocket of his vest with two fingers, retrieved a ring. She caught a flicker of pure limpid blue.
“It’s only a tourmaline. Not very rare, I’m afraid.” He placed it in her hand, and Zoe lifted it to the window.
“It’s beautiful.” And it was, a gold filigree band, the square-cut stone within it purling song and light. “Why, it matches your eyes,” she said, surprised.
He laughed, discomfited. “I know. How indecorous of me. It’s supposed to match yours, but the shop was so small, and the fellow didn’t have jet or obsidian or anything so fine a black. He had this.”
She closed her fingers over the ring. “I love it.”
“Do you? Really?”
“Hayden. It’s quite perfect.”
He let out his breath on a grin; in that instant, he looked years younger, almost boyish. “Splendid. Yes. Of course, I’ll buy you something better later on. Diamonds, naturally. All the diamonds you like.”
She slipped the ring on her finger, held it up between them to be admired.
“I say. It does look well on you, doesn’t it?”
His smile faded. He stood there gazing at her, sun warming his face and eyelashes, glimmering in spears across the bronze-threaded vest.
“Zoe. I don’t like this plan of you going out alone, even to such communal places. I know, I know I agreed to it, but”—he ran a finger under his cravat—”it seems absurdly risky. We know for a fact there are more sanf
“If that’s the case,” she said, “I’m hardly safer here.”
“Aye. I’ve thought of that too.” He lifted a hand, touched a lock of hair that lay across her shoulder, his gaze following the downward stroke of his fingers. “I have so many fears for you. Should anything happen to you, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Rhys had said nearly the same thing to her, not so very long past. The ghost of Lord Rhys, standing before her in the gloaming dusk of a backyard garden.
“Don’t think such thoughts.” She smiled up at him, and it was only a little forced. “Nothing is going to happen to me. I’m the most formidable creature on the Continent. You’ll see.”
* * *
The sidewalk of the gray street actually felt hard against his back. He found himself mildly surprised at that, that he would enjoy the sensation of pavers, a pebble digging into the tender center of his left shoulder blade. Rhys tried to recall if he’d ever noticed it before, that the street felt so genuine. That he could hear the leaves rustle on the yellow shrub and hear the wind tumble decayed filth and debris along the gutters.
He was retreating here more and more. Depressing as his little street was, he found it more palatable than the vivid colors and demolishing music of the assembly hall.
This place felt closer to life. It did have that.
He found his familiar stretch of stone and settled back. The street was bathed in daylight and the gray people passed hither and yon. Rhys took up an entire section of the sidewalk and although no one looked at him still, although not one single person glanced downward, no one stepped on him. Or through him, as the case might have been. Perhaps it was some deep-coiled human instinct, avoiding even unseen peril; none of the Others breached this space, even when they had to move around him or take a little hop over his arm or head. He lay undisturbed, staring up at the underside of the gabled hip roof overhead, and relived last night again and again in his mind’s eye.
James had been such a willing vessel. Inhabiting him had been far easier, and far more pleasant, than plunging into the dying coachman or the elderly flower gent. James was healthy, for one thing. Healthy and robust, and taking control of his body had been like slipping on someone else’s glove. A tight but tolerable fit. It had taken him a few minutes to get the hang of it, moving the lax arms and legs the way Rhys wished them to go. In the joy of fresh sensation—the cotton nightshirt upon his body, the blessed ordinary creaks and scents of a house bedded down for the evening—he’d nearly forgotten his true purpose.
Nearly, but not, needless to say, completely. And that had been the most intense joy of all.
Touching her. Tasting her. Feeling her response to him—to the Hayden/Rhys drakon he’d created, that sleeping body brimming to the brink with his own black passion—letting himself believe, just for those few fervent minutes, that it was only he whom she loved. That it was he she wanted to kiss. Had he been able to carry his plan to fruition, the evil symphony could have consumed him for the rest of his life—his afterlife—and it would have been worth it.
As it was, it had damn near been worth it anyway.
He could handle her anger. He could understand it, even. He’d freely admit the entire scheme had been underhanded, a despicable trick, and had he a wisp of scruples, he’d be feeling properly miserable about it all. But Rhys thought perhaps his scruples had vanished with his mortal body; he wasn’t sorry in the least. He regretted nothing beyond wounding her through her discovery of him. Hayden James was a fatheaded imbecile not to have claimed her already, and Rhys regretted nothing.
Which brought him back to one of the other costs of his actions last night: He was weakened now. He had reached that state of numbed exhaustion that meant he would be prone here on this sidewalk for probably some while to come. He’d been able to slip into her world twice this morning, long enough for her chiding, and then, later, to watch her defiantly claim her powers in front of James and the other
It was better to rest here a while, anyway. Let Zoe’s temper smooth itself out.
She’d forgive him this, he was certain of it. She had to, he needed her to. He loved her and would not let go of her; by their nature, she was his, in spirit and disposition, and he was even willing to share her with a living dragon if that was what it took to keep her. And so she would forgive him.
Despite Hayden’s admonitions, Zoe had come so very close to abandoning her word and tracking them across the city. It was a temptation that expanded inside her like a steel bubble, far stronger than she’d expected, and she’d had to sit down at a cafe on rue St. Denis to resist the urge to fling out the cloak and ensnare their trail of thoughts, to throw herself into the thick of their world, whether they liked it or not.
She hadn’t told them about the cloak. Part of her had to admit that it was more than just that she had not found the proper time or place; she could have done it this morning, probably. She could have tried to demonstrate it by capturing the thoughts of either of them, but unless the cloak cooperated, she’d be showing off nothing. Revealing her invisibility had been a furtive sort of test; she wanted to keep her most powerful secret in reserve, hold it close to her heart just in case they tried to restrain that too.
Just in case.
The day had lost its luminous clarity already, and clouds roiled an ominous yellow-brown along the eastern edge of the sky. The wind had a bite to it, and so when she took her cup of tea and biscuits she sat inside the petite cafe with all the other patrons, glad for her gown and serge coat, and the gloves of kidskin on her lap. Still, she could not shake the chill that seemed determined to sneak up on her; she’d chosen a table by the grate of the fire, and only the half of her body closest to it seemed to keep any warmth.
With the chill, Hayden’s ring was looser upon her finger. She fiddled with it absently with her thumb, sliding the band around and around.
The tea was tepid; most Parisians seemed to prefer coffee, and finding a decent pot of tea was difficult even amid the most fashionable of neighborhoods. She found herself gazing down at the round moon of its surface in her cup, searching for a reflection that was not there.
She remembered his kisses. Hayden’s kisses. How welcome they had been at first, and then . how peculiar. Even as she’d embraced him, she’d felt the change in his body. At first she’d refused to acknowledge it, even to herself, because she told herself in that darkened bedroom, upon that narrow child’s bed, it was what she wanted. What she’d wanted for so long: to be accepted, to be desired. And there he was, unexpectedly all that she wished. She’d known in her heart it was too good to be true.
Rhys. Wicked, wily, unconscionable Rhys, with his smoking halo and sharp green eyes, who told her openly how much he wanted her and damn the consequences. Who told her bluntly how he liked her, how their dragon nature and their animal passion bonded hearts. Who was so determined to prove their connection he’d invaded the body of a fellow clansman, and pressed his lips—Hayden’s lips—to her skin, tasted her with his tongue.
Zoe brought her hands up to her cheeks. Hot color flooded them, made even the centers of her palms seem cold, but the cafe was nearly empty, and no one paid her any mind.
It had been so dreadful and so acutely wonderful. To be held like that, half-naked like that, stretched out upon the bed. To be stroked. To feel passion without the winter sting of his touch—
She removed her hands from her face. She brought the tea to her lips, attempting to relish the relative coolness of the liquid: inoffensive and flavorless. Everything opposite of the confusion that boiled inside her.
She would not be so idiotic as to fall in love with a memory. That he had a sort of substance, a manner of opacity and a great deal of sweet persuasion that went with his nefarious behavior did not make him alive, or real, or worth the risk of giving him her heart.
The clouds were swelling closer. She smelled the rain in them, the thunder that ached for release. The bell over the cafe door gave a merry tinkle; a group of pastel-clad ladies rushed in with a bluster of wind, laughing in happy tones, exclaiming over the coming storm. Their maids waited outside, huddled in bonnets and coats.
Instinctively, more out of habit than anything else, Zoe pulled the deep blue cloak about her, then flung it out in a circle with herself in its eye.
It returned to her with Rhys caught in its folds, his light brighter and brighter, and then he was there with her. There in the chair opposite hers, just like a living man, one arm draped over the back and his booted feet crossed.
She sighed. She set down the teacup, placed a few
He followed her, naturally. He kept near to her shoulder, glancing about at the brightly polished shops of imported lace and Indian silk like a tourist, then back down at her.
She gave a nod of acknowledgment, stuffing her hands into her gloves. “From him, I must suppose.” She only sent him a look.
“What,” he said, “he couldn’t bother to find a black diamond?”
She paused with her back and skirts flattened to a building to allow a sedan chair past; a little brown dog staring bug-eyed out the window at her began to howl most piercingly, hushed by a woman’s voice. Rhys drifted ahead, turning to walk backward when she started off again.
“Are you still angry with me?”
She rolled her eyes, kept walking. The hues of the day were browning, changing shades with the coming of the storm, and there was a mercer’s in particular she wished to find before the rain began. She’d seen it once after she’d first arrived, cramped and dusty and crammed with reels and reels of intricate lace. A measure of it would do very well for her wedding gown.
To Hayden. For the wedding gown she would wear for her wedding to Hayden.
Rhys was still directly ahead of her. “Because, listen, I .”
She waited with her gaze on the hem of her dress, expecting any sort of new excuse or cajoling, prepared to ignore him all the way back to England if she must. But when she peeked up at him he seemed truly without words; he’d gone still, stock-still—she almost walked through him—and then moved swiftly to take her hand.
She yanked free, she couldn’t help it. His slightest touch made her skin crawl with cold.
“The ring,” he said. “Zee. The ring.”
She pursed her lips and arched a brow, once again moving out of the way as more people brushed past, her back against the glass front of a shop.
“Did you notice James’s hand?”
She shook her head, puzzled.
“The ring on his hand,” the shadow persisted. “The signet.”
“It was mine.” Rhys combed his fingers through his hair, sending smoke up in broken puffs. “The one from the wallet. I’m sure it was. Who else’s could it be?”
She shot a dubious glance at his hand, where the ghost ring still shone. He twisted it free of his finger and held it up between them, turning it back and forth in the clouding caramel light.
“But this isn’t truth, is it? What you see before you is what I think I look like, what
The wind gave a sudden push; the first of the rain clouds began to release, miles away. Movement flickered at the corner of her eye; a shopkeeper inside the store at her back was lighting the sconces on the wall with a taper, throwing her long, curious looks as he moved from flame to flame.
Zoe found herself walking. There was an alley coming up, an alley of muggy foul smells and cats leaping down and away from their perch upon a broken stool smashed against a wall. Rhys went first, and the cats bolted out into the street on the other side. When she stopped by the stool he lifted his hand again, focused on the ring flat on his palm; it faded to nothing. Just like a wizard’s trick. Gone.
She lifted her eyes to his.
“Who knows what the truth of me is now? I had hoped—” He drew a deep breath of air and let it hiss out between his teeth. “I had hoped,” he finished, curt. “All kinds of ridiculous hopes. That all this is a mistake, that I’m actually alive somewhere. Dreaming in my bed at home, and you’re still back there too. That I might even be that wretched prisoner, tool of the
For the first time ever, she reached for him in compassion, took his hand in hers despite the painful cold. He gave a taut smile, turned her gloved fingers over in his, and raised them to his lips. She felt his kiss, so brief and awful, even through the kid. The needles of ice gouging her bones.
“Do me a favor. Take the signet back to the shire. Give it to my brother. Let him know.” “Know what?”
“That I died well, that I didn’t suffer. I don’t know. Lie to him. Pin him with those tremendous dark eyes and he’ll puddle like snow in July. He’s only a red-blooded dragon, after all. He’ll believe whatever you say.”
“Thank you.” He seemed about to add something more, still holding her hand; she wanted to take it back and she didn’t, but his gaze had gone fixed and distant, a flare of green against the blowing shadows.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw only the street, the shops, the rainstorm churning above rooftops.
He vanished, all of him, all at once. She was left with her arm lifted halfway to nothing, and the sensation of hoarfrost that had been creeping up to her shoulder.
The gray street had plunged to shadow just as Zoe’s street had. A storm simmered here as well, but the raindrops were already falling, big fat plops of water spattering the walkways and buildings. People began to scatter, heels clicking, yanking coats over their heads, hats, newspapers, whatever they had. Rhys stood on his sidewalk and the rain fell straight through him, broke into beads through the soles of his feet. He didn’t even feel it.
And yet this wasn’t what had wrenched him back.
He turned a wide circle, searching. Perhaps he’d been mistaken. Perhaps he’d imagined it, that
The rat, staring at him and then quickly to the right. The rat, running away with its tail a pink whip along the ground, into the house across the street.
Rhys looked to the right. And yes, goddamn it, there they were. James and the Zaharen boy, walking gradually toward him, cloaked, hooded, far slower and more deliberate than any of the Others dashing around them. James turned his head and murmured something; the other dragon nodded.
Rhys tried to go to them. He tried to at least get close enough to hear them speak, but he was stuck as he always was, unable to venture beyond his tiny realm. Yet it didn’t matter: They were still coming to him. Right to him. James was tall and broad and the dragon-boy more slight, but there was no question that they both emanated identical crackling auras of watchful, sinuous menace.
They were hunting. Right here, on his street.
Rhys realized abruptly what it meant. He was
And they were hunting
The hoods of their cloaks revealed only grim, pale jaws; their eyes were covered, their hands hidden. Raindrops shattered along their hoods and shoulders, slithered in rivulets to the sidewalk. He could practically mark their footsteps in the water, they moved so slowly.
Right as they reached him Rhys held up both hands, palms flat. They stopped.
Rhys looked too. He saw a door, shuttered windows. He saw a pair of chimneys that let seep no smoke.
There were dots of recent solder around the lock of the door. He squinted at it through the downpour, trying to see better. Yes, the keyhole had been filled with lead. No sign or light or movement escaped the seams of the door; those were blocked too.
All ways to keep out smoke.
Great God. The
James and the boy would have smelled the melted lead like an alarm; Rhys remembered it from life, acrid and then heady, metallic sludge with music that hardened into flat, strange notes.
He spun about in time to see them make an unhurried turn at the next corner. They were the last figures visible through the storm. After they were gone, Rhys stood alone. There weren’t even any carriages going by.
And so he was the only one who heard the voices rise and cut short from the interior of the solder-sealed house. The only one who saw the door give a little shake, as if someone on the other side tested the lock.
He leaned a step toward the house. The music surrounding him reached a painful new pitch, hurting his ears, but to his very great astonishment, he managed it. Another step. Music rising. Another, like dragging his feet through quicksand. The weedy walkway to the front porch, up the steps to the bleak gray door. He stopped to rest a moment, his head spinning—was it too bloody much to ask for a little potency in death?—then pressed his palm flat to the wood. He felt the resonance of its substance, not real wood but an echo of it, almost as stiff as life.
The voices inside had lowered to hushed babbles; he could make out no words over the song in his head. He thought he heard a woman, more than one man. He thought he smelled—heavens, he smelled—drenched wood and humans and the tin from the solder, something dry and spicy like herbs. And beneath all that … the weak, dim perfume
Rhys glanced around him, curled his fingers around the bronze-plated latch, and gave it a heave.
She was in the lace shop, desultorily surveying layers of fragile webbing, listening to the rain pattering the roof, sweeping strong, then faint, then strong again, soporific. A horde of people had ducked inside with the first pelting drops; the men clumped together at the windows, water from the hems of their coats dripping into puddles, staring out and speculating about the duration of the storm. The women had dispersed throughout the tall wooden racks of goods, doing precisely the same as Zoe. Fingering the delicate threads and knots of the reams, pretending they would make a purchase.
There were only a merchant and his young daughter to assist. A stout lady in a beaded aubergine hat had cornered them both, demanding to be shown a length of bobbin work from Portofino her cousins sister-in-law had described to her. The merchant kept lapsing into Portuguese; the woman spoke only emphatic French. He was having scarce luck convincing her she was in the wrong shop.
The daughter stood to one side with her head bowed, a silver chain around her neck the sole splendid gleam in the store.
Zoe’d not been out in rain since she’d left England. She’d not even attempted it, especially after what had happened at the coffee shop in Palais Royal. She stood as far back from the windows— the dripping men, the front door that opened and closed each time with a spray of wet wind—as she could. Like everything else right now, the lace shop was plunged into that caramel gloom. She had no umbrella or parasol. If she was quiet and still, she could likely linger in the rear of the shop for a good while, hopefully at least until the worst of it passed.
He appeared to her in the midst of a waterfall of long pale lace, a dozen dangling ribbons unspooled from a wire rod above them, draping down into his head and chest and shoulders.
She inhaled a swift breath with a hand pressed to her heart, but that was all. The shadow glanced about them quickly, then looked back to her.
“You need to return to the
Her lips formed,
“Just do it. Wait—don’t even go back to the house. Go to—go to a hotel. Do you have the funds for that? Someplace common. An inn. Anywhere but where James and the boy know you’ve been, or imagine you might go.”
The door to the shop opened again; the ribbons of lace inside Rhys twirled languidly in the rush of new air.
“What’s happened?” Zoe whispered. “Did they find the
“I’ll tell you later. Honest to God, Zee, you’ve got to do as I say.”
“No, Rhys, you
He left. Just like before in the alley: an instant, complete vanishing. If she’d blinked, she’d have seen none of it.
Several of the patrons were glancing back at her, muttering to each other behind their hands. She realized she’d spoken her last sentence in her normal voice, straight to a line of crisp ironed ribbons, some of them still swaying an inch from her nose.
She did not wait to leave the shop. She closed her eyes and summoned the cloak with all the power her fear and anxiety lent her, and it came, indigo and deep and shimmering with the force of her will. She heard the voices from inside it. She felt the touch of countless hands, plucking, pulling, all along her body.
Find them. Hayden and Sandu.
Folds of heavy blue ballooned in waves across the shop. They devoured everything: the people and the ribbons and the woman in the hat, the rainfall and sodden scents and shying horses outside, everything physical, everything of carbon and mineral earth, smothered into silence.
From the infinity of blue before her came a pinprick of new light. It rotated in lazy, radiant spokes; it dazzled and expanded, blinding. Zoe lifted her arms to it, thinking,
She did not bother to wonder why Hayden and the prince didn’t sense the Others, or what Rhys was trying to do. She only ran from the lace shop, following the streaming arrow of the cloak, the bending, luminous colors of