Chapter Twenty-Six

Zoe vanished. She went unseen, sprinting at the same time, bending and turning and racing toward the pale blue figure that was her enemy, who had murdered Zoe’s two drakon and her heart. She felt her lips curl back in a silent snarl, heard the sudden commotion of feet scraping stone, hammers cocking and the creak of strings from bows, but before she could even finish her dash to the bed a deep gray column of smoke fountained from the ceiling to the floor, became a man standing behind the old woman with one arm around her chest and razor-sharp talons jabbed up high against her throat.

“Hold,”he bellowed in French, a single word that crashed through the cavern, gained pitch and echo, and deafened. He stood tall and straight, and his eyes glowed poisonous bright green; a thread of scarlet snaked fast down Rez’s neck. “Hold or I kill her now!”

Like a marionette on strings, Zoe did as all the others: She stopped in place, staring at the wrinkled woman and the taloned man, the light gliding over them, shifting and changing.

“Zoe,” said the dragon-eyed man, and she finished the distance between them at a jog, still invisible, touched her hand to his arm.

Rez’s gaze shifted. She seemed to see Zoe standing before them; she smiled once again, beatific. “Adieu.”

She blurred. There was no better word for it; she was solid one second and a blur the next, and the next second after that, Rhys’s claws closed upon empty air.

Rez was gone. Not invisible, not smoke. Just gone.

“Well,” said Rhys, stepping back. “That didn’t go right.”

Someone shot at them. Zoe ducked and Rhys Turned back to smoke, and the bullet whizzed by and pinged against the stone wall. As if that single retort had tightened all the other fingers, pistols fired from all corners; gunpowder sparked; arrows whistled past, up and down, puncturing the bed, the golden screen, the harpsichord. Zoe’s thigh.

She cried out and collapsed to the carpet, rolling, clutching the shaft of wood. It was perceptible even if she was not, three rows of bright yellow feathers, and nearly at once a hail of new fire came toward her.

She rolled. She screamed and broke the feathered part of it from her leg, tossed it away—but a bullet found her hand, and another ricocheted off the floor, spraying chips along her body.

Without noise, without wavering, a shadow formed above her. It was huge; it blocked out all the light and the arrows, it crouched over her and fashioned sounds not from its own throat, but from the thrash of its tail belting the Others, from its claws—metallic claws, razored claws—scraping sparks along the limestone, digging trenches, swiping at men. Shrieks and blood, more gunfire, bullets that bounced off him and struck stone. She lay on her back and stared up at his belly, the scales that glistened there, thick and glassy and emerald, shielding them both from the worst of the assault.

The dragon reared, still thrashing, and began to move, taking out everything in his path. She heard wood splintering, harpsichord strings twanging in a jarring medley. Zoe maneuvered to her hands and knees and crawled with him, she didn’t know where, but it was clear they couldn’t go much farther like this. He was too large to fit into any of the tunnels.

She scrambled out from beneath him. He’d drawn them both near one of the black open entrances, and she scratched at the floor with her fingers, dragging herself upright. She hopped on one leg and kept her shot hand close to her chest, pressed against his neck so he’d know she was there—hot, his scales burning hot, and humans yelling behind him—slipped around the pair of men frantically reloading their guns and hurried down the passage.

She felt him Turn to smoke behind her, but he didn’t follow. Zoe stopped, grimacing, reeling against a wall, and from inside the cavern came fresh shouts and then a rumbling. Stones falling. Heavy stones, their impact shaking the earth. A rush of limestone dust devoured the two men with guns, began to boil toward her.

She lurched away again. When she glanced back she saw at last a trail of blood behind her in the final, clouding light; as it left her body it became visible, slick and dark against the paler stone.

She clutched her good hand to her thigh and forced herself to move faster. The dust became plumes overtaking her, choking, and then one of them Turned into Rhys. He scooped her up into his arms and ran.

It was ungainly and very swift. Zoe dropped her head to his chest and closed her eyes and let the deadened stone air wash all along her, wash all along until she hooked her arms around it and drifted away.

* * *

He took her back to the palace. It was the only place in the city he knew besides the cellar and the maison. He got her in by the last squeak of dawn, laid her down upon her bed, and was glad she’d passed out, because getting the barb of the arrow out of her leg was a vicious enough affair, especially for a creature with claws. Only one of them should be weeping over it, and he reckoned since she never woke, it might as well be him.

But he was glad she didn’t see.

Her blood swamped his senses. She was whiter than the linens, whiter than lilies or the snow he’d trampled through. He’d purloined a bottle of cognac from one of the apartments below stairs, saturated her wounds with the alcohol, ripped up the sheet she’d used to hide her mirror of souls, and bound her leg and her hand. At least the bullet—he assumed it was a bullet—had gone straight through the flesh of her palm.

He’d stuffed pillows beneath her leg, laid her hand upon her chest, then taken a moment to bend over to catch his breath, breathing in the scent of very fine liqueur and blood and her, his forehead pressed into the bed by her ear.

He thought woozily that he might never touch cognac again.

She was alive. She was breathing, she had a pulse. She was alive.

One of the arrows had nicked him beneath a scale on his shoulder; compared to everything else he’d been through, it was no worse than getting pinked in a duel. But he cleaned that too, to be safe, and all the little scrapes and cuts along her feet and the left side of her body.

Rhys spent the remainder of the dawn and all the next day sitting upright beside her, the near-empty bottle cradled between his thighs, fighting sleep. When he wasn’t looking at her he was looking at the mirror. The crack slanting through it. It seemed normal to him again, just two pieces of broken glass over a mercury backing, foxing along one side. No sign of the beings he knew dwelled inside.

“Where were you bastards,” he muttered, as the afternoon light began to push against the velvet drapery. “Where were you last ruddy night, eh?”

No one answered. Zee was asleep; the mirror was empty. He was talking to himself.

The day passed. By twilight he knew she was in trouble, because the lily-white cast of her skin had deepened into ruby at her cheeks and forehead and chest, and her breathing was labored.

He could go hunt a physician. He could go out into the streets and find one, lure him back here, bribe him into silence .

There was not enough money for silence at the sight of Rhys. He understood that. He thought perhaps his claws were even shorter still than yesterday, but there was no mistaking them for anything else. They were still claws.

He’d have to find a doctor, bring him here, have the man treat her, then kill him. It would be the only way.

Even then, there was no guarantee that human medicine would work for her. Their drakon bodies were just enough different to make matters unpredictable. Darkfrith itself had no surgeons or physicians. They were strong as a species, resilient. When bones broke, mothers and fathers set them. When fevers struck, blindfolds were used to prevent the ill from Turning unawares. Sometimes the clan used tribal stones with healing songs. That was about it. Live or die; it would happen quickly either way.

A poultice meant to drain the heat from a human fever might be the very thing that pushed Zoe over the edge of her resistance, and Rhys had no stones to heal her.

His mind circled the question wearily, the same problem and solution, over and over. Find a physician. Bring him here. Get the medicine. Kill him.

Rhys lay beside her on the bed, atop the covers. He turned his hand over and drew his knuckles down her soft burning skin from her chest to her stomach, back up to rest over her heart.

“Would you forgive me that?” he whispered. “Would you forgive me?”

Talking to himself again. He already knew the answer.

The bronze-plated portions of the roof of the Palais de Tuileries had long ago corroded into green. She’d noticed it the way she’d noticed all the details of her sanctuary, the rows and rows of windows, the giant squared dome dividing its middle, the stately columns wrapped around its facade, chimneys wider than houses sprouting up from its ends.

But it wasn’t any of those things Zoe first saw when she opened her eyes. She saw the green roof, wide and pretty against a bright blue sky, a rim of snow sugaring its raised edges. Sky blue, sea-green, white. The bronze didn’t sing but it hummed, a calm and soothing drone that wrapped her in warmth.

She was warm, she realized. She felt air cool on her skin, and warmth where she was held. A voice was speaking in her ear.

A broken voice, a ruined voice, going from husky to nearly normal, cracking in places, just as an adolescent boy’s might do.

“… in my tea, just to annoy me. And that’s when I first realized I loved you.”

“I didn’t.” Zoe sighed and cleared her throat as the arms holding her abruptly tightened. “I did not put mud in your tea .”

“You did.” Rhys was clutching her so hard it began to hurt; he was seated, and she was cradled on his lap, and he was resting his cheek upon her head. She felt a deep, faint tremor in his bones, quaking through them both. “Liar. We were twelve, and you did.”

“. didn’t put it in your tea just to annoy you,” she finished. Her mouth was so dry; it sucked her words into a whisper. “I put it there to teach you a lesson. You wouldn’t stop teasing me. I had to knock you down a peg.”

He rubbed his face into her hair. “Poor Zee. There’s never a chance of that. Ask any of the elders. I’m deuced hard to train.”

“Like a colicky mule.”

“Exactly.” He took a breath as if to say something more, but only released it hard. The trembling grew stronger, then, slowly, began to fade.

She blinked again at the roof, her mind still processing what it meant. They were outside. On the roof of Tuileries. With all of Paris spread before them, the great crowded city dappled white beneath the arching sky.

She stirred against his grip. His arms loosened slightly, enough for her to sit up—and instantly regret it. Pain shot up her hip, spread like fire ants through her right hand.

“What are we doing here?”

“I wanted—I just wanted you to be outside, in the sun. Away from all that gloom and dust. We’re beings of the firmament. I thought it might help.”

“Help?”

He kissed her temple. The scrape of his chin was actually painful. “You’ve been out for a while, love. Two days.”

“What? Are you serious?”

“Never more.”

She leaned back in his arms. He was whiskered and red-eyed, his brown hair blown into knots with the wind, rolling into tangles over his shoulders; the golden dragon silk wouldn’t tangle, and still rippled free. “You look like hell.”

“Now, see, were I less of a gentleman, I might point out that you’ve looked better yourself. Lucky for you I’m so well-bred. I’ll say merely that you’re quite fetching in that old sheet. And the lack of blood to your face lends you a fashionable air of malaise.” He tried to smile but it was like a clay mask cracking apart, brittle and bleak. He gave it up, shook his head. “God, Zee. You scared the life out of me. Don’t do it again, I beg you. If there’s any mercy at all in your heart, you’ll never scare me like that again.”

It came back to her then, all of it. The quarries and the arrows and the dancing shadows. The madwoman who claimed to be one of them.

“We lost, didn’t we?” she asked quietly.

“Lost? I’d say not. We’re still here, aren’t we?”

“Rhys.”

“Zoe.” He gazed back at her, grave. “We’re still alive. A great many of them are not.” “How can you be certain?”

“Unless humans have developed the ability to allow solid stone to pass through them unimpeded “Oh.”

“They’re dead,” he said. His hand curved around her cheek, urging her to rest back against his chest, claws poking through her hair. She allowed it, enjoying the fresh warmth of him, the comfort of his touch, even with the talons. “I did my best to ensure it.”

“But she escaped. That woman.”

He said nothing. He rocked them both back and forth a little, balanced upon the pitched humming roof. A lock of her hair flipped up over his arms, glinting against his skin.

“We’ve got to warn the tribe.” Zoe closed the fingers of her bandaged hand, testing the ache. “They don’t know about her. We’ve got to warn them. And Sandu—him as well.”

“Yes.”

“We could post letters,” she said, tipping her chin to see his. “Today. Tell them everything.” “Yes,” he said again.

She understood what he was not saying: that a letter would be slow. That far swifter than the post, than carriages or boats, was a dragon in flight. Even if it traveled only at night. Even with a wounded woman on its back.

It would mean her return home. No excuses, no recourse. She’d face censure from the council, Cerise’s tears. Marriage and a title and stares, probably stares and sly whispers for the rest of her life. Once they knew all her tricks she’d not elude them again. She’d be watched. She’d be locked to the shire forever.

With him.

Far in the distance a flock of birds rose in a dark fluttery cloud, veered a circle and flew off toward the sun.

“Will you hate it?” he asked softly. “Will you come to hate me?”

“No. I could never …Hate is such a dreadful word.”

“What about love, then? Do you think you might ever love me?”

Horses and coaches and donkeys below, the low of cattle being driven down the Quai, the calls of the street vendors. Notes from a solo being stroked from a violin reaching them in fits and starts along the wind. The gardens of Tuileries, empty and frozen with silence.

“Yes,” Zoe said.

“When?” He’d stopped rocking.

“Just now.” She paused. “Perhaps before.”

She heard his exhale, felt it, the tremble in his arms returning.

“Days ago,” she said, “or perhaps before even that. When you told me I didn’t like to cook.” “You don’t!”

“I know that, Lord Rhys of Chasen Manor, of Darkfrith. I was just surprised that you knew it too.”

“Oh.” The trembling turned into laughter. She slipped carefully from his arms, found her place upon the warmed metal roof between his legs, and gazed up at him, her hands upon his thighs.

He wiped at his eyes with the heels of his palms. A sudden gust sent tendrils of chestnut and gold flaring about him. Like a halo, like the smoke that used to define him. Aye, her own Lord Rhys, with lips still so sensual, and eyes that shone like summer leaves under ice, clear and bright.

“I know so many things about you.” For an instant his voice returned to normal, pure and deep and smooth. “Zee Langford. I know all about you.”

“I believe you,” she said simply. “You’ve been spying on me for a while.” And then she smiled at his look.

He lifted his face to the sun, his lips smiling too: a better smile than before, no mask now, no hidden anguish. Moisture wet his lashes, spiked them into stars. She traced a finger down his scar and felt his hushed attention, how his head turned ever so slightly into her touch.

“Have you ever made love on a rooftop?” she asked.

His smile puckered a little, as if holding back another laugh.

“No, don’t answer that. Have you ever made love upon this rooftop?”

“I have not,” he said, sounding very solemn despite the pucker.

Zoe ran her good hand down the sheet, soft cotton rumpled against her palm. She decided that her leg hardly hurt at the moment. “Well.”

He looked at her askance. “It’s very steep here.”

“Yes, but we could . You’re right. It’s very steep. And there are no doors to this section. Not even a window.” The wind picked up again; she held back her hair, squinting around them. “How did we get here?”

His eyes dropped. “I carried you.” He lifted a hand between them and spread his talons, and the silver snapping strands mingled with his gold. “In my mouth.”

She felt her eyebrows climbing.

Rhys said, “You’re light. I managed not to bite you at all.”

“Oh, of course.”

“It’s true.”

“In full daylight. A dragon crawling up the side of the Palais des Tuileries with a maiden clutched in his fangs.” She aimed her squint at him, waiting for the jest. “I believe I’ve read this somewhere before.”

“Don’t be absurd, it wasn’t daylight. It was right before dawn. That’s the best time not to be seen, you know.”

She only stared at him.

“Wife,” he said, sober, lifting his eyes, “if it meant waking you again, having you with me again, I would have flown all about the city with you in my teeth. I would have landed at Versailles and danced a jig for the king and queen themselves if it meant you’d be well.”

“Really?” She pushed more hair from her lashes. “Danced a jig?”

“Abourree at the least. Listen, beloved. I know I’m not him.” He shook his head when she opened her mouth, went on more quickly. “Wait. I know I’ll never be him. And I know that a part of you will always mourn that. But I swear to you . I swear I’ll do my best by you. I swear I .”

He seemed to run out of words. She watched him struggle in silence, a shadow-darkened man with enamel blue all around him, endless but for the birds that flew, and the clouds that swept in pale crystalline tiers, blown about the horizon.

“I love you,” she said for them both. “At your best and your worst, I love you. Paris or Darkfrith. Here, there, and everywhere, I love you.”

She leaned up on her knees and touched her lips to his, her undamaged hand upon his shoulder, his arms coming around her waist. The roof beneath them hummed and hummed.

She kissed him. She closed her eyes against the sun and sky and put her heart into it, and he made a hum that harmonized with the sheets of bronze, that resonated back into Zoe and spread through her veins in something very close to complete happiness.

He drew a breath against her lips. He laughed and suddenly spread his arms wide, his face tilted back to the sun: unruly hair and a vicious red scar, his twisted feet pushed hard against the roof, his hands shining and gleaming with their blades of whetted gold.

“Then I’m the luckiest dragon on earth,” Rhys said, and opened his eyes to look at her. He offered her that slow and dazzling sweet smile. “My miracle Zee. You make me the luckiest one.”

It happened that the roof was not so very pitched after all. And that twilight was just as good as dawn for stealing back down the side of a palace. And that the heavy antique bed that waited inside fit two drdkon—two human-shaped drakon —very well.

If the spirits in the broken mirror tried to watch her still, Zoe didn’t notice. She and the husband of her heart had shifted it about so that the glass faced the wall, and the falling night embraced them without interruption, and the flakes of gold from the gilt along the bed broke free with their joy, a small shower of muted color that sang and sang as it floated down to the floor.

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