Margrit’s cell phone trumpeted the William Tell Overture, startling her into a flinch and earning a shift of surprise from Janx. Habit drove her to her feet as she searched her purse for the phone, and sent her walking a few feet away, as though doing so would render Janx incapable of hearing her.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you. If you’re getting reception, you’ll probably want to stay exactly where you were.” Janx nodded to the chair she’d abandoned and Margrit came back to it, thumbing the phone on.
Her mother’s voice, distorted with static, came through. Margrit put a finger against her opposite ear, trying to hear better, then muttered a curse as the connection dropped entirely. “It never rains but it pours. If I don’t call her back, she’ll think something terrible has happened. Can you show me the way out of here?”
“I can,” Janx admitted languidly. “Whether I will…”
“Well, your other option is keeping me locked up like Bluebeard’s wife.”
“Like Beauty, I should think.” Janx collected Malik’s cane and pushed to his feet, still more stiffly than she was accustomed to. “Are you certain you have to go now? We were doing so well.”
“You’ve met my mother. The grapevine’s probably told her I wasn’t at the trial this morning, and she knows the only thing that would keep me away would be dismemberment or death.”
Janx gestured at her. “At least you look the part.”
Margrit looked at herself again and groaned. “I hope I have time to get home and shower before she sees me.”
“I could come along,” Janx offered hopefully. “Distract her.”
“I can be very distracting,” he promised.
Despite herself, Margrit laughed. “Yes, you can be, but you may not be. Just tell me how to get out of here before Mom uproots half of Manhattan trying to find me.”
“Allow me to escort you, at least. Grace prefers not to have random interlopers wandering her tunnels.”
“That’s another reason it wouldn’t hurt for you to move on. This is her territory.” Margrit took the dragonlord’s elbow when he offered it, matching her pace to his unusually slow one. He’d made deliberate haste in leaving the warehouse, had moved then with all his customary beauty, and now, she thought, he was paying for that arrogant performance.
“So concerned with territory and belonging. Are you like this in all aspects of your life, or just when it comes to us?”
“I think it’s just you.” Margrit frowned down the tunnel, trying to recognize features. “The battles I fight aren’t usually about territory. They’re about money or power or passion. It’s just with you that land wars come into the equation. Grace has worked hard to make a safe place for those kids down here. You and what you do are the exact opposite of what she’s trying to achieve.”
“You could always ask me a favor.” Janx’s voice was too light, as though the question was a test. “I do believe I still owe you one.”
Margrit paused, drawing him to a stop, and studied him. “One,” she said slowly. “You owe me the one we agreed on. Then again, I very likely saved your life this morning, Janx. That makes two favors you owe me, and if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned that the Old Races count coup. You could’ve told me how to deal with Alban’s trial as a balance to the attack this morning, but you handed that over for free. For my Grace,” she echoed softly. “What would you do, dragonlord? What would you do if I asked you to leave Grace’s tunnels, to leave New York, in exchange for your life?”
Janx’s jade eyes grew paler and cooler as she spoke, and when he replied, it was less with anger than a mark of respect Margrit thought she had only just earned. “I wouldn’t have expected you to call in that marker, my dear. I find myself caught between awe and dismay. Do you really believe my position here can be traded away so easily?”
“You wouldn’t be dismayed,” Margrit said, “if it couldn’t. So now I have my answer.”
Janx’s lips curled, showing teeth. “You’ve learned too well for my tastes, Margrit Knight. This is your exit.” He stopped shortly, making a gesture of fluid chagrin. Margrit put a palm against the ladder he’d brought her to, glancing up, then pulled herself onto the first rungs before looking back.
“I haven’t asked.”
“No.” Janx’s expression turned dour. “You haven’t asked yet.”
Margrit’s cell phone rang again as she reached street level. It was midafternoon, a deceptive amount of time having passed with Janx in the unchanging light below the streets. She took a breath and held it, then, hoping her voice would sound normal, answered with a cheerful, “Hi, Mom.”
“Margrit Elizabeth, what on earth is going on? I’ve been trying to call you all morning. Are you all right? Why aren’t you in court? What were you doing in Harlem this morning?”
Margrit’s eyebrows shot up so hard she rubbed her forehead, feeling like she’d sprained something. “Who told you that?”
“Tony called me.”
“Tony called you?” Margrit couldn’t put enough emphasis on the words and fought off the urge to repeat them with the stress on a different one each time. Anthony Pulcella and Rebecca Knight had suffered a kind of long-running standoff in the years he and Margrit had dated. Disapproval went too far, but for Rebecca, Margrit’s decision to date a man not of her own ethnic background was as much a political statement as a romantic one. Rebecca’s capitulation, only two weeks earlier, had coincided perfectly with Margrit and Tony’s breakup, though in her mother’s defense, Rebecca hadn’t known that when she’d finally given up the fight. Still, Tony calling Rebecca was well outside Margrit’s expectations. “What’d he do that for?”
“He’s worried about you, Margrit. So am I. He said he saw you leaving the site of the dockside fire this morning. Did he?”
Margrit found herself staring sightlessly down the street, humans and vehicles a blur against the backdrop of tall buildings. She heard her own thought distantly: humans and vehicles. Not people, but humans. Some morning she was going to wake up and not quite recognize herself anymore. Maybe this morning, in fact, though she hadn’t been to bed and therefore morning hadn’t been properly introduced. The recollection made her yawn and heated her eyes with tears, helping her shake off her stupor. “Mother, what would I be doing at the docks?”
“I don’t know, Margrit. What would you be doing not in court today?”
“Trying to stop the mess at the docks,” Margrit said, more honest than wise. “Tony was right. I was there. I’m fine, though, so don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry? Margrit, how can I not worry? Your behavior has been erratic since Russell died. I don’t want to pressure you, sweetheart, but I think you should talk to someone.”
“I talk to people all the time, Mom,” Margrit said, a smile starting, and then the expression was choked off in a burst of absurdity bordering on offense. “You mean, a psychiatrist?”
“I was thinking a psychologist. You don’t seem to be depressed, but someone to talk to about this sudden decision to change careers and going to work for Eliseo Daisani, of all people, and missing court dates, and this delusion of being able to stop fighting and striking workers at the docks—”
“Mom. Mom! Mother! I’m fine, Mom. I really am. Look, I’m working on something bigger than I am, and that’s all I can tell you. I know it seems as if I’ve been acting strangely lately—”
Margrit blew her cheeks out. “All right, I have been. But I have reasons, and if I ever can, I’ll tell you. Okay?” She bared her teeth as she recognized the promise as one she’d given Tony too many times. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you now,” she added more quietly. “I wish I could. But I’m being as careful as I can be, and everything’s going to be all right.” She sounded confident and reassuring to her own ears, and hoped that her mother, at least, would believe it.
“Margrit, does this have anything to do…” Rebecca fell silent a long moment, then let go a quiet breath. “Never mind.”
“It does.” Margrit swallowed, hoping she’d interpreted her mother’s unasked question correctly. Rebecca Knight had twice seen—or experienced—Daisani’s inhumanly fast ability to move. Unlike Margrit, she seemed reluctant to pursue the how behind his talent, even when she owed her life to it. That she and her mother lay on opposite sides of such a narrow divide made Margrit’s chest ache with loneliness. “Mom—”
“I see.” Rebecca’s voice turned to a professional briskness that told Margrit she’d once again lost the moment to pursue a thread of connection between them. “Please be very careful, sweetheart. I’ll tell your father I spoke to you today. We both love you.”
“I love you, too.” Margrit folded her phone closed and directed a frustrated glare at the street, as though somewhere below, Janx would feel its heat. “If I haven’t made my choice, I’d like to know what the hell else this is.”
“The consequence of living,” an auburn-haired woman replied as she brushed past. Margrit blinked and the woman threw a bright smile over her shoulder. “Never could resist a rhetorical question.” She disappeared into the crowd, leaving Margrit still blinking after her.
Tony Pulcella was waiting on her doorstep when she got home.
Margrit slowed halfway up the block, unexpected cheer from the woman’s comment fading as she saw the detective. There was nothing she could say that would satisfy him. For a moment she looked around for an escape route, but by the time she looked back, he’d seen her and was rising to dust off his pants. Margrit sighed and joined him, itchingly aware she was still grimy from the encounter at the warehouse.
Tony looked exhausted, though he was cleaner than Margrit. For a moment they stood there looking at one another, before Margrit shrugged and tilted her head at the building’s front door. “Want to come up?”
He nodded silently and Margrit opened the door, and, out of consideration for his weariness, took the elevator to the fifth floor, neither of them speaking until they’d entered Margrit’s apartment. Then Tony said, “You’re okay,” and, “You know where he is,” as though the two comments—not, Margrit noticed, questions—were related.
“I’m fine. You look like hell.” Margrit toed her shoes off and padded into the kitchen to open the fridge so she could offer Tony a Coke. He accepted and drained it without speaking, then turned an expectant gaze back onto Margrit, who shrugged and addressed the other half of what he’d said. “I know he’s down below the city. I doubt I could find where he’s staying. I’m not much help there. Sorry.”
“How long’ve you known?”
“This is the first time I’ve seen him since you raided the House.” Both true and evasive, the same kind of answer she’d been giving Tony since she’d first encountered the Old Races. He’d been more than right to make a final break in their relationship. Margrit released her hair from its bonds and scratched her hands through it.
“So what were you doing there this morning?”
“Cara Delaney was hurt in a fight down there yesterday. She asked me to go reassure her people. I had no idea Janx would be there.” That, at least, was true.
“And you left with him because…?”
The corner of Margrit’s mouth turned up. “Because I didn’t want to sit through the third degree, I guess.” She hesitated, then admitted, “Because I figured you’d cover for me.”
“So you did see me.” Neither surprise nor anger colored Tony’s voice, cool professionalism in place instead. Regardless, recrimination stung Margrit as she nodded. “I thought you had. You’re right. I did cover for you. Maybe you can tell me why.”
Margrit drew breath to answer and Tony held up a palm, stopping her. “Better yet, maybe you can tell me why damned near every security camera we’ve found dockside is fritzed out and why on the handful that aren’t, the images are smeared.”
“Like in the cameras from the Blue Room.”
“Oh.” Vivid memory played up as though she watched the videos again. Pixels had stretched and distorted behind Alban, making shadows when nothing was there. Only later had she realized that the camera had picked up some hint of Alban’s true shape, and that she had been looking at his obscured wings. Janx would presumably generate such a blur of raw pixels that the man at their center would be rendered completely invisible. Then curiosity straightened her spine. Daisani did regular television interviews, and Kaimana Kaaiai had been filmed, neither of them with the distortion she’d seen in the dance-club camera recordings. She would have to ask the vampire how that was. Maybe something to do with converted mass. Though she’d only seen a baby selkie transform, Deirdre Delaney’s size had seemed comparable in both shapes. Perhaps vampires and selkies had less to hide, so to speak.
“You going to share that thought with me?” Tony folded his arms over his chest, brown eyes dark with anticipation of disappointment. Margrit’s answer caught in her throat and Tony’s expression shuttered further. “You said al-Massri could disrupt electronics, Grit.”
Margrit tilted her head back, swallowed and reversed her gaze. “He could. He had one of those weird electric fields you read about. He fritzed my cell phone out.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“Oh, come on, Tony, I said a lot of crap that night. I was upset.” In frustration on both her own behalf and Tony’s, she’d laid out the alliances and natures of a group of gathered Old Races amongst whom she and Tony had been the only humans. That every word she’d spoken had been true made no difference in Tony’s ability to believe her.
Tony shook his head. “You think fast, Grit, and I know you’re a good liar. But you’ve never made things up.”
Margrit eyed him. “Isn’t that what lying is?”
Sour humor quirked his mouth. “Technically, yeah, but I’m talking about the kinds of things you said that night. Dragons and vampires. That’s not the kind of lying you do.”
Alarm rooted Margrit to the floor, making her feel heavy. Tony was right: it wasn’t the kind of story she told, but she’d never dreamed he might invest himself in considering that. Pursuing what she’d said in a moment’s heat could far too easily cost the detective his life. “So I was telling the truth? Tony, that puts at least one of us up for some new and exciting kind of lunacy charges.”
“Does it?” He studied her for long moments, eyebrows drawn down before he sighed, shrugged and looked away. “I guess it does. But there’s something wrong when you spouting fairy tales is the only way to make sense of anything, Grit. I want to know what’s going on, and you’re the only piece I’ve got access to.”
“So why aren’t you arresting me for obstruction of justice?”
Tony’s mouth soured further. “Because you’re about to go work for Eliseo Daisani and there’s no point. He’d get you walked out of there and the stupid son of a bitch who walked you in would be busted to traffic duty for the rest of his career.”
“I wouldn’t let him do that.”
“You volunteering to be arrested?”
Margrit ducked her head. “Not when you put it that way.”
“So help me out here. Anything. There’s got to be something.”
“Nothing that’s going to help you understand.” Margrit pressed her lips together. “But if things haven’t settled down at the docks in forty-eight hours, I’ll give you everything you need to settle it yourself.”
Tension lanced through the detective, bringing him to attention. “Like you handed me Janx’s bust?”
Margrit wrinkled her face, unwilling to argue her place in the House of Cards’s downfall. “A little like that.”
“If you can do that, Grit, why not do it now? Why wait another two days? People are getting killed out there.”
“Because I made a promise.” Margrit winced again, far too aware of how little weight her promises carried with Tony now. “It’s the best I can do.”
Tony, jaw knotted, turned toward the door. “Fine. Two days. Just remember, any deaths between now and then are on your head.”