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CHAPTER 12

A careful study of the calendar told Margrit it was Thursday afternoon. Shed gotten up at four in the morning on Wednesday and hadnt gotten any meaningful sleep since. She thought regretfully of the calendar her coworkers had made, with only nine or ten hours left on it. Responsibility told her to go in to work, to do what little she could, but instead, burdened more by Tonys curse than fatigue, she showered and crawled into bed.

She woke up what felt like only minutes later when her phone blared. Feeling unexpectedly invigorated, she glanced toward the clock, discovering it was after seven, and answered the phone to hear Daisani, with a hint of Bela Lugosi in his voice, say, Good evening.

Margrit laughed. Are you drinking, Mr. Daisani? Never mind. Whats up?

Daisani was silent a moment before saying, You recall how you accused me of showing off, Margrit?

I do. Margrit threw the covers back and climbed out of bed to look for running gear. You said it wasnt that hard to resist, most of the time.

Its far more difficult to resist replying to that line with the appropriate response, Daisani informed her dryly. Yet somehow I can never quite let myself do so. It seems like such a cheap shot.

It is, but sometimes theyre worth it. Did you call to discuss vampire movies with me?

I did not. I called to ask if you were aware that Albans trial is tonight.

Margrits throat constricted around her previous good nature. She dropped her running tights and sat on the bed, staring across the room. Tonight? They got here that fast? Its only been one night.

The nearest and largest enclave that Im aware of is in Boston, which is hardly an insurmountable flight.

But somebody wouldve had to go tell Margrit stopped her own protest, seeing its flaws. Alban carries a cell phone. I suppose they all might.

And if not, they have more esoteric ways of communicating.

Not Alban. Iron stops the link to the memories. Someone else would have had to have called, or gone to get them. The sun hasnt set yet. How do you know theyre here?

Daisanis pause was interested. It breaks the link? Are you certain?

Forget I said that. Are you sure theyre here? Margrit switched the phone to speaker and got up to pull regular clothes out of the closet, wiggling into jeans and a light sweater.

Chelsea Huo just called to inform me, so yes, I am.

Margrit stopped with one sock on. Chelsea?

She suggests that we make haste.

We? Margrit pulled her other sock on and found a pair of boots as she eyed the phone.

Alban Korund is an old friend of mine, Margrit. You dont expect me to stand by and let his trial go unattended, do you?

Somehow I doubt youre volunteering out of the goodness of your heart. What interests are you protecting?

Caution clamped her lips together as memories of Sarah Hopkins surfaced again. She and her child were the secret Alban bore for Janx and Daisani, and she would be the reason Daisani was concerned with Albans trial. Hidden stories could too easily be revealed in the midst of such proceedings.

But Daisani dismissed her suppositions with a soft answer of, Nothing that has any importance any longer. The best and only reason I have for attending Alban Korunds trial is friendship. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, that might have been different, but youve changed our world so much. Give me some credit, Margrit. Time makes relationships complicated, but we rarely forget where we began. Now, he said after a moments silence, shall I come around to pick you up?

Please. Margrits voice scratched, throat too tight for words. It was too easy to forget the Old Races werent human, at least for brief spaces of time. They moved too fluidly, but the eye became accustomed to that, and in their human forms, that was the only thing to truly mark them apart. The only thing, at least, until age and regret and pain showed in a vampires gaze, undoing all his humanity with a glance. Daisani had cut her open with honesty more than once, and Margrit doubted she would ever learn to stand against the inhuman depth he could show. Please, she whispered again. That would be nice. Thank you.

Not at all. We should be there in good time for the awakening.

Sunset, once a moment of freedom, was now only an awakening to a new, more dreadful prison than the one that kept him safe in daylight hours. Alban clamped down on a roar, wrapped up the impulse to reach out for comfort and clawed his hands against chains as he panted for breath. Iron did more than bind him: it seemed to weight him, making air harder to draw in, as if his lungs were full of cold metal. It denied him the simple ability to touch another gargoyle mind with his own, and for all that hed given up that intimacy centuries earlier, being unable was a far worse fate than being unwilling.

Not that there was anyone beyond Biali for him to contact, and Alban had been barely more than a child when he and Biali had last been friends. Head lowered, hair falling in white waves around his cheeks, Alban dug taloned toes into stone and willed himself to stop trying to transform; to stop trying to escape thrums of pain. It was unnatural for a gargoyle to resist so much. Stone endured. Elements could leave their mark, but throughout time stone sat and waited, embodiment of patience.

A laugh he barely recognized as his own grated Albans throat. In the brief span of time since Margrit Knight had come into his life, shed infected him with human impatience, a desire to see things done, and done now. His sympathy for that plight spiked. Once freed of restraints and set on his own lonely path, he would have to try a little harder to live his life at her speed.

At least he knew she would still have him. The frustration that had built in her at his adamant stance against speaking for himself pinched him as thoroughly as the chains did. Shed forgiven him even through the midst of her irritation, proving yet again that humans adapted quickly, even to the impossible. The weight of regret bowed his shoulders, and for a few seconds he ceased struggling against his chains, consumed by worry for mistakes made.

The door opened, bringing Grace in on a breath of cooler air. Better today, love? Youre not fighting so hard.

Perhaps Ive nothing to fight for. Alban lifted his gaze but remained in his crouch, his eyes at the level of her ribs as she paced the room. Youre agitated.

I am. She came to a stop in front of him, then crouched, as well, making herself diminutive in comparison. Grace might be able to get you free of those chains, Korund. But itll hurt like hell if it works. Her eyebrows shot up. Itll hurt like hell if it doesnt.

You think Biali wont free me when the tribunal meets?

I think he wants to see you enter in chains, already condemned. Hes brutal, not stupid. First impressions count. Hell want them to see you as a prisoner.

I am a prisoner, and rightfully condemned.

Grace sighed in exasperation. Youre easy on the eyes, but I dont envy Margrit in dealing with you. Not all of your people are martyrs. Why are you?

Believing in our traditions doesnt make me a martyr. Alban tried without success to keep offense from his voice.

Grace, pacing again, spat a sound of disbelief. You tell me, then. Are you so eager to walk in chains that I wont try, or will we see what I can do?

My damaged pride would like to see Bialis face when he discovers his trap didnt work, Alban muttered. But if you can do this, why did you wait until now to offer?

Because Grace has secrets to keep, too. The blond womans answer was hardly louder than his own. Youll close your eyes, gargoyle, and keep them closed. Itll hurt.

Closing my eyes will hurt? Alban asked lightly, then glanced over his shoulder at Grace, whose lovely features were drawn tight with anticipation. He murmured, Forgive me, then settled back into place. They are closed.

Try to not lash out, then, love, and well see what Grace can do. Grace put her hands on his shoulders as if in warning. Alban grunted, tension rising even as he tried to stop it, but he nodded agreement.

Where Grace touched him turned to ice, burning cold that sank through him like a stone in water. It drew a gasp: gargoyles were not especially susceptible to temperature. To feel such chill with no warning or transition was as shocking as the cold itself. Grace, sharply, said, Hold that, and Alban inhaled again, breath catching in his lungs and holding there.

Cold flowed through him, worse than ice water in his veins; that, at least, would follow the pulse and beat of blood. This frozen touch sank in through muscle, through blood and bone, moving against nature and spreading as it moved. It clawed at his throat, digging into the iron that had become a part of him, and the iron turned to links of frigid crystal.

Stone crumbled under Albans feet, the floor tearing beneath his talons. His eyes had opened against Graces orders, but he saw nothing but gray in front of him; gray and tear-blurred dancing images of his own forearms, muscle cording and shuddering white with stone.

Pain did not begin to describe it. Cold transcended agony and left the middling discomfort of being bound by iron far behind. It tore down stone walls, and with their tumbling came a lifetime of emotion that he had carefully left behind.

He did not, of course, remember the first time he saw Hajnal, for she was his elder, and had always been a part of their mountain-born tribe. Small, for a gargoyle, and very dark for one of their kind. Her family name was Dunstal, black stone, and they shared an affinity for glassy obsidian and other black rock spat from the heart of the world. Their physicality reflected that, amber skin tones and black hair, making them stand out against a people whose coloring tended toward the pale. She had always been there, petite and lovely amongst her alabaster kin.

And Biali had always been nearby, a broad hulk of a gargoyle who rarely smiled, but always danced at Hajnals whim. Alban had become the younger brother to their duo, chasing after, laughing, learning: being a child, loved and safe in the tall, gray mountains. A score of years had gone by, until one day he was no longer a child, and his heart leapt to see Hajnal winging above their mountain retreat. Until hed joined her in the sky and found more than friendship beneath diamond-cut stars.

The span of a human life passed in a blur, memories clouded with time. Alban grew older and broader and wiser, losing himself in his peoples histories, discovering the world beyond their mountains through memories shared by others. He became a warrior, trained by memory and by skirmishes too focused to be playful, but never intended to be made real. Even now, under a song of pain, his muscles flexed with the movements hed learned, battle built into his body. But there was little enough to fight over, and he had more important things to think of, like the dark-haired beauty at his side.

He had not yet seen a century when it became clear that humanity, all unknowing, would hound his people into hiding and desperation. Even high in the mountains, mortals encroached on their every stronghold, and there were bitter arguments on how to survive them. Some counseled war, and Alban found himself on the opposite side, standing and speaking of tradition and the need to keep the histories safe. He did not doubt his prowess in battle, and, looking from face to face, he saw that no one else did, either.

No one, save one.

Alban, caught in a whirlwind of icy anguish, whispered, No, with what little breath he had left, and shuddered beneath the weight of unrelenting memory.

Biali should have won. Should have, with his age, his experience; with what he perceived as having to lose. But he had lost Hajnal long since, and Alban fought for her, and the future of his people, and when his blow shattered Bialis face, Alban fell back and refused to fight anymore. Not for fear of exile, though Bialis death would set Alban on that path, but because they were so few, and forgiveness, surely, could come with time.

It was not exile, then, that drove him from his mountain home, but a hope of understanding humanity; of finding a way for his people to live amongst them in safety. Hajnal joined him and they left the mountains, left the valleys, left the landmass humans called Europe, and on the continents western archipelago they found friends, both mortal and not, whose secrets would change Albans life forever.

Arguments, fresh and sharp, rose up through memory: Hajnals distress at Albans choice to step outside the gargoyle collective in order to protect a child born out of species. She knew, of course; had known Sarah Hopkins, as she had known the fiery-haired dragonlord and the smooth, dark vampire. But it was Alban who had linked to their minds, Alban who had become so intimate with them, and Alban whose memories would condemn them if they were exposed to the depths of history. Hajnals, riding closer to the surface, carried far less weight, and could be kept from the gargoyle memories with a modicum of effort. She didnt have todidnt choose toexile herself from their people in the way he had. But as long as she remained with him, he wasnt alone.

Hajnals death ricocheted through that, tearing chunks of Albans heart away and leaving emptiness in their place. Biali, as deeply wounded by it, had never, would never, forgive the lost battle that had paired Alban and Hajnal for life. That had, in his mind, set Hajnal on the road that led to her death.

Exquisite, the memory of that death. It was made of icy razors, cutting apart Albans every heartbeat as he roared her name helplessly. As she told him to leave her, and, most terribly of all, as he did, and in doing so, condemned her.

Generation after generation of humans passed while he stood apart, the scant handful he dared watch over always dying violently, until Margrit.

The bright memory of her presence in his life seared through him, hotter than even the ice. Something cracked within him, vast shattering like stone too long under duress. A terrible shout broke free, the clap of stone breaking apart, and ice released him.

Alban collapsed forward, trembling with exhaustion and the weight of too many memories. Every part of his body ached, as though hed been splintered and put back together again by some rough stonemason with Pygmalion dreams. Stone did not weep easily; not often; not at all; and he could reach no further than a wish for that release. Not sobs; that was beyond him, but the weary slow slide of tears down granite features would be a relief, if only he could find his way there.

Instead he pushed up to hands and knees, then shoved back into a crouch, one hand planted against the floor to balance the empty shell his body felt like it had become. That was all: he could do nothing more. To have done that much seemed a triumph. His chin rested against his chest, eyes too heavy to open. Rest would come with dawn, no sooner. Iron bound him to his waking form, forbidding him the release of silent stone. He held on to that thought, concentrating on it beyond fatigue that came from his very bones.

Grace moved from behind him, soft brush of leather and silent breath of air. Korund.

Leave me. It took effort to form the words. Too much effort to open his eyes and meet her gaze. I only wish for solitude, Grace. I have nothing left to spend.

Alban. She moved again, her scent coming closer, leather creaking with action. Open your eyes, gargoyle. Lets have a look at you now.

Weary beyond words, Alban forced heavy lids to part, and stared without comprehension at the long links of iron chain in Graces hands.


CHAPTER 11 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 13