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Margrit put her elbows on the chess table and slid her fingers into her hair, massaging her head. Sorry. I shouldnt have gone off about Sarah, but they werent going to let it go with no answers, Alban. I thought itd be easier if I broke your promise for you. God, my head hurts.

Are you so certain I wouldnt have spoken? Mild amusement filled the gargoyles voice.

Margrit lifted her gaze, still rubbing her temples. I could tell you wanted to, but you take your promises seriously. She stood, taking a deep breath, and wiped her hands against her jeans. How angry at me are you?

Angry? Alban spread his hands helplessly. Youre the most principled, bravest, foolish woman Ive ever met. You just challenged an entire host of gargoyles to combat. Laughter shook his shoulders and he extended his hands toward her. Thank you, Margrit. Thank you for my place among my people, for breaking promises I no longer wished to hold, for risking your life for mine. For ours.

Oh, stop it. Margrit lurched from the chair and took the few steps to him in a clumsy run, crashing against his wide chest. He was warm, like well-sunned stone, the sour scent of iron fading from his skin. Im not the principled one, she mumbled. You stick to your guns even when youre wrong. I make compromises and wheel and deal. Were hardly birds of a feather.

Alban flared his wings, chamber lights glowing through the translucent membrane. I have no feathers at all. Margrit, youve paid a high price for whats transpired tonight.

What Ive paid isnt anything like whats coming. She tilted her head up, twinging again at the movement, and saw concern come into the gargoyles pale eyes. Im okay, she promised. My heads been throbbing since Eldred took my hands.

It was the bruises that concerned me. Alban traced taloned fingertips just above her skin, outlining bruises that she hadnt noticed until he followed their shape. Even then they were merely uncomfortable, nothing compared to the still-shouting static in her head.

Theyll be gone soon. I meant it when I said Grace couldnt beat me. I was healing during the fight. I could feel it. Alban Margrit broke off, wanting to say so many things they tangled her tongue. Your chains are gone, she finally said, awkward with not knowing where else to begin. I didnt think Bialid let you go before the trial.

He didnt. Alban shook his head as Margrits eyebrows drew down with confusion. Grace freed me.

Fresh static burst in Margrits skull, whitening her vision. Grace? How?

I dont know. He hesitated, a gentle touch against her cheek felt before Margrit could see clearly again. She touched metouched the chainsand there was a terrible coldness and a great deal of pain, and then I was free. My people will want to know how, once theyre made aware. We havent often been enslaved, its happened, and someone who can free us

You didnt ask? Margrits voice shot high. I thought she was human. I thought

I did ask, Alban said. But she didnt want to tell me, and given that I was in her debt, I chose not to press her.

And you can just live with that? You can just live withwith not knowing how she did something impossible and took iron that had bonded with your flesh out of your body? You can just live with the vampires saying theyre not from this world at all, and you can just live with whatever the hell it is that makes you all jump when Chelsea Huo says to? Alban, do you have any answers? Margrit pulled her voice down from a shout, half aware she was trying to drown out the white noise within her own mind. How can you live with not knowing?

Bemusement crossed Albans stony features as Margrit put her hands against her head. She closed her eyes against the gentleness of his expression, trying to gather herself, and only spoke when she thought she had control. Sorry. My head hurts a lot. It was another moment before she dared open her eyes to find sympathy in Albans gaze. I have so many questions, and nobody wants to answer any of them. Janx said I can walk away from the Old Races much later than I could ever imagine, and I can see where it might be tempting, if Im always going to be standing here on the outside, looking in. Why does everybody kowtow to Chelsea, Alban? Why can you simply accept that Grace pulled iron out of you without wanting to know how?

I do want to know, Alban said mildly. But I said I wouldnt ask, and Im not as bedeviled by curiosity as you are. I dont want you to walk away from us, Margrit, he added more softly. I dont want you to walk away from me.

Margrit sighed and put her forehead against his broad chest. Im not planning on it. But dont think I havent noticed you didnt answer any of my questions just now, either.

Alban chuckled. You notice everything. Most of your questions arent mine to answer, or I have no answers. Even the gargoyle memories tell us nothing more about the vampires than that they claim to be not of this world. Its an affectation, but He trailed off, and then a smile came into his voice. You may have noticed that we Old Races, as a rule, tend a little toward affectation.

No, really? Margrit tipped her head up, mouth twisted into a smile that faded away. Will I ever get answers? Am I always going to be the human stuck in the middle of a fairy tale?

You can route any comer, defend any stand, argue any case. The Old Races fall before you, and no, Alban said with a lift of his brows, I am not teasing you. I think youll get your answers in time, Margrit. You may have to earn them from each of us as you go along, because we arent prone to sharing secrets, but give us time. Give yourself time.

Easy for a four-hundred-year-old gargoyle to say.

Almost five hundred, Alban said lightly. Your haste has already shaped our world. You can afford a little patience. Its been barely three months since you discovered us at all.

Margrit opened her mouth and closed it again, surprise washing out the ache in her head for a moment. Okay. All right, youre right. I can probably stand to wait another three or four before I know everything about all of you. But I will want to know, Alban. I have to know everything I can. Im never going to be one of you. Understanding who Im dealing with is the only compensation Ive got.

I rather think you might understand us better than even I do, who have stood apart for so long.

Margrit shook her head. Youre not alone anymore. Youre with me. Youre part of your community again. Justdont pick any fights with Biali.

Alban brushed his knuckles against her cheek and a thrill of warmth suffused Margrit. Still damp, exhausted and hoarse from arguments, she was more fully at home within the circle of the gargoyles arms than she could ever remember being elsewhere. It went beyond sensuality, beyond happiness, into something so complex and profound it seemed absurd that a single word could encompass it, yet one did. Content. She was content, and had never known that emotion could fill her so completely.

Seeing her smile, Alban dipped his head to touch his lips against hers, then his forehead to hers. They stood that way, both smiling, as he spoke. As you so assiduously tried to tell me, and I so fervently refused to hear, I have not been alone since you came into my life, Margrit. I believe I will stop trying to convince myself I am, for fear youll move whole mountain ranges to block my way when I try to leave.

Thats more like it. Margrit wound her arms around Albans waist. We should be together, and on the same side. The djinn arent going to let Maliks death go. Im sorry. She set her front teeth together delicately, lips peeled back in a show of frustration. Ive been playing both sides against the middle for two days, not letting anybody know how he died, and now

You could hardly have anticipated what would happen when you offered memories to the collective.

A feedback loop wouldve been bad enough. I turned into a broadcast tower! Margrit wrinkled her face as her own pitch made her head ring. I blew the top off every secret I knew.

No, Alban said with sudden clarity. Not every secret. You buried one with an avalanche of others. He glanced toward the door, and Margrit followed his gaze, knowing which two of the many whod passed through it he was thinking of.

Yeah. I told them everything, but I didnt tell them youd found her again.

Even with static rushing in her head, it was easier to ride memory now, as though new channels had been opened up in her mind. She knew that it was Albans memory she recalled, but she felt very little dichotomy, no confusion of one body or another. Wings spread beneath the moonlight felt natural and strong, and wearing his broad body, meant for flying, felt natural, with no confusion as to what had happened to her own smaller form.

Forty miles outside of London, in the midseventeenth century, might have been four thousand in the modern world. It was an easy nights flight, even there and back again, as long as the winds were with him. Janx and Daisani had taken the broken pieces of their hearts and left the city that had disappointed them years since, and Alban had waited until he thought even Sarahs memory had faded before he winged north to the farmstead shed owned.

He knew it had been abandoned before he landed. The land was unfurrowed and weeds choked those vegetables left to grow on their own. No smoke rose from the chimney, and no scent of it lingered on the air to say a fire would be banked high in the morning. There was a stillness to the house that said it was unlived in, and when he first opened the door, it was to a room stagnant with disuse.

A cradle, long since too small for the girls use, was tucked against the wall beside the fireplace; opposite lay a straw bed molding with age. The twins would have altered their hours in the cradle and bed, one suckling while the other slept, but neither had done so for a long time.

Everything else was gone from the cottage: no pot hung over the fire, no blankets lay to rot with the bed. Even the kindling was gone, perhaps to be made use of on the road. Alban crossed to the cradle and set it to rocking, a little surprised it hadnt been broken apart to be burned, as well.

A patterned piece of fabric lay at its bottom, little more than an off-colored shadow in the moonlight from the open door. Alban lifted it, finding the pattern to be stitches, and, frowning with curiosity, he brought it into the light.

A crude shape was picked out on the fabric, a rough oval with a handful of divots breaking into its form. Near the bottom was a tiny stitched house; at the top, another. The pieces edges were ragged and frayed, as though it had once been a childs chew-thing. Bemused, Alban tucked it into his fist and carried it back to London.

Hajnal gave the scrap a bare glance and, with a look of fond exasperation at him, said, Its the island, Alban. England and Scotland and Wales. Shes gone to live in the north. Then amusement had sparked in her eyes and shed added, Its very like our way of making sure we wont lose each other, isnt it. Our promise to meet each other at the highest point we can find. Did you tell her about that?

Alban, flummoxed, admitted he had, and Hajnal looked knowing. The top of Scotland is as high as you can go without leaving this island. Its a clever bit of work.

Nearly four hundred years later, Margrit felt Albans rise again in both memory and the present, pure bewilderment as he said, But how do you know? And in memory, she thrilled at the warmth of Hajnals responding laugh.

I know because Sarah would leave a message only one man could read, and youre him. Youd have come to it in time.

Your faith is ill placed. Alban pulled his lifemate into his arms, and memory faded into another time.

Not so very much later, but long enough. Winter, for ease of traveling through the long nights. Two gargoyles winged through cold starry skies, full of joy at living and exploring and togetherness. The northern coast of Scotland was an expansive area to search, but there was little hurry. Children grew up quickly, but not that quickly, and a woman alone with two young girls would eventually be found.

She might have married, Alban said one night, and Hajnal, warm with firelight under the stars, shook her head. Bemused all over again, Alban said, How do you know?

Hajnal shrugged. Her daughters father is one of the Old Races, and theres no telling how that will show up. Not even the memories tell us that, Alban. Perhaps the winter slaughter will bring out a hunger and a speed and a darkness from them, or a bit of bright coin will trigger need and an impossible new form. Sarah wouldnt risk the girls being exposed to a husband. Hajnal went silent a long time, playing with a piece of obsidian, catching flame in it and releasing it to the night again. But thats only the pragmatic reason. Sarah Hopkins loved them both, my love. It takes an unusual woman to draw a dragons eye, and a rarer one still to dare turn away from the love of a vampire. Perhaps Im wrong, but if they had been the men in my life, and I had been only human, I think I would not look for anything more after them. I think the memory would be sweeter, and more bitter, than any other life I might find in their wake, and I think that I would be happier with the dream of what was than the possibility of a new future.

How maudlin, Alban said with a smile, and Hajnal laughed again, protesting, Romantic. Its romantic, not maudlin.

But there was no husband when they found her, only Sarah and twin girls, rangy now with young womens years. They were slim and tall and quick and not alike at all, but for a sense of raw command about them both. Sarah, a dozen years older than shed been when Alban last saw her, had weathered the time well, and watched the girls with pride.

But Im not like them, she said. What had once been a thick London accent was marred by a burr now, misplacing her wherever she went. Youll look after them when Im gone, Alban? I have some years left in me, but theyre special. Theyll need watching. Theyll need

Hiding, Alban finished in an acknowledging rumble. Theyre not supposed to be, Sarah. Not according to our laws.

Do you believe your laws are right?

I believe I flew you out of London when you asked me to, knowing you were pregnant, knowing you would birth a half-breed child. I believe our future is difficult enough without losing ourselves to the human race, but I dont believe it enough to let you fall, or your children suffer. Are you sure this is where you want to live? he asked more solicitously. Its a hard life here, Sarah. Hajnal and I could make it easier for you somewhere warmer and finer.

Somewhere that they would be more likely to find us. The only years of my life that havent been hard were those times in London with them. I dont mind, and its safer here for the girls. In a city, if anything happens, someone will notice. Here She opened a hand, trailing it across the windswept hills. No one will see but the cattle.

Leave another message, Alban murmured. When you move on, so I can find you.

The girls can write and read a little already, Sarah said with pride. Send us letters, and well keep you in the know.

But you never asked. Margrits voice sounded muzzy to her own ears as she shook off the weight of memory. Some of her headache cleared with it, blessed relief. You never asked which one of them was the father.

Alban looked down at her, solemnity marred by a spark in his gaze. It must be something about women. Hajnal was always annoyed that I hadnt asked, too. How does one ask such a thing delicately, Margrit? I could never decide.

You say, So whos the father?

That is not delicate.

Youve obviously never heard girlfriends go out for drinks without the men in their lives. Women can be just awful. You shouldve made Hajnal ask.

Hajnal and Sarah werent friends, Alban said thoughtfully. I never fully understood why.

Aside from the fact that all of you men doted on her?

Alban looked affronted. I did not.

Alban, you snuck out in the middle of a raging fire to fly her to safety, and let her lovers believe shed died to protect her. Its the stuff of fairy tales. Everybody gets a little jealous when someone else gets to be the princess.

We shared memories, Alban said, still offended. She knew she had no cause for envy. I liked Sarah, but I loved Hajnal.

Youre right. Margrit smiled up at him. Youll never understand. Well, were going to have to find them, so maybe Ill get a chance to ask.

We have to what?

Margrit rolled back on her heels, eyebrows lifting. You dont really think Janx and Daisani are going to let this lie, do you? They have children, Alban, maybe grandchildren or more out there, or at least one of them does. Theres no way either of them is going to let that go. Look at it from their perspectives. For one thing, its a link back to a long-lost love. For another, one of them has descendants. One of thems going to want to use those descendants against the other, and the others going to want to protect them. For a third, half-blood children have just been legitimized. They could have potential dynasties out there, waiting to be exploited.

That hardly encourages me to reveal them.

Then they need to be protected. Margrit folded her arms in triumph. One way or another, we have to find them.

Fortunately, Alban said with a sigh, theyre in New York.

CHAPTER 19 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 21