Margrit let astonishment out in a sharp laugh. “They are? And Daisani and Janx don’t know?”
“How could they? More than a century passed between Sarah’s death in London and the girls’ arrival here. They’ve lived quiet lives, moving from district to district, sometimes out of the city and back again. I’ve kept watch over them, sent money to bring them to America after I left France. We see each other often enough to know we’re well, and little more than that. Janx and Eliseo have been interested in my actions for too long, and I’ve never wanted to risk exposing the girls.”
“Well, come on! Let’s go see them!”
“At this hour?” Alban’s heavy eyebrows rose in gentle teasing. “Even if they’re awake—”
“Do they sleep? Janx and Daisani don’t seem to.” Margrit put the heel of one hand against an eye, adding, “Neither do I, lately. I thought Daisani said the healing blood wouldn’t negate my need for sleep. Maybe that’s why my head hurts. What day is it, anyway?”
“Friday,” Alban replied equitably. “The early hours, but Friday. When did you last sleep?”
“I napped before coming to the trial. Besides that, not since before Biali snagged you.” Margrit shook herself, drawing a deep breath that seemed to loosen some of the static in her mind. “Never mind, I’m okay. Do they sleep?”
“They did as children. I assume they still do. It may be, Margrit, that this particular venture should be yours alone.”
New astonishment swept her. “Why?”
“Because the sun will rise in a few hours, and it may be more important to warn them than for me to make proper introductions. It’s hard to imagine how they might find them, but even crippled, Janx has resources, and Eliseo…”
“Is Eliseo Daisani. All right.” Margrit shrugged, small, helpless movement. “I’ll go as soon as it’s light. Or—Ah, hell. There’s no way I’m going to work, is there. Dammit. Cara was right.”
“Managing the Old Races is my job. It’s more important to me than the one I’m doing at Legal Aid. I really never imagined that could happen.” She pulled away, searching the empty chamber for water bottles and finding none. Daisani’s posh office would have them, but the idea lost its irritable edge as she realized its absurdity. Grace’s underground hideaway was a far more likely location for midnight tribunals than the business mogul’s penthouse work space. “Janx says I’m not really committed to the Old Races yet. What more does it take?”
“Sarah Hopkins bore children to the Old Races and still walked away. The measures that hold you to us are many, but they’re not impossible to break, Margrit. Janx might not let go of the third favor you owe him, and until that bond is completed, it might be more difficult to leave us. But if you truly want to sever all ties with us, it’s within your capability. I’ve told you that since the beginning.”
“And I’ve never wanted to.” Margrit turned back to him. “Part of me is sick at the idea that I’m this ready to choose your people and your problems over the career I’ve been working toward my whole life. The rest of me still says that if I want to make a difference in the world, being your advocate is the most profound thing I can do. Nobody will ever know, but…”
“You’ll know. Perhaps that’s enough.”
“Maybe.” Margrit drew a deep breath, feeling her heartbeat flutter with nerves. “Before I go see the girls, Alban, I need to ask you a favor.”
“You should know by now that I’ll refuse you nothing.”
It was true: he would refuse her nothing. But for one brief moment, Alban wished that he might have refused this.
He held himself deliberately still on the rooftop of Margrit’s apartment building. She’d gone in to rouse her housemates, grim with a promise made to the male of the couple. Cole had glimpsed Alban’s true form and had been both frightened and angered by what he’d seen, but Margrit was right in one thing: it would not do to ask Cole to bear that secret when his lifemate was kept in the dark. Margrit’s own relationship with a human detective had fallen to pieces in part because Margrit was willing to keep Alban’s secret. Tony Pulcella had lost faith in her, and rather than restore it, Margrit had chosen to protect the Old Races over her own ease. Asking Cole to do the same was beyond reason. Alban understood that.
Comprehension did nothing to slow the unusual rapid beat of his heart, or the grinding worry in his belly. He’d shown himself to Margrit out of necessity and an irrational belief that she, who ran through the park fearlessly at night, would somehow be able to understand and accept him. There was no such hope with Cole or Cameron.
So he held himself still in order to not betray nerves, wishing he still wore his gargoyle form so that he might wrap wings around himself and feel protected from exposure. He’d agreed it was easier and safer to present him in human form first, but he felt vulnerable.
The rooftop door opened with a whine, Margrit’s quiet “Alban?” carried on the wind. He stepped away from the edge he’d sentried himself at, hands deliberately loose in his pockets as he came to meet Margrit and her housemates.
Cole, dark-haired and handsome, radiated distrust and fear. He held Cameron’s hand too hard, adding to her frown. She was taller than he by some inches and held her long, blond hair in a fist over her shoulder, trying to keep the wind from lashing it into her face. Both were dressed and bundled in warm jackets, though Cameron’s tennis shoes were untied and she looked bemused. “I know you don’t come out in the day, Alban, but couldn’t you have come by in the evening? 5:30 a.m. isn’t exactly visiting hours.” She leaned her head against Cole’s shoulder, a few strands of hair escaping to plaster themselves across Cole’s face. “What’s going on?”
“I apologize for the necessity of meeting at this hour. Margrit and I have something we needed to tell you—”
“Oh my God.” Cameron straightened and reached for Margrit’s arm, letting her own hair go in the process. It whipped around and she snatched at it, then gave up and seized Margrit again. “Oh my God, are you pregnant?”
Alban, accustomed to the swoops and falls of riding air currents, could not remember one that had ever plummeted his stomach so dramatically. Margrit squawked with dismay. “No! God, why does everybody—No! I’m not pregnant! Jeez, Cameron!”
“Oh.” Cameron released Margrit, expression downcast. “Man, that would’ve been worth climbing up to the roof in the cold and wind. What else could be that important?” She looked between Margrit and Alban expectantly. “C’mon, spill it.”
Margrit glanced at Alban, who gestured feebly for her to speak. His pulse continued to beat at an impossible rate, churning his stomach in a completely unaccustomed manner. Gargoyles were rarely shocked, but he was beyond words, a peculiar combination of relief and sorrow holding him in its grasp. A child wasn’t something he’d considered. To have the idea introduced and rejected in the same moment flummoxed him.
Margrit nodded, then looked at Cole, whose tense expression hadn’t changed, and sighed before turning back to Cameron. “Okay. I want you to hear me out, Cam. You’re not going to believe me, but I’m asking you to listen until I’m done, and then when you don’t believe it, I’ll prove it, okay?”
“Okaaaay. This is all very dramatic.”
Alban’s upset stomach faded a little as he, Margrit and Cole all breathed words very much to the effect of, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” at the same time. For an instant the possibility of camaraderie seemed alive, but Cole’s twisted mouth then belied it.
“All right.” Margrit inhaled deeply, clearly searching for somewhere to begin. Alban touched her shoulder, hoping to offer reassurance, and she returned a wan smile before saying, “You remember the speakeasy windows. The ones I put together to make into images?”
“Yeaaaah. We had this conversation already, Grit.”
“Yeah. Um, right. I just kind of didn’t follow through on it.” Margrit pulled her own hair out of its ponytail, then knotted it back up fiercely. “All of those creatures portrayed in the windows, the dragons and everything. Dragons and djinn, selkies and gargoyles,” she said more firmly, suddenly committing herself to the explanation. “That’s what they were. The ones you thought were mermaids were selkies, seal-people from Irish legend.”
“Okay, sure, whatever.” Cameron stuck her head out, a tiny shake indicating Margrit should get on with it. “And man presiding over them all. So what?”
“That wasn’t a man, it was…” Margrit trailed off, then looked at the sky and mumbled, “Never mind. The point. The point is they’re legendary, but they’re not imaginary. All of them, all of those creatures represented in the windows, are real. I’ve met them all.”
“You’ve met a dragon.”
“And a gargoyle.”
Cameron laughed. “So that’s why you can’t come out during the day, huh, Alban? You’re like that cartoon? I always thought that was a cool idea, even though I never got why they had to go to sleep during the day. Seems kind of pointless. At least vampires get, like, destroyed by sunlight. The gargoyles just turned to stone. Fwump.”
“In actuality,” Alban murmured, though he knew he shouldn’t, “vampires are not destroyed by sunlight. And my people are not especially like the ones in the cartoon, although we do share the transformation at dusk and dawn. Ours is a protective state, a way to help us maintain histories of our people that go back millennia. And now, because there is no way you can believe me otherwise, I’ll show you the truth.”
Alban transformed as he spoke, soft implosion of air bouncing out as his mass became significantly greater than it had been. Cole hunched and stiffened all at once, angling himself as though he prepared an attack. Margrit thought he didn’t even know he did it, that it came from someplace deep and instinctive, a primitive hunter faced with unknown prey. Alban, in face of Cole’s pose, held very still, though it wasn’t the preternatural stillness Margrit had seen him assume many times before. This, too, was preparation: waiting to see which way the predator would jump. That gargoyles, too, were predators crossed Margrit’s mind, and she hoped it wouldn’t come to any sort of fight.
All of that happened beneath Cameron’s resounding shriek. Margrit knew her friend well enough to recognize fear in her voice, and heard only pure surprise. Before the echoes had died Cameron had jolted closer to Alban, her babble making her sound like an overexcited teenager.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! Margrit! Oh my God! Cole! Oh my God! Are you actually—Oh my God. Is that—Are you—Are—Holy shit! Can I touch it? You? Him? What are you? Holy shit!” She reached out to touch Alban before getting permission, but before doing so froze, then whipped around to face Margrit, her eyes large as she hissed, “You slept with him?”
Margrit bit into her lower lip, trying not to look at Cole, whose expression blackened further at the reminder. She nodded warily, afraid of Cameron’s censure, but the taller woman just seized her shoulders for the third time that morning. “You are so giving me all the details!”
Cole made a sound of disbelief and Cameron turned a wide-eyed gaze on him. “What, don’t you want to know?”
“No! Jesus, Cam, look at that thing! It’s not even human!”
Cameron looked toward Alban again, and a smile of wonder stretched across her face. “I can see that. My God, it’s amazing. He. You. You’re amazing. What are you? How are you?”
Margrit, beneath the rush of breathless questions, murmured, “She’s taking this better than I did.”
“You were concussed,” Alban pointed out. “And I was wanted for murder. I believe the jury would consider a plea of extenuating circumstances.” Margrit smiled as he offered a graceful inclination of his head to Cameron. “I trust you mean how is it that I exist, rather than how I’m feeling. We believe ourselves to be simply another evolutionary track, from long before this world settled on its path. There are not many of us left, and I fear most humans aren’t as delighted by our presence as you seem to be.”
“I don’t know why not. You’re amazing.” Cameron walked in a circle around Alban, a hand lifted like she wanted to touch him, though she didn’t, only brushed the air near him. “This is incredible. Am I going to wake up back in Kansas?”
“I wish,” Cole said through his teeth. “I’ve been trying for two weeks. It’s real.”
“You knew? You did know, that’s why you and Margrit had a fight. She said it was about Alban. Cole, how can you be angry?” Cameron pulled her gaze from the gargoyle again, smile starting to fade as she took in Cole’s tight expression. “You really are angry.”
“Of course I am! Margrit’s screwing that freak and you…Jesus, Cameron, what’s wrong with you? That thing is a, a—”
“A gargoyle,” Margrit said quietly. Cameron’s draining pleasure exhausted her, saddening her immeasurably, just as Cole’s anger had done earlier. “And he’s a friend of mine, someone I care about a lot, Cole.”
“You want to talk about friends, how about Tony? You dumped him over that thing, and I’m—”
“Technically he dumped me.” Margrit half regretted the muttered words as soon as they were out, but a spark of vindictiveness was just as glad she’d spoken. It wouldn’t help, but damned if she wouldn’t have the record straight.
“I would have, too, if I’d found out you were screwing around on me with—”
“Margrit’s greatest indiscretion with regards to me was in keeping her silence on my true nature during Detective Pulcella’s investigation.” Alban cut in, voice low with warning. “I can understand your fear and distrust of me—”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Cole spat, scorn so thick it almost hid the note of falsehood in his denial.
Alban shrugged, wings rippling with the movement. “But I think it unfair to impugn Margrit’s honor. You’ve known her for many years. Surely you think more highly of her than that.”
“I don’t know her at all.” Cole turned away, a slash of hurt and anger against the night. Cameron’s shoulders dropped, much of her joy gone, but she turned to Alban with a hopeful smile.
“Thank you for trusting me. Us. I have about five million questions, and I really, really hope I get a chance to ask them sometime. I’m glad to have really met you, Alban.” She hesitated, then put out her hand, and Alban clasped it gently with taloned fingers.
“I am glad, as well, and I think we’ll have more opportunities to talk.” His smile was toothsome and alarming, if she was predisposed to being alarmed, but Cam’s answering smile dimpled with a hint of the delight she’d shown earlier. Then she followed Cole, concern in the bent of her body.
Margrit steepled her fingers in front of her mouth as she watched them go. “That went better and worse than I hoped. I thought Cam would be more alarmed, but I hoped Cole would have mellowed out a little by now.”
“He may never, Margrit.” Alban stepped up behind her, folding his arms around her waist and closing his wings around them both, making a pocket of warmth against the wind. “We don’t keep ourselves hidden because we want to hide from reactions like Cameron’s. She did take it better than you.”
“Well, you were wanted for murder. And I’d been hit by a car. Almost. And…” Margrit elbowed Alban lightly as he began to chuckle. “I came around.”
“And she had the safety of friends at hand. Yes, you did, a gift which I will never stop marveling at.”
Margrit sighed. “Maybe it’s a girl thing. We all watched too much Dark Shadows and Beauty and the Beast when we were kids and now magnificent creatures hiding in the dark are tantalizing, not terrifying.”
“I hate to disagree with such a persuasive argument, but not only were you terrified of me initially, but I believe Janx and Daisani still…”
“Scare the shit out of me?” Margrit offered when Alban hesitated, lost for a phrase. He chuckled and nodded, earning Margrit’s rueful smile. “All right, so it wasn’t the best argument ever. I should…probably go in and try to talk to them. And if that doesn’t work, at least take a shower and try to find the twins before I have to go…”
“That’s how that sentence should end. Instead I have to try to keep the djinn from declaring all-out war on you, me and Janx, probably especially me, and if that doesn’t work, I have to borrow a pint of Daisani’s blood and get the police department to trust me when I say dip the handcuffs in it.” Margrit thinned her lips, looking up at the gargoyle. “You’ve made my life very complicated. Interesting, but complicated.”
“I hope you can forgive me for that.”
“Probably.” Margrit drew a deep breath. “All right. Tell me where to find the twins, and leave me to face my housemates.”