Margrit awakened with a pounding head and the befuddling idea that she’d heard a gun.
Instinct drove her to sit up, but her muscles were rubbery and she faltered, barely able to lift her head.
Crimson spread out in front of her, the only clear thing in her foggy vision. It was warm, though cooling rapidly, and sticky, and she thought it should mean something to her, all that red liquid so close to her. It smelled of copper, only discernible because she lay so close to it. Other smells were far more overpowering: fire, smoke, barbecue. Her stomach rumbled and she tried to clap a hand against it, but her movements were too clumsy, and all she did was smear a hand in the blood.
Hunger twisted into nausea as she realized her unthinking recognition was right and that she lay in a pool of blood.
Recollection slammed into her, a shock of adrenaline giving her the energy necessary to jerk upright. Her vision cleared as she twisted to face the room, the world sharpening into hyperdefined focus.
The first sound she made after coming back from the dead was a laugh.
No one else heard it: it was too low and raw a sound, as she took in the impossible things spread out before her. Her blood in the foreground, yes, and the air thick with smoke and flame. Bodies, some charcoaled, some flayed, some gnawed upon as though an animal had gotten to them, lay scattered around the floor, and amongst them stood gargoyles and a dragon in their elemental forms, and selkies and a vampire who looked human to an untrained eye.
And under the dragon’s claw lay Anthony Pulcella, who didn’t belong there at all and who was about to pay for his audacity with his life. Beyond him was Grace O’Malley, only slightly less out of place, her peaches-and-cream complexion paled to ghostly white. Janx was speaking, something Margrit hadn’t known he could do in his dragon form, and then he coiled upward, clearly preparing for a final strike.
“Dragonlord,” Margrit said, and her voice was a disaster, “you will not.”
Not if she lived a hundred years would she become accustomed to the lack of movement that came over the Old Races when something surprised them. Every being in the room save Tony went deadly still, bewilderment spasming over the detective’s face. Margrit thought he hadn’t heard her: the ruin of her voice was so quiet she’d barely heard herself, but the Old Races had better senses than humans did.
Janx, with terrible precision, turned his long face toward her, complex double eyelids shuttering over eyes that burned emerald with challenge. His gaze was weighted, heated; all the things she had come to be accustomed to from the dragon. For the first time she felt no fear at all; could, indeed, barely remember why it was he’d frightened her. “You will not,” she said again, and air imploded as Janx returned to his human form.
“An unexpected surprise, Margrit Knight.” The dragonlord looked furious, hands repeatedly clenching into fists.
Relief swept Margrit as his change agreed to her demand, or at least gave her further time to negotiate. She sagged toward the floor, then ground her teeth and forced herself upward. Not just to sitting, but to her feet, a distance she wasn’t at all sure she could travel. But then there was a hand at her elbow, supporting her, and Alban was at her side, his eyes round with hope and astonishment.
Margrit laughed, so breathless it would have been fragile had her throat not been ruined. As it was it scraped, a gurgle as dreadful as her last breaths had been, and she whispered, “Hi.”
“I thought you were dead.” Alban’s hand on her arm was delicate, as though he doubted what he saw and touched. As though she might shatter under his grip, a possibility that felt alarmingly real. The nausea she’d felt before remained in place, symptomatic of light-headedness and blood loss, but she managed another broken laugh.
“I think I was. Mostly dead, at least.” Sick and trembling or not, she felt filled with laughter, its music bubbling up in her as a form of relief. “Daisani saved me. I think Tariq didn’t cut quite deep enough, and Daisani’s blood saved me. I was so sad I wouldn’t get to see you again.” She swallowed and stopped speaking, every word a strain. The room was unbelievably silent, her harsh voice and Tony’s labored breathing the only sounds in it.
Every one of the remaining Old Races stared at her in the same astonishment Alban did. Overwhelmed by their gazes, she turned her face against his chest and held on with all the trembling strength she had at her disposal, grateful for his cool, stony scent and solid presence. Exhaustion held her too thoroughly for joy to turn to desire, but she could feel its call deep within her, wanting life to be celebrated.
“Margrit?” Tony’s voice sounded almost as hoarse as her own did. Margrit released Alban, uncertain she could keep her feet without his support, but there was no need: Tony was there, crushing her in his arms and mumbling disbelief into her hair. “You were dead, Grit. You were dead.”
Another raw, shaking laugh broke free. “I got better. Do you remember—” Speech hurt, and she was grateful when Alban took over, words deep and tempered with sympathy.
“A gift from another of our kind, detective. One sip of a vampire’s blood offers health to your people. You recall how quickly she recovered from her injuries in January.”
Tony looked up at Alban, then set Margrit back a few inches, his hands on her shoulders hard with relief and concern. “So fast the doctors thought their X-rays must’ve been wrong. But this, Margrit, I mean—your throat…”
Margrit put her fingers against the cut, shuddering to discover it wasn’t yet fully closed. “I think every time I get hurt it steps up the recovery time. I got the shit beat out of me last night.” She looked beyond Tony, finding Grace, who looked strangely insubstantial amongst the Old Races. Even Tony’s strong coloring helped make the tall vigilante look less real than those around her. For a moment an answer swam behind Margrit’s eyes, but it slipped away again and she whispered, “I could feel myself healing, then. I think I might not be alive if it weren’t for you.”
Grace executed an elegant bow, flourishing with her fingers as Margrit looked back to Tony. “What are you two doing here?”
Janx grumbled a warning that Margrit silenced with a look, while Tony fell back a step and shook his head. “Wish to hell I knew. She came out of nowhere and said I had to come with her.”
“When a cadre of gargoyles goes off looking for trouble, Grace knows to call in a ringer. I didn’t know we’d find a mess as bad as this one, but sometimes it takes old-fashioned human ingenuity to get people’s attention. I figured the copper shooting off a round or two would do it.”
“You have a gun,” Margrit said blankly.
Grace wrinkled her nose and slipped the weapon from the small of her back, then knocked open the chamber to shake its contents onto the floor. Nothing fell, and with a semiembarrassed shrug, she said, “No bullets, love.”
Margrit stared at Grace, remembering too vividly the way she’d pressed the gun’s barrel to her forehead. Her stomach lurched with the dismay of discovering old fear had been useless, but before she found words to protest with, Kate, quiet and sullen, said, “I thought we were the ringers,” to Ursula.
Janx turned on them both, clearly glad to have a target for his ire. He was nearly purple with indignation, and a purposeful pair of gargoyles stepped forward to prevent him from launching himself at the girls. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” he demanded. “Did you think you could come into my city, my territory, and proclaim yourself without challenge? Did you—”
“How did you even know I was here?” The curiosity behind Kate’s question was clearly genuine, startling Janx and sending a pang of regret through Margrit. The half-blood children of the Old Races were so thoroughly denied their heritages it was no surprise that Ausra had succumbed to madness. Kate and Ursula had fared better, but Margrit doubted either of them truly understood the world their fathers had come from.
“You announced yourself with your transformation.” Janx’s anger lost its grip on him, confusion rising to replace it. “How can you not know that? How can you not know our tongue? Who are you?”
Kate exchanged a panicked glance with her sister, but it was Alban who stood with Margrit gathered in his arms, and replied for all of them. “This is Katherine Hopkins, Janx. Sarah’s daughter, and yours.”
“Daughter.” Janx echoed the word dully, as lacking in animation as Alban had ever seen him.
“They’ve been in New York for years,” Alban said. “Since…”
“Nineteen sixty-two,” Ursula provided. “We’ve lived in all five boroughs. Kate wants to go upstate next.”
Janx shook himself, dragging his gaze from Kate to Ursula. “Daughter.”
“Not me. Just her.” Ursula slid her arm around Kate’s waist, shoring her up. “My father is Eliseo Daisani.”
Janx and Tony made similar sounds of dismay, the former amusing Alban and the latter drawing his attention to the detective. Grace O’Malley offered him a reassuring touch, her long fingers light and gentle over his. They made an attractive pair, almost Alban and Margrit’s mirror opposites, with Grace pale and blond and Tony golden-skinned and dark-haired. The idea traced a smile on Alban’s lips before he turned back to the twins. “I didn’t recognize you,” he said to Kate. “Not at first. I thought you were Janx. Did you know, in all these centuries, I’d never seen your other form?”
“Of course we knew.” Ursula answered for Kate, who stared greedily at Janx. “Mama drilled that into us when we were still girls. Once we could transform to the degree that we wanted, we never did it again. It’s harder to get caught if you don’t flaunt your differences.”
“To the degree you want?” Janx gaped at Ursula, then looked back at the auburn-haired woman who was his daughter. “You have halfway forms?”
“Of course.” Kate looked nonplussed. “Don’t you?”
All of Janx’s cool and nonchalance slipped away. “No!”
Margrit’s voice fluted as high as it could with the injuries to her throat: “These are things that can be argued about later. Where’s Tariq?”
Cara, pinch-faced with pain, looked up from one of her injured podmates. “The vampire ate him.”
“I did not!” Offense shot through Ursula’s voice, mitigated an instant later by the admission, “He got away.”
Margrit stepped forward, relying on Alban’s support and not trying to hide it. A flare of pride burst in his chest, that he should be fortunate enough to have encountered a woman like this one, and that she could see beyond his alien nature and care for him. She was one of the most fiercely independent people he had ever known, and the tastes he’d had of her memories told him that when she chose not to walk beside him or rely upon him, it was to establish herself as worthy of consideration on her own terms. That she was now willing to accept his help said as much about who she was as it did about who they were. Alban fought down a smile that felt silly with delight as Margrit shuffled a step or two closer to Cara.
“Are the selkies satisfied that my death has fulfilled the wergild against Janx and Alban for their part in Malik’s death?”
Cara, bemused, said, “You’re not dead.”
“I was.” Margrit turned her head toward Alban, who felt his insides go cold again as he nodded. “The agreement didn’t stipulate I had to stay that way.”
Humor crowed in Alban’s chest, crowding out the cold. Margrit was still shaking and far too pale from blood loss, and yet determined to drive nails into the coffin of a war still on the edge of burgeoning. Her voice cleared a little as she repeated, “Are the selkies satisfied?”
“The selkies are,” Cara said bitterly. “We give up our claim on Janx’s territory—”
The dragon hissed in triumph and Cara turned a hard look on him, finishing, “And cede it to the djinn with all our support.”
Margrit slumped against Alban, her hand on his arm trembling with the effort of keeping herself upright. He tightened his fingers at her waist, understanding she wanted to show as much strength as possible, and didn’t nestle her close again, for all that it was in his heart to do so.
Using him for steadiness, she turned toward Eldred. “We can’t let war come of this. Will the gargoyles accept the djinn as masters of Janx’s empire?”
“It is of no loss to us,” Eldred said. “If it will keep the peace, then yes, of course.”
“The dragons,” Janx snarled, “will not.”
Margrit glanced at Alban, her smile exhausted, then gave that same weary look to Janx. “You’re not the only dragon here today.” Drawing herself up, ignoring the outrage that flushed Janx’s cheeks, she turned to Kate. “What say the dragons?”
Avarice as powerful as anything Alban had ever seen in Janx’s eyes flashed across Kate’s face. Then she shot her father a glance, and when she spoke, her words were measured, more like Ursula’s than usual. “A dragon and a vampire came here today to support the Negotiator. Neither of us have a stake in Janx’s territory, and we’re willing to accept djinn rule here. We’ll stand together to help them hold it, if necessary.”
Fury contorted Janx’s face. Alban stepped forward, flanking Margrit and ready to push her behind himself if danger sparked. She stayed him with a touch, perhaps still too close to death to fear it. “And you, dragonlord? Do you cede control over your empire to the djinn?”
Janx looked from one face to another, high color still burning his cheeks, and finally brought a venomous look back to Margrit. “You’ve given me no choice. Congratulations, Ms. Knight. It seems you’ve won a round.”
“I’ve won two.” Margrit curled a hand in Alban’s bloody shirt, bracing herself. “Your territory ceded, and Tony’s life. I’m calling in my third favor, Janx. Just to make it clear.”
Janx peeled his lips back from his teeth, far less a smile than a threat. “Are you so very certain this is how you wish to use that last wish, Margrit Knight? You have many years ahead of you, and may yet need a dragon’s favor. And then there is the matter of Grace O’Malley and her children, is there not? Think carefully, Negotiator. Choose wisely.”
Triumph jolted her, burning up too much of what little energy she had, but a smile flashed over Margrit’s face regardless. She had won already, even if Janx didn’t know it yet: he had accorded her a title, and that meant she had a place amongst the Old Races. “We’ve already made the exchange for Grace’s tunnels, Janx. Don’t cloud the issue. Of course I’m sure. Maybe it’s terribly human of me, but my friends are not pieces for you to push around on your chess board or knock aside as it pleases you. Tony’s life is mine.”
She heard the detective catch his breath and a burst of humor cut through her triumph. Being alive made it easy to laugh. She hoped that would stay: it seemed as if her laughter was too often edged with cynicism. And she knew what caused Tony to protest, even if he didn’t do so aloud. She’d made a claim on his life, staking it as hers. If, heaven forbid, he had made the same statement, she would have lashed out at him with any attack in her repertoire. She was autonomous, and so, too, was he.
On the other hand, at least once, very recently, she’d had the presence of mind to keep her mouth shut over just such a claim, and she hoped Tony would, too. It was a matter of principle in a relationship or at the office. Here, now, it was literally a matter of life and death.
“Am I to walk away with nothing?” Janx demanded. “My empire lost, cast from my temporary home, the lives of all responsible safe from my retribution? Is this your way of smoothing the waters in our world, Margrit Knight?”
“You can walk away with your daughter.” Margrit sounded implacable to her own ears, the roughness of her voice gone. “I’d think that was worth any price.”
For an instant—just an instant—Janx softened as he looked toward Kate. Her lips parted, another ingenue’s look of sweet hope, but this time Margrit saw raw emotion behind it, the expression no longer an act.
“It is more than a trinket,” Janx conceded, but then his expression hardened again. Kate’s shoulders dropped in dismay, and Ursula hugged her harder, the two making miscolored shadows of one another. “More than a trinket, but not enough. I set a third task to you weeks ago, Margrit Knight. I would see it done. Then, and only then, are we even and is the slate between us cleared. Heed my wish and I’ll heed yours.” He finally smiled, sharp-toothed and angry. “Do we have an accord?”
“We do.” Margrit whispered the words even as she shied away from the thought. Janx had set her a task, and she’d thrown it in his face in much the same way he’d just tried to do with her. Had warned him that it was his last favor, and he should be well aware of how he spent it.
She had acted to spare a life. Janx was acting to end one.
Eliseo Daisani would be destroyed. Not the vampire himself, but his persona, the business mogul who’d reigned over New York for the past thirty years. If Janx was to lose his empire, then Daisani would, too, and they would move elsewhere, begin their game anew. It would be hard enough for Janx, but nearly impossible for Daisani, whose face was known all over the world. A century earlier slipping from one life to another must have been easy, but Margrit had no idea how a well-known person would even begin to do so in the modern world.
“We do,” she said again, more clearly. “You’re a son of a bitch, Janx, but we have a deal.”
“Why, Margrit.” Janx made himself the picture of injured feelings. “I thought that was what you liked about me.”
“I don’t think I like any of you very much right now.” The adrenaline high was beginning to burn off, leaving Margrit weaker than she wanted to be. “Get out of here, Janx. Go pack your things and leave Grace’s tunnels and her children. Go somewhere with Kate. Get to know your daughter. Try to be a good guy for a while. It’d help me sleep easier.”
“Your wish, my dear, is my command. Katherine?” Janx, with consummate showmanship, offered Kate an elbow, then cocked the other and said, “Ursula?” in equally inviting tones.
The twins exchanged glances, first with each other, then with Margrit, who nodded and lifted her hand, fingers spread to represent a phone, toward her ear. She mouthed, “Call me,” and both the women smiled brightly, Kate nodding agreement before they each took one of Janx’s elbows and allowed him to escort them away from the loading dock.
“Are you certain it’s wise to encourage Daisani’s daughter to walk with Janx?” Alban murmured.
Margrit turned toward him, the movement making her dizzy, and put a hand on his arm to steady herself. “I’ll tell Eliseo, don’t worry. I thought you didn’t know who their fathers were.”
“I didn’t,” Alban said dryly, “until I saw them in action. It became obvious, Margrit.”
“Oh.” Light-headedness replaced what she would normally have thought of as the sensation of a blush. Nausea followed it and she clutched Alban’s sleeve, teeth set together against illness.
Her name came from two directions, Tony and Alban both voicing concern. She managed a weak smile at them, amused by the way they scowled, uncertain which of them should take precedence. After a few seconds Tony stepped back. Grace, looking surprisingly satisfied, tucked her arm through the detective’s as Alban asked, “Are you well, Margrit?”
“Honestly? At the very least I need about a gallon of water, and a blood transfusion probably wouldn’t hurt. But I don’t think I have time for that.” Margrit shrugged and straightened away from Alban. “There’s too much else to do.”
She managed three steps before her eyes rolled back and she collapsed to the concrete in a faint.