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She could almost hear Albans voice, dismayed and resigned, saying, That was a bad idea.

The phrase was so inadequate as to be laughable, but that was part of the delight in hearing him say it. She had pursued so many bad ideas in the months since the Old Races came into her life that more extravagant words fell by the wayside of that one hopelessly understated comment.

Daisani had laughed aloud and gestured her back toward the elevator. Grateful, Margrit had taken the out she was offered, heart pushing thick blood with such enthusiasm that it sent a cramp through her chest when the elevator doors closed without Daisani darting inside them. He could catch her anywhere, instantaneously, but allowing her to escape the building without reminding her of that seemed like an agreement to the game.

Now, after the fact, warning him what she intended felt supremely stupid. She stopped a few yards down the block, arms folded over her ribs as she tried to hold back stomach-churning nausea. Feeble intellect proclaimed that challenging the vampire openly had been the right thing to do, and shed been confident enough in that rightness to walk into his lair without fear. Now that the moment was past, though, she wasnt certain she had strength left to get home, much less draw together the resources necessary to bring about his downfall.

Mind over matter, Grit. She spoke the words softly, trying to encourage herself, then nodded a couple of times and pushed herself upright, leaning against the wall. One step at a time. Um. Unable to think of another platitude, she managed a smile at herself and dug for the cell phone shed pocketed when shed put on her running gear. Shed set the autodial in motion and brought it to her ear before she fully noticed the screen was a pixelated mess. Oh, goddammit!

Sorry? A startled mannot a local, from both his response and from the T-shirt reading Oklahoma Is OK!edged out of her way as she clenched the useless phone in her fist to stop herself from dashing it against the sidewalk in frustration. Shed ended up hurt and without a cell phone both times a djinn had snatched her. For one overblown moment, the loss of the phones seemed vastly more debilitating than the physical injuries. The fact that Janx wouldnt be replacing this phone only added insult.

Margrit channeled destructive tendencies into running and left weariness behind in the rush of endorphins. Even so, by the time she arrived home, she was gasping, thirsty and vividly aware that she hadnt eaten since lunch the previous day.

There were no leftovers in the fridge, more disappointing than the discovery warranted. She took out a cup of yogurt and stirred it into a bowl full of granola, then left both on the counter as she searched for a pint of ice cream from the freezer. Two bites told her she needed real food first, and she shoveled the granola yogurt into her mouth while she called for Chinese delivery. With a promise of Mongolian beef and cashew chicken in twenty minutes, she sank down in front of the phone to finish eating her snack.

A key in the front door warranted looking, but not getting up. Margrits stomach clenched around the food, the anticipation of another confrontation with Cole too much to face, but it was Cameron who stepped in, gym bag slung over her shoulder and long legs shown off beneath a short, white tennis skirt.

I thought you didnt play tennis.

Cam yelped, startled, and swung around to regard Margrits position on the floor in front of the telephone table. Normal people say hello first!

Margrit smiled. Hello. I thought you didnt play tennis.

Cameron pointed a toe to flex lean muscle. I took it up so Coled buy me a diamond tennis bracelet. You like the look?

You look gorgeous, Margrit assured her. Is it working?

Not unless he gets a substantial raise, but I dont really need a tennis bracelet. Cam smiled back and threw her gym bag into the room she and Cole shared before coming back to straighten up a kitchen Cole never left messy. You left the party early last night, and youve got ice cream melting on the counter. Are you okay?

The ice cream didnt taste good. I needed real food first.

Cameron put out a hand and Margrit put her empty bowl into it for inspection. So you ate cereal and yogurt?

Ive ordered Chinese.

Cole will never forgive you if you stink up his fridge with leftover Chinese.

Ill eat it all. I havent eaten since yesterday.

Thats not good. Cameron frowned down at her. Whats up with that?

Ive beenits been

Ah. That, huh? Cam sat down beside Margrit, looping her arms around her knees. Is that why you bailed on the party?

Yeah, I had some things to do.

Cam gave her a sly look and Margrit laughed. No. Not those kinds of things, or that kind of doing. It was sort of business.

So Cameron hesitated, then sighed. I dont know how much of this Im going to be able to ask when Coles around, so Im asking now. I understand how you got involved. I even understand why youre staying involved. I just dont think I gethow deep you are. Because its deep, isnt it? How did that happen?

I couldnt mind my own business. Margrit offered a faint smile, then scrambled to her feet as the doorbell rang. Fastest delivery in the city. Oh, God, Im hungry. She ran to pay, then returned to sit on the floor and start eating out of the cartons. Cameron stole a spring roll and waited, eyebrows lifted, for Margrit to continue.

It was mostly that I was trying to help Alban clear himself of the murder charges. It just turned out that doing that kept digging me deeper and deeper into their world. Once I knew about all of them, I became an obvious choice to be a go-between.

Obvious. Sure.

Well, it was obvious to them. And Ithought I could do some good.

Could you? Can you?

Margrit shrugged and scooped up a ball of sticky rice. Ive affected a lot of change, anyway. Whether thats good or not, not even Im sure anymore. But theres no going back on any of it, so I have to keep going forward.

Cam balanced the spring roll on her fingertips, blowing steam away from it. Are you ever going to tell me more than generalized statements?

Guilt twisted around the food Margrit had eaten. Maybe, but maybe not, too. This is dangerous, Cam. They depend on secrets.

Yeah, I know. Thats one of the things Cole hates.

Margrit ducked her head. Just one, huh?

Hes genuinely freaked out. Cameron got up to pour a glass of milk and gestured with the carton to ask Margrit if she wanted some. At Margrits nod, she brought a second glass, then returned the carton to the fridge and leaned on the broad orange door. Its not just that youre sleeping with a gargoyle. Its that they exist at all. You wont take it wrong if I say youre about all weve been talking about the last couple days, right?

Heh. No. Im not surprised. Im sorry, Cam. It wasnt supposed to go this way.

I know, Grit, but the more we go around about it, the less sure I am any other way would have made much difference. I dont think itd be easier for Cole, and that means it wouldnt be easier for us.

Us you and me or us you and him?

Any of us. The worst part is I can feel myself siding with him. I mean, Im not angry like he is, but

Cam, hes your fianc'e. Youre supposed to side with him. Its okay. You dont have to make apologies. He spelled it out last night at the party. I love you but I cant watch you do this, though not in those exact words. Its okay. Margrit sighed. The sad thing is I thought hed be the one to understand. I mean, out of him and Tony. The men in my life.

Wait, Tony knows? I thought he didnt.

He found out last night. After the party. He sawnot just Alban, but a lot of them. And hed watched Margrit herself come back from the dead, a gift which might well have tempered him toward accepting the Old Races. The juxtaposition of truths made Margrits bones ache. She knew as well as Tony did that if it werent for her involvement with the inhuman races, she wouldnt have been so badly injured in the first place. On the other hand, that involvement taken as rote, shed survived through their gifts. Nothing could be taken for granted, and nothing was made easy. She looked down at her food and shook her head. Maybe if Cole talks to him

That could help a lot. Cam spoke quietly. Theyre friends. If Tonys okay, maybe itll help smooth things over. She offered a hopeful smile. Next thing you know, theyll all be going out for beer and football.

Margrit laughed and got up to hug her housemate. What a horrible idea.

Isnt it? Sit back down, Cam ordered. Youve got a lot of food to get through before Cole gets home.

Ive got a lot of other things to get through before Before when? she wondered. Janx hadnt demanded a time frame, though clearly the dragonlord expected results sooner rather than later. For a moment the idea of putting him off indefinitely with promises of Daisanis financial ruin at any moment struck her as amusing, but the humor faded. He might allow that to go on for a little while, but he would no doubt remain in New York, threatening both Tony and Grace OMalleys under-city charity operation until Margrit came through on her end of the deal. Time was of the essence, not for her own sake, but for the sake of the lives shed managed to disrupt.

She shook herself and collected the food cartons from the floor, heading into the living room with them. Ill finish eating before anything else. And then can I borrow your cell phone for a couple of days? Mine got ruined last night.

You can have mine if you buy me a spiffy new one!

Your generosity overwhelms me. Margrit sat down on the couch to finish dinner, feeling at least temporarily lighthearted.

Cam did lend her the cell phone. Margrit, wanting privacy and to keep her housemates as uninvolved as she could, left the apartment well before sunset to call her mother. Rebecca Knights voice mail picked up, sending a pang of relieved regret through Margrit. Her mother, a stockbroker, was the only contact she had who could possibly advise her on how to take down a financial empire, but the idea of asking made Margrit cold with dismay. She left a message and Cams number, then worked her way downtown to Chelsea Huos bookshop.

Chelsea, chatting with customers, waved Margrit toward the back room and called, Help yourself to some tea, after her. Glad to do so, Margrit wound her way through the stacks and through the rattling bead curtain that separated Chelseas private quarters from the rest of the store. A few minutes later, hands wrapped around a mug of tea, she curled up on one of the overstuffed sofas and waited for the second rattle that would announce Chelseas arrival.

It took longer than she expected, long enough to finish her tea and nod drowsily against the sofas back. Chelseas soprano rose and fell in the front room, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with words, while other voices made deeper counterparts to her pleasantry. It seemed very normal, reassuringly far away from the Old Races, and for a little while Margrit drifted on the idea that she could perhaps someday find a role as comfortable as Chelseas seemed to be.

Finally the beads chattered again and Margrit pushed upright, blinking sleepily. Chelsea clucked her tongue and made another pot of tea before turning her bright smile on Margrit. So you survived the djinn negotiations. Has everyone agreed?

Margrit eyed her. Are you being funny?

Not at all. Chelseas smile faded. What happened? Her expression grew increasingly grim as Margrit explained, and when she finished, Chelsea shook her head. You have the luck of the devil, Margrit Knight. Im not sure any other human would have survived that.

Any other human. Margrit pressed her lips together, looking hard at the tiny bookseller. Chelsea, do you say it that way because youre one of them?

Chelsea tilted her head. Do you not find yourself thinking in terms of humans and gargoyles and vampires now, Margrit? Naming your own race separately, in a way you didnt before?

Margrit sighed and slumped in the couch. Yeah, I do. I thought Hispanic and African-American and all could get confusing enough. I never counted on adding gargoyle-Americans to the mix. She was silent a moment, wondering if Chelseas response answered the question, and then let it go. What about Vanessa Gray? She had to have had a healing sip to get the second sip, the one for long life.

She did, as have done a handful of others. But I believe they came together, two sips at once.

Does that make a difference?

Vanessa didnt survive an attack less direct and devastating than a cut throat, Chelsea pointed out. I would say it might well make a difference. Think of it this way. Youve had some three months in which your body has learned to heal itself. Time in which the smallest blemishes could be undone, from pimples to extraneous chromosomes, and whether deliberately or not, youve pushed that healing ability to its fullest. Vanessa and the others had no time for their bodies to adapt. They went from mortal to Chelsea broke off, drawing a breath as if to give herself time to consider her words. Immortal, she finally said, though she didnt look pleased with it.

Demi-mortal? Margrit asked with a half smile. Demigods are half human, half gods, right? So a human whose lifespans been extended beyond the norm would be demi-mortal.

Chelseas smile blossomed. Demi-mortal. That will do nicely. They went from mortal to demi-mortal inside a few minutes. I would think the flaws they were born with would continue into demi-mortality, having been given no chance to be wiped away. I should think that even without a second sip of Eliseos blood, short of traumatic accidents, you might live a very long time indeed.

Margrit stared at her, then shuddered. Demi-mortal sounds better on somebody else, Chelsea. Im only human.

Yes, I think thats true. I suspect that if you underwent examination you would be nothing more than human, but you might very possibly be a perfect specimen. No errors in the template any longer.

Wouldnt that make me sterile, or something? The idea was so extreme it had almost no meaning as she voiced it. I mean, isnt human development born from mutation? How can anything mutate if I dont have any flaws?

I think as long as you intend to reproduce sexually instead of asexually youre in no danger of flaw-free reproduction, Chelsea said dryly. Which, fascinating topic as it is, is probably not why you came here this evening.

No, although Im beginning to think maybe it should have been. I never even thought about Margrit drew herself up, stopping the line of speculation. I came to ask if you think its possible to take Daisani down.

Chelseas feathery eyebrows shot up. Youre asking me?

Well, I cant exactly ask him for pointers. Youknow things, Margrit said, suddenly aware that was the phrase Grace often used. Putting that aside, too, she added, And they listen to you. Why? The word carried stress as she found herself up against the question of whether Chelsea was human or not a second time. Ive never seen any of them so much as mock you. They tease me all the time.

Margrit. Amusement warmed Chelseas voice. Its early April. Youve been part of their world for three months, and they have, in fact, all jumped at your command. Im easily twice your age, and have known about them for a very long time. Even if you do no more than hold the place you now stand in, in twenty years youll be treated with more reverence, too.

Margrit regarded Chelsea over the mug of tea, then blew exasperated ripples into it. Did I sound like I wanted a logical answer? Still, they do listen to you.

You think Eliseo Daisani will listen if I suggest he roll over?

Margrit huffed into her tea again. No. Just wondering if you know of anyvulnerabilities.

Chelseas eyes darkened to the color of old tea. How seriously do you intend to disable him, Margrit?

Even if I could, Im not after his life. I wont go that far, not now, not ever. Not even for Tony. She put the tea aside to drop her face into her hands. Good to know Ive still got boundaries.

Did you doubt it?

Margrit looked up through her fingers. More and more every day.

As long as its a matter for concern, youre probably safe. Chelsea studied her for long moments. I have a piece of information that will help you, but it carries a tremendous price. You have undone the strictures that have held the Old Races in place for millennia. If youre obligedor willingto use this, I cannot be sure what Eliseo Daisani will do in retaliation. It could very easily cost you your life.

Chelsea. Margrit ducked her head again, fingers laced behind her neck, then craned it to look at the bookshop proprietor. Theres part of me thats kidding myself, okay? Part of me that says if I pull this off for Janx, its all going to be all right and Im going to walk away with a happily-ever-after. I need that part to keep going. I need that part because its whats letting me face this at all. I need it because without it, Tonys going to die, and I cant live with that. But the truth is, Im not going to live through this. Ill manage to orchestrate Eliseos fall or I wont, but if I fail, Janx is going to have to go through me to get to Tony, and I have no doubt he will. If I succeed, Daisanis not going to let me see another sunrise. She gave a sharp laugh. I wanted to change the world. Im doing it. But I dont see me being around to admire what the future looks like.

I havent heard you be that fatalistic before.

If Im wrong, you can tease me for my melodrama. If Im right, Id like my tombstone to read, She changed the world. A lot. Either way, I have got to save Tony, and Ill do whatever it takes. If you can help at all, Chelsea, please.

Chelsea sat back, silent and contemplative once again before she nodded. Very well. When the moment comes, Margrit Knight, ask Eliseo Daisani where the bodies are buried.

CHAPTER 30 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 32