Two distinct things happened: glee lit Janx’s eyes again, and Ursula went uncomfortably still. Margrit’s stomach clenched at the latter, a warning that she ought to have not spoken in front of the vampire’s daughter. It was Ursula who said, into a silence that suddenly seemed very loud and long, “So what legacy do I inherit?”
“The same one I do,” Kate said, full of irritation. “You get to meet Daisani. You get to know your father. It’s not as if I’ve waltzed into a treasury full of gold here. But that was never the point, was it?”
Ursula clamped her jaw shut, staring at her sister. Then she looked away, lip thrust out in defeat. Kate got up and crawled over the back of Ursula’s chair, squirming and squashing down until they nearly shared the same space. Ursula twitched as though she’d try to escape, but in truth gave Kate a few more inches to fit into. Kate looped her arms around her sister and put her chin on her shoulder, whispering into her hair. After long moments Ursula sniffed, then harrumphed and squished back, peace evidently restored. Margrit, certain she was the only one in the room who hadn’t heard Kate’s whispers, felt a brief flash of envy for their sorority.
“My mother works for a company that holds a dozen of Eliseo’s accounts,” she heard herself saying quietly. Janx’s attention came back to her, bright with greed. “She’s working to destabilize his holdings. Kaimana’s the only one I know with the resources to take advantage of that kind of weakness. Will that do, dragonlord?”
Some of the pleasure faded from Janx’s gaze as she spoke. “Your mother. That delightful woman will go to jail for this, Margrit. While I’m not typically averse to incarcerating humans, I find it difficult to believe you asked her to do such a thing. Or that she agreed.”
“Tariq made her an offer that was hard to refuse.” Margrit bit the words off, too aware that she had asked for something that could send her mother to jail. That Rebecca had refused took away none of the guilt at having asked. “Either way, I’ve got to talk to Kaimana—”
“I’m surprised,” Janx interrupted, “that you’re willing to offer the selkies anything, given how they’ve betrayed you.”
“I’m beginning to think anger over betrayal is something I can’t afford. There’s no reason not to put Daisani’s holdings on the open market and let humans take him apart in a free-for-all, but I thought you’d appreciate the irony of handing his empire to the selkies, if he’s handed yours to the djinn.”
“Oh, I do, I do. I’d rather take it myself, but—” Janx gave a sharp look around the room as all three women and Alban inhaled to speak. “But, as you’ve taken pains to remind me several times, our days in this city are limited. Too many people know my face, and have for too many years.”
“No one knows ours,” Ursula murmured.
Janx tipped his head forward until red hair slid into his eyes. “True, but I trust you understand why I’m reluctant to offer such reins to Eliseo’s daughter.” His eyebrows elevated and he transferred his gaze to Kate. “Or to my own, for that matter. One leaves my old rival with too much potential influence, and the other, I fear, leaves me with too much potential loss. I have only just found you, child,” he said softly, as Kate’s eyebrows drew down. “Do not make me face the possibility of losing you so soon.”
Kate’s mouth twisted, an expression just shy of offense. “Child? We’re nearly four hundred years old.”
“And I have no intention of telling you how old I am,” Janx said easily. “You may be assured, however, that at four centuries you’re barely more than broken free of the shell. Besides,” he added impudently, “you’re my daughter. I can call you child if I want to, regardless of your age or my own.”
“Was Mother ever this annoying?”
That whisper, Margrit heard, and grinned broadly. “I think Janx has cornered the market on irritating. You get used to it.”
“No,” Alban rumbled, “you don’t. He does, though, seem to have some modicum of charm which women are susceptible to, and I believe that prevents him from meeting an untimely expiration.”
“That,” Janx said cheerfully, “and dragons are hard to kill.”
Margrit snorted. “You’re all hard to kill.”
Kate, far too forthright, said, “Selkies aren’t,” and Ursula, a breath behind her, said, “Neither are djinn, if you know how.”
“There are going to be repercussions for that,” Alban said above Margrit’s head, clearly speaking to Janx and no one else.
Janx opened a hand and let it fall closed again. “We seem to be living in an era of repercussions. Our world has changed, and changed mightily. I have little fear that some accord will be reached on my daughter’s and niece’s murderous behavior.”
“Niece,” Janx said firmly. “I shudder to think of how we might wrestle over terminology, and choose to streamline it as best I can. After all, I’m only a simple dragon, untutored in how to manage family affairs.”
Alban ducked his head next to Margrit’s and breathed, “The world has indeed changed if Janx is proclaiming his simplicity. Margrit, when will these changes you’ve wrought in Eliseo’s empire begin to spread?”
“Monday morning.” Margrit pressed back against Alban’s solidity, gaining warmth and comfort from his presence. “I’ve got to talk to Kaimana before that, but I think we’re looking at a lull in the action. We have thirty-six hours to just be together before anything else goes to hell.”
Even Janx paused, waiting, like everyone else, for Margrit’s comment to trigger disaster. When it didn’t—no chamber cave-ins, no Grace appearing with a dire warning, no cell phones ringing to bear bad news—she laughed and put a hand over her mouth before speaking through her fingers. “I honestly expected something terrible to happen.”
“Human superstition,” Janx said dismissively.
Margrit picked up a chess pawn and threatened to throw it at him before replacing it on the board. “You froze up, too, dragonlord.” She sighed and snuggled back against Alban, then deliberately got to her feet as briskly as she could. “So when shall we five meet again? Janx, I take it you’re not going to clear out of here until Daisani’s in ruins.”
Janx slid his head to the side, smooth snakelike action, and considered her. “I am not. I shall, however, leave Grace and her motley crew alone for the duration of my incarceration here. For your mother’s sake,” he said as Margrit felt astonishment cross her face. “For the sacrifice you, and she, are making, I shall make one in return.” His lips curled back from his teeth, brief angry expression. “I do not like to be beholden, and you’ve made it quite clear you’re willing to use your advantages when you hold them.”
“I’ve learned from the best.”
Janx bowed his head and came to his feet, as much honor as dismissal. Margrit turned to Alban and offered her hands, tugging him to standing when he accepted them. Joy fluttered within her and she stepped into the gargoyle’s arms for a fierce hug before turning back to Janx. “I’ll call or come down when I’ve talked to Kaimana. I assume you’ll want to be there, or at least know, when the rug starts to come out from under Eliseo’s feet.” Her pleasure faded before she finished speaking, but Janx’s flared.
“That would be superb. I look forward to hearing from you.”
“Yes,” murmured Eliseo Daisani. “I imagine you do.”
The only saving grace about Margrit’s startled yelp was that everyone around her looked as surprised as she felt. Given the company in which she stood, that seemed like a triumph: even the Old Races could be taken off guard by a vampire.
Alban recovered first: of the others, Janx looked too irritated to recoup gracefully, and Ursula held Kate’s arm until white flushed around her grip. The gargoyle stepped forward, putting himself between Margrit and Daisani. “Eliseo.”
“Alban. Do you think hiding Margrit behind you will protect her from me if I choose to hunt her?”
“I think even a vampire must consider whether he wants to risk battle with a gargoyle.”
“Have you a wooden stake?” Daisani teased, then, as Margrit peered around Alban’s width, made a light welcoming gesture. “I am not, at the moment, here to exact any kind of vengeance. In fact, I have something of a conundrum, and our dear Miss Knight is, as usual, at its heart.”
“As usual?” Margrit protested. “You’ve known each other for centuries, and I’ve earned an as usual already?”
“You must admit, you’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to become an as usual,” Janx said lightly. “Do come in, Eliseo. Do sit down and tell us all your troubles. Oh, and might I introduce you to Sarah’s daughters? Katherine, called Kate, and Ursula.” He offered a sweeping bow, falling back a step in order to better present the twins.
For once, despite being in a safe area, Daisani chose not to show off, and approached the twins at a merely human pace. He stopped a few feet away, gaze hungry as he studied the twins, and as they studied him in return. Ursula’s grip had moved to her sister’s hand, both of them bloodless with it.
“You have the look of your mother about you,” Daisani finally said. Even Margrit could hear the restraint in his soft words; as much restraint as it must have taken to walk at a man’s speed, the better to not challenge either woman, and perhaps be found wanting.
Wanting, or worse, alone.
Ursula nodded. “That’s what she always said. She didn’t think we took anything from you.”
“Me,” Daisani whispered, and Kate flapped her free hand toward both him and Janx, and said, “You. Both of you. Either of you. Except what we did, of course.”
A look of perfect befuddlement washed over Daisani’s face as he glanced toward Janx, the expression by far the most human thing Margrit had ever seen grace his features. “Ursula is your daughter,” she said, taking sudden pity on the vampire. “Kate is Janx’s. There’s no doubt of it once you see them in action.”
“Ours?” Daisani asked in astonishment. “Ours both?” He looked back at the twins. Ursula lifted a shoulder and let it fall.
“Chimera, Janx called us. Children of two races, but not three. I’m all vampire. Kate’s all dragon. I think if we were anything less, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.” She kept staring at Daisani, eating him with her gaze, though neither of them moved any closer to the other.
“The selkies said half-blood children are full heirs to their Old Races gifts,” Margrit recalled. “What would happen if a dragon and a vampire had a child?”
Daisani turned a dangerous look on her, so quelling that goose bumps rose on her arms. Bewildered, she gaped at him, and some of the warning in his gaze faded. He looked back toward Ursula, leaving Margrit to wonder what bit of precious knowledge she’d come so close to treading on. A quick glance at Alban garnered no evident answers: the gargoyle lifted his eyebrows in as much question as she had, then dropped a wink that promised they would explore the question later, together.
“I would like to know you.” Daisani spoke so quietly it almost went unheard under Margrit’s silent conversation with Alban. She glanced back toward the father and daughter, and discovered she recognized the control with which Daisani held himself. He had stood similarly when Rebecca Knight had been in his arms; he had stood so when he had ordered Margrit to find the man who had murdered Vanessa Gray. He had even, she thought, perhaps stood that way when he’d invited her to dance in a ballroom filled with six sentient races, and it shot an agony of sympathy through Margrit’s heart. Immortality, she had realized only recently, was a lonely business, and to read the vampire’s emotions and vulnerabilities so clearly took her breath away. Inhuman, yes; they were all inhuman, but not at all incomprehensible.
“I’d like that, too,” Ursula finally said. “Mother told us what she could about you, but it’s not the same.”
Something unbent within Daisani, his next breath more easily taken. “No, it’s not. I am honored for the opportunity.”
“Yeah.” Kate tossed her hair and gave the vampire a defiant look. “You should be.”
“Kate,” Alban murmured, and she looked a little abashed.
Janx draped himself over the abandoned chaise lounge and folded his arms behind his head in a soft blur of thin blue smoke. “Lovely as this all is, I’m sure it’s not why you came sneaking to my lair, Eliseo. Why are you here?”
“Ah.” Daisani turned away from the twins with one last glance at Ursula. “My conundrum, yes. I received a phone call a little while ago, Margrit. A call from, if you’ll excuse the colloquialism, the last person on earth I might expect to receive such a thing from.”
A cold fist wrapped around Margrit’s stomach and clenched. She felt her expression turn stricken as guesswork ran ahead of Daisani’s words. “Mother?”
“Indeed. She laid out a conundrum of her own, one dealing with dragons and djinn and daughters—”
“Oh my,” all three of the daughters in the room murmured, and Janx’s tenor ran below them with the same phrase. Margrit wrinkled her face as Janx waved a finger at Alban in admonishment. “Really, Stoneheart, you couldn’t possibly have failed to see that coming. Won’t you at least play along?”
“Not until I learn what trouble Rebecca Knight has had that she turns to Eliseo to solve it.” Alban folded his arms over his chest, making his breadth that much more impressive.
Daisani’s lighthearted telling sobered, not because of Alban’s unvoiced threat, but because his focus narrowed on Margrit, a hint of anger coming through. “It wasn’t a bad idea, Miss Knight. Calling on your mother to help lay my empire low. Not that she would agree, which even I could have told you. Even to save her daughter’s life, she wouldn’t act on a promise like that, perhaps especially one made to the djinn who’d threatened her, as well. So she called on me, and on the weight of the secret she has held for me for thirty years, I found myself reluctant to deny her what she asked. And now I find myself with a promise of protecting you on the one hand, and a promise to permit your execution on the other. Tell me, Margrit, what shall I do?”
“I’ve been dead once. Isn’t that enough?” Margrit passed her own question off with a wave she recognized as having been adopted from the Old Races; from Janx, specifically, she thought. “You could call the playing field even,” she said more quietly and more seriously. “You’re in a position to do that.”
Janx tipped his head, small motion that still managed to be a warning. Margrit fought off a grimace, briefly exasperated with the ancient battle of one-upmanship the two elders had. “I wish you would,” she went on. “Walk away from New York. Let this lifetime go. You’ve got plenty more ahead of you.”
“You’re not answering the question, Miss Knight.”
Margrit made her hands into fists. “Tariq’s happy to backstab you now over a decision you made months ago, a decision that doesn’t have anything to do with him or his people or any deal you made with them. He’s playing my survival off as being a betrayal of your agreeing to my death, and he’s…” She trailed off, finally fully realizing what Daisani had said. “My mother double-crossed a djinn?”
“Really, Margrit, how many times have I told you that your mother is a remarkable woman? I’m sure she doesn’t think of it as double-crossing. I’m sure she considers it to be…survival of the fittest. If she could lie bold-faced to one of the Old Races, then turn around and ask another of us for help, I would say she’s most certainly fit to survive.”
Pride rose up in Margrit as a blush, heating her cheeks and bringing a foolish smile to her face. “Go, Mom. Wow. The best I’ve done is mislead you.”
“Which is fairly remarkable in itself,” Daisani said dryly. “Once more, you’ve failed to answer the question.”
Still riding on a wave of pride, Margrit let the truth out unvarnished. “You should break the deal with the djinn and let me live. At least I was up front about trying to take you down. I’m an honest enemy, if I’ve got to be one.”
“An honest enemy. One who will report to work Monday morning as expected?”
“Keep your friends close?” Margrit asked with a wince. “I’d like to. I’d actually like to, and part of me is saying if I go to work for you, I have a chance at getting my hands on the right kinds of material to bring you down. I can’t just try like I did tonight and walk away. I have to succeed, because Janx isn’t going to let Tony go on a good try from the home team.”
“Janx?” Daisani wheeled to face the indolent dragon, who looked up with mocking apology.
“I’m afraid she’s right. If she’d like to go to work for you, I’m happy to take the cost out of Detective Pulcella’s hide. Entirely up to you, Margrit, of course.”
“Of course.” Margrit pressed her lips together, arms folded across her chest defensively. “You know, I actually came down here to ask you something, Janx. Something I didn’t think Eliseo would answer.”
“Really.” Janx kicked his legs off the lounge and sat up, fingers laced and interest brightening his eyes. “Whatever could that be?”
“I came to ask about one of his vulnerabilities.” Margrit watched the vampire as she spoke, unconcerned for Janx or his reaction. “I came to ask if you knew what it would mean if I asked him where the bodies are buried.”
Sound erupted around her, a cat’s shriek melded with a whale’s song and all of it accompanied by an explosion of movement vastly unlike anything Margrit had seen from the Old Races before. Daisani seemed to fly apart, a black viscous splash of oil and night, and then came back together again so quickly she doubted she’d even seen the change.
He was in Margrit’s face, and somehow stopped from tearing her apart: Ursula was there, between them, moving as fast as he did. Then Alban, crushing Daisani’s biceps in an unforgiving grip. Janx was on his feet, flexing with eagerness, and Kate crowded in beside Ursula, helping make a barrier.
Margrit had seen none of them move. Her heartbeat was sickeningly fast, making her light-headed with the panic of being in the midst of a reckoning that she had no control over. Chelsea’s warning, to have Alban with her when she asked that question, seemed pitifully inadequate now: without the entire quartet who held Daisani off, she was certain she would already be dead. That she would have died so quickly that she would never have seen it coming.
Daisani craned his head toward her, neck elongating to an impossible degree. Ursula snaked into his path, half blocking Margrit’s view, clearly protecting her. “Me first, Father.”
Hesitation flickered in Daisani’s black eyes. His jaw opened too far, starting to unhinge, and then he snapped it shut again and withdrew into himself, suddenly the same contained businessman Margrit had met him as. He shook off Alban’s hands, and to Margrit’s horror, the gargoyle let him.
“You will come to regret asking that question, Margrit Knight. You will come to regret it, and so, too, will the one who guided you toward asking.
“Catch me,” the vampire whispered. “Catch me if you can.”