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Daisanis words lingered far longer than he did, sounds left on a whisk of wind as he sped away. Ursula, unexpectedly, squealed with glee and disappeared after him. Even Kate look startled at her sisters departure, taking a few abortive steps to follow before stopping. Alban flexed his hands, regretting that hed released the vampire, but uncertain Daisani couldnt have slipped free regardless.

Chelsea, Margrit whispered. Hes going after Chelsea. Can Ursula stop him?

Kate shook her head. Ursulas not trying to stop him. She just wants to race. Shes never had anyone as fast as she was to go up against.

Janx snorted beneath Kates denial. One does not go after Chelsea Huo. Not even Eliseo is that rash.

Margrit stared at him and Alban put himself between the two of them, catching Margrits hand in his own. Would you go after the serpent at the heart of the world, Margrit?

The petite human transferred her stare to him, becoming incredulous. How could you?

No more than you can go after Chelsea. Dont worry.

Margrit dropped her chin to her chest, forehead pinched with the force of her frown. So her referring to humans wasnt just because shes gotten in the habit of thinking of all the races by their specific names. She lifted her gaze, lips thin, and pulled her hand from Albans to fold her arms. What is she?

Alban fought off the temptation to follow her and simply shook his head. Some secrets arent ours to tell.

A beat of silence, then two, filled the room before Alban, half apologetically, said, Some secrets arent ours to tell.

Margrit threw her head back, scowling at the chamber ceiling. Of course not. She set her teeth together, then, jaw still held tense, visibly tried to let it go. Tried, and almost succeeded: Alban barely heard her threat of, One of these days Ill get inside your memories and find out.

Not now that youve warned me, he said with more apology.

Margrit glared at him. All right. All right, fine, whatever. Never mind what she is. Some secrets have to be kept. She sighed suddenly and pulled her hair loose to scrub her fingers through it. How about the secret of where the bodies are? Do either of you know what that means? Worry washed away her frustration and she hugged herself. I dont care how safe you think she is. I want to make sure.

My dear

Margrit spun to face Janx, exasperation filling her voice to the edge of lividity, mercurial human emotion a wonder, as always, to Alban. I heard you. What if youre wrong? Shes the one who told me to ask the question that just sent Eliseo Daisani running out of here like a bat out of hell, Janx. How often does Eliseo run from anything?

Janx looked toward Alban, who opened a hand in answer to the question. There was Moscow. But then, you left rather precipitously, too, didnt you? With your tail between your legs, if the stories have it right.

The dragons nostrils flared, and Margrit looked from one Old Race to another with an expression that demanded explanation. Alban flashed a smile and shook his head. Thats all anyone knows about it. But aside from that, I dont remember the last time Eliseo ran from anything, and a gargoyle should.

Youve been out of the memories a long time, Stoneheart. There was Van Helsing. A hint of smugness slithered over Janxs face as Alban lifted his eyebrows. You wouldnt know about that. It was what sent himand me, in the endto the Americas. Van Helsing is why thereve been no vampires but Daisani these past hundred and fifty years.

Van Helsing is a story, Margrit protested.

Momentary silence filled the chamber before the dragonlord smiled. You can stand here, in this company, and say that with such authority? You asked once what happened to those humans who executed the Old Races. Your own facetious answer was immortality, but youre not so far off, my dear. Human fiction disguises worlds of truth.

Margrit shot a look from Janx to Alban and back again, then cast a wary glance toward Kate, as though checking to see if the other woman could tell if the Old Races were having her on. Kate made a tiny motion of denial and Margrits gaze came back to the dragon and gargoyle. Are you telling me Abraham Van Helsing existed and hunted vampires? That he came to help some woman who was bittenBut it doesnt work that way. You cant turn a human into a vampire.

Ah, but what if you flip the story around? What if Lucy lies dying of consumption, and her doting suitor discovers a sip of vampire blood will cure all her ills? What if he begs help from a doctor friend and they pursue the panacea at all costs, but are refused and the beloved wife dies? The lover might retire, his heart broken, but the doctor might be unable to let the idea of a universal cure go. He might make of himself a hunter, perhaps the best in all the world.

Margrit lifted her hands to her temples, massaging.

A burst of sympathy filled Alban and he stepped forward to touch her shoulder.

She dropped her hands and stared at the ceiling before exhaling heavily. Yeah, okay, I guess he might just. I mean, all the other stories are turned on their ears. So what happened?

Janx shrugged. Eliseo determined retreat was the better part of valor, and fled. Shortly thereafter he met Vanessa, and you know the rest.

Margrit laughed, short, sharp sound, and turned a despairing look on Alban. Thats so far from the truth I dont even know where to begin.

Why are we still here? Kate demanded with what struck Alban as very human impatience. Even if Daisani cant do anything to this Chelsea person, shouldnt we still be going after him? What if youre wrong?

Janx sniffed. Im rarely wrong, Katherine. And theres no haste, because its not possible to catch up with him. Your sister might have, but as for the rest of us, we may as well wait for him to come to a stop.

Wherever that may be, Kate said sourly.

Most of us do have somewhere we call home. Janx gave Margrit a telling look. Unless its been stripped of us, of course. Either way, I have very little fear for our friendly neighborhood bookseller.

Margrit glowered at the dragon. Chelsea told me to ask about the bodies when I asked if Eliseo had any vulnerabilities. Id think youd be just a little bit interested in what the answer was. If youre not, thats fine. I wont pursue it, but youll release me from this promise, no holds barred. I leave Daisani alone, he retains his empire, and you dont go after Tony. Im going to check on Chelsea. Come or dont, but make your choice, dragonlord. Im sick of this.

Janx said, I liked it better when she was afraid of us, to Alban, then bowed melodramatically to Margrit. Very well. Ill chase your wild goose.

Kate and Janx walked ahead, red-haired vanguards of a tiny army. Margrit itched to turn to Alban and plead for him to take her and take wing. Theyd left the tunnels as close to Chelseas bookstore as any of them knew how, but the intervening blocks could have been swept away under a few beats of Albans wings. The idea of a few minutes of time alone in the sky with him was as appealing as making certain of Chelseas safety that much more quickly. But neither Janx nor Kate could transform as discreetly as Alban, and with Janxs grudging agreement to join them, Margrit was reluctant to now leave him behind.

Did I do this? Her voice sounded wrong to her own ears, too soft and high. Alban looked down, concern creasing his forehead, and she fluttered a hand at the pair in front of them; at the world. Did I make your world this place where were all running around trying to stab each other in the back before someone else gets a chance?

You had help, Alban said with a ghost of humor.

Margrit twisted a smile. I feel so much better, then.

Even my people have come to believe this is necessary, Margrit. Even I have. Not the politics and machinations, but a forcible entry into the modern age. Perhaps the one doesnt come without the other. Everything has a price.

I hope its worth it. Margrits phone rang and she clapped a hand against her hip, then pulled the phone from her pocket to say, Hello?

Kaimana Kaaiais easygoing voice came across the line, sounding, as usual, as though he had a smile in place. Margrit Knight. Cara asked me to contact you. She seems to think you have another trick up your sleeve.

Margrit stopped walking and scowled at the sky, lips thinned as she considered what to say. After a moment she shrugged and chose the truth. I had one. It fell out.

Some of the geniality fell out of the selkie lords voice. Really. I was given to understand this trick would compensate us for a significant loss. Im disappointed to hear it wont be coming through. What, if I may ask, was it?

Does it matter? The brusque question was just better than the ill-advised suggestion to suck it up that Margrit was tempted to give. Im sorry to have bothered you, especially if youre back in Hawaii. It must be about four in the morning.

On the contrary, its seven in the evening. Nothing to worry about, Kaimana assured her. Will you be providing another form of recompense?

Margrit pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it. It was a moment before she trusted herself enough to say, Im afraid not, politely. It was a gamble. You lost. It happens.

It was your gamble, Ms. Knight.

Ms. You people always pull out the honorifics when youre annoyed with me. You know what, Kaimana? If you really want to destroy your own people and the rest of the Old Races by taking it to the mat with the djinn, be my guest. Go be offended that youre not getting your big fat paycheck and take it out on whomever you want. I have done my goddamned best, and if thats the game you want to play, I wash my hands of it. She hung up the phone and spun around, arm lifted to fling it against the nearest wall. Only the fact that it belonged to Cameron stopped her, and after a few seconds, she lowered her hand with a curse.

Albans quiet presence appeared behind her, more felt than heard. Margrit turned her profile to him, shoulders sagging. Well, that was mature.

Perhaps it was necessary. His warm hands enveloped her shoulders, sending a wave of comfort through her. She relaxed a little, leaning against him, and felt him lower his head over hers. Youve been thrust into a world about which you knew nothing, and have stood fast for what youve believed to be right, even at a personal cost. Perhaps, having shaken us up, it is as necessary to let us condemn or save ourselves of our own accord. I do not believe Kaimana Kaaiai will guide his people into open warfare with another of the Old Races. But if he doeswe reap what we sow. Isnt that the phrase you use?

Me personally or humans in general? Margrit turned in Albans arms to bury her face against his chest and let go an exhausted sigh. I feel as if theres no way out of this alive, Alban. Janx is playing it like a cat with a mouse. Its all fun and games, all light and mocking, but if I dont manage to completely ruin Eliseo somehow, hes going to kill Tony.

A last vestige of hope was smothered with Albans nod. Dismay soured her laugh. You were supposed to tell me that he wouldnt really.

But he will, Alban said steadily. Human lives mean little to Janx, and Detective Pulcella has humiliated him. Had Janx not been injured so badly at the House of Cards, I doubt Tony would have survived the night. Hes been fortunate.

Im not sure anybody involved with me is fortunate, right now. Russells dead, Tonys under a death sentence, Daisanis threatened to eat Cam more than once, my mother nearly had her heart pulled outJesus. If I thought leaving town would work, Id do it.

Alban, carefully, said, Sarah did.

Margrit shook her head. Her situation was different, and you know it. I have to see this through. Im not going to let Tony pay for my involvement with the Old Races.

Youre a worthy adversary, Margrit Knight. Alban tipped her chin up, his pale eyes serious as he studied her. Regardless of how lacking in control you may feel, I assure you that no one amongst the Old Races thinks you are anything but worthy. As much trust as you put in Janxs integrity, if you hadnt earned his respect, he wouldnt have honored the favors youve played against each other.

Which is why Ive got to hold up my end of the bargain. My own honors as much at stake as his is. Margrit took a deep breath and released Alban, her whole body aching as the comfort of his presence withdrew. I said humans were good at leveling the playing field. I have to keep trying to do that. Thisll end soon, she added more softly. Either Ill succeed and this horrible mess will be over, or Ill fail and Ill be

You will not. Albans voice dropped to a dangerous growl.

Janxll take Tonys life over my dead body.

Then we shall make very certain he has no reason.

We? A new spark of hope lit in Margrit, so unexpected it tightened her throat. Whats this we, white man?

Alban blinked at her, nonplussed, and the flicker of hope turned into a shaking laugh. Havent you ever heardits a Lone Ranger joke. Havent youNever mind. Never mind, she repeated, and Alban chuckled, then cupped her jaw.

We, Margrit. I have no intention of allowing you to fall at Janxs whim, and regardless of Chelseas dramatic questions, we cant deal Eliseo such a crippling blow that hell never rise from it. His life is too long and his resources too great. We, he said again, gently. Your allies may be few, but they do exist. I am here.

That makes me feel better. The words scratched out through a still-tight throat. Margrit stepped into Albans arms for another fierce hug, then let him go again with fresh determination. To hell with the selkies and the djinn and all of them. Well deal with Daisani and go from there.

A wise plan. Now, come. Alban offered his hand. Kate and Janx have outpaced us. We should catch up.

Margrit glanced hopefully at the sky, and the gargoyle chuckled. I was thinking of something more prosaic. You are, after all, wearing your running shoes.

Oh. Margrit looked at her feet, then shot Alban an impish smile, the first time shed really felt like smiling in what seemed like hours. Race you.

She won, crashing against Janx to slow herself down as Alban came up from behind to plow past the dragons like a battering ram, too much weight to be denied. Janx staggered and clutched his kidney. Hot embarrassment flooded Margrit and she babbled an apology that went on until she saw a wicked glint in the dragonlords green eyes. Yoooouuu!

Janx smiled beatifically. Arent I, though? The transformations help set things to right. I think I told you that. And Ive had more cause and opportunity to change form these last few days than I have in

Decades? Margrit ventured.

At least. There was Chicago, but Janx broke off as Chelseas bookstore came into sight. His nostrils flared and he glanced at Alban, whose eyebrows drew down as he took in the dragons expression, then grew darker as he, too, inhaled. Without speaking, they both broke into a run, leaving Margrit and Kate to double-take at one another, then follow.

Janx, the lither of the two, reached the door first, and burst through with literal accuracy, glass shattering and erupting as he crashed into it. Margrit skidded in a step behind him, with Alban and Kate a few steps farther away.

The always-crowded store was in a shambles, once-tall stacks of books knocked across it, their spines broken and torn. Shelving had been knocked over, dominoing up to the walls with their fallen volumes filling the spaces between them. Even Margrit recognized the too-familiar scent of blood.

Oh, God. Chelsea? Chelsea! Easily the lightest of the four of them, Margrit crawled across broken-down shelves, scrambling for the bead curtain at the back of the shop. Alban, behind her, called her name as she lost her balance and reached to catch herself on the curtain.

Beads raked through her hands, clattering to the floor and bouncing across it to stick in the crimson blood that spread out around Chelsea Huos lifeless body.

CHAPTER 34 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 36