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Margrit yelped again, then slumped in exasperation. Shed never thought of herself as a good scream queen, but that opinion was fast formulating. Grace. God. Howd you get here so fast? Howd you know I was here?

Grace has her ways. The blond woman came out of the darkness, bleached hair all but glowing in contrast to the black leather she wore. Looking for Korund, are you?

IWhat? Margrit straightened, hope searing hot enough to take her breath. Do you know where he is? Is he all right?

Depends on how you define all right. I know where he is, sure enough. Graces accent swam across the Atlantic, burrowing into what sounded like North London to Margrits ear, but shed never been able to pin the vigilante womans origin. Transatlantic, but beyond that, her rash mix of dropped letters and sentence structures came from all over the British Isles. Margrit doubted shed answer if asked directly. But he says you were there this morning.

Biali chained him. Strain made Margrits answer rough. So I guess hes not all right, but hes safe? You got him off the roof? How? Howd you even know he was in trouble?

Oh, Grace said airily, dead things talk to Grace, and stones got no life in it. All I had to do was hold that cold form close and wish us somewhere else, love.

Margrit stared at her, uncertain whether to give in to laughter or exasperation. Of course. God. I cant even remember the last time I got a straight answer from somebody.

When was the last time you gave one?

Margrit rocked back on her heels, breath suddenly short, and looked away. Yeah, well, I guess its a better answer than Grace has her ways, but youre insane, you know that?

Says the girl with the gargoyle lover. Grace sniffed. Youll be wanting to see him, then.

And I need to see Janx, Margrit said uncomfortably, too aware of the tension between dragonlord and vigilante.

Graces eyebrowslight brown, not matching her hair or especially disagreeing with itrose in fine arches that preceded a laugh. Do you, now. Calling in your favor now, are you? And for who? I wonder. Not for me and mine, for all you promised youd keep him out of my territory. Do you know how fast Im losing them to him? Ive got no flash, not next to the likes of him.

Youve got heart. The smart onesll stick with you.

Smart goes a long way in an organization like Janxs. Smart means picking choices, not acting out of loyalty.

Afraid Grace was right, Margrit hesitated, then shook her head and bulled forward. I dont want Janx screwing up your kids any more than you do, but theres a hell of a mess building, and I need his help. As for getting him out of here, if you show me where he is, Ill Margrit drew breath through her teeth, not liking what she was about to suggest, but abruptly willing to make the bargain. Ill turn his location over to the cops. Theyre still looking for him, so all you need to do is get everybody clear when they come down.

All. Thats a big word, for not many letters, love. You broke a promise to me once.

Come on, Grace. I promised Id do my best, not that Id keep him away from you. Everything ballooned out of control, with Malik dying and the House going up in flames andIm sorry, okay? I didnt mean for you to get involved, and Im sorry. Ill call Tony the first chance I get and give him Janxs location, if youll just show me where he is. Whether shed warn the dragonlord she was going to do that, Margrit didnt yet know. Shed deliberately saved him from arrest once, and as uncomfortable as that was, she still couldnt imagine forcing one of the Old Races through a human court of law.

Grace studied her a long time before giving a short nod. All right, then. Into Graces kingdom, love, but youll owe me for this, Margrit. Youll owe me large.

I know. Margrit curled her hands into fists as she fell into step behind the other woman. I know.

Tumblers fell, ricocheting sounds that warned of visitors. Alban lifted his head heavily, no longer raging and no longer constrained, but understanding why Grace had locked the door so thoroughly. It wasnt to keep him in, but to keep others out. Hed given up trying to transform, though all that prevented him was constant, angry awareness that each attempt would bring fresh agony. Caught in his stony gargoyle form, it was safer by far to keep him locked away where none of Graces street children could accidentally come upon him and have the scare of their young lives.

Weariness lowered his head again, a sudden dull lack of interest in the world beyond his prison door. Not in two hundred years of solitude, since Hajnals death, had he felt so alone. All of that time his isolation had been of his own choice. Finding it impressed upon him chafed more than hed imagined, and it was only a harbinger of what his future would hold. No gargoyle jury would forgive him for taking Ausras life, nor Maliks. Moving to protect another and accidents were no excuse under Old Races law. The exile hed chosen for himself would be ratified by a council of elders, and the idea, coupled with the throb of iron bound to his stony skin, exhausted him.

The best he could do was meet his fate with dignity. It was very early for Grace to return with the jurygargoyles couldnt travel during the day, and the only two in New York were reluctant guests in Graces tunnelsbut surely she would come with news of when and where the trial would be convened. Alban pushed himself upward, wings folded at his back in a soft, stony cloak, and waited on his guest.

Alban. Margrit flung herself through the door with the abandon of a child, relief stealing her breath. He grunted as she crashed into him and held on hard, hoping she could impart some kind of comfort and protection with her own touch.

His scent was almost familiar, more tanged with metal than she remembered, but the chaos of the day faded as she held on to the gargoyle with all her strength. It was irrational to believe that being with him would make everything all right, no matter what crossed their paths, but she floated on that comfortable deception as long as she could. Youre all right. Her words were muffled against his chest, barely audible to her own ears. I could kill Biali. Are you all right? She pulled back without releasing her hold, eyebrows pinching with concern.

The chains Biali had flung around him had become a part of him. Bumpy, ugly links were sealed into his throat and held his hands against his chest like broken wings. Margrit cried a protest and tried to touch the mass as Alban shook his head.

Margrit, what are you doing here? His voice was distorted, gravel scraping iron, but the gentle astonishment and relief in it made Margrit bite her lip against tears.

I spent half the damned day trying to rescue you, she whispered, almost as hoarse as Alban himself. Alban, this is horrible, cant I

You can do nothing, Margrit. Only Biali can unwind these. Uncertainty colored his voice. At least, I hope he can.

Why couldnt he? He bound you

But legends of our captivity tell stories of locks and keys, not iron coming to life under a touch to free us.

So go into them and find out more! We have to be able to get you free!

Alban hesitated, then lowered his head in agreement. Margrit bit her lip, watching him as his eyes closed. She knew she asked for too much: Alban wasnt welcome in the gargoyle memories in the best of circumstances, but maybe hed be allowed in the worst.

Instead he flinched back with a gasp, hands spasming so that the iron lumped under his skin rippled. It prevents me. His voice came more hoarsely than before, shock and pain in it. The memories are cut off by the iron.

Margrit knotted her hands over Albans, anger burning horror away. Im going to take a sledgehammer to Biali at high noon, I swear to God. How could he do this to you?

He loved Ausra. The simplicity of the answer silenced her. As he loved Hajnal. I suspect he intended an eye for an eye in the matters of their deaths. Humor ghosted over his expression and he lifted his hands as far as he could, gesturing at his own face and reminding Margrit of Bialis scars. I suppose that seems fair.

Sick, laughter-filled disbelief crashed through her. How can you be making jokes? Even bad ones?

Youve come. Alban sounded surprised at himself. It seems that your presence eases even the worst of my fears. Margrit, forgive me for not stopping his abduction of you

Margrit opened a palm and threatened Albans shoulder with it. Forgive you? Theres nothing to forgive. Its not your fault Bialis stone-cold crazy. She choked on her last words, hysteria swilling just below the surface. Stone-cold crazy, she mumbled again. Guess hed have to be, wouldnt he?

Alban sighed, dispelling her amusement. Im not certain hes mad. Hes lost a great deal.

You can give him the benefit of the doubt if you want, Margrit growled. Im looking at you standing here in unbreakable chains, and I think hes batshit nuts and dangerous. Maybe not like Ausra was, because he probably doesnt want to expose every single one of you to the human race, but he encouraged her to go after you, and now hes come after you himself. You said gargoyles dont go crazy, but youre wrong, Alban. Whether its mad with grief or just plain bonkers, it doesnt matter. This is insanity.

I agree. Graces voice came from behind them, startling Margrit out of her passion. Shed forgotten the other woman had walked her to Albans cell, and now turned to see Grace leaning in the doorway. Which is why I called for a jury.

The conclusion is foregone, Grace. Alban sounded calm, but Grace snorted.

You think Ive called them here to hang you. Its the both of you Ill see up on trial, Korund. Youll stand the test of ages, and well see whos in the wrong and whos in the right.

The test of ages. Alban shook his head, echoed words spoken softly. How do you know the things you know, Grace OMalley? That test belongs to my people, not humanity.

As if youre the first or last to judge a man by a trial of hand, heart and head. Grace trades in information, Stoneheart. You should know that by now. I know a lot Im not supposed to.

Grace, I have broken laws we hold dear. I am guilty. I will not stand the test.

God save me from puritanical heroes, Grace muttered. Ill ask for it anyway, and youll stand it or youll stand a fool. She thinned her mouth, glowering at the gargoyle. Id like to say I think youre not one, but Id also not like to make a liar of myself.

Excuse me. Margrit broke in, voice high. Would either of you like to tell me what the hell youre talking about?

Grace waited on Alban, but when Margrit turned to him, his expression was impassive as he stared at the vigilante. Margrit made a sound of exasperation and turned back to Grace, who spread her hands.

Hes to prove himself worthy in a three-stage battle. Strength, wit, compassion. The one who wins is honest or innocent in Grace made a throwaway gesture, as if knowing she spoke inaccurately, but choosing the simplest phrasing to convey her thoughts. In Gods eyes.

A witch trial? Margrits voice shot up again, incredulous. This isnt the fourteenth century, Grace!

Its gargoyle tradition. Ask him. Grace cut a nod at Alban, who shifted enough that Margrit recognized an uncomfortable admission in the movement.

I dont care if its tradition, its stupid. Nobody in their right mind would settle

Youre the one who thinks Bialis lost his mind, Grace said, suddenly chipper.

Margrit curled a lip and tried again. No one in this era

My people are not from this era, Margrit. Alban broke in, voice a low rumble. But it makes no difference. I will not participate in the test.

Then you lose by default, Korund, and youre condemned.

Alban lowered his gaze. So be it.

Alban Margrit broke off, struggling for composure. I dont understand you, she finally said, low-voiced. You couldnt have always been so willing to let things roll over you. You fought for Hajnal. You protected She cast a glance toward Grace, then chose her words carefully. You chose to stay outside the gargoyle memories to protect someone elses secrets. Why wont you fight now? I mean, its a stupid, stupid way to settle a rivalry, but youre the one whos been so hung up on tradition all this time. If this is traditional, why turn your back on it?

Because Im in the wrong, Margrit. Alban lifted his eyes to her, pale gaze steady. Because two of the Old Races have died at my hands

Margrit made a strangled sound, hands curving to a throttling shape. Because of me, both times!

You should know by now that motive doesnt matter. We act on results, not intentions. Margrit, I know this is difficult for you, but I dont see accepting our ancient laws as correct as being passive. Alban exhaled quietly. And an exile placed on me by my people might ease my

Guilt? Margrit demanded. Mea culpa, thank God, somebody else is blaming me, so now I dont have to lay it all on myself? Alban, youre going to carry this with you forever. Im going to carry it forever. I cant sleep from the nightmares. Ive been a criminal defense lawyer long enough to know that other people might determine your sentence, but youre the one who determines your guilt. Her anger lessened and she sat down on the cold floor, clutching the sides of her head.

Maybe I shouldnt have pulled back, she said more softly. I thought I needed the time to deal with it myself. Maybe I was doing my share of running away, or not facing it, myself. But not taking advantage of this trial, Alban, not using it to see if your people will accept you as innocent, I cant understand that. She lifted her gaze, feeling tired. The guilts not going to be eased either way.

Alban sighed. Margrit, if you had knowingly taken a life, would you stand against your laws to try to free yourself?

If it was an accident or self-defense, yes!

But Ausras death was not an act of self-defense, Alban murmured. I was defending you, not myself.

So what am I, a second-class citizen? Not worth saving because Im human? Bitterness filled Margrits tone and Albans broad shoulders slumped.

I clearly felt your life was worth preserving over Ausras. But my people are not human, Margrit, and would not see my choice as the correct one. What if we lived in a world where the Old Races were known, and the positions were reversed? Would humans regard my life as more or less important than the human life Id taken?

Margrit folded her head down to drawn-up knees. You know the answer to that, she replied dully. You dont even have to be not human to be less important. You just have to be different in some way.

So allow me this acceptance. It changes nothing for us. My position amongst my people will be as it always has been since youve known me. Rue colored Albans voice. And yours, I imagine, will also be as it has been since youve known me. Instigator, negotiator, troublemaker.

Margrit looked up with a quiet snort, then rolled forward to crawl toward Alban, tucking herself against his chest. Despite frustration, she felt her shoulders relax, his nearness almost as much salve to her frayed emotions as his arms would be. Im not a troublemaker. It just comes my way naturally when I hang out with you. I dont like this, Alban.

I havent asked you to like it, only to abide by my wishes.

Grace chuckled, startling Margrit into remembering a second time that the vigilante was there. Good luck with that, Korund. Will you be staying, then? She arched an eyebrow at Margrit, then chuckled again as Margrit shot a hopeful look toward Alban. Thats what Grace thought. Ill come back for you at sunbreak, lawyer. Sleep well. She slipped away, leaving the sound of tumblers falling into place behind her.

Margrit turned her face against Albans chest another long moment before dragging a rough breath. I feel like I should make a joke. Locked in a room together, the whole night before usthere must be something clever to say.

Margrit Alban shifted and iron scraped, as if to remind her of his handicaps.

No, I know. It sounds silly, but I just want to be here, Alban. I want to be the one who watches over you tonight. To be the protector. You must be exhausted.

Albans silence said as much as his eventual admission of, I am. The iron is far more wearying than I imagined, and I cant transform and escape it.

Margrit pressed her cheek against his chest. Then rest. Ill be here. She heard her own silence draw out a long time, too, and only broke it with a whisper when the gargoyles breathing suggested he might have found respite in slumber. Ill always be here.

CHAPTER 5 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 7