Margrit yelped again, then slumped in exasperation. She’d never thought of herself as a good scream queen, but that opinion was fast formulating. “Grace. God. How’d you get here so fast? How’d 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?”
“I—What?” 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.” Grace’s accent swam across the Atlantic, burrowing into what sounded like North London to Margrit’s ear, but she’d never been able to pin the vigilante woman’s origin. Transatlantic, but beyond that, her rash mix of dropped letters and sentence structures came from all over the British Isles. Margrit doubted she’d answer if asked directly. “But he says you were there this morning.”
“Biali chained him.” Strain made Margrit’s answer rough. “So I guess he’s not all right, but he’s safe? You got him off the roof? How? How’d you even know he was in trouble?”
“Oh,” Grace said airily, “dead things talk to Grace, and stone’s 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 can’t 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 it’s a better answer than ‘Grace has her ways,’ but you’re insane, you know that?”
“Says the girl with the gargoyle lover.” Grace sniffed. “You’ll be wanting to see him, then.”
“And I need to see Janx,” Margrit said uncomfortably, too aware of the tension between dragonlord and vigilante.
Grace’s eyebrows—light brown, not matching her hair or especially disagreeing with it—rose 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 you’d keep him out of my territory. Do you know how fast I’m losing them to him? I’ve got no flash, not next to the likes of him.”
“You’ve got heart. The smart ones’ll stick with you.”
“Smart goes a long way in an organization like Janx’s. Smart means picking choices, not acting out of loyalty.”
Afraid Grace was right, Margrit hesitated, then shook her head and bulled forward. “I don’t want Janx screwing up your kids any more than you do, but there’s 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, I’ll—” Margrit drew breath through her teeth, not liking what she was about to suggest, but abruptly willing to make the bargain. “I’ll turn his location over to the cops. They’re still looking for him, so all you need to do is get everybody clear when they come down.”
“All. That’s a big word, for not many letters, love. You broke a promise to me once.”
“Come on, Grace. I promised I’d do my best, not that I’d keep him away from you. Everything ballooned out of control, with Malik dying and the House going up in flames and…I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean for you to get involved, and I’m sorry. I’ll call Tony the first chance I get and give him Janx’s location, if you’ll just show me where he is.” Whether she’d warn the dragonlord she was going to do that, Margrit didn’t yet know. She’d deliberately saved him from arrest once, and as uncomfortable as that was, she still couldn’t 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 Grace’s kingdom, love, but you’ll owe me for this, Margrit. You’ll 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 wasn’t to keep him in, but to keep others out. He’d 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 Grace’s 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 Hajnal’s 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 he’d imagined, and it was only a harbinger of what his future would hold. No gargoyle jury would forgive him for taking Ausra’s life, nor Malik’s. Moving to protect another and accidents were no excuse under Old Races law. The exile he’d 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 jury—gargoyles couldn’t travel during the day, and the only two in New York were reluctant guests in Grace’s tunnels—but 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. “You’re 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, can’t I—”
“You can do nothing, Margrit. Only Biali can unwind these.” Uncertainty colored his voice. “At least, I hope he can.”
“Why couldn’t 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 wasn’t welcome in the gargoyle memories in the best of circumstances, but maybe he’d 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 Alban’s, anger burning horror away. “I’m 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 Biali’s scars. “I suppose that seems fair.”
Sick, laughter-filled disbelief crashed through her. “How can you be making jokes? Even bad ones?”
“You’ve 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 Alban’s shoulder with it. “Forgive you? There’s nothing to forgive. It’s not your fault Biali’s stone-cold crazy.” She choked on her last words, hysteria swilling just below the surface. “Stone-cold crazy,” she mumbled again. “Guess he’d have to be, wouldn’t he?”
Alban sighed, dispelling her amusement. “I’m not certain he’s mad. He’s lost a great deal.”
“You can give him the benefit of the doubt if you want,” Margrit growled. “I’m looking at you standing here in unbreakable chains, and I think he’s batshit nuts and dangerous. Maybe not like Ausra was, because he probably doesn’t want to expose every single one of you to the human race, but he encouraged her to go after you, and now he’s come after you himself. You said gargoyles don’t go crazy, but you’re wrong, Alban. Whether it’s mad with grief or just plain bonkers, it doesn’t matter. This is insanity.”
“I agree.” Grace’s voice came from behind them, startling Margrit out of her passion. She’d forgotten the other woman had walked her to Alban’s 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 I’ve called them here to hang you. It’s the both of you I’ll see up on trial, Korund. You’ll stand the test of ages, and we’ll see who’s in the wrong and who’s in the right.”
“The test of ages.” Alban shook his head, echoed words spoken softly. “How do you know the things you know, Grace O’Malley? That test belongs to my people, not humanity.”
“As if you’re 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 I’m 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. “I’ll ask for it anyway, and you’ll stand it or you’ll stand a fool.” She thinned her mouth, glowering at the gargoyle. “I’d like to say I think you’re not one, but I’d 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 you’re 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.
“He’s 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 God’s eyes.”
“A witch trial?” Margrit’s voice shot up again, incredulous. “This isn’t the fourteenth century, Grace!”
“It’s gargoyle tradition. Ask him.” Grace cut a nod at Alban, who shifted enough that Margrit recognized an uncomfortable admission in the movement.
“I don’t care if it’s tradition, it’s stupid. Nobody in their right mind would settle—”
“You’re the one who thinks Biali’s 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 you’re condemned.”
Alban lowered his gaze. “So be it.”
“Alban—” Margrit broke off, struggling for composure. “I don’t understand you,” she finally said, low-voiced. “You couldn’t 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 else’s secrets. Why won’t you fight now? I mean, it’s a stupid, stupid way to settle a rivalry, but you’re the one who’s been so hung up on tradition all this time. If this is traditional, why turn your back on it?”
“Because I’m 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 doesn’t matter. We act on results, not intentions. Margrit, I know this is difficult for you, but I don’t 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 don’t have to lay it all on myself? Alban, you’re going to carry this with you forever. I’m going to carry it forever. I can’t sleep from the nightmares. I’ve been a criminal defense lawyer long enough to know that other people might determine your sentence, but you’re 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 shouldn’t 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 can’t understand that.” She lifted her gaze, feeling tired. “The guilt’s 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 Ausra’s 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 I’m human?” Bitterness filled Margrit’s tone and Alban’s broad shoulders slumped.
“I clearly felt your life was worth preserving over Ausra’s. 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 I’d taken?”
Margrit folded her head down to drawn-up knees. “You know the answer to that,” she replied dully. “You don’t 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 you’ve known me.” Rue colored Alban’s voice. “And yours, I imagine, will also be as it has been since you’ve 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. “I’m not a troublemaker. It just comes my way naturally when I hang out with you. I don’t like this, Alban.”
“I haven’t 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. “That’s what Grace thought. I’ll 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 Alban’s 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 us…there 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.”
Alban’s silence said as much as his eventual admission of, “I am. The iron is far more wearying than I imagined, and I can’t transform and escape it.”
Margrit pressed her cheek against his chest. “Then rest. I’ll be here.” She heard her own silence draw out a long time, too, and only broke it with a whisper when the gargoyle’s breathing suggested he might have found respite in slumber. “I’ll always be here.”