“You’ll be fine, Jim. It’s your case anyway, and I’m just standing as cocounsel.” Margrit got dressed as she reassured her coworker. Halfway back from Harlem she’d decided there was no way she could face the morning without a shower and fresh clothes and had detoured home. Neither of her housemates were there, leaving the house quiet enough to make an apologetic call. “I know this is a long way from ideal, but I’ve had something unavoidable come up. Personal business. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” The resentment in Jim’s voice betrayed him.
Margrit clenched her jaw, then deliberately loosened it. “I’ll do my best to come by this afternoon if you want any advice, but you’re as prepared for the case as I am. I’ve got to go.” She repeated her apologies and hung up, then turned to glower at herself in the mirror.
If her expression could be ignored, the woman reflected back at her looked professional and cool, well collected in a skirt suit with a dark, subtly red blouse beneath it. Her gaze, though, was angry with frustration and resignation, and even loose corkscrew curls did little to soften its edges. Margrit sighed and twisted her hair back, jamming an ebony stick through it. It finished off the look, making her hard and unassailable.
Too hard for her own tastes. Margrit found a pair of gold filigree earrings and slipped them into place, feeling herself relax a little as she did so. If the clothes made the man, they could also remind her of what she wanted to be. The gold looked well against cafe-latte skin, bringing out warm depths. It was better to not be so cold. Feeling less grim, Margrit slipped low heels on and picked up her purse, and, armed for the day, left her bedroom.
The front door swung open and Cameron, wearing loose gym sweats and a snug T-shirt, bounded in and let go a shout of surprise as she nearly ran Margrit down. Margrit laughed and clutched her heart, staggering back. “Good morning.”
“You didn’t come home last night.” Cam gave her a cheerful fish eye. “Did you have a hot date?”
“I did, as a matter of fact.” Margrit tried dodging around the tall blonde, but Cameron swayed back and forth in the hall, deliberately blocking her. Half a foot taller than Margrit even when Margrit wore two-inch heels, Cam’s long limbs ensured she could keep her smaller housemate stuck in place.
“With who? Alban? You haven’t seen him in a couple weeks, right? C’mon, talk. And those are fighting duds, Grit. Don’t tell me you’ve got a court case after being up all night.”
“Okay. I won’t tell you.” Margrit ducked through an opening in Cameron’s waving arms. Now that her housemate had mentioned it, she realized how tired she should be, but the long previous day didn’t seem to be dragging her down. Daisani’s gift in action, maybe, though she thought he’d said health didn’t negate a need for sleep.
Cam reached over her head to bang the door shut. “Have you had breakfast, young lady?”
“I swear, you and Cole are like my parents. No,” Margrit admitted reluctantly. Her stomach rumbled on cue and Cameron barked triumph.
“Is your court date at nine?”
“Then you have time to eat and gossip. Shoo. Go. Go.” Cameron herded her down the hall toward the kitchen, making Margrit laugh again.
“When’d you get so pushy?”
“Right about when you started sneaking around and not talking to us anymore. Couple weeks ago now. What’s going on, Margrit?” Cameron’s jovial tone dropped away, leaving concern. “I know you and Cole are on the outs, but neither of you will tell me why, and you’ve been getting up to run in the middle of the night for the last ten days.”
Guilty surprise sizzled through Margrit. She went to the fridge, an orange behemoth from the fifties, and stared inside it as a way of avoiding Cameron’s worried gaze. “Did Cole make any bagels?”
“He did, and I’ll prepare you the perfect peanut-butter bagel in exchange for some kind of actual information about your life. Otherwise I’m holding them hostage.”
Margrit took jam out of the fridge and turned to face her friend, whose calculating expression turned satisfied as she put bagels in the toaster. “Talk. What’s going on?”
“Honestly? Everything’s completely out of control and I feel as if I’m coming apart at the seams. You ever get yourself into something so deep it looks like there’s no way out?”
“Yeah. I’ve told you about how I got the scar on my leg.” Cam edged Margrit out of the way to get to the peanut butter.
Margrit’s gaze fell to her friend’s shin, where she knew a long silver scar marked the tan skin beneath Cam’s sweats. “A car wreck,” she said, knowing she skimmed the truth.
Cameron turned, a jar of peanut butter in hand, and gave her a hard look. “A drunk-driving car wreck. The only thing about it in my favor was I wasn’t the one driving. And I remember thinking if I could undo it, if I could get out of it somehow, if I could make it have not happened, I would never be that stupid again in my life. I wouldn’t drink, I wouldn’t drive, I wouldn’t get in a car with somebody who had been, I’d do anything to make it unhappen.” The bagels popped and she lathered butter, peanut butter and jelly on them with abandon. “So, yeah, I know what it’s like to feel out of control and with no way out. What’s going on, Margrit?” She handed one of the bagels over and sank her teeth into her own.
Margrit took hers and inhaled its warm, rich scent, trying to loosen the tightness in her chest. “It’s work stuff, kind of.” It was true, insofar as she was going to work for one of the Old Races in a handful of days, but it was also inaccurate enough to be a blatant lie. “I’ll tell you about it as soon as I can.” She’d promised Cole that much after he’d seen Alban’s true form. He’d wanted to tell Cameron, but Margrit had put him off and he’d agreed, aware that without seeing Alban’s transformation herself, Cameron would never believe them.
“Well, you know I’ll be here to listen.” Cam picked up her bagel and stuffed a full quarter in her mouth all at once. “Eee yrr baghl,” she ordered, then swallowed hard enough to grimace. “Eat your bagel before you go to work.”
Margrit picked up the cooling bread and toasted Cameron with it. “Aye, aye, ma’am.” She got as far as the kitchen door, then turned back. “Hey, Cam? Thanks.”
Cameron smiled. “It’s what friends are for.”
The phrase lingered in Margrit’s mind as she made her way downtown. Humans used it lightly. Margrit wasn’t certain she counted any of the Old Races as her friend, and yet she was pursuing Cara’s agenda with greater dedication than she typically offered any of her mortal friends.
Then again, humans had never asked so many impossible things of her. The Luka Johnson case she’d worked on for years had required by far the most devotion of any single project she’d ever been involved with, but it hadn’t begun as a gesture of friendship. It had been part of the job. If Cara was right—and Margrit couldn’t conclusively argue she wasn’t—then mediating Old Races relationships was her job now, one she felt as strongly about as she had Luka’s case.
And the reality was that Margrit had thrust herself into that position. Alban’s plea for help had been the start of it, but her decision to act on behalf of the selkies was a conscious, deliberate decision on her part. She’d even taken a step further than they’d asked, pushing to overturn the remaining laws the five Old Races held in common. The anger she’d felt over Cara’s demand was born from guilt at abandoning the mortal life she’d worked so hard to build. She would have to let that go somehow, though it would become easier once she’d stepped out of the legal world and began working for Eliseo Daisani.
It would become easier once she and Alban could put his trial behind them and take a chance on something new and extraordinary for both of them. Head tipped against the subway-car window, Margrit let her eyes slip shut and a smile inch into place. She could all but feel the strength of his arms around her, surprisingly warm for a creature bound to stone. Encompassed in that circle, she felt safe and adventuresome all at once, trusting in the comfort she found there, certain of a chance to search and explore things she’d never known existed. Human lovers paled by comparison through no fault of their own; Alban brought magic simply by being, and that was something she hadn’t realized she’d craved until she found it. Her life had been built of deliberate goals and the steps necessary to achieve them. Finding those ambitions shattered by a single granite-strong touch was more exhilarating than alarming; that was the aspect of herself she’d never been able to explain to friends or family. Alban understood her in a way she’d thought no one could, and she hoped she offered him the same.
Her own quiet laughter made her eyes open. She did understand the honor-bound gargoyle. She thought he was frequently thickheaded and wrong, but the strictures he’d placed on himself made a certain sense to her. He lived in a world constrained by particulars, as she had always done. Now that she’d broken free of them, Margrit was eager to see Alban do the same. Maybe if she explained herself in those words, he would be willing to take the risks that she was herself investigating. Challenging the laws of his people was a drastic way to start, but then, it was how she’d begun.
And it seemed it was how she would continue. Margrit left the subway, brushing through crowds to make her way to the corner bookstore owned by Chelsea Huo. Clear glass with etched lettering proclaimed Huo’s On First, and in smaller letters beneath it, an eclectic bookstore. Margrit had never examined the shelves closely enough to determine whether the selection was actually eclectic, but it was certainly chaotic. She edged the front door open cautiously, never sure a newly delivered stack of books wouldn’t be balanced in its path, and made her way into the crowded shop.
The foyer—defined by being the only area in the store without books piled everywhere—was tidier than usual, an extra square foot or two available around the till. Margrit grinned and let the door close to the sound of chimes, echoed an instant later by a rattle of beads from behind the stacks. “Cara?”
“Hi, Chelsea.” Margrit lifted her voice unnecessarily as the shop’s tiny proprietor appeared from between the shelves. Surprise darted across her apple-round face as she peered at Margrit, then at the door leading to the street. “Cara sent me,” Margrit said, then winced. “I’m doing it again. Every time I come in here, I start sounding like a noir film.”
Chelsea put fingertips on a stack of books to keep it from toppling as she passed, then stopped before Margrit with her arms folded under her breasts. Margrit, looking at the top of her head, counted a handful of silver hairs among the black, and wondered how old the woman was. Something about her tea-colored eyes made her seem both wizened and ageless, but nothing in the way she moved suggested she was at all old. “Why didn’t Cara come herself?”
“She’s in the hospital. She’s hurt. Fighting down on the docks got out of hand. She’ll be all right,” Margrit added hastily. “Assuming nothing weird comes up in her blood work, anyway. She called me. I’m supposed to go…Oh, you know.” She sighed, suddenly feeling the weariness that had been absent earlier. “I’m supposed to go make sure their treaty holds, so they’ll keep fighting us instead of turning on each other. And you’re supposed to come along to shore me up, I guess.”
Surprise snapped through Chelsea’s eyes again. “Are you, now? You’ve come a long way in a little time, Margrit Knight. From novice to negotiator. I may be impressed.”
“Oh, good. I hope they are.” Margrit stuck her tongue out, feeling not at all impressive. “Are they going to listen to me?”
“They’re there to negotiate, Margrit. They might be expecting Cara, but I’ve been helping her and they’ll recognize you as her proxy if I’m there to back it up. Even in the worst scenarios, none of the Old Races want to expose themselves to humanity. They’ll listen, if you’re ready for this.”
But I’m not ready for it! The protest rang through Margrit’s mind as it had for the past hour, thoroughly clenched down. She knew too little about the situation, but at the same time she thought she understood the basic scenario. Most complications rose from one or two fundamental difficulties: she only had to address those, and with luck the remainder would come unraveled. She reminded herself of that as she climbed grate stairs in a dockside warehouse. Chelsea, a step ahead of her, looked calm and utterly collected, completely at odds with the butterflies in Margrit’s stomach.
She was uncomfortably aware of the plummet just to her right. Workmen were visible below, forklifts beeping and crashes announcing the periodic drop of materials. Several moved with the characteristic ease of the Old Races, though more still were only human. She stopped to watch them, trying to find her equilibrium, and Chelsea glanced back with an arched eyebrow as she reached the door leading into the warehouse office. Margrit’s shoulders slumped, and, more determined than prepared, she nodded her readiness. Chelsea pushed the door open.
The office was as far from Janx’s alcove as she could imagine, with ordinary plate-glass windows and cheap furniture, none of it saying anything about the people who’d put it there. Functional, not personal: she supposed that did say something about them, after all.
Those people stood segregated, selkies on one side with their arms folded across broad chests so they made a living, glowering wall. Across from them, restless, slender djinn shifted and glanced around, their movements no more worried than the wind might be. All of them turned their attention to the door as it opened. Margrit caught one djinn begin a bow of respect, clearly meant for Chelsea, and then watched him arrest the gesture midmotion as he saw Margrit step up behind her.
A rustle of not-sound whispered around the office, uniting djinn and selkie in consternation, surprise, offense. The impulse to simply walk away rushed up and Margrit pushed it down again. Chelsea stepped aside, giving Margrit the floor. To her astonishment, none of the Old Races spoke, leaving her a heavy silence to break. She had their attention with her presence; with any luck she could hold it with confidence and calm. “Cara Delaney’s been badly injured and is in a human hospital. She asked me to mediate the discussion she’d intended to head this morning. As I understand it—”
“A human?” An unexpectedly familiar voice came from the group of djinn, and the man who stepped forward brought a shock of anger and fear that drowned Margrit’s dismay at being challenged. Details she hadn’t known she remembered stood out about the man: a rash of pocked skin beneath his cheekbones, keeping well-defined features from prettiness; the amber-clear color of his eyes; elegance bordering on arrogance. What she actively remembered was still there, maybe even stronger than before: disdain and anger mixed cold enough to be hatred. It was too easy to understand the rage that drove some of the Old Races; too easy to imagine what it was like to belong to a once-rich culture now forced into shadows. Margrit didn’t want to feel sympathy for a creature who had literally held her mother’s heart in his hand, but for a moment, caught up in his insulted, insulting gaze, she did.
“A human,” she said as neutrally as she could, then reached for the name Janx had used when he’d mentioned this djinn: “And you’re Tariq.”
The djinn curled his lip, then offered a bow of such grace it managed to be insolent. “At your service,” he added, then smiled. “Or your mother’s.”
She was too well trained to rise to the bait, the blatant attempt releasing a string of tension within her. Tariq, at least, was as strained as she felt. The camaraderie, regardless of how unwelcome he would find it, made her feel as though the ground was more level. “A human has no reason to favor one of your factions over another. I’m a more neutral moderator than Cara could ever be. It wouldn’t have been a bad idea to invite me here even if she hadn’t been injured.”
Chelsea, at her side, didn’t shift so much as to nod, but something in her stance relaxed, connoting approval or new confidence. Tariq stepped forward, full of airy belligerence. Margrit held up a hand, motion so sharp he actually stopped, then looked infuriated at having been put off by a mere human. This time Chelsea smiled, barely visible expression, and to Margrit’s surprise, spoke.
“Margrit Knight has stood against her own kind to protect the Old Races. She has sat amongst a quorum of dignitaries as one of them, an honored and voting member. She has shown mercy where none was warranted. I declare her fit to stand among you as a mediator. Dare any of you dispute me?”
The djinn exchanged sullen, resentful glances. Even the selkies shifted, as if hoping someone on the opposite side might be foolish enough to argue. Curiosity sang through Margrit, making her heart beat loudly enough she was sure it could be heard by each and every being in the room.
Serene confidence radiated from the tiny woman as she met the gaze of each member of the Old Races. It reminded Margrit of Daisani’s brief pause during the quorum, when he’d waited to see if anyone would challenge him as he declared himself. Chelsea shared that absolute certainty, as though the idea someone might stand up to her was both inconceivable and slightly amusing.
Almost as one, the selkies and djinn dropped their eyes, acquiescing for reasons that confounded and fascinated Margrit. Cara had wanted Chelsea there; this inexplicable iron hand was clearly the reason. Chelsea elevated feather-fine eyebrows and tipped her head toward Margrit, once more relinquishing the floor. Breathless with questions, Margrit reined in the impulse to give over to them and instead began again where she’d been interrupted. “As I understand it, there are two matters on the table. One is how to retain the territory you’ve taken. The other is an inquest into Malik al-Massri’s death. Am I correct?”
Her voice betrayed only professional calm, none of her curiosity in evidence. Eventually dealing with the enigmatic Old Races would cause all her control and calm to erupt in a barrage of wanting to know. She felt dangerously close to that breaking point now. Exercising the focus to deal with the problems at hand felt like a triumph of overblown proportions.
“Inquest,” Tariq growled. Margrit angled herself toward him, now certain that he spoke for all his people, and that the selkies would abide by Cara’s wishes, and let her speak for them. “An inquest is not what we desire.”
“We’ll get to that. You have a bigger problem on hand with this territory war.”
“Bigger than the death of one of our own?” Incredulous anger snarled through the question.
Margrit set her teeth together. “Yes, in fact. You can’t afford for your own people—any of you, no matter which race you’re from—to end up in human hospitals like Cara. God help me for saying it, but you need to either eliminate your competition immediately or create enough of a united front between the selkies and the djinn to take ambitious humans in hand and use them. Nobody’s happy about the mess you’ve created down here, and more bodies aren’t going to get the cops off your backs. The problem is you people aren’t criminals.” She heard herself and laughed, more frustrated than amused. “You’re temperamental and violent, but you’re not criminals. You needed Malik, didn’t you? Because he’s the only one who knew anything about running drugs and prostitutes and gambling rings and protection rackets.”
Muscle played in Tariq’s jaw, answer enough. Margrit dropped her chin to her chest, muttering, “Kaimana’s a billionaire. He should be better prepared for taking over any kind of empire than this. Or is that why he dropped it in your laps?” She glanced from djinn to selkie and back again. “I knew he wanted to keep his hands clean, but it didn’t occur to me that he barely knew how to get them dirty. Hell, I could probably run this mess better than you can.” Too late, she wondered if that was why Cara had insisted Margrit take her place at the meeting. She said, “No,” out loud, afraid she needed the reprimand more than anyone else in the room.
Admonishment still echoing in her ears, she looked back to Tariq. “Cara’s in charge of this, isn’t she. You agreed to support the selkies in their petition to rejoin the Old Races in exchange for a position of human economic strength. But you’re under Cara’s thumb, and therefore Kaimana’s, and they can control you by dint of numbers, if it comes down to it. But Cara’s not a bad guy. She’s gotten tougher, but she really doesn’t have the stomach for dealing with this part of the world. So you’re constrained by what she’s willing to do. What Kaimana’s willing to do. Am I right?”
Tariq nodded this time, movement sharp and angry. Margrit muttered exasperation and scowled from one faction to the other. Dark selkie gazes remained neutral, though a growing sense of unfriendliness emanated from them. Margrit, irritated, said, “Not being a bad guy isn’t a bad thing, people,” then returned her attention to Tariq. “Given the circumstances under which we previously met, I’m sure you won’t take offense if I characterize you as a complete bastard.”
The djinn went still, then thinned a smile and nodded.
“All right. This is how you’re going to deal with the infighting and the human encroachment, then.” Tension rose sharply, minute shifting amongst all the Old Races bringing them closer to her. Margrit counted out a long breath, afraid she would come to badly regret the decision she was making. “I’m willing to offer Tariq the reins of this business.”
The selkies spoke for the first time, sudden burst of incoherent sound that Margrit waved down. “If you’re going to stop getting your asses kicked, you need a big bad, and Cara’s not the right person for the role. Furthermore, this whole setup’s a lousy one for the djinn. All the dirty work and none of the benefits. So maybe we can do a deal here.” The term came easily, as if she stood outside a courtroom arguing over a client’s sentencing, though the gathered djinn were an even more unlikely client than Alban had been.
A smile crawled across Tariq’s face. “What are your terms?”
“Don’t pursue vengeance for Malik. The Old Races can’t afford a race war. There aren’t enough of any of you. That’s the major term.”
Tariq’s amber eyes darkened until Margrit had no sense of what he thought. “And the minor ones?”
“I recommend that your human competition not suddenly start waking up dead. I recommend you find a way to deliver them alive and in one piece, maybe neck-deep in prosecutable crimes, to the NYPD. I also recommend that you not expand on what you took from Janx in any meaningful fashion until you are damned good and certain of your grounding. The docks are a hairsbreadth from a war zone right now. I want to see them stabilized, not destroyed.”
“And if I—we—choose not to accept your terms?”
“Then the NYPD and the FDNY will come down here with trucks filled with salt water and handcuffs lined with vampire blood and they will take you down, Tariq.” His face tightened with astonished anger and Margrit shook her head, speaking more softly. “Don’t underestimate me. Letting the Old Races continue to run Janx’s empire creates a danger for my own race, and I’m the gasoline being poured on the flames. This is a good deal for you. Do not piss me off.”
“For them,” one of the selkies spat. “It’s a good deal for the djinn, not us.”
Margrit swung to face him, reveling in the oversized action. Adrenaline burned through her, focusing her words. “The selkies wanted legitimacy amongst the Old Races. The djinn, who, as I understand it, have until now remained in their desert homelands and let time pass them by, wanted a piece of the modern world. You’ve both gotten what you were after. What you have right now is an opportunity to walk away from this mess and let somebody more ruthless put it back together. I’d take it if I were you.”
“An abrogation of responsibility?” Chelsea asked quietly.
“Think of it more as me taking it on.” Tension lanced through Margrit’s shoulders. Whether or not Kaimana had intended the selkies to help keep the djinn in check, she fully planned to do that herself.
Chelsea pursed her lips, but nodded, and despite looking far from convinced, the young selkie who’d spoken subsided. Margrit wondered briefly if their society was heavily matriarchal, though Kaimana’s position as a powerful leader amongst them suggested otherwise. Regardless, she was relieved at the lack of argument.
“We will have to discuss this,” Tariq said. “Malik al-Massri’s death is not something we take lightly.”
Margrit inclined her head, the motion coming close to a bow. She hoped it hid the shiver of nerves that ran under her skin, lifting goose bumps. She could—and would—make good on her threat if the djinn didn’t comply with her terms, but any investigation of Malik’s death would end badly for her. If the Old Races accepted accident as a forgivable circumstance surrounding a death, she would confess to the part she’d played, but they weren’t inclined to show clemency to their own kind, much less a human. Voice steady, she replied, “Nor should it be. Is a day long enough for deliberations?”
“We’ll send a messenger when we’ve decided.”
“Fine. Not more than forty-eight hours, though. This needs to be settled.” Margrit nodded again, and trusting there was no ceremony for departures, took the opportunity to escape.
Chelsea exited a step ahead of her, blocking her on the grate landing as the door banged shut behind them. Accompanied by the rattle of windows, Chelsea asked, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Of course not, but never let them see you sweat, right?” Margrit wrapped a hand around the stairway’s cold, metal railing. “I couldn’t think of another way out of it. They can’t go to war amongst themselves. If they’re lucky, they’ll just half wipe each other out. If they’re not lucky, we’ll learn about them.”
“So the sacrifice you chose was your own people.” Chelsea sounded more interested than condemning, as though Margrit had proven thought-provoking.
Margrit dropped her head, weight leaned into the railing. “The needs of the many over the good of the few. In one way, it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to come in and clean up Janx’s empire. Whether the djinn run it or a human does…” She shrugged. “Either way, it’s still going to be criminal. People are going to die in the long term. Maybe this will keep some of them alive in the short term. Do you have a better answer?”
“If I did, I would have suggested it earlier.” Chelsea let silence hang for a judicious moment, then conceded, “The caveats were well done. I don’t know if the djinn will agree, but your threat was a good one. Can you back it up?”
“I think so. I hope so. It depends on if Tony’s willing to believe me.” She motioned at the warehouse, evoking another one with the gesture. “He’s still angry, but he thinks all my weird behavior was trying to help set a trap for Janx. If I told him fire trucks full of salt water were the only way to quell the violence down here, he might listen to me.”
“I was more thinking of the vampire’s blood.”
“Oh.” Margrit straightened away from the railing. “Actually, that part I’m more certain of. Daisani was pretty annoyed with me for making him let Tariq go. I think he’d like a chance to snag another djinn. Or thirty.”
“Slippery ground you stand on there.”
Margrit shot the smaller woman a sharp look. “I think I’m bending over backward here to give the djinn a fair chance. Especially since Tariq was the one who nearly pulled my mother’s heart out. So if they don’t hold up their end of what I’ve set out, I don’t have many qualms about knocking this game board over. I’d like to have the moral high ground, but it’s hard to find, much less stay on. I’m doing my best, Chelsea. It might not be good enough, but I’m doing my best.”
A smile passed over Chelsea’s face. “Good. The fire’s still there. I just wanted to make sure.”
“Oh, now you’re manipulating me, too? Thanks.” Margrit pulled a face at Chelsea’s cheerful nod. “So how did you do it?”
“Mmm?” Chelsea’s eyebrows rose in modest curiosity.
“You gave me legitimacy in there. Why didn’t they fight you? No offense, but you’re just a bookshop owner.”
“Oh, that.” Chelsea shrugged it off. “Even the Old Races can be taught to behave if you’re firm enough with them. I think you may be learning that yourself.”
“That’s your story and you’re sticking to it?”
“I am.” Chelsea gestured. “Shall we?”
“Yeah.” Margrit took the lead, trotting down the stairs.
White-hot noise met her at the bottom.