Dirty Magic cover

Dirty Magic proposed cover

Chapter 1

If he weren’t the son of a Duke, the book in his hand could get him killed. Even his exalted social status wouldn’t protect him if anyone discovered he possessed The Philosophy Of Lost Arts, among other forbidden books. His library contained many such texts, which was why Vadryc hid the books in a box he kept under a loose floorboard in his bedchamber. No-one must ever know of his interest in forbidden magic.

The Duke would despise him if he knew what his only son was doing. Of course, that would be redundant, since the Duke already despised him. He’d shown it in so many ways over the years that Vadryc sometimes wondered what he would do if his father ever showed him any affection. Die of the shock, perhaps.

Of course, a young man of his station had heavy expectations placed on his shoulders; that was inevitable. It was part of being born into a noble family, especially one as powerful as Falyros. He was to rule a duchy someday. He would be nearly as powerful as the king. A man like that needed thorough preparation, thorough training. Vadryc understood that. He didn’t even mind it.

What bothered him was the cruelty meted out by his father and his father’s minions. Any mistake on his part was met with beatings and starvation, salted liberally with harsh insults or grim silence. His successes were hardly noticed.

Do you think you’d be praised, lauded, if you were a peasant farmer’s son? No, you’d be worked from dawn to dusk in the fields, beaten and kicked when you displeased your parents.

It was a litany he repeated to himself when he felt the burden growing too heavy, too sharp and cutting to bear.

When he was a small boy and he didn’t know any better, he’d dreamed of someday becoming Piahni. He’d known almost from birth that he was different, that he had a special gift for the spirits and the unseen energy. But he was a duke’s only son, and the duchy needed him. He would never be Piahni.

He gazed down at the brilliantly blue leather cover of his book. It had been written centuries earlier, by a man known only as Gijharos, credited with—or infamous for—establishing a formal training system outside the Piahni discipline. Vadryc had learned much from the little volume—how to control his breath and thoughts, how to center his energy, how to think about the unseen world that surrounded all of them all the time. There were no spells in this book. It was all philosophy and basic exercises. But he’d known from the moment he opened its covers that it would change his life, and it had.

If his father discovered it in his possession, he would die. He would be lucky if they simply cut his throat without the preliminary torture many Fortunatans meted out to those found guilty of dirty magic. It wouldn’t matter that he’d cast few spells, only that he possessed and had read this book, this forbidden volume of lore.

And why was it forbidden? He’d puzzled over that ever since he’d first read the thing. The skills it taught didn’t seem particularly subversive. From what he’d heard, the Piahni taught much the same things. Perhaps they wanted to keep these skills for themselves and The Philosophy of Lost Arts was clearly intended to teach people outside the Piahni system.

Whatever the reason, he’d be doomed if anyone ever found it on him.

He closed the slim volume and returned it to the battered wooden box. His studies had to fit in between sword practice, hunts, the study of governance, and many other responsibilities that fell on his shoulders as the heir to a dukedom. But he made time for them whenever he could. Even now, when he should be preparing to meet the most important guest he’d ever had in his sixteen years.

Someone pounded on his door, so loudly he started and almost dropped the box. He stuffed the whole thing beneath his pillow.

“Yes?” he called.

“Tonarisa Nijhika and her entourage have arrived, my lord.” It was the voice of one of the pages in his father’s court.

“Very well. I’ll be down as soon as I’ve dressed.” And put the box back in its proper place beneath the floorboards.

“Duke Falyros is on his way up.” The second voice belonged to his cousin Amryc, the family’s self-appointed protector of proper morals and virtue.

Even as boys, Amryc had refused to participate in anything he imagined less than honorable, such as playing in the “secret” tunnel that led from the stables into the surrounding countryside. They were forbidden from playing there, and although it could cause no harm that Vadryc could see, Amryc simply wouldn’t act against orders. Now that he was sixteen like Vadryc and for all intents and purposes an adult, he was even more insufferable.

“Don’t you have anything better to do, Amryc?” he said. “I’ll be down when I’m ready.” Besides, he didn’t believe his father would bestir himself to fetch his own son. He would send minions to do it for him—as he had, in Amryc and the page.

“Your father requests your presence immediately, my lord.” The page sounded stiff. He probably didn’t want to get in the middle of an argument between the cousins.

“Is he really coming up here?” he said, casting around for the court clothes he’d selected for this evening.

“Yes,” the page said.

Shit. His father tolerated not a moment of lateness.

Vadryc abandoned his court clothes, stalked to the door and threw it open. He wasn’t prepared for such a formal assembly, as he’d been putting off dressing in his uncomfortable best clothes until the last minute, but he was presentable enough that he wouldn’t cause a scandal.

Amryc stood behind the page, his back rigid and upright, his face solemn. “You dishonor your intended bride with those rags you’re wearing,” he said in a grave voice that made him sound twenty years older than he was.

Did he take everything seriously? It was a serious occasion, but not for Amryc. This was Vadryc’s evening, Vadryc’s impending wedding. His cousin simply couldn’t resist an opportunity to be superior, to rub Vadryc’s nose in his better control, his vaunted virtue, not to mention the Piahni tattoo on his forehead, marking him as one of the magical elite.

He wore a red doublet trimmed in sumptuous black and gold, along with matching trousers and a shirt trimmed with heavy lace, easily showing up Vadryc’s slightly shabby deep-brown suit, one he wore for comfort rather than display. He had no lace and little embellishment. But Nijhika would understand, he was sure. She would know he didn’t mean to shame her.

“I’ll be fine,” Vadryc said.

Amryc shook his head. “When will you begin behaving like a man instead of a boy?”

At that moment, he despised his cousin. The ungrateful shit had everything Vadryc wanted and couldn’t seem to understand or appreciate his good fortune. “Leave me alone, Mother,” he snapped.

Amryc’s face, so like Vadryc’s they could be brothers, turned scarlet. “I’m not your mother.”

“I know that, but I wasn’t sure you did.” He turned away from his obnoxious relative and tried to forget he was there. He didn’t have time for this. Nijhika awaited him.

At the entrance to the great hall, Vadryc paused to search for his bride as Amryc slipped by him and into the throng. He’d seen a portrait of the girl, of course, but hadn’t met her.

The noise of so many people talking, laughing, their voices bouncing off the hard stone of the walls and floor, echoed in his ears. He couldn’t pick out any single voice. The smell of many bodies packed into a tight space, along with the smoke from the blazing hearth and the mingled perfumes of the women, gave him an instant headache.

“Which one is she?” he said.

The page pointed across the room. “The blonde in pale blue, cha Tonos.”

Vadryc stared. She was the loveliest maiden in all of Fortunata. Of course, he hadn’t actually met each and every one of those maidens, but he couldn’t conceive there could be another woman who could equal Nijhika Samsedyn. And she was his.

Or she would be soon…very soon.

He gazed across the crowded great hall of Falyros Castle, the ducal seat of the Duke of Falyros, his father. Nijhika stood out in a crowd of beautiful, colorfully dressed women, some of the most beautiful aristocratic women in Fortunata. Her tall, slim figure was mostly concealed beneath her stiff, full-skirted gown of ice-blue satin, the color of a clear winter sky. Her golden hair was piled on her head in an artful and bewildering arrangement of curls and tiny braids interwoven with small white flowers. Around her neck she wore a triple-strand collar of white pearls. Tomorrow, she would be his wife and someday, when he inherited, his duchess.

They would speak together, before the ceremonial introduction that would take place sometime this evening. He wanted to know what kind of woman he was about to marry. Of course, she was aristocratic, the daughter of one of his father’s richest barons. But that didn’t tell him much about her personally.

He moved through the crowd toward his intended. A fierce-looking older woman with iron gray hair bound back so tightly it made her eyes look slanted was at her side, probably as her chaperone, but he meant to steal a word with her anyway. They were nearly married, so it would hardly be scandalous to speak together.

“Good evening, ladies,” he said. “Vadryc Falyros, at your service.” He followed his words with a brief yet courtly bow.

Nijhika looked up at him and blushed. She scanned his person, a tiny frown creasing her brow. Then she dropped her gaze demurely to the floor and made a graceful curtsy, sending a wave of her sweet floral perfume to his nose. “My lord Vadryc.”

Her voice sounded low and perfectly modulated, the ideal voice of a titled female.

“Tonarisa Nijhika,” he said, extending a hand toward her.

She sent a startled-looking glance at her guardian. The woman pinched her thin lips together, but she didn’t forbid the contact. Vadryc kept his hand outstretched until Nijhika laid her slender hand in his. Her skin felt cool and soft as silk.

“Walk with me, Tonarisa,” he said.

“Yes, cha Tonos.” Her voice was barely a whisper.

“You don’t have to call me that.” He smiled at her, trying to reassure her. “I’m not ‘my lord’ to you. I’m just Vadryc to my friends and family.”

Her reply was simply to blush ever more brightly.

“I don’t bite, you know,” he said.

“What would you have of me, cha Tonos?“ she said without looking at him. He knew she wasn’t looking because he kept his gaze trained on her slightly averted face. By the gods, she was even lovelier from a hand’s breadth away.

She had the refined bearing of a true aristocrat and delicate, perfectly proportioned features. She was like a frost sprite come to visit their crude human dwelling for an evening before disappearing into the winter woods again.

He’d worried his parents were going to saddle him with an ugly woman for a bride. The marriage had been arranged on the basis of money, property, and social status, like all other marriages for people of his station. Love had nothing to do with it and he didn’t expect it…but he still would rather lie with a beautiful woman than a hideous one.

Tomorrow night. Tomorrow night, this fragile sprite would be his.

A sudden wave of nervousness came over him, drying his mouth and making his palms sweat. He’d been with women before, of course…but not so many. He was no expert on the art of love. And Nijhika must be a virgin; it was required of young women of her station. He would have to take her virginity, and he didn’t want to hurt or frighten her. He wanted her to take as much pleasure in the act as he would himself.

He caught sight of his cousin Amryc among the guests and nodded to him with a forced smile, determined to make a better show than he had in his chamber. He’d envied Amryc for years, because he was no-one’s heir and therefore could dedicate his life to the Piahni. But on this night, Vadryc envied no-one. On this night, with Nijhika on his arm, he felt almost like a king.

“I would know something of you,” he said, gazing down at her tenderly. “Before we say our vows.”

“Did not my father’s messenger inform you of my accomplishments?”

“Of course he did.” Riding, playing the litsi, singing, embroidery…all the usual pursuits of women of their class. “But I was hoping to hear something from you directly.”

Someday he might not have to hide his collection of forbidden books quite so carefully, but that day was probably far in the future. However, he couldn’t help wondering what kind of person his bride was. Whether she might be brought to understand his interest in a kind of magic that most people thought so dirty it was outlawed.

“I’m an ordinary lady, cha Tonos. I ride. I sew. I play and sing and dance.”

“I see. Do you read?”

She flashed a bewildered look at him before once more lowering her gaze. “Read, cha Tonos?”

“Yes. Read books. Surely you’ve heard of the pastime?”

She frowned and he immediately regretted the sharpness in his voice. He hadn’t meant to be so rude. His eagerness was getting the better of him.

“No, I don’t read,” she said.

“Not at all?”

“No, cha Tonos. My father believes women have no need for letters.” She said this with the serenity of the truly ignorant. Clearly she had no idea of what she was missing and didn’t care.

His mother read, as did his sisters and all the women of the Piahni, but this young aristocrat probably wouldn’t recognize her own name if she saw it written out for her. Perhaps it was for the best. If she couldn’t read, then she couldn’t see the forbidden nature of his collection. She couldn’t betray him.

“Do you read, cha Tonos?” she said.

“It’s Vadryc. And yes, I do. I read a great deal.”

Her hazel-blue gaze slipped across to touch on his face and then away again. “Of what do you read?” she said, her tone indifferent.

“Many things. History, philosophy. Magic.”

“Magic?” This time she looked at him directly, giving the impression he’d truly shocked her. “You aren’t a Piahni. Why would you read about magic?”

“Because it interests me,” he said, as a heavy rock seemed to settle in the region of his heart. She would never, it seemed, share his interests.

“Magic frightens me. I advise you to leave it alone, cha Tonos. It’s too easy to be drawn astray into sadra-tura unless you belong to the Piahni.”

“Is it?” he said, keeping his voice mild.

“Yes.” She tightened her grip on his hand, so slightly the pressure was almost undetectable. “I truly hope you’ll give it up now that we’re almost married.”

“I will consider it, Tonarisa.“

***

 Crystal’s high school had over three thousand students, and every one of them was staring at her as she walked through the lobby, her backpack slung over her left shoulder. Or maybe it only seemed that way. The entire student body couldn’t fit in the school lobby at one time, right? But people were staring. And whispering.

Her parents had…died…and everyone seemed to know. Why did that mean they had to stare at her? She hadn’t done anything wrong.

The memory of their bloody bodies sprawled across the living room floor popped unbidden into her mind’s eye and she froze, caught for an instant in the horror of finding them. Someone bumped into her from behind.

“Watch where you’re going, bitch,” snapped a girl she didn’t know.

So apparently not everyone was staring at her.

“Sorry,” she mumbled and started walking again.

She couldn’t think about that awful day. Couldn’t think about her parents, or their house, or the Christmas tree splattered with gore. She couldn’t think about the way the police detective had questioned her, as if she could ever have done those gruesomely violent things to anyone, let alone her parents. All she could do was put one foot in front of the other, keep moving, going through the motions. Pretending to be normal, to be alive.

She made it to her first class, English, and slid into her assigned desk. There was a paperback book sitting face down on the desk top. Crystal took out her notebook before picking up the novel and looking at it.

The illustration on the cover was slightly faded, the corners bent. In bold red typeface, it read “The Jhidris Conspiracy,” which apparently was the fifth book in a series called The Fortunata Chronicles. The author’s name was Lynda Dalrymple.

Around her came the sound of whispers. Crystal glanced up at her classmates. Two girls sitting across from her were leaning over their desks and talking in secretive tones, their gazes sliding across to her every so often. She looked away and saw another student watching her and then another.

Her face began to burn. She ducked her head and opened the book as her stomach contracted with a nauseous spasm. The whispers continued and she pretended not to notice.

In the novel, a character named Amryc was helping to rescue people devastated when an uncontrolled portal was opened between their world and Earth. As she sank deeper into the story, the whispers of her classmates faded into the background, so deeply she didn’t notice when they stopped and the teacher got up to lecture.

Amryc’s world held pain and conflict, just like the real world did. But his problems weren’t hers. He wasn’t helpless, the way she was. Amryc saved people, prevented deaths, and pursued his evil cousin Vadryc, the man responsible for the portal’s opening.

Right now she wished she were Amryc, or someone like him. Someone who could take action, a hero who could make the bad guys pay for the sick things they’d done instead of a formerly-overprotected high school girl living with strangers in a foster home. Completely incapable of punishing the people who’d hurt her family.

 

 

Chapter 2

Nijhika wanted him to quit investigating magic, but how could Vadryc give up the inquiries that lay closest to his heart? He would have gone into the Piahni if he hadn’t been born the only son of a duke, but that path had closed to him at birth. Yet he’d always been fascinated with the way the universe worked and how material reality could be understood and manipulated with magical operations. He was only now beginning to make real progress in his studies and this girl wanted him to give it up before he learned anything of note.

He glanced at her standing by his side on the dais as they waited for his father to make the formal announcement of their impending wedding. Her beauty was remote. Almost cold. And he didn’t know her at all. The only thing he truly knew about her was that she’d prefer a husband who didn’t think unconventional thoughts.

He wouldn’t do it. Not for her or anyone else. Besides, he wasn’t really practicing sadra-tura. Yes, he’d diligently practiced some of the mental exercises, and he’d done a couple of simple spells, but they were hardly more than charms. He didn’t even know any sadra-piahni. So no-one could rightly accuse him of breaking the law, could they?

As duke, he would work for the abolishment of the sadra-tura laws, so that anyone could investigate magical matters according to his conscience, without the absurdly narrow-minded laws of generations past. It was time to rise above those superstitions.

Opening a jhidris, for example, was a lost art, one that had cost them contact with the other worlds that had so enriched Fortunata in ancient times. Because of the sadra-tura laws, they were slowly losing other lore, their society regressing to a sadly primitive level. Most of their people were unaware of this, but he and others who’d read ancient Fortunatan history had caught tantalizing glimpses of all they’d lost. Medical knowledge, for example—wisdom that would better the lives of everyone in their nation, not just a few aristocrats.

Someday he would have a hand in bringing Fortunata back to its former glory.

Duke Falyros’s steward, Ubros, mounted the dais and raised his arms for silence. Gradually the roar of speech and laughter in the hall died and the guests turned toward him expectantly. Vadryc and Nijhika stood behind the duke, waiting while his father stepped forward, leaving his duchess standing with her son and future daughter-in-law.

He was about to formally announce Vadryc and Nijhika’s coming wedding and introduce the bride and groom to one another. Vadryc’s mouth went dry as the reality of his marriage crashed into him. Tomorrow morning, the slender blonde next to him would become his wife, irrevocably and forever. He would get children on her. There would be small Vadrycs and Nijhikas running around the castle.

The vision boggled him. Children.

The duke cleared his throat and opened his mouth to speak. The majordomo, the functionary immediately beneath the steward, suddenly dashed up onto the dais, his face pale. In Boros’s hand there was a bright blue book. The Philosophy Of Lost Arts.

Time stopped.

Vadryc’s whole body seemed to turn to a block of ice. His wedding, his wife, his imagined children all drifted away like wisps of fog as the Duke turned toward his underling…because now there could be no wedding. No children. This was how it ended. In an instant. Before it had even a chance to begin.

His soul howled.

Vadryc watched, unable to take action, his stomach churning with nausea. Boros moved to the duke’s side and spoke in an undertone. He couldn’t hear what they said, but he could imagine it. His heart banged and his throat went even drier than his mouth. He wanted to jump forward and snatch the book from the two older men, yet his feet seemed to be nailed to the dais.

The duke listened to the majordomo’s words, his jaw tightening as his back stiffened to a state even more rigid than its usual oak-like quality. Slowly, so slowly, he turned to fix Vadryc with a deadly glare. Vadryc lifted his chin and straightened his shoulders, meeting his father’s gaze straight on. He’d been caught, and it was the end of everything he’d ever known; he was possibly about to die, but he’d be damned if he was going to cower and beg at a moment like this.

The Duke took the book from the majordomo’s hands and brandished it at his son. “Is this object yours?”

Vadryc swallowed the rock that seemed to have lodged in his throat. “Yes, cha Tonos, it is.”

Nijhika’s hand on his arm tightened. He didn’t look at her. He couldn’t. The expression on her face right now was no doubt one of bewilderment and dawning horror, something which he was already receiving from his parents.

“You admit to owning this book,” the duke said.

Vadryc had to clear his throat before he could make any sound. “Yes.”

“I won’t bother asking how you could inflict such humiliation and damage on your family,” his father said. “Because there is no explanation that could possibly satisfy me. Not only have you brought shame to your family but you choose to perform this act of—” he shook the book in Vadryc’s face—”this act of sadra-tura in full view of all my barons.” His voice rose to a bellow by the end of this speech.

In Vadryc’s peripheral vision, he saw the whole assembly staring at the dais in shock and fascination. Nijhika removed her hand from his arm and took a couple of steps away from him. Her iron-haired chaperone suddenly burst through the front of the crowd and mounted the dais, the expression on her face a curse on Vadryc’s name.

“It’s nothing more than a book, my lord,” Vadryc said, his voice strained and thin. “I have performed no sadra-tura.” It wasn’t entirely true, but surely…surely the little spells he’d worked hadn’t hurt anyone. And furthermore, none of his supposedly dire acts had taken place in front of an audience. It was the duke himself, and his majordomo, who were turning this event into a public performance.

“Nothing more than a book, is it?” The duke’s voice was low, yet Vadryc knew it carried to every corner of the room. That was a special skill of his. “This book is itself sadra-tura. You know it as well as I do. I’ve given you nothing but the best in tutoring and yet you repay me by turning to this filth? You are no son of mine.”

Vadryc hadn’t thought he could turn any colder. He was wrong.

The steward, Ubros, stared at him along with everyone else. Vadryc couldn’t read the look in his eyes. In many ways, Ubros had been more of a father to him than the duke. He must be unspeakably disappointed, but his face showed only cold detachment.

“You disgust me,” the duke growled. He rounded on the majordomo. “Take him away. Put him in the dungeon. I’ll deal with him later. And tomorrow, instead of a wedding, we’ll have a branding.”

They were going to burn his face, permanently marking him with the symbol of the sadra-piahni. The nausea boiled up in Vadryc’s throat, making him gag. He forced down the bile. He would not embarrass himself in front of these people—at least, no more than he already had.

***

Boros escorted him down the grim, damp staircase that led into the castle dungeon. The air down here felt almost as cold as it was outside. There was only the light of the single lantern the man had snatched up as they entered the stairwell to show them the way along the corridor lined with cells.

All the cells stood empty. The majordomo opened the barred door of the first one and shoved him inside, slamming the door shut behind him. Vadryc stumbled and caught himself against the icy stones of the wall.

He turned in time to see the majordomo walking away, taking the light with him. Now he was the only person in the dungeon. They’d left him alone in this dark hole, no doubt to contemplate his hideous crimes before the official punishment took place.

He’d kept his head high as they’d led him from the great hall, gaze staring ahead as if he felt no shame at what he’d done. What had just happened to him. As if he could meet the eyes of anyone in the hall. But he couldn’t look at them. He could look at no-one and nothing, just the air in front of him, empty space that couldn’t stare back in disgust and contempt.

His thoughts of an escape had died before they were born. His father’s guards would probably have cut him down if he tried. He was unarmed. No-one went to his wedding announcement with a weapon at his side, so he’d have had no way of defending himself. Besides, he hadn’t want to drag anyone else down with him.

Now he was locked in this cell and there could be no escape.

The cold darkness settled on Vadryc’s shoulders, seeping quickly through his woolen doublet and trousers, his linen shirt, and into his bones. He wrapped his arms around his torso in an attempt to stay warm, but the winter chill invaded his boots and turned his feet to blocks of ice. There would be no wedding, no celebration for him, only more cold, more starvation, and then death.

Minutes ran into hours. He didn’t know how many hours, because in the cold dark there was no way to know how much time had passed. He only knew he’d had no sleep, nothing to eat or drink, and no word about what was going to happen next.

Then boot heels rang on the stones and warm, flickering light flooded the passageway and his cell. He pushed off the chill wall and walked toward the iron bars of the cell door, heart pounding. What would they do to him? He was no-one and nothing, just a worm that had been declared sadra-piahni. He had no rights, no privileges, and no protection. Anything could happen now his father had disowned him.

Ubros and Boros both appeared first, their faces completely devoid of expression. They didn’t look at him or show any recognition at all. It was as if he’d become invisible.

He wanted to shout at Ubros. I’m still here. I’m still me. Why won’t you look at me? But his voice remained silent.

The majordomo unlocked the cell door and stood back. His father strode into the enclosure, his jaw tight, his eyes colder than the stone of the dungeon. He no longer wore the elaborate suit of clothes he’d had made for the wedding. Instead he had on a pair of old trousers he used for hunting, and a jacket to match. Clothes he wouldn’t mind getting dirty.

Vadryc lifted his chin and stayed put. Waiting.

His father’s hand seemed to come out of nowhere, crashing into his jaw and spinning him toward the back wall. He caught himself on the cold, damp stones, fighting against the dizzy pain in his head. The second blow landed on his back, right in the kidneys. He groaned, coughing.

“You worthless shit eater,” the duke snarled. “You are nothing to me. Nothing. Do you hear?”

Vadryc couldn’t answer over the searing pain in his back.

“Worthless,” his father said, and kicked him behind the knees, causing his legs to collapse.

His father beat him again and again, with his fists, with his feet. By the end, Vadryc lay half-conscious on the stones of the floor, blood trickling from his mouth. He heard, as if from an impossibly long distance, the sound of their boots ringing, ringing, ringing as they left him alone in the dark.

Dawn came in narrow gray stripes across the cell floor, the light falling from a slit of window high in the back wall. He lay in a half-frozen heap on the floor, his jaw swollen, his body nothing but pain. The door slammed open with a squeal of hinges. Scuffed boots appeared in his field of vision. Iron-hard hands grabbed him by the armpits and hauled him to his feet.

The steward and majordomo were nowhere to be seen. The men who’d come for him were part of the castle guard. He recognized them, although they gave no sign they’d ever seen him before.

His stomach heaved as they dragged him from the cell. His feet weren’t quite working right and he kept stumbling. Tripping. The guards simply yanked him up and dragged him forward each time it happened.

“Where…” he rasped through split lips.

They didn’t answer.

He’d never known anyone accused of practicing sadra-tura and he didn’t know what to expect. The night before, he’d been so sure they wouldn’t execute him…but that had been before he’d been discovered. Now, he didn’t know. He simply didn’t know.

***

The great hall was full of people. Full of noise. But the sound of voices wasn’t joyful and celebratory, as it had been the night before. Instead it held a note of rage just held in check.

All Vadryc saw was a blur of the floor and people’s feet—men’s heavy winter boots, women’s slippers, the hems of their dresses—as the guards dragged him all the way through the room to the dais. He sagged in their grip. They hauled him roughly up the steps of the dais and he fought to make his feet work, to keep that last thread of his dignity intact.

“This man,” the duke said loudly, “is no longer my son.”

Vadryc hadn’t even realized his father was there until the man spoke. He lifted his head and peered blearily through swollen eyes at the duke’s hazy form. Behind him stood the duchess. His mother gasped when she saw his face. Vadryc tore his gaze away from hers, fixing his attention on the distant front wall of the great hall. He would not show weakness.

“Bring forth the iron,” the man said.

Footsteps thumped across the dais. Vadryc smelled the dry reek of hot metal and an icy sweat broke out over his body. The duke lifted something over his head.

“The ancient iron, created by my ancestors to mark those convicted of sadra-tura so all might identify them. This creature is to be marked as sadra-piahni and cast out. He has until nightfall to be free of the duchy or his life will be forfeit.” Although they weren’t going to kill Vadryc outright, the weather would quickly do the job. It was too cold to survive long without proper gear.

“No man may give him aid of any kind,” the duke continued. “On pain of death. Continue.”

The last was evidently addressed to the steward. Ubros stepped forward and accepted the branding iron from the duke. He turned toward Vadryc.

Vadryc flinched back before he could catch himself. The guards tightened their grip on him until he thought their fingers were going to sink right through to his bones. They forced him rigidly upright, while the steward brought the glowing tip of the iron rod toward Vadryc’s face. More icy sweat blossomed all over his body.

His eyes met those of the steward. He’d known the man all his life. Ubros had held him on his lap, told him stories, taught him everything he knew about managing the estate. Did he hate Vadryc as much as the duke did?

Ubros’s gaze slid away. His lips tightened until they almost disappeared, the corners of his mouth turning sharply down. His nostrils flared. Was he having trouble carrying out the sentence?

“By the gods, get on with it,” Vadryc muttered.

Ubros swallowed audibly. Then he lifted the rod to the boy’s face. The hot metal was so close now it singed the beard hairs that had cropped up overnight. Vadryc breathed hard through his nose, air sawing in and out, his muscles so tense they felt as if they might snap at any moment.

“Wait,” the duke said.

Ubros paused, moving the iron farther away from Vadryc’s face as he glanced at the duke. “My lord?”

“Not his face. Mark his chest.”

“Very well, my lord,” Ubros said. He handed the branding iron to another man.

Vadryc’s head refused to stay upright. It kept sagging no matter how many times he told himself to keep his chin up and make a good show of defiance. Someone—Ubros, he thought—tore his doublet open, ignoring the perfectly good buttons. But they weren’t good anymore, were they? They were all over the floor now. His shirt was next, rent all the way from neckline to hem. The man pushed the torn sections of fabric back to expose his chest and belly.

Then he had the iron in his hand again. There was no warning this time and little hesitation. Ubros pressed the red-hot tip into the flesh of Vadryc’s bared chest, just below the place where his collarbones met. The smell of burning meat filled the room. Vadryc threw back his head and screamed.

Ubros withdrew the branding iron. “It is done, cha Tonos,” he said, his voice subdued.

“Good. Get him out of here.”

The guards dragged him off the dais. Vadryc lifted his head for a moment, just enough to catch a blurry glimpse of Nijhika and Amryc standing next to each other at the front of the crowd. Amryc’s dark eyes burned with open fury. Nijhika simply looked as cold and remote as the snowy peaks of the Teeth Of The Gods. As if she didn’t know him. As if she’d never been about to marry him.

More guards threw open the doors of the great hall. They pulled him down the stone stairs of the keep and across the courtyard, where the portcullis stood open. He could see the dark vertical stripes of its bars, although they looked smudgy and strange.

Vadryc still had boots on his feet, but no cloak. The winter air bit into his skin, the wind shoving icy fingers through his hair. His body hurt more than he could ever remember. The duke might have broken a couple of his ribs, but he couldn’t be sure. The place where he’d been branded continued to burn ferociously, making him feel as if his skin were on fire.

It was many leagues to the borders of the duchy, far too many for him to walk in a single day, especially in his condition.

Death waited for him, somewhere on the road ahead. Probably not very far away. He could sense its patient waiting, its cold attention fixed on him in anticipation. Before long, it would feast on him.

Perhaps he should make it easy on Death, and himself, and simply collapse at the gate. Wait for the Gatherer of Souls to find him. It wouldn’t take long on a day like today.

But that was what they wanted. That was what his father hoped, that he would fall down and give up before he could get far enough away to elude his men at arms. Vadryc’s whole being howled in agony, and yet he didn’t want to give the duke a single speck of victory. If they wanted to kill him, they would have to earn the opportunity. He wouldn’t just hand it to them.

The guards escorted him through the portcullis and along the causeway that lay across the frozen moat of the castle. At the end of the causeway, they gave him a mighty shove, making him stumble a few paces ahead before losing his balance and falling to his knees.

“You have until nightfall,” one of them said. “After that, your head is ours.”

 

Chapter 3

The guards’ boots thudded back across the causeway. Vadryc fought his way to his feet, his abused ribs and back groaning. A loud clanking sound followed by the bang of iron points meeting stone announced the closing of the portcullis.

He’d never heard anything more final.

People had gathered in the courtyard to see him thrown out and he knew they crowded around the gates, staring through the bars at him. Muttering among themselves. He hadn’t seen Nijhika or Amryc or any of his other family members among them. He refused to look again, refused to give them the satisfaction of a show of regret or a cry for mercy.

Vadryc turned from the castle and gazed out over the rolling, snow-covered hills that surrounded it. His vision was still terribly blurry, and he could see little but the monotonous gray and white of snow and cloudy sky. Yet he knew what lay along that road. For several leagues, there was little cover to be had in any direction and after that, the wildwood. The shortest distance out of the duchy would be south, toward the Vajha River and the neighboring duchy of Balfryc. That would be the most sensible direction to travel and it was no doubt the way everyone expected him to go.

Well. Fuck that. He was going to die anyway, wasn’t he? Going south would be pathetic, as if he thought he could survive by begging the good citizens of Balfryc for handouts. Balfryc was the center of Piahni power, the home of their central leaders and their most prestigious training school. None of the people there would have so much as a kind word for him. The brand currently searing pain into his chest ensured that. Until he could cover it, the mark would betray him.

He turned north, toward the untamed, unknown country everyone called the Plains Of Desolation. The foothills of the greatest mountain range in Fortunata, The Teeth Of The Gods, were also directly north. The Plains were reputed to be a terrible place, cold and utterly dry, occupied only by roaming savages who practiced human sacrifice among other horrors. They were said to despise anyone from Fortunata.

If he went north, he might very well die. Then again, if he went south, he would probably die and if he stayed where he was, he was sure to die. If he were going to die, he’d do it fighting to reach freedom from the laws that had condemned him.

The smooth soles of his court boots slipped on the icy road and he fell to his knees. His bruised ribs screamed in protest. Vadryc ground his teeth together to prevent a groan from escaping his throat, on the chance it might carry back to the watchers in the castle forecourt. He would show no weakness.

Some shallow breaths brought the pain under control. He fought his way back to his feet.

The wind bit right through his doublet and pushed the torn fabric away from his bare skin, chilling him to the bone. He clutched the halves of his garments together in one hand, taking careful steps forward along the road. He wouldn’t last long in this condition, but perhaps that was a good thing. Death would come swiftly and he would welcome it, although as an outcast he would not join his family when he died. He would wander the face of the world forever, a restless ghost.

Better a restless ghost than a slave.

His throat closed on a sudden uprush of grief. He would never see his mother again, or his sisters. He was dead to them, even if he did survive. And even in the afterworld, he wouldn’t see them, would never sit at the banquet table of the dead, never hear their laughter.

Vadryc pushed the grief down, down into the darkness of his most secret heart. He didn’t have time for self-pity, not if he were to survive.

He yearned to look back over his shoulder and take a last look at Castle Falyros. Instead he kept his gaze fixed ahead of him, to his bleak, short future. He wouldn’t be seen looking back. Looking for pity. He wouldn’t be seen grieving for everything he’d lost, even if hot coals seemed to have taken the place of his heart. If only those coals would keep him from freezing to death.

He knew everything about the castle anyway, had spent most of his life there. Whether he lived only a few more hours or many years, he’d never forget the gray and forbidding curtain wall, the round stone towers, the steeply pitched red roofs, the scarlet ducal banners, with their rampant black wolves, fluttering in the cold winter air. He would carry the memory of those last moments in the great hall with him forever.

The agony in his ribs and back fought with his need for air. It seemed his entire torso had seized up in an enormous spasm that made it difficult to breathe. The cold didn’t help, either. Every intake of icy air made his throat and lungs hurt.

He staggered down the slope of the hill on which the castle sat. Then he climbed the first rise, slipping and sliding and falling all the way, shivering violently in spite of the exertion. The wind was even worse up here at the top. It felt like knives slicing through his clothing and into his flesh.

His vision had cleared a bit and he could see a long way. He could see just how desolate and lonely the country ahead of him was. The little hollow just ahead sheltered a tiny, impoverished village, but beyond that there seemed to be nothing but leagues of dense forest with absolutely no human civilization at all.

He’d ridden this way a few times before, and he knew there were homesteads scattered here and there throughout the wood. But he couldn’t expect any help from the people living in them. They were rough, suspicious of outsiders, especially a young man in a ruined courtly suit. They’d want to rob him, and when they discovered he had nothing worth stealing, they’d likely be angry and take out their ire on him. No, he’d get no help from the forest dwellers.

He descended the hill, fighting the lightheadedness that had plagued him since the beating. The houses in the village, little more than huts, all had their shutters tightly closed, their thatched and steeply pitched roofs covered in thick white blankets of snow. Wisps of smoke came from most of the chimneys but there were no people in the yards. Had they seen him coming? No matter. He wouldn’t endanger them by requesting aid. No-one else should die because he’d been a fool.

He’d been such an idiot. Why had he left that box under his pillow? He’d had enough time to get it into its hiding place before opening his door. Even if his father had grumbled about his lateness, at least he wouldn’t have discovered the forbidden books. If he’d had even a pinch of common sense, he’d be celebrating his marriage this morning, instead of hobbling along the north road in mind-warping pain and deadly cold.

What’s done is done.

It was too late to change anything. He was here, with no shelter from the winter, no food in his belly, no money in his pouch.

People claimed many of those declared sadra-piahni ended their own lives, unable to cope with the shame and humiliation. The isolation. His father had made it easy for him to choose that route. He could lay down and wait for death to arrive, or he could fight to live.

The second hill was even harder to climb. His feet couldn’t seem to find purchase on the hard-packed snow for more than a few paces before he slipped wildly and lost his balance. His ears grew numb. His fingers hurt from the cold, although he alternated hands holding his clothes together so one could warm up by being pulled back into his sleeve. His feet felt like blocks of ice.

He took one step on the downslope and his feet slipped out from beneath him. He slid on his ass almost all the way down the other side, finally coming to a halt at the foot of one of the biggest fir trees he’d ever seen. The giant loomed over the road, its branches so dense there was almost no snow beneath it.

Vadryc crawled off the road and under the fir’s dark canopy. The ground here smelled resinous and clean, a perfume of fir. He sat in the lee of the thick trunk, his arms wrapped around himself, feet tucked beneath his calves. Somehow he must find better shelter, or he wouldn’t survive the day. They wouldn’t have to take his head when they found him, because he’d be a frozen block of ice by that time.

He ought to get up. Getting up would be sensible. Moving around would keep him from getting even colder. But he was tired and he hurt. A few minutes of rest would do no harm.

His thoughts slowed and slowed. Slowed. He was no longer shivering. And he couldn’t feel his ice-block feet anymore, either. He almost felt warm.

Wasn’t that strange? You shouldn’t feel warm if you were dying of cold. It wasn’t right.

Was he dying? He mostly felt tired. So tired. He just wanted to close his eyes and rest for a while.

Vadryc. Get up and move around before you really do freeze to death.

He batted at the annoying inner voice. He was too tired to move. And besides, what was the use? He would only freeze to death somewhat later and even if he did survive there was nothing left for him. He was outcast.

Do you want him to be right about you? Are you the worthless shit-eater he said you are?

No.

No. He was no worthless worm. His father could kiss his ass. He groaned, struggling to push himself upright again. How had he come to be laying down, anyway?

But there was no help for him. There was no surviving out here alone, with no clothes, no food, no water, nothing.

You’re sadra-piahni. Use magic to save yourself.

He gave a low, bitter laugh. What he knew of magic could fill one of his sister Kiska’s silver thimbles. Most of his so-called knowledge was theoretical only. He’d barely progressed beyond certain mental exercises before being exposed as sadra-piahni. But what could it hurt? Things could hardly get any worse.

He forced himself into a sitting position. The shivering began again, shaking him so hard his teeth chattered. There was a way to contact the spirits of the land, of a particular place. The Piahni spoke of such spirits; they spoke of paying proper respect to them, yet direct contact was forbidden. The sadra-piahni had no such restriction.

“Hear me, oh spirits of the land. Hear me, oh spirits of this place…”

Was he getting it right? His head felt fuzzy and thick, almost as if his blood had chilled so deeply that there was ice in his veins. As if his thoughts were half-frozen, along with his body.

“I do not know your names,” he muttered. “I don’t know your names, but I’ll make an offering…”

The spirits required a sacrifice and he had nothing to offer except himself.

His thoughts were thick, too, sluggish like half-frozen water. His lids wanted to close on him, to shut out the gray and white winter day the way the ice in his soul was shutting out the rending grief that still clawed at him. He couldn’t seem to find the next words, the next action of the invocation.

“I have an offering,” he muttered. “An offering…I give an offering…”

What did he have to offer? No food, no wine, no blood. He could not offer his blood. If he opened a vein after all the injuries he’d already suffered, he would surely die. Even his sluggish brain could remember that.

He needed his clothes. His boots. His hair. Hair? Maybe the spirits would accept hair.

Vadryc reached into his torn doublet for the small folding knife he kept there. They hadn’t thought to take it from him at the castle. He pulled it out, unfolded it and cut off a chunk of hair.

He cast around for a stick and scratched a shallow depression in the nearly frozen ground. Thank the gods it was only the first deep snowfall, because otherwise the ground would be too hard to accept his gift.

When he’d created a trough deep enough to satisfy him, he pressed the cut hair into the hole, the strands even darker than the soil. All sadra-piahni knew that items from a person’s body, such as hair or fingernail clippings, could be used against that person. He wouldn’t normally use his own hair as an offering, but it was all he had besides his blood. And he needed the blood. Opening a vein right now, when he was cold and hungry and wounded, would be a serious mistake.

So he pressed the hair into the icy soil and mashed the loose bits from the digging over it. Then he weighted the spot with a couple of small rocks and sprinkled twigs and loose needles over it in order to disguise it. With luck, no-one would ever know it was here.

“Accept…accept my offering and…give me…strength.” His voice seemed to be failing. He closed his eyes. So tired.

“Why should we help you?”

It was a female voice. Vadryc lifted his heavy head in its direction. Three tall, slender women stood in the snow a few paces away from him. They had long, loose blond hair so pale it was virtually white. Their eyes were pale, too, the bluish-white of a shadow on the snow. Their long, white gowns blended into the whiteness on the ground.

He blinked up at them. “Please.”

“You don’t belong here,” one of the women said.

“You are nothing but a human,” the middle one said, her voice identical to her companion’s. “You give us a gift only so that we can save your life. Before now, you never had time for us.”

“That’s…not true,” he said, his voice raspy and thin.

“Where were you when they cut our trees and burned the stumps? You’ve hunted in these woods, killed our creatures.”

“Humans must hunt to survive.”

“Why should we care about the survival of humans?”

He frowned, trying to strong-arm his sluggish mind into coming up with a counterargument, something he could say that would make sense to these spirit women, whoever they were. But his thoughts were still immersed in icy slush.

“I love these woods.” His voice was slurred. “I love…this is my…my land.”

“No! It is our land. Not yours.”

“I was born here, Tonarisa. I belong…I belong here.” But not anymore. He was outcast. Outlaw.

“We belong. You do not belong. We don’t accept you.”

He couldn’t tell which one had spoken last. He only knew they were going, turning their backs on him, walking away into the trees. A couple of trees away, they disappeared, leaving him alone with the snow.

He should be upset. Angry. But he was too tired, too mired in exhaustion, his brain too full of slush to feel more than vague disappointment. It seemed he would die here after all.

Then he felt it, deep beneath his body, deep in the half-frozen ground. It was a long, slow pulse, like the heartbeat of the soil itself. The drawn-out rhythm of it vibrated through him, sending a message in its beat. The message said live.

Vadryc reached out to it. He could never explain afterward how he’d reached, because he didn’t use his hands. But something inside of him leaned toward the thumping beat of the soil and touched it and it flowed into him, right through his skin and into his bones and muscles.

Get up, said a deep, slow voice that he heard only with his mind.

He struggled to his feet, numb though they were. For a moment, he stood beneath the huge fir tree and swayed, dizzy and weak, with no idea which way to go.

Toward that copse of young oaks, the voice said.

He looked to his right and saw the trees. A few desiccated brown leaves still clung to their branches. They wouldn’t provide any shelter at all, but he headed in their direction anyway. Why not? It was as good as any other and he was curious what the voice would tell him to do next.

The snow was deeper beneath the oak trees, since they lacked the dense needles of the evergreens. It almost topped his boots. He leaned against the trunk of the nearest one, trying to keep the connection with the beat that still thundered up from under him.

Just over that rise, the voice said. Climb that rise.

Climb. Gods, he didn’t have the energy for another climb. He forced himself anyway, slogging through the powdery snow, grabbing onto tree trunks to haul himself up the hill. His ribs screamed and howled with every step. He kept going. Just one more step. One more. Almost there.

He topped the rise. There was nothing to see except another little hollow, with yet another rise beyond it, all clad in the ever-present firs. But wait. There was a shape rising out of the snow, half buried in white but still visible as not quite natural. A man-made structure of some kind, nestled at the bottom of the slope.

He stumbled down the hill, sliding, falling, getting snow in burning-cold clumps inside his boots, his sleeves, clumps stuck and melting against the bare skin of his chest and belly.

Flakes began to swirl from the sky. They coated his shoulders, standing out brightly against his dark-brown jacket. The whisper of thousands of snowflakes muffled the sound of his feet moving toward the building ahead.

And then he was there, standing in front of what looked like an abandoned hut. The door was still intact, although one of the shutters at the hut’s cramped window hung askew.

The snow surrounding the tiny building lay thick and undisturbed and no smoke came from its chimney. On the wall next to the door, someone had plastered the stone and painted a small threshold shrine, complete with a tiny wood shelf to receive offerings. Sacrificing to the wild spirits of the land, as he’d done in the woods, was considered dirty magic, but every house in Fortunata kept a threshold shrine to the gods of the household. That was magic as common and acceptable as bread.

Vadryc yanked out some more hair and stuck it into the snow that had piled up on the shelf below the customary painting of the snake, spirit of prosperity and domestic bliss. “Hail to the spirits within,” he mumbled, his lips stiff with cold.

He scraped the accumulation away from the door and pulled it open. The snow came down heavily now, turning the sky into nothing but swirling white. Vadryc poked his head into the hut, squinting in the dim light.

It appeared to have only one room, and there was no-one in it. He eased himself inside and shut the door part way, leaving it open just a crack so he could see what he was doing.

Two small windows, one on each side of the structure. He went to the first one and found it had a piece of cured hide tacked over it to let in a bit of light while keeping out most of the wind. If he opened the shutters, he’d have a lot more light, but he’d have to go outside to do that and he’d had enough of outside for today.

He could see well enough to make out the pallet of rags by the cramped, cold hearth. A dusty blanket lay half on and half off the pallet. And he could see the shelves on the wall, shelves that held a handful of crude boxes and tins.

Vadryc stumbled to the shelves, which were nothing more than roughly planed raw wood planks supported by equally crude brackets. At the moment, he didn’t care if they were made of mud as long as they held food and perhaps a pan for melting snow to drink.

His hands trembled as he grabbed the first box. Empty. The second one was empty too. But the third had dried, smoked meat.

He picked up a chunk of it and crammed it in his mouth, chewing frantically. He hadn’t eaten since noon the day before and his stomach was desperate for something to fill it.

Slow down, boy. You’re going to make yourself sick.

That wasn’t the voice of the mysterious being that had guided him here. It was only his own common sense, reminding him of his training. Never eat quickly when you break a fast. The last thing he needed was to vomit it up again, thereby losing both the food and what little liquid was in his belly.

He forced himself to set the meat on the shelf and chew more slowly. While he worked on that first mouthful, he opened the fourth box, a wooden one with a tight-fitting lid. Inside were a few handfuls of nuts, and behind it, a metal pan. He took a deep breath. Nuts and smoked meat, and a misshapen copper saucepan he could use to melt snow for water.

“Thank you,” he said aloud. “I don’t know who you are, but thank you.”

Of course there was no answer. The spirit, whatever it was, seemed to have left him, at least for now.

He used the end of his sleeve to wipe some of the dust out of the pan, then took it to the door and packed it as full of snow as he could. The snowstorm had picked up, become a curtain of white that obscured all but the nearest trees. It might be safe to burn a small fire, if he could find any dry wood. If he could get the wood to light without his flint and steel.

He beat back his exhaustion and braved the snowbanks to look for firewood. There was a small pile behind the tiny house. Vadryc piled as much as he could carry in his arms and staggered back indoors. Lighting it was much more difficult, and it took him what felt like hours with a makeshift drill to finally get a tiny hint of smoke.

Smoke it was, however, and after painstakingly feeding it with dry leaves and bits of twig, he got it going enough to feed it some real kindling. He was going to survive. He was going to make his father eat his words.

He fell into an exhausted sleep, the tattered and musty-smelling blanket drawn all the way over his head to shut out the cold. And when he dreamed, they were strange and nightmarish dreams of an ancient white-haired hag flying on the blowing snow, flying right into his tiny haven, crouching over him, staring at him with eyes of pale blue like snow shadows.

In his dream, the hag lifted his blanket and he did nothing to stop her. She touched his bare chest and belly, and still he did nothing to stop her. She undressed him, she climbed on top of him, and still he did nothing to stop her.

When Vadryc awoke, morning sun shone through the dirty window. The storm was over and the hag was gone, along with the rest of his dream.

He had a grim feeling that he’d see her again someday.

 

Chapter 4

The travel posters at the airport had all claimed Hawaii was paradise, but it seemed more like hell to Crystal…the tiny blue paper umbrella in her drink notwithstanding. Of course, most people didn’t come to Waikiki for a business convention, and she’d wager those who did weren’t usually conscripted into babysitting duty. She took a sip of her illicit Pina colada as her boss’s twenty-year-old daughter continued her endless whine about how unfair it was to have a chaperone.

She shouldn’t be drinking in front of the girl, since Viviana wasn’t allowed to have any alcohol. The whole reason Crystal had to babysit was to prevent Vivi and her older brother, Jackson, from drinking and drugging the entire time their parents were off attending panels and luncheons. Crystal was setting a very bad example.

She brushed an errant strand of dark hair from her eyes—a useless gesture, considering the tropical breezes that blew continuously through the luxury hotel’s open-air lobby. Across from her, Viviana crossed her arms over her lacy white camisole and pouted. Jackson simply stared across the beige terrazzo expanse that extended from the cafe where they were sitting, past an elaborate fountain that spouted dramatically lit water at night, all the way to one of the two huge pools on the grounds. He was probably sizing up the almost-naked girls lounging there in their micro-bikinis, deciding which ones to approach later. And whatever girls he favored with his attention would no doubt fall at his feet, dazzled by his movie-star looks, his dark curly hair and huge, soulful blue eyes. Crystal might fall at his feet herself if she didn’t know what an arrogant young prick he was.

Wow. What an unprofessional thought to have about the son of her boss.

“There’s nothing to do here,” Viviana said.

“I offered you my book.” Crystal held up the paperback.

Viviana curled her lip. “Ew. I don’t want to read some lame old fantasy novel.”

“Well, go to the sundries store. They’ve probably got the latest thrillers.”

The girl shrugged. “Maybe. Whatever.”

Crystal returned her attention to the book. There was no pleasing Viviana when she was in this kind of mood. She’d come around when she was good and ready, and not an instant before.

Crystal wasn’t even sure why she’d packed this particular book. It was old, definitely not part of any current trend in fiction. Outdated and old-fashioned, according to Viviana. Crystal had grabbed it off her bookshelf, almost at random, and tossed it in her bag at the last minute.

She glanced at the worn cover. The Jhidris Conspiracy. Book three of the Fortunata Chronicles. It had been one of her favorites her senior year in high school, but she hadn’t read it in a decade, and when she’d pulled it out of her luggage she’d wondered for a minute what the hell she’d been thinking when she’d packed it. Surely she’d grown out of this kind of escapist nonsense.

Her career as an executive assistant to a high-powered CEO didn’t allow her much time for daydreaming or fantasy of any kind and besides, her taste was so much more sophisticated now than it had been at seventeen. She hadn’t expected to like the book at all. Yet the instant she’d begun re-reading the story, it had pulled her in all over again.

“I’m gonna head over to the pool,” Jackson said, yanking her out of her ruminations.

She looked up from her paperback. “Okay. Vivi and I will come with you.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I do.”

Jackson heaved a long-suffering sigh. “My folks will never know if you stay here. What can it hurt?”

“If they find out, it could hurt my livelihood. Come on, Vivi. Let’s go to the pool.”

“Jesus,” Jackson muttered. “You’d think we were twelve years old or something.”

Well, that’s what happens when you get kicked out of two colleges in a row for doing drugs. He was lucky he hadn’t gone to jail.

Of course, both kids were legally old enough to tell their parents to piss off, but then they might lose their inheritance. And obviously the money was important to them, because here they were, toeing the family line. With Crystal.

She pasted on her fake, professional smile as she stood to follow Jackson to the pool. When Todd, her boss, had invited her to the convention, she’d imagined herself attending panels with him. Maybe participating in a discussion group or two. Learning a lot, picking up tips she could apply to her career, all on the gloriously tropical grounds of one of the fanciest and most expensive luxury hotels in Waikiki. But that had been before he’d decided to bring his family. Before he’d informed her that she’d be playing the role of babysitter and wouldn’t be free to attend any of the professional events. She’d smiled and gone along with it, the same way she smiled and went along with all his other requests, hoping that her cooperation would pay off eventually in a raise. Or a promotion.

So far neither had materialized.

Was this what her life was going to be? Work, work, and more work? Popping into her apartment for six hours of sleep if she were lucky, then back out for yet another day of work. And now, the convention—which she’d hoped would be a vacation combined with work—was turning out to be nothing but a waste of her time. She should have simply gone on a real vacation. But why go alone?

The pool glittered brilliantly aqua in the bright Hawaiian sun. Vivi opened her mouth, probably to complain that she wasn’t dressed properly for the pool area, being in shorts and a cami instead of a bathing suit. Crystal ignored her sour expression and found a spot with two empty lounge chairs next to each other as Jackson wandered off toward a clump of young women at the other end of the pool.

Viviana flopped onto one of the lounge chairs with an aggrieved sigh. “How come Jackson gets to have all the fun? He’s the one who fucked up.”

“You’re not having fun?” Crystal said dryly.

“I’m bored out of my mind.”

She glanced at the younger woman, who tapped her elegantly manicured sky-blue nails against the vinyl straps of her lounger. Viviana’s curly blond hair, ironed perfectly straight, slid forward and covered one sullen blue eye as she stared resentfully at her brother. She’d done nothing but complain since they’d arrived at the Seattle airport for departure three days earlier.

“There’s nothing to do here,” the girl said.

Crystal had tried and tried to entertain the two siblings, but they never wanted to do any of the things she planned. She was on the verge of giving up on them. “Sure there is,” she said with false cheer. “You could read. Listen to music. Play a game. Go for a swim.”

Vivi rolled her eyes. “Boring. And lame.”

“Well, it’s your choice to be bored.”

The girl turned a narrow-eyed gaze on Crystal. “Really? You’re going to sit here and lecture me? You’re not my mom, Crystal.”

Thank God for small favors. 

***

The four girls Jackson was aiming for lounged in the fringed shade of a couple of coconut palms growing right through the floor of the lobby and arching over one corner of the pool area. They all had perfectly even, probably fake tans and perfectly ironed hair with perfect spiral curls. Their lips were so glossy Jackson could almost see his reflection in them, and their tits were so big and round he figured they’d all gotten breast implants from the same plastic surgeon. They looked up at him and giggled in unison as he approached.

One of them, a blonde, waggled her fingers at him. “Hi.”

“Hey, there.” He flashed them his panty-melting smile, the one that never failed to get him laid. “You got room for one more?”

“Sure.” She giggled again, crisscrossing her legs to give him room on the end of her lounger. “My name’s Brandi, and this is Emily, Reagan, and Nikki.”

He nodded and smiled at the other girls, committing their names to memory. “Hi, Brandi, Emily, Reagan, and Nikki. I’m Jackson.”

They all giggled again, as if they’d rehearsed. Okay, bitches, laugh on three. One, two… By the end of spring break, he would probably have had each of them at least once. If he could get some time alone, that is, without the Bitch Queen of the West and her eagle eye keeping watch over him. He resisted a sudden urge to glance over his shoulder at Crystal. He didn’t want her to know how aware he was of her constant watching.

The decent, fair part of him knew the situation wasn’t really her fault. His dad was her boss, and if Mr. Smithfield told her to watch Jackson and his sister then that was what she had to do. But she didn’t have to take so much joy in depriving them of any chance to make something of this fucked up family holiday.

“So,” Brandi said, bouncing a little in her seat and making her generous breasts jiggle enticingly. “Are you here alone?”

“No,” he admitted. “I’m here with my parents and sister.” And one deceptively pretty watchdog.

“Oh. Bummer. Guess you won’t be doing much partying then.”

No partying at all. “I might be able to work something out. How about you girls? Are you on your own?”

“We’re here with Reagan’s parents,” the black-haired one said. Nikki? He thought that was her name.

“But we’re totally up for some partying,” Reagan said. “My parents don’t care.”

Lucky girl.

“You hanging out here at the pool all day?” he said.

“Yeah.” Reagan grinned. “What else is there to do in Hawaii?”

If it were up to Crystal, he’d be dragged all over Oahu on sightseeing missions. They’d already been to the Bishop Museum, a total snorefest. Seriously, he wasn’t here to understand the native culture and he didn’t give a shit about the wildlife either. She’d also hauled him and Viviana to some weird Buddhist temple, where she’d actually sat down and tried to meditate. No shit. She’d tried to meditate, while he and his sister were going fucking insane from boredom. When he’d suggested they leave, she’d told him to go feed the koi.

Right. Because that’s why he’d come to Hawaii—to toss fish food at a bunch of oversized goldfish.

Of course, the real reason he’d come here was because he’d royally fucked up one too many times. He’d gotten sloppy. He’d gotten caught. So he had only himself to blame and if he wanted his dad to let him off the leash he had to be ultra-careful in the future.

He wanted off the leash. So. Damn. Bad.

“You wanna party with us tonight?” Brandi said, laying her hand on his bare thigh.

“I’d love to,” he said. “But I can’t. I’ve already got plans.” Like staying the hell out of trouble, at least long enough to earn back his dad’s trust.

***

It looked like Jackson was going to get lucky with those girls, Crystal thought. Possibly with all of them. At once.

She flushed at her continuing unprofessional thoughts. She needed to get those under control before she let one of them slip out loud. That would not be good.

Viviana still pouted on the lounger next to her.

Crystal suppressed a sigh at Viviana’s mom crack. She was only twenty-eight, way too young to be the girl’s mom. An older sister, maybe. Besides, Vivi’s mom couldn’t be bothered to lecture or supervise her daughter. Both Vivi and Jackson were two of the most spoiled rich brats she’d ever encountered, and they appeared to have been raised entirely by nannies and other servants.

Vivi dug around in the industrial-sized tote bag at her feet and produced a smart phone. She bent over it and began texting with frantic movements of her thumbs. She was probably bitching to one of her spoiled friends back home; at least she was no longer scraping on Crystal’s last nerve.

In a way, she felt sorry for the two kids. They needed more direction. More discipline, and not just of the punishment variety. They’d always needed it, she suspected, and had never really gotten any. Sometimes she worried about what kind of adults they’d make, even though it was none of her business and completely out of her control. They were smart and had a lot of potential, but their upbringing had ruined them.

She opened her book, shoving her concerns about her boss’s kids to the back of her mind. In that last, difficult year of high school, and the four harsh years of college that followed, her escape to the world of Fortunata had sometimes seemed like the only thing that kept her sane. Now she sank eagerly back into a land of mysterious psychic powers, magic, warring priesthoods and feudal lords with a sense of relief. Even if her only respite lived within the pages of a cheap paperback novel, it was better than no respite at all.

Viviana threw her phone back into her bag and turned to Crystal, lifting her oversized sunglasses and peering at her under the lenses. “What’s that stupid book about, anyway?”

Crystal looked up from her page, considering her answer. “I thought it was too lame for you.”

The girl shrugged and flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Whatever. I was just trying to make conversation.”

Crystal sighed. Vivi and Jackson both seemed determined to antagonize her at every opportunity.

“It’s about a world where magic is real,” she said finally. “And where certain kinds of magic are outlawed.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I always liked the hero of this one. His name is Amryc.”

“Why did you like him so much? Is he a hottie or something?” Vivi said.

Crystal flushed. The truth was, she’d had a total crush on Amryc all those years ago. And she’d loved to hate the villain, his evil cousin Vadryc, who’d disgraced his family by turning to the outlawed dirty magic called sadra-piahni. “I guess he is. And his cousin is the bad guy. Amryc travels all over the place trying to track down Vadryc and stop him from opening this portal from Fortunata to Earth.”

“What’s a portal?” Vivi said, in a tone that suggested she didn’t really care one way or the other but was only trying to be polite.

“It’s like a doorway between worlds. So people can go from Fortunata to Earth and vice versa. But they’re really dangerous, which is why Amryc wants to stop it from happening.”

“It kinda sounds like Lord Of The Rings.”

“Maybe a little, but not as much as you might think. Although the author did make up her own language…but it’s not as extensive as Tolkien’s languages.”

“That’s so weird,” Viviana said. “What kind of language is it? What does it sound like?”

Crystal hesitated. Made-up languages weren’t something a girl like Vivi would be likely to get. She’d probably just tell Crystal how stupid it was. On the other hand, she’d asked. It would be rude to refuse, right?

“I’m not sure exactly how the words are supposed to sound. But the way they greet each other is like this. Jhila, da mata linojh gra.“ She felt the strangest sensation as she spoke the words—words which she’d never before spoken aloud. It was almost as if they echoed somehow, vibrating not just in the physical realm but in some other place that she couldn’t see but could somehow sense was there.

Vivi giggled and rolled her eyes. “What the heck does that mean?”

Crystal paused again, expecting more mockery once she translated the made-up phrase. But at least Vivi was asking questions and waiting for the answers, instead of studiously ignoring her and everyone else in the vicinity.

“It means ‘Rejoice, for the life-giving power of the universe is present within you,’“ Crystal said. Again, she felt that weird vibration.

Viviana’s mouth fell open. Then she burst into laughter. “That’s how they say hello?”

“Well, a lot of the time they shorten it to jhila.“

“That’s bizarre. And lame.”

“It isn’t lame.”

“I don’t know,” Vivi said with a malicious twinkle in her eye. “The whole thing sounds so derpy I think I’d be afraid to be seen reading it.”

Crystal flushed hot, narrowly biting back an acerbic reply. “Please yourself.”

“Although Amryc does sound kinda hot. But then again, this Varic guy could be even hotter.”

“Vadryc.” The villain’s name seemed to vibrate as well, and she suddenly had the creepiest sense that he could see her. Which was totally ridiculous, since he didn’t exist in the first place.

“Whatever,” Viviana said. “The point is, I do like a bad boy.”

“He’s not a bad boy,” Crystal said. “He’s evil. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself and the power he’ll get when he learns how to open the jhidris.” She fought back the urge to shiver and look over her shoulder. He was not standing behind her. He was not watching her. And the chill in the air was only her imagination, not some facet of Fortunata reaching out to tap her on the shoulder.

Vivi’s caramel-colored brows rose. “Jhidris? What’s that?”

“The portal I was telling you about. That’s all Vadryc cares about. He’d sacrifice anyone or anything to figure out how to control the portals.”

Vivi tilted her head, studying her intently. Squinting against the powerful Hawaiian sun. “You do know it’s just a story, right?”

She felt her face burning again. “Yeah. Of course I know that.”

“You seemed a little intense there for a minute.”

“I guess.” Crystal laughed awkwardly. “This book—the whole series, actually—used to mean a lot to me and I just kind of got carried away for a sec there.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“Some of us really get into the books we read,” she said, a little more snappishly than she’d intended.

“I get it. I was like that about The Vampire Diaries, until I figured out they were never going to let Damon and Elena get together.”

Crystal blinked. “Didn’t Damon and Elena finally get together at the end of season four?” Vampire Diaries was the one TV show she bothered watching these days, although she couldn’t keep up with it the way she’d like. She spent too much time at the office for that.

A tiny frustrated puff of air escaped Vivi. “Whatever.” She waved her hand vaguely. “I think I’ll stick to magazines.” She took her phone out of her bag again and turned away from Crystal.

No imagination. That was Vivi’s problem. Crystal returned to her story, doing her best to shrug off the younger woman’s rudeness. What did she care about the opinion of some over-indulged little princess who’d never so much as cooked her own dinner or scrubbed a toilet? Vivi and her friends seemed to spend all their time shopping, gossiping, and watching TV, so it was hardly surprising she couldn’t understand fantasy fiction.

The Fortunata series had gotten Crystal through some of the hardest years of her life. After her parents had died, and she was alone in the world, the world inside those books had felt more like home than planet Earth sometimes. So maybe Viviana couldn’t understand because she’d never struggled through anything like that, but for Crystal re-reading this book was beginning to feel like a homecoming. The fact that it was happening at a business convention in Hawaii seemed more appropriate than ironic.

Back in the day, she’d even fantasized about meeting Amryc someday, what it would be like if he were a real person. In her dreams, he was as attracted to her as she was to him, and together they would hunt down Vadryc and capture him so he couldn’t hurt any more people. It was easier and more rewarding to daydream about a fictional lover than to try to date while working her way through college. Afterward, simply working to build a career while taking care of herself had been all she’d been able to manage.

It seemed her life had been all about work for almost as long as she could remember. She’d been slogging through day after grueling day for so long, she could hardly imagine any other life. In her fantasies, she could escape to another world where lives had more meaning, where people belonged to one another and no-one was cut adrift or forgotten. But this was reality, and in reality neither of those men existed and neither did the world to which they belonged. In reality, she was the only person on whom she could rely.

Crystal’s phone rang. She pulled it out of the pocket of her shorts. It was Todd, her boss.

“About that dinner tonight,” he said without preamble.

She and the Smithfield kids were supposed to meet him and his wife for dinner at the fancy restaurant on the top level of the hotel’s highest tower.

“Yes?” she said, hoping he wasn’t about to cancel.

“Yeah, uh, Jeanine and I aren’t going to make it.”

She stifled another sigh. “That’s too bad.”

“We’ve got a dinner meeting with the higher-ups. I guess we’ll see you and the kids for breakfast tomorrow.”

“Okay,” she said in a carefully even tone.

“Great,” Todd said in his eternally cheerful voice.

He sounded completely oblivious. Didn’t he have even half a clue what he was doing to his kids? But it wasn’t her place to lecture her boss on parenting, and what did she know anyway? She didn’t have any kids.

“How’s the convention going?” she said.

“It’s great. Too bad you can’t be here for some of these workshops.”

Yes, it was unfortunate. She glanced sidelong at Viviana, who didn’t seem to notice Crystal was on the phone with her dad.

“Maybe next year I’ll get to attend,” she said. If she still had this job. She really needed to find a boss who didn’t consider her his personal assistant slash babysitter slash personal shopper.

“Yeah,” Todd said. “Definitely next year.”

Crystal stuck the phone back in her pocket. She and her charges could still go to the planned dinner. They had reservations, after all. Or they could pick somewhere more casual, maybe someplace fun. Oh, who was she kidding? The two of them would just moan and whine about any of the local choices, the same way they had ever since they’d gotten off the plane.

“My dad cancelled, huh?” Viviana said. So she’d been listening after all.

“Yeah, he did. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m used to it.”

That made Crystal feel even worse. It wasn’t right for a girl like Vivi to be so cynical about her own parents.

“We can find somewhere else to eat if you like,” Crystal said.

Vivi only gave another of her careless shrugs. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Okay.

“I hear they have a great view up there,” she said, although the idea of looking out such high windows actually made her want to shudder.

Vivi flipped her golden hair over her tanned shoulder. “We won’t be able to see anything after dark anyway.”

“The lights of the city,” Crystal said.

Vivi didn’t answer. Her attention was already on her phone and some game she was playing. Tinny music and beeping sounds emanated from the phone.

“Hey,” Jackson’s deep voice said.

Crystal peered up at him. “Hi, Jackson. Did you talk to those girls?”

“Yeah, for a minute.” He sat down on the empty lounger next to her.

“Your parents aren’t going to make it to dinner tonight.”

“Okay. Whatever.”

Part of her wished he would get angry. Yell at her, even. Something she could report to Todd, so he’d know he was hurting his children with his indifference. But Jackson didn’t seem to care, although she knew that couldn’t be true.

 

Chapter 5

Cold starlight flickered overhead as a chill night breeze billowed Vadryc’s cloak, lifted his hair and tossed it back behind his shoulders. He strode across the broad roof of the lower tower of the old palace he was renovating toward his colleague and mentor, Syrcos Lantirso, the hard soles of his boots ringing on the stone. Syrcos watched him approach; his face was remote and detached as always, but Vadryc thought he could detect some impatience in the older man’s demeanor.

The sharp tang of snow hung in the air, although no flakes had yet fallen. Below them, Rasonyc, the royal city of Fortunata, spread out in all directions, dim golden light flickering here and there where someone carried a lantern or had left a shutter open to reveal the lamplight within a dwelling. This late at night, lamplight was hard to come by and the city lay silent and sleeping.

Few besides sadra-piahni like him and Syrcos kept watch in the depths of the night.

“Jhila, Vadryc,” Syrcos said with a broad smile. He clapped him on the back.

“Jhila, cha Tonos.”

“Don’t my lord me.” His mentor grinned even more widely. “You know I don’t answer to that title with you.”

As sadra-piahni, they and their kind were cut off from all their former connections and rank, along with any privileges or titles they’d once had. But Syrcos, who like Vadryc himself had grown up in an aristocratic family, was now the Duke of Lantirso, one of the most powerful and wealthy duchies in Fortunata. His practice of sadra-tura was not public knowledge, and he’d held onto his status and privileges. And his wealth.

“Old habits,” Vadryc said.

“I’d have thought you’d broken them, after ten years on the wrong side of the law.”

Vadryc shrugged. “Sometimes it slips out. You know how it is.”

On second thought, Syrcos probably had no idea how it was. He’d never had to suffer the loss of his dignity the way most of his peers had. He’d been sadra-piahni as long as Vadryc had been alive, but somehow he’d managed to keep that fact a secret except for a handful of his fellow sadra-piahni.

“Be that as it may,” Vadryc said, “I welcome you to my home.”

It was the first time Syrcos had visited him here, and he was curious to see what the older man would make of it. Vadryc had great hopes for the place. Not only would it give him a base in Rasonyc, but it had the potential to be the sort of home even his parents would have approved.

After all, he’d bought this place with Syrcos in mind. Since they were planning to work much closely together in the near future, and Syrcos spent much of his time in the royal city, it only made sense for Vadryc to move his base of operations here as well.

Syrcos had been financing Vadryc’s operations for years, ever since he’d taken on the bulk of the jhidris experiments. And Syrcos paid well. Very well…not that Vadryc was hurting for money. He also owned a lucrative silver mine in the Teeth Of The Gods, using his supposedly repulsive dirty magic to extract and refine the precious metal.

He would spend the cold months in the royal city and retreat to his house in the Teeth during the summer, when he’d operate the mine. Then back to the city with the year’s haul of silver. It was going to be a most satisfactory arrangement.

“Thank you for the warm welcome,” Syrcos replied. “It’s been far too long since we’ve spoken.”

“Indeed.”

“What progress have you made on our project?”

He should have known the man would get directly to the point. Syrcos had never had patience for the social niceties, a fact which had given him a reputation for bluntness, even rudeness. But Vadryc was accustomed to his ways and his gruffness no longer bothered him.

“I’m looking for an end-point to the jhidris,” he said. “I’ve yet to find a suitable one.”

Syrcos shook his head. “The end point doesn’t matter. The important thing is to open the portal.”

Vadryc frowned. They’d been over this before, and he’d thought his mentor understood his objections. “The end-point will determine who or what comes through,” he said. “How is that not important?”

“Whatever it is, we’ll be waiting on our side,” Syrcos retorted. “It won’t expect a fight or be prepared to defend itself, so there shouldn’t be any trouble dispatching it.”

“But it could easily be a human,” Vadryc said.

“That doesn’t matter.”

He pulled his chin down with a disbelieving stare. “It doesn’t matter.”

“No. Human or animal, we’ll dispatch it before it can cause trouble.”

“I would rather avoid hurting someone whose only crime is to be caught by the jhidris when it opens.”

“There are bigger issues here than one person’s life,” Syrcos said. “We are on the brink of a momentous discovery. You know this.”

Syrcos was known to be ruthless, yet Vadryc had never thought his former mentor could be so ruthless as to plan to murder an innocent human being. He wanted to believe there was some kind of misunderstanding, that Syrcos hadn’t meant to imply he wanted to kill people. But what other interpretation of his words could there be?

“What about the council? I doubt they’d sanction killing,” he said. The council had little control over individual sorcerers, but they were influential among the sadra-piahni and could be ruthless in punishing those they believed had crossed the line into true evil.

Syrcos scoffed. “I can handle the council. They’d never dare come after me.”

“So you have no objection to murder, then?” Vadryc said in a carefully neutral tone.

Syrcos gazed at him for a moment before smiling and laying his hand on his shoulder. In the cold, dim light of moon and stars, his expression seemed more calculating than friendly. “Son, we won’t kill anyone unless it’s necessary, of course. But there are times when violence is unavoidable.”

“That’s certainly true in times of war,” Vadryc said. “But this is not a war.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Not between us and whoever may be on the other end of the jhidris,” he said.

“Sacred cause, profane measures,” Syrcos said smoothly. “You know that sometimes, in a project of this magnitude, uninvolved people get hurt. It can’t be helped.”

“I believe in doing whatever I can to prevent uninvolved people from getting hurt.”

“I see.” Syrcos studied him intently. “I hope this sudden attack of nerves doesn’t mean you’re leaving the project.”

Nerves? He gritted his teeth at the insinuation of cowardice. “No. Of course not.”

“Good. Good. I’d hate to lose you.”

“You know I’m as committed to recovering the jhidris lore as you are,” Vadryc said.

“Well,” Syrcos said with a hearty tone that somehow rang false, “I’d hoped so, but it’s reassuring to hear you say it.”

Vadryc cocked his head, frowning. “Did you truly doubt me?”

This was inauspicious news. Syrcos wasn’t the most trusting of men; as a sadra-piahni, hiding his true identity beneath the noses of his aristocratic peers and knowing he’d be hunted by some of the most powerful men in Fortunata if he were discovered, he couldn’t afford to trust. Vadryc understood that in a gut-level way, because he was in a similar position. A worse one, in fact, because it was common knowledge that he’d joined the ranks of the sadra-piahni. He didn’t blame Syrcos for being wary, but he’d always believed he had his mentor’s implicit trust and to suspect otherwise was…disturbing.

“There have been times I’ve wondered if your scruples might be a little too fine for the sadra-piahni life,” Syrcos said with a disarming smile.

Vadryc’s frown turned into an outright scowl. “Scruples have nothing to do with it.”

Syrcos looked surprised. In the darkness, his expression was difficult to read—Vadryc had no lamps burning here because he had no desire to draw attention to his dwelling or any of the activities that went on within it and lights at this time of night would always draw attention. But the angle of Syrcos’s head, the lowering of his chin, the slight drawing away of his torso, all hinted at surprise.

“Don’t they?” he said, in a voice that matched his body language.

“I’m sadra-piahni because of judgments passed on me twelve years ago,” Vadryc said. The pain of those judgments had faded with time, but it was still there under the surface, waiting to re-emerge.

“They were passed because of choices you made.”

“Yes, I made choices.” Choices that had seemed so right at the time. “I pursued magic not sanctioned by the Piahni. But that doesn’t make me a murderer and I’m frankly surprised you’d be willing to go to such lengths.”

Syrcos chuckled, shaking his head. “This is all theoretical, Vadryc. Don’t let it throw you.”

“Theoretical, eh?”

“Yes. The chances are overwhelming that no-one and nothing will come through the jhidris. I assure you, this is nothing to fret over.”

Syrcos was trying to put him off with a condescending pat on the head. Foreboding gathered in an icy mass in his belly. The chance of murder seemed bad enough they should think out their course of action ahead of time, yet his mentor seemed unwilling to consider the well-being of whoever ended up on the far end of the portal.

He’d noticed Syrcos’s ruthless approach to magic before, but it had never come to anything so fraught with the potential for disaster as this. Until recently, their work had mainly involved hunting down and collecting ancient lore and experimenting with lesser magical operations. They’d been too far away from their end goal of full control of the jhidris to bother discussing how to manage any bystanders.

That had been a mistake. He should have pushed Syrcos harder, should have dug deeper for information on his philosophy.

It was there all the time, fool. His favorite saying is sacred cause, profane measures. You simply didn’t want to see it for what it was.

A complete lack of empathy for the people who might be hurt by his actions.

Syrcos was watching him closely. He’d always had the night vision of a cat. “Are you all right?”

“I am.” Vadryc forced a smile. “I look forward to our first opening of the jhidris.” Only now he needed to accomplish it far away from Syrcos.

“You don’t know how pleased I am to hear that.” The older man clapped him on the shoulder once again. “It’s getting painfully late for an old man, so I’d better find my bed.”

“My steward will show you to a guest chamber,” Vadryc said.

He walked with his guest to the door that lead into the interior of the derelict palace. The place had been built several hundred years earlier, and judging by its state of disrepair, it hadn’t been maintained in at least a century. It wasn’t easy to hide a large construction project from the authorities, and a great deal of the work went on after dark or in the early morning hours when most people in the royal city were still asleep. But even Vadryc let his workmen go home long before midnight, so the corridors were empty and echoing as his steward, Muro, appeared to lead Syrcos to his rooms.

With his guest in competent hands, Vadryc turned back to the parapet that ran along the edge of the elevated courtyard. The wind had picked up, making his cloak flutter out behind him like a huge black flag. Yes, he definitely could smell snow in the air. Winter was almost here, and when it fell upon them, travel would become infinitely more difficult. If he wanted to open the jhidris at a more remote location, he needed to remove as soon as possible before the roads closed completely.

He kept a small country house in the foothills of the White Mountains, which should be reachable before the weather turned vicious. His place high in the Teeth Of The Gods would be better by far, but they had little chance of making it there before Lady Snow spread her deadly cloak across the land. The Teeth were so much farther north, they were probably already knee-deep in snow.

He would begin making arrangements in the morning. They could be on the road within three days if necessary. Syrcos wouldn’t know about the opening of the jhidris until it was already accompished and any people it might have affected were safe.

***

In her hotel room, Viviana slipped her feet into a pair of five-inch beige patent-leather platform heels. She gazed at herself in the full-length mirror attached to the closet doors. Her tiny white sundress only came half-way to her knees and left her shoulders completely bare, so she slipped on a white shrug against the fierce air-conditioning she expected from the restaurant. She didn’t want to be here in Hawaii, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t look good.

Crystal wore the same kind of boring office-appropriate clothing she usually did. Tonight it was a lightweight pantsuit in ice-blue linen, with a darker blue camisole just peeking out of the jacket. Sure, it looked good with her coloring, but it was so prissy. Almost frumpy. Her heels were only a couple of inches high, her make-up was outdated by at least a year, and her hair was pulled back in a totally boring ponytail.

“You know, I could loan you a dress,” Vivi said. “We’re about the same size. I’ll bet you’d look great in that red one.”

Crystal laughed and shook her head. “Oh, no. I couldn’t wear your clothes.”

“Why not? It’d be fun.” She wanted to see Crystal look hot, instead of like a secretary.

“I’m here in a professional capacity,” Crystal said. “Your clothes are way too racy for me.”

“You need to loosen up and have a little fun.”

Crystal smiled at her. It was the first really genuine smile Vivi had seen on her face since they’d met at the airport. “You’re sweet to offer, but I’m fine like this. Let’s go. Jackson is probably starving to death already.”

“I’m barely clinging to life,” her brother said dryly from his position on the sofa.

Her brother was always starving. He could have waited a little longer and it wouldn’t hurt him. But Crystal obviously didn’t want to look hot, and it wasn’t Vivi’s job to force her.

She sighed. “Okay, have it your way.”

Sometimes she felt sorry for her dad’s assistant. It couldn’t be easy working for Todd Smithfield. The guy was a workaholic, for one thing, and he expected the same of everyone around him. He was never satisfied with anything anyone did and he had no problem letting you know about it, either. Vivi had stopped trying to please him years ago, but Crystal didn’t know him the way she did. The older woman—not that Crystal was old—probably still thought there was some way she could actually impress the man.

Vivi and Jackson’s father was a user. He used the people around him the same way he used his smartphone, his tablet, his luxury cars. He didn’t give a shit about their feelings, or anything else about them except how useful he found them. Even Jackson’s drug problem wouldn’t have made a dent in his awareness if it hadn’t threatened his reputation.

And poor Crystal wore herself out running back and forth on endless errands for him, most of which were probably not in her job description. Did she really think he would promote her for it? She was way too handy right where she was and Todd would keep her there as long as he could. Vivi had seen the pattern with his other assistants.

Well, it wasn’t really her problem and she’d probably get her head bitten off if she tried to explain the truth of the situation to Crystal. She was an intelligent woman; she’d probably figure it out on her own eventually.

“I’m sorry your parents couldn’t make it tonight,” Crystal said as they left the suite.

Jackson snorted.

Vivi shook her head. “It’s fine.”

“No, it isn’t. You guys were counting on seeing them.”

Vivi almost rolled her eyes, but stopped herself just in time. “Believe me, I’m used to it. I stopped expecting them to show up for stuff years ago.”

Crystal gave her a sad look, as if she pitied her. Vivi lifted her chin and pretended she hadn’t seen. She didn’t need anyone’s pity and she didn’t want it. Crystal meant well, but honestly she could choke on it and if she tried to tell Vivi she was sorry one more time she was going to get an earful.

Viviana was no little girl. She knew the score. She’d been living with her parents since she was born, for chrissake. They’d never made it to any of her or Jackson’s important school events, not even high school graduation. A couple of years running, her dad had even missed the family Christmas celebration—what there was of it—on account of business. When they’d said they’d meet her and Jackson for dinner, she’d known it would never happen.

“Honestly,” she said in a low tone. “I’d be more surprised if they showed up.”

Crystal sighed. “Still. It isn’t right.”

“Shhh. You don’t want anyone to overhear you talking about your boss like that.”

Crystal’s lips tightened, giving Vivi the impression she was coming to the end of her rope where Todd Smithfield was concerned. That was good for her. She’d do better somewhere else. But it was bad for Vivi. She was just starting to like the woman.

“Vivi’s right,” Jackson said. “We never take them seriously about shit like that. So it’s okay. We’re not disappointed. No, really. We’re not.”

Crystal still looked like she didn’t believe them, but to Vivi’s relief she stopped pressing. Vivi didn’t want to argue. They only had four more days of this crappy “vacation” and she wanted to spend it in peace, not fighting. After all, it wasn’t Crystal’s fault she’d been saddled with two college students when she obviously wanted to attend the convention. It was Jackson and his stupid drug habit. It was their dad, who couldn’t be bothered to deal with them directly but had to fob them off on his nearest minion.

She felt a little guilty for teasing Crystal about her book earlier. It actually had sounded kind of interesting. Vivi liked fantasy-oriented TV shows and movies, and she liked to read sometimes, so she might enjoy Crystal’s story. But she’d been angry at that moment because her dad had just told her he’d have dinner with them and she’d known it was a lie. That knowledge had made her speak more sharply than she’d meant, and she could tell she’d hurt Crystal’s feelings.

“We’ll have more fun without our parents,” she said in complete sincerity.

***

Something was off about Viviana tonight. Jackson, too. Crystal couldn’t put her finger on it, but she thought it had something to do with their parents and the missed dinner date. They might pretend not to care, but she was pretty sure they did.

They took the elevator down to the lobby, passing by the exuberant fountain, its water illuminated by lights at the bottom of the pool, and then walked to the next bank of elevators that serviced the second, higher tower. These were glass. Crystal eyed them with dread that she hoped the others didn’t notice.

She hated heights. Hated elevators in general. As long as they were normal elevators and she didn’t have to view just how high she was getting and how far she’d fall if something went wrong, she was usually okay. But glass elevators? Forget about it. Maybe she could take the stairs.

You’re going to climb thirty flights of stairs? Good luck with that.

She could do the elevator. She simply wouldn’t look at the view. If she stared at the doors, she wouldn’t have to see how high they got, and maybe it wouldn’t bother her so much. Maybe.

A cool, plumeria-scented breeze drifted through the lobby. This place was truly lovely—except for those damned elevators—and it was too bad they hadn’t been able to really enjoy it. Everyone was so on edge, it was like they were blind to the beauty all around them. Even her. Maybe especially her. She’d spent more time with her nose in her book than she had actually soaking up Hawaii.

Even now, she had the book in her purse in case she ran into a few empty minutes. She’d had the weirdest feeling all day, too. Like Fortunata was somehow right next to them, almost hanging over their shoulders. Watching them.

Was that crazy?

The feeling reminded her of the creepy sensations she used to get in the winter, when the darkness and cold seemed to bring a feeling of hauntedness with it. Her parents used to joke about her being a “ghost whisperer” because she sometimes felt the presence of invisible people. She’d learned to ignore those sensations, knowing that other people didn’t share them and thought them freakish.

Now, though, the feelings were back. Only it wasn’t invisible people—ghosts or spirits—who seemed to be lurking at the corners of her consciousness. It was a whole world.

She was probably only stressed. Fortunata was on her mind because she’d been reading about it, re-immersing herself in it. She was probably just so desperate for a distraction that her subconscious mind was manufacturing false impressions in an attempt to give her what she wanted.

The elevator doors slid open and they got in. They were alone in the car. Jackson leaned against the back wall, his back slouching artistically, his ankles crossed. Vivi stood and stared blankly at the push buttons. Crystal punched the button for the top floor and waited for the doors to close again.

And they did close. But there was something strange, something wrong about the way they looked. The rich dark wood she expected to see had a multi-colored shimmer to it. She squinted, but the shimmer remained.

“That’s weird,” Vivi said. “I thought the doors were plain brown.”

“Me too,” Crystal said.

Crystal glanced over her shoulder at Jackson, which gave her an unwanted and disturbing eyeful of the concrete elevator shaft giving way to a horrifying view out the glass walls of the car. The elevator whooshed upward, as the lobby with its glowing fountain fell away at a ghastly speed. She whipped her head around to face the doors and pinched her eyes shut, breathing deeply.

“You okay?” Jackson said.

“Yeah.” Her voice sounded unnaturally high-pitched. “I’m fine.”

The elevator zoomed upward. She opened her eyes, checking to see what the doors were doing. They still looked like they had a thin layer of oil on them, something that shimmered with subtle blue and green tones that grew brighter as she looked at them. She reached out to touch the surface of the doors. The shimmer seemed to ripple, the colors brightening even more, intensifying until the wood tones and the dividing line between the door panels completely disappeared.

Now all that was left of what had been an ordinary pair of elevator doors was a curtain-like wall of blue and green light that swirled and rippled, emitting a low whispering sound that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

“What the hell is that?” Jackson said from behind her.

“I don’t know.” She kept her fingers a couple of inches away from the rippling colors, afraid to touch them.

The lifting sensation of the elevator slowed, then disappeared. The whispering became a humming sound emanating from the place where the doors had been.

“Are we stopped?” Vivi said. “Why are we stopped?”

“I don’t know,” Crystal said again.

The humming grew louder and louder until it started to hurt her ears. She clutched at her purse, only instead of grabbing the outside of it her hand slid into the bag and clamped around the book inside. A low whoosh sounded throughout the car, as if some kind of barrier had been breached.

The swirling colors stretched out, forming a tunnel-like structure of light. It seemed to have some kind of attractive force, because it tugged on her body the way a magnet tugs on an iron filing. Crystal felt herself being pulled into the tunnel.

“Crystal!” Vivi yelled.

“Vivi, don’t!” Jackson hollered an instant later.

But Crystal couldn’t stop herself from moving into the humming, pulsating tunnel. The thing seemed to fold around her, enclosing her in blue-green light until she couldn’t see her companions anymore when she looked over her shoulder or hear them calling to her. Nothing was there except whispers, and more light.

 

Chapter 6

Vadryc had barely shut his eyes when he jerked awake with a violent start. His chamber was dark and chill and silent, the fire nothing but coals, but something had awakened him. He cast around for what that something might be. A sound? Some other sensation, perhaps. Had Syrcos noticed it as well?

He sat up in bed, letting the thick covers fall away. With no light in his chamber but the glow from the dying coals on the hearth, the darkness seemed to press on him from all sides. There was a thickness, a weight to it that was eerily familiar, although unexpected in the circumstances. It felt exactly like…the gathering of power that occurred at the height of a major magical operation.

He jumped up and stuck his feet in the fur-lined boots he kept by his bedside. Someone in the palace must be carrying out some kind of magical working, without his prior knowledge or permission. His staff knew better than that, and most of them weren’t sadra-piahni anyway. They weren’t workers of magic at all and would hardly jeopardize their positions in his household by invading his work room to attempt a spell the magnitude of which was enough to wake him, a powerful sadra-piahni. Which left Syrcos.

He snatched up a loose woolen robe, lined with silk, and wrapped it around his bare body. If Syrcos was performing a working at this impossible hour, without Vadryc’s cooperation, it couldn’t mean anything good. What other reason could his mentor have than the jhidris spell? And that spell, if worked by someone who didn’t have the necessary preparation, required things in compensation. Terrible things.

He rushed into the corridor, where a single oil lamp burned in its sconce. His work room was located at the very top of the tower, and he took the narrow, winding stairs two at a time, although it was too dark to see in the stairwell.

The hum of power continued to build as he bolted up the stone stairs. Whatever Syrcos was doing, it seemed to be reaching its climax.

He didn’t want to believe that Syrcos would attempt to carry out the opening of the jhidris without him, but what other explanation could there be? He must have thought to use Vadryc’s research and tools without him. Perhaps he’d thought Vadryc was about to back out of the project in spite of his assurances to the contrary.

The lack of trust—the outright betrayal—created a burn in Vadryc’s gut. Syrcos ought to know he would never go back on his sworn word. And for a guest in his home to work magic of this magnitude without his permission was a severe breach of courtesy, the kind of insult that could well result in a duel to the death.

Vadryc reached the door of his work room and threw it open. The back of his mind registered the fact it hadn’t been barred from the inside. Then the bizarre scene in the room grabbed every bit of his attention.

Near the tightly shuttered windows, a whirling mass of color and light hovered near the floor. The thing seemed to pulsate with some kind of mysterious energy of a magnitude he’d never before encountered. Three nearly naked humans—two women and a man—in alien garb lay sprawled on the stones, clearly terrified, Syrcos standing over them with a naked sword in his hand. Blood stained the blade. Whose blood?

One of the women looked up and caught his gaze. She had pale eyes surrounded with thick, black lashes, and when she looked directly at him he felt a bolt of sexual energy fly between the two of them. He stared for an instant, stunned by the power of that connection. His heart began to pound from desire rather than rage and his groin ached.

A strange, gurgling moan came from his right, severing the connection between him and the mystery woman. He turned in the direction of the sound to see one of his housemaids, Ellini, huddled on the floor, a pool of blood seeping from beneath her prone body.

Vadryc rushed to her. “Syrcos, what have you done?”

But he already knew. The traitorous bastard had murdered Ellini as a way of gathering enough power to open the jhidris without the usual safeguards.

The poor girl was already too far gone to save. Her lips had turned blue from loss of blood, and when he pressed his fingertips gently to the side of her neck, he could barely detect a pulse. Rage surged up from deep inside him as he glared at his so-called friend, the man who’d drawn a sword and killed a member of Vadryc’s own household.

Syrcos spun to face him. He still wore the deep blue doublet, trousers and lacy white shirt he’d worn on the parapet, suggesting he’d never intended to sleep. “Ah, Vadryc. I wondered when you’d arrive.” Judging by his scowl and angry tone, he was none too pleased his protégé had gotten here so soon. “Now don’t interfere. It’s almost over.”

“You killed one of my housemaids,” Vadryc said, advancing on the man.

Syrcos glanced dismissively at the dead girl. “She was a nobody.”

“She was a person, Syrcos. Her name was Ellini.” A good girl. Everyone had liked her.

The older man snorted. “Have you become a rabble-rouser in the time we’ve been apart? Will you free the common man from his shackles?”

Vadryc ignored the dig. “She was under my protection. Everyone in this household is under my protection, and you’ve violated that trust.”

Syrcos brandished the sword at him. “You don’t want to fight me, do you, son?”

“Of course not.” He glanced around for something he could use to defend himself and the others in the room against Syrcos’s blade. “Put your weapon away and we’ll talk about this.”

“I’ll put it away when I’ve finished the job. Now stand back.”

Syrcos turned toward the strangers, who were still on the floor, clutching each other. Vadryc snatched up one of the waist-high candelabras he used to light the room, sending the burning candles rolling across the uneven stone floor. “Put your blade away, Syrcos.”

The older man spun to face him again, his brows raised in astonishment. “You would really fight me?”

“I won’t have murder in my house.”

“They’re aliens,” Syrcos said. “Look at them. They’re not of our world. What do you care what becomes of them?”

“They are in my house and that makes them my guests.” The right of guests to safety and hospitality was a sacred one in Fortunata.

Syrcos gave another derisive snort. “They’re no more your guests than a pack of invading thieves would be.”

“At the moment, you seem more like a thief than they do,” Vadryc countered. “Working magic without my permission, Syrcos? Murdering my servant and threatening my other guests? I thought better of you.” He took a step closer to the older man.

Syrcos whirled, raising his blade for a killing blow to the male stranger. He probably meant to first take out the person he saw as the greatest threat. Vadryc lunged and knocked him to the side with the central post of the candelabra. Syrcos stumbled several paces across the room before regaining his balance.

He cranked his body around to face his opponent again, his face distorted in rage. “You dare?” he roared.

Syrcos rushed Vadryc. Once he’d been an accomplished swordsman, but he was older now and probably out of practice. Vadryc easily caught the blade with the heavy iron branches of the candelabra and sent it clanging across the stone floor.

He advanced on the unarmed man. Syrcos’s heavy-lidded eyes widened, as if he hadn’t expected Vadryc to truly fight him. He feinted to the right, then dodged left around him. Vadryc grabbed at the man’s doublet sleeve, catching the rich velvet fabric with the tips of his fingers, but the fabric tore and Syrcos kept moving.

“These strangers are more important to you than a lifetime of friendship?” Syrcos gasped.

“I won’t countenance murder in my home.”

“Then let me take them elsewhere.”

“No!” Vadryc snarled. “They will stay with me.”

“Vadryc, put that candelabra down so we can talk. You look ridiculous.”

Vadryc might have listened had Syrcos’s gaze not slid sideways in the direction his sword had taken when he’d disarmed him. “You will precede me to the chamber my steward assigned you, where you will remain locked until I decide what to do with you.”

The older man’s face lost all color as he drew himself to his full height. He wasn’t quite as tall as Vadryc, but he was still impressive enough. “You cannot detain me.”

“I can indeed and I will.”

“By what right?” Syrcos snapped.

“The right of the householder to punish anyone who disturbs the peace of his household.” Vadryc indicated the door with a tilt of his head. “Proceed, if you please, cha Tonos.”

Syrcos glowered poisonously as he moved toward the door, giving Vadryc the widest berth possible. He’d never seen that look on the man’s face before—at least, not aimed at him. One might think they’d never been friends. One might think Syrcos had not been the one who introduced Vadryc to the idea of the jhidris project, the one who’d taught him most of what he knew about magic, both that of the Piahni and the sadra-piahni.

His belly roiled. His mentor wasn’t the man he’d believed, and that realization sickened him. Their friendship was over. It must be, for Vadryc could never consider a man friend if he would betray his trust and attack innocent people.

“You have betrayed me,” Syrcos growled as he skirted Vadryc’s left side.

“I think not,” Vadryc said, his voice deceptively calm.

“You wouldn’t have known anything about the jhidrisi if not for me,” Syrcos said. “You’d be nothing more than an ignorant, spoiled nobleman sitting in his castle doing the very same thing his father and forefathers did for countless centuries.”

Vadryc merely smiled. He’d lost the right to be Duke of Falyros all on his own, but he wasn’t going to say that. Syrcos had taught him most of what he knew about magic; he’d been one of the most influential men in Vadryc’s life. That much must be acknowledged.

“Don’t you smile at me that way, you insolent young dog.” Syrcos’s face twisted, his mouth becoming nothing more than a slash of fury in his mouth. “You owe me everything you are today. You should be doing whatever you can to further my aims.”

Vadryc pointed to the door. “Your chamber, cha Tonos.”

Syrcos’s nostrils flared. He threw up a hand, muttering a phrase Vadryc didn’t recognize. A toxic cloud of purple-black smoke filled the space between the two men, its vapors stinging his nose and eyes and making him cough. The cloud was so thick he couldn’t see through it, couldn’t see what Syrcos was doing on the other side. The hum of sadra-tura filled the air once more, this time originating from the smoke.

The cloud expanded toward him and the other occupants of the room. It seeped into his lungs. They seized up and he suddenly couldn’t breathe. Behind him, the three alien humans gagged and choked.

Vadryc’s heart raced furiously. These poisonous fumes could well kill them all if he couldn’t get them out of the tower. Had whatever caused this cloud been on Syrcos’s person when he entered the palace earlier tonight? Had he brought some sort of toxic potion into Vadryc’s home? Was this attack on him and his household premeditated?

He could possibly have hidden a flask in his doublet, but something that made such a large and nasty cloud must have taken up a certain amount of space and Vadryc had seen no suspicious lumps in his jacket. Maybe he’d brought in the separate ingredients and only combined them just before he’d climbed up to the tower workroom to open the jhidris. If only Vadryc could figure out how Syrcos had created the effect, he’d know how to fight against it.

There was nothing to do but try to escape. He turned back to the strangers. As he moved away from the cloud, he sensed the stinging of mind control buzzing inside his skull.

Then he knew.

It was an illusion. It wasn’t real smoke at all. Syrcos was manipulating his and the aliens’ minds, forcing them to see toxic smoke where none existed. He needed only to find a way to dispel the illusion and the smoke would disappear harmlessly.

***

Crystal knelt on the cold, rough stone of the floor, one arm around each of her companions. Behind them, the weird light-tunnel continued to pulse while before them two men, one middle-aged and one much younger, stood facing each other in the center of the strange room. The dark chamber had stone walls to go with the floor, and the air was thick with strange odors she couldn’t identify.

The younger man glanced her way and everything in her brain ground to a halt. He was…beautiful. Like a dark and fallen angel, or some ancient pagan demigod come to life.

Black hair and brows contrasted sharply with pale skin. Huge, dark eyes with lashes so thick they almost looked fake. High, sharp cheekbones and an angular jaw and lips that looked like some god had specifically designed them to pleasure a woman. A short, dark beard and moustache—almost more stubble than beard, really—gave him a devilish look.

His face went blank for an instant when their eyes met. Then he turned back to the older man and unleashed a rush of angry words in some language she’d never heard before. She couldn’t recognize the language they spoke, but occasionally a word teased at her memory. As if she’d heard it before somewhere, though she couldn’t place it and had no idea where in the world it originated.

She turned to look at the tunnel. It seemed to be growing dimmer. Crystal tugged on Jackson’s shirt.

“Come on,” she whispered. “Let’s go back.”

He nodded. The three of them got to their feet, Vivi swaying on her absurdly high heels, and tried to walk into the tunnel. But something prevented them from moving into it. The light seemed to push back at them, as if rejecting them. Maybe it had been a one-way trip.

“Shit,” Jackson said after their third try. “We’re stuck.”

“What the hell is going on, anyway?” Vivi sounded as bewildered as Crystal felt.

The oddly-dressed men were still arguing. Their speech had a vaguely Eastern European, Slavic sound, with heavy rolled r’s. But it wasn’t Russian. She’d had a childhood friend whose mother spoke Russian, so she’d heard enough of that language she thought she’d recognize it.

So where were they? Who were those men? And why were they dressed like actors in a costume drama or some kind of goofy live action role playing game?

The older one wore a dark-blue jacket that looked like something from a show about the life of Henry VIII. The younger had a loose but heavy robe in some kind of black fabric with rather baroque red embroidery. And he was furious with the older one, roaring at him, his black eyes flashing with anger.

Suddenly, he snatched up an enormous candelabra and used it to wrench the other man’s sword out of his hand. After another shouted exchange, the older man tossed some kind of smoke bomb which filled the whole room with clouds of acrid smoke that brought painful tears to her eyes.

By the time the smoke cleared, the older man was gone. The younger, black-haired one stood in the middle of the room, staring down at her and the Smithfields, his hands empty of weapons. She noted again, with an odd sense of remoteness, that his face was strikingly beautiful. He said something in his alien language.

Crystal shook her head, her eyes wide and round, her hands shaking. This was getting freakier by the minute. Had someone slipped a drug into her soda? Because none of this was remotely normal, or even explainable. It was like one of her fantasy novels come to life.

And then he said the words that made her brain feel like it was splitting into pieces.

He bowed, the courtly gesture not the least bit reassuring. “Jhila,” he said. “Da mata linojh gra.”

It came out jheelah, dah mahtah leenojh grah, complete with a hard rolled r, instead of the way she’d Americanized the pronunciation, but she recognized the words all the same.

Fortunata. Oh my God, Fortunata.

It was impossible. It was real. Right in front of her, solid as a mountainside. Crystal’s eyes rolled up into the back of her head and she sank to the hard floor, unconscious.

***

When she opened her eyes, she was inside a tent. She frowned, squinting up at the fabric over her head. It had embroidery on it, a faded design of green leaves and mauve flowers scrolling all over the cream-colored surface. Who embroidered a tent?

Her head throbbed and her throat hurt. She raised her hand to rub her forehead. The surface beneath her felt soft and warm. Like a bed.

Crystal slowly, carefully turned her head. She wasn’t in a tent after all, but a large, Medieval looking bed with thick embroidered hangings and canopy. The coverlet was white but stained, and had some holes in it, but it smelled fresh and clean, with a faint odor that reminded her of dried lavender. Low, yellow light illuminated the room just enough for her to see that beyond the bed was a rough, white plastered wall and a deep window well with green-painted shutters closed and locked. The paint, faded and chipping, looked as old as the coverlet.

“You are awake,” said a deep, masculine voice.

She turned her head in the other direction. The dark-haired man from earlier sat in a wooden chair with an uncomfortable-looking, tall, carved back. He was watching her in apparent fascination. The yellow light came from a stump of candle in a holder on the wooden table at his side.

“You speak English,” she said.

“I don’t know this English,” he said, frowning. “You are speaking Fortunatan.”

She covered her eyes. Dear God. Either she’d completely lost it, or someone was playing a really nasty prank on her.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t know who you are, but this isn’t funny. If someone paid you to do this, it’s time to stop. You’ve had your fun, but it’s over now.”

“What is over? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He seemed genuinely baffled.

She peeped through her fingers at him. Damn, he was fine. One of the most beautiful men she’d ever seen…and a great actor, too. “You should be in Hollywood, you know that?”

“Perhaps, but I’m not. We are in Rasonyc.”

“Just cut the crap, whoever-you-are. Turn off the cameras. I’m done, okay?” Some of her diatribe came out in English, but the rest sounded…different. For the first time, she became aware she was speaking words she would have sworn she couldn’t understand.

“Again, I have no idea what you are talking about. However, I can tell you my name. I am Vadryc Falyros, at your service.” He gave her another of those courtly bows, this one abbreviated because he was sitting in a chair.

“What?” Her voice rose in a shriek.

This gorgeous creature could not be Vadryc. No. The worst, most notorious sadra-piahni sorcerer in the country could not—would never—make her throb with lust the way she did every time she looked at him.

What was she thinking? Sadra-piahni? No. She didn’t believe the rest of his crazy story either. They couldn’t be in Fortunata. It was impossible.

She threw off the coverlet and swung her legs out of the bed, noting she was still in her pantsuit. Her head swam, forcing her to grab the carved bedpost to keep herself upright. The floor felt icy beneath her bare feet. Where were her shoes? She needed her shoes.

Crystal shot him a death glare. “You’re sick, you know that? I want to go home. Back to the hotel. Right now.”

He caught her by her elbows. “Calm yourself, Tonarisa. You’re safe now. No harm will come to you in this household.”

She ignored the fire that touch ignited in her in favor of yelling in his face. “No harm? No harm? I’m being harmed right now at this very moment. And where are my friends? What have you done with them?”

“They are safe and in the next room, but you and they need rest. It seems the jhidris—”

“There’s no such thing as a jhidris! There’s no such place as Fortunata! It’s fiction. Do you know the meaning of the word fiction?”

Unfortunately, that one came out in English as well.

This was getting very confusing. How could she be mixing these foreign words with her native language? She wasn’t bilingual. Had never been very adept at learning languages at all. She’d bombed out of French twice, for example. So what the hell was going on right now?

I’ve been drugged. I’m hallucinating. That’s the only explanation.

“Fortunata and the jhidris are very real, I assure you.” His voice and face were so grave, as if he worried for her sanity.

She took some deep breaths to calm herself. She had to get herself under control and stop acting like a lunatic, or people really would think she was crazy. And she wasn’t. Was she?

No. It couldn’t be. Nobody went off the deep end in an instant like that. It crept up on you over time. Right? So she must be sane. It was these other people…they were playing a hideous prank on her, like she’d originally thought.

Without thinking, she braced herself on his forearms. Although the sleeves of his robe were made of thick and luxurious fabric, she could still feel the hard muscle beneath them. It made her shiver for reasons that had nothing to do with fear or anger.

“What’s this language we’re speaking?” she demanded. “How can I do that, anyway? I only speak English.”

“It seems the jhidris confers the ability to understand our language,” he said, his face completely straight. Not a hint of a smile or anything to show he was playing her.

“This is not amusing,” she said.

“I agree.”

“You do?”

“Yes. I told Tonos Syrcos I wasn’t ready to open a jhidris until I could be sure there was no-one on the other end to be drawn into it accidentally. But he refused to listen. He acted on his own, without my knowledge or permission.”

Crystal dropped her hands. “You really mean that, don’t you?”

He frowned again. “Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

Her lip trembled. “Because none of this makes any sense. It’s impossible.”

“Clearly it isn’t.” He made a sweeping gesture to indicate the room. “For here you are, in my home. Can’t you see this is a real place? I am a real person.”

“But you’re not. I mean, you are, I suppose. Unless I’m hallucinating. But Vadryc Falyros isn’t real.”

His frown deepened. He lifted a hand slowly toward her, his movements controlled and gentle, as if he thought he’d scare her otherwise. “Why would you say that?”

She shook her head. She couldn’t tell him he—or at least the man who bore that name—was a villain in a fantasy novel. It was the most ridiculous idea. Outrageously ridiculous. So absurd she couldn’t bring herself to say the words out loud.

“The journey through the jhidris has taxed you,” he said. “You need to rest. I’m sure you’ll feel much better after some sleep.”

“But I—”

He laid a long, masculine finger across her lips and a shock of pure sexual energy jolted through her at the touch of his warm skin. Crystal’s breath caught. Her body suddenly trembled and ached.

“Sleep,” he said, his voice gone husky. Did he feel it too?

She stared up at him, her voice lost in the overwhelming rush of desire.

“We’ll speak of this later,” the man calling himself Vadryc said. He bowed to her and left the room.

She noticed her hands were shaking again. When she glanced at the window, she also noticed thin, gray light seeping around the edges and cracks of the shutters. The sun must be rising.

Crystal went over to the window and wrestled with the odd, wrought-iron latch until she got it open. Cold air rushed into the room, barreling right through her tropical-weight clothes. There was no glass on the window at all and no mechanism for holding panes in place. It was nothing more than a large, rectangular hole in the wall. And the view…

“Oh, God,” she whispered.

A great city spread out before her eyes, buildings in all sizes and shapes, with strangely fanciful rooflines covered in red and green tiles. Far away, even more fanciful spires rose against the dawn-pink horizon, looking like something out of a fairy tale. The spires sported ornate, curved and brightly painted tops that reminded her of flower buds. There was something Eastern about them, something onion-dome-ish. They wouldn’t have looked out of place in Prague, she thought, or Moscow. Yet they weren’t European or Russian, either. They were…truly foreign. No, not foreign. Alien.

Not a single traffic light, modern glass building or radio tower marred the cityscape. There were no cars, no bicycles. Not one. Several stories below her, in the street, a man in strangely fashioned, dull-colored rags pushed a wooden handcart down the cobbled pavement, the creaking of the wheels carrying easily to her through the cold, crisp morning. The air smelled of frost and woodsmoke.

Her fingers clenched the plaster of the thick windowsill until they hurt. “What the hell happened to us?”

 

Chapter 7

Vadryc left the alien woman in her chamber. His steward and close friend, Muro, stood in the corridor awaiting him, a grim frown on his young face. Vadryc motioned the man down the passageway to a small nook overlooking the courtyard where he’d met with Syrcos. Frost-laden wind blew in through the opening.

“What would you have me do with the girl’s body, cha Tonos?” the steward said. He persisted in referring to Vadryc as his lord despite the fact Vadryc hadn’t borne that title for twelve years, and Vadryc allowed him the slip. It was easier than arguing over it.

He rubbed his temples. They could dispose of her body on the streets in the night, make it look as if she were set upon by thieves. But then her family would never know what had become of her. On the other hand, they couldn’t make the death publicly known or involve the authorities in any way without drawing dangerous attention to the household. All his servants understood what sort of man they were working for before they agreed to take their positions, so it would come as a surprise to none of them if a death went unremarked and unreported. It still felt wrong, however. She’d been so young.

“You’ll have to dump the body tonight,” he said reluctantly. “Make it far away from here. We’ll hold a funerary ritual in the inner courtyard.” Where no-one from the outside could observe them.

“Yes, sir.” The steward looked as exhausted and disgusted with the situation as Vadryc was.

“Gather the staff together in the kitchen. I’ll be down before lunch to speak to them directly.” They needed to know the murder was committed by an outsider and that he was taking measures to find and punish the wrongdoer. “Also, we’ll need to track Syrcos. He can’t be allowed to get away with this.”

Muro scowled. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Are you sure that’s wise? He’s a powerful man, even now. Retaliation—”

“Just do what you can. And have the housekeeper prepare us for a long journey. We’re leaving the city as soon as we can be ready.”

His man’s eyes widened. “Leaving the city, sir?”

“As soon as possible.”

“But the winter—”

“Is coming fast, which is why we must hurry. If we make good time, we can be in the White Mountains before the worst of it hits.”

The steward gave a short nod. “Yes, my lord. You’ll be ready for travel by tomorrow morning.”

“Excellent.”

“Cha Tonos, the strangers. Are they accompanying you north?” the man said in an even lower tone.

“Yes, of course. I can’t leave them here in Rasonyc on their own.” For one thing, their origin on another world carried an energy trace with it, something the powerful royal Piahni would easily and quickly detect. That would trigger an investigation, which would lead them and the Royal Guard directly here, to Vadryc’s home. With luck, that energy trace would fade, but for now they must take steps to ensure the Piahni didn’t discover it.

He’d endured public disgrace when his interest in the so-called sadra-tura or dirty magic had been discovered. After a severe beating delivered by the Duke his father’s retainers, the Duke had stripped him of his titles and property in a ceremony in the public square of his home city. But at the time, he’d only been a dabbler pursuing a mostly academic interest.

Now, if the Piahni were to invade his home, they would find him guilty of much more serious crimes than the possession of certain forbidden texts and the working of a couple of minor spells. His current activities carried the death penalty, not just for him but for anyone found to have assisted him. His steward, the rest of his staff, and the strangers as well could be executed along with him.

Of course, Muro was no ordinary steward. He was sadra-piahni himself.

“I heard the lady in blue shouting,” Muro said. “Do you think she is…right in the head, my lord?”

“I don’t know.” He thought about what she’d said. How he wasn’t a real person. “Perhaps not. The jhidris may have damaged her, although nothing I’ve read suggests their use is detrimental.”

“What about the jhidris curse?”

Vadryc gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “A tale to frighten children. Nothing more.”

The steward regarded him steadily for a moment before nodding again. “Yes, sir. Uh…I’d better attend my duties, sir.” He was being unusually formal this morning. Probably the exhaustion.

“Yes, go ahead.”

He hoped he was correct about the curse. Syrcos had always been adamant that the jhidris curse was nothing more than stories put about by the Piahni to keep ambitious and curious people from investigating the forbidden lore. The behavior of the woman in blue, however, made him wonder.

Bewilderment on her part was to be expected. But some of the things she’d said struck him as arising from something deeper than mere confusion. The jhidris isn’t real, she’d said. She’d claimed not to understand how she could speak Fortunatan, yet she’d known that word—jhidris. Not simply the word, the concept behind it. Although she’d come from an alien world, she’d been familiar enough with it to dispute its reality.

Or maybe she was only babbling. Deranged by the energy of the portal.

He needed to assess her state of mind. Hers and that of the other two. But she was the one who interested him most. The other woman, the one dressed only in a skimpy set of undergarments, was somehow less compelling. And the man…

Let’s be honest. You simply want to bed the dark-haired woman.

The laws of hospitality forbade him from taking advantage of a woman under his protection. In addition, she was especially vulnerable in her current agitated state. But that didn’t stop him from wanting. Not even the prospect that she might be deranged stopped him from wanting her.

Even dressed in man’s clothes, her extraordinary figure—those long legs, the little waist and flaring hips, the thick dark hair—had started a fire burning in his belly that made it difficult for him to refrain from touching her. And when he had, for just that one instant, placed his finger on her lips, he’d swelled and ached like a boy with his first girl. Maintaining the proper distance was going to be difficult.

He needed to talk to her, however. Avoiding her was out of the question.

Just down the corridor, hinges squeaked. He turned toward the sound. It was her. She’d opened her door and come into the passageway, limping slightly, her feet bare on the cold stone. His heart began to race at her sudden nearness, the unclothed state of her feet. Beautiful, delicate feet with…painted toenails? Fascinating. Her toenails were covered in some kind of shiny, bright pink paint. The same thing adorned her fingernails as well.

Vadryc frowned at her, turning hot with the effort to hide his reaction to her. “You ought to be sleeping.”

“I can’t.” She hugged herself.

He couldn’t tell if she was cold or afraid. Perhaps both.

“Your clothes are wrong for this climate,” he said, his voice coming out colder than he intended.

Her cheeks turned pink. “We were in a hot place. Before.” She frowned, still blushing, and stared directly into his eyes with a forwardness he’d never seen in a female. “Am I mad? Am I hallucinating you?”

“No.”

“Of course, a hallucination would say that.”

Vadryc fought to keep a smile from forming. “Would he?”

The woman shrugged, lifting first one foot off the floor, then the other. “I really have no idea.”

“Here,” he said, crouching to remove his boots. “Take my boots. Later we’ll find you something to put on your feet.”

“But what about you?”

“I have good, woolen socks. You are bare.”

He hadn’t meant to point out the nakedness of her feet with quite so much bluntness, but she didn’t seem to notice his remark at all. She simply took the boots he offered.

“Thank you.” She stuck her feet in them. They looked absurdly large on her.

“They’re a little sloppy,” he said.

“Better than bare feet.”

Again, the talk of nakedness rolled from her mouth with no sign of embarrassment or shame. Interesting. Was it a mark of madness or some facet of her native culture?

“Come with me,” he said. “I have many questions for you.”

“Um…very well. I have questions for you, too.”

“I can imagine.” He gestured toward the stairwell.

“Where are we going?”

“To my study. There’s a fire and I’ll call for food and drink from the kitchen.”

He didn’t wait to see if she would follow. Where else would she go? Besides, it was easier to ignore the flame of his attraction to her if he wasn’t looking in her direction.

He led the way down the winding stairs to the balcony that overlooked the second level of the palace. The woman stared out at the great hall with her mouth hanging open, as if she’d never seen such a thing in her life. He glanced over the enormous empty space of the room. The huge hearth was bare, the windows unglazed, the walls lacking any sort of tapestries or other adornment, and there was no seating, but otherwise it looked quite ordinary to him. Didn’t they have great halls in her land?

She muttered some barbarian word he couldn’t understand.

Vadryc indicated the heavily carved wooden doors of his study with a sweeping gesture. “Here we are.”

She glanced at him, her expression unreadable, before preceding him into the study. A fire already burned on the hearth. This room had been modernized and had two layers of glazing at the windows to keep out cold winter air without losing daylight. It had been one of the first projects he’d undertaken here after acquiring the old palace.

“Let’s sit by the fire,” he said. “It’s warmer there.”

“You have no central heating?” she said.

That last phrase was in her alien tongue and he had no idea what it meant.

“I don’t know what central heating is,” he replied, carefully copying her pronunciation.

She gave him another of those unreadable looks. “Very well. Have it your way.”

They took seats on the thickly padded chairs set in front of the hearth. The heat here nearly blasted him, making him want to unbutton his doublet. The woman shivered and pulled her chair closer to the flames.

“What is your name?” he said.

She met his gaze squarely, like a man. “Crystal. Crystal Damson.”

Utterly barbarian. He liked it. “As I explained earlier, I am Vadryc Falyros.”

Her lips compressed. She gave a short nod. “Yes.”

“Do you still believe I am unreal?”

The doors to the study slammed open with such force they bounced. Vadryc and Crystal jerked around to stare as her two companions charged into the room followed by his steward.

“My abject apologies, cha Tonos,” he said. “They refused to listen when I told them you were not to be interrupted.”

“It’s nothing, Muro. Let them come and sit with us.”

The blonde strode toward him with the same sort of forward stare as Crystal. She moved with amazing confidence considering the bizarre spiked footwear she wore. Were they weapons of some kind?

“What are you doing with her?” she demanded, her tone so autocratic he decided she must be a princess or duchess in her own land. “Crystal, are you all right?”

“As you can see, we are merely talking.” He gestured toward nearby chairs. “Please join us.”

The young man followed her with a sullen scowl on his face, his hands stuck in the pockets of his loose trousers. He didn’t seem nearly as concerned about his surroundings as the two women were. There was something odd about him, too, some kind of energy that clung to him but didn’t seem to be a natural part of him. Vadryc studied the young man, wondering what it could be.

***

Amryc Falyros entered the Golden Snuvi tavern dressed in his drabbest clothing, a suit of dull gray wool with little ornamentation, just some braid-work in a darker shade of gray. His shirt, stained and devoid of lace, was something he’d been planning to throw in the charity box. It was the sort of thing he’d normally only wear for hard exercise. Sword practice, maybe.

The Golden Snuvi wasn’t his usual sort of tavern, either. The ridiculous name, for one thing. The huge snuvi birds laid delicious eggs, but one didn’t call one’s business after them. At least, he wouldn’t, if he were the sort to run a business. The name alone would normally have warned him away.

When he did patronize public drinking houses, they were elegant establishments in the Garden District or the Royal Park, and they catered to noblemen like himself. This place was dark—not in the intimate and cozy sense, but in the inadequate and cheap lighting sense. In the no glass in the windows and therefore we’ll keep the shutters closed sense. He suspected every surface of the place was covered in accretions he didn’t want to examine too closely.

As he walked in, scanning for the man he’d come to meet, the combined reek of unwashed bodies, woodsmoke, stale beer, and rancid grease assaulted his nose. The floor seemed to stick to his boots. There were no doubt generations of spilled ale and wine and the gods only knew what else coating the ancient flooring stones. Only news of the sadra-piahni could induce him to sully his footwear in this cesspit.

Rough workmen in rougher clothes than the ones he wore gave him suspicious looks as he passed their tables. He’d dressed in his oldest things and he still stuck out like a racing stallion in a pen full of broken-down cart nags. He should have taken his man’s offered loan of rags instead of using his own clothes.

He lifted his chin and straightened his shoulders, a gesture that never failed to wring the appropriate submission from his underlings. Just then, he spied the Duke of Lantirso sitting in the darkest back corner of the tavern. The man was carefully not looking at him. He didn’t want to acknowledge Amryc? Curious, especially since he’d insisted they meet here, rather than talking in Amryc’s personal study like civilized men.

He stalked to the table and sat down opposite Syrcos Lantirso without waiting for an invitation. The older man gave him a tight-lipped smile and a short nod.

“I was beginning to wonder if you were coming,” Lantirso said.

“I almost didn’t.”

Lantirso nodded again. He lifted his hand, waving for the tavern maid to come serve them. She came bearing large tankards of thin ale, which she slammed on the table. Amryc viewed the cups dubiously. He lifted his and took a cautious sip. The gesture was mostly for show, hardly doing more than wetting his tongue. Did they even wash their dishes in this place?

Lantirso regarded him with amusement. “Not to your usual standards, I take it?”

“Frankly, no. But you knew that.”

“I chose this place because it’s discreet.”

“Is it?” He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder at the disreputable clientele.

“Absolutely. Men who eat here know better than to poke their noses in other men’s business.” Lantirso spoke as one who had intimate knowledge of such places.

“I see.”

Amryc watched the other man curiously. They didn’t normally have dealings with each other. Lantirso was notoriously non-political, uninterested in the greater responsibilities of his title as Duke. He seemed to prefer spending his time at parties, whether in the city or at one of his country estates or the estates of his rich friends. He’d never shown any interest in pursuing the sadra-piahni, that was sure.

Lantirso smiled, his heavy-lidded blue eyes warm, the laugh lines around them pronounced. “Your fame as a punisher of those villainous sadra-piahni is well-deserved, I hear.”

“I do the best I’m able,” Amryc said, keeping his arms stiffly at his sides.

He might have settled in to hear the Duke’s story except he didn’t want to lean against the table or rest his arms on it. His doublet sleeves would probably come away with streaks of filth if he did.

“Everyone I know says you’re the most effective scourge of dirty magic we’ve had in generations.”

Amryc nodded without speaking. His successes had more to do with dedication than skill, in his opinion. It was difficult to be effective at something when one put in a less than sincere effort, and his predecessors had been lax in their attention to the sadra-tura problem.

“As you know, Falyros,” Lantirso said, “I don’t usually involve myself in political matters. But something came to my attention late last night, and I thought it my duty to inform someone who could take action.”

Amryc’s reputation as a pursuer of the sadra-piahni was widespread, so it was no surprise that Lantirso came to him. No, the real surprise was that Lantirso would bestir himself to notify anyone at all.

“I take it the matter is serious,” he said neutrally.

“Indeed it is.” Lantirso frowned, his lips pursing. “Gravely serious, especially for you.”

“Ah?” That seemed unlikely.

“You see, last night I happened upon a relative of yours.”

Amryc tensed. He had only one relative who was involved in sadra-piahni doings.

“Vadryc Falyros,” Lantirso said. “It seems he’s making a home for himself in the River District.”

“I hadn’t heard that. Unfortunately, there’s no law against it. Until we have solid evidence that he’s performing forbidden magic, there’s nothing we can do to him.”

“Ah, but he is performing those magics,” Lantirso said. His voice held a smug note that seemed at odds with his concerned facial expression.

Amryc waited for him to elaborate, but Lantirso merely looked at him expectantly, as if awaiting a bribe. He didn’t need the money. He was one of the richest noblemen in the kingdom.

Amryc narrowed his eyes. “Get to the point, Lantirso. What kind of magic is he doing?”

The Duke tented his fingers as he leaned his elbows on the edge of the table. “He’s opening jhidrisi.”

For a moment, all Amryc could do was stare at the man in astonished incomprehension. Finally, he said “Jhidrisi? That’s not possible. No-one knows how to operate a jhidris.”

“Vadryc does. He successfully opened one last night. Not only that, but he brought three aliens through.”

“Aliens,” Amryc muttered. He wasn’t sure whether to be appalled or fascinated. “What sort of creatures were they?”

“Humans,” Lantirso said with a wry smile. “He’s keeping them in his house; for what evil purpose, I don’t know.”

“By the gods.” Amryc shook his head. “I find this difficult to believe, I must tell you.”

“So did I, at first.”

He narrowed his eyes even further as he fixed the older nobleman with a suspicious stare. “And how did you discover all this? Surely Vadryc didn’t volunteer the information.”

“No, I found out by accident. I was in the neighborhood when one of his…er…guests ran out into the street with Vadryc chasing after. Apparently they don’t trust him any more than you or I do.”

“What could he want with them?”

“I have no idea. But it can’t be anything good.”

Lantirso and Amryc exchanged a grim stare.

“These aliens could be dangerous,” Amryc said. “They must not be allowed to remain on our world.” They would probably have to be killed, because there was no other practical way to remove them.

“I agree completely.”

“Thank you for coming to me with this, Lantirso. I appreciate the help. We don’t often get the advantage over those bastards.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Lantirso said. “But if you’re planning to go after him, I’d make it quick. I overheard some remarks between him and one of his servants that made me think they were planning to head north as soon as possible.”

“North?”

“To Falyros. He wants to go after Nijhika.”

Amryc’s mouth fell open, no doubt making him look like fool. “What would he want with my wife?”

Lantirso gave him a sympathetic look. “She was intended to be his wife originally, wasn’t she?”

He pulled in a deep breath through his nose. “Yes, that’s true. But that was twelve years ago. I think he’s gotten over it by now. He didn’t even know her, hadn’t met her until the night before their wedding was supposed to take place.”

Lantirso spread his hands in a what-can-you-do gesture. “All I know is what I heard. He wants her back and he’s taking the aliens with him.”

By Taros. Amryc gritted his teeth at the thought of his despicable cousin getting his filthy hands on Nijhika. Lahri was there, too, and even more vulnerable since she was only five. She was hardly more than a baby.

He hadn’t seen either of them—wife or daughter—in years, but that didn’t mean he’d forgotten his duty toward his family.

“I’m afraid I have to go,” he said. “There are some matters I must attend to.”

He would alert the City Guard. They could have Vadryc arrested by nightfall at the latest. Once he was under arrest, he’d be no danger to Amryc’s family. He’d be no danger to anyone at all.

 

Chapter 8

Crystal’s foot bounced nervously up and down, up and down, up and down as the two Smithfields walked across Vadryc’s study. Vivi’s heels clicked loudly on the floor, which in this room was made of wide wooden planks. The girl had her chin tilted up in that imperious way which Crystal was beginning to understand meant she was feeling insecure. Jackson, on the other hand, seemed like he couldn’t have cared less what was happening to them. He sported his usual sullen detachment, although she saw his eyes sweep the room, taking in their surroundings.

Both of them looked rumpled, cold, and miserable. Pretty much the same way she felt. They were probably starving, too. After all, they’d been on their way to dinner when they were swept up in that whatever it was.

The jhidris.

Their host—captor?—hadn’t threatened to harm any of them…yet. But if he was telling the truth and he really was Vadryc Falyros, then they were all completely screwed. They had to get away from him, maybe find a way to contact Amryc and ask for protection.

Are you nuts? Amryc isn’t real either.

The sane, ordinary part of her knew—knew—that none of what had happened since the elevator was real. It could only be some elaborate hallucination. But the rest of her, the gut-level her, knew it was absolutely real. Whatever else this was, and in spite of its alienness, it had the same physical immediacy, the same weight and smell and look as the reality they’d left behind.

For now—dear God, maybe forever if they couldn’t get back to Earth—she had to go with the assumption that all of this freakiness was real. And that meant Vadryc was real.

She couldn’t begin to explain how a series of fantasy novels could describe an actual place or how she and Vivi and Jackson had gotten here. But nevertheless here they were, caught in the middle of some awful scheme of Vadryc’s and helpless to do anything about it.

Viviana and Jackson sat in the remaining chairs that made up the sitting area near the hearth, while Vadryc’s male servant stood attentively behind the master’s chair. The servant had a strange scar on his forehead. It looked like a burn scar, raised and smooth and white, but it had an elaborate pattern. Crystal wondered what it meant. Did it have something to do with the Piahni? They had forehead marks…but those were tattoos, not burns.

Vivi wrapped her arms around herself, shivering, while Jackson sprawled insolently, his long legs stretched out in front of him. Both of them stared at Vadryc, their gazes angry. Frightened.

“Muro, have some breakfast sent up and find some warm clothes for our guests,” he said.

The servant made a short bow and left the room. His clothes were similar to the ones the older man—Syrcos?—had worn, but plainer. Vadryc was still in the robe-like garment, the black one with the red embroidery. Apparently he hadn’t had time to change. Or maybe he dressed like that all the time. How would she know?

He sent the Smithfields a bland, unreadable smile. “My name is Vadryc Falyros. Welcome to my home.”

Vivi shot her a startled glance. Crystal widened her eyes and gave her head a tiny shake to show she didn’t know what was going on either.

“I’m Jackson Smithfield and this is my sister, Viviana,” Jackson said.

“I’m honored to have you as my guests,” Vadryc said.

Yeah, yeah. Pretty words meant nothing. Crystal didn’t trust him for an instant.

“Can you explain how we got here?” Jackson said.

“I can. My…colleague, Syrcos, opened a jhidris which connected to your world.”

Jackson’s dark brows rose. “A what?”

“A jhidris. It’s a kind of tunnel or passageway that connects two worlds.”

Jackson glanced at Crystal. “You mean like a wormhole?”

They were speaking Fortunatan, but the word wormhole came out in English. Probably because there was no parallel concept in Fortunata.

“I do not know your word,” Vadryc said. “A jhidris connects worlds that are not physically connected in any other way.” He made an impatient sound. “It’s a difficult concept to put into words. They exist close together but infinitely far apart, side by side but never touching.”

“Basically an alternative universe,” Crystal said in English, remembering the way the concept had been presented in the books. “A reality which exists in another dimension, I guess you’d call it. It’s as real as our dimension, but ordinarily we can’t get to it. Only through one of these portals.”

“All right,” Jackson said, nodding. “That sounds completely unbelievable, but here we are, so I guess I have to believe it.”

A sensible, practical way to look at it.

“Why?” Vivi said, her tone demanding. “Why did you do this to us?”

“I did not,” Vadryc told her. “Syrcos did. I was trying to find a way to open a jhidris that wouldn’t draw anyone into it. He lost patience with me and acted on his own.”

“But why open a jhidris in the first place?” Crystal said.

He gave her a sharp look. “Because we’re trying to resurrect a lost art.”

“It seems rather dangerous to me,” she said.

“Sometimes risks must be taken in pursuit of an important goal. I deeply regret that any of you were drawn into the jhidris. It wasn’t my intention to involve outsiders at all.”

She thought back to the scene in the tower room when they’d first come through. “There was a girl laying on the floor. What happened to her?”

Vadryc’s gaze dropped, his lips compressing into a hard line. “Ellini. She died. Syrcos killed her to get the power needed to open the jhidris.”

Crystal’s breath caught. Her hands tensed on the carved armrests of her chair. “So every time you open one of those things, someone must die?”

“No.” Vadryc shook his head. “Not at all. Syrcos was taking shortcuts, trying to get results in the smallest amount of time possible. He wanted the power of her death because he didn’t have the usual, more correct technique mastered.”

He looked and sounded sincere, but she didn’t believe him. He was Vadryc Falyros, for God’s sake. He’d say and do anything at all in order to further his selfish aims, and right now he seemed to be trying to make this Syrcos guy take all the blame for something in which he was equally responsible.

If Vadryc is real, Amryc might be real too.

That thought stunned her. Accepting that Vadryc was who he claimed to be meant that Amryc probably existed too. Her teen-age literary crush might be a real person after all. She could meet him. Would it be the way she’d always imagined it? Would she feel the intense attraction for him that she had for Vadryc?

Somehow she had to find Amryc and tell him what was going on. He was known—at least in the books—for his kindness and generosity, his strict adherence to high Fortunatan ideals. He’d been Piahni before he was declared the heir to the Duchy of Falyros after Vadryc was cast out and still had many highly placed contacts among them, so he could protect them.

The thought of seeing Amryc, for real and in the flesh, sent electric shafts of excitement through her.

She was beginning to feel faint by the time a servant came in with the food. It was two young women, probably about the same age as the poor dead girl from the tower room, and dressed in simple gray gowns with snug bodices, full skirts to the ankles, and long sleeves. They each carried an enormous metal tray that looked to be about as wide as each girl was tall. The women set the trays down on a table that was some distance away from the hearth, curtsied briefly to Vadryc, and left. A medley of savory and spicy smells wafted up from the tray, making Crystal’s stomach growl fiercely.

Vadryc rose and went to the table, where he began lifting lids on dishes and portioning out servings. She cast her mind back on all the Fortunata books she’d read, wondering how accurate their descriptions of the food had been. Because people ate some weird shit in Fortunata and she wasn’t sure she was ready for that. On the other hand, she felt like she’d collapse if she didn’t get some food—and more important, liquid—inside of her very soon, so maybe it didn’t matter.

I won’t think about what exactly I’m eating.

Yeah, that should work. She hoped.

He passed a cup of some sort of hot liquid to each of them. His fingers brushed hers as she accepted her cup, and the brief touch made her whole body feel empty and hot with longing. God, what was wrong with her? She’d never been attracted to jerks before. Maybe it was an effect of the jhidris. Whatever was causing it, she didn’t want it.

Crystal lifted the cup to her lips and took a sip, trying not to guess what it was or how it would taste. She didn’t care, right? She just needed the sustenance.

The flavor was like nothing she’d ever tasted before. It was…earthy…slightly sweet…yet spicy, as if someone had added ginger to it. Vivi and Jackson were both staring dubiously at their cups as if afraid they were on the verge of drinking poison.

“It’s good,” she said.

They looked at her. Crystal took another swallow and Jackson followed suit. But Vivi just kept staring down into the hot liquid with a slight curl in her lip.

“Honestly, Viv,” Jackson said. “Crystal is right. It’s good.”

“Okay. But what is it?”

They all looked at Vadryc.

“It’s zidra. Do you not have this drink in your own country?”

“No,” Crystal said. Zidra figured regularly in the Fortunata stories. It was made mostly of a kind of mushroom that had stimulant properties, but she wasn’t going to tell that to Viviana. The girl would never try it if she thought it had something weird in it.

“It’s kind of like a spicy soup,” she said. “Like hot and sour, only not as hot. Or as sour.”

Vivi raised an eyebrow. “You realize that makes no sense, right?”

“Just try it,” Crystal told her. “We all need to eat and drink, and this is what’s available.”

Jackson was already drinking his with enthusiasm. Crystal took another sip of hers, hoping if both of them set a good example, Vivi would follow. But who was she kidding? The girl was twenty years old and completely uninterested in following an ancient twenty-eight-year-old’s example. Or that of her older brother.

Vadryc offered her a plate of food, which she took with great care to prevent their hands from touching again. There were little cookie-like pastries dotted with dried fruit, along with some kind of sliced meat that looked a lot like chicken and some white cheese.

“Thank you,” she said. He might be a villain, but at least he was taking care of them. For now.

I’m still going to Amryc the first chance I get.

Viviana began to drink her zidra, just when Crystal was beginning to think the girl was planning to starve herself to death. She was showing unusually good common sense for a change.

The blonde looked up at Vadryc with an oddly flirtatious smile. “So what happens now?” Her eyelashes fluttered slightly.

Crystal blinked. Had Vivi just batted her eyelashes at Vadryc? Really?

“We’ll leave the city tomorrow morning,” he said. “Perhaps even sooner.”

“Leave?” Crystal leaned forward. “Why?”

Vadryc regarded her with a sardonic smirk. “Because opening a jhidris is illegal, Tonarisa. Soon the authorities will be here looking for you.”

She gave him the most guileless smile she could muster. “You don’t think they’d blame us for getting caught up in the jhidris, do you?”

He lifted his own cup of zidra to his lips and took a drink before answering. “Blame isn’t the point. They’ll take you into custody.”

That sounded like exactly what she wanted.

“I see.” She tried to make her voice sound grave, subdued, so Vadryc wouldn’t realize what she was thinking.

He was watching her, too, as if he suspected something. His dark-eyed gaze brought out every bit of sexual yearning inside her. It was just her luck that her worst enemy happened to have the kind of looks that drove her crazy. There was a sort of animal grace about him, too, a sense of enormous strength barely held in check that reminded her he was known as one of the best swordsmen in the nation.

Many of the sadra-piahni were exceptional swordsmen because of the dangerous lives they led and the wild places where they tended to hide. But Vadryc was renowned.

Wonder what he looks like under that robe?

Holy crap. She ducked her head to hide her blush and pretended to closely examine her food. She needed to keep better control over her thoughts.

Another procession of servants made its way into the study. This time they carried piles of clothing, which they laid on an empty chair. None of them seemed to fear their master, which frankly surprised Crystal. Maybe they didn’t know what kind of man he really was.

“My staff found some garments for you to wear,” he said. “We’ll have things made for you as soon as we arrive at my country house, but these will have to do for now.”

“What’s wrong with what we have on?” Vivi said with another flirtatious glance at him.

“Nothing, Tonarisa, if you wish to go about in your undergarments. But I wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll give people the wrong impression. Besides, we’ll be on the road and you’d freeze to death dressed as you are.”

“Undergarments?” Vivi said, looking baffled.

“Your dress looks like a chemise to them,” Crystal said. “A kind of slip-like thing.”

“So?”

She sighed. Didn’t Viviana know anything about differing cultural mores? Hadn’t she ever studied history?

“Think of it like the Victorian era,” she said. “In terms of modesty, anyway. People stay covered up. Walking around like you’re dressed is almost the same as being stark naked.”

Vivi crossed her arms over her chest, looking suddenly defensive. “So they’re a bunch of prudes?” she said in English.

“Not exactly,” Crystal said in the same language. “They’re not as uptight about the body as the Victorians were; they just think it should stay covered in mixed company.”

Vivi wrinkled her nose. “Even in the bedroom?”

Crystal’s face flushed. “I don’t know. The books didn’t talk about sex much.”

“What books?” Jackson said. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ll explain later.”

Vadryc observed this whole exchange with a guarded expression on his exotic face. She wondered what he was thinking, what he was planning. Did he really want to protect them from the authorities or was he saving them for some other purpose? She itched with the desire to put on the borrowed Fortunatan clothes and leave the palace to look for Amryc. Surely he was here in the royal city somewhere.

But what if he wasn’t? What if he’d gone into the countryside for some reason? He might even be at Falyros for the winter, in which case she had next to no chance of finding him. Falyros was a long way north from Rasonyc, which was on the southern tip of the Fortunatan coast. A foreigner like her, especially a woman, would be in extreme danger traveling alone, even more so at this time of year.

She had to try, though. Her survival and that of the Smithfields might depend on reaching Amryc. And the first thing she had to do was get some privacy so she could dress before sneaking out. She needed to go back to that room Vadryc had given her.

Crystal gave a huge yawn, hoping she wasn’t overdoing her acting. “Oh, pardon me. I’m very tired.”

“You need rest,” Vadryc said. “Take some clothing and Muro will show you back to your chamber.”

***

When Jackson and Viviana returned to her room, they found that someone had lit a fire in her small fireplace and the room was slightly less like a walk-in freezer than it had been when they’d gone down to confront Vadryc. It still felt colder than hell to him.

“God, this place is getting to me,” Viviana said as soon as he’d shut the door behind them. “My phone and tablet don’t work. I mean, not like I’d call anybody, but I can’t even play games on them. I just charged the batteries and they’re already dead.”

He swallowed a sigh. Really, she was worried about her freaking phone? He had bizarre, whispery voices talking to him all the time; they were lost in some alternative universe; nothing had made sense since they’d gotten on that elevator; and all she could talk about was her phone going dead?

“Viv, I think we have more important things to think about than playing games.”

She rolled her eyes. “Sure we do, but I’ve got to have some way of passing time in this boring heap. What do people do for fun around here? Count their toes?”

“At the moment, I couldn’t care less,” Jackson said.

“You’re not bored?”

“I’m confused. What is going on?” he demanded. “What was that crap about books? And how does Crystal know anything about this place? Is she involved somehow in all of this?”

Viviana shook her head, her slender fingers rubbing at her temples. “I don’t know. It’s crazy. I mean, she showed me this ratty old book she had, back when we were at the hotel. At the pool. She asked me if I wanted to read it but I turned her down.”

He didn’t get it. “So? What does that have to do with anything?”

She climbed up a little wooden step stool to the high, carved wooden bed with its heavy hangings. It looked like it belonged in a museum. “It was a novel, Jax. About Fortunata. About the jhidris.”

He stared at her blankly. “A novel.”

“Yeah. Apparently she’s read all about this place.”

“In books? Like sci-fi books or something?”

“Fantasy, I guess.”

He closed his eyes briefly. Fantasy novels. Well, this place sure looked like it belonged in some kind of Medievalesque fantasy.

He’d finally done it. Gone off the deep end. He’d never really believed that the kind of drugs he used could mess up his head that much, but apparently he’d been wrong. He was totally, certifiably nuts. That was the only thing that could explain any of this.

“Jesus,” he muttered, running his fingers through his hair. “I should’ve stopped earlier.”

“What?” Vivi said, frowning.

“This isn’t really happening, is it? I’m gonna wake up in a padded cell somewhere, wearing a white jacket, with my hands tied behind my back.”

His sister shook her head. “You’re not crazy. Unless I am too, and I don’t think I am.”

“But none of this shit makes any sense. Fantasy novels that are about a real place that no-one knew about before? Come on, Viv.”

“I know. It’s totally fucked up. But like you said downstairs, we’re here now and we have to act as if this place is real. What other choice do we have?”

“Fuck if I know,” he said.

“What do you think of Vadryc? Crystal said he was a bad guy in the books.”

“He seems all right to me.”

The guy had a thing for Crystal, too. Jackson could see it all over his face every time he looked at her. Or avoided looking at her, as the case might be. It was kinda strange, but he felt protective toward her, where before in Hawaii she’d only irritated the shit out of him. Coming through that jhidris thing had definitely done something to him; the question was what?

***

The clothes given to Crystal must have come from one of the servant women. The gown was made of some coarse, brown fabric that felt like wool. There was a second skirt made of more brown wool in a slightly paler shade, plus a stiff linen undergown with long sleeves. It reminded her of one of those old-fashioned granny-style nightgowns. In addition to all this, she’d received a pair of thick, gray wool stockings that came with ribbons to tie around her calves and a pair of sturdy leather shoes with wooden soles. Clogs, basically.

A servant had lit a fire in her room while she’d been downstairs, taking the edge off the icy cold. Whoever it was had also closed and locked the shutters, so it was dark except for a single candle. How did these people deal with all the gloom in the winter? She was already kind of depressed by it and she’d only been here less than one day.

She stripped off her Earth clothes, shivering at the chill on her skin, and quickly yanked the undergown over her head. It didn’t do much to chase away the cold. She stepped into the underskirt—at least, she thought it was an underskirt—and tied the drawstring waist. The overgown followed. It didn’t fit especially well.

Both skirts were too long and the bodice was loose around the waist and a bit tight across the chest. Well, it would have to do until she could get something better. She sat down in the chair to pull on the scratchy stockings, getting instant relief from the arctic cold that had settled into her feet. They were scratchy, but they were very warm. She might have fallen in instant love with them.

Weirdly, the shoes fit perfectly. She hoped whoever had given them up had another decent pair, because these looked almost new. There was hardly a scratch or scuff on the chestnut brown leather.

Now she needed a cloak, but there wasn’t one in the donation pile. She’d simply have to put up with the cold outside, because this was probably her only chance to contact Amryc.

The real problem was how to get out of the palace without being seen. Did Vadryc have guards? She hadn’t seen anyone who looked guard-ish, but that didn’t mean they weren’t around. They might be in hiding. Besides, she hadn’t been anywhere near the front door, or any other outside door, now that she thought about it.

How was she going to find out where to go to get out of the house? She couldn’t just rattle around the place until she figured it out. The servants would see her—even Vadryc might see her and stop her.

That giant open room—the great hall, probably—was the most likely to be near the entrance. She’d start there, keeping to the shadows to avoid being seen. If anyone caught her, she’d just say she was exploring. Looking for the bathroom. Did they have bathrooms here? She had no idea and couldn’t remember what the books had to say about it.

Crystal walked softly to the door and opened it a crack, peeking out into the corridor. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. Gradually she opened it far enough for her to slip through, cringing when the hinges squealed.

A quick glance up and down the corridor proved it was empty for now. She eased her door shut again and crept along the passageway toward the stairs. That was where she’d be in the most danger of discovery, since there was no place to hide.

The stairwell reminded her of pictures she’d seen of European castle interiors—plain, stone walls, thick stone stairs with troughs worn in them from centuries of feet, the occasional slit of window letting in light and cold. That seemed to be the common theme of all the rooms in this relic of a home. Cold. Everything was cold.

Somehow she lucked out on the stairs, because she didn’t see anyone. They opened up into the great hall, which felt more like a dusty old cave if you asked her. It even smelled of dust, and mildew, and something else that reminded her of the crypt in an old church she’d visited once. Didn’t Vadryc do any maintenance around here? Or even have his people clean up? The whole place felt almost abandoned in its dark, chilly, and echoing spaces.

Whatever. None of it mattered to her, because she didn’t plan on sticking around. She slunk along the near wall of the hall for a few yards, her heart slamming against her ribs, while her eyes scanned the area for a clue to the exit. Several large stone arches led off into other areas of the palace, all of them thick with shadows. Any of them could hide the way to the front door and she really hoped she didn’t have to examine each and every one. The more seconds she spent bumbling around like this, the more likely she was to be caught.

Then she noticed the brighter light in an arched pattern in one of the recesses. It was cold light, as if it came from outside and not from the flame of a lamp or candle. That one looked like a good candidate, so she headed toward it.

Sure enough, there was a wide stone staircase leading down one story. At the bottom, a set of giant-sized wooden doors stood just across a kind of super-sized foyer. Two tall, narrow windows set with heavy greenish glass flanked the doors. Thick iron bands with a curlicue pattern held the planks of the doors together, and a slab of wood hung across the gap between the doors—a crude bolt, she guessed. All of it looked too heavy for her to open by herself, but she had to try so she scuttled toward them.

Please don’t let anyone see me.

Now her heart pounded so hard she felt light-headed. Which was ridiculous. What would Vadryc do if he found her? Yell, maybe. Lock her in her room. What else could he do? It wasn’t as if she cared what he thought of her.

Maybe he’ll decide you’re not worth the trouble and cut your throat.

That last thought came just as she lifted the heavy bolt on the doors and pushed them open. They weren’t as heavy as they looked—or, more probably, they were very well balanced. She ran through the gap and into the street.

 

Chapter 9

A medley of odors met Crystal’s nose, many more than the frost and woodsmoke she’d noticed earlier. This was a nose-curling mix of smoke, exotic spices, horse manure, and something that reeked like sewage. She tried breathing through her mouth to avoid the smell.

This side of the palace was surrounded by other buildings crammed one against the other, their brightly painted walls a mix of stonework and something that looked a lot like Tudor-style half-timbering. They leaned over the rough cobblestones of the street in tones of pink and yellow and green, making it dark and cramped. Some of them boasted hanging signs at street level, with various pictures painted on them. She saw one with a black dog, one with a boot, and another with what looked like a needle and thread. A tailor’s?

Each doorway also had an image painted next to it. Most of the images featured snakes. Some had a slender dancing girl with a wreath of flowers on her head. Crystal stared for a moment in fascination at the household shrines. She’d read about them in the books, but seeing them was a different experience. People in Fortunata typically made small offerings at these shrines each time they went in and out of a building.

Those people were out and about now, both men and women. All were bundled up in thick, coarsely-woven cloaks and scarves, heavy boots on their feet. Most ignored her, but several women gave her suspicious stares as they passed. Did she really look so odd?

She held her hand out to a middle-aged woman carrying a baby. “Please excuse me. Do you know where I can find Amryc Falyros?”

The woman glanced at her, pinched her lips tightly and scurried away, her baby clutched in her arms.

Crystal picked up her dragging skirts and strode away down the street, choosing her direction at random. Her first goal was simply to get away from Vadryc. Once she’d put a little distance between herself and him, she could focus on finding Amryc.

Two streets over, the area was even more disreputable, the buildings shabby and the hanging signs faded and chipped. The people had pinched faces and patches on their clothes. Crystal wrapped her arms around her torso against the cold that was seeping through her gown. Sleet began to fall, settling in icy lumps on her shoulders and hair.

She stepped up to an old woman in a red shawl. “I beg your pardon, but can you tell me how to find Amryc Falyros?”

The old lady glared at her. “Begone with you, whore.”

Crystal stared at her with open mouth as she hobbled away. Whore? Really? She was wearing the garments of a respectable servant. No part of her body showed except her face and hands. What made that old biddy think she was a prostitute?

“Mayhap I can help you, dolly,” said a rough male voice.

She turned. The man who’d spoken was built like a bull, with a thick neck almost completely concealed by his heavy knitted scarf. He wore a jacket of tan leather, scuffed and worn and patched in places, and loose trousers made of the coarse wool so common in this place.

He grinned at her through a bushy reddish beard. “I can help you, dolly.” His gaze traveled over her, from her bare head to the tips of her shoes peeking out from beneath her skirts, a nasty light in his eyes. He sure didn’t look like he wanted to help.

“No, thank you.” She turned away and started down the street.

He caught her by the arm. “I said I can help you.”

Her pulse began to race. “Please let me go.”

“How much do you want?” He leered at her again, leaning in until she could smell his sour breath.

“I’m not—I don’t want anything.” Sweat trickled along her ribs, chilling her in the cold winter air.

“Come, girly. I know you do. Now how much will it be?” He had stained, broken teeth and his breath reeked of beer and onions.

Coming out by herself had been a very bad idea. She ought to have known better. After all, she was practically an expert on Fortunata.

Crystal fought back a gag, along with the hysterical urge to laugh. “Leave me alone.”

He shoved her against the wall of the nearest building. “That’s not a very friendly attitude.”

The impact with the wall knocked some of the breath out of her lungs. She gasped for air. The man’s beefy hand clamped over her breast and squeezed so hard it hurt. Crystal screamed.

Suddenly, the man jerked away from her. She stared up into Vadryc’s furious dark eyes as he tore the man away, sending him stumbling across the paving stones.

“What—now hold on,” the thug said. “Who do you think you are?”

“This woman belongs to me,” Vadryc snarled, grabbing her around the waist. He jerked her against his body and turned them both to face her attacker.

He’d changed from the loose robe to an outfit much like the one the older man, Syrcos, had worn—a dark, snug jacket over full trousers tucked into tall boots. The tight fit of his jacket allowed her an exquisite awareness of the hard muscularity of him pressed against her side. And the smell of him, God, the smell of him—a potent mélange of the ever-present smoke and a natural, masculine, spicy musk that made her core ache in sudden, misplaced longing.

The man who had attacked her stood in the center of the street, forcing everyone to move around him. Nobody seemed to care that she’d been assaulted or even be especially interested in the confrontation going on before their eyes. They ducked their heads and continued on their way as if they hadn’t seen anything.

Redbeard gaped up at Vadryc, his coarse face turning scarlet, then stark white. “Your pardon, Master Varil. I didn’t see—I didn’t know.”

Was that street thug afraid of Vadryc? And why was he calling him Varil?

“And now you do,” Vadryc said in a cold and menacing tone. “Don’t let me see you here again.”

“But I—I live here, Master. Just there, above the Dancing Spider.”

Vadryc took a menacing step toward him and he faltered, backing off a pace. “Then stay indoors.”

“Y-yes, sir. I’ll do that.”

Vadryc swept her away without another word. He still had his arm around her shoulders like a vise, forcing her to trot to keep up with his long-legged pace. She glanced up at him and swallowed. His gorgeously-sculpted lips had turned into a thin, hard line, his nostrils flared, and his jaw kept ticking, as if he were grinding his teeth. He looked like he was beside himself with fury.

***

He dragged her back to the palace without a word and slammed through the front door. She noted distantly that the air inside his home wasn’t much warmer than that outside. The sleet in her clothes felt like she’d bathed in crushed ice. He released her, and without the warmth of his body she began to shiver uncontrollably.

“What were you thinking?” he growled. “Are you mad? Are you trying to draw the attention of the authorities? Do you have any idea what they would do to you—to all of us—if they found you?”

She stared at him, her eyes as wide as they would go, and shook her head. “I just wanted—” What? What story could she tell that would sound believable? “I only wanted to see the—the neighborhood.” That sounded as idiotic as she now felt.

“This is not a safe part of the city, Tonarisa. And you’re not appropriately dressed. And respectable women don’t go out by themselves. Don’t you know anything?”

She should know. She’d read all the books. But she’d forgotten in her excitement, her fear of him, her longing to find Amryc and get things sorted out.

Let’s face it. You wanted to find your girlhood crush. How pathetic was that?

“It’s not like that where I come from,” she muttered, still shivering.

“And you’ve gotten a chill.” He glared at her. “If you get sick, it’ll be your own fault. And you’ll have to travel in that condition, because I’m not leaving you behind. So you’ll have only yourself to blame.”

Crystal dropped her gaze to the floor. “I—I’m sorry.”

“Come into my study and get warm.” He said the words through gritted teeth.

His hand closed around her wrist. He strode up the stairs and across the great hall, dragging her behind him.

“You’re hurting me,” she said.

“Good.”

She’d been starting to wonder—just a whisper of doubt—if he might not be as bad as she’d first believed. But at this moment, he felt every inch the villain. His grip on her wrist was going to leave bruises and he didn’t even care. He looked and sounded as if he despised her.

Vadryc thundered his way into his study and shoved her into one of the chairs next to the fire. He stalked to the fireplace and yanked on a cord hanging there. “I was about to have something to eat. You can share with me. Not that you deserve it after what you did, but I can’t have you dying on me, now can I?”

“Um…no?” She clasped her hands together. “Please don’t kill me.”

He gave a loud, angry-sounding snort. “It would probably be easier for all of us if I did.”

God…damn. She hoped he didn’t really mean that.

“I-I wasn’t thinking. I won’t do anything like that again.”

“No, you won’t. I’m keeping you locked up until we get to the mountain house.”

Locked up? No! “You don’t have to do that—”

“It seems that I do. I can’t have you running in the streets, being taken for a prostitute and attacked.”

Crystal swallowed. “About that…why did those people think I was a whore?”

He glowered at her. “Your hair.”

“My hair?” She picked up a strand of it, tugging at its now-damp length. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s loose, Tonarisa. Only whores wear their hair loose like that. It’s…highly provocative.”

“Are you serious? They thought I was a whore because my hair is down? That’s ridiculous.”

“That’s Fortunata.”

“In my world, no-one would think a woman was a whore because of her hairstyle.”

“We’re not in your world, remember? And speaking of your world,” he said, leaning casually against the stones surrounding the hearth. “Do you have someone who might worry about you?”

She crinkled her brow in confusion. “Worry about me?”

“Yes.” He waved his hand vaguely. “Someone waiting for you.”

“Waiting for me?”

Vadryc crossed his arms and raised one dark brow. “Are you going to repeat everything I say?”

“I’m just not sure what you’re asking me. My…the man I work—worked—for might miss me a little, I suppose. He’s used to me doing everything for him, so he’s probably feeling sorry for himself right now. But I think—I hope, anyway—that he’s more worried about Jackson and Viviana.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s their father.”

Vadryc’s expression darkened to a scowl. “You’re mistress to Jackson and Viviana’s father?”

Crystal stared at him slack-jawed. “What? No! I’m his personal assistant, not his mistress. Or I was.” Now she didn’t know who or what she was. Some kind of metaphysical refugee, she supposed.

“Your male relatives have no objection to you working for a man?”

What was that supposed to mean? He was slipping into that obnoxious Fortunatan machismo thing again. She stiffened, her chin rising. “In my world, men don’t control women that way. And there’s nothing wrong with a woman working, whether for a man or another woman. Everyone works.”

He pushed off from the wall and stalked toward her with a strangely predatory gait, his eyes gleaming darkly. “Your husband doesn’t mind?”

“I don’t have a husband,” she said between gritted teeth.

He stopped, still glowering down at her. Damn, the man could glower more fiercely than anyone she’d ever met before, heavy dark brows drawn down over eyes the color of espresso, angular jaw tense and hard. If she wasn’t so pissed at him, she might be intimidated.

“What did you do for Tonos Smithfield?” he growled.

Crystal leaned into him, glowering right back. “That is none of your concern.”

“You’re under my protection. Everything about you is my concern.”

“My career is over. What difference does it make?” Odd how little that statement affected her, considering all the long hours she’d worked trying to get ahead.

“I want to know more about you.”

“Oh, you do?” He had a funny way of showing his interest. It seemed more like judgment.

“Yes, I do.”

“Fine. I kept track of his appointments, did research for him, ran errands, answered his phone, supervised the office clerks and a bunch of other stuff I can’t explain because it doesn’t exist here in Fortunata. None of it involved sexual favors. Now are you satisfied?”

He snorted again. “Hardly. What is a phone?”

The study door opened and one of the women from earlier in the morning entered with yet another tray of food and drink. She set the things on the same table and turned to go.

“Famra,” Vadryc said. “Come here if you please.”

The serving girl spun on her heel and came over to him, as calmly as if he weren’t one of the most dangerous men in the country. “Yes, my lord?”

“Crystal, this is Famra. She’s worked for me for five years. Is that correct, Famra?”

The girl curtsied. “Yes, my lord.”

“She’s a good, hard worker. Those are her clothes you’re wearing, her only extra set. Do you know what would happen to her if the authorities came here because of you?”

Famra’s pale face went even whiter. “Are they coming here? Do they know about us?” Us, not you. She clearly identified with Vadryc. Crystal’s heart shrank in her chest at the obvious dread on the girl’s face. She didn’t want to hurt these people; she only wanted to ensure safety for the Smithfields and herself.

“No, my dear,” Vadryc said. “They know nothing. I’m only explaining to Tonarisa Crystal that she mustn’t run about on the streets.” He pronounced her name Kree-stahl, making it sound exotically beautiful to her ears. She’d never found her own name beautiful before.

And she didn’t want to, not under these circumstances. She didn’t want him to make her feel beautiful or desirable.

He took the serving girl by the hand, a gesture that seemed comforting rather than sexual. “Can you tell Tonarisa Crystal what would happen if the authorities came here?”

The girl swallowed hard. “They would take us away and throw us in the deepest cells of the royal prison, Tonarisa. They would—they w-would torture us, perhaps. To force us to betray our master.”

Crystal’s hands hurt from clutching the arms of her chair. “I would never want that to happen.”

Famra sent a furtive glance toward Vadryc. “They h-hate our master, although he is a good man,” she said, meeting Crystal’s eyes. “They would like to find him and put him to death. Please, I beg of you, don’t do anything that would draw them here.”

She began to shake her head and felt as if she couldn’t stop. “I won’t. I swear it.”

She didn’t believe Famra’s claim that Vadryc was a good man—not for an instant. But she never wanted to bring harm on his servants, who were only doing their jobs. And even Vadryc—she wouldn’t want to see him tortured.

“Thank you, Famra,” he said. “That will be all.”

When she was gone, he leaned forward and took Crystal’s hands in both of his own, his gaze probing hers intently. “Why did you really run into the street, Tonarisa?”

She tried to remove her hands from his too-provocative grip. “I told you. I wanted to see your world.”

“You will see plenty of it when we leave. Now tell me the truth. What were you trying to do?”

“I-I can’t explain it.”

“Can’t?” His brows rose. “Or won’t?”

Crystal shook her head, her eyes pinching shut. “I came here from another world. Another world, Vadryc. I’m lost. Out of time, out of place. I don’t know what’s going on or what I’m doing.”

“You are telling me you ran into the street out of distress?”

“Yes.” It was the truth, more or less. She had run into the street in distress. “I didn’t stop to think what would happen or that I might hurt someone. I’m truly sorry.”

She opened her eyes. His were so dark that in the low light they looked black. He was still staring at her, as if he could drag the truth out of her with the force of his gaze.

“I won’t harm you,” he said. “Please believe that. I want to protect you and your friends. Did you not see me fighting Syrcos in the tower room? He was my mentor, my friend, but I fought him on your behalf. Does that mean nothing to you?”

“I—” Her voice died.

She had seen him fight Syrcos; of course she had. Yet the idea Vadryc could be a good man instead of the villain portrayed in the books was too much for her to swallow.

Maybe the books are wrong. They’re just novels. You’re looking at the real thing.

She bit her lip. “I don’t understand any of this. I don’t understand how I can be here.”

Her inner voice urged her to tell him about the books and see what sense he could make of them. But what if he were playing some elaborate mental game with her, trying to trick her into trusting him? She simply didn’t know, and because she didn’t know, she couldn’t tell him anything.

“Very well,” he said. “I can see your confusion. Maybe you will eventually become comfortable enough here in my world that you can speak to me more openly.”

The anger in his voice was gone, replaced by a kind of distant gentleness. She didn’t trust it. Couldn’t. Even if the touch of his skin on hers made her body tingle all over. He was her enemy and she’d be a fool if she forgot that one simple truth.

***

The doors to the study slammed open, startling Vadryc. In spite of his hands surrounding hers, Crystal jumped in her seat and let out a little gasp. She looked shocked, as if she expected the guard to burst into his home at any moment.

It was only Muro, the steward.

“Yes, Muro?” he said.

“The boy I sent to follow Syrcos has returned. He’s gone to Amryc, my lord.”

Vadryc jumped to his feet. “What?”

“He followed Tonos Syrcos to Amryc’s town house. Syrcos waited outside. A man came out and spoke to him and he left. The boy continued to follow him. Not long after, he met Amryc in a public square. They went into a tavern together—The Golden Snuvi, I believe—where they spoke for quite a while.”

Vadryc pushed his fingers through his hair. “For the love of Jhatana. What is he up to?” He snapped his head up and locked gazes with Muro. “He’s selling us out.”

“I fear so, my lord.”

He cursed again. “What is he thinking? When the others in our order discover he betrayed me, his life will be worthless.”

“I’m sure he’ll come up with his own version of events,” Muro said blandly.

Vadryc blew out a long, frustrated breath. “That depends on who gets to the council first. We must be quick. The guard could be here any minute. Get our people together. We’ll get out immediately.”

“Where will we go?”

“I have a hidey-hole outside the city. We can go there for now.”

“Syrcos has many spies,” Muro said.

Vadryc gave him a sharp look. “You think he has someone in this household?”

“No, I don’t. But they might be planted all around us in the neighborhood.”

“You’ve never liked him,” he said.

Muro shrugged. “I didn’t like to say anything, my lord. It isn’t my place.”

“How is it I never saw him for what he is?” Vadryc said, pacing back and forth in front of the hearth. “I should never have trusted him.”

“It was my mistake as well,” Muro told him. “I should have said something to you before now.”

“Get the staff ready to go. We leave within the hour,” Vadryc said.

His steward blinked at him. “All of them, sir?”

“Yes, of course.”

“But they’ll slow us down. Shouldn’t you send them back to their families?”

Vadryc glowered at the man. “They have no families nearby and besides, I won’t leave anyone behind to be picked up by the guards. You know what would happen if I did. Now go. We don’t have time to waste.”

“Yes, sir.” The steward still looked like he wanted to argue with Vadryc, but he obeyed the order.

Vadryc crooked his finger at Crystal. “Come with me.”

She got to her feet, looking apprehensive. “What do you want from me?”

“To come with me.” He reached out and grabbed her wrist, holding tightly so she couldn’t escape. The touch of her skin burned right through him and settled deep in his groin.

“That hurts,” she said. “You’re going to bruise my arm.”

“Don’t fight me and I won’t have to hold you so tightly.”

“Have I been fighting you? No. I haven’t.”

“You tried to run away,” he snapped.

Her eyes went wide. She had the most remarkable eyes, a clear blue rimmed with heavy dark lashes. “Why do you think I was running away?”

“Tonarisa, I’m sadra-piahni. I know when someone is running away from me.” At that, he tugged on her wrist, urging her toward the stairs.

“You’ve had a lot of people try to escape you?” she said. “Why am I not surprised?”

He began taking the stairs in long strides. “I don’t know. Why aren’t you?”

“I can’t keep up with you,” she said breathlessly. “You’re going too fast.”

He paused with an impatient frown. “We are in danger. Severe danger, Tonarisa. I don’t think you’re taking the threat seriously.”

“I am! It’s just that my legs are short.”

He glance down at her, forming an arousing vision of her naked limbs. Unfortunately, the legs in question were covered up in thick layers of linen and wool, so he couldn’t see them. She was rather small, however.

Vadryc sighed. “My apologies. I’ll go a little slower.”

“Thank you. Why do you have to keep me by your side, anyway?”

He quirked a brow. “I think you already know the answer to that question.”

Her snowy skin turned pink. “Oh.” She muttered something in her barbaric native language.

“Come, now. We must be out of here by sunset.” He started back up the stairs.

The door to his chamber stood open. Crystal balked at the threshold, as if afraid to be in such an intimate place with him. He sent her an irritated glower.

“What is it now?”

“Why are you taking me to my room? You’re not going to lock me in, are you?”

“As it happens, this is my bedchamber, Tonarisa. I’ve come here for my belongings.”

Those spectacular eyes of hers went round again. “Your bedchamber? I was sleeping in your bed?”

Another unwanted image sprang to mind—Crystal spread out naked on his coverlet, her legs open for him. His groin throbbed suddenly as his face flushed with desperate heat. “Yes.”

“Why?”

He bit back a growl. “Because it was one of the few chambers ready for a guest. Now if all your questions have been answered, we need to be on our way.”

“How are we going to get out of the city? Won’t they be watching the roads?”

“Are you a sorceress? No? Then I suggest you keep to orders and trust those of us who know what we are doing.”

***

The servants and Vadryc’s unexpected guests all gathered in the corridor outside his chamber. Everyone was bundled from their feet to the crowns of their heads in nondescript cloaks, hats, scarves. Jackson and Viviana were nothing more than lumps of cloth, indistinguishable from ordinary Fortunatans. Crystal, however, he’d know anywhere. There was something about her, about the way she moved or perhaps her natural energy, that marked her for him as clearly as if she’d worn a sign declaring her identity.

To outsiders, though, they were completely anonymous in their colorless and shabby wrappings…at least, he hoped they were. They were running out of time to make an escape and they didn’t have any better disguises. These would have to do.

“We’re going up to my work room,” he said.

Muro raised his brows but said nothing. The two housemaids exchanged alarmed glances. The visitors seemed completely unaware of the extraordinary nature of his statement.

“Your workroom, sir?” Famra said in a thin voice.

“Yes. Come on.” He turned to lead the way up the stairs.

“But, sir, we’re not allowed in there,” she said from behind him.

He chuckled. “I’m rescinding that order. It’ll only be my work room for about ten more minutes anyway.”

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

“For what?” he said, taking the stairs two at a time.

“Well, this is your home. I hate seeing you driven out.”

She was a sharp-eyed girl, Famra. At sixteen, he’d lost the only home he’d ever really known, and nothing—nowhere he’d laid his head—since then had measured up. He owned a parcel of land in the Teeth, where he kept a household which he visited every summer, and the house in the White Mountains where he spent the rest of the year. That was as close to a home as he’d had until he’d bought this broken-down palace in Rasonyc. Foolishly, he’d thought he could remake it into something like the place he’d lost.

He shrugged off the melancholy as he reached the door of his work room. They didn’t have time to mope. He threw open the door and strode to the shelves where he kept his collection of potions and ointments, mostly of his own make. Where had he put it? He ran his fingertip along one shelf after another, looking for a certain green glass jar.

“Ah, here it is.” He pulled the little jar from the shelf and wiped off the dust that had settled on its rounded shoulders. “All of us need to wear this.”

“What is it, my lord?” Muro said.

“Cat’s eye ointment,” he said. “It’ll allow us to see in the dark.”

Crystal wore a frown. “Does it work?”

“Of course it works,” Muro said, giving her an incredulous glance. “Tonos Vadryc made it.”

She pursed her lips, still looking doubtful. “Of course.”

“You’d better wear it,” Vadryc said. “We’re going over the roof tops. It’ll be darker than the inside of Lira’s purse out there.”

Muro choked at his crudity. He jerked his head in her and Viviana’s direction. “Mixed company.”

Crystal ignored him, looked up at Vadryc with a puzzled light in her eyes. “What does that mean, over the roof tops? Are we flying?”

He grinned. “No. We’re running. I know people claim we sadra-piahni can fly, but unfortunately it isn’t true.”

“Oh.” She blinked. “I see.”

He took another assessing glance at his band of fellow escapees. Crystal’s face looked paler than he’d ever seen it, even more than when she’d lost consciousness. Her gaze darted nervously around the room and her foot tapped in a continuous rhythm on the floor. She looked as if she wanted to crawl under a bed somewhere and hide.

“Tonarisa?” he said, bending his head closer to hers. “Are you well?”

She wouldn’t look at him. Her teeth worried at her lower lip. “I’ll be fine.”

“If there’s something wrong, I need to know now, before we go out there.”

She stared at the floor. “I’m not good at climbing.”

He smiled at her, trying to put some reassurance in his tone of voice, even while he chafed at the delay. They didn’t have much more time. “You’ll be all right. We won’t be doing much real climbing.”

“But the roofs are steep.”

“Well, yes, but they’re not so steep you can’t walk on them. I’ve done it many times.”

She lifted her gaze to his, the muscles around her eyes tight and strained. “I’m not you.”

“Muro and I will help you.”

“You don’t understand,” she muttered. “I’m afraid of heights.”

Vadryc bit back a curse. Couldn’t she have told him this earlier? “Unfortunately, we don’t have time to come up with an alternative plan. We have to go over the roofs tonight. Everyone here will help you. Right?” He glanced around the room for support.

The others chimed in with a chorus of “yes, of course!”

She bit her lip so hard he thought she might draw blood. “I’m afraid I’ll panic.”

It was obvious to him that she didn’t want to tell him any of this. She seemed to hate and resent him no matter how kind he tried to be and under other circumstances he would have been glad to ignore her discomfort. But he couldn’t afford to do that tonight. He needed her to stay calm and in control of herself or she could endanger all of them.

He set his hand on her small shoulder. Touching her, even in such an innocent way, made shards of desire shoot through him. “Stay right with me. I’ll help you. I’ll hand you across every time we move from one building to the next.”

Crystal stared at him with narrowed eyes. “Why would you do that for me?”

“Because I don’t want you to fall, obviously.” He forced a smile. “You’ll be perfectly safe. I promise you that.”

“Will you help me, too?” Viviana said with a flirtatiously breathy voice.

“No,” he said. “I’ll leave that honor to your brother and Muro. Tonight I belong to Tonarisa Crystal.”

That came out sounding much more suggestive than he’d meant it to, but it was too late to take it back. Besides, Crystal simply ignored him except to shoot him a glance full of resentment.

Viviana pushed out her lower lip in a pout she seemed to think was seductive. It made Vadryc want to laugh out loud.

He gave Crystal a soft pat on the shoulder. “I’ll take care of you. Stay with me.”

She nodded. “All right. I’ll try.”

She’d have to do better than try, but Vadryc refrained from saying so.

“Go ahead and get started,” Vadryc said. “While I get a few things.”

He started tucking bottles and jars into the pockets of a leather satchel he’d had made especially for this purpose. None of them were irreplaceable, but some would be quite useful on their journey. You never knew when you’d need a magical boost, especially when you were on the road in enemy territory—which was for a sadra-piahni the whole of Fortunata.

“All done, my lord,” Muro said, handing him the jar.

Vadryc applied a thin layer of ointment to each of his own lids before capping the jar and sticking it into the remaining pocket in his satchel.

“Very good,” he said. “Is everyone ready?”

A variety of mutterings, none of them enthusiastic, emerged from the group.

“Up to the roof, then,” he said. 

 

Chapter 10

A stiff breeze blew icy rain into their faces as they walked to the parapet, but Vadryc hardly felt it through all the layers of wool on his body. There was nothing but a waning sliver of pinkish moon tonight, its light so negligible that without the cat’s eye ointment they would have been blind. As it was, he could clearly see the stone edge of the parapet and the dark cavern of street just beyond.

This neighborhood was old and the buildings were cheek by jowl, even when there was a street between them. The narrow slip that separated his home from the Dancing Spider was so narrow he could almost step across with no effort at all. His legs were long, however.

He glanced back at Crystal, who hadn’t been able to keep up with him on the stairs. “Thank you can jump that?” he said.

“I can,” Viviana said breathlessly.

He didn’t even look at her. Every time he did, she batted her eyelashes at him in the most shameless manner. It made him want to laugh, and that would be rude.

“Tonarisa Crystal?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“I’ll help you,” he said. “I’ll go first. Then you jump for me and I’ll catch you.”

Viviana gave him an odd look he caught out of the corner of his eye.

Crystal bit her lip. “All right. I’ll try.”

Jackson Smithfield patted her on the shoulder, in a brotherly manner that made him wonder about their true relationship. “It’s not that far, really.”

“Maybe not for you,” she whispered. “You don’t have stumps for legs.”

“You’ll be fine,” he said.

Vadryc climbed up on the parapet. He lifted one foot, extended it over the gap and gave a slight hop, landing on the roof tiles of the next building. His feet slipped on the slick, steeply pitched tile and he wobbled before catching his balance.

“Shit,” he muttered.

“Are you all right?” Crystal said, her voice high-pitched with anxiety.

“I’m fine. It was only a momentary thing.” He held out his arms. “Your turn.”

“Oh, God.” She twisted her hands together.

“You have to, Tonarisa. Believe me, you don’t want to stay here and we’ll be better off up on the roofs than on the streets.”

“Yes. All right. I’m coming over.”

She stared fixedly at him, as if he were a magical talisman that would keep her from falling. Vadryc crooked his fingers with a smile he hoped was reassuring. She gathered herself and jumped.

The impact of her body sent him backward onto the up-slope of the roof. His ass landed on wet tile with Crystal on top of him. He closed his arms around her, instinctively trying to prevent her from sliding off the edge.

She felt warm, even through layers upon layers of wool. Her arms were braced on either side of his head, her legs straddling his torso. Vadryc’s body responded to her nearness with a rush of awkward desire that stiffened his cock and made his heart pound so loud he thought she might be able to hear it.

She smiled down at him. “I made it.”

“Yes, you did.” Her unexpected smile made his heart pound even harder. He swallowed. “I’m—very relieved.”

He put her to the side and clambered to his feet. Muro stepped across, his long legs making it easy. Jackson followed, and then Viviana, who was almost as tall as her brother.

“You make it look like stepping off a curb,” Crystal said to Viviana.

The blonde shook her head. “It’s not a big gap, but it was scary.”

The two housemaids made it across with no trouble and Vadryc turned to lead the way along the edge of the Dancing Spider’s roof. Their progress was slow because of the pitch and the slippery, sleet-coated tiles. His boots had hobnail soles, as did Muro’s and Jackson’s, but the women had typical feminine footwear, unsuitable for something as adventurous as this. He’d have to find them some men’s boots as soon as possible. They might not have to escape again over rooftops anytime soon, but they had a long journey ahead of them and good boots would be essential.

He glanced around for Crystal and let out a relieved sigh to find her at his left side, just a pace behind. Why he cared so much he didn’t know. She was a stranger and she seemed to hate him, for reasons he didn’t understand.

Perhaps his kind of magic was frowned upon, outlawed, in her world as well as his.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to cut off a burgeoning relationship with a woman because of her attitude toward magic. For the past couple of years, he’d frequented a certain house of ill repute rather than attempt to find a mistress. Whores were easier to manage and less judgmental.

Are you thinking of making Crystal your mistress? he asked himself.

Instead of answering, he paused as he neared the edge of the Dancing Spider’s roof and gazed out at the city beyond. The next few buildings had flatter tops, which ought to make them easier to traverse.

He looked over his shoulder. From here, he could see the high tower of his palace, the one which housed his work room. He’d put too many hopes into that place, too many dreams. It was only a building, which he would now have to sell.

He wasn’t going back to Rasonyc. It was an uncomfortable place for a sadra-piahni, far too close to the king and his royal guard, not to mention some of the most powerful Piahni in Fortunata. No, from here out, he would remain at his house in the Teeth, where the king’s men never went.

“I’m sorry about your house,” Crystal said in an undertone.

“Don’t be. It meant nothing.”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “Right. Nothing.”

“My lord, look,” Muro said, pointing toward his former home.

Bright yellow light speared upward from the road. The sharp rap of horse hooves accompanied the light. At the edge of his hearing, male voices rumbled.

“The royal guard,” Muro whispered.

“Let’s go, then,” Vadryc said. He jumped across. “Crystal. Come to me.”

That sounded all too intimate. He could only hope the dim light hid the red that probably colored his face.

She jumped more quickly this time and caught her balance without bowling him over. His arms snaked around her waist anyway, holding her against him for an instant longer than necessary.

The bulky shroud of her cloak and other wrappings concealed the fine curves of her figure. That didn’t stop him from becoming painfully aroused by the feel of her in his arms, though. He’d been without a woman too long.

She brought her hands up to his chest and gave him a shove. “Thank you. I’m fine.”

He released her with a flush of embarrassment. She definitely hated him.

Pounding and shouting came from the direction of his palace. The whole group turned to look back in the direction from which they’d come. The lights were moving now, spreading out in every direction.

“They’ve discovered we’re gone,” Vadryc said.

“Everyone across.” Muro pointed toward him, gesturing with his other hand for the rest of the group to move to the next building.

“We’re going to have to go faster,” Vadryc said.

“I barely made it this far,” Viviana told him.

“Well, unless you want to visit the royal prison, you’re going to have to speed up.”

Muro took her elbow, leaning close. “I’ll help you, Tonarisa. I won’t let you fall.”

The blonde gave him a startled glance, as if she hadn’t really noticed him until now.

“Um…thank you,” she said, with a quizzical frown.

“You realize they could be closing the roads out of the city even now,” Vadryc said to Muro.

“I did think of it.”

Crystal grabbed his arm. “You mean we might be trapped here anyway? Why are we climbing all over the rooftops, then?”

“Because there’s a chance I’m wrong.” He started across the sloped expanse of curved red tiles.

Crystal followed him, muttering. Some of her words sounded familiar, if too soft to understand. Others sounded completely alien, so he guessed they must be in her native tongue. He wondered as he picked his way across the icy roof what her world was like. The ancient lore claimed there were marvelous things to be found in some of the places the old sorcerers had accessed through the jhidrisi, but he’d found those tales hard to believe. Surely they exaggerated when they said people flew through the air in giant metal birds or that they’d traveled all the way to their moon…which was different from the moon over his planet of Madrisa, of course.

Those stories related to only one of the worlds the ancient sorcerers had visited, the one which was their favorite. There were others, with even stranger sights. When they reached a safe place, he’d question her and her friends, find out what they knew.

They made their way across roof after roof, at a pace that made Vadryc grit his teeth with impatience. The women slowed them down. Their shoes weren’t meant for this kind of climbing and besides they were timid, hesitant. Especially the two housemaids.

The sliver of moon disappeared, taking its meager light with it. Now all they had was the cold white starlight to help them see where they were going. The streets beneath them were nothing but black pits between the roofs, except where the yellow glow of the guards’ lanterns broke through the gloom.

He turned to give one last glance at his abandoned house, only to see the ugly orange flicker of flames peeking out from behind the intervening roofs. They’d set it afire. They were burning down his palace.

***

Crystal had lost count of how many roofs they’d traversed so far. She only knew it had been a lot and each one of them, steeply pitched and with elaborate scroll work along their gable ends, had terrified her. The shoes she wore could only have been worse for the job if they’d been Vivi’s five-inch platform spikes. Her clogs had wooden soles and not only were they kind of slippery but they had no flexibility to speak of, making it impossible for her to grip through her feet. She had to pick her way across the lumpy, icy-slick tiles as if walking on a skating rink.

The people following them obviously had some Piahni in their midst because they stayed close behind, although never quite catching up. She was tired, bone tired, so tired she felt nauseated.

All she’d seen of Fortunata was a couple of Rasonyc’s seediest streets and the inside of Vadryc’s dusty old pile of rocks. And now this nearly blind rush over the rooftops.

How stupid to mope over the lack of sightseeing opportunities. She was trapped in this weird alternative universe that should never have existed in the first place and she had little to no chance of ever getting home.

What home?

All she had was a one-bedroom apartment with the barest minimum of furniture and no food in the refrigerator. She was never there except to sleep. Her whole life was at work.

Or it had been at work. Now she didn’t know where it was.

Trying to save itself by tiptoeing across ice-covered roofs at midnight.

She bit her lip as they approached the edge of yet another roof. She’d bitten it so many times over the course of the evening it was starting to hurt.

She could see nothing but a black canyon of empty space beyond the curved edge of the tiles. On the other side, the tiles were a lighter red and showed clearly against the dark sky and the darker plunge to the street. The gap looked much wider than her legs were long.

Her heart began to slam against the bounds of her ribs and bile rose in her throat. There was no way she was going to make it across that. It was too far for her. She breathed deeply through her nose to fight off the nausea.

Muro, the housemaids, and the Smithfields jumped across with no apparent problems. They turned, their figures silhouetted in black against the deep blue of the night sky, and waited for her and Vadryc. But Crystal’s feet seemed to have fastened themselves permanently to the roof beneath her. She couldn’t bring herself to move forward.

Vadryc paused and extended a hand to her. “Are you all right?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I’m not.”

“You’ve come this far. It’ll be fine.”

“I can’t cross this one.” She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she felt deep in her gut that she wouldn’t make it across that gap.

“Crystal, you can do it. I’ll help you.”

“It’s too far. I’m the shortest person here. There’s no way I can jump that.”

“Yes, you can. You have to try. Here, I’ll go first and catch you on the other side.”

He sounded so calm and patient, but she could hear a barely discernible note of irritation in his voice. He was getting tired of her continual fear. And she couldn’t blame him. He might be a villain, but he’d gone out of his way tonight to help her.

What was wrong with her, anyway? She didn’t even know where her fear of heights came from. It was completely irrational and now it was threatening her life and that of her companions. She had to get over it. Now.

She took a deep breath. I can do this. I have to do it.

“Okay,” she said in English. Vadryc gave her a quizzical look, reminding her she’d used a word he couldn’t understand.

“Yes,” she continued in Fortunatan. “I can do it.”

He smiled and even in the dark it stole her breath. Why did the damned villain have to be so beautiful? “Good girl.”

“The lights are coming this way,” Muro said.

Crystal looked over her shoulder. Oh, God. The yellow glow of the searchers’ lamps was moving in their direction. She had to hurry or they’d be caught.

Maybe that would be a good thing.

If they were caught, she might be able to reach Amryc. All she had to do was call out, yell for help. Then she could tell them she wanted to speak to Tanos Amryc Falyros—no, Duke Falyros—and they would take her to him. Wouldn’t they?

Then again, maybe not. Maybe Vadryc and Famra were telling the truth when they said the authorities would torture them. And even if she did see Amryc, she had no guarantee he would listen to her, believe her, protect her.

Vadryc leaped gracefully across the gap, making it look so easy she felt ashamed of her fear. She shuffled forward. Her hood slid off her head, and the cold night wind picked up escaped strands of her hair, blowing them across her eyes.

“Now you,” Vadryc said.

She swallowed, forcing down the lump in her throat. Get it over with. That’s what she had to do. If she stood here thinking about it, she’d lose what little nerve she had.

Right. Just do it.

She gathered herself and jumped. Vadryc reached out to catch her as she launched herself in his direction. Her feet met the tiles of the next roof and the rigid surfaces of the soles slid. Crystal lurched forward as a shriek escaped her throat.

She landed on her hands and knees. As she hit the tiles, her feet slipped wildly, pitching her forward onto her face as she began to slide backward off the edge. Her hips and legs fell off into emptiness and she bit back another scream.

Vadryc grabbed her wrists, cursing under his breath. Her feet dangled in mid-air. Male shouts came from somewhere below and behind her—the royal guard, attracted by the idiotic noise she’d made.

“It’s all right,” Vadryc said. “I’ve got you.”

She panted, staring up at him, into his eyes. They were so dark, darker and warmer than the sky. They held her, grounded her, the same way his grasp on her arms grounded her and kept her from falling. He wouldn’t let her go.

“I’ve got you, Crystal.”

“They’re getting close, sir,” Muro said, urgency in his voice.

“Go, then.”

“What? We can’t leave you.”

Vadryc growled. “Yes, you can. Take the others and go. Don’t keep heading north. Take an indirect route to throw them off.”

“But—”

“Go!” He kept staring at her through the whole conversation, as if the force of his gaze could keep her safe.

Soft footfalls told her the others were leaving them behind, but she couldn’t see them. The only thing she saw was Vadryc; the only thing she felt was his hands on her. Keeping her alive.

“All right, I’m going to pull you forward,” he said.

He dragged her part way onto the roof. There wasn’t much room before the slope made it impossible for him to retreat anymore.

“Throw a leg up,” he said. “Just swing it around onto the roof.”

She struggled to get a leg up, struggled against the weight of skirts and chemise. She managed to raise her foot up to roof level, but it slipped on the tile. Gritting her teeth, she flung it past the edge of the tiles and hauled the rest of her leg up, dragging her skirts with it. They were full, but they hadn’t been cut with this kind of activity in mind.

The instant she had one full leg on a solid surface, she felt calmer. Safer. She rolled slightly, putting her weight on the side that was already on the roof and bringing the other half of her body with it.

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a sitting position and she turned into his body and clutched him. His arms wrapped around her, holding her tight. Her face burrowed in against the folds of his cloak, her whole body trembling. She could hear his heart beating hard and fast, could feel the fear in his tense muscles, in the way he bent his head to hers. He’d been afraid for her?

Vadryc was the villain. She shouldn’t feel so safe in his arms. Yet she’d never felt more protected, more cared for, than at this moment. His arms, his solid body, kept her on the roof where she belonged, kept her from falling and cracking her skull open on the pavement.

Part of her wanted to stay here in his embrace. Part of her wanted to kiss him in sheer gratitude.

The voices of the guards sounded so close it was almost as if they were standing immediately below them. They were muttering among themselves, probably trying to figure out where she’d gone.

“You’re safe,” Vadryc murmured against her hair. “You did it.”

He’d saved her life. He could have run off and let her fall to her death on the pavement. Instead he’d risked his own safety to save her. She huddled more closely in his embrace.

***

Viviana lagged in Jackson’s grip as he led her away from Crystal and Vadryc. She didn’t want to leave her friends, especially not in this situation. She glanced over her shoulder at Vadryc, who crouched at the edge of the roof, Crystal’s wrists gripped tightly in his hands. What if Crystal fell? What if she didn’t make it?

“We have to help them,” she said.

“Vadryc will save her.” Jackson didn’t even look behind them as he hustled her forward after Muro and the two housemaids.

“What if he doesn’t? Please, Jackson. We can’t just leave her there.”

They’d reached the edge of the current roof. Muro stood there waiting for her and her brother to catch up. He shook his head at her, his face unreadable in the darkness.

“Tonarisa Crystal will be fine,” he said. “Tonos Vadryc will save her. We’d just get in the way.”

“But—”

“He ordered me to take you away,” he said, unmoved. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”

“It’s a bad order. You don’t have to follow it,” she said.

He caught her hand. For one crazy instant, her heart pounded not because of the danger they were in, but because he was touching her. Touching her bare skin.

“Someone has to get to the council and warn them of Tonos Lantirso’s actions. If Vadryc and Crystal don’t make it, we must. Many lives besides our own may depend on our survival. That’s why Tonos Vadryc split us up.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

“Then come along. I’ll explain on the way.”

She took an unsteady breath. In Hawaii, she’d chafed under Crystal’s constant presence, her continual supervision. She’d hardly been able to tolerate the woman. Now, she couldn’t stand the idea of leaving her. But if Vadryc and Muro thought it was best, maybe they were right. This was their world, after all, and she didn’t know anything about it.

“All right,” she said with reluctance.

They scuttled across the narrow gap between the roofs. Muro turned sharply to the right, completely perpendicular to the way they’d been traveling. The housemaids trailed him like a couple of sheep, as if they had no opinions of their own on the best route. She and Jackson followed, blindly trusting the man to lead them in the correct direction. What else could they do?

She’d been floating in a bizarre sense of unreality ever since they’d gotten here, as if she were dreaming or having some kind of drug-induced hallucination. Nothing felt real. Nothing seemed entirely solid. Even the sleet falling from the dark night sky and stinging against her cheeks seemed removed and distant, almost as if it were happening to someone else.

Viviana had done a lot of traveling in her twenty years. She’d been to Europe multiple times, had seen parts of China, visited Japan, India, North Africa. She’d been to any number of exotic and strange locales, and this one should have been simply another in a long list of odd places. But Fortunata was different.

For one thing, she wasn’t insulated by fine hotels and hired drivers who spoke English. She wasn’t dressed in her normal clothing and she couldn’t get a Coke or a cup of coffee anywhere. She’d slept in a very foreign bed, eaten foreign food, and now she was wearing clothes that looked and felt like they belonged on the set of some fantasy movie.

“Who is this Tonos Lantirso?” she said.

Muro and both the housemaids looked at her, the women as if her ignorance amazed them. Viviana bristled. Who did they think they were, anyway? Just a couple of servants. They had no right to judge her and they were idiots to expect her to know random facts about their world, as if she’d been born and raised here.

“He’s another sadra-piahni,” Muro said. “Like Tonos Vadryc.”

“And what’s that?”

“Sadra-piahni? It’s a person who practices magic that’s against the law.”

“Magic?” Jackson sounded as if he wanted to laugh out loud. “Truly?”

“Yes.” Muro gave him another of those unreadable glances. “Do you have no magic in your world?”

“Not as far as I know,” Jackson said. “At least, no magic that actually works.”

“Well, I assure you that magic works very well here on Madrisa,” Muro said dryly.

“Madrisa?” Jackson exchanged a puzzled glance with her.

“That’s the name of our world. Fortunata is our country. Madrisa is the whole world.”

“Like Earth,” Vivi said. “That’s what we call our world.”

“So this Lantirso person practices illegal magic,” Jackson said. “And Vadryc does too?”

“Yes.” Muro hopped across to the next roof and stood there waiting for them.

Her shoes were kind of clumsy and she’d rather be wearing hiking boots, or at least running shoes. But Viviana had made a hobby out of outrageous footwear, and she’d learned to walk easily in extra high heels and platforms, so the stiff soles of her clogs didn’t bother her much. Besides, her legs were quite a bit longer than Crystal’s. She crossed with no trouble at all.

“So our host is an outlaw,” Vivi said, staring straight into Muro’s eyes.

“He’s a good man.”

She gave him a careless shrug, as if she didn’t really believe him but didn’t want to be rude enough to say so out loud. Why she felt such a powerful urge to needle him, she couldn’t say. It was only that every time she thought of the way Vadryc had ignored her in favor of Crystal, the way he almost seemed to dote on the frumpy personal assistant, a wave of angry indignation came over her. She liked Vadryc and she cared—inexplicably, but still cared—about Crystal. But the woman wasn’t even close to being the equal of the supreme hotness that was Vadryc, so why was he with her and not Vivi?

Muro scowled at her. “If it weren’t for Tonos Vadryc, the three of you would be dead. Syrcos Lantirso wanted to kill you.”

“Why would he do that? We’re no threat to him.”

“First, he can’t be certain of that unless you’re dead,” Muro said. “Second, he wanted to remove all evidence of his experiment with the jhidris. You’re very lucky Vadryc got there in time. You should be grateful to him.”

“I am grateful,” she said lightly. “I like Vadryc a lot.”

A glance at the housemaids told her they were staring sullenly at their feet. They hated her. She dismissed them with a toss of her head. Girls had hated her before, too many to count, and she didn’t give a damn what a couple of probably illiterate servants thought of her. She thought with a fierce and sudden ache of her friend, Marci, who was probably wondering at this very moment why she hadn’t called or texted lately. If only her phone worked in this crappy place.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Muro said. “ Tonos Vadryc is more than capable of taking care of himself and your friend. The best thing we can do to help him and Tonarisa Crystal is to stay alive and get to the council before Syrcos Lantirso does.” 

 

Chapter 11

Vadryc led Crystal along the length of the roof in the opposite direction from the one Muro and the others had taken. At least, she thought it was opposite. She hadn’t exactly been paying attention to their route when she’d been dangling off the roof. They were out of sight now, and she had no idea which way they were going.

The sense of loss that tore through her almost stopped her breath.

She’d been so resentful of the Smithfields, but they were friends. Real friends, and her only remaining connection to her own world. Please let them be reunited.

All too soon, she and Vadryc reached another gap between buildings, but this one was narrow and she was able to step across. They climbed in silence. The tiles on this roof didn’t seem quite as icy or slippery, but she was tired now and it was tough going.

Her whole body seemed to ache at once. “I think I need to rest,” she muttered.

Vadryc pointed up the incline at a fancifully-shaped gabled dormer above them. “Up there.”

“Yikes,” she said. It was too far. Too steep. Too everything. The wind picked up, the gusts blowing her cloak around her and dragging at her hair, making her feel even more exposed.

“Yikes?” Vadryc repeated. “What does that mean?”

“It means shit, I don’t think I can make it.”

He reached out, took her hand, squeezed it in a gesture that warmed her more than it should. “Take it slow and steady, and you’ll make it. People get up on these roofs all the time to repair them.”

“Yes, and how many fall off?”

“I’m trying not to think about that.”

She laughed softly and he grinned in response, the expression lighting his face and making it irresistibly beautiful. How could she keep her guard up, how could she protect herself from him, when he looked so damned boyishly sexy?

Before long Crystal was perched on one side of the dormer, Vadryc next to her and slightly below.

He looked up at her with another devastating smile and she was amazed all over again at how much the expression changed his face. “You’re doing well.”

“I am not. I’m horrible.”

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

She drew her chin down, giving him a dubious stare. “No, I’m not. I almost got us caught.”

“Well, the scream was unfortunate,” he said dryly.

She snorted.

“But you recovered well. You didn’t give in to hysterics.”

He must have a low opinion of women. “Do most women you know get hysterical when things go bad?”

“Most women I know don’t climb over rooftops. I should have given you men’s clothing to wear. It would have been much more practical.”

Okay, maybe his opinion of females wasn’t as low as she’d thought, because that was a remarkably flexible attitude for a Fortunata male. Assuming, of course, that her precious books were correct. She was beginning to think the author had gotten a lot of things wrong.

This whole situation is insane. I’m going to wake up any minute now and find out I’ve been hallucinating the whole thing.

“Will the others be all right?” she said.

“Muro is very experienced. He’ll take good care of them.”

Which wasn’t exactly a straightforward answer.

“Do you think they’ll make it out of the city?”

He took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“And us?”

A dull, golden glow bobbed along somewhere below and to their right. Once again, the lights seemed to be nearing, the voices getting closer. Louder.

“We need to go,” Vadryc said.

He started off on a route parallel to the one they’d used on the neighboring roof. Crystal grabbed the edge of his cloak, and he paused to look at her.

“You’re going back the way we came,” she whispered.

“I know. We’re changing directions to throw them off.”

She blinked. “But don’t we have to get out of the city?”

“Yes, but we’re going to use a different route. Trust me, I’ve done this before.” He flashed her another of those dazzling smiles. “Come on.”

Damn it. She had to trust him. He certainly didn’t want to get caught, so he wouldn’t deliberately lead her into a trap. It just went against her every instinct to run back along the route they’d taken.

They crept along the edge of the building. Below them, in the narrow street, men were talking rapidly in Fortunatan. Either they were talking too fast for her to follow or their dialect was one she couldn’t understand, because she didn’t catch any of what they said. Except for Vadryc’s name. They repeated that several times, and they sounded angry. Frustrated.

Then she heard what sounded like a latch being undone, followed by the low squeak of hinges. She and Vadryc swung around to see the dormer window opening.

“Shit,” he said. “Come on.”

They began to run, crouched low and sometimes touching the tiles on the upslope with their hands. Crystal’s ankles ached from moving across the uneven surface.

A shout came from behind them. It sounded like stop. Really? Stop? As if they would obey an order like that.

She had a hysterical urge to laugh at the men chasing them, but she was too out of breath from running like a rat along the roofs. The guard was going to catch them. They were probably a lot fresher, since they hadn’t been climbing and slipping all night long. And there were more of them.

Good thing there aren’t any helicopters in Fortunata.

Thick fog seemed to ooze up from out of nowhere, and Vadryc ran straight into it. The white closed around them, shielding them from their pursuers, but she could still hear footsteps and shouts behind them.

Vadryc muttered under his breath and grabbed her wrist, turning a sharp left along the roof edge.

A nose-curling stench that seemed to be a combination of sewage, dead fish, and rotting vegetation accompanied the fog, growing thicker and stronger as they ran.

“What is that horrible smell?” she whispered.

“Shh.”

Okay, fine. She was pretty sure the guard could hear the damned clacking of these stupid wooden shoes she was wearing—they made a sound like a pair of castanets every time she took a step—but whatever. She could keep quiet for a while.

She glared at his back, barely visible through the dense fog even though he still had her wrist in his grip. High-handed bastard.

Suddenly he let go of her and dropped out of sight. What the hell? She stood immobile in the fog as her heart tried to climb up through her throat.

His face appeared at her feet. “Come here. I’ll lift you down.” He spoke so softly she almost couldn’t hear him.

She got stiffly to her knees, leaned forward and put her hands on his shoulders. He took her around the waist and she released her weight into his grip. As he pulled her off the roof, he let her slide all the way down the front of him, a sensation that made her body tingle wildly, made her want to throw her legs around his waist. Then her feet met another solid surface.

“Where are we?” she whispered.

“Another level down. Almost to the street.” He took her hand, leading her slowly forward.

The new edge was only a couple of paces away. Crystal waited while Vadryc went over the edge again and they repeated the lifting-down procedure. Except this time, when her feet met the cobblestones of the lane, he stared down at her and his lips parted as if he wanted to kiss her.

Crystal felt her own lips parting. Suddenly that kiss was the one thing she wanted, even more than escape.

***

A pebble fell from the roof above them and pinged across the cobbles. “Where are they?” said a harsh male voice.

Vadryc took her hand again and they ran—Crystal struggling to make her clogs silent—into the fog. The smell down here was so strong it made her eyes water. She could hear a wet sort of lapping sound, like water slapping against a pier. The stench and the fog must be coming from a river.

What river? She searched her memory for information about Rasonyc. All the Fortunata novels had come with maps of the world, and there was a major river running through the royal city. Tra, that was it. The River Tra, which only meant “green.”

Vadryc took her down a lane so narrow their shoulders almost touched the damp stone walls on either side. They passed doors set into cramped recesses, and weirdly some of the doors had signs posted next to them. All had the painted threshold altars, so this wasn’t a back alley despite its narrowness. It was a regular public street.

At the end of the lane there was nothing but darkness. The lapping sound was louder here, the smell overwhelming. Vadryc crept forward into the fog as if he knew exactly where he was going. How often had he been forced to make this crazy trip?

“I make practice runs,” he whispered, as if he’d read her mind. “That’s why this is so familiar to me.”

“What are we doing here?”

“Looking for something….”

The surface under their feet changed from cobblestones to wooden planks. They must be on some kind of pier.

“It should be just here…” Vadryc came up short and she bumped into him from behind. “Here it is. Get in.”

She peeked around him. The only thing visible was a post with some heavy rope tied around it.

“How? Is there a ladder?”

“Just here. You go over the side.”

“Oh, God.” Her stomach lurched and the sour taste of bile reappeared in her mouth.

“Crystal, trust me once more. Can you do that? Climb down the ladder and get in the boat. I’ll follow you.”

Her breath was coming in pants again. She couldn’t even explain why she was suddenly so afraid, except that she couldn’t see where she was supposed to go and had to trust that the ladder actually led into a boat and not directly into the filthy river.

“Would it be easier if I went first?” he said.

“Y-yes. I think so.”

“All right.” He let go of her hand.

She watched as he lowered himself over the side of the pier. His dark head disappeared and there was a soft clunking sound like wood on wood.

“It’s not far at all. Come on. I’ll grab you,” he said.

“They went this way!” shouted one of the guards.

“Hell,” she muttered in English. She fell to her knees and stuck one foot blindly into the darkness, feeling for the first rung of the ladder.

There it was. It was made of wood, so it felt firm beneath her foot, but the rest of the ladder was rope, so it sagged and swung with her weight. She gasped, clinging tightly to the sides of the contraption.

“It’s not very far,” he whispered behind her. “Just a few more rungs and you’ll have it.”

Be brave, Crystal.

She set her other foot on the ladder and felt for the next rung. There it was. Then the next and the next. She was doing it!

Then Vadryc’s hands were at her waist, guiding her the rest of the way.

The boat rocked precariously as he lifted her into it. “Sit here,” he whispered, pressing her gently down onto a plank bench. She sat. Vadryc swiftly untied the rope and pulled it into the boat. Then he took an oar and shoved them away from the pier.

The boat, which seemed to be a dinghy or rowboat of some kind, drifted out into the current and the fog closed around them, shrouding them in a curtain of white. The fog and the gurgling of the river muffled the shouts of the guards, making them sound far away and much less threatening. But Crystal knew they weren’t safe yet.

“I must make an offering,” Vadryc said in a low voice. “Can you see the guards?”

“I can’t see anything in this fog. That should mean they can’t see us either. Right?”

“Right.”

She had the creepy sense that the fog itself might be watching them, though. It reminded her of the way she’d felt in the hotel, when she’d imagined some force from Fortunata could see her. There seemed to be some kind of intelligence out there in the night, hovering over the surface of the river and observing them.

Vadryc pulled out some strands of hair. He looked back at her from the prow. “Give me some of your hair.”

With a shaking hand, Crystal pulled out several strands and handed them over.

“Now take the oars,” he said. “Can you row?”

“Um…I have no idea. I’ve never done it before.”

“It’s quite simple.” He showed her the necessary motion. “Just keep the force equal on both oars, or we’ll end up heading toward the bank.”

“All right. We definitely don’t want to end up back on the bank.” She carefully dipped the oars in the water and pulled. It was harder than it looked, the weight of the water a vicious pull on her muscles.

Vadryc rotated his torso to face the side of the boat and the river. “Lady Tra, we offer to you these gifts.” He tossed the whole lot of hair, his and Crystal’s, into the water. “We offer these gifts in thanks for our escape and the hope that you’ll protect us and get us to the ocean undetected.”

He was talking to the river? On Earth, if someone behaved that way, she’d roll her eyes and move as far away as possible. Here, she had to conceded he probably knew what he was doing. She didn’t recall reading about a tradition like that, but Fortunata was obviously a lot bigger and more complex than the books had shown.

The books. She still had her copy of The Jhidris Conspiracy with her in her purse, which was slung over her shoulder, cross-body style. Crystal patted the leather of her bag and felt the blocky shape of the paperback through it. Should she tell Vadryc about it?

Not yet. They still had to get out of the city, and revealing the book would just be a distraction they couldn’t afford.

A shape seemed to form out of the fog, as if it had coalesced into a humanoid figure. It looked vaguely feminine, with long, flowing hair. The whiteness of the fog had taken on a greenish cast in the figure, and the longer it hovered there above the water, the more detail appeared in its form.

Deep, dark-green eyes regarded her and Vadryc somberly. Water weeds seemed to be tangled in its long, translucent hair. Crystal stared at it, wide-eyed, her mouth suddenly dry as dust.

The entity stared back at her, clearly aware. There was something not entirely friendly about its gaze that made her shiver.

Vadryc held a hand out to the figure. A slender arm extended from it, its fingers just touching his. Then the woman—or goddess—vanished back into the fog and they were alone, just two humans in a boat.

“Holy hell,” she said in English. Then, switching to Fortunatan, “What was that?”

“That was Tra, of course. The goddess of the river.” He sat down facing her and began rowing. “We’re going to stay on the river until we’re nearly to the sea.”

“In this thing?”

“We have the goddess’s approval. We’ll be safe enough.”

Crystal shuddered. “That’s a lot to take on faith.”

“It’s not faith. It’s experience. She’s helped me before. We’re old friends.”

It was one of those remarks, those little things, that had come along every so often since she’d come here and forcefully reminded her she was in a different world than her own. People here thought differently than they did at home.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said.

He cocked his head, frowning and smiling at the same time. “You’ve never seen a goddess?”

“No.”

“Spirits of any kind?”

Crystal shook her head. “No. People in my world don’t usually believe in that stuff.”

His frown deepened and the smile disappeared. “They don’t believe in spirits? What kind of world is that?”

The normal kind.

“It’s…different there. People mostly only believe in what they can see and touch.” Only that wasn’t true either. What about radio waves and bacteria? You couldn’t see those, and maybe you could touch them but you wouldn’t know it if you did. She rubbed her brow, suddenly exhausted and confused.

“You’re tired,” he said.

“Yes.” Wiped out.

“I have something for that. Reach in my satchel and find the small metal box with the red enamel lid.”

“Um…all right.”

He’d dropped the bag on the bottom of the boat. She pulled it over and searched through the pockets until she came up with a red box. The lid had a dragon on it in gold filigree and red enamel. “This one?”

“Yes. There are lozenges inside it.”

She flicked the tiny latch on the box lid. Inside were oblong shapes about the size of quarters, each one dark red. They probably tasted like ass, but the cat’s eye ointment had worked, so maybe these did too. She picked up one and put it on her tongue.

It was sweet and hot at the same time. Like ginger.

“Give me one?” He opened his mouth, his hands still fastened on the oars.

Oh, boy. He was asking her to touch him, touch his lips. She took another lozenge and placed it carefully on his tongue, trying not to come into contact with him. But somehow her fingers managed to brush the fullness of his lower lip anyway. She went hot all over and snatched her hand away, blushing. Had he done that on purpose?

“Thank you,” he said, looking at her innocently.

Then he winked and she knew he’d kissed her fingers.

Crystal couldn’t look at him. She busied herself with packing the enameled box back into his satchel instead. Somehow the job took much longer than the finding had.

“Tonarisa,” he said.

“Yes?” She kept her head down as she fiddled with the pocket closure.

“Do you hate me that much?”

Her head jerked up. “I don’t hate you.”

He gave her a wry smile that contained none of the joy of his earlier smiles. “It seems to me that you do. What have I done to so offend you? Tell me so I can make it right.”

Shit. She hadn’t realized it was so obvious. “You haven’t done anything.”

“Forgive me if I don’t believe you. Your every glance tells me you can hardly abide my presence.” He kept his gaze fixed on hers while he rowed.

She could tell she’d hurt his feelings and…damn…the evil genius of Fortunata had feelings. Even more shocking was the fact that she didn’t want to hurt him; guilt pierced her at the thought of causing him pain. She was so messed up.

“I—I don’t hate you. It’s only…you make me uncomfortable.” She dropped her gaze, picking nervously at the wool of her cloak. “You seem…that is, maybe it’s only my imagination, but sometimes it seems like you might…”

“Find you attractive?”

Oh, God. “Yes.”

“I assure you I have no intention of ravishing you,” he said dryly. “I prefer my women willing.”

Crystal lifted her head. “But I would—” She stopped, blushing even more furiously. It was the exhaustion making her talk without thinking.

He paused in the rowing as a slow smile spread across his face. “You would be willing?”

She clapped her hand over her eyes. “I can’t believe I said that.”

“Well…I don’t wish to embarrass you.” The oars creaked as he apparently took up rowing again.

“I embarrassed myself.”

They sat in silence for a while as the boat slipped quietly down the river, the fog still so thick she could see only a few feet on any side. Occasionally, great dark shapes would rear up out of the white and she would flinch, thinking they were about to run into the hull of some enormous ship. Yet they never even scraped another vessel.

The lozenge melted in her mouth and gradually she noticed she felt more alert. Stronger. Apparently the things really did work.

“Tell me about the spiritless world you come from,” he said. “How is it that people can only believe in what their eyes can see? Don’t they have any vajha at all? Can’t they feel the mata all around them?”

“My people don’t believe in magic—tura—or psychic abilities—vajha. They don’t believe in mata either. Or if they do, it’s only in a special context.”

He bent over the oars. “What context is that?”

“It’s a religious one. They believe that God generates mata“—the life-giving force in the universe—”and it doesn’t exist without Him. But they don’t usually believe that people can sense it. They think you just have to have faith that it’s there.”

“How peculiar.” He looked disturbed, a thoughtful frown settling over his features. “Can they sense this god of whom you speak?”

“No. They just believe in Him. Actually, not very many people really believe in God anymore.”

He shook his head. “They must be a very lonely people.”

She tilted her head, thinking that over. “I…wow, I guess you’re right.”

“Wow?” he said, raising his eyebrows.

She hadn’t noticed she’d said that in English. “It’s a …how do I explain this? A flavoring word. An intensifier. Like, um…pri.“

“Oh. I see.”

Crystal glanced up to see another of those great ships looming out of the fog at them and recoiled. “Look out!”

He glanced casually over his shoulder, looking not the tiniest bit concerned. “It’s fine.” And they glided by just an arm’s breadth from the massive hulk.

“How can you do that?” she said. “Aren’t you afraid we’ll hit one?”

“No. Tra has given us her protection and I know she’s good for it. Besides, I can sense their locations.”

“You’re…” Freaking me out. “I don’t know how to handle this. In my world, that’s impossible.”

Vadryc smiled gently at her. “We’re not in your world, Tonarisa.”

No, they weren’t. And the more time she spent with him, the more aware she became of that fact. She wasn’t merely visiting a foreign and exotic culture; she was in an alien world where the laws of physics as she knew them didn’t seem to apply. Not that she was a student of physics or anything.

She watched the action of Vadryc’s arms as he rowed, the tensing of his strong hands on the oars. He had long, graceful fingers. A vision popped into her mind—those long, powerful fingers caressing her bare skin, touching her intimately. She flushed, looked away. Could he read minds as well?

No, or he would have known without asking that she found him attractive. Not merely attractive, but intoxicating. Unless he’d brought up that whole subject just to torment her. But she didn’t believe that. She was finding it harder and harder to give credence to the books’ view of him. Harder and harder to see him as a villain.

“We’re going ashore now,” Vadryc said, just before the hull of the boat scraped on the river bottom.

He leaped out and held out a hand for her. Crystal gathered his satchel and the bag she’d been carrying and jumped into his arms.

“We’re getting that nasty river water in our clothes,” she said as he lowered her into the chilly water.

“I know, but it can’t be helped.”

They slogged through knee-deep water and onto a sandy bank. The sky was beginning to lighten and Crystal’s legs felt as heavy as if they were encased in lead.

“Where are we?”

“At the edge of the city. Come on.”

He took off into the fog that still hung over the water, and Crystal hurried after, her sodden skirts slapping wetly against her ankles. 

 

Chapter 12

Amryc stood at the window of his study and glared out through the little square panes at the dawn-pale city. The greenish, wavy glass combined with a thick fog rising off the River Tra to obscure most of the details in the view, but he could make out a few lacy, dark shapes of trees in the ancient Royal Park and a jumble of red tile roofs on the nearest buildings.

His notorious cousin was out there somewhere, running free in spite of all his crimes, and Amryc’s men had once again failed to capture him. Idiots. How difficult was it to go to a man’s house and arrest him?

Somehow the bastard had eluded them, along with all his household and the otherworldly guests Syrcos Lantirso had claimed he harbored. Amryc wasn’t sure about the guests. Syrcos’s pack of sadra-piahni had been searching for decades for a way to open and control the jhidrisi and as far as Amryc knew they had yet to find success. It seemed unlikely that Vadryc had prevailed where so many others had not. On the other hand, his cousin was infamous for a reason—he was one of the most accomplished sadra-piahni ever known. If anyone could unlock the secrets of the jhidrisi, it was Vadryc Falyros.

He’d always been full of himself, even when they were boys growing up together like brothers. Always testing the limits, questioning everything, mocking authority, so in a way it had come as no surprise to find at the age of sixteen that he’d been dabbling in dirty magic. His own father had denounced him in public. And now the filthy good-for-nothing was on his way north, possibly headed for his ancestral home in Falyros.

A home that now belonged to Amryc.

Nijhika was there, and Lahri. Amryc hadn’t wanted to marry Nijhika. He hadn’t wanted any of it—the woman, their daughter, the duchy, not any of it. He’d been happy as a Piahni, happy for the first time in his life. And then Vadryc’s perfidy had stolen all that from him and saddled him with a frigid, whiny shadow of a wife, a skinny daughter he barely knew and a duchy that brought him nothing but continuous wars with the savages over the northern border.

But they were his wife and daughter and it was his duchy. His responsibility. He couldn’t leave them at the mercy of Vadryc.

His assistant cleared his throat and Amryc turned back to the dimly lit room with its dark shelves of books, wall of maps, and equally dark, heavy desk. A couple of oil lamps lit the gloom, but it was always dark and close in his office. The cave-like atmosphere failed to comfort him the way it usually did.

“Yes, Calyr ?” he said.

“Sir, the men believe they encountered Vadryc and at least one other person near the river, but lost them in the fog.”

Amryc heaved a sigh. “When was this?”

“At least two hours ago, sir.”

“Any sign which way they went?”

“The men suspect they went downstream, but there’s no evidence for that. It’s merely an assumption.”

Amryc drummed his fingers on the intricately carved wooden back of a nearby chair. It bore the likeness of the Falyros wolves, the wood stained so dark it was almost black. “Syrcos claimed Vadryc planned to head to Falyros.”

“Do you believe him?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. But I can’t take any chances. Find me a berth on the next ship heading north.”

***

Crystal inched closer to Vadryc, glancing over her shoulder as he inserted an enormous brass key into the door of a tumbledown stone cottage hidden in an overgrown thicket of leafless trees. The fog was still so thick she couldn’t see more than a few feet, but the blackness of night seemed to be lightening toward dawn.

“What is this place?” she whispered.

He opened the door—the iron hinges didn’t even squeal—and motioned her inside. “A place I own. No-one knows about it. Not even Muro.”

He bolted the door behind them and strung a rope hung with bells across the door. A primitive burglar alarm?

Crystal glanced around the nearly bare front room. The only light was the thin gray of dawn seeping around cracks in the unpainted shutters on the two small windows. She probably wouldn’t have been able to see anything if it weren’t for the cat’s eye ointment.

The room’s only furniture consisted of a worn, plain table and a couple of equally disreputable chairs and a cupboard that looked like it probably didn’t hold anything at all. A bare wood floor of unfinished planks matched the simplicity of the stained, once-white plaster on the walls. Next to a cold hearth, a steep and narrow staircase led up to the second floor.

The hearth wasn’t the only thing that was cold. The building felt as chilly and stale as if no-one had been here for weeks. Maybe longer.

“It’s freezing in here,” she said, shivering in her wet clothes.

“There are blankets upstairs.”

“Can we light a candle?”

“No. We don’t want anyone to see there’s someone here.” He started toward the staircase.

That was sensible and she wished she’d thought of it herself, but she wasn’t used to sneaking around. She’d never had to worry about being noticed or detected or whatever. When she got home to her apartment, she flicked on the electric lights and that was that. But there was no electricity here and no central heat. No heat at all.

Your apartment isn’t home anymore. You have no home.

Her shoes made that godawful clunking noise as she walked across the plank floor to the stairs. More clunking followed as she climbed upward, but Vadryc didn’t say anything about all the noise she was making. Maybe no-one could hear it through the cottage’s thick walls. They’d looked like they were at least a foot thick when he’d opened the door.

The whole upstairs was nothing but a big, open room. Well, big was a relative term. It took up the whole second floor of the tiny cottage. And it held only one bed, a narrow wooden thing pushed against one wall under the eaves. There were sheets on it, and blankets, and pillows, however, just as if someone expected to use it soon.

Vadryc went to a small cupboard at the foot of the bed. He opened the doors and pulled out some extra blankets, patched and worn, which he threw on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Crystal said. She hoped he didn’t expect her to sleep down there. It was way too cold. And too hard.

“I’ll take the floor. You take the bed.” He tossed another blanket on the thin pile he’d already made.

His movements, even in the dark, spoke of exhaustion. His shoulders were slumping and when he closed the cupboard doors and came toward her, he stumbled over nothing.

She couldn’t make him sleep on the hard wooden floor. It wouldn’t be fair. He needed sleep just as much as she did, if not more so, and they’d only be sleeping. Nothing more. Right? They were both too wiped out to do anything but crash.

“You can share the bed with me,” she said.

He gave her an incredulous stare. “What?”

“I said, you can share the bed with me. I don’t want you sleeping on the floor.”

Vadryc shook his head. “I’ve slept in worse places, believe me.”

“Maybe you have, but you don’t have to now.”

“Tonarisa, perhaps you don’t understand. There is only one bed.”

“I can see that. It’s fine. We’ll only be sleeping.”

He continued to stare at her, his beautiful eyes narrowed in suspicion and apparent disbelief. “Why would you make such an offer?”

“To be kind. You won’t get decent sleep on the floor.”

“But your reputation as a lady—”

She laughed. “I have no reputation. I’m not from your world, remember? I don’t know anyone here, and I don’t care what people think anyway.”

Vadryc scrubbed his face. “I know you have no reputation here, but I assumed you wouldn’t want to risk developing a bad one by sleeping with me. Fortunatan ladies are deeply concerned about such matters.”

“I’m not Fortunatan. In my world, women don’t have to worry so much.”

His eyes narrowed even more as he drew his chin back, looking supremely dubious. “Your world seems stranger and stranger every time you tell me more about it.”

“Well, it’s very different from here, that’s certain.” She pointed at the bed. “So are you going to share with me or not?”

He shook his head slowly. “I shouldn’t.”

“Yes, you should. We both need to rest. You can’t do that on the floor and I can’t do it if I’m worrying about you.”

His dark brows rose. “You’re worried about me?”

“Maybe.”

“What an unusual woman you are. Very well. We’ll share the bed.” He said it as if he were making a great concession to her.

“Okay. I mean, good. Very well. Um…” Suddenly, things felt awkward. It was one thing to say they should share. Actually sharing was something else, because now that she really looked at the bed, she saw just how narrow it really was. Not much wider than the average twin size back home.

“I won’t touch you,” he said gravely.

“I trust you.” Sort of. “It’s just…odd.”

There was more light in the room now. When they undressed they’d be able to see each other. Naked. Or nearly naked, anyway. And while she’d love to see him without anything on, she couldn’t say she wanted to show off her own body.

“Our clothes are wet,” she said stupidly.

“Yes, they are.”

“And we can’t have a fire, can we?”

“No, we can’t, but I have some extra things we can wear. They should still be dry.” He unfastened his cloak and swept it off, dropping it on the floor.

She could see the wetness that had soaked his boots and trousers up to his knees. Her skirts were even wetter, since they had more fabric and layers to hold the water. All that wet wool stuck to her legs and reeked like a wet and dirty sheep.

“Turn around so I can get undressed,” she said.

He paused for a moment, studying her bedraggled self with a faint smile playing around the corners of his mouth. She made a twirling motion with her hand. His smile broadened, but he turned around to face the steeply-pitched attic wall.

Crystal stripped off her layers of clothing as quickly as she could, laying each one flat on the floor to dry as much as possible while they slept. She wanted to leave on her chemise, but it was dripping too. Damn it. Getting into bed in a wet gown didn’t seem like a good idea. She’d have to go naked.

“Fine,” she muttered under her breath.

She stripped off the chemise, tossed it to the floor, and climbed into the bed, shivering in the chilly air. She pulled the covers up to her chin.

The mattress felt slightly lumpy beneath her weight and the sheets were coarse, but she didn’t care. It was a bed and it felt like heaven. She laid her head on the pillow and sighed.

“All right, you can turn around now.”

Instead of turning, he began to strip down. Crystal made no pretense of giving him privacy. He wasn’t looking in her direction, and he hadn’t taken any measures to keep her from looking, so he must not care if she saw him.

Under the cloak, he wore a jacket that looked sort of Renaissance-ish, cut close to the body with long sleeves slightly fuller on top. The jacket was a somber brown color, with embroidery in a barely visible lighter brown. Beneath it, he wore a full, white linen shirt with a plain stand collar. He stripped down to the shirt. Then he took off his boots, socks, and trousers. With the shirt untucked, it came halfway to his knees.

Without a glance at her, he grabbed the hem of the shirt and lifted it over his head. Crystal’s mouth fell open. Holy hell. He wore nothing now except a pair of what looked kind of like boxers, except they were made of linen and seemed to have a drawstring waist. And his body. Oh, God, his body. Whatever he was doing for exercise, it was working.

He wasn’t bulky or thick, like a Mr. Universe type, but he definitely had muscle. Broad shoulders with beautifully rounded delts tapered to a narrow waist and a tight, rounded backside. Hard thighs and calves, lightly furred with dark hair. His arms looked just as heavy and muscular, with bulging biceps and visible veins in his forearms.

He turned, caught her staring, and grinned. “Enjoying the view?”

Definitely. “I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean—” She broke off and looked away, her face burning.

“No need to apologize.” He sounded way too smug as he pulled back the covers.

She clutched the blankets to her body, trying to preserve a tiny sliver of modesty. Vadryc settled in next to her, covering himself as he stretched out. Then he stilled, one hand frozen on top of the covers.

“You’re not wearing anything,” he said.

“I was soaked to the skin.” She couldn’t look at him. “My skirts, my chemise…”

“I won’t take advantage,” he said softly. “As I said, I prefer my women willing. Besides, we’re both too exhausted for anything but sleep.”

“Yes. I mean, thank you. I appreciate your understanding.”

She felt weirdly deflated by the idea that he wouldn’t try anything. He was so close she could feel his body heat, smell the male scent of his skin. So close that if she moved even a little, she’d come into direct contact with him. But nothing was going to happen.

She wasn’t disappointed, was she?

No. Not at all. The last thing she wanted was to become sexually involved with some primitive sorcerer, and an evil one at that.

You don’t really still believe he’s evil, do you?

No, she didn’t. But she didn’t like admitting that, even to herself. Because if Vadryc wasn’t evil, then what did that say about Amryc, her youthful crush?

Vadryc lowered his head to the pillow with a sigh. He smelled so damned good, even with a whiff of the river water still clinging to him. He smelled of healthy male, natural male, not like a bottle of cologne the way Todd Smithfield always did. She hated that cologne stench.

Vadryc smelled like sex, and the scent of his body was making her ache in a way that had nothing to do with her tired muscles. But she wasn’t disappointed that they weren’t having sex. No, that was a complication she didn’t need.

***

Vadryc woke to a soft, warm female form molded to his body. At some point during the day, he’d put his arm around Crystal’s shoulders, pillowing her head on his chest. Her face rested just below the brand that marked him as sadra-piahni. Her arm was thrown over his torso, her naked breasts crushed against his side, one leg twined across his. He was instantly hard.

She smelled like some kind of exotic fruit or flower and woman. He hadn’t had a woman in several weeks and that was making it especially difficult to resist the delectable bundle of femininity in his arms. Or maybe it was just her. Her breath blew soft and warm across his bare skin. Her lips would be soft, too. She had a generous, full mouth made for kissing and he’d wanted to claim it—her—since the first moment he saw her. But she wasn’t for him. She was under his protection and taking her would be wrong.

He’d teased her about it, about wanting him, but he couldn’t take advantage of her even if she did like him as much as he liked her. Besides, they didn’t have time for distractions like that. They had to focus all their energies on getting as far away from Rasonyc as possible in the least amount of time.

Crystal moved in his arms. He waited for her to pull away, but instead she snuggled more closely into his embrace. If he’d been thinking, he would have rolled himself in a separate blanket and slept outside the rest of the covers, but that morning he’d been too tired for rational thought.

She raised her head and blinked sleepily at him. A frown creased her forehead. Then she jerked back, tucking the covers around her torso.

“What—were we—”

“Nothing happened. You just curled up on me in your sleep.”

Her face colored. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”

“It’s all right, Crystal. I didn’t mind.” At all. In fact, he wished she’d come back and press herself against him once more.

She muttered something foreign, pushing her slender fingers through her long, dark hair. “This is embarrassing.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. It was bound to happen in such a narrow bed.” And she had insisted he sleep next to her, but he wasn’t going to remind her of that.

“What are we going to do now?” she said, glancing around the cold, dark attic room.

“We’ll eat some of the trail food we brought and wait for dark. Then we’ll sneak out and head north.”

“Won’t they catch us?”

“Not if we stay off the main road.”

She tilted her head, peering at him as if she didn’t believe him. “They won’t leave the road? What kind of search is that?”

“There’s a lot of wild country where we can get lost. Where they’ll never find us. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”

Crystal shivered. “I’m not much of a country girl.”

“Country girl?”

“Yes. A girl who runs through the woods. Hunting, fishing, sleeping on the ground.”

“Most women aren’t.”

She blew out her breath in a scoffing puff. “You are so—so—”

“What?”

“I don’t know the right word in Fortunatan. You’re such a traditional male.”

He grinned, shaking his head. “Hardly that.”

“You think women sit around being proper and—I don’t know—doing embroidery or something?”

“Yes. Because most of them do. The noblewomen, anyway. Peasant women are usually too busy bringing in crops, tending livestock, and working around the house.”

“In my world, some women are very…ugh, this language barrier is so frustrating. They love the outside. The woods. Mountains. They love to sleep outside.”

That seemed a bit hard to believe, although there were the women who lived on the Plains of Desolation. Supposedly they lived a rough, hard life such as Crystal described, but he found it hard to believe they did so voluntarily. It was their lot, having been born into a savage people.

“In Fortunata, most people avoid the wilderness because it is wild. Dangerous. There are predators who hunt humans, not to mention savage weather conditions.”

“So it’s dangerous. Why are we going there again?” She hitched the blankets higher around her body, as if she could already feel the chill of the deep woods on her skin.

“Because we have a better chance there than we do in the city. And I have strong friendships with the spirits of the land, so I have a better chance of survival than most.”

“So most Fortunatan men are indoors people?” she said. “I got the impression all men here love to hunt and fish and show how…strong they are.”

“You got the impression? You’ve only been here for two days. Less than that, really. Who gave you that information?”

She blushed again and ducked her head. “I don’t know. I just got the impression.”

She was hiding something from him. He watched her closely, remembering the way she’d tried to escape by running into the street.

“Crystal, I know there is something you’re not telling me. What is it?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

He reached across the blankets and took her hand, coaxing it away from where it clutched the covers. “I can tell you’re different from your companions. You seem to know more than Jackson and Viviana do. You seem to know more about Fortunata than I would expect someone in your situation to know. I want to know why. How.”

Crystal shook her head rapidly. “I can’t tell you. You wouldn’t understand.”

“How do you know? Try me.” Could she have some connection with Syrcos? By Jhatana, he hoped not.

The thought she might have been planted by his so-called friend made him sick to his stomach. He wanted to believe she was not a spy. He wanted to believe she was honest and real, but ever since Syrcos had betrayed him, he’d questioned everything in his life.

“It’s so bizarre,” she said. “I hardly believe it myself. Half the time, I think I’m going to wake up and find out all this was only a dream. Or that I’m crazy and hallucinating.”

“You seem perfectly sane to me.” And she did. He’d almost forgotten there had been a time when he’d wondered about her mental state. “Please, tell me.”

She glanced at the pile of her belongings scattered across the attic floor. “I have to get my bag.” Then she glanced at him, blushing again. “Don’t look.”

He pressed his lips together to keep from smiling. “I won’t.”

“Cover your eyes.”

“All right.” He put his hands over his eyes.

“Keep them covered.”

The bed squeaked and swayed as she got out. He heard soft footfalls across the wood floor and a low exclamation that sounded like a curse. Then her feet pattered back toward the bed and she climbed back in and yanked the covers around herself.

“All right, you can look now.”

He lowered his hands, grinning. She was adorable when she was shy.

Her eyes opened wide. “You peeked!”

“No, I didn’t. I swear.” He wrestled with his smile until it disappeared. “Now show me whatever it is you’ve got in there.”

She stared at him for a moment before opening her leather bag. Reaching inside, she pulled out a small yet thick book with weirdly flimsy paper covers. He stared at the garish picture on what he assumed was the front, with its alien-looking script in brilliant red.

“What is it?” he said. “That is, I can see it’s a book, but I don’t understand the significance.”

“It’s a book about Fortunata,” she said.

He stared at her blankly. “A book about Fortunata.”

“Yes. It’s…fiction.”

He didn’t know that last word, so he continued to stare at her in befuddlement, probably looking like an idiot.

“A story,” she said, scrunching up her nose. “About made-up characters? I’m not sure what you would call it. Maybe…it’s something like an epic poem or song.”

“Ah?”

“Yes. And…these characters live in a place the author invented…or at least I thought she invented it. She called it Fortunata. She even had some Fortunatan words and phrases, like jhila.”

His frown deepened until the muscles of his forehead began to protest. “You acquired this book in your own world?”

“Yes.”

“And it has Fortunatan words in it? Real Fortunatan words?”

“Yes. When you met us, you said ‘jhila, da mata linojh gra,’ and I knew what that meant because I’d read it in this book. That’s why I fainted. I just couldn’t believe it.”

She sounded sincere. All his instincts told him she was telling the truth, as outlandish as it sounded. He opened the book and thumbed through some of the pages. They were made of a cheap, thin paper, brittle and yellow, and covered in line after line of tiny alien script that he couldn’t begin to read. It was the oddest book he’d ever seen. Who would go to all the trouble of creating a book, only to write the text on such cheap and flimsy paper?

“Perhaps your world is one that has had contact with us in the past,” he said.

“Maybe.”

“You don’t think so?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “The weirdest part of all this is…you’re in this book. And your cousin Amryc.”

He yanked his head up to stare into her eyes. “Say that again.”

“You’re in here, Vadryc.” She tapped the book. “And Amryc too. This story is about how he hunts you down and…” Her voice abruptly stopped.

“And what?”

Her head moved back and forth. “I don’t want to say.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s bad, Vadryc.”

“Tell me anyway.”

She bit her lower lip. When she raised her eyes to his, she looked genuinely regretful. “He captures you and puts you to death.”

“I’m sure he would love to do just that,” he said, holding her gaze.

“You’re not upset?”

“It’s just a book, Crystal.”

“But everything it says about you…the way she describes you…”

“How does she describe me?”

She swallowed. Licked her lips. The urge to capture her mouth slammed him, distracting him from what they were saying.

“She says you have black hair and dark eyes. And that you’re…attractive. And you’re a sadra-piahni, a powerful one who is trying to open the jhidris.“

The author described him as attractive, but Crystal was affirming that what the writer said about him was true. Which must mean she—Crystal—found him attractive too.

Stay on the subject.

“Her ability to describe me doesn’t mean she knows what’s going to happen in my future.”

Crystal tilted her head again, studying the book he held in his hands. “Well, she wasn’t completely accurate anyway.”

“Oh? How is that?”

“She had you as the villain of the story.”

A number of odd little pieces fell neatly into place. “That’s why you’ve been acting as if you dislike me. Because of this book.”

“Yes.” She glanced at him, her blush easily visible in the dim light. “I’m sorry.”

Some things she’d said the night she’d appeared came back to him and he sat up straighter. “You told me Fortunata wasn’t a real place on the night you arrived. You said I wasn’t a real person, that I couldn’t exist. At the time, I thought your mind might have been addled by the jhidris, but now…”

“I was going by what’s in this book,” she said, tapping the cover.

He frowned intently at the thing, at its pages and pages of unintelligible lettering. “I wish I could read this.”

“It would probably make you angry.”

“Would it? Why do you say that?” he said, still frowning at the foreign artifact.

“Because she makes you sound like a power-mad, hateful man. Someone who would sacrifice anyone and anything to get more of what you want.”

He pulled his gaze from the book and transferred it to her. “Are you saying you don’t believe that about me?”

“No. I mean, yes. I don’t believe that. Not anymore.”

By all the gods…if she was lying, he couldn’t tell. Of course, the fact he longed for her to be telling the truth could be blinding him to her real attitude and motivations. Maybe he only wanted her to be sincere. Maybe he was the biggest idiot ever to call himself sadra-piahni.

Even in the midst of this difficult conversation, his cock ached and twitched in its eagerness to get inside her. She was so close and so temptingly naked; all he had to do was reach out to run his palm across her soft, pale skin. But he couldn’t. He needed to stay strong.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” she said, looking down at the coarse top blanket, her fingers plucking nervously at a small hole in the weave.

“Of course not.”

“How did you…I mean, why are you…” She stopped and took a deep breath. “What made you become sadra-piahni?”

“I’ve often wondered that myself,” he said, with an awkward attempt at levity.

She brought her gaze up, looking startled. “You mean you don’t know?”

“What can I say?” he shrugged. “I could tell you I was a rebellious boy, interested in anything and everything my father forbid.”

“He was strict?”

“The strictest. He wanted me to be an exemplary nobleman and everything anyone said or did to me was supposed to mold me in that shape.”

Crystal tipped her head in that way she had, a gesture that reminded him of a curious vixen peering out from the shelter of thick underbrush. “Anything anyone did to you? That sounds so harsh.”

He forced a smile. “It was.” And after all these years, it shouldn’t still have the power to hurt as much as it did.

“I’m sorry.”

“It was hardly your fault.”

She shook her head. “I don’t mean it like that. It’s just sad that…well, it sounds as if your childhood was difficult. That’s all.”

“We all have our difficulties.”

“True,” she said, continuing to regard him with clear, knowing eyes.

“My sisters’ lot wasn’t much better than mine, and possibly worse now that I think of it.”

“I didn’t have any sisters or brothers,” she offered. “My parents died when I was…when I was fifteen. I was very close to them.” Her gaze faltered and dropped.

“What happened to them?” he asked, sensing it was something unusually bad.

“They were murdered.” She swallowed. “The police…the authorities…they thought I did it.”

“Gods. Why would they think that?”

“I don’t know. I guess because I didn’t have an alibi. But I loved my parents. I could never have hurt them.” She looked at him, her full mouth turned down at the corners.

The misty sadness in her eyes made him ache in sympathy and he didn’t want to ache. Not like that. Her sadness reminded him of the devastation he’d almost forgotten, that terrible morning when he’d been ejected from Castle Falyros and left to die. That was a memory he’d just as soon lose forever.

They didn’t have time for this. They didn’t have the emotional room when everything they had must be dedicated to survival.

He pulled himself up. “My condolences, Tonarisa,” he said briskly. “Now let’s get some food in our stomachs so we’re ready to go when the sun falls.”

She blinked, looking slightly startled, as if he’d slapped her hands. Her fingers tightened on the bedcovers. “Yes. Let’s do that.” Her voice had gone as chilly as the air.

“I’ll start.” He threw the blankets off himself and got out of bed.

His cock shriveled instantly on contact with the cold air. It had already deflated at her frigid tone and now there was nothing left of his earlier arousal. He noted that fact with relief. No arousal, no temptation.

The clothes he’d worn the night before were still damp, and while he hated to pack them away in that condition he hated even more to wear them. He pulled out a fresh pair of trousers for himself and threw his third set of clothes at Crystal.

“Put these on. You’ll wear them until your female clothes dry.”

“Yes, Tonos,” she muttered.

He let that one pass. In these distressing circumstances, tempers were bound to flare. As long as she followed orders, she could be as sullen as she liked. 

 

Chapter 13

Just when she was starting to like him, he had to go and prove what an arrogant bastard he was. Crystal yanked the black trousers he’d given her over her legs, feeling as if she’d been slapped. She should have known better than to open up to him.

Talking about her parents was always hard and something she didn’t do very often. So why had she flapped her jaws to Vadryc of all people? It must be the strangeness of the situation, alone with him in this foreign place, that had broken down the barriers she normally maintained so carefully. Plus, he’d been the first to share, talking about his beast of a father.

Apparently, that was as far as he was willing to go. Her show of emotion was a lapse of some kind, not allowed.

Maybe she’d embarrassed him.

Whatever. Getting cozy with Vadryc was not and never had been on her to-do list. It was bad enough they’d woken up all tangled together and naked. She might never forget the glorious sensation of his warm, bare skin pressed up against hers. Now, every time she looked at him, she’d think of that feeling and her body would ache and tingle in anticipation of it happening again.

It wasn’t going to happen again. She’d just have to avoid looking at him.

She glanced up at him before baring her torso in order to put on the shirt he’d loaned her. He stood with his back to her and even in the dim, cold light of afternoon, she could see the muscular definition and tightness of his body, his powerful back and that amazing ass she remembered from the night before. He was so freaking gorgeous. The combination of intoxicating male beauty and irritating dominant personality was driving her crazy.

Thought you weren’t going to look at him.

Right. No looking. But she’d wanted to confirm that he was in fact not watching when she got naked.

Crystal snatched his shirt over her head before releasing the covers, just in case he decided to turn around while she had the shirt over her eyes and couldn’t defend herself from his gaze. She didn’t like getting naked with men in the first place, let alone some god of sexiness who treated her like crap. Who knew what kind of scornful thoughts ran through his head when he looked at her plain, unglamorous self?

To be fair, he’d been very nice during their run across the rooftops. He’d only pulled back when she got choked up over her parents. It seemed he couldn’t handle emotional displays.

“All right, I’m dressed,” she said, sliding off the bed.

His trousers were fine at her waist, but too tight over her hips. She wasn’t going to be able to tuck in the voluminous shirt; she’d have to leave it hanging out, which was going to look strange. But maybe no-one would notice that detail under her cloak.

She shot a reluctant glance at Vadryc. In the time she hadn’t been looking at him, he’d put on some pants and she wasn’t sure whether she was disappointed or relieved at that. He turned and gave her a once-over, his gaze lingering on her bare feet and calves. His lips parted and his nostrils flared. Was he getting turned on by looking at her feet?

The Fortunata novels had mentioned that women’s feet were considered erotic here, but she hadn’t paid much attention to that detail. Now it seemed a lot more significant. She’d been so worried about him seeing her torso or her upper legs; now she was going to have to think about her ankles and feet, too.

The expression vanished as he lifted his gaze to hers. “You’ll have to wear women’s shoes because I don’t have an extra pair of boots.”

“Won’t that look strange?”

He shrugged. “A bit, but some men do wear that type of shoe. As soon as possible, I’ll buy you a pair of boots.”

He tossed a jacket at her—black to match the trousers. It was made of wool and lined with some of the finest linen she’d ever seen. She slipped it on, the layers of fabric instantly warming her.

Vadryc snorted. “Sleeves are a little long.”

She glanced down. The sleeves completely covered her hands and dangled off the tips of her fingers. The bottom edge of the jacket, which hit Vadryc right at his hips, came down over her thighs and refused to button over the swell of her hips.

“No-one will notice because I’ll be wearing a cloak,” she said.

“Put something on your feet.” He turned his back on her again.

Crystal seethed at his rudeness. The truth was, he’d hurt her feelings. How stupid was that? She didn’t even like him. She’d started to truly believe he wasn’t the villain the novels made him out to be, and then he went and snapped at her and now she wasn’t sure what she thought of him.

Sounds like he had a tough childhood. Cut him some slack.

Yeah. Whatever. A tough childhood didn’t excuse him from simple courtesy, did it?

It’s just as well you don’t get too close to him. You do want to go home, right? So the fewer emotional ties you create here, the better.

Yes. Home. That was what she needed to focus on. Once she was back on earth, Vadryc’s attitude problems wouldn’t affect her anymore.

What was she going to do when she got back, though? Would Todd keep her job waiting for her? Probably not. He rarely thought of anyone other than himself, and when he did help someone it somehow always worked out to benefit him as well. So by the time she got back, he would have hired someone else. She was going to have to start over, career-wise. Because how would she explain her absence from the work force?

Well, you see, I just decided to take some time off. Without notice. On another world. No, you’ve never heard of it.

That would go over well in job interviews.

She and Vadryc chewed on some dried, smoked meat, washing it down with a few swallows of wine before they packed up their goods and left the cottage. It was just as dark as the night before, and the lack of light was making her uncontrollably sleepy. Oh, for a pot of good, strong coffee.

“Are we going to walk all the way to Iabrys?” she said in an undertone as he locked the door.

“We’ll get mounts at some point. But right now I don’t want to draw attention to us by buying horses.”

“Be warned, I’m not much of a walker. You might have to leave me behind.”

He threw her one of those stunning glares of his. “I will not. We’ll do whatever we have to. You’re not staying behind.”

“I don’t know whether to say thank you or fuck you,” she said. The last phrase was in English.

“What is this fuck you?” Vadryc said. His accent made the profanity sound slightly comical.

“Nothing. Never mind. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. These shoes especially are going to make that much walking difficult for me.”

He glanced impatiently at her feet. “We’ll find a way. Even if I have to carry you.”

That shouldn’t make her heart beat faster…but it did. Stupid heart. It seemed no matter how rude, how high-handed he was, she still reacted to him with the kind of sexual flutterings she’d never experienced with any other man.

***

Around midnight, Crystal couldn’t go any farther. Her shoes were rubbing so badly she expected she’d find blood blisters in several places when she took them off to inspect. And she was exhausted.

“I have to rest,” she said as they crested yet another soggy, sleet-ridden hill.

The wind seemed to know exactly how to get through all the loose places in her clothing, making her shiver every time they slowed down. All the hard walking had brought out sweat on her body, and stopping chilled her to the marrow. But she had to rest.

She leaned against a boulder protruding from the soil of the field they were crossing, taking some of the weight off her feet. Vadryc dropped into a crouch, sitting back on his haunches the way she’d seen people in Asia do—in pictures, at least. She’d never actually been to Asia. He must be very flexible to be able to sit like that.

“We’ll stay here a while,” he said. “Are you hungry?”

“Thirsty.”

He gestured toward the water skin hanging from the belt he’d given her. “Drink. It takes a lot of drinking to stay healthy on the road.”

“You call this on the road?” She looked around pointedly. There wasn’t so much as a footpath anywhere in view. Not that she could see much anyway, since they hadn’t used the cat-eye ointment tonight and it was still dark, the tiny sliver of pink moon in the sky shedding only the most meager light.

“It’s just an expression,” he said with a brief lift of the shoulders.

“Do you know where we are?” Because she had no idea.

“Roughly.”

“How can you tell?”

He pointed upward. “The stars.”

“I’m impressed. I’ve never met anyone who could find his way by the stars.”

“It’s not uncommon here. Your people don’t know the stars?” He sounded genuinely puzzled, reminding her once again how different their worlds were.

“Most don’t. Most of the time we can’t even see the stars because we have so much light in our cities. It sure doesn’t look like that.” She pointed up, just as he had, to the great and fathomless vault above their heads, the darkest blue spangled with so many tiny pinpoints of white light it looked like some giant had sprinkled a layer of salt over a dark cloth.

“It’s amazing,” she said softly. “I never saw anything like this back home.”

“I don’t think I would like your world,” Vadryc said dryly.

“It isn’t all bad,” she said, hating the defensiveness in her tone.

“Tell me one good thing.”

She peered at him through the darkness. She couldn’t read his face, could hardly even make out his features. One good thing about her world…

“Like I told you earlier,” she said, “ women don’t have to ask men’s permission to do what they want to do.”

“Something else. Tell me something you haven’t already told me.”

She sighed. “Um…I don’t know. There’s music everywhere.”

“Everywhere?” He sounded incredulous. “How is that possible?”

“We have a way of recording sound and making it repeat. Kind of like…I don’t know how to explain it. We have machines that can play the exact song, just the way the musician played and sang it. And so there’s music all over. In our vehicles, our houses, our stores.”

“How strange.” He seemed to be staring off into the distance, as if trying to imagine such a fantastical place. “Is it just the one song?”

“No.” She couldn’t help smiling at that. “It’s all kinds of songs. Different kinds of music.”

“Does everyone play an instrument?”

“Well, no.” Crystal brushed an errant strand of hair from her eyes as the chill night breeze tried to grab it back. “Hardly anyone does. Just…I don’t know. We mostly hear music that’s played by the most popular bands.”

He turned his head toward her. “So…you don’t sing?”

“Only in the shower. While bathing, I mean.” She crossed her arms against the wind that persisted in cutting through her clothes.

“While bathing?” He sounded intrigued. “Is this a religious ritual?”

“No.” Now she had to laugh out loud. “It’s not a ritual at all. It’s just where people who don’t sing very well sing. So no-one can hear them over the sound of the water running.”

“I think what you just told me is a bad thing, not a good one,” he said. “People should sing. Otherwise, how can they cheer themselves when they’re feeling low? How can they get through difficult work in the fields or comfort a sick child? How do they celebrate?”

“Um…mostly we use the music someone else has recorded. Some people sing to themselves, but not usually to others.”

Vadryc shook his head slowly, thoughtfully. “Bizarre.”

“Maybe. I—actually, I love to sing. I’m just not very good, so I keep it to myself.”

“If you keep it to yourself, then how do you know whether it’s good or not?”

She blinked, suddenly flummoxed. “I don’t know. I never thought of it that way.”

His hand closed gently around hers. “Sing something for me.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

“Of course you can. I promise to be kind no matter how you sound.”

Crystal choked on another laugh. “That was kind of insulting right there.”

“My apologies.” He sounded like he was smiling, although she couldn’t quite make out his expression in the dark. “I only meant you needn’t worry how I’ll react. I’d very much like to hear you sing, Tonarisa Crystal.”

Damn it. Now he was back to being nice. Charming, even. She liked it better when he was mean so she could think of him as the villain of Fortunata. So she could resent him for snapping at her and bossing her around.

“I don’t know which song to pick,” she said.

“Anything. I won’t know the difference.”

Now that was true. She cast around for something to sing, something with a simple melody that wouldn’t embarrass her too much, finally settling on “Say Something” by A Great Big World.

To warm up, she hummed a couple of bars to herself. He was watching her so intently that her face started to burn, so she withdrew her hand from his and looked away, into the night. If he didn’t make any noise and she couldn’t see him, maybe she could pretend he wasn’t there.

She started over, singing the simple tune of love and loss that so often made her eyes sting and her throat close up. Somehow she got through this rendition without choking up, and as she started into the second verse, she gained confidence and her voice soared into the high notes. There was something unbearably poignant, though, about singing a song from a homeland she might never see again.

At the end of the third verse, her voice cracked a little, but she finished anyway. The music died away and she sat, looking into the darkness, waiting for Vadryc’s reaction. But she got only silence.

She turned her head enough to sneak a glance at him. He still watched her, his body unmoving except for a few strands of black hair lifted by the wind. Crystal turned around again. He hadn’t liked it, then. It was his own fault; he’d insisted she sing.

He cleared his throat. “That was so lovely. What do the words mean?”

She jerked around and stared at him, even though she really couldn’t see anything but his silhouette. “You mean that?”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”

“That seems…so incredible. No-one’s ever told me they liked my singing before.”

“That’s probably because you never let anyone hear it before,” he said, the smile still in his voice. “What is the song about?”

“Lost love.”

“You have a beautiful voice, Tonarisa. I hope to hear more of it.”

“Why are you so nice one minute and so mean the next?” she blurted.

He stared at her, unmoving.

“I’m sorry. That was rude. I shouldn’t have said it.”

“I’m sadra-piahni,” he said, his voice unbearably dry. “We’re all monsters, you know.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Don’t you?”

She blew out an exasperated breath. “How would I know? I just got here.”

Vadryc followed her sigh with one of his own. “I apologize if I’ve been cruel to you. It has not been intentional. I don’t know your customs and you probably know little of mine, in spite of your books. Perhaps we merely misunderstand each other.”

“Maybe. But when we were talking earlier, it was almost like you were two different people. One minute you were telling me something about yourself and the next, you went all cold.”

“Did I?”

He was doing it again. Pulling away from her.

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” She pushed off from the boulder. “Let’s go.”

“Are you truly ready?”

Crystal just kept walking.

He caught up with her in a couple of long strides. “I’m unsure how I’ve insulted you, Tonarisa. Perhaps you might enlighten me.”

“I said it doesn’t matter.”

“Then why are you angry?” he said in an irritatingly reasonable tone.

“Because every time I talk about my feelings, you get all distant. I’m surprised you want to talk about my anger. Wouldn’t you rather tell me to shut up and keep my mind on business?”

For the first time, she was glad of the dark. She didn’t want to see his face, and she damn sure didn’t want him seeing hers because she knew what he’d find there. Hurt feelings.

“I never told you to shut up,” he said. “And you’re going the wrong way.”

He caught her hand. She stopped without looking at him. Their skin, touching, their hands palm to palm, fingers entwined…it felt like more than it really was. It felt like some kind of connection was forming between them, but that was probably just her own delusional mind conjuring a bond that wasn’t there.

It was only sexual attraction. It didn’t mean anything more. Why should it?

Hell, for all she knew, he had a wife. A mistress. A wife and a mistress. He could have an entire house full of concubines waiting for him somewhere in the mountains.

“I’ve been trying to keep my mind focused on getting out of the royal duchy,” he said. “We’re still in a lot of danger here. If we were found…”

“It’s so dangerous you can’t have a conversation with me?” she interrupted.

There came a long pause. “No, I suppose not.”

“I feel as if I have to tread very carefully with you, as if I might offend you at any minute,” she said. “I don’t know how to talk to you.”

“I am…unused to long conversations with women.”

They were still standing, still holding hands. Maybe she ought to let go of him, but she didn’t want to yet. The warmth of his skin on hers comforted her, made her feel less alone under the vast Fortunata sky.

“Why is that?” she said quietly. “You bed them and toss them aside?”

He cleared his throat again. “Not precisely. But I haven’t had any lasting…entanglements either.”

“No wife?”

“No.”

“But you’re so—” Oh, God. Big oops. He didn’t need to know how she felt about him.

“So what?” The smile was back in his voice, bigger than before.

“Beautiful,” she muttered, almost hoping he couldn’t hear her.

“You find me beautiful?”

She tugged at her hand, utterly mortified. “Forget I said it.”

He wouldn’t let go of her. His fingers tightened on hers, holding on in spite of her attempts to free herself.

“I find you beautiful as well,” he said, his voice gone even deeper than usual. “Highly desirable.”

“No, you don’t, and you said you wouldn’t be mean anymore. It’s cruel to lie about something like that.”

“I’m not lying.” He drew her closer. “Why would you think that?”

“Shouldn’t we get walking?” She tried again to pull away.

“You are beautiful, Crystal.” He set his free hand at the small of her back, holding her against his body. “The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Now I know you’re lying. Let me go.” She struggled against his hold, and still he refused to release her.

“I must confess I don’t understand you at all. Most women of my acquaintance love to be told they’re beautiful.”

“I’m not most women.”

“Clearly not.”

The position they were in was way too much like an embrace for her taste. She could feel the hard strength of him all the way from her chest to her knees and it was taking everything she had not to throw her arms around him. Part of her longed for him to bend down and press his lips to hers. Part of her wanted him to never touch her again.

“I’m so confused,” she whispered. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You’re surviving,” he murmured. “Same as me.”

“But I don’t belong here.”

Then he did lower his head, did brush his lips briefly across hers, making her breath catch. “You will. You’ll belong, eventually.” He released her back, but not her hand. “Come. We’ll walk a little farther and then stop for food and rest.”

Was it wrong to take so much comfort from her hand in his? She didn’t know what was right in this situation. She only knew he was all she had. The Smithfields were who knew where—she might never see them again—and she was cut off from her own world. Maybe forever. Vadryc was the only person who could help her now and she had to believe in him. She couldn’t keep doubting, wondering about his motives, and stay sane.

They started down the other side of the hill they’d just climbed. She could barely see her feet or the ground in front of her. In the near distance, clumps of naked trees stood black against the deep blue of the night sky. There were no houses or buildings of any kind, at least not that she could see. Without the visual cues of Rasonyc’s exotic buildings to remind her of her true location, she could easily imagine herself back on planet Earth.

They were in the middle of nowhere. If anything bad happened, they were alone with it. And Fortunata didn’t have the kind of medical technology available on Earth, so even if they’d been surrounded by other people, it might not make a difference.

But according to the books, Vadryc was extremely competent and self-reliant, so they ought to be all right.

“That book you showed me.” Once again, he seemed to read her mind. “I take it you’ve read it before now?”

“Yes. Many times.”

“You like it a great deal?”

“I loved it when I was younger.” Crystal glanced at him, although she couldn’t see any details. “I loved all the Fortunata books. Sometimes I wished I lived here instead of my own world.”

She sensed his head turn, sensed him looking at her.

“And now you’re here.”

“Yes.” She’d gotten her foolish, childish wish. Well, they did say you should be careful what you wish for.

“Do you want to go back?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know.” She shook her head, even though he probably couldn’t see the gesture in the dark. “Like I said, I don’t belong here.”

“You can learn. I’ll help you. I’ll do whatever you need to help you learn our ways.” He squeezed her hand lightly. “Because I don’t know if I can send you back, Crystal. Even if I can open a jhidris to your world, there’s no guarantee it would connect with the right time for you. It could be hundreds of years off, and then what would you do?”

She didn’t answer. Couldn’t. Her throat was too tight for words to escape.

She’d suspected—of course, she’d suspected there might be no way for him to send her home. But she’d hoped she was wrong. Hearing him lay out the difficulties so clearly reminded her how precarious her situation really was. And going back to Earth but not knowing when she’d end up would be even worse than staying in Fortunata. At least here she had an ally.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “This should never have happened to you.”

Crystal struggled to get herself under control. There was no sense in crying. It wouldn’t change anything, wouldn’t help, wouldn’t make her stronger. All it would do was waste energy on something that couldn’t be changed.

“This man,” she rasped. “Syrcos. Why did he do it? He killed that girl just to open a jhidris. Why is it so important to him?”

“Syrcos is a powerful man, the Duke of Lantirso.”

“But isn’t he sadra-piahni?”

“Yes, he is, but he’s never been publicly denounced as such. The Piahni suspect him, but haven’t been able to prove anything.”

She thought about that. How many other powerful men in Fortunata were secretly sadra-piahni?

“It isn’t common,” Vadryc said. “Few nobles would risk their position in society merely to dabble in magic. Syrcos is an exception, not the rule.”

“He dabbles?”

“No. He’s an expert. But for most noblemen, any interest in sadra-tura would be an occasional thing, something they fit in around their regular duties.”

“I see. So if Syrcos is so powerful, why does he pursue magic?”

Vadryc sighed, his hand still clasped warmly around hers. “I always believed it was because he was as fascinated with the way magic works as I am, that he pursued knowledge for its own sake. And he claimed to want to bring the benefits of some of the forbidden knowledge to the average subject of the crown, something I’ve always dreamed of doing.”

“But now you don’t think he meant those things?”

“Not after what he did to Ellini,” he said bitterly. “He murdered her in cold blood and ruined your life and the lives of the Smithfields, merely to advance his own knowledge and power. Those are not the actions of a man who believes in helping others. He betrayed my trust and violated the rules of hospitality, and that makes me question everything he’s ever said to me.”

“You were close to him?”

He snorted. “I thought I was. Clearly I was mistaken.”

She could hear the disappointment, the disillusionment in his voice. “I’m sorry. That must be painful.”

He didn’t answer. She took that to mean yes, his former friend’s actions had hurt him. She wasn’t going to push him about it, when he obviously didn’t like talking about difficult emotions.

Although he had acknowledged her pain over being cut off from her own world. Maybe he wasn’t as closed off emotionally as he’d first seemed. Maybe he just needed to get comfortable with her.

And maybe it didn’t matter whether they became best friends forever. Good grief. Was she crushing on him now?

Viviana was. Crystal had seen it clearly, back in the royal city. The girl had fluttered her eyelashes at him every chance she got, although he’d seemed immune to her tall, blond beauty. Maybe he’d seen her as too forward. Women here were expected to behave modestly at all times, and Viviana wasn’t exactly modest.

Crystal hoped she wouldn’t get herself in trouble. All three of them had enough to deal with; they didn’t need Vivi’s careless flirting causing dangerous misunderstandings. Jackson, too. He was just as promiscuous as Vivi, if not more so.

Of course, in this male dominated society, men were given a great deal more leeway than women in the sexual arena.

Either way, Crystal would feel a lot better about everything once she and the Smithfields were reunited and she could keep an eye on them.

 

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