An hour later, I stepped into the shower, which was much less fun without Louis-Cesare. And stayed there for a while, and not just because the hot water felt so damned good. But because I was trying to straighten out my head.
Part of that was easier than I’d thought. Memories of the attack last night were coming back, and were easier to parse than whatever had happened at the fights, I suppose because I’d been conscious this time. Or half-conscious, or superconscious, or whatever it was called when two minds are awake and acting at the same time.
I called it freaky.
Olga had another word.
The best I could figure out, vargar were some kind of fey shamans or mystics who could throw their consciousness into other creatures. They’d gotten the name from wolves, because their favorite ride had once been fast-moving wolf packs. Which was why they were shown on Viking monuments riding around on wolves like horses, and why some of the sagas had fey witches and trolls doing the same thing.
But, eventually, they’d noticed that mentally tagging along with wolves had its downsides. Like the fact that people tended to notice a pack of dangerous predators, which made spying difficult. And that wolves were easily distracted by game or threats, making them harder to control than other creatures. Like birds, for instance.
Which Claire had been quick to point out were Efridis’ favorite avatar.
She wasn’t alone. Like Odin, who had seen through the eyes of his pet ravens, plenty of vargar had moved on to birds or boars or other creatures for their rides. A guy named Bothvarr, an early Beowulf type, had liked mentally hitching a ride on a huge bear, especially in battle. It was said that he was never defeated until somebody interrupted his concentration one day, and he lost control of his avatar.
Because vargar weren’t weres; they didn’t become their creatures. They just . . . went along for the ride. Or mentally hopped from one to another, checking out the borders better than any spy cam, because spriggans could move wherever you wanted them.
Giving the fey literal eyes everywhere.
Or they used to. Vargar were few and far between these days, although nobody knew why. Just that fewer were being born. Which was why Olga had been so surprised to find one here on Earth.
Only she hadn’t.
That’s why we’d lost last night. I wasn’t fey, so I couldn’t be a real vargr, and neither could Dorina. We had—or, to be more precise, she had—Mircea’s mental skills, and from what I could remember she’d been getting inventive with them.
Unfortunately, our attacker had been better at it. And that was a problem, because we were obviously up against the real deal, a powerful vargr with a lot more experience than Dorina. Which raised the question, how were we supposed to catch it?
So, okay, maybe even the easy stuff wasn’t so easy. As for the rest . . . I soaped up my hair, which cracked with grit from the dust storm last night, and tried not to think about it. But my brain wasn’t having it. My brain was worrying the other GREAT BIG THING I’d remembered, like a starving dog with a bone, and wherever I turned, there it was again.
Looking at me.
Okay, I’d think about it. Once. And then that was it.
Because there was nothing I could do about it anyway.
Dorina’s thoughts were still a jumbled mess with big blank spots, probably where I’d had to concentrate on something else. But one thing stood out crystal clear: the idea of a scattered consciousness. She’d said that was what happened if you were in free flight for too long, that you might just drift away and never come back. That you might cease to exist—mentally, at least—if you couldn’t find an avatar fast enough.
Leaving, I assumed, a brain-dead corpse behind.
Unless, of course, you were a freak with two consciousnesses. Because that would leave . . . what, exactly? A brain-dead corpse that wasn’t brain-dead? But that was normal, with one consciousness, just like everybody else, for the first time ever?
It was that thought that wouldn’t leave me alone, that had me using up all the hot water and getting prune-y, instead of getting on with my day. It was what had me pressing my forehead against the tile, and thinking about what that could mean. For both of us.
For Dorina, the benefits were obvious: no more deadweight. I wouldn’t be a remora on her side anymore, an anvil around her neck, a useless thing that no one respected, and who she’d been carrying for five centuries now and was probably sick of it. Especially with the gleaming jewel of a Senate seat currently dangling in front of her. And with it, everything her abilities should have gotten her all along: wealth, respect, family, position. She could instantly be all caught up, at the pinnacle of the vampire world, and all she needed for that to happen was for me to just . . . disappear.
And as for me . . .
I swallowed, feeling ill. But the truth was, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d wished a part of me dead. I’d spent centuries looking for a way to do exactly that—to kill off the terrifying thing inside me that had made anything like a normal life impossible.
Memories crowded in, not hers this time, but mine. Of running through a briar patch, shredding my feet and legs, too desperate to get away to bother finding an easier path. She’d almost erupted in the middle of an inn that time, where I’d been dumb enough to get talked into a game of cards by the fire. It had been cozy: rain beating down on the roof from a storm outside, a bowl of stew by my side, a tankard of ale in the hand that wasn’t holding the cards. A perfect, relaxing night . . .
Until one of the men accused me of cheating, and pulled a knife.
It was a stupid thing; he was drunk. And the brawny innkeeper was already heading our way to settle it. And even if he hadn’t been, was a red-faced idiot barely able to hold a knife someone I couldn’t handle?
Dorina had apparently thought so, forcing me to run off into the cold, desperate to get far enough away that she couldn’t wreck the place. Because she’d wanted to. I’d felt it like I’d felt her, rising like a gorge in my throat, blood filling my senses, threatening to choke me.
And everyone else.
So I ran, like I did a hundred other times. And ended up spending the night in some farmer’s barn, curled up among the cattle and hoping I woke before anyone found me in the morning. And was gutted for their trouble.
But running didn’t always work. She could take me in an instant sometimes, like the night a group of guys decided to jump me in an alley, just some young thugs, barely armed, who I could have knocked out with their own cudgels. Except the next thing I knew, I was waking up covered in blood and they were all dead.
The same thing happened with some highwaymen, who would have probably settled for the little bit of money I had on me. And with a group of randy soldiers, who were too drunk to outrun me, not that they’d had the chance. And with the personal guards of a stupid lord who thought he’d have a little fun with a peasant girl.
I’d come around inside his coach that time, lying on his lordship’s bloated carcass, his men arrayed almost artistically on the dirt outside. I’d stared at them, dizzy and sick, their blood a cloying stench in my nostrils, and recalled the stories about my uncle Vlad. Who, it was said, had liked to arrange his victims in pretty geometric shapes so he could admire their corpses from the towers of his castle.
Guess it ran in the family, huh?
I’d started trying harder to avoid conflict, after that.
Like giving up sea travel, because my other half in an enclosed space for too long was not a good idea. Like avoiding gambling, because a game gone wrong might end with the accuser strung up by his entrails. And like shunning close friendships, much less romances, because people near me had the life expectancy of a mouse hanging around a cat.
In other words, just as long as the cat didn’t get hungry.
I’d never known when my personal monster was going to get hungry, or been certain that I could stop her if she did. And every time it happened, I’d felt more like a failure, more like a bloodthirsty thing that enjoyed killing, more like the monster people thought me to be. So isolating myself had become the norm, not for my sake, but for everyone else’s. And that was still true, wasn’t it?
It was still true yesterday, when I’d been too afraid to mark Louis-Cesare. I didn’t want him tied to me when I didn’t know who I was anymore, or who I might become. I didn’t want him getting hurt when the crazy came out, possibly for good this time. I didn’t want him to wake up and realize that he didn’t know the woman lying beside him.
But he wouldn’t accept that, wouldn’t listen if I tried to tell him, just like he hadn’t listened in the shower. He thought he could handle it, that he could handle anything, but he couldn’t handle her, and neither could I. She was going to do what she always had—any damned thing she wanted, to anyone she wanted, and that included him.
And that couldn’t include him.
Whatever it cost me, it wouldn’t.
I finally ran out of hot water, threw on some old gray sweats, and ran a comb through my wet hair. And made my way down to the kitchen, where activity was going on, although not of the cleaning variety. Instead, a couple of mighty fey warriors were peeling apples, another was coring and cutting them up, and a third was standing by the kitchen table with a rolling pin in hand.
Despite everything, I felt a smile twitch at my lips. And not just at seeing the fey put to work for a change. But at the table.
It had been cleared off except for a piece of fabric that had once been a tablecloth, before it had become too stained for regular use. It had now become a kitchen aide, one that had been liberally sprinkled with flour and was supporting a large sheet of rolled dough. And there was only one thing Claire used that setup for.
Ah yiss, I thought gleefully. Motherf’king strudel!
“It keeps tearing!” a fey warrior said shrilly.
The fey was the one by the table, with sweat on his forehead and fury in his eyes. And flour in his hair, which someone, probably the determined-looking redhead standing beside him, had made him put up into a sloppy ponytail. More of it was smeared on his cheeks, where he’d wiped his face with a flour-dusted sleeve, leaving him looking like a toddler at play in Mom’s kitchen.
A profane toddler.
He cursed some more in some fey language—I didn’t know it, but that was definitely a curse—and glared at the dough. “This is impossible!”
“It won’t tear if you roll it evenly,” Claire said, which only appeared to madden him more.
“I did roll it evenly!”
Claire gave a disdainful glance at the dough, which even I could see was lumpy and thick in places, and almost see-through in others. Like he’d been pummeling it instead of rolling it with the wooden pin he was brandishing, which still had pieces of dough stuck to it here and there. Ironically, it was almost the only thing in the kitchen not covered in flour.
“You never told me it was this hard!” he accused.
Claire crossed her arms. “You said, and I quote: ‘It’s women’s work. How hard can it be?’”
A fey at the sink choked back a laugh.
The flour-covered one snarled something at him.
“Sorry.” Dish Fey didn’t look sorry. He looked wet. Like, all down his front and dripping into a puddle on the floorboards, where the soapy mixture was turning the flour into something approaching paste.
Housekeeping did not appear to be a fey specialty.
“Raisins or nuts?” Claire asked me, as the chef went back to aggressively beating up his dough.
“Why not both?”
“Need a better dough for both,” she said dryly.
Damn, Claire, I thought, looking at the poor, suffering fey.
That was cold.
A car horn went off in the front yard. I looked out the window, and felt my smile fade. “Be right back.”
I slipped through the side door and moseyed out front, where a shiny black Lamborghini was parked catty-corner on the lawn. I’d have had something to say about that, but Caedmon must have done it, since I’d been too out of it last night to drive. I vaguely remembered us starting and stopping and starting and stopping as he slowly figured out this strange Earth conveyance, because the fey don’t carry cell phones to call a cab. And flagging someone down when seven feet tall and dressed like Robin Hood can be a problem.
So he’d decided to just drive us home instead—in our attackers’ car. And for a first-timer, he hadn’t done too badly. He’d even managed to miss the stone frog near the mailbox when he parked it, which I appreciated.
A couple of chop-shop boys I knew would appreciate it, too.
But somebody else didn’t.
“What did you do to my car?” Blondie demanded, from the driver’s seat.
“Is there a problem?”
“You know damned well there’s a problem! It won’t go!”
Purple Hair didn’t say anything, just stood there, all daytime dominatrix in black leather jeans and jacket, and a low-cut silk shirt the same shade as her hair. She checked me out, in my ratty sweats, and her eyes narrowed in judgment.
Or, you know, because I hadn’t bothered to arm myself, and she was wondering why.
“That’s a shame,” I said, glancing at Claire, who had come out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a flour-dusted apron. “I wonder what’s wrong with it.”
Claire just smiled. It wasn’t a particularly nice expression. But Blondie didn’t seem to notice.
“Damn it! This is brand-new,” he told us furiously. “If you’ve fucked it up—”
A scaly arm reached through the window and jerked him out, because Claire was suddenly beside the car. I blinked. I hadn’t even seen her move.
I guess the vamps hadn’t, either. Because Purple Hair’s hand twitched, in the general direction of her jacket. I tensed, prepared to jump her, but she paused the action, probably realizing that she was about to make things worse.
She had no idea.
So both of us just stood there, watching Blondie kick his heels several inches off the ground, because Claire is a tall drink of water. One who suddenly had a wealth of iridescent purple scales covering one arm. And three-inch talons, shading from black to maroon to milky white, on the newly armored hand.
Guess I knew why she favored sleeveless dresses, I thought, seeing how the finely made scales transitioned seamlessly into the freckled skin of her shoulder.
It was an impressive display, but I wasn’t as worried as I might have been. I’d seen this particular trick before, and she’d remained in full control. As far as I could tell, a partial transformation simply gave her more strength without compromising her grip on her other half.
Of course, I could be wrong, I thought, tensing again as something that wasn’t a voice slithered out of Claire’s mouth. It was low and haunting, with a slight echo, despite not currently having anything to echo from. It was something like the sounds the demon made in The Exorcist, only worse, because it vibrated right through skin and flesh both. You didn’t hear it so much as feel it, like someone scratching the insides of your bones.
So, uh, yeah.
And then the sound turned into guttural words. “My car now.”
Blondie swallowed, and looked like he might pass out.
For her part, Purple Hair had gone very, very still. She didn’t move; she didn’t blink. Neither did I, because I didn’t want a repeat of the backyard incident, and I didn’t know what small gesture might set Claire off.
And then a small cadre of fey banged the front door open and came out. They were armed, because they were always armed, but they didn’t look particularly bothered. Maybe because they were skiving off work. A couple leaned against the house, another propped up the doorframe, and one sat on the stairs, working something loose from a molar with a toothpick. But their arrival broke the tension—slightly.
“What is this?” Blondie demanded, suddenly reanimating. “What the hell is—”
“Shut up,” Purple Hair told him harshly.
“But she can’t—she isn’t—and my car—”
He broke off with a gurgle, probably because the mailed fist had just tightened. Purple Hair closed her eyes briefly, the universal sign for “Why me, God?” For my part, I was listening, but didn’t hear any crunching noises. And he didn’t actually have to breathe, so . . .
I just stood there some more.
After a moment, Purple Hair looked at me. “The car we wrecked. It was hers?”
“Ah.” She looked at Claire. “Your car now.”
Claire released Blondie, then turned and went back into the house without another word. He fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, and stayed there, gasping. Not because he needed the air, but because that’s what you do when someone almost decapitates you one-handed.
I walked over, reached in, and took his spare set of keys out of the ignition.
“Fair’s fair,” I told them. “I knew what I was taking on when I agreed to this job, so you have your week. But that’s out there.” I nodded at the city. “My home is off-limits, understand?”
“Beginning to.” Purple Hair kicked her companion, who was still sprawled theatrically in the grass. “Get up.”
“But my car!”
“You wanna take it from her? Be my guest.” She looked at me. “Just don’t try hiding out here until Saturday. Fair’s fair.”
She dragged Blondie off and threw him in the back of a red convertible. They left, and I turned back to see that the fey had come over and were checking out the car. “Does it go very fast?” one of them asked me.
“As fast as a running horse?”
He frowned, and stuck his head in the window, checking it out.
“Do you think you could teach me how to drive one of these?” Soini asked, looking excited.
I looked back at the house. “Ask Claire. It’s her car now.”
I went back inside.