by Lynn Vieh
“Dreamstone, icestone, spirit stone,” I taunted. “Why can’t you mages do anything without these bloody rocks?”
“They’re all that’s left of Aramantha,” Harry told me. “The rest of it the ocean swallowed long ago, after the first mage war. That is how old and powerful we are, Charm. You can’t fight my sort or kill them. You can never defeat them. Get away from here while you still can.”
I looked at the cluster of vessels coming in with the tide. They were large military galleons flying Talian colors. “If I kill Dredmore before Zarath’s army arrives, and I keep Zarath from possessing any other body, what happens then?”
“Without a physical form to channel and project his power, Zarath will be unable to use it. None of the other mages in his service have his gift for marshalling armies. If the men choose to fight, they’ll have to battle like ordinary men.” Harry glared at me. “These immortals aren’t fools. You’ll never get close enough. Even if you could kill Dredmore, Zarath will jump from him to the next warm body.” As a flicker of daylight came over the horizon, he began to fade. “For all that is holy, Charm, please. When the fighting begins I have to retreat to the netherside.”
“Why?” When he didn’t answer I stamped my foot. “Harry, you can’t be neutral anymore. You have to choose a side.”
He shook his head. “Run, gel. Run for your life.”
I had no burning desire to be Rumsen’s savior. Since I’d come here, the city had shown no particular affection for me. Nor did I want to kill Dredmore, who despite being an arrogant ass had cared for me in his own fashion. I even understood why Harry didn’t wish to get involved; this business between the Reapers and the Tillers was none of mine.
But there were the women of the city, the women who were so often treated like so many nameless cattle, who would not know to run away. Carina, and Bridget, the cartlass round the corner from my building, they had no one to defend them. Even Lady Diana Walsh, snob that she was, would be left helpless before Zarath—and from what I had seen in his bloody eyes, the women would be made to suffer unthinkable horrors.
I waited until my grandfather had almost faded from sight before I said, “I’m staying, Harry, and I’m fighting.”
“So like my Connie,” he replied, but he was still shaking his head when he vanished.
* * *
Once Harry had gone my courage wanted to accompany him. To keep from changing my mind I crept along the back of the tinnery and peeked round the corner at the docks, which stood empty. Zarath and his men had either not arrived, or had taken refuge in one of the cargo houses to wait for the ships.
As I put together a plan, the wind off the sea made Tommy’s coat flap. I cinched it tight and pulled the long brim down before I darted across to one of the scale shacks where fish were brought to be weighed. I opened the door to the stench of death, and the sight of a woman’s mangled corpse.
“I’ll be.” Something batted the long brim from my head. “If it isn’t Dredmore’s little tart.” A hard hand spun me round, and Montrose leered at me. “Nipped away from the beaters? You should have stayed in jail.”
“Cousin Monty. How delightful to see you again.” I looked round for Zarath and the others, but Walsh’s son appeared to be alone. “Where are your Talian mates, then?”
“Waiting in the cargo house with the master.” He gestured toward the largest of them. “Zarath sent me to see if you’d crawled out the rubbish yet. Don’t know how he knew you’d show yourself, but he did.”
My heart sank a little. “How could he know I was here?”
“Felt you like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Seems the spirit-eater fancies the taste of cheap trollop. Meant to come back to the hotel to collect you for him once we’d finished some business.” He smirked as he nodded at the dead woman. “Likes to play with them a bit first. Not especially careful, either.”
“But I’d much rather be your plaything, Monty.” I sidled up to him. “You wanted your da to give me to you, didn’t you?”
“Yeah.” He reached down and pinched my buttock through my skirts. “So you fancy it with me, then?”
“Oh, I would, if you still had something to use. Too bad all you can do now is talk. And drip.” I rammed my knee into his groin, delighting in the shrill squeak he uttered as he sank to the deck. I shoved him inside the scale shack atop the dead woman, mentally apologizing to her spirit as I did for the indignity. Even with his stones bruised Montrose could come after me when he recovered, which I didn’t need, so I used Hedger’s spike to jam the door latch.
I wouldn’t need the spike for my plan to work; all I needed was to get close enough to Zarath while making him believe he’d already enchanted and enslaved me. I didn’t expect it would be difficult. Spirit that he was, the warlord was still a male, and he had been very interested in my body. Finally I could make useful the ridiculous ways in which men regarded my sex.
I straightened my skirts and smoothed my hair before I hurried to the cargo house. I made no effort to be stealthy or silent as I hurried inside, putting on my best loon face as I looked about. “Lucien? Lucien, where are you?”
Celestino showed himself first, and held a pistol that he pointed at my chest. “Do not take another step, miss.”
“Where is Lucien?” I demanded, striding toward him as if I didn’t see the gun. “I have escaped those who tried to keep us apart, milord.” I raised my voice and called out his name several times, wringing my hands as I did. “Please, Lucien, I need to see you so desperately.”
Dredmore stepped out of the shadows, his head tilted back as he surveyed me.
“How did you evade the authorities?” Celestino demanded.
“Lucien.” I ran to Zarath as if he were a great pile of prezzies on Christmas morn and threw myself at him. “Thank heavens you’re safe.”
The warlord held me at arm’s length. “The last time you saw me, you called me a monster.”
“I didn’t understand, Lucien. That awful inspector person had me terribly confused.” I smiled up at him. “I’ve been so lost and frightened. Finding you is such a relief.”
He didn’t look convinced. “So happy you tried to put a blade in me.”
“I was wrong to do that, and I don’t know why I did. I’ve been in such a muddle—or at least I was, until I found this.” I ducked my head, searching through my pocket until I produced the blue stone Dredmore had used to bespell me, and hoped Zarath wouldn’t be able to do the same. Holding it made me want to weep, and to add to the effect I let the tears well up into my eyes. “As soon as I picked up the stone everything became clear again.”
His eyebrows rose. “The stone made you think clearly.”
“Oh, yes.” I pressed myself against him. “It made me remember what was important. You, Lucien. I would do anything for you. Anything at all. It’s just as you’ve always said. I belong to you. I love you.” I ran my fingertips along the front seams of his jacket. “Please, let me show you how much.”
“Show me.” His black eyes glowed red, and he latched on to my wrist. “Yes. I would enjoy a show.”
“My lord,” Celestino said, “this is a charade. The only reason this female came here is to harm you.”
“Perhaps she did. It matters not.” Dredmore lifted my chin to study my face. “Did the old one not tell you, woman? Your power cannot drive me out. I am tethered by the spirit stone.”
The damn stone they’d made Lucien swallow; I’d forgotten about it. “I don’t understand your magic, Lucien. I never have, and don’t need to. I only want to be with you.”
Behind my simper I thought frantically. There was one more thing I could do, and I wasn’t even sure it would work. But it was that or have relations with this thing, and I’d stab myself in the heart before I did that willingly or otherwise.
Dredmore dragged me back to the cargo master’s office, where he closed the door in Celestino’s face. “Take off those rags. From this day forth, when you are with me you will wear nothing but your s
“Nothing would make me happier,” I cooed as I reached behind me. “I’ll never again have to launder anything but our bed linens. Unless you hire a laundress for us. That would give me more time to attend to your every want and need, you know.”
Undoing my buttons also gave me time to tear open the packet I had tucked in the back band of my waister. I filled my hand with the powder, closing my fingers over it as I shrugged out of my bodice and let it fall to the floor.
“You are taking too long.” His gaze dropped. “Undress faster.”
“The buttons are so small and slippery, and the excitement is making me all thumbs. Could you help with the rest?” I presented my back to him. “Pretty, pretty please?”
I felt him approach, but instead of unfastening my waister he grabbed a fistful of my hair and used it to drag me back against him. “I will fill your belly with my seed,” he muttered against my ear. “Again and again, until you swell like a ripe, fat date.”
Cloaked as he was in Dredmore’s body, I should have felt some small comfort. Over the last few days I had become embarrassingly fond of Lucien’s touch. Yet even the brush of this imposter’s breath on my skin nauseated me. I didn’t bother to suppress my shudder, knowing that Zarath’s ego would have him assuming I was shivering with delight or some other such nonsense.
“I can hardly wait to see myself become so, ah, figgish.” Of course if I turned and vomited all over his chest, he might begin to doubt the veracity of my ardor. “I have something for you, too.”
He jerked me round. “I need nothing from you but silent obedience, woman.”
Emphasis on silent, naturally. “Of course you don’t. But this is something that you wanted from me that should keep me quiet for a time. You remember, you wanted me to . . .” I let my voice trail off as I brushed my knuckles lightly over the front of his trousers and artfully puckered my lips. “Now close your eyes, my love.” When he didn’t, I pouted. “Lucien, please. I can’t do it if you’re staring at me like that. I’m a good gel.”
He smirked a little before his eyelids dropped.
I held my breath and flung the powder in my hand directly into his face. With my clean hand covering my nose and mouth I scurried backward until my shoulders slammed into a wall.
Dredmore coughed and choked, swatting at the cloud about his head. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I forgot to mention, I borrowed some sleeping powder from that awful inspector.” I watched him stumble. “Which means you’re going to have a nice, long nap.”
He fell to his knees, and tears rolled down his cheeks from his reddening eyes.
“Followed by a very massive headache,” I added, feeling quite satisfied to see him slump forward into a limp mound.
My suspicions proved correct; Zarath might eat spirits, control armies, and command an invasion, but Dredmore’s drugged body was as good as a gaol cell. I took the dagger he carried and looked down at his still form. Trapped as he was, I could kill Zarath now. Cut him open, reach into his belly, rip out the stone, and it would be finished.
Lucien could rest in peace.
I crouched down beside him, pulling his shirt free of his trousers to bare his flat, hard belly. I lifted the blade—
Which decided to fall out of my hand. I couldn’t do this to Lucien. I’d held his body in my arms; I’d covered great stretches of it with my kisses. Stabbing him in the heart would be like doing it to myself. Somehow I found my cheek pressed against his skin, and tears rolling over the bridge of my nose to plop down and slide into his navel.
Behaving like a silly female cost me as soon as I took in my first shuddering, sobbing breath, and a lungful of sleeping powder along with it. In one corner of my heart I knew I’d done it on purpose. The sad truth of it was that I couldn’t stop Zarath because I didn’t really care anymore. Now that Lucien was dead, the world no longer held anything of interest for me. I reached for my pendant, for the comfort it gave me whenever I touched it, and then I went still.
The pendant. Lucien had never given it back to me.
I staggered to the door and fumbled with the knob until it opened. Outside the office Celestino came at me, and in a dreamy haze I saw the blade fly from my hand and bury itself in his shoulder. I wandered past the writhing, shrieking mound of him on the floor, and shuffled my way down a long row of large crates. One stood open, half-filled with straw, and it looked so comfortable that I chose it as my hiding place.
I had enough sense to pile the straw atop me and pull the slatted lid back in place before I closed my eyes and surrendered to a sleep from which I might never awake.
* * *
I dreamed of the maze at Morehaven, where I walked through the hedges looking for my pendant and my lover. I had the notion that Lucien had hidden it somewhere there, as I could feel it, like him, very near to me. Yet no matter where I looked neither he nor the pendant were to be found.
I gave up the search when I reached the center of the maze, where his mechanized statues lay in pieces round the reflecting pool. Sitting down in the exact spot where I had given him my virtue, I thought of all that had happened since I’d come to Rumsen.
It should have taken some time for my life to parade before my eyes, but it had gone so quickly. I’d only lived a handful of years, years I’d spent as quickly and recklessly as my lost childhood. Now that I faced the end, I could only imagine how disappointed in me my mother would have been. I had survived losing her and my father, my home, and nearly all that I had owned in the world. I’d tried to spit in the eye of fate by helping others, and perhaps I had, but in the end I had nothing left to show for it.
I might have another chance when the powder wore off. If I survived Zarath and the Reaper invasion, I might flee Rumsen and start over somewhere else, but I would do it alone.
All at once I understood how wrong I had been to spare Zarath.
“Lucien,” I said out loud. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t . . . If I have another chance, I’ll try again.”
The reflecting pool began to bubble, and from it a column of water rose and shaped itself into Dredmore’s form.
“You were fated to be the end of me, to release me,” the man made of water said. “I saw it over and over in my dreams. Now that you have defied the portents, I am neither alive nor dead.”
Even in spirit form he was annoying. “I did say I was sorry.”
He sloshed over to the side of the pool and sat down on the edge. “If you hadn’t been so damnably stubborn, Charmian, I might have prevented this and saved us both.”
“If I’d been a docile, obedient gel, you’d have never looked twice at me,” I told him, ignoring the way his face was dripping onto my shoulder. “So here we are. I’m a failure and you’re a fountain. The city is about to fall to the Reapers. Everyone I care about will die.” I glanced at him. “Why are you still here? Zarath said you’d gone over to the netherside.”
“I have not gone, not yet, but it is a struggle to keep myself . . . intact.” He glanced at his broken mechs before he reached out as if to touch my face. “As I am I cannot be with you in this world or the next. Nor can I escape my prison. I would bear it for you if I could.” He drew back his shimmering hand. “But you must release me.”
I nodded. “Tell me what to do.”
“That can wait. Come here.” Dredmore offered me his hand and drew me down into the pool, where he melted away into the water. I lay back, floating on the surface, and the soft coolness sank into me, permeating every corner of my mind and spirit with all that had been Lucien. I saw his life, how dark and cold it had been. His mind power to charm had appalled his parents, who had sent him away to spend his entire childhood at the strictest of schools. Upon gaining his degree, Dredmore had been given a small fortune by his mother, on the condition that he leave England and never return.
Making the crossing had been a wretched ordeal for Lucien. He feared the sea, for it wa
s his only weakness. It prevented him from using his mind power, but worse, it terrified him. He couldn’t even swim.
Once in Toriana, a spiteful relation had made public his illegitimacy and the name of his commoner father, rendering Lucien an instant outcast among the blues. He might have used his gift to make a place for himself among the ton through his ability to charm, but instead he walled himself up in Morehaven to learn all he could about the dark arts. For ten years no one but his servants had even acknowledged his existence.
Becoming a deathmage had gained him the entry into society that his unfortunate birth had denied him, and his grateful clients had certainly made him rich, but behind his practiced cynicism Dredmore remained a lonely, wretched pariah. Until the day Connell had driven him through the market and a shaft of sunlight had illuminated the face of a common gel buying peaches. And in that moment, the torrents of passion and longing had flooded Lucien Dredmore’s cold heart, bringing with them the first hope he’d ever known.
It seemed ironic that for all his magic he had been made powerless against me, thanks to my pendant.
Something Harry had said the first time he’d appeared echoed through my thoughts: After twenty years of waiting and watching, I’m here. I’m free. And the curious thing Hedger had spat at him: Without that ginny bauble hanging about her neck she glows like a right black beacon.
If Dredmore were to be believed, I was a spell-breaker. Which meant magic had no power over me, nor could it be used in my presence. It explained why Rina’s teller had been powerless to read for me. The snuffmages’ balls had been rendered useless the moment they came near me. I’d kept Liv from strangling, not by slapping her, but by touching her. By sitting on the bench next to Bridget’s Charles, I’d broken the no-love spell placed on him in France by his mother.
Could it be that simple?
Without that ginny bauble—