“Oh, right. They’re going to kill the only fully trained initiate they have. Why do I doubt that?” The Circle might want me dead, but they had every reason to keep Myra alive and well. There was a war on, and they badly needed the help a malleable Pythia could provide.
He glanced at Mac, who was looking dour. “Some of us have noticed a disturbing tendency in the Circle’s leadership lately. They seem to care less for our traditional mission and more for power every year. The Silver have always been separate from the Black, not only in how we obtain power, but in what we do with it. I fear the Council has forgotten that.”
Mac nodded. “And now they have a new candidate for Pythia, one of the more docile initiates. If both you and Myra die, they believe she’ll inherit.” He shook his head wearily, causing a dragonfly on his right shoulder to flutter glittering green wings. “I knew we had some rot at the core, but this is worse than any of us guessed. The power chooses the Pythia. That has been a maxim for thousands of years, because to have the wrong person in that office is to invite disaster. Dark mages are always trying to find ways to slip through time, to remake the world the way they want, and every once in a while one succeeds. Without a proper Pythia on the throne, our entire existence is in danger! The council must be stopped!”
“Uh-huh.” I looked into Mac’s homely, earnest face and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it was difficult. The world I’d grown up in was run on the carrot-and-stick principle: everything was done to gain reward or to avoid punishment. And the more risky the job, the higher the rewards or the greater the punishment had to be. Considering the risk level Mac was talking about, the payoff had to be out of this world.
Pritkin had stayed quiet throughout his buddy’s rousing speech, contenting himself with glowering into the distance. I snapped my fingers in front of his face. “So, what’s your story? Are you also in this out of the goodness of your heart?”
His perpetual scowl deepened. “I am in it, as you say, because I resent being made into a murderer. I was given the assignment of locating Myra for trial, even though the verdict in her case is a foregone conclusion. Others are searching for you, and I have no doubt that their instructions were the same as mine. If I did not think she could be taken alive, I was free to use extreme measures to ensure that she did not continue to threaten the Circle’s interests.”
One word in all that had caught my attention. “Trial?” It was hard to believe that anyone would prosecute Myra for attempting to kill me. It seemed more likely that the Circle would give her a medal. “What did she do?”
“She has been implicated in the death of the Pythia.”
For a minute, I thought he was talking about me, after all. Then it clicked. “You mean Agnes.”
“Show some respect!” Pritkin said heatedly. “Use her proper title.”
“She’s dead,” I pointed out. “I doubt she minds.”
“But Myra couldn’t have done it!” Mac broke in. “The Council’s argument doesn’t make sense. What would she gain by it?”
I thought that was kind of obvious. “She probably thought she’d be Pythia, if Agnes died before she could pass the power over to me.”
“But that’s just it, Cassie,” Mac insisted. “As John pointed out to the Council, the power won’t go to an assassin of another Pythia or heir designate. It’s an old rule, to keep the initiates from slaughtering each other for the position.”
My mind screeched to a halt. “Run that by me again?”
“The power has never yet gone to the killer of a Pythia or her heir,” Mac repeated slowly.
“You didn’t know that?” Pritkin demanded.
“No.” And I wasn’t sure I believed it. I really wanted to, because it meant that offing me might not be on Myra’s agenda after all. But I was having a hard time with the idea that she intended to let bygones be bygones. It didn’t seem like her style, especially not with two knife wounds from my weapon in her torso. Not to mention that, even if she did decide to take the high road, I couldn’t see Rasputin letting her concede defeat. He needed her to be Pythia if he had any chance of winning, or even surviving, the war. Something was wrong here.
“Didn’t Agnes die of old age?” I asked Mac, since he seemed the more forthcoming of the two.
“That’s what we believed, at first. But strange sores were noticed on the body when it was being readied for burial. A doctor was called in to look at them, and became suspicious, so an autopsy was ordered. She didn’t die because of her age, Cassie. She was poisoned. And considering the amount of precautions taken to safeguard the Pythia, it couldn’t have been easy.”
“They used arsenic, rather than a potion or curse that would have been detected by the wards,” Pritkin added, apparently appalled that Agnes had been killed by something so mundane. “Here. What do you sense from this?”
I backed away fast, even before I got a good look at what he was holding out.
“I promised to talk, nothing else,” I reminded him.
“With no witnesses, this is our best chance to find the killer!”
I stared at the small amulet in his hand. It looked pretty innocent, just a round silver disk with a worn figure embossed on it, swinging from a tarnished chain. I wasn’t getting any warning signals from it the way I did from objects likely to trigger a vision, but I didn’t intend to take chances.
“Well?” Pritkin thrust it at me, but I backed away rapidly.
“Your chance,” I corrected, making sure the little bauble didn’t brush against me. “This isn’t my problem.”
“Don’t be too sure of that,” he said cryptically.
I dodged behind Mac for cover and refused to take the bait. I glanced at my nonexistent watch. “Oops, look at the time. Guess I have to be going now. Let’s not do this again sometime, okay?”
Before I could move, Pritkin was there, jamming the medallion into the skin of my upper arm. “Ow!” He looked at me expectantly. I glared at him. “That hurt!”
“What do you see?”
“A big red mark,” I said irritably, rubbing at what would probably be a bruise. “And stop poking me with that thing!”
“If you are lying to me—”
“If I had a vision, you’d know it!” I told him furiously. “I don’t just see the bad stuff anymore—I get a front-row seat. And lately, I take whoever’s closest along for the ride! Or have you forgotten already?”
Pritkin didn’t answer; he just continued to hold out the amulet, although he was no longer attempting to brand me with it. I sighed and took the damn thing. “How does it work, exactly?”
“That’s just it,” Mac said, sounding as if he was enjoying the mental puzzle. “We don’t know. It contained arsenic— we opened it last night. But it was enclosed by the metal, with no way to touch the skin.”
“The answer has to be there!” Pritkin insisted. “She was holding it when she died, and it contained the same poison that killed her. And where else could the poison have come from? No one would have been able to get to her to administer it, especially not repeatedly!”
I gingerly examined the tiny thing. It had been cut open along the side, like a locket. Whatever it might once have contained, it was empty now. Which probably explained why I was getting nothing from it. The tampering had ruined its physical integrity, and in the process had ruptured any psychic skin that might have imprinted itself. But with Pritkin already looking as if his blood pressure was going through the roof, I decided not to mention that. “Repeatedly? ”
“No one was suspicious, because the poison wasn’t administered all at one time,” Mac explained. “It was spread out over six months or more, administered in small doses that built up in her system until it finally overwhelmed her. Her worsening condition was put down to her age and to the strain of losing the heir.”
“Six months?” The same time the Senate sent Tomas to babysit me. I didn’t like the coincidence, but didn’t say anything. Unfortunately, either my face gave me away or Pritkin had already made the leap himself.
“Myra couldn’t have administered the poison,” he said flatly. “She went missing months ago, long before Agnes took ill, and she has no motive. The Council wants her out of the way, so they are using the story of her involvement for their own purposes. Others had far better cause, but the Council can’t afford to challenge them.”
No, I didn’t suppose so. The Circle was allied with the Senate in the war; they couldn’t risk accusing their buddies of murder. I didn’t like to think about it, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if the Senate was guilty as hell. It fit the usual vampire modus operandi to remove obstacles in the most final manner possible. And it would have been worth it even if they’d only thought there was a chance that the power would come to me. They’d believed I was going to be their tame Pythia, the first in centuries under their control rather than the Circle’s. For that kind of power, they’d have done far worse than kill one old woman. Of course, there was another strong contender.
“What about the Circle?”
Pritkin’s eyes narrowed. “What about it?”
I shrugged. “You’ve implied that the Senate is guilty, but they’re not the ones hunting down the only two candidates who stand in the way of the Circle’s chosen heir.”
Mac looked sick, but Pritkin brushed it aside. “The Circle had no reason to want a change in leadership. Lady Phemonoe was an excellent Pythia.”
“Well, yeah, that’s the point. Agnes being good at her job might have been the problem, if the Council really is going bad. Maybe she opposed them one too many times, and someone decided that a younger, more easygoing Pythia would be—”
Pritkin cut me off with a savage gesture. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! The Council would never stoop so low!”
I stared at him, amazed that he’d already forgotten our morning in hell. His precious Circle didn’t seem to have a problem with taking me out, or with sending him after Myra. But I guess we didn’t count. “Okay, so why are you after her? Because you think she knows something?”
“I declined to kill her untried,” Pritkin said, “but by now the Circle has doubtless assigned another operative. If he finds her first, she will have no chance to tell her side of things.”
“You must have turned them down pretty forcefully. Because they don’t seem too fond of you.”
“I found out that an informant had placed you at Dante’s this morning. I had to battle the Circle’s team to reach you first, and one of them recognized me.”
And, of course, they’d seen him in the hallway with me, too. That probably hadn’t done his reputation any good. “Say you find her. What then?”
“Charges have been made that she needs to answer,” he said shortly. “Her fate will depend on her responses.”
I looked down so he wouldn’t see the disbelief in my eyes. “Sounds like you have a plan. Now that you know where Myra is, why do you need me? As you pointed out, I won’t be much use in Faerie, assuming we can get there.”
“Because there is a chance that she can time-shift away from me without someone to hold her in place,” Pritkin told me reluctantly. “Part of your power allows you to restrict a sybil’s abilities. It is usually used for training purposes, to permit a Pythia to retrieve a sybil from the timeline if she falls into difficulties. You should be able to exercise the same control to ensure that Myra cannot elude me.”
I sipped soda to hide my expression, and Billy merged with me so we could talk privately. “Either these two are the dumbest conspirators I ever met,” he said in disgust, “or they don’t think too highly of you.”
I thought at him.
“Can you drift through either one, maybe find out what they’re really up to?”
“Nope. They’re both warded all to hell and back. But we don’t need that to know they’re lying. If your power won’t work in Faerie—”
“—then I couldn’t hold Myra for them, even if I knew how. Yeah, I got that much. So what do they want me for?”
“That’s kind of obvious, too, isn’t it?”
Billy laughed, and it echoed inside my skull. “I’m gonna go check up on Dante’s, see what kind of hell the Circle is raising, if you think you can handle these two geniuses without me?”
I thought something rude and got another peal of laughter before he was suddenly gone. I stared at Pritkin and he looked back, completely expressionless. He did a good poker face, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t buy his flimsy story for a minute.
Pritkin knew full well that Myra had tried to kill me. He was probably betting that sooner or later she’d show up again for another go. Basically, I was bait. As for why he and Mac wanted to find her, that was also obvious. Locating her would give them a powerful tool to use in a coup against the Circle’s leadership. Maybe they saw themselves as revolutionaries, remaking a corrupt system, or maybe they were just opportunists who figured she was their ticket to power. It didn’t matter to me either way, but I did care about the fact that she would never help them for anything less than the full title. The only question was whether Pritkin would kill me himself once I’d served my purpose, or if he’d let Myra do it for him.
Of course, I knew they were kidding themselves if they thought she would just fall in line with their scheme. As Agnes had put it when she reluctantly handed power to me, her heir had joined Rasputin because she was evil or because she was weak, and either way she’d make a lousy Pythia. The fact that Myra had shortly afterwards attacked me had me leaning towards evil. I might not want the job, but that psycho wasn’t getting it, either.
I thought it over. Billy was right—we needed more help than he could provide, and a couple of war mages were perfect. Pritkin wanted to use and then double-cross me?
Okay, but two could play that game. I’d let him help me through the obstacles ahead, and as soon as we found Myra, I’d dump him and use the trap that had housed the Graeae on her.
I smiled at the mage. “Sounds interesting. Maybe we can work out a deal, after all.”