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Authors: C.E. Murphy

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BOOK: Hands of Flame
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Only they, and, it seemed, Biali. Margrit felt all her years of courtroom training betray her as her mouth tightened in recognition. Dark humor slid through Biali's expression. “Everything make sense now, lawyer?”

Margrit drew in breath to respond and let it out again in a shriek as a flash of white darted over her head. Biali launched himself skyward to meet Alban, all attention for Margrit lost.

They crashed together with none of the grace she was accustomed to seeing from the Old Races. Too close to the rooftop to keep their battle aerial, momentum and their own weight slammed them to the blacktop. Margrit staggered with the impact and ran for shelter, putting herself against the rooftop access door. It seemed impossible that no one would come to see what the sound had been, and each roll and thud the combatants shared made it that much more likely. She didn't dare shout for the same reason, but she pitched her voice to carry, fresh fear and anger in it: “Are you crazy? Somebody's going to come!”

Neither gargoyle heeded her, too caught up in their private conflict to respond to sense. Biali lifted a fist and drove it down like the rock of ages. Alban flinched just far enough to the side that the blow missed. The rooftop
shook again and Margrit skittered forward a few feet, sure that interfering would be useless, but driven to try. “Alban, stop! He grabbed me to make you come after him! Just get out of here!”

For a moment it seemed he'd heard her, an instant's hesitation coming into his antagonism. Biali took advantage with a backhand swing so hard the air whistled with it, his fist a white blur against the graying sky. Alban spun, dizziness swaying his steps. An appalled fragment of Margrit's attention wondered how hard a hit that was, to stagger a gargoyle. A human jaw would have been pulverized.

Her gaze locked on the shattered left half of Biali's face; the ruined eye socket that in gargoyle form was all rough planes worn smooth by time. Alban had done that centuries earlier, and if the blow he'd just taken hadn't conveyed similar damage to his own face, Margrit couldn't imagine what strength had been necessary to destroy Biali's features.

As Alban reeled and regained his footing, Biali backed away, unwinding the length of chain from around his waist. Unwanted understanding churned Margrit's stomach as the stumpy gargoyle knotted one end and began to swing it. It wasn't an adornment of any sort. It was a weapon, and more, a prison.

Of all the Old Races, only gargoyles had ever been enslaved.

Margrit let go a wordless shout of warning that forgot the need for silence. Alban responded, flinching toward her as if he would protect her from whatever she feared, but too late: Biali released the chain, sending it clattering toward Alban. Margrit sprinted toward them, her only
thought to break the chain's trajectory, regardless of the cost to herself. She would heal from most injuries: that was the gift another of the Old Races had given her, and for Alban's freedom she would risk her fragile human form against the dangerous weight of metal.

But she'd taken herself too far from the fight, her safe haven now a detriment. Crystal-precise clarity played the seconds out, letting her see how the chain left Biali's hands entirely, flying free. Alban recognized the threat an instant too late, wings flared and eyes wide with comprehension and furious alarm. Metal wound around his neck and his hands clawed against it, desperate to snap the chain and shake himself free.

Dawn broke, binding iron to stone.

TWO

MARGRIT'S HEARTBEATS COUNTED
out an eternity, incomprehension making a statue of her as if she, too, was one of the gargoyles, frozen in time. Then the need to act paralyzed her, useless choices rendering her as still as astonishment had.

Her impulse was to dart forward, to claw the chains away from Alban's throat just as he'd tried to do. To pound on his chest and demand he wake up, for all that she knew sunlight held him captive and only darkness would release him from stone. Failing that, she wanted to somehow scoop him up and carry him to safety, far away from Biali and his plots. All were physically impossible, laughable in their naiveté. Even if she could somehow remove him from the rooftops, Margrit wasn't certain she could loosen the chains that bound him.

Memory surged with the thought, twisted and half-shadowed and not her own. The half-breed Ausra's memories of Hajnal, her mother, bound by iron, pain driving her mad. Iron became part of stone when transformation took a gargoyle at dawn or dusk, and could
only be released by the one who'd set the chains in place. Hajnal had never been free again, and her death had poured memories into Ausra's unprotected infant mind. It was more agony than Margrit had ever wanted to know.

She shuddered, pushing the alien memories away. What little she knew about enslaved gargoyles had suggested manacles, not iron chain wound around a stony neck. Maybe, if she could get Alban away from Biali, she might free him by simply unwinding the chains.

It would have been an elegant solution, had it not relied on moving a seven-foot-tall statue off a twentieth-story rooftop. Margrit had no idea how much he weighed in stone form; easily a ton or two. She flattened her hands against her hips, searching for a cell phone she should have been carrying and wasn't. Cole and Cameron would rail at her for that, if she admitted it to them. Even if she had the phone—and she should; running in the park at night was dangerous enough without at least carrying some form of communication—there was no one to call. The only obvious answer was her soon-to-be employer, and the prospect of offering Alban, frozen in stone and chains, to Eliseo Daisani, sent a cold shudder through her.

The door behind her banged open and Margrit swallowed a yelp of surprise as she turned to face an irate man, whose ring of keys suggested he was the building manager. “What the hell is goin—What the
hell
are those?” His attention snapped back and forth between the gargoyles and Margrit so swiftly it looked headache inducing.

She offered a lame smile. “Somebody's sculpture project?”

“Somebody like you?” The man was big enough to be physically threatening, but he kept his distance, as though
the gargoyles behind Margrit might come to life and protect her. She wanted to assure him, blithely, that he was safe until nightfall, but instead swallowed a hysterical laugh and shook her head.

“I came up to see what all the noise was.”

The building manager squinted. “From where? You're not a tenant.”

Margrit couldn't imagine how Biali had managed to choose a building where the building manager knew his tenants, but she had the urge to turn around and scold him for it. “I'm visiting. I got up early to go for a run and heard the noise. My friend called you.”

The manager's eyebrows unbeetled a little. “She didn't mention a guest. 'Course, she usually doesn't. How were you planning on getting back downstairs?” He jangled his keys, still looking sour, but no longer as if he suspected Margrit was to blame for the gargoyles.

She clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes wide with dismay. “Oh, God, I didn't even think of that. Wow, I'm such an idiot. Thank goodness you came up here or I'd be stuck all day. Thank you! You totally saved my life!” She felt her IQ dropping with the breathless exclamations, but the manager looked increasingly less dour.

“You should think things through more carefully.” Chiding done, he looked beyond her at the gargoyles and sighed explosively. “Well, shit. I'm going to have to get demolition guys in here to get rid of those things.”

Horror clenched a fist around Margrit's heart. “But they're so cool. I bet you could make a buck or two letting people up here to see them for a while before you got rid of them. Besides, somebody in the building must've done
them, right? I mean, unless helicopters swept through in the middle of the night and dropped them off.”

The manager twisted his mouth. “Or they flew here.”

Margrit laughed, high thin sound of nerves. “Yeah, which would be totally freaky.” A law-school education, she thought with despair, and she was relegated to
totally freaky
. “So if somebody got them up here, he must have a way to get them back out, right?”

“Do you know how many tenants I've got? I don't want to knock on every door asking who the damned fool who put a couple monsters on the roof is.”

Margrit bounced on her toes, putting on her best helpful smile. “Look, I could do it for you. I'll wait a little while to be sure people are getting up so I don't disturb them, and you've got to have a million things to do in a building this size, and I don't mind lending a hand. Makes me feel useful as a visitor, you know? I'm Maggie, by the way.” She stepped forward to offer a hand, wincing at the nickname she never used.
Margrit
had a plethora of short names, and she used one no one else did:
Grit
. But
Maggie
was close enough to her name that she'd remember to respond to it, and since she was on the roof under false pretenses, it seemed wiser not to offer her real name.

The building manager shook her hand automatically. “Hank. You're not Rosita's usual type, Maggie.”

Margrit knotted her fingers in front of her stomach, hoping she looked winsome instead of nervous. She hadn't known she was potentially Rosita's type when she'd pinned her presence on a “friend,” but she was unexpectedly interested in the answer to, “Better or worse?”

“Better. She's usually into—Well, look, it doesn't
matter. You seem like a nice girl, and I could use the help. Jesus, what kind of idiots…”

“I'll totally take care of it,” Margrit promised. “Just don't call any demolition guys until I've talked to everybody, okay? They're too cool to smash up. Somebody'll want them.”

“Yeah, all right. Come on.” Hank turned away, opening the door. Margrit's shoulders slumped with relief before she put Maggie's perky smile back on and followed him into the building.

 

The other time—the
only
other time—she had visited Eliseo Daisani's penthouse home had been an impetuous 4:00 a.m. arrival on the rooftop a few weeks earlier. Now, arms hugged around herself, Margrit stared hundreds of feet into the air at Daisani's mirror-glassed apex apartment, wishing she could enter the way she had then.

Wished it for a host of reasons, not the least of which was that Alban had carried her in his arms then, ignoring human convention and soaring across the sky in his haste to make certain of Margrit's safety. Malik had teased Alban with the threat to move against her during the day, when Alban was helpless to protect her.

Alban had turned to Daisani for help. That in itself might be reason enough for Margrit to do the same now, but standing outside his building in the small hours of the morning, she doubted herself.

Not so small anymore. Margrit shook herself. It was nearly seven, and Daisani would be on his way to work. Alban and Biali had to be rescued before
she
went to work; before Hank decided to take a sledgehammer to the statues on his rooftop. Daisani might not be a good
choice, but he was the only one she had. Janx, even if she could get to him, no longer had the resources necessary to rescue a pair of wayward gargoyles.

She remembered too clearly that the first time she'd met Eliseo Daisani, he'd had two sealskins pinned to his office wall. One had been adult-sized, the other pup-sized. She'd thought then that he was a ruthless hunter, willing to take mother and child. It had proven that the furs were selkie skins, their presence in his office trapping a young woman and her daughter in their human forms. That he'd given them to Margrit as part of a bargain did nothing to reassure her: the fact that he'd had them at all said he was more than happy to take advantage of any powerful hand he might have over another. Turning Alban—and to a lesser degree, Biali—over to him while they were vulnerable was a last resort, something to be avoided if at all possible.

Margrit frowned toward the rooftop, knowing she was stalling, but not quite able to push herself forward yet. She wanted another answer to the problem at hand, but her heartbeats counted out passing moments in which Alban's danger grew.

She wasn't certain which held her back: a reluctance to owe one of the Old Races yet another favor, or Eliseo Daisani's endless distressing failure to fit into any of the legends she knew. The other races were easier to deal with: lesser known, they also fell into old mythologies more readily, with the djinn ability to dissipate or the thin blue smoke that always followed Janx fitting what they really were.

But it was the gargoyles who were bound to night, not vampires. Daisani had been standing in an office full of
sunlight the first time she met him, all swarthy smiles and a charisma that made his middling looks handsome. His teeth were unnervingly flat, no hint of too-long canines or a mouthful of razor-sharp ivory weapons. The
dragon
had pointy teeth, but the vampire, no. Neither garlic nor silver crosses held him off, nor did he require an invitation to pass a threshold. Alban had pointed out, prosaically, that Daisani would certainly die if someone thrust a wooden stake into his heart, but then again, so would anything else.

If she'd not seen the impossible speed Daisani could move with, if she'd not been given a gift of his blood to help her heal, she would never have believed he was anything other than what he appeared: a slight man with a great deal of personal wealth and business acumen. That, more than anything, made her not want to bargain with him.

Margrit tightened her hug, then let herself go forcefully, driving herself forward with the motion. As if she'd summoned him with the action, a security guard approached her. “Sorry, miss, but there's no loitering here. You'll have to move along.”

Genuine astonishment rose up as laughter. “Are you serious? This is a sightseeing stop. ‘Oh, yeah, that's where Eliseo Daisani lives. He's supposed to be worth forty billion now, you know?' How do you get tourists to stop loitering?”

The guard gave her a tight smile and gestured her away. “Like this.”

Margrit held her ground as the guard stepped into her personal space. “Eliseo's my boss. I need to see him.” She tried sidestepping the guard and found herself caught in a dance with him.

Visibly exasperated, he stepped back, language turning formal, as though he repeated a well-rehearsed line. “I'm sure if Mr. Daisani is your employer, you'll find a more appropriate opportunity to speak with him.”

It struck Margrit that using Daisani's first name—though she'd been invited to—probably put her in league with starstruck stalkers, not a properly subordinate employee. She grimaced, then stepped back with her hands lifted in acquiescence. The guard stood his ground until she'd headed well down the block, only returning to his rounds after Margrit disappeared around a corner and peeked back. She counted to thirty, then, grateful he hadn't waited to see if she'd return, put on a burst of speed and bolted back to face the doorman.

“Wait,” she said as he reached for his radio. “I know I sound like a stalker, and I don't have an appointment, but my name is Margrit Knight. I'm Mr. Daisani's new personal assistant, and this really is an emergency. Could you please ring up to his apartment and at least tell him I'm here?”

“Miss,” the doorman said more patiently than the guard had, “it's a quarter to seven in the morning. Even if—”

“Is it that late?” Margrit shot a look toward the horizon, cursing her lack of cell phone and therefore lack of timepiece. “Never mind. I'll try to catch him at the office.”

“That won't be necessary, Miss Knight.” Eliseo Daisani opened one of the lobby's glass doors himself, putting a stricken look on the doorman's face. “You may join me in the Town Car, if you wish.” He gestured to the street, then fastidiously brushed a speck of lint off his overcoat. The coat, like everything Margrit had seen Daisani in, looked unbelievably expensive, the wool appearing so soft she had to stop herself from reaching out
to touch it. Its cut added to his height; Daisani was taller than Margrit, but only just.

She shook off her fascination with his coat and glanced toward the car. “Does it have privacy glass?”

Daisani's eyebrows, then his voice, rose. “Edward, could you have the limousine brought around, please?” The driver, who'd stood at attention beside the car, actually clicked his heels together in response before climbing in and driving away. Daisani smiled, then turned to the still-stricken doorman. “Miss Knight is to be admitted at any time she desires. Don't look so pale, Diego. I hadn't left instructions. You weren't to know. Margrit, will you require a ride home? I trust you're not going to work in that attire.”

“A ride home would be great.” Margrit thinned her lips, staring between Daisani and the street. “I think. I don't know if I'm going to work.”

“For reasons pertaining to your arrival here this morning, I trust.” Daisani nodded as a limousine pulled up, a different driver leaping out to hold the door. Bemused, Margrit preceded Daisani into the car, waiting until the doors and glass partition were closed before slumping in the leather seats. Daisani opened a miniature refrigerator and withdrew a bottle of water, eyebrows lifted in question.

“Yes, please.” Margrit sat up to accept and Daisani deftly poured two crystal glasses full, handing one to her and keeping the other for himself. The car pulled into traffic with a soft jolt of acceleration, then slowed again immediately. “Good thing we're not in a hurry. It'd be faster to walk.”

BOOK: Hands of Flame
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