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Authors: C.E. Murphy

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compulsive look toward the west, as if the sun might have gone down and brought night to the city hours early. It hadn't, of course: it was white and hard in the sky above. She looked back to the empty rooftop, aware that a double take wouldn't prove that she'd somehow missed two massive, stony gargoyles frozen in battle, but simply unable to comprehend what she saw.

Her body, less numbed than her mind, dialed the number Daisani'd given her and lifted the phone to her ear. Silence preceded a burst of static, and then a connection went through, a man's cheerful voice saying, “This is Bird One. We're coming in from the south. Turn around and you'll be able to see us.”

Margrit said, “Abort,” mechanically, intellect still not caught up with what she saw. “The statues we were going to collect have already been removed. No sense in drawing attention here. Thanks for your time, guys.”

“Bird One aborting,” the pilot said just as cheerfully. “Maybe another time, ma'am.” Margrit folded the phone closed, straining to hear the helicopters as they retreated,
uncertain if she did, or if it was simply the roaring of her blood and too-hard beat of her heart. She wanted to burst into speed, as though a mad dash across the rooftop would somehow retrieve a pair of missing gargoyles.

Hank had been too angry at her reappearance and not guilty enough at taking the money to be responsible, she thought. She would confront him, but gut instinct said the building manager hadn't broken the gargoyles to pieces and dumped them. Gut instinct and a lack of dust or rubble, though those could be taken care of with a broom. But unless Daisani had double-crossed her, Margrit had no other explanation. Color rushed to her cheeks at the idea, her vision tunneling and expanding again. There was nothing she could
to the vampire if he had, but there were things he wanted she could withdraw from the table. It was better than nothing.

The rooftop door's knob nudged her hip, making her realize she'd backed up without noticing. Margrit folded a hand around it, still staring blankly at the empty roof, then shook herself with deliberate violence and turned away. Whatever answers there were, they wouldn't be found by helpless inaction.


The building manager blanched so white Margrit had every confidence he hadn't been responsible for the gargoyles' disappearance. She left him with his wad of cash and found a subway station, unwilling to wait on a taxi making its tedious way through traffic.

Her slow burn had lit to genuine, body-flushing anger by the time she reached Daisani's building. She didn't bother checking in, using her key card for the elevators with impunity, and stalked through what had been
Vanessa Gray's reception area to throw Daisani's private office's door open.

He wasn't there. A dry crack of laughter hurt Margrit's throat as indignation deflated under the heavy weight of reality. Once in a while the world allowed itself to be set up for dramatic confrontations, but arbitrary disappointment was the more likely scenario at any given moment. She paused at Daisani's oversized desk to leave the envelope of cash on it, then stepped forward to lean against the plate-glass windows that overlooked the city. It looked serene from so far above, no hint that the lives taking place within it were chaotic and unpredictable.

The elevator in the front office dinged. Margrit straightened from the window, turning to find Daisani, looking as disheveled as she'd ever seen him, at her side. Genuine concern wrinkled his forehead, and he offered a comforting hand. “I came as quickly as I could.”

Margrit's eyebrows arched and a faint crease of humor warped the vampire's mouth. “I came as quickly as humanly possible,” he amended. “The pilot informed me they'd already been picked up. Who—?”

“I don't know. I didn't know what else to tell him. They were just gone. I don't think it was the building manager.” Margrit thinned her lips, eyeing Daisani. He caught the weight of accusation and rolled back onto his heels, giving her a brief, unexpected height advantage.

“And now you suspect me. You promised me something I wanted in return for their safe rescue, Margrit. I rarely renege on scenarios which provide me with things I desire.”

“You know that bargain's moot now. You didn't rescue them. I'm not spilling secrets for noble attempts.”

Pleasantry trickled out of Daisani's expression, leav
ing his dark eyes full of warning. “That's a dangerous choice. Are you sure you want to make it?”

“This is twice you've failed to come through, Eliseo. Hell, right now I'm wondering why exactly it is I should come work for you. I promised I would in exchange for you keeping Malik alive. He's dead.” An image of flames burned Margrit's eyes and she blinked it away as Daisani's countenance darkened. Sharp awareness that she should be afraid brightened Margrit's focus, but no alarm triggered. Whether the vampire's too-fast, alien nature had ceased to be a source of alarm, or if fatalism simply outweighed nerves, seemed irrelevant.

“You've become dangerously bold, Miss Knight.”

“I always have been. I've just gotten to where I'm not afraid of laying it out with your people, as well as mine. Oh, don't give me that look.” She snapped away Daisani's expression of faint dismay. “I wouldn't be any use to you if I was terrified. Vanessa couldn't have been.”

“Vanessa and I,” Daisani said after a measured moment, “had a very different relationship than you and I do. And terror has its uses.”

“So does boldness. If you didn't take them, who did?” Margrit put the argument aside firmly, confident she'd won.

Daisani gave her a long, hard look, speaking volumes about the game she played before he, too, set it aside. “Even if he knew about their predicament, Janx no longer has the resources to move two gargoyles. Besides, he hasn't been seen in days. It's possible he's left the city.”

“Do you really think he'd give up his territory that easily?” The House of Cards had burned, selkies and djinn moving into the vacuum left by its fall. Janx had re
treated underground to lick wounds both literal and figurative, but Margrit doubted he'd readily walk away from the criminal empire he'd created. “There's still a lot of upheaval going on at the docks. Cops have been down there nonstop since the raid and they're still not keeping all the violence in check. The opportunity to take it all back is there for a strong enough leader.”

“Ah, yes, the docks. Speaking of which, how's your friend Detective Pulcella? I've seen him on the news several nights a week since the House was raided. He's a good-looking young man, isn't he?”

Margrit's hands curled into fists. “Yes, he is. I haven't really talked to him since the raid.” Tony Pulcella was a homicide detective, though the bust that had given prosecutors Janx's financial books had put Tony on a fast track to promotion and a wider range of responsibilities. The clincher was Janx's arrest, and he'd been working long hours toward that end, as evidenced by innumerable news-camera glimpses of him day and night. He was well outside his jurisdiction, but homicides linked to Janx cropped up all over the city, and Tony had long since been part of the team trying to bring the crimelord in. His determination to do so had helped tear apart his relationship with Margrit, and ironically, she was now far more deeply entangled in Janx's world than her ex-lover could ever have imagined.

“Quite the proper hero,” Daisani went on blithely. “A pity for him that he can't see what's really going on.”

“How could he?” Bitterness laced Margrit's question. “You'd kill him if he found out about you.”

Newscasts didn't show the way the Old Races moved, too fluid and graceful, marking them as creatures unfet
tered by the bounds that held humanity in check. Margrit had learned, though, to look for other signs on the news: djinn with their jewel-bright gazes, selkies with their tremendously dark eyes, all pupil and blackness. The two races had forged a treaty to support each other, making natural enemies into one tremendous force, their numbers vastly greater than any others of the Old Races. The selkies had long since bred with humans to replenish their failing numbers, breaking one of the few dearly held laws that all five remaining races had in common. The insular, desert-bound djinn had supported the selkie petition to return to full standing amongst the Old Races in exchange for selkie help in taking over and running Janx's underworld empire.

Neither party appeared to be happy with the arrangement now that it was met. Clashes on the street had the feel and damage of gang warfare, leaving police bewildered when weapons were found abandoned at the water's edge, blood on the ground and no sign of embattled people in sight. One journalist was dead, his camera destroyed. Margrit had little doubt he'd captured a selkie or djinn transforming, and paid the price for it.

Janx had run the House of Cards with an iron hand, unapologetic in his activities but keeping a sort of peace with his tactics. That was lost, leaving opportunistic humans with knowledge of how to control a troublesome empire to face two Old Races with ambition and a slippery pact just strong enough to unite them against outsiders. Even hyperbolic newscasters, always eager for a bad-news story, were becoming reluctant to dwell on the troubles at the docks and warehouses, as if ignoring them would make them disappear. But the city was suffering,
and that
news, not sensationalized or dramatized. Goods were coming in and shipping out more slowly than they should; dockworkers were striking for fear of their lives and police were under verbal attack for failing to protect citizens and materials alike. That they were up against an enemy they literally couldn't comprehend didn't matter.

It was the worst scenario Margrit could have imagined springing from her attempt to make the Old Races reconsider their archaic laws and move into humanity's modern world, the consequence of her arrogant belief that her way was the right one. “I wonder if talking to them would help,” she said aloud, thoughts too far from the conversation she'd been holding to follow through on it.

Daisani canted his head in curiosity. “The police?”

“The selkies. The djinn. Somebody's got to do something to stop their fight, and Tony's not going to be able to do it. I set this ball rolling. Maybe I can—”

“Negotiate a cease-fire?”

“Yeah, something like that.” Margrit lifted a hand to her hair, ready to pull her ponytail out so she could scruff her fingers through it, and discovered she wore corkscrew curls in a tightly twisted knot. Stymied, she dropped her hand again and caught Daisani's amused smirk. “I know,” she muttered. “It's a tell. Remind me not to play poker with you.”

“I very much doubt you'd allow yourself such obvious divulgences in a poker game, Margrit. No more than you would in court. We're all allowed our little slipups in day-to-day life, however.”

“Even you?”

Daisani's eyes lidded. “Rarely, but once in a while even I have a lapse in judgment.”

“Yeah.” Amusement quirked Margrit's mouth. “I'll tell my mother hello next time I talk to her.”

Surprise shot over Daisani's face, ending in a rare laugh. “Oh, well done. You see? I do have my tells. Do say hello, and I gather from that remark you're dismissing yourself. What will you do?”

Margrit spread her hands. “Find the gargoyles.”


Her cell phone rang so promptly on Margrit's departure that she turned back to eye Daisani's building suspiciously, as though the vampire might have waited until she was out the door to politely ask just how she expected to accomplish that. The building gave no sign of whether it was Daisani calling, and the phone, when she pulled it free of her purse, came up with a Legal Aid number. Wrist twisted up to check the time, she imagined another hour had been stripped from the notepad by her desk as she answered.

“Margrit, this is Sam. The opening statements for the Davison trial have been moved up to this afternoon.”

“They were supposed to be Friday!” Margrit overrode the receptionist's apologies with her own. “Sorry, it's not your fault they moved it. Look, Jim's prepared to take the case on alone. I'll come in as cocounselor, but this is his as of Monday anyway.” She glanced at her watch again, promising she'd be at the courthouse as soon as possible, then closed the phone with a snap and shot a second glare at the Daisani building.

The single best reason to work for the business mogul was that when Old Races complications cropped up in her
life, she could at least explain the situation without causing impossible difficulties. Biting back a curse, she hailed a taxi and returned, with a growing degree of reluctance, to what she still thought of as her real life.


a blinding burst of pain.

Alban flung himself away from agony, a howl ripping from his throat. He heard stone tear, deep wrenching sound, and a woman's startled curse, but neither stopped him from snarling and savaging his way forward. Taloned feet dug into the floor, muscle straining with fury. Iron squealed, tearing without breaking. He howled again, reverberating sound so deep plaster crumbled. There was no escape: iron bound him hand and throat and ankle, making walls distant and red with pain. He couldn't move his hands more than a few inches from his head, chains limiting his range of motion.

Panicked instinct drove him to try transforming, anything to escape the bone-deep fire of iron. Fresh pain spasmed through him, denying him the human form he'd become so accustomed to wearing. Tenterhooks curled into his muscles, ripping with an eye to deliberate, debilitating anguish. Every time, it shattered through him, and yet he could not stop trying.

Somehow he had never imagined it would hurt so
badly, not even with Hajnal's memories of captivity fresh in his mind. Perhaps he'd mistaken the pain of iron bound to flesh and stone for the pain of her injuries, or perhaps the passage of time had muted the outrage. It was possible that the filtering of so many minds experiencing the barbaric sting of slavery had, over the millennia, dulled its edge. If that was so, the gargoyles had lost something even more precious than Alban's freedom. They were losing the history of their people, of all the Old Races, to the inexorable wear of time. It could be their diminishing numbers as their own range of experience became so limited that they couldn't fully appreciate, and therefore fully recall, the passions and pains of history.

Three and a half centuries had passed since Alban had last joined in the overmind and shared his experiences with the rest of his people. It happened from time to time; a promise was made to remember, but not to make the memory open to all. They were made for finite periods, until some crux had passed.

Alban, friends with two men of other races, had made a promise to stand a lifetime alone to protect their secrets, and in the thirty and more decades since then he had never seriously considered breaking his word. His people called him the Breach, for selfishly holding back the memories of the last of his family, the Korund line, from the whole; he compounded it now with Hajnal's family memories buried within him.

Now, bound in chains, his blood recoiling and sending shards of pain through him at each encounter with the metal, it seemed he had something worth breaking his promise for. He could feel the metal's weight inside him, demanding obedience, and doubted he would be able to
stand against any command Biali might give. That, too, was a warning his intellect spoke of: the distant recollection that gargoyles bound by iron could be made an army unable to refuse orders. It wasn't a worry that had ever haunted him, but now Alban feared blunted memory did his people and all the Old Races no good. If agony shared could sear open the depths of history his people could recall, it might yet be worth betraying onetime friends.

And perhaps the secret he carried for them could alter the status quo the Old Races had lived with for so long. Perhaps that alternation could awaken the Old Races to the possibilities of the future, as a fresh introduction of pained captivity might awaken the gargoyles to their neglected histories.

For shame, Korund
. Such brief captivity, leading so easily to thoughts of betrayal. Margrit would say a little forced perspective was good for him.

Margrit. She had been in danger.

Pain surged through him again, inadvertent attempt at transformation, as though wearing a human form might somehow free him from his bonds.

Humanoid. A gargoyle's natural form was humanoid, unlike the other surviving Old Races. Dragons were sinuous reptiles; selkies, seals in their first-born form; the djinn barely held shape at all, their thoughts made of whirling winds and sand, and the vampires, well: no one saw a vampire's natural form and lived to speak of it. But gargoyles walked on two legs, stood upright, saw with binocular vision, as much like a man as a member of the Old Races could be.

Gargoyles did not leap and snarl like a dog in chains.

Alban ground taloned toes into the stone floor and
surged forward. Rattling chain scraped again, pulling him up short and choking his breath away. He roared fury, words lost to him.

“Sorry, love.”

A woman's voice again, so unexpected it brought Alban up as short as the chains had, distracting him from pain and rage. Focus swam over him, the words giving him something other than himself to think about. “…Grace?”

“Ah, and so now he comes to his senses.” In the blur of his anger he hadn't scented her, hadn't seen her, though a whisper of memory now told him he'd heard her alarmed squeak as he'd awakened so violently. She stood across the room from him, one foot propped against the wall, her arms folded under her breasts. This was her territory, the tunnels beneath the city; she ran a halfway house for teens down here, and had for some months provided sanctuary for Alban himself. His mind was still too muddled to make sense of his awakening there, and she gave him no chance to ask questions. “Sorry for the accommodations, Stoneheart. Biali won't release you, and I'll not be risking you tearing down the walls in a fit of temper. I can unfasten the locks that hold you to the floor, but only if you'll control yourself.”

Alban lowered his head, panting, and even to him, the minutes seemed long before he lifted his gaze again. “I am controlled.”

“Sure and you are,” Grace muttered. “Like a tempest in a teacup. All right, it's only my own neck then, isn't it?” She came forward with a key, crouching as Alban relaxed and let slack into his chains.

“I wouldn't harm you, Grace.” He spoke the promise in measured tones, reminding himself of that truth as
much as reassuring her. Grace opened the chains at his ankles, letting them drop to the floor. He came to his feet, hands fisted around the chain at his throat; he was entirely helpless like this, arms folded close to his chest. Eating would be awkward, but he could spare himself that humiliation: stone had no need for regular meals. “We're in the tunnels. But Biali and I—”

“Were making fools of yourselves on the rooftops,” Grace supplied. “I couldn't leave you there to fight it out at sunset, now, could I? What were you thinking, Alban?” she added irritably. “You're bright enough to stay away from that one.”

“He'd taken Margrit. Where is he? Where is
” Alarm spiked through Alban's chest and pain rippled over him again as he tried, fruitlessly, to transform. Grace slapped his shoulder, still annoyed.

“Stop that. It looks horrible, as if all the snakes driven from Ireland have taken up under your skin and can't get free.
is chained up in another sealed-off room, throwing more of a tantrum than you, and I've no idea where your lawyer friend is. Better off without you, I'd say,” Grace said sourly. “Not that either you or she will listen to the likes of me.”

Breathless confusion pounded through Alban, counterpart to the pain the chains brought. Speaking helped: being spoken to helped. Even Grace's clear pique helped push away the bleak, mindless rage. “I do not understand.” He kept the words measured, trusting deliberation over the higher emotions that heated his blood. “How did we come here? What are you doing? What did Biali want?”

“Grace has her tricks, and a few friends to call on when she needs to. I'm trying to stop a fight before it
schisms your people,” Grace added more acerbically. “As for what Biali wants, you tell me.”

Alban breathed, “Tricks,” incredulously, then, distracted from the thought, said, “Revenge,” the word heavy and grim and requiring no need of consideration. “Revenge for Ausra.”

Grace stepped back with an air of sudden understanding, speaking under her breath. “So it wasn't Margrit who saved herself after all. And Biali found it out.” She paced away, then stopped, hands on her hips, chin tilted up, gaze distant on a wall. “Then I've done what's best, haven't I?”

“What have you done?”

Grace turned, all leonine curves in black leather. “I've sent for a gargoyle jury.”


The countdown calendar was at sixteen hours, failing to take into account the after-court work Margrit returned to the office to do. She waved goodbye as coworkers slipped out, and gave the calendar a rueful glance. If she was lucky it wasn't off by more than three or four hours.

She was alone at sunset, bent over paperwork that gave her a cramp between her shoulder blades, but it redoubled, then racked her with breath-taking shocks of pain. Semifamiliar images crashed through her mind in spasms, too brief and disconcerting for her to hold. They had the feeling of being seen through someone else's eyes, as though she once more rode memory with Alban. Minutes after the sky went dark with twilight, concrete chambers finally came into resolution, body-wracking shudders fading away. Fingers clawed against her desk, breathing short with astonishment and dismay, Margrit struggled to recognize the rooms. Finally, sweat beaded
on her forehead and hands trembling from holding her desk too hard, her own memory clarified where she'd seen them before.

Belowground, in Grace O'Malley's complex network of tunnels under the city.

There were innumerable ways to enter those tunnels, but only one Margrit felt certain of. She stopped long enough to change shoes, then, still wearing the skirt suit she'd worn to court, left the office at a run.

Minutes later she scrambled over the fence to Trinity Church's graveyard, all too aware that she had no good explanation if she was caught. She dropped to the ground easily, suddenly surrounded by headstones, some worn beyond readability, others as sharply etched as if they were new. Wilted flowers lay on a handful of graves, though an April breeze caught lingering scent from one bunch and carried it to her. The church itself was a dozen yards away, glowing under nighttime lights, lonely without its tourists and parishioners.

Paths brought her to an inset corner of the church near its front entrance. She glanced over her shoulder, nervous action, and mumbled an apology to the dead as she stepped over a grave and placed her palm against one of the church's pinkish brown stones, pressing hard.

The scrape of stone against stone sounded hideously loud in the churchyard's silence. Margrit held her breath, as if that would somehow quiet the opening door, and for a moment heard the city as it actually was, rather than simply the background noise of day-to-day life. Engines rumbled in the near distance, ubiquitous horns honking. The wind carried a voice or two, but most of the sound came from mechanical things.

The door ceased its scrape and she stepped inside it, looking guiltily around the churchyard again. If she'd designed a hidden door, she would have put it at the
of the church, not the front. She saw no one, though, and pressed the door closed again as she used her phone for a flashlight.

The light bounced off pale walls. Margrit blinked at the steep stairs that led downward, never having seen them so clearly before. The walls had been scrubbed, an inch of soot washed away, and the stairway was much brighter for it. She trotted down, curious to see what other changes had been made.

The room at the foot of the stairs was almost as she remembered it, though cleaner. Walls reaching twenty feet on a side had been washed free of their sooty blanket, and the cot settled in one corner no longer touched those walls. A small wooden table was also pulled a few inches away from the wall, its single chair pushed beneath it. Bookcases lined the walls, candles and candleholders set on them. Electric lights had been added, wires looping above the shelves. There was nowhere to cook in the room, nor any obvious ventilation. Only Alban's books were missing, safe in his chamber in Grace's domain.

She switched on the lights and tucked her phone back in her pocket before moving Alban's cot to reveal the flagstone they'd escaped through. It was two feet on a side. Margrit sat down on the cot, dismay rising anew. She'd forgotten its size, and the incredible strength necessary to move it. Even in his human form, Alban was disproportionately strong. Margrit could barely conceive of his gargoyle-form's strength limitations. Certainly her own weight was inconsequential to him. Half-welcome
recollection flooded and warmed her, the memory of his hands, strong and gentle, holding her, guiding her, seeking out her pleasure. In flight, in love, that strength had been sensual.

And in battle it had been terrifying. Margrit made fists and opened them again deliberately, trying to push away the remembrances, and stood to examine the stone. She had no other way to get into Grace's tunnels, so she would have to lever the stone out somehow. Grooves marked two sides of its sides and she slid her fingers into them, then laughed with frustration at the uselessness of her attempt.

Stone grated against stone again, sound rolling down the stairs. Margrit froze, eyes wide, then spun around in a circle, searching for somewhere to hide. There was nowhere, save under the cot, and for some reason the idea struck her as absurd to the point of embarrassment.

“Pardon me.” A terribly polite voice came from the direction of the stairwell. Margrit, for all she knew someone was coming down the stairs, shrieked in surprise and whipped around again.

An Episcopalian priest with an erratic white beard peered around the corner. “Pardon me,” he repeated drolly. “I hate to interrupt, but I saw you come down, and I feel rather obliged to tell you that—Er, Ms. Knight?”

“Father.” Margrit squeaked the honorific, utterly at a loss to explain herself. “I'm, um. Oh, God. Uh.”

“Merely a representative,” the priest said cheerfully. “Ms. Knight, what an unexpected pleasure. What are you doing here? I haven't seen you in a while. Either of you,” he added more calculatingly. “How is Alban?”

BOOK: Hands of Flame
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