Copyright © 2012 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Spirits dwelled down these fathomless corridors, and their silent pain called to me. Blood had spilled here. So much, I required no light to find my way. I had only to follow the eerie tingle up my spine to locate my destination, a section of tunnel where I sensed a lingering spirit. More than a residual echo of life, this soul was as aware of me as I was of him.
And I believed…he had been stalking me.
For weeks I’d hunted this warren beneath the frozen city of Erania. Who else could give these spirits respite when no one else knew of their existence? Spirit walkers were rarer than the souls we communed with, and few walkers ventured north of the veil. Most preferred the southland’s stifling humidity to the northland’s biting cold. I know I did.
Clenching my teeth to stop their chatter, I flexed stiff fingers inside my gloves and exhaled. I craved fresh air filling my lungs, sunlight warming my skin. I yearned to go home.
But first…I addressed the darkness. “My name is Kokyangwmana, and I—”
Frigid wind slapped my cheeks as it howled past. Huddling deeper into my dress, I waited until the furious gust died in a huff smelling of damp earth. Without another word, I knelt. My skirt was thin and the cold seeped into my bones. Sifting a set of metal tins from my pocket, I spread them in a half circle before me and began unscrewing the lids. When more wind sliced me raw, I withdrew a small crystal from my pocket. Warmth suffused my hand on contact. Fingers tight on my talisman, I spoke the old prayers as I gathered bits of herb from their tins and mounded them.
With a steady hand, I used the crystal and drew a circle around me.
Bracing against debris stirred by the spirit’s fury, I opened the final tin, removing a scrap of charred cloth and a flint shard. Fingers sliding on my steel striker, I gave one downward stroke and sparks leapt. Another, and red embers glowed.
Herbs caught fire, and their smoke sealed my circle. Sudden quiet made my ears ring.
I bent low and blew the smoke, choking when the haze parted around a pair of boots almost level with my nose. The spirit stood closer than I realized. When he nudged the ring of protection with his toe and it repelled him, I exhaled with relief and sat back to face him. He had been a tall male in life. Dark hair brushed his broad shoulders. His bearing was regal. His face… I squinted.
With a silent snarl, he spun from me and paced with his wrists held at his lower back.
His level of sentience disturbed me. This was a spirit with a purpose, and it was my duty to banish him before his ambitions harmed those who called this nest home. As I knelt between him and whatever his goal, I experienced a trickle of doubt that I could lay this troubled soul to rest. I had moments until my protective circle burst. Once my herbs burnt out, he would slide into invisibility and I would be at his mercy.
I swallowed the cold knowledge he must have realized as much. “Why are you here?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” a silken voice replied from somewhere behind me.
The spirit’s head snapped up, and an eager glint lit his eyes.
The sound of that all-too-familiar voice made my cheeks burn. Here I thought the spirit I tracked was the greatest threat in these passages. Yet I’d found one much greater. Or he’d found me.
I sensed his gaze, and my shiver wasn’t borne of cold.
My pulse skipped when the spirit bared his ghastly teeth in what I hesitated to label as a smile. Holding a finger to his lips, he made chill air ruffle my hair. Then he was gone.
Only then did it occur to me my circle was broken, which meant he was free to exact revenge for my attempt to end his haunting.
I started when a boot toed my ankle. Grinding a palm into my chest, I tried to crush my heart’s wild flight. Still it fluttered.
“Why are you here, Vaughn?” I pretended my earlier question had been meant for him.
Even this close, his expression eluded me. Instead of the aura all souls cast from within their hosts, Vaughn was a blank space where no light shone. His emptiness repelled as it attracted me.
“I was curious.”
Gooseflesh pebbled the skin his gaze caressed. Unable to read his expression, I pretended disinterest in his ambiguous remark. Sealing my tins, I collected the ashes from my ceremony for disposal, careful I left no refuse behind. Some spirits used burnt offerings against those like me.
“You spend a great deal of time wandering tunnels. Meeting someone?” He sounded closer. My head whipped toward him. “Perhaps you’re meeting Henri?” Chin lifting, he inhaled. “No?”
“I’m alone.” I bit my tongue as his dark chuckle pushed me to my feet.
Vaughn prowled a circle around me, his stride the envy of other predators I was sure.
Delicious heat encased my spine when his chest bumped my shoulders. His lips brushed my throat, fangs rasping over delicate skin. Hot fingers blazed trails from my shoulder to my wrist. I trapped a whimper behind my teeth. Predators fed on fear, and I stank of horrified fascination. He buried his face at my neck, his inhale punctuated with a groan as he breathed in his effect on me.
No male had ever made my knees weak before, but they threatened to buckle now.
Whether it was the sharpness of his teeth, the coldness of his voice or the ruthlessness of his reputation that did it, I thrilled at his nearness. As he traced the scar at my elbow, my eyes rolled shut. But not before I quivered at the sight of his hands on me. The absence of his aura made him unreadable to me. I saw no passionate red flares streaking from the crown of his head, where his halo should shine. No orange streamers announced arousal. No blue hinted at honest intentions.
Granted the latter was the last thing I expected from this male.
“I should go.” I withdrew and dusted my hands. “I must bathe and dress before tonight’s celebration.” Dread bowed my shoulders. How I tired of this, my first taste of proper society.
Skirting him, I ignored chills from the flash of fang in his mouth and continued down the tunnel. He let me sidestep him before fisting the laces running parallel to my spine. “You won’t find your way from the lower tunnels alone.” His nail scraped slightly as his finger slid between my dress and my chemise. “Come on.” He gave a tug. “I’ll take you to your room.”
“Thank you,” I said, stepping forward, “but that’s unnecessary.”
“I beg to differ.” His cool lips brushed my throat, and I muted a gasp. Oh yes. He was aware of his effect on me. I felt him smile. “You will return to your room, and I will escort you there.”
His command made me shiver. If my steps quickened, I credited my pace to glimpsing light at the tunnel’s end, not to the male who stalked so close on my heels his breath flushed my skin.
Smoothing hands down my simple gown, I set my shoulders, raised my chin and entered the great room. Few heads turned my way. Stigma was my companion. We were old friends, it and I.
Servers glided past me, so I headed toward a small table and made my selection unaided.
Ignoring how my hand shook when I gripped the crystalline chalice filled with sweet wine, I sipped and let the drink soothe nerves as tattered as the hem of my skirt. Every step I took in search of my cousin bared shoes dyed red by clay and made dirty from time I spent kneeling in tunnels.
Sidelong glances cut my way. Forcing my gaze to meet theirs, I sank a hand into my pocket. My thumb found a familiar groove in my crystal, and I abandoned hope of blending into this crowd.
Booming laughter pushed a relieved sigh past my lips. Rhys.
I followed his voice past gilded ladies whose shrewd eyes appraised my attire and dismissed my presence with a sniff, beyond the dapper males who spared me not a single glance. I was an arm’s length from Rhys when he made his excuses and strode from the room faster than my feet could match. I owed him and his new wife my best wishes on this twelfth night since their thread binding. With that goal in mind, I trailed in his wake. Darkness shrouded him, and then me too.
I shed my self-consciousness in that first step down the murky tunnel.
Murmured voices lured me farther from the sounds of celebration. Ahead, a swath of light slashed through the void as a door opened. Rhys entered the room, council chambers I think, and I was left alone with no light, no guide and nowhere to go but forward. Recalling the party, I had no intentions of going back there. Facing those probing stares twice in one night was too much.
“…we must act now. The longer we wait…”
My steps slowed and ears perked.
“…is the youngest daughter of the clan heads. She deserves…”
Sweat dampened my palms as I inched closer.
“She is the youngest daughter of the former clan heads. Those she helped murder.”
I swallowed when I realized who they meant. Pascale. I met her briefly after my arrival here. She had appeared frail, somber. Her honey-blonde hair was cut short, and her expressive blue eyes were haunted.
Rhys introduced her as the sister of his wife, Maven Lourdes of the Araneidae. Pascale was also convicted of aiding in a most heinous crime. What drove a daughter to murder her parents?
When I reached the door, my arm lifted and…
Strong hands shackled my wrists, chained me, gagged me, spun me until my chest hit the tunnel wall and the air burst from my lungs. Panting, I twisted so I could name my attacker. I saw no aura, and that absence was telling. I bit into the meat of his palm. When a ripe male curse was hurled at me, I spat blood at him. “Release me, Vaughn, or your brother will hear of this.”
“Half-brother.” He pinned me to the wall as he examined his hand. “And I don’t think so.”
“—no doubt be as curious as to why you’re skulking in tunnels as I am.” He caught my arm and bent to my ear. “Come on, little mouse. I’ll be kind and save you the retelling of your story.”
Without knocking, he barged into the lavish council chambers, shoving me before him.
Conversation died as all heads turned towards us. Scowls etched each of the elders’ faces.
“Let me go,” I demanded.
His chuckle was low and dark. “Now where would be the fun in that?”
“Mana, are you well?” Rhys left his wife’s side and pried my arm from his brother’s grasp.
Rhys’s vibrant eyes shone with concern. Seeing him eased a knot in my chest. His and my coloration were so similar, it was as if I had looked into a mirror. Our eyes were emerald bright, our hair black and sleek, and our skin sun-kissed. All hallmarks of our shared Salticidae heritage.
“I found her in the tunnel.” Vaughn traced the shell of my ear. “Listening at the door.”
Rhys transferred his frown onto me. “Is that true?”
“Hush now.” Lourdes slipped between the males and dabbed her handkerchief to my mouth. “Your lip is bleeding.” She spun on Vaughn. “Why is her lip bleeding? What did you do to her?”
“It was dark.” His voice went gruff. “I saw a threat—I didn’t think. I reacted.”
Her eyebrows winged into her hairline. “You honestly expect me to believe that you, whose reputation as a tracker is unrivaled, noticed a possible threat and failed to put your nose to use?”
He glared. “Aren’t you the one who told me that sniffing people is rude?”
Her sparkling blue eyes rounded in mock surprise. “You mean you were actually listening?”
“Enough,” Rhys said. “My nose is a sight worse than his, but even I can scent the blood isn’t Mana’s.” He smirked at his brother. “It’s yours. Should I be asking…what did Mana do to you?”
His jaw set. “She bit me.”
“I defended myself.” I wiped my mouth and met his stare. “It’s not as if I’m venomous.”
“You bit me. No female has ever bitten me.” His eyes narrowed. “And lived.”
I bared my blunt fangs at him. They were nubs compared to his. “I barely scratched you.”
“How did you come to be in the tunnel?” Lourdes asked with a smile hovering at her lips.
“I wanted to wish you and Rhys congratulations on your anniversary. When I saw him leave the great room, I followed him. I didn’t realize he had left to attend a council session or I would have waited for his return.” I admitted, “I did hesitate outside the door longer than I should have. I wasn’t sure if I should knock or go. I hadn’t decided when I was ambushed from behind.”
“I could hardly ambush you from the front,” Vaughn muttered.
“What did you hear?” A reedy voice sliced through my ears.
When Rhys and Lourdes parted, I noticed this was indeed a full council meeting. Three clan elders sat behind an ornate table on a raised dais. To their right sat two of Lourdes’s brothers. Armand, her heir until she bore children of her own, gave me a polite smile. His amethyst eyes gleamed as he appraised me. His features were sharp, regal. Armand wore his status and wealth with ease.
To his right sat Henri, whose blue eyes danced with amusement. His face was leaner, that of a young male coming into his own. At a glance, Henri’s tawny hair seemed to be the only feature he shared with his older brother. I noticed Henri rolled several golden coins between his fingers.
I shook my head at him. Henri’s hands were never still.
Standing before the council, with her back to me, was Pascale. I recognized her blonde hair.
“Well?” The same elder’s voice made me wince. “I asked what you heard.”
“Nothing I wasn’t already aware of, just a mention of Pascale’s crimes.”
“That’s all? Nothing else?” He glowered at me. “No plans of ours? Are you quite sure?”
The male closest to him raised his hand. “Elder Jean, Mana made an honest mistake. She is the niece of the Salticidae maven and the cousin of our new paladin. Her clansmen are allies of ours.” He stared down his nose at Jean. “She deserves our respect and the benefit of the doubt.”
“Elder Celso,” Jean intoned, “your mercy will be the downfall of this council.”
The final male remained silent, but his brows climbed at that remark.
“Elders, in the interest of not drawing further attention to these proceedings, I request Mana remain until our final votes are cast.” Lourdes indicated a chair. “Sit. We won’t be much longer.”
“With all due respect, Maven, consider what we’re here to decide. Consider what we hope to accomplish,” Jean spluttered. “You invite this female, with no stake in Araneidae business to—”
“That is where you are wrong. Mana knows our gold fills her clan’s coffers during summer months when drought ravages her people. She would never risk the loss of those funds nor would she endanger her clan by betraying ours.” Lourdes dared him with her icy stare. “Besides the fact I am in her debt. I vouch for her reputation and give my word as maven she is loyal to this clan.”
My mouth fell open and the words tumbled free. “You owe me nothing, Maven.”
“My husband’s life is not nothing.” A ragged breath shuddered from Lourdes’s lungs. “You saved Rhys’s life. There is no greater debt than the one I owe you for healing him.” Lourdes’s shoulders relaxed as she exhaled. “You left your home to travel here and tend to him in the ways of your people. I haven’t forgotten your kindness. Until I can repay you, yes, I am in your debt.”
I bowed my head. “It is as you wish, Maven.”
I took a seat, and fabric rustled as she turned from me. “Now, as to the matter of our vote…”
While the cadence of tapping feet and muttered complaints spiked the droning conversation, I kept my head lowered so I intruded on the council proceedings as little as possible. I had never wished so hard to be as incorporeal as the spirits I sometimes hunted. Ah, to sink into oblivion…
“Chin up.” The scent of balsam and male filled my nose. The chair beside mine creaked as a heavy frame settled in with a slow exhale. “You might as well pay attention since you’re here.”
Ignoring the sly voice whispering temptation in my ear, I tucked my feet under my chair and hoped Vaughn grew tired of my company and left. The motion snagged his attention, and a blush crept up my neck. At home, in Beltania, common shoes made sense for our dusty roads or in case of being caught out of doors in summer showers. Likewise even our best gowns frayed from use.
Only since arriving in Erania had I begun to feel as common as my footwear.
Pain surged behind my breastbone. Females here lived in luxury underground except during the token months when the weather allowed them to occupy the aboveground city. Even then, the roads were paved and the buildings carved from stone rather than made from stacked mud brick.
Forget the lavish appointments, no marvels of architecture compared to home in my eyes. I had been born the daughter of a varanus farmer. Give me grass and fields and sunlight any day.
“You realize what they’re discussing affects you as well?”
Evading Vaughn became harder when he sat beside me, and the warmth from his body made me lean closer. Gods I tired of the constant dark and chill of this miserable city, cold as its riches.
The moment these proceedings ended, I intended to reacquaint my head with my pillow.
“Since my name is not Pascale, I don’t see how their discussion is any of my business.”
I risked glancing his way. His jaw was square, his face a jumble of angles that somehow fit. His eyes promised the best sort of mischief. How had I forgotten the slight curl to his ebony hair?
He clicked his tongue. “If you had paid attention, you’d have heard the part about how your maven agreed to offer Pascale asylum in exchange for hefty compensation from the Araneidae.” My shoulders sagged at that. “For Pascale’s part in the crimes committed against her parents, she has been sentenced to indentured servitude for a period of two years. If Lourdes’s relieved smile is anything to go by, the council passed the vote and you now have a new Beltanian neighbor.”
While it wasn’t my place to question my maven, I tasted bitterness at our clan being viewed this way. Harboring a murderer in exchange for gold? I prayed this incident didn’t begin a trend. I had received no mail during my stay, a fact I had lamented, but perhaps now I knew the reason.
Negotiation had taken precedence over familial courtesy. Besides Old Father, my aunt was the only person who might have written me. Sikya was my last blood-related family outside of Rhys.
Hurt at being denied the comfort of even a single letter from home ignited my temper.
“I’m pleased for Lourdes’s sake. I’m glad a mutually beneficial arrangement was reached.”
“Why do I doubt that’s what you’re thinking?” Vaughn tipped my chin up with his finger. “I saw that flash of pride, that glint of anger. What thoughts whir in that beautiful head of yours?”
His compliment made my cheeks sting. “I am happy for Lourdes.”
I wished only that the Araneidae considered more than their best interests in such matters.
“Liar.” His grin was wicked. “I could grow to appreciate that about you.”
Unsure if I should feel pleased or chastised, I startled when a gavel smashed the moment.
Pascale was led past us. Upon her exit, the council rose for closing prayers.
Vaughn fisted my sleeve and kept me from standing. I frowned at him. “Isn’t it over?”
“No.” His expression darkened as he studied the door. “The fun is just beginning.”
My gaze followed his. “What do you mean?”
“Who do you suppose they chose to escort Pascale to Beltania?”
He nodded. “Me.”
“It makes sense.” Despite my fondest wish to be free of Vaughn’s presence. “You agreed to escort me home in three days’ time. I can see why the council would ask you to bring her along.”
“Pascale is an Araneidae heiress,” he said, lips quirking, “who is responsible for the death of the Theridiidae clan’s heir. Despite the fact he was killed in self-defense, despite the fact his clan broke their vows of allegiance to the Araneidae, and despite the fact he engineered Pascale’s role in her parents’ deaths, Maven Colleen is playing the part of victim. She sees Pascale as the party responsible for her beloved son’s death. She wants revenge, she wants blood, and she’ll have it.”
Foreboding slithered down my spine. “You’re warning me.”
“I’m informing you of the risks.” His voice lowered. “Lourdes and Rhys have a trip planned in four weeks’ time. Stay. Enjoy Araneidae hospitality. Travel with the clan heads will be safer.”
“You care about my safety?”
“For some reason, little mouse, I find the idea of you no longer scurrying down passageways disturbing.” He frowned as if the sentiment caught him by surprise. “Consider this conversation a friendly warning. Pascale must be my priority. Lourdes’s clan is allied with mine. Yours is not.”
My pride smarted again. As if I needed a reminder of how inconsequential I was to them.
“While I appreciate your counsel, I do, I have been gone from home too long.” I noticed the council members filing past us in neat rows. “Now, if you don’t mind, I still feel unsettled. I’d like to return to my room and get some rest.” I touched his arm. “I’ll travel with you as planned.”
Gods knew I wouldn’t last four more weeks here.