Ellen Brézé blocked with a sweeping chop of her forearm as the knife stabbed for her gut. Her own silvered blade cut, but the slight figure opposite her faded back like smoke, like a ghost. Their feet rutched on the ancient concrete of the abandoned warehouse, and her breath sobbed harshly. That bothered her a lot less than it would a year ago; it wasn't just that she was in better shape, but she'd had a lot more experience in prioritizing.
When you were fighting for your life, physical discomfort just had a very low priority.
Another shuffling passage, blades glinting and the ting of contact. A twist, and the keen silvered steel scored home...
... and the other's knife rang on a stone. The clothes collapsed to spill emptiness across what was suddenly the floor of a darkened forest. Cold moonlight shone down through pines tossing in the wind, and somewhere an owl hooted.
Ellen controlled her panic and pushed mentally. The Nightwalker could be anywhere, invisible and impalpable to ordinary senses; and she had too few of the nocturnis genes to use the Power consciously herself. Her share of that was right in the median range that made nearly all humans métis with their ancient predator-overlords. But Wreaking by an adept could put constructs in your mind that resonated to the quantum-foam manipulations...
Alarm thrilled along her nerves as she activated the embedded alarm. Nightwalker. Not in human form, either. She backed swiftly towards a jag of solid rock—
Paws struck between her shoulderblades with stunning force; the creature had leapt through the stone impalpably and then rematerialized as it emerged.
She plowed into the roots and leaf-litter. The taste of her own blood filled her mouth, along with the rank dog-scent of the great wolf. She screamed and struck backward, but teeth closed on the wrist until her fingers spasmed open. Fangs ripped at the fabric of her jacket and belt. Weight pinned her down across the tree-trunk beneath her stomach—
"Oh, my," she said, panting and grinning and shivering, staring at the carved plaster of the ceiling until it came into focus "Now that last bit with the wolf was sort of kinky. Even for me. Even for you, lover!"
But absolutely great, if you get off on pain and fear and helplessness. In controlled doses. Which, of course, I do. I think I even appreciate how much self-control it takes for Adrian to keep things... playful.
"Not too kinky, I hope?" Adrian said lazily, reclining on one elbow and looking down on her.
"I didn't use the dreaded... earwax!"
Her husband froze—ostentatiously—at their safe word, until she tickled him in the ribs and they rolled across the bed, mingling his growls and her giggles.
They'd been doing what was officially called soul-carrying among adepts. She'd named it inside-the-head stuff to herself. She and Adrian used it a lot for the battle training that had turned her from wimpy Ellen Tarnowski, easily kidnapped art-history graduate working in a gallery on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, into femme-macho Ellen Brézé, Scourge of the Shadowspawn. Or at least Ellen Brézé the not entirely helpless victim.
The directed lucid dreaming was indistinguishable from reality while you were under, except that the Shadowspawn who was doing it could always hit the reset button. You could learn from mistakes that would be fatal in reality, and great stretches of time could be experienced in what was seconds out in the notionally real world. She had years of specialized instruction by now, not to mention simple interior tourism.
It could also be a lot of fun, like being able to step right into a full-sensory movie where you could ask the director for anything you wanted. They'd had to ration that part. You could lose yourself; it was as addictive to a human as the ecstasy-like drug in Shadowspawn saliva, and with potentially worse side-effects. Also sex in there was like the old joke about Chinese food; wake up and an hour later you were horny again.
"My goodness, Mr. Brézé, what do you have in mind?" she purred. Or less than an hour, sometimes, she thought. "It wouldn't be holding down your wife and ravishing her mercilessly, would it?"
Of course, a bad Shadowspawn, which most of them most emphatically were, could use it to torture you eternally, beyond the death of your physical body. And you couldn't even go insane. Tradition which might or might not actually date back to the Empire of Shadow said that a postcorporeal could survive tens of thousands of years until sheer chance eventually caught up to them.
Adrienne had promised to let Ellen spend lifetimes experiencing her own death...
She froze in the happy tumble just before things got really interesting. Adrian's embrace instantly turned from ardent to soothing, holding her until the shivering stopped. Her fingers dug into the hard lean muscle of his shoulders until her nails went white.
"God damn your sister," she whispered. "It's worse because I thought I'd killed the bitch."
"She has damned herself more effectively than any deity could do," Adrian said somberly. With a smile: "Therefore out of family feeling, perhaps we should see that she is denied eternal life."
Ellen took a deep breath, controlling the panting. That was not the fun type of fear, no indeed.
"Yah think?" she said, forcing herself to relax.
His smile grew white against the tanned olive complexion of his narrow sharp-featured face, a lock of raven hair falling over his forehead, his hand on the curve of her hip.
"And you did make her very, very, very sick for some time. I'm still astonished that she managed to survive a hypo of silver nitrate and radioactives in the foot. We are hard to kill and even harder to bring to the Final Death, but that is a bit much."
"Michiko cut off her foot before the full dose got out into her system. I didn't notice that at the time. Of course, I was blowing that particular popstand at high speed, riding on a sabertooth tiger doing the full-tilt boogie. You make a great tiger, by the way."
"And sabertooths have acute senses but are, to be frank, rather stupid even compared to wolves, so I didn't notice it either. It is a good thing, too, that we were able to... deal... with Michiko later; she was uncomfortably acute, when she bothered to think. Her luck wasn't as strong as Adrienne's, at least. Or mine."
Luck wasn't just a metaphor, when you dealt with the Power. Ellen barred her teeth, and for an instant looked as predatory as any Shadowspawn. Her blue eyes met Adrian's yellow-flecked brown-black, and she knew he was seeing the scene in her mind—the view through the telescopic sight as the nocturnis woman's head shattered, and then the aetheric form sparkling into nothingness. Also that memorable dinner a few months earlier when Michiko had tried to persuade Adrienne that it would be great fun to kill Ellen slowly and have that last mouthful of blood as her heart stopped as dessert.
"Blowing the bitch's head off... her aetheric head, granted... with a silver-plated .338 Lapua magnum round was a good start," she said.
Adrian smiled fondly and kissed her on the tip of her small straight nose. "Less dramatic than the fight she and I were having while switching forms—her snow-leopard was very pretty—but extremely effective."
"You distracted her nicely. Let's get cleaned up. And go tell your delightful great-grandparents that Adrienne has been a naughty little girl and is playing with nukes again. I just love visiting them. Not."
"I realize it must be nerve-wracking mingling socially with those who look on you as a canapé."
"It's not just that. They've got a psychic smell like rotting flesh. They think they're alive, but they're not. They're the walking memories of a very bad dream."
"I will not dispute it. But then, I have no family feelings."
"Yeah, you do, lover. Strong family feelings. Even obsessive. They're just all negative."
The apartment on the Île Saint-Louis wasn't big by American standards, but it shone with expert care and smelled slightly of sachets and wax, under the earthier scents of the bedroom; Adrian had lived here while he attended the Sorbonne, and off and on since as the fortunes of clandestine war brought him through Paris. The floors were polished hardwood, with a few Oriental rugs, and the furniture mostly plain in a subtle way that said expensive and old. Only the kitchen, electronics and plumbing were thoroughly 21st-century. The bathroom had a tub big enough for two, a smooth shallow curve like an abstract seashell, and a walk-in shower with multiple heads whose walls were glass etched with designs of reeds and bamboo.
The hot water and verbena soap seemed to leach the grue out of her body. She leaned back against Adrian, and his arms went around her waist.
"I may have to Wreak this evening. With your permission?" he murmured against her ear, then touched his mouth to the damp curve of her throat.
"Bite me. But not in the metaphorical sense," she said, with a breathy half-giggle. "And permission? Hell, that's an order."
Dressing took some time; you didn't slop over to the Brézé place in sweats to have hamburgers in the back yard, and her husband was as fastidious as a cat about appropriate appearances anyway. She had expert assistance, at least. Adrian was one of the rare straight men who took a skilled interest in women's clothes and hair for their own sake, rather than just staring at the result like a hungry dog drooling at a pork-chop.
He appreciates, then drools.
Ellen did an exaggerated runway-style pirouette before Adrian's knowledgeably critical eye as they left the bedroom.
"You look enchanting in that, my dear," he whispered in her ear. "Though even better in the lingerie."
She was in an ankle-length cap-sleeved lace gown of Valentino red belted with a double string of gold-linked Madras pearls the color of polished steel; there was a modest mandarin collar that was a hint about her carotids being off-limits to those looking for a snack. The collar was covered in a band of the same pearls as the belt, strung asymmetrically on gold chains, and there were two more in her ears.
He poured them both a glass of white wine and handed it to her with what Europeans called a biscuits roses de Reims, meaning a crisp pink cookie. Oddly enough they had no word for what Americans called a biscuit. Adrian put his arm around her waist, and they stood for a moment looking out at the 17th-century townhouses and silent streets, and the lights glittering on the Seine.
I really needed this, she thought as she sipped the steely dry Chitry and nibbled, careful not to let any crumbs fall on the gown. To settle my butterflies.
He winked at her; there were advantages to being married to a telepath. Even when he wasn't actually reading her mind he was uncannily attuned to her moods. The glimpse of herself reflected in the window looked ready to beard the rulers of the earth in social combat. And it all felt indecently comfortable, for high fashion.
And a little plain indecent. The high-strapped sandals with their coral and tanzanite clasps alone cost more than her coal-miner grandfather had ever made in a month, or two, or four. Or her father before he'd been laid off and descended into alcoholic decay. She turned one ankle to look at them, and the way the natural silk stockings shimmered beneath the lace on her slender sinewy runner's legs.
"Enchanting," he said as he helped her on with the ermine coat.
Then he grinned. At her raised eyebrow he said: "I am old enough to remember fur protests."
"So am I! Well, when I was a teenager."
"As a matter of fact, on the way to the opera at Santa Fe once—years before we met—someone tried to spray-paint the mink of a lady I was accompanying."
Adrian made a dismissive gesture, smiling as if at a minor joke: "I made his trousers fall around his ankles. I was in evening dress and it would have been difficult to simply hit him without spoiling the occasion."
Ellen laughed, only slightly incredulous. There had been that supremely annoying and inconsiderate street mime here in Paris last year, and the series of unlikely accident that had ended with the seat of his pants catching fire...
"Of course. Dousing him in gasoline and using a match would have been excessive, even cruel and irresponsible, and anyway would have drawn attention. So would making the can of paint explode. It wasn't difficult; he had a very badly worn belt. The opera was the revival of Maometto Secondo, by Rossini, and very well sung."
Ellen laughed. "I've seen that one. It's got a pants part for the hero, and you keep expecting Anna to do a number warbling: But daddy, this Calbo you want me to marry is tooootally a chhhhhiiiick innnn draaaaag!"
He laughed too. "Yes, I had not realized Renaissance Venetians were so enlightened. Perhaps next year, if all goes well—"
"If the world doesn't end in apocalyptic disaster."
"Exactly. If the world does not end in apocalyptic disaster, in '22 we will take a month in Italy, touring the hill towns, and end with the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. The Villa Imperiale there is well worth a visit, too."
"Right, those frescos by del Colle and Genga," she said, feeling a stab of longing for quiet days. "I'd like that, a lot."
And we really could do that, just because we felt like it, if it weren't for the apocalyptic end of the world thing. Now I've really got a reason to hate the Conspiracy of Evil!
In some ways the fact that Adrian was quasi-human and drank her blood and could send his consciousness out in animal shapes and twist the fabric of reality with his mind was easier to deal with than being married to someone who was inconceivably, mind-bogglingly, absolutely filthy rich. The rest was true alien weirdness, but she'd always wanted wealth, yet found that world as disquieting as it was attractive. Her emotions treated it as real in a more fundamental sense than the Power.
He'd transferred half the capital to her name, too, which was a sum to make Gates choke. Leaving aside the nefarious Shadowspawn plan... plans... to wreck the world which would fall like the gentle rain from heaven on rich and poor alike, and the fact that she was madly in love, she could walk tomorrow and be an exceedingly affluent divorcee... which was probably the point of what he'd done. It was sort of equivalent to their safe word, letting her exult in the way he pampered her without really being like a kept woman.
At least Adrian doesn't think about money a lot, which merely rich people generally do. Of course, he doesn't have to.
Since he could have it in any quantity he wished by—literally—sticking the occasional pin in the financial pages to determine what was going up or down and texting the result to his brokers in Hamburg. That his ancestors had been aristos under the ancien régime (and heads of a cult of murderous peasant-sacrificing Satanist black magicians called the Order of the Black Dawn, to boot) was only a slight complication. Her own father had been a degenerate child-abusing shit and her mother a doormat who pretended it wasn't happening. There was no point in disliking people for what their progenitors had done. Because then she'd have to start with herself, and she'd given that up long ago.
The outfit did all go well with the crown-braided platinum hair, and the light hint of makeup that brought out her turquoise eyes.
And the glyphed silver-edged knife and derringer with silver bullets tucked into the cutest little purse, she thought mordantly. Taking silver to a Shadowspawn party, how vulgar.
She paused as they went through the living room. One of the paintings on the wall to the left of the fireplace was The Nut Gatherers by Bouguereau, a late-19th century Academic who'd been in and out of fashion and now was very much back in again, driving some of the older and more reactionary critics bananas. It showed two barefoot prepubescent rural girls sitting in a wood. They wore rather plain brown-and-white outfits and looked like French peasant elves, except for an unexpected and rather charming realistic chunky thickness to their ankles and calves. Those were the legs of girls who walked five or six miles a day, usually carrying a wicker basket full of something heavy.
"I wonder who actually posed for this?" Adrian said, stopping beside her. "It is beautiful... or at least very pretty... but not much like real countrywomen, even that young."
He held his jacket over his shoulder with one finger in the collar; he was wearing a sleek black suit in slightly wrinkled linen, sockless black-on-black worked Louboutin shoes, and a narrow black tie against the white Egyptian cotton shirt.
Despite that and his slightly androgynous handsomeness, he didn't look like a model. There was something too concentrated in his eyes... not to mention several fading scars. And the way he moved had a gliding grace that made your spine bristle, even before you felt the shocking strength of his hands.
Ellen grinned. Adrian could be a little intimidating, even when he wasn't trying. Which she very much liked, a man without a hint of danger was like boiled potatoes without salt, but it was nice to have something she knew more about than he did. They'd met in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she'd been working in a gallery, fresh out of NYU, and at first she'd thought he was just an old-money Eurotrash collector, of whom she met legions in the course of her work in that art-crazy resort town. He'd been an unusually sexy one even at first glance, of course.
"No, look closer," she said. "Yeah, they're too clean and they don't have calluses on their feet, but look."
She had a degree in Art History from NYU, and these days that included a fair degree of social background.
"They were probably actual peasants," she went on. "Back then French peasants were cheap and you could get swarms of 'em. This one was painted near La Rochelle, I think. God, but this man could do skin tones."
"Strikingly clean peasants, with expert hairdressers!"
Her finger traced above the outlines of the girls' legs, caressing the air.
"Yes, but see? He didn't show the muscle articulation, that would have violated the canons he worked with, but those aren't dainty little pegs. And look at the sitting girl's arms, the younger one, her forearms here just below the elbow? She so whacks wet laundry on rocks for Mom. Most of the time Bouguereau is as stylized as a Kabuki mask—when he does something mythological the women are always hoofers from the follies or high-priced demimondaines or both, with those big butts the Victorians liked that always look like they've been carved out of marshmallows—but every now and then something like that breaks through. It's the contrast, you see? They're pretty, idealized village girls. And pretty real ones, both at the same time."
"Hmmm. Looking at art with you is always an education, my darling. Someday we will take a year and tour galleries. Assuming the world does not end."
"All these things we're going to do if the world doesn't end! And sometimes it's better just to appreciate. All those years at NYU mean I can't, usually. I got into it because I just liked it, loved it in fact, but now I start to analyze by sheer reflex."
"You still enjoy," Adrian said with a smile, touching one finger to her cheek for an instant. "And the knowledge... enlarges... things for me. Harvey's tastes ran to neon paint on black velvet; he is a very competent cook, but otherwise aesthetically..."
His face went hard for a moment at the mention of his old mentor's name. The man who'd raised him to think of himself as human was an enemy now. He thought he was about to destroy the Council, and all the while he was Adrienne's catspaw.
Ellen sighed. "I like Harvey. In fact... you know, of all the Brotherhood people I've met, he's the only one I really do like. The rest don't seem like people as much, if you know what I mean. Grim and fanatical, or weird, or weirdly grim and fanatical, or just plain scary."
"Scary... " Adrian said, and his mouth quirked. "My darling, who is the most dangerous man you know?"
"Ah... that would have to be you, honey."
Adrian shook his head. "I am the most powerful adept you know, at least of those still in the flesh. Or are likely to meet, apart from my sister; she and I are equals in that respect, I a little stronger, she just a touch more subtle."
He reached out and took a cube of sugar from the tea-set resting on a sideboard, flipped it in the air, and let it fall on his palm. Quietly, without any fuss, the cube crumbled as if it were rock eroding away over eons of time, and the individual grains disintegrated into a powder finer than talc. The powder stirred and rose, twisting into a rising double spiral like a DNA molecule, then puffing away.
"But that is not altogether the same thing as dangerous. Harvey is at least as dangerous as I; and if I am as dangerous, it is because he trained me."
Ellen shivered slightly. You never got used to the Power... unless you'd grown up with it, she supposed. She remembered watching Leila, Adrienne's daughter—and Adrian's—cupping her child's hands around a feather, her seven-year-old face intent, the tip of her tongue clenched between her teeth. And the feather beginning to dance.
He sighed. "Something will have to be done about Harvey. Sending Jack Farmer and Anjali after him is a good start; they know his methods well. The problem with that... "
"That saying something must be done about Harvey neglects the fact that Harvey is very good at doing something to others, and not just killing them, either. I would not fully trust even myself, going up against him."
Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>