He couldn’t breathe. He had been running for too long; every part of his body protested. His thighs trembled as he doubled over to catch his breath, and his heart thundered so that he could feel it in his temples. He glanced up at the sky, but it was obscured by a cataract of cloud, making it impossible to tell the hour. How long did he have until sunrise? Unless it came soon, there was no chance of him escaping. Not this time.
Mustering what strength he could, Lenoir loped to the end of the alley, but was dismayed to find that it opened into a courtyard. A dead end. The alley was short—perhaps he could retrace his steps in time to find another way. But when he turned he saw them again: eyes in the darkness, eyes that flashed like a cat’s, yet stood too far off the ground to be anything but a man’s.
He whirled back to the courtyard, praying to find an escape route that he had missed before. Perhaps he could climb a balcony, or find a place to hide? But he knew better: he was not a climber, and there was no hiding from his pursuer. Those green eyes could pierce stone.
He ran to a doorway at the far end of the courtyard and pounded on the heavy wood, the blows reverberating within the enclosed space. But the door did not open. No lamp was lit; no one was coming to Lenoir’s aid. And now the green-eyed man had stepped into the courtyard. He moved with uncanny grace, his step liquid. Raven black hair framed a youthful face so pale and beautiful it could have been shaped from marble. And like a sculpture, his expression was fixed, showing no pity, nor any hint of human feeling. His eyes were the color of absinthe, burning with a light that was unmistakably fey.
The green-eyed man loosed the scourge from his belt, that many-tongued whip that sought Lenoir’s flesh. And with a flourish of his wrist that seemed no effort at all, he sent its barbed lashes forth.
The scourge gripped Lenoir’s forearm near the elbow, jerking him to his knees. At first his terror was such that he could make no sound. When finally he screamed, it was with a violence that seemed to tear the inside of his throat. The barbs pierced his arm, but the pain was nothing, nothing compared to the sickening sensation of his flesh dying. There was something wrong with the whip, something terrible, a malevolence so potent that it made him nauseous. A chill rushed up his arm, filled his chest. . . . Now he could feel his consciousness ebbing, as though the barbs piercing his flesh were tiny vampiric fangs, draining his lifeblood. . . .
Lenoir woke to the sound of his own screaming. His frantic gaze took in the room around him, and at first he was wildly disoriented. After a moment his mind sparked to life and he knew he was in his own apartment. Yet the nightmare had been so real, so visceral, that he clutched at his arm, his fingers seeking proof that the scourge was no longer constricted around him like a snake. He felt the familiar numbness below his elbow, cold skin stretched over dead flesh that his blood never warmed. He was used to the morbid sensation by now, but for the first time in ten years, he half fancied that his flesh prickled somehow, like a limb gone to sleep that was slowly regaining circulation.
Lenoir heaved himself out of bed and went to the washbasin to splash water on his face. It was cold and bracing, for he had left his window ajar the previous afternoon and had been too out of sorts to bother closing it when he returned home from Berryvine. He stared at his reflection in the looking glass, willing himself to gain some mastery over his still-fluttering heart. It would do no good to panic, he told himself. If the green-eyed man was really here in the Five Villages, there would be no escaping him. Luck had saved Lenoir the last time, such luck as never visited the same man twice. The nightmare had been vividly accurate in every detail save one: it had been early morning when Lenoir found himself cornered in that courtyard ten years ago—not night as it had been in the dream. Dawn had broken at the far end of the alley, sending a lance of sunlight into the courtyard, and somehow that had saved Lenoir’s life. He could not remember what happened, for he had been virtually unconscious by that time. But he remembered seeing the light, remembered wondering if it was a sliver of Eternity peeking through as the door to Heaven closed, barring his entry. And when he woke, the green-eyed man was gone, along with the terrible scourge he wielded. The only sign that he had ever been there was the scar on Lenoir’s arm, that hideous patch of gray skin that would never again feel warmth, nor any other sensation at all. Forevermore it would feel as though someone else’s flesh had been grafted onto his own, thick and foreign. Forevermore Lenoir would carry that reminder of his brush with death, of his cheating the avenging angel that hunted him.
Yes, an angel, or a demon, perhaps. Either way, Lenoir knew with absolute certainty that although he thought of his attacker as “the green-eyed man,” he was nothing of the kind. Men did not carry cursed weapons that sap human life with a mere touch. Men did not vanish from one shadow only to reappear in another. And no man alive had ever had such eyes—that violent, uncanny green that glimmered as though lit from within. Not a man, but a spirit—a vengeful spirit that sought Lenoir’s blood in payment for his sins.
That morning in the courtyard had been Lenoir’s last in Serles. He had boarded a stagecoach that afternoon, away from his city, away from his country and everything he had ever known. He had gone north to Braeland, that mist-cloaked isthmus stretching like bridge across the veil to the underworld, the last outpost of civilization before reaching the savage shores beyond. He never saw his pursuer again. He thought he had escaped forever.
But I was wrong. He has come. How could he possibly have found me? But he had, and what was worse, he seemed somehow to be connected to Zach’s disappearance. It must be so, for though there had been many murders in the Five Villages since Lenoir had been here, none had borne the telltale marks of the scourge.
He would drive himself mad thinking about it. He had to get out of the apartment, had to find company. Lenoir grabbed his coat and headed out, making for his destination by instinct more than conscious thought. He needed someplace crowded, someplace familiar and comforting. And he needed a drink. He could only think of one place that would do.
Zera herself met him at the door. To his inquiring glance, she said, “I had to fire my doorman. You just cannot imagine what he’s been up to.” She raised her eyebrows significantly, but she did not elaborate, and Lenoir did not ask. “Besides,” she continued, looping her arm through Lenoir’s as she led him up the stairs, “there is a certain country charm in welcoming one’s own guests, don’t you think? I believe I shall declare it a fashion.”
“As you say, madam,” Lenoir replied distractedly. His eyes had fixed on a pale green light that came into view as they reached the top of the stairs: a panel of the stained glass screen that separated the main part of the salon from one of its more notorious corners. When lit from behind, it gave off a glimmer the color of absinthe. This bit of glass often caught Lenoir’s attention as he entered the room, particularly if his mind was preoccupied. Tonight, it positively mesmerized him.
He realized belatedly that Zera was still talking to him. “Nicolas,” she said coolly, “I sense I do not have your undivided attention.”
Lenoir blinked and tore his gaze away from the screen. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
She regarded him with a severe look, her dark eyebrows stitched together. She rarely permitted herself to express such raw displeasure, and it made Lenoir acutely aware of her imposing height. The Adali were an unusually tall race, but Zera’s height so suited her, rendered her so exquisitely statuesque, that Lenoir had ceased to notice it. “I was asking whether you had any news from your informant,” she said.
“My informant?” Lenoir echoed vaguely.
Zera’s mouth tightened. “My word, Inspector, are you quite well? The boy, Nicolas. What’s his name?”
“Zach.” The name brought Lenoir’s whirring mind to a sudden halt. He blinked once, and Zera seemed to come into sharper focus. “His name is Zach, and no—I have not had any news from him. None at all. You see, Zach has been kidnapped.”
Zera’s lips parted, but no sound came. Now it was she who blinked, her customary poise perturbed. “Kidnapped?” She seized Lenoir’s arm and steered him away from the other guests, her head bent conspiratorially. “Nicolas, are you quite sure?”
“I am quite sure,” he said, unsettled by the finality in his own voice. “Zach and another boy were both taken yesterday. We found the house where they were being kept, but only one of the boys was still there. And he was . . . unwell.”
Zera shuddered. “What has the world come to? First children’s corpses and now this. . . .” She frowned suddenly. “Actually . . . Nicolas, do you think they might be related?”
Lenoir had seen this question coming. Zera was uncommonly clever, and she loved to speculate about his work. He supposed it gave her a sense of intrigue. “Kody certainly thinks so.”
“Who is Kody?”
“One of my sergeants. He is a competent investigator, but he is given to elaborate notions of conspiracy. He sees connections everywhere.”
Zera’s long fingers covered her lips, her golden eyes round with wonder. “But in this case, he could be right.”
“It is certainly difficult to dismiss it as coincidence,” Lenoir admitted. “If it had only been Zach . . . So many orphans meet ugly fates in this city. But two children, both nine-year-old boys, just like the corpses . . .” He shook his head, frustrated. “Yet I can think of no logical explanation for it. How are they connected? It makes no sense.”