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The Devil's Right Hand
By Lilith Saintcrow
ORBITCopyright © 2007 Lilith Saintcrow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt's for you," Japhrimel said diffidently, his eyes flaring with green fire in angular runic patterns for just a moment before returning to almost-human darkness.
I blinked, taking the package. It was heavy, wrapped in blue satin, with a wide white silk ribbon tied in a bow. I pushed the large leatherbound book away and rubbed at the back of my neck under the heavy fall of my hair. Long hours of reading and codebreaking made my vision blur, the white marble behind him turning into a hazy streak. For just a moment, his face looked strange.
Then I recognized him again and inhaled, taking in his familiar smell of cinnamon and amber musk. The mark on my shoulder burned at his nearness, a familiar sweet pain making my breath catch. The room was dark except for the circle of light from the antique brass lamp with its green plasilica shade. "Another present?" My voice scraped through my dry throat, still damaged; I didn't have to worry about its soft huskiness, alone with him. The tattoo on my cheek twisted, and my emerald spat a single spark to greet him.
"Indeed." Japhrimel touched my cheek with two fingertips, sending liquid fire down my back in a slow, even cascade. His long dark high-collared coat moved slightly as he straightened, his fingersleaving my cheek reluctantly. "For the most beautiful Necromance in the world."
That made me laugh. Flattery will get you everywhere, won't it. "I think Gabe's prettier, but you're entitled to your opinion." I stretched, rolling my head back on my neck, working out the stiffness. "What's this?" It was about the size of my arm from wrist to elbow, and heavy as metal, or stone.
Japhrimel smiled, his mouth tilting up and softening, his eyes dark with an almost-human expression. It looked good on him-he was usually so fiercely grim. The expression was tender, and as usual, it made my entire body uncomfortably warm. I looked down at the package, touched the ribbon.
The last present had been a copy of Perezreverte's Ninth Portal of Hell in superb condition, its leather binding perfect as if it had just been printed in old Venizia over a thousand years ago-or been sitting in a stasis cabinet since then. The house was a present too, a glowing white marble villa set in the Toscano countryside. I'd mentioned being tired of traveling, so he presented me with a key to the front door one night over dinner.
My library breathed around me, deep in shadow, none of the other lamps turned on. I heard, now that I wasn't sunk in study, the shuffle of human feet in the corridors-servants cleaning and cooking, the security net over the house humming, everything as it should be.
Why was I so uneasy? If I didn't know better, I'd say the nervousness was a warning. A premonition, my small precognitive gift working overtime.
Gods, I hope not. I've had all the fun I can stand in one lifetime.
I rubbed at my eyes again and pulled at the ribbon, silk cool and slick against my fingers. Another yawn caught at my mouth-I'd been at codebreaking for a full three days and would need to crash soon. "You don't have to keep giving me-oh, gods above."
Satin folded away, revealing a statue made of perfect glassy obsidian, a lion-headed woman on a throne. The sun-disk over her head was of pure soft hammered gold, glowing in the dim light. I let out a breath of wonder. "Oh, Japhrimel. Where did you ..."
He folded himself down into the chair opposite mine. Soft light from the full-spectrum lamp slid shadows over his saturnine face, made the green flashing through his eyes whirl like sparks above a bonfire. His eyes often held a green sparkle or two while he watched me. "Do you like it, Dante?" The usual question, as if he doubted I would.
I picked her up, felt the thrumming in the glassy stone. It was, like all his gifts, perfect. The funny melting sensation behind my ribs was familiar by now, but nothing could take away its strangeness. "She's beautiful."
"I have heard you call upon Sekhmet." He stretched out his long legs just like a human male. His eyes turned dark again, touching me, sliding against my skin like a caress. "Do you like it?"
"Of course I like her, you idiot." I traced her smooth shoulder with a fingertip, my long black-lacquered fingernail scraping slightly. "She's gorgeous." My eyes found his and the mark on my shoulder pulsed, sending warmth down my skin, soaking through my bones, a touch no less intimate for being nonphysical. "What's wrong?"
His smile faded slightly. "Why do you ask?"
I shrugged. A thin thread of guilt touched me. He was so gentle, he didn't deserve my neurotic inability to trust anything simple. "A holdover from human relationships, probably. Usually when a guy gives a lot of presents he's hiding something." And every couple of days it's something new. Books, the antiques, the weapons I barely know how to use-I'm beginning to feel spoiled. Or kept. Danny Valentine, Necromance and kept woman. Sounds like a holovid.
"Ah." The smile returned, relieved. "Only a human suspicion, then."
I grimaced, sticking my tongue out. The face made him laugh.
"Oh, quit it." I was hard-pressed not to chuckle, myself.
"It pleases me to please you. It is also time for dinner." He tilted his head, still wearing the faint shadow of a smile. "Emilio has outdone himself to tempt you away from your dusty papers."
I grimaced again, setting the statue on the desk and stretching, joints popping. "I'll get fat." This code seems a little easier than the last one. Probably a Ronson cipher with a shifting alphanumeric base. I hope this journal has more about demon physiology-I can always use that. The one treatise on wings was invaluable.
I had never before known what a tremendous show of vulnerability it was for a Greater Flight demon to close the protective shell of his wings around another being.
"You think so?" His smile widened again. "That would indeed be a feat. Come with me, I need your company."
It abruptly warmed me that he would admit to liking my company, let alone needing it. "Great. You know, I've gotten really fond of this research stuff. I never had time for it before." I was too busy paying off my mortgage. Not to mention chasing down bounties as fast as I could to keep from thinking. I stretched again, made it into a movement that brought me to my feet. I scooped the statue up, wrapping it back in the blue satin, and offered him my hand. "I suppose you're going to try to talk me into dressing for dinner again."
"I so rarely see you in a dress, hedaira. The black velvet is particularly fine." His fingers closed over mine as he rose, putting no weight on my hand. He stepped closer to me and slid his hand up my arm, my shirtsleeve giving under the pressure. I wore a silk T-shirt and a pair of jeans, bare feet. No rig, no weapons but my sword leaning against the desk, its Power contained. It rarely left the sheath anymore, except during sparring sessions.
I still kept my hand in, unwilling to let my combat reflexes go rusty. I probably shouldn't have worried-demon muscle and bone would still keep me quicker and tougher than any human. But I've spent my life fighting, and that isn't something you just lay aside no matter how safe you feel.
The idea that he was right next to me and my sword was just out of arm's reach didn't make me feel unsteady or panicked like it used to.
Go figure, the one person on earth I trust while I'm unarmed, and it's him. I leaned into Japh, my head on his shoulder. Tension slid through him, something I hadn't felt since our first days of traveling away from Saint City. The only thing that would soothe him was my nearness, I'd learned it was better to just stay still once in a while and let him touch me, it made things easier for both of us. I was getting used to the curious feeling of being practically unarmed around a demon.
A Fallen demon. A'nankhimel, a word I still had no hope of deciphering.
"You're talking about the black velvet sheath? Half my chest hangs out in that thing." My tone was light, bantering, but I let him hold me.
Bit by bit, his tautness lessened, drained away. "Such a fine chest it is, too. The very first thing I noticed." His tone was, as usual, flat and ironic, shaded with the faintest amusement.
"Liar." The first thing you noticed was my annoying human habit of asking questions and being rude. I rubbed my cheek against his shoulder to calm him. It had taken a long time for me not to care what his long black coat was made of. I was getting better at all of this.
"Hm." He stroked my hair, his fingers slipping through the long ink-black strands. I often had wistful thoughts of a shorter cut, but when he played with it I always ended up putting off the inevitable trim. At least I no longer had to dye it, it was black all the way through naturally now. Silken black.
The same as his. Just as my skin was only a few shades paler than his, or my pheromonal cloak of demon scent was lighter but still essentially the same.
"Japhrimel?" The huskiness that never left my voice made the air stir uneasily. My throat didn't hurt anymore, but something in my voice was broken all the same by the Prince of Hell's iron fingers.
"What, my curious?"
"What's wrong?" I slid my free arm around him and squeezed slightly, so he'd know I was serious. "You're...." You're in that mood again, Japh. The one where you seem to be listening to something I can't hear, watching for something I can't see, and set on a lasetrigger that makes me a little nervous. Even though you haven't hurt me, you're so fucking careful sometimes I wish you'd forget yourself and bruise me like you once did.
"What could be wrong with you in my arms, hedaira?" He kissed my cheek, a soft lingering touch. "Come. Dinner. Then, if you like, I will tell you a story."
"What kind of story?" Trying to distract me like a kid at bedtime. I'll let you.
It didn't often show, how old he was; I suspected he deliberately refrained from reminding me. Perfect tact, something I'd never known a demon could exercise. They're curiously legalistic, even if their idea of objective truth often doesn't match a human's. Another pretty question none of the books could answer. How close is legalism to tact?
He made a graceful movement that somehow ended up with him handing me my sword and turned into a kiss-a chaste kiss on my forehead, for once. "Any kind of story you like. All you must do is decide."
Emilio had indeed outdone himself. Bruschetta, calamari, soft garlic bread and fresh mozzarella, lemon pasta primavera, a lovely slate-soft Franje Riesjicard, crème brulee. Fresh strawberries, braised asparagus. Olives, which I didn't like but Emilio loved so much he couldn't imagine anyone hating. We were, after all, in Toscano. What was a meal without olives?
The olive trees on the tawny hills were probably older than the Hegemony. I'd spent many a late afternoon poring over a solitary Magi's shadowjournal written in code, Japhrimel stretched out by my side in the dappled shade of a gnarled tree with leathery green-yellow leaves, heat simmering up from the terraced hills. He basked like a cat as the sky turned into indigo velvet studded with dry stars. Then we would walk home along dusty roads, more often than not with his arm over my shoulders and the books swinging back and forth in an old-fashioned leather strap buckled tight. A schoolgirl and a demon.
I had basic Magi training, every psion did. Since the Magi had been dealing with power and psychic phenomena since before the Awakening they were the ones who had the methods, so the collection of early training techniques was the same for a Magi as a Necromance, or a Shaman or Skinlin or any other psion you would care to name. But actual Magi nowadays were given in-depth magickal training for weakening the walls between worlds and trafficking with Hell. It was the kind of study that took decades to accumulate and get everything right-which was why most Magi hired out as corporate security or took other jobs in the meantime. Japhrimel didn't stop me from buying old shadowjournals at auction or from slightly-less-than-legal brokers, but he wouldn't speak about what being Fallen meant. Not only that, he wouldn't help me decode the shadowjournals either ... and good luck apprenticing myself to a Magi circle, if any would take me while Japh was hanging around. They would be far more interested in him than in me, even if I could convince one to take on a psion far too old for the regular apprenticeship.
Dinner took a long time in the high, wide-open dining room, with its dark wooden table-big enough for sixteen-draped in crisp white linen. I was happy to savor the food, and Japhrimel amused himself by folding some of my notes-brought to the table in defiance of manners-into origami animals. I always seemed to lose some when he did that, but it was worth it to see him present them almost shyly after his golden fingers flicked with a delicacy I wouldn't have thought him capable of.
Emilio, a thick, round Novo Taliano with a moustache to be proud of, waltzed in carrying a plate with what looked like ... it couldn't be.
"Bella!" His deep voice bounced off warm white stone walls. A crimson tapestry from the antique shop in Arrieto fluttered against the wall, brushed by soft warmth through the long open windows, my sword leaned against my chair, ringing softly to itself. "Behold!"
"Oh, no." I tried to sound pleased instead of horrified-and-pleased-plus-guilty. "Emilio, you didn't."
"Blame me." Japhrimel's lips curved into another rare smile. "I suggested it."
"You suggested Chocolate Murder?" I was hard put not to laugh. "Japhrimel, you don't even eat it."
"But you love it." Japhrimel leaned back in his chair, the origami hippopotamus squatting on his palm. "The last time you tasted chocolate-"
Heat flooded my cheeks, and I was glad I didn't blush often. "Let's not talk about that." I eyed the porcelain plate as Emilio slid it in front of me. A moist, heavenly chocolate brownie, gooey and perfect, studded with almonds-real almonds grown on trees, not synthprotein fooled into thinking it was almonds. Nothing but the best for a Fallen and his hedaira.
The thought made me sober, looking down at the still-hot brownie mounded with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, cherries soaked in brandy scattered in a flawless arc along one side of the plate. I could smell the still-baking sugars, could almost taste their delicate balance of caramelization. "Oh," I sighed. "This is fantastic, Emilio. Whatever he's paying you, it isn't enough."
He waved his round arms, his fingers thick and soft, not callused like mine. Our cook didn't take combat training, nobody wanted to kill a rotund Taliano food artist who wore stained white aprons and spoke with his plump hands swaying like slicboard wash. For all that, he was very easy with me-one of the few normals who didn't seem to fear my tat. "Ch'cosa, s'gnora, I don't cook for him. I cook for you. Take one bite. Just one."
"I'm almost afraid to, it's so beautiful." I picked up the fork, delicately, and glanced at Japhrimel, who looked amused. The hippo had vanished from his palm. Emilio waited, all but quivering with impatience. "I can't do it. You have to."
Emilio looked as horrified as if I'd suggested he cut up his own mother and chew on her, his mustache quivering. I offered him the fork.
"Please, Emilio. I really can't." I blinked, trying not to look like I was batting my eyelashes. "You made this, it's beautiful, you deserve to break it."
He shook his head solemnly. "No, no. Wrong." He waved a blunt finger at me. "You don't like the Chocolate Murder?" His voice was laced with mock hurt-he was so good at laying on the guilt. His accent mangled the Merican; I still hadn't learned Taliano.
I laughed, but an uneasy frisson went up my spine. I glanced at Japhrimel, who now studied me intently.
His eyes were almost human, dark and liquid in the light from the crystal chandelier hanging overhead. "Thank you, Emilio. She loves it, but she simply can't trust a gift. It's in her nature to be suspicious."
I let my lip curl. Even a demon had a better time of dealing with normals than I did. "I never said that." To prove it, I broke through the pristine whiteness of the whipped cream, took a scoop of brownie, and carried the resultant hoverload of sinful k-cals to my mouth.
Excerpted from The Devil's Right Hand by Lilith Saintcrow Copyright © 2007 by Lilith Saintcrow. Excerpted by permission.
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