Read an Excerpt
By Nicole Peeler
Orbit Copyright © 2013 Nicole Peeler
All right reserved.
The agony was excruciating, a white heat at the center of my consciousness. Like that pinprick in space that pulls everything into its ever-widening gyre, the black hole inside me expanded.
Only moments had passed since Anyan, in the shape of the White, had flown away with his consort, the Red. The bones that had once held the White’s spirit lay scattered in front of me. The ivory shapes blurred as unshed tears glazed my vision.
Behind me, Magog, the raven, raised her voice in mournful ululation, keening for the woman she knew as Cyntaf, and I knew as Blondie. My friend and my mentor lay a corpse in Magog’s arms.
Meanwhile, my grief beat its own cadence, an infernal drumming reminding me, at all times, of my losses.
Blondie dead. Anyan as good as. Blondie dead. Anyan as good as…
For I knew better than to hope. I’d hoped once before, looking down into my first love Jason’s staring blue eyes, that reality could be malleable. But reality was always exactly that—real, no matter what we told ourselves or how many delusions we tried to build. Like sandcastles, they always crumbled.
[My child,] came the voice in my head.
Creature, I sobbed, feeling its love wrap around me. It, too, was unimaginably stricken by Blondie’s death. It felt she was a daughter, and one of the only remnants of a time long ago, before time began, when the world had been a different place.
Many of Blondie’s memories were its memories, and they died with her.
We mourned then, crooning into each other’s minds.
[Join with me,] it pleaded, and I instantly understood. We would live together in my mind, until we could function again. We would support each other, and we could heal.
I will never heal, I told the creature, that pit of hopelessness I knew so well yawning in front of me.
In my own mind, I took a step toward that pit.
But the creature was there, appearing as a single great eye. It flooded my consciousness as it went everywhere, wrapping around me, cocooning me…
Awake, I slept.
The pyre had long since burned out, but we could still imagine the heat on our face. Behind was more heat—Gog, Magog, and Hiral were pressed behind me, literally guarding our flanks, our back.
Combined together, an amalgamation of creature and Jane, we hadn’t moved in a day.
Instead we let the cool, wet English air blow the ashes of our friends and enemies against our cheeks, into our long, black hair, and we refused to think. We lived in our memories—a steely gray gaze, the flash of a tattooed bicep, the touch of a strong hand, a wave of power so unique it could only be our child…
The part of us that was the creature touched the part of me that was Jane again, a mental stroke as if to assure the other we were there.
Because alone we might break.
Our friend, daughter, ally was dead, and our lover was gone. Blondie had fallen at the claws of the Red, while Anyan had become the White.
We’d watched Blondie burn, thrown on the same pyre as the allies of the Red. Lyman, the rebel leader’s brother, and Jarl, the Alfar we had thought our greatest enemy, had burned with her.
It wasn’t logical to build an extra pyre when one would suffice.
Together they’d all turned to ash as Jane and the creature leaned on each other, together, here in this body where we could take shelter.
“Jane?” came the squeaky voice of the gwyllion, Hiral. “Are you about ready to leave?”
We ignored him.
“She hasn’t moved in twenty-four hours,” the raven, Magog, told her lover, the coblynau Gog. “Nor eaten. Nor peed. Nor slept.”
“Is she blinking?”
“Rarely,” replied Hiral.
We ignored them all.
“What do you think is happening?” Gog asked, his voice concerned. For even though he and Magog had originally been set to spy on Jane, the creature knew they’d come to like the girl.
“No idea. What should we do?” Magog said.
“We’ve got to keep her from the Alfar,” the gwyllion said, referring to the official supernatural leaders of the Great Island, or what the humans called Britain.
“We can’t do so forever,” the raven responded in her singsong Welsh voice. “She is the champion, after all.”
The part that was Jane stirred nervously, but the creature responded with a warm rush of power. Nothing would keep us from our grief.
“They’re going to want her to, er, champion,” said Gog.
Hiral snorted. “I don’t think she could manage ‘champion.’ ”
Magog’s retort was sharp. “Don’t mock. She’s lost everything.”
“She has people, doesn’t she? Do we contact them?” Gog was, as always, kind and practical.
“The Alfar will have our hides if we let the champion get away,” Magog said, a tone of warning in her voice.
The gwyllion spat. “They won’t have my hide. You get me names, I’ll get them word.”
Gog and Magog looked at each other, whether in agreement or in fear was anybody’s guess.
“But if she goes, what will we do to fight the Red and the White?” Gog’s question was fair.
“Don’t be stupid, coblynau. Can she fight as she is now? She’s like your girlfriend with clipped wings—useless.”
Gog put a protective arm around Magog, as if to ward off Hiral’s cruel jape.
In the meantime, we went inward. We were tired of the others’ words, tired of their concern. We were in mourning…
More memories came flooding in, at our beckoning. The first time the girl who would break our world used her magic. When we realized the dog was a man. The first time…
There were sounds around us. A car arriving. It had come once before.
“Is the halfling recovered?” came a new voice. A cold voice.
Alfar, we recognized.
Our friends remained silent.
“Well?” asked the voice again.
“No,” said Magog. “She’s not moved a muscle since you first saw her. Nor said a word.”
A lean, handsome face appeared before us. Griffin’s dark hair brushed his cheek and we thought of the feel of wiry curls under our palm, and a pink Mohawk that defied gravity.
“Jane. Jane! Are you in there?”
We settled further in, so far that even the sharp sting of a slap across our face didn’t faze us.
“Don’t hit her, you git,” Hiral said with a snarl. He liked us, too, although he was loath to admit he liked anyone. In fact, he was bleeding inside at the loss of Blondie. She had been one of the only living creatures to abide the little gwyllion, and he found it hard to imagine a future without her friendship.
The part of them that was Jane marveled at the creature’s omniscient viewpoint, even as she shrank away from Hiral’s pain. She had enough of her own…
But the creature was there, helping her lapse back into memory…
When they came to again, they were lying in a room. A goblin was flashing a light in their eyes, like a human doctor would. Finally, he sat back, shaking his head.
“There’s nothing physically wrong with her. She’s in a traumatic fugue state—totally disassociated. You are aware of her medical history?” The goblin spoke with a lovely accent Jane couldn’t recognize, but even as she questioned it, the creature supplied the answer—Irish, Dublin, upper class.
“No, we’re not aware of her medical history.” It was Griffin again. His voice might be smooth to a human ear, but underneath his calm tone lurked annoyance.
“Well, she’s gone doolally before, and under similar circumstances.”
“Dolally?” Griffin’s voice was dry. “Is that the technical term?”
The goblin winced, as if remembering to whom he was talking.
“Sorry, sir. I meant she’s had a psychotic break once before, and been committed.”
“Great. She’s been like this for a week. Our champion is a lunatic as well as a halfling.”
There was a time that comment would have amused both the creature and Jane greatly, but now they felt nothing.
The goblin, however, was not amused.
“She’s no lunatic, sir. She’s traumatized. She suffered an initial experience of loss as a young woman, in which a loved one died. Now this experience mirrors that one, only with two loved ones, one of whom died and one of whom became, excuse me, a great bloody dragon. Her mind needs time to process, to heal itself.”
When Griffin finally spoke, his always-cold tones had dropped into arctic temperatures.
“Remember your place, goblin. Healer or no, you can be replaced.”
The goblin’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped in air.
“And this ‘trauma victim,’ as you call her, is our champion. She is the only one who can kill the monsters that will, at any moment, recommence ravaging our lands. We need her on her feet and ready to fight. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir.” The goblin’s voice was quiet.
We stopped listening at that point, in favor of our memories spinning before us like dangling sweets.
Anyan was calling for us, and we were trying to answer. His voice was weak, as if shouted through layers and layers of thick cotton, but we ached to respond.
That’s when the mage balls started hitting our shields.
We opened our eyes, unimpressed to find Griffin lobbing missiles at us in a bid to get our attention. Behind him, a spitting, struggling Hiral was held by two goblin guards. Magog and Gog stood to one side, looking uncomfortable.
“There you are,” the Alfar said, his voice irritated.
We blinked at him, our only response.
“You do not seem to understand the enormity of this situation,” the Alfar said. “You are the champion, and you have been playing this game of yours for two weeks now. We can no longer indulge your little strop.”
Our ire rose at his words.
“The Red and the White have been spotted,” Griffin continued, his gaze locked on ours. “Our reprieve is nearly over. They will attack soon, be sure of that. And we need our champion.”
We did not respond.
Griffin took a step closer, his face now inches from ours. “Look, halfling. Your bedmate is dead. He is the White now, and therefore our enemy. He must be destroyed, and unfortunately, we have to rely on you to help us. But if we attack now, we have a chance.”
Jane’s fear grew inside us, but we soothed her. Griffin continued.
“The Red and the White are still weak, still recovering. We can send in our best forces—immobilize them for you. All you need do is strike the killing blow. Even a halfling can do that, no?”
We thought over what the Alfar said. We conversed.
What if he’s right? asked Jane. What if Anyan’s gone?
[Do you believe that?] asked the creature.
No. No I don’t. But what are our options?
[We don’t know our options yet, child. We haven’t had time to think.]
No. We haven’t. But you do think there are options?
Jane’s voice was so sad, so scared, that we suddenly understood one simple fact.
We realized there must be another option, for to kill Anyan was unthinkable.
[Yes,] the creature said. [There are options. There are always options.]
For the first time since Blondie fell and Anyan was flung onto the White’s bones, we felt something other than despair. The tiniest glimmer of hope built within us, and we nurtured it as we would a flame. Jane grasped on to that hope, and she made a decision.
She was grateful for the creature’s intervention, but now she had work to do.
I need to be me again, Jane said.
[Are you sure?] the creature asked.
Yes, I think so. I appreciate what you did for me, though.
[Nonsense,] the creature said. [You helped me as much, or more, than I helped you.]
And then it withdrew, its ancient power that had cocooned me and kept me together through these last, turbulent days withdrawing. It didn’t leave entirely, and I knew that it wouldn’t until this whole affair was over.
But I was Jane again. And I wasn’t doolally, at least not entirely, or not yet. I could feel an edge there, however. A hard edge, a desperate edge—one that scared me. I knew I could run over that edge without even seeing it in the darkness.
But right now I had to find us some options.
When I raised my eyes to Griffin’s, he knew something had changed.
“Hi, Griffin,” I said, knowing that both the creature and I would be okay. I could still feel it, inside me, and I knew it wouldn’t leave me and that it would continue to comfort me, and that I’d reciprocate. But I had to be me again, for both our sakes.
I was the champion, after all.
“We’ve noted your concerns. The problem is that you haven’t given us any time. And we’re tired of your methods.”
I went ahead and continued using the royal “we,” since I knew that in this matter, the creature and I were partners.
“The fact is that we’ve spent too much time letting other people work for us, or tell us what to do, or guide us. Now it’s time for us to guide ourselves. We’re taking control of this little operation. And we’re doing it our way.”
Then I looked over to where Gog, Magog, and Hiral had all taken a step forward.
“You wanna come with?” I asked, feeling the creature warm at the thought. My friends, for they had become my friends, nodded.
The creature took us home.
Jane?” shouted my dad’s hoarse voice, right before his arms wrapped around me.
For a split second, at seeing my father, my grief nearly overwhelmed me. A ragged sound came from my throat and I felt tears burning down my cheeks.
I also realized it was the first time I’d actually cried over what happened. So I let myself.
My dad led me upstairs, to Anyan’s loft bedroom, as I sobbed. He sat me on Anyan’s bed and held me till I cried myself out. Then he held out a clean handkerchief he’d dug out of his pocket. I used it to wipe my face up, noticing that I could smell Anyan all around us. That nearly made me cry again, but I choked it down.
“Is it true?” he asked finally.
“Blondie’s dead,” I said. “And Anyan’s been turned into a monster.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I really don’t. Blondie and Anyan were always the ones who led. They had all the answers.”
“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” my dad said. I looked up at him. His now healthy, pink complexion still looked a bit foreign to me, but the rest of him was so achingly familiar and safe after all the chaos of the past months. A few days unshaven, his craggy features were handsome, and his salt-and-pepper hair thick.
“What’s obvious?” I asked, my voice small. Like everyone, he probably thought I had to kill Anyan. Maybe I did have to kill Anyan.
“You’ve got to get him back, Jane. You’ve got to find a way to fix this and get Anyan back.”
I looked at him, tears welling in my eyes. It was what I’d been longing to hear since I first saw Anyan’s beautiful gray eyes gone green, but somewhere deep down I thought I was crazy for hoping.
“Of course. And I know you can. We have to figure it out. We’ll all help, of course.”
I smiled then, having never thought I’d smile again. It was refreshing to be wrong.
“You’ll all help. And we’ll figure it out,” I repeated, more for myself than for him. The words felt fragile in my mouth, but once they were uttered, they grew in strength.
“Yes,” came Iris’s voice from the stairway. “We’ll all help. And we will figure it out.”
I twisted my upper body to see all of my friends, old and new, peering around Iris. Lord knows how long they’d been waiting there.
Overcome with emotion, all I could do was hold out my arms. And then they were there.
Grizzie crowded in, smothering both my dad and me in her ample, enhanced bosoms. My dad looked alarmed, but I was used to it. Tracy was behind her wife, her arms wrapped around us as much as she could, considering her huge, pregnant belly. Iris and Caleb did their part and took the other side. Nell and Trill were in front and back, the gnome levitating herself to sling an arm around our necks. Only Gog, Magog, and Hiral stood back, looking a bit flustered at all the emotion. They were British, after all.
When we’d hugged and cried and everyone had said something about his or her own feelings of loss, we still stayed as we were, hugging each other tight.
Finally, my dad spoke.
“So, are we ready to figure this out?” he asked.
“Hell yeah,” Grizzie said, her husky voice growling.
“We’re getting Anyan back,” Iris told me. I noticed her voice was nearly honeydew again, and I could only grasp her hand tightly in response.
“We need snacks,” Tracy said, making her way downstairs, undoubtedly to rustle up some grub.
“I like these people,” said Hiral, following Tracy to the kitchen.
“I like them, too,” I said to no one in particular as we made our way downstairs. For we had some planning to do.
Operation Get Anyan Back was in full effect.
“So what exactly happened?” Grizzie asked as we all settled around Anyan’s large, open-planned living room. Iris made tea while Tracy put the finishing touches on the snacks she was preparing.
My stomach rumbled like a monsoon was about to hit, and I realized I was starving. Keeping one eye on Tracy’s progress, I turned Grizzie’s question around on her.
“I want to know the same thing,” I said. “How much do you know, and how do you know it?”
Grizzie gave me a finger waggle. “You should be in trouble, miss, but your dad explained everything. Keeping secrets from us…”
I hung my head. It had always bothered me that I couldn’t tell Grizzie and Tracy about my supernatural life, but it had been as much for their sake as the sake of the secret. The more they knew, the more vulnerable they were, and I wasn’t about to risk their getting kidnapped and tortured just because I couldn’t keep my gob shut.
Speaking of gobs, my stomach sounded again, rolling over and over in its emptiness. Everyone gave me a queer look as I clamped a hand to my belly.
“Sorry. I don’t think I’ve eaten in a few days. Er, weeks.”
My dad shook his head; as if that was the craziest thing he’d heard in the past week. Not me fighting a dragon, as I had in Paris, but me not eating.
“So how did it all come out?” I prompted, still wanting answers.
“You fought a dragon on television,” Tracy said drily as she placed a platter of sandwich halves in front of us. I picked up what I thought was turkey and cheddar, biting into it gratefully.
“There was that,” I said around my mouthful of food. It came out, “Der wad dat.”
“And then your ex showed up, with Caleb and Iris, and they whisked us out to the cabin we thought belonged to our famous local artist, Juan Besonegro, but actually belongs to another of your kind named Anyan, who is apparently something called a ‘barghest.’ ” Grizzie was really glaring at me now. It was one thing to keep my secret identity from her, another thing entirely to keep secret any single scrap of information regarding my love life.
Griz had priorities.
“Sowwy,” I mumbled through another huge bite of sandwich.
Tracy set down a platter of sliced-up fruit and a bowl of potato chips, both of which I helped myself to like a toddler confronted with a limited supply of Cheerios.
Tracy took a seat next to Grizzie, and finished what her partner had started. “Your dad explained everything. And he told us that he had only just found out, which made us feel a bit better. I think Ryu would have wiped all of our minds again, but Iris and Caleb talked him out of it, since everyone and their mother had already seen the dragon footage with you in it.”
I swallowed the bite I’d been chewing, then looked at both Grizzie and Tracy.
“I hated lying to you, I really did. But it was such a big secret, and it would have sounded so crazy.” Grizzie looked ready to protest, and I knew she’d tell me that I could tell her anything.
“But more important,” I said before she could interrupt, “I didn’t want you involved, because everything about this new world is so dangerous. If the psychos we’re dealing with thought you knew something important, the gods only know what they would have done to get it out of you. I didn’t want to risk your safety just because I wanted my friends.”
That seemed to pacify both women, and Tracy was staring at her distended, very pregnant belly. She and Grizzie were having twins, and that probably put a different spin on things for the two women.
“But I did want my friends,” I added, my voice small. “I wanted them very much, and I’ve hated not being able to ask for their help, or their advice.”
“And now you can,” Grizzie said, her eyes glazing suspiciously as she placed a hand on Tracy’s stomach.
Tears burned again in my own eyes as Nell’s voice came from her rocking chair, which she’d set up, as usual, near Anyan’s big fireplace.
“Now tell us what happened, child.”
And so I did. I told them all about our trip to the UK, and how everything had started out so straightforward. I felt something akin to shame as I talked about how easy I thought it would be. All we’d had to do was keep the Red from recovering the relics, the bones, from which she could cobble together her consort, the White. But between our constantly being a step behind and the political machinations of the Great Island, what the humans called Britain, what should have been easy never was.
And then I told them about that last, horrible day in the seaside town of Whitby, when we’d been betrayed by one of our own. The rebel leader’s own beloved brother, Lyman, had not only freed Graeme, the rapist-incubus, to warn Morrigan of our plans, but had delivered her chosen vessel, my arch-enemy Jarl, to become the White.
Even in those first, chaotic moments after Lyman’s betrayal, things seemed to be going our way. Blondie killed Jarl, and I thought it was over.
Which was very stupid.
I’ll never forget telling my friends, in a dark, grief-stricken voice, about the Red’s tail lashing out to strike Anyan’s shields, or how he flew through the air to land on the bones, or how she chanted something and it was like a nuke went off in our midst.
When I told them how I’d struggled up from where I’d fallen, my older friends—my father, Grizzie and Tracy, Iris and Caleb, Nell and Trill—all cried for me. My new friends, Magog, Gog, and Hiral, who either had been at the site or had helped mop up the carnage, sat quietly with inward-looking eyes.
I’d sat up to find Anyan sprawled out, and I’d thought he was dead. I told them of my relief when he sat up. But then he’d turned vivid green eyes on me, and I’d felt my world torn from under my feet.
Then he shapeshifted into a dragon and flew away, and I’d discovered that our greatest ally, Blondie, the Original, was dead. She’d bled out from a cut made by the Red, whose claws made wounds that couldn’t be healed.
When I’d finished talking, everyone sat in silence. My dad had long since put his arm around me, and I was grateful for its weight.
“Well, shit,” Trill said. That seemed to sum the situation up for everyone.
“We need to start at the beginning,” Nell said, her sage little grandmother’s face looking into the fireplace as she thought. “First of all, we need to list our assets. What do we still have?”
“We have all of us, here,” Iris said. “And we all have special knowledge and stuff. Plus Jane’s the champion.”
“And we have the creature,” I said. “It’s with me all the time now.”
“With you?” Caleb asked, his craggy face startled. “Like… living inside of you?”
I nearly said yes, till I realized everyone was looking at me with horrified expressions, and I put what I’d just said together with what we’d been talking about.
“Ohmygod, no, the creature isn’t like the Red or the White. He’s not like in me in me.”
“Then what is it?” my dad asked, obviously affecting calm.
“It’s like…” I tried to put into words what the creature and I were, but it had changed so much so quickly that I realized I wasn’t sure myself. “Before Whitby, it was like the creature was just somewhere else but we could reach out to each other if we wanted. If I needed it, I’d call, or it would pop in to say ‘hi.’
“Now, after Whitby, it’s like we… have a Bat Phone to each other,” I said, finally hitting on the metaphor I wanted.
“It’s not in me all the time, and it isn’t me, as the Red is Morrigan. It’s like we have a permanent line of communication, an exclusive line, but we’re still totally separate. And sometimes we’re in more communication than others. Sometimes it’s like we haven’t bothered to pick up the Bat Phone at all for a while, and it’s like it’s not even there. But then if I need it, voilà! Bat Phone.”
Everyone still looked confused, but less alarmed, which was good. I gave it one more go.
“So don’t worry about me going all Morrigan, and taken over by the creature. It needs me to have my own agency,” I said, startled by that realization. I think the creature had fed that fact to me. “It needs me to be Jane and it wants me to be Jane. I think we did become sort of like the Red and Morrigan in Whitby, but as soon as I was okay, it backed away. But I can pick up that Bat Phone whenever I need it.”
“Good,” Nell said, nodding brusquely to end that conversation. “That explains everything.” Caleb and Iris looked less convinced, but I hoped I’d made some sense. The creature was a part of me, yes, but it wasn’t me. And we weren’t always in direct communication by any means. It was busy doing its own creaturely thing, plus it wanted me to be independent.
The gnome, meanwhile, kept talking, moving swiftly on. “So, we have manpower, brainpower, and, er, creaturepower. Now, what’s our goal?”
“Get Anyan back,” Iris said immediately.
“Kill the White and the Red,” Caleb said.
“But for good this time,” my dad added.
Tears really did well up in my eyes when I didn’t have to answer that one.
“Great. We have clear goals,” Nell said, nodding excitedly. “So, where do we start?”
We all looked from one to the other. Facing ancient evils was bad enough, but facing an ancient evil that, for all intents and purposes, was holding your boyfriend’s body hostage while using him as a barghest shield was really bad.
Iris leaned forward, her pretty mouth in a moue of concentration.
“I think,” she said, “that we’ve got to figure out what, exactly, the Red and the White are.”
I cocked my head at her, unsure what she meant.
“Like, are they things we can touch, hold, et cetera. Or are they more like… souls, or spirits?”
My mind did a little explosion as I realized what she was saying.
“That’s brilliant, Iris,” I said breathlessly. “They’ve always had their own bodies to re-create, through their bones. We never thought they were anything but pyhysical. But after what happened with Morrigan and Anyan, they’re clearly not. So what are they, if they’re not bodies?”
“It’s totally like Supernatural,” Grizzie said, and my dad started nodding like crazy.
I’d seen the show, but my supernatural brethren clearly hadn’t. My dad explained what they needed to hear. “In the show, ghosts will be tied to their bones,” he said.
“Or in something super personal, like a doll,” Grizzie added.
“Creepy dolls,” said my dad, then he and Grizzie both shuddered exaggeratedly. They’d obviously been watching a lot of TV together.
“The ghost idea is interesting. Maybe that means the Red and the White can be exorcised?” Caleb mused.
“That’s a great place to start,” I said, just as my back pocket buzzed. When I took my phone out, it had gone blank, the battery dead.
Almost immediately, Caleb’s phone started buzzing from the table in front of him. He snapped it open.
“Yes, boss?… Yes, she’s here… Okay, I’ll put her on.” Caleb held out his phone toward me.
“It’s Ryu. He wants to talk to you.”
I blinked at the phone in surprise. What could Ryu want?
With hesitant fingers I took the phone from Caleb and raised it to my ear.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Good. I heard what happened.”
I waited, having no idea what my former lover was going to say. When he spoke again, his voice was deep and serious.
“I want to help.”
Ryu, of course, looked fabulous. He was wearing a beautifully tailored button-up in a bright, jewel-like blue that made his gold-flecked hazel eyes glow. Not a hair was out of place, and his strong jaw had an artful smattering of stubble.
He was sitting across from me at the Pig Sty, the place where we’d had our first date. I’d wanted to meet Ryu in public, but alone, rather than back at Anyan’s with everyone listening. We had a lot to talk about, and I needed to understand his motivations.
I also needed to make sure he wasn’t working for someone else—namely, the Alfar—and was only interested in getting the champion back onside to kill Anyan.
“You look great, Jane,” he said, his eyes on mine.
I snorted indelicately. The fact was I looked a mess. My long black hair was completely out of control, my bangs hanging in my eyes. Said eyes were rimmed with almost purple bags of exhaustion, making my black gaze look like it came out of a pit. I also resembled someone who’d just come out of a coma, which in some ways I had. The creature’s intervention had meant I hadn’t gone completely bat-caca, but it had also meant I hadn’t slept or eaten for a few weeks.
“I look like shit, Ryu,” I told him, cutting to the chase. “I think my makeup is still somewhere in England, along with my underwear. We had to send a gwyllion over to my house to rescue me some clean clothes. I did shower, though. Just for you.”
“Is your house still being watched?”
I nodded. After I’d shown myself to the media as a representative of some “helpful forces” that would take care of the problem at hand—the problem at hand being a rampaging, motherfucking dragon—human authorities were naturally very interested in me.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks for getting my dad and Griz and Tracy out, by the way.”
“No problem, it was the least I could do.”
Our order came.
“Tuna melt, ma’am,” Amy said, winking at me as she set down my plate. I was heavily glamoured so as not to be recognized as Jane True, but our nahual waitress—a shapeshifter and an old friend of mine—could see through it.
“Rare steak,” she said, setting down Ryu’s food and walking away. I knew we’d see her back at Anyan’s that night.
Maybe I can have her bring another tuna melt, I thought as the smell of hot buttered bread, melted cheese, and a whiff of tuna fish rose to my nostrils, causing my mouth to water.
“So, how are things back at the ranch?” I asked, meaning the Alfar compound. After Morrigan had stabbed her husband, Orin, and run off with Jarl, Ryu and his nemesis, Nyx, had become coleaders of our territory.
Ryu took a moment to gather his thoughts while I paid close attention to his every reaction. I had to try to figure out where he was politically in all of this mess.
“They’re great, actually. Nyx, believe it or not, has turned out to be a wonderful leader. I guess she just needed some actual responsibility to propel her into maturity.”
I chewed a fry thoughtfully before swallowing. “Really? I find that hard to believe.”
“I know. I did, too. But it’s true.”
“And you? How are you doing with all that power?”
Ryu took a moment to answer. He pushed his food around on his plate, and he wiped his mouth with his napkin. He took a drink. Eventually, he looked up.
“That’s why I’m here, Jane. I want to apologize.”
“For what?” I said cautiously. I had no idea where this conversation was going.
There was another awkward pause as Ryu struggled to find the best way to say whatever he had to say.
“Because I haven’t thought about you at all,” he said finally, looking chagrined.
“Okay?” I said questioningly, having no idea what he meant by that.
“What I mean is that I really did think I loved you, Jane. I really did. I really meant what I said back in Boston.”
“But,” he said, “ever since I took over this position, I’ve been… I’ve been…”
“You’ve been happy,” I said with a small smile.
“Yes.” He looked relieved. “I’ve been happy.”
“I’m glad, Ryu,” I said. “But you know I would have hated it.”
He smiled. “Yes, you would have. And that’s what I realized. There was the Jane I wanted you to be, and the Jane you really are. The Jane you are would have hated my new life. And it wasn’t fair of me to want to remake you.”
Part of me was stunned at Ryu’s admission, but part of me wasn’t. He’d always been willing to admit when he was wrong. It’s one of the reasons I’d liked him so much.
He was a good almost-vampire, if not the almost-vampire for me.
In my response I tried to acknowledge all I was feeling, but with a joke.
“I hope you liked the real Jane a little, too?”
He took my hand from across the table, but it wasn’t a seductive gesture. He was being as open and honest as I’d ever seen him, which says a lot about our former relationship.
And about whatever our new relationship, our friendship, was developing into.
“I did, Jane. I liked you so much. And I still do.”
“I like you, too, Ryu,” I said, squeezing his hand affectionately. Then I withdrew, and asked the real question.
“So why, exactly, do you want to help? And what do you mean by help?”
Ryu burst out with his weird barking laugh, cutting a big piece of steak. I took a bite of my tuna melt, still ravenous. I’d eaten scads of Tracy’s sandwiches, but then gone for a quick swim in the Sow before showering to meet Ryu, who was already in the area. I figured I’d earned another meal, at least.
Swallowing his mouthful, Ryu answered. “I mean help, as in help. So whatever you want me to do, or whatever you need. I know everything that happened, of course, and I’m assuming you want to get Anyan back?”
Relief flooded through me at his words, and the easy way he said them.
“Yes. And that’s okay with you?”
Ryu cut off another piece of steak but spoke before taking his bite. “Of course. I figured that’s what you’d want. And I think that’s the right course.”
I felt my eyebrow drifting up of its own accord. “You do? You’re not thinking like the Alfar, that I should kill Anyan?”
Ryu held up a hand, gesturing for me to wait until he could speak without his mouth full.
“The way I see it,” he said when he’d swallowed, “is that the Alfar have been doing their thing with the Red and the White for long enough now. And look where it’s gotten us. Nowhere. They’re still around, still wreaking havoc; only now the stakes are higher. We can’t brush their shenanigans under the rug any longer, not with human technology. Our world is in chaos after Notre Dame, and it’s just going to get worse. They need to be stopped, for good this time.”
“But not by killing Anyan?” I asked skeptically.
“Obviously not,” Ryu said, giving me a level look. “Think about it, Jane. The Red and the White have been killed about a million times. Has it worked?”
I couldn’t help it then. I looked down at my own plate and voiced my worst fear. “But they’re in real bodies now,” I said, my voice small. “Maybe that means they can really be killed.”
Instead of agreeing with that idea, Ryu openly scoffed.
“That makes no sense. If anything, now we know how little a body, even their own bodies, means to the Red and the White.”
Looking up to meet Ryu’s eyes, I felt another rush of excitement. “Iris said the same thing. I mean, she didn’t, but sort of. I mean, she brought up the idea that we had to figure out what the Red and the White are. Like, are they bodies, or souls, or spirits, or whatever.”
“They have to be the latter,” Ryu said. “It’s the only explanation. It’s why they could communicate, even when they were supposedly dead and cut up, with the people they manipulated. It’s why they could enter Morrigan and Anyan. We never thought of it that way because they would always come back to their own bones, their own bodies. But they’re not things, they’re… woo-woo things.” Ryu wiggled his fingers in the air when he said “woo-woo,” like a person imitating a ghost.
“So if we kill Anyan or Morrigan…” I started.
“All we do is release the spirits again, to find another host,” finished Ryu.
To my embarrassment, tears rose in my eyes. I was definitely making up for my not crying immediately after everything happened, by crying at everything today.
Ryu’s hand again found mine over the table.
Excerpted from Tempest Reborn by Nicole Peeler Copyright © 2013 by Nicole Peeler. Excerpted by permission.
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