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Magiere went to sit on the hearth’s edge. Her knees up in front of her, she reached out to where Chap lay nearby and stroked between the hound’s tall ears. Chap rolled his head to lick her hand. His silver-blue fur was soft, and his clear eyes seemed to express sympathy, as if he understood her suffering. A foolish thought, and Magiere shook it off.
“Are you all right?” Leesil asked, walking toward her. He pulled the tied scarf from his head, shook his long white-blond hair loose, and scratched at his scalp for a moment.
Stupid question. She didn’t answer.
“It had to happen eventually,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for it, though you hadn’t really thought it through until today. And it won’t be the last time. Word is spreading. Maybe some of them are going to want help...and some of them...” He paused, seeming hesitant to finish. “Well, some might offer a great deal of money.”
“We don’t need their money!” she responded.
It was a lie. She knew it and so did he.
“Yes, right, of course we don’t,” he said, mockingly agreeable. “But for the moment, I’m not talking about us, and you know it.”
Leesil crouched on the floor in front of her, bringing them face-to-face.
Amber eyes just slightly almond shaped, and not as slanted and large as Loni’s, stared back at her from under thin white-blond eyebrows. Magiere wanted to look away but wouldn’t. It was so hard to look him in the eyes without memories surging into her thoughtsfrightening and bloody memories. She wanted to see no more pain on his face and no more scars on his body. Her gaze drifted down to his wrist and then back up.
Even with his thin-lipped mouth always on the verge of a wry smile, he seemed almost sador perhaps bitter.
“Loni may be rude,” Leesil continued. “But some of what he said is true. I burned that warehouse down and...I’d do it again without a second thoughtgiven the same need.”
Magiere remembered nothing of their flight from the warehouse, when Leesil had set the building on fire to cover their escape. But from what she’d later learned, he’d been rather thorough and zealous in executing that chosen task. They’d tried to take the family of undeads in their underground tunnels beneath the building. The heated memory of fighting Rashed flashed unwanted into her head. She’d been in bloodlust, her dhampir nature consuming her with hate and hunger as she fought with the warrior vampire. Then his longsword sliced through the side of her throat, and she collapsed into darkness.
There was no memory of how Leesil had gotten her out of there. The only thing she did remember was awaking to Leesil healing her by feeding her blood from his own wristand wanting him to go on and never stop.
The start of a cold sweat broke out across Magiere’s skin, and nausea rose in her stomach. She swallowed hard, not wanting Leesil to notice.
“Miiska now suffers for what I did,” he continued with a shrug. “There is a chance to make amends. Plus maybe something for ourselves. The payment will be made to you, not the town, regardless of what that letter implies. And a rebuilt warehouse run by the town doesn’t mean we can’t get a piece of it for having funded the whole thing.”
His schemes aside, Magiere couldn’t believe what she heard, and then realization struck her.
“You want to go. You want to do this.”
He dropped his head until his long hair hung forward around his face and across his ear tips.
“No. It’s not about what I want. I don’t see how we can refuse.”
“Easy, I just did. Or weren’t you listening in the kitchen?”
Leesil rubbed his temple with one hand, pushing his hair back and letting it fall again like a curtain.
“You want to stay here and have us run this business forever? Fine. What if things continue the way they’re going in Miiska? Where’s our business going to come from with no spare coin in anyone’s pocket? What happens to Karlin and Geoffry? To Aria and her family? How are we even going to pay Caleb enough to properly care for little Rose?”
Magiere couldn’t see Leesil’s expression hidden behind his hair, and a numb feeling crept through her. There was more behind his words than Miiska’s welfare. He’d never wanted the Sea Lion in the first place. She’d purchased it on her own, and he’d fought her, conceding in the end only when she wouldn’t change her mind. Now it seemed his mind was changing. She leaned against the stones of the hearth.
“If you want to do this,” she returned, “then be honest about it and stop hiding behind concern for the town.”
Leesil’s head jerked up, anger plain on his face.
“It’s not that way, and you know it!” He dropped onto one knee, bringing him close enough to lean his hands against the hearth’s ledge to both sides of her legs. “You’re just trying to make it simple enough to ignore, and it’s not.”
Magiere was forced to look him in the eyes again.
Leesil leaned farther toward her, and Magiere’s whole body tensed.
He turned, pushing his side between her knees as he settled to the floor between her feet and leaned slowly backward. It took several breaths as he settled there with his back toward her, coming closer to contact with her, until Magiere realized she wasn’t breathing at all. She took a slow breath, forcing her limbs to stop shaking.
His weight against her was no more than a feather quilt at first; then it settled warm and firm as the back of his head came to rest against her breastbone.
“Nothing is that simple for us,” he said quietly.
His body felt slender, warm, and solid. She’d spent so much time watching over him every moment after the final battle, tending his needs to be sure he survived. Though she’d stripped, bathed, and bandaged him, and did whatever else was necessary to keep him recovering, they’d not touched like this, both of them fully aware of the other.
She could smell his hair, filled with forest scent, lavender soap from an afternoon bath, and remnants of ale, pipe smoke, and other lingering scents of a night in the tavern. He was still and quiet, pressed against her. Her gaze traced down his flaxen hair running across the front of her dress and his own shoulders. Instinctively, she lifted her hands to rest on his shoulders, and then her gaze fell on his left arm against her thigh.
Shirtsleeve loose, it exposed the wrist sheath holding his remaining slivery stiletto strapped to his forearm. Just below the downward-pointed hilt were the scars on his wrist.
Memory boiled into Magiere’s mind, calling back her first waking awareness after flight from the burning warehouse. Blood filled her mouth, running across her tongue, and bringing life into her body as she swallowed.
She remembered her teeth set into the wrist he’d slashed open in order to feed her. He’d straddled her on the bed and pressed that wrist against her mouth until running blood awakened her. In those early days in Miiska, she’d already begun to think more on him each day, and that fixation mingled in her hunger. He was right above her, and her teeth sank deeper into his flesh as she pulled him close.
He was so warm, so near that everything she felt might have been poured from him right into her. And she was killing him. Had Brenden not been there to pull him away...
From that moment, part of her became linked to the world of the undeads she’d destroyed. She was a danger to those she cared for, and deadly to the one closest to her. Leesil never saw this, would never accept it. Magiere didn’t know which horrified her morewhat she was, or what she could do to him if she ever became a dhampir fully again.
The scars on his wrist from her own teeth would never fade.
Magiere pulled out from behind Leesil and was at the kitchen doorway before he could get to his feet. She gripped the curtain’s edge so tightly that her forearm ached, and she calmed herself before looking back at him across the room. Leesil watched her in confusion. Even Chap lifted his head.
Leesil was at least right about Miiska. At some point, if the town continued to wane, it meant the Sea Lion would have few patrons left. Any hope for building a new life here would be hollow. If the town died, so would the life she’d wanted.
If saving their life here were truly Leesil’s only reason for accepting the letter’s offer, she might have felt some peace in agreeing. But he wanted to be on the move again, always onto something new, and would never settle for what they had here.
“Go to Karlin in the morning and tell him we’ll take the offer,” she said. “We’ll sail for Bela on the next northbound ship and destroy their undead. When we...when the payment is delivered, the town can rebuild the warehouse.”
Uncertainty filled Leesil’s voice. “Magiere”
“It’s all right,” she said. This wasn’t his fault, not really. “We should start packing.”
She left him and headed through the kitchen to the back stairs. She was thankful he didn’t follow.
Magiere paused upon reaching the upper floor. Leesil’s door was the first on the left. He’d chosen it, wanting to be the first line of defense should they ever have another assailant enter their home. He swore that if anyone who didn’t belong there tried to walk up those stairs or crawl through the hallway window, he would know. When he said it, she believed him. Leesil had very good hearing.
The next room down the hall was hers. Since the downstairs hearth was now near the center of the common room, its chimney rose through the upstairs floor between her room and Leesil’s, and its warmth permeated her private space. Caleb’s room was at the hall’s end, and inside it to the left was a door leading to the fourth and final room, belonging to Rose, his granddaughter.
Inside Magiere’s room was a narrow bed with a goose-down comfortera gift from Aria’s motherand a small table and a chest. Opening the chest, she planned to pull out her old pack, a leftover from the days she and Leesil had spent in the backlands of Stravina. But of course the pack had burned with everything else.
So much lost. The blue dress she wore had been spared only because she’d changed at the Velvet Rose and left it with Loni the night that the tavern burned. Leesil had few things left besides his weapons, but he seemed to need little else. He’d always liked traveling light.
She fingered the amulets hanging around her neck. Tools of the trade. The topaz stone glowed brightly whenever a Noble Dead was near, though it gave off no heat. She had to see it for its property to assist her. The other amulet was more ambiguous: a small piece of bone set against an oval tin backing. She’d used it only once. Well, Leesil had used it.
He’d learned its property from the stranger named Welstiel Massing, who’d advised them concerning the Noble Dead. A dhampir, injured to the point of needing to feed on someone’s blood, must place the bone side against his or her bare skin in order for the life force to be properly absorbed. Leesil had pressed it against her flesh before feeding her. There were times since when she’d wanted to smash it but could not. Amulets and falchion were all that had been left to her by her father.
Born in the inland country of Droevinka, she’d never known her father, but throughout childhood learned bits and pieces about him. A transient noble vassal, he belonged to the class that ruled the peasants for the lords and collected rents due on land plots. Staying in one place for months or sometimes years, eventually they always moved onward to wherever the higher lord sent them. Few had seen him except on late-evening collections, after daylight faded and everyone could be found in their hovels and cottages, retired from labor. Her mother was just a young woman from a village near the barony house. The nobleman took her for his mistress, and she remained mostly out of sight for nearly a year.
Her name was Magelia, and she died giving birth to Magiere. Her father was assigned to another fief and left his infant daughter with her mother’s sister, Bieja. Magelia had been lovely, with a mass of black hair but no glints of crimson, as shown in Magiere’s. She was also said to have been quiet, composed, and gentle. Although Magiere looked like her mother, she’d been born fierce, with a temper. Rumors that her father had been an unnatural beast who feared daylight dominated her childhood. She was hated and shunned by all in her village except her aunt. On her sixteenth birthday, Aunt Bieja gave her an inheritance left by her father: two amulets, leather armor, and a falchion with a strange glyph on the hilt. Magiere took them, and eventually fled from the village to fend for herself in the world until she met Leesil.
She now knew her father had been one of the Noble Dead. For some reason, her father had left her the tools to fight his own kind, but she didn’t know why.
So much time had passed since the days with Aunt Bieja. Sitting in her new room, Magiere leaned her head against the edge of the open chest. There was little she needed to pack. Tonight’s profits would be left with Caleb to keep the Sea Lion running until she returned. With or without Leesil.
Outside in the hall she thought she heard soft footsteps and the sound of Leesil’s door quietly opening and closing.