“You gots big.”
The small voice came from the even smaller girl in the doorway. She was hard to see, shimmering in the night like the moonbeams falling through her, and overwritten by the hazy, graffiti snarl of ghost trails weaving through the air. I felt some of the muscles in my neck unclench.
And then tense back up when a too-loud voice called from a nearby room, “Cassie?”
I refrained from jumping—just. Abrupt movements might scare her, and I couldn’t afford that now. “Be right there,” I said softly, smiling reassuringly at the ghost girl.
“What?” the voice asked, louder this time.
I looked behind me to see the wild white head of my partner in crime, Jonas Marsden, poking out of an office door. With the crazy hair and the pink cheeks and the Coke bottle glasses, he looked like Einstein on acid. But, despite appearances, he deserved his position as the de facto leader of the magical world. Jonas headed up the powerful Silver Circle, the largest organization of magic workers on earth.
But great mages are still human, and Jonas’s ego wasn’t taking the aging thing well. Like when he refused to put a hearing spell on himself because the rest of us just talked too low. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for him.
“There’s no need to whisper,” he bellowed. “I assure you, the shield will hold.”
“So you keep telling me.” He was talking about the sound-deadening spell he’d cast to keep any noise we made from filtering out into the rest of the house. That was kind of important, since we were hovering on train-wreck territory here. Of course, that pretty much described my life lately.
My name is Cassie Palmer, and I’m the newly crowned Pythia, aka the world’s chief seer. That sounds a lot more impressive than it is, since so far it’s mostly involved giving taxi rides through time to strange people in between almost getting killed. As I was currently a couple of decades back, trying to rob my old vampire master along with a guy who made eccentric look boring, today was pretty average.
But my nerves didn’t think so.
Maybe that’s why the spotted mirror over the fireplace showed me back short blond curls that looked like I’d been running nervous fingers through them, a face pale enough to make my freckles stand out starkly, and wide, startled blue eyes. And a T-shirt that proclaimed “Good girls just never get caught.”
Let’s hope so, I thought fervently.
Fortunately, as vampire courts went, this one was pretty lax, being run by a guy who had been the Renaissance equivalent of white trash. But Tony had one hard-and-fast rule: nobody missed dinner. I wasn’t sure why, because vampires don’t need to eat—food, anyway. And most don’t, since any under master-level, the gold standard for vamps, have nonworking taste buds.
Maybe it was tradition, something he’d done in life and still clung to in death. Or maybe he was being his usual asinine self and just wanted to enjoy his dinner in front of a bunch of people who mostly couldn’t. Either way, it meant that Jonas and I should have an hour before anybody interrupted us.
Assuming the spell held, anyway.
Jonas didn’t look too worried. “You could dance an Irish jig in here,” he boasted, “in clogs, and no one would hear.”
“No, but they might feel the reverberations—”
this?” He gestured around at the creaks of Revolutionary-era
floorboards, the lash of rain against centuries-old windows, and the
intermittent lighting that cracked the sky outside, sending shadows
across original plastered walls. Tony lived in a historic farmhouse in
This wasn’t one of those times.
“Or scent us,” I added.
“From across the house?” Jonas scoffed. “They’re not superhuman.”
I blinked. “Well, actually—”
“You give your vampires too much credit, Cassie,” he told me severely. “In a contest between them and a good mage, always bet on the mage!”
Well, that’s what I’m doing, I started to point out. But I didn’t because I wanted him to shut up already. I’m not usually twitchy, but then, I don’t usually try to burglarize the booby-trapped office of a vampire mob boss, either. Not that I was doing that now. That was Jonas’s thing. I was here for something else.
“Okay,” I said, glancing nervously back at the girl.
Mercifully, she was still there, even a bit more substantial now. The old doll she dragged around by the hair had taken on a pinkish hue, and her dress, which disappeared halfway through the floor, was now a pale shade of blue. I let out a breath I hadn't known I’d been holding.
The ghost’s name was Laura and we’d played together as kids, back when I called this place home. Only I’d grown up and she . . . Well, she never would.
It’s one of the hard facts about ghosts: when you die, you pretty much stay the same way you were in life. Meaning, if you’re a one-armed man, you’re going to be a one-armed ghost; it’s just the way the energy manifests. Mostly, they learn to roll with it Beetlejuice style, throwing severed heads at unsuspecting tourists—the ghostly term for cemetery visitors—or trailing disemboweled intestines after them like a gory train.
Humor tends to take a macabre bent after death.
But the downside is that, if you die at five years old, you stay five. You might learn new things, acquire new skills, even gain wisdom of a sort. But it’s a kid’s wisdom. You don’t suddenly start thinking like an adult.
Even after more than a hundred years you don’t.
That was a problem, since I needed information, and I needed it badly. Specifically, I needed to talk to my mother, who had once been Tony's guest, too. But who had died when I was younger than Laura appeared now.
Of course, visiting a dead woman should be easy enough for a time traveler, right? Only I don't get easy. I'd spent the better part of a week looking for her, and come up with zilch. But I had to find her; a friend was in trouble and mom was the only one who might know how to help him. And there was a damned good chance that Laura knew where she was.
But if I remembered right, getting her cooperation was likely to be tricky.
“Hey, Laura—” I began casually.
“What’s he doing?” she asked, dragging her dolly over into the wedge of light coming out of the office.
“Nothing. It’s fine,” I whispered, trying to keep her out here, where we could talk in private.
So, of course, she went right on in.
I closed my eyes.
I’ve been able to talk to ghosts for as long as I can remember, far longer than I’ve been doing my current crazy job. But it’s like with people, they only talk to you when they want to. Of course, they usually want to, since most ghosts are confined to a single place and don’t get many visitors. Well, many who notice them, anyway. So if Jonas hadn’t been here, I’d probably have been getting my ear chewed off.
But he was, and of the two of us, he was clearly the more interesting.
I accepted the inevitable and followed her inside.
Jonas must have done some dismantling, because nothing shot, stabbed, or grabbed me as I passed through the door. He looked pretty okay, too, if you ignored his habit of picking up random things and sticking them in the billowing mass he called hair. Or, in this case, on.
“He looks like Honeybun,” Laura giggled. She was talking about my childhood pet rabbit, the one we’d basically shared since animals can sense ghosts a lot better than people can.
And she wasn’t wrong.
“Did you find something?” Jonas asked, looking up from sorting through the mess on the desk. And sporting two outrageous tufts of white hair escaping from either side of an old fedora. It didn’t match his outfit, and he hadn’t had it on when we arrived. But I’d already discovered that trying to figure Jonas out only made my head hurt, so I mostly didn’t.
“He’s just fluffy.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Uh, no. Not yet,” I told him, trying to surreptitiously shoo Laura back out the door.
She crawled under the desk instead.
“Done already?” Jonas asked, looking at me over the tops of his glasses as I crawled after her.
“Are you certain you didn’t overlook anything? It’s quite small, you know.”
What he wanted wasn’t in the outer office. I knew that because I knew where it was, but I needed him to take a few minutes to find it. Minutes that I could use to pry some secrets out of Laura. But Jonas wasn’t looking like he felt like giving them to me. For once, Jonas was looking focused.
“This is no time for games, Cassie,” he said sternly, as she crawled through his legs.
“Couldn’t agree more,” I muttered, grabbing for her.
Only to have her go abruptly less substantial, and my hands to pass right on through. And grab Jonas’s calf instead. “Is there a problem?” he asked dryly.
Yes, although the fading wasn’t it. Laura’s senses didn’t work as well when she wasn’t all there, so to speak, and she was curious enough to be back any second. The problem was worse than that.
The problem was that she thought I wanted to play.
“No, no, wait—oh, shit,” I hissed as she blinked completely out of sight.
“What?” Jonas tensed, staring around. “What is it?”
Laura giggled and reappeared over by the threadbare plaid sofa, where Tony parked his guests so he could watch them squirm on the tough old springs. “Can’t catch me!” she said, throwing out the usual challenge.
It had been fun when I was a child and didn’t have anything better to do. It was less so now. “No, listen—”
“I am listening,” Jonas said impatiently, as she disappeared again.
I crawled out from under the desk. “Cassie, what—”
“I’ll be back in a second,” I told him, through gritted teeth.
“Even for a Pythia, you’re acting a bit crazed,” he said mildly as I stomped out.
Not half so crazed as I was going to be if I didn’t find a certain playful ghost, I thought grimly, staring around the outer room.
Nothing stared back, except for an old portrait on the wall, some glowering relative of the family that used to own this place before Tony decided he wanted it. It was limned with moonlight, like everything else in here, which was a problem. When faded, ghosts were little more than silver smudges, and damned hard to spot in a chiaroscuro of old furniture, stuffy portraits and leaping shadows. Lightning flashed outside, making the whites of the painted eyes stand out creepily.
“No fair hiding,” I called tensely.
But it looked like I was the only one who thought so.
This really wasn’t going to be easy. And what else was new? I thought savagely. If there was one thing I’d learned in the last three months, it was that nothing ever was. It was like living in Murphy’s Law.
That would be a step up.
According to Murphy, if something can go wrong, it will. But that wouldn’t work for my life. I needed a new rule. Cassie’s rule. Something along the lines of “if something can’t go wrong, because it is completely impossible for it to happen in the first place, it will somehow manage to go wrong anyway.”
Case in point: most people would agree that having one’s father killed by a vampire mob boss was kind of unlikely. And that having the soul of said father end up trapped in an enchanted paperweight, because the vampire was an asshole who wanted to gloat over his former servant for as long as possible, was just plain silly. Add in the fact that the fate of the world might now hinge on that paperweight and the spirit it held and the whole thing edged into the ludicrous. And if the magical community managed to lose said all-important paperweight, because said bastard of a vampire ran off to Faerie with it . . . well. I don’t even know if they have a word for that.
But they need one. Because it happened anyway. Just like that, to me.
See the kind of thing I’m dealing with here?
But right now retrieving the paperweight of doom was Jonas’s problem. He was the one trying to save a world. I wasn't that ambitious. I was just trying to save a friend.
And it wasn't going so great.
I gave up on subtlety and pulled the world’s ugliest necklace out of my T-shirt.
A second later, a ghost appeared, like a genie from a bottle. Only this genie was wearing cowboy chic and looking pretty spooked. “No,” he told me flatly. “No way, no how. Don’t even think about—”
“I don’t have a lot of time here,” I whispered harshly. “And she can do this for hours. We had a game that lasted a whole week once.”
“And that’s my problem how?” he asked, glancing around nervously. “Damn, it’s worse than I remembered. This whole place is dripping with ectoplasm.”
“You know there’s no such thing,” I said impatiently. The ghost’s name was Billy Joe, and despite being among the life-challenged himself, he didn’t know crap about death. Maybe because he spent eternity watching cheesy old movies and driving me crazy.
We’d met when I was seventeen, and accidentally bought the necklace he haunted as a birthday gift for my governess. She’d ended up with some unhaunted hankies instead, and I got a nineteenth-century Irish gambler with a big mouth and a yellow streak. Some days, I still think she came out ahead.
“Oh, really?” Billy asked, his usual sarcasm overwritten by a tinge of panic. “Stop looking around like a human and check out Ghost Vision for a change!”
His tone gave it capitals when it was really just the way seers look at the world. Some people are double-jointed; we’re double-sighted, with that second set of eyes, the kind that focuses on the spirit world. I usually tried to tamp it down, since watching others tends to make it more likely that they’re going to watch you back, and there’s some scary stuff out there. But it didn’t look like I was going to be finding Laura any other way.
“See what I mean?” Billy demanded, when I switched over. Only now, instead of a semitransparent cowboy in a ruffled shirt and a Stetson, he was a shining green column of vaguely cowboy-shaped smoke. And less distinct, instead of more as should have been the case, because he’d been right—the whole room glowed with the same eerie color.
It wasn’t just that the farmhouse’s previous owners had met a messy end. This place had started out as an Indian burial mound long before anybody ever built on it, and after that had been a battlefield in the Revolutionary War. And then there were the various rivals Tony had dragged back through the years, most of whom had ended up never leaving. And the vengeful spirits that had followed a few of the vamps home, wanting a little post-carnage payback. The final result was basically ghost central, with the glowing trails they left so thick on the floor and walls and ceiling that the whole room pulsed neon.
“You know the guys around here hate other ghosts,” Billy said, whipping his head around at some sound I couldn’t hear. “Like, really, really hate them!”
“This is supposed to be sacred ground,” I pointed out. “The original owners didn’t like the newbies, and they’ve been battling it out ever since.”
“Yeah, well, they can battle it out without me,” Billy said. “I’m done.” And he started to disappear back into his necklace, which, since he haunted it, was neutral ground.
At least he did until I hauled him back out again.
“Laura won’t hurt you,” I said, wrestling him for control. “She’s one of the sweetest ghosts I ever met. She just likes to play.”
“Yeah, I bet. With my bones, if I had any!”
“She isn’t like that!”
“Sure. ’Cause when the innocent little girl shows up in a horror flick, it’s always a good thing!”
“This isn’t a movie!” I told him, and wrenched the necklace back.
“Okay. Okay, sure. She’s fine. She’s wonderful. But what about the others?”
He had a point. The house was a war zone the humans never saw, as generations of spirits made and broke alliances, chased and occasionally cannibalized each other, and generally continued in death the battles they’d fought in life. And like in battles everywhere, the weak didn’t survive for long.
“I don’t want you to risk yourself,” I told him honestly. “Just take a look around, see if she'll talk to you. You know what I need.”
“Yeah, your head examined!” Billy snapped. “She’s a ghost, it’s not like she’s going anywhere. You could find her in our own time, without the risk—”
“Don’t you think I thought of that?” I hissed. “The house is empty in our time. Nobody trusts Tony’s people—”
“Can’t imagine why,” Billy said sarcastically.
“—so they’ve been portioned out to other houses where they can be watched. Ever since he turned traitor, this place has stood empty. And without human energy to feed off of—”
“Ghosts go into hibernation mode,” he finished for me.
He scowled. “That’s not fair.”
And it really wasn’t. We sniped and argued and bitched at each other all the time, worse than an old married couple. And that was okay; that was standard in the families both of us had grown up in. But we didn’t handle the softer emotions so well, because we hadn’t encountered them too often.
Billy had been part of a raucous family of ten kids, and while I got the impression that his parents had been affectionate to a degree, there had been only so much to go around. And he’d often been lost in the shuffle. And as for me . . .
Well, growing up at Tony’s had been a lot of things, but affectionate wasn’t really one of them.
As a result, both of us preferred to stand aloof from the softer stuff, or to ignore it entirely. So yeah, teary-eyed pleading was kind of cheating. But I was desperate.
Billy made a disgusted sound after a minute and looked heavenward, why I don’t know. He’d been actively avoiding it for something like a hundred and fifty years now. Then he took off without another word, but with an irritated flourish that let me know that I’d pay for this eventually.
That was okay, that was fine.
I’d worry about the fallout later.
Right now I just needed to find her.
“Come on,” I wheedled, trying to sound calm and sweet. “I’m out of practice.”
Nothing. Just a dark, echoing room, crossed and crisscrossed by ghost trails. So thick and so confusing that the Sight was no damned good at all.
“Damn it, Laura!”
And, finally, someone giggled.
It was hard to tell where it came from over the sound of the wind and rain, but patience had never been Laura’s strong suit. A second later, there was an extra flutter next to the long sheers by a window. I lunged as she ran, too relieved to be careful, and slipped on a rug. And ended up falling straight through her.
“No fair fading!” I gasped, hitting hardwood.
She laughed, skipping merrily through the half-open door and into the hall as I scrambled to my feet. But she nodded. “No fading.”
“No foolies?” I asked, following her. Because otherwise, it didn’t count.
“No foolies,” she agreed solemnly.
And then she stepped through a wall.
Technically that wasn’t fading. It was also her patented get-out-of-jail-free card, since the child I had been couldn’t follow. It was why she’d won, nine times out of ten, when we played this game. But I’d learned a few things since the last time, and a second later, I stepped through the wall after her.
Well, not exactly stepped. I shifted, moving spatially through the power of my office, just like I’d moved through time to get us here. It was a good trick, as Laura’s face showed when I rematerialized a couple feet behind her. “How’d you do that?” she asked, eyes bright.
And then she took off again, vanishing through a bookcase.
I went after her, trying to remember the layout of these rooms as I ran. Because unlike Laura, I do not go incorporeal when I shift. I just pop out of one place and into another, and popping into the middle of a chair or a table wouldn’t be fun. So my nerves were taking a beating even before I pelted across another room, shifted through a fireplace, barely missed skewering myself on a poker, and darted out into the hall—
And caught sight of Laura skipping straight through the middle of a couple of men headed this way.
Or no, I thought, suddenly frozen.
At least, not anymore.
They were coming down a gorgeous old spiral staircase, one of the house’s best features. It was made out of oak but had been burnished to a dark shine by the oil on thousands of hands over hundreds of years. But it didn’t hold a candle to the vampires using it. Well, one of them, anyway.
Mircea Basarab, Tony’s elegant master, would have probably made my heart race in plain old jeans. I say probably because I'd never seen him in anything so plebian, and tonight was no exception. A shimmering fall of midnight hair fell onto shoulders encased in a tuxedo so perfectly tailored he might have just stepped out of a photo shoot. The hair was actually mahogany brown, not black as it looked in the low light, but the broad shoulders, trim waist, and air of barely leashed power were no illusions.
Still, he looked a little out of place in a house where his host was lucky if he remembered to keep his tie out of the soup. Since Mircea never looked out of place anywhere, I assumed there was a reason he had decided to go all out. Probably the same one that had Tony forcing a family on a strict diet to sit through a feast every night.
For a second I wished I could have seen Tony, his three-hundred-plus pounds stuffed into a penguin suit, for once as supremely uncomfortable at one of his dinners as everyone else. But I wasn’t going to. Because the vamp at Mircea’s side, the one with the dark curly hair and the goatee and the deceptively kind brown eyes, wasn’t Tony.
Shit, I thought viciously, and backed swiftly into the room I’d just run out of.
Which was absolutely the right thing to do.
At least it was until they followed me in.
In a panic, I shifted—also the right move, since there were no other doors out of there. But shifting in a split second in a panic isn’t easy, and this time I didn’t manage it. Or, rather, I didn’t completely manage it.
Son of a bitch! I thought desperately, finding myself trapped in the fireplace as two high-level master vampires walked into the room.
I tried shifting again but went nowhere, almost as if I was stuck. Which might have been because I was, I realized a second later. Half of my body was in the next room, having shifted back through the fireplace all nice and proper. But the other half . . .
The other half was still on this side of the wall, protruding through the blackened old bricks from just above the waist.
I twisted and turned desperately but went nowhere. And then I tried to shift again in a frenzy. But half a dozen attempts in quick succession only left me dizzy and with a serious desire to throw up. And no freer than I’d ever been.
A glance down at my waist showed that at least I hadn’t been cut in two, like an inept magician’s assistant, which is what I’d always assumed happened in these cases. Instead, an annoyed-looking bunch of bricks had puddled up around me in a working ring, like commuters jostling for space they weren’t finding. And giving off the subtle grind of stone on stone in the process.
I freaked a little at that, because if it was audible to my ears, it probably sounded like an avalanche to the vamps. But when I looked up, only the fireplace screen was looking back at me. Literally, since it was one of those fake Tiffany things with a hundred colors and a bunch of bug-eyed insects all over it.
But there were no vamps, bug-eyed or otherwise. Amazingly, they hadn’t noticed my struggles, any more than they had my heartbeat or my panicked breathing. Either the darkness in the big old fireplace or the tackiness of the screen had shielded me from sight. And I guessed the storm had covered any noise I made, or else I was still barely inside the sound shield Jonas had laid. He’d linked it into a section of the house wards, and I wasn’t sure how far that extended.
Not that it mattered. Because sight and hearing aren’t the only senses that are stronger for a vamp. And despite the temperature, I was sweating like a—
“It’s the girl, isn’t it?” the second vampire said abruptly.
I stopped struggling for a second, when it felt like even my heartbeat froze.
“Cassandra.” Mircea nodded, handing his companion a drink. “She plays all over the house.”
And then it started back up again.
Of course the house smelled like me, I thought dizzily. Of course it did. My younger self slept at the other end of the hall; why wouldn’t it?
I swallowed and wondered, not for the first time, what the life expectancy was for Pythias.
Why didn’t I think it was very high?
“No. I meant, that’s why you’re here,” the other vamp said, dark eyes narrowed in suspicion.
That wasn’t unusual. He could be as charming as any of his kind, but unlike with Mircea, it wasn’t his job. His name was Kit Marlowe and he’d long ago transitioned from spying for Her Majesty, queen of England, to doing the same for another queen, this one in charge of the dreaded North American Vampire Senate.
Well, dreaded to most people, including most U.S. vamps because it served as their less-than- benevolent government. But for me, it didn’t seem quite so scary anymore, maybe because I was dating one of the senators. The one who was currently looking with amused tolerance at Kit.
“What gave you that idea?”
“Don’t be coy. I’ve seen you put less effort into charming countesses—
“Who normally require little effort,” Mircea murmured, sipping brandy.
“—than into that child. ‘Why, isn’t that a pretty painting, Cassie? However did you do it?’” Marlowe mimicked.
“The colors were quite nice,” Mircea protested, lips quirking.
Kit didn’t look so amused.
“What is your interest?” he asked bluntly.
“She’s a charming child.”
“She’s a seer.” Marlowe’s eyes narrowed. “The real thing, by all accounts, but that is hardly enough to warrant camping out in the wilderness—”
is less than an hour to
“The wilderness,” Marlowe insisted, looking around disparagingly. “And in any case, if you wanted to see the blasted vamp, why not order him to your court? Why come here at all, much less for almost a year?”
“Ah. Is that what has your lady ordering you to check up on me?” Mircea asked, settling back into a dark red leather armchair. He still looked amused, although whether he actually was or not was anyone’s guess.
His companion remained standing, and tensed up slightly. “I needed to ask you about a number of—”
“Now who’s being coy?”
Marlowe dropped it. “Well, if she is curious, who can blame her? No one does this.”
“Many masters visit their servants.”
who live in
“That I am attending to family matters that do not concern her.”
“Oh yes. Yes, that will go over well,” Marlowe said sarcastically.
“It should. It’s the truth.”
“And you’re not going to offer any further explanation, any more details,” Marlowe said, prowling nearer to the fireplace.
“I don’t see why she would expect them,” Mircea commented as I started struggling again. “I am not a newborn who must be tended, and this has nothing to do with her.”
“Nothing?” Marlowe spun, just before he reached me. And just before he would have gotten close enough for a good look over the screen.
I swallowed hard.
I was twenty-four.
And I was already too old for this.
“That is what I said.”
Marlowe pounced. “Then the fact that her mother was Elizabeth O’Donnell, the Pythia’s former heir, is irrelevant, is it?”
Mircea’s head cocked, and his eyes narrowed slightly. “Now, I wonder. Is the mole in my family or Antonio’s?”
“I don’t need a mole,” Marlowe said shortly, and drank scotch.
“Ah, a listening device, then. And yes, it would be simple enough here. Antonio’s mages are not the best.”
“They’re shite,” Marlowe said bluntly, “and that isn’t the point. You have a line on a possible Pythia—”
“That’s rather reaching, wouldn’t you say?”
“—no, I would not say! And you didn’t tell us!”
Marlowe’s tone was as accusatory as the words, but Mircea didn’t look concerned. “As yet, there is nothing to tell. Cassandra’s mother was heir to the Pythian throne at one time, yes, but she was removed—”
“But not for lack of ability! For consorting with that Roger Palmer character—”
“Whose capabilities are unknown.”
“He worked for your servant. You ought to know them well enough!”
“Yet, nonetheless, I do not.” Mircea’s tone was calm, but then, it always was. More tellingly, his eyes stayed brown. Marlowe wasn’t getting to him. “And as he and Elizabeth are now deceased, we may never do so. Leaving Cassandra’s talents in question.”
“Yet you decided to meet her anyway.”
“Would you not have?”
“And to gain her trust.”
Marlowe crossed his arms. And even though I could no longer see his face, the set of his shoulders told a story all on its own. “Only prudent, if you had told us. Only prudent if you hadn’t shown, how shall we say, some persistent interest in the Pythian office before now.”
I’d been trying to get a hand on the ring of jostling bricks, to force the damned things open. Only to have them slide through my fingers as my head abruptly jerked up. And then even more abruptly jerked down again, when I felt someone’s hand on my butt.
That heart attack I’d been postponing for a few months now might have taken that moment to show up and say hi, except that the hand was not followed by a crushing blow or the sound of an alarm. But by a second hand on my other hip, and then by a sharp tug. My spine would have liquefied in relief, if it hadn’t been busy being pulled out of my body.
It had to be Jonas; one of Tony’s guys would have ripped me in two by now. Not that it didn’t feel like he was trying. And worst of all, he was making it hard to concentrate on what the vamps were saying.
And I wanted to hear this.
“How many gifts,” Marlowe asked, over the sound of grinding rock, “have you given through the years? How many visits have you made?”
“Not enough, apparently.” The tone was dry. “We remain as estranged from the seat of power as ever. If the consul would come off a bit of that stiff-necked pride and pay a visit herself, it might do more than any gift—”
“Do not take me for a fool, Mircea!” Marlowe said, striding forward and bending down, slapping his hands on both arms of Mircea’s chair. “I’ve known you too long! You’re the best ambassador among the senates. No one is questioning that. But you didn’t go in your senate capacity, did you? You went alone, quietly, with no retinue and with no mention in the senate records. You went for you, not for us, and I want to know—”
“And what I want,” Mircea said, his voice suddenly going flat, “is to know how you manage to run your department when all of your efforts appear to be occupied following me.”
“What do you expect?” Marlowe demanded, but he backed off slightly. “You’re her most powerful servant. Of course she is concerned at the thought of you allying yourself with a possible Pythia. It’s the sort of move that could put you in an inviolable position.” He hesitated, and then came out with it. “It’s the sort of move that could allow you to make a bid to replace her.”
“I have no such ambition,” Mircea said, more evenly.
“And if you did?” Marlowe asked pointedly. “What would you say then?”
“If you have already made up your mind to doubt me, why ask?”
“To give you a chance to explain.”
“Which I have done. You simply refuse to accept anything I say.”
“Because it doesn’t make sense! Do you really expect—”
I lost the thread of conversation again, because the stone around me suddenly heated up, and not like a rock on a sunny day. More like lava. Jonas gave a tremendous, wrenching jerk, and it felt almost like the bricks liquefied for a split second—
And then suddenly hardened again, leaving me trapped worse than before.
Way worse. Now my head and shoulders were sticking out, but my hands were stuck by my head like I’d been thrown into the stocks, and my chest was compressed to the point that it was hard to breathe. The stones went back to their former grind a second later, louder than ever, being right in my ear. And allowed me to catch a breath only when the ones directly underneath my chest turned just so.
Which they did about half as much as I needed.
“Urk,” I said, staring desperately at the sliver of Marlowe I could still see through the screen.
Hurry up, I thought, but not at Jonas. I could breathe, sort of. I was okay. I was going to be okay. Probably. And I wanted to hear—
“—control what you believe,” Mircea was saying. “I see many important people, including the leaders of other senates—”
“And yet every Pythia,” Marlowe said doggedly. “Before she was even crowned, in one case, receives a visit, and not in an official capacity—”
“Official visits are cold and formal. I do my best work in a more relaxed setting. I cannot charm anyone on behalf of the consul if I do not even know them.”
“And yet these visits do not appear to be working,” Marlowe pointed out.
“Do not appear to be working yet,” Mircea said, finishing his drink. “Every Pythia is different—”
“Including the one you visited before joining the senate?”
Unlike Marlowe’s other comments, it was said mildly, almost diffidently, a rapier strike instead of a bludgeon. And unlike the others, it landed. Mircea’s eyes flashed amber, bright enough to rival the lightning outside, and Marlowe took a quick step back.
“You have been busy,” Mircea hissed.
Marlowe blinked at him, as if he wasn’t used to hearing that tone, either. But he recovered fast. “You have to admit, it looks suspicious—”
“It would not have, had you not gone looking for it!”
“It’s my job to look for it. And I have a credible witness who saw you—”
“Paying a legitimate visit in broad daylight! Else you would have had no witness to worry you.”
Marlowe blinked again at the implication. But then forged ahead anyway. “I wouldn’t be worried if I knew why you were there. It could hardly have been on behalf of a consul you did not even know at the time.”
“I never said it was.”
Yeah, I thought dizzily, why?
And then the stones started to heat up again.
No! I thought, kicking my legs, trying to get Jonas’s attention. Not yet!
And got smacked on the butt for my efforts.
Son of a—
Another jerk, and this time, I was up to my neck. Which would have been an improvement, except that now I couldn’t breathe at all. There was some agitated grasping going on in a way that would have been overly familiar if I hadn’t been about to suffocate. And either the moon had just gone behind a cloud or the room was starting to dim.
That wasn’t a great sign, and neither was the blood suddenly pounding in my ears, or the heart fluttering in my chest, or the damned moving bricks, which felt like they were trying to behead me. But the worst part was, I couldn’t hear.
But it looked like Mircea had recovered, and was back to doing what he always did, soothing frazzled nerves, calming ruffled feathers, getting people to listen. And Marlowe was. The dark eyes were still sharp and still guarded, but his stance had relaxed somewhat, and the intelligent face was thoughtful. He looked like he might be buying it.
Whatever it was, I thought angrily as darkness flooded my vision, making it impossible even to lip read. Not that I could have concentrated enough with the rocks around my neck suddenly going nuclear. I’d have screamed in pain if I’d had the breath, or flailed around had my hands not been trapped like the rest of me. Only that wasn’t true a second later, when strong hands grabbed me again, and pulled and yanked and heaved—
And rattle and crash.
And wheeeeeeeee, loud enough to threaten my eardrums.
What the hell?
I pried my nose out of a dusty stretch of carpet and saw Jonas’ grim face looking down at me for a second. And then he said something—harsh, guttural, frightening—and I decided that maybe I’d hit the floor too hard. Because it looked like the room suddenly came alive.
“Get up!” he barked as an armoire on the far wall threw itself across the room and slammed into the door.
And had a first punched through it for its trouble.
A lamp hurled after it barely missing my head as I was hauled to my feet, only to shatter against the impressive pile of furniture piling up at the opening. Another lamp lay splintered on the floor—the rattle and crash I’d heard earlier, I guessed—like maybe I’d kicked it when I came loose. But that still didn’t explain—
“Isn’t that a ward?” I yelled, over the unearthly shriek as we ran through a connecting door into the next room, which was shifting and changing as much as the last one. And flinging its contents behind us.
“Yes,” Jonas said abruptly, flattening us against the wall as a four-poster bed squeezed past.
“But . . . I thought . . . you took care of them,” I gasped.
“I did!” Jonas said indignantly. “But when one is forced to exert enough magic to level a small town, one tends to trip even the most inadequate of wards!”
Jonas didn’t even bother responding to that. He just yanked me through the middle of two overstuffed armchairs that were muscling past and out into the hallway. Only to abruptly jerk me back again.
I didn’t understand why until the furniture around us suddenly stopped trying to fit through the connecting door and launched itself at the one to the hall instead. We dodged out of the way and then joined the stream flowing out. Only to see a wall of heavy oak pieces, almost ceiling high, trying to bulldoze a path down the hall to the office.
Trying and failing.
Maybe because someone on the other side was fast turning them to splinters.
We spun back around to see the same thing happening on the other end of the hall, alongside the fireplace room. Antique pieces and old bits of junk were working in a solid mass, twisting and dodging and trying to hold back massive blows from the other side, which nonetheless kept sending pieces flying back at us. A painting of a woman in nineteenth-century dress was getting batted around the surface of the pile, her comically open mouth looking like she was yelling for help as someone did his best to turn the mountain into a molehill.
And his best was pretty damned good.
The fat lady is singing, I thought numbly, right before Jonas grabbed me.
“What is happening?” he demanded, looking pissed that his impressive display of magic wasn’t looking so impressive, after all. “Who is back there?”
“Mircea,” I admitted, and Jonas cursed.
“A first-level master? You didn’t tell me one of them would be here!”
“I didn’t know. And . . . actually . . . it’s two. Marlowe’s with him,” I admitted, glancing behind us. Mircea must have ended up on one side of the hall, when the first wave of animated furniture flooded the corridor, and Marlowe on the other. Which left us caught between the ultimate rock and a hard place, with two furniture dams barely holding back two master vamps and us stuck in the middle.
With nowhere to go.
“I suppose it is too much to hope that you can shift, just at the moment?” Jonas asked dryly.
I shook my head, and he scowled. But he didn’t argue with me. He’d been the lover of the former Pythia, and he knew things about the job that most mages didn’t. Like that the power of the office might be inexhaustible, but the Pythia herself wasn’t. And that a shift, even a spatial one like to get us out to the road, required concentration.
Something that’s a little difficult to manage after being almost choked to death.
Instead, he dropped my hand and raised both of his, mumbling a long string of something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and his already wild mane go positively electric. And all the doors to all the rooms between us and the furniture dams to slam open. And the contents start to stream out, like reinforcements going to the front lines.
“The instant you can, shift us out of here,” he yelled, to be heard over the creak of wood and metal moving in ways the designers never intended, and the high-pitched shriek of the wards. “We’ll have to come back for the other!”
“No . . . need,” I gasped, trying to will air into my starved lungs.
I reached up and yanked off the fedora, which was somehow still sticking to the crackling mass on his head, and fished something out. It was a smallish bronze sphere encased in glass, which glowed faintly when I touched it. “Spelled,” I explained breathlessly. “You have to know . . . it’s there . . . or it isn’t.”
Jonas’ blue eyes moved from the paperweight to my face, going sharp and squinty along the way. “I assume there’s a reason you didn’t tell me about this before?”
I licked my lips. “Uh-huh.”
“Pythias!” He threw his hands up in a manner that reminded me eerily of Agnes, my predecessor, who would probably have had some trick to get us out of this. But the most I could do was to slide down on my heels, put my arms over my head to cut the noise, and concentrate on recovering.
I only hoped I did it fast, because Jonas hadn’t bought us much time. Two first-level masters redecorate quickly, and the rooms were already running out of things to shred. We needed to get out of here.
“Billy,” I whispered. “The train is leaving the station.”
I didn’t get anything back, even though I knew he’d heard me. Billy didn’t need ears to pick up on my call; whether he chose to answer it or not was another thing. But he’d sounded eager enough to leave before.
I started to try again, but Jonas grabbed my arm. “Change of plan. When you can shift, take us back to the office.”
“We have the orb,” he explained, less than helpfully.
“Isn’t that what you wanted?”
He looked exasperated. “Yes, but not to take it out of this time stream! The spirit it contains is the only thing keeping the world’s protective barrier in place. To remove it would drop that protection, exactly as our enemy wants!”
“Then hide it somewhere. Someplace where Tony can’t find it. Then we can look it up when we get back to our—”
Jonas shook his head. “We have no idea what Tony used it for between now and then.”
“To hold down papers?”
“And what else?” Jonas asked severely. “We don’t know, therefore we cannot risk removing a piece of a very delicate puzzle. We could inadvertently change history!”
I frowned. “If you’re not going to take it and you're not going to hide it, then what are we doing here?”
“I needed to see it, to know what I’m looking for. ‘Paperweight’ could mean anything—”
“I described it to you!”
“—and to verify that the vampire Antonio had not lied about your father’s fate merely to torture you.”
Which he totally would have done, I realized. Tony and I had had what you might call a suboptimal relationship. “But he didn’t.”
“No. For once, it seems, he told the truth. Which means we must return this,” Jonas said, shaking the paperweight at me, “lest Antonio realize its importance and alter his actions in the future. Then we may never find it!”
I said something unladylike, which he didn’t hear because it was becoming impossible to hear anything. I felt like screaming right along with the wards, if I’d had the breath and if it would have done any good. But it wouldn’t—just like using the last of my energy to shift us to the office, where we’d be trapped all over again, because I wasn’t going to be doing this twice in close succession. Not the way I felt right now, and not carrying two. And that was assuming I could manage to do it at—
“Cass! Get ready to shift!” Billy’s panicked voice cut through the din.
“In a minute,” I said irritably, rubbing the back of my neck.
“Not in a minute! Now. Now, now, now, now, now, now, now!”
My head came up. “What is wrong with you?”
“You know how you said if I ran into problems to come back? Well, I’m coming back. And I got problems!”
“What kind of problems?”
“What kind you think?” he snapped. “I’m trying to lose ’em, but they know this place better than I do and I think they’ve finally found a reason to work together—”
“Wait.” I glanced around. Narrow corridor; isolated part of the house; nobody around but us and a couple of more-or-less indestructible vampires. “Don’t try to lose them.”
“Just get back here—now.”
“You don’t get it, Cass. When I said problem, I meant—”
“I got it. Just do it.” I stood up.
“Cassandra?” Jonas was watching me narrowly. “What is it?”
“Um,” I said brilliantly, since explaining this sort of thing usually didn’t go well. But it didn’t matter because I didn’t have time anyway. A second later, a horrible wail cut through the air, making the shrieking wards sound like a melody in comparison.
I whipped my head around, but there was nothing to see. And Jonas didn’t look like he’d noticed anything. Until the air suddenly became thick and cold and hard to breathe, and the hallway started to shake perceptibly, and the light fixtures overhead blew out, one after the other in a long line.
“Cassandra?” Jonas said, a little more forcefully this time.
“I think it’s time for the midnight express,” I said, hoping I hadn’t just made a really big mistake.
“And what does that mean?” he demanded.
“It means choo-choo, motherfucker!” Billy screamed, swooping out of the ceiling. And right on his tail was a train, all right—of what looked like every damned ghost on the property.
Holy shit, I didn’t say, because I was busy grabbing Jonas and throwing us at the nearest door, just before the unearthly wind slammed into the hallway like a tornado.
We crashed into the floor on the other side as it hit, boiling down the hall like a freight train of fury. Merely the wind of its passing was enough to rip light fixtures off the walls, to puff a week’s worth of ashes out of the fireplace, and to send china figurines plummeting to their doom. Half a dozen books went flapping madly through the air over our heads, only to tangle in the wildly twisting drapes as I dragged myself back up.
Jonas lifted his head to stare at me. “What the—”
“Ghosts!” I told him, staggering for the door.
My ankle hurt, my lungs were still crying out for air, and my neck was on fire. But I didn’t stick around to assess the damage. I didn’t even wait until the storm was over. I stumbled out into the hall with Jonas on my heels, the two of us being buffeted here and there by late-arriving spirits.
And then I stopped for a second in awe.
Because there were no ghost trails here. The corridor in front of us was a solid rectangle of pulsing, angry green. There was no furniture dam anymore, either, just random bits of wood sticking out of the plaster like quills on a porcupine.
There was also no pissed-off vamp.
The one behind us was okay, judging by the renewed sounds of destruction battering the mound. But whoever had been on this end . . . well, I didn’t know where he had ended up. But I didn’t think it was a good idea to go looking for him.
Because the train was headed back this way.
“Run!” I screamed at Jonas, and sprang for the office door, just as the storm barreled back at us again, flinging a deadly cloud of debris ahead of it. He dove in behind me, damned spry for an old guy, as jagged shards of paneling whipped by outside like knives.
And then he slammed the door.
I stared at him incredulously. “Ghosts, remember?”
He looked a little shamefaced. “Right.”
And then they were back.
We hadn’t even made it into the inner office when Billy zoomed through the door, screeching something I couldn’t understand because an infuriated tornado was right on his nonexistent heels. Something tore through the outer office as we dove into the inner one, upending filing cabinets and sending a blizzard of paperwork dancing madly through the air. Jonas leapt for the hat rack, I leapt for him, and Billy grabbed me around the neck, still babbling something.
“You owe me, you so owe me!”
“Did you get it?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks for asking!”
“Billy! Did. You. Get—”
“Yes, damn it, yes! I got it! I got it!”
“Thank you,” I told him fervently.