Lila Black sat in the office of her psychologist, Dr. Williams. Her memory of her last mission was downloading through one of her WiFi outlet channels; key features streamlined for Williams’s analysis by her AI-self, statistics ready-packaged for the medical teams that monitored her health, cybertronic readouts tabulated for the engineering experts, weapons and armour performance playing back for her master-at-arms.
Dr. Williams was reading as the information spread out before her on her flat screen. Lila was playing with the doctor’s antique Rubik’s Cube. It had been two days since she’d returned from the near total disaster of her first assignment, acting as bodyguard to the most famous rock star in Otopia. Well, it had been three actually, but she wasn’t prepared to admit the first twelve hours they’d been holed up alone in a luxury hotel. That was personal, and as such she had deleted it from her AI memory.
There were many other things she would have liked to delete. The cold-blooded murder of a friend was top of the list, alongside the haunting memories of her family’s appalled faces—the way she imagined they’d look if they ever found out what she’d done, and what she’d become; the first cyborg agent of the Otopian Security Agency. They thought she was missing in action in Alfheim, the elven universe.
In those old, long-lost days of innocence Lila had gone there as a diplomat’s secretary. It was a great assignment, because Alfheim was one of the least-visited realms, and open only to the diplomatic corps from Otopia. She had been among the first humans to ever be permitted inside its borders. But the high-level meetings, attempting to forge a treaty permitting cross-border activities, had faltered. Lila didn’t know the details, only that she had agreed to spy for the Otopian Secret Service and that it had seemed the most exciting adventure. The only thing she had to do was report on what she had seen in the course of her normal duties.
But then she met another spy, Vincent, and had gone into the deep country to check out the rumours of odd magical trading—weapons’ grade magical artifacts being smuggled into Alfheim’s heart. They had been caught by the elven secret service agents, the Jayon Daga. Vincent was dead. Lila had survived by the slenderest of margins, her body almost completely ruined by a magical attack. And then she had been sent back, a slab of meat, a warning to Otopia, and Otopian SS had made her into a multibillion-dollar hero. And that was only the beginning.
For the first time since those days Lila found herself glad that her family would never know the truth. She was glad that her psych profiles would show the redlines all over her shame and revulsion, because she didn’t think she could speak about them aloud.
The luxury of self-recrimination is not for you, said a familiar voice from somewhere close to her heart. We are already slaved to duty, and we must endure, and go on.
You’d better keep quiet, Lila replied in the silent speech of thought. I don’t know how much of you the AI can pick up. She sighed aloud without thinking and Williams glanced at her.
Lila gave the white-haired old woman a nod and a shrug, knowing that the substance of her report was enough to excuse a few heartfelt sighs. Having a “dead” elf living inside her chest wouldn’t be one of the causes that Williams might automatically jump to.
In response to her words Tath coiled up obediently, a slow-whirling green energy. His andalune body was all that remained of him after Lila’s sometime colleague, the elf agent Dar, had murdered him. Tath was a necromancer, and thus unique among the elves in being able to switch hosts for his aetheric self. His andalune—the magical body all elves possessed—had jumped from his dead body to hers when she had kissed his face in pity.
Shut up when you’re winning, Lila suggested. She knew perfectly well that her survival and what success she’d had were in part due to Tath—the two days it had taken her to re-edit her memories of the mission, removing him, proved that. Waiting for a reaction to her download was agonising as a result. She kept thinking of all the inconsistencies, the mistakes she might have made that would give her and him away. Of course, as a good agent and a loyal girl, thankful for her life, she should have told everything. But she was no longer sure how much she trusted Otopian SS, even if she trusted these friends and colleagues who worked on her team. She had heard too much in Alfheim, and she had to look out for herself. She hated that. She wanted to go back to the first days, when it had seemed straightforward and honest in every degree, everyone trustworthy and Lila Black doing heroic information-gathering for the security and safety of the human race.
It was all she could do to bite her tongue and suppress a laugh at the idea now. But how she longed for it! Tears threatened. Tath growled internally, a vibration against the wall of her heart, and his impatience and the tickling sensation made her laugh burst out.
Dr. Williams looked up. “What’s so funny?” Her face was serious.
“Sorry,” Lila said. “Hysteria.”
Williams gave her an I-don’t-believe-a-word look and went back to her analysis. At that moment the door opened and two more of Lila’s Technical Team came into the room.
Lila got up to greet her Aetherial Supervisor, the elf Sarasilien. Since humans were incapable of sensing or using magic he was on loan from Alfheim to the service as part of yet another diplomatic wrangle. He had served the OSA since the early days of the realms’ discovery, some ten years ago, and he had been the one who had helped Lila to survive her transformation from human to cybernetic organism. She hugged him in spite of his natural elven reserve and the situation. Although his physical self remained formally polite she felt the cool-water contact of his andalune body touch her with kindness.
! Tath signalled, afraid that Sarasilien would go more than skin deep and see him. It was a great effort for him to stay so self-contained that nothing of his presence was detectable outside Lila’s rib cage and every time they met another aetherically tuned being it was always going to be touch and go.
It’s okay, she said to him and stepped back reluctantly from Sarasilien’s fatherly embrace.
It’s dangerous, Tath corrected her. He feels affection for you, and his andalune is strong. He will be very hard to fool for long.
When she stood back she could see the faintest hint of a smile at the corner of the older elf’s long mouth, a sign most humans would easily have missed unless they were very familiar with his race. His long ears, the tips level with the top of his head, moved forward slightly. She could smell wintergreen in the long silky fall of hair that parted over his shoulders in fox tones, white and auburn. The aetheric symbols woven into his jacket sparkled.
His slanted eyes blinked slowly, “It is good to see you so well, Lila.” Was that a special meaning Lila could detect in his words? Did he know about her and Zal, or her and Tath? Could he—smell it on her or something? She was appalled at the idea.
Behind him the team head, Cara Delaware, gave Lila a brisk smile and a nod. Cara was never anything but functionally social. Lila smiled in response and they took their seats, waiting for Williams to conclude her study.
Lila finished the cube puzzle for the third time and closed down her memory automatic archive so she could scramble it up again. Things which had seemed incredibly awkward, boring, and annoying to her about her cyborg self when she was originally made were now second nature. She glanced at the three faces quietly observing her and sighed, putting the cube down. It was worse than facing her parents after staying out all night.
Dr. Williams was, to look at, a kindly little-old-lady figure, like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, but in a white coat. Sarasilien was an alien presence in the high-tech environment of the Incon headquarters, an ageless elf sitting with the stillness of a statue at the point in the room which was least disturbed by strong electromagnetic fields from all the machinery, including Lila. Cara Delaware was a sharp suit from Langley, who looked as though she’d been born in a button-down white shirt and tailored slacks. None of them fooled Lila for a second.
She knew that Williams was a merciless and devious interrogator, Sarasilien a master aetheritician (why can’t humans just say mage?), and Cara, well, Cara was the agency personified—a young and ambitious woman venturing out into an all-new world of five new universes, keen to make friends and influence people, desperate to know something about the sudden appearance of five new sets of dimensional neighbours: the elves, the demons, the faeries, the elementals, and the undead.
Lila was their instrument. No, all right, she meant a bit more than that, but she’d come to realise very recently (about the time she’d knifed her friend, the elven agent Dar, in the chest), that fifty billion dollars of research and engineering and the knife edge of interdimensional relations had bought parts of her she didn’t even know were for sale. So she was sitting here, part employee, part volunteer, part slave, part friend, a little bit of daughter and a whole shitload of resentment, explaining to their quiet, experienced faces the grim details of how she had fulfilled her last mission.
Lila did her best to tell it in her own way, even though they all had the benefit of the download.
It had been a success in its central cause—Zal had been saved from a fate worse than death and was now playing stadium concerts in the midlantic states. But the peripheral discoveries and events were less than great.
Zal turned out to not just be a freak elf who liked playing mode-X rock. If he had been that would have been enough, because Alfheim saw that alone as sufficiently treacherous and defiant of their core beliefs to exile him forever. But Zal was much more than that. During his work for the Jayon Daga as an agent in Demonia he had somehow changed his aetheric allegiance and was now—well, even Lila didn’t know what he was. An elf with demonic tendencies? Not quite half and half, but definitely changed in radical ways so that the oppositional magics of Alfheim and Demonia were both available to him. As a result of that, and his subsequent defection to the Otopian music scene, he had become one of those magical items most prized by people with really big ambitions.
One such person was Arië, a ruler in Alfheim’s arcane monarchic government, who had taken it upon herself to use him in a spell to sever the realms altogether. In saving Zal, Lila had caused the destruction of a large part of the Alfheim ruling classes, indirectly caused the death of Arië herself, and now Alfheim was in open civil war.
Still, it was even worse than that.
She had killed one friend to save another. She hadn’t mentioned that.
She didn’t plan to.
She had a dead elf necromancer living inside her chest.
She didn’t plan to mention that either.
She felt no loyalty, sitting there. She didn’t know what she felt, but it wasn’t good. She had hoped, thought—well, she had had some stupid idea that coming here and debriefing would be like a confession which would absolve her. It wasn’t. Didn’t. She longed to go back forty-eight hours and to be in bed with the curtains closed, Zal’s naked, sleeping body in her arms—when she hadn’t had a care in the world and every fuse in the place was blown dead so that nothing and nobody could find her.
“Lila?” Dr. Williams asked her.
“Oh. Well. Arië was eaten by the water dragon and then . . .”
“What did it do next?” Sarasilien asked.
“I didn’t see,” Lila said, honestly. “It could still be in the lake for all I know. So, chomp. Which was lucky, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here. Chomp. Then we fell into the lake—everything fell. The whole palace collapsed when she died. Lots of people drowned and I caught hold of Zal and got him back to the surface okay and we made our way back out of Sathanor and then, here. Arië—there was a moment when I thought her whole spell to sever the realms was working but I don’t know if that was true.”
Cara flipped through the notes on her lap. “Extensive earth tremors were reported at that hour here in Otopia. It has been put down to crucial tectonic pressure shifts as several conjoined plates moved at once. Nothing too bad. Small tidal waves. Only a few hundred dead. Nothing since you came back.”
Lila stared at her, wondering what kind of statistics Cara was used to dealing with that these seemed such small beer to her. “Arië was helped by necromancers from all the other realms, including this one.”
Cara nodded. “A specialist team has been dispatched to attempt to reclaim or otherwise prove the deaths of those Otopians involved.”
“Right,” Lila said. “We were about two hundred metres down. It was very messy. They almost certainly drowned. I don’t believe they could have survived.”
“There was an aetheric shockwave,” Sarasilien said. “Congruent with your descriptions. It was—difficult—to avoid.” He winced. “All the other realms have sent us intelligence about the effects they have perceived. We are convinced Arië’s efforts would have been reasonably successful if Zal had continued to function as the spell’s axis. You are to be congratulated on a most successful outcome.”
“Thanks,” Lila said, wondering if she’d have sounded any more enthusiastic if he’d been inviting her to a funeral. Yes, she’d have been much more enthusiastic about funerals.
Dr. Williams made yet another note on her clipboard. Lila zoomed in on what she was writing but it was all in wretchedly tiny shorthand and on intelligent paper too, which concealed messages until it was cued to display them, so she could read nothing. Dr. Williams noticed her attempt, and made a note about that too. Lila frowned.
“As it stands,” Cara said, “what interests us the most now is the connection between Zal’s kidnap and the evidence concerning the Quantum Bomb fault underlying Bay City, which you and Malachi have uncovered.”
“There’s a link?” Lila said. She felt a tremor in her chest as Tath stirred with interest at the news. The quiescent, green shimmer of his presence opened out: alien spring.
“We believe that Arië was not alone in wanting to achieve fundamental separation of the realms. The recordings you found near the studios in Bay City were being taken by faery agents for their intelligence-gathering moot. Though our relations with them are somewhat hampered by the fact that we are all new to one another and have much to learn, they were willing enough to admit that they have been pursuing similar research in all the realms. They would not say what they were looking for but we believe it is closely related to the faultlines in Otopia which were created by the Quantum Bomb. As you know, faeries deny the Bomb as a fact, as do the other realms.”
“Weird that they’re so interested in evidence about it then?” Lila asked, recalling that it was faeries who had been key to Zal’s kidnap in the first place.
“Yes. It is also known to us that Zal’s own efforts are hardly limited to making money or music in Otopia. As you said in your report, your Jayon Daga informant . . .”
“Dar. He was called Dar.”
“Yes. Said that it was not an accident where or what Zal sang. That he was one of Alfheim’s principal defenders until he ‘went native’ in Demonia.”
“Elf and demon aetheric usage is very different,” Sarasilien said quietly. “Their cultures are built around those differences. Elves use language to mobilise and shape aetheric energy. Demons use music. We suspect that Zal is adept in a new, hybrid form of aetheric control. It is possible that he was made so by demon agencies and acts for them, or that he was deliberately involved in this spell of Arië’s . . .”
“No way,” Lila said.
“We are assigning you to discover exactly what happened to Zal in Demonia,” Cara told her. “We need to know how, when, and why he was changed, and what it means to the demons, the elves, and everyone else on the aetheric block.”
Sarasilien winced—Lila knew it was because of Cara’s words. Clumsiness or imprecision of speaking were almost physically painful to elves. She was surprised that Delaware didn’t notice. “Zal is no innocent bystander,” Sarasilien said and Lila wanted to kill him, even though, of course, he was right and she knew that.
Dr. Williams made a note.
“You will go into Demonia under a scholarship ticket,” Delaware was saying. “You have diplomatic immunity but you are there to study demon culture and lore, to covertly discover Zal’s heritage and to bring back as much information as you can on whether or not the demons are also interested in Bomb faults or whatever they call them. Sarasilien has organised your entry with a friend of yours who is native. He will brief you before you leave.” Delaware got up, looking at her watchface where it was scrolling with bright charts and schedules. “If you’ll excuse me, I have other meetings . . .” She shook Lila’s hand with formal vigour. “Feels just like the real thing,” she said, with an encouraging smile.
“Yeah.” Lila blinked, releasing the woman from her synthetic skin’s grip. Since she had been in Alfheim she’d forgotten to keep remembering that her arms and legs were mostly prosthetics. They had started to seem her own, until now. “From the other side too.”
Delaware glanced at her, revealing more sharp intelligence in that moment than she had all day. Lila shook her head, letting the matter go. “Good luck,” Delaware said.
Sarasilien stood when she had gone. “I too must depart and prepare to meet with you this afternoon when our demon guest will be with us.” He held his hand out to Lila and she shook it, feeling really stupid now until she realised he was only doing it as an excuse to touch her. His andalune body ran across her hand and arm. He held her hand in both of his and lifted one eyebrow in a very uncharacteristic invitation to complicity. “I look forward,” he looked down at her chest, “to hearing more details of your visit to my beautiful homeland later.”
Lila nodded. “Sure. Later.” She wanted to hug him, to warn him, to tell him not to say a damn word about whatever he could see, but as she met the strong gaze in his slanted blue eyes she knew that he wasn’t about to give her away. Not yet at least. The pointed tip of his right ear twitched—something like a silent smile. “Sure.”
He left her alone with Dr. Williams, the one person that Lila really, really, didn’t want to be talking to right now, though since all the formal information-gathering had been done there was no way she could put it off a minute more.
“Hello Lila,” said the doctor with a gentle smile. “How are you?”
Dr. Williams sighed and turned her clipboard around. She tapped the paper with the end of her pen, activating it. It showed Lila that what she had taken for shorthand were a lot of drawings of little stick figures. They were standing in groups, shouting, and in the middle was one with robot arms and legs which had its hands pressed against its head. It was surrounded by a large scribbled circle of darkness. “Anything you want to tell me about in particular?”
Lila thought about it. “Dar, the elf agent who almost killed me, the one who was hunting Zal. Well, I nearly killed him, but then I saved him—in Alfheim. He saved me. I was having a bad time with all my metal. Like last time you saw me, it was all too powerful for my bones. I kept getting hurt. But after we did this healing in Alfheim I was fine. Better than fine. Zal said I have elementals fused into me now and Dar must have done that. I don’t know. We . . . Dar and I . . . we worked together . . .”
“Not as enemies?”
“No! No, not at all. We worked together to get Zal free. But our cover got blown and I had to kill him just to stay in with a chance of finishing the . . . of getting Zal out and stopping Arië. He’s dead. I think he was a true friend although there were lots of times when he . . .” She paused. She wanted to explain how the loyalties to state and friend, to family and self were so mixed up. But that wouldn’t be the right thing to say now, perhaps ever, in her position, since it could only be seen as a weakness in her. “Funny how we always end up talking about Dar.”
“Not really. If it weren’t for Dar you wouldn’t be here at all.”
“No,” Lila said. “I’d still be a desk cowboy in Foreign Affairs with all my arms and legs and family and I’d never have met him, or Zal, or you. Can I go?”
“Yes, if you answer me just one question.”
Lila looked at Dr. Williams’s gentle, sympathetic face. “What?”
“Was what you did in Alfheim right, or wrong?”
Lila looked at the doctor. “Everything I did was right.”
Williams nodded, encouraging her to go on.
“At the moment I did it,” Lila said, and loathed the qualification.
“I advised Delaware not to send you out immediately,” the doctor said wearily. “But she doesn’t like to listen to me. No doubt the rest of today is already scheduled up to its eyeballs with briefings and any number of other necessary checks and balances before you leave. So, you’d better spill the rest of it in the next five minutes.”
“There is no rest of it,” Lila said.
“You overused your Voluntary Emotional Override shunt so much that the logistics here advises me that you should have it removed for your own mental health.”
Lila shrugged. “So remove it.”
“I see that the Automatic Warrior setting or whatever ridiculous name it goes by these days functioned as it ought to.”
“Yeah. The off switch actually worked this time.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Tell me about Zal.”
Lila was almost caught out by the sudden shift of topic, which was not accompanied by any change in tone or delivery. She hesitated. “He’s very annoying.”
“Are you involved with him? As they like to say when they mean, Do you love him?”
“None of your goddamned business.”
“Congratulations. You may go.”
“You know,” Lila said, standing up. “You may think you know all about me, but you don’t.” The childishness of it surprised her.
Shut up when you’re losing, Tath said, with a twinge of smugness.
“Call me,” Williams said kindly.
Lila walked out. She was so angry she didn’t know what else to do. Outside, in the warmly lit corridors of power, her colleagues and fellow agents greeted her with varying mixtures of friendliness, respect, and condescension that marked out very clearly to what extent each of them thought they knew something about her recent mission. She cued up the Voluntary Emotional Override and met them with interested politeness. Once she’d reached the women’s toilets she uncued the VEO, vomited up her rage in one of the cubicles, and washed her mouth out at the sink.
She looked in the mirror as she dried her face on a paper towel. Scarlet hair, silver eyes. She watched her hands screw the towel up and throw it away. Their synthetic skin looked normal. She considered stripping it off.
Why bother? You look freakish enough as it is. Anyway, it will not get you what you want.
Oh. And what’s that?
Another woman came in to put some water in a can for plants and to touch up her makeup. She glanced at Lila nervously. Lila said, “Hey,” adjusted her shirt, and left.
To fit in with everyone else and be normal, Tath said.
I can get you extracted in a minute, you know. I don’t even have an idea of what to say to Sarasilien.
How interesting that you know his long name, Tath said. It must be worthless. I wonder why. Do your human magic experts not suspect?
Perhaps it’s a sign of mutual trust? Lila snarled. A secretary carrying papers and coffee shrank to the wall as she passed. “Sorry,” Lila muttered aloud, trying to slow down.
If it is then it is the first of its kind. We should find out the truth.
No. I trust him. Don’t even say things against him if you know what’s good for you.
Do not reveal me to him, Tath insisted. He may have noticed something, but it was not the fact of my inhabitation.
We went through this already. Lila found the exit doors to the staff garden, an enclosed square at the heart of the main building. She walked out into the sunlight and fresh air and took several deep breaths. She doubted that it was even possible for her to have a private thought or feeling secret from Tath but she daren’t think about that for more than a second at a time, because when she did the sensation of being invaded and violated got too much to bear. To his credit—his minor credit—if this was the case he was smart enough to keep quiet about it when it really mattered. She thought that she could detect when he was being truly withdrawn, because his energy signature changed and the electromagnetic patterns around him altered.
Now the opposite effect occurred as she walked across to the garden’s two orange trees and leant against one of them. Tath expanded and flowed outward through her body and beyond it into the tree. She gave him a few minutes. It was nothing like a tree in Alfheim, nothing like the huge nature which made that place unique, and this Otopian tree had no magical aura she knew about, but the contact had a calming and regenerative effect on him in spite of those things. She knew he had to fight his corner against her now because he was so vulnerable to her. The opposite had been true in Alfheim, and might be again.
Lila connected to her AI-self and ran through the internal pharmacy she carried as part of her field medical supplies. There was nothing useful in there. It had all been used up treating elves and herself in Alfheim. The day’s list of meetings—a collection of briefs, debriefs, and resupplies—scrolled obediently up over her view of the garden’s mild morning colours. For an instant she imagined missing all of them.
A blue flash blinked on like a werelight dancing on the top of the yucca plants opposite and she took the private phone call, hearing the line link directly to her auditory centres with a soft click.
“I hope I’m interrupting something important.”
Zal! Lila almost jumped with relief at the sound of his unique voice, soft because it was a flute pure as any elf’s but at the same time as deeply harmonised as a demon’s. She replied on internal voice only so that nobody could see she was online. Where are you?
“Bohemia. Not interesting without you. I have no idea what it looks like. How are you?”
Perfect. Was Otopia SA very hard on you?
“Your people are the model of tedious interrogative pursuit. Next time ask them to beat me up. I’m old-fashioned like that. It’s hard to give away secrets without severe pain. Feels like cheating and I like to play fair.”
Lila felt the snap and zing of wild magic crackle in the air around her for an instant and knew she was being played all right. The Game between her and Zal, a magical bond with severe forfeits and excruciating rules, was perfectly intact.
That’ll be the day. What did you tell them?
“I stuck to the story we agreed on, though it could have used a few more years to get the paste straight over the worst of those holes. Your replacement thorn-in-my-side is a former model from Aragon. I think they hope she’ll pillow-talk the truth out of me.”
Lila’s face prickled and the sharp scent of citrus peel shot up her nose. Far from hating the Game that tied them together with its barbs of mutual lust she found she was getting fond of it. How are Poppy and ’Dia? Still talking to you?
“I’m easy to forgive,” Zal said. “I bet you’re going into Demonia.”
You keep guessing, o elf I am not supposed to speak to. Any other predictions?
“They’ll crack this encryption in about another thirty seconds. When you get there watch out for the mafia. The highest families are the Cassieli and the Solasin. Oh, and the Ahrimani.”
That would be your lot.
“Remember that the demon mafia value loyalty, just like the Otopian set. But in other respects it isn’t like Otopia. The mafia are accepted as part of demonian government. Law is a mutable concept, depending on who applies it and for what.”
Who can I trust?
“Nobody, obviously. One more thing. The Mephistopheli are involved in a vendetta with the Ahrimani going back about three hundred years, and they particularly want me dead. Long story. If they find out that you know me, they’ll put you on the list, and if any of the demons catch a whiff of Tath, they’ll be after you for all sorts of interesting reasons you don’t want to know about.”
Demons don’t like elves?
“They like them like you like chocolate. Tath’ll fill you in. Time’s up. Give them hell.”
He had gone. There were three messages waiting for her attention, blinking red. She was running late but the conversation, laced as it was with dire warnings, had put her back in a sunny mood. Come on, Tath.
The elf reluctantly returned to his hiding place. Your trees hardly count as alive. They have the aetheric energy of deadfall. You do realise that roots are for more than simply connecting them to the ground, don’t you? What kind of idiot plants trees in concrete bunkers and expects to gain pleasure from their contemplation?
No more compliments, darling, Lila said as she walked back inside. A girl can only take so much in one day.
She apologised to the microrobotics technicians for her tardiness. They exclaimed at how well everything had held up under the various loads. They couldn’t find much to fix so they tested everything and gave her a clean bill of mechanical health.
The medical team couldn’t understand what had happened at the junctions where her machine prosthetics were bonded to her flesh body. They wanted to keep her in overnight for testing but didn’t have the authority.
“Is this the kind of thing that aetheric intervention can do?” asked one. “We need to start trading for that right away. Look at this. The tissue and the metal merge right into one another. The metal changes from crystalline to cellular and these metallic cells have their own kind of biology. And then the metal. Look at it. I thought we made her out of titanium-based alloys, but this has an even more efficient structure and it looks . . . I don’t know, like it changes structure where it needs to, as if it had grown like bones in natural reaction to stress. How freaky is that?” The doctor looked up at Lila’s face for the first time and into her eyes. “Are you suffering any pains or discomfort these days?”
“Not a thing,” Lila said.
They resupplied her medical kit and she went on to the nuclear technicians, who said the reactor would go on its current fuel cell for another thirty years. She stopped at the armoury and reclaimed her weapons.
“Concealed guns only,” the sergeant-at-arms told her. “And you’re limited to what ammunition we can hide. That isn’t much. And as far as we know demons are very resilient. There’s not much research, but you have to get very lucky to nail ’em with firearms.”
Lila checked the two guns that were stored in the empty spaces within her thighs and then closed the vents in her jeans over the top of them. The weapons in her forearms were all functional. She reloaded them and left, rolling her shirtsleeves down as she walked away. At the end of the corridor, behind special electromagnetic shielding, Sarasilien’s office waited for her.
With every step she covered towards it she felt heavier and knew it was because she was going to lie to him, and nothing in her wanted to. She wanted his approval, but she didn’t deserve it. It was easier when she was a bedridden wreck and he was the only one who could reach her, his the only touch that was light enough to bear. She knocked on the door. There was no answer. She opened it.
The only warning that anything might be amiss came from Tath. He uncoiled as the crack in the door widened, a shimmering, agitated bursting sensation under her ribs. He didn’t need to call out to her. She could feel his “no” like a freezing jolt, but it was too late.
Her momentum carried her forward into the room, AI-self synchronising with her in that split second of unstoppable action. As her foot fell it placed her inside the aetheric energy field that had been set up to match the room’s perimeter, a magic circle enveloping the entire office. To pass a spellcast wall like this was literally to leave the world behind, whichever world you had happened to be in at the time. The other side might be anywhere, if the spell was a portal, but this one was the so-called circle: in reality a sphere of space and time that had been temporarily disjointed or replaced by the conditions that the spellcaster determined.
On the other side of this barrier Lila found that she was still inside Sarasilien’s office, and the office was much the same as usual, except for the strange general increase in colour saturation and the faint tendrils of visible wild aether moving curiously around the magical equipment racks. That and the fact that Sarasilien was seated on an altogether new sofa divan of oddly baroque design, draped with sumptuous carpets and thick white sheep’s fleeces. He was his usual tall and upright self, stern-faced and attentive to the tiny and elegant pair of feet he held in his hands. The feet were attached to the long, shapely legs and infamously curvaceous bottom of Sorcha, Zal’s sister. Sorcha was reclining at full length, leaning against the other arm of the divan. Her dress was filmy and perfectly designed to reveal nothing whilst appearing to reveal everything. She was eating a chocolate bar, her black-crimson skin sparkling with a raspberry glitter from within as she pretended to lash the elf’s solemn shoulders with her arrow-tipped tail. “Harder,” she snarled, in a voice that could have melted paving slabs.
Sarasilien frowned and dug his fingers into her feet with more concentration. Lila could see a sheen of sweat on his forehead and, in this aetheric world, could see his andalune body clearly; a blue-green shimmer in the air around him, its edges clearly defined. Sorcha’s tail tip was catching hold of the substance of it behind his back and kneading it like it was saltwater taffy, stretching it out and letting it snap back into place like elastic only to dive forward and snag it again.
He glanced up as he noticed Lila and briefly closed his eyes and almost shook, ears flattening against his head in a clear elven gesture that was the equivalent of a human shrug of helplessness and embarrassment.
Sorcha quivered with pleasure and turned her head lazily to meet Lila’s astonished gaze. “Hey honey,” she said. “Welcome to Demonia.”
“Hey,” Lila said weakly. “I . . . um . . .” She didn’t know what to say.
Sorcha had no such trouble. “Come and take a load off.” She sat up and offered Lila the space directly behind her, patting it with her hand. To Sarasilien she simply murmured, “That’s it, baby. Keep it going.”
Lila simply couldn’t believe her eyes and ears. She stared at her supervisor as he massaged the demon’s feet, his aetheric body drawing the occasional pink spark from Sorcha’s impeccably smooth skin where they touched. The sparks made the frown lines between his eyebrows deepen but Lila got the clear impression that he wasn’t unhappy about the situation, only about being seen in it. She sat down where Sorcha indicated and the small, lithe demon leant back on her.
“Gods, I forgot you’re metal!” she exclaimed. “And what happened to you? Who gave you the aetheric respray in Alfheim? I hope you weren’t all unfaithful to my brother. Well, not more than once a day.” Sorcha wriggled herself comfortable against Lila’s shoulder and offered Lila a bite of her chocolate bar. “You can finish it. I need to save myself for the banquet.”
“Banquet?” Lila asked, completely afloat in this strange unreality. She took the chocolate and sniffed it. It was not an Otopian brand. She took a bite. It was heavenly.
“Your entry to demon society is to be somewhat more of an affair than we had originally intended,” Sarasilien said, keeping his gaze firmly on Sorcha’s toes.
“Oh no,” Sorcha said airily, licking melted chocolate off her fingers. “Nothing we wouldn’t do for any visitor. Not like you queens of the prim frontier serving her nothing but leaves and all that shit. Even foreign assassins coming to murder us would get a decent meal before we tore their skins off and fed them to the dogs. She’s coming in as my Otopian groupie.”
“Your groupie,” Lila repeated. Sorcha was as much of a pop phenomenon as her brother was a rock one, but their relation wasn’t known about in Otopia and, even though she was sublimely beautiful and a great talent, Lila didn’t feel in an homage-ous mood.
Sorcha snorted. “Okay. Friend. My geeky scholar friend come to assimilate our information for the Otopian homelands, ready to report back to all the glamorous magazines and medianets on the glorious realities of life in the perfect world.”
“You are going to write journal articles, reports, and press releases for various outlets,” Sarasilien said drily. “And some for the Demonian Tourist Board.”
“You have a tourist board?” Lila’s sense of unreality peaked. The soft warmth of Sorcha’s crimson hair flames licked playfully over her chin.
“Of course, darling,” Sorcha purred. “We are getting ready to welcome Otopians for city breaks, countryside retreats, and extended adventure holidays. Demonia enjoys the most cordial and free of trade relations and . . . Well, it will, in a few months’ time. And you are going to prime the pumps. In return, I and all my esteemed contacts, relations, lovers, exlovers, adoring fans, and various multinational organisations, will release selected but important information to your lovely security services to promote interdimensional harmony and the spirit of cooperation and trust so that we can make beautiful money together.” She wriggled her foot in the elf’s grasp. “More.”
“And you’re another secret service agent, are you?” Lila asked. “What, is it a family business?”
“Me? No, honey. I’m simply myself. But I am acting as Demonia’s representative here, and in my own interests, and mostly, mostly in Zal’s interests, because you his baby, baby. And you’ll need somebody like me fighting in your corner because of that. Somebody who’s smart and popular, and who’s got stuff on you. So I was just recruited.”
Sarasilien looked up. “I thought it would be best.”
Lila gave him a wide-eyed meaningful stare, looking from his face down to his hardworking hands and back again. What gives?
His ear tips went pink.
“I thought elves and demons had oppositional magics and didn’t like each other.”
“We do. We don’t,” Sorcha sighed. “Have you ever had an elf, Li? What am I saying? Of course you have. Look at this.” She snapped Sarasilien’s andalune again. “That kind of hurts us both. But it’s also kind of nice. Like picking scabs that are just about ready to come off. You know? It’s fizzy. The magic is all attracted to each other, but then it meets and pow! It doesn’t match and where it touches there’s this reaction and zap! Ouch. Lovely. Really, really good. And then you do this.” She penetrated Sarasilien’s blue-green shimmer with her tail point and shuddered deliciously, “and it’s like scratching the most intense itch—sooo gooood! But then.” She pulled out. “You have to stop, or else you’ll start to bleed and it burns—ahhhh! And you just know that in ten seconds it’ll be itching like you can’t believe.”
Lila didn’t think she should be listening, looking, or knowing about this.
“Miss Sorcha is trying to explain that there is more to our difference than simple alchemical responses or aetheric reaction. Culturally we are . . .”
“Well, you know them,” Sorcha cut him off. “Captain Uptight and the Uptightathons. All serious and holy and pure and dull as the dullest thing.”
“And I know you,” Sarasilien said without twitching an eyebrow, “oh exemplar of the most exquisite indulgence. And you know that demons always say this about elves,” he did something to her foot and she squeaked, “because you like to make fun. But you don’t really mean it.”
Sorcha lay back and rested her head in Lila’s lap. “We do so mean it. They have some minor amusement value back home. That’s all. Now, we have to get you some better clothes, and then we can be on our way. Oh, and your man here has to finish my massage, of course. Part of the deal.”
Get her away! Tath pleaded. Lila could feel his anxiety and not a small amount of revulsion. He was cringing, and it wasn’t simply with fear of discovery.
Sorcha, who wasn’t privy to that moment, gave Lila a conspiratorial look and added in a whisper, “Silly Illy here took almost ten minutes to agree. Can you believe the nerve? Most men would be paying me their inheritance to do what he’s doing and yet I have to trade with the idiot!”
Lila burst out laughing.
Sarasilien glanced at her and smiled. “You see? I knew she would be the right one for you.”
“Ah!” Sorcha shrieked, her face breaking into an adoring expression. “Don’t you just love him to death? All that elven arrogance and patrician garbage he puts out, but it’s all about you the whole time. How cool is that? You gone up in my ’stimation, girl. Not that you weren’t up there the whole time. Did you screw my brother’s brains out yet? I didn’t get a note telling me you were gonna collect on my bet.”
It was Lila’s turn to blush. “Um. No win yet. Still all ongoing with the Game.”
“Oh. Tell me you didn’t do him already. Don’t you know anything about anything? And he was ripe for the picking, honey. He would have bailed, no question. Now it’s gonna be much harder. But I still think you’re gonna win, even if you do have to break his heart before you do. Now, what say we share this one here? He’s not much of an aperitif, I know, but it’s as good as it’s gonna get this side of the border. Man, this place is a pleasure desert. I am so out of love with all the serious talk and diplomatic yar yar yar.”
“Share?” Lila was sure she understood Sorcha this time. “That’s obscene.”
“Don’t you use that language with me, lady!” Sorcha snapped and sat up. She grabbed the end of the chocolate bar out of Lila’s hand and bit a piece off, showing her pointed white teeth.
Oh, thank you, Tath said fervently.
Sarasilien’s adroit hands never stopped. “Sorcha’s favours aren’t lightly offered,” he said calmly, as though they were talking about dividing a piece of bread. “Although it is common practice in Demonia to make little of great offerings. You must excuse Lila, princess of delight. She knows next to nothing about demons.”
“Ah am appraised of that fact,” Sorcha drawled and pushed at his abdomen with one foot, teasingly. “Listen to him call me a princess, like he thinks I don’t know he’s making butter.” But the compliment had pleased her.
Lila used the excuse to get up. “If there’s things I should get before we go . . .”
“Not you, moron.” Sorcha plucked her feet out of Sarasilien’s hold and stood up. “You and this frigid creature have to have some kind of long and boring talk, apparently. I’ll go and see to all your stuff. No worries.” She twirled around and sat down in Sarasilien’s lap to put on her shoes—a pair of beautiful, almost strapless high heels. She smiled softly and changed in a second, from her pretended strop into a seductress, placing her mouth against the elf’s and her hands on his shoulders, giving him a long and lingering kiss before bouncing up, light as a feather, and flouncing out without a backward glance. The door slammed behind her.
Lila stared at Sarasilien. In these few moments everything about their relationship had changed. She hadn’t noticed him as a sexual being, and now she did. She had never had to think about him as anything but what he meant to her: security, reliability, parental strength, a protector, a fellow worker. Now she saw that he was a proper person, and that she had never seen him like that before. Her own arrogance amazed her.
The elf drew in a deep breath through his nose and blew it out very slowly through his lips before meeting her eye. “Cara Delaware is convinced by her demon advisers that you will be able to pull off this journalistic feat of investigation and reportage in Demonia. This is because no human has ever been into Demonia proper; they are all groomed to perceive what Demonia thinks fit for them to perceive at any given moment. Of course this is the way with all of us. However, her briefing materials, which she has given me to give you,” he paused and reached down to his side, picking up a sheaf of paper, “are all exquisitely researched, but they will not serve you.” He dropped them. “It is not remotely possible for you to enter Demonia and live there undercover. You must go as Sorcha’s guest or not at all. And, speaking of undercover matters, perhaps you would like to enlighten me as to the nature of your suddenly acquired aetheric signature?”
Lila had to struggle not to squirm.
He means the metal elements, Tath murmured, distilled to a drop.
“I do not mean the metal elementals fused into the kind of alloys that the dark elves make in the foundries of night, though the gift of it is a startling revelation. But we need not speak of it now, nor fathom your story that it was given by Dar, which cannot be true, can it—else Arië would have treated differently with you,” Sarasilien added calmly. He gestured around him with both hands. “You may speak freely to me, as a friend, Lila.”
Watch it, Tath whispered, afraid.
Lila looked around at the room, realising that Sarasilien was emphasising the fact that his office was not part of Otopia any longer. They were in Demonia. What he would never say in Otopia he would say here, including criticism of Cara. And he would do . . .
“Sarasilien isn’t your real name,” she blurted, barely thinking it through before she spoke.
“No,” he admitted and Lila felt what was left of any conviction she had possessed concerning the loyalties of those she knew dissolve into nothing under her. “But here I am at least free to tell you so.”
“What else do you want to tell me?” she asked, tears coming to her eyes even though she did her damnedest to stop them.
“That I am still your friend, though I realise it must seem that this day heaps one betrayal on another. Such is the way of our business. This is how I can believe in your friendship with Dar, and at the same time comprehend perfectly how it was between you at the end.”
Who is he? Tath wondered, an itch in her thoughts.
Lila ignored him. “Do you mean that you’ll kill me if you have to?”
“No,” the elf said. “It is in all of our interests that you travel safely and exit Demonia alive.”
“Is this a secret cabal of our interests?” Lila asked, her heart hammering, feeling like it had been struck with a pickaxe. “How about you tell me about that and then I’ll tell you what’s eating you about me. And never mind that for a minute. How the hell could you do this?”
“Do what? Tell you the truth?”
“Is that what this is?”
“Lila.” The tall elf moved closer to her and placed his hands passively into his lap, resting the backs of them on his legs. “Nationality, statehood, these formations of mass identity are all false idolatry. It is a heresy in Alfheim to say so, yet I am in agreement with Zal and those of Dar’s party when they speak of the only true self being the spirit within (a contentious definition I will gladly speak with you of another time) and the only true relation of interest or value the friendship of equals. If I could give you my name and it not be a burden to you, because the knowing of it bestows a power that others will try to steal, then I would give it to you now. But I am not about to spend so unwisely for you or myself. I cannot give you anything concrete to anchor my faith to your trust excepting the token of some information. I am concerned that you have already given over much too much of this to another. Will you tell me about the andalune around your heart?”
“If you tell me how I can stop anyone else seeing it.”
The elf whose name she did not know said, “Talismanic protection is the best I can offer.”
“I’ll take it, and if you stiff me . . .”
“If I stiff you, as you so eloquently put it, you will only find out too late.” His voice was calm but he smiled delicately. “Unfortunately you will have to keep trusting me to discover whether or not I am worthy of your investment.” He stood up and crossed the room to a fume cupboard. Beneath the glass hood of its extractor deck an old, much worn chest of drawers supported a marble slab. He unclipped the bindings which held the slab in place and hinged it aside, reaching into a narrow compartment beneath it. He returned to Lila with a delicate silver chain, upon which hung a garland of pink roses made from clusters of tiny gemstones.
Amethysts, Tath said. Good enough against demons, and ninety percent of the eleven population, which makes him in the top ten. That means noble families and I must know him, so besides the fact you do not know his name I think you might assume you do not know his face either.
“Not your colour,” Lila said aloud to her mentor, trying to lighten the mood, indeed, to do anything that could bring her back to the place where she could feel good about letting him into the sphere of her awareness again, with the solidity she used to have in him, like he was part of her furniture.
“Nor do I need it. I am beyond the ability of such items to affect me for good or ill,” he said. “But I have charmed it to . . .”
“When?” said Lila and Tath at the same moment.
“As I took it out of its place.”
Bad news. I didn’t spot anything. No words. No nothing. He must be a synaethete.
They do not require a medium to access aetheric power. Such people are extremely rare, one in a billion. If that’s the case he may not even be an elf.
Stop now. I can’t deal with this until later.
As you wish. Be on your guard. But it may be the demon was right about one matter. He is showing you clearly the truth of his nature, and that should either honour or appal you, for no being of such power needs reveal themselves to another.
Sarasilien—she could not think of him another way—placed the necklace around her throat and did up the catch.
I wonder what else is on this thing? Tath worried.
He could be lying of course . . .
“The dead elf in my chest thinks you’re lying about the necklace.”
“Then they are a worthwhile ally. I assume that if you had wanted to be rid of them you would have achieved this or asked. Your secret is safe with me. But I wonder what motivates you. You struggle so hard to accept your change into a machine, why go further and become a boarding house to ghosts?”
“I like variety?”
The elf broke into a smile and then a quiet laugh.
Lila sat in the Great Library of Bathshebat, chewing the end of her pencil. She was in a private turret, seated at a semicircular desk of exquisite workmanship, scrolls and books open around her. From their pages and runes a faint mist of colour and scent wove up into a pretty veil. Through this lacework she could easily see the pointed arches of the turret’s fine windows and through them across the city’s towers, parapets, pinnacles, domes, minarets, spires, and roofs. Jewel-like enamel and coloured tiles flourished in dazzling beauty everywhere beneath the sapphire blue of the sky. It was a riot of beauty.
The pencil tasted of lemonade. Her notes—all handwritten, because there was no electricity in Demonia, and because she must have something that made her look scholarly—fluttered gently on the warm breeze and would have blown away except for the pretty dark-blue paperweight that held them down. It was made of a smooth stone that Lila liked to touch, sculpted into the shape of a sleeping cat. She felt very content as she stroked it absently with her finger and let the tension drop out of her shoulders. Far from being the appalling assignment she had feared, Demonia was like a holiday.
The soft green of the library walls made a perfect frame for the soft yellow and apricot sky, she thought as she contemplated yet another spectacular demonian sundown. The batlike, birdlike, and aetheric forms of airborne demons skimmed and darted, and the pretty paper fans of the strange one- and two-person cars that floated like boats sailed soundlessly through lanes of air, their propellers whirring. The orange sunset brought out the beautiful tones of the city colours even more vividly so that the city seemed to hum or sing with hues, and between the buildings everywhere the canals wound in the perfect complement of aqua tones.
This was the problem with Demonia, Lila thought, drunk on its beauty one more time. It was devastatingly gorgeous. Every view was a postcard, every street a picture book, every store an Aladdin’s cave, every coffee house a cornucopia of sweets and scents and divine potions. There was far too much art in Demonia, and most of it was good, unlike in Otopia, where there was quite a lot of art, but much of it mediocre. And for those who didn’t think that beauty was the epitome of art, or evolution, or what have you, there were whole streets, movements, theatres, districts, societies, lunch clubs, guilds, and gangs devoted to exploring alternative philosophies. In fact, Lila had begun to suspect that if she toured the entire world she would find that there was no niche of political, intellectual, artistic, scientific, or aesthetic tradition that could not boast at least a tea house, a couple of galleries, a regular forum, and a devoted sect of followers. And this was before she could begin to take account of the social whirl of parties, dinners, breakfasts, wakes, impromptu theatrical productions, musical gatherings, orations, show trials, exhibitions, duels, fêtes, screenings, demonstrations, public experiments, engineering bees, concerts, recitals, spontaneous improvisations, races, fights, and shindigs of every conceivable kind which went on day and night, night and day.
In fact it was a relief to be sitting here engrossed by the day’s offerings from the librarian who had been retained for her by Sorcha’s family, and not to be still at the eight-day round of celebrations that had been her “preliminaries” and introduction to demon society. No debutante of any kind could have been more thoroughly exhausted than Lila by the talking, dancing, eating, drinking, and enjoying of fine things than she was—and she was fusion powered. Though recently it had begun to seem that she was canapé and champagne, or beer and pretzel, or coffee, tea, and cake powered.
Of course, demons themselves knew absolutely that overdoing a pleasure made it a chore, and so prior to her commencing study she and Sorcha had been shipped off to a spa and subjected to a week’s worth of detoxification and relaxation. Again, this was a pleasure in itself that was prolonged to the point of torment; but this moment of having had a complete glut of a particular experience was the point. It had a name, eualusia, beautiful boredom, and the pursuit of the perfect moment of eualusia was one of the more important games, one of millions, that demons played routinely.
Lila had no doubt that eventually she would find the library’s eualusic point, but it wasn’t going to be for a long time yet. She glanced back down to her page where she was trying to write a basic tourist primer on Demonian culture.
“Demon children are serious, studious, and highly focused. Demonia is governed and administered in civil, military, and economic affairs by sub-nineteen-year-olds. They are born with inherited memories, full of the information collected by all of their genetic and aetheric ancestors. This equips them for mastery of intellectual affairs by the age of ten. They are expected to apply themselves monastically to academic, civil, or military duties until the age of majority (nineteen), when they inevitably drift off into more selfish pursuits, at least some of every day devoted to an art.
“A list of what demons consider art is so long as to be unpublishable. Any endeavour or project is elevated to artistic status by the energy, devotion, and skill with which it is pursued. The demon who exerts him or her self most completely and who achieves greatness in any sphere is considered worthy of the label artist. Those who also live the rest of their lives to the fullest expression are considered Maha Anima (great spirits) and are the most powerful of their kind.
“Demon adults are tricky. They reach complete adulthood at twenty-five, after which their interest in self-sacrificing affairs, such as government, declines. Demons view governance, jurisprudence, and the administrative affairs of their world as a tedious yet essential function. It is their duty to serve nine years of complete devotion to the correct practice of these affairs, after which they never again bother with it. They become much more independent, voracious, and sexually active (in Demonia sex is an art, of course; a social as well as a personal and physical one—and although demons can reproduce sexually this isn’t their only means and reproduction is not considered an important function of sex per se).
“In old age demons become increasingly capricious, selfish, and devious. The highest mortality rates occur in the over-200s, who succumb to death matches and murders over petty arguments. The more petty, the more vicious. These squabblematches have consumed entire families, and it is unusual for any adult demon not to be involved in some sort of scheme, vendetta, or equivalent. Children are excluded from such obligations—they have the country to run.”
She was aware, as she added the final line, of Tath’s interest. Taking advantage of a quiet minute or two and her distraction he had leaked himself quietly down through her limbs and was making cautious contact with the air.
“Watch it,” Lila murmured. “No glamourising me.”
I am watching, Tath said, hovering at the level of her skin. And it would be difficult to add anything to your costume. Zal’s sister has execrable taste. Almost on a par with the faeries.
Lila glanced down at herself. She was wearing what, in Otopia, would be considered a dress suitable for dancing the tango. It was cut up to here and down to there and clung to her skin by charm. Where it touched it was frosted with glitter and the glitter extended out on her bare arms and legs. Her arms looked strong and tanned. Her legs were the silver metal of their natural composition from above the knee down. Sorcha had insisted that this was better than any boots to be bought anywhere in the city. Through various bits of turquoise filminess Lila’s tankini underwear showed dark blue. There was, she thought, enough eye makeup on her to make any Goth proud. She could feel its unfamiliar stickiness and again resisted an urge to rub her eyelids.
“Ah, don’t tell me,” she said, witnessing the merest flare of grass green andalune flip a piece of dress fabric contemptuously, “you wouldn’t be seen dead in it.”
And matching wit. Did nobody explain the complete lack of style in having coordinated accessories?
Lila got the feeling—not her own, but Tath’s overspill—that he was enjoying himself. “You can wear it later,” she promised.
“Oh . . . thank you,” replied a voice as dry as dead leaves behind her.
Before she had a chance to move something flashed past her face and whipped around her neck. It was, she thought, oddly sleek and violet for a garrotte.
Time, as it does in those moments when only actions are of importance, slowed down, aided in obedience by Lila’s processors accelerating her speed of thought and motion beyond human. Before the long thin line had a chance to bite into her she got the fingers of her right hand under it and then felt that it was no mundane line at all, but a wiry, curious flesh. It was deployed with great force however, and her own knuckles were soon pressed into her throat. If they had been flesh fingers she thought they would almost certainly have been cut in two. But they were not flesh and they did not yield to the terrible decapitating pressure of her would-be murderer. Her delicate skin became hard as metal, fusing tough around the site of contact and gripping the garrotte tightly. Then, with a kind of joyful fierceness amid the surge of all her battle responses, Lila pulled back against the line.
A bitter cold pierced her left shoulder.
At the same moment she felt Tath retreat to no more than a green-tinged haunt in her chest. He whispered, faint as a final breath, Poison in the left strike seeks death. This is no game or casual play. You must show no mercy. She thought he sounded afraid.
The line gave suddenly without any warning and her hand slammed down, through the desk before her, splintering it into smithereens and scattering her notes and books to the floor. In the second it took her to stand and turn she was stabbed three more times in the left upper back. From the wounds a great dullness began to spread, not cold itself, but grey and thick, like fog.
Her right thigh opened with smooth clockwork precision and she took out the gun, always loaded, that was kept there in the hollow where a bone would be. The first shots were out of it before the image of her assailant had resolved to more than a blur of lilac and blue in her vision. The ammunition was simple metal bullets—a choice she had made after Zal’s warning, because they were not often fatal to demons. She had thought that if duelling was so commonplace and stealthy traps so often employed, she didn’t want to accidentally slaughter someone attempting a lighthearted bit of maiming. There were few things more second eleven than counterattacking with excessive force. Hence, the shots were only to buy time.
She was already dropping the weapon as the demon surged to its feet. It was tall, and like a dog standing on hind legs more than like a human. In its right paw the long poniard it had used to stab her dripped with red. The fogging of her body slowed as emergency counteragents were released by her phylactery. She achieved balance and a good look at her enemy.
His long snout was snarling, showing long teeth shrouded in walrusy whiskers. Yellow eyes gleamed from narrow slits on either side of the long head where a ruff of spines rattled at her in orange profusion. The demon’s broken tail whipped back and forth, scattering drops of blue blood which steamed and fizzed.
“What was THAT for?” Lila demanded. As she spoke she was weaving back and forth, balanced on the balls of her feet, letting her AI help her intuit the opportunity for a strike. She was ready to go in barehanded but, as her assailant wove back and forth, arms and hands—there were four of them, disconcertingly—snaking in a hypnotic rhythm, she took the time to slip a blade out of her left leg’s armoury and into her hand. Warm liquid ran down her back and she had to pass the knife across to her right side as her left arm slowly numbed.
The demon simply snarled in a guttural way for a reply. She feinted and it stood back, waiting for its poisons to take effect. Its eyes never blinked. Lila, desperate that her introduction to demon society should not begin with a miscalculated slaying, took a moment to digest the analysis of what was rushing through her bloodstream. From its filtration station in her liver her AI-self tasted the complex molecules of snake venom. Information rushed her mind, like an assault squad—it was deadly in a minute to anyone of normal human metabolism and very hard to synthesise a suitable anti-agent for in . . . Lila ignored the rest. She knew all she wanted to know. She reeled where she stood.
Convinced its attack was succeeding in paralysing her, the demon crouched and struck with a spring and a snarl. Lila used some heavy hydraulic assist in her hips and slid her torso aside in a move that anyone whose legs weren’t more than two-thirds of their bodyweight would never have managed. The demon’s blade, hand, and arm stabbed past her with a whoosh of cool air that lifted the delicate veils of her clothing with a soft movement like a caress. She brought her arm down and pinned the limb against her side with vicious determination. The surprised demon landed against her, its shoulder against her chest, and suddenly they were eye to eye. Lila stared hard and brought her head forward with a sharp jerk, slamming her forehead into contact with its skull. Its skin smelled of sulfur and pine, and it was damp, like a frog. Her free hand brought her blade around and pressed the tip of it into the soft flesh just below the orbit of its large, shiny eye. For an instant she looked into that window.
That’s not such a good idea, Tath whispered but he was cowering inside so small that his voice was more like a ghostly afterthought.
The dazzling gaze of the demon was captivating. Deep inside the black pits of its pupils she could see a strange kind of swirling. It was slow and dark and beautiful.
Magic, you fool. For all that’s holy, stop! Didn’t that traitor teach you anything at this spy school? Strike or be damned!
In her veins the poison and her body fought one another. Murky pain made her sluggish but her machine parts, unaffected, stayed strong. The demon made a tentative pull but it was stuck fast. She pushed the knife into its skin. Blue streaked down the blade and gave off a pale smoke. She was so close to it that she couldn’t help breathing some of it into her nose. For a moment she lost the sense of where she was.
A dart of shadow shot out of the demon’s eye and into her left eye. It was cold and it went straight to her heart.
Fuck! Tath said, discovered.
The demon sucked in a huge, fast, astonished breath and its free arm punched Lila in the head with the force of a sledgehammer. Only because she was machine did she hold her grip as her head rocked and bright pain shot through her toughened skull. The shadow in her heart began to expand and it was soft, like twilight. It made her feel sleepy and sad. The demon started to hammer her with blows. It jerked its head back and thrashed, kicking ineffectually at her armoured legs. The combination of poison and shadow made Lila feel as though she was swimming in mud but her grip on the creature was so powerful it could not wriggle free. She plunged her knife into its neck, angling up under the jaw and giving a good jerk to the blade as she did so. A gout of blue, like an ink explosion, burst out over her. Hot clouds billowed off it and blinded her. She felt needle teeth sink into her shoulder. Something pumped into her flesh, painful and tight. The shadow started to slow her heart.
She heard Tath chant some strange sound. The shadow disappeared into his green energy and then came the almost familiar prickle and tang of magic working as an emerald line of force extended instantaneously out of Tath’s spirit form, through her, out of her eyes and into the blood slick of the demon. It shrieked, bubbled, and spat in agony. Lila felt a horrible voyeurism as Tath, using her as his proxy, sucked the life from the wound in the demon and from its blood. She felt Tath’s energy grow in power and density. She felt him changing . . .
What are you doing?
It saw me. Demons have souls. Spirits. If this one reaches the realm of the dead with the knowledge of me there are necromancers aplenty here who will pull its story back to the living world. Death is no silencer.
Blood poured over her. Smoke billowed. The demon screamed and she felt its body go floppy, as if it was genuinely deflating. All its furious energy was passing through her. She could see and feel it but it was not of her. It was going into Tath. She was horrified and revolted. He was eating its soul.
For the first time this was not some drily recorded activity in a textbook. It was a frenzy; the destruction of something unique, beautiful, and fragile. Even though the demon had intended to kill her and she was killing it, or trying to, this seemed an atrocity far beyond anything either of them had meant. And moreover she could feel Tath’s reaction to his own arcane power: he experienced it as an abomination almost beyond endurance but, at the same time, he gloried in it. He bathed in the demon’s self as he transformed it into raw aether and he felt an intense, orgasmic pleasure as he drank that energy in. Tath swelled. Lila felt his presence intensify. His astonishment, fury, and self-hatred filled her up.
She dropped the demon’s lifeless body and it fell at her feet with a meaty thud. Poisons—real, emotional, and psychic—flooded through her. Tath felt her responses and flared with anger and hate. For the first time ever she truly felt that he was capable of easily killing her, and always had been.
There was a flash.
She blinked blood out of her eyes. Standing on the window ledge was a small purple demon with a camera.
“Hold it, love!” it shrieked.
There was another flash.
“Perfect!” It grinned and then said, “Oof . . .” as it was kicked aside. Lila heard its angry protest as it fell and then saw another demon alight on the balcony. It was big and blue with a dragonish look and a long, horsy face. There were horns, whiskers, fierce gold eyes. Its eyebrows, arms, and legs had white feathers where a human would have had hair, some marked with violet and some plain. A mane of thick white plumes spread from its head down its back and along the spine of its tail to the tip where they ended in a heavy, soft burst of iridescent plumage. It was slender, powerfully muscled, and naked. The blue hide shone like polished vinyl and its powdery white angelic wings made a creaky sound as it furled them close to its back. It jumped down from the rail with the ease of flowing water and came towards her on its hind legs, grinning, suddenly almost human in aspect now that it was upright. A warm, sensual charisma radiated from it. Like an animal it crouched low, balanced on its toes, and sniffed around the wreckage of papers and the lake of blood. Its face was mobile and expressive—it raised its eyebrows and pulled its mouth into a surprised series of moves. It cocked its head and glanced down at the dead demon.
“Azarktus, my brother,” it said softly and tutted. “You impetuous fool.” A tear rolled from its eye and fell onto the body. When it landed there was a sound like a sigh and something faint, almost invisible, streaked up from the corpse and fled, wraithlike, out of the window. “I’d kill you myself if you weren’t already dead.” Then the creature stood up tall and held out its slender hand, smiling and showing all its sharp tigerish teeth.
“I’m Teazle,” it said in a heavy demonic accent. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Of course,” the demon continued, conversationally, whilst glancing between her and its outstretched hand in an inviting manner, “now that you have slain my blood kin my family is at war with you and I am bound by near infinite regress of ties and duties to seal your mortal fate at my earliest possible convenience, however . . .” It paused, glanced at the hand Lila had not taken, and then quietly closed it before abruptly coming to a change of heart and smiling and offering it again. “However, I consider it extremely inconvenient to do so and I expect that I will continue to consider it that way almost indefinitely which is technically not a crime though it violates the spirit of the law (though who cares for that?) and I wish you would take my hand because I am beginning to feel stupid.”
Lila, woozy from poison, irritated by pain, and generally feeling in a bad mood, stared at the hand and then at the demon’s yellow eyes. Straw to gold, she thought with annoyance.
Watch out . . . Tath whispered faintly . . . beware of . . .
Magic? Lila asked. She was heartily sick of his warnings and her own frequent memories of how easily it took her in. She did not feel the citrus airburst of wild streams which could bind her into some unwilling pact.
She dropped the blade she was holding and with her own bloodied hand took hold and shook firmly. The returning grip was strong and confident. The demon smiled cheerfully and its eyes narrowed in wrinkles of pleasure.
“Charmed,” it murmured and tilted its head, looking mostly at her from one side. “And it feels so real.”
Lila pulled her hand back. “It is real. Really.”
“But of course.” The demon flexed its fingers, remembering her grip. “Pardon my imprecision, it’s not long since I left government and the affairs of state and, more accurately, the documentation and language of state, are slow to depart. I meant to say how fleshlike it feels, considering it is nothing of the sort.”
Lila looked down. “You don’t seem very . . . sad . . .”
The demon glanced at the body briefly and shrugged. “He is gone. There is nothing I can do about it. What I have missed of him through neglect whilst he was alive is my own failing but that is also gone. This,” it rolled the corpse over with its foot, “is for the garbage collectors. Look, his face is very angry. At least he did not go to the endless shores in a self-pitying state. Really, our mother will be glad of that. Which reminds me. I was sent here to invite you to a party.” With a quick jerk it tore a feather from its wing. “Burn this tonight at seven and follow the smoke. I’d stay and help you out here with whatever you were doing but I have to go deliver the rest of the invitations and my mother turns into a living horror if her parties go wrong. The librarian will send someone for the body if you holler. Pity about your dress, all that blood really has spoiled it. Nice breasts.” It flashed her a grin of long, tigerish teeth and then hopped once, twice, onto the balcony and over the rail.
Lila stood and slowly straightened up to her full height. The body steamed. A light breeze ruffled the scattered, trodden on, and generally ruined pages of her scholarship. From behind her the soft padding of feet came into the room. There was a short, impatient sigh and a faint growl of anger.
“How many times must I go over it?” she heard the librarian mutter. “No duelling in the Reading Rooms!”
“I . . .” Lila began, seeing the old demon stoop and shuffle forwards, leaning on his staff with which he tapped a large brass sign attached to the wall beside the door. Lila had not really noticed it before. It said, “No duelling. No summoning of imps or other manifestations of elements potentially damaging to the records, including but not limited to: elementals, wisps, sprites, ifrits, goblins, vile maidens, bottleboys, basprats, toofigs, magshalums, witches, elokin and major, minor, and inferior spawn. No praying. No cursing, except by staff. The library is closed on public holidays. Donations welcome.”
“I . . .” Lila tried again weakly.
“Not you!” he rasped crossly. “This idiot.” He kicked the heavy body with one cloven foot and then growled with pain. “Arthritis in my knee. Janitor already fuming about unscheduled funeral arrangements—oh his job is not worth the grief, he is not paid to cart corpses about the place, he is thinking of forming a union . . . Curse you, whippersnapper!” His stave glowed and fizzed. He gave Lila a rueful look. “Can’t curse the dead of course . . . and I suppose I should congratulate you but it seems a little like harsh sarcasm, my dear, considering you have voluntarily entered a vendetta with the Sikarzi family. They’re big in this town, you know. One of their sons is the most successful assassin from Bathshebat to Zadrulkor, perhaps even the most successful assassin in the history of Demonia, although one has to say that just in case the bastard is lurking behind the shelving units.” He rubbed his knee with one seven-fingered hand and stared balefully at the dead demon. “Not this one of course.”
“No,” Lila said, looking down, feeling sick and feverish as the discharge of contamination from her poisoned blood briefly overloaded her liver. “Of course not.”
“No,” said the librarian with vicious satisfaction. “This one was the runt of the litter and no mistake. If there was any justice in the world they’d send another son to marry you, you doing them a favour like that,” he made a chopping motion and then a slicing motion, a common gesture in Demonia that indicated the importance of culling the weak, “but instead it’ll be the endless war no doubt, depending on how long it takes them to kill every living relative you have.” He glanced up at Lila and nodded with appreciation. “Weak and foolish but his mother’s favourite. Doted on him. On all the sons of course, as they do, but this one more than any because he was weak and she couldn’t stand the shame of having brought him from the egg so she made out it was all part of his character development and him some new experimental brave new breed to try out being more like humans—all snot and bother but no balls—no offence, Miss. Made it her mission in life to try to develop him. Her whole world, he was. How he must have hated her! And here you are, the human ambassador and a perfect freak to boot—everything he never was nor could be, like some kind of nemesis or foul doppelgänger sent to torment him, eh Miss? Ah well. He’ll have been glad you came along, you see? Your public death would be the only thing that could have gained him any respect. Now he goes to the murk unmourned as the ass he was.
“Well, you can’t walk around my catalogues covered in that muck. I will send you to your circumstances . . .” He whirled his hands in the air. A blue glow appeared around them.
“But . . .” Lila began.
And then she was back in her room at Sorcha’s house.
The old male demon who kept the rooms free of wandering magics during the hours of daylight was there, collecting stray essences from the air that came in through the windows and sipping them from his hooly-bowl. He raised one, thorny eyebrow. “You look like you’ve had a successful day, Miss.”
Lila felt herself cold, sick, sticky. She might throw up but that all seemed trivial in comparison to her new situation as murderer of a favoured son, subject of a vendetta and intended victim of the greatest assassin in a world of dutiful killers. And she had to go to a party, and her dress was completely ruined. “I guess,” she said.
Look pleased, Tath said. In their terms you just entered the big league. You should be throwing your own party and spending your inheritance on it, while you still can.
I don’t have an inheritance, Lila told him, walking directly into the shower.
Stop? She began to turn on the water.
You have to go as you are. Wear the blood.
Yes. It would be a sign of enormous cowardice to wash it off.
That seemed like a promise. Tath assured her it was something like one. Wearily, she stayed her hand on the tap.
Zal stood staring moodily out of the window of the suite at the Beautiful Palms Hotel, watching the surf roll up and down the beach. It was a beautiful day. It was beautiful weather. It was all very very picture perfect. He was in a foul temper. It was because of what the faery behind him had just said a moment ago—words still ringing around his head in that acutely irritating way that happened when someone said something that hit a nerve . . .
“Tell her about your addiction, before it gets out of hand and she finds out another way.”
Since the day, perfect though it was, provided absolutely no avenue of escape, he turned around and sat down in one of the armchairs and glared at Malachi for a few moments, but that didn’t work either. Vague fantasies of a spectacular fight with the creature flitted through his mind but were squashed by the knowledge that this was one of Lila’s friends and also by the fact that the faery’s instruction was quite right.
In the other armchair Malachi matched Zal’s steady gaze. There was a bouquet of flowers almost but not quite between them, placed on a circular glass table. Zal angled his feet away from Malachi and put his gaze on the flowers. He considered allowing his andalune body to spread out in the hope that it might put Malachi to sleep—elven aetheric bodies interacted with faery aetheric senses and caused an overload of some kind which put the faery straight into a deep sleep in a protective reaction.
“Don’t even think about it,” the faery said.
Zal ground his teeth.
Malachi smiled and it was not entirely pleasant. He enjoyed Zal’s discomfort and Zal felt duly punished.
“Move back to your questions,” Zal said. “I liked them better.”
“As you wish,” Malachi shifted to a position of greater comfort and crossed his legs. He was, like all faeries, a great and showy dresser, but whereas many of their ideas about costume were extremely peculiar to alien eyes Malachi had chosen, in his human form, to adopt a human style of plain yet extremely expensive looking elegance. His immaculate camel-coloured silk suit draped his tall, powerful form with insouciant grace. Against the warm colour the ink blackness of his skin and hair stood out, shining faintly with what Zal’s nose told him was Unction: a rare and highly prized magical product, worn on the skin. It bestowed magical gifts, among them clairvoyance, protected the wearer from mortal harm, and it moisturised with a buttery sheen. He also radiated two contrasting attitudes in typical faery fashion—a good-humoured frivolity and a deadly serious self-confidence in his position. He was interviewing Zal in a more-or-less-but-not-exactly unofficial way on behalf of Lila’s organisation, Earth Security, and he was enjoying it.
Zal also felt himself examined as Lila’s new prospect, as if Malachi were her brother or father. He got this impression despite the fact that he did not know exactly what the relation between Malachi and Lila was about, but the fact that the faery was taking him so seriously made him resentful of the assumption and the intrusion and of the presumed closeness he must have with Lila in her working hours. And that led him to think about Lila on her own in Demonia and that made him crazy. So he stared at the flowers and willed himself calm.
“What we really want to know is why someone like you is in a place like this singing songs, Zal. And what does it mean to be both an elf and a demon? Surely you must understand your position here is almost intolerable to the authorities. Elven voices carry beyond the range of hearing and into matters no human even knows about. You and I—for all that either one of us claims to befriend them in their need to know our worlds—we haven’t explained the half of what we know about each other.”
“You keep quiet and I keep quiet,” Zal said.
“Exactly,” Malachi nodded. “All is honour among traders in secrets. No point ruining the delicate balances established over millennia for the sake of easing human anxieties. Trust must be gained with time and care. And there is so much to care about . . .”
Zal frowned. Malachi was starting to “wiffle” in the habit of faeries of his kind. Not that Zal had exactly determined his kind but he suspected from the clothes and the chat that Malachi was powerful. There were ways of discovering more . . .
“Want to play cards as we talk?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” The faery reached into his inside pocket and drew out a sealed deck of playing cards, breaking the plastic wrapper with his thumbnail as he did so and shedding the cards into his outstretched hand in a single, flowing movement. The box ended up on the glass table, the plastic in his pocket, the cards in his resting hands. Zal had not seen exactly what happened, he realised. Malachi looked at him expectantly. A soft furl of wild magic, summoned by Malachi’s invisible wings, crept between them—its presence was a guarantee the faery made that both of them would be able to detect magical forms of cheating in the other.
“No limits Texas Hold ’Em,” Zal said, sitting fowards, starting to like matters much better now they had dispensed with the ridiculous human manners of simple talk and were playing. He flexed his hands and found them stiff. It was too long since he’d played for anything worth winning.
“Questions for answers. One question per game. Stakes on the Hoodoo Measure Rule . . .”
“You got the Hoodoo?” Zal would have to fetch one.
“Always, my man,” Malachi assured him with a smile and from his jacket pocket produced a small handful of recently picked grass. With skilful fingers he fashioned a crude doll with the strands. He pulled a hair from his head and Zal did the same, handing it over so both were wrapped together before being wound around and around the grass to create a separation making head and torso; the hair was the noose that made its neck. “Good enough,” Malachi said and set the doll on the table under the shadow of a daisy. He blew on one finger and tapped the doll on the head with it.
There was a faint burst of the scent of old battlegrounds, steeped in bloody mud. A tiny voice said, “Don’t cheat and don’t lie, or if you do I’ll have your eye.”
“Cool,” Zal said approvingly. Whatever else he was, the faery was a good Maker, and Making was one of the most difficult of any magical art. He watched the black faery’s hands shuffle the cards and the tiny Hoodoo doll sat down to wait.
Malachi shuffled the deck, his fingers moving in a blur, the cards shifting like water, in and out, round about. He dealt two and put the rest aside. Zal studied his cards with a nonchalant air. Queen of Spades, King of Diamonds. The faery glanced at his and waited.
“Impersonal noninteresting,” Zal said, beginning with the obligatory stake of the lowest and least worthwhile kind of question.
“Impersonal interesting,” Malachi said, raising him two instantly. The faery watched him closely.
Zal shrugged and yawned. “Impersonal interesting,” he said, matching the stake.
Malachi dealt two cards on the table face up. Three of clubs. Nine of spades.
Zal felt a certain kind of sinking but strove to distance himself from it. He knew that everyone betrayed themselves but experienced liars only betrayed themselves to a practised eye that knew them and Malachi did not know him well enough. “Impersonal sensitive,” he said.
“Impersonal sensitive,” Malachi matched. He silently dealt out a third card.
“Impersonal acute,” Zal said automatically, always geared to risk. He looked at the card afterwards: ten of hearts.
“Impersonal acute.” The sixth card appeared.
Zal suspected the worst. They showed their hands.
“You had nothing,” Malachi said with satisfaction showing a ten and a nine; two pairs. “So, should we tell the humans about the Others, do you think?”
“Nah,” Zal said, gathering the cards up with a sigh and shuffling them himself. As he did so he watched the faery with considerably more curiosity than he had previously felt. How curious that Malachi would bring up such a taboo on the very first play . . . and something so apparently unconnected to his immediate concern. Zal added with some conviction, “They’d only worry unnecessarily and they have a lot of worries to get on with just through learning to know us in our least troublesome forms. Let’s not go that far just yet.”
“Mmn,” Malachi said critically. “I thought so too. Deal.”
Zal dealt with exact care and wondered if Malachi would take his word. In the faery world any of its ambassadors abroad might assume the diplomatic powers of the queen. Malachi did not only speak for himself, but for the entire universe he represented, even in minor dealings with a mere ex-agent like Zal, and his pronouncements had the force of law. It seemed a marvellously stupid arrangement of whimsical tyranny to Zal, but there it was. The faeries would not divulge a whisper about the Others to any human from now on. Zal was not sure that the humans really understood this feature about faeries or they would not treat them as powerless citizens so often. Still, buyer beware.
They played another round cautiously. Zal asked Malachi if there were remote activation codes for Lila’s AI-managed abilities, codes which might override her own will. He had worried about this a lot, particularly as he grew to understand how little Lila herself knew about the way she was made. To his great irritation she did not seem to care, whereas he burned with suspicion.
Malachi lounged in his seat, idly spraying a waterfall of cards from one hand to the other. “I don’t know,” he said. “But it does seem like something that would exist.”
“Lila wasn’t made anew to save her life,” Zal stated and the faery nodded slowly. “And if I made her I’d be sure to have some kind of insurance on my investment. Know why she was made, really?”
The Hoodoo doll sighed and said, “Rule violation. Do you really think it’s worth it, elf? Left or right eye? Hurry up, I’m not going to last all day.”
Malachi gave a broad smile and an expansive shrug. “Bet me for it.”
“Bah!” said the doll, disappointed.
Zal sighed. They played again. Zal got a five and a nine on the original deal and things never improved. He lost. Malachi had made impersonal extreme importance.
“What are you attempting to do to the people of this realm, through your music?” Malachi asked.
“No circumlocutions,” the doll snapped, still annoyed. “I can detect prevarication and dissembling at forty paces.”
“That’s not impersonal,” Zal said.
Malachi looked at the grass doll.
“Sadly, he is correct,” the Hoodoo confirmed, rustling. “And you’ve lost your go.”
“So, not a state matter. Not a Daga matter . . .” Malachi said, watching Zal scoop up the cards as he privately cancelled his long list of possible activities that the Jayon Daga, the elven security agency, might have been attempting through Zal. Since the outbreak of the civil war in Alfheim it was a mystery as to whose allegiance lay where. He had doubted the claim that Zal was Charming with his voice but now he wondered what it could be for. Money, fame, what?
The questions that followed took three more hours to play for.
Zal won an impersonal acute. “Who are you really investigating me for?”
“Human security and faery interests. And Lila’s interests are something I feel I have to look out for, inside the agency, her family, her partners . . .” Malachi gave Zal a long direct stare. “I don’t know if I think you’re such a great choice. You probably push every button she has and a few more. If there was a more unreliable character in the seven realms I find I can’t recall the name. Hardly what I’d call supportive material.”
Zal felt his hackles rise. He was not sure if Malachi was taunting him or interested in Lila for himself but he knew that Malachi could use influence with the agency to do pretty much anything he liked in terms of getting Zal incarcerated or exiled or whatever. He didn’t like the threat. “Stay out of it.”
“Unlikely,” the faery said and dealt the next hand.
Malachi won personal minor. “Do you love her?”
“It’s not minor,” Zal said.
Malachi looked to the Hoodoo doll.
“Have another try,” it said.
“That’s cheating,” Zal replied angrily. “That was a critical answer for a minor stake, and he gets another go?”
“Sue me, or offer me a limb,” the doll snapped testily.
“Are you truly demonic in nature?”
“Yes,” Zal said coldly.
The Hoodoo doll got up and began to shimmy with power.
“And no,” Zal said, feeling a stabbing pain in his right eye.
It sat down again.
Malachi raised an eyebrow.
He won again. “What’s your next single to be?”
“Disco Inferno,” Zal said without a flicker of irony.
“Do you not feel that’s selling out?”
“What am I, chopped liver?” the Hoodoo doll piped. “No extras. Faery eyes are as good as elf eyes any day of the week . . . better for some purposes. They last longer too, before they rot to mush.”
Zal smiled with half his mouth. It wasn’t a look Malachi really liked.
“I’m doing it with my sister,” Zal added in an ambiguous tone of voice.
“I heard that from the brownies,” Malachi said smoothly, “but I didn’t believe it.”
Zal dealt. Zal won.
“How many deep ambient faultlines have you found in Faery since the human bomb?” Zal asked.
The faery’s jet black face darkened in expression and for a moment its fine lines, smooth angles, and handsome features shifted into something at once more animal and strange. Zal had just assumed Malachi would be some kind of cat-spirit with his style and manners, but that was not what he saw in the form that revealed itself for an instant as the faery’s surprise beat his wit. He couldn’t have said what Malachi was, not that every faery wasn’t always faking something up for the sake of it and, as usual, that pissed him off. He listened to Malachi’s answer with a bad humour.
“There are six,” the faery said.
“An unstable number,” Zal remarked.
Malachi gave the slightest nod.
Zal shrugged, “There are nine in Alfheim, far as I know. Even less stable.”
The Hoodoo doll attempted to shake its head with disgust and fell over onto its side with a tiny, silent bounce.
Malachi conjured a vesper sprite with a wave of his fingers and sent it around the room, looking for bugs or telltales. When it returned and vanished he added, “Demonia has eight. And lucky old Earth has a hundred and nine. Mostly minor. So far. We haven’t really finished counting.”
Zal was privately astonished but he didn’t show it.
“They grow like weeds here. Spread like lines on a crone’s face come winter, and all the while in our old countries they creep on slow as ice marching, but still, creeping and listening to the whisper from the new land that talks of shredding and decay and the sundering of things to chaos. Ssssss, the web of the worlds undoing like silk slip-sliding and nothing to stop it yet,” the faery said matter-of-factly as he collected the cards, shuffled, and dealt.
“Fucking indignity,” the Hoodoo doll squeaked, “you don’t understand or respect my powers, you imbeciles!” If it had had a fist it would have shook it.
Malachi set it upright again and it quivered with unexpressed feelings.
“It’s nothing personal,” Zal said to it.
“Save it for someone who cares,” the doll hissed. “I’m drying out.”
Zal walked across to the suite bar, opened the refrigerator, located ice, cracked it into a tumbler, poured scotch on it, and then set it down on the table. He lifted the doll by its head and put it into the glass.
The doll snickered and leaned back as though in a jacuzzi. “Take your time, boys.”
This time Malachi took the cards and shuffled and did not deal. “I’m worried about Lila,” he said. “I think she’s cracking up.”
“She was fine,” Zal said defensively, thinking the same thing now that Malachi had said it. “Fine.”
The faery stared at him.
“Maybe I’ll pay a visit to Demonia.”
Malachi nodded slowly at him and Zal felt manipulated and grateful.
“Thish time itsh for your HEADZ!” the doll squeaked in glee.
Zal reached over without looking anywhere but at Malachi, picked the doll up, and jammed it head down in the liquor between the ice cubes. “If you and your gang of fools does anything to harm or cause to be harmed by accident, omission, or stupidity, one tiny little bit of Lila inside or out I will make you all wish you had never been born.”
“Likewise,” the faery agreed with a smile.
They stared at each other and the grass in the glass slowly came apart until it was floating weeds.
Malachi glanced at it with a moment’s regret. “I can’t take responsibility here. You may pay for that.”
“I pay for everything,” Zal said sourly. “And I sell out to no one.”
Selling Out © Justina Robson