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Book 9 – The Fire King
Long ago, shape-shifters were plentiful, soaring through the sky as crows, racing across African veldts as cheetahs, raging furious as dragons atop the Himalayas. Like gods, they reigned supreme. But even gods have laws, and those laws, when broken, destroy.
Zoufalství. Epätoivo. Asa. Three words in three very different languages, and yet Soria understands. Like all members of Dirk & Steele, she has a gift, and hers is communication. When she is chosen to learn the dead language of a shape-shifter resurrected after thousands of years of icy sleep, she discovers a warrior consumed with fury.
Strong as a lion, quick as a serpent—Karr is his name, and in his day he was king. But he is a son of strife, a creature of tragedy. As fire consumed all he loved, so death was to be his atonement. Now, against his will, he has awoken. Zoufalství. Epätoivo. Asa. In English, the word is despair. But Soria knows the words for love.
The humans allowed Karr to wake up, which was their first mistake.
He opened his eyes inside a small, tight space where the walls were made of a heavy billowing cloth that flapped against a sharp wind. A tent. Except, the tent was rocking and bouncing like a wagon in motion, and the human men he glimpsed were seated around him on short benches. Eastern-bred, he thought. Dark hair, golden skin. Holding oddly shaped black sticks in their laps.
Weapons, whispered his instincts, reading danger in all the little details that had nothing do with the objects the men held. It was their cold, bored gazes, the uniformity of their youth, and their odd clothing. Karr knew soldiers when he saw them.
It took only seconds for him to make his evaluation, and less than that to realize he was strapped to a hard wooden plank too small for his body. The backs of his shoulders rubbed against a cold floor that felt like stone or metal, and thin leather restraints bound his chest, arms, and legs. He was nearly naked, and smelled like urine and dry bones. None of which was as disturbing to Karr as the fact that he was still alive. He had been quite clear about the matter. His friends had promised to murder him.
And so they had. He remembered.
Yet, here he was, breathing and conscious. Karr snarled, golden light swallowing his vision, burning him up from the inside until he felt as though the sun were exploding inside his chest. He heard shouts, but they sounded very far away, and he snarled as scales burst from his skin, his bones shifting, melting, his chest and limbs expanding painfully against their restraints. His fingers lengthened into long serrated claws.
The men hit him with the blunt ends of their black weapons. Karr ignored the pain. He twisted violently, throwing himself upward, and the plank he lay on crashed down hard against the floor. He did it again, and the wood splintered as his body continued to shift. He cut himself on the leather restraints. Blood trickled down his chest and arms. He howled with rage, and hearing his own voice again was a terrible, sickening thing.
The plank broke. Karr’s arms swung free. A small blunt object slammed into the side of his head, but he had already begun to turn, and in that small space his long reach and claws arced across soft, startled faces and throats. Blood sprayed. Men screamed, falling backward against the wagon’s cloth walls. Karr glimpsed sunlight.
He leaped wildly against the wagon walls, tearing at the heavy cloth with his claws. Hands tried to pull him back, but he could taste the heat of the wind and desert, and the need to feel the sun on his skin was so powerful, so terrible, he thought he might choke on his own heart if he did not break free.
He managed to burst through, and was momentarily blinded by the sun and a sky so blue his throat ached with nameless longing. He glimpsed large moving objects, glittering and shining, and then jumped away from the wagon with one powerful lunge.
Karr hit the ground hard and rolled. Loud bleating sounds filled his ears, and he sensed something large roaring toward him. He threw himself sideways again, and great dark wheels passed him in a blur, moving faster than anything he had ever witnessed. Everything was fast, he realized, struggling to stand, dazed by the assault on his eyes as he stared at squat square wagons, fully enclosed, moving without the aid of horses or men. Inside, faces. Men and women, staring out at him, wide-eyed and startled. He stared back, just as surprised. Beyond, as far as the eye could see, rose a metropolis, golden brown and white, shimmering in the sun. It stunned him breathless.
And then the wind shifted and he smelled her: a shape-shifter, pure-blooded and wild.
Too late. Pain exploded against his shoulder, and he turned, staggering, reaching back to find a long smooth object jutting from his body. Not a knife. More slender, rounded.
Karr’s vision blurred. He saw the shape-shifter, but not her face—just a glimpse of short blonde hair as she darted around him. He tried to follow but his knees buckled. Darkness fluttered. Voices shouted, but he understood nothing that was said. He tried to fight. He tried with all his power, staring down at his clawed hands, skin rippling with golden scales.
The shape-shifter’s scent made him sick. She said something to him, but it was nothing but a buzz in his ears. Karr collapsed on his side and closed his eyes, hoping for just a moment that he would not open them again.
It had been a long time since Soria had found herself in a crowd, and so she supposed she could be forgiven for having a case of the jitters, even when something as harmless as a staring child proved enough to make her hand shake.
She was in the Minneapolis airport, leaning against the counter of a small island Starbucks. It was early, not quite seven in the morning. She had paid for orange juice and happened to glance sideways, to her right, just as the cashier was carefully placing change into her palm. A child was tugging on his mother’s hand. Staring at Soria. A tousled, sweet-looking boy, maybe four or five. Nothing wrong with what he was doing. Kids were always curious.
But it took her off guard, and her hand trembled—so much so that the change slid and clattered to the counter, bouncing down on the floor around her feet. It should have been a small thing—it was a small thing—but it was also loud and awkward, and drew unwanted attention. Soria was very much tempted to grab her drink, leave the scattered nickels and dimes, and run.
She bent, her face hot, and glimpsed from the corner of her eye the long line of men and women fidgeting impatiently behind her. For one moment as her purse swung awkwardly from her left shoulder to hit the floor, she felt herself trying to reach out with her missing right arm to pick the change off the tile. All she got for her trouble was excruciating pain, a phantom echo where her limb should be, and another dose of humiliation. Bitter loneliness smashed through her heart like a fist. Her ghost fist, maybe, as stubborn about dying as she had been.
Beside her, someone knelt. Large, sinewy fingers enclosed her hand, and loose change was carefully deposited into her palm. The contact was brief but fiercely warm, and it sent a tingle through her. She had not been touched by anyone in a long time.
Soria poured the change into her purse, grabbed the juice from the cashier, and stepped away from the counter to make room for the next woman in line. Flustered, sweating, she finally gazed into the face of the man who had helped her. He was handsome, which was just her luck. His face was paler than his hands, but just as sinewy and spare. Light green eyes glinted with sharp intelligence, and his neatly trimmed dark red hair appeared skimmed with golden threads under the overhead lights. He was tall, with broad shoulders straining against a forest green cashmere sweater that hugged the lean muscles of his chest. A silver chain glinted around his neck, disappearing beneath his clothing.
“Thanks,” Soria said, feeling rather numb and scatterbrained.
“You’re welcome,” replied the man smoothly, and held out a thin folded airline envelope. “This dropped out of your purse when you bent down.”
It was her plane ticket. Soria wanted to kick herself. Again, she felt her brain tell her missing right arm to reach out—such a hateful sensation—and the pain that echoed through her head was nauseating and dull.
Soria awkwardly dumped her juice bottle into her purse and took the ticket from his outstretched hand. “Good thing you saw that.”
“Yes,” he agreed, not letting go of the ticket.
Soria hesitated, staring into his eyes, and all his attractive features faded into a blur. Uneasiness rolled through her stomach, into her lungs, into the lurch of her heart. Not simply because of his reluctance to release the ticket, and not just because the glint in his gaze suddenly seemed irredeemably cold. The man had switched languages on her. English to Welsh, she realized. And not just any Welsh, but an old dialect, practically medieval, and most certainly dead. And she—like an idiot—had responded without thinking. In the same tongue.
The man stepped back, still holding her plane ticket. Soria licked her lips, and in very careful modern English said, “Who are you?”
“Roland sent me,” he replied, still speaking ancient Welsh. “He needs you to come home, Soria.”
Home. Not just a place. Home was people. Home was old dreams.
Soria turned and walked in the opposite direction. Never mind her plane ticket; she could buy another. Never mind the job interview in New York with the U.N. If she missed that, there would be others.
She felt the ghost of her missing arm swinging from her body, that phantom limb, replete with an itch where her wrist should have been. She ignored the discomfort, wished she had some chewing gum to take the bad taste out of her mouth. Airport crowds passed in a blur, but she felt gazes flicker to her empty sleeve and then dart away. She did not know what was worse: those brief embarrassed glances or the people who pretended her disfigurement did not exist. That she did not exist.
You exist for someone now, she thought grimly, quickening her pace. Goddamn it, Roland.
Ahead, an impossibly slender girl stepped into her path, facing her. She was Asian, clad in a pink plaid miniskirt so short that if she had not been wearing cropped gray tights underneath, she might very well have been arrested for indecent exposure. A pink hooded sweatshirt clung to her torso, and her glossy black hair, streaked pink, was pulled up in pigtails decorated with plastic Hello Kitty beads that clacked when her head tilted. She wore a mockery of tennis shoes: hot pink and silver, raised up on an inch-thick sole. A messenger bag covered in yet more Hello Kitties slung loose over her flat chest.
Men stared. Women looked away. Soria stopped walking, light-headed. The girl’s age was impossible to determine—anywhere from thirteen to twenty, though her dark eyes were old as dirt and the set of her mouth was lethal. Soria herself was thirty years old, but she felt ancient and used when she looked at the girl, old eyes or not. She was no better than some grizzled gunslinger, too long alive in the world.
Heat settled in her chest, old instincts, raw and battered. She was not ready. She had retired. Everyone had agreed.
Soria turned her head, slightly. The red-haired man was behind her, close enough to touch. His gaze was assessing and cold. Like ice.
“We should talk,” he said, in perfect Gaelic; and then, in a Persian dialect that was just as old as his Welsh, he added: “If you please.”
Fear tingled through her. Intrigue, as well. Curiosity, she admitted, was what had gotten her into trouble in the first place, and here it was again, that same intellectual itch that was dangerous as a gun to her head. A puzzle. A linguistic riddle.
“What,” she asked slowly, “does Roland want?”
“Your time,” the man replied in English, as a sea of travelers passed around them. The terminal was a long, winding hall of upscale shops surrounded by golden wood and the occasional elaborate sculpture—no doubt meant to imitate the warmth of some lodge, easy and comfortable. A good scream would draw hundreds of eyes.
But that old curiosity kept her silent, as well as nostalgia … and loneliness. She sensed that slip of a teen girl swaying closer, and stepped sideways so that she could keep both her and the man in sight. Cold amusement flickered through his eyes.
“My name is Robert,” he said. “My associate is Ku-Ku.”
“Bitter,” Soria replied, translating the girl’s name from Mandarin. “Appropriate, I assume.”
“In so many ways,” replied the man.
Soria did not want to know. “How can I be certain Roland sent you?”
Robert reached into his pocket and pulled out a battered silver bracelet: thick, scarred, and tarnished with age. A chunk of turquoise, like an eye, had been embedded in the cuff. Soria’s breath caught when she saw it.
He held out the bracelet. “He thought you would stay long enough for him to return this. Or at least, that’s what he told me.”
It was not proof, exactly, but Soria had no doubt that the piece of antique jewelry had come from her former boss. She took it from Robert, half expecting him to pull back at the last moment. The bracelet was cool in her left palm, and the old habit of slipping it over her right wrist was so strong that for a moment she felt the echo of silver sliding over her ghost skin.
“Roland can have my time,” Soria said hoarsely. “But he better make it good.”
“That’s up to you,” Robert replied, tearing her plane ticket in half. “But you know it will be interesting.”
Indeed, thought Soria, ignoring the phantom ache of her missing arm. With Roland and the other agents of Dirk & Steele, life was always a bit too interesting.