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the book of dust & daybreak

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It is a few minutes past dawn when Flynn and Lucy come out of the mountains. They have searched for hours, up the ridge and down it, and Flynn has descended into the valley and scouted out as far as he thinks Gabriel might be able to run. They’ve gone back to the car and driven on unmarked, barely-two-lane roads with no guardrail and a thousand-foot drop, up in absolute nowhere, practically into Switzerland on one side and Austria on the other, and there’s nothing else they can do. Gabriel was clear that he very urgently needed to be nowhere near here, he has admirably kept that promise, and they’re both well past the point of collapsing with exhaustion. Lucy hasn’t slept or eaten properly in almost forty-eight hours, has been in two centuries, four countries, two cars, one plane, one secret fortress, and one witch battle and dramatic last-minute rescue (not to mention the hours of hiking) since then, and as Flynn drives down into Vaduz, she passes out every few seconds and then starts awake when her chin hits the seatbelt. Even then, she can’t sustain consciousness in any kind of organized way, and fades again.

She’s vaguely aware of reaching a cheerful, yellow-painted hotel near the castle, Flynn going inside, and returning in a few minutes to unbuckle her and lift her out. “Come on, moja ljubav,” he says in her ear. “Don’t want to make anyone worry, hmm?”

Lucy supposes that she should indeed wake up and walk in under her own power, so as not to cause the friendly Liechtensteiner front-desk staff any alarm, but she also doesn’t think she could do that if you paid her. So Flynn hoists her up, carries her in, and makes some excuse about how they’ve been on a big mountain trip and his wife is very tired – at least, Lucy thinks that’s what he says, since her German mostly extends to searching the indexes of the MGH. They are provisioned with a clean, ultra-modern room where everything has a smart WiFi connection, Lucy once more experiences an irrational pang of missing the sixteenth century, and Flynn sets her down on the bed. However, that is as far as her comprehension extends. Even before he’s shut the curtains, she’s dead to the world.

Lucy sleeps as if she has been hit on the head, and finally wakes at some indeterminate hour of darkness, the faint glow from LED displays and digital clocks rendering it somewhat less than the proper black that she’s gotten used to snoozing in. She has a mammoth crick in her back and a burning need to pee, so she rolls off the bed with a groan, shuffles to the futuristic bathroom, handles business, and undresses properly, then returns and climbs under the covers next to Flynn. At her return, he stirs. “What time is it?”

“Mmm.” Lucy, unused to being asked this question with the expectation of a specific answer, picks up his phone from where it’s plugged into charge, and squints at the screen. It is in fact 4:46 am, meaning that they have slept all day and well into the next night, but there are also thirty-seven missed calls and texts from various members of the family, which – now that they’ve officially registered their return to the technological twenty-first century, and have gone completely incommunicado after none of them returned from the Save Gabriel mission – is deeply concerning. “Shit,” she says muzzily. “We probably need to tell someone that we’re not dead.”

Flynn utters a grunt, as if while this is a praiseworthy aim which he otherwise supports, he isn’t sure if anyone needs it to be done at quarter to five in the morning. But after a moment, he sighs deeply, one arm thrown over his face, and holds out his other hand. “Gimme.”

Lucy unplugs the phone and passes it to him, and he thumbs out a quick, one-handed text to the topmost of the messages, which looks to be from Jiya. Then he hands it back, Lucy returns it to the charger, and they both fall asleep again for several more hours, waking at the slightly more decent 7:45am. This doesn’t mean that they are likewise powered up, but they’re running on somewhat more brain function, are ravenously hungry, and painfully aware that no matter how justifiably tired they are, they can’t stay non compos mentis for much longer. There are just too many deeply worrisome events that require their immediate attention, and not even any clarity on where to start. As Lucy lies in the clean, attractive, modern, minimalist hotel room, feeling like she’s floating and still not sure where or when she is, she wonders if this is their last moment of anything approaching peace. It is a temporary interlude, a brief lull, the deep breath before the plunge. As soon as they walk out of here again, the rain hits, the storm rages, and they can only hope it blows over. Given its size, its strength, and its singular, vicious intensity, that feels almost ludicrously foolish.

Beside her, Flynn is scrolling through the missed messages, until he comes on one that makes him look desperately relieved. “Michelle says that – that Christian’s awake. She can’t guarantee that she’s permanently fixed the problem, but he’s awake, he seems to be aware of what happened, and they’re working on finding something to feed him.”

“That’s good!” Lucy props her chin on Flynn’s shoulder, peering at the screen of the phone. Some unbearable vise of worry loosens for the first time since they plunged back in from 1590 with their badly wounded nephew/son in tow, even as she knows that this means they have to think about taking him back. Christian isn’t supposed to be here, and every moment that he stays could cause irreparable damage to the timeline, to the history of the de Clermont family in the past, and everything that they remember. But they didn’t even get a chance to tell Gabriel that his long-lost son was here, is here, two hundred and fifty-six years after he died. Lucy isn’t sure what’s worse. Never telling him, taking Christian back where he belongs, and hoping they can save him some other way? Or telling him that Christian’s here, but can’t stay, may be dying again, and they could have saved him with the philosopher’s stone that they used for Gabriel? There is no good way to go about it, and Gabriel himself ran away precisely because Lucy restored his memories and he was hit with the full and dubious splendor of his stupid actions in 1590. She understands needing a minute, but still.

“Where should we go?” she asks, ducking her head to kiss Flynn’s collarbone. “Christian’s in New York, your family is in Sept-Tours, and your mother – ”

She stops, since Maria de Clermont’s current whereabouts are also an ominous mystery. She attacked Emma Whitmore at the fortress, to draw her off and give Flynn and Lucy their shot to save Gabriel before time ran out, and then she disappeared into thin air. Either she took Emma on a suicide run to make sure she couldn’t interfere, or it was something even greater. Emma was darkly hinting that Asher was back, or that Rittenhouse and Company would soon chronologically kidnap him too. Maria is clearly at the end of her rope, is exhausted and guilty over her failings, and might have been unable to resist a desperate gamble that her beloved husband of several millennia, who she lost in 1944 and has sorely missed ever since, is miraculously in reach again. Lucy doesn’t blame her. She thinks that if it was her, and there was some chance, however slim, of saving Flynn, she’d have to go for it, especially if it meant defending her children from a terrible evil to boot. But Maria’s possibly indefinite absence is far from trivial. She is a formidable warrior and force of nature, and she is the family matriarch, the one who holds all her talented but flawed, fractured, and often-reckless sons together, and quite obviously, they can’t save Gabriel only to lose Maria. It’s like sticking your finger into a hole in the dike, only after you’ve pulled it out of another one. One way or another, the water gets in, and you drown.

“I don’t know,” Flynn says, in answer to Lucy’s question. “We’ll need to go back to Denise and Michelle’s at some point. I want to take Christian to Sept-Tours, but how the hell do I do that? Tell everybody, all at once? I know you need to restore everyone’s memories, not just Gabriel’s, but we saw how well that went with him. I don’t even know if it’s a wise idea to let Christian know this much about our future selves, to let the family meet him, if we’re then sending him back to the sixteenth century. Even with another memory wipe. That was why Papa asked you to make us forget in the first place, because it was impossible to live for centuries with that knowledge hanging over you. I just – I have no goddamn idea. Maybe he would be safer, in secret, with your godmothers. At least nobody would be looking for a de Clermont there, and he could miss whatever shitstorm hit the rest of us.”

Lucy looks at him, wishing that she had a better answer, some machete to lend to his intellectual thicket, but she doesn’t. This is a completely unprecedented situation, there is no way to know whether everyone’s understandable desire to see Christian again should be allowed, or if that is a sentimental but stupid move that could backfire even more. The only person they’ve told about his return thus far is Maria, who is, as noted, also missing. Once they let that cat out of the bag, they can’t take it back, and much as it feels unfair to keep this from the family, they have to be strategic about it. If they aren’t, everyone could end up systematically and spectacularly fucked, and that isn’t fair either.

“There’s also bad things happening in Venice,” Flynn goes on. “Like Maman was telling us last night – well, the other night, whenever it was. Rittenhouse has completely taken over and assumed sole rule of the creature world, and even when they’ve tried to raise awareness, nobody seems to care that much. So what, we run around like Chicken Little, telling people that the world’s ending, when the de Clermonts are already on the outs as it is?”

“Nobody wants to hear that,” Lucy points out. “Whether in the creature world, or the human one. Some tyrant comes to power, most people don’t care, as long as it doesn’t affect them personally. The Congregation was already a small group of selfish and infighting politicians who rarely cared about the creatures they were supposed to govern and provide for. I doubt the average vampire or witch or daemon sees anything different about Rittenhouse, especially if they don’t know who he was before. See. This is why history is so important! And why it always gets erased! We’re just so short-sighted, we never learn, and we do it again!”

Flynn smiles at her, tenderly and ruefully, as if to say that he loves and supports her history rants, but they need to stay on track. “There are only ever a very few who are willing to stand up and defy the entire hegemonic system,” he says. “To suffer and rebel and sacrifice as much as necessary to destroy it. But Maman said that people are disappearing, that they’re scouring the archives for half-bloods to do God knows what, we’re now ruled by a mad dictator, and that they’re just – nobody cares?”

“People are letting this happen in the human world too.” Lucy doesn’t want to put too fine a point on it, but the parallel is there. “Look at America right now. Just to name one.”

Flynn rolls his eyes at the ceiling, as if to say that he would rather not, thanks, but he takes her meaning. They lie there in silence for a few more minutes, Lucy tracing absent circles on his chest, flattened by the immensity of the task that faces them. Then she takes a deep breath and sits up. “Let me get dressed and eat something, then you can have a feed, and we’ll go.”

They still haven’t decided where that is, but the hope is that it will take shape over breakfast, which Lucy has in the hotel dining room and which Flynn has from her when they’re back upstairs. Lucy sighs, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding him close, but much as both of them might enjoy the release right now, there’s no time for fooling around. When he’s done, he ducks his head and kisses her thoroughly, a promise of an IOU at a later date, then pulls back. “We’re already in Europe,” he says. “I can drive to Sept-Tours in about six hours from here, and we can do everyone the courtesy of showing our faces and making some sense of what the hell we’ve been doing. Then, well. We can figure out the rest as we go.”

Since flying by the seat of their pants is going to be the name of the game, and because this seems as logical a place to start as any, Lucy agrees. If Christian is awake and stable under Michelle’s care, they don’t need to dramatically rush back to his bedside just yet, and she too wants to see the rest of the family, however delicate the reunion may be. So they reconstitute their things and head to the car, Flynn swings into the gas station to top off the tank, and they leave Liechtenstein somewhat more sedately than they arrived. This time, however, Lucy is in the passenger seat, and Maria’s absence looms large over them both. She mostly stares out the window. She still isn’t feeling that great, and she should probably conserve her limited mental functions in the service of coming up with clever plans. They have already driven themselves to the limit and then some, and a reprieve is not coming any time soon.

Flynn keeps them at a steady twenty kilometers over the speed limit, unless suspecting the presence of highway patrol, and they whizz through Switzerland and cross into France by midafternoon. Lucy is looking forward to returning to Sept-Tours, though it will be very strange after her last departure from there in 1590, the emotions of her casting the memory spell, and the six weeks she spent slaving to make the philosopher’s stone while Flynn lay comatose from the shocking encounter with his past self and Edward Kelley’s attempt to retrieve Ashmole 782. Lucy herself burned a sizeable proportion of the main house on that occasion, Asher nearly died, and it was otherwise a far-too-eventful evening. What is it going to be like coming back there, especially without Maria and Gabriel? Does she give everyone their memories back, or, just as with Christian, decide to withhold that for a later date? And Maria said that Jack is there, that he grew up and became a vampire, after Flynn was forced to trade him to Father Hubbard. Does he remember that, and begrudge them?

It’s half past three when the countryside starts looking familiar, though they arrived last time bedraggled, on foot, and having completely roughed it from Prague. Then there’s the village, and they’re turning up the hill, the drive, and through the wolf and lion gates, to the main house beyond. As ever, Sept-Tours is elegant, ancient, and oddly ageless, but as she looks around, Lucy can see several new fortifications and reparations to the walls that make it clear that it’s no longer just a pretty, well-preserved medieval estate. It is very much being used as an active military base, and by the time Flynn is pulling to a halt in the drive, the front door has already opened. All unexpected arrivals will be investigated immediately, it seems, but this is no stern border guard or watching vigilante. Flynn turns off the engine and practically flies out the door, and by the time Lucy undoes her seatbelt and steps out, he and his daughter are already in each other’s arms.

Jiya stands on her tiptoes, eyes closed, arms wrapped tightly around her father, as he hugs her back just as ferociously, his hand tangled in her long dark ponytail. Jiya is crying openly, and Flynn isn’t doing all that well at keeping his composure either. He finally lets go of her, steps back to look into her face as Jiya tries to pull herself together, then kisses her forehead and hugs her one more time. “I’m – I’m so happy to see you,” he says croakily. “I missed – I missed you a lot.”

“I missed you too.” Jiya wipes her eyes, lips trembling. She and Flynn have had a complex relationship, as he never fully accepted his place as her father, and both of them have struggled with the consequences of that. But they were making progress before he left for 1590, and she looks at him as she says the next word, as if to check that it’s true, she can use it now as often as she likes, no more hesitations or qualifications. “Dad, it’s – I almost thought you weren’t going to – I’m just. I’m just really glad you’re back.”

“Me too.” Flynn blows out a breath. “We have a lot to tell you.”

Jiya raises a wry eyebrow, as if to say that she could have guessed that, and turns to Lucy. They greet each other warmly, as Lucy has always liked Flynn’s whip-smart, geeky, compassionate, courageous daughter, and Jiya manages to get as far as the front hall before she bursts out with her first question. “So, did you guys meet Shakespeare?”

“We didn’t,” Lucy admits, “which is a little disappointing. But we did meet Christopher Marlowe, and that was – well. That was interesting.”

Flynn coughs, since this was eventful for him particularly – especially the part where he very belatedly realized that Kit had been in love with him for several years and done all number of shady things because of it. But despite Marlowe’s dramatics and difficulties, he was instrumental in hiding Ashmole 782 in Cambridge, came through for them in a big way during their final weeks in London, and Lucy thinks she’s actually going to miss the petty gay bitch. As they head toward the main solar, Jiya registers that this is only half of the party she was expecting, and frowns. “Where’s Grand-mère?”

“She…” Flynn hesitates. “It’ll be easier to tell everyone.”

“How about Uncle Gabriel?” Jiya turns on the spot, as if she could have somehow missed her elder uncle, or if he might be lurking behind a houseplant. “Did you – ?”

“He’s fine,” Flynn says, after a slight pause. “We saved him, he’s – he’s awake, he just… decided to take the long way home. Who all is here?”

“The Sokolovs,” Jiya says, which is good news to Lucy – the two large blond Russian witches are among the few of her own kind that she trusts. “Me, Rufus, Cecilia, Uncle Wyatt, Jack, and…” She hesitates. “Do you know about – about Sarah?”

“I – yes. Maman told us on the way to Liechtenstein that we have a niece.” Flynn glances around, then lowers his voice. “How exactly is that going?”

“It’s…” Jiya considers. “She doesn’t trust us. Which is understandable, given that she thought of us as the heartless cads who backstabbed her mother for the first six years of her life, and then was brainwashed by Temple. She likes Gennady, she’ll talk to him, but she clams up and runs away when any of us get too close. Uncle Wyatt’s trying, but it’s hard.”

“Mmm.” Flynn looks briefly as if he’s thought of something, but doesn’t venture it just now. They reach the solar and push the door open, into the large, lavishly appointed sitting room, and heads turn as if a prima donna has just entered the stage for her grand aria. Lucy feels a faint shock at seeing them, and Flynn offers a stupid little wave. “Er,” he says. “It’s us.”

Chairs scrape, people stand up, there are hurried footsteps in the hall, and they swiftly find themselves in the middle of a miniature crowd. Wyatt steps up, looking awkward; he and Flynn have never had the warmest relationship, and now Flynn has managed to return without their mother or their eldest brother. But they look at each other, then reach out, shake hands, perform the ubiquitous fist-clasped, shoulder-clapping bro-hug, and both of them are actually smiling a little when they step back. “Hey, dickhead,” Wyatt says. “It’s good to see you back in the land of the living.”

“Something like that.” Flynn’s face flickers. “Look, I need to tell you something about what happened at the fortress. With the Knights.”

Wyatt frowns. “They all right? We had stirrings of some kind of trouble, I don’t know what. Rufus was picking up stuff that made him worry. But it was too late to call Maman, you know she doesn’t carry a phone anyway, and – ”

“They – ” Flynn clearly doesn’t want to inform his brother, the interim grandmaster, right off the bat that almost half a dozen Knights of Lazarus were murdered on his watch, but there are really no easy conversations to start with. He glances away, just in time to see Cecilia of Normandy make her entrance. The chatelaine looks as put-together and polished as ever, at least to cursory outward eyes, but Lucy can spot cracks beneath the flawless mask of her composure. Cecilia’s usually immaculately strict bun is messy, tendrils falling loose, and she looks as if she hasn’t slept in a long time, might spend the night hours restlessly wandering Sept-Tours like an unquiet ghost. Flynn looks at her, evidently unsettled by the change in her appearance, and opens and shuts his mouth. Then he says, “Ceci.”

“Garcia.” Cecilia steps forward and administers a cool, correct kiss on both cheeks, the usual French greeting, though it’s more a mechanical reflex than a heartfelt gesture. Then she turns to Lucy and does the same, her lips like a marble statue’s. “Lucy. It is good to see you both. You have, I think, come back not a moment too soon. How do you find it?”

“Strange,” Lucy admits. “Very strange. We hope we’ll – oh.”

Whatever she was going to say is cut off as the door opens again, and a tall, handsome, black-haired man steps in. He looks, to say the least, very different from four hundred years ago, but Lucy recognizes him anyway. It’s a punch in the sternum, some jarring crash between the past and the present and the strange, snaking connections, how it seems impossible to sort one from the other. He spots them as well, and his eyes flare in shock. He rocks on his heels, debates briefly, then makes his way over. “Lord Clairmont,” he says, English accent altered over the centuries to something that is no longer archaically Elizabethan, but isn’t modern Received Pronunciation either. “My lady. It has been a long time. Dare I hope that you will remember me?”

“I – yes,” Lucy says faintly. It’s only been a month or so since she saw him as a five-year-old child, before Hubbard’s drones arrived at the Old Lodge to take him away, and she glances at Flynn; he looks as if he’s been hit over the head with a two-by-four. At least Maria also forewarned them of this, or it would be completely flattening, but there’s no way to mitigate the wildly bizarre nature of this reunion. “How – how are you, Jack?”

“I am well.” He bows, lifts her hand to kiss, and straightens up. “I have been here with the family for a while. Of some use, I hope.”

Lucy nods, still at a loss for words, until she is rescued by the appearance of Jiya’s boyfriend Rufus and the brothers Sokolov, Anton and Gennady, who almost trip over themselves rushing to greet her and proclaim their deepest relief at her safe return. Lucy stands on her tiptoes to kiss their cheeks, Flynn and Gennady exchange a rather too-firm handshake (clearly that flying tackle off the walls of Sept-Tours and the following extortion for information has not been completely forgotten, even if they are on the same side now) and general greetings are exchanged, when Lucy spots a pair of big blue eyes peering warily around the door. They belong to a cute, towheaded little girl of about six, who looks very much like Wyatt, and there can be no doubt that this is young Sarah Proctor, who has been removed so unwillingly from Temple’s custody and brought to live with her vampire relations. Lucy takes a few steps away from the others, and crouches down. “Hello,” she says. “My name is Lucy, I’m a witch too. I – I know your mom.”

This is true, since she and Jessica have been friends for a while, or at least they were, back before everything went to hell. Lucy sent Jessica to the fifteenth century to save her life – they really need to see about getting her back, if she’s not already, because Emma was also hinting some plenty ominous things about her – and hopefully she can break some of the ice. “You’re Sarah, right?” she goes on. “I’m happy to meet you.”

Sarah considers her, thinks about answering, but decides that she can’t risk it. She turns and scampers off, Lucy stands up in defeat, and catches Wyatt looking over with a troubled expression. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, low-voiced. “She doesn’t talk to anyone except Gennady. I’ve been up to her room every night, see if she wants me to read a bedtime story or whatever, but I still might as well be a bump on a log.”

“I’m sure you’re doing your best.” Lucy imagines that it can’t be easy to have been suddenly forced into parenthood, acquiring a young daughter with the ex who your family made you dump and who then got mixed up in attacking your brothers and siding with your enemies, and she gives Wyatt a sympathetic look. “It sounds like you had a lot to deal with.”

“Yeah, you could say that.” He sighs, looking very tired. “Thanks for trying, though. I do appreciate it. Maybe she’ll eventually figure out that we aren’t all scary monsters with sharp teeth who want to eat her?”

“No problem.” Lucy offers an encouraging smile, then turns back to Flynn, wondering if their grand recitation is going to begin and she should provide moral support. Everyone is certainly looking at them expectantly – and noting the absence of Maria and Gabriel – and they aren’t going to be able to stave it off much longer. “We, ah. Maybe we should sit down?”

Everyone starts shuffling toward various items of furniture, as if to take their seats for the performance, and Lucy realizes in alarm that the prima donna on stage may very well be her. She doesn’t know if they should tell everyone at once, but parceling it out in bits and pieces may be more excruciating. So, as some proportion of the de Clermont family and their associates sit in intent attention, Lucy and Flynn explain (most of) their jaunt to 1590. They note that there are memories to return, complications that will ensue, and finally arrive at the topic of the missing members. They emphasize that they think Gabriel will be back soon, he just needs a moment (or several) to process. Maria is – well, they all know that she can handle herself, she is also probably fine, or at least off to handle business with Emma and the others. In the meantime, they just need to keep calm and carry on.

Silence fills the room once they have finished. Everyone looks mildly stunned, which is understandable, and Lucy wonders if anyone will be lining up in haste to get their memories back, or if they might decide that ignorance is bliss on this one. Wyatt is the first to speak, as he gets to his feet and paces to the window, clearly in distress. “So what, half a dozen Knights of Lazarus got iced when Emma attacked the fortress? Under my watch. That’s a really good look. Jesus.”

“It’s not your fault,” Flynn says, rather surprisingly. “She’s allied with Rittenhouse now, like the rest of the former Congregation. All kinds of nasty new powers, by the sound of things. I don’t think there was anything you could have done.”

Wyatt looks down at the signet ring on his finger, twists it around one more time, then takes it off, shoving it at his brother. “Here. You take it. Gabriel wanted it to be you, anyway.”

Flynn’s face flickers again at the mention of Gabriel. He looks at the ring, clearly isn’t sure if he wants it either, then accepts it, though still with some reluctance. If uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, uneasy lies the hand that wears the ring, and he certainly isn’t going to underestimate the responsibility. “You’re still going to have to tell me about your strategies and the intelligence networks and whatever else you’ve put in place,” he says. “We’ll do this together, all right? I think we’ve spent enough time being idiots.”

Wyatt raises an eyebrow, silently asking the obvious question as to whether any of the de Clermont brothers can really avoid being this by something in their fundamental natures, but charitably forbears to utter it aloud. Everyone’s chief concern is pinning down where Maria might be, and as Lucy looks around the room, she again cannot help but think of how it was last time, when Asher was here, the family was whole, and the entire atmosphere was different. Of course, they didn’t get much time to enjoy that before Kelley’s attack, which sundered the family into its more usual contours of estrangements, its missing pieces. Last time she was here in the twenty-first century, the de Clermonts’ daemon servant, Harry Houdini, was here too, but Houdini, having staged a public defection and loudly decrying the family, has been undercover next to Nicholas Keynes ever since Gabriel was attacked. Lucy hopes he’s doing all right. That seems like a stressful assignment for anyone, and now with Rittenhouse’s return, having a source of information close to the action is more important than ever. But they’re still losing pieces, and she misses him.

Restlessly, Lucy gets to her feet. Now that their big entrance has been accomplished and everyone is caught up, she supposes there’s no outstanding reason for to hang around on display, and she’s already possessed with the need to be useful. As Flynn’s wife, she hopes that Sept-Tours is no longer off limits to her, she knows the house fairly well by now, and she just wants to look. She gets to her feet, murmurs her excuses, and slips out into the corridor.

Even with both Maria and Asher gone, Lucy feels awkward about entering their tower. It’s clear that each member of the clan largely respected the boundaries and private places of the others, since vampires are often solitary creatures but in the de Clermonts’ case, have lived together as a family for thousands of years, with all the struggles that come with that. It strikes her how much she still doesn’t know about the modern supernatural world. Are there more vampire families? None comparable in stature to the de Clermonts, at least in Europe, but possibly elsewhere. Witches have covens, but those are localized, independent, rarely subject to a formal organizing authority, and Lucy has been made aware of her own history, her magical family lineage stretching back to Amelie Wallis, in a way that makes her aware that she needs to know more of it. She doesn’t really know any daemons, apart from Houdini and Kit, or how they deal with things; they’re often independent by nature. Flynn mentioned werewolves a while ago, but said that they tend to live in very cold and remote spots – Alaska and Siberia, that sort of thing – and take no part in creature politics. If they’re going to knit together some kind of ragtag Rebel Alliance coalition against Emperor Palp…. Rittenhouse and his wannabe imperial underlings, they need to know more about this. Maybe there are records in the library that she can research, and Lucy feels the old zeal to get properly stuck into a project. Maybe because it seems like it would be familiar, comforting, something that she knows how to do and which can distract her from everything else falling apart.

She climbs the stairs and reaches the door to Asher’s study, which – by the looks of things – has been closed and remained closed since the day its master last left it. Lucy stalls on the threshold, wondering if she can excavate this particularly painful family history, but she’s met Asher. She admired him more so much, he told her that she was the most extraordinary witch he had ever known, he knew full well that she and Flynn were from the future, and he tried as hard as he could to help them, to give them the means to save Gabriel, to offer his blessing on their marriage. Lucy is used to feeling inadequate, not important enough, but if anyone has the right to go in here, she does. She just needs to make herself believe it.

She hesitates a moment longer, then pushes experimentally at the door. It’s locked, but she uses a small curl of magic to reach in and lift the latch, and it squeaks on old hinges as it swings open. She steps inside, assailed again by the memory of how it looked in 1590, crowded with books and papers, quills and ink, Asher’s correspondence and work, the various secret messages and pleas for help that he received as the founder and grandmaster of the Knights of Lazarus, his constant commitment to use his and his family’s extraordinary abilities for good, and to destroy any vampire who threatened humanity. Lucy was wondering if Maria has come in here to keep everything as neat as if Asher had just stepped out, or if she shut it up and couldn’t stand to see it all. The answer appears to be a mix of both. Some of the papers have been removed, and someone has been in here either to sporadically clean or to sit and pretend very hard that he is coming back. In other ways, it feels untouched for almost eighty years. Thick sheens of dust lie on the bookshelves, the window is yellow and filmy, the wallpaper and all the furniture is vintage, and the Le Monde issue from June 9, 1940 lies on the desk, warning that the Nazis have overcome the Maginot Line, are days from Paris, and the fall of France is coming. It looks like a time capsule.

Lucy looks down at the desk, trailing her fingers over it, as the motes swirl silently in the air. Now that she knows the missing master, can sense the absence in the air where he used to be, it closes her throat, and she finds herself fighting tears. She remembers Flynn telling her that the de Clermonts fled to exile in London after the fall of France, and Asher went missing sometime in 1942, on one of his solo missions deep behind enemy lines to help the Résistance. From there, the story plays out as she has heard: the de Clermonts, fatally estranged since Christian’s death in 1762, pulled together to sneak back into the country on D-Day and search until they found the top-secret bunker where Asher was held. The Nazis had been experimenting on him, torturing him, as Mengele tried to extract the essence of his immortality, as they promised untold wealth and riches if he would turn Hitler into a vampire. Asher resisted to the end. His family arrived too late to save him, or for a proper goodbye. They took him back here and had him cremated, Asher to ashes.

Lucy takes a breath, steadying herself, not even sure what she was looking for, aside from proof that Emma was lying and Asher isn’t back. Of course he isn’t, though he wouldn’t be here either way, and so far as it goes, this history is unchanged. That’s good, right? Means either that they return Christian to 1590 in time to prevent large-scale chronological disintegration, or that this is set in stone either way? Asher believed that it wasn’t, that he had a chance, that he could make different choices, that this gruesome end was not necessarily what still awaited him, just because it happened once. But he was wrong about that, apparently. They’re screwed anyway. They all are. Maybe if she had left him with his memories, left all of them, he would have known. But she didn’t.

Tears burn Lucy’s eyes, and she knocks roughly at the desk, sending an old pen case clattering to the floor. She stoops at once to pick it up, faintly mortified, as if she’s accidentally desecrated a cathedral. She knows that Asher asked her to do it for him and all of them, that it wouldn’t have been fair or humane to make them live for hundreds of years with that knowledge, but she already feels terrible, and this isn’t helping. Everything’s just like this, she doesn’t know what to do, they are losing de Clermonts left and right, and she herself is supposed to buck up, to do even more, even when she feels like –

At that, something occurs to Lucy, sudden and horrible. She performs some quick mental arithmetic, and then decides that now that it’s hit her, she needs to do something about it immediately, or she’ll spiral off the hook with anxiety. She looks around the study, makes sure that she’s left things as they were, then steps out, shuts the door and locks it again, and descends the steps of the tower. She pauses long enough to briefly mention to Jiya that she’s going out for a quick errand, since she doesn’t want anyone worrying if she’s the next de Clermont to disappear, and walks down to the village, hoping she’s not too late. Fortunately, the pharmacy is still open for another half-hour, and she heads in, picks up a few things she doesn’t need – and then, as casually as she can, a pregnancy test. To be on the safe side, two.

She doesn’t dare look at the cashier as she brings it up. She was known around here, hours after she arrived at Sept-Tours the first time, as a possible romantic interest for Garcia, and since the villagers are fiercely protective of their vampire lords, Lucy doesn’t want the rumor getting around that she’s cheating on him with some skeezy human rando. After all, she doesn’t think they have any way of knowing about vampires and witches being able to interbreed – there’s Sarah up at the house, a Bright Born, and Henry de Prestyn, Amelie Wallis’s father, was one such himself, which caused all kinds of trouble and for his skin to be incorporated into the binding of Ashmole 782. Especially with what Maria said about Rittenhouse and company hunting down “half-breeds,” this must be something they’re on the particular lookout for. Lucy did attend to this back in 1590, was using the scroll and spell that Agnes gave her for the purpose, but that always felt not-entirely-foolproof, and she definitely forgot several times. So if she’s going to be paid back for her negligence by –

Blessedly, the cashier is of the deeply French mold of giving absolutely not a single shit about anyone else’s problems, and rings Lucy up without comment. She takes the bag and returns to Sept-Tours, heart hammering in her throat, and darts back into the house, up to her and Flynn’s tower, and takes the test. After the most nerve-wracking several minutes of her recent life, which is saying something, the result appears. It’s negative.

This is slightly more reassuring, but Lucy is an anxious perfectionist who knows about tests not always being accurate, and she did get two just in case. So she takes the second one, also negative, which is more decisive. One could be wrong, but it is statistically unlikely to the point of impossibility that two are, and she sits on the floor, leaning against the claw-footed bathtub and staring at the ceiling. She obviously has countless valid reasons to feel like shit – extreme overwork, high-level magic use, six months without modern medicine or vitamins, severe emotional turmoil and stress, several battles, violent translocation to the twenty-first century, so on and so forth – and she’s annoyed with herself for falling into the trap of assuming that every time a woman doesn’t feel good, she must be possibly pregnant. She hasn’t had a period in a while, but she’s never been very regular, she has skipped months before, and she was relieved about not having to deal with sixteenth-century feminine hygiene, once the tampons ran out. But nonetheless, she’s almost glad that this mini-scare happened. It reminds her that she needs to see about getting modern birth control, the pill or Depo-Provera, something a little more reliable than a wing and a prayer and some old-wives’-tale witch charm. She hasn’t gotten her mind back into the here and now, but she has to. Quite obviously, this is not the time for a hundred reasons. It’s a good thing. It’s good.

Lucy continues to lean against the bathtub, wondering why this doesn’t make her feel better. They have more than enough on their plates, without adding a baby. They’re trying to fight a war, she couldn’t deal with that and being pregnant at the same time, and while she and Flynn did talk about this back when they first discovered it was possible, she wasn’t ready then and doesn’t necessarily know if she is now. But it’s not that she’s upset about, not really. It’s more that she just wishes it felt like a remotely safe and sane option, that it wouldn’t be the height of irresponsibility to bring a child into a world like this. Whether due to humans or creatures, it’s hard to know if there will be much left of the Earth or Western civilization in ten years, and Lucy deeply identifies with the millennial mood, the anger that her generation doesn’t even really get the choice to decide if they want the traditional life trappings: marriage, kids, white picket fence house in the suburbs, retirement savings, a stable economy, because they don’t have the option anyway. Now that she’s engaged to an uber-rich vampire, she won’t have to worry about money again, but her personal good fortune does not take away from the overall injustice of the system. She’s relieved that she’s not pregnant because it would be monstrous to give this to a baby, and she’s angry that the world is forcing her hand on it, and she just wishes that she could have been excited about the possibility for half a second, and not immediately terrified. With Rittenhouse and his half-breed hunting minions, with everything in front of them… no. She doesn’t know if it’ll ever be different, the way both past and future seem so stark and impossible, and it just sucks.

Lucy looks at the used pregnancy tests, then ignites a small flare of witchfire, tidily incinerating them so Flynn doesn’t stumble on them in the trash and ask questions. She’s handled this, they need to focus on Christian anyway, and she’s fortunate that Flynn’s kids like her. It’s no different than any other blended family, dealing with grown stepchildren, previous relationships. His devotion to Christian and Jiya is absolute, and that’s as it should be. There’s no bullshit about adopted or blood-sired kids being less important or less “real” than biological kids, because that’s not true, and enforced heteronormativity can suck it. But Lucy does think that this is also something he would like, this man who lost his five-year-old human daughter fifteen hundred years ago and has never entirely mended from that, if it was ever the right time. He said he wanted that, and Lucy would too. Maybe that’s why, despite the fact that it is absolutely the correct outcome for now, it still hurts.

She takes a deep breath, then gets to her feet, pushing her tangled hair out of her face and glancing into the mirror to ensure that she doesn’t look too unhinged. It must be close to supper, and with the Sokolovs, Rufus, and Sarah in the house, they’ve probably gotten used to some kind of regular human mealtime schedule. She’s had an emotional afternoon to say the least, and she could stand a bite. She leaves the bathroom and goes downstairs.

Flynn glances up concernedly when she reappears, having evidently noted her prolonged absence, and she does her best to look as if it’s definitely fine. Everyone is indeed eating, Lucy sits at the table to join in, and feels somewhat better when she has. “So?” she says, as casually as she can. “Have we decided what we’re doing next?”

“We’ll need to go back to Oxford at some point,” Flynn says. “Ashmole 782 is still hidden in the Bodleian, and since now you know what spells you cast to conceal it in the first place, you can undo them and get it out. I’m sure Rittenhouse is gunning for it too, so…”

“Yes,” Lucy says, “I’m sure he is, especially after we humiliated him by managing to steal his half back. But is it possibly safer in Oxford for the time being? If we do get it out, we turn ourselves into a lightning rod. Wherever we take it, that would immediately become the top target for him and all his cronies. We’ll have to get it at some point, but we should have some kind of prepared safe house or base to take it to directly.”

“True,” Flynn concedes, “but we don’t have the leisure of waiting on this. Rittenhouse will be pulling out all the stops to get to it, and not just in the present. He could timewalk to various points in the past, whenever it was sold or transferred – humans could get to it, even if creatures couldn’t – and see if he could snatch it then, before it goes back under the enchantment. We might need some kind of full transmission history for the manuscript, see if we can figure out how it got from Cambridge to Elias Ashmole to Oxford, and if anyone accessed it between 1692 and 2017, when you did. Anyone in that vein is a target.”

“We could help,” Jiya says. Lucy noticed earlier that she was the one to call everyone in to dinner, acting as mistress of the house, and it seems to be implicitly accepted among the others. “Rufus and I already found Jessica’s book in the archives of the University of Bologna. The TimeMaster 3000 could probably be tuned to detect something like that.”

“Speaking of Jessica,” Wyatt cuts in. “Any chance we can find out if she ever got the hell back from the Renaissance? I’d like to give my daughter some solid proof that we’re not actually self-serving monsters, and bring her mother back.”

“I’ll look into it,” Lucy promises. “You know she’s my friend too.”

Wyatt makes a noise under his breath as if to say that he would appreciate if this was investigated with urgency, and Flynn shoots him a look as if to warn him not to push, they know it’s important and they’ll add it to the miles-long list. Jack says that he’s happy to return to Oxford and scout the lay of the land, since he was there under Temple’s auspices before, and report on whether it’s safe to attempt an Ashmole extraction. Lucy supposes that is indeed a good plan, though she can’t get over the weirdness of seeing him here as a grown man and several-centuries-old vampire. He doesn’t seem to bear them an outstanding grudge for what happened in 1590, but does he remember it? When she carefully broaches the topic of why he returned to help the de Clermonts, he pauses, then shrugs. “Sometime in 1863,” he says, “I was visited by a strange American man named Henry, who gave me two portrait miniatures of you and Lord Clairmont. When I saw them, I remembered you, what had really happened, and the rest of it. He said that I should keep the portraits until they were needed. He did not say who I was to give them to, or why. I forgot about them until quite recently, when this began to happen, and I brought them to the others in Venice.”

“A man named – ” Lucy’s jaw drops. “You got portraits of us from an American man named Henry? That was – that was my father. Henry Wallace, he’s – he was – also a timewalker. We met him, I met him in London, and I gave him those portraits. I told him to take the long way home with them, to give them to someone who could help us, so he must have figured somehow that it was you, and swung through the nineteenth century to drop them off. Asher gave them to us, in case we needed to send a message through time and he – he wasn’t there.”

Wyatt looks startled. “Yeah,” he says. “There were notes hidden in them, from Papa. So that worked, I guess. His plans usually did.”

There’s a brief pause, which is interrupted by Gennady asking someone to pass the butter. Once this is done, Wyatt says, “One of us will probably have to go back to Venice, because we need someone to manage stuff more directly. If we just got half a dozen Knights of Lazarus killed, it’s best that we don’t leave them out to dry. I don’t know what abilities Rittenhouse has now, but as the guy in charge when they died, I’ll have to face it, and I obviously know the city and the former Congregation. So if that’s my responsibility, I’ll – ”

“No.” Cecilia speaks for the first time, startling them. “I’ll go to Venice.”

Wyatt eyes her, but doesn’t seem to know how to respond. It’s Jiya who says, “Cecilia, you were just – you were just a prisoner there, we couldn’t ask you to – ”

“Yes, indeed. I was a prisoner there.” Cecilia’s lips turn up in a mirthless smile, as if to say that she needs no reminding. “And in his efforts to get me to talk, to disclose sensitive information on the family, Temple inadvertently revealed some of his own aims as well. This archive plan, for one. He is most interested in San Lazzaro, perhaps feels that if he dug the secret of Rittenhouse out of its depths, there is more to be found there. With these plans to investigate the status of creatures and half-bloods, I do not doubt he will return there. I am useful at that sort of thing, and…” She shrugs. “If I am given an opportunity at my condign vengeance, then so very much the better.”

Everyone exchanges glances. Cecilia has spoken calmly, but it’s clear that there is a deep-seated rage simmering just beneath the surface – for which no one can blame her, but is still very troubling. As Lucy looks at her, she cannot forget that this is William the Conqueror’s eldest daughter, and that while Cecilia was sired as a vampire by the evil Gerbert of Aurillac, she always clung proudly to her royal human heritage and is very much of the same relentless, indomitable mold. Right now, they’re engaged in chevauchée, skirmish warfare, all sides feeling out the territory and striking opening blows, initial gambits, hitting at weak points and burning villages. It’s different from laying siege to a castle, though that must also be coming, or all-out, pitched-battle, war of conquest, which likewise must be the desired endgame for Rittenhouse and the others. Cecilia is clearly bent on revenge, and is the human daughter of the man who conquered the entire kingdom of England with six thousand men and the vampire daughter of the most dangerous creature to exist before Rittenhouse himself. If she wants it, they better get the fuck out of the way.

“I – well,” Wyatt says awkwardly, clearly realizing this. “If you’re sure, but – if you go, I suppose you could try to make contact with Harry without blowing his cover, or – ”

Cecilia and Houdini are old friends, longtime servants of the de Clermont family, and Lucy recalls from her first visit that Houdini is about the only person from whom Cecilia will tolerate semi-charming shenanigans. But this is different now, it is all different, with Houdini working as a double agent and Cecilia wanting to kill the vampire who tortured her. Still, she can doubtless see that if she can point to strategy to make her case for going, she might as well, and nods. “I will see if it can be arranged. We need to know what the inner circle wants, Temple and Cahill and Keynes, if we are going to have any hope of thwarting it.”

Lucy thinks it’s obvious, that they want to take over the creature world and wring it dry in the name of all megalomaniac white men everywhere, but it’s true that they need a few more specifics. It’s thus agreed that Cecilia will go to Venice, Jack will go to Oxford, Jiya and Rufus will start looking for Ashmole 782’s circulations throughout history, Wyatt will remain at Sept-Tours to coordinate the various operations and hold down the home front, and Lucy and Flynn will prepare for whatever is necessary, with priority on tracking down Jessica. They obviously have not forgotten about Maria and Gabriel, but they have to focus on the problems they can do something about right now, and that means compartmentalizing. “As long as he’s playing Vampire Forrest Gump, I can’t stop him,” Flynn says, with a very grim smile. “That, and once we get back to New York and deal with whatever Christian – ”

At that, he stops very short, but not fast enough. Heads turn up and down the table, everyone stares at him, and Wyatt stares at him. “I’m sorry,” he says. “What about Christian? Christian Christian? Our Christian? Why would you possibly have to deal with him and New York?”

Flynn gets a dawning oh-shit expression on his face, and Lucy wonders if they should try to scramble to regain blown cover, or just come clean and spill the rest of the milk. Wyatt is looking particularly shaken – he and Christian were best friends, more like brothers, especially after Gabriel and Garcia failed to make any room in the family for him when he joined in 1179. Lucy saw how close they were at Sept-Tours, she can’t blame him for looking pole-axed. (So does Jack, for that matter.) There is a very long pause. Then Wyatt says, in an unnaturally high voice, “Jesus. Is Christian here? How is that even possible?”

“He – ” Flynn can apparently see nothing for it, and visibly commends to his soul to God. “He – yes. Temporarily. Lucy and I had to bring him back from 1590 with us. He was wounded, it’s a long story, but – anyway. We have to return him before the timeline gets completely fucked, we were going to do that, but he’s in New York right now, with Denise and Michelle Christopher. It’s…” He trails off for several stone-silent seconds, then concludes, in the completest of understatements in the history of the world, “Complicated.”

The silence lasts for two more seconds, and then the entire dining room explodes. Everyone is talking over each other, demanding answers, looking stunned, or asking how they didn’t remember this to start with, and Lucy can see that this will soon require her to return everyone’s memories and add that whole extra level of fuel to the fire. She doesn’t want to deceive them, even as she didn’t want to take the memories in the first place, but then everyone will also have opinions on all the drama of 1590, which will be dug up again as if it happened yesterday. (Which it did, or at least a few weeks, for her and Flynn, but is hundreds of years for everyone else.) Lucy feels an overwhelming urge to push her chair back and flee, but she is largely responsible for this, and she can’t abandon Flynn to deal with it by himself. So she sticks it out, excruciating as it is, until everyone has babbled themselves to a standstill. They still look completely flabbergasted, which is understandable – it’s not every day that a beloved family member who has been dead for over two hundred and fifty years is casually announced to be back in town, and it’s clear that Wyatt, at least, thinks they should have led with that and not been forced into it by an inopportune slip of the tongue. “You were going to tell us, right?” he demands. “Does – does Maman know? Christ, have you – does Gabriel – ?”

“Yes, Maman knows.” Flynn grimaces. “I told her on the way to Liechtenstein. I was about to tell Gabriel after we woke him up, but he insisted on his memories first, and then once he learned them, he ran. We looked for him all night, but we couldn’t track him down.”

Wyatt opens and shuts his mouth, can’t think of anything to respond to that, and makes an odd, stepped-on sound, as if he can’t get enough air and doesn’t want to wrap his mind around the idea, in case it’s torn away. For her part, Cecilia is sitting completely still, staring at the tabletop, and was the only person who didn’t immediately demand the rest of the story. Jiya looks very startled – she knows that she had a cousin named Christian once upon a time, who she has never met, but not much else – and Rufus is attempting to act casual, as if this definitely happens in his world, though he can clearly see that it’s a major deal for the supernaturals among them as well. There isn’t much chance of the conversation recovering after that, and as they’re getting up when supper is finished, Wyatt grabs Flynn’s arm. “Hey,” he says. “So you’re going to bring him here, aren’t you?”

“We don’t know.” Flynn is clearly trying to keep his voice level. “You have to remember, he’s not – he’s not back. He can’t stay. And if we just – ”

“You just what? Bring him back, but the rest of us don’t get to see him because something something strategy?” Wyatt lets out an incredulous laugh. “Good luck running that past Gabriel, if he ever turns up! Or are you the only one who gets to make decisions on – ”

“We’ll do our best.” Flynn frees his arm with a slight jerk. “Believe me, this isn’t what we wanted either, and we don’t know what to do, but we’re not dramatically conspiring to keep him from anyone. We’re just trying to make sure our entire family’s history doesn’t get destroyed. It’s been a very long day, I think Lucy and I should go up to bed. Good night.”

With that, he sweeps out of the dining room, as Lucy lingers long enough to give Wyatt an apologetic look, then hurries after him. She catches up to him in the dark corridor, and can tell that he’s a lot more rattled than he wanted to let on. They climb the stairs up to their tower in silence, and when they’re alone in their room, Flynn lets out a shuddering sigh, leaning against the door and wracking both hands over his face. “Jesus. That wasn’t the argument I planned on having tonight. Teach me a few lessons about my big mouth.”

“It’s all right.” Lucy sits down on the bed, staring through the diamonded window. “It’s probably better that this came out now, rather than them discovering that we’d kept it from them for weeks. It was… always going to be hard. Coming back from that.”

“I know.” Flynn hesitates, then moves to sit down next to her, the mattress creaking under his weight. “But I wasn’t thinking it would be this hard.”

Lucy supposes that it never is, you never do. She puts her head on his shoulder, and he drapes his arm around her, the two of them nuzzling close and trying to take comfort from the other’s presence, even as they can’t relax all the way into peace. Flynn kisses her hair, their fingers entwine where her hand rests on his thigh, and for several minutes, the spinning world steadies somewhat. Then he says, “Oh, that reminds me. I have something for you.”

Lucy lifts her head with a questioning sound, he digs in his pocket, and removes a small box. When he opens it, it proves to be a golden ring set with a white stone, which reflects and refracts a thousand colors like a fire opal. “I had this made up just before we left London,” he says, almost shyly. “This white stone isn’t magic, unfortunately, and if you wanted a proper diamond – well, I could look into getting you one. But this reminded me of the philosopher’s stone, how strong and brave you were to make it by yourself, how powerful you are, and I thought it would be better. If you don’t – ”

He’s cut off as Lucy kisses him, and it’s several moments until they break apart for him to slide it onto her left ring finger. They’re already essentially married, though they will have to sign some papers at some point, and a small celebration would be nice. Lucy isn’t fond of expensive heterosexual wedding culture, which demands that everything look Just So and cost bucketloads of money, and their relationship isn’t straight, because they’re not (both very bisexual, thank you very much). She definitely prefers this thoughtful version of an engagement ring to a generic diamond, and she likes having it there, some small and tangible reminder of what they have to fight for. She holds up her hand, admiring how it sparkles, and he lifts her fingers to his mouth and kisses them. “I thought of how Lucy means light,” he says. “That might be unbearably cheesy, but it’s true. And you – you’re the white queen, you bring that light, you’ve saved all of us so many times. I hope it helps you remember that.”

“It’s perfect, Garcia.” Lucy leans in to kiss him again. “I love you.”

“Volim te.” He answers her quietly, by reflex, and they undress and get into bed together. It’s comforting to be back in Sept-Tours, even with everything. She can take that for now, and hold onto one more moment of peace, string them together like beads. But when he nudges at her inquisitively, clearly asking if she would desire comfort in a more earthy fashion, she pulls back, and he looks at her in concern. “Lucy?”

“I’m fine.” Lucy would in fact very much like to sleep with him, but after the events of earlier, she doesn’t want to actively tempt fate. Just until she gets something else sorted out. “I’m… I’m tired, that’s all.”

This is altogether true, even if it is the oldest excuse in the book, and Flynn’s brow remains furrowed as he looks at her. He clearly knows her well enough to see that it’s something more than just that, but tiredness on its own is entirely valid and understandable, and he pauses, then nods and kisses her nose. “All right. Let’s just cuddle then,  huh?”

“That sounds good.” Lucy settles down with him, nestling up in her favorite spot against his side. Her anxiety and her exhaustion briefly compete to see whether she’ll stay awake, but the latter wins out. She closes her eyes, and she’s gone.

When she comes downstairs the next morning, Anton and Gennady Sokolov are the only ones in the kitchen, scarfing down third helpings of breakfast, but they stand up politely at Lucy’s entrance. By the sound of things, both brothers have been through the gristmill – Anton imprisoned in Rittenhouse’s old tomb under Poveglia, until Maria, Jiya, and Rufus rescued him, and Gennady on the run somewhere in the Black Sea region – and Lucy serves herself and sits down next to Gennady. “Did you say yesterday that you were in Ukraine?”

“I AM, yes.” Gennady eyes her curiously. “And other places. Are having QUESTION?”

“Whereabouts in Ukraine?” Lucy has had this this conviction in some shape or form since before she left for 1590, and if they’re going to take down Rittenhouse and his allies, nothing is off the table. She thought, when Denise and Michelle told her about her parents and what happened to them, that Benjamin Cahill killed them to get to her, and everything that her actual father said in London supported that hypothesis. Cahill knew from when Lucy was a very young child that she had a connection to Ashmole 782, she was spellbound in part to keep him from using her power, and he wanted to use it to free Rittenhouse, the obsession of him and his gang of ambitious witch friends – at one point including Lucy’s mother – in their younger years. And the deaths of Henry Wallace and Carol Preston happened on June 20, 1991, in a remote region of the Russian-Ukrainian border, with the crime originally pinned on a bunch of superstitious villagers. It was Rufus’s analysis of the pictures of their dead bodies that flagged up the inconsistencies in that story. And the Sokolovs, of course, are Russian, and have been trained in witchcraft by one Baba Yaga, crone extraordinaire. They must have connections. Lucy has had this idea before, but not the time.

“Crimean Peninsula, mostly.” Gennady gets a shifty look, as if aware that this is a dodgy place for a Russian to be, but given the brothers’ fiercely socialist sensibilities and burning hatred of Vladimir Putin, Lucy doubts that he was doing anything to uphold the Kremlin party line in any sense of the word. “Odessa, Sevastopol. Have FRIENDS in underground. Then Kiev, and up to Siberia. Have BEEN there? Very pretty. In summer. I think in winter too, but BALLS FREEZE OFF. Though you are lady. Have no balls. Is BETTER for you.”

“No, unfortunately, I haven’t been there.” Lucy considers him. “I was wondering if you knew, or if you could find someone who knew, about a double murder that happened in 1991, in what I think is now the Voronezh Oblast, the rural uplands on the border with Russia. My parents. The date was June 20. Have you heard of that?”

Anton’s eyes sharpen. “We have heard stories of something like that, yes,” he puts in. “Did not know it was your parents. We are sorry.”

“It’s – it’s all right.” It’s a strange feeling, accepting condolences on the death of your parents over twenty-five years ago when you just saw your dad last month, but Lucy presses on. “It was a long time ago. I just want to know if you could find any evidence that conclusively proves that Benjamin Cahill was responsible for their deaths.”

Anton and Gennady exchange a look. They obviously have no love for Cahill – he and Anton were colleagues for a while, both holding witch seats on the Congregation, but that only allowed Anton to make a close study of all the excellent reasons not to trust him an inch. “Was long time ago, as you say,” Anton says, after a moment. “Soviet Union not exactly good with releasing information. Still is not, really.”

“So you couldn’t get it?”’

“We did not SAY THAT,” Gennady remarks, with a darkly significant look. “Just might be HARDER than usual.”

“It’s all right, as long as you can get it.” Lucy leans forward. “Look, I have no expectation that presenting concrete evidence that Cahill killed them would do anything. At the rate everything’s going, it would probably land him a promotion, him demonstrating that he was so dedicated to Rittenhouse’s cause that he even killed his old flame to help get them closer to Ashmole 782. So on and so forth. But he was jealous of my dad and angry that Carol deserted him and his band of amateur supervillains after everything they’d done for her. Plus there was me, such a nice little bonus. He probably thought it was Christmas.”

Both Anton and Gennady blink at the scathing bitterness in her voice, and it takes even Lucy herself aback. “If you cannot get him arrested with this evidence,” Anton says carefully, “then what is you want it for, exactly?”

“I want it for me.” Lucy looks away. “So when I kill him, I know there’s no mistake.”

The brothers exchange another glance. Gennady pops his last rasher of bacon into his mouth, chews thoughtfully, then swallows, dabbing his mouth with his napkin. “Cahill is BAD MAN,” he says. “Nobody deny we need him OUT of power, and yes, probably also DEAD. I HEX HIM, like with Putin. Only made his geraniums die. But I know what I did wrong now, I HEX HIM again. This time he KEEL OVER for sure. Is not something you need to do.”

“Yes, it is.” Lucy does realize that swearing yourself to vengeance against the man who killed your parents is not usually something that ends well, but this isn’t some insane, irrational private vendetta. Cahill is second or third in command in the hostile takeover of the creature world, he’s a legitimate military target, and while the rest of the de Clermonts are justifiably focused on Temple, who has caused so much harm and hurt from a seven-hundred-year-old grudge, Lucy feels that plans to take down Cahill have somewhat slipped through the woodwork. Maybe they’re assuming that he’ll fall when Rittenhouse does, which is rather naïve, and he’s not exactly an isolated and vulnerable secondary target. If Rittenhouse bestowed Emma, a relatively late convert to the cause, with new powers mighty enough to take down half a dozen Knights of Lazarus, he might have scattered all kinds of evil largess on his loyal lieutenant, the man who has worked for over forty years to free him and return him to ultimate power. Cahill could have quietly become the biggest threat after Rittenhouse himself, never interfering as overtly as Temple, content to let the vampire take the heat for outrageous actions, never making himself as big a mark. Someone needs to stop him, someone needs to be devoted to that job specifically, and if that someone is Lucy, who has suffered in directly personal ways from his quest for world domination, so much the better.

“We will ask questions,” Anton says at last, clearly seeing that she isn’t going to be dissuaded. “Is something Baba Yaga may know of, yes. But do not do alone, okay?”

“That’s fine. I actually had another question.” Lucy spreads jam on her toast. Her appetite has returned, as if to fuel her renaissance, and she isn’t going to waste it. “You two obviously know Siberia well. Do you know any werewolves?”

Gennady chokes on his coffee, pounds himself on the chest, and puts his mug down. “Why is NICE WITCH like you asking that question?”

Lucy gives him a pointed smile, as if to demonstrate that given what she just asked them to do, “nice witch” isn’t really the best description of her, and he sighs and shrugs, conceding the point. “Very well. Yes, we know some. They are… ROUGH SORTS. Will not appreciate having ANYTHING to do with creature politics and power-grubbing. Do not think is THEIR PROBLEM. And when werewolves say that, you respect, or run VERY FAST.”

“Except it is their problem,” Lucy counters coolly. “They may think that they can hide out in the Alaskan bush or the Siberian tundra with their lumberjack beards and their plaid shirts and their anti-government apocalypse prepping or whatever they do, but if Rittenhouse and the others aren’t stopped, it’ll reach even them. I don’t really think they’ll be big fans of werewolves, do you? Creatures who have hidden from their power, who aren’t as suave and human as the rest of us, who think they can live by their own rules and for their own reasons? That’s exactly the sort of thing that they hate. I doubt that Rittenhouse and company would waste any time trying to offer some kind of settlement or integration into modern creature society or equal respect of their rights. They’d just wipe them out.”

Anton and Gennady blink, then look at her with an expression of mingled awe, respect, and terror. Lucy herself is somewhat surprised at this, but she is the white queen, and that is more than just illuminations in alchemical wedding pages or the color she sometimes glows when she has sex with Flynn. “Well?” she says, not giving either Sokolov time to recover. “Could you deliver that message? Tell them to send some of their leaders to meet us here.”

“Ask if they want to come to French house of vampires, on summons of feisty little witch?” Anton rubs his chin. “I maybe drop it in by parachute. Twenty miles away.”

Lucy gives him a look, as if to say that he will have to do better and clearly is not a coward, and he spreads his hands. “Okay. I try. But I warn you, werewolves have not talked to outside creatures for generations, and the ones we know only tolerate us because we do not make them. I will do best, I warn them of Rittenhouse’s threat. But cannot promise anything.”

“I know, but we have to try.” Lucy returns to her neglected breakfast. “All of us do.”

The Sokolovs cannot argue with that, and having been given their official marching orders like the rest of the household, politely excuse themselves and head off to get started. Lucy sips her coffee, thinking that she will definitely have to warn the others about the potential arrival of a pack of surly Russian werewolves (it might almost be funny, if the stakes weren’t so high) and hoping again that she hasn’t overstepped her authority as interim mistress of Sept-Tours. That title seems to more rightly belong to Jiya, anyway. But she is convinced that her plans this morning are both necessary, if audacious, and she’ll defend them if anyone is inclined to call her onto the carpet for them. It feels good, just as it did with the blood spells to build Josef the golem and the dark magic to lure Rittenhouse. She’ll have to be careful, etcetera, yadda yadda. But the other side won’t be, and Lucy, for one, isn’t going to be a nice witch. It’ll take practice. It’s a deeply inbuilt reflex for her. Be nice, be meek, be submissive, give all unto others, nothing to yourself. But this is still a different kind of selflessness, a more aggressive and proactive and ferocious and unapologetic kind. Get rid of the assholes who want to hurt everyone you love, and don’t be slowed down by bland, cookie-cutter, grade-school “violence is always bad!” paralysis disguised as morality.

Lucy spends the rest of the morning in the Sept-Tours library, though it gives her a brief PTSD flashback to step in there. This was where she spent the six weeks in 1590, building the philosopher’s stone, and which was on fire (largely thanks to her) before that. She starts pulling down the more modern books, looking for information on the current configuration of the creature world, and steps out for a late lunch around two o’clock in the afternoon. She still has not gotten into the habit of carrying her phone everywhere again, they don’t get much reception in Sept-Tours anyway, and she appreciates that she has it as a sort of insulated transition space back to the noise and clatter and clutter of the twenty-first century. But when she reaches the main house, she finds Flynn on his phone, talking to what sounds like Denise. He thanks her, hangs up, and stares at the wall. Then he remarks, “Well, shit.”

“What?” Lucy sits down next to him. “Is Christian – ?”

“He… yes. He’s getting better. Much better, actually. Keeps asking questions about everything.” Flynn looks abjectly relieved, even as they both know this is a stay of execution, rather than a full reprieve. “But there’s been… a wrinkle.”

“Oh?” Lucy forces down the foreboding in her stomach. “With him, or something else?”

“Both.” Flynn glances at her. “You have a stepbrother, apparently? Mark?”

“Wha – oh, yes. You haven’t met him yet.” Denise and Michelle’s son is a bit of an amiable slacker, the outlier in his family of high-achieving women. Denise is retired Homeland Security, Michelle is a respected psychologist and published poet, Olivia works for the UN, Lucy has a PhD in history from Yale and prestigious positions in academia, and Mark… well, Mark tries hard. In fact, Lucy thinks that he’s the Wyatt of the Christopher family, though Wyatt has done a lot more for the de Clermonts. Mark reinvents himself every few years, has gone through several girlfriends and a failed engagement, keeps talking about buying a motorhome to drive across the country and “discover his passion.” Denise and Michelle disciplined him and motivated him to excel just as much as they did the girls, they never let him skate because he was a boy, but sometimes no matter your parents’ best efforts and exalted intentions, it just doesn’t stick. Mark is sweet, he’s a great guy, though it’s true they often run out of things to talk about within the first ten minutes of any visit. Just see a movie or go to a ballgame or something else that doesn’t require deep intellectual analysis. “What about him? I haven’t seen him in a few years. I think he’s in – Texas?”

“Austin, according to Denise. But they received an official letter from Venice about him, this morning. Mark needs to present himself in person and prove that he has witch powers, that he’s been using them productively, and can demonstrate continuous compliance with all Congregation directives and Covenant articles for the last five years.” Flynn’s mouth twists. “Because there’s no way that ever goes wrong.”

“What?” Mark, as the son of two witches, does have magic – it was sometimes a sore point for Lucy that even her slacker brother could do it more than she could – but like the rest of his life, he’s used it in a sporadic, casual, off-the-cuff way, and for a period as teenagers that he sedulously kept from his parents, mostly to find cheap weed. “Civilian registration and clampdown on who’s ‘legal’ – well, that’s the first step to something much worse.”

“Indeed,” Flynn says drily. “Paranoid dictator playbook – Voldemort, Hitler, Trump, and now it seems, Rittenhouse. The parallel occurred to Denise as well, and she was volubly indignant about it. Her instinct was just to destroy the letter and pretend they never got it, but I told her that it could be dangerous. So she’s calling Mark in Texas to warn him, she wanted to investigate for herself, and since Christian is so much better…”

“Are they – ” Lucy’s heart skips a beat. “Are they coming here?”

“Not here, exactly,” Flynn says. “Denise wanted to go to Venice directly, but I told her that was also a risk. She’s grudgingly accepted that the de Clermonts know more about this than she does, that she can’t just blow us off even if she wants to, and I mentioned that there was an Airbnb in the village. So….” He flashes a grimace that does not succeed in disguising itself as a smile. “They’ll be arriving in a few days. And since they’re not going to leave Christian by himself in the goddamn twenty-first century, that’s as soon as they can figure out how the hell to get a passport for him. Apparently Denise is going to pull some old strings at Homeland Security and hope that nobody asks too many questions. And that means…”

“So.” Lucy feels as if the bottom is falling out of her stomach. Whatever controlled containment strategy they had in mind, whatever smart plan for introducing this slowly and managing the fallout, it is all out the window, and Russian werewolves are far from the only guests they have to worry about – or the only dangerous consequences. “Two hundred and fifty-six years after he died, Christian de Clermont is coming back to Sept-Tours.”

Chapter Text

The next few days are a blur of work. Cecilia and the Sokolovs have departed on their respective intelligence-gathering missions, and since it’s still Trinity term at Oxford and Rufus is heroically attempting to maintain some kind of presence in his teaching post at Mansfield College, he wants to fly back for an actual in-person week on campus, since all his tutorials have been happening by video chat and even Oxford’s patience is not infinite. Jiya is nervous about letting him go alone, they have had an argument about whether Rufus should prioritize his career, his personal safety, or the looming supernatural war, and since Jack needs to head to Oxford anyway, he volunteers to escort Rufus and serve as vampire bodyguard. This more or less settles the issue for the moment, though Lucy can’t help but think that if Rufus’s position is on tenterhooks, her own must be long gone. She told Oxford that she was taking an emergency medical leave last autumn, then vanished off the face of the planet (literally), and while she can hopefully contrive an application for something in the future, visiting research fellowships at the world’s best university aren’t usually something that you just duck out of with no explanation. Banal as it may be to worry about her CV and employment prospects in the middle of all this, Lucy can’t help it. Besides, if she has anxiety about something commonplace and controllable, it distracts her from the rest of it, and makes her feel like there’s actually something that’s worth getting back to. Nobody ever thought that a career in academia was the shining prize awaiting them before, but times have changed.

Jack and Rufus therefore leave the next morning, intending to return to Sept-Tours by the start of next week, or however long it takes for Jack to compile an Ashmole report and Rufus to convince Mansfield not to sack him. This takes the number of residents down to Flynn, Lucy, Wyatt, and Jiya, who rattle like peas in a suit of armor in the rambling, empty halls. Sending Gennady Sokolov away has also seriously set them back on the Sarah front. There’s now nobody that she’ll talk to or trust not to kill her, and while they are all trying to make a six-year-old girl comfortable and recognize that she has been through a lot of trauma and manipulation, it’s stressing them out, particularly Wyatt. Lucy offers to talk to her again, in hopes of leaning on that commonality of witch historian and friendship with Jessica, but this also blows up. Everyone is at their wit’s end when Flynn says unexpectedly, “Let me try.”

Wyatt eyes him skeptically, as if to say that a large male de Clermont vampire who could snap Sarah like a twig is the exact opposite of the comforting and non-threatening aura that they are trying to project. “No offense,” he says. “But you?”

“Of all of us,” Flynn points out, “I’m the only one who’s had a young human daughter before. She doesn’t trust you because you’re the dick who betrayed her mother, she probably thinks that if Lucy was a real friend she wouldn’t have let her get into this, and Jiya, you’re too nice to discipline her. So either we let her sit in her room forever and die of starvation or tunnel out through the walls, or we send me. What do you think?”

Wyatt blinks. “Fifteen hundred years,” he says, a little weakly. “You had a daughter fifteen hundred years ago. Are you sure you – ”

“Yes,” Flynn says, in a tone that brooks no argument. “Well?”

The de Clermont brothers stare at each other, and then Wyatt – who is plainly willing to try anything at this point – waves a helpless hand, whatever, man. Flynn strides upstairs with the air of a general going into battle, and everyone carefully avoids each other’s eyes. For her part, as she keeps one ear cocked to the ceiling in case of sudden explosions, Lucy thinks that they need to tell Wyatt and Jiya about the imminent arrival of Denise, Michelle, and Christian. Wyatt was unimpressed about them withholding information on this front before, Jiya has never met her dead cousin, and dropping two witches who have a prickly relationship with Flynn into the middle of this already-combustible situation is not exactly a recipe for harmonious relations. Even if they won’t be staying at Sept-Tours, they will be nearby, and there’s the whole shock of, well, Christian. Lucy and Flynn themselves haven’t really accepted that they need to send him back to 1590, and God knows that nobody else will. They’re going to let him learn about the future, reintroduce him to his family, have him back in this place that has been broken since he left, and then – what? Tear him away again? It sounds unconscionably cruel, and yet the alternative is even worse.

Since there is no time like the present, and Denise and Michelle were supposed to be flying out last night (they had to go through Syracuse since Flynn took their car, which means connections in JFK and Charles de Gaulle, which means that the likelihood they’ll actually arrive this evening as scheduled is close to nil), Lucy clears her throat. “Ah – you two? There’s something you should know. About.” She hesitates. “About Christian.”

Wyatt and Jiya’s reaction is about what she expected. Wyatt looks floored, then launches into a hundred questions, and Jiya clearly doesn’t have a clue what to say or how to react. Finally she says faintly, “What, he – here? Can we do that?”

If not, Lucy thinks, it’s a bit too late for that. “It’s just while Denise and Michelle investigate the situation with Mark. If we have any way of getting in contact with Harry – if he could shed light on what’s going on, Keynes has to be involved – ”

Wyatt’s already shaking his head. “I tapped him once, in January, and that was risky enough. He has one shot to keep his cover long enough to get enough information to blow it up when he pulls the plug, and we’ve gotten into plenty of trouble in Venice. Especially if Cecilia makes any kind of contact when she’s there. So if we started bothering him for extra – ”

“So what do you suggest?” Lucy can’t help it, her frustration is spilling over. “Why do we even have a spy in deep cover, if we can’t arrange a dead drop? Even the best agents have to report to their handlers once in a while, they aren’t just set loose to do whatever they want until their assignment ends. If you’re afraid of going back to Venice again, I can figure it out. I know Harry, and he liked – likes – me. So tell me how to do it, do it yourself, or decide what exactly we can risk. Let me know when you figure it out.”

Wyatt stares at her. Lucy bites her tongue; it’s not him she wants to yell at, but after spending six months how she just did, the abstract risk factor is not something that figures into her decisions, and Houdini is in fact their best source of information on this sinister creature inquisition. After another tense moment, Wyatt raises his hands in surrender. “Okay. I’ll see if I can pull some strings. There are still some Knights of Lazarus in Venice, they can hopefully go through enough intermediaries to set up some kind of transfer. If Emma hasn’t plowed through the city and finished off her murder bingo card, that is. Scuse me.”

With that, he practically scurries off, and Lucy rocks back on her heels, assailed by the usual guilt that comes after forcibly asserting herself. She glances at Jiya, hoping for some kind of hint as to whether she’s overstepping, if she didn’t have the right to yell at the acting co-head of the family. She knows that Wyatt and Jiya and the others have been working grindingly hard; they certainly didn’t sit back and sip mint juleps while Lucy and Flynn busted their butts in the past. But she just – she doesn’t feel like she used to, in any number of ways, and it’s slow and baneful and corrosive. The only way to overcome it, to get through this to the other side, and to make sure that it doesn’t cost them everything, is to fight. However, wherever, whenever. Nothing else matters.

Yet to her surprise, Lucy doesn’t see anger or condemnation on Jiya’s face. In fact, more than anything, she looks concerned. “Hey,” Jiya says quietly. “Is there anything you want to – I don’t know, to talk about? I know you have Dad and all, but – ”

She shrugs awkwardly, until it strikes Lucy that Jiya may be as nervous about connecting with her technically-stepmother as Lucy is herself. Jiya is older than her by a hundred years, though she was just twenty-seven when she was turned, and Lucy is thirty… thirty-five, she thinks, since her birthday was in January (which she’s also missed). Jiya has a lot more life experience than her in any number of ways and it’s not automatically the case, nor would it necessarily fit, that Lucy would take on a traditional parenting role. They took a shine to each other when Lucy first got entangled with Ashmole 782 in Oxford, and Lucy does, she really does, want to talk to Jiya and be responsible and communicate. It’s just that it seems impossible that she could put this into words, or get it off her chest. She doesn’t even know what she’d say, and she’s ever-conscious of being a burden. Flynn puts up with it, but Flynn loves her, and he shouldn’t constantly be stuck playing psychotherapist. And she still hasn’t given the other de Clermonts their memories back, and what if they hate her once they remember, and Christian is coming here, and this is all completely –

“I just…” Lucy stalls. “I guess I’m – you know. Adjusting to the twenty-first century again. It was a shock when I got to 1590, and now it’s a shock coming back. That’s all, I’ll deal with it. Anyway, is there anything else that we need to do?”

Jiya starts answer, but at that moment, they are (fortunately?) interrupted by the sound of a car in the driveway, and Lucy briefly panics that Denise and Michelle have managed to arrive so far ahead of schedule. Then, of course, she realizes that it’s not them, that it’s someone else, and not necessarily be a friend. She doesn’t think that Temple or Cahill would bother to pull up and knock politely, but precautions must be taken, and she and Jiya hurry down the hall. They reach the foyer, open the door, and step out into the courtyard, just in time to see that the car is a stylish silver Renault with French plates, completely unfamiliar. Lucy and Jiya stare at it in mutual confusion, until the driver’s door opens, and Gabriel steps out.

He looks – well, he looks better. It would have been hard for him to look worse, and to outward eyes, he has almost returned to the powerful, sleek, well-groomed businessman that Lucy met the first time. He’s wearing a chic tailored suit, an open-necked shirt, expensive sunglasses and Rolex, hair perfectly coiffed and stubble as artful as a Dolce & Gabbana model. He clearly has spent the last several days putting himself back together, painting on his professional face, trying to remember who he is. Lucy is, despite herself, grudgingly relieved to see him. But her patience with Gabriel is at an all-time low, she knows it’s not rational to blame him now for things that happened four and a half centuries ago but she does, and frankly, she hopes he’s come to grovel. She folds her arms and remains where she is.

Jiya looks stunned, then desperately relieved. “Uncle Gabriel!” She flies across the stones and throws herself into his arms, wrinkling his sharply pressed lapels. It’s the first time Jiya has seen him, alive and breathing and intact, since thinking he was dead last year, and she hugs him, steps back, stares at him, then hugs him again. “What have you – where have you been? We’ve been worried about you! Why didn’t you just come back?”

“I have – ” Gabriel coughs. “I’ve had – I’ve needed the opportunity to – clear my head, and – well. I thought it was best that I did not – I’m very glad to see you, my dear, truly.”

“Where did you get the car?” Jiya clearly does not recognize it from her uncle’s fleet of luxury vehicles, though it is beside the point to ask how a de Clermont got their hands on an expensive car at any particular moment. “Have you been in Paris? Or were – ”

“I – no. Bordeaux.” Gabriel looks like he’s been caught off guard and forgotten a planned speech. “I’ve actually brought someone with me. She – the car’s hers.”

At that, the passenger door opens, and a woman gets out, a woman of such stunning, unearthly beauty that the world seems dimmer wherever she stands. She is tall, willowy, and slightly androgynous, with luminous white-blonde hair in a jazzy undercut, and four studs in each ear, as well as a tiny diamond in her nose. Her eyes are blue, huge, long-lashed, and she wears pearls, an ivory cashmere sweater and grey pencil skirt, a name-brand purse. Lucy is completely happy with Flynn, but as she stares at the newcomer, it is that patented bisexual experience where you are totally in awe of just how hot women are and the way in which you, a fool, become useless in their presence. It is nearly enough to distract her from the obvious question of who this goddess is and what the hell she is doing with Gabriel, even as Jiya continues to look stunned. After all, she has never known Gabriel of a Thousand Lovers, Gabriel with two beautiful women on one arm and a handsome boytoy on the other, and her head swivels back and forth as if to make sure it is the same person. There is a brief and very noticeable pause. Then Jiya says, “Uncle Gabriel, who’s this?”

“This is – this is Kate,” Gabriel says. “Mademoiselle Katheriné Perrault. She’s a – well, we’ve known each other for a while, we work together. I’ve been with her in Bordeaux, and she’s – she’s going to help us with this.”

“Help us with – this?” Jiya can’t help still goggling, realizes that she’s being rude, and turns toward Kate with a politely offered hand, which the other woman rather shyly shakes. At the same time, Lucy can sense a particularly strong shimmer around her, the unmistakable magical aura of a creature, and realizes that Kate is a daemon. That at least makes somewhat more sense, though Lucy’s still at a loss to explain – well, why not? – who she is or what she’s doing here. If she’s one of Gabriel’s business colleagues, she too must work in the high-rolling art world, some kind of museum curator or Renaissance historian or purchasing agent or cocktail party expert who’s very good at getting rich men to part with a lot of money in the name of culture and taste, no matter what it takes. Lucy narrows her eyes, but even in this first-impression split second, Kate doesn’t strike her as a con woman or a cutthroat. There’s an even more excruciating pause. Then Jiya blurts out, “Wait, so are you two – ”

“We – ” Gabriel fishes for words. “We’re… yes, she’s come with me. With me.”

At that, Lucy’s eyebrows nearly fly off her head. She will write a poem in praise of Michael Temple’s virtues and publish it in the New York Times before she believes that Gabriel just so happened to run off and get together with someone in the span of a week, and whatever stunt he’s trying to pull now, he should better believe that she will be asking him about it directly. Kate, meanwhile, looks distinctly uncomfortable. “I should – ” she starts, in French. Her voice is rich and husky, smooth as a dark perfume. “Gabriel, I don’t think this was a – ”

“No, no.” Lucy moves forward. She is not going to let this poor woman get caught in the crossfire of whatever stupid thing Gabriel de Clermont has done now, or make it awkward on her. “Bonjour, Mademoiselle Perrault, you are welcome at Sept-Tours. I’m Lucy, Garcia’s wife. Did you come up from Bordeaux this morning?”

“We – yes, we left early.” Kate shakes Lucy’s hand, both of them looking at each other as if they will just pretend to know what is going on here. “I hope you will forgive the intrusion. You may call me Kate. Your French is very nice.”

“Thank you.” Lucy smiles at her, since Kate is clearly very ill at ease. If she’s a daemon, she must know Houdini, Gabriel’s faithful consigliere (well, ex-consigliere), and may also have heard some of the things that Houdini is saying about the de Clermonts. She has no way of knowing what her welcome will be at the family’s estate, especially when she’s turned up in murky circumstances with their now-not-dead eldest son. “How do you know Gabriel?”

“He – as he says, we work together.” Kate tips her glittering, gorgeous head at the idiot vampire in question. “We have known each other for a few years. I am the director of acquisitions at the Arc en Rêve in Bordeaux, it is an architectural center and cultural institution. I have done some consulting for his clients in Paris, that sort of thing. I am sorry for this appearance. I thought he was going to call ahead and say so first.”

“We all might have thought that,” Lucy says, giving Gabriel a demure, closed-mouthed, you-are-on-very-thin-ice smile. “But don’t worry about that, all right? I know it’s awkward to come here when you’re not a vampire, but I’m a witch. Believe me, that was much worse.”

Kate blinks. “Yes,” she says, as if in newfound admiration for Lucy’s nerve. “Yes, I can imagine that was so. Is his – is Madame de Clermont here?”

“She… no. She hasn’t returned yet.” What Maria would make of this, Lucy can only wonder. “It’s just me, Garcia, Jiya, and Garcia and Gabriel’s brother Wyatt right now. And – ah – Wyatt’s daughter, Sarah, but that’s a little more complicated.”

“Daughter?” Gabriel repeats, looking shocked, as Lucy recalls that he is not caught up on all the pertinent developments from his six months asleep (having, you know, run off too fast beforehand). “Did he – did he sire a fledgling?”

“No. Daughter proper.” Someone is going to have to explain all this, and Lucy doesn’t know if she’s up for it. “You two should probably come inside.”

Gabriel and Kate exchange a look, and Gabriel goes to the car to fetch their bags, as Kate follows Lucy and Jiya into the house. “I am sorry,” she says again. “This must be very awkward. You do not know me, and I am intruding. If you would prefer that I go – ”

“No, we need all the help we can get.” Lucy can sense that Kate is uniquely and arrestingly powerful in a way that she has never felt from a daemon before; they’re magical, but not in the same way as witches, who can channel and control their power, perform spells in a systematic and organized fashion. Things just happen around daemons, sometimes more spontaneously than others, and they have gifts of precognition, sixth senses, accurate intuitions, creativity and flightiness. Kate seems much more stable than either Kit or Guy Fawkes, the last two daemons of Lucy’s acquaintance, and has clearly channeled her talents into a productive career, but there is still that flickering edge of open flame, beautiful and potentially combustible. In what way exactly, Lucy isn’t sure. It’s not malice, it’s not evil, or anything like that. It’s just… strong. She’d like to know how, and Kate seems like a smart woman. She has to think that something is odd about her colleague turning up and suggesting… whatever he did, right? Or are they in on this together? Whatever it is?

Just as Lucy is wondering if they should put Kate in the guest room or if she expects to share Gabriel’s tower, there’s a tread on the stairs above, and Flynn appears. He spots the women, and stops dead in his tracks. “I heard a car outside. Is that yours, Miss – ?”

This is addressed to Kate, and while his tone is polite, it’s clear that he would like some answers about who she is and what she’s doing in his house. For her part, Lucy thinks he could use a forewarning. “This is Kate Perrault. She just got here. With Gabriel.”

“With Gabri – ?” Flynn looks – well, it’s hard to pin down his expression to any one thing, since it flies through all sorts of interesting variations. Carefully toneless, he repeats, “Gabriel’s here? Finally decided to turn up from – wherever he’s been?”

“Bordeaux, apparently.” Lucy shoots an awkward glance at Kate; she doesn’t know how good her English is, and this might seem like they’re gossiping about her to her face. “And yes, he is. I don’t know what he’s up to now, but he’s back.”

Flynn considers that for a notably fraught moment. Then he descends the stairs, crosses to Kate, and deliberately sizes her up from head to toe, making no pretense of pretending that he’s not. Lucy fights the urge to facepalm; she was trying to be tactful about this, but Flynn clearly feels that if the beautiful and unexplained Mademoiselle Perrault is up to skullduggery, he is going to sniff it out right here and now, thank you very much. At last he says, “And you know Gabriel from where, exactly?”

“Work.” Kate answers in English, though from the careful way she speaks, it’s definitely a second language. “I was explaining to your wife. Gabriel and I have known each other for what is, three years? You are Garcia, yes?”

Lucy wonders wryly how Gabriel described his brother so that Kate would know him on the instant, or if she just concluded (not wrongly) that this tall, grumpy, glowering vampire had to be him. Flynn does not immediately offer a handshake, continuing to regard her with an inscrutable expression. Then as he is about to say something – though God knows of what temperament – the door opens, and Gabriel, bags in hand, steps inside.

The two de Clermonts see each other at the same time, and a cavernous silence grips hold of the entire hall. It’s not clear who is more wrong-footed, and thirty seconds pass with everyone doubtless praying for the sweet release of death. Then Jiya steps forward and says loudly, “Isn’t it good to see everyone here? Now that Uncle Gabriel’s back?”

“Ah – sure.” Flynn answers by reflex, but his eyes never leave Gabriel. “And with a companion, I see. Will she be staying long?”

“She’s here to help us.” Gabriel swallows hard and stands his ground. “And I’ll find a place for her.”

“Yes, all right.” Flynn takes a valiant effort at recollecting himself, or possibly remembering what he was doing by coming downstairs. “Where’s Wyatt?”

“I sent him off to see about making contact with H – our friend.” Lucy doesn’t want to say too much in front of Kate, just in case. “Did you – did you get anywhere with Sarah?”

“Maybe.” Flynn starts to say something else, then changes his mind. “Actually, yes, I think I did get somewhere with her. Hold on, I’ll just – go that way.”

With that, this is exactly what he does – not quite sprinting out of sight, but only just. Gabriel and Kate disappear promptly up the stairs to his tower, and Lucy and Jiya are left to attempt in vain to make some sense of this. Finally Jiya says, low-voiced, “Are you – does this seem bizarre to you, or is it just – ?”

“Oh no, it definitely does. I’m sure they do know each other, but what, a week after we save Gabriel’s life, he turns up here with a new daemon girlfriend? Has he ever even had a relationship before? A real one?”

“Not that I know of,” Jiya says, frowning. “He’s always been – I mean, I’ve never seen him with anyone. In 1590, was he – ?”

“He had plenty of lovers,” Lucy says. “Most of London, really. And he had something semi-regular with Kit, but that didn’t seem to be the same thing. I just… don’t buy this. At least not at face value.”

“You think she’s lying?” Jiya looks alarmed. “Or that she’s some kind of spy for – well, anyone? Keynes’ counter-intelligence move on us, if he had the faintest whisper of suspicion that Harry was a double agent? How can we be sure that we can trust her?”

“We can’t,” Lucy admits. “I can only presume that Gabriel would never bring her here if he had any reason to think that we couldn’t. She does have some kind of considerable power, and we need to play this carefully. If she actually wants to help us, we’re not exactly starved for allies, and the rest of it doesn’t matter.”

This is the state of things for the next several hours, as Wyatt appears, is also informed of the prodigal’s return, looks both squiggle-eyed and slack-jawed at Kate, and goes upstairs to see what Flynn has managed to achieve with his child. Gabriel needs to be updated on the major developments of his absence, which Lucy does with commendable economy. Nonetheless, she stalls when she reaches the last one. They have to, they need to, tell him about Christian. But everything went comprehensively to hell in 1590 over that very subject, and while Gabriel belatedly made amends, she can’t be sure how they left that, what’s going on, or anything of the sort. Does Kate even know that Gabriel once had a son, and that surprise surprise, he’s now semi-sorta-kinda temporarily back from the dead? That would be a hell of a curveball to throw at a fledgling relationship, no matter how weird it is. Seeing by the look on Lucy’s face that they have reached a major impasse, Gabriel says, “What is it?”

“I just… don’t know how to tell you this.” Lucy turns away, hugging her elbows, even as the kitchen door opens and Flynn – with either very good or very bad timing – shows himself in. He glances between them, picks up on the tension, and moves to stand next to Lucy. She starts to say it at least three times, can’t, then blurts out, “Gabriel, Christian’s coming here.”

Gabriel’s reaction crosses his face in three distinct stages. In the first, he looks blankly confused, as if he hasn’t heard her or she was speaking too fast. In the second, he looks almost angry, as if she is playing a cruel joke on him or trying to get underhanded revenge for everything he did to her in 1590 (which, the tail end of that look says, he might well deserve, but still). It’s only in the third that both previous expressions fall off and are replaced by utter, devouring, catatonic shock. He looks as if she’s hit him, driven a stake into his chest, and if vampires can have heart attacks, they’re definitely about to find that out. Finally, all he can manage, in his native Latin since every single other word in every other language he knows has clearly been driven out of his head, is, “What?”

“He’s – tonight. Or tomorrow. With my godmothers. It’s a long – ” Lucy flounders. “He came to London, he helped us get the rest of the Ashmole pieces from Rittenhouse, but he was wounded. We had to bring him back to save him from dying, we – we don’t – we don’t know exactly what’s going on, but we – yes. He’s here. He’s alive, for now at least. And we… we thought you should know.”

Gabriel still doesn’t answer, doesn’t move or speak. For once, he can’t be blamed, since there is absolutely no precedent in either human or creature history for the situation that they are currently facing. His majestic face is simply blank, utterly unregistering, except for his eyes, which look like Mufasa just before Scar throws him off the cliff. He gets to his feet, discovers that his bones won’t hold him up, and crashes back into the chair. He looks at Flynn, and with a single glance, confirms that this, as wildly lunatic, ludicrous, and unbearably unbelievable as it sounds, is real. He makes a faint croaking noise and raises both hands to his face, but can’t even quite break down. He just sits there, quietly losing his mind.

Flynn looks at him very awkwardly, clearly unsure if Gabriel wants any sort of solace or reassurance from him, but Christian is their son, and he doesn’t enjoy seeing him like this. He edges over and puts a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder, patting him like a bomb that might go off. He doesn’t say anything, because – what do you say? The two of them still have no idea how to interact with each other on the far side of everything they’ve been through: the manticore venom and the quest to heal it, the alternating clashes and closeness in 1590 and its ultimate explosion, and now this, on top of Gabriel running away, his unexplained return, and everything else that remains outstanding between them. They have, after all, been estranged for over two hundred and fifty years, and even if they want to fix it, they can’t snap their fingers and forget about that, not now that they finally both know the full scope of what went on in both centuries. Flynn remains where he is, hand on Gabriel’s shoulder, lost in a reverie. Then he says, “I’m sorry.”

“This – this is – ” Gabriel is jumbling up languages like a pro, starting in Latin and trying to resort to French, landing somewhere in Frenglish. “You’re – how can he – Christian’s here with – what, the Christophers?”

“Yes. We had to leave him in New York when we came to save you.” Flynn answers levelly, though the pain is evident in his eyes. “He was in a bad way, we had to let them take care of him, but he – yes.”

Gabriel stares at his knees, as if in sudden doubt that they are solid, he is real, or this is actually happening. He gets convulsively to his feet, knocking Flynn’s hand off, and paces back and forth, as if to see if the news will get more plausible from up here. He looks slightly crazed, though at least he hasn’t completely flown off the handle like he did before. “So he’s – ” he starts at last. “He’s alive? He’s – he’s back?”

“It’s complicated.” Flynn moves to face him. “Gabriel, you have to understand, this is – it’s not the real thing, not yet. We have to send him back to 1590, or the timeline gets fucked, all of our past selves will think he’s dead, and if he doesn’t come back, he essentially will be. We don’t know what that would do, but it can’t be good. This is… I don’t know. A visit.”

Gabriel makes a small, agonized sound, and sits down again. “When? You said – what?”

“He’s flying out here with Denise and Michelle, they’re bringing him to the house whenever they arrive. There’s a situation with my stepbrother that they need to look into, something with Rittenhouse and the others in Venice.” Lucy glances at him awkwardly. “So yes. You’ll get to see him again. We just don’t know for how long.”

“I see.” Gabriel is white as a sheet. “I – yes. Well. Thank you. I – if you’ll excuse me?”

He gets to his feet and blunders out of the kitchen, leaving Flynn and Lucy behind him, as Lucy thinks that they’ll be lucky if he doesn’t run off to swim the Atlantic Ocean, Bordeaux clearly being insufficiently far to escape his troubles. She glances up at Flynn, who looks equally lost. They aren’t sure if they should go after Gabriel, let him have some time alone to wrap his head around this, or anything else. At least that wasn’t a flaming meteoric disaster, which counts as progress, but it’s very hard to say if it was actually an improvement. Finally, Lucy says, “What did you – with Sarah, did you get anything done with her?”

“I – yes.” Flynn speaks slowly, attention still on his departed brother, but he shakes his head and looks down at her. “Everyone’s been trying to coddle her, and I understand the impulse, believe me. But Temple’s been spoiling her and indulging her every whim, and she’s still a child, she doesn’t know everything that’s going on, and frankly, she’s wrong. We’re not who she thinks, and we don’t need to keep acting as guilty as if we are. So I went up there, I told her what was going on and who we were, and that we weren’t bringing her meals up and spending hours trying to coax her out any longer. If she wanted to eat, she would come down with the rest of the family, we’d be happy to have her, and that was that. You’ve all been trying to treat her with kid gloves, but you have to treat her like a parent. That doesn’t always mean being her friend. Kind, yes, and understanding, but still firm.”

“I’m glad you understood that.” Lucy reaches out to take his hand. “Did you tell Wyatt?”

“Yes. I think he went up to see if that helped him at all.” Flynn pulls out his phone restlessly and thumbs over to check on the status of Denise and Michelle’s Paris-Clermont flight (if they make it, since they have, at last contact, been stuck in JFK for four hours for no apparent reason). Half to himself, he says. “If they actually make it, we’ll see them tonight.”

He says that as if it would not be a world-shaking event, as if they would just cruise up and ask Christian how his summer went (though since they jumped back to May, they get to have it again). How is Christian doing? He’s a pretty bombproof guy normally, but this is wildly, outrageously, unrelentingly insane, and he still doesn’t have much idea who these witches are. He’s not going to pull a great escape and get the airspace of the entire eastern seaboard shut down, is he? Or maybe he trusts Michelle, because she helped him? Or –

“There’s nothing we can do before then,” Flynn reminds Lucy, though from his face, he has to repeat it for his own benefit. “Except here and whatever the hell is going on, when…” He trails off, then asks the obvious question. “Has Gabriel lost his mind?”

Lucy has to laugh. “I thought this was pretty standard for him, actually.”

“Well, yes,” Flynn admits. “But his old self, his past self, not – ”

At that, he stops, forced to reckon with the fact that he has no idea what Present Gabriel may or may not do, since he is only working on those two hundred and fifty years of radio silence, punctuated by a handful of brief and fraught interactions every decade or so. It could be entirely the case that Kate is someone that Gabriel knows well and has worked with for a while; Flynn would have no way of knowing. But from the look on his face, that is not the entirety of his concern. “Do you really think we can trust her?”

“You realize,” Lucy says, “that this is the exact situation that happened with us in 1590, but in reverse? Now he’s the one who turned up out of nowhere with a mysterious woman, a creature of powerful and unexplained abilities, with whom he claims to have some kind of relationship, and you’re the one who has never met or heard of her and has no reason to trust her or if she’s who she says she is or what the two of them are up to. For what it’s worth, I believe her. I can’t say why, but I do. I was just in this position, after all. I know it sucks. Whatever you and Gabriel have to deal with, do it with you two. Don’t take it out on her.”

“I won’t.” Flynn sighs and sits down. Like Maria, he appears to have aged in slight but visible ways, even if it technically isn’t possible for vampires. “I don’t know who he is or who he knows or what he does, and I’m tired of fighting with him. I’m so tired of it. If he needs her, if he’s working something out with her, whatever he’s doing, I’m going to let him do that. Maybe we need to start with being in the same room again, on consistent speaking terms, actually work at it step by step. And yes, it would be extremely hypocritical of me to jump down his throat about it. I just don’t want us in any more danger than we already are.”

“Me too.” Lucy gets up, putting her hands on his shoulders. “I can find a way to talk to her by myself, if you want. Avoid it looking like you’re ganging up on her. Since I was just in this situation, I think we could connect.”

“If you think so.” Flynn remains staring at the wall, then catches her hand, kisses it absently, and gets to his feet. “Well, this has been the hell of a day thus far. How are you doing on tracking down Jessica?”

“I’m trying.” To be honest, Lucy doesn’t have any idea how they would find Jessica. She thinks, explainable by nothing more than a blind hunch, that Jessica isn’t in the past anymore, that she’s somehow managed to escape, but that doesn’t explain if she was rescued (including by unfriendly parties) or if she got herself out. “I’d need to go somewhere with a real library. But we also can’t leave Sept-Tours just yet, even aside from Denise and Michelle, in case Anton and Gennady return with the werewolves and we’re not here. It would look like we’d stood them up, or we were tricking them. But I don’t know where we’d look if – ”

“I’ll think of some options.” Flynn leans down and kisses her hair. “Don’t work too hard.”

This is a wry joke, since they’re doing nothing but, but she can hear his worry in it, his recognition that she hasn’t been entirely right in the head since they returned, and is now having more responsibility and anxiety heaped on top. Lucy promises him that she’ll do her best, then heads out. She should go back to the library, but instead, driven by an impulse she can’t explain, she returns to Asher’s study.

It looks just the same as before. Of course it does. The same filmy light slanting through the windows, the boxes, the books, the arresting, unsettling sense of transience and intemporality, the thinness of the veil and the surreal, silent space that seems to flit between several different (and not very steady) states of being. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for or why it should be here, other than that she’s possessed of a not-entirely-rational conviction that there’s something. Why she should be able to find it when the de Clermonts never did, she doesn’t know, but they can’t have been in here very often. This was Asher’s sacrosanct space until the family fled in 1940, and after that, the only pilgrim must have been Maria, on the late nights when missing him became too much and she could only sleep on the floor where he walked, among the things that smell like him. Other than that, the static, shut-up nature of the place is proof enough of the fact that nobody’s done a systematic search. It still hurts too much, and she might be picking at the scab.

Lucy goes to the nearest shelf, pulls down a box with an explosion of dust bunnies, and carries it to the desk. Asher was alive for most of recorded history and deeply enmeshed in its various unfortunate events; he has to have something. There are stacks of carefully preserved letters from various correspondents, Lucy gets a jolt whenever she recognizes a famous name, and as a historian, she’s drooling to get in here and make a proper inventory. She probably couldn’t publish any of them in an academic journal, but you never know, and this is an archive of unparalleled richness and complexity. It’s not exactly filed or sorted, and it’ll take her ages to look through all the boxes, but it’s a start.

Lucy has just gotten deeply distracted by reading Asher’s letters of 1740 with Émilie du Châtelet – one of her favorite historical genius ladies, a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher whose translation of Newton’s Principia mathematica is still the French standard edition – when she moves a stack aside, it falls off, and hits the floor with a thud. Lucy scrambles to pick it up, thinks that she really needs to stop dropping his stuff, and then, while she’s on her hands and knees, notices a drawer on the underside of the desk, fitted and beveled so that it almost disappears into the wood. It’s carved with the reverse of the seal that he gave her – well, the second one, after she broke the first one to get the white stone out. It was the symbol of his trust in her, his promise to be there for her if he could, and while it’s the de Clermont family seal and not specific to Lucy, it’s worth a try. She gets up, hurries out of the study and up to her and Flynn’s tower, digs the seal out, and runs back.

Upon returning, Lucy slots it into the carving, and somehow is not surprised to discover that it fits perfectly, locking into place like a key. She twists it, feels the mechanism engage, and waits as the catches click back, feeling briefly and gratifyingly like Indiana Jones. Then the drawer springs open, revealing a sheaf of neatly folded and sealed letters. The handwriting on the topmost, unmistakably familiar, reads, Madame L. de Clermont.

Lucy’s heart skips a beat. She reaches in, removes it, and weighs the thick parchment in her hands, wondering just how long this has been here. Beneath, she can see more letters, and when her curiosity gets the better of her, she lifts them out. They’re addressed to each member of the family: Gabriel, Garcia, Wyatt, Cecilia, Christian, and even one to Mme. J. de Clermont. For half a moment, Lucy thinks that there somehow isn’t one for Maria, until she moves the stack and sees it. It reads only, Beloved.

Her breath runs out of her, and she sits back on her heels. She can’t be sure how long these have been in here, but to judge from the parchment and the style of the script, it looks like the sixteenth century. If Asher wrote these when he had his memories – it’s the only way there could be one addressed to Jiya, still three hundred years from joining the family – it must have been during the six weeks at Sept-Tours while Lucy was making the philosopher’s stone. Her hands rattle as she turns over her letter and breaks the handsome crimson seal, incised with the wolf and lion, still crisp as if freshly stamped – and then, with a deep breath as if about to go under for a plunge, she shakes it open.

1st September, 1590 a.d.

My dear daughter:

I write this in the golden watches of the evening, when the candles have just come aglow across Sept-Tours, the world is dark and soft and trembling upon the edges of all things, and you are, I believe, presently in the library. It would be surprising were you to be anywhere else. At what day or hour, what far-distant year, you may discover this letter, I know not. I trust only that you will. You shall be leaving us in a very few more days to return to London, and I hope that the business may be completed, that you shall achieve the purpose on whence you travelled here. Yet you and I know that this is not an end to the trial, that the nature of this struggle means that a greater war is coming, and it may become difficult for me to assist as greatly as I would prefer. Yet when you discover this, let it be known that whatever else might have been taken from you, this was not. A poor pledge, perhaps, but one made with no less love and honour and firm intention than any oath I have ever sworn.

If you return and I am gone, if I have still met the fate which you knew of me, do not blame yourself. I will ask you to take our memories, and I will hold by that promise, for us all. Yet perhaps you will forgive me this small transgression, this vestige of mortal fear, should it prove to be of greater service. I have fashioned this drawer for the purpose of keeping these messages safe until it is time that my family should rediscover them, and I have written down enough of what you told me – only the greater points of strategy, not the intimate tragedy – so that I may, at diverse points in the years to come, search out intelligence that may be of use to you. I cannot see the future in perfect clarity, of course. Only to guess at it, to grasp at shadows on cave walls, as a man of my human homeland once famously remarked. If I may humbly claim so, I do know rather more of most things than most men, but as ever, not all.

So, then. Whatever you find in here, I hope it may be of some small use. I have also written letters to my wife, my sons, my grandchildren, and to Cecilia, in hope that they may be a balm to their souls in dark days, and yet pray with deep selfishness that they will never be needed, that I will live and I will say these words aloud, with my own tongue, rather than the poor and mean medium of ink and quill. If not, I trust you to give them as needed.

I have never known a witch such as you. I do not think the world has, in all its many ages, and that, if nothing else, will be my greatest solace.

In my utmost esteem, respect, and affection,

Your good-father,

Asher de Clermont.

Lucy sits for an eternal moment after she has finished reading, staring down at the words until her eyes blur with tears. She puts it aside quickly, not wanting to stain it with salt water, and covers her face, shoulders racking as she fights not to break down completely. But it’s not working. It keeps bubbling up, all her fear and all her uncertainty and all her desperate, foolish, futile hope that he would be here and he would have gotten to say this, the way that he deserved, the way they all did. But he’s not, and while she’s grateful that his magnificent, matchless insight saw far enough into the future to help her, to assemble this box of evidence, she just feels sore and sick at heart. She’ll look at it, of course she’ll look at it, and maybe it will indeed do something. Just not what she wanted it to. Do not blame yourself, Asher said. He must have guessed that she would. That, or –

“Madame?”

Lucy’s head jerks up, because nobody has ever called her Madame in this house. That title belongs to Maria – or currently, to Jiya – and she feels as if there has either been a mistake, or it’s so deliberately wrong as to whiff of mockery. But it’s neither. It’s Kate, standing at the door and looking concerned. She’s changed out of the expensive sweater and skirt, though she looks just as fashionable in skinny jeans and a bangled top. In the dimness of the dusty, shut-up study, her light and beauty is once more overwhelming, shining like Yvaine from Stardust. “I am sorry,” she says. “I just – I sensed that something was – I can go.”

“I… no.” Lucy was thinking about talking to her, though she’s not sure she can pull herself together enough to be clever right now. Still, she sucks a deep breath and forces a smile, summoning up her French. “I’m sorry. I just… I was caught off guard, and – ”

She’s not really doing a very good job at explaining, but Kate seems to understand anyway. She pauses in search of permission, then steps across the threshold, thus becoming perhaps the fourth person to enter this shut-off sanctum in almost eighty years. “I sensed your pain. I wasn’t sure where in the house it was coming from, but I followed it up here. If I should not be in here, I will go.”

“I – no. It’s all right.” Lucy scoots over on the floor, and Kate sits down next to her. It is comforting just to be close to her, to feel as if her torn and tattered and fractured edges are holding together even when they don’t want to, and she can understand something of Gabriel’s current need for her. “We – we obviously don’t know each other well, but thank you. I’m sorry things have been awkward.”

“It is all right.” Kate rests one elegant, braceleted arm on her knee. “People lash out and act in foolish ways when they are in pain, and you must see past that and the hurtful words to what is in the heart below, if it is good or bad, and how you wish to answer. It is not something that has come easily, learning that. It has been a choice for me to be as I am now, in any number of ways. I could be very different. For you too, I think, but in other ways.”

“Yes.” Lucy lets out a slow, shuddering breath. “I just don’t think I can do this.”

Kate forbears to ask what exactly “this” is, but she reaches out and puts a hand on Lucy’s where it has fallen on the floor. After a pause she says, “That is why you are lashing out, is it not? Why you are angry at everyone. You are traumatized.”

“I – ” It has crossed Lucy’s mind to wonder if she actually does have PTSD, but she dismissed it. It’s something that soldiers in warzones get, veterans who can’t hear fireworks without flashing back to active combat. What she’s been through – yes, it is terrible and incredibly difficult and constantly stressful, and yes, there have definitely been battles, and there were major things like Kelley’s attack on Sept-Tours and the fight with Rittenhouse, but it still doesn’t seem to qualify. It wasn’t bad enough for her, a middle-class academic, a relatively privileged white woman, to go around acting like that. Not when others had it worse. She just needed to be strong enough to prove that she could do it. She’s done that her whole life. With her parents’ death, and getting through Stanford and Yale, and not being enough of a witch, and then the mystery of Ashmole 782 and this entire more-than-mortal war – in a sick way, it’s almost been comforting, because she’s put her skill and strength to the test over and over, and it’s easier to convince the nasty little voice in her head that it’s wrong when it starts going on about what a failure she is. But there’s nothing that’s enough for it, not when she’s crying over Asher’s letter because she still feels that there’s no way she can be worthy of this great trust. At last she says, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Mmm.” Kate twists her fingers together. “I know, you see. I was that same way. As long as I was angry, I knew that I could control things, and I would feel stronger than everyone else I met. It was… necessary, when I was that way, but it was too devouring, when I became myself. But it’s all right, you know. To feel as you do.”

“I don’t…” Lucy trails off. She’s always the one trying to support everyone else, and she doesn’t know how to handle someone – apart from Flynn, at least – doing it for her. She can sense that Kate is one of those people who has endured unimaginable cruelty and it has only made her kind, and after another moment, she says, “I’m sorry, this isn’t my business. But how did you – how did you get over it? Whatever happened to you?”

Kate lifts her head and looks at Lucy thoughtfully, as if judging how she will react, or reading her emotions in the way she did earlier, whatever about Lucy’s grief was strong enough to draw her up here. Then she says, “When I was born, my parents believed that I was a boy. The rest of the world thought so too, until I fought to have it understood otherwise. I am still not sure if it would enrage my mother more that I am a woman, or that I am here with a vampire. She was one for… strict ideas of things.”

“I – ah.” Lucy has a sudden realization of needing to protect Kate at all costs. “I see.”

Kate glances at her again, as if to see if there will be anything else, but seems somewhat relieved when there is not. They sit there for several more moments, listening to the silence. Then Kate says, “Should I leave you to the work?”

“Honestly, I could use some help.” Lucy reaches into the drawer and removes the stack of material beneath the letters. “If you have nothing better to do.”

“No, no. It is fine.” Kate takes the pages and squints at them. “What am I looking for?”

“I don’t know. Anything that seems important. It’s a collection of things that – that Asher left for me. Monsieur de Clermont.” Lucy isn’t sure how to explain that, since he died in 1944, but Kate doesn’t press for details. “Things he thought would be useful for now.”

The two women work for several hours, sifting through the collected papers. As Asher said, he couldn’t see the future, and some things are interesting, but don’t seem relevant for further research. Lucy keeps them just in case, but she and Kate manage to winnow the stack down to a comparatively slim pile of papers – things Asher heard, learned about, managed to acquire from across his extensive intelligence networks – that look more promising. Among them are the names Bathsheba and Abiah Foulger – two sisters, witches, who Lucy knows, but has never met. They were Amelie Wallis’s protégés at the end of her life, and lived in Amelie’s house in upstate New York, which stood on the spot where Denise and Michelle’s is now until it burned down in 1863. There is a letter from one of them – it looks like Bathsheba – to Asher, confirming that they have recently sent a witch back to her own time, after she arrived in search of their assistance. Her name, Bathsheba notes, was Jessica.

“Jessica?” Lucy says aloud, very startled. That might make sense, since Jessica knows where the house is – she arrived there under Temple’s thrall in order to attack Flynn, after all – but if the Foulger sisters met her in the 1680s, that is a full two hundred years after Jessica’s first port of call in the 1480s. So she managed to get herself some of the way back, or did she meet another witch who did it for her? “Bathsheba and Abiah sent her home? Where? Now?”

“Let me see.” Kate touches the paper, closing her eyes, and focuses hard. Then she says, “It is faint, I cannot get much of the echo. But yes, here, I think. This year, at least. If you had a picture of her, or something that belonged to her, I could search more thoroughly.”

“I don’t think there’s one in this house.” Lucy would be surprised if any token of Jessica remains anywhere in Sept-Tours – aside from her daughter, that is. “Could you search through Sarah? Maybe?”

“The girl? Yes, that might work. Would you like me to do that now?”

“I’m not sure. We might have put Sarah through enough today by siccing Garcia on her.” Lucy gathers up the papers and letters, wondering if she should hand them out to the de Clermonts like party favors, or bite the bullet, restore their memories, and provide them as explanation later. She’s already done it with Gabriel, which was the biggest one to worry about, so she should do it with everyone else, especially before Christian gets here. “Thank you for your help. Let’s go downstairs and run intervention.”

Kate giggles, Lucy offers her a hand up off the dusty floor, and she locks up the drawer and reconstitutes the study before they leave. They descend the stairs to find Flynn, Gabriel, and Wyatt in the same room in Sept-Tours for perhaps the second time in the twenty-first century to date, and all looking extremely awkward about it. To the communal surprise, Sarah is also present, though she is lurking in the corner. But everyone turns around when Kate and Lucy enter the room, and an oblique glance is exchanged between Gabriel and Flynn. Then Gabriel says, “Have you – something to grace us with, my dears?”

He still sounds as if he could be knocked over with a feather, as if the best way to process this Christian news is to pretend that everything is fine and ordinary, and Lucy wonders what they were talking about before they were interrupted. “Sort of,” she says. “I – Wyatt, I actually need to do something for you. Your memories of when you met us before in 1590, I just… I was going to give them back. And then I have something for all of you, late – later.”

Wyatt looks considerably surprised, as well as wary, but he nods and gets to his feet. Kate glances at Sarah, manages to exert some mystical child-whispering influence on her, and the girl gets up and pads carefully over. Lucy reaches up to perform the same process on Wyatt that she did with Gabriel in Liechtenstein, and Kate puts her hand on Sarah’s head and closes her eyes. Flynn and Gabriel observe this dual magical enterprise in silence, until Wyatt blinks hard, looks very surprised, and then both confused and alarmed. “Shit,” he says. “So that was a complete disaster, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Gabriel says, half to himself. “Yes, I am afraid it rather was.”

At the same moment, Kate lets go of Sarah, and turns to the others. “I am not entirely sure,” she says. “I have not searched for Jessica before, but as far as I could trace her, I think she may be in Romania. In hiding. I cannot tell where exactly, but in the present.”

“Romania?” Wyatt looks both relieved and even more confused. “Why would she be there?”

“I have a theory.” Lucy glances at Jiya. “You said that you found her book in the University of Bologna, didn’t you? I also saw a copy in London. There was a part that she had written with the help of Matthias Corvinus’ library. The Raven King. Corvinus’ family castle was in Hunedoara, in Transylvania. He was a great magician, he could have managed to send her into the seventeenth century, but maybe she got stuck there and had to find the Foulger sisters to get her the rest of the way home. And what if Jessica brought back some magical books from his library? It’s lost in the present, just like Ashmole 782, but if she has something that she doesn’t want Rittenhouse and the others to have – ”

Flynn, Gabriel, and Wyatt exchange a startled look. This is not out of the realm of possibility, since Lucy definitely worried about Temple getting his hands on Corvinus’ library before, and Jessica wrote her book in the first place, as far as they can tell, to attract creature attention and get someone to take her back to her daughter. Flynn also sent his past self on a wild goose chase with a rumor that the Raven King’s lost magical books had opportunely turned up, and if that is going to end up being true, but not in the way they expected, it could prove to be a strategic advantage. Along with getting Jessica back, of course, and there are a few moments of intense thought. Sarah darts away from Kate and eyes up her uncle Gabriel in interest, as Gabriel makes panicked shooing motions. Clearly, he is not a fan of small children. “Er, that way,” he says, pulling his leg out of her reach. “That way, infant, please.”

Lucy glares at him, but Sarah crosses to Flynn, and – startling everybody, particularly Flynn – considers, then crawls up and plumps herself determinedly in his lap. She eyes everyone defiantly, as if to say that if she is in fact not going to die, then she would like some snuggles, and since this is the first major breakthrough they have had with her, or possibly ever, nobody knows how to react to it. Then Flynn gingerly wraps one arm around her, adjusting her on his knee, and says to Wyatt, doing his best to carry on the conversation as if everything is normal, “Who should we send to Romania?”

“I’m pretty sure Jess isn’t going to be a big fan of me,” Wyatt says. “But I still think that I should go anyway. If nothing else, I have things to say to her, and…” He trails off, then shakes his head. “If I was her, I sure as hell wouldn’t be a fan of a messenger. I’ve missed enough time with her and with Sarah, and I just… I want to see her again.”

Gabriel glances at his youngest brother with an odd, unreadable look, but a distinct edge of pained guilt lurks beneath the surface. As far as Lucy has gathered, it was on his and Maria’s direct intervention that Wyatt was forced to break up with Jessica, since the de Clermonts would not allow one of their sons to date a witch, not after the witches had prevented them from rescuing Asher from the Nazis in time and Maria slaughtered a number of them in revenge. Lucy herself is proof of the fact that they have changed their minds, and Wyatt hasn’t been nasty to her about it, but it still has to sting that she’s sitting here as a respected and accepted member of the family, Flynn’s fiancée/wife, while Jessica has been nearly killed, used as a magical slave, driven into the past and then some remote Transylvanian exile for being in the exact same situation of daring to love a de Clermont brother while being a witch. She has lost her daughter, Wyatt has lost both of them, and that is not-insignificantly Gabriel’s fault, just as he has blown his relationship with Flynn and squandered nearly all of Lucy’s previous liking for him. After a long pause, Gabriel says, “Go to Romania, Wyatt. You deserve to see her, and to save her if you can.”

“What?” Wyatt looks over at Gabriel, startled and more than a little angry. “No sermons about the honor of the family? Nothing to say about how it was desecrating Papa’s memory to love a witch, and how Maman would never stand for it? Even if, as you knew the entire goddamn time, Jess had absolutely nothing to do with that?”

Gabriel flinches, but doesn’t lash back, as if aware that he deserves that. “I have many sins. I have hurt all of you repeatedly and in ways I cannot easily mend, when as the head of the family, I should have taken Papa’s place and protected you. This at least is one thing that I can amend. If you think that you can find her there, you should go.”

“Thanks,” Wyatt says. “Better late than never, or something like that. I’ll look into making arrangements, but I can’t go until – ” He stops, as if suddenly and horrifyingly uncertain whether Gabriel knows. “Did you – hear about who’s – ?”

“I…” Gabriel is very pale, but he clenches his hands on his knees and does his best to speak levelly. “Yes. Garcia and Lucy told me about that… particular circumstance. I half thought it was a cruel joke, though I know they would not. I – do not know what to make of it.”

“I can guess not.” Wyatt’s tone softens, grudgingly, as he and Gabriel are currently experiencing the shock of reuniting with their children in somewhat different ways. “I don’t think anyone would.”

There is a brief and very poignant pause, none of the de Clermonts sure what to say to that or able to comprehend the terrible void of Christian’s absence being somehow filled, even temporarily. Kate moves to sit next to Gabriel, and he takes a fierce breath and clasps her hand. Lucy wonders if she should break the news about Asher’s letters, or let them get through one emotionally draining gauntlet before piling on with the other. She looks at Flynn, who dutifully removes his phone to check, and announces that according to Denise, they have just arrived in Charles de Gaulle, too late to get their original connector to Clermont, but there is another one that leaves in two hours. Since it’s a brief flight, they should be here by evening. No big deal.

The rest of the afternoon drains by in a feeling that can’t decide if it’s the night before Christmas or the night before your execution. Everyone is too nervous to work much, and Flynn paces on the ramparts to ensure that he gets enough cell reception in case there’s an urgent last-minute update. Wyatt is upstairs packing for Romania, Jiya is running around trying to fix up the house, and Gabriel and Kate have gone down to the orchard, where they are absorbed in intense conversation. Lucy knocks around Sept-Tours like a billiard ball, picks up things and puts them down, tries to help Jiya clean out of some sense that she should, and finally gives up, sitting down and staring at nothing. Every second sludges by in a minor eternity. Something will go wrong, won’t it? Something is going to go wrong, and Christian will never get here. Someone will attack Denise and Michelle, history will repeat itself in some unspeakable fashion, and it will all go wrong, it will all come crashing down. She’ll have to fight, she’ll have to defend it, do whatever it takes to –

Lucy is jerked back to reality by the sensation of burning, as she looks down and sees her hands smoking where they rest on her lap, and clenches them quickly until the sparks go out. If she’s not careful, she’ll lose control of her magic and torch the place again all by herself, no nefarious outside intervention required. She remains where she is, until Flynn finally ducks in and announces, as casually as possible, that the Christophers and plus-one have landed, are renting a car, and should be here in about forty minutes, depending on how craftily the GPS decides to lead Denise astray on the twisting, unmarked roads that surround the estate. “I could go get them,” he says. “She won’t be able to find the place, she’ll – ”

“Denise is a witch and a former federal agent. She’s used to tracking things down.” Lucy gets up and regrets it, as the world performs a lightheaded reel that makes her clutch Flynn’s arm for balance. “If there’s nothing out there waiting for them, they’ll make it.”

“Shit.” Flynn’s eyes widen at the possibility of something he has forgotten to plan for. “Do you think there’s something lying in wait – ? Should I run out and do a sweep, or – ” At that, he frowns, looks down at her, and peels her fingers off where they have almost bionically melded with his forearm. “Moja ljubav, are you feeling all right?”

“Sorry.” Lucy looks at the imprint of her fingers, which have left a faintly charred brand on his skin. Vampires are flammable, after all; she needs to get this strange new side effect under control for more reasons than one. She feels stupidly close to tears. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, no. It’s fine.” Flynn lifts his arm and licks the wound away, but he’s still looking at her with clear concern. “Lucy. What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

“It’s just…” Lucy wrestles with the beast in her chest, the beast that wants her to shut up and take it on the chin and not be weak. “It’s a lot of things right now. Coming back to the twenty-first century, and realizing that we didn’t save your father, and just how much there is to do to stop Rittenhouse and how impossible it is when nobody besides us seems to care, and Christian’s coming here but we haven’t really saved him, and it’s a mess with both your brothers, and my stepbrother is also in danger, and we’re just – are we going to get it, Garcia? Whatever we’re fighting for? A life? A future? Time?”

“I don’t know.” Flynn sits down on the window ledge, bringing their heights to a more even kilter, and puts his hands on her shoulders, holding her gently but firmly. “I wish I had a better answer for you. I’ve faced some dark times before, and I didn’t know then either. It doesn’t get easier, even if you’ve done it before, but at least none of us are alone. I’m here for you, and so are they. You are a de Clermont, remember? Papa said so. It’s your name too, and you’re one of us.”

Lucy tries to answer, but she can’t, so she just leans forward and kisses him, as he brushes her tears away and cups her chin between thumb and forefinger. They remain like that, foreheads touching, until at last Flynn’s phone emits a ping, startling them, and he looks down. It’s a text from Michelle, presumably sent on this end because Denise is concentrating on her battle of wits with French back roads, warning them that they expect to be here in about ten minutes. If they needed to do any preparing of souls and backsides, now is the time.

“Fuck,” Flynn says, half to himself, as he slides off the window and gets to his feet. “Jesus Christ. I guess we – need to get everyone together?”

This is accomplished, as Lucy wonders which one of them will stop just looking like they’re going to faint and actually do it first, and everyone tromps outside into the green-gold spring dusk. Gabriel is as rigid as a statue, staring straight ahead, and Flynn doesn’t look terribly steady either. Wyatt looks like he’s reminding himself to breathe while forgetting that he doesn’t need to, and Jiya clasps her hands behind her back like a schoolgirl, doing an anxious, unconscious sway from side to side. Lucy and Kate, standing at the side of their respective vampires, glance at each other briefly, then concentrate on the front gates again. Fine. This is fine. Completely normal. Everyone’s doing great.

At the sound of a car crunching up the drive, everyone rocks back on their heels and sets their feet as if bracing themselves for a punch, and headlights swing into view. Denise and Michelle’s rental is an unassuming red Peugeot, looking out of place among the stately medieval towers, extensive grounds, and old wealth of Sept-Tours, and there’s a brief crackle as they pass through the magical defense perimeter that Lucy and the Sokolovs put up. Having assured itself that the visitors are no threat, the iridescent aura fades, and the car comes to a stop. The engine dies, and the headlights switch off. Then the doors open, and Denise, Michelle, and Christian get out.

At the sight of his son, Gabriel makes an awful, choked noise, like the sucking gasp of a man stabbed in the back and doing his best not to collapse on the spot. To Lucy’s eyes, having only ever seen Christian in his sixteenth-century clothes, he looks utterly bizarre. His dark golden hair is pulled back in a casual ponytail, he has a faint shadow of scruff, and his clothes are that of any early-twenties hipster: plaid button-down, T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and army surplus bag, clearly borrowed from Mark’s old stuff. He looks like an extremely handsome software start-up nerd, having apparently weathered his first-ever airplane flight in more or less fine fettle, and he stares up at Sept-Tours with a confused and awed look on his face. Then he looks down, sees his family standing beneath it in completely frozen array, and – since this is not nearly as shocking for him, he’s left them at most a month ago, and in Flynn and Lucy’s case, little over a week – grins happily and jogs over. “Hello!”

Gabriel just manages to say something that sounds like the Latin introit of the Mass before his paralysis breaks, and he hurtles forward. Christian has just enough time to look confused before his father seizes him around the neck and clutches him so frantically that he almost disappears. They go to their knees on the stones of the courtyard, Gabriel completely undone, unable to utter a single word, as Christian – looking befuddled and somewhat concerned for his father’s well-being and mental state – pats him comfortingly on the back. “Papa,” he says. “Papa, yes, it’s me, I’m – what is it they say it here? – okay. I’m okay.”

Gabriel doesn’t answer, as Flynn remains where he is an instant longer, then likewise rockets forward, throwing himself to his knees and gathering both of them into his arms. The three of them remain in a heap, Gabriel silently sobbing so hard that his entire body shakes, Christian continuing to look puzzled but solicitous, and Flynn closing his eyes and just holding them as tightly as he possibly can. Everyone regards this touching scene for several uncertain moments, until Lucy looks over at Denise and Michelle. “Ah,” she says, conscious that this is the first time they’re seeing her here, in this house with this family, mistress and lady, Lucy de Clermont in truth. “Welcome – welcome to Sept-Tours.”

“Thank you.” Denise and Michelle step forward, looking tired and travel-worn, and hug Lucy. “We won’t stay too long, we’ll check into the Airbnb down in the village. We just – we wanted to drop Christian off first.”

“Th – thank you.” Lucy glances at Jiya, as if to ask if they’re welcome to stay for supper, and Jiya gives a small nod. “How is – how did everything go with – that?”

“I managed to get him a last-minute passport, at least.” Denise is not normally one to break the law, even in the service of useful aims, but this could not be avoided, and besides, with her son under official creature investigation, maybe even she is not feeling as confident in the system as usual. “Had to call in all kinds of favors, but we made it. He’s a… well, he’s a great guy. Everything was wildly and bizarrely new to him, obviously, but he just did whatever we said. I’ve never seen someone actually enjoy airport security before.”

“That’s Christian for you.” Lucy snorts a small, unsteady laugh. “No problems with any other creatures on the way?”

“I don’t think so. We were looking carefully, but we could have missed something.” Denise’s lips go thin. “Have you found out anything else about what’s happening with Mark?”

“We’re looking into it.” This is true, though Lucy can’t help but feel as if she should have something more concrete to present. She glances over at Christian, who is extricating himself from the clutches of his dads and getting to his feet, as in fear that he has been in dereliction of his manners to the others. “Hey,” Lucy says faintly. “Hey, how are you feeling?”

“All right.” Christian bounds over and hugs her, and Lucy clings to him, able to believe in the solidness and presence and permanency of him, to delude herself that it will always be like this. “How are you, Aunt Lucy? You look tired.”

“I’m fine. Just a lot of work.” Lucy stands on her tiptoes as he leans down to kiss her cheek, and then steps aside. Christian and Wyatt look at each other, Wyatt opens and shuts his mouth, and neither of them say anything. Then he steps forward, catches Christian’s hand and starts to do a bro-hug by stunned reflex, but is cut off as Christian, having no idea what that is and not caring anyway, hugs him fiercely and properly.

For an instant, Wyatt looks completely shocked. After all, he is utterly unused to this, any member of his family providing instant and unqualified affection, and he’s certainly never received it from either of his brothers. He’s suffered from Christian’s loss as well, if not in the same way as Gabriel and Garcia, and he closes his eyes and harrumphs, as if to remind himself that he will not be so completely undignified as to lose his shit in front of everyone. “Hey, man,” he says, strangled and shaking. “Hey, it’s really good to see you.”

“You too, Uncle William.” Christian stops, then frowns. “Wait, what was it? Wyatt?”

“It’s fine,” Wyatt says roughly, gripping Christian’s shoulders and giving him a little shake. “It’s fine, you can call me whatever. You’ve had a lot to get used to, huh?”

“Yes. There are doors that open by themselves when you walk up to them, and you can get a drink called a Starbucks with a card!” Christian looks set to go on at length about his adventures in the twenty-first century, but then spots Kate and Jiya, and blinks in surprise. “Who are – ? Hello, I’m Christian de Clermont. It is lovely to meet you.”

“Hi,” Jiya says, in a squeak. “I’m your – I’m your cousin, Jiya. Garcia’s daughter. We – we haven’t met before.”

Christian solemnly shakes her hand, though he is looking at her with barely-constrained curiosity and eagerness, before turning to Kate and shaking her hand as well. From the expression on his face, Lucy can tell that he has likewise been knocked for six by her radiance, and his jaw sags as he stares at her, before he remembers that he is being rude and snaps it shut. “You are here with Papa? That is good. I think he needs you.”

“I will try,” Kate says, again shy. She glances over at Gabriel and Flynn, who have managed to clamber to their feet and are still staring at Christian as if they can see nothing else in the entire universe. “But I think he needs you more.”

Shaky-legged, gasping, feeling as if they’ve run a marathon and are coming down from a punishing adrenaline high, the de Clermonts and company stagger inside. It’s agreed that Denise and Michelle will stay for dinner, though Denise does want to check in before it gets too late, and takes the car keys and heads back outside. Christian is settled in his old room in his own tower, which has likewise remained shuttered for over two hundred and fifty years, and everyone can barely look at each other without some sort of breathless, disbelieving laugh. Since Cecilia is gone, they’ve been trying to trade off the cooking (Lucy is completely terrible at it, though she hopes she can at least follow a recipe) and she whips something together in complete distraction. Jesus, this is weird.

Denise returns, they sit down, and eat together, even the vampires partaking in the name of solidarity, and everyone is kind enough to assure Lucy that it tastes delicious. Flynn and Gabriel are stuck on either side of Christian like barnacles, as if afraid that he will disappear again, and Gabriel barely touches anything because he’s too busy staring. As it stands, Christian doesn’t remember most of what went on in 1590, apart from what he gleaned in the weeks with Flynn and Lucy in London. He doesn’t remember the blow-up over taking him to the New World and Gabriel’s other hare-brained plans, he doesn’t remember killing Edward Kelley and the attack on Sept-Tours, he doesn’t remember any of that. Lucy shrinks from the idea of returning it to him, and either way, she doesn’t have to do it tonight. Reality will return in a cruel, cold blast soon enough. Can’t they just have this solace, this sweet lie, for now?

After supper, Christian is introduced to his young cousin Sarah, who seems inclined to trust him on first acquaintance in a way she hasn’t with any of the others, and the two of them play genially together. Flynn, Gabriel, and Wyatt all stare at it as if they’re communally dreaming, especially when Jiya makes her way over to tentatively join in. It is the first time in history that the de Clermont brothers have seen all of their children together, and Lucy watches them with something indescribable, terrible joy and terrible pain at once, clawing at her heart. It half-feels like Corra, her firedrake familiar, with her blazing claws, but Corra’s magic isn’t like this, Corra doesn’t hurt so much. She should do something useful. Keep sorting through Asher’s papers, or decide if they’re going to Oxford to make a retrieval attempt on Ashmole 782, or wait for the Sokolovs to turn up with the werewolves (assuming, that is, that they do). What she really wants is for Flynn to carry her upstairs and toss her down on their bed, fuck her and fill her and be just rough enough to make the demons shut up for a goddamn few seconds. Lucy has paid a discreet visit to a pharmacy a few towns over and gotten the pill, so there is no logistical barrier to the resumption of their intimacy. But she can’t take him away from this moment, can’t be so selfish as to march in and crassly break this up for her own sake. This is his night for Christian and Gabriel and how much they have missed each other, how utterly dysfunctional they’ve been, and how they can just be together in the twenty-first century for the very first time ever. Lucy doesn’t want to intrude.

She takes a step back, then another, and leaves the family behind in the warm solar, some almost-complete image of what they used to be, some kind of carnival funhouse mirror or spinning kaleidoscope. She climbs the stairs to the wallwalk, pushes the door open, and emerges outside, onto the parapets. It’s deep dusk, the moon rising, huge and ivory as a dish of cream, and clouds rush across its face. The wind smells like rain, and Lucy can see it moving toward her in a swift dark shadow, the treetops bending where the droplets strike. Perhaps she should go back inside if she doesn’t want to be soaked, but she feels oddly and irresistibly powerful, and she wants to try it out. She raises her hands and can sense ambient electricity crackling around them, reacting to the power of the storm. She shapes and fashions a glowing ball of lightning, winds up, and hurls it into the dark woods below.

It hits with a muffled boom and flare, and the trees light up in a tower of sparks, before the leading edge of the rain sweeps in and puts it out. Lucy tips her face up to the deluge, soaking it in like a desert flower at the end of the drought. The rain dances and scuttles and scurries oddly around her, hissing and bursting into puffs of steam where it touches her skin, and she wonders if she’s undergoing another sort of magical metamorphosis, as seems to happen every so often. She flexes her fingers and summons up the familiar white glow, as if to get a bead on what might be happening, so she can –

– except it isn’t white.

Lucy stares at it, confused and unsettled. It has to be white, she’s the white queen, it was here that she found that out in the first place, it’s always been white. But now the deepest, elemental glow of her, the part most connected to the alchemical wedding and the most extensive realization of her power, isn’t any more. It’s a dark grey, close to black, shot through with pinpricks of light like distant stars, but otherwise ombre, shadowed, sooty. Even as she watches, it deepens a few shades, spreading out like ripples of ink in a pool, and turns completely black.

Panicking slightly, Lucy shakes her hands as if to recalibrate a finicky gauge, or turn off one supply and switch to the other. But it doesn’t. It’s powerful – it’s so powerful that she feels like she could crush anything in her path to dust, could raze cities and rebuild their gods in her own image, could twist and tear and alter anything she wanted to. But it’s for that exact reason that she doesn’t trust it, like a consuming wildfire only barely restrained. Whatever this is, it wants to kill, to maim, to dominate. And there’s no telling if it will turn back.

La Reine Blanche, Flynn called her once. But this isn’t that. This is her opposite, her fell doppelganger, her fatal shadow. And perhaps, with everything, it’s not surprising. But how – Lucy struggles to think – is this her? Did she do this? Is this only the inevitable change, after everything she’s been feeling? Or is it literally poisonous?

No way to tell. No way to know. She stands there in the rain, staring at her jet-black-glowing hands, and wonders, as ever, how deep the rabbit hole goes. Or what’s at the bottom, or if there is one. The moon vanishes behind the clouds, and so, in truth, it is what she is.

La Reine Noir.

Chapter Text

Maria de Clermont is asleep, is very deeply asleep, of that there can be no doubt – and yet, for the first time in over three thousand years, she is dreaming. Vampires do not dream, it has always been the case, both blessing and curse. There are no nightmares, at least none that she does not already live, and yet there is also no solace, no sweet moment between sleeping and waking when she could keep her eyes closed and cling to the softness of a vanished dream, a fleeting ghost. Some part of her unconscious mind knows that this is not happening, that it is an illusion, and yet the sheer unfamiliarity of it overpowers that control. She stands in the acropolis in Athens, beneath a cloudless sky. The musical cadence of ancient Greek rings off the sun-washed stones, as merchants shout their wares and orators make speeches and eccentric philosophers act like apes to prove whatever point they wish to make about the nature of humanity. Girls rush by in flowing chitons with flowers in their hair, and the white columns of the Parthenon rise to the unbroken roof, the interior painted with friezes of the goddess Athena, patron of the city. As the high priestess of Artemis, Maria is not quite to that exclusive echelon, but she is accorded respect wherever she passes, and beggars murmur blessings when she tosses a drachma into their bowl. She is different, she is younger – not in body, but in years, thousands of them. And just ahead, his back turned to her, as he observes a fierce debate between a pair of students that looks liable to devolve into fisticuffs – it is him. It has to be. It is him.

He is tall and lean, the sunlight flashing on his dark curls, the buckle of his shield and the hilt of his sword – the soldier’s prerogative alone to wear within the city, and indeed, he wears it very well. He is clad in a crisp white toga and a red cloak, gladiator sandals, hammered-bronze vambraces, but no other armor, not even a helmet. Perhaps this is the arrogance of immortality, and Maria’s dreaming heart begins to hammer in her chest, rising up, strangling her. She is convinced that it is him, it cannot be anyone else, but he has to turn around for her to be sure, and she shouts at the top of her lungs. Asherios! Asherios Athos!

Still he does not turn. He remains there, laughing, but she cannot see his face. She struggles to take another step, to reach him, but her legs have become locked in frozen mud. Then a shadow passes over the sun, the bustling marketplace turns cold and dim, and when she looks again, the man who might be Asher is no longer there. All that remains is a stripped skeleton, a bare and jumbled pile of bones, but the eyes stare at her from deep pits, like distant burning stars. The broken teeth move, and the cold wind whispers, Maria.

Horrified, Maria reaches out for it, has some mad notion of cobbling it back together with her own hands, but it turns to dust, sliding through her fingers in a fine grey evanescence. The columns crack, the temple falls, and all at once, she plunges. She has not fallen like this in a dream in her supernatural memory, or in life, and she is briefly convinced that at last, after so very long, she is going to die. She is terrified by it, and yet she cannot entirely refuse it. For perhaps at the bottom, beyond the blackness, there is him again, and that is where he waits for her, as if to catch a falling star as it plunged from heaven. If he is there, it is not so terrible. If he is not, it is the end and the cessation, the damnation and the failure, Icarus tumbling miles from the sky as his wax wings burned. Perhaps she has presumed so much, risked so greatly, that the punishment is fitting. Perhaps, at the end, it could be nothing but.

And yet, instants before she hits the bottom, Maria jerks, screams, and all at once, finds herself awake, thrashing and clutching at the pillows and feeling some ancestral human impulse to breathe, to cling fast and steady herself on the swiftly tilting planet before she does in fact spill away into space. She rolls over and lies on her back, eyes closed, cold sweat dewing on her brow, as she tries to make sense of anything, of where she is, of what has happened, of how long she has been asleep. She feels weak as water, drained of some vital energy, and has that fuzzy, clamoring ache in her head, the loss of control and the slowed reflexes, that means it has been too long since she has fed. Why is she in a bed, and not some filthy dungeon? Not that she remembers much, but she went with the red-haired witch, Emma Whitmore. Had some desperate impulse to get her away from her sons, to let Garcia and Lucy save Gabriel before their time ran out. That was the only thing that mattered. She has some hazy recollection of flying, of preparing herself to strike – and then nothing. Why did they not merely kill her? With the de Clermont matriarch in their grasp at long last, nothing would be easier. Or do they want her for something different? Something much worse?

Maria sits up slowly, foggy and reeling, and stares around the room. There is nothing to tell where she is, or anything of particular relevance. The furniture is nondescript, plain white, as are the walls. The windows have no locks or openings, tall slits of impermeable glass half-covered in roller blinds, and the carpet is beige. Aside from the bed, there is a chest of drawers, a chair, and a nightstand. This contains the only item of note: a polished black orb the size of a large marble, swirling with luminous streaks, in which Maria can briefly see her own face, the agora of Athens, and the man who might have been Asher. Then it vanishes into the depths of the thing, which turns an opaque, matte black and goes still.

Maria eyes it suspiciously, wonders if she should pick it up or try to smash it, or if she might only wish she had left well enough alone. She needs more information, she needs to find out where she is, and she swings her legs over the side of the bed and makes her way, wobbly as a newborn calf, to the window. All that greets her when she looks out is an endless march of characterless grey skyscrapers, half-buried in a low-lying fog. She could be in any major city on the planet, and she remembers again why she hates the modern world so much. It has no beauty, no aesthetic, no taste or decency or decorum, merely this march of brutal buildings, cold temples built for their hard-eyed masters to worship at the altar of mammon. Perhaps it is a fitting place for her confinement, if she is at all right about who must hold her here. Can she tear through the wall? Possibly, but it would take time, and no reason to display just how weak she feels. For once, as greatly as it goes against her own instincts, Maria decides to try diplomacy. Asher would have done so, after all, and she needs to be strategic.

“Good morning,” she says, raising her voice, addressing whatever hidden cameras or microphones are concealed in the corners. “I am awake. I wish to speak to someone.”

For a long moment, there is no response. Maria glances down and sees that she is still in the clothes she left Zurich in, though they are grubby and rumpled. Are her sons alive? Did Garcia save Gabriel? Are they here as well, trapped in the next room, or some less comfortable confinement? If so, Maria will hang diplomacy and every calm and reasoned action alike, but for better or worse, she does not think so. It is just her, at least right now. Perhaps they are searching for the others, or perhaps she is enough of a prize on her own.

At last, there is a click on the other side of the door – which Maria has not noticed until now, as it fits seamlessly into the white wall, only visible when it opens. It rolls up and aside, soundless as a ghost, and with that, David Rittenhouse steps into the room.

Maria’s heart shrivels in her chest. He has become powerful indeed these days, has fashioned himself entirely into a man to all appearances, though the blackness of the eyes cannot conceal his inner nature. Unlike the last time she saw him, in the Congregation chamber in Knights Templar regalia, he is dressed in shirt and slacks and blazer, modern glasses, polished shoes, like a well-to-do older gentleman who owns the entire tower block and is charitably coming by to see if his houseguest is awake yet. At the sight of her, the way she has sprung halfway up the wall and bared her fangs in a furious hiss, he smiles. “Please, Madame de Clermont. Come down from there, if you would be so kind.”

“You.” Maria drops back onto the bed, but does not relax her position of extreme vigilance. “What are you – ?”

“You are here by my good graces, of course.” Rittenhouse spreads his hands, faux-obsequious. A tip of gnarled fang shows as his smile widens, though he has clearly also made some effort to beautify his dentition. Must look good in the press photos, Maria thinks scathingly, though it seems that is enough to satisfy much of the creature world. “Do we not agree that I could have done far worse? Miss Whitmore brought you here, and her loyalty has been rewarded. She was of the mind that we should kill you, but I thought that unwise.”

“So – ” Maria will not beg, will not ask this beast for anything, but she must know. As scornfully as she can manage, she says, “So of course she lied. All of you did. You have nothing to do with my husband, no bargain to offer, and never did.”

“Oh, now. On that, you are wrong.” Rittenhouse strolls into the room and sits on the chair, settling himself comfortably. “I do intend a great deal to do with your husband, and I suspect my proposals would not be displeasing to you. For some time, I confess, my thoughts bent entirely upon revenge for the insult he had done me, but I need not be so petty and provincial. A creature of the stature of Asher de Clermont, a man still respected among all of our kind, whose legacy could never be matched or surpassed – that is a more useful tool. I am a timewalker, after all. You know precisely where the bunker is, the one where he was held in shameful captivity by the Nazis. Tell me, my dear, and I can travel to the very moment, pluck him free, and bring him back. He could be in your arms, wounded but alive, within hours. You could tenderly nurse him to health. Do you not want it?”

Despite herself, Maria is badly thrown. For one brief, utterly maddening moment, she has to admit that it could possibly work. If Rittenhouse traveled to 1942 or 1943 – or even early 1944 – and rescued Asher before his death, snatched him forward to the future, it could even be accomplished with a minimum of disruption to the timeline. The de Clermonts searching for him in the past would never find him, never know what had happened – but perhaps Rittenhouse would have some magical solution for that as well. Asher would be here, and of course she would stop at nothing to save him, to restore him. This drear grey room would become the most beloved place in the world if it was where she was reunited with him again. They would be together, he would be alive, and both of them would be –

Here. In the grasp of this man, this beast, the one Asher stopped at nothing to take down, even when he could not count on their sons for help, when it was done in 1796 when they had blown apart on the wind. Maria knows that he would never agree to that, never want it, yet even that, she could rationalize. Once the two of them were at full strength, they could fight their way out of here. No need to meekly sit and wait to see what terrible favor Rittenhouse would demand of them for the service. They could run home, to Sept-Tours, to their family, to their bed. If she just said yes, the waking nightmare could end, even as the dreaming one did. She could. She could. She could.

And yet, she cannot rid herself of the sure and certain knowledge that it is utterly an error to trust David Rittenhouse in any circumstances, that he would find some way to cheat, to bind Asher somehow, to set some malicious trap that could spring across centuries if Maria sought to defy him in this. She wants it more than life itself, but she cannot agree, not like this. Even as it breaks her heart afresh, she can feel the small soft click, she says, “No.”

“No?” Rittenhouse raises both eyebrows. “I must say, my dear, that does surprise me. So long wreaking havoc on anyone you could, even knowing it would not return him to life, and now when you have a simple, direct, and bloodless action to retrieve him, you spurn it? Do you mistrust me so much as that? You know, when he first woke me in that dark place under Poveglia, Michael Temple placed me in his thrall, a puppet for his purposes. I was weak and beastly, and could not resist him, not at first. But now that I have grown stronger and stronger, in command of myself and my full powers, I have broken his presumptuous hold on me. I know that he has done you and your loved ones many insults. Should we not be rid of him as well, and the de Clermonts more properly become my right hand, the most powerful family in all the world? You have so many talents, and you have not been appreciated for them, have been treated with disdain and disbelief and scorn when you have tried only to do good and speak the truth. We have a great deal in common.”

“We do not.” Maria’s voice is rusty, stuck in her throat, and it’s not quite as forceful as she wants. “All you want is power, and you will do anything to anyone for it.”

“Wrong. I want to bring a glorious new order to all of our kind, and set in place a rule that will never be challenged again.” Rittenhouse gets to his feet, pacing to the window and waving a dismissive hand. “Look at this ugly sprawl, the filth and greed and backbiting, petty nature of these short-sighted mortals. We could build a beautiful golden city here, a new utopia. Your dearest Asher always thought that creatures had a responsibility to use their powers for the good of all – well, that is precisely what I am doing. If a few humans have to die in the course of it, I fail altogether to see why that is a problem. So, I suspect, do you.”

Maria starts to answer, then stops. It is hypocritical of her to lecture Rittenhouse about collateral damage, when she is the one de Clermont with by far the most innocent blood on her hands. She has never proceeded to genocide on this level, has never wanted it, but she has killed to a degree that the others have not, and she cannot think how to counter him. Finally she says, “You do not know my husband at all, if you think he would agree.”

“I have no expectation that he would listen to me,” Rittenhouse says carelessly. “That would be your job, to whisper soft wifely words in his ear, to convince him of the rightness of my cause. He would be weak, confused, disoriented. The Nazis would have already made some start at breaking him. He would be relieved beyond words to be in your loving arms. He would have no defense, and no expectation that you, his beloved spouse, would ever lie to him or morally mislead him. You could, I think, bring him around.”

Maria stares at him in appalled disgust. “That is – do you think I would ever – ”

“I thought you wanted your husband.” Rittenhouse turns back to face her. “Alive no matter what. Evidently it is somewhat less than that.”

“I will not help you.” Maria is glad that she is still sitting on the bed, otherwise her legs might have given out. There is a part of her screaming that she is spurning the best chance to save Asher that she has ever had, that she is making a terrible mistake, and she cannot be sure that she is not. “And Asher would never agree to any of this, no matter how long you tried to manipulate him. There was a reason he was the only creature who could defeat you.”

“Was he?” Rittenhouse smiles, revealing the full effect of his fangs. “After all, I am here and he is dead, and you are the one stubbornly arguing against his resurrection. Let it be noted that I offered you the real Asher, and since you did not take it, we must move to the next option. As you yourself will have had cause to note, these half-breeds – Bright Borns – are more powerful than any vampire recently sired, or witch born. I have made it a policy to require my government to search them out.”

“So what?” Maria spits. “You can slaughter those too?”

“You seem unduly convinced of my policy to slaughter everyone.” Rittenhouse chuckles. “Humans, yes, nobody cares about those. But creatures are precious, especially these rare and exceptionally powerful ones. You may have heard about Henry de Prestyn and Ashmole 782? If one of them could produce an artifact of such potency, imagine what would be possible with many. I feel it wise to have them under my direct control and influence. They have been carefully concealed, since miscegenation was, after all, against the Covenant. But if I offer them visibility and acceptance, high positions of power, remind them of how we are dismantling all the old rules – I think that would be useful, don’t you? And if you do not want your husband, perhaps another.”

“What? Do you mean to use me as some – ”

“Not use,” Rittenhouse says. “Such a crude word. But if you refuse to be of assistance willingly, there are still purposes to be had for you. My cause will need more soldiers, of the most powerful sort, and we must breed the strongest bloodline. We could put even your dusty womb to use. I was born a witch, you know. It could be me who makes you the mother of new generations, demi-gods. If you wish, I could take on Asher’s face for such matters.”

Maria thinks she’ll be sick, cannot even contemplate the thought, is revulsed on every single level down to the chemical and cellular. “Never.”

“Oh?” Rittenhouse takes a menacing step. “I was being generous, you know. I do not have to assume such a pleasing form. Despite your… defects, you are still the only female creature of sufficient stature and power worthy to be my mate. Come now, Maria. We both know that Asher was too good for you, in the most literal sense. You’re a killer. I would not only accept that, I would exalt it. You could be who you truly are, not blinkered and held back and constantly forced to limit yourself for the sake of some idealistic fool and his green-crossed eunuchs with toy swords. Don’t you think it’s time? After so long. To really let go.”

Maria continues to stare at him. She has some confused notion of leaping off the bed and shredding him into gory pieces, but her limbs are not working properly. That black orb is still sitting on the nightstand, glowing with a sickly radiance, and she wonders if it is weakening her, making her mortal enough to dream, draining her supernatural strength and power to keep her docile, drugged, a plaything. She flails out, kicking it away, and it rolls across the floor, to come to a halt at the tip of Rittenhouse’s shiny shoes. He regards her with a cruelly amused look, then bends down and picks it up. “Did you wish to submit now, my dear?”

She does not. All Maria can think is that Cecilia was held captive and tortured by Temple, and Asher by the Nazis before that, and she does not, she does not, intend to share their fate. Without her vampiric abilities, she is only a small woman, no longer capable of tearing a full-grown man’s head off with her bare hands, but she has learned some things in those three thousand years, and it is clear that Rittenhouse thinks he has her tamed, caged, cornered, forced to submit to his depraved plans one way or another. And he is right. She is, in fact, a killer – especially of these sorts of men – and always has been.

With that, it all becomes rather simple. Maria gathers her legs beneath her, and remains completely still. As Rittenhouse starts toward her with the orb, thus to apply it in whatever foul way he has in mind, she lets him get within arm’s reach, and then at once, she explodes.

Maria claws ferociously at Rittenhouse’s face, feeling old flesh tear in a squashy, crumpling way like wet tissue paper, as she takes out a chunk of his cheek on her first attack and goes for his eyes on her second. She drives her fingers into the vitreous jelly, slashes and stabs as if trying to blind a basilisk, and while her fangs have turned somewhat duller than their usual razor-sharp points, they’re still enough to sink into his throat and rip. She chokes on the bitter bile of his blood, but she doesn’t stop, biting and snapping and savaging like an animal, as they overbalance and hit the floor in a tangle of flailing limbs. The cold poison of the black orb touches Maria, her teeth turn to useless human stumps, and she gags, spitting and retching. As Rittenhouse tries to get up, his face a mangled mess, she aims a kick into his throat, knocking him flat again. Then, in the split second that this affords her, she runs.

The room door is still half ajar, and Maria hits it at as close to full speed as she can presently manage, jamming her shoulder in and wrenching it open. She sprints down the eerie white corridor beyond, which terminates in a lift, and throws herself inside, feeling like a woman trying to escape a masked monster in one of those ridiculous horror pictures that William sometimes liked to watch. There is only one button, and she stabs it. The door swings shut, Maria can hear herself making a hoarse, hysterical sound that cannot be her because she does not cry, and she can likewise see someone else reflected on the mirrored ceiling, a crumpled and pitiable mess. Thirty seconds pass in utter, unbearable silence as the lift hums down. Then it dings and opens, and she rushes out into a sleek, ultra-modern reception area, artfully furnished with low-slung leather chairs, polished white tables, and a tall glass viewing deck that opens out into the skyscraper forest. There is only one person present, sitting at one of the tables, sipping coffee, and reading a newspaper, and as Maria comes hurtling out, she flashes to her feet. “Ah, ah, ah,” Emma Whitmore says. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Maria doesn’t stop, determined to get to the balcony and jump off if she must – this far away from the orb, her abilities have mostly returned to normal, and she can probably take it – but Emma grabs her arm, and another paralyzing shock goes through her, stumbling her to a halt. “I don’t think we’re done with you, Madame de Clermont,” Emma says, digging in her elegant black nails, which must be made of the same material – intended to neutralize supernaturals, particularly vampires, as long as they’re in close proximity. “Remember how you decided to come here with me? Upset that it isn’t a luxury vacation?”

“Let go of me, you – ” Maria wrenches at her arm. “Is this what you intended? Deliver me here to be his – so he could force me to be his foul concubine – ”

To her great surprise, Emma’s expression flickers, ever so briefly. Then she says coolly, “I said that he had plans to return your beloved husband to you, didn’t I? And if you didn’t have at least some interest, I don’t think you’d have come.”

“I had no choice, not if you were to be prevented from slaughtering my sons on the spot!” Maria knows that Garcia has had numerous run-ins with Emma, and this is the woman who kidnapped and tortured Lucy. Mercy is likewise completely foreign to her nature, and she is unlikely to be moved by any appeals to tender sensibilities. “And of course your plan is to turn Asher into some puppet for your filthy Nazi regime – he died rather than give into it once, and if you or any of Rittenhouse’s vile minions think he would ever – ”

“What’s the problem?” Emma sounds genuinely aggravated. “Do you want him back or not? It’s a new world, Maria. All kinds of opportunities for creatures everywhere. Even your tedious do-gooder husband could probably find something to occupy him. Isn’t having him back like this better than not having him? See, this is why everyone hates your family. You’re selfish enough to stand in the way of something that’s better for all of us, that makes our kind as powerful and respected as they were always meant to be, because of your principles.”

Emma spits the last word as if it’s a terrible curse, and the vampire and the witch stare at each other for a spellbound moment. Their last face-to-face meeting resulted in an almighty battle, and it’s not clear that this one won’t. But Emma’s nails are still digging into Maria’s arm, weakening her just enough that she can’t get the jump on her. Then Maria hisses, “If you think I’d ever agree to being used as some sort of – he threatened to take on Asher’s face as he did it, he – ”

“What?” Emma looks briefly startled and not entirely pleased, but she recovers. “Oh yes, because he wants more Bright Borns? I thought it had to be a female witch and a male vampire, but – ”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care. He tries it, and I will destroy – ”

For a moment longer, Emma doesn’t appear to know quite how to respond. Then the lift door dings again, and a shadow wavers on the floor, in the stark fluorescents. They turn around at the same time to see Rittenhouse step out, holding his cheek in place as it knits back onto his face. His eyes are bloody and streaming, but also healing, and the bruise on his throat where Maria kicked him is almost gone. “Did you think,” he asks conversationally, “that I would be at all vulnerable to such debased and feeble attacks, my dear? We will have to take more stringent measures in your restraint, until you learn to appreciate my – ”

“I’ve had a thought.” Emma lets go of Maria, and strolls forward. “A creature as magnificent and unique and powerful as her, and you really want to use her as an anonymous broodmare? That would be a terrible waste. We’ll have plenty of Bright Borns either way, and once we finish the registration, we’ll know exactly the most ideal specimens for preservation. The creature world will regenerate quickly, and you might heal – ” Emma nods at Rittenhouse’s face – “ but she’d also claw it off every time, and that would get tiresome. It might even succeed in diminishing your abilities, my lord, and we couldn’t have that. Besides, have you met her sons? I’m sure you have. She’d only be good for absolutely useless morons.”

Rittenhouse stops short, looking surprised, as Maria struggles not to. She keeps her face cold and calm and unrevealing; she was not expecting Emma to speak up on this front, but this by no means she has been reprieved. Maria tore half his face off, he should not be walking around five minutes later. If her chief ability cannot help her, she needs to think fast, to keep safe until she can extricate herself from this predicament. “I could,” she says, tasting it like poison on her tongue, but she has to. “Be useful in other ways.”

“Change of heart?” Rittenhouse inspects her, as she prays that he’s arrogant enough to believe that she would, in fact, have come around to his way of thinking after the immediately previous events. “Perhaps you have seen some sense in my proposals after all?”

“Perhaps I have.” Maria gets to her feet, forcing her lips into a cordial smile. One day, she will tear it off and stuff it down Rittenhouse’s throat far enough to rip his guts out, and that, that, he will not be able to fucking stick back into place. “As Miss Whitmore says, I have many talents that would prove to be of more long-lasting benefit to your cause. This registration project, what is that? Could I not help with that?”

Emma shoots her a narrow look, as she for one clearly is not buying this saccharine milkmaid act, but she doesn’t say anything. Rittenhouse tilts his head, appraising, and it takes everything in Maria not to merely launch another attack. She has never had to think about how she would fight without her supernatural abilities, since there was simply no reason to think that she would suddenly find herself without them. She does not know if the effect becomes cumulative or permanent with repeated exposure, like a toxin, and has no interest in finding out. “I could help,” she repeats. “Were you not saying that you wished to return my husband to life, out of hope that the de Clermonts could be persuaded to back your cause? I think you know it will ultimately be rather difficult without us. Yes or no?”

Rittenhouse continues to regard her with a speculative expression. He is greedy and ambitious enough that he clearly wants to agree, wants to flatter himself that he can be so persuasive, and Maria is willing to oversell it if it will give him a too-confident belief in his success. At last he reaches forward, she takes his hand with two fingers, and they shake. “Very well, Madame de Clermont,” he says. “I do look forward to our partnership.”

Once he has gone, Emma informs Maria to go back to her room and change – she’ll find new clothes in the drawers. But as she starts for the lift, Emma grabs her arm, digging the nail on her pinky finger into Maria’s wrist hard enough to draw blood. “Look at that,” she says. “I can hurt you with anything now, not just silver. Dangerous feeling, isn’t it? Being mortal like the rest of us? I’ve never seen why it’s fair that vampires get to live forever, while witches and daemons can only hope for a few decades over the human average – but your ex-butler, the one up Keynes’ ass, he’s pretty well-preserved by now, isn’t he? That happens if you’re fed on regularly? Either way, Rittenhouse wants to believe you, but you’re not going to fool me. I know you’re playing him. Fine, he’s a gross old pervert, I’ll give you that. But you better not mess this up for me, and if you try – ” She jerks her finger harder, deepening the cut. “I’m looking forward to experimenting.”

Maria gazes back at her ice-coldly. She is aware that while Emma unexpectedly stepped in long enough to save her from Rittenhouse’s more disgusting plans, she is no less dangerous, and possibly more so on an overall basis. Maria has never had any respect for women who betray and manipulate and backstab other women, especially to ingratiate themselves to the boys’ club, yet if Emma is intending violence, Maria is happy to repay it. She nods demurely, removing her wrist from Emma’s grasp with a delicate flick. If she is some strange combination of spy, hostage, important delegate, and possible collaborator all at once, she must look the part. Presumably, if he thinks she could be lured to join him, Rittenhouse will reveal at least something about his intentions and operations. How she will contrive to pass that on to her family, she does not know, but she will think of it.

Maria returns upstairs, removes a blouse and skirt and heels from the drawers, pins in pearl earbobs and does her lipstick, combs her long dark hair and twists it up, inspecting herself to be sure she is projecting the correct aura of cool, unruffled competence and beauty. She shrugs on a coat and scarf, then rides back down to the lobby, where Emma is waiting. “Well?” she says. “I assume you are my escort, my dear?”

Emma raises both eyebrows, but rises sleekly to her feet. She’s also dressed to kill in tight leather trousers, stiletto heels, charcoal-grey coat and expertly tilted fedora, and if they weren’t such mortal enemies, they would make quite a team. She opens an umbrella and takes firm hold of Maria’s arm, and then – without Maria seeing what happened, unsure if they moved anywhere, or if the building itself has melted like mist into the rain – they are standing outside, on the rainy streets. Traffic splashes past, pedestrians scuttle by under dark umbrellas, streaks of lights reflect in puddles, and it all rushes on like any other big city, but it is curiously featureless. Nobody seems to talk, and all the signs are in some indeterminate language. Whenever Maria looks at anyone too long, their features slip curiously into blankness, as if this is all a dream and they are only cardboard cutouts, expected populations of the projection. It begins to seriously unsettle her, but she says nothing, as they reach a building with the look of official government, a dome and columns, and go up the steps.

As they reach the top, there’s a shudder and a ripple, as if they’re moving through deep water, and then all at once, passing through a veil, they emerge into a real room. This one, at least, Maria recognizes. It is the Congregation headquarters in Venice, but she has never seen it like this. It has always been rather dark, dusty, and nondescript, but Rittenhouse clearly will not stand for such pedestrian surroundings to impede his grandeur. It has been refashioned with a new soaring glass roof, a statue (of Rittenhouse himself, how utterly gauche), new sconces and fittings, and flags everywhere. It seems to be an emblem of Rittenhouse’s own devising, apparently intended to be used as the uniting banner for the new creature nation. Maria and Emma cross the foyer, heels clicking, and enter the meeting chamber, which has likewise been given a makeover. Inside, Benjamin Cahill, wearing a judge’s robe and what he fancies is an expression of impressively intellectual thoughtfulness, is gazing down at two witches, with the look of a middle-aged married couple, who are standing in the docket. At the interruption, he looks up in annoyance. “Can’t you see that I am holding a – oh. Emma.”

“Morning, sir.” Emma is technically subordinate to Cahill, the most senior witch on the ex-Congregation, but there is only the barest hint of feigned respect in her address. In fact, Maria suspects that Cahill is afraid of her. She already crossed species boundaries to work with Temple, she’s proven to be a loose cannon and a relatively late convert to Rittenhouse’s cause, and she certainly has no qualms about playing as dirty as possible. “As you can see, we have a… special guest with us.”

Cahill’s eyes flick to Maria, and this entire nonsensical charade is almost worth it for the look on his face. “I beg your – ? I was under the impression that she was… accounted for.”

“My lord thinks she can be brought around.” Emma shrugs. No matter her obvious disbelief in Maria’s sincerity, she’s not letting it on in front of Cahill – if nothing else, to torment him. “Where are your manners, Benjamin? This is Madame de Clermont herself. Do get up and offer her a proper greeting.”

Cahill looks as if he might prefer to be torn apart on the rack, but he can’t quite refuse. He gets to his feet and moves toward Maria with a simperingly false smile. “How good, how good of you to join us, Madame. We are – that is to say, I am somewhat surprised by your appearance here, given you and your family’s repeated resistance to our aims, but – ”

“Didn’t you hear what Miss Whitmore said?” Maria bestows him with the most blindingly angelic smile in return. “I’ve come to hear what you have to say.”

She and Cahill exchange the kind of handshake not-so-secretly wishing the other one dead, and Emma clears her throat. “Well? If we did interrupt you, you might as well take this opportunity to demonstrate for our guest exactly what you’re doing. From the top?”

Cahill clearly resents being ordered to restart, as if Emma is the orchestra conductor and he’s the first-chair violinist that’s just slipped up, but once again, he’s just enough of a coward that he can’t refuse. With a baleful look, he scuttles back to his chair, seats himself with pompous dignity, and makes a meal of rustling his papers into order. As Maria and Emma take a seat in the viewing gallery, he gazes down at the two witches and intones, “Please state your name and country of citizenship for the record.”

“Trevor Roberts,” the male witch says. “United States.”

“Diane Roberts,” the female witch says. “United States.”

“And can you confirm that you are – ” Cahill checks his notes. “Husband and wife? Married the eighth of July, 1992? Mrs. Roberts, your maiden name was Young?”

The Robertses nod in unison.

“You received our summons, sent to your postal address of 725 Gardenview Boulevard, Scarsdale, New York, as part of our recent effort to identify and confirm the status of creatures in the Northeastern United States?”

The Robertses nod again.

“Sorry,” Cahill says. “I will require verbal responses for the benefit of the stenographers. Could you please state ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to all further questions that I ask you? Aloud, please.”

“Yes.” Mr. Roberts looks like a district manager or mid-level executive at a financial services company. It’s clearly his instinct to follow the rules, abide by the system, figure that this was some weird blip and if they turned up, hat in hand, to prove their bona fides, they would soon be on their way. “But Mr. Cahill, sir, I don’t understand why we’ve received this letter. My wife and I were both born into it, but frankly, we don’t do much with it anymore. Like I said the last time, we don’t really need to – ”

“Sorry,” Cahill says again, swollen with the self-righteousness that comes when you give an insufferable man just enough power to make other people’s lives consistently miserable. “I am afraid that I am the one asking the questions here, Mr. Roberts. Please refrain from further interruptions until the session is through. To return to the program, can you confirm that you were both born to families in which at least one parent was a witch? Individually, please.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.” Cahill once more officiously consults his papers. “But indeed, as you say, Mr. Roberts, neither of you seem to have made use of those gifts. You have two children, Ryan Harris and Ashley Marie, dates of birth 1995 and 1998, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And neither of those children have been taught about their heritage or encouraged to integrate with the creature world. They were not even brought to Venice at age six to be inspected and registered in the archives.” Cahill tuts disapprovingly. “In fact as a whole, your entire family has been depressingly insufficient in all aspects of magical preservation and practice. You will recall that in your letter of summons to this assembly, it was requested that you bring proof of compliance with all Congregation directives and Covenant articles for the last five years. Would either of you like to present these to the court?”

“We don’t – ” Trevor Roberts is starting to look distinctly wrong-footed, as well as confused that his status as a middle-class American white man hasn’t yet seen him sent on his merry way without a care. “Mr. Cahill, I told you, we don’t practice. We don’t even know what those are, really. We’ve never broken any law, we’re good people. We’re happy to recognize Mr. Rittenhouse as the new leader of the assembly, but – ”

“They were requested,” Cahill repeats. “It would have been your responsibility to familiarize yourself with the relevant regulations and obtain either proof of compliance or an official waiver claiming compelling grounds for exemption. However, that option is presently being phased out, as all creatures henceforward will have the responsibility to live as their heritage prescribes. This is a dangerous time for us, Mr. Roberts. It’s at the very moment that creatures step out of the shadows that we will be the most vulnerable. As I can see that you’re the sort of people we can trust, I’m willing to grant a one-time exception. As long as you bring your son and daughter here for registration and initiation within thirty days, obtain updated paperwork and certifications of compliance for yourself and your wife, and sign a binding declaration of loyalty to Mr. Rittenhouse, we’ll consider it excused.”

The Robertses look at each other in mingled relief and apprehension. “Thank you, Mr. Cahill,” Mrs. Roberts starts, “but Ryan and Ashley don’t know anything about this world. They – we’ll do our best, but – ”

“Come now. Doesn’t every child secretly wish they were a witch or wizard?” Cahill smiles. “That is the point of those Harry Potter books, isn’t it? And as it stands, the deal is non-negotiable. If you refuse it, I will have no choice but to recommend that you proceed to the next stage of the tribunal, for those whose loyalty and identity is under more serious question, and I could not promise repeated lenient treatment. Surely nobody wants that?”

“I – we – no.” Mr. Roberts visibly deflates. “No, of course not. And Mr. Rittenhouse seems to have some good ideas. Like I said. We’ll agree.”

“How fortuitous for everyone.” Cahill raps his gavel. “If you proceed into the next chamber, my clerk will issue you with the necessary documents to begin the process of verification. Have a very pleasant day. Dismissed.”

Looking abjectly reprieved, the Robertses thank him fulsomely and hurry off. As Cahill waves a magisterial hand to order the next ones brought in – apparently he has a full caseload today – Maria steps down, turns, and makes her way after them, catching them in the corridor as they’re about to enter the chancellery. “Excuse me,” she says. “Excuse me.”

They turn in surprise and look at her expectantly. They seem to think that she is some other doyenne for the court, or that they need to present more papers, and Mrs. Roberts starts digging in her purse. From that alone, Maria can tell that indeed, they really do not know much about the creature world. Anyone else, especially witches, would recognize Maria de Clermont on sight, and while she is not nearly so arrogant as to insist on it, she is in no mood to be taken for the secretary. “Excuse me,” she says again. “What just happened back there. You should not bring your children into this, or respect such a fraudulent judgment. I do not think it wise. These creatures are more dangerous than you can possibly imagine.”

The Robertses exchange a startled look. This was, obviously, not what they were expecting to hear, and they move instinctively closer to each other, as if this is an obvious honeytrap or undercover agent sent to test their loyalty when they think they are out from Big Brother’s immediate eye. “Thank you, ma’am,” Mr. Roberts says, “but we’ll just go and get our papers in order. We’d really just prefer to – you know. We don’t want any questions. Mr. Cahill’s right, we should have told our kids about this, teach them about who they are. So we’ll – ”

“They’re evil,” Maria says, a little too bluntly, even as she knows this isn’t working. This is the exact reaction she and Wyatt encountered every time they tried to share the footage of Rittenhouse’s outright takeover and dissolution of the Congregation. “They’re going to – ”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Mr. Roberts says. “Mr. Rittenhouse, he has some good ideas, as far as I can tell. I don’t have to like everything he does to support him anyway. It’s not like it’s anything different from whoever else has been in charge, is it? We’re glad it got straightened out, so if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be on our – ”

“What are you doing?” Emma’s voice comes from behind them, and all of them start as she saunters up. “Not trying to cut secret deals in the backroom, are we? Maria de Clermont?”

At that, both of the Robertses’ faces drop in horror, and Mr. Roberts makes an instinctive move to put his wife behind him. Even if they have no idea who she is by appearance, they clearly know the name, and his expression as he stares at Maria becomes cold with fear and hatred. “Maria de Clermont,” he repeats. “You’re the – you’re her? The bitch who spent decades murdering as many innocent people as she could get her hands on? No, I think we’re absolutely ready to give our full backing to Mr. Rittenhouse and everything that he’s doing to restore law and order. Ma’am – ” this to Emma – “we’ll be back here with our kids as soon as they’re done with school, we’d love to get a newsletter or anything we can think of to help the cause. Thank you, thank you. Diane, come on. Let’s get away from her.”

With that, and twin looks of scathing disdain, the Robertses run away as fast as they can, into the chancellery, as Maria whirls on Emma and Emma looks even more pleased with herself. “C’mon,” she says in a mock-scolding voice, waggling a finger at Maria like a disobedient child. “You know you deserved that. No running off by yourself for secret chats, or we’re going to have to keep you locked up in your room again.”

Maria doesn’t answer. She keeps staring after the vanished witches, not sure what other reaction she expected when her name came up. She can’t say that she doesn’t deserve it, struggles to be sure that she does in fact have the moral authority to warn anyone off Rittenhouse – especially to nice middle-class, middle-aged people like these, who are far more likely to see her as much worse, and Rittenhouse as the principled purveyor of truth and honesty. She has always been well aware that her hands are not clean of innocent blood, but she has never had to face the consequences of that so directly. Was she wrong, Maria wonders? Or perhaps, knowing that she was, what can she do about it now? She cannot bring them back to life. She cannot find their families and write sincere notes of apology. She is here trying to take Rittenhouse down from the inside, but even that was precipitated by the wild belief that she could somehow, somehow get back to Asher. Almost eighty years, and she clings to it as if it was yesterday. It has made her into this. She has long lost any sense of whether she was ever anyone else. A black widow, a stalking beast. The line between her monstrosity and any other is thin. Perhaps she fights so hard to stop Rittenhouse out of a terrible fear that one day, she could look at his face and see her own.

“Maria,” Emma repeats impatiently, when she doesn’t move. “Time to go.”

“Yes. Very well.” Maria answers by reflex, so that Emma looks suspicious at this lack of struggle. “Back from here to – where, exactly?”

“Nice try.” Emma links her arm through Maria’s. “All you need to know is that you can’t get in or out of it without me, so I wouldn’t advise trying. Only Rittenhouse and his trusted inner circle know how. So in the meantime – ” she gives a sharp little tug, almost causing Maria to stumble, and smiles nastily – “you just get to reflect.”


Garcia Flynn de Clermont badly needs some air.

He and Gabriel have been all but surgically attached to Christian all evening, until Christian was clearly ready for them to stop clinging and eager to explore Sept-Tours, not that it has changed much from what he remembers hundreds of years ago. Gabriel has gone upstairs with that glamorous daemon – well, he hasn’t actually said girlfriend, not aloud, though that seems to be what he wants them to think, but Flynn is fairly sure, as tends to be the case one way or the other, that Gabriel is full of shit. In a different way than usual, at least, and this entire evening counts as the most they have gotten along in the twenty-first century since… since ever, as far as he can think. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s come when Christian has returned, however briefly. Did they only ever work because of him, Flynn wonders? There’s never been a time where Gabriel and Garcia themselves were close, not without Christian. Before he joined the family, Flynn was too consumed with vengeance to be much use to anyone. After… well. Everyone knows what happened after.

As well, even as distracted as he is, Flynn cannot fail to notice that Lucy has disappeared. He doesn’t think that anyone could have larked up and snatched her, but he’s more worried about her than he’s had time to face or deal with. She’s Lucy. She has been fantastically, unyieldingly – downright supernaturally, for all that she’s a mortal – strong. She’s faced everything that came her way, solved every challenge, climbed every mountain, found a way through even when Flynn himself was unavailable for consultation, as in the six weeks he spent unconscious after the unfortunate encounter with his past self. She’s tackled problems that would defeat creatures with twice her age and experience, done things that no one else has, and he’s so proud of her that he could burst. But there’s no respite, there’s an even greater struggle coming, and she was thrown into the deep end of the pool and then held under. It’s not a surprise that she’s coming apart at the seams, whether or not she wants to tell him or let him in. It’s pride, perhaps, or fear, or just the way that when you’re drowning, it’s taking all your energy to keep your head above water and you have no breath or strength to call for help. Flynn considers, glances around, and on an instinct, heads for the wallwalks.

The door grates on the old stone as he pushes it open, staggering slightly as the night wind hits him. It’s very disorienting being back in spring when they left London in November, as if they’ve skipped over winter and boomeranged back, and Flynn has been experiencing some amount of culture shock himself, though as an immortal, he’s lived long enough to have it on a scale that humans never will. He steps up and looks around, scanning the dark woods for danger, anything that might register on the subconscious level – a twitch of a leaf, a crackle of a twig, anything to hint at the presence of lurking malefactors in the shrubbery. However, Sept-Tours has absorbed enough visitors for one day, and it’s quiet.

Flynn paces along the wallwalk, trying to clear his head and process through the accumulated emotion of the day. It was raining earlier; the leaves and the stones are damp, clouds shroud the moon like gauzy veils, and a few stray droplets splatter him in the face when the wind changes. At that, he catches a scent, has just enough time to register that it seems wrong, scorched, altered in some fundamental way, and then he flashes along to the small, soaked shape huddled beneath the crenel. “Lucy? Lucy!”

Lucy lifts her head slowly, looking dazed, as Flynn throws himself to his knees next to her, hands frantically searching her over for injuries. She’s wet, leaf-strewn, and stares at him with eyes huge and black as belladonna, confused. Finally she says groggily, “Garcia?”

“Yes, it’s me, what – what happened?” Flynn can’t find anything visibly or physically wrong with her, but the thought that she’s been up here alone, cold and damp and clearly in some kind of distress, turns his stomach. He grips her face, turning it to the moonlight as if to check for concussion, as she makes a small sound of protest and tries to pull free. “How long have you – what’s going on? Did someone – ?”

“No.” It seems to take a tremendous effort for Lucy to speak. Her gaze fixes on him with some inexplicable, uncanny element to it, as if you can see through her skull to the back of her head. “Nobody hurt me. I came up here just to – you were with Christian and Gabriel, and I didn’t – I didn’t want to interfere.”

“You wouldn’t. It’s not – you’re my wife, you’re not interfering, ever.” Flynn takes her cold hands, trying to chafe warmth back into them to make up for his own lack of body heat. “Moja ljubav, you’re freezing. What happened? Why didn’t you come inside?”

Lucy’s gaze darts to him, then away. She seems to be trying to say something, but can’t, and Flynn puts his arms under her shoulders and her knees, lifting her up and carrying her along the walk, back inside. She isn’t even shivering very much, which strikes him as a danger sign, and he thinks of trying to warm her up after he and Gabriel rescued her from Emma. It’s May, it would be hard for her to be actually hypothermic, but he hurries her up the stairs and into their tower, setting her down on the bed, stripping her out of the wet clothes. and fetching quilts to heap around her shoulders. He crawls up next to her, continues rubbing her back and arms, retrieving a towel to dry her hair, and otherwise ensuring that she is more or less in operable condition. Then he says, “Lucy, what happened?”

She flicks a wary glance at him under her eyelashes. She can plainly tell that he’s asking about more than why she decided to run outside in the middle of a rainstorm, and she chews her bottom lip in preference to answering. Finally, she shifts toward him, linking her arms around his neck and burying her face in his chest. “Hold me.”

Flynn obligingly does so, cuddling her close as she nestles into him as far as she can go. Adorable as he finds Lucy when she gets in a clingy mood, however, he is not to be deterred. “What else?”

“I….” Lucy hesitates. “I just… I was experimenting with my magic, to see if it – anyway, I just wanted to check something. And earlier, when Kate and I were in your father’s study – there were letters. Letters from him. He wrote them while we were at Sept-Tours, while he still had his memories, and he recorded enough of what we told him to see if he could find things that would help us. There’s… there’s one for you, if you want it. And everyone else in the family. Then everything with Christian, and… it was just a lot at once.”

“Oh?” Flynn’s stomach lurches. He isn’t altogether sure he can handle that just now, even if another part of him wants to rush to the letter and tear it open and see what magical panacea Asher somehow, he must have, been able to find for them. “Papa left us letters? Where?”

“Some secret compartment in his desk. I found it by accident.” Lucy remains where she is, her fingers tracing light, absent circles on his collarbone. “Kate – she helped.”

“Ah.” Flynn thinks it’s better that they avoid his own questions about Kate right now, and focus on what’s more useful. “Did you talk to her?”

“I…” Lucy trails off. “I – not very much, she just – we looked through the papers together. I don’t know. People keep asking about me, and it’s not – I don’t want that, not when we have so much else that needs to be done. Besides, I just – I don’t want to talk to anyone but you.” She snuggles closer. “You know.”

“That’s nice of you,” Flynn says. “But you’re not even really talking to me. I can tell that Jiya is worried about you, and by the sounds of it, the others are too. We can see it, you know.”

Lucy’s fingers still, as if she stops moving, nobody will notice her. Then she says, “I don’t want to – nobody else was in in 1590 with me except you. You’re the only person I can trust, the only person I want to be around, and it just feels… dangerous, with everyone else. I don’t even know why. I…” She stops again. “I’m dealing with it.”

“Lucy.” Flynn shifts her, pulling back far enough so that he can look into her face. “You know it shouldn’t be like that, yes? I shouldn’t be the only person you ever feel safe around or want to talk to. You’re right, the others weren’t in the sixteenth century with us, but we’re back now. We’re back in the twenty-first century, and this is our family. They want to help you. You’re just – you’re not well right now, your brain thinks everything is a threat, it’s shutting you off from the people who care about you and telling you that opening up will just make it worse or make you weak. I can’t fix this. You need to talk to someone.”

“What? A human therapist?” A distinct edge of scorn laces Lucy’s voice, as if this is such a ridiculous suggestion that he might be making fun of her. “Yes, I’m sure it would be great to go into some shrink’s office and start spouting off about witches and vampires and this time-traveling supernatural war that means everything and everyone might get killed. Besides, I don’t know what the French mental health system is like, but probably not designed for – ”

“Not a human therapist, then.” Flynn refuses to be distracted. “You said that you talked to Kate earlier. She seems to be doing… well, something for Gabriel. You mentioned that perhaps you should find a reason to befriend her or ask her more about that, and if you – ”

“Kate is…” Lucy considers that. “She’s nice,” she says, after a pause. “She said that she could sense my – that was why she came up. That I was… traumatized.”

Flynn winces at the sound of the word spoken aloud, even though it concords rather well with what he himself has observed of her. “I think she’s right.”

“But I can’t – ” Lucy makes a fist, pounds his chest in frustration. “That’s not something that happens to – it’s just soldiers, isn’t it? People who are in a war, and – ”

“You just described this as a war,” Flynn points out. “A time-traveling supernatural war, wasn’t that what you said? And I’ve been in enough of them to tell you that this one qualifies. Besides, that’s not just something that happens to soldiers – but if this is a war, you’re one of the generals, when you had a completely ordinary life a year ago. Any lesser human would have cracked ages ago, but you’ve had to keep bearing up more and more, and it’s not surprising that it’s getting to you.” He smooths her hair behind her ear, tilts her chin up, kisses her nose, trying to soothe what he can see she doesn’t like to hear. “It can happen to anyone who’s been through something terrible. It’s all right.”

“It’s…” Lucy struggles to articulate the precise nature of her objection. “On an intellectual level, I know that this doesn’t mean you’re bad or wrong or weak. I’ve told all my high-achieving friends that having a breakdown or a mental health crisis or whatever was completely valid and understandable and didn’t reflect any worse on them. I know that. But every time I think of what my mother – ”

“Screw your mother,” Flynn says, a little sharply. “She’s dead, she’s not here, she hasn’t been for most of your life, and I know you’re not suddenly overburdened with a deep sense of loyalty or obligation to her. You just need to get out of that reflex where she’s somehow judging everything you do. Michelle used to be a psychologist, didn’t she? Maybe you could talk to her.”

“It’s…” Lucy glances away. “She’s still my parent. I can’t – not really.”

“All right then,” Flynn says, with considerable finality. “Talk to Kate or Jiya.”

Lucy doesn’t answer. He can sense that she’s bridling at this, doesn’t want to be pushed out of the safe little cocoon she has built to stop the world from crashing on her head – and he understands, he does, he has built countless thousands of them during his life, and knows too well the feeling. Then she says, “Fine. If I do that, you talk to Gabriel.”

Flynn can’t help flinching – hoisted by his own petard, as the saying goes, and he doesn’t exactly have a leg to stand on if he refused. “Are you still upset with him?”

“I don’t know.” Lucy leans back against his chest. Her voice is tired and distant and slow. “I’m not, and I am, and I feel like it makes me a bad person that I am, and I just… I’ve given up guessing. He’s not who he was almost four and a half centuries ago, I know that, but it’s… it’s still what just happened for me, and I can’t immediately separate myself from that. I’d prefer to have him here if he’s going to help us, and because I know that you love him. I’m not sure I have an opinion on it besides that. I care about him, obviously. I don’t want to be unreasonable. But I just… I don’t know. If he’s going to hurt us again, he can leave.”

“I don’t think he will. At least not intentionally.” Flynn strokes her back absently. “He does feel genuinely terrible about what happened, I believe that much at least. I don’t know what he’s up to with Kate, but like I said, I don’t want to fight any more. I’m worn out. He has a right to make his own choices and to do what he wants, if he’s actually trying to deal with things for once. But he’s definitely on our side. I don’t have any doubts about that. He’s an utter mess, but his heart is in the right place. Sometimes, at least.”

Lucy snorts weakly. “You can say that again.”

“Mmm.” Flynn shifts position, pulling her down next to him, and they lie entangled among the quilts, her head on his chest, the wild moonlight spilling through the ancient window. Finally he says, “All right, I’ll talk to him, if you do the same with Jiya or Kate. And you don’t have to tell even me this, if you don’t want to, but I just… I have the feeling there’s something else you haven’t mentioned. And I can’t help… I worry.”

Lucy hesitates for a very long moment. He has the sense that she is deliberating, weighing what to say. Then all at once she blurts out, “I thought I was pregnant.”

“What?” Flynn experiences a sensation as if a bomb has gone off in his chest, spraying shrapnel. He panics, overcome by a conviction that she must be truly hurt somehow and horribly guilty at himself for failing to notice. “Are you – are you all right, were you – did something – was there – ”

“I’m all right, Garcia. I’m fine.” Lucy kisses his palm, getting a very assertive grip on him with both hands (always a good plan when stopping your large and agitated vampire husband from leaping out of bed and doing something intemperate). “I’m not, by the way. I took two tests, just to be extra sure. But I just… it frightened me. Because it felt like there would be no way it would ever be anything but an incredibly irresponsible idea, and I wished… I wished it didn’t. And just – seeing you with Sarah, and Christian and Jiya, and you’re such a good dad. You really are. And I’m… well. Even if it was ever the right time, I have no idea.”

Flynn is aware of something huge and trembling and fragile in his chest, unbearably tender and terrible all at once. “When was this?”

“Just the first night we got here. I hadn’t been feeling well, and… the possibility occurred to me, and I had to know. I’m better now, though. Timewalking just really messes you up.” Lucy shifts closer, as if to physically impress upon him the sincerity of her words. “I didn’t want to make you worry. I’m sorry.”

“I want to know, though.” Flynn tries to keep his voice level. “Jesus, Lucy. If you’d been sick, or if you had been pregnant and something had happened, or – it doesn’t matter. If you don’t want to tell me everything, that’s all right, but something like this, I don’t want you feeling that you have to hide it from me and go through it by yourself. I know you’ve been doing so much by yourself, but not this, huh? Not us. Please.”

Lucy continues to look at him with liquid dark eyes, though she flushes slightly and ducks her chin. Again she repeats, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not angry.” Flynn cups her face, stroking the backs of his fingers along the line of her cheekbone. God, she is so, so very beautiful, knitted together from shadows and starlight and porcelain, and if he is ever in fact to die one day, he hopes it is like this, in bed with her. He pulls her close again, into his arms. He doesn’t want to push her any more, not right now, when he can sense that her fragility is very close to the surface, and might crumble even in the face of important and well-intentioned advice. He lets her curl close, and kisses her sporadically and sleepily, every time he remembers, until they finally fall asleep.

When they come downstairs the next morning, it is to discover Wyatt sitting at the kitchen table and scrutinizing a scribbled note with a deep frown on his face. At their entrance, he looks up with a start, then foists the paper at Flynn. “Hey, am I wrong, or is this bad?”

Flynn takes it, surprised, and looks down. The note is from one of the Knights of Lazarus in Venice, and the essential summary of its contents is that Houdini has, more or less, informed them to fuck off and die in a ditch. This isn’t surprising by itself, since that’s what he’s been saying about them publicly since his defection, but the troubling part is that this has been sent through the ultra-secret channels, all the ways in which they were supposed to legitimately contact him if they did in fact need information. In other words, there is no reason for Houdini to put up a front of disapproval here to avoid detection, and he knew that they would only do so if it was urgent. A response like this means either that the de Clermonts’ secret messaging system has been compromised to a fatal degree, or that this is what he actually thinks, that months at Keynes’ side and listening to his poisonous rhetoric has in fact turned him somehow. Houdini has always had a tendency to hero-worship powerful and successful creatures, as evidenced by his long devotion to Gabriel, but Nicholas Keynes – no, he’s too smart for that, he was well aware that it would be a challenging assignment, that he’d have to walk a knife’s edge, play just enough of a traitor to be taken seriously and cross the line when he had to. Keynes is a flea next to Gabriel. Houdini has served the de Clermonts devotedly for decades – and look where that’s got him, a nasty voice whispers to Flynn – and he wouldn’t actually have turned on them. He can’t have. It doesn’t make sense.

“That is…” Flynn tries to think how to respond in any way that looks as if he has the situation under control. “That’s surprising. Are you sure you sent it in the – ”

“Of course I’m sure.” Wyatt gets up, running both hands through his hair until it stands wildly on end. “I know what’s at stake, I wasn’t being some careless dumbass about it. I took all the usual precautions and then some. So if he’s saying this now – ”

“We need to move fast,” Flynn concludes grimly. “And we can’t trust that any of our plans will in fact remain secret. Are you leaving for Romania today?”

“Yes, I’m driving to Lyon this morning, then flying to Cluj-Napoca on something called Wizz Air.” Wyatt turns to grab his phone, mutter curses at the bad reception (they really need to get high-speed internet installed in here, or they’re toast), and finally pull up his flight confirmation. “Then it’s something like a two and a half hour drive to Hunedoara from there. I obviously don’t know exactly where Jess is, but I have a few ideas. When I find her – if I can find her – I have no goddamn idea what I’ll do next. Improvise like hell, probably.”

“Good luck with that,” Flynn says, quite sincerely. He does not envy his brother this whole sordid mess of a situation, which, even he has to admit, is largely not Wyatt’s fault. “I mean, if I were her, I would tear your balls off, but maybe she’s more of a – ”

Just then, they’re interrupted as Gabriel, Kate, and Christian arrive in the kitchen, Gabriel looking as if he has spent the entire night pacing outside Christian’s bedroom door and jumping at small noises. Christian himself is fresh as a daisy, eager for more exciting modern adventures, and does not notice anything amiss whatsoever, but Kate, clearly sensing the tension in the room, frowns. “Is everything all right?”

“Just a – just something we’re going to figure out.” Flynn stuffs the letter in his pocket and gives Gabriel a significant look. “Actually, uh. How about you and I go hunting?”

Gabriel pauses, then nods. After all, they don’t need human breakfast, though Christian will doubtless sit and eat with the women to be sociable, and both of them are well aware that there are in fact things they need to talk about. Maybe the fresh air and exercise will be good for them, though Flynn thinks wryly that it is never a wise idea to give them more space to run away when attempting to broach such delicate emotional matters. They change into clothes more suitable for mud, blood, forest, and the other messy side effects of hunting, bid farewell to the others, and head out.

The morning is clear and blue and sunny, with enough of a breeze to keep it from being too sticky, and the de Clermonts own the countryside for miles around, in this secluded, rural, pastoral corner of the Auvergne. If they really wanted to push it, they could probably run the length of the property and back, but since the prime purpose of this excursion is for private conversation, they keep it to a brisk trot. It feels downright surreal to be out here together, and not for a fight whether verbal or physical. They hurtle logs side by side, spring up embankments, take turns outdistancing each other at a sprint, and when they finally slow to a walk, Gabriel is actually laughing, eyes sparkling, hair tousled with twigs and leaves, and looking more like the man Flynn once knew and less like the beautiful, impartial, soulless pinnacle of business success. “I have – ” he starts, stops, and makes himself go on. “I have missed this, Garcia. So much.”

“Me too.” Flynn reaches up to pluck the forest detritus out of Gabriel’s curls. “Though I’m surprised you didn’t just keep running and never come back.”

Gabriel winces, but in a way to acknowledge he deserved that. “I – you are right. I wasn’t going to come back, at least until much later. I would have stayed in Bordeaux, but Kate – Kate did not allow me. She insisted that we must return, if I meant anything I had said.”

“Oh?” Flynn tries not to look unduly interested in this subject. “And what might that be?”

“It is…” Gabriel considers. “I am still thinking how to make sense of it,” he says at last. “It is far more than I can understand or do anything with on my own, it is just too much. She is – she is the only person I could think of who might help me with that, and I – I know it was unexpected, the two of us. But we just… Garcia, I need – ”

“It’s all right.” Flynn holds up a hand. “You don’t need to explain it to me right now. Really, you don’t. I can see that she’s doing something for you that you chose, that you wanted, and that’s what it is. But for what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re here.”

“I am as well.” Gabriel looks up at the trees, the spreading branches, the sun-dappled ground. He heaves a disbelieving laugh that is halfway to a sob. “And Christian.”

“I know.” Flynn has been wondering if Gabriel will yell at him about that too, just because Gabriel has not ceased to begrudge him Christian’s death for a quarter of a millennium, and might yet blame him for not finding a way to permanently save him. “Gabriel, I wish, I wish I could have told you that he could just stay now, that the nightmare was finally over – I can’t imagine, I’m so – ”

“No.” Gabriel whirls around and grips Flynn’s shoulders with both hands, his eyes crystalline-bright, his voice unsteady. “Jesus Christ, Garcia. Don’t you dare apologize to me one more time, not when you have scraped your pride raw over and over, done the most anyone could ever have imagined to save not just our family but all of creaturekind, and I have been too much of an arrogant, self-absorbed idiot, too lost in my own selfish pain and cowardice, to ever once reach back for you. I have punished you for Christian’s death, when it was not your fault, it was in no conceivable realm your fault, when all you had the audacity to do was to love Matej Radić, and want to build a future with him. You did not make Matej’s choices, you did not bring the vampire hunters, you – you did none of that. I am the one who is sorry, Garcia. For killing Matej, and for everything that came after. I have treated you abhorrently, for someone I claimed to love more than anyone, and I cannot excuse that or make it right or handwave it away. I will not even ask for your forgiveness. Your truce, if nothing else, will do for now, or if you wish it, always. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Flynn blinks. He’s tempted to ask if Gabriel has been body-snatched, because he has never, not in all the fifteen hundred years Flynn has known him, said this many words in a row, not this raw and honest, not ever peeled away his glittering, glamorous shell to reveal the fragile innards beneath. He is not as brave as you, Papa said, back in 1590. The two de Clermonts stare at each other, alone in the sunlit wilderness, and Gabriel’s hands shake where they clasp Garcia’s shoulders. He drops them and clenches them, an innate, eternal reflex to hide his weakness, and then shakes his head. “See. I do it still. It is… very difficult to unlearn.”

“I know.” Flynn looks at him, feeling some of that huge, tender, terrible rawness in his chest that he felt with Lucy last night, the sense of something too great for words and too impossible to understand, too vital to live without. He looks down at his own hands, spots the grandmaster ring that Wyatt gave back to him, and pulls it off. “Oh. Here you go.”

“No,” Gabriel says again. “No. Under no circumstances should I take that ring back now, or possibly ever. I have had almost a hundred years to make trial of my fitness for the role, and we can all agree that I have been found miserably wanting. Papa wanted me to be so much more than I was. He trained me, he hoped for me, he was endlessly patient with my foibles and my weakness and my follies, he never ceased to believe that I could be whatever he saw me as. But it was an illusion, Garcia. I never could be that, and I did not know how to tell him, and I feared as well that he would be disappointed in me, and take it all away. I am not the man who exemplifies the Knights of Lazarus, everything Papa wanted them to be, everything that he himself was. That man is you, Garcia. It always has been.”

Flynn blinks even harder, feeling as if he has been struck across the back of the head. He instinctively wants to protest – Gabriel is Asher’s truest son, Gabriel is the eldest, Gabriel has always been meant as the successor, and indeed, has served as grandmaster for almost eighty years. “I’m not a leader,” he says reflexively. “I’m not someone that could be – ”

“Garcia, my darling.” Gabriel huffs another breathless, heartbroken laugh. “My darling. You are the bravest and the best man that I have ever, ever known. You are stubborn and you are often quite dense and you have the wickedest tongue on you when you wish to make hash of some poor fool’s shortcomings. You never, never give up on or forget about or stop fighting for the people you love, not after centuries or millennia, not even when they richly deserve you doing so. You struggled alone for almost two hundred years to work out the mystery of Ashmole 782, to try to help our family and save our entire world, and you did nothing but take all the vitriol and violence and estrangement and that I threw at you in repayment.  You brought together creatures who have hated each other for generations, both in 1590 and here, and you fought the greatest monster that the supernatural world has ever known, bare-handed, solely to save our son. You brought that son back, you brought him back to me, so that in this day, this year, this moment so long after he was gone, I somehow was able to see him again, to touch him, to know him to be real. You bargained Queen Elizabeth for my life when she would have had me justly executed, when I had nearly killed you and your wife in my jealous, self-destructive madness. Just like Papa, you do what’s right only because it’s what right, never expecting to get anything from it, while I can rarely be arsed to give a damn about anything that wasn’t somehow beneficial for me. And through all this, you still never quite trust that it would be enough for him, that he would regard you as his son as much as me, when I am a weak, selfish, vengeful, foolish coward who has wrecked his entire life and has nobody but himself to blame. If you do not deserve this, I cannot think of any man or woman, living or dead, in all the ages of eternity, who possibly does.”

Flynn opens his mouth, keeps it that way for several seconds, then shuts it. He has no idea how to answer this, not when it has suddenly come rushing out in a torrent, and some part of him wants to ask again if Gabriel is sure. He looks down at the ring in his palm, still tempted to offer it back, but Gabriel takes it and puts it firmly on his finger where it was before. “You are the grandmaster of the Knights of Lazarus, Garcia,” he says. “Let there be no question, from this point forward or ever again. As does any other sworn brother, I stand ready to receive your orders and serve your will.”

Flynn is still lost for words, though he’s aware that it is incumbent upon him to say or do something at this juncture. Finally, he offers the newly beringed hand, and Gabriel goes to his knees in the moss to kiss it. Flynn raises him to his feet to offer the kiss of peace in turn, lord to vassal, and they remain that way for a long moment, lost in a dream, in their broken kingdom, in the ashes and the wrack of everything that used to be so brave and beautiful and glorious – and yet for the first time, they can see the bones beneath, the part that remains, that could one day rise again. Then Gabriel pulls back and nudges his nose against Flynn’s. “We did say something about a hunt, darling,” he reminds him, “and I am still hungry.”

Flynn manages a laugh, since both of them can agree that is enough emotion for the morning, and they chase a handsome stag together, take it down, and feed on the dark, rich blood. Then Flynn turns to Gabriel with a silently inquiring expression, and Gabriel pulls open the neck of his shirt, baring his throat and tipping his head back to allow Flynn to bite, the first time in the twenty-first century that he has done what used to be second nature for them. Flynn has fed from the stag and doesn’t need much, just a few droplets, but it is the symbolic gesture, the unspoken pledge of trust, that matters most, and Gabriel takes a moment to compose himself when Flynn pulls back. Finally he says, “How’s Lucy?”

“She is…” Flynn considers what to say. “She’s going through a lot right now, and she… she doesn’t know you like I do. She doesn’t know that you’ll be stupid at every point in your life and it never goes away, just changes. She cares about you, but she doesn’t trust you and she isn’t going to just forget what you did to her in 1590. She knows that’s not you anymore, and she doesn’t want to hold it unduly against you, but it’s… complicated.”

“Understandably so.” Gabriel takes this in, tapping his fingers absently on Flynn’s knee. “Once more, I was completely beastly to her, and if someone had treated me like that, I would have hunted them down and destroyed them for their presumption. That she has not done that, and moreover is willing to tolerate the sight of me at all, is testament to her quality, but I think we knew that. Very well. As I can see for myself that she is under a great deal of strain, and do not wish to add to it with unwelcomed overtures of peace more meant to soothe my conscience than reflective of what she wants, I will follow her lead on this. I hope that you will communicate to her that when or if she wishes to speak to me, I am happy to do so, but until then, I will leave her be.”

“That’s probably a good plan,” Flynn admits. Of course he wants Gabriel and Lucy to be on good terms, to be friends, but right now they are not, and enough remains to be done between himself and Gabriel that they should deal with one can of worms at a time. Not to mention, of course, all their other minor problems. “I’ll tell her, and she can decide what she wants.”

“Thank you.” Gabriel remains where he is for a few moments more, then gets to his feet, brushing himself off and offering Flynn a hand up as well. They are about to start back for Sept-Tours when he stops, sniffing, and his nostrils flare. “What is that?”

Flynn takes a whiff as well, and frowns. There’s a faint but distinct scent on the wind, something familiar and strange at once. Definitely creature, there’s no doubt of that, but not vampire or witch or daemon, any of the usual suspects. There’s an earthy, animalistic edge to it as well, and then as it strikes, he isn’t sure whether to laugh or run for it. He wasn’t expecting it – nobody was, not this soon, but if it is –

“That,” Flynn says, as casually as he can. “That smells like werewolves.”

Chapter Text

Rufus Carlin has been through a lot of shit in the six-odd months since he started dating Jiya de Clermont. There’s the realization that the supernatural world was real and her dad could literally chomp on him, being chased through Oxford at suspect hours by shady characters, building the TimeMaster 3000 and scanning the past in case it started to break, the terrifying adventure to rescue Anton Sokolov, the months in Paris and Venice (which would be nice under other circumstances), the constant vigilance, the preparation for a war, and now, the fact that his job is on very thin ice, which is the first godforsaken ordinary thing he’s had to worry about and in that sense, is almost nice. Not that he regrets it. He is madly in love with Jiya, and it’s a testament to that fact that he’s stuck it out through all this, but he can’t deny that he’s looking forward to a few days in Oxford. Not just to save his bacon, although that is obviously a priority, but just to have a little space from all these crazy supernaturals and their crazy problems. He feels bad for leaving Jiya, but they can’t be together every hour of the day and night, and she’s at Sept-Tours, which is a real-life fantasy video-game fortress, surrounded by her family. She’ll be fine. Hopefully.

The one snag in Rufus’s foolproof plan to pretend that this is completely normal has come in the form of his traveling companion. Jack Blackfriars is nice and all, and if Rufus was single, he’d definitely appreciate his effectiveness at drawing female attention. But he’s not, and Jack is a five-hundred-year-old vampire – courteous, serious, and old-fashioned enough that Rufus, who possesses multiple advanced degrees and lectures in astrophysics and computer science at the world’s top university, found himself compelled to explain an in-flight menu on the plane over to England. He doesn’t want to be a dick, but Jack has had a lot more time than anyone to learn about it, and if he hasn’t gotten it by now, Rufus isn’t going to serve as his personal concierge. At least Jack doesn’t seem to expect it, and hey, if Rufus was born while Elizabeth the First was queen, he’d probably trip up from time to time too. They know each other a little from all those months in Venice, and they’re cool.

The main problem with Jack, however, is not his Luddite tendencies or habit of slipping into King James English when he’s tired or worked up. It’s the fact that Jiya clearly asked him to keep a weather eye on Rufus, and while they were waiting for their luggage at Gatwick, Rufus wandered off to have a pee and found Jack having kittens when he got back. This seemed a little over the top, since Rufus definitely isn’t going to ask for permission to go to the bathroom every time, and he resents the implication that he is a helpless and fragile human who is at risk of immediate death every time he’s out of sight. He knows not to let his stupid pride or male ego get in the way, but if that was the case, he’s already fucked and there’s not much to be done about it. He’s tried to help as much as he can, he built all the tech and the TimeMaster and the setup for watching Liechtenstein while Jiya’s uncle Gabriel was playing Sleeping Beauty. But he’s conscious that he can’t fight like the rest of them, that if push comes to shove he’s going to be two hundred pounds of total deadweight, and that is… he doesn’t know what to do with that.

The drive to Oxford passes in silence except for stiltedly polite conversation, but as they sit in a long traffic queue in Headington, Rufus decides to bite the bullet. “So, man,” he remarks, as offhandedly as he can. “You planning to Bodyguard me this whole time, or – ?”

Jack shoots a confused glance at him. He shifts into gear as the cars ahead of them start moving; he’s a careful, deliberate driver who acts like he just got his license, sticking exactly to the speed limit, always using his turn signal, and waiting long enough to let someone merge that Rufus, born and bred on the fury roads of Chicago, wants to yell at him to punch it because only the strong survive. Finally he says, “Jiya did ask that I looked after you, yes.”

“I figured, and I appreciate that, but…” Rufus struggles to think how to say this without sounding like the world’s biggest ingrate. “I’ll probably be okay if you just drop me off at Mansfield, all right? I know you have a lot to do, and so do I. You can walk by campus every day or whatever to make sure I’m not dead, but that’ll probably be fine.”

“Are you sure that is wise?” Jack dutifully brakes to let eighty-six old people cross the street, and Rufus almost leaps out of his skin. “Creatures from all sides will be converging on Oxford. Rittenhouse knows that Ashmole 782 is there, and that Lord and Lady Clairmont will have to come to fetch it. I would not be surprised if he has already garrisoned it. Even the ring will not be enough to save you, and may make you more of a target.”

Rufus glances down at the signet ring on his pinky finger (extremely posh of him, he could practically walk into Christ Church like this). Jiya has given him his own de Clermont family sigil, on the fond hope that it will deter most creatures from messing with him, and Rufus definitely has feelings about the fact that his best hope for safety is being marked as part of a rich, mostly-white, famous family who will presumably raise hell on his behalf if he is unjustly snuffed. But he likewise decided not to say that, and there is also the fact, as Jack points out, that it could be a lightning rod for more trouble. The de Clermonts aren’t exactly the most popular party guests in the creature world these days, and if their very own evil xenophobic wannabe dictator is keeping the city under close tabs, Rufus would be a fool to disregard that. But the alternative is to be intensively babysat around the clock, when Mansfield is already fed up with his shenanigans, absences, and excuses, and is going to have to hear something good to justify keeping him around and not just –

At that, Rufus has an idea. He doesn’t know if it’s a good idea, but it’s something, and rather than air it out and lose strategical advantage, he keeps schtum as they finally make it through Headington, across Magdalen Bridge, and into downtown Oxford. It’s good to see it in all its dreaming-spire glory, the late spring sunlight splashing caramel and gold on the colleges and cobbles, the usual death-defying bicyclists dodging between buses and Ubers, and they turn on Longwall Street and wend their way around to Mansfield. As they pull up and Rufus moves to open the door, Jack says, “I will not be far. Lord Clairmont said that I could use his lodgings at All Souls. You have my telephone number?”

“Yeah, got it.” Rufus goes around to the back, pops the boot, and hauls out his duffel and backpack. “Thanks for the ride. I’ll let Jiya know that we’re here and not dead, and you can swing by later. Until then, yeah, see you.”

Jack raises one perfect black eyebrow, but charitably forbears to comment on this transparent attempt to get rid of him. He rolls up the driver’s window, glances around for any evildoers, then heads off, as Rufus trundles up to the porter’s lodge and presents his card. At the sight of the name, the middle-aged bloke in a monogrammed jumper looks surprised. “Dr. Carlin? I didn’t realize you were still here. Haven’t seen you in several months.”

“Yeah, well, I’m back.” Rufus manages a winning smile. “At least for a few days.”

The porter doubtless has more opinions on that, but lets him in, and Rufus schleps across the front quad to his rooms. Living in college has some advantages, especially since property prices in Oxford are doing their best to become as ridiculous as London, but it does mean that the entire institution gets to peer out their windows and gape at his triumphant return. Rufus really needs to rent his own flat, but that’s probably something to wait until he’s sure that he still has a job. He hauls up the stairs, unlocks his door, and steps in.

A foul whiff confirms that he definitely forgot to take out all the garbage before peacing out for six months, and everything is covered in a fine layer of dust that makes him sneeze. Rufus throws his stuff on the bed, searches around until he finds the rubbish culprit, and spends the remainder of the afternoon cleaning, vacuuming, and otherwise unearthing the place. There isn’t anything to eat, so he’ll have to make a run to Sainsbury’s, and wonders if the terms of his parole allow him to be out at night unsupervised. Nobody’s going to jump him in the frozen food aisle, right? Once or twice, it has occurred to Rufus that these myriad logistical difficulties would be solved if he was a vampire, but that comes with its own problems. It takes several years to get over the blind, blood-mad fledgling stage, you can’t tolerate sunlight or holy water or whatever else until you’re older, and while Rufus doesn’t deal with holy water, he’d definitely miss the sunlight. It obviously turns your (un)-life upside down, you just check out of human society for a cool couple decades, and since he was helping Flynn and Jiya with their research project about why vampires are having a hard time siring new vampires, there’s no guarantee that Rufus himself would make it. He could just die horribly, spewing blood, which would be kind of a bummer. Plus, whoever turns you is then officially and legally your parent in supernatural law, and while Rufus mostly likes the vampires he knows, he isn’t sure if he wants to call one of them Mom or Dad. Especially while he’s dating Jiya. He definitely does not want her to accidentally end up as his sister.

Rufus admits that it would be cool to live forever, but that lonely pro does not outweigh the extensive list of cons, and for now, he’s just going to have to wing it as his boring old human self. For that matter, he has not come entirely unprepared, and has placed both a sharpened silver letter opener and a hardwood stake in his backpack. If he does have to go full Buffy, he’s almost surely screwed, but at least going stabby-stabby will give someone else time to get there to handle the situation. Jack is too polite to never let him hear the end of it, but Rufus would prefer to avoid it anyway.

Weapons secured, he heads out to do some grocery shopping, which is accomplished without incident. He gets back, unloads his stuff, and whips up something to eat, texts Jiya as promised, and then stares at his phone. If it’s a case of getting Mansfield to believe that he was doing something important, and because Rufus would like a few answers from outside the de Clermont family, there’s only one person – or rather, daemon – that he can ask. Connor Mason has known him for a long time, was the one to confirm that Flynn and Jiya were vampires, and has extensive connections in both the high-tech and the creature worlds. If he can be persuaded to back Rufus’s story, or at least promise Mansfield that it would be better and more profitable to keep him on, Rufus will worry about whether it’s wrong later.

Rufus scrolls to Connor’s number and hits it with his thumb, holding the phone to his ear. There’s no guarantee that Connor will be available, he usually picks up when Rufus calls him on this line. Or if Rittenhouse has already started the purge, he could be –

“Hello? Rufus?”

“Ah, hey.” Rufus realizes just then that he was sort of hoping for voice mail, but it’s rude to hang up now. “Connor. It’s me.”

“Yes, I saw that,” Mason says dryly. “It’s been some time since we spoke. How are you – how is everything going, with Miss de Clermont?”

Rufus supposes that this is a tactful way of asking whether he’s been eaten by a vampire yet, but since they’re semi-sorta getting along, the eating opportunities and motives have happily decreased. “We’re – we’re actually fine, as far as just us goes. Better than fine, actually. It’s just, uh, we have a few other small problems.”

“Yes,” Connor says. “I would imagine you do. Not to be rude, Rufus, but may I enquire into the precise nature of this telephone call?”

He sounds distracted, harried, not like his usual mentoring, indulgent self when it comes to Rufus. Yeah, okay, it’s a little dicey to call your billionaire friend up out of the blue with the obvious ulterior motive of getting him to help save your career, when that billionaire friend gives gigabucks to Oxford’s science and tech programs and has a wing in the Radcliffe Library named after him. Rufus didn’t let Connor help him with getting the job at Oxford, so it’s possibly hypocritical that he’s asking for a golden parachute now, but that likewise is something for later. Still, he frowns. “Sorry. Is this a bad time?”

“It – well, I’m not sure it would necessarily ever be a better one.” Connor sounds like he’s switched the phone from one ear to the other, lowering his voice, and Rufus wonders if he has a guest, maybe someone in the house, who he doesn’t want to overhear. “This, however, is an exceptionally poor one. Can I phone you back?”

“Sure,” Rufus says uncertainly. “I’m in Oxford until next week, so – ”

“I’ll do my best. Actually, it might be better if we were to meet in person. Can you make it to London? The usual place. Three-thirty tomorrow, if I can squeeze it in.”

“I’ll get a train ticket, it should be – ”

“Capital, capital. Right, really must jet. Ta, now.”

With that, Connor hangs up, leaving Rufus suddenly feeling a lot less confident of his genius plan to just have Mason wave a magic wand and take care of it. He wonders if there is actual magic to deal with this, not that he would be able to do it, and jumps despite himself when the stairs creak loudly outside the door. But this is an old building, it’s hardly unexpected, and while Rufus waits tensely, silver letter opener clutched in hand, this is not followed by a sustained assault upon the premises. Right. If he’s going to head straight back to London tomorrow, it might have been more efficient to stay overnight, rather than going to Oxford. But Jack wouldn’t have liked that, and Rufus can agree that hanging out by himself, a juicy and tempting target, probably pushes the dumbass envelope a little more than advisable.

On that note, Rufus supposes regretfully that he needs to notify Jack that he’s going, though he can’t help but wonder what Jack will make of this meeting with a creature outside the trusted inner circle. As far as Rufus has gathered, Jack was once an involuntary servant of Rittenhouse and a semi-voluntary servant of Temple, so it’s not like he has tons of room to talk, and it’s also possible that it was a bad time for Mason precisely because someone unsavory came to call. Rufus did come here to solve problems, not make more of them… but now he’s in for it, he does need to talk to Mason about other stuff, and he is feeling a bit like a rebellious teenager with a strict curfew. Wondering if this is an acceptable method of communication, or if he should send a dude with a feathered hat and a trumpet, Rufus opens his messages, starts a new chat with Jack, and sends him the details.

He’s wondering if his phone is going to explode with questions or restrictions, but there’s no answer. At this, enough of the paranoia has seeped into Rufus to make him wonder if someone put a bomb in Flynn’s place over at All Souls, but he would definitely have noticed that, and there’d be sirens or whatever anyway. He books a last-minute train ticket to Paddington, winces at the price, wonders why his life is dumb, and goes to bed.

Rufus has weird dreams, wakes up early, and decides to head for the station in hopes of catching an earlier train, just because the alternative is to sit and stare at the wall. It’s a cool, misty day, intermittently spitting rain, and he debates taking an Uber, but it’s not that long of a walk, and it will kill some extra time. He dresses suitably for a high-end meeting in London, leaves and locks up, and heads through city center and down Hythe Bridge Street. Reaches the rail station, digs in his pocket for his wallet, since he’ll need his credit card to retrieve the ticket, and –

“What in the devil do you think you’re doing?”

Rufus has a minor-to-moderate coronary incident, leaps backwards, and almost does a Cirque du Soleil-style somersault over the nearest bike rack. The cause of his distress has materialized out of literally nowhere to regard him with a judgmental expression, as Rufus tries to not look like he nearly just died. The vampire takes a step forward that is – well, it can’t quite be classed as threatening, but it’s not as unfailingly polite as Jack usually is, either. “What is the meaning of this sneaking off? I thought you had business in Oxford?”

“I did – I do! Besides! I texted you!” Rufus wonders if he can just dodge around Jack and make a break for it, but there’s no way he can outrace a vampire, and that might draw attention. “Last night, I said that I was going to London today. It was very responsible of me. Go on, look!”

Jack pauses, removes his phone from his pocket – sure enough, there’s Rufus’s text, still unread – and puts it back with a disapproving huff. “I was busy last night,” he says, as if this is somehow Rufus’s problem. “If it was urgent, you should have phoned.”

“Nobody calls if they can avoid it, and since you’re here, it seems like you got that message anyway?” Rufus marches into the station, still obnoxiously shadowed by Jack, who leans a casual arm against the Great Western Railway ticket machine and keeps an eagle eye out. “If you’re going with me, then you better buy one too, and I am not paying for it, so – ”

Jack opens his wallet, carefully navigates the menu screen (Rufus’s uncharitable hope that the train will arrive and he can just dash onto it while Jack’s back is turned is foiled due to the next service to Paddington running ten minutes late – curse you, British railways) and pays in cash, counting the exact amount into the dispenser and collecting the ticket when it spits out. They proceed through the barriers, stand on the platform until the service arrives (fourteen minutes late, because fuck you, that’s why) and get on board. They are almost to Reading by the time Jack says quietly, “They would never forgive me if I got you killed, you know.”

“I’m not…” Rufus struggles with feeling, yet again, like a tool. “You’re not gonna get me killed, all right? I’m just going a little crazy with the constant surveillance. I know Jiya is worried about me. But can we find some sort of, like… happy medium?”

Jack looks as if this is a very odd request, as if a target under constant low-level threat of assassination would not ask the secret service if he could just wander off by himself to an unvetted meeting with an unverified client, and Rufus sighs very deeply and gives up. They ride the rest of the way to London in silence, take the Tube from Paddington to Westminster, and Jack gets an odd look on his face as they emerge aboveground and into the bustling midday crowds. Rufus vaguely recalls something about him most recently living in Barcelona, and wonders how long it’s been since he’s seen the city. Rather awkwardly, he says, “So, uh, when were you born exactly? Somewhere around here?”

“God’s year 1584, as close as I am able to make it.” The wind off the Thames ruffles Jack’s long black ponytail, as they descend the steps to the river walk. “Sometime in winter. I do not remember my human parents, they died when I was very small. I scavenged and scrounged in the Blackfriars area, until the monster – Rittenhouse – first found me. Not long after that, Christian de Clermont saw me, as he returned from Scotland with the witch Agnes Sampson, and…  took pity on me. He brought me to his aunt and uncle’s house on the Strand, saw me clothed and fed and educated, tried to teach me to read and be mannerly, even in the short time I knew him. It was for his sake that I decided to help the others, when it became clear that that was the choice to be made. He was… he was kind.”

Rufus debates whether to tell Jack that – according to Jiya, who texted him about it in a bit of a flap – Christian is in fact alive in the twenty-first century, albeit temporarily, and coming back to Sept-Tours. But since he doesn’t know the guy and thinks they should stay focused on what they’re doing, he doesn’t, and they walk the rest of the way to the Shard, which is what Connor meant by the “usual place.” There’s a skyline-view bar, though it’s early for their midafternoon appointment, and Rufus isn’t sure how much attention they should draw by walking around in the open. Fortunately, there are always ways to waste time in London, and around three, they head inside, take the lift up, and step out into the restaurant. A waiter comes zooming up to see if they require assistance, and when Rufus tells him that they’re waiting for Connor Mason, gets the sort of politely dubious look that means sure you are. Nonetheless, they are vindicated in about seven minutes, when the lift dings again and Connor steps out, accompanied by a professionally dressed, late-middle-aged black woman. Rufus takes great pride in throwing a told-you-so look at the snobby waiter, and as they start toward a table by the window, Connor stops short. “I beg your pardon, who – ”

“Sorry, the dark and skulking vampire is part of the package right now.” Rufus makes a gesture at Jack, who looks unsure whether to be insulted at being referred to in this way. “He’s, uh, with me from the family. Connor, this is Jack Blackfriars. Jack, this is Connor Mason. I’ve known him for a long time.”

The vampire and daemon eye each other up and down, then shake hands, as Rufus wonders too late if Connor’s companion is clued in on this aspect of his life. But if she’s come with him to this meeting, then presumably so, and she says, “I’m Grace Adebamowo, leader of the Peckham coven. You must be Rufus. I’ve heard about you from Connor.”

“Er, yes. Hi.” Rufus shakes her hand too, slightly intimidated. She has large dark eyes, long black braids knotted up and heavily streaked with silver, and a pendant and earrings in traditional African designs; if she’s from Peckham, she’s probably British-Nigerian. She has a reassuringly competent, no-nonsense older woman vibe, like someone’s badass mom or grandma, and he keeps looking sidelong at her as they sit down. After the de Clermonts and all their white people nonsense, he’s interested to spend more time with powerful creatures of color, and as they open their menus, he says, “So how do you know Connor?”

“We’ve worked together on a few projects.” Grace rustles in her handbag for a manila folder, which she puts on the table. “He thought I could consult on the current situation.”

“Current – ” Like an idiot, Rufus almost has to ask what that is, before he remembers oh yeah, Rittenhouse, evil takeover, burgeoning magical fascist state. “So there are actually other people working on that? My impression was that they were having trouble finding anyone who gave a sh – who cared.”

“Meaning the de Clermont family?” Grace gets the look of someone who isn’t surprised that they’ve been ineffective. “Connor told me you’re dating the daughter of one of the sons. I’m not sure how much you know about their history, but they’re, to say the least, controversial. A rich, reclusive family of vampires with centuries of blood on their hands, who have long been respected but who barely have their own house in order, and what happened with their matriarch after World War II… my own kind, the witches, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. I don’t doubt they’re working hard, but there are plenty of creatures who don’t have the luxury of ignoring David Rittenhouse’s return or considering it inconsequential to their lives. Creatures, in short, who aren’t white, wealthy, or vampires.”

A faint chill passes over the table as Grace speaks Rittenhouse’s name, and Rufus can’t help but glance around, as if he’s Book 7 Voldemort and saying it aloud will summon the Death Eaters. There’s nothing but the clink of glasses and forks, other conversations carried on without the slightest awareness that the fate of the mortal and magical worlds are being discussed here. As they break off from the conversation long enough to order afternoon tea without making the waiter think they’re crazy, he barely holds his questions back. Then he blurts out, “So the de Clermonts just don’t know how to reach the creatures who do care?”

“Something like that. My own coven in Peckham have been very worried since the news broke.” Grace flips open the file. “Almost all of us have been subpoenaed to Venice already, and we’ve been organizing resources for the community to help them know their rights, to strongly urge them not to go and what to do next. We’re not surprised that this is happening. Even before Rittenhouse, there was a noticeable shift in the language the Congregation was using, the policies it was promoting – which makes sense, if half of them were working to return him to power the whole time. This kind of thing always affects those at the crossroads of where human and creature prejudices intersect.”

“So, big surprise, there’s racism in the supernatural world too?” Rufus is zero percent surprised, but oddly fascinated. “This is probably a totally obvious question, but I only learned about all this less than a year ago, so apologies if I ask stupid things. Is it the same as it is in the human world, or different?”

“Something of both.” Grace nods in apparent appreciation of his effort to educate himself. “Daemons are often subject to ostracism and discrimination from both witches and vampires, and I’m sure Connor could tell you stories about what he went through before he became very rich. There’s been a traditional resistance to turn people of color into vampires, to make sure they stay mortal and die as they’re supposed to, so only white people get to live forever. They exist, but there aren’t many. Cultural context also plays a role. There is particular suspicion of witches in certain areas of Nigeria, and children are sometimes accused. Since magic is a potential weapon, the ruling classes prefer that the underclasses have as little of it as possible, and witches and daemons of color have often been subject to treatments and regimens intended to reduce or eliminate their powers. Some creatures do like to paint themselves as enlightened beyond such petty human things as racism, but look at how they treat the werewolves. Even the integration initiatives that the Congregation sponsored always came from a place of good PR, forcing the werewolves to act ‘civilized’ if they wanted governmental inclusion, or just ignoring their wishes altogether and doing whatever they pleased. They’re considered the least human and therefore least reasonable of all the creatures, but again, it’ll be easier for a white werewolf than a BAME one.”

At this point, their tea arrives, and everyone takes a cup as Connor pours. Rufus has gotten British enough that he has strong opinions on whether cream or jam goes onto a scone first (cream, you heathen), and he has to stop himself from jumping in and correcting Jack from doing jam first. Rufus is aware that vampires of sufficient age can eat regular food, even if it doesn’t nourish them, so Jack has had a few centuries to formulate his (incorrect) jam-related policies, and there’s a brief silence as everyone munches. Then Connor looks at Rufus. “What exactly were you ringing me about last night?”

“Ah.” Since they’ve just had this penetrating discussion of classism and racism and the ways in which institutional privilege functions to protect white vampires, Rufus feels a little squirrely about disclosing that he was hoping for a bailout. Of course, neither he nor Connor are white vampires, and there’s some argument to be made that Rufus needs to keep his job as an accomplished black academic in Oxford, which isn’t exactly overflowing with them to start with. Nonetheless, the optics aren’t the best, and Connor had nothing to do with Rufus getting himself into jeopardy in the first place. “Actually, we’re here for a couple things. I’ve been off with Jiya doing other things and trying to teach remotely, and Mansfield, uh, they’d rather that I actually turned up to work once in a while.”

“Are you planning to stay?” Grace asks. “I realize you aren’t magical, Rufus, but you have plenty of value in other ways, and most of my friends and neighbors are humans. You’re a role model for kids in our part of town. My son Nelson is taking his A-levels next summer, he has his heart set on Oxford or Cambridge, and you could give talks, mentorship opportunities for the local school. You’re personable, and it seems like you’re willing to work hard. You also have connections to the de Clermonts, and other places we don’t. I realize you have the Trinity term to finish, but after that, would you be interested in staying in London?”

Rufus hesitates. Even as he has spent months loyally sticking around Venice and Sept-Tours, he can’t deny that he’s been a little… well, peripheral. Not through anyone’s fault, but just because while being the tech guru in a magical war may be an interesting and vital job, it feels decidedly like a sinecure. They’re giving him something to do so he keeps busy and doesn’t feel useless, but it’s trading in a realm he can’t participate in and still only imperfectly understands – as just evidenced by him not knowing a damn thing about discrimination and dehumanization in magical contexts. It’s not like he thinks that Jiya would insist on him languishing around just to adore her and provide moral support, but she also wasn’t really keen on him coming to Oxford alone. Would this oblige him to take on Jack as a full-time bodyguard, or would the Peckham coven have other ways to protect him?

As well, Rufus hasn’t been back to his humble Chicago West Side neighborhood for a long time, partly because of logistics and schedule overload, and partly because he had an internal hang-up about proving that he made it out, that he was destined for bigger and better things and didn’t have to ever go back to that place of deprivation and powerlessness. He’s flown his mom and Kevin out to Britain for a visit, and they Skype or FaceTime semi-regularly, but that’s also fallen off the radar as he got more and more embroiled in the magical stuff. Both in Oxford and in Sept-Tours, Rufus is the outlier for different reasons, and that gets tiring. It might not be the worst thing in the world to have an actual community, and Grace is offering meaningful work with people who look like him, who are on the ground fighting to stop Rittenhouse now. Rufus could go back to France to – to do what? Sit in a fancy bedroom and write more software programs that won’t really matter when heavy-duty spells start flying? He could do a little there, sure, maybe. But he could do so much more here.

“I want to,” Rufus admits. “I think I’d like to stay. Jiya – I mean, my girlfriend, I’m sure she’d understand that I have to do what’s best for both the war and for me. If I told her that I’d found out where the fight was actually happening, she might even decide to come with me and help out. Though I’m guessing it’s pretty impossible to get a rental in London at short notice, and I don’t make tons of – ”

“We could easily find somewhere for you to stay, someone’s spare room or basement. That shouldn’t be a problem.” Grace sips her own tea. “But – forgive me for asking, you’ll understand that it is delicate – your girlfriend is a vampire? A de Clermont vampire?”

“Yes.” Rufus belatedly becomes aware that this is another of those sensitive nuances of creature politics, to which their earlier conversation should also have alerted him. “That won’t be a problem, will it? Jiya, I promise, she’s great, she’s completely down-to-earth and fun and compassionate and not a snob at all. She’d be totally willing to – ”

Grace and Connor exchange a look. Then Grace says carefully, “I’m sure she’s a wonderful woman. But her presence would be… a distraction, and it would undermine any public trust that I asked to be placed in you. As I said earlier, the de Clermonts aren’t exactly relatable figures to anyone that I know and work with, and while we might value your connection with them as a matter of abstract political and financial use, having one physically present would be… complicated. Jiya – her grandmother would be Maria, yes? The matriarch?”

“Yeah.” Rufus feels unaccountably defensive on Jiya’s behalf, wants to argue that her inclusion wouldn’t be a distraction – but he can’t know that, and he can’t talk over Grace just because he’s a dude, when she’s telling him how it is in her neighborhood and what he has to accept if he wants to take her offer. It’s also true that Jiya is very close with her grandmother and won’t be happy to hear her referred to as a witch-killer. If it’s true, Rufus isn’t sure, but he does know it’s a thing, and he can reluctantly see how asking the Peckham witches to accept Maria de Clermont’s granddaughter in their midst could quickly get finicky. He hopes Maria didn’t personally kill anyone they know, but it’s the same as any other dangerous demographic. Even if not all cops, enough of them to make interaction a fraught and carefully managed business to be avoided if possible. Even if not all men, ditto. Grace is too tactful to bluntly spell it out, but the message is clear. For as long as Rufus wants to live in Peckham and work on this, it’s best that Jiya stays in Sept-Tours and doesn’t even come to visit. Not like they have to break up or anything else. Long-distance relationships are a thing, they can meet in a neutral third-party place, and Rufus can Skype her too, at least as long as both of them can hold off on being murdered. Yet for the first time, it makes him feel like he’s being fundamentally torn between two things he wants, that the magical war never felt like it really applied to him but now it does, and he’s on the doorstep of a fascinating but genuinely dangerous world. He’s resented Jack’s helicoptering because the danger never felt real. For Rufus, sci-fi nerd extraordinaire, this is the stuff of pulp novels and blockbuster films. There’s a big bad villain to defeat, but everyone knows he’s going to go down. The band of plucky heroes will save the day. They’ll be fine afterward, get married and live happily ever after. (At least before grimdark fantasy got popular.) It’s felt like Jack is trying to save him from Sauron, or Darth Vader, or some other fictionally-frightening but not-real evil. Rufus is a black guy, he has real things to worry about, real evil, rather than fairytales, but Grace has finally made it concrete for him in a way it just wasn't quite before. Rufus wonders if he’s a selfish enough person that it took something being directly relevant to him to get it, and if he should work on that, but still.

He glances inadvertently at Jack, who is also a de Clermont partisan and possibly has some opinions on this, but Jack – wisely – seems to sense that his input is not needed at this juncture. He drinks his tea and holds his tongue, and Rufus clears his throat. “I – well, in that case, yeah, I still need to sort out what’s going on at Oxford, and finish term like you said, but it should be possible for me to come pretty soon after that.”

“We’d be happy to have you.” Grace scribbles her mobile number on a piece of paper, and tears it off. “You’re welcome to contact me beforehand with any questions you have.”

“Thanks.” Rufus pockets the number, suddenly hoping that she’s right to put her trust in him. After all, she met him barely an hour ago, and here she is inviting him to join her community, live in their houses, eat their food, inspire their youth, help keep them out of magical jail or worse, and he still does not have a shred of supernatural ability to his name. Rufus knows that he is brilliant and talented and deserves to be where he is, because he worked his ass off to get there. Maybe that’s why he feels like there should be more of a trial period, that they can’t possibly decide that he’s worthy until they’ve put him through his paces. “Look, are you sure about this?”

“We need all the help we can get.” Grace looks around at them, her face very solemn. “I’ve heard of three people already who refused the summons to Venice. As you might imagine, they were black, lower-income, and received their notices almost as soon as Rittenhouse finalized his takeover, with the clear implication that none of them could possibly be magical and it would be a matter of strict punishment if they were found to have unlawfully acquired their powers from a genuine creature. One of them was attacked in the night, one of them was arrested, transported, and stripped of his witch status and file in the archives, and one of them simply disappeared. We’re trying to help her family find out where she went, but it’s highly unlikely that we’ll come up with a trace of her.”

“Jesus.” Rufus rubs the bridge of his nose. Dire as all this sounds, he thinks just then that it’s funny that Connor rolled up to this meeting already prepared with a community activist and organizer, who seems to have been briefed on Rufus and was ready to offer him a position. Connor’s parents were Windrush Jamaican immigrants, he wasn’t born into privilege and does have contacts among the less fortunate of London, but it’s still a fairly major step to take. Especially since Rufus didn’t actually tell him anything about why he wanted to meet up, and he looks curiously at Connor. “How did you know I might want to do this? I could have been calling to see if you wanted to go to the Bears game in London this fall. You just said it was a bad time, then hung up. Why was it a bad time?”

“Er – ” Connor tugs at his collar. “Well, you know. I am quite occupied with any number of things these days, and I did know that you, having become attached to Miss de Clermont, might have acquired a particular perspective on any possible insurgency, so it was conceivable that – ”

Connor starts babbling and using big words when he’s nervous, and Rufus narrows his eyes at him. He likes Connor, but part of the reason he was surprised to meet Grace is because, well, he honestly didn’t think Connor cared that much about politics, human or creature. As a billionaire, he has the relative luxury of being insulated from the worst of the nonsense, and Connor likes to market himself as impartial, the sort of guy who can shake hands and mingle in any kind of garden party, and as someone who makes his money from mega-corporations and G20 governments, he’s not going to bang the anti-capitalism drum too much. That’s not to say he doesn’t care about Rittenhouse, because clearly he does, and that’s a different threat that even all his money might not protect him from. But still, this seems… opportune. Connor usually is, and he’s a daemon, he can sense things even when people haven’t said them, read energies and predict behaviors – one of the reasons he is, in fact, so rich. This could have an entirely ordinary explanation. And yet.

But whatever Connor might be about to say – or not say – they don’t find out. That’s because just then, the lift dings again, the doors open, and someone strides out into the bustling café. An odd, almost involuntary hush falls as he passes, people turning their heads, as if aware that he definitely does not belong here. He’s dressed in old dark robes, out of place among the modern business casual, and in Rufus’s opinion, looks a little like Grand Moff Tarkin – sunken cheeks, coiffed gunmetal hair, ambient air of evilness, and all. Rufus can also tell that he’s a vampire, just by something in him that has gotten good at recognizing them, and cold insect feet scuttle across the back of his neck. He isn’t sure why this guy is here, but it doesn’t feel good, and he wishes he would leave.

Rufus’s reaction, however, is nothing next to Jack’s. He lays eyes on the newcomer, then blanches, springing out of his chair at full vampiric speed, knocking the table so the silverware jangles and the tea spills, soaking some of Grace’s papers. If people weren’t staring before, they definitely are now, especially when Jack swears at the top of his lungs in something that sounds like one of Shakespeare’s more vulgar insults. “Thou knave,” he says, accent going full-on Elizabethan, practically spitting the words. “Thou shivering, sneaking, deceptive blackguard bastard, how darest thou showeth thy foul, cringing face in this – ”

Cell phones are starting to appear, as if this might be some kind of weird performance art, just a thing that happens in London, or a guerrilla marketing tactic for whatever the RSC is doing these days. Rufus wants to yell at them to stop filming, idiots, especially since the last thing he needs is a video of all this in wide circulation. But he still doesn’t know what’s going on, Connor and Grace look alarmed but equally lost, and nobody except Jack recognizes this miserable old bastard who’s swanned up out of nowhere to –

Grand Moff Tarkin smiles, pulling his fleshless lips back over his teeth. “It is good to see you too, my dissolute son,” he says, coming to a halt and looming over their table like a Halloween ghoul. “I was exiled, you know. Transported. Shipped to Australia, sometime in the eighteenth century, which is a place of great suffering for vampires. I took it, accepted the expurgation and the torment, grew stronger, and did not forget. But by the good graces of the new government, who have seen the injustice of my situation and remembered the service that I did for the lord Rittenhouse in the sixteenth century, I have finally been allowed to return to my own native soil – and to you, who may be the last surviving member of my hive. It is time that we finish what was begun long ago. I suggest we commence here.”

Jack is still opening and closing his mouth, shaking his head, but unable to come up with an answer. He is also clearly aware that it looks like he led Connor, Grace, and Rufus into a trap, got several rebels in one place and delivered them up bound and gagged, and he shoots a look at them as if desperate to establish that he didn’t, he didn’t. Finally, it’s Connor who manages, “I beg your pardon, you – who exactly – who exactly are you?”

“I am the ungrateful Jack Blackfriars’ own blood sire, and was once the master of all the vampires in this city. So too do I intend to be so again.” Tarkin’s nostrils flare. “You will learn the rest of me soon enough. My name, you see, is Hubbard. Father Andrew Hubbard.”


All things considered, Wyatt de Clermont cannot decide if he would prefer to just get this over with, or eat several silver bullets, stay at Sept-Tours with his brothers and sort out this Houdini situation, or any other number of undesirable activities rather than do – well, what he has, with the best of intentions, opened his goddamn big mouth and signed himself up to do. After Gabriel and Garcia have gone off for their morning hunt/heart-to-heart/whatever they’re doing in the woods, Wyatt checks the clock, realizes that he needs to leave for Lyon, and bids polite farewells to Lucy, Kate, and Jiya. Then Christian gets up to hug him, Wyatt finds himself unreasonably choked up, and claps his nephew on the shoulder, harrumphing. “Hey,” he says. “Look after Sarah for me, huh? I don’t think Jess is gonna murder me, but you know. In case she ends up an actual orphan.”

“Of course,” Christian says, though the confusion on his face reminds Wyatt that he has never met Jessica Proctor, has only the haziest idea of who she is or how that went bad, and hopes that Wyatt is not heading off to meet a secret hitwoman. “When will you be back, Uncle William? Wyatt?”

“I don’t know. Hopefully not too long. If Jessica agrees, I’ll bring her back here, but I wouldn’t blame her for not wanting to be anywhere near the place. I’ll have to make arrangements for her safety somehow, especially if she has some stuff from the Raven King. Call me if anything goes seriously sideways, and I’ll try to make it back. But you have the other two, you should be all right.” Wyatt shrugs awkwardly. “And let me know if anything comes up with Maman.”

“Grand-mère?” Christian realizes just then that he hasn’t seen her – or, for that matter, his grandfather, and Wyatt doesn’t envy whoever gets to explain that. “Is she – ?”

“We’re looking for her,” Lucy says quickly. “She went missing when your uncle and I were rescuing your father, but we’re sure she’s fine. She’s just… doing something on her own.”

“Yeah, if nothing else, Rittenhouse would want to crow about killing her.” Wyatt is grateful for the chance to turn away to pick up his bags. Obviously, he hasn’t always had the warmest relationship with his mother. She loved him and she did her best to insist that the constant disdain from his brothers was not how she felt, but – as demonstrated by his blow-up at her several months ago – there’s a lot that he’s still resentful about. It’s her fault, her and Gabriel’s, that he has to run after Jess like this and the mess has become what it is, but they also worked together closely for those months in Venice. Planning the war, coordinating strategies to outwit Temple, Maria’s raid to retrieve Cecilia and Sarah, the fact that she clearly feels terrible about all this, their attempt at real conversations for the first time in years. He is worried about her and he does want her back, and even if he’s relieved himself of his grandmaster obligations, he wonders if it reflects badly on him to be leaving at this delicate juncture. Then he makes that old, poisonous voice shut up. Everyone else – Cecilia, the Sokolovs, Jack, Rufus, whoever – has left Sept-Tours on important strategic missions, and just because Wyatt’s also happens to be deeply personal does not make it less valuable. If anything, more so. God, he hopes Jess doesn’t kill him.

Wyatt is just on his way out of the house when he hears a small sound behind him, and turns to see his daughter, who has clearly descended from her room to see if Uncle Garcia might be around for more cuddles. Wyatt forces down his instinctive reaction that of course even his own kid likes anyone else better than him, remembers that he’s grateful to Flynn for it, and squats down in front of Sarah. “Hey,” he says. “Hey, sweetheart, I’m going to Romania, okay? I think your mom’s there, and I’m going to go find her. If she’s there, I’ll bring her back. That’ll be pretty cool, won’t it? I know she’ll be happy to see you.”

“Mama?” For the first time, Wyatt can see he has said something that Sarah actually wants to hear, and it – Jesus, it shoots him right in the heart, the way he’s bound and determined to do anything for her, for both of them. “You’re – you’re going to get her?”

“Yeah,” Wyatt says, and of everything riding on this, all the other promises he has made, the high-level military and tactical value of retrieving Jessica before the other side can, this pledge to a six-year-old girl feels like the most important. “Yeah, I am.”

Sarah considers – then reaches out very shyly and hugs him, to which Wyatt is so startled that he can barely respond. He closes his arms gingerly around her like a live shell casing, chokes down the tears that have come rushing unbidden up his throat, and struggles to settle himself, to be all right with it, to do this. Then he lets her go, kisses the top of her head, and stands up. With that, not looking back, not trusting himself to do it, he picks up his things, goes out, gets into the car, and leaves for Lyon Saint-Exupéry.

The semi-annual French railway strike is presently happening, so everyone who urgently needs to get somewhere has to drive, and that means the traffic is bad enough that Wyatt keeps an increasingly anxious eye on the clock. He does get there in time, but considerably closer than he likes to cut it, and performs an undignified sprint into the terminal that does not befit the dignity of a nine-hundred-year-old vampire and grandmaster, however briefly, of the Knights of Lazarus. He foregoes checking a bag because of the line, doesn’t have any toiletries to throw out at security except for toothpaste and shampoo but that still gets his bag scanned three times, and makes it to his gate just as they’re issuing an increasingly strident call for Monsieur Wyatt Logan to appear if he plans to travel on this flight. He decided to use his old human last name, which is also the one on his most recent passport, but that does mean he gets the collective obloquy of Wizz Air’s other fine passengers focused on him as he shuffles guiltily down the aisle to his seat (naturally, at the very back). He buckles in, hopes that things will get better from here, and decides that he should not count on it.

It’s about two and a half hours to Cluj, and Wyatt stares out the window, trying to concoct anything remotely like a solid plan. At this point, all he’s got is to drive to Hunedoara and search until he randomly runs into his ex-girlfriend, but this is, to say the least, flimsy. After all, there’s no guarantee that Jess will be hiding near Corvinus’s castle, especially if she wants to avoid anywhere with an obvious association with him. Nonetheless, Wyatt can’t shake the hunch. Maybe there’s something there, some old protection spell or relic of the Raven King’s magic, that she can take advantage of as long as she stays close. Kate said Romania, and unless Wyatt is going to call her back and ask for a more detailed scrutiny, this is what he’s got, and he has to make it work. Jess is an appreciably powerful witch on her own accord, it’s not like she’s helpless, but a lot of creatures are looking for her, and she would be justified in shooting first and asking questions never.

Wyatt still hasn’t come up with much by the time they land at Avram Iancu, he goes through arrivals (deeply tempted to tell the customs officer that he is a vampire in Transylvania and this unreasonably amuses him) and rents a car, driving into the city. Cluj is surrounded by a ring of grimly ugly Communist-era tower blocs until you reach the center, which is lovely. Tall domed cathedrals, green squares, and the National Theater line the main thoroughfare, and Wyatt parks and walks down into the old town, before the gothic-spired St. Michael’s Church and the statue of Matthias Corvinus himself that presides majestically before it. The Raven King was born here in 1443, in an old house just a few steps off the square, and Wyatt briefly wonders if he might find Jess hanging out there. In the name of thoroughness, he makes a casual pass-by, but he can tell it’s no use.

Wyatt makes a stop at a Banca Transilvania ATM and withdraws some lei, wonders if he should say “I vant to suck your blud” to someone just to say he did, and regretfully decides that the moment is too serious for such levity. Besides, Vlad Dracula was no laughing matter. Wyatt didn’t know the guy personally, but his father and brothers had a few nasty run-ins, and the Knights of Lazarus were eventually called in. In fact, the last time Wyatt was here was sometime in the fifteenth century near Sighișoara, dealing with another of Vlad’s fits of determination to find out how many people he could impale on very sharp stakes. Both Romania and vampires have resented the unflattering stereotype of the other that has been associated with them ever since, and even if Dracula isn’t here, plenty of other unfriendly creatures very well could be. He’ll have to see what he can find. Wyatt doesn’t exactly speak Romanian, but he doesn’t not speak it, since if you know a Romance language and maybe a little Turkish, you can read it pretty easily, and he does remember a few phrases. Those, however, are also almost six hundred years old, and he’s pretty sure that asking the peasants which way to the lord’s citadel, what days the market is held, or how many Ottomans Vlad ate now aren’t going to be materially useful.

Since the alternative is sitting in his hotel room and going insane, Wyatt decides to try reconnaissance. He isn’t sure how to ask anyone what he’s looking for without sounding completely insane, doesn’t want to draw too much attention, and wonders if he should just screw waiting and drive to Hunedoara tonight. He does remember to text his niece that he has reached Romania without major incident, he hopes all is well at home, and he’ll report in with any further news. Say hi to Sarah for me.

It’s a nice spring evening, green and gold and warm, and Wyatt walks over most of the city, past clubs and cafes, churches and bookstores, government ministries and museums, statues and schools, Universitatea Babeş-Bolyai and the Technical University, restaurants with Hungarian signs in the window, parks and bridges and approximately eight thousand pharmacies. Clearly if he was human and got sick here, he’d have a lot of options, and he debates the merits of trying for a feed. It’s been long enough that he’d feel better with one, but that would go with mesmering a human and the vampire-in-Transylvania shtick ceasing to be funny if someone caught him doing it. The most wildly optimistic version is that he finds Jess soon and she’s willing to let him bite her neck when he does, but that is definitely out of the question for any number of reasons.

Wyatt concludes his search around eleven o’clock without much to show for it, returns to his hotel, and wonders whether to worry about the fact that Jiya hasn’t texted him back. But there’s no obvious reason to conclude that anything is wrong, he needs to focus on his own end of things, and he wants to get to sleep so he can leave early tomorrow morning. He turns out the light, lies down in bed, and no sooner closes his eyes than he’s assailed by a chattering, nonstop stream of anxiety brain that takes hours to finally subside. He dozes off briefly, wakes at dawn, decides it’ll have to do, and trucks out.

Once he leaves the city limits of Cluj, the countryside beyond the motorway quickly turns rural, green and rolling, until distant mountains rise out of the southern horizon. Finally he passes through the outskirts of Deva, with its magnificent mountaintop citadel, and turns up the hill for the further ten minutes to Hunedoara. It’s a sleepy small town, mostly apartments and corner stores, and there isn’t much here except for one of the most beautiful castles Wyatt has ever seen. It lies just above the town, screened by trees and an unsightly water tower, so you might think this was just an ordinary industrial zone and almost miss it. But when you walk up the unassuming street to the gates, an old curtain wall rises into sight, and then the full red-turreted splendor of Castelul Corvinilor – ancestral seat of the Hunyadi family, that of Matthias’s father. A cobbled courtyard leads to the bridge that spans the deep remains of the moat, and the castle itself is made of pale golden stone, commanding the hilltop, with well-preserved walkways, stairs, and a few intact chambers. It is also a museum and visitor attraction, and there are a few tourists buying their entry tickets as Wyatt reaches the gate, so he pays and goes in. The inner courtyard is steep and sloping, balconies overlooking it from above, and he can almost see how this place looked when Jess was here. If, of course, she was. The Raven King had other seats, other halls of power. He was King of Hungary and Croatia, she could have been as far south as Flynn’s old stomping grounds of Ragusa. But theoretically, she’s here now. Somewhere.

Wyatt spends the rest of the morning exploring the castle – which, while very lovely, does not yield any sudden insights about Jessica’s whereabouts. He wasn’t really expecting her to be just chilling out while people wander around and Instagram the window carvings, but it still deflates a small bubble of hope in his chest. He tries to think what to do now. Most of the de Clermont family is from southeastern Europe – Asher and Maria from Greece, Gabriel from Rome, Flynn, as noted, from Dubrovnik – but Wyatt, as the lone northerner from Scotland, is out of his element. Maybe if he knew more of the geography or the history or whatever else – maybe they should have sent one of his brothers, though Jess probably wants to murder Gabriel even if Temple hadn’t told her to do it and likewise has no reason to be fond of Flynn. Maybe it wasn’t actually Romania. Did Kate know what she was talking about? Or is this all a giant waste of time that will end with him never again seeing –

Momentarily lost in self-pity as he is, Wyatt almost doesn’t catch it. Even when he does, he jerks to a halt, and thinks he’s imagined it. But there’s a faint thread of magic, recognizable only since he knows it so well, and he follows it to the door of the ladies’ chamber, the quarters built for the use of Matthias’ three wives and any other royal women. It’s locked, not open for tourists, and Wyatt glances around for anyone who might be inclined to tell him off for pulling at the handle. Unsurprisingly, it does not open, but when he touches it, he’s in no doubt. That’s Jess’s magic, some kind of defensive spell that is designed to fry anyone who charges through this door unannounced. Even, or possibly especially, her dumbass vampire ex-boyfriend and father of her child. But never mind that. She has to be here.

Wyatt sizes up the prospect, wonders how much trouble he’d get into for just busting through the wall, and checks the lock again. It flares threateningly, making him snatch his hand back, but he can just sense the place where it splits, where there’s a slight weakness in the spell that he can wiggle his finger into. From there, he can just get hold of the latch, glances around one more time for any wrathful curators, and goes for it. He jerks it open and stumbles through into the dusty, shut-up room on the far side, as the door slams behind him. Far too late, he senses the presence of a whole new tier of defensive spells that are well aware that he isn’t Jessica and very pissed about that fact, and hits the deck in the nick of time.

Wyatt lies flat, hands over his head, white-hot currents pulsating to every side. He can’t stand up without getting roasted, he isn’t a witch and can’t cancel them out, and it seems like his only option is to stay here and hope that Jess hears her security system go off. This is not the way he planned their reunion – there was a lot more suaveness and charm on his part, maybe a bunch of flowers, though she’d probably throw them in his face – and he crawls across the floor, stirring a wild flurry of dust bunnies. Finally, the spells seem to think that if anything in the room is not dead, it’s not for lack of trying on their part, and subside into mutinous, uneasy silence. This, however, could be a trick to get him to stand up too fast, and Wyatt waits another five minutes before he sticks up a finger, then edges to his knees. When this does not result in spectacular death, he rises all the way to his feet, and looks around.

It’s clear that Jess has been hiding out here for a while. The suite of spells probably include several to ensure that the human caretakers and castle employees don’t notice anything, and there’s a makeshift pallet, a small bag of groceries, a camp toilet, a bucket for rinsing, and a thin stack of clothes. Something in Wyatt’s chest twists as he gazes at the humble surroundings, the fact that she’s been living like this, barely one step up from a hole in the ground. The only items of value sit on an improvised desk of wooden crates, which she has moved into the light for reading. A magnificent old clasp-bound leather codex, pages covered in columns of handsome gothic script and illuminations of people halfway through horrible things happening to them. Wyatt looks down at some unfortunate whose guts have burst out of his belly to hang him from a tree, wonders if he really wants to know what this is, and gingerly moves it aside to reveal several more books and manuscripts beneath. They’re all formidable magical tomes, probably the source of the spells that he just narrowly escaped, and it seems indisputable that they’re from the Raven King’s lost library, volumes that he must have allowed Jess to take with her. This might be a good thing, but –

Wyatt is so distracted that he fails to take adequate note of the sound behind him until a split-second before he too would have become Gut-Tree Man. He somersaults out of the way of a full-force blast, thinks inanely that the spells chose a weird moment to reactivate – and then realizes that it’s not them, per se. Or at least, not on their own. They have been freshly cast, and their caster is standing in the doorway, as their eyes lock with an electric shock that he feels just as tangibly. Her hair is longer than he remembers, she has a tough, hard-bitten look like an explorer who’s been living in solitude in the jungle, and while her face lurches in disbelief, she gets it under control just as fast. There is a nauseous silence that seems unlikely to ever end. Then Jessica Proctor slams the door and says, “Wyatt.”

Given that’s it’s been over seven years since they were face to face, everything that happened then, the discovery that they have a kid, the mess with his brothers and her thralldom to Temple, and her resulting extended sojourn in the fifteenth century, Wyatt is impressed that she doesn’t follow that up by screaming at him. He raises his hands, to show he’s unarmed and isn’t pilfering any of the books. “Hey,” he croaks. “Hey, Jess.”

The silence continues to tower, so overwhelming that it practically has physical form. She clearly both does and does not need to ask how he found her, and he can see her debating whether she’s the least interested in anything he has to say. After Maria and Gabriel both ordered him to end it, after they made it extenuatingly clear that the relationship could not be countenanced, Wyatt tried to keep it up for a little while longer, in secret. He’s not sure how he thought he was going to fool them, but he didn’t want to give her up. At least until the gloves came off, and he chose the de Clermonts and the Congregation, because of course he did. Jessica regards him with ice-cold dispassion – not anger, not even that, but an utter lack of belief that anything he can say or do can make what happened any better. And frankly, Wyatt’s not sure that she’s wrong.

“Surprised to see you here,” Jessica says at last, in the completest of understatements. “Little far off the beaten path, isn’t it?”

“I came to – ” Wyatt knows better than to try any close approach, and keeps a smart distance in the corner. “I came to find you.”

“Why?” Jessica, again, doesn’t sound angry, not particularly. She just sounds as if this is completely unbelievable, almost amusing, and she genuinely cannot think why he would possibly bother. “Looks like you have enough on your plate these days, doesn’t it?”

“It does – I do, but – ” Wyatt can’t think what to explain first. It’s clear that she’s not shacking up here alone because she has a lot of options, or because it’s at all safe to return to her home in Oxford, and she doesn’t know where else to go. He was hoping to save this for later, but suddenly nothing in the world is so important but that he tell her. “Jess,” he blurts out. “Jessica. I just – Sarah. She’s safe. She’s at Sept-Tours with me – with us. I… I know.”

Even despite the shock of his appearance, that is the first thing that truly stuns her. She goes white to the roots of her hair, reaches out as if to grab hold of something, and sits down hard on the pallet. She raises both hands, stares at them, and then clenches them hard, struggling to contain her emotions. Finally she says croakily, “How – how did – ”

“A vampire named Jack Blackfriars told us, in Venice. It’s a long story.” Way to undersell it, Barry. “After you disappeared, Temple – well, he doesn’t have her any more, I promise,” Wyatt adds hastily, since Jessica looks set to leap to her feet on the spot (as well as in fact kill him for sitting here like this while their daughter is in danger – God, their daughter, theirs, he’s rarely thought of Sarah as belonging to both of them, but she is, she does, and he can barely stand it). “But he had her for a while, since we obviously – we didn’t know. Once we did find out about her, Maman – she rescued Cecilia and Sarah from Temple’s place in Venice, and then – it’s been a challenge, but I think we’re finally – ”

He’s babbling, skipping over huge chunks of the story in his desperation to reassure her, but Jessica looks even more angry and alarmed. “Your mother – ? We are talking about the same woman? The one who said she’d rather be dead herself than see any of her sons with a witch?”

“Yes. Her.” Wyatt debates whether they need to get into the weeds of Maria’s change of heart, though he can’t blame Jessica for being scathingly skeptical. “I – well, actually, Garcia has sort of married a witch, and – you know Lucy Preston, right? You were friends and colleagues at Oxford, before all this happened? She’s the one who sent you into the fifteenth century, but I asked her to do that.”

Jessica jerks slightly, as if he’s hit her. Flatly, coolly, she says again, “Why?”

“Because I was afraid.” Wyatt edges closer, moves the books off the crate, and sits down on it, hands dangling between his knees. “After Temple enthralled you, and you attacked and temporarily killed Gabriel – Maman wanted to know who it was, she didn’t know it was you, but after what had already happened with us, I was terrified of what she would do if she found out. So I asked Lucy to send you away, to keep you safe, and since you’re an early modernist, you work on the Renaissance, I guess she chose fifteenth-century Florence, but you’ve clearly been around, and I’m still not sure how you got back, but I’m – ”

Jessica holds up her hand, curtailing what threatens to be another undignified word vomit, and Wyatt shuts his mouth hard enough to hear it click. She is absorbing all of this without expression, though her eyes have a sheen like a finely honed diamond, sharp enough to cut bone. A morass of tangled questions, explanations, excuses, apologies hang between them as thickly as the heart of the Amazon rainforest, and Wyatt wonders where on earth to make his next foray. Finally he says hoarsely, “I wish you’d told me about Sarah.”

“Do you?” Jessica stands up fast enough to make him flinch – even though he, technically, is the stronger creature here. “Do you really not get why I didn’t? I didn’t think she was yours at first anyway, even though I hadn’t been with anyone else. I had no reason to think that vampires and witches could have children, I’d never heard of Bright Born. Once I accepted that it wasn’t some bizarre magical immaculate conception, I contacted that housekeeper of yours, Cecilia. I met her in Rouen, when I was a few months pregnant. I’d just gotten the job at Corpus Christi, so I said I would be moving to England and the family wouldn’t need to be troubled by me again. I almost told her then, but I didn’t. I couldn’t risk any of you knowing about it. I didn’t know if your fucking brother would just show up at my door in the dead of night and make me disappear, or – ”

“Gabriel wouldn’t do that,” Wyatt says feebly. He has never gotten along with the arrogant dickhead, obviously, but he still doesn’t think that Gabriel would cold-bloodedly murder his ex-girlfriend. Issue her with an ultimatum to remove herself and avoid contaminating the family’s imagined sanctity and honor, perhaps, but not that. “He – he’s also changed, by the way, but – but even before, he wouldn’t. I swear.”

Jessica throws him a searing look, as if the last thing she cares about is whatever tender guilt either Maria or Gabriel de Clermont imagine themselves to feel, and once again, Wyatt finds it hard to blame her. The nauseous silence makes its return, as Jessica paces back and forth, as if internally talking herself down. Then she says, “Maybe it was unfair of me never to write to you after that, or never tell you at all. I’ll give you that. But I didn’t want you to think that I was asking for money, and I didn’t want whatever mess would happen if you reported us to your insufferable colleagues on the Congregation for breaching the Covenant. Trust me, the idea of ramming Maria de Clermont in the perfect teeth with the knowledge that she had a half-witch grandchild was very tempting. But any way the secret got out, Sarah would be in danger, and I couldn’t agree to that. I didn’t even tell the coven in Oxford who she really was, let them think she was from some random fling. And that was how it stayed, until Michael fucking Temple found out. He blackmailed me with it, he forced me to break into Garcia’s laboratory and steal the information on Lucy, and then he – ” She stops. “You know.”

“He… yeah.” Wyatt feels it hollowly in his chest. “He’s been doing a lot of that. Him and a lot of other power-crazed assholes. Jess, Jessica, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I know it can’t come close to covering any of it, and I know my entire family has screwed you over as much as any of our enemies, and it’s shitty and it’s awful and it’s completely unfair. If you want to slap me, or spit in my face, or tell me to get lost and never be seen again, that’s fair, I promise. I just… I thought you should know. About Sarah, at least. I love her. Jesus, I’ve only known about her for a few months, but I love her so much I can barely take it, and she’s been raised to think I’m some evil vampire brute who callously betrayed her mom, and I – I get it, I do. And Temple was brainwashing her and all kinds of other shit, but… I would do anything for that kid, Jessica. Anything on earth. I’ll pay you whatever you spent for six years raising her alone, if you want any penny of de Clermont money. I’ll make sure you have anything you need. It seems like the least I can do.”

Jessica inspects him closely, her face still coldly inscrutable but an unexpected flicker of vulnerability in her eyes. Her pride may want her to throw back this offer of blood money, but it’s clear that she’s trying to think about whether it would be better for Sarah to be assured of a comfortable material upbringing and a good relationship with her father. At last she says abruptly, “There’s a war on, or there’s about to be, so I don’t think that really matters right now, does it?”

“Maybe not, but…” Wyatt glances around at the squalid shanty, and something in his chest breaks. “Jess, let me get you out of here, all right? Even just for a couple hours. Get you a proper shower and something to eat. You’re living like goddamn Robinson Crusoe, after everything you’ve been through, and just – please.”

Jessica continues to consider him. It’s not clear whether she trusts him enough to let him remove her to a secondary location, but the conditions are grim, and if nothing else, she’s not done shouting at him yet. “Fine,” she says. “A few hours. That’s it.”

Wyatt, eager to make progress, agrees, and they leave the room separately, him first. Jessica steps out a few minutes later, replaces all the protective spells to wall it off and seal it up again, and they walk out of the castle together, as casually as they can. There’s a hotel just down the street: the Vila Corviniana, a restored, rambling gothic mansion, and they manage to book a high-ceiled, airy room on the second floor. Jessica drops her dirty plastic bag on the floor, Wyatt his suitcase, and volunteers to run out and find her some clothes and toiletries. She agrees grudgingly, goes into the bathroom, and starts running the hot water.

It’s still running when Wyatt returns, and he briefly fears she’s drowned herself, but it’s been God knows how long since her last one, and he’s not going to complain. He opens the door far enough to push the bag in, then sits down on the bed, running over possible speeches in his head. Should he tell her that he’s still madly in love with her, that he hasn’t been with any other woman in the seven-odd years since they were together, or is that definitely jumping the gun? Just because she reluctantly agreed to come here with him doesn’t mean she wants to get back together, and this would need to be handled with care. Should they work out a co-parenting strategy, a custody agreement, a child-support repayment schedule? Suggesting legal documents in any form seems like a mood-killer, not that there even is a mood to kill. God, she’s here, she’s in the bathroom, she’s here and she’s alive and they’re in the same time and place again, and it’s overwhelming everything else that Wyatt can possibly think about. He draws deep, useless breaths, trying to control the rage of the craving that burns behind his eyes, rooted in his heart and his gut and the sinews of his soul. If she would remotely allow him, he’d go in there, carry her out naked and dripping wet to the bed, and –

He shakes himself ferociously, slapping his cheeks, as the water finally cranks off and he hears Jess get out. She moves around, drying off and getting dressed, as he is so painfully attuned to each small shift that it sounds like thunder in his ears. Finally she cracks open the door, letting out a waft of warm steam, and steps out, hair bundled in a towel, barefoot and raw and pink and looking human again for what must be the first time in months. They stare at each other again. Then she clears her throat and says awkwardly, “Thanks.”

“Sure.” Wyatt was going to say something else, but he’s briefly forgotten how to speak English. “Yeah. Sure.”

Their eyes linger a moment longer. Then Jessica goes back into the bathroom to shake out her damp, tumbled blonde hair, and brushes it thoroughly, as Wyatt tries not to be creepy about watching her through the half-open door. Finally she returns, sits down next to him on the bed, and digs into the bag of Romanian convenience-store food, which seems like a poor pittance to lay before one’s fair lady on the occasion of their reunion. She’s hungry enough not to care, however, and eats without saying a word. At last, when it’s gone, she gets up to throw the wrappers into the trash, brushing the crumbs off her jeans. Then she says quietly, “What are we going to do about this, Wyatt?”

“I – I don’t know.” That’s a lie, insofar as he has any number of ideas, but he doesn’t want to spook her. “Look, I promise you’d be welcome at Sept-Tours. My – my mother’s missing right now, or sort of missing, we aren’t sure. Either way, she’s not there, and Gabriel – well, everyone’s pretty much roasting him right now, you could definitely get your chance. Sarah’s there too. You could bring back the books, you could tell us what you’ve been working on. You said there was going to be a war on, and you – you could fight. Against Temple and all the other people who’ve hurt you and used you. I don’t know what exactly you’ve gone through in the past, or where all you’ve been, but I’m guessing you aren’t the same witch who went in.”

“No.” Jessica lifts one wry eyebrow. “No, that I am not. I was in Florence for a while, and then I was in Innsbruck because my ancestress, Anneke Proktor – anyway, never mind. Then I made my way to Matthias’ court, and he took me in. He was always a great patron of arts and literature, and magic. That was where I wrote the book. Or finished it, at least.”

“Yeah, we – we found that. Or at least Rufus and Jiya did.” Wyatt realizes he’s going to have to explain who most of these people are, as Jessica knows them only by name or not at all, but not right now. “It was so someone would find you and get you home, right? To Sarah?”

“More or less.” Jessica’s lips tighten, but she speaks levelly. “That was the main idea. And because I was a historian, I was there, I had access to sources that academics today could only dream of, and I wasn’t letting it go to waste. Once or twice, I was tempted to stay. But I knew I had to get back somehow. Matthias didn’t know how to timewalk someone, but he studied for a while and figured out an approximation of the process. He got me as far as the seventeenth century, but there – well. I had questions about Ashmole 782 anyway.”

“Yeah?” Wyatt finds it slightly jarring to hear Jessica referring casually to the Raven King, one of the greatest of all Renaissance magicians and late medieval Eastern European monarchs, by his first name, but then, she knew the man in person, and he clearly did a lot for her. “Jesus, Jess, how long were you in the fifteenth century?”

“I don’t know. Three years? Four?” Jessica shakes her head, then suddenly looks horrified. “Wait – how old is Sarah? Did I – did I miss – ”

“She’s six. It’s been about a year for us, so you haven’t missed that much, really. Not nearly as much as I did.” Wyatt fights another pang of guilt. This explains why she looks older and sharper and harder, if she had to live off her wits for several years in the 1400s, which he doesn’t remember as being super fun for anyone (see: impaling). As he said, it’s ultimately because of him that she was sent there, even if it was in the name of saving her life. “Anyway, what about Ashmole 782? Did you go to New York, by any chance? Meet a pair of witches named Bathsheba and Abiah Foulger?”

“Yes.” Jessica looks at him, startled. “How did you know that?”

“Lucy found a letter from Bathsheba to my father. Another long story, but she and Garcia were also in the past – not as long as you, six months in the sixteenth century. So – ”

“Wait.” Jessica frowns. “You said earlier that Garcia married Lucy? Who’s also a witch? And your family is just fine with that now?”

“They – ” It doesn’t seem entirely accurate to say fine, given that there were definitely a few blow-ups when Lucy first arrived on the scene. But clearly, there is a drastic difference in how the two women were ultimately treated, and Wyatt struggles not to think yet again that of course the de Clermonts were able to bend the rules on Garcia’s behalf, but not his. “I guess so, yeah. That’s why you’d be able to come back.”

Jessica doesn’t answer. She was friends with Lucy, once upon a time, but it still has to suck to hear that while you went through hell, had to raise your child alone, got thrown out on your ear, blackmailed, exiled to another century, and everything else that happened as a result of her relationship with a de Clermont brother, another witch historian – even after some initial entry shock – has been fully welcomed into the family. “Wow,” she says, with just enough sarcasm to bite like a whip. “I’m really happy your mother and brother saw the error of their ways. That must be such a relief. I’m so glad Lucy was special enough for it.”

“Jess…” Wyatt trails off again. At last he says again, “I’m sorry.”

She doesn’t answer, face turned away, fingers drumming on her leg as if she’s restraining herself from a much bigger outburst. Wyatt thinks about telling her that he’ll listen if she wants to shout, but all at once she jumps up. Before he can think that it is in fact to murder him, she whirls on her heel. “We have to get back to the castle right now.”

Wyatt jumps up too, and they race out of the hotel at a speed high enough to confuse the maid vacuuming the carpet in the front hall. She calls after them in Romanian, what sounds like a question if everything is all right, but they don’t stop, racing up the road, into the castle grounds, and across the bridge. Wyatt is a vampire, obviously, but Jessica still outdistances him, leaping up the stairs three at a time and running past Matthias’s old bedchamber, down the corridor to her hideout. The door is staved in, timbers strewn everywhere, and with an absolutely sickening feeling, Wyatt realizes that this is his fault. After all, he broke the defensive spells, he forced his way in, he disrupted whatever ancestral magic the Raven King might have left to protect Jess, and probably sent up a flare the size of a rocket. Even though Jessica redid it, there’s no guarantee that it wove together the same way it did before, and it would be one thin, fragile layer of new magic, against the sedimentary fossil beds of old power that were buttressing it before. Even before he bursts in, he knows it’s bad, and –

In the next instant, Jessica shoves past him, and they take it in together. The room has been ransacked, torn to shreds, the window smashed and the crates reduced to matchwood. Idiotically, Wyatt’s first thought is to wonder how they’re going to explain this to the staff, before he remembers that it’s lucky if they made it through this without also being smashed. He doesn’t know who it is, exactly, but that doesn’t matter. That was the reason Jessica was hiding out here in fear of her life, couldn’t even emerge to find out where her daughter was, because it was the only place she could be safe. And yet again, with the best of intentions, Wyatt has blundered in and ruined that, ruined her life. No matter how dismal, it was her home and refuge and workspace, and he feels her expression in his gut like a punch. “Jess,” he starts. “Jessica, I didn’t – ”

Stone-faced, Jessica jerks away from him, and runs to the wreckage of the crates. Even as she throws herself on her knees and begins to frantically search through the detritus, they can both see that it’s no use. The attackers may not have succeeded in nabbing Jessica herself, but they’ve gotten the next best thing.

The Raven King’s magical books are gone.

Chapter Text

It is almost quiet in the kitchen after all three de Clermont brothers have finally left. Lucy goes to refill her coffee, then returns to sit at the table, wondering if this is the moment she should seize for heartfelt conversation. She did promise Flynn that she was going to try, but she was assured of a loophole as long as Jiya and Christian were present. She can’t really talk about everything that’s worrying her in front of Christian, and it felt unfair to Jiya to burden her with their worries, when the actual scope of their relationship still hasn’t taken shape. Kids don’t need to know everything about their parents – which Flynn indisputably is for Jiya, even if Lucy isn’t. But then Jiya and Christian excuse themselves, Christian can be heard asking his cousin to explain what a smartphone is as they vanish down the hall, and Lucy suddenly has no recourse. Her old urge to be polite reminds her that it would be awkward to sit here in silence, but even despite their moment in Asher’s study the other day, Kate is still essentially a stranger. How is Lucy just supposed to start… talking? Especially about all these deep and terrible things that she can barely explain to Garcia, the man she loves, her other half? It is absurd. She fights an overwhelming urge to flee.

Kate, for her part, also gets up to pour more coffee, as if sensing that Lucy needs some space. The daemon is clearly an extremely gifted empath of some sort, and she takes extra time about looking for milk and creamer, giving Lucy a chance to gather her thoughts without it seeming as if she is. This morning, she’s wearing a sleeveless silk blouse that reveals her matching set of upper-arm tattoos: intricate black art-deco designs, threaded with stylized flowers in arresting splashes of color. Lucy wonders if this is an attack on her personally, even as her curiosity is swiftly getting the better of her. As well, if they talk about Kate, they don’t have to talk about her. “Where – where are you from?”

Kate turns, startled, and splashes her coffee. “What?”

“I’m sorry.” Lucy feels like she’s in eighth grade again, awkwardly shouting at Gemma Cassidy across the entire hall that her hair looked so beautiful and getting mercilessly teased for weeks afterward. “You don’t – I just – I wanted – I wanted to know about you.”

“Ah.” Kate tidily dabs up the spill and carries her mug back to the table. “In answer to your question, I am from a little town about an hour outside Perpignan, in the south. I moved to Paris when I was seventeen, went to university there, then got the job in Bordeaux a few years later. I have been there ever since. But after Gabriel recommended me as a consultant to his clients, I have been very busy, a lot of traveling all over the world. I have had to turn down requests so I could still do my work at the Arc en Rêve.  It is a lot, yes, but I prefer it.” She shrugs. “Better that way.”

“Yes, I… I understand that feeling.” Lucy is well aware that it’s easier for her to do this, to ask someone about their life and provide support, even though it’s clear that Kate is not the one who is struggling here. “That’s a different kind of busy than I’ve been, but… still.”

“Saving the world is a difficult burden to bear.” Kate cocks her head and looks at Lucy thoughtfully. “Garcia asked you to talk to me, yes? And you do not feel like you can, you are not sure how, and some part of you does not think you need to. If you do wish to do this, I will listen. But if it is merely something to which you feel obliged, it is better not.”

It’s Lucy’s turn to be startled. She is both relieved at Kate’s accurate diagnosis of the situation and almost affronted, as if she was doing a fine job at hiding it and does not want her failings pointed out to her, however kindly. “I just – ” she says stiffly. “Garcia – thought it might help if I – yes. But I’m sure you don’t want to – ”

“It is not about what I want,” Kate says, gently but still unrelentingly. “I am sitting here. If I did not want to do that, or to speak to you, I would have gone elsewhere. Of course, you do not know me well. It feels dangerous.”

“I… yes.” Lucy blows out a breath. No use denying that, when she’s poised on the edge of her chair and practically vibrating with the urge to run. “But I don’t want – you aren’t my therapist, you shouldn’t have to – you didn’t come here just to listen to the de Clermonts and their problems, it’s not – ”

Kate leans back and says nothing, as if to wait until Lucy has finished making all her excuses. She sips her coffee and takes a bite of toast, as Lucy trails off into incoherent silence. Then she says again, “If you do not want to talk, you may say so. You do not need to explain to me why, or make me happy. It is enough to say that you do not want it right now.”

“I…” Even that feels dangerous, since Lucy has been trying to give everyone what they want, or what she thinks they do, and actually putting her foot down seems risky. “I should do it. I know I need to, my head isn’t – it’s not in a good place right now. But I – ” She stops again, thinks about it, then concludes, “I don’t want to. But if I don’t want help, doesn’t that make me more selfish, or means that I don’t want to get better, or – ”

“Take a breath.” Kate regards her steadily. “You are right that I am not a trained therapist, and if you want to speak to one, it is no shame to do that. But I do know something about it, and I am willing to help. You have been through something traumatizing and everyone responds in a different way. If it is not talking you want right now, that is that. It is instead a question of what you think would help, and why.”

Lucy has no idea how to answer that. She’s too tired to do any work on herself when there’s all of this other shit that needs attention, and she just wants to feel like she’s not flying in a thousand directions at once – she just wants a magic pill to make it stop and for her to feel normal again, whatever normal is. She had a few major depressive episodes in grad school, and then again at the end of her PhD where everyone spectacularly burns out and wonders how bad it would actually be to just die, but since she was high-functioning, since she got up every day and showered and went to all her classes on time and graduated with honors, she convinced herself it was fine, and it wasn’t real. Real depression was lying in bed with the curtains shut and never cleaning and actively wishing for suicide, not just the dull, low-level desire to not be, or to switch off and wake up again in five years when things were fixed. It occurs to Lucy that by these lights, she’s also marked it as “not real” PTSD, and the standard apparently can only be attained by someone who has had it much worse than her. Only then is formal treatment necessary or acceptable, the twisted logic goes. Below that, you’re just weak, and you need to do better.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I just wish we weren’t the ones who had to deal with this. Everything’s on fire everywhere, and it’s just… exhausting, and it’s unfair, and I don’t know how I can keep up, much less help myself. That’s all.”

Kate looks at her very gently, as if to say that’s enough, Lucy doesn’t need to bare her guts if she doesn’t want, but she’s glad she said that much. It does help, in a small, weird way, to know that someone else sees her and acknowledges that it hurts and it sucks and doesn’t think she’s broken or weak or stupid for it. Kate reaches out slowly, as if to comfort a wild animal, and puts her hand on Lucy’s arm, casually enough as if it could be anywhere else and just happened to land there. They sit there in silence, sipping their coffee until it’s gone, and Lucy lets out a shaky breath and points out to herself that there, she was vulnerable with someone apart from Flynn and the world didn’t end on the spot. Then Kate pulls back, gets to her feet, and takes her mug to the sink. “It is all right for it to be small steps. You do not do huge things, usually. Sometimes it goes forward, sometimes back. A bad day does not mean you erase everything that came before. It requires a lot of patience, and it is hard to learn any other way than by going through it.”

“Thanks.” Lucy looks up at her. “I don’t know why that was so hard, it’s just – ”

“Of course it was hard,” Kate says. “You do not need to explain why. If I can help, I would like you to ask me. I do not mean to hurt you, betray you, or sell your secrets to David Rittenhouse or any of his followers. Of course,” she adds wryly. “If I did mean to, I would not have said. But if there is anything you wish to do as a witch, to ascertain my confidence with your own magic, you may feel welcome to do that.”

“You’d…” Lucy hesitates. “You’d trust me?”

Kate raises an eyebrow. “It would be hypocritical if I did not, no?”

This is true, and it once again throws Lucy, as she gets up to take her own dishes to the sink. As ever at close range, Kate is luminous, stunning, and it makes it hard to breathe. Before she can stop herself, she blurts out, “What on earth are you doing with Gabriel? You’re so amazing, and he’s so… him.”

Caught completely off guard, Kate bursts into laughter, and Lucy once more experiences the universal bisexual desire to crawl into a hole and expire. But Kate seems amused rather than insulted, even as she keeps giggling, snorts, and takes a deep breath. “Thank you,” she says. “That is very kind. As for Gabriel, it is… complicated. As I said, I met him three years ago. Everyone else admired how rich he was, how handsome and famous and successful – the name of Gabriel de Clermont is one to conjure with in our circles, you understand. He is known across the world, he works with everyone. Anyone would think that they wanted to be him. But the instant I shook his hand, it was physically shocking. I had never met anyone so desperately unhappy, so lonely, so isolated and so shackled to the great golden calf he had made of himself. We ended up having dinner, and he was very startled when I could tell. It drew me, despite myself. We spent a few nights together. He apologized, said he had rarely been with anyone for two hundred and fifty years, though he did not need to. Then we went on with our work, as before, and continued to collaborate on some projects. He sent clients my way, it was good for my business. But I had not seen him in some time before he turned up on my doorstep in Bordeaux a fortnight ago, looking as if he had been hunted through hell. There had been concern among our colleagues when he disappeared, as much as in the creature world, so I had heard rumors, but was never certain what to believe. He needed help, so I took him in. From there – ” She shrugs. “That is not mine to say.”

“Ah.” Lucy sets the mug on the counter, supposing that if Kate is willing to devote time and energy to as much of a disaster as Gabriel, she at least is unlikely to be fazed by anything that Lucy herself can throw at her. This is mildly comforting, and she’s just wondering if she should give this talking-about-herself lark another try, when they hear a distant thump from the vicinity of the front door. Once – and then again, much louder – another.

Kate turns her head, frowning. “What was that?”

They’ve been speaking in French, but at that, she switches to English, as if to be sure that there is no misunderstanding. Lucy gets to her feet, also frowning, and she and Kate hurry through the labyrinthine corridors to the front door. Just as they reach it, there’s another, much louder thump, and muffled shouting of a decidedly masculine tenor. What the f –

At that, with a thrill of horror, Lucy remembers that she hasn’t told anyone about the werewolves except for Flynn, but this – this can’t possibly be them already, can it? When she talked to Anton and Gennady, it seemed like it would take months even if they cooperated, and that was by no means a given. Of course, this is the twenty-first century, so they could have hopped a commercial flight to most major Russian cities and driven or taken the train or ferry from there. It’s not like this would require weeks foraging into the frozen north by dogsled or ice river trucking, but has something gone to plan for once? Are the wolves, if it is them, actually here to talk shop and make an alliance? But that shouting doesn’t sound friendly, and if the Sokolovs aren’t here, or even if they are –

Lucy and Kate exchange a glance, and Lucy can feel her blackened magic crackling around her fingers. She hopes she doesn’t have to use it in earnest, not least because she has no idea what it’s capable of, and frying a lot of belligerent werewolves, even in the name of self-defense, would not be a high point in creature relations. Where the hell are Flynn and Gabriel? Did they stumble on them in the woods, was there a throwdown? Or did they –

No use hiding out here and panicking. They’re going to have to face it. Lucy throws open the door and marches out, Kate close on her heels. “Good morning,” she says, with as much authority as she can possibly muster, as if it’s true without qualifications. “I am Madame Lucy de Clermont, mistress of Sept-Tours. Can I help you?”

“You!” The instant she gets a good look at them, there can be no doubt that indeed, they are werewolves, and she doesn’t see either of the Sokolovs among their number. The nearest one pushes his way forward, footfalls falling like thunder. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, square and solid as a brick shithouse, with scruffy blond hair and a lumberjack beard. His eyes are wolfish yellow, his arms corded with iron-hard muscle. He has a gamey smell like dried blood and musk and meat, and his weather-beaten jeans and plaid shirt look as if they’ve been through repeated hard use. As he comes to a halt, towering over Lucy, he bares his very sharp canines, and she fights a desperate urge to step back, as Kate puts a protective hand on her elbow. “Are you witch who thinks she can summon us like dogs?”

It springs to Lucy’s lips to point out that they are here, so clearly she wasn’t mistaken, but this is not the moment for witty banter. “My name is Lucy de Clermont,” she repeats, as firmly as she can. “I sent Anton and Gennady Sokolov to speak with you. And you are?”

“I am Dmitri Dragomirovich Vodovatov, Alpha of Salekhard Pack.” Dmitri Dragomirovich Vodovatov sounds angry that this was not obvious. “Where is Alpha male, your mate?”

“Where are Anton and Gennady Sokolov?” Lucy repeats, staying where she is, even as her knees feel like water. “What did you do with them?”

“We left witches behind, to not intervene.” Dmitri clenches his massive fists, which look more than capable of inflicting serious damage even if he stays in human form, and Kate’s grip on Lucy’s arm tightens. “And to have rest of pack question what they mean by this. You think can order us? Only one way to answer insult. WHERE IS ALPHA?”

He utters the last part in a roar that sends birds flapping off the towers, and just then, the door opens again, revealing exactly the two people that Lucy did not want to walk into the middle of this. At the sight of the unkempt, threatening intruders, Christian lets out a shout of alarm and tries to push Jiya behind him. “Aunt Lucy! Those are werewolves!”

“I noticed,” Lucy says tensely. It does not bear thinking what might happen if Christian gets mixed up in this, and she jerks her head at him in a significant manner, ordering him on no account to intervene or play the hero. “I asked them to come here, but we’re having a bit of a misunderstanding.”

Dmitri snorts, as the dozen-odd wolves behind him shift menacingly forward. “Is no misunderstanding. Is insult I will avenge. This is your pup?”

“This is my nephew Christian and my stepdaughter Jiya.” Lucy speaks as levelly as she can. “And my – friend, Kate. They had nothing to do with any of this, so – ”

“French vampires in fancy castle think to give us order? And vampire bitch. You – ”

Lucy thinks that Dmitri is using “bitch” in the technical sense, i.e. a female dog and/or a dog’s mate (or in this case, a vampire’s mate) but that does not make her any more eager to stand for it. Losing her diplomatic composure, she takes an angry step, remembering too late that this is a bad idea to do in front of an Alpha werewolf spoiling for a fight. “Look,” she spits. “I asked you to come here, I asked the Sokolovs to explain what it was for, but if you didn’t listen and just raced off to throw some stupid gauntlet for the sake of – ”

Her magic is crackling with desperate eagerness, begging to be unleashed, and for a second, Dmitri is nonplussed, not expecting to be told off to his face by a witch half his size. Kate hauls on Lucy’s arm, preventing her from further folly, but things are about to get very hairy indeed, literally, when the trees part, and Flynn and Gabriel race out with mildly panicked looks on their faces. At the sight of the ruckus, they pull up so hard that they leave skids in the mud, and Flynn stares around with a does-not-compute expression. Then he recovers himself, draws himself up to his full and formidable height – overtopping Dmitri by a good few inches – and stalks with cool composure into the middle of the courtyard, placing himself between his family and the wolves. “What exactly is going on here?”

“You are Alpha male?” Dmitri’s nostrils flare, taking in Flynn’s scent. “Her mate?”

“Yes.” Flynn stares him dead in the eye – which you either are or are not supposed to do with wolves, Lucy can’t remember, though there is not much to be done for the situation at this point. “Do you have a problem with her or me?”

As he speaks, Gabriel is edging toward the others, though his attention never wavers from Flynn. The other wolves have likewise cleared away from their leader, leaving Flynn and Dmitri staring each other down, and the tension is so thick that a single spark could blow the whole thing sky-high. Dmitri paws the ground and shifts his weight as if in preparation for a spring, and Flynn matches his posture. Lucy half-expects them to grab each other in a headlock, but Dmitri turns away with a scoff, raising his arms. “Here is what,” he announces. “You and bitch have insulted gravely. Thinking you order pack, so – ”

“So you’re here, aren’t you?” Flynn, naturally, has said exactly what Lucy was refraining from earlier. “Apparently you can be whistled for? I could throw a tennis ball?”

Dmitri levels him with a searing glare, and Lucy hisses at her dearest spouse – who, for his part, looks notably unapologetic. By this point, Gabriel has reached them, and seems to be trying to chivvy them back into the safety of Sept-Tours, but no matter how much his father pulls on his arm, Christian will not budge. This is clearly far too exciting to miss, and Gabriel gives up. Under his breath, he mutters, “And who exactly thought it was a brilliant idea to – ”

“Mine.” Lucy stares at him coolly. “As a matter of fact.”

Gabriel snaps his mouth shut on whatever else he was about to say, and returns to staring tensely at Flynn, which is what the rest of them are doing. Dmitri prowls and poses for the benefit of his pack a moment longer, then whirls back. “Is only way to settle. We fight. I win, you forfeit castle, women, territory to me, and no werewolf ever bends knee to vampire. You win, have right to command us, and release of Sokolovs. You agree?”

“There’s no fucking way I’m bartering my family home, my wife, my daughter, and Kate to you and your gaggle of stray mutts,” Flynn snaps. “If you win, I apologize profusely for my presumption in thinking you flea-ridden mongrels could be useful to anyone, and you pack back off to whatever icy asshole of Siberia you came crawling out of. Maybe there to reflect that it’s 2018, and also that this is why everyone hates you.”

It’s not possible to utter a more inflammatory statement short of striking a match and setting Dmitri on fire, and Lucy throws another seriously?! look at Flynn, who belatedly seems to decide that all right, maybe that was a little strong. He’s too stubborn to apologize, however, and that would be ceding ground, because something something male egos violence honor tribalism. Dmitri, for his part, looks like he’s really going to enjoy tearing Flynn to shreds, and Lucy thinks nervously that it’s a very bad idea to provoke a werewolf who already wants to dismember you. “You are very arrogant vampire,” he says. “I cut you to size.”

“Fine.” Flynn throws his shoulders back. “Shall we?”

“Is rules of combat,” Dmitri says. “If we fall, each name second, continue until battle is over. My Beta – ” he jerks his head at a tall, dark, slender man, elegant as a dancer, who looks jarringly out of place among the others – “Arkady Andronikov, is second. You?”

“Mine.” Flynn indicates his brother. “Gabriel de Clermont.”

At that, the challengers part to return to their respective sides of the ring, and Flynn shucks his jacket and unbuttons his shirt, dropping them on the ground so he’s just in his undershirt; clearly, he wants maximum freedom of movement. Lucy, Gabriel, Kate, Christian, and Jiya all crowd anxiously in, and Gabriel hisses, “Darling, what are you doing?”

“They want a fight, they’re not going to listen or cooperate or refrain from wreaking havoc until they get one, and frankly, they’re annoying me.” Flynn stretches his long arms over his head, links his fingers together, and twists them out, cracking his knuckles. He throws a wry look at Lucy, as if to say that he does love her very much, but now he has to fight an Alpha werewolf on short notice, and she could have planned this better. “I don’t think it’ll be to the death, but – ”

“You don’t think?” Jiya repeats, voice unnaturally high. “Dad, this doesn’t seem like – ”

“Werewolves.” Flynn shrugs. “Like I said, they have their own ways of doing things, and I had a feeling this might come up in some context. I don’t think he can take me, but – ”

“Don’t be so sure.” Gabriel throws an anxious look at Dmitri, also huddling in for pre-battle consultation. “He’s most likely been fighting for most of his adult life, and now that you, my dearest, have made him even angrier, I doubt he’ll be inclined to mercy. So – ”

“Then you finish it for me, don’t you?” Flynn raises an eyebrow at him. “Didn’t you just say you were willing to receive my orders and serve my will?”

“Yes, but – ” Gabriel huffs an exasperated laugh. “This was not exactly what I meant.”

Flynn glances at him again, Gabriel sighs deeply, and seems to accept that he has no moral standing for urging other people off reckless and ill-advised decisions. Flynn is unfortunately correct that they aren’t getting anywhere without a fight, and he’s fifteen hundred years old, a very strong vampire and Knight of Lazarus who has fought in countless wars; even if Dmitri is powerful for an Alpha, werewolves only live at most for two centuries. He can’t match Flynn at least by weight of experience, but Lucy is not at all confident that this is a foregone conclusion. “Garcia, please, please be careful.”

“Mmm.” Flynn leans down to kiss her, and she clings to him with more anxiety than she likes. He can sense it, kisses her again, then gently wraps his hands around hers to make her let go. “It’ll be fine, moja ljubav. You’ll see.”

With that, he gives Jiya a quick kiss on top of the head, claps Christian on the shoulder, and clasps hands with Gabriel, before he strides back to the center of the courtyard. With the drive beyond, it’s certainly large enough to accommodate an ordinary fight, but depending on how much either of them feel like following the rules, that could spill over in a hurry. Flynn takes up a position of readiness, shaking his arms to ensure he’s loose; at least he’s been warmed up by the hunt earlier, whatever he and Gabriel were doing in the woods. Dmitri finishes a final low-voiced conversation with his Beta, Arkady, who also looks less than enthused by the martial turn that things have taken, then strides out and takes up his spot. “We fight until one is clearly beaten,” he says. “Seconds can continue if wishing.”

To judge from the look on Gabriel’s face, if this mutt lays a single whisker on Garcia, any member of the entire Salekhard Pack will be lucky to scamper out of here with their tails between their legs. Lucy supports this sentiment in theory, but that would definitely lead to a second creature war, and she asked these knuckleheads here in the first place in the name of an alliance. She shakes her head at Gabriel. “No,” she hisses. “We have to trust him.”

Gabriel takes an unsteady breath, but nods, accepting her order, and the five of them take up a good viewing position as if in the stands at a joust. The werewolves send up a hoot and howl, pounding their chests and shouting for their Alpha, as Dmitri strips off his shirt as well, but doesn’t stop there. He shucks his jeans and boots, and just as Lucy is idiotically wondering if he plans to fight naked, she realizes what he’s doing. Dmitri growls, baring his suddenly slavering fangs, and keeps growling. His limbs start to grotesquely extend, hands curling into heavy paws, head elongating, ears pointing, as brindled blond fur begins to sprout all over his body and his barrel chest turns even thicker. It’s downright horrible to watch, bones breaking and reforming with cracks like gunshots, even though Dmitri has clearly practiced a long time and mastered the art of the change without showing visible pain. When he shakes his head again, it’s a wolf’s head, not a man’s, and four sets of vicious claws hit the stones with a clack. Fully transformed, he’s the size of a Shetland pony, and his tail lashes against his back legs with the power of a carriage whip. He throws his head back, and his howl chills the warm May air with the haunted, echoing sound of the empty Siberian tundra.

For an instant, Flynn looks thrown – it has to be a long time since he’s seen a fully grown and blood-maddened werewolf – and Lucy fights a mad urge to run out next to him. Then he recovers himself, bares his own fangs, and snarls, his eyes going full black. There’s a split second in which nobody can breathe, as vampire and werewolf circle each other like boxers waiting for the starting bell. Even the raucous pack has fallen quiet, as if determined not to disrupt Dmitri’s concentration. Lucy feels like she’s about to throw up, and gropes out blindly for Christian’s hand. One second, two more, slip by in extenuating standstill. Then all at once, before it can reach three, in perfect simultaneity, the challengers leap.

The sound when they meet in midair is something akin to a train crash. It’s so fast that Lucy can barely make out what’s going on, except for a furiously flailing mess of limbs both human (well, human-ish) and animal. Dmitri’s wildly snapping jaws are trying to bite every inch of Flynn they can reach, and Flynn is returning blows that could fell a small elephant. They hit the stones, break apart, and scramble around to face each other, both bleeding from first assault. At that, Lucy’s naïve hope that this would be settled just by drawing blood goes out the window, and her heart remains in her throat as they charge for a second salvo. Flynn grabs Dmitri’s ears and brutally yanks his head back, going for his throat, but Dmitri swipes a mighty paw across Flynn’s face, raking his cheek with claw marks. Flynn swears and briefly falls back, the werewolves set up a celebratory hue and cry, but then Flynn gathers himself and lunges again. He hits Dmitri amidships, sends him flying, and when the werewolf tries to rise, gets his jaws into his ruff and tears out a bloody hunk of fur, flesh, and muscle.

Lucy is both horrified and transfixed by the spectacle. She’s never seen Flynn fight like this before, so completely given into the monstrosity, and for a brief, unsettling moment, she can picture him as he was when first turned, violently ripping apart everyone who had anything to do with his wife and daughter’s death. He spits out a clump of bloody fur, and Dmitri whines in pain, but is nowhere near beaten. He launches like a missile, locks his own and much more serious jaws around Flynn’s forearm, and savages.

Flynn goes down hard, as Lucy and Gabriel utter the same noise of barely restrained terror and shift convulsively forward. Flynn rolls, trying to break free, punching mercilessly with his free hand, until he knocks Dmitri off, and staggers around on his knees. His forearm is in shreds, supernatural healing slower to kick in on wounds inflicted by fellow creatures, and he has to use his shoulder to awkwardly deflect Dmitri’s next attack. He jumps, landing on the Alpha’s back, and locks his good arm around his throat, dragging him into a graceless, clattering somersault. Dmitri’s skull hits the stones with a bong that echoes like a bell, the werewolves groan, and Lucy entertains the fond hope that this will be enough to finally take him down. For a few seconds, he is indeed stunned. Then he snarls, pushes off with his back paws, and clamps onto Flynn’s shoulder, biting wildly.

Flynn kicks and thrashes, hampered by not having claws on his feet the way Dmitri does, and he jabs at the werewolf’s eyes with his fingers, which likewise are not quite the same weapon of war. He succeeds in momentarily blinding Dmitri, however, and rolls free, his entire undershirt now soaked with red from the wounds on his torso. Vampires are obviously more resilient to such repeated and brutal punishment than humans, but he can’t keep this up forever, and his arm is hanging awkwardly from his shoulder. Dmitri is likewise in considerable pain, and they circle each other again, limping and panting and whining, dripping blood on the stones. Once again they stare – and once again, they leap.

The second midair collision isn’t quite as titanic as the first, but it shakes the stones anyway, and while they’re now fighting slowly enough that Lucy can see what’s happening, that is still stunningly fast by human standards. It’s quickly devolving into an ugly slugfest, strategy thrown out the window in favor of as many bone-crushing blows as either side can muster, fangs ripping at the other’s flesh, blood falling like a crimson rain. It’s squelchy and slippery, one losing grip on the other, staggering halfway upright and crashing down again, fundamentally and utterly unwilling to surrender. In fact, Lucy can’t see how this ends any other way than death, and she tries to swallow down the utter terror that fills her until there’s room for nothing else. If Flynn dies, she’ll die too, and killing the Alpha of a werewolf pack is going to set them back by miles. There’s no good outcome here, nothing that can happen except heartbreak or sundering, and she doesn’t – she can’t

She is on the very brink of cheating, rules of a fair fight or otherwise, and using her magic to help. But she’s terrified of hitting Flynn as well as Dmitri, that would confirm the pack’s suspicions that she lured them here under nefarious pretenses, and they would almost surely proceed to attack and sack Sept-Tours. Lucy feels like her heart is about to explode, as if she’s the one fighting for her life, and grabs for Jiya’s hand on the other side. Arkady, she notices dimly, looks almost as terrified, his eyes fixed on Dmitri as if he can’t see anything else, and Lucy desperately hopes that the respective seconds will step in and call this off. But there’s no interfering, no chance of anything but this playing out as it has to, nothing but the culmination. Both Flynn and Dmitri now resemble ambulant sacks of ground meat more than either man or wolf, but they’re not quite beaten. For a third time, they gather what’s left of their strength, face each other down, and charge.

They go down almost in slow motion, entangled as if plunging over a cliff together, and blood washes the stones in scarlet. Flynn struggles to land his punches like he’s trapped in mud or sucking tar, and Dmitri claws at him feebly, his entire ruff red with missing fur and torn flesh. With a final, impossible effort, Flynn muscles his way on top of him, grabs hold of Dmitri’s shoulders – they’re less wolfish, more human, he’s losing the strength to maintain his lupine form, shrinking and whining and fading back into a very badly wounded man – and slams him down, over and over. By the time the last blow lands, Dmitri is fully human, naked and bloody and wrecked, flat on his back. Flynn jerks his chin up, sinks his fangs in, and bites until Dmitri whines, writhes, and slaps the ground in abject surrender. Flynn pulls back, his mouth dripping with gore, and Dmitri takes up a submissive, yielding position. The battle is over. Flynn has – if you can call it that – won.

Everyone remains where they are for a spellbound moment longer. Then Arkady and Gabriel break away and rush to their respective Alphas, as Flynn has collapsed in not much better state. Arkady lifts Dmitri up, whispering to him in Russian, and Gabriel gets Flynn’s arm over his shoulders, hefting him across his chest and carrying him inside. Lucy and the others run after him. They hasten up the stairs of Flynn and Lucy’s tower, Gabriel kicks open the bedroom door, and carries Flynn inside, settling him on the bed. “Take care of him,” he says tersely. “I need to go down and manage whatever the absolute hellfire is going to happen now.”

Lucy nods, their eyes meet in the first moment of genuine understanding they’ve had since Gabriel’s return to Sept-Tours, and with that, the elder de Clermont races out, leaving her with the bloody, barely conscious mess formerly known as her husband. Flynn’s eyes are stuck shut, his entire body ridden with wounds to the point that she doesn’t know where to start, and experiences a terrible fear that her dark magic won’t be able to heal anymore, that it will only destroy. She has to cut the remainder of Flynn’s clothes off, and fetches a washcloth, but it quickly gets sodden past the point of use. She does not have supernatural strength to move him, he is a large and currently very non compos mentis man, and she does her best, repressing the memory of how her magic couldn’t quite save Christian, how it worked for a little while but then gave back into the wounds that Rittenhouse had inflicted. Is it the same with werewolves? Is this going to leave lasting damage? Jesus, he looks bad. She can feel all her terror surging up her throat, how he could have died and left her without him, and she wants nothing more than to crumble and break down and finally, properly cry. But she can’t. Once more, as ever, she needs to pull herself together and fix this.

Lucy improvises with anything she has to hand, magical and medical alike, relieved to note that while her magic is dark in color, it works relatively the same in terms of healing function. She carefully knits the jagged wounds together, forces splintered bones back into place, scours the blood away, so that Flynn at last begins to bear some resemblance to himself again. The claw marks on his cheek are raw and vivid, his body tattooed with bruises and scars even as his supernatural constitution struggles sluggishly to deal with them, and finally he groans, eyelashes fluttering. All he says, in a deep, grating rasp, is “Fuck.”

“Welcome back,” Lucy says, slightly more tartly than she intended. “I told you it was a bad idea to piss him off.”

Flynn utters a noncommittal rumbling sound, as if in his opinion, the quantity of his sass is irrelevant to the current decrepit state of his carcass. “Beat him… didn’t I?”

“Yes, but – ” Lucy bites her lip. She can’t help but feel responsible for this – after all, she sent the Sokolovs to the werewolves, she didn’t warn everyone else, and it’s unclear if the Salekhard Pack will consider themselves bound by the usual protocol when vampires are concerned. Normally, the rules of combat dictate that a defeated Alpha and his pack submit to the victor, and Dmitri did say that that would be Flynn’s prerogative if he won, but that was before both of them were torn to pieces. Even if he wakes up, Dmitri could be extremely unwilling to cooperate, and a dozen other restive, leaderless wolves running rogue in Sept-Tours is a guaranteed recipe for trouble. No wonder Gabriel hustled out of here, even if he must have hated to leave Flynn in such pitiable shape. “Garcia,” Lucy says. “This is a mess.”

Flynn groans, jerking his chin at himself as if to say that yes, he is a mess, thanks for noticing, and Lucy bites her tongue on reminding him that that’s largely his fault. Instead she climbs up on the bed next to him, stroking his hair, and some indeterminate time passes in silence. Then Flynn says, eyes half-closed, “What happened to your magic?”

Lucy flinches, as she hoped that he was unconscious enough not to notice. “I don’t know. I discovered it the other night. It – turned black somehow. I – maybe I’m not the white queen, not any longer. Maybe I’ve changed too much, done too much, and I’m not – I’m not a good person anymore. It seems like a stupid thing to worry about, but maybe I’m turning into someone I don’t want to be, and I can’t stop it.”

Flynn struggles to get his elbow underneath him, propping himself up painfully so he can look at her. “Moja ljubav,” he says firmly. “You are not a bad person, all right? You are a very good person, perhaps the best I have ever known, to whom bad things have happened, and you’re struggling. That is understandable. I don’t know what happened with this, but you are the white queen to me, and you always will be. Okay?”

Lucy doesn’t answer, cupping his face with her hand, tracing the deep grooves around his mouth, the strong line of his cheekbone. Finally she says in a whisper, “You scared the hell out of me, you know. I thought he was going to kill you, and I’d have to – I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to do any of this without you, I didn’t know how. Don’t, all right? Don’t do that again. I know this is a war, we’ll have to fight, I can’t tell you that it won’t happen again, but whatever that was – please. Please don’t.”

“I can’t say I’m eager to fight an Alpha werewolf again either.” Flynn shifts position with a groan. “And I dearly hope that the occasion will not be called for. But you know I’ll never leave you, not in any way or shape or form, if it’s at all in my power. Hmm?”

In answer, Lucy lowers her face to his, and they kiss for several moments. Then she pulls back, unbuttons her blouse, and shucks her bra, removing it and tossing it on the floor. She moves up on him, lowers her chest to his mouth, and as he senses what she means and brings out his fangs, lets him bite into her breast and draw her heartsblood.

Flynn suckles sporadically, still somewhat incapacitated by his wounds, and Lucy adjusts the angle so he can get a better draw on it. This does help, as most of the major injuries begin to vanish or knit over into faded scars. By the time he murmurs and pushes her back, so as not to take too much, he looks almost back to his old self, and he settles his hand on the slender line of her spine. It strikes Lucy that they haven’t been properly intimate since they got back to the present, what with one thing and another, and she has no inclination to let him out of her sight just now. He’s drunk just enough that she feels agreeably giddy, and since he’s mostly healed, there are no immediate logistical barriers. She rocks back and forth on his hips, making him utter a groan of a decidedly different nature, then kisses him again.

This one is much more urgent and hungry, the pair of them apologizing without words for everything that just went on, Lucy’s relief and reproach, Flynn’s stubbornness and (slight) remorse, the echoes of the Alpha battle and the blood shared in mending him, and them, from it. Flynn rises out of the bedclothes swiftly enough to make her realize that he is feeling quite restored indeed, and flips her onto her back among the pillows. Lucy gets fistfuls of his hair, and as he nips at her with just enough fang to draw a droplet of blood, gently but inexorably pushes his head down between her legs. After all, he does have some making up to do, and she for one would like to see him get started on it.

Flynn resists for an instant, then accepts his chastisement with grace and slides down her stomach, trailing intense kisses, until he undoes her jeans, flings them off, and makes short work of her panties, burying his face between her legs. Lucy drapes her knees over his shoulders, arching her back and making small gulping noises, grabbing at his hair and trying to avoid pulling as he sets to work. He licks and sucks and nips, sending shudders through her entire body, as she digs her heels into the straining muscles of his back and thinks that they should not work him too hard. After all, he has had an eventful day, and it’s clear that he hasn’t completely bounced back. That, however, does not appear to be impeding him in this regard. When he finally pulls back with an expression of satisfaction, Lucy has been reduced to quivering goo, inhaling small whining breaths and scrabbling for purchase on the sheets to make sure they’re still there. Rather strained, she says, “Oh.”

“Mmm.” Flynn looks down at her, flushed and tousled and sprawled out naked beneath him, and a hunting gleam of a different sort enters his eye. “I think we can allot an hour or two for my recovery, can’t we?”

While Lucy is about to point out that he’s not the only one who needs to recover here, Flynn swoops her up in his arms, rolls her over, and kisses her thoroughly. He’s not wearing many clothes either, since she had to remove them in the course of her ministrations, but he pulls away long enough to rid himself of the rest of them. Then they get back to business, though when Lucy gets hold of his bitten shoulder, Flynn winces and hisses enough to make her let go. “Are you sure we should – ”

He answers that with another kiss, and Lucy decides not to protest. God, this feels good, she has missed this, has wanted it, needed it, but didn’t feel like she could. Flynn runs his hands up and down her back, as she wraps her legs around his waist, and with a slight shift, bracing his weight on his elbows, he slides into her. Lucy sighs with pleasure, tipping her head back so he can kiss and muse at her throat, and settles him comfortably to the hilt, as they roll their hips a few times to settle the fit. Having him inside her makes her realize just how long it’s been, and she pulls at him with a fierce, needy clutch, urging him to move. He does, pressing her flat into the mattress, slowly at first and then faster, with a deep, rasping thrust that drags exquisitely on every inch of her. He links his fingers with hers, pushing her hands over her head and hitching a knee up to change the angle, and kisses her again when she squeals. “Bunch of damn werewolves in the house,” he says into her mouth. “Don’t think they need to know too much about this, eh?”

Lucy is short on words at present, but raises an eyebrow at him, though it is true that the pack doesn’t need intimate acquaintance with their, well, intimacy, and they do all have supernatural hearing. She thus tries to be quieter, though Flynn seems to have set it as a personal mission to get her to flout his own advice. They roll over again, Lucy takes her turn on top, and rides him with slow, slick thoroughness, as he reaches up to finger her and she bends forward on hands and knees, sliding him almost out and then sheathing him again. The pace gets faster, and Flynn edges up to that place where he’s on the brink of losing control and going at full supernatural speed, but he can’t quite manage as much as he would have otherwise. He does flip her over again rather spectacularly, as her arms tangle around his neck and her head falls back and she opens her mouth in breathless, catching gulps. The sweet friction builds and builds, and then with a jerk and a burning bright flash in her chest, spills over into the delightful release of climax. Flynn collapses on her, his weight pushing her pleasingly into the mattress, and they lie among the now-thoroughly-disreputable bedclothes. Then he remarks, somewhat muffled, “Well, that’s enough exertion for today.”

“Wearing you out, old man?” Lucy turns her head to kiss his ear, he buzzes in a way that makes her think this formidable ancient vampire who just fought a werewolf half to death may be ticklish, and resolves to explore this more closely at a later date. They cuddle for a few minutes more, and then she slides out from under him. “I need to go see what’s happening with the others.”

Flynn makes a move as if he’ll join her, discovers halfway through that he can’t actually do this, and flops back into bed with a grunt. He’s already falling asleep as she dresses, and by the time she crosses the room and lets herself out, he’s gone. She shuts the door, wonders if there’s any need to set a magical guard on it in case one of the pack is inclined to personally revenge their Alpha’s misfortunes, and then decides that good luck to them getting past Gabriel. But Dmitri did call her the Alpha female, which is not inaccurate, and that means she needs to quit distracting herself with pleasurable interludes, no matter how badly needed, and get back to work. As ever, snatched moments of solace are all they have.

Lucy heads down into the main house, following the sound of heated voices to the solar. Inside, Gabriel, Jiya, Christian, and Kate are having a – well, it can be called a discussion with the wolves, only insofar as more fisticuffs have not yet broken out. The Beta, Arkady, is absent, and the pack’s interim spokesman is, as Lucy realizes in a moment, actually a spokeswoman. She has to be Dmitri’s sister, because she looks exactly like him except for the beard: a tough-as-nails butch Russian powerhouse in plaid shirt, jackboots, and a square jaw pugnaciously set. At the sight of Lucy, she turns around. “There is witch,” she announces. “Perhaps we ask her what to do now?”

This sounds like another challenge, rather than a genuine request to elicit information, and Lucy glances at the others, trying to gauge the mood of the room. Gabriel meets her eyes, clearly asking if Flynn is all right, and she nods fractionally. Then he says, “This is Dina Dragomirova Vodovatova, Gamma of the Salekhard Pack and present acting leader. Dina, this is my sister-in-law, Madame Lucy de Clermont. You will have seen her earlier.”

Dina glares at him, as if to say that yes, she has, and that is the partial reason for all this kerfuffle. She stomps forward and stops just short of Lucy. “Your husband won fight. We are not disputing. But it is false pretenses, and if vampires mean to enslave us, we will not honor the law. Beta is saying things, but we do not – ”

“I explained, so much as I could when I still do not fully understand your presence in my family’s home, the rationale for the invitation.” Gabriel speaks shortly, taking care to keep himself between Christian and the werewolves. The others too, for that matter, but he’s not letting his vigilance slip for an instant when it comes to his son and hostile intruders in Sept-Tours. “As for the current unfortunate state of affairs, your brother intemperately challenged mine and paid the price, so I fail to see how Garcia bears any ultimate blame for it. He won fair and square, you admitted that yourself, and since I have given Dmitri a comparatively comfortable cell and permitted Arkady to attend to his care, I have been, all things considered, quite generous. My sister can offer you a further explanation if she wishes, or you can cease your efforts to turn this into a spectacle of – ”

Lucy holds up a hand, and Gabriel stops talking. He retreats a few paces, still keeping Christian behind him, while Christian himself looks keenly interested. Lucy is aware that the attention of the wolves is now devouringly fixed on her, hopefully not in a literal sense, and that this is her big moment to explain just what she was playing at in inviting them at all. Asking if they want an alliance seems liable to add insult to injury, especially since werewolves conspicuously disdain creature politics and probably feel like if the rest of them were stupid enough to let Rittenhouse take over, they’re welcome to him. Lucy clears her throat, wishing she’d written a speech. “I apologize for the disruption and confusion,” she says, since that seems like as good a place as any to start. “This has already gotten out of hand, and I hope we can repair that. But my intentions in sending Anton and Gennady Sokolov to treat with you were sincere, and I hope that you have let no harm come to them. I wished to ask the werewolves if they were interested in joining forces against the great evil that has taken over the Congregation, appointed himself supreme leader of the supernatural world, and will be the ruin of us all if he is not stopped. David Rittenhouse, who was born a witch, made a vampire, and become a monster that none of us can counteract alone. He will reach even you, no matter if you think he won’t. You could fight him. With us.”

One of the wolves scoffs loudly. “You are delusional. This is nothing to do with us. Congregation always has some grasping greedy bloodsucker who wants to rule world, is why werewolves take no part in – ”

Dina throws him a scorching look, clearly threatening him with severe discipline for breaking pack hierarchy and speaking out of turn when she’s the ranking member, and he snaps his mouth shut. Nonetheless, it’s not clear that her opinion is any more sympathetic. “That is nice story,” she says. “Pretty words. But makes no sense. You are witch, married to vampire, living with vampires – richest and most powerful family of them, among all creatures. You do not ask for help from us. You do not need. This is trap.”

“I do.” Lucy tries to think how to convince an extremely skeptical pack of wolves that anything they can offer will in fact be materially useful, or something the de Clermonts can’t do on their own. “Werewolves have been ostracized by supernatural society for years – partly by their own choice, and partly because they’ve always been regarded as subhuman and inferior, even more so than daemons.” She nods somewhat awkwardly at Kate, the daemon among them, as if asking her to attest to subsidiary prejudice. “Rittenhouse’s government is trying to round up, register, and interrogate creatures, as far as we can tell. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t already progressed to arrests and disappearances. Worse will be coming soon. The werewolves are not safe. Do you think hiding out in Siberia will escape his notice? He followed us to the sixteenth century, he can go anywhere in space and time, and he’s only getting stronger. If you want to break your own kind’s rules, if you want to go back to the middle of nowhere and do nothing and fume to yourselves about how the vampires are cunning and dishonorable, feel free. We won’t stop you and we won’t bother you again. But I think the time will come, sooner than you expect, when you’ll wish you hadn’t.”

A few of the wolves exchange glances, despite themselves, and Dina looks momentarily unsure how to answer. She seems grudgingly impressed with Lucy’s chutzpah, at least, and serving as third-in-command of a rough-and-tumble wolf pack definitely means that this woman is no fainting flower, not that she looks like one. She folds her muscled forearms and glowers at Lucy, who glowers back. Then Dina says, “So what? We are to think you actually want to work with us, on equal terms? You get werewolves to do grunt work, dirty work, you will not trust us or repay us. You will betray. Vampires always do. If this is what your husband means to force on us, take over as Alpha and – ”

“Garcia has no interest in being your Alpha.” He’s conked out upstairs, but Lucy feels quite confident that she can speak for him on this. “Dmitri’s welcome to keep the position. But if he meant what he said about being willing to take orders, we could use that. We don’t have a lot of allies right now, and we’re not here to put on airs and graces.”

Dina raises one eyebrow. Lucy thinks she might be impressed, or at least surprised, that they’re not going to insist on their supremacy. Then she says, “Dmitri was defeated in Alpha fight. We all saw. Is not done, asking pack to follow beaten leader.”

“That’s a matter of politics on your end, then. You can have another fight among yourselves to decide who’s on top, or you can decide that because Garcia’s a vampire, it didn’t count, another wolf didn’t defeat him.” Lucy looks at Gabriel. “Where is Dmitri now, exactly?”

“I sent him to the cell where we kept Gennady Sokolov.” Gabriel shrugs. “As noted, I permitted his Beta to go with him and tend his wounds. But he cannot be given liberty, especially if the leadership of the pack is uncertain. I will not allow a fight for dominance on de Clermont territory. I realize that werewolf customs are different, but you may get together and decide by common counsel who is your leader now, or you may return to Russia and attend to it the traditional way. Nor will I tolerate any further attempts to challenge either myself or my brother. Garcia was merciful. I will not be.”

He speaks quite matter-of-factly, staring dead at the wolves, as if to impress upon them that if they thought he was the softer touch, or would be able to get away with shenanigans in the absence of the de Clermont Alpha, they are very mistaken. Christian looks surprised, as this must be a side of his father he has not seen – after all, he came here from the sixteenth century, where Gabriel is the libertine, irresponsible philanderer, a loving parent but really not much of a leader or a role model. Then he nods stoutly and steps up beside Gabriel, looking unexpectedly harsh for a young man who is generally the living embodiment of sunshine. “Nor will I stand for it either,” he adds. “Or disrespect to my aunt, or to my cousins, or Mademoiselle Perrault, or any other lady beneath this roof, in any shape or form.”

“That was fool of Dmitri.” Dina sounds irritated. “He thinks he can demand that, as if we are exactly the backward raping brutes they all see? If his head is still on shoulders, I bite off myself. Any member of pack who touches one of your woman, I deal with.”

The way she says it makes it very clear that this is exactly what she will do, possibly in a manner that involves biting their dicks off, and a collective shudder passes through the pack. They are all in considerable haste to nod and echo Dina’s promise, and Lucy hopes that at least is settled, though it does not necessarily settle anything on the broader front. She grants that the pack can set up camp in Wyatt’s currently empty tower, though she does feel a wry sympathy at the prospect of him coming back and unexpectedly discovering this furry co-habitation situation. If that does happen, they’ll handle it, and it gives everyone much-needed space. The wolves are welcome to go out and hunt in the woods for supper, as long as they take care not to alarm the villagers of Sept-Tours. More will be discussed tomorrow.

With that, very uneasily, the first inter-species colloquy is brought to an end, and as the wolves tramp off, a few with black looks over their shoulders, the de Clermonts are left in the solar. Gabriel and Jiya ask at the same moment, “Garcia – Dad – is he – ”

“He’s fine,” Lucy promises. “It took me a while, but he – he’s recovered, at least mostly. He’ll need to sleep, and not have any major repeats of all that, but no lasting harm done.”

“They are fortunate that it is not otherwise, then.” Gabriel turns away to prowl by the unlit fireplace. “If we are to be burdened with these hirsute interlopers, I will advocate that you do not let down your guard. Your intentions in bringing them here were noble, and they may even come around to our cause. But werewolves are mistrusted by the creature world for reasons aside from mere blinkered bigotry, and you’ve already seen that they do not think or behave like us. That being so – ”

“I’ll deal with it.” Lucy is grateful for Gabriel’s effectiveness in managing the situation, helping with Flynn, and keeping the pot from boiling over completely, but she’s still not in any mood to take advice from him. But she can tell that he is trying to protect the family, and that he has legitimate reasons to be worried about their presence in Sept-Tours, especially with Christian. More gently, she adds, “I appreciate your assistance, and I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you for everything you’ve done today, and since your return. I know that you’ve been trying hard, and it can’t possibly be easy.”

Gabriel looks taken aback but touched, and nods awkwardly at her, so she does the same. The five of them fetch Sarah (who has been kept in her room during all this excitement), make their way to the kitchen, and eat supper, looking out at the rich velvet-violet dusk that mantles the walls and towers of Sept-Tours. Lucy hears a distant howl at the rising moon that seems to indicate the pack has taken her up on the offer of hunting, and hopes this will serve to settle tempers. At least everyone else apart from Flynn escaped unscathed, though Sarah looks perturbed at the lack of the one uncle she’s actually getting on with. Christian does his best to compensate for this deficiency, which is adorable, and Lucy glances at them sidelong. If nothing else, she wants to keep going for this, for them. The kids deserve a future.

After supper, having ensured that there is no other wolf-related calamity demanding her attention, she goes back upstairs, lets herself into the bedroom, and shuts the door. Flynn is still asleep, hasn’t stirred since she left, and she slides in next to him, tucking herself under his arm. For the first time in a while, even after the hell of a day it’s been, she feels somewhat steadier, like she’s not keeping something important from him, like she might stop whirling like a top, like she managed a very difficult situation and kept her chin above water, and that has to count for something. There’s no guarantee what tomorrow will bring, but at least she can fall asleep for today and know that there was nothing more, nothing better, that she could have done, and that for now, it was enough, she was enough. So she curls close, and lets go.

Lucy wakes early the next morning, in the predawn dimness, and eventually, so does Flynn. He’s still somewhat disoriented, and he murmurs to her in Ragusan for a while, having apparently failed to get English back online just now, but she does not mind in the least. They move together beneath the quilts, slow and dreamy, as he presses kisses into her temple, her cheek and jawline, her throat and collarbone, her shoulders and breasts, as if to heal any small wound that might be lurking beneath the surface, to lavish his adoration into every atom and sinew and crack of her, take anything that might feel lost or broken and make it whole. Lucy strokes his hair and holds his head against her shoulder and sighs and arches into him, urges him to fill her to the root, to take her and mark her as his own, his beloved, and he does so with the same utter, unquestioning ease and devotion. Climax is sweet and healing as sunlight on a warm spring day, and they lie there in silence for several minutes after, even as the dawn is creeping up the wall and they must forsake their sanctum once again. Flynn shifts, sliding reluctantly out of her, and lets himself down on the mattress with a grunt. Lucy rolls toward him, still comfortably boneless, and murmurs, “How are you feeling?”

“Better now, obviously.” He leans in to kiss her forehead and her nose, and she giggles a little, poking him in the chest as if to note that he is once more in reasonable command of his language faculties. “You are a very good nurse.”

Lucy makes an oh-really face at him, they giggle and kiss under the covers like the carefree lovers they rarely get a chance to be, and then they sit up, for the world – as ever – will not wait. Flynn still moves stiffly as he dresses, and Lucy can see that a few of the wounds are going to leave permanent scars, including the claw marks on his face. They’re only faint white lines, barely glimpsed if not seen head-on, but it reminds her that he has centuries of invisible wounds, accumulated like layers of frozen snow, and it is only recently that he has genuinely engaged in facing them, in chipping down to the deepest and coldest and most painful levels like a solitary arctic explorer. They’ve both taken care of each other last night, her of his physical wounds and him of her mental ones, but neither of them is as strong as they will need to pretend. The thought makes her reach out and catch his hand, lift it to her lips. She doesn’t need to say anything, but he understands.

They leave the bedroom and descend the tower stairs to the house. Gabriel, Kate, and Christian await them in the kitchen, all clearly relieved to see Flynn on his feet and more or less recovered from his misadventures. Lucy can see that Gabriel would like to have a word with Flynn about a few further points of strategy (and possibly also for scaring the shit out of him), and she has things to see to herself. “Is Dmitri still down in the dungeons?”

“Yes,” Gabriel says dubiously, “but if you’re planning to interrogate him, I’m not sure how much good that will do. Besides, he – ”

“I’m actually most interested in talking to Arkady.” Lucy has a sense that whatever the pack ultimately decides upon, its second-in-command will hold the greatest sway while Dmitri is incapacitated. While Dina is blunt and forceful, she will also be obliged to step aside if Arkady disagrees. “Is he still down there too?”

Gabriel shrugs, as if to say he supposes so, and Christian bolts to his feet. “You can’t go down there alone, Aunt Lucy. Let me go with you.”

Lucy thinks about telling him that she can take care of herself, and that taking a vampire, even one not directly involved in the spectacle yesterday, into the middle of more delicate negotiations seems ripe for backfiring. Besides, it’s just the dungeons of Sept-Tours, not somewhere she’s frightened to venture alone. But she can sense that Christian needs to be needed, and that if they try to stonewall him or shut him out like they did in 1590, even in the name of his safety, it’ll just drive him to seek his own involvement elsewhere, away from them and out of their control. She’s gently chided Flynn and Gabriel for their helicoptering over him before, and she nods, then gets to her feet. “Very well. Come on.”

Christian strides protectively behind her as they leave the kitchen and descend into the cold warrens, through several locked doors, and into the old cells, another relic of Sept-Tours’ past as a proper fortress. They kept Gennady Sokolov down here while he was originally an unwilling guest of the de Clermonts, and Lucy reaches the cell, nods at Christian to wait at the end of the corridor, and glances back. To the gloom, she says, “Good morning.”

There’s a pause, then a rustle, and Arkady Andronikov emerges, looking like he’s had a night largely similar to Lucy’s in patching his Alpha back together, but without the fun parts. There is still blood on his cheeks and crusted beneath his fingernails, and he glances at her without the aggressive wolfishness of Dmitri and Dina, but rather a calm, inscrutable politeness. At last, since he is clearly the brains and the diplomat of the outfit, he says, “Good morning, Madame de Clermont. Is surprise to see you down here.”

“I – suppose.” Lucy isn’t sure how to address him in turn, and wonders if it would be taken as mockery if she asked if there was anything she could do to help. As she regards Arkady, she still thinks that if she didn’t know he was a werewolf, she’d never be able to tell. Dmitri is every inch the stereotypical Alpha, but Arkady is tall and slender and graceful, looking almost too waifish to wrestle full-grown wolves to heel. But he must have considerable steel. While the word Beta has been co-opted as shorthand for submissive, it means for the pack that this man has authority over all of them, subject only to the Alpha. He should not be underestimated, and they stare for another awkward moment. Then Lucy says, “Dmitri – ”

“He will live.” Arkady raises an eyebrow. “And has, I hope, learned valuable lesson about storming into unknown vampire territory and challenging leader of most powerful family. That means he is bound to keep his word. Pack has to do what you – or husband – say. But I that is your command, no? Was your initiative that brought us here. Husband fought and won, but as your representative. In most accurate interpretation of law, that makes you, Madame de Clermont, Alpha of Salekhard Pack.”

Lucy is considerably taken aback for any number of reasons – not least because like Flynn, this is not a position that she has any particular desire to inherit. But she did bring the wolves here, and she is responsible for the consequences. They regard each other carefully, waiting for a catch or a counterattack. Then she says, “As I explained to Dina, there were good reasons that I asked you here. Has she told you?”

“Some.” Arkady seems to decide that she isn’t going to kill him, pulls up a stool, and sits down on the other side of the bars, arms resting casually on his knees. “It is worrying thing, David Rittenhouse. It is advisable that we look into it. If you say, I will see wolves do.”

Lucy is doubtless betraying her fundamental ignorance of lupine politics with this question, but she saw the way Arkady was looking at Dmitri yesterday. “Even if that means dispossessing your own Alpha? You – you care for him very much. Don’t you?”

Arkady shoots an inadvertent glance over his shoulder, back to where the fallen Alpha must be sleeping. She can see him weighing up what to say, and the silence teeters on the delicate. Then Arkady turns back to her and says frankly, “You can see I am not like other wolves. Do not look like them, act like them. Was born in Chechnya, and wanted to study philosophy and ballet at school, be great soloist for the Bolshoi. My father did not think that was suitable for son of his, said he would throw me out of house. For other reasons, perhaps you guess, very dangerous for me to stay, but I did not know where to go. Finally one night, I am followed by men with masks and sticks and rocks. I know they mean to corner me and beat me to death. It is Dmitri who leap from nowhere, who kill them all, and get me out of there, to say there is place I can go with other outcasts, a place where I will be strong. It is why I become wolf, to find home where I can be safe, have power, never be afraid of men like that again.” He shrugs. “I think it is not so bad decision, really. Though Siberia is very cold.”

Lucy opens her mouth, then shuts it. That does explain Arkady’s particular personal attachment to Dmitri, and she feels almost guilty asking him to transgress it, even if he himself has signaled that is entirely the expected thing to do. “So you would – ?”

“There is thing I have learned.” Arkady gets to his feet, pushing the stool away, and looks down at her levelly. “Beta can have great loyalty and love for Alpha, but it is not always best that he does. Beta who knows his role, who is most effective at it, ultimately fights for pack, not for one man – or woman,” he adds, with a gracious nod at her. “Beta’s job is to protect pack even from Alpha, if need arise. To hold family together. And to know that if Alpha fall, Beta must be ready to work with new Alpha, or risk everything and everyone that he has been trusted with. Beta cannot be obsessed with Alpha to point that it blinds him to everything else he needs to do and value and defend, or he will destroy everything he claim to love and protect. And Dmitri make very foolish decision. Lead us here without knowing facts, without waiting for explanation, to challenge de Clermonts. If you were different people, pack would now be dead, and his fault. So yes. We follow.”

Lucy starts to say something else, and can’t think what. Then she holds her hand through the bars, Arkady takes it, and they formally shake, as he inclines his head in implicit recognition of her new authority over him. “What is you want, then?”

The first step is to allow Dmitri to move into more comfortable quarters in Wyatt’s tower with the rest of the pack, as he is somewhat recovered, but not quite as much as Flynn, and stumbles heavily on Arkady’s arm. Dina appears to help convey her brother up the stairs, with judgmental tsks and muttered scolding in Russian, and shoots a look at Lucy which seems to indicate that she guessed what Arkady said to her. She doesn’t ask directly, until they’ve gotten Dmitri settled. Then she says, “So you are new mistress?”

“Something like that.” Lucy glances at her. “I’m hoping we can work together. I’ll value your experience and your advice, you and Arkady alike. Even Dmitri, if he’s willing to help.”

Dina snorts, reluctantly amused. “Dmitri is giant idiot,” she says. “Skull like rock. Good luck with. But you, Madame de Clermont. You really are unusual witch.”

“I suppose.” Lucy isn’t entirely sure that it’s a compliment, though Dina is looking at her with somewhat more respect than yesterday. “Come on.”

She’s still tentative at giving orders, even one that’s a polite request more than anything, but Dina and Arkady uncomplainingly return with her to the kitchen. Christian has also come upstairs from the dungeons, but when they step in, Lucy can see that everyone’s attention is fixed on Jiya, who has arrived with a very worried look and emphatic gesticulations at her phone. They turn around as she enters, the wolves behind her, and there’s a very transparent moment as everyone sizes up whether there’s going to be another fight. Then Arkady says, “We have come to hear and help, as we can. What is?”

Jiya looks at Lucy, who nods, confirming this. Her brow is deeply furrowed, and it takes her a moment to gather her thoughts. Then she says, “I’ve had a couple of extremely alarming text messages. One from Rufus, and one from Uncle Wyatt. It’s not good news.”

Lucy represses a swoop of unease in her stomach and sits down, Dina and Arkady standing behind her chair like an honor guard. They are thus acquainted with the fact that, indeed as Jiya says, there have been a pair of highly worrisome complications. The first is that none other than fucking Father Hubbard has resurfaced in London, apparently on personal invitation of Rittenhouse, after an exile of a few centuries in Australia. Rufus apologizes for not informing Jiya of this earlier, but he has had a very busy several days at Mansfield scrambling to save his job, and he, after all, had no reason to know that Hubbard was a particular bugaboo. Both Garcia and Gabriel swear out loud at this, and Gabriel growls, “My God, why isn’t the miserable bastard dead yet?”

“We should only be so lucky.” Flynn looks equally disgruntled, but turns to his daughter, beckoning her to continue. “Do we really want to hear what happened with Wyatt? What did he do, manage to lose Jessica for another – ”

“No, he found her. She was even hiding in Corvin Castle, like he thought. But someone broke in while they were out, and stole the Raven King’s books. She brought a few back with her, but now someone else has them, and we don’t know who. Those were not something that we can feel good about having in the wrong hands. They have no idea who the thief was, but…”

“Fuck,” Flynn says, which sums up the general mood concisely. “Either way, our luxury for remaining safely in Sept-Tours appears to be nearing its end. Did Rufus say anything about Jack, what he might have seen in Oxford? What’s Rittenhouse doing there?”

“Jack was… distracted by Hubbard reappearing.” Jiya’s dark brows remain anxiously knit. “He hasn’t done much on the scouting front. But he did say that there are all kinds of creatures arriving, and it’s clear that Rittenhouse is preparing for a full attack. He’ll get Ashmole 782, or he’ll reduce all of Oxford to a smoking wasteland.”

A glance is exchanged around the table. Then Kate says, “If I managed to sense that Jessica was in Romania, I might be able to identify the thief. There would be traces of left-over magic, and it can only be a creature that stole the books. I am willing to go.”

“I’ll go with you,” Christian says at once. “You will need someone to defend you, Mademoiselle Perrault.” He frowns. “Should I call you something else?”

“Just Kate is fine.” Kate bites a small smile. “You are very kind.”

“I’ll go with both of you.” Gabriel glances at his companion and his son. “And it is well past time that I faced up to what I did to Wyatt and Jessica. I do not imagine that it will remotely recompense everything I have done to them, but if we were to bring the infant with us, that would be the least I could start with.”

Flynn arches an eyebrow. “If Jessica would kill Wyatt, she’d murder you.”

“Yes. Understandably.” Gabriel sits back, his mind clearly made up. “I have carried out a great deal of damage against the whole family in many ways, especially to them, and it is only just that I face that too. And besides, the infant cannot remain in Sept-Tours alone, or with only wolves for company. Christian, my love, are you willing to supervise her if we should return her to her parents?”

“Of course.” Christian looks surprised but pleased, as he has hit it off with his cousin Sarah and has no objection to toting her with them. “By the way, who is Jessica? Exactly?”

Everyone decides that they will explain this at a later date, and it is further settled that it is time, at last, for Flynn, Lucy, and Jiya to return to Oxford. Between Hubbard, Rittenhouse, and God knows who else descending like vultures on the Bodleian, they have left it late, and they’ll have to go after Ashmole 782 whether or not they feel ready. They’ll make a base at Flynn’s house in Woodstock, since that’s slightly safer than the middle of the city, but either way, it’s going to be tricky. In terms of backup, they will have Lucy’s newly acquired canine friends, as the Salekhard Pack will accompany them and serve as their primary ground forces. They’ll travel separately, both to preserve the wolves’ pride and because this is a major tactical coup that they need to keep as secret as possible – after all, nobody is going to expect the de Clermonts to arrive in company with werewolves, much less that they’re now allies. Lucy feels strange at the idea of actually seeing Oxford again, both a deep longing and the sense that she won’t recognize it, or the person she was the last time she was there, when this was just beginning and she had no idea about any of it, estranged from her magic and suspicious of Flynn, clueless about what Ashmole 782 really was or why she was so bound to it. She knows now, of course, but still.

They’re just finishing up when the house phone rings, and Lucy picks it up. It turns out to be Denise, wanting to know if it’s safe to come up to the house after all the kerfuffle that they have observed – and for that matter, if Lucy herself is all right. Lucy assures her that yes, it was eventful, but no, it’s no longer dangerous, and it’s probably good for Denise and Michelle to decide what they’re going to do. It’s ten or fifteen minutes later when the Christophers arrive, and when they enter the kitchen, Denise stops short. “Lucy, those are – ”

“Yes. Werewolves.” Lucy hopes that the tone in her voice conveys that there’s no way she couldn’t have noticed that, and intends to maintain civility among her cobbled-together Rebel Alliance as long as she can. “Denise, Michelle, this is Arkady Andronikov and Dina Dragomirova Vodovatova. They’re on our side.”

Denise and Michelle continue to look startled, as neither of them have ever met a werewolf in the flesh before, and Denise at least has additional suspicion of any creatures who live so determinedly outside the law. But it’s true that with everything else going on with Rittenhouse, she has to admit that morality is very far from being synonymous with legality, and that all the old rules about creature interactions a) are fantastically bigoted and b) no longer apply. They manage to shake hands with the wolves and sit down at the de Clermonts’ kitchen table, two actions that would have been completely unthinkable just a few months ago, and Michelle looks determined. “What can we do?”

“Apparently Harry has… gone defunct as a source.” Lucy tries to speak lightly, but Houdini’s desertion – if it’s not that, it’s sure as hell what it looks like – has hit her hard, and she’s trying to fight the fear that if he can turn his back on them, anyone can. “The only way to get more information on what’s going on Venice is to go to Venice. Cecilia is there already, but she could use some help, and if you’re willing, you could find out something about Maria. We haven’t heard anything from her or about her, and we need her back. We all do. She was last with Emma, and Emma has to know something.”

Denise and Michelle exchange a look. A large part of their objection to Lucy taking up with the de Clermonts in the first place was due to Maria, infamous witch-killer, and making a symbolic gesture of overcoming old prejudices is still not quite on the level of actively searching her out, trying to save her. It’s true that they could both find out what’s going on with Mark’s summons and what has become of Maria, and Denise in particular is very accomplished in offensive magic. She’s the fighter, the warrior, the tough ex-federal agent, while Michelle is the healer, the protector, the defender, the one who holds together and nurtures and fixes what’s broken. It’s one of the reasons they make such a good team, and there’s a significant pause. Then Denise says, “You want us to – ?”

“I know what you’re thinking.” Flynn and Denise have never entirely taken to each other, but his interruption isn’t as brusque as it might otherwise be. “But you met my mother. You even allowed her to stay briefly in your house. You know her. And as Lucy says, we need her back. Whatever monster she might have been, there are far greater ones afoot now.”

Denise starts to say something, then stops. She and Michelle exchange a look, come to a final decision, and nod. “All right,” Denise says. “We’ll go to Venice, join Cecilia, and find out what’s going on with our son. And if we can, your mother. I promise.”

“Thank you.” Flynn nods to her, and Denise does the same. “We won’t forget it.”

After that, with assignments decided and courses set, there’s no more reason to delay, and the rest of the morning and afternoon is spent packing and making preparations. They’ve stayed here as long as they can in comfort and relative safety, and – at least in Flynn and Lucy’s case, resting from the turmoil and danger of 1590 – but that’s now at an end. At last, just like all the others, it is their turn to go out into the wilderness, the war. For the first time in its entire history, Sept-Tours will stand empty, not a single de Clermont within its walls, a ghost and an abandoned relict. Of course, that does not mean it will be left undefended, and Lucy walks through the house and towers and walls, casting protective spells on every inch of it. Her dark magic is stronger and less controllable and less benevolent, and she’s fairly sure that it will have the effect of gruesomely incinerating anyone who breaks in uninvited. She finds that she doesn’t care, and that reaction makes it even more powerful. The black queen. She is not sure whether to be alarmed that it feels a little less strange every day. She is changing, and may not change back.

When she’s done, Lucy goes downstairs, where Flynn and Jiya are waiting with the bags, and out into the late afternoon. The wolves have packed up and are preparing to make their own way to Oxford, Dmitri still at less than optimum level but unable to register much objection, and Lucy shakes hands with Dina and Arkady. Denise and Michelle left a few hours ago, and so have Gabriel, Kate, Christian, and Sarah. Flynn hugged both Gabriel and Christian very hard, told them to be careful, and it is tentatively planned for them to rendezvous when or if they can both get hold of their respective magical books, Ashmole 782 and the Raven King’s alike. Where, it remains to be seen. It all does.

Lucy looks up at the towers of Sept-Tours one more time, and wonders how it is that she always leaves this place in uncertainty and transition, in poignancy and change. This is not as soul-rending as leaving here in 1590 and erasing the family’s memories, but she still feels the importance of it, the finality, the conclusion and the commencement all at once. Some part of her wants to cling, to remain, to hide under a shell and imagine that if she could just stay like that, she would be safe. But she knows it’s a lie, and it is. It’s time.

Lucy turns away, puts on her sunglasses, and picks up her suitcase. Follows her husband and stepdaughter to the car, climbs into the passenger seat, and shuts the door. Flynn gets behind the wheel, starts the engine, and they crunch down the driveway as the towers recede from sight. Through the village, and out to the road beyond, and then it is it, it is done, they are on their way. And so, in the same sort of uncertain return as their predecessors in the name when they fled the fall of France, toward Oxford and the war that awaits, Monsieur and Madame de Clermont leave Sept-Tours.