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Dangerous Ways

 

The Books of Winter: Book One

 

R.R. Virdi

 
Copyright R.R. Virdi 2016

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter Six


Dropping into the domain of one of the freestanding lords of the Neravene is never a good idea. In fact, it’s a dangerous one. It’s something that should not be done. But, if it cannot be helped, falling in uninvited during a meal is the worst timing imaginable.

We interrupted one, it seemed.

The hall of the Grand Marquis looked to be made from dark cobalt. It was a grim cathedral in which everything was a shade like late-night skies. A gradient ranging from near-black to navy. The color of space and blue moons.

The floor was a single piece of similarly colored stone. A few long cracks stood out. On either side of the courtroom were four statues that dwarfed the trolls from earlier. They stood sixteen feet in height with faces like bats, armored in intricate metalwork and hefting halberds. Their shields alone could flatten us, given the chance. Fortunately, unlike the last pieces of stonework we’d come across, they were completely immobile.

The room was lit solely by the efforts of three circular windows with metal bars running between them, giving each window the look of a Victorian clock face. Blue light tinged with white illuminated the small and utterly pointless set of stairs in the center, near the back of the room. Carpeted in shimmering white with gold dust sprinkled over the material, it went up the length of steps to the foot of the throne atop. Another set of stairs continued past the throne, devoid of carpeting, running up to a singular set of double doors.

I gave the doors little attention. That was held by the figure sitting on the throne, watching us in amusement.

“Well, well,” he said in a crisp, eloquent tone that was almost musical. His slender, almost fragile-looking hands, gripped the armrests at the side of his throne. He rose to his feet. At first glance, his height would have appeared a trick given his position atop the stairs. It was no trick.

He stood at seven feet, fair skinned, and dressed in a one-piece robe of black hemmed with gold. The Grand Marquis’ features were lean and angular. It would be fair to say he was more beautiful than handsome.

His eyes were sharp discs of green agate, gleaming with equal parts intelligence and cunning. Threads of pure silver fell to his waist unbound. His ears were long and tapered.

“It has been a long time since these halls have entertained one of the Timeless. Particularly you, Jonathan Hawthorne.” He made the slightest of bows while plucking a piece of papaya from a bowl near the throne.

“Holy Legolas,” breathed Cassie.

I gave her a quick look before mirroring the Grand Marquis’ bow. “Thank you, and a pleasure as always, my host.” I placed particular emphasis on the last word.

He arched an eyebrow, watching me out of the corners of his eyes as he turned to take a bite of the fruit. “Host? Curious. Am I your host? Interesting choice of words for one trespassing in my domain.”

Technically, he was right. But elves were tricky, masters of wordplay, and appreciated cleverness. “I believe your exact words were, ‘entertained one of the Timeless,’ Grand Marquis.”

He blinked, then repeated the action, even pausing from taking another bite of the fruit. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

I nodded, but didn’t say anything further. I had used a technicality in a slip up and capitalized on it. All of it was fine as far as a race like the elves were concerned, save for one point. I had implied the Marquis made a mistake. And he was aware of it. He wasn’t the kind to let something like that go.

His voice dropped from melodious to flat. “You also maimed several of my sentries.”

“They didn’t leave us much choice. They’re alive.”

His eyes flashed before returning to softer greens. “They protect my domain. I believe they were performing their duties, but I am grateful you managed to impose upon my meal without killing my gargoyles.”

He cradled his forehead in one hand in a gesture I suspected was more dramatic than necessary. With his other hand, he returned the half-eaten fruit to the bowl, and scooped up a goblet fashioned out of moonbeams. That was the only way to describe it—pure white, glistening and solid.

He took a long, draining sip. Whatever it the contents, it caused his eyelids to flutter. A pleased moan escaped his lips as he placed the goblet down. “Well, it seems I have guests to entertain.” In a blur of motion, he clapped once. It was a gentle tone that, nevertheless, managed to ring throughout the hall. “Will you join me for bite?”

Cassie leaned in, cupping a hand to her mouth and whispered, “Elves don’t eat people, right?”

I tried to move my mouth as little as possible. “No, they don’t.”

She exhaled in relief. “Whew. Heck, yeah. I’m down to eat.”

The Grand Marquis turned to regard Cassie seeming like he had just noticed her. He gazed at her for a moment, and I could tell he was taking in every detail, calculating and filing it away. I hoped his observations ended at the physical. If he came to realize what she was capable of, things could turn in an instant.

Elves seemed to step out of the shadows, coming to form a neat row on either side of us. It was baffling trying to discern one elf from another. Their appearances were so similar. The fact they wore the same red flowing cloaks did not help.

Both rows of elves converged in on us a step at a time, moving with more grace in each step than some dancers performed in an entire routine. It was eerie seeing that many elves move towards us at such a leisured pace.

“They will see to your needs—baths and clothing.”

Cassie’s eyes went wide with pleasure and hunger.

I raised an eyebrow. “With all due respect, Grand Marquis, baths? Clothing? We did so before coming here and are sufficiently clothed, as you can see.” I pulled the collar of my coat.

His lips spread into a thin smile. “Indeed. But what sort of host would I be if I didn’t tend to my guests to the best of my capacity?” The smile grew.

Tricky bastard. Yes, the bath and clothes sounded nice. It was also a chance for his retainers to strip search us and remove our weapons, as well as the other objects we carried.

“Thank you for the offer, kind host. If the members of your court would be so kind as to show us to where we can bathe, we will handle the rest.”

“Nonsense.” A maniacal light filled his eyes. “I would appear a poor host. Word would spread, and we can’t have that.”

No, we couldn’t. He was right. Shunning the offer of a freestanding lord, or worse, a larger and more powerful one, could have terrible repercussions. Least of which would be the offense of refusing a gracious offer. It’s a stain on their name.

Respect is important to the beings of the Neravene. To its lords and ladies, it’s the foundation upon which their domains are built. As well as power and fear. Being liked is optional.

The elves stood a step from me, taking my arms in their hands as they ushered me away. They led Cassie in another direction. I put my foot down. “No, wait.”

“Hey, I don’t know about you, but I could use another bath. I just got these threads”—she tugged the collar of her t-shirt—“and they’re already covered in sweat. Keeping the shoes though.” She kicked the floor. The sole of the shoe skidded with an audible squeak.

“I would appreciate it if our host did not separate us, even for bathing.”

The corner of the Marquis’ lip quirked. “Oh?”

Cassie voiced her thoughts a bit louder. “Wow, things are moving so fast. We met on a snowy night and fell through a Way together. You saved my life. I saved yours. Now we’re showering together.” She fanned herself with a hand, “Things are getting intense. I don’t know if I’m ready for them.”

I almost growled, but instead, my spine turned to brittle ice. I hoped her comment about our tumble through the Ways went unnoticed by the Grand Marquis. I had figured out why she was being hunted. I didn’t need others knowing, especially a lord of the Neravene, no matter how small he was.

He was intelligent, cunning, and could be treacherous. Not a good combination for us. But I needed him, or rather, his knowledge. He had many ears in many places. Elves were wonderful scouts and sleuths.

“She’s coming with me, at least somewhere close enough to keep an eye on, and definitely within earshot.”

“It almost sounds like you do not trust me, or my word, Hawthorne.” There was a dangerous undertone in that statement.

I had good reason not to trust him. But necessity outweighed my comfort and faith in his word. He had accepted his role as host. That limited any hostile action he could take against us. With elves, loopholes were everywhere, waiting to be taken advantage of.

I stared at him without blinking. He relented.

His features sank in disappointment, an act if I ever saw one. He didn’t care in the slightest. Separating us wasn’t his primary concern.

“Very well. Together then.” He waved a dismissive hand.

The elves escorting Cassie turned on their heels in an almost mechanical fashion. They marched her over to me, and together, both groups of elves led us down a rather bleak corridor. Our escorts took us past a set of curtains woven out of strands of starlight. We came into a room larger than most taverns. The floor was made of a low-cut purple grass. At either corner of the room was a recessed pit walled in stone. Steam billowed from it.

Cassie released a light, excited moan. “Elvish hot tubs? Nice.”
The groups split, leading me to the bath on the right, pulling Cassie to the left. Two elven women took hold of my clothes, wrestling to remove my jacket. Most men wouldn’t have resisted. Elven beauty was legendary, and these women lived up to it. But we had also dropped unceremoniously into the domain of a lord of the Neravene while armed.

That’s an action that can lead to swift execution in some domains. In others, notably the Marquis’, that’s death after lengthy torture.

So I resisted their efforts to strip me, shooing them away and opting to remove my own clothes. Before leaving, the women waved their hands horizontally in unison. A curtain of glistening, white thread appeared. An illusion, I wagered. A good one. At least I had some privacy.

Cassie had been afforded a similar treatment. A curtain was drawn around the area of her bath, leaving only shadows.

I shrugged out of my jacket, letting it fall to the floor with everything I carried inside. My shirt didn’t want to leave my body. It clung to my skin from the sweat. I slipped out of it, breaking two of the buttons in the process, and threw it towards my coat. My jeans and boots landed atop them, along with my saber. I used my foot to nudge them nearer to the piping hot water.

I wasn’t paranoid, but the closer my saber and coat remained to me—in arm’s reach preferably—the better. But, when dealing with elves, paranoia was a useful trait to have.

“Hey!” Cassie’s shadow flailed as several elves fought to restrain her.

My hand shot out to yank the curtain and rush to her aid.

She kicked out, trying to hit a shadow walking away with her folded clothes. “Not the shoes!”

I stopped, shaking my head and turning back. The bath was a welcoming thing. Two issues prevented me from being completely at ease: I was in a small, enclosed place, and stripped bare. Not ideal if I had to defend myself.

Maybe I am overly paranoid. I could use the bath.

Heat came off in waves, washing over me and easing my aches. A bath had never seemed so tempting. I fell into it, and the promise of relief was delivered. A low, long groan left my throat as every muscle loosened. The warmth felt like it was sloughing away my fatigue and problems.

A whisking sound drew my attention and I turned to its source. The curtain peeled back and an elven woman stood there in a robe that clung to her in all the right places. It left little to the imagination.

“I’m fine, thank you.” I turned my head, dipping my hands into the water and cupping them. I brought a handful of water to my face and scrubbed.

Petals fell into the pool, and my heart rate sped up. They hit the water, spreading across the surface. A sweet, fruit-like aroma hit my nose.

“Thank you.” I made my voice lower and harsher, hoping she would get the message.

“My lord expressed his desire to see you tended to.” Her voice was like listening to a symphony of wind instruments. It was a light and airy thing, soothing to hear. A voice that promised many things.

I knew why she had come. Red flashed, flying past my vision as her robe joined my clothes. I sucked in a breath. She was every bit as pleasant to look at as her robe had promised. I shut my eyes and held my breath.

I am a member of the Timeless. I’m better than this. I’m supposed to be better than this.

I rattled off numbers in my head, counting by odds only, focusing solely on that task. You’re only human, countered another voice inside my skull. I wanted to shut the voice down, but it was right. Long life aside, I was mortal, and the Grand Marquis knew it.

Something disturbed the water and I had a good idea what. The temperature increased. Maybe not in reality, but it might as well have. I felt a gentle touch along my chin and jaw.

When I opened my eyes, I found her thumb pressed against my jaw as her index finger stroked my chin. My heart beat like a fist-sized drum lodged in the side of my throat. Her lips turned up at the corners, giving me a smile that promised something far more wicked and satisfying than sharing a warm bath.

“Leave.” My voice came out lower and rougher than I intended.

It did nothing to deter her. She cradled my chin between her fingers.

I folded my hand over hers, intending to push her away, but something kept me from following through. “Leave.”

Elves had issues understanding English at times. It was evident when she pushed her body against me, entwining her leg around mine. She leaned closer and whispered into my ear, “But you don’t want me to.”

My body didn’t. My mind knew better. I pushed her hand from my chin. My voice took a sharpened edge. “No, but you’re going to anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because, I’m mortal. I’m tempted.”

Her eyes smoldered.

“But I’m not stupid.”

The fire in her eyes died, and the smile followed.

“Temptation is like a knife, and a knife cuts best when you don’t see it coming. When you’re looking into their eyes, watching them smile, holding you close, they’re looking for the soft spot in your back. That’s when they drive the blade home. I don’t want you slipping a knife into my back.” I gave her a thin smile.

She made no response, becoming a frozen statue. An attractive, nude, unblinking statue. The earlier heat in her eyes was replaced with a cold, electric look.

My imagined temperature spike plummeted.

“My lord gave you his word of safe conduct.”

“Actually, he didn’t. He acknowledged his role as host and the duties pertaining to it.” I made sure to point to Cassie’s shadow, now standing alone behind her curtain. “However, I don’t recall the Grand Marquis saying that he offered us safe conduct, did you? One does not equal the other, especially in the Neravene.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits, and I did my best to not visibly tense. She turned in one swift motion, leaving without bothering to grab her robe. Her hips swayed as she walked, giving me a great view of her backside. A gesture to make sure I knew what I was missing, no doubt.

Watching her go, I had to agree. My body was missing out. The muscles along my spine tightened for a moment, but my regrets vanished with the sensation.

Sex is never worth a knife in the back. Not even elven sex.

When she left the room, I faced Cassie’s shadow. “How much did you see? Hear?”

She said nothing for a half a minute. “All of it. Kind of hard not to.” Cassie made a choking sound like she had cut her self off from speaking. After another pause, she asked, “So why didn’t you?”

“Weren’t you listening?”

“Yeah, of course. Still, most guys in your position would have bow-chicka-wow-wowed all over that.”

I was certain she couldn’t see or feel my stare from behind two sets of curtains. I tried to make sure she could anyway. “I’m fairly certain bow-chicka-wow-wowed is not a set of words or a verb.”

“Pssh. Is now.”

I ignored the comment. “You heard my reasons. I don’t trust any of them.”

“You brought us here.”

“For information, yes, but that was borne out of necessity. We need information. We do not need that.”

“Everybody could use some of that every now and again. I know it’s been a while since I’ve—”

“I can do without knowing that.”

“You’re such a child for someone so old.”

My teeth ground against each other.

“But yeah, I’m not arguing, just giving you a hard time…like she did.”

The pressure in my jaw grew.

“Good choice, though. I’d high five ya if I were there. Ourselves before elves. Duty before booty.”

I wondered if the entirety of my long life was an extended form of punishment destined to culminate in these final, excruciating moments. “Please, stop.”

She feigned an irritated scoff, but stopped with the terrible humor. “Okay, serious time now. You really think they’re going to backstab us?”

“It’s possible. Next lesson in the supernatural: elves are famed for their deception, being too clever for their own good, as well as ours. They’re cunning. They’re not all the benevolent beings portrayed in novels. Some are; some aren’t. The Marquis and his kind are most certainly untrustworthy, but they’re knowledgeable and that’s useful. In this world, Cassidy, knowledge is power. The more you know, the more you can use and do to protect yourself and hurt the supernatural if necessary. Remember that.”

She gave no verbal reply, but her shadow nodded in understanding.

“I don’t want to taint your view of this world, but…”

“I’ve been chased by trolls, gargoyles, plants, and now I’m surrounded by sneaky elves. I’d say my view’s pretty tainted.”

“There are still many wonderful and amazing things to see and be a part of in this world, Cassie. If we figure all of this out, I promise to show you some of them.”

“That sounds nicer than what I’ve seen so far. But for the here and now, we’ve got to get out there and deal with this situation. We can’t sit in here forever.”

“A part of me would like to. It’s nice.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I just want to find out why this is happening to me. If this guy can tell me, then fine. I’ll play along.”

The temperature dipped in my tub. Cassie was ten feet from me, wanting answers, ones that I had. I didn’t have a chance to share them with her when the gargoyles came after us, but I did now. And there was no reason not to share them. Except for the fact that I had no idea how she would react. She was scared, and for good reason.

Just because people say they want to know things, it doesn’t mean deep down they want to hear the words and reasons. Just because they say they can handle it, doesn’t mean they can. Just because you know a terrible truth, doesn’t mean you should share it.

But she did deserve it. So I told her.

“I don’t know all of it, Cassie. I wish I did, but I’ve pieced some of it together. Do you want to hear it?”

Her figure went still behind the curtain. “Yes, and no. I mean, yeah, I’d love to know why I’ve got a bull’s-eye painted on my back. I just don’t know if I’m going to like the answer.” Her voice was soft and weak.

“You won’t.” I could almost hear her breathing deepen. “Think of the networks of roads connecting a country—America, for example. They intersect, weave together to form something greater. There are so many of them, all individual yet crossing each other’s paths, leading to new places. All of them have their own set of rules, different speed limits, lanes and more. The Neravene is like that in many regards, except you can’t break its rules and make it up later. There are no accidents or tickets. The laws are like the laws of the universe, of science—resolute—unbreakable. You don’t break the rules of the Neravene, Cassie. You can’t.”

“I’m sensing a but…”

“But you can. You shouldn’t be able to, but you can. You can. And I don’t know why or how, but I understand the importance behind it and the danger.”

“Danger?”

“Cassie, think about it. The Neravene is a network of paths leading to the domains of powerful creatures, kingdoms, empires, and who knows what else. Things forgotten by time, and some things I wish were forgotten. Cassie, there are gods out there, and I’m rather glad that I have not and cannot come across them.” I stopped and took a breath.

“But you can.” I stared in her direction.

“Those places have their own protection to stop people and other beings from plopping in at will. Those Ways have to be opened by someone who knows how, has access, or is invited. It’s a safety thing. In a world of worlds that is technically always at war—some part always is with another—imagine how dangerous your ability can be. There are small lords and ladies fighting for power and dominion over one another. Information being taken. Power being taken. Beings come and go. But to do all of that, any of that, you have to get into their domains in the first place. That’s far easier said than done. It’s close to impossible with armies, and takes decades upon decades, Cassie. You can do it in an instant.”

There was a sharp inhale of air and her breathing stopped.

“The only way I managed to get us here is because of my personal history with the Marquis and a natural occurrence in the Ways that I capitalized on. That was within the rules. In the short time I’ve known you, you’ve opened Ways with no regard for the limits, unhampered by them. Think what that means for the beings in the Neravene.”

She didn’t make a sound, but I could hear imaginary gears clicking into place. She was putting it together.

I dropped the final bomb and felt like my insides were being gnawed for doing so. “Cassie, you are a living gateway to and through the Ways. One with free will and choice. You’re not bound by the rules of the endless number of courts and domains that so many of the creatures have to abide by. You could turn the tide of a battle in favor of any being in the Neravene. You’re the most valuable asset for power that any of them could have. Imagine being able to open a Way into the heart of your enemy’s domain. To waltz in with your forces and take whatever you wanted. Better, with training, you could open a Way into the personal space of any creature. You could appear a millimeter behind them and be gone in an instant.”

Her shadow was still before, now it had become something else. I’d come across pieces of art that looked like they moved more than her silhouette did at that moment. “Cassie?”

“Yeah?” Her voice was distant, removed.

I felt stupid for asking this. “Are you okay?”

“No.” One single word, yet so much weight behind it.

“But you will be.” I made sure my tone was unwavering, doing the best I could to make her believe me.

“Yeah.” Her voice wavered. It was stronger than before, though. Good.

“Let’s get dressed and see what we can get out of the Marquis.”

“What if he’s one of the people after me?”

I kept moving, making it look like the question didn’t give me pause. It did. The possibility never crossed my mind, but it should have. I may as well have been bathing in a pool of ice water. I stepped out, scooping up a folded towel the elves left behind.

Whatever material it was made from, it felt like warm currents of air being pressed against my skin. The water dried within seconds of contact with the towel. I dressed myself, fastening my saber to my jacket, and peeled back the curtain.

Cassie’s shadow gave me hints to her movements. She picked up a folded bundle. Even though I couldn’t see her, I averted my gaze. It felt wrong. After what I told her, she could use as much privacy as she could get.

It’s not an easy thing being told you are essentially a tool for conquest, nothing more. The paranormal world does strange things to you. It’s a terrifying immersion. Being a part of this world is like being submerged under water and held there—a new and distorted world.

In a world of myths and magic, with Cassie slipping between worlds, she needed a reminder that she was human. She needed a lifeline. I hoped I could be it.

“Cassie?”

Her curtain eased back, and she stepped out.

I sucked in a breath.

She wore a kimono that looked like the night sky had been folded and shaped to fit her form perfectly. It was a rich—almost liquid black—shimmering with what looked like sequined motes of light. I narrowed my eyes and realized they weren’t sequins, but small weavings of magic that caught and reflected the incoming light. Under a full moon, I imagined it would give off a beautiful pale glow. Now clean, and wearing that outfit, it was difficult not to admit how attractive she was.

“So, whaddya think?”

“You look great, Cassie.”

She smiled when I said it. She spun in place, and I saw a flash of bright turquoise.

“Are you…still wearing the sneakers?”

“Heck, yeah. You think I’m letting someone take my kicks?” Cassie slid her foot back, brushing the heel against the stone floor, eliciting a rubbery squeak. “Plus, they took my old clothes. I’m not letting them take these.”

There was something in the way she said it that tugged at my chest. She had lost a lot over such a short time—her place in the world, her home. At this point—even clothes meant a lot to her.

“We’ll get you new ones that are just as flashy, over the top, and ostentatious.” I grinned, and she returned it.

“I figured another reason to hang on to them would be in case we need to bolt. I’m not a fan of running in these.” She held up a pair of traditional Geta, Japanese sandals.

“Good idea.” I held out my hand. “So, Cassidy Winters, are you ready to be formally introduced to the Grand Marquis?”

She took my hand, intertwining her fingers with mine.

I pulled her a step closer, and we locked arms at the elbow.

“Yeah, I am, and hopefully we’ll get some more answers.”

“Then let’s go to dinner.”

“So long as we’re not on the menu,” she muttered.


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