Chapter three

When I’d finished talkin’ to the mer-elves I pulled together what I had a’ courage and went lookin’ for Suora. Suora was pretty terrifyin’—she was a messenger, she’d defeated the necromancer and been in the battle a’ nightmares, which accordin’ to rumour had driven those unlucky enough to witness it mad, and the second time I’d been there she’d invited Death to her campsite and he’d come. Searchin’ for her, however, was safe enough I reasoned, cause if she didn’t want to be found she could probably make it impossible for anyone to find her, ‘specially someone ordinary like me. So it was a bit unnerving when I did find her, sittin’ by her wagon just outside the circle a’ firelight, smokin’ her short-stemmed pipe. She beckoned to me.

On an impulse I sat down beside her, facin’ a little away from her and on her left side. Aris had told me once that when a king was entertainin’ a sorcerer or prophet whose power was so great that they could be considered above even the king, tradition dictated that the king surrender his own throne to the guest and sit on the left side, facin’ a little away. It was a symbol a’ submission before a superior power. It was also the way knights and warriors sat in the presence a’ the king, the idea bein’ that while the warrior may have been able to take the king out with one swing, he wouldn’t do it cause he’d surrendered that power.

She almost smiled. Suora was old enough that she’d been around when the custom was still in practice. She was probably the oldest being to walk the earth with a body, and as a messenger she was a lot older than that.

“Do you come as a king or a warrior?” she asked.

“I’m nothin’ much at the moment,” I replied, sighin’. “It’s been two months and I ain’t heard anything to tell. I’m not complainin’,” I added, hurriedly and untruthfully. “I’m just restless.”

“You are still mourning,” she replied. “For you the grief is still too great. You must be restless a while longer, and learn to control your grief.”

I’d seen what had happened to fighters who acted outta emotion in a street fight. Hell, I’d seen what happened to vamps who let their version a’ emotion, which was bloodlust, take over. It didn’t end well for them. Mostly in ended on the point a’ my silver stick.

“Right,” I said, and it was clear that I agreed with her however much I didn’t want to. “Can yeh give me a quick update, then?”

She sighed.

“We are not keeping things from you, se hela kiram. We have told you nothing because there is nothing to tell. The vampires are hunting, that is all. We are watching Azare, and your professor as much as we can, but the battle of the heart has thrown everyone’s plans into disarray. Perhaps you can tell me something.”

I pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

“Eastwick’s angry,” I said. “I can tell things aren’t going well for him, and I’m guessin’ that it’s cause a’ the battle, but a’ course I can’t be sure. D’yeh know how the black market business is going?”

“Badly,” she said, and smiled.

“That’d be it, then,” I said. “I’ve been down to the southeast slum bars and everyone there is a little on edge. They know somethin’s up, but whatever it is doesn’t concern them, so I guessed it was the black market business again. One other thing,” I added, and paused to think. Suora smoked her pipe in silence and waited. “I don’t think Eastwick’s runnin’ the business. I may be wrong, but I think there’s an edge a’ fear to his temper. And I think he’s been tryin’ to recruit outta our class. I heard about a couple students havin’ private meetings with him that weren’t about grades, or at least, not only about grades.”

Suora drew her breath in.

“We missed that,” she said. “He is well protected at home and at the college, and we can only watch his movements and not always those. Can you counteract it?”

“I can try,” I said doubtfully. “I know he’s got no chance with Er and Mare, and I can get at Ben through Mare, but I ain’t sure about Dev and Kate. I don’t think he’s tried Ara or Pearl or Lisa yet, and I ain’t sure he’s tried Ben, although Ben would be an easy play. He’s going after power, now, if I’m any judge. If he takes a shot at Chris that’ll be tricky cause I’ve never spoken to the guy, and if he goes after the underclassmen or the seniors I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything, but…sure. I can try.” I paused for thought again, breathin’ smoke. “I’ll get in with Er as much as I can. The others tend to look up to him. Even Dev. Even some a’ the seniors.”

Suora nodded.

“And you wish to take Aiden with you tomorrow. How are your parents doing?”

“Gettin’ better all the time,” I said. “I ain’t told them about Eastwick yet, but give it another day or two, a week at the most, and I think I’ll be able to. They don’t like him much more than I do, so that ain’t a problem, but it would be nice if I could tell them somethin’ that would stop them worryin’ about me. Fashers don’t take on sparks,” I added, “and I ain’t told them about se hela kiram either, and even if I did I doubt they’d find it any comfort. I don’t.”

Suora nodded, slowly.

“I have something for you,” she said. She stood up, and went into her wagon, and came out again a moment later with a book. It was a small book, one that I could easily fit into my pocket. She handed it to me.

It was a book of runes. I remembered the first time I’d seen the Gamblers. Lawrence had asked after a fourth soul, and one a’ the Gamblers had scratched a rune into the dirt.

“Learn the language of Death,” she said, handin’ it to me. “Be ready when he chooses to meet you.”

“More homework,” I said and sighed. “I wish Z were here. He would a’ loved this.”

Suora put her hand under my chin and lifted my eyes to hers.

“Never forget the price that was paid to set him free,” she said. “Learn to seek truth without him to guide you.” She paused, and looked like she was tryin’ to remember a word or a phrase she’d heard once. “Make him proud of you.”

It was such a human phrase for a messenger to use that it was almost quaint. I nodded, and put my hand over my eyes for a moment till I stopped cryin’.

“There is one final thing I must tell you,” she said, when I looked up again. “The scarred elf has been across the river. We think he was looking for you.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “Even with Death and all? I thought the elves would be stayin’ the hell away.”

“Korata’s bravery is legendary among the elves, and even we have heard of it,” Suora said solemnly, “but in your actions he has seen a bravery to match his own. You are most likely in no danger from him, so long as you stay out of the elf wood. But watch for him, and be cautious. We do not know what his intentions are.”

I nodded. And to think that when I’d arrived an hour ago I’d been wantin’ somethin’ to happen.

“Now go,” she said abruptly, and added, under her breath, “before Aiden falls into the fire from impatience.”

I went, and spent the next couple a’ hours tryin’ to wear Aid down to the point where he’d let me sleep. I managed to drag him to bed eventually, and got a couple hours sleep.

I woke up at dawn when I felt him crawl outta bed. For a few minutes I lay still, fuzzy with sleep and wonderin’ whether it was worth the effort a’ crawlin’ outta bed to find out where he’d gone and why. Eventually I did, and found him sittin’ by last night’s fire starin’ at the east with a look of concentration on his face. I walked over to him and sat down. Frost covered everything, and it was so cold my fingers were numb after five minutes, but he never moved, except to glance up at me and return to starin’ eastwards.

“Tell me,” I said softly after a moment.

“You and Z used to sit out here sometimes watching the sunrise,” he said. “I thought maybe he’d be here still, at least a little bit.”

I gazed at the sunrise too, and lit myself a cigarette. Aid glanced up at me again and smiled.

“He is here, now,” he said.

“How d’yeh know?” I asked.

“Isn’t he with you still, at least a little bit?”

Aid was a funny little creature, even for a halver werewolf. His notion a’ reality was a little different from most people’s and not strictly wrong either, just confused. He confused the symbol a’ somethin’ for the thing itself. He sometimes called bones and weapons Death or a hug a love and didn’t seem to fully understand why that wasn’t quite right. It was probably because he’d been a were since he was very young. To animals, the symbol and the thing often are the same, cause their minds can’t separate them, can’t form notions like Death separate from the simple fact a’ dyin’.

Sometimes, though, I wished he was right. I wished yeh could hand someone Death or Love the way yeh could hand them a spoon and that would be the end a’ it.

“If yeh come out here rememberin’ how he used to come out here, isn’t he with you a little bit too?” I asked. Aid crawled on my lap, a habit he picked up from bein’ a wolf one night a month, and leaned his head on my shoulder and I could feel a little patch a damp startin’. It didn’t last long. He got warm with my arm around him and fell back asleep, and I threw my cigarette butt away and carried him back into the tent and got a few more hours myself.

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Chapter seven

And that more or less ended the serious conversation for the afternoon. Tor and Pak and Aid stayed through the afternoon and to dinner, and into the night, eatin’ and drinkin’ and helpin’ with the cooking and washin’ dishes and even, as the night wore on and we all got more comfortable, laughin’ a little. Aid settled in so comfortably that by the end a’ the night he’d practically disappeared, ears and tail and all. Pak and Mom got on well, as expected, and, somewhat to my surprise, Tor and Dad got along almost as well. A weird thing happened, where Dad’s prejudice and Tor’s bitterness sorta cancelled each other out and they were left talkin’ about silver slingers and werewolf legislation like it was the weather. It was so odd I mostly didn’t join in, just listened.

There was an awkward moment when the party broke up, when Mom and Dad made the assumption that I was stayin’ the night with them and the other three assumed I was going back down to the river, and I had to say I was going back to the river without sayin’ that it was to make sure no one attacked them on the way, but it was, as I say, only a moment, then my parents realized and said good-night and we left. Walkin’ in the dark was easier and we got back without anything happenin’ and stayed up into the morning, and went to bed with only a few dark hours to spare. I left early on Sunday, early for stayin’ up most a’ the night, I mean, so about two o’clock in the afternoon, and headed back to the library.

Chrian weren’t there but Cor was—he was usually in the library. Fortunately I saw him first and slipped behind a bookshelf before he saw me, and managed to find a hidden corner. I didn’t want him fiddlin’ around all afternoon, checkin’ to see whether I was gone yet, specially since I weren’t studyin’ for class.

I’d been carryin’ the book a’ runes around in my pocket since Suora gave it to me, but I hadn’t had a chance to look at it yet, what with work and school and hatin’ my life. I pulled it out now and laid it out, lookin’ only slightly worse for bein’ crammed into my coat all the time, and started studyin’. It was rough goin’. It weren’t like studyin’ a written language—this was a language that was clearly never meant to be spoken at all, and the meanings of the runes were written in the old high tongue which made it harder. Not the ancient tongue—that I wouldn’t a’ been able to read at all.

There were thousands a’ basic runes, and hundreds a’ thousands a’ variations on them, but the book only covered what it called the founding four hundred and seventy-seven, and a ream a’ variations. A dot could change the meaning of a word, a pen stroke in the right place could make a word a sentence, and a second stroke could negate the sentence or, if reversed, reinforce it. I tried to remember the rune the Gambler had written, and decipher it, but either I couldn’t remember it right or I was missin’ somethin’ in the rules a’ translation cause nothin’ I came up with made any sense. I kept at it, though, till well past dinner time, till I got a sense a’ how it was organized, then headed back to the dorm, still avoiding Cor, called my parents—strictly a courtesy call; I never let them demand that I call them to tell them I was safe—and went up to my room.

Chrian was there, sittin’ upright and cross-legged on his bed, readin’ a letter from home. He folded it up and dropped it on his desk when I came in.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” I said.

“You’re not,” he replied quickly. “I was done.”

I threw my coat over my chair and myself onto my bed.

“What’s up?” I asked. “Somethin’s botherin’ you.”

“How can you tell?” Chrian blurted, startled. I grinned.

“It’s a talent I have,” I replied. “Yeh don’t have to tell me if yeh don’t want to, a’ course.”

Chrian shrugged, hesitant and uncomfortable, and asked if I’d eaten.

“Ain’t hungry,” I replied. “You?”

He shook his head.

“Not hungry either.”

“Must be pretty serious,” I remarked and sat up. “It ain’t somethin’ from home, is it? Your parents ain’t in trouble or anything.”

“No,” Chrian replied. “They’re fine—they’re doing better, actually, now that—”

“Now that yeh’re outta the house and they only have to feed two,” I finished for him. “Yeah, it was like that for my parents too. Course they never said it, and I’ve been pullin’ my own weight in the family much as I could since I was old enough to work, but still, it makes a difference. So, it’s a school thing, then.”

“Eastwick wants to see me,” he said. “After class, tomorrow.”

Chapter fifteen

An hour after it was true dark Atir returned with the vampires. Sebas came up to me immediately and put his hand on my face. He didn’t feel hot like the others, but the look on his face when he pulled his hand away told me he could feel the curse as clearly as the others did.

“Damn,” he said softly.

“I warned you,” Lawrence said. “Didn’t I warn you, Tam? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I didn’t follow him,” I said. “I just—he pissed me off.”

“So you risked your life to get a bit of your own back and ended up cursed,” Lawrence spat. “You couldn’t be safe just for a month, could you. You couldn’t stay at home just for a month.”

“It ain’t like that,” I protested.

“Then what was it like?” Lawrence growled. “Explain it to me.”

“Yes, tell us what happened,” Mund said, pushin’ Lawrence gently down into a sitting position so he would stop pacin’ restlessly. Suora joined us, and I told them about seein’ Eastwick tearin’ out a’ the school on Thursday night and headin’ east.

“And you didn’t follow him,” Mund interjected.

“Course not,” I replied. “Anyway, I knew where he was going.”

“So you followed him later,” Lawrence said. “Do you know how much better that isn’t?”

“He’s been recruitin’ thugs,” I said.

“Thugs,” Sebas repeated, frownin’. “Not thieves. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” I replied. “Nose weren’t lyin’.”

“He’s no better than a thug himself, is he?” Lydia asked. “How can you be sure he wasn’t lying?”

“He wouldn’t, not to me,” I said. “Specially not if a spark’s been messin’ with them. He knows better than to lie to the one person who might be able to help them.”

And it was true. I weren’t one a’ them, not really, but I was the only one who’d take their side against a spark. The government wouldn’t help them, probably not even if Eastwick went in and just started killin’. They’d say good riddance and try to hush it up. It weren’t that the government didn’t care about them, it was just they cared a lot less than about anyone else, and not nearly enough to risk a spark. In a way I sympathized with the government, too. Most a’ the slummers were just bad people, and that was all yeh could say about them. I’d help them anyway, but that was just me.

And a’ course, as I implied earlier, they knew it. It weren’t takin’ advantage, really, but it was somethin’ like it. I knew I couldn’t expect gratitude from them.

“But why would he be hiring thugs?” Sebas asked. I shrugged.

“I didn’t get a chance to ask him,” I said. “He was too busy gloatin’.”

“Speaking of, what did he say that made you think he wouldn’t be coming for us?” Mund asked.

I recounted the conversation briefly, and ended it by sayin’, “Human adoration’s no protection against somethin’ like you.”

“And it’s not the kind of thing one would say to distract an enemy,” Mund added thoughtfully. “He thinks you’re trying for a simple unmasking.”

“Rastadan,” I said.

“What?” Sebas asked.

“Rastadan. Charles Rastadan. Government spark. They were keepin’ him quiet, but he got cornered by a vamp and killed it and now he’s the people’s new hero. Happened while I was down here with you and Z. I heard about it from some of the sparks in my MT class. Eastwick’s right about this at least—if I was just lookin’ for proof a’ somethin’ I could take to the police it wouldn’t work, even if I found it. The government would never turn on Rastadan. And a’ course he knows I couldn’t take on a spark like that on my own, and he also knows I’m not stupid enough to try. Police is the only other option, since he hasn’t guessed I’m connected with you.”

“Then why curse you?” Lawrence asked. “If nothing you find out is going to be of any use to you anyway, at least not the way he sees it, why bother?”

“What kind a’ curse is it?” I asked.

“Killing curse,” Suora said briefly.

“I did guess that much on my own,” I muttered.

“It’ll take about a week and look like a disease,” she continued, ignorin’ me. “But for one or two minor differences.”

“Painful?” I asked.

“At times,” she replied, “very painful. Not toward the end.”

“That’s it then,” I sighed. “Partly he’s bein’ safe, but mostly he’s just bein’ the way he always is—cruel. He wanted a chance to gloat about my helplessness, so he made the chance. He never liked me, and he hated Z.”

“Well,” Lawrence murmured, “one way or another we will make him regret it.” Then he turned and disappeared into the darkness. Sebas and Suora looked at each other.

“He hasn’t been this upset since Azare’s first strike,” Suora said.

“He wasn’t this upset even then,” Sebas replied. “That we were expecting, and had been expecting for some time. And remember how much he owes Tam.”

“He don’t owe me that much,” I said.

“You killed Ferdinand,” Ly remarked, and we left it at that. No one mentioned what Ferdinand had done to him first when I’d saved his life, and, from what Liam had told me, I could guess why. It was just the last act in a long catalogue a’ abuse and violence.

“And what are we going to do about Tam?” Mund asked. Sebas sighed.

“Oh, Tam,” he said wearily. “What are we going to do about you?”

“Well,” I said, “if nothin’ else, yeh’ll bury me and explain to my parents how I died for somethin’ worth dyin’ for.”

“I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that,” Sebas said.

“So do I,” I replied.

“I was referring to the immediate future,” Mund interjected.

“Tam will come back to the mansions with us to be seen by Cornelius,” Sebas said. “We’ll be in touch with any developments,” he added to Suora. “In the meantime we’ll send a couple of the Stars to help you watch Tam’s parents, and we’ll try to find out what Eastwick’s doing hiring thugs. And this is really none of my business, but Atir can be singularly unpleasant to deal with. I was very much afraid Lawrence was going to lose his temper. Come, Tam.”

I rose and followed him, and as I left I heard Atir’s voice, raised in defiance, sink through resentment to apology before it faded from hearing. Lawrence joined us just outside the light a’ the camp, and the five a’ us went the whole walk through the warehouses and across the field in silence. I think it was mostly Lawrence—I think none a’ us could think a’ somethin’ to say that wouldn’t upset him again. I certainly couldn’t.

When we reached the house I staggered, and collapsed against a wall, retchin’. Mund caught me as I was about to fall.

“Are you all right?” Sebas asked.

“Do I look all right?” I growled. “What the hell is this?”

“The curse,” the vampire replied. “It’s made to look like a disease so it acts like one. Mund, carry him.”

I was picked up and thrown over the vampire’s shoulder without any ceremony and carried into the house, and deposited on what I thought of as my bed upstairs. I was glad he hadn’t told Ly to do it. I’m sure she could’ve and that would a’ been a little embarrassing. Sebas told me to sleep and I didn’t need any encouragement to follow his advice.

When I awoke it was evening, early enough that the sun was still up but late enough that it almost might as well’ve been down. I groaned and rolled over in the bed.

The first thing I did was look for Aris.

Wouldn’t be too long before I finally found him, the way things were going.

Chapter twenty-three

I decided not to go straight to the college, but to stop at my parent’s house first. I invited Aria in, but she refused. The sun was fairly well up by now, and I was feelin’ pretty good, so she said goodbye to me in the street and turned back the way we’d come. She glanced back, once, and I could see her eyes were all silver again, then she was gone. I opened the gate and walked round to the back a’ the house.

When I reached the back door I paused and looked around. I saw no evidence a’ any watchers, but Suora had assured me they were still there. I said thank you, quietly, in case any a’ them were near enough to hear me, and was rewarded with a light laugh that could a’ come from anywhere in the backyard. I smiled to myself and went inside.

Mom and Dad were sittin’ at the kitchen table eatin’ lunch, and they both jumped up to hug me and a’ course I said I’d stay to lunch with them, and for the first time in years the mountains a’ food Mom habitually made for any family meal didn’t look like it was too much. I sat down and started in, and two minutes later Dad asked what had happened. Even I don’t eat like that normally.

“I’ll tell yeh,” I said, “but yeh have to promise not to go wild.”

Mom and Dad looked at each other and promised.

“Right,” I said. “Here it is, then. Eastwick almost got me. Ambushed me with a curse in the warehouses last Friday, and we only just got it lifted two nights ago.”

“Tom!” Mom exclaimed.

“Why didn’t yeh tell us?” Dad asked. I shrugged.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “To be honest I ain’t exactly sure why I didn’t tell you, I just—it was so much easier not to, yeh know? I didn’t tell you right away cause we weren’t sure it could be lifted, and then I sort a’ went on not tellin’ you till I was too near death to make the effort. I’m sorry,” I said again, cause it looked like Mom might cry. “I wish now I had told you, if that makes you feel any better.”

I wish I hadn’t let myself want to die. I wish—god, how I wish—that I didn’t miss Aris so much. It was like being torn in half, one half determined to live, the other wantin’ nothin’ more than to die. I stopped eatin’ and put my head in my hands.

Dad took my hand and Mom put her arms around me and whispered to me, “Oh, Tom—my son, my beautiful boy,” and I tell you, only a mother’s love could call me beautiful, “we know how much yeh miss him,” and I put my head on her shoulder and cried like a child, somethin’ I hadn’t done for years.

“Yeh’re still alive,” Dad added. “At the moment that’s all that matters,” which was his way a’ forgivin’ me for not tellin’ them. “How are things going with—with everything?” he added when I’d stopped cryin’.

“It’s kind a’ hard to tell,” I said. “One thing we know—Rastadan is runnin’ the market. Really runnin’ it. We’ll have to deal with him to shut it down.”

Mom and Dad glanced at each other. Eastwick had been easy—they hadn’t liked him anyway, but Rastadan—to them he was what he was to everyone else. A hero.

“Yeh’re sure,” Dad said doubtfully.

“Pretty damn,” I replied. “The mirror threes confirm it.”

“The what?” Mom asked.

“Mirror threes,” I repeated. “They’re—they’re a particular kind a’ magic. Three identical sisters. Mirror threes are usually girls, I think,” I added, tryin’ to remember the little Aris had told me about them, “but they can be boys. They’re very rare and very powerful.”

“Mirror threes,” Dad repeated thoughtfully. “Ain’t ever heard a’ them.”

“Even Aris thought they were a myth, till we met them,” I replied. “Yeh can’t train them, apparently. They’re more like elves or mermaids than sparks—they’re born with a natural ability that can’t be taught, or bent to follow the rules most sparks use. They don’t cast spells—” I paused and thought. “Actually I ain’t sure exactly what they can do. Aris tried to research them but he had to give it up because there was so little written about them.”

They can see into the shadow world, I thought. He would a’ been over the moon about that. Tears started in my eyes again.

“Eastwick’s tryin’ to recruit sparks out a’ the college to help him with the market,” I said, changin’ the subject. “Er ain’t buyin’ it, and neither is Chrian, but I’m sure some a’ them will.”

“Oh, surely not,” Mom said.

“They don’t know what they’re gettin’ into,” I replied. “He told them it was an extracurricular project that would help them get better marks.”

“And then he can blackmail them about it afterwards,” Dad said grimly, echoin’ the thoughts I’d had when Chrian first told me about it. “Bastard. I wish there was somethin’ more I could do.”

“Yeh’ve done enough,” I said. “I’d better go. I’ve been gone for a week and I bet I’ll have piles a’ make-up work to do when I get back.”

Mom and Dad hugged me, and said they wished I’d come home a little oftener, and the next time I got cursed to call them, and I said I would and left. I paused at the door, though, to say:

“Mom, Dad—I love you,” and the expression on their faces when I said it made me glad I had lived to say it one more time. It ain’t like I don’t say it often enough, but sayin’ it just after yeh almost died has a special meaning.

I hopped a bus and was back at the college by two o’clock.

Chapter twenty-five

I made it down to the river in record time that morning. I’d gone with the idea that Suora would be the best person to deal with a situation like this, but the first thing I saw when I came tearin’ up to the fire was my parents, sittin’ between Pak and Aid and bein’ served breakfast with the rest a’ the Circ. And then I spilled at least half a’ their breakfast on the ground in my rush to make sure they were ok.

“And that,” Dad commented, when I’d calmed down enough that he could shove me off, “is how we feel about you most a’ the time. It’s all right son—we ain’t hurt.”

“How?” I asked, and he pointed. I turned to look and saw Mrs. Theran on the other side a’ the fire, smokin’ a pipe with Suora. “So yeh are a seer,” I said thoughtlessly. “I wondered.”

Mrs. Theran took her pipe out a’ her mouth and smiled.

“Not much of one, boy,” she replied. “A day into the future’s about the most I can manage, and none of the big stuff, usually. I’ve only had two prophesies that could be ranked as serious prophesies, real big-time stuff. The first, just before I moved into your neighbourhood, and the second—last night.”

“Thank god and all his forces,” I breathed, and then I had to sit down, cause I was shakin’. Mom sat next to me and managed to hold me with one arm and eat with the other, and Pak brought me breakfast. Aid was so excited he was practically dancin’—my parents and I were the closest thing he’d ever had to a normal family and now we were all together, all the people he loved most in one spot. It only wanted Col to be complete.

It’d been almost two months since I’d seen Col. I’d missed the last full moon cause I was so busy with school.

“When’s the next full moon?” I asked.

“Why d’yeh want to know that?” Dad asked.

“Been a while since I’ve seen Col,” I replied. “Yeh remember—I told you about him.”

“The next full moon is this Thursday,” Victor replied, appearin’ by the fire. “We were thinking,” he added, to my parents, “that perhaps it would be best for you to stay here for a little while, if you don’t mind camping out. It might be safer.”

“We do not think you were attacked because of what you’ve done,” one a’ the mirror threes added. I looked at her carefully, and she looked at me with no expression, and I couldn’t for the life a’ me tell whether it was Aria or not. “We do not have any clear idea why you were attacked.”

“I know,” I said. “I think I know.”

“Seems more or less obvious to me,” Dad agreed, and I knew we were thinkin’ the same thing.

“Why?” Victor asked.

“Revenge,” Dad said. “It didn’t work for him to kill Tom, so he tried to kill us instead.”

“He’s tryin’ to scare me off,” I added.

“Or make yeh so mad that yeh do somethin’ stupid,” Mom agreed.

“So you are not the only one in your family with the ability to read people,” Ter said. He and Seki and Ella joined the group around the fire, and Pak served breakfast to them and Victor. Mom and Dad looked at them and then looked away in a way that meant they were tryin’ not to stare, and I realized they were seein’ the mer-elves for the first time.

“Mom, Dad,” I said, “Ter, Seki, Ella. These are the three I gave a piece a’ my soul to.” It was odd to say it like that, as though I were introducin’ friends from school or work. “I think Victor’s right—I think yeh should stay here.”

“I wouldn’t mind it,” Mom said, smilin’ at Aid. “Charles?”

“I can think a’ worse places to stay, and none better,” Dad said. “Course I’ll have to get in touch with the factory, and Lilly will have to call the daycare, and I imagine the police will want to talk to us—”

“They’re probably lookin’ for us now,” Mom added anxiously. “What’ll we tell them when they ask why we weren’t home?”

“They’ll know it was a spark fire,” Mrs. Theran said.

“They’ll want to know why a spark would have a grudge against you,” I added. “Damn Eastwick! We can’t get the police involved.”

“Tom!” Mom said angrily, and glanced at Aid. I would a’ loved to tell her that I was learnin’ elfish swears from him, but I didn’t quite dare.

“One thing at a time,” Dad said. “Buses don’t run down through the warehouses, do they?” I shook my head. “Then we’ll have to get time off work. What do yeh think, Lilly? Does this seem like a good vacation?”

Aid came tearin’ round the fire and threw his arms around Mom and shouted, “Oh, yes, please stay,” and Mom said it was good enough for her.

“We’ll both take our two weeks, then,” Dad said, “and I don’t think either the factory or the daycare will make any objections on account a’ we just had our house blasted. The government probably won’t want the fact that it’s a spark fire talked about, and I imagine, if we just tell them we don’t know why—which we don’t, not for sure—and keep tellin’ them that, they won’t pry any further. We can give Mrs. Theran’s address if they want to know how to get in touch with us, and Tom’s cell number too—”

“And that just leaves the question of how to explain why you weren’t in the house in the first place,” Mrs. Theran said. “You were with me.”

“All through the night?” I asked. “Your house is close enough that yeh woulda seen and heard the fire.”

“You were with me all night, because I was worried about Lilly’s health—she sometimes has a hard time sleeping alone, you know—but we weren’t at my house. I’d taken you elsewhere for reasons of my own.”

“So far no lies,” Victor said, and I could hear the amusement in his voice.

“And if they ask us where elsewhere is?” Dad asked.

“Refer them to me,” Mrs. Theran said. “You have the authority of an herbalist not to disclose exactly where you were. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“And they shouldn’t pry too much cause it ain’t a matter a’ establishin’ an alibi,” I said. “We already said—they’ll know it was a spark fire.”

“So when should we go back?” Dad asked. “Chances are the police are lookin’ for us now.”

“I went by the house on my way here,” I said. “There was no one there—no police, no gawkers, nothin’.”

“S’pose there wouldn’t be,” Dad said thoughtfully. “Nor round a spark fire. Not in a neighbourhood like ours.”

“But the police must be lookin’ for us,” Mom said. “Shouldn’t we head back?”

“Now?” Pak asked. “But you barely got any sleep.”

“No, Lilly’s right,” Mrs. Theran interrupted. “The sooner we go back and face the police the better. If we leave now it’s just possible Lilly and Charles will be back for dinner.”

“What about you?” I asked. “Surely yeh’re comin’ back with us.”

“Us?” Dad asked. I ignored him.

“No, I’m not,” Mrs. Theran said. “I’ll stay in my own house. To stall the police in case today is not enough for them.”

“Us?” Dad asked again, in a tone that told me if I ignored him again there’d be trouble.

“It ain’t like I’m going to come with you to the police station,” I said shortly. “I’ll just walk you into town and wait for you, and when yeh’re done I’ll walk you back. That’s all.”

“No,” Suora said.

“They ain’t going alone,” I growled.

“I’ll send someone with them,” Suora replied. “Someone who will be more use than you if Eastwick does try again.”

I would a’ loved to get mad but there was nothin’ I could say. Suora sent Aria—second time she sent Aria on an errand like this, I noticed. The mirror threes looked identical and they acted identical too, as far as I could tell, but I figured if Suora picked her twice I must be missin’ somethin’. We said good-bye and they left, and the way Aid watched them go was heartbreaking. Yeh could see he was hopin’, desperately, fearfully hopin’, that they’d come back safe and not cursed. I was mostly still angry that Suora hadn’t let me go with them.

I spent the whole day wanderin’ around the edge a’ the camp, smokin’ and snappin’ at anyone who came near me. I watched the distant edge a’ the warehouses restlessly and wouldn’t a’ bothered with lunch or dinner ‘cept Pak made me. No one tried to cheer me up, or lecture me on how I was bein’ stupid, although I knew I was. Marya laughed at me, and Aid came and played with me and I couldn’t be mad at him cause I could tell from the way he looked toward the warehouses that he was feelin’ a lot a’ what I was feelin’. And Suora sent Atir to the mansions again. I guess Thursday weren’t soon enough to tell Sebas what had happened.

Mom and Dad didn’t get back till almost dusk, and when they did they looked exhausted and on edge, but other than that they were fine. Aria told Suora in my hearing that Eastwick hadn’t been back into the warehouses or to my house—I mean, what was left of my house—and then she went to join her sisters. I found myself watchin’ her, almost unconsciously, and I noticed that she was left-handed though Anya and Ayla were right-handed. Not completely identical, then, I thought. I wonder how that happened.

Chapter twenty-seven

I said good-bye to Mom and Dad and told them not to worry about me too much, which a’ course they went right ahead and ignored, and I told Aid I was going to hunt vampires and he asked if he could come. He was serious, too. I told him no and he asked why not. I told him cause he was too young and he said:

“Is this like that thing where your Mom doesn’t like you swearing around me?”

“No,” I said. “This is like that thing where they worry about me all the time.  I ain’t takin’ you out huntin’, Aid, not till you’re big enough to take me down. Anyway, my parents have enough to worry about. Yeh stay with them and tell them I’ll be all right, yeah?”

“Will you be?” he asked.

“More likely than not,” I replied.

I heard someone behind me call, “Tom!” and turned to see my Dad walkin’ toward me with a long object wrapped in leather.

“Here, son,” he said, handin’ it to me. “Yeh left that at our house a while back. Yeh’ll need it if yeh’re going huntin’.”

I unwrapped it. It was my silver stick, but it had been made into a sword, simple and beautiful, perfectly balanced and sharpened to a deadly point at the end. It had a scabbard to, with a belt made of a piece with the leather. I drew it slowly, and swung it round, feelin’ the length and the ease a’ it.

“Before I got work in the factory I was a metalsmith,” Dad said. “Course there weren’t much trade for a metalsmith—no one uses blades anymore. What d’yeh think?”

“I told you you should have a sword,” Aid said. “Here.”

I sheathed the sword and handed it to him, and he buckled it round my waist.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

“Come,” Aid said, and took my hand and dragged me excitedly to the fire. “Look,” he called to the others, “Look what Tam has. Look what Dad made for him. Isn’t it beautiful?”

They all wanted to see it, so I drew it and held it out. Orseth took it, and his eyes lit up.

“We thought the art of the silversmith was lost,” he said.

“Not entirely,” Dad replied, lookin’ a little embarrassed. “I had to work on it for months—I’m damnably out a’ practice.”

The mirror threes came over, and one a’ them stepped forward and put her hands out, and Orseth gave it my sword to her. The other two put their hands out and touched it, lightly—their right hands. Aria’s holdin’ my sword, I thought. Orseth had laid it across her hands, flat, and she held it that way for a moment, then she dropped her hands and left the sword hoverin’ in the air.

Sebas stepped forward from the shadows and said, “You can use my blood if you wish.”

Aria nodded.

“Tam,” she said, “take the sword.”

I closed my hand over the hilt and for a moment it was weightless. Sebas held his hand out, palm upward, and said, “Let it taste vampire blood.”

I hesitated, for a moment, but Sebas with an impatient twitch put his hand right against the blade and closed it, and when I drew it from his grasp his blood stained the silver edge with dark red.

“Now it knows its enemies,” Aria said.

“Thank you,” I said, to her and to Sebas.

“Come,” Lawrence said. “If we don’t leave now you’ll miss the Stars.”

I hugged Mom and Dad and Aid and we left.