There were gasps from the audience and then the screams started.
“Two birds with one stone,” Rudra Muralin said. “Or in this case, one song.” His beautiful black eyes glittered. “Now it’s your turn.”
My horror turned to disbelief as armed Guardians grabbed Piaras and forced him off the stage. He had no idea what had just happened. The Guardians thought they knew.
“No! He’s up here!” I screamed at them.
“They can’t hear you, Raine. Even if they could, they wouldn’t believe you.” Muralin chuckled. Even his chuckle was beautiful. “No one believes you.”
The smarmy punk was right. He was also between me and the quickest way to Piaras. He closed the distance between us and I let him. When he was close enough, I tossed my dagger from my right hand to my left. When the goblin’s eyes involuntarily flicked to the blade, my right fist took him hard in the temple.
The cocky ones never shielded. I smiled in a baring of teeth.
The ancient goblin absorbed the punch, and then he smiled right back at me.
I never saw his fist coming. My shoulder and head slammed into the catwalk’s metal grille. This is really bad, I thought while I could still feel my head. My dagger clattered down the catwalk behind me, well out of reach. Then Muralin’s full weight was on top of me, his lean body warm, his lips next to my ear, whispering, discordant, feeding my disorientation, softly seducing me into submission, coaxing me into unconsciousness.
Son of a bitch! I raised my head and sank my teeth into his ear.
His whispers turned to screams, then hissing. The spellsong lost its hold on me, my vision cleared, and I used my knees and fists anywhere on Muralin that I could reach. My growls joined the goblin’s hisses. I let go of Muralin’s ear and, using every bit of body weight and leverage I had, shoved him off of me. I tried to get to my feet, but my legs tangled in my gown. No gowns again. Ever. The goblin grabbed for me. I rolled away and out into empty air.
I desperately grabbed the railing at the base of the catwalk. I didn’t fall, but I was dangling at least thirty feet above the stage. A fall would either break my legs or kill me. The backstage area suddenly erupted in shouts and panicked screams. Terrified female shrieks.
The dressing rooms. The spellsingers.
Muralin’s hands grabbed my arms just above the wrist. Hands that felt like living stone: cold, hard, and unyielding. I gripped the railing harder.
The goblin actually laughed. “I’m trying to save you. I can’t let you die yet.” His lips curved into a slow grin. “But I can’t help you unless you let go.”
The sound of steel-on-steel combat joined the screaming from backstage.
My hands were starting to sweat—and slip. My breath came in shallow bursts. I’d never realized how hard it was to breathe with your arms stretched over your head.
“Back… off,” I managed.
Muralin abruptly let me go; I gasped and slipped some more.
The goblin stood up; the tips of his boots were entirely too close to my fingers. He looked down to the stage. “A drop of that distance is nothing for us, Raine. The Saghred would save you. Just ask and I’ll tell you how to do it. It’s simple—even an elf could understand it.”
Muralin shrugged and walked a few steps down the catwalk, turned, and leaned against the railing. He glanced down into the backstage area and smiled. “Nightshades,” he noted. “Once again elves are doing my bidding without me even asking. You and your people have been most accommodating.”
I pulled myself up inch by inch. I thought my fingers were going to snap off gripping the flat bars that made up the catwalk floor. It hurt like hell and I ignored it. The only thing that motivated a Benares more than greed was vengeance. I pulled myself up onto the catwalk, lay on my belly, and panted. When I thought I had enough air to do it, I got to my feet.
Tam was standing about ten feet behind Rudra Muralin. His face gave nothing away, but his eyes promised murder.
To Rudra Muralin.
Muralin spoke without turning. “Your services are no longer required, Tamnais. I have what I came for.”
Tam didn’t budge. “I’m still protecting my investment.”
A pair of armed goblins stepped onto the other end of the catwalk. They weren’t in uniform, but they were big and wearing identical arrogant smirks. Had to be Khrynsani temple guards. A trio of Tam’s bouncers came up the ladder to stand behind their boss. I was trapped smack dab in the middle of everybody, with straight down being my only way out.
Rudra Muralin slowly half turned so he could see Tam. Unfortunately, he didn’t turn his back on me. I swore. I had one dagger left and it had Muralin’s name all over it—all dressed up and nowhere to go.
“Your investment is safe.” Muralin sneered the word like it was something he’d scrape off the bottom of his boot.
“Is it?” The tiniest smile creased Tam’s lips, but the gleam in his eyes was chilling. “Are you quite certain?”
“You dare doubt my word?”
Tam laughed, low and dark. “Doubting your word would imply that its validity once existed.”
Point for Tam. Painful death for me.
Tam hadn’t looked at me, not once.
Muralin stood utterly still, like sculpted marble. “You forget your place.”
“My place is here. Yours is not.”
“I have destroyed men for less than—”
A crossbow bolt whizzed past my left ear, and I dove for the catwalk. Others wisely followed suit.
A volley of bolts followed, pinging and ricocheting off of the metal railing. One punched through a rail and kept right on going, taking one of the temple guards in the thigh. He screamed and fell over the edge, landing with a sickening thud on the stage below.
Crap in a bucket. Wooden bolts didn’t puncture metal. But steel did.
They were shooting freaking armor-piercing steel bolts at us—and “us” included me. The shooters were a pair of Guardians and four fancy-looking elves in someone’s private guard livery. Finding out who didn’t take long. Carnades Silvanus pushed his way through the panicked crowd toward the stage, roaring orders at those fancy guards. I heard the word “kill” at least twice.
I didn’t know if he meant me or the goblins, and I wasn’t sticking around to find out. The second Khrynsani guard behind me was gone. Over the railing or down the ladder, I didn’t care which exit he’d taken. My way out was wide-open.
Until Rudra Muralin grabbed my ankle.
I snarled, twisting from my stomach onto my back, and looked up into a blazing nightmare.
The goblin’s entire body was alight with power, red and glowing like a bloody sun. I felt the power that was building in him and recognized it.
It wasn’t a death curse.
It was really going to hurt.
Muralin tightened his grip on my ankle, his hand like a white-hot brand. I screamed in pain, then in rage. I drew back my free leg and kicked him solidly in the knee.
Not the reaction I was going for.
“Soon,” he promised me. Then he released me and vaulted effortlessly over the railing, landing lightly on the stage.
Impressive. Scary as hell, but impressive.
Two of the elves turned their crossbows on him, and Muralin hissed a single dismissive word, turning the bows to molten metal slag in their hands. The elves’ agonized screams just added to the chaos. With another word, the goblin extinguished the footlights, plunging the stage into near darkness. When they came back up, Rudra Muralin was gone.
Tam hauled me to my feet.
I hauled off and punched him.
His head snapped back. Not as much as I would have liked, but it was gratifying.
Tam wiped his bloody lip with the back of his hand. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
I think my mouth fell open. “Everything!”
A bolt fired from below barely missed us. Tam grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the same ladder I’d come up. I dug in my heels.
“Raine, please come with me.”
Tam rarely said “please.” I wasn’t the only one who saved certain words for special occasions. My word had four letters. Tam’s word was “please.” He’d said it to me at the rehearsal to warn me to stay away from him. Now that same word was asking me to trust him.
Regaining my trust was going to take a lot more than one word, but it was a start. We had to get off this catwalk.
By now the Guardians must be halfway to the citadel with Piaras. And where the hell was Phaelan?
When I reached the bottom of the ladder, Tam took my arm and pulled me past the dressing-room area and into the back of the theatre.
“Where the hell are we going?” I muttered between clenched teeth.
I caught a glimpse of Sedge Rinker and two of his watchers talking with unfamiliar Guardians, and a dead Nightshade sprawled on the floor nearby, blood pooling beneath his head.
“Do not call out to them,” Tam warned and walked faster.
I let out a bitter laugh. “I’m safer with you than them?”
“For now, yes. Sanura Mal’Salin unwarded her mirror to admire herself, and the Nightshades were waiting.” Tam’s voice was tight with barely contained rage. “They took Talon, Valerian’s granddaughter, and Ronan Cayle.”
Dammit. I pulled back against Tam’s grip.
“Nathrach!” It was Sedge Rinker. The chief watcher had seen me and was after Tam.
Tam hissed a curse in Goblin, tossed me over his shoulder, and ran.
The back of the theatre was dark; Tam knew it like the back of his hand, and he was a goblin. Rinker and his men were human. No night vision. There were plenty of things to trip them up, and from the thumps and swearing, the watchers had found them. But Rinker wasn’t chief watcher for nothing. He cleared his path and kept coming.
All I could see was Tam’s ass and the floor.
Tam opened a door and closed it behind us, and went down a flight of stairs entirely too fast for my comfort.
I shushed, but I wasn’t going to stay shushed for long.
Tam stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Above us, Sedge Rinker and his men ran by and didn’t come back.
“Put. Me. Down,” I said from behind clenched teeth.
Tam didn’t put me down. He slid his hand under my gown and up my bare leg to my thigh sheath. Finding that one empty, he went in search of the other one.
No way in hell.
Tam and I had wrestled before—once with intent soon after we’d met, and a couple of other times since then for fun. He knew my moves. This probably wasn’t going to end well, but I wasn’t giving up my last dagger without a fight.
I clasped both of my hands together into one big fist and hit Tam in the back as hard as I could. When he grunted in pain and surprise, I twisted. We both went down, and I got to be on top this time.
A single globe offered meager light, but it was enough for me to see that Tam wasn’t fighting back.
He held his hands up, palms out. “No weapons,” he whispered.
“Because you didn’t get mine!” It was all I could do to keep my voice down.
“To keep you from carving me up.”
I sat back, still straddling him. “What the hell is going on?”
Tam looked as tired as I felt, but he languidly moved his hips beneath me. “This is the best thing to happen to me all week.”
I gasped at the source of the contact and the delicious shock of sensation that followed. Focus, Raine. I glared at him. “I repeat, what the hell?”
“I’m touching you.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.” Parts of me were much more aware than others. “That doesn’t answer what—”
I realized what he meant; I shut up and didn’t dare move.
Tam was touching me. I was touching Tam…
… and the Saghred wasn’t touching either one of us.
But it was there; I could feel it, hot and coiled, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. I knew it’d be a good idea to get off of Tam, but I thought it’d be a bad idea to move.
“How?” I whispered.
“I haven’t used a death curse lately?”
I narrowed my eyes. “You mean no "uberevil black magic.”
“Don’t act surprised.”
“How am I supposed to act? You’re a dark mage.”
Tam was incredulous. “I was the queen’s chief shaman. What did you think I was?”
“Shush!” I heard, felt, or sensed something like a snake’s angry hiss.
Tam froze and didn’t even blink. He’d heard, felt, or sensed it, too.
Apparently passion ignited it—that or strong emotion. Great. That’s all Tam and I had. Ever since we’d met, either he was trying to seduce me, or I was arguing with him.
I sat quietly and waited. Tam closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. When he opened those glorious midnight eyes, he had himself under control. Possibly. Me straddling him while wearing a slinky, black velvet gown wasn’t helping matters any.
The pissed-off-firesnake sensation didn’t entirely go away, but it had lessened. I’d take that for now.
“Raine, what did you think I was?” Tam asked again, softer this time.
“I don’t know.”
Tam hadn’t talked much about his past; I hadn’t asked him to tell me. I thought we had a fine arrangement.
My family’s big on denial. And if we denied something long enough, we thought it’d go away. I know that’s not how it works, but we’re in denial about that, too.
In my mind’s eye, Tam’s dark-mage nature paced restlessly on the edge of the shadows, eager and hungry. The Saghred was coiled like a fiery serpent near his feet, tongue flicking, tasting the air, searching, wanting the black magic Tam held in check.
So long as Tam didn’t antagonize that snake, it wouldn’t bite me. Maybe.
I didn’t feel like taking that chance. Time to leave.
Tam’s hands tightened around my waist. “Wait.”
“I’m helping you control yourself. You’re a fuse. I’m explosives. Remember?”
The goblin’s lips curved into a slow, wicked grin. “Yeah, I do.”
I just looked at him. “If the Saghred strikes a match, that fuse of yours is going to get us both into trouble.”
“I like playing with fire.” Tam’s hands explored my velvet bodice with a mind of their own.
“I know you do.” And after some heavy breathing in a dark alley, I did, too. “So the farther I stay from you, the better.”
Tam ran his hands down the length of my bodice from ribs to hips, like he was memorizing the curves for later. “It would be the smart thing to do.” His breathing had taken on a ragged edge.
I dismounted. I had to take the moral high road sometime.
I hate moral high roads.
I sat on a nearby crate and crossed my arms. “Now talk. What have the Khrynsani got on you, and why is Rudra Muralin your houseguest?”
Tam sat up. “Talon.”
“The Nightshades took Talon.” A muscle worked in Tam’s jaw. “So no one has anything on me anymore. Tonight, I’m going to make the Nightshades permanently sorry.”
I did the math, made some assumptions, and when that got too convoluted, I just trusted the answer my gut gave me. Talon’s swagger, the bravado, the feline grace, but most of all the eyes. Tam’s eyes were black. Talon’s were aquamarine, but they had the same bad-boy sparkle—and the same intent.
And Tam had taken on the Khrynsani to protect him.
“Talon’s your son.”
“Yes, he’s mine.”
Talon obviously wasn’t a result of Tam’s only marriage to a pure-blooded Mal’Salin duchess. Tam liked elves. Tam liked me. Judging from Talon’s eyes and pale, silvery skin, I wasn’t the only elf Tam had liked.
“And he doesn’t know.”
“I don’t want him to. Considering who and what I used to be, it’s not safe for him to know.” Tam’s expression darkened. “Until a few days ago, no one knew. Muralin said that unless I turned you over to him, he was going have Talon kidnapped—and sold in the Nebian slave markets. The Khrynsani have a long reach, so I knew I couldn’t send Talon away to keep him safe. The closer he stayed to me, the better.”
Tam didn’t have to spell it out for me. I knew full well what kind of slavery awaited a half-breed as beautiful as Talon.
“If I tried to warn you, Rudra Muralin said he would kill Talon outright. I tried to keep Talon safe.” Tam’s eyes narrowed accusingly. “You were supposed to stay in the citadel.”
The citadel. Piaras.
“I’ve got to find Piaras.”
“Then you’ll be going to the elven embassy,” came Phaelan’s voice from the dark. Lantern light flared, illuminating my cousin leaning against a closed door.
“You were supposed to wait outside,” Tam told him.
“You weren’t supposed to be late.”
I was incredulous. “You knew about all this?”
“Hey, I just found out,” Phaelan said. His dark eyes flashed in anger. “You might say Tam and I ran into each other backstage. He was kind enough to hit the high spots for me. It all sounded just crazy enough to be true.”
“But Guardians would take Piaras to the citadel, not—”
Phaelan snorted. “If they had made it that far. Six Guardians took Piaras out the backstage door. I couldn’t get to him without getting nabbed myself, so I hung back. Glad I did. Those Guardians were ambushed. Within a couple seconds there were six dead Guardians and one unconscious Piaras being loaded into a coach—by elves who knew which end of a crossbow was up.”
“Were they wearing fancy livery?” If Carnades was responsible, there wasn’t a hole deep enough for him to hide in.
“Nope, uniforms. Definitely embassy guards, and that’s the direction they were headed.”
“Just yours truly. And I don’t think I should go anywhere near a Guardian just now.”
I didn’t want to ask, but I had to know. “Is Justinius dead?”
Tam spoke. “The last I saw, Mychael was working on the archmagus. Mychael is a fine healer, but it didn’t look like it was going well. Though Mychael didn’t look like he was giving up.”
“Gentlemen, the Isle of Mid just got itself a new archmagus,” I said. “If Justinius dies or until he’s in a condition to take command again, Carnades Silvanus is in charge—and Mychael has to take his orders from him.”