Excerpt: House of Cards

Book Two of the Negotiator Trilogy

Humans would call it a catch-22.

He’d read the book the phrase came from, even sympathized with the protagonist, a man desperate to avoid fighting in a war but with no recourse to do so except claim insanity. The difficulty lay in the military’s own desperation for warriors: if he said he was crazy and wanted to fight, all the better; they would take him. If he didn’t, that was simply normal, and they’d conscript him regardless.

Gargoyles did not find themselves in such situations.

Alban’s shoulders slid down as he passed a hand over his eyes. Gargoyles didn’t find themselves in such situations, and yet. And yet.

A woman ran on the pathways below him, finding her stride without fear in the March night. She ran as if Central Park were her demesne and the things that stalked it too slow or thick-witted to capture her. She’d done it before she knew he was there, watching and protecting her. She would have continued long since, had he never revealed himself to her.

But he had, and now she knew. Knew about him and his people, and knew that he soared from treetop to treetop, keeping her safe from monsters worse than he. Knew that his nature demanded he protect her, once he’d chosen her as his ward.

He’d walked away from their impossible relationship, certain leaving was the only way to allow her a life with any meaning in her own world. In introducing himself to her—necessary as it had seemed—he’d also introduced an overwhelming element of danger into her human experience. She had accepted that, even embraced it, but he could not. He was a protector, and to protect her, he had to leave her behind.

Doing the right thing shouldn’t leave such a taste of coal at the back of his throat, burned and ashy. For a span of a few brief hours—days, but in a life as long as his, the hours meant more than the days—he’d flown with her, shared laughter and fear, even known the touch of death and the shaking relief of life in its aftermath. Better to let it go, the memory bright and untarnished, than wait and watch as she inevitably realized she could never fit into the half-life that held him captive.

And she, safety of her clean well-lit world offered to her, defiantly began her late-night sprints through the park again. She seemed utterly confident: confident of her own speed, confident of the park’s gentle side, confident that he would not abandon her despite his protestations.

To his own chagrin, she was right.

A gargoyle should not find himself in such a situation.

Muttering a growl deep in his throat, he flexed his wings, catching the wind and letting it carry him higher into the sky than necessary. He was a pale creature against night’s darkness, broad wingspan and powerful form easily visible, but humans rarely looked up. Even if someone did, he would be gone in an instant, a flight of imagination so potent few would dare voice it. Rationality and human experience demanded that he couldn’t exist. No one valuing his job or social standing would insist he’d seen a gargoyle circling over Central Park, and should the park’s less favorable denizens see him, well, no one would believe them, either.

And Margrit, should she look up from racing insubstantial competitors far below, would never tell.

#

She still watched the sky as she ran.

She knew better. She knew better for a host of reasons, the most obvious being that if a gargoyle glided above her, watching her, he would hang back, keeping out of her line of sight so they could both pretend he wasn’t there. Twisting around mid-run to see if she could catch him out not only invited injury, but collided thoroughly with the other obvious reason she shouldn’t watch the sky: to run safely in the park she had to move like she knew what she was doing. Aggressors wanted victims who wouldn’t cause a problem. She’d learned to keep her eyes straight ahead and her chin up, ears sharpened for sounds above those of her own labored breathing. She wore no headset when she ran at night: that was a luxury reserved for daylight hours. Running made its own music in her mind, a cadence she could lose herself to. Words pounded out to her footsteps, broken down into syllables. Law review sometimes, but as often as not a single word caught in her thoughts. Ir. Ir. Ir-rah-shun-al.

Irrational.

Alban.

Memories of the gargoyle did more than linger; they waited until she thought she was free of him, then announced themselves again with distressing clarity. Even after weeks of not seeing him, she could bring to mind his strong features and white hair more easily than anyone else’s.

Margrit shook her head, trying to chase memories away. The hard motion put a wobble in her run and her foot came down badly, tweaking her knee. She dropped into a walk, swearing under her breath. Her heartbeat ached, less from the run than from wariness that bordered on fear. The park seemed a haven only when she ran through it. Walking off an injury felt like announcing she was too slow and cumbersome to avoid danger.

Worse, though, was not giving herself the time to recover, and damaging the ligament so badly she couldn’t run at all. More than just immediate danger, the idea of being unable to run through the park felt like prison walls closing in. Margrit shivered the thought away, flexing her quads to test her knee. The sharp ache had already faded. She slowed and stopped, bending to rub her palm over her kneecap. It felt normal, no swelling or stiffness to tell her she’d twisted it a moment earlier.

It had been an inconsequential injury, nothing more. Just a twinge to warn her, not something worse that healed itself more rapidly than logic could account for. It’d been the same with nicks gained from a razor blade, or paper cuts sliced through a fingertip, the last few weeks. The damage had been too slight to justify concern.

Margrit licked her lips as the memory of a gag-sweet flavor of sugary copper rose in her throat. It carried with it the image of a slight, swarthy man opening his wrist and pressing thick welling blood against her mouth, her body too broken to allow her escape. Only after she’d swallowed convulsively had he looked pleased, folding his sleeve back down, and told her what he’d shared: one sip for healing.

Such a gift as a vampire gave.

Margrit shivered, scrubbing her palms over her knee one more time. It’d been a tweak, nothing more. She straightened, chin lifted in defiance against her own disbelief, then went painfully still as a blond, broad-shouldered shadow parted from the trees.

Hope crashed as fast as it was born, leaving disappointment in its place. The man was younger than Alban, hair worn very short and bleached rather than naturally white. The jacket he wore was leather, not the well-cut suit Alban wore. Anger and fear curdled Margrit’s stomach as she took one cautious step back. The man had the height advantage, but Margrit trusted her own speed. She shifted her weight again, ready to spin and run as she took one more step back.

Body heat warned her an instant too late, hands closing around her arms. Margrit shrieked and flung her head back as hard as she could. She encountered resistance and crunching bone, the hands on her arms loosening in a bellow of pain and outrage. “Fucking bitch!”

Margrit flung herself to the side, working on adrenaline and instinct, making herself small as the first man lunged for her. She rolled to her feet just out of his grasp, heart pounding as she danced backward, making enough space to turn and run.

A bright streak fell from the trees with a straight drop of mass that brought both men to the ground. Membraned wings, so thin that park lights glowed through them, flared alabaster in the dark, then were gone. A man–tall, broad-shouldered, white-haired–stood where their shadows had fallen, lifting her attackers by their napes and clocking their skulls together with slapstick ease. One groaned. The other made no sound at all as they slid bonelessly out of her rescuer’s grip.

He came to his feet, teeth still bared as if in attack. His breath came hard as he looked at Margrit, frustration darkening his eyes. Margrit nearly laughed, able to read all the reasons for his dismay.

He’d blown his cover. She’d forced him to show his hand again, re-entering her life as a physical presence instead of only a wish. But a gap still lay between them, his nature against her own. He’s chosen to accept that divide, even when she would not have. She had no more idea than he how to bridge the distance, but the desire to do so ached through her.

He was beautiful. Whichever form he took, he was beautiful. Long pale hair was tied back from his face, showing clean lines of jaw and cheekbones that, even in the human shape he wore now, might have been chiseled of stone. Margrit’s fingers curled with the impulse to explore his face, to slide her fingers into his hair and loosen it from its tie. Remembered warmth tingled through her hands, as if she did as she imagined. The recalled scent of him was delicious, cool moon-lit earth. Tightness banded her chest, hungry want born from time apart and feeding on the last vestiges of fear from the attack. Nothing negated danger as exhaustively as passion. For a heady moment she thought she saw the same need rise in Alban. She took one rough step toward him.

The gargoyle spread his hands, a singular admission that he had been found out, then closed them in abrupt denial. Gaze torn from Margrit’s, he crouched and leapt for the trees again, a smooth motion that left no time for words.

Defeat crashed through hope. Margrit ran forward, fists clenched as she bellowed after him. “Alban! God damn it, come back here! Alban!

Nothing, not so much as a whisper of branches or a flash of light on an outstretched wing, came back. Margrit whipped around, fists still knotted, and nearly kicked one of the supine men on the ground out of anger. Protocol told her to call the police and make a statement, though no one would believe a story of an unknown hero dropping out of the trees to save her, much less the detailed truth. Maybe she could lay praise for her escape at the half-legendary Grace O’Malley’s feet, though the tabloid-styled vigilante was better known for saving teens from the street, not adult women from Central Park’s violence. Still, the papers would have a field day, and enhancing Grace’s reputation might help that much more in taking back the night.

Three minutes later Margrit made an anonymous call to the cops and stalked home, shoe tongues flapping.

#

“She left them tied to a tree. With her shoelaces.” Alban turned on his heel, stalking across the confines of a small room, wings clamped close to his back so his abrupt turns wouldn’t knock over shelves of precariously stacked books. Candles flickered, their thin light in the dark room threatened by Alban’s strides. There were no windows, but he hadn’t lived in a home with windows in over two centuries, and the lack went unnoticed. A bed, more perfunctory than necessity, was lodged against one corner, its foot flush with a short bookcase.

A blond woman perched easily atop the shelving unit, arms looped around a drawn-up knee. “It doesn’t suit you, love.”

“What?” Alban wheeled again, wings flaring in surprise. The woman curved a broad smile and made a mimicry of walking with her fingers.

“Pacing. Gargoyles are suited to hunching and brooding, not pacing and swearing.” She hopped down, leaving the shelves without a wobble. Grace O’Malley was perhaps the most graceful human Alban had known, almost as unfettered by bonds of earth as one of the Old Races. She slunk around him, languid humor warming her porcelain skin and curling her full mouth. Another man caught at the center of her prowling might have felt like prey. Alban’s stony form, though, stood easily a foot taller than Grace, and her slim body was no match for his in strength.

Not until she’d made a full circle around him did she come to a halt, hands in the pockets of black leather pants as she rolled back on her heels to look at him. “Why fight it? Your Margrit’s in it up to her neck no matter what you do. She made her own promises to the dragonlord Janx, without part or parcel of you, so there’s no escaping the Old Races, not for that one. If you want her, gargoyle, pursue her.”

“It is not so simple as that.”

Grace snorted, a large and inelegant sound. “You’ve said the vampire gave her blood for health. Another sip brings long life, and he’s hungry to have a hook in her. You can get what you want, Alban, but not by sulking belowgrounds. I offered you shelter in return for helping to watch over my children. I didn’t mean for you to pull the streets over your head and pretend the world wasn’t there. Go live. You might find it suits you.”

“How do you know what you know, Grace?”

“What?” Grace putting herself into motion with the sharp response. Long, easy strides ate the width of the room and she had her hand on the doorknob before Alban spoke again.

“How do you know these things about the Old Races?” He had no illusions that the power of his voice might stop her, but he asked regardless. “That two sips of a vampire’s blood brings long life, or that I chose Margrit over one of my own. I’ve told no one that. You’re not one of us, just a human wo—”

“Just.” Grace turned her profile to him, pale and sharp against the small room’s darkness. Alban needed little light, and beneath the city streets it came in the form of flashlights and candles. Now the handful of scattered flames in the room brought out the ruddy glow in Grace’s cheeks. “Now there you might have a problem with your lawyer lass, my friend. Humans don’t take kindly to being just anything.”

Alban gritted his teeth with a sound of stone grinding on stone. “I meant no offense. You are a human woman beneath the streets of New York. Such people aren’t expected to be conversant with the Old Races at all, much less possessed of intimate details about us. How do you know so much?”

“Grace has her secrets, love.” The answer came back to him coolly. “Living a half-life like this one, trying to give kids shelter and food and keep them out of the gangs and in the schools, means learning things however you can, and playing what you’ve got for all it’s worth. That got you here.” She turned her gaze on him, eyes brown and calm beneath the startling whiteness of her bleached hair. “My knowing about your kind was enough to give you something to trust. That’s how we survive down here, gargoyle. I learn things and I keep my mouth shut. It’s hours til dawn,” she added as she pulled the door open. “Stay in like a sullen child if you will, but a man would find it in himself to step outside and take a stand.” The door closed behind her with a final-sounding clang, leaving Alban to bend his head.

“You forget, Grace,” he murmured to the echoing chamber. “As does Margrit.” He lifted his head again, straightening to a full height of nearly seven feet, and spread taloned hands to study them in the candlelight. “You forget.

“I am not a man.”

#

The blankets weighed an inordinate amount, as if they were made of warm stone, pressing Margrit into the bed. Flowing heat tickled her fingers, running over them like water. It contrasted deliciously with cold wind, but the chill rode her as nothing more than memory. Warmth suffused her, strong enough to hold her captive, though she felt no fear. Instead she recognized strong arms and the clean scent of stone: the smell of the outdoors and wilderness, all of it wrapping her close and safe. Raw, sensual power, housed in such grace it hardly seemed he could be dangerous.

Her heart beat faster as she shifted herself closer to her captor, desire building even through the confines of sleep. She knew the long hard lines of his body, harder than ordinary humans had words for. She had shied away from exploring those lines more than once, uncertain of how to breach a distance she barely understood. Now, though, she let herself be bold, drawing herself closer to brush her mouth against a stony jaw. Soft skin tasted of fine grit, like the rich flavor of dark earth and iron. He was too tall, even in flight, and she pulled herself up his body, an open act of intent as she hooked a thigh over his hip. His grip shifted, holding her in place, and stone encompassed her as city lights spun below her, broad wings spread to keep her aloft with the man—

Not a man, he whispered.

Is this my dream or yours? Margrit demanded. Surprise coursed through her, then a wash of laughter rough as sand in water.

Neither, I think, he replied. I hadn’t meant to think so strongly of you. Memory rides us. Forgive me, Margrit. Goodbye. A faint hint of wistfulness accompanied the final word: Again.

The dream turned to falling, a short sickening plunge. Margrit jerked awake, covers clenched in her fists, breath cold and harsh. A nearly inaudible click sounded, followed by her radio alarm increasing in volume as she lay on the bed, staring through darkness at the ceiling.

Irrational.

from HOUSE OF CARDS

House of Cards

CE Murphy

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