Shadow's Curse
 Imnada Brotherhood 2
by
Alexa Egan
Изображение к книге Shadow's Curse

For Do & Maggie, who help me find the words and always share their snacks

1
Изображение к книге Shadow's Curse
LONDON, MAY 1817

The man stood over his victim, knife flashing in the dim light of Silmith’s round yellow moon. The scent of blood and urine hung on the stale breeze, and the clink of a money pouch echoed in the quiet of the alley. David hung back in the shadows, awaiting his moment. The thief would have to pass by him to reach the street and disappear into the warren of dockside wharves and warehouses. When he did, David would pursue. It was a tactic he’d perfected over the course of the past year.

Not once had he allowed his prey to escape his particular brand of justice. Not once had he been caught or even seen except as a ghostly shape, an enormous dark shadow with glowing gray eyes. Some called him a demon or a monster—the newspapers who prospered from his exploits and those who worked the darkness for their own gains. But those who’d been saved by his intervention labeled him a guardian angel, a mysterious hero.

He was neither. Merely bored.

And angry.

Very, very angry.

If any member of the five clans of shape-shifting Imnada were to discover he spent the time between sundown and sunrise saving the lives of humans, they’d deem him mad. Not that he cared what they thought. He was emnil, dead to his clan. An outcast and an outlaw.

And while he was no longer condemned to pass his nights in his clan aspect of the wolf, having escaped the clutch of a curse that forced him and his friends to shift, these short, vicious hours had become a solace; these cluttered, squalid alleys and dark, twisted lanes his personal hunting ground. If he couldn’t spend his rage upon those who’d banished him to this tormented existence, he’d turn it on the villainous cutthroats and slimy pimps who prowled the stews in search of victims. Not that he cared overmuch about the men and women he assisted, but few questioned the deaths of thugs or mourned the loss of murderers. Only the Fey-bloods might realize the truth behind the monstrous beast prowling London’s stews, but that only added to the knife-edge thrill he craved like an addict—an existence he knew all too much about these days.

The clouds passed over the full moon, the breeze kicking up in starts to ruffle the fur along his back, the bristly ridge at his neck. He lifted his face to it, felt it curl over his muzzle, bringing with it the salty tar-laden stench of the Limehouse docks. Just then the victim moaned and stirred as he regained consciousness. His hand groped feebly for the knot at the back of his head. Shoving the money pouch in his coat pocket, the assailant lifted his knife with deadly intent. Theft soon to become murder.

Thought fell to instinct, and, with fangs bared in a vicious snarl, David sprang.

* * *

Callista rubbed a cloth over the last silver bell before returning it to its case alongside the other two. Closing the lid, she secured the lock with a roll of her thumb over the circular tumblers. But instead of tucking the mahogany box upon the high shelf beside her bed, she remained at her desk, the box in front of her. Her finger followed the familiar loops and swirls decorating the lid. Her mother’s box. Her grandmother’s. Her great-grandmother’s.

Necromancers, all.

The power to journey into the realm of the dead and speak to those who walked its paths had been gifted to the women of her house, stretching back beyond anyone’s memory. At least that’s what Mother had claimed. Callista couldn’t know for certain. She’d never met any of the women of her house except Mother to ask them.

Now she couldn’t even ask Mother.

Callista slid open the top desk drawer, removing a bundle of yellowed letters wrapped in a frayed ribbon. The wax was dried and crumbling, the writing smudged and faded. Mother had kept them all, every single missive she’d sent to her family that had been returned unopened. The prominent Armstrong family of Killedge Hall never forgot or forgave the shame of their daughter’s elopement.

Callista pulled free the top letter, reading the words, though she knew them by heart. A cheerful letter, despite the anguish and the dread prompting this last desperate attempt to reconcile. Mother had died a month later.

Mother’s letter had been returned a week after the funeral.

Every time Callista walked into death, the urge to summon her mother’s spirit almost overcame her. And yet, she held back. Refused to trace the symbols that would bind her mother to her. Callista couldn’t bear to let her see how far her only daughter had fallen, trading her power for coins like a huckster at the village fair alongside the dog-faced boy and the bearded lady. To her mother, the gift of necromancy had been a sacred trust. To Callista, it had become a trickster’s ploy.

The door behind Callista opened, a breeze stirring the hair at the back of her neck, raising gooseflesh over her arms. As she slid the packet of correspondence back into the desk drawer, she felt Branston’s thunderous stare bore into her, his fury like a shimmer of red behind her eyelids.

“Running away again, sister dear? You should know by now, Mr. Corey has eyes and ears all over London. There’s nothing happens in this town he doesn’t know about.”

Callista shuddered with loathing for her half brother’s new business partner but wisely kept her opinion to herself.

“I almost wish his men hadn’t found you in time for your appointment,” he said. “Better to postpone the summoning than have poor Mrs. Dixon’s hopes dashed so cruelly.”

“Your concern for the grieving mother is touching,” Callista answered wearily. “I’d not have taken you for a sentimentalist.”

“What I am is a businessman and you, my dear, are the business. A fact you keep forgetting.”

She rose to confront Branston. His small, washed-out blue eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared as if he smelled something rank. “That’s where you’re wrong. I know it all too well. You haven’t let me forget for one moment in the past seven years.”

His hands flexed and curled into fists, his well-fed body wired with tension. “Is that what your sulks are about? Your feelings are hurt? You don’t feel appreciated? Is that why you decided to dash a grieving mother’s hopes by telling her you were unable to speak to little Jonny?”

“It’s not right to take these people’s money without offering them comfort in return.”

Shoving his hands in his pockets, Branston shrugged away from her. “We offer solace. Reassurance. Hope. Worth it at double the price,” he said, in the same tone he used to hawk her skills during their years traveling town to town and fair to fair. “We’re the only link to their loved ones beyond the grave, to the infinite knowledge of the future the spirits can offer us.”

“Yes, if I’m able to find the spirit they seek and the client’s questions are answered. But I never found that woman’s son. I walked as far as I dared into death. I tried every path I knew. I couldn’t lie to her.”

“Perhaps you need to delve farther? Walk paths you’ve yet to explore?”

“I’m not trained for the deeper reaches. Mother died before she could teach me those lessons, and without the proper instruction, it’s too dangerous to attempt.”

“I don’t bloody care.” He spun around, jaw clenched. Brotherly concern, obviously a pose too difficult to maintain. Not that he’d ever tried very hard. Perhaps if they’d been closer in age or she’d been born a boy or if he’d not been an ill-tempered, spiteful, good-for-nothing sod.

“Do what you need to do to satisfy the customer, Callista. If you won’t risk it, then lie. If you’d done that tonight, the old cow would have left here pleased as punch, thinking little Jonny was with dear old Dad doing ring-the-rosy in heaven. She’d have been happy to be comforted in her time of grief. I’d have been happy to relieve her of her money.”

“We’ve only begun to recover after the fiasco in Manchester. Do you want to be arrested this time? Or worse? Mother always said—”

“What I want, Callista”—he slammed his hand upon the table—“is for you to do as you’re told. I don’t give a damn about your bloody bells or your Fey-born gift or your sainted mother. She’s long dead, and if it weren’t for me, the only gift keeping you from starvation would be the one between your legs. So, you’ll tell these sniveling, drippy, hand-wringing women with their sob stories whatever they want to hear, because if you don’t”—he shoved his face close enough for her to smell the whisky on his breath—“I’ll make you very, very sorry.”

She refused to cower before him, though she knew it only made him angrier. Instead she locked her knees, forced her shoulders square, and met him glare for glare. “You’re no longer my guardian, and I won’t be forced to act as your circus sideshow any longer.”

His gaze grew icy, a wicked smile dancing over his mouth. “The next time you leave, I’ve told Mr. Corey he can return you in any condition he chooses. I’m sure he’d be more than willing, and, knowing him, any struggle on your part will only increase his ardor. You suppose that high-flown aunt of yours you’re always running on about will take you in once you’re ruined and stuffed with a bastard child?”

“You wouldn’t dare.” Cold fear splashed across Callista’s back, nearly buckling her knees. Aunt Deirdre, her mother’s elder sister, resided in Scotland as a priestess of High Danu. Callista had never met her, but for seven years, she’d dreamed of traveling to the convent at Dunsgathaic. Of finding a home with her long-lost relative. Of finally escaping Branston.

“Wouldn’t I?” Branston grabbed her, his fingers digging into her upper arms until tears burned in her eyes. “You’ll do as I say. No more arguments. No more running. Do I make myself clear?”

“Completely,” she answered, forcing a calm she did not feel.

He released her to pat her cheek, an unpleasant smile stretching his wide mouth. “You make it so much harder than it needs to be. I’m only looking out for your best interests. Haven’t I always been there to take care of you, unlike those high and mighty relatives of your mother’s?”

She crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing him like the disease he was. “Your persuasive abilities continue to amaze me. It’s no wonder none of your schemes pay off.”

Annoyance flickered in his gaze. “Get some rest. We’ve two appointments tomorrow, and I want you at your best. I’m going out. Mrs. Thursby will be here if you need anything.”

Hardly a comfort. The old bawd acting as Branston’s housekeeper was another of Mr. Corey’s associates. Since they set up shop in London six months ago, their household had slowly been taken over by the ruthless gang lord and his underlings. But why? What really lay behind his continued and growing interest in them?

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Branston chucked her chin as if she were ten years old. “Worried for me? Don’t be, dear sister. I’ll always be here to look after you. Always.”

She crossed to the hearth, though no warmth touched her frozen, shivering skin. Always was what she most feared.

* * *

No matter how many times he did it, David St. Leger always hated this part.

With held breath and steady hand, he eased the silver-bladed knife across his opposite palm, wincing as blood welled behind the thin cut. Holding his hand above the glass he’d prepared earlier, he waited as three large drops fell into the viscous slime-green liquid, then snatched up a napkin to wrap around his wound. The initial sting became a steady throb as the silver’s poison moved up his arm into his head until spots bounced in front of his eyes and his stomach squirmed ominously.

Swirling the liquid around as if he were appreciating a fine brandy, he raised the glass to his lips, closed his eyes, and downed the vile, greasy brew in one shuddering swallow. It had been almost two years since the dying Fey-blood had spat his evil curse over him. A few months since the discovery of the draught that prevented his unnatural shift from man to beast with each setting of the sun.

David wasn’t sure which was worse—the cure or the curse.

Leaving the glass on a nearby table, he sank into an armchair, leaning his head back against the cushions, until the dizziness passed and the potion took hold. The clock struck the hour. A log in the grate fell apart in a shower of sparks. Rain pattered against the window.

And then there were the sounds that didn’t belong. A far-off click of a latch. The brush of a boot against carpet. A rattle of a knob. Not a servant. He’d sent the last one to bed on his arrival home an hour ago.

Taking up his knife once more, David waited—and listened. He’d take no chances. Not with the Imnada’s brutal Ossine enforcers searching for any shapechanger suspected of going against tradition to seek an alliance with the Fey-bloods. The rebels claimed it was their only chance to save the race from extinction. The Ossine called it treason.

David might be innocent of insurrection, but he was still emnil, exiled from his clan and labeled a dangerous rogue. That was an engraved invitation to any enforcer who sought to cleanse the clan once and for all of his corrupted bloodline. None would question his death . . . after all, within a wolf pack, the crippled and the sickly were the first to be eliminated. Within the five clans of Imnada, those same laws applied.

But David would not be taken down without a fight. The Ossine enforcers would not lay their hands on him again.

Ever.

The sounds came closer. David hung back, the knife ready, every muscle tensed for the attack. The door opened and a shadow fell across the floor. Unhesitating, he lunged, his arm sweeping out to catch the intruder. A shout erupted. Glass shattered. A knife flashed. The intruder’s neck ended trapped in the crook of David’s elbow, his back arched against the silver blade pressed to his kidneys.

“Are you barking mad, St. Leger?” the man growled from between clenched teeth.

David closed his eyes on a string of profanity. Dropped his arm and his blade.

Captain Mac Flannery.

“Is this how you greet all your guests?” Mac snarled, his cat-slanted green eyes narrowed in fury.

“Only those who sneak in like thieves,” David quipped with a smile, despite the renewed rush of dizziness spinning his head. He tossed the knife with a clatter onto a nearby table.

“I knocked, but I expect your housekeeper’s retired for the night.”

David cast a glance at the mantel clock. “It’s two in the morning. Of course she’s retired.” He poured himself a drink. On an afterthought, poured one for Mac, who was straightening his waistcoat. “What the hell are you doing here at this godforsaken time of night anyway? Shouldn’t you be home making mad passionate love to your new bride?”