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The Devil's Right Hand dv-3, Page 2

Lilith Saintcrow

  Emilio looked as horrified as if I’d suggested he cut up his own mother and chew on her, his mustache quivering. I offered him the fork.

  “Please, Emilio. I really can’t.” I blinked, trying not to look like I was batting my eyelashes. “You made this, it’s beautiful, you deserve to break it.”

  He shook his head solemnly. “No, no. Wrong.” He waved a blunt finger at me. “You don’t like the Chocolate Murder?” His voice was laced with mock hurt—he was so good at laying on the guilt. His accent mangled the Merican; I still hadn’t learned Taliano.

  I laughed, but an uneasy frisson went up my spine. I glanced at Japhrimel, who now studied me intently.

  His eyes were almost human, dark and liquid in the light from the crystal chandelier hanging overhead. “Thank you, Emilio. She loves it, but she simply can’t trust a gift. It’s in her nature to be suspicious.”

  I let my lip curl. Even a demon had a better time of dealing with normals than I did. “I never said that.” To prove it, I broke through the pristine whiteness of the whipped cream, took a scoop of brownie, and carried the resultant hoverload of sinful k-cals to my mouth.

  Bittersweet darkness exploded, melting against my tongue. I had to suppress a low sound of pleased wonder. No matter how many times Emilio made this, I was still surprised by how bloody good it was. It’s supposed to be a cliché, women and chocolate, but damn if it didn’t have a large helping of truth. Nothing else seems to satisfy.

  “Sekhmet sa’es.” I opened my eyes to find both Japhrimel and Emilio staring at me as if I’d just grown an extra head. “That’s so good. What?”

  “Thank you, Emilio.” Japhrimel nodded, and Emilio, satisfied, bounced away out of the dining room. My eyes strayed to my pile of notes. Japhrimel’s fingers rustled among them. “I shall make you a crane. A thousand of those are said to buy a space in heaven.”

  That managed to spark my interest. “Really? Which heaven?” Warm wind blew in from the Toscano hills, making the house creak and settle around itself. The shielding—careful layers of energy applied by both demon and Necromance—reverberated, sinking into the walls as Japhrimel calmed the layers with a mental touch. The sense of him listening to something I couldn’t hear returned, and I watched his face. “Elysium? Nirvana?”

  “No. Perhaps I am wrong, and it only buys good fortune.” His mouth turned down at the corners. “Is it good?”

  “Have some.” I balanced a smudge of brownie and whipped cream on my fork, managed to scoop up a brandied cherry as well. “Here.”

  He actually leaned forward, I fed him a single spoonful of Chocolate Murder. I don’t know what Emilio called the dessert, but I’d called it murder by chocolate and Japhrimel found it amusing enough the name had stuck.

  He closed his eyes, savoring the taste. I examined his face. Even while he concentrated on the dessert, his fingers still moved, folding the paper into a crane with high-arched wings. “That’s very pretty.” I took the fork back. “I had no idea you were so talented.”

  “Hm.” His eyes flashed green for just a moment, a struggle of color losing itself in a swell of darkness. “Inspiration, hedaira.”

  “Yeah.” I took another bite, the siren song of chocolate ringing through my mouth. “The man’s a genius,” I said when I could talk again. “Give him a raise.” Since we don’t seem to be hurting for cash. I’d ask you where it comes from, but demons and money go together. Besides, you’d just change the subject, wouldn’t you. As usual.

  “For you, anything.” But he looked grave. The crane was gone. “Days of poring over Magi scribbles seem to have taxed you.”

  “If you’d just tell me, it would be a lot easier.” I took another bite, adding a brandied cherry to the mix. He was right, it was heaven. Took a sip of wine, sourness cutting like a perfect iaido strike through the depth of chocolate. “What does hedaira mean, anyway?” Just one little clue, Japh. Just one.

  Demons wouldn’t talk about A’nankhimel, I guessed it was an insult to imply they could Fall. Asking a demon about the Fallen was like asking a Ludder about genesplices: the whole subject was so touchy with them that precious few demons—if any—were capable of discussing it rationally. Japhrimel was highly reticent about it even with me, and I was the reason he was where he was.

  I wondered if I should feel guilty about that, tried not to ask him. Couldn’t help myself. It was like picking at a scab. He never stopped me from researching, but he wouldn’t provide anything more than tantalizing hints. If it was a game, the point of it was lost on me.

  “Hedaira means you, Dante. Have I told you the story of Saint Anthony?” One coal-black eyebrow lifted fractionally, the mark on my shoulder compressing with heat as he looked at me. “Or would you prefer the tale of Leonidas and Thermopylae?”

  I stared at the remains of the brownie. It would be a shame to waste it, though my stomach felt full and happy. I was pleasantly tired, too, after three days of slogging through code. Why won’t he answer me? It’s not like I’m asking something huge.

  It was always the same. I had a real live former demon living with me, and I couldn’t get him to answer a single damn question.

  I used to be so good at finding things out. I scooped a brandied cherry onto the fork, chewed it thoughtfully while I watched him. He was busy looking through my notes. As if they could tell him anything he didn’t already know.

  The paper rustled, a thin, familiar sound. “Shall I make a giraffe for you?”

  “They’re extinct.” I laid my fork down. “You can tell me the one about Saint Anthony again, Japhrimel. But not now.” Silence fell between us, the wind from the hillside soughing in through the windows. “Why won’t you tell me what I am?”

  “I know what you are. Isn’t that enough?” He ruffled through my notes again. “I think you’re making progress.”

  You know, if I didn’t like you so much, we’d have a serious problem with your sense of humor. “Progress toward what?” Silence greeted the question. “Japhrimel?”

  “Yes, my curious?” He folded another small sheet of paper, over and over again, the spidery ink scratches of my notes dappling the paper. The mark on my shoulder throbbed, calling out to him. I was tired, my eyes strained and my neck aching.

  “Maybe I should go back to Saint City. The Nichtvren Prime there has some demonology books, he and his Consort invited me to stop by anytime.” I watched his face, relieved when it didn’t change. He seemed to be concentrating completely on folding the paper again and again. “It’d be nice to see Gabe again. I haven’t called her in a month or so.” And I think I might be able to go back to Saint City without shaking and wanting to throw up. Maybe. Possibly.

  With a lot of luck.

  “If you like.” Still absorbed in his task. It was uncharacteristic of him to concentrate so deeply on something so small while I spoke to him. That look of listening was back on his face, like an unwelcome visitor.

  Night breathed into the room through flung-open windows. Uneasiness prickled up my back. “If something was wrong, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?” I sound like an idiot girl on a holovid. I’m an accredited Necromance and a bounty hunter, if something’s wrong I should know, not him.

  “I would tell you what you needed to know.” He rose like a dark wave, his coat moving silently. Green flashed through his eyes. “Do you not trust me?”

  That’s not it at all. After all, who had rescued me from Mirovitch’s deadly ka in the ruined cafeteria of Rigger Hall? Who had I left Saint City with, who had I spent every waking moment with since then? “I trust you,” I admitted, softly enough my voice didn’t break. “It’s just frustrating, not knowing.”

  “Give me time.” His voice stroked the stone walls, made the shielding reverberate. He touched my shoulder as he passed, pacing weightlessly across the room to stare out the window. His long dark coat melded with night outside. I caught a flash of white—did he still have the animal he’d made out of my notepaper? “It is no little thing, to Fall. Demo
ns do not like to speak of it.”

  That did it. Guilt rose under my ribs, choked me. He had Fallen, though I had no idea what that meant beyond a few hints gathered from old, old books. He’d shared his power with me, a mere human. Never mind that I was more than human now, never mind that I still felt human every place it counted. “Fine.” I pushed my plate away, gathered up my notes. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

  He turned from the window, his hands clasped behind his back. “Very well.” Not a word of argument. “Leave the plates.”

  I stacked them in a neat pile nonetheless. It doesn’t pay to be sloppy, even when you have household help. I’ve washed my own dishes all my adult life, it feels wrong to leave them to someone else. When I spoke, it was to the ruins of the brownie. “If there’s something you’re not telling me, I’ll find out sooner or later.”

  “All things in their proper time.” Damn him, he sounded amused again.

  Dante, you’re an idiot. “I hate clichés.” I brushed my notes into a scarred leather folio and crossed the room, carrying my sword, to stand beside him as he looked out onto the darkness of the hills under a night as rich as blue wine. The smell of demon—amber musk, burning cinnamon—rose to cloak us both, the deeper tang of sun-drenched hills exhaling after nightfall making a heady brew. “I’m sorry, Japh. I’m an idiot.” Easier than an apology had ever been, for me. Which meant that it only hurt like a knife to the chest, but didn’t claw its way free.

  “No matter. I am a fool, as any Fallen is for a hedaira’s comfort.” He forgave me, as usual, and touched my shoulder. “You mentioned being tired. Come to bed.”

  Well, that’s another sliver of information. For a hedaira’s comfort. “Give me back my notes, and I will.” I sounded like a kid throwing a tantrum for an ice-cream cone. Then again, he was much older than me. How old was he, anyway? Older than the hills?

  Lucifer’s eldest child, Fallen and tied to me. As any Fallen is for a hedaira’s comfort.

  Did that mean there was something so terrible he was actually doing me a favor by not telling me?

  He made a single brief movement, and an origami unicorn bloomed in his palm. I took it delicately, my fingertips brushing his skin. “Where did you learn to make these?”

  “That is a long story, my curious. If you like, I will tell it to you.” He didn’t smile, but his shoulders relaxed and his mouth evened out, no longer a grim thin line. The listening look was gone, again.

  For once, I opted to take the tactful way out. “Sounds good. You can tell me while I brush my hair.”

  He nodded. The warm breeze stirred his hair, a little longer over his forehead since I’d met him. “Heaven indeed. Lead the way.”

  Now what the hell does he mean by that? He knows this house better than I do, and I’m the one always following him around like a puppy. “You know, you get weirder all the time, and that’s saying something. Come on.” I reached down, took his hand. His fingers curled through mine, squeezed tight enough to break human bones. I returned the pressure, wondering a little bit. It wasn’t like him to forget I was more fragile; he was usually the very first to remind me. “Hey. You all right?”

  He nodded. “A’tai, hetairae A’nankimel’iin. Diriin.” His mouth turned down again as if tasting something bitter, his fingers easing a little.

  “You’re going to have to tell me what that means someday.” I yawned, suddenly exhausted. Three days locked in a library. Scholarship was heavier than bounty hunting.

  “Someday. Only give me time.” He led me from the dining room, my hand caught in his, and I didn’t protest. I left the folio behind on the table. Nobody would mess with it here.

  “I’m giving you time. Plenty of it, too.” Behind us, the sun-flavored night crept in through the windows. What else could I do? I trusted him, and all he asked for was something I had plenty of nowadays. So I followed him through our quiet house, and ended up letting him brush my hair after all. Once again, he’d distracted me from asking what I was—but he’d also promised to tell me eventually, and that was enough.

  Chapter 2

  I woke from a trance deeper than sleep, a dreamless well of darkness. I had been unable to sleep for almost a year while Japhrimel was dormant; it seemed now I was making up for it by needing a long, deathlike slumber every few days. He told me it was normal for a hedaira to need that rest, during which the human mind gained the relief it needed from the overload of demon Power and sensation. I’d done some damage by pushing myself so hard. Now, each time Japhrimel soothed me into blackness I felt relieved. Every time I woke, disoriented, with no idea of how much time had passed, he was there waiting for me.

  Except this time.

  I blinked, clutching the sheet to my chest. Moonlight fell through the open floor-length windows, silvering the smooth marble; long blue velvet drapes moved slightly on a warm night wind. Here in Toscano the houses were huge villas for the Hegemony rich. This one was set into a hillside looking over a valley where humans had farmed olives and wheat for thousands of years and now let the olive trees grow as decorations. My hair lay against my back, brushing the mattress, silk slid cool and restful against my skin.

  I was alone.

  I reached out, not quite believing it, and touched the sheet. Japhrimel’s pillow held a dent, and the smell of us both hung in the room, his deeper musk and my lighter scent combining. My cheek burned as my emerald glowed, and I saw the altar I had made out of an antique oak armoire lined with blue light. I turned my head slightly, and the spectral dart of light from my emerald made shadows cavort on the wall.

  I slid out of bed naked, my fingers closing around the hilt of my sword. The blade sang as I pulled it from the lacquered sheath, a low, sibilant sound of oiled metal against cushioned and reinforced wood. More blue light spilled on the air, runes from the Nine Canons—the sorcerous alphabet that made up its own branch of magick—sliding through the metal’s glowing heart. Jado had named the blade Fudoshin, and I rarely drew it.

  I had nothing left to fight.

  It had been a long time since my god spoke to me. I approached the altar cautiously, sinking down to one knee when I reached the invisible demarcation between real and sacred space, rising and stepping into the blue glow. My hair moved, blown on an invisible breeze as blue light slid down my body like Japhrimel’s touch.

  Where is he? Does he leave while I sleep? He’s always here when I wake up. I discarded the thought. If my patron psychopomp wanted me, I was safe enough, and it didn’t matter yet where Japh was. I had never seen him sleep—but I didn’t care. This was private, anyway.

  I stood in front of the altar, my sword tucking itself back behind my arm, the hilt pointing down and clasped loosely in my hand. The metal’s thrumming against my arm intensified as the katana’s tip poked up past my shoulder. My cheek burned, the emerald sizzling, the inked lines of my tattoo shifting madly under the skin.

  The new statue of Sekhmet glowed, set to one side of my patron Anubis—all I had left of the altar I’d set up in my old house in Saint City. Anubis, dark against the blue light, nodded slightly. The bowl set before him as an offering was empty, the wine I’d poured into it gone. I reached up, touched my cheek with my fingertips, felt my skin fever-hot, hotter than even a demon’s blood.

  Then the blue light took me. I did not quite fall, but I went to my knees before the gods, and felt my body slide away.

  Into the blue crystal hall of Death came a new thing.

  I stood upon the bridge, an oval cocoon of light from my emerald anchoring my feet to the stone. I wore the white robe of the god’s chosen, belted with supple silver like scales. My new sword, glittering with fiery white light as if it too lived, was clasped in my hand for the very first time.

  I had not ventured into this place since Jason Monroe’s death.

  The fluttering crystal draperies of souls drew very close around me. I was used to it—I was, after all, a Necromance—but the one soul I sought I did not see. No unique pattern that
I would recognize, no crystallized streak of psychic and etheric energy holding the invisible imprint of shaggy wheat-gold hair and blue eyes.

  I looked to find him, and I was grateful he was not there. If he was not there I would not have to face him.

  Instead, my eyes were drawn irresistibly to the other side of the bridge, where Death stood, His slim dog’s head dipping slightly, a nod to me.

  Behind my god stood a shadowy figure, flames crackling around the shape of a woman, Her lion’s head surrounded by twisting orange. A rush of flame and rise of smoke dazzled me for a moment, I lifted my sword blindly, a defense against a Power that could burn me down to bone.

  Coolness rolled along my skin, dispelling the heat. The blade glowed fierce white instead of the blue I was used to. Steel shivered as Power stroked its edge and the mark on my shoulder flared with a deep bone-crunching pain I had not felt in years, sending a stain of twisting-diamond demon fire along the cocoon protecting me. Even here in Death I was marked by Japhrimel’s attention, though my god didn’t care.

  Anubis knew I was His. Even a demon could not change that. I am Necromance. I belong to Death first, and to my own life second.

  The god spoke, the not-sound like a bell brushing around me. Yet I am the bell, the god puts His hand on me and makes me sing.

  Anubis bent, His black infinity-starred eyes fixed on me. He spoke again. This time the sound was like worlds colliding, blowing my hair back, the edges of my emerald’s glow shivering so for a moment I felt the awful pull of the abyss beneath me. My fingers loosened on the hilt, then clutched, the sword socking back into my grip.

  — a task is set for you, my child—

  Comprehension bloomed through me. The god had called; I was asked to do something. This was warning and question both, a choice lay before me. Would I do as He asked, when the time arrived?