(The ninth book in the Rachel Morgan series)
A novel by Kim Harrison
“Brown or green for the drapes, Rache?”
Jenks’s voice slid into my dozing state, and I opened an eyelid a crack to find him hovering inches from my nose. The sun was hot, and I didn’t want to move, even if his wings provided a cold draft. “Too close. I can’t see,” I said as I shifted in the webbed lounge chair, and he drifted back, his dragonflylike wings humming fast enough to spill a red-tinted pixy dust over my bare middle. June, sunbathing, and Cincinnati normally didn’t go together, but today was my last day to get a tan before I headed west for my brother’s wedding.
Two bundles of fabric were draped over Jenks’s arms, spider silk most likely dyed and woven by one of his daughters. His shoulder-length curly blond hair—uncut since his wife’s death—was tied back with a bit of twine to show his angular, pinched features. I thought it odd that a pixy able to fend off an entire team of assassins was worried about the color of his drapes.
“Well,” I hedged, not more confident in this than he was, “the green goes with the floor, but I’d go with the taupe. You need some visual warmth down there.”
“Brown?” he said, looking at it doubtfully. “I thought you liked the green tile.”
“I do,” I explained, thinking that breaking up a pop bottle for floor tile was ingenious. “But if you make everything the same color, you’ll wind up back in the seventies.”
Jenks’s wings dropped in pitch, and his shoulders slumped. “I’m not good at this,” he whispered, becoming melancholy as he remembered Matalina. “Tell me which one.”
I cringed inside. I wanted to give him a hug, but he was only four inches tall. Small, yes, but the pixy had saved my life more times than I had spell pots in my kitchen. Sometimes, though, I felt as if we were worlds apart. “Taupe,” I said.
“Thanks.” Trailing dull gold dust, Jenks flew in a downward arc to the knee-high wall that separated my backyard from the graveyard. The high-walled graveyard was mine, too, or Jenks’s, actually, seeing that he owned the deed, but I was the one who mowed the lawn.
Heartache took me, and the sun seemed a little cooler as I watched Jenks’s dust trail vanish under the sprouting bluebells and moss, and into his new bachelor-size home. The last few months had been hard on him as he learned to live without Matalina. My being able to become small enough to help him through that first difficult day had gone a long way in convincing me that demon magic wasn’t bad unless you used it for a dark purpose.
The breeze cooled the corner of my eye, and I smiled even as I dabbed the almost tear away. I could smell the newly cut grass, and the noise of a nearby mower rose high over the distant hum of Cincinnati, across the river. There was a stack of decorating magazines beside my suntan oil and a glass of melted iced tea—the lull before the storm. Tomorrow would be the beginning of my personal hell, and it was going to last the entire week, through the annual witches’ conference. What happened after that was anyone’s guess.
Nervous, I shifted the straps of my bikini so there wouldn’t be any tan lines showing in my bridesmaid’s dress, already packed and hanging in a garment bag in my closet. The witches’ annual meeting had started yesterday on the other side of the continent. I was the last on the docket—like saving the biggest circus act for the end.
The coven of moral and ethical standards had already shunned me, tried to incarcerate me without a trial in Alcatraz, sent assassins when I’d escaped, and finally accepted a stalemate only when I threatened to go public with the fact that witches had their beginnings in demons and I was the proof. The rescindment would become permanent after they replaced the missing member of the council and pardoned me for using black magic. At least that was the theory.
As much as I needed to do this, I was so-o-o-o not looking forward to it. I mean, I’d been accused of being a black witch—of doing black magic and consorting with demons, both of which I did. Do. Whatever. That wasn’t going to change, but if I couldn’t pull this off, I’d be hiding out in the ever-after for the rest of my life. Not only did I not particularly like demons, but I’d miss my brother’s wedding and he’d never let me live it down.
I looked up, squinting into the oak tree as the familiar, almost ultrasonic whistle of a pixy cut through the drone of a mower. It was no surprise when Jenks darted out from behind the knee-high wall, going to meet Jumoke, one of his kids, coming in from sentry duty at the front of the church.
“What’s up, Jenks?” I called out as I grabbed my sunglasses, and the pixies angled toward me, still talking.
“Black car at the curb,” Jenks said, his hand on the hilt of his garden sword. “It’s Trent.”
My adrenaline pulsed, and I almost jabbed the earpiece of my sunglasses into my eye as I put them on. “He’s early!” I exclaimed, sitting up. Trent and I had an appointment for me to annul his familiar mark, but that wasn’t until five. The curse wasn’t ready yet, and the kitchen was a mess. Maybe he wanted to see the prep, afraid of what might be in it.
Jumoke’s wings hit a higher pitch when the front bell rang, and we all turned to the back of the church as if we could see through it to where Trent was standing on the front porch. The bell was one of those big farm bells with a pull, and the entire sleepy neighborhood could hear it. “Maybe he’ll go away if we don’t answer,” I said, and Jenks rose—sixty feet in a mere second. In another second, he dropped back down.
“He’s coming around back,” he said, his gold dust looking black through my sunglasses.
Jenks flew backward as I twisted, yanking on the back of the chair until it slid forward and I could sit more upright. Maybe this was a last-ditch effort to get me to sign that lame-ass paper of his, guaranteeing my safety from the coven but making me Trent’s virtual slave in the process. Tomorrow I’d be on the West Coast, clearing my name and sliding completely out of his clutches. Either that or he was avoiding Ivy—a distinct possibility. He knew she’d be here tonight, and his spies had probably told him she was out now.
Jenks’s wings clattered, and I flicked my gaze to his. “What do you want me to do, Rache?” he asked. “He’s almost at the gate. My kids are mobbing him.”
My jaw clenched, and I forced it to relax. I had a nice silk blouse picked out to wear tonight. Something professional and classy. And here I was in a bikini and with a dirty kitchen. “Let him come back,” I finally said. “If this is about that paper of his, he can suck my toes and die.”
With a nod and a wing chirp for Jumoke to accompany him, Jenks and his son darted to the side of the church and the slate path there. I settled back, tilting my head so I could see the gate without looking obvious about it. Trent’s voice—his beautiful, resonant, soothing, political voice—slipped over me even before he got to the gate, and I touched the braid that Jenks’s kids had put my curly red flyaway hair in this morning. I hated that I liked his voice, but it was a familiar hatred, one that had lost its fire long ago.
The wooden latch to the tall gate lifted, and my heart thumped as I took my sunglasses off. Eyes half closed, I pretended to be sleeping.
Wreathed in pixy kids, Trent came into my garden, his motions both slow and irate; clearly he was not liking the noisy, winged escort. Keeping my expression bland, I took in his slim form. In the months since I’d last seen him, Trent had deepened his tan, and his baby-fine, almost translucent hair caught the dappled sun. Instead of his usual thousand-dollar suit, he had on a lightweight gray short-sleeved shirt, dress slacks, and shiny dress shoes. It made him look harmless, but Trent was anything but. And what was he doing here alone? Quen never let him out by himself.
Trent made his way down the fern-laced slate path with the pixies chatting at him, his innocent businessman facade hiding his true demeanor as the head of an illegal bio-drugs and Brimstone distribution.