Your handwriting is certainly an improvement over former correspondence, however your I’s might reflect too much buoyancy considering the gravity of your topic.
Winter seems like death, still, bare, solemn, but that is the time when nutrients and minerals are absorbed, storing up, like a spring rolling tighter and tighter. It might not look like much from the outside, but without the compounding of reserves you would never have anything to see. Looking isn’t the same as seeing. Maybe death is like that—more to it than meets the eye.
My days here are spent much the same as every other day. In the southern hemisphere summer heat makes me envious of your winter, itchy grass and all. It’s not all sunshine and sweat though for I found a species of variegated reticulatis that I’m shipping home with explicit instructions for planting. I hope the new gardener is more open-minded than the last one. One person’s variegated reticulatis is another person’s weed.
Peacocks seem all feather until they branch out, stick-like before the final tuft. I think you’re describing porcupines but they’re all spine, no feather. I like the idea of trees though, hiding their softness on the inside, but of course when they bloom and leaf out they share their beauty and softness more than birds which are likely to give you lice. I eat a mango as I write. I’m grateful for the fruit of the tree’s generosity. If I had room in the greenhouse then I’d send a mango tree. I wonder what the gardener would do with that.
With much affection and even more mango juice,
Your Eldest Brother
The house itself was laid out along a long central hall, but there were hideous sculptures everywhere that lent a sense of chaos to the symmetry. To the left of the entry, a couple sat on a set of stairs kissing as though they were the only people in the world. It didn’t shock me exactly, but it made me feel uncomfortable. The party would not be a Wild affair with chamber music and tea.
Camilla didn’t seem to notice them as she took off her jacket, draping it over the face of a sad-looking lopsided plaster man then led me across the pale parquet floor past dark doorways to the kitchen. She looked different with her bare arms, bare except for the black metal runes embedded in her skin. It reminded me that she wasn’t Camilla from school but a full grown Daughter of a House. In other words, if she’d been dangerous then, she was deadly now.
The kitchen was a pale green color that made even Camilla look sickly, but we didn’t stop there. Camilla didn’t pause until she had her hand on the back door.
“Helen,” she said, looking at me with a strange intensity. “I’m glad you came to London.”
With that, she opened the door and stepped outside, leaving the door open for me. I followed cautiously. Peering out, I froze blinking as I passed through the invisible barrier that kept the noise, light and energy from the outside world.
The yard was ordinary enough, grass, hedges, flower beds here and there, but the lights, the music, the people dancing and laughing had so much color, so much intensity, I wasn’t sure where to look or whether I should turn around and leave. There was a stage set up on the right side of the yard, not a stage exactly, more like scaffolding, where the musicians played their instruments to a beat unfamiliar to me. There was jazz, but the drum was too insistent and the guitar too ostentatiously brilliant. The musicians seemed caught in their own spell of sound, playing off each other like no one was dancing or listening, except the guitarist, the one whose sound was so obviously out of place. He raised his dark head, met my gaze and gave me a sneering smile as his fingers flew over the frets.
I looked away, forcing myself to focus instead of letting precious seconds of my mission slip away. That was all the time it would take for the Hotblood to see me and disappear. Again. I walked down the steps, searching the yard. Camilla was right—the place was buzzing with people, Hotbloods, Wilds, all with too much energy and too much intensity. The Wilds were beautiful, perfect, but the Hotbloods were alive. There was more than one Wild flirting with a Hotblood, and not only men; I saw a Wild girl who laughed up at a well-muscled Hotblood with glowing dark brown eyes before sliding a hand up his bare arm. I wrapped my arms around myself instinctively for a moment, almost feeling the contact between the two.
The crowds were dizzying, or maybe I was still dizzy from earlier, with Hotbloods that didn’t give me a second glance as I slid around groups as they laughed and jostled each other, the violence in their every movement as natural to them as breathing. One stepped back suddenly, knocking me to the side. I should have seen him coming, should have been faster in my reactions, but everything was still spinning. He grabbed my arm as if to keep me from falling over, apologizing as his heat that sank through my sleeve. The burning of his jade green eyes, but most of all, the regularly spaced scars that criss-crossed his bare arms made me jerk away from him.
“It’s nothing,” I said with what I hoped was a calm, in control smile before I turned away, my heart pounding in my chest. He could probably hear my heart race, see the pulse jump in my throat, but what other reaction was I supposed to have after running into a Bloodworker? They were to the Hotbloods what Heads of Houses were to Wilds. Powerful. Dangerous.
A red-haired Hotblood girl stepped in front of me, blocking my way as she lifted a plastic cup to her lips, drinking while I stood, unable to edge around her with the various Hotbloods laughing in groups penning me in. I could have shoved my way through the way they did, but that much contact with that much heat would only make me more overwhelmed.
When she was done drinking she focused her green eyes on me, green like the bloodworker’s had been, glowing eyes that matched the long dress she wore. Unlike most of the Hotblood dresses, it had sleeves.
“I like your dress,” I said, giving her a smile as I attempted to edge by her, but she hadn’t shifted, still blocking my way.
“Do you?” She looked down, frowning, like she hadn’t remembered wearing a dress. When she looked up she was still frowning. “Are you looking for someone? Maybe I can help you.” Her voice was a little bit rough, but richly vibrant.
I smiled easily. “I’m here with Camilla, but I’ve lost track of her. Maybe you’ve seen her?”
“Camilla of Carve? What is she doing here?” The voice came from behind me, a low growl that made my heart pound and the hairs rise on the back of my neck. When I glanced back, the Bloodworker stood behind me, impressively muscled arms crossed over his chest blocking any move in that direction.
I stared at him, for a moment mesmerized by the bright green gaze that held mine as though he were the leader of the pack, the alpha male who everyone there had to answer to. I’d never really thought about the hierarchy of power in Hotblood clans. I should have. What did I know about Hotbloods other than they were the quarter of the Nether who were physical/emotional? Maybe I could disarm him like that other Wild woman I’d seen, maybe I could convince him that I was only there for a good time, with no ulterior motives.
I smiled up at him as I slid my hand up his chest. The heat of him, his heart where it throbbed beneath the skin spread through me, chasing away the chill I’d had since I’d come to this foggy, damp country.
“Probably looking for a Hotblood to dance with,” I said hanging onto the smile even as the heat built up in my hand to uncomfortable levels. Hopefully this wasn’t someone who had already been burned by Camilla.
The girl behind me gave her gruff laugh. “You’ll have as much luck seducing me as you would my brother.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the Hotblood responded, catching my wrist in his huge hand, forcing it to stay pressed against his chest while jade eyes burned down at me.
I felt a blush creep up my neck. I wasn’t trying to seduce anyone, much less a Bloodworker. I only wanted him to feel like I wasn’t a threat. Camilla would have seduced him. Of course, telling them that I was with Camilla would make them think that I was like her. He stroked the back of my hand with my thumb which made my throat tighten up the way it did when people got the mistaken idea that I was friendly. It happened in my med classes sometimes. I looked directly at the Hotblood, fighting the need to pull away.
“I don’t want any trouble here; all I wanted was to have fun and enjoy the company.” It wasn’t technically a lie. Fun for me would be enjoying the company of the Hunter who could tell me where to find my brother.
“Are you sure you don’t want trouble?” The jade eyed Bloodworker asked, pulling me a little bit closer. “Because you look like the kind of girl that could handle it.”
I could smell the heat on him. Had that been a compliment or an insult? Maybe a joke. Whatever it had been, nothing was helping me disentangle myself.
While I stood there, someone stepped beside me then put a hand on the Bloodworker’s shoulder. I watched the jade-eyed Hotblood blink a few times while the heat from his eyes faded until he stepped back, letting go of me.
“You said you wanted to have fun?” I turned to the Cool voice instinctively. The sound of his voice was like music, like the wind making me want to melt, to agree, to do anything and everything he suggested. I shook my head, trying to focus, to remember why I was there in the first place. The Cool voice affected me more than the Bloodworker’s touch. I sidled away from the Cool guy until I was brought up short by the Hotblood where she still stood, obstinately in my way.
It would be humiliating to run away from a Cool, considered the least dangerous of our kind, when I represented of Slide. I forced myself to stand up straight and turn to him, frowning at the newcomer who proved to be the dark haired guitarist from the stage. The music was different without him. I should have noticed.
“We’ve got everything under control here,” the Hotblood in the green dress said to the newcomer, glaring at him openly.
“That’s mahvelous. We wouldn’t want to lose control, would we, Cami?” he drawled. There was nothing crisp about his southern drawl, and his heavy lidded eyes laughed at her. There was something off about him. I hadn’t spent very much time with Cools—they always made me nervous, but I knew enough to know that they didn’t usually mock people.
“She says she’s here with Camilla of Carve,” Cami said, crossing her arms over her chest. The sleeve of her dress pulled up enough that I caught a glimpse of serious scar tissue. Usually Hotbloods wore their scars with pride, but was that why she had on long sleeves? Did she dislike that scar for some reason?
“Well why wouldn’t she? Camilla has no problem crashing parties.” He smiled at me, but the smile didn’t meet his grayish brown eyes. I fought the urge to shy away from him.
“Camilla wasn’t invited? She said this was her cousin’s house.” My jaw tightened as I struggled against the dizziness. It didn’t matter whose house this was. What mattered was finding a Hotblood who knew my brother. I turned to the girl, to search her face for signs of friendliness, but her frown didn’t budge.
The Cool guy raised an eyebrow. His face looked all wrong somehow, but maybe that was the pounding in my head. Cools had unobtrusive features that blended with their passive energy, not crooked noses, ugly grayish eyes and protruding cheekbones. His smile was mocking. “This is a wedding party. No one minds a few extra guests, do they, Cami?” He offered me his arm. “After this dance we can scour the place for Camilla. No doubt she’s found a dark corner with a Hotblood.”
Dance? I shook my head then found myself blinking to clear my vision with his arms around me, holding me against his body, closer than I’d ever let another man come, close enough that his belt dug into my hipbone.
“I think moving your feet would help give you the appearance of dancing instead of sleeping,” he whispered, his mouth brushing my ear with his hands firmly holding me against him.
I couldn’t push him away as I stood frozen for a moment, realizing that I’d actually fainted in public, in front of a party full of Hotbloods. Humiliation didn’t cover what I felt. I, Helen of Slide, Daughter of the House, fainting like a weak eighteenth century damsel?
I moved my feet, letting him hold my body against his cool, lean lines as though I really were there for that kind of good time. It was better than the alternative, at least I thought that until we started moving to the music and I became more and more aware of him. The Cool energy seeped into me, only it wasn’t anything like the peaceful sensations I expected from a Cool. Instead, my nerves become strained, raw as I swayed against him.
I tried to pull my away, but he was stronger than he looked. “They’re still watching you,” he said mildly, but it sounded like mockery. Maybe he couldn’t talk without a slight sardonic tinge. I looked up at him, at the flinty grey eyes that watched me steadily. “Don’t you like dancing?” His southern drawl was as out of place as the rest of him.
“I think I’d rather be unconscious than dance with you.” I blinked at him, shocked by my own directness.
He slid his hand down my back, pulling me close as he murmured. “This is the kind of party where that could be easily arranged. The Hotbloods are wondering what you’re really doing here.” He moved slowly, side to side to the rhythm of the rhumba. I glanced at the band, wondering what had brought on the unfortunate change in tempo that only made me more aware of his thighs brushing against mine. “The last party Camilla attended was more exciting than even Hotbloods like for a wedding party, and she usually avoids the company of women as beautiful as she is.”
“I’m glad I’m dancing with you who has no curiosity about me instead of a Hotblood then.” I smiled up at him, nearly as mocking for a moment as he was. “By the way, if you’re going to call a woman beautiful, it’s less of a compliment if you tell her that she’s as beautiful as someone else.”
I shivered as his hand slid up my back, cradling my body against his, all hard lines and angles to my soft curves.
“It would be more compliment and less observation if it came from someone else. I’m interested in beauty a little less blatant than Camilla’s.”
I raised my chin and my eyebrows, close enough that I couldn’t help but brush against his rough cheek. “Excellent. I admit preferring insults to compliments.”
His smile looked almost pleasant for a moment. “Then we shall get along very well.”
I smothered my near laugh. “Why would someone so comfortable delivering insults catch an unknown girl instead of letting her fall on her face?”
His thigh brushed mine, sending a rush of something tingling through my body. My body did not tingle. Was he doing that to me with his Cool abilities, making me respond to his body for some unaccountable reason? Maybe Camilla had paid him to do it or blackmailed him, except the musician for all his weak Cool blood didn’t seem the type to be easily manipulated.
Maybe awareness of his body had something to do with the nausea.
He shrugged, sliding his hand over my hip and raising his eyebrow suggestively. “Apparently I’m more of a gentleman than I thought I was.”
“If your hand moves much lower, you won’t be.”
He smiled a slow, sultry smile. “You’ll know the truth: that I’m only being overly familiar to save you from the humiliation of losing consciousness in public.”
“That’s the only reason?”
“When is there ever only one reason? I admit, I have rarely enjoyed being overly familiar with a perfect stranger so much.” He slid his hand from my hip across the bottom of my spine, sending a ripple of panic along with chills. I bit my lip as I forced myself to sway against his chest, gripping his shoulders while I studied the man with stubble on his chin, stubble that destroyed the formality of his necktie.
“Do you think everyone here was invited, except Camilla and I? It’s not a very formal party.” I glanced over his shoulder where the Jade-eyed Bloodworker had his arms folded across his enormous chest, staring at me. When he’d grabbed my wrist it had felt like he wanted to rip my arm off. I should feel more grateful to the guitarist than I did; he’d saved me from more than humiliation.
The Cool guitarist looked down at me, caught my eye then shook his head slightly. “It’s as formal as anything involving Hotbloods could be. Would you like an invitation? I’m going to a party, May 17th. There will be dancing, drinking, the odd outburst of violence; if it sounds at all interesting, I’d be delighted if you were my date.”
“You’re inviting me to the party I’m already at?” The formality of his words didn’t match the way he held me against him.
“It makes things simple. That way we don’t have to worry about where to meet, if I have to take you to dinner first, or what food allergies you have, if any. I have to warn you though that I’m going to be playing in the band for the first set, so you’ll have to entertain yourself until I finish up.”
I stared at his grayish eyes, wary of him manipulating my emotions, but the only thing out of place seemed to be a slight flicker of amusement I felt. “I thought the whole point of the band was to entertain everybody else. Having to entertain myself while you play for me seems redundant. Of course, so is inviting me to a party I’m already at. Are you always so mind boggingly over-efficient?”
He grinned, showing white teeth. “Always. So, do you have any food allergies I should know about?”
“In spite of the fact that you made such a strong point about why you don’t need to know those tedious details, no. I’m not allergic to anything other than party crashing which is why I accept your only slightly belated offer. It’s a date.”
He blinked, as if surprised I would agree instead of insulting him, but only cocked his head to the side as he studied me, so close I could see the specks of brown in his eyes. “You don’t seem like the type of woman who needs to rebel against the strictures of her House.”
“You question my inherent need to lose myself from the duties of the House in the arms of a Hotblood? Next you’ll be saying that itinerant musicians aren’t my type.”
“What makes a musician itinerant rather than the garden variety?”
“Perhaps it’s the garden,” I said, nodding to the grounds behind us.
He winced even as he brushed my shoulders with a touch so light, it shouldn’t have made me shiver. “Then it’s good I’m the garden variety. You know, you never told me your name.”
“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name…”
“Rose? I would have thought something a bit bolder like Cressida.”
“Cressida is a bold name? I always thought it sounded like a salad.”
“Salads can be very bold. I’ve faced many a salad which took their imminent absorption without so much as wilting.” He spoke as though how one faced one’s salad was extremely important.
“That’s because you’re Cool and salads like you. All the salads I’ve eaten began boldly but ended limp and pathetic, drowning themselves in dressing before I have half a chance at them.”
He wrinkled his nose a little bit. “You’re one of those girls who drowns their salads in dressing?”
“I don’t drown them. They drown themselves.” I shook my head slightly as I realized the sort of conversation we were having while I let my chance to find my brother slip away. “Thank you for the dance, but you’ll have to excuse me.”
I pulled away and felt a wave of nausea that had me struggling to breathe.
“Are you all right?” He sounded genuinely concerned and his smile was gone as he put his hands on my arms, pulling me back upright and against him.
“Would you rather I apologize before or after I was sick on your shoes?” I looked down and saw that he wasn’t wearing any shoes.
“Take a deep breath,” he murmured once again far too close to me, running his hand down my back. His touch was soothing this time, the way I’d expected Cools to feel. I found myself relaxing in his arms, soothed by his voice and his touch enough that the nausea faded into something closer to exhaustion.
“This is ridiculous,” I whispered, wanting to laugh or cry. “I’m not usually sick in public.”
“Maybe I should take you to your hotel.”
“No.” I straightened, but trying to move away from him brought back the nausea and dizziness full force. “I have to…” I stared into his concerned eyes and wondered why crying seemed like a good idea. I didn’t know him. Then again, who better than someone I didn’t know and would never see again to cry on?
He moved suddenly, whirling me while bending over, close and personal. Before I could push him away, I heard the sound of shattering glass followed by cursing. My partner wove us through the crowd, away from the angry Hotblood demanding who had thrown a perfectly good drink at his head while the band played louder.
“You have very fast reflexes.” I hadn’t seen the flying glass coming out of the darkness. Why hadn’t I seen something he’d seen?
“Thank you. Next you’re going to be admiring my courage for attending Hotblood gatherings.”
I shook my head. “The only thing I’ll admire is your lack of intelligence for coming to a Hotblood party in the first place.”
His lips twisted into a smirk. “We stand in mutual admiration.”
I returned his smile. “You’re not like most of the Cools I’ve met.”
“Naturally. Hunting demons brings the Nether out in all of us.” I blinked at him. If he was a Hunter, that might explain what he was doing at a Hotblood gathering.
I felt my heart pound in my throat as I searched for words that wouldn’t put him on his guard. “So you’re here as more than entertainment? What do you do in a Hunting party?”
He frowned and pulled away slightly. It was my turn to tighten my hands behind his neck to keep him close. “Demons can’t sense those who are with me. It tends to keep my friends alive.”
“How convenient for your friends that you’re willing to Hunt.” I slid my hand up his neck, feeling the skin beneath my fingers, rougher than Wild skin I’d felt.
He inhaled slightly as his pupils dilated then moved, pulling me close as he ducked down behind a large group of Hotbloods.
He’d pressed me against his chest while the sound of shattering glass and angry Hotbloods came from very close. I tried not to notice his heart thudding against mine.
When he pulled me up, giving me space to breathe, I said, “Is someone trying to hit you, or me?” We moved behind another group of Hotbloods away from the house and into the shadows, arms still wrapped around each other. The attacks weren’t anything really, glass, alcohol, nothing lethal, but for some reason my heart pounded and my veins filled with adrenaline.
He shrugged even as he let go of my waist. I stumbled, falling to my knees as the world flipped upside down and I stayed there, trying to breathe and think as drums beat inside my skull. I didn’t faint that time. Eventually I was able to stand up, cross my arms over my chest and stare at him while we hid, lost from the party beneath the shadows a large oak tree.
“Better?” he asked, frowning as I tried to straighten even more.
I swallowed. “Yes, thank you.” I had to say something, to ask him if he knew my brother, but how could I be subtle while my head felt like someone was beating my brains to pulp?
“Would you like me to find Camilla for you?”
I shook my head, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. As I looked up at him, the color of his eyes lost in shadows I said, “Do you Hunt with any Wilds?”
His lips twisted, but my head wasn’t pounding quite so hard. “Are you volunteering?”
I blinked at him then smiled. “Think how useful I’d be, fainting on demons.”
“Tell me,” he said, moving closer, pressing me back against the rough bark of the tree. “What do you want?”
I opened my mouth, fighting off the instinct to tell him. “You think that I should trust you when I don’t even know your name?” I wanted to tell him, to relax against him and let him take away the rest of the slight remaining headache.
He pulled away, and my headache immediately rebounded. I put a hand to my head wincing as I tried to breathe through the renewed nausea. “I really think you should lie down,” he said, sounding concerned.
I shook my head, movement that made everything spin. “I’ll be fine. I only need a moment. So tell me, who’s throwing drinks at us? Is it the Bloodworker taking it out on the party crasher, or is it a scorned woman?”
He sighed, reaching above me to lean against the tree while looking down at me. “I am the one drawing the attack. If you’d like, I’ll leave, drawing fire while you escape. I’m a very dangerous person to be friends with.”
I swallowed, for some reason aware of him even without being pressed against his body. “I thought that you protected your friends.”
He leaned closer even as I touched his face, feeling his stubble against my palm. “Only from demons.” His words were barely more than whisper, his breath skimming over my hair like a cool breeze. I shivered even as I tried to maintain control. He acted as though he were aware of me, resting his eyes a little too long on my mouth, as though he were wondering how I would taste. I swallowed the vivid image I had of his skin against mine. I had to focus.
“Do you work with many Americans?”
His mouth twisted with amusement. Why did I find the contours of his lips so fascinating? Maybe because his lips looked so soft, contrasting to his rough skin. “Wild Americans? Like you?”
I blinked as I realized how apparent I’d become. He’d distracted me probably more than I’d distracted him. “Yes,” I finally said, giving up on discreet. I reached up to smooth his shoulder beneath my hand. “I know that Hunters don’t like interference from Houses. I’m not here to interfere; I swear it.”
“The person who is throwing drinks at me is a hot tempered Hunter that would be able to help you,” he said, grasping my hand in his, holding it for a moment before he let it go, stepping back. His face in shadows was impassive, showing nothing.
I licked lips that were suddenly dry as I wondered if I could trust him. “I’m Helen,” I said impulsively, putting out a hand as though we were at a Wild function instead of beneath the spread of an oak tree.
“Matthew,” he said, barely brushing my hand with his, but the awareness of the touch, the rise and fall of dizziness, left me breathing hard as I leaned against the tree, struggling to stay upright.
“So, I’ll go find the Hunter, then.” I tried to ignore him as I peered around the tree, studying the layout of the yard, the groups of Hotbloods and where they’d been and where the projectile must have come from considering the target. The Hunter was nowhere to be seen. The glasses probably came from the balcony where people milled around, none of them looking particularly volatile, but who could tell?
I turned back to the Cool guy. “I’ve heard of Cools that could bend reality, making someone see something other than what’s there. Do you think you could dance with someone, someone you made appear like me?”
I blushed as I spoke, feeling like I was discussing a ‘cunning plan’, like the ‘cunning plan’ when I was fourteen, home during a school break while I tried to convince my brother Stanley to help me sneak into the cabinet at the bottom of the stairs. That plan had landed him in the hospital with a broken leg. He’d gotten off easy though. He didn’t have to face the weight of my father’s disappointment.
The Cool guy shook his head slowly. “I could create a diversion with your sister the dryad,” he said nodding up into the tree.
I stared up into the dark branches as he reached up with his long arm, but the closest branch was out of his reach. I had a realization of what he planned. I slipped off my heels then put my foot on the knee he bent for me. I rose as he boosted me up with his hands clasped together. I tried not to think what it would look like if anyone from my world saw me like this, climbing a tree with a random Hunter. It was hard to think of anything as I felt his breath on my body when he lifted me higher. He held me closer than I’d ever been to anyone who wasn’t related to me, but of course it meant nothing, not when I was the Daughter of a House and he was nothing but an itinerant Cool musician, or had we decided he was a garden musician?
I gasped, trying to maintain my balance in spite of dizziness. He wasn’t strong like my brothers and weaved a little bit like a tree in a breeze holding me up. I grabbed a handful of his hair, making him grunt before I took aim and leapt, grabbing a branch that held me for a moment before it cracked and split. He tried to catch me, but I only knocked him down, landing on top of him covered in twigs and leaves.
“You killed it,” he gasped with a ragged laugh while he tried to breathe around where my knee was in his stomach. His breath was on my neck as I lay sprawled over him. He put a hand on my knee to push it out of his gut, startling me with a touch that sent a rush of something unnamable through me that had me needing to move away, to safety, but also to stay exactly where I was with twigs jabbing into my thigh.
“Maybe it’s too violent for you, desecration of trees and all that.” I smothered a laugh as I tried to breathe, to get all of this back under control.
“Pruning is the International Cool pastime.” He smiled at me while his eyes sparkled, silvery and alive as his voice. I shivered harder as I smiled back at him. I held out a hand, offering to help him up. He took it, the feel of his palm against mine a tactile sensation I tried to analyze. He had cold skin that vibrated at a nearly immeasurable level, energy that worked its way through my skin, travelling through neurons up my arm until I felt goose-bumps run down my spine. It didn’t actually mean anything, so why was it so hard for me to let go of that hand? He didn’t move away as we stood there while shivers spread through me in time to my pulse. My breathing grew more rapid until with a start I pulled away from him, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Let’s get pruning then,” he said covering up the awkward silence after I’d finally stepped back. I felt awkward and irritated with him in spite of the fact that he’d waited for me to pull away. How could I justify holding his hand by arguing that I had to analyze his temperature? Of course he felt Cool. That’s what he was called: Cool.
He picked up the branch, not mentioning anything about my delayed hand drop. Maybe it had only felt like I’d held his hand for a long time. The awareness mixed with nausea, but it wasn’t quite as unpleasant.
He seemed to forget me as he shaped the branch into the likeness of a body, running his hands over the wood instinctively, bending it this way and that, whispering to it until the only leaves left were where hair would be, with two twigs sticking out for arms in the dancing position.
“Give me your jacket,” he said, his voice startling me. I shrugged out of my jacket, handing it to him, feeling self-conscious in the camisole that bared so much skin as well as my runed arms. He took it without seeming to notice my runes or anything else about me as he dressed the branch. What was I doing, dressing up a branch when I had important things to do? It wouldn’t work anyway.
Suddenly the branches came to life, moving as the leaves flowed into hair that covered a face while arms wrapped around him.
“How did you…” I gasped reaching out to touch a strand of hair.
He looked over at me as I pulled at leaves. The branch had become nothing more than a bit of wood wearing a wool coat. “It’s an illusion,” he said as though that should be obvious. “If anyone looks too closely it’ll be broken, but I’m counting on you to be stealthy and quick. You’re very brave, hunting a Hunter.”
I took a quick breath as I studied him, wondering why he would help me, actually using his gifts for someone he didn’t even know. “Thank you, Matthew. Getting to know you makes me think that I need to meet more Cools.”
He grimaced, like I’d insulted him. “The illusion won’t last forever,” was all he said though.
My headache throbbed as I moved through the shadows at the edge of the yard. I fought off nausea as I slipped around couples who were entwined as though they were the only people in the universe. I tried to ignore them as I dodged around blooming lilacs and trampled a peony. I finally had only six feet between myself and the trellis I would climb to the balcony. With coarse laughter around me I doubted anyone would think it was too strange to see a runed girl scaling a trellis. Not that a girl in a jacket would be any less noticeable but if I’d still had my jacket, no one could see my runes, or the camisole that Hotbloods leered at. I felt a juvenile thrill as I made that last dash under the bright lights, leaping for the trellis, catching the gaps in the frame with my bare feet.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d climbed something, maybe back at school when I’d carried the goat up the side of the building to leave it in Madame Duparde’s dressing room. Now that had been a good time. I paused for a moment caught by a thorn from the bush twining in the trellis. Camilla had used that to blackmail me. I hadn’t known the goat would eat half of Madame Duparde’s hats. She’d been furious, so angry with flashing black eyes holding up a ruined hat that I hadn’t dared refuse Camilla, not when her conditions seemed so harmless. Writing her letters home for her was better than facing Madame Duparde’s wrath. Of course, Camilla had told Madame Duparde that it was me the day she left school anyway. The memory came back with a clarity I didn’t expect, the look in Camilla’s eyes bringing back the confused betrayal I’d felt.
I swallowed down a wave of nausea as I continued to climb in my skirt. I carefully eased the thorn out of the fabric then continued carefully the rest of the way until I slid over the edge of the balcony to stand nonchalantly at the edge of the crowd with only a few people giving me puzzled looks. I smiled at them confidently, hoping that I wouldn’t faint again as I pushed gently around the too warm bodies to find the glass flinging culprit and the Hunter.
No one looked like they were interested in anything more than flirting with their neighbors. I smoothed my hands over the railing while I looked down. Maybe the Hunter wasn’t on the balcony after all. I searched the crowd until my gaze was drawn to a shockingly intimate dance between the Cool guitarist and the tree branch that looked remarkably human, female, and like me.
I swallowed an unexpected wave of embarrassment. I would never be so close against his chest, leaning my head against his shoulder while his hands caressed my back. I stared at the blatant desire on display, feeling hot shame at the same time a tentacle of jealousy wormed its way into my stomach. Had he danced with me like that or did he find it more natural to express desire with a tree?
I heard a familiar growl to my right. I stopped breathing as I turned my head in time to see a large bald man clench his teeth on a cigar while he gripped his glass, pulling back to launch it at my date.
I grabbed a bottle someone had left on the railing and brought it down over his big, ugly runed head. I’d searched continents for him, and here he was, at a party? Throwing drinks at my date as though I hadn’t been worried sick to death for months? If anyone was going to inflict bodily harm on my date it was going to be me, not my big, stupid, idiotic brother, former Son of Slide.