Jurnia splashed through the puddles, heedless of the rain that soaked her hair, plastered her blouse to her back. She took no delicate, hurried maidenly steps; her legs were stretching in a flat-out sprint, her spine arching forward to streamline her body, her arms almost seeming to strike blows against the air in front of her as if fighting ahead through a crowd.
She skidded at the gate, and felt a cord of her sandal snap cleanly as it twisted under her foot. She yelped at the pain as her ankle wrenched, but it didn’t stop her from yanking the gate open and lunging up the path to the front door. The red lotus lamp was glowing warmly, indicating that the house was open for business, and her fist fell like thunder onto the panel of the door.
A perfumed, painted courtesan opened the door, her lips parted to issue a teasing remonstrance against whatever customer was so eager that he’d nearly break down the door, and found herself swept aside by a rain-drenched little virago with flashing green eyes. Water dripped on the carpet runner as the girl almost leapt through the door.
“Is Nizaisa still here?” she demanded, half-hysterically. The harlot stared at her in astonishment, and Jurnia snarled. “Is she here?”
“Ye-yes, but she’s asked not to be disturbed, and—”
“Where is she?”
“The office, but you can’t—”
Without another word, Jurnia whirled and bolted down the hallway toward the door; she had to pull up short as a small mountain stepped out of the parlor to block her path. She looked up at a man who bore every sign of being a Guarom; the image of the great bull in his aura was a sort of afterthought.
“I need to talk to Nizaisa,” she said with no preamble.
“You need to turn around and walk out of here, little girl,” he rumbled, folding his arms, radiating menace.
“I don’t have time for this,” she said, and kicked.
Leaving the bouncer folded up on the hallway floor, she cleared the office door in moments, slamming it shut behind her. The slender girl behind the desk looked up, a brief flicker of surprise lighting her midnight-blue eyes before they went cool again.
“I presume you have urgent business with me, Lady Jurnia,” she said, setting down a sheaf of papers and rising to her feet, unhurried.
“I need your help,” Jurnia burst out.
“You have an interesting way of asking for aid.”
“This isn’t a joke! Ka—Khuradasu’s disappeared, and I have to find him!”
The Snake chieftain arched her brows, the scarred one lagging slightly behind. “You want to rescue the most dreaded assassin of this time?”
“It’s surprising enough to see the Chief Herald of the Kaykolom keeping company with one of the only two Lopayzom alive, but hearing that you want to help him? Catch me, I’m going to faint from shock.”
Jurnia stared. “H-how do you know . . . ?”
“Which part? That you’re the Raven’s Herald? Or that Khuradasu is also known as Karavasu, son of Lord Arjunayazu?” Nizaisa’s mouth curved in a sardonic smile. “I have eyes and ears everywhere, Lady Jurnia. Everywhere.”
“That’s what I need,” Jurnia answered. “I need to know anything about what happened—who took him, how they did it, anything you can find.”
Nizaisa drummed her fingers on the desktop. “So, you want information on what might be a case of abduction. And you’re sure it’s an abduction, that he hasn’t gone his way of his own will?”
“Yes. He wouldn’t have left me. He promised he’d protect me and see me safely back to the Rookery.”
“Information doesn’t come free. What have you got to trade for it?”
Jurnia almost choked, tears rising in her eyes. “Anything! Anything you want that I can give you, it’s yours! Just please, please help me find him!”
The amusement faded as the Snake scanned her face. “You’re not just traveling with him. Or sleeping with him. You really love him, don’t you?”
“Yes,” the Raven whispered.
“And he loves you?”
Nizaisa’s eyes continued to study her intently as one hand went to her neck; Jurnia glimpsed a flash of gold and deep red-orange, a pendant of some kind. The chieftain’s fingers stroked gently over the polished surface of what looked like jasper, then tucked the bit of jewelry back into the folds of her robe. “All right. I’ll give you what you want. As a favor, with the understanding that I may need a favor from you in the future.”
“What . . . what kind of favor?”
“I don’t know yet,” the other woman admitted casually. “But when the time comes and I ask, I trust you’ll weigh my request against the value of the information you’re asking for right now.”
Biting her lip, Jurnia slowly nodded. Rationally, she should be concerned with what the Sarpom chieftain might request of her in the future, but she wasn’t thinking rationally. Emotion overrode everything else, her fear for Kara’s safety clenching cold fingers into her gut.
Nizaisa walked to the door and opened it; the bouncer loomed in the hallway, his eyes glinting with a homicidal anger that wilted suddenly with a single glance from the Snake-woman. “Just the person I wanted to talk to. I need a few runners sent out at once. There’s been an incident involving the assassin Khuradasu. I want every scrap of information, and I want it five minutes ago.”
She closed the door and leaned back against it, folding her arms and directing an amused look toward Jurnia. “Kicked him in the dainties, didn’t you? You’ve got a mean streak, Lady Herald.”
“He was in my way,” she mumbled, starting to sniffle as tears ran down her cheeks.
Nizaisa regarded her with an expression of dismay. “Oh, don’t start crying! I’m absolutely terrible with crying girls. Listen, we’ll find out what happened to him . . . would you stop that? I haven’t got a handkerchief.”
Jurnia sagged into a nearby chair, burying her face in her hands. Through her choked sobs, she heard the chieftain issue a long, pained sigh. She was embarrassed to be crying in front of a total stranger—a noble total stranger, no less, and no mere aristocrat but a clan chief—but she couldn’t get herself under control.
“Think about something else for a bit?” Nizaisa asked plaintively. “I can’t think with you bawling like that. It’s not the end of the world.”
“How can you know what it’s like to be apart from someone you love?” Jurnia cried without thinking.
There was a long moment of deep stillness, and then cool—almost cold—fingers took hold of Jurnia’s wrists and pulled her hands away from her face with barely any effort at all, though Jurnia couldn’t have resisted the grip even with all her might. Nizaisa’s face was very close, close enough that Jurnia couldn’t help but stare at the scar that etched its way down the left side of her pale visage. It looked like a fairly smooth, shiny line from a distance, but up close, the ridges and creases were visible in the grayish, dead-seeming tissue, its red edges sharply dividing the normal skin from the ruined streak.
“Oh, I know,” she said very quietly. “Rakaznu and I don’t get to spend much time together.”
The name didn’t register for a long moment; then Jurnia blinked in astonishment. “Rakaznu? Lord Rakaznu?”
“Chieftain of the Mushakom, the biggest Rat of them all. That would be him,” the other woman confirmed with a trace of a smile.
“You . . . and he . . .”
“For quite a while now, yes, though we’ll probably never marry for the sake of keeping our clans out of the uncomfortable position of having to be nice to each other. It seems to disturb you that I know about your connection with the little Fox, so now you know my own secret connection. Happy?” She leaned even closer, her breath warm and smelling faintly of spices. “As I said, I do know what it’s like to be apart from a loved one. It’s as if the center of your world’s been taken away, and you don’t know what to do. You’re lost and alone, and it hurts like nothing else.”
“How do you stand it?” Jurnia whispered.
“You learn how,” Nizaisa answered almost dispassionately. “You reach outside yourself and find things to do, things to think about, so that you aren’t thinking about how much it hurts. So that you’re not filling every moment with memories of his face, his voice, his smile, the scent of his skin when he’s warm from the bath, the way the sun brings out the highlights in his hair. The taste of him on your lips, the fire he wakes when he caresses you, the sight of him sleeping with a candle’s glow painting his face in light and shadow.” Her gaze wasn’t quite focused on Jurnia any more; the young Raven felt slightly embarrassed, seeing the storm lying deep in the Snake’s eyes. She was definitely speaking from experience.
“I don’t . . . we aren’t . . . I mean . . . um . . .” she stammered.
Nizaisa’s eyes refocused, and she arched the scarred brow. “You don’t what?”
Jurnia was aware that her face was turning red. “We haven’t . . .”
The Snake chuckled suddenly. “Oh, I see. Are you trying to tell me that yours is the sort of pure, noble love that transcends the mere flesh and makes poets write bad verse?” Startlingly, she leaned her head over Jurnia’s shoulder, taking a deep breath at the tender skin right beneath her ear, then rocked back on her heels. “Mm . . . no, it’s not that. You haven’t got the scent of such refined, spiritual emotion.”
“It’s the sort of love that wakes you up at night with your body on fire, aching for him with every inch of your very being. The sort of love that makes the merest accidental touch into a spark that sets off an inferno in your flesh, and that makes nearness without touching the most exquisite torment imaginable. You want him, but you’re not having him, and it’s driving you very slowly out of your mind.”
“How do you know all of this?” Jurnia demanded.
“I’m not possessed of the sort of character that produces pure, transcendent love. When Rakaznu and I are together, we don’t sit around sipping tea and discussing philosophy. We have lots of sex—sweaty, screaming, glorious sex—and we usually break at least one piece of furniture in the process.” She grinned. “I think you’re a lot like me. Intimacy’s the best way to express what words aren’t sufficient to describe.”
Jurnia was distracted from the outrageous comments by the grin. She really couldn’t help but stare at the long, sharp upper canines that overlapped Nizaisa’s lower canines right down to the gum line.
The Sarpom lifted a hand to her mouth. “What, is there something stuck in my teeth?”
“You have fangs,” Jurnia said faintly.
“Of course I’ve got fangs. Great Snake has fangs. I’m his descendant, so of course I’ve got them too.”
“But not all Sarpom have them.”
“True,” she admitted. “I’m a bit of a special case.”
“How old are you really?” Jurnia heard the words fall out of her mouth, but she couldn’t believe she’d actually spoken them.
“About a hundred and thirty,” Nizaisa answered calmly.
“A hundred and thirty!”
“Is there an echo in here? I said that I’m a special case.”
“But you almost look younger than I am!”
“I don’t like aging too much, so I asked Snake for a way to avoid it. He told me.” She wrinkled her nose slightly. “It’s a bit of an uncomfortable process, but it certainly works.”
Jurnia stared in morbid fascination. “How do you do it?”
“I shed my skin,” she admitted candidly. “When I start looking a bit too old for my own liking, I call my power and slough off the age. It takes about a week and I stay in a private room until it’s over, because it scares the hell out of people. I look and feel absolutely great afterward, though—if this isn’t immortality, it’s close enough to content me, I’ll say. Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, thank you . . . you shed your skin? Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Not really. I’ve gotten used to it.” She picked up a teacup and passed it to Jurnia. “I’m almost blind for a little bit because the outer layer of my eyes fogs over and peels off, too.” She frowned as Jurnia almost dropped the cup. “What? You’ve never seen a snake molting? That part’s a bad time to mess with them—they can’t really see much, so they tend to treat everything as hostile just to be on the safe side.”
Jurnia gaped at her.
“You look more like a salmon than a raven, you know. Close your mouth before something nasty flies in.” Nizaisa boosted herself up to sit on the edge of the desk and took a sip of tea. “It’s a strange world, little girl, and Avatars can be stranger than anything else. Do you know what’s interesting about Verkom Avatars?”
“They’re shapechangers,” Jurnia said, a memory of Chaiya’s teachings coming to mind. “Even if their only other ability is Avatar-sense, they can all turn into wolves.”
“It’s set them apart a little. They lean farther over the line between human and animal than most people are comfortable with. Which is kind of strange, because in their own way, they’ve got a rigid moral code that they absolutely won’t abandon. There are times when I’d feel more comfortable having a Wolf at my back than most of my own clansmen.” She sipped again.
Jurnia blinked, finding it difficult to refute Nizaisa’s words. Stories of the Verkom’s ferocity were always balanced by the accompanying tales of their strict ethics and honorable behavior, but the Snake was correct; many people were averse to associating very closely with the children of Wolf. Other Avatars could change their forms as well, but having such an ability as a part of one’s clan identity . . .
“Are you trying to distract me?” she demanded suddenly.
“You’ve stopped sobbing your eyes out, at least,” the Snake murmured with a certain satisfaction. “Weepy grief doesn’t suit you. You aren’t some dainty, fainting flower, waiting passively for someone else to come along and rescue you.” She topped up her teacup. “If this situation goes on the way I suspect, you’re going to have to do the rescuing, Herald. It’ll be hard to do that if you don’t regrow your backbone.”
The words stung. “I haven’t lost my backbone!”
“Could have fooled me, hunching over and bawling like that. If something out there was good enough to catch Khuradasu off guard, you’re going to need more starch in your britches than you’ve ever had before.” She eyed the teacup, then swallowed off half the contents and walked around the desk to rummage in a drawer. With a faint sound of satisfaction, she held up a thick glass bottle half-full of something dark-amber and sloshing. “I knew he’d have it in here somewhere. Good old brain solvent, guaranteed to dissolve your sorrows along with any number of higher thought processes. Want some?” She pulled the stopper out, and the smell of high-quality barley liquor crept through the room like a considerate mugger.
“I don’t like alcohol,” Jurnia said firmly.
“I didn’t ask if you liked it, I asked if you wanted some.” Nizaisa poured a dash of the stuff into her teacup, then leaned over and dosed Jurnia’s as well despite her yip of protest. “Drink it. It’ll do you some good.”
The Herald eyed her cup warily, then lifted it for a reluctant sip. Normally she preferred something sweeter and milder.
At first, she only tasted the tea and a hint of the rich, smoky flavor of the alcohol. Then it reached her stomach and turned into a small red-hot coal, and the heat seemed to burn off the tea. Her eyes watered slightly, but she swallowed hard and blinked repeatedly.
“You’ll feel a lot better once you reach the bottom of the cup,” Nizaisa said cheerfully, boosting herself up to sit on the edge of the desk.
“But I don’t want to be drunk if I have to save Kara,” Jurnia protested.
“That little bit shouldn’t put you under the table. But if the abductor’s still in town and you’re too drunk to manage, I’ll help you personally. Promise.” She raised the teacup in a small toast. “I don’t intend to let you drink that much, though. The last thing I need is a girl who’s not only miserable, but throwing up and passing out.” She looked at the floor. “It’s too gaudy for my liking,” she said critically, “but it’s a decent carpet for all that. It’d be a shame to stain it.”
The Raven looked up suddenly. “The Snake,” she said suddenly. “There was a Sarpom who tried . . . who . . .”
“I imagine you’re talking about the wretched creature who lost his eyes at your adored Fox’s hand? Oh, come on,” she said, catching Jurnia’s surprised expression. “Did you really think I wouldn’t learn about that? Khuradasu dropped four men without killing them, though one’s going to be eating nothing but soup for a while due to a broken jaw, and the other . . .” She let it trail off, taking a drink.
“What happened to him?” Jurnia said in a very small voice.
“Oh, he survived,” Nizaisa answered offhandedly. “Though he probably won’t be troubling the world much longer. Evidently he’d made any number of enemies here in town, and when it came out that he was lying blinded in an alleyway, several of them evidently paid him a visit. He’s still breathing, for what it’s worth, though my healer’s told me that he’ll probably never regain consciousness before he dies. In fact, my healer’s amazed that he lived through the experience at all. I’d imagine that word of my presence somehow made its way around town, and nobody was willing to see what I’d do if one of my clansmen were murdered outright.”
“What’s that look for? Were you afraid I might exact some horrible retribution on you or the little Fox?” The Snake chieftain put the teacup down and leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees. “I know that my clan’s composed primarily of outlaws, assassins, criminals, and general ne’er-do-wells. They’re my outlaws, assassins, criminals, and general ne’er-do-wells, but I don’t delude myself into thinking they’re any better than they are. I’m the loving mother to the Sarpom, but a mother who truly loves her children can’t let herself be blinded to their faults. I have rules, Jurnia, and if any of my clan breaks those rules, they do it as discreetly as possible; they never, ever let it become public knowledge that they’ve done so; and they don’t make a habit of it. Markazyu violated one of those rules, one of the absolute rules—we do not, we do not, engage in the slave trade. In fact, we expose it wherever we find it so that the civil authorities can take care of the problem.” Dark blue eyes glittered with a sort of satisfied malice directed at all those who bought and sold humans like cattle. “The sorry little maggot you encountered was breaking the rules, even though he didn’t know about it. The person of a Herald is always inviolate, by the custom and law of this empire. My clan’s under orders to uphold that convention. By laying hands on you—and I can see the bruises on your face to show that he did—he forfeited any protection I might have given him. You didn’t kill him and Khuradasu didn’t kill him. The way was opened for others to pay him back for things he’s done, and they did so. That’s no reflection on you or the Demon’s Claw.”
“I . . . I thought for a second that maybe you . . .” Jurnia flinched under Nizaisa’s stare.
“You thought that perhaps I arranged for his abduction as revenge for harming a clansman of mine?” the Snake asked sweetly.
“It . . . crossed my mind,” she confessed.
“Well, it can keep right on crossing and exit out the other ear, little girl.”
“It has,” Jurnia said hastily.
“Good. I don’t particularly want Lord Arjunayazu angry with me. He’s a bit past his prime, but his wife’s as close as a sister to a higher power. I may be arrogant, temperamental, and stubborn, but I’d prefer to avoid being on the Dragon’s bad side. She’s got more intelligence and cunning than her predecessor, and both she and Lady Kerzama grew up with Karavasu. I’d rather not risk having Princess Divaksina after me for messing with her quasi-brother, especially since rumor has it that she’s getting involved with Prince Nethratu and he’s apt to do her favors. One elemental royal after my head is bad enough. Two is overdoing it.”
“Do you know everything that’s going on in the entire Empire?” Jurnia asked incredulously.
“If there’s something I don’t know, I don’t know about it,” Nizaisa replied sardonically. “Want to hear some more gossip? I’ve got some tidbits you’ll probably enjoy.”