by Debi Carroll
At one corner of the painting, a pale beast with red eyes and a slavering jaw crawled out of a dark tunnel.
Elena bent closer to examine the tiny figures, squinting in the dim light. The alcoves built into the Alchemist-King’s antechamber were saturated with shadow, casting the baroque coils of plasterwork into grotesque relief. The gilded frame of the painting reflected a faint glow across the canvas, illuminating a procession of iconographic images.
Inches away from the tunnel, the same beast devoured a man with flowing white robes and a domed crown. The beast then leaped into a pit filled with flames. In the flames, the fur of the beast blackened and crisped. Finally, at the opposite side of the canvas, the burnt fur peeled away to reveal the man in white robes. Symbols and pentagrams filled every other inch of canvas, crowding the small figures in their march towards resolution.
Elena whirled. Around and back; one hand slid up the curve of her spine, beneath her jacket, to the hilt of her stiletto.
The man behind her raised an eyebrow in faint amusement. Faint amusement went well with his face, all angles from high cheekbones to jawline, softened by the decadent tumble of blue-black hair. He probably practiced the expression in a mirror.
His clothes were decadent, too–his shirt was richly embroidered, and the voluminous open robe was the garment of a man who’d never fought hand-to-hand in his life. Academic, then, or aristocrat–but then again, this was the antechamber of the Alchemist-King. He could be something more.
She kept her voice mild. “Pardon?”
“The painting.” He tilted his head toward the canvas behind her. “You were studying it quite intently.”
Elena swiveled to include the painting within her field of vision, and gained a few more inches of space. “Stibnite?”
“The mineral.” He stepped forward and pointed to the pale beast. She caught the barest trace of a scent as he passed her, something wintergreen and chemical. “Molten stibnite will consume unrefined gold. When heated further, it will separate the other trace elements into disparate parts.” He indicated the final image. “When you skim those other elements off, you’ll have pure gold.”
Gold, a process of refinery, the Alchemist-King—the three fused into coherence. “It’s an alchemical code.”
“I don’t know if ‘code’ is the right word.” He gave the painting a dismissive flick of gloved fingers. “Makes it sound all secret and mysterious. Really, I think it’s an excuse for lack of clarity.”
She’d missed the gloves. The cracked black leather was incongruous with the extravagant textures of his clothing, and by themselves gloves triggered her professional caution. Criminals wore gloves, but no criminal would bide time in the Alchemist-King’s antechamber. At least, not the kind of criminal Elena knew.
His mouth quirked a little—he’d noticed her scrutiny—but he only gestured toward the next painting. “You may like this one as well.”
The portrait depicted three nested figures—the outermost one was a man in ornate robes, his arms spread wide. Inside him, a lion opened its mouth in a frozen snarl, its mane flowing out in tendrils like an iconic sun. Inside the lion, a dragon curled around itself, clutching a flask in its claws.
The stranger indicated the man with two fingers. “The body,” to the lion, “the soul,” and the dragon, “the spirit.”
Elena jabbed her own finger towards the dragon’s flask. “And that?”
His dark eyes gleamed. “The philosopher’s stone.”
She sucked in breath. “That’s—”
“His key to power, yes.” His voice was silk over glass. So smooth, so soft—until you brushed against a malice-sharp edge and came away bloody. He swung around to the double doors in one swift arc. “Let’s go see the man who discovered the secret of immortality.”
She took a fast, skipping step to his side. “Shouldn’t we wait for a summons?”
“I’ve waited long enough.” He slammed the door open.
On his heels, Elena walked straight into darkness and a great billow of incense. A short, staccato cough burst from her throat, and she muffled it. Her throat rasped as she fought to breathe.
“I hope this is important, Gordon,” the stranger said. “I don’t like being pulled from my studies at three in the morning.”
“Eamon, I’ve told you to knock first.” The petulant wail came from the center of the room. As the cloud of incense swirled and cleared, shapes emerged from the dimness—a massive four-poster bed with layers of gauzy hangings, a table laden with dishes, veiled attendants who padded about on soft feet.
The stranger gave a fluid, careless shrug. “Your summons was urgent, Gordon. I don’t care to hang about in your antechamber like a petitioner.”
“You don’t care for anything at all.” The speaker resolved as a swathed lump on the bed, a lump that struggled up to a sitting position. Huge, pale eyes blinked at them from a tiny, wrinkled face. “Close that door. You’re letting in the light.”
Elena edged back to the heavy doors and closed them as quietly as she could.
The stranger wandered over to the table and examined a grape from a bowl of fruit. “An occupational hazard.” He popped the grape into his mouth.
The undercurrents here were viciously strong, and Elena moved in a preemptive attempt to keep her head above water. “Sire, are you in need of our service?”
The Alchemist-King’s huge eyes narrowed in a parody of suspicion. “Do you two know each other?”
“We hadn’t yet introduced ourselves.” Elena offered her hand to the stranger. “Elena. Peacekeeper. Hound of Justice.”
Instead of shaking, he bowed over it with self-mocking flare. “Eamon Vallington, at your service.”
“The Poison Alchemist,” the King cut in. “One of the Seven.”
Poison. Elena’s nerves tingled. She’d known he could be an alchemist, but that was a distant, abstracted possibility, different from hearing it confirmed. Of all Seven Alchemists, joint rulers of the City no matter who wore a crown, Poison was the most enigmatic.
“Save the pleasantries, Eamon.” The King waved an impatient hand. His arm was the size of a small child’s; bones shifted under fragile, translucent skin. “I have an urgent situation here.”
“Of course, Gordon. Do explain.” Eamon’s voice dropped low. “I’m dying to help.”
The King took a sharp, hiccupping breath. All his attendants converged on him at this sign of agitation—in a swirl of veils, they fanned his head and adjusted his blankets and pushed a goblet into his hands. He took a long, fortifying gulp, wiped his mouth, and glared at Eamon over the rim. “I drink this elixir three times a day.”
“Your special tea.” Eamon rolled his eyes. “I know.”
“And so do the other five.” The King leaned forward, intent. “Someone laced my bedtime dose with poison.”
Elena came to abrupt, quivering attention. This, here, was her specialty. “An assassination attempt? Attempted regicide?”
“Worse than that.” Eamon leaned back against the table, grapes forgotten. “Any country yokel can attempt regicide. But, like he said, knowledge of his elixir is specific to the Seven.”
“An Alchemist.” The King bared tiny teeth in a hiss. “One of five Alchemists tried to murder me.” He caught Eamon’s raised eyebrow. “I’m not stupid; the Poison Alchemist wouldn’t use poison to kill me. Someone’s adding acid to the mixture to make things spark.”
“But it backlashed,” Elena said. “You now have an expert to track the poison back to its source.”
Eamon and the King both turned to look at her, and the King gave a little crow of delight. “We’ve got a bright one! Yes, peacekeeper, that’s exactly what I’d like you to do. I asked your department for a single discreet investigator.”
“A two-person operation?”
“If we’re to be absolutely discreet, we’ll need autonomous authority,” she said. “The authority to go anywhere and question anyone.”
“Whatever is in my power to grant,” the King declared.
No one could grant more, but that was still less than Elena would like. Each Alchemist had their own district, within which they ruled supreme. They wouldn’t submit to questioning simply on the King’s authority.
To her right, Eamon shifted. “I have another question, Gordon. How did you discover the poison? Clearly, you didn’t drink it.”
“My attendants taste-test everything.” The Alchemist-King extended an accusing skeleton finger toward the corner. “The poison reacted instantaneously.”
A huddled, veiled figure slumped in a chair, well away from the table of delicacies. Elena followed at a cautious distance as Eamon approached and lifted the veil with a thumb and finger. The attendant’s eyes were vacant, his pale skin glistened with sweat, and he was actually leaking steam, in panted breaths from his nose and mouth. He gave a convulsive shiver as Eamon pulled the sweat-sodden veil away and dropped it to the floor.
“Is he conscious?” Elena found herself whispering.
“Depends on your value of consciousness,” the King said, acerbic. “He might be aware, but he certainly won’t be answering any questions.”
Eamon stripped the glove from one hand and hovered it over the attendant’s forehead–testing temperature, presumably; maybe touching his skin was dangerous. Elena studied his bare hand—no deformities as far as she could see.
After a moment, he removed his hand. “Dragonbreath.”
“I knew it.” The King pounded a fist against his blankets. “I knew it was ‘breath. Those filthy fey; they’ll distribute substances to just anyone.”
“Makes our job easier.” Eamon glanced up as he tugged his glove back on, and met Elena’s inquiring gaze. “Dragonbreath is a very rare drug; only the fey distill it and there are very few distributors.” He pressed the attendant’s eyelids shut, cutting off that vacant stare. “I can’t check it out tonight, Gordon, but I’ll get on it by nightfall tomorrow.”
“But the trail will get cold,” the Alchemist-King fretted.
Eamon gave him a long stare.
The King fidgeted with his blankets and looked away first.
“Fey don’t have the same conception of time as we do, Gordon. They won’t forget over the course of a day.”
“Fine.” The King’s face creased into grumpy lines. “But I want to stay updated on your progress.”
They extracted themselves from his royal presence with minimal difficulty; just the effort of speaking to them had tired him. Eamon held the door for Elena, and she hesitated in the antechamber, drawn back to the painting of the philosopher’s stone.
The Alchemist-King had risen to the throne, twenty years back, after claiming he’d discovered the secret of immortality, discovered the philosopher’s stone. He’d been nearing seventy, white-haired and wizened, but the man who strutted before dazzled crowds was young, strong, golden. He’d been crowned king by popular appeal, elevating him above the rest of the Seven.
He was still that triumphant figure, in the public imagination. He hadn’t made a public appearance in years; no one knew the emaciated child-king.
The outermost figure in the painting had a crown, Elena realized. King, lion, dragon. “Even immortality has a price, doesn’t it?”
“Everything must first be dissolved,” Eamon said, softly. “Everything must first be destroyed.” It sounded like a quote, or a mantra. Elena shot him a sidelong glance, and he gave her a full smile, a devastating flash of white teeth. “I’ll be in touch. Elena.”
He dissolved into the shadows like a wraith, and she had to remind herself to breathe, had to force air through constricted lungs. She wasn’t used to Alchemists, to the way everything warped around their presence.
The Poison Alchemist was just another piece in the puzzle. She had a case to solve, a case that revolved around alchemy, and codes, and dragonbreath, and immortality. Especially immortality, because no one had answered the question that had nagged her from the start.
Why would someone poison a man who couldn’t die?
From Elena’s office window, the City of Alchemists spread out like a patchwork monster. Terraces staggered the city into a series of levels and created basic demarcation between many architectural forms.
The Hound headquarters sat poised on the edge of the administrative district; its linear, functional lines cut off in a straight drop down into a tumble of onion domes, minarets, brick the color of orange rust and raw sienna. Building complexes interwove; courtyards led through tessellated doorways and narrow passages to other courtyards, and the only real streets were the walkways connecting roof to roof. The vast golden dome of the Salt Alchemist’s palace dominated his district like the hub of a wheel.
To the west of Salt, the Glass Alchemist’s influence took over; sunlight dazzled off white marble, intricate traceries, and hundreds of needle-thin towers that spiked toward the sky. Her central tower rose above the rest like a tiered cake, all swooping arches and flying buttresses. That district coiled up and through part of the Alchemist-King’s central domain, mixing white points with ornate, gilded façades and a profusion of pillars.
From her window, Elena couldn’t see the King’s tower, or the districts of the three Alchemists to the north. She almost overlooked the plain, stubby tower that sat like a peg inside the coil where the Glass Alchemist’s district met the King’s.
The Mausoleum was an entity distinct from the opulent styles that crowded it. Elena had heard it was the only known entrance to Poison’s domain–a system of catacombs and tunnels that ran underneath the entire city.
She’d never thought that you could judge a person by their architectural taste. But after meeting Eamon and the Alchemist-King, she wasn’t so sure.
Elena tipped her stool up onto one leg and flipped through her notes again. Sketchy, garbled thoughts jumbled about in no particular order, sprinkled with question marks. Her notes themselves were an alchemical code.
She cleared her throat. “Gregory, what’s the difference between soul and spirit?”
The Hound’s research scholar blinked over at her through his round spectacles. His half of their office was a sea of books and papers, moldering scrolls and obscure pieces of equipment. “Careful who hears you, Elena. That’s alchemical theory you’re talking.”
“Are you saying you don’t know?”
He wrinkled his nose at her. “I dabble, Elena, but I don’t herald the fact. The Seven are possessive of their secrets.”
She’d met two of the Seven last night, in the flesh. She was working with one to charge another with attempted murder of a third—and that third happened to be the Alchemist-King. “Just tell me.”
Gregory’s face worked with indecision, but he couldn’t resist an opportunity to expound on a topic he’d researched. “Body, soul, and spirit are the triad of alchemical theory.” He spoke precisely, but with enthusiasm. “Body is simple; it’s the specific corporeal form. Soul, a little trickier—each substance belongs to a class of things with a common property, and the soul is that property. Spirit, in contrast, is the universal substance, the Essence of all things.”
Elena grimaced. “I have no idea what that means.”
“The spirit is the kernel of life.” Gregory cupped his hand as if grasping an invisible node. “They have many names for it—the Essence, the one thing, the divine water, the old dragon, the basilisk, the phoenix. But it’s the same substance at the heart of everything.” He released the node and sketched a shell around it with both hands. “The soul is the outer wrapping to the spirit; it determines the class of the substance—say, whether it’s a metal, a plant, or a human.”
“And then the body determines what kind of metal, plant, or human.”
“Exactly.” Gregory slammed his hands down on his desk, crunching paper. “The goal of alchemy is to discover a way to strip both body and soul away from the spirit. The Alchemists know the spirit exists, but they haven’t been able to isolate it in its purest form.”
“Wait. They haven’t?” Elena squinted down at her notes. “But, if I understand you, the Essence is immortal.”
“So the secret to immortality is to use a refining agent to strip down to the Essence.”
“That makes the philosopher’s stone the refining agent.”
Gregory froze with his mouth half-open to answer.
“Didn’t the Alchemist-King discover the philosopher’s stone?”
He snapped his mouth shut. She saw his throat bobble as he swallowed. And all the fragmented information coalesced into one image. “He didn’t.”
The Alchemist-King’s cloistered chambers. His dutiful attendants, his special tea, his paranoia. The continuing rivalry between the Alchemists–they knew his rise to power was all a sham. The assassination attempt—the poisoner knew he could be killed.
Eamon, saying, I’m dying to help, in a voice that could flay you alive and make you enjoy it.
“He didn’t discover the philosopher’s stone.” Elena rolled the words over on her tongue, testing them. Blasphemy never felt so solid, so epiphanic. “But he discovered something.”
Gregory kept his lips pressed tightly shut. His mouth was starting to go bloodless white.
“Fine.” Elena shrugged, and let all four legs of her stool smack back down to the floor. “I’ll just ask an Alchemist.”Moonlight cast the tessellations and latticework of the Court of Lions’ archways into sharp relief. Elena paused on the threshold of darkness to moonlight, in order to study the lone figure who lounged on the rim of the fountain.
Alchemists supposedly stayed clear of each other’s territory, but this was the heart of Salt’s district. Eamon’s face was in deep shadow, but his posture declared an utter lack of worry or tension—his legs were stretched out and his spine slouched.
Elena wondered whether it was just bravado, if all Alchemists acted like they were better than the rest, or if Eamon really was exceptional. She didn’t have enough familiarity with Alchemists to tell.
Even though her footsteps were silent, he raised his head at her approach. The latticework cast chiaroscuro patterns across his face, and the cold silver light gave him an inhuman beauty. But his voice came calm and matter-of-fact. “Ah, you got my message.”
She hooked her thumbs in her belt and settled on her heels. “You traced the dragonbreath back to a specific drug den.”
“Only three dens in the city distribute ‘breath.” Eamon uncoiled from the fountain’s rim and gestured her toward the arches on the far side of the court. He wore the same gloves. “Two of them offer less concentrated forms, for the initiate—only one provides unadulterated samples.”
“The initiate?” She fell in beside him. “But it’s fatally poisonous. People use it for recreational purposes?”
“In small doses, it isn’t necessarily fatal.” They stepped through an archway into the shadow of the arcade. Set into a recess of stone, a heavy wooden door mirrored the curve of the arches. “Just a touch of death, a whisper from the dragon. That’s part of the thrill.” He pulled a silken rope; a bell chimed inside, muffled by the door.
Eye-height on the door, a small shutter slid open with a wooden clack.
“Inhale the life, brother,” Eamon told the darkness through the grill.
“Exhale the void,” a soft, sibilant voice responded.
Elena frowned as the chug of sliding bolts and click of locks vibrated through the door, rhythmic with long familiarity. Passcodes and then multiple deadbolts? “Why all the secrecy? The fey have provisional clearance for drug possession. It’s perfectly legal.”
He studied her for a moment, then shrugged. “The law doesn’t protect them from hate crime. They prefer to protect themselves.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but then her brain caught up with her mouth. Hate crime wasn’t her department; she had no context in which to defend her fellow Hounds. A few questions came to mind instead, but the sudden draft of an opening door forestalled them.
A hooded figure resolved from the shadows; one long-fingered hand emerged from the folds of its cloak and beckoned. Elena and Eamon stepped through the doorway into the hallway beyond, and the fey shut the door on the thin sliver of moonlight. In darkness, the metallic grate of bolts and locks echoed loud against stone.
“May I present Elena, Hound of Justice,” Eamon said. “Elena, this is the Doorkeeper.”
The usual niceties didn’t seem appropriate, so she only nodded. The Doorkeeper turned with a whisper of silk and swept down the hallway.
Eamon nudged her forward with a hand on her elbow and she twitched involuntarily. His hand was hot, not with normal body heat but with the heat of an internal furnace, even through the leather glove. He released her as soon as she took a step forward, and she wondered if she’d imagined it.
They followed the Doorkeeper around a sharp turn and through a bead curtain. The dark, heavy beads slid over their shoulders and heads like a waterfall, and then they were inside the den.
Smells and smoke of incense, truedream, basilisk, and chaosflower thickened the air to a dense haze. The intricate lines of wall mosaics wavered and flowed to the eye, an illusion of steam and smoke and heat. The den’s patrons reclined across broad couches, sucking from pipes or long tubes that led to vessels sitting above a low flame. The den was divided into alcoves and open chambers, hung with bead curtains and embroidered draperies for semi-privacy.
The Doorkeeper slid down its hood, revealing fey features—colorless hair against blue-grey skin and unblinking reddish eyes. Elena looked around and found other unhooded fey—the musician playing a wind-whisper song on pipes, the attendant going from patron to patron with a small tray of vials and dishes, and the barkeeper mixing drinks in his own draped alcove.
“You’re not here for your next dose,” the Doorkeeper murmured to Eamon. The lisped s revealed the narrow fork in its tongue.
“No. Official business.” Eamon jerked his head toward Elena. “The Alchemist-King wants to know who tried to poison him.”
“I see.” The fey’s red eyes flickered—not the eyelid-flicker of humans, but a flash of slit pupils, dilation and contraction. “Are you ready?”
Elena pretended an utter absorption with the nearest patron, a fat man with drooping jowls. She took a step forward to peer into his smoking bowl and curled her lip with disgust.
“I’m at the threshold,” Eamon said softly behind her. “I touched an assistant the other day and left blisters across his palm. Only naked flame feels warm to me, now.”
“You breathe the dragon,” said the Doorkeeper. “Yes. One more shot will do it—the larger the better.”
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem with that. Desperation breeds the most remarkable enthusiasm.”
Elena jerked back from the fat man as if she’d suddenly recalled why they were there. Eamon and the Doorkeeper fell silent as she turned back to them. “Have you asked our questions, yet?”
“Not yet.” Eamon gave her a self-deprecating smile. “That’s your area of expertise, peacekeeper.”
Elena addressed the Doorkeeper in a measured, neutral tone. “You’re required to keep identification from everyone who exports substances beyond the doors of your dens.”
One long grey-blue hand dipped into a pocket in the fey’s cloak, and emerged with a small booklet. “Our ledger contains records of all major transactions, yes.”
“We need to know who’s purchased a quantity of the drug dragonbreath in the past week or so. Pure dragonbreath, not the less concentrated kinds.”
“Hmm.” The Doorkeeper thumbed open the booklet. The pages were covered with neat, tiny writing, broken by large scrawls of signatures–one signature for each entry. “Several patrons purchased vials of dragonbreath in small quantities.”
“How small is small?”
“An average of 60 centigrains. That’s a week’s supply for the mid-level user.” It flipped the book to show Elena.
She squinted at the signatures and then waved them away. “Not what we’re looking for.”
“The largest recent purchase was an order of eight grains, bought by proxy.” It tapped the entry; instead of a signature, stamped ink traced out an iconic design.
Elena looked at Eamon for confirmation, and he nodded. “That’s an Alchemist’s sigil.”
“Which Alchemist? Salt?” Elena gave a vague wave of her hand to their surroundings.
Eamon leaned forward to examine the entry. “Glass. See that icicle work, and the mirroring effect?” He followed the inked lines of the sigil with his finger. “Maybe she thought if she bought it outside her district, we couldn’t trace it back to her.”
Elena couldn’t suppress her sigh. “We’ll have to question her.”
“You will have to question her.” Eamon nodded to the Doorkeeper; it withdrew the book with a flip of long fingers and faded back into a swirl of perfumed smoke. “She might talk to you, but if I’m there, she’ll spew only bile.”
Elena arched an eyebrow at him. “You two have history?”
Eamon winced slightly. “You could say that.”
“Who is it?” The terrible chiming voice came from the mouths of the two massive guardians at the gate of the Glass Alchemist’s tower. The two recumbent lions were sculpted entirely from glass, and when they moved, they shot dazzling streaks of light and prismatic arcs in all directions. Elena wasn’t sure if they could be classified as golems—weren’t golems supposed to be stone?—but she knew the voice belonged to the Alchemist.
“Peacekeeper,” she identified herself. “Hound of Justice. My name’s Elena; I believe my department chief contacted you about an interview.”
“Interview?” Through the great jangle of chimes, Glass sounded harried. “I don’t remember hearing about an interview.”
“Purely an informational session,” Elena offered. “We’re working with the Alchemist-King, and he requests your cooperation.”
The golems made a wordless noise, too distorted with echoes and resonance to interpret. Then they settled back onto their ledges, clearing the way to the gate of the tower. The gate seemed to be made of solid bars of glass, but as Elena approached, they began to slide vertically. Like a toothy jaw opening wide, half the bars slid up and the other half down, revealing a narrow white passage.
Elena climbed carefully through the icicle teeth, acutely aware of the weight of jagged edges over her neck. A chill raced over her skin, and after a moment she realized the sensation was external, not physiological. Cold air wafted down the passage from somewhere within the blank white expanse.
Behind her, the icicle teeth clapped shut with a high, bell-like note. She reached a hand out to grope along the wall and walked slowly forward. The wall of the passage curved, she realized, clockwise and up in a tightening spiral–that was why she couldn’t distinguish any corners.
A dark shape flashed across the floor beneath her feet. She leaped back, and the shape mirrored her–no, it was a mirror, a vast round plate set into the floor, virtually invisible in all the whiteness. As she stared up her own legs at her inverted face, the plate swiveled and began to rise. Instinctively, she ducked to avoid a ceiling, but instead the plate took her up a long white chute, accelerating as it went.
She was already frustrated with her inability to distinguish form and shape. And this wasn’t the worst of it, judging by Eamon’s remarks about the sigil. See that icicle work, and the mirroring effect? Glass’s specialties were illusion, optics, and mazes.
Her head emerged out of the whiteness into an octagonal room with mirrored walls. A myriad of reflections surrounded her, all facing slightly different angles, like a criminal sketch or an anatomical diagram. She pushed against one wall, hard, and it revolved, hitting her in the back and knocking her forward into another octagonal chamber.
She could do this for years and never find her way to Glass’s inner sanctum. She balanced herself—feet wide apart, thumbs hooked into her belt—and waited.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Glass’s voice echoed, but came clearer than through the guardians—breathy, with a little hitch at the edges of consonants, as if she wasn’t used to speaking. “It’s a labyrinth. Third layer of defense.”
“How many layers do you have?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you that.” The mirrors swiveled suddenly and oriented into parallel lines, revealing a spiral staircase. Glass sat on the top step, peering down at Elena. She had a wild corona of grey hair and her hands and apron were covered with soot stains. “But the final one is my favorite. Come on up and I’ll show you.” She clambered up out of sight.
Elena hurried to follow her, in case she vanished into another maze. But the upper room turned out to be a standard workshop, long tables covered with braziers and vessels and strange equipment. A forge was set into one curved wall, but the firepot was dark and cold.
“Here.” Glass gestured to the floor-to-ceiling shelving behind a heavy desk. Bookshelves mingled with cabinets; the tomes and scrolls bumped up against vials and jars. In one jar, something flesh-colored and tentacular wriggled, and Elena averted her eyes. Crystals and chunks of minerals served as bookends, and contorted glass shapes winked in the light.
“There’s a blood ward over this. Watch.” Glass pricked her finger and shook the droplet off. It hit an invisible wall and rivulets of red streamed outward, outlining a web that domed around the shelving. “It recognizes the qualities of my blood. If anyone else tried to pass through this ward, the elemental energy of these lines would cause spontaneous combustion.”
“Combustion?” Elena frowned. “That’s—”
“A wall of fire.” Glass’s eyes flashed with maniacal enthusiasm.
“Fascinating,” Elena managed.
That ruled out the possibility of implanted evidence. Maybe Glass wasn’t aware she was incriminating herself. Or maybe she’d cleaned up and didn’t have to worry. Elena forced her eyes back to the vials, but she had no clue what dragonbreath looked like. “That’s a lot of security for a few obscure supplies.”
“You have no idea. Most of these are very valuable acquisitions. Rare, and expensive.”
“You ever acquire these rarities through the fey?”
Glass sneered. “I buy from those creatures only when I have to. I’d rather deal with men—men have a sense of honor, of morality.”
Elena propped her elbow on one of the worktables. “Is that so?”
“They’re soulless.” Glass’s face spasmed with agitation. “Alchemy is the search for the ultimate good, the ultimate purity, a perfect essence like gold is the perfect metal. And those things, they’re our antithesis.”
“They’re the ultimate evil?” Elena kept her tone bland.
“They’re all that is black and unholy.” The Alchemist wheeled around and pinned Elena with a bug-eyed stare. “The Alchemist-King agrees with me. He’s been trying to eradicate them for years.”
Eradicate, like an infestation. Eamon had mentioned hate crime, but not that it went all the way up to the King. Here was another motive for regicide, distinct from the intra-alchemy politics—and so far, the common factor was Eamon.
Time to probe Glass about her colleague.
“I know the rivalry between Alchemists is intense at times,” Elena segued. “But I’d like your permission to schedule a conference, because I need more information than I can get alone. I’d like one other Alchemist to discuss the situation with you while I’m present.”
Glass frowned. “Which one?”
“Eamon,” Elena said. “The Poison Alchemist.”
The color leached from Glass’s face; already pale, it went the color of her décor. Two dents in her nostrils stood out blue-white, and she barely seemed to breathe.
That’s interesting. Glass’ reaction went beyond fear into pure terror. And she still hadn’t taken a breath. “I can make other arrangements—”
“No,” Glass blurted. “No, I will talk with Eamon. But I’ll do it on my own ground.” Her eyes darted over the room. “Just not in this workshop. There’s a tea-room below.”
“I’ll bring him there,” Elena promised.
“He’ll come on his own,” Glass said, tightly.
Elena opened her mouth to ask about the wards, but the small woman burst into a flurry of activity, clinking among her vessels and stoking several braziers. One glass bubble with a spout let out a high, piercing whistle. “Now, peacekeeper, I must beg your pardon, but I have so much to do.”
“Of course.” Elena had to raise her voice over the steam whistle. “Thank you for seeing me.”
“Over there in the corner is another chute.” Glass fitted a large metal helmet over her head and her voice came muffled and tinny. “It’ll take you right back down to the entrance.”
“Don’t call me that.” Glass’s breathy voice was shrill, and Elena paused outside the tea-room door to listen.
“Vanessa? It’s your name. Or are you aspiring to Gordon’s heights, becoming a title instead of an individual?”
“Why, Vanessa, I didn’t know you cared.”
Her voice came through clenched teeth. “Where’s your little dog?”
“She’s not mine, exactly.”
“She yaps at your heels just like all the others.”
Elena felt her eyebrows rise. Maybe they were just talking politics, but Glass sounded like a spiteful ex-lover.
“She’s just trying to do her job.” Eamon’s voice was careless. “If you can’t manage civility, we can figure something else out.”
Glass snarled. “I can manage anything you throw at me, Poison.”
Elena decided that was enough; she stomped her boots loudly on the floor and entered. In one fast glance, she saw Eamon draped over the white couch, gloved fingers dangling off the back, and Glass, standing ramrod straight. Plain white room, a baseboard with cups, glasses, and decanters, couch and tea table, and one extra chair.
Then the door slammed behind her, and Glass jumped and banged the tea-table with her knee. Tea sloshed out of the spout of the china teapot and a dark stain spread through the lace tablecloth. Eamon leaned forward solicitously to blot it with his napkin.
A spasm contracted Glass’s face. Elena couldn’t tell if it was fury or fear. Maybe both. Glass had been twitchy at their earlier meeting, but now she had a recurring tic, a peculiar duck and bob of her head, as if she was trying to wipe something off her ear.
“Thank you both for agreeing to this meeting.” Elena took a seat on the couch next to Eamon, careful to stay out of the danger zone between the two Alchemists. She picked up her teacup and inhaled the fragrant steam. “The tea smells lovely.”
Glass gave one bob of her head to acknowledge the pleasantry, but she seemed to be beyond speech.
“Always a pleasure to help.” Eamon turned the full force of his attention onto Elena, and she had to fight back the sudden awareness of his proximity. Poisonous things were always beautiful; that was why they were so deadly.
She took a careful sip of tea and resettled her cup in its saucer. “I do have a specific request. I’d like to hear about the Alchemist-King’s rise to power.”
Glass and Eamon exchanged a glance, suddenly in accord. Mutual contempt twisted Eamon’s mouth and stilled Glass’s tics.
“Everyone knows the story.” Glass spat it out like a bad taste.
Another silent exchange, and Eamon gave a little why not tilt of his head. “Gordon used to be the Chronos Alchemist, before he rose to his golden throne,” he said. “His pet project was the creation of a time capsule, where temporal processes reached stasis.”
“We don’t know the exact technical specifications of his solution,” Glass said. “We only saw the results—sudden rejuvenation, and then slow regression.”
“That’s what you saw the other night,” Eamon said. “His deterioration into a grotesque mix of age and youth.”
Gregory had been right. Elena pressed for confirmation: “So the philosopher’s stone never came into it?”
Eamon shook his head. “No human has attained true immortality.”
“The fey.” The Glass Alchemist’s stillness broke with a quiver of disgust. “Those monsters don’t deserve their immortality.”
Eamon gave her a contemptuous stare, and she shrank back, a faint tremor running through her body. “Remember I mentioned hate crime?” His voice was soft but cold as moonlight. “That’s the source of the hate.”
“Nature first begets the imperfect, then proceeds to the perfect,” Glass recited, ticcing rapidly. “The fey aren’t part of the natural order. They destroy the progression towards universal good!”
“Everything must first be dissolved,” Eamon countered. “Everything must first be destroyed.”
“Hold on.” Elena held up a palm before they sank into an ideological argument. “I’m not at your theoretical level, and you’re losing me. Can we back up to the Alchemist-King’s story?”
“Of course.” Eamon leaned back on the sofa and gave Glass a pointed glance. Her hands trembled so hard that little quakes traveled up her arms to her shoulders. “Need a moment, Vanessa?”
“Maybe,” she edged back toward the baseboard, “maybe a drop of something to steady myself.” Her groping fingers found the bottle and closed tightly around its neck. “Let’s have a toast.”
A toast? Elena felt a thread of uneasiness. She watched as Glass poured her cup, then Eamon’s. The liquid was amber-cloudy, and her hands shook so badly that she slopped over the rim of Eamon’s cup. He didn’t blot at it this time—the blotting too must be part of their little game.
Eamon lifted his cup. “What should we toast, Vanessa?”
Glass met his gaze for the first time, her eyes burning with a strange light. “May we live forever.”
“May we live forever.” Eamon drank, with one fast jerk of the cup, and Elena’s sense of foreboding coalesced in a sudden flash.
“Put it down!” She shot out a hand and knocked the cup away—his eyes had drifted shut and he offered no resistance. White porcelain shattered against some distant surface. Terrified, she shook him by the shoulder. “Was it—”
“‘Breath.” His words sounded funny, as if his mouth was going numb. “The taste is unmistakable.” He opened his eyes, but they were focused somewhere impossibly distant, as if he was staring into a great void.
“Eamon!” She cupped his face, then snatched her hands away. He was burning up, not just feverish but literally hotter than any human should be. Her fingers felt burn-raw.
“The dragon rises,” he muttered, and then his eyes rolled up into his head. A thin tendril of steam drifted up from his nostrils, and he slid sideways down the couch, heavy and graceless. With a sick sense of horror, Elena realized that even if his body was still alive, the part that made up Eamon—soul, spirit, whatever—was gone.
Her stiletto was in her hand—she didn’t remember drawing it, but her body was already moving to face the threat.
Glass’s bug eyes were fixated on Eamon’s face, and gloating triumph twitched her lips upward. “I got him,” she said, stuttering on the hard g. “I got him.”
“By my authority as peacekeeper and Hound of Justice, I’m arresting you for the murder of the Poison Alchemist.” Elena yanked Glass around to cuff her hands—the woman didn’t even resist. Shudders racked her body and quivered through the muscles of her face, and Elena couldn’t tell if she was crying or laughing. She didn’t take her gaze away from Eamon even as Elena marched her out of the room.
She couldn’t think about Eamon being dead. She’d come back for him, but she needed to get out of this labyrinth of mirrors before Glass came to her senses and triggered one of her layers of defense.
She rushed Glass back down the way she’d entered, half-carrying her with a firm grip on her bony arm—it had to hurt, but Glass didn’t seem to notice. “He thinks he’s so smart, but I got him in the end,” she giggled.
In the distance, a bell began to toll—deep and ponderous, with the kind of thunderous resonance that identified it as one of the Great Bells of the city—either the clock tower, the Sulfur Alchemist’s cathedral, or the Alchemist-King’s tower.
The Alchemist-King. Elena shook Glass’s arm violently. “What did you do?”
Other bells began to ring as they burst out through the icicle gate and into a maelstrom of humanity. Bodies shoved and bumped and churned in tight masses, with eddies swirling around the entrances of shops and houses as people poured out into the streets. The shouts and wails and demands of single voices melted into one vast roar of sound, rising and falling with its own rhythms, broken by distinct shouts that rose above the others.
“What’s going on?” shrieked a woman. The roar surged in response, incoherent, but as it ebbed, a man shouted, “The Alchemist-King is dead!”
Elena yanked Glass close to bellow into her ear: “You killed the Alchemist-King?”
“Gordon?” Elena read the name off Glass’s lips. Confusion broke through her glaze of incomprehension. She said something, but her voice drowned under the roar of the mob.
“What?” Elena bent her ear to Glass’s mouth.
“There she is!”
The attention of the masses swiveled and focused, and in a lull Elena found herself at the focus of thousands of eyes. No, not her; Glass was the focus. Her bug eyes flicked up and around at the staring faces, and she began to tic rapidly.
“She poisoned the Alchemist-King!”
Elena had one instant to wonder how they would know before the crowd contracted in to crush them. A forest of grasping, tearing hands descended on Glass, wrenching her back and forth, snatching at her hair.
Elena tightened her hold on Glass and tried to shield her with her body. “Peacekeeper!” she bellowed. “Hands off!”
With one hand she groped inside a pouch and yanked free an emergency crystal, a tiny faceted marble with a core that glowed red. She ground it under her heel, and red light spiked toward the sky. The shaft of light was brilliant even in daylight, visible for miles around—Glass herself had sold these to the Hounds.
The mob flinched back for a fraction of a second, but then they contracted in again with an invigorated roar. They spat obscenities, spewed hatred, pressed inward with a suffocating weight—this was what it felt like to be crushed to death, the breathlessness, the desperate resistance against impossible force, sudden awareness of the subjectivity of bodily contours.
“Peacekeeper!” Elena screamed, and felt her throat tear. Someone shoved her, and her head snapped back hard enough to dizzy her with pain.
As she staggered up, re-orienting, trying to find Glass, she caught a flash at her peripheral vision of a hooded figure. She jumped up to clear the crowd and got one fast glimpse over their heads. In the shadows of doorways, lingering at second story windows and the niches between arcaded pillars, figures in thick hooded robes overlooked the chaos of the mob. Here and there among them, light fell upon a long-fingered grey hand, glinted in slit-pupilled red eyes.
Elena whirled back, in time to see Glass’s corona of grey hair vanish beneath grasping hands and the weight of many bodies. The emergency signal shone incandescent red through the roiling mass, like a marker for the spot where Glass had gone down.
Elena couldn’t help her. The certainty of that brought her a curious calm. She was a Hound, trained to gauge the odds and cut her losses. Her reinforcements would go for the beacon; they’d save Glass if she could be saved.
Elena could do more for Eamon now. She turned and sprinted back through the gate of Glass’s tower. The golems were lifeless and the teeth gate yawned open—she scrambled through and took the way by memory back to the tea-room.
When she burst through the door, she thought this was another of Glass’s optical illusions, identical rooms. But no… there were the shards of the porcelain cup, and the bottle of poisoned wine. The only thing missing was Eamon.
Something wet dripped down her fingers—blood. She had a flash of memory—Glass’s nose crunching under a fist, dripping red. She started to wipe it onto her shirt, but stopped abruptly. The blood ward. Glass’s workshop was crowded with Hounds from at least three different departments, their voices blending together in a continuous hubbub. They moved carefully to avoid touching Glass’s equipment but several were sketching diagrams of the contents of her shelves. Elena had deactivated the blood ward hours before the Hounds arrived in force.
At this point, any questions about the case were academic. The three major players were dead, even if no one could locate Eamon’s body. But with a casualty count of three Alchemists, those questions had to be answered.
The investigation had been on-site for over a full day now, with Hounds vanishing and reappearing in shifts, but Elena hadn’t moved from the acid-scarred worktable. Glass’s papers and notebooks were splayed out around her in an ever-increasing radius. Elena’s sergeant was directing the technical aspects of the investigation, but he’d left her the monumental task of piecing the narrative together.
She had Glass’s workbooks with equations and instructions, arcane recipes of metal and minerals. She had her logbooks, with tables upon tables of numbers, the results of her experiments. She had a few letters from merchants to Glass, the only trace of her correspondence. For reference she had Glass’s copy of the Alchymist’s Compendium, heavily annotated with underlines and scribbled notes.
And right in front of her she had Glass’s diary.
Elena pressed two fingers to her temple and focused on the page. She’d read the same entry three times over, trying to comprehend it.
“Stibnite knows the assassin was mine.”
Paranoia was an occupational hazard of Alchemists, and Glass was no exception—all her papers were in code. The code was often simplistic—she’d named people after elements—but so far Elena hadn’t been able to lock any down.
His body—the assassin’s body, not Stibnite’s—is lying across this worktable a foot away, dripping bodily fluids all over yesterday’s notes. It was there when I woke up.
Elena looked over at the cot in the corner, through a gap in the moving mass of Hounds. The sheets were still rumpled.
I’m sure he wants me to look up the poison—I’m sure there’s a clever symbolism, a complex message—so I’m not going to.
End of entry. Elena squeezed her head between her hands, hoping the pressure would induce some flash of clarity.
Of course, the real problem was that the entry was already blindingly clear. Poison meant Stibnite was Eamon. And Stibnite had featured prominently in Glass’s notes. She flipped forward, scanning the words.
Stibnite’s not quite human any more.
Stibnite is only two years older than me.
Even Gold is scared of Stibnite.
Gold. Was Gold the Alchemist-King? That was who she’d been looking for, after all—indicators that Glass had premeditated the assassination of the Alchemist-King. But Gold came up infrequently; the real obsession was with Stibnite.
She overshot into blank pages, and had to back up to find the last entry.
Stibnite and his little dog are coming to tea. One last try—if I fail he’ll probably kill me.
She jumped, and the diary page tore with a sharp little rip.
Gregory raised his eyebrows. “High-strung today?” The research scholar’s round face was lined with exhaustion, his eyes hollowed by crescent shadows.
The question was ironic, so she didn’t bother to answer. “What have you got for me?”
“Hard numbers.” He set a glass vial carefully on top of a workbook. A small amount of white powder dusted the bottom. “I analyzed the concentrations of ‘breath in all three drinks.”
“You can do that?”
“Like I said, I dabble. It’s very basic alchemy.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I could have been more helpful, before.” His voice died on before; he knew speculation was useless. With a little sigh, he handed her a paper. “Here are the numbers. Speaking in approximations, the ‘breath in the three drinks added up to about four grains. There are six grains left in the vial. Prove that Glass bought ten grains of dragonbreath from her supplier, and you’re all set. One closed loop, one closed case.”
Elena clutched at the paper. “You’re a wizard, Gregory.”
“Anything but an Alchemist.” Gregory gave her a tired smile and drifted away.
Elena scanned the numbers. Gregory had factored in volume and concentration and other obscure factors to come up with a solid total for each drink. 75 centigrains had gone into the Alchemist-King’s first drink, the failed attempt to poison him, and 125 centigrains into the successful attempt. Eamon’s drink was equal to both of them together–a staggering two grains had gone into that bottle. With six grains left in the vial.
Elena pulled up short. Ten grains. Gregory had said ten. She closed her eyes and pulled up the image of the Doorkeeper’s ledger, as vivid as when she’d first seen it. The stamped sigil of the Glass Alchemist, and over it, the record of purchase in tiny writing: eight grains dragonbreath.
Eight grains wasn’t enough. She needed ten to account for the full amount. Two entire grains of dragonbreath had materialized out of nowhere.
Elena stared blindly around the room. Most of the Hounds had emptied out; only a few still diagrammed the blood ward sigils on the stone floor.
Gregory must have miscalculated. Probably a simple error—maybe he’d missed a digit, or factored something wrong.
And if he hadn’t?
She could feel the narrative architecture of the case collapsing around her—all her carefully built scaffolds of cause and effect.
Two grains from Glass’s stash could cover either Eamon or the Alchemist-King, but not both. The evidence from the diary made the answer unequivocal—Glass had gone for Eamon.
But if she’d only poisoned Eamon, who had poisoned the Alchemist-King?
She realized how stupid the question was the moment after it crossed her mind, but it took a moment for the logic to ripple all the way out to the edges of her brain.
Are you ready?
I’m at the threshold.
Glass and the Alchemist-King wanted to eradicate the fey; Eamon was their ally. He was the Poison Alchemist—they’d let him know if anyone bought a lethal quantity of dragonbreath. Particularly if the buyer was a mutual enemy.
Glass had put herself on record, and Eamon had only seized the opportunity.
I’m not stupid. The Poison Alchemist wouldn’t use poison to kill me.
He hadn’t even made an effort to disguise himself; he’d let everyone else wallow in their own cleverness and follow specious trails of logic right to the conclusions he intended. Elegant in its simplicity, just like Eamon himself.
But he was dead. Endgame.
Except… this was alchemy. The codes, and the secrets, and the lies—they’d been the key from the very beginning.
The King had been immortal—so why would someone poison him? Death revealed the lie: he wasn’t immortal at all.
Eamon was mortal—why would he die to execute his plan? Death revealed the truth: he wasn’t mortal at all.
Elena yanked the Compendium toward her, flipped frantically toward the P’s.
Philosopher’s stone: Stone not as in gemstone, but as in limestone. Powdery, but incombustible.
Just beyond her pile of papers gleamed the vial of dragonbreath, white granules as fine as desert sand.
You breathe the dragon. One more shot will do it—the larger the better.
I don’t think we’ll have a problem with that. Desperation breeds the most remarkable enthusiasm.
Had he known Glass would poison him?
The ethereal voices of a choir rose through the vast interior of the Mausoleum to its high ribbed vaults. The song harmonized and redoubled with its echoes, until Elena couldn’t tell the words of the song or the number of singers. She stepped through the aisles of bodies, careful not to brush draped feet or heads that lolled off the stone slabs.
Ranks upon ranks of bodies awaited their burial preparations. The dead vastly outnumbered the living, a few family members and several lone clergy who moved from body to body with their ministrations. Elena recognized the vestments of at least three different spiritual disciplines. The murmurs of their voices were lost within the space.
But the dead here were nothing compared to the number of dead in the burial vaults and catacombs below. No one knew how far they extended, but Elena had once speculated they stretched beneath the entire City.
When she passed the last row of bodies, a grey-robed figure stepped from one of the bays to meet her. Only shadowed contours of its face were visible, but this was Eamon’s domain. Elena knew it was fey even before it spoke.
“I am the Steward.” The forked tongue sustained the s, made its name something alien. “How may I be of service?”
“I’m here to see the Poison Alchemist.” Elena braced her feet wide apart and met the fey’s eyes, only a gleam within the shadows of the hood. “Please tell Eamon that Elena, Hound of Justice, is here to see him.”
Was that a flicker in the Steward’s eyes, a blink-quick dilation of slit pupils?
It turned and glided past her. “This way.”
She followed it to a narrow door in the wall of an apse, and down an even narrower staircase. The passage was claustrophobic and so dark she had to grope her way along the wall. With the other hand she gripped her stiletto, so tightly that her fingers started to ache. When the Steward halted at another narrow door, she expected the worst.
But the room it ushered her into was warm and firelit, filled with rich colors and textures in the tasseled cushions and rugs and glinting strands of bead curtains. Threads of fragrant smoke rose from burning sticks of incense. A few humans lounged around on cushions, and a group of fey passed a pipe around a cross-legged circle.
Just to Elena’s left, a heavy curtain of onyx beads rippled and parted, and Eamon stepped through.
The last time she’d seen him, he’d been vacant-eyed and drooling. She’d forgotten how beautiful he was in motion, the symmetries of his face skewed into something far more dangerous with the faint twitch of his smile.
“You figured it out,” he said, quietly.
“You told me the secret yourself.” She crossed her arms—defensive posture, when she should be going offensive, but she couldn’t help it. His liveness was too overwhelming. “I just wasn’t listening.”
“Did I?” He arched one elegant eyebrow.
“Everything must first be dissolved.” She tossed him the vial of ‘breath, and he snatched it out of the air without looking. “Everything must first be destroyed.”
His hint of a smile curved into the real thing, wry and self-deprecating. “It’s harder than it sounds.”
She recognized that self-deprecation, finally. He’d never seemed as unstable as the King or Glass, never as itchy with ambition and paranoia. Like the Mausoleum and its catacombs, what showed above his surface was only the tip of his power, a power that spread through the foundations of the entire City.
She’d wondered why he entered Salt’s domain so casually. She knew now that he went anywhere he pleased.
His smile faded to nothing as he studied her. “What now, Elena?”
“They crown you Alchemist-King, don’t they?” She met his stare. His eyes had always been dark, but now they seemed bottomless. “Isn’t that what this is about?”
“Means to an end.” He gave a dismissive flick of his fingers, and she had a vivid flash of their first meeting in King’s antechamber, back when he’d been a cipher, just a pretty face. A lifetime ago, in every sense of the word.
“You’re not wearing gloves,” she realized.
“I don’t need to.” He took her hand. His fingers were smooth and cold; they didn’t feel like human flesh. “The dragon consumed me, but it also consumed itself.” His fingers tightened on her knuckles, and his voice dropped low. “Come to work for me, Elena. I could use a liaison.”
Just once, she wished she were weaker, weak enough to succumb. Life would be easier if she were weak, if she only thought of herself, if she had no ethical code but her own desire. But her strength wasn’t a choice; it was a reflex.
She detached her hand from his, and nodded to the smoking circle. “You already have powerful allies.”
He glanced over at the fey. They’d let down their hoods, and their colorless hair gleamed translucent in the warm light. When he turned back, his face was serious. “At my coronation, they will stand as part of the crowd. The humans may tremble at their proximity, but they won’t dare edge away. They’ll still be a minority, but they will stand in the sunlight like any other man.”
To step out of the shadows without fear… so much for her ethical code. He’d hit it in the heart, and the ache bloomed deep and bittersweet. She swallowed hard, pushed skepticism into her voice. “So you’re doing this for them.”
“Not only for them. But that’s the part you’ll understand.”
“You’re only telling me this to silence me,” she managed.
He gave a laconic shrug. “You are who you are, Elena. Peacekeeper. Hound of Justice.” He mimicked her rhythms in turn.
Justice. Yes, she recognized the justice of it, a justice as swift and bitter as poison. The Alchemist-King had built his reign on lies, carving baroque coils of fear and hatred into every inch of his gilded edifice. He’d lived on the fake discovery of the philosopher’s stone, and he’d died by a lethal dose of the real thing.
Eamon wasn’t trying to bribe her, she realized. He hadn’t threatened to kill her. He only watched her now, with those impossibly dark eyes, eyes that contained an entire spinning universe.
She couldn’t face the eternity in those eyes. She wasn’t ready for it.
“You win,” she said. “What I know stays with me.” She bowed, perfectly formal, a subject to her King. “Majesty.”
“Thank you, Elena.” He offered the vial to her; the ‘breath shone white in the firelight. “Keep it. In case you change your mind.”
“No, thank you.” She turned for the stairs, and spoke over her shoulder. “I couldn’t afford it.”
Debi Carroll has lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Michigan, Chicago, DC, Malaysia, Texas, and Boston, and currently resides in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in ChiZine, Crossed Genres, and ASIM, and she blogs about books at wheelwithin.livejournal.com.