She wasn’t staying. She hadn’t said so yet, but even without a bond to provide him with a direct connection to her feelings, Vico could still tell which way the wind was blowing. Ten years, he reflected, glancing over his shoulder at where Seya was sitting, curled up in a little ball on the couch with her arms around her knees. It was enough time for everything to get awkward. There had never been anything awkward between them, they had been bonded too long and from far too young an age for that.
It might have been because she wasn’t talking very much. Food and sleep had taken the edge off the terrible desperation he’d picked up hints of the night before, and she was on guard now. On guard against him. Because of his clan bond or just all the stuff that had been going down right before she disappeared? Some part of him still clung to the initial anger—if she had been alive all these years, why hadn’t she come home? Where had she been? The rest of him was remembering what he’d said right before she turned up missing, and feeling guilty for it, but he also didn’t think anything he’d said back then was grounds for abandoning him in the worst possible way. Having a bond—not some constructed thing like a pinnacle or a clan bond, but something they’d built together—it was like sharing a heart. It wasn’t a connection that could just be thrown away.
And he had a feeling, like there was something wrong with her magic. Her shields were up too high for him to get a good read, but he still had a sense of something slightly off, and she was hiding something on her left hand. The fact that he hadn’t noticed before meant she was actively hiding it from him. He’d gotten an impression of a ward or something similar coming off it, and after watching covertly for a while, he’d noticed that she favored that hand slightly. She was right-handed so it wasn’t obvious, but now that he had noticed it, it nagged at him. He put that aside for the moment as he made breakfast. It was his nature to poke at a problem until he figured it out, but there was a tension in her like she was about to bolt. He would have to proceed with caution.
Over breakfast he kept up a rambling commentary—what their old friends were doing now, things that had changed around town since she’d left. If Seya noted his careful avoidance of everything Malthusius, she said nothing. He was in no hurry to damp the fragile happiness of their reunion with serious talk. It had been too many years, and however happy he was to see her, they were both different people now. Sometimes he thought he caught a hint of the fearless, fiery girl she had been before, but the pale, tense person huddled in wall-like shields on his couch was a stranger.
He broke off, frowning at her as she suddenly went unnaturally still, her right hand around her left wrist in a knuckle-whitening grip, her face pale and frighteningly blank. “Are you okay?” he asked, going back over what he had said, trying to figure out what had set her off. It all seemed fairly benign.
She unclenched her jaw to take a sharp breath, her shields going practically opaque, blocking out the sparks of pain and distress in her aura. “I’m fine,” she said tightly. “Go on. Talbot. Our old landlord.”
His eyes narrowed. “He died a couple years into the restructuring, and Jezzie sold off a lot of their holdings to a new guy that showed up—Jas Albrecht. It seems he’s gunning for clan status. Been trying to move in on our territory—” He hesitated, trying to gauge her reaction to his mention of clan business.
“Oh?” she said, sipping her tea. There was a long silence. She was not pleased, no matter what she had said the night before. Well, he wasn’t exactly pleased with everything himself just now. The silence grew tense, the two of them shielded like a pair of enemies caged together.
Vico broke the silence first. “Seya—” To his intense aggravation, Jayen chose just then to ping him through the Malthusius bond. Vico let out an exasperated breath. “Hold on,” he muttered, and tuned in.
–what do you want–
–Dad wants to see you. hurry up, I’m waiting outside to drive you–
Jayen ended the connection curtly, his mental tone leaving irritable traces. Vico could imagine why, though Jayen was taking it better than he’d thought. He’d expected Jayen to be beating on his door at some unholy hour of the morning, since he’d unplugged his phone the night before and set his shields to shut out his clan bond for the night.
He wondered, briefly, if it would be worth the trouble to just not show up, and then dismissed the idea. Seya’s presence was a game changer. Even if Vico had pretty much given up on the game, he did need to know what was going to happen before he made any livelihood-altering decisions. Hell, he didn’t even know if she’d still be there when he got back. “Apparently I’ve been summoned. Think you’ll be okay here by yourself for a while? I have no idea when I’ll be back, but it’ll be as soon as possible.”
“Sure,” she said. He couldn’t tell if she was lying, but it felt like it. He stared at her for a long moment, then went to his room to change.
Seya got up and went to the window, frowning down at the flashy black car parked on the curb below—even the Malthusius fleet cars were absurdly pretentious. Wouldn’t want anyone to forget Corin owns half the town, she thought scathingly. Jayen was leaning on the door, scowling up at the apartment. He hadn’t changed much. A bit taller, and broader across the shoulders now, his dark hair shorter, his light golden brown skin deepened to bronze—from spending hours out in the circle, she had no doubt. Even at the distance and through Vico’s wards she could feel the echo of his magic, brusque and heavy but well-controlled, still largely elemental in nature, the spiritual side barely shored up by his clan bond. High tier, though. Vico had mentioned, briefly, that Corin had finally named him as the official heir. She wondered if Vico had told him she was here; he was scowling up at the window as if he could see through the extra wards Vico had laid on the windows to preserve his privacy.
Seya brushed her fingertips against the glass to touch the spellwork. Vico had used his own magic on the innermost layer of the protections, no traces of the Malthusius bond in the energy that powered the rest seeping through. It felt felt much the same as she remembered, a little more mature, but still brisk and orderly and meticulous and slightly contrary, laced with the stubborn, fiery edge that was unique to him. The familiarity stung at her eyes and tightened her throat. She leaned her arm on the window and rested her forehead against it with a sigh.
Leaving again was going to break what little was left of her heart.
When Vico came out of his room, buttoning his shirt cuffs and swearing under his breath at being pinged a third time, Seya was collecting the breakfast dishes. The least she could do was clean up after being put up for the night.
Before he left, Vico plugged his phone back in. “I’m leaving the dial sigil for my office here, in case you need anything. You don’t need to tell the operator who you are. Just ask for me.” He dropped his business card down next to the phone.
“Sure,” she said.
“I don’t have anything left for lunch here, so here’s some money.” He pulled a thin bundle of small bills out of his pocket and set it on the table.
“Thanks,” she said, but she didn’t move to take it. She felt utterly revolted with herself for thinking of how much she would need it when she left.
“Well, see you later.” There was an insistent inflection in his tone, as if speaking it like a spell would cast it true.
“For everything,” she said.
His shoulders slumped. “Look, I know this is awkward as hell after all this time,” he began.
She laughed with her back to him as she stacked the dishes in the sink. “You think?”
He glanced back with a frown. “We’ll talk about things when I get back,” he said. “If I can get away, I’ll come back on my lunch break.” She didn’t say anything to that. The door slammed behind him, and she winced. She hadn’t wanted to leave without saying goodbye again. And she hadn’t even apologized yet.
She could leave a note. How much angrier would he be if she did that? Maybe it would be easier if he stayed angry.
Just thinking that made her feel dirty. Severing a bond hurt both sides, and she felt the phantom ache of their old connection worse than ever as his presence faded out of the range of her sense. Coming back to Starling was shaping up to be exactly as terrible an idea as she had imagined.
“I told you you were going to get in trouble over this,” Jayen said, and threw something at Vico as he crossed the sidewalk to the car.
Vico caught it—his Malthusius sigil. He rolled his eyes and pinned it to his collar. “Why are you standing out in the street alone?” He wasn’t supposed to be outside the compound without one of his security people to act as bodyguard; someone had tried to kill him a few weeks before. Of course, being Jayen, he had taken it more as a personal affront than an actual threat.
“I’m not alone,” Jayen said, and when he opened the door, Vico could see Micah in the passenger seat. “What do you care, anyway?”
“The fact that you’re kind of a bastard doesn’t necessarily equate to me wanting to see you dead practically on my doorstep. Get in the damn car already.” Vico got in the back seat and belted himself in, throwing Micah a reproachful look. “And why are you letting him stand out there like a target?”
“Are you kidding? I made him get out because he wouldn’t stop whining. Apparently you hurt his feelings yesterday, so thanks for that.”
“You shut the hell up, Micah,” Jayen snapped. Vico waited for an explosion of temper about Seya, but Jayen started the car and drove away without speaking to either of them again.
He was sullen, but not truly angry, Vico decided. He pinged Micah through the clan bond.
–you didn’t tell him?–
Micah looked out the window. At first Vico thought he wasn’t going to answer, or perhaps that he couldn’t, but then:
–the old man wants it kept quiet–
Which meant there were going to be some bullshit clan politics involved in Seya’s reappearance, just like Vico had been thinking. Probably it was a bad sign that Corin was keeping it from his son, even if it was the smart thing to do. Jayen was forthright to a fault, and he did not do quiet.
–is she with you?–
Vico didn’t answer. He was still trying to decide how to proceed himself. Micah was a decent guy, but he was clan-born. He was pretty sure Micah would feel obligated to tell Corin, or Jayen, at the very least. Perhaps not now, but as soon as he could get away with it.
Jayen scowled at them both. He’d be able to tell they were using the bond connection to talk, but because of his limited spiritual magic, he couldn’t tune in to their conversation without being invited. “Since when did you two get so chummy?”
Micah rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, am I not supposed to talk to him anymore, ever? It’s been almost a year. The two of you could try a little harder to get along. For everyone else’s sake, at least.”
“Nobody is all that torn up about taking his side against me,” Vico said. “You sure weren’t.”
“Weren’t you the one who decided you two should try to be friends?” Micah said.
“You know what, I think I liked it better when you were just taking his side and not talking to me,” Vico said, pulling the Bretinne file out of his bag to distract himself until they arrived at the compound. He had an appointment with the city permit office to prepare for.
To his annoyance, Jayen followed him upstairs to Corin’s office. “You enjoy watching me get yelled at that much?”
Jayen threw him another scowl. “I have business here too.” Not precisely a lie, but not the whole truth, either. Vico looked away—he knew it was a tacit display of support. If Jayen was there, he could assume a portion of Corin’s anger over whatever Vico was about to get in trouble for. He’d done it again and again over the last year, until Vico kind of wanted to strangle him. It was something Jayen would have done for anyone he was close to, but that’s not what other people saw.
When they arrived at the office, Corin’s secretary showed them in immediately. Inside, Corin was engaged in a heated discussion with someone; the words muffled by privacy wards, but the tension bled out into the bond network. A stilted silence fell as Lennette opened the door to announce them, and Vico stifled a sigh as he saw Addison was there. Corin might barely tolerate him, and half his fellow bonded might treat him like trash that blew in off the street, and he might have ruined whatever meager credit he had built up with the rest of them last year by breaking the heart of their heir presumptive, but Marc Addison was the true bane of his existence.
As Corin’s second, Addison was in charge of managing the day-to-day operations of the clan’s essential departments—Territorial, L&R, and Mediations—while Corin was busy looking after the bond magic and the business side of the clan. That meant Vico had him to blame for being stuck in the thankless hell that was Mediations. Not that Vico wasn’t good at negotiating disputes for the Malthusius affiliates and sweet-talking potential new ones, but it was tedious, time-consuming work, and there was very little magic involved—and therefore next to no status to be gained no matter how well he did at it. He still fumed every time he remembered how Addison had dismissed his request to be transferred to L&R, mocking his levels as unworthy of being moved up to the first tier of the bond before relegating him to his current job. So what if his levels were only average? He was a damn good mage, thanks to the way he’d had to work his ass off to keep up with Seya and her outrageous, early-onset levels. If they had put him on first tier, he’d be high-equivalent, and everyone knew it. Addison just hated him, unreasonably, for his connection to a clan that had been sundered when Vico was an infant.
Addison regarded them both with barely concealed irritation. “Jayen, where is the report on the Miredes incident? I need it now.”
“My secretary will bring it when it’s time for our appointment,” Jayen said, bristling the man’s imperious tone. He did not get along with Addison either, because he was one of the most vocal opponents of Jayen taking over the bond magic. It was partly because he didn’t think Jayen capable of managing it, but also because he was distantly related to the Malthusius bloodline, which put his daughter Karienne in the running for heir. Jayen had grown up having the idea of either a marital or a child-bargain alliance with her thrown at him constantly, and had refused both options in no uncertain terms upon coming of age. Since then, Addison had been campaigning hard with the high tier to make sure Jayen wasn’t found eligible to inherit. Corin hadn’t tried to settle the dispute. He wanted his son to prove himself worthy of the clan on his own. That meant learning to negotiate his own political landmines. Unfortunately, Jayen was hopeless at politics. Vico felt a familiar twitch of guilt for having abandoned Jayen to deal with that all on his own.
“Now,” Addison said, his eyes dropping disdainfully back to the papers in his hands.
Jayen looked to his father. Corin did not look up from his own work as he sent a mild rebuke at his son through the clan bond to dismiss him. Jayen curled his lip and left. He knew he was being gotten out of the way, and he didn’t like it. Vico was the only one paying enough attention to notice the little shiver of worry in Jayen’s aura as the door shut behind him.
Once Jayen was gone, Corin finally looked up. He was a broad-built man, not tall, but powerful, his face a stern mask, its square-boned structure well-lined though he was only forty-six years old. His light brown hair was lightly sprinkled with white, his gray eyes sharp and cold as steel. He had the fair Talese coloring, not as pale as Vico, but there was nothing of the Caldi in him, even though Malthusius had been an established clan in Caldona for nearly seventy years, one of the many refugee groups from the Talese Isles invited to resettle there after fleeing the Arisi Conquerer’s armies during the Second Wave.
He was a hard man, having assumed control of his clan at the age of twenty after his mother, the previous bondmaster, had been killed protecting her bonded from a coup by the Sancerre. The attack had been led by Vico’s uncle, a fact that had counted against him every day of his life despite his not having been born yet when it happened. Living as Malthusius-bonded for eight years, as the heir’s partner, even, had done nothing to diminish the resentment his Sancerre blood engendered from the older Malthusius. Vico could see it in Corin’s eyes every time he looked at him. Corin might tolerate him because Jayen had spoken for him, but Vico knew he was only still alive to appreciate that because of his connection to Seya.
Corin’s aura was sparking with that resentment now, and his voice was a restrained growl when he finally spoke. “Young Callahan said he saw my daughter last night.”
Your alleged daughter? Vico thought, more out of old loyalty than any real conviction. The surest way to piss Seya off had always been to bring up that subject. Legally, Seya had no father, but that hadn’t stopped Corin from trying to claim her any more than Seya’s own clear loathing of the man.
Corin fixed his sense on Vico, focusing on the threads of elaborately intertwined spiritual and elemental magic that linked the Malthusius bonded, looking for an answer, a reaction, anything. But Vico had learned years ago that a clan bond was not like a natural bond. It wasn’t possible to tell a lie through either type, but if he did not volunteer information, Corin couldn’t tell he was lying by omission. Vico was good at keeping things out of the bond—another thing for which he had Seya to thank. He’d had to learn how to do that for her. Nothing he might’ve owed to Malthusius could match what he owed Seya, even if she had abandoned him, even if she was already gone. So he shrugged and said, in a noncommittal tone, “He told me.”
“And you saw her?” Corin said.
“I did. Near Halcyon,” Vico said.
Corin sat back, struggling to contain some strong emotion. Vico studied his face covertly, but Corin was one of the few people he had difficulty reading—the man was too used to keeping his guard up. It might have been anger, relief, fear, regret, or some combination of any or all of them.
“And where is she now?”
Vico shrugged again. “It’s anyone’s guess.” It was true enough. He had no idea if she was still at his apartment, after all.
Corin probed at him through the clan bond a moment, then sat back, his face set. “If you see her again, I want to know. There may be something in it for you if you were to cooperate.”
Vico’s eyebrows went up. Bribery rather than threats? That was new. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. He could feel Addison’s predatory attention on him, and the slight rebuke Corin leveled at the man when he opened his mouth. If he was tiptoeing around Vico this way, that had to mean he was serious about wanting to talk to Seya, and afraid that alienating him would damage that prospect. It was an unexpected advantage, and Vico intended to make the most of it.
“See that you do. Dismissed.”
On his way to Mediations, Vico debated with himself about his next course of action. If this thing with Seya was giving him some leverage, he might be able to get away with blowing off work for the day. But if he was being monitored, that would be a dead giveaway, and he was pretty sure the first sign of Malthusius interference would send Seya packing without so much as a goodbye. And there was that appointment with the city inspector about the automagic installation for Bretinne that was supposed to happen at the end of the week, and he still had to talk to L&R about the reports for it. If he didn’t do at least that much today there would be hell to pay later. Marten was already breathing down his neck about those damned permits. He could get it all done before lunch and knock off early, make sure Seya hadn’t already vanished again.
Jayen returned to the fourth floor just in time to see Vico leaving his father’s office. Vico was good at keeping his feelings to himself when he wanted to, but he did not look like a man who had just been dressed down for insubordination. He was slightly more animated than usual, actually, and Jayen felt a little spark of something that might have been panic for what it might mean.
“Boss, we’re going to be late,” Hanna said.
“I’m coming,” he said, because he could hardly follow Vico down the hall and demand an answer out of him now. What would Vico have done? He turned the problem over in his mind. As Hanna flirted with Lennette while they waited to be shown in, an idea occurred to him. He reached for the files Hanna held. She handed them over, surprised.
–Hanna, see if you can’t sweet-talk whatever Dad and Vico were talking about out of Lenette. discreetly, though–
Hanna looked intrigued.
-no, no rush, just whenever you have time today. Take her to lunch on me or something-
He slipped her a few bills to cover it.
“Yes sir,” she said, tucking them into her pocket and following him into the office with a grin.