Chapter Twenty

In the Wind

“What about the assassination attempt?” Vico asked. “Any leads on that?”

“Nothing new,” Jayen said. “No traces, or at least none that could be read out.”

“I think these two incidents are connected. It seems like too much of a coincidence that they both lack traces so completely.”

“I thought of that earlier,” Jayen said. “There’s nothing else to link them, though. I’ve got my best mages looking it up, in case it’s some new thing we haven’t heard of yet, and I’ll be comparing the traces from both incidents later when I get back to the office.”

“I haven’t read about anything that could obliterate traces so completely. Maybe if we could find someone with high spiritualist level sense to look over the place,” Vico mused.

“Who, though? The only registered high spiritualist in town is the head priest at Heirond, and he wouldn’t exactly be thrilled to help us. Not after the way Dad started in on him at the last City Hall meeting.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of asking Seya. She’ll be cleared in a couple more days,” Vico said.

“Would she do it, though? And won’t that be too long to let things sit, with the Bretinne people being so impatient?”

“Maybe,” Vico said. “If the two incidents are linked, and she thinks she could help find the people who kept trying to kill you, she might not refuse outright. And…maybe. I might be able to talk them into waiting if I can find a good excuse. Something about the investigation, perhaps. It would help if we had a someone to point a finger at.” He leaned forward and enlarged another portion of the trace image. “The canvassing didn’t yield any information, I guess?”

“We found some kids who saw a car at the park around the same time as the attack, but the description was too general—no make or numbers, no driver or passengers or other pedestrians. The level of care that went into this thing is frankly unnerving in retrospect. They must have been watching me for a while. I don’t understand how they could have been hiding so well. Did Seya say anything about it?”

“No, but she was distracted. There’s something going on with her but she won’t talk to me about it.”

“Maybe she was the target, and she was lying when she said it was me.”

“No, I believe her. She hasn’t been back in town long enough for this level of preplanning. When I found her she was half asleep on a park bench. There’s no way she’d have been so unguarded if she thought she was in danger from people with these kind of resources.”

“You’re frowning like you don’t quite believe that,” Jayen said.

“No, I’m frowning because I’m worrying about her,” Vico said. “If I’d known she would be so stubborn I’d have tagged my wards to make sure she actually went back like she promised.” He enlarged another part of the trace.

“Ping her already. You’re not busy right now.”

Vico lowered his eyes. “If I could have done that I would have already. She hasn’t formalized our bond,” he said, with undisguised discouragement. “She won’t even acknowledge it.”

“Won’t acknowledge it?” Jayen said, feeling somewhat affronted on Vico’s behalf. He could understand why she might not want to formalize their own bond—he wasn’t certain whether he wanted to himself—but she and Vico had been so close. Absurdly, frustratingly close. “Why the hell not?”

Vico sighed. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

Of course not, Jayen thought, annoyed. But, he realized a moment later, that gave him something to offer. “You should go check on her. Take my car. I’ll be here a while yet.”

“I don’t have time. Someone from Financial is coming to discuss Bretinne’s demands so we can prepare for the meeting. They should be here soon.”

They went over the trace some more, but Jayen had been staring at them for over an hour already, and between that and the weird flashes in his vision, it was giving him a headache. He rubbed his eyes absently.

Vico turned to him in consternation. “You’ve been doing that all day,” he said. “What is wrong?”

“It’s nothing. Probably the heat is getting to me or something.” With all the lines shut down, there was nothing to regulate the temperatures in the building. He reached for one of the bottles of water on the table and rolled the coolness of it over the back of his neck.

“Don’t try to pawn that bullshit off on me,” Vico said. “Is it your eyes again, or a headache?”

“Just a little flashing in my vision. It’s not even bothering me, I’m just tired of looking at this stuff.”

“Stubborn idiot,” Vico said. “Look at me.”

“I’m fine! I feel fine—”

Ignoring his protestations, Vico took Jayen’s face between his hands and tipped his head up so he could look into his eyes. “Lower your shields so I can have a proper look.”

Jayen smirked up at him. “Are you trying to be provocative now?” He traced his fingers up Vico’s arm suggestively.

“I’m trying to make sure you aren’t about to collapse on my watch,” Vico said. “You know if anything happens to you when you’re alone with me they’ll find a way to make it my fault. Shields, please.”

Jayen sighed impatiently and lowered his shields, his hand closing over Vico’s arm as he felt the other man’s presence sifting through the clan bond, sinking into his aura. It felt much like a healer’s touch, except Vico’s presence felt warm and achingly familiar. And irritated. And…affectionate? Jayen dismissed the notion. Vico had done this for him before, checking his aural signature after particularly bad fights and magical disasters, and he had never been able to discern anything like feelings before. Still, it was a pleasant fantasy. Almost as good as the real thing. It was hard not to indulge in a small bit of fantasy when Vico was staring into his eyes so intently.

Vico frowned at him. “Don’t go reading anything into this,” he said briskly.

Jayen huffed. “Tease,” he muttered.

Vico ignored that. “How thorough a checkup did they give you?”

“The usual. Why are you fussing so much?”

“It is possible to contract a curse secondhand through a bond,” Vico said. “Dalen worried about that constantly, considering Seya’s disposition and how she was so prone to reacting badly to them. It’s entirely possible some minor thread of it got into you through the connection and is causing whatever small damage it can.”

“I think I’d have noticed by now,” Jayen pointed out.

“Would you? To get through, it would need to be a wholly spiritual component. You might not be able to tell.”

Jayen did not like that idea at all. “So did you get checked out?” he asked. “Yours is a much closer connection.”

“No, because it was a targeted curse. And I don’t know if it gets any closer than sharing blood.”

Jayen snorted and rolled his eyes. “Your bond survived ten years and a severing, that’s much closer than anything I could manage.”

“Don’t look away,” Vico said, pinching him lightly on the cheek.

“What are you doing? Besides tormenting me, I mean.”

“I’m checking your aural signature, obviously. You do seem clean, though.”

“I guess you’d know better than the healers,” Jayen muttered.

“I’m sure I would, considering you avoid them like the very plague,” Vico said, tracing his finger over a faint scar above Jayen’s eyebrow. “What happened here?”

Jayen tensed at the touch. “What are you doing?” he asked again, more seriously. He let go of Vico’s arm, because the proximity was seriously starting to get under his skin.

“Besides trying to remember why I put up with the two of you?” Vico asked, withdrawing, though he still did not step back, crossing his arms and looking down at Jayen with a small, bothered crease to his brow that made him uneasy despite his earlier assertion.

“What? You saw something?”

“I don’t know. You don’t feel like you’ve been compromised, but…well, it’s been a long time.”

“Are you saying you forgot how I feel?”

“No, but aural signatures shift constantly, especially during times of emotional upheaval. We’ve all three been through the ringer this last week. And even though I have a great deal of experience reading people, my levels aren’t that high. I could have missed something, or misread something.”

“What was that about knowing me better than the healers, then? Or—were you were just using this as an excuse to put your hands on me?” He leaned forward through the scant inches that separated them with a wicked smile.

“It’s because I was worried,” Vico said, poking him in the chest with a finger and pushing him back. “You should go to the healers’ offices and get a complete auric workup, just in case.”

“Waste of time,” Jayen said, irritably.

“Go to Dane, she won’t tell anyone. Or you could ask Aren next time we go to the Halcyon clinic, if you’re worried about the bonded knowing.”

“I am not asking a Halcyon for anything, much less something as invasive and time consuming as a full auric workup,” Jayen snapped.

“Fine, Dane then. If you haven’t made an appointment by Tuesday, I’ll drag you over there myself.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Jayen said.

“No workup, no duel,” Vico said mildly.

“You wouldn’t go back on your word!”

Vico shrugged. “First time for everything, isn’t there?”

“Sly bastard,” Jayen muttered. There was that slight, soft smile again, gone as quickly as it came.

Micah came back inside. “Did I miss anything?” he asked.

“Just discussing the lack of proper traces. Who did these images?” Vico asked.

“Madderly did them herself,” Micah said.

“Not a mistake, then,” Vico mused.

Jayen nodded in agreement. As head of L&R, Madderly was a member of the high tier, though a recent addition, having replaced the retired former chief mage. He considered her politically neutral, as she was the only one on the high tier who had openly acknowledged him as heir from the start. That didn’t keep her from criticizing his failings, one of which was Vico—though interestingly it was less an objection to his person than his presence; she considered him divisive. Which was true enough, though Jayen was loath to admit it out loud—it was just so damned unfair.

“By the way, when I was coming back in I saw that your father has arrived, with someone from Financial,” Micah added.

Jayen gave an almost guilty start and shifted away from Vico to shuffle through the notes and reports laid out across the table. Vico’s expression went flat and he strode back in the direction of the office without another word. The reaction savored strongly of bitterness and Jayen wasn’t quite sure why it struck him that way. Maybe I do need to go see a healer. He should at least look up whoever had analyzed the curse and ask them the side effects of minor exposure. It wasn’t like him to let his imagination run rampant like this.

“You should probably stop staring at his ass before your old man comes in,” Micah said under his breath.

“I wasn’t—” Jayen began, offended, but then his father did come in, followed closely by two of his personal bodyguards, and Doral Atreya from Financial. He set his shoulders and turned to meet them. “Dad. Mr. Atreya.”

Atreya dipped his head in respect to Jayen’s status. Corin swept a scornful eye around the factory floor before settling his cold glare on his son. “Why don’t you explain to me why this place is suffering from such neglect that a half-baked ruse that could be detected by a mere mediator managed to shut it down two days before its scheduled opening?”

“I’m trying to figure that out myself,” Jayen said, not quite meeting his eyes. “We’re still assembling the information and having it analyzed. There are issues with the traces—they just aren’t enough to read anything from them—”

“I don’t want to hear about your failures,” Corin said. “I want to hear results. If you can’t fix your mistake you could at least get it cleaned up as quickly as possible. I expect to hear something conclusive before tomorrow’s meeting so we have some sort of advantage over these Bretinne fools.” He swept past to the offices. Atreya followed him.

Jayen set his jaw. “Let’s go look over things outside some more,” he growled and stalked out the door.

Vico suppressed an exasperated sigh for the dozenth time as he listened to Atreya explain, in minute detail, exactly why the Malthusius could not afford to expand the scope of the contract Bretinne had signed, allowing them better access to the Malthusius energy for the running of the factory. Each of Bretinne’s demands had been shot down with just this excruciating level of detail, and under Corin’s grim eye, he was hard pressed to argue against them without pushing any boundaries. The meeting tomorrow was not going to go well at all, he could feel it in his bones. Corin was determined to hold Bretinne to the current terms of their agreement despite the failure of Malthusius’ security measures.

“Maybe we should take a break for a few minutes so I can look over my notes again, see if I can’t find a new angle for the negotiations,” Vico said. He pretended not to notice the scornful breath Corin let out at that. Atreya made no objections. He was starting to look bored and annoyed with the proceedings himself.

Vico took his folder and went to sit by the window. He flipped through the papers without really looking at them—there was nothing in them that he hadn’t already considered. What they really wanted was for him to find a way to salvage the affiliation without making any more concessions, and that was next to impossible. He set the papers down and looked down over the grounds from the second floor window. Below he could see Jayen’s people and the first L&R crew working away at the new wards. The front of the property, facing the street, was protected by a stone wall, but the back had a chain link fence. It was a precaution against the wards failing, the weaker seating of the chain link meant to function as a release valve for any escaping energy, releasing it into the heavily wooded area behind the factory instead of the street, where it might cause damage to public property, and Hemsley’s charm manufactory across the road.

A stiff wind swayed the fence as they took down the section they were working on, and one of the mages raised a barrier to block it so that the loose metal would be still as they worked. Each section of fence had its own spellwork to be taken down, reworked and linked into the rest to make the barrier whole. Vico watched them move to the next section, and they had to block the wind again, while the warded sections they had already finished were quite still.

The ones with the old wards were not.

Vico bolted out of his chair, galvanized by the sudden realization. He went for the door.

“Rhaimes, where the hell do you think you’re going?” Corin snapped.

“Sorry, sir, but I think I just figured out how they got around the wards,” he said without slowing. He tore down the stairs and outside to where the mages were working, moving past them to the section of the fence they had not re-warded yet, staring intently at the spellwork, tracing his fingers over the complex tangle of sigils and charms as he worked out the casting and the dissipation and the trajectory of the wind flowing through, ignoring the baffled stares he was garnering.

Jayen came over to him. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I know why the wards were dissipated,” Vico said, and grabbed him by the arm, dragging him down to the back gate and making him unlock it so he could get outside. “When we were here yesterday, the fence was moving too, even though the wards should have been keeping it still. Gods damn it, I should have realized it then, but I didn’t.” He went to the trees that grew thick behind the factory and scrambled up into the branches of the first one that had branches low enough to reach. His hunch was confirmed as he felt the stronger drag of air over his face. He followed the threads of it in his sense until he found the first charm, wound around a branch, a string of feathers and soft brown paper inked with swirling, flowing charms and sigils. He dropped it down to Jayen and shimmied back down to the ground himself.

“A wind summons,” Jayen said, staring at the written spellwork. He made a face of distaste as the spell caught, directing the wind in their direction. There was something chilling about the weight of it, almost malicious, even though it was not very strong. Vico drew up a shield to block it out.

Madderly leaned over his shoulder to look, her breath catching as she worked out the casting. “It’s meant to disable the wards,” she said, taking it from Jayen to examine more closely.

“Not disable,” Vico said. “Dissipate.”

Madderly made a disgruntled sound and looked up at him, surprised. “So it is,” she said. “I see it now.” They studied the spellwork together. Before long they had been joined by a number of the other mages and security personnel, and even Corin was striding across the grounds to see what was going on.

“It’s still a failing our part,” Jayen said. “Someone ought to have noticed the wards were dissipating too quickly. There have to be more, one wouldn’t be enough to take down our proprietary spellwork.”

“I’m sure there are dozens,” Vico said. “But now that we have a sample, it’ll be a small matter to make a counter-summons and find the rest.”

Madderly and her crew were already starting the spellwork for that. Vico took possession of the charm when she was done, and carried it back to the fence to study the interaction of the spellwork against the Malthusius wards. “You’ll have to rework the warding to defend against this,” he said to Jayen, who was close on his heels. “Possibly all our wards. It’s ingenious, really, no one would even have thought to ward against wind, it’s such an unreliable element to use—no wonder there were no traces! Wind traces are usually discounted anyway, since they tend to accumulate on anything left outside too long, and they’re so faint it hardly matters anyway. And look here, this sigil was custom formulated to work specifically against Malthusius’ earth seat. Gods. It’s so fucking careful, it even works with the way the energy of our wards is regulated to equalize when part of the spellwork is compromised, and the dissipative function uses our energy from the fire seat to increase its power within the reaction so that the wind levels would be low enough not be remarked. Look at the separation clause that divides the energies, it’s so detailed. Whoever wrote this thing is a gods damned genius.”

“I’m glad you’re such an admirer,” Corin said from behind him, his voice cold as ice.

Vico stiffened, anger flashing through him; it was a struggle to suppress it. He lowered his gaze and said nothing. If figuring out the reason the wards had failed had not bought him any credit with the man, he could hardly see the point of defending himself against an admittedly thoughtless comment.

“It was an excellent catch,” Jayen said, looking at his father deliberately. “No one else would have noticed that, or figured what it meant so quickly.”

Vico let out a silent breath. Idiot, don’t defend me to your father when you’re still afraid to stand next to me in front of him. It was gratifying, but it was also a pointless gesture that would only serve to further irritate his father.

“An excellent catch that would not have been necessary without you and your people making such a stupid oversight in the first place,” Corin said, fixing his attention on his son. “Why was this area not under any security precautions?”

“There’s a warded fence around the factory grounds, no one thought it would be necessary. That won’t happen again,” Jayen said. He beckoned Micah over and gave orders to extend the wards around the whole of the property.

Vico took the opportunity to pull out his notebook and make notes with Madderly about what they should be telling the Bretinne leaders concerning the repairs.

Corin looked on coldly, his gaze returning to Vico with an expression of intense dislike, mixed with resentment. “If you are quite done doing everyone else’s jobs, Mr. Rhaimes, perhaps you could get back to yours,” he said acidly. “This affiliation is not going to repair itself. Or perhaps I should assign someone else, since you don’t seem inclined to do your job with this much spirit.”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir, please excuse my thoughtless interruption,” Vico said. Handing the wind charm over to Madderly, he tucked his notebook and pen away and followed Corin back to the building.

Jayen went after them. “When is the meeting tomorrow?”

Corin glared over his shoulder at him. “Get back to work, Jayen.”

Jayen glared back. “This is for work, Dad.”

“Ten,” Vico said.

“Come by my office before and we’ll go through the Miredes file, so you can tell me if you recognize any faces from the pictures of his associates.”

“Of course,” Vico said, and went back upstairs as if he did not notice how Corin’s glare had transferred back to him.

It was a long, hot afternoon, of endless talking, and even more endless listening, cooped up in that stuffy, stifling office. Eventually Vico gave up trying to convince Atreya and Corin that they should make any further concessions to Bretinne and began to focus on what he should tell Cheritt to keep her from bailing immediately. Which was, of course, what they had intended. Corin was angry at him for holding out so long, which was less intimidating than exhausting, but it was another reminder of just how little chance he had of gaining ground in the clan. At least his detour to the compound to stow his notes for the meeting had been uneventful. Not that he had expected Marten to be in the office on a Sunday. To his deep and endless annoyance, he found a stack of files concerning his docket for the coming work week on his desk, piled high enough that he felt exhausted just looking at them. He packed them into his satchel to look over later.

So Vico was tired and aggravated when he returned home, and the first thing he saw was Seya pelting across the narrow strip of lawn between his apartment building and the sidewalk. He stared at her as she stopped dead upon seeing him, sweating and panting for breath, her face flushed red from having run back trying to beat him home.

The realization that she had broken her word was unexpectedly painful.

“I’m sorry! I really am, I meant to come back—”

“Did you?” he said sharply. “I guess I was the idiot in this, wasn’t I? To expect you to keep a promise.” He took back the key she was holding and stalked up the stairs.

“It’s not like that!” she said, following him up. “I was on my way back and I saw that girl, the one from the market, and there’s definitely something more going on with her, just like I thought. I couldn’t just leave it alone!”

Of course she couldn’t leave it alone. She could never leave anything alone. “You were following a kid around town for eight hours?” he said, flinging the door open and pausing in the threshold to look back at her in disbelief.

She lowered her eyes, guilt written all over her.

His jaw clenched, and some of the anger he felt crept out. She winced. “Well, not exactly,” she muttered. “Look, shut the door and seal your wards, we probably shouldn’t talk about it where people can overhear.”

At that, he tucked his anger away—for the moment—and closed off his wards. “Start talking,” he said, going into the kitchen. “This had better be good.”

“She was picking pockets and purse snatching,” Seya said. “I followed her and talked to her.” She sat down abruptly and put her head between her knees.

Vico scowled at her. “What?”

“Nothing. I’m just hungry and tired.”

He made her a sandwich and smacked the plate down on the coffee table in front of her. “Now talk, damn you. What’d the kid say?”

“Not much,” Seya said around a mouthful. “I tried to ask her name, but she wouldn’t tell me. She was scared, and I think whoever’s in charge of her isn’t taking very good care of her. Her clothes were getting frayed at the hems, and she looks way too thin.”

Vico had a strong suspicion as to why Seya was so affected by this kid’s predicament, but all he said was, “Did you collect any helpful information?”

She paused as if she was trying to decide exactly what to say. Her eyes dropped again and she hunched her shoulders, muttering, “Well, if she had told me something helpful I wouldn’t have spent the entire day running around town looking for her, would I? I tried to tell her I could find someone to help her, but I don’t think she believed me.”

“You should have just done that thing you used to do. Drawn her in.”

She blanched, setting her food down abruptly and looking away. “I can’t do that.”

“Really?” he said. “You mean you can’t? Or—”

“I can’t,” she said. His eyes narrowed as he took in her colorless face and her white knuckled grip on the edge of the coffee table, and he wondered whether she meant she couldn’t for some untold reason, or that the idea terrified her beyond the ability to pretend otherwise. She had always had a bit of a complex about her magic, because of the fuss it entailed all throughout her childhood, but this—this was new.

He sat down next to her and looped his arm through hers. “What is it? You can tell me anything, you know. I won’t ask if you don’t want—”

“I gave her the address here,” she interrupted.

“What? Why on earth would you give her my address? I hope you don’t think you’re gonna up and leave this little problem on my doorstep. I will come after you.”

“I’m stuck here for three more days, that’s plenty of time to sort it out.”

Stuck here, he thought bitterly. “Sort it out? Did you forget you’ve been cursed? No magic, no fighting?”

“In the first place, I’m fine now, thank you very much. In the second, there are other ways to settle problems besides blasting and punching them into submission, and in the third place, are you, of all people, really not on board to help a kid who’s clearly in a bad situation?”

“Well, when you put it like that I feel like an asshole for objecting, but really, Seya! This bizarre impulse you have to get drawn into things that are none of your damn business is going to kill you someday!”

“You know, Jayen went off on me for objecting to the Malthusius methods. Something about the good of this town, and not being a pack of thugs. Are you trying to tell me this isn’t part of your job? You know, keeping the town clean and prosperous? If this kid is mixed up in something unsavory, it is basically your obligation to do something.”

“Technically, it’s the guard’s obligation now. We even had a war about this whole issue a few years ago; as I recall, it ended with the clan’s legal authority being more or less dismantled.”

“On paper, maybe. You guys can’t go on defending the clans if you’re going to disregard the obligations that informed their creation in favor of business interests.”

He blinked at her, his lips parted in surprise, and then he had to laugh, because she was right, and he did agree with her on that point. “Never thought I’d hear you say something like that.”

“Yes, well, I’m trying to win an argument right now.”

“You’re a hopeless idiot, you know.”

“And you’re a rude bastard.”

“I am,” he agreed, relaxing at the half-sullen, half-playful retort. “Okay, then. I have this gods awful meeting tomorrow that will probably go on for hours and end in a screaming row and possibly my revocation, but I will try to do something. I’m sure Jayen will put out an alert if I ask him nicely.”

“Do I want to know what that means?” she asked.

“It means I will do what I can, but only if you keep your promises. And I won’t do a gods damn thing about this if you won’t swear to stay here tomorrow instead of risking your health and safety gallivanting all over town looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“You’re blackmailing me?”

“I absolutely am. Say you promise. Swear it, and mean it this time.”

She scowled at him. “Using a helpless child to manipulate me,” she muttered.

“That’s the idea, yes.”

“Fine. I swear I will stay here tomorrow. Are you happy? You’ve consigned me to a day of restless, miserable anxiety.”

“Good job Aren assured us that the risk of rebound is practically nothing at this point, then,” he said. “Now, I have to look over all this bedamned paperwork, so go get ready for your appointment so we can get that over with and I can get back to work.”

She finished her sandwich in silence and took herself off for a bath. After they got back from the clinic, she fell asleep sprawled over the couch while Vico went over his notes and tried very hard to concentrate on his strategy for the meeting instead of the nagging worry that she was planning to abandon him again at the first opportunity.