The Malthusius compound sprawled over a hillside on the southwestern edge of Starling, overlooking the city, and from the steps of the main business offices at the front of the property, Vico Rhaimes had an excellent view of his hometown, bathed in blue and lavender twilight. It was not a view that inspired any great affection or loyalty from him. He sat on the steps with his chin on his hands and glared out at the lights flickering to life below under the rapidly darkening sky and thinking, not for the first time, that it would be so easy to just walk away from it all. There was nothing but his clan bond to tie him there, and that was easy enough to fix. Corin Malthusius would be only too happy to be rid of him.
If he played it right, he might even walk away with some kind of compensation, something that would enable him to get as far from Starling and all the bitter memories it contained as possible. Though how much was it worth to be asked to leave when everyone knew exactly how little he had left to lose? He wasn’t entirely sure why Corin was still putting up with him, when he’d only ever done so for Jayen’s sake, and grudgingly as hell at that.
Behind him the sound of voices filtered through the open windows of the common room. The second shift security crew had just come in from their patrols, and they were drowning the day’s work in cold beer and ever-rowdier conversation. Vico didn’t have to look back to know Jayen was still there, writing up his daily report and occasionally responding to something one of his people said. His prickly presence was too familiar and painful to ignore. Vico knew he should leave before Jayen found an excuse to come talk to him, but he couldn’t summon the energy. He wasn’t even sure if that was what he wanted. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore except the little hollow in his heart where his hope used to live.
Even so, he tensed and sat up when the door opened behind him, and was a little relieved to see it was only Lejan Jacinth. Lejan had only been with the Malthusius a couple of years, and he worked as a senior mage for one of the Lines and Resonances crews. As a contract bonded, he viewed his place in the clan as a job rather than a lifetime commitment, and as an immigrant from Malacha, a country that had much less of a history with spiritual bonding practices, his lack of ingrained reverence for the clan ethos made him easy to talk to—as did the fact that he didn’t care one bit about Vico’s less than sterling status among the clan-born majority. “Avoiding your ex again?” he asked.
“Is it that obvious?” Vico said.
“Yeah, a little.”
Vico shrugged. “I’m tired of having the same damn argument with him every time we end up in a room together. If he doesn’t like it, he can learn to shut up and take it like the tough guy he thinks he is.”
“Ouch,” Lejan said, though he sounded more amused than sympathetic—he and Jayen were not really on friendly terms. “Still, it can’t be easy when your ex-partner is the heir to your clan.”
“It’s not like it was easy when we were together,” Vico said dryly.
“True. Addison sure does have it out for you lately. I heard you got called on the carpet again yesterday.”
Vico waved an apathetic hand. “This thing with the permits for Bretinne. I’m used to it. All that filthy Sancerre blood, you know. Sticks to everything I do like a curse.”
“Damned unfair, if you ask me,” Lejan said, the beads at the ends of the mass of braids framing his face clicking together as he shook his head. “It’s not like you got to fill out an application at birth. Check your clan preference and parentage, sign here and initial there.”
“Yeah, well. Life’s like that,” Vico said. “It’s all so much bullshit clan politics. I don’t actually care.” That was not entirely accurate, but he had said it enough that it almost felt true. “What else am I going to do with myself?”
“Were you done for the day? Need a ride home?”
“No, I’ll walk. I still need to take this up to the mediations office.” Vico patted the thick folder laid across his lap. “I was kind of hoping it’d quiet down in there so I could get upstairs without having to deal with all my baggage, but it seems like everyone’s settling in for the evening.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I’ll be all right. How’s Teletha?”
“Oh, she’s great. The baby started kicking yesterday, she’s been bubbling over with excitement about it,” Lejan said with a big, beaming smile.
“Well, yeah, your first kid and all. That’s exciting enough for anyone.”
“Exciting, terrifying. You know,” Lejan said, but his happiness was so obvious that it stung a little.
Vico forced himself to smile back. “Tell her I said hi.”
“Sure. You should come over for dinner again soon. You’ve been spending too much time by yourself lately.”
“I’ve just been busy.”
“Well, take care of yourself,” Lejan said, clapping him on the shoulder with a big, friendly hand.
“See you tomorrow.” Or not.
There was a burst of raucous laughter from the common room. Vico glanced back through the window to see several members of the night security crew filing through on their way out. His jaw tightened at the sight of Torrance McKellen talking to Jayen. That had become a rather more common occurrence of late. Vico was fairly certain Jayen was only tolerating Tor’s attention to get a rise out of him, but it was still damned infuriating. He stood, fingers clenched over the folder; he suddenly couldn’t stand another minute being there. He flung the door open and stalked through the common room without looking at either of them. The mediation offices were only one floor up, so he didn’t bother with the elevator, just took the steps two at a time. He flung the folder down on his desk and kicked his chair over in a burst of fury. It clattered too loudly in the silence of the empty room. That just made him feel worse. He was aware that he had inherited something of his father’s temper, and it was an aspect of himself that caused him a great deal of self loathing, especially of late.
He took a deep breath, centered himself, and set the chair upright. Straightening the papers up, he put them in his desk drawer, and sat down without bothering to turn the light on. There was nothing in his work area to look at anyway, it was spare and blank and utilitarian. Just like everything else in his life, since last year.
It would be so easy to leave. Buy a train ticket to somewhere, anywhere—disappear. Except he would have to go to the bank and withdraw money; he never kept that much on him, which meant he would have to wait until morning. By which time he knew, from experience, he would have either talked himself out of the idea or given up on it out of the knowledge that he had nowhere to go. Leaving meant being alone, truly alone, and he had always been bad at that. And there was the matter of his pinnacle—he knew how much it hurt to be revoked from a bond without consent. It had been a decade since Seya had severed their bond and abandoned him, but thinking about it still brought up a wrenching emptiness in his chest.
And then there were all the other unresolved feelings. “Idiot,” he muttered to himself, raking his fingers through his hair and scowling down at the top of his desk. He touched the fire charm dangling from the earring on his left ear, stroking his thumb over the containment spells etched into the tiny sphere of glass, feeling the restrained warmth from the spark inside. It was a powerful one, much nicer than the standard issue charms given out to the security staff—a gift from Jayen, which was the only reason he still had it after his abrupt exit from the security department last summer. He’d considered getting rid of it a hundred times, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to take it off.
No, he knew the reason. It just made him feel even more tired and depressed and angry than he already did to contemplate it.
A shadow blotted out the meager light from the hallway. Vico sat up and took another deep breath, blinking the sting out of his eyes. He have known the broad, square shoulders silhouetted in the doorway even if Jayen hadn’t smacked his hand over the light charm next to it, flooding the cramped office with warm gold light harvested directly from the clan’s fire elemental. “What the hell are you doing sitting here in the dark? Are—are you crying?” He sounded downright offended by the idea.
“Of course not,” Vico snapped, even though he knew his red-rimmed eyes probably gave away how close he had been to it. “I wouldn’t dare have an emotional display within a mile radius of you. I know how uncomfortable that makes you.”
“Sorry for not being an emotional person,” Jayen bristled.
“I didn’t realize anger no longer counted as an emotion,” Vico returned tartly as he unpinned the Malthusius sigil from his collar.
Jayen scowled. “You know you’re not supposed to take that off. You’ll get in trouble again.”
“Maybe it’s worth it to have one day when I’m not being summoned by the powers that be at some unholy hour of the morning to get blamed for and then clean up someone else’s mess.” Vico tossed the disc of polished copper, engraved with the sigils that strengthened and reinforced the communication properties of the clan bond, into the top drawer of his desk. “What, are you going to rat me out to Addison?”
“Do you really think I’d do that? I’ve offered to talk to him for you a hundred times! Gods, what is wrong with you lately? Why’ve you been avoiding me?”
“What’s wrong with you, hanging out with that fucking sociopath?”
“Tor was just asking about the work rotations for next month. That is my job, you know. You’re the one who made the most noise about me taking the business side of things seriously. You can’t get mad at me when I actually do.”
“He can ask his own crew leader about the schedule, he doesn’t need to worm himself back into your good graces for that. And I’m sure it was all business at Dacie’s over the weekend, right? While you guys were drinking yourselves under the table. Very businesslike.”
Jayen flushed red under the deep bronze of his skin, anger and guilt mingling in his aura. “Who told you that?”
“Davin, of course. Who else would bother talking to me?”
“Davin Gates is an idiot,” Jayen said. “Everyone was there, like usual. You’d know that if you showed up yourself once in a while.”
“Nobody wants me there. And that’s not even the point.”
“It is exactly the point! I’m not as free as you, I can’t just flake out on these gatherings like it doesn’t mean anything. I’m the heir. I have to put in an appearance, keep up with things.”
Vico knew that was true. Jayen might be the only recognized child of the clan’s founding bloodline and a powerful high elementalist level mage in is own right, but his spiritual levels were low—much lower than average, in fact—and the rest of the high tier had been expressing doubts about his suitability to run the clan’s bond magic since he was a teenager. He couldn’t take over the clan if the high tier wouldn’t have him, which meant he had to toe a careful line between what they expected him to be and what he wanted. Jayen tended to skew toward the former.
Which was one of the reasons they weren’t together anymore. Vico tamped down his frustration. He was very well acquainted with how hard Jayen worked to keep up with his clan’s expectations, and it wasn’t as if he had ever expected Jayen to give that up for him, but sometimes his obtuseness was beyond the level of ordinary mortals. “I worked eighty hours last week, that’s how free I am,” Vico said. “I’m not spending my downtime with a bunch of assholes who hate me. That’s not my idea of a relaxing time.”
“No one hates you as much as you think. Gods, if you’d make even the tiniest effort—you used to try.”
“Yeah, and I got tired of beating my head against a brick wall for nothing. I’m sure as hell not hanging out in the vicinity of Torrance McKellen for any gods damned reason, or did you forget what he did?”
“I didn’t forget,” Jayen muttered, crossing his arms and looking away. “But that was ages ago, and she’s not even here to be upset about it, is she? How can you still be so hung up on someone who disappeared on you without a word a decade ago?”
That was exactly the wrong thing to say. Vico’s bond with Seya had been a constant point of contention throughout the entirety of their relationship, even long after she was gone, and hearing it dismissed so bluntly was the last straw. He pulled off the fire charm, and flung it at Jayen. “I’ve been meaning to give this back to you. Now get out of my way, I’m going home.”
Jayen caught it, hurt flashing in his eyes briefly. Then his usual anger took over. “What would I do with this?” he snapped, stepping across the room and tossing it down on Vico’s desk. “If you don’t want it anymore, just throw it away already.”
Vico swept it off the desk into the waste basket and shoved past him, stalking out of the office.
Jayen came after him a moment later. “Damn it, Vico, wait!”
“Shut up, Jayen, I’m not in the mood for this again. Stop following me.”
The anger flickered brighter in Jayen’s aura. “I’m not following you, I’m going up to my office.” He stormed up the stairs, his footfalls reverberating in the stairwell. Part of Vico wanted to go after him, apologize for losing his temper—but what was the point? Even if he and Jayen remained on good, or at least civil terms, it wouldn’t change anything. He’d still be that Sancerre bastard, and Jayen would still be the Malthusius heir, and the politics of their clan would still make it impossible for them to be happy together.
A muddy exhaustion settled over him just thinking about it all. He gripped the corner of the wall and took a deep breath, forcing himself back to center before he went downstairs. It was hard to resist belting Tor in his smug face as he passed through the common room again on his way out, but he managed—without Jayen or one of the other crew leaders around to keep him in check, Tor had a tendency to get nasty. Vico could have taken him in a fight anytime, but he didn’t have the energy to deal with the inevitable consequences. The McKellen were a high tier family in the clan, and they had barely tolerated him when he and Jayen had been together. Since the abrupt and very public dissolution of their relationship late last summer, they had been leaning on Vico harder and harder, trying to drive him out. They had Addison, Corin’s second, in their corner, too. Only Vico’s stubborn pride had kept him in Starling this long, and it was finally starting to wear thin.
He ran into Micah Callahan as he was going out the door. Micah was Jayen’s oldest friend, and more importantly, his second, so he had been somewhat less than friendly towards Vico since their separation, though thankfully he refrained from the outright hostility of some of the other security personnel. He was flushed and breathless now, as if he’d run over from the garage, his eyes bright and anxious, his light, sandy-brown hair darkened with sweat. Vico assumed it was more trouble with the Bretinne automagic factory they were trying to open on the edge of town, an enterprise that had been plagued with problems from the start. If it was, he’d hear about it tomorrow, if he bothered to come back.
Vico nodded to him perfunctorily, and was startled when Micah caught him by the arm instead of passing him by. “Vico! Is Corin still here?”
“Yeah, in his office, I think. The door was closed, might want to wait until tomorrow to give him any bad news. He was angry about something earlier, we could feel it all through the damn bond.”
“I don’t know if this qualifies. Did you know? That she was back?”
“Who? Not Lady Vetiver?” That didn’t seem like anything to get excited about to Vico, but then, he’d never had much patience for the sort of stupid clan rivalry that had driven the Vetiver clan out of Starling the year before.
The name was like a shock of ice water to Vico’s heart. He stared at Micah. “What?”
“You two had that bond, I would have thought you’d be the first to know.”
“You—you saw her?” Vico said. He couldn’t wrap his brain around the idea. “Where?” When Micah hesitated, Vico grabbed his arm. “Where!”
“On Old Main, near Halcyon,” Micah said, shaking him off.
“You’re sure?” Vico said. “You actually saw her?”
“I’m sure. It’s been a hell of a long time, but how could anyone forget that crazy magic of hers? She hasn’t changed at all that way. Wait—Vico, we should talk to Corin first—”
It was too late. Vico was already tearing down the walk to the gate.