The lava was black and crusted over, but its heat still hit Gabriel with baking force. It was a rough bubble; a new little outcropping pushed up from the earth in thick, twisted lumps. There had been no geyser of molten rock or plume of ash, only a billow of steam and a ring of char on the ground surrounding the eruption. This was a small, relatively-benign incursion into the upper world, made Gabriel’s problem by how close it had come to one of the feeder aqueducts outside the city.
“It’s magic.” Max’s voice broke Gabriel out of his reverie. With a final frown at the cooling rock, he headed back toward Max. The breeze on his face was a welcome chill after the sweat that had started to trickle down his forehead. Max was well back from the eruption site, looking unsteady even up wind of it. The scent of it must be nearly overpowering him, Gabriel thought, and yet Max was distant enough that he had had to shout for Gabriel to hear him.
“I didn’t think it was natural,” Gabriel commented, once he was close enough for conversation. There shouldn’t have been much geological activity along side of this valley, let alone a rupture venting lava.
Max shook his head. “That’s all I can tell you. It’s magic.” Gabriel’s sense of dread rose. Max had the most sensitive nose for osteomancy he had ever encountered, but now he was admitting defeat. “It’s strong. I don’t know what it is.”
“Do you have any guesses?” Gabriel asked, desperately hoping for an answer. Max’s wits were a match for his nose, and he’d been proven right before.
“Something from the earth, obviously.”
“All I’m getting is heat, and pressure, and rock.” Max stared at the black mound and the heat waves rippling the air above it. “It doesn’t smell like the axis mundi dragon,” he said slowly.
Gabriel waited, holding his breath in the hope that Max could tease something more out of what to him was merely the smell of burned grass and a feeling of immense power.
“But it’s close,” Max concluded. “Not in the dragon part, though. In the rest.”
“It’s like the world dragon, without the dragon.”
“That’s what I said,” Max said with exasperation. He turned his head away from the eruption, about to say something more, but stopped when he saw Gabriel’s expression.
“So we’re up against the world,” Gabriel said, bleakly.
Cassandra wasn’t surprised by the knock on her door, but she was, a little, by who was standing outside when she opened it.
“Hi, Cassandra. Can you get in contact with Daniel?” Max asked, forgoing any other pleasantries.
“For Gabriel?” Cassandra asked.
Max shrugged. “For all of us.”
“But you get to do the asking.” Aside from her surprise, she was on edge. Now that she was back from their trip to Northern California, Cassandra found that the thought of Gabriel Argent and Max brought out something in her, a prickling feeling of disquiet.
“It’s either talking to Daniel, or going to Sam directly,” Max said. “Which do you think is better?”
“What does Sam have to do with it?” Cassandra frowned, pushing aside the irritation that was nagging at her. It complicated things, bringing the kid into it. It would be harder to say no, if Sam was in trouble. “This is about the volcanoes, isn’t it? Sam wouldn’t do that.” There had been one off the coast that sent up gouts of steam, and one out in the suburbs that threw chucks of hot rocks through a cul-de-sac. Cassandra had heard whispers of more, and people were coming to her with requests for information or gear the way they did when there was trouble brewing.
“No, I don’t think he would. But something is, and it’s doing it closer and closer to where he’s been.”
“What, all you’ve got is that it’s happened somewhere in his vicinity?” Cassandra asked. “That’s a hell of a leap for Gabriel to make.”
“It smells like axis mundi,” Max said. “We think it’s looking for Sam.”
He looked back evenly at her while she stared at him. He seemed as calm and poised as ever, but she had only seen that slip in the midst of immediate disaster, or when he had a bullet in his leg. She didn’t think he was much of a liar. And for all that Cassandra didn’t like Gabriel, she had been forced to abandon her first assessment of him as a buttoned-down monster. He was driven, ruthless, but it had become obvious that his near-obsession with control was not as ego-based as she had assumed. He may have planned to seize power over Sam when he was trapped in the firedrake, but Cassandra couldn’t honestly claim to believe he would have used a dragon as a trophy. Keeping Sam as an engine for a power plant or a weapon stationed at the border of Northern California or by his rivals closer to home—yes. As a symbol to strike fear and awe into the citizenry of L.A. or to hoard in a private zoo, however—no. There would be no frivolous cruelty dispensed from Gabriel, only carefully calculated and justified collateral.
“I’ll call Daniel,” she said, a pit opening up in her belly.
He nodded and turned to go, but stopped in the doorway.
“Gabriel’s checking a sewage line for damage. He’s knee-deep in shit right now. I got the good job.”
“Well, thanks, I guess,” she said, since it seemed like she should say something.
“And we both agreed that you’d be more willing to let me inside,” Max added, the ghost of a smile on his lips, before he continued out the door into the evening dusk.
Cassandra watched him go, wondering uneasily about what Sam might be tangled up in this time, and if maybe the difference she felt wasn’t about being home or leaving behind the struggle and danger of the Northern Kingdom. Maybe it was because by now she hadn’t seen or spoken to Daniel in months.
Daniel met Gabriel Argent and his hound in an abandoned parking lot outside Los Angeles. The school it served had been boarded up along with the rest of the town when the Department of Water and Power had declared it too difficult to feed with electricity and water. Now scraggly weeds clung to cracks in the tarmac and greasy blackbirds hopped about the detritus-filled storm drains.
Argent waited by his dusty car while Daniel approached after leaving his own, more battered, truck parked square across the parking lot entrance. Daniel didn’t really suspect the water mage of luring him into a trap, but he had enemies who would leap on any opportunity. Daniel had a whole kingdom full of them, ready to clean his flesh off his bones for the gratitude of their queen or for more personal hatreds, which was a depressing thing to think about.
“Thanks for coming,” Argent said. He was clean-shaven, neatly dressed, and looked like he hadn’t slept in a week.
“Cass said you think there’s a problem with Sam.” Daniel gathered sparks of kraken energy in his fingers, between his teeth. Max gave him a hint of a warning frown from where he leaned against the car’s trunk, then looked away. Argent sighed.
“I think there’s a problem that involves Sam. Is that better?”
Daniel didn’t answer, but he let the crackling in his bones subside and waited for Argent to continue.
“I’m sure that you know there’s been volcanic activity, and that Cassandra’s filled you in on what Max has been able to detect.”
“‘Smells like axis mundi dragon’ doesn’t mean it has to do with Sam,” Daniel argued.
“It’s not a guarantee,” Argent allowed. “But only six months after the largest piece of axis mundi in the Americas becomes part of Sam is a hard coincidence to ignore.”
“It could be the Northern Hierarch. She might have a chip that she’s using to search for me.” Daniel could almost believe it was true.
“Do you have any idea what axis mundi does when it’s placed in a living body? Because I can’t find anything on that subject, Daniel, and I’ve been searching.”
That search would have been painstaking and thorough, Daniel knew, and it might even have included some texts from the North as well as every public and private collection in Southern California. If it hadn’t yielded results, chances were that there wasn’t much to find. Daniel himself had been running on supposition and the axis mundi’s known use of storing the souls of the dead when he had sought it out as a way of recovering Sam from the firedrake.
“And then there’s the question of what to expect from it inside Sam,” Argent continued, a note of pleading entering his voice. Daniel thought he might be hoping that Daniel actually had an answer for him, but his own sense of panic was rising. The girl Daniel had stolen the first, smaller fragment of bone from had been a corpse when it had been entombed with her. It occurred to him now that the bone’s owner may have arranged that as more than simply a way of ensuring that such precious osteomancy remained safely where it was put.
“He’s concentrated osteomancy,” Argent carried on. “The axis mundi isn’t just surrounded by magic like it was when the Northern Hierarch had it. It’s binding together the soul and body of the Hierarch’s golem. It’s part of a living thing again, a powerful one.”
Daniel shook his head in denial. “Sam says it isn’t affecting him. He can feel it, but it’s not trying to make him do anything. And he’d know. He was stuck in a firedrake. He’d be able to tell if it was trying to take over.”
“It’s not the axis mundi itself I’m worried about,” Argent admitted. “Sam hasn’t done anything that makes me think he isn’t in full control of himself, or is liable to start raining down destruction of his own volition. It’s whatever’s smelling world dragon and coming up to the surface that has me afraid.”
“What?” Then, again, because his mind was starting to make horrible sense out of that last sentence, “What?”
“It reeks,” Max said. “The lava. It smells more than the firedrake did.”
“Some force is breaking through the earth, more and more strongly, circling closer and closer to wherever Sam happens to be.” Argent sounded exhausted, and Daniel began to realize the full extent of his fear. “I’ve bribed and bartered my way into samples of every osteomantic essence that has to do with deep geological layers or volcanoes that I can find reference to. Max is sure it’s none of them. However much I wish it did, the evidence doesn’t fit an osteomancer wielding this kind of power. If someone had that kind of pull, there’d be rumors of them.”
“Someone could have found a bone pit. You don’t have to be one of the top dogs if you stumble onto a big enough skeleton.”
“Come on, Blackland. Say a midlevel osteomancer no one’s been watching found a trove of an entirely new creature. Say it happened completely alone out in the desert. It’d still make news within days, and you know it. It’s been weeks of volcanoes coming out of nowhere, and all there is is wild speculation.”
Daniel was forced to admit that it was true. The scent of a new creature brought out a hunger in an osteomancer, an urge to consume and claim that was backed up by the knowledge that one’s enemies would be clawing after it themselves. Daniel himself had felt an extra pang of desire over the foreign smells of the osteomancers in Northern California. An essence that was truly unknown, not merely the province of another country—and was strong enough to draw up lava—would not stay hidden. It couldn’t.
“So, what? What do you want, Gabriel? You can’t think I’d ever let you take the axis mundi out of Sam.” Daniel dredged up another flash of kraken electricity to snap between his knuckles, to make sure he got the message.
“No, I didn’t think you would. And as I’ve said, I don’t want a war with you. I don’t want the kind of death toll that would bring. But unless you help me solve the problem, this might be a threat big enough to make me take it.”
“You want to fight this monster off?”
“If it’s hunting a world dragon, Daniel, I don’t think we’d have enough fire power if we had the Witch Queen herself teaming up with us.” Argent rubbed at his face wearily. “When I was researching axis mundi, I did find a mention of something that could potentially keep the ground in one piece under our feet. If we’re lucky.” He pulled a sheet of paper from his coat pocket and unfolded it. “This is a description of the Northern Hierarch’s scepter.”
Daniel took the page from him and inspected it. It was a photocopy of what looked like an old pamphlet, with a simple line drawing of the scepter and several paragraphs of text extolling its power and beauty.
“The shining star of the Witch Queen’s regalia and symbol of her joyous reign,” Daniel read aloud. “Very poetic.”
Daniel hit the sentence that Argent was pinning his hopes on. “Ah.”
“Yes. The author may have meant only that the upper portion of the scepter was made to carry the axis mundi, but ‘contain it’ is suggestive of an osteomantic nature. It might be able to block its scent.”
“And then the thing coming after it goes home,” Daniel said. It was a reach to assume from one ambiguous line that the scepter was designed to bind the axis mundi’s essence, but it was a very attractive one. It could save Sam, and everyone else. “The problem with this is that I didn’t steal the head of the scepter. All I took was the axis mundi and its setting, which was plain old gold, I’m sorry to say.”
“That is a problem.”
“Yeah.” Stealing from the same mark twice was always dangerous; trying it on the Northern Hierarch was even more suicidal than stealing from her the first time had been.
Argent held out his hand for the paper, and didn’t speak until he had refolded neatly along its creases and tucked it back in his pocket.
“Let me know when you have a plan to get it. I’ll help however I can. In the meantime, I suggest you and Sam wrap him in as much sint holo as you can. And I don’t think I need to tell you, but please. Keep him away from the San Andreas.”
A chill ran down Daniel’s spine.
“He would never go there,” he said, with certainty. The San Andreas Abyss was a great rift of exposed depths, a crack where creatures of the earth crawled upwards. Sam had told him about a giant made of boulders that attacked him and the women with him. Killing it had crushed one of them in the rubble, and for that reason alone Daniel knew Sam hated the place.
Argent looked weary, and sad. “Daniel, he’s a good kid, and a brave one. He tossed his life away trying to stop the firedrake. If we can’t fix this before whatever’s hunting him starts hitting more populated areas with more force, he might take matters into his own hands. For everyone’s sake, don’t let him try to solve it by feeding himself to it. I don’t think it’ll be satisfied.”
The chill crept further into Daniel’s flesh, and the irrational thought that it wasn’t fair, that he had already fought this battle and won it—by the skin of his teeth, but he’d won it—flashed through his mind. It was a silly and useless thing to think, he knew. Deciding to raise Sam had meant signing himself up for one fight after the next, because of who Sam was. And Daniel would do it, time after time, and not regret that decision for a second.
He didn’t know how he’d get the scepter, but he would find a way. In the meantime, Daniel would scrape up as much sint holo as he could find, and he’d call Em. He knew Em would help him keep Sam safe. She loved him, and the Emmas took training seriously. Em would accomplish her goals or die in the attempt, probably in a hail of gunfire. She was also practical enough that she would keep Sam tied hand and foot to keep him from doing something stupid, whether that broke his heart or not.
“Do you think he’ll get it?” Max asked. It had been days, with no word from Daniel and only a terse assurance that she was working on it from Cassandra. Gabriel knew Daniel was in contact with two of his associates, Moth and Jo, but they hadn’t asked him for any assistance and as far as he knew, they hadn’t left the kingdom yet. Cassandra had vanished after her message. She apparently wasn’t working directly with Daniel, which Gabriel found interesting and had filed away to think about later, if there was such a thing for him.
“I don’t know. If he doesn’t…” Gabriel stared at the stack of reports. “I might end up asking her for it.” He looked up at the feeling of Max’s sudden stillness beside him. Max had taken to standing in his blindspot. Gabriel wasn’t sure if it was protectiveness, or a reminder. “It’d hurt. We’d be annexed, of course, and thousands would be killed outright. But if this keeps going, at some point that would cost less than the alternative. I’d try going back into the heart of the mandala, but I think if I went deep enough to do any good, I’d never come back up.” Gabriel still had nightmares about being in the maelstrom of water, hearing the whispering voices of ancient creatures amid the roaring currents. In his dreams, that part never bothered him. It was always the return to land and the painful struggle to breathe air again that frightened him.
Gabriel’s job had always been to salvage as much as he could—dragging back crumbling infrastructure and a poorly-run workforce from gross negligence and corruption—but this, so soon after the firedrake had run rampant and shaping up to be worse still, felt more like directing the evacuation of a sinking ship. A small volcano had sprouted in a suburb, demolishing twelve houses before it subsided. Fifty-one people died. Another boiled up not far off the coast, and a third erupted out in the wilderness to the east. There was no longer a pattern that Gabriel could find, which probably meant the sint holo on Sam was muddling his scent enough that whatever was hunting him was baffled and striking blindly.
The positive news, which Gabriel tried to remind himself of while waiting for the next death toll, was that eruptions had stabilized in terms of size, instead of growing larger as they had when the creature was tracking Sam. That offered hope that his plan might work, assuming they could get the scepter. Gabriel didn’t want to think too much about what would happen if they couldn’t get it, one way or another. There was only so much sint holo to be had.
“I have a way to get you out, if it comes to surrendering,” Gabriel said, mostly for his own sake, since Max must have known by then that Gabriel would make sure he’d be saved.
“Don’t be stupid,” Max said.
The Emmas refused to help Daniel. All of them—except for Em, of course—met his inquiries with either stony silence or outright hostility. He thought the ones who had tried to shoot him with darts dipped in some kind of steaming black goo were the worst, until he met the one who told him, calmly and politely, what she thought of him. She was one of the older Emmas, her face lined and her hair shot through with grey, and she had grown up in the original Emma’s laboratory. She told him the things she had seen done to golems there, and she told him they all knew about the golem that he’d had created, the one who was grown deliberately incomplete, and that Daniel had used his body to house Sam. She told him she had seen enough people like him to last her a lifetime, and asked him to leave. Daniel had left.
Moth and Jo had not refused to help him. The best the three of them had come up with, however, was less than half of a plan. If Daniel returned to the Northern Kingdom, they could probably get him captured in a way that brought the Northern Hierarch to see him. That, potentially, would put him in the same building as the scepter. From there, they had nothing. They couldn’t think of a way to ensure he could even lay a finger on it, much less get it out of whatever stronghold the Hierarch would use to secure a prisoner like Daniel. Trying to steal the scepter was hopeless, and Daniel knew it, but he didn’t know what else to do, other than keep Sam hidden as best he could.
He left Moth and Jo, and the silence they had fallen into, to deliver more sint holo to Em. Camouflaging Sam was burning through the bone faster than Daniel could source it, even with Sam using as much of his own power as he could. They had, at best, a few weeks before he would need to turn to whatever Argent could supply. Osteomancy wasn’t the Department of Water and Power’s game, but Argent employed a few osteomancers and he would have begun stocking up on sint holo before he approached Daniel.
Em looked steadier than Daniel felt when he finally found her. She was reading a newspaper with an expression of calm resolve, and Daniel thought she could probably do this for the rest of her life, if she had to.
“Did you get lost?” she asked when Daniel sat down at the table next to her. She pushed what turned out to be lukewarm coffee across to him. “I think Argent’s doing something with the water grid. It took me two tries to find the right canal, and I know this place.”
Daniel hadn’t considered it, but it made sense. The power Argent drew on as a water mage was based in the movement of water through patterns—the mandalas of the city were massive and intricate. Changing their balance from maintaining smooth, ordered flow to turbulence would create a shift throughout the city, and even farther if the rivers Water and Power pulled out of the desert were involved. It would be the water mage’s equivalent of the osteomantic essences used for obscuring and confusing.
“He’s going to get shot for real if he isn’t careful,” Daniel said. “Bringing the mandalas into chaos while there are holes melting through the streets isn’t a good look.” He set the box of sint holo on the table, keeping his hand on it to make it easier for Em to see. He’d prepared enough of it that its essence leaked through and made the box hard to notice, even for someone who was looking for it.
“I think anyone strong enough to challenge him is probably smart enough to wait until he’s burnt himself out dealing with the volcanoes. He put out a statement that he’s ‘taking all appropriate steps to manage the threat,’ by the way. He’s keeping a tight lid on what’s causing it. I’ve been listening for rumors, and so far the consensus is on the Witch Queen being behind it. Nothing that gets close to Sam.”
“How is Sam?” Daniel asked. He hadn’t seen him since he’d broken the news to him and sent him off with Em and as thick a layer of sint holo as Daniel could lay on him.
“Worried. Getting bored, but he’ll be fine. He won’t do anything he shouldn’t,” Em said. She sounded sure of herself, which Daniel found reassuring. Sam could be too eager to save people for his own good, and Argent’s suggestion that he might try to sacrifice himself was weighing on Daniel. He had seen the guilt creeping onto Sam’s face when he realized Los Angeles was endangered by the thing keeping him alive.
Despite Em’s confidence, that thought ate at him while he headed back to Jo’s apartment. He could all too easily picture Sam, terrified and determined, casting himself into the San Andreas Abyss.
Moth and Jo were waiting for him in the little living room, Jo practicing putting her hair up in a fancy twist and Moth offering less-than-helpful advice. There was a palpable feeling of relief in the air.
“Hey, great news,” Moth said. “Cassie figured it out.”
“How?” Daniel asked, and then, “Is she here?” They had parted on good terms, when he left after Sam’s welcome-back party, but she had gradually grown more and more distant when he called her. She’d gotten in touch with him about Sam’s situation through Moth.
“Nah, she’s still sorting it on her end. She found someone who can get us the scepter.”
“Seriously? She has a contact for smuggling regalia now?” Daniel was impressed. There were always people desperate enough to attempt anything for the right price, even stealing from the Hierarch, but finding one who could actually pull it off was another matter. “Wish she’d had that earlier, it could have saved us some trouble.”
“Yeah,” said Moth vaguely, reaching out to jab a slipping pin back into Jo’s hair.
“Cassandra needs a state occasion to bring her contact in. I told her you’d have one next Monday.” Gabriel looked startled, before reverting to what Max thought of as his Sorting This Shit Out expression. He smelled like too little sleep and too much stress, although with Gabriel that was always a matter of degree.
“Everyone knows I don’t do frivolous holidays. If she needs something big happening as cover, I could start one of the desalination plant renovations—”
“Her contact has to come in officially, and the Northern Hierarch won’t send an emissary to witness concrete being poured.” Everyone knew about Gabriel’s dislike of parties, and Max had already raised this point with Cassandra. She had told him it was the only plan with a chance of working, and Max had agreed with her.
“Well, fuck. There isn’t anyone I can believably call a state funeral for, even if it does get bad enough in the next few days that I’m willing to arrange an assassination just for that.”
Despite all the years Max had known him, Gabriel still came out with things that offered new, quietly-disturbing insights into his head. Max thought that people really shouldn’t raise their kids to think eating each other was normal.
“I don’t want to have someone killed as a diversion, Max,” Gabriel added quietly, smelling of defeat.
“Good thing I was planning you a wedding, then,” Max responded.
Gabriel stared at him. “You realize,” he said eventually, “that the only person I could possibly marry is you?”
“Obviously.” Max didn’t have to scent the air to tell that Gabriel’s despair—heavy on the exhaustion and fear—had brightened into the mix of sweat and adrenalin that was confusion. It wasn’t often that he experienced Gabriel in a start of complete surprise, though, so Max sniffed anyway.
“Well—” Gabriel stopped, at a loss for words. “Is that okay?” he managed after a moment.
Max cocked his head. “The legality is shaky. I’m a dog. But you’re the director of the Department of Water and Power, so no one will object.”
“Because they want their lights on and their taps running?” Gabriel had started to blush. “You know that wasn’t what I was asking.”
“Or because they want to watch you marry a dog. Grace will do it because she likes you, though.” The most senior of the county clerks did like Gabriel, and Max was confident she would register a marriage for him despite the complication that was Max’s side of the equation. Especially if they asked her to be the witnesses.
“I file my paperwork correctly and on time. Max, I want to know if you object. I mean— of course it can be whatever you want, it wouldn’t have to be…” Gabriel trailed off and fidgeted with his pen, smelling embarrassed. “It’s just paperwork.”
“You care about paperwork.” Max, who had been prepared to argue Gabriel into providing catering, wasn’t sure how to handle this unexpected turn. He had assumed Gabriel would see a marriage certificate as nothing more than documentation of the status quo. Gabriel and Max worked together, they intended to do so indefinitely, and for both of them that extended far beyond the walls of the Water and Power headquarters. When the dust had settled after their return from Northern California, Max had drafted a memo giving himself permission to manage Gabriel’s personal affairs should Gabriel be indisposed, and Gabriel had signed it without hesitation. He hadn’t thought a marriage license would be any different.
“I don’t care about it more than you.” Gabriel had turned quite pink. “You’re a person. Being a hound doesn’t mean you’re not.”
For all the times Gabriel had told people Max wasn’t his dog, Max hadn’t considered that he might not think of it as bestiality.
“What would you want it to be?” Max asked, fascinated.
“I don’t want anything you don’t want,” Gabriel said, and there was the slightest whiff of arousal in his scent, along with a healthy measure of anxiety.
Max thought about that. Gabriel wanted a real marriage, with sex and sleeping in the same bed and possibly long walks on the beach. It was, under the surprise, a rather nice thought.
“It’s been ten years and you’ve never made a move,” he commented.
“I didn’t think you’d be interested, and I didn’t want to ruin things,” Gabriel said. It must have come out sounding more self-pitying than Gabriel intended, because he added in his defensively stuffy tone, “And I am your boss, so it’d be against workplace rules for me to proposition you.”
“You make the rules,” Max said. He nudged a stack of folders on Gabriel’s desk, clearing off the corner.
“That’s why I have to follow them.” Gabriel watched him sit on the desk like he was hypnotized. “I can’t throw ethics out the window just because I want a date.”
Max reached out his hand and stroked Gabriel’s head, on his blind side. He could feel Gabriel shiver as his fingers ran through the hair behind his ear. It was soft, and warm.
“Um,” Gabriel said.
He smelled good, and Max decided that he’d really like to have sex with him. He slid his fingers through Gabriel’s hair again, and Gabriel leaned into it.
“So,” Gabriel said, shakily, “you are interested?”
“I guess so.” When Gabriel frowned at that answer, Max said, “I hadn’t thought about romance or sex before.” He shrugged. “I’m a dog, there’s lots of things I don’t think about.”
“You’re not a dog,” Gabriel said.
Max ignored him. “But if we can, then I want to.”
“You just said I make the rules. And I say we definitely can.”
“Good. But you should be the one who moves. My house nicer than yours.”
After being proposed to, petted, and receiving something very close to a love confession, Max taking him home at the end of the day was only one more in a series of shocks to Gabriel’s system. Max did it in his typical style, walking Gabriel to the boat and then simply steering it off toward his own neighborhood rather than stopping by Gabriel’s as was usual. Gabriel didn’t question it. Max could have headed straight out into the ocean and Gabriel probably wouldn’t have objected until they passed San Nicholas. So he found himself following Max into a tidy little house without bothering to worry over what would happen next.
Max’s house really was nicer than his, Gabriel admitted to himself without any surprise. Gabriel’s place had views for miles, but Max’s had a spider plant by one of the windows and no paperwork on any of the tables. Gabriel had never been there before. He had been deeply curious about what it was like, but Max had never invited him, and after a man spends fifteen years locked in a cell in the Hierarch’s kennels, Gabriel felt he should have his space respected.
Max hung up his coat and took off his shoes, so Gabriel followed suit. After that, however, Max seemed unsure what to do with him.
“Do you want something to eat? Or drink?” he asked, sounding doubtful.
Gabriel accepted a glass of water, on the theory that he was a water mage and ought to be able to handle that, even during the most unexpected circumstances. He trailed after Max into the kitchen and watched while Max took down a glass for him. He looked, as he almost always did, like a magazine spread. Usually Gabriel tried not to think about that too closely, but today he debated with himself whether it would be an ad for the tie, which was hanging loose in a casually suave way, or the dress shirt, which was exactly the same as one Gabriel had but somehow looked twice as expensive on Max.
Max filled the glass and handed it to him, then looked at Gabriel steadily.
“I haven’t done this before,” he said.
“We really don’t have to,” Gabriel started, his feeling of stunned acceptance vanishing like a mirage. “Max, I mean it, we—”
Max cut him off. “I want to. I’m just saying, I might not be any good at it.” He eyed Gabriel up and down dubiously, which sent a pleasing tingle down Gabriel’s spine.
“Oh. Okay,” Gabriel said with relief. “That’s not a problem. The basics are pretty simple and I’ll be happy with almost anything.” It was true, although Gabriel had a hard time imaging Max as being inept at anything. But Max still looked uncertain, so Gabriel added, “You got off to a good start back at the office.”
Max cocked his head, then stepped closer. He petted Gabriel’s hair again, but let his hand trail down his neck instead of starting a new stroke. His hand came to rest at the collar of Gabriel’s shirt, and he started working loose his tie. The brush of his fingers sent Gabriel’s pulse to pounding, making him acutely aware of his body as a network of tubes, all surging in a rhythm of pressure and flow. He hadn’t gotten laid in over a decade, so he had no idea if it was because he was a hydromancer or because it was Max.
Gabriel took a chance and kissed Max. Max responded hesitantly, far more awkwardly than his fingers were undoing Gabriel’s buttons, so Gabriel kissed his cheek instead. That, apparently, was more to Max’s liking. He leaned into it, then kissed Gabriel’s temple in return. Gabriel could feel his blood jolting along all the way out to his fingertips.
In between leaving open-mouthed kisses on Gabriel’s face and rubbing his nose into hair, Max finished getting Gabriel’s shirt open. His hands were hot on Gabriel’s bare skin, and wonderfully efficient at pushing his shirt off his shoulders. Gabriel stopped trying to undo Max’s buttons so he could help get the sleeves down his arms.
“We can do this somewhere else if you want,” he managed, out of breath from the feeling of Max half leaning against him and licking his neck. He didn’t want to ruin it, if Max had been picturing their first time happening somewhere more romantic than his kitchen. Or, because even in the throes of passion Gabriel was instinctively practical, possibly somewhere more comfortable.
“No,” Max said, as he leaned harder, nudging Gabriel up against the cabinets.
Gabriel found that he hardly noticed the edge of the counter digging into the small of his back, with Max’s whole body pressed against him. They stood like that for a moment, Gabriel breathing hard and trying to pull up the back of Max’s shirt so he could touch more skin while Max ran his hands up Gabriel’s naked back. Eventually Gabriel decided he really did need to get the last of Max’s shirt buttons free, and pushed Max off him just enough to get his hands between them. Max took the opportunity to start unbuckling Gabriel’s belt, which Gabriel thought was a fantastic idea. He kissed Max’s jawline and tried to make his fingers work faster. When he finally had Max’s shirt open, Gabriel didn’t bother trying to get it off him, opting instead to continue moving down and get Max’s fly unzipped.
He had seen Max naked before, of course. But that had been when he was in the kennels, when Gabriel was looking at him as a hound. He’d been thinking about how he could use Max to sniff out a sint holo track while avoiding being killed by him, as his previous handler had been. Max as a person, Max as someone he liked, and Max as a remarkably attractive man had all come after Max had been dressed, first in the kennel’s working coveralls and then in Gabriel’s spare clothes. Now, with his shirt hanging open and pants down around his ankles, Max looked entirely different. He looked amazing.
Gabriel pulled him closer, desperate for more skin-to-skin contact. Max’s cock bumped against his own, and both ended up pressed between their stomachs for several glorious minutes of grinding before Gabriel remembered himself.
“Wait,” he said.
Max stopped kissing along his shoulder and looked at Gabriel uncertainly.
“I just need—” Gabriel fumbled behind him on the counter until he found his abandoned glass. He slid it forward so he could dip his finger in it and stir the water.
“You want to play with water now?” Max asked.
“It’ll be worth it,” Gabriel promised. He traced curves into the water, creating a simple pattern of flow. Max rested his head on Gabriel’s shoulder and sighed. It was horribly distracting, and Gabriel had never performed this particular application of water magic before. But all he needed to do was increase viscosity by encouraging the water’s natural affinity for cohesion, while keeping it well below the point where it would start to solidify.
“Ta-da,” he said, raising his hand to show off the impromptu lube coating his finger.
Max sighed more heavily. He did, however, make a satisfyingly appreciative noise when Gabriel rubbed a thick dollop onto his cock. Max was taller than him, so Gabriel had to nudge Max’s stance a little wider before he could slide it between his thighs. Max’s teeth scraped his skin and Gabriel moaned. He wrapped his arms around Max’s back and tried to pull him closer, even though Max had already thrust into the crease of Gabriel’s thigh and there was no space left between them. It was, Gabriel thought, the best he’d felt in an extremely long time.
Max dragged his teeth slowly along Gabriel’s neck again, and some point while that had Gabriel’s mind occupied, he must have reached for the glass himself, because when his hand found Gabriel’s cock it was slick and absolutely wonderful. Gabriel dug his fingers into Max’s back, then shifted so he could focus on the most important parts. With one hand he clutched at the back of Max’s head, the other he slid down Max’s back so he could grab Max’s ass. Max took it as the encouragement it was and fucked him harder. He kissed Gabriel sloppily on the cheek, and started nuzzling other side of his neck. He worked his way from just below Gabriel’s ear down to the curve between neck and shoulder, and Gabriel felt like every heartbeat was building up a tidal wave inside him.
“Max,” Gabriel said, gasping, and Max bit him. Gabriel came all over his stomach, carried along by Max’s body pressed against his, his hand on his cock, his teeth dug into Gabriel’s shoulder. It left him feeling like all his muscles had melted away, leaving him nothing but sensitive skin and a floating sensation of warmth that was probably contentedness. It was not a state he was accustomed to, and while Max licked at the bite mark he’d left, Gabriel couldn’t help but think that maybe he should work on that. Max bit him again, gently this time, as his thrusting became more urgent. Gabriel mustered up enough control over his fingers to curl them through Max’s hair, before stroking slowly down his nape.
“I love you,” he said, and his voice sounded dazed and vacant to his own ears, and the words stupidly obvious, but Max made a soft noise in the back of his throat and came between Gabriel’s thighs, so Gabriel didn’t regret saying it. They stood quietly, panting, until their sweat started to cool.
“This is one of your better ideas,” Max said, and took a deep sniff at Gabriel’s skin.
“I do have them occasionally,” Gabriel said. “What do I smell like?” Eventually they would have to move, to clean up and put clothes back on and eat something for dinner, but he was in no hurry to do any of those things.
“Relaxed. Like sex,” Max said. He added, with clear satisfaction, “Like me.”
“Will the Mulholland Dam work?” Max asked, his voice tinny from traveling through the pipes to emerge from Cassandra’s sink.
Cassandra considered it, and found no flaws. Mulholland, after the disastrous collapse of his St. Francis Dam, had elected to forgo the reinforcements suggested for the Mulholland Dam, and instead had built a park at the base of it. There was a rose garden, a wisteria-covered pergola, and shrubberies leading up the sides of Weid Canyon. There were no trees or buildings that would obscure the view of the massive staircase of white concrete, or shelter park-goers from the thought of the 2.5 billion gallons of water it restrained. Mulholland made it clear: not only did his dams provide the water and electricity that Southern California lived by, they held back catastrophic destruction.
With landscaping that offered a certain measure of privacy and no more, it would be as good a place as any for the handoff. Cassandra believed her contact when she told her that she only wanted to speak with Daniel, but keeping her close to the public eye might rein in any sudden urge for revenge.
“That’ll be fine,” she told the kitchen sink. “What’s the cover story going to be?”
“Wedding reception. Do you want to come in as wait staff or security?”
“A wedding?” Cassandra couldn’t picture Gabriel as a groom, until suddenly it clicked and she could. “He’s not marrying you, is he?”
“I proposed. I think that means I’m the one marrying him,” Max said, the plumbing making it hard for Cassandra to tell if he was offended or not.
“So you’re fine with this?” she asked. It was stirring up more than she wanted to deal with, especially knowing she would have to see Daniel again soon.
Max was silent for long enough that Cassandra almost started telling him that they could find someone else to marry Gabriel off to.
“I love him. I don’t have to. He’s not Daniel, and I’m not you.”
Cassandra winced at how bluntly Max stated the comparison that had been slipping into her thoughts. “Look, I think you’re a good person. I like you, and I’m not trying to insult you, but you and Gabriel have a boy and his dog dynamic going on.”
“I wasn’t trained to love my handler,” Max said, and even through the distortion Cassandra could hear how ridiculous he found that idea.
“You’re sure you have a choice about this?” she asked, not quite ready to let it go. “You could stop loving him?”
“Yes, if he stopped being the man he is. If he stopped wanting to be a good person. Or if he started treating me like a dog, Cassandra.” He sounded reproachful, like he thought she was the one who wasn’t treating him enough like a person. And he had a point, Cassandra had to admit. Max had been able to load the rubber bullets and pull the trigger on Gabriel when he needed to, and surely that was a harder thing to do than standing him up at the altar.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay. I’m sorry. It’s…” She sighed. “It’s easy to have it sneak up on you, is all.”
“I guess so,” Max said, although he sounded like he was taking her word for it. “You can’t smell the loyalty magic,” he added with more sympathy.
“No, I fucking can’t,” she said, and her voice sounded loud to her own ears. She had no idea how much of what she felt was really her, and how much was osteomancy getting into her head. But at a certain point, it didn’t matter how much she loved Daniel anyway, if she couldn’t live with the love spell on him holding her hostage. She’d been the security on her parent’s debt, and then she’d been claimed by Otis anyway after their deaths, and she’d promised herself she wasn’t going to be owned anyone once she was out from under that.
“Good luck,” Max told her, after a long pause. “If it’s any help, powerful men tend not to expect getting shot in the head.”
“I’m not going to kill Daniel. And you’re not going to either.” Cassandra didn’t want Daniel dead, and she at least knew that wasn’t because of his father’s magic. She believed Daniel was a decent person. He cared about his friends, for all that he let himself lean on the osteomancy that bound them to him, and he cared about his kid.
“It’s your choice,” Max said, and then with weary patience, “Like whether you want to be wait staff or security.”
Cassandra dragged her mind back to the business of smuggling, and made the obvious choice. “Moth as a guard, and Daniel, Jo, and me as waiters. There needs to be at least two types of trays for us to pass around so he and I can both be near my contact at the same time.”
“It’s a celebration. We’re having cake and champagne.”
“Congrats. Send out the invites soon, my contact needs time to make sure the Hierarch sends her instead of someone else.”
Max assured her that invitations would be sent promptly, although with Gabriel they both knew it was hardly a concern, and then he left her alone with her thoughts.
Cassandra didn’t like where they led, but it was time to grit her teeth and deal with it. She thought about what she would say, and went to Jo’s house.
Gabriel hadn’t counted on a complicated records request involving several irate parties delaying Grace’s break, meaning that when they entered entered the Los Angeles County Clerk’s office, there was no one at the counter except for a young assistant clerk. The clerk, looking horrified at having to deal with both the director and assistant director of the Department of Water and Power all on her own, offered to go fetch her. Max approved of Gabriel instead asking for a marriage license to fill out while they waited.
If asked about it, Max knew Gabriel would answer with reasons about workplace standards, employee motivation, and efficiency, but all that was built on top of a much simpler foundation. Gabriel wanted people to be okay. He wanted everyone to have running water and lights that turned on, a decent job with livable wages, and not to be in danger of being killed by the whims or negligence of the powerful. That was the thing that drove him through life, the belief that the city should be run for the good of its people, instead of preying on them. Max often thought that Gabriel would be happier if he left the implementation of that goal to someone else—and that they were all better off when Gabriel had clear guidelines as to where his influence should end—but the belief itself was one of the reasons Max loved him.
One of the other reasons was that Gabriel was pretty good at understanding how Max specifically could have a life worth living. He kept the bargain he proposed on their first day together, but not only did he treat Max like a competent adult who could make his own decisions, he insisted that everyone else at least pretend to do so as well. He had had Max contracted as an employee, rather than listed as property. When Max had refused a last name or a Social Security Number in lieu of his dog license, he had bitten his tongue and gotten the Water and Power database altered to accommodate the blank field and the shorter string of numbers, and then he had pressured the rest of the city’s bureaucracy to comply. Gabriel was the reason Max was able to fill out his portion of the marriage license with his kenneling date where it asked for a birth date and leave empty spaces where it asked for his parents’ names, and expect it to be accepted.
The paperwork itself was simple, and after the clerk’s flustered inspection of their IDs they still had ten minutes of waiting left before the end of Grace’s break.
“I’m sure Ms. Ng won’t mind coming back early,” the clerk offered again. “Or…” she paused, looking back and forth between them and clearly trying to guess whether she was about to overstep. “I could ask the Deputy Commissioner of Civil Marriages to come down?”
“We were hoping Grace would be our witness,” Gabriel told her. “So we won’t need to interrupt the Deputy Commissioner’s work until Grace is back.”
The clerk fidgeted with her pen, then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Director Argent, I think Ms. Ng will be very unhappy with me if I don’t tell her right away that you want her to witness your marriage.”
“You’d better go tell her, then,” Max said, and she practically bolted to the back offices.
It was only a matter of moments before she came back, trailing behind Grace Ng and looking deeply relieved to have Gabriel and his marriage out of her hands. Grace herself walked briskly toward the counter with barely concealed delight.
“Good morning, Gabriel, Max,” she said, whisking the marriage license off the countertop. “It seems congratulations are in order.”
“Thank you,” Gabriel said, sounding touched. Gabriel and Grace got along quite well, each appreciating the other as a fellow lover of well-run bureaucracy and someone to share tales of misfiled documents and woefully incomplete records with.
Max put his arm around Gabriel’s shoulders, since there wasn’t any reason not to and it felt nice, and said, “We’re very happy.” Gabriel smelled both pleased and very slightly embarrassed, and put his arm around Max’s waist, which became another reason for Max to touch him.
Grace looked up at Max from the license, which she had automatically started scanning for errors, and smiled. “It’s nice to have a celebrity marriage that’s going to last,” she said approvingly. “I’d be happy to be your witness when Eliza gets here.”
Her assistant clerk heard the order in that statement and hurried off again. She returned with the startled Deputy Commissioner, who only became more nonplussed as she watched first Max, then Gabriel, and finally Grace, sign the marriage license. She looked like she was considering objecting when Grace presented it to her, but Grace said, crisply, “I’ve checked it over. Everything’s in order.”
The Deputy Commissioner folded. She dutifully read through the license, double-checked their IDs, and signed.
Grace took the marriage license—now a marriage certificate via the magic of ink—and sent her assistant off to make a copy for Max and Gabriel. Gabriel promised to supply the County Clerk’s Office with cake on the day of the reception, Grace promised to personally file their marriage certificate, and Max left the Clerk’s Office holding his husband’s hand. It was a good morning, as well as a productive one.
Jo was happy to see Cassandra at her door, and welcomed her in with an enthusiastic hug. She had her hair stretched out longer than when Cassandra had seen her last, and it was braided up elegantly. Jo had always been quick to guess what she would need to look like for a con, and it made Cassandra nostalgic despite herself.
“Are Moth and Daniel here?” she asked.
“I sent them out for snacks,” Jo said. “They should be back any time now.” She put her hand on Cassandra’s arm. “How are you holding up? Is it getting any easier?”
“No. Well, maybe.” Cassandra sighed. “I think I have to put an end to it, Jo.” Jo squeezed her arm sympathetically. “And I’ve got to tell him who’s coming.”
“He’ll understand. He just wants Sam to be okay. You know he’d volunteer for worse risks than this if he thought they had even a chance of working,” Jo said.
“It’s not the danger I think he’ll be upset about.” Cassandra had known Daniel since childhood, and even a decade apart hadn’t changed him that much. He didn’t like it when he felt he’d wronged someone, and he tended not to stick around when he felt guilty. But Cassandra also knew that wouldn’t keep him from getting what he needed, so she had no excuse for not warning him.
“What’s she like?” Jo asked.
“Cynara? About what you’d expect from a powerful osteomancer from a powerful family in the North. She thinks the ground is made for her to walk on.” Cassandra thought for a moment. “Her kid, too. She wants that girl to rule. That’s why she’s willing to betray her Hierarch.”
“And she’s good enough to get the scepter here?”
“I think if anyone up there can, it’s her. She can probably get her brother to help, too. Moth said he likes her, and he loves his niece.” Cassandra could feel the tension in her shoulders starting to ease. Even in the midst of her struggle with Daniel and her fear for Sam, it was nice to talk with Jo. In the wake of the Northern California expedition, Cassandra had fallen into the bad habit of letting her friends do most of the work of keeping in touch. It had been a while since she had spent time with Jo without Moth there to nudge her into being social, and she realized how much she missed it.
“Before they get back—” Jo started, then hesitated. “You know I love Daniel, and if you wanted to be with him I’d volunteer to tell him to get his head out of his ass. But since you don’t, you do know there’s lots of people who would love to stick around for you, right? If you want to be single, I swear I’ll shut up about it.” Jo bit her lip, then added quietly, “I just don’t want you to think your only options are him or nothing, Cassie, because they’re not.”
She didn’t say it as an offer. It was—very carefully, if Cassandra knew Jo, which given her surprise, maybe wasn’t quite as well as she had thought—not even a suggestion of an offer, but Jo’s nerves for once gave her away. Cassandra wondered how long Jo had been in love with her.
“I think I should let this get out of my system for a while,” she said, honestly. “But no, I want to fall in love with someone else eventually.”
“They’ll be really lucky when you do,” Jo said, and she sounded completely sincere. Cassandra thought that maybe if she were really lucky, a few years down the line when she was ready, Jo might still be around.
They shifted away from the harder subjects, and chatted about Jo’s latest job for a while. It was an interesting heist, involving taking on the shapes of multiple people and hitting her timing perfectly in order to bluff her way into a jewelry supply warehouse. Jo had only gotten to the part where she had stuffed a lunchbox full of top-grade pearls when Moth and Daniel returned, Moth stopping short in the doorway when he spotted Cassandra.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Hi, Moth,” Cassandra said, and at the sound of her voice, Daniel pushed past him. “Everything’s fine. I’m here to tell you the plan.”
It had started out as a good morning. Waking up next to Gabriel was still an enjoyable surprise and the coffee he made tasted better than Max’s usually did. The traffic was fine on their way to work, and most of the people they passed once there were either congratulatory about their wedding or kept their disapproval discreetly muted.
It took less than an hour for it all to go down hill. Another volcano erupted, no larger than the others that had sprung up since Sam had been masked with sint holo, but in a far worse location. It had come up under a hospital, punching through the electrical room. The hospital went fully dark, the backup generators melted and useless anyway, as there was no longer a functional system to hook them up to. More than two dozen patients and staff were assumed dead even before the lava stopped flowing. Gabriel sent several utility boats to jury-rig as many circuits as they could back into the electrical grid, and was preparing to go with them when Max pointed out the lights behind him. On the bank of indicator lights behind Gabriel’s desk, three had blinked over from green to amber.
“Those are the filtration systems downstream of the Stone Canyon Reservoirs,” Gabriel said, which Max already knew. “But the one at Stone Canyon itself isn’t sensing a problem, so either whatever’s getting into the water is doing it along the pipe before it branches…” He trailed off, sounding tired.
“Or someone’s fooled your big filter,” Max said.
“We need to find out. And to fix it before anything happens to the downstream filters.” The Upper and Lower Stone Canyon Reservoirs fed drinking water to over 400,000 people. They could spread a plague or poison throughout the Westside in a matter of hours if the rest of Gabriel’s filters went down. Gabriel started pulling a new array of gadgets out of his desk, and Max left to make his own preparations. They would need someone to watch the warning lights while they were gone, the musical glasses to call that person, and a full tank of gas.
Max usually enjoyed driving, but it was hard to find much pleasure in it with Gabriel so grim next to him. Max tried anyway, admiring the bright blue of sky over the Santa Monica hills. The houses became more and more impressive and the yards larger and lusher as they approached Bel Air. The air and the water were cleaner, too. People here could afford home owners’ associations with community purifiers and litter control.
When they finally reached the Stone Canyon complex, Max tethered the boat at the utility dock and helped Gabriel unload his equipment. There was a short walk to the shed, which Gabriel would have called the filtration plant, but it was uphill and the replacement filter was heavy, so Max took pity on him and carried it up. He let Gabriel take the pack with all his tools.
The door of the shed was undamaged, and the keyhole smelled of nothing more than steel and the power of the mandala cut into its insides. Gabriel put a drop of water on his key, filling the mirror-image mandala engraved into it. As Gabriel opened the door, Max caught the lingering scent of basilisk venom. He set to work going around the edges of the room first, then homed in on where the massive pipe emerged from the floor, ran horizontally for a few yards, and then plunged back into the earth. The scent was stronger there, as of course he’d known it would be.
Gabriel pulled out his special wrench and quickly had the filter housing unfastened. He was no good at physical exertion, but with his sleeves rolled up and the right tool in his hand, he had a very precise—this was Gabriel, after all—sense of ease. Max watched him switch to awkwardly hauling up the filter, a broad copper plate that had thousands of tiny holes that split into even more capillaries inside it. The smell of osteomancy surged as Gabriel pulled the filter free.
“Basilisk venom,” Gabriel said hollowly.
Max looked up from the filter, surprised and pleased that Gabriel had recognized it. Gabriel had the distant look he got when he smelled smoke, and although he was gazing down at the hole melted through the middle of the plate, Max doubted he was seeing it.
Gabriel startled. “My mother worked with it,” he said, which explained more than just his knowledge of the smell. Gabriel’s mother had been killed in the Third Correction, taken by the Hierarch to be stripped down to her bones and eaten. Max thought quite a lot of who Gabriel was traced back to that. “She was good at it, not that it saved her,” Gabriel added. “Hell, that was why the Hierarch wanted to eat her in the first place.”
Max waited, but that was all Gabriel wanted to share.
“There’s something else,” Max said. He sniffed the copper plate, trying to hunt down the trace of the other osteomantic essence behind the stench of basilisk venom. He found it just inside the steel housing, on a sharp edge where the saboteur had scraped their finger. A tiny smear of blood, infused with a kaleidoscope of scent.
“It was a shapeshifter,” he said. “One who uses Akhlut.”
“Fantastic. We’ve got someone who can look like whomever they want and has a Water and Power key.”
“Cheer up. At least they didn’t know about the backup filters.”
“True. If they’ve worked their way into the department, they haven’t gotten very deep.”
Gabriel went to get the replacement filter Max had left by the door, and slotted it carefully into place while Max unpacked the musical glass and tuning fork. Gabriel took the bell-shaped glass and made it sing, then informed the worker Max had tasked with watching the indicator lights that they had swapped out the damaged filter.
“I want to test the water,” Gabriel said when he was done, so they locked the shed back up and hiked up the bank of the dam.
Lower Stone Canyon Reservoir was beautiful. The water, however contaminated it might be, was deep blue and calm. It reflected green trees and neatly-painted houses, and had a little sailboat drifting across it. Max watched the sailboat’s progress as Gabriel dipped a contraption of brass tubes into the water.
“Fecal coliform,” Gabriel read off a dial. “Giardia, and cholera. Lots of cholera. They went old-school.” He straightened up with a sigh. “Although, with the state of the Department of Public Health, they don’t need a fancy designer plague.”
“Public Health isn’t your problem,” Max warned. Recently Gabriel had take to complaining about Public Health’s ineffectiveness more than he usually did, and Max didn’t want him getting any ideas.
“I know, I know. Don’t let your trigger finger get so itchy, Max. I’ll stick to water and electricity.”
“I said I was sorry. And you said I was right, remember?” Max didn’t like thinking about Gabriel with his flask of ancient water raised, the feeling of pointing a gun at him and firing it, and the miserable plane ride home with Gabriel’s wounded head laying in his lap. Max had spent the trip wondering if Gabriel would wake up, until he did, and then Max switched to wondering if either of them could ever come back from it.
“Yes, but I only have one eye left. I get to sulk about it for a while.”
“I could have shot you in the hand instead,” Max pointed out, as Gabriel used his two good hands with functional fingers to take his water tester apart and pack it back into its case.
“Fair point,” Gabriel conceded, snapping the case shut. “We should wait here for the lower filtration systems to stop indicating contamination. If we don’t get a call soon, there’s a bigger problem we’ll have to find.”
“Good thing I brought lunch.” Max dug two sandwiches out of the pack.
“For after I’ve had my hands in cholera-laced water? Thanks.”
Despite his complaint, once Gabriel had rinsed his hands with a small vial of water, he took the sandwich eagerly. They sat on the grass, and Gabriel moved closer so his shoulder rested against Max’s.
“If this works and the volcanoes stop, I think we could manage a short honeymoon, if you want. Assuming nothing else comes along to hang over our heads, anyway.”
“You’re willing to leave the Department unattended again?” Max asked. It wasn’t something he expected Gabriel to consider, let alone suggest.
“Only for a few days. With detailed instructions. And orders to call me if things start slipping. But yes, I think I could manage it.”
“You think you have enough unused vacation time for that?”
“Hey, I’m trying. You don’t get to make fun of me for trying. We could go to a beach or something.” He shrugged, a shifting warmth on Max’s side. Max put his arm around him. “A cabin in the hills.”
“You’d be redoing its plumbing after the first day,” Max said, thinking it was a good idea. Moreover, it was a comforting one.
“And the only stakes would be whether there’s enough water pressure in the shower. That sounds awfully appealing.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d be okay again after Treasure Island,” Max said. “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that so much anymore.”
“Well, I can learn my lessons quickly when I really need too. Although, that’s how I ended up as the director of Water and Power in the first place, so it’s not an entirely good thing.”
“It’s worked out,” Max told him, and they watched the sailboat cross the reservoir until Gabriel’s glass chimed, and his assistant announced that the lights had changed back to a reassuring green.
Daniel was anxious. Usually he was keyed up before a job, and back in the day being the guy collecting a priceless treasure stolen from the Witch Queen herself would have had him buzzing with excitement. But now, with Sam’s life on the line and the prospect of seeing Cynara in front of him, Daniel felt only dread.
They were scoping out Mulholland Park before the reception, and before Argent arrived to check in, for that matter. Daniel combed the grounds for osteomantic traps, and Cassandra and Moth searched for hidden darts or tripwires. Jo stood lookout, and whistled when Argent approached.
“You don’t need to worry,” he said when they gathered to meet him and Max. “I made sure no one tampered with the park or the dam, and no one has been here since, except for you.”
“You’re sure on that?” Daniel asked.
“I’m staking my life on it, not to mention the future of the realm and probably quite a bit beyond it. Anything dangerous will have to be brought in, and I’ve got guards and several tons of protective warding ready to keep that from happening.”
Moth had sidled up to Max, and now interrupted to pose a question. “Six months ago you shot this guy in the head, and now you’re married to him? How’s that going?”
Max looked pained. “Like it’s none of your business.” He sounded offended that Moth would even bring it up.
“Being married to Max is a delight,” Argent said. “But since we’re already off the subject of the potentially war-provoking smuggling operation that might save the world—” he pulled a notebook out of his coat pocket and handed it to Daniel, “—you might as well take this now.”
“What is this?” Daniel asked, flipping through what appeared to records of osteomantic experiments. They became quite complex toward the end of the notebook. Daniel saw a reference to cikavac, the bird whose bones he had cooked for Otis. Otis had used it to brainwash street kids into his loyal zombies. Daniel stopped to read more closely.
“It’s the research I had done on curing wraiths,” Argent explained. “I’m getting out of everything that’s beyond the Department of Water and Power’s scope, and I haven’t been able to think of a way to justify this as fitting my mandate. Giving it to you is my best option. Turning it over to the Council of Osteomancers would only lead to them finding new and terrible ways of using it for their own gain. With you, I don’t have to worry that you’ll abuse it, you have the skill to understand it, and maybe you’ll decide you care about saving those kids.”
“I’m not going to help you run the city,” Daniel said. “No matter how you ask.”
“What you do with that information is up to you. You can burn it, if that’s what you want to do.” Gabriel smiled without any pleasure. “It’s out of my hands now.”
It was a smart move, Daniel had to admit. He was the one who had supplied the magic used to destroy an unknown number of kids’ lives, and it was hard to argue that he didn’t owe them whatever chance at a cure he could offer. Reluctantly, he wedged the notebook into the pocket of his jeans, where it felt like a lump of lead.
“Are you two done now?” Cassandra asked. “We should make sure we’re all on the same page.”
“Go ahead,” Argent said, his trap neatly sprung. “Although I’ve been assuming you want me to stay out of your way and let you handle it.”
“You’ve got it. Cynara will tell you whatever congratulations or threats she’s been sent here to give, then wait a little and find a quiet spot on the edge of the party. Daniel and I will serve her cake and booze, she’ll slip us the scepter. Moth and Jo lurk nearby in case one of them needs to cover for us. Once we’ve got it, we disappear into the night.”
“What could go wrong?” Max asked, and Daniel couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
Cassandra grinned. “Exactly. We keep it simple, we do our jobs, and we all get to go home at the end of the day, Northern Hierarch none the wiser and monster vanquished.”
They arrived back at Mulholland Park a little before sunset. All four were dressed in plain black uniforms, Jo and Cassandra’s hair pinned up in twists Jo assured her were subdued but elegant, and perfect for waitstaff at a top tier event. Jo’s preparation of Daniel and Moth had been more extensive, and more painful. Daniel provided the chimera bone, and she massaged their faces into new shapes, just in case Cynara had been boxed into bringing along a companion who might recognize them.
The park was lovely in the evening light. The roses and wisteria vines were green and well-watered, but the original bushes dotting the hillsides had been quietly replaced with drought-tolerant Ceanothus and agaves after Gabriel replaced Mulholland. Mulholland’s dam, holding back all 10 million plus tons of the Hollywood Reservoir, still dominated the landscape, however. Its cool white concrete was painted buff by the last of the sunlight, a pale staircase leading up to the the final step, where carved arches decorated with short-faced bear heads cast long shadows. Maybe that was Gabriel’s own display of power, Cassandra thought. Mulholland’s killer and the man who had asked him to do it and then taken Mulholland’s place, celebrating in front of one of his great works.
The caterer didn’t ask any questions when Cassandra, Daniel, and Jo presented themselves, merely handed Cassandra a tray of champagne flutes and trays of cake squares to Daniel and Jo. Moth left to find an unobtrusive place near the edge of the park to station himself, until they knew where Cynara would go.
Gabriel and Max arrived exactly five minutes early, and Cassandra was pleased to see that they both did a decent job of ignoring them. The guests began arriving soon after, the small fish because Gabriel wasn’t impressed by fashionable lateness and the bigger fish out of a desire not to miss anything. Gabriel Argent throwing a party was uncharted territory, but more importantly, there was the matter of foreign dignitaries. It was common knowledge that Gabriel had sent invitations to the surrounding kingdoms, and this was a state-sanctioned chance to speak with powers that typically had to be approached with a certain measure of circumspection.
Cassandra kept one eye on entrance to the park as she circulated with her champagne, and the other eye on Daniel. Cynara had not arrived on time, but as the representative of the Northern Hierarch, she was expected to not grace Gabriel with too much respect. Cassandra wouldn’t begin to worry until the event was halfway over.
Jo drifted up to her and murmured, “Is that her?” She tipped her chin slightly toward the pergola, and Cassandra casually glanced over. Gabriel and Max were talking with a short woman with long black hair, but she wasn’t Cynara Doring.
“No,” Cassandra answered quietly. “But those teeth she has? That’s spike-toothed salmon. Probably pounds of it.” Spike-toothed salmon bone was rare in Northern California, and practically nonexistent in Southern California. There were stories that there was as much as you could ever want farther north, and they weren’t fossil, but living fish. Cassandra would bet good money that the woman with the fangs jutting out of either side of her mouth had come all the way from the Allied Nations, or even Canada.
It was Daniel tensing and looking toward the entrance that tipped Cassandra off. Sure enough, a moment later Cynara stepped into view. She greeted Gabriel, sparing only a glance for Max, and delivered what looked like a scripted speech to him, before walking off to stand by the rose garden. If it had been her, Cassandra would have mingled a while longer so there would be fewer watchful eyes during the hand-off, but Cynara clearly had come come to do her job and leave, so Cassandra made her way over to her.
“Pass it to me when you take the glass,” Cassandra said, in the low, polite voice she had used to offer the other guests champagne.
“I will speak to him first,” Cynara responded, gazing at Daniel as he approached. Despite his changed face, she must have recognized his osteomancy the same way he had known hers.
“Cynara,” Daniel said, uncomfortably.
“I came to give you a warning. When Ethelinda was born, Paul turned to his father’s work—your father’s work—to protect our daughter. He improved upon it, and now I have bound the traces of your essence you left behind into his love spell. I make you this promise: you will not be able to harm my daughter.”
Daniel looked stricken. “I’ve never planned to hurt Ethelinda,” he objected.
“And you never will.”
Cynara reached out, and Cassandra handed her a champagne flute, using her body to block the motion of Cynara’s other hand from view. The head of the scepter was heavy, but Cassandra was able to slide it into the pocket sewn into her slacks and it settled there securely. Cynara took the barest sip from her glass before returning it to Cassandra’s tray, and then she turned away and swept out of the park.
Cassandra waited a few minutes and then nudged Daniel, breaking him free from whatever thoughts had him staring after Cynara, looking lost. They split apart and meandered over to the caterer’s table, where they abandoned their trays and slunk off. They made it to the boat they had stashed nearby, and Daniel called Em with a thin tube of bone.
“I wouldn’t have tried to hurt her anyway,” Daniel said, as they set off for Em’s hiding place.
“I know,” Cassandra said, thinking that she would have loved him anyway. “Sometimes life sucks.”
When they reached the old apothecary’s shop Em had taken over, she was waiting for them at the door with a shotgun. She lowered it when she recognized them, and called for Sam. Cassandra found him nearly impossible to see, as shrouded as he was in sint holo.
Using the scepter was a messy affair, even with Sam drugged into peaceful unconsciousness. Although it was only the top section with none of the shaft, it was a large chunk of metal, and the cut had to be big enough to fit it. There was a tense moment as Daniel pulled the shard of axis mundi out of Sam’s chest in order to set it into the gold, when Sam’s soul was separated from his body. But he woke up fine after Daniel sealed the wound with hydra and eocorn, and purged the sedative and sint holo from his system.
Cassandra waited until Daniel was finished hugging Sam, and was sitting on the front steps drinking coffee and letting the adrenalin fade, to talk to him. It was time to rip the band aid off.
“Hey,” she said, sitting down next to him.
“Hey yourself,” Daniel said. “We actually did it.”
“Yeah,” she answered, and she must have sounded too subdued, because Daniel looked at her with concern. “I don’t think there’s any nice way of doing this, so I’m going to go for quick instead. I’m dumping you.”
“I thought you did that years ago,” Daniel said, trying for levity and missing the mark.
“Friend-dumping you, then. I don’t want to keep feeling like this.”
“It’s not that I was happier a year ago, Daniel. But it was easier to live my life. It was my life, not my part in your life. An I know the love spell wasn’t your choice, and it’s not fair, but it’s not fair on me either.”
Daniel didn’t have an answer for that. He stared down at his coffee, and finally said, “I love you.” It was not quite a protest.
“I love you too. Like I said, life sucks sometimes.” Cassandra stood up, getting ready to leave. “But I think if we get over it and move on, it’ll suck less. I’m going to go for it. I hope you do to.”
Walking away from him hurt, but as she drove back through the city, it felt like the kind of hurt she could finally recover from.
Although Gabriel was used to working late, it had been a tense evening and he was happy to sit down on Max’s bed, which was extra comfortable due to the thick layer of blankets Max preferred. Gabriel still wasn’t quite used to thinking of it as their bed. His phone rang, showing an unknown number.
“It’s done,” Daniel said, sounding about as tired as Gabriel felt.
“Have you seen any signs of eruptions?” Gabriel asked. This was the only call he’d received all evening, and there had been no interruptions at the reception, meaning none of Gabriel’s people had anything to report. Gabriel wasn’t entirely sure where Sam had been hiding however, and he wanted to be sure before he started to relax.
Max came into the bedroom, the glass of water he’d gone to the kitchen for in his hand, and watched curiously. Gabriel smiled at him. “Good, we might be out of the woods, then,” he said to Daniel. It would take at least several days of peace to be sure, but he thought there were decent odds that the creature who was hunting world dragon had been put off the scent permanently.
“Argent,” Daniel said, and paused. “Thanks for the notebook.”
“You’ve read the last page, I take it.” Gabriel had written a note on it, suggesting that a method to cure wraiths might lead to a way to remove other childhood osteomantic influences. Such as eocorn essence, teratorn coprolite, and Pathera atrox, the ingredients of the loyalty magic Sebastian Blackland had placed on his son.
“It’s pretty slim chances I can even get the cikavac off the wraiths, let alone take out something as complex as a love spell.”
“Slim isn’t the same as none,” Gabriel said. “I think you’ll be able to do it.”
“Yeah, well. I guess we’ll see.” Daniel hung up.
“It worked?” Max asked.
“I think so, yes.” Gabriel started getting into the bed. He was feeling much more optimistic about having the time to begin thinking of it as his bed, too.
There would still be work to do tomorrow, as there always was. The sabotage of the Stone Canyon filtration plant had to be investigated, and kept from happening again. There might have been shifts in alliances during the reception, with so many of the great powers—and people who wanted to become great powers—gathered in one place. But for now, the worst threat appeared to be gone, and Gabriel could afford to go to sleep. As he watched Max take off his clothes and slide into the bed next to him, Gabriel thought he might even be getting better at this feeling contentment business.