“You’re causing the old men to have cardiac arrest,” came an amused voice to her left.
She glanced over to find the laughing gaze of her best friend, Inari Todd, staring back at her. Dacia rolled her eyes. “The old perverts should get a hobby,” she muttered, shifting so her shoulder blocked the eye that still stared.
“They have one,” Inari pointed out. “Staring at girls they can’t afford.” A low growl, too low for any human to hear, slipped from Dacia’s lips and her friend winced. “Sorry?” she offered. “Bad joke.”
“No,” Dacia sighed as she flicked a lock of long blonde hair out of her face. “I shouldn’t have taken it so personal. I know you didn’t mean it like that.” Her shoulders rose and fell in a resigned shrug. “Bad night’s sleep and a lack of income is making me twitchy.” She let her lips curve into a reluctant grin. “And we both know I use that attention when it’s convenient.”
“Doesn’t mean you like it,” the brunette pointed out. “Or that I like it.”
“They’re all eyes anyway.” Dacia tilted her head. “They don’t get mouthy or grabby, so it could be worse.” The blonde rubbed her arms as a small chill went through her despite the rays of the sun. “And we need to make some money. None of the usual stops have gotten us anything.” Unhappiness tightened her mouth, but she forced the words out regardless. “I can always pick up . . .”
“How about no?” Inari interrupted. Banked fury sparked in her dark eyes. “We’re not there yet.”
“It can keep us fed and out of Damien’s hands,” Dacia pointed out even as she repressed the automatic grimace. The idea of going back to her training under the procurer’s hands made her ill, but at least now she used it when and where she chose – and only as a last resort.
“I get that.” The other girl shook her head. “And if it’s that or starve, then I guess we’ll have to see, but we’re not starving yet. So for now we play it my way.” She chewed on one of her fingernails for a moment. "Come on. What we need are some folks with heavy pockets – one of us can distract them while the other does them the favor of lightening their loads.”
“You mean I can distract them,” Dacia lifted an eyebrow, “and you can pick their pockets.”
“I know, I know,” Inari huffed. “And after I just shot down the idea of you picking one up.” Her hands came up in a reluctant sign of surrender. “But I just can’t distract people the way you can. They don’t watch me that way.”
Dacia folded her arms over her chest. “Good,” she replied, her tone blunt enough to inflict damage. When Inari blinked at her, she forced herself to soften her voice. “You stay that way,” she continued. “If worst comes to worst, then I’ll handle getting us some money. You keep planning the games and the jobs and let me worry about it.” A bittersweet smile crossed her face. “At least now I’m free to do my own choosing.”
The breeze picked up, ruffling their hair and wrapping around them. People nearby smiled a little brighter, laughed a little louder as the wind cooled the heat of the afternoon. Not the two girls. Dacia stiffened and felt Inari draw closer to her shoulder. A scent rose on that current of air – a scent the humans could not detect, a scent of another of their kind.
Of Dacia’s kind – to be precise.
“Blutbad,” Inari murmured, her eyes narrowing as they began to scan the park.
Dacia frowned. “Sort of.” Something seemed off in the scent. “There’s something not right about it. Come on.” She took a deep breath, dragging in as much of the scent as she could before she began to track it.
“Excuse me?” Inari’s voice should not have been able to blend that level of dry with its corresponding level of exasperation. “Something’s not right about a Blutbad’s scent . . . and you want to go chasing it?”
“Well . . . yeah.”
Dacia followed the scent, focusing most of her attention on her search, but the rest of it hearkened back to Inari. She choked back laughter more than once as her best friend made comments on everything from Dacia’s potential antecedents to her possible lack of common sense to her probable brain damage. “Think you covered everything?” she asked, amused sarcasm thick in her voice.
“Don’t even,” Inari hissed at her, a small rumble of sound under her voice. Dacia’s lips curled in amusement as she could see her friend’s hair taking on a reddish hue. Then Inari gave a small shake and her hair darkened back to its usual black. “What are we doing?” she demanded.
“Finding out what is going on,” Dacia replied as though the answer should be obvious.
“No,” Inari argued. “We should not be sticking our nose into this. If the scent’s off then he . . . she . . . it . . . whatever – the Blutbad is sick. We shouldn’t be tracking the source!”
“Aren’t you a little curious?”
“Do I look like an Eisbiber to you?” The dark-haired girl fumed, but she kept following. “We should be picking pockets and pulling jobs, but no – here we are tracking down some sick . . .”
“We don’t know if he’s sick,” Dacia reminded her.
“His scent is off,” Inari sniffed, her eyes glowing for a brief moment. “Of course he’s sick. Wait . . . 'he'? We know it’s a he?”
“Great. Even better. We’re tracking a sick male of all things.”
Dacia lifted a brow at her. “That’s a problem?”
“He’s sick,” Inari repeated. “And he is a he. Males are terrible at being sick! My dad used to carry on like he was dying of the plague or something every time he had a fever.”
The blonde began to shake her head, but a burst of joyous laughter from the clearing ahead shut her down and she drew closer to the trees, trying to stay out of sight. Inari moved up beside her and the two girls peered through the foliage at the eight or so people picnicking in this quiet section of the park. Dacia did a quick recount. Eight people – four males and four females. She ran her eyes over them, scanning them as only a child of the streets could and came up with a frightening observation.
All eight emanated danger as easy as breathing.
She could feel Inari curl into her, the Fuchsbau doing her best to control the tremors racing over her skin. This wasn’t Inari’s kind of situation. Dacia could all but taste her friend’s desire to run away, to race off and hide from the threat these people seemed to put off without thought.
Neither girl moved.
They focused on the people instead.
The four women all carried themselves with authority, as if they knew they could take care of themselves without any trouble. Dacia wanted to mark them all as cops, but . . . there seemed to be an extra layer of something on a couple of them. As if they took ‘cop’ to a different level. Two of the men had the same feel – they felt like cops to her street senses, but they both had a layer of something else enhancing and bolstering that. She hated those kinds of mysteries.
Despite this, they did not hold her attention.
No, her attention centered on the other two males. One of them possessed a wicked scar down his cheek. He was the one she could now pinpoint as one of her kind. Sort of anyway; he didn’t smell quite right. He smelled too human, and yet not human enough. She bit her lip. Glancing over her shoulder, she met Inari’s wide eyed gaze. “I think he’s a half-blood,” she whispered.
A flicker of curiosity lit those dark eyes before they widened in anxious fear. Dacia turned back to the clearing to find the last of them – the other male she had focused on – standing and staring in their direction. He seemed to be the eldest of them, at least by the way the others were reacting. Caution entered their voices and expressions as they shifted to stand behind him. Their eyes flickered from him to the trees as they tried to see what had drawn his attention.
The half-blood’s chin came up as the new breeze changed directions. Dacia curled in on herself a little as she realized her scent and Inari’s would now be wafting towards him. “Shit.”
The elder took a step forward. “Come out!”
Dacia’s heart stuttered as she felt a power in that voice – a power she had not felt in years, a power that dragged out memories of smoke and fire and death. No, no, no, no, no . . . please no! Her thoughts jumbled and scattered as old fears bubbled in her memory.
“Hans?” One of the women – one of the enhanced cops – stepped up beside him. “What is it?”
“Ve are being watched,” he replied as he took another step forward, German accent thick on his words. He reached back and pulled his rifle over his shoulder. It remained loose in his hands, but Dacia did not doubt it could be swung up and towards them at any moment. His voice rang through the clearing. “I said . . . come out!”
Dacia froze, not certain what to do. It took Inari’s giving a massive shudder behind her to snap her out of the daze. “Go!” She turned and pushed the other girl in front of her. Someone growled behind them, a predator with the scent of prey, and she could see her friend flinch at the sound. The two of them darted off, trying to sprint for other areas of the park as they sought safety in numbers.
The crashing sound behind them gave the only warning of their failure in the attempt.
An arm snagged Dacia around the waist, hauling her back against the corresponding chest. The odd scent of the half-blood swirled around her. “Run!” she screamed at Inari, but the girl stopped, eyes glowing as her face flickered in woge. The near legendary and often worrisome loyalty of Inari’s breed kept her at Dacia’s side, though escape would be the better idea.
“Let her go!” Inari demanded and Dacia repressed a sigh even as she wiggled against her captor. Wasn’t she supposed to be the insane one?
“No.” The elder of the group – the one called Hans – stepped out of the trees, his gun still easy in his grip, though his eyes radiated a cold distrust. “We have some questions.”
“Let her go and I’ll answer them,” Inari offered. Dacia could see the brunette dragging herself back under control and offering an artless little smile. Guileless brown eyes – better than any childlike fawn – turned to him as the hint of tears glistened in the corner of one eye.
If only Inari could teach her how to do that…
“Perhaps hyu shall answer the questions,” Hans shook his head. “Then we shall consider letting her go.”
“You have no right to hold me!” Dacia insisted.
His eyebrows went up in amusement as the remaining six members of his group appeared behind him as they stepped through the foliage. They must have been expected as the man never faltered in his appraisal of the two girls. “Hyu were spying on us,” he pointed out. “We wish to know why.”
“We weren’t there to look at you,” the blonde girl informed him. “You just happened to be in the way.”
Something like bewildered curiosity flickered in his gaze. “What huf I done to hyu, Fraulein, that hyu should speak with such venom in hyur voice?”
Dacia glared at him viciously. “I don’t know you,” she insisted vehemently.
“We huf never met,” Hans agreed, robin's egg blue eyes speculatively as he considered the rage building in her features. “And yet – hyu hate me.”
“What did you expect?” Dacia all but growled at the man. She could feel every inch of her skin tremble, all but shivering with the need to attack before these people could hurt her or Inari. Gritting her teeth, she began to struggle once more against the ironclad arm holding her pinned. “Trust? Acceptance? Why should we trust your kind?”
“My kind?” He tilted his head in a clear question.
She huffed out a sharp breath, impatient with his subterfuge of innocence. “Yes, your kind.” Her eyes glittered with fear and a need for vengeance as they focused on him. She spat out the final word.