cares about—himself. If he doesn’t find a cure soon, he’s dead.
parasites, and the twisted souls of long-dead mages. It would take an army to get Jubal inside … or just one of the most renowned knights in Guild history. The one Jubal betrayed and left for dead eighteen months ago.
I motored the Mangshan between a pair of thorny locust trees that served as the end posts for the fence marking the southern boundary of the Xiao family’s ancestral holdings.
Carina thought she could avoid me by ignoring my messages and staying holed up out here in the middle of nowhere. Pretty ridiculous considering how well she knew me.
At the end of the driveway, the trees pulled back to reveal a traditional wet-country house—long and low, enclosed by a weathered wooden porch complete with steel sliding-panel storm walls. Today the storm walls had been thrown open wide, letting the meager sunlight shine onto the house’s creamy parchglass and wood exterior walls.
I parked the ’Shan at the end of an ancient stone walkway that had been buckled by the unpredictable water table, and hooked my helmet and ventilator over the handlebars. It had taken me almost an hour to get way the hell out here from Taern— and that was running the ’Shan wide open, without any traffic.
Why Carina would want to live so far out in the soggies that she could smell the fishshit, I couldn’t fathom.
Fire threw open blast doors all through my body. Heat, the most perfect heat, swirled in my veins, warming me inside out. There was even a taste, sweet and spicy and a little ashy, like ember dust mixed with wrackrath smoke.
My eyes flew open and I sucked in a damp lungful of country air, trying to catch up on the oxygen I’d missed while I was out. I checked my wristpiece. The attack had only lasted a few seconds. Less than a minute, definitely. The PCM fits were getting more frequent, but they weren’t getting longer. Yet. If Carina had been watching me out one of her windows or via a security feed, she would think I’d just been taking in the scenery.
I headed up the walk, careful not to trip over the uneven stones, and stepped onto the porch. One very handsome devil with sculpted stubble, perfect skin, and dark, piercing eyes looked back at me from the reflection in the house’s parchglass walls. I admired his striking features as I knocked.
Not that I needed to knock with the number of early warning systems Carina probably had set up around her house. But I’m nothing if not polite. Especially when I want something.
From inside came the unmistakable sound of someone kicking something heavy across the room.
“You better pray to God I never make it to this door, Van Zandt,” Carina yelled from inside.
Paperinas flitted around my stomach, and a crazy grin stretched across my face. I hadn’t felt much of anything but the PCM attacks in such a long time that the excitement was making me giddy.
“Are you seriously still mad?” I’m not always great with time, but it felt like centuries had passed since I’d last seen Carina. I took a guess. “Soam was like…a year ago?”
There was another crash inside. Then the house’s door roared open on its track and I was staring down the business end of Carina’s well-worn knuckgun. She grabbed me by the jacket collar and slammed me against one of the porch’s thick wooden columns, then jammed the knuckgun up under my jaw.
“Eighteen months,” she said. A muscle in her mahogany- colored cheek ticked. If the symmetrical muscle under her other cheek hadn’t been trapped in all that shiny pink scar tissue, it probably would’ve tocked.
Our time apart had not been good to Carina. Since the last time I’d seen her, crow’s feet had etched themselves into the dark skin at the outside corners of her green eyes. She’d been athletic and sleek before, a very successful feline predator.
Now shadows stood out below her high cheekbones. Where her long sleeves rode up, I could see the veins in her wrists and thin straps of muscle in her forearms. The past eighteen months had whittled her curves and soft places down to hard angles and razorblades. She looked sharp. Painfully so.
Apparently, in spite of Soam’s nationwide obesity epidemic, good eats were not a part of their prison system.
“It took you eighteen months to break out of a prison pit?” I squinted at her in disbelief. “In Soam?”
“My femur was shattered,” she said. “Two of my vertebra had to be replaced.”
“Pretty convenient excuses,” I said.
Carina thumbed the knuckgun’s switch from SAFETY to BURST, effectively changing its purpose from SCARE JUBAL to TURN JUBAL’S SKULL INTO A BRAIN GEYSER.
I tried to jerk away from the deadly weapon—I love myself and I don’t fucking like anything that has the potential to kill that self—but Carina’s grip on my collar just tightened. She had me pinned to the column.
I grunted. “You’re awfully strong for a stick figure.” “It was a miracle I wasn’t killed on impact.”
“Exactly, so what are you yelling at me for?” I said. “It’s not like you didn’t know what you were getting into ahead of time, hiring me. You’re just mad that I saw through your manipulation in time to save my own skin.”
Carina’s dark eyebrows twitched together, and her head cocked a fraction of a fraction. “Manipulation?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Bloodslinger, it looks terrible on you.” I tried again to squirm away from the knuckgun. “Will you put that piece away already? We both know you’re not going to use it on me. It’s served its purpose—I’m very intimidated and a little bit aroused.”
Carina made a disgusted sound in her throat and shoved away from me, lowering the knuckgun to her side. “What are you doing here, Van Zandt?”
“What kind of stupid question is that?” I straightened my jacket. “You know why I’m here. You’ve opened every message I sent you since you got back to Emden.”
“You hacked my wristpiece?!”