"Conrad!" Murdoch snapped his fingers.
He blinked. "What?"
"I said that we know about your involvement in the Kapsliga, and we know the vows involved."
Conrad's eyes shot wide. "Don't - "
"We know you've never been with a woman."
Cadeon Woede of the rage demons would rather have had his black claws pulled from his fingers or his horns filed than come to this bar - a grungy biker dive, patronized almost entirely by male demons.
But if Cade hadn't accompanied his brother and crew here, he would've gone to stalk her - and Rydstrom was already getting suspicious about his late-night activities.
Besides, they had a business meeting with a soothsayer this eve. "And here's the dove of the hour," Cade muttered when Nïx and another Valkyrie entered the bar. They'd been searching for Nïx for days now, and a mutual friend had arranged the meeting.
Rydstrom twisted around in time to see the two small females accosted by a pathos demon. The pathos was a brawny biker, but he looked young, too young to tangle with the much older Valkyrie.
"Step aside," Nïx told him, already glancing past him.
When he didn't, her companion tensed. "Move." The female was wearing a low-hanging cowboy hat. Good money said that the hat was shading the glowing face of Regin the Radiant, a combat-loving Valkyrie. "Or hurt."
"My friend here has been spoiling for a brawl for weeks now," Nïx said. "At this point she'll smack down unwary kindergartners over sandbox toys. I suggest you get out of our way."
"None doing, lovelies," the pathos said in a nineteenth-century Cockney accent. "Pretty little things like ye come in a place like this, methinks yer keen for a demon twixt yer thighs."
Nïx rolled her eyes. "Only about, oh, always," she said in an exasperated tone. "As long as they don't resemble you in any way."
The pathos put his arm in front of Nïx, blocking her. "Now, that's not nice."
Cade shook his head. The fuckwit has no idea what he's provoking.
"No," Regin began, "making you wear your bulbous horns out of your ass wouldn't be nice."
Rydstrom asked, "Should we warn that demon?"
"Let them sort out the tosser," Cade answered. "The Valkyrie'll be in a good mood after violence." And the spectacle would be something to take Cade's mind off his obsession.
In a flash, Nïx snared the pathos's hand and smiled, baring her small fangs. His eyes widened with belated recognition, just as she squeezed his hand in her own, pulverizing the bones. He yelled, alerting a kinsman, who unwisely decided to join in.
Rydstrom's battle-scarred face creased into a grin. "It's never dull with Valkyrie around."
"Hey, Nïx," Regin said minutes later, "my demon screams like a singing bitch - what does yours scream like?"
Nïx replied conversationally, "Also like a singing bitch. Hmm. Only without balls." As Nïx plugged his left horn into a wall socket, Regin got to enjoy a round of the cheap shots she was known for, until her hat got knocked off in the skirmish. Her glowing face made everyone back away.
Though Nïx was older and therefore stronger, Regin had a notorious vicious streak.
The crowd quieted as a whole, but more than one creature cursed under his breath, "Not Regin."
A drunk hunched over the bar muttered, "That glowing one made me eat a transistor radio once."
In the lull, the Valkyries' two battered opponents fled.
With a shrug, Regin collected and dusted off her hat, then cast Nïx a blazing smile. "Nïxie, you were on fuego!"
Nïx tucked her black hair behind her pointed Valkyrie ears. "And your waif fu is as diabolical as ever!"
As predicted, the chits are in a great mood now.
Seeing the show was over, Rydstrom rose to go collect the pair, which meant Cade rose as well. "Nïx?" As Rydstrom strode to her, even hardened denizens of the bar dived out of his way. Nïx and Regin had to crane their heads up to look into his face.
"King Rydstrom," she said with a smile, "and behind you as usual is your guard Cadeon the Kingmaker."
"Why don't you have a seat with us?" Rydstrom led Nïx to their back table, with Regin and Cade following.
"Excuse Cade's mercenaries." Not bothering to hide his disapproval, Rydstrom indicated Cade's crew. "Some of them are in town. Indefinitely." Rydstrom could be just as ruthless as Cade and his men, but he never wavered from his personal code.
Cade wondered where Rydstrom had gotten that code, because his own was missing.
Nïx gave them an exaggerated howdy wave, yet they all scowled. She seemed to recognize two of the five: the smoke demon Rök, a fugitive in two dimensions living under a "terminate with extreme prejudice" order, and Grimslade, who sat in the chair closest to the darkened corner.
Grim, one among a warrior breed of demons raised underground in the most hellish conditions, looked to have a heart attack when Regin sat beside him. She was unaware that Grim had only two aversions - one to bright things and one to beautiful things. Regin was both.
As Nïx took a seat, she said to Rydstrom, "Mariketa the Awaited told me you wanted to speak to me."
"Aye, I need your advice."
"My advice." She pressed her fingers to her chest. "But didn't you recently say that I was a 'mad creature' who was 'soft in the head'? Sniff, sniff, Rydstrom. Sniff, sniff. I was so crushed that I ate a gallon of Ben & Jerry's, except I didn't because Valkyrie don't eat."
Rydstrom narrowed his eyes. "Bowen told you I said that?"
With uncharacteristic smoothness, Rydstrom said, "Then you also know I said you were a beauty."
She was a comely bit, but then, was there ever a Valkyrie who was hard to look at? Cade had seen his first one when he'd just turned nine. He'd been fascinated with them ever since.
Nïx fluffed her long hair. "Though you merely observe the obvious with your aggressive flirting, you're still forgiven." Exhaling as if in resignation, she said, "I suppose that now you'll want to sleep with me." Over Rydstrom's sputtering, she added, "Alas, big guy - I am taken."
"No, you're not," Regin said.
"Am too," Nïx said. "Mike Rowe, the star of Dirty Jobs, is soon to realize I'm his beloved." She sighed dreamily. "He even got his lawyers to contact me on the pretext of a" - she made air quotes - "'restraining order.'"
Returning her attention to a bemused Rydstrom, she said, "So about this advice... do you want to find your fated female or defeat your usurper, Omort the Deathless? Which would you prefer to have? Your queen or the crown that your brother lost for you?"
Cade slammed his drink to the sticky table. He'd fucked up. He knew it, was reminded of it hourly. He did his damnedest to rectify the situation - and always fell short. "Am I never livin' that down?" he snapped, his lower-class demon accent standing out sharply. He usually masked it better than this.
He wanted to be like his older brother - he truly did. He often imagined what it would be like to be respected and sought out for his wisdom and evenhandedness. Instead, he was "violent, impulsive, and misguided," according to Rydstrom.
Cade's crew made money doing the things the bad guys would wince at. He just didn't have those moral checks on his personality.
But it isn't like Rydstrom doesn't have his secrets. And Cade was inadvertently privy to several. There were certain things that made King Rydstrom lose his cool in a catastrophic way.
"No, I checked. You're not going to live it down," Nïx said, with all the authority of a soothsayer who'd never been proven wrong - not once in at least three thousand years.
The other demons smirked, except for Grim, who was casting tense looks at Regin and absently puncturing claw marks into the table.
Rydstrom freely blamed Cade for losing his crown, and Cade had never apologized. Cade figured most brothers would have had an exchange of "Sorry" followed by "We'll work it out." Not he and his brother - they were prone to break out in fistfights just walking together.
Yet they'd rarely separated for centuries.
"Why make me choose?" Rydstrom asked. "You could tell me how to obtain both."
She blinked at him. "Because that wouldn't be... fun?" After casting an inquisitive glance at Cade, she focused on Rydstrom, seeming to will him toward an answer.
"I want... my crown."
Nïx glared. "Well, there went that decision tree. Four words and both of your fates just altered utterly." She turned to Cade. "What about you? What would you do to restore your brother's kingdom?"
He grated, "Bloody - anything."
She sighed as if she disapproved of his answer but wasn't surprised by it. "Would you relinquish your life for it?"
"I would," Cade said easily. Life's too long anyway. He was millennial in age, had no family other than Rydstrom and their sisters.
At least with his death, Cade could atone. If anyone got to die to save their kingdom, it better be him.
"Would you give up your own fated female?" she asked. The demons at the table grew quiet.
Not so easy to relinquish. Answer the bloody question. Cade couldn't have her anyway. She was forever forbidden to him. Rydstrom's scrutinizing me. Did he know? Answer it. "Yes, I would."
"Very well." She faced Rydstrom. "Your crown... You and Cade's gang have been searching for months for a particularly nasty warlock who's the only one with the knowledge of how Omort the Deathless can be vanquished."
Rydstrom narrowed his gaze. "We've told no one that."
She waved away his words. "Don't worry, I've been telling everybody." When he scowled, Nïx said, "Problem, though."
"The warlock's... been murdered." She cupped her ear. "Wow, I can hear your hopes plummeting."
Cade ran his hand down his face. "How?"
"Sucked dry by a red-eyed vampire." Both Cade and Rydstrom tensed.
"This leech... he lives still?" Cade inched forward in his seat, already envisioning how to torture the vampire to retrieve the warlock's stolen memories. The Woede had no love lost for vampires.
"He does!" Nïx said. "And I even know where he is."
With a kingly motion of his hand, Rydstrom waved her on. Nïx grew still. Cade drank deeply. Rydstrom, you just fucked up... .
"You dare wave me about?" Nïx's eyes flickered silver with anger. "Like I'm your court seer, or the seer's coffee-fetching intern?" She lowered her voice. "I'm more than twice your age, and two of my three parents are gods."
Rydstrom had to know he'd botched this, but he plowed on. "Nïx... " he said slowly, warningly.
"Oh, Rydstrom" - she scratched him under the chin and gave him an embarrassed smile - "this mad creature is so soft in the head, she forgot where she put the leech!" She stood to go. "Toodle-oo, the night grows short, and Regin and I have much mayhem to hatch."
"Stay, Nïx. I'll leave. You can continue talking to Cade." Rydstrom obviously thought he'd have more luck with Nïx.
In general, Cade was considerably smoother with women than his brother was. Though Rydstrom did love to remind Cade what a "blathering idiot" he'd been the sole time he'd spoken with his fated female.
Admittedly, he hadn't been at the top of his game, but blathering idiot? Not in a million years.
Rydstrom indicated for the rest of the crew to go to the bar. Except for Rök, who gave a vile curse. "Summoned yet again," he grated, then began tracing.
Ballocks, there goes my ride. Neither Cade nor Rydstrom could trace any longer. They'd had that ability bound - a punishment for a failed coup.
I'm going to get Rydstrom's bloody crown back for him if it bloody kills me... .
When it was only Cade and the Valkyrie, Nïx said, "You'll be at the gathering this weekend, yes?"
He nodded. "How's the alliance shaping up?" He'd heard Nïx had been actively steering this Accession. For her to take such an interest meant this one could be apocalyptic. Otherwise, Nïx the Ever-Knowing would likely be out shopping, as Valkyrie fancied doing.
She said, "So far on our team, we have the Lykae, the Forbearers, the Furiae, the Wraiths, the noble fey, myriad demonarchies, the House of Witches, possibly the CIA, and probably a Colombian drug lord. The nymphs are straddling the fence."
Regin opened her mouth, but Nïx cut her off. "That one's too easy, Reege."
The Valkyrie shrugged, her attention returning to an arm-wrestling match.
In a nonchalant tone, he asked Nïx, "So you want to tell me about the leech?"
"I don't know if you can defeat this one," Nïx said. "He's unspeakably powerful."
Cade gritted his teeth. "Then I only wish you'd seen what I did to my last enemy. And that was piss easy for me."
Nïx peered at the ceiling, then down again with an expression of surprise. "Very nice. But I can't see what you did with his spine."
She could view the past as well? There'd been rumors... . "Made him try to crawl for it before I beheaded him." He immediately frowned. "What do you do when you pluck a spine?"
"The same. You can't improve on a classic. Oh, and speaking of getting a spine - how are things with your lady love, Cade?"
He drank, studying her over the rim of his mug. Nïx can tell how I feel. She knows. Cade was notoriously brutal, a feared mercenary. Yet at times he found himself gut-sick with wanting his female, one who was too young and too human - the sole species forbidden to him.
Because the mortal wouldn't survive the initial claiming when he went demonic.
Cade no longer tried to deny that she was his, no longer bothered with his halfhearted pursuits of other females. Every time he saw her from the shadows, the certainty grew.
He wondered if Nïx knew about the picture he kept beside his bed.
Nïx smiled at that very moment; Cade swore. "Ever-knowing, Cade," she said softly.
Cade hiked his shoulders, pretending nonchalance. "Tell me about the vampire, or not, dove. But none of us really wants to be here."
"I'll tell you," Nïx said, her gaze rapt on his horns. "But only if you let me lick your rock-hard horns - "
"Nïx!" Regin's attention snapped back to this conversation.
Eyes wide, Nïx cried, "Who said that?? I didn't say that! Oh, very well - the vampire's named Conrad Wroth. Best be careful with that one. He single-handedly took down Bothrops the Lich."
"That was Wroth?" He'd heard of the assassin before. Cade grudgingly admitted that the leech did nice work, dealing deaths with a unique, gruesome signature to them. Which was important in their line of business. "Where is he?"
"To find him, you need to trail the one who seeks him in sleep."
"Soothsayerese? I don't speak it," he said, but she didn't elaborate. "That's all you're going to divvy?"
"Wanna know more?" Nïx raised her brows. "Then you should have let me lick your horns."
When Conrad's eyes slid shut, the muscles in his jaw tightening, N®¶omi realized he wasn't going to deny his brother's words.
Her lips parted. Never been with a woman? If Conrad had been attractive to her before, he'd just become irresistible. This man, with his tremendous body made for pleasing and protecting a woman, was a virgin.
Oh, but this revelation was a problem. Conrad - so secretive and proud - was plainly burning with embarrassment, restless in his chains. His arms were bulging so much, it was clear he was clenching his fists behind him. Her knowing this would be humiliating for him.
And his pride had already been taking a beating. She knew men, and she knew that any show of vulnerability in front of a woman they found attractive was crushing to them.
Her heart was breaking for him.
Murdoch frowned at Conrad's reaction. "Just think, if you found your Bride at the gathering, within a single week, you could be bedding her. Aren't you even curious about what it's like?"
His tone incensed, Conrad said, "Leave me."
"Things are heating up overseas - none of us will be back until late tomorrow. Do you want to drink before I go?"
Conrad began straining against his bonds, the muscles in his neck standing out with the effort. "Get out of my sight!" As he rocked to the side, she saw blood on the sheets from where the manacles were cutting into his wrists.
"Conrad, calm yourself." Murdoch stood. "I'm leaving."
When Murdoch disappeared, N®¶omi took a breath, then sidled closer to Conrad. Making her tone casual, she said, "You seem discomfited by this, but you shouldn't be. Et alors. Ce n'est pas grand-chose. It's not a big - "
"Conrad, your brother seems to believe you could soon find your Bride and bed her, but I think he's glossing over a major component - she needs to want you, too. I could teach you what women like. I could show you how to seduce her."
That just made him more furious.
She hurriedly said, "Listen, this is your room and I'll respect your privacy, but maybe tonight, I could just sit with you? I won't say a word. I just don't want to be alone - "
"And you know what I want." She'd noticed that his fangs seemed to sharpen with aggression - they did now. "So be a good girl, and promise me," he began in a low tone, before yelling, "that you'll get me a goddamned key!"
"You said you wanted to kill your brothers. You said you ached to."
She made an impatient sound. "So, if I free you, you could just lie in wait and attack them here. I'd be an accessory to murder."
Looking as if he could happily throttle her, he said, "I wouldn't do it here."
She shook her head. "I won't even consider it until you vow not ever to harm them."
"Why would you want this?"
"I feel like I know them, and I think they're honorable men," she answered. "They don't deserve to die, especially not for trying to help you."
"If you don't get me the key, I swear, I'll torch this rotting heap!"
"Why do you say these things?" she cried.
"Because I mean what I say. Now, get out! And don't return without my key."
"This is my house - I don't have to leave!"
"Of course you wouldn't want to! I suppose that's your lot, to follow the living around like a pathetic lapdog."
"L-lapdog?" Had he truly just called her that?
"Exactly. Doing your tricks, begging for a crumb of attention. Stripping off your clothes."
She gasped, tempted to reacquaint him with the ceiling.
"Run along, ghostling. Unless I haven't tossed you enough scraps?"
With a last glare, she twisted and disappeared from the room. Damn him, she didn't want to be alone. Not tonight.
Why did men get so angry after showing a vulnerability? Why did it cost them so much to let down their armor? She couldn't care less that Conrad was a virgin. Well, that wasn't true, but she definitely wasn't reacting the way he would think.
What if I just return and tell him that I'm attracted to him - and that this information doesn't lessen the feeling?
So he could yell more at her? Insult her? Was she the type of woman who would rather get insulted than be alone?