He shook his head. “I can’t give you permanent freedom. We need your services too much. But I can offer you a temporary reprieve. If you and I succeed, you can go home and I promise not to call on you and yours for six months.”
“Five.” The resolute tone of his voice told her it was his last offer.
“Deal,” she said softly. “What happens if I fail?”
“We’ll both die. But, our chances of success will be much better if you stop fearing me.”
That was certainly true. “I’m not scared of you.”
His lips curved slightly. “You’re terrified.”
She raised her chin. “The sooner we get done, the faster I can go home. What do you need me to do?”
Nassar reached into his jacket and took out a rolled-up piece of paper. “In our world disputes between the clans are resolved through war or by arbitration.”
Grace arched her eyebrow. “How many clans are there?”
“Twelve. We’re now in dispute with Clan Roar. War is bloody, costly and painful for everyone involved and neither of the families can afford it now. We’ve chosen arbitration. The issue is pressing and the dispute will be decided through a game.”
He unrolled the picture and held it. She would have to move closer to him to see it. Grace sighed and moved another three inches to the right. Their thighs almost touched.
Nassar showed her the paper. It was an aerial photograph of a city.
“Milligan City,” Nassar said. “Squarely in the middle of the rust belt. A couple of decades ago it was a busy town, a blue-collar haven. Good life, family values.”
“Defined future,” she said.
He nodded. “Yes. Then the conglomerates shifted their operations overseas. The jobs dried up, the real-estate values plummeted, and the residents fled. Now Milligan’s population is down 42 per cent. It’s a ghost city, with all the requisite ghost city problems: abandoned houses, squatters, fires and so on.” He tapped the paper. “This particular neighbourhood is completely deserted. The city council’s getting desperate. They relocated the last of the stragglers to the centre of the city and condemned this neighbourhood. In nine days, it will be bulldozed to make way for a park. The arbitration will take place here.”
“When I think of arbitration, I think of lawyers,” Grace said. “Both sides present their case and argue to a third party.”
“Unfortunately this case isn’t something that can be settled through litigation,” Nassar answered. “Think of it in this way: instead of having a large war, we decided to have a very small one. The rules are simple. This area of the city was warded off from the rest, hidden in the cocoon of magic and altered. It’s been officially condemned, so no others are allowed near it. Those who try are firmly discouraged, but if someone does make it through, to their eyes the area will appear as it always was.”
She chewed on that “others”. Normal, non-magical people. He said it in the way one might refer to foreigners.
“Arbitration by game is a big event. By last count, representatives often clans have shown up for the fun. Two weeks were allowed to each clan who so wished to dump whatever hazards they could manage into this space. It’s full of things that go bump in the night.”
“The other clans don’t like you,” she said.
“None of the clans like each other. We compete for territory and business. We have wars and bloody battles. And it will be up to you and me to help us avoid such a war this time.” He touched the photograph. “Somewhere in the zone the arbitraries have hidden a small flag. Two teams will enter the game zone to retrieve the flag, while the rest of the clansmen will bet on the outcome and enjoy their popcorn. Whoever touches the flag first will win and be ported out of the zone. Whether the flag is retrieved or not, in three days’ time the wards will constrict, sweeping anything magic from the area into its centre. The pyromancers will destroy it in a preternaturally hot bonfire, while the locals blissfully sleep.”
“Are we one of the teams?”
Now she understood. Mother was almost fifty and overweight. She wouldn’t be able to move fast enough. They needed someone younger and she fitted the bill. “Will the rival team try to kill us?”
Another light smile touched his lips. “Most definitely.”
“I don’t have any offensive magic.”
“I’m sure,” he said. “You’re entirely too polite for that.”
It took her a moment to catch the pun. “I’m a dud. I sense magic and I can do small insignificant things, but I can’t foretell the future like my mother and I haven’t been trained as a fighter like Gerald. For all practical purposes, I’m the ‘other’, a completely ordinary person. I’ve never fired a gun, I’m not exceptionally athletic, and my strength and reflexes are average.”
“Then why do you need—” Magic stabbed her, cold and sharp, wrenching a startled gasp from her. Her eyes watered from pain.
“Lilian!” Nassar barked.
“Go!” The chauffeur mashed a square button on her dashboard.
The roof of the vehicle slid aside. A dark sheath coated Nassar.
The pain pierced Grace’s ribs, slicing its way inside.
Nassar jerked her to him. She collided with the hard wall of his chest, unable to breathe.
The dark sheath flared from him, filling the vehicle in long protrusions, shaping into a multitude of pale feathers.
“Hold on,” Nassar snarled.
Grace threw her arms around his neck and they shot straight up, into the sky. Wind rushed at her. The pain vanished. She looked down and almost screamed — the car was far below.
The flesh of Nassar’s neck crawled under her fingers, growing thicker. She turned to him and saw a sea of feathers and, high above, huge raptor jaws armed with crocodile teeth. Her arms shook with the strain of her dead weight.
“It’s OK,” the monster reassured her in Nassar’s voice.
Her hold gave. For a precious second, Grace clung to the feathers, but her fingers slipped. She dropped like a stone. Her throat constricted. She cried out and choked as a huge claw snapped closed about her stomach.
“Grace?” The feathered monster bent his neck. A round green eye glared at her.
She sucked the air into her lungs and finally breathed. “Your definition of OK has problems.” The wind muffled her voice.
“What?” he bellowed.
“I said, your definition of OK has problems!” The ground rolled past them, impossibly far. She clenched her hands on the enormous scaly talons gripping her. “Is there any chance that this could be a dream?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Her heart hammered so hard, she was worried it would jump out of her chest. “What was it?”
“Clan Roar - our opponents in the game. Or one of their agents, to be exact. They’re not dumb enough to attack you directly. Once the game is scheduled, all hostilities between the participants must cease. Interference of this sort is forbidden.”
“What about Lilian?”
“She can take care of herself.”
Grace shivered. “Why would they be attacking me in the first place?”
“You’re my defence. If they kill you, I’ll have to withdraw from the game.”
“That sounds ridiculous! You’re the revenant and I can’t even defend myself.”
“I’ll explain everything later. We’re beyond their range now and we’ll arrive soon. Try to relax.”
She was clutched in the talons of a monstrous creature, who was really a man trying to rescue her from a magical attack by flying hundreds of feet above solid ground. Relax. Right. “I serve a madman,” she muttered.
Far beyond the fields, an empty piece of the horizon shimmered and drained down, revealing a dark spire. Tower Dreoch, Uncle Gerald had called it. He’d said the Dreochs lived in a castle. She thought he’d exaggerated.
Nassar careened, turning, and headed to the tower.
They circled the tower once before Nassar dived to a balcony and dropped her into a waiting group of people below. Hands caught her and she was gently lowered to the ground.
In the overcast sky, Nassar swung upwards and swooped down. The group parted. A dark-skinned woman grasped Grace by her waist and pulled her aside with the ease one picks up a child.
Nassar dived down. His huge talons skidded on the balcony and he tumbled into the room beyond. Feathers swirled. He staggered up. “Leave us.”
People fled past her. In a moment the room was empty.
Grace hugged herself. Up there, in the evening sky, the cold air had chilled her so thoroughly, even her bones felt iced over. Her teeth still chattered. She stepped to the double doors and shut them, blocking off the balcony and the draught with it.
The large rectangular room was simply but elegantly furnished: a table with some chairs, a wide bed with a gauzy blue canopy, a bookcase, some old, solidly built chairs before the fireplace. A couple of electric table lamps radiated soft yellow light. An oriental silk rug covered the floor.
Nassar slumped in front of the fireplace. Bright orange flames threw highlights on his feathers, making them almost golden in the front. His feathers seemed shorter. His jaws no longer protruded quite as much.
Grace crossed the carpet and stood before the fire, soaking in the warmth. It all seemed so dreamlike. Unreal.
“This will be your room for the next couple of days,” he said.
“You have no idea how strange this is to me,” she murmured.
His smart eyes studied her. “Tell me about it?”
“In my world people don’t turn into . . . into this.” She indicated him with her hand. His feathers definitely were shorter now. He’d shrunk a little. “People don’t fly unless they have a glider or some sort of metal contraption with an engine designed to help them. Nobody tries to murder someone through magic. Nobody has mysterious castles masquerading as empty fields.”