A careful knock interrupted her.
“It’s your room,” Nassar murmured.
“Come in,” she called.
A man entered, pushing a small trolley with a teakettle, two cups, a dish of sugar, a ewer of cream and a platter with assorted cookies. As he passed her, she saw a short sword in a sheath at his waist. “Your sister suggested tea, sir.”
“Very thoughtful of her.”
The man left the trolley, smiled at Grace, and departed.
Grace poured two cups of tea.
“I suppose in your world people don’t drink tea either?” he asked.
“We drink tea,” she said with a sigh. “We just don’t always have servants armed with swords to bring it. Cream?”
“Sugar and lemon, please.” Nassar had returned to his normal size. The feathers were mere fur now, and his face was bare and completely human.
“What’s happening with your feathers?”
“I’m consuming them to replenish some of my energy. Transformations such as this are difficult even for me.” He sank into a chair, took a cup from her with furry fingers, and sipped from it. “Perfect. Thank you.”
“I live to serve.”
His lips curved into a familiar half-smile. “Somehow I deeply doubt it.”
Grace sank into the other chair and sipped shockingly hot tea, liberally whitened by cream. Liquid heat flowed through her. His magic brushed her again, but she had flown over miles bathed in it and she accepted his touch without protest. She was so very tired. “This is a dream. I’ll wake up, and all of this will be gone. And I’ll go back to my quiet little job.”
“What is it you do?”
Grace shrugged. He knew, of course. His clan had been keeping tabs on her family for years. When you own something, you want to pay attention to its maintenance. He probably knew what size of underwear she wore and how she preferred her steak. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“You’re a headhunter. You find jobs for others. Do you like it?”
“Yes. It’s boring at times and stressful, but I get to help people.”
“You didn’t know about your family’s debt, did you?” he asked.
“No.” She refilled her cup.
“When did you find out?”
“Three days ago.”
“Was it sudden?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I always knew about magic. I was born able to feel it. At first I was told I was a very sensitive child, and then, once I was old enough to realize I needed to keep it to myself, more complicated explanations followed. I live in a world of very small magics. I can sense if I’ll miss the bus. In school, I could usually foretell my grade on tests, but I could never predict anything else accurately. If I concentrate very hard, I can scare animals. A dog once tried to chase me, and I was frightened and sent it running.”
She drank again. “Small things, mostly useless. I thought that all magic users were like me. Working their little powers in secret. I never imagined people could fly in the open. Or walk through crowded airports without being seen. My mother is a fabric buyer. My uncle’s a mechanic who really likes weapons. My dad’s normal in every way. My mother and he divorced when I was eighteen. He runs a shift at a tyre repair plant.”
Grace drank more tea. Her head was fuzzy. She was so comfortable and warm in the soft chair. “When Uncle Gerald told me this half-baked story about blood debt, I didn’t believe him at first.”
“What convinced you?”
“He was terrified. Uncle Gerald is like a rock in the storm: always cool under pressure. I’ve never seen him so off balance.”
She yawned. She was so drowsy. “I think my mother hoped I would never have to do this.”
“I can see why,” Nassar said softly. “We live in constant danger. I would think any mother would want to shield her child from us.”
“I would.” Drowsiness overtook her. Grace set the cup down and curled into a ball in the chair. “Even though your world is so . . .”
She vaguely saw him rise from his chair. He picked her up, his magic cloaking about her. She should have been alarmed, but she had no resolve left.
He drew the canopy aside and lowered her onto the bed. Her head touched the pillow and reality faded.
Nassar stepped out of the room, gently closing the door behind him. Alasdair waited in the hallway, a lean sharp shadow, with a robe draped over his arm. Nassar took it from him and shrugged it on, absorbing the last of his feathers. His whole body hurt from too much magic expended too quickly. Walking was like stepping on crushed glass.
“Is she asleep?” Alasdair asked.
Nassar nodded. They walked down the hall together.
“She’s pretty. Chestnut hair and chocolate eyes - a nice combination.”
She was also calm under pressure, smart and wilful. When she looked at him with those dark eyes, Nassar felt the urge to say something intelligent and deeply impressive. Unfortunately, nothing of the kind came to mind. It seemed her eyes also had a way of muddling his thoughts. The last time he felt that dumb was about fourteen years ago. He’d been eighteen at the time.
“You like the girl,” Alasdair offered.
Nassar levelled a heavy gaze at him.
“Lilian said you tried to be funny in the car. I told her it couldn’t possibly be true. The moment you try to make a joke, the sky shall split and the Four Horsemen will ride out, heralding Apocalypse.”
“How droll. Did you double the patrols?”
Alasdair nodded his dark head and stopped by the ladder. Nassar walked past him, heading to his rooms.
“Did you?” Alasdair called.
“Did I what?”
“Did you joke with the girl?”
Nassar kept walking.
“Did she laugh?” Alasdair called.
Nassar entered his room. He hadn’t expected her to laugh. He was grateful she didn’t collapse in a hysterical heap. Her uncle had been scared to within an inch of his life - fear had rolled off of him in waves. In Gerald’s life of some fifty odd years his services had been requested only twice, but the second time had scarred him for life. In the zone he would be useless.
Grace’s mother, Janet, was always meticulous and formal. She took no initiative. Working with her was like being in the presence of an automaton that obeyed his every order while being grimly determined to dislike it. Taking her into the zone, even if he could compensate for her age and health, would be suicide.
He was never comfortable with any of them. He was never comfortable with the whole idea of the bonded servant and took pains to avoid requesting their presence. But this time he had no choice.
Working with Grace presented its own set of difficulties. He could still remember her scent: the light clean fragrance of soap mixing with the faint rosemary from her dark hair. His memory conjured the feel of her body pressed against his and when he’d picked her up to place her on the bed, he hadn’t wanted to let go. He wasn’t an idiot. There was an attraction there, and he would have to manage it very carefully. The imbalance of power between the two of them was too pronounced: he was the master and she was the servant. Don’t think about it, he told himself. Don’t imagine what it would be like. Nothing can happen. Nothing is going to happen. She’s off-limits.
Grace followed the servant into a spacious atrium. Morning sun shone through the glass panels in the ceiling. The stone path wound between lush greenery, parallel to a stream lined with smooth river pebbles. Spires of bamboo rose next to ficus and ferns. Delicate orchids in half-a-dozen shades dotted the moss-covered ground. Red Kaffir lilies bloomed along the stream’s banks, echoed by paler blossoms of camellia bushes. The air smelled sweet.
The path turned, parting, and Grace saw the origin of the stream: a ten-foot waterfall at the far wall. The water cascaded over huge grey boulders into a tiny lake. Near the shore stood a low coffee table surrounded by benches. A dark-haired man lounged on the bench to the left, sipping tea from a large cup.
Nassar stood next to him, talking softly. He wore blue sweatpants and a light-grey T-shirt. A towel hung over his shoulder and his pale hair was wet and brushed back from his face. Poised like this, he appeared massive. Muscles bulged on his chest when he moved his arm to underscore a point. His biceps stretched the sleeves of his shirt. His legs were long. Everything about him, from the breadth of his shoulders to the way he carried himself - controlled and aware of his size - communicated raw physical power. His wasn’t the static bulk of a power weightlifter, but rather the dangerous, honed build of a man who required muscle to survive. If a genius sculptor wished to carve a statue and name it Strength, Nassar would’ve made a perfect model.
He glanced at her. His green eyes arrested her and Grace halted, suddenly realizing she wanted to know what he would look like naked.
The thought shocked her.
Something in her face must’ve equally shocked him, because he fell silent.
A torturous second passed.
She forced herself to move. Nassar looked away, resuming his conversation.
I can’t be attracted to him. He forced me to come here and risk my life and I don’t even know why. I know nothing about him. He’s a monster. That last thought sobered her up. She approached the benches.
“Grace,” Nassar said. His magic brushed her. “This is Alasdair, my cousin.”
Alasdair unfolded himself from the bench. “Charmed.”
“Hello.” Grace nodded at Alasdair, then turned to Nassar. “You drugged my drink.”
“Actually I drugged the cream,” he said, “and technically it was my sister who did it.”
“You were in shock. I wanted to spare you the breakdown and anxiety when you came out of it.”
Grace held herself straight. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t do it again. We have a deal. I’ll keep my part, but I can’t do it if I have to watch what I eat and drink.”