Nassar considered it for a long moment. “Agreed.”
“A deal?” Alasdair’s eyebrows crept up. He was lean and sharp, his movements quick. His stare had an edge. If Nassar was a sword, Alasdair was a dagger.
“I’ve agreed to do my best to help you and, in return, you’ll leave my family alone for five years,” Grace said.
Alasdair grimaced at Nassar. “That’s incredibly generous, considering what they’ve done. We owe them nothing.”
Nassar shrugged his massive shoulders. “It’s worth the reward to have her full cooperation.”
Grace took a seat on the bench. “What did we do exactly?”
“You don’t know?” Alasdair passed her a plate of scones.
The dark-haired man glanced at Nassar, who shrugged. “You tell it,” he said.
“At the end of the nineteenth century your family and our clan were in dispute,” Alasdair said.
Grace was learning to decipher their code. “In other words, we were murdering each other.”
“Precisely. The dispute grew out of control and so our families agreed to end it. The peace was to be sealed through a wedding. Jonathan Mailliard of your family was to marry Thea Dreoch.”
“He was your great-grandfather’s brother,” Nassar supplied.
“The wedding went well,” Alasdair continued. “There was a very nice reception in one of the Mailliard gathering halls, a beautiful old hotel. Everyone ate, drank and was merry. The couple went upstairs to their rooms, where Jonathan pulled out a knife and slit Thea’s throat.”
Grace froze with a scone halfway to her mouth. She had expected something of this sort. To force her family into indefinite servitude, the crime had to be horrible. But it still shocked her.
“He waited for almost two hours by her cooling corpse,” Alasdair continued, “until the party died down. Then he and several Mailliard men and women went through the hotel door to door. They murdered Thea’s sister, her husband and their twin daughters who were flower girls at the wedding. They killed Thea’s parents and her two brothers, both minors, and would’ve slaughtered the entire party, but they were seen by a Dreoch retainer, who started screaming. Our offensive magic was always stronger and we were inside your family’s defences. There was a bloodbath. Every member of the Mailliard family was killed, except Thomas Mailliard, who was fourteen at the time. He hid in a closet and wasn’t discovered until later in the day, when the butchery had stopped. Because Thomas was a child and hadn’t participated in the slaughter, he was given a choice: death or servitude for all of his descendants. And that’s why you now serve us.”
Grace sat in a sickened silence.
“Anything to say?” Alasdair asked.
“That’s very horrible,” she said.
“Yes, it is.”
“However, I never knew Jonathan Mailliard. I didn’t even know his name. I feel awful about the murder and I understand that my family bears responsibility, but I never killed anyone. I’ve never hurt you and neither has my mother, my uncle nor my great-grandfather, who hid in the closet.” She tried to make her voice sound calm and reasonable. “I’ve done you no harm, yet you limit my freedom and force me to risk my life because of a crime perpetrated a century ago by someone I’ve never met. Our family has served yours for over a hundred years. At some point this debt will have been repaid. When do you think will that be?”
“Never,” Alasdair said.
It felt like a slap. She looked to Nassar. “So this is how you do things? You dumped all of the blame for a bloody feud onto a fourteen-year-old child who hid in a closet, and because he failed to stop grown men from killing, you keep his descendants in perpetual servitude?”
“Hardly perpetual,” Nassar corrected. “Since I assumed the responsibility for the clan fifteen years ago, I’ve called on your family only four times.”
“But we know we can be called on at any point. We have to live with the knowledge that at a moment’s notice we might be required to risk our life for a complete stranger for no reason and we might never see our loved ones again. We can’t refuse. The terms are obedience or death. Would you want to live like this?”
“No,” Nassar admitted.
“Can you tell me when the debt will be paid?” she asked.
“This arrangement is to our advantage,” Nassar said. “It makes no sense for us to release you.”
“I see. I’ll have to release us then.”
“Really?” Alasdair gave a short barking laugh. “How exactly are you planning on doing that?”
“My uncle has no offspring and I’m my mother’s only child. To my knowledge, I’m the last of the Mailliards. I’ll have to make sure that I don’t continue the line.” She rose. “I think I’ve seen the washroom on the way here. I really need to splash some water on my face.”
“Second door on the right,” Nassar told her.
Grace walked away. Her knees shook a little in her jeans. Her face burned.
Nassar watched Grace’s figure retreat down the winding path.
“Wow,” Alasdair offered.
“Think she’ll do it?”
“She’s a Mailliard.”
He’d seen the same steely resolve in her mother’s eyes, Nassar reflected. He suspected it was the same will that drove the wedding night atrocities a century ago. It enabled her mother, Janet, to grimly bear her service, and fuelled Grace’s fight against it. He doubted she would ever go into outright rebellion, not while her mother and Gerald were alive, but he could tell by the way she held herself, by her face and her eyes and her voice, that she would rather give up her future children than bring them into the Dreochs’ “service”.
“You like her,” Alasdair said.
“What of it?”
“Why don’t you make a move?”
The imbalance of power between them was too great, and her antipathy and contempt for Clan Dreoch was painfully obvious. Nassar took the towel off his shoulder and sat on the bench. “Because she can’t say no.”
When Grace returned, Alasdair was gone; Nassar sat alone. It was easier if she simply admitted it, Grace decided. Sometimes you see another person in passing, your eyes meet, and you know by some instinct that there is something there. She felt that something for Nassar.
It was wrong on so many levels that her head reeled from simply contemplating it. He was a revenant, a creature more than a man. Her great-grandfather’s brother slaughtered his relatives. His family held hers in bondage. If he really wanted her, he could simply order her to submit. Maybe it was some sort of twisted version of Stockholm syndrome. Or an animal attraction. He was . . . not handsome exactly, but very male. Powerful. Masculine. Strong. But there was more to if. the sadness in his eyes, the courteous way he managed himself, the feel of his magic. It pulled her to him and she would have to be very careful to keep her distance.
“You still haven’t told me what you need me to do,” she said.
He rose. “Walk with me, please.”
Grace followed him down the path deeper into the atrium. Nassar led her out through an arched door and into a large round chamber. Bare, it was lit by sunlight spilling through a skylight very high above. A thick metal grate guarded the skylight. Plain concrete made up the floor, showing a complicated geometric pattern with a circle etched into its centre. Nassar stood on its edge.
“When a revenant takes a new body, he gains great power but he also inherits the weaknesses of that body. The body I took was cursed. After I transferred into it, I was able to heal the damage and break the curse. But all of my invulnerability to the curse is gone. I’ve used it all up.”
“And the man who was born in this body? What happened to him when you took it?”
“He died,” Nassar said.
She’d hoped he wouldn’t say that.
A woman entered the chamber through the door in the opposite wall. A pale blonde like Nassar. She smiled at them. Nassar didn’t quite smile back, but the melancholy of his face eased slightly.
“This is Elizavetta. My sister.”
“Call me Liza,” she said. “Everyone does.”
“Grace,” Grace said simply. “You’re the one who drugged the cream.”
Liza nodded. “Yes. Alasdair warned me I may have earned your undying hate for it. I sincerely hope we can put it past us. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings in any way.”
“Given that I’m a servant, my feelings are hardly relevant, but I appreciate it,” Grace said.
Liza blinked. An uncomfortable silence ensued. Nassar cleared his throat. “Liz?”
“Yes, right.” Liza stepped inside the design.
“Every revenant has a fatal weakness,” Nassar said, his gaze fixed on his sister. “This is mine.”
Liza arched her back, spreading her arms. Her hands clawed the air. She spun in a place, twisting. Magic pulsed from her and filled the lines etched on the floor with pale yellow light. Liza brought her hands together, cried out and forced them apart with a pained grimace. A clump of mottled darkness appeared between her fingers. She stepped back.
The clump spun, growing, and ruptured, vomiting a creature into the circle. The beast was three-feet long and slender, shaped like a slug or a leech except for the fringe of carmine feathery hairs along its sides. A patina of grey and sickly yellow swirled over its dark hide, like an oil rainbow on the surface of a dark puddle.
The creature shivered. The red fringe trembled and it took to the air, sliding soundlessly a foot off the ground. A cold, foul magic emanated from it. It touched Grace. She jerked back and bumped into Nassar.
“What is that?”
He put his hand on her shoulder, steadying her. “A marrow worm. They live in dark places, where there is stagnant water and decay. They feed on small animals, fish and old magic.”