Excerpt--Wolf's-own, Book One: Ghost
Harvest-month, Year 1322, Cycle of
It was, Malick decided, the braid. Snaking
between the blades of shoulders set just wide enough and
sweeping down the pleasing taper of the torso. Thick and
gleaming chestnut-claret in the dim half-light of smoking oil
lamps, long and thick and… far too fascinating. The
leather-bound tail of it swung long enough to brush the backs of
the man’s knees when he moved. Malick had never seen one so
long. Those who wore them, after all, generally didn’t live long
enough to grow them to such a length. This one must be close to
twenty—still young by Malick’s definition, but ancient for what
A messy, tangled fringe every now and then
fell over the man’s brow, obscuring his eyes, and he let it,
didn’t even bother to push it away. Like it had simply got in
his way once, so he’d sheared it off with a dull blade, too
impatient, or just not caring enough to make a neat job of it.
Pretty, though, with that not-quite-olive
skin and angular face, sharp nose and chin, and high cheekbones.
Too masculine to be delicate, but too cagey and set with
subliminal rage to be as invulnerable as he was trying to look,
even when he tried to make his mien pleasant for the whores who
were disposed to ignoring the braid in favor of offered koin.
“Heart’s in his eyes, this one,” Malick
murmured with a smile. That’s why he hides behind that fringe.
“What’s that, love?”
Malick spared a short glance toward the
chippy on his knee as she slipped her small, warm fingers
through the hair at his nape. Smiling languidly, she took a
delicate sip of gooseberry wine, batting her poppy-soft,
kohl-lined eyes over the rim of her cup. Damn, and he’d already
paid for her, too.
Shrugging, Malick returned her smile with
sincere regret. “Nothing, um…” He paused. What was her name
again? Some kind of fruit or flower—Cherry? Blossom?
Cherry-blossom? Didn’t matter. “Sorry, love, but we’ll have to
continue another time. Something more important just came up.”
Ignoring the flare of indignation in the sudden blush to her
cheek, Malick shifted his legs just enough to compel her to gain
her feet. Her soft eyes hardened. Malick forestalled what was
sure to be some scathing commentary with a charming grin before
he drained his cup. “Keep your fee, my dear,” he told the girl
as he chucked his cards face-down on the table with a nod to the
other players, and stood. “Your company alone this evening has
been worth every koin.” He collected his small pile of winnings,
dropping an extra bit of silver into the kitty and then another
for the dealer. With a flourish that was entirely unnecessary
but pleasingly theatrical—at least to him—Malick swept gentle
fingers through the raven curls at the girl’s temple, behind her
ear, and came up with another bit of silver; he held it between
his fingers in front of her nose. “Next time, eh?”
He waited only long enough for her to
snatch the koin before he sauntered away, eyes already narrowed
through the gloom, fixed on his target. His heart was thumping a
little more quickly than it should do, and his mouth was
watering just a little. It was definitely the braid. Well, the
braid was a good part of it, anyway. The face and build
certainly didn’t hurt. And with that heart-hungry look in his
eyes, the man was a walking wet-dream come to glorious life.
Untouchable or no, Malick couldn’t help
wondering what all that thick hair would look like unbound and
spread across fine linen sheets. A tiny smile curled at one
corner of his mouth and he shook his head. It didn’t count as
slavering if it didn’t actually dribble out, right?
A jostle to his ribs brought Malick back a
little, and he suppressed a growl. Game Night at the Girou
had brought the crowds, as usual. The smell of sweat and tobacco
curled in his nostrils, the thick brume of poppy-smoke enough by
itself to send him stupid, if he stayed too long. Good for
business, Mei would tell him. Kept the riff-raff in line and the
spenders spending. It also had the pleasant side-effect of
keeping Mei in a good mood, though Malick sometimes suspected
she was otherwise immune to the stuff; all the better.
No Doujou in the motley mix, though;
Malick had paid quite a lot to make sure none of the city’s
guard could interfere tonight. And yet still, most gave the
Untouchable his own bubble of space. Only looking quickly enough
to track his place in the room, his proximity to them, then
glancing away. Speaking only when he spoke to them, and that was
limited to the small clutch of prostitutes that didn’t mind
taking their chances.
He’d weeded out the chattel, Malick noted,
sent them on their way to those less scrupulous, and ignored
entirely those that even looked like they might be underage,
though Mei at least required the formality of fake papers when
she hired… or acquired. Malick kept watching as the Untouchable
crossed the room, ridiculously interested in which doxy he’d
Blank-faced, the Ghost skulked about the
edges of whores and customers and players and drinkers, not even
bothering to try and look like he belonged—and what would be the
point? The braid marked him Untouchable more clearly than a
missing hand would mark a thief.
Malick angled himself through scattered
tables and bodies, toward the low couches and mounds of cushions
at the back of the room where the shadows shirred more thickly
into the corners. Where the views and paths to the doors were
clear and unobstructed, if one didn’t mind the gyrating lumps of
those who didn’t bother to take themselves to a place more
private, or didn’t have the koin. Where a man could put his back
to the wall and watch his quarry without risk of discovery too
Unsurprisingly, Samin had already beaten
him there and cleared them a spot. From the nasty looks he was
getting and the dishabille of cushions and bodies scattered to
either side of him, it appeared as though he’d not been terribly
polite about it, either. Blue eyes, sharp and avid in a wide,
granite face, focused on Malick as he approached. Malick gave
Samin a slight nod as he joined him, leaning hip-shot against
the wall, close enough to talk without being overheard, but far
enough that they could always say they weren’t together if one
got caught and the other got away. Not that they needed to worry
about that here. It was just habit.
“It’s him,” Samin muttered in what was
surely meant to be a whisper, but emerged more as a gruff growl.
Malick flicked him a look replete with
No shit, genius. “Ya think?” How many Untouchables, after
all, ventured into a place like this? How many of them lived
long enough to be of age to enter? Not that ‘of age’ really
mattered, when it came to the laws of Untouchables.
Samin ignored Malick, merely narrowed his
eyes at the man, tilting his head like a curious pup. “He
doesn’t look mental.”
Malick’s eyebrows rose as he shot a look
at Samin and then back at the Ghost. With the want clenching in
Malick’s gut—well, more precisely, in his trousers—‘mental’ was
rather beside the point, but Samin was right. Calm and
calculating, not wild and desperate as the few Untouchables
Malick had seen had been. And fit, too, where the others had
been thin and fragile, rickety with ill health, and too pale.
This one’s color was full and hearty, his eyes alive with
intelligence. He was obviously well-fed, and all that hair
plaited down his back looked thick and lustrous. Even as they
watched, the braid swung heavily over the man’s shoulder as he
dipped down a bit to sweep a quick, surreptitious touch to his
right boot and then his left forearm. To anyone else, it might
look like the man was scratching an itch.
“Knives,” Malick said quietly.
Samin’s head tilted farther. “Shouldn’t be
allowed,” he muttered, disapproving, and when he noted the lift
of Malick’s eyebrow, he shook his head. “They’re dangerous
enough the way it is. An Untouchable oughtn’t be allowed a
weapon any more than a child.”
“You don’t think they should be allowed to
defend themselves?” Malick posed the question with real
interest. If anyone had an informed opinion on the matter, it
would be Samin.
Samin’s mouth set in a grim line. “Defend
themselves against what?” he wanted to know. “They’re called
‘Untouchable’ for a reason. No one—Jin or Adan—would dare lay
hands on a Ghost, though they’ve not been true Catalysts for…
too bloody long.” A weird mix of sympathy and disgust twisted
his hard face. “I’ve seen enough of them, starved and raving.
Their own kin won’t touch them, not even to help.”
Malick peered at Samin closely. “Would
you ever interfere?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“You’re a funny man, Samin.”
“I’m a practical man, Mal.”
Malick politely refrained from giving
Samin a sharp thwack to his big, giant head. “You know what I
mean. A typical Untouchable.” Because the Untouchable quietly
choosing himself a whore across the room was certainly not
typical. In any way.
A long sigh huffed out of Samin’s chest,
and he shot a careful glance to all sides, leaned in closer to
Malick. “The laws are there for a reason.” The narrow blue gaze
followed the Ghost, watched him pause to speak to one of the
boys, before Samin turned his head to look at Malick squarely.
“But the laws are still locked in fear. The Ancestors have been
sending their Untouchables insane for too long, and something
needs to be done. If I ever came across some poor, mad soul who
couldn’t keep enough sense in his head to know he was hungry, or
even remember how to eat… if I was alone and unobserved, yeah,
Interesting. But not surprising, coming
from Samin. Malick merely nodded. “I suppose the real worry is
the ones who’ve gone completely off the jump, and decide they
need to take a few others with them.”
He’d seen it once, when he’d had a
commission in one of the camps: a young girl, perhaps thirteen
or so, with that telltale braid, wild-eyed and snarling
insanity, stoning a middle-aged woman who’d done nothing but
stand there and scream, taking it. A crowd of onlookers merely
stood watching, eyes full of horror and sorrow, but Malick
hadn’t been able to tell for whom either was meant. And when a
man Malick guessed was the woman’s husband attempted
halfheartedly to lay hands on the girl, pull his wife away, the
crowd stepped in and beat the man. Malick didn’t know if it was
to death—he hadn't waited about to find out.
A far cry from what the Untouchables used
to be. Catalysts once. Now this man’s kind were merely Ghosts,
haunted by the laws once meant to set them apart, almost revere
them, but now only dragged out an inevitably ugly end.
Touching an Untouchable—for good or
ill—with the intent to alter his course, was death. No excuses,
no explanations, no quarter. One of the few laws the Jin were
allowed to keep when they were overridden and conquered by Ada.
Even the Adan held to it, though it had never really been
tested, and Malick would be very surprised if an Adan were ever
put to death for the sake of a Jin. At any rate, no Untouchable
he’d heard of had ventured into the city for a very long time,
let alone a whorehouse, and that after the Gates had already
closed for the night. Not typical, indeed.
Malick wondered idly if this anomaly of a
Ghost planned to stay the night in one of Mei’s rooms, and then
wondered—a little less idly—if he’d be able to talk her into
telling him which one. Though, Malick supposed, if things worked
out, this pretty Untouchable might even tell Malick himself. Or
come with Malick to his own. His fingers twitched a bit with the
urge to wrap themselves around that thick, soft-looking braid.
“So, if he pulls one of them knives on
me,” Samin ventured slowly, “I’m not supposed to be allowed to
turn it back on him.”
It wasn’t a question; Samin probably knew
the laws regarding Untouchables as well as Malick did. It was a
request for permission, a want for the reassurance that Malick
didn’t expect him to bare his throat if the Ghost came at him.
Malick shrugged. “Not supposed to.”
A quick shift of his glance sideways, and he smirked. “But if no
one’s about to see a thing, does it really happen?”
Samin heaved a loose snort. “Can’t make
shit like this up,” he muttered sourly.
“Ah, you could—but who would want to?”
They were quiet for a moment, watching the
Ghost watching the crowd and trying to look like he wasn’t,
searching, then: “He’s pretty, though,” Samin put in,
“That’s why we’re going to take him in the
bath,” Malick told him with a grin.
Samin grimaced. “Save me, Mal, is your
mind always on—?”
“No, sometimes it’s on food and liquor,”
Malick cut in, “but right now I was thinking more along the
lines of not having to deal with those knives. The potential
view is merely a bonus.”
“You can't use magic. It doesn't work on
Malick waggled his eyebrows. “That's what
makes it fun.”
“That's what makes it stupid and riskier
than it needs to be,” Samin corrected, “and you a bloody idiot.”
“Aw, stop, I’ll blush.” Malick nodded
toward the eastern door that led to the baths, where the Ghost
was being escorted by his chosen whore. “Look, he’s picked one.”
A dark-haired boy—boy, Malick’s nethers pointed out
gleefully—with fair skin and a pleasant blankness to his
expression that spoke to a willingness for just about anything
that involved the proper amount of koin. The choice wasn’t
terribly surprising; Madi was a ready favorite of many whose
purses likely weighed heavier than this Untouchable’s. Too bad
for said Untouchable that he wasn’t going to get the chance to
find out why. “Go tell Mei we need twenty minutes.”
“You go tell Mei,” Samin snapped.
“Last time we brought our business here she threatened to
castrate me. Me—like it isn’t you as gives the orders.”
“I only relay them, friend, I don’t give
them.” That responsibility Malick happily laid squarely on the
shoulders of the phantom he knew only as the Mage. And he had no
interest whatsoever in learning any more than the scant bits he
already knew. “Go on, then,” he told Samin, hardening his tone
somewhat, “before he slips through. We’ll never hear the end of
it if Shig and Yori get him.” He didn’t wait for Samin to stop
sputtering. With a cocky wink, Malick slid away from the wall,
merging unnoticed into the anonymity of the patronage like
sinewy smoke. Hard angles and lanky limbs glided into
unobtrusive grace as he slunk to the other end of the floor and
down the lamp-lit stone stairway to the baths.
The Ghost was already availing himself of
one of the shower-boxes, rinsing off with a couple of buckets
behind a screen of woven rushes. Naked, Malick’s nethers
put in helpfully; he ignored it, though he couldn’t help
wondering if all that hair was unbound, and what it would look
like wet and stuck to sinewy arms and rippled torso. Just how
long would it be, untethered from that braid that swung down
about the man’s knees?—down to his calves, at least, surely.
Ankles, maybe? Yum. All sorts of delightful possibilities swept
through the little brain, and Malick forced the big brain to put
them reluctantly but firmly aside. Business first. Though he did
manage a bit of a leer when Madi slipped silently past him and
back out the door with a conspiratory wink.
The coals in the corner hob glowed red and
hot, the scented pot of water hanging above burbling quietly
into the already steamy air. The metallic sting of minerals hung
in the close cavern, weighted heavily with sulfur. Malick sucked
a long breath through his nose, clearing his senses of the less
organic residue of the Girou. Granite tiles wound about
the rough rim of the great steaming pool, kept naturally hot by
springs flowing beneath half the city. Malick checked the
shadows creased into the rough-hewn stone of the walls, the
steady drip-drip-drip of condensation rhythmic beneath
the sporadic splashing coming from the lone occupied shower-box.
Empty, every corner. Surprising, considering the traffic this
evening. No one else lurked, not that Malick could see.
The black, high-collared tunic the man had
been wearing, along with boots and belts and black trousers,
were all lying safely out of reach on the stone bench meant for
disrobing. Malick almost tsked at the carelessness,
thought about searching the bundle—just out of idle curiosity,
to see how many knives the Ghost carried, and what sorts he
favored—but decided to err on caution’s side, for once. Samin
would be so proud.
Making his way silently into the room,
Malick checked the other boxes, as well, just to be sure, saw
they were all empty, and smiled. Mei must have been several
steps ahead of him, as usual, and cleared everyone out when she
spied their quarry. With the exception of Samin, likely now
keeping watch outside the door, no one would stumble in and
Everything was going perfectly so far,
exactly according to plan, so Malick was a little surprised when
the man’s soft voice—deeper than Malick had supposed, and laced
tight with control—came like the point of a knife from the other
side of that flimsy screen:
“Why are you watching me?”
Good thing Malick lived for the
unexpected. Damn, he’d been so careful to appear as though he
hadn’t been watching at all. His eyebrows only rose a little as
he paused, propped his shoulder to the uneven stone of the wall,
and casually crossed one leg over the other, draping his lanky
self artistically, and adding a brash grin. For good measure—and
better effect—he brushed the long skirt of his duster back to
expose the small knife at his belt, propped elbow to hipbone and
made a show of inspecting his fingernails. A damned tempting
picture he made, if he did say so.
“Well, good evening to you, too,” he
The screen jittered then rattled aside
halfway. The man stood inside the box, using the screen as
flimsy half-cover, clad in nothing but a bathsheet and attitude,
a hard glare scraping from amber-shot gray eyes rung in indigo,
and spiking through the mist of the bath straight into Malick’s
chest. Fuck, the man was gorgeous. The hair was still
disappointingly bound, but the wild fringe had come loose again
to hang frayed and dripping over the eyes; Malick was surprised
the fierce, furious stare didn’t singe the ends. Lamp-tawny
droplets of water slipped over hard, masculine lines, lean and
long. Abrasions, bruises and scars—apparent evidence of close
wet-work—mottled unevenly but for a heavy swath of thin, silvery
stripes on the left bicep, neat and straight, as though they’d
been put there apurpose. His chest was hairless, Malick noted
with a slight inner-trill, shaped by hard work and padded with
mouth-watering rises and ripples as he breathed; the ridges of a
tight abdomen stood in sublime relief, sliding down to those
enticing dual grooves beneath the barrier of the sheet where
torso became groin.
Malick let his eyes rove unfettered,
taking in every line and swell, lingering too long for manners
on the way the sheet bunched in a white-knuckled fist between
the man’s groin and the tantalizing wing of his left hip. Gaze
skidding upward, Malick took careful note that he couldn’t see
the right hand behind the flimsy shield of the screen, and by
the way the pectoral on that side quivered tense, the Ghost
likely had something very unfriendly clutched in his fist.
Malick was ridiculously pleased that the carelessness at which
he’d earlier curled his lip was a figment of his own
assumptions, and warned himself not to indulge them again. He
would likely not live to regret underestimating this
“Why are you watching me?”
Bitten out through teeth clenched tight. Such pretty white
little teeth, straight and even. Malick wondered if they’d draw
blood when they snapped… wondered if he’d like it. Of course, if
those full lips were to follow along, soothe the hurt…
Oh, fuck me. I really think I want this
“And why wouldn’t I be?” was all Malick
“What do you want?”
Malick nearly snorted. What did he want?
What a loaded question. He only let an eyebrow rise, let his
smirk curl seductive. “Don’t ask questions to which you don’t
want an answer, little Ghost.”
There was no flinch or other telltale—the
man was too controlled for that—but his eyes darkened, deepened,
and his nostrils flared the tiniest bit. “If you know what I
am,” he said slowly, “then you know what the penalty is for
His accent was… odd. Malick had a very
good ear for them, but he couldn’t place this one, and it
certainly didn’t have the twangy Jin sound to it, like he’d
expected. More like it was from everywhere and nowhere at once,
no distinct characteristic to classify it, and yet hints of
every one Malick had ever heard. Very strange.
Malick noted it but merely shrugged.
“Funny, a friend and I were just discussing that. Seems the
consensus is that a thing can’t actually be said to have
happened, if no one was there to see it.”
The man’s eyes flickered over to the door
with the mention of ‘a friend’, and Malick’s smirk broadened.
Not only pretty but clever, too, and if there was any madness
behind that glare, it was the kind that was born of rage and…
betrayal, most likely, because didn’t it usually come down to
that? Rage and betrayal—a lethal combination, the best
combination with the highest potential. It didn’t generally take
much to harness those emotions, point them, use them. The Mage
was right again, but then, he always was.
“Here we are, all alone.” Malick pushed
himself away from the wall, meandered lazily about the
granite-tiled edges of the pool, boots clocking softly on wet
stone, eyes locked to the Ghost’s. “No one to disturb us. No one
Muscles beneath smooth, bare skin
tightened and jumped ever-so-slightly as Malick neared—he never
would’ve seen it, had he not been looking for it; fuck but the
man was good, all calm restraint—so Malick kept a loose
perimeter, lingering at the periphery of the man’s personal
space like a prowling tom. Deliberately seductive, eyes
half-lidded, Malick leaned lightly into the screen, all too
aware that the sharp point of a knife was no doubt just on the
other side, aimed directly at his gut. No, his heart—this one
would go for the sure, immediate kill.
Malick smiled, ran his fingers through his
hair. With studied carelessness, he let his hand come to rest
lightly over the short dirk on his belt. He flicked his wrist in
his sleeve a little out of habit to feel the garrote coiled
about his forearm. Gaze still geared toward seduction, Malick
peered into dark-rimmed gray, shot through with shards of
gilt-amber, glaring back at him with a flat look of profound
hatred and a disappointing lack of awe for his enticing self.
Perhaps he should’ve unlaced his shirt a bit.
“You,” Malick murmured through his smile,
“have been a very naughty boy.”
A reaction, at least a small one, and one
besides that impassive mask of abhorrence: the glittering eyes
narrowed just slightly. “Step away,” the man hissed, low and
full of venomous intent.
Not What are you talking about? not
a question at all, in fact. The man merely stood his ground,
glaring death at Malick. Cornered, bare but for a single
bathsheet and whatever weapon he had in his hand behind that
screen, and still his breath came steady and even. There was no
trembling but for the ready tension thick between them, and
those gray eyes betrayed nothing but loathing and disdain.
Fuck, I don’t even think I care if he
guts me—I’ve got to have this one.
It was the braid, had to be, the novelty
of it or… something. Or all that not-quite-olive skin and the
solid curves of muscle beneath it. Surely it couldn’t be the
glare, the dark look of profound menace that too closely
resembled the part of a map that warned, Here be monsters.
Malick sighed theatrically, shook his head
with overdone regret. “Even if I wanted to, I’m afraid I can’t.”
He let the smile crimp and shrugged. “Orders.”
That got a further narrowing of the eyes.
“Mm,” Malick answered to the question in
the man’s eyes, if not on his tongue, “I’m afraid you’ve gone
and called attention to yourself, little Ghost.” Daring, Malick
reached out slowly, swiped a fingertip down the damp, smooth
lumps of the plait hanging over a thew-molded shoulder. Malick
wasn’t sure if the tiny hiss of breath was a reaction to the
name or the liberty. “Don’t worry, I haven’t come to kill you—”
A deliberate snort, a very clear as
if you could, so Malick simply ignored it.
“—nor have I come to blackmail you, or any
of the ten-thousand other possibilities that are likely blooming
in your twisted little mind this second.” Malick paused, gaze
flicking up through his lashes, let his fingers slip around the
braid, and stepped a bit closer. “Although, I could be talked
into a quick go against the wall if you’re—”
He’d been wrong. The knife hadn’t been
behind the screen in the man’s right hand, it had been twisted
into the bathsheet in his left. Now, its tip rested just below
Malick’s chin, and he couldn’t even care, because the grip on
the sheet had been forsaken for the advantage and now lay
puddled about the man’s ankles.
Malick didn’t even reach for his own
knife, didn’t slip his fingers through the loop of the garrote,
didn’t try to step back or attack. He merely stared, raked his
gaze up and down, groaned a little and tightened his grip on the
braid. Fizzy little bubbles went pop-pop-pop in his brain
when his gaze instinctively hitched and hung between the man’s
legs—gah, yum—before he forced it on. “Mm,” was
all he said.
The same sort of scars as on the arm
striped the man’s right thigh—thin and tight, most of them
silvered, but a few still pink and new-ish. One wound was still
scabbed and not yet scarred over. No suicide attempts, these.
Still, they were… odd. Ritualistic, almost. Some Jin tradition
Malick didn’t know about? Didn’t seem likely.
“Let go,” the man hissed.
So much control, such intensity beneath
it, buried and locked down tight.
“Can’t, sorry.” Malick couldn’t help the
sigh, the regret sincere this time. It was looking less and less
likely that the Untouchable was going to let Malick touch. “You
assassinated the wrong prefect this time, and you’re— Ah-ah,
watch it.” The knife had jerked just a little, and Malick
adjusted his stance to accommodate, though he didn’t draw back.
“Don’t kill me just yet, or your exit from here will be a bit
more difficult and attract a lot more attention than I’ve no
doubt you’d prefer.”
“It’s a little damp in here,” the man said
through his teeth. “My fingers are a bit slick and you never
know when my grip might… slip.” He stepped up, chest
flush to the screen—well, what do you know, he did have a
blade in his right hand, too, now poking just as firmly at
Malick’s gut as the other was beneath his chin. “Perhaps it
would be best if you got to the point.”
Bad dog. Sit.
Malick had to grin—he couldn’t help it.
“I’m rather on the point, don’t you think? Two of them,
in fact.” Apparently, the man was not as amused with Malick as
Malick was with himself. The tips of both knives pressed harder,
one drawing a slight, warm trickle of blood down Malick’s throat
and one threatening to slip right through the layers of leather
and thin mail under his tunic. Fuck, his trousers were actually
getting a bit painful. Mei always said his brain lived in his
pants, and now here was proof. “All right, all right.” Malick
took a small step back but didn’t release his hold on the plait
in his hand. “To put it bluntly, you’ve been recruited. You are
no longer an independent agent, you are no longer to be left to
your own devices or discretion.”
The impassive mask, if possible, grew even
stonier. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t. And so you won’t
know exactly what’s happening to you the next time you go after
a prefect or a curate or a lord, and we’re there waiting for
you.” Gray eyes once again shot quickly to the door and back.
Malick sighed again. “Look, what’s your name?” Cold silence and
a slow blink were all he got for an answer. Malick rolled his
eyes. “If you don’t give me a name to call you, I’m going to
have to keep calling you ‘Ghost’, and I know you don’t like it.”
Still with the blinking. And the unfortunate continued lack of
awe. Malick’s jaw tightened. Definitely should’ve unlaced his
shirt. Maybe tousled his hair a bit, too. “Fine, Ghost.
You’re causing too much trouble, Ghost. You’re making it
all too risky for the rest of us, and your kills aren’t even
making a difference.”
“Us,” the man repeated blandly. His head
tilted a little, tugging on the braid in Malick’s hand. “A
difference to whom?”
“Ah, not going to tell you that just yet,”
Malick chuckled. “We’ve not yet reached the part where I decide
whether to let you dress and come outside with me, or just kill
you right here and pay the extra koin for the mess.”
Dark eyebrows rose and the gaze went
half-lidded. Malick could read the, You really think
you can? as clearly as though the man had spoken it aloud,
instead of merely standing there, no outward reaction but a
long, slow blink.
Seriously—no man needed lashes that long
Malick shrugged, winked, then knocked the
blade away from his chin, dodged a quick parry that almost got
his throat cut for him, and snagged the dirk from his belt. He
pinned the braid to the wooden frame of the screen with the tip
of the blade before the man could lunge again. Good thing Malick
had stepped back, because there was now a long, clean slice in
the rushes of the screen, though the knife that did it had moved
so fast he hadn’t even seen it. Malick grinned, backed off with
his hands held palms-out. “Unless you’d prefer to prove your
superiority in a more pleasant fashion?” he asked with a waggle
of eyebrows. “I usually prefer top, but I’ve been known to make
an exception now and again.”
The loathing in the man’s glare was almost
tangible. And still no awe. Bloody stone, the man was.
Malick shook his head, impatient now.
“Look, Ghost, we can have ourselves a little pissing contest in
here, where one of us will surely end up very messily dead, or
you can come with me and we’ll go somewhere we can talk about it
like very much alive grownups. The customers will be clamoring
for the baths all too soon, and we can’t faff about much
longer—what’ll it be?”
Not only that, but Mei was going to have
Malick’s head if he cost her much more money tonight. Those
screens were cheap, but Mei wouldn’t see it that way, and he was
already holding up the custom for the baths and so therefore the
“Why should I?” the man wanted to know.
Ah, finally, an intelligent question.
“Because you’ve been given a choice, if you can call it
that—join us and live to see whatever vengeance it is you’re
looking for, or the hunter becomes the hunted. My patron does
not share the Adan’s generosity, and believes quite firmly that
no one is Untouchable.”
The man’s control was slipping: his jaw
tightened and his eyes took on a very slight shimmer in the soft
light. Malick couldn’t help but wonder what he would look like
with all of that control puddled about his feet like that
“What d’you know about any of it?” the man
Another glimpse, only a tiny one, of what
lay beneath all that hatred and iron rule. There was something
achingly wrenching about the way the question emerged, though
Malick couldn’t have said exactly what—the anger was still
there, but the grief that crept out beneath it all nearly blared
its misery at him. Malick slouched a bit, softened his stance.
The adrenaline kick was wearing off, and even his libido had
stopped muttering innuendo at him. Unapologetic mercenary or no,
compassion still existed beneath Malick’s surfaces, inconvenient
and annoying though it may be.
“Nothing but what I know about myself,”
Malick said kindly. “Except that you’ve been promised that the
man you want will one day twitch at the end of your blade—if you
join us. If not…” He sighed, stepped back over and retrieved his
knife with a last, lingering caress of the shiny plaits of
chestnut. He purposefully turned his eyes to the small knife and
watched the lamplight scud over its honed edge and now slightly
blunted tip. Handing the Ghost an opportunity to attack, but
avidly wary and on watch for it. The man didn’t take the
opening. Intrigued, Malick flipped his gaze back up, met
ambered-gray, and shrugged. “I like you. You’re pretty, even if
you are a bit of an ass.” Malick flashed a grin when the man’s
jaw tightened. “I don’t want to kill you. And I certainly don’t
want you to kill me. Do us both a favor—get dressed and come
The man stared for several long moments,
eyes narrowed and intense beneath their obscuring fringe. Malick
stared back, kept his own gaze and mien blank, and his hands
very still. The urge to smirk was twitching at him, and he
fought it down. Those knives were still out and looked very
“You go first,” the man finally said.
“I’ll want privacy to dress. I’ll follow.”
Malick’s eyebrows rose and his gaze dipped
inexorably down the sleek, bare skin, resting on the bathsheet
still crumpled on the floor, then gliding back up again—probably
more slowly than it should’ve done. Privacy. Sure.
“You’re joking, right?”
Another of those slow blinks was all he
got for an answer.
Malick narrowed his eyes. “What’s to stop
you from just skiving off?”
The man shrugged, casually lifted the
knife in his left hand and wound it through his
fingers—blade-hilt-blade-hilt—like another would weave a koin.
“I should imagine you’ve all the exits covered.”
Too bloody right. And somehow, this
Untouchable didn’t seem terribly worried about it. Suspicion
flaring bright—why did Malick suddenly feel like a cat toy,
being batted about between a couple of deceptively clawless
paws?—but intrigue flaring brighter, Malick allowed the budding
smirk to bloom, dipped his head: challenge accepted.
“You’ll be there, then? I’ve your word?”
“Oh, I’ll be there.”
There was no way to know if the promise
meant a thing, and that bland tone of the assertion could have
implied anything at all, but… Malick was absurdly fascinated by
the prospect of finding out what it could mean.
He slipped his own knife back into its
sheath, stepped back with hands raised. “I’ll meet you in the
alley out back by the kitchen doors, and we’ll go somewhere to
talk where we won’t be overheard. Who knows?—p’raps you’ll even
allow me to make up for ruining your, um… plans for the
Malick didn’t wait for an answer, merely
waggled his eyebrows and deliberately turned his back on the
Ghost as he sauntered to the door. Those gray eyes might be
glaring daggers into his back, but no actual daggers were coming
for him, he could feel it. Somehow, Malick was absurdly certain
that if he took a blade from this Untouchable, it wouldn’t be in
the back. He didn’t even flick a glance over his shoulder to
make sure as he opened the door and stepped through. He simply
turned to Samin, waiting just on the other side, the scowl on
his face telling Malick that he’d been listening very carefully,
and was not at all happy about what he’d heard.
“Why’d you leave him alone?” Samin
barked. “Have you completely lost your small mind?”
I just might’ve done, Malick didn’t
say. “Manners,” he retorted instead.
Samin gave him a fair twin to the slow
blink Malick had been getting for the past fifteen minutes.
“What, I have some!”
“Mal, I’m being serious.”
“So am I!”
“Yeah, but I’ve met you.”
No respect. Honestly. “Just shut it, will
you? I gave him a chance to come quietly. It seemed… I
“Fair?” Samin snorted. “You kill
people for a living—when has ‘fair’ ever meant a damn?”
“I kill bad people for a living,
Samin.” Malick’s voice had frosted over. “And so do you.
Samin chewed on that for a moment,
somewhat chastened, then: “Will he come quietly?”
Malick shook his head, grimaced, and led
the way up the stone stair. “Not a chance.” He jerked his head
toward the back doors of the Girou. “Go give Shig and
Yori a heads-up, then come back up and follow him down. I’ll be
in the alley behind the kitchens. Waiting.”
It was the braid, Malick grumbled at
himself as he made his way through the crowd and arrowed through
the kitchen, retrieved his belts and kit from one of the lads
then pounded down the steps and to the alley. He didn’t pause
but merely strapped on his gear as he stalked, the long tails of
his duster flapping behind him. That damned bloody braid.
Samin watched Malick go, shook his head
and rolled his eyes. Best tactical mind Samin knew, that lad,
but in some things, he was purely and simply a blazing bloody
idiot. Not enough blood to the big brain, because it was forever
rushing down to the little one, that was Samin’s opinion.
Mouth tight, Samin spared a dark look down
the stair then shoved his way toward the gaming tables, where
Mei was busy keeping the losers from starting trouble and the
winners playing. At least until she’d made sure the House had
won back whatever the players thought they were going to walk
away with. Since Mei was the House, she gave it her full
Samin didn’t even bother to try and catch
her glance. One eye on the stair to the baths, watching for
their quarry to emerge, he instead waved down Lex, Mei’s
right-hand, and if Samin wasn’t seriously mistaken, her toy when
she was in the mood. Not that Lex seemed to mind. Nor would
Samin, in truth—Mei was gorgeous. And bloody-well stunningly
“I need you for a moment,” Samin said as
he grabbed hold of Lex’s arm.
“Haven’t got one,” Lex barked, and made
every effort to loose himself from Samin’s grip.
Good thing Samin had several inches and at
least a score of pounds on him. “Make one,” he growled. “Or I’ll
be sure and tell Malick he got a knife in the ribs because you
couldn’t find the time to go tell his backup they’re needed out
“Malick?” At least it got Lex to stop
trying to tug himself away. Still, he wasn’t quite convinced
yet. In fact, he looked somewhat suspicious. “Aren’t you
Samin graciously refrained from knocking
Lex cold. Anyway, he needed the favor. “Now,” was all he
said, though with every ounce of menace in what he knew to be an
already very menacing face. He knew because he’d been told. Lots
of times. And those on the receiving-end of it generally backed
down, and very quickly—just like Lex was doing. Rather ungraciously.
“Right, fine,” Lex sighed all
put-upon and self-sacrificing. “But you owe me.”
Um, no, he really didn’t. But Samin was
happy to let Lex think so, if it got his ass moving, which it
did. “Shig’s watching the front and Yori’s at the stair up to
the rooms. Tell them Mal’s on his way to the alley behind the
kitchens, and tell them to move quick.”
“Done with the baths, then?” Lex wanted to
Samin rolled his eyes. “By the time you
tell Shig and Yori, we will be, so haul ass—the sooner you’re
back, the sooner Mei’s purse swells.”
That seemed to convince Lex, finally.
Samin would swear the man could throttle silver and make it
cough up gold just as ably as Mei could. He let Lex go and,
still in a gracious mood, refrained from giving him a shove and
a kick in the ass to hurry him along. Sucking in a long breath,
Samin returned his full attention to the stair to the baths,
spearing his gaze through the gloom that gathered about the
landing, and trying not to step on any of the writhing bodies on
the cushions near his feet as he sank into the shadows against
Leave it to bloody Malick to risk making
this errand twice as dangerous as it needed to be, merely
because he was a soft touch for a pretty face. As if Malick
didn’t get his wick dipped enough the way it was. Asking for a
knife in the back or a cut throat, that boy was, letting his
prick lead him like he did. Samin blew out a heavy sigh, gave
the man accidentally humping his shin a swift kick and stepped a
What was taking the little bugger so long?
There was only the one way in and out of the baths, so he
couldn’t be trying to give them the slip. Drowning himself out
of fear? He didn’t seem the type. Even if he did, it was no skin
off Samin’s nose. He didn’t think they really needed a fifth,
and it would likely make his life a bit easier if this ended
tonight with the pretty Ghost dead. Because if the boy let
Malick shag him, he’d likely be impossible once Malick tired of
him, because Malick always did, and if he didn’t let Malick shag
him, Malick would be impossible until he eventually gave in, and
there it went back to the first option—either way, Samin and the
girls would the ones to really suffer.
Samin rubbed at his eyes. The poppy fumes
were starting to get to him. The shadows he was watching
thickened and blurred deeper for a moment, the greasy lamplight
shifting and sputtering in the stir of a draft. Samin blinked,
squinted, a spurt of adrenaline flowing through his heart and
spangling up his backbone. Was that…?
No, couldn’t be. It wasn’t that dark, and
even a man head-to-toe in black would’ve been obvious. No
stealthy pretty Ghost could get by, no matter how good he was,
and Malick had said this Ghost was supposed to be very
good. Took out an Adan prefect, of all people, and in his own
office, with his guard right outside the door, or so Malick had
said. These things always grew in the telling, Samin had found,
so who knew, really? Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be careful.
Damned poppy; it always softened the senses, and he’d be too
stoned to be of any use at all soon enough, if he didn’t hurry
Anyway, waiting wasn’t one of the things
Samin did well.
Fuck manners. And fuck ‘fair’.
Setting his teeth, Samin pushed himself
away from the wall and made his way quietly down the stair. With
all the stealth he could gather, which wasn’t much—he was built
for brute force, not slinking—he pushed the heavy door open far
enough to peer cautiously inside. Nothing. He frowned. Could be
right behind the door, waiting for him, and Samin knew Malick
hadn’t disarmed the fellow. Idiot. Samin could see a little of
the small chamber from this angle—the far side of the pool, and
one shower-box—and it all appeared clear, but there was an awful
lot he couldn’t see, and there was still the small fact that he
couldn’t see through the door.
Damn thorny, fractious little pretty-boy.
“Lad?” Samin wasn’t really expecting an
answer, which was good because he didn’t get one. He thought
about craning his neck to get a look behind the door, but all
that might have done was hand the little pain-in-the-ass a good
opportunity to break Samin’s neck—no fuss, no muss—and Samin
would deserve it, if he did something that stupid. “I’m not here
to fight, just to hie you along a little, yeah? Haven’t got all
Still no answer. Bloody sodding rotten
Already-stretched patience at its limit,
Samin didn’t give any further warning. He threw his weight into
the door—if the man was waiting behind it, he’d be squashed like
a very stroppy little bug, and Samin would merely shrug at
Malick and find a good place to dispose of the body. Easier for
everyone all around.
Samin crouched low as he came through the
door, the heavy thunk of wood against stone rebounding in
his ears and his gaze flying to every shadowed corner and
recessed cranny at once. Benches, shower-boxes, linen cupboard,
Gone. The little son of a bitch.
How the hell…? Samin shook his head, looked again, but the
chamber remained decidedly vacant. He’d been watching almost
every bloody second, he couldn’t have missed …
Untouchables didn’t have magic, and magic
didn’t work on them. So how had the damned Ghost got by him?
More to the point—now what? Besides
the fact that Malick was going to be… exquisitely pissed.
Malick was going to be exquisitely pissed
only if he actually got the opportunity. He was, after all,
waiting by himself down in that alley, and who knew if Lex had
bothered himself to hurry fetching Shig and Yori. And Malick had
paid the Doujou to stay away tonight.
“Oh, fucking hell!”
Not even sparing the two seconds it would
take to kick his own ass, Samin spun, flung open the door and
raced up the stair.