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Once more Wren Valere's game plan has taken an unexpected direction. She'd agreed to a bargain with one supersecret magic-watching outfit to protect her and her partner on their last job. But now the Silence is trying to wedge them apart.
On the one hand, ever since she and Sergei began to talk about their "relationship," things have been tricky. On the other, though... Well, no one better try to stand between Wren and Sergei when danger is near!
So now they are off to Italy in search of a missing artifact, without any information other than the fact that it's very old, very dangerous and everyone who gets too close disappears. Still, when compared with what's going on at home (lonejacks banding together, a jealous demon, tracking bugs needing fumigation, etc.) maybe disappearing wouldn't be so bad....
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Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus books for Luna (the “Retrievers” and “Paranormal Scene Investigations” urban fantasy series), and the Nebula award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy from Pocket, as well as the YA trilogy GRAIL QUEST for Harper. Her first story collection is DRAGON VIRUS and she continues to write and sell short fiction in a variety of genres. Follow her at @LAGilman or www.lauraannegilman.netExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Next time," Sergei muttered out of the corner of his mouth, not taking his eyes off the security guard leaning against a wall several paces ahead of them, "we're taking a boat."
"Sorry, okay?" Wren said, doing her best not to snap at him. "I'm trying. I really am." And she was. It just wasn't helping.
Her partner's deep sigh was the only response she got. They'd had variations of this conversation ever since she threw her bag into the cab outside her apartment that morning, and things had only slid downhill since getting to the airport. If they could have gotten through all this quickly, and not given her so much time to think about it... But, well, that wasn't going to happen. And the weird feeling of being stared at, even though there wasn't anyone paying any attention to her, was just making things worse.
The line shuffled in place, people shifting bags and checking watches. Sergei took a small case out of his suit coat pocket, opened it and removed a slender brown cigarette, then put the case away. He rolled the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, then started rotating it end to end, as though practicing for a coin trick he already knew how to do.
Another person made it through the metal detector and escaped into the depths of the airport. There was only one line feeding along roped-off lanes into seven different metal detectors, three of which were currently out of service, with technicians standing around them looking puzzled and not a little annoyed. One of the techs did something to a touch pad, and shrugged helplessly.
I hate airports, Wren thought. As though overhearing her thought, Sergei flicked a glance sideways at her, one dark brown eyebrow raised in inquiry over paler brown eyes. After ten years of working together, he didn't have to say anything; the message came through loud and clear. Get it done.
"Right." It wasn't that he wasn't sympathetic. He was. She knew that. But it was her problem and she was the one who had to deal with it. And sympathy didn't actually help. Adjusting her sweaty grip on her brand-new carry-on (finest you could buy on sale on two days' notice), Wren closed her eyes and refocused her attention inward, to where the tendrils of current coiled and flickered within her like snakes in a pit.
She wasn't a good flyer even under the best of circumstances. No, call a spade a spade and admit that she was a terrible flyer. She avoided traveling by air whenever possible. Sometimes, though, it wasn't possible. Sometimes, you just had to suck up the phobia and get on with it.
Unfortunately, the only thing worse than a phobic Talent under stress was a phobic Talent under stress near a lot of electronics. Such as, oh, the one found when going through departure security at a major airport just outside of New York City.
We shouldn't be here. We shouldn't have taken this job. Don't think about it, Valere. Focus. Stay calm. Or everything's going to get ugly.
"The usual mess," a man behind her grumbled to his companion. "And what do you want to bet once we get on the plane we'll be stuck on the tarmac for another hour anyway?"
Oh, God. So much for calm and serenity. Just the thought of that was enough to make her nerves—and the current inside her—roil. The "snakes" hissed sparks of current, seething in her own agitation. Damn, damn and—
There was another snap-ping! noise, and the lights on one of the still-working metal detectors went out, then came back on. The security guard swore under his breath and said something into his walkie-talkie. The seven people in front of Wren and Sergei on the security check line groaned. Wren felt a twinge of helpless guilt, opening her eyes and looking at the chaos she was, however unwillingly, creating. Admittedly, one of the machines had been out of commission by the time they got on line. She was pretty sure she wasn't to blame for that one. But the other two had died in a rather spectacular array of sparks not thirty seconds after they arrived. That was in addition to the meter of the cab that dropped them off, the check-in desk computer that decided to crash in the middle of confirming their seats, and the cell phone of the guy next to them on the escalator.
All those old stories about magic being wiped out by technology so had it wrong. Magic didn't hate tech. It loved it. So much so that a Talent instinctively wanted to reach out and drag all the lovely bits of power floating through the wires and tubes and chips of modern society into his or herself. Especially if she was, even subconsciously, preparing for a worst-case scenario in which she might need all the power she could grab.
Sergei had suggested a sedative when she started to hyperventilate in traffic this morning, but Wren was terrified of what she might do if she were too relaxed when the inevitable panic hit.
"Last time I got stuck in security I missed my connection and had to wait three hours for another flight," Wren heard the woman ahead of them say to her companion, more resigned than annoyed.
Oh, God. A muffled whimper escaped her, and sparks danced on the backs of her hands until she shoved them into the pocket of her pale blue linen jacket, bought new for this trip and already stained under the arms with sweat. "I hate airports," Wren muttered. "They're full of planes." She could hear the panic in her voice and hated herself for it.
"Hang in there." Sergei shoved the cigarette back into its case and shuffled in line, moving bags and his laptop case until he stood just behind her, a little closer than the crush of people demanded. At six-two he was almost a foot taller than she, and broad-shouldered into the bargain, creating a comfortable barrier at her back. The defense might have been mostly psychological, but it worked. She welcomed the closeness, breathing deeply of the scent of warm spice and musk that was so perfectly and only her partner. She could almost ground herself into it the way she would into rock or soil; emotionally, anyway, if not magically. Not that she thought she was going to do anything stupid, but...
Well, they called them phobias because they were irrational, after all.
"I'm here, Zhenchenka," he said. "I'm here, and everything's okay. Just focus. Keep it under control..." It was equal amounts order and a gentle reminder. Sergei might have finally given up that "senior partner" thing he'd been carrying for the past decade, but old habits died hard.
Fortunately, this was one directive she was willing to follow.
She took a deep breath, released it, nodded, and then closed her eyes again, shutting out everything around her: the white noise of the busy airport, the palpable irritation of the people around her, the smell of her own nervous sweat. Last to go was her physical awareness of Sergei, standing guard over her. Narrowing down further, shutting the mental chute until all that existed was her awareness of her own awareness, and the enticing, invigorating current. Black silk covered with static electricity, jumbled fireworks of a thousand colors. It was beautiful, and tempting, and only with a severe force of will did she keep herself from falling into those fireworks, narrowing even further until all that existed was the current within herself, the natural core that was inside every human Talent.
She had described it to Sergei once as being dropped into a tank of virtual snakes, sinuous electric beasts, bright blue and red and orange and green and silver, like some cyberpunk wet dream. The core of what she was, what she could do. You couldn't ever show fear as they curled around you, hissing in a reflection of her own unreasonable panic about flying, because if you ever lost control current would destroy you.
Dangerous. At the same time, they were beautiful. And hers. She moved closer, soothing the snakes, gathering them in. There was no fear, no loss of control. They were part of her, and would do as she willed them, damn it—
Wren started as someone touched her shoulder. She could sense Sergei swinging into action even as she gasped, putting his well-tailored bulk between her and the intruder.
Wren wasn't used to being noticed—she normally cultivated her slight, innocuous appearance into invisibility. She must be screaming tension in her body language. Not good. The last thing she needed was attention from security making her even more nervous.
"Yes?" she said, moving around her overprotective partner and shoving the current-snakes down even more firmly. Everyone stay cool, she thought, not sure if it was directed at herself, the current, or Sergei. Or all of the above.
The guard took a hard look at her, glanced at the passport held out to him and then reached out one hand, palm up and fingers flat, as though calming a nervous horse. His hand was covered with fine lines, a webbing of creases run amok, and there was a callus on the pad of his index finger. Wren thought that someone who read palms could have a blast with him. "Are you all right, Ms. Valere?"
Sergei started to answer him, but Wren shook her head at him in warning. Let me handle this. "Yes, thank you."
She shifted her carry-on, and took Sergei's hand in her own. The cool, firm skin of his hand was like a lifeline, and she squeezed it once, gently, feeling him return the pressure. It's okay, that squeeze said.
Rather than restraining the current any further, Wren focused it instead, turning her full attention to the guard. Seeing the suspiciously twitchy passenger relax under his gaze, the guard—a baby-faced blonde in his mid-twenties, if that, probably just out of training on how to use the gun in his holster—began to relax. His watery blue eyes were kind, at odds with the weary boredom on his face. You're feeling sorry for me, she thought, her brain taking on an intensely dreamy but sharp-edged feel of a working fugue stage. You think I look terrified of flying — true—and it's a shame I have to be put through all of this.
The "Push" was one of her strongest gifts. It was also the one she hated to use the most, for purely embarrassingly moral reasons—more than any other skill, it had the potential to be abused. The problem was, it was so damn useful. Coupled with her ordinary looks and slight frame, it was enough to get her into the most closely guarded places without being seen. But sometimes you wanted to draw someone's attention to you, not away... and once you had it, you could move it to other places... other thoughts. And they would never know, if you were careful, how they had been coerced. Get me through this... get me past these machines so I don't have a screaming fit and set off every single security measure you have....
"Bad flyer, huh?" the guard asked conversationally.
"Bad doesn't even begin to cover it," Wren admitted, squelching her self-disgust into a tight box and locking the lid. Her mother would have a fit if she knew how badly her only daughter was messing with some poor guy's mind. But when needs must, as her own mother forever said—if about other, way more ordinary things— you did what you had to do....
Sergei Didier watched his partner wind the security guard around her little finger, and stifled a smile of relief. With luck, having something to focus on other than her fear of flying would keep anything... dramatic from happening. He'd been intentionally not thinking of all the ways a panicked Talent could create chaos in an airport, especially one as tightly wound as Newark, as though that blankness in his mind would prevent anything from happening. Talismanic magic, the ancient kind Wren scoffed at.
His feeling was, don't knock anything that might work.
He glanced at the decadently expensive and self-indulgent wind-up gold watch on his wrist and made a bet with himself that it would take her less than three minutes to "push" the guard into hand-walking them through security. There was much less risk in her being wanded off to the side than walking through one of their damned machines, in the state she was in. If she managed that, it would be the first thing that had gone right since they'd taken this damned job.
No, scratch that. The first thing to go right since May. Since that damned Frants case, since that damned Council—since everything had changed.
He rested his gaze on his Wren, currently being ushered out of the line by the solicitous guard, and smiled again. Not that everything that had happened in May was so bad.
She looked back, making sure that he was okay with her being taken out, alone, and he made a small go-ahead gesture. It wasn't as though they were joined at the hip. She'd catch up with him on the other side of the security gate. Once she was out of the way, things were bound to go more smoothly.
Picking up his bag, Sergei shuffled forward with the rest of the line to fill the space Wren had left. Yes, things would go more smoothly without her there. But he missed her presence already.
Since May... although he wondered again how much had actually changed, and how much was just finally being dragged out into the light of day.
Two days earlier...
"Why the hell don't you get an air conditioner?"
Wren looked at her partner as though that was the stupidest thing she had ever heard. He flushed slightly the color rising over his damnably fine cheekbones, although that might have been the heat. It was seven o'clock in the evening, and the temperature was still hovering in the low nineties. Summer in Manhattan. God, how Wren hated it.
They were sitting on the hardwood floor of the largest room in her apartment, not that large meant much in the city. The space was empty save for the stereo system against one wall and an overstuffed armchair at the perfect midway point between speakers. All the windows in the apartment were open, on the off-chance of catching a breeze to supplement the low-tech floor fans that were pretty much just redistributing the warm air. But at least they were low-risk, compared to running an air conditioner. She wasn't going to be the Talent who shorted out the entire city because she couldn't stand a little heat.
She could, she supposed, have drawn the oppressive heat off her body magically. But even thinking about it made her exhausted. Actually doing something was beyond her ability right now.
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Book Description Luna, 2009. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0373802951
Book Description Luna, 2009. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Seller Inventory # DADAX0373802951
Book Description Luna, 2009. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110373802951
Book Description Luna. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0373802951 New Condition. Seller Inventory # NEW7.0112063