THE door opened silently under pressure from Spider's hand, admitting him into the hothouse. Fifty feet of glass sheltered a narrow strip of soil divided by a path in two. During the day sunlight flooded the hothouse, but now only the weak orange radiance of the magic lamps nourished the greenery. The previous owner of the mansion had used the hothouse to coax cucumbers out of the Mire's soil; he would've been shocked to discover the oddities that filled it now.Spider surveyed the twin lines of plants and saw Posad's misshapen form, hunched over by the roots of a vernik midway down the path. A large bucket and a wheelbarrow sat next to him.Spider strode toward the gardener, the gravel crunching under his feet. Posad dipped his small, almost feminine left hand into a bucket and administered a handful of black oily mud to the soil around the roots of a young tree. Translucent blue, it stood seven feet tall, spreading perfectly formed leafless branches.The blue branches leaned toward Spider. Tentatively, like a shy child, one touched his shoulder. He offered his hand and the branches nuzzled his palm.He plucked a bag of feed from the wheelbarrow and offered a handful of grainy gray powder to the tree. A small branch brushed it, scooping the powder up with tiny slits in its bark. Its fellows reached to his palm, and the entire tree bent closer to the food.Posad continued working the mud into the soil with a three-pronged garden fork. "You spoil him," he said."I can't help it. He is so polite." Spider fed the last of the feed to the tree and shook his hands to the remaining branches. "Sorry, fellows. All gone."The branches brushed his shoulders as if in gratitude, and the tree righted itself. Spider watched the grains of feed float down the trunk, opaque and glowing like snow-flakes turned into tiny stars by light.The tree was vital to fusion. Only with it could John combine Genevieve's body with the plant tissue. The process would destroy her will and ensure complete compliance. The fusion carried its own dangers, Spider reflected. Genevieve could lose all cognitive ability, which would make her useless to him. She could retain too much will, and then she would try to murder him. But he had little choice in the matter. The diary was simply too important.Posad swung the rag over his shoulder and pushed the wheelbarrow forward. The growth on his back and right side had gotten larger in the last few days, the way it always did when the colony was about to split. Thick purple veins clasped the flesh of the hump under the pink, glistening skin. It drew the eye.Like most of the Hand's altered humans, Posad had been conceived as a weapon. He was meant to be the Bee Master, commanding swarms of deadly insects. In combat conditions the idea proved grossly impractical, but Posad found his niche, taking care of the plants that provided them with chemicals for alteration."I can't find Lavern," Posad said, brushing the dirt from his pants with his shovel-large right hand.Spider pondered that for a moment. Lavern was one of their strongest hunters but more unstable than most. He showed cannibalistic tendencies, which meant he was close to being replaced. He was deployed only under strict supervision, and as far as Spider knew, Lavern shouldn't have left the house."Do tell," Spider said.Posad grimaced. "Karmash said to keep an eye out. Lavern was fine last night, but he isn't fine now."His second in command had sent Lavern out. Spider felt a wave of fury begin to swell and counted to three in his head. "Are you sure?""The Goldmint isn't picking him up. Come, see for yourself."They walked down the path. The wheelbarrow creaked with steady regularity, the sound of worn wheels mixing with the dry scratch of gravel.The stench of old urine hit Spider's nostrils. The path turned, and they halted before an enormous blossom. Seven feet wide and pale yellow in color, it hugged the ground, rising to Spider's waist. Boils, as big as his fist and filled with murky liquid, covered the thick flaps of the meaty petals. A network of pale false stamens rose to the ceiling, anchoring itself to the wooden framework of the greenhouse roof.Up close the reek of sewage squeezed moisture from Spider's eyes. He stared into the tangled web of the filaments, seeking the true stamens among the mess of the false. He counted thirty-one. The thirty-second stamen drooped to the side, its antler thick with white fuzz. The stamen had matured and produced pollen. The link between Lavern's magic and the flower no longer suppressed its development."Lavern is dead," Posad said. "I thought you should know."Spider nodded. The gardener reached over and hacked the stamen off with a short thick knife. The second man they had lost in the Mire since Cerise had left the Rathole. First Thibauld, who failed to report in and whose stamen had been cut yesterday. Now Lavern, who should have been safe at base.Spider left the hothouse, striding briskly to his study. A small rush basket perched at the bottom of the staircase. He looked at it for a second and climbed the stairs. Two more baskets sat on the landing. He passed them and reached the upstairs hallway. More items woven of rush littered the narrow corridor. Stacks of carriers, linen hampers, and bread bowls leaned against the walls; round waste bins set into each other formed rush colonnades; intricate hampers vied with flower panniers for space. Their dried plant odor mixed with the stench of algae that always permeated the house.Spider growled under his breath, dodged a tower of round planters teetering precariously with his every step, and pushed into the small room that served as the reception area for his office. Veisan hunched in her chair, her fingers plaiting the rushes into a rug. A heap of rushes lay at her feet next to an equally large pile of baskets.At his approach, Veisan surged to her feet, her strong hands tearing the braided rug. "M'lord!""Have Karmash see me," he ordered."Yes, m'lord."A huge rush creation resembling a hollow duck sat between him and the door. Spider kicked it into the corner."And stop cluttering the place. We're not basketry merchants.""Yes, m'lord."He entered his study and walked past the rectangle of a massive antique table to the window. Pitch-black. It took a fraction of a breath for his enhanced eyes to adjust, and then the darkness blossomed, unfolding before him like a flower to reveal the strand of cypresses next to the flooded plain.Karmash had disobeyed him. Yet again.Spider's anger pushed his senses into overdrive, as the implanted glands squirted catalysts into his bloodstream. He unlatched the frame and swung the window open. A cascade of night scents and noises washed over him. His acute hearing caught Karmash's particular gait, and he faced the door. The steps drew closer, and Spider smelled the musky scent of the breaker's sweat."Enter," he barked. There was a momentary pause. The door swung open. Karmash stepped inside, his hulking form dwarfing the doorway, and shut the door behind him. His white hair dripped moisture. Spider's nostrils caught a hint of swamp water."Were you swimming?" Spider asked."Yes, m'lord.""Was the water warm?""No, m'lord." The big man shifted from foot to foot."So it was more of a brisk, invigorating kind of experience?""Yes, m'lord.""I see."He turned to the table and stared at the array of papers. He could hear the elevated tempo of Karmash's heartbeat."My lord, I'm very sorry ..."Spider smashed his fist into the table. The thick top board broke with a wooden scream. The drawers burst open, releasing a flood of loose papers, small boxes, and metal ink jars. A pungent cloud of expensive incense billowed from the wreckage. Spider seized half of the ruined table, top-board, drawers and all, and hurled it across the room. It crashed against the wall and shattered in an explosion of splinters.Spider turned on his heel, slowly, deliberately. All blood drained from Karmash's face, and his skin matched his hair in whiteness. Spider took two steps to the remaining table piece and studied it."I'm disappointed in you," he said.Karmash opened his mouth to answer and closed it. Spider perched on the edge of the table wreck and looked at him. Karmash's skin smelled of fear. It shuddered in his eyes, broke through in the clenched fingers of his big hands, showed itself in the way he bent his knees lightly, ready to run. Spider studied that fear and drank it in. It tasted sweet like a well-aged wine."Let's go over this again," Spider said, pronouncing the words with a glass-sharp clarity in that patient, slow tone one used with a disobedient child or a woman one desired to infuriate. "Which part of my instructions wasn't clear to you?"Karmash swallowed. "All parts were clear, m'lord.""They mustn't have been, since your actions didn't match my words. A miscommunication has occurred. Let's pin it down. Reiterate what I ordered you to do."Spider stared at Karmash, hard, unblinking. Their gazes locked, and Spider saw terror wash away any semblance of thought from Karmash's eyes. The big man snapped into panicked stiffness. Karmash opened his mouth. No sound came. Sweat broke at his hairline and slid across pallid skin to the shield of white bushy eyebrows."Go ahead," Spider said.Karmash strained and forced a small word from his mouth. "You ...""I can't hear you."Karmash glanced away, muscles knotted along his jaw. He blinked rapidly, rigid as a board. Spider studied his neck, imagined himself reaching out, grasping the throat in the steel hold of his hand, crushing the wind-pipe until the cartilage popped with a light crunch under his fingers.Karmash tried again. "You told me ...""Yes?"The voice caught in the big man's throat. He stared at the floor, his eyes wide and almost black from the dilated pupils.Too easy. Cringe, Karmash. Cringe and submit.Karmash swayed a little. His nostrils didn't flutter - he had forgotten to breathe. Another dozen heartbeats and he would faint. Spider toyed with the idea of bringing him to that point and decided against it with some regret. Too much trouble to wait for Karmash to come to."How long will you keep me waiting?" He let his tone and his stare ease just a fraction.A fraction was enough. Karmash's knees trembled. His nostrils flared, drawing the air in a frenzied rhythm, and Karmash shuddered, every nerve and muscle shaking. For a moment he looked limp like a rag doll, ready to come apart.Spider waited. The second stage of fear, the release. Petrify the body in a panicked freeze, and the mind locked as well, cycling on the same thought. Release the body, and logic came back with ready fluidity. It was an animal response, a defensive mechanism of Mother Nature, who realized that given a chance, her bastard children would think themselves into the ground, so she freed them of the handicapping burden of their minds in times of imminent danger. At the core, we're but animals, Spider thought. Come on, Karmash. Obey and don't make me bare my teeth and roll you on your back again. I enjoy it entirely too much for my own good."You told me to find the girl," Karmash's voice came in a shaky gush."And what did you do?""I sent Lavern to fetch her."Spider put the fingers of his hands together, making a tent, and touched his index fingers to his lips, as if thinking. "So let me see if I got this right. I told you to find the girl, and you sent the dumbest, the most contumacious hunter we have. A hunter who has been twisted by his upgrades to the point of becoming fond of human flesh. Is that right?""Yes.""Suppose he did somehow manage to disarm Cerise Mar, although how he would accomplish this escapes me. Suppose he did apprehend her. What made you think that he would deliver her safe and healthy instead of dropping her withered husk on my doorstep?""I thought ..." Karmash hesitated."No, please continue. I'm extremely interested in your thought process.""I thought Lavern would be sufficient, m'lord, since she was only a civilian. I told him it was his chance to rehabilitate himself. I was wrong."Spider closed his eyes and let out a deep cleansing sigh. Only a civilian. Of course."M'lord ..."Spider raised his hand. "Shhh. Don't talk now."Karmash's size had gotten away from him again. Occasionally the man's obsession with his own strength cut off the flow of air to his brain. His only saving grace was that at the moment Spider had nobody to replace him."Let me explain something to you," Spider said, slowly, with gravity, making sure every word was understood. "I hate the swamp. I hate the way it looks. I hate the way it smells. It repulses me. I'm forced into inactivity until John finishes fusing Genevieve, and I sit here, restless and bored, while my best slayer is compulsively braiding rush baskets on my doorstep, because unless she occupies herself with something intricate, she might snap and slaughter the lot of us."Spider smiled, baring his teeth. "And you, whether by ignorance, ineptitude, or design, seem determined to keep me here longer than necessary through botching up tasks I give you. Don't give me an excuse to take an interest in you, Karmash. Don't make yourself the thing I choose to shrug off my boredom. You won't like it."Karmash's eyes widened."That's not an order," Spider said. "Just a bit of friendly advice." He stood up and walked to the large bookcase set against the back wall. A mismatched assortment of books filled the shelves, some tall, some short. He ran his fingers along the tattered spines and pulled out a thick leather volume. Gilded golden letters curved across the front page: The Empire: The Third Invasion.He handed it to Karmash. "I realize that you weren't present during the apprehension of the Mars. I wish to correct that oversight. Read this. It will give you a basic understanding of what Cerise Mar is and the casualties we can expect when dealing with her. And this is an order."Karmash's long fingers closed about the book. Spider held on to his end, fixed Karmash with a stare, and let go."I wish you had seen it," he said. "Gustave Mar was truly a sight to behold.""I'm sorry I missed it, m'lord."They had missed the one opportunity to grab Cerise, and she was likely gone behind the shield of warding spells that guarded her family house. Still, a chance that she would leave the compound for some reason existed, and his people had to have something to do. Spider nodded toward the map on the wall, and Karmash obediently turned to it."There is a small road running southeast from the Mar compound.""The White Blossom Trail, m'lord?""It's the only land route from the Rathole to the town. The rest, as you can see, is swamp. I want you to put Vur and Embelys right there. They do nothing but watch. If she leaves the compound, one must follow, the other must report in.""Yes, m'lord.""No mistakes this time.""Yes, m'lord.""You may go."Karmash shifted from foot to foot. "Do you wish me to send a retrieval team to find Lavern's body?""No. I'll go myself. I think the fresh air would do me good."Karmash fled.Spider sighed. Perhaps the girl would make a mistake. He hoped so. He wanted to sit her down and try to figure out how her mind worked. She would make a fascinating conversationalist.Spider walked over to the door and opened it. Veisan dropped the load of baskets she was carrying and stood at attention, her collection of rolled blue-gray locks spilling onto her shoulders like a nest of thin snakes."Have the wall repaired. I'll need a new table, too." A pang of regret stung him - it had been a very nice table."Yes, m'lord." Her lapis lazuli eyes watched him from a face the color of raw meat."And I'm sorry about the baskets. You can continue weaving. I was tired and under a lot of stress.""Thank you, m'lord."He nodded and walked past her.She turned her head, following his movement. "Where are you going, m'lord?""Out. I'm going out. I'll be back soon." He kept walking. Perhaps he could kill something during his search for Lavern's corpse. He was so mercilessly bored.