THE porch boards creaked under Lagar's foot. The whole manor was rotten. The inside of the house smelled musty, the paneling damp and slimy, dappled with black mildew stains.He'd wanted the manor so much, he got in bed with the Hand for it. Fucking freaks. He shrugged his shoulders, trying to shed the memory of their magic, hot and sharp, brushing against him like a bunch of heated needles. And all for what? For this piece-of-shit house.The only reason he'd wanted the damn house was because it belonged to Gustave. Gustave had everything: he ran his family and they worshipped him, he was respected, people asked him for advice . . . And Cerise lived in his house.Chad appeared from behind the house, hands clutching the rifle."What is it?""I can't find Brent."Lagar followed the guard around the house to a garden overgrown with weeds and ickberry. A small puddle, burgundy-dark in the gray dawn light, slicked the mud on the edge of the bushes. Blood.Chad shifted from foot to foot. "I came to relieve him ..."Lagar raised his hand, shutting him up. Long scratches marked the wet slime, wide apart, driven deep by a massive weight. Footprints approached the tracks. Brent must've seen the scratches and hesitated in this spot. The momentary pause cost him his life. Something leapt at him and carried him off.Behind him Chad shifted from foot to foot. "I thought maybe a Mire cat ...""Too big." Lagar peered past the sea of weeds to the crumbled stone wall that separated the once cultivated piece of land from the pines. Quiet."Where is the rifle?" he thought out loud."Uh ...""The rifle, Chad. Brent had one. Why would an animal take it?"It began to drizzle. The rain wet the gray-green ickberry leaves, the red milkwort, the tall spires of laurel that kept their purple flowers locked in green against the rain. Cold wetness crept from Lagar's scalp down his neck and across his brow. He didn't bother wiping it away."Pair the men," Lagar said. "From now on, nobody stands watch or goes anywhere alone. Send Chrisom to town and have them buy some ervaurg traps.""The nest kind or the shredders?""The shredders." There was no need to be subtle. "Put a shooter up in the attic to cover the garden, make three teams of two, and comb it. Let's see if we can find that rifle. After you're done searching, trap the place."Lagar waved him off, and Chad departed at a brisk run. Lagar crouched by the tracks and spread his hand, measuring the distance between the scratches. The front paws were almost ten inches across. Lagar moved into the thicket. There it was, the deep indentations, marking a place where an animal had crouched. He glanced back to the claw marks. Seven and a half yards.He touched the edges of the paw prints and dipped his fingers into the imprint to measure its depth. Round, thick fingers. If this was a cat, then it was male, four yards long and weighing near seven hundred pounds. His mind struggled to picture an animal that large. Was it something from the Weird? Why did it come here?Lagar walked out of the thickets and rubbed the claw marks with the sole of his boot until only slick mud remained. Panic was the last thing they needed.He paused before reaching the porch, stopping where mud had been churned by many feet two weeks ago. The rain had obliterated the tracks. They had taken Gustave down here. He fought for his freedom, fought for his wife, but he lost.Lagar tugged at a loose strand of hair, thinking of the way Gustave looked when the web spawned by the Hand's magic finally let them wrestle the sword from his fingers. It had been a sweet sight, Gustave helpless in his fury, but they paid for it with four of their men.Four men who worked for him. He knew their families. He gave their wives money for their dead husbands. The way Emilia Cook looked at him when he gave her her cut made him want to drown himself. Like he was the scum of the earth.A crazy thought danced in his mind. Walk away, abandon the manor, leave the Mire, and go someplace new, where nobody knew him. He was barely twenty-eight.Lagar hunched his shoulders. A sardonic smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He had paid too much for this false diamond. Like a runner who had given all of himself to the race, he had reached his finish line but found he couldn't stop.The sound of a horse at full gallop startled him. He ran to the porch in time to see Arig shoot by him on a gray gelding."Lagar!"Unable to stop the horse, his brother circled the house, slowing down, and leaped to the ground, red-faced and huffing."What?""Mom says you got to go out in the swamp. Something happened to Peva."005WILLIAM sat at the bow, as far away from the corpse of the hunter as the length of the boat would allow. Why she insisted on dragging it with them was beyond him. He'd asked her about it, and she'd smiled and told him it was a present for her aunt.Maybe her aunt was a cannibal.The rolpie pulled with steady force. There was a serene, almost severe beauty to the fog-smothered swamp, a kind of somber, primeval elegance. The haze obscured the chaotic vegetation, filtering it to individual congregations of plants. Isolated groups of cypresses adorned with maiden hair moss loomed out of the fog and sank back into it as the boat passed them. The water resembled quicksilver, a glossy, highly reflective surface that masked the pitch-black depth."Is it deep here?" William wondered."No. Looks that way because of the peat in the bottom."Magic brushed against him, like a gentle feather. "What's that?"Cerise smiled. "A marker. We're on my family's land, getting close to the house. We've got the house and some outlying land warded. Good wards, old, rooted into the soil. They don't go very far, though."He squinted at the shore. A large gray rock sat at the edge of the water, about two feet tall and a foot wide. An identical pale stone sat halfway in the water. Ward stones. He'd seen them before: magic connected them like mushrooms in a mushroom ring, creating a barrier. Even Rose had used them to protect the house and the boys. Rose's ward stones were tiny, but they grew with time. These looked centuries old."What about the river?" he asked."The river, too. There are ward stones crossing the bottom. You can't get to the Rathole unless we want you there. But the wards don't go very far. Most of our land isn't covered."That explained why Spider didn't just raid the house. A safe base was good. "What about your grandparents' house?"She shook her head. "No wards there. Grandfather refused to have the place warded."The fog retreated. They turned into a smaller stream. Cold drizzle sifted from the sky. William ground his teeth. Did it ever stop raining in this fucked-up place?Being back at his trailer would've been very nice right now. He'd make himself a cup of good strong coffee and watch some TV. He'd bought a new season of CSI that begged to be cracked open. He liked CSI. It was like magic. If he felt in need of some comedy, he could always find COPS. He'd started watching the show to find out how good the Broken police were in case he had to have a run-in with them, but the shirtless drunken idiots proved too hilarious and stole the show. The only thing he'd learned about the cops was that they had to run a lot.He pictured himself on the couch, Cerise tucked next to him. Nice. Never happen, he reminded himself.He just wanted to be dry. Just for a few minutes. And to wash his hair. The pelt had to be kept clean or it would itch and get bugs in it. He didn't spend money on expensive toys, like pricy cars or phones, but he did buy decent shampoo and he went to a salon to have his hair cut. Salons smelled good, and the pretty women who cut his hair flirted with him and leaned close.The constant dampness drove him crazy. At this rate, he'd sprout waterweeds on his head before the week was out. The next time he had to have a haircut, they'd have to trim the mushrooms from his scalp.The stream opened into a cove, framed by pines and stout picturesque trees with round yellow leaves. William leaned to get a better look. Pretty.A small dock protruded into the water, a natural extension of the dirt path that led up a hill. To the left a heavy wooden gate barred what was probably another stream. He smelled rolpies. His ear caught the distant grunting squeals beyond the gate. The Edgers must've kept them penned up like cows.A man stepped out onto the dock and looked at them. Black hair, fit, tall, about thirty. If they were in the Weird, William would've sworn he was looking at a blueblood. The man held himself very straight, taking up more space than his lean body needed and radiating enough icy, stuck-up elegance to give Declan's relatives a run for their money. William growled in his mind and pulled Declan out of the recesses of his memory. If this guy was a blueblood, he'd have to concentrate not to give himself away."That's Richard. My cousin," Cerise said.A small mud-slathered creature sat by Richard's feet. He was lecturing it. William couldn't quite catch the words but it looked like a serious chewing out. William focused on the little beast. A kid. Looked like a girl, sitting with her knees clasped to her chest, long hair a mess of mud and leaves.Cerise drew a deep breath. He glanced at her. She was looking at the little girl. Her black eyebrows knitted together. Her mouth quivered once, wanting to droop at the corners. He glimpsed sadness in her eyes. Then she hid it and pulled the smile on like a mask.Richard's words floated down to them. ". . . absolutely not appropriate, especially hitting him in the head with a rock ..."The little girl saw them. She shoved past Richard and dove into the water. Richard stopped in mid-word."Oh, Lark," Cerise whispered.The little girl swam through the water, limbs flashing. Cerise slowed the rolpie. The kid dove and scrambled onto the boat, wet and dripping mud. She lunged at Cerise and clutched at her, burying her face in Cerise's stomach. Cerise put her arms around the child and looked like she was about to cry. Her smile broke. She bit her lip."Don't leave," the girl whispered, her arms locked around Cerise."I won't," Cerise said softly. "I'm home now. It will be okay. You're safe.""Don't leave.""I won't."The kid looked like a stray cat, half-starved and skittish. She clasped on to Cerise, as if she were her mother, and she smelled of fear.William reached over, took the reins from Cerise's hands, and slapped them on the water. The rolpie pulled, and he guided the boat to the dock. The boat bumped against the support beams, shuddering. Richard leaned over, and William handed him the mooring line."Hello," Cerise's cousin said."Hi.""Lark, you have to let go now," Cerise murmured gently.The kid didn't move."I can't carry you to the house. You're too big. And if I did, the other kids would make fun of you. You have to be strong now. You must let go and stand on your own feet. Here, hold my hand."Lark pulled away. Cerise took her hand. "Shoulders back. Look at the house. You own this house and this land. Walk like you mean it."Lark straightened her spine."That's it. Show no weakness." Cerise gripped her hand, and they stepped onto the dock in unison.William picked up their bags and followed. Richard strode next to him on long legs. He walked with a light step and good balance. A sword fighter, William decided."My name is Richard Mar. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."Like someone had plucked the man out of the Weird and dropped him into the Edge, with all his manners intact. Except bluebloods didn't wear black jeans.William raised his chin a slight fraction, channeling Declan. "William Sandine.""Lord Sandine?" Richard asked.Go figure. He must be doing better than he thought with his disguise. "Occasionally. When it suits me.""I hate to pry, but how did you and Cerise meet?""Something tells me you love to pry."Richard permitted himself a small spare smile.Cerise turned around. "We got stranded together coming in from the Broken. He's here to hunt the Hand."Richard's expression remained polite but impassive. "Oh?""He saved Urow," she said.No change. "What happened?""The Hand shot him with a copper harpoon."A flicker of fury shot through Richard's eyes. William filed it away. The man had a temper."I see," Richard said. "So you're our guest and ally, then, Lord Sandine?""Just William will do, and yes.""Welcome to the Rathole. A word of caution, William. If you betray us, we will murder you."Ha! "I'll take it under advisement.""A couple of days in our company and you may view it as the superior option." Richard regarded him with his dark eyes and turned to Cerise. "The papers?""I have them."An adolescent boy came riding down the road, leading three horses.Cerise wrinkled her nose. "What are the horses for? We're just going to the house to wash.""You don't have the time," Richard said."I'm covered in mud and blood.""It will have to wait, cousin. Dobe moved the court date."Cerise blinked a couple of times. "How much time do we have?"Richard glanced at his wrist. He wore a G-Shock, a durable plastic watch. William had bought one for himself in the Broken. The watch didn't look too good, but it was shockproof and waterproof and it was precise. For all of his blueblood airs, Richard was practical, and Mars made frequent trips to the Broken."Fifty-two minutes," Richard said.Cerise raised her head to the sky and swore.WILLIAM had seen some piece-of-shit towns in his lifetime, but Angel Roost took the cake. It consisted of a long muddy street, flanked by about a dozen houses and terminating in what Cerise kindly termed "a square," a clearing about the size of a hockey field. On one side of the clearing sat a two-story structure with the sign HOUSE OF WORSHIP. On the other side rose a long rectangular box of a building, put together with giant cypress logs and graced with an even bigger sign that read HOUSE OF COURT. Its barn-style doors stood wide open and a steady stream of people made their way inside."This is the town?" William murmured to Cerise."The county seat," she said.He blinked."We decided we didn't want Sicktree telling us what to do, so we formed our own county. Our own judge, militia, and everything."William pretended to look around."What are you looking for?" Cerise asked."The one horse that all of you share."She snickered like a kid. William preened. She thought he was funny.Richard was frowning."He's implying this is a one-horse town," Cerise told him.Richard raised his eyes to the sky briefly."Are you appealing to your grandparents as well?" William asked.Richard sighed. "To my dead father, actually. He sees it fit to put me through all sorts of foolishness lately."They dismounted before the courthouse, tied their horses to the rail, and joined the crowd filtering into the building. Dozens of scents swirled in the wind, assaulting William's nose. His ears caught bits and pieces of broken conversations. People edged too close to him, trying to make it through the doors.A nervous giddiness squirmed through him. Crowds were dangerous and exciting, and usually he made it a point to stay away from them.Keep a lid on it, he told himself. He had to get through this court thing, and then he'd be home free."We're a bit provincial. Nothing ever happens here," Richard said. "A court hearing is a big event." He smiled.Cerise smiled back."Did I miss a joke?" William asked."We're going into battle smiling," Richard said."To show that we aren't worried," Cerise added. "The Mire is watching and here reputation is everything."William leaned to her. She smelled like mud, but he caught a mere whiff of her real scent underneath and it made him want her. "Are you worried?""If I didn't have to smile, I'd be pulling my hair out with both hands," she said softly."Don't. You have pretty hair, and it will take a long time to grow back."Her eyes sparkled, and she bit her lip, obviously trying not to laugh.Inside the air proved colder than on the street. A fresh pine scent floated on the draft. Several pine saplings grew from barrels set in the corners. Opaque lamps hung from the ceiling on long chains. As they made their way through the crowded aisle, the lights came on in yellow electric glory.William looked at Cerise."We have a power plant," she said. "It runs on peat."This had to be some sort of human joke he didn't get.She looked at his face and grinned. "Seriously. Peat burns really well once you dry it. We heat the house with it."That had to be the craziest thing he'd heard. At some point they must've looked around and said, "Hey, what do we have a shitload of?""Mud! It's cold and wet. I know, let's burn it!""Well, it ain't good for nothing else."What the hell? He supposed if fish could have legs, then mud could burn. Spider or no Spider, if their cats started flying, he would be out of here like a rocket.Cerise took a seat in the front row, behind a table. Richard stopped by the row directly behind her and offered him a seat with a short bow. "Please."William sat. The other side of the courtroom had an identical table. The accused's side, he guessed. Past the two tables, a raised platform supported the judge's desk and chair. Two small lecterns, one for the plaintiff and the other for the defendant, faced the judge. The arrangement was familiar enough. He'd gotten intimately accustomed with the way courts were laid out at his court martial.His memory served up another courtroom, a much larger sterile chamber he'd viewed through the bars of his cage. They had locked him up like an animal at the court martial. Even his advocate took care to stand outside of his reach. William recalled being pissed off about it at the time. Looking back, it might have been for the best. He'd been bitter and so full of pain, he didn't care whom he hurt.He caught Cerise looking at him and pulled himself back to the present.A gray-haired woman, wizened like a dry apricot, slipped into a chair to William's left and smiled at him. Her small black eyes sat like two pieces of shiny coal on her wrinkled face. Barely over four feet tall, she had to be pushing a hundred at least - some Edgers lived as long as people in the Weird.Richard leaned forward an inch. "Grandmother Az, this is William. He's a friend of Cerise."William bowed his head. Older people had to be treated with respect. "Honored, my lady."Grandmother Az raised a tiny hand. Her fingers grazed his hair. A spark of magic shot through William. He recoiled."Such a polite puppy you are," Grandmother Az murmured softly and petted his arm. "You can sit by me anytime."She'd made him. Alarm shot through William. He opened his mouth.Cerise turned in her chair. "Hi, Grandma.""There you are, sweetie." Grandmother Az reached over and petted Cerise's hand. "Your friend is a very nice boy."Cerise smiled. "I'm not sure about that ..." She surveyed the building. "Half the county showed up to see us lose.""I was just telling William that our court hearings are our entertainment," Richard said."It's not that bad." Grandmother Az snorted. "You should see the funerals. All those old geezers, glad they aren't dead themselves, gloating over the poor deceased. When I die, I want you to burn me."Cerise rolled her eyes. "Here we go.""Why burn?" William asked."So they can make a big bonfire and get drunk," the old woman said. "Hard to sit there moping with a big fire going."A tall blonde entered the room, wearing a yellow sash that marked her as an advocate. Two men followed her, carrying papers. She was lean and long-legged, with a graceful neck and nice ankles, and William took a minute to watch her come down the aisle. She looked high-strung and difficult. Still, good legs.Mmm, smelled of mimosa, too. Expensive scent. Cerise smelled better, when clean."It appears the Sheeriles obtained a Weird lawyer," Richard said. "Bringing out the big guns.""Where the heck is our lawyer?" Cerise grimaced."I told him the time," Richard said. "Twice."A small door on the side swung open. A huge bald man shouldered his way into the courtroom, planted himself to the right of the judge's desk, and crossed his arms, making his carved biceps bulge. His face broadcast "Don't screw with me" loud and clear. All that was missing was a big tattoo across his chest that said BACK OFF.A bodyguard. William took his measure. Big. Probably very strong but not young, approaching middle age. With that kind of man, you'd have to keep your distance. He'd break bones with one lucky punch. William scrutinized the legs. If he had to get past him, he'd go for the knees. All of that muscle made for a lot of weight to drag around. His knees were probably shot, and he wouldn't react fast enough to block."That's Clyde, our bailiff." Grandmother Az wiggled her fingers at the giant.Clyde winked at her without breaking his scowl and looked straight ahead.A large beast trotted through the side door. At least thirty-five inches at the shoulder, shaggy with greenish fur sprayed with brown rosettes, it resembled a lynx. The beast sauntered over and lay at Clyde's feet, surveying the crowd with yellow eyes.Great. A green cat. Why the hell not? This place came in two colors: green and brown, and the beast had both."That's Clyde's pet bobcat, Chuckles," Grandmother Az said helpfully. "Clyde, Chuckles, and Judge Dobe. Three peas in a pod."A man dropped into the chair next to Cerise and grinned, black eyes slightly wild. Lean, quick, with the sure movements of a born thief, he wore a mud-splattered shirt over mud-smeared jeans. His brown hair fell on his shoulders, and a two-day stubble stained his chin. A silver hoop earring shone in his left ear. He looked like he'd spent the night in lockup after a drunken binge and was up to no good. "Did I miss anything?""Kaldar," Cerise reached over and poked him with her fingers. "You're late.""Couldn't you have cleaned up for the court?" Richard growled."What wrong with the way I look?"Grandmother Az slapped him on the back of his shaggy head."Ow! Hello, Meemaw.""Did you bring the map?" Richard asked.Kaldar's face turned panicky. He patted himself down, reached under Cerise's hair, and pulled a folded paper free. "I knew I put it somewhere."Richard looked like a man who'd bitten into a lemon. "This isn't a circus.""Look around you," Kaldar said."A circus has more elephants," William told him. He'd gone to the P.T. Barnum show once in the Broken, and his scent had scared an elephant half to death. For all their size, they were hysterical creatures.Kaldar squinted at him. "Who are you?""His name is William. He's my guest and the reason Urow is still breathing," Cerise said.Kaldar glanced at her, then back at William. He had sharp eyes, almost black, and William felt like the man had just sighted him through the scope of a rifle. Clown act or no, Kaldar would try to slit his throat if he stepped an inch out of line."Try" was the key word.A hint of a knowing smile passed across Kaldar's lips, as if he had figured out some secret, and then his face split in a happy grin. "Welcome to the family.""Are you her brother?" William asked."Cousin." Kaldar nodded at Richard. "I'm his brother."Richard looked at the ceiling. "Don't remind me.""You and I are going to be friends," Kaldar told him. William caught a hint of threat in his voice, but Kaldar's face remained blissfully happy.Clyde stepped forward, leveled a hard stare at the audience, and bellowed. "All rise!"