CERISE rode quietly, letting the horse pick the pace. The swamp rolled by on both sides of the road: pale husks of the dead trees rising from the bog water that was black like liquid tar.They won the first round. Peva was dead. The court had ruled in favor of the family. They had the right to retrieve Grandfather's house. Now they just had to do it.She should've been happy. Instead, she felt empty and worn-out to the core, as if her body had become a threadbare rag hanging off her bones. She was so weary. She wanted off her horse. She wanted to curl up somewhere dark and quiet. And most of all, she wanted her mother.Cerise sighed. It was a ridiculous urge. She was twenty-four years old. Not a child by any means. If things had gone differently, she would've been married and had children of her own by now. But no matter how she tried to rationalize herself away from it, she wanted her mother with the desperation of a child left alone in the dark. The need was so basic and strong, she almost cried.She couldn't remember the last time she had cried. It had to be years.The logical part of her knew that winning the hearing was only the first step on a long road. For the past ten days she'd had a clear purpose: find Uncle Hugh, get the documents, and return in time for the hearing. She lived and breathed it, and now it was done. She had accomplished her goal, and inside, in the same place she wanted her mother, she felt deeply cheated because her parents failed to magically appear.Hoofbeats came from behind her. Cerise turned in her saddle.Two riders came down the path at a brisk canter. William and Kaldar. William carried Peva's crossbow. Some women waited for a knight in shining armor. She, apparently, had ended up with a knight in black jeans and leather, who wanted to chase her down and have his evil way with her.When she was a teenager, she used to imagine meeting a stranger. He would be from the Weird or the Broken, not from the Mire. He would be lethal and tough, so tough, he wouldn't be afraid of her. He would be funny. And he would be handsome. She'd gotten so good at imagining this mysterious man, she could almost picture his face.William would kick his ass.Maybe that was why she couldn't get him out of her head, Cerise reflected. Wishful thinking, hoping for things that would never be.The two men reached her and halted their horses."See?" Kaldar grimaced. "She's in one piece."William ignored him. "You rode out alone. Don't make a habit of it."He was worried about her safety. Charming Lord Bill. And phrased it so delicately, too. Why, he was the very picture of gallantry. "Worried about your bait?""You're no good to anyone dead."Kaldar had a peculiar look on his face."What is it?" she asked."Nothing. I think I'll ride ahead a bit." He rode on.Cerise sighed. "Did you get under his skin?"William shrugged. "He makes bad jokes. I told him they weren't funny. Riding out alone was sloppy. If you keep making small mistakes, they will become habits and then you'll die."Just what she needed. "Thank you for the lecture, Lord Bill. How I survived without your help to the ripe age of twenty-four, I will never know.""You're welcome."When sarcasm flies over a blueblood's head, does it make a sound? No, I guess not."Don't tell me what to do." She nudged her horse and the mare followed Kaldar. William rode next to her. He was looking intently at her face. Cerise looked back.The problem with Lord Bill was that not only was he hotter than July in hell, but he existed blissfully unaware of his hotness, which, of course, made him even more attractive. Looking at him for too long was bad for her. He was a challenge, and she had so many other things to worry about: her parents, the feud, the rest of the family . . ."Are you upset?" he asked."Yes.""With me?""No."The rigid line of his jaw eased a little. "Then with what?"Cerise glanced at the sky, gathering her thoughts. "I realized that I'm a child."William looked point-blank at her chest. "No."Laughter bubbled up and she couldn't hold it in. "Up here, Lord Bill." She pointed to her face. "It's not polite to stare at a woman's breasts, unless of course, she is naked in bed with you. Then you can look all you want."Amber flashed in William's eyes, betraying intense, unfiltered lust. And then it was gone.Oh, Lord Bill, you devious thing you. Everything he thought registered on his face. His wife would have no guesswork. If he was sad, she'd know. If he wanted sex, she'd know. If he wanted another woman, she'd know, too. He wasn't capable of lying, even if he wanted to."Why do you think you're a child?" he asked."Because I want my mother," Cerise told him. She was probably foolish for letting him see that deep inside herself, but then she couldn't exactly share any of it with the family. "I never knew until now that I was spoiled. My parents shielded me from the really important decisions. They made things easy. As long as I did as instructed, and even if I didn't always, things would be okay, because they would always be there to fix it or at least to tell me how to fix it. I complained and thought I had it rough. Now they're gone. All of the decisions are mine now, and all of the responsibility is mine, too. Tomorrow I'll be sending my family into slaughter to take back my grandfather's house. Some of them won't come back. And all I want is for my parents to tell me I'm doing the right thing, except they can't. It's up to me to know what the right thing is. I feel like I'm taking a test and somebody just stole my cheat sheet. I have to pack a few years of growing up between tonight and tomorrow morning, and I better do it fast."There. More than he'd bargained for, she had no doubt."It's like being a sergeant," William said. "At first you're an enlisted man, a rank-and-file Legionnaire. As long as you're where you're told to be when you're told to be there, you can do no wrong. And then you make a sergeant. Now you have to figure out where everyone has to be and when. Everybody is waiting for you to screw up: the people above you, the people below you, and the people who knew you before and think they should be where you are. Nobody holds your hand.""I suppose it is like being a sergeant." she murmured."The rule is: often wrong but never in doubt. That's what makes you different. You show doubt, and nobody will follow you.""But what if you are in doubt?""Don't let it show or you're fucked."She sighed. "I'll keep it in mind. You liked the military, Lord Bill. You keep mentioning it.""It was easy," he told her."Why did you leave?""They sentenced me to death."What? "I'm sorry?"William looked ahead. "I was court-martialed."What did he do? "Why?""A terrorist group had taken over a dam in the Weird. They took hostages and threatened to flood the town if their demands weren't met.""What did they want?"William grimaced. "Many things. In the end, they just wanted money. The rest of it was trying to dress themselves up as something other than robbers.""What happened?""The dam was very old, honeycombed with passageways. I was picked for the mission, because I don't get lost easily and because they counted on me to do what I was told. The mission came with a strict set of orders: take out the terrorists, keep the dam from being destroyed. Keeping the dam intact had the highest priority."It sank in. "Higher than keeping the hostages alive?"He nodded and fell silent."William?" she prompted softly."There was a boy," he said quietly.Oh no. "You let them blow up the dam to save a child."He nodded."And they sentenced you to death for it? What sort of people were these Weird bastards? Didn't your family protest? Your mother should've been screaming at every politician she could find!"He stared straight ahead, his expression bored and haughty, looking every inch a blueblood. "I don't have a mother. Never knew her."All the fight went out of Cerise. "I'm so sorry. I guess Weird or Edge, women still die in childbirth."His chin rose another fraction of an inch. "She didn't die. She gave me up."Cerise blinked. "She what?""She didn't want me, so she surrendered me to the government."Cerise stared at him. "What do you mean, surrendered? But you were her son.""She was young and poor, and she didn't want to raise me." His voice was light, as if he were telling her their afternoon stroll was canceled due to the rain."What about your father?"He shook his head."You grew up in an orphanage?""Something like that."It wasn't a nice orphanage. She could tell it wasn't because he had this perfectly calm expression on his face. She'd seen that same expression on his face when Urow boasted about his family. Now she got it. That's why he compared everything to the army. He grew up in an orphanage from hell and joined the military right after, and then even they kicked him out. The army was all he knew and it had been taken away from him.Her aunt Murid had managed to sneak out through the Broken and from there back into the Weird. She'd joined the Louisiana military and served for twelve years before someone figured out she was related to an exile. She had to run home. It nearly killed her, and at the end of every March, on the anniversary of her escape, they had to hide the wine, because she drank herself sick.William didn't drink. William hunted Spider instead. He'd probably done things to his body so he could keep up with the Hand. He had failed at the only profession he'd ever had, and he made sure he wouldn't fail at this one."I'm not one to judge," Cerise said. "I don't know what your mother's circumstances were. But no matter how poor or how badly off I was, they would have pried my son from my cold dead fingers. How quickly did she ...?""The day after I was born.""So she didn't even try?""No."There were times when it was best for the child to grow up with someone other than his parents, but William's mother didn't exactly give him to a loving family. She gave him to some sort of hellhole. "I'm so sorry." Cerise shook her head. "You know what, screw her. You can make yourself a new family."William spared her a glance, and she found herself on the receiving end of a thousand-yard stare. "Families aren't for people like me.""What are you talking about? William, you're kind and strong and handsome. There are tons of women who'd climb over razor wire for a chance to make you happy. They'd be insane not to."And she had pretty much just admitted to being one of those women. Cerise sighed. She was too tired to think straight.William shrugged. "Sure, there are women who'd do anything for a steady paycheck or to get out of their crappy life or to piss off their parents. If you're desperate enough, even sleeping with someone like me sounds good. But those women aren't looking for a family. It's much easier to just pay the woman for her time. That way you can do what you need to do and be on your way. That's the way I prefer it."Wait just a minute here. So, the way he looked at it, she was either trying to get out of her crappy life or desperate, and it would be much easier for everyone involved if he could just pay her for her time.Maybe he didn't get it. Or maybe he was trying to tell her that she was good enough to screw but not good enough for anything else. Stupid, Cerise. So, so stupid.Maybe she should stop playing footsies with a blueblood she met a week ago in the damn swamp."Well, if you're hoping for a roll in the hay with me, you're out of luck, William," she said, keeping her voice light. "I'm not for sale."She urged her horse on, before he could answer.WILLIAM killed a growl. He couldn't explain Hawk's to her, and he didn't even want to try. He was a blueblood in her eyes. He didn't want to kill that, not just yet. She'd figure him out eventually and realize that he was a changeling, poor and happy being a nobody. He knew exactly how it would go. In the Weird, women would occasionally come up to him, smiling and inviting, and then, when he explained what he was, the smiles would slide off their faces. Some would walk away without another word. A few nice ones would make some excuses, trying to soothe his feelings, which he hated even more, and then leave. A couple had been indignant as if he'd tricked them, as if every changeling had to wear a sign announcing what he was. Or a chain. That would've suited them even better.He didn't want to imagine what it would be like when Cerise found out. It would happen soon enough. For now, he needed to stay a blueblood. He had a job to do.They rode to the top of a hill. A huge house sat in a clearing, two stories high and big enough to shelter a battalion. The ground floor was built with red brick and caged by sturdy pillars that supported the second-story wraparound balcony. The pillars passed through the balcony's floor, transforming into light wooden collonettes, carved and painted white. A single wide staircase led up to the balcony and the only door he could see.It was built like a fortress. Maybe the Mars planned to hold off a siege.Smaller buildings flanked the house, rising on the sides and slightly behind, like a flock of geese led by the largest bird. To the left, a small water tower jutted against the sky. Why would they need a water tower in the swamp? If you dug a six-inch hole, it filled with water in seconds."The Rathole, Lord Bill," Cerise said. Her voice was cheerful, but her eyes had narrowed. He read anger in the tense lines of her mouth. When he told her about himself, the compassion in her eyes was like that ointment she slathered on his wounds - soothing and warm. She dulled the sharp memories, and he was grateful to her for it. But now she was mad at him."What did I say?"She arched her eyebrows. "I don't know what you mean.""Don't do this. What did I say to piss you off?" He had to fix it. It gnawed at him now and wouldn't let go.Cerise shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it right now."He clenched his teeth to keep from pulling her off the horse and shaking her until it spilled out of her. "Tell me what I did."She turned in her saddle and looked at him over her shoulder, hair spilling down, eyes on fire."What?" he growled."Think about it. You'll figure it out."William ran through the conversation in his head, recalling her reactions. He couldn't for the life of him find anything offensive in what he said. Military, orphanage . . . She seemed upset by what he told of his life, but it wasn't directed at him. It was directed at people who made his life hell. Blah, blah, blah . . . "It's much easier to just pay the woman for her time. That way you can do what you need to do and be on your way. That's the way I prefer it." "Well, if you're hoping for a roll in the hay with me, you're out of luck, William. I'm not for sale."She was pissed off, because she thought he'd lumped her in with whores. Why the hell would she think that? He never called her a whore . . ."William, you're kind and strong and handsome. There are tons of women who'd climb over razor wire for a chance to make you happy. They'd be insane not to."Understanding dawned in his head. She liked him.She liked him. She thought of herself as one of those women, and she was pissed off because he told her that he preferred to pay for his sex and leave. She didn't want him to leave. She wanted him to stay. With her.William searched his memory, trying to find some indication of flirting. He'd watched countless women flirt with Declan, everyone from random passersby at the market to blueblood ladies at the formal balls."I bet the women from the Weird tell you that you have great hair all the time, Lord Bill.""I jumped in to rescue you, you fool!""You demolished them.""What would happen if you caught me?"She liked him. The beautiful girl with eyes like black fire wanted him. William almost laughed, except she would have killed him on the spot. You tripped, hobo queen. She should have never let him know, but now he'd figured it out and it was too late. He'd have to stalk her, he decided. Carefully and patiently. He would bring her flowers, swords, and whatever else she liked, until he was sure when he pounced, she wouldn't want to run away.He looked at her, showing her the edge of his teeth."Look, I didn't mean to imply that you were a slut," he told her. "I know nothing about you. And just if there is any question, I never hurt a woman, never forced anyone to do things with me. It was always a clear-cut deal, half the money up front, half when we were done. You and I agreed to work together. Whatever I did or didn't do in the past doesn't matter. My private life doesn't matter. It only matters what I do from this point on."She shrugged."Are you done being mad?""Yes.""Good." Insane woman.They rode into the yard. He hopped off the horse and caught a thick scent of wet fur and the sharp piss signature marking the territory. Dogs. Shit.A loud hoarse baying erupted from a dozen furry throats. William tensed. Some dogs didn't mind his scent, but most reacted as they should when a wolf walked into their territory. They fought him for dominance and lost.Hi, Cerise, sorry your dogs attacked me and I slaughtered the lot of them, but good news, now you have lots of nice pelts . . .A dog pack burst from around the corner. Big dogs, too, a hundred pounds at least, some black, some tan, all with the square heads of a mastiff breed and docked tails. Damn it all to hell.The dogs charged him, running at full speed.The knife jumped into his hand, almost on its own.The first dog, an enormous pale male, lunged at him and went down on his front paws, ass in the air, tail wiggling.What the hell?The mob swirled around him, paws scraping dirt, noses poking him, tongues licking, drool flying in long sticky gobs. A smaller dog squealed - someone stepped on her paw."All right, down! Calm the hell down!" Cerise barked. "What has gotten into you?"He reached over and petted the alpha's giant head. Sad brown eyes looked at him with canine adoration. Dogs were simple creatures, and this one seemed to love his scent."That's Cough," Cerise told him. "He's the idiot in charge."The dog sniffed his hand and licked it, depositing muddy slobber on his skin. Ugh."Cough, you dufus. Sorry, usually they're more reserved. They must like you.""They do," a calm female voice said from above.A woman stood on the balcony, next to Kaldar. Tall and lean, she looked like Cerise if Cerise were twenty years older and had spent those decades in the Red Legion doing shit that kept her awake with nightmares. Where Cerise was muscle, this one was made mostly of sinew and bone. Her gaze fastened on him, focusing, measuring the distance, as if she were a raptor sizing up her prey. A sniper.If the eyes didn't give her away, her rifle would have. He'd seen it only once in an obscure catalog. A Remington 700 SS 5-R. A sniper rifle. Remington produced only about five hundred of those a year. The Edge was the last place William expected to see one."My aunt Murid," Cerise told him."The man with Peva's crossbow," Murid said, nodding at Peva's weapon. "The enemy of our enemy is our friend. Welcome.""What she said." Kaldar swung the door open. A whiff of cooked beef floated through, reducing William's world to a simple thought.Food.Cerise was already moving. William heaved the crossbow up, pushed his way through the sea of dogs, and headed up the stairs. He made it through the door in time to see her turn into a side room on the left."You and I are going straight." Kaldar popped up at his side with the buttery grace of a magician. "Keep the pace now, that's it. I think I'll take you to the library. My sister is in there, and she'll keep an eye on you while I go scrounge us some food. The kitchen is a madhouse this time of day, and if you go down there, there will be no end of questions. Who are you? Are you a blueblood? Are you rich? Are you, by the way?""No," William said."Married?""No."Kaldar moved his head from side to side. "Well, one out of two isn't bad. Rich and unmarried would be perfect, married and poor would be two strikes out, nothing good there. Poor and unmarried, I can work with that. Library it is. Besides, you'll get to meet my sister."William tried to imagine a female version of Kaldar and got a mud-splattered woman with Kaldar's face and blue stubble on her cheeks. Clearly he needed food and some shut-eye."This way. And we turn here through that door, and here we are." Kaldar held the door open for him. "This way, Lord . . . What is your name, I don't think I ever got it."He could not strangle Kaldar because he was Cerise's cousin and she was fond of him. But he really wanted to. "William.""William it is. Please. Into the library."William stepped through the door. A large room stretched before him, the walls covered with floor-to-ceiling shelves and crammed with books. Soft chairs stood in the corners, a large table waited to the left, and at the opposite wall by a window, a woman sat in a chair working yarn into some sort of lacy thing with a metal hook.She sat in a rectangle of afternoon light spilling through the window. Her hair was soft and almost gold, and the sunlight played on it, making it shine. She looked up with a small smile, the glowing hair around her head like a nimbus, and William decided she looked like an icon from one of the Broken's cathedrals."Catherine! I bring you Lord Blueblood William. Cerise found him in the swamp. He must be fed and I need to go get him some food, so can you please babysit him while I'm gone? I can't have him wandering through the house. We don't know what he's made of, and he might snap and devour the children."Catherine smiled again. She had a soft gentle smile. "My brother has the tact of a rhino. Please come sit by me, Lord William."Anything was better than Kaldar. William walked over and sat down in a chair next to her. "Just William.""Nice to meet you." Her voice was calm and soothing. Her hands kept moving, weaving the yarn with the hook, completely independent of her. She wore rubber gloves, the kind he'd seen on CSI, except it looked like she wore two pairs, one on top of the other. Her lacy thing rested on a rubber apron, and her yarn came from a bucket filled with liquid.Odd."How did the hearing go?" she asked."We won, sort of," Kaldar said. "We die at dawn.""The court gave the Sheeriles twenty-four hours," William corrected."Yes, but 'we die at dawn the day after tomorrow' doesn't sound nearly as dramatic.""Does it have to be dramatic all the time?" Catherine murmured."Of course. Everyone has a talent. Yours is crocheting and mine is making melodramatic statements."Catherine shook her head and glanced at her work. The yarn thing was a complicated mess of waves, spiked wheels, and some odd mesh."What is that?" William asked."It's a shawl," Catherine said."Why is the yarn wet?""It's a special type of crochet." Catherine smiled. "For a very special person."Kaldar snorted. "Kaitlin will love it, I'm sure."He'd heard the name before . . . Kaitlin Sheerile. Lagar and Peva's mother.Why the hell would they be crocheting a shawl for Kaitlin? Maybe there was a message on it.William leaned forward and caught a trace of an odor, bitter and very weak. It nipped at his nostrils and his instincts screeched.Bad! Bad, bad, bad.Poison. He'd never smelled it before, but he knew with simple lupine certainty that it was poisonous and he had to stay away from it.He made himself reach over for the shawl."No!" Kaldar clamped his hand on William's wrist."You mustn't touch," Catherine said. "It's very delicate and it will stain your fingers. That's why I'm wearing gloves. See?" She wiggled her fingers at him.She lied. This pretty icon woman with a nice smile lied and didn't blink an eye.He had to say something human here. "Sorry.""That's all right." Kaldar's fingers slipped off his wrist. "She isn't offended, are you, Cath?""Not at all." Catherine offered him a nice warm smile. Her hands kept crocheting poisoned yarn.Hell of a family."Right, well, I'm off to procure some vittles." Kaldar turned on his toes and sauntered off.Catherine leaned to him. "Drove you crazy, yes?""He talks." A lot. Too much. He jabbers like a teenage girl on a cell phone. He stands too close to me, and I might snap his neck if he keeps breathing on me."That he does," Catherine agreed. "But he's not a bad sort. As brothers go, I could've done much worse. Are you and Cerise together? Like together-together?"William froze. Human manners were clear as mud, but he was pretty sure that's something you weren't supposed to ask.Catherine blinked her long eyelashes at him, the same serene smile on her face."No," he said.A faint grimace touched Catherine's face. "That's a shame. Are there any plans for the two of you to be together?""No.""I see. Don't tell her I asked. She doesn't like it when we pry.""I won't.""Thank you." Catherine exhaled.This family was like a minefield. He needed to sit still and keep his mouth shut, before he got into any more trouble. And if someone offered him a handmade sweater, he'd snap their neck and take off for the woods.Lark came into the library carrying a basket that smelled of freshly baked bread and rabbit meat with cooked mushrooms. William's mouth filled with drool. He was starving. Almost enough to not care if the food was poisoned.The kid knelt by him. She was clean and her hair was brushed. She looked like a smaller version of Cerise. Lark pulled the cloth off the basket and pulled out a pocket of baked dough. "Pirogi," she said. "Are you the one who killed Peva?""Yes."Lark reached over and touched the tiller of Peva's crossbow."Okay, then. You can eat our food." She tore the pocket in two, handed him half, and bit into the remaining piece. "Uncle Kaldar said to do that. So you would know it's not poisoned."William bit into his half. It tasted like heaven. "Can you shoot a crossbow?"Lark nodded.He picked up Peva's crossbow and offered it to her. "Take it."She hesitated."It's yours," he said. "I already have one and mine is better." The Mirror's crossbow was lighter and more accurate.Lark looked at him, looked at the bow, grabbed it out of his hands like a feral puppy stealing a bone, and took off, bare feet flashing. She whipped about in the doorway. Black eyes glared at him. "Don't go in the woods. There is a monster there." She whirled and ran down the hallway.He glanced at Catherine. Her hands had stopped moving. Her face was sad, as if at a funeral.Something was wrong with Lark. He would figure it out, sooner or later.Light footsteps floated from down the hall, and a man appeared in the doorway. About five-ten, slightly built, blond, but still tan like a Mar. He leaned against the doorframe and looked William over with blue eyes. "You're the blueblood."William nodded."You know about the Sheeriles."William nodded again."I'm Erian. When I was ten, Sheerile Senior shot my father in the head in the middle of the marketplace. My mother had died years before that. My father was all I had. I was standing right there, and my father's blood splashed all over me."And?"Cerise's parents, my aunt and uncle, took me in. They didn't have to, but they did. Cerise is like a sister to me. If you hurt her or any of us, I will kill you."William bit into his pirogi, measuring the distance to the door. Mmm, about eighteen feet give or take. He'd cover that in one leap. Jump, punch Erian in the gut, ram his head into the door, and boom, he could finally get some peace and quiet. He nodded at the blond man. "Good speech."Erian nodded back. "Glad you liked it."