SPIDER opened his eyes. He lay submerged on the bottom of the pool, in the cool shadowy depths. Above him, a wet sky glistened where the water kissed the air. He felt neither hot nor cold. Nothing troubled the water. He was utterly alone, floating weightless, watching from the shadows as the sunrays filtered through the water, setting it aglow.If he closed his eyes, he could pretend that he was diving in the translucent waters far to the south, where a chain of the New Egypt islands stretched from the eastern tip of the continent far into the ocean. Swimming there, gliding above the coral reefs, surrounded by life but blissfully free of humanity, brought him a sense of peace and the simple thrilling exhilaration of being alive.Alas, he wasn't diving in the ocean now. Spider allowed himself one last moment of regret and surfaced with a single kick, emerging without a sound.The air was unpleasantly cool. The skin flaps on his sides closed, hiding the pink feathery fans of his gills. Among his many alterations, this was the least useful but the most enjoyable.Spider grasped the edge of the well and pulled himself up. Above him the sun shone bright. The sky was a clear crystalline blue, but despite the rare sunshine, the swamp still looked the same, a primeval mess of rot and mud. To the left, the manor where he'd made their base rose among the trees, struggling for stately elegance and failing.Veisan's peacock blue eyes greeted him. The contrast between those turquoise irises and her red skin never failed to surprise him. She looked at him with earnest expectation. Like a puppy, Spider thought. A murderous, lethal, psychotic puppy."Hello, m'lord," Veisan whispered."Hello, Veisan.""Your skin has healed remarkably well, m'lord."Considering the amount of catalyst he'd dumped into the well water, the rapid progress was expected. "Veisan, why are you whispering?"Her eyebrows crept up, making her look pitiful. "I'm not sure, m'lord," she said in a slightly louder voice. "It seemed appropriate."She offered him a fuzzy towel. He gripped the stone rim of the pool, pulled himself out, and dried off. The liquid left light pink smudges on the yellow towel. It had been a few months since he'd sustained an injury severe enough to require underwater restoration. Spider touched his face, pleased with the smoothness of the skin on his cheek, where the burn blisters had been.Veisan traded a meticulously folded stack of clothing for his towel. He began to dress. "Anything vital happen while I was under?""Judge Dobe ruled in the Mars' favor. The Sheeriles have been given one day to clear the Sene Manor. Their reprieve expires tomorrow morning. Advocate Malina Williams sent the Sheeriles a letter detailing her apologies. She intends to appeal."Spider shrugged. "She'll get nowhere with it. They should've gone with one of the local hacks. The Edgers prize familiarity more than skill.""We've received a message from Lagar Sheerile."Spider grimaced. "He wants reinforcements before the Mars attack him tomorrow.""Yes, m'lord.""He's on his own. I don't need him anymore." Let the mud rats fight it out between themselves. It saved him the trouble of wiping them out to cover his trail, and this way none of his people risked injury. There was always a chance that Lagar would kill Cerise, but considering how well her mother was progressing, it was unlikely they would need her. Spider flung the water off his hair in a vigorous shake. He'd spare a few moments of regret for her death, the way one would mourn the destruction of a prized painting - the girl represented a forgotten martial art, and it was a shame to lose her. But in the grand scheme of things, she was of little use to him."Send a Scout Master out there. I want to know about the crossbowman.""Yes, m'lord."Veisan handed him a brush, and he dragged it through his wet hair."Lagar also reported an attack by a feline of unusual size."He looked at her."There are two attacks to date. The first was a sentry on duty. The second was a man returning from the settlement with purchases. In both cases the animal took the weapons belonging to its victims. Lagar Sheerile estimates it to be about four yards long and seven hundred pounds heavy. The circumference of the paw prints - ""Back up. The bit about the weapons.""In both cases the animal took the weapons belonging to its victims." Veisan repeated the sentence exactly, reproducing the same intonation and pauses she had used the first time."Does Lagar have an opinion as to why it's attacking his men?""No, m'lord."Odd. Spider dismissed the rest of it with a flick of his fingers. "Any news of Embelys and Vur?""They are still in hiding at the perimeter of Mar territory."He didn't really expect them to capture Cerise. But one could always hope . . . Spider ran his hand across his cheek. Stubble. He'd have to shave.Veisan produced a shaving kit, the soap already whipped into thick foam. He took it."What else?""John reports that the subject has regained consciousness. He says that in two days she will either be ready for instruction or her brains will ooze out of her ears, m'lord.""I take it he's still frustrated with the rushed schedule.""I believe so."Prima donna. "He'll get over it.""And if he doesn't, m'lord?""Then you can have him. Assuming you can limit yourself to one death."Veisan licked her lips nervously. "I'll try. It's been . . . a long time."He put his hand on her shoulder, feeling steel cables of muscle tense under his fingers. "I understand, Gabrielle. I apologize for keeping you idle."She sniffled and a slow purple blush spread through her red skin. Like all agents, she had taken a different name when joining the Hand. He only used her birth name on special occasions. Spider made it a point to know the birth names of all agents under his command. Funny how a single word could have a devastating effect."Thank you, m'lord."Spider strode to the manor, Veisan following at his heels."My lord?""Yes?""What's in that diary?"He grinned at her. "A weapon, Veisan. A means to win the war.""But we're not at war."He shook his head. "When we obtain the diary, we will be."007WILLIAM raised his head from the rifle he'd finished cleaning and handed it to Gaston. Murid, Cerise's aunt with the sniper eyes, had asked for his help. He'd spent the last three hours cleaning the rifles and checking the crossbows with her at the range behind the house.Murid didn't say more than two words to him, which suited him just fine, but she watched him. She wasn't too subtle about it, and the constant scrutiny put him in a foul mood. At first William had guessed she was keeping him away from Cerise, but now he decided she had something else in mind.Murid had empty eyes, the kind of eyes a man got after he'd been through some rough shit and redlined. Lost his brakes, lost himself. It made her unpredictable, and so William didn't try to guess what she would do. He simply waited for the moment she would do it and prepared to react.Murid test-fired a crossbow. The bolt bit into the target. She was good. Not as good as he, but then he was a changeling and his coordination was better. If she'd turned and fired at him instead, he wouldn't have been surprised.His ears caught the sound of light steps coming. He glanced back. Lark, running from the house, Wasp in her hand. She saw him looking and slowed down, a scowl on her face. Upset at being caught. She sauntered over and stood on his left next to Gaston.William picked up the last crossbow from his stack, raised it, and fired without aiming, purely on muscle memory. The bolt sliced into his target next to the other ten or so he'd put into the bull's-eye in the past hour.Lark snapped her crossbow, imitating him, and fired. The bolt went wide."It won't work," Gaston told her with an expression of complete gloom on his face. "I've been trying to shoot like he does for the last hour."He'd been picking up the bolts out of the grass for the last hour, too, William reflected. The kid shot well enough. Good hand-to-eye coordination, good perception. With proper training, he would be an excellent shot.Lark jerked her crossbow up, fired another bolt, and missed. "How come you can do it?""Practice," William said. That and a changeling's reflexes. "I've been a soldier for a long time. I can't flash, so I had to use the crossbows a lot."Lark hesitated. "I can flash.""Show me."She grasped a bolt in her fist. Pale lightning sparked from her eyes down to her hand, clutched the bolt, and vanished. Another white flasher. Figured. Flash usually ran in the family."Nice!" he told her.Lark offered him a narrow smile. It was there and gone almost as fast as her flash, but he saw it.William turned to Gaston. "You?""None of the thoas can flash." The boy shook his head, sending his black mane flying. The damn hair reached nearly to his waist. On the one hand, it was too long. If you grabbed the hair, you could control the kid's head in a fight. On the other hand, the hair hid his face. He looked human enough in passing, but he'd fail close scrutiny. His jaw was too heavy, his eyes were too deep set under the wide black eyebrows, and his irises luminesced with pale silver when they caught the light.Still, the kid needed a shock to the system. Proof that he was done with his family. A rite of passage. William pulled a knife from the sheath. "Cut it."Gaston's eyebrows crept up."Cut the hair."Gaston glanced at him, glanced at the knife, and took the blade, his teeth clenched. He grasped a strand of hair in his hand and sawed at it with the blade. The black strands fell on the ground.Lark crouched and picked them up. "It's not good to leave the hair out," she said quietly. "Someone could curse you with it. I'll burn it for you.""Thanks." Gaston grabbed another handful of his hair and sliced it off.Murid opened her mouth.Here it is. William tensed."It's almost time for lunch."He nodded."It would be good if we knew what they were cooking in the kitchen," she said. "If they're cooking fish, we need to head to the house. Fish doesn't take much time. If they're cooking a pig, we have another half an hour.""I can go and ask," Gaston said.William sampled the wind. "They're cooking chicken."Murid turned her expressionless dark eyes on him. "Are you sure?""Chicken and rice," he said. "With cumin.""That's good to know," Murid said. "We have time, then."William had an odd feeling that something important had just happened, but what he had no idea. Behind him Gaston sliced another handful from his mane and deposited it into Lark's hands. William loaded the next crossbow and fired. He would figure it out sooner or later.LAGAR closed his eyes. It did no good - Peva was still there, even in the darkness of his mind."Look at your brother," his mother's voice whispered like the rustling of snake scales across the floor. "It's because of you he's dead. You weren't smart enough to keep your brother safe."Slowly he opened his eyes and saw Peva's body, blue and nude, on the washing table. A single lamp hung above it, its harsh glow concentrated by the fixture into a cone. The light clutched at the faces of two women, bleaching them into pasty masks. He watched them dip thick cloths into the buckets of scented water and rub the mud from Peva's limbs. The dirty water ran off Peva's skin into the groove on the table.Peva was dead. He would never rise, never speak again. There was a horrible finality in death, an absolute and total ending. There was nothing to be done. No way to help it.Lagar rolled his head back and took a deep breath. They spent their lives jerking and clawing their way to the top, and for what? To end up like this. On the table.Tomorrow Cerise would come for him. Tomorrow evening either he or she would be on the table, just like this. This wasn't what he wanted. In his dreams, when he was alone with nobody to spy on him, this wasn't what he wished for."Why do you bother?" Lagar's voice caught, and he forced the words out, raspy and strained.Kaitlin stared at him from the gloom, a squat ugly thing, wrapped in her shawl. His mother. Like an old poisonous toad, he thought."Why do you bother?" he repeated. "He's dead. The soul's gone. Peva's gone. Nothing left but this . . . shell. Dump it in the ditch. Give it to the dogs. He isn't going to care."She said nothing, clamping her lips together. Disgust swelled in him. Lagar spun and left the room, slapping the door shut behind him.CERISE padded out onto the verandah and closed the door behind her, shutting off the busy noises fluttering from the kitchen. Earlier, tired of making plans and choosing weapons, she'd come down there hoping to cook. Being in the kitchen, in the middle of bustle, standing over the fire, smelling spices, tasting food, and catching up on the Mire gossip usually comforted her. Today she cooked in a daze, listening to her aunts and cousins, while her mind cycled through tomorrow, wondering who else would die.Then, before she knew it, dinner came. The entire family had gathered at the main house, those who lived in the outer buildings, those who lived farther in the swamp, everyone came for the dinner before the fight. Every seat was filled. The kids had to be sent off to a smaller kitchen to eat there, just to make room.Then she sat at the head of the table, in her father's place. She listened to the chatter of familiar voices, looked at the familiar faces, watched small fights break out and dissolve into teasing, and knew with absolute certainty that tomorrow some of these chairs would be empty. Guessing and calculating which ones made her colder and colder, until she was shivering, as if a clump of ice had grown in the pit of her stomach. Finally Cerise could take it no more and snuck out.She just needed some peace and a little quiet. She started along the balcony, heading to the door that led to her favorite hiding spot.Steps followed her. Maybe it was William . . . She turned.Aunt Murid chased her.Figured. William snuck around like a fox. She'd seen very little of him. First, Murid took him off, then Richard and Cerise rode out and climbed a pine, to get a better look at Sene. At dinner William ended up in a corner, with Gaston next to him. She barely recognized the boy with his hair shorn off. What the hell was Urow thinking? Gaston was family. What was done was done, but it still felt rotten.Cerise stopped. Aunt Murid stopped, too. Cerise read hesitation in the older woman's posture and tensed. What now?"Your uncle Hugh is a good man," Aunt Murid said softly.Well, that came out of nowhere. Murid didn't speak of her younger brother, especially since he'd left for the Broken about twelve years back. He'd visit at the house every few years for a week or two and then leave again. When Cerise had gone to get the documents from him, he looked pretty much the same as she remembered him: fit, tall, muscular. His hair was an odd salt-and-pepper shade, but aside from that, he was pretty much a male version of Aunt Murid. But where Murid was harsh, Uncle Hugh was mild and soft-spoken."I only saw him for about an hour," Cerise admitted. "Just to get the papers for Grandpa's house. He looked well.""I'm sure he did. Come, I'll walk with you."They strolled along the balcony."Hugh was difficult as a child," Murid said. "Some things he just didn't understand. Our parents and me, we tried our best to take care of him, but his mind just didn't work the same way. You had to spell things out for him. Obvious things. Hugh always liked dogs and other animals better than people. Said they were simpler."Cerise nodded. Where was this going?"He wasn't mean," Murid said. "He was kind. Just odd in his way and very violent.""Violent? Uncle Hugh?" Cerise tried to imagine the quiet man flying off the handle and couldn't.Aunt Murid nodded. "Sometimes he'd take offense to things, and you wouldn't even know why. And once he started fighting, he wouldn't stop. He would kill you, unless someone pulled him off." She stopped and leaned against the rail. "Hugh wasn't like other people. He was born different and there was no help for it. It runs in our branch of the family, on my father's side. I don't have it and my dad didn't have it, but our grandfather did."So Uncle Hugh was a crazy person and it was hereditary. Cerise leaned on the rail next to Murid. He never seemed crazy, but then she barely knew him. All she had to go on were childhood memories.Murid swallowed. "I want you to understand: If you were Hugh's friend, he would take a bullet for you. And when he loved, he loved absolutely, with all his heart."The older woman looked at the night-soaked cypresses. "When Hugh was nineteen, he met a girl. Georgina Wallace. She was very pretty, and Hugh was very handsome. So she took him for a ride. They saw stars together for a few weeks. Then Georgina decided that she was all funned out and broke the news: she was engaged to Tom Rook over in Sicktree. Hugh was her last fling before the wedding.""Ugh.""Hugh didn't understand. He loved her so much, and he couldn't imagine that she didn't love him. I tried to calm him down and to explain that sometimes things didn't turn out. I tried to explain that Georgina lied, but he couldn't let it go. To him, she was everything. She accepted him, she made love to him. In his mind, that meant they belonged to each other forever. Hugh thought she was his mate. His soul mate."Cold washed over Cerise. "What happened?""Hugh took off. The next morning they found Tom Rook and Georgina, and Tom's brother, Cline. Tom and Georgina were torn to pieces. Cline survived. He's crippled for life, but he survived. He said a huge gray dog broke into the house and ripped into them.""Hugh set one of our mastiffs onto them?""No." Murid closed her eyes. "Not a mastiff. Cline never left the Mire. All he knew were dogs. But I saw the tracks the animal left. It was a wolf. A big gray wolf.""There are no wolves in the Mire," Cerise said."There was one that night."Cerise frowned. "What do you mean?"Murid looked at the swamp. "That night Hugh left for the Broken. There are a lot of Louisianans from the Weird here, and in the Weird's Louisiana they kill people like Hugh. Do you understand, Ceri? They kill his kind. They strangle them at birth or drown them, like rabid mutts."The realization hit Cerise like a rock between her eyes. Uncle Hugh was a changeling.It couldn't be. Changelings were demonic things from scary slumber party stories. They were mad, murderous, evil things. There was a reason why the Dukedom of Louisiana killed them - they were too dangerous. They turned into wild animals, and they slaughtered and ate people. Everything she'd heard about them made them out to be monsters.No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't picture Uncle Hugh as a monster. Uncle Hugh was family. He built the wooden tree house where she used to play. He trained the dogs. He churned ice cream. He was calm and strong, and his eyes were kind and she'd never seen him angry."Has he killed anyone else since?"Murid shook her head. "Not unless the family asked him to.""Does Father know?"Murid nodded.There had to be a reason for this story. Maybe her father made him leave. Maybe Murid saw this as a chance to bring her brother back."Changeling or not, he is my uncle. He's welcome in the house anytime.""He knows that. He's in the Broken by his choice."Okay. "Then why did you tell me this?""Hugh is a very strong man." Murid looked into the distance. "Very good with a crossbow and a rifle. His reflexes are better honed, and he barely needs any time to aim at the target. Death doesn't bother him at all. He accepts it as a fact and moves on."William.Her heart hammered against her ribs. No. Please, no. "Uncle Hugh is very fast, isn't he?"Aunt Murid nodded."And his eyes glow in the dark?"Murid nodded again. "He could always tell me what was cooking when we were at the range, because he could smell it from the kitchen."The range was a good ways from the house. Far enough that if you were at the house and you needed to get the attention of somebody down there, you had to yell at the top of your lungs. Cerise cleared her throat, trying to keep her voice even. "You took William down to the range with you today."Murid looked away at the swamp. "Chicken with cumin and rice.""I see." Things made so much sense now. Cerise bit her lip. William was a monster. The orphanage, the military, that wildness she sensed in him - everything made sense."You have to spell things out," Murid said. "No games, no hints. You have to be very, very clear with him, Cerise. Be very careful and think before you act. He's dangerous. Hugh didn't change shape often, but William does, because he knows how to hide it. He's been trained to fight and whoever trained him knew how to make the most of William's strengths. So far he's behaving himself, but if you're alone with him and you don't have a blade, you don't stand a chance. Don't send him the wrong messages and don't get yourself raped. William may not even know it's wrong to force a woman."Her memory thrust the lake house before her. Oh, he knew. He knew very well."If you let him, he'll love you forever and he won't know how to let go. Make sure you truly want him before you take that plunge. And ..." Murid hesitated. "Your children . . . If you were to have any."Their children would be puppies. Or kittens. Or whatever William was."Families aren't for people like me."Oh, dear Gods. She finally found the man she wanted, after all this waiting, and he turned out to be a changeling. Maybe she was cursed. "It can never be easy, can it?"Aunt Murid leaned toward her. "I had my chance with a man. I didn't take it, because it was too hard and too complicated. Look at me now. How so very happy I am, old and alone. Fuck easy, Ceri. If you love him, fight for him. Nothing worth keeping is free in this world. If you don't love him, cut him loose. Just don't take too long to decide. Our future might be short."She turned and walked away, into the gloom.WILLIAM padded through the night, following Cerise's scent trail. He'd always paid close attention to female scents. Some were smothered with perfume, some were tinted with whatever the woman had eaten last. Some fragrances tantalized, others shouted, and a few cringed and proclaimed, "Easy prey."Cerise smelled the way he imagined his woman would smell. Clean, with a slight trace of shampoo from her hair, a touch of sweat, and a hint of something he couldn't quite describe, something healthy, dangerous, and exciting that primed his nerves.Mmmm, Cerise.He chased her scent down the balcony, around the house, separating it from Murid's trail. The two women stopped here for a while, then Murid left, but Cerise remained, resting her hands on the rail and looking at something . . . He leaned over the rail. Down below him Mire pines stretched to scratch at the night sky. Pale blossoms of maiden-bells bloomed between the roots, delicate like cups made of frosted glass. Cerise stood here looking at the flowers. If she liked flowers, he would get them for her.William leaped over the balcony's rail, landing in soft dirt. Five minutes later, he climbed back up, with a handful of flowers in his hand, and followed Cerise's scent. It led him to the back of the house. He turned the corner and ran into Kaldar, carrying a bottle of green wine and two glasses.Gods damn it.Kaldar looked at his flowers. "Nice touch. Here." He thrust the bottle and glasses at him. William took them on reflex. Kaldar pointed behind him. "Now you're all set. Small door, up the staircase."He turned the corner and went off the way William had come.Crazy family. William looked at the bottle. Why the hell not?The door led him to a narrow staircase. He jogged up the steps into a large room. The floor was wood. Bare rafters crossed over his head - the room must've been sectioned off from the rest of the attic. To the left, the wall opened into a narrow balcony. Two soft chairs waited on the right. Cerise curled in the left one, by a floor lamp, reading a book.I found you.She saw him and blinked, startled.He knocked on the stair rail with the bottle."Who is it?" she asked."It's me. Can I come in?""It depends. If I don't let you in, will you huff and puff and blow my house down?"She had no idea. "I'm more of a kick the door open and cut everyone inside to ribbons kind of wolf.""I better let you in, then," she said. "I don't want to be cut to ribbons. Is that wine for me?""Yes."William crossed the floor and handed her the thick bottle. The light of the lamp caught the wine inside, and it sparkled with deep emerald green."Greenberry." Cerise checked the label. "My favorite year, too. How did you know?"He decided not to lie. "Kaldar gave it to me."She smiled and he had to hold himself back to keep from kissing her. "My cousin is trying so hard. It's not his fault - he's been trying to marry me off for years.""Why?""It's his job. He arranges the marriages for the family: haggles over the dowry, makes preparations for the weddings, that sort of thing." Cerise looked at the flowers in his hand. "Are those from Kaldar, too?""No. I picked those."Her eyes shone. "For me?""For you." He offered her the flowers.Cerise reached for them. He caught her hand in his. His whole body snapped to attention, as if he'd awoken from a deep sleep because someone had fired a gun by his head. Want.She took the flowers and smelled them. "Thank you.""You're welcome."He watched her pull the stems apart on her lap. She took three flowers, added a fourth, and wrapped its stem around the first three. "Will you pour us some wine?"Yeah, because wine was exactly what he needed right now. William opened the bottle and poured the shimmering green into the two glasses. It smelled nice enough. He sipped it. Nice, a bit sweet but nice. Not as nice as she would taste, but he had to settle for the wine for now. "Good.""It's homemade." Cerise kept weaving flowers together. "It's a family tradition. Every fall we go to Fisherman's Tree to pick the berries, and then we make wine."She sipped her wine, he drank his, and for a while they sat quietly next to each other. He wanted to reach over and touch her. She made him feel like a child made to sit on his hands. William drank more wine, feeling the warmth spread through him. Maybe he should just grab her. If he did, she'd try to cut off his head right there. His beautiful, violent girl."Why are you smiling?" she asked."Because I thought of something funny."Cerise wove the last flower into her tangle. It looked like a large circle now. She picked it up and put it on her head.Oh, yeah. He would bring her more flowers and wine and anything else she wanted, until she liked him enough to stay with him."Is this your place?" William asked to say something."Yes. It's where I hide when I have a fight with someone."He didn't remember her fighting with anyone. She sat at the table for a while and then slipped out quietly."Who are you fighting with now?"Cerise got up and walked over to the wall. He followed her. Pictures hung on the wall behind the glass. Cerise touched one of the frames. A man and a woman stood by the pond, both young, almost kids. The man was a Mar: lean, dark, tan. The woman was blond, soft, and slender. Fragile. If she was his, William thought, he'd be worried about breaking her every time they touched."My parents," Cerise murmured. "Gustave and Genevieve.""Your mother looks like a blueblood."She glanced at him. "What makes you say that?""Her hair is curled, and her eyebrows are plucked down to nothing."Cerise laughed softly. "I pluck my eyebrows. Does that make me look like a blueblood?""Yours still look natural. Hers look odd." He grimaced. "She looks very well taken care of. Like she never saw the sun.""It's their wedding. My dad was eighteen, my mother was sixteen. She'd only been in the Mire for a year. Here look at this one. You'll like this one better."He looked at the next picture. In it a young woman about Cerise's age sat on top of a huge dead gator, leaning on its head with her elbow. Her grin cut through the mud caked on her face.He nodded. "I do like this one better.""She caused my grandmother no end of misery. Grandma Vienna and Grandpa Vernard. Grandpa used to joke that together they made a W. He really wanted to name my mother something that started with W, but Grandma wouldn't let him."Cerise reached to a fist-sized glass box with a small crystal at the bottom and pushed a button. A tiny spark ignited within the crystal and a three-dimensional portrait of a couple sprang into life above the box. One of the Weird's keepsakes, and not a cheap one either, since it survived the trip to the Edge and lasted all these years.William scrutinized the couple. The woman resembled Genevieve in her wedding picture. Same brittle quality, like she was made with fine crystal. A man sat in the chair next to her, leaning back and looking awkward. Long skinny legs, long skinny arms. Even sitting, he was very tall.They were bluebloods, no question, and ones with long pedigrees. And money. The clothes looked expensive, and the emeralds on the woman's neck had to have cost a small fortune."I told you before that my grandpa and I were very close. He was brilliant. So, so smart. He always made time for me. We used to garden together. And tomorrow we'll have to go and drive the Sheeriles out of his house."Cerise's shoulders went rigid. "My grandparents were from an old Weird family. My grandfather did medical research. He was famous actually. They had status and money. My mother used to tell me about their castle. It was somewhere north. They had dogwood trees and they would bloom white in the spring. She said they would host balls, and people would gather from all over and dance . . . Have you ever been to a ball, William?"He'd been to too many of them. Casshorn, Declan's uncle, had adopted him to get him out of jail in hopes that he and Declan would kill each other. The adoption came with etiquette lessons. "I have."Cerise glanced at him. "Is it fun?""I was bored. Too many people, too many colors. Everything is too bright and too vivid. Everyone is talking but nobody is listening, because they're too concerned with being seen. After a while it all just blends.""I'd like to go to one," she said. "It might not be my thing even, but I'd like to go at least once to say I've done it. Sometimes I feel cheated. I know it's selfish, but sometimes I wonder what it would've been like if my grandfather didn't get himself exiled. Who knows, I might have been a lady."He didn't have much use for ladies. A lady was someone else's wife or daughter or sister. They were not real, almost like trophies forever out of his reach. She was real. And strong.She looked about to cry."Would you like to dance?"Her eyes opened wide. "Are you serious?"Once he learned something, he never forgot it. William took a step forward and executed a perfect deep bow, his left arm out. "Would you do me the honor of dancing with me, Lady Cerise?"She cleared her throat and curtsied, holding imaginary skirts. "Certainly, Lord Bill. But we have no music.""That's fine." He stepped to her, sliding one arm around her waist. She put her hand on his shoulder. Her body touched his, and he spun with her around the attic, light on his feet, leading her. It took her a moment and then she caught his rhythm and followed him. She was flexible and quick, and he kept picturing her naked."You dance really well, Lord Bill.""Especially if I have a knife."She laughed. They circled the attic once, twice, and he brought them to the center of the room, shifting from a quick dance to a smooth swaying."Why are we slowing down?" she asked."It's a slow song.""Ah."She leaned against him. They were almost hugging."What's bothering you?" he asked."I'm scared to death." Her voice was barely above a whisper. "And mad. I'm so mad at the Hand for putting me through this hell, I can't even breathe. I have to save my parents. I love them so much, William. I miss them so bad it hurts. I would have to rescue them, even if they were horrible people, because if I don't, our reputation will plummet. People will think we're weak, and they will peck us apart little by little. But to save my parents, I have to sacrifice some of my family. Tomorrow they will die, their seats at the table will be empty, and for what? So we can keep living in this mud and squabbling over it. Gods, there has to be something more to life than this ..."She closed her eyes.He held her close. "You'll do fine. You're a natural.""A natural what?" she asked."A killer. I've known people who were better swords-men, but they didn't have that thing inside that let them kill. They hesitated, they thought about it, and I killed them. You have it. You're good and you're fast. I'll be there to keep you safe.""I don't want to be a killer, William.""You don't get to pick."She pulled away from him. He didn't want to let her go, but he did.Cerise hugged herself. "On the wall to your left."He turned. Two photographs waited at eye level. The first showed three men standing close. The middle one was Peva Sheerile. He had one arm around an adolescent kid with the face of a spoiled child and the other around a tall blond man with mournful gray eyes."The Sheeriles. That's who we're killing tomorrow." Cerise sounded bitter.He looked at the second photo and stopped. Cerise and Lagar danced silhouetted against a bonfire.She was dancing with her enemy.Why?Was he better than me? Did she like him?Did she want to dance with him again?"Did you think of him while we were dancing?""What?"He wanted to rip Lagar's head off his shoulders. Instead he turned and went down the stairs.CERISE watched him leave. The door closed and she slumped into her chair. So there he was, Lord Wolf. He might have been a bear, for all she knew, but somehow wolf just suited him better. He was predatory, fast, and cunning. And made ninety-degree turns that made her head spin. One moment they were dancing, the next he took off snarling under his breath.She looked at Lagar on the wall. William didn't understand the pictures. Lagar would, though. He would know exactly why she kept him on the wall. It was a snapshot of what might have been but could never be.Cerise sighed and drank the wine from her glass. If things were different, if their families hadn't been in a feud, if Kaitlin, Lagar's mother, wasn't a raging ball of hate, if Lagar was his own man, he would've courted her. She was sure of it. She'd seen it in his eyes that night by the fire, that look of desperate, hopeless longing. If things were different, she might have accepted his courtship. He would've been a good match: handsome, smart, with the strong magic of an old Legion family, and enough money to make sure she would never need to hustle again. She didn't love him, but who knew, maybe if things were different, she might have given him a chance.That snapshot on the wall showed Lagar's wistful thinking for all to see. Her grandparents' picture showed hers.She'd wanted so much to have been born out of the Mire. The swamp had its savage beauty, but it was no place to live. No place to build a family and raise children. Half of the people her age couldn't read and didn't want to learn, which was the sadder still. But everyone from the age of twelve and up could fire a crossbow and wouldn't hesitate to shoot a person with it. There was no hope in the Mire. No way to improve their lot. Even Lagar, with all of his money, still dragged the same mud on his boots.She thought of her grandmother, standing delicately behind her husband and sighed. She didn't want to be Grandmother Vienna. She didn't want wealth. She could live her whole life without wearing a single gold ring, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. She just wanted to know that there was light at the end of the tunnel. That they could send Lark to a school, a real school with actual teachers, and to someone, a therapist, a doctor, who could help her, because the family didn't know how. That they could earn enough to clothe and feed everyone without resorting to stealing. That they wouldn't have to look over their shoulders, knowing any minute they might have to fight with another family like two rats snapping at each other in the muck. That they could live somewhere else, not in a place where her parents got kidnapped and nobody did anything about it.Cerise shook her head. If they were slowly crawling out of the mud, she could live with it. But they were sinking deeper and deeper. Her children wouldn't know her grandfather, and her grandchildren, if she were to have any, wouldn't even know he existed. All his knowledge would be lost. Already she was forgetting things, and the books didn't help, because half of the time she was too tired to read them.It was wrong. Cerise clenched her teeth. The whole point of working so hard was so her children and their children would be better off than she was. But they wouldn't. They would be worse. The more time passed, the more exiles Louisiana stuffed into the swamp, the more vicious it would become.No matter how hard she tried, no matter how hard the family worked, they made no progress. They just slid backward into the swamp, and all she had as a consolation were useless dreams of "what if" filled with pathetic self-pity.And then there was William. She should've known that nothing in life came without a catch. He was everything she could ever want in a man: smart, strong, funny, handsome, a hell of a fighter . . . and he turned into a monster. Gods damn it.She picked up the book she had been reading before William came in. The Nature of the Beast. It was an old text from Louisiana. She knew it was biased, but it was her best resource at the moment. She'd taken it out of the library a few months ago to read to Lark, to try to convince her that there were real monsters out there and she wasn't one of them. It's not that she didn't trust Aunt Murid, but since Uncle High was involved, her aunt wasn't exactly objective.She wouldn't have guessed that her uncle Hugh was a changeling. Would've sworn on her life he wasn't. So not all the stories were true. Yes, her uncle was a murderer, but it wasn't out of bounds for the Mire.Maybe William was a wolf like Uncle Hugh. They were supposed to be noble creatures . . . She set the glass down. What was she thinking? He's a murdering beast but that's okay, because he is a noble murdering beast?Poor William. She'd gotten a shock to the system, but it was nothing compared to what he got. Here he was, hunting his enemy. He met a girl in the swamp that made his head spin. And then he realized that the girl came with a clan of insane relatives, an eighty-year feud, and a horde of the Hand's agents. That was a hell of a price tag. Being related to Kaldar alone would make most men run for their life.Cerise toyed with her glass. William was hers. The way he looked at her, the way he held her while they danced, told her that better than any words. When she'd seen him come up those stairs, her heart had sped up, and it wasn't because she was scared he'd rip her to pieces. She wanted him. But want alone wasn't enough, because he was trouble. Aunt Murid was right - when William loved, he would love absolutely, but when he became jealous or angry, he would be uncontrollable. Life with him would never be dull. It wouldn't be easy either.She had to decide yes or no. To let him love her or to cut him loose.All of this was useless speculation, she decided. In the morning they would attack the Sheeriles, and she had no guarantee she would make it out of that fight alive.WILLIAM burst onto the balcony. She had a picture of another man on the wall.He swung onto the rail and crouched there staring into the swamp. He needed a fight. A long exhausting brawl."What are you doing on the rail, child?"He whipped around.Grandmother Az stood next to him, smiling. "It's not good to stare too long at the Mire. It might look back." She reached over and patted his hand with her tiny wrinkled one. "Come on down off that rail. Come now."Snapping at sweet old ladies was beyond him, no matter how mad he'd gotten. William jumped off the rail."That's it," she told him. "Come, help an old woman to a chair."He followed her around the corner, to where the balcony widened and three wicker chairs sat facing the Mire. William held the chair out for her. Grandma Az sat. "Such a well-mannered child you are. Come sit with me."William sat. Everything about the old woman was soothing, but he didn't trust her any more than he trusted the rest of them. She knew what he was, too, and kept it to herself. The question was, why?Grandmother Az reached to a narrow wicker table on the side and picked up an old leather photo album. She flipped it open. "Look right here."A tall man stood next to a young woman. The man was dark-haired and lean, the woman looked like Cerise, but her features were harsher."This is me and my husband. Henri was a good man. I loved him." Her eyes sparkled. "My father didn't like him. My father was a great swordsman. In the old way.""Like Cerise?""Like Cerise. Do you know of the old way, William?""No." The more information he got, the better."I'll tell you. Once the New Continent of the Weird was filled with people. They built a great empire."That he'd heard before. In the Broken, the Europeans settled the Americas, killing the native tribes. In the Weird, the history had been almost completely turned around. The tlatoke had built a great kingdom, fueled by the magic born in the forest and jungle, and they had raided the Eastern Continent for years until they built a world-destroying weapon, which predictably destroyed them. When the Easterners finally scraped enough courage together to cross the ocean and make landfall, they found an empty north continent and a huge wall that sealed off the southern landmass."They called their kingdom the Empire of the Sun Serpent," Grandmother Az continued. "They were great warriors, with a long tradition and great skill in magic. Their magic was their undoing. They brought about their own destruction and had to flee. Some of them fled here, into the Edge, and here they remained, secure in the swamps for centuries to come. That's where we take our root. We keep their arts of sword and magic alive.""So that's what Cerise does?"The old woman nodded with a serene smile. "The path of the lightning blade. Very old art. Very hard to learn." She picked up a small letter opener from a narrow side table and raised it straight up. A thin streak of brilliant white dashed down the blade.Damn it all to hell.Grandmother Az smiled. "Who did you think taught her?""Her father.""Spoken like a man."The old woman turned the blade sideways, and the flash danced across her fingers. "She was a good student for me. This art takes much practice and discipline. You have to be chosen from childhood, the way Cerise was. You have to give yourself to it and practice and practice and practice. Long hours every day. When you work that hard, you start thinking that you should be rewarded for your efforts, so when you decide you want something, you fight tooth and claw to get it."She had some sort of purpose for this conversation, but for the life of him, William couldn't figure out what it was."My father was a great swordsman. I told you that. My husband ..." Grandmother Az moved her wizened hand from side to side."Not so much?" William guessed."No." The old woman smiled. "He was from the Broken, from a place called France. Very handsome. Very valiant. But not that good with his sword. My father didn't want me to marry him, so he told Henri they had to fight.""Did Henri win?"She shook her head. "No. But when my father put his blade against Henri's heart, I put mine against my father's throat. I told him that I only lived once and I wanted to be happy. Do you understand what I am saying to you, child?""No.""That's all right. You will. Think on it."He had no idea what she was talking about. "Tell me about the monster."Her face fell. "Stay away from him. He is a terrible thing. Terrible, terrible thing.""Who is he? Why is he here?""He senses trouble. It will all be over soon. Things are coming to an end."William hid a growl. She would tell him nothing."What happened to Lark?"Grandmother Az shook her head, that same serene smile plastered on her face. William exhaled frustration."Tell me about Lagar Sheerile.""He is handsome. Rich. Strong in the old way."Great. "He can stretch his flash on his sword like Cerise?""Our feud is old, child. Do you think the Sheeriles would've lasted this long if they didn't hold on to the Old Way?" The old woman heaved a heavy sigh. "But there is trouble in Lagar's house. Good blood has gone to bad. The tradition will die soon.""What do you mean?""Kaitlin." She spat the word like it was a poisonous fruit. "She came from a good family. We were friends once, back then, before she married the Sheerile. Her father was a hard man. Once her mother passed away, he never remarried. Kaitlin was his only child, his legacy. He had an iron grip on her, and nothing, not even his death, could break it."She flicked her hand in disgust. "Kaitlin's done the same to her children. She drives them, steers them at every turn, like they are horses pulling her carriage." The old woman snorted. "Lagar . . . He had promise, that one, but she killed it, smothered his will with hers. Kaitlin doesn't understand - a swordsman must be free to carve his own path in the world, however long it takes him. Her husband understood."Her voice turned bitter. "Such good blood. They've stood against us for four generations and survived. And she spoiled it all, the old half-wit. Not even her magic will save her now."A vicious blaze flashed in the old woman's eyes. Her fingers curled into claws. Her lips wrinkled, baring her teeth, and a specter of magic, dark and frightening, flared behind her. Alarm shot through William.Grandmother Az stared through him, raised her chin high, her eyes afire. Her voice rolled, deep, frightening. "Gone will be Kaitlin, gone will be her children and her house. We'll purge the memory of the Sheeriles from the world. Ten years from now nobody will recall their name, but we will still be here, watching trees grow from the ground watered with the Sheerile blood we spilled."William struggled to draw a breath. All around him the air hung thick with the odorous stillness peculiar to the swamp, fecund, violent, and primal. Rotting mud, the pungent scents of night flowers, the stench of wet dogs from the kennel . . .A door bumped to the left, and a woman's laughter, incongruously normal, sounded through the house.The savage fury died in Grandmother Az's eyes, and she patted his hand gently, her face wrinkled by a smile. "Well, look at me, rambling on and on, showing my age. Time to go to bed, I think."She rose. "I have a favor to ask of you. I need to borrow Urow's youngest from you for tomorrow.""You can have him, if you don't put him in harm's way."Grandmother Az's face split in a smile. "Silly child. He's my own grandson. I wouldn't harm my family." She turned and went inside.William slumped in the chair.Insane woman.Insane family.And he was mad to think he could lure Cerise away from them. They would never let her go.Lark climbed over the balcony rail and sat in one of the chairs. Her hair was filthy again."Are you going to chase me off to bed?" she asked.He shook his head."I can't sleep." Lark gathered her knees to her. "I'm scared about tomorrow. Do you think Cerise will die?"William crossed his arms. "Anything is possible, but no, I think she will live. I'll be there and I'll do my best to keep her safe."They looked at each other."What do you know about Tobias?" he asked. Maybe she would answer his questions. Nobody else would."It was a long time ago," Lark said. "Like three years or more. I don't know very much. Him and Cerise were engaged. He was very nice. And pretty."Figured. "Why did he leave?""I don't remember it very well." She frowned. "I think Mom was doing my hair. And Grandma was there. Then Cerise came. She was really upset about some sort of money missing. I think she thought Tobias took it. And then Mom told her to keep calm and not do something she would regret for the rest of her life and that sometimes you had to let things go and give the person another chance. And Grandma said that in the Legion times death was not an improper punishment for stealing from the family. Cerise got this really crazy look on her face. And then Mom said that the Legion times were long over. And Grandma said that that was exactly what was wrong with the Mire, and if it wasn't for the exiles, it would still be a proper place and that Cerise knew what had to be done. And then Cerise took off, and Mom sent me out because her and Grandma needed to have an adult conversation. I didn't see Tobias after that."A hell of a story. "Do you think she killed him?" William asked.Lark bit her lip. "I don't know. I don't think so. Cerise gets really calm before she kills somebody. Icy. I think she was too mad that time."They sat together and looked at the moon for a while.Lark turned to him. "I'm coming to fight tomorrow. For my mom."William wanted to tell her that she was too small, but he'd seen his first fight by her age. "Watch yourself and don't do anything stupid.""I won't," she told him.