WILLIAM leaned against the wall of his house. The two people in the yard watched him. If they found his toy army odd, they kept it to themselves.The wild inside him snarled and growled, scraping at his insides with sharp claws. He held it in check. The images of dead children tore open an old scab, but anger would do him no good now. He'd run across the Mirror's agents during his time in the Red Legion. Rules didn't apply to them, and he'd learned quickly that turning his back on them wasn't a good idea. You screwed with those guys at your own peril, knowing that your next breath might come with a knife in it.William didn't know what these two would do or why they came to bother him, and so he watched them the way a wolf watched an approaching bear: no hint of movement, no sign of weakness, no snarling. He wasn't afraid, but he had no reason to provoke them. If a reason did present itself, he wouldn't hesitate to rip out their throats.The two people from the Mirror made no move either. Erwin stood on the left. Of the two, he seemed like the bigger threat. Most people would forget Erwin a minute after they'd met him. Of average height, average build, he had an unremarkable face and short hair, either dark blond or light brown. His voice was mild, his manner unassuming, and his scent was so saturated with magic that the whole place stank like a pastry shop the day before Thanksgiving. The way he held himself, loose, deceptively carefree, didn't bode well either.The woman next to Erwin was a good deal older. Short, thin, ramrod straight, with skin the color of coffee, she wore a blue gown like it was armor. The gown's skirt split down the sides, showing gray pants and supple boots, letting the woman move fast if she needed to.Her braided hair sat in a complex mess on her head. Her face drew the eye. She had dark eyes, black, sharp, and merciless. The eyes watched him with eerie intensity. Like being tracked by a bird of prey, cold and ready to kill. The woman's scent filtered down to William, a layered amalgam of perfume: blackberry, vetiver, orange, rosemary, roses. An in-your-face fragrance. She was in charge and wanted people to know it.Erwin was a heavy hitter, and the way he hovered near the woman gave him away. The man acted as a bodyguard. Since he had no visible weapons, he had to be a flasher. Anyone with magic could learn to channel their power into a flash, a concentrated stream that looked like a ribbon of lightning - and if it was bright enough, it seared like one, too.William shifted, a light transfer of weight from one foot to the next, and hid a smile when Erwin tensed in response. As a changeling, William had no flash, but he'd spent enough years in a unit full of superb flashers. If Erwin flashed pale blue or white, he was likely a blueblood or extremely talented, like Rose. If he managed a green or a yellow, he wasn't very high up the food chain.The hotter Erwin's flash, the higher up the ladder of command the woman was. No sense wasting a good flasher to guard a mid-level paper pusher."Can you flash?" William asked.Erwin offered him a mild smile."He wants to know who he is dealing with," the woman said. "You have my permission to demonstrate."Erwin inclined his head to her and looked at William. "Name the target.""Wasp nest, twenty feet to the left, on the oak. Second branch up."It would have to be a hell of shot to hit that damn thing. Declan probably could, but he'd blow half the tree away with it.Erwin turned. "Ah."A white glow drenched his eyes. Tiny tendrils of white lightning sparked off his right hand and flared, combining into a current. A beam of pure white shot from him, severing the wasp nest in half, as if with a knife.Erwin wasn't just a flasher. He was a sniper. Figured."You've heard of Virai," the woman said.Most Red Legionnaires knew of Virai. The Red Legion did black ops, so when the Mirror needed muscle and raw numbers, they tapped the Red Legion first. Virai was the head of the Mirror, the power behind the agency. His name was whispered."Sure."The woman raised her chin. "I am Virai."William blinked. "The Virai?""Yes. You may call me Nancy, if you would like."Nancy. Right. "Why did you bring me pictures of dead children?""Because you have spent the last two years living here, safe and cozy. You needed a reminder of who you are."Arrogant crone. William bared his teeth in a slow wolf smile. "Your pet sniper won't stop me. I've taken his kind before." In his mind William leapt over his action figures, hit Erwin, breaking his neck on the way down, rolled . . ."Perhaps," Nancy said. "But can you take two at once?"Her eyes blazed with white. Magic unfurled from her in a glowing shroud, held for a long breath, and vanished.The imaginary attack died as imaginary William got sliced in two by Nancy's flash. They had him. One superior flasher he could handle. Between the two of them, they would mince him into pieces before he got his fingers around anyone's throat.William crossed his arms. "What is it you want?"The woman raised her head. "I want you to go deeper into the Edge and find Spider. I want you to take away the object he's looking for and bring it to me. If you kill him, I would consider it a bonus."Well, he did ask. "Why me?""Because he knows my agents. He knows the way they think, and he kills them. You've tangled with him twice and survived. So far, it's a record." She locked her teeth, making the muscles on her jaw stand out. "Spider is the worst kind of enemy. He's a true believer, convinced that he's serving a higher cause. He won't stop until he's dead.""And you're here because you don't want to waste your people hunting him," William said. As a changeling, he was expendable. Nothing new there.Nancy's voice cracked like a whip. "I'm here, because of all of the operatives available to me, you are the best man for the job and I can't suffer another failure. I can't compel you to help me. I have no authority over you. I can only ask."If that was the way she asked, he hated to hear what her order sounded like.She did ask all the same. That was new. He'd been given orders all his life. Declan was the only one who bothered to ask him anything. The dumb blueblood insisted on treating him as if he were a real person. Still, William reflected, he had a comfortable life. Asking alone wouldn't pry him free from it - but they also brought Spider to the table. The knowledge that the child murderer was within his reach would eat at him now, burrowing like a tick under his skin, until it would drive him crazy. He had to kill the man. It was the last bit of unfinished business he had. He'd murder Spider, taste his blood, and come back here without a weight on his soul.Go deeper into the Edge, huh? The Edge wrapped the junction of two worlds all the way from one ocean to another, widening and narrowing whenever it felt like it. Sometimes it was three miles deep, sometimes fifty. "Where in the Edge is Spider?""In the swamps," Erwin said. "West of here, the Edge narrows down almost to nothing and then abruptly widens to encompass an enormous swamp the locals call the Mire. We estimate it to be at least six hundred square leagues, perhaps bigger."Nine hundred square miles. "A hell of a swamp.""The Mire is sandwiched between the Weird and the Dukedom of Louisiana and the Broken and the state of Louisiana," Erwin continued. "Most of it is mud and water, impassable and unmapped. The Dukedom has been dumping exiles into it for years. They're too full of magic to escape into the Broken, so they simply stay there, stranded between the worlds."William raised his eyebrows. "A swamp full of criminals." He would be right at home."Precisely." Nancy nodded. "Spider is an urban agent. Nothing short of a dire need would drag him to the Mire, where he's out of his element. There are a dozen places where things are heating up, but instead his crew is scouring the swamps. They're looking for something. I want to know what it is and I want to own it."She didn't ask much, did she? Just the moon and the stars."The Louisianans moved a detachment of Air Force wyverns to the border with the Mire," Erwin said.William grimaced. "They expect to airlift Spider as soon as he gets out of the swamp."Erwin nodded.Whatever Spider was looking for had to be valuable if they were willing to park a wyvern for him.A predatory light sparked in Nancy's eyes. "The Dukedom of Louisiana wants a war, but they're unwilling to risk it unless they're certain of their victory. Spider has been trying to deliver the means to win this war for the last ten years. This time he must've found something remarkable. If the war starts and the Dukedom wins, every changeling within our borders will be murdered.""Don't," William warned. "The pictures were unexpected, but I'm not an idiot. I know what you're trying to do." Changelings had a harder time controlling their emotions. That was one of Hawk's favorite tactics: rile up the changelings, get them angry with the scent of blood or a punch in the face, and send them into the fight to rend everything they came across. He was an old wolf and this wasn't his first hunt. "Cheap tricks don't work on me."Nancy smiled and he fought an urge to step back."I was right. You will do nicely. We will give you all of the support at our disposal. Weapons, technology, maps, intelligence on Spider's crew."William showed her his teeth. "I don't like you and I don't like this mission.""You're not required to like me or the mission," Nancy told him. "You're required to complete your task. That's all.""Suppose I do this for you. What do I get?"Nancy arched her eyebrows. "First, you'll get vengeance. Second, I will owe you a favor. There are people who would cut off their right arm for that alone. But more importantly, you will know with absolute certainty that Spider will never kill another changeling child. Think on it, William Wolf. But be fast about it. Time is short."A cold drizzle sifted onto the swamp, blurring the trees and obscuring the narrow road. The sounds of three horses clopping merrily along blended with the noise of the birds and chirping of insects.Given a choice, Cerise would've galloped. Instead she kept the pace slow. The last thing they needed was to blunder at full gallop into an ambush."It's Sheeriles," Erian said from the right. Slim, blond, he rode like he was born in the saddle. The feud between their family and the Sheeriles had taken his mother when he was eleven, and Cerise's parents had raised him. He was more like a brother than a cousin."They have no reason to restart the feud," Mikita boomed. Nature had forgotten to install a volume control when he was born, and he came with two sound settings: thunder and louder thunder.Unlike Erian, Mikita rode as if he was afraid the horse would somehow escape from underneath his huge blocky body. Six-feet-five, two hundred and sixty pounds, none of it fat, he was almost too big to be a Mar. Hard to grow that large on a ration of fish and swamp berries, but Mikita had somehow managed."The Sheeriles don't need a reason," Erian said."They do and you know it. If they can't show cause, the Mire militia will come down on them like a ton of bricks," Mikita said.Mikita was right, Cerise thought, as they rounded the bend in the twisted road. The Dukedom of Louisiana was very generous in supplementing the Mire's population with exiles. None of them was law-abiding or peaceful. The Edger families stuck together, turning into clans full of half-starved locals with itchy trigger fingers. Feuds bloomed in the Mire like swamp flowers, and some of the old-timers threw around heavy magic. In their family alone, they counted four cursers and seven flashers, and then there were people like Catherine and Kaldar, whose magic was so specific they had no name for it. If the feuds had been left unchecked, pretty soon there wouldn't have been anybody left in the Mire to feud with.That was why the Edgers finally banded together and instituted their own court and their own militia. Now to rekindle a feud, one had to show cause. The Sheeriles knew this. The problem was she didn't think they cared."They have all that money, and they managed to keep it through the years," Mikita said.Erian frowned. "What does money have to do with anything?""People who keep their money that long aren't stupid. They won't take risks unless they think things will play out in their favor. Sniping Uncle Gustave and Aunt Gen without cause is a hell of a risk. They know our whole family will be howling for blood."Cerise hid a sigh. Unlike the Sheeriles, the Mars were swamp-poor: they had land and numbers, but no money. That was how they'd earned their nickname: Rats. Numerous, poor, and vicious. The vicious part she didn't mind, the poor part she could do nothing about, and the numerous part . . . Well, it was true. In a fight, the Sheeriles would lose hired guns, while she would lose relatives.The thought made Cerise wince. Her father's absence turned her into the head of the family. She was the oldest of his children, and she was the only fully trained warrior they had. If something did happen to her parents, she would be the one sending her family to die. Cerise caught her breath and let it out slowly, trying to release anxiety with it. This morning had gone from bad to worse in a hurry.The path turned, and the decrepit husk of the Sene Manor came into view. Cerise's heart skipped a beat. A lanky man stood on the porch, leaning against the porch post, his straw blond hair falling over his shoulders. He glanced up, his eyes light on a tan face, and a slow, lazy smile stretched his lips.Lagar Sheerile. The oldest of the Sheerile brothers. They and their mother ran the Sheerile clan now, since their dad fell off a tree three years ago. Sheerile Senior had busted his head so hard, he couldn't even feed himself anymore, let alone think. Served him right, too.Behind her Erian swore softly.Beside Lagar, Peva, his brother, rocked in a half-rotten wooden chair, whittling something from a block of wood. Above the two of them, the windows of the abandoned mansion stood wide open despite the rain. Men waited at the windows. She counted two crossbows, three rifles, and a shotgun. The Sheeriles had expected them and brought hired muscle. Paid top coin, too - the shooters with the Broken's rifles were expensive as hell.All together, the Sheerile brothers, the dilapidated house, and the rifles in the windows made a perfect snapshot of the Mire. Like some sort of twisted postcard. She just wished she could shove it into the faces of the bluebloods from Louisiana. You want to know what life is like in the Edge? Here you go. Think on that before you decide to pile more problems on us.Peva slid from his chair, a tall gangly form on legs that looked too long. His crossbow lay next to him on a rail. He was so proud of the damn thing, he'd named it. Wasp. Like it was Excalibur or something. Peva reached for it but changed his mind. Decided not to bother, did he? Apparently, they weren't enough of a threat.Cerise stared at Lagar. Where are my parents, you smug sonovabitch?The door banged, and the third Sheerile brother sauntered into view, carrying Lagar's sword. Arig, at eighteen, was the youngest and the dumbest. In a dark room in a crowd full of strangers, Cerise could've picked all three of them out in seconds. She had grown up knowing that one day she would have to kill the Sheerile brothers, and they knew they had to kill her before she did them in. She'd come to terms with it a long time ago.Arig held the sword out to Lagar, but the blond Sheerile ignored it. They didn't mean to fight her today. Not yet.Cerise brought her horse to a halt by the porch.Lagar gave her a short nod. "Lovely morning to you.""Same to you, Lagar." She smiled, making an effort to look sweet and cheerful. "You boys lost?""Not that I know of." Lagar gave her the same friendly smile."If you're not lost, then what are you doing on my land?"Lagar peeled himself from the post with affected leisure. "My land, love.""Since when?""Since your father sold it to me this morning."Like hell he did. She pursed her lips. "You don't say.""Arig," Lagar called. "Bring the deed to our pretty guest."The youngest Sheerile brother trotted over to her horse and offered her a piece of paper rolled into a tube. She took the tube from him.Arig leered. "Where's your cute little sister, Cerise? Maybe Lark would like some of what I've got. I can show her a better time than she's had."A shocked silence fell.Some things were just not done.A lethal fire slipped into Lagar's eyes. Peva stepped off the porch, walked over to Arig, and grabbed him by the ear. Arig howled."Excuse us a minute." Peva spun Arig around and kicked him in the ass."What did I do?"Peva kicked him again. Arig scrambled through the mud, up the rickety porch, and into the house. Something thumped inside, and Arig's voice screamed, "Not in the gut!"Cerise glanced at Lagar. "Letting him go around without a muzzle again?"Lagar grimaced. "Look at the damn deed."Cerise unrolled the paper. The signature was perfect: her father's sharp narrow scrawl. Lagar must've paid a fortune for it. "This deed's false."Lagar smiled. "So you say."She handed it back to him. "Where are my parents, Lagar?"He spread his lean arms. "I don't know. I haven't seen them since this morning. They sold us the manor and left in perfect health.""Then you don't mind if we check the house."He bared his teeth at her. "As a matter of fact, I do. Mind."The crossbows and rifles clicked as one, as safety latches dropped.Cerise fought for control. It flashed in her head: jump off the mare, use her as a shield against the first volley, charge the porch, split Arig's stomach with a swipe of the blade, thrust into Peva . . . But by then both Mikita and Erian would be dead. Six crossbows against three riders - it was no contest.Lagar was looking at her with an odd wistful expression. She had seen it once before, two years ago, when he got drunk out of his mind at the Summer Festival. He'd crossed the field and asked her to dance, and she spun one time around the bonfire with him, shocking the entire Mire into silence: two heirs of feuding families playing with death while their elders watched.She had an absurd suspicion that he was thinking of pulling her off her horse. He was more than welcome to try."Lagar," she whispered. "Don't screw with me. Where are my parents?"Lagar stepped closer, dropping his voice. "Forget Gustave. Forget Genevieve. Your parents are gone, Cerise. There's nothing you can do."The cold knot in her stomach broke and turned into rage. "Do you have them, Lagar?"He shook his head.Her horse sensed her anxiety and danced under her. "Who has them?" No matter how far away the Sheeriles had hidden them, she would find them.A thin smile curved Lagar's lips. He raised his hand, studying it as if it were an object of great interest, watching the fingers bend and straighten, and looked back at her.The Hand. Louisiana spies.Ice slid down Cerise's spine. The Hand was deadly. Everybody heard stories about them. Some of them were so twisted by magic, they weren't even human anymore. What would Louisiana spies want with her parents?Lagar raised his voice. "I'll send a copy of the deed to your house."She smiled at him, wishing she could let her sword slide across his neck. "You do that."Lagar bowed with a flourish."This is it," she said. "No turning back."He nodded. "I know. Our great-grandparents started this feud, and you and I will finish it. I can't wait."Cerise turned her horse and urged it on. Behind her, Mikita and Erian rode through the rain.Her parents were alive. She would get them back. She would find them. If she had to paint their trail with Sheerile blood, all the better.CERISE burst into the yard at a canter, her mare's hooves splashing mud. She'd asked Erian to ride ahead to get everyone together. He must've done a hell of a job, because Aunt Murid stood on the verandah with a crossbow. Up to the left, Lark sat in the pine branches, and to the right, Adrian had climbed up into a cypress. Both had rifles and neither missed often.Derril ran up to take the reins from her, his eyes wide."Is Richard here?"Her cousin nodded. "In the library.""What about your uncle Kaldar?"Derril nodded again."Good."During the ride, her fury had crystallized into a plan. It was a ridiculous plan, but it was a plan. Now she had to convince the family to follow it. By the last count, the Mar clan consisted of fifty-seven people, including the kids. Some of the adults had seen her in diapers. They listened to her father. Making them listen to her was an entirely different matter.Cerise locked her jaw. If she had any hope of seeing her parents again, she had to catch the reins her father had dropped and grip them tightly now, before the family had a chance to think things over and argue with her. She had to hold them together. Her parents' lives depended on it.Cerise walked up the stairs. Mikita followed at her heels.She paused by Aunt Murid, who was standing at the door. Six inches taller, dark-haired, dark-eyed, Murid rationed words like they were precious water in the middle of a desert, but her crossbow never failed to make a point.Cerise looked at her. Are you with me?Murid nodded slightly.Cerise hid a breath of relief, swung the door open, and stepped inside."No hesitation," her aunt murmured behind her. "Walk like you mean it."The library lay at the end of the hallway. The largest room in the house, with the exception of the kitchen, it often served as the gathering place for the family. By now, the news of her parents having gone missing would have spread throughout the Rathole. The library would be full. Her aunts, uncles, cousins. All listening to her as she came down the hall.Cerise took a deep breath and strode down the hallway, not caring about tracking mud.She walked into the library, cataloging the familiar faces. Aunt Emma, Aunt Petunia - Aunt Pete for short - Uncle Rufus, in the chairs; Erian to the left, his slender blond body draped over a chair; Kaldar, his dark hair in wild disarray, leaning against the wall; half a dozen others; and finally Richard, the oldest of her cousins, tall, dark, with the poise of a blueblood, waiting by the table.They all looked at her.Cerise kept her voice flat. "The Sheerile brothers have taken Grandfather's house."The room went quiet like the inside of a grave."Lagar Sheerile showed me a deed of sale to Sene Manor signed by my father.""It's a forgery," Aunt Pete said. "Gustave would never sell Sene."Cerise held up her hand. "My father and mother are missing. Lagar said they were taken by the Hand."Richard's face paled."The Louisiana spies?" Kaldar, slim, his hair dark like Richard's, peeled himself from the wall. Where Richard radiated icy dignity, his brother lived to have fun. He had wild eyes the color of honey, a silver hoop in one ear, and a mouth that either said something funny or was about to break into a grin, sometimes just as he sank his blade into someone's gut. Richard thought like a general, while Kaldar thought like a criminal, and she desperately needed both of them on her side.Kaldar leaned forward, a hard, vicious light sparking in his eyes. "What the hell does the Hand want with us?""Lagar didn't say. As of now, the feud is officially on. I need riders sent to Uncle Peter, Emily, and Antoine. We're pulling everyone into the Rathole. Someone needs to warn Urow, too.""I'll take care of it," Uncle Rufus said."Thank you." Cerise wished she knew exactly what to say, but whatever words she had would have to do. Here we go. "We must take back Grandfather's house. First, my parents disappeared there. If any clues exist, they would be at Sene. Second, I don't have to tell you that the Mire runs on reputation. We're only as strong as others think we are. If we allow the Sheeriles to bite off a chunk of our land, we might as well pack it in."No arguments. So far so good."Kaldar, how much time do we have to dispute the deed?"Her cousin shrugged. "We have to file the petition with the Mire court by tomorrow evening. The court date could be anywhere from ten days to two weeks from then.""Can you stall?""I can get us a day, maybe two."Richard's narrow lips bent into a frown. "If we go through legal channels, we'll lose. To dispute the Sheeriles' deed, we have to have the original document granting the Sene Manor to Grandfather. We need his exile order. We don't have it."Cerise nodded. That document and many others had perished four years ago in a flood that had nearly demolished the storage buildings. She'd thought about that on her ride over as well."Can we get a replacement?" one of the younger boys asked."No." Kaldar shook his head. "When Louisianans sentence someone to exile, three copies of the orders are cut. One goes straight to Royal Archives, the second is carried by the marshals who transport the exile and is surrendered to the Border Guard when they reach the Edge, and the third is given to the exile. The Border Guard isn't going to fall over themselves to find that order for us. We'll never get close enough to ask. They'll shoot us and string our corpses on the trees along the border.""Every exile carries the order?" Cerise asked."Every adult," Kaldar said. "What are you getting at?""There were two adult exiles, Grandfather and Grandmother," Richard said. "Grandmother's order wasn't among the papers ruined in the flood. I know, I sorted through them. Where is it?""Hugh," Aunt Murid said.Cerise nodded. "Exactly. Before Uncle Hugh went into the Broken, he took certified copies of all archival documents with him for safekeeping, including the original copy of Grandmother's order. I remember this because Mother cried when she gave it to him."Richard narrowed his eyes. He was the most cautious of all of them, the most reasonable, and the one who always kept his calm. You might just as well try to rattle a granite rock. The family respected him. If she convinced him to buy her plan, the rest would follow."Hugh is in the Broken," Richard said. "You can't go after him, Cerise. Not now." "I'm the one who makes runs"I'll do it," Kaldar said. "I'm the one who makes runs there anyway.""No." She loaded enough steel into her voice to make the lot of them blink.Erian looked ready to say something but clamped his mouth shut."The Hand took . . ." Cerise wanted to say my parents but checked herself. She had to remove the personal part out of the equation, or they would just decide she was hysterical. "Gustave and Genevieve for a reason. They must want something from them or from us. They will be watching us. That's why we must pull everyone into the main house now, before they pick us off one by one."It takes three days to get to the Broken, and that's with shortcuts and a good rolpie to pull the boat. The person who leaves runs the risk of walking right into the Hand's spies." Cerise looked at Kaldar. "You're a thief, not a fighter. Erian is too hotheaded, Aunt Murid doesn't know the way, Mikita has no survival skills, and you, Richard, can't pass through the boundary into the Broken. You have too much magic. The crossing will kill you."She surveyed them. "That leaves me. I went with Kaldar the last few times, I know the way, and of all of us, I have the best chance of surviving a fight with the Hand."Richard was on the fence; she could see the hesitation in his eyes. "We just lost Gustave. If we lose you, we'll lose our strongest flash-trained fighter.""Then I'll just have to survive," she said. "We have no choice, Richard. Tomorrow, as soon as Kaldar files the dispute and we have a court date, I have to leave. If you or anyone else can find a different way around it, I'll be happy to hear it."For a long moment silence held, and then everyone spoke at once. Richard said nothing. Cerise looked into his somber eyes and knew she had won.