CERISE shivered. Icy needles pricked her spine and stabbed into the muscles of her back. Her neck grew stiff. Her mouth had gone dry and bitter.Something on many furry legs crawled up her arm. She brushed at it but her fingers closed over nothing. Her skin was clean. She rubbed her arm just to be sure, felt the touch of the little legs on her elbow, rubbed there, and then dozens of invisible bugs scattered up her shoulders and back. Stiff insect bristles and tiny chitinous claws scratched her, skittering down her neck. She jerked, raking at herself.William leaned over to her and slapped her hand."Keep your hands off me.""I will, if you keep them off yourself.""What's it to you?" she clenched her jacket to herself, feeling the papers in the smooth plastic. Still there."That red freak you saw is a tracker. He needs very little, some spit, a few drops of blood in the river, and he'll know where you are. We're paddling upstream. If you claw yourself bloody, the current will drag it down, and at his next stop he'll find out what you taste like. Then they'll turn the boat around and come back this way with their seven rifles.""How do you know?"He touched his hand to her forehead, and she pulled back - his skin was burning hot. He showed her his palm, damp with her sweat."Right now you think there are ghost bugs crawling on your skin. Your heart is hammering. Your tongue's dried up, and your mouth tastes like cotton; your hands and feet are freezing, but your body is hot. I know this because I've experienced it." He kept pushing the boat.Don't scratch. She hugged herself to keep warm. Her teeth chattered. Don't scratch. "How did you m-m-manage?"William grimaced. "I was a soldier in Adrianglia. We've run into the Hand's freaks before." He leaned into the pole. "The Adrianglian Mirror and the Louisianan Hand have been fighting a cold war for years. Adrianglia and Louisiana are too well matched. If a real war broke out, it would drag on for years, so instead they keep throwing spies at each other, looking for a back door to a victory. Adrianglian spies use magic, in their gadgets and their weapons. Louisianan spies are magic. They're so altered some of them aren't human anymore."She knew all that already. "W-w-why does it make you sick?""Eventually the Hand's freaks get so fucked-up they start emanating their twisted magic. That magic is poison to us. It's like finding a rotten corpse - the stench makes you vomit, so you have no doubt that it's bad to eat. Same thing here. The more screwed up they are, the worse their magic is. They know it, too. They use it to weaken their prey. Eventually your body will adjust, but until then you'll be vulnerable.""When d-d-does it wear off?""Depends."What sort of answer was that? "How long d-d-did yours last?"There was a tiny pause before he answered. "Eighteen hours.""How d-d-did you k-k-keep from scratching?""I didn't. They chained me in a cell by the neck and let me go at it.""That's h-h-horrible." What kind of army was he in exactly that they would let him claw himself bloody? "Couldn't they sedate you or s-s-s-something?"His voice was matter of fact. "They didn't bother with it.""That's not right." Her teeth danced, and Cerise bit down, sending her knees into an uncontrollable shiver. "It's going to g-g-get worse, isn't it?"He leaned to her and peered into her eyes. "Do you see small red dots floating?""No."He grimaced. "Then it's going to get worse."Awesome. "W-w-w ... w-w-w ... w-w-w ...""Take your time," he told her."W-w-w-weird assholes."He barked a short laugh.The bugs continued their mad jig. If only she could get warm . . ."Is there another way to Sicktree?"Her mind took a few long moments to digest his question. At last Cerise understood. "The tracker will d-d-double back eventually. We m-m-must leave the river."He nodded. "That's right."The bugs on her arms began gnawing at her skin, burrowing into it, trying to chew their way through muscles to her veins and the blood within. She clenched her fists to keep from scratching.Her nose was running. She had an absurd feeling that if only she could get ahold of something sharp like a knife blade and scrape it against her skin, the bugs would disappear.William turned the boat with a sharp stab of the pole. The punt rammed the shore. "Don't even think about it."Cerise realized she was holding her short sword in her hand. She sniffled.William held out his hand."It's m-m-mine," she said."You don't need it right this second."Cerise took a deep breath, pronouncing each word with crisp exactness. "If you try to take my sword, I will kill you with it."His eyes studied her. "Fine," he said. "I won't fight you for your knife if you tell me how we can get to Sicktree."Cerise forced her mind to work. It started slowly, like a rusty water mill. "Small stream. Three miles up the river on the right side, between two pines, one of them lightning-scorched. It will take us to Mozer Lake, but we'll have to drag the boat for the last two miles."Once she started scratching, she wouldn't stop. There are no bugs, there are no bugs . . ."Hobo queen!""What?""Mozer Lake."Mozer Lake. What about the damn Mozer Lake? She pictured the waterways. Sicktree. They were going to Sicktree, to that piss-and-shit sewer hole of a town. There was something vital about Sicktree.Urow.Urow was in Sicktree. She had to get to her cousin, so he could bring her home, fast, so she would make the court date, so they could take back the house, and kill the Sheeriles and the Hand, and get her parents back. Save parents. Get to Sicktree. Right."Mozer Lake opens into Tinybear Creek," she said. "Tinybear will become Bigbear. We can abandon the boat before the Bigbear joins the main river and cross the swamp on foot to Sicktree."Cerise ran through the course in her mind. "Three miles, stream on the right, Mozer Lake, Tinybear, Bigbear, Miller's Path." She paused, not sure if she'd said it correctly. "Three miles, stream on the right, Mozer Lake, Tinybear, Bigbear, Miller's Path.""Thank you, Dora. Put the sword back into Backpack and we'll go." He nodded at the river."Who is Dora?""You are. Dora the Explorer. Vamanos. Put the sword away or I will take it from you."Arrogant prick. "Touch me and d-d-die," she told him.He chuckled. It was a raspy deep sound. Wolves laughed like that.Cerise sheathed the sword and hugged the scabbard. The bugs dug harder, tiny steel mandibles chewing on her ligaments, turning the muscle under her skin into bloody soft mush . . . Cerise locked her jaws, remembering the grotesque web of tentacles slick with crimson hair as it left the muddy water. Damn freak. The next time we meet, I'll make your arms even. I'll keep mincing you into pieces until you tell me where my parents are."It's g-g-going to rain," she said, pointing at the thick gray clouds.William glanced at the clouds. "Rain's good for us. Covers our trail." He paused and leaned over to her. "It's all in your head. Don't let it push you around. I'll keep you safe until you're back on your feet."Keep her safe, ha. She would keep herself safe. Huddled on the bench, Cerise pulled her jacket tighter around herself and tried not to scratch.CERISE'S shortcut stream turned out to be mud slicked over with a foot and a half of water. Too shallow for the boat carrying the full load. William shifted his grip and waded on, dragging the boat and their bags in it. Cerise walked in front of him, sword out.She hadn't taken it to her skin. She hadn't scratched either, but the Hand's magic took its toll: she stooped, as if carrying a heavy load, and hadn't said a word to him in the last hour. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or if he missed her needling.The swamp had grown dark. Shadows disappeared. Storm clouds churned overhead, gray, thick, and heavy. A gust of wind ripped through the reeds and bushes, rustling the undergrowth. Rain was imminent.Cerise kept trudging ahead. She was beginning to drag her feet. The more sensitive you were to magic, the harder the Hand hit. Ruh was altered enough to make even William gag, and he'd been exposed to the Hand's magic before.Ultimately it came down to willpower. She had guts and endurance - William gave her that - but the worst was yet to come. When the aftereffects really hit, and eventually they would, she could go into convulsions. If she died, his shot at Spider could die with her. He had to keep her alive and safe.Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled, shaking the leaves. The air smelled of scorched sky. Heavy, cold drops drummed on the cypresses, at first a few, then more and more, until finally the clouds burst and a torrent showered the swamp, so dense even he could barely see beyond a few feet.William raised his face to the dark sky and swore.Cerise turned to him. The rain had soaked her, turning her clothes into a single dark mass and mixing with the mud on her face. She looked like she had sprouted from the Mire itself, like some shrub from a mud bank. Bloodshot eyes stared at him. She was running on fumes.Cerise opened her mouth. The words came out slowly. "Don't worry, you won't melt. Not sweet enough.""You see those dots I mentioned, you tell me.""Will do."They kept going. The boat scraped the ground and became wedged."We'll have to c-c-carry it," Cerise said, swiping her bag.William shouldered his rucksack. She lifted the nose of the boat."I've got it," he told her."It's heavy.""I'll manage." He flipped the boat over and hoisted it on his shoulders. He could carry her and the boat for several miles, but she didn't need to know that. His field of vision shrank to the small space directly beneath his feet, the rest taken up by dark boat and Cerise's jacket and legs. They moved on.Water and mud soaked William to the bone. It was under his leathers and in his boots. His socks formed soggy clumps that bunched against his feet. He would give a year of his life to shed the wet clothes and run on all fours. But the girl and his load kept him in human skin.He missed his trailer. His small, shabby trailer, which was dry and had a flat-screen TV and beer in the fridge. And dry socks. That was one of the things he loved most about the Broken. He could buy all the socks he ever wanted.Cerise stopped and he nearly rammed her with the damn boat. "What is it?""We missed the turnoff!" she yelled over the storm. "The stream must've changed course because of the rain. We're too far to the left. We need to go that way, to the lake!"She waved her hand to the right, at the gloom between the trees.Everything that could go wrong did. Never failed.William turned and followed her through the brush. A familiar ghostly pressure brushed his skin. They were near the boundary. For a furious second he thought she'd led him back to it in a circle.She stopped again. He jerked back. Impossible woman.Cerise pointed. "Look!"He shifted the boat to see. In front of them the wide expanse of the lake stretched like a pane of muddy glass. On their left a dock protruded into the water and at the base of the dock sat a house.Dark windows. No trace of smoke or human scents in the air. Nobody home.The road by it looked too smooth - paved. William focused and made out the outlines of a satellite dish on the roof. A Broken house. He was right - they were near the boundary.Cerise leaned closer. "Sometimes the Mire makes pockets that lead to the Broken. They're usually tiny and disappear after a while."He bent to her. "We hit that pocket, the Broken will strip you of your magic. A cure for all your ills."A tiny light flared in her eyes.Lightning struck, the world's heart skipping a beat.A dark object broke the surface of the lake, rising out of the water.William hurled the boat aside and shoved Cerise back, behind him.The dark thing stood upright. William stared, his eyes amplifying the low light.Seven feet tall, the creature rose on thick columnar legs. Two eight-inch-long bone claws thrust from its wrists, protruding past its fingers. Its head looked human enough, but the rough bumps distorted the outline of its body, as if it had been carved out of rough stone by someone in a hurry.Lightning flashed again and he saw it, clear as day in the split second of light. Mad bloodshot eyes stared at him from a human face ending in an oversized jaw. Its skin, the color of watery yellow mud, wrinkled on the creature's neck and limbs, as if it were too big for its body. Thick bony plates slabbed its back, stomach, and thighs.Thibauld, his memory told him. One of Spider's crew. Severely altered, ambusher class. Shit.Thibauld peered at them, looking from William's face to the girl and back. He blocked the way to the boundary. To get to the house, they would have to get past him. According to the Mirror's intel, Thibauld had a superior sense of smell. A bad opponent on land, he was hell in the water. Spider must've parked him in the lake on the off chance Cerise would come this way. He probably had most major waterways blocked.William focused, judging the distance to the agent. His crossbow was in the pack on his back. A second to drop the pack, two to pull the crossbow, another second to load . . . too long. He'd have to rely on his knife.The Hand's agent raised his arms. The long scimitar claws pointed at Cerise. His mouth gaped open, revealing rows of short triangular teeth. They would shred flesh like a cheese grater, and the jaws looked strong enough to bite through bone. Great.A dull, deep voice issued from Thibauld's mouth, pronouncing each word with agonizing slowness. "It . . . is . . . mine.""No," William told him.The claws pointed at him. "You . . . die," the agent promised."Not today."Cerise lunged. William sensed her move and thrust his arm out, knocking her down, before she got a taste of the claws. "Stay behind me!"Cerise crashed into the mud and stayed there.The muscle on Thibauld's frame expanded, snapping the loose skin tight. William eased the backpack off his shoulders.An odd, warbling sound rolled in Thibauld's grotesque throat. The Hand's agent charged.William dodged left. Claws fanned his face. He thrust under the tree-trunk arm and sliced at the exposed strip of skin over the ribs. The knife cut hard muscle. He sliced again, feeling the knife slide harmlessly across the bone plate. Damn armor-plated turkey. What wasn't covered by plates was shielded by thick muscle. His knife wasn't doing enough damage.Thibauld spun, arms wide, aiming to backhand him. William jerked back. Thibauld missed but kept spinning like a windmill, claws rending. William ducked the first blow, dodged the second, and then Thibauld's arm smashed into his shoulder.The blow took him off his feet. William flew, curling into a ball, hit the mud with his back, and rolled to his feet. His left arm had gone numb. Strong bastard. William couldn't afford to take another hit.Ten feet away Thibauld blinked his bloodshot eyes, swiveling his head from side to side. Looking for Cerise. No, you don't."Over here, dimwit! Pay attention!"The agent stared at him."Well, what are you waiting for? Do you need a special invitation?"Thibauld stomped forward. That's right, come to me, come closer, away from the girl.Thibauld was only six feet away. William lunged forward, obviously aiming for the agent's chest. Thibauld moved to counter, claws raised for the kill. Fell for it. William reversed his stroke. His blade carved at the inside of the agent's arm, slicing deep into the flesh just below the biceps. He ducked under the claws and pulled back.Nothing. A cut like that should've disabled the arm, but Thibauld seemed no worse for wear.No blood, no sound of pain, no wince. Nothing.Thibauld raised his arms, shifting his stance. The agent couldn't catch him with his claws, so he decided to grapple. William bared his teeth. If he was by himself, he'd cut and run. The more Thibauld ran around, the faster he'd bleed out. But the moment he ran, Thibauld would lumber over to Cerise, who was still sprawled in the mud. In retrospect, he may have pushed her a bit too hard. Or the Hand's magic had battered her more than she showed.A narrow line of red swelled across Thibauld's arm. Woo-hoo, he'd managed a scratch. Great. Now about a hundred of those and he would be set.Thibauld stretched his neck and looked at his arm. "Is . . . that . . . all?""Don't worry, that's just a little foreplay." William waddled from foot to foot. "That's what you look like when you move."Thibauld bellowed and charged.William dashed, cutting, slicing, stabbing, turning his knife into a lethal metal blur. Thibauld struck back, huge arms swinging faster and faster. Claws raked William's side, ripping through the leather. Pain scorched him. He ignored it and kept slashing, carving at exposed flesh with precise savagery. Left, right, left, left, down, cut, cut, cut . . . Blood slicked Thibauld's massive frame.Not enough. William drove the knife in to the hilt under the armored scales, aiming for the heart. The agent roared and swung. William jerked back, pulling the blade free. Not far enough. The fist caught him, spinning him around. The world turned fuzzy for a fraction of a second. William leaped straight up, knife in hand, aiming to slice Thibauld's neck, and . . . landed in the mud as the agent staggered back, a puzzled expression on his face.Thibauld's huge legs trembled. He sucked in a hoarse breath.The top half of him slid to the side and toppled in the mud, revealing Cerise holding a bare sword. The stump of the agent's torso remained upright for a long second and then fell, spilling blood onto the wet mud.What the hell?Cerise passed her sword to her left hand and walked over to him, sidestepping the corpse.If he hadn't known better, he would've sworn she had cut Thibauld in half. Shell and all. How did she manage that? Swords couldn't do that.Her eyes were huge and dark on her mud-splattered face. He peered into their depths and missed her fist until it was too late. A sharp punch hammered his gut. He didn't even have time to flex. Pain exploded in his solar plexus."Don't ever do that again," Cerise ground out.He caught her hand. "I was protecting you, you dumb-ass.""I don't need protecting!"Behind her a bat crawled down the trunk of a cypress. William grabbed Cerise, pulling her out of the way, and hurled his knife. The blade spun and sliced into the small body, pinning it to the tree. Cerise jerked away from him."Are you crazy?""It's a deader," he told her.Purplish, translucent tentacles of magic stretched from the bat, clutching at the knife, trying to pull it out."What the hell is that?""A scout. Bats hide during rain." A "deader" meant a scout master who reported straight to Spider. He was pretty sure the bat hadn't seen them, but he couldn't be certain.Cerise stumbled. Her legs folded; she swayed and half fell, half sat into the mud.He crouched by her. "What is it?""Dots ..." she whispered.William scooped her from the mud and dashed through the rain to the boundary, swiping their bags on the way.THE pressure of the boundary caught William in its jaws, grinding his bones. He tore through the pain, carrying Cerise. The changelings didn't have magic. They were magic, and while crossing hurt, it wasn't anything he couldn't handle.He paused on the other side, catching his breath. Cerise lay in a small clump in his arms.Oh, hell. He might have taken the boundary too fast for her to cope.William lifted her higher so he could peer at her. "Talk to me."Her bloodless face was like a white stain in the rain. He shook her a little and saw the long dark eyelashes tremble."It's gone," she whispered. She had pretty eyes, he realized, big and dark brown, and at that moment luminescent with relief. "The bugs are gone. The dots, too.""Good." He strode to the house."Put me down."That was a hell of a sword strike. A good punch, too. He was dying to see what she looked like under all that grime and mud. "If I put you down, you'll fall, and I don't want to pick you up again after your roll in the muck. I'm muddy enough as is.""You're a thug and an ass," she told him, baring small, even teeth.If she had energy to snap, she was coming out of it. Good. "You say the sweetest things. And that spaghetti perfume you're wearing is to die for. No hobo could resist."She snarled. Heh."You sound like a pissed-off rabbit." He held her tighter in case she decided to punch him again, and he jogged to the house, up the porch steps, and to the door. The door looked good and solid."Wait."The alarm in her voice stopped him cold. "What?"Cerise raised her muddy hand to a small mark burned into the doorframe, holding on to him with the other hand for support. A letter A with the horizontal bar leaning at an angle.Her bottomless eyes got bigger. "We need to leave," Cerise whispered."What does the letter mean?""Alphas."He waited for more explanation."They're not from the Edge or from the Weird. They're their own thing in the Broken, and they're dangerous as hell. We see them sometimes, but they leave us alone if we leave them alone. This house belongs to them. If we break in and they find us here, we'll be dead."William shrugged. "It will be fine. The house has been empty for months.""How do you know?"There were too many things to explain: the layer of grime settled on the edge of the door, the absence of human odors, the scents of small animals, some weeks, some days old, crossing over what they now considered their territory . . . "I just know. Whoever these alphas are, they're not around. We need a dry place to stay."Cerise's face clenched in alarm. "Listen to me. We have to go. It's a bad - "William kicked the door. It burst open. "Too late."She froze in his arms.The house looked dark and empty. No alarm broke the silence. Nobody emerged to fight them."Damn it, William."He liked the way she said his name. "Don't worry, Your Hobo Highness. I'll keep you safe."She cursed at him.William stepped across the threshold and carefully set her down. She swayed and caught herself on the wall."Where are you going?""To check the house. Where else?" She pushed away from the wall and headed deeper down the hallway.William inhaled. The scent signatures were old and his ears caught no noises. She was wasting her time.Someone with military experience had drilled the basics of conduct in enemy territory into her. After everything they'd been through, a civilian woman should've landed on the first available soft surface. This one went to clear the house. She'd probably run out of steam and collapse in a minute.The Edgers were an undisciplined, uneducated lot. They half-assed shit and got along on dumb luck and a prayer. Cerise didn't. He didn't know of any Edgers who could cut a body in half that way either. A very concentrated flash could have done that, but he didn't see the telltale glowing ribbon. Besides, most Edgers couldn't flash white, and to deliver that sort of damage, nothing less than a white flash would do.He'd have to be careful not to underestimate the hobo queen, or it would cost him.His ears caught a mechanical purr. The lightbulbs blinked and ignited with yellow light. She must've found a generator. He circled the living room, lowering the blinds.Cerise appeared from the depths of the house. "Empty."He gave her an elaborate bow. "I told you.""I found the generator. There is a bathroom, too. The water is lukewarm but clean."A vision of a shower and fluffy towels presented itself to William. He nodded. "Go. The sooner you bathe, the better it is for both of us."The look she gave him was sharp enough to kill. She spun on her foot, picked up her bag, and headed to the bathroom. Smart. He wanted to see what was in the bag.William searched the house, going from room to room. The place looked like someone's vacation getaway: relatively new and full of silly crap like model boats and sea-shells. Lots of knickknacks, no signs of the wear and tear that cropped up in a place where someone actually lived. The pantry was well stocked with cans. Food was good.William returned to the living room, dimmed the main lights, turned on a couple of smaller lamps, just enough soft light to see, and waited.His clothes sagged on him, clammy against his skin. His wet socks chafed his feet. William pulled off his boots and the soggy mass of ruined socks, and curled his toes. The hardwood floor felt nice and cool under his feet.A model of a sailing ship sat on a shelf. He took it down and played with the tiny lines. The ship needed some small sailors. There were a couple of old small GI Joes from his collection at home that could've fit . . . No, they would be too big.How long does it take to clean up anyway?A door swung open behind him. "Done," Cerise announced.He turned around and froze.She'd lost the cap, the jacket, and the grimy jeans, and found a pair of shorts and an oversized T-shirt that hugged her breasts. Her hair, very long and dark, spilled down to her waist in a combed wave. William took in her tan face, full mouth, narrow nose, large almond eyes framed in sable eyelashes . . . The eyes laughed at him and he forgot where he was or why.Her scent drifted down to him, her real scent mixing with the fragrance of soap. She smelled clean and soft . . . like a woman.The wild in him lost its head, clawing at his insides.Want. Want the woman."Lord Bill?" she asked.His thoughts tumbled in a feverish cascade. Want . . . So beautiful . . . Standing so close and so beautiful. Want the woman."Earth to William?"She was looking at him with those beautiful dark eyes. All he had to do was reach for her and he could touch her.No. Wrong.She hadn't given him permission. If he touched, he would take her. Taking women without permission was wrong.William pulled himself back, regaining control. The wild buckled and snarled and screamed, but he reeled it in, forcing it deeper and deeper. Remember the whip? Right, everybody remembered the whip. Everybody remembered being punished for kissing a girl without permission. The scars on his back itched, reminding him. Humans had rules. He had to follow the rules.He was a changeling. And a changeling could never be sure if the woman wanted him unless he paid for her or she said so. This woman didn't want him. She wasn't taking her clothes off, she wasn't trying to close the distance between them, and his instincts told him he couldn't buy her.She was off-limits."My turn for a shower," he said. His voice sounded flat. William walked past her, giving her a wide berth, and forced himself to keep walking into the bathroom, where he closed the door and bolted it to lock himself in.CERISE swallowed, listening to the sound of the water hitting the shower tiles. Her whole body hummed with tension, as if she'd just survived a fight for her life.The look of total shock as he'd stared at her in stunned silence had been priceless. She'd almost laughed. And then William had turned feral. Something wild glared at her through his eyes, something crazy and violent and full of lust. For a second she thought she'd have to fight him off, and then it vanished, as if his internal shutters had slammed closed.She'd knocked his socks off. She'd planned to - if he had called her a hobo queen one more time, she would've strangled him. But she didn't expect . . . that.She'd figured he might stare, maybe flirt. But he'd gone from zero to sixty in two seconds flat, as people in the Broken said. She had never seen a man do that before.She'd never met a man who'd looked at her like that before. Like she was irresistible.Cerise dug through her backpack, fished out a sweat-shirt, and pulled it on. He'd made himself back down. Point for him, but no need to tempt fate.The rush of adrenaline inside her cooled down. Warmth washed over her, followed by soft fatigue. What do you know - Lord Bill almost lost his head over a Mire girl. She grinned. Hobo queen, shmobo queen, took you by surprise. "Lost his head" didn't even begin to cover it. He'd stared at her like he was some sort of maniac.It shouldn't have mattered. For all she knew, William looked at every woman that way. Well, maybe not quite that way, since he did manage to make it to adulthood somehow, without being murdered.Still, it did matter. She sensed a sharp, dangerous edge to everything he did, and it pulled her in like a moth to a flame. She thought back to the fight. He'd pushed her out of the way. It wasn't a hard push, but she had been barely standing and she fell badly, flat on her back, the wind knocked out of her. For about half a minute, she lay there, woozy, trying to get up, and listening to William drawing the Hand's freak farther away.He'd knocked her down with the best intentions, true, but she should've punched him harder for it. It's good that nobody had been there to witness it, or she would be the laughing stock of the entire Mire. Cerise grimaced. She'd really wanted to hammer one right to his jaw, but hitting someone in the jaw all but guaranteed a sore hand. That was one of the first lessons her grandmother had taught her: Take care of your hands. You need them to hold your blade.When she had finally staggered upright, that brown monstrosity was almost fifty yards away. It was huge and armored and armed with claws. And William had gone after it with a knife. She would've said he was insane or stupid, except by the time she got there, the Hand's freak was bleeding like a stuck pig. She'd almost slipped on the trail of his blood. A few more minutes and William would've bled him dry.The water in the shower stopped.Cerise took off down the hallway before William stepped out and caught her staring at the door.A pantry lay to the left. She sorted through the cans, looking for something with meat in it.Cerise was pretty, she knew that. In the Mire, who she was and what she could do were always taken into account. She was Cerise Mar. She had the Rats at her back and her sword was famous. Her family wasn't exactly prime in-law material and some men had a problem with how well she handled her blade, but still there were enough guys out there who would work their asses off for a chance to be with her. If she wanted to, she could have her pick, and she did, for a while, until she got bogged down in fixing the family finances.Knowing you were poor was one thing. But living with that knowledge, having it rubbed in your face again and again, being forced to hustle, scheme, and finagle so you could buy the kids new clothes for the winter or post bail for a relative, that was another thing. It drained her will to live.And then there was Tobias. He turned out to be a piece of work.Now if a man came on to her, the first thing that went through her mind was what did he really want? Was he after her or after the family's money, what little there was of it? Was he trustworthy? How badly could he screw up, and how much would it cost the family if they had to make the issue go away? That one drank too much, this one had a kid from the first marriage that he wanted to see well taken care of by someone else, the third one humped anything that moved . . . Too reckless, too stupid, too quick to anger . . . Soon she got a reputation for being choosy, and she didn't think she was. And even if she was, she couldn't afford not to be.But William didn't know any of that. He didn't know the first thing about her and didn't give a damn about her family. She blindsided him and got an honest reaction.Cerise recalled the look in his eyes and shivered.The question was, what would she do when he came out of the shower? The thought stopped her in her tracks. He had to be in good shape. He was strong like an ox - dragging the punt through the swamp singlehanded was no picnic, and he'd picked her and the bags up and run, as if their combined weight were nothing. Her imagination tried to paint a picture of William coming out of the shower and toweling off, and she slammed the door on that thought real fast. It was fine if he was smitten. But she had other things to worry about.A part of her really wanted to find out if his reaction was just a one-time thing or if she could get him to look at her that way again.Cerise swiped two cans of beef stew off the shelf and headed back to the kitchen. Doesn't matter, she told herself. You're not fifteen. Put it out of your mind. You have parents to rescue.In a few minutes he'd step out of the shower, and she had to treat him like a potential enemy, no matter what he looked like. Safer that way.Lord Bill was an enigma. He dressed like a blueblood, he talked like a blueblood, but he came to the Mire through the Broken. Nobles from the Weird usually couldn't enter the Broken. They were too full of magic, and they had to turn back or ended up dying. Either he was a dud magically or there was something very funky going on with his bloodline. Then there were the eyes full of fire. And now this.He knew of the Hand. She had to make use of that. She could always kill him if he stepped out of line.The stove had a fancy glass top. Cerise turned it on, waited until one of the burners glowed red, set a pot on it, and dumped the stew into it. Blueblood or not, she would figure Lord Bill out sooner or later. Or they would go their separate ways and the problem would solve itself.The door opened.It was curiosity, Cerise decided. Just normal healthy curiosity. She pretended to be occupied with the stew.She could just look up at him and glance away . . . Oh, Gods.Instantly she knew she'd made a mistake.He wore jeans and a white T-shirt. His clothes molded to him. William wasn't built, he was carved, with hard strength and lethal speed in mind. No give, no weakness. He had the honed, lean body of a man who was used to fighting for his life and liked it that way. And he strode to her like a swordsman: sure, economical movements touched with a natural grace and strength.Their stares met. She saw the shadow of the feral thing slide across William's eyes, and she stopped stirring the stew.They stared at each other for a long tense moment.Damn it. That was not supposed to happen.She turned to grab two metal bowls, poured the stew into them, and set them on the table. He took his seat, she took hers, their stares crossed again, and Cerise wasn't sure which one of them was in more trouble.William leaned forward, pulling his bowl closer as if she was about to take it from him. He needed a shave, but then he didn't look bad with the stubble. Quite the opposite, in fact. He kept his expression calm, but she knew with some sort of inborn female intuition that he was thinking about her and about doing things with her. She felt like a fifteen-year-old dancing with a boy for the first time, nervous, and shaky, and trying not to say or do the wrong thing but thrilled deep inside every moment.Great. She couldn't decide which one of them was the bigger idiot."The food is crap. Sorry. But it's hot," she said, keeping her tone calm."I've had worse." His voice was flat, too."This stove is great."William looked up from his bowl. "What do you cook on?""The main house has a huge woodstove and a small electric one. It's not nearly as nice." Cerise sighed, glancing at the glass-top stove with a small GE logo. "I want to steal this one.""Good luck getting it past that damn eel." He dug into his stew."If we bring it along, you can always drop it on him."He paused, as if he was actually considering dragging the stove through the swamp."I'm joking," she told him.William shrugged and went back to his food.A thin red stain spread through the side of his shirt."You're bleeding."He raised his arm and looked at his side. "Must've reopened it. That asshole clawed me."Those claws were half a foot long. "How deep?"He shrugged again. More red seeped through."Stop shrugging." She jumped off her chair and walked over to him. "Lift your shirt."He peeled the shirt up, exposing his side. Two deep gashes crossed his ribs. Nothing life threatening but nothing that would do him any good untreated either."Why didn't you bandage this?""No need. I heal fast."Yeah. "Don't move." She grabbed her bag and pulled out a Ziploc bag with gauze and tape and a tube of Neosporin. "Did you at least wash it out?"He nodded."Good. Because I'm not dragging you across the swamp if you pass out from an infection." She washed her hands with soap and squeezed Neosporin on the cuts. "This is medicine from the Broken. It kills infection in the wound.""I know what it does," he said."And how would a blueblood know that?""No personal questions."Ha. Walked into her own rule face-first. Cerise applied dressing and taped up the cuts. "Oh, look. You survived unscathed.""Your Neosporin stinks.""Get over it."He pulled his shirt down, and she caught a glimpse of blue on his biceps. Cerise reached over and pulled his sleeve up. A large bruise covered most of his shoulder."You have ointment for that, too?" William asked."No, but now if I have to punch you, I know where it will hurt the most." She let go of the sleeve and went to put her supplies up. That was some biceps. His back was well muscled, and you could probably bounce a quarter off his abs. Either he still was a soldier or he did something nasty for a living. Men didn't stay in that kind of shape unless they had to.She came back to the table."Thanks," he told her.Now was her chance, Cerise decided. She had to get as much information out of him as she could. Who knew what would happen tomorrow. "I take it that turtle thing was one of the Hand's agents."He nodded.Come on, Lord Bill, don't keep it all to yourself. She tried again. "What about that bat? When we ran past it, it looked like it had been dead for a while. There was a hole in its side, and you could see its innards even before you put the knife into it. It stank like carrion, too."He nodded again.Maybe she was being too subtle. "Tell me about the Hand. Please.""No questions. You made the rule, remember?" William hooked a piece of meat with the fork and chewed quickly. He ate fast - she had barely finished half, while he was almost done."I'm willing to trade."William glanced at her from above the rim of his bowl. "An answer for an answer.""Yes.""And you'll answer me honestly?"Cerise gave him her best sincere smile. She had two stories ready to go, depending on which way he was leaning. "Of course."He barked a short laugh. "You're an Edger. You'd lie, rob me blind, and leave me naked in the swamp if you thought you'd get something from it."Smart bastard. "I thought you said it was your first time in the Edge?""And now you're trying to sneak a question in. You think I was born yesterday."If he was born yesterday, he sure matured fast. "I'll give you my word."He choked on the stew, coughed, tossed his head back, and laughed.For a blueblood, he was damn hilarious. Cerise rolled her eyes, trying her best not to laugh herself. "Oh, please."William pointed up at the sky with his spoon. "Swear to them."She raised her eyebrows. "How do you know my grandparents would be upset if I lied?""How do you know they wouldn't?"Good point. She raised her eyes to the ceiling. "I promise to play fair."William leaned back, watching her through half-closed eyes. "You want to know about the bat?""For starters.""They're called deaders. I'm Adrianglian. I told you - we're all about gadgets and toys that amplify our magic. Some people have implants; some use military-grade magic amplifiers. Louisiana went the other way. They undergo permanent, irreparable body modification that makes them into freaks. Some of them sprout tentacles from their asses. Some spit poisoned barbs. From what I've heard, the kind of shit they do to their bodies is banned in other countries. The tracker you saw on the river - he wasn't born that way. The ambusher didn't grow all that armor by himself either. They cooked them up somewhere."The armored freak was ugly, but the tracker deeply disturbed her. Something about watching those tentacles slither awoke a primal, deep-seated revulsion. She would never manage to scrub that image out of her mind, and she couldn't wait to pay him back. "I'll kill that tracker one day.""Get in line."The two of them grimaced at each other."The Hand uses a kind of necromancer, a scout master," William said. "You said your cousin was a necromancer. You know how the natural necromancers operate?"They twisted the head off your favorite doll, stuffed a dead bird into it, and made it walk around. And then they were puzzled why you got upset. "More than I ever want to.""Well, this one takes it to a whole new level. A scout master sheds chunks of himself and stuffs them into corpses, turning them into deaders."Ew. "You're pulling my leg, right?"He shook his head. "These deaders become a part of him. He sees what they see. Then he finds himself a nice quiet spot, sends them out, and waits for the reports to roll in.""That is incredibly disgusting.""My turn." William leaned in, his hazel eyes fixing her with a direct stare. It was an odd gaze, magnetic and powerful, but betraying nothing. His voice was quiet, barely above a whisper, and Cerise leaned closer to hear it. She could've stared into those eyes for a thousand years and never noticed the time passing by."Why does the Hand want you?""That's a neat trick you do with your eyes, Lord William," she murmured. "Very scary.""Answer the question.""They have my parents.""Why?"She smiled at him. He actually thought he'd get an equal trade. "That's a second question. What are you doing in the Mire?""Looking for something that was stolen from my family. It's an heirloom, a ring. It was given to us by an Anglian king back on the Old Continent. The man who stole it ended up here, and I have to retrieve it."If his family was truly that old, he should have been able to flash. He shot a crossbow, he was a master with a knife, and he could probably mow through opponents with his bare hands, but so far he hadn't flashed. Probably because he couldn't. He shouldn't have survived the trip to the Broken either. Cerise smiled to herself. She had guessed right. Someone in Lord William's long list of ancestors had dipped a toe in some muddy waters - the blood of either an Edger or a migrant from the Broken flowed through his veins."Why did the Hand kidnap your parents?" William asked."I don't know.""You're lying."She shook her head. "Our family is in a feud. Has been for the last eighty years. One generation slaughters each other, the feud dies down until the next crop of people grows up, and then we go at it again. A few days ago, my parents left to check an old house on the edge of our land. When they didn't come back, I went out to look for them. I found the family we're feuding with on the property. They told me the Hand took my parents. They neglected to mention why.""You didn't do anything about them being on your land?"She caught a hint of disapproval in his voice. Fury bubbled up in her. "That's an extra question, William. But fine. I'll answer it. I had three horsemen; they had six rifles. I did the math and the results weren't in my favor. But don't worry on my behalf. I'll see the light fade from their eyes before this is over."She rose, washed her bowl, and went into the bedroom.