WILLIAM finished the stew - it was food, and he had no idea when he'd get to eat again. He rinsed his bowl, padded to her bedroom on quiet wolf feet, and nudged the door open with his fingertips. The girl was already asleep. She slept sitting up against the wall, her legs crossed, her sword leaning on her shoulder. He had a feeling that if he came any closer, she would wake up with her blade in him, so he just stood in the doorway.He studied the way the wave of her dark hair framed her face, spilling over her shoulders down almost to the floor. She was so pretty, it was like looking at a painting. Except this painting was alive and warm, and her scent made him want to whine like a puppy because he had to stay away.She'd fixed the wound on his side. He'd sat very still and let her do it. He still remembered the feel of her fingers on his skin. If she'd known what he'd been thinking, she would have run away screaming. Then maybe not. Screaming didn't seem to be her thing.Her story sounded genuine enough. The Edgers loved to feud over stupid crap, and once the feuds started, they never really died down. The smaller the stakes, the harder they fought.Cerise hadn't given him a single name, except her own, and he had no guarantee that even that was genuine. She planned to dump him in Sicktree and vanish into the swamp. If they were on solid ground, he could track her, but in the swamp, where water broke up scent trails, he wasn't sure. She knew what she was doing.If this was a normal conflict, things would be simple. She would be an enemy. But if she was telling the truth, she was a victim, a noncombatant. Noncombatants were off-limits. Until she made herself into an enemy by attacking him, he had no justification to treat her as such.He wanted her to like him. Women rarely liked him, even in the Broken. They seemed to sense that something was wrong with him and gave him a wide berth.What William needed was a way into her family, so he could figure out why Spider had decided to screw with them. Cerise was his way inside. He had to get her to like him or at least make her think he was useful enough to bring along. He had to think like a human and be sly.Being sly wasn't among his virtues. Cats were sly. Foxes, too. He was a wolf. He took what he wanted, and if he couldn't have it, he'd bide his time until an opportunity to take it presented itself. She mentioned she expected to make Sicktree by the end of the next day. His window of opportunity was shrinking. He was running out of time.William looked at her one last time and moved off into the living room. He pulled the cushions off the couch, made a makeshift pallet on the floor, and lay down, blocking the door. The Mirror had a man in Sicktree, Zeke Wallace. Officially he was a leather merchant and taxidermist. Unofficially he worked for Adrianglia and smuggled contraband in his spare time. According to Erwin, Zeke would provide him with up-to-date intelligence on Spider: where he and his crew had been seen, whom they contacted in the Mire, and so on. Zeke could help identify Cerise, but that was about it. The rest was on him.Think. You're a human, too. Think.He was still trying to come up with something, when sleep mugged him.003THE sound of faint steps tugged on William through his sleep. He opened his eyes in time to see Cerise's bare ankles as she slipped past him outside.Running out on him. I don't think so.William rolled into a crouch and followed her out. The dour lake stretched placidly under a morose gray sky. At the dock Cerise waded into the water up to her knees, still wearing her long T-shirt. He followed her, moving silently across the grass to the dock, padding across the boards until he could see her face. Her eyes were closed. She lifted her head to the dreary sky and stood, her arms out slightly, as if welcoming someone.Her hair spilled over her shoulders in a glossy waterfall. Her face was sad.William sat on the edge of the dock. What the hell was she doing now?CERISE breathed in the morning air. She'd slept badly. Once she woke up because she dreamed that they had gotten to Sicktree and Urow was dead. The next time she'd dreamed the house was attacked. The dream had been so vivid, she actually got up and went as far as her doorway. From that point she could see the dining room and the living room, both dark, and William asleep in front of the door, barring the way for any intruders. In his dreams, the hard edge faded from the blueblood. He looked peaceful and calm. Watching him reassured her and she went back to sleep.It was morning now, and she was awake, but the anxiety refused to go away. It saddled her and dug the spurs in. The responsibility for the whole family now lay with her, and it dragged her down like an anchor, so heavy, she wondered if she would sink if she dived into the lake.Life was so much easier when she only had to obey Dad's orders. So much easier. She missed him and Mom so much, it hurt. If she didn't find them, the family would crumble. And Lark . . . She didn't even want to imagine what would happen to Lark.I will not sink. I will float.Cerise took a deep breath and let herself fall into the cold water softly. It picked her up and carried her along. She stretched, weightless, her long hair streaming around her in a soft veil. She had done this ever since she was a little girl. The water never failed to soothe her.Failure happened. The trick was to accept the risk and try anyway.The water lapped at her, washing away the jitters. Calm came.She opened her eyes. The pregnant dark sky threatened rain. The dark boards of the dock slid past her. William's face swung into view, peering at her from the dock.He stared at her with utter amazement, like a kid who had stumbled on to a bright odd-looking bug."Hi," she said."What are you doing?""Floating.""Why?""It's relaxing. You should try it." Too late she realized that sounded like an invitation. Great. Just great. Would it have killed her to think before she opened her mouth? Jump in with me, Lord Bill, I'm swimming here, half-naked . . .William shook his head. "No."Wait a minute. What did he mean "no"? "Why not?""I don't like water.""Why?"William grimaced. "It's wet. And the pel . . . the hair stinks like fish for hours afterward."Cerise blinked. Was he serious? "Swimming is fun.""No, swimming gets you from point A to point B. What you're doing isn't swimming. You're not going anywhere."Full of opinions, Lord Bill. "Swimming is good for you, and you could always shampoo your precious hair afterward. Your hair looks good after you wash it."He grimaced."I bet the women from the Weird tell you that you have great hair all the time, Lord Bill." She bet they told him he was handsome as sin, too.His face turned grim. "Women from the Weird tell me nothing. They don't talk to me unless I pay them."Well, that was neither here nor there. William peered at her. "If you're finished splashing in this muddy puddle, I'd like to get to Sicktree now."Cerise raised her eyebrows. "Muddy puddle?""To you it might seem like a giant crystal-clear mountain lake, but trust me, it's a dirty little pond. I bet the bottom is squishy slime, too. I suppose trading the rotten spaghetti stench for the fish one is an improvement ..."He was going to take a dive into this lake. He just didn't know it. Cerise rose, finding footing in the soft mud. The water came up to just below her breasts and her wet shirt stuck to her body. William's gaze snagged on her chest. Yep, keep looking, Lord Bill. Keeeeeep looking.Cerise raised her hand. William leaned forward, poised over the water. His strong dry fingers closed about hers. She smiled, gripped his hand, and bent her knees, hitting him with her full weight, trying to pitch him into the lake.The muscles on William's arm bulged. He flexed and she felt herself lifted out of the water. He plucked her out and held her above the lake for a moment.The tiny hairs on the back of her neck rose. Nobody was that strong.A hint of a smile curved William's mouth. Carefully he set her on the pier and caught her by the shoulders. "You okay?"He was standing too close.Cerise tilted her face up. "Fine."He had a peculiar look on his face, a slightly hungry, possessive expression. His hands on her shoulders felt dry and warm.If he took a small step forward, his chest would touch her breasts.Say something, you idiot. Snap him out of it. "So do you often rescue hobo queens from filthy puddles, Lord Bill?""William," he told her quietly. It sounded like an intimate request."How's your side?"He let go of her long enough to raise his shirt. The dressing was gone - he'd probably taken it off, the ass - but the cuts had scabbed over. That was some fast healing.William dipped his head, looking at her. There was nothing threatening in his gaze, but she had a distinct sense of being stalked by a large, careful predator. They had to get out of the damn swamp and into town, where there would be other people and she could leave him . . ."Maybe swimming would be good," he said.Oh no. No, no, no.Cerise looked past him, trying to think of something to say. Her gaze caught on chunks of battered wood bobbing in the lake just beyond the boundary. She squinted at them. Yep, sure enough. Cerise swore.He turned. "What?""See those muddy broken boards in the lake?"He looked to where she pointed. "Yes?""I think that's our boat."CERISE stood at the boundary, staring into the Broken and listening to a torrent of cursing ripping from William's mouth. He had used a couple of words she'd never heard before, and she filed them away for later. She'd have to ask Kaldar what they meant.The boat was no more. And the long smudge flanked by clawed tracks left no doubt about who was responsible for demolishing it."I'll kill that damn fish with my bare hands!" He must have run out of swear words.Cerise sighed. One chunk of the punt lay twenty feet to the left, the next was up on a bush, the third was in the lake . . . "Boy, he really must've flailed around to throw the pieces so far apart."William took it as a sign to unleash another string of curses."It's a lake house," she said. "There is bound to be some kind of boat in there."Twenty minutes later they climbed into a narrow canoe they'd found in the garage and paddled through the boundary. The crossing took her breath away. Tiny painful needles pierced her insides. Cerise slumped over. Everything had a price. This was how she paid for her magic. She was lucky. Most of her family couldn't even cross into the Broken."Are you all right?" William asked from the stern."Fine." She swallowed the pain. Lord Bill seemed no worse for wear. "We're aiming over there." She pointed at the opposite end of the lake where a narrow river spilled into the water.They began to paddle. The canoe slipped along, light and easy.In front of her William paddled, hard muscles working on his back. Why did she have to meet him now? Why not a month before? Then she could've actually flirted and had the luxury of doing something about it. She really wasn't handling this whole thing well. First, she practically invited him to frolic in the lake with her, then she let him ogle her, then . . .The surface of the river dappled. Tiny silvery streaks burst from the waves in a reverse hail. Fish fry, scared out of their wits. Cerise grabbed her sword."Something's coming!"William dropped the paddle into the boat and pulled his knife.A long serpentine shadow slid under the water. Cerise caught a flash of stubby fat paws. Not again. Damn it all ...The eel shot under the boat. Cerise lunged, thrusting the blade into the water, and felt the sword's tip slide off the armored head. The creature dove, vanishing into gloomy depths, and she withdrew.The lake lay placid.A smooth wave rose and sped toward the boat. The fry leaped into the air in a futile attempt to escape. She gripped the canoe."He's going to ram. Get down!"The blunt head smashed into the boat. The small vessel careened, propped on the eel's skull. A round fish eye stared at her.William hacked at the head with his knife. The eel shot up, snapping at William's legs. The boat careened and he fell into the water.Oh no. She let the eel eat the blueblood.Cerise took a breath and dived in after him.Cold water burned her skin. Cerise hung suspended in the dense gray-green depth, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.An icy spark of Gospo Adir magic flared to the left. She swam like a rolpie, kicking her feet in unison.An outline of a scaly body loomed before her.She sank her blade into it, cleaving into the spinal column, before she realized that the eel lay motionless. Pale blood leaked and spread through the water in opaque clouds. Cerise tasted copper on her tongue.She surfaced and saw William, one hand on the boat, looking for her. He reached her in two strokes."You aren't happy unless you're wet," he growled."There are times when wet is better than dry, but this isn't one of them," she snarled. "If you got down like I told you to, the fish wouldn't have knocked you out of the boat.""It didn't knock me out. I jumped in."Dear Gods. "You jumped into the water with a Gospo Adir eel in it?""I couldn't get a good cut from the boat."Unbelievable. "Are you crazy?""Look who's talking, swamp mermaid.""I jumped in to rescue you, you fool!"He submerged and popped out of the water right next to her. There it was again, that wild thing he hid inside, looking at her through his eyes. If she just looked at it long enough, she would figure out what it was . . .He grinned a crazy, happy grin. "You dived in to save me.""Don't make too much of it." Cerise dived, picked up momentum, and climbed into the boat. Idiot blueblood and his idiot eyes. What the hell was she doing? This was the last time she would let him throw her offkilter.William hooked the eel's carcass and swam, dragging it to the shore."What are you doing?""I'm going to cut off its head.""Why?""I'll have it stuffed and mounted on my wall."She stared at him in disbelief. Every handsome man had a flaw. It was just her luck that in William's case that flaw was lunacy. The man was nuts.William's feet must've hit the ground because he stood up and began to wade. "That way," he said, "I'll be sure the damn thing is dead."WILLIAM shifted his rucksack on his shoulder. The eel head he carried on a sharpened stick stank of rancid fish, and in retrospect he decided dragging it around probably wasn't the smartest idea. But that's what a blueblood would do, and he was too stubborn to toss it away now.Cerise walked next to him. She hadn't said two words since they had gotten back into the canoe. Apparently he really pissed her off with that fish. His plan to get her to like him had gone up in smoke. She would leave him in Sicktree and disappear in the swamp. They were getting close to town, too - the muddy path had joined a narrow one-lane road.He was out of ideas and out of time."We're almost there," Cerise said.Think. "Got a favor to ask you. Before we split, will you help me find somebody to take the fish off my hands?"She frowned. He concentrated, trying to read her expression. It would be a no, he could see it in her eyes.He pulled a doubloon from his pocket, holding the small coin between his index and middle finger. "I'll pay for your time.""There is a man. He sometimes stuffs fish." She held out her hand."Not until we get there.""Fine." She turned away, but William caught a ghost of a smile on her lips.He had done something right. He didn't know what it was, but he hoped he would keep doing it.Ahead the road bent. The wind brought the smell of gun oil and a hint of human sweat. He stopped. "There are people ahead.""How many?" Cerise asked."A few."She pulled her sword out and kept walking."If they're waiting for you, we need to get off the road.""They would just track us down," she said. "The road is better. Gives me space to work."Crazy woman.They turned. Six men waited across the lane. Five had blades, the sixth held a rifle. They wanted to take her alive, William decided. The more guns you had, the higher was the likelihood that someone would lose his shit and pull the trigger, so they gave the coolest head a gun as insurance and brought lots of manpower.A bright smile painted Cerise's face. "Remember my family's feud? This is their hired muscle. Stay back.""Very funny." He kept walking. He was feeling a bit frustrated, and he always made it a point to vent his frustration."It's not your fight.""Six of them, one of you. I don't know what you think you'll do with your pretty little sword. I know they aren't playing.""If you try knocking me out of the way again, I will cut your arm off. Stay back, William. You'll get hurt.""Don't worry, I'll share this time.""Don't do it."Time to pick a fight. He jerked his fish head at the men barring the road and raised his voice. "Move.""Lunatic," Cerise said under her breath.The rifle's barrel sighted Cerise instead of him. Ah. So they knew about her sword tricks, too.The Edgers looked him over. A tall balding guy with a machete smiled. "Where did you find the blueblood, Cerise?""In the swamp," she told him."That's nice. You shouldn't have gone off your land. Now you're all alone out here and your family can't help you."Cerise's grin got wider. "You're looking at it the wrong way. I'm not all alone with you. You're alone with me. You should've brought more people. Six won't do it."The Machete shrugged. "We got enough. Lagar says to bring you in one piece, so come along before anybody gets shot. You know Baxter. He doesn't miss much."Baxter winked at them from behind the rifle."We're going to Sicktree," William said. "You're in the way."The Edgers chuckled."This ain't the Weird. We don't care for bluebloods here," the man on the left called out."You'll get killed," Cerise murmured.William thrust the stick into dirt. "I don't have time for this stupid shit. Move or I will move you."Machete shrugged. "You heard the man. Baxter, move him."The rifle barrel swung to William. He shied left. The bullet grazed his shoulder, burning across his flesh."That's it."The rifle shot again, but he was already moving. He smashed the knuckles of his right hand into Machete's throat, hooking his foot with his right as the man fell, swiped the weapon from his fingers, rammed his elbow into the Edger to his left, and hurled the machete at Baxter. The knife hit the shooter between the eyes. The blow wasn't hard enough to kill, but the oversized blade cut at the man's scalp. Blood poured into Baxter's eyes. He screamed. As William broke the arm of the Edger to his right, he saw the rifleman take off into the brush.William lost himself to the flurry of punches and kicks. Bones crunched, people howled, someone's blood wet his knuckles. It went fast and was over too quickly. He tossed the last man at Cerise, just for the fun of it. She reached out and very carefully popped the Edger on the head with the hilt of her sword. He went down.William strode to her. That's how it's done. Drink it in.She surveyed the carnage behind him. "Did you have fun?"He showed her his teeth. "Yes. Now they won't take you anywhere."Cerise stepped closer to him, so close he only needed to lean in and dip his head and he would kiss her. Since he saved her, maybe he could just grab her and -"That was the stupidest thing you have done since I've met you," she ground out through her teeth.Belay the grabbing."You're an outsider. Your kind exiled our kind into this swamp. We hate bluebloods. Right now Baxter is out there telling wild stories about the blueblood who came to kill the Edgers. By nightfall, it will be you and some friends, who attacked defenseless locals. By morning, the whole town will be out looking for the mysterious army unit of bluebloods Louisiana sent in to exterminate us. They will hunt you down with torches, like a dog. Stay here, hero, while I fix this."She strode over to Machete and crouched by him, the tip of her sword resting on the ground. "You're alive, Kent?"Kent moaned something."Tell Lagar that he isn't the only one who can hire mercenaries. When we hire someone, we get the best. He would do well to remember that."She rose from the crouch and nodded at William. He took his fish and followed her down the road.Cerise's face was dark. "What were you thinking?""I was thinking that six against one wasn't a fair fight. I evened the odds a bit.""You call that evening the odds? You demolished them."Demolished. He liked that. "I left you one.""I noticed.""I promised to share," he told her. "Manners are very important in the Weird. Lying would be quite impolite."Her mouth trembled and she hid a smile. It played on her lips for a second, lighting up her face, and vanished.Want."I just told them that my family hired you," Cerise said. "Now instead of thinking you're some blueblood hell-bent on causing destruction, the locals will view you as a mercenary. That makes your presence a private matter between my family and the Sheeriles. Either way, you signed your death sentence - Lagar Sheerile will turn himself inside out to kill you now. Lagar isn't a pushover like those clowns. His brother Peva once shot the hearts off a card at a hundred feet with a crossbow.""I'm very scared," William told her. "Are playing cards a real nuisance in your part of the Edge?"She snickered."Shooting cards is dumb," he told her. "What is he, five? Or is he doing it to get women?"Cerise waved her hands. "Never mind. You have two choices: you can either stay here and let them hunt you down while you look for your doohickey, or you can come with me to my house and wait until this blows over. We can probably smuggle you out once this mess dies down."He wanted to jump up and down and pump his fist. "To your house? In the swamps?""Yes."Play it cool, play it cool. "Hmm."Cerise glared at him, her dark eyes bright. "What do you mean 'hmm'? You think I invite just anybody to our family home? If you'd rather be dead because you decided to play the hero and save me, you're welcome to it.""What about your family? Won't they mind?""Until we get my parents back, I'm in charge of my family," she said.The road broke through the trees, and they entered a small town. Wooden buildings, some on stilts, some on stone foundations, formed narrow streets. Somewhere to the left a dog bayed. The air smelled of food and people."Decide, Lord Bill. Yes or no?""Yes," he said."We might get killed along the way," she said."Nice of you to mention it.""My pleasure." She pointed left. "Come on. Zeke's place is over there. We have to go that way anyway, and the more people see us together now, the better. It will reinforce the idea that you're working for me. And we can get rid of that awful thing."He won. He won, he won, he won. He could see the method in Declan's madness now. Playing a hero had its advantages."I happen to think the fish head is an impressive specimen," William told her."It stinks.""You wore a jacket full of rancid spaghetti for three days.""It was a disguise! Nobody pays attention to homeless people in the Broken.""Why were you in the Broken?" he asked."None of your business."She stuck her chin in the air and strode down the street. He snuck a glance at her ass - it was a remarkable ass - and followed her.