History student Aria Forsyth's studies lead her to dangerous questions about the Empire's origins. A mysterious man named Owen, impervious to the winter cold, further unravels the safety of the world she thought she knew. At first, Aria believes Owen is human. He says he's not. What if they're both wrong?
A moment's compassion draws her into a conflict between human and inhuman, natural and supernatural, and she begins to discover the secrets of the Empire, the Fae, and what it means to be human.
Researching this thesis is an exercise in dedication, frustration, making up stuff, pretending I know what I’m doing, and wondering why nothing adds up. Aria swirled her coffee and stared at the blank page in her notebook.
Why did I decide to study history? She flipped back to look at her notes and sighed. She couldn’t find enough information to even form a coherent thesis. The records were either gone, or had never existed in the first place. Something had happened when the Revolution came to power, but she didn’t know what, and she couldn’t even pinpoint exactly when.
The nebulous idea she’d had for her research seemed even more useless now. She’d been trying to find records of how things had changed since the Revolution, how the city had grown and developed. There were official statistics on the greater prosperity, the academic success of the city schools, and the vast reduction in crime. The statistics didn’t mention the abandoned buildings, the missing persons, or any grumbling against the curfew. At least it was later now; for a year, curfew had been at dusk.
She glanced around the bookstore at the other patrons. A man wearing a business suit was browsing in the self-help section, probably trying to improve his public speaking. A girl, probably another student judging by her worn jeans and backpack, was sitting on the floor in the literary fiction section, completely engrossed in a book.
Aria flipped to the front of the book again. It was a memoir of someone she’d never heard of. She’d picked it up almost at random, and flipped to the middle, hoping to find something more interesting than dead ends. The words told of a walk in the forest, and for a moment Aria was there, her nose filled with the scents of pine and loam, her eyes dazzled by the sunlight streaming through the leaves swaying above her. She blinked, and the words were there but the feeling was gone. Rereading the passage, she couldn’t figure out why she’d been caught up with such breathless realism.
It wasn’t that the words were so profound; she was confident they were not. Something had caught her though, and she closed her eyes to imagine the forest again, as if it were a memory. Distant, faded, perhaps not even her memory. A memory of something she’d seen in a movie, perhaps, or a memory of a dream she’d had as a child.
Something about it troubled her, and she meant to come back to it. Tonight, though, she had other homework, and she pushed the book aside.
Dandra’s Books was an unassuming name for the best bookstore in all of the North Quadrant. Dandra was a petite, grey-haired lady with a warm smile. She also had the best map collection, everything from ancient history, both originals and reproductions, to modern maps of cities both near and far, topographical maps, water currents, and everything else. She carried the new releases and electronic holdings that were most in demand, but what made the store unique was the extensive and ever-changing selection of used and antique books. If it could be found, Dandra could find it. Aria suspected she maintained an unassuming storefront because she didn’t want demand to increase; business was sufficient to pay the bills and she refused to hire help.
Dandra also made tolerable coffee, an important consideration for a graduate student. Aria had spent hours studying there as an undergraduate; it had the same air of productive intellectualism as the university library, but without the distraction of other groups of students having more fun than she was. She’d found it on a long, meandering walk avoiding some homework. Something about the place made concentrating easier.
Except when it came to her thesis. Aria told herself that she was investigating what resources were available before she narrowed her focus. But sometimes, when she stared at the blank pages, she almost admitted to herself the truth, that she was frustrated with her professors, her thesis, and the Empire itself. She didn’t have a good explanation, and she hadn’t told anyone.
Something about this image of the forest felt true in a way that nothing had felt for a very long time. It was evidence. Evidence of what, she wasn’t sure. But definitely evidence.
She finished her homework and packed her bag. She put a bookmark in the memoir and reshelved it, resolving that she would come back later and read it a bit more. It was already late, and she had an early class the next day.
After class there were errands, and homework, and more class, and lunch with a boy who’d seemed almost likable until he talked too much about his dysfunctional family and his abiding love for his ex-girlfriend, who lived down the hall in his apartment building. It was a week before she made it back to Dandra’s.
The book was gone.
Dandra shook her head when Aria asked about it. “I don’t know what book you mean. I’ve never had a book like that.”
Aria stared at her in disbelief. “You saw me read it last week. It was called Memories Kept or something like that. Memory Keeper, maybe. Don’t you remember? I was sitting there.” She pointed.
Dandra gave her a sympathetic look. “You’ve been studying too much, Aria. I’m sorry. I don’t have that book. I don’t think I ever did.”
Aria huffed in frustration and bought a cup of coffee. She put too much sugar and cream in it and sat by the window at the front. She stared at the people as they came in, wondering if her anger would burn a hole in the back of someone’s coat. It didn’t, but the mental picture amused her.
Not much else did. The thesis was going nowhere, and the only thing that kept her interest was a line of questions that had no answers and a book that didn’t exist.
Was the degree worth anything anyway? She’d studied history because she enjoyed stories, wanted to learn about the past. But the classes had consisted almost entirely of monologues by the professors about the strength of the Empire and how much better things were now after the Revolution. Her papers had alternated between parroting the professors’ words, and uneasy forays into the old times. The research was hard, and getting harder.
The paper she’d written on the Revolution, on how John Sanderhill had united the bickering political factions, had earned an F. Dr. Corten had written, “Your implication that Sanderhill ordered the assassination of Gerard Neeson is patently false and betrays an utter lack of understanding of the morality of the Revolution. I am unable to grade this paper higher than an F, in light of such suspect scholarship and patriotism.” Yet Aria had cited her source clearly and had been careful not to take a side on the issue, choosing merely to note that it was one possible explanation for Neeson’s disappearance at the height of the conflict. Not even the most likely.
For a history department, her professors were remarkably uninterested in exploring the past. She scowled at her coffee as it got colder. What was the point of history, if you couldn’t learn from it? The people in history weren’t perfect, any more than people now were. But surely, as scholars, they should be able to admit that imperfect people and imperfect decisions could yield lessons and wisdom.
It wasn’t as if it was ancient history either. The Revolution had begun less than fifteen years ago. One would think information would be available. Memories should be clear.
But they weren’t.
The man entered Dandra’s near dusk. He wore no jacket against the winter cold, only a threadbare short-sleeved black shirt. His trousers were dark and equally worn, the cuffs skimming bare ankles. His feet were bare too, and that caught her attention.
He spoke in a low voice, but she was curious, so she listened hard and heard most of what he said. “I need the maps, Dandra.”
“You know I don’t have those.”
“I don’t have them.” Dandra took a step back as he leaned forward with his hands resting on the desk. “I told you before, I can’t get them. I still can’t.”
“I was told you could on good authority.” His voice stayed very quiet, but even Aria could hear the cold anger. “Should I tell Petro he was wrong about you?”
“Are you threatening me?” Dandra’s eyes widened, but Aria couldn’t tell if it was in fear or in anger.
“I’m asking if Petro was wrong.”
“Whatever you were promised was wrong. I couldn’t get them.” Dandra clasped her hands together and drew back, her shoulders against the wall, and Aria realized she was terrified. Of the man in the black shirt, or of Petro, or possibly both.
Aria glanced around as she rose and stepped to the counter. Everyone else seemed to be pretending that absolutely nothing was going on. It was up to her to help. “Excuse me? Can I help you find something?” She smiled brightly at him.
He glanced back and she had the momentary impression he was startled at the interruption. He stared at her for a split second with cold blue eyes, then looked back at Dandra. Without another word, he brushed past Aria and out the door, and disappeared into the darkness.
Dandra looked at her with wide eyes. “That wasn’t wise, but thank you.”
“Who is he?”
Dandra shook her head. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to. Go home, child. It’s late.”
“Are you in trouble?”
Dandra shook her head wordlessly and glanced at a note she held crumpled in her hand. Was she holding that earlier? I don’t think so. The contents seemed to disturb her even more and she announced in a slightly unsteady voice that the store would be closing early for the evening.
Aria pulled on her gloves and shoved her notebook back in her pack. Dandra shooed out the few remaining customers and locked the door with a sigh of relief.
Aria looked around, but the man in the black shirt was long gone.
“You want a ride home?” Dandra asked.
“No, thanks. I’ll walk. It’s not far.” She hesitated. “Are you okay, Dandra?”
Dandra’s smile and nod were so forced it was obvious even in the reflected lamplight. “Goodnight.”
Aria wandered down the block and around the corner, holding her now-cold cup of coffee. If she went home, she’d have to work on her thesis. If she stayed out, she could tell herself she was planning. She followed the sidewalk and the lighted windows toward the river. She’d walk to the bridge and turn around; she couldn’t justify more procrastination.
The cozy shops didn’t hold her attention, though the light and bustle kept the walk from feeling too morose. She took a last swig of coffee and tossed the cup in a trashcan, then stuffed her hands in her pockets. The wind whipped around the corners of the concrete buildings, and she pulled her hat tighter over her brown curls. The lighted shops behind her, she headed into the edge of the shipping district. Her friend Amara would tell her to be more cautious, but Aria had never been afraid of lonely walks. Just stay alert, she told herself.
One of the ubiquitous posters flapped in the wind, then detached from the light pole and fluttered down the street, finally stopping when it hit a puddle of icy water. She didn’t need to read it to know what it said. See it, say it! Report suspicious activity to the Imperial Police Force. And underneath that admonition: Enemies hide in plain sight.
She’d never seen any enemies of the state. The warnings were everywhere, but even the Revolution itself had been seamless, with barely a whimper of protest from the old government. Everyone knew things were better now.
She approached the bridge at an angle, almost ready to turn around. The water was a black void between the lights behind her and the distant streetlights of the bustling harbor on the other side, which caught the tops of small waves whipped up by the wind. Now and again a faint reflection would wink at her, a bright spot in the sea of darkness.
A movement caught her eye.
Later, when she thought about it, she was surprised she’d seen him at all. He sat on one of the steel girders underneath the bridge, some forty feet above the water. He was doing something with his hands, perhaps writing, but she couldn’t see clearly. One leg swung beneath him, relaxed. He was still in shirtsleeves and barefoot.
It was cold enough for snow, and she stared at him, wondering if he was crazy. Contemplating suicide? Trying to catch pneumonia? She shivered in her sweater, with a thick coat over it against the icy wind.
Perhaps he needed to see a mental therapist. As she finished the thought, he swung his leg back onto the girder. He rose with easy grace and ran along the slick metal to leap fifteen feet to the ground. He jogged up the slope toward her but turned while he was still some distance away, and jogged another two blocks before entering into a dark building, perhaps an abandoned apartment or condominium tower.
She slipped into the building a few moments after he did, her heart pounding. The doors were well-oiled and silent. The hall seemed black as coal after the streetlights outside, and she blinked, hoping her eyes would adjust. After a moment, she could make out the faint rectangles of light from windows in adjacent rooms, but the spaces between remained dark and empty. She crept another step forward, wondering where the man had gone. No light from a distant doorway hinted at a destination, and she hesitated again.
He twisted her arm up behind her back and clamped a hand over her mouth, so her shriek of fear and surprise was caught in her throat. “Why are you following me? How are you following me?”
His face was close to hers, his breath nearly in her hair. He lifted his icy hand from her mouth just a little, so she managed to gasp, “I was just curious. No reason.”
“You are not welcome here.” He opened the door and shoved her outside into the cold.
And that was that.
Or it should have been, anyway. She was too curious for her own good, and she knew it.
Something about him drew her, though she could not say why. The next day, while eating lunch at the campus cafe with Amara, she almost mentioned him, but stifled the impulse. He was a baffling secret, not meant to be discussed over toasted hummus sandwiches.
Aria went back to his apartment three days later, after she’d gathered up her courage again. She circled the building and found an outer door unlocked. Perhaps he never locked it. She closed her eyes for several minutes outside to let her eyes adjust to the darkness before she slipped inside. While she waited, she listened for him, but heard only the traffic of electric cars on the road to her left, the whoosh of wind through the buildings, and the rustle of a bit of paper caught in the grating over a drain near her feet. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears.
The building felt deserted, long disused. Why didn’t I bring a flashlight? Faint streetlight made it through the windows in the rooms along one side to light the hallway. Long rectangles of light crossed the floor. A stairwell at the end made her pause again, and she crept downward, heart in her throat. The darkness grew deeper, and she remembered her phone. She pulled it out and let the screen shed pale light down the stairs. Another hallway, with a closed door a short distance ahead on her left.
She put her ear to the door and listened. Silence. She waited, her heart in her throat, for some sound that would tell her he was there. Why am I doing this? Absolute silence, both in the room and in the hallway.
She glanced around and tried the door tentatively. If he was there, it was dangerous. Even if he wasn’t, it was still dangerous.
There was no sound from inside, and she took a deep breath before pulling a plastic card from her pocket. The building was old, and the lock looked simple and loose. Perhaps this would work.
She needed both hands, so she put the phone back in her pocket, wishing she still had its faint light. It seemed to take too long, her heart in her throat while she jiggled the card, twisting and pushing and hoping.
There was a barely audible click, and she breathed a quick sigh of relief as she turned the doorknob.
He spun her about and slammed her against the wall, one hand on her throat and the other pulling the card from her hand.
“Why are you here?” His voice growled into her ear, cold breath brushing against her cheek.
She thrashed, trying to kick him, but he evaded her efforts easily, barely acknowledging her effort. He loosened his hand, just a bit, and she gasped before he tightened it again. Sparkles swam before her eyes, dazzling in the darkness of the hallway. This had been a very bad idea indeed. How did he sneak up on me? I didn’t hear him at all.
“Why are you here?” He repeated his question, and she shook her head obstinately. She wouldn’t answer his question, not while he was choking her. She opened her mouth, trying to curse him, beg him, something, and no sound came out. The sparkles began to fade.
She could see nothing, but his breath moved gently against her face. He was staring at her, as if the darkness meant nothing to him. I’m going to die. He’s going to kill me, and no one will even know. Suddenly he let go and pushed past her through the open door.
She fell to one knee and rubbed her neck, blinking back angry tears at the pain. It was her own fault. His hand had been as cold and hard as steel, and her breath burned in her throat.
She pulled the phone from her pocket and pointed the light at him through the doorway.
She hadn’t had a good look before, and even now, in her fear, the curiosity rose up. It’s going to get me killed someday. He wore well-worn dark trousers and a threadbare short-sleeved black shirt, perhaps the same one, so thin his pale skin showed through across the shoulders. His hair was black, or close to it; she couldn’t tell in the dim light. He moved with taut grace, an athlete or a soldier, perhaps. Of average height, with a slim, muscular build. Thirty? Perhaps younger? There was the slightest touch of grey in the hair near his temples but his face was unlined. Sharp features, because he had no fat to soften them, but they were attractive, she had to admit that. An ancient oil lantern sat unlit on a wooden desk. He tossed a rucksack beside it and packed with swift economy. Three more shirts. A pair of pants. She craned her neck to see more.
“Leave me alone,” he said without looking up.
She hesitated. “I only meant to see if anyone lived here.”
He grunted. It was an unfriendly sound. And why should he be friendly? She’d been trying to break into his apartment. But he could have killed her, and he didn’t.
She pressed her luck. “Well, I thought you might need something. Since the power is off.” She rubbed her throat again.
He didn’t answer. He picked up all six books from the desk and stacked them in the rucksack, then jerked the worn blanket off the cot, folded it, and tucked it in on top. He turned away for a moment and buckled something around his waist, and she frowned.
“What are you doing?”
“Leaving.” His voice was cold.
“Because of me?”
He grunted again. He turned back to the cot and threw the rucksack over his shoulder. Her eyes widened. He was wearing a sword, a long straight blade with a worn, leather-wrapped scabbard. Another, shorter sword hung from his right hip. What kind of lunatic carries swords, as if we lived back in ye olden days? If he wanted to defend himself, a gun would be better, but if he wants to look intimidating, I guess this works.
He finally met her eyes, and she flinched at the icy blue stare. She took a step backward, and he walked past her into the hallway.
He dropped the key at her feet without looking back. “It’s yours now.”
Aria stared at his back. He disappeared at the end of the hallway, and she hesitated. She was almost crazy enough to go after him.
No, she would look in the room. She picked up the key and stepped inside his apartment.
He’d left the lamp, and she lit it with a match from the box sitting beside it. It was impossible to tell how long he’d been there. He’d packed little yet left nothing behind. The ancient wooden bureau was empty, the drawers loud as she tried them. There was a desk with a single drawer, also empty. Nothing in the trashcan. Nothing in the old wardrobe. There was a tiny refrigerator, but it was off. She opened the door, half-expecting some horrible rot to assault her nose, but there was nothing inside. It had been empty and cleaned before the power was turned off. He’d probably never used it then. She tried the light switch. Nothing. No hum of electric power or devices charging. It might have been a bank vault for how silent the room was.
She turned in a circle in the middle of the room. The cot was pushed against the wall, and she eyed it. A cheap camping cot, well-used, devoid of padding and comfort. He didn’t have a pillow. Odd. The room was a concrete box with nothing to see and nothing to recommend it.
Aria took the lantern with her when she left. She walked slowly down the hallway, thinking so hard she forgot the pain in her throat as she climbed the stairs toward the exit. The adventure had yielded little, and she felt the whole thing had been foolish. More than foolish. Idiotic. Some men would have done worse, you know. You’re not exactly imposing, and he did have reason to be angry with you. What did you expect?
She sniffed. There was an odd smell, musky and rank, and she caught her breath suddenly. It smelled dangerous. Big and dangerous. She pressed herself against the wall, her heart racing.
It was inside the building. She heard it, a rumbling growl, perhaps from the next hall. She swallowed hard. It was coming closer. Another growl, low and echoing in the concrete hallways.
Why did I decide this was a good idea? Aria tried to figure out where the sound was coming from. Was it between her and the exterior door? Could she make it outside without being seen? What good would that do, if it caught her scent? She found an open doorway and slid inside the darkened room, trembling, her back pressed against the concrete block wall. She turned the lantern down as far as it would go without going out completely. She pushed the door closed, wincing at a soft squeak. She turned the doorknob, her fingers trembling, trying to get the latch to catch without another sound.
Maybe it won’t hear me.
Maybe it can smell me. It sounds big enough to break down the door.
It growled again, closer. A roar brought her heart to her throat. Terrible snarls echoed in the hallway. An inhuman shriek. Thumps and crashes, with deafening snarling over it all. She sank down against the wall and tried to breathe silently. Be brave, Aria! Don’t lose it, girl.
Sudden silence. She caught her breath. Was it coming closer? Had it killed someone? What was it?
There was a faint thump, very different than the sounds before. Perhaps someone was alive and needed help. There were no cries of pain or shouts for help, but perhaps they couldn’t cry out. She waited.
Is it dead? Is it gone yet? What if someone needs help? She took a deep breath and rose from her hiding place. She unlatched the door and pulled it open to peek around the doorframe.
The flickering lamplight showed nothing, and she turned it up. She crept carefully down the hall, grateful for her soft, quiet shoes. The hall was short, and at the corner she caught her breath. The walls and floor were covered in blood, great streaks and smears of gore. There was no body. The blood led to the left, and she held her breath as she followed the trail.
The lamp flooded a room with yellow light and her mouth dropped open in horror. It might have been a classroom at some point; there was a blackboard on one wall and a large desk to one side, though there were no small desks for children. A great hulk lay in the middle, the face turned away from her. Blood smeared the floor, the ceiling, and three of the four walls. Paw prints showed how the beast had fought, how it had leaped from the floor to a wall and back into the center of the room.
Her eyes rested on the creature, and she stayed well away from it, holding the lamp higher as she edged around to examine its head. A wolf of sorts, though not exactly. It was easily three hundred pounds, perhaps more, lean and muscular. Long-legged. Its muzzle was shorter than a wolf’s should be, and the teeth were larger and more uneven. Its mouth gaped open, a slime of blood and saliva pooling beneath the tongue. Is it dead? It’s not moving.
“I told you to leave me alone.” The growl came from the other side of the beast’s body.
Aria started so badly she almost dropped the lamp.
“Are you hurt?” she managed. She could barely hear her voice over her own thudding heartbeat.
He must have been holding his breath, for he let it out in a rush. “It is none of your concern.”
She stepped closer anyway, giving the creature a wide berth. Her eyes were transfixed on its face for another long moment. It looked wrong.
Then she looked at him.
He was on his knees, sitting on his heels, the longer sword on the floor in front of him in easy reach. The hilt and blade were smeared with blood, and so was his face. She brought the lamp closer. He sighed in weary frustration, turning his face away from the light.
“Let me help you.”
He was covered in blood, the thin shirt sticking to him wetly. His shoulders dropped and he grunted again. “You should leave.” It wasn’t so unfriendly this time.
She didn’t answer. She reached forward to push his hands away from the wound. One of the wounds.
It looked like the creature had tried to gut him, his stomach ravaged. She brought the lamp closer to see the damage, but it was hard to make out in the flickering light. Everything was red blood, soaked dark into the ripped fabric. He’d been trying to tie his extra pair of pants about his waist, but the fabric was difficult to knot tightly. Especially since one of his hands was badly mangled. A broken bone glistened white against the red flesh and blood.
She tried not to look at it, feeling bile rise in her throat.
“What is that thing?” she asked. She had to keep him talking. He would go into shock and die.
“Are there many of them in the city? I’ve never seen one before.” She felt panicky at the thought. Blood smeared her hands, and she stared at them, appalled. I have to stop the bleeding.
He snorted, and she looked up at his face. “You wouldn’t have,” he said.
“I’ll take you to the hospital. You need better care than I can give. And you need it soon.” He shouldn’t still be talking. He should be dead. How much of that blood on the floor is his? She pulled the knot tight, the fabric slick in her fingers.
“I’ll be fine.” He leaned forward and rested a moment on his right hand, holding his left close to his body, then stood. He blinked, and swayed a moment, then focused on her. “You need to leave. It isn’t safe here.”
She reached out for his mangled left hand. “Let me bandage that.”
He ignored her, knelt to pick up his sword and wiped it on his pants.
“I don’t think that helped much,” she ventured. “You’re pretty gory.”
He slanted a look at her sideways. His mouth twitched, as if he was going to say something, but then he only frowned and said nothing.
“I need to take you to the hospital,” she repeated. “If it doesn’t hurt too much now, it’s because you’re in shock. You need medical attention.”
He bent to pull his rucksack over one shoulder and straightened again, more steadily this time, and looked at her. “Thank you for your help. I hope I never see you again.” One corner of his mouth twitched upward in a ghost of a smile, and he turned away.
She let him go.
She stayed on her knees, too queasy to rise just yet. She stared at the great beast in horrified fascination. It was covered in grey-brown fur, layered as if it were a cold-weather creature. The teeth were white and sharp, and she peered at them in the lamplight. The largest was nearly as long as her hand. Bloody smears across the floor highlighted long gouges in the linoleum. Claw marks.
He should have been dead. It had bitten him, savaged him. The beast too, should have been dead two or three times over. It was cut and stabbed in twelve or thirteen places. Two sword strokes went deep into its gut, but she guessed the throat wound had killed it.
She startled at the sounds in the hallway. The Imperial Police Force was here. The IPF was reassuringly competent, and they would handle this.
“What happened here, ma’am?” the corporal at the front asked. “Are you injured?”
“No.” She gestured helplessly toward the beast.
“Yes, I see it. What do you know about it?” He didn’t seem as surprised as she’d expected. Has he seen one of these before?
Aria licked her lips. “I think he said it was a ‘vertril’? Is that a word?”
He looked at her sharply. “Who said that?”
“The man who killed it. You didn’t think I did, did you?”
He blinked at her. “Wait a moment.” He pulled an electronic tablet from his pocket and tapped the screen a few times. A light pulsed softly on the end pointed toward her. “Start at the beginning.”
She hesitated. She wasn’t supposed to be here. Not exactly. “I was here because, well, I heard a sound, and I thought it was suspicious. It wasn’t loud. It might have been only a cat or something. But I was just trying to do my duty, and check to see if anything was wrong, so I came in. And I was walking through the hall there when I heard a growl.”
The man stared at her. “Wait a moment.” He tapped on the screen a few times, then frowned. “Continue.”
“Well, it sounded big. And I was frightened. So I waited in that room and when it sounded like everything was over, I came out to see if everything was okay. It sounded like it might have killed someone.” She felt panic rising up again at the thought. The smell. The sound of the fight. What if it had found her first?
“Breathe, miss. Take a deep breath. Continue.” The man was looking at her with a combination of compassion, disbelief, and suspicion.
“This man had killed it. With a sword.” She heard her own choppy language and thought distantly, I think I’m in shock. “He was hurt, and I tried to take him to a hospital, but he refused. He left.”
“Did you see where he went?” The man’s eyes were sharp on her face.
“Down the hall.” She waved vaguely.
He called out over his shoulder, eyes not leaving her face. “Teams one and two, ready for retrieval ops. Direction unknown. One target, armed and dangerous. Standby.” Then, to Aria, “What did he look like?”
She blinked. “He’s not a criminal. He killed it. That’s a heroic thing, I’d think.”
“What did he look like?” He barked the question at her.
“Medium height. Dark hair. Blue eyes.” She felt obstinately unwilling to help them. What did they want with him anyway? He hadn’t done anything wrong. If anything, they needed to find him to save his life. He’d be bleeding out now, if she guessed right. Probably no more than a block away.
“Anything else? Distinguishing marks?”
“He’s hurt.” She stared at him sullenly, wishing she’d lied.
“Medium height, dark hair, blue eyes, wounded. Go!”
All but three of the IPF squad sprinted away.
“Is that all you know?”
“I… think so?”
He studied her for a moment and said carefully, “I’m not questioning your truthfulness, but in cases like this, there is often some… confusion… in the witnesses. I’m going to prompt you a little where things don’t seem to make sense. Just tell me what you actually remember, not what you think I want to hear. If you can’t remember, you can’t remember. But don’t be afraid to add things or change your story if you think of something you didn’t say before. If you realize you were confused and said something that wasn’t true, now is the time to tell me.”
She licked her lips.
“So, you hadn’t seen the man before? You just came in here because of a strange noise?”
Aria swallowed. It wasn’t really believable, was it? If they thought she was lying, or even just not telling everything she knew, she could be arrested. Kicked out of school. Who knew what else?
“Um. Well, actually I saw the man earlier, in a bookstore. I thought he was… odd, somehow. He didn’t do anything wrong. He just caught my interest, I guess. Maybe he reminded me of someone?”
The man’s gaze sharpened at this.
“So I guess I followed him here without really thinking much about it. I was out walking, and this was as good a way as any. It’s not that far out of my way. I didn’t think much of it before…” she gestured at the vertril corpse on the floor.
“He reminded you of someone? Who?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t at all. Maybe it was something else about him. He just seemed a little strange somehow, and we’re supposed to pay attention and report strange things, aren’t we?”
He relaxed a little and glanced at the screen before him. “Where did you first see him? Did you speak with him?”
Oh. They thought she might be associated with him somehow. That was not good at all.
“No, not really. I saw him, just for a minute, in a bookstore where I do homework. It’s called Dandra’s. He was looking for something and I asked if I could help him, but he turned and left without answering me. I hadn’t seen him before that. I left the store a few minutes later and happened to see him again on the street while I was walking around, and I guess I just followed him here without meaning to. Then I heard the noises.” That was a better story. They could verify with Dandra that she’d been at the shop, and hadn’t seemed to know the man. And she hadn’t really said anything that would help them catch him.
“Is any of this blood his?”
She nodded uncertainly. “Take samples,” he said over his shoulder to the other men. “Your name? Age? Address?”
“Aria Forsyth. Twenty-four. 19 McKenna Walk.”
“That’s North Quadrant. Why are you here?”
She blinked at him innocently. “What do you mean?”
“This is East Quadrant. Why are you here?”
“Like I said, I was just on a walk. This isn’t where I’d normally go, but it’s not any farther.”
“Three miles from home.” He frowned at her skeptically.
She blinked back at him innocently. “I’m a student. I walk everywhere.”
“Hm.” He noted something on the tablet. “We’re done here. Gert, call cleanup.” Then to Aria, “Go home. Have a good evening. I’d recommend staying in North Quadrant for your walks from now on.” He smiled at her coolly and pointed her toward the door.
As she left, she heard another IPF officer say quietly, “It’s number 235, sir.”
She hurried down the hall, away from the blood streaks and terror. She’d gotten more than she bargained for. What had she expected if she broke into his apartment, anyway?
Any man would be annoyed, at best, at finding someone breaking and entering. Dandra was frightened, either of him or of those he worked with. Worked with, as if she knew what his connection was with Petro. Or who Petro was. Not to mention the danger of other things. Some men couldn’t be trusted alone with a girl at all. She’d thought she could take care of herself, but he’d taken her by surprise. Twice.
Now, in the aftermath of the… what would she call it? Her attempt at breaking into his apartment? The incident with the great wolf beast? The second time he could have killed her but didn’t? In the aftermath, as she walked into the light winter sleet, she thought about him.
He meant to be frightening, but she wasn’t frightened. Not of him, anyway. The thought of another vertril in the streets was enough to make her look over her shoulder and hurry a little faster. She was curious, still. Worried, too. Guilty.
What if they caught him? The IPF hadn’t seemed concerned about his wounds at all. She tried to put into words what she’d seen in the corporal’s face. Bloodthirsty? It sounded harsh but yet terrifyingly accurate.
She heard IPF teams as she hurried through the darkness. They were quiet, but she was alone in the street and she could tell that many people moved through the darkness around her. Their boots squished softly on the damp asphalt.
“That way.” She heard them running swiftly past her. She stopped, her heart in her throat, at the quick flash of a laser sight. It disappeared, and she heard them moving again. No shot sounded.
She stood frozen in the street. They’re trying to kill him!
She tried to follow the sounds, but they were fast and she was already tired. She lost them some blocks away. Not that she had any idea what she would do if she caught up with them.
Maybe she was wrong.
Maybe they weren’t going to kill him. But what were “retrieval ops” and why did they merit weapons with laser sights? The whole team had been armed, once she thought about it. Heavily armed. Their guns had silencers. She’d assumed it was to deal with the vertril, but now she wasn’t sure. How had they known to come in the first place? Number 235? What did that mean?
She walked home briskly, huddled in her coat. It was a long walk with the sleet picking up, and she wondered why she’d thought it was a good idea to walk in the first place. She stayed under the lights on the busier streets. Even at this hour, there were plenty of people out in the commercial district.
How many of them know about the vertril? Would they hunt here, among the crowds? How had she lived in this city for twenty-four years and not known of such monsters? She slipped into her little apartment with a sigh of relief. She locked the door behind herself and pulled off her coat and sweater, her boots, and finally her pants. She ran her hands over her face and through her hair.
A shower. I’ll feel better after a shower. She shivered.
As the hot water ran over her, she felt some of her tension and fear melt away. No vertril would get her here. But it didn’t soothe her guilt. Somewhere, a man was dying, and she had barely tried to save him.
Aria spent the next day inside. She had plenty of books full of sticky notes and highlighting and she stared at her computer screen for hours.
But the words wouldn’t come. She had ideas, but no thesis. No coherent story for her paper. She had no thread to pull that would unravel into a line of thought.
Except the uneasy suspicion that there were things the Empire didn’t want her to know. But that was silly. Every government has secrets. It doesn’t mean the government is immoral. No government can operate with complete transparency. She knew that. She wasn’t so naive that she didn’t understand the need for secrecy. Sometimes.
But why had she heard nothing about forests in the last few years? Surely someone would have mentioned forests, or woods, or rivers, or something. Not busy waterways like the Anacostia and Potomac, but a real river, with fish and rocks and maybe even a waterfall. The images in her mind were hazy and dreamlike, but she knew they were real.
Where had the book gone? Why did Dandra deny it? Aria was sure Dandra knew which book she meant. But why would she lie about it?
What if he’d died?
He had died, of course. No one could live with those injuries. No one could evade the IPF, much less when injured so terribly. Maybe they’d found him and taken him to a hospital. But that’s not what they intended.
She bundled up against the cold and went out. A walk would clear her head. Or perhaps give it more to think about. More questions might lead to answers, or connections between questions, which might be almost as good.
She considered turning toward Connecticut Avenue, where her friend Amara lived. But this was an alone kind of walk. An alone kind of mood.
Aria looked in the shop windows as she passed. The familiar upscale clothing boutiques and trendy bistros didn’t interest her. Fashionable mannequins modeled outfits she couldn’t afford on her graduate student stipend. Only the restaurants and coffee shops were open this late.
She considered a hot drink, perhaps tea to break with her coffee tradition, but decided against it. The shops looked small and cozy, but the bleak weather suited her mood better. She had warm boots and a hood against the coming snow. She pushed her gloved hands further into her pockets and continued on.
There were few others walking the streets; they all looked like they were headed somewhere in a hurry. Maybe they’re smarter than I am. It’s miserable out here. But there was traffic, the bluish headlights and red taillights of electric cars meandering through the commercial district. A door opened briefly as a man entered a little bistro, and she heard laughter from inside.
Without meaning to, she found herself near the river. The edges were just crusting with ice; it was barely below freezing. She turned southeast, with the river on her right, and followed it morosely.
Had she caused his death? Had the IPF caught him? Why had they hunted him anyway?
Was it her fault?
She wondered if Dandra’s shop was open this late. Probably not. Should I tell her what happened? Aria headed to the bookstore anyway, not looking up until she was nearly to the door. Then she stopped in surprise.
The lights inside were off, of course; that was as she’d expected. A handwritten note taped to the inside of the glass door said Closed until further notice. That was odd. She peered in, but the streetlights behind her barely illuminated the interior. Nothing looked unusual. The row of tiny tables near the coffee bar at the front was neat and clean; behind it the aisles of books could barely be seen. Shadows cloaked the bookshelves and tables, but nothing looked out of place.
She ran her hand along the icy handle and finally turned away. Maybe Dandra was ill or something. At the bridge, she looked to her right across the undergirding. She almost walked past, then a barely perceptible movement caught her eye and she froze.
There, forty feet above the water, was a dark form on the metal. Well out of the light, the dim shape was scarcely visible, but it was in the same place she’d seen him before.
It was impossible. He was dead. He had to be. Anyone would have died, wounded like that.
But she stared anyway, trying to make out the shape. Was it a person? A dead body? His body? She glanced up and down the street and saw no one.
It took only a moment for her to decide. She slipped down the dark, wet slope toward the base of the bridge. The ladder rungs were high, and she had to jump to reach the bottom one. Her glove slipped and she nearly fell, but she caught it again and kicked hard against the metal piling until she could lunge upward for the next one. Finally she got one foot up high enough to climb the ladder the normal way. She was breathing hard, and she stopped at the top to catch her breath and look across the girder. The supports were arched, making room for the ships that traversed up the Potomac River.
From this angle, it was clearly a man’s form. He lay on his back with his feet toward her, one leg dangling off the edge toward the water. He was barefoot and completely motionless.