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The members of the Order are still in Corbenic’s capital, staying at Four Mothers as guests of Prince Leopold. Their ties to Corbenic have only deepened as new friendships and even romance have managed to blossom. Yet, the stakes have never been higher: as the terrible winter has dragged on, unrest has spread, stirring talk of rebellion. The women’s movement known as the Red Garters has reached its watershed moment, polarizing the already divided empire. And in the city’s backstreets, the murderer has claimed his third victim.
The team knows the only way to liberate Corbenic is to restore their king. But at what cost to themselves?
And even if they succeed, it can only mean one thing for the Order.
For almost two hundred Corbenese years, Jack had haunted the Crescent. The Crescent was his paradise. The smell of desperation and the painted smiles. The empty people trading in their empty pleasures. He walked among them, unseen, in a place where people made it a point to never see anything. Yet, this is where all the masks come off. There was no pretension here. No illusions. No hope. And into this Boschian landscape she came, an angel in a bustier and borrowed heels, trying and failing to hide her celestial radiance.
Every night, she came, and every night, he admired her from afar. How practiced was her fear, how convincing her timidity—every reluctant step, every shaking intake of breath, every flight from her would-be attackers. Other streetwalkers, johns, pimps, rapists—all of them looked at her and saw prey, practically licking their chops at the prospect of such a juicy little morsel. In fact, she was attracting more attention than a normal streetwalker would simply because, on some deep, instinctive level, the natives seemed to sense how much more alive she was than they would ever be. They sought her out, desiring to avail themselves of a little of her precious light, if only for a short while. Sometimes she would let them get near, even put their hands on her. But try as they might, they could never possess her.
She was not for them.
Jack was able to see what the denizens of the Crescent could not– that quick little graceful move she did when she decided that she would not, in fact, be touched. When men tried to grab her, she dodged and ran. None of them had any idea, as they pawed at her and spit and groped, that she gave them back their lives as she carried on. If she had wanted to paint the entire Crescent crimson with their unworthy blood, she had but to will it to be so.
But she spared them. All of them.
Because it was him that she sought. There came the point, all too soon, that he could not stay away. And as he drew near, he witnessed the various responses she’d had to things—the typical goings-on in a place such as this, the thefts, the assaults, the rapes, the general mayhem. He savored her shock and revulsion, written clearly in the set of her shoulders, in the tension that thrummed in her being as the urge to intervene nearly overwhelmed her, the desire to smite the wicked and avenge the weak. But she held herself in check, restraining herself for him.
That she went to such lengths on his behalf. He was truly touched. How much longer could he deny her? He felt almost selfish, drawing out these long nights.
And then tonight, when she appeared, he sensed immediately that something had changed.
She had been luminous before, but something had stoked her to the intensity of a small sun. She was so bright now, he could still see her when he closed his eyes, an ethereal afterimage imprinted on his lids, as if viewing her through a gossamer scrim, beckoning, dreamlike.
No more waiting now. The moment he had been waiting for had arrived.
* * *
It was very late when Alyssa turned down a side street. It was so narrow, there was no way it could accommodate carriages—only foot traffic. Maybe a horse and rider if it wasn’t too crowded.
Right now, it was empty. Normally, the Crescent was full of indigents, drunks and all manner of unsavories, even at this hour. But not tonight. Between the subzero temperatures, the murders and Moreau, the streets were utterly deserted. She wondered where they’d all gone, with the charity wing shut down at Four Mothers.
Once, she stopped and turned suddenly, thinking she’d heard footsteps. But there was nothing. Only the wind-swept cobblestones, the flickering shadows cast by the green streetlamps. Be cool, she thought. You’re psyching yourself out.
Tightening her cloak around her shoulders, she kept walking. Some of her hair had come loose from its updo and as the wind whispered strands of it off her neck, she shivered.
Huddling in a doorway, she tried to light a cigarette. Her lighter was out of fluid. Perfect. Just perfect. Might as well pack it in for the night.
She was still fiddling vainly with the lighter when a flame appeared out of nowhere. She jumped, nearly dropping both the empty Zippo and her cigarette in the snow.
The man holding the lighter smiled. “Permit me.”
She stared at him. The man before her was well-dressed and handsome in an unassuming way. She’d been surprised before, but man, was she off her game tonight. This guy had managed to sneak up on her—this guy. The whole Moreau thing had her more on edge than she’d realized.
After a moment’s hesitation, she touched her cigarette to the flame. “Thanks,” she said after she took a puff. “Four birds.”
“It’s terribly bitter out.” Pocketing the silver lighter, the man looked her up and down. His gaze was not intrusive, just matter-of-fact. “If you’ll forgive my saying so, you’re not dressed for such abominable weather.”
“Why, you wanna take me home? ‘Cause that’s extra.”
The man chuckled. “That’s not what I’m looking for.”
She exhaled a plume of smoke. “What are you looking for?”
“What I am looking for, mademoiselle, is a different diversion entirely. But I assure you, if anyone could change my mind, it would be you. A lady of your beauty does not belong here. It is not safe. You know, a man had his purse stolen on this very corner not two nights ago.”
Alyssa laughed. “Yeah, well. We both know why I’m out here. How ‘bout you?”
“Just on my way home,” he nodded vaguely northward.
“And you decided to stop and chat?”
“I was distracted. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Now what about this whole ghastly business with Lord Moreau?” the man said conversationally, leaning on his walking stick. “Do you think he really did it?”
“From what I hear, the guy was an asshole, but not a murderer.”
“My word! And here I thought only Lord Ecarteur spoke in such a fashion!”
“I ain’t in the daintiest of professions, monsieur. Look, you sure you don’t wanna buy?”
“I will confess to being tempted,” he drew a bit closer to her, eyes gleaming. “You’re foreign, aren’t you?”
“Gee. What gave me away?”
“You have an accent.”
“Yes. I am foreign.”
“Ah, I can always tell.”
Alyssa shook her head. “You Corbenese always say that.”
The man laughed again, genuinely delighted. He had a pleasant laugh, a pleasant voice. “But where are you from?”
“You’ve probably never heard of it.”
“I like to think of myself as well-traveled.”
Alyssa gave him a small smile. “Missouri.”
“I confess, I know of no world by that name.”
“So you did.” He pointed to her cigarette. “May I. . .?”
She tapped ash from the end. “It’s not leaf.”
“That’s all right.”
She passed him the cigarette and he took a drag. “Yes, distinctly not leaf.” Still holding the cigarette, he exhaled, looking up thoughtfully, “Missouri. What kinds of lands do they have there? Is it like Corbenic, I wonder?”
“Well, there’s good beef. Otherwise, not really.”
He examined the smudge of her lipstick on the end of the cigarette. “Such a pity.”
“Not every place can be Corbenic.”
“No, of course not. But when you say the name of your home world, it does call to mind certain images: long rolling hills, vast mysterious caverns, powerful rivers . . .”
Alyssa’s eyes narrowed. She plucked the cigarette out of his fingers. “Thought you said you’d never heard of it.”
“No, but there is something about you, mademoiselle. It speaks of mountains and flooding plains. You are a creature of water and fire. Small wonder that you ultimately found yourself here.”
“Are you a seer?”
Merrily, he laughed. “Hardly!”
“So, what’s your deal?”
If it was possible, he grew even more amused. “My ‘deal’?”
“Yeah, I sense I’m not the only one on this street corner trying to sell something. And, like you, I ain’t buyin’.”
“Forgive me, mademoiselle,” he said, sobering. “I did not mean to offend.”
“I’m not offended. Should I be?”
“I hope not. I would never dream of offering insult to a beautiful woman.”
“Uh-huh.” Dropping the cigarette, she crushed it out underfoot. “Well, smoke break’s over. Back to work with me.”
“Of course. I would not wish to detain you.”
Turning, she started back towards the main road. “Good night.”
He tipped his hat. “Good night . . . Sir Calderon.”
At that, Alyssa spun back around, but he was already gone. There was only one way he could’ve left so quickly. “Wait—” She dashed around the corner after him. The corner led into a blind alley. Someone was lying on the ground.
Alyssa gasped. It was a woman, a streetwalker. There was blood everywhere, too much blood. The wound was unimaginable. The woman had been opened from throat to pubic bone, her insides spilling out onto the pavement, steam still curling off them. The smell. So much blood, and something on the ground nearby—what was it? Minutes ago, this had been a living, breathing woman. She’d been killed just minutes ago. The thing on the ground was a segment of pomegranate, ruby seeds scattered over the ground, almost indistinguishable from the droplets of blood.
And Alyssa hadn’t sensed it—any of it. She stumbled back a few steps, chest heaving, her eyes still registering every detail of the grisly scene.