Black Feathers

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Summary

Phoebe Nix is a young mercenary, notorious hunter of supernatural creatures under the name The Raven, but when a surprise job forces her into old acquaintances, life becomes even more difficult. "Ours is not to reason why, our is but to do an die." That's pretty much mercenary code. When you hunt supernatural beasties for a living, you've got to expect a hospital bed every now and then. But the scars you carry can come back to haunt you years later, and my past doesn't want to leave me alone.

Genre:
Fantasy / Other
Author:
LGHale
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
27
Rating:
5.0 6 reviews
Age Rating:
18+

1

The television blared out the news as I finished my cup of tea on the sofa, my favourite oxblood Doc Martens resting on the coffee table. Lucille hated it when I did that, but I argued it was my flat, I’d bought the table, so I could rest my feet on it if I wanted to. Just because she had legally been my guardian since I was thirteen didn’t mean that she was still allowed to tell me what to do at twenty-one.

‘The Amputees have staged another attack, this time on the home of a vampire politician. They set it alight during the day. The fire brigade were called out but could not quench the flames, as it seemed an Amputee witch had helped set the blaze’ the television said. Everything on the news sounded like that these days. ‘The Amputees’, what a name, a brand for a whole generation, the generation whose childhood had been cut from them with the revelation that the monster under the bed was real. I was an Amputee, I’d been four at the time, but I didn’t have to resort to futile displays of public violence to get my revenge. The difference was, I got government permission to kill the bad ones for a living.

I turned off the television, finished my tea, and headed out to work.

It was a dark night. To be honest, I’d be surprised if it was a light night, that’s just wrong. But it was particularly dark tonight, what with the new moon, and the clouds obscuring most of the stars. Dirty streetlights were all that lit up the grimy pavements, and the city alleys smelt dreadful.

Hard-as-nails mercenary that I was, I could put up with a little city stench. I carefully peered round the corner of the alley to see if I could spot my target for tonight: one Dylan Forbes, werewolf, wanted by the Lord of Thurudīn Castle. Thurudīn was in No Man’s Land, the territory of the supernaturals, which had been enchanted for millennia to avoid detection by humans. In No Man’s Land, the King and his Lords were the law, and it looked like good ole Dylan had broken the rules.

I needn’t have bothered with the caution. There was a figure slumped against the wall with a needle in his arm, apparently passed out under the glare of a streetlamp. His shaggy, dirty blond hair fell over his face, but I’d seen the pictures, read the descriptions; it was him alright.

Sighing a little at the un-eventfulness of the catch, I holstered my gun and walked over to check his pulse. He was alive. Good for me, probably bad for him seeing as the Lord of Thurudīn wantied him for ‘interrogation’. What did I care, the Lords pay well. But still, it made work tediously boring when a snatch and grab was as easy as this. My name only ever gets into the papers when I get a kill job; the tabloids would laugh to see the great Raven hauling an unconscious werewolf to her car.

Thurudīn’s Lord wanted him delivered by nightfall tomorrow, but seeing how quick and easy the job had been I had time to take him over tonight and deliver early. Happy customers. Easy money.

Fatigue is to be expected in my line of work, and so are numerous phone calls, but damn do I hate it when they coincide.

My phone went off seconds after my alarm. I flailed pointlessly in the general direction of the noise and managed to knock my phone on the floor. It blissfully fell silent, only to be followed momentarily by my house phone. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, letting Hammer, my boss, have my home phone number. I knew it was him without having to check caller ID, because whenever I was face down in a nice comfy pillow and my phone woke me up, it was Hammer.

“Boss,” I grumbled into the receiver.

“Raven,” he said. His deep, thick-as-molasses voice was so very familiar. “HQ, fifteen minutes.”

“Twenty,” I bargained.

“Done.” He hung up. Hammer was ever concise and to the point.

HQ, known affectionately by the mercenaries as The Concrete Palace, was a fifteen-minute walk away through the streets of Edge. I don’t remember what the town had been called before the Great Revelation, but it was Edge now, as we were the closest city to No Man’s Land. HQ, and my flat, were in Northern Edge, the rough bit, nearest the supes’ playground. Though there’d been debate about it, I was only human, and so though I may be Hammer’s favourite mercenary, able to bag the bad guys and kill the most terrible beasties, I was not able to shower, sort out my hip-length hair, dress, and do my make-up in five minutes. So the Harley it was.

I parked in the ‘employee’ garage, set up in The Concrete Palace. I stared up at the block of concrete as I parked my bike and wondered vaguely who’d be inside. There were seventeen of us, so you never knew who’d be around; it’s not like mercenaries stick to a roster. We were The Hammerhead Sharks, sanctioned by the government to deal with the ‘threats posed by the malignant supernaturals in society’, put in Edge to warn the supes what would happen if things got out of hand, and to make Joe Blogs feel safe. That of course meant we got away with murder, legal murder.

There were a handful of Sharks littered about the place when I got in. The Scarlet Belle, or just Scarlett, or Belle, was five seven of pale skin, black hair and kick-ass leather. Shamrock was… well he was being his usual insane self. I could make him out because of his bright orange hair, despite the fact that he appeared to be running manic circles around Cannibal, who was laughing. Shamrock was the epitome of the demented Irishman. Cannibal was a dark pillar of muscle in the centre of the carrot-orange whirlwind. He was seven foot four, because he was an exiled drow. The drows are the ‘dark’ elves, and generally hated their high elf cousins. Even after five years he wouldn’t tell me what he’d done to be exiled, but I was hoping it wasn’t anything to do with his mercenary name. He had the grey-black skin, white hair, and red eyes of the drows.

I walked past Sham and Cannibal, and smiled when I saw all five foot one of Torturella in the firing range. She and I had gone to school together, and it had been hard to not call her Jade when we started up. She hated her mercenary name, but it’s always the least favourite nicknames that stick.

A few more of the mercs were with her, testing out a new batch of weapons Hammer had ordered in. The firing range was massive, because of how many of us there were, and just how much weaponry we had. To get to Hammer’s office, I had to walk behind everyone along the back of the room, through a corridor-like space a few metres wide. The sound as I walked through was tumultuous, but it was background noise to me after all these years. I saw Pierce, Ace, and Coal with Jade. Ace was shorter only than Hammer and Cannibal, and he was with three of the four shortest mercs, making him look a little bit like a father with his errant children. Of course, you’d have to be a terrible dad to give your kids guns. The sight made me smile as, eventually, I neared the far end of the room.

Hammer’s office itself was really a place to show off our new weapons. The concrete walls were pitted and pockmarked, sometimes in interesting patterns that made you think twice about what weapons we had here. His office had an antechamber, with what I called a drug dealer sofa from watching too much of The Wire, as it was dilapidated and stained. There was a metal weapons table by the sofa with cabinets in it for storage and several weapons on the top in pieces. Predator was sitting on the sofa. He was six foot even, had dark skin and long, dark brown dreadlocks. He also happened to have three deep gouges across his face in silvery scar lines from a weretiger attack. I’d called him Predator when we first met because of the dreads and it stuck. He was carefully studying the mechanisms of the weaponry. We customised a lot of stuff; we had to know how it worked. He didn’t look up when I came in, but I wasn’t offended. That was just how Predator was. If he was working, that was all he was doing; people, food, and other such insignificant things wouldn’t distract him.

The room in which Hammer actually sat was screened off from the antechamber by windows set in peeling frames that had once had bright blue paint on them. There was a doorway and a window frame above it, but no door or window. Shamrock had been too enthusiastic with his flamethrower, and Hammer saw no point in wasting money on mundane things; he’d much rather buy another flamethrower.

Sitting in the room, outlined by this empty frame was the man himself. He was six foot eight, had skin so dark it had purplish highlights, and shoulders so wide it was a wonder he could fit through doors.

“Reporting for duty,” I said sarcastically.

“We may be friends but I’m still your boss, Raven.” He lowered his head to conceal a smile under the pretence of looking at some paperwork. The light shone off at a peculiar angle from his head due to an indented scar. His mercenary name came from that scar, the result of a fight in which he was smashed in the head with a hammer. I had never seen someone with such a dent in their skull before I met Hammer, or since for that matter. I’d long had a theory that he was descended from giants, with a skull that thick and being that tall.

“So what am I in for this time?” I asked, sitting in the chair opposite him.

“You make this place sound like prison.”

I just shrugged, and smiled.

“I take it you’re getting the werewolf today to deliver him to Thurudīn?” he said, as he shuffled through some papers that I assumed to be a new job.

“Did it yesterday, he’s in their cells for them to do with what they will.”

“Oh, so you can get this new job done today rather than tomorrow.” He smiled at me sweetly and looked up, his eyes a startling brightness in his face.

“Damn it.” I leant back and put my feet on his desk, right in the way. “I’m listening.”

He shoved my feet off. “Raven, behave.” He was still smiling, like he didn’t really mean it. “The job is for one of your friends.” As soon as he said it, the smile lessened, until it disappeared altogether. Not a good sign.

“Why do I get the feeling you mean that sarcastically?” I said, not really wanting to know who the job was for.

“Because it’s Vittorio.”

There was a pause then almost a full minute of extreme profanities ensued. When I had calmed down, Hammer recommenced as if nothing had happened. He was used to my temper tantrums by now.

“It appears Cirque Mort have lost their Master Vampire for the show, and also their pet tight-rope-walking wolf. The wolf was apparently in love with Master Malcolm. Malcolm they know is dead. Robin is missing. The job is to find Robin and deliver him back to Vittorio, that is all.”

I gave a grunt of frustration. “With Vittorio that’s never all. Either I’ll have to fork out a ransom when I get there, or it’ll take me months to find all the pieces of him.”

“He’s offering you twenty-seven grand.”

“...What?”

“It’s a lot of money for an easy job.”

“No shit, Sherlock. Still, it’s Vittorio, and he’s a pain in the arse, so tell him to throw in a couple of favours and I’ll do it.”

Hammer rolled his eyes. “I’ll phone at nightfall. ’Til then, look for Robin Tremaine.” He threw a few photographs and a document across the table to me, so they slid and spun to face the right way like they do in films. I had a sneaking suspicion Hammer had been practicing. “If Vittorio doesn’t agree to the favour debt, which I know he will, then you don’t have to hand him over. If he does, you’ll have a job done in record time.”

“Fair enough.” And that was that, meeting over.

I went back home to sleep. In the sunlight, I could see Lucille’s coffin on my floor, the glossy cherry-wood shining, always as if it was just polished. I used to put candles on it when she was up, but that also annoyed Lucille, so I only did it if she was out now. She’s a very tidy person, so it must be hell living with me. Eight years she’d put up with me, an undead and ancient surrogate sister, vampire in her daytime slumber.

Daytime slumber suited me just fine.

It was two in the afternoon when I next woke up, blissfully not to the sound of an alarm or a phone. I guess two pm was as good a time as any to start work.

The first place I went was The Sunken City. This was the stronghold of No Man’s Land, the city of the King of the Vampires of England, and also where the King of the Werewolves lived. The vamp King was, ironically, an Italian, and a man I sought to avoid at all costs after a certain disagreement we’d had five years ago. I still hadn’t forgiven him, so I only came by during the day. I hadn’t been for over a year, but I’d grown up a bit, and come to realise that going to the supernatural melting pot of the country can save you a lot of time when looking for a missing supe.

As a display of peace between the two species, the King of the Weres worked for the vamp King, and was part of a trio whose name made all supernaturals shiver in fear – The Master’s Hand. He was the only day riser in The Hand, and had been a friend before the King caused that terrible mess and I stopped visiting. But of course, by the whim (and spite) of Fate, who should be there to meet me when I arrived but the Werewolf King. I just called him Asher.

“Phoebe!” he said, surprised, as soon as he spotted me. One of the other Weres with him jumped. I forget that Asher is the big bad beastie sometimes. He bounded over like a happy little golden retriever. Nice doggy. “Staying away finally became unbearable? Miss me?” he asked, batting his eyelashes at me like he expected me to be moved to adoration and throw myself on him. No such luck.

“I’m here on business,” I said, trying to give him a stern look and failing, because no matter what, Asher always made me smile; one of the reasons I had difficulty imagining him with his loyal subjects.

“Ooh, sorry Raven.” He was smirking, and not sorry in the least.

“Shut it, and stop being so in love with yourself.”

“I’m not, I’m so in love with you.” He gave me big puppy dog eyes. I glared, but again, the smile sort of ruined it.

“I have some enquiries as to the whereabouts of a werewolf.”

“I’m right here darling.” I smacked him in the arm.

“Asher! For once in your life, shut the hell up and be serious. I’m on a missing person’s case.”

“Okay babe, all serious now.”

“Don’t call me babe.” I looked at him until he managed to control his face and stop grinning, then continued. “I’m looking for a Robin Tremaine.”

And so Asher shut up and listened. It turned out my trip to the Sunken City was fruitless, he had no idea where he was, as it became apparent that Robin was clan-less, and so had no pack leader to report to his King. Asher wasn’t completely unhelpful though; he gave me a few hints as to where he might be. I followed those up, and though it took a few more hours of asking around and tracking people, I eventually found Robin Tremaine. He didn’t look too healthy. On the plus side, he was all in one piece, so I didn’t have to continue looking for him.

It was sundown soon, and Vittorio had to be told.

Cirque Mort was setting up for the following night when I arrived. They were having their circus on the edge of No Man’s Land near a village aptly nicknamed The Dead Zone, a short drive out from Edge. Vittorio had agreed to throw in a debt of two favours along with the handsome £27,000. Favours were a more versatile currency than money. If someone paid me in favours, they were obliged to drop everything and do my bidding at my behest. It was exceedingly useful.

I’d known Vittorio however many years, and he really had not changed a bit. Some vamps had cut their hair to show they were modern people, not stuck with the longer hairstyles of ‘ye old-e fashioned-e tymes’, but not Vittorio. He didn’t give a damn. His hair had a barely detectable wave to it, and was medium brown, medium length, falling over a mid pale face which had a very ordinary nose and mouth and plain brown eyes, not rich and deep, just flat. He was almost remarkable in his unremarkable appearance. It was the kind of face you easily forget.

I had been told I was the exact opposite. I was the notorious mercenary The Raven, so it was essential no-one recognised me. Fortunately for me, and for reasons unknown, I could produce glamours. It was originally fey magic, the ability to create illusions that make the mind see whatever the one making the glamour tells them to see, but some vamps could do it too. My glamour, however, was a little different. It didn’t alter my appearance, but rather made people forget what I looked like once I’d left, and it made any photo or recording of me unintelligible. In its own way, it hid my real appearance from the world. I’d seen numerous drawings speculating what I looked like, and most of them thought I was some icy skinned, dark eyed, black haired, emaciated monster. People came to that assumption from my merc name. The reality was I had hip-length, blonde-brown hair, olive skin, and blue eyes. I was called The Raven because of a tattoo I had of a raven perching on my right shoulder, not from black hair or a propensity to shed feathers.

But the glamour meant that even Vittorio, who I’d known for a long time, had no idea who I was when I approached him.

“Can I help you, madam?” he asked politely in his upper-crust English voice once he was certain I was heading for him.

“Not really, Vittorio. I thought the reason you paid me was for me to help you.”

“Ah.” He frowned, recognition settling in behind his muddy brown eyes. “I may not be able to remember your appearance, Raven, but I do always remember you’re moody and hostile.”

“Believe me, this isn’t hostile. Do you want to know what happened to Robin or not?” I looked at him and let him see the dislike in my eyes. Honesty made business go more quickly, as we were dying to get out of each other’s company. Well, I was. He was already dead.

There was a pause as he put down a string of vampire teeth lights. They were tacky beyond belief and I made a face at them, which he ignored. Reluctantly, he led me away from the general mayhem of setting up the carnival to the shadow of a tent in which we could talk privately.

“Well?”

“Robin is dead. He wrote a note to Malcolm and hung himself in the ruins of a church, saying he would meet him in hell, or words to that effect. Nice and cheerful, isn’t it?”

“Indeed, heart-warming. One question though, where the hell am I meant to get a Master Vampire and a tightrope walking werewolf by tomorrow?”

“Beats me. That’s not in my job description.” His eyes lit up as an idea occurred to him.

“Whatever you’re thinking, no.”

“Am I really that terrible?”

“Yes.”

He sighed and rolled his eyes to the ground as if dejected. “Just hear me out?” he said, going up at the end of his sentence in hope. It was an act. He was King of the Circus Ring; everything was an act.

“You have twenty seconds,” I said, frowning.

He began. “You have an old... adversary in town. He’s staying at the Sunken City, where I’m sure a woman like you has some leverage to procure a werewolf, and ask the vampire if he will oblige us in our request.”

I looked at him long enough for him to squirm just a little. I didn’t like his reference to my adversary as ‘the vampire’. “The fact that you won’t mention the vamp’s name disturbs me. Which of the many asshole vampires I’ve met is it?”

A pause. A guilty glance at my face. A glance away to the floor.

“Sol,” he said quietly. He almost looked like he was afraid I’d hit him. I had half a mind to.

To say Sol and I didn’t get along was a bit of an understatement. He was one of the most irritating people I had ever met, in love with himself beyond all rationality, and a general annoyance I could do without.

“What the hell makes you think I would ever want to talk to that prat again?” He wisely stayed mute. “Besides,” I continued, “I can’t go to the Sunken City at night anyway.”

“Why ever not?”

“Next stupid question that is invasive of privacy.” I raised an eyebrow at him in disapproval, and hoped it would shut him up. It didn’t work.

“I wasn’t meaning to pry. I just cannot fathom a reason why you wouldn’t go to the Sunken City at night.” He was all wide-eyed sincerity as he asked. I knew that he was hamming it up, but I also knew he really wanted to know. Vittorio trades information as a side-line to his stupidly lucrative carnival business. Greedy bastard.

I gave him a look. He looked right back at me, waiting for me to elaborate, which of course I didn’t. “Forget Sol, or find someone else to do the job.”

When I got back home, there was someone besides Lucille in my flat. I had known Guillaume, her brother, as long as I had known her. Although he didn’t live with me like she did, he kept a spare coffin in my house because he was such a frequent visitor. He actually lived across town in the Vampire District next to his pub/restaurant The Red Fang.

“Bonjour Guillaume. Ça va?

Oui.” He paused. “Actually Feebz, I’ve got a favour to ask. I’ve got a big private party in at two and—”

“Yes, I’ll help out.”

“Thanks, cherie.” He grinned.

“You shouldn’t humour him so much or he’ll put you to full time work, and you do need to sleep sometime you know, Phoebe,” said Lucille, coming out of the kitchen with a mug of tea.

“But how could I say no to that face?”

“Very easily, I find.”

I rolled my eyes at her, and Guillaume grinned at me.

“When was the last time you ate?” Lucille said, a hand on her hip and a frown on her perfect pale face. Lucille in disapproving mother mode.

I checked the clock above the kitchen door. “Erm... fourteen hours ago,” I admitted. Only Lucille could make me feel like a chastised child.

She looked at me with a familiar expression of exasperation. “You’d forget to look after yourself at all without me around.”

“Very true.”

The work for Guillaume was easy. I waited tables for a bunch of vampires who eyed me up as if expecting me to be the appetiser and got shirty when they realised I wasn’t. Guillaume kept them in check. Same old, same old.

Being a merc had its drawbacks, and not just the obvious ones like the short life expectancy. The thing I hated the most about the job was the necessity to be always contactable. My phone went off just as I was taking an empty tray back to the kitchen. My caller ID was telling me it was one of my least favourite people. Lots of people who’d worked with me enough times had my work mobile number. I was regretting that slightly.

“Vittorio, I’m working.”

“Not a mercenary job or your phone would be off.” That was the only time I was allowed to switch it off. Sometimes I pretended I was doing a job and turned the damn thing off anyway.

“If you’re going to beg, pissing me off isn’t going to help.”

“Oh, you and your temper.” He exhaled unnecessarily, as if to tell me he was weary of me. The feeling was mutual. “Apologies, Raven. I’m appealing for you to take the job to contact Sol. No-one else will or can. Please, I’m putting the imminent future of the circus in your hands.”

I sighed. I didn’t care about Vittorio, but not everyone in his Circus was as abominable as he was. Some of them I even liked. “Guilt tripping me into taking a job is a sly and shitty form of persuasion.”

“Does it work?”

“This time.” I hung up.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t quite out of hearing range of the nearest table. Their better-than-human hearing meant they’d heard both sides of the conversation. Well, crap.

“What do you want with Lord Sol?” one of them asked aggressively. The last thing I needed was a pissed off vamp.

“I don’t,” I said, smiling at the vampire. “Vittorio wants him for something. He just wants me to ask him to pay him a visit.”

I turned to leave, but the vamp was in my face and had grabbed my arm. He was quite old to move that fast.

“Are you who I think you are?” he asked, leaning in, his breath having that salty-sweet coppery scent of blood to it.

“That depends who you think I am.” I smiled sweetly, but I could tell my eyes were conveying hostility. There’s only so much I can disguise when I’m angry. Thank god I’d used a little extra glamour to hide the scars; that would have given the game away completely.

The vampire holding on to me relaxed his grip a little, then looked at the others at the table. He took a deep and unnecessary breath, inhaling my scent, before turning his attention back to me and squeezing my arm tightly again.

“Are you The Raven?”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave if you can’t behave yourself and treat my waitresses with proper respect.” The new voice was Guillaume, who had emerged from behind the bar in a bubble of barely contained anger. He was extremely over-protective.

“It’s a simple question which she might as well answer.”

“He’s right Guillaume, it’s fine. Do you really think The Raven would be working at the Red Fang, waiting tables? Isn’t the Raven super rich? She wouldn’t need the money. Kindly let go of me, Sir.”

His eyes narrowed, then he smiled. He gripped my arm crushingly tight, then dragged his nails across my skin, making little red lines, but not quite cutting the flesh. That was just rude, and crossed a line. The problem with me, well, one of the many problems with me, is I have an appallingly bad temper. He’d been out of order, so I didn’t really think the next few moments through. I thrust the heel of my hand into his nose and smiled when I heard the sickening crack.

“Get out.”

“You bitch! You have no right to hit a member of—” He broke off mid-sentence as he caught the look I was giving him. I moved in towards his ear and in a very low voice so none of the other vamps heard, and I spoke. “In this society do you really think I can’t defend myself against your kind? Pull any stunt like that again in here and you’ll find you have worse bruises than the ones you just gave me. Now. Get. Out.”

As I drew back, I saw the fear glittering in his eyes, the uncertainty. You never really knew these days how much people could defend themselves, whether they could make good on their threats, because there were monsters under the bed walking around now, and everyone had to be prepared. Defence classes had skyrocketed since the Great Revelation. It was the new money-maker.

Unfortunately his nose had healed really quickly, so he left with nothing but his pride wounded. His cronies followed him out.

“Are you alright?” Guillaume murmured in my ear when they were out of hearing range.

“Fine. I’ll see you back at home. I’m done for the night.” He frowned, but said nothing.

“Sure. I’ll drop by later.”

I gave him a cold smile, empty as a starless night, dumped my waitress apron on the bar, and walked out.

I was furious, and the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I hated bastards like that vamp who were nosy and pushy and inconsiderate. You didn’t touch someone unless you were willing to instigate a fight of physical contact. You didn’t detain someone like that unless you thought you were too powerful for them to try anything. I wasn’t sure what made me angrier: that he’d done it in the first place, or that I’d lost my temper. Then again, I was always losing my temper.

Guillaume had taken me in his car, so I walked home. It probably wasn’t a good idea seeing as I was in the Vampire District at night, but I never go anywhere unarmed. If anyone tried anything, I had ample weaponry to protect myself.

The night air was cold, but I was heated by my rage. It was warm and familiar and enormous. I was so angry, that when someone rushed at me out of an alley, I roundhouse kicked them in the face rather than just dodging out of the way. There was another of those delightful cracking noises of bones crunching out of shape and pushing into softer, wetter things. The man, for it was a man, had hit his head on the corner of the building and gone down like a lead balloon. Within a few moments, he was slumped in a pile of his own congealing blood.

It was oozing over the pavement, and as I was deciding what to do with the body, I saw something unexpected. The flesh was knitting together over the skull. The hair became again silken smooth and perfect. The moon made it look very silver, but I’d seen that hair in the moonlight before. It was gold, pure gold, with shining silver highlights where the gold paled beyond its hue.

I only knew one person with hair like that.

“Ah, shit.”

“Fuck, it’s you,” he said, voice as silken as his hair.

“Just goes to show that you should cut the theatrics. I’ve been telling you that for years.”

“Well since I just got my skull caved in just for wanting some dinner, I think I may actually start paying attention to that advice.”

He stood, and smoothed out his silver suit jacket, and skinny gold tie, adjusted his silver shirt collar and made sure it lined up perfectly with his dark silver waistcoat. The silver trousers were spotted with grime from the pavement, which he brushed onto the floor. His shoes were, regrettably, black. I was almost disappointed at the breach in uniformity.

“What do you want, Sol?” I said, not making any attempt to conceal the fact that I hated his guts. He should know that by now.

“Temper, temper. Aren’t you meant to be being nice to me? I thought it was you that wanted something from me.”

“You sly bastard. How would you know that?” He chuckled and re-readjusted his tie. “Do you practice that laugh in front of a mirror when you get up?” I asked.

The humour leeched away from his pale gold eyes, and he got that look that was unique to vampires and snakes. Cold. “You’re not going in a good direction to get me to help you with anything,” he said.

“Makes no difference to me either way, so you can get over it. I didn’t want to take this job in the first place, so it’s no skin off my nose.” I crossed my arms. “Do you want to know why I’ve been seeking you out?”

He waved his hands in front of him as if to say that’s why I’m here.

“Vittorio, master of Cirque Mort requires your services.”

He scowled. I was guessing the reason Vittorio needed me to do this job so much was because he and Sol didn’t get along. Just a hunch.

“What kind of services?”

“The kind you’ll like. Master Malcolm is dead—”

“You?”

“No, actually. I’m not the only mercenary in the country, and Malcolm wasn’t exactly universally loved.”

“Don’t speak ill of the dead,” he said mockingly.

“Why? I speak ill of you all the time.” I smiled sweetly, but with an ego like his, any slighting remark pushed all the wrong buttons, and pushed them hard.

I had really pissed him off. In the blink of an eye, he had his perfectly manicured hand on my throat and had pushed me against the wall.

“Go on then, Sol. And may all the Hammerhead Sharks descend upon you in bloody vengeance.”

He moved his face closer. My heart was pumping, but only a little from fear, mostly from the thrill of it. Yeah, I know there’s something wrong with me. The fact of the matter was either of us could die right now. He’d left my arms free and I could get to a weapon and kill him. I knew that. And he knew that he could just tighten his hand and rip my throat out.

“Spilling your blood would be such a waste. If I were to kill you, Raven, I’d suck you dry and enjoy every last drop. I often fantasize about how you would taste.” He ran his nose along my neck and inhaled, making a small sound of delight. He was narcissistic and a psycho, always a dangerous combination.

“You don’t need my blood. If you do the job for Vittorio, you’ll have more than you can drink.”

He opened his eyes again and stood back, letting go of my throat. “I’m listening.”

I took in a deep, slow, breath. I reckon he’d bruised my neck, but nothing more. “As I was saying, Master Malcolm is dead. He used to be the Circus’ vampire. People would pre-book tickets, and pay through the nose, to be allowed into a tent in which Malcolm was sat on a throne. One by one, they’d go past him and he would feed a little from each one. He’d get happily drunk every night and get paid an astronomical amount of money.”

“I see. Where, exactly, do I come in?”

“Vittorio wants you to do Malcolm’s job.”

He laughed, and it wasn’t his musical, well-rehearsed one, but cruel and cynical. “Knowing V, he’d probably infect one of the people with a blood transmitted disease to make me ill. I can’t be the only Master Vampire he knows.”

“You’re the one of the highest social standing, and probably the only one with enough grandeur to make it a worthwhile event. He actually thought you’d like it, and it would mean both of you would make a lot of money. People will pay more to have Lord Sol bite them than mere Malcolm.”

He stared at me for a minute with a look of musing about him. There was the choice plain to see in his eyes, could he trust me?

“When am I needed?”

“Next week, I think. Vittorio wasn’t specific, but it’s usually in the last few days of the Circus.”

“I’m no use then. He’ll have to get someone else.”

“You do realise he’ll want a reason.”

“Tell him I’m dead. I don’t care.” His voice was harsh and bitter, and something in his face changed. If I didn’t know Sol, I’d say it was defeat.

Shocked, I stayed mute for a few moments. Sol hadn’t left, so I decided to bite the bullet. “Why can’t you do next week, getting a manicure?”

He glared at me, and with a clenched jaw, spoke. “The King has given me... feeding restrictions.” His anger turned to shame, and he had to look away.

My immediate reaction was to laugh in his face and tell him it was his own bloody fault. Luckily, I didn’t act on that. Sol didn’t do shame, he didn’t do humility, and he certainly didn’t admit when he’d done something wrong and he was being punished for it.

But he just had.

“What did you do? Pull a stunt like you just tried to pull on me?”

“I killed a girl. She was irritating and I hadn’t eaten in a while.” That was so Sol. Hell, if I was a vamp I’d kill everyone that annoyed me and turn them into a snack. Realising I would have done the same thing as Sol was not a comforting thought.

There was a brief silence.

“Raven?” he asked, a note of uncertainty in his voice. “I could do it, if I applied for, and was granted, permission to have those restrictions lifted… Would you come with me to apply for permission?” He sounded sincere in his request, then he added, “I’ll pay you handsomely.” What the hell was this? Does years of antagonising each other result in friendship? Nah.

He shifted uncomfortably onto the other foot. It was a small gesture, but a very human one that, after centuries of death, he didn’t make any more. Severe distress is the only reason he could have conveyed such discomfort. I was quite alarmed.

“You need permission from the King, I’m guessing,” I said.

“Indeed.”

“Well, as much as I feel for you, it would have to be a hell of a lot of money to get me anywhere near the Court again.” I said that more as a gesture to show him I would say no, but of course vampires can be very literal sometimes.

Without hesitation, he said, “£300,000. And that is, of course, to keep everything off record. I can’t go through the Sharks with this. This is just between you and me.”

I don’t know whether it was greed, or pity, or shock, but I heard someone say “Agreed.” And that someone was me.

Oh the stupid things I do for money.

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