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Black Feathers

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2

I don’t think I had ever been to The Sunken City at night and it not turn out to be an all night affair, what with all the politics you have to wade through. In preparation, I took the strongest sleeping pills I owned at 9am, and slept until three in the afternoon.

After two hours of grogginess and moodiness, I got a call from Sol on my work number. I don’t know how he got the number, and I’m not sure I wanted to know. He was awake somewhere underground where the sun’s effect was less, which he informed me of right away. Kind of him to ensure I didn’t have a heart attack thinking he was up during sunlight hours. It would be dark soon, and so he asked to meet at six. He was all humility and meekness. Perhaps I’d been wrong about Sol; or perhaps he’d had a personality transplant.

I’d spent the last couple of hours drinking tea and nursing one of my arbitrary but painful headaches on the sofa. I got them increasingly often when I took sleeping pills. But now that I had a deadline, I couldn’t lounge around; it was time to actually get ready.

At precisely six, I met Sol at a village on the outskirts of No Man’s Land. He looked dejected and woeful, and far less chipper than usual. Out of the goodness of my black little heart, I offered to take him into The Sunken City on my bike, and he accepted without so much as a quip about it ruining his suit or an innuendo. We were silent as we sped along the shiny black tongue of tarmac that licked its way in a straight line from the village to the infernal glow of the City.

I’d forgotten what it looked like at night, at its best. Breathtaking is definitely one word I would use to describe it.

As the name might suggest, The Sunken City was all below ground level. There was a city-sized crater, sunk low in the earth, which you could fit twenty storey buildings in and still have a stretch of sky above you before you reach ground level. In this chasm, the Sunken City sat, carved out of the rock, for the crater wasn’t there by accident. It had taken hundreds of years to carve this place, to get running water, electricity. It was hell to get building materials down into, and so the buildings themselves were a motley assemblage of natural rock and bricks. It was certainly dramatic. At night, all the city lights glowed, and poured out over the barrenness of No Man’s Land, spilling into the darkness. It was red and yellow and orange, like hell itself had come up to meet you with the lakes of fire burning bright.

It was strangely familiar, coming back here after five years of daytime-only visits. It seemed odd to me that I’d been falling out with royalty since the age of sixteen. One thing our argument did mean was that I didn’t have private access anymore. I had to go in with the vampire junkies and the plebeians. Great.

There were hundreds of desperate mortals lined along the main road, dying to see the infamous City and its glittering, night-time occupants. Some of the mortals, it seemed, didn’t get along. We are British, and we queue, so perhaps someone had pushed in, but in any case a fight had broken out. The closer I got, I could see it was a mortal and a Were, a sure combination for a messy end.

Sol, thinking he knew the Were in question and therefore maybe able to calm him down, asked me to stop. When I pulled over, we were fairly near the front of the queue. I was allowed to push in. I was here on business.

There was a ripple of unease in the crowd that seemed almost tangible, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Backlit by the city glow, three figures emerged, rising over the top of the rough-hewn staircase that sank down into the city on the other side. They were heading towards the fight. People fell silent, and people fell still, as they passed. Their faces became clearer as the intensity of the city light receded, and the moonlight picked out their features. But the moon’s milky glow was redundant; everyone knew who these three were.

The Master’s Hand.

Two vampires, one werewolf; three of the most ruthless and feared killers in the country. They did the King’s dirty work, and they enforced the law. They were, essentially, the biggest, baddest, most supernatural police force, with the fewest morals, in Britain. That made them a formidable foe.

But I knew this trio, all too well.

Jean-Pierre, leader of the Hand, was a centuries-old vampire with speed, agility, and an ability to kill like no other. He looked just as I remembered him, wavy black hair, creamy skin, and emerald green eyes.

Asher, pain in the arse and frequent daylight guardian of the King, as I well knew, was second; the most powerful Werewolf in Britain. He’d grown up under the uneasy truce between the former King Alpha – his father – and Nero, so to set an example to all the wolves, who always seemed to be fighting the vamps, he subjected himself to Nero as his master. I’d have thought that made him a dead man, but it hadn’t. He was more respected than ever. Looking at Mr blonde-hair-and-blue-eyes, I found it difficult to find him frightening in the way the Were community did.

Carlos was third, silver eyed and icy skinned. It was said no-one knew what his real name was. He was a winter weather worker of magnificent power, a rare jewel. His hair was silver too, not grey. It shone like metal in the cold glare of the moonlight, and picked up the reds, oranges and yellows of the City’s infernal glow.

You could smell the fear in the air, taste it, roll it around on your tongue like your favourite boiled sweet. The fight had ceased as soon as The Hand had been clocked. Jean-Pierre looked from the human to the Were, and back again. I blinked, and the sight that greeted me when my eyes re-opened was of two men lying face down on the barren ground with a dark, glittering, liquid spreading out from their heads. I hadn’t even seen Jean-Pierre move. The Were was beginning to heal, but the human was lying ominously still.

“Blaze,” said Jean-Pierre quietly to another werewolf who was on guard, “get someone to heal him, then ban him and whomever he is with.” He pointed at the human, who was definitely not breathing. “We don’t tolerate people who start fights with the guards.”

His French voice was still beautiful, but it was also terrifying; if you didn’t know him. Sol was certainly standing rigid and alert. I allowed myself a small smile. Blaze had been my daylight guardian when Lucille took me into The Sunken City. I’d visited the British Court a lot during that time; it was the main attraction in No Man’s Land, and also King Nero’s seat of power. It was how I knew The Hand well, and Jean-Pierre’s sameness after all these years made me smile.

It was just at that moment that Jean-Pierre turned around. I was still astride my bike, and trying to hide my smile behind the fall of my hair.

After the slightest pause he asked softly of the night, “Can it be?” advancing, arms spread before him in disbelief. Asher and Carlos followed silently behind. Asher was trying not to smirk and failing somewhat, Carlos was passive and unreadable as fresh-fallen snow.

Everyone was staring at the woman on the bike.

“It has been a very long time, Raven,” Jean-Pierre purred in his silken French accent, emerald eyes glittering with evil amusement. His voice was low enough for the gawkers to be unable to hear.

“Why have you returned?” asked Carlos, anything but amused.

If he was going to be cold, so would I. I knew he couldn’t help it, but when someone’s cold with you all the time it’s a little difficult to not take it personally; especially when you haven’t seen them for five years. “I’m here on business with Lord Sol. We seek an audience with the King.”

“Who are you to want an audience with the King?” a random Were I’d never met before demanded. I was guessing he was another guard, but he just screamed teenage angst what with the green Mohican and the attitude. Mind you, it was bad enough being a teenager, I’d hate to have been a Were too, no matter the flavour – you’re just as much a Were if you’re a wolf or a tiger.

As I was turning to answer him, with my best sinister smile in place, Jean-Pierre said, clear as a bell, “Why, she’s The Raven.”

Exclamatory whispers of ‘The Raven?!’ were spreading like wildfire through the crowd. Just what I needed, more publicity.

“I’m only here on business Jean-Pierre, this isn’t a social call.”

“Oooh, business. We’re quaking with fear.” Asher was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

“You should be, darling.”

Sol tensed. How dare I talk back to the Hand? I dared, because they were old friends and used to it. They’d been a part of me growing up. It saddened me a little to think the last time I’d seen Jean-Pierre and Carlos I’d been sixteen. Five achingly long years of killing and solitude had passed since then. I was amazed they even recognised me.

Jean-Pierre chuckled and gestured with his arm. “Please, Raven, this way. Blaze will park your bike in your old spot.” I looked over at Blaze and smiled. He got his nickname because his hair was flame red, darker at the roots, and his eyes were bright orange, too light to be amber. He was happy to take my bike to the garage, though I could tell he’d come up through the ranks in the past few years, and so he probably shouldn’t be doing work that was beneath him. He always was kind-hearted, and he hadn’t aged a day. Damn all these semi-immortals. I gave him a firm handshake when I handed over my keys, sensing this was not the time for a hug.

Blaze grinned, and said over his shoulder as he headed to my bike, “I like the improvement in transport you’ve got going for you.” He looked like a small child at Christmas as he sat on the back of my bike and heard the engine purr as she started. He threw me another grin, then zoomed off far too fast on my shiny, shiny Harley.

I was smiling to myself as Jean-Pierre held his arm out to me for me to take. I didn’t really do the whole social graces anymore, but he expected it, and I didn’t want to upset him the first time I saw him in years, so I took his arm with a, “Merci beaucoup, Jean-Pierre.” His vaguely sinister but ever so charming smile seemed like a permanent feature as he led me down those rough-hewn stairs.

There were pairs of eyes all the way down, more often than not attached to faces, but you get some pretty strange… entities in The Sunken City. Each carved step must have been at least twenty metres wide, cut deep into the rock to make for a quicker descent. It was a long way down. Even when we reached the bottom, there seemed to be no thinning of the crowd. People lined the streets and filled the alleys. They skulked in doorways and hid themselves behind protrusions of stone. But this was still the outskirts, the part of the city everyone had access to, but the further in you got, the more exclusive the inhabitants were. There was only a handful of days a year that the plebeians would be allowed right into the heart of the city, to the British Court, and that was usually an event of some sort so the vampires could gain popularity and publicity, allowing mere mortals a glimpse at the glittering exterior of their high society.

We passed from the pedestrianized outskirts into the wider streets where cars are possible, if you’re important enough. Apparently I was, as a typical black limo pulled up with dark tinted windows.

“We’ll take you to the Court.” Jean-Pierre made a gesture in the direction of the car, and a chauffeur got out to open a door for me. I turned to Jean-Pierre.

“Just so you know, I’m not so big on the social graces anymore. I let you take my arm out of courtesy more than thinking it appropriate. Equally, I can open a damn door myself.”

“Darls, shut up and get in the car. We need it because you’re human slow, and we’re impatient.” Asher beamed at me angelically.

I was informed, ever so politely, by Jean-Pierre to get over it and get in the car. I think Asher had finally rubbed off on him. For once, I did as I was told. I’d try not to make a habit of it.

We eventually pulled into a courtyard paved with dark stone, uneven slabs that had been corrupted by centuries of shifting earth. The Court was at the deepest part of the city, the black chasm of the night stretching above it, and beyond that the open air and the stars. The gold dome of the Main Court glinted in the firelight. There were no electric lights outside, just torches embedded in sconces on the walls. They didn’t provide enough light for you to really see the guards prowling through the shadows. I often wondered whether guard duty was dull at The British Court, because despite the fact that the most powerful supernaturals were haunting its corridors, they were bound by decorum to be on their best behaviour.

When we stopped, Jean-Pierre let me open my own door. Smart man.

As I stepped out, the first thing I saw over the low-lying limousine, was a fountain near the steps to the Court. It was made of turquoise, carved into the likeness of a dragon twisting round upon itself to knot in complicated and graceful patterns and spewing water out of its mouth into a large circular basin. Parts of the dragon were made in gold, and these bits picked up the firelight, and made the watery beast glitter.

I hadn’t realised I’d been standing there for some time until Jean-Pierre put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s been such a long time, Jean-Pierre. Sometimes I forget how beautiful this place was.”

“Is. It still is.”

I just shook my head, and didn’t answer. Sol looked at us with confusion written plainly on his face.

“Can I ask how you were persuaded to return?” Carlos said, coming to stand near me.

“Sol’s paying me three hundred grand,” I said absently, eyes still transfixed by the dragon.

“Oh shit,” said Asher. “If Nero finds out three-hundred large got you back here, he’d kill us for not offering you money sooner. He went a bit mental at me when he realised I’d seen you this week.”

The place seemed even less beautiful now we were on the topic of King Nero and his borderline obsession with me. The fountain was just a lump of stone and metal. The columns with their ornate Corinthian capitals were just vanity, the carved double doors, with the last of the ancient gold leaf just clinging to them, were just doors.

I turned my head away from the fountain. “Let’s go. I want to get this over and done with.”

Stepping through the doors was sensory overload. There was a constant sound of chatter, the smell of the most expensive perfumes to mask the scent of the undead, and too many bejewelled wrists and throats to take in at once. It was more crowded than I remembered, especially as we were just in the entrance hall, at the very edge of The British Court. This was just the tip of one hell of a crowded iceberg.

You’d expect to have to shove to get through such a dense crowd, weave your way between people and pillars of marble that soared to a lofty ceiling, but not when you’re with The Master’s Hand.

It was an unspoken rule that they were not to be touched, unless you had specific permission. I think it became widely adhered to when Jean-Pierre took off some courtier’s head for slapping his backside as he walked past. Can’t say I blamed him. The crowd parted like the proverbial Red Sea, and a subdued hush fell upon them. I got some disgusted looks from the up-themselves vampire women, and I realised almost immediately why; in their eyes, it was against all rules of decorum for a woman to wear trousers, never mind to wear them at Court. One particularly snobbish woman turned her back as I walked past, hitting me in the face with the enormous feather sticking out of her hat.

“Hey, back off, lady,” I growled, ripping the hat from her head and ruining her meticulous hairdo. Her astonished face gave me great satisfaction.

“Behave, Ms Beaudelier,” Jean-Pierre said, turning to face her and give her a look that was colder than ice. She visibly paled, which doesn’t often happen to a vampire.

“I never intended to hit the lady, I-I-I just brushed—”

“Silence. I don’t want to hear your excuses. Apologise to our guest and we will be on our way.”

“So s-s-sorry madam,” she said, eyes a little too wide. I made an I’m-watching-you gesture, smiled sinisterly, and then followed behind The Hand. No-one touched me after that.

We marched through the hall like we were on important business, and straight through doors which were magically opened by servants before Jean-Pierre could walk into them, and into the anti-chamber to the Main Court. Without so much as pause for breath, those doors too were thrown open with the proclamation ‘The Master’s Hand, Lord Sol, and Honoured Guest’.

The Main Court is arranged in a very particular fashion. Around the edge, there is a platform several metres in depth, with steps down to the Court floor, which is just an expanse of polished, honey-coloured wood. All around this platform are long banquet tables in darker wood. Behind each table is a thirty-foot flag, the kind that fasten at the top and hang straight down. They hung from ceiling to floor, and bore the crest and colours of each of the Houses of the Court. The families themselves sat around the banquet tables. If one family wished to converse with another, they had to walk all the way round the platform, the long way if their shortest route was past the King, as no-one traversed the Court floor unless they wanted the attention of its occupants. The gold dome I had seen from outside was the roof of the back half of this room. I didn’t look up, preferring to keep my eyes on the ground, but I knew what I would see. The circular roof had a bar across the back, from which hung the King’s flag. It was black as pitch, with a teal and gold eastern-looking dragon on it, serpent-like, akin to the one outside in the fountain. The ceiling had been painted with the nightmares we tell children to keep them behaving, of goblins, ghouls, the bogeyman, weres and vamps.

I wanted to stay on that little platform just before the steps went down to the Court floor. The Raven, frightened? No. Terrified. Jean-Pierre did not hesitate, did not falter. He just kept on walking and so I had to as well.

We descended and silence fell. Walking the length of the throne room felt like it took an eternity. There was a platform raised higher than the one running round the edge, upon which six thrones sat, a cluster of three on the left and three on the right. The left ones were empty, seeing as their occupants were standing in front of me; The Hand. The right ones contained second in command to the King in the Court, a Robert DuBois, and his two flunkies, Juillet Argent and Blair, which made up the British Court’s Judge, Juror, and Executioner. Higher still, with a spill of teal cloth falling over all those steps, the flag as its backdrop, was the gold and black glorified chair that was the main throne, in which, sat Nero. Thankfully, my intense observation of the grain of the wood floor stopped me from seeing the King with my eyes, but I could feel he was sitting there, like a weight in my mind.

I was grateful for the cover of the three men in front of me.

Jean-Pierre began. “Lords and Ladies of the Court, Master DuBois, and my honourable King, your Hand, your Lord, and your guest come before you.” We all made a swift kneeling bow. The Hand stood up first, the Sol, then me, as was proper. It’s not a gender thing; it’s a social standing thing. I often forgot, but one of those tables around the edge bore Sol’s family crest. It had always puzzled me that he was a Lord of this Court, and that his symbol was the sun. I’d often wondered if his clan could daywalk, long ago. I wanted to search the tables for the face of his sister, the second-in-command of his House, seeing as his wife had died. She had the same gold hair as Sol, and looked eerily like a bitch version of Lucille.

There was another table I was dying to look at, the table of the Fifth House, with its navy and red banner, the dark backdrop with the embroidered bleeding heart on it in true scarlet. I’d known the Lord of that house when I used to come to Court. I hadn’t seen him in five years, and I missed him.

“And who does my Hand bring before me?” My attention was back on the task at hand. The voice that had just rung out over the Court was Nero’s. I’d never forget that sound: those rich tones dancing over the ear like an exquisite ballet. I loathed it. The shiver down my spine told me the opposite, but damn it my head was going to win out over my heart this time. I collected my anger around me, my anger at the King, and didn’t feel moved by his voice at all. I felt furious. I had to rein it in so I wouldn’t lose my temper. In front of a full Court and directly to the King, it could mean my head. Illegal? No. I was in his territory. The British government had no say here, no jurisdiction.

“Your Hand bring before you Lord Sol and… The Raven, Sire.” Jean-Pierre had hesitated, a definite pause. I stared fixedly at the ground, hoping everyone around would think my bowed head a sign of respect and submission, and not realise that I was using my anger to distract me from the fact that I was bricking it.

“Stand aside,” Nero said to his Hand. My heart thudded. I didn’t want my cover to be taken away from me. I wanted to hide, to run away. Why the hell had I come here anyway? Three hundred large and an attack of conscience? Damn it all to hell.

“Please step forward.”

“My King,” said Sol, doing as he was bid. I moved closer, fewer dreadful inches separating myself and the King, and said nothing, keeping my head bowed.

I was staring at the spill of teal cloth that hugged the wooden steps, as if the cloth had been liquid, and poured by some giant hand over the wood. My eyes were fixed on that stripe of colour, as if nothing mattered more in the world.

As I stared, there appeared in my vision a pair of feet, clad in old black leather boots. The boots descended, bringing into my sight large turnover tops. I dared move my eyes a little higher, and saw an entirely different kind of leather, black, yes, but patent, shining. Like the cloth on the stairs, it looked like someone had poured the hide over Nero’s legs. The fastening was a meticulous and intricate-looking set of black laces that tied together in a criss-cross fashion, set in gold eyelets in a matte leather panel down the centre. The trousers glided over his hips and up to his waist, into which was tucked a teal shirt. It was such a rich colour; it looked like it had been dyed with ground-up precious stones. It was of an old fashion, loose, with billowing sleeves that would have made Mr Darcy proud. The neckline was the most interesting bit. It was wide, and revealed a very pleasant expanse of toned honey-brown chest. The collar was excess material that folded over to give a border of falling fabric that, for want of a better word, was most alike to frills.

By this time, I daren’t look any higher; I daren’t see that face. I could see his neck, thick and muscled. There was a pulse jumping beneath his skin, a sign that he’d fed and had blood flowing through his veins. I looked down at his feet again, and cursed my curiosity.

“She does seem to be the right age The Raven would be, but your eyes must deceive you Jean-Pierre, as this cannot be she.”

“I am certain it is, my Lord.”

There was silence. I could tell Nero was looking at me, and I felt his gaze, burning me.

“In that case,” he said slowly, “the Court is to be dismissed for the night, and we shall go and talk privately.”

That sent all kinds of alarm bells ringing in my head. If I wanted out of everything I had to leave, and pretty sharpish. The Hand hadn’t bothered to search me for weapons, because last time I came here at night I wasn’t The Raven yet. I was sweet, and lovely, and all those other things that were gone now too. So, I had the option of pulling a weapon and getting the hell out of there, but if I did, and I didn’t get out of there, it would be my life. It would also mean I’d gone through all of this for nothing. No, my favourite answer to any problem was not going to help now.

Asher and Carlos departed to goodness knows where, and Jean-Pierre led Sol and I out of the Court and through a labyrinth of corridors. We neared the stench of raw meat, and I knew we were in the servants’ part of the court, somewhere near the kitchen. It was actually to that very room we arrived. The last of the startled servants were being ushered out by Carlos. Asher was standing with Nero, all professionalism. I didn’t like him when he was part of The Hand, I liked him as my friendly neighbourhood uber-werewolf.

“So snooping Court members won’t come, I take it,” I asked Jean-Pierre as quietly as I could manage, indicating the kitchen. Of course, Nero heard.

“You sound older, wearier, and more cynical. I wasn’t aware that was possible, you were fairly cynical five years ago.”

“Life’s been a bitch to me. I have every reason to be cynical, Nero. Your little part in it didn’t help.” There, there was my anger. I wish I had better control of it; life would be easier if I did, but alas.

“I think it’s better we not discuss that now,” said Carlos coldly. I agreed, and his coldness calmed me a little. Carlos had a pacifying effect on people occasionally, not through anything supernatural, but through sheer coldness. Winter weather was perhaps not the best to get. “To business?”

Nero nodded in affirmation. “Why are you here?”

“Because Sol paid me to be.” Nero’s eyes flickered to the Lord of his Court as if remembering for the first time that Sol existed.

“I see, so the transgressor gave you money and that was all it took. All those years and the simple answer was right in front of me.”

I gave a frustrated sigh. “Nero, I am not here to have an emotional battle with you. I’m here on business, which I plan to get done, and then I’m gone. You can consider this a blip on the face of history. I intend to return very shorty to my severe aversion of this place.”

Nero looked like he was going to say something, but again Carlos interrupted. “My lord, the night is waxing and you are due to receive your visitor shortly. If you agree, it is perhaps best we attend to the business that has brought Raven here.”

Nero had a silent internal battle, before reluctantly saying, “To business. For what has Lord Sol hired you?”

“To make a simple request, that you alleviate his feeding restrictions for next week to enable him to replace Malcolm in Cirque Mort for the Carnival.”

“And why should I do this?”

“Because Vittorio needs a vampire to sustain his circus’ success, and because I get a nice big paycheck if you do.” I smiled sweetly. It doesn’t quite work when you’re looking at the ground, and not at the person you’re talking to.

“Is it always about the money now?”

“Since there is very little I can rely on, I might as well be rich. Money won’t let you down.”

He studied me for a moment. “Definitely more cynical.” He sighed, as if weary. “I’ll lift the ban entirely—” enter dramatic pause— “if…”

“If?”

“You come back tomorrow night.” My head snapped up, and the only thing my eyes saw were his teal ones, black-rimmed and burning like they were backlit by fire.

“Oh hell no. I’ve only been back a mere hour and already I’m sick of the Court. And the creatures in it,” I added, pointedly.

“I’ll pay you.”

“It’s still a no.”

He started shouting. Not good. “So you’ll come back here for money if it’s from Lord Sol will you?! I don’t even remember you liking him!”

I shouted back. Even worse. “I don’t! But he had the guts to ask me to come here even after I’d smashed in his skull and insulted him! He discovered this remarkable thing called sincerity with humility along with it. You could never do that, Mr High and Mighty. You’re never wrong are you? Not even when you’re so wrong you’ve reached the bottom of the abyss already. You weren’t wrong when you tortured someone I love!”

There was a blast of icy cold air, and a cutting voice, “Enough, Raven. You’ve spoken your piece.”

I glared at Carlos, at those silver, desolate-as-winter eyes, and dropped my gaze to the ground again, hands in fists at my sides. I needed a cooler head. Of course I didn’t want to see Nero any more than was strictly necessary, but I really missed Jean-Pierre. I even missed Carols a little bit. If I came back, I could see them again. And perhaps, it was time to face Nero, and come to terms with all the anger I held against him. Nothing hurts quite like the feeling of utter betrayal.

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” I said, addressing Nero, “but not because you’ll pay me to. I’ll come back for free.” I took a deep breath in, and let it out. “Now, Asher is taking me to my bike, and I am leaving.”

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