Maria looked up from her small table toward the entrance of the coffee house. She knew it was already too late for her. She would probably be dead soon.
It was obvious the man who had spoken was a member of the Aurian King’s Emissary. He was in “disguise” in more-or-less ordinary American civilian clothes, a tailored pin-striped suit.
It was much too well-dressed for a downtown Portland coffee house. He was most definitely not a local.
And his rather impossibly good looks, his jet black hair and the distinctive crystal-like blue eyes that were locked on her, were unmistakably Aurian.
The other giveaway, of course, was the fact that he’d called her Imun. It meant “Impure” in the Aurian language. It was what Maria technically was, though she preferred the term, “freckled”. After all, her freckling was the main physical distinction from other Aurians. Not counting the eventual tumors and associated deformities. And the psychosis.
Maria, though, was still in the freckle stage. She had a lot of them. She was wearing a dress that exposed her skin past her collarbone, so they were quite conspicuous, bared for all to see.
But some non-Aurians had a lot of freckles, so Maria had been under the impression that she blended in pretty well. The Emissary, though, had managed to single her out amidst the usual coffee house crowd. He didn’t even spare a look at the man who had more freckles than she did.
The blame was all on her that she didn’t see the Emissary in time. She’d been immersed in the text she was translating on her laptop computer, too much to notice the Emissary, apparently.
He was coming straight for her now, his cold eyes narrowing as he crossed the space between them. One hand was fisted in his jacket pocket. She wondered if it held a weapon or if he was clutching one of the fake sigil stones. Many Aurians superstitiously believed these stones could offer protection against the Impure. It was Maria’s opinion that the more conventional guns and blades the Emissary typically carried were, on the whole, more practical. They might not be able to inflict much damage on a fully transformed Impure, but they could kill untransformed Impure like Maria.
Glancing from the approaching Emissary to out the window next to her table, she saw that the Emissary wasn’t alone; another Aurian fashion poster boy stood before a silver luxury coupe parked at the curb. It looked like they didn’t plan to kill her outright; perhaps they meant to escort her in style to her imprisonment and torture, and then kill her.
People were parting uneasily like the Red Sea before the over-dressed Emissary coming over to her. One man spilled his coffee down his shirt and dropped his scone, inadvertently barring the Emissary’s path.
Maria used the opportunity to pick up her own weapon, a disposable ballpoint pen. On the napkin, she drew what looked to be a small ornate doodle; unlike what the Emissary might be carrying, it was a genuine sigil.
She gave the Emissary a saucy grin and wink before she, her laptop, satchel, and her pen disappeared from the seat.
The sigil faded from the napkin as if it had never been.
Maria reappeared back in her apartment a moment later, clutching her satchel and laptop against her, her writing hand in a tight fist around the ballpoint pen. She let the satchel slump down beside her on the floor, and she started shivering, suddenly cold, even though the un-air conditioned studio was very warm.
The sigil she had drawn back in the coffee house was one of the three she had taught herself from the text she had stolen almost two years ago. The spell the sigil cast wasn’t quite teleportation; she could only lasso herself back to a previously “marked” location. She would have much preferred a sigil for unrestricted teleportation, but, not one to complain, it was better than nothing.
She never left home without it.
She took in some deep breaths, drawing in the quiet, inside air, willing herself to calm down. She was somewhat successful, enough that she could at least joke to herself about leaving her coffee behind at the coffee house.
Unfortunately, she thought, there was probably a lot more she would have to leave behind now if she wanted any chance of surviving a bit longer. She’d have to leave everything, in fact. For the appearance of those two designer-suit thugs meant that they probably knew where she lived, and there would be more of them coming for her. They might even be outside the door of her studio right now.
She would have to leave. Very quickly.
She turned hastily around with the half-formed idea that she would at least put the laptop down on the table, save the open file and shut her laptop down. But she felt a weird buzzing and shifting in the air and ran into something. It was hard and tall. With arms.
In the whirlwind moment, she found herself being roughly shoved backwards, her feet tripped up under her, and the laptop knocked out of her arm.
She barely heard the laptop land with an ominous cracking noise as she crashed down on the parquet floor. She landed flat on her back, the wind sharply knocked out of her.
She found that she was being straddled by a large form looming over her, and both her wrists were being held down on either side of her head.
Crystalline blue, almost colorless eyes were staring down at her, locking her gaze.
It was an easy guess that this was another of the Emissary, though this one was built along leaner lines than Emissary usually were; he actually had a neck.
He had the distinctive raven black hair and golden skin of all Aurians, and his complexion, unlike hers, was completely flawless, just as his eyes were unpolluted by tell-tale flecks of brown.
His unblinking eyes broke from hers and swept over her face and neck, no doubt taking in the myriad freckles in a glance. His lips parted in a slight, cruel smile.
He was beautiful in a hard, masculine way, with sharp features, deep set eyes, and a strong jaw, and his features momentarily dazzled her. She found her own gaze inadvertently dropping to his sneering, sensual lips and his sharp, even teeth.
She didn’t know why she found him particularly beautiful, so compelling. All Aurians were amazingly good-looking, after all.
Unless they’re one of the Impure. Like me, she thought.
He also looked vaguely familiar.
More than vaguely familiar. She knew she’d seen him before. Maybe it would come to her.
Strangely, though, it felt like she had always known him. But that made no sense at all.
She was almost tempted to ask him if they’d met before, but he was saying something.
“Let go of the pen,” he said.
He spoke in English rather than Aurian, but with a distinctive Aurian accent, and the intonations sounded harsh in her ears compared to the softer American accents she’d been used to over the last year or so.
Even his voice sounded familiar.
“The pen?” she repeated, not immediately registering what he’d actually said, her voice coming out rather hoarse. “Ah. The pen,” she repeated, clearing her throat, this time registering what he said all too well.
She wondered exactly how much he knew about what she’d been up to since her escape from Aur.
She swallowed, then said boldly, “What if I don’t?”
Her voice came out reasonably steady this time, she was proud to observe, though she’d started shivering again under his grasp.
“If you don’t, I will make you,” he replied coolly, his grip tightening over her wrists, as if meaning to still her shivering. It didn’t work. She started trembling all the more.
“What do you plan to do to me?” she asked, her voice not nearly as steady this time. But she didn’t let go of the pen, not just yet.
“Let go of the pen, Impure. Now,” he said, a trifle impatiently, as if she were a nuisance he wanted to be done with, and she felt sudden, surprising, and ridiculous indignation.
She wanted to tell him that Americans didn’t find her offensive like he did, that she had even received compliments about her freckles and had been asked out on a couple of dates. As a matter of fact, she had one for Friday night.
She blinked back up at his icy, contemptuous stare.
She decided not to tell him. He wouldn’t care.
He didn’t say anything more.
He was waiting.
Maria wondered how long he would wait. She figured he was sincere about his plan to “make her” let go of the pen, and that it was highly likely he would go about doing this by breaking one of her bones, maybe two. That was typical Emissary protocol. Her limbs, her entire body felt sadly flimsy and very breakable beneath his larger body.
She noticed just then that he wasn’t dressed in a tailored suit like the other two; instead he was wearing a rumpled sports jacket over a t-shirt and jeans. His hair, rather than Emissary-regulation short, was longish, falling around his jaw. The silky strands reminded her of a raven’s wing and there was a slight wave to it.
Then she found herself looking at his mouth again. He was still sneering at her, his small, animal teeth flashing. He really had an amazing mouth.
Then she thought, wryly, I’m about to die and all I’m thinking about his mouth.
But it really is amazing.
There was that weird sense of familiarity again.
She knew him.
Maybe I’m finally transforming, she mused. This is the madness. Coming on thick.
And, meanwhile, there was the more immediate matter at hand, what he was going to do to her.
She met his chilling, crystalline blue eyes again.
She let go of the pen. It clattered to the floor.
“And now what?” she said, trying to sound far braver than she felt.
The man didn’t say anything.
Apparently, their conversation, brief as it was, was over.
In an abrupt, ungentle movement he flipped her over on her stomach and efficiently shackled her wrists together. Maria felt the cold metal of handcuffs tighten against her wrists.
She supposed that was answer enough.
She also became aware of the draft as the man pulled away from her. Her dress, a summery frock she wore with a cardigan, had ridden up, displaying not only the length of her legs but her undies. A deep blush of humiliation suffused her face and neck, all the more worse because she knew that modesty and dignity didn’t matter to this man. He only saw her as a monstrosity. She had learned that lesson well in the time she had spent in the prisons on Aur. Reminding herself of this made all the humanity she had fought so hard for, had gained in the preceding year, drain away into the gutter.
She would have indulged in self-pity if she had the time. But he pulled her up onto her feet in the next moment. One of his hands steered her painfully while she felt him give part of the hem of the dress an annoyed tug so it settled down completely.
Then she wondered why she hadn’t thought to scream. She started to open her mouth. And closed it. There were likely Emissaries just out the door – which was closed and still bolted, she noticed – so she had no idea how this one got inside. Even if there weren’t Emissary right outside the door, her neighbors weren’t a match for the Aurian Emissary, and she knew the King had no issue with having to clean up any collateral messes left behind.
“If you attempt to speak, I will gag you,” he said next to her ear, his voice terse.
She would have told him she hadn’t planned to, anyway, at least for the moment. Maybe later. Instead, she nodded her understanding.
He maneuvered her in the direction of where her satchel lay on the floor and bent and picked it up. He set it down on her nearby desk, pushing away the scatter of pens, all so close yet so far away. Some fell on the floor, rolling even further out of reach.
Then he pulled her to him, drawing his arm around her shoulder to hold her crushingly still but also, in a bizarre way, as if they were friends. Or lovers.
The sense of familiarity was there again.
She became acutely aware of him, how he fit against her.
His body shifted and she became conscious of his scent, maybe of the soap he’d used, something with aloe in it, she thought. He smelled good. Clean. Masculine.
She realized only tardily that she had taken in a deep breath, taking him in. He was riffling through her satchel but had frozen for just for a second, as if he’d noticed. His grip on her shoulder grew harder in an un-lover-like manner.
Then he began searching again, tossing out pens.
Maria tried to not smell him, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t help breathing him in.
So familiar. Nice.
No, insane. I really must be transforming.
It was the only way to possible explain her reaction to this enemy.
His grip on her shoulder was becoming painful.
She tried to look disapprovingly at the hand digging into her shoulder, hoping her nonverbal language would be sufficient to communicate that he was holding onto her much too tight.
She noticed he really had nice hands, long-fingered, almost artistic.
Did he really need to be so close to her that she could smell his really amazing scent?
She thought he didn’t need to touch her at all. It was just too much.
Not that it mattered to him what she thought. She had to remember that.
Then she remembered she had another pen.
She let her own hands in their cuffs slowly inch over the back of her dress, bunching up the fabric and reaching into the seam pocket, where she kept a tiny purse pen.
She tried to remember to keep breathing normally – not too deep – as her fingers edged closer, closer, the tip of her finger finally finding the length of the pen, warm and smooth to the touch.
She drew the pen out of the pocket with equal, measured care, positioned it in her fingers and noiselessly clicked the top of it to expose the ballpoint tip.
Then her eyes fell upon the gold sigil ring on his pinkie finger. She recognized the symbol. It wasn’t one of the fake sigils; it was quite real.
“You’re a Scholar,” she blurted out, genuinely shocked.
The Scholar paused slightly in his rummaging again.
“Do not speak again. I will give you only this one warning,” he merely said.
Of course, she thought stupidly. That was how he had gotten into her locked studio. Scholar magic. And how he guessed about the meaning of all the pens. Why he was so unearthly good-looking.
The Scholars were at the highest echelon of Aurian society, essentially polar opposite to the Impure. They had harnessed the power of alchemy and magic from the sacred Old Texts. They manipulated elemental particles and energy with both written and spoken words, channeling the magic through their sigil rings. They turned not lead but the volcanic rock of their island nation into gold, as well as into other rare and precious metals and gemstones.
The reason Maria had managed to escape Aur in the first place had been thanks, very indirectly, because of the Scholars, that and a change in the official Aurian policy of total isolation from the rest of the world. Only in the last sixty years had the King begun to establish trade agreements and diplomatic ties with other nations, volleying Aur to astronomical wealth and status. The Scholars were one of Aur’s most closely guarded secrets, the other being the existence of the Impure.
She had not been the first Impure to try and make the treacherous crossing to America, though she was the only one she knew who survived it. Regular Citizens didn’t have much luck, either. But that a Scholar should be here, in the United States, was truly baffling. But perhaps it was only as unheard of as having one of the Impure living here.
The Scholar presently extracted a small, old, and beaten-up leather book, glancing at it briefly before putting it back in the satchel. Maria had no doubt that he recognized it for what it was.
What it meant was that now would be a great time to escape.
But drawing one of the sigils without being able to see it was tricky to say the least; the drawing had to be precise or it wouldn’t work.
Maria had practiced doing it blindly a great deal, though, thinking it might come in handy.
Like now, for example.
She drew it on the palm of her opposite hand.
The handcuffs dropped to the floor, clattering noisily.
Max blinked. He glanced down at the handcuffs and smiled with appreciation.
Nazar, he reflected, hadn’t bothered to mention quite a number of things about this Impure.
That she could cast a lasso spell, for one, something no Impure should be able to do. And she had used the script form, a skill that had been lost when the First Scholars perished and became legend.
And the fact that she had in her possession a copy of one of the Old Texts.
He guessed there must be a connection.
But she was unexpected in other ways. She was too old. She should have transformed some years ago, but she appeared to still be in the latent phase. And she apparently had mastered English and fully integrated herself into American culture.
That she should have even reached the shores of the United States alive was remarkable enough.
All Nazar had really told Max was that Max was to retrieve her and bring her to Nazar. If Max could discover any evidence that she was associated with the rumored Impure underground and Low Scholar traitor collaborators, all the better, but, the priority was Maria Rubine.
Return her to Aur before she transformed and caused havoc outside the shores of Aur.
It had seemed relatively simple, too simple, in retrospect, for the size of the debt Max owed Nazar.
The only additional information he had of her was that the King wanted her, too, and that was only because he had noticed they were trying to follow her paper trail, just like he was. Nazar had failed to mention that, too.
From Max’s investigations, he found that the King had gone so far as to obtain permission from the US government to reclaim her on the grounds that she had a criminal background.
The King’s Emissary usually took care of untransformed Impure – well, sometimes – and not particularly well. But the King left the more onerous task of dealing with transformed Impure to the College. So perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised Max to find members of the Emissary closing in on her. They’d just about nabbed her at the coffee house before she cast the lasso spell. He’d followed the remnants of the spell back to her studio apartment.
He wondered what the King planned to do with her.
And he wondered if there were other surprises.
No, not if, he reflected. What.
He picked the handcuffs up from the floor, pocketing them, then retrieved the cracked laptop and stuffed it into the satchel. He slung the satchel cross-body over his head, giving a quick glance over the small studio. The accommodations were old and modest, but attempts had been made to make it homey, including a vase of fresh, fragrant flowers.
The Impure had smelled of flowers.
Her scent had been oddly familiar.
With a grimace, he remembered the sensation of her body against his, curving into him, trembling slightly. He remembered the sight of her long legs and lace clinging to the curve of her hips when her dress had ridden up.
For some reason, the unexplained sense of familiarity – and attraction – brought to mind writings by the First Scholars of predestined, eternal mates. Of course, the interpretation was a point of debate in the Scholar’s College, as were most things at the College.
But that was all beside the point. She was Impure. To even think of her as his predestined love was absurd and, if he cared about such things, he should have also found such thoughts disgusting.
No matter that she was – quite pretty. He supposed she was. Her features were delicate, but her mouth was full and sensuous, ruby red.
She also had the tell-tale skin discolorations of the Impure covering her face and neck.
He had to stop thinking of predestined mates, of her beauty.
She was a package to be delivered.
Aloud, he spoke a single word and followed the stream of energy left behind in her spell’s wake.
It led him to a windowless stairwell landing. The door to the hall was just closing. He caught the door, pulling it back open, and followed. They appeared to be in the same building, just on a different floor. He saw she had reached the window at the end of the hall and was looking down at the street, pressing her face against the glass.
She turned and saw him, her eyes widening with fear and dismay.
She seemed young and fragile in her thin dress and cardigan, her feet in flimsy-looking sandals, and her dark hair in wild disarray around her shoulders.
In the shaft of sunlight, he could see the smattering of discolorations along her cheeks and brow, and the amber streaks mingling with the Aurian blue of her irises, marking her beyond a doubt as one of the Impure.
She had a tiny pen in her hand. She scribbled a sigil on the wall next to her and vanished again.
Like cat and mouse, he thought fleetingly, murmuring another word and again following her.
He arrived in another stairwell landing. Another door was half open. The Impure had just slipped through the doorway and begun running down the hall.
Max passed into the narrow hall behind her. They were on the ground level this time, and she was heading toward the lobby.
She didn’t make it far; as she left the hall, she barreled headlong toward a designer suit filled by one of the King’s Emissary. Max paused at the threshold of the lobby just as she was attempting to duck under the Emissary. The Emissary caught her by a portion of her hair and whipped her neck back, and Max felt an explosion of unexpected rage. He had to struggle against the impulse to rush at the Emissary. He reminded himself sharply that this was supposed to be a mission of secrecy. The King wasn’t supposed to know that there was a High Scholar in the United States.
Max clenched his jaws and fists as he watched the Emissary lock a tree-trunk arm around the Impure and she choked, a horrible, breathless gasping.
I’ll kill him, Max thought, his eyes locking on the Emissary’s face.
He had to wrench his eyes away, turning to the glass front doors, where two male Emissaries and a female came in from the outside.
To his surprise, he recognized the female Emissary.
It had been perhaps ten years ago that he’d last seen her, when she left the College. Her name was Iovita, from the House of Crysle. She was not very many years younger than him, and had entered the College full of pride and ambition. But she had more pride and ambition than magical ability, and she only achieved Low Scholar status. And so she left the College.
Apparently, she had joined with the King’s Emissary. It wasn’t an uncommon choice. Outside the Scholar community, the Aurian people considered even Low Scholars almost godlike, and Low Scholars did their best to bask in the adulation.
But it was unusual, very unusual, to find one in the United States, at least in such an official capacity. It meant the King must really want this Impure.
Just like Nazar really wanted her.
Iovita wore a well-tailored suit and heels, looking the part of an elegant Emissary from the King of Aur, and not at all like the soldier she was.
Max willed himself to un-fist his hands slowly, then pulled out a baseball cap from his blazer pocket and put it low on his head. He remained at the edge of the lobby, partly hidden, hanging his arms loose at his sides.
Then all at once the Emissary who had been pinning the Impure slumped to the floor.
He had apparently fallen asleep on the job.
The Impure was scrambling away from him, heading back in Max’s direction, toward the exit behind him, he guessed.
But she didn’t get far. Her eyes briefly met with Max’s before Iovita hurled an incantation at the Impure, knocking her to the carpet in a stunned heap.
Max again fought the urge to launch himself. He broke out in a sweat and felt sick with the effort it took not to.
One of the Emissaries meanwhile made it over to his snoring, fallen comrade, concluding, “Alive,” in Aurian. He sounded almost surprised or perhaps disappointed.
Then he pulled the dead-weight, muscly lump up in a fireman’s hold.
The other remaining Emissary, after the slightest, uneasy hesitation, eyeing the Impure’s crumpled form, went over to her and brusquely shoved his elegantly shod foot experimentally in her back. She remained still.
Max’s hands clenched into fists again.
The Emissary leaned down and pulled the Impure’s thin arms behind her, handcuffing her wrists in shackles similar to the ones Max used, and then scooped her up over his shoulder like she was a sack.
Max noticed that the Impure’s fingers were curled, perhaps hiding a small pen. He hoped that was the case. He didn’t see her pen lying anywhere.
Iovita was now speaking to the opened-mouthed concierge at the reception desk, apologizing for the disagreeable disruption. Her voice was calm and pleasant. That and her accent and her manicured looks gave a sophisticated legitimacy to what no doubt had appeared inexplicable to the American. There was no one else in the lobby. She didn’t see the tall man wearing the baseball cap in the back hall, for he had momentarily disappeared.
Iovita returned her attention to the concierge, graciously thanking him for his cooperation and giving him a dazzling smile. Then she turned to go, walking out behind the Emissaries carrying their respective burdens.
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