Authors: Liz Schulte
Knead to Know
Copyright © 2015 by Liz Schulte
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I have spent most of my life at odds with the world around me. It wasn’t on purpose, but then again, maybe it was. I never liked to follow the crowd when going off on my own was so much more fun. This was never truer than when I lived with the Sekhmet race.
You see, my people are good people. Quiet, respectful, and patient. Three qualities that completely skipped over me. I always saw myself as rebellious, and I liked it. I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do. I questioned what they told me. I looked beyond our borders for adventure and a life I wanted to lead. But above all else, I disobeyed my mother. Sure, on the surface that might not seem so bad, but you also haven’t met
mother. As the ruler of the Sekhmet race, she expected to be obeyed immediately and without question. Going against her direct orders was not only a feather in my cap, it was something no one else had ever been brave enough to do. Determined to forge my own path, I set out to more than separate myself from my people—I wanted complete autonomy.
However, I can’t say my heart ever had a clear vision of the road ahead. Instead it longed for each step I took further from the places and people I had always known. Always driving me to keep moving and not wait around for anyone’s expectations to catch up with me again. The last thing I wanted to find on my quest for adventure was another family, but I did. It was this family of friends that finally stopped me and rooted me to one place for longer than any other. This family wasn’t like the one I left. Even though they weren’t blood, I’d sacrifice everything I had to keep them safe. It was the sort of bond I should have had in my homeland, but never managed. It wasn’t entirely my fault or my mother’s fault. It was just the way we were. Had I not left my people, I would have never known things could be different. I would have lived the rest of my lives treating my fellow man as I was raised to: like polite acquaintances. Never allowing myself to feel beyond the surface.
From childhood we were taught that emotions were the true enemy of success. They were messy. They could quickly get out of hand, causing everything from fights to crying to clouded judgment, and, worst of all, they caused mistakes. No self-respecting Sekhmet ever wanted to admit they were wrong about anything. Making a mistake, even a small one, had ended the careers of even the most promising Sekhmet. Looking back, I could see it now. We lived in fear of being wrong. That fear stunted us and isolated us from the rest of the imperfect world. While I had been able to avoid learning many of the lessons my people tried to teach me, this one in particular clung to me. I couldn’t shake the truth of their words condemning emotion as nothing more than a weakness of character. I couldn’t stop myself from demanding perfection in all my instincts. After all, emotions and mistakes had the power to break a person’s spirit. That wasn’t an outcome I could accept.
Maybe I am my mother’s daughter, after all—though part of me cringes at the thought. I can look back on my life and hers, and see the similarities. While I focused my drive and determination on being different, she focused hers on forcing everyone else to conform to her version of the world. In our own right, each of us were every bit as stubborn and sure of our own superiority as the other. Maybe that was why I fought so hard against her my whole life. If Mother said the sky was blue, I’d insist it was purple until she lost her temper. At odds was the only way we knew how to be near each other.
Now, after year apart, I could look back and see that she had many amazing qualities I never fully appreciated. She ruled our race longer than any other monarch before her. She maintained peace and provided education for everyone. Though I found her oppressive and stifling, her people loved her and that had to mean something—I never could put my finger on what. But one thing I didn’t notice until much later was that after my father died, she never again had a romantic relationship.
Love was such a foreign concept to me when I left that it took witnessing it in others over and over again to even begin to understand. Love had been regarded as the worst and most useless of all emotions. It was to be avoided at all costs. Amongst our people, marriages were arranged for power and breeding. They weren’t viewed as anything else. When a male died in a household, he was simply replaced. If the matriarch died and the house didn’t have another female to take her position, it would fold and the men would find new houses to join. That was our way.
But when Father died, no one came after him. Sure, we had my grandfather, and he was my best friend. He encouraged me in all the things that were deemed unworthy of someone like me. He told me stories of my father that made him out to be a hero who had lived a full life. Perhaps that was how I caught the bug to begin with, or maybe wandering had always been in my blood.
Through all of my formative years, my mother was a mystery to me. And for the most part, she still is today. I don’t know if she loved my father. I don’t know if any of the stories Grandfather told me were true. But I learned, fairly recently, that she did in fact love me—and when I left, it hurt her in a way that wouldn’t easily heal.
My mother and I may never agree on a single choice in either of our lives, but despite time and distance and words, she is now and always will be my mother—and that means something.
“This place smells like regret and bad decisions,” I announced as I walked into the Office.
There were a few grumbles, but mostly the ragtag group of bounty hunters ignored me and leaned into their dark corners and drinks. The afternoon crowd wasn’t exactly lively. I’d have been amazed if they could catch syphilis in a whorehouse.
Sy stood at his usual post, amusement fracturing the stench of worry that surrounded him. It wasn’t like the half-elf to get his panties in a bunch over one of my jobs, but this wasn’t any normal case. Not too long ago I crossed paths with the secret council who had taken the responsibility upon itself to run the Abyss—even though they had no right and no one asked them to. Like all covert groups of assholes, they found a way to trap me into service. It wasn’t going to last, though. I’d spent the last few weeks avoiding their assignment and collecting as much information as I could, with the hopes of exploiting the weaknesses in their armor. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to go on. Not yet, anyway.
No offense to Sy, who worked for them, but I wasn’t anyone’s puppet, especially groups like that. I didn’t support their cause or believe their lies about wanting to protect the sanctity of the Abyss from humans. It was a power grab, plain and simple. I had seen it a thousand times throughout history. Hardly anyone had other people’s best interests at heart. It wasn’t the way of the world. Not to say hope was lost or anything, but let’s call a spade a spade: people could be douches.
Despite all that, however, I had to work for them. There were two contributing factors to my involuntary servitude. First, they’d threatened my family. I hadn’t gotten along with anyone in my family for years, but that didn’t mean I would let someone hurt them. Second, they’d threatened me. They had sent me to New Orleans on a bogus mission with impossible rules, and then had the nerve to want to punish me for managing to come out on top. As I said, they’re asshats.
But hopefully the new assignment would get me one step closer to exposing the council for what it was. First, I needed proof that they existed. That should be easy enough to attain. Second—to really make people take notice of what was happening right beneath their noses—I needed hard evidence that the council members were manipulating everyone and killing anyone they deemed necessary just to reinforce the public opinion they wanted us to have. For example, they told me werewolves were attacking humans in New Orleans—like the council had ever given a crap about humans—but when I got there, I found out they had promised to deliver me to the vampires in exchange for their cooperation. It was things like that, only on a much larger scale. For years they had spread rumors that humans would destroy us if they knew we existed. But where was the proof? All I saw were humans being slaughtered and the Abyss feeling generally sanctimonious about it.
This time the destination was Paris, but I hadn’t figured out the twist yet—and there was always a twist. As locations went, that was right up there, but it wasn’t like I’d actually get to see the city, at least not the living city. The story was that Shezmu, a minor deity or major demon, depending on how you looked at it, was roaming the tunnels of the Paris catacombs causing trouble. My mission was to “talk” him into going back to the underworld, a total euphemism for “Kill the demon. We’re tired of his shit.”
I plopped down on a stool in front of Sy. Things had been off between us. Or maybe things were just off with me. Ever since I saw him with Katrina (a witch who was best friends with his cousin), I couldn’t get it out of my head that things were changing between us and I didn’t know how to stop it—or, more accurately, I wasn’t willing to take the steps needed to prevent losing him. So I protected myself against the loss of my best friend by staying away. “Hey, handsome, how’s life?”
“Good,” he said, his familiar gray eyes searching mine. “How are Olivia and Holden? Did you have a good visit?”
I shrugged. “They’re great. I got the kids unruly and hyper enough to annoy Holden before I left.” I smiled just thinking about those little devils. I loved Charlie and Baker to pieces, and they knew it. Those two kids had every adult in their lives wrapped around their little fingers. But no children deserved it more. I already knew the adult Baker would grow to be one of kind (in a good way), but Charlie amazed me more and more every time I saw her. When we found her, she was a feral mute who had been kidnapped by demons and unspeakably neglected. Looking at her now, it was hard to reconcile she was the same little girl. She talked nonstop and smiled and laughed and brightened the whole room. I had no doubt her future would be filled with happiness; Holden wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sy shook his head, but there was laughter in his eyes. “I bet he loved that.”
“How have things been here?” I asked casually. Jealousy wasn’t a color I ever intended to wear. But intentions didn’t keep my brain from going over a hundred different scenarios about what happened while I was away. All of them ended exactly the same: Sy and Katrina together. I was fine with Sy dating random women who wouldn’t last past three dates. After all, I had no claim to him. Those women wouldn’t change his life. He’d always choose me over them. But no matter how I tried to delude myself, there was one fact I couldn’t dismiss. Katrina wasn’t like the other girls. She was Selene’s best friend, and if Sy was dating her, then, well, let’s just say there wasn’t a three-date maximum.
“About the same as always,” he said noncommittally. “Do you want a drink or anything?”
“Just the same?” I asked, trying to ignore the flicker of hope in my chest because it wasn’t fair. I wanted Sy to be happy. I just had to reconcile my own mind to that fact. “Did your date not go well with Katrina?”
His cheek twitched like he was holding back a smile. “Oh, I thought you meant at the Office. No, she’s fantastic. She’s really enjoying the store, and they’re getting more and more involved in the community. She’s been talking about becoming a private detective for humans with paranormal problems. Actually, it isn’t a bad idea. In the Abyss, we have bounty hunters to take care of our problems and feuds, but the humans don’t really have an outlet.”
“Great.” I drummed my fingers along the bar. “Sounds like you’re really involved. Must be nice to spend so much time together. I’m surprised you can be away from the Office that much.” No, I wasn’t grinding my teeth at the thought of them together. It didn’t matter to me. I’d made my choice and I wasn’t going back on it. Sy and I weren’t right for one another. First, it wasn’t in my nature to settle down with one man. It wasn’t the way of my people. Granted, I didn’t see men as nearly as secondary as other Sekhmets did, but I also wasn’t going to let one hold me back. Sy was in charge of distributing bounties. It was hard enough to keep his emotions out of the assignments with us just being friends. If I let him love me, I’d never get another assignment worth getting out of bed for. It was just another cage with different-colored bars. Had I wanted that, I would never have left my people. I broke tradition and went in search of adventure. No one was going to stand in my way of finding it. Not even Sy. “So what’s up? Why am I here?”
He ran the back of his hand over his jaw as he gazed at me. There was a curious glimmer in his eyes that I knew too well.
I smiled back at him. Shit. I had already thought too much. I’d be damned if he was going to get anything else off me. Sy had a way of reading people that bordered on a supernatural talent. Maybe this trip was perfectly timed. I needed a break. I needed to collect my thoughts and make a plan for more than just dealing with the council. I needed to figure out what my expectations were for the two of us. More importantly, though, I needed to brace myself for Sy’s role in my life changing.
“Do you have something to say?” He raised an eyebrow. “Because I get the feeling you’re holding something back, Femi. That isn’t like you.”
“Who me? Nope. I’m an open book.”
“Fine.” Those silvery eyes gleamed at me. He really was unfairly attractive.
Finally, Sy shook his head. “I’m exhausted, Femi. I don’t want to play games. The back and forth between us has been fun. But I’ve been more than clear about what I want, and you have too. You can’t blame me for moving on, for wanting more. I see what Selene has and what Holden has. I want that and I’m going to find it.” He took a deep breath. “Even if that means losing you.”
I stared at my long fingernails, which I kept sharpened into claws. Like so many pieces of my life, they were a necessity, an added line of defense between me and my enemy. But Sy wasn’t my enemy and I didn’t have defenses against him. Losing him would be worse than losing Baker had been. Sy was my stationary point in an otherwise spinning world. “Why would you lose me?” My voice was soft to my own ears, probably because I didn’t want to ask. I definitely didn’t want to hear the answer.
Sy moved directly into my line of sight. “You tell me.”
Heartfelt moments were the worst. “It only changes if we let it.”
“It’s not like we were dating,” he said.
“Not at all.”
“Then there’s nothing to talk about. You’re fine with me going out with whoever I want. You aren’t going to go into hiding or leave if I do.”
I hadn’t been hiding, exactly. I swallowed, automatically straightening my shoulders as my chin angled up. “You’re the one who brought all of this up. It’s not my fault you love being awkward and try to drag me down with you.”
He winked at me then grinned. “Yes, awkwardness is a character flaw of mine.” Sy was possibly the least awkward person I had ever met. He could talk to anyone, he moved with grace, and he was genuinely nice. Sort of made you sick how perfect he was. “Have you done much research on Shezmu?”
I shook my head. “No need. I know who he is. Let’s just say I’m familiar with his work.”
Sy held up a finger and went to the back. He returned with a basket of French fries and poured me a beer. “Do tell.”
I squirted a heap of ketchup to the side of the fries and dipped three, then plopped them into my mouth. I flourished my hands. “To the right, we have bachelor number one, Shezmu. He likes perfume, wine, and dismembering bodies after long walks on the beach.” I spoke in my best game show host voice. “His hobbies include making wine from the blood of his victims, slaughtering souls, and hoarding ointment.”
“Femi,” Sy said with infinite patience. “We need to talk about this seriously.”
I looked at him over my glass of beer. “No,
need to talk about this seriously. I’m good.”
“I’ve known you long enough to know when you’re worried,” he said, pressing both palms flat against the bar, leaning forward. “How do you know Shezmu?”
“Well, first, I’m a Sekhmet and they do make us go to school. We learn the deities and what they’re capable of. I’ve heard plenty about him over the years.” Just not how to defeat him, which was concerning.
I shrugged. “He killed my dad, but I imagine you already know that.” There were no coincidences when it came to the council. They’d given me this case and threatened my family because they knew my past and thought it would be a trigger for me—that it would weaken me. It might not have been personal; they might have just wanted to distract me from figuring out the real reason I was being sent to Paris. But I was equipped to deal with this. Sekhmets weren’t ruled by our emotions. We suppressed them like all emotionally stable people did.
Sy’s mouth fell open and he shook his head. The one thing I hated more than being told what to do was sympathy. “I didn’t know. You didn’t say anything and you never talk about your family.” His mouth thinned into a straight line. “Leilah probably does know, but I didn’t. You can’t honestly think I would ever send you into anything—”
I held up a hand to stop him. I didn’t need an explanation. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Of course it is. You don’t have to do this. Holden and I will stand with you. We’ll force them to send someone else.”
I shook my head. I was ready for this bounty. I hadn’t just been avoiding Sy, I was preparing my case against the council, but I needed more information. If I was ever going to build a case against them, I had to start somewhere. Where better than another double-sided mission?
As I said, the council couldn’t have given a rat’s ass about the human lives Shezmu was taking—which was bizarre in and of itself. Usually he didn’t have much of an appetite for anything less than another god. Granted, he’d make exceptions for people who really ticked him off, but what could these humans have done to even get his attention?
The best I could figure, the council had another reason for wanting me there. Whether it was that they thought Shezmu would kill me and eliminate that problem for them, or, like New Orleans, this was just a small piece of a much bigger issue, I didn’t know. Granted, they could just execute me outright, but not without making enemies within their own ranks. Despite working for them, I had no doubt Sy was firmly in my corner. And there was the leader of all the jinn, Holden, who was also on the council—and also a friend of mine. With Holden, of course, came Olivia, an Angel of Death and one of the nicest people I had ever met. She also happened to be my best friend. Given all of that, killing me would make a big splash, unless it looked really accidental, like, say, I died on a mission. But it was hard to imagine I was worth all that fuss to them. So more and more I was certain there was something they wanted and Shezmu was somehow in their way. And what’s fifteen human lives when it comes down to getting what you want?