Authors: Jennifer Fallon
Declan glanced at Stellan, a little surprised. “You don't object to your wife using her academic title?”
“Should I object?” Stellan enquired. “You know as well as anyone that Arkady got her doctorate without any help from me.”
Declan Hawkes didn't answer Stellan's question, but his silence spoke volumes. It was easy enough for Arkady to guess what he was thinking.
She might not have her doctorate because of you, Stellan, but she only keeps her job because without your support the University of Lebec would have to shut its doors.
There was no point arguing about it, either. Arkady had learned that long ago. She and Declan had fought long and hard over her decision to wed Stellan Desean and barely traded a civil word for several years after the wedding. Declan had been furious with her when she told him who she was marrying. He accused her of selling her body for a title, a place in society, and the Desean family fortune. It had taken Arkady a long time to forgive him for that. In fact, it was only since Declan had become spymaster that their friendship had slowly begun to resemble the closeness they'd shared as children.
“Certainly not, your grace. Forgive me for implying anything of the kind.”
“Well, now that's settled, I suppose we should return to the party,” Stellan suggested.
Declan bowed politely to Arkady. “I'll see you tomorrow,
Desean. If you'll excuse me, your grace? There's some business I need to take care of in the city before I retire tonight.”
“Are you going to visit your grandfather?” Arkady asked.
Declan stared at her for a moment and then shook his head. “No.”
“You should. He misses you.”
The spymaster ignored her comment and turned to her husband. “I'll see you in the morning, your grace. Goodnight.”
“One of the Crasii will show you to your room, Master Hawkes.”
A moment later Declan shut the door behind them, leaving Arkady alone with her husband.
After the spymaster left, Stellan turned to Arkady curiously. “What was that about his grandfather?”
“Declan and his grandfather haven't spoken in years.”
“Don't you think that's Declan's business, then, my dear, and not yours?”
Arkady shrugged. “I knowâ¦it's justâ¦they used to be so close. His grandfather raised him. It pains me to see them like this.”
“Stay out of it, Arkady. Nothing good ever comes from interfering in other people's family squabbles.” Rising to his feet, he crossed to the sideboard and poured himself another generous splash of brandy before he turned to look at her. “I was surprised, though, when Hawkes asked if I'd mind your involvement in this rather delicate situation.”
Arkady followed him with her gaze. “Why didn't you tell him it wasn't your place to decide what I should or shouldn't become involved in?”
He leaned against the sideboard, swirling the dark brown liquid in his glass. “Because we both know that's not how it works, Arkady.”
She nodded, acknowledging the truth of his words. “I know. It'd be nice to think even an old friend like Declan Hawkes wanted my help because of who I am, not who I'm married to.”
sought your help because of who you are,” he reminded her.
“Which is actually the reason people don't take me seriously,” she replied without rancour. “Still, I shouldn't be too upset. I wouldn't even have this much if it wasn't for being your wife.”
“You see, my dear,” he said, raising his glass in her direction. “We both benefit from this clever little sham.”
“Which brings me to another problem,” she replied with a frown. “How much longer is Jaxyn staying with us?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You said he'd be here a few days,” she reminded her husband. “That was almost a year ago.”
“He's earning his keep, Arkady. You can't deny that.”
“I think he's going to be a bad influence on Kylia.”
“You think he's a bad influence on
” Stellan corrected.
Arkady sighed, wondering why she bothered. This was an argument she had no hope of winning. “Just be careful, Stellan. Kylia is very young and Jaxyn can be very charming, as well as thoughtless. I don't want her getting hurt.”
“I'll speak to him,” Stellan promised.
“We should be getting back to our guests,” she suggested. “People will start to wonder where we are.”
Stellan smiled. “Maybe they'll think we snuck away for a romantic interlude.”
“We've been married too long for people to think that,” she assured him. “They'll probably think we're fighting.”
Her husband finished his brandy and stepped forward, offering her his arm. “Wellâ¦what do we care about what people think, anyway, eh?”
A great deal, Stellan, my dear,
Otherwise, you wouldn't have married a penniless physician's daughter to protect your family from the scandal of learning what you really are.
Before she could say something aloud, however, the study door opened and Jaxyn Aranville's head appeared. “Ah! This is where you two are hiding.”
“We were just about to return to our guests,” Stellan informed him.
“You might want to hold off doing that for a moment,” the young man suggested, opening the door fully. “Until you've spoken to your visitor.”
Standing behind him was a young canine Crasii, one of the pups from the village. Dripping wet, he stood barely taller than Jaxyn's waist, and was covered in a pelt of reddish-brown hair, his big dark eyes wide with apprehension. He looked human from a distance, but for his distinctly canine head, with ears that twitched nervously in the presence of his masters, and his tail hung low and submissive. The pup was hopping from one foot to the other and wringing his hands, looking past Jaxyn anxiously, searching for somethingâor someone. His presence, Arkady knew, signalled that something was badly amiss. It was rare to see a pup here at the house. The elders usually didn't let them out of their sight, and certainly not at this time of night.
“Laddie?” Arkady asked. “What are you doing here?”
“Fletch sent me, your grace. He sent me to tell you to come right away.”
“What's wrong?” Stellan knew as well as Arkady that the old dog wouldn't have sent a pup to the palace at this hour for anything less than a dire emergency.
“It's Boots, your grace,” Laddie muttered, looking down at his feet.
“What about her?”
“She finally done it, your grace.”
“Done what?” Stellan demanded impatiently.
“Done busted out of the compound,” the pup informed them, raising his head. His eyes glistened and he was clearly distressed by the news he carried. “That's why Fletch sent me, your grace. 'Cause she near killed one of the felines gettin' away.”
“I'll go,” Arkady volunteered, after Stellan made Laddie repeat his startling news. It wasn't often a Crasii slave tried to escape, and certainly not from Lebec Palace, where they were treated better than on most estates, but the news didn't really surprise Arkady. Boots had been nothing but trouble since she'd learned how to talk.
“What about our guests?” Stellan asked, not questioning her decision. They both knew she was better at handling the Crasii than he was.
“Nobody will miss me. They're too busy with Tilly and her Tarot readings. If you put in an appearance, it's not likely they'll even notice I'm gone.”
“I'll go with you,” Jaxyn offered.
Arkady frowned but before she could object Stellan nodded in agreement. And with good reason, she supposed. He was the Kennel Master, after all. “Good idea. Things are likely to be a mite fraught down there if one of the felines is injured. Make sure you're armed.”
Once again, Arkady opened her mouth to object, but it was Jaxyn who cut her off this time. “I won't need a weapon,” he said.
She glared at him. “Planning to subdue the Crasii with the force of your winning personality, are you?”
“Of course,” he replied. “What were
“Fletch said to hurry, your grace,” Laddie piped up, staring up at the human adults with a mixture of awe and fear. “Tipsy might be dying.”
Jaxyn glanced at Stellan with a raised brow. “You named a fighting feline
“What of it?” Arkady snapped, annoyed by his tone.
“It just never ceases to amaze me how you people manage to get any sort of work out of the Crasii at all, when you name them as if they were all children's pets.”
“It never ceases to amaze me that after almost a year as Kennel Master, you didn't know we had a feline named Tipsy,” she retorted.
“There's hundreds of them,” Jaxyn reminded her with a shrug. “I can't be expected to know the name of every single slave on the estate now, can I?”
“Just go,” Stellan ordered patiently, before Arkady could argue any further.
Jaxyn bowed mockingly first to Stellan and then in Arkady's direction and stood back, winking at her as she passed him. Arkady let out an exasperated sigh and headed down the broad carpeted hall with Jaxyn and Laddie in her wake, wondering what had provoked a young Crasii slave to throw away everything for the dubious notion of freedom.
The Crasii compound on the grounds of Lebec Palace was more like a cluster of small villages than traditional slave quarters. It was actually a series of three compounds radiating in a circular pattern around a central common, divided into three sections by tall brick walls designed to separate the occupants for their own protection, rather than confine them. The compound to the left nearest the lake housed the amphibians, the dark waters running underneath the wall to feed the birthing pools. The centre compound was home to the felines, while the largest enclosure on the right was home to the large canine workforce employed both at the palace and on the estate as agricultural workers. It was a radical design providing the slaves with an approximation of village life and not altogether successful. It was never a good idea to let the canine and the feline Crasii mingle too closely, and the amphibians were unsociable at the best of times. Fights frequently broke out between them and while the felines invariably won the confrontation, a canine bite could fester and turn gangrenous with remarkable speed.
There was an exterior wall surrounding the outer compound, but Arkady had thought it unnecessary. Crasii slaves didn't run away often, not if you treated them well. There were a few recalcitrants who bolted the first chance they got, but as a rule, Stellan was inclined to let the Scardsâas the discarded Crasii were calledâgo when they ran away. It cost too much to mount a search party to hunt them down, and then when you finally caught them, you had to either restrain them or kill them. There was no point trying to make them work. Better to let them go, he said. Once a Crasii turned Scard, they were ruined anyway, and usually more trouble than they were worth.
But harming another Crasii in the processâ¦well, that made things very awkward, Arkady knew. The natural animosity between the felines and the canines meant letting Boots leave without a fuss was simply no longer an option. The felines would demand retribution and failure to provide it would make them fractious and uncooperative. It was never a good thing to have an uncooperative army full of peeved felines capable of laying you open from neck to navel with a single swipe of their claws.
The rain had stopped completely by the time they arrived at the compound, although Arkady would have to change before she returned to her dinner guests. Her skirts were six inches deep in mud and her delicate evening slippers were ruined. She and Jaxyn were met by a delegation of canines on the central common in front of the walled compounds, many carrying torches that flared sporadically in the cool breeze, hissing occasionally as a stray raindrop landed on the oil-soaked wadding. The slaves looked concerned, as well they might, Arkady thought, as she stopped and waited for them to approach. Fletch was in the lead, his red fringed shawlâdenoting his rank as the most senior canine in the villageâas murky as fresh-spilled blood in the flickering light.
“My lord. Your grace,” he said with a respectful bow. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“Where is the injured feline?”
“In their compound. They've barricaded themselves in and posted guards. We tried to reason with themâ¦”
“I'll talk to them,” Jaxyn announced, pushing through the crowd. The canines parted for him without question.
Arkady called after him, but he ignored her. The canines fell back for the young man as he headed toward the feline enclosure, bowing respectfully as he passed, something that always annoyed Arkady for no reason she could readily identify.
“We had no idea Boots was planning to run away again, your grace,” Fletch assured her, dragging Arkady's attention back to the canines.
“How did the feline get hurt?”
“She was on guard. She challenged Boots as she was leaving.”
“Boots broke out of the confinement cell and ripped her throat out!” Laddie informed her gleefully. The animosity between the two Crasii species was legendaryâfostered from an early age by the elders of both races, Arkady suspectedâhence the delight Laddie was taking in the feline's injuries. His earlier nervousness at the palace was forgotten now he was back among his own kind.
“What was she doing in the confinement cell?” Arkady asked.
Boots was one of Fletch's many grandchildren, a good-looking creature with a reddish-brown pelt, big dark eyes and the almost-human facial features so prized among Crasii breeders. She was just sixteen, and only recently deemed ready to begin her formal training in the palace household.
“She was given her first tunic,” Fletch said. “She and Lord Aranville had words about it.”
It wasn't just the clothing, Arkady realised. Modesty was a foreign concept to the Crasii, as was privacy. Crasii of all breeds preferred their natural stateâconsidering clothing a human affectation, a sign of status, rather than necessity. For most indentured Crasii, receiving their first tunic was an occasion of note, a rite of passage that signalled their acceptance into the ranks of adulthood. As the Crasii dressed only to please their human masters, being awarded her first tunic would have been akin to presenting the mutinous young canine with a ball and chain, Arkady guessed, and she had probably received a sentence of solitary confinement for her defiance. Boots had questioned her status as a slave since she was old enough to comprehend what it meant and had complained vociferously about it at every opportunity.
Arkady silently cursed the silly bitch for harming a feline in her escape. Given Stellan's generosity toward runaways, the chances were good that she would have been allowed to try her hand at freedom without hindrance, had she slipped quietly away. But not now. Now they had no choice but to mark her as wanted. And probably post a reward for her capture.
Privately, Arkady hoped Boots got away. Perhaps the young rebel would find Hidden Valley, the mythical sanctuary the Crasii believed existed for all the Scards who fled their masters and were never heard from again. The reality was more likely that the fugitive Scards had perished in the mountains or become swallowed up in the slums of the many city-states bordering the Great Lakes. She'd seen plenty of absconding slaves over the years but had never met one who'd had any luck finding sanctuary among others of their kind. But the myth gave them hope and that was something. Hopelessness could be more destructive to a soulâhuman or Crasiiâthan war.
Arkady glanced across the torchlit common in time to see the felines open the gate to their compound with a squeal of rusty hinges on a single word from Jaxyn. That surprised her. Fletch was claiming they'd barricaded themselves in. At the very least, she expected the felines to put up some sort of resistance.