Blood politics (blood destiny 4)

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Blood Politics

 

By Helen Harper

 

Book IV of the Blood Destiny series

 

Chapter One

 

Dark mist snaked around my ankles, then curled upwards into the still night air.  From somewhere to my left there was a rumbling bellow that sent rippling chills down my spine.  Both my hands, slick with damp sweat, clutched onto silver throwing daggers while painful burning heat coursed through my veins.

There was a rustling to my right.  I flicked a glance over to the shadowy copse of looming trees, and shifted my weight imperceptibly, ready to meet head on whatever was about to appear.   The bellow sounded again, closer this time, but the danger in the small forest was more pressing.  The cracking and heaving of falling boughs and branches indicated the imminent arrival of the beast, and a faint green glow sparked up from my hands in anticipation.  I side-stepped, trying to gain a better vantage point.

The pain in my shoulder had increased from a dull ache to sharp sear, making it difficult to continue to grip the daggers. I tightened my fingers, and waited, trying to ignore it.  The crashing sounds got louder and I could now see the giant oaks leaning and falling as my foe cleared a path for itself.  A tinge of cloudy red seeped across my vision and I blinked several times in quick succession, attempting to clear it, then, when that didn’t help, shook my head in short, sharp staccato movements.  It didn’t work.  

I cursed inwardly and hunched down slightly, hoping that by making myself smaller, I’d have more of a chance to surprise the creature and gain the advantage. No such luck though.   Just before it reached the edge of the tree line, it stopped, the more vertiginous tips of the oaks swaying unnaturally.  There was a snort from within the tall dark shapes and my eyes lifted upwards, noting the height of the cloud of exhaled breath.  Fuck.  This thing was big.

The pair of us stood there in silence for one quiet moment, each facing the other through the veil of night and shadowy trees. A brief thought skittered through my mind, but I pushed it away before it could fully form.  Whatever this thing was it was dangerous and I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted now.

Then it moved, with more silent grace than I would really have thought possible for a beast of its apparent size, and from the edge of the canopy a shape began to appear. Through the haze of red as yet marring my vision, I still couldn’t work out what manner of nastie it truly was, even when one large clawed foot lifted itself out from under the cover of the trees and planted itself onto the dark earth in front of me.  Its deadly talons gleamed.

A shot of uncontrollable pain lanced through my shoulder and I cried out involuntarily, dropping the dagger from my left hand. Goddamnit.  There was no time to scoop the weapon back up, however, as a second scaly foot joined the first.  I looked upwards, slowly, my eyes tracking the rest of the thing’s body as it emerged.  It was fucking huge – to the point where I had to crane my neck upwards to get a proper look at it.  A drop of something landed on my face.  Disgusted, thinking it was slimy drool, I reached my now dagger-less hand up to wipe it away.  Except it wasn’t saliva – it was blood.  I looked up again and realised that something was hanging from the creature’s mouth.  Twisting my head, I tried vainly to work out what it was.  The beast, as if trying to please me, helpfully leaned down, allowing me to begin to make out what the blood-sodden shape actually was.  

There was a clump of dark material dangling lifelessly from within its jaws, like a bunched up ballgown. Who on earth would be wearing that much in the middle of summer?  I squinted further, catching sight of pale skin at the edge, cocking my head to get a better view.  Whoever the unfortunate victim was, they were most definitely dead, as even though I couldn’t make out their face, their neck was skewed at a horrifyinglyunnatural angle.  

I jumped slightly as there was another earth-shattering roar from behind. The creature in front shifted its weight, fixing one giant yellow dragon-like eye on me.  I leaned forward and prodded the lifeless thing in its mouth, feeling the clammy skin of the dead.  My movements disturbed it, however, and it flopped forward towards me.  It was a man - his mouth was open in a silent shriek, but his eyes were covered with an unmistakeable caul.  Thomas.  The agony in my shoulder increased and the cloud of red across my eyes deepened to a vivid scarlet, and I screamed.

*

I woke, my whole body covered in a sheen of cold sweat, and a sheet wrapped constrictingly round my legs and torso.  Lying there for a moment, heart thudding painfully in my chest, I blinked away the hot tears and swallowed hard.  Then I pulled myself together and extricated my limbs from the damp cotton, getting out of bed to yank an over-sized t-shirt over my head and pad to the bathroom.  I flicked on the light, wincing at its brightness, turned on the tap and scooped up cold water to splash over my face.

I reached over for a towel, patting my skin dry, then stared into the small mirror. I looked pale, with heavy dark rings under my eyes that appeared in stark contrast to the rest of my skin.  Sighing, I ran my fingers through my now almost shoulder-length hair, and tried not to think any more about Thomas.  Instead, I curled my nails into my palms and gritted my teeth, and stalked into the kitchen.

My mouth was almost painfully dry so I yanked open the fridge door and pulled out a carton of orange juice, then drank deeply from it, without bothering to get myself a glass. I had virtually drained the entire thing when there was a sudden sharp knock at the door that caused me to swallow the wrong way and start choking and spluttering, juice flying out of my mouth in all directions.  I wiped the back of my hand across my face, trying to get the worst of the citrus smears off, then cursed irritably to myself and reached out for a cloth to wipe down the juice spattered fridge.  The knocking continued, more insistent now.  I ignored it.

Come on, kitten, open up. I know you’re in there and you’re awake.

I continued dabbing at the dribbles of the juice that had managed to somehow cover half of my small kitchen, and didn’t bother to answer the annoying Voice in my head.

Corrigan’s fist against my door increased in both tempo and volume, a drumbeat to some silent tune of annoyance that only he knew how to create.  I wanted him to go away so I go crawl back to bed and try to get some real sleep.

Mackenzie…

There was a warning note in his Voice now that did nothing more than irritate me.  Who did he think he was coming round here in the middle of the night?  Surely the bloody Lord Alpha of all the sodding stupid shifters had better things to do with his time?

I heard a door bang in the flat above me. Great, now he’d woken up the neighbours.  I’d only moved in four days ago, it was hardly time to start pissing them off just yet.

Fuck off, Corrigan. I am trying to sleep.

No, you’re not.

He gave up on knocking and began thumping on the door instead.  Jeez.  It wouldn’t surprise me if someone called the freaking police at this rate.  Rolling my eyes in exhausted exasperation, I put down the cloth and walked out the kitchen and towards the front door.  I was just reaching for the handle to open it, when there was a loud splintering noise and I jumped backwards while the whole door burst open with a crash.  On the doorstep in front, leg only just lowering, stood Corrigan, looking terribly pleased.

I stared at him aghast. “You kicked open my fucking door?”

He grinned at me ferally. “I had to make sure you were alright, kitten.  You were screaming in my head.”  He licked his lips.  “It was…disturbing.”

Screaming in his head? Oh shit.  That meant that I’d reached out and called for him in the throes of my nightmare.  Then I thought for a second.  “Hold on a minute.  I only woke up five minutes ago and you live on the other side of the city.” I put my hands on my hips and cocked my head at him.  “You might be fast, my Lord, but you’re not Superman.  What were you doing hanging around this part of town?”

Corrigan had the grace to look at least slightly abashed, but he was saved from answering as there was the unmistakable sound of a door upstairs opening and heavy footsteps walking down the narrow staircase towards us. A moment later a heavy-set man appeared in blue-striped pyjamas appeared, cricket bat gripped in his hands.  

He waved it threateningly in Corrigan’s direction and spoke gruffly. “What the hell is going on here?”

The Lord Alpha held up both his hands, palms turned outwards. “Nothing to worry about it, sir.  I’m sorry if I woke you up.”

My neighbour glanced down towards me, taking in the destroyed door, then flicked a glance back at Corrigan. “Doesn’t look like nothing to me.  You upsetting this lady?”

I felt a surge of warmth towards him, and cleared my throat. “Everything’s fine.  I know this guy.  He just, er,…” My voice trailed off.  Just what?  Kicked in my door because he’s a were-panther psycho control freak?

Fortunately, Corrigan’s wits were somewhat more sharp than mine at this time of night and he stepped in to rescue me. “My friend, here,” he laid heavy emphasis on the word ‘friend’ so that there was no mistaking his meaning, “has diabetes.  When she didn’t answer her phone or the door I grew worried that she’d fallen into insulin shock.”  He smiled disarmingly.  “You can’t be too careful, you know.”

My neighbour looked at me for confirmation, so I nodded mutely, trying not to look pissed off that Corrigan was trying to insinuate that we were in some kind of romantic relationship. The idiot probably thought that he was marking his territory when I’d already made it pretty clear that I didn’t need or want him around.  Well, I didn’t need him at least.  And as for the want part, I was sure that would pass soon.

I found my voice. “Honestly, everything’s fine.  I’m so sorry that we woke you up.” I shot a hard look at Corrigan.  “It won’t happen again.  I appreciate you checking though.”

The man’s grip on the cricket bat relaxed. “Any time, Miss.  I’m just upstairs if you need anything.  Flat 3D.”

I smiled at him as he shot me a meaningful look, then watched as he turned and walked back upstairs. Once I was sure he was safely back inside his own apartment, with the door closed, I looked back at Corrigan and glared.

“Four fucking days!” I hissed. “And already the neighbours think I’m some kind of nocturnal weirdo with crazy friends.  Speaking of friends, what the hell was it that you were trying to suggest anyway?”

He shrugged. “Well, we have been on a date already, kitten.  You know it’s only a matter of time.”  His chipped emerald eyes gleamed at me with promise lurking in their depths.

My mouth went dry. “Piss off.  I told you that I don’t need you and that I want to do this alone.”

“At least for now.”

“Huh?”

“That’s what you said,” Corrigan replied tolerantly. “You need to do this alone, whatever ‘this’ is, at least for now.”

He was throwing back the words that I’d said to him at the mages’ academy after Thomas had been killed by the wraith. And after I’d shifted into the dragon that I now kept having nightmares about.  I stared at him, nonplussed.

“I am a patient man, kitten,” Corrigan continued. “I can wait until you’ve come to terms with what you are.”

I rubbed my eyes tiredly. It was too fucking late – or too fucking early depending on which way you wanted to look at it – to be dealing with this now.  “I am at terms with what I am.”

“Sure you are. That’s why you’re having nightmares.”  Corrigan’s gaze fell onto my now destroyed door.  “Come back to the keep with me.  You can’t stay here now that anyone can waltz in without so much as a by-your-leave.”

“Yeah? And whose fucking fault is that?”

Corrigan opened his mouth to speak but he was interrupted by yet another voice.  “The keep is a long way off.  Don’t worry, I will keep watch and make sure that you’re not interrupted again.”  

I looked over, surprised, and realised that leaning against the shadows was a Fae. Corrigan growled.

“Who the hell are you?” I snapped.

The Fae stepped out into the dim light of the corridor.  “You can call me Beltran, although really my name is unimportant. Her Majesty has asked me to ensure that you are undisturbed.”  His violet eyes flicked to Corrigan.  “You are disturbing her.”

My mouth dropped open. Un-freaking-believable.  All I needed now was for a bloody mage to show up and start waving around sparks of magic in my so-called defense and my night would be complete.

“There’s a witch waiting outside. I can always exhort her to cast a ward so that nothing may pass over the threshold,” Beltran continued without a trace of apparent emotion in his voice.

I rolled my eyes. Everything was now becoming suddenly clear.  This had nothing to do with Corrigan fancying a little midnight flirt or wanting to make sure I was alright after my nightmare.  This was about some kind of stupid power play between the faeries, the mages and the shifters, with me as the unwilling prize.  Well, they could all just fuck off.  Despite my tiredness, flames of exasperated heat were uncoiling themselves within the pit of my stomach.

Corrigan took a step towards the Fae. “Miss Mackenzie does not require your assistance.   Do you even know who I am?”

Oh, for Christ’s sake. He didn’t really just say that, did he?

Beltran took a step towards Corrigan and sneered. “Am I supposed to be scared of a little pussy cat?”

Every sinew of the Lord Alpha’s muscular frame stiffened and dark patches of fur began to spring out on his uncovered arms. This had the potential to end very, very badly.

“Okay, boys,” I said, stepping between the two of them. “It’s the middle of the night.  You’ve already woken up my neighbours once.  Let’s call it quits so that I can go back to bed.”

The pair of them continued to eyeball each other over my head. I raised my voice.  “I mean it.  You two need to fuck off now because I’m getting annoyed.  And you won’t like me when I’m angry.”

Corrigan muttered something under his breath that I didn’t quite catch. I ignored him pointedly.  “Leave.  Now.”

The Fae moved his gaze from Corrigan down to me. Something flickered in his eyes and he bowed.  “As you wish.”  He moved back, melting away into the darkness.

I turned round to face Corrigan. “You too.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but I made a face at him. “It’s a dangerous day when I’m the calm one, Corrigan.  I want to get some uninterrupted sleep and that Fae will be back in a heartbeat if you don’t leave too.”  I looked over at the splintered door frame.  “And I think I can take care of myself, don’t you?”

“Of that I have no doubt, kitten.”

“Then please go,” I said quietly.

He sighed, then reached out and brushed away some hair from my face. I tried hard not to flinch at his warm touch.  “As you wish.  But,” his eyes grew hard for a moment, “call me if you need anything.”

“Of course.” Not a chance, buster.

He stood there for a heartbeat longer, unfathomless emotion in his eyes, before blinking languidly and smoothly stepping past me into the night.

Sweet dreams.

As if.  I squeezed myself into my flat, trying to avoid knocking the door that was now hanging off its hinges, then grabbed a wooden chair and propped it carefully against the knob to hold it shut.  Cursing the Otherworld in general, I stomped back off to bed.

Chapter Two

 

It was late when I finally awoke again. Sunlight was streaming in annoyingly through a gap in the curtains and hitting the side of my face.  I groaned slightly to myself, wondering whether the events of the night before had just been a product of my imagination.  However, when I finally managed to get myself out of bed and check, it became apparent that unfortunately they’d been real.  I stared mournfully at my broken door for a moment, hoping that my new landlord wasn’t planning to make any surprise visits to check on his new tenant before I managed to get it fixed.

Possession-less as I virtually was, the flat itself was rather bare. It came supplied with a few basics: a sofa, a bed, a kitchen table and chairs – one of which was currently keeping the front door closed – and very little else.  I’d not even had time to stock the cupboards yet, and the absence of coffee was grating on me.  I made a mental note to make sure that I managed to leave work in time this evening to buy a proper coffee machine and some of South America’s finest, then shrugged on my usual uniform of jeans and a dark t-shirt and picked up my backpack on my way out.  At least there was nothing worth stealing inside the flat, I figured ruefully, as I left the door hanging precariously against the frame.  Corrigan still had a hell of a lot to answer for though.

The bookshop was a short ten minute walk away, and I knew from my previous strolls back and forth that there was a small coffee shop along the way. I checked my watch and decided that there was time to pick up a triple espresso.  Opening day wasn’t until next week and, while there was a hell of a lot to still get ready before then, at least being a bit late wouldn’t cause too many problems.  When I emerged from the shop, one coffee and one foul-smelling herbal tea clutched in my hands, there were prickles against the back of my neck and, without turning round to check, I knew that I was being watched.  It was hardly rocket science to work out where I was going though, so I did my best to ignore them and continued forward.  If those idiots had nothing better to do than follow me round all day, then that was up to them.

The new, improved, and somewhat displaced, Clava Books was situated along a busy London thoroughfare. I’d suggested to Mrs. Alcoon that we should change the name – after all its namesake, the Clava Cairns, was on the other side of the country – but she’d insisted on keeping it the same.  After ensuring that she could never return to Inverness by burning down the original and making everyone think that she’d died inside it, I could hardly argue.  We’d been fortunate enough to be able to take over the lease of the new building thanks to some generous compensation from the mages.  I had the distinct feeling that it was my good books they were trying to stay in, rather than Mrs. Alcoon’s, but she deserved something after her livelihood and home had been ripped out from under her so I’d kept quiet and let her take the money.   She was living in the small flat above the shop and, even though we hadn’t officially opened yet and therefore had no profits to speak of, there was enough left over to pay me a wage to cover my own expenses.

The bell tinkled as I pushed open the door, announcing my arrival. Mrs. Alcoon’s lilting Scottish voice drifted over a greeting to me from behind a towering pile of boxes.  “Mackenzie, dear, are you quite alright?”

“Sure, Mrs. Alcoon, I’m fine.”

Her head popped up, and her eyes regarded me seriously.  “You should see a doctor, you know, dear.  That might help you to sleep better.”

Mrs. Alcoon wasn’t exactly a mage, but she did possess some weak Divination powers that allowed her moments of prescience and insight. Clearly this was one of those moments.

“Honestly, I’m fine,” I repeated, reassuring her. I lifted up the tea.  “Here, I brought you a drink.”

She beamed at me, and stood up so I could pass it over to her. “Oh, you are wonderful.  You should really have gotten another cup though as I think we’re going to have a helper with us today.”

I frowned at her, puzzled. 

“The March-Mage called. He’s sending over his best librarian to give us a hand with getting ready.”

I grinned. “You mean the Arch-Mage?”

She waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Oh, yes, Arch-Mage, sorry.  A lot of this Otherworld stuff is very new to me, you know, dear.  It’s difficult to get all the names right.”

Technically speaking, no humans (even those with minor powers) were allowed to know about the Otherworld, and its denizens did a good job of keeping it secret. However, considering that there had been no sensible explanation other than the truth as to why Mrs. Alcoon had lost months of her life in a coma, coupled with the fact that her slight Divination skills had already picked up on my Draco Wyr heritage beforehand, pretending otherwise had seemed pointless.  Thankfully, the mages had seemed to agree and I’d had no disagreement about revealing the whole truth to her from any other quarter either.  To be fair to the older lady, she’d dealt with all of the revelations remarkably well.  She had known about the existence of the Ministry for years before I’d met her though.  I gave her a suspicious look and wondered whether her ‘mistake’ had been deliberate.  She blinked back at me innocently.  Hmmm.

A thought struck me. “Hold on, he said his best librarian?”

Mrs. Alcoon sipped her tea. “Yes, dear.”

Uh-oh. If that was who I thought it was going to be, then Mrs. Alcoon’s mettle was going to be tested more than both either she or I had anticipated.  I shrugged mentally.  She was made of stern stuff; she’d cope.  I flipped open the plastic lid to my coffee and took a large gulp, scalding the sides of my throat, then placed my cup to one side and got to work.

The bookshelves were already in place, and we’d spent the previous week giving the walls a coat of inoffensive cream paint, and the wooden floor a fresh varnish.   Now all that really remained was to sort out the stock.  I reached over into the nearest box and began pulling out books, ready to put them into order on the shelves.  I’d managed to convince Mrs. Alcoon that Gaelic tomes weren’t going to draw in much of an audience here in London although she’d vetoed the idea of going mainstream and selling bestsellers.  Instead we were touting ourselves as a ‘New Age’ bookstore.  In essence that meant all manner of Otherworld-based books, along with some make-believe human versions.  The colourful book on top of the pile proclaimed itself as ‘Crystal Wisdom: How to harness the power of gemstones to change YOUR life’.  Yeah, that would be a human one then.  I started two piles: one fit for normal public consumption that we would place near the front of the store, and one for the more discerning Otherworld customer, that would be somewhat hidden towards the back.  I also started my own secretive pile that I hid surreptitiously behind me, ready to stuff into my backpack later.  I’d sneaked a couple of vampire books into the purchase order for my own perusal and, while I was sure that Mrs. Alcoon wouldn’t have minded me ordering a few books for myself, I was fairly confident that she wouldn’t be impressed with my reasons as to why I’d ordered those particular ones.  Aubrey and his little vampire friends still had a lot to answer for after their actions at the mage academy that had inadvertently caused the death of my friends.  I wasn’t about to forget what they’d done and, somehow or other, I was going to make them pay.

Before too long, I was surrounded by books. I rested back on my haunches for a second, looking around.  I barely seemed to have made a dent in the boxes that packed the floor space.   This was going to take some time.   I was just reaching out for the next box, when there was a snap and crackle in the air.  Looking up, I noted the purple shimmer, idly wondering to myself if there was a way to prevent the mages from dropping in unannounced whenever they wished.  Not that I disliked them or didn’t want their custom, but I wasn’t really particularly keen on the idea that they could show up whenever and wherever they wanted to.  I’d have to do some investigating to find out.  There had to be a mystical version of a doorbell that we could somehow install.

“Dear? The air is humming and looking really rather peculiar,” called out Mrs. Alcoon from the other side of the store.

“I think that’ll be your helpful librarian,” I commented.

I hadn’t even finished my sentence when a familiar chubby figure came fluttering heavily through the portal.  While I, of course, would have been throwing up all over the newly varnished floor, Slim irritatingly appeared none the worse for his travels.

“Fecking hell. Is this it?” the little gargoyle exclaimed.

I flicked a glance over at Mrs. Alcoon, who was blinking rapidly.  “Goodness,” she murmured.

“Can’t fecking believe I’ve been made to come all this way for a little shop. Fecking humans.”  Slim wheeled round in the air and fixed a beady eye on me.  “Not that you’re human, you weird fecker.”

“Good to see you too, Slim,” I smiled. 

As the steely custodian of the library in the mages’ academy, Slim clearly knew all about what happened back in February when I’d shifted into a dragon and killed Tryyl, the wraith that had left destruction and devastation in its wake. The Arch-Mage had assured me that he had placed a geas – an oath – on all the witnesses so that my real identity wouldn’t go any further.  I was somewhat skeptical but could do little about it now.  It wasn’t as if I could go around threatening the entire Ministry, even if I did apparently have the ability to transform into a fire-breathing beast.  I hadn’t actually tried to shift again since that terrible day.  The dragon form had so completely taken over my consciousness, and had been so consumed by the blinkered desire for violence, that I was kind of afraid to attempt it.  I had discovered that I liked being in control of emotions.  I supposed it was rather ironic that it was Thomas, whose death had caused me to lose all that control, who had taught me to feel that way.

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