Silver waited outside, leaning against the wooden railing of the porch, cigarette smoke curling through the air. The lakeside market would be closing soon, farmers and vendors rattling up the main street with the remains of their wares, hoping for one last sale on the way home. But for now it was quiet, with only the sound of the faint breeze stirring up dust.
He stared at the sky, blowing smoke rings, watching them dissipate. The sun had begun its descent and burned all the more fiercely for it, glancing off rooftops and windows to shine into his eyes. Three days since he’d saved the girl from the theatre. Three days since everything had changed.
No: nothing had changed. That was her influence speaking. She’d made him weak. Weak! How weakened one could be without ever being hurt. Silver ground the cigarette into the dirt, wished it was Lilith he was crushing instead. Killing her would break the bond—but would it break him as well? It was a risk he was willing to take.
Amber emerged from the tavern first. Lilith followed closely behind. She was wearing loose trousers, dark red, the kind that tied at the side. Her top was plain off-white, sleeveless. The colour brought out the creaminess of her skin. She wrinkled her nose at the cigarette smoke but didn’t look at him—they were back to ignoring each other, then. Good.
Amber latched onto his arm. “I’m starving,” she said, tugging him away from the porch. “Let’s get something to eat.”
He walked down the street, Amber on his arm, Lilith trailing just behind. It was a ten-minute walk to inn, if that. The sunlight warmed his shoulders, or perhaps that was the burn of Lilith’s stare. Silver reached for his reservoir of anger, found instead a flash of an image: Lilith in the shower, so delicate, so fragile. He couldn’t look at her then, his mouth falling into a sneer.
Up ahead was the inn, a two-floor building with double doors, both propped open. A few locals were standing in the sunshine, drinks in hand—werekin mostly, although there were a couple squama in the corner.
He recognised her shoulders first, broad and tanned, dusted with freckles. When she turned to face them, he dipped his head in greeting, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards.
The woman’s smile widened into a playful smirk. “Hello, Silver. Long time no see.”
“Manda!” Amber gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Wasn’t sure we’d see you tonight.”
Manda half-embraced Amber, her eyes on Silver. “I’m covering for Jaid,” she said. He’d forgotten how throaty her voice was.
Silver allowed himself a smirk. “Wouldn’t that involve you being inside, working?”
Manda let her lips linger on his cheek. Only then did she pretend to notice Lilith, who was standing to one side, toying with the fang necklace as if to remind him of it. Bitch. As if the necklace meant anything.
“I’m Lilith,” she said, holding out a hand. Her eyes were narrow, her chin jutted upwards. He was tempted to tell her she looked stupid. “Pleased to meet you.”
“I see,” Manda replied, taking Lilith’s hand with a polite nod. She was taller and broader than Lilith, strong-limbed and womanly. Lilith looked girlish beside her, and all the more foolish for trying to stake a claim on what would never be hers.
“Come on,” Amber said, beckoning. “Let’s get a table.” She grabbed Lilith’s wrist, led her inside.
Manda stayed Silver with two fingers on his arm. Her skin was cool, soft. “Smoke?” she said.
He nodded, pulled out his pack. Put a cigarette to his lips as Manda lifted one finger. She mouthed a few words and a small flame came out of the tip of her finger, flickering in the afternoon breeze.
“That’s new,” he said.
“Been practising.” Manda leaned close as if to kiss his cheek, and breathed into his ear, “I’m preparing for the WPL.”
Her hair smelled of fruit. Silver leaned back to look her in the eye. “We were told to tell you about their activities.”
“By whom?” Manda stepped back. “Let me guess: Mel.” A headshake. “If she had any sense, she’d team up with the coven like I have. Tell her that.”
“You tell her.”
Manda smirked. “Perhaps I could accompany you back to the tavern.” She nodded at the door. “If she lets me, that is.”
Silver’s mood soured. He finished the cigarette, ground it into the dirt. Manda turned the stub to ash with a flick of her fingers.
“Come on,” she said, linking her arm through his and leading him inside.
The inn was busy but not full. A rounded bar was in the middle of the room, surrounded by long wooden tables and benches. The decor was tired, the furniture scuffed, long claw marks gouged into the tables. But drink was cheap and werekin were welcome, and that was all that mattered.
Amber and Lilith were sitting at one end of a table, sipping tankards of local brew. Manda walked him to them, keeping their arms linked together. Silver looked at Lilith, dared her to comment. After the show she’d put on with the incubus, she had little grounds to complain.
Amber was at the head of the table. Silver sat down next to her, across from Lilith. He kept his eyes focused on Manda.
“The usual?” she said, barely waiting for his answering nod. She walked over to the bar, slipped behind the counter to pour his drink.
Their drinks. When Manda came back from the bar, she was holding two glasses. She slid onto the bench beside Silver, raised a glass. “Health,” she said, clinking her drink against his.
Manda was wearing a shirt, the top two buttons undone. “Enjoying the view?” she said.
He smirked. “Maybe.”
Lilith was quietly seething across from them. Silver looked at her, smirked, but she didn’t take the bait.
“So,” Manda said, leaning forwards to give Lilith her full attention. “How long will you be in town for?”
“You’d need to ask Silver.” Lilith’s smile was tight, vicious. “He’s the reason I’m here.”
“It depends on Vera,” Silver said. Then, reluctantly: “If you have any influence . . . .”
Manda nodded, her customary smile gone. “I’ll see what I can do.” Then the smile was back again as she winked and stood up. “I need to get back to work. But I finish up in about an hour.”
For a moment Silver was tempted to refuse her. Lilith, Vera, Al’s depression and the unstable pack politics. . . . A part of him wanted to lock himself in a hotel room and be alone. Then he noticed the fang necklace, the way Lilith was staring at him as if he owed her something.
Silver looked up at Manda, nodded.
“I’m ready whenever you are,” he said.