Bring It On
laura anne gilman
About the Author
Coming Next Month
Again, a shout out to my editor, Matrice, and my agent,
Jenn, who are lovely, patient, kind, considerate, patient….Did I say patient?
Deb Grabien, who is a goddess—quite mad, of course,but all the best goddesses are.
And to my “baby bro” Keith, who was there, every time.
For my Muse.
Without whom I might sleep better at night,but not have such interesting dreams.
“No one gets to miss the storm of What will be
Just holding on for the ride…”—Indigo Girls
Darkness. Not merely night, which mankind had banished ages ago with the first, stutteringcampfire, but an absolute, terrifying dark. No moon sailed, no stars glittered. No lightreached into the cold heart and set the blood to pumping again.
“Do so swear to it.” One voice. Confident. Neither demanding nor coercing, not inviting orseducing. It did not echo in the darkness but rather settled into the corners, softening theedges, herding those within hearing distance into a tighter group, although few of them didmore than shuffle in place.
“I do so swear.” More than one voice, less than a dozen. Muted, one or two uncertain, but allwith an underlying note of—determination? Fear?—carrying them forward. Like most initiations,it was less about wanting to belong, and more about the fear of being left behind—or left out.
“Then I hereby declare the overwrought and pretentious portion of this meeting to beconcluded.”
Faint, relieved laughter, and the lights flickered and came up, revealing an open courtyardsurrounded on three sides by thick stone walls, the center one with a simple doorway set intoit. Directly opposite it, similar stones framed an open window running the length of the wall,showcasing what, in daylight, would have been an impressive view. Tonight, the river belowglimmered darkly, black against black.
“Please, come inside and join us.” The woman who had spoken last came forward. A tiny,elegant silver-haired woman, immaculately dressed in a gray wool suit and sensible heels, shemade a welcoming gesture that included everyone. Turning with the assumption that they wouldall follow her, she walked through the door in the far wall. The stones underfoot were smoothedwith generations of use, and as the others followed, expensive suits and elegant dressesmingling in a casual dance of friendly power, one might think it was the opening moves of anordinary cocktail party, lacking only the waiters passing trays of canapés and champagne.
As they left the courtyard, something sparked in the distance, over the river flowing belowthem. Thunder, or an electrical fire on the other side, or something else. One of theparticipants turned to look, barely a twitch in the middle of conversation, and frowned, asthough suddenly reminded of a minor chore left undone.
“Has any of this been discussed with the Others?” he asked, the capitalization plain in histone.
“Those avenues were explored.” The response was smooth, cool, conciliatory.
“Indeed?” He sounded surprised. “I had heard nothing—odd, as my contacts on that side ofthe river are usually quite vocal about everything.”
That got him some appreciative, and sympathetic, laughter. He went on, warming to the topic.“I would hope that each of those avenues was indeed thoroughly explored, as you say. I would
not want to go home and discover that anyone had—”
The knife appeared between heartbeats, turned under the third rib, and shoved in deep.
“We cannot afford to be distracted,” his killer said calmly, as the knife withdrew anddisappeared back from wherever it had appeared. “All avenues are closed to us now, save thisone.”
The three remaining conversationalists in that group stifled whatever reaction they might havehad, and merely nodded, stepping over the body to continue their move into the mansion.
Without seeming to look, other attendees managed to somehow stream around their former fellowinitiate, moving past him without hesitation; his body might have been one of the stone columnsframing the room for all the attention they gave it. The message, if messy, had been perfectlyclear. Accept your status as one of the elite—or lose it, and more.
The body lay on the stones as the courtyard emptied. A moment passed, then another, and theblood pooled, congealing even as more flowed from the wound. Another woman came out, this one
dressed in a simple scarlet dress that set off her brunette curls to perfection.
“Idiot,” she said to the dying man, not without regret. “You should have known better.They’ll only replace you with someone less prone to asking questions.”
Shaking her head at the stupidity of it all, she placed her hands, palms down, in the air overthe body.
“Allow no secrets uncovered, no confidences broken, no vows released, but hold this body tothe darkness until time has time to erase the traces.”
The body shimmered with a faint silver glow, then disappeared. In the distance, there was thesound of a faint splash, the kind a fish might make as it leaped into the air and crashed downagain. Or a body, slipping deep into the waters, might make as it sank and was carried out intothe ocean.
“It’s too late to change course. Too much has already been done.”
The woman went back into the mansion, leaving the courtyard completely empty, even the pool ofblood gone as though it had evaporated entirely in the cool autumn air. After a few moments,the lights slowly began to fade out, until only one illuminated the doorway. Soon enough, ittoo went out.
The demon in her kitchen was making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“How the hell did things get so bad, so fast?” Wren asked him, staring down at the sheets ofpaper on the table in front of her. Nothing to make her break into a cold sweat, on first oreven second glance. It was just paper. Nice paper, but nothing expensive. Three double-spacedsheets, neatly typewritten, with decent margins. It had arrived in a manila envelope with hername written on the front in dark blue ink, carried in a courier bag slung over the shoulder ofthe demon, who had handed it to her wordlessly and then gone to investigate the innards of herrefrigerator.
“Do you really want me to answer that?” the demon asked now, curious. The butter knife lookedodd in his clawed paw, as though he should not be able to handle it, but he wielded the dullblade with surprising dexterity.
“Only if you’re going to reassure me that everything’s peaches, and the city’s about tobreak out into spontaneous song and dance,” she said. “And I don’t mean West Side Story kind
of dancing, either.”
She forced her eyes away from the letter, and looked at her companion. There was a smear ofjelly on the counter, and another one in his coarse white fur. And he had used the last of thepeanut butter. So much for a midday snack. She sighed, and looked away again. Other than that,it was the kind of late autumn day that Wren Valere loved the most: cool and crisp, the sky abright blue, what little of it she could see out her kitchen window and past the neighboringbuildings. Almost like Mother Nature was apologizing for the hell she had put everyone throughover the summer.
And, as always, thoughts of that summer made Wren close her eyes and take a moment to centerand ground, emotionally.
The entire summer had sucked. The deal with the devil that her business partner Sergei had madewith his former employers to keep her safe when the Council of Mages had threatened her and herlivelihood had come back to haunt them—literally. The Silence—a group of mysterious do-gooders with a sizable checkbook—had offered what had seemed like a lifesaver of a job, but—
Her grounding faltered, then came back.
Lee’s death during that job hadn’t been her fault, no. But it was her responsibility. And thesimple fact of it made her core—the inner storehouse of magic that every Talent carried withinthem, like a power pack—seethe under the weight of the guilt she carried. It felt like snakesin her gut, tendrils in her brain. It felt like—
A furry, leather-palmed paw struck the side of her face, not as hard as it might have, butharder than a love tap.
“What the hell was that for?” she asked, her hand going to her face as though expecting tofeel blood, or at least heat rising from the skin. Thankfully, he’d kept his long, curvedblack claws away from delicate human flesh.
“Self-pity.” The demon climbed back onto his chair, bringing his sandwich with him andwatching her with those dark red eyes that were the mark of his breed. “Doesn’t look good onyou.”
“Great. The entire lonejack community is freaking out over what might or might not be Council-directed attacks on them, the fatae are claiming that humans are targeting them, my love life
is going seriously weird, and I’m getting slapped for self-pity by a four foot tall polar bearwith attitude. Who has jelly in his fur.”
P.B. took a bite out of his lunch, and swallowed, ignoring her last crack. “You’re wallowing,Valere. Lee’s dead. He’s gone. Move on, or you’re going to be distracted at the wrong time,and get yourself dead, too.” He relented, only a little bit. “Damn it, I liked him, too. I
“You didn’t get him killed.”
That made her look up and meet his gaze.
She had known the demon presently sitting in her kitchen for years. Almost ten, in fact. In allthat time, he had been effective in his job as courier of privy information and items, witty inhis comments, and aggressive in his refusal to get involved in anything other than his ownlife. In short, the perfect lonejack, even if he was a fatae, one of the nonhumans who werepart of the Cosa Nostradamus, the magical community.
All that had changed over the past six months, when P.B. had somehow, for some reason, gottentangled up in the vigilante attacks against other fatae; human vigilantes, preaching hate withguns and bats.
Wren had friends among the fatae, more than just this one demon. She was ashamed now to admitthat she had shrugged the first attacks off as random violence; not acceptable, but normalenough. Prejudice happened. Violence happened. That was life, unfortunately. She had beenangry—but not proactive. The question of who these humans were affiliated with, how they knewabout the fatae: those things hadn’t been dealt with the moment the severity of and prepbehind the attacks became clear. The fact that she had been ears-deep in a job was no excuse.
She had been worried enough to ask her friend Lee to keep an eye on the demon when she andSergei had left for Italy to Retrieve the Nescanni parchment, the “little job” the Silencehad hired them for. But that had been just to keep her friends out of trouble. P.B. had theninveigled Lee into helping him with his investigation into the human vigilantes who seemed tobe targeting the non-human population. That investigation had led to the two of them meetingwith various fatae leaders, trying to prevent the anger against humans—specifically,Talents—from growing out of control. What had been a relatively simple case of hate crimesthen blossomed into a potential Cosa-wide chasm.
And then a fatae had tried to kill Wren, for some reason seeing her as the human behind thosemeetings, and Lee paid the price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Grow up,” P.B. advised, not unkindly. “You did everything you could do, more than anyoneelse bothered to. If you want to beat yourself up because you’re not some perfect goddess ofunfailing generosity and loving kindness, do it when I’m not around. That sort of thing makesme sick.” He took a bite of his sandwich and said again, “Really. Grow up.”
“Growing up sucks.” It really did. “And you still have jelly in your fur. Left shoulder.Messy eater.” He was right. Miserable bastard. She wasn’t any kind of goddess. She was aselfish, self-interested, puny excuse for a sentient being. She also couldn’t change what hadhappened.
Nobody had enough current to do-over the past.
She picked up the paper and stared at it again. Deal with what’s happening now, Valere.
The paper still said the same thing it had the first three times she read it. Another Talent
has gone missing. Tally up to seven. WTF is going on? And why? Are you doing this? Godlessbastards, why?
Not on those words, of course. Not to the Council. The language was formal. The wording waspolite. The passion behind it unmistakable. And the paranoia practically leaking out of theink. A manifesto, if ever she’d seen one. Which, actually, she hadn’t.
The Talents who had drafted this document weren’t calling it that, of course—they fell back,as Talents tended to do, on historical precedent, and called it a—she checked to make sure shehad the wording correct—“a petition to address the grievances of,” etc., etc.
This wasn’t exactly unexpected, even if it was annoying. Fatae were blaming all humans for theattacks on their kind. Lonejacks were blaming the Council for Talents who had gone missing, orwere otherwise assaulted. There was just enough truth in all their suspicions to make violence
in return seem like a logical response.
Wren didn’t know who the Mage Council was blaming for what, but she was pretty sure it wassomeone, for something.
“Am I the last sane person left in this city? Don’t answer that,” she warned the demon. “Apetition to the Council—Jesus wept. All right, all right. I don’t know what they think thisis going to do, but…” She made a few final additions in the margin with a red ballpoint pen,and then signed her initials next to them in a small, neat hand. She wasn’t ready to sign ontothis version, not yet. But if they made those changes, moderated the paranoia, asked forspecific things rather than a blanket admission of guilt that hadn’t been proven yet…
“Take this back. Tell them to…don’t tell them anything, just give it back to them.” Shecaught a glimpse of the small, battery-operated clock on the far wall. Almost 4:00 p.m. “Andscoot. I have a client coming.”
“Yes, here.” She picked up the courier’s bag from where he had dropped it, and handed itback to the demon, giving him clear indication that this conversation was over. He looked asthough he might argue, but simply sighed and took the bag from her. Dropping the paperwork intothe internal pocket, he slung it back over his shoulder.
“Go. Get paid. Go home. And next time you have to deliver anything here,” she said as hecrawled back out the small kitchen window onto the fire escape, “bring your own damn lunch. Orat least clean up after yourself!”
The mess actually wasn’t too bad; P.B. was a mooch, but not a slob. Wren had managed to givethe entire kitchen a wipe-down, throw the dark green coverlet over her bed—covering night-rumpled sheets—and straighten the books and papers in her office before the client wasactually due to arrive. Not that the client should be seeing either bedroom or office, but hermother’s training seemed to kick in at the most inconvenient times. God forbid someone shouldbe in the house when a bed was unmade.
The buzzer rang before she could start to contemplate the state of the kitchen floor, all fivesquare feet of it.
“Is this…do I have the right address?”
The voice on the other side of the intercom was female. Attractively nuanced. Young. Educated,but not hoity-toity, to use one of her mother’s most annoying phrases. You could tell thedifference, if you listened. People gave so much away in their voices, you could close youreyes and see their emotions in the tenor of their throat. And that had nothing whatsoever to dowith current.
“Is this The Wren?” The voice was coming as though from farther away than street level.“It’s Anna Rosen. We spoke yesterday?”
Upstairs, Wren leaned against the wall, pressing her forehead against the cool plaster asthough to ward away the headache that had kicked in the moment the buzzer sounded. Bad sign.Very, very bad sign.
Finally her hand came up and—despite the headache, despite the forebodings—hit the doorbuzzer, letting the client in.
The intercom was new. Or rather, not new, but newly working. Sergei had hired an electrician tocome in and fix it after years of waiting for the landlord to do something, paying triple-timeto get it done over Labor Day weekend, and making her promise to use it. No matter who she knewwas coming, no matter how silly it made her feel.
The fact that the first time anyone used it was a potential client, a potential client that shewas meeting behind his back and without his knowledge, wasn’t something she was willing tothink about, yet. Maybe not ever.