Fear comes in many flavors. Tonight’s dish was sour apples with a soupcon of bile. Arjenie swallowed and swallowed again.
The moon was high and nearly full. A few tatters of high-flying cirrus clouds marred the sky’s dome like scuff marks left by skidding giants. Arjenie held herself still so as not to send any crackles or crunches out into the moon-flooded night.
She was glad of the moonlight. There wasn’t much ambient light this far from the city, just the landscape lighting around Robert Friar’s big, expensive house. That sprouted up everywhere like electronic fungi—path lighting, spots trained on trees and shrubs, the diamond glow of underwater lights in the pool.
Everywhere except at the guesthouse, that is. About fifty feet past the sparkling pool was a log cabin the size of a two-car garage. Here it was dark, especially behind the thorny bush where Arjenie crouched. Neither moonlight nor landscape lighting reached inside the window two feet to her left. The window was open an inch. Behind the glass lay darkness. A whisper floated out to her from that darkness. “You’d better go.”
“And yet you aren’t moving.”
“I hate to leave you here.”
“I can’t go with you. You know that. Go now. They’ll bring the tears soon.”
Arjenie said nothing. There was nothing to say. Dya had to have the tears, but Arjenie hated them and everything they stood for.
“Tch. I shouldn’t have called you. You’re not—”
“You’re not about to insult me, are you?”
“You can hear my knees knocking from in there?”
“Is that what that noise was?” Dya huffed softly. “Don’t worry, little fox. I will be well. Not happy, but well. He doesn’t dare hurt me too much.”
“He doesn’t dare kill you,” Arjenie corrected. “That’s what you said. Because your family would find out—”
“They are your family, too. Jidar relations are still family.”
Family she’d never met and never would. “My point is, if you miss your scheduled contact, they’ll raise a stink and then Friar has to produce you alive and well or they’ll have a grievance. That’s a big deal where you come from, so he’ll be disinclined to kill you.”
“I am also very important to his plans. He does not want me dead.”
“There can be a world of pain between well and dead.”
A single cluck of the tongue. “Then leave before you grow weary and make a mistake and are found with those vials in your pockets. He would punish me severely for them.”
“Good idea.” Especially since no one would hold Friar accountable if she disappeared. Arjenie had a dreadful suspicion that making her go away permanently would be at the top of Friar’s list of options if he caught her here. “You’ve got the prepaid phone I brought. You remember how to use it? Mobile phones are a little different—”
“I can use it, but I won’t. Do not be thinking things are bad if I don’t call you. I don’t want you in danger.”
Big sisters never stop thinking of their little sisters as little, Arjenie supposed. At least Dya had called when she really needed to. “I’ll be back. Love you, Dya.”
“Not unless I call. Love you, Arjenie-hennie.”
The pet name made Arjenie smile. If the smile wobbled, well, she was the only one who knew. She twisted so she could start easing out from behind the bush and . . . “Ow!”
“What is it?”
“Stupid, vicious bush,” she muttered. “It stabbed me.”
“Is there blood? Arjenie, if there’s blood—”
“Can you fix it?” There was certainly blood on her hand, so there was probably some on the bush.
“Pass me the part that wounded you.”
Arjenie felt for the branch, being more careful this time. She snapped off the offending portion and froze at the crack, instinctively pulling on her Gift—and winced at the stab of pain in her temple. She was too close to the window’s glass to push that much power through her Gift.
No one came to investigate, thank the Light, the Lord, and the Lady. Arjenie leaned forward awkwardly so she could push the thorny twig through that open inch of window.
For a long moment she waited, breathing as quietly as she could. Then: “Done,” Dya whispered. “No one will track you from it now.” The branch slid back outside the window and rustled faintly as it fell to the ground.
“Go! And don’t bleed on anything else.”
Arjenie made it out from behind the bush with no further injuries, then paused, still crouching, to suck on the side of her hand so she wouldn’t drip blood anywhere. Cursed thorny whatever-it-was. No wonder Friar thought no one could get near his guesthouse. He’d stationed attack plants around it.
Of course, he had the guards, too. And the wards.
The guards wouldn’t be a problem, she told herself firmly. She wasn’t depleted—not too depleted, anyway. They’d never notice her. As for the wards . . . she’d made it here without tripping any, hadn’t she? She just had to make it out again.
Slowly she stood. There was nothing but fifty feet of path and some low-lying plants between her and the pool—and beyond it, the house. She felt horribly exposed. Her heart pounded. Her mouth was dry.
Stupid, she told herself. No one would notice her, so there was no point in being a scared little bunny. But all the glass in the house worried her.
Her heart kept up its double-time beat as she walked slowly down the stone path that led to the back of the little log cabin, so out of place in southern California. But Friar went for the rustic look. The version of it he’d employed on the main house was far more sophisticated—lots of wood, lots of glass, a gabled roof pitched to repel snow that never fell.
Stupid glass. It buzzed at the edge of her awareness, a low-level but irritating static. Glass disagreed with her Gift. It was too far away to be a real problem, though, she assured herself.
However inappropriate for its setting, Friar’s house was beautiful. She wished it wasn’t. She knew evil didn’t go around fingering its mustache and twirling its cape, but it just seemed wrong that someone like Robert Friar could recognize and appreciate beauty.
The house’s setting was lovely, too, in a rough and wild way. She’d driven past in the daytime . . . not all the way to the house, which sat well off the highway on a private road. But close enough to appreciate the peculiar beauty of these scrubby mountains . . . or was she still in the foothills? Where did one end and the next begin?
Never mind, she told herself sternly, aware of her tendency to lose herself in the pursuit of interesting facts. Whatever she called it, the land around Friar’s home was all ups and downs. Not too steeply pitched, thank goodness, since she’d had to make her way over one of those ups to get here. She might be able to hide herself, but her ability didn’t extend to her rental car, which was parked on a dirt road that wasn’t on most maps of the area.
Arjenie was good at finding information that wasn’t readily available.
The cabin didn’t have a backyard. There was a little deck and then trees—pines, mostly, and they were spindly things. She supposed this was what passed for woods on this side of the country, where things were so dry. It wasn’t much like the woods she was used to, back in Virginia.
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go . . . no river here, and no grandmother, but she did have to go through the trees and over the hill. Or mountain. Whatever.
She’d just left the path for dirt crunchy with pine needles when she heard voices. She froze, her heart doing its frightened rabbit thing. With an effort, she managed not to pull harder on her Gift. The voices were on the far side of the cabin, and she’d been using her Gift continuously for two hours. She wasn’t that powerful. She couldn’t afford to run out of juice.
The voices were male, the words indistinct . . . something about having a beer later. A moment later she heard the cabin’s front door thud closed, and the voices were cut off.
Her breath shuddered out. She wished she’d stop panicking. This was no different from hundreds of other times she’d used her Gift for fun or practice . . . except, of course, for those militia guys. Guys with guns. Multiple guns. Handguns holstered at their hips and rifles slung over their shoulders.
Assault rifles, she thought, and she moved cautiously into the trees. Arjenie had never actually seen an assault rifle, but she’d researched them, and she had an excellent memory. Assault rifles were capable of selective fire, which meant they could be set to fire automatically. The M-16, for example, could fire up to 950 rounds per minute, depending on the model. Of course, those were intermediate-power cartridges, not as powerful as the load in a regular rifle. But 950 rounds per minutes of anything did a fine job of turning a person into bloody hamburger.
How long were those rifles the militia guys carried? She frowned as she began heading upslope, trying to remember. Assault rifles had shorter barrels. But she hadn’t been close to the guns—thank goodness—and she’d been scared spitless. And she was used t...