She didn’t want to like him. The stranger was too pretty, for one. Too arrogant, for another, and the last thing she needed was another arrogant man trying to manage her life. Alice watched the cocky set of his shoulders as he directed men to unload his wagon in the middle of town. Looked like a lot of useless bags of sand. Didn’t he know that no amount of sand could dry out these streets? He didn’t get his own hands dirty, just waved them around like some bossy Easterner. She would have moved on past and laughed as the mud splattered his boots, but the sun chose that moment to break through the ever-present clouds and illuminate his hair in golds and ambers and strawberry wheat.
Lady be. What hair!
Everything about him was golden, like the sun had Changed to human man and come down to walk among them. He wore no hat. His hair curled free to the nape of his neck. He cast their surroundings in the dull, lifeless colors they truly were. Moss green. Brown. Gray sky and gray sea and gray distant mountains. Ye gods, he lit up her world like a thunderbolt.
Hair like that should be outlawed. It could cause a person to lose all sense and fall off her horse. No wonder he’d fled here to Seattle. He’d probably caused pandemonium back East.
There was nowhere farther west to go. Seattle had been awash with new arrivals hard on their luck: gunslingers, cowpokes, gambling men driven to make it on the new frontier. They were so much worn grist for the sawmills, shingle mills, and mud-soaked pile of logs they called a city. Alice didn’t mind it, because it was her town and her land and she knew the deep places beneath her feet were more than a match for these money-mad humans with their saws and hammers and constant noise. Her people had been here since time began.
She could tell this stranger was no ordinary cowboy. He wasn’t the first Norseman to arrive. There were half a dozen men like him: tall, blond, and arrogant as sin. Their hardness set them apart from the other Scandinavian immigrants; they seemed chiseled from the glacier’s edge. As if Vikings had walked off the pages of her history book and onto the wet Seattle streets.
Next to her, her cousin Hattie fanned herself. “Another one. I should have bought more smelling salts.”
“Look at the way he moves,” Alice said.
“Uh-huh. All that coiled grace. They have to be shape-changers. There’s no human that can walk like that.”
His eyes were turned away—Alice couldn’t tell the color—and she was glad for it. Already her skin felt tight. Her stiff corset was the only thing that propped her up.
Please, let his eyes be some muddy, forgettable shade!
But she could see from his golden glowing skin and his golden glowing hair and his arrogant stance that her poor heart would be jerked again when she caught sight of those windows into his soul.
“Alice! Watch yourself, child. You’re daydreaming with your new gloves in the street, and we are late.” Aunt Maddie clucked her tongue and bent to pick Alice’s parcels out of the road. Nathaniel, their Thunderbird guard, scowled behind her. “What could be capturing that attention of yours?”
“That’s the man I’m going to marry,” she said.
“What?” Hattie said. “I saw him first.”
“Who?” Aunt Maddie straightened and craned her neck to catch a glimpse. “Your father will be so pleased you’re finally. . . that man? You can’t be serious.”
“That’s the one.”
“He’s not one of us,” Aunt Maddie snapped. Nathaniel growled in agreement.
Alice turned and gave her a sympathetic smile. Her aunt’s black mourning gown shadowed what had once been a welcoming soul equal to her father’s. After a loss, some folk closed up and hid away their hurt, like Aunt Maddie. Some folk went the opposite direction—drinking and dancing until their feet bled as if they could fill that empty spot with noise and laughter and constant motion. Her father was one of those. Maybe that’s why he welcomed the new arrivals with open arms. After her mother died, he’d been more than ready to join the wider world and the stifling noise that came with it. The economic opportunities didn’t hurt either.
“A wager we can’t hope to lose, Ali girl,” her father had said. “Can’t fight the future. We gotta hit the ground running and play this game that we were meant to play. What hope does a human have against the intellect of the Raven?” And he’d ruffle her hair like she was eight again, not eighteen and a woman grown. Halian Corbette was all big plans and overflowing optimism.
Alice knew life was precious and short. She wasn’t going to waste a gift from the Lady, even if it came wrapped in an unknown package. Especially if it came with a gorgeous, golden, glowing bow on top. “And so?” she asked Aunt Maddie. “He is my destiny.” As the words left her lips, she felt their truth ring deep in her bones.
“What about Will?” Maddie asked.
“What about him?” Alice focused all her attention on the Aether—that sparkling river that surrounded all matter and wove the fabric of the universe—and managed to send a small ripple of energy toward the golden stranger. It snapped and crackled through the damp summer air until it sparked against his cheek.
His head jerked around, and he saw her. His eyes were the color of the winter sky at dawn. His cheekbones cut like arrows to frame those pale blue eyes. Ancient eyes. Eyes that had seen more of the world than she, miles and miles of suffering and blood. But the world-weariness dropped away as he focused on her.
Inside her half boots, her toes curled. A little flutter like a moth took wing in her belly. It climbed until it flittered at the curl of her lips, seeking the warm glow of him.
She let her smile convey hello.
Brand tried not to stare at the ebony-haired woman in the sky-blue dress who was most improperly staring at him. He was used to looks from women everywhere—what Drekar wasn’t?—but this one punched him in the gut. He felt suddenly sympathetic to women everywhere who became hysterical at the first sight of him or his kind. The Drekar were gorgeous. Stunning. Not an ugly one among them. But inside was something not human. Something dark and dangerous that liked pretty, shiny things.
This girl was certainly a pretty, shiny thing, sparkling in the freshness and newness of her soul. He felt old suddenly, because he didn’t want to be the one to dim that spark. But he was unable to keep away. The dragon coveted.
Her companions dragged her off, evidently knowing a bad thing when they saw one. That warrior with her wasn’t human. Brand would bet his entire hoard on it, which meant the quartet probably belonged to the native supernatural population that lived here: the Kivati. Norgard had warned him to steer clear for the moment. This was a chance at a new life. Brand wouldn’t let the chains of his past catch him.
The West was wild. It took a fearless heart to thrive on this lawless frontier. Perhaps here he’d find a woman who didn’t mind the risk involved in being with one of his kind.
He watched the retreating back of the Kivati woman and felt a lick of hope that he hadn’t let himself feel in a good, long while. Another supernatural race. She was used to magic, to scales and claws. His true form wouldn’t be a surprise. She might not run screaming into the night.
Ye gods, but that was a dangerous thought.
He shook himself and ran his hand over the lump in his vest pocket, where the Deadglass lay quiet and still as ten tons of lead. It wouldn’t be much use out here, not where so few people had passed through the Gate to the Otherworld. The ghosts would lie quiet in a place like this. Easy graves, not like the teeming, angry wraiths in the tenements he’d left behind. Not like the bitter souls of the old world where centuries of the dead had worn the paths through the Gate into deep grooves.
He would drop the Deadglass into the bottom of the Pacific, but Norgard had insisted he bring it. So here he was. Ready to plant his stake in the new city the Drekar Regent was building. Norgard had rescued him from a black funk, and Brand was grateful. He might still be back in Sweden mired in that despair, or worse. He already felt more hopeful, and for the first time in five years he was excited to start work on a new project. He envisioned a grand chandelier made of glass icicles and lit inside by those new electric lights. A work of contradiction and contrast: ice that didn’t melt, fire that didn’t burn. He could already see the glass inflating at the end of his blowpipe, feel it mold to his design.
It would be good to work again.
Seattle was his chance at a new life. No more hiding.
“Skål.” Brand threw back the shot of aquavit and slammed his glass down on the bar.
Sven Norgard did the same. The glass cracked beneath the force of his palm. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” He took a deep breath through his nose. “Smell the endless possibility.”
Brand thought it smelled like freshly cut pine, sawdust, and new varnish of the House of Ishtar, but maybe that’s what Norgard meant. A new business venture. A new model of the Temple of Ishtar. An untamed paradise where Drekar could fly free and unfettered over the wide blue oceans. They could hunt in the uncut primordial forests without fear of discovery, just like the dragons of old.
“Almost like when I was a lad,” Norgard said, settling back against the bar. His glacial blue eyes and white-blond hair were stark against the black of his crisp suit. The suit might have marked him a rich businessman, but the gleam in those eyes was feral. The avarice of the dragon. The conquest of the Viking. “We plundered Britain to Russia. But the world has grown small. Land is the root of a dragon’s wealth. Economics is only the natural progression. This is where we’ll plant our flag and watch our empire grow. It’s practically uninhabited at present.”
“And the local supernatural population?” Brand asked. He thought of the young woman in the marketplace. Her eyes haunted him. An unusual tawny color, ringed with a slight purple. Unnatural, though it only added to her singular beauty. But it was the certainty in those eyes that had pierced him through his dark heart. She had something planned for him, and it made him sweat.
“An old and dying race. They won’t be a problem.”
“The Kivati aren’t a militant society. They lack organization and a cohesive goal. The Raven who leads them welcomes death in through his front door, and I’d be remiss to turn down his hospitality.”
Brand adjusted his seat on the bar stool. “Death?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Norgard clapped Brand on the back and turned to the auburn-haired woman behind the bar. “Nell, any news on our friend the Raven?”
The High Priestess of Ishtar set down another glass and poured them each a shot. Her wrists jingled with gold bracelets almost to her elbows. Her looks were striking, but it was the carnal knowledge in her mature gaze that drew men in. Her thirst for power made her and Norgard two birds of a feather. “He’s been in here a time or two. Likes the cards. Likes the company. Those Maidens you sent are a bunch of erudites, Regent. Not sure how you sold the girls on this dusty outpost, but they do add a touch of high class.”
“Same way I sold you, dear girl.” Norgard lifted his glass and fixed his charming smile on her. “More will come. The Norse won’t be able to resist this opportunity.”
Rumor had it Nell had been a well-respected madam out East before Norgard tapped her to set up a new temple in the fledgling town. Drekar needed souls, and the Maidens of Ishtar had been their safe source since ancient Babylon. The sacred courtesans provided ready sustenance in a setting that didn’t spark riots. To be sure, Drekar still hunted humans, but feeding and flying could land a man in a lot of boiling water.
Brand should know. He’d escaped from Stockholm with the mob at his door.
The House was fairly empty at this time of morning. Erik Thorsson, Norgard’s right-hand man, lounged a ways down the bar. His savage regard made the Maidens nervous. Hell, he made Brand nervous with his barely leashed violence. If madness claimed all Drekar eventually, Thorsson was over the line and then some. Only Norgard could control him, and even then it was a near thing. On the far side of the room a couple human gamblers—a wiry logger, a hard-worn shingle worker, and a loud potbellied fellow who was either drunk or stupid or both—played cards with a strawberry-blond Maiden. The Maiden seemed to be managing them all adequately, but the loud fellow kept stroking his pistol. Brand kept an eye on him.
A younger girl in a blood-red corset and skirt tickled the ivories of the grand piano. The tune was a romantic ode. A little sad, a little wistful. It spoke to the homesick heart of him.
Brand wished she’d play something else.
“Will Corbette oppose statehood?” Nell asked about the Kivati leader, Halian Corbette.
“Doesn’t matter. The territorial government is poised to do my bidding. It’s only a matter of time, and the Raven knows it.”
“He’s been instituting change himself. You could make him your ally.”
“He won’t sell me the land, but he’ll learn.” Norgard turned to Brand. “Do you have it with you?”
Brand pulled the Deadglass from his vest pocket. He hesitated only a breath before handing it over.