Raven’s Heart–teaser chapter

Okay, so we still haven’t had the final line edit, but here’s a teaser chapter from the upcoming Raven’s Heart:

ONE

 

Raven’s topcoat hung rakishly open, his black tie untied and the top button of his shirt undone, positively bohemian by his standards. He could have teleported home, but he liked to walk and he didn’t mind the rain. The final aria still ran through his mind, and, since the streets were empty, he gave into temptation, whistling softly as he strode along. Though unseasonably warm for October, the late night air was scented with autumn and the indefinable sense of change it always brought. On a night like this, he could let himself forget the shadow William’s threat had cast over his life.

He’d shared the cab ride back from the opera to Josiah’s modest home, just around the corner from his friend’s book store. Though he still didn’t care for Mundane transport, surviving two plane trips last year had made the short cab ride seem less daunting. He bid the small, silver-haired man a good night, and started on foot back to his ancestral home on Nob Hill.

And then a sound behind him froze his steps, the tune dying on his lips. He focused his will, strengthening his shields, even as he held his breath to listen. Had it been imagination? An echo of his own hard-soled shoes on the pavement?

Or was he being followed by someone who did not want their presence known? He reached out with his mage-sense, and thought he felt the brush of a familiar magical signature, but it was gone before he could identify it, or even be certain it had been there at all. Still something about it stirred memories of his old life, of dark magic and of blood spilled as easily as wine.

He could teleport now, but he’d been looking over his shoulder and starting at shadows ever since William had shown that he was decidedly not dead. He’d done it in his typically over-dramatic style, pinning a threatening note to Raven’s door with the raven-handled knife lost in that last encounter.

The Ravensblood thrummed in an inner pocket of his elegantly-cut waistcoat, reacting to his heightened state of caution. If someone from his old life wanted a confrontation this night, he was tempted to give it to them. Whoever was following him, it probably wasn’t William. Far more his style to send out underlings first, and stay safe and warded in some hidden place.

Unless his thirst for revenge had driven him past caution. William was mercurial at best.

He held his breath, but only heard the soft sounds of rain on the pavement and the street, the muted hum of Mundane cars on a distant highway, and the pounding of his own pulse in his ears.

And then a small, weak cry came from a narrow alleyway between two shops. Raven went to the mouth of the alleyway, but any streetlights it might have had were out, and the alley was as black as William’s soul. While William often left his victims to be discovered by their loved ones, grisly warnings and proof of his power, he had never left a living victim to be found.

The cry came again.

Shadowed doorways lined the alley. Indistinct shapes in the darkness might have been rubbish, might have been delivered crates, but either way were perfect cover for an ambush. Would William, who had known him only in his life as a dark mage, believe the sound of some unknown person in pain to be enough to lure him into a trap?

A softer cry, the sad sort of mewl given to comfort oneself when all hope of succor was gone. It sounded like a child. No, an infant. He’d heard about unwanted newborns from concealed pregnancies left to die in garbage cans. Rare, but it did happen. He had to check, had to be sure. Though not over-sentimental about babies, he had enough deaths on his conscience. If it were a child, he could alert the Guardians, wait for them to arrive and then be done with it.

He crept carefully down the alleyway, senses on full alert. The sounds had stopped.

No. There, ever so faintly. A cry. He moved toward the battered trash can and lifted the lid. The cry came louder, insistent now, as though its source recognized the presence of someone able to help. The contents of the can reeked of rotting food, wet from the rain let in by the poorly-fitting lid. His gorge rose, but he shifted the top layers of trash until he found the source of the cries.

A wet, bedraggled kitten, white with a few irregular splotches of color, maybe tan or gray, impossible to say in the darkness. It looked too small to have gotten where it was on its own. Someone had thrown it out as though it were an unwanted toy. Loathe as he was to reach further into the stinking mess, he doubted the beast could climb the tall sides of the can, even with the lid off.

It mewed at him, mouth opening impossibly wide. Sighing, he reached in, grabbed the thing by the scruff of its neck, and deposited it safely on the ground. He closed the lid and started back down the alley.

The thing mewed again, and he marveled that a single cry could sound both piteous and demanding. He looked down at it. It stared up at him with wide yellow eyes.

“No,” he said firmly. “You’ve gotten everything you’re going to get from me. I’ve never had a pet and I’ve no intention of changing that.”

He started back down the alley. The creature followed him, every so often letting out a small mew, alternating between forlorn and imperious. He quickened pace, and it fell further behind, until, with a small, sad squeak, it stopped.

He went a few more feet. Stopped and turned. The thing sat on the wet pavement, staring at him.

“Can’t you find a car to crawl under?”

It mewed again.

He turned his back, started to walk away. Then ground his teeth, went back, and picked the damned thing up. It was shivering convulsively, so he tucked it under his jacket, a filthy, cold ball of slimy-wet fur and bones that immediately soaked his silk shirt through to his skin. The shirt would likely never be the same again, but the dry cleaner might be able to salvage the jacket.

The rain sluiced down harder, and the kitten squirmed against him. Walking home had lost its appeal. He teleported to just outside his own door—cursing as tiny paws clawed his chest bloody. Apparently the little monster didn’t like being teleported. The shirt was now certainly a loss. He knew from experience how hard it was to get bloodstains out of silk. Sometimes it had even been his own blood.

He still didn’t want an animal in the house. Maybe it could stay on the porch; he’d even go as far as to bring out an old blanket for it to sleep on. But the creature still shivered, and the wind blew rain onto the porch so there was not a single dry spot.

Wait. The lights were on across the street at Mrs. MacCurdy’s house. Mrs. MacCurdy had known him as a child—hence his inability to use her given name, no matter that he was nearly as old now as she’d been back then. She liked him, or at least he inferred that she did from her frequent assertions that he took after his mother, not his father. More to the point, she liked cats.

As he crossed the street, he thought he saw a shadow moving in the darkness beneath the tall spruces that stood sentry over his home. He froze, back twitching at the sense of unseen eyes upon him.

He took a deep breath, forced himself to relax. The wind blew hard enough to send even the giant trees bowing. Of course the shadows moved. If he let himself be reduced into a trembling wreck, William would have won without casting a single spell.

He continued on to his neighbor’s house, but hesitated at her door. It was ridiculously late for a social call. What if she had just fallen asleep with the lights on? But then he heard the piano. Live piano, not a recording. She had stopped once, as though she had forgotten the tune, and then started up again.

He tapped on the door, and the music stopped abruptly. He heard the padding of slippered feet on wood floors, stopping on the other side of the door.

“Who is it?” A trace of fear in her voice—of course there would be. She was a widow all alone, and though this was an upscale neighborhood, bad things happened even in the nicest of places, with or without William’s minions running loose.

He resolved to look into house wards that could be keyed to a Mundane, letting in only those she chose to welcome. “It’s Raven—Corwyn.”

Mrs. MacCurdy was one of only two people who insisted on using his given name.

“Corwyn, sweetie, come in.” She opened the door to him with a smile, this fragile old woman in a patterned house dress that would have been fashionable in the fifties. “Were you not able to sleep, either? And with Cassandra out of town. Come into the kitchen, I’ll make us some tea, and there’s fresh scones. And then you can help me figure out the piece I’ve been working on. I swear my piano likes you better.”

Raven smiled at the anthropomorphism. “It is only that I have a better reach. And thank you, no, I can’t stay.” He wanted to be out of his filthy, wet clothes and into a warm shower.

He explained the night’s adventure, and how he’d come to have a kitten beneath his dinner jacket, and therefore why he had turned up on her doorstep at such an odd hour.

She shook her head. “Brahms and Mozart are quite territorial. They’d never accept another cat into the house.”

It took him a moment to remember that Brahms and Mozart were cats. Damn. Looks like he was stuck keeping the animal in the house overnight.

Inspiration struck. “Do you have one of those plastic cages? The kind they use to transport animals? I suppose I’ll need to take the thing into a shelter tomorrow.”

Because he’d be damned before he tried to teleport with the vicious little monster anywhere near his person. And surely it wouldn’t do any harm to leave the thing in the crate overnight. His drapes and the antique Persian rugs would be safe.

“Shelters are all full up, sweetie. I doubt you’ll find one with room.”

Why, oh why, hadn’t he just kept on going when he heard the cry, like the dark mage most of Three Communities thought him to be? Or left it at rescuing the thing from the garbage can? Surely he wasn’t morally obligated to take in every stray he encountered.

“The city has a shelter, doesn’t it? Run by Animal Control, or some such. Tax money, and gods know I’ve paid enough in.”

“The pound’s going to be full, too. They’ll take the poor thing off your hands, of course. Better than having it starve to death on the streets. But unless it’s exceptionally cute, odds are it’ll end up euthanized.”

The kitten, now snuggled against him, face burrowed into the crook of his arm and purring loudly, was not exceptionally cute. Or even cute at all, to be honest. Not much of a cat person, he still could think of many, many cats he’d seen on the street or in advertising with more aesthetic appeal.

Mrs. MacCurdy sent him home with a paper bag full of scones for his breakfast. And enough cat food to get through until the stores opened in the morning so he could buy some more. Also a tray and some litter, and he didn’t even want to think about that. As well as instructions she’d printed off the internet on the raising of kittens.

He should have teleported home directly from Josiah’s door.

#

Cass dropped her bags inside the door, tired and glad to be home. She’d taken the first flight out of Sea-Tac and caught a Mundane cab from the airport—too far to teleport with a week’s baggage if she had another choice, especially after getting up way too early to check out of the hotel and catch her flight. She could have taken a later plane, but while she liked doing training, with William loose the atmosphere had been tense and the week focused. She missed home and Raven.

Strange to think of this centuries-old Georgian mansion as home. It showed more the taste of the Ravenscroft ancestors than her own. Not that she didn’t admire the Victorian furniture that looked like it belonged in a museum. If the color of the wallpaper was a bit more staid than she might have chosen, it suited the house, and the house suited Raven. Because she loved him, she also loved it. Even if she privately thought that a deep burgundy on the walls would suit the gold velvet just as well as the pale cream, and make the sitting room look less like a movie set.

Though it was nearly noon, she found the paper on the porch and Raven at the breakfast table. Her lover had never been one for early mornings. He wore a deep blue velvet smoking jacket that would have looked utterly ridiculous on most men, but seemed perfectly right on Raven, especially here in the breakfast room of the centuries-old Georgian mansion that his ancestors had built. The color complimented his black hair and dark eyes, and the style revealed a bare chest beneath. There was so much to her lover—keen intelligence, dry humor, complicated and difficult past—that it was easy to forget that he was also a stunningly beautiful man.

She paused for a moment in the doorway, admiring his cheekbones and the strong, raptor-like nose that gave his face character and kept it from the realm of too-pretty. He noticed her scrutiny and looked up, asking with his eyes what she was studying. Even as she smiled and shook her head, she started to consider how best to persuade him back to bed and whether or not she would let him finish his breakfast first.

As she crossed the room to kiss him hello, something small and white skittered across the floor, and she jumped back with a start.

“How did a cat get in—oh,” she finished, looking down the hall to the kitchen, from where the kitten had come. Two small stainless-steel bowls lined up neatly next to the evercool box, one containing water, the other dried cat food.

“This is sudden,” she ventured, sitting across from him at the table and stealing a slice of his toast. “I never knew you wanted a pet. What’s its name?”

“Nuisance,” he said without looking up from buttering the remaining slice of toast.

“I brought the paper in,” she said, handing it to him before scooping up the kitten scaling her jeans and settling it on her lap.

As he unfolded the paper, she started to get acquainted with the kitten. It was an odd little thing, with mismatched irregular blotches of color on its coat and a strange, angular face. Possibly a Siamese had had something to do with its genetics way back, but it lacked any semblance of Siamese elegance. Funny, she would have imagined him with a sleek purebred, a Burmese or a Bombay, if she imagined him with any kind of cat at all.

There was more to the story, there had to be, but she knew from experience that patience would bring it out soonest. Undoubtedly, the tale would be worth the wait.

Raven dropped both the paper and his toast. “Oh, gods.” He’d gone white.

Cold washed over her. “What is it?”

Wordlessly, he handed her the unfolded paper so she could read the full headline. Burned Body found in Bookseller’s Shop in Uptown Shopping District—Dark Magic Suspected.

The picture showed Josiah’s Books cordoned off with police tape.

 

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