Selene, p.1
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       Selene, p.1

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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Selene


  Selene

  A Saint City Novel

  * * *

  Lilith Saintcrow

  J’implore ta pitié, l’unique que j’aime. . .

  —Baudelaire

  For all those who wrote to me,

  wondering about the Nichtvren…

  Prologue

  In the end, exhausted, she lay limp against the bed, hugging a pillow rescued from the floor. Nikolai curled against her back, sweat slicking his skin so it slid against hers. Her entire body sparked pleasantly, and her shields were back up, thick enough to protect her again.

  If Danny had been able to shield himself, would he have died? If he’d been able to run away from whatever had battered his door down and torn him limb from limb, maybe he would have survived.

  Too late. The thought she’d been avoiding the whole time arrived, setting its claws just behind her ribs and digging in. I was too late.

  The image of her brother’s door, torn to shreds, and the…pieces…in his hall wouldn’t go away. If Nikolai had intended to distract her, it wasn’t working.

  Nikolai’s hand polished the curve of her hip, something cool and metallic sliding against her skin. He drew it up over her ribs, under her breast, then the medallion lay where it used to, half the chain spilling down to pool on the sheet. He fastened it at the back of her neck, one-handed, and flattened his other palm against the silver lying between her breasts. “This is important, Selene. Without it, you’re at risk. This gives you protection. You cannot throw it away. Understood?”

  I should have thrown it somewhere you couldn’t get it back. “Something killed my brother.” Her throat rasped dryly, sobs caught and transformed into a stone. “What happened? What was it?”

  He sighed, and she could predict his answer—the same one he gave every time he wasn’t going to tell her a damn thing. “If I tell you what I know, it would be nothing. If I tell you what I suspect, it will be confusing, because I suspect many things.” He yawned, burying his face in her hair, spread one hand against her belly. He was warm enough to pass for human now. The flush of sex had fed him. “If I tell you what I expect, we will be here for many hours, since I have learned to expect everything. It is far too soon to tell.”

  “My brother,” she said, tonelessly. His knees were behind hers, one arm under her head, the other holding her to him. A yawn threatened to crack her jaw, changed into a sob she killed by locking it behind her teeth. It wasn’t easy, but she was used to swallowing.

  A tantraiiken had to swallow all sorts of things. “Something killed my brother, Nikolai.”

  Something battered down his door and tore him into shreds. If you were watching over me, why weren’t you watching over him? We’re your pets, right?

  Or did you not care about him as long as you could get what you needed from me? That was more likely. Nichtvren had once been human, sure—but most of them, if they made it alive to their Mastery, were used to taking what they wanted and damn the consequences for the mortals.

  Especially when the mortals were useful. And Selene was very, very useful.

  It wasn’t every day a Nichtvren found an unattached—unowned, her brain whispered, call it what it is, you’re old enough to call things what they are—sexwitch wandering around. It was like a glutton finding a perpetual free hot meal under a tree.

  “Cooperate with me, and I will find whatever killed your brother,” Nikolai sighed again, relaxing against her back the way a cat might. A very big, very warm cat. Next would come The Question, the one he asked every time. “Dawn is approaching. Will you come with me?”

  “I have work tomorrow,” she whispered, watching the edge of her pillowcase. And a funeral to put together. And my brother’s killer to find. Though you showing up puts a definite kink in things. Ha ha.

  “Already done. You are not expected there for another two weeks.”

  Damn you. “I can’t afford—”

  “With pay.”

  “I don’t want your money.” They both knew she was lying. His money was the only thing standing between her and the gutter, and Selene had no intention of ever going back to being poor. Teaching barely paid the rent, for either her or Danny. He earned what he could as a Journeyman, of course, but there was only so much he could do when confined to the walls of his apartment—

  Well, that’s something you don’t have to worry about now, is it? The mocking little voice inside her head was familiar, loaded with self-loathing, and Selene flinched without moving.

  Nikolai didn’t take the bait. “It is not mine; it is from the college. You may call it a gift. For my Selene.”

  She closed her eyes. If he was human, what would I do? “I’m not yours.” You just own me because I’m weak. You like that, too, you like that I can’t say no.

  As usual, he was too graceful to press the point. “You must belong somewhere,” he said softly.

  “I belonged with Danny.” Poor, poor Danny. Locked in his apartment except for those times that he slipped the chain of his own body and went Journeying. How many times had Selene climbed the steps to his apartment to ask his help for the cold cases Jack Pepper brought her? How many times had she brought him meals, brought him little things he needed because he couldn’t stand to leave the wards Selene had made for him?

  You undead jerk. Now he’s gone, you wouldn’t have even let me look at his body.

  And if she was reading this situation right, Nikolai had neatly diverted the police from taking any real action. As the prime paranormal Power in the city, he could do that—and he could make Selene vanish from regular life too. If he wanted to. If she made enough trouble.

  “He was under my protection too.” Nikolai’s breath brushed her ear. She braced herself for him to do something, anything other than just lay there. “Come with me, Selene. You will be safer.”

  Like hell I will. “No.”

  “One day you will.” He didn’t push the issue, for once. Only asking twice? It was like some sort of record. “Jorge will come to offer you use of a car.”

  Jorge? He’ll make sure I don’t get anything done tomorrow. “And to keep an eye on me? No thanks, Nikolai.” Selene bit her lower lip, bruising already. She tasted blood. She would ache tomorrow. It had been too long, she’d built up a heavy debt, and her body had exacted its toll with a vengeance. Not only had she cleared a poltergeist infestation and pulled the broken wards from Danny’s apartment, but there had also been the work for that witch over on Seventeenth Street.

  She’d needed the money. She always needed the money.

  Nikolai paused, and his hand tensed against her belly. She held her breath, thinking of the prickle of claws against her skin; but he just tightened his arm around her.

  For a bare moment it was like lying in bed with a human man, one she could pretend wanted her for her mind instead of for the sex, and tears prickled at her eyes. Buck up, Selene. They all know you’re weak, so let them keep thinking it. But don’t you dare cry where Nikolai can see it. Don’t you dare.

  “This is not a request. Jorge will come, and if you leave this place it will be with him. If you do anything foolish I will be vexed.” His breath was soft against her hair, an intimate touch. Does he breathe because he knows it makes me a little more comfortable? I suppose he has to breathe to talk, doesn’t he? I should ask.

  Exhaustion crept in. If she fell asleep now she might be able to get a few hours of rest before…no. The fatigue blurred everything, made it difficult to think.

  “Vex all you want, Nik,” she said, and his fingers tapped against her belly once, twice. Then he stopped. “I’m not your servant. I don’t take your orders.”

  Not without a lot of kicking and screaming. Or sometimes just screaming.

  He made a low sound against her hair, and Selene’s traitorou
s body leapt. The medallion gave one scorching burst of heat. “Of course, if Jorge is incompetent enough to lose you, I suppose he will need punishment.”

  You bastard. I should have known. She’d made it a game at first, ditching Nikolai’s trained dogs. Then he’d found the way to make her stop. “You wouldn’t.”

  “I would, Selene. And I would make you watch.” He sounded calm as if he was discussing a grocery list. “I dislike the thought of damage to you. I will take steps to avoid it.”

  Everyone knows I’m your pet. Your prize little buffet, reserved for exclusive use. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”

  But something had happened to Danny, hadn’t it? Was it connected to Nikolai?

  If it was, she might be dead in the water. She pushed the thought away. Now wasn’t the time for planning. Now was the time for watching her step and letting Nikolai think she was resigned to him controlling everything.

  “Especially not with Jorge watching over you.” Neat, logical, precise. Just like always.

  Let him think you’ve given in, she told herself. Her throat ached, and her eyes were hot. “Fine. I’ll wait for him. I’ll be a good little girl. Now go away and leave me alone.” You’ve got what you wanted.

  Nikolai rolled away from her, his arm sliding out from beneath her head. She heard him moving, getting into his clothes. She could imagine him getting dressed, pulling his jeans up, pulling his T-shirt back over his head, running his fingers back through his hair to push it back out of his face. Then his coat. She heard the heavy wool moving.

  Best of both worlds. He has to go home before dawn. Can’t stay to make things sticky. And he’s so fucking careful not to damage me. Though I can take it, can’t I? It’s hard to kill me. With sex, at least.

  The official word for people like her was tantraiiken. The working title was “sexwitch”. But the paranormal community, with its absolute genius for boiling everything down to essentials, called those like her the beggars.

  Because they were always pleading and pleasing, born to be slaves. It was hard to mount a war for independence when your body kept betraying you.

  He leaned over the bed to pull the sheet and the blankets back up, tucking her in gently and efficiently. When the covers were smoothed, he settled on the side of the bed and touched her hair. Ran his fingers through the heavy mass, lifting it slightly, and gathering it all up, pulling it back from her face. He stroked her cheek with his fingertips. His claws didn’t prickle, but she knew they were there.

  Selene kept her eyes shut. If she had to look at the face of a stone angel under a shelf of dark hair again, and see the lying concern in his dark inhuman eyes, she would start crying, and that would mean she’d broken. It was a familiar game, holding off any reaction until the client left. Making herself cold, putting a good face on her helplessness.

  Her breathing evened out. She hugged the pillow. Her right hand was under the covers, and she made a fist, her nails biting into her palm. Squeezed. Tighter. Tighter.

  Finally, Nikolai touched the corner of her mouth with a fingertip. Selene didn’t open her eyes—but she did peek out through her lashes. Under the bedroom window shade, a faint grayness showed. Dawn was coming.

  There was a slight sound—a breath of air. A cold breeze touched Selene’s cheek.

  Nikolai was gone.

  She drove her fingernails into her palms and took in a shuddering breath.

  Now, at last, she could cry. Except she couldn’t. There was work to do.

  Selene pushed back the covers, destroying Nikolai’s tight, careful tucking-in job. She pushed herself up to a sitting position, swiped angrily at her wet cheeks, and slid out of bed.

  One

  She took a long shower, rinsing away sweat and stickiness. Her palms hurt, her legs hurt, her back throbbed; there were various other aches and pains. If she’d gone to work today, she’d be miserable and stiff.

  That reminded her of Nikolai, quietly taking care of rearranging her life. Selene swiped condensation from the mirror and looked at herself.

  Dark blue cat-tilted eyes—just like Danny’s—in a pale face, two spots of color high on her cheeks. Her mouth, shaped just like Danny’s too, with the same full lower lip. Blonde hair—well, maybe blonde was too ambitious a word for it. Maybe just brown with blonde pretensions. There was nothing special about her face.

  Of course, that wasn’t how they would see her. All of them—from Nikolai to Jack and down to anyone she passed on the street—would see a pretty woman, a desirable woman, a woman who smelled like something fragrant and wanting. Her cursed talent would take care of attracting willing partners so it could feed itself.

  Men would whistle, women would gather and glance at her—the openly lesbian would approach sometimes, the straight women would simply stare with envy and longing.

  Selene shut her eyes, holding the towel to her chest. Who was she, now that Danny was dead? He had been immune from her as a tantraiiken, thank God, and had done his best to protect her when she’d hit puberty and the boys in the refugee camps and orphanages had started to notice her. Selene hadn’t understood what was happening—but the Power had been so delicious, so warm, and she had been able to do things. Unfortunately, she hadn’t known about the price.

  Selene shivered. Don’t think about that.

  The silver medallion hung against her skin, warm from the heat of the shower. It was a flat disc of glittering silver, with a lion’s head etched into its surface. The back of it held a few squiggles—Nichtvren writing.

  Vampire language. I wonder what it says. No Trespassers? Property of Nikolai? Best if opened by this date?

  She’d never asked. The medallion was supposed to protect her from other paranormals—the nonhumans that might be tempted to scoop her up as a pet. She’d never had it put severely to the test since he’d given it to her all those months ago; Nikolai ran a tight ship. Everyone who would be tempted to snatch her inside the city limits had been warned away. She’d heard little whispers, here and there, especially when plugging into the paranormal network to do her freelance work.

  And throwing it away when Nikolai tried to stop her from seeing her brother’s body had been just a useless defiance, like all of Selene’s other useless little defiances.

  Great, Selene. While you’re standing here, mooning over your own reflection, the marks are fading. Come on. Get busy. You’ve got a few hours before Jorge gets here, use them!

  She left the towel hanging up neatly in her cream-and-rose bathroom. Her hair dripped against the small of her back as she came out into her bedroom. The bed was neatly made, showing no signs of the hours she’d spent with Nikolai. And there was weak rainy sunlight against her window shade. Daytime. Not the best for a full Work, but it would do.

  Selene shrugged into her black silk robe. It stuck against her damp skin. She swept her hair up and thrust two enameled chopsticks through a loose chignon. Then she went into the living room.

  It took only a moment to move the coffee table aside and roll up the rug. The space revealed was hardwood floor, with a complicated chalk diagram drawn on it, a triangle within a circle and various runic symbols around the edge of the circle. The chalk was as clean and crisp as the first day she’d done the diagram, kept there by the Power trapped in Selene’s apartment. She’d christened the diagram by sleeping atop the rug with a Refugee Restoration lawyer she’d brought home from a bar on the East Side. Drained and happy, he’d gone home the next morning, and still sent her flowers occasionally.

  I wonder if I could use him again? No, it would get sticky; I’m fairly sure Nikolai will show up in the middle of it. Again. He ruined the last date with that stockbroker, I could have gotten a good charge off that man. And some cash, too. Goddamn Nichtvren, as if he’s the only one allowed to touch me.

  Although it was comforting, to know you weren’t likely to catch anything. She was remarkably resistant to all types of diseases, but Nikolai was completely immune. It was one less thing to worry about, eve
n if he was a possessive scumbucket.

  Selene carried her canvas bag into the middle of the diagram, stepping carefully over the chalk line. Her pulse quickened just a little—her body knew this was where she did her Work. Her ’batteries’ were fully charged—Nikolai had seen to that—and what she was going to do would take them down by about half. She would need him again in a week or two.

  “Need him,” Selene murmured out loud. “Yeah. Like I need a—”

  Then she shut her lips firmly. Whatever she spoke here would come true, since this was her Place of Power. An arrogant, overbearing vampire screwing up my life. I need to find a real boyfriend.

  The trouble was, most human men didn’t have the endurance she needed. Plenty of them wouldn’t like her keeping a stable of three or four. And one-night stands were dangerous on more than a potential-disease level. You never knew what you were getting. Danny had chased off more than one sicko with his trusty switchblade, back before they’d met Nikolai.

  Back when she’d been reduced to taking clients off the streets to feed her curse.

  Stop it, Selene. She settled down, her sore legs crossed and her robe pooling around her. She pushed a strand of wet hair back, and opened her bag, drawing out her athame and contemplating it. Some witches liked ornate fantasy knives, but Selene had always preferred something functional and simple. Of course, few of the others who called themselves “witches” had her handicaps—or her specific gifts, though plenty of people were doing things they couldn’t before.

  Before the Awakening had changed everything.

  And none of them had grown up in the camps. Here on the West Coast the camps were Recent, though Unpleasant, History. And unpleasant history was always easy to forget. Especially with the Paranormal Species Act and the Parapsychic Act signed into law. The War and the Awakening was done and over with, and nobody wanted to think about nasty things like the sudden exponential jump in psychic ability. Or the War’s hungry, dark aftermath.

 
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