And yet, the sliding, everpresent shadow of the Ifrit who'd been Sara had another story to tell, didn't it? A story of love, longing, honor, sacrifice, tragedy? Did she still love him so much? Rahel said that Ifrit survived by eating other Djinn. And yet Sara remained here, and hadn't done Patrick too much damage.
I refused to think too long about that relationship, especially before food.
Patrick had been kind enough to take off my shoes and put a tacky leopard-spotted cotton throw rug over me. I kept it draped over my shoulders and shuffled barefoot toward the kitchen; I was seriously thinking about changing my clothes to something that would be easier to fight in, since Patrick's coaching style evidently owed a lot to the world of professional wrestling. Maybe Spandex and a cute little domino mask. They could call me The Nutcracker.
Breakfast was sitting on the table, perfectly displayed like a cereal commercial. Serving suggestion. There were even fresh daisies in a vase in the center of the table. Of course, the kitschy Elvis plates and Hello Kitty mugs weren't quite what Better Homes and Gardens had in mind, but still, he'd made an effort.
No answer. I sat myself down and took a bite of bacon and eggs. They were wonderfully fresh, warm, just right. The bacon was crisp without being burned. The orange juice was pulpy and tart. Coffee-in the Hello! Kitty mug-was as black as sin and twice as sweet.
The condemned woman ate a hearty breakfast.
I was just polishing off the last bite of English muffin when I felt the unmistakable gust of power that accompanies major mojo being worked, and Patrick walked in dressed in an utterly unmentionable bathrobe. I was pretty sure that Disney wouldn't have approved of what their cartoon characters were doing on that dark blue satin background.
On the other hand, I was really glad he had on the bathrobe.
He walked over to the table, took a seat, unfolded a morning paper, and peered at me over the tops of his glasses. "Sleep well?"
"Fine line between unconscious and resting," I said. "I think it was on the wrong side of unconscious."
"Ah." He rattled the paper. "Have you seen the headlines?"
He turned the page to face me.
There was a picture of storm surge on the Florida coastline wiping out houses wholesale. The headline read STORM OF THE NEW CENTURY? I sucked in my breath hard, then let it out slowly.
"My doing?" I asked.
He gave me an impish smile. "Hardly." He rustled the paper back around again. "As usual, your friends in the Weather Wardens seem to have everything turned around back asswards. How is it you have all that power and still manage to let thousands die every year from these storms?"
I wasn't about to get drawn into the traditional branch-of-service argument that almost always erupted between Weather Wardens, Fire Wardens, and Earth Wardens. Patrick had once been a Fire Warden, I remembered. I took a thoughtful bite of bacon. "Um, same way Team Smokey Bear let forest fires eat up half of California last year? That was special."
He grunted agreement. "Do you think that with a Djinn at your command you could have done better?"
"Sure." I shrugged and added a little more pepper to my last bite of eggs. "More power. More control."
"Control comes from Djinn?"
I had to think about that one. "Um, no. Control comes from . . . the Warden. Power comes from the Djinn."
"Actually, you're wrong on both answers. Control and power both come from the Warden. The only thing that a Djinn brings is potential." He took a sip of coffee, added cream, and stirred. "That's all we are, you know. Potential energy. Humans are kinetic. They create action and reaction. We are just the medium through which they move."
Which sounded way Zen to me. "I have no idea what you just said."
"I know." He gave me a tiny little quirk of his eyebrows, reached into the pocket of his bathrobe, and brought out a tiny little bottle, about the size of a perfume sample, complete with a plastic capper on the end. He toyed with it between his fingers, tapped it on the table, and thumbed the cap off. I half expected a fellow Djinn to pop out of it.
"I'd like to explain something to you," he said. "It may not make much sense to you now, but I think it will later."
I was feeling generous, what with a nice comforting load of cholesterol and fat making a home in my system . . . which reminded me, what exactly happened to food, inside a Djinn body? Was it the usual system, or something totally different? Maybe it just vanished into energy, no chemical breakdown necessary. Huh. Good question.
"Shoot," I said, and took in a mouthful of Florida sunshine in the form of orange juice that tasted fresh squeezed. Energy into fruit into energy. I loved physics.
"I'm not a bad person," he said. Not looking at me now, just studying the small perfume vial in his thick, perfectly manicured fingers. "Tragically selfish as a man, but I suppose that's far from unusual. I lived a good life. And I loved one woman more than life itself. More than my own honor."
I remembered the dream. "Sara," I said. I caught a quick flash of ocean-rich eyes, quickly turned away again.
"She was . . . astonishing. There are Warden laws, you know, that forbid Djinn from serving their masters ... in that way." For a guy with a living room that would have made Bob Guccione blanch, he was charmingly indirect when it came to words. "And an honorable master should never require it. But we-it wasn't a command, or obedience. It was . . ." He shook his head. "It was a long time ago."
I sensed the cold shadow in the corner of the kitchen. Yes, there she was, the blackened ghost of Sara, the Ifrit that roamed eternity looking for a way to heal its damage. It wasn't moving. I could feel its attention fixed on Patrick, and remembered the dream-Sara's intense, powerful love.
"You loved her," I said. "She loved you."
"It's why the laws exist. So that it won't happen again." Patrick shook his head and peered up at me again, eyes pellucid and untroubled behind the half-glasses. "I want her back, you see. She's half my soul. I want Sara to live."
He was trying to tell me something, I just couldn't figure out what it was. But the orange juice was curdling in my stomach. "Patrick . . ."
"I don't think you're going to make it," he said, almost kindly. "I wish there was a way I could help you, Joanne, but the truth is that like me, you should have died as a human. There's no way for him to save you except the way Sara saved me, and the cost is too high."
I felt myself frowning. "Hey, nice pep talk. Aren't you supposed to teach me how to get through this? Preferably alive?"
"Yes. I know." The perfume vial clinked as he put it down on the table between us. I watched it roll unevenly back and forth. It fetched up against my Hello Kitty mug with a musical little chime. "I wish I had some magic answer. Truth is, the only answer I know is going to hurt you. Maybe kill you. Are you prepared for that?"
I sucked in a deep breath. "Probably not, but what choice do I have?"
"Too true. Well then. On with the show. A friend of yours is here to see you."
"I don't have any friends." Depressing, but it had the iron ring of truth.
"Look behind you." I put my fork down and swiveled in the wooden kitchen chair, thinking, Crap, here we go with the fighting again, but I was dead wrong.
It was Lewis Levander Orwell, who was pretty much the last person I'd expected to see. He looked a lot more casual now than he'd been at my funeral, dressed in faded jeans the color of a storm-ready sky, a loose untucked yellow shirt, and that trademark ironic half-smile that felt as familiar to me as a hug. Funny, because although our relationship had always been intense, it had never been what you might call close, in terms of frequency of sharing personal space. He still never really left my mind for long, and never had.
"Hey," he said. His low, slightly rough voice had a gentleness to it that I hadn't heard before. "How are you?"
I stood up and walked into his embrace. A full-body hug, lots of male upper body strength carefully controlled. He smelled of leather and wood smoke, and I wondered if he'd been camping somewhere. Lewis is the outdoorsy type. His hiking boots certainly had the chapped, bunged-up look of having tramped through half the real estate of the world.
I'm not a short woman, and he still had some height on me. Lean, tall, with gorgeous dark-cinnamon eyes . . . yeah, he could make women's hearts skip and dance, if they came close enough to actually notice him. Lewis tended to camouflage himself. Always had. Probably a good thing, considering the kind of power he wielded.
I remembered he'd asked me something. "Mmmm. I'm doing good, for a dead chick."
He kissed the top of my head and didn't let me go. I was okay with that. I had the total hots for David, was more than 80 percent of the way to total head-over-heels in love, but I could still enjoy a strong man pressed against me, yes lawdy.
"You scared me," he said. "I didn't expect you to drop off the edge of the planet like that. Don't do it again."
He loosened his grip and stepped away, and I felt noticeably colder outside and warmer in. Which maybe made me fickle, and more than maybe a complete slut. But I was prepared to accept that.
"You were supposed to come find me," he said. He had a small frown engraved between his brows, and I noticed that he had acquired some fine lines at the corners of his eyes. He had one of those faces that lines made look distinguished, not run-down.
"Yeah, sorry . . . got busy." I flipped a hand around to indicate Patrick's incredibly tasteless pad. "Um, Djinn stuff. You know."
"Not really, but I'll take your word for it." His gaze moved to Patrick, and they exchanged guy nods, the ones that indicated acquaintance but no actual fondness, because that would be less than manly. "Thanks for letting me talk to her."
Patrick shrugged, which made the things that Mickey and Minnie-and Mickey and Pluto-were doing on the fabric look even more unmentionable. "No problem. As it happens, it fits with what I'm trying to teach her."
"Which is?" Lewis wanted to know.
Nice to know that it was possible to surprise Lewis, once in a while, although I wished it could be for a less urgent and personal cause; he looked as blank as if somebody had taken an eraser to his face. "Survival? Jo, anything wrong?"
I fielded that one, since it was an easy ground ball. "You could say." I pulled out the third chair at the table for him; he folded himself down, long legs bumping into obstructions that hadn't bothered me, and looked at my coffee cup with such pitiful longing that I picked it up and started for the steaming pot.
"Ah!" Patrick wasn't looking at me, but he held up a finger like some offended schoolmaster. "Break that habit."
Right, I'd been through this painful lecture before. Stop being human. Start acting like a Djinn. I stared down at the coffee cup, dived down into the structure and felt it from the inside out, the cool heavy reality of the ceramic, the earth-rich scent of ground beans and water. I couldn't remember if Lewis liked cream, so I subtracted that from the equation, held out my left hand, and materialized a steaming cup of black java in it.
And felt damn proud of myself, too. You betcha.
Lewis was even more impressed. He didn't say anything, but by damn he looked respectful as he took the mug, lifted it to his lips, and sipped.
And it was a bad time to wonder if I'd fucked up the recipe and created something lethal, but then he was an Earth Warden, he'd be able to tell anyway, and fix it if I had. The perfect guinea pig.
"It's good," he said, and took another, longer sip. "Colombian?"
"Guatemalan Antigua," Patrick answered. "If she did it right."
He held up his cup for a refill. I did it without moving a muscle. Same routine-sip, surprise, cautious approval.
Lewis put the coffee aside and didn't let himself get distracted by the fine imitation of a barista I was doing. "You said something was wrong."
No sense in beating around the bush, not with him; I laid it out just the way it had been spelled out for me. David's power constantly bleeding off into me, David getting weaker, me the sucking leech that was going to kill him. Yeah, what a happy story it was, just the kind to make the heart warm and cozy. Lewis's dark eyes got darker as it went along, and even though he always had a kind of inner stillness, he went statuelike and stayed that way. Even after I'd finished.
I finally said, into the ringing and too-loud silence, "So. You wanted . . . ?"
He looked away. Patrick had put the little glass bottle back on the table, unstoppered; Lewis picked it up and rubbed it thoughtfully between his thumb and forefinger. I wondered if he was thinking about food. I could try whipping him up a nice bagel or something, but I wasn't sure that my culinary skills as a Djinn would be any better than they had in my normal walking-around-as-human days, in which I'd been commonly known as the Lucrezia Borgia of spaghetti sauce.
"I wanted to ask you a favor," he finally said. "But given what you've just told me, I'm not sure it's such a good idea right now."
Patrick glanced over the top of the paper at both of us. "I'm pretty sure it is."
"Well, no offense, but you're not the one who'll end up with the nightmares if it turns out to be a rotten idea." Lewis wasn't usually so snappish, in my experience. He was clearly rattled. "No. Forget it. It's okay. You have enough to worry about already."
"Wait a minute, you haven't even told me anything yet!" I said. Why do guys always try to make the decision before they even state the problem? "Come on, Lewis, spill it. What do you need?"
He was still rolling the bottle around in his fingers, focused on it with such precision that I wondered if he was about to try to Copperfield it out of existence. Hey, I wouldn't put it past him. Glass was a pure, if nonorganic, manifestation of earth. He could reconstitute it into a pile of sand, if he wanted. How many degrees of heat did it take to melt sand into glass? I'd slept through most of my basic Earth Sciences classes, since it had all been about the weather for me. I remembered something about trillions of dust particles being used to make a single drinking glass, but apart from the fact that the instructor in the class had been a skinny, obnoxious woman with tortoise-shell glasses and the fashion sense of a lamp shade . . .
"There's something up there," Lewis said. "In the aetheric. I think it's a rip into the Void."
"The Void." He finally lifted his gaze and met mine. "The place where demons come from. Where they reach through to leave the Mark."
Oh yeah, I know all about the Mark. Had one, didn't enjoy it nearly as much as you'd think. Something about demons trying to claw their way out from inside me, incubating like baby spiders in the helpless stunned body of an insect . . . ugh. Not a pleasant memory. The thought of a repeat engagement filled me with a sharp-edged sense of anxiety. "There's a demon trying to get through?"
"Not at the moment." Lewis let the bottle roll out of his fingers onto the tabletop, and prodded it gently around in a circle. "Doesn't mean one won't. We need to shut the door and seal it."
"And when you say we, that's a royal I'm-the-biggest-bad-ass-Warden-there-is-and-I-don't-need-any-help sort of we, right?" Because I really didn't much like where this conversational trail of breadcrumbs was leading. There was a witch at the end of it, and an oven, and a really unpleasant fairy tale.
"I mean that I can't do it alone," he said. He sucked in a deep breath and came out with it. "I need a Djinn."
"Hey, fine, just pull one out of backstock and fire it up, there, buddy."
"I freed them. All the ones I had." He shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea at the time. I agree with David about the slavery issue, and besides, I wasn't planning on needing one any time soon."
"And yet here you are."
"Yes." He stopped playing with the bottle, folded his hands together, and just looked at me.
"Oh, no, don't even," I said. "I'm nowhere near ready for that kind of thing. Ask Patrick."
I shot a hot, disbelieving, wide-eyed look at my so-called mentor in his porn Disney getup. He'd manifested some kind of breakfast while I wasn't looking, but it didn't look anything like a traditional bacon-and-eggs kind of thing; some kind of lumpy-looking yogurt stuff, thin little flaps of something that looked like unfolded blintzes, and a weirdly colored fruit mishmash. Whatever country it was from wasn't anyplace I ever wanted to visit, or at least eat breakfast in.
"Patrick?" I demanded.
He took a bite of fruit surprise with no evidence of discomfort. "Joanne?" He put an entire argument into my name, and I lost. He turned his attention back to Lewis. "She's made progress, but she needs to understand the flows of power. Over time, she could learn, but she doesn't have time. If she's going to make it through this, she has to have a jump start. Such as the one you propose."
"Hey, pardon me, but nobody's jumping me, okay?" I sucked in a couple of deep cleansing breaths, and tried to be reasonable. "Just to be clear, you want me to agree to be your Djinn? Your slave?"
Lewis had the grace to look appalled at the idea. "No! Employee. And only for a short time, maybe an hour or so. When the job's done, I smash the bottle, you're free again."
"And even if I believe you, what makes you think I can do this thing you want done? 'Cause I'm not exactly the most competent Djinn on the block, in case you haven't heard. In fact, most of these guys barely consider me half of one."
Patrick grunted and shoveled in pale gray yogurt with lime green chunks floating in it. "Less than half," he said. "I'm afraid that to them, you're a parasite. Better off dead."
"Yeah, see? Parasite. I'm a parasite. You need somebody reliable. Like David."
Lewis's face had become a still life. How anybody could sit that quietly ... "I can't find David. Rahel turned me down. Patrick recommended you."
"And that's your entire list? What about the three you freed?" Because I was thinking hey, talk about owing favors . . . but his tense expression didn't relax. I wasn't breaking any new ground.
"They're gone," he said. "No longer on this plane of existence."
I tossed that one to Patrick for an explanation. He gave another insouciant shrug. "They don't want to be imprisoned again. You can understand their point of view. I myself am not willing to risk it, either. And while I trust that Lewis wouldn't even consider it unless it was an emergency, I'm afraid that an emergency to the Wardens doesn't necessarily constitute an emergency to me. There are plenty of Wardens equipped with Djinn. Let one of them handle it."
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