Curled on her side, she let her right hand trail off the edge of the mat. Her ragged fingernails traced the lines of grout between the stones in the floor. In the dark, she could not see them, but she could feel the difference in texture between the smoothness of the stone and the rough mortar.
Then her fingernail scraped something up off of the mortar groove between two stones.
In the dark, Collette frowned. She ran the ball of her finger over the same spot and felt the loose grit again. With her nail, she dug between the stones and the grout came away, not in chunks but in a soft powder, as though whatever adhesive quality it had once had no longer existed.
A tremor went through her.
She sat up, rubbing the grit from her finger with the tip of her thumb. In the dark, she bent forward and tried to see the section of floor she had been scraping. Her fingers ran over the stones and the grooves again. She found the place where she had done her small excavation and brushed away the loose powder. Once more she tried to dig between the stones.
Now, though, nothing happened.
“Shit,” she whispered, some of the hope that had begun to rise in her slipping away. Collette tried the grooves between the other stones in the floor of the cell, but found only a few grains of loose grit, normal erosion.
“What is it?”
With a sigh, she turned to regard Julianna. In the dark, all she could see was the outline of the woman sitting up on the mat. Some tiny bit of illumination must have filtered in from the corridor, because Julianna’s eyes had a wet gleam.
“I’m sorry if I woke you,” Collette said.
“I wasn’t really sleeping. What’s wrong?”
Collette gnawed her lip for a moment, wondering if she should say anything. Then she forged ahead.
“Do you remember when I told you about escaping from that pit the Sandman kept me in? What I did with the sand?”
She could still remember the way her fingers had dug into the walls. One moment they’d felt like concrete, but then they’d given way under her touch and she had been able to create handholds and footholds and climb out. Once before that and once after she had dug right through the walls of the sandcastle.
“Of course,” Julianna said. “You and Oliver figured it had to do with your mother being Borderkind.”
“Melisande,” Collette replied. Speaking her mother’s real name—if, indeed, that legendary creature had been their mother—still felt strange to her.
“That’s how you two were able to destroy those sand-things so easily, and when you hurt the Sandman—”
“Yeah. Exactly,” Collette interrupted. “It was like we could undo the things the Sandman had built. Unmake them.”
“Unravel…” Julianna said.
In the dark, Collette reached out to take her hand, afraid to hope. “I was just lying here, scraping my fingers on the floor, and I dug up some of the stuff between the stones. It might’ve just been loose. Probably that’s what it was, since I tried again and now it’s all pretty solid. But for a second, it felt the way it had at the sandcastle…like I was just, what did you say? Like I was unraveling it, somehow.”
Julianna squeezed her fingers and started to stand, pulling Collette to her feet.
“What are you doing?”
“You’ve got to tell Oliver.”
Collette hesitated. “It isn’t working, though. It’s probably just loose mortar.”
“What if it’s not?”
The question echoed in her mind. “This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about it, Jules. Ever since we ended up here, I’ve been thinking about the time I spent down in that pit. I’ve tried it. Maybe Oliver and I are half-legend and maybe we’re not, but we don’t have any special magic in us. We’re not myths. We’re people.”
“But you weren’t thinking about it this time, were you? You’re hurt and exhausted, like you were then. It just happened, like before.”
Collette took a breath, then nodded. “Maybe.”
Julianna pulled her toward the door of the cell. Collette put her hands against the wood and stood on the tips of her toes to see through the metal window grate.
“Hey,” she whispered. “You awake?”
A tiny bit of light filtered down the corridor from the torches that must have been burning up the stairs where the guards stood sentry. It gave her enough illumination to make out the door to her brother’s cell.
His voice came from the darkness within.
“Who can sleep with you two gossiping over there?”
Collette smiled. Still, after all they’d been through, her little brother could tease her. Maybe there was hope after all. She and Julianna had been whispering, but Oliver had overheard them. That meant he had been unable to sleep as well.
“What do you think?” Julianna asked.
In the dark, behind that door, Oliver hesitated. Collette felt the regret coming from him, even with the space between them, and suddenly she knew what he was going to say.
“You’ve been trying too,” she whispered across the corridor.
“Not recently. Not much,” Oliver replied. “But I did when we were first thrown in here. How could I not, after what you did, Coll? I tried a million times to loosen the stones around the door or the window. No such luck.”
Collette came down off of her toes and rested her forehead against the door. She ran her hands over the wood and traced the frame with her fingers. Closing her eyes, she tried to remember the feel of the mortar giving way, the grit of that soft powder.
Her eyes opened.
“Oliver?” she said, raising her voice so it wouldn’t be as muffled by the door.
Collette looked at Julianna. In the slight illumination that came through the grate in the door, she saw her friend’s determined expression.
“Keep trying,” Collette said. “It wasn’t my imagination.”
“This was a mistake,” Blue Jay said as he and Cheval threaded their way along a narrow, curving alley alive with music and chatter and the drunken stumblings of the citizens of Palenque.
Cheval took his hand and leaned into him, smiling as though they were lovers. Blue Jay grinned. The kelpy might be a beast in truth, but her human mask was exquisite and sensual.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Taking you with me,” he replied, and felt her stiffen at the insult. “Your beauty is far too conspicuous. You draw attention when what we wish is to pass unnoticed.”
Cheval squeezed his hand. Her touch was cold. “I will choose to take that as a compliment,” she said. “And I shall endeavor to be uglier.”
The trickster couldn’t help laughing. “That would be helpful.”
His good humor faded almost instantly, however. Cheval had never shown the slightest romantic interest in him, but he did not want her to think he was flirting. For only the second time in his ageless existence, he had taken responsibility for another’s heart. He would do nothing to hurt Damia Beck.
Other troubles loomed larger, in any case. The day before, at Smith’s instruction, they had stepped blindly through the Veil having only his assurance that they would emerge somewhere safe from prying eyes. He had been as good as his word. They had arrived in Palenque in an apartment on the second floor of a building that overlooked one of the narrow streets of the labyrinthine inner city.
But were there allies here in Palenque, or only enemies?
It was a question he would find an answer to while they found a way to free the Bascombes and Julianna Whitney from the palace dungeon.
But their work had just begun, and already he believed he had made a mistake. Bringing Cheval along truly had been an error. They had left Li and Grin back in the apartment because they could not pass as humans and their appearance might lead to trouble. If they were identified as Euphrasian Borderkind, someone would report their presence, and Blue Jay was determined that there would be no blood spilled until the moment of his choosing.
He had removed the feathers from his hair and tied it back. Within minutes of his first excursion from the apartment he had persuaded two street gamblers to part with their billfolds and purchased a colorful serape for himself and a peasant dress for Cheval. The gossamer gowns she favored would not do. But even in that ragged dress, she still seemed far too beautiful to be one of the Lost Ones. One look at her, and a man would have to presume she was a goddess or a legend.
Foolish Jay, the trickster thought now, as he steered them both through the busy street.
Not all of Palenque was alive like this. When last they had walked these streets, the whole center of the city had been undulating with life, the air filled with the aromas of alcohol and tobacco. From what Blue Jay and Cheval had seen, the war had dimmed the spirits of the Yucatazcans somewhat. Shutters were drawn. Some doors bore a strange, batlike symbol painted upon them in red, representing mourning for sons and daughters killed in battle.
Yet here, on Calle Capiango, it seemed the laughter had never stopped. Perhaps this was the place where Palenqueians came to hide from their fears, or perhaps those who dined in the calle’s restaurants and tavernas simply had no reason to fear.
A man stood on a street corner playing a guitar. His long hair was slick and his features dark and smoldering. Women who passed him let their eyes linger, hoping to get his attention, but he saw only his guitar.
Until Cheval walked by.
Damn it, Blue Jay thought.
He took her by the hand and hurried along the street. He bumped into a large man and apologized, but the man cursed at him. Blue Jay swore under his breath, scanning the street and the mouths of the small alleys around them.
At last, he saw what he’d been searching for. The alley seemed indistinct save for the small blue birds painted on the shutters of an apartment on the third, uppermost floor. He led Cheval to the corner as casually as possible, then ducked into the alley.
She grabbed his arm and spun him to face her. Her eyes seemed as silver as her hair. Cheval stared at him, her lips and cheeks flushed pink from the rushing of her pulse.
“What are we doing, exactly?”
“Meeting some old friends.”
Cheval narrowed her eyes. “Old friends? I do not understand. We are supposed to infiltrate and recruit some assistance. If we had old friends here, surely we would begin with them.”
“That’s exactly the plan.”
“But Smith said nothing about old friends.”
Blue Jay smiled and pointed at himself. “Trickster, remember? I’ve been in contact with allies here in Palenque for weeks. The underground Smith wanted us to build—I started long before he asked. The Wayfarer may have my respect, but he does not have my trust. I don’t think he’s loyal to anyone but himself. That’s fine, if we have the same goals. And maybe we do. But I didn’t tell him all my secrets, and I’m damned sure he didn’t tell me all of his.”
“What secrets?” Cheval asked. Her eyes grew stormy. “Perhaps you do not trust Smith, but you had better trust me, monsieur. What old friends are we meeting?”
Blue Jay hesitated. He had kept secrets, certainly. Tricksters always did. But he remembered that Frost had kept secrets from Oliver and the trouble that had caused. Cheval might be volatile, but she had proven her loyalty as a friend.
“Sorry. I should’ve said—”
Above them, something scratched against the side of the building. Metal clanked softly. Out on the main street, Blue Jay would never have heard the sound, despite his acute senses. But there in the alley it was all too loud. He and Cheval turned as one to look up. In the moonlight, they saw a creature hanging from a windowsill by its tail. The thing had a body like a monkey but a canine head and snout with damp nose and bared teeth. The tip of its tail split into digits like fingers and it clung to the windowsill as though it had a hand there.
Cheval uttered a breathy French curse.
Blue Jay tensed, prepared for an attack.
The thing growled, but it didn’t look at them. It stared back down the alley toward Calle Capiango. Blue Jay forced himself to tear his gaze from the little fiend to see what had caught its attention.
Two men stood in the mouth of the alley, even as a third stepped in behind them. They moved slowly toward him and Cheval, staring at her with hungry eyes. One carried a crude blade etched with arcane symbols. He gestured with it and snarled orders in a language that Blue Jay had heard before but did not understand. Mayan, he thought.
“What did he say?” the trickster asked.
Cheval moved nearer to him. She had been friends with Chorti for many years and had spoken his language.
“Do you really need me to translate? You were right—I draw the wrong attention.”
Above them, the creature had gone silent, but Blue Jay could hear it shifting against the alley wall, perhaps preparing to spring. The three men formed a blockade and began to move nearer, cautious, glancing at Blue Jay.
“Tell them they should know better than to challenge a legend.”
Cheval said something in Mayan and the man with the ceremonial dagger laughed and replied in a burst of staccato syllables.
“They like legends best of all, he says,” Cheval translated, her voice tight. “The king is dead and the eyes of the authorities are all turned toward war. No one will notice what happens here.”
Blue Jay smiled thinly, and without humor. That made it easier. He did not have to worry about whether or not these men survived to emerge from the alley. The trickster spread his arms and began the stiff, ritual steps of an ancient dance. The air at his sides blurred, tinting the darkness blue.
Cheval sniffed in disdain, glaring at the man with the dagger. The three Lost Ones did not even have the sense to be frightened. Blue Jay felt the presence of the creature above them keenly, wondering when it would attack, and why it would be aiding these men.
As if in answer, the creature growled and leaped from the wall. But it lunged not toward him or Cheval. The creature dropped down onto the ugly, unwashed Mayan. It barked loudly and growled, and the man screamed as it clutched at his head. He drew his dagger, but the creature lashed out with its tail, and the three fingers at its tip gripped his wrist, stopping the weapon. The man cried out at the strength of that strange hand, but he could do nothing. With a low growl, the thing forced the man’s hand down until the dagger stabbed into the killer’s own throat, twisting and tearing.