His eyes narrowed. “A smart fighter chooses his battles. And I’m afraid this isn’t one I think I can win. Better to cut my losses now and try to survive.”
“Fine, you go look out for your self-interest. While you’re doing that, the rest of us will be fighting the battles for you.”
“Spare me the self-righteous indignation, Sabina. I have a responsibility to the dark races in this city. The mages might be leaving, but there are still thousands of vamps and weres here who need leadership. I’ve already talked to Orpheus and promised to help any way I can from here.”
That took some of the wind out of my sails. “Oh.”
He smiled. “The same applies to you, by the way. If you need help, all you have to do is call.”
I smiled ruefully, embarrassed that I’d jumped to conclusions about his motivations. “Thanks.”
He moved closer, taking my hand. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to come back here after you find your sister.”
The subtext of his casual request glowed like neon. He wasn’t asking if I’d come back and work for him. He wanted to know if I intended to continue what we’d begun last night. I shook my head. “If I manage to survive rescuing Maisie, the council will need my help.”
The corner of Slade’s mouth twitched. “I suppose I should be happy you didn’t use the whole ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ line. Thanks for sparing my ego.”
I laughed. “I highly doubt your ego was in danger where I’m concerned, Slade. We both know it would never work out between us.”
“I suppose you’re right.” He sighed dramatically. “But if you ever need to use my body again, it’s at your disposal.”
I grinned and pulled him in for a hug. He dropped the teasing and squeezed me back. As we hugged, he whispered into my hair, “Don’t get yourself killed.”
I smiled against his chest. “Ditto.”
With that, I pulled away. He let me go and smiled one last time before he walked away. Part of me wanted to call him back, but I didn’t. Slade and I had our own paths to follow now. Maybe they’d intersect again somewhere down the road, but for now I was just happy we’d parted ways on better terms this time than the last time we met.
It’s funny how someone you thought was an enemy can turn out to be an ally.
I glanced at the canvas—a parting gift from my grandmother.
It’s funny how someone you thought was an ally can turn into your greatest enemy.
Halfway back to the grove, I heard a howl rip through the air. The mournful sound made the hair on my arms rise. Looking toward the west, I saw five hulking, shadowy forms silhouetted against the Blood Moon. I watched Michael and his pack sing their night song for a moment, my heart heavy with the sound.
Unlike Slade, I knew Michael’s decision to leave wasn’t motivated by self-interest. The pack came first for Michael. I smiled, thinking for the first time in my life, I finally understood that drive. Turning my back on the werewolves in the distance, I made my way toward the Sacred Grove. Deep down, I knew I hadn’t seen the last of Michael Romulus. But in the meantime, I had decisions of my own to make.
I found Adam near the altar in the grove, surrounded by the surviving mages. Seeing how few survived made my chest tighten. When the battle started, I estimated three hundred mages had turned out for the festival. But now fewer than one hundred remained.
“We have to go to the queen,” Orpheus was saying when I reached them. He stood in the middle of a small circle made up of Adam, Rhea, and the few surviving members of the council. “She won’t be happy to see us, but we have to warn her about the Caste’s plans.”
“Adam, you were there. Do you think she’ll change her mind about the alliance now?” a councilwoman asked Adam.
He looked grim. “I don’t know. Hell, the Caste could very well have her in their pocket, too. After all, Hawthorne Banathsheh was working for the Caste.”
I looked away at the mention of the faery I’d killed.
“Sabina,” Orpheus said, “I’m sorry we didn’t listen to you sooner. If I hadn’t been so—” his voice cracked.
I took pity on the leader. He wasn’t to blame for losing so many of his people. That blame rested firmly on Lavinia’s shoulders. “There’s no sense rehashing what happened. We have to move forward.”
He nodded curtly. “You’re right. In addition to warning the queen, we’ll put the call out to the rest of the race. If we’re going to rebuild, we’re going to need every able-bodied mage we can find. Rhea?”
She stepped forward. “I’m on it. When you guys head to the queen’s court in North Carolina, I set out for the colony in Massachusetts. They can help me get in touch with the others.”
Orpheus turned to me. “Adam said you’re prepared to go after Maisie?”
I nodded grimly, waiting for him to argue. But he surprised me. “Honestly, it’s for the best. If you show up at the court, there’s no way Queen Maeve will listen to us. And if anyone can get Maisie back, it’s you.” He crossed his arms. When he spoke again, his voice was gruff. “But if you think we’re willing to sacrifice your life by sending you in alone, you’re crazy. Lazarus will go with you. All three of you better come home alive.”
I shook my head. “No, this is my fight.”
“You’re wrong,” Rhea said. “Whether you like it or not, you’re one of us. Just like Maisie is one of us. We won’t let you go on a suicide mission because you’re too stubborn to accept help. Maisie deserves more, and so do you.”
I glanced at Orpheus, who nodded solemnly.
“Besides,” Adam cut in, “If I don’t go, who’s going to high-five you when you finally teach that bitch grandmother of yours a lesson?”
“Me!” Giguhl said.
“Me, too,” Valva said, coming to stand next to Giguhl. The Vanity demon’s eyes were hot with determination. “Plus, as Maisie’s minion, I have every right to help save her.”
Looking at the determined mage and the two loyal demons standing by me, my eyes started to sting. “Thanks, guys.”
“Then it’s settled,” Orpheus said. “I want daily reports on your progress. If you need anything, I can’t promise I’ll be able to get it, but I’ll try.”
The gravity of the situation weighed heavily over the clearing. It was hard to believe that just a few days ago, the council was debating whether to go to war. And now the war had come to them, and they’d lost so many in the first battle. I didn’t envy the task ahead of Orpheus, but I had to admit the prospect of my own mission felt pretty daunting, too. Somehow, I had to figure out how to save Maisie and make sure that Adam and the demons made it out alive.