I rubbed my face. He was right. If Julie got as much as a hint that she had no choice about obeying me, I'd lose her. The most natural things like, "No, you can't go out to the woods with Maddie in the middle of the night" now would have to become, "I would strongly prefer that you stayed home." I had a hard enough time steering her as it was.

"I'll deal with it," I said. "As long as she's alive. Everything else we'll figure out along the way."

The magic rolled over us like a suffocating blanket.

The countdown had begun. We had ten hours and fifty-nine minutes.

Someone knocked. Curran went to the door. From where I lay, I could see his face in profile. His mouth curved. He came back, chuckling to himself. "Yes?"

"The witches have sent you a gift."

MY PRESENT SAT BEHIND THE TABLE IN THE SMALLER conference room. It hid in the folds of a dark cloak. Only the hand was visible, a small feminine hand with manicured nails that gripped a spoon, stirring the tea in a blue cup. Jezebel leaned against the opposite wall, glaring at the cloaked woman as if she were a fire-spitting dragon. Barabas waited by the door. He saw me and smiled. It was a sharp, nasty smile, like a cat that had finally caught the mouse and was about to torture it to death.

What now?

I pulled my hair up into a bun and headed for the door. Barabas handed me a note in Evdokia's curvy Russian script. It read: A gift for you, Katenka. Thank me later.

Beware of gifts from Baba Yaga--they came with strings attached, and sometimes if you took them, you ended up in the oven as dinner.

"Did she come alone?"

"No, Evdokia's daughters brought her." Barabas's grin got wider. "I checked into it and she and Grigorii have five children. They're their own private Russian mafia."

I stepped through the door and took a seat at the table. The woman pulled her hood back, exposing a wealth of glossy red hair. Rowena.

If she had pulled off her hood and turned out to be Medusa with her head full of vipers, I would've been less surprised.

We looked at each other. A red feverish flush colored her cheeks. Bloodshot eyes, puffy nose. Slightly smeared eyeliner. Rowena had been crying. That was a first. Rowena kept her composure no matter what. The roof could cave in and she'd smile against the backdrop of falling rocks and ask you to do her the favor of moving toward the exit.

"Okay," I said. "I want an explanation. Now. What are you doing here?"

Rowena swallowed. "Bozydar, the journeyman who killed himself today, was my nephew. I'm banned from navigation pending an investigation. I will be cleared of all charges and they will reinstate me."

"You seem very sure of that."

Rowena sniffed. "Ghastek is ambitious. Nataraja won't last much longer; something happened, and he mostly hides in his quarters now. Ghastek and Mulradin are running things, and each one of them wants to be at the top. They are scrambling to form alliances. I'm ranked third in finesse and fourth in power, and I support Ghastek. He can't afford to lose me." "So why are you here?"

"Bozydar had a girl," Rowena said, her voice barely above a whisper. "Her name is Christine. She would do anything for him. She loved him so much. I spoke to her. She said that my nephew had been recruited by the Keepers years ago, when my brother and his wife died. They were on Route 90 crossing over the Mississippi, when the bridges collapsed due to magic erosion. They drowned. Bozydar was pulled out of the river comatose. By the time I found him, they'd shipped him to an orphanage." Rowena clenched her hands. "He suffered a lot of abuse. They'd done things to him. I've given him a chance at revenge, but I didn't realize it wasn't enough."

She fell silent. I waited for the rest.

"He was doing things for the Keepers, and Christine helped him," Rowena said. "She was in it knee-deep. She covered for him, she fed him classified information he needed; whatever he asked for, she did it."

"Is she a member of the Keepers?"

"No." Rowena shook her head. "She is just a foolish girl who was in love with a broken boy. When Palmetto was hit, she was horrified."

I bet.

She gripped her slender fingers so hard, her manicured nails left red indents in her skin. "We have been publicly embarrassed, and Ghastek is looking for a scapegoat. If he finds out what Christine has done, he will purge her. Purged journeymen don't go home, Kate. They disappear. One day she won't be there for her shift and then the new schedule will be posted and everyone will know what happened to her. He'll kill her, Kate, to demonstrate that he's capable of making problems vanish."

I was still waiting for the punch line.

"Christine is five months pregnant," Rowena said.

Ah. Here we go.

"People in my family have a difficult time with fertility. I've been trying to have a child for years. So far, I've failed. Bozydar was the only relative I had. Now he's dead and his baby is my only family. Do you have any family, Kate?"

Now there was a loaded question. "No."

She leaned forward, her eyes wide and desperate. "This unborn baby is everything to me. I can't protect Christine. Even if I give her money and send her away, Ghastek will find her. He can be so single-minded, it's terrifying."

I finally put two and two together. "So you went to the witches." "Yes," Rowena murmured. "Yes, I did. My family has roots in that world. So I went and offered the covens anything they wanted to hide Christine."

She must've been truly desperate. "What's the price?"

Rowena looked up at me. "Three years of service. To you."

"Excuse me?"

"They bound me to you for three years. I swore a blood oath. I will do whatever you require, and I am sworn to never speak of it." She raised her hand. A fresh scar cleaved her palm. "I don't understand any of it, and if Ghastek finds out that I helped Christine or that I came here, I am dead. So." Rowena leaned on the table. "What service can I perform for you?"

I rested my elbow on the table, leaned against my hand, and exhaled. To have access to a qualified necromancer was akin to finding a case of ammo in the middle of a gunfight. Here was my chance to learn and train. I needed her desperately. Unfortunately, I trusted her about as far as I could throw her. I was strong and she was small, but it still wasn't very far.

"The problem is, I don't trust you," I said.

"I don't trust you either," she said. "But if I don't do as they say, Christine's life is forfeit."

"They actually made you swear to it."

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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