Cole paced the length of the front porch with an irritated scowl. His spiked stride made his frustration audible, and in his annoyance, he found pleasure in that fact. He cuffed at the folds of his cape as he made another turn and looked down the drive to the iron gates.
Wide shadows thickened to blanket the grounds enclosed by the estate hedge. The sun dipped behind the city’s tall buildings and cast an orange halo over the silhouetted skyline. Tiny lights that shown from the structures blinked out in observance of the curfew.
His scowl deepened to a sneer, and he threw his disgust to the darkened turf. Vincent’s mocking of his leadership cut into his gut like a thorn.
Undependable childish runt. Thank the gods for James. He was admittedly the steadiest one in the family. How many times had Cole left comments with his father on the matter?
“I know more of you than you know of yourself.”
It had been the only response Sylis Shilo would give on the topic. Regardless, Cole knew he could rely on James. He blinked at the thought and glanced at the door. Where is James?
He eased his glare as the latch turned, and his brother joined him with Vincent’s cloak folded over an arm.
“Where have you been hiding?”
“Just working in the lab. Relax.”
Cole gritted his teeth. “I told him dusk.”
“He’s in love. Don’t worry. There’s no rule saying we have to harvest this early. We’ve got all night.” James motioned to the gate. “There you go. Here at dusk.”
Turning with a huff, Cole watched the youngest trot up the driveway and onto the landing. With the release of a quick breath, Vincent took his cloak from James.
“You left by Smoke of Night to get there quicker, but you take your time on foot to get back?”
Donning the cape, he glanced at the comment. “I had things to take care of. I made it, didn’t I? And you can congratulate me. I’m engaged to the most beautiful redhead in Shilo.”
James smiled. “Well, congratulations. When will this girl be joining us?”
“Soon. But right now, I need to talk to you about last night’s harvest.”
Cole bit back the urge to storm through the door and call off work for the night. “I’m not in the mood for another temper tantrum. We have work to do.”
“This is important, Cole. He knew her. The girl.”
Cole pinched his brow. “Who knew her?”
“Dressen. He set it up, so she would break curfew. His order was so specific because he wanted her. And he used us to get her.”
Irritation flared to anger, and Cole closed the space between them with three lengthy strides. “He set it up?”
“She worked for Elaina’s father. He said Dressen ordered a large task and would only accept her work on the assignment. She was putting in overtime to get it done.”
Cole grabbed his cloak with a glower. “Let’s get this harvesting done. I have plans to finalize.”
Vincent flushed red, and his hands glowed with instant rage. “That’s it? You’re worried about filling another of his orders?” Tossing a hand toward the city, unrestrained sparks charged across his fingertips.
Cole offered no response to his comment.
Vincent punched the air and a pulse of energy flew the length of the porch. Blue lightning pierced the darkness, bursting bracing columns with a resounding blast. Dust and splinters flew, and the eaves craned, whining in protest.
James quickly held up his hand, halting the motion. A swift flick of his wrist, and the dismembered pillars whirled into place before the roof gave way.
“You’re just going to ignore the fact that an innocent woman was manipulated to serve his want? She wasn’t without a home, Cole. A life! And she only broke the law to satisfy his order.” Vincent raked his fingers through his hair and then threw his hand down to his side. Jets of fire gouged deep into the terra. “If that doesn’t faze you, you must realize that we were manipulated right along with her!”
Cole snarled and glowered at his brother, leaning close enough to make sure his breath fell on his face. “I want him more than you do.”
“Right. That’s why you’re so eager to bring him another subject. Why would you care what happens to these people when he decides to cross the line?”
James set his hands on his waist. “You need to tell him, Cole.”
“I’m not explaining myself to Kid.”
“I think I know what you’re considering.”
Cole’s nerves immediately eased at the possibility of having his brother’s open concurrence.
James’ large hand grasped his shoulder. “You’ve got my support and Vince would be a great help. We need to stick together on this.”
Vincent folded his arms and glared at them. “Okay. Spit it out. What’s going on?”
“Cole didn’t intentionally bind her soul,” said James. “It was a reaction to the connection he felt to her.”
“Oh. So, he just had to kiss her and add her to the list of women he’s used. He compromised our principles and buried her!”
Thoughts of the conclusive nightmare flooded Cole. In a sickened rage, he spat the truth to his youngest brother. “It’s Mianna, Kid, Mianna! Her soul called to mine and I answered.”
He threw his disgruntlement to the grounds. The shadows had deepened to the point he could barely make out the light marble that made up the seraphim fountains in the center of the court. Beyond that, in Shilo City, the devils hid in mansions six times the size of Shilo Manor filled with gold, silver, crystal, the finery of Terra’s elite in every room.
Damned arrogant, self-seeking, pompous… The greedy vainglorious czars planned, schemed to take the meek, submissive, and naive to serve their never-ending thirst to rule. Cole gnashed his teeth so hard his brain pulsed. Working his fingers with tight flexes, he bound them into fists. He would never understand his father’s draw to this plane, this people.
Keep them sedate. Keep them happy with their world, whatever it takes. And keep them from finding interest in what lies beyond the portal to the realms. That was the underlying rule here, wasn’t it? Protect the gateway. He had been successful for four-hundred years, living by that rule. But now…
Soft splashes sang from the fountain with an uneven rhythm, and the hint of mineral water scented the vicinity as the breeze died.
He heaved a sigh and turned back to the newly repaired verandah and his brothers. “I didn’t know at the time it was Mianna. I only just confirmed it. I conducted an essence trace. It showed a perfect line. She never married in all that time—just as I never remarried…a true soul mate’s course.”
The color drain from Vincent’s face. The whites of his eyes shown bigger than his onyx irises in the dim light from the porch lamp. Vincent’s lowered voice reinforced his instant change of outlook. “There’s reincarnation in this realm?”
A hush filled the front porch. A chilled breeze bathed Cole, ruffling their capes and sending apricot blossoms to dance along the landing.
James’ voice subdued. “Tell me you’re planning to get Mianna back, Cole.”
He looked his brother in the eyes. “I’m going to get her back.”
Vincent lowered his hands and shifted his stance. “What’s the plan?”
“Dressen’s birthday is just around the corner. The first step is presenting him with a special gift.”
James shook his head. “Magic doesn’t work on Nobles. You know that.”
Cole smiled. “It does if they consent to it.” He took the edge of his cape into his hand. “Now, let’s get this harvest underway.”
Disbelief shown on every inch of Vincent’s being. “You’re still going to fill his order knowing what he did?”
Grasping the rim of his cloak, James stepped to stand beside Cole. “If we stop filling Dressen’s orders before we get Mianna back, he could get suspicious. He treats average servants well. There’s no need to suspect he wouldn’t do the same for this subject. Now, you located a homeless in the park. He deserves food and shelter.”
“Charlie.” Vincent shook his head and took hold of his cape. “When I saw him today I had no idea what kind of man we’d be turning him over to.”
With a flourish, the three furled their capes and took on the Smoke of Night. A deep chill bit at Cole’s essences as they flew within the vapor over Center Creek. Motion along the bank caught his attention, and he watched as a scrawny man settled onto a park bench, tucking a disassembled newspaper around his shoulders.
The little man’s bony fingers crumpled the paper from his face. His bushy brows furrowed with the quirk of his cheek. He hesitated and then replaced the cover, cuddling into the pages again.
Assured they had found the right subject, Cole paused at the bridge. With a billow, James and Vincent took solid form at the same time he did. He leaned into his spiked stride and the two fell into place at his sides. The blanket of fog retreated with a swirl and then slowly swept across the embankment, brushing along the homeless man. Their heavy steps echoed through the urban green.
Charlie grabbed the paper from his head and perked to a sitting position. He gazed down the misty walkway and gathered a few pages of the disassembled newspaper. “Wha?”
The three emerged from the fogbank lighted only by the dim light in the distance. Their capes furled with their strides, and Cole knew they must look like reapers from the afterlife to the man.
Charlie chuckled with a nervous lag. He stood and rumpled the newsprint in his arms. “I ain’t lookin’ for no trouble here, fellas. I ain’t got nothin’ you want.” He held out the lot in his arms. “This here’s just my blanket. But you can take it if you like.”
James and Vincent halted, allowing Cole to take the last two steps to stand before him.
Charlie’s lip quivered with his grin. “Look, mister. I d-don’t want n-no trouble.”
With a graceful motion, Cole lifted his hand and sent a silver mist into the medium. Sprightly flashes overtook the view.
Charlie’s grin widened into a toothless smile. “Hey, that’s really somethin’. You do a show around here?” He took a breath. “’Cause, that…would…”
The man’s gaze changed from anxious to calm, and Cole sensed his eagerness to serve and belong. Cole leaned his head, studying the crinkled, kind face as hesitation seeped from his heart. By the waves of cherishment flowing from him, Cole realized Charlie had known love, cared for many, and now struggled with the decision to forget. It edged on overpowering the desire for safe haven.
“Charlie,” he whispered to his mind. “There’s no need to cast aside the past. You need only submit a will to serve.”
As if dawning lit the old gent’s thoughts, he lifted his gaze to Cole’s. Concerns fled and serenity poured from his blue eyes. Contentment washed the deep wrinkles from his face as he surrendered his will to service to the lord.
Cole stepped to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Newspaper pages scattered as he furled his cloak, dispersed Charlie and himself into the Smoke of Night, and then flew North. Dim lights fluttered along the quiet city streets—stingy offerings to guide those who dared venture out past curfew.
Cole seethed with the information given him. Dressen knew her. The more he thought on the fact, the more agitated he became.
A half-glance at the string of specialty shops they passed, and he noted that one was still lit. An odd sight in the mass of darkened windows. No doubt, there would be a curfew breaker later. He dismissed the violator and headed for the prestigious neighborhood of the elite.
Wide granite steps met them as they came to Lord Dressen’s estate. The hound-faced servant quickly invited them in. “Good evening, sirs. I’ll fetch the sire.”
As they crossed the ingress, Vincent breathed a whisper. “Anna. Thank the gods.”
Cole’s gaze snapped to him and then followed his line of sight to the wide balcony of the second-floor landing.
She stood near the center of the cathedral-sized stained-glass window, tracing the fine lines with her fingertips. Sparkling pins held her dark hair at her temples, allowing it to drape past her shoulders and flow down her back. The blue lounging gown she wore was barely visible beneath the ballooned wrap that, with the help of her angelic face, gave her the appearance of an ancient sculpture’s subject.
His senses relaxed, and a small smile touched his lips. He could call to her—just a call to have her look his way. Would she remember him? Would her soul recognize his despite the circumstances? His heart skipped at the thought.
Lord Dressen entered with a smile, and immediately, Cole’s hatred returned.
“Well, this order was filled rather quickly.” The sire looked at Charlie and handed Cole an envelope. “The last one took some time.”
Fire flashed in Vincent’s eyes, and Cole advanced obliquely, putting himself between the two to ward off any loss of temper. “I trust you are pleased with the results.”
“Oh, I’m very pleased. She’s more than I hoped for.” Setting his hand at his belt, Dressen met Cole’s gaze. “I trust your invitation was received to my birthday celebration on the fourteenth.”
“Tell me you’ll attend. I had specialized items ordered for the occasion. It promises to be quite an evening.”
Cole looked down at the city’s lawmaker. For an older gentleman, he held his age well, slight graying at his temples, face free of heavy lines. If he hadn’t known the man in Utopian’s scene was Dressen, he would have guessed him much younger. Cole forced a smile, but Vincent responded.
“I trust nobody will be breaking curfew to attend.”
A deep melodic chuckle tinted the air. “Nobody attending will have that worry.”
Cole glanced at his youngest brother. “Check your stand. We’re not here to condemn.”
Vincent shuffled his feet and then redirected his gaze to the balcony.
Cole paused before responding to the query. The last thing he wanted to do was give this lord the satisfaction of an eager acceptance, though he was definitely eager to attend. His gaze flitted to Anna who had noticed the conversation and turned, resting her hands on the balustrade. His heart thumped three hard beats. Blinking his gaze back to the lawgiver, he clasped his hands.
“Of course, we’ll attend. I’ve prepared a special gift. I look forward to presenting it to you.”
Dressen’s brows jumped. “Prepared. I can’t wait to see what the Wizards of Shilo Manor have prepared for my fifty-fifth birthday. I’m sure it will be magical.”
Cole sent his gaze to Charlie, and in a moment’s thought released him to his new keeper. With no further comment, he cuffed at his cape and led the way out the door. The gift would definitely be special.