Miguel Gaspar sat in his darkened study, contemplating the missive on his desk. The letter fascinated him. The letter had come from Portugal, from Lisboa. It was written in Portuguese, in a firm, slanting hand. No smears. Right handed, he was certain. The fine cream-colored stationary smelled faintly of myrrh. But when he touched the page, strands of glowing gold reached up from the black ink to clasp his fingers. They followed his hands if he drew them away, like spider’s web pulled taut.
He was tied to this woman. That was what those strands of glowing energy always meant.
And yet…he’d never met her before. He was sure of that. Even if she didn’t give her name—she’d signed it only The Lady—he knew she was someone he hadn’t met.
He picked up his glass and swallowed the bitter orange-colored burn of the brandy. It slid down his throat, and red flames briefly flickered on everything about him—along the edges of the bookshelves, the top of his desk, on each portrait framed on the white-plastered walls. The flames paled to orange, then yellow, and faded away completely as the taste of orange faded in his mouth.
Brandy was orange, although cognac was more golden. Rum was brown. Sherry, a sparkling pink.
He passed a hand over the paper again, watching as the golden threads reached for his dark skin.
He was tied to this woman.
Not in the future. His gift never showed him possibilities. It only showed him what was. What existed. And if it wasn’t showing him the future, it could only be showing him the past. Or the absolute.
She had offered to hire him to provide aid in a political transition, as she called it. She wanted his gift. He wasn’t sure if she wanted him to hunt witches, provide information for blackmail, or to overthrow a prince. She hadn’t been specific. One never could be when writing a letter like this, a letter that could be seized or stolen. The ink told him nothing further about what she wanted him to do.
Whatever it was, he was likely going to do it. Not because of the words on the paper, but because of the strands. If her words alone had created a link to him, then he could only imagine what she could do in the flesh.
Or rather, he could imagine.
Miguel had nothing else planned that afternoon, so he climbed up onto the roof at William’s house to watch the ships come in. Near the edge of the plateau, William’s home had a better view of the harbor than his own. The afternoon was crisp. Wind whipped dust into the air on the streets, and women ran by, clutching at their headscarves.
Most of the pedestrians below were normal, more or less. Some bore the sickly taint of magic about them, clasping their skin like burgundy vines, but nothing so marked to make him consider telling a priest, who would be wrapped in vines of his own that spoke of the Church and ownership and pride of station. One man walked by on the street, lines draping off his form that told Miguel he had more than one woman waiting for him. And he’d clearly just left another woman’s bed, something that Miguel didn’t need to know. Too many ties, that fellow.
He tore his eyes away from the street below and made himself watch the harbor, where people would be distant enough not to twist his perceptions with their foibles. It was calming to watch the sea.
The ship arrived as scheduled, the blue and white flag of Southern Portugal easily spotted with a telescope. He double-checked the name written on the stern, and then waited while the ship was moored. More time passed as the crew secured the ship, but Miguel was finally rewarded for his patience with the sight of the steamer’s first passenger debarking.
It was her.
Generally he had to be closer to a person to see what was in their soul, but this woman had such a presence that he could spot it even with a telescope. She glittered golden in the sunlight, her white dress nearly obscured by his mental impression of her glow. He wasn’t even sure of the color of her skin or hair. Everything about her proclaimed her uniqueness.
He drew back from the telescope and closed his eyes.
“Did you see the ship you wanted?” William bellowed from the stairwell.
Miguel turned back to see his friend waiting there, not quite committed to coming out on the roof. Despite being in his early thirties, William was nearly deaf, a reminder of a terrible ear infection in his youth. At times he shouted, unaware he was doing so.
An Englishman, William dwelt on these islands by virtue of having fallen sick aboard ship and, after being left on Santiago to either recover or die, falling in love with the young woman who’d nursed him. His English family was scandalized by his marrying an African woman, so he’d chosen to live on the islands. And as that woman was Miguel’s cousin, Catarina, they’d eventually become close friends. There was nothing special about William, not a gift or talent nor a shred of inhuman blood. When Miguel looked at him, he saw only William, one of the things that made him good company. He belonged to his wife and two little daughters—a simple, straightforward man. If only he wouldn’t yell Miguel’s business for all the servants to overhear, he would be the perfect friend.
Miguel faced William directly, since his friend couldn’t follow his voice without seeing his lips. “Yes, the ship came in an hour or so ago.”
“What are they carrying?” William gazed out in the direction of the harbor, so Miguel had to wait for him to look back before answering.
“Passengers,” Miguel said when he had William’s attention again.
“Aha! The woman who wants to hire you away?”
“Yes,” Miguel said. “I am considering going.”
He’d been an inspector with the police here for a few years, but there wasn’t enough to keep him busy. Not as an inspector, at least. And with his father gone, there wasn’t much to keep him on this island. He wanted to see something more of the world before he died, and this might be his best chance. That was without even considering what the bearer of the offer wanted of him.
“We would miss you,” William said, face serious now.
“I think the time is right.” It had been a year and a half since his father’s death. If there was any time ripe for him to move on, surely this was it.
It took her three days to contact him.
Careful questioning told Miguel she’d been ill aboard ship. During the voyage from Lisboa, she’d mostly stayed in her cabin and had barely eaten when she did emerge. The three days since landing had likely been so she could recover. She hadn’t emerged from her hotel, not so far as his investigator knew.
Praia might be a capital, but it wasn’t Lisboa or Paris. Miguel doubted the lady in question had plans to tour the other islands. Cabo Verde didn’t offer much for tourists. The islands were generally no more than a stopping place, a convenient spot to warehouse items needed for sea travel. Or in the old days, slaves.
No, the first time she’d emerged from her hotel had been to meet with him.
The taverna wasn’t crowded, not mid-afternoon, and that made it simple for him to know with whom he was supposed to meet. But he could never have missed her anyway.
Standing in the taverna’s doorway, Miguel watched the woman for a moment…when he could keep her in his sight. She faded out if he wasn’t looking directly at her. Instead of being obscured by her aura, she was hidden in a shadow, which served the same purpose, he supposed. It hid her, not only from his inner sight, but from his actual sight as well. Judging by the responses of the few others in the taverna, they didn’t see her either.
That was a shame. She was stunning, with dark hair and ivory skin and long, pale eyes a bit wide-set. The cool way she watched the room spoke of self-assurance. That was money and influence…and age. She was forty, but didn’t look old yet. The brown shadow-striped silk suit flattered a mature figure. She had no ring on her finger, which might indicate a momentary inclination toward an affair, but he thought it meant no husband at all. He saw no ties of that sort about her. She wasn’t the sort who needed a husband. She didn’t need a man. He was sure of that.
The glittering gold of her skin made sense now, the mark of fairy blood. A lot of it, although she was human enough to pass unremarked by those who did see her. That explained the glamour as well, cloaking her from most people’s view. It almost worked on him, as human magic never did.
He had the strangest feeling he’d met her before, although he certainly would recall it if he had. No one forgot meeting a woman like that. It was more than that, though. He felt like he knew her—like he knew her well. He recalled the strands of connection from her letter, and decided it was the truth.
She looked directly at him then, as if weighing his abilities much as he weighed others’. A flare of recognition crossed her features, quickly schooled back to coolness. There was intelligence in her eyes, but he’d expected that. She would be smart and outspoken, a gift afforded to a woman most people simply never heard or saw. He felt sure of that trait, too. Odd, when he hadn’t met her before.
He decided he’d learned enough. He crossed to her table, drew out a chair, and sat. As he did so, lines of connection lifted from her form and reached out to him, carrying the smell of myrrh and the earth after rain.
One of her dark brows rose like the wing of a gull. “You’re not going to ask my permission?”
The question had been intended to unsettle him. Her voice carried the tinkling of silver bells under its words. He wondered what she sounded like to normal people. “Why go through the pretense that this is a casual encounter, Lady?”
She leaned back in her chair with an ease that made him wonder if she was wearing a corset. Likely not. Her delicate brows drew together in what might be wariness. “No, this is a business meeting, Inspector Gaspar,” she said. “I appreciate your directness.”
He wasn’t going to grovel to this woman. “Then tell me who you are and what you want.”
“Who I am is unimportant,” she said with a shrug, a gesture that seemed somehow familiar to him. “As to what I want, I’m putting together a cadre of…I’ll call us specialists. I heard there was a meter here on the island and wondered if I could entice you to join my little group.”
Miguel stretched out his legs. Could anyone else see her? No one looked at him as if he was insane, so apparently they could see both of the table’s occupants, or perhaps neither. They would not see the golden lines that now bound him firmly to her, making his ultimate response certain, but he didn’t intend to let her know that. Not yet. “Why should I come with you?”
“Better pay, perhaps more excitement,” she said. “You would be working for the Portuguese throne. In Portugal, primarily, but also wherever else we’re needed. From here I go to Brazil, then to Spain. You could find out what winter is.”
He didn’t care much about the Portuguese throne. His Portuguese grandfather was long gone, and he doubted that any kin he had in Portugal would be interested in meeting their long-lost mestiço cousin. But Cabo Verde could be dull, particularly during the rainy season when it got too wet for much of anything to be pleasurable. There wasn’t anything holding him here. She would have had that investigated before sending for him. She would know he had no family left. He only wondered whom she’d used to investigate him. He’d been discreet—probably Eduardo Cunha. “What exactly would I be doing?”
“Investigating,” she said, her head tilting exactly as he expected.
Who did she remind him of? “More.”
“Northern Portugal,” she clarified. “The Special Police, which means you’d be working directly for the throne.”
“They have investigators already,” he pointed out.
“Not like you,” she said easily. “And you wouldn’t be investigating for them. You would be investigating them.”
He sat back. That made a huge difference. The Special Police of Northern Portugal were charged with keeping non-humans out of that country. It was their primary duty, one which didn’t sit well with him. He’d heard about the excesses practiced against sereia and selkies who wandered into their territory. It had long been whispered that they would begin hunting witches next. “To what end?”
She laced her gloved fingers together and set them in her lap. “There are elements within that body that need to be rooted out. In time, the ban against non-humans will end, and the Special Police must know which officers might be unwilling to let go of that particular mandate.”
In other words, they were to dig out villains entrenched in those offices for two decades. That would not be pleasant. There would be resistance. In truth, the attempt stood a good chance of being fatal. And it made no sense, since the prince himself commanded those officers; he had leveled the ban. This woman was working against the prince, then, despite her claim that she worked for the throne.
She returned his level gaze, lovely eyes unflinching. It was almost as if she knew what he was thinking. Not a talent, he didn’t think that. Instead Miguel had a strong feeling that her mind worked much in the same way as his own: cool and analytical, with the emotional aspects of the argument stripped away. A rare find was a woman who allowed others to see that in her.
Perhaps that similarity in thought was what kept making him think her familiar. Perhaps she was too much like him. He gazed at one of the ties binding them, a golden strand that started on her hand and clutched his wrist. No, there was something more. “For whom do you work?”
“If I were to say,” she told him, “it would be treason, would it not?”
Miguel set his elbows on the table, laced his fingers together, and set his chin upon them, an uncouth posture in polite company, but he wanted to see her reaction. “How much?”
She didn’t flinch at his intentional rudeness. “To start, four times your current pay. Plus we’ll cover all expenses for your removal to Portugal and reimburse any monies currently owed to you by the garrison.”
The way she suggested that exorbitant allowance told him it was pocket money for her. He didn’t need it. He had no wife or children to provide for, no addictions to feed, and while it was true that the garrison was often in arrears with their payments to the locals, he wasn’t starving either. His Portuguese grandfather had left him enough money to assure he didn’t need the pay. “I see no reason to accept.”
“It’s a challenge, something new and different,” she said, surveying the customers about them. “I don’t think you get much of that here.”
He continued to gaze at her. Could he stare her out of countenance? He doubted it.
She gazed back for a time, and then asked, “How do you do it? How do you know what gift someone has?”
Ah, curiosity. He’d expected that, somehow. “Most people who have a gift glow with it,” he offered. “Seers tend to have a bluish glow, healers more of a golden one, for example.”
“So it’s in your eyes. Do you see a difference for selkies as well? Are they a different…color?”
Miguel considered her question. He was rarely asked to explain his gift. “No, a selkie is intrinsically different. They are magic, rather than being gifted with it.”
Her dark brows knit together. “But they can bear a child with a human. How is that possible if they’re innately different?”
As she was not entirely human, that was a loaded gun, ready to backfire should he handle it carelessly. “When I meet someone who has selkie or sereia blood, I can see it melded in with their human side. How that happens is a question for another sort of witch.”
“A scientist, perhaps?”
“I doubt one would find enough willing subjects to make a study.”
“You could help with that,” she pointed out.
Yes, he could. He could walk through the streets of Praia and point out each witch, half-breed, and non-human that crossed his path. But he didn’t intend to do so. Labeling them took them one step closer to persecution. The Spanish Church with its continuing crusade against witches would pay a great deal to get their hands on Miguel Gaspar—not to kill him, but to use him to their own ends, to betray others into their hands. He felt certain this woman wasn’t leading him down that road. She wouldn’t. He didn’t know if she had a telltale trait to reveal her inhuman origin, like a selkie’s musky smell or a sereia’s gills and scale-patterned skin. Even so, he didn’t attribute her trustworthiness to her inhuman blood. He simply knew she was trustworthy. “I won’t,” he finally said.
“Not even in the interest of Science?” she asked, sounding incredulous. “Do you not want to know what makes you different?”
“I am far more interested in what makes me the same as any other man,” he said.
“Hmmm,” she said. “You said that seers were blue-tinged. How do you see my gift?”
“It’s not like the others,” he said. “It’s more as if you’re draping shadows about you or holding the light around your body like a curtain.”
“No particular color?” She seemed disappointed.
“It’s from your inhuman blood,” he said. “So it doesn’t work like a human gift does.”
A split-second passed before she answered. “I don’t have any inhuman blood.”
“Yes, you do.” He gazed at her ivory features, where the substance of magic seethed just under the skin. “Your family might never have known they weren’t human, but you’re part fairy.”
She sat up straighter, her lips pressed tightly together. No, she definitely hadn’t known. Or she’d refused to acknowledge it. He knew dozens of witches and parti-breeds who lived in ignorance of their blood. Most of the time it was better to leave them in that ignorance. But he found it fascinating that this woman didn’t know.
She turned to look at him. “There was an old joke that my father was fey. He was from Galicia.”
That also explained her ivory skin. Galicia was the Spanish province directly north of Northern Portugal, if he recalled correctly, and the people there were Celts. “I don’t understand your point.”
“Not fey, like a seer,” she said, stressing her words carefully. “Fae, like the English say it. They have fairies there.”
Since he had no better explanation for her inhuman blood, he didn’t argue her conclusion. He needed to do some research. “I wouldn’t know whether that was the case, as I have no basis for comparison.”
“Then perhaps you should come to Portugal and find out.” She rose, forcing him to rise with her. She stepped around the edge of the table and stopped when she stood only inches from him. She pressed a small brass key into his palm. “I’m in room 312. If you want to discuss it further, I’ll be there. ”
Then she brushed past him, bearing the scents of myrrh and petrichor with her…and a hint of rosemary. That last was her perfume or soap, not supplied by his gift. He’d expected something heady, perhaps lily. Then again, if she didn’t want people to see her, it would be spoiled if they smelled her. Miguel pocketed the key. He hoped no one else had seen that last interchange. No one saw her walk out of the bar, not that he could tell.
He wasn’t going to waste time supposing that her suggestion was, in any way, innocent. It had been a prelude to seduction. What he did want to know was whether she offered her body as a further enticement to join her unnamed enterprise or whether she merely found him attractive. Perhaps she was bored with proper Portuguese gentlemen and thought a mestiço man would prove a more interesting lover.
He wouldn’t mind a night or two of dalliance with this woman. He approved of her looks and had no doubt she would make a wonderful lover. He had a sense, almost like déjà vu, that he’d been her lover at some point before.
But the very fact that he was having such a reaction, one he couldn’t remember having before with any other woman, told him he should proceed with caution.
“You had a key,” she said when she opened the door. “Why knock?”
When she moved back, he stepped inside her room and waited as she locked the door. It was nearly midnight now, and he’d had some time to reflect on their earlier discussion. “I left the key at the front desk,” he explained. “I didn’t want any confusion as to whether or not you let me through that door of your own volition.”
“Cautious, too,” she said with a wry smile. “I like that.”
Miguel surveyed the room. It was one of the hotel’s best, with a screened off area for the white-draped bed and a seating arrangement before the windows that allowed a view of the beach. He didn’t perceive anyone hiding in that space with them, which meant he was truly alone with this unknown woman. She gestured toward the sofa that faced the window. A low table before it held a bottle of white wine and a pair of glasses. “Join me,” she said softly as she settled onto the sofa.
It wasn’t quite an order. Miguel suspected she was simply so accustomed to giving orders that everything she said came out that way. He sat across from her, turning on the seat so he could look directly at her.
She had changed clothing and now wore a dressing gown of old gold satin. No ruffles. Very austere. The underskirts that peeked from underneath the gown were edged in Brussels lace, though, hinting at a sensual but not frivolous, nature. A man’s signet ring adorned her right hand, but she wore no necklace or earrings. She poured a glass of wine for each of them and then leaned back, sipping at hers. “I’m glad you came.”
He didn’t think that was an inane social comment. She meant those words. “I’m curious as to why.”
“I like the way you talk to me,” she said, gesturing vaguely with the be-ringed hand. “You don’t stumble over your own feet trying to be polite, nor do you think it necessary to couch everything in simple terms so as to make them comprehensible for a woman. You seem to think me equal to a man.”
Most women thought him handsome first and gave less consideration to his character or behavior. “In my profession, one learns that a woman can be just as capable as a man.”
“Of committing crimes?” she asked.
“Of anything, lady. Women can take heroic risks, make hard decisions, or kill when necessary. It’s never wise to discount a person merely because she wears a skirt.”
She nodded. “Very true. History has proven that over and over, and yet women are still treated as too feeble-minded or too weak-willed to walk their own way.”
Definitely no husband. That signet ring must have belonged to her father. “Foolishness. Why would you need to clean out the Special Police now?”
“Down to business. I like that you don’t waste my time, either.” She set her glass back down on the table. “The seers in the Golden City are predicting that Prince Fabricio’s death is imminent. They’re all too afraid to say so publicly, of course, but there are a few who will talk for a price.”
“Are you his death?” Miguel asked.
“Heavens no,” she said with a light laugh. “No one knows exactly how that will happen. What is important is that change is coming. When the prince dies, the infante will assume the throne and the ban on non-humans will be lifted. We have to clear out the Special Police before that happens.”
The implication was that she worked for the infante…or one of the numerous noble families who hoped to influence the man once he became prince. His political views were unknown. Since his elder brother had kept him under house arrest for the better part of two decades, it seemed unlikely that the infante would continue his brother’s policies. Either way, this might change the country’s relationship with Cabo Verde, currently a protectorate rather than a colony. The Portuguese garrison was here primarily to keep Spain and France off the islands, not to govern the people of Cabo Verde, who had been democratically ruled for decades now. The change would hit closer to home for him, then.
“And other parts of the government?” he asked. “Do you intend to investigate them?”
“I have been charged with the Special Police, not anything else at this time.”
I have been charged, she’d said, which meant someone else was pulling her strings. Miguel took a sip of the wine, a dry white. It would be treasonous to undermine their prince. Then again, the reclusive prince of Northern Portugal was rumored to be insane. “I will not cooperate on anything which goes against my interests.”
“What specifically concerns you?”
She was what bothered him. “That’s to be determined on a daily basis, lady. If the situation becomes too questionable for me, I will walk away.”
“I would not stop you, Inspector.”
Not an absolute answer, that. “Who would?”
She gave him a very direct look. “If necessary, my executioner.”
He recognized that expression; she wasn’t joking. “Executioner? You have your own?”
“Yes.” The lady shrugged again. “She’s a healer who’s lost her gift. She can kill with a touch, though, as all healers can.”
Powerful healers lived on the knife’s edge of becoming dangerous. They had to guard their talents more vigilantly than he did, even. The fact that this one knew she had crossed the line made her especially dangerous. “What does she do for you when not executing people?”
The lady shifted on the sofa. “Her primary function is to question people. After a few minutes with her, they would sell their own mother’s secrets. She’s dead, you see, and any human sitting down with her innately seems to know there’s something unnatural about her.”
Dead? The dead didn’t sit down and question others. They rotted. “I’ve never heard of the dead moving about.”
“She calls herself a rusalka,” the lady said, “a thing the Russians believe in.”
Something about the way she said it made him question whether she believed in the woman’s claim, but he wasn’t going to delve into the business of a dead woman. He would rather keep his distance. “Will I have to work closely with her?”
“No,” she said. “That will be the place of the Truthsayer I’m going to Brazil to find. The Jesuits say he’s the best. Are you interested in coming along?”
He wanted to see more of this world before he died. He had long wanted to visit Brazil, but had never gotten around to it; he’d been taking care of his father. This offer would take him to both Brazil and Portugal…a good start. That reeked of letting Fate make the decision for him, but he wasn’t going to turn down such an offer merely to hold to an illusion of personal autonomy. “Yes.”
She smiled a smile worthy of a well-fed cat. “Good. I would have been disappointed if you’d decided otherwise. I like you.”
Ah, so now they’d reached the seduction. It surprised him that she intended to pursue him even after she’d gotten his agreement to go with her. He doubted she was a woman of low morals, although he wouldn’t put it past her to use her body to get what she wanted. “Why?”
“As I said, I like the way you talk to me. You treat me like an equal. I distrust men who feel compelled to scrape and bow for me, and disdain the ones who condescend to me.”
Well, at least she knows how she feels about men. He didn’t think she’d told him all the truth, though. Very little of it, actually. “Who are you?”
“I won’t say,” she said with a brief shake of her head.
“Not even your given name?”
She seemed to think about that for a long time. “Adela,” she finally admitted, “is one of my names, Miguel.”
Well, that was an interesting step to have taken. Given her hesitation, she probably gave out that name less frequently than she took lovers. Why had she told him? “And what now?”
She reached her hands up and began removing pins from the braid looped at the back of her neck. It fell down her back as she rose and crossed to the window, wrapping shadow about her as she did so. She wasn’t trying to keep him from seeing her, only people beyond the glass. Miguel rose, crossed to the window, and gazed out at the last of the evening’s light. There were boats in the harbor, their lanterns shining faintly. “Who can see you when you’re doing that?” he asked.
She chuckled. “Well, it’s obvious that you can. Usually it’s only witches who have the second sight. The ones who see things as they truly are. And they have difficulty.”
“I have the second sight, Adela, but more than the others, which is what makes me the meter.”
She smiled when he used her given name. Not a dry, sardonic smile, but a soft smile, a private one. She didn’t smile like that often, did she? “I didn’t know that,” she said softly.
“A day without learning something new is wasted. My mother told me that.”
“Was she bookish?” she asked.
She tore her eyes away from the harbor to gaze up at him, laying one pale hand against his chest. “Are you?”
Miguel had no doubt that Adela was a reader, too educated not to be. “Why seduce me? You have my agreement. I’ll join your little excursion. Why persist?”
She dropped her hand back to her side and her head tilted in vexation. “Why should I not?”
Not at all repentant. “I see no reason a woman shouldn’t seduce as many men…as men do women,” he said, “but I’m not the sort of man to take a lover so casually. Nor do I think you’re that sort.”
She regarded him coolly. She didn’t look offended. More like she was plotting. “Perhaps not.”
“Then why pursue me?”
She glanced toward the glass again. “I told you. I like the way you talk to me.”
That wasn’t a lie. But it wasn’t the answer he wanted either. He wasn’t sure what he was fishing after, but there was something missing from this conversation, some truth left undiscovered. “There’s more to it than that, I hope.”
Her eyes flicked back toward him. They were green, like his own, but a clear green. Like everything else about her, they were familiar. “You hope? Do I take that to mean it’s not an absolute ‘no’?”
She hadn’t answered his implied question. “It’s a ‘not tonight’, Adela. Give me some time to think about it.”
She licked her lips. “Very well. We leave for Brazil Tuesday morning. I’ll book a cabin for you as well. On the Ferreira. I assume you have provisions of your own to make. Will you join me for dinner tomorrow?”
Here on the island, he was considered an excellent catch. He had a decent inheritance, a fine house, and good family and political ties. Miguel doubted those meant anything to Adela, so he didn’t see any advantage in her pursuit of him. Even so, he wasn’t going to snub her. That he would be her lover seemed almost inevitable. He just didn’t know why, and that bothered him. “Here at the hotel?”
She appeared to consider for a moment. “Is there another restaurant you’d recommend?”
“I know one with better seafood.”
They made arrangements to meet, a shockingly mundane thing to do when she stood there in her dishabille, her hair loose. Then Miguel took his leave of her, the golden strands between them stretching until they became too thin even for him to see.
But he knew they were still there.