Sidonie had a stalker. Another one. She could feel it in her bones.
As she went for her early morning run through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London, her security detail kept pace beside her. They were two big strapping males, extremely competent magic users, and ex-Navy Seals. Nothing at all conspicuous about that.
Sid’s mother had immigrated to Nova Scotia from Vietnam as a young adult. If her mom had still been alive, she would have been torn between being proud and feeling scandalized. While it was hard to maintain a discreet appearance with bodyguards in tow, she would have been very pleased Sid’s career had advanced so far. She wouldn’t have approved of Sid’s departure from strictly classical music, but she would have been delighted that so many other people enjoyed it.
In any case, conspicuous or not, the security detail was a necessary evil whenever Sid went on tour. She was not the most famous musician in the world by any means, but she did attract some weirdos.
“I don’t like the fog,” Vincent said on her right as he scanned the surrounding area.
He had to talk out loud, because Sid couldn’t telepathize. She was a “deadhead,” the slang term for a human who didn’t have any spark of magic.
While she didn’t have any proof of a stalker, there was nothing extraordinary about her sense that someone was watching her. It was a feeling in her bones, the prickle at the nape of her neck when she was sure someone was watching, even when she was alone or when there was supposedly no one in sight. The feeling was just good old human intuition.
“Oh yeah?” she said, as she glanced around too. They had been running for a while, so her voice came out breathy and short. “I kinda dig it. It’s a proper London fog. Gives everything a spooky, otherworldly feeling.”
“It also obscures line of sight,” he said dryly.
She frowned. The last thing she ever did was cause problems for her security. They cost a fortune, and they knew better than she did how to do their jobs. Vincent had been head of her detail for her last five tours, and he had caught both her other stalkers. The first one was still serving jail time. Vincent had scared the second one badly enough he had gone back to his home in Texas and, last they had checked, hadn’t left again.
They approached The Albert Memorial, Queen Victoria’s loving tribute to her husband. The top of the tall spire looked spindly and somewhat insubstantial in the gray, wet morning. As Sid glanced up at it, she asked, “You want to head back to the hotel?”
“No,” he said after a moment. “We’re good for now. But if it gets any thicker, I think we should probably turn back.”
“Sure thing.” She bit back irritation to keep her reply sounding easy and reasonable.
It was all an act for their benefit. She got OCD when she was on tour. Really bad OCD. The strain of the schedule and constantly performing on stage did things to her head, and the result wasn’t exactly pretty.
She had to get her three-mile jog in. She needed to eat the same thing for breakfast every day. Her shoes were always lined up the same way in every closet in every hotel, her clothing organized by color and type, and she had a separate piece of luggage for the pillow she brought from home. She couldn’t go to sleep unless her violin was in the same room with her, and she needed to rehearse three times in every venue before she performed. Anything less than three times was unacceptable.
She made a face at the statue of Prince Albert as they passed him. It was no wonder she was single. She was just as weird as any weirdo she had ever attracted.
Abruptly, her perspective shifted as what Vincent had said sank in. Now, instead of enjoying the cool, thick fog that wreathed the park, she saw how it obscured the nearby bushes and how the path they were currently on seemed to disappear up ahead into a formless, filmy white.
She slowed to a stop, and Vincent and Tony slowed along with her. The two men didn’t chitchat when they were out, which was one of the things she appreciated about them. While they were friendly enough, and she liked and respected them, they weren’t friends.
They were doing a job they took very seriously, and they did it well. Usually their professional demeanor allowed her to disappear into her own head. Now, she glanced from their casual, alert stances to the fog and frowned again.
After a moment, Vincent angled his body half toward her while he continued to survey the surrounding area. He asked in an easy tone, “Anything wrong?”
She scrubbed at her face with both hands. This blasted tour was getting to her. Why had she listened to her manager Rikki and booked so many concerts? It would be months before she got home to New York. She loved living in New York. It was one of the most diverse places in the world, and she felt she could relax and disappear into anonymity in the sprawling city.
When she was on tour, she lost that relaxation and sense of belonging. She wasn’t good with people. Growing up hapa—a slang term for someone who was part Asian, part Caucasian—had often left her feeling like she didn’t fully belong in either culture.
Added to that, she had spent most of her childhood practicing and studying music, not playing with other kids, and neither her mother nor her academic father had considered social interactions relevant or necessary. As a result, she had developed a reserved personality. It was hard for her to break free from that early conditioning, and often she needed to strategize on how to relate to people.
It was exhausting. She could never just relax and play cards with the rest of the band and the ground crew. When she was on tour, the only time she really enjoyed was when she immersed herself in her music.
And she willingly went through all of it—the strange beds, the isolation, the unending pressure—so that she could pick up her violin and play.
How was she supposed to respond to Vincent’s question? You know nothing, her mother would have said. So, don’t complain. Say nothing.
Before she could overthink her impulse, she forced herself to confess, “I think I’ve got another stalker.”
His gaze snapped to her face. “Why?” he asked. “You get any mail? See anything?”
“No. And no, or Julie would have told us.” Julie, Sid’s publicist back in New York and her best friend, handled all her email and mail.
“Then what happened?”
Giving up on the morning jog, she sighed, turned and started walking back to the hotel. Smoothly, the men changed directions and kept pace with her. “You’re going to call me neurotic or crazy, but nothing has happened. I just feel it in my gut. I can sense eyes watching me, when nobody should be watching. I’m not talking about the concerts—everybody’s watching me at the concerts.” She groaned. Maybe she should have listened to her mother’s voice in her head. “I sound crazy even to myself. Forget it.”
“No way,” Tony said, taking a step closer as he flanked her side. “We take instinct seriously.”
“How long have you felt this way?” Vincent asked.
She glanced from one man to the other. It rattled her that she had voiced her concern and they were treating it like a real threat.
She had to think back. Had she sensed anything while they were in Glasgow? She couldn’t remember. Hesitantly, she replied, “Since we got to London, I think.”
“Okay.” Vincent paused, thinking. “Tonight’s your last performance in the UK. Instead of leaving for Paris in the morning, why don’t we leave after the concert? We can slip away from the arena when you’re done and let the rest of the band drive to Paris tomorrow as planned. Maybe this one is geographically focused, and we’ll shake him off when we get to France.”
She frowned. She tried not to travel separately from her band. It was hard enough for her to build a rapport, and traveling separately could create distance between them and cause unnecessary tension, but she couldn’t see how it would hurt this once.
“Sure,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
“I’ll see if I can get us flights. Better yet, maybe I can charter a plane. Tony will slip your bags out of the hotel this afternoon.” Vincent smiled at her. “It’s going to be okay.”
Sidonie smiled back, feeling a brief twinge at the wedding ring he wore. If Vince hadn’t been married, she would have been interested in him, but his wife Terri ran the security agency and was the nicest, most genuine person, just as he was. They were the real deal, too, happily married and utterly devoted to each other.
“Thanks, Vince,” she said.
“You bet.” He gave her an easy smile. “I’m glad you said something.”
She hesitated. “You haven’t noticed anything, have you?”
“No, but as Tony said, we take instinct seriously, and you’re not emotionally needy. You’re not trying to draw attention to yourself. We’ve worked together for quite a while, and this is the first time you’ve ever said anything like this to me.”
“Okay, good.” Having gotten that off her chest, she picked up the pace again, and they finished the rest of the route back to the hotel at an easy jog. She might not get a full three-mile run that morning, but at least she did feel better.
Successful concert tours took hard work, determination and stamina, and they were only a third of the way through this one. That was just long enough for her to start questioning her life choices.
Still, after finishing in the UK, the rhythm would break for a short time. They had a few days’ rest planned in Paris, then the requisite three rehearsals in the new venue before starting the next round of performances. She couldn’t wait to get the next leg in the journey behind her and arrive in Paris, so she could relish those few days off.
After Tony and Vincent left her at the door of her suite, she had lunch delivered, ate, and packed. Then she called Julie while she lay face-down on the bed. When Julie picked up, she asked, “What are you doing?”
“I just ate a big breakfast of bacon and waffles with whipped cream and strawberries,” Julie told her. “I’ve got this huge pile of work I need to do, but I can’t move. I needed someone to wheelbarrow me into the office.”
“I want bacon and waffles with whipped cream and strawberries.” Sid sighed. “Or a giant bowl of Pho.”
“So, order takeout,” Julie told her unsympathetically. “You’ve got two huge strapping guys at your beck and call. Make one of them run out and get you some Pho.”
“I can’t,” she groaned. “I’m performing tonight. If I get too full I won’t have any energy on stage.”
She could hear a smile in Julie’s voice. “I bet you ate your oatmeal like a good girl this morning, didn’t you?”
“Of course, I did. I’m telling you, I have to eat exactly the same thing every morning,” Sid told her. “It drives me crazy.”
“One of these days I’m going to come join you,” Julie warned. “I’ll drag you out to breakfast, and make you eat something shocking, like scrambled eggs.”
“Yes!” Sid exclaimed. “Break me out of this nonsense… as long as I can eat oatmeal.”
“You’re hopeless! Listen, I’ve got to go. I need to, I don’t know, make calls and answer emails, or sleep off this breakfast coma.”
“Okay.” Sid flopped over to stare at the ceiling. “You could always fly out to Paris for a day or two. We’ve got that short break coming up.”
Julie’s voice warmed. “That’s a great idea! I’ll check flights. It would be so much fun to hassle you into trying a different breakfast in person. Listen, I know you don’t like to read reviews, so I want to tell you—you’re doing good, kiddo. Really, really good. I’m reading all of them, and there’s nothing but rave reviews. They’re loving this new album.”
Pleasure felt light and warm, like sunshine on her skin. She smiled. “Thanks.”
Shortly after she hung up, Vince texted to let her know he had chartered a plane that would be waiting for them after the concert. They would travel by car to a small, business-oriented airport called London Biggin Hill.
She chewed her lip as she read the text. The only airports she knew in the greater London area were Gatwick and Heathrow, but she was well acquainted with using smaller airports that ran private charters. The arrangement wasn’t unusual, just more expensive, but Vincent wouldn’t have booked it if there had been any commercial flights available.
She sent a reply approving the plan, and then she took a few minutes to text her band to tell them she would be going ahead to take care of a few business matters, and she would see them in Paris. The texts they sent back were easy-going and untroubled, and she smiled as she read them. The group she had gathered for this tour was a solid one.
Afterward, she forced herself to lie down and take a nap. Since they had decided to leave directly after the concert, it was going to be a long night.
That evening at the concert, the pre-performance buzz ran through her veins while the warm up band played, and she had to work at restraining herself until it was time to step onto the stage. While she waited for them to finish their last number, she looked over the crowd from the wing.
With the hot, bright stage lights, she couldn’t see any individual faces, but still, a sense of conviction ran over her skin like ice water. Her stalker was in the audience. She could feel it. Feel him.
Hardly breathing, she poked at the certainty. He was there, unmoved by the music, and his sense of purpose was almost palpable. The comfort she had gleaned from talking to Vincent earlier evaporated and gooseflesh raised on her bare arms. She shivered.
The noise from the crowd shifted and raised in volume, but she hardly noticed. Only when her drummer Dustin tapped her on the shoulder did she jump and come back to herself. He leaned forward, eyes sharp, and said in her ear, “Showtime, Sid. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” she told him. With an effort, she shook off the pall that had fallen over her, gave him a grin, and strode onto the stage. A waft of air brushed her cheek, and she looked up to catch a glimpse of a transparent sketch of a face that smiled down at her as it drifted by.
The Djinn had come again. This one had materialized just enough so that she could see it. They had bargained with her to attend her concerts, and she now owned a wealth of Djinn favors.
Smiling, she nodded at the strange creature and the pale outline of its face faded. Then she raised her violin and bow, and the music rushed in like a tidal wave and swept her away.
It always took her away. It transported her to a place of such piercing purity, such raw transcendence, she let it fill up her veins and flow out of her like liquid fire.
She never questioned her life choices, not when she was flowing with the music. Never questioned the years of sacrifice, the harsh regimen, study and digilent practice. She never felt lonely, or worried or afraid, because the music was everything, her lover, friend and family, and her most demanding, invisible companion.
She fed it, and it fed her, the energy running back and forth, building into a towering edifice of sound, her unique citadel of radiant vibration.
Nobody else could reach that radiant citadel. Nobody could touch it. They could only glimpse it when she played, only hear it because she allowed them to.
After a timeless period, suddenly the concert hurtled to an end. The high, transcendent peak of energy had been achieved, the last strings played, the final notes piercing the silence.
Sweat pouring down her neck, she glanced sidelong at either end of the stage. As if on cue, the Djinn materialized enough so she could see them. They smiled and bowed to her, while the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Afterward, it took some time to extricate herself. Flowers were delivered, the manager of the arena wanted to thank her, and three of the band members had things they needed to discuss before she left. She attended to all of it while the remnants of the fire still ran in her veins. It was only when Vincent and Tony urged her away that tiredness began to sink in.
The car was waiting at the back entrance. Tony rode in the front, while she rode in the back with Vincent. The driver took them out of the arena and down unfamiliar streets. Letting the men’s quiet, easygoing conversation wash over her, she leaned her forehead against the window and blinked tiredly as she watched the scenery go by—neighborhoods, clusters of shops, interspersed with areas of dense greenery.
Even though it was high summer in England, the fog on that cool, damp day had never truly lifted. Now it seemed alive as ghostly tendrils flowed over the road. The time had slipped well past midnight, and traffic on their route was almost non-existent.
Sleepiness tried to take over, but she fought it. She would only have to wake up again in twenty minutes or so, once they got to the airport, and then any chance she had of sleeping would be ruined for the rest of the night.
Despite her best efforts, she must have dozed. Sudden cursing jolted the tore away the peacefulness that had shrouded her. She jerked upright.
An immense black horse filled the windshield in front of the car. As it reared, fire danced in its mane and sparks shot from gigantic hooves.
The driver yanked the wheel sideways, brutally hard. Vincent shot out an arm to brace her as they were both flung sideways. Tires screeched. The car hit a curb and rolled down an incline. Pain flared as the seatbelt bit into her shoulder and breasts. She tried to find something to hang onto and grabbed the door handle.
Not only was the driver cursing, but so was Tony and Vincent. Her ears were filled with their rough voices, with the sound of a scream. The horse? Had they hit it?
Metal. It was the metal from car, screaming as if it were alive.
The world upended, then upended again, whirling outside the windows in an insane kaleidoscope. Then the ground slammed into the car with a gigantic crunch. Pain flared again as she struck her head on something, and everything went black.
* * *
Dim awareness returned as fresh, damp air blew across her skin. Traveling across the bumpy ground caused everything in her body to throb with pain. Someone was dragging her from the car.
From the wreck.
Blinking at the wetness that streamed in her eyes, she tried to squint up at the person who gripped both her wrists.
Whoever he was, he wasn’t human. He was perhaps her height or a little taller, and thin, with a narrow chest, spiky, nut brown hair, and a thin, triangular face. It was a feral face, and he had wild, feral eyes that burned with determination.
She coughed wetly and tried to speak. “Vince—Vincent. Tony. The d-driver.”
“Unconscious, but they’ll live,” the creature said. “So will you.”
She coughed again, spat blood, and whispered, “Thank you for helping.”
“That’s not what I’m doing.” He touched her forehead with a forefinger. She focused on his hand. He had too many fingers. “Sleep now.”
Unconsciousness spread through her mind like black ink flowing over a canvas.
Pain brought her awake, the pain of bruises being rhythmically jostled, while blood pounded in her head. She was riding on the back of an immense black horse. Rather, she was lying on the back of a horse as it galloped along the countryside.
She tried to make a noise, tried to move. Rough abrasion bit into the skin at her wrists. She stared down in disbelief. Her hands had been tied to a rope that looped around the horse’s neck.
That couldn’t be right. She had just been in a car accident. She couldn’t be riding on the back of a horse. It had to be a hallucination, or maybe she was dreaming.
Consciousness slid away.
When she woke again, her head still dangled at an odd angle, and her neck hurt. Everything hurt. Around her lay a quiet, cool forest wreathed in night.
Someone carried her in thin, strong arms. She tried to move, but her hands and ankles were bound. A new, sharp spike of pain dug into her head, over her right eye that was gummed shut. Despite the persistent dizziness and disorientation, panicked conviction settled like ice in her bones.
She was being kidnapped.
Angling her jaw, she moved her mouth experimentally. She wasn’t gagged. If she was anywhere near London, there had to be houses… some kind of neighborhood nearby. Drawing in a deep breath, she tried to scream.
The sound came out in breathy, thin mutter. “Help me.”
The person carrying her looked down at her. She caught a shadowed glimpse of a wild, inhuman gaze as he remarked, “You just won’t stay asleep, will you?”
“You can’t get away with this,” she croaked. “Let me go.”
The creature lifted his head and looked straight ahead. He said grimly, “I’ll get away with it.”
This time when the world grayed around her, she didn’t go fully under. Cotton wool filled her head which ached abominably.
I must have a concussion, she thought dimly, as she struggled to come more alert. There was a reason why she couldn’t black out, some kind of danger. She had to remember.
As if from a great distance, she sensed when they came to a stop. Full awareness returned as the creature set her down on a hard, rough surface. Cold dampness seeped into her jeans and she could smell rich, loamy dirt. He had laid her on the ground.
When he left her for a time, she struggled wildly against her bonds, but she was too securely tied. When he returned, he lifted her head and shoulders to wipe her face with a wet cloth that smelled dank, as if it had been dipped in a river.
As he cleaned away the gummed blood around her eyes, her vision came clear. She looked around. They were in a clearing, and over the tops of nearby trees, the darkness of the night sky had begun to lighten.
Panic skittered like mice running over Sidonie’s skin. It had been a long time since the accident. Hours. How far had they traveled by horse? Where were they?
Was she even in London anymore?
Suddenly the pain in her head lessened, and she could think again. A tingling spread through her body and other aches eased. While she might not have magic sense, she’d had magically-based medical treatments before. The creature had thrown some kind of spell to heal her.
That had to be a good sign, didn’t it? He couldn’t mean to slaughter her here in the woods if he cared enough to heal her.
Looking up at his strange, shadowed face, she said, “You were the one. You were stalking me.”
“No,” he said. He set aside the cloth and gathered her into his arms. “I was stalking someone else. I found him in Glasgow and started to follow him. When he came to London, I followed him there too. He kept going to your concerts, and it was unusual. Unlike him. For some reason, you… matter to him. So I took you.”
She tried to follow what he was saying, but while he spoke English clearly enough, he sounded insane. “But why?”
His face twisted, and tears began to spill down his cheeks. He rocked her and sobbed. “Because you’re perfect. You’re so perfect I couldn’t have found a better weapon if I had tried.”
“I’m no weapon,” she whispered, staring. “I’m just a musician.”
“I’ll give you to her, and she will be horrible to you. And that will matter to him. With you, I’ll drive a wedge between them so deep it will tear them apart. And they need to be torn apart. You have no idea the damage they’ve caused, or how many people they have killed over the years. You have no idea the kind of damage she did to me. If she isn’t stopped, she’ll target a friend of mine, and I will not let anything happen to my Sophie.”
Sidonie was tired and cold, damp and so scared that tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes as well. This creature wasn’t human. He wouldn’t think in human terms. Maybe he really was crazy. Did he even recognize he had committed a crime?
Even though it was futile she twisted her hands, trying to find purchase against the cords that bound her wrists as she forced herself to say in a soft, cajoling tone, “Can you please listen to me? Just listen. Whatever you’re planning, I can see it matters deeply to you, but you don’t have to go through with it. You have time to rethink everything, and—and I’ll help you. I promise. But you have to let me go first. I can only help you if you let me go.”
The creature’s gaze focused on her. There was so much emotion in his strange eyes, so much grief and rage, it held her transfixed. “I want you to know I’m sorry.”
Renewed panic jolted through her. “You don’t need to be sorry about anything. You haven’t gone too far yet, or done anything that isn’t fixable. We can—I can—I have money. Resources. Whoever your enemy is, we can go after her together.”
What the hell was she saying? She had never “gone after” anybody before in her life. Her worst enemies had been rivals at school, and her biggest battles had been won through music competitions and grades. She could tell by his stony, unmoved expression that nothing she said was getting through to him.
What else could she promise? The need for revenge was driving him. She ran through all the famous revenge scenarios she could think of, but they were all based on fictional characters. Dropping that idea, she focused on another one.
His friend mattered to him. “You’re worried about your Sophie,” she said rapidly. “We can get protection for your friend. I have contacts with a good security company.”
His gaze met hers. “Did they protect you from me?”
Her breath caught. Before she could come up with another argument, he wiped his face with the back of one hand and drew out a knife. As her panic escalated, he used the knife to cut a strip of cloth off the bottom of her shirt and forced a gag between her teeth. The tears still streamed down his face, but his expression had turned stony with resolve.
“Listen to me,” he said harshly. His strange gaze was lit with a feverish light. “Take my advice for what it’s worth. Don’t tell her about me, or why I took you. If she considers you a threat, she will have you killed—or if she thinks you have any information that might be useful to her, she will do much, much worse than have you killed. And if you’re smarter than me, if you have it in you to bow to her will and pander to her every whim, it will go easier for you. Because I am deeply sorry for this, human, but you are only one person and your sacrifice will mean so much to so many. I’m afraid you’re going to have a tough time now.”