The Treasure Keeper
The Drákon Series, Book 4
The candlelight lent a soft-shadowed clarity to the musicians before him. He admired their satin jackets and their old-fashioned rolled wigs, their hands moving over bows and valves and strings in effortless harmony. Rhys didn’t know the piece they were performing, but it illumed his surroundings as much as the chandeliers did. It was light and loud and complex and simple and...blissful. He could lounge in the satinwood chair all night, hearing it.
It wasn’t particularly bothersome that he seemed to be the only member of the audience in attendance. He thought that perhaps this might be a final rehearsal, something of that sort. He was, after all, a lord; rules were bent all the time for the ton. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t appreciate the artistry, the splendor, of their work.
He leaned back, a half smile on his lips, tapping his fingers against the arm of his chair. The music thrilled on and on, and he thought he’d never been so content in his life.
Just then a movement to his right caught his eye. Rhys glanced over. A woman was taking her seat three chairs down, skirts and petticoats rustling.
Her attention was fixed upon the musicians, just as his had been. She was gentry at least, dressed in a frock of rose damask and cream ruffles to match the hall, a wrap of stiff white gauze framing her shoulders. Light pooled around her; her ringletted hair was very pale, her powdered skin was very pale; compared to the rest of the chamber she was alabaster and shimmer, actually a little too bright to behold. His eyes began to tear.
She opened her fan; he was dazzled by the flash of pink rubies on lace. She lifted it to her face and then turned her head, meeting his gaze from beneath kohled lashes.
He thought she might be beautiful. It was damned hard to tell, what with all the candlelight, but of course she was beautiful. On this stupendous night, in this soaringly exquisite place, how could she be anything but?
She murmured his name. He sat up straighter and offered her civil nod. She was young, and she was fair, and if she knew him the last thing he’d want to do was ignore her, because who knew what the night would bring after the music ended—
Her fan lowered. She studied him with eyes of velvety black.
“It’s not real,” she whispered. “You do know that. It’s not real. None of it.”
His mouth opened. He wanted to speak and could not; no sound emerged. His hands gripped the chair but that was all he could do. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe. For one long, horrible moment the entire world went dark. The music played on, but it was different now, it was sly and terrible and crept in tendrils through him, eating away at him like a cancer.
The woman stood. She turned to face him; the wrap slipped down her arms.
“Is this the best of you, then?” she asked in her cultured voice, cool and sensual, a blade of light surrounded by that darkness. “Is this the best I can expect of you? You lazy bastard. I’m not going to risk my neck helping you if you don’t even try.”
Lazy bastard. Lazy bastard—
He knew her. He realized it just then. Her name escaped him—he’d loved her once, and he knew her—
Rhys did not wake up. He could not evade those tendrils even now, not enough. He still couldn’t really move. He couldn’t see, or Turn.
But he did manage a single, heaving breath. And it didn’t taste like Soho, or London, or anything civilized. It tasted like cold, wormy dirt. It tasted like death.
And that, Rhys realized, was real.
His teeth were clenched. His jaw locked. His back and legs and entire body were a frozen spasm of rigid agony, and the symphony never ceased.
He tried to shut it out. He reached for the first clear image that flashed behind his lids—light; the bright and unforgiving face of—
She jolted awake in the night, instantly, awfully, her every sense flooded with dread, her skin slick with cold sweat. She did not gasp or twitch; she didn’t breathe at all. She lay in the bed with her eyes wide open and knew that whoever had crept into the suite with her would see only a mattress and gems and strangely rumpled sheets.
The wash of her Gift hummed across her body, disguising her, an instinctive defense. The power of it chilled her blood even as the man’s voice she’d heard echoed back into nothing, a memory. A bad dream.
But she lay there anyway a very long time, as motionless as she could be. She listened to the sounds of the city pushing over the treetops of the park, past her walls: dogs barking. Horses sighing, plodding hooves, iron-wheeled carts being pulled over cobblestones. Men and women laughing, even at this hour, and tavern music, and the very clouds above her dissolving, particle by particle, drop by drop, with the slow building heat of the coming morning. And no one spoke her name again.
She’d dreamed it. That was all.
God, what a fright. It hadn’t felt like a dream; when she’d opened her eyes she would have sworn there was a man standing over her, shadowed and close. But there wasn’t. There was no human smell anywhere nearby.
Slowly she sat up in the bed, rubbing her hands over her face, the rings on her fingers warm and rigid against her cheeks. With her head bowed she sucked in a lungful of air, released it, and watched as the locks of her hair became once again visible, phantom pale strands shrouding her face and shoulders.
Without meaning to, she glanced at the mirror. It was exactly where she had left it, propped against the wall. The crack down the middle became a sharp silvery thunderbolt in the dark, frozen forever against the blue.
The ghosts shifted and sighed against it. They brightened and faded, and tried so hard to speak.
Zoe slipped from the bed. She padded to the glass, her feet chilled against the floor, and knelt before its wide, clear expanse, the bangles at her wrists chiming softly as she moved.
She touched it lightly. It was cold, very cold, beneath her fingertips.
No response. In the silence of the chamber, in this dark small hour, even the beings that haunted her on the other side seemed to have grown weak.
“Hayden, are you there? Was it you?”
Something did stir then. Something did change, a new shape forming against the endless blue. It looked like the outline of a man...perhaps a man, shaded and haloed with smoke...and then nothing: the smoke and man curled up and away.
She leaned forward, staring harder, but the light was too murky, and whatever she’d seen did not appear again.
Zoe leaned back on her heels, the anklets stretched tight against her skin, then gave it up and sank all the way to the floor.
She thought of her bed back in the cottage at home, the plush feather mattress. Of the nightingales that would rouse at dusk, serenading her as she’d sit and dream by the parlor window. The silver-faced clock gently ticking upon the mantel, a wedding gift to her great-grandparents. The Wedgwood cream ware on the shelves in the kitchen, the handsome rosewood chairs and table, the silk azure curtains she’d help sew herself as a child.
The dense eastern woods. The soft summer nights.
She’d imagined a hundred different lives in that cottage. She’d imagined being married in the vine-covered gazebo in back, as Cerise had done, and cutting greens for her husband’s salads from her little garden. She’d imagined her own children growing up there, admiring the clock, pouring the cream, stroking the curtains as they gazed at the wild woods just beyond reach. Just as she had done.
Hayden or something else, the shade in the mirror did not reappear, no matter how firmly she pressed her fingers to the glass. So Zoe went back to bed.
Excerpted from The Treasure Keeper by Shana Abé. Copyright © 2009 by Shana Abé. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.