I woke feeling warm and safe, surrounded by the smells of human, kylen, and, more distant, half-breed. Eli's arm was around my waist, my body cradled against his. Lucas slept facing me, his head on my outstretched arm, his breath soft and scented with the anise aroma of manna. Across the foot of the bed, Thadd slept, his healed wings draped over his body, plaid flannel pajamas peeking through the plumage, my crocheted afghan twisted around him.
They weren't sleeping with me following multiple-partner se*ual antics. Well, not yet, anyway. They were here because there was no other place to sleep. There hadn't been much of the town left standing. Mineral City, with the exception of the shielded lofts, dress shop, and Thorn's Gems, had been a smoking ruin.
Downstairs and in the landing outside my door, I heard the soft susurration of breathing and the muted footfalls of someone going to the bathroom. Seventy people still routinely slept here, though more moved out of the shop each day, as they began to accept that the danger had passed, that safety had been restored to the hills.
I raised up on an elbow to see Audric, his big body sprawled across the leather couch that had once been in Rupert's apartment. It was one of the few things he had claimed from Rupert's estate. No one had gainsaid him. Not even the orthodox, who had looked a bit dazed when we walked out of the night, trailed by three seraphs, and shouted for Ciana to open the shield. The seraphs had been singing, voices like bells and oboes. It was weird. I wasn't able to understand a single word they sang, but I was pretty sure it was a song about me. About the prophecy they were so sure I had fulfilled.
Rose slept on my old couch, pushed into the corner of the room. Away from the rest of us. So far, all my champards had shown a distinct disinclination for being around her. I made it a point to look at her with only human vision, so I didn't have to see the strange aura she now carried, pale rose spiked with green. It wasn't a healthy mage pattern. Rather, the one time I had looked at her, it had been ragged, as if chewed at the edges. Ugly.
Eli mumbled and pulled me to him, but I eased away and draped the covers to keep him warm. I didn't want him to wake with me snuggled close. The day before had been uncomfortable enough, with proof of his interest pressed against me. For the last few weeks, several of my champards had been silently urging me to take one - or more - of them as bed partner, but I was resisting.
Unsurprisingly, Eli had brought the silent tug-of-war into the open, boldly suggesting I take all of them, together. He'd been serious, or as serious as he ever was, offering to have an orgy-sized saddle specially made for us.
Though she had to know she was an outcast of sorts, Rose had looked interested. But I had been raised in Mineral City, under the hand of the orthodoxy. Lucas and I had both looked away at his suggestion. Thadd had laughed and released kylen pheromones, reminding me he could give me something none of the others could offer. And I knew I wasn't ready. I may never be ready to either choose between them or take more than one.
I was undecided about a lot of things. Like, what now? What was I going to do? Stick around and help finish rebuilding Mineral City? The reconstruction had been moving fast, with Rose, Cheran, and me helping move and transport stone for buildings. It was tiring work, but we had found a way to meld our disparate gifts in a useful way. It was the only time I could stand to be around the other two, and even the useful work left a sick taste in my mouth.
Or I could head back to the New Orleans Enclave. They had issued an invitation to join a research group on the nature of the Most High.
Me. In a research group. Eli had laughed at that one too. Audric had pronounced it a ruse to get me back there and dissect me. Especially the angry black ring that marked my side, like a tattoo of the link that had chained Azazel. The fact that they knew about the ring was evidence that Cheran had been in communication with them. Needless to say, the mage had been ousted to sleep elsewhere, crowded among an adoring gaggle of human females.
My greatest fear, however, was for Ciana. Fear that the mages really wanted her and were using me to get her close enough to take her. I had no idea if they would honor my jurisdiction over her as mistrend.
I crawled out of the bed and gathered up a tunic, T-shirt, and jeans and moved on bare feet to the front of the loft. Outside, I heard the drips, tinks, and pings of water, the gurgle of runnels, the splash of melted snow. Spring was coming early, the sun rising each day to reveal more of the green earth budding out.
Dressing in the gray light at the front window that overlooked the ruins of Shamus Waldroup's bakery, I looked down, straight down to the Toe River. Everything between it and the loft was gone but for a few old stone buildings. Only three new ones had been rebuilt so far.
As for the river, it was flowing again. As if the snake knew what was needed, the wheels had appeared in the second week after the battle that chained Azazel, and cleared the avalanche debris from both ends, melting the tons of snow, burning splintered trees, and restoring the river of water. Amethyst had said nothing, sitting like a marble statue in the navcone of her living ship, eyes closed. I knew I had made an enemy. I hadn't seen the snake or the ship since, but the citrine pear hanging on my amulet necklace now had an eye in its center. A purple eye that never closed. It was more than disconcerting.
I could hear the Toe River over the sounds of the loft as I pulled on my socks and shoes. It was roaring, the way it did in spring when the winter's accumulation of ice and snow began to melt. And far down the mountain, I heard the sound of a train whistle.