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Startled, I snapped the volume shut on my own fingers and cringed.

The woman lifted a brow. Chestnut colored hair curled about a patrician face and the smile she bestowed gleamed with teeth. "Dante, is it not?" she asked without inflection, cold voice clipped and uncaring. An accent breathed into the words like a breeze through long grass, there but unintelligible. Some kind of English, maybe? "Odd reading for this...event."

A man stood at her side, stooped and wizened but radiating derision equal to the taller woman's. They weren't like the others in attendance tonight; affluence suited the pair, from the diamonds glittering in the dip of her throat to the black lacquer of his cane, to the hushed muttering of their armed guards standing off to the side. Despite the fine quality of their clothes, both dressed professionally, foregoing a gown or a tuxedo, his tie missing and her jacket open to reveal the silk blouse underneath. She was a vision of careful design, and he...he reeked of wealth too, but also vaguely of rot, small and hunched and yet somehow porcine in proportion. Air from the vent on the wall blew down in a constant flood, so I could smell every person who came by, cheap perfume and sallow cologne providing tonight's fiasco with a foul bouquet, but she smelled of jasmine and red currant. He smelled of tarragon, cedarwood, and that indefinable scent of sweet, sticky decay.

I could smell ash and I didn't know why.

"Er—welcome," I said, forging on with my greeting, ignoring her comments on my reading material as I plucked up one of the pamphlets and held it out. "The presentation starts at eight."

The woman accepted the leaflet, the folded pages seeming so flimsy and impractical between her manicured fingers, like juvenile drawings done with fat crayons being handed to an art critic. For her part, the woman flicked open the cover, smirked, then tossed the pamphlet onto the table between us. "Yes, well," she said. "How lovely," sounding as if she meant anything but. "Though we're not here for that. We're here to speak with Eoul."

Eoul. Gregor Eoul, the CEO of IMOR Advances, the first extension number I had to memorize those scant months ago, a man I exchanged "good mornings" and "good evenings" with and nothing else. "Oh. Um, he should be—."

"No." The woman gestured with one hand and the platinum bracelet on her wrist followed the motion, catching the dim lights as her fingers curled in the universal symbol for rise. She wore a wedding ring. "Stand up. Lead us to Gregor Eoul."

She gave her audacious demand, and although the still, slow waters of my logical mind started and hissed at the strange, blatant disrespect, something more flippant and emotional whispered why not? So I stood, though I couldn't say why, and I moved, though I blinked in confusion at the shuffle of my own feet. Obeying felt intuitive—like leaning toward the warmth of a campfire on a chilly night, or drawing in a breath after rising from a deep dive. I needed a reason to step back into the cold, to leave the ring of firelight or to hold my breath for a moment longer, and I didn't see the point for that discomfort.


I jerked to a halt halfway across the ballroom, caught between two groups of chattering accountants with the woman and the man at my back. An errant thought remarking on their anonymity drifted through my skull and the situation's oddity stirred the sudden, inexplicable silence in my head like a spark hitting a dry stack of kindling. My feet stopped shuffling.


"Oh." The woman stepped up to my side, tipping her head to bring her eyes closer to mine, and they gleamed black, not violet, black like scorched asphalt under the summer sun. "Interesting."

"I don't have patience for your games tonight, Grace," the elderly man rasped as he folded his hands over the top of his cane.

"I know, Jackson, I know." The woman leaned nearer and hovered on the periphery of polite distance, a breath away from imposing upon my personal space. "This is wasting your time. Lead us to Eoul."

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