Shadowmaster Cover Art

Nightsiders, Book 3


Humans and vampires stand on the brink of war in this gripping series by New York Times bestselling author Susan Krinard

In the crumbling outpost of San Francisco, a fragile truce is threatened by an assassination plot. Half-dhampir agent Phoenix Stryker has the beauty, brains—and blood—to infiltrate the vampires’ secret society and save the city. But once she’s in, she finds that her target, the assassin Drakon, is not the monster she expected. Handsome, honorable and irresistibly attractive, Drakon will stop at nothing to save his people—and protect the woman he needs even more than the blood that keeps him alive. Now the key to the world’s survival may lie in their dangerous alliance….

Order Ebook

Harlequin Nocturne
February 1, 2014

Other Books in the Nightsiders

Holiday with a Vampire 4

Book 0.5


Book 1


Book 2

Night Quest

Book 4

Dark Journey

Book 5

Book 6

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

“We don’t know who he is,” the director said. “We know it’s a he, and we believe he goes by the name ‘Drakon.’ There are certain unconfirmed reports that he has connections in the Fringe, here in the city. We don’t know where he’s hiding, if he’s working alone or if he has contacts within this very agency.”

Aegis Director of Operatives Julia Chan swept the table with her gaze, pausing to search each pair of eyes locked on hers. Phoenix was only one of many, but she felt as if Director Chan were looking into her soul. Weighing strengths and weaknesses. Going over a mental checklist of successes and failures in Phoenix’s relatively brief and undemanding career-mentally studying her psych eval, deciding if the agent’s abilities and qualifications were up to the task.

No doubt the director was wondering if an agent who was only half-dhampir like herself-only a quarter Opir and three-quarters human-and had never had a major mission in the field, could possibly be capable enough for a job that could mean life or death for the largest Enclave of humans on the West Coast of the former United States of America.

Then the director’s gaze moved on, and she nodded brusquely. “You’ll have full, detailed reports on your tabs. Study them thoroughly. We’re sending only one agent during the initial stage of the search. We’re betting that the assassin is heterosexual, and like most Opiri, he’ll naturally be attracted to dhampir blood.” She swept the audience with a cold stare. “Let me be very frank-you may have to use sex as a way of getting to him, not to mention your blood. As always, if you feel or believe you’re not up to the task of using every personal asset to find this killer before he brings down our government, tell me now. You’ll receive no black mark on your record for declining, under the circumstances. And, as always, every word spoken in this room is strictly confidential. Any leaks will be investigated and the traitor will face the harshest possible penalties.”

She closed her tab, gathered up a few printed notes and left the room.

“Well, that was clear enough,” Yoko said close to Phoenix’s ear as they rose from their seats at the table. “We always knew what we were getting into when we joined Aegis.”

“Joined?” Phoenix said, shaking her head. “Since when did you dhampires have any choice in the matter? You can’t be left to run loose in society, half-vampires that you are.”

Yoko took Phoenix’s arm, her catlike pupils dilating. “You talk as if you don’t think you’re one of us. Just because you look fully human…”

“I inherited my looks from my mother, eyes and all. And she didn’t go through what most of yours did. She wasn’t taken during the War by some bloodsucker against her will.”

“No. But she married one of the first dhampires ever to be identified,” Yoko said, her round face suddenly serious. “Even the people who adopted him as a kid before the Awakening had no idea where he came from. At least most of us knew our real mothers.”

“But not the Nightsiders who made them pregnant,” Phoenix said, brutally blunt. “Who abandoned them as soon as they were done with them. I had a complete family to begin with, even though no one outside a few in the old government knew my dad was working against the bloodsuckers during the War.”

“And kept on working for us after,” Yoko said, “even when he could have retired with honor.”

“Do you really believe that?” Phoenix asked, unable to hide the bitterness that never quite went away. “In the end, he left us like any true dhampir’s ‘father.’”

“He died on a mission. He was a hero, and everyone knows it.”

A hero, Phoenix thought. The kind she could never be. And all her anger, all her hurt couldn’t change that fact.

“Aegis was everything to him, more important than his own wife and child. I’d rather have a live father than a dead hero.”

For once, her voluble friend had nothing to say. It wasn’t as if this were the first time the subject had come up between them, but sometimes-when Phoenix least expected it-the anger came boiling up again.

Oh, Aegis had provided well for the widowed wife and fatherless child. And once Mother died, the agency had become Phoenix’s only family: deciding, after much evaluation, that the half-dhampir child was worth training, though her abilities were constantly tested and weighed against those of every full dhampir, the agents sworn to maintain the Armistice between humans and Nightsiders by every means possible. Unauthorized combat, ambush, deceit, submission, sex. Whatever it took.

Because only dhampires, with their almost catlike eyes, could see by night like full-blooded Opiri, could move nearly as fast and were nearly as strong, could meet Opir operatives in the Zone with some hope of survival.

But this wasn’t the Zone. An Opir assassin was inside the walls of San Francisco Enclave, ready to kill the mayor and foment chaos in the city at a time when the volatile politic situation could be set off by the smallest spark. The forthcoming election had the two factions- the mayor’s and Senator Patterson’s-at daggers drawn. And every report confirmed that the bloodsuckers were preparing for a major offensive.

And yet the mayor insisted that peace could be maintained and renewed. Mayor Aaron Shepherd. The man Phoenix had once loved. And had thought loved her.

Yoko seemed to read her mind. “I know,” she said. “This is kind of personal for you.”

Phoenix didn’t encourage further conversation on the subject, so Yoko moved on. “‘Contacts within this agency,’” she quoted Chan. “If they think that’s even possible, it’s bad. Could make this job a suicide mission.”

“So what’s new?” Phoenix asked as she and Yoko stopped by the mess hall for coffee and sandwiches. “I’d go in a heartbeat if I thought they’d pick me.”

Yoko grabbed a steaming mug and chose a table. The room was nearly deserted. Once they were seated, Yoko looked around and leaned close to Phoenix again.

“Maybe you didn’t notice how long Chan stared at you,” she said. “Maybe they haven’t sent you on any really dangerous missions. They haven’t been able to look past their prejudice. But you’re still Titus’s daughter.”

Titus’s daughter, Phoenix thought. That was the thing, wasn’t it?

“I don’t want any lives in my hands,” Phoenix said, sipping the nearly scalding coffee and welcoming the almost painful burning on her tongue.

“But you don’t have to cut yourself off from everyone,” Yoko said, laying her hand on Phoenix’s wrist. “I worry about you. You don’t go anywhere or see anyone. Except me, of course.”

Phoenix smiled. “Stop worrying, Yoko. I keep busy. I don’t feel deprived.”

“Look, Shepherd was one guy. There are guys who don’t care what we are, whether it shows or not. They won’t try to keep you hidden. Like Abdul…we’re happy together. Might not last forever, but almost nothing does.”

No, Phoenix thought. Nothing does. Not even life.

“Not interested,” she said. “I don’t like having those kinds of ties to weigh me down.”

“Because no matter how much you may complain about our being forced to join Aegis because of what we are,” Yoko said, “you live for the work, like your father. That’s another reason why Chan didn’t leave you off the list.”

“Or they just think it would be safer to send in someone who doesn’t have dhampir eyes. A lot easier than performing surgery on one of you.”

Yoko bit her lower lip. “It all depends on their tactics. A full dhampir could really tempt the assassin, and the Agency doesn’t seem to think your blood would be addictive. But if Aegis wants to keep a low profile.”

“I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” Phoenix said.

Uncharacteristically quiet, Yoko gazed into the depths of her cooling coffee. “Phoenix.can you be objective if they assign you to this mission?”

“Whatever my past relationship with Shepherd,” Phoenix said, drawing herself up very straight, “I know what he means to the Enclave. He’s holding everything together, giving the people courage and hope. He wants to end the mandatory deportation of minor lawbreakers to Erebus.”

“Which the bloodsuckers will never agree to,” Yoko said. “They have to have serfs, after all.”

“But he’s against it, and that’s a very popular position now that the Enforcers are scraping the bottom of the barrel to find citizens to deport,” Phoenix said. “I respect him for that.”

“And the alternative is Senator Patterson, who wants to crack down on so-called ‘offenders’ even more.”

“What else can you expect from a guy who used to be commissioner of the Enforcement Bureau?” Phoenix asked.

“The elections are going to be ugly this year, no matter how civil they try to be.”

“That’s why they have to choose just the right operative,” Phoenix said.

“You may not think you can do it, Nix, but I have faith in you.” Yoko covered Phoenix’s hand again. “I hope you’re the one.”

* * *

Yoko got her wish.

Chan called Phoenix into her office the next day. The spring morning was sunny but cold, with a brisk wind off San Francisco Bay.

“You read the report?” Chan said as Phoenix took the seat on the other side of the wide and very valuable cher-rywood desk.

“I did,” Phoenix said.

“What were your thoughts?”

“I assume you chose me because I look human.”

“That was indeed a major factor, Agent Stryker. It was not the only one. You also have no need for blood or a patch to help you digest human food like all full dhampires, though your protein requirements must be met to the best of your ability. Any further thoughts about this mission?”

“I can get him,” Phoenix said, half-afraid of appearing so much more confident than she felt.

The director looked at Phoenix as if she were peering over the tops of old-fashioned reading glasses. “You will have a great deal of personal discretion in this, but your job is not to ‘get him.’ It is to watch and listen, try to make contact with someone in the Fringe who knows Drakon, locate his headquarters if possible and report back without being caught. That is more than sufficient.”

But not for me, Phoenix thought. Dad died for this city. If I have any way to bring this assassin down myself…

“The question is whether or not your former relationship with the mayor could in any way compromise the mission,” Chan said, shaking Phoenix out of her thoughts. “Do you believe there is any chance it might in any way affect your performance?”

Phoenix knew she couldn’t avoid the issue now, as she had with Yoko. The affair was supposed to have been secret. Aaron had convinced Phoenix that it would be a good idea if the then vice mayor kept his personal relationships private. He didn’t want to be seen as having possibly influenced her acceptance as an operative for the Agency.

“It’s different with us,” Aaron had said. And Phoenix had accepted, because she’d been hungry for love, for acceptance by those who couldn’t decide where she fit in.

They’d parted “friends.” At least from Aaron’s side of the equation. It was easy enough for him. He didn’t have to think of her at all. She saw his photo on her tab nearly every day. Mayor Shepherd, one of the most successful and beloved leaders in Enclave history.

Phoenix sat very straight and held the director’s gaze. “No, ma’am,” she said.

“No resentment of this Agency for sending your father off to die?” Chan asked bluntly. “No undue hatred of the Opiri for killing him?”

“No, ma’am. No more than any dhampir operative would have.”

The director cocked her head. “Honest, at least. Is there anything else you wish to say?”

“I know the mayor must be protected at all costs for the sake of our survival.”

“All costs,” Chan said, looking down at her tab. “Including the possible seduction of whomever seems likely to assist in your locating Drakon. There are several known Bosses in the Fringe you might approach in your search for him. You’ll find a list on your tab, but our preferred candidate is a Boss called The Preacher.” She paused. “Are you up to that, Agent Stryker?”

“You don’t forget how to ride a bicycle,” Phoenix said.

For the first time, the director smiled in apparently genuine amusement. “You’re beautiful, Agent Stryker. Most men would consider you very desirable, regardless of species. You wouldn’t have been considered if you didn’t have most of the advantages dhampires possess. And your blood shouldn’t be addictive to Nightsiders, ei-ther.which could be a mixed blessing.”

“But it’ll still attract them,” Phoenix said. “And I can use that.”

“It’ll be at your discretion whether or not you wish to reveal your dhampir heritage at any point during the mission,” Chan said, “but remember that you are not to engage Drakon or his followers unless you have no other choice. If the enemy recognizes what you are and fails to believe any of your cover stories, there won’t be anyone to get you out.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“And you have to remember that though you’re still stronger and faster than humans, you’re at a disadvantage in a head-to-head with most other dhampires and certainly all Opiri, with very few exceptions.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m grateful for your confidence in me.”

“Frankly,” Chan said, chewing on her stylus, “I was against it. I think you still have something to prove. You were an orphan, mother dead by suicide, no other living relations. Your father’s legacy is all you have to define yourself. During this mission, you have to put all that behind you.”

“Ma’am, I’ve always-”

“You’re not out there to be a hero, Stryker, only to complete the mission as outlined in the briefing.”

“I understand completely, Director Chan.”

“I hope you do.” Chan sighed. “The committee believes you can handle this. But again I must ask, are you prepared to carry out this mission with every asset at your disposal, without qualms or emotional involvement?”

“If there are any doubts,” Phoenix said stiffly, “perhaps it would be better if another agent is assigned.”

“No. The committee has faith in you, and I’ll have to do the same.” She typed a quick note on her tab. “There’ll be a more detailed report, your eyes only, waiting for you in your quarters, outlining your cover stories and the support you’ll receive from the Agency. Not to be shared with anyone, is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am. Very clear.”

“Then you’re dismissed. Be prepared to move out at 0100 hours tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, Director.” Phoenix rose, turned and walked out of the office. Her heart was pounding, but not with fear. She’d have a chance to show them again. She wasn’t that weakling orphan anymore, and she would never stop proving it.

No matter what it took.

Chapter 2

“Move them along,” Drakon told Brita, all too aware that it was only a few hours until dawn and there was always the chance that the authorities would be waiting for just the right moment to strike. There were only a few secret ways in and out of San Francisco that remained unknown to Aegis and the Enforcers, in those less regularly patrolled areas along the Enclave’s southern Wall and right in the heart of the Fringe.

That, Drakon thought, was the only reason this passage hadn’t been discovered. Even the Enforcers were wary of the Fringe, since more than a few had died here.

Brita hustled the last few emigrants out of the concealed hole in the Wall and had a brief word with the hired gun who was to escort them to the boat. Drakon didn’t trust the man, but the coyotes knew better than to betray the Boss they knew as Sammael.

They knew he would hunt them down and kill them. They didn’t know he was an Opir.

They didn’t have to.

“Done,” Brita said as the others sealed and hid the exit with heaps of trash and artfully scattered pieces of twisted metal and broken concrete. She slapped her hands together as if to rid them of something she hadn’t wanted to touch.

“Damn it, Sammael,” she said, “you know this isn’t worth the risk. The crew is starting to question why they should be involved in this at all.”

Scanning the other members of his crew, who were just finishing their work, Drakon smiled coldly. “We’re paid well enough,” he said.

“Sure, by the ones with rich relatives who don’t want members of their family deported to Erebus,” she said. “But what about the ones you help for free?” She jerked her head toward the hidden passage. “Some of them didn’t have a single Armistice dollar to their names.”

“Why should you care, Brita? It hardly affects you.”

“It’s dangerous. Just like every time we make a trade, the crew thinks about how much money they could get for the product you save for the Scrappers out of your own cut.”

“Half of the crew were Scrappers themselves,” Drakon said, referring to the poor Fringers who survived on any scraps of food or any other necessities they could find. “It’s not my concern if they have no compassion for their own kind. They obey, and they get their percentage. They don’t, and they face me.”

“And what if they just desert?”

Drakon had given up counting the number of times he and Brita had had this same argument, and he was weary of it. “And go where?” he asked. “To the Preacher? The members of his crew seem to die with distressing regularity. Dirty Harry brings in big hauls, but loses plenty just as big because of his lack of judgment.”

“That’s right,” Brita said, scuffing her worn boots in the dirt. “But you’re assuming everyone in the crew has a brain.”

She knew damned well he assumed no such thing. Brita was one of the few people he trusted with his life, but he had never made the mistake of trusting the rest of his crew.

Listening and watching carefully, Drakon walked away, Brita on his heels. He could hear the others following, relying—as he supposedly did—on their dim headlamps to find their way in the dark. Drakon could never let them suspect he didn’t need the light at all.

He knew there might come a time when he slipped and one or more of the crew recognized his superior strength and his aversion to the sun, no matter how carefully he tried to hide both.

He looked human. As human as any of them, with his genetically altered reddish-brown hair and light gray eyes. That camouflage the scientists in Erebus had given him, but they couldn’t change the essentials of his nature.

“We gonna make it in time to the handoff?” Repo asked, trotting alongside Drakon like a puppy eager to please his master. He was the smallest of Drakon’s crew, and though he was as tough as any of them, he’d been treated like a runt for most of his life, the victim of every bully in the Fringe until Drakon had stepped in.

“They’ll wait,” Brita snapped.

Yes, Drakon thought, the Preacher would wait. He needed the product Drakon and his crew had smuggled into the city. Just as he needed the camouflage that being a Fringe Boss brought him. Drakon, Brita, Repo and the rest made their way through the abandoned, garbage-strewn streets, beyond the pale of the city proper. The meeting place changed every time; tonight it was in the virtually abandoned section of San Francisco once known as the Mission District.

As if they knew what was up—and, inevitably, they did—the Scrappers had fled the area and remained undercover, well out of the reach of the not-unthinkable chance that the Preacher might “recruit” one or more of them, especially unwilling women.

The Boss in question was standing just behind a small fire, the light casting his craggy face in dramatic shadow. Drakon had never been impressed by the Preacher’s theatrics, and they were usually dangerous. A fire in the Fringe was an invitation to the Enforcers.

Aware of the ever-present danger, Drakon approached the fire and signaled for the others, except Brita, to stay behind him.

“Well met, Angel of Darkness,” the Preacher said, smiling through his beard. The band of very dangerous-looking men behind him smiled almost as unpleasantly. “Do you have the shipment?”

Drakon narrowed his eyes at the unexpected brevity of the Preacher’s overture. “In a hurry, Preacher?”

“Tonight’s not good,” the Boss said, his grin never wavering. “Feel it in my bones. Let’s do this.”

Brita stepped forward with the tiny box that held the keys to the storage facility. One of the Preacher’s men, twice her size, looked it over as if he actually doubted what it contained.

Drakon and the Preacher had been trading for over a year, and the other Boss knew damned well that Drakon always stood by his word. The Preacher’s man passed Brita a box in return.

“You sure you don’t want to come over to our side?” the man asked Brita with an ugly leer.

Her lips puckered, ready to spit. “Stand down,” Drakon said softly. “Tell your thugs to keep their mouths shut, Preacher.”

The other Boss shrugged. “Lay off, Copperhead. We ain’t here to buy women.” He nodded to Drakon. “Good to do business with you, as always. Don’t spend it all in one place.”

His crew laughed, all guttural male voices, since female followers were considered property of the crew, not full members. Drakon kept his mouth closed, remembering again not to show his teeth. Though he wore caps to conceal his incisors, he never took unnecessary risks. Whatever Brita might believe.

In spite of his contempt for his fellow smuggler—whose specialty was reselling Drakon’s items at a very marked-up price to “middle class” citizens north of the Fringe—Drakon made the traditional offer of his hand. The Preacher made no attempt to reciprocate.

Brita opened her mouth to say something inadvisable when a woman came running out of the darkness. She halted suddenly when she saw the Fringe crews, looking about wildly as if to seek escape.

The first thing Drakon noticed about her was the cloud of dark hair flying around her panicked face. The second was that she was quite beautiful. And clearly not of the Fringe.

“Shit,” Brita said, pulling her illegal sidearm. “A raid?”

“I don’t know,” Drakon said, gesturing toward the rest of his crew, who had automatically begun to take up defensive positions. “Get everyone back to the Hold. If there are Enforcers on the way, I’ll—”

Before he could finish, Copperhead went straight for the young woman and grabbed her arm before she could dash off into the darkness. Acting purely on instinct, Drakon moved in, shoved the man out of the way and took the woman from him none too gently.

She gasped as he gripped her arm, and he eased up a little. Her hair obscured her face, but he could see her parted lips, hear her gasping for breath. She’d been running hard for some time.

“Are you—” She swept her hair out of her face with a trembling hand. “Are you the Preacher?”

“That would be me,” the other Boss said, stepping around the fire. “What do you need, my dear?”

Drakon stepped between him and the woman. “I don’t know who you are,” he said close to her ear, “why you’re running, or what you want with him. But you’re not from the Fringe, or you wouldn’t be asking for a Boss who’ll keep you on your back for the rest of your life.”

She stared from him to the Preacher, who smiled enticingly.

“Whatever you need,” the Preacher said, “I’ll gladly provide it, pretty thing.”

“Your choice,” Drakon said, his tone indifferent but the rest of him far from it. Touching her was like making contact with a live wire. His whole body seemed to catch fire, and he could not only feel the blood pumping through her body but smell it, as well. As he could smell the woman’s hair, the clean scent of it, though her clothes were torn and her face splotched with dirt. Her body held the faint musk of perspiration and that indescribable scent unique to women of both species. His cock stiffened, though the time for arousal couldn’t be worse.

Her eyes narrowed, as if she’d felt the physical change in him. For a moment he wasn’t sure if she’d bolt right into the Preacher’s willing arms. Drakon was inexplicably tempted to drag her away, willing or not.

“What’s your name?” she asked, astonishing him with the clarity of her voice and the sudden, fearless intensity in her eyes.

“We need to get out of here,” Brita said, cutting off his answer. “If she’s running from Enforcers….”

“I told you what to do,” Drakon snapped. “Get them home.”

With an openly hostile glance at the woman, Brita signaled to the others. As they melted into the darkness, the Preacher stamped the fire out with one heavy boot.

“I’ll give you five hundred A-dollars for her,” he said.

The woman reached down and gripped Drakon’s hand as if for dear life, and he understood the unspoken message in her eyes. He knew he was acting against sense, against reason, against the dictates of his mission, but he couldn’t let her go. He ran, pulling her with him, making his way easily in darkness that would confound his rivals. “Who’s after you?” he said, not even slightly winded.

“I…” The woman gasped, and it was clear she wasn’t in any state to explain.

“You’re leading Enforcers into the Fringe,” he said.

She didn’t answer, and he didn’t stop until they were far enough into the Fringe that the only illumination came from the scant light of false dawn in the west. He was running out of time.

But he still needed a few answers before he took her into the very heart of his hard-won turf.

As he came to a stop, she bent over, hands on knees, to catch her breath. He saw that her clothing was some kind of uniform, though a very generic one, the kind of standard issue that would be given a city or Enclave employee—known in the Fringe as a govrat, a citizen with a clearance rating high enough for government work.

As she straightened, he studied her face, making a rapid assessment: features somehow delicate and strong at the same time, stubborn jaw, smudges and scratches on her face that did nothing to lessen her beauty. Her body was slender and fit, that of a woman able to handle herself in a fight.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My name is Lark,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.

“Who’s after you?”

She met his gaze, half-defiant and half-afraid. “The Enforcers.”

Exactly what he and Brita had suspected. “Why?” he asked.

“If we don’t move soon, it won’t matter.”

He almost laughed at her bravado. “Why did you come with me?”

“I don’t know. I was told to find the Preacher.”


“They said he could get me out of the city.”

“He wouldn’t,” Drakon said. “You were given very bad advice.”

“Can you help me?”

“If you’re running from Aegis or the Enforcers,” he said, “you’re not my enemy. If this is a trick, you won’t get out of this alive.”

“A trick?” she said with a burble of choked laughter. “What kind of trick?”

Drakon considered that he might have jumped to conclusions a little too quickly. Something about this woman almost convinced him that her fear was real.

“What can you pay for my help in getting out?” he asked.

“Information. But you won’t get it until I know I’m safe and none of your Fringer friends are going to hurt me.”

The sound of fast-moving vehicles thrummed from less than a quarter mile away. Whether she was leading them or running from them didn’t matter now. Drakon seized her wrist again, and they ran until Lark—if that was really her name—was panting hoarsely and beginning to stumble. Drakon turned a sharp corner into an alley. She leaned against him as if she might fall without his support. He wasn’t thinking at all when he put his arm around her.

He could still smell her blood. Almost feel it inside him.

He reached inside his jacket pocket with his free hand and pulled out one of the blindfolds he and the crew had used on the emigrants. “Turn around,” he said.

Her gaze fell to the cloth in his hand. “You’re kidding. If you think I’d ever—”

“I’m not letting you into my Hold without this. I give you my word that you’ll come to no harm.”

“The word of a—”

“Criminal, a fugitive from justice? Enclave justice?” Drakon turned her and tied the blindfold around her head before she could even think of struggling.

“I must be crazy,” she said, her voice rasping with exhaustion.

“No,” he said. “You’ve made the only possible choice.” Taking her arm again, he led her alongside the building, constantly listening, and took a very circuitous course toward the Hold, dodging the sounds of approaching troops. They didn’t seem to be gaining ground, perhaps more concerned about ambush than moving too recklessly.

He continued on by one of the many hidden pathways he and his crew had devised over the past year, frequently doubling back to make certain they weren’t being followed. Dawn was beginning to break when they finally negotiated the last obstacles and entered the Hold.

The building didn’t stand out from the other half-collapsed structures throughout the Fringe, but there were traps set at every possible entrance, and guards at every boarded window. The widely spaced lights were flickering and dim. The common rooms, mess and meeting room were protected by many external walls, like a castle keep. No one could reach Drakon and his crew without the use of explosives. Like so many other of the black-market items Drakon and the other Bosses dealt in, those were hard to come by.

Repo was crouched right outside the inner door. He sprang to his feet and stared at the woman in astonishment.

“You brought her?” he asked.

“No questions now.” Drakon pulled Lark through the maze of corridors, passing the occasional crew member without pausing for explanation, and took her straight to his private quarters.

“Sit,” he said, half-pushing her down on his narrow bed.

She probed the firm surface with her hands. “Where am I?”

“Where no one else will bother us.”

She tensed, and he knew immediately what she was thinking. “I am not The Preacher,” he said. “I have no intention of molesting you. But I can’t protect you until I get more information.”

“Protect me from whom?” she asked, turning her head slowly as if to take in any sounds that might help her get her bearings. “I thought you were the Boss here.”

“Most of my crew have the option of going elsewhere if I seem too soft.”

She turned her face toward him as if she would be staring if he could see her eyes, and he realized he’d just admitted something to her he wouldn’t say to anyone but Brita.

“Soft because you agreed to help me?” she asked.

“I haven’t agreed yet.”

“But they won’t be happy with what you’ve done. Would one of them challenge you?”

It was too late to retreat from the subject now, and he still had complete power over her in spite of her troubling insight. “You seem to know a great deal about the Fringe for a Cit,” he said.

Cocking her head, she smiled. It was a particularly lovely and enticing smile. “You’re unexpectedly honest and well-spoken for a condemned criminal,” she said.

Drakon pulled the room’s single chair close to the bed. “You work for the government,” he said, a statement of fact.

Her smile faded. “I did.”

“You’re on the run from your own kind, and yet you’ve somehow convinced yourself that only the ignorant and deceitful have been deported?”

When she didn’t answer, he pressed on. “Why are you running?”

“Do you think I could get some water?” she asked. “I haven’t had anything to drink in a while.”

Her sudden change of tone put Drakon even more on his guard. “I’ll have to tie you up.”

“I won’t resist.”

Far from trusting her, Drakon removed a heavy pair of shackles and short chain from a locked drawer. “Get up and turn around,” he said.

She obeyed without protest, and Drakon bound her hands together behind her. “Members of my crew are scattered everywhere throughout the Hold,” he said. “If you attempt to escape, they will almost certainly kill you.”