“It feels weird… I mean, it’s the least of what feels weird, but being at school would be something familiar, at least. The term’s starting and I’m not there. It’s like being adrift. A little something else about my life that’s different.”
“Man, you overthink everything,” Gabriel said, grinning and kicking an errant pebble out of the path. “My dad pulled me out of school and I am as happy as a shroomhead.”
Toby looked at him in surprise. “You? Why? Gabe, tell me you didn’t flunk out. Your grades—”
“Excuse you, I am an extremely mostly acceptable student,” Gabe said haughtily. “Nah, it’s just… Well, it’s not exactly a secret we’re friends, y’know? People would be after me to tell them all the juicy secrets about you, and Dad figured me being the center of attention was a bad idea for several reasons.”
“I suppose that’s logical.” Toby frowned. “I don’t like being the cause of upending your life.”
“Toby, seriously, you are the glummest human being alive. I am not in school!” Gabriel grinned hugely. “When Dad first said ‘tutor’ I was having visions of some hot blonde number in a tight little bodice like Mrs. Tanner used to wear—”
“What is it with you and blondes?”
“—and instead I got this beak-nosed old guy who smells like dust, I kid you not. I didn’t realize dust had a smell till I met this man. And even so, I can’t say I was disappointed, because hello, not in school!”
Toby kept his eyes on the sidewalk ahead of them as they approached the Omnist complex. He had resisted, thus far, efforts to have him moved into the main Temple of Omnu on Imperial Square, but felt it was coming whether he liked it or not. “So, uh, how is… I mean, your dad, how’s…”
“How’s he affording a tutor?” Gabriel’s smile rapidly diminished. “He just tells me not to worry about it.”
“And you left it at that?”
“Of course not. I kept asking until the answer turned into ‘don’t worry about it’ in his ‘boy I am not damn well kidding’ voice. That’s where I left it.”
Toby chuckled ruefully. “Even I wouldn’t challenge that voice.”
“What, you, the great and mighty paladin?”
“Gabriel, I’ve met Omnu, and I’ve met your dad. In my official opinion as his Hand, I can honestly say that Omnu is a safer person to have mad at you.”
The last vestige of Gabriel’s smile faded. “For you, I guess.”
Toby winced. “I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay.” Gabe gave him a quick little smile. Then they had reached the gates of the monastery, where a small knot of monks in traditional brown homespun were trying not to look like they were waiting.
“Tobias,” said the man in the forefront, a middle-aged, hawk-nosed man whose black hair was no longer retreating and had been thoroughly routed. “Did you have a pleasant walk?”
“Yes, Brother Cavin,” Toby said dutifully.
“Very good,” the man said with a sharp nod. “Come, it is nearing time for evening prayers. Say good-bye to your friend.”
Toby gave him a polite smile, turning to Gabriel. “Well, guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“In fact,” Cavin said firmly, “you had better make it good-bye.”
Toby stiffened, slowly turning back toward him. “I don’t think I take your meaning, Brother.”
“This…acquaintance…has been good enough, I suppose, for a child. Indeed, it seems you have done your part to keep him out of trouble. Some trouble, from what we hear. But a time comes to put away childish things. It comes for all, but you in particular have your role in Omnu’s plans to consider.”
“You can’t be serious,” Toby said incredulously.
Cavin continued addressing him directly, not acknowledging Gabriel with so much as a look. “Tobias, we have made our views on this clear from the beginning. You must accept the reality of your changing situation, and your responsibilities. What you do and with whom you do it will reflect on all of Omnu’s people from now on. Now… Say good-bye to your acquaintance.”
Toby looked at Gabriel, who looked thunderstruck, then back at the implacable Brother Cavin. Then, slowly, his own shocked expression resettled itself into firm lines.
“Brother Cavin,” he said softly, “of what crime, precisely, are you accusing Gabriel?”
Cavin frowned. “It is not a question of what he has done, but what he is. The demonblooded—”
“That’s not the question I asked you,” Toby went on, his voice firming.
“Toby,” Gabriel warned, but Toby held up a hand to silence him.
“I am asking you, Brother Cavin, what grounds you have to stand in front of Gabriel Arquin and declare, to his face, that he is unsuitable company for a member of our faith.”
Cavin was starting to actually look unsettled. “It—Tobias, you are not just a member of the faith.”
“Am I not? Should I lord over the faithful like a Vernisite trade priest? Gabriel has been my best friend for years. He is one of the best people I know. If you are going to condemn him for an accident of blood, you’re on very dangerous ground.”
Cavin’s mouth hung open now. In the entire seventeen years of his acquaintance with Tobias Caine, the boy had never once talked back to him.
“The people of Omnu, above all else, are to show compassion,” Toby said, his voice pitched loud enough to resonate both on the street and into the courtyard of the monastery. “Care between living things is the stuff of which life is made. You taught me that; I am disappointed to see you’ve forgotten. I think you should go back inside and ponder it.”
Brother Cavin stammered in shock. “I—Toby, that—”
“Go!” Toby snapped, pointing past him at the monastery.
The monk gaped at him in silence for a long moment, before jerking in a half-hearted bow and backing away. He turned and strode off to the wooden doors of the monastery’s main building, pausing once on the threshold to glance back at Toby, then vanished within.
The other monks slowly trickled after him, though several gave Toby encouraging grins. “Don’t be out too long, Toby,” an older woman said gently, then gave Gabriel a quick smile before following the rest of the group.
Toby drew in a deep breath; it shuddered audibly on the way back out.
“Wow,” Gabriel said in awe. “That was… Damn. Are you sure… I mean, be careful, Toby. I don’t want you messing things up for yourself on my account.”
“Gabe, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that was only slightly about you.” Toby managed a shaky smile. “It was slightly about me getting out from under Brother Cavin’s shadow before he makes himself my personal agent or something, but mostly it was exactly what I said. Omnists are to be compassionate. We don’t make as much a thing of justice as the Avenists, but you can’t be kind without some basic grasp of fairness.” He paused, then reached out to squeeze Gabriel’s shoulder. “I’ve been your friend long enough to see the way society treats half-demons is messed up. And I can’t very well be the Hand of Omnu if I see something like that without trying to do something about it.”
Gabe squeezed his lips together, trying to fight back a grin and ultimately failing. “So… Do you actually have the authority to give them orders?”
“Eh,” Toby hedged, wincing slightly. “It’s not a doctrinal prerogative, but… Hey, if the Hand of Omnu gave you a direct order, would you say ‘no?’”
“Heh, is that a hypothetical question or am I gonna have to find out?”
“Well, if we’re talking hypotheticals… I’m not saying I can be bribed with pastry…”
Gabriel laughed aloud, a sound that was more relief than amusement. “See you tomorrow, then?”
“Yes,” Toby said firmly. “You will.”
He stayed to watch the Hand of Omnu re-enter his monastery before turning and heading back toward his own apartment, whistling softly. Not even the furtive watchers in the street spoiled his good mood. Ever since Toby had been called by his god, the both of them had drawn more attention and curiosity than either liked, and the countermeasures against it weren’t much better. People had quickly figured out to leave them both alone, due to a combination of the monks’ influence, Gabriel’s father’s firm hand in the community, and worst of all, a heavily increased Imperial presence.
Even now, he could see more soldiers patrolling the Wide Spot than it reasonably warranted, and even a woman in the ankle-length navy blue coat of Imperial Intelligence. Aside from its long cut, that coat was identical in style to those worn by the Army, but it meant so much more. Intelligence operatives didn’t gad about in uniform due to the nature of their work; the presence of an agent in formal attire as a message that whatever was happening was Imperial business and all those present had better mind their own. The pestering had thus been much less than it otherwise might have, but Gabriel wasn’t about to argue with his father’s wisdom in pulling him out of school.
On the other hand, he didn’t much care for being watched. It was a learned instinct.
“Hey, pretty lady,” he said impishly to the woman in the Intelligence longcoat as he passed her spot on the street corner. “Where do I get a coat like that?”
The look she gave him was a skillful blend of amusement and condescension. “You don’t.”
“Well, that’s okay, it was just a pretext to break the ice anyhow,” he said, stopping. “What’s the matter? Never been flirted with before?”
Her smile remained unchanged; he noted a little belatedly that it didn’t go anywhere near her eyes. She moved on hand slightly, drawing back the coat just enough to reveal the heavier-than-normal wand holstered at her belt. “Not twice.”
Gabriel coughed awkwardly and resumed walking, a little quicker than before.
Head down, he very nearly ran smack into the next woman he encountered, who was backing carefully into the sidewalk from an antiques shop. Gabriel actually (to his mortification), let out a yelp of surprise, having to dance awkwardly into the street itself to avoid plowing into her.
“Oh!” she exclaimed in startlement, whirling and dropping her shopping bags.
“Gods, I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I wasn’t watch…I just…I…”
At some point deep in the abyss of her blue eyes, he forgot what he’d been trying to say. They were exquisitely framed by dark lashes, set in a heart-shaped face that somehow combined adorably rounded cheeks with an almost elvishly pointed little chin. Her rosebud lips were strikingly deep pink against her pale skin; dark hair flowed around her visage like…like a… Gabriel found himself trying to concoct a poetic simile and shook his head as though to chase fog out of his eyes.
“Uh, here, let me help you,” he said, bending to reach for one of the fallen bags. He slowed in the process, nearly forgetting what he was doing again as he noticed the rest of her. She had the kind of figure that could have been described as “thick” or “curvaceous,” depending on how she carried it… And she carried it very, very well indeed. The sleek, tailored blue dress she wore did a lot to heighten the effect. He had never imagined a bosom like that could exist…
Well, that wasn’t true. He’d just never expected to see one in person. Not this close, at least.
“That’s…all right?” she said somewhat archly as the silence stretched out. “I guess I can manage?”
Gabriel flushed, realizing that he was half bent over, one hand outstretched toward her bags, face inappropriately close to her chest and unabashedly staring. Quickly he finished the motion, fumbling to snatch up the shopping bag and hand it to her.
The amused, knowing expression on her face made his flush heat to the point he feared combustion. Even so, he couldn’t stop looking. Those eyes… Five minutes ago he couldn’t have conceived of a pair of eyes that could draw his gaze away from such a pair of…well.
“Mm, well,” she said without reaching for the bag, perfect lips curling up in an impish smile, “if you’d like to make it up to me, you can help me carry those. My carriage is parked just around the corner.”
“Oh! Uh, sure, that’s… I’d love to! I mean, least I can do, you know. Nearly hit you and all. I mean, not hit you, but almost…”
“That’s settled, then,” she said brightly, stepping around next to him and tucking her hand into his free arm. He was instantly paralyzed; she had to tug gently to get him moving. “My name’s Madeleine.”
“Madeleine,” he breathed. “That’s…wow, that’s gorgeous.”
Her laughter was a delightful trill, like birdsong. “You’re too kind!”
“I’m serious. It’s really pretty.”
She smiled up at him through her lashes, an incredibly unfair maneuver. “And… You are…?”
“Oh! Uh, I’m, uh…”
“You’ve forgotten?” she inquired sweetly. “Take your time.”
“Um, Gabe. Arkriel. I mean, Gabwin…” He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth in mortification. “Gabriel Arquin,” he managed finally.
“You’re sure, now?” Madeleine asked, grinning openly. “You wouldn’t like to reconsider? I have time.”
“Positive,” he mumbled, flushing to his collar and probably lower. “I’m just… Sorry. Not good at… I, uh, don’t know what to say.”
“Try the truth?” she suggested.
“The truth… The truth is stupid.”
“Probably less so than you think. Try me.”
“I would never judge you, Gabriel Arquin,” Madeleine promised, again doing that brutal through-the-lashes trick.
“…you are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life and I cannot think with the words making right now.”
She laughed brightly. He could have listened to it forever.
“You just may be the sweetest boy I’ve ever met,” she said, eyes twinkling up at him.
“I’m quite serious,” he said, her encouragement doing wonders to repair his equilibrium. “I am extremely stupid right now and it’s all your fault. Well, mostly your fault. I was only slightly stupid before, I promise.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” she murmured. “A lady likes to be reassured that she can render a gentleman…stupid.” She hugged his arm closer, quite coincidentally pressing his elbow into the plushness of her breast.
Gabriel managed to freeze completely without losing his stride, nearly the entirety of his attention concentrated on that elbow. He felt like a hunter staring, frozen, at a grazing deer, afraid the slightest movement on his part would spook her into flight. He was young enough, yet, to think such a maneuver on her part could be accidental.
“Perhaps I should make it up to you, then,” Madeleine suggested, coming to a stop and causing him to do the same. Belatedly, he realized they were standing next to a late-model Falconer roadster. This was the first time in his life he’d been this close to such an expensive carriage, and he had almost no attention to spare for it.
“What’s that, then?” he asked dumbly.
“Would you be a love and help me with these?” she asked sweetly. He found himself obediently lifting her bags into the carriage and settling them on the passenger’s seat. It was a tiny little thing, with hardly room for two.
Madeleine climbed gracefully into the driver’s seat, producing the control rune from a pocket. “For being rendered stupid on my behalf. I feel I ought to give you a chance to show me how clever you can be. A gentleman deserves the opportunity to put on his best face in order to win a lady.”
“W-win,” he stammered, gazing up at her.
“Mm. How does tea sound?”
“Um… Tea tomorrow? I guess…”
“Splended,” she said, smiling mysteriously. “Four o’clock. Be here. Ta ta, Gabriel Arquin.”
She wiggled her fingers flirtatiously at him, and then the carriage was smoothly accelerating away with a whisper-faint arcane hum.
Gabriel stood on the corner, gazing after her. When he finally gathered himself enough to turn and head back home, he was whistling again, mostly as an exercise in self-control. What he wanted to do was sing.
“So what’s her name?”
Gabriel choked on a mouthful of stew, which luckily provided him with a priceless few seconds of coughing in which to formulate a clever reply.
He finally lifted his eyes to look at his father across the table. “…what?”
Jonathan Arquin was smiling at him, an expression just short of smugness. “Y’know, son, as much as you enjoy getting in trouble, I’d think you’d have learned to lie better after seventeen years. Come on, now, is it that you think I’m an idiot, or that you think I sprang up fully-formed and was never a teenager? It’s been two weeks. You’re constantly running off to mysterious assignations which I know aren’t with Toby. And if they are, well, that raises some questions about the dopey grin you’re always wearing.”
Gabriel dropped his eyes again at that, his expression sobering. His father didn’t know how on the nose that crack actually was. The reminder jarred him back to a semblance of control. “I don’t know if…if I’m ready to… Well. Introduce…um.” He trailed off. Well, a semblance was better than nothing.
Jonathan leaned back in his chair, the mirth slipping away from his face. He pushed aside his stew bowl and folded his arms. “Gabriel, I think it’s time we had a talk.”
“Oh, no. Oh no.” Gabe dramatically covered both his eyes with his palms. “Dad, I’m begging you, please. We have had the talk. It was every bit as hideously awkward as every joke about parenting in every story makes it sound. Let’s never, ever go there again.”
“Not that talk,” Jonathan said wryly. “No, I think we covered all the salient points that time. There’s more to all this than just…mechanics.”
“Dad, I swear by all the gods…”
“Shut up and listen.” He didn’t raise his voice or put any heat into it, but Gabriel knew his father’s tone well enough to tell when the time for slippancy was over. He lowered his hands, leaning back in his own chair and giving his full attention. Not without a dramatic sigh, of course.
Jonathan had paused, and was now gazing abstractly at the now-cold wood stove in the corner of their cramped little kitchen, gathering his thoughts. “Despite the best efforts of the Avenists,” he said finally, “women get put under a lot of pressure in our society. A lot of bullshit pressure, most of it. Wasn’t always this way. Your great-great grandfather was an actual, honest-to-gods adventurer, in a time when that meant something impressive. In the stories he used to tell, a good half the people in his field were women, and nobody dared show ’em a whit less respect than they asked for.” He shook his head. “You can pretty much tell things have changed. It’s like everyone turned a little bit Shaathist at some point without knowing how or why.”
He turned back to stare intently at his son. “You’ve spent enough time around other teenage boys by this point to have heard a lot of horsewash starting with ‘women are all.’ How they talk too much, how they manipulate men to get what they want, how they never say what they really mean and don’t make sense most of the time. The truth is… Well, there’s a lot of truth in all that.”
Gabriel cringed. “Ugh. Dad, every time I hear somebody say something like that I expect my old history teacher to pop up and smack ’em with a ruler.”
“Julin Avelea, right?” Jonathan nodded, eyes glinting approvingly. “I liked that lady. It was almost a shame you outgrew the levels she taught in. No, women really do have a tendency to do stuff like that, and the thing you need to keep in your mind is why. Fact is, women are taught from the cradle to be nice. They’re expected to be friendly, to be non-confrontational, nurturing. A woman simply can’t afford to approach problems the way a man does in this society. Unless she’s wearing Silver Legion armor, the best she could hope for is not being taken seriously. In some places—hell, a lot of places, that kind of thing could put her in real danger.
“In a way, you just might be better positioned to understand women than ninety percent of boys your age, Gabe. You’re under a lot of bullshit pressure, too. You know all about keeping quiet when it isn’t fair, when nobody else has to. Think about that when you react—no, before you react to anything a woman does. They’re nice because they have to be; they’re indirect because they can’t afford not to be. And it’s men who made up these rules. Far too many men see a girl’s smile and react like it means ‘take me, I’m yours.’ Most of the time, what it means is more ‘I’ve noticed that you exist, please don’t rape me.’ So yes, they play word games and mind games and whatnot, because what the hell else are they gonna do? Everyone has to live, and we don’t let women live fairly.
“There are two critical, very easy mistakes a man’s likely to make. The first is assuming he’s been promised something, or is entitled to something, when he’s been shown just a little bit of encouragement.” Jonathan’s eyes bored into Gabriel’s, his expression flat. “The second is trusting too easily that a woman’s manipulations are just harmless female hijinks, when there may actually be something sinister going on.”
Gabriel frowned. “…sinister?”
Jonathan drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “Gabe…you are who you are, and who you are is basically a good kid. But you’re also what you are, and… There are always going to be a lot of people looking to hurt you…and a good few people looking to take advantage of you.”
Gabriel stiffened. “Madeleine is not—”
“Easy, boy,” Jonathan said firmly. “I don’t know this lady of yours; I have no idea what she is or isn’t about. I want you to think about what you see and hear from her, understand? Getting to spend time around a girl intimately, especially for the first time… Well, if she’s anything like the girls I met at your age, you’re gonna find that huge swaths of what she says and does don’t make any damn kind of sense. That just means you’re thinkin’ about it from your perspective, not hers. Pay attention, try to understand where she’s coming from… And always think about what it means.
“A man who takes advantage of a woman and demands more than she’s willing to offer is less than a man. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I know I’ve raised you better than that. On the other hand… Don’t be in a hurry to offer trust where trust hasn’t been earned. And don’t mistake pretty eyes and a soft body for rightly earned trust. Understand?”
Gabriel nodded, staring down at the table.
“Gabriel.” Jonathan’s voice was gentle, but firm. “I need to know if you understand what I’ve told you.”
Gabe lifted his gaze. “…yes, sir.”
Jonathan sighed again, running a hand through his graying hair. “All right. I know damn well it’s a bunch of theory and it won’t start making sense until after you’ve make a whopping big mistake or three. Just try to think back on what I said at that point, eh?” He huffed the soft shadow of a chuckle. “Well…anyway. Want the rest of your stew?”
Gabriel stared at his half-empty bowl. “I… No, thanks. I don’t think I’m very hungry.”
“I know I shouldn’t have told her off, but oh, she makes me mad! I mean, the catty little put-downs are one thing, but interfering with my dressmaker? There is a code. There are rules. For heaven’s sake, we are trying to have a society here!”
“Mm hm,” Gabriel observed.
Madeleine sighed prettily, cradling her teacup in front of her. “I know you must think me dreadfully shallow to care about these things, Gabriel dear, but… Such is the world I live in. If I don’t pay attention to it, it’ll eat me alive. Anyone’s world will do that, left unattended. You’re ever so tolerant to let me prattle on so about things that don’t concern you.”
“Mm hm,” he agreed.
She studied his face thoughtfully for a moment. “Well. I’ve decided to paint my teeth green and grow a second head. That’ll show them.”
“Good idea,” he said vaguely, gazing at a point over her left shoulder.
Madeleine remained quiet, simply looking at him with that thoughtful expression. After a protracted moment, Gabriel slowly turned his gaze back to her eyes.
“And…that last bit was a test to see if I was listening.”
“Bravo!” Her eyes twinkled with amusement, in that distinctive way they did that always made his heart flutter. No one else had eyes like hers. Not even close. “You passed. Belatedly, but still! That makes you more sensitive than most men.”
“Glad I have that going for me, then,” he said, trying at a light tone with only marginal success.
“Gabriel,” she said gently, “you have very kindly indulged my chattering all afternoon. It was probably easier, with you clearly being in another world. Would you like to share what’s on your mind?”
He dropped his gaze from hers, studying the tablecloth.
“I have never judged you,” she said quietly, “and never shall.”
He lifted his eyes again, meeting hers. There was nothing, for a brief eternity, except her blue gaze and the simple openness in it. The soft sounds of the upscale cafe around them seemed to fade into the distance. He had to forcibly jerk himself back to focus.
“I… There are things you don’t know about me.”
“We’ve known each other for…two weeks, yes?” She smiled lopsidedly, a mischievous expression he loved. “There are scads of things we both don’t know about each other. You can tell me anything you like, darling.”
He glanced around. The cafe was too perfect for intimate assignations to have been anything but designed for it. Tables were separated by thick walls which served as planters for enormously healthy philodendrons, their leafy vines crawling over decorative lattices and frosted glass partitions. The table was approachable only from the front; he could barely hear any of their neighbors, and couldn’t see them at all. It was a lovers’ place, a place for secrets.
Even so, he lowered his voice.
“I’m a half-demon.”
He had dreamed and feared saying the words for so long; now they hung in the air like a bad smell.
Madeleine just looked at him in silence, her expression not changing a bit. Gabriel met her gaze, shifting nervously in his chair.
Finally, when he was thinking seriously about getting up and fleeing, she spoke.
Gabriel blinked at her. “Um… What?”
“I mean, what kind of demon,” she clarified. “There are several that are known to interbreed with humans.”
“You’re not… Surprised?”
“Oh, Gabriel.” Smiling fondly, she shook her head. “You mustn’t think I’ve been spying on you, but… Well, a lady gets curious about the gentleman with whom she keeps company. I have asked around a little bit, and people in your neighborhood are only too eager to talk about the resident demonblood.”
He stared at her. “You…you never mentioned…”
“Is there a reason it should bother me?” Her smile was vaguely feline. “I assumed you would tell me when you felt comfortable doing so. I’m very glad that day has come; I’m honored you would trust me. I am curious, though. What kind? It does make a difference, if I’m to know what to expect.”
He leaned back slowly in his chair, still staring at her eyes. “Hethelax.”
“Hmm…” Madeleine nodded slowly. “That’s good.”
“Hethelaxi aren’t spellcasters,” she said, as calmly as she had discussed dresses and the tea, and more calmly than she’d related the would-be theft of her seamstress by another well-heeled young lady. “If you’d had sshitherossz blood, for example… That could be problematic. Young demonbloods who accidentally develop magical skills… Well, that kind of magic tends to land one in trouble, no? Hethelaxi, though, that blood won’t give you anything too troublesome. A bit of a temper, maybe, which I know by now you haven’t got. So… All you’ll have inherited is an allergy to divine magic, and a complete imperviousness to…well, everything else!” She smiled broadly. “A very fair trade-off, don’t you think? After all, what use it the holy light to someone who can’t be hurt?”
“You know your demonology,” he said quietly.
“I read.” Her voice had a faint edge to it now. “Demons, as I’m sure you’re aware, are quite dangerous. It seems only foolish not to know the basics.”
“You’re just so… So gorgeous,” he murmured.
“Well, it’s an abrupt change of subject,” Madeleine purred, “but I can’t find it in me to complain. Do go on.”
“So, just, perfect. Beautiful and poised and sexy and fun.”
“Excellent, just excellent. Continue, please.”
“And in addition to all of that, you’re…” He waved a hand, indicating the demurely tasteful cafe, the lace-trimmed napkins, silken tablecloth and fine china. “Riding around in that fabulous carriage of yours, eating in places I could never dream of affording… It’s been like a dream.”
“Well, not quite as complimentary,” she said dryly, “but I suppose it would be churlish to refuse even distant praise.”
“And with all of this,” he said, “it just hasn’t occurred to me to wonder what a woman like you would want with someone like me.”
“A woman. Like. Me.” Madeleine set down her teacup, interlaced her fingers and propped her chin in them, gazing at him. “If I did not know you were such a sweetheart, Gabriel, I might have to strain to think of a context in which that was a compliment.”
“You could have pretty much any man in the capital begging at your feet. And here I am, a seventeen-year-old kid from a rough neighborhood. I really am an idiot for not…wondering.”
“Oh, so now I’m too old for you?” She raised one sculpted eyebrow. “You’re backpedaling in very much the wrong direction, darling.”
“And you are deflecting,” he accused.
Madeleine shrugged. “If you must pry, I am still well on the right side of thirty. Perhaps I seem distantly sophisticated and mature to you, Gabriel, but the gap between us isn’t as great as all that. It will grow less significant with each year that passes.”
“Maybe I’m being unfair…”
“That seems to be a man’s prerogative, in my experience.”
“But,” he continued doggedly, “now that the subject is raised, I just can’t stop wondering what it is you might want with a demonblood.”
Madeleine unlaced her hands and reached across the table, wrapping her dainty fingers around his wrist. Her skin was silky, soft and cool. “A demonblood in general? I can’t imagine. But one demonblood in particular? Gabriel.” Her tone was soft, firm, coaxing. “I know it hasn’t been long. I know there’s so much for both of us yet to reveal. But please don’t think I don’t see you for who you are. There is so much to you. Such…potential.” She all but breathed the last word, gazing limpidly at him.
Slowly, very slowly, he pulled back, withdrawing his hand. “I…” Gabriel finally broke his gaze from hers. His movements suddenly awkward, he rose from the table. “I, um. Thank you for the tea, Madeleine. And the company. I’m… I’m gonna walk home. I need to think.”
“Of course, love,” she said sadly. Gabriel swallowed heavily, turned and shuffled off, shoulders hunched and hands stuck in his pockets.
Madeleine watched him go, waited until he was out the doors of the cafe and beyond sight of its plate glass windows before moving again. She delicately picked up a fork and speared a bite of frosted sponge cake.
“You think, my dear,” she murmured to herself. “So will I.”
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