A week was basically an eternity. Gabriel managed to go that long without having a complete breakdown, which maybe wasn’t so terribly impressive as he only really felt like doing that at about two in the morning when he was lying awake, staring at the ceiling. His father mostly let him be; Toby was clearly perplexed by his newly surly disposition, but after a gentle reminder that Gabe could talk to him about anything, didn’t push. Toby was always understanding that way. For once, Gabriel actually felt grateful that his entire social circle consisted of two people. While he occasionally missed the opportunities to eyeball the girls in his former class, it wasn’t as if his fellow students had ever gone out of their way to make him feel welcome, and right now he definitely didn’t want to deal with their crap.
It was a week after he walked out of the cafe, leaving Madeleine behind, that he received a note from her, delivered to his home and distinctly smelling of her perfume. Jonathan handed it to him with a faint, knowing smile—not an amused or teasing smile, just knowing, which almost made it worse. It came right at the point where his resistance was weakest, and Gabriel couldn’t help wondering if she had timed it that way precisely…and if she had, where she’d learned to do such things.
He had told Madeleine he needed to think, and he’d spent the week doing exactly that. He had nothing to show for it. Exactly what he felt toward her was impossible to sort out; one minute he thought he might be in love with her, another he felt certain he’d just been overwhelmed by a pretty face and an impressive bosom whose owner favored tight bodices. Not to mention the comforts of her lifestyle. He couldn’t make head or tail of her motivations, either. Did she truly just like him? Was she up to something? If so, what could it possibly be?
He couldn’t think of anything anyone would want him for, diabolically speaking; it was the children of spellcasting demons who made prodigy warlocks. What use was there for a half-hethelax, who had no gifts but nigh-invulnerability and an urgent need not to lose his temper? The problem was that he didn’t know, and didn’t dare to research it. Even asking those questions would be enough to raise the kind of alarms that resulted in a visit from Imperial Intelligence. Could he be rendered down for reagents? Demons were, by nature, magically reactive… Horrifying as that idea was, Gabriel couldn’t envision Madeleine’s treatment of him leading in that direction, even at his most paranoid. Someone who wanted to cut him up would just have snatched him off the street; as much as he roamed around the Wide Spot, these days often alone, it wouldn’t have been hard.
Hours of pacing the alleys and his room, going round and round this way, led him nowhere, until he finally decided he had no choice but to bite the belt and reach out.
“And that’s pretty much where I am,” he said, the day after receiving Madeleine’s letter. He’d been pacing back and forth as he recounted the last part of his story, and now came to a stop, shrugging helplessly.
Toby nodded slowly, looking earnestly up at him from his seat on one of the stone benches. Technically they were trespassing, but the owner of this building was out of the city at present, and had never been particularly uptight about the two boys sitting in his rooftop garden before; they’d always been careful not to make a mess or disturb anything. It was quiet and out of the way, and more to the point, one of the few places now where Toby could be free from both the monks of his order and journalists or other curiosity-seekers.
“Sounds…confusing,” he said.
Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’d say that about bloody sums it up.”
“Well…how do you feel?”
“Um…confused? Weren’t you listening?”
“I was.” Toby shook his head. “It sounds to me like you’ve been trying to think this thing through. Which, yes, is a good idea, especially given the risks. But on the other hand… Has this Madeleine ever given you a reason to think she’s up to no good? Or is that just a fear? That makes all the difference, Gabe. If you’ve seen a real warning sign, that’s cause to stay away from her, I think. But if you’re just being afraid, then you may be blowing something possibly very good for no real reason. What you feel is pretty central, then.”
“How I feel?” Groaning, Gabriel sank back down on the bench opposite him. “I feel like I’m self-aware enough to know I’m an idiot about girls. I don’t think I can trust my feelings. All they tell me is ‘smell pretty, look pretty, cuddly soft and wow those boobs.’ None of that is particularly helpful, y’know?”
Toby laughed. “Fair enough. Yeah, I know the feeling… Sometimes you just have to make the mistake.”
Gabe sighed. “I don’t…know if the risk is worth it, though.”
“Well, what is the risk? What do you think she’s going to do to you?”
“I don’t know! But just because I don’t know what she might do doesn’t mean there’s nothing!” He sprang to his feet and resumed pacing. “Toby, it’d be one thing if she wasn’t bothered by me being a half-demon. That would be awesome. But she was…she was interested. And she knew what hethelaxi are. Do you see why that might concern me?”
“Well,” Toby said, not trying very hard to repress a grin, “don’t rule out that she just has a very interesting fetish.”
Gabe stopped his pacing and glared down at him. “That’s cute. Real classy, man.”
“Sorry,” Toby said, openly laughing now, but holding up his hands in surrender. “It’s just… In seriousness, that’s not unlikely. Never underestimate the appeal of a bad boy.”
“I’m a bad boy?” Gabriel snorted.
“For someone who hasn’t grown up with you? You’re a demonblood from a poor neighborhood. That might be plenty bad enough for a sheltered rich girl, which is how she sounds to me. Gabe, I’ve actually done some reading about hethelaxi since Omnu called me. The Church has given me access to lots of material, and I thought… Well, I thought maybe I could stumble across something helpful.”
“Yeah?” Gabriel folded his arms, trying not to look interested. “Did you?”
“In this case? Maybe…” Toby shrugged. “You could say it’s good news. A hethelax isn’t a spellcasting demon, as—yes, I’m aware you know that, stop making faces at me. Warlocks who summon a hethelax are usually looking for muscle—that’s actually pretty common. Half-bloods sometimes end up doing that kind of work if they can get it. The Thieves’ Guild and the Army don’t want half-demons as a rule, but there are nobles and others who have money and no scruples. Half-hethelaxi are very useful brawn.”
“This is real fuckin’ cheerful,” Gabriel muttered.
“My point is, Gabe, that’s it,” Toby said, staring intently up at him. “Just like any other half-demon, they tend to get targeted by sshitherosz to become warlocks, but just because they’re outcast and emotionally vulnerable, not because they have more magical potential. You’re in no danger of that.”
“Yeah, I like to think I’m not quite that stupid.”
“So, no, I really don’t think Madeleine is likely to be…y’know, up to something. If anything, the fact that she knows a bit about demons is a good sign. A novice warlock might think you’d be useful to them for power; somebody who’s read up on hethelaxi would know better. It sounds like she really does just like you.”
Gabriel sighed heavily, dragging a hand through his hair. “Man… I just wish I could be sure.”
Toby nodded slowly, frowning. “Well… Hm. In the letter, what does she say she wants?”
“To talk to me,” he said, shrugging. “She wants me to meet her tomorrow. At the Falour Street market. Someplace nice and public, as she points out.”
“Okay.” Toby straightened up on the bench. “Then I think you should meet her.”
Gabriel frowned. “Just like that?”
“Well, not just like that. Like I said, I don’t think there’s probably any danger. But just in case…” He grinned. “It’s not like you have no way to protect yourself.”
He would have recognized her in the crowd even had he not been looking for her specifically. She was just… Madeleine. Her dress was royal blue—she favored blue—and her hair, that rich chocolatey shade just shy of black, tumbled down her back in curling waves. She wasn’t overly tall, and some might have thought her a bit on the plump side; the Avenic ideal favored a wide bust and hips, it was true, but it preferred them on a long, lean, muscular frame. For Gabriel’s money, though, she was the most perfectly beautiful woman alive.
That was why he was in such trouble.
She turned as he was approaching through the crowd. The the way her whole face lit up at seeing him made his heart stutter.
“You came,” she said quietly, reaching out to squeeze his arm when he got close enough.
He had to pause and swallow painfully before he could answer. “I… Didn’t come alone. So…yeah.”
Her expression fell slightly; the note of hurt in it made him want to kick himself right in the face for being such a heel, even as the paranoid little voice in the back of his mind wondered whether this wasn’t precisely the reaction she was trying to convey.
“Well, my dear, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of witnesses here anyway,” she said wryly.
“Yes, that’s true,” he replied, unable to think of anything wittier. “It’s… I just… I’m really glad to see you.”
Her eyes lit again, and he began to have the strong feeling he wasn’t going to win here.
“Gabriel,” she said softly, “you haven’t told me more than bits and pieces about your life… Has it been terribly hard, having to hide? Are you constantly hounded by people trying to take advantage of you?”
“I…wouldn’t say constantly,” he said nervously, glancing around at the crowded market street. “Or…ever, really. I do have to be discreet, you know, but I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to use me.” He stopped himself barely short of adding before.
She gazed up at him, her expression serious and with that faintest tinge of reproach that made him feel like an utter ass. “Then… I’m wracking my brain trying to think what I’ve done to earn such suspicion, and… I confess I don’t understand.”
“It’s not…that you’ve done anything,” he said awkwardly. “It’s more that… No one’s ever done anything. I’ve never had a reason to…to talk about… That is, what I mean is, you’re the first person who seemed to think of it as a good thing. The only people who think positively about…well, you know, are… Well, you know.”
Madeleine raised one eyebrow, her perfect lips quirking in amusement. “Would you like to step indoors and talk? I know a charming little cafe not at all far from here.”
“I think…” He glanced around again. “I think it’d be better to stay in public. For now.”
“All right, then,” she said amiably, then raised her voice just a hair. “The thing about demonbloods—”
“Hsst!” Gabriel quickly shushed her, looking surreptitiously about. At least half a dozen people had turned to stare at Madeleine’s comment. Grabbing her by the arm, he ushered her quickly through the crowd to an open alleyway. Stacks of pallets and empty wooden crates filled it beyond a few feet in, but there was a little nook left clear near the opening. She allowed herself to be pulled along without protest. “Fine, you win,” he growled, pushing her in ahead of himself and sticking his head out to peer around.
“Gabriel, for heaven’s sake, stop looking shifty,” she said, amused. “That only draws more attention. We’re two attractive young people in a shadowed alcove; believe me, no one will question that, unless you act like you’re up to something.”
He sighed heavily, gritting his teeth. For having done the pulling himself, he had the distinct feeling of having been maneuvered.
“I understand your concerns,” she said more quietly. “Not having grown up with the pressures you have… Well, I can only imagine the things you have to worry about. But, Gabriel… It breaks my heart, seeing you so willing to give up on yourself.”
“Me?” He stared at her. “I’m not giving up on anything.”
“No? Yet after our conversation over tea, you seem to have decided I must be up to something insidious. Why?”
“You were…” He looked away, finding himself unable to meet those big blue eyes. “Madeleine, it’s not normal for someone to be happy when they find out your mother was a demon.”
“It is normal to be happy,” she said so fiercely that he turned back to stare down at her. She stepped in closer till their bodies were nearly touching, grasping him by both upper arms. “Everyone has the right to be happy! Even—no, especially you. After all you’ve been deprived of, don’t you deserve it?”
“It’s not about what I deserve,” he said doggedly. “Demons are incredibly dangerous. People are right to be worried about me.”
“Are you dangerous?”
“I… I could be.”
“Oh, Gabriel.” Her smile as achingly sad. “Your whole problem is that you couldn’t be if you had to. You’re the most harmless person I have ever met. The agonizing thing is how afraid you are of yourself. You’re not worried about me, my darling. You’re afraid of what I represent.” She lifted one hand to press her palm against his cheek. “The first person who’s ever told you it’s good to be what you are. That you deserve the same happiness, the same respect as anyone.”
“That… I don’t…that isn’t what…” He trailed off, finding no answer for her. In that lack of rebuttal came a new and deeply disturbing uncertainty.
Madeleine pulled back slightly, studying his face. “You want some assurance that I mean you no harm?”
“I…I guess… I mean, what could that be?”
“Come with me,” she ordered, smoothly stepping up next to him and sliding her hand through his arm. She led him back out into the street. “Now, where did you leave your father and Mr. Caine?”
He came to a dead stop. “I never told you who I brought with me.”
“Gabriel, dearest,” she said, smiling knowingly up through her lashes. “There are precisely two people in the world you could have brought as backup, which you say you did. It’s either them, or only one of them, or you were bluffing. I do hope it’s Mr. Caine, otherwise I’m afraid I’ve dragged you back out here for nothing.”
He sighed heavily. “It really doesn’t help that you’re smarter than me.”
“I really am not,” she said gently, pressing herself into his side in that extremely distracting way she had. “Just more accustomed to maneuvering. That’s what happens when you grow up around moneyed people. I’m sure I wouldn’t last a week in your life, either. Now, which way?”
Resignedly, he led her back up the street to where he’d left Toby and his dad lounging against the iron fence surrounding someone’s private yard. They both came alert at his approach, their attention fixing on his companion.
“Dad,” he said somewhat nervously. “Toby… This is Madeleine.”
“Glad to finally meet you,” Jonathan said calmly, offering his hand. Madeleine offered hers in such a way there was nothing he could really do except bow and kiss it. To Gabriel’s amazement, his father did so smoothly and without hesitation.
“The pleasure is all mine,” she said warmly. “Gabriel speaks glowingly of you both. And Mr. Caine, what an honor!”
“Oh, I’m nothing so special,” Toby said, smiling a little uncomfortably.
“You clearly are very modest, for being one of the most important people in the world,” Madeleine said with a smile. “Forgive me if you don’t prefer to discuss it, but I think you can perhaps help put Gabriel’s mind to rest. I believe he is worried I’m out to corrupt him or something. Tell me, isn’t it true that paladins can sense evil?”
“Um…’evil’ is a hugely subjective term,” Toby said carefully, frowning. “I can’t sense hostile intentions or differing philosophies or anything like that…which is most of what’s commonly called ‘evil’ end up being.”
“That has the ring of dogma,” Madeleine noted.
“Well, yes,” he replied with a sheepish grin. “The monks of Omnu are careful not to condemn anyone just for having different perspectives. But some things… Undead, demons, some kinds of spirits, yes. I can sense those.”
“Fascinating,” she said. “Are you certain? Have you ever encountered such a thing?”
Toby’s smile faded and he glanced around. No one was paying them any attention; his image hadn’t been widely circulated, and once he’d ducked the press, as far as anybody could tell he was just a teenager of Western descent in rather drab clothes. “After I was called… The Church keeps summoners on retainer. I was brought to a secure location and shown demons confined to spell circles, so I’d recognize the sensation. Yes, I’m sure.”
“I am glad to hear it,” she said, smiling. “And…?”
Toby smiled bad. “You seem positively lovely, miss, and about as evil as I am, I’d say.”
“Thank you, Mr. Caine,” she said smugly, smiling up at Gabriel. He had to smile back.
“So,” said Jonathan in a deceptively mild tone that Gabriel recognized with dread, “any particular reason Gabe thought you might have it in for him?”
Madeleine turned the full force of her smile on him. “I would say it is the result of a lifetime spent in hiding. He was, perhaps understandably, startled at being told that there is nothing wrong with being who and what he is. That perhaps there may even be advantages.”
Jonathan stared at her in silence for a long moment; Gabriel didn’t dare to speak. Toby glanced rapidly between the three of them. “That,” Jonathan said finally, “is a very dangerous line of thinking.”
“Dangerous doesn’t mean wrong,” Madeleine noted calmly.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Jonathan, his eyes boring into her. “It just means dangerous. No, it’s not fair, the way the world sees and treats Gabriel. It’s not right. But I’ve had a go at changing the world myself, and I know exactly how much the world doesn’t like that. I want my son to survive, and find what happiness he can. That means keeping his head down and not courting trouble.”
“It means being a second-class citizen,” she said grimly.
Jonathan transferred his gaze to Gabriel. “Yes,” he said softly, “it does. And I hate it so much that sometimes it could choke me. But I want him to live. If you stand up to the world, the world will put you back down. As hard as it can.”
“The world is changing,” Madeleine said, tightening her grip on Gabriel’s arm. “In a lot of ways. I happen to think that in the coming order, those who leverage whatever gifts they have will rise to the top. Your son is an extraordinary young man, Mr. Arquin, and it pains me how unaware of that he is. He could be destined for great things.”
“Mm.” Jonathan studied her face carefully. “How old are you?”
“Dad!” Gabriel burst out, mortified. Toby winced.
“Oh, my,” Madeleine said mildly. “How toweringly rude.”
“It’s just that I do recall, dimly, being a teenager,” Jonathan continued. “I wasn’t bad looking, if I say so myself.”
“I believe that,” Madeleine said sweetly.
He rewarded her with a ghost of a smile. “And even so, I couldn’t have dreamed of attracting the attention of a beautiful, wealthy woman in her…twenties?” She only smiled in silence, and after a moment he continued. “Between that and your…opinions concerning Gabriel’s prospects, I begin to see how he might wonder about your intentions.”
“Perhaps,” she replied, “you simply are so accustomed to worrying about his survival you haven’t had the chance to think about his prospects for having something greater than just existence. To answer your question, Mr. Arquin, I am far too young for you, and not too old for Gabriel. That is all that anyone needs to know.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a shrug. “As you said, though, I do have to think about these things. He’s a good boy, but it is somewhat odd that learning about his heritage makes you more interested and not less. You’re certain there’s nothing you’d like to tell us? Something that might explain your, shall we say, attraction to—”
“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel burst out. “Do not talk to her like that!”
“It’s all right, darling,” Madeleine said, patting him on the arm, though she kept her eyes on Jonathan. “It’s a parent’s right and duty to be protective.”
“And there are any number of perfectly innocent explanations,” Jonathan said agreeably. “If you have a relative with a certain kind of bloodline yourself, for example…”
“Mr. Arquin, you seem to enjoy speaking bluntly, so allow me to do the same,” Madeleine said, her voice steely now. “Gabriel is, for all intents and purposes, as human as you or I, at least to look at. I have seen illustrations of full-blooded hethelaxi. Perhaps you, of all people, should think carefully before criticizing anyone else’s choice of lover.”
“Gabriel,” Jonathan said after a moment, meeting Madeleine’s gaze.
“Yes?” Gabe asked tensely.
Jonathan turned to look him in the eyes, finally, and smiled. “I like her.”
“But be careful around her,” he admonished as they walked.
Gabriel sighed. The sun was setting and they were finally heading home, having parted from Madeleine some time ago. He felt a great deal more at ease with and about her, but the tension between her and his father was clearly not completely in the past.
“I’m not going to bother explaining,” Jonathan continued, eyes on the street ahead, “as you clearly figured it all out. There are a few things that are…odd. Just speaking more generally, she’s clever and strong-willed, which characterizes the best women you can possibly get involved with, and also the worst.”
“As Toby pointed out,” Gabriel said, glancing over his shoulder at Toby, who was walking a few steps behind them, “it’s hard to imagine an ulterior motive for her. There’s almost no point in manipulating a part-hethelax. When they tested us at school they said I have pretty much the normal human aptitude for magic and no notable infernal gifts.”
Jonathan nodded slowly, making no reply. They continued on in silence for a while before he spoke again, his voice softer. “You’ve never asked me about your mother. I keep waiting for it, but you never have.”
Gabriel drew in a deep, slow breath and let it out just as slowly. “Is…there any chance of me meeting her?”
Jonathan shook his head. “I can’t imagine any situation where that could happen. If it looks like one is about to arise, you have my word I’ll give you as much warning as I can.”
“Do you think…I ought to know her?”
“I don’t know,” Jonathan said after a moment.
“Then, unless you change your mind, don’t worry about it,” Gabriel said firmly. “I know it’s been hard on you, Dad. Having me around, I mean. I figure talking about…her, and whatever happened between you, has to be rough. You don’t need any more stress on my part. And anyhow… I don’t really want to be any more in touch with that side of my heritage than I absolutely have to. Being Jonathan Arquin’s son is as much as I could want.”
Jonathan moved closer and threw an arm around his shoulder. “Madeleine and I agree on at least one thing, Gabe. There is nothing, not one damn thing, wrong with you. It’s the world that has the problem. You’ve gotta keep it in mind, got to be careful not to provoke trouble you’re not prepared to contend with. But don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re less than anyone else.” He stared forward as they walked, as if challenging the horizon. “Don’t you dare let them.”