I could think through the mixture of anger and horror, but I couldn’t speak through it. My mouth opened and closed as I struggled to connect words and ideas.
Sarah stepped in, speaking where I couldn’t seem to regain the ability to do so. “You aren’t going to tell us what you’ve got against the Magi. Okay. I’m not thrilled about you keeping that from us, if we’ve apparently all become comrades-in-arms, but I can deal with it. I’ve still got questions, though. Is there anything else you’re going to keep to yourself?”
The Lady thought about the question for a few seconds. “Yes,” she said finally. “But I assure you, I will not withhold any information relevant to the current matter.”
“And you’re sure about that?”
“I am as sure about that as I am about anything,” the Lady said. “This is not a flight of fancy for me, Miss Ford. I have not recently decided to pit my will against the wills of the Magi. My own life has been mined for every tidbit of information that might prove useful and every possible avenue has been pursued to the fullest. I would not have directly involved myself otherwise.”
Sarah accepted that answer with a slight nod. “Why us?”
“A reasonable question. Perhaps an important question. But I fear the answer is far simpler than you would like.”
The Lady accepted another refill on her wine glass from David before she spoke again. “I selected Emilia to be your bodyguard because she possessed the skills required for the position, as well as a certain…past that might resonate best with Mister O’Brien’s preferences.”
“You know about my past?” Mila asked. She shook her head a moment later. “Of course you do. How much do you know?”
“I know your real name,” the Lady replied. “And most of your actual history, without the pseudonyms you use to protect your loved ones. I have no intention of sharing those with anyone, even Mister O’Brien and Miss Ford, without your explicit permission.”
Mila crossed her arms, placing her uninjured hand close to the gun in her shoulder holster. “That’s generous of you.”
“Do not think of it as generosity. As someone with my own secrets, I respect your desire for anonymity.”
I was listening, even while my mind continued to connect pieces at lightning speed. I knew some of Mila’s past – or I thought I knew some of Mila’s past – but the revelation that she’d been specifically chosen because of her damage was…honestly not surprising. We’d been thrown together at a desperate moment and, despite the circumstances of our meeting, grown into something resembling friends. I probably wouldn’t have allowed myself to connect with a purely professional, invulnerable hulk of a protector. Mila would have defaulted into that persona with anyone else except for me.
We’d helped each other. That had been the design, of course, but it didn’t take anything away from our friendship.
At least, I hoped that it didn’t.
“That explains her,” Sarah said, calm and steady. I appreciated that she was able to compose herself, when I was clearly unable to take the lead. She was probably reeling from these revelations as much as I was, but our dynamic had always been based on our ability to operate as a duo, instead of two individuals. “What about the rest?”
“Monsieur St. Laurents was not something I expected,” the Lady said. “But his instant connection with Mister O’Brien held promise and a dedicated driver is never something to be discounted. That being said, I was not the one who chose to involve him in events as they unfolded. You and Mister O’Brien made that choice, when you met with unexpected difficulties at the Museum of London.”
“Devlin made that choice because you’d pushed him into a situation where he had no other options,” Sarah said.
“There are always options. He could have surrendered to the police. He could have chosen not to go into the Museum at all, least of all in the wake of a literally explosive situation at one of Hill’s satellite facilities. You, Miss Ford, could have chosen to stay in America after the warning about Mister Knight’s intentions. Our choices have led us all to this place and it does no one any good to deny that.”
Surrendering to the police hadn’t really been an option, considering that some of the Museum security guards had been packing firearms, but that was irrelevant.
“As it happens,” the Lady continued, “I have been nothing but thrilled with Monsieur St. Laurents’ contributions to your efforts here. Had I thought to include a driver in the original profile, I could scarcely have chosen better than him.”
“I can agree with that,” Sarah said. “Go on.”
“You are, of course, wondering about why I chose you and Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said.
“You picked Mila because she matched with Devlin’s personality and you allowed us to bring Michel in because of their friendship. But that all depends on you using Devlin as your…what did you call it?”
“My champion.” The Lady smiled. “The term seemed poetic.”
“As your champion, then. So why the two of us?”
“I think it is supremely telling that you have so thoroughly entwined your own sense of identity with Mister O’Brien,” the Lady said. Sarah bit down on her bottom lip but didn’t look away. “I chose you for your skills, yes, your network of hackers, and because of your inability to resist a puzzle. The labyrinthine network of false names and shell companies that comprise the Magi’s more visible assets would be irresistible to you, Miss Ford, and I knew that you would be unable to resist the lure.”
“And? I know there’s a follow-up coming.”
“Indeed. I picked you because I could not get him, otherwise. And, before you take that as an insult or a slight to your skills, I chose him because I could not get you in any other circumstance.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The Lady turned to David and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Why do people insist on asking questions they could easily answer for themselves with the slightest effort?”
Sarah blew air out through her nostrils and drew herself up slightly.
I regained my capacity for speech before she could say anything. “Why both of us?” I asked.
“Because you are better as a team,” the Lady said in an exasperated tone. “You have a history of success against impressive odds and Miss Ford has a background in high society that has proven useful on more than one occasion. Having one or the other would not have been sufficient for my purposes. The fact that I could not have hired one of you without also bringing the other in was serendipitous.”
As far as I knew, Sarah had gotten involved with this entire affair because of the mysterious emails appearing in her inbox. Would she have joined me on the trip without that impetus?
“Why the two of us, specifically?” I asked, separating my private ruminations from my mouth.
“Who else would I have contracted to deal with Mister Knight except for individuals with personal knowledge and a possible advantage?”
My mental gears clicked along, searching for each puzzle piece’s proper place. “You wanted us to deal with Asher. But that only works if you knew Asher was going to be involved. How long have you been watching me?”
“Since before St. Petersburg,” she answered immediately. “Although it would be more accurate to say that I have been watching Mister Knight since before St. Petersburg. You rose in my estimations following the disastrous result of that particular job.”
That job had been years ago. “Why were you watching Asher before St. Petersburg?”
The Lady gave me a long-suffering look and said nothing.
I tasked my struggling mental gears to spin a little faster. “Asher’s trajectory in life went awry at St. Petersburg, when he tried to expose the Magi by…oh. Oh.”
“I think I will simply refuse to answer any similar questions,” the Lady said, “since you have proven yourself capable of figuring things out without my intervention.
Her point was obvious, but I spoke it aloud anyway, for the benefits of everyone else in the room and to prove myself capable. “Asher was going after the Magi, that night. Someone had tipped him off to their existence and, in typical Asher fashion, he’d gone after them without bothering to consult with me.”
“So Asher was your first choice?”
“I am nothing if unwilling to acknowledge my own mistakes,” the Lady said. “I freely admit that I thought a mastermind of Asher’s capabilities would prove more useful in this stage. However, he was captured by the Magi and turned to their purposes. As such, I required an agent of my own.”
I wasn’t sure if I could reasonably blame her for my misfortunes since that disaster. Asher had chosen to come after me, just as I’d chosen to work with him after Sarah left me.
“How?” Michel asked. It had been his first time speaking in a while and the sound of his voice caught me off guard.
The Lady finished off her wine and passed the empty glass to David. “How what?”
“How would we do this thing?” Michel clarified. “You have more money. You have more influence. If you have not been able to defeat the Magi before this, why do you think that we will be able to?”
“The Book, to begin with,” the Lady said. “Contained within its pages are the names and cover identities of the Magi’s operatives. Not all of those operatives, mind you, but enough to constitute a powerful start. In the wake of Hill’s betrayal, their organization is destabilized and uncertain. Strike at one, and that individual is likely to reveal clues leading to the next chain up the ladder.”
Michel acknowledged that answer even as he doubled down on his original question. “And after that? Another chain, another link separated? Where does it end?”
The Lady turned to me. “Mister O’Brien,” she said, “do you remember what we discussed at our first meeting?”
I did. “Vaguely. What were you talking about, specifically?”
“The Magi are secrets and shadows,” she said. “Lies within misdirections within rumors. It has taken me a lifetime to a reach a point where I felt even halfway as secure about the secrets of my past. I cannot imagine that they would have done any less.”
“So we hurt their underlings to force them out? Is that really what you had in mind?”
“What I have in mind, Mister O’Brien, is for you and your team to unravel their organization one string at a time,” the Lady said. “And, if you follow all of those strings to their natural conclusion, I intend for you to give me the information that will finally allow me to take my revenge.”
“And that is?”
“Their names, of course.” She rolled her eyes. “I could not care less about the enterprises here, or in France, or in the southernmost reaches of Africa. Your defeat of Hill was suitably public that it aligns with my own goals, yes, but I would not have been overly bothered if you’d acquired the Book and left him ensconced within his bubble of delusion. All that I care about is learning the Magi’s true names. Everything else is academic.”
Their names. She wanted their names. That was insanity, to a level I could scarcely comprehend. Before Sarah and me, the Magi hadn’t even had a collective name. The idea that we would somehow be able to get our hands on their real names was absolutely absurd.
Or was it? We’d accomplished more in the past weeks than I would have thought possible. Was stealing a single morsel of information from an international shadow any more impressive than robbing an estate when said estate owner knew to expect us? Was it any crazier than kidnapping an unwilling little girl from the lap of luxury for her own safety?
“You have a plan. We wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t. What is it?” I asked the Lady.
“You do not have the Book, but I will see to it that you have access to the names and dates written within as soon as Avis finishes decrypting its contents. Using that, you can begin to apply pressure to all of the Magi’s assets. They are compartmentalized and kept in the dark about the true nature of their masters, but each one will likely know at least one other name.”
“And on and on up the chain,” I finished for her. “Leading to what, exactly?”
“The Magi, of course. With my resources and the protection I can offer you, I feel confident that you will be able to uncover their identities.”
“And then I will destroy them,” the Lady said. There was a hunger in her voice, paired with a desperate need. “I will root them out of their hiding places and see to it that they pay for all of the death they have caused. And, when I have finished ravaging their lands and properties…when their power has been scattered to the winds…I will see to it personally that they die screaming.”
I swallowed nervously. “They’ve been in the shadows for years,” I said. “Decades. Maybe even longer than that. How are we supposed to find out who they really are after they’ve had so much of a headstart?”
“Creativity,” the Lady said. “Ingenuity. Luck. Whatever assets you can bring to bear, you must bring to bear. Without their names, I can do nothing except forestall the inevitability of your demise. You must understand the nature and scale of the conflict you find yourself in.”
And I did. The Lady had manipulated us into a position where we represented the greatest active threat to the Magi’s powers. They would come after us, or allow others to come after us, until we were no longer an issue.
I looked at my team, an unspoken question obvious on my expression.
Mila spoke first. “Aiden’s still out there,” she said. “As soon as he heals up from what Michel here did to him, he’s going to come after us.”
“Figured as much,” I said. “What’s your point?”
“The longer I’m with you, the more of a danger I represent. If you’re going to get involved with this mess, you’ll have enough bullets coming your way without adding whatever trouble Aiden can throw your way.”
“I hear what you’re saying. I just don’t care. Do you want to handle your problems alone or do you want help?”
Mila considered the question for longer than I would have thought necessary before baring her teeth in a fierce grin. “I think I’ll want some help.”
“Excellent.” I turned to Michel. “What about you?”
“I would not want to be the type of person who abandons their friends,” Michel said. “And I am already too involved to back out now. If you need me, I am coming with you.” He paused. “If you do not need me, I will still be there, for whenever you change your mind.”
We exchanged a look, conveying sympathy and solidarity in the blink of an eye. When that moment was over, I looked to Sarah. She still appeared stunned by everything the Lady had sprung on her, which was reasonable. What wasn’t reasonable were the subtle hints of defiance written all over her face, overtaking the shock more and more with every passing second.
“You don’t have to ask,” she said. “If you’re going, I’m going.”
Even though I’d expected that response, my heart still lifted in triumph when she said it. I kept my expression as close to neutral as possible and faced the Lady. “You wanted to push us into a corner,” I said. “Fine. We’re in a corner. And we’ll do what you want, because we don’t really have a choice. But…”
“You have conditions,” the Lady said. She stood up, while David began to wipe down every surface her bare fingers had touched. “Why am I not surprised?”
“We’re the team you wanted,” I said, “so this is what you’ve got to deal with.”
“Fine. What conditions do you have?”
“First, we do this our way. You don’t give us assignments; you just pass on information. We’ll decide who we want to go after, and when, without you pressuring us in one direction or another.”
The Lady nodded. “I hadn’t intended on micromanaging you. Your success here has more than proven your abilities.”
“Second, you have to keep us in the loop on everything, whether or not you think it’s relevant.” I raised a hand before the Lady could protest. “Your past is your past. I don’t care about where you came from. But if you hear something that might prove useful, you pass it on immediately.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then you exposed yourself to danger for no reason,” I said, “because you were too secretive to share potentially vital information. If that’s how you want to play it, then let us know now. Sarah can see to it that we disappear in less than a day. Maybe the Magi find us, maybe not, but they’ll definitely find you.”
The Lady weighed her options for several seconds before nodding again. “That seems fair. Anything else?”
“If we need to talk to you, we need a way to get in contact with you. This magical appearing act isn’t going to work, long term.”
She smiled. “Trust me, Mister O’Brien. If you ever need to talk to me, I will be there.”
A familiar frisson of nerves ran up the length of my arm. I ignored it.
The Lady stood up and walked past me, aiming for the door into the hallway outside. Except for David, who kept pace with his mistress, no one moved. At the door, she stopped and turned to look slightly over her shoulder. “Find their names, Mister O’Brien. I hope you realize the importance of this task.”
I did, of course, but she continued to elaborate.
“My protection is not without limits. A time will come when you must face the Magi’s wrath without my aid, if you allow things to proceed without arresting their inevitable momentum. Find their names, Mister O’Brien, and deliver those names to me so that I can render unto the magi that which they deserve.” She opened the door. “Your lives quite literally depend on it.”
The Lady and David let that sentiment hang in the air for a second before they left, closing the door behind them.
A moment later, Sarah’s phone beeped. She checked it in some kind of a daze.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“An email,” she said, “from Avis. There are five names written here, along with financial information and pseudonyms. I guess the Lady wants us to get right to work.”
I gave each member of my team a searching look.
Mila appeared as steadfast as ever, but I could see past the façade now. There was a fragility there, hidden behind layers of forced apathy and emotional disconnection.
Michel was terrified. He was only barely keeping it together, but he was maintaining his control. I doubted I could have done as much in a similar situation after my first job.
And Sarah…Sarah looked beautiful, perplexed, and intrigued all at the same time. She was biting into her bottom lip while she read the phone in her hand and I couldn’t bear to look at her without feeling a pressure building in my heart.
I looked away from her and let my focus relax so that I could see all of us at the same time. A soft meow caught my attention and, a second later, Sam prowled out from a particularly deep shadow and leapt up into the chair where the Lady had been seated.
“Well,” I said. “What next?”
-End Book One-