In which the cat eats the canary, and chokes on it.
Dev had only taken a few steps away from the door upstairs when Kain fell in beside her. She didn’t bother glancing at him, simply adjusted her pace to head for the resting room that she and Naj had occupied a little earlier.
As always, having him walk beside her sparked her annoyance. It was hard not to walk next to a man that stood over six and a half feet tall and not feel dwarfed, no matter that she was only a few inches shy of six-foot herself. Feeling small always made her feel childlike and vulnerable, something she abhorred.
It didn’t help that his smile always seemed so damned smug. It made it feel like how close he walked was deliberate, escalating how aggravated she felt with his presence. She felt like he was laughing at her most of the time.
It certainly didn’t help that he often chuckled for no discernible reason.
He followed her into the resting room, striding past her to flop dramatically onto the same couch she’d occupied earlier. One knee came up onto the cushion, an arm took one armrest and the other took most of the back. The sprawl did not help him look any smaller.
She scowled at him as she shut the door behind her. He didn’t bother with the lights, so neither would she. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t both see just fine in darkness thicker than this. Kain’s eyes caught the now dimmed backstage lighting, flashing with a predator’s reflective gleam. He blinked slowly, disappearing in the low light as he calmly waited for her to get on with it. Such a great, lazy cat. It was hard to believe that such indolence was actually left in charge of running the nest most of the time.
He was still dressed in the flowing purple pants that was part of one of his tribal costumes. The rich color popped against the near true black of his skin, the brightness of the fabric making his complexion seem darker by comparison. A grin split his lips, black eyes alight with amusement.
She was a little surprised that he hadn’t flashed spots at her over her thinking him a lazy cat. His grin widened. Dev folded her arms over her chest in defense. While she could shut him out of her thoughts completely, it was an effort of energy she didn’t like having to spend.
“We have a new dancer.”
The grin didn’t vanish, as much as she’d hoped she had caught him off guard. He eyed her from where he lay, waiting for the punchline. “So I heard.”
“I’m sure you did. He’s a serpent.”
“Mhmm…” He tone took on a bored note, his gaze scanning the floor as if it were interesting.
Dev scowled. “A red cobra even.”
That caught his attention. It was simply in the way his breath paused, his eyes staring at a fixed point. He sat up, attention finally coming back to her.
This time she felt the satisfaction that she’d been seeking as his grin began to fade. “Cobra? You’re certain he’s not just a viper?”
She made a face at him. “I’ll be sorely dismayed if the new dancer is a liar on top of being feral – he showed red scale and named himself cobra.”
“Which reminds me – does the name Naja Pallida ring a bell with you? Or the word Aezir?” Anyone else and she wouldn’t have bothered asking, but Kain was ancient and full of random tidbits that sometimes came in handy.
Now was clearly one of the times she could be glad she suffered the lazy cat. He swung his leg off the couch, fingers lacing as he leaned forward.
“Aezir? What about him?” His expression was as dark and serious as she ever saw it. Which was intriguing to say the least.
“He mentioned the name when he was introducing himself in the old tongue, but I barely kept up with it when it was still pertinent. All I caught was his name and this… Aezir. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it at the time.”
Kain made a rude sound low in his throat. “I would expect a demon to recognize the name of one of the Ahn’Ki Dai’s more prominent summoners.”
Whatever joy she’d been taking from their conversation fled. She didn’t like it when Kain gained the upper hand in their discussions, but this blindside was a bit much, even for him. It was true though. Now that he’d named the organization, she could remember hearing other demons whisper the name of a summoner that always seemed to survive, century after century, in a profession where lifetimes were often measured in decades.
“Dai.” Her jaw worked as she suddenly thought harder about who – or what – she had just let into the nest. “That organization was destroyed centuries ago.”
“But Dai themselves are like cockroaches, someone always survives.” Kain’s tone held disgust and she briefly wondered what experience he’d had with the meddlers. The curiosity faded as quickly as it came.
“The serpents they tamed were little more than tools – you really think one survived its master?”
Kain hummed, but didn’t divulge whatever thought that sparked. She frowned at him. “Or do you think that means this Aezir is still alive and lurking nearby? How much of a threat is this Naj?”
The great cat’s eyes fell to the floor again. She waited.
Finally he sighed, the sound coming as if from the earth itself as his shoulders heaved. “I don’t think Aezir is a problem – nor do I think this serpent – Naj, you called him? – is a threat. He made an oath and it was not one a serpent would make lightly.”
Dev’s frown deepened. The oath that Naj had made earlier tonight? She couldn’t tell how much was eavesdropping from the cat and how much was just pulling it from her thoughts. Neither option sat well with her, but if he said the serpent wasn’t a threat… Well, he’d put more into this nest than she had.
“So you think it’s a coincidence that a summoner’s tool shows up to join the nest the same night that Az sends me the message that he’ll see me soon?”
The silence seemed to grow impossibly deep. If she hadn’t felt his presence across the darkened room, she might have wondered if she’d scared him off.
“He’s free?” Kain’s voice was soft and she could feel the tightness begin at the corner of her eyes.
“He shouldn’t be – his… punishment should have lasted another fifty years.” For some reason, she didn’t want to look at him as she admitted it. It wouldn’t make that fact more or less true. It didn’t make it any easier to say either. She felt the first wash of fear slip down her spine.
“But he is.” Kain sounded as unhappy about it as she was – something she knew wasn’t possible. He’d never been at Az’s tender mercies at all, let alone for centuries as she had… She shook her head abruptly and stood, turning on the spot to cross her arms over her chest defensively.
The action didn’t make her feel any better either. Nothing would touch that pit of ice Az had left in her stomach. Maybe when she saw him again he would make it a reality…
“Stop, Dev. There’s no point in torturing yourself before he makes his move – you’ve said it before, his attention span is worse than a child filled with sugar. It may be another century before he remembers you’re here again.”
She sighed, the force of his voice giving her something else to focus on. Her response was hushed. “I know.”
“Then focus on what we can do right now. There’s a new dancer.” He laughed, a harsh bark that drew her gaze up to see him shake his head. He spread his hands wide, but she didn’t see the point of the gesture. “Even if he was Dai, he’s a dancer now. The organization is dead and we all have skeletons in our closets, Dev.”
Dev made a face, but before she could counter him, he had stood. Kain stepped forward, a smile beginning to twitch at his lips. Nothing kept him somber for long. “Not to mention – You’re calling Nica home.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” Despite it being her idea, she was less than thrilled with the actual prospect of it.
“More than crossed – you’ve already decided to tell her there’s a serpent in the nest again.” He laughed again, this time letting it rumble around in his wide chest. “You’ll have to do better than that. When my hawklet runs, she doesn’t do it by halves. A lost, cold serpent will do nicely though, especially if you pair it with a possible threat to the nest. Pull at enough of her responsible, protective strings and she’ll have no choice but to fly home.”
Dev gave him a dubious look. “You really think she hasn’t written us off completely? It’s been two years, Kain, and she hasn’t looked back once.”
That sobered his humor and he sighed, relaxing back against the wall. He shook his head, giving her a dubious look. “If you truly think she hasn’t looked back, then you haven’t learned a thing about her, Dev. She’ll have spent every waking moment rethinking herself and second guessing her decision and wondering how everyone is doing without her micromanaging. Give her a reason to come home and she’ll jump at the chance.”
“She’s been free to come home since she left, but I don’t see her.”
“True, she’s almost as prideful as you.” She glanced up in time to see a brief smile reappear on his lips. He curled a hand as he continued. “She’ll feel she’s made a mistake, and that will eat at her. This frees her of the awkward, absentee return and makes it into a responsibility that she cannot ignore.”
“You have a lot of faith in someone who abandoned her duties in your lap at our darkest point.” She didn’t hide the scorn she felt. She never did with Kain. There was really no point, when he would know exactly what she was thinking anyway.
“And you have too little.” He sighed, letting a bit of his disappointment show. “You still don’t understand her, even after all these years of running Asylum together. She feels directly responsible, Dev. For her, that is a burden too heavy to bear.”
She could practically hear him bite back whatever he’d been about to say. Dev debated asking, but it was of so little importance, she let it go instead. She hated it when the cat was cryptic, and indulging him only encouraged that behavior.
Instead, she sighed heavily. “Fine. She had her reasons, we’ll agree to disagree on whether they’re legitimate or not. What matters is that you think I should tell her about Az’s threat – you really think that will seal the deal on her return?”
Hell knew she would have run in the opposite direction if she thought there was a corner on Earth that could hide her from Azriel.
“I think if you pair it with the promise of rehabilitating a serpent, it’s foolproof. Threat and reward, Dev.” He smiled at her obvious disgust.
“I’ll never understand why everyone loves serpents – don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the creatures, but they’re not that fascinating.”
Kain chuckled. “But they are the most familiar to Nica. Raised by them, taught by them… That is where she feels most comfortable. Why do you think she ran to Ariella’s nest when she needed comfort?”
“Do you really care?” A grin spread across his face as he teased her.
A moment’s hesitation and she shrugged. “Not really.”
“That’s what I thought.”