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At this point I am pretty much done with strangers, so I head for the door, thinking I’ll just hide in the hall for a bit and take a breather. On my way out, I notice that Gabriel is standing with our friends again, and Nando’s trying to give them all a lesson in riffing. Even Hina is participating a little bit—at least, watching Nando closely as he demonstrates the moves—and they’re all looking like they’re having a fine old time. For a second I’m tempted to go join them again, but the appeal of being alone right now is just too pressing.
That is, at least, until I’m out in the hall and I hear Gwilim’s voice coming from the direction of the elevator. He may be the one person I’d be interested in talking to at the moment, but as he comes around the bend, I see that he’s not alone.
There’s an older man with him—stocky and smooth-headed and real heavily scarred—and there’s something about the guy that immediately gives me the creeps. His eyes are odd, for one thing. The pupils are all dilated and his gaze is somehow real intense and glassy at the same time. There’s a strange agitation to his body too, as if all his muscles are in a constant state of flexing and unflexing.
I’m thinking the man must be high on some kind of drug or something, but when his eyes lock onto me, it’s with this disconcerting sort of hunger that makes me wonder for a second if zombies might be real in the Painter world.
Gwilim, for his part, looks a little shocked to see me. Kind of embarrassed, maybe, and annoyed at the same time.
“Sophie,” he says, as if it’s a real surprise to run into me at a party where I am basically the whole point.
That creepy man, though—at the sound of my name, he gets this look on his face like something is real funny. Like I am real funny. Only his expression’s a whole lot more like a snarl than a smile.
“Didn’t think you were coming,” I say to Gwilim, trying not to stare too hard at the other man and, also, wondering how in the world Gwilim ended up here with someone like that.
“I like to keep you guessing,” he responds, in something pretty near his usual flippant manner, except for the fact that I can tell he’s real uncomfortable with the way my eyes keep traveling to his companion’s face. Kind of reluctant, he finally says, “This is Wotan Schmid,” nodding over at the guy in this real informal introduction. “He’s staying with Tom Cloutier and me.”
I look at the man again. Aunt Nia told me my job as one of the hosts tonight was to be real hospitable to everyone, but this guy doesn’t seem like the type you be hospitable to. Still, I try to sound sincere when I tell him, “It’s nice to meet you,” and step forward, offering my palm.
My politeness is totally wasted, though. He just stares me down for a long few seconds as if he’s trying to intimidate me—which, by the way, totally works. Then, real slow like he’s making a point of it, he raises his own hand to mine, and it’s about all I can do not to just pull away from him.
I am ready for the sighting this time. I’m expecting it. I’m even pretty sure what it is I’m gonna see before I feel my mind tipping down inside him and rushing toward the searing, inky blackness that’s writhing around right in the center of his essence. What I’m not at all prepared for, though, is the searing pain that comes with it. The way that something about his stain is so vicious and terrifying that my body actually feels it like a burst of fire in my bones.
It takes every ounce of strength I’ve got not to cry out with the burn of it, and if it weren’t for Dylan showing up right then—for his saying Gwilim’s name in a sharp tone that makes all of us turn around toward him—there’s no way I could have hidden my sighting from either Wotan or Gwilm.
As it is, I can feel the strain showing in my expression as I come around to face Dylan, but even he doesn’t seem to notice. All of his attention is zeroed in on that Wotan guy.
“Mr. Schmid,” Dylan says, and you could freeze a flying bullet with the chill in those two words.
Doesn’t seem to bother Wotan, though. He just smiles a little deeper, his nostrils stretching wide as if he’s breathing Dylan’s anger in.
Without looking away from Wotan’s face, Dylan says, “Gwilim, why have you brought that man into this house?”
For a second Gwilim looks he’s been struck—like something in Dylan’s words have caused him actual pain—but then his expression flashes so quick from hurt to anger that you’d think they were just one and the same thing for him.
“I believe I have the right to bring whomever I choose into this house,” he says, his voice real cool even if the look on his face isn’t. “This is still my home. Or have I only ever been a guest in it?”
If he wanted to hurt Dylan back, he seems to have found the right words to do it. I’ve never seen a look like that on Dylan’s face, all stunned and dismayed. Probably because I’ve never seen anyone he cared about actually try to hurt him. I mean, what is going on between the two of them? And also, why did Gwilim bring a man like that here?
Wotan himself looks like this is his luckiest day, getting to watch Dylan and Gwilim argue like this. I think about that dark thing writhing around inside of his essence and what I want right now is for someone to just make the man go away.
“Gwilim?” Aunt Nia’s voice comes from behind us. “Gwilim?“
She’s running from the door of the ballroom, and you’d think she sprinted professionally or something she crosses that distance so fast. She’s got her arms stretched out in front of her as if it’ll help her get to him quicker, but when she catches sight of Wotan she just stops, her hands falling heavy to her sides.
As she turns her eyes on Gwilim again with a face full of questions, all of his remaining anger seems to melt away, leaving him just looking drained instead.
“Mr. Schmid,” Aunt Nia says real prim after several seconds of loaded silence, looking the man full in the face with the haughtiness of a queen. But he just raises his eyebrows back at her in a gesture of pointed spite, his cruel smile twisting a little more cruelly.
“He’s staying with Tom Cloutier,” Gwilim chokes out in this forced nonchalance, his eyes focused somewhere over Aunt Nia’s shoulder now, as if he can’t handle looking right at her. “He wanted to come for the party.”
Her eyes travel over to Gwilim and then back to Wotan again, but she doesn’t say a word in response. I’m hoping she’s going to kick the man out of the house, even though I’m pretty sure that’d go against the rules of Painter hospitality. Once someone’s invited in, you’d have to have a pretty clear reason to force them back out again so immediately. But seems to me like just the man himself is reason enough.
“Aunt Nia,” Dylan says, real quiet. “I’d like to talk to Gwilim for a minute. Is it too much to ask—”
He stops himself short, as if he’s just thought better of asking it.
Aunt Nia glances at him, her face nearly unreadable, so when she speaks I’m kind of surprised to hear the hate that tinges her voice. I didn’t even know that was an emotion she knew how to feel.
“There is no proof, as of yet,” she says to Wotan, managing to sound somehow both threatening and dignified at the same time, “for all the wrongs you’ve done, and so I would not be justified in doing to you what I would like to do. Under the circumstances, I will escort you into the ballroom with the rest of the guests, but have no doubt that I will watch you very carefully there.”
For a second I think Wotan’s not going to go with her. That he’s just going to stand there and face off with her in a battle of wills, but then he starts walking forward. Real slow, like he’s making a point. Aunt Nia waits for him to pass by her, and then she starts moving too, shooting one last cryptic glance back at her nephews before she and Wotan disappear through the ballroom door.
I’m about to follow after her, to give Dylan and Gwilim a chance to speak alone, but Dylan doesn’t even wait for me to leave before he starts talking.
“That man is no good,” he says, in a tense whisper. “Isn’t that obvious?”
“And we’ve got some sort of family reputation to uphold?”
Dylan’s lips press together all tight at this, and it’s like whatever else he wanted to say doesn’t matter anymore. Taking my hand, he spins around, saying, “We’d better get you back to the party.”
Then he’s pulling me along like he’s forgotten I need a chance to move my own legs. I’m surprised, and kind of bothered by it. I’m about to tell him to stop or to slow down or something, when Gwilim runs up on the other side of him, grabbing his arm and pulling him around to look him in the face.
“I’m sorry, Dylan. I never would have brought him here if I had a choice.”
“What does that mean?” Dylan demands. “What have you gotten yourself into? Why are you chumming around with people like Cloutier and Wotan and their like?”
“Can’t you guess?”
There’s this real long look between the two of them. I can’t see Dylan’s face too well but I can see Gwilim’s, and it’s like he’s begging Dylan to understand. I think Dylan’s going to too—at least, for a minute I think maybe they’re actually going to communicate instead of throwing useless spite at each other—but that is, of course, when Teresa steps out into the hall.
“Dylan?” She looks at his hand around mine, at him and Gwilim staring each other down. “I just saw Wotan Schmid walk in with Aunt Nia. What is he doing here?”
Whatever moment of understanding Dylan and Gwilim might have had a second ago, Teresa’s question makes Dylan’s anger flare right up again.
He lets go of me and strides forward, saying, “That’s what I’d like to know,” in a way that’s meant only partly as a response to her.
He takes her hand now, gesturing to her that he wants to go back into the ballroom, but then he stops and turns to Gwilim again.
“I don’t know what you’re up to, but you’d better make sure that man doesn’t do any damage here.”
Then he and Teresa are gone, leaving behind the sort of quiet that usually only comes after too much noise, and in that quiet I can hear Gwilim’s breath all quick and heavy.
“What was that about?” I ask, looking over at him with what I hope he sees is a somewhat sympathetic curiosity.
Before answering he takes in one more big breath, as if he’s on the verge of deflating and falling right down on the floor. When he starts talking, though, he’s very nearly like his usual self again.
“Long story. At the moment I’ve got a slithering little snake to keep my eye on, so the explanation will have to wait. Sorry about the party, Cousin Sophie. I’ll make it up to you sometime.”
He walks past me toward the ballroom door, sort of touching my arm as he goes by and leaving me there with a hundred questions.
When I go back into the ballroom a few minutes later, it’s with some pretty mixed emotions. I’d really rather not be in the same room as that Wotan man, but I also don’t like the idea of him being here in the house without my being able to see exactly what he’s up to. I’m not too eager to find myself in the middle of another Lucas family argument either, but, then, I don’t like the idea of Dylan and Gwilim being so upset.
Although, it’s not like Dylan needs any consolation that I could offer. He’s got Teresa for that. He’s standing with her and some of their other friends, though neither of them really seem to be contributing much to the conversation. Dylan’s got hold of her hand like he’s afraid if he lets go of it he might get sucked into some sort of black hole or something, and I notice that Teresa keeps looking up at him, searching his face. I bet it’s totally killing her to be aware that something just happened but not to know exactly what it was, though I have to admit that my own feelings aren’t too far off from hers.
I find Gwilim leaning against the wall between two of the huge mirrors on the far side of the room. He looks as casual and cool as ever, except for the intensity in his eyes. I lean against the wall next to him and try to pinpoint what he’s looking at.
I’m not surprised that it’s Wotan Schmid, stalking all slow and dangerous around the edges of the crowd, eyeing everyone he passes with open and threatening malice. Seems like maybe he’s searching for someone specific, and it strikes me how much he looks like a predator on the prowl.
“That expression on your face,” Gwilim says, without actually looking at me. “People might think someone’s upset you.”
I want to be annoyed with him, for bringing all this tension here tonight—for doing something that he obviously had to know was going to upset his family—but I also feel kind of sorry for him even if I’ve got no idea what for. I mean, I believe him when he says he didn’t think he had a choice. I couldn’t guess at his reasons, but I believe what he said. I’m pretty sure Dylan would believe him too, if Gwilim would just stop being so cryptic about it.
“Seems like that someone’s kind of a pro at upsetting people,” I respond, and he gets this hint of a smile on his face.
“I said I was sorry.”
I notice Aunt Nia then, standing near one corner of the room and watching Wotan as well. The look in her eyes is nearly a mirror to Gwilim’s, and her stance is all resolute and ready, like some sort of avenging angel waiting for the cue to charge. Whatever it is that Wotan man has done, it’s personal to her. Seems personal to Gwilim too, which is another thing that makes me believe he wouldn’t have brought the guy if he thought he could help it.
Wotan’s passing by José Anjo now, and it gives me a little sense of foreboding for some reason, seeing the two of them nearly side by side like that. Anjo’s in the middle of telling some other overly-acted anecdote to his friends while they just laugh and laugh and laugh. No one man can possibly be as funny as that, and I wonder if they’re all afraid of him like Gabriel. If they laugh because they have to, because they know what dark secret it is that he’s got hiding underneath that annoying act.
“What’s up with that guy?” I ask Gwilim, indicating José with a nod of my head, and when Gwilim sees who I mean he gets this irritated look on his face.
“Anjo? A paper doll. All decoration and poses with nothing on the inside. Everyone says he’s an artist, though I’ve never seen any of his work so I couldn’t say. Came to Daxa about a year ago, and he’s gotten enormously popular within just a few months. Probably because he’s a pompous little flatterer, and I don’t doubt he only makes friends to use them.”
If that were all there was to the man, I doubt Gabriel would’ve been so afraid, but I keep that thought to myself.
“You should try flattery, you know,” I tell Gwilim, shooting this tiny smile up at him. “You could probably be as popular as José Anjo if you worked a little harder. Your own family might even like you.”
He lets out this crack of laughter and I think maybe there is a chance I could get him to tell me something about what’s going on, but then he cuts himself off short, his eyes fixed suddenly straight at the ballroom door.
There are two GIB officers standing there, looking real sober as they’re scanning the room. The sight of them sends a pang of anxiety through me, and I glance instinctively at Dylan who’s clearly noticed them too. He’s already excusing himself from Teresa and their friends and making his way over to the agents, and by the look on his face I’d say he’s not expecting any good news either.
I look up at Gwilim like he might have a clue what’s going on, but, of course, he’s on his phone, using the mind reading sensor to communicate with someone by text message. Makes me feel extra on edge, the fact that he seems more urgent and angry than ever. His eyes keep flicking up all sharp every few seconds to lock onto Wotan Schmid, and I see that the man has stopped in the middle of the room now and he’s watching Dylan talk to the agents at the door.
My sense of anxiety increases by at least three times. I look over at Aunt Nia, but she’s been waylaid by one of the party guests and I doubt she even realizes anything’s amiss. That José Anjo guy, though, I’m surprised to see him staring—I’m pretty sure at Wotan Schmid—with an expression on his face like a father ready to scold his naughty son.
I can’t help looking up at Gwilim again to see if he’s noticed this, but he’s still messaging on his phone, muttering real quiet in what I think must be Welsh and kind of leaning over himself as if he’s so full of frustration he can’t even stand up straight.
Over by the door, Dylan’s turning away from the agents now, his face gone all white and his eyes unfocused. He moves through the crowd like some sort of blind man, seeming nearly aimless as he weaves between the guests. When I realize where he’s headed, my heart feels suddenly two tons too big.
Like most everyone else in the room, my little circle of friends is totally unaware of what’s going on. They greet Dylan with wide, easy smiles before they get a closer look at his face. And then, when he places his hand on Nando’s shoulder and whispers something quiet in his ear, whatever joy any of them were feeling just totally disappears. Nando himself looks so suddenly broken that I think he might actually fall to the ground.
Then I see Wotan there, in a very different location than he was seconds ago. Standing just yards from my friends, watching this whole exchange with that same hungry look to his eyes that I noticed out in the hallway. Watching them like this is exactly what he’s been waiting for.
Beside me I hear Gwilim say, “Dammit,” with a level of anger that I feel in my toes, as he snaps his phone back into his ring. “Excuse me, I’ve got some snake wrangling to do.”
Before I can respond, he shoves away from the wall and pretty much disappears into the crowd.
Nando’s already following Dylan back toward the ballroom doors and now other people are starting to become aware of what’s happening, starting to notice the GIB agents waiting to lead him out of the room.
On instinct, my eyes flash back to where Wotan was, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I meet Eilian’s eyes instead, where she’s still standing with Tua and Gabriel and Leti, totally silent against the backdrop of their whispered and apprehensive fears. Somewhere at the back of my mind I register that Hina’s not there anymore, that she must have left as soon as Nando got his news.
Something passes between me and Eilian, though—some silent understanding—and almost at the exact same moment, the two of us start to move. We make our way across the room, meeting each other halfway and then heading toward the door where Nando and Dylan just disappeared.
All around us we can hear the hum of more party guests realizing that something’s wrong, and it feeds into my exponentially growing unease. I’m wondering if this is that moment I’ve been dreading. The one where my Way Reader skills are needed and I’ve got absolutely nothing of worth to give.
Out in the hall, Dylan’s waiting, as if he had no doubt the two of us would show up.
“Nando’s speaking with Mickering and Suto in the office off the library,” he says as he comes striding toward us, and even though he’s doing his best to project a sense of calm his voice sounds more like grief and fatigue. “I think he’d be grateful to see you there when he’s done.”
“What’s happened?” Eilian asks real quiet and tense, and it seems to me that for just a second Dylan nearly loses it completely.
“It’s his dad, Ellie,” he says after a pause, using the pet name for her that I’ve only ever heard from Aunt Nia or Teresa. “Luis Peréz has been killed.”
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Next: Chapter 22
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