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Excerpt

The Dream Thief
The Drákon Series, Book 2
Bantam
ISBN-10: 0553588052 ISBN-13: 978-0553588057

England, 1768

The London air hung heavy with soot and a wet, cool fog, clinging to his face like an unpleasant skin, dampening his breath. But he was used to it; in fact, he usually welcomed it, because foggy nights meant fewer shadows. In his business, light and shadow were as important as picklocks and poison and knives.

From the hours outdoors his hair had worked loose from its queue, unfashionably long, distinctive. It would be dark against his skin and the dull white of his cravat. He should have worn a wig. A wig, a cheaper hat, a plainer greatcoat: it would have been more anonymous. But what was done was done; he wasn’t a man to linger long in regret. The people he’d cornered these past few days were paid too damned well to remember his face, anyway.

At least tonight was over. Tomorrow he’d start again, but right now he was hungry, he was tired, and he was very much looking forward to a meal and his bed—and what awaited him in that bed.

The candle lantern just past his house burned sulphur yellow, a very dim sun choked with mist. None of the small, neatly spaced houses he passed were even visible through the gloom. He found his way because he’d always known it, because he’d lived here since he was a child, and had mapped the streets and pavements and gutters in his mind so well he knew every alley, every door, every possible route of escape.

He made himself part of the night. He made his footsteps silent, his breathing imperceptible. He listened to the dark so intently it sounded like his own heartbeat, familiar and calm.

This was his realm, for better or worse. This was the place he claimed and defended, a tiny, ragged patch of safety in the midst of chaos.

He slipped around to the back of his house, evading all the traps he’d set, finding the short rise of stairs through the clouded darkness and then the keyhole to the kitchen door.

Joseph was waiting inside. He was seated at the side table eating a bowl of something that smelled like very bad eel.

“Late,” he grunted, by way of a greeting.

Zane removed his cocked hat, running a hand through his hair. “Whatever it is you are consuming, I do not want it served at my table tonight. Or any other night.”

The man’s brows arched; past his scars and badly mottled skin, he looked pained. “It’s me mum’s recipe.”

“Then she is welcome to my portion.” He bolted the kitchen door closed once more, had worked the top buttons of his coat free and was heading for the hall, for bed, when he was halted by his front man’s voice.

“Got a visitor.”

“I know.”

“Not Mim.”

Zane slanted a look back at him. Joseph shrugged. “A girl. Put her in the parlor.”

“A girl,” he repeated slowly. “Are you certain?”

“Aye,” answered Joseph, with exaggerated care. “I’m certain.”

Zane turned again and silently left the kitchen.

His house was dark. He’d grown up with it this way and kept it as a useful habit. A house ill-lit on the inside revealed much less of its inhabitants; he nearly always preferred to see and be unseen. But Joe had apparently felt the girl in question required a great deal of illumination. When Zane stopped at the arched doorway to the parlor, he saw that every lamp was burning, plus the pair of candelabras from the dining room. The contrast was almost like daylight: the reds and blue-greens of the Peshawar rug searing bright, the carved corners of the paintings rubbed with gilt, the gleam of the satinwood chairs eye-wateringly sharp.

The child slumped aside in one of them, head back, eyes closed, lips apart. There was a half-filled cup of chocolate tilting precariously on her lap, her fingers still curled around the handle. Her frock was girlish blue sprigged with daisies, her pumps were dirty, her hair was mussed. Limp ringlets of darkened gold fell softly against her cheeks. She looked pale and gaunt and remarkably plain, despite the beauty of that hair. Everything smelled of hot wax and honey.

He stood there and felt, to his distant surprise, none of the anger he had expected, but instead a profound sense of relief.

To manage it he took the cup from her fingers and gave the chair a hard kick.

She came awake at once, straightening, her hands fluttering across her skirts.

“Lady Amalia. I wish I could say I was happy to see you, but I’ve already endured the pleasure of the Marquess of Langford’s company thrice in the past two days. What the devil are you about?”

“Father’s here?” she asked, looking around them.

“Not at the present. No doubt it won’t be long before he returns. I don’t believe he’s fully convinced I haven’t hidden you away somewhere in the house. Imagine my joy,” he added silkily, “at walking into my parlor tonight and discovering it to be true.”

“I’m sorry. I....” she trailed off, shaking her head, then covered her eyes with one hand. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Perchance it has something to do with the fact that you’ve been riding in a public coach for—let me see—almost a fortnight, isn’t it? That’s about how long it takes to travel from Darkfrith to my door by stage. Unless, I suppose,” he paused, “you flew here.”

He hadn’t meant it as a barb but she grimaced, just a little. Then her hand lowered; she gazed at him steadily.

“I didn’t fly. You know I can’t. And that’s not why.”

Zane didn’t like that look, long-lashed, brown-eyed, direct. It reminded him too much of her mother. They stared at each other in the growing silence. Amalia’s lips slowly compressed into a thin, stubborn line.

With a sigh he gave it up, lowering himself into the opposite chair. He glanced down at her cold chocolate and then tried a taste, feeling his stomach rumble. Hell was going to cut loose sooner or later, and he’d already missed supper.

The drákon did not take kindly to losing one of their kind. He knew that too bloody well.

Lamplight glinted silver along the scrolled edge of a tray beside him. Saints be praised, Joseph had left her food. Scones, orange cake, a dish of honeyed nuts and dried fruits—he leaned forward and helped himself to half an apricot and a sliver of cake.

“Bad dreams, snapdragon?”

“Yes.” It was a miserable whisper.

“How unfortunate. I’m certain it was worth fleeing your home without a word to anyone—without, I am equally certain, permission from your almighty drákon council—to come here to tell me.”

But she still didn’t avert her gaze. She didn’t even seem abashed. All her initial, drowsy confusion appeared completely vanished. She looked cool and composed and very much older than her years, even in her wrinkled skirts. Whatever it was that had compelled her halfway across the kingdom was well hidden behind that mask of mulish calm.

Very well. He knew how to wait.

Zane downed the apricot and crumbled the cake into pieces, consuming each mouthful with purposeful leisure. Joseph was thick-witted and slow and strictly as loyal as his next paycheck, but the true reason Zane kept him in his home was this: Cake. Scones. Fresh berry pies. He was the best hand at sugar pastries this side of the Channel, and the starving child Zane had once been fully appreciated his skills. By the force of his nature Zane remained a hammered blade; fat men never made good thieves. He survived on bites and water and potfuls of bitter coffee. But he was on his third slice before Amalia rose, taking back her cup from his hand.

She made a slow circle of the room, not drinking. “This doesn’t seem much like the residence of a notorious criminal.”

“No. That’s rather the point.”

“Is that why Mother gave it to you?”

“Pardon me,” he retorted, brushing the crumbs from his waistcoat, “she did not give it to me. I purchased it from her, and at a damned premium price. It was all extremely legitimate.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, oh.”

She set the chocolate on the windowsill. She lifted a hand to the iron bolt holding the shutters closed.

“Do not, if you please,” he said curtly, unmoving. “I’d prefer not to invite your kith and kin inside at the moment.”

“It isn’t sealed?”

“The molding around one of the panes has come loose. I discovered that the hard way two days ago.”

Her fingers jerked back as if burned. It was only one loosened pane, nothing very helpful to the ordinary men and thugs who usually haunted him, a mere breath of space between the solder and the glass. Yet it was all Christoff Langford had needed to breach all of Zane’s careful defenses. Because Langford, of course, wasn’t a man at all. He wasn’t even human.

And neither was his daughter.

“You love my family,” Amalia said now, her back to him, rubbing her palm up and down her rumpled blue-and-flowered skirts.

He did not reply.

“Some of them, anyway.” She glanced at him from over her shoulder. “You do love some.”

“If you say so.”

“You know what we are,” she persisted. “You’ve helped us, over the years. You’re...close to my parents. You’ve aided the tribe.”

“That wasn’t for love, I assure you.”

“What was it, then? Only money?”

“Money is a subject very dear to my heart, child. Do not underestimate it.”

“And what of power?” she asked, softer. “Is that dear to you as well?”

“Did you venture all this way for an examination of my character, snapdragon?”

Lia turned and looked him fully in the face. She didn’t like his pet name for her, and never had. It sounded whimsical, childish, when everything inside her felt strong and cold.

But she knew what he thought of her. She’d always known.

He was the only mortal tolerated by the tribe. He was the only one suffered to keep their secrets. While she and all her kind were kept trapped in the green heaven of Darkfrith, Zane was the sole living creature allowed to come and to go at will. Even her father, the Alpha, tended to inform the council when he meant to travel.

It was their way. She knew it was how they had survived all these centuries. The Others raised livestock, or crops. The drákon raised silence, year after year after year.

Lia was the daughter of a lord. She lived in a mansion of glimmer and light; she looked out her bedroom window every day at open skies and wild wooded hills and sometimes felt so suffocated it was a wonder she didn’t open her mouth and start screaming and never stop.

Rhys and Audrey and Joan—even Kimber, who at least got to leave to attend a proper school—moved through the hours as if there could be nothing finer than what had been placed before them. Their lives were planned out, their hopes and futures would be forever confined by the boundaries of their land. They were born there, they would find mates there and they would die there. To them, the world beyond the mist and bracken was of little consequence.

Lia understood why her mother had run away, all those years ago. If she thought for an instant she could truly do the same—

But she couldn’t. She wasn’t Gifted like the rest of her family. She couldn’t Turn to smoke, much less to dragon. She wasn’t beautiful, she wasn’t brave, she wasn’t any sort of reflection of the magnificence of her kind. It had taken all her meager resources just to get this far, and Lia knew her time here would be short. They’d find her soon.

There were only two things about her that set her apart from the rest of her tribe—two dark, disturbing things. And one of them was seated before her in this chamber.

Zane had not stirred from his chair. The lamps were bright and the shadows were harsh; he was sketched in charcoal and light, studying her with a half-lidded gaze she recognized from years of watching him pretending to relax at Chasen Manor, every line of his body casually elegant, his coat unbuttoned to drape the cushions, his waistcoat a satin gleam of pewter and taupe.

His eyes were paler than amber. His hair was very long and thick, honeyed brown. He was poise and muscle and tall as her father; Joan and Audrey used to keep her awake at night for years in the nursery, just giggling his name, until at last she was old enough to realize why.

Because of this. Because of his hands, so strong and tanned. His fingers, gently tapping the wooden arm of the chair in an easy, steady percussion that belied the wolf-watchfulness of his gaze. Because of his jaw, and his brows, and the handsome curve of his mouth. Because when he stretched his legs and crossed his ankles and lifted his dark lashes to fully see her once more, she was as pinned a deer in a dragon’s clear yellow sights.

She remembered the blind dream of him. She remembered the stroke of his voice—

“Forgive me if I interrupt your contemplation of my cravat,” he said now, in a very different tone. “No doubt it’s adorned with all manner of fascinating stains, as I’ve been out the past two days and nights straight searching every inn and tavern and coach yard in the city for one thoughtless, wayward miss. I find I’m a shade impatient with all these heavy silences. Why, pray tell, have you landed in my parlor?”

Lia blinked. “You—you were searching for me?”

“Your father seemed to require it.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, oh,” he repeated, this time clearly mocking.

She took a breath. “If I tell you something, will you promise not to mention it to anyone else?”

“No,” he said bluntly.

“What if it’s important?”

“In that case, absolutely no. Look,” he said, leaning forward to prop his elbows on his knees, “if it’s something so dire you can’t share it with your parents, then I want nothing to do with it. I’m not courting that sort of trouble. Sorry, my heart. That’s the way of things.”

And tonight, my heart?

“Do you think,” she asked carefully, “that is possible to—to tell the future?”

His eyes narrowed. “What, like tinkers and star-casters, that sort of thing?”

She shrugged. “Or, like dreams.”

“Certainly.”

“You do?”

“Aye. In fact, I’ve a carnival soothsayer on payroll who’ll read your runes and spin you as fine a future as you could wish—especially if you’re so accommodating as to leave your reticule unguarded.”

“I wasn’t jesting!”

“Neither was I. He’s bloody good at what he does. Only been locked up twice. Much better average than most of my blokes. But then,” he added mildly, “I suppose he’s able to see just when the constables will be turning the corner.”

Lia crossed the rug to stand before him. She felt calm, removed, after all the days of worry and heat and dread, rocked to sleep and awake in that wretched excuse of a carriage, the stench of people and old horsehair clogging up her nose. She felt a thread of her dream-self, smooth and mysterious, flowing through her veins.

With Zane still seated, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.

When she drew away again his eyes had taken on a harder glow.

“Passable,” he said coolly. “Feel free to try it again in about ten years. Until then, don’t waste my time.”

“Oh dear,” came a light, feminine voice. “Am I interrupting?”

“Not in the least.” Zane rose from the chair; Lia was forced to step back. In the parlor doorway stood a woman, hooded and cloaked, the slit in her mantle revealing skirts of dove silk and a stomacher of white threadwork and moonstones.

With a graceful turn of her wrists, the woman pushed back her hood. Red hair, gray eyes; her every movement carried the fresh scent of night.

Lia felt a flush of exquisite shame begin to creep up her throat.

“Who is this?” asked the woman, sounding amused.

“No one. Merely a little lost lamb.”

“A lamb,” said the woman, still smiling, entering the parlor. She touched a gloved finger to Lia’s chin, lifting her face. “With those eyes? I think not. Rather more a windstorm descending.”

Amalia pulled away. She glanced up at Zane—wolf-eyed, stone-faced, despite his languid tone—then grabbed his hand and held it hard.

“I want you to know,” she said quietly, “that I will do anything to protect my family. Now, or in the future. I’ll do anything at all. Remember that I warned you.”

His mouth flattened into a smile. “How charming. Perhaps you’d care inform your father as well.” He disengaged their hands. “I believe that’s him at the window.”

And the locked shutters blocking the broken pane began to rattle and shake.

Excerpted from The Dream Thief by Shana Abé. Copyright © 2006 by Shana Abé. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.