Gideon knew they were being followed.
He knew they were being followed because if they weren’t, all the shouts of protest, grunts of pain, and crashes of glass breaking behind them were the beginnings of Nike’s most specifically transient bar fight, ever.
He hoped that just this once his instincts were off, and the noise really was the result of a pub-brawl-crawl, but a quick glance over his shoulder showed him five figures—two slim and dark and three broad and fair—plowing through the street.
“That’s just adorable,” he commented, “in a sick kind of way.”
“The triplets are coming.” He turned and gave Mia a do let’s hurry hand on her shoulder. “With their friends the mercenary twins.”
“What twins?” she asked, but hurriedly, in deference to the hand. “And how is that adorable?”
“Adorable in a sick kind of way. I did qualify the statement,” he pointed out. “And the twins… remember the woman from the alley?”
“The one with the slithery voice.” Mia pulled him left, off of Marlboro and onto a still smaller street, one of those formed when more buildings were erected than the original city plan allowed for.
“That one, yes. Her name is Rey.”
“She was pissed—”
“—that you bashed her brother. You never mentioned they was twins.”
“Were, and it didn’t seem relevant at the time. Except for them being buddies with a set of triplets, which is—”
“Not adorable,” she cut in quickly.
“In a sick kind of way,” he qualified, again.
She, no surprise, rolled her eyes and shrugged. Then she took a sharp right into a narrow, connecting walkway.
Gideon squeezed her shoulder to stop and, with his back to the rightmost building, leaned carefully out to see what was happening behind them.
At first he thought they’d lost the full hive of siblings, but a flurry of motion at the corner of Marlboro told him they were still coming.
“Let’s scarp,” he said, and followed Mia deeper into the passage, which was so narrow at some points that his shoulders brushed the walls on both sides.
The buildings were also of the ramshackle oeuvre, and he was sure several only remained upright because they were leaning on each other.
Even better, their entrances weren’t at street level, but below, so that one had to descend a staircase to get in the front door.
It was not, in other words, a strong tactical position, should their pursuers catch up with them.
A cracked window they passed was emitting a stream of smoke—ease-laced tobacco—giving Gideon the impression the entire row of ramshackle townhouses had been converted to hukka dens.
He was about to ask Mia if she was certain of her route, when she turned left, to one of the sub-level doors, taking the steps down in two quick jumps.
Gideon followed, less enthusiastically. “Tell me this isn’t your someplace quiet.”
“Nah, this is just a shortcut,” she assured, opening the door and waving him in before her.
As much as Gideon didn’t want a run-in out here, he was almost certain he didn’t want to go into this building, from which the vapor of ease and trip, and who knew what other narcotics, threatened to rob him of his focus.
“You comin’ or what?” Mia asked.
He glanced back into the narrow lane. “So far, so good. Maybe we’ve—”
And then an Ohmdahl-like shout was followed by a Ronan-like shadow, and he knew they were out of time.
Gideon ducked into the house and Mia followed, closing the door behind them.
He reached back to lock the door, but Mia shook her head. “If they’re trying the doors, and one’s locked…”
“It’ll look like someone’s hiding something.” He nodded, then coughed.
The place was unsurprisingly filled with the smoke that had only teased its way past the door.
It stung their eyes, rasped in their throats, clouded their minds, and infuriated Elvis, who set his wings to flapping the pernicious substance away.
“Thanks,” Gideon told him. Through the haze, he could just make out a long central hall with an ascending stairway facing the entrance, and rooms opening on either side. All, he assumed, occupied.
Mia didn’t hesitate, but headed straight through, past the stairs and the rooms, into the kitchen, and then right, to another door.
“Now where?” Gideon rasped.
Mia, holding one sleeve-covered hand over her nose and mouth, opened the door with the other. They were, it seemed, to go downstairs.
Bad idea, Gideon thought.
Then he heard the front door beginning to creak open behind them.
They went downstairs.
The lower area was as large, but divided by a series of free-standing shoji screens rather than walls, and while there was enough smoke to calm an acre of bees, it was of the lighter, less narcotic variety.
Gideon had never thought of tobacco as particularly refreshing, but in comparison to what was being inhaled upstairs, the basement was like a walk through a spring shower.
“This way,” Mia said again, leading him around the leftmost screen, and then another.
As they moved, the air became even less fuggy. Gideon was even able to blink away some of the tears to see an open window.
An open window in a basement.
He looked at Mia, his eyes questioning.
“Wolstonecroft Street,” she said softly, and pointed to where the window was set next to a crookedly hung door. “It’s a full story lower than Byron.”
He nodded his understanding, not particularly surprised by the girl’s intimate knowledge of the place.
As she’d said earlier, this was prime dipping territory for a working dodger, but even the best pickpocket needed to know the lay of the land in case a dip went wrong or, as now, she happened to be traveling with an unfortunately popular individual.
He did, however, wonder if the reason she was so small for her age was because of excessive exposure to secondhand smoke.
That he was about to ask her this told him he’d probably inhaled a bit too much firsthand smoke in passing.
From upstairs, the sound of heavy footsteps shook the ceiling, and Mia, still filtering the air through her sleeve, tugged him along, weaving her way through the low pillows, upon which were strewn in various positions of recline a significant number of citizens who preferred to take their intoxicants through their lungs.
Soon, though not soon enough from the racket up above, Gideon watched Mia reach for the basement door.
“Wait,” he said quickly, grabbing her hand and pulling her back. A feeling was growing in the pit of his stomach, the same sort he’d feel when a mission was about to go swarm.
He studied the door, top to bottom, then with a speed that belied the fug in his brains, slammed the door’s rusty lock home.
“What?” she hissed as he continued to move, dragging her along behind as he scanned the area. “What’re you doing? We were almost home free.”
Boots were clumping down the stairs, but Gideon didn’t even try to see who was coming.
“Crack under the door,” he said shortly. “Big enough to see two pairs of boots waiting on the other side. Here.” He stopped before a curtained-off section of wall.
The odor emanating from behind that curtain was about as far from a spring shower as he could imagine.
“Here is where you’re going to hide,” he said, pulling the curtain aside, and immediately wishing he hadn’t.
The curtain really did cut down on the privy’s smell.
“Are you swarm?” she asked, almost choking on the odor. “We can’t all fit in here—and those who do are like to suffocate.”
“It’s not that bad,” he said. Actually, it was pretty bad. But behind him, whoever had come downstairs was rousting the torpid smokers from their respective stupors.
And now someone was banging on the back door.
Gideon looked at Mia. “There’s room for the two of you.”
“Wait!” Her eyes went wide, making her, for once, seem as young as she actually was.
“Can’t,” he said, then straightened his arm and clicked his tongue to Elvis, who flowed from Gideon’s shoulder to his wrist and then, when Gideon gave the sign, to Mia’s shoulder. “Friend,” he said to the draco. “Guard.” And, while Elvis showed his displeasure by shifting from leg to leg, he remained in place, his right forepaw resting in Mia’s hair.
“No,” she whispered, never minding that the draco had been her sole desire not five hours ago. “We’ll fight ‘em. Like we did before.”
“Can’t,” he said again. He crouched down quickly because, to his horror, the girl was actually near to tears. “The thing is, these aren’t going to be the last. The person who sent the twins—”
“Rand,” she said.
“Yes, Rand,” Gideon agreed, as a rush of fresh air from behind told him the basement door was now open. “Rand’s like Killian Del. He has money and power, and even if we could fight them—and we can’t, not with the Ohmdahls in the mix, we can’t—but even if we could, Rand won’t stop sending people after me.”
“And the thing is,” he continued over her, “they’re not looking for you. And I’d like to keep it that way.”
Her face began to crumple, and his heart seemed to be going along for the ride.
Must be something in the smoke…
Footsteps were closing in. The screens Mia had led him around were being torn aside, or simply through.
“Keep Elvis safe for me,” he said. Then he rose and dropped the curtain before her expression could completely undo him, and turned and stepped out to face the five—no, six—come to claim him.
Gideon frowned, then counted.
Three Ohmdahls, check.
Two angry twins, check.
“Oh, right,” he said, as he recognized the sixth as Nahmin, the one who’d almost gotten Gideon drowned.
He probably would have identified him sooner, but the man’s clothing was far more sedate than when Gideon had seen him climb out of the Rand carriage in front of Gideon’s hotel.
In fact, Gideon thought he kind of looked like a butler. “Where’d you come from?” he asked Nahmin.
“I found him waiting at back door,” Freya said, peering somewhat owlishly at her companion. “First I wonder, ‘who is this little man pounding on door, and why is he also looking for Gideon,’ but then I am thinking, the more the happier, yes?”
“No,” Gideon said, glancing at the six standing between him and any hope of freedom, “not really.”