Isela Vogel is dancing on borrowed time: a degenerative hip threatens her successful career bringing the favor of the gods to her wealthy patrons. For this American refugee, dancing at Prague’s premier academy provides stability and financial security for her entire family. One final job – and a big one – could set Isela up for life. If it doesn’t get her killed.
As the newest member of a powerful Allegiance of Necromancers, Azrael has a lot to prove to his fellow lords of death. Previously assumed immortal, necromancers are turning up dead and Azrael is charged with finding an extraordinary killer. He’ll need to channel the power of the gods to succeed. For that, he’ll need a dancer.
Isela discovers all-too-fallible gods and scheming necromancers are the least of her worries. If she and Azrael fail, it will cost more than her life. If they succeed, she will lose everything she loves. And then there’s the danger of falling for a lord of death.
Isela Vogel danced for gods, no longer convinced anyone was listening.
She pressed the ball of her bare left foot into the polished wooden floorboards. Exhaling, her right leg floated with extraordinary control from the floor. Her fingers flared: palms out, thumbs turned down and in to present the backs of her hands. With a slight bend of her elbows, she pushed her hands away from her body; the right arm twisting down from the shoulder blade, the left fingertips arching toward the sky.
In every movement, every breath, she danced, demanding their attention anyway.
The scent of cardamom, oranges, and cinnamon permeated the air from the pots of scented water hanging around the hexagonal ring. There was no evidence dancing in a ring was more or less effective than anywhere else. A tradition of performers dictated a dedicated space, properly lit with good ventilation and solid flooring, was a necessity. Each academy had its own ring style, but for Isela, the Praha Academy was home.
The domed ceiling bathed the room in an aura of hued light from the sea glass soft panes. Although the practice and training rings in the floors below were mirrored, the walls of the performance ring bore the original Mucha murals. On sunny days, the room warmed nicely on its own, and open windows brought the bouquet of the trees from outside the building. In the winter, heating was provided by radiators behind elegant gilded grates.
Isela bowed her back, the muscles of her abdomen contracting to support her upper body as it cascaded behind her, until the sweep of her dark hair dusted the floor. She hated dancing with her hair unbound, but some patrons insisted on it. In some corners, there was the belief that the value and effectiveness of the dance was due to its beauty. And since a majority of dancers were women, she thought there might be some credence to that.
It was one of the reasons some of the others danced nude, but she had her limits. Fitted briefs and a cropped tank top, with straps crossing her back and above her lowest ribs to contain full breasts, were a practical choice.
Isela was not as lean or tall as others; her body veered toward curves over the long, corded muscles developed by years of training. She might never be mistaken for a prima ballerina, but she had mastered the inversions and acrobatics that made her renowned among her peers.
Each movement had a name, and, strung together in particular sequence, they became a request from her patron to the gods themselves. She knew them all.
Powerful, inexplicable forces with their own priorities existed among humanity since the beginning. No one knew exactly what the gods were, but beings of such unearthly power demanded respect. Without knowing better, humans labeled them gods and turned to worship, attempting to appease and gain favor. Initially, the gods seemed to have no real interest in communication. That didn’t stop humanity from trying. And when humans danced, the gods listened.
Dancing saved humanity, or doomed it.
Her right palm met the floor before the left. Her belly contracted, drawing first the extended right leg and then left over her head. She found a moment of balance in inversion, with all four limbs pressing out in opposite directions. It was hard not to feel proud of her skill in these instances. Even knowing her body had already begun to fail her.
She held the last pose for a stretch, signaling the completion of the dance. The sensation of the world around her returned with the air rushing into her lungs. Sweat rolled down her skin, the burnished gold hinting at sun-kissed climes, pooling at her feet. At last, she palmed her hands together at her heart, closed her eyes, and floated through a curtsey. The chime sounded, signaling the dance completed.
The old Sanskrit invocation whispered across her lips, “Om bolo sat guru maharaja ki, jai!” She danced for gods for a living, but she worshipped nothing.
Finished, she lifted her head and left the ring.
At the edge of the room, a woman waited patiently, towel in hand. Even at average height, Isela dwarfed her visitor.
“Headmaster Sauvageau.” Isela took the towel, dabbing at her forehead. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I have a new assignment for you,” the older woman said in greeting. “Urgent, and extremely sensitive. Come with me.”
Descended from the godsdancing founder, Corinne Divya Sauvageau had been a dancer in her youth. She still moved with a lithe grace, though silver streaked the sleek chignon at the base of her skull. The students had long ago given up trying to guess her age.
The headmaster wore a tailored pantsuit, likely suitable for her full day of meetings with clients. In spite of her notoriously hectic schedule, she seemed to know everything that went on inside the walls.
Isela joked that the headmaster was impossible to pin down, because she was everywhere at once. That didn’t stop her from feeling joyfully humbled by the older woman’s unexpected presence.
“Another towel?” The older woman stepped aside as the custodian edged behind her to enter the ring, giving a differential nod when the headmaster’s eyes skimmed him.
“Do I have time for a shower?”
Divya shook her head. “Later.”
Isela took the towel, and did her best to dry off under the headmaster’s unblinking gaze.
“Your third warrior transition is sloppy,” the older woman changed the subject.
Isela inclined her head. It had been a long time since she feared her teacher. “Perhaps you should give me some pointers, old lady.”
The tiniest collection of wrinkles creased Divya’s almond skin around the mouth and eyes. Her laughter made the custodian mopping the floor start before hurrying back to his task.
“Come to my office,” Divya said. “Before you ruin my reputation as a fire-breathing dragon.”
Taking the slippers offered by the headmaster, Isela hooked them onto her bare feet before tossing a light wrap across her shoulders.
Divya’s eyebrow rose when Isela left an extra tip on the offering tray on her way to the door. “Bribery?”
“An expression of gratitude.” Isela shouldered her bag to face the raised eyebrow of the headmaster.
Divya handpicked Isela from a school performance nineteen years earlier, overcoming resistance from the Academy officials to enroll the girl she had seen briefly on a poorly lit, community center stage. The headmaster made her plea in person on the doorstep of the family home, promising to take personal responsibility for the gangly eleven-year-old.
The invitation was a privilege that existed on a knife’s edge. To be a dancer brought her uncomfortably close to the powers which lead the world to the brink of destruction. But times had changed; the Godswar was over, and the world was a different place.
Due to the power it once commanded, and the status as a sanctioned human form of communication with the gods, dancers still held a certain cache. These days, the most successful dancers lived comfortable lives, performing primarily for business deals and the personal issues of the wealthy.
Isela shivered a little in the cool air of the hall, aware of the students moving through the halls. Their stares itched at her skin like the drying sweat. She wondered at their fascination. Flushed, with her coffee colored hair beginning to curl into sweat-hardened tangles, she wasn’t exactly impressive.
She though her best feature to be her eyes. They were her father’s: a startling shade some called ash and others, storm. In every other way, she was her mother’s child; a passion for movement and the burnished bronze skin signaling a potent mix of cultures that were uniquely American.
“Your every move is The Dance,” Divya said, casting her stern expression about to clear their path. “Even the first years can see it.”
Humbled by praise, Isla’s gaze went to the floor. “I have you to thank for that.”
More than half of her life had been devoted to study and performance. She’d conditioned her body to master the most demanding maneuvers. She made it her purpose, stripping it down to the bones, and reassembling it as her own. She no longer knew herself without it.
The headmaster’s phone chimed, and they paused while she checked the screen. Divya’s mouth twitched again with that barely-there smile. This time, Isela thought it held a hint of sadness.
“That was an exceptional performance,” Divya said. “Your patron added a nice bonus to your check.”
Isela spoke to cover her discomfort at her mentor’s unusually liberal praise. “So what’s the job? If you’re sending me to Sur Americas again, I need to get my shots. I was sick for weeks last time.”
“Closer to home,” Divya said enigmatically.
Curiosity soured as they continued the walk in silence to the headmaster’s office. Divya’s equivocation made her uneasy.
The broad oak door opened smoothly as they approached. Divya never hesitated, but Isela hung back a step, marveling as she always did at the door always opening at the exact right time. On the other side of the handle, Divya greeted the suited man with a nod.
Niles served as Divya’s personal assistant as well as the Academy’s head of security, and, she suspected, bodyguard. Always effortlessly formal, he bowed. A stocky man, with the hands and ruddy neck of a laborer and fringes of white hair kept carefully combed around the base of his skull, he didn’t exactly look the part, in spite of the expensive suit and impeccable manners. But Isela had seen both his handwriting and his combat skills. She had no doubt why he held the position.
“Don’t you think we’re past all the formalities?” She smiled as he collected the tea service on the sideboard. “You make it sound like I’m twelve, and getting busted for mouthing off in Ms. Salle’s class. Again.”
“Apologies, Miss Vogel,” he said, without breaking his stern expression. “Ms. Salle sends her regards.”
“Bring in tea.” Divya pinched her lips closed on a smile.
Divya’s personal sanctuary always surprised Isela. Something about the woman’s suits, clean lines, and rigid demeanor always made her think she would be more at home in the ultra-modern official suite that patrons saw. But this room of wood and fabric, overstuffed chairs, and cozy nooks had her personal touch in every corner. Divya gestured toward the reading chair close to the fire.
“That will be all.”
Divya’s dismissal was not usually so curt. She served the tea herself, handing over the delicate porcelain cup.
Weariness from the dance settled on Isela. She resisted the urge to run her hand over her throbbing hip. The fewer people who knew about the damage, the better: faltering of response from the gods might not be the only thing that ended her career prematurely.
Her stomach grumbled audibly, and Divya offered up a tray of biscuits. Isela hesitated for just a moment, not able to keep from gobbling two while she waited for Divya to continue. At heart a performer, the headmaster would not be rushed.
“The client is…unusual.” Divya grappled with the word.
Reaching for a third biscuit, Isela paused. Patient, yes, dramatic, perhaps, but it wasn’t Divya’s habit to quibble.
“If it’s the nude thing again,” Isela withdrew her hand, rolling her eyes, “I don’t care how many times they ask, I am not taking off my clothes for art, faith, or anything else.”
Divya smiled with such wistful sadness, it was as though she was recalling memories of an old friend, or perhaps someone she had lost.
What in Hades was going on?
“Know that we have ways to protect you,” Divya assured, “and your family, if you decide not to take the job.”
Isela focused on her breath as her heart raced against her ribs. “What kind of job would put my family in danger if I declined?”
She’d heard of things like that, back in the old days.
In the mid-twentieth century, following World War II, the discovery of godsdancing changed humanity forever. A young ballerina by training drew on her culture’s tradition as a great synthesizer - a land where thousands of gods existed not as separate entities but facets of one - and crafted a language by combining them. She linked moves, added accents from one to the base of another. She commanded the attention of the gods, and learned to bend their will to human desire. She trained others, and the dance began to evolve into its current form: a combination of moves drawn from hundreds of traditions around the globe.
At first, there was success: Crops flourished, illnesses retreated. But after thousands of years of organized religion, humans made the simple mistake of thinking they knew the powers they now worshiped. The gods didn’t belong to any one creed. They didn’t adhere to the standards of any book or theology. They could be capricious and childlike, alternately willful or easily swayed. Worse, pettiness and greed began to color human requests. Governments collected dancers for their arsenal, rewarding families with bribes, or manipulating them with thinly veiled threats to gain their cooperation.
The result, a two-week international conflict known as the Godswar left the world ravaged, and on the edge of chaos. Until the one thing humans learned to fear more than the gods put a stop to it: necromancers.
“You have a job for me.” Isela brought herself out of her thoughts with a shiver.
The director set down her teacup. “You must know that I tried to decline, but the Necromancer can be very...persuasive. I reminded him you must be willing for your dancing to be effective.”
But Isela’s brain had stopped, hearing the implied capital letter. “The Necromancer?”
Unlike the gods, the Allegiance of Necromancers announced and named itself. Within hours of declaring their world takeover, sightings of the vicious forces, capricious storms, and indiscriminate destruction vanished. Without arms, the war ended quickly.
The eight members of the Allegiance carved up the globe, and assigned satraps to smaller regions within. The shells of governments remained, but it was no secret who kept them in line.
The law could arrest, convict, and imprison a person. Necromancers’ powers extended beyond human laws, controlling the life and death of their subjects. With their ability to suspend death, some doubted they had ever been human at all. As far as anyone could tell, they were immortal, or at least impervious to human weapons, and mortals who pissed them off had a way of turning up dead, or worse.
Unlike other major cities, a satrap of a distant power did not rule Prague. The European Necromancer, Azrael, was so fond of the city; he made it his base.
“He requested you specifically,” Divya finished.
“He wants me to dance?” Isela asked. “For what? An earache?”
The joke, intended to keep her mind from going immediately to the worst-case scenario, fell flat.
“For him,” Divya answered, ignoring her jibe. “He wants you to dance for him.”
After the war ended, the Allegiance stated the intention to maintain a new world order, namely, an enforced peace. Though they put a stop to government recruitment of dancers, Necromancers permitted their continued existence by sanctioning academies for training and managing dancer solicitation. The regional satrap was responsible for approving all requests. Dancing outside of the regulation led to swift and harsh punishment.
In recent times, most dances were for exclusively mortal concerns: restoring health, securing business deals, good marriages. Hiring dancers was becoming an antiquated ritual; the wealthy version of lighting incense in a temple or paying an indulgence, with somewhat better returns.
Isela put down her tea to keep from splashing it all over her shaking hands. Divya met her eyes and Isela knew the time for jokes was finished.
Isela said, keeping her voice steady with effort. “He supports the Academy, and he’s a good one— right?”
“He’s a necromancer, Isela,” Divya said evenly. “Some say he personally nailed that man’s eyes to the door of his shop.”
Isela’s stomach roiled. It had been all over the feeds. The eyes had continually moved—pupils opening and closing—for days. A guard had been assigned to the door ensured they were not tampered with. What had become of the rest of the man was a mystery.
Good, was a relative term. Even when they united to put the world back together piece by piece—keeping the fallout of the Godswar from becoming a full scale apocalypse—some of the individual Necromancers proved to be tyrants to their own people.
“They have hired dancers for intercessions before,” Isela went on, bent on talking herself out of panic. “Look at Lenora. She was able to retire after dancing for the Sur American Necro. This could be my ticket.”
To where, she had no idea. What was there for her outside the Academy?
“Leonora danced in the ring,” Divya spoke slowly.
That was it; the thing that was making the older woman nervous. No, Isela corrected, scared.
“He wants me to dance...where?”
Divya spread her hands. “At his discretion. It’s an unusual request these days, but it was done before. Once. I suppose it’s a matter of security. You know how zealously they guard information about themselves.”
“If it’s that secret, what will he do to me when I’m finished?” Isela asked, startled by the tremor in her own voice.
“Wipe your memory,” Divya answered. “He certainly wouldn’t kill you. He agreed to that.”
“Our benevolent Necromancer overlord agreed not to kill me.” Isela fought down a laugh before it became a sob. “Hooray?”
A memory wipe? What would he do to her while she was in his possession? How would she know she would come back the same person, if at all?
What did the assurance of a Necromancer mean to a couple of mortals?
Divya shook her head, catapulting herself from her chair with uncharacteristic violence.
“You’re not going to take it.” She paced a small circuit near the bookcase, her hands clenched at her sides. “I didn’t bring you here and train you to become fodder for some necromancer’s folly. We have a network, from the old days. It’s rusty, but we protect our own. I can get you and your family out of here today.”
And go where? There was no place on Earth she could go where the Allegiance would not find her. What would he do to her, or her family, when he did? She thought about her parents. They were much older than when they had left the U.S., and her brothers, with families of their own now. What of the Academy? The Necromancer had been a patron since the end of the Godswar. It wouldn’t take him long to figure out Divya had helped her. How many would pay the price because she ran away?
If anything, she was the expendable one. All she had was a philodendron slowly taking over her apartment. The knowledge didn’t stop her throat from choking with despair. Her passion, her skill, her life – the one she had worked so hard to shape for herself – was now being offered up. And she would have to hold the platter.
If it meant protecting everyone she loved, she would do it. “I won’t run.”
Divya sank into her chair, and Isela saw her age in the slump of her shoulders and the deep lines carved by her frown. Isela folded herself onto the floor beside her mentor. She reached out tentatively, and lay a hand on the older woman’s. The skin was soft and paper thin.
She could feel Divya’s pulse racing. The faintest twinge of sweat and fear came through her usual scent of spicy peppers and warm chocolate.
“I won’t give him the satisfaction of hurting you all to punish me,” Isela said firmly.
Divya’s haunted eyes stared at her. “When you were eleven, I promised your mother that this life, the Academy, was a way giving you security. Not putting you in harm’s way.”
“Hey, I’m the best, remember?,” Isela forced cheer into her tone that sounded maniacal to her own ear. “Of course he wants me.”
“That you are.” Divya collected herself. “He asked for you. You have use to him, Isela. Make it your advantage.”
“Oh, I can be a diva.” Isela waved her hand with a stilted laugh. “I better be getting paid for this.”
Divya looked almost her old self again when the corner of her mouth twitched faintly. “My dear, the paycheck alone makes Leonora’s wealth a pittance.”
The godsdance was a job, a way to provide for herself and take care of her family in a troubled world. A job that would one day—sooner rather than later, in her case—end. She stared into the fire as her eyes blurred. One big job, would set her family up for life.
“He would like to meet with you this afternoon,” Divya said. “To discuss the choreography.”
“And the petition?”
“You’ll have to talk to him about that,” Divya said, a hint of annoyance in her voice. “I am not permitted to know.”
Closing her eyes, Isela took a breath. She held it, sipped a bit more air, and exhaled. When she opened her eyes, Divya was waiting.
“I’m going to shower and change.” Isela rose from her chair. She was proud of how steady her voice sounded. Casual, even. “Then I’ll just run over to the castle.”
Like that was something she did every day.
“Niles will take you.”
The gesture touched Isela more than she expected. “He’ll never—”
“He insisted,” Divya interrupted, her voice coarse with emotion. “I insist. I’m still in charge.”
Somehow, Isela gathered her bag, and left the office. She thanked Niles for the tea, as though it was any other day. It helped he refused her gratitude, as he always did.
“We all have a job to do, Miss Vogel.”
A monument to Art Nouveau design and Czech pride, the Municipal House had served as a center for community culture and gathering since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Recognized as being state of the art for its day, it had seen countless concerts, balls, and been the background for important political events—none so important as the Necromancer’s claim to Prague as the capital of his territory.
Left in shambles after wars, the restoration of the Municipal House was his gift to the Praha Dance Academy. Great pains had been taken to preserve the original interiors and decor. These days only the first floor and front halls, housing a museum and a few of the old ballrooms, were open to the public. The rest had been converted for students and faculty of the Academy.
Isela barely remembered life before Prague. Once she began training, however, the Academy and the city became home. When she graduated and accepted the offer to become an academy principal, the only thing she had insisted on in her contract was it be as principal resident dancer.
Crossing the threshold of the attic turned flat in the southwest wing, her body relaxed out of habit. The spacious, breezy room with slanted ceilings and windows overlooking the city was her sanctuary. Only there did she allow herself to sag against the wall beside the door and succumb to tears.
Years of hard work had given her little appreciation for self-pity.
It was almost noon. Her hip had begun to ache, a dull throb that spiked as she climbed the five stairs into the main floor of the apartment. Training taught her the value of routine, so she threw herself into an abbreviated version of her post-dance ritual to steady her mind.
She had rushed to the ring this morning, leaving the place a mess. She tidied as she went; plumping the ample cushions on the couch facing the view of Old Town; folding a throw blanket into a neat square on the arm of the reading chair next to the antique bookshelf.
In the living room, she drew the drapes away from the floor-to-ceiling windows; rain-sodden light filled the space. She longed to stretch out on the long mat by the window, but moving through sun salutations would have to wait.
She ordered the dance theory books stacked haphazardly on the nightstand, and scooped up scattered earrings, depositing them on a framed screen atop the dresser where she kept all of her jewelry neatly hung. By the time she finished making the bed, she almost felt calm.
At the end of the long room, she paused to strip before the glass-walled shower surrounding the tiled depression in the floor. Beside it, the massive claw foot tub hunkered closer to the window, with a view of the city roofs when she bathed. The apartment ended in the walled-off water closet with it’s own separate sink and vanity.
Isela adored the expansive sensation without interior walls. The philodendron’s tendrils crawling across the entire length of the window wall seemed to agree.
Under the flow of hot water, she took her time working conditioner through from roots to tips of her sweat snarled curls. Detangled, she gathered the mass of her hair on the top of her head, then soaped and scrubbed her face. A final rinse and she shut off the water, wringing out her hair.
Most new patron meetings took place in Divya’s public office at the Academy--part of the performance. She’d dress to emphasize her dancer’s body. Curvy as it was, there was no arguing she was at her physical peak. As she gained fame, there was less need to show off. Most were repeats, or booked her on reputation alone.
However, the thought of facing a Necromancer, in his territory, made her want to camouflage herself. She dressed modestly in a rose-colored wrap dress that swirled around her calves, braiding and pinning her hair to the crown of her head. She hung teardrop-shaped silver hoops from her earlobes, and kept her makeup subdued.
As an afterthought, she buckled low profile holsters to her thigh and bicep. What good a pair of knives would do against an immortal, she had no idea, but they made her feel better.
She wound a scarf around her neck, and cast one final glance over her treasured space.
There was no time to waste. She had a date with death.
Niles met her outside as she passed through the glass doors bearing the standard crimson and gold-edged umbrella, the colors the Academy shared with its home city. Her eyes went to the elaborate stained-glass canopy that had always been her favorite part of the building. Greens and peaches colored the light refracting through the glass, muted by cloud soaked sunlight.
He guided her toward the idling Tesla sedan. His arms spread wide, providing a physical barrier between her and the curious lookers loitering to catch a glimpse of a dancer. No one dared approach. He opened the rear door before she could reach for the handle. She paused with her hand on the doorframe to fill her lungs with the petrichor that followed fresh rain, and slid into the car.
The door shut behind her with the solid vacuum-sealed sound of a space shuttle cockpit, tinted windows obscuring the light. She leaned back onto the eggshell leather seats –only the best for Headmaster Sauvageau.
“All right then, Miss Vogel?” Niles glanced over his shoulder into traffic.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
The car pulled away from the curb in eerie silence, triggering memories of the scents and sounds of the gasoline-powered cars of her youth. Under strict regulation by the Allegiance, combustion driven engines were rare these days.
The suspension muted the effect of the cobblestone streets, and for that, she was grateful. She was so busy replaying her conversation with Divya for clues to what lay in store it took her a moment to notice the speed of travel. This time in the afternoon, the traffic in the heart of Old Town should have been monstrous. They breezed through another green light.
Isela met Niles’ eyes in the rearview mirror. “VIP treatment?”
“It appears so.”
The car crossed the bridge named for a Czech illustrator, and climbing the hill toward the castle that dominated the city skyline. Never needing to stop for a light, she watched the traffic simply part as they passed. Did the Necromancer do it himself, she wondered, or did he have underlings to redirect traffic?
Gallows humor will get you nowhere, she thought with a smile as the car pulled off the main road and descended to the castle gates. Especially if they really could read minds.
The Prague Castle was actually a complex of buildings; each named as a palace for one well regarded family or another. They framed an increasingly narrowing street leading toward the main grounds. While an architectural student might have admired the enormous range of styles represented, Isela felt like livestock being funneled down a chute.
As they reached the castle proper, the gates rolled open soundlessly, and the car continued between the columns headed with statues of battling Titans. Isela was unable to shake the impression that the two muscle-bound demigods peered forebodingly into the car as she passed.
They passed through the first courtyard and into a second, where a door on the left was illuminated. Positioned at the handle, a man in a dark suit stood, a silk tie knotted expertly at his throat.
When Niles opened her door, she swung her legs out, flowing to a standing position under the umbrella. She started forward, but his hand on her arm stopped her. She could count the times on one hand Niles had touched her, three of them being helping her up from the sparring floor after a particularly brutal takedown. This was just too much to bear for one day. She faced him, eyes shining.
“You’ll pardon my forwardness, miss,” he said. “You are the best godsdancer the world has ever seen. Don’t let him forget it.”
Isela inclined her head, blinking once, and the tears were gone.
“Wish me luck,” she said with what she hoped was a confident grin.
“You don’t need it, miss.”
No, she thought, turning away. I need a miracle.
The man at the door appeared to be a few years Isela’s junior, and up close, looked like a boy playing dress-up in his father’s suit, for all its tailored fit.
“Miss Vogel, welcome,” he said. “This way, if you would.”
As he took her coat, she snuck glances at the foyer. The entire complex had been closed to the public since Azrael named the castle as his seat. Renovations and restorations—rumored in the billions—returned it to its former glory after centuries of hard use and little maintenance.
Contrary to the dark rooms and smoky halls she expected, the façade appeared like something out of an architectural history magazine. The minimalist decor was tasteful, a refined mix of old and new, well-suited to this, one of the youngest buildings in the complex. Every angle could have made the backdrop for a publicity photo.
She half-expected armed guards or earpiece wearing, suited security teams to be prowling the grounds. And where was the mess of obedient zombie servants going about their master’s business? She chastised herself; she had to get the word “zombie” out of her head. Using the derogatory street name for the dead servants of the Necromancer would not earn her any favors.
Little more than brainless servants, or an example of what happened when you crossed a Necromancer, the undead earned the comparison. It was all much more civilized than flesh-eating and rotting corpses. When the length of the punishment had been served, they were released to the afterdeath, and their bodies returned to any remaining family for burial.
The kicker was, some humans, craving the comforts of power after the Godswar, offered themselves in servitude under a contract. They retained more of their personalities, serving in more senior roles.
As far as she could tell, she was alone with her guide. Up close, there was something not quite right about him. He was too pale, his eyes too bright. And he wasn’t breathing. She had never seen a Contract before. This one could have been a young analyst headed to work. He was clearly not a brainless servant.
“It’s an honor, Miss Vogel,” he said. “I’d never thought I’d meet a godsdancer, especially one of your stature.”
Isela knew she was staring, but couldn’t think of anything to say, except, “Thank you.”
He wasn’t wearing an earpiece, but with the distant facial expression and head tilt, he may as well have been. When his attention returned, his visage was fixed, but she thought she saw the hurt in his eyes. He’d been chastised by someone, or something, unseen.
“I apologize for delaying you. Right this way.”
He moved quickly down the long hall, and Isela was glad she had chosen kitten heels instead of the sexier ones she might have picked for an ordinary client. With any other client, she might not have expected to have to run—or fight—for her life, at some point. They clicked across the stone floor with the proper sound of authority, though, and she liked that.
It was a good reminder, like Niles’ words, she wasn’t some human lackey, called to heel at the feet of the Necromancer. She was the best damn godsdancing human lackey in the world. The thought brought the twist of a smile to her mouth.