Asanti didn’t like hiding from the team.
So she hid in plain sight. Rome was a large city, after all, and she couldn’t be accused of “hiding” while sitting in an outdoor cafe, enjoying the late afternoon sun and an espresso. It was hardly her fault that her cafe of choice was about as far from the Vatican as you could get while still remaining within the city limits.
“Hello, dear,” came a voice. Only decades of practice in dealing with magic, demons, and angry priests allowed Asanti to keep her composure and not spill thick black espresso all over her blue flowered dress.
She looked up. The woman who had caught her stood with the sun behind her, making her more of a silhouette than an ordinary human. But then, when had anyone ever accused the Maitresse of being ordinary, or even remotely human?
“Lovely to see you,” Asanti lied, her heart hammering in a way that had nothing to do with espresso. “Won’t you sit?”
The Maitresse eased her regal form down on the wrought iron chair as if it were a throne. She carried with her a pot of tea and an ancient chipped teacup.
All the usual questions rose to Asanti’s mind. Why was she here? What did she want? How did she find Asanti? But she kept her cool. The Maitresse would give out information at the rate she chose, no faster, and anyone who controlled as much magic as she did would have had no problem finding an old friend.
If that’s what they could call themselves.
“It’s dreadfully sunny. I don’t know how you stand it,” the Maitresse said, squinting at her. Bright spots of color stood out on her pale cheeks, though her face was shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat.
“Ah, I had heard you moved north. Escaping the heat?”
“Among other things,” the Maitresse said. “Is that enough? Are we done with the niceties?”
She looked younger than the last time Asanti had seen her, when she had last visited the Market Arcanum a few years earlier. This made Asanti very nervous. She put down her espresso. “That’s fine, yes. Small talk was never your strong suit.”
“That’s because small talk is not communicating. It’s dancing. And if I’m going to dance, I’d rather be properly attired.” The Maitresse poured her tea carefully. “I would like to catch up someday, though. When we have time. But this isn’t a social call. I am calling in a debt. I need you.” Her eyes glittered wickedly from beneath her hat. “And you’d better bring your team, too.”
Asanti sat very still. She’d known—she’d known—that allowing herself to be in the debt of someone like the Maitresse was not the wisest choice she could have made. But desperate times had called for making such a deal. At the time it had felt like the lesser evil. Now she was far less certain.
She smiled thinly. “You know, considering the amount of power you possess, and the friends you have, I never really thought you would need to call in a debt from someone like me.”
The Maitresse looked at her over her teacup as she sipped. She remained silent.
“But a debt is a debt,” Asanti finally said, the words feeling like rocks in her mouth. “I’ll do anything in my power to pay you back. But I would ask that you keep the team out of it.”
“You have no right to ask for such a thing,” the Maitresse said. “You can’t do this alone. You will need them.”
“They don’t owe you,” Asanti said flatly.
“You just said you would do anything in your power to pay me back. Leading a team of talented Bookburners is within your power.”
Asanti summoned the waiter with a wave and ordered another espresso. When he had swept away, she said, “Even with the team, what can we do that you and your many associates can’t?”
“That’s just the thing. I need to keep all my powerful associates out of this. Someone relatively powerless and non-threatening is exactly what I need.” She smiled. “You fit the bill.”
The barb was supposed to sting, and it did, a little. As much as Asanti was not supposed to crave power, the fire that had burned inside her since her first taste of it—which her time with the Maitresse had fanned a bit higher for a short time—still smoldered under a fine coating of ash. But even if she had given herself over, she knew she would never have been what the Maitresse had become.
And that was okay. Preferable. Definitely safer.
“I’m not a complete monster,” the Maitresse said. “I figured your superiors wouldn’t see your debt as having the same importance you do, so I am willing to sweeten the pot for them, as it were. I hear you’re having problems with your little Orb toy.”
Asanti sighed. She had to pay the debt, one way or another. “What do you need?”
Working out with Grace was an excellent way to kill the boredom of a demon-empty afternoon, Sal had to admit.
She admitted it while admiring the ceiling of their small workout room. Too bad Michelangelo hadn’t deigned to paint it. This was more abstract. White dropped ceiling. A water stain. Sexy.
“Get up,” Grace said, nudging Sal with her foot. “I didn’t throw you...