Music boomed somewhere deeper in the house and got louder as we walked closer. Pong balls bounced on the tables to the excited shouts of both winners and losers. Aiden looked at the cups with longing in his gaze.
“No booze,” I reminded him. I gestured to his beer with the cup the mermaid had given me. “That’s just for show.”
“Oh this?” He raised the drink in mock salute then took a sip with his pinky out. “This is a pale ale, Liam. Booze requires shot glasses.”
“Aiden,” I said with more patience than I felt. “We are here—”
“Relax. Seriously, it would take a keg of this beer-flavored-water to get me drunk. And we need to blend in. Just, come on.”
He marched through the threshold. The lights on the porch were dim but much brighter than those in the foyer. Multicolored lights swirled from a strobe light attached to the third floor balcony.
Two college girls walked up to Aiden before he could take two steps in the door. One wore a red sundress that screamed for some relief from the cosmic force trying to rip free of the chest area. Her face looked far too young to be at least six solo cups in. The other girl wore a yellow top with sequins, which caught every light in the place and bounced them into my eyes. What in hades was it about sequins anyway?
“I love your toga,” Red Dress said, giggling.
“Thanks,” Aiden said, taking a large gulp of his beer.
“Where’s yours?” Yellow Sequins asked.
Still seething at Aiden for already breaking his promise not to drink, it took me a few seconds to realize she was talking to me. All three of them stared at me expectantly.
“Oh me?” I said, “Left it in the chariot.”
“Oh my god, you have a chariot?” Red Dress said.
“We certainly do,” Aiden said. “But I can show you something way better. Watch this.”
Aiden pulled back his sleeves, showing he wasn’t hiding anything there. Then he held up his left hand. Both girls followed his flowing fingers. He snapped. A poof of smoke ignited in front of them, dissipating quickly, revealing a deck of cards. It was sleight-of-hand, not ether. He kept little bags of black powder—his own recipe—he used for his tricks. Beneath that don’t-give-a-shite exterior, Aiden was a true chemist and alchemical genius. His vast wealth came from turning lead into gold. He could even age the stuff to look like lost treasure that he sold to private collectors. It was his favorite pastime to rob from the rich and give to himself.
When he’d discovered the power, he’d been trying to make a much bigger boom. Instead, the formula just made a lot of smoke when exposed to air. He kept it for just such occasions. And it always worked. The girls oohed and awed as if it was the most amazing thing since sliced bread. Others close by flocked to Aiden begging for more.
I used the opportunity to slip around them and go deeper into the house. Knowing how much Victoria loved to dance, I followed the music up the stairs, which opened to an expansive ballroom. Still, the unce, unce, unce of the beat filled the space.
Just inside was a big sign that read: No drinks on the dance floor!
Still, several ladies held their drinks while elegantly and gracefully grinding against gentlemen also holding cups. No one seemed to be policing the rule.
One woman danced alone, but with a crowd encircling her. She moved too fluidly for anyone to dance up on her. She flowed with the music, her movements like art in rhythm with the beats. Her raven hair whipped across her face as she spun. She flipped her head back, revealing her face. Our gazes met for a slow heartbeat. She smiled and turned away. I tried to get closer, but the circle of bodies around her were three to four people deep. They chanted and cheered her on. When the song ended, they crowded up on her, everyone wanting to be the one to give her the congratulatory drink.
By the time I reached where she’d been, Victoria was gone.
“Fuck Loki in the ear.”
I turned around to see a girl in a sheath dress, wrapped tightly around her legs to her thighs. There were no sleeves. The fabric pulled tight around her body, hugging her neckline. In the strobe lights, the white shone with every color. Her dark hair was pulled up in an intricate bun-shape that managed to still have a pony tail. Her eyes sparkled as she stared at me.
“Liam, that is you!”
I was almost too surprised when she hugged me to squeeze her back. How the fuck did she see through my glamor? Then I smelled the beer exuding from her. Illusion magic tricked the cerebral cortex into believing an altered reality. Those with an overactive limbic system—responsible for fight or flight—are more likely to see through glamors and other such magic. For this reason, a small percentage of people developed an immunity to illusion magic while intoxicated. And just my luck—fuck you Loki, I know this was your doing—Skyler, my TA, was one of them. This was not going to end well.
Skyler held on to me with extreme vigor for longer than seemed prudent. After releasing me, she pulled back only a few inches, keeping the palm of her hand on my chest.
“You never came to office hours,” she shout-said with the slight slur of intoxication, “I waited.”
“Skyler,” I said at nearly a shout to hear my own voice over the boom of the music. “What are you doing here?”
“I like to have fun, too. And, I just passed my last qualifying exam yesterday and deserve a drink or ten.”
Gods damn it. The only person I’d really met. She should not fucking be here. The Law of Dubiety does not work as well on people you know. If she sees me make with the magic, she would be more likely to remember it accurately. But there was a larger worry. Could Skyler be a nymph? Maybe Abigail had recruited her already.
“But why this party?” I said, trying to sound curious rather than nervous. I pointedly did not look around for Victoria. “Do you know Abigail? Or Victoria?”
“Who?” Her smile fell. “No. A guy I’ve been sort of seeing invited me. Well, not seeing exactly. We are an on-again, off-again sort of thing. We are off at the moment.”
“Where is he now?” I believed her. I felt so much relief I could not keep it from my face.
Her smile returned. “He went to watch that girl dance along with every other dude in this place. Not that I can blame them. Did you see her?”
“Yeah. She was all right.”
Skyler hit my chest. “She was far more than just all right. I’ve never seen anyone dance like that.”
I shrugged in response, trying to nonchalantly scan the people to see if Victoria reemerged. “I’ve seen better.”
“No way. She’s probably in the FSU School of Dance. They are in the top ten for US colleges. Admit it. She was amazing.”
“Fine. Sure. Whatever.”
“Wait. You know her. Don’t you?”
“She’s sort of an ex.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Sort of an ex?”
“Yeah, we had this on-again, off-again thing for a long time. We are definitely off at the moment.”
“Very funny,” she said, not laughing. Glancing at the full drink in my hand, she asked, “Is she the reason you are here?”
Well, shit. How to play this one? Fortunately, I did not have to come up with an answer. A guy twelve feet tall and ten feet wide walked up, putting an arm around Skyler, like King Kong wrapping his paw around Ann Darrow. Perhaps, I’m exaggerating his size, but his muscles made Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson look like the runt of the litter.
Since she was inches from my face, he was now inches from my face. I could taste the nachos he’d eaten earlier. Hints of tequila lingered as well. Oddly, my stomach grumbled. Don’t judge, I hadn’t eaten much today.
He aimed his scowl at me and sniffed as if unimpressed. “She’s taken bruh, but thanks for the drink.” He grabbed my cup and downed the contents, much of it flowing over his face rather than in it. Once finished, he clinched his fist. Little piece of plastic never had a chance. He threw the crumpled cup at my chest, and wiped his mouth with the back of his arm.
Skyler made a disgusted sound and pushed the guy’s arm off her, which was an impressive feat, seeing as how the arm was as large as she was. “Damn it, Brent. He’s one of my students. We were just talking.”
“Oh,” he said, cheeks reddening. “Sorry.”
“Go get him another drink.”
He slinked off, head down as if embarrassed.
“Wow, he’s a bit—”
“Possessive. Infuriating. A misogynist prick.”
“I was gonna say over-muscly, but yeah … those things too.”
“Do you want to dance?” she asked.
“Is that the best idea? Do we really want to piss off Hulk’s older, bigger brother?”
“It will be fine.”
Before I could voice further protests, she grabbed my hand and led me onto the dance floor. I looked for Victoria as Skyler pulled me to the far side of the room. There was no sign of her. Fuck Loki in the ear, had I missed my chance? I needed to check on Aiden. I could still hear shouts and cheers from down below, rising above the music. He was doing his part but how drunk was he by now?
Skyler stopped and put her hands on my shoulders. Reflexively, I took hold of her waist and matched her moves. She was no Victoria, but she had clearly danced before. And she did so tastefully without all the grinding. Despite the failing mission, it was nice to be close to her. Every time she glanced up at me, her eyes sparkled with her smile.
When the song ended, the DJ declared, “I’m going to take ten. Grab someone and chill with some slow tunes.”
A ballad started playing. All around us, the gyrations these people tried to pass off as dancing stopped. People held each other and swayed. Noticing Brent standing where we’d been before the dance, I took a step back from Skyler.
“One more?” she asked, no longer needing to shout. “I love Shawn Mendes.”
“Our drinks are back,” I said, nodding toward Brent, who held two cups and glanced about with more than a little angst.
“He can wait,” she said, lifting her arms to my shoulders again. But she froze, eyes wide. I saw her stifle a belch. She covered her mouth. “Actually, I’ll be right back.”
She ran past Brent and turned down a hall. The ogre followed. They were too far away for me to hear, but several people cleared a path for Skyler. She didn’t make it to the bathroom, but she found a trashcan and buried her head in it.
“What a lovely girl.” That melodic voice sent a shiver down my spine. “Dating norms now?”
I turned around to see Victoria approach. She was just as I remembered her, elegance personified. My heart pounded. I couldn’t breathe.
Unable to speak, I worked moisture back into my mouth with my tongue and managed to choke out, “No.”
Four girls lingered next to Victoria. I did not need to draw ether to feel the power surrounding them. Well, I had known this was a trap, but she wasn’t likely to do anything with all these people around. Then again, body count did not matter much to them. And this was their house. With a bit of wyther, they could restructure the narrative.
“That disguise is ridiculous. Surely, you didn’t expect it to fool me?”
“It was far less effective than I had hoped,” I admitted, eyes flicking toward Skyler.
It was impossible to sort through the buzz of emotions. We stood there studying one another for a full moment—people misuse that word all the time in fiction. It’s about ninety seconds as a unit of measurement. Anyway, she was hauntingly beautiful. She held her expression neutral, but I could feel her irritation as she glanced toward where Skyler was still hurling.
“Aiden is the magnet, eh? He distracts as many of the people as possible while you find me. Is that the extent of your plan?”
I did not need ether sight to know this was the real Victoria. The way she flicked her hair and pursed her lips. Her smirk and the little wiggle to her nose when she smiled, those could not be faked by a glamor. Ah fuck. She knew me in the same way I knew her. My disguise did not hide my mannerisms, which she would notice. She had always been the observant one.
“Well?” she said, tone almost bored. “I know you have questions.”
“Fuck you,” I said at last. “Fuck. You. Fifty-seven years we were together. How could you do this to me?”
A slow smile rose on one side of her lips, then the other. “There’s the passion I always enjoyed. We had great times, you and I, but it could not last.”
“It is complicated.”
“A true genius can explain difficult subjects to the simple minded. Give it a try.”
“Liamorandus, you’re making me blush. Do you truly think I am a genius?”
“Have to be to pull off your own fake death like that. Stop changing the subject. Why did you turn against the Collective?”
“Abigail had your blood. She picked it up after the minotaur scourge in Brazil. She was going to use the sample to boil your insides. I gave myself to save you. She gave me your blood. I destroyed it before bonding to Artemis.”
I wanted it to be a lie, but that had been a grizzly battle. A rogue mage had been summoning minotaurs from a world called Arinth and using them to kill off rival gangs. Many innocents were getting caught in the crossfire. Minotaurs are highly resistant to ether, which made them nasty to battle. We had three teams there. Two of us died, and I was gored. After I was rendered unconscious, my team retreated. I was never able to find and destroy my spilled blood.
“I would have rather died,” I said.
“Which is why I sacrificed myself. I could not lose you.”
“But you have. The Collective is hunting you now. What we had is gone forever.”
“It does not have to be this way. Being bonded isn’t so bad. I’m myself, yet much more than I was without Her.” She stepped closer, looking up at me with those bright eyes. My heartbeat tripled. Loki knows how much I missed her. “Join me.”
I swallowed. This was the trap. And it was a Loki-damned good one. Every instinct I have screamed at me to call for Aiden. Just a quick burst of ether would draw his attention up here. I could hear the cheers on the bottom floor, growing louder. After the DJ had taken his break, most of the people cleared the dance floor. Likely, they’d gone downstairs to watch Aiden work his “magic.”
Victoria placed her fingers on my chest, exactly like Skyler had. I tensed, sucking in shallow breaths. She edged nearer, craning her lips up closer to mine and whispered, “I need you, Liam. We could be together again.”
Looking back at this moment, I am absolutely certain if I had let her kiss me, my life would be completely different now. But I did not. Zeus, Zelos, and Cratus must have all been with me, because I stepped back.
“Victoria Cleopatra Deletante,” I said, barely hearing my own words with the thundering of my heart in my ears, “you have been charged with treason against the Collective and are in violation of the Accords of Magic. Kneel and place your hands on the ground. I am taking you into custody.”
Her smile faded, the shimmer of hope fading from her eyes. The pained expression she gave me broke open the dam I had built around my heart. Every part of me wanted to take back my words. I opened my mouth to do just that when Aiden’s magic act crashed the party.
A team of horses pulling a chariot pounded up the steps with Aiden at the helm. He held Red Dress in one arm and a beer in the other. She clung to him, eyes wide with amazement. I never did ask how he’d gotten horses so quickly, but the chariot was crafted from ether.
Victoria and her cronies sidestepped the charging horses. The college kids all scrambled off the dance floor, making room for Aiden. He spun the chariot about and came to a stop beside me. He held his beer up as if it were a sword and declared, “I bite my thumb at thee.”
Victoria did not look amused. I felt her preparing a time bubble as she said, “Take them alive.”