Best Served Cold
A Grace Bloods short story
The ancient pug, wheezing as he inspected each cobblestone in the sidewalk, snuffled in alarm and raised his head. His ears twitched upward. When the dog splayed its legs and urinated in place, the stooped woman quit patting her pockets for a match and crowed with delight.
“Dobře, dobře, Ferda.” She praised the dog, the hand-rolled cigarette bobbing on her lower lip.
Accustomed to more meandering searches for the perfect spot, she thanked her luck, pocketed the unlit cigarette, and turned for home. Her thoughts raced ahead to her bed, warming under the electric blanket, and the novel waiting beside it. She looked back. The dog stood rooted in place, staring fixed into the vast darkness across the street.
Under the new moon, the dense bushes and trees cast Riegrovy Sady—the expansive city park straddling two of Prague’s oldest neighborhoods—in velvet shadow. The silent street lined with parked cars formed a no-man’s land between the lit sidewalk bordering apartment buildings and the sweeping mystery of night.
He began to bark. Through rheumy eyes, the woman watched his hackles rise. He circled once and raced to the edge of the sidewalk, growling.
“Co tam máš?” she asked the dog, not waiting for clarification before attempting to calm him. “Nic to není.”
When the bushes on the park border stirred, he fell silent. His nose twitched. His vocalization became a high-pitched whine. He backed slowly between his owner’s feet, and lay down.
“V klidu,” she murmured, voice trembling. Was she reassuring herself or the dog?
The long nights of her childhood returned to her in a rush, evenings spent at the hearth of her grandmother, listening to fairy tales from the old days. She rubbed her neck absently, thinking this was the kind of night Likho might choose to roam. Had the dog’s early urination been the unexpected boon which would lure the goblin?
Old stories, she chastised herself, to scare children and amuse fools. Still, her heart hammered at speeds unhealthy for her age. She squinted into the shadows, calling out a threat to notify the police, as she clutched her walking stick tighter in one hand. The bushes rustled again, as something moved – something bigger than a dog and lower than a man. The next morning she would swear she hadn’t seen a long nose, a set of yellow eyes, and a black-plumed tail.
Tonight was not a night for self-deception. “Vlkodlak,” she breathed.
Ferda chose that moment to break and run. Tiny claws scrambled on the squared off stones, before stubby legs propelled him toward their flat.
She hurried after, waving her stick, and muttering about big, feral dogs. When she looked over her shoulder, the bushes were still again, and the park silent.
* * *
The wolf moved between the trees of the city park, leaving the fear-drenched scents of woman and dog behind. He was larger than a wild wolf would have been, a uniform black from nose to tail, except for his startling eyes. He kept to the shadows, like a manifestation of their depths, moving with purpose and awareness beyond the lupine mind, as he alternately stalked and raced along the underbrush.
Behind him, a man from another century kept pace as an ordinary human could not have. Dressed in black from head to toe, a long coat flared behind Gregor like a cloak as he ran. Between his shoulders, a vague suggestion of steel coalesced at his back.
That was our street. He paused as they veered away from the curb and the distantly keening dog.
The wolf bared his canines, his mental voice human. I’m not giving an old lady a heart attack so you can take a shortcut.
Eyes the color of a winter sky flashed with humor. Have it your way, Markus.
Come now, isn’t this nice? The wolf’s tongue lolled from his mouth, lips pulling back to show teeth in an uncannily human expression. Night air, no moon.
Gregor could think of half a dozen ways he’d rather spend the shortest night of the year, but this opportunity was too good to miss. It would have been much nicer in the car. Faster, too.
The wolf sat back on his haunches and scratched absently at one ear with a hind paw. Nice enough to justify the hair on your seats?
Not that nice.
The wolf watched the man take the lead before he rose to follow.
Gregor glanced over his shoulder once and tried not to imagine canines at the back of his neck. The long way, it is.
They emerged on the other end of the park, slowing to a brisk walk on the uneven streets. The wolf fell into a perfect heel at his left knee. To the casual eye, they bore a fleeting resemblance to a businessman taking his very large dog out for a final walk of the night. But casual eyes weren’t the only ones about in the city this late. And no one who recognized him would have dared to pass on the same side of the street.
Still, there was his quarry to consider. It would not do well to spook her and ruin the whole evening. And fate only knew when he’d get another perfect chance to settle a score. Two birds, one stone.
Without looking up, the wolf asked, Going to tell me who we’re hunting?
You’ll see soon enough. Gregor checked his watch. I know these joint patrols were Azrael’s idea.
The wolf paused to sniff at the wheel of a Jaguar. He lifted his leg, before moving on. Gregor’s mouth twitched irrepressibly.
The wolf glanced at him. What?
Appreciating your choice in targets.
The wolf sniffed. They continued on. Look, Greg, you and I aren’t on the best terms.
Gregor’s jaw clenched. The wolf snuck a look, and his ribcage expanded as he issued a lupine chuckle. It was disconcerting.
You should know that I asked for you, specifically, Gregor said.
That silenced his companion. A member of the Allegiance of Necromancers that controlled the world divided into in eight territories, Azrael had chosen Prague as his seat. How business was conducted in his capitol city set the standard in his region, and Azrael knew it.
Azrael’s patrols were a regular duty among the warriors who made up his Aegis—the elite corps of warriors given immortality to fight at his side. They worked the city at night making sure any non-humans behaved according to the strict code the allegiance had impressed on them to keep them from disrupting the human population.
The addition of the only three werewolves in Prague, as well as the gift of telepathy which allowed them to communicate, was new. The wolves were intimidating enough with their preternatural size and speed. But their resistance to magical influence and intelligence made them true allies. Inclusion had also been a gesture of good faith to the pack. Giving them more visibility among the supernatural denizens of the city enabled them to better protect the coven they served.
Most of the aegis had taken to shared patrols, appreciating the advantage a massive set of teeth could provide to any trouble they encountered. Known on the streets as the Black Blade of Azrael, Gregor preferred to work alone. Azrael had been surprised when he asked for this assignment, and the pack’s alpha as a companion.
Gregor might have asked for the youngest wolf tonight, but he was guarding his mate as she neared her time. Even Gregor would not interfere during that sacred event. Plus, he suspected the eldest and the middle brothers of being the ringleaders in the mischief with the cake. The youngest’s wedding had simply provided opportunity.
Now, it was Gregor’s turn. And opportunity was everything.
As they closed in on their destination, Gregor commented idly, Did you know, unlike German and English, the word for werewolf in Czech translates to ‘wolf and coat’? Since I can’t have my pelage, I thought I ought to at least have a companion who matched my attire.
You have some balls. Markus bared his teeth, and the hair on his spine flared into high relief. The ‘coat’ in Vlkodlak refers to fur, not clothes, anyway.
When Gregor stared, Markus’s bared teeth relaxed into that odd lupine smile again.
Everyone assumes Toby’s the smart one. The wolf cocked his head. But I know a few things, Old Man.
I assume nothing. Gregor had picked the right brother after all. And yes, I am old enough to be your great-great, one more I think yes—grandfather. Now, we’ve arrived.
Gregor assessed the storefront at the base of a neoclassical building well past its prime. The windows glowed an invitation with gold light. The yeast and sugar aroma thickened the air outside the door.
The wolf’s nose twitched. He rocked back on his haunches in surprise. A bakery?
The man smoothed his coat, and the sword blinked out of visibility at his back. Indeed.
The door resisted slightly under his hand, but a muttered word and the locks slid away. He walked in, as the bell above the door tinkled brightly, holding the door for his companion. The wolf paced the shop, lifting his nose to scent the four small cafe tables and the counter. He circled back, as a small woman in her sixties came bustling from the kitchen, her arms and apron dusted with flour.
“We are closed,” she said in a flurry of Czech, before coming to a stop. “And no dogs!”
Her eyes widened with recognition.
What are we doing here? The wolf’s head lowered.
Having a cookie. Now, be a good doggie and be quiet.
“Promiňte nám paní.” He beamed smoothly, continuing in Czech. “When I heard how special the bread was, I could not wait until morning. Permit me?”
The woman trembled approached the glass display case. “Mr. Schwarz, these are from yesterday. Too old. If you tell me what you like, I will send an order to the castle directly. Freshly baked.”
Gregor watched her carefully, assessing the offerings. He was certain her age was an illusion. It was no wonder she had gone undetected for so long. He shook his head, surveying the case with hands clasped behind his back. “I am not a patient man.”
He made his selection seem random enough, all the while watching her face. She was good, but not even half his age, and still too close to her human birth to have shed the details of body language which revealed exactly what he was looking for. He paused before a dark loaf, flecked with something resembling pistachios.
“I’ll have that one,” he said, indicating with a look.
“But, sir,” she said. “We are known for our rosemary bread. This is just a rustic loaf I make for the old timers.”
“I do so love authentic cuisine,” he said with savage cheer, straightening from his examination so swiftly she jumped backward. “I will take it.”
She lowered her eyes. “Of course, sir. A moment, please.”
He waited as she withdrew the loaf, carefully wrapping it in paper, and slipping it into a paper bag. She set the package on the counter. He reached into his pocket and chased the jingle of coins.
“No, sir,” she said. “It is my honor to bake for the necromancer’s man.”
Gregor bared his teeth in the mockery of a smile. “I insist.”
He slid a few Czech crowns across the counter, the silhouettes of the Charles Bridge glittering silver as they caught the light. Snatching the bag, he ripped into the paper. Crumbs scattered over the clean floor as he tore the bread in half. He glanced at the wolf. “Sit.”
Markus flattened his ears and showed enough teeth to make the woman behind the counter recoil.
Gregor laughed. “Good dog.”
The woman sucked in a breath. Gregor flung the chunk at the wolf. Massive snapped twice, and the bread disappeared.
Delicious. She’s good. You have a perverse sense of –
The wolf’s voice cut off. His eyes darted up to the man, before narrowing at the woman. A low, uncertain growl reverberated through his chest. He sat back on his haunches and his tongue spilled helplessly from his jaws. Whining, he sank to the floor. The change began before Gregor’s eyes.
Gregor was moving before the wolf’s strangled cry became a human voice. He hurdled the counter, reaching for the semi-automatic holstered under his coat with one hand and the necromancer’s throat in the other. He pinned her to the wall and the air left her chest in a rush.
“Adelaide Haase, you are under arrest for violation of your license,” he snarled.
“I only make it as a defense for the elders,” she choked, glaring at the gun’s muzzle. “So they are not taken in confidence by those duplicitous creatures.”
“You know who I am?” It was a question offered with surprise, rather than boast.
As Azrael’s enforcer, his face was synonymous with the necromancer’s rule. The position afforded respect. He had acquired the fear which accompanied the recognition all on his own.
She nodded, and her throat bobbed against his palm.
“Yet, you lie to me,” he said, glancing at the now-incapacitated wolf on the floor.
Markus was stuck between his forms. His body was human, but his hands were still mostly paws, and his feet haired with wolf pelt. His head maintained most of its lupine features even in human shape.
Gregor turned his attention back to the young necromancer. “A licensed necromancer not practicing in favor of owning a bakery was strange enough to attract attention. But the loaf worked fast, so you’re clearly not out of practice. That kind of spell work takes more than a few pastries to support.”
She met his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re insinuating.”
He pitched her across the room into the tables and chairs, sending them clattering to the floor. “Where are the others?”
“There are no others.” She managed to get to her knees and elbows much faster than a woman her apparent age should have.
His expression turned thoughtful. “Your buyer seemed to think you sold in bulk.”
The necromancer’s eyes darted around the room, betraying her.
“She’s casting,” Markus growled in warning.
Gregor lunged and grabbed her by the ankle, flinging her into the wall. She slid down, unconscious.
“Not anymore,” he announced, snatching a cloth off one of the remaining tables and tossing it in the general direction of the man’s haunches. “Keep an eye on her?”
He gave Markus credit for remaining functional. The man levered himself to the fallen necromancer’s side, glancing around for a weapon. Gregor handed off the gun on his way behind the counter.
“Try not to kill her,” Gregor said as an afterthought. “Azrael would like to have a word.”
Markus managed a decent grip with his more hand-like paw and grunted assent.
Gregor passed through the swinging door to the kitchen. In the silent space, he appraised the mounds of unfinished bread and the bowls of half-mixed fillings, which had collapsed when Adelaide was rendered unconscious. Apparently, the necromancer was also using her power to do the bulk of the baking. There was work here for four people, but she was the only one in the shop.
Except, she wasn’t.
His eyes swept the room. It was a tidy kitchen, but no matter how clean, a bakery always accumulated a fine layer of flour dust in the oddest of places.
Though not a creature of magic by nature being bound to a necromancer had its advantages. Centuries of service had taught Gregor a few things about sensing power. If a little bit of Azrael’s had rubbed off on him over time, he used it to his advantage.
He followed his instinct to the blank wall. However, now that he was looking for it, the break in the flour where the wall met the floor seemed obvious. As well as the slight semi-circle of white dust left by the opening and closing of a door where there should be none.
The sword at his back became solid only when he reached for it. A symbol of his vow to Azrael and a gift of power, the blade coalesced like black smoke as he drew. He touched the still translucent tip to the wall. It went solid instantly at contact with power other than itself. He murmured the words of the same unlocking command he’d used on the door outside. The wall gave up its hidden door with the sound of reluctant tumblers sliding into line. He sheathed the blade, grabbed the newly visible handle, and pulled.
The hard light of the kitchen spilled into the hidden room beyond. He made out half a dozen bodies, after overcoming the pungent reek of fear and animal. The mix of skin and feathers and fur was tangled and matted with captivity. Six pairs of eyes stared up at him, some from human faces, some from the faces of the animals they had been. Mostly birds, a few mice, and even a tabby cat. All lured with crumbs, and captured to be traded or sold.
Gregor crouched low, and the captives shrank away from him. He exposed his palms and spoke in slow, formal Czech. “You’re free now, by command of the Necromancer Azrael. Your captor will be punished for her crimes. Our people will be here soon to offer you succor, should you require it.”
He watched their expressions, fear and hopelessness falling away as his words registered. He repeated himself in German, English, and Dutch, suspecting one of the leggier birds was a heron common in the Netherlands.
He heard the front door open, and Rory’s voice at the counter. “What the hell happened to you, Mark?”
Markus’ reply was too low for Gregor to catch. Rory had to duck to enter the kitchen, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “Is this about the bloody cake, mate?”
Gregor shrugged. “He’ll live.”
“The Consort is going to lose her mind.” Rory sighed.
“I’ll see her in the sparring ring, at her convenience,” Gregor said pleasantly.
“She’s going to gut you.” Rory eyed him with the patience of familiarity.
“She may try.” Gregor showed teeth.
Rory’s brow rose. “Azrael will be happy to do it for her. I hope it’s worth it.”
“Always.” Gregor snugged his coat and changed the subject. “You secured Haase for transport?”
Rory looked insulted. Gregor’s shrug served as an apology.
“I’ve called for a recovery team to pick them up.” Rory took in the little room and its huddled occupants with a frown. “Terrible business, this.”
“In the Rover, pissed as hell.” Rory chuckled, shaking his head. “Go. I’ll stay until they’re sorted. Try not to rub his nose in it too much.”
“That’s no fun.”
Gregor strode out of the bakery, brushing a bit of flour from his lapels. Aelfir, Azrael’s Nordic bruiser, prodded the revived necromancer toward the transport vehicle. Gregor paused to check she was bound and warded to keep her from attempting escape. It was a cursory check. She knew she was done. Her head hung low. Azrael’s punishment would be severe, and every supernatural in his territory would know of it. Gregor did not waste pity on her.
Next, he walked to the Range Rover and opened the back door. Markus was curled up on the seat in a blanket. With a shudder, his body tried to transition to wolf and failed. He groaned and shivered wildly. The bread forced the transformation, but arresting midway it was a nice trick.
“Don’t worry,” Gregor purred at the shape-shifter. “It will wear off in a day or so. Perhaps Mommy has something which can speed it up “
“You’re a real dick, Old Man, you know that, right?” Markus managed a snarl, his eyes stuck between wolf muddy yellow and a more human shade of hazel. “I should have let her turn you into a toad.”
“I am grateful for the warning she was trying to cast,” Gregor said. “There are six shifters free to return to their lives, thanks to you. Consider us even.”
Gregor’s smile widened. “For the Schwarzhirsch.”
Gregor and the wolves had a rocky start, but the pack had made a peace offering in the only way they knew how—a practical joke. The joke, a cake in the shape of the stag in Gregor’s family crest, was made from red velvet. Markus had taken particular pleasure in hacking the thing bloody and handing out forks.
Gregor decided revenge was best served cold, and slightly stale. Markus glared up at him, but he couldn’t keep the corner of his lips from twitching upward.
“This is just the beginning, Old Man,” Markus promised.
Gregor closed the door on his laughter and strode away.
A flat black Audi roadster vibrated slightly at his approach and the headlights winked on. Finally, the replacement for his beloved automobile had arrived. He hoped he wouldn’t regret acquiescing to Azrael’s insistence on electric. The engineers had assured him he wouldn’t suffer a loss of performance but he already missed the sound and the scent of burning petrol. An undead boy leaped out of the driver’s seat, holding the door as the car chimed a pleasant greeting.
Gregor asked, wondered what the Consort’s attaché was doing delivering his car. “Up past our bedtime, aren’t we, Dr. Sato?”
“Lord Azrael thought it a good idea I start participating in patrols,” Tyler said. He corrected himself at Gregor’s scowl. “Taking on additional responsibilities.”
Gregor wondered how much of Tyler’s being here was Azrael’s idea, and how much Tyler’s own. The boy seemed determined to rise from his position as attaché to something more substantial.
“I take it he’s keeping the Consort out of trouble all by himself.” Gregor smirked, sliding into the car.
Tyler flushed. “The Academy, sir. It’s the Summer Showcase. Issy’s friend is performing.”
“The martial artist,” Gregor pondered.
“Trinh,” Tyler said, a little too sharply.
The dancer had made a point of cornering both men. In their brief interaction, she’d announced it did not matter how old either was, she would cut them into too many pieces to be recovered if they harmed Isela Vogel.
The idea that Gregor would, or could, harm the Consort was laughable at best. His life was hers now, as it was Azrael’s. He didn’t have to like it, but he would obey it with every fiber of his being. Such was his vow, not just the one he’d taken to Azrael. Still, he’d been too charmed by the fearless eye contact be offended by the threat. Apparently he hadn’t been the only one.
“She’s too much woman for you, little one,” Gregor said, eyebrow raised. “Perhaps I’ll catch the second half. If I hurry, I may make the end of intermission.”
He slammed the car door in the younger man’s face. He slipped the car in gear and swung away from the curb. On the way, he woke up his favorite florist with a call, arranging for a delivery of roses to meet him at the theater.
The florist spoke around a yawn. “The card, Sir?”
“To new beginnings.”
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