Jeremy brought his long fingers together in a steeple beneath his chin and fixed his cold gaze on her face.
“Is it Maria again?” His voice held a trace of weary resignation.
Isobel inclined her head in affirmation, her expression troubled. “She is upset about the… incident with her husband.” She perched lightly on the edge of her chair, smoothing out her floor-length skirts. “He died in unfortunate circumstances, if you’ll remember?”
Jeremy gave a growl of contempt and swept to his feet. Leaving the large triangular table behind him, he crossed to the window and rested his forehead against the glass. Outside, the night sky was lit by the leaping of flames and through the thick crowd below, his sharp eyes could spot the teams of black-clad Trackers approaching the altercation near the blazing gates, their task to quell the argument and encourage bystanders to move on.
Isobel leaned forwards in her seat and slowly tapped each fingertip in turn on the polished oak table.
“Something must be done,” Jeremy murmured. “I will not permit anarchy in our streets.”
“With her husband dead, Maria has risen to the position of ringleader,” Isobel supplied. “Perhaps it would be sufficient to –”
“No.” Jeremy cut her off in a flat tone. “She is a candidate.”
Isobel’s eyes widened in surprise. “But what of her children? With her husband dead, she is the sole caregiver.”
“They will be provided for.”
“We are three,” Isobel reminded him. “And she would never agree.”
“I will send the command if you consent,” Jeremy assured her. “The fault will lie with me. This need not be unanimous.”
She sat in silence for a moment, lightly tracing the symbol of the Triumvirate, an ornate triquetra carved into the glossy surface of the oak, with one smooth fingernail. She met Jeremy’s icy blue eyes with her warm violet ones and after a long pause, she nodded firmly.
“Let it be done.”
* * *
Rain pounded against the ground, creating puddles around the pale flagstones of the path. The ribbons of light penetrated the darkness, streaming from the tall lamps that dotted the bridge. The scent of smoke still drifted through the air, although the fire had long since been extinguished. Through the steady rattle of raindrops, the rapid staccato of boots on brick echoed through the night.
A slender figure dressed in black reached out one hand to lean heavily against the parapet of the illuminated bridge, and paused to catch her breath. She braced herself against the ancient stone as she gasped, her lungs fighting for oxygen. She threw a glance back the way she had come, her eyes gleaming in the lamplight, and pushed her rain-soaked hair away from her face. She took another slow, ragged breath and pushed on again, first darting across the bridge, highlighted in the golden glow of the lamps, then blending into the shadows again as she reached the far side.
She was rounding a corner into a narrow alleyway, when a pale blur shot towards her with inhuman speed and clamped painfully around her upper arm. The world span sickeningly on its axis and with a cry of surprise and dismay, she found herself sprawled on her back, painfully winded. Stars exploded in front of her eyes. For a dizzying moment, the connection between her brain and her body seemed to short circuit. Gasping and wheezing, she battled to regain her equilibrium.
Painfully, she turned her head in the direction of the voice. A man crouched close beside her, studying her intently. His clothes, like hers, were black but his leather jacket, heavy black pants and highly polished boots lent a smart, military air that her own clean-but-worn clothing could never muster.
“Hello, Richard,” she gasped, fighting against the thick clouds that crept across her brain. Gradually in her peripheral vision, she became aware of several more black clad figures lining the walls of the alley.
“We’ve been sent for you, Maria,” Richard said with a note of regret. “You’ve become a liability.”
She tried to laugh, but the pain in her back and ribs turned it into a thick chuffing sound. “You can’t. I have children.”
He tightened his lips and sadly shook his head.
“Your children can’t save you now.”
She struggled into a sitting position, bracing herself against the wall.
“So this is how the Triumvirate deal with their little problems?” she demanded. “Send a Tracker to kill it? Like you killed my husband?”
“No one was sent for Frank, Maria,” Richard told her, his voice soft. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Bullshit,” she spat. “They found out about the Resistance and decided to make an example of him.”
Richard gave her a sympathetic expression.
“The Triumvirate have always been aware of your little rebellion, Maria. They have been keeping tabs on people like Frank for four hundred years, and invariably the promised uprisings never occur. Human beings like the security of knowing that Monday becomes Tuesday, and Tuesday becomes Wednesday and so on and so forth.”
“We’re prisoners,” she hissed.
Richard shrugged nonchalantly.
“Aren’t all societies a form of prison? There are those amongst us who remember the days before the plague, when humanity controlled the world. This world is not so different; people wake up, kiss their loved ones, go to work, pay their taxes and live their lives.” He fixed her with a steely gaze. “The Revenant ended the sickness and saved your species. People like you would do well to remember that.”
He reached down and fastened his pale fingers around her arm, dragging her to her feet, ignoring her whimpers of pain.
“Taxes weren’t always paid in blood,” she groaned. Her muscles cramped in protest and she staggered a step or two until she slumped against the wall for support. Another Tracker snapped a set of heavy cuffs onto her wrists and jerked her forwards. She gasped and almost lost her footing.
Richard laughed. “Would you rather a return to the old ways, Maria? To resurrect the days of the hunt and of the kill?” He tugged soft black leather gloves over his slender hands and gestured for the Tracker who restrained her to step aside.
“Let’s see how far you can get,” he continued. “We’ve got time.”
Richard grinned at her, revealing long, curved fangs.