ever found it. This was none of his business, and he had plenty to worry about. If it had been anyone else, he would have left well enough alone.
But this was Cherubina. Until two weeks ago, she had never been outdoors without an army of servants.
He put on his jacket.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It didnât take him long to find the Wheelâa famous taproom in the depths of the Taurus District. But he had to admit that he hadnât expected the guard at the door.
âIâmâ¦â Mark floundered, his confidence deserting him. âIâm here for the meeting.â
The huge man nodded.
âYouâre late,â he grunted. âMr. Credeâs already started.â
He stepped to one side, revealing a dark and smoky interior. Somewhere in the back of Markâs head, a warning note sounded. He was sure that he had heard the name âCredeâ before, if only he could remember.
He looked up at the thug. For a moment, he considered asking what kind of meeting this was. Fortunately, a second later his common sense reminded him that he was supposed to know already.
âSo, Mr.â¦ Iâm sorry, I didnât catch your name,â Mark said, trying to sound polite. The man gave an unpleasant grin.
âNick, and donât you forget it. Donât think youâll be getting any favors from the âMr.,â though, boy. Thereâs no pecking order here; everyoneâs equal under Crede.â
Mark noted the tension in Nickâs huge arm as he held the door. Maybe not any social order, but Mark bet that if any disagreements came up, theyâd be solved very swiftly, and directly.
âSoÂ â¦ Nick, has my friend arrived yet? I promised to meet her here. Youâd know her if you saw her, sheâs got these blonde ringletsâ¦â Mark trailed off. Nick was shaking his head, and grinning that disturbingly predatory smile.
âNot for me to say. You going in, or not?â he said. âEveryoneâs welcome, but everyone goes without a name. Protection against spies. But of course, you know that. Whoever told you where to come must have filled you in, yes?â
Mark swallowed, heâd given himself away there. Nick might have been here as muscle, but he certainly wasnât dumb.
âOf course,â Mark agreed, hurriedly. âNo problem.â
Shakily, he walked past the man, but as he did so, he felt a rough hand on his shoulder.
âDonât worry, boy,â Nick said, a little more kindly. âDoesnât matter why you came. Everyone here gets a fresh start.â
For some reason that was difficult to fathom, Nickâs reassurance made Mark more uncomfortable than his threats. There was something in the way he said it that suggested this fresh start wasnât optional. Once you went through that doorâyou were one of them.
âThanks,â Mark said, and stepped in.
To Markâs relief, the taproom beyond was much less sinister, although it was dimly lit and thickly crowded. Through the tobacco smoke, Mark groped his way toward the bar, with a thin and sour-looking barman serving pint pots of muddy beer. He sat on one of the barstools, and as his ears adjusted to the hubbub, he heard a voice from the far side of the room.
ââ¦ they hunt us down, force us to hideâlike rats. But should we be cowed by this? Hah!â There was a sound, as if someone had banged a metal tankard on a table. âI say this. When, in a thousand years, Agora is naught but dust, and our last fine building has crumbled away, the rats will still be here. Multiplying until their hour has come. Donât be offended by being called a rat, my friends. They need nothing but each other, and they cannot be destroyed.â
Mark looked sharply into the corner, where he could just make out the silhouette of the speaker.
âThe time is near, my friends,â the voice continued. âSo near, we can taste it! And then,