Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(15)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(15)
Author: Ilona Andrews

“Elara,” he growled.

“You’re building a money pit, except it’s not a pit, it’s a moat. Why not just line it with money and set that on fire when the vampires come?”

“It wouldn’t burn long enough. You will give me this moat. I’m trying to keep you and everyone in this place alive. Can you put a price on the safety of your people?”

“Yes, I can. The total operating cost of a single bulldozer is two hundred and thirty-seven dollars per hour. We have to factor in heavy use in soil that has been undisturbed for at least ten years; gasoline; lubricant; undercarriage adjustment for impact, abrasiveness and so on; repair reserve, parts and labor; and operator cost, since people do not work for free. Now we have to calculate the number of cubic yards of soil we must remove and transport somewhere else. Based on the dimensions of your trench—"

“Give me the moat or the wedding is off.”

For a moment, she literally saw red. Elara jumped to her feet and jerked the door open. He stood on the other side, wearing nothing except jeans and boots.

“I can’t believe you! You would endanger this wedding for your stupid moat?”

Hugh towered over her, his blue eyes dark. “Here is some math for you. Your settlement holds four thousand and forty-seven people, of which five hundred and three are children under the age of eighteen. When Nez comes, and he will, you will have three choices. You can evacuate, which means Nez will chase us down and slaughter everyone. You can hole up in the castle with the adults and send the children off, serving Nez a herd of hostages on a silver platter. Or you can hide everyone in the castle, which is the only real option you have.”

He leaned closer, his face vicious. “This place was designed for a staff of three hundred. It can comfortably hold five hundred in a pinch. You’ll have to pack four thousand terrified people, half of them parents with children, in here like sardines. Sanitation will go first. Sewage will start backing up. Water will be next. Your well will run dry. You’ll try to conserve it, while Nez lobs chunks of corpses his plague spreaders have seeded with diseases over your wall, but it won’t matter. The well will run dry anyway within a few weeks. Your people will start dying. Children and the infirm will be at the front of the line. You will watch them go one by one.”

She blinked.

“We can’t withstand a siege. We have to hit Nez so hard and so fast on his first charge, that he’ll decide besieging us is too expensive. To do that, we need defenses that work against undead. The moat is such a defense. Without it, this place is a death trap. I realize you don’t understand it, but you’re not in charge of our defenses. I am.”

White ice exploded inside Elara. “You have some nerve,” she snarled. “Your moat will cut my budget by a third!”

“Our budget.”

“Not yet, it’s not! I have to fund the school for this year. I have to feed three hundred extra people who earn no money. It doesn’t grow on trees. Did Roland not explain to you the concept of money when he doled out your allowance?”

Hugh’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know if you’re too thick to see it or if you’re on a power trip, so I’ll make it real simple for you: give me the moat or I’ll take my people and leave. I’m not dying here because you’re an idiot.”

“Arrogant dickhead!”

“Screeching harpy.”

“Asshole.”

“Bitch.”

The hunger clawed at her from the inside. It took every drop of her will to keep it from ripping out. She actually trembled with rage.

“You want to leave? Do it.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” he warned.

“Take your people and leave.”

A stomp made them turn toward the hallway.

Johanna handshaped the letter E and moved it down her hair, indicating length. “Elara.”

Johanna didn’t use the name sign she invented for her often, and normally that would’ve stopped Elara in her tracks, but she was too irritated.

“What?” she snarled.

“Important fighting moment,” Johanna said. “But heads of the Lexington Red Guard and Louisville Mage College are downstairs.” She pointed to the floor.

Hugh turned to her. “Why?”

Johanna brushed back her blond hair. “We invited them for the wedding to build good relations and to have witnesses. Don’t be dumb.”

She moved her fingers, her gestures brisk.

“We need witnesses. Many, many witnesses. Wrap it up. Slap each other if you need to. Get dressed. Don’t mind me.” She took a step back. “I will wait. Five minutes.”

Hugh was looking at her. Elara realized her robe was hanging open, showing off the thin white camisole that left most of her breasts bare and barely covered half of her butt. Suddenly she was sharply aware that he was half-naked and standing too close. Elara pulled the robe closed and glared back at him.

He no longer exhaled rage. Clearly, he’d changed his strategy.

“Compromise,” he said. “What is your biggest need as a settlement?”

“Metal,” she said. “We need iron and steel.”

“There are several smaller towns around here that were lost to the forest. There is metal there. Used cars, a factory in Brownsville, and so on.”

“That’s not a friendly forest. A lot of those places are infested with magic creatures. It’s too dangerous.”

“Not for my people. I’ll start making salvage runs. You will authorize the gas for the moat.”

Elara shut her eyes. “Fine. You’ll get enough gas for three days. More when you bring in your first load of salvage, and our smiths sign off on it.”

“There may be hope for you yet.”

“Rot in hell, d’Ambray.”

“I love you too, darling.”

Elara turned to Johanna and signed. “We are fine.”

Johanna gave them both a bright smile. “Good job.”

She turned and went down the stairwell.

Elara didn’t slam the door. She closed it very carefully, walked to her vanity, sat down, and shut her eyes, trying to control her fury. And there he was, coming out of the darkness. She knew exactly why Vanessa had climbed into his bed. Up close, Hugh was overwhelming. The size, the breadth of his shoulders, the muscle, the hard stomach. Power. So much male, brutal power and strength. And she hated every inch of him. If she could’ve pushed him out of the hallway window, she would’ve. He’d splatter on the stones below, and she would smile when he did.

That was the wrong thought. She checked herself.

A hesitant knock came.

“Come in,” she said without turning. “I decided what to do with my hair.”

“Yes, my lady?” Beth asked.

“We’ll leave it down,” Elara said.

Hugh stood at the altar under an arched trellis dripping with white clematis flowers. A gentle fragrance spiced the air. The castle rose behind him and slightly to the left. The hill leveled here before rolling down, and beautiful Kentucky countryside spread in front of him: the blue-green hills and pastures, with dense forests encroaching on them like waves from a rising tide, and in the distance, more hills, each lighter than the next, fading into the beginnings of what promised to be a hell of a sunset.

He turned slightly. Benches had been set up in front of the altar, with a path between them, and they were filled. On Elara’s side were women in pastels and men in suits or jeans, whatever qualified as their best. His side was black. The Dogs wore their uniforms, just as he wore the black of the Preceptor. It was the only formal clothes they had. They’d stowed their weapons under their seats, grim faced and quiet. He wasn’t taking any chances on Nez crashing the wedding.

Hugh surveyed the Iron Dog ranks. All the family he would ever need.

“Where is he?” Bale growled next to him.

“He’ll be here,” Lamar said quietly.

“He better,” Bale said.

The townspeople ran out of seats and formed a loose group, standing to one side of the benches. They waited, murmuring and shifting. Children chased each other. There were flowers everywhere. Looking down the center aisle, he could see the large white tent to the right where Elara hid, probably surrounded by her women, fussing over every inch of her hair and dress. Past the tent, tables had been set up with a three-tier black-and-white cake towering in the center.

   
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