Zhi Zeng flipped through the auction catalog with feigned nonchalance. “Which one is it?” he hissed from behind set teeth.
“Hell, if I know,” Han muttered. His cousin’s placid expression was in direct contrast with his tone. “But judging from this crowd we were right to drop everything and come here.”
Here was the ass end of New York state at the private estate of Llewellyn Montclaire. The house was a fussy Palladian mansion straight out of an English period drama, which fit what he knew about that man. He had never met Montclaire in life but he had seen him from a distance a few times at charity balls and the like. He’d noted the man at the time, memorizing his face because of his reputation.
Montclaire had been an avid collector of rare and precious antiquities. Normally Zhi wouldn’t have given a damn about that sort of thing. But Montclaire was one of those who went the extra mile to acquire objects of magical significance. It had been his obsession. He’d traveled the world and learned to speak eight different languages so he could negotiate for his acquisitions without having to go through an interpreter.
And in so doing, he had managed to bankrupt himself. Montclaire had no children, but he had several nieces and nephews eager to put his collection on the auction block in order to recoup whatever cash they could, picking from the carcass of his estate. The Marchesi auction house, the one most favored by the Seven for their expertise in magical artifacts, had been charged with the task of liquidating the assets.
Han leaned forward a bit, his eyes tracking a particularly dangerous witch from the Vakil clan in a form-fitting dress that accentuated every sleek curve.
“I guess the rumors were true. A dangerous artifact must have slipped the Elementals net. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be rubbing elbows with the who’s who of the Seven.”
The woman they were watching, Danika, paused on the oak chevron-parquet floor to look at him. She inclined her head with a regal nod.
He nodded back. “Any regrets? His cousin murmured.
His father, Bao, had once considered Danika a possible wife for him, but Zhi had vetoed the plan before the other family was approached.
“No,” he murmured. Danika might have been gorgeous, with enough power to guarantee the magic continued to run in their bloodline in the next generation, but he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life sleeping with one eye open.
His eidetic memory supplied names to many of the other faces in the room. The more he recognized the more he retreated behind a wall of icy reserve. “I see reps from all the seven families here—and not just the lackeys”, he said, switching over to silent communication.
It didn’t matter that his cousin didn’t share his gift of telepathy. Zhi’s power was strong enough to send and receive anyone. It didn’t matter if the person was on the other side of the world. If Zhi had their mental scent, the strength of his ability meant he could communicate with them as if they were in the next room.
Technically, telepathy wasn’t an uncommon ability among witchkind. Many people heard voices in their heads. A few even realized they were other people’s thoughts. But of this small subset, few had the strength to filter or focus on an individual voice. Zhi had been born with the ability to do just that, his telepathic touch so light most people never even realized their innermost thoughts had been heard while others of his kind were crushed by the wall of sound generated by humans large and small.
But it wasn’t that aspect of Zhi’s gift that made the members of this jaded and powerful gathering give him a wide berth. That was the fact that he could use his strength to destroy another person’s mind, the organic matter crumpling as if it were being squeezed by a physical vice.
To the untrained eye the death of a human coroner the death would appear like a natural if violent catastrophic aneurysm. A snapshot of blood and gore flashed through his mind before he could stop it.
“I see two other family heads, not including myself”, Zhi continued, not letting the disturbing images of his past show on his face. “Lots of deadly people in this room.”
“Yeah, You’re one of them”, Han said, his inner voice turning decidedly sarcastic. “The good news is I don’t see anyone looking at you cross-eyed. You have their respect.”
“I trust your assessment, but it’s too soon to say that for certain.”
Han smirked. “Trust me, none of these people want their brains leaking from their ears. There are also several known right-hands and at least one heir, Han said. Including some shifters I’ve done business with.” He tilted his head to draw his attention to the dark-garbed man moving with predatory grace on their left.
“Not wolf,” Zhi replied after a quick assessment. “Some kind of cat.”
His cousin smiled. “How do you do that? Hanson—the shifter—still won’t tell me what kind he is. I’ve known the bastard for years, too. He’s so smug about it.”
Zhi lifted a shoulder. “I can taste his wildness from here.”
What he meant by that was difficult to describe. He had learned how to differentiate the major groups of Supernaturals with his other sense at a very young age. Zhi had always assumed that it was an evolutionary response meant to protect him, to show him who his enemies might be so he wouldn’t be caught unawares. That thought almost made him laugh aloud.
When you were one of the Seven, the call was usually coming from inside the house.
“It has to be a weapon,” he told Han, closing the auction brochure. “One that every family feels they can’t afford to let fall into another family’s hands.”
There simply wasn’t another explanation for the quality of the crowd here.
“Or it’s something that could be weaponized with some tweaking,” his cousin pointed out. “Otherwise, the Elementals would have descended already to take the damn thing. You know they lock up everything truly dangerous in their damn archive.”
The location of which was a mystery to the Seven. Rumor had it the impregnable stronghold had been breached recently—an inside job by a close associate. But he didn’t believe, as Han had suggested earlier, that this meant they had fallen down on the job, allowing a potential weapon to slip through their net.
If anything a breach meant that they had doubled or tripled their efforts to secure magical weapons. Nothing would get past them now. And yet here he was, alongside the other families, each as determined as the other that they get the advantage. Even allies might turn against each other before this day was out.
Zhi raised a brow, looking beyond the auction stage. They were setting up a display table. The antiquities and curiosities that had been Montclaire’s raison d’être were being assembled behind the doors of the ballroom. “Maybe the Elementals did nab this thing and we don’t know it.”
Han’s nose wrinkled in response. “Nah. Too quiet. That girl from the auction house that opened the doors to us would have sounded the alarm. Are you sure you don’t want to scan her or the rest of the staff? Might give us an edge. It can at least tell us what we should be bidding on.”
Zhi bristled. “That would be a violation.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know—you’ll only use your powers when the family is threatened. I’m not entirely sure this isn’t the case right now.”
“I’m aware,” he said, straightening. His eyes passed over the crowds again, scanning for threats. “But there are enough high-level talents that might detect that kind of scan. And I’d like to leave this ballroom without having to fight my way out.”
“You are no fun.”
Zhi kept scanning. “ I’m aware of that, too.”
“All, right.” Han rubbed his hands. “Let’s go with what we know. Logic dictates the most precious item will be actioned last—although we should bid on anything this crowd shows an interest in to be safe.”
The fact that Han didn’t know what that object was saying was something in itself. It was his cousin’s job to keep his ear to the ground, tracing both hard facts and rumors as unsubstantial as mist with a relentlessness that spoke of his devotion to the family and tenacious nature. His information network was a twisting labyrinth, Han was the Zeng’s family bloodhound, while Zhi was its naked blade. A telepath of brutal strength, he had just been made the Zeng family head a mere two months ago.
Two months and he was already swimming with the sharks.
He caught a flash of color. The red-haired junior assistant from Marchesi was pointing out the podium to a balding man in a suit.
The auction was starting.