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   Chapter 1 Wildwood The Society Book 1

Wildwood: The Society Book 1 By Valerie Gaumont Characters: 30421

Updated: 2018-03-13 11:24


Chapter 1

Ivy stood in the long line of eager morning patrons anticipating their caffeine fix, feeling somewhat out of place. Everyone around her was rushed. They had some place they had to go and were clearly ready to be on their way. They took their cups eagerly and fairly sprinted out of the door, making her feel a bit like a boulder in the middle of a fast moving stream.

Given the gray morning outside, the glass front of the coffee shop was more inclined to project images of the waiting customers like a mirror rather than act as a window. Ivy spotted herself easily. Her casual clothing of jeans and t-shirt topped with a hooded sweatshirt stood out starkly from the tailored office wear of those around her. The fact that she stood out so sharply gave her a momentary twinge inside. After all, blending in and becoming nearly invisible was supposed to be her strong suit.

She took the time to scoop her long dark hair into a ponytail, but that was the extent of her morning's beautification attempts. As the line inched forward, she tried to remember if she had put on deodorant before leaving the house. She was fairly certain she had. She thought she remembered using it right after brushing her teeth. She glanced down at her shirt and saw the still slightly damp spot where she washed off a toothpaste spatter. She remembered her hands had still been damp when she pulled the top of her deodorant and they had slipped on the plastic. She smiled, feeling pleased with herself. Clearly, she had remembered the deodorant.

Ivy reached the counter and the harried clerk looked at her with half-glazed eyes, his hand poised over the large button, plastic sheathed cash register. She ordered a plain coffee and he blinked at her as though having a difficult time processing the simplicity of her order. He pressed one button and looked a little lost as he told her the price and took her cash. She stepped to the side and the clerk looked more in control as the woman behind her ordered a tall half cap soy latte with a double shot of espresso. His fingers flew over the keys in a confident rhythm, once again in familiar territory.

As it took less time to pour a single coffee into a cup than it did to create the fanciful concoctions the other patrons ordered, her name was quickly called. Those who had been in line before her and were still waiting, looked her over with some surprise as though puzzled over her preferential treatment. She ignored their looks, trying not to hunch her shoulders as she took her steaming cup. Deciding she was not yet ready to return home and officially start her day, Ivy chose a seat at a two person table near the large window out of the flow of traffic. Out of sight was out of mind and she was relieved when the crowd dismissed her again.

Once seated, she turned her attention away from the patrons and towards the window, forcing her gaze past her own reflection and into the wider world beyond the glass. Ivy stared out of the café window as her hand absently traced the edge of her coffee cup. The morning started out hazy, a dense mist settling over the city as though it were sulking. Instead of burning through the morning mist, the sun had remained hidden making it seem less like morning and more like twilight.

The street contained a mix of buildings occupied predominantly by retail and office space. There were one or two apartment buildings scattered throughout, but most of the residential buildings, such as her own, were a few streets over. She knew that as those streets emptied, these filled as people raced from home to work.

While she watched, Ivy saw fat drops of rain spatter down onto the hurrying morning crowds making dark splotches on the white sidewalk. Those with the foresight to have grabbed umbrellas before leaving home popped them open with evident feelings of superiority. Every pedestrian increased their speed. With most of the sound blocked out by the thick glass, Ivy felt as though she were watching a silent movie that had just been put into fast forward.

She took a second to be grateful for the fact that she had nowhere in particular that she needed to be at the moment and could therefore move at whatever speed she chose. Her current project had been wrapped up the day before, all requirements fulfilled, all payments deposited into her account. Ivy tried to feel pleased and satisfied with the completion of a job well done. It had after all been quite tricky and detailed. She had enjoyed the challenge of it, and the way the details of the project kept all other thoughts from surfacing, but now that it was complete, she felt nothing in particular. The accomplishment held all the excitement as checking an item off a list while grocery shopping.

"The money was good, " she told herself, as she always did. She tried to think of something fun she might want to buy or someplace she might want to go. Nothing came to mind and she knew that while part of her fee would go towards necessities like food and electric, the rest would go into savings as it always did. She also knew that when she transferred the excess into savings at the end of the month, she would again promise herself that after the next job was complete she would do something fun, go somewhere new.

'Round and round we go, ' she thought wondering why she still bothered to try and lie to herself. Such introspection had never really been her strong suit and she knew she should just push it aside again and return home. Everyone knew her schedule. They knew she either was finished with what she had been working on or would be soon. Her inbox would be full of possibilities; new projects, new challenges.

Ivy smiled to herself. The assorted folks she worked with, whether mage, like her or from one of the other clans like the shifters, seers, vampires or Fae, collectively harbored a dislike for most modern technology created by the normal humans around them, believing themselves above such things. Somehow they each managed to forget their contempt enough to use e-mail when they needed to reach her. Admittedly, they all made fun of her use of norm technology, thinking it an odd little quirk, but willing to indulge her.

Ivy thought she would actually lose business when she shut down her post office box and required anyone wanting to reach her to use e-mail. As she was running out of explanations for the odd items others seemed to want to include with their job proposals as extra enticement, she considered the loss worth not ending up on some federal watch list. After all how many odd shaped and often odd smelling packages could one person get before someone took notice?

Thunder cracked in the sky and the rain increased as though encouraging her procrastination. She lifted her coffee cup slightly in mock salute and decided to stay put. Procrastination seemed like a good plan at the moment.

"Maybe it's just this last project, " she thought to herself trying to puzzle out the reason for her strangely disconnected mood. The last project she had worked on was quite intense and she remained focused on the details for months. Perhaps her brain just needed to fuzz out for a little bit before jumping into the next job.

"Maybe it's the weather, " she thought taking another sip of her coffee as rain splattered on the glass in fleeting abstract designs. The memory of cold rainy days when she was smaller scuttled across her thoughts, but she pushed it away before it could take hold. She learned early, focusing on the past only brought pain. Thinking of her family would do no good, especially at the moment with the Shadow Council's hearing so close.

Ivy shivered and told herself it was due to the draft snaking in from the doorway as another patron entered. For a moment she held out hope that at least a part of her would believe her own lies. The hope was as pointless as the lie. The shiver was due to thoughts of the Shadow Council and deep down she knew her procrastination and strange mood were linked as well.

"What do they want?" she asked herself, not for the first time. Her mind had no answers to give. She mentally scrolled through her actions over the past few months. The Shadow Council was made up of the heads of each of the hidden clans. They governed behavior and worked to keep all of them, well, hidden from the eyes of the unsuspecting norms around them.

Getting a summons to appear before the Council usually meant that you had been caught doing something that was either forbidden or that would draw attention. It always meant some form of disciplinary action was about to be taken against you. While Ivy knew the stories of punishments meted out always grew in the telling, she also knew that there was truth at the core of the tales.

"I did nothing wrong, " she reminded herself. True, several of the things she occasionally played with could be considered gray areas, but she always made certain that she covered her tracks well, and that it would not bring any form of public scrutiny. She knew if she was ever caught and sanctioned for those actions, the secrecy would count in her favor. Ivy shivered again and set her coffee cup down on the table. Two days ago she had received a summons and she knew from experience that it didn't always take a misdeed to bring down the wrath of the Council.

She had been called to the Shadow Council only once before. Ivy had done nothing wrong then either. That hadn't seemed to matter. What was left of her family had been split up, each of them sent to different cities and forbidden to gather together again. No explanation had been given and over the years, Ivy had never been able to ferret out the reason for the split.

She had learned that the votes had gone two against and three for the split. She knew that for the first few years, she had been watched. She guessed the watching had been to make certain she didn't try and find the others. She had no idea what else they could be watching. She did her best to settle in and the watchers seemed to fade away over time leaving her in peace.

"Maybe that's why vacations don't seem appealing, " she thought once again reaching for her coffee. It had cooled slightly and since no one was paying any attention, she sent a small burst of heat from her hand through the cup and into the coffee. Satisfied with the new temperature, she took another sip and set the cup down. Somehow she had the feeling that if she planned a trip anywhere, the watchers would return. While she could mostly ignore those watching her take the trash out to the dumpster behind her building, she doubted she would feel comfortable sunning herself on a beach somewhere under the Council's watchful gaze.

"I just wish I knew why, " Ivy mentally repeated. It didn't seem fair that she had been called a second time to face the Council when she hadn't yet figured out the reasons for the first summons and sanction. She had studied the card the Shadow Council sent by currier over and over until her eyes crossed. She looked at the front and the back, she held it up to the light and found only that the Council used paper imprinted with its own watermark instead of buying something generic from the store.

In the end, all she knew was that tomorrow just after sunset, she was required to present herself to the Shadow Council for reasons they felt no need to explain. She was summoned, she would present herself and then she would be told what was going on.

"With luck, " she thought bitterly.

Ivy took another sip of coffee and set the cup back down, one finger absently tracing the cup's rim again. It seemed she was forever going around in an endless loop. She leaned back in the stiff plastic chair and finally acknowledged the solid ball of dread that had lodged deep in her gut. She had been able to ignore it when there were still project details demanding her attention. Now, there were no distractions. She rifled her mental files again trying to find the reasoning for the summons, but it was a half-hearted effort. She had been careful in not only hiding her somewhat gray actions, but had also been careful to follow the letter, if not always the spirit, of the law, at least where those who cared for such things could see.

"Why Ivy Chambers, is that you?" Ivy looked up at the question, startled out of her own thoughts by the sound of her name. She looked into the twinkling blue eyes set into the face well creased by the hand of time and felt her hand involuntarily grip her cup so hard it dented slightly from the pressure. His white hair seemed charmingly unkempt and the smile he turned her way was warm and welcoming as the man now in front of her pulled out a chair, scraping its metal feet harshly against the tile floor. Ivy felt cold dread sink deep into her bones. She smiled and it felt brittle.

"Albert, " she said trying to sound pleased and surprised as her heart thudded in her chest like a trapped and panicked thing. "What a lovely surprise." Her thudding heart nearly stopped as she watched his gnarled hands set his large cup of coffee down on the table. He sat down in the empty chair across from her.

Ivy licked her suddenly dry lips and forced her hand to relax its death grip on the cup. Albert settled himself looking like the living embodiment of the kindly grandfatherly archetype. As far as Ivy knew, it was the greatest con in the world. Anyone who knew Albert Winters knew that Winters was an assumed name. Most were fairly certain that Albert was as well. What his actual name was, no one seemed to know. What duties he performed for the Shadow Council were also a mystery.

What was known was that whatever he did for them caused the Council to turn a blind eye to anything else Albert took it into his head to do. Albert was more or less a law unto himself. Whether by independent design or Council related, his arrival was never a good sign. His arrival so close to a Shadow Council summons made the hard lump in Ivy's guts start a slow and nauseating spin.

"Relax Ivy, " he said gently. He picked up his coffee and took a long drink, his eyes never leaving her face. The comment did not relax her. If anything it made the tension worse. Ivy took a long pull from her coffee, noting that it was starting to cool again, but unwilling to reheat it in Albert's presence. Even though he was a mage like her, his specialty focused on water rather than fire as hers was, they were in a public place and the Council had forbidden the use of magic in public places. The cold coffee was, however, the least of her concerns at the moment. She tried to think of something to say, but most rational comments seemed to disappear in the face of Albert's presence.

"It has been a while since I've seen you, " she found herself saying, retreating into the manners her grandmother had managed to ingrain in all five of them. "How have you been?"

Albert chuckled as though amused. The smile didn't touch his eyes. "It has been a while hasn't it? A little more than seventeen years if I recall. Why you were barely eighteen then. I've heard you have done well for

yourself over all that time."

"I do okay, " Ivy replied, trying to smile without looking pained. Boasting of too much good fortune was never a good idea in their world. Admittedly, complaining of misfortunes wasn't any better of a plan. Ride the middle had always been her grandmother's advice. Blend into the average whenever possible where the Council is concerned. Ivy decided the advice pertained to Albert as well. She blinked in surprise at the mention of seventeen years. That had been the date of her last Council summons. She didn't remember Albert being there, but she had other concerns at the time.

"So it would seem, " Albert replied before the silence had stretched too far. "At least from all of the chatter in the office." Ivy stared at him. He had to be talking about the Council, but she couldn't divine his meaning from the few words. Why would the Council be talking about her? It had to be related to the summons, but why on earth would Albert tell her why the Council had summoned her?

She had met the man only a few times, mostly in settings where they both happened to be at the same time and not because they had business together. She thought she might have once said a polite hello to him, but that was all. Albert was not a friend or even really an acquaintance. It made no sense for him to seek her out let alone provide her with any sort of privileged information. In the absence of certainty, she kept quiet. Albert seemed pleased by her lack of response.

"I had heard that you recently completed a project of some note and will no doubt be taking some time off to recuperate, at least until after your big meeting, " Albert continued. He stretched his hands out across the table and gripped hers. Ivy blinked, first in surprise at the gesture and then as she felt a small, hard object pressed into her palm. He pulled his hands away and she dropped the hand now holding the item into her lap. She didn't know if anyone was watching, but she doubted anyone had seen the transfer. It had taken no more than a couple of seconds. She picked up her cup with her free hand and raised it shakily to her lips.

"I hope that once you have rested, we can find the time to catch up now that I'm back in town, " Albert said. He smiled, picked up his coffee and stood. "See you soon, " he said. The words were delivered in a polite tone, but sounded somehow like a threat.

Albert strolled back towards the door and Ivy turned slightly to watch him go, using the motion to casually transfer the small item from her hand to her pocket. As she watched him stride to the door, she caught sight of two large men standing under the eaves of a building across the street. One had his eyes trained on Albert, the other had eyes only for her. Recognizing the man staring at her, Ivy lifted her now empty hand and waved at him through the glass. He seemed uncomfortable and turned away. Ivy lowered her hand feeling foolish. The man she knew, Russell, said something to his companion who frowned and then stepped out of his dry spot under the eaves to follow Albert as he made his way down the street.

Ivy sighed and lifted her cup to her lips. She winced at the taste of cooled coffee. Since no one other than Russell seemed to be paying any attention to her, Ivy wrapped her fingers around her cup and sent a wave of heat from her hand into the coffee to warm it up. She lifted the now piping hot beverage to her lips. The hot liquid nearly scalded her and she frowned at her own carelessness. Overheating a drink was an amateur move and one she hadn't done since her age was still in single digits. She blamed her own nerves and decided that rain or not, it was probably time to head home.

Ivy tried not to think about the item, whatever it was, that was now in her pocket. She stood up and walked towards the door. She threw her coffee into the trash, wanting nothing more to do with it. As her stomach was rapidly turning into a pit of acid from the thoughts of possibly becoming involved in a round of council politicking, she hardly needed to add the overheated brew to the mix.

In the days when her every move was watched, Russell had never been one of those she spotted following her, although she could easily admit that spotting spies was not something she was trained for and might therefore have missed him. She had met him several years prior when she was working with a group of shifters. As the other shifters in the pack tended to be somewhat short and dark haired with olive toned skin, the six foot five inch blonde stood out. Privately Ivy thought he looked a little like a Viking. He was loosely tied to the pack she was helping, but they had made it clear that even though he was a wolf and an ally, he was not of their pack.

As Ivy knew little about the packs and assorted other designations that made up the various shifter clans and as Russell was being both pleasant and polite, she had not questioned it much once she had been assured he was not there to pillage. While she never did learn his connection to that particular pack, she had worked with him numerous times and his recommendations often sent work her way. She had no idea why he would be following Albert.

Ivy stepped outside and flipped the hood of her sweatshirt over her head in meager protection from the rain. She thought the temperature had dropped since she had first stepped out of her door and she wished she had grabbed an actual coat instead of just the sweatshirt. Luckily, she didn't live too far away and most of her path was covered by the overhanging buildings so she might actually manage to stay dry, if not warm on her walk home. While her head was protected, her feet were not and she almost immediately stepped into a deep puddle, feeling the icy water soak through her canvas sneakers and into her socks.

"Should have worn boots as well as a coat, " she muttered to herself as she stepped out of the puddle and shook her feet off before continuing on her way. She was somehow not surprised when Russell jogged across the street and quickly fell into step beside her.

As always, she took a moment to admire his easy grace. She assumed it had something to do with shifters as she had never seen an ungainly one, but there was something appealing in Russell's long limbed stride. If she were honest with herself she would have to admit it wasn't just his grace she admired. He was easy to look at all around.

While his long blonde hair usually fell in curls to just above his shoulders, the moisture in the air had shortened it considerably and turned his curls into ringlets that reminded her of an old fashioned doll. His beard kept it from looking too feminine, but Ivy still found herself fighting the urge to tug one of the ringlets to see if it bounced the same way the doll's hair had.

Reminding herself that wolves could sense emotions and that unwanted admiration could cause trouble with someone who only considered her a business associate, she shifted her thoughts into more neutral territory. Besides, it was never a good idea to pet a wolf as if he were a puppy, even if he did have ringlets.

He gave her a quick grin and let his eyes scan her from head to toe before favoring her with an appreciative glance. She assumed it was in response to her appraisal of him as it was fairly general a glance, merely a polite return, appreciation for appreciation. She nodded and turned away hoping he didn't notice her slight blush.

"At least he isn't offended, " she thought. Even though she worked with various packs on occasion, she knew only what pertained to the job at hand. She had never tried to pry into their secrets or personal lives, which they always seemed to appreciate. As she started to walk, she hoped that there wasn't an angry female wolf waiting somewhere in the shadows to take offense at her appraisal of Russell. Russell slowed his long legged stride to walk beside her.

"What's with the old man?" Russell asked after a few steps. Ivy smiled. While she knew nothing of the personal lives of wolves, she had learned a great deal about how they conducted business over the years. The comment was as subtle as Russell was ever likely to get. It was something she often appreciated about him, even if it was occasionally annoying.

"No clue, " Ivy said honestly. With Russell, as well as all of the other shifters she had met, honesty was always the best policy. He could smell a lie and she could practically feel him breathing in her words to test their truth. He seemed more focused than usual and she frowned. Ivy looked around trying to seem casual as she made certain no one was paying them any extra attention.

Most of the morning pedestrians had made it to their destinations and had no desire to linger in the rain. Ivy could just see a few people cowering here and there in covered doorways. Most of those she saw appeared to be looking skyward as if trying to guess when the rain would taper off so they could make a break for their cars.

"I have a Council summons scheduled for tomorrow and today when I went for coffee, Albert sat down at my table. He told me he had heard I had done well for myself since he saw me at my last summons and that he knew I had been summoned again." She told Russell. "It was weird. Albert spooks me."

Russell chuckled. "Albert spooks everyone. Luckily, I outrank Damien and already knew you, so Damien had to follow the old man instead of me. You were his third stop today."

"Third?" Ivy asked. She stopped walking and turned to him.

"Yeah, " Russell told her. He was staring directly into her eyes and Ivy realized that the green of his eyes was flecked with gold. She had never seen him so serious before and she was suddenly more aware of how much larger he was then her and how much heat he seemed to radiate despite the chill of the day. "He took his newspaper to the park to read before it started to rain. Then, he stopped by the First National Bank on Fifth. Then, he sat down with you." He listed Albert's movements as bullet points. Ivy could practically see them lined up on a page.

"Huh, " Ivy said as she turned away and continued walking. "Did he see you follow him?"

Russell shrugged. "Maybe, I don't know. We weren't told to be stealthy about it. Just to watch him and try to find out what he is up to."

"Someone thinks he is up to something?"

Russell snorted. "Albert is always up to something."

"Maybe he just talked to me to confuse you?" Ivy suggested after thinking it over a second. "After all, I wasn't planning to go to the coffee shop today. I just wanted to get out of the house before sorting through proposals for my next job. Maybe he just saw me and thought it would be amusing to throw me in the mix."

"Do you use the First National Bank?" he asked.

"Nope, I'm with the Credit Union. I usually use the branch down on First since its closer to my place."

"Oh, " Russell said, sounding a bit let down. Some of his intensity faded. "I was hoping he was hiring you for something."

"What would Albert hire me for?" Ivy asked with a little laugh. Even before the sanction when the Council split them, the Chambers family had been well known for their avoidance of all things Council related, Albert included.

"To get a little extra for your kind before the rest of us, " Russell said with a shrug. He bit his lip as the words came out, as though they had escaped before he could catch them. Ivy stopped under a large overhang and turned to look at Russell again. This time, he refused to meet her eyes.

"Albert works for the Council. Are you accusing me of doing something behind the Council's back Russell?" she asked knowing that there were some mages who resented the fact that shifters were given equal footing in the Council. Admittedly, those mages also didn't like that there was a Council in the first place and wanted mages to be independent. There were even factions who wanted to rule openly as they believed themselves vastly superior to the norms around them as well as the other hidden clans. She didn't know too much more about them as she had always steered clear of political radicals of every stripe. "Have I ever not played fair with you?"

Russell held up his hands in mock self-defense. "You always treat us fair, Ivy. I've never known you to give preferential treatment to other mages over the shifters or any of the other clans bound to the Shadow Council. That's why I like working with you."

"But you think I've decided to now?" Ivy asked.

"No, but I wouldn't put it past the other mages to try something like that, considering." Russell told her.

"Considering what?" Ivy asked her eyes narrowed. He continued to avoid her eyes. She gasped, opened her eyes wide, and blinked hard three times as a thought occurred to her. "You know why I got the summons don't you?" she demanded.

Russell flinched like a kicked puppy. "Didn't Albert mention it?" he asked hopefully.

"No. He. Didn't." Ivy crossed her arms and stared at Russell.

"Oh man, I thought he did and that's why he stopped to talk to you, so your lot could get a side deal of some kind."

"Russell, what the hell are you talking about?" Ivy demanded, her nerves fraying her temper. "What is going on? Why is the Shadow Council summoning me?" She resisted the urge to stamp her foot like an angry child. Russell motioned for her to quiet down and Ivy realized she had been close to yelling.

"I can't tell you Ivy, I swear I can't." Russell looked almost panicked. "All the clans agreed to wait until the session."

"But you were told to follow Albert thinking the mages would pull something sneaky?" Ivy guessed keeping her voice at a conversational volume. It took more effort than she was comfortable admitting.

"Well mages are a sneaky lot, " Russell said with a rueful smile. Noticing Ivy's frown, his smile broadened. "Except you, Ivy. You've always been good to us."

Ivy sighed restraining herself from rolling her eyes at Russell's attempt at flattery. If Russell had been ordered by the head of his clan to keep silent, than friend or not there was no way she was going to get him to talk. Among the shifters, wolves were known for many things, not all of them good. They were however obedient to a fault when it came to pack and clan hierarchy. She turned away from Russell and continued walking home.

"Hey, did Albert tell you anything else?" he asked once again falling into step beside her. He sounded hopeful and for the first time Ivy wondered who he actually worked for. Ivy glanced up at him. After spending the bulk of her life avoiding anything Council related it seemed she had stepped directly into the path of a council mess.

"He told me to relax, " Ivy told him sourly. Russell looked startled for a moment and then he let out a deep belly laugh, his mirth bringing tears to his eyes.

"You have to hand it to the old bastard, " Russell said when he regained control and caught up to Ivy again as she had kept walking while he stopped to laugh. "Only he would think that was an appropriate thing to say."

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