"Devraj." His grandmother's energy was strong, beautiful, carrying within it the echoes of incense and spice, silica and molten heat. "A little late to come calling, beta."
Only his grandmother ever called him "beloved child" in the language of his mother. "I figured you'd be up working on your designs."
"The glass is becoming more and more stubborn with age. Today, I meant to finish a stained glass window except the red refused to cooperate. It turned orange instead."
He was used to the way she spoke of her precious glass as if it were a sentient being. "You still haven't sent me my birthday present."
"Cheeky boy." A psychic brush against his mind, an affectionate kiss on his forehead. "You'll get what's coming to you."
He laughed, and it was perhaps the only time he ever truly did that anymore - with her, the woman who'd loved him even when he'd hated himself. "Nani," he said, using the Hindi word for maternal grandmother, "I need some advice."
"You've been walking a lonely path these past few years."
"Yes." He'd never lied to his grandmother. Perhaps he'd withheld his darkest secrets, but he'd never lied.
"The metal - I know it kept you sane at a time when another child might've broken," she said, the warmth of her love a gentle wind across his senses, "but you must see what it's doing to you."
It was, Dev knew, becoming fused into his very cells. Sometimes his mind was so cool, so flawlessly quiet that he wondered if it was blood that ran in his veins, or something far less human. "I can no more stop reaching for metal than you can stop shaping glass." Steel and iron, copper and gold, it all called to him, resonating on a psychic frequency he alone could sense. "It helps me do what I need to do."
"Understand the Psy?"
"Yes. And make decisions that need making."
A sigh. "Metal melts, too, beta. It is not always hard, not always cold."
"That's the problem. Something's penetrating my shields."
"Without your conscious control?"
"Yes." He told her about Katya. "I'm the director - I can't afford that kind of a chink in my shields."
"I should remove the threat."
"Kill her, you mean."
There was no shock from his grandmother. In her youth, she'd been one of the foot soldiers for the Forgotten. "This woman, this Katya," she now said, "she plays on your weaknesses."
Katya's screams echoed inside him, full of so much terror, he didn't know how she'd survived. "I don't think it's deliberate."
"Perhaps." A pause. "If she is a sleeper assassin, it may be that she was chosen. . .no, that she was made to disarm you. Your history isn't public knowledge, but neither is it completely hidden - you may believe you're refusing her entry, but your subconscious has clearly opened a door for her."
Something twisted inside him, shooting barbs into his heart. "If she was designed to get under my skin, they did a good job." She'd slipped inside him with such stealth, the perfect stiletto in the dark.
"Ah, Devraj, don't sound as if you've been played for a fool." A pulse of loving energy that was as familiar as the melting silica of her precious glass. "I'm happy for you."
"It shows you still have heart, that you didn't immediately move to strike. And I'd rather you have that than be a cold-blooded general who thinks of nothing but power."
"Her mind," he said, "do you think you might be able to unravel the programming?" His grandmother was only a midrange sender, but she was very, very good at untangling psychic knots - an odd skill that the Psy in the Net seemed to have lost. Perhaps it was no longer necessary now that they were Silent.
It was very much necessary for the Forgotten.
Nani was the one who'd untangled the ribbons of madness that had ravaged Dev's father. The ribbons always came back - faster each time - but now they knew what to watch for. The first time . . . Dev shook his head in violent repudiation.
For a second, his attention split between the psychic and physical aspects of his nature as Katya stirred. Putting his hand on the back of her head, he gentled her into sleep once more before returning to his grandmother.
"I'd have to see her." Her mental tone was serene, yet no less sharp for it. "But you know the problem - we're not the same as the Psy in the Net. I may not even be able to sense the bonds that lock her in, much less the deeper programming."
"I don't want you trying yet in any case." A midrange Psy telepath could do a lot of damage to one of the Forgotten who'd lowered her shields.
"You call me when you need me." Another psychic brush. "Do you want to talk to your nana?"
"No, let him sleep."
"You know he never sleeps while I'm awake. Stubborn man."
He sent her a good-bye kiss before dropping from the ShadowNet. Coming back into his own mind was an easy glide, a familiar truth. He understood exactly how the woman in his arms felt at being cut off from the psychic plane. It must be akin to having a limb amputated, a claustrophobic terror.
If, of course, she was telling the truth.
This woman, this Katya, she plays on your weaknesses.
How could he not have seen it? It was as if someone had gone into his very psyche and created a woman he simply could not harm, no matter what he'd told himself to the contrary. Even now, with the truth of his grandmother's words ringing in his head, he couldn't repudiate Katya . . . couldn't send her back to the dark.