Hunt the Moon
(The fifth book in the Cassie Palmer series)
A novel by Karen Chance
To my editor, Anne Sowards, for otherworldly patience!
I hit the ground running—or stumbling or falling; it was kind of hard to tell when it felt like the earth was crumbling under my feet.
And then I realized that was because the earth was crumbling under my feet.
I plummeted straight over a cliff and into thin air, arms waving and feet still moving uselessly, screaming bloody murder. For a long moment, there was nothing but me and crystal blue sky and acre upon acre of sparkling, snow-covered land way the hell too far below. I knew I was supposed to be doing something, but the wind was roaring in my ears and my eyes were watering from the cold and the ground was rushing up to meet me at a pace that promised one very mushed clairvoyant in the very near future—
And then I was jerked back up, fast enough to cut off my breath, to leave me dizzy. Or maybe that was the feel of the hard arms around me or the harder body behind me. Or the stunning relief of Not dead, not dead yet—
Because that never gets old.
My name is Cassie Palmer, and I’ve cheated death more times than anyone has a right to expect. In the past two months, I’ve been shot, stabbed, beaten and blown up a few dozen times, and that doesn’t count all the magical ways I’ve almost been killed. I’d have been dead a long time ago if not for my friends, one of whom had just jumped off the cliff after me.
I’d have been a lot more appreciative if he hadn’t pushed me first.
My nose was running, I couldn’t see worth shit and my brain was still frozen in abject terror. So for a moment I just hung there, gulping ice-cold air and waiting for my heart to stop trying to slam through my chest. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a small piece of what was holding us up, and it wasn’t reassuring.
It was almost transparent, except for a faint bluish tinge that was largely invisible against the brilliant sky. It had a dome-shaped top and a few filmy tentacles streaming downward to wrap around us, making it look vaguely like a jellyfish—if they were as big as a bus and had a habit of drifting around over the Colorado Rockies. What it was was almost as strange: an expression of one man’s magic, formed into a parachute that I didn’t trust at all.
On the other hand, I did trust the man. Although I really wished he’d caught me from the front instead of from behind. That way I could have kneed him in the nuts.
“You did that on purpose!” I gasped when I was able to breathe.
“Of course?” I looked up, but had to crane my head back, leaving the features above me wrong-side up. The clear green eyes were the same, and, unfortunately, so was the spiky blond hair.
It didn’t look any better from this angle, I decided.
“You have yet to learn to react reliably under pressure,” I was told. “Until you do, you are vulnerable.”
I tried swiveling my head around, because glaring at someone upside down doesn’t work. But all I saw was part of a muscular shoulder in an army green sweatshirt. My sometimes friend, sometimes enemy, all the time pain in the ass John Pritkin wasn’t wearing a coat.
Of course he wasn’t.
It had to be subzero out here, and if it hadn’t been for all the adrenaline pumping through my system, I’d have been freezing to death—but a coat wasn’t macho. And if I’d learned one thing about war mages, the closest thing the supernatural community had to a police force, it was that they were always macho. Even the women. It was kind of scary.
Sort of like dangling about a mile above a lot of very pointy mountains.
“Your abilities will do you little good if you cannot learn to function under stress,” he continued calmly, as we slowly drifted closer to the pointy bits.
“Stress?” I asked, my voice cracking slightly. “Pritkin, stress is a bad hair day. Stress is gaining five pounds right before swimsuit season. This is not stress!”
“Call it what you will; the point is the same. Remember what we discussed. Assess—determine what is happening; address—decide which of your abilities can best deal with the problem at hand; and then act—quickly and decisively. You must learn to do this automatically, without freezing up, and regardless of the circumstances. Or you will suffer the consequences.”
“I’m trying!” I said resentfully. It was barely two months since I’d been pushed off another cliff, and the fact that it had been a metaphorical one hadn’t helped at all. I’d been declared—over my loud and sustained protests—Pythia, the chief seer of the supernatural world.
It was a job that some people were willing to kill for, as I’d discovered the hard way. For my part, I’d spent a good deal of those two months trying to give back the power that came with the office, only to find that it didn’t want to leave. After a number of very hard lessons, I’d finally accepted that I was going to have to make the best of it.
As a result, I’d been working my metaphysical butt off trying to make up for the lifetime of training the other candidates had received. It would have helped if Rambo up there hadn’t demanded that I learn self-defense, too. I agreed that I needed it, but one thing I didn’t know how to do at a time was enough.
“Try harder,” Mr. Complete Lack of Sympathy told me.
“Look,” I said, trying to reason with him despite extensive experience that this rarely worked. “This isn’t a great time. I have my inauguration—”
“—coming up, and I’m trying to raise my abilities from pathetic to just sad before then so I don’t totally embarrass myself in front of the people I’m supposed to be leading. And then there’re fittings for the dress they want me to wear, and about a ton of names to learn, and if I get a title wrong it could cause some kind of international incident—”
“I will make you a deal,” he said, cutting me off.
“What kind of deal?” I asked warily. Wheeling and dealing was a vampire trait, something the other man in my life was much more likely to try. War mages ordered, threatened and bitched, depending on the circumstance. They didn’t deal.
Except for today, apparently.
“We’re directly over an area used by the Corps as a training ground,” he told me, referring to the formal name of the war mages. “Stay ahead of me for fifteen minutes, using any abilities you like other than time shifting, and I won’t bother you again for a week.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment. Because there were several types of shifting that came standard with my office—through space and through time. They might look the same to Pritkin, except that I moved from place to place instead of from era to era. But they weren’t. His boss at the Corps, Jonas Marsden, was the one training me in my newly acquired abilities and he’d told me so himself.
So if Pritkin didn’t specifically forbid me from spatially shifting, I could easily stay ahead of him—and buy myself a free week in the process. After the way things had been going lately, a little time off would be heaven. But it would be a bad mistake to sound like it.
“We’ve been out here half the day already,” I complained. “I’m tired, I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I can’t feel my toes any—”
“I’ll throw in a picnic.”
My head came up. “What?”
“I hid a basket this morning. After the test, I’ll take you to it.”
“It’ll be cold by now.”
“I left it with a warmer,” he said drily. Because war mages ate their fried chicken frozen to the ground and they liked it.
God. Fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, maybe some apple pie or cookies for dessert—yeah. I could so use a picnic right about now.
“All right,” I agreed, faster than I should have. But I really was hungry. “No time travel.”
“You’re sure? Because when I win—”
“If you win.”
“—you’ll stay until you’ve run the entire course. And you won’t whine about it.”
“I don’t whine!”
“Then we have a deal?”
“I guess so,” I said, trying to sound reluctant.
“Good,” he told me pleasantly.
And then he let go.
A couple of hours later, I staggered into the Vegas hotel suite I currently called home and face-planted onto the sofa. There was already someone sitting there, but I didn’t care. I was too tired to even open my eyelids and find out who it was.
Until someone pried one open for me with a finger the size of a hot dog. “Rough day?”
I rotated my eyeball—and, goddamnit, even that hurt—to see the leader of my bodyguards peering at me.
“No. I like being dropped from airplane height without a parachute.”
Marco patted me on the ass, which I guess was fair, since I was draped over his lap. “You seem all right to me.”
Marco, I reflected sourly, was getting awfully blasé where my health was concerned. He’d started out assuming that I was as squishy as most humans, and practically had a heart attack every time I got a hangnail. But after seeing me survive a few dozen attacks, he’d started to relax. These days, if I didn’t come in with a gaping wound or spewing blood, I didn’t get much sympathy.
“Because I managed to shift to the ground before I splattered on it!” I told him testily.
“Then what’s the problem?”
I turned over so I could scowl at him. “The problem is that I just ran a marathon in freezing weather with a maniac chasing me.”
“Why didn’t you just”—he waved the ham-sized hand that went with his bear-sized body—“you know. Poof.”
“You mean shift?”
“Yeah. Why didn’t you shift?”
“I did! But Pritkin expected that, and he borrowed Jonas’s necklace.”
I sighed and sat up. “It’s some sort of charm that allows him to recall the Pythia in times of emergency. As soon as I try to shift, wherever I am, whenever I am, it pulls me back.” As Pritkin had known when he made that bet, damn him.
God, I wished I kneed him in the nuts.
Marco seemed to think that was funny, which didn’t improve my mood. I got up and limped into the next room, still freezing cold and starving to death. Because Pritkin’s idea of a picnic left a lot to be desired.
But my bathroom didn’t. I knew it was stupid, but my bathroom made me happy. Maybe it was the size—which was huge bordering on sinful—or the soothing white and blue color scheme, or the rain forest showerhead over the Godzilla-sized tub. Or maybe it was because it was the one place in the whole damn suite where I could actually be alone.
Marco wasn’t the problem. Over the last month, he’d gone from treating me like a burdensome pest to treating me like a slightly bratty younger sister, and most of the time, I found myself actually enjoying his company. But Marco was the tip of the iceberg where my bodyguards were concerned. And they’d only been growing in number since the date of the inauguration had been announced.
Everyone assumed there would be an attack. Even I assumed it. The supernatural world was at war, and killing off the opposite side’s leadership was SOP. And whether I liked it or not, the Pythia was seen as one of our side’s more important assets. Which explained Pritkin’s stepped-up attempts to make me suck slightly less at self-defense, and the dozen or so golden-eyed master vamps constantly patrolling the suite.
They were there for my protection; I knew that. But it didn’t make them any less creepy. They watched me eat. They watched me drink. They watched me watch goddamned TV. They even watched me sleep. I’d woken up more than once to find one of them just standing in the doorway of my bedroom, staring at me, like it was a perfectly normal thing to do.
If it hadn’t been for my bathroom, I really might have lost it.
Too bad I couldn’t sleep in there.
Marco stuck his head in the door as I was running hot water into my lovely big tub. “You need anything? ’Cause I go off duty in a couple.”
“Food,” I said, shrugging out of my coat.
“Anything. As long as it isn’t good for me.”
He nodded and ducked out when I started to pull off my T-shirt. It was far too flimsy for where I’d been, but the saying on the front fit my mood perfectly: “I keep hitting escape, but I’m still here.” I tossed it on a pile with the coat, my stiff-with-cold jeans and the expensive scrap of silk that had been wedged up my ass for the past half hour. Then I slowly climbed into the tub.
It was actually a little too hot, but I figured the amount of ice clinging to me ought to even things out. I added a generous amount of bath salts, found my pillow under some towels and let my head sag back against the tub. After a few moments, my muscles began to unclench and my spine sagged in relief, and I seriously began to wonder if sleeping here was such a bad idea after all.
I think maybe I did drift off for a while. Because the next thing I knew, I was at the pink and pruney stage, the mirrors were all fogged up and the water was no longer hot. And a ghost was sitting by the tub, staring at me.
I’d have been more concerned, but this was a ghost I knew. I grabbed a towel and shot him a look; I don’t know why. Billy didn’t worry about his numerous vices. He’d cheated death like he’d cheated at cards in life, and he intended to keep it up. That made his morality a bit of a mixed bag, since he never intended to answer for any of it, anyway.
With an insubstantial finger, he pushed up the Stetson he’d been wearing for the past century and a half. “I’ve seen it before,” he told me with an exaggerated leer.
“Then why are you looking?”
“’Cause I’m dead, not senile?”
I threw the sponge at him, which did no good, because it passed right through and hit the wall. “I can’t feed you yet,” I said. “Not until I eat.”
Billy and I had a long-standing arrangement, dating from the time I’d picked up the necklace he haunted in a junk shop at the age of seventeen. I donated the living energy it took to keep him feeling frisky, and he did little errands for me in return. At least, he did if I complained enough.
He stretched denim-covered legs out in front of him, as if on an invisible sofa. “Can’t a guy drop by without you immediately assuming—” He caught my expression and gave it up. “Okay, I’ll wait.”
I was trying to decide between getting out and running some more hot water when there was a knock at the door. “You decent?”
I pulled the towel up a little higher. “Yes, if my wrinkled toes don’t offend.”
Marco’s swarthy head popped around the doorjamb. “Naw, they’re cute.”
I wiggled them at him since I could actually feel them now.
“Anyway, grub’s outside and I gotta go.” He grinned at me. “Big date tonight.”
“Date?” I blinked in surprise, because master vampires don’t date. Not unless forced, anyway.
“Witch,” he said succinctly.
“Isn’t that a little . . . unusual?”
“I’m like the master. I like to walk on the wild side.”
It took me a moment to realize what he meant. “I am not the wild side,” I told him flatly. “I’m about as far from the wild side as it’s possible to get.”
He raised a bushy black eyebrow. “If you say so.”
I opened my mouth, then decided I was too beat to argue. “Well, have fun.”
“Oh, I will.” He paused. “And just FYI, there’s a bunch of new guys on tonight. Well, not new new, but new to you.”
I didn’t know why he was bothering to tell me. The bodyguards were changed on a regular basis. Round-theclock security meant that some of them got stuck on the day shift, which was hard on vampires. At least I assumed that was why, after a week or two, they started looking a little peaked.
I nodded, but Marco just stood there, as if he expected some kind of answer. “Okay.”
“It’s just . . .” He hesitated. “Try not to freak them out too much, all right?”
“I freak them out?”
“You know what I mean. It’s those things you do.”
His eyes darted around the bathroom. “Talking-toinvisible-people kind of things.”
“They’re ghosts, Marco.”
“Yeah, only most of the guys don’t believe in ghosts, and they’ve started to think you’re a bit . . . strange.”
“They’re vampires and they think I’m strange?”
“And no popping out of nowhere in front of a guy. That takes some getting used to. I don’t think Sanchez has recovered yet.”
“The only place I’m popping is to bed.”
“Good plan.” Marco looked satisfied. “See you on the flip side.”
I rolled my eyes at the slang, which as usual for the older vamps was decades out of date, and let my head sag back against the tub. I really didn’t want to move now that I was warm and relaxed and actually starting to feel my extremities again. But the smells drifting in from the next room were making my stomach growl plaintively.
I couldn’t immediately identify the source, but it didn’t matter. If Marco had done the ordering, it had to be good. Unlike Pritkin, Marco didn’t worry about things like trans fats and cholesterol. When Marco ate, he ate big: pasta dripping in cream sauce, huge peppery steaks, mashed potatoes with gravy, and cannoli sweet enough to crack teeth. Often at the same meal.
The fact that vampires didn’t technically need to eat didn’t appear to worry Marco. He’d told me that one of the best things about finally reaching master status had been the return of working taste buds. And he’d spent the time since making up for all those flavorless years.
I decided that maybe I was clean enough. “Turn around,” I told Billy. “I’m getting out.”
He made a pouty face but he didn’t argue. Maybe he was hungry, too. I wrapped the towel around myself and started to get out of the tub.
But instead my hands slid off the porcelain, my knees bent and I slipped back into the rapidly cooling water.
For a second, I just lay there, more confused than worried. Until I kept on sinking. Then I snapped out of it and began to struggle.
And found that it made absolutely no difference.
The best I could do was keep my face above the bubbles for a few seconds while I struggled to move, to cry out, to do something. But my body was as frozen as the shout trapped behind my teeth, which my lips stubbornly refused to let out. The most I managed was a muffled grunt as my head slowly went under.
Immediately, all sound vanished. The whoosh of the air-conditioning, the almost silent footsteps of the guards, the soft clink-clink of someone dropping ice cubes in a glass in the dining room, all faded into a watery roar. Silence constricted around me, a heavy, cold hand that robbed me of breath as effectively as the water over my face.
The bubbles had half dissolved by now, with pockets of suds floating here and there, like the sky on a cloudy day. In between I could see the ceiling of the bathroom, rippling with my barely discernible struggles. But they weren’t enough, weren’t nearly enough, and my lungs were already crying out for air.
After what felt like an hour but was probably no more than a few seconds, the scene above me was obscured by Billy’s indistinct shape. He was saying something, but I couldn’t hear, and then his face passed through the water and he gazed at me curiously. “Time to get out.”
No shit, I thought hysterically, trying to flail limbs that suddenly felt like they belonged to someone else. A frown appeared between Billy’s eyes. But it was the impatient Billy look, not the panicked Billy look. He still didn’t get it.
“Seriously, Cass. Your dinner’s gonna get cold.”
I just stared at him, my eyes burning from the soap, willing him to understand. Nothing happened, except that a chain of bubbles slipped out from between my lips, heading for the air a few inches away. It might as well have been a few thousand, for all the good it was doing me.
My toes were floating near the surface of the water, right beside the switch that controlled the drain. It was mounted just below the faucet, within easy reach—if I’d been able to move. As it was, I could only stare at it, stark terror creeping over my body, chilling my skin and threatening to paralyze whatever brain function I had left. I couldn’t move and Billy was useless and I couldn’t even take a deep breath to calm down because—
Because I was about to drown in the goddamn bathtub.
The thought cut cleanly through the gibbering in my brain. People had been trying to kill me in elaborate ways for months, yet if I didn’t get a grip, my epitaph was going to read: SHE DROWNED IN THE TUB. But it wasn’t, it wasn’t, because I was damned if I was going to go out like that.
Only it didn’t look like I had a lot of choice.
The more I struggled, the more my body seemed to shut down. Trying to move was like battering against the lid of a coffin from the inside. I cried out furiously, but the shout stayed locked in my numb throat.
The worst part was the silence. Death was supposed to be loud—gunshots, explosions, screams and thunder. Not this eerie quiet that wrapped around me like a shroud. I couldn’t hear anything but the water lapping at the sides of the tub, like a watch counting down the seconds I had left.
And a harsh voice echoing in my ears: Assess, Address, Act.
For a second, the words just hung there in my head, refusing to connect with anything. And then I remembered Pritkin’s damn three A’s. I grabbed at the thought like a lifeline, before it could skitter away into the white noise of my panic.
Okay, I thought wildly. Assess. What was the problem? That I couldn’t fucking breathe.
Address. What could I do about it? Nothing. Not when my own body refused to follow my commands, when it seemed almost like it was under someone else’s—
Wait, wait. I didn’t need to move physically to use my power, which was independent of my human form. And my power could—
I shifted before I finished the thought, ending up outside the tub, with my bare ass several feet above the bathroom floor. Gravity took care of that, dumping me onto the cold tile before I’d even managed to get a breath, along with about forty gallons of tepid water. In my panic, I’d shifted the entire contents of the bath, which foamed over the floor, drenching the fuzzy rug and breaking against the walls like a miniature tide.
I barely noticed. I lay on the water-slick tile, sucking harsh gulps of air into my screaming lungs, while Billy hovered around me. He looked a little panicked now, I noticed irrelevantly, right before a hand clenched around my throat.
It took me a second to realize that it was mine.
Fortunately, I have small hands, so the one trying its best to choke the life out of me wasn’t having much success. It might have done a better job if it had had some help, but my other hand was locked, white-knuckled, around the standing towel rack and it wasn’t letting go. I stared at it, dazed and uncomprehending, and my own wide blue eyes stared back at me from the bright chrome surface.
What the hell?
The question echoed the one in my head, but it hadn’t come from me. It took me a second to realize that Billy had slipped inside my skin, the way he did when feeding. It gave him access to my power, something I’d learned to put up with but never to like. Today, I grabbed him in a metaphysical clench, almost sobbing from relief.
Help how? he demanded. What’s happening?
Possession. The word stopped me, since my conscious mind hadn’t connected the dots. But my unconscious seemed to be more organized, because that sounded about right. I’d had some experience with possession in recent months because it was one of the Pythia’s chief weapons, but I’d never before had it turned on me.
I decided I wasn’t enjoying the experience.
By what? Billy demanded.
Like I know! Just do something!
Yeah, only what I can do depends a lot on what exactly is—
Okay, okay. Don’t worry, Cass. I got this, he told me. Right before he was thrown out of me, across the bathroom and through the wall.
I watched him disappear, a look of almost comical surprise on his face, and belatedly realized who’d had control of my other hand. Because it immediately went numb and joined the choke party at my neck. But amazingly enough, that wasn’t my biggest problem.
There were a limited number of things that could possess a human. Ghosts were one of them, but unless they were welcomed inside like I did for Billy, they had to fight their way through the body’s defenses. And that meant a much-weakened spirit by the time it finally got in—if it did.
But that hadn’t been weak. Whatever it was had exorcized Billy while maintaining its grip on me, and no mere ghost could do that. Which narrowed things down to the Oh, Shit list.
A fact that was demonstrated when the towel rack tipped over and tried to bash my head in. My hand wasn’t on it anymore—no one’s was—but it was going nuts, anyway. It shattered the mirror over the sink, then ricocheted off and slammed into the tub, sweeping the jar of bath salts onto the floor and turning the soggy tile fluorescent pink.
The result was enough noise to wake the dead, one of whom started hammering on the bathroom door. “Miss Palmer. Are you all right?”
I didn’t know the voice, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t answer, anyway. All I could think about was getting to the source. The vamps might not know any more about this than I did, but they could at least pry my damn hands off my neck.
I tried to shift, but this time, nothing happened. Maybe because the room was starting to spin and my vision was graying out and I was slowly sinking to my knees. And then Billy was back, looking pissed.
He slipped inside my skin, and immediately I felt a very familiar energy drain. You’re feeding now? I asked incredulously.
I have to have energy to fight this thing, Cass! And I’m almost bottomed out.
And what do you think I am?
Billy didn’t answer, and the drain didn’t stop. But a moment later, my hands sprang away from my neck like they’d been burned. Suddenly, I could breathe again.
I stayed down because I didn’t have the energy to get up, coughing and wheezing as my lungs struggled to drag in air through a throat that felt maybe half the right size. It was burning and my head was swimming, and I really, really wanted to throw up. But I would have cried in relief if my eyes had been under my control.
Unfortunately, they’d rolled up into their sockets and wouldn’t come back down.
“Miss Palmer?” The vamp was sounding seriously unhappy now, but the door still didn’t open.
Why isn’t he coming in? Billy demanded angrily.
He doesn’t want to upset me.
You and your damn personal space!
I didn’t answer because he had a point. And because I suddenly realized that I could feel my legs again. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Holding on to a body that isn’t yours and doesn’t want to be held is no easy task. And it looked like whatever had its claws in me couldn’t keep all my appendages in thrall at once while also fighting off Billy Joe.
It wasn’t much of an advantage, but it was the only one I had. I staggered to my feet, wincing when a piece of broken glass cut my heel, and almost tripping over the soggy, bunched-up rug. I was trying hard not to panic, but it felt a lot like drowning again—being naked and blind and at the mercy of an enemy I knew nothing about.
Except that it wanted me dead.
And it wasn’t too particular about how I got that way.
I hadn’t taken two hesitant steps when my legs suddenly went numb, my body turned and I ran—straight into the nearest wall. My head happened to be twisted slightly, which saved my nose, but my temple hit hard enough to leave me reeling. I staggered back, but only to get enough leverage to ram the wall again.
Eyes! I screamed mentally as I jerked out a hand to break my fall and almost broke the bone instead.
Working on it.
Work harder! I cried as the impact sent me stumbling into the side of the sink.
My hip hit the unforgiving marble hard enough to bruise, but a moment later, my eyesight returned. That would have been a relief, except that it freed up my attacker to grab back one of my hands. Luckily, it was the bad one, and it dropped the hair pick it had snatched up before it could stab me in the eye with it.
The pick went down and my other hand came up—along with a jagged piece of the mirror that it used to slash at my jugular. Billy caught it just in time, but the hand didn’t drop. It hovered menacingly in the air in front of my face, shaking from the effort, while three different spirits battled for control.
I couldn’t tell who was winning, but I didn’t think it was us. I stared at the wickedly sharp triangle as it slowly edged closer, reflecting back to me wildly matted blond hair, a bone white face and dazed blue eyes—and the door to the dining room over my left shoulder. It was nearer now, and I was still on my feet.
I ran for it.
Halfway there, my body went into spasms and I went down. But I managed to snag a potted fern on the way. The pretty piece of blue and white delftware was on a pretty little stand, which made a pretty little crash when it tipped over and exploded against the hard tile.
And, finally, that was enough for the guards. The door burst open and three vamps rushed in, stopping in confusion when they saw nothing but a skinny white girl ripping the bathroom apart. And then it felt like something was ripping me, too, a burning, tearing sensation that mercifully only lasted a second before something shot out of me.
A wordless scream knifed through the silence, and something shivered through the air of the bathroom. The presence was oily and slick and wrong, but the smell was worse: sickly sweet, thick at the back of my throat, cloying, instantly nauseating. It sparked a feeling of primal revulsion deep in my gut, and it didn’t look like I was the only one. The vamps ducked and pulled guns, despite the fact that there was nothing for them to shoot—except for me, and they managed not to do that even when I suddenly dove through the middle of them.
I wasn’t driving, but I didn’t think the entity was, either, because I could feel every inch of hide getting burnt off as I hit the carpet in the dining area face-first. Not helping! I told Billy, just as the remnants of the mirror shot by overhead and embedded themselves in the remaining guards.
I didn’t have time to apologize, because the apartment was going nuts. A decanter set flew up from a nearby cart and slammed into the wall behind me in a wash of booze and expensive glass. The cutlery on the room service cart followed and would have skewered me if a vamp hadn’t thrown himself in the way. And then the light fixture over the dining table ripped out of the ceiling, whirling for me like a crystal tornado.
Billy flung us into the living room and behind the sofa, which didn’t help, and then rolled us under the coffee table, which did. At least for the moment. All I could see through the glass top were a few hundred crystals beating against it like an expensive hailstorm, but the view through the side was less obstructed.
I stared around, as much in disbelief as panic, because I’d never seen anything like it. Ghosts find it very difficult to move even tiny things, like a paperclip or a piece of paper. They don’t rip curtain rods off the walls or toss heavy paintings at people’s heads or throw chairs through plateglass windows.
Except for bleeding walls, it looked like something out of The Amityville Horror.
I blinked, finally making the connection. And then I squeezed Billy so hard he yelped. Cut it out!
We have to get to Pritkin, I told him quickly.
What? Why? What can he—
This isn’t a ghost.
So it’s probably some kind of demon.
So he’ll know how to drive it out!
Billy didn’t say anything, maybe because Pritkin was our resident demon expert. Or maybe because the coffee table had just splintered down the middle. He flipped us onto all fours and we scrambled out the other side, just as the chandelier burst like a crystal grenade all over the living room.
It might not have been made for this type of activity, but the dozen or so thick columns of wood flying around looked sturdier. They also looked familiar. I finally recognized one when it slammed through the piano while trying to get at me. I stared at one of the legs off the dining set and wondered why the entity would bother trashing that. We were on the other side of the apartment now, so it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
Until I saw one of the guards run past, being pursued by the equivalent of a flying stake. He dodged it—mostly—and it hit his leg instead of his heart. That was lucky, because it punched through flesh and bone as easily as the other pieces did the walls, the furniture and the flimsy sides of the piano.
The vampires who formed my bodyguard were all senior-level masters and, presumably, they’d seen a lot of crazy stuff through the years. But it didn’t look like they’d seen this. Vamps who prided themselves on strength and impassivity were running around wild-eyed, attacking the misbehaving furniture as if they thought it was the problem, or just trying to avoid being vamp shish kebab.
But other than for the sound of the suite imploding, it was weirdly quiet. I couldn’t talk and the vamps didn’t need to—at least not aloud. They could communicate mentally with each other as easily as I talked to Billy, something that usually gave them a hell of an advantage in a fight. Except, apparently, for right now.
But at least one guy had decided that they needed outside help, because he’d whipped out a cell phone. He was on the other side of the room from where I was hunkered down behind the baby grand, and I didn’t have control of my vocal chords, anyway. So I poked the guy who did. Tell him to call Pritkin!
And Billy tried. But between my burning throat and the mortal peril and the deafening noise, nobody paid any attention. These guys are new—I don’t even think they know who he is! Billy said frantically.
Then you’ll have to go get him.
How? We’ll never make it to the door through all that!
I won’t, but you will. It isn’t after you.
Yeah, except if I leave, that thing’ll have its claws back in you!
And if you don’t, it’ll beat me to death! I wasn’t seeing a whole lot of difference, really.
Okay, okay. Billy sounded like he was trying to calm down and wasn’t doing so great. Say I find the mage. Then what? He can’t see me.
Shit. Billy was so solid to me that I had a problem remembering that that wasn’t true for everyone. But Pritkin wouldn’t even know he was there.
It was hard to concentrate over the sound of the piano’s death throes, but I tried. Only the three A’s weren’t doing me a lot of good right now. I knew what the problem was: I needed to get to Pritkin. But I didn’t have any abilities to help me do that.
If I could have shifted, it would have been easy. But his room was five stories down and on the other side of the hotel. And I knew without trying that I couldn’t make it that far. It was hard to shift after Billy had fed, even when I wasn’t already exhausted. As it was, I’d be lucky to get five yards, and that wouldn’t—
I stopped, my thoughts reversing. Get to Pritkin, I told Billy over the sound of the blood pounding in my temples.
I just told you, that won’t—
Listen to me! He has Jonas’s necklace. He used it to pull me back to him today when I tried to shift. You’ve got to get it!
And then what? It works on you only when you use your power, and you can’t—
I only need to shift—it doesn’t matter how far! A couple of inches should be enough to activate it. Now go!
For once, he didn’t argue, maybe because he didn’t know what else to do. I felt him leave, and braced myself for another onslaught. But the entity was having too much fun to notice Billy slipping away, and I didn’t give it time to figure things out. I grabbed the top of the piano bench for a shield and started crawling.
A guard was on top of a tipped-over chair, batting at the flying shards of wood with a bloody table leg like a slugger at a baseball game. He saw me and his eyes went round, as if he assumed I must have been skewered ages ago. “Not dead yet,” I croaked encouragingly, and crawled on.
The dining room had been destroyed, but the room service cart had miraculously survived, wedged in the doorway between the bar and the kitchen. I pushed it the rest of the way inside and peeked under the warming lid. Fried chicken, and it was still hot.
There was a God.
I hunkered down behind the kitchen table and concentrated on regaining enough strength to shift on my own if Billy failed. That basically involved stuffing down as much as possible as fast as possible without throwing up. I was making a serious dent in Marco’s vast quantities when something caused me to look up.
Three vamps stood in the kitchen doorway, staring at me. They looked a little shell-shocked, and a glance at the stainless side of the fridge told me why. I was naked and bloody, with tufts of half-dried hair sticking up everywhere and a chicken leg distorting one side of my mouth. I looked startlingly like a mad cavewoman.
I removed the leg and licked my greasy lips. “Um. Hi?”
They didn’t say anything. For a moment, we all just looked at one another. And then the creature attacked again, and I stopped worrying about the impression I was making and started worrying about getting my brains bashed out against the side of the table. I saw stars and red exploding things that probably came under the category of Not Healthy.
And then I saw Pritkin staring at me in utter shock.
I didn’t remember trying to shift, but I must have, because instead of cold kitchen tile, my toes were suddenly sinking into the carpet in his hotel room. I’d landed by the bed, which he’d been in the process of turning back. His hair was damp and curling around his neck, and a few drops of water still clung to his shoulders. And either he hadn’t bothered to put on pajamas yet or he slept in the nude, which might have been awkward if I hadn’t been in the process of dying.
“Possession,” I croaked, before my hands formed themselves into claws and my body launched itself off the floor, going straight for those clear green eyes.
I didn’t succeed in scratching them out—Pritkin’s reflexes are better than that, even when totally gobsmacked— but I did tear an inch-long gash down one of his cheeks. “Sorry!”
“What kind of possession?” he asked grimly, one hand locked around each of my wrists.
“Not ghost, but I don’t—”
I stopped talking, because my throat had closed up and my body started thrashing against his hold. Pritkin looked startled for a moment, like I was harder to control than he’d expected. But the next second, I found myself on my back on the bed with my hands pinned over my head by one of his. He used his other to summon a stream of little vials from a bookshelf he’d installed, apparently as a sort of filing system for nasty potions.
Most of which were soon all over me.
Some were sticky and some were sludgy and all of them were really, really vile. I wouldn’t have cared if they’d done anything. But as far as I could tell, the most they accomplished was to stain my skin in blotches without affecting the thing inside me at all.
And then my entire body suddenly went numb and I had maybe a second to think—oh, shit—before the entity used my legs to send Pritkin sailing across the room. I saw him hit and pass through the wall, in an odd mirror of what Billy had done. Only Pritkin’s much more material body took the flimsy Sheetrock and hard studs along with him.
And, to my surprise, the creature decided to follow. Maybe it assumed that I wouldn’t be much of a challenge if it killed him first, or maybe he’d managed to piss it off. I didn’t know, but I felt when it started to pull away, when all of the sensations of a seriously overtaxed body came rushing back at once, forcing out a whimper that I promised myself to deny if I survived long enough.
And then I felt its shock as I slammed my shields shut, trapping it inside.
I hadn’t been able to expel the thing, but this was a different story. It had managed to possess me in the first place because I’d been exhausted and careless and I’d been expecting Billy any moment, so my shields were down. But they weren’t now, and this was my body and ownership bestowed some privileges. And I was damned if I was going to let that thing finish off the one guy who had a chance of getting me out of this while he was possibly unconscious and—
And it had figured out that my body had become its prison and it really wanted out.
We apparently didn’t speak the same language, but it didn’t matter, because it started showing me a cascade of images like something out of a horror movie: my heart exploding in my chest, my lungs shredding like tissue paper, my brain—
If you could do all that, you already would have, I thought back viciously, sending the image of it trying to stab me in the eye with a freaking hair pick. I didn’t know why it could trash the apartment and not me, but every single attack had been external or passive, like holding me underwater while I drowned. It was starting to look like maybe it wasn’t all that strong inside the body.
Or like it wasn’t so used to this possession thing, either.
That didn’t make sense for a demon who, presumably, did this all the time, but I didn’t have a chance to figure it out before it started thrashing around inside me. And if I thought I’d been in pain before, it was nothing compared to this. It was determined that I was going to let go, and I was determined I wasn’t, because if it killed Pritkin I was dead, anyway.
And then he was back, bloody and bruised and reaching through the hole to grab something from his footlocker that he tossed at me. “Cassie, catch!”
My arm shot up automatically and I felt my fist close around something cold and hard. And then I didn’t feel anything else for a long moment as I levitated completely off the bed.
Definitely Amityville, I thought blankly, and let go of my shields. My body gave a huge convulsion, and I was immediately surrounded by a storm of dark, flapping wings, a noxious odor and an infuriated, screeching cry.
And then I hit the bed and rolled off the side. That was lucky, because a second later what felt like a miniature cyclone burst out through the window and a shower of glass exploded into the room, in flagrant disregard for the laws of physics. But most of it didn’t hit me, since I was huddled on the floor with my hands over my head, trying not to scream.
Pritkin had crawled back through the wall at some point, because when I looked up, he was crouched on the floor, staring at me. I stared mutely back, panting and limp, every limb shaking in reaction as confetti of dust and tattered bits of wallpaper rained down all around us. And then the door slammed open and Marco charged in.
He took in my naked, multicolored self, the hole in the wall, the broken window and the battered, bleeding war mage. “The fuck?” he said distinctly.
I swallowed, licking lips that tasted like dust and copper. “I think I freaked out the staff,” I told him weakly. And then I fainted.
Half an hour later, I was still naked and still not enjoying it.
“Goddamn it, Marco!” I croaked. “That hurts!”
“You don’t hold still and it’s gonna scar, too.” The tone was harsh, but the large hand on my abused derriere was gentle.
“Just be careful, okay? That’s living flesh back there.” For the moment, anyway.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
I settled back onto my stomach and tugged at the sheet that was supposed to be protecting my modesty. It mostly wasn’t, but I was too tired and, I suspected, too stoned to care. I knew the table I was lying on was level, but it felt a lot like it was floating on the high seas, thanks to the pills someone had given me and the two drinks I’d washed them down with.
“Can you get seasick lying still?” I wondered.
“If you’re gonna hurl, you’re gonna tell me,” Marco said sternly.
“I’m not,” I said with what dignity I could muster. Since I was sprawled naked on a massage table while he dug glass out of my ass, it wasn’t much.
“Just so we’re clear. We got enough to clean up.”
This was true.
We were back in the suite, trashed as it was, because it had better wards than anywhere else in the hotel. Not that they’d done any good this time, but for the past month, they’d kept out most of the people who wanted my head on a stick. So livable or not, it was where I was sleeping tonight.
The vamps were trying to sort things out, but it was a hell of a task. I watched through the open door as a couple ran around, trying to catch the tattered curtains that were billowing in through the ruined living room window. At least, they were until one of the vampires muttered something vicious and snatched down the last remaining rod, bolts and all. He then tried to stuff it in a trash bag, but it didn’t fit. So he crumpled it into a metal ball and made it fit. His buddy just looked at him with crossed arms and slowly shook his head.
Another time, it would have been funny. None of the guards were less than third-level masters, which made them pretty much vamp nobility. They were most definitely not used to carrying bags of trash, sweeping floors and hauling out debris. But they wouldn’t let anyone else near the suite, including maid service, so there wasn’t a lot of choice. And, to their credit, not a single one had complained.
Of course, that might be because they hadn’t said anything at all. Most of them still looked a little paler than usual, and occasionally I caught one sneaking a glance at me as he passed. They were the kind of looks I might have given a dangerous animal in the zoo that was a little too close to the fence. Like they thought I might go for their jugular at any moment and just wanted to be careful.
“I think they’re scared of me,” I told Marco, as another one scurried past with the same little eye flick.
“Not of you,” Marco corrected, tossing a blood-spotted paper towel into the overflowing bin.
“What does that mean?”
“It means you attract enemies like rotten meat does flies.”
“That’s a nice image!”
“And they’re not normal enemies,” he complained. “Someone a guy can really pound. They’re ghosts or demons or a fucking god, and my boys are good, but they don’t know how to deal with that shit. It makes ’em feel helpless, and they hate that.”
I didn’t exactly love it, either, I didn’t say, because Marco was on a roll.
“And most of them thought this would be a vacation. Free trip to Vegas, stay in a luxury hotel, and all they gotta do is watch over the master’s girlfriend. I mean, most of the time that means carrying her shopping bags and being asked which color shoes goes best with her purse, you know?”
I frowned. No, I didn’t know. Their master and my significant other was pretty damn chary about his romantic past. I knew he wasn’t inexperienced—at five hundred years old, that would be kind of hard—but I didn’t have many details. In fact, I didn’t have any, just some strong suspicions, any or all of which might be wrong.
For some reason, it had never occurred to me to ask Marco.
It occurred to me now.
“You sound like they’ve done this before.”
“That wasn’t my point.”
“But have they? Have you?” It was unsettling to think that I might be just another in a long line of women Marco had babysat, at least until they grew too old to hold the attention of their perpetually thirtyish-looking boyfriend.
Really, really unsettling.
“I don’t usually do the bodyguard thing,” Marco evaded.
“But you’ve been around a while, right?”
“So just how many girlfriends has Mircea had?” I asked bluntly.
Marco sighed. “You don’t want to go there.”
“Yeah, actually, I think I do.”
“Then you want to go there with him,” he told me flatly.
“But he isn’t here and you are.” And the fact that Marco obviously didn’t want to discuss it made me wonder just what kind of numbers we were talking about. “I mean, how many can it have been?” I wondered aloud. “Five, ten?”
Marco didn’t say anything.
“Twenty?” I asked, a little shrilly.
“You know, I forget,” he replied. And then he stabbed me in the ass.
“You want another drink?” he asked, as a vamp came in carrying a tray with a decanter on it.
“I want you to stop gouging me with that thing!”
He held something in front of my eyes. “See these? These are tweezers. They don’t gouge.”
“Tell that to my ass!”
“You want a drink or not?”
“I want some coffee,” I said resentfully, since I obviously wasn’t getting any answers. I clutched the sheet to my chest and tried to peer over my shoulder at my abused butt. And then I noticed the vamp looking, too. “Hey!”
“He don’t mean anything,” Marco said, as the man hurried out. “It’s just there, you know?”
“And we’re guys. We look at women’s butts.”
“Are you looking at my butt?” I asked suspiciously.
“I gotta look or I can’t dig all the pieces out.”
“Then maybe we should call for a doctor.”
Marco patted my shoulder. “It’s okay. You aren’t my type.”
“What is your type?”
“Someone who gets in less trouble,” he said, as a sliver of glass rang in the ashtray he was using as a receptacle. “I decided I was wrong. I don’t like the wild side. I ain’t got the master’s stamina.”
“I don’t require stamina.”
“Babe, you require a freaking tank.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t sound complimentary. But before I could ask, Pritkin came in with a mug that smelled like heaven. He handed it to me, and I braced myself for his usual caffeine hammer to the brain. This batch didn’t disappoint; after two sips I could already feel my heart racing.
“It wasn’t demon,” he told me, without preamble.
“The hell it wasn’t.” Marco tossed another little sliver into the ashtray, more forcefully than necessary. “The guys said it was like The Exorcist in here.”
“Amityville,” I muttered, but no one was listening.
“They were wrong,” Pritkin said shortly. He looked at me and frowned, then reached over and brushed my curls out of my eyes. I smiled at him blearily, which got a bigger frown for some reason. “You are certain it wasn’t a ghost?”
I nodded. It was about the only thing I was sure about.
“Can you describe it?”
“Didn’t you see it?”
He shook his head. “A dark cloud, nothing more.”
“I didn’t see much more than that.”
“Tell me what you can. Anything would help at this point.”
I tried to think back, but my head really hurt and the room was still swimmy and there just wasn’t that much to remember. “It was dark colored,” I said slowly. “Black or gray. Or really dark blue. And it had feathers—I think.” I racked my brain, but I wasn’t getting anything else. “It was big?”
“What about your servant? Did he see anything?”
It took me a second to realize that he meant Billy Joe. Pritkin had this weird idea that Billy was for me what an enslaved demon was for a mage—a capable, obedient servant who stayed unruffled in the face of adversity. When the truth was pretty much exactly the opposite. As soon as the crisis was over, Billy had fled into his necklace and I hadn’t seen him since.
I gave him a little poke, just for the hell of it, and got back the metaphysical version of the finger. “Billy doesn’t know anything,” I translated.
“Are you certain?”
Tell him to suck my balls!
Pritkin ran a hand through his hair. It was sweaty, and although he’d put on a pair of old jeans, they didn’t cover the marks from being hurled through a wall. He looked about as beat up as I felt.
A particularly livid bruise trailed up his rib cage and wrapped around his back—where he’d hit the wall, I assumed. He was standing close enough that I could reach out and touch it, so I did. It was hot under my fingertips—Pritkin was always a little warmer than human standard—for the instant before he moved away.
I let my hand drop. “You should get that seen to. You might have broken a rib.”
“It’s fine,” he said curtly, as another vamp came in carrying a phone.
“For you,” the man told me, his eyes already sliding south.
“Is there anyone in this apartment who hasn’t seen me naked?” I demanded, grabbing the sheet and the phone.
“I genuinely hope so, Cassandra.”
I sighed and let my head thunk down against the padded surface of the table. I could always tell how Mircea was feeling based on what version of my name he chose to use. When he was in a good mood, it was dulceață, the Romanian endearment that colloquially translated as “sweetheart” or “dear one.” When he was less happy, it was plain old Cassie. And when he was royally pissed but not showing it because he was Prince Mircea Basarab, member of the powerful North American Vampire Senate and allaround cool guy, it was Cassandra.
“Cassandra” was never good.
But this time, it wasn’t my fault.
“This time, it isn’t my fault,” I told him, wincing as Marco found another heretofore untortured cut.
“I am not calling to assign blame.”
“Then why the ‘Cassandra’?”
“You frightened me. For a few moments, I could not feel you.”
I frowned at the phone. “You’re in New York. How are you supposed to feel me?”
“Through the bond.”
“We have a bond?”
A sigh. “Of course we have a bond, dulceață. You are my wife.”
By vampire standards, I didn’t say, because that always got a Cassandra. The ceremony, if you could call it that, had been over before I fully knew what was happening. But that didn’t matter, because little things like the bride’s consent aren’t required in vampire marriages.
Except, that is, by me.
That was why Mircea and I were dating—or, at least, that’s why I was doing it, to figure out whether this whole relationship thing was something I could handle. He was doing it to humor me, when he remembered, although he clearly thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Mircea had been born in an era when men took what they wanted and kept it, as long as they were strong enough. And strength had never been one of his problems.
Listening, on the other hand . . .
“I listen,” a velvet voice murmured in my ear.
I bent my head and let my hair fall over the phone. It wasn’t much as privacy went, but around here, it was as good as it got. “Uh-huh.”
“And what does that mean?” he asked, sounding amused.
“It means ‘that’s bullshit,’ but I’m too high to think of a good comeback right now,” I said honestly.
“Blitzed, baked, stoned . . .”
“I understood the term,” Mircea said, his voice sharpening. “My question was why?”
I hesitated. The truth was, I’d been pretty near hysterical when I woke up. I was getting better in crises, mainly because I’d had a lot of practice lately. But afterward . . .
I still had problems with afterward.
“Marco thought it best,” I finally said.
Mircea didn’t seem to like that answer. “I will speak with Marco,” he said grimly. “But for the present, I am more concerned about the attack this evening. I have heard my men’s report, such as it was. I would like to have yours.”
It was my turn to sigh. “I don’t know. It wasn’t a ghost; that much I’m sure of. And Pritkin swears it wasn’t a demon.”
“There are thousands of types of demons, Cassie. He cannot possibly be certain—”
“He’s pretty certain,” I said drily.
“—and you have recently had problems with several of them. A demon is the most likely culprit.”
“I think we should trust Pritkin’s judgment on this one,” I said, because I couldn’t say anything else. That Pritkin was half demon himself wasn’t exactly universally known, but what type he was wasn’t known to anyone but me.
I intended to keep it that way.
“I am not so certain,” Mircea said, sounding sour. “But I would speak with the man. Can you put him on?”
I really didn’t think that was a great idea, considering that Pritkin and Mircea mixed like oil and water, only not as well. But I passed the phone over, anyway. I didn’t get much of the resulting conversation, both because it was pretty terse on Pritkin’s end, and because Marco had started the extraction process again.
“There can’t possibly be that many pieces of glass in my ass,” I gritted out, after a couple of agonizing minutes.
“Babe, it’s like you rolled in it.”
“It was all over the floor!”
“And when that’s the case, it’s best to avoid the floor,” he said drily, digging what felt like an inch into my tender rear.
“I’ll keep it in mind the next time I get possessed by an evil entity!”
“Demon,” Marco said, sounding final.
“It wasn’t a demon,” Pritkin argued, but I couldn’t tell if he was talking to Marco or Mircea. “Yes, I’m bloody well sure!”
“Okay, this is going to sting a little,” Marco told me, right before he set my butt on fire.
“Shit, shit, shit!”
“Gotta disinfect it,” he said imperturbably. “You’re not a vamp. You could get an infection.”
“In what? You just burnt my ass off!”
“He wants to talk to you,” Pritkin said, looking grim.
I took the phone back. “What?”
Mircea wasn’t accustomed to getting that tone from women, but I was too sore—in several ways—to care. “If Pritkin says it wasn’t a demon, then it wasn’t a demon. Goddamnit, Mircea! He ought to know!”
“And why is that, dulceață?” Mircea asked smoothly. And, okay, maybe I was going to have to revise that list. Because sometimes Mircea also used my pet name when he was being sneaky.
“He’s a demon hunter,” I said, forcing myself to calm down before I said anything stupid. Well, anything stupider, anyway. “It’s his job to know.”
“I will have my people check into all possibilities,” Mircea said, and I really hoped he was talking about the entity. “In the meantime, I need your promise that you will not leave the hotel.”
“Mircea, I was attacked at the hotel. How is staying here going to—”
“The guards will be doubled.”
“You could have tripled them—you could have had a guard per square foot—and it wouldn’t have made a difference! No one could have predicted—”
“We should have predicted it,” he said harshly. “We knew there would be an attack. I simply did not expect it so early. The coronation isn’t for another ten days.”
“But why wait until the last second?”
Mircea didn’t say anything, but the very pregnant pause made it clear that he didn’t think that was funny.
Of course, he didn’t find too much funny these days. He was currently trying to negotiate the first worldwide alliance of vampire senates. It was what he’d been working on all month, what he was doing in New York, where a lot of the senators had gathered for some kind of meeting prior to the coronation. But as formidable as his diplomatic skills were, there was no doubt that he was up against it. The senates had had centuries to plot and scheme and piss one another off, and they’d apparently done a pretty good job of it.
And nobody holds a grudge like a master vamp.
Add to that the ongoing war and now the coronation that was scheduled to be held at his estate, and it would have been enough to give anyone a headache. I didn’t want to add to his problems. And what he asked was easy enough.
It wasn’t like I’d be safer anyplace else.
“I’ll stay put,” I promised.
“Good. Then I shall see you tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow? I thought you wouldn’t be back for a week.”
“That was my intention, but . . . I have obtained the information you requested.” For a moment, it didn’t register, because I couldn’t recall asking Mircea about anything. Except—
I suddenly sat up.
And just as suddenly regretted it. I gasped and Marco cursed. “Hold still!” he told me, pushing me back down. That was okay, because it gave me a chance to get my face under control.
“About our date,” Mircea’s voice clarified unnecessarily.
“Oh. Right.” My voice sounded normal enough, but I felt my palm start to sweat where I clutched the phone. Because what I’d asked him for wasn’t the usual dinner and a movie. I hadn’t really thought he’d be able to pull it off—or that he’d be willing, for that matter. But Mircea never ceased to surprise.
I wanted details, wanted specifics, but I couldn’t ask for them. Not with Pritkin’s eyes on me from across the room. If he knew what I planned, I had no doubt at all that he’d try to stop me. And while that would probably be the smart thing, it wasn’t the right thing. Not this time.
“What should I wear?” I asked, hoping that was safe.
“Classic formal attire.”
“Okay. I look forward to it,” I told him, and rang off.
Marco finished his little torture session a moment later and bandaged me up. I cautiously moved into a sitting position, and it still wasn’t fun. But I was too distracted to really notice.
“We’ll get you one of them little doughnut things,” he told me, as Pritkin walked over. And, shit, his eyes were narrowed.
“So if it wasn’t a ghost and it wasn’t a demon, what was it?” I asked, to forestall any inconvenient questions.
To my surprise, it worked. “I have a theory, but I would prefer some confirmation.”
“Do you remember how we defeated it?” he asked, as I tucked the sheet around me and slid to the floor.
“I remember you threw something at me.”
“It was half of a nunchuck. I’ve been intending to get the chain re-soldered, but haven’t had time.”
“Half a nunchuck?” I frowned. “Why would you give me that?” It wasn’t like I could bash a spirit over the head with it.
Green eyes met mine, and they were serious enough to stop me. “Because it was the only thing I had within reach that was made of cold iron.”
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I must have. Because the next thing I knew, I woke up to a dark, quiet room and hot, tangled sheets. My head was throbbing, my mouth was bone dry and for one brief, panic-stricken moment, I thought I was possessed again. Because nothing seemed to work.
I finally realized that I was just really, really sore. It looked like Marco’s little pills had worn off, except for a thickheaded feeling that made me have to try three times to turn on the light. It didn’t help that the room was like an oven. The suite was supposed to be temperature controlled, but there was obviously something seriously wrong.
After a minute sweating in already damp sheets, I gave up on sleep and rolled out of bed. I threw on a worn-out tank top that had been purple but was now a soft mauve and a pair of loose, old track shorts. Then I staggered out the door in search of aspirin and cold water.
I didn’t find them.
Light from the hallway cast long shadows across the bathroom, sparkling off broken glass like so much spilled ice. The floor was still wet, and the bunched-up rug was crouched in the middle like a wounded animal. The mirrors were the worst. The right one was cracked, but the left one was obliterated, the cheap wood backing showing through in chunks, making a mockery of the expensive fixtures. Like scars on a pretty woman’s face.
I suddenly realized that my hands were shaking and stuffed them under my armpits. My nice, safe bathroom didn’t seem so safe anymore. Not that it ever had been, really, but it had felt that way.
And now it didn’t.
I turned around and went down the hall.
When I flicked on the chandelier in the suite’s second bathroom, the black-and-white tile reflected the light with a cool, mirror shine. Soft, luxurious towels were stacked here and there, all blindingly white. The black marble counters gleamed, and the complimentary toiletries were still in their cellophane wrappers. It was as pristine as if housekeeping had just left.
Or as if nothing had ever happened.
I relaxed slightly, washed my face and hands and then used one of the casino’s toothbrushes to scrub my teeth. My reflection showed bags under my eyes, no color in my skin and a truly epic case of bed head. I poked at one of the larger clumps and found it stiff and vaguely green.
I briefly wondered what the hell Pritkin had dumped on me. And then I wondered what it would take to get it out. A bath, obviously, at least for starters.
The thought had barely crossed my mind when the first shiver hit, hard enough to make me tighten my grip on the sink. I stared at the gleaming white tub behind me, reflected in the gilt-edged mirror, and told myself I was being stupid. It was a bathtub; it couldn’t hurt me.
But my body wasn’t listening.
The shivers turned into shudders and I sat down before I fell down. I put the cabinet at my back, wrapped my arms around my knees and prepared to wait it out. At least it wasn’t as hot in here. Nobody ever used this bathroom—the vamps had their own rooms and showered there, and visitors used the half bath off the living area. So nobody had bothered to put a rug down over the cool checkerboard tile.
But it wasn’t helping. The door on the cabinet was moving with me, in little click-clicks as the magnet on the catch caught and released, caught and released. I finally scooted an inch or so away and it stopped, even if the shaking didn’t.
I knew what this was, of course. I’d spent most of my teen years on the run from my homicidal guardian, Antonio Gallina, who had brought me up from the age of four. Clairvoyants—real ones, not the sideshow variety—didn’t grow on trees, and when Tony found out that one of the humans who worked for him had a budding seer for a daughter, he just took me. After removing my parents from the picture in the most final way possible.
He thought he’d covered his tracks, but he forgot: clairvoyant. My parents died in a big orange and black fireball, courtesy of an assassin’s bomb. And ten years later, I felt the wash of heat across my face, smelled the smoke, tasted the dust in my mouth.
I ran away an hour after the vision, with few preparations and no destination in mind, and it hadn’t taken long before the stress had caught up with me in the form of panic attacks.
The worst one had been in a bus terminal, when I’d been sure I saw one of Tony’s thugs in the crowd. I’d had a ticket, already purchased and in hand, but suddenly I couldn’t remember where I was supposed to go. It gave the bus number on the ticket; I knew that. But my hands had been shaking and my eyes hadn’t wanted to focus, and when I finally did manage to read it, it didn’t make sense. Like the words were written in a foreign language I didn’t understand.
I’d gotten lucky that time. I’d missed the bus, but I’d also missed Tony’s goon—if it had been him. I never found out, but I kind of thought not. Even the not-so-bright types Tony employed could hardly have missed me, standing in the middle of the terminal, shaking like a leaf.
I hadn’t had a panic attack in years; had thought I’d outgrown them.
But I guess you don’t really grow out of fear.
The shaking finally lessened, my eyes slipped closed and my head tilted back against the slick wood. I was bone tired, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep. Not like this. But I didn’t really feel like doing anything else, either—except taking a bath, and that was obviously out.
But I really needed one. My body ached, my hair reeked and my skin felt itchy, probably from the dried soap I hadn’t had a chance to wash off. Only it didn’t feel like soap. It felt like somebody was touching me, here and there, brief brushes of sandpapery fingertips as they tested my shields, as they tried to find a way in—
A hand touched my arm and I screamed, jumping up and hitting my head on the bottom of the counter. I tried to scramble away, but someone had me by the upper arms and I couldn’t break free. I felt another scream building, a keening, desperate cry in the back of my throat, before I finally heard someone calling my name—
And looked up into Marco’s startled black eyes.
I stopped struggling and just breathed for a minute. I wasn’t sure who was more freaked-out—me or him. Finally, he pulled me in, tucking me under a huge arm and rubbing my head in what he probably thought was a gentle way. It felt more like it was going to take off another layer of skin, but I didn’t mind.
“You okay?” he asked cautiously.
I didn’t know how to answer that, because clearly not.
“Sorry about the other bathroom. We were gonna clean up, but we thought you’d sleep till morning.”
I nodded but didn’t look up, because I didn’t have my face under control.
“You’re gonna have to say something,” he said after a moment. “ ’Cause otherwise there’s gonna be phone calls and doctors and all kinds of drama, and I think we’ve had about enough of that for one—”
“My butt hurts,” I blurted out. It was completely inane, but it was true. It also got a chuckle out of Marco.
He’d been squatting beside me, but now he sat down, somehow wedging that huge body between the sink and the tub. He was big and hot, but felt reassuringly solid, too. It was suddenly impossible to believe that anything bad could happen with Marco around.
“You and me both,” he said conversationally. “I think the master chewed most of mine off.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. “He did what?”
Marco laughed, a deep rumbling in that barrel chest. “That’s better. You’ve got some color in your face now.”
“You were lying?” I demanded.
“No, but I like seeing you pissed off. It’s cute.”
I just sat there for a moment because, as usual, I felt like I needed to catch up. “You weren’t lying?”
He shook his head.
“Then Mircea did tell you off?”
“What on earth for?”
“For giving you drugs.”
It took me a moment to realize what he meant. “Marco, you gave me Tylenol.”
“Yeah, but it was the kind with codeine. And it seems Pythias aren’t allowed to take that shit. Or anything that leaves them too groggy to use their power. He said I left you defenseless.”
“That’s ridiculous! I couldn’t have shifted any more tonight, anyway.”
“Yeah, but that ain’t the point.”
“Then what is the point?”
He shrugged. “It’s like I told you: vamps don’t like feeling helpless. And that goes double for masters—and maybe triple for Senate members.”
“That doesn’t make it okay to take it out on you!”
“Maybe not, but I know where he’s coming from.” Marco settled back against the sink, as if prepared to stay there all night. Like he regularly counseled hysterical women in bathrooms. “He’s got you in the most secure place he knows, right? I mean, the Senate’s just upstairs, and they got guards and wards out the butt, plus all the extra ones on the suite here. And he’s got some of his best people protecting you. Hell, he’s got me.”
I smiled a little at that, as I was supposed to. “So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that it don’t work. Every time he turns around, somebody or something is able to get to you. And it has him scared. And he’s not used to feeling scared. It’s been so long, I’m not even sure he knows what it is.”
“Must be nice,” I muttered.
“I don’t think he’s finding it so nice,” Marco said drily.
I didn’t say anything, because there was nothing to say. I didn’t know how to reassure Mircea; I didn’t even know how to reassure myself. I was supposed to be this great clairvoyant, but I never saw anything good, just death and destruction.
I really hoped that wasn’t because that was all there was to see.
“I’m teaching the new guys how to lose at poker,” Marco said. “Want me to deal you in?”
I shook my head. “I suck at it.”
“Even better. They could use a chance to win some back.”
“So you can take that, too?”
He stood up with the liquid grace all vampires have, which was always surprising on a man of his size. “That’s the plan.”
“I’ll take a rain check,” I told him as he helped me up. But I followed him into the lounge.
Before I moved in, the suite had been used for whales, people with more money than sense who were comped expensive rooms because they lost a hundred times the price at the tables every night. This particular one had been popular because it included a small lounge area off the dining room with a pool table, which the guards had all but confiscated for themselves. They were usually there when they weren’t watching me paint my toenails or something, playing pool or, like now, clustered around a card table.
Marco rejoined the poker game and I passed through into the kitchen. There was no aspirin to be had, because vamps don’t get headaches. There was beer, but the way my head felt, I was already in for it tomorrow, so I left Marco’s Dos Equis alone.
I wandered around a bit, because it was too hot to sleep, and found a sofa-shaped hole in the living room window that was trying to air-condition Nevada. No wonder it was hot. A couple of the guards must have heard me swearing, because they stuck their heads in the door and stared at me for a moment, their fire-lit eyes glowing against the dark.
I went out onto the balcony.
It wasn’t nearly as large as the one on the penthouse upstairs, which had room for a pool, a wet bar and a dozen or so partyers. But I’d managed to squeeze in a lounge chair and a small side table, and had hung a set of wind chimes from the railing. They were tinkling now in the breeze blowing off the desert. It was hot, but marginally better than the slow roast I’d been doing inside.
We were too far up to hear traffic, so it was still eerily quiet. But, then, it always was here. The vamps didn’t need to talk aloud and often no one did for hours, unless I asked them a direct question. I didn’t watch TV much, unless it was in my room, and the one time I’d turned on the radio, several of them put on such pained faces that I’d quickly turned it off.
On a good day, it felt like living in a museum, but not as a visitor. It was more like being one of the exhibits a bunch of silent guards watched in case some bandit makes off with it. Tonight it was slowly driving me crazy.
After a few minutes, I went back inside, glancing at the clock on the way. It had somehow survived the carnage, and it said nine thirty. I hadn’t slept long at all, then. Technically, it was still too late to be calling anyone, but maybe—
The phone rang.
I jumped back, barely stifling a yelp, because my nerves were just that bad. And then I stared at it, hoping someone would pick up in the next room so I wouldn’t have to be all cheerful. But no one did pick up. And then Marco appeared in the doorway, a longneck in one hand and five cards in the other.
“You gonna get that or what?” he asked, his tone more curious than annoyed.
I got it. “Hello?”
“What are you doing up?”
Pritkin’s irritated voice made me smile and I turned away so Marco wouldn’t see it. “Answering the phone.”
“Very funny. Why aren’t you asleep? It’s after one.”
I glanced at the clock again. I guess it hadn’t survived, after all. “It’s hot.”
“It’s always bloody hot here,” he agreed, to my surprise. I’d never heard him complain about it, but I guessed for someone used to England’s climate, Vegas in August would kind of suck. And thanks to me, his bedroom had a big hole in it, too.
“Don’t you have anything cold to drink?” he demanded.
He snorted. “You’re going to have a murderous hangover as it is. Call room service.”
“I could do that,” I agreed.
He waited. I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t that pathetic. There was no emergency, and what was I going to tell him? I’m hot and bored and freaked-out, and I want to talk to someone with a pulse?
Yeah, that sounded mature. That sounded like a Pythia. I didn’t—
“That the mage?” Marco asked impatiently, like he couldn’t hear every word we uttered.
“He coming over?”
“Yes,” Pritkin said, surprising me again.
“Then tell him to bring beer,” Marco said. “We’re almost out, and the damn room service around this place sucks ass.”
“I heard.” Pritkin rang off without saying good-bye, or anything else at all. So I didn’t know why I was smiling as I went to the kitchen to make sure we had enough clean glasses.
“Damn it,” Marco said. “You didn’t tell him what kind. He’ll probably bring one of those weird English beers.”
“Ale,” one of the other vamps said darkly.
They went back to their game while I washed up. Because, apparently, master vampires would carry out garbage, but they drew the line at dishpan hands. Not that there were a lot, since most of my meals came on room service carts these days.
I finished up and went to try again to get a comb through my potion-stained curls. I was still working on it when the doorbell rang. I gave up, pulled my hair back into a limp ponytail and went into the kitchen. Pritkin was already there, unpacking a couple of brown paper grocery bags.
“Foster’s,” he told Marco, who was peering into one suspiciously.
The vamp looked relieved. “It’s even cold.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I thought you Brits liked it hot.”
“Hot beer?” Pritkin looked revolted.
“That’s the rumor.”
“Because we don’t drink it iced over, thereby leaching right out whatever flavor you Yanks accidentally left in?”
“Ooh, touchy,” Marco said, and swiped the beer.
I looked in the other bag, but saw only a bunch of little boxes. I pulled one out, and it was tea. After a moment, I realized that they all were: peppermint, chamomile, green, black . . . It was like he’d bought out the store.
“You need something to calm your nerves that isn’t going to knock you out,” he told me.
“I don’t think tea is going to cut it,” I said drily. “Not with my life.”
A blond eyebrow rose. “You’d be surprised.”
He came up with a kettle I hadn’t known we possessed and proceeded to do tea-type things with it. I took an apple out of a bowl and set it on the table. “So you think it was Fey?” I asked, because I hadn’t gotten many details before I passed out.
“I don’t know what it was,” Pritkin said, looking like the confession pained him. “The Fey do not have a spirit form, yet your attacker was incorporeal. And you were able to give me a description—a fairly good one for so short a glimpse.”
“Why does that matter?”
“It matters because if it was Fey, you should have seen nothing.”
“You saw something,” I said, concentrating. A fragile bubble closed over the fruit, no more substantial than the ones the dish soap had left in the sink. And by the look of things, no more effective.
“I have a small amount of Fey blood,” Pritkin said, glancing at it. “It sometimes allows me to detect when they are near, although it isn’t a reliable skill. In some instances, however, a Fey under a glamourie might look like what I saw—a dark cloud. That’s why I threw the nunchucks to you.” His lips twisted. “That and the fact that I was out of other ideas.”
“Maybe I have a little Fey blood.” I didn’t really know enough about my family to know what I might have.
“How do you know? Can you see that, too?”
“I don’t have to. If you had so much as a drop, the Fey family you belonged to could claim you. And then you wouldn’t have just the Circle and the Senate fighting over you; you’d have them, as well.”
He was talking about the Silver Circle, the world’s leading magical association, which ruled over the human part of the supernatural community the way the Senate did the vamps. It was used to having the line of Pythias firmly under its protective thumb. That had been fairly easy, as the power of the office usually went to whomever the previous Pythia had trained, and that was always a proper little Circle-raised initiate. Or it was until me. The last heir to the Pythian throne, a sibyl named Myra, had also turned out to be a homicidal bitch, and the power had decided on another option.
The Circle had been less than thrilled by its choice, but we’d finally come to terms. As in, they were no longer trying to play Whac-A-Mole with my head. Only now they seemed to think they had the right to make sure that nobody else did, either. That was a problem, because the vampires felt the same way and the Senate didn’t share well.
The last thing I needed was another group in the mix.
“I have absolutely no Fey blood,” I said fervently.
“Trust me, they have checked,” Pritkin told me. “And you don’t. But that means you should have seen nothing.”
“Okay, I get that. I saw it, so it can’t be Fey. But it also wasn’t demon or ghost or human or Were. So what’s left?”
“That’s the question.” He leaned one hand on the table. “But the fact remains that it was driven off by cold iron. And only one species, to my knowledge, is so affected. Of course, it could have been a coincidence that it chose that precise moment to leave, but—”
“But that’s a hell of a coincidence.”
“Yes.” He looked at the bubble, which was shivering as if someone were blowing on it. “What are you doing?”
The fragile shell burst, dissipating without so much as a pop. I sighed. “Nothing.” Obviously.
“What were you trying to do?”
I repressed a sudden urge to pound the fruit into pulp. “Age it,” I said tersely. “Jonas said Agnes could take an apple from a seed to a shriveled mass and back again, running through its whole lifetime in a few seconds.”
Pritkin took in the apple, which was plump and round and perfect and had a healthy red blush. Just like all the others in the little bowl. Just like I’d never done anything at all. “You’re tired.”
“And I’m never going to be attacked when I’m tired.”
He frowned. “Taking yourself to the brink of exhaustion is not a good idea.”
“So says the man who ran me halfway around a mountain today.”
“That was before we knew you have a threat that can walk through wards. You should have been safe to recuperate here.”
Safe. Yeah, like I’d ever been safe anywhere. I turned around and abruptly left the kitchen.
The balcony was still hot and still creepy, the latter mostly due to the sign flickering on and off overhead, not in any pattern, but like it was about to go out. It wasn’t broken; the hotel had a hell theme, and the sign was supposed to do that. Sort of a Bates Motel pastiche, which was usually a little disturbing. But tonight, it fit my mood perfectly.
Pritkin followed me out. He didn’t say anything, just handed me a cold Coke he’d dug up from somewhere. I guess the tea wasn’t ready.
I took it without comment, feeling absurdly grateful. I didn’t really want to talk. I’d wanted him here, but I wasn’t sure why. Maybe just to have someone to drink with. Actually, that sounded pretty good at the moment. I sat on the seat of the chaise and he sat on the foot, and we just drank at each other for a while.
After a few minutes, he leaned back against the railing, like maybe he wanted a backrest, and I shifted my feet over to make room. But I guess I didn’t shift far enough, because a large, warm hand covered my right foot, adjusting it slightly. And then it just stayed there, like he’d forgotten to remove it.
I looked at it. Pritkin’s hands were oddly refined compared to the rest of him: strong but long fingered, with elegant bones and short-clipped nails. They always looked like they’d wandered off from some fine gentleman, one they’d probably like to get back to, because God knew they weren’t getting a manicure while attached to him.
There were potion stains on them tonight, green and brown, probably from the earlier encounter. I wondered if they’d wash off skin faster than hair. Probably.
I laid my head back against the plastic slats and looked up at the horror-movie sign. A breeze blew over the balcony, setting the wind chimes tinkling faintly. It was still hot, but I found I didn’t mind so much.
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?” he finally asked.
“How do you know anything is?”
He shot me a look. “You’re up at one a.m. after a day that would have put most marines down for the count. You’re pale and restless. And something unknown tried to kill you a few hours ago and almost succeeded. Have I missed anything?”
Actually, yes, he had, but I didn’t want to talk about it.
I rolled the can around in my palms, trying to cool off, which might have worked if it hadn’t already gotten warm. I put it down, but then I didn’t have anything to do with my hands. And that wasn’t good, because any minute now, they were going to start shaking again.
I picked up a battered old tarot deck off a side table. “I’m fine,” I told him tersely.
“Of course you are. You’re one of the strongest people I know.”
It took me a second to process that, because he’d said it so casually. Like he was talking about the weather or what time it was. Only Pritkin didn’t say things like that. His idea of a compliment was a nod and to tell me to do whatever it was I’d just done over again. Like that was usually possible.
But that had sounded suspiciously like a compliment to me.
God, I must look bad.
I flipped the deck for a while. It was old and faintly greasy, but it felt good in my hand. It felt right.
Pritkin looked a question at me. “It’s . . . sort of a nervous habit,” I told him.
He held out a hand, and I passed the cards over. He turned the pack around a few times, concentrating. “It carries an enchantment.”
“A friend had it done for me as a birthday present, a long time ago. It’s . . . a little eccentric.”
I took the deck back. I didn’t try to do a spread—that was just asking for trouble. I merely opened the top and a card popped out—thankfully, only one. Otherwise, they tried to talk over each other.
“The Moon reversed,” a sweet, soothing voice told me, before I shoved it back into the pack.
“Was that . . . it?” Pritkin asked, looking a bit nonplussed.
“It doesn’t do regular readings,” I explained. “It’s more like . . . like a magical weather vane. It gives the general climate for the coming days or weeks.”
“And what kind of weather can we be expecting?”
“The Moon reversed indicates a pattern or a cycle that is about to repeat itself.”
“A good cycle?”
“If it was, I sure as hell wouldn’t see it,” I muttered.
That got me a cocked eyebrow.
“I don’t see the good stuff,” I explained briefly. “Anyway, the cards can be read a number of different ways. But normally the Moon reversed points to a dark time, like the dark side of the moon, you know?”
“That depends. From a personal standpoint, it often indicates a time of deep feelings, confusion, long-buried emotions coming to the surface—”
“And from a larger perspective? A national perspective?”
“People with dark purposes, order moving into chaos, wars, revolutions, riots.”
“Fairly dark, then,” he said drily.
“Usually,” I admitted, before adding the standard disclaimer. “But tarot is an indicator, not an absolute. Nothing about the future is decided until it happens. We create it every day by the choices we make, good or bad.”
Pritkin’s lips twisted cynically. “But so does everyone else. And not all of them are striving for the same things, are they?”
“No,” I said, thinking of the war. I picked up my Coke and took a sip before remembering that warm Coke tastes like battery acid. I set it down again.
“There’s a calendar on the fridge,” I commented, after a while.
Pritkin didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know how they got it to stay up there. I mean, it’s stainless. Nothing sticks to that stuff.”
He drank beer.
“But it’s there. And I see it every day. Right after I get up, I go get a Coke or whatever, and it’s—” I licked my lips.
“The coronation.” It wasn’t a question.
Sort of. In fact, it was a lot of things: problems learning about my power, the refusal of the Senate or the Circle to take me seriously, the lack of any useful visions about the war and now the fact that someone was trying to kill me. Again.
But the coronation would do. It had become a symbol for everything, the whole damn mess coming to a head, the fast-approaching day when I, Cassie Palmer, would be presented as the seer of seers to the supernatural world. Which would probably take one look and laugh their collective asses off.
Not that I blamed them. Two months ago—a little less, actually—I’d been a secretary in a travel agency. I’d answered phones. I’d filed stuff. I’d picked up the boss’s freaking dry cleaning.
On my days off, I worked as a tarot reader, because a couple of bucks an hour over minimum wage doesn’t pay the bills. Only that hadn’t paid them all that well, either, because people didn’t like my readings. Nobody really wanted to know the future; they wanted reassurance, hope, a reason to get up in the morning. At the time, I hadn’t understood that; I’d thought forewarned was forearmed.
Now I understood why I hadn’t had too many repeat customers. Now I’d have liked a little reassurance myself, even if it was a lie. And I really, really didn’t want to see tomorrow.
Ironic that it was my job now.
“It’s a formality,” Pritkin said firmly, watching my face. “You’ve been Pythia since your predecessor’s passing.”
“Technically. But I haven’t really had to do anything yet, have I?”
He frowned. “You haven’t had to do anything?”
“Well, you know. Nothing important.”
“You killed a god!”
I rolled my eyes. “You make it sound like I dueled him or something. When you know damn well we flushed him down a metaphysical toilet.”
Pritkin shrugged. “Dead is dead.”
He tended to be practical about these things.
Of course, so did I when the creature in question planned a literal scorched-earth policy, starting with me. But that wasn’t the point. “I just meant that no one’s expected me to do anything as Pythia,” I explained. “But the coronation is coming up, and you know as soon as it’s over . . . and I can’t even age a damn apple!”
I started to get up, but that hand tightened on my foot. I wanted to pace, needed to let off some of the nervous energy that kept me from eating half the time, kept me from sleeping. And just when I told myself I was being paranoid and everything would be fine, something tried to drown me in the goddamned bathtub.
But I didn’t get up. Because then I’d lose that brief, human connection. A connection that shouldn’t have been there, because Pritkin wasn’t the touchy-feely type. He touched me in training, when he had to, and grabbed me in the middle of crises. But I actually couldn’t recall him ever touching me just . . . because.
I sat back again. The damn balcony wasn’t big enough for pacing, anyway.
“And yet, from what Jonas tells me, you shift with more alacrity than Lady Phemonoe ever did,” he said, using Agnes’s reign title. “And the power is the power. If you can use it for one application, it would seem logical—”
“Yeah, except it doesn’t work that way. At least not for me.”
“It’s only been a month, whereas most heirs—”
“Train for years. And that’s just it. I don’t feel like I’ll ever catch up. And even if I do, nobody is going to listen to me!”
“And why not? You’re Pythia.”
“No, I’m some kind of . . . of trophy to be fought over. At least that’s how I’m treated. So if I do get a flash of something, something useful, something important, who the hell is going to pay attention?”
“The opposition, apparently. They seem to insist on paying you a great deal of attention.”
“And you don’t find that strange? If you’re so powerless?”
I shrugged. “I’m still Pythia. Killing me would—”
“Would what?” he demanded. “Say they had succeeded tonight. What would it have gained them? When the power leaves you at your death, it simply goes to another host, probably one of the Initiates. There’s no gain for the opposition there; in fact, they might have reason to view it as a loss. For the moment, the Initiates are probably better trained.”
“Thanks,” I said, even though it was true.
“Then the question remains: why you?” he asked, leaning forward with that sense of pleased urgency he always got when debating. I tried not to take it personally; Pritkin just liked to argue. “Why are they still concentrating on you?”
“Why have they been for the last two months?” I countered. “Apollo—”
“Was focused on you, yes. But only because he had to be. He wanted to use your pentagram ward as a direct line to your power. It was the one thing that would allow him to break through the barrier and exact revenge on those who had banished him.”
I unconsciously rolled my shoulders, stretching the skin between the blades, where my ward had sat ever since my mother put it on me as a child. The big, saucer-shaped thing had never been pretty, and had somehow ended up lopsided and droopy, like something a tattoo artist had done after a late-night bender. But it had felt like a part of me.
It didn’t now. Ever since Apollo’s attempt to find a way back into the world his kind had once misruled, everyone had been freaked out about it. They were afraid I might be captured with it on my body, allowing our enemies to use it to drain my power. So it remained in a velvet case on my dressing table, like a discarded piece of jewelry.
I’d thought I’d get used to its absence after a while, the way you get used to a tooth that’s been pulled. But so far, that hadn’t happened. It was funny; I’d never been able to feel the ward, which had no more weight than the tattoo it resembled. But I could feel its absence, could trace the path where the lines ought to have been, like a brand on my skin.
“But that also didn’t work,” I said, because Pritkin was waiting for a response.
“Which is my point. His allies have to know that we wouldn’t put the ward back on you. You’re safer without a direct conduit to your power plastered on your back. And yet they remain focused on you, despite having a thousand other targets.”
“A thousand other targets who didn’t just help to kill their buddy,” I pointed out. “This could be about revenge.”
“If they knew about the role you played, yes. But how would they? The Circle contained any mention of the aborted invasion in the press, to avoid a general panic. And no one was there at the end but us.”
“There was Sal,” I reminded him. She’d been a friend—or so I’d thought—who had chosen the wrong side. Or been ordered onto it by Tony, my old guardian, who also happened to be her master. It had cost her her life and given me one more reason to hate the son of a bitch.
Like I’d needed another one.
“Yes, but she was dead before Apollo was,” Pritkin reminded me. “She couldn’t have told anyone anything. Of course, by now, his associates must have realized that he was defeated, but there is no way for them to know that you were the cause.”
I shook my head. Pritkin knew a lot about a lot of things, but his understanding of vampires was . . . pretty bad, actually. He’d picked up a few things from hanging out with me, but the gaps in his knowledge still showed once in a while. Like now.
“Sal was a master vamp,” I told him. “Not a very strong one, but still. It carries certain privileges—like mental communication. I don’t know if she could contact Tony all the way in Faerie, but she might have told someone else—”
“Say she did. Or that they otherwise learned or guessed. If we presume revenge as a motive, why now? They’ve had all month.”
“The coronation is coming up—”
“And if they wished to send a message, they would have waited to attack during the ceremony itself. Not now, not here, where there was no one to see. Where, even if they were successful, it could be passed off as a tragic accident, not a victory for the other side.”
I crossed my arms. “Okay. What’s your theory?”
“That this might not have to do with the war at all. That it could be personal.”
I didn’t have to ask what he meant. I’d had the same thought as soon as I heard the word “Fey.” Because in addition to all the people on the other side in the war—the Black Circle of dark mages, a bunch of rogue vampires and whomever the god had been buddies with—I’d also managed to make an enemy out of the Dark Fey king.
I’m just special like that.
“But there’s no way to know for certain,” he said, “not without more information. Which is why I need permission to go away for a day, perhaps two.”
There were several things wrong with that sentence, but I latched on to the most pressing one first. “You’re going away now?”
“I don’t have a choice,” he told me, searching in his coat for something. “I’ve already called my contacts here, but given the limited description we have, they wouldn’t even venture a guess as to what we’re dealing with.”
“If you’ve already contacted them, then why do you—” I stopped, a really nasty idea surfacing. “You’re not going back there!”
“That is exactly what I am doing. Cassie.” He caught my wrist as I started to rise. “It will be all right.”
“That’s—Do you remember last time?” I asked incredulously.
Mac, one of Pritkin’s friends, had died defending me on the one and only time I’d ventured into the land of the Fey. Pritkin, myself and Francoise, a human woman who had been stuck there for years, had barely escaped with our lives—and only after I’d promised the Fey more than I could deliver.
“We made a deal,” I whispered furiously. “If you go back, they’re going to expect you to honor it. And you know we can’t—”
“I’m not going to court. I’m merely slipping in to speak with some old contacts.”
“And if they catch you?”
“But if they do?”
“Listen to me. The ability to possess someone is a rare talent, even among the spirit world, and few manage it so easily. This thing, whatever it is, must be very powerful.”
“If I don’t know what it is, I cannot fight it. Neither can you.” He pressed something into my hand. “But this may help.”
I looked down at a small, gathered bag made out of linen. It had a red thread wrapped around the top, with enough length to allow it to be used as a necklace. Only nobody would bother, because the thing reeked like old Limburger.
“A protective charm,” Pritkin said unnecessarily, because I’d worn something like it once before. Only I didn’t recall it being much help the only time I’d run up against the Fey.
I didn’t recall anything being much help.
“If this creature is so powerful, you think this will stop it?” I demanded.
“No. But it will buy you time. Seconds only, but that is all you need to shift away. Keep your servant on watch when you sleep; when you’re awake, keep your shields up at all times. You’ll know if an attack comes. If it does, shift immediately—spatially, temporally, I don’t care. Just get out. It cannot hurt you—”
“If it can’t find me,” I finished dully.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can manage it. And then we’ll formulate a plan for killing this thing.”
I stared at the little sachet, talisman, whatever it was in my hand. It felt heavy, like there might be something made of iron in there. And faintly greasy, as if some of the contents were sweating through the material. Or maybe that was my palm.
“And if I order you to stay?” I asked, after a few moments.
Pritkin didn’t say anything. I looked up but I couldn’t see him very well. He’d leaned forward, out of the sign’s bloody light, and only a little filtered in from the lounge. But when he finally answered, his voice was calm.
“I would stay. And protect you as best I can.”
And possibly get killed in the process, because he didn’t know what he was fighting. It wasn’t said aloud, but it didn’t need to be. I’d felt that thing go after him. I might have been the chief target, but he’d been on the list somewhere, too.
And that wasn’t acceptable.
But neither was the alternative. I hugged my arms around myself and stared out at the night without seeing it. I was seeing another face instead, the cheerful, scruffy, laughing face of another war mage, one who hadn’t come back. One who would never come back.
I didn’t realize Pritkin had moved until he crouched in front of me. Green eyes, almost translucent in the darkness, met mine. “I wouldn’t be going if I didn’t think you would be all right,” he told me. “It is doubtful that this thing will try the same approach again, now that it knows—”
“I’m not worried about me,” I whispered viciously. And as soon as I said it, I knew it was the truth. Apparently, the surefire antidote for your own fear is concern for someone else.
Pritkin looked surprised, the way he always did at the idea that anyone might actually care about him. It made me want to hit him. Of course, right then I wanted to do that anyway.
“Nothing is going to happen,” he repeated. “But even if it did, you don’t need me. You don’t need—”
“That isn’t true!”
“Yes, it is.” He looked at me and his lips quirked. “You can’t fire a gun worth a damn. You hit like a girl. Your knowledge of magic is rudimentary at best. And you act like I’m torturing you if I make you run more than a mile.”
I blinked at him.
“But I’ve known war mages who aren’t as resilient, who aren’t as brave, who aren’t—” he looked away for a moment. And then he looked back at me, green eyes burning. “You’re the strongest person I know. And you will be fine.”
I nodded, because it sounded like an order. And because, all of a sudden, I believed it. And because right then I couldn’t have said anything anyway.
We stayed like that for a moment, until Pritkin stood up, as if something had been decided. And I guess it had.
I got up and walked him to the door.
“You never told me what you’re going to do,” he said, pausing on the threshold.
“The bloody heat.”
The question surprised me, because for a while, I’d forgotten all about it. Like the sweat trickling down my back, and the soap scale drying on my skin.
You’re the strongest person I know.
I looked up at him. “I thought maybe . . . I’d go take a bath.”
“Ze Fey?” Francoise looked doubtful.
“That’s one theory,” I said, as yet another guy elbowed me in the ribs.
It was the next afternoon. Mircea was in New York, doing important stuff for the Senate. Pritkin was in Faerie, risking his life to find information. And where was I?
I was shopping.
But at least I wasn’t enjoying it.
I glared at the rude guy, but I don’t even think he noticed. I was in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt to cover the bruises, with my green curls in a ragged ponytail. I hadn’t bothered to put on makeup when I got up this morning, so the dark circles under my eyes and the bruise along my cheekbone were perfectly visible.
Of course, on my best day, I couldn’t compete with Francoise, who was tall, dark, lovely and very, very French. And at the moment, she was also almost naked, which explained why I was having a hard time getting close enough to ask her anything.
Francoise had recently taken a job as a sales clerk for the designer she occasionally modeled for. His posh shop was the crown jewel of the hotel’s main drag, mainly because he had refused to go along with the Wild West–meets-hell theme the rest of the place had going on. Augustine was better than that.
But he wasn’t too good to dress his models like strippers to lure in additional customers. Francoise and the three other sylphlike beauties currently on the clock were modeling his latest creation, which as far as I could tell wasn’t a dress at all. It was more like an eighteen-inch-wide satin ribbon—red, in her case—that wrapped around the body and ended in a flourish behind the head.
It was obviously magicked to cover strategic areas, because no matter how much she turned and twisted, getting down items from the shelves behind her for the salivating horde of customers, she never flashed anyone. But the guys were clearly living in hope. And while they did, they bought things from the tacky tourist line Augustine made fun of, but never actually got around to deleting.
I browsed through the T-shirts and found one that showed a frazzled-looking ’toon with bulging eyes. The caption read “There’s too much blood in my caffeine system.” I bought it for Pritkin, knowing he’d probably never wear it, just to see his face.
Assuming I saw his face again. Assuming—
I snatched the shirt off the rack and told myself to stop being an idiot. If ever there was a guy who could take care of himself, he was Pritkin. And he knew Faerie better than most. He’d be fine.
He’d be fine, or I’d kill him.
“When you get a chance, I could use some help,” I told Francoise, as she handed back my credit card.
“I need to talk to you. And I need a dress.”
She shot me a look. “You ’ave a dress. Or you would, if you evair came for a fitting. Each day you do not, you make him more of a . . .” She waved a hand to indicate an English word that wouldn’t come to her. “Salaud.”
“Asshole?” I guessed.
We were talking about Augustine, and the dress he was supposedly designing for my inauguration. I say “supposedly,” because I’d never seen it. Nor had I been given a sketch, a mock-up or even a description. The ceremony was a little over a week away, and all I’d seen of my outfit so far was a bunch of brown paper, the kind patterns are made of.
Considering my past history with Augustine, it was making me very nervous. I was going to have to stand up in front of the leaders of the magical world with no pedigree, little training and few skills. I couldn’t afford to look crappy, too.
“I’m boycotting until I get some details,” I told her.
“You ’aven’t seen eet?” Francoise looked puzzled.
“ ’Ave you asked?”
“Of course. But he won’t show it to me. He says I wouldn’t understand the artistic process, or something. Anyway, I’m afraid if he gets a chance to fit the damn thing, they’ll make me wear it, no matter what it looks like—”
“Augustine is a good designer,” she protested.
“And he hates me. You know he does.”
Francoise didn’t argue. She just pursed her lips and rolled her eyes, and because she was French, actually made it sexy. A nearby guy groaned.
“If you saw eet, you might change your mind,” she told me.
“I might. Can you ask him for me?”
“I do not sink zat would do any good,” Francoise said, looking thoughtful. “ ’E is very strict wiz his designs.”
“But?” I said, because there’d clearly been one in her tone.
“But ’e is on lunch at ze moment. . . .”
She pulled something out of a drawer and dangled it off one finger. “And I ’ave his keys.”
She waved one of the other girls over to cover for her, and in less than a minute, we were past the back counter and into the fitting area, where I had to stop to deal with my shadows. The two golden-eyed vamps had been loitering nearby all morning, pretending to be part of the scenery. They weren’t doing it particularly well. Everybody else was in shorts and T-shirts, in respect for the 120-plus-degree heat wave outside, while they were impersonating the Men in Black.
Still, we had a truce; I pretended I didn’t notice them, and they didn’t crowd me too closely. But enough was enough. “Out,” I told them abruptly.
“We have to do a check first.”
“Then do it and leave.”
“Why?” One of them demanded. He was one of the new guys and I didn’t know his name. “What are you planning to do in here?”
I blinked at him. “It’s a dressing room. What do you think I’m planning to do?”
“That doesn’t explain why we have to go.”
“Because I might be trying on some clothes.”
“And I might have to get naked!”
He just looked at me for a moment. “You are aware that we’ve seen it, right?”
As soon as they’d left, Francoise unlocked the door to Augustine’s workroom and we scurried inside. It was a lot like the man himself, a flamboyant sprawl of creative excess, which in this case involved bolts of expensive fabric, bins of precious trims, heaps of glossy furs, and assorted sparkly things. There were tables holding materials, whiteboards covered with sketches and some half-assembled mannequins looking like war victims in the corner.
But I didn’t see any sewing machines or other nonfabulous equipment. Only a couple of tomato-shaped pin cushions that buzzed around our heads as soon as we entered. Like they knew we weren’t supposed to be there.
Francoise waved them away and they floated over to the back wall, where they huddled together ominously. Then she pulled back a curtain, and I promptly forgot about them and the vamps and even my aching body. Because Augustine was a bastard, but he was a brilliant bastard.
“Ze spring line,” Francoise said with a flourish worthy of a TV spokesmodel.
I didn’t say anything, because my mouth was busy hanging open. Okay, I decided, maybe I’d misjudged the guy. Because obviously he’d been busy.
I recognized some of his staples: a nude sheath dress with black lace fans embroidered on it that opened and closed every few seconds; a bunch of kicky little origami dresses that constantly reworked themselves into new shapes; and a selection of jeweled columns of what looked like liquid ruby, sapphire and diamond, the last so bright it was hard to look at.
But the real story this season was obviously the seasons themselves.
A nearby pale blue gown was printed with a swirl of autumn leaves—russet, gold and rich, earthen brown. But the leaves didn’t just move; they also didn’t see any need to actually stay on the fabric. They tumbled down the garment and spilled out into the air, swirling around the dress in one last, brief, ecstatic dance before finally vanishing.
The same was true for a shimmering white gown that shed glistening snowflakes whenever I touched it, and a grass green one with sleeves formed of hundreds of fluttering butterflies. But the real showstopper was a pale pink kimono with a Japanese landscape hand painted onto the silk.
Francoise had been watching me with an amused tilt to her red lips. “ ’E is good, no?”
“He is good, yes,” I breathed, as the kimono shimmered seductively under the lights.
It would have been beautiful on its own, but the scene had been magicked to change as I watched. Snow melted from the bare branches of a tree, which sprouted leaves, and then delicate pink and white blossoms. They hung there, trembling, until blown off the surface of the dress by a summer’s breeze.
But unlike the images on the other dresses, these didn’t almost immediately disappear. They hung in the air for a long moment, creating a sort of train effect that gradually vanished maybe three feet behind the dress. And when I caught one on my hand, I swear it was petal soft, with weight and substance, before it melted away into nothingness.
“Zees is one of ze special orders for ze ceremony,” Francoise said, reaching up to flip over a little card affixed to the hanger.
“Is it . . . is it mine?” I asked, fervently promising every deity I could think of unswerving devotion if only it said my name. I could look like a Pythia in that dress. I could take on the world in that dress.
“Non,” Francoise said, squinting at the card.
“Whose is it?” I asked, breathing a little harder. And wondering whether said individual might be open to bribery. There was still a week and a half to the big day. Maybe Augustine could make another dress for whomever—
“Ming-duh,” Francoise read, scrunching up her face. “Or’owevair you say eet.”
“What?” I snatched the little card and stared at it, hoping she’d just mangled the pronunciation. But no. The card bore the name of the leader of the East Asian Vampire Court.
“But . . . but she’s Chinese,” I protested. “Why would she want a kimono?”
Francoise gave a Gallic shrug. “You wanted it,” she pointed out. “And she ees also ze head of ze Japanese vampires, is she not? Perhaps eet is—’ow you say?—diplomacy.”
I looked at the dress, which had cycled back to the winter stage again. It was no less lovely, despite the relative bleakness. The black branches were a beautiful contrast to the shell-pink silk, and on the one slashing across the skirt, a bluebird had paused to delicately preen its feathers.
It was achingly, desperately beautiful, and there was no way, no way at all, that anything I wore was going to compete. That wouldn’t have bothered me quite so much if it had been going to someone else. But Ming-de wasn’t just one of the world’s most powerful vampires. She was also one of the women I strongly suspected of having been among Mircea’s lovers.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, she was also an arresting, delicate porcelain doll of a woman. Even in her normal clothes, she made my five-foot-four frame look Amazonian and cloddish, and my reddish blond coloring look washedout and common. And in this—
Okay, it was official. My life sucked.
Francoise noticed my expression and frowned. “We’aven’t seen your dress yet,” she pointed out. “It may be even better.”
I shook my head. “It won’t be.”
“You don’t know zat,” she said impatiently, sorting through the other gowns and sending a cloud of multicolored magic into the air.
There were a lot of them—it looked like business was booming—and I didn’t know when Augustine might be back from lunch. I plowed in to help her. “I came by for a couple of reasons,” I said, as we furiously flipped tags.
“Vraiment? Qu’est-ce que tu veux?”
I explained about the night’s events. “I wanted to ask about what Pritkin said,” I finished. “You were in Faerie a while, right?”
“Too long,” she said darkly.
I hesitated, not wanting to poke at old wounds, because Francoise’s trip to the land of the Fey hadn’t been by choice. One of the things the old legends got right was the Fey’s poor reproductive record, which you’d think wouldn’t matter so much to beings who lived as long as they did. But apparently that wasn’t the case, because they had no compunction at all about kidnapping anyone they thought might be able to give them a little help.
But Francoise didn’t change the subject. “I only saw a leetle of ze Light Fey lands before I escaped,” she told me. “But I ’ave ’eard about zem. And I know ze Dark Fey court well. And nevair do I hear of any Fey who does ze possession.”
“Neither have I,” I admitted. “I always thought they were flesh and blood, like us. Well, more or less.”
“Zey are. And zere are no spirits in zeir world, and no ghosts. So ’ow could zey possess?”
“I don’t know. But Pritkin seemed pretty adamant.”
“Qu’est-ce que c’est ‘adamant’?”
“Sure. He was pretty sure.”
“Adamant,” she rolled it over her tongue thoughtfully. “I like zees word. Eet ees fun to say, no?”
“I suppose.” I paused to take a look at a crimson silk evening dress that was doing something strange—just hanging on the rack. I poked it, but nothing flew up or off or morphed into anything else. Either Augustine hadn’t gotten around to fiddling with it yet, or it was designed for his nonmagic customers.
It was pretty and fairly classic, with a low-cut top that ended in a little jeweled belt and a flouncy hem. I put it to the side. “So you never heard any stories, legends, anything like that, about the Fey being able to possess anyone?” I asked.
“Non. I am adamant.” She looked pleased with herself. “What did Pritkin say?”
“Not a lot. Just that he thought it might be Fey.”
“I do not sink so,” she said, and frowned. We’d come to the end of the rack and hadn’t found a little white tag with my name on it.
“Maybe he hasn’t started mine yet?” I wondered.
“Non. ’E ’as been working on ze enchantment for weeks. Eet is all he talks about.”
Her bright red nails drummed on a tabletop for a moment, and then she looked up and smiled. “Of course. ’E must still ’ave it in back.”
“I thought this was the back.”
She shook her head. “ ’Is private workroom is through zere.” She nodded at a small door I hadn’t noticed, over by the hovering pincushions.
“Well, let’s go.” I started forward, only to have her put a hand on my arm.
“You can’t. No one ees allowed in zere, ozzair than ze employees.”
“But he won’t know.”
“Eet ees warded. ’E will know. And zose things, zey launch pins,” she said, nodding at the Tomatoes of Doom.
“I weel go and bring it out.”
I nodded and folded my hands behind my back to keep them from shaking. I didn’t know why I was so nervous. Okay, I did. Because this whole thing had gotten entirely out of hand.
Normally, the ceremony installing a new Pythia was no big deal. The guests typically included a handful of dignitaries from the major groups in the supernatural community: vamps, Weres and the Silver Circle. It generally took the form of a short meet and greet, sometimes followed by dinner. Last time, there’d been a brief photo op. And that was it.
Fast forward to today.
Last time I’d seen the guest list, it had almost two thousand names on it. That included the elite of the vampire world, who suddenly had a renewed interest in the Pythia, since I was the first in anyone’s memory who was not a Circle-raised Initiate. It also helped that I was dating—or married to, in their eyes—one of the senior members of the North American Vampire Senate.
Add that to the war, which had everyone more than usually worried about politics, and the fact that I was currently the darling of the magical tabloids, and suddenly the simple little ceremony was the hottest ticket in town. To make matters even more fun, someone had decided that it might help morale to broadcast the damn thing live. So in addition to however many people they finally managed to squeeze onto Mircea’s estate, at least half the magical community was expected to tune in via a simple spell.
I really, really wanted to call in sick. But since that wasn’t possible, I at least needed to look the part. For once in my life, I really needed to look good.
It suddenly occurred to me that Francoise had been gone a long time. A long, long time. I was actually starting to get worried when she finally reappeared, looking a little pale.
“What is it?”
“I . . . I don’t sink Augustine ’as started eet yet,” she told me.
I frowned. “But you just said—”
“I know what I said! But . . . but ’e must be behind.” She started to close the door, but I got a foot in it. The tomatoes dipped menacingly lower.
“Let me see.”
She shook her head. “Non, Cassie. Vraiment—”
“Let me see.”
“You don’t want to see.”
“How bad can it be?”
She just looked at me, her dark eyes huge. “I was wrong.’E ’ates you.”
“Francoise, move!” I pushed past her, ignoring the kamikaze pincushions and the static tingle of a ward. And there it was, in solitary splendor on a dressmaker’s form in the center of the room.
For a moment, I just stared, not sure what I was seeing. Because it didn’t look like a dress. It looked like a bunch of wire hangers that had had a drunken binge with a load of paper bags. Cheap paper bags. The brown kind they give you at the grocery store that have been recycled a couple dozen times. It wasn’t just hideous; it was sad. A sad, brownpaper-bag dress with what looked like—
“Uh,” Francoise said faintly.
I didn’t say anything. I narrowed my eyes and moved closer. And saw a banana peel masquerading as a shoulder pad, a line of bottle caps on a string for a necklace and a hollowed-out tin can as a belt buckle. There were coffee grounds on the shoulder and red wine on the hip and what looked like a desiccated mouse pinned to the bodice. The whole thing looked like it had taken a roll through a Dumpster before—
And then I got it, and speechless became furious.
“Okay,” I said, my voice trembling slightly. “So I trashed one of his dresses—all right, a couple—in the line of duty and through no fault of my own. So he makes me a trash heap of a dress? Is that what this is?”
Francoise just looked at me, a terrible kind of pity on her face. “Zere is a card.”
And there was, attached to the dress form above the desiccated rat. I yanked it off and stared at it.
I thought I would save you some time on this one. You’ll get the real dress when it’s finished, and not a second before. And get out of my workroom.—A
I said some creative things about the creative genius, until I ran out. “Eet is not nice,” Francoise agreed. “But what can you do?”
For a moment I just stood there, contemplating Augustine’s face if I showed up wearing another designer’s creation. But I didn’t know any other designers, any magical ones, at least, and it wasn’t like I could just go out looking for them. And, frankly, I doubted anyone else would stand up to the competition I would be facing.
I needed a dress, and I needed a good one. Fortunately, I was surrounded by them. “How long until he gets back?” I asked quickly.
Francoise’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because I feel like doing some shopping.”
“That’s more like it,” Marco said approvingly, as I staggered through the door of the suite half an hour later.
“I thought they were supposed to help,” I gasped, nodding my head at my shadows. It was the only thing I could move, since every other appendage was laden with bags, boxes and packages.
“Need our hands free for weapons,” one of them said blandly.
“Both of you?”
“You have a lot of enemies.”
“I have a lot of pulled muscles now, too!” I snapped, lurching into the living room.
“That mage is here,” Marco warned me.
“Pritkin?” I asked, my head coming up.
“Naw. That old one. And some slick-haired guy.”
I didn’t know who Slick Hair was, but That Old One was Jonas Marsden, acting head of the Silver Circle. Of course, Marco knew that perfectly well, but the vamps were never happy whenever a mage showed up. And that went double for their leader.
Jonas rose to help me after I stumbled into the lounge, and I shot Marco a look. That got a kiss blown in my general direction and a promise to be right outside aimed at the mages. In case they intended to use some nefarious wizard trickery to make off with me or something.
“Sorry I wasn’t here, but I thought we weren’t meeting until three,” I panted.
“No matter. I should have called,” Jonas said genially. “But I did want to talk to you, if you have a moment.”
“About last night?”
“Oh, I do truly hope not,” he said, which would have sounded odd coming from anyone else. But Jonas was always odd.
For one, he was the only person I knew with hair worse than Pritkin’s. It was extra poufy today, a magnificent silver-white ball of static electricity that appeared to have a life of its own. Like some alien creature had happened to light on his head and decided to stay a while. In contrast, his face was surprisingly normal, with pleasant features, rosy cheeks and fewer lines than one would expect for his age, whatever that was. Jonas usually just described it as “damned old.”
“And Niall did so want to meet you,” he added, as I stumbled toward the bedroom.
“Niall Edwards.” A sharp-faced brunet with slickedback hair came forward, and I managed to get a hand out. But either he didn’t see or he ignored it. “Have you thought about losing five to ten?” he asked, circling me.
I turned, trying to keep him in my field of vision, and dropped a heavy shoe box on my foot. “Five to ten what?” I asked, wincing.
“Pounds. The camera adds at least that much and, frankly, you could use some more definition in your face.”
He pulled out a computerized notepad. “What do you weigh?”
“That’s none of your business!”
“It is if I have to sell the idea of you as Pythia to the masses,” he said sourly, his fingers flying over the keys.
“Niall is our leading public relations expert,” Jonas explained, as I limped into the bedroom and tossed the packages on the bed.
“I don’t need a PR person,” I said, sitting down to examine my toe.
“Oh, of course not,” Slick said, following me in. “You were brought up by a vampire mob boss, you go around looking like a cross between Paris Hilton and a homeless person—”
“I do not look like Paris Hilton!”
“You’re wearing sparkly pink nail polish,” he pointed out. “On your toes.”
I looked down at the offending digits, which were sticking out of a pair of sandals. “I don’t see anything wrong with—”
“Exactly. And if that weren’t bad enough, you’re suspected of being a dark mage. But you don’t need PR.”
“I’m only suspected of being a dark mage because you people told everyone I was!” I said furiously.
Until recently, the Circle had been headed by a mage named Saunders, who had been cooking the books in favor of himself and his buddies. And he hadn’t wanted a Pythia in place who wasn’t firmly under his thumb, in case she outed his little moneymaking scheme. So while his operatives were busy trying to hunt me down, he was planting nasty stories in the press about my family background.
It didn’t help that most of them were true.
“And we did our usual good job,” Slick said proudly. “Everyone now knows that your mother was a ruined Initiate, your father was a dangerous dark mage and that you yourself have received absolutely no training for the position you hold.”
“I wouldn’t say no training,” Jonas demurred.
“It will be the triumph of my career to bring you back from that. But I will. Make no mistake.”
He disappeared into the walk-in closet, leaving me staring at Jonas. “You have got to be kidding.”
“Niall is a bit abrupt, I grant you—”
“But he does have a point, Cassie. Your public image”—Jonas shook his head, causing the alien hair to waft about luxuriously—“it would be difficult to imagine how it could be worse, you know.”
“Then why haven’t you guys worried about it before?”
“Because we were waiting for things to cool down,” Niall told me, emerging with a heap of my clothes. “The public has a very short attention span and they forget details easily. Trying to eradicate or even amend their impression of you right after the story broke would have been impossible. Now it’s merely impractical.” He threw my clothes out the door.
“Considering the damage, I would prefer another fortnight to pass, at the very least, before the ceremony,” he said, going back for another load of my belongings. “But I was told that we were at war and it couldn’t wait.”
“I just bought that!” I said, snatching an off-white slip dress out of his hand.
“For what?” he demanded.
“If you must know, I have a date tonight!”
“Really?” Jonas looked delighted. “May I ask with whom?”
“Mircea,” I said, only to see his face fall.
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing, nothing. None of my business, after all.”
“Well, it is my business!” Slick said. “We can’t afford any more bad press. Such as you being seen with a vampire, particularly dressed like that!”
I looked down at the dress. It had a draped front and little spaghetti straps, but no sparkles, sequins or any decoration at all. Unless you counted what looked like the vague outline of tree branches that swayed across the silk, like shadows on a wall. It was beautiful and tasteful and one of my favorite purchases.
“And just what is wrong with this?” I demanded.
“On the hanger? Nothing. On you?” Slick looked me up and down and shook his head.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Two words: ‘foundation garment,’ ” he said, and snatched it back.
“There are such things as strapless bras, you know!” I told him furiously.
“And do you own one?”
“That’s also none of your—”
“That would be a no, then,” he said, and swept out.
I was about to chase him down and possibly beat him to death with a shoe—assuming he’d left me one—when Jonas piped up. “Of course, there are those who will agree with Niall,” he said diffidently.
I narrowed my eyes. “What is this?”
He took off his thick glasses and polished them on an already rumpled sleeve. Maybe they really were dirty, but it looked like a stalling tactic. Like he knew I wasn’t going to like whatever he’d come to say.
“This is my pointing out, however clumsily, that when one is Pythia, personal relationships are often . . . tricky.”
“Like yours was with Agnes?” I asked archly. Because Jonas and the former Pythia had apparently been an item back in the day.
“Yes, in fact. That was why we kept it a secret, from all but a few very close associates. Had we openly been a couple, people might have thought that she was under the influence of the Circle.”
“People already thought that,” I pointed out. “They think that about every Pythia.”
“No, they suspect. Which is a very different thing.”
“So you’re saying what? That I can’t date Mircea?” I asked, and heard someone outside smother a laugh. I suspected Marco.
Jonas apparently heard it, too, because he shot an irritated glance in the direction of the living room. “No, dating can be spun as savvy intelligence gathering on your part. Or as an attempt to bring the vampires into a closer alliance with the Circle. Or as a way of showing your impartiality toward the species.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“There isn’t one. As long as your liaison doesn’t become more . . . permanent.”
My hand went unconsciously to the marks on my neck, the two little scars that were the physical manifestation of Mircea’s claim. Because we were already about as permanent as it got. Wedding rings could be taken off, just as marriages could end in divorce, annulment or separation. But the marks I wore, I would wear for life.
Diamonds might not be, but a vampire’s claim? Now, that was forever.
“A formal claim is about as permanent as it gets,” I admitted, not really wanting to get into it, but not seeing an alternative. I’d known this was bound to come up sooner or later.
“A formal claim?” Jonas sounded as if he’d never heard the term.
I pinched the bridge of my nose, wondering for something like the hundredth time how the different supernatural groups had survived this long when they knew almost nothing about each other. And, frequently, what they did know was wrong. It was no wonder they were at each other’s throats half the time.
“It’s sometimes used to bind nonvampires to a vamp family,” I explained.
“For what purpose?” Jonas asked narrowly.
“For a lot of purposes. Say there’s a particularly strong magic user that the family has relied on for a while to do its wards. They want to make sure he stays around, that some other family doesn’t steal him away. But they can’t just absorb him, because mages lose their magic when Changed.”
“It is also illegal!” Jonas said hotly.
“Not if the person involved agrees to it. But—”
“As if any mage in his right mind—”
“—but if the mage can’t be Changed,” I said, talking over him, because I wasn’t in the mood for that particular conversation today. “Then the next-best option is a claim. It makes him a formal part of the family, and vampire laws don’t allow poaching from other people’s families.”
It also had another use, being the method traditionally used for marriages between two highly ranked vampires. It united them and their families but left them as equals, with neither having to be blood bound to the other. But if Jonas wanted to know about that, he was going to have to do his own damn homework.
Jonas frowned. “Then why haven’t I heard of this before, if it’s so common?”
“I didn’t say it was common,” I said, taking an armful of my clothes back where they belonged. “It isn’t.”
“And why not, if it’s so useful?”
“Because a master vampire is accountable for his family members, whether claimed or Changed. Their actions reflect on him, and he’s answerable for them to the Senate. But someone who has been claimed doesn’t have the blood tie to him that ensures obedience, giving him a lot less control over that person’s actions.”
“But senior-level masters within a family can also challenge their sire, can they not?” Jonas asked, surprising me.
I turned from hanging the stuff back up. It had been quick, since my old governess had always insisted that the hangers all go the same way, and I’d never gotten out of the habit. “Yes. Which is why a lot of senior vampires are emancipated by their masters. Most of them, in fact.”
“Except in Lord Mircea’s case,” Jonas said darkly. “There seem to be quite a few upper-level masters in his service. In fact, I have yet to meet a low-level one!”
“The low-level ones wouldn’t be much use here,” I pointed out. “And Mircea is a senator. He needs more senior vamps to help with his work. But he’s the exception, not the rule. Most masters cut loose anyone strong enough to challenge them, just like they think twice before putting a claim on someone.”
Jonas sat a while, absorbing that, while I tidied up the rest of Niall’s mess. “If I understand you correctly,” he finally said, “the vampires consider you Lord Mircea’s servant, almost his property.”
There was no “almost” about it, I didn’t say, because he looked ruffled enough. “In a sense,” I said, knowing where this was going.
“And property is expected to work for the good of its owner, is it not?”
“Then they believe they’ll control the office of Pythia!” he said, as if he’d suspected this all along.
I shrugged. “Probably.”
“And this doesn’t concern you?” he demanded, as outraged as if he weren’t planning to do the same thing himself.
“Jonas, I’m expected to work for the good of the family. Not the Senate.”
“And you really think they’re going to make that distinction? You think that Lord Mircea will make it?”
“I’ll make it.”
“And you believe you can divide your loyalties so easily?”
“Why not?” I asked, suddenly angry. “Every Pythia has had a family, hasn’t she?”
Jonas looked taken aback for a moment. “Well, yes. But this is hardly the same—”
“It’s exactly the same!” I thought of the vamp who’d had half his leg taken off last night. It would eventually grow back, but others hadn’t been so fortunate. One of Mircea’s older masters, a vampire named Nicu, had died protecting me barely a month ago, and Marco nearly had, too.
If that wasn’t family, I didn’t know what was.
“They’re my family,” I repeated flatly. “And I’ll treat them as such. But it doesn’t mean that I’m going to be the Senate’s happy little puppet.” Or the Circle’s.
Jonas looked far from satisfied. “That’s easy to say, but I think you may have more of a struggle establishing your independence from the Senate than you seem to think. But, in any case, we’re talking about appearances, not esoteric facets of vampire law. And the fact is that you . . . belonging . . . to a vampire, however you define it, is not going to sit well with the supernatural community as a whole.”
“So what do you expect me to do about it?” I demanded.
“I’m not saying don’t date the man, Cassie—”
“Then what are you saying?”
“Merely that it would be helpful if you were seen to be dating others, as well. A Were, perhaps, or a mage. It would make it far easier to sell the idea that your private life has little to do with your decisions.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t really know any—”
“I could send you some.”
I blinked. “Some what?”
“Some . . . suitors . . . if you will.”
“You could send me some suitors,” I repeated slowly, while outside, it sounded like someone was choking to death.
“You wouldn’t have to date any that you didn’t like, of course,” Jonas said, without the faintest hint of irony. “I could send a selection, and you could choose one.”
I had a sudden, crazy image of recruitment posters plastered on the walls at war mage central: BOYFRIEND WANTED. HAZARDOUS-DUTY PAY. Only it really wasn’t funny. Because I could see Jonas deciding that that was a perfectly reasonable way to proceed.
“Or you could choose two,” he said, warming to the idea. “A mage and a Were. Covering all the bases, so to speak.”
“How about half a dozen?” I asked sarcastically, only to have him blink.
“Oh, no. That might get you a bit of a reputation, as it were.”
“And we wouldn’t want that.”
There was some sort of commotion going on outside, and I decided I’d had enough. I went to the door and stuck my head out. Marco was gasping for breath on the sofa, and two of the other guards were bent over a cell phone.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Trying to record this,” the smart-ass from the shopping trip told me. “Nobody is going to believe us otherwise.”
“Well, cut it out. It isn’t funny!”
“On what planet?”
I glared at him, which did no good, because he simply went back to tinkering with the phone. So I looked at Marco. “Can’t you do anything with them?”
Marco flopped a hand at me, tears streaming down his reddened cheeks, and tried to say something. But all that came out for several moments were asthmatic wheezes. I bent over his prone form, starting to worry about him, and he put a hand on my neck and pulled me down.
“It . . . is . . . funny,” he gasped.
I stood back up and smacked him on his rocklike shoulder. “Bastard.”
Jonas was coming out of the lounge when I turned around, dragging Niall by the arm. “Now, now,” he told the younger mage. “Don’t fuss.”
“We have ten days, Jonas,” he said. “When I frankly doubt that ten months would be enough! She looks about twelve, except for the, uh . . .” he gestured up and down at my offensive curves. “Her clothes are wrong, her makeup is wrong—”
“Those are bruises!” I told him indignantly.
“And her hair is . . .” He bent closer, squinting at it in the lights. “Why is your hair green?”
“It’s a fashion statement.”
“It’s hideous. And even if it weren’t . . . tinted . . . or whatever you did to it, it still wouldn’t do. We haven’t had a blond Pythia before; it’s simply not what people expect to see. And, frankly, it doesn’t suit you.”
“It’s my natural color!”
“Then it’s naturally hideous. And this”—he tugged at my curls—“will have to go.”
“If you touch me one more time—” I said softly.
“I’ll make you an appointment with a hairdresser who understands that we need suave. We need sophisticated. We need—well, someone else, obviously, but—”
“Niall. I really think that will do for today,” Jonas said, watching my face.
“And what is this?” He took the fine, starched handkerchief out of his pocket and used it to fish Pritkin’s amulet from my shirt. “And if all that weren’t enough, she smells!”
“Let it go,” I told him, my voice low and even.
“I’ll let it go,” he told me grimly, ripping it off my neck. “Straight into the nearest trash bin, along with whatever other hippie-dippie nonsense you—”
“Oh, dear,” Jonas said.
I blinked, staring at the spot where the officious mage had just been. Because he wasn’t there any longer. “Damn,” one of the vamps said.
“What happened?” I asked, feeling myself start to panic. Because the mage wasn’t anywhere in sight.
“Well, on the bright side, we weren’t scheduled to cover that for another month,” Jonas said. “We’re making fine progress, it would seem.”
“Jonas! What happened?”
“Hm? Oh, well, as you know, you can move through space as well as time. What you haven’t yet learned is that you can move other things, too. And people.”
“But . . . but where did I move him to?”
He blinked at me owlishly from behind his thick glasses. “I haven’t the faintest. Can you see him?”
“Can I—” I broke off, because suddenly I could. A furious little mage in the middle of a great, big desert, a black snake of a highway a few hundred yards off. And nothing else but dirt and scrub for what looked like miles.
“I think he’s in a desert.”
“Would you happen to know which one?”
“I . . . no. There’s a road, but—”
“Oh, well. That’s all right, then.” He patted my arm.
“Jonas! How do I get him back?”
“Yes, well, we’ll get to that, of course. But for right now”—his glasses gleamed—“it might be as well to leave him be. Agnes had to do that a time or two, as I recall, to his predecessor. It’s no end of use in teaching them manners, you know.”
He tucked my arm in his and we walked to the door, my head still spinning. “By the way, you haven’t had any visions about a wolf, have you? Or a large dog?”
“You mean a Were?”
“No, no. I don’t think so. Of course, it could be, but that would be a little too easy, wouldn’t it?”
“I’m . . . I’m not really sure what you—”
He took my hand and bent over it with old-fashioned courtesy. “If you do see anything like that, anything at all, you will let me know, won’t you?”
“I—Yes. Of course.”
He looked up and those vague blue eyes were suddenly anything but, and the expression on that usually jovial face was almost scary. “Right away, Cassie.”
I nodded, a little freaked-out, and suddenly he was all smiles again. “Enjoy your date,” he told me, and left.
Marco closed the door and we stood there, staring at each other. “Mages,” he said in disgust. “They get weirder every year.”
And I couldn’t really argue with that one.
“You are sure you’re ready?” Mircea asked me.
It was seven hours later and several decades earlier, and I wasn’t sure of a damn thing. My hands were sweaty and my stomach hurt and I was starting to rethink my dress choice for the evening. I’d already rethought it once, going with the red silk, which had seemed chic and sophisticated in the shop. But now I thought the top might be a little low, and I hadn’t had time to have it altered, so it was too tight in some places and too loose in others, and I wasn’t sure that the color looked that great with my hair, especially since I hadn’t gotten all the green out yet, and—
“I’m fine,” I said tightly.
Mircea gave me a look that said I wasn’t fooling anyone. But he pressed the doorbell nonetheless. And at least he looked like he belonged here.
His dark hair was sleek and shining, confined in a discreet clip at his nape. His black tuxedo fit his broad shoulders like a glove, the material soft and sheened as only truly fine wool can be. He’d paired it with a crisp white Frenchcuff shirt with small gold links that glinted under the lights. They were carved with the emblem of a royal house, although he hardly needed them. Nobody was ever going to mistake him for anything but what he was.
Apparently the butler agreed, because despite not having an invitation, we were ushered straight into the party taking up most of the ground floor of a swanky London mansion. There were a lot of gleaming hardwood and glittering chandeliers and softly draped fabrics and fine carpets, and I barely noticed any of them. Because across the main salon was a small, dark-haired woman in red. And by her side was . . .
“She is beautiful,” Mircea said, snagging us champagne from a passing tray.
I didn’t say anything. I clutched the flute he handed me, feeling a strange sense of detachment. I could feel the cool crystal under my fingertips, taste the subtle bite of the alcohol, but it seemed distant, unreal, like the people crowding all around us. I heard the soft sounds of their laughter and the conversation that swelled and ebbed, like the notes someone was playing on a distant piano. But none of it mattered.
Not compared to the tall girl in the bad eighties ball gown, standing by the side of the former Pythia.
Her dress was electric blue satin with big, puffy sleeves and a peplum. There was a lace overlay on the top and little jeweled buttons down the front. Her shoes were dyed to match. It was absolutely awful, like something a bridezilla would stick on a too-pretty bridesmaid. Yet somehow she carried it off. The blue matched the color of her eyes and complemented her dark hair and pale skin. And when she laughed, you forgot all about the dress, didn’t even see it.
Because you couldn’t take your eyes off her face.
An arm slipped around my waist. “Dulceață, I do not think you want to get so close.”
I suddenly realized that I was halfway across the room, although I couldn’t remember moving. Mircea pulled me off to one side, near a row of floor-length windows that looked out into the night. The one in front of us was as good as a mirror, allowing me to stare at the girl’s reflection without being so obvious.
Mircea is right, I thought blankly. She was beautiful. And delicate and fragile and poised.
She looked nothing at all like me.
“I don’t agree,” he murmured. A warm finger trailed down my cheekbone, tracing the track of a tear I couldn’t remember shedding. “There’s a similarity in the bone structure, in the shape of the eyes, the contour of the lips. . . .”
“I don’t see it,” I said harshly, gulping champagne and wondering why I was suddenly, blindingly angry.
“You said you were prepared for this,” he said, pulling me against him.
His chest was hard at my back, but his arms were gentle. I felt myself relax into his embrace, even knowing what he was doing. All vampires could manipulate human emotions to a degree, but Mircea could practically play me like a violin. It was a combination of natural talent and more knowledge of what made me tick than I probably had. But for once, I didn’t care. I clutched the familiar feeling of warmth and comfort around me like a blanket and told myself to stop being an idiot.
I didn’t know why I was reacting this way. I’d known in advance what she looked like. I’d seen a photo of her once, a faded, grainy thing taken at a distance. But it had been clear enough to show me the truth.
I didn’t resemble my mother in the slightest.
“I’m fine,” I told him, my throat tight, only to feel him sigh against my back.
“You are not fine, dulceață. You are feeling anger, loss, betrayal—”
“I don’t have any reason to feel betrayed.”
“She abandoned you when you were a child—”
“She died, Mircea!”
“Yes, but the fact remains that she left. And hurt you in the process.”
“I wasn’t hurt. I was barely four.”
“You were hurt,” he insisted. “But you do not deal with such emotions, Cassie. You ignore them.”
“That isn’t true!”
“That has always been true. It is one of the defining aspects of your character.”
I scowled at his reflection in the window, but if he saw, he didn’t react. He took the empty champagne glass from my hand and sat it on a nearby table. Then his arms folded around me again, trapping me, although it didn’t feel that way. I didn’t want to talk about this. But suddenly I didn’t want to move, either.
“Do you recall when I visited Antonio’s court when you were a child?” he asked.
“Of course.” He’d been there for a year, from the time I was eleven until I was almost twelve. It had been a lengthy visit, even by vampire standards. At the time, I hadn’t thought much of it; Tony often had visitors, and it had made sense to me that his master would eventually be one of them. It was only later that I found out Mircea had an ulterior motive.
He’d discovered that the little clairvoyant Tony had at court was the daughter of the former heir to the Pythian throne. My mother had run away from her position and her responsibilities to marry a dark mage in Tony’s service. That effectively barred her from any chance of succeeding, but made no difference as far as my own odds were concerned.
“You hoped I’d become Pythia one day.”
Mircea didn’t bother to deny it. He was a vampire. Utilizing whatever resources were available within the family was considered a virtue in their culture, and a possible Pythia was a hell of a resource. “Yes, but you were also interesting in your own right.”
I snorted. “I was eleven. No eleven-year-old is interesting.”
“Most eleven-year-olds do not wander about talking with ghosts,” he said wryly. “Or pipe up at the dining table to casually mention that one of the guests is an assassin—”
“I think Tony would have had heart failure,” I said, remembering his face. “You know, if he had a heart.”
“—or lead me to a cache of Civil War jewelry hidden in a wall that no one else knew about.”
“The guy who put it there did.”
“My point is that you were a fascinating child, not least of which for the way you dealt with pain. Or, more accurately, the way you avoided dealing with it.”
“I deal with it fine.”
Mircea didn’t comment, but a hand covered the fist I’d bunched at my waist, finger pads resting on sharp knuckles. “I had been there perhaps a month,” he said softly, “when I chanced to be passing your room. It was late and you were supposed to be asleep, but I heard you cry out. I went in to find you sitting in bed, your arms wrapped around your knees, staring at the wall. Do you recall what you told me when I asked what was wrong?”
“No.” I’d been watching images flickering on the wall and ceiling, like reflections of headlights on a road. Only there was no highway near Tony’s farmhouse, which was set well back from a two-lane dirt track in the Pennsylvania countryside. But the scenes had washed over the room nonetheless, like the stuttering frames of a silent movie.
They’d looked sort of like one, too, the colors mostly leached away by the night. Except for the blood. For some reason, it had been in bright, brilliant Technicolor, standing out starkly against the blacks and browns and dull, asphalt gray.
But as horrible as it had been, it hadn’t been particularly unusual. I’d had visions almost every day, until I grew up enough to learn to control them, until I learned how not to see. I probably wouldn’t even remember that one, except that Mircea had been there, jolting me out of it.
Tony’s people didn’t do that. They had standing orders not to interrupt, because I might see something he’d find profitable. So it had been the strangest of strange sensations, to suddenly feel a touch, human soft and blood warm, on my shoulder.
“It was just a nightmare,” I told him.
“You said you had seen a multicar accident. Or, as you described it, blood leaching into puddles of oil; broken bodies lying on shattered glass; and the smell of gasoline, burnt rubber and charred meat. The next morning, the news reported a ten-car pileup on the New Jersey Turnpike.”
“Did it?” I asked, suddenly wishing I had another drink.
“I wondered then what it would be like, to grow up as a child who saw things no child should ever see. Who, every time she closed her eyes, was surrounded by pain, by horror, by death—”
“That’s a serious exaggeration.”
“—by sights that kept her up at night, shivering in fear, and staring at a blank wall.”
“It wasn’t blank,” I said shortly. “Rafe drew things on it.”
Our resident artist at court had been none other than the Renaissance master Raphael, who had been turned after unwisely refusing a job for Florentine up-and-comer Antonio Gallina. It had been the last time he’d refused one of Tony’s commissions, not that he’d been given many. Appreciating art required a soul, something I was pretty sure Tony had been born without.
“Yes,” Mircea agreed. “Because I asked him to.”
I frowned. I hadn’t known that. “You asked him? Why?”
“I thought a child should have something to look at besides death.”
Dark eyes met mine in the window for an instant, until I looked away. “I want another drink,” I told him, but Mircea’s arms didn’t budge.
“Of course you do,” he said. “I wish to discuss your feelings about your mother, so naturally you become thirsty. Or hungry. Or suddenly recall an errand that you need to perform.”
I struggled, Mircea’s hold no longer feeling quite so comforting. “Let me go.”
“To get a drink, or to avoid the conversation?”
“I’m not avoiding it!” I snapped. I just hadn’t expected this to be so hard.
Mircea and I had crashed the party, if walking in escorted by a gushing butler can be termed such, because I’d wanted to see my mother. Not talk to, not interact with, not do anything that might possibly mess up the timeline. Just see.
Because I never had, other than in that one lousy photo. But now that I was here, seeing wasn’t enough. I wanted to get close. Wanted to find out if she still smelled like honey and lilac, with a hint of waxy lipstick.
Wanted her to see me, too.
But even more, I wanted to ask her things. Why she gave up a job most people would have killed for to marry a man most people would have liked to kill. Why she’d had me. Why she’d died and left me with fucking Tony.
If she’d ever loved me at all.
“Let me go,” I said unevenly. Mircea released me and I moved away, needing space, needing air.
I hugged my arms around myself and stared across the party, an almost physical ache gnawing at my insides. Her hair was dark, as I’d assumed from the photo, but it wasn’t brown. The lights were shining on it now, and it was a deep, rich, coppery bronze, as rare and striking as her sapphire eyes.
I wondered if that was where the red threads in my own hair came from, if maybe it ran in the family. I wondered if I had a family, distant cousins or something, floating around.... I’d never really thought about it before, maybe because I’d grown up surrounded by people who never mentioned theirs.
Vampires usually acted as if their lives started with the Change, instead of ending with it. And in a real sense, they were right. Most masters Changed an individual because they possessed a talent they needed, or strength or intellect or wealth they wanted, none of which included a human family. And few were willing to Change a bunch of hangers-on who could be of no real use and who might be a danger, since a master was responsible for the actions of his children.
As a result, most families got left behind when a baby vamp joined his or her new clan. And I guessed that, after a while, you must stop wondering about people long dead, whom you probably had nothing in common with anymore, anyway. After a while, you must stop missing them.
Only I didn’t think I was going to live that long.
“My mother was also quite beautiful.”
I’d been so lost in thought that it took me a moment to realize that Mircea had spoken.
And then another few seconds for what he’d said to sink in. “Your mother?”
He smiled slightly. “You look surprised.”
“I just . . . you never mention her.” In fact, I’d never thought about Mircea having a mother. Stupid; of course he had. But somehow I’d never imagined him as a boy.
It was surprisingly easy.
The mahogany hair had a faint wave to it that might once have been curls. The sculpted lips, so sensual in an adult, had probably been a cupid’s bow then. And the dark, liquid eyes must have been irresistible in a child’s face.
“I bet you got away with murder,” I said, and he laughed.
“Not at all. My parents were quite strict.”
“I don’t believe it.” I tried to be strict with Mircea, I really did, but somehow it never worked. And I doubted that anybody else had better luck.
“It’s true,” he insisted, settling us into chairs by the wall. I didn’t stay in mine more than a few seconds. I felt too antsy, too oddly keyed up.
Mircea started to get up when I did, but I pushed him back down. “A gentleman doesn’t sit while a lady is standing,” he admonished.
I put a knee on his leg to keep him in place. “And if the lady insists?”
“Hm. A quandary.” A strong hand clasped my thigh through the silk. “Since a gentleman always accedes to a lady’s wishes.”
“Always?” That could come in handy.
He laughed and kissed my hand. “Unfortunately, I am not always a gentleman.”
“Close enough,” I told him honestly, and slipped the clip out of his hair.
A dusky wave fell over his shoulders. He looked up at me, dark eyes amused. I’d always had this weird fetish about his hair, which we didn’t talk about. But he knew.
It felt like cool brown silk flowing over my fingers. And, as always, touching him felt more than good. It felt right, steadying. And right now, I could really use some of that.
“You were talking about when you were a boy.”
“Ah yes. The trials of childhood,” he mused, that hand slowly stroking my thigh. “One of my first memories is of being thrown out to play in the snow, completely naked.”
“Hm. It was not too bad when the sun shone, but after dark—”
“—it became somewhat . . . frigid.”
I stared at him. “How old were you?”
He shrugged. “Three, perhaps four.”
“But . . . but why would anyone do that?”
“To demonstrate my fitness to the people. I was my father’s heir, and although he had no throne at that time to leave to me, he had absolute confidence that it would one day be his.”
“Yes, but to risk a child—”
“Life was about risk then. And there was no childhood, in the modern sense, when I was young. Not for peasant children, who started work in the fields by age seven. And certainly not for those of us in the nobility.”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun.”
“Some of it was. There were puppet shows on feast days and sledding in the winter. And I could ride an unsaddled horse at age five at a full gallop, as could my brothers. Well, except for Radu,” he said, talking about his youngest brother. “He was deathly afraid of the creatures and took rather longer to come to terms with them. I should know; I taught them to ride.”
“He and Vlad,” Mircea said, his smile fading. I didn’t say anything, but inwardly I cursed. It was rare enough for Mircea to talk about his family, and that particular topic was almost certain to make him shut down. But to my surprise, this time it didn’t.
“Radu had absolutely no seat at all,” he said, after a moment.
“Neither do I,” I admitted. Rafe had tried to teach me, but had finally given up in despair.
“But you do not need to lead charges in battle, dulceață. He did! My father finally solved the problem by tying him onto the largest horse in the stable, and promising that he should remain there until he could ride it properly.”
“And did he?”
Mircea looked up at me, baring the long line of his throat as he leaned back against the chair. It exposed a vulnerable area, a traditional vampire sign of trust. “With amazing alacrity.”
I stared down into those velvety dark eyes, fascinated by the pleased humor on the handsome face, by the crinkle of the eyes, by the white, even teeth and the glimpse of tongue behind them. Without thinking, my hand stopped combing through the thick silk of his hair and dropped to his nape, before sliding forward to curve around his throat.
Most vampires would have moved away or at least flinched. Mircea just looked up at me, eyes bright, but no longer with amusement. There was something dark in those depths, something fierce and possessive that made my breath come faster and my hand tighten over the pulse that beat strong and steady under my fingertips.
His heart didn’t need to beat, of course, but he knew I liked it, so he rarely forgot. Like he always remembered to breathe when I was around, to blink, to do all the things that made him seem human, even though he hadn’t technically held that title for five hundred years. But he was human to me.
He would always be human to me.
“You shouldn’t look at me like that when we are in public, dulceață,” he murmured, stroking his hand up and down my leg. “It makes me wish to cut the evening short.”
Those fingers suddenly tightened. “Very.”
And for a moment, that sounded like a really good idea. Really, really good. But if I left with Mircea now, I knew how the rest of the evening would go. And it wouldn’t involve a lot of talking.
I licked my lips and stepped away a few paces. “You were telling me about your mother?”
Mircea didn’t say anything for a moment, but when I looked back, he didn’t appear annoyed. If anything, his body seemed to have relaxed, and he was smiling. “Princess Cneajna of Moldavia,” he said easily. “Tall, with raven hair and green eyes. Radu took after her, not in coloring but in a certain delicacy of feature.”
“What about you?”
“They said I resembled her more in temperament, although I never saw it. She was more . . . fiery. More highly strung. I remember her as beautiful and passionate, proud and ambitious.”
I bit my lip. I thought that described Mircea perfectly.
“I always thought I was more like my father,” he told me.
Mircea’s head tilted. “He was a . . . prudent sort of man, a diplomat, for King Sigismund of Hungary. He was around your age when he was sent as a special envoy to Constantinople to discuss a possible merger between the Roman Catholic faith and the Orthodox. It never happened, of course, but he impressed the Holy Roman Emperor with his tact and judgment.” Mircea smiled. “Although probably not for his piety.”
“He wasn’t religious?”
“No more so than was politically expedient. My mother was the devout one in the family. Forced her poor sons into the care of the Dominicans for part of our education.” He shuddered.
I smiled. “You don’t like monks?”
“I always have suspicions of any man who can willingly turn his back on the finest of God’s creations.”
Brown velvet eyes met mine, and a shot of something warm and electric shot right through me, making my pulse pound harder in my throat—and other places. I decided I really wanted that drink now. Luckily, another of the ubiquitous floating trays was headed my way.
I moved forward and reached for a glass, at the same time as a man on the other side. My hand brushed the flute, toppling it and sending a splash of golden liquid onto his pristine white shirt. He looked down and I looked up, an apology on my lips. And that was where it stayed, as both of us froze in stunned recognition.
Because we knew each other, and neither one of us was supposed to be there.
I stared at the thin, vaguely horsey features and pale blue eyes of the mage in front of me, and hoped I was imagining things. He looked a little different in a well-fitted tux instead of seventeenth-century slops, his sandy blond hair slicked back instead of falling messily around his face. But it was him. The guy I’d once helped Agnes apprehend before he could blow history to kingdom come.
If I’d had any doubts, they were erased when he suddenly gave a screech, knocked the tray of drinks at me and bolted. A choking mass of thick, blue-black smoke boiled through the room as I stumbled back. Someone fired a gun and someone screamed. And then everything slowed down—literally.
The whole room suddenly looked like it was on slowmotion replay. I fell back into Mircea, my gown fluttering lazily around me, as the serving tray arced high in the air above. Glasses scattered, golden liquid sloshed and the silver surface flashed in the candlelight for a long moment....
And then sped back up and hit the floorboards with a crash. But it was barely audible over the sound of rapid-fire gunshots, breaking glass and the collective panic of a crowd unused to danger. Not that I was having much of a different reaction, and I was plenty used to it. I hit the ground instinctively, only to have Mircea grab me around the waist and jerk me back.
That was lucky, because the crowd took that moment to decide on the better part of valor, and there was a stampede. Ladies in fine gowns and men in tuxes forgot about elegance, threw away decorum and fought to be the first out the door. The place where I’d been kneeling a second ago was suddenly a mass of swirling hems and pounding feet.
“What happened?” Mircea asked, pushing me behind him.
“Agnes,” I gasped. The smoke burned at the back of my throat, making it hard to talk, hard to breathe. “She can manipulate time for short periods, stop it . . . slow it down . . . and she must have recognized him—”
“The guy from the Guild,” I said, desperately trying to spot him in the crowd. But the smoke made it difficult to see anything, and most of the guests were taller than I was. I hiked up my skirts and scrambled onto a nearby table.
“What guild?” Mircea asked, but I didn’t answer. I could see over the crowd now, but not through the smoke. But there was something going on near the back of the room—spell fire lit up the haze in spots, like strobes on a dance floor. And most of the colors were in the red and orange range—offensive magic, war spells; not the soothing blues and greens of the protective end of the spectrum.
I hopped off the table and ran.
Mircea grabbed me before I’d gone a yard—and then flung us to the floor as a stray curse blistered the air overhead. It crashed into the window behind us, shattering the glass and sending fire running up the brocade curtains. More smoke, thick and smothering, added to the mix, threatening what little air was left in the room.
“Let me go!” I choked. “He’ll kill her!”
“The asshole from the Guild!”
“Listen to me.” Warm hands framed my face and dark eyes met mine. I felt the usual reassurance Mircea’s presence caused ramp up a few notches, soothing my fears, calming my mind—and depriving me of my edge. “Whatever is going on, it doesn’t succeed,” he assured me. “Nothing of importance happened tonight. My men were told specifically—”
“Nothing did happen,” I said, furious because I no longer was. “But something is happening. And if you don’t listen—”
But Mircea wasn’t. He’d pulled me to my feet as we argued and slipped an arm around my waist. And now he started to push his way through the crowd toward the nearest exit.
And then, just as suddenly, started to back up again.
I found myself walking backward, too, unable to control my body’s movements despite the fact that they were the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. I tried to talk but I couldn’t do that, either, except for some garbled sounds that didn’t make sense. For a moment, I panicked, sure I was possessed again—until I caught sight of the drapes.
A minute before, the dark red damask had been a border of flame around the window, embroidered designs standing out harshly against the rapidly darkening fabric, fat tassels writhing as they were quickly consumed. Now the opposite was true. Clean, whole cloth blossomed out of flames that were shrinking, falling back, forming into a ball that flew through the air back to whoever had cast it.
The fleeing crowd was also moving the wrong way, panicked faces streaming away from me as I jumped on the table, jumped off, hit the floor and then was back on my feet, staring at a wide-eyed mage with champagne on his shirt. And then I was in Mircea’s arms, facing the window as if nothing had ever happened. Because it hadn’t yet.
Time juddered and shook, trembling around me for a long second before reversing again. And this time, I didn’t hesitate. I threw off Mircea’s hold and tackled the mage.
We went down in a thrashing heap, my arms around his waist and then his leg when he tried to shake me off. Smoke bloomed around us, harsh and stinging, as he threw something to the ground. But I held on—until a shiny, booted foot caught me upside the face, sending me reeling. But by then Mircea had him by the collar and jerked him up—
And was blasted through the air as if shot out of a cannon.
I didn’t see Mircea hit the wall, recover and launch himself back at our attacker, because it all happened faster than I could blink. But I did see him freeze in the air, midleap, as time shuddered to a halt. At least it did for me, Mircea and everybody else—except the goddamned mage, who shrugged it off like an old coat and bolted into the crowd.
I started after him, pushing hard against the power freezing me in place, but it felt like trying to swim in a river of cold molasses. Time swirled sluggishly all around me, weighing my limbs, slowing my breathing, keeping me back. Away from him. Away from her.
Until I pushed, breaking free in a rush that sent me sprawling into the statuelike crowd, disoriented and breathing hard. A woman toppled over, stiff as a board, her red, red lipstick smearing across the shirt of the man beside her. Another woman teetered back and forth on her high heels, but was unable to fall because of the people pressing her hard on all sides.
They were pressing me, too, but that was a good thing, because they were also slowing down the mage. I could see his blond head bobbing through the crowd, shining under the lights. He was easy to spot, being a good three inches taller than most of the guests and the only one moving. But even if I caught him, I couldn’t take down a crazy dark mage on my own.
And Agnes couldn’t help me. I didn’t know what kind of weird shit was going on with time, but I knew this maneuver. Stopping time was the biggest weapon in the Pythia’s arsenal, a trump card. But it was also a one-shot deal. The only time I’d done it—by accident—it had completely wiped me out for the rest of the day.
And I was a lot younger than Agnes.
It frightened the hell out of me, because she knew the cost better than I did. She wouldn’t have used it if the danger to her or her heir wasn’t acute. But it wouldn’t work this time, and might even backfire. Because if the mage could throw it off, he could hunt them while they thought they were safest, and while she was weakened with her power diverted elsewhere.
I had to follow him, and I had to have help.
And there was only one place to get it.
I looked up to where Mircea was still suspended in the air, amber eyes slitted, staring at the place where the mage no longer was. I grabbed the front of his shirt, the only thing I could reach, and gave a pull. And like a big, Mirceashaped balloon, he floated a little closer to the ground. But he was still frozen, still useless.
It hadn’t worked.
I stood there with tears of pure fury burning in my eyes. I hated the fact that I didn’t know how to use my power, that no matter how much I studied, how much I practiced, what I needed was always something I didn’t know how to do. But if I’d done it once, goddamnit, I could do it again. No stupid mage from some squirrelly little cult was going to beat me at my own damn game.
I fisted my hand in Mircea’s shirt, and fisted my power in the current swirling thickly between us. And pulled.
For a long moment, nothing happened. He didn’t even move toward me this time, not an inch. But while he wasn’t moving in space, he was moving through something. Because I could feel the resistance dragging on him, tugging him back, wanting to fix him in place while I was doing my best to yank him out of it.
It was unbelievably difficult, far harder than it had been in my own case. I started to shake, and sweat broke out on my face, and for a second, I almost lost him. It was like time was slippery and he was oiled, and along with the sheer physical strain was the stress of keeping my wobbly grip. But I could feel time peeling away from him, layer after layer, as if he were shedding some kind of strange skin.
And then suddenly I was hitting the floor, with a hundred and eighty pounds of freaked-out vampire on top of me.
Mircea jumped back to his feet and then ducked into a crouch as I lay there, panting and half-sick. God damn, that had sucked. He seemed to think so, too, because he was staring around, minus his usual sangfroid. Mahogany silk whipped around his face as he took in the motionless crowd, the frozen clouds of smoke and a glass that had been caught midfall a few feet away, the contents spilling out like a champagne waterfall.
He put out a tenuous hand and touched it, and then jerked back when it wet his fingers. He looked at me, dark eyes wide. “What did you do?” he asked in wonder.
“Never mind that.” I staggered back to my feet, wondering why I felt like throwing up. “We’ve got to get to him before he finds her.”
“The man who attacked you?”
“He’s trying to harm the Pythia?”
“Because Agnes and I stopped him on his last mission. And because that’s what the Guild does—they disrupt time!” And killing a Pythia and her heir would definitely do that.
It would also do something else, I realized. My mother was still the Pythia’s chosen successor, still the good little Initiate preserving her virginity until the all-important transfer ceremony. She had yet to meet my disreputable father, yet to run away with him.
Yet to have me.
Suddenly, my skin was too cold, too tight, and my lungs couldn’t seem to pull in any air. “Mircea—” I grabbed his sleeve.
But I didn’t need to explain. I saw when he got it, and I’d never been more grateful for that whip-fire intellect, which rarely missed little details. Like the fact that if the maniac succeeded, he wouldn’t take out two Pythias tonight.
He’d eliminate three.
Mircea didn’t ask any more questions. He caught me by the waist and surged ahead, cutting a swath through the motionless crowd faster than I’d have thought possible. But the mage had a sizable lead, and in the few moments it had taken to get Mircea on board, I’d lost sight of him.
It didn’t help that smoke hung heavy in the air like a thick, dark fog. I thought it would get better as we moved farther from the source, but the opposite seemed to be true. The far end of the room was a sea of clouds, darker in some areas and lighter in others where lines of spell fire crisscrossed in the gloom.
The clouds were annoying, but it was the spells that had me worried. They were frozen in place like neon tubes at a bad ’80s disco, but there were a lot of them. And while they wouldn’t slam into us with time the way it was, if we hit them—
I didn’t know what would happen if we hit them. But I didn’t think it would be fun.
“Can you shift us across?” Mircea asked grimly.
“Not without seeing where I’m going.” And the smoke pretty much excluded that.
“Then we’ll go around.”
“There’s no time! He’s already—”
“Then I’ll go,” he said, putting a heavy hand on my arm as I dropped to the floor, preparing to crawl under the nearest beam.
“You can’t manipulate time, and he can! He can freeze you and kill you before you know what’s happening.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
“Well, I won’t!”
His jaw clenched stubbornly, and I felt like screaming. “Mircea, you’re going to protect me to death!”
He stared at me a moment longer, and then cursed inventively and dropped beside me. I took that as assent and started forward. But it wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.
A bright beam sparkled in the air above our heads like a frozen column of raspberry ice. Frost spell, cold enough to burn, cold enough to freeze any skin it touched. Cold enough to kill. I made very sure to hug the floor as I slithered below.
It was marginally safer down here, because most of the spells were higher up, forming a brilliant lattice above our heads. But even though the smoke was thinner down here, visibility was actually worse, with gowns caught in midswirl everywhere and a forest of men’s trouser legs. I scurried forward anyway, careful not to topple any of the living statues in my path.
“I thought only Pythias could manipulate time,” Mircea said, from behind me.
“So did I.”
“Then how is he doing it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, aggrieved. “Agnes didn’t say anything about the Guild being able to do something like this. They’re supposed to be time travelers, but she said that most of them are losers who manage to blow themselves up attempting dangerous spells they can’t control.”
“And yet this one is different.”
“He didn’t seem that way,” I complained. “At least not when Agnes and I were after him. He was kind of an idiot. He couldn’t shoot worth a damn, and he kept running around screaming, and running into—”
I stopped because I’d slammed into something, hard enough to hurt. It turned out to be the faint green bubble of a protection spell, so dim against the glowing colors that I hadn’t seen it. An older man was underneath, his hand up, projecting the shield over himself and the woman lying beside him. Her gray chiffon evening gown, silver hair and colorless pearls blended perfectly with the frightened pallor of her face.
“Let me,” Mircea said, taking the lead. I didn’t argue, because his sight was about ten times keener than mine. “And tell me about this Guild.”
“I don’t know much,” I said, hugging his heels. “Just what Agnes told me. She said they’re some kind of freaky cult. They think they can make history better, solve humanity’s problems, if they can identify where we screwed up and then go back in time and change it. Only they’re the ones who get to decide what was a mistake and what wasn’t.”
“Fanatics.” Mircea sounded disgusted.
“She called them utopians.”
“Same thing under a different name.”
“She said they could be dangerous—”
“They always are. Anyone who can only see their point of view is. Once a group decides that their way is the only way, it is an easy progression to vilifying anyone who doesn’t agree with them. And once someone has been demonized, has been characterized as opposing the good, killing him becomes a virtue.”
He sounded like he knew firsthand, but I didn’t get a chance to ask. Because we’d reached the middle of the room, where a dark red stain spread over the floor, like someone had dropped a bucket of paint. But paint didn’t simmer like the top of a boiling pot, with potion bubbles rising from the surface to spill into the air. They were sluggish now, like gas trapped in viscous oil, but they wouldn’t stay that way for long.
“What is it?” Mircea asked.
“The spell. It takes a lot of energy, and no one can hold it for—”
“What spell?” Mircea asked sharply.
“The one I pulled us out of.”
“The time spell?”
“You’re telling me that time is about to start back up?” he demanded.
“Now?” I said, watching a crimson bubble rise almost a foot before bursting with a little pop.
And then I wasn’t watching it anymore, because Mircea had thrown me over his shoulder and taken a flying leap over the puddle. He landed hard and I gasped, partly because it had hurt and partly because we’d hit a woman in a bright pink evening gown. I grabbed her by the hair before she could topple into the stain, and Mircea thrust her back into the arms of a mage behind her. And then we were sprinting over and under and through the maze at a pace that was definitely not safe.
But then, neither was this.
A spell flashed across our path, hit somebody’s shield and ricocheted back, striking the parquet floor in front of us and sending a hundred little wooden slivers whirling up into the air. Another brilliant beam slammed into the ceiling, causing a cascade of plaster dust to sift down like snow, and a third exploded through the French doors at the end of the room. And then we were bursting through what was left, into darkness and crisp autumn air and the night sounds of a city.
And the sight of a mage dragging a girl in a tacky blue dress.
They were halfway down the street and moving fast, probably because they were being chased by four war mages. The men must have been outside, sneaking a smoke or something, because they obviously hadn’t been caught in the time bubble. They were still half a block back from the running couple, but then they put on a burst of magically enhanced speed, blurring their figures as they tore through the night, hands outstretched, bodies leaping for the fleeing mage and his captive—
And then the whole group disappeared in a flash that lit up the surrounding buildings like a single strobe.
For a moment, I just stared in disbelief. Because I might not know everything about my office yet, but I damn well knew a shift when I saw one. And the entire group had just fled, not through space but through time, shrugging off the fragile grasp of the moment as easily as most people would walk through a door.
But while their bodies were gone, something else remained. I clutched at it desperately as Mircea cursed behind me. “What the devil . . . ?”
“I can still feel her.” My hand clenched on his arm, hard enough that it would have hurt a human.
His head whipped around, scanning the empty street. “You’re saying they’re hiding under some kind of glamourie?”
“No. I’m saying I can feel her.”
And I might even know why. The holders of my office had to train replacements somehow, and one method was on the job. But that required being able to locate an heir who had landed herself in trouble, no matter when she happened to be. At least, I assumed that was why I could sense where she’d gone, like a glimmering golden thread in my mind, tying us together.
A thread getting rapidly thinner as she moved farther away.
“What does that—” Mircea began, but I shook my head.
“Hold on,” I told him. And shifted.
We landed on the same street, but suddenly there were no electric lights, no cars, no milling crowd of freaked-out party guests. And no crazy mage and his captive. Just dirty snow melting in between cobblestones, the moon riding a bunch of dark clouds overhead, and a few dim puddles from gas lanterns placed too far apart.
Some dry leaves rattled along the gutter, but nothing else moved.
“Did he take her into a house?” I asked Mircea, who had his eyes closed and his head tilted back.
“I do not think so,” he murmured. And then he rotated on his heel and opened his eyes, looking straight at a group of three-story row houses lining the left side of the street.
They were painted some light color that glowed ghostly pale in the moonlight. Their windows were mostly dark, shrouded by heavy curtains, which wasn’t much help. But the shadows rippling across their fronts were more useful.
There was nothing to throw them—nothing that I could see anyway. And there were no soft-voiced commands, no sounds of running feet, no faint rustles of clothing to give anyone away. But Mircea didn’t need all that. He could hear their hearts beat, smell the sweat on their skin, feel the faint currents of air from their passing. Glamouries, even good ones, have a hard time fooling vampire senses.
“That way,” he told me softly, but I didn’t need it. The shadows had disappeared into the dark mouth of an alley, and I shifted us right in behind them.
Silver moonlight was sifting in the far end of the passage, lighting up the kidnapper and my mother disappearing around a corner. And the figures of three war mages, who must have been right on their tail, but who were now stumbling out of thin air, dropping their glamouries as they turned and tripped and staggered and ran—right back at us.
For a second, I thought that they’d mistaken us for enemies and decided to take us out before going after Mom. Except that they weren’t looking at us. Judging by the whites showing all around their eyes and the way they kept running into each other, they weren’t looking at much at all.
I’d never seen war mages look that unprofessional—or that panicked. I looked past them, but there was nothing to explain it, not even a rat nosing at the garbage littering the alley floor. But clearly, something had them spooked.
And then they blew by us, one of them shoving me brutally aside in his hurry. I hit the brick wall hard enough to knock the breath out of my lungs, and Mircea hit the mage. The casual-looking blow sent him flying out of the alley and into the street, but, amazingly, the man didn’t even try to retaliate. He just staggered to his feet and limped off as fast as he could, disappearing from view around a corner of the building.
I gazed after him for a second, confused, and then shook my head and started the other way, desperate not to lose the tenuous connection to my mother. Only to have Mircea jerk me roughly back. I didn’t ask why, because I hadn’t gotten my breath back and couldn’t talk yet. And because I knew him well enough to know that he’d have a good reason.
And because what looked like a piece of the night had broken off from the rest and was flowing our way.
It surged along the sides of the alley like water, turning the dark red brick gray and chipped and flaking, leaving a pale stripe on the wall like a flood line. It disintegrated a few pieces of trash that had been blowing on the breeze, turning them brown and curled and then dusting them away. It ate through a wooden rain barrel, sending a wash of dirty runoff foaming across the alley floor.
And it did all of that in a matter of seconds.
I stared at the path of destruction, knowing what I was seeing but not really believing it. Because this wasn’t a time bubble; it was a time wave. One that had just engulfed the fourth mage.
I hadn’t seen him until his glamourie melted like dripping paint, showing pieces of him scrambling through the garbage on the alley floor. He was still trying to run, but it wasn’t going well. He kept tripping over his feet, getting up, taking a few awkward steps, and then falling back down again. Until he abruptly stopped, threw back his head and screamed.
Suddenly, I was grateful that there was so little light, that he’d made it into the shadow of the building, that I couldn’t see details of what was happening. Because what I could see was bad enough.
A wave of hair sprang from his head, going gray streaked and then solid gray and then pure silver-white as it snaked over his shoulders, pooling in the mud and grime caking the cobblestones. At the same time, the body under the long leather coat began to move in odd ways, bucking and writhing, although his hands stayed on the ground as if glued. And then the wave ate through the coat, disintegrating it like it had been dumped in acid, and what was underneath—
“Don’t look at it,” Mircea said harshly, pulling me back.
But I couldn’t not look. Skin darkened and then peeled away in patches, muscle thinned and browned, nails sprouted long as talons and a cascade of what I recognized dully as ropy intestines hit the cobblestones with a splat. And then the face lifted, the mouth still open but no sound coming out anymore.
No, of course not, I thought blankly.
It’s kind of hard to scream with no vocal cords.
And then my paralysis broke and we were pelting back toward the street, just ahead of the tidal wave boiling toward us. Mircea threw us into the road and then slammed us back against a building all in one quick movement. I stayed there, nails biting into the cold stones, as the wave shimmered through the air right past us.
I still couldn’t see it, other than as a vague distortion against the night. But I didn’t have to. I could see what it did well enough.
The sidewalk in front of the alley cracked and splintered, and the section of roadbed beside it suddenly rippled like an angry sea. The individual stones began moving up and down like keys on a piano, the whole expanse to the other side dancing as the mortar between the pieces crumbled and age pushed them out of place. It was like watching hundreds of years of wear happening in seconds.
But it didn’t stop there. A lamppost across the street began to writhe, the metal twisting and groaning as rust surged up the sides. The lamp on top cracked and then shattered, before what was left of the structure tumbled into the road, exploding against the uprooted stones.
But it didn’t stop there, either. The fence around a grassy area disintegrated in a pouf of bronze rust, glimmering in the moonlight like fairy dust. Flowers in a small bed bloomed and died and bloomed again, pushing upward against the snow as the sticklike sapling they hedged suddenly shot toward the sky. Limbs bulged, bark flowed and leaves sprouted in abundance. Acorns rattled down like rain as the leaves changed and fell and sprouted again, piling up around the rapidly thickening trunk like a mountain.
I blinked, and when I looked again, it was at a fully grown tree, branches huge and rustling, spreading luxuriantly against the night where a moment before there had been only sky. I stared up at it, the breath coming fast in my lungs, because no way. No freaking way.
I’d been willing to take the shifting thing on faith, to believe that maybe the mage had somehow learned a spell the others hadn’t, or had a special talent that allowed him to control the needed power, or had just gotten really lucky. But that? That was the sort of thing that only a Pythia could do—and a damned well-trained one at that.
Or a well-trained Pythian heir.
My head turned on its own, and I found myself staring at the darkened mouth of the alley again. It looked a little different now, the bricks on either side of the entrance cracked and discolored and in some cases missing altogether, crumbled into dust. But there was no sign of the mage, nothing to show that a man had ever been there, much less that he had suffered and died on those stones. It was almost like nothing had ever happened.
But it had.
And my mother had done it.
“I believe it has stopped,” Mircea said softly, examining a nearby fountain. As far as I could tell, the wave had done nothing more than add a little to the verdigris etching over the elaborate metalwork. It should have made me feel better, because I’d had no clue how to counter it if it had just kept going.
But it didn’t.
“Why would she help him?” I asked harshly.
Mircea looked up. I couldn’t see him very well with the only nearby lamppost now a bunch of rusted shards in the street. But he didn’t sound surprised when he answered; he’d probably been thinking the same thing. “He must have her under a compulsion.”
“But . . . why bother? If he could make her do anything, he could order her to kill herself! He doesn’t need—”
“If he wished to kill her, why not do so at the party? Why take the risk of trying to control power like that?” He sounded slightly awed, as if he’d never before seen precisely what a Pythia could do. And maybe he hadn’t.
It sure as hell was news to me.
“Why take her at all, then?” I demanded.
“As you said, the Guild exists to disrupt time. But their power is insufficient to allow them to travel where they wish. And even when they manage to collect enough, through whatever means, for a shift, there remains the problem of controlling it. Perhaps they decided—”
“That it would be easier to get themselves a pet Pythia,” I rasped. “To act as their goddamned cab ride!”
“It would make sense.”
I didn’t say anything. But I had a sudden, vicious image of the mage, kneeling in place in that alley, hair shooting out of his head as his body slowly disintegrated along with his clothes. It was surprisingly satisfying.
“What do you wish to do?” Mircea asked, as a lone figure darted across the end of the street. One of the remaining mages, no doubt. I was going to have to get them back to their own time before they screwed up something here, whenever this was. But that would have to come later. Right now, my mother was top priority, or there wouldn’t be a later.
“I want to find her,” I said savagely.
“Then let’s go find her.”
Two streets over, we came to another alley that looked a lot like the first, except that the light spilling in the end of this passage was a dim, hazy gold. The sun hadn’t suddenly come up, so I assumed that the light was man-made. It went with the sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestone, the rattle of wheels, and the shouts of people hawking something nearby.
I didn’t see my mother, but I kind of thought she might have been by.
“What is that?” Mircea demanded, staring at a mage loping along in the shadows beside us.
His arms were pumping, his legs were working, and his long coat was flapping out behind him as if caught in a stiff breeze. Only he wasn’t going anywhere. He also wasn’t paying any attention to us, which wasn’t surprising.
As far as he was concerned, we weren’t there yet.
Mircea frowned and reached out a hand, as if to give him a push. Until my fingers tightened over his wrist. “Don’t do that.”
He looked a question.
“Time loop,” I told him shortly, moving closer to the mouth of the alley. I was cautious, staying well inside the shadows provided by some stacked crates. I didn’t think my mother could manage another wave like that so soon—if she could, the man behind us likely wouldn’t be alive. But I wasn’t sure. And that little demonstration earlier wasn’t something you just forgot.
I kept telling myself that it hadn’t been her, that she hadn’t chosen to kill him like that, that she hadn’t known. But it still sent chills rippling over my flesh. God, what a horrible way to—
“Time loop?” Mircea asked, putting a hand on my shoulder.
I jumped and almost screamed.
He lifted an eyebrow at me, cool as always. Like he regularly saw people disintegrate into puddles of flesh. I licked my lips and told myself to get a grip.
“He’s stuck on repeat,” I explained, glancing back at the mage running his personal marathon.
“And that means?”
“That he’ll keep reliving the same few seconds over and over until the bubble fades or he breaks out of it.”
“He’s encased in a time bubble?”
“Then why can’t I sense it?” Mircea asked, wrinkling his nose, as if he expected to be able to smell it or something.
I thought that unlikely. All I could smell was pee. The alley must serve as the local latrine.
“Did you sense the other one?” I asked.
“Not . . . precisely. But I saw something, like a current in the air—”
“Probably caused by the different weather patterns that piece of air was shifting through,” I told him, figuring it out as I spoke. “Rain, sleet, snow—on fast forward, they’re going to make it look a little weird.”
“Then you’re saying I didn’t actually see anything.”
“You can’t see time, just what it does.”
His fingers tightened. “Then your mother could throw a bubble over us and we would never see it coming?”
“Something like that,” I said grimly.
Mircea abruptly pulled me behind him.
“That won’t help,” I said, peering between the crates at a busy street. “If she hits you with something, I probably won’t know how to counter it. And without you, the mage can take me out easily.” He’d managed to throw a master vamp at a wall, so that was sort of a given.
“Then how do we fight something we cannot see?” Mircea demanded.
I glanced back at him. “By not getting hit with it in the first place.”
“And how do we do that?”
“I’m open to suggestion,” I told him honestly.
I actually had no idea what to do. I’d assumed that my mother would be resisting her captor, and that when we caught up with him, the fight would be three against one. I’d liked those odds; I’d been all about those odds. I wasn’t so thrilled with these.
Because I couldn’t manipulate time like that. I hadn’t known that anybody could manipulate time like that. And while I had to get only a finger on her to shift her away, I had to stay alive long enough to do it.
I also had to find her. But the light was lousy and the street was packed with people rushing home through the cold. Most were in dark colors—brown or black or dark gray—not electric blue. But outside the illumination of shop doors and gas lamps, pretty much everything looked the same. If she stayed in the shadows, she’d blend in perfectly.
But while I couldn’t see her, I could feel her rapidly getting farther away, the golden cord between us stretching like an elastic band. “She’s moving,” I said, and ducked out into the street.
Mircea didn’t try to stop me, but he looked less than thrilled. I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t any happier. As if I didn’t have enough other reasons, I was freezing to death. Unfortunately, my coat was a century or so away.
He must have noticed me shivering, because he stripped off the jacket of his tux and put it around me. It was thin, but the wool was top quality and still warm from his body. I clutched it around me as we dodged a street preacher, a hawker selling roasted nuts and a seemingly endless line of wagons.
Despite the weather, it looked like half the damn city was out tonight.
And then I saw why when we came to a crossroads. Four streets, all of them busy, converged here. I was sure we were in the right area, but there was no way to know which road they’d taken. And if I guessed wrong, by the time we backtracked—
“Can you shift to her?” Mircea asked, as we stood on the street corner, trying to look four ways at once.
“No.” Spatial shifts had more restrictions than the time variety, and if I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t shift. “Can you track her?”
“I can try.” He did the eyes-closed, head-back-andmouth-slightly-open thing again while I huddled inside the coat and tried to be optimistic. But it wasn’t easy. Even in the cold, the place reeked. The streets were packed with horse manure, garbage rotted in the gutters, and the joys of deodorant were apparently unknown to most of the crowd. Add that to the smell of spilled beer radiating out of a nearby pub, and it wasn’t looking good. My only hope was that she would shift through time again, and I could catch up that way.
At least, I hoped I could.
The fact was, I was getting pretty tired. The stuff at the party hadn’t been fun, and then there’d been the small matter of shifting a century or so and taking someone else along for the ride. I didn’t know how many more shifts I had in me, especially of the time variety. And if I ran out of juice and she shifted again—
I decided not to think about that. Besides, she had to be getting tired, too. I didn’t know if she’d had anything to do with what happened at the party, although it seemed likely. But even if not, she’d just shifted herself and five other people more than a century.
I didn’t know how the hell she’d done that. Or, rather, I understood it technically—the mages had been too close when she shifted, and had ended up trapped in the backwash of the spell. That was what happened when I took someone along with me, only I usually had to be touching them to do it. But I’d accidentally taken Pritkin on a shift once without touching him, so I knew it was possible. But six?
Carrying just one person this far had felt like it was wrenching my guts out. I couldn’t even imagine doing five more. Not that the power couldn’t handle it; the Pythian power was pretty much inexhaustible, as far as I’d been able to tell. But the person channeling it was not. And then there’d been the time wave and the time loop and the haring across London and—
And I didn’t know why she wasn’t passed out on the damn sidewalk. But she had to be tired. She had to be.
Because if she wasn’t, we were screwed.
I hadn’t realized I’d closed my eyes, half dozing despite the cold, until a tug on my arm woke me up. I followed Mircea down the street, not saying anything because I didn’t want to distract him. But apparently he could track and talk at the same time, because he glanced at me before we’d gone five yards.
“Do we have a plan?”
“I need to touch her.”
“That is not a plan, dulceață; it is an objective.”
I frowned. “Okay, your turn.”
“If I get close enough, I can drain the mage and end this.”
He was referring to the ability of master vampires to pull blood particles through the air, without the need to do the Bela Lugosi thing. I’d seen Mircea drain a guy dry in a few seconds once, but while it was damned impressive, it wouldn’t work here. “He’ll have a shield up—”
“I can drain a man even through a shield. But it takes longer.”
“For the average mage . . .” He shrugged. “Thirty seconds to incapacitate; perhaps a minute to kill. But with stronger shields, war-mage strength, for instance, multiply that by five.”
I didn’t think the mage had that kind of shield, but what did I know? I hadn’t thought he’d be able to kidnap my mother, either. “So worst-case scenario, two and a half minutes to unconsciousness.”
“From across a room, yes. But if I am right on top of him . . . perhaps cut that by two-thirds.”
I didn’t stop moving, but I stared at him incredulously. “You can drain a war mage to unconsciousness in fifty seconds—through his shields?”
“It depends on the mage, and I do not know this one’s capacities. But normally—”
His lips quirked. “Let us say, it is what I would expect.”
I decided not to ask what he was basing that on.
“Still, two and a half minutes isn’t bad,” I said hopefully. “We might be able to keep them in sight for that long.”
“Yes, but if I try it from a distance, he will almost certainly notice before I can incapacitate him. And then they will either shift away or attack.”
“And we can’t afford for them to do either.”
“No.” He looked frustrated. “Normally, I would call on the family to assist, but I have never cared for London and do not keep a residence here. And while I could borrow people from another senator—”
“We don’t have time.”
“Then we’re on our own.” And for some reason, I felt the tension relax in my neck.
It must have in my voice, too, because Mircea looked at me narrowly. “Is there a reason you suddenly sound relieved ?”
“It’s not . . . relief exactly. It’s just that . . . well, it’s fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants time, isn’t it?”
“And that is a good thing?”
“No, but it’s . . . sort of familiar.”
He closed his eyes. “Do you know, dulceață, there are times when I truly believe you are the most frightening person I know.”
I blinked. “Thank you?”
And then we didn’t say anything else. Because we spotted them.
It wasn’t hard, considering that they almost ran us down. There were a lot of vehicles on the street—mostly small, two-wheeled contraptions with a covered area in front, a driver perched high on a seat in back, and a single horse. But there was only one being driven by a girl in an electricblue party dress.
And barreling straight down the middle of the sidewalk.
For once, Mircea didn’t have to pull me out of the way; the crowd was already doing that for him. It parted into two halves, surging into the road or back against the pub. Mircea and I ended up in the road, and then had to shuffle back even farther because the little carriage was weaving drunkenly all over the place.
I didn’t know how much my mother knew about horses, but I didn’t think her driving was the problem. That was more likely the two war mages in the coach behind her, firing spells that she was doing her best to dodge. She wasn’t entirely successful, which probably explained why the roof of her carriage was on fire, and why her horse had the walleyed look of the totally panicked.
Although the horse looked positively calm compared to the kidnapper, who was sitting in the covered area of the coach, hands braced on either side, screaming his head off.
“Those idiots! Are they trying to kill her?” I demanded, as another bolt of what looked like red lightning flashed between the carriages.
It missed her, but only because she’d jumped the sidewalk at the same moment, scattering pedestrians and overturning a vendor’s cart. Apples rolled across the street like oversized marbles, tripping people and sending them sliding on the icy road. Unfortunately, the mages’ horse managed to avoid them just fine, and thundered after her.
“It would appear so,” Mircea said grimly.
I stopped staring at the chaos long enough to stare at him. “What?”
“From what you know of the Circle, dulceață, which do you think they would prefer—a fully trained heir in the hands of a dark mage, or the same heir deceased?”
A finger of ice ran down my spine. Because I didn’t have to think. I’d just spent more than a month dodging the Circle of my time, who had been convinced that I was a threat thanks to my parentage, my vampire connections and a couple of dozen other things. And their solution had been what it always was—kill it, then kill it again.
There was a walkway over the road ahead, and I shifted us onto it, putting us momentarily ahead of the chase. It wouldn’t be for long. The light weight of the vehicles allowed them to zip past the larger ones lumbering down the road, most of which were trying to get out of the way, anyway. But one wagon, piled high with barrels, was too heavy to move fast enough. And a spell that missed my mother by a fraction didn’t miss it.
Whatever was in the barrels must have been pretty flammable. Because they exploded in a wash of light and heat and eardrum-threatening sound, setting the wagon ablaze and sending several of the smaller casks shooting heavenward, like wooden cannonballs. And if I’d thought the street had been chaotic before, it was nothing compared to this.
Horses don’t like fire, noise or unexpected events, and every horse on the street had just experienced all three. Pandemonium broke out, with bolting animals, running people and fiery barrel parts raining down from the heavens. One of the latter took out an awning over a tobacconist’s shop, which the owner hadn’t remembered to roll up for the night. The dark green material went up in flames, right by a couple more horses.
That might not have been so bad, except for the fact that they were hitched to a double-decker bus. It had been about to let off a group of passengers, only they had to cling to the railings instead as the spooked horses took off at a dead run. I caught sight of my mother again as she and the bus raced side by side for the bridge, and Mircea grasped my arm.
“Can you shift us onto her coach?”
I stared at him, wondering at what point he’d lost his mind. But he looked perfectly serious, maybe because he thought this was as good a chance as we were going to get. It didn’t help that I agreed with him.
“I’m not . . . I don’t . . . It isn’t so easy shifting onto moving things,” I explained. Particularly ones that were all over the road and on fire.
“Then we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way,” he told me. And before I could ask what that meant, his arm went around my waist and we were running for the side for the bridge, and then we were—
“Oh, shiiit!” I screamed, as Mircea threw us over the side just as mother’s coach thundered underneath.
Only she must have moved again, because when we landed, hard enough to rattle my teeth, it was on the top of the bus.
Mircea managed to keep his feet, but I went sprawling into a big woman clutching a little dog, which tried its best to bite my nose off. And then I was pushed backward onto the lap of an astonished-looking man, who appeared less flabbergasted by my sudden appearance than by the brief outfit I was wearing.
“What? You’ve never seen a calf before?” I demanded, as Mircea pulled me up. Only to get us almost trampled by a crowd of panicked people trying to get down the stairs.
Several managed it by falling off, several more almost did and a lot of parcels and umbrellas and hats went flying. That included someone’s bicycle, which bounced riderless off the back of the bus and continued down the street, looking oddly steady. Or at least it did until the mage’s vehicle crashed into it, sending it sailing into a storefront and then careening into us.
The bus shuddered under the impact, and most of the people who had gotten back to their feet were thrown onto their butts again. But the mages hadn’t emerged unscathed from the crash, either. The light gray horse pulling their ride broke free of its harness, neighed in terror and then took off back down the road.
So they grabbed the next convenient means of transportation.
Which happened to be ours.
It was Mircea’s turn to swear as they jumped onto the bus, knocking people aside, and, in some cases, off the side as they vaulted up the stairs and onto the roof. And then flew off it again as Mircea grabbed the backs of two seats, swung up and kicked. A couple thousand bucks’ worth of fine leather left muddy imprints on their shirts as they rocketed backward, arms flailing and bodies flying.
They landed what looked like half a block down the street, which should have ended that. But they’d no sooner hit pavement than they were back on their feet. I saw them shake their heads, dart into the crowd and kick into enhanced speed—and then I didn’t see anything else, because Mircea was dragging me toward the front of the bus. “Did they have shields?” I asked, confused, because I hadn’t seen any.
“Then how did they—” I began, only to stagger and go down when the bus suddenly swerved dangerously.
It was racing down the road like there was no driver, which was sort of true, since I didn’t think the guy in the driver’s seat was supposed to be there. A third mage had appeared out of nowhere and knocked the real driver aside, just in time for Mircea to vault down the length of the bus and do the same to him. Only when a master vampire knocks you aside, you don’t end up on the floor.
The guy sailed off the bus, flew through the air and slammed face-first into the second story of a nearby building. Which I’d kind of expected. And then he twisted, kicked off the bricks like gravity didn’t apply to him and jumped back on the bus. Which I hadn’t.
I had a second to think that the guy looked a lot like the mage I’d last seen running a marathon inside a time bubble—tall, dark hair, red face—only that couldn’t be right. And then he lunged for Mircea, who had turned his back to grab the reins, and I decided to worry about it later. I jumped after him, yelling a warning I doubted even vampire ears could hear over the galloping horses and the creaking bus and the screaming people.
But it didn’t matter, because some of the passengers had clearly had enough. One fine-looking gent with a monocle tripped the mage with his cane, a burly-looking guy in a butcher’s apron smashed him in the face, and a couple of other men helped flip him over the side and into the street. Which all things considered, probably didn’t hurt him much.
And then he was run over by a speeding coach, which probably did.
At least, I didn’t see him vault back on board before Mircea pulled the real driver back into his seat and grabbed me. “We aren’t going to catch up to her this way,” he yelled.
I nodded, feeling a little dizzy. The Clydesdales pulling the bus were already going as fast as they could, and they weren’t bred for speed anyway. We weren’t going to catch up to Mom on a heavy bus loaded with people, and neither were the mages.
“What’s the alternative?” I yelled back.
“This!” he told me. And flung us over the side.
It happened so fast I didn’t have time to scream before we landed in a mostly empty wagon. The lack of weight was probably why it was beating the bus in the race to get the hell out of Dodge. But it wasn’t beating it by much, particularly after the driver turned around to shout at us and rammed into the next vehicle in line.
But it looked like Mircea hadn’t planned on staying long, because before I could get a breath, we were jumping onto another wagon and then into a four-wheeled cab, which had gotten close enough for him to grab the door. And then through the back, trying not to step on the occupants’ toes, and out the other side into—
Well, I guess it was a car. Except it looked more like a roofless carriage with no horses and a big stick coming out of the floorboard. It also had a huge, bulbous horn, a couple of foot pedals and a freaked-out driver who was currently dangling from the hand of a master vampire.
“You know, I could use a little more warning next time!” I told Mircea breathlessly, as he dropped the man gently into the road.
He shot me a glance. “Now you know how I feel whenever you shift.”
“I tell you when we’re about to shift!”
“When you remember.” He picked me up and deposited me in what I guess was the passenger’s seat, since it didn’t have a stick. “Fair warning: this is going to be a bumpy ride.”
Yeah, like it hadn’t been so far, I didn’t say, because my ass had no sooner touched leather than we barreled onto the sidewalk, slung around a bunch of people, clipped the side of a shop and then shot ahead.
“Are you sure you know how to operate this thing?” I demanded, trying to get my limbs sorted out.
“This is a Lutzmann. I used to own one.”
“Yeah, but did you actually drive it?”
He just raised an eyebrow and shot ahead, as I frantically searched for a seat belt. Which I didn’t find, because, apparently, they hadn’t been invented yet. Maybe because the car’s top speed appeared to be about thirty miles an hour, which sounds like nothing unless you’re in a vehicle with no sides, a high center of gravity and a stick for steering. I don’t think all four wheels were ever on the ground at the same time as we careened down a street littered with obstacles, half of them living and all of them disapproving.
But however pathetic, our speed was constant, while it looked like the horses pulling Mother’s coach were getting tired. Because a moment later I spotted them, just up ahead.
Mircea must have seen them, too, because he floored it, taking us up to maybe a whopping thirty-five. But it was lucky he had. Because a second later, red lightning lit up the night, shooting just behind us to explode against a building, blackening the bricks and taking out a window.
I whipped my neck around and saw what I’d expected—three damn mages in a coach they’d stolen somewhere. It had two horses and a lightweight body, and damned if they weren’t gaining. And it looked like they held a grudge, because a lot of the bolts blistering through the air were aimed at us.
One took out a row of streetlamps, popping them one after another as a bolt leapt from light to light to light, burning through the night right alongside us. Another hit a swinging pub sign, appropriately named the Fiery Phoenix. The Phoenix went up in smoke and then so did we, as a spell crashed into the back of the car, picking it up and sending it sailing through the air, straight at—
I screamed and grabbed Mircea, shifting us just as he grabbed me back and jumped. The result was a confusing few seconds of shifting and then flying through the air, as his jump ended up taking place on the other side of the shift. And then we landed in a heap, half in the street and half in the gutter, before rolling onto the sidewalk and a lot of unhappy pedestrians.
I barely noticed, too busy watching the car smash into the front of a church. And wedge between two of the pillars. And explode.
And then the bastard mages zipped by us, splashing us with filthy water from a ditch in the street. The one we’d already rolled through. And the next thing I knew, we were clinging to the back of their vehicle as it pelted down the road, past the remains of the little car and into a street on the right.
Mircea must have done it, moving us with that vampire speed that sometimes seemed almost as fast as shifting. Because I sure as hell hadn’t. I wasn’t up to doing much, frankly, except clinging to the leather-bound trunk on the back of the coach and trying not to puke. And then it started raining.
Of course it did.
Mircea was making some kinds of signs at me, probably afraid the mages would hear if he said anything. Which would have worked great, except that my eyes kept crossing. But I guess he must have meant I’m going to leave you for a minute to go do something insanely stupid. Because the next second, he vaulted around the side of the coach, kicked in the door and disappeared into the small, covered area.
And then things started to get interesting. At least, they did if you consider cursing and kicking and a wildly rocking coach and a spell that blew off the roof to be interesting. It wasn’t doing so much for me, but I didn’t have time to worry about it, because a fist punched through the back of the coach, almost in my face.
Since it was a left one and wasn’t wearing Mircea’s OMEGA watch, I had no compunction at all about slipping off the one shoe I hadn’t yet managed to lose and using the stiletto heel to try to sever it at the wrist. It didn’t work as well as its namesake, but it must have been a distraction, at least. Because somebody cursed and somebody grunted, and then somebody went sailing out the side of the carriage to splat against one thundering along right next to us.
Which would have been great if it hadn’t happened to be Mom’s.
The mage grasped hold of the coach with one hand and flung a spell at me with the other, but it didn’t connect—thanks to the kidnapper, of all people. I could see him, because there was no covered area of the coach anymore, due to the fire. The rain had put it out, or maybe it had burnt out after it consumed all the cloth over the cab. But either way, only the wire frame remained in place, which didn’t hinder the kidnapper at all from slamming his heavy-looking suitcase upside the mage’s head.
That sent the spell flying off course, missing me but setting the hem of my dress alight. Fortunately, the mud puddle I’d just finished wallowing in had pretty much soaked the material, and that and the pelting rain took care of the fire before it took care of me. I was left with a ruined dress, a burn on my thigh and a serious case of Had Enough.
If my mother could shift seven people through most of a century, I could shift five a few hundred yards, like to the next street over. It would get them off her ass, and once Mircea and I shifted back, we’d have only the mage to deal with. I just needed to get the damn war mages all in one place in order to—
And then I didn’t, because Mom did it for me.
She slammed her coach into ours, almost knocking me off my perch. It did more than that to the mage, who had been trying to grab her while the kidnapper tried to grab him. The sudden movement sent him flailing back, and he fell through the missing roof of our coach, splintering the wood forming the back of it in the process. That left me looking at Mircea, who had a mage under one arm and another by the throat, and was trying to get a foot in the new arrival’s stomach.
He looked up at me and I looked at him, and then to the side, where a gap in the buildings showed a nice, broad street running parallel to this one. “Fair warning,” I told him. And shifted.
And immediately regretted it.
It felt like my body was coming apart at the seams, a searing, tearing pain that shot down every nerve. It hurt badly enough to have wrenched a scream from my throat, if I still had one. I didn’t, because it was streaming in molecules across space, like the rest of me, like my brain, which was nonetheless informing me that this was too far, too much. That maybe I should have remembered that the two horses would count as people, too; like maybe I should have thought about how tired I already was; like maybe this would be my last shift ever because my freaking head was going to explode.
At least, it would if I had the energy to rematerialize it long enough, which I wouldn’t if this went on much longer. What was going to happen instead was a quick unraveling of me and the horses and the coach and everyone inside it into particles blowing on the breeze that the rain would wash away, like we’d never existed at all. I knew it with the absolute conviction of someone who could already feel it happening, feel pieces and parts beginning to break away from their patterns, to jumble up, to distort—
And then I thought, No.
And then I thought, Stop.
And we did.
Really, really abruptly.
I hadn’t known it was possible, mainly because I’d never had reason to try. But somehow, I had aborted the shift. Right in the goddamned middle.
It had been that or die, so it had seemed the lesser of two evils. Until we rematerialized not a street over, but still on this one. Sort of.
The street was a posh-looking curve of neoclassical buildings fronted by pale stone that the gaslight turned gold against the black sky. Along both sides of the street ran a covered colonnade, which I hadn’t really noticed because I’d been kind of busy. I noticed it now since we landed up close and personal—as in, right on top of it.
That put us well above the street, flying along a narrow roofline barely wide enough to accommodate the coach, the horses and the heads that popped out of the side of the coach to look down at the street below. And then turned to look at me. And then one of the mages managed to get an arm up, and I had absolutely no doubt what he planned to do with it.
But I couldn’t stop him. I could barely even see him, wavering around in front of my blurry vision along with everyone else. Which was why it took me a moment to realize that he suddenly wasn’t there anymore. That Mircea had just bailed with him and the rest, throwing the whole kicking, fighting knot over the side of the colonnade.
Which would have been fine if I’d still been able to shift. But I wasn’t and I couldn’t, and the end of the colonnade was coming up and I was trying to bail, too, because falling from the back of a galloping coach wouldn’t be fun, but it was a lot better than the alternative. But my goddamned foot had gotten wedged behind the goddamned box and it wasn’t coming out, and I didn’t have time to figure out what was wrong with a brick wall staring me in the face and—
And then I was staring into a lovely pair of lapis eyes instead.
I blinked, stunned and confused and more than a little sick, as one of the mages ran up alongside the carriage. It was the one my mother was driving, in the middle of the road like a sane person, and which I was now somehow on top of. The mage grabbed for her and she broke eye contact with me long enough to glance at him, and then he was gone, popping out of existence like Niall had back in the suite. I knew that was what had happened, because a second later he showed up again in the middle of the street in front of us.
And then she ran him down.
“Damn, Liz!” the kidnapper said, staring up at her.
“Who are you?” she asked, turning those amazing eyes on me again.
And for some reason, I couldn’t answer. I stared into that lovely face, so close, closer than I’d ever thought it would be, and I couldn’t say anything at all. My throat closed up and my eyes filled and my face crumbled and I probably looked like a complete, blubbering idiot. But try as I might, I couldn’t seem to say anything—
And then the kidnapper answered for me.
“Agnes sent her,” he said harshly. “It’s a trap!”
“I don’t think so,” she said, her eyes never leaving my face. I don’t know what expression I was wearing, but she looked stunned, disbelieving, shocked. She put out a hand to touch my cheek, and it trembled slightly. “I don’t think so,” she whispered.
“I’m telling you, they’re working together!” he hissed. “She’s the one who helped that bitch drag me back—”
“Agnes is a good woman.”
“She’s a bitch!” he shrieked. “And this one’s just as bad. You have to—”
I never found out what he wanted her to do. Because four mages jumped on the coach at the same time, which was impossible, since at least two of them were supposed to be dead. But they all looked pretty lively to me, including the one who grabbed the kidnapper around the throat and jerked him back off his feet. I didn’t see what the others did, because the next moment we were shifting, flowing through time with an ease I’d never before experienced.
Shifting was usually metallic and electric and vaguely terrifying, like the thrilling ride of a roller coaster you suspect might just be out of control. But this wasn’t. It was warm and soft and natural, like breathing, a light caress that picked us up and gentled us along toward . . . somewhen. I didn’t know; I didn’t care. I just wanted to stay here, right here—
“But this isn’t your fight,” she told me simply, as the tide washed us toward an unknown shore.
I shook my head, trying to tell her that she was wrong, that it was my fight; it so very definitely was. But I still couldn’t talk, even as I felt her hand dissolve under mine, as the current washed us in two different directions, as I cried out and tried to hold on to something that simply wasn’t there anymore—
And the next thing I knew, I was standing on a street corner, surrounded by flashing neon lights and falling snow and shimmery, delicate nets of hanging stars, watching a Victorian coach veer across modern traffic lanes—for an instant. Before vanishing again into nothingness.
And just like that, she was gone.
I stood on the street corner, swaying slightly, while bits of snow gathered in my hair. It’s a beautiful last view, I thought blankly, watching what looked like Christmas crowds rushing about. The stars overhead were banners of lights draped across the openings of each street feeding into the intersection. Other streets farther down had them, too, so that the whole from the air probably resembled a great, glittering wheel. Or maybe a wreath. That would be more Christmassy, wouldn’t it?
They look pretty against the black sky, anyway, I thought, as water dripped into my eyes from rain that had fallen however many decades ago. I didn’t bother to brush it away. It didn’t seem to matter now.
The lights on passing cars blurred together in long streamers of gold and red, appropriately festive. I watched them, feeling wobbly and cold and numb, and waited for oblivion. And waited. And waited.
And then I heard running footsteps coming up behind me, and before I even had a chance to turn around, hands grasped my shoulders, spinning me about. I stared dizzily up at Mircea, who was looking a little crazed. His hair was wild and so were his eyes, and there was a smudge of mud on his cheek. “You’re still here,” he said blankly.
I nodded cautiously, half expecting not to be at any second.
His fingers tightened on my shoulders, almost painfully. And then he picked me up and spun me around, heedless of my filthy dress or my dripping hair or the safety of the passersby. “You’re still here!” he said, laughing, and kissed me.
And either it was a damn good kiss or not fading away into oblivion was a hell of an aphrodisiac. Because after only a second, those lips melted the cold shock that had all but paralyzed me, and my hands clenched on his shoulders and my leg curled around him and the next thing I knew, I was climbing his body and doing my best to climb down his throat. Mircea gave as good as he got. His hands found my ass and he lifted, and my legs fastened around him and he spun us around again, as snow fell and cars honked and somebody laughed, and I didn’t give a damn because I was alive to experience all of it.
We broke apart only when it was that or asphyxiation. I clung to him, panting and light-headed from passion or relief or lack of air or all three, and the crowd we’d managed to collect applauded politely. Somebody donated a sprig of mistletoe, “not that you two need it,” which Mircea jauntily stuck behind his ear. And then he kissed me again.
I think he only stopped because I started shivering. We were both soaked and it was freezing, and I’d managed to lose his jacket somewhere along the way. Even with Mircea’s warmth, the cold, damp night air was already making its way in underneath my clothes, seeping down my neckline and slithering up my legs.
And there was no point even trying to shift back home. I’d be lucky to be able to do it in the morning, assuming I got some food and rest between now and then. But that posed a problem.
I looked at Mircea, who was staring up at the swirl of snow seemingly in fascination. “Mircea?”
“It’s beautiful, dulceață,” he said, his tone awed. “Do you see? Beautiful.”
“The snow. The night.” His arms tightened. “You.”
I eyed him warily. “Thanks?”
Warm lips found my neck. “You are welcome.”
“Mircea. It’s freezing.” “I will keep you warm,” he told me, those lips sliding down to my cleavage.
And, okay, it was getting warmer out here. “We can’t stay on a street corner all night,” I protested.
“Of course we can’t.” And before I fully realized what was happening, we were at the end of the street, my arm tucked in his as he looked this way and that, curious and bright-eyed and obviously delighted. With what I didn’t know, but a second later he laughed. “Oh yes. Yes, that will do splendidly.”
And then snowflakes falling around us were caught in headlights. They froze like crystals hanging in the darkness, a thousand tiny flashes of gold, as a limo pulled up at the corner. I looked at Mircea. “How . . . ?”
“I borrowed it from a friend,” he told me, bundling me inside. And then immediately covered my body with his own.
He kissed me slower this time, a tender movement of his lips and then his tongue against mine, deliberate, caring, and carnal. And for a few moments, I forgot everything, except the silky hair falling around me, the smoothness of the lips on mine, and the feel of his hands on my body. Their calluses came from handling a sword regularly, hundreds of years ago, but vampires stayed as they were when they died, so they had never softened. They were the only remnant of the half-barbarian prince he’d once been, except for the hair he refused to cut.
I took the opportunity to bury my hands in it now, a spill of deep, silky mahogany, the color of oak leaves in autumn. And, okay, that was corny, but Mircea made a girl poetic. Only this so wasn’t the place.
“Mircea. We can’t,” I gasped, glancing at the driver, who was watching us unashamedly in the mirror.
Mircea didn’t even look up. “Drive,” he said, and smashed a hand down on the button for the partition.
By the time it was up, my top was down and things were progressing at a rather frightening rate. “People can see us through the windows,” I protested, as the soaked silk was unzipped and my bra unhooked, all in one smooth motion.
“But . . . I’m hungry.”
“So am I,” he growled, and pulled off my dress.
Somebody had left a fur coat on the seat, something black as midnight and soft as a cloud, and the sensation against my bare skin was a hell of a distraction. Although not as much as the warm hands smoothing over me, the hard-muscled thighs pressing against me, or the tongue sliding over mine, liquid and warm and increasingly demanding.
I came up for air, minutes later, to find that Mircea’s coat was off, his shirt was open and his tie was barely clinging to one shoulder. That was a little disturbing, because I couldn’t remember how he got that way, or how my panties had ended up flung against the opposite seat. All I knew was that I was naked except for that sinfully soft fur coat, most of which was trapped beneath me.
I tried to tug it around, to give me some possibility of coverage should any of the passing cars get too close, but Mircea had other ideas. “Leave it,” he said hoarsely. “I like the contrast with your skin.”
And then he proceeded to show me exactly how much.
“What’s . . . what’s gotten into you?” I gasped, as that dark head worked its way down from lips to neck to body. Not that Mircea wasn’t usually . . . affectionate . . . but he didn’t normally care for public displays—or even semipublic ones.
It didn’t seem to be bothering him right now, though.
The lips on my skin were warm and soft and pliable, unlike the prick of fangs behind them. But he didn’t bite down, he just scraped them lightly over sensitive flesh, until I was hard and peaked and desperate. “It has been a while, so I cannot be certain,” he murmured. “But I believe I may be drunk.”
I blinked at him. “What?”
“The blood of those creatures. It was . . . intoxicating.”
“You mean the mages?”
“Mmm-hmm.” He rolled a nipple between tongue and teeth, making my hands fist in his shirt.
“But . . . but they were human.”
“Mmm, no,” he said thoughtfully. And then he bit down.
I gasped and clutched his head between my hands, holding him as he drank from me. The sensation of warm lips, sharp, sharp teeth and deep, intimate pulls had my body tightening, my skin flushing and my pulse pounding in my ears. I felt my grip on the moment slipping away.
“Then what were they?” I asked breathlessly, before I forgot what the hell we were talking about.
“They were human, but stronger,” he told me, sitting back on his heels. “Like you.”
“Your blood is richer than normal, due to the power of your office,” he explained, tossing the tie aside.
“Why does that matter?”
“It matters because your power used to belong to a god.” He started to pull off the shirt, but I put out a hand.
“Leave it,” I said huskily. He wasn’t the only one who liked a contrast. And the white, white fabric against the honey-drenched skin was . . . pleasing.
He quirked an eyebrow, but did as I asked. Then he slid back over me, grinning wickedly. “Perhaps that is why you taste divine.”
“You’re saying those mages were—were some kind of demigods?” I asked as he nuzzled my neck.
“I do not know, having never before had the opportunity to sample a god. But their blood was like yours—thick, rich, like old cognac.”
I had another question, but then his head dipped and his mouth closed over me again and I forgot what it was. I pretty much forgot everything as his tongue laved the small puncture wounds he’d made, the gentle, tender probing sending shudders through my whole body. I arched up mindlessly and he sat up, pulling me, naked, onto his lap.
My lips opened to protest, because if I’d been visible before it was nothing compared to now. But then strong hands grasped me and a magnificent hardness pressed against me and he started to suck not so gently. And my protest turned into a moan as my legs tightened around him, my skin flushed a deeper shade of pink, and my body squirmed, craving friction, craving more. I buried my fingers in the raw silk of his hair and forgot the passing cars and the curious driver and everything except the pull of that mouth and the feel of those hands, smoothing up and down my back and clenching—
And, okay, I thought dizzily, maybe this could work, after all.
But the next second Mircea was drawing back. “You’re hungry,” he announced, as if this were news.
“What? Do I have low blood sugar?” I asked facetiously.
“Yes.” He rapped smartly on the partition, which lowered so fast I barely had time to snatch up the mink. The vampire driver wasn’t a family member or a high-level master, so Mircea had to talk to him directly. “The Club,” he said succinctly.
“We are already there, my lord,” the driver said softly. “I took the liberty of anticipating your wishes.”
“Good man,” Mircea said, and before I quite knew what was happening, he’d pulled me out into the snow.
Even with the mink, the shock of cold air was a little stunning after the cozy warmth of the limo. But we weren’t out in it for long. My toes barely had time to register the frozen sidewalk before Mircea swung me up and ran with me up the stairs of a beautiful old row house.
A plain red door, like a dozen others on the street, gave way to a narrow little hallway boasting a priceless chandelier, a mahogany welcome desk and what looked suspiciously like a Cézanne, its bright colors glowing against the dark wood paneling.
A rotund little vampire bustled around the side of the desk and then disappeared. It took me a second to realize that he’d bowed, so low that even peering over the edge of the mink, all I could see were the lights gleaming off his shiny bald head. He bobbed back up after a minute, and then he did it again, like one of those drinking bird toys that just can’t stay upright.
But eventually he did, leading the way up the stairs. And I guessed he must have been a lot older than the driver, because not a word was said until his slightly shaking hands had opened the door to a magnificent suite. It was saffron and coral and deep chocolate brown, with a fireplace in caramel-colored marble and a huge window overlooking the city lights.
“I—I hope it is to your liking, my lord,” he murmured, and turned pink-cheeked with delight when Mircea casually nodded.
“Yes, it’s fine. We’ll eat up here.”
“Of course, of course. Right away.” The little vamp bowed himself out—literally—bobbing three times as he withdrew backward into the hall. And then Mircea finally let me down, only to get his hands inside the coat and push me against the wall.
“I’m dirty,” I protested.
He waggled his eyebrows. “Promise?”
“Mircea!” I laughed in spite of myself. “I want a bath before we eat!”
His eyes, glinting in the discreet light of the suite, met mine. “If you’ll indulge me.”
“I’m not bathing with you,” I told him firmly. I’d never get any dinner that way.
“Of course not,” he said, in pretend shock.
He let a single finger trace down my cheek to my jaw, to my neck, to my . . . necklace? “Is your ghost in residence?”
“No.” I hadn’t felt the need for a chaperone. “Why?”
“Because I have a recurring fantasy of you dining with me wearing this.” That warm finger slowly traced the outline of the baroque monstrosity. “And only this.”
I made a small sound and closed my eyes.
Despite appearances, I was trying, I was really, really trying, to have a relationship with Mircea, not just to jump his bones every time we had five minutes alone together. And I’d been doing pretty well lately, mainly because he’d been in New York and I’d been in Vegas and my plans always sounded a lot more doable when he wasn’t pressed up against me and—
“Stop that,” I told him, as he rotated his hips sinuously, because the damn man had no shame at all.
“Then give me an answer,” he said, laughter in his voice.
I looked up, intending to say no, but those dark eyes had an unmistakable glint of challenge sparkling in their depths. As if he thought I wouldn’t do it. As if he was sure I wouldn’t do it. Because I wasn’t a vampire, wasn’t adventurous like . . . certain other people. Who probably didn’t have a problem sashaying around covered in nothing but that long, silky black hair, those almond-shaped, dark eyes peeking coyly back over her dainty shoulder as she—
But it wasn’t that easy for me. Not because I had a problem indulging him, although nudity wasn’t my favorite thing. But because I was human. And Mircea, like a lot of vampires, had the bad habit of assuming that whatever he wanted from a human, he would get.
It didn’t help that he was usually right.
And centuries of that sort of thing had messed with his head, to the point that he rarely saw the need for debate with said human, or compromise or negotiation or any of the sort of things he would do with one of his own kind. He’d claimed me; therefore I was his. End of discussion, had there been a discussion, which there hadn’t been because I was human and some days, most days, that attitude just really made me want to tear my hair out.
So here I was, trying to see if a relationship would maybe, possibly, in some sort of way work despite the fact that the mages were absolutely going to hate it and the Weres weren’t going to love it and I was also going to take flak from the vampires after they realized that “relationship” didn’t mean “ownership” in my vocabulary, and what was Mircea doing?
Acting like there was nothing to discuss, of course.
Only there was. There so very definitely was, like five hundred years of history I knew next to nothing about. Like the fact that almost all I did know was that he was fiercely loyal to his family, had a horrible sense of humor, and when he walked into a room, he made my breath catch.
And, yeah, that was definitely something, but was it enough to base a lifetime on? I didn’t know yet. All I did know was that if I kept giving in, kept doing what he wanted, kept acting like we were already together and the decision had been made . . . then pretty soon, it would be.
And I didn’t know yet if it was one I could live with.
I looked up to find him regarding me with exasperated eyes. “Do you really have to think so hard about this?”
“It’s . . . complicated,” I said fretfully.
“No, it really isn’t.”
“Yes, it is! It really, really is, and you know it is and—”
He stopped me with a hand on either side of my face. “When are we?”
I frowned. And my power sluggishly called up the date: “Nineteen sixty-nine.”
“And that means you haven’t been born yet, doesn’t it?”
“We haven’t met yet—am I right?”
“Well, not unless you count that time in—”
“No. Not . . . technically. But I don’t get what you’re—”
“I’m saying that nothing that happens, or doesn’t happen, tonight will have any bearing on our relationship once we return. No implications. No consequences. Think of this as . . . a night out of time.”
“A night out of time?” I repeated doubtfully, because I didn’t get those. Time caused me problems; it didn’t solve them. Not even for one night.
His forehead came to rest against mine. “A night out of time.”
I licked my lips and thought it over. “The servers will see.”
“And if I arrange it so they won’t?”
I looked up at him, and it was a mistake, because he was grinning that little-boy grin, the one he never showed in public because it would completely trash his image as big, bad Vampire Senate member. But I got to see it every once in a while. And it never failed to be devastating.
“Just dinner,” I heard myself say, before I could bite my tongue.
“Just dinner,” he agreed softly, stroking the lines of my cheekbones with his thumbs.
And then he let me go.
The bathroom of the suite turned out to be as impressive as the rest. Golden marble with thin veins of burnt umber running through it covered everything from the floors to the ceiling to the double sinks to the spa-like tub, all polished to a high gloss. There was a plush dark orange rug, matching towels, and a basket of expensive toiletries all done up in cellophane like the Easter bunny had just delivered it.
And there were mirrors, lots and lots of mirrors.
Almost every surface that wasn’t covered in marble had one, and all of them informed me that I looked like hell. My makeup was long gone, my hair was a freaking disaster, and my body was smeared with mud and various other substances I didn’t want to think too hard about. I sighed and peeled the laddered foot of what had been an expensive pair of stockings off my filthy feet. My polish was chipped and my toes . . . well, they looked like you’d expect after being dragged across cobblestones.
I contemplated my shredded toes and sighed. One day, one fine, fine day, I was going to be in peril in a damn pair of sneakers. Of course, I’d settle for not being in peril at all.
Not being in peril at all would be good.
I grabbed a couple of sinfully plush towels and got my beat-up, grimy self into the nice, clean shower. I didn’t even try for a bath, because I’d immediately turn the water black. Kind of like the evening’s entertainment had done to me.
After I got clean enough to be fairly sure that whatever was left wasn’t dirt, I took stock. I had a swelling bruise on my ankle, another on my hip and a third, long and horizontal and rapidly darkening, on my lower stomach, probably where I’d hit down on the damn carriage ride from hell. Add that to the bruises I was still carrying from the bathtub incident and, oh yeah, I looked sexy.
Not that I wasn’t happy to be alive in any shape. I just didn’t understand why I was. Particularly not if Mircea’s theory was correct about what we’d been fighting.
It had seemed crazy when he said it, because demigods weren’t exactly thick on the ground. The gods, or the creatures calling themselves that, had been banished a long time from Earth, and most of their by-blows had either gone with them or been rounded up by the Circle. And because I couldn’t imagine what a bunch of half gods could want with my mother.
But now that I had a chance to think, it did explain a lot. Like how resilient the mages had been, not bothering with shields but bouncing back from blows that should have left them a smear on the concrete without them. And why they’d seemed so damn strong.
Pritkin had once told me that war mages never used a hundred percent of their power for attack. In battle, the standard ratio was seventy-thirty, meaning that seventy percent of a mage’s power went to defense—to the shields and wards needed to keep him or her alive—with maybe thirty percent leftover for offensive stuff. Particularly powerful magic users could hedge on that a bit, maybe taking the total needed for defense down to sixty-five or even sixty percent, because their excess power made up for it. But nobody went completely unprotected. If they did, the first spell to so much as nick them might take them out of the fight—permanently.
Pritkin himself regularly used only about a quarter of his power for defense, although he didn’t admit as much to the Circle. But what if someone could shrug off being trampled under horses or slung against buildings or dragged half the length of a street, despite not using shields? Being able to put everything toward attack would make even a low-level mage look pretty damn impressive. And if he or she was already extra-strong to begin with . . .
Well, that mage might look something like what I’d just seen. But as reasonable as that sounded, it couldn’t be right. Because my mother couldn’t have fought off four demigods and a crazy-ass kidnapper all by herself.
It seemed ridiculous. But, then, if the answer was no, why was I still here? If the mages had killed her or the kidnapper had carted her off, or anything had happened to keep her from meeting my infamous father, then I should have vanished. And other than for the rather large amount of skin I’d left in the road, I hadn’t.
And that was . . . well, that was kind of an epiphany. The whole damn night had been, really. Because I’d never seen the Pythian power used like that. In fact, I’d rarely seen it used at all, which was one of the reasons I’d been having so much trouble mastering it.
Jonas did his best to help me, but he wasn’t a Pythia. He’d overheard some of the stuff Agnes had said when training her heirs, and he’d seen a lot of what she could do. But trying to harness time with his help had been like building a car from a set of oral instructions when you’ve never seen one and the guy giving them has only a vague idea of what one is supposed look like.
It had been the blind leading the blind all month.
It had gotten frustrating enough that I’d actually thought of going to the Pythian Court for help. But I hadn’t, and not just because one of their number had already tried to kill me. They probably weren’t all homicidal maniacs, but I doubted I was real popular with a group who had zero chance of advancement as long as I lived.
Which might explain why I hadn’t heard from them all month. Not a “congrats,” however insincere; not a “fuck you”; not a peep of any kind. I didn’t know what that meant, but it was more than a little ominous. And Jonas sure as hell hadn’t suggested stopping by for a chat.
So I’d been on my own.
And being on my own sucked ass.
But then had come tonight. And . . . damn.
Somehow, I’d gotten into the habit of thinking about my power as defensive—shifting to get out of a tight spot, throwing time bubbles to ward off attackers, stopping time to give me a chance to run like hell. Maybe because that was mostly how I’d been using it. But my mother . . . she hadn’t been real big on defense. She’d been real big on kicking some demigod butt.
The war mages might have been running a full-on offensive, but she’d been right there with them. She’d sent them screaming in terror. She’d imprisoned one like a bug under glass. She’d run one the hell down.
Mom, I realized in shock, had been kind of a badass.
And so was the Pythian power in the hands of somebody who actually knew how to use it. And while I didn’t realistically think I’d ever be anywhere near that good . . . still. It gave me a lot to think about.
Only this wasn’t the place, because I was going all pruney. I hadn’t known a shower could do that, but this one was hard and hot and enthusiastic, to the point that my fingers and what was left of my toes were wrinkling up. I got out of the shower, dried my hair, and swiped a hand over the nearest mirror.
It showed me what I’d expected: a thin, pale girl with scraggly blond hair, dark circles under her eyes and a bruise in her hairline. I leaned in, pulling my hair back, searching my own face. I had a lot more to go on now than a grainy photo taken at a distance. I’d stared her right in the face from barely a foot away. Yet try as I might, I couldn’t see even a distant echo in me.
My eyes were blue, but they were just blue. My hair was reddish, sort of, in the right light, but nothing like that beautiful bronze color. And my face was . . . just a face.
It looked back at me now, too-round cheekbones, a toostubborn chin and a scattering of unfashionable freckles over a tip-tilted nose. It wasn’t a bad face, as faces go, but it wasn’t going to be launching a thousand ships anytime soon. I stood there, searching it anyway, desperate to find some trace of that ethereal beauty.... And it suddenly hit me. If I hadn’t taken after my mother, then I must look like—
The dark mage who had wooed her away from the court, from her rightful place in the succession, from everything she’d ever known. Agnes had told me once that my mother had been a natural with the power, the best she’d ever seen, and I’d had plenty of proof of that tonight. And yet she’d left it all behind for an evil man, a onetime member of the notorious Black Circle, who looked like . . . me?
I leaned closer. Was this the face that had commanded an army of ghosts to spy on the Silver Circle, who had almost seized control of the Black and who had somehow seduced the virgin heir to the powerful Pythian throne? My reflection didn’t answer; it just dripped at me, looking vaguely like a drowned Kewpie doll.
I scrunched up my face and tried to look menacing.
Now I looked like a Kewpie doll with gas.
I sighed. Maybe I’d taken after some distant relative or something. I might never know, since I didn’t have even a grainy image of my father. Not that I wanted one, at least not as a keepsake, but it would have been nice to know what he’d looked like.
It would also be nice to get dressed before the rest of the hot air leaked out of the bathroom. My clothes had been left in the limo, and, frankly, they’d been no big loss. But there were some plush terry cloth robes on a rack beside the door, and I had an arm in one before I remembered.
Oh, dear God.
Had I really just agreed to walk out there naked?
I just stood there for a minute, clutching the robe and staring blankly at the mirror, which was mercifully fogging back up. I told myself that it didn’t matter, that I’d just been naked in the freaking limo, for God’s sake, flashing who knew how many people on the way here. But it had been dark and I’d been half-crazy with relief and Mircea . . . Well, Mircea could make a girl forget her own name when he put a little effort into it. But that was a lot different from walking out there cold and naked and bruised and pruney and—
Shit. How did I get myself into these things?
I bit my lip and stared at the door. I didn’t have to do it. Mircea might be disappointed, but he’d live, and I could say—
What? That I was a freaking coward? That I knew I wouldn’t live up to the standards of his—very many—other women? That most of them had been among the world’s great beauties, and here I was, with cracked toenail polish and rat’s-nest hair and no makeup and a body that looked like it had been used as a punching bag?
I ran a comb through my hair while I stood there debating it. Okay, okay. There was no denying that I didn’t look my best. But honestly, even polished to a high gloss, I wasn’t going to compete in the looks department with a porcelain doll like Ming-de. Or the Grace Kelly look-alike I’d seen with Mircea at the theater once. Or the sloe-eyed countess who had been willing to fight a duel over him. Or the athletic-looking brunette with the big boobs that he’d kept a freaking photo album of until it was destroyed in an accident, and wasn’t that just too goddamned bad?
Yeah. So. I had what I had, and it might be a little beat-up, but it was pretty much the package. And it had been really dark in the limo, but that wouldn’t bother a vampire’s sight, and he hadn’t seemed exactly put off then.
And, hey, at least I was clean now.
I took off the robe and looked at the door again. I felt cold. And really, really naked. Like, super-ultranaked. Which was stupid, because naked was naked and goddamn it! Just do it already.
I grasped the doorknob, feeling nervous and jittery and silly and kind of turned on and—
I took my hand off again.
How often do you get a free pass? the less cowardly part of my brain demanded. I didn’t answer, because talking to yourself is a little too close to the scary side of crazy, and I was teetering on the brink as it was. But I knew the answer anyway. If I didn’t do this, if I let myself chicken out, I knew damned well I’d regret it. Maybe not now, but soon, and I had enough regrets. Tonight I wanted to live.
I put my hand back on the knob. It’s like pulling off a Band-Aid, I told myself sternly. Just do it fast and the hard part will be over. Before I could talk myself out of it again, I took a deep breath, grabbed the doorknob and flung it open.
And burst out into a room full of vamps.
The fat little manager was standing over by the fireplace, along with Mircea and a couple of young guys dressed like waiters. Another waiter type was by the door, wheeling out a room service cart, but of course he turned to see what the commotion was about. And I didn’t doubt that he got a good view. The room was dim, lit mainly by a couple of lowburning lamps in the corners and the bright white light flooding in behind me.
Spotlighting me like freaking Gypsy Rose Lee.
For a moment, I stared at them and they stared at me and it was like Agnes’s party all over again, after it had been frozen in time. Nothing moved except the flames somebody had stoked in the fireplace. And then I gave a shriek and the paralysis broke.
One of the guys jumped and one of them grinned and Mircea held out a hand, and then I don’t know what happened because I ran back into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Oh, God, oh, God, oh God.
Tonight sucked. Tonight sucked so damn hard I just didn’t even know—
Someone rapped on the door.
I could feel it in my shoulder blades, because I had my back to the damn thing and I wasn’t moving. I might never move again. “Dulceață?”
“Dulceață? Are you all right?”
I didn’t say anything, because he knew damn well I was all right. He could hear me breathing through the door. This close, he could probably feel the heat from my flaming cheeks, which a glance in the mirror informed me were bright, lobster red. As was my neck and a good bit of my chest, all of which was perfectly visible, and oh, God.
“I’m fine,” I choked out, hoping he’d just go away. If there was some kind of disaster scale for dates, this one had just hit ten. Or maybe twenty. Or maybe some number heretofore unknown in the history of dating, and I really didn’t think I could take a conversation on top of—
I heard a door close outside, with a discreet snick. “They’ve gone, dulceață,” Mircea said, his voice sounding a little funny.
Somewhere in all that, I had slid down to my haunches, with my arms over my head, hoping the floor might be merciful and swallow me up. But that tone got me back on my feet. I grabbed one of the damn robes and jerked it on, and then stuck my head out the door.
“Are you laughing at me?” I demanded incredulously.
“No,” he said, and pulled me against his chest.
It was vibrating.
“You are laughing at me, you complete and total—”
“I’m not,” he said, but he had a hand on the back of my head and he wouldn’t let me look at his face.
“This was your fault!”
“Don’t call me that!” I was feeling anything but sweet at the moment. In fact, if I could have gotten an arm free, I’d have probably hit him. But his had gone around me and they were holding me tight, although at least I could move my head now. I looked up.
His face was absolutely and suspiciously sober, but his eyes were dancing.
“You’re a bastard,” I said with feeling.
“I assure you, my parents were properly wed. And I was merely going to say that you’re right.”
“I know I’m right!” I blinked. “What?”
“I should have warned you that they were here, but I did not expect you to be quite so . . . bold.”
And no, he probably hadn’t, I realized. He’d probably expected me to come out in a robe or a towel, or at least to poke my head around the door first. Not to storm out like the bathroom was on fire. Or like a really, really inept stripper.
I winced and let my head fall forward. “That’s me,” I told him miserably. “I’m bold.”
“To a frightening degree at times,” he murmured, combing his fingers through my wet curls.
“I don’t try to be.”
We just stood there a while, and it felt really good. He was freshly washed, with his dark hair still damp and combed back from his face, and he was wearing a robe like mine. I guessed that either the suite had a second bathroom or, considering how the hotel manager had been pretty much genuflecting, they’d opened another room for him. Or possibly the entire floor.
Anyway, this was better. This was the best part of the date so far.
Not that that was saying much.
“You can’t stay in the bathroom all night.”
“It’s going to get cold.”
“And you’ll miss dinner.”
I looked up, feeling a slight bit of hope creeping in past the utter mortification. “Dinner?”
“Dinner,” he said, and pulled me out the door.
We reentered the living room and I figured out what everyone had been doing over by the fireplace. Flames danced on a row of silver chafing dishes, which had been strung out along the hearth to keep them warm. In front of them was a picnic area, if picnics featured silk cushions, bone china, linen so white it gleamed and napkins tortured into little birds of paradise. There was a single rose in a crystal vase that reflected the firelight. It was lovely.
It was also less interesting than the contents of those dishes, which smelled heavenly. My stomach growled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since lunch and it had been a busy night. I knelt in front of the fire and picked up the first lid, happy and hopeful and starving and—
“What’s this?” I asked, perplexed.
Mircea looked over my shoulder. “Pan-seared foie gras with cherries and foie gras caramel.”
I put the lid back. Duck liver had never done a lot for me, no matter what they cooked it with. “And this?” I was staring into the second offering.
“Poireaux vinaigrette aux grains de caviar.”
I did a quick translation. “Leeks and fish eggs in vinegar?”
He grinned. “It sounds better in French.”
Yeah, but did it taste better? Door number three had crab and artichokes in Pernod, which would have been fine, except that I hated two out of the three. Door number four offered up more artichokes—must have been a sale—with gnocchi and herbed cheese. Door number five had more foie gras, this time stuffed into a duck breast. Door number six had—
“What is this?” I looked up at Mircea hopefully, because the stew had potatoes and onions and some kind of meat in a rich sauce and smelled awesome.
“Hossenfeffer. It’s one of the house specialties.”
“Hossenfeffer?” It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t—
I looked up at him tragically.
“Is there a problem?” Mircea asked carefully.
“I used to have a pet rabbit,” I said, seeing Honeybun’s black eyes staring at me accusingly.
Mircea bit his lip. “This date isn’t going so well, is it?” he asked, half-amused, half-despairing. I recognized the look because I felt pretty much the same way.
“It’s . . . well . . . you know,” I said, and then realized I didn’t have anything else to say, so I shut up.
My stomach growled.
We regarded the last little dish in forlorn hope.
“You look,” I told him. I probably wouldn’t know what the hell it was anyway.
He leaned over and removed the lid, and some really wonderful smells steamed out. But I wasn’t going to get excited, not this time, because it was probably Bambi in shallots or Nemo with fennel or—
“It’s some kind of pork,” he told me.
That didn’t sound so bad. But then, neither had the others until I did a little translating. I moved closer and peered inside. And saw—
“It’s ribs and fries,” I said, in something approaching awe.
“Amish roasted pork loin with potatoes and apple-baked cabbage,” he said, reading off a little menu card I hadn’t noticed before.
“It’s ribs and fries,” I said, so happy I could have cried.
Mircea slanted me a glance. “It does look delicious. I believe I may—”
“Don’t even think about it.” I grabbed the dish and a plate and chowed down, while he watched with illconcealed amusement. He started on the rabbit. I tried not to notice.
The ribs were succulent and falling-off-the-bone tender, the apple-baked cabbage was a little sauerkraut in a hollowed-out apple that I pushed aside as the garnish it was, and the fries were the English kind, thick-cut wedges of golden potato that went great with fish but turned out to be pretty good with pork, too. And so was the wine, some Riesling or other that was crisp and fresh and tart on my tongue, and oh yeah . . .
This was more like it.
Mircea laughed, and I looked up. “What?”
“It’s merely . . . good to see someone enjoying their meal.”
“Bet you wish you hadn’t had that gourmet stuff now.”
Gleaming dark eyes regarded me over his wineglass. “You didn’t give me a choice. And I’m surprised you don’t care for that ‘gourmet stuff.’ I recall Antonio having quite a good chef.”
Yeah, till he ate him, I didn’t say, because we were having a nice dinner. “How did you end up changing that bastard anyway?” I asked instead. “I always wondered. I mean, he was just a chicken farmer, right?”
Mircea shook his head. “Not when I met him. He had inherited the farm, such as it was, when his father died, and used the money from its sale to move to Florence. There he became . . . I suppose you would call him the strongman for a small money-lending operation.”
“A thug, in other words.”
“As you say. But a thug with ambition. He eventually gained control of the business—”
“—and under his hand, it grew considerably in size. By the time I met him, he was a man of some means.”
“That doesn’t explain why you changed him.”
“You might say that we had . . . complementary problems,” he said, refilling his glass with the red wine he preferred. He tilted the bottle at me.
I shook my head. “I’ll stay with this one. And what kind of problems?”
“In Tony’s case, it was the plague. The Black Death cut a swath through Italy every few decades in those days, and at the time it was raging in Florence. There was no cure; the only way to combat it was to flee. And Antonio tried, moving himself and his household to the country as soon as he heard.”
“But he got it anyway?”
“No, but several of his servants did and he was afraid he would be next. He therefore moved again—and again and again. But everywhere he went, it was already there or it broke out shortly afterward. He told me it was as if the plague was following him.”
I nodded. That sounded like Tony. He was paranoid even when he didn’t have a reason.
“He finally ended up in Venice, hoping to get a ship to somewhere without the disease. But he was told by the sailors he talked to that it was everywhere that year.”
“And he started freaking out.”
Mircea smiled. “To put it mildly. He was in a taverna, drowning his sorrows, when I met him. At the time, I was in dire straits myself—financially speaking. I had left my home with little some years before and had . . . someone with me for whom I was responsible. I needed money for living expenses, and also to allow me to avoid a certain first-level master who had decided to add me to her family—by force if necessary. She had tracked me to Venice, and I had narrowly avoided her twice in as many days. I wanted to get away; Antonio wanted to avoid the plague. We struck a deal.”
“He gave you money and you Changed him,” I guessed. “Because vamps can’t get the disease.”
“Yes.” Mircea swirled his wine around. “He was the first child I ever made. It came as . . . quite a shock . . . when he threw in his lot with our enemies.”
“You thought him better than that?” I asked incredulously.
Mircea snorted. “I thought him smarter than that. I also thought it out of character.”
“Because it was a gamble.”
He nodded. “And Antonio doesn’t. Not with his neck, at any rate.”
I’d thought as much myself, more than once. Tony only liked to gamble when it was a sure thing. It made me wonder what he knew that we didn’t.
Mircea finished his meal and then lay on his side, a hand under his head and the other toying with his wineglass. “Why the sudden interest?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking about my parents and how Tony is probably the only person who could tell me much about them.”
“What about the venerable mage Marsden? He must know something about the former Pythian heir. I would be surprised if he hadn’t met her on occasion.”
“He did. But all he could tell me was that she was a charming young woman. As far as facts go, all I got was the standard bio stuff they’d give to a newspaper or something. Born Elizabeth O’Donnell, adopted by the Pythian Court at age fourteen, named the heir at age thirty-three. Ran away with Ragnar, aka Roger Palmer, my disreputable father, for reasons unknown, at age thirty-four. Died five years later in a car bomb set by Tony the Bastard. The End.”
“That is . . . somewhat terse,” Mircea agreed. “Surprisingly so, considering the Circle’s intelligence network.”
I shot him a look. “Has yours done any better?”
He grinned. “Now, why would we be checking on your mother?”
“Because you check on everyone?”
“It’s Kit, you know,” he told me mournfully, talking about the Senate’s chief spy. “I can’t do a thing with him.”
I ignored that for the bullshit it was. “What did you find?”
“Little more than that, I’m afraid,” he admitted. “Your mother was extremely . . . elusive. My people even had difficulty finding a venue for tonight. She rarely went out, and when she did, it was usually to small dinner parties of ten or twelve people, which wouldn’t have allowed you to see without being seen.”
“What about her background?”
“She was adopted by the Pythian Court from a school in Des Moines, one of those for magical orphans run by the Circle.”
I nodded; Jonas had said the same. And it wasn’t too surprising. The Circle ran a bunch of those schools, and not just for kids with no parents. They also locked up—excuse me, benevolently housed—kids who had families but who also had talents of which they disapproved—necromancers, firestarters, jinxes, telekenetics, etc. I assumed the orphans got out at age eighteen or whatever; the others . . . sometimes they never did.
It was something I was working to change, and not just because it was appallingly unfair to be locked up simply for the crime of being born. But also because if I hadn’t ended up at Tony’s, I might have been in one of those pseudoprisons myself. Nobody was afraid of clairvoyants, most of whom were assumed to be frauds, anyway. But the talent I’d inherited from my father was another story.
Having ghost servants who hung around, feeding off you and occasionally doing an errand or two in return, was seen as Highly Suspicious Behavior. Maybe because my father had refined it to an art form. According to rumors, he’d had his own ghost army, which he’d used in an attempt to seize control of the notorious Black Circle. The coup hadn’t worked and he’d ended up on the run, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d been powerful enough to try. And power like that would have gotten me put away real quick.
But my mother hadn’t had it. Which made me wonder what she’d been in for. “What was she in for?” I asked Mircea, who was savaging some poor bunny, apparently with relish.
He swallowed. “Nothing. Her records merely said that she was dropped off as an infant by person or persons unknown, with a note giving her name and birth date. The administrators assumed that a teenage mother had wanted to get rid of an embarrassing responsibility.”
“And the name?”
“There were no magical families by the name of O’Donnell in the area at that time. There were several in other parts of the country, but Kit found none who fit the requisite profile. He thinks the mother might have given the child the father’s last name, and that the father might have been human.”
I didn’t have to ask why that was a problem. Humans outbred the magical community by something like a thousand to one. Even assuming O’Donnell wasn’t a wholly made-up name to begin with, sorting through the number of possible human fathers would be—
Well, it wasn’t likely to happen. Not to satisfy my curiosity, anyway.
“Okay,” I said, moving on. “So the court finds her, probably because they keep a lookout for particularly strong clairvoyants.”
Mircea nodded and stole a fry.
“And then she joins the Pythian Court. And then the record scratches, at least according to Jonas.”
“And according to Kit. The Pythian Court is a separate, self-governed entity and does not have to vet its members through the Circle—or anyone else. The court tells us what it wants, when it wants, and has traditionally been . . . less than forthcoming.” Mircea shot me a suspiciously innocent look. “I think Kit is waiting impatiently for your accession, when he will finally have a conduit to all that lovely information.”
I snorted. Yeah. He could keep on waiting. I wasn’t his freaking all-access pass.
Mircea smiled. “This should prove . . . entertaining.”
“Something like that.” I drank wine. “So, anyway, Jonas dated Agnes, or whatever you want to call it, for thirty years, yet he never got the story about what happened with my mother. He said she became angry whenever he brought it up, so he mostly didn’t. Which means the only thing I have to go on is what happened afterward.”
“When she and your father went to live with Antonio.”
“And that’s what I don’t get.” I said, swirling a rib around in the gooey sauce. “My father was some big-time dark mage, right? So how does someone like that end up working for a rat like Tony?”
He pursed his lips. “It wasn’t a bad choice. Many of the mages who work for us have needed to disappear for one reason or another. Admittedly, most of them are running from the Silver Circle, not the Black, but the same rule applies: if someone is looking for you in one world, go to another. And the Circle often forgets that our world exists.” He smiled a little ferally. “Or it would like to.”
“But Tony? He couldn’t have done better than that?”
“With his abilities, doubtless. But you forget, dulceață, a more prominent court would also have been more risky, as it might have come under scrutiny by one or both of the circles. Whereas Antonio . . .”
“Wasn’t worth their time.”
One muscular shoulder rose in a shrug. “He was to the local branch, but I doubt he so much as registered at the national level. It was why I left you with him, if you recall.”
I nodded. After Mircea had found out about my existence, he’d considered bringing me to his court. But as a senator, he was watched constantly, and he’d been afraid that the Circle might get curious about me. And since I was a magic worker, not a vampire, he could have been forced to hand me over.
“Okay, I understand that,” I said, chewing thoughtfully. “My parents wanted to fly under the radar, so they hid out with a loser nobody cared about. I just don’t understand why they chose him.”
“Ah, now, that I can answer.”
It was so unexpected that it took me a moment to react. I’d hit so many brick walls trying to find out something about my parents, that I almost expected it now. “You can?”
“Yes. Well,” Mircea hedged. “I can tell you what Antonio told me. He said that he and your father had had business dealings for some years before Roger asked him for refuge.”
“What kind of business dealings?”
“You know that Antonio remained in the money-lending business?”
“He was a loan shark,” I corrected. Among a lot of other things. If he could make a buck off it, Tony had wanted in.
“As you say. In any case, many of his clients found that they could not repay their debts, and he was ruthless about confiscating whatever had been put up for collateral.”
“Yeah. We always had stuff sitting around,” I said, remembering. “Cars, boats—even a light airplane once. And then there was all the junk from the houses. I got in trouble for finger-painting on a Chippendale sideboard once, but how did I know? It was just another scarred, old table.”
“But antiques—even finger-painted ones—are easy to move,” Mircea pointed out. “That wasn’t true of magical devices, particularly unstable ones. They had to be disposed of properly, and such disposal is not cheap.”
I nodded. “You have to call in a Remainder.” They’d occasionally come to the farmhouse, men in stained coveralls who carted away boxes of suspicious charms, amulets and potions before they blew up in anyone’s face.
“And you know how fond Antonio was of spending money,” Mircea said. “But he couldn’t leave the items in place and risk having them burn down his investments, and he couldn’t abandon them somewhere without possibly coming to the attention of the Circle, which monitors that sort of thing. For a long time, he had to pay up.”
“I don’t see what this has to do with my father.”
“Antonio told me that Roger contacted him offering to dispose of any such volatile devices for free.”
I frowned. “For free? But isn’t that work kind of . . . risky?”
“Very. One of my cooks likes to tell the story of the time he bought a growth charm to use on his kitchen garden. But he didn’t monitor it properly, and it went past the expiration date. Shortly thereafter, he woke up to a garden of giants—squash as long as canoes, watermelons the size of small cars, tomatoes as large as beach balls—all of which had burst because of too-rapid growth. He said the mess was . . . astonishing.”
“He’s just lucky he didn’t have it in his room,” I said, getting a vision of a head swollen to the size of a beach ball.
“Indeed. Remainders earn their money.”
“Yet my father offered the service for free. Didn’t that make anyone suspicious?”
“Yes. But Antonio was not the type to turn down a good deal. After your father came to work for him, he developed the theory that he was using the leftover magic to feed his ghosts.”
I shook my head. “Ghosts require human energy. Some old charm wouldn’t do them any more good than it would you or me.” Less, really. It wasn’t like they needed to grow hair or lose weight or whiten their teeth.
“Then it remains a mystery, I’m afraid.”
Like everything else about my parents. I sighed and contemplated my almost-empty plate. I couldn’t possibly eat another thing. Except maybe that one last rib . . .
“You met him, didn’t you?” I asked, slathering on the sauce.
Mircea nodded. “Antonio sent him to court a few times as his representative.” His lips quirked. “I think because his manners were somewhat more refined than those of most of Antonio’s stable.”
“You mean he didn’t drink straight out of the bottle?”
“Or use the tablecloth for a napkin. Or lick the butter knife. Or drink from the finger bowl, and then complain that the tea tasted just like hot water.”
I blinked. “Who did that?”
“Ah.” I grinned, thinking of Tony’s second, a seven-foot hunk of muscle who was great with the guns and the knives and the things that went boom. Not so much with the dainty table manners. “What was my father like?”
Mircea thought about it for a moment. “Somewhat reserved, as might have been expected. But articulate, wellread, even amusing at times. I tried to steal him away from Antonio, but he said he liked the good air in New Jersey!”
I nodded. Tony had business interests in Jersey. My father must have worked in some of them. “He was probably afraid you’d do a background check.”
“Probably. I have employed mages on a number of occasions who were at odds with the Silver Circle, whose punishments are often out of proportion to the crime. But the Black . . . no. I do not deal with them.”
I drank wine and didn’t comment. I didn’t want to think about what my father might have done as a member of the world’s most organized bunch of evil mages. I didn’t know why I was curious about the damn man at all. Maybe just because, while I knew a little about my mother, he was almost a total blank.
For years, all I’d known was that he’d been Tony’s “favorite human” until he refused to hand me over. Tony had been so incensed by this “betrayal,” as he saw it, that killing him hadn’t been enough. He’d had a mage construct a trap for my father’s soul, capturing it at the point of death. Tony had used it for years afterward as a paperweight—and as a subtle reminder to anyone else who thought about crossing him.
But as far as memories went, I had almost nothing—just the vague impression of a pair of strong arms tossing me into the air as a child. I couldn’t even picture him in my head. “What did he look like?” I asked, pushing a fry around because I was too stuffed to do anything else with it.
“It is odd, now that you mention it,” Mircea said.
“He was slightly swarthy, handsome enough, with dark hair and eyes.”
“Why is that odd?”
He shrugged. “Merely that, having seen your mother, I would have expected him to have been a blond.”
I gave up pretending to eat a few minutes later. There was a cart with dessert—chocolate hazelnut sponge cake, crème brûlée and pavlova with raspberries and kiwi. But by the time I finished the ribs and the fries and most of a bottle of wine, I couldn’t walk that far. I kind of doubted I could walk at all. I flopped onto my back and stared at the ceiling, lost in a food haze.
It was glorious.
Mircea leaned over to refill my wineglass, and a section of his bare chest showed under the robe, along with a hint of a dusky nipple. It’s a good thing I’m too stuffed to move, I thought hazily. I would so have jumped that.
He laughed, and I looked up and met amused, dark eyes. “What?”
He started to say something and then stopped himself. “You have sauce everywhere,” he said instead.
“Of course I do. I had ribs.”
“And apparently enjoyed them.”
I sighed. “They were really, really good.”
He reached over, picked up my hand. And before I could ask what he was doing, a pink tongue flicked out and—
And he licked my fingers clean.
“You’re right,” he told me. “It’s delicious.”
“Don’t do that,” I said, as he nipped the mound below my thumb.
“Because it feels too good.”
Mircea just smiled. And then he did it again.
The firelight gleamed on dark hair and wine-reddened lips. The robe had come apart some more, showing off most of a hard chest and a thigh thick with muscle. And I was tired of fighting.
I tugged him over.
His bent his head and I raised mine. A warm sigh caressed my face for a moment before our lips met. I made a soft sound and pulled him closer.
He kissed me slowly, leisurely, like a man who knows he has all night and intends to use it. It felt . . . strange. My life wasn’t about slow these days. It was all hurry, hurry, hurry and go, go, go, constantly full speed ahead because something was always about to go fantastically wrong.
But slow could be nice.
Slow could be very nice, I decided, as his tongue slid over mine, liquid and warm, a patient, gentle seduction that matched the lingering caress of his hands. His hair fell around my face, gleaming with a few strands of red where the firelight shone through it. My fingers ran though the thick mass—like silk, just like silk—and down the long line of his back.
I sighed, tension I hadn’t even known I had leaving my body.
“How is the date going?” he asked, nuzzling my neck.
“It’s . . . trending up.”
He laughed and slid a knee between my legs.
“You should go around like that all the time,” I told him sincerely, sliding my hands up his chest. God, he felt good. Warm, sleek skin over hard, hard muscle, nipples already peaked under my hands. I let my mouth close over one, my tongue circling it gently, and he made a sound of appreciation deep in his chest.
“I might shock a few people.”
“And make a lot more very happy. Of course, then I might have to beat the women off you with a stick.” I kissed my way over to the other nipple, which was looking sad and unattended and not half so rosy. “But, then, according to Marco, I may have to do that anyway.”
“Marco talks too much.”
“Marco doesn’t talk enough. I couldn’t get anything out of him about my competition.”
“You don’t have competition.”
I rolled us over for better access, and rested my chin on the hard surface of his chest. “You’re telling me you don’t have any mistresses?”
“Not at the present.”
“That was evidently not the right answer,” he said ruefully.
I kissed my way down his body, consciously keeping my nails out of his skin. It was a bit of a struggle. “How many have there been? And don’t tell me you forget,” I added, as he got that look on his face. The one that said he was wondering how big of a lie he could get away with.
“I haven’t forgotten a single one, I assure you,” he said, and then he winced.
And, okay, my nails might have sunk in just a little there.
“So you’re not going to give me a number.”
He suddenly rolled me onto my back again and nuzzled my neck. “Numbers are meaningless. Particularly when they are in the past.”
“All of them?”
“All of them.”
“I never admitted Ming-de.”
“Hmm.” He’d never denied it, either. And then he cleverly got out of the argument by the underhanded trick of sitting back on his heels and starting to strip off the robe.
The white terry cloth had made his skin look darker than normal, a deep, rich caramel, but I didn’t miss it. Not with the fire painting intriguing shadows on a body that was already intriguing enough. It gilded his muscles, cast a very incongruous halo around that dark head and licked at the smug smile hovering about his lips.
He took longer undressing than strictly necessary, because he was a bastard and a tease and because he clearly did not have a problem with nudity. I kind of suspected that Mircea liked nudity. Of course, if I had a body like that, I probably would, too.
I must have said that last aloud, because he grinned as he crawled back over me. “If you had a body like mine, we would have a problem.”
“You don’t like men?” I asked, running my hands up hard-muscled arms.
“I like them well enough, just not in my bed,” he said, nibbling on my lower lip.
“Have you tried it?”
“I didn’t need to try it, dulceață,” he said, kissing his way downward. “I know what I like. I have always been very clear on that point.”
I was, too, and Mircea pretty much hit every button, with smooth lips and rough fingers and cool, cool hair that he deliberately dragged across my body as he worked his way down. The silken caress followed the warmer, more insistent one, making me crazy, making me writhe, lighting up nerves I hadn’t even known I had. Until I arched up—in pain, because his mouth had fastened over the livid bruise below my belly button.
“That hurts,” I protested, as he sucked at the already tortured flesh.
“Not for long.”
And sure enough, the size of the mark began to fade as I watched, the edges dissipating like a cloud in a windstorm, the color thinning and then breaking apart and then disappearing altogether, letting the clear, pale skin show through. I suddenly noticed that a lot of my other scrapes and scratches had vanished as well, soothed away by the healing ability that was one of Mircea’s gifts as a master.
“Doesn’t that take a lot of power?” I asked, amazed.
He smiled, licking the last of the bruise away. “I have it to burn tonight.”
“Because of those creatures.”
He nodded. “It pleases me that their blood should heal you, since they were the reason you require it in the first place.”
And, okay, yes. Healing had its place and it was nice of him to make the effort and I was suitably grateful not to be hobbling around like a ninety-year-old for the next week. But at the moment, I’d have been a lot more grateful if he would just move that talented mouth a few more inches south....
He must have read my mind. Because the next moment, rough hands slid up my inner thighs, silky hair cascaded over my stomach, and a warm, wet tongue went to work. Along with lips and teeth and God knew what else, but whatever was happening definitely wasn’t normal. Because it suddenly felt like there were maybe a few extra tongues down there, which my brain kept telling my body was clearly impossible, and my body told it to get bent, because it was busy arching and writhing and thrashing and screaming. And then it didn’t matter anyway, because the next instant my brain stuttered and short-circuited and all but blew out the top of my head.
Maybe I passed out or maybe I just lost a few minutes there. Either way, I came around to find him just barely stroking, too light to give any friction at all, too light to do more than tease. And I writhed anyway, every tiny movement sweet torture, shuddering down nerves still raw with pleasure.
He looked up at me teasingly. “How about now?”
It took me a moment to even realize what the hell he was talking about. “Oh . . . it’s fair . . . I guess,” I said, trying for joking, but mostly sounding breathless.
“Fair.” Dark eyes narrowed. “I’ll have to try a little harder, then, won’t I?”
I stared at him. I thought a little harder might just kill me.
And then I was sure it would, when the bastard moved on—to my thigh.
“What—what are you doing?” I gasped. I wanted him in me. I wanted him in me now.
“Healing you,” he said innocently, mouthing a completely inconsequential bruise.
“It can wait!”
“No, no. I like to be thorough.”
I noticed, I thought grimly, as he licked away a tiny, almost-not-there scratch on my knee. I started to reach for him, hot and aching and desperate. But then rough fingers slipped over the skin of my outer thighs, smoothed up to my buttocks, and then back down to tease the softness behind my knees.
And, God, he knew how I loved that.
He did it again and I sighed and gave up, because clearly Mircea was going to take his time whether I liked it or not. Although I couldn’t imagine what he thought he was doing—
Nibbling on my foot? It would have been more surprising, except that Mircea liked feet the way I liked long, beautiful hair. In a quasi-fetishy sort of way that we didn’t talk about, but that I indulged by doing a lot more pedicuretype things than I ever had before dating him.
Of course, he usually preferred the objects of his affection encased in silk stockings, the old-fashioned kind with the seam up the back, which he kept sending me in alarming quantities. Or useless wisps of leather, preferably beaded and be-crystalled to within an inch of their life. Or those weird satin mules with the marabou feathers that I drew the line at because I kept tripping over them.
Not cracked and bruised and torn and battered.
Not that that seemed to be slowing him down any.
He licked the underside of the big toe, curling his tongue all the way around it, and I made a small sound. Teasing, dark eyes regarded me from over pink skin and chipped polish. “How did you manage to get barbecue sauce on your toes?”
“I didn’t,” I said indignantly.
He just laughed. “You taste good.”
I would have answered, but he’d started mouthing the mound below the toes and I forgot how. I laid my head back instead and stared at the ceiling, trying not to go completely out of my mind as he took his sweet time. Halfway through, I decided that if I survived this, I was going to kill him. It wouldn’t be easy, him being a master vamp and all, but I would find a way.
He licked a long swath up my instep and I shivered helplessly. “Are you cold?” he asked innocently.
I broke off because he’d started sucking on my heel. Which should have been no big deal, but which, for some reason, felt positively sinful. Who the hell knew that a heel could be an erogenous zone?
“Anything can be, if you never get a chance to see it,” he murmured.
“People see feet all the time.”
“Today. But they even swathed the piano legs in Victoria’s London.”
“That makes no sense at all.”
“Humans rarely do,” he told me, and bit down.
I made a sound that was absolutely not a whimper, but might have been edging that way. Because the sensation had shot straight to an area that definitely was an erogenous zone. And that had already been pretty damn stimulated.
“Mircea, I swear to God—”
“All done,” he told me, releasing my foot. I sagged in relief.
And then he grabbed the other one.
And that was it.
I let the pink, silky-skinned foot he’d left me with come to rest on that taut chest. Mircea paused what he was doing to look at me narrowly, which I took as a good sign. Getting his attention hadn’t been so hard, after all. Let’s see if I could keep it.
I let my foot caress a flat little nipple, rubbing it to a peak between my toes, and then sliding down a ridged stomach to a hard thigh. Mircea hadn’t said anything, hadn’t even moved. I smiled.
My toes slid lower, across satiny skin and crisp hair to a velvety hardness that jumped eagerly under my touch. I felt a little clumsy—I wasn’t nearly as dexterous as with my hands—but my foot was surprisingly sensitive. I hadn’t expected to feel . . . quite so much. My own breath picked up a little as I went exploring, sliding my toes slowly up and down that rigid column. And I guess I must have gotten something right, because it swelled impossibly bigger under my touch.
“That isn’t . . .” He stopped and licked his lips. “That isn’t going to work.”
I laughed. “Yeah. That was convincing.”
Particularly since Mircea could put a halt to this at any time. Unlike a human male, a vampire has perfect blood control. He could have willed all that lovely hardness away, could have refused to play. But that would have been admitting defeat, something that his stiff-necked pride, the kind he liked to pretend wasn’t there, would never permit. So I gently fondled the superb length of him, so thick, so silky soft, so good against my skin.
“This isn’t going to get you anywhere, either,” I was informed tightly.
“That’s okay.” I ran a single digit over the smooth head, watching it blush like a girl in pleasure. “I’m pretty comfortable where I am.”
Mircea shuddered at the implicit threat, that I could keep this up all night. But I honestly thought I could. It was fascinating, what something so simple did to him, reversing who was in charge with amazing speed. I experimented, putting a foot on his chest and giving a little push. He fell back with almost no resistance at all, allowing me to crawl up his body.
“That wasn’t fair,” he said hoarsely.
“Like you didn’t use power on me earlier? And stay still.”
“Give me a reason,” he challenged, smoothing a hand over my curls.
I didn’t need to be asked twice. My lips covered the sensitive tip of him, and he suddenly looked like maybe he was having trouble focusing. Been there, I thought cynically, only it was usually me losing my train of thought around him, instead of vice versa. I decided I liked vice versa, and twirled my tongue around the head.
Mircea groaned and his eyes slid to half-mast. Which was all very well, but that wasn’t what I wanted. Hm.
I swirled my fingers over the tip of him, getting them wet, and then trailed them lightly up my own flesh. Stomach, breasts, pausing to paint the nipples, feeling his fingers tighten on my skin, up to my neck, lingering over those two little marks, his brand of ownership—we’d see who was owned—and up to my lips. I traced my bottom one with the salty taste of him, and his own tongue flicked out, unconsciously mimicking my movement.
Then I sucked the whole finger into my mouth and his eyes closed.
“You taste good, too,” I told him, smiling, and felt his body shudder against me.
And then the next thing I knew, I was on my back, one of my legs crooked over Mircea’s shoulder, and even with the preparation, he was too big for there not to be a burn. But that was okay, that was perfect, because tonight I wanted to feel it. I wanted to know I was alive.
And it looked like Mircea felt the same, because he was driving into me hard enough that my breath caught and my body writhed and my fingers dug into his shoulders, and then he found just the right angle and stayed there. Sparks of intense sensation flashed up my spine and coiled in my belly, regular as clockwork, and then arrhythmic, treacherous, as Mircea modified his stroke to torment me all over again.
“Bastard,” I hissed, even as my spine was arching helplessly, trying to meet his thrusts and continue that extreme high. I would have come in seconds, but he wouldn’t let me, the man’s ungodly stamina keeping me hungry.
“Make me want to,” I moaned, and Mircea was laughing as he gave in to my hunger, taking me deep and fast. Just the way we needed.
“Is this better?” he teased, but I didn’t have breath to laugh because I was coming, even as the hard thrusts inside me turned erratic. I was still riding the aftershocks as Mircea shuddered above me, sagging against the tight hold of my legs as he came, both of us grinning like fools.
After a moment, he pulled me up and poured us more wine, and we settled down in front of the fire. He nestled up against me, cradling my body against his and sliding his hands up and down my legs, while the logs hissed and the snow fell and I wished I did know how to freeze time. Because I’d have liked to stop it right here.
It was times like these that I thought he was right, that I made things too hard, too complicated. Tony had elevated paranoia to an art form, and I’d absorbed a healthy dose of it growing up. And occasionally it had been really useful. It had kept me alive more than once, causing me to doubleand triple-check things for no reason, or to abruptly leave somewhere just because of the ants running up and down my spine.
But sometimes it could be pretty stupid, too. More than once it had caused me to be too careful, to automatically say no when maybe I should have said yes, to guard myself and my heart so closely, I never let anyone in. I didn’t know everything about Mircea; I would probably never know everything about Mircea. But I knew the important thing.
I knew I loved him.
I had always loved him. Loving him was as natural as breathing, as essential as water. It had defined my life in a real way ever since I was a child.
Before I met him, I had lived in constant fear, even without realizing what it was. When you’ve never known anything else, fear just seems . . . normal. Jumping at shadows because of what might be in them; staying carefully out of sight, because attracting attention was never A Good Thing; monitoring every word, in case it caused offense that would have to be made up for somehow. Of course, there were those I didn’t have to act that way around—Rafe and Eugenie and a few others who came and went through the years.
But as much as I’d loved them, I’d always known the truth. They couldn’t protect me. They couldn’t, as it turned out, even protect themselves. Because they weren’t the master there.
The most powerful vampire I knew was Tony, and even without realizing that he had been responsible for my parents’ deaths, there’d been plenty to fear, including the rooms downstairs that none of the vamps talked about but that the ghosts in the house informed me were essentially torture chambers. People Tony didn’t like went down there, and most of the time, they didn’t come back up.
But I never saw those rooms, other than in a flash of vision I’d experienced years later. And after Mircea’s visit, I had known instinctively that I never would. Because Tony, as mercurial, deadly and downright crazy as he could be at times, wasn’t the most powerful vamp I knew anymore. Mircea was. And Mircea liked me.
And during his visit, it was impossible not to notice that Tony’s attitude changed. He wasn’t exactly jolly—despite his shape, Tony was never jolly—but he was . . . careful. He didn’t raise his voice to me anymore, didn’t threaten, didn’t menace. In fact, it had been a real revelation, seeing him, the always-feared head of house, practically groveling on his master’s perfectly shined Tanino Criscis.
And even after Mircea left, Tony didn’t treat me as he had before. If I didn’t get a useful vision for a week or two, there was a definite chill in the air, or he might confine me to my room or cancel one of my rare forays outside the house. But I wasn’t going downstairs. I was never going downstairs.
Mircea had meant security, protection, sanctuary. He had many other attractive attributes, ones that other women would probably value much more highly. But nothing came close to that sense of security for me. It had been the greatest gift anyone had ever given me.
It still was.
“I’m thinking you just hit good,” I told him, when I could talk again.
He thought about that for a moment. “Let’s try for excellent,” he said, and rolled me over.
“I knew it!”
I jumped, because the angry voice spoke at almost the same moment that I rematerialized back in my bedroom in Vegas. I spun around, sending my aching head sloshing unpleasantly against my skull, and saw Billy lounging on the bed. A pack of playing cards hung in the air in front of him, laid out in a vertical game of solitaire. But they were ghostly cards, no more substantial than their owner, and I could clearly see his scowl glaring through.
For someone who regularly was up to as much crap as Billy Joe, he did disapproval really well.
“What?” I said defensively, clutching the mink and my dignity. Since I was barefoot, mostly naked and completely hungover, I was pretty sure I grasped only one of them.
“You slept with the goddamned vampire!”
“I—How did you know?”
Billy rolled his eyes.
“Well . . . even if I did, it’s none of your business,” I informed him haughtily. And then I ruined the effect by limping to the bathroom.
I flicked on the lights, but they hurt my eyes so I flicked them off again. But then I couldn’t see. Until Billy’s softly glowing head poked through the wall, like a pissed-off night-light.
“I thought you were gonna give it some time,” he said accusingly. “I thought you were gonna get to know him first. I thought—”
“Does anybody ever really know anybody?” I asked. And, okay, it was lame, but my head hurt like a bitch.
“Oh, man.” Billy looked disgusted. “He must really be something. One night and he’s got you wrapped.”
“He does not!”
“Like hell.” He crossed his arms. “What did you tell me right before you left?”
I sighed, wondering why I never had any damn aspirin. “I know. But—”
“But what? You told me you’re absofuckinglutely, posifuckingtively, not getting horizontal. ’Cause vamps aren’t like regular people, and you’re in the middle of negotiating the relationship and he’d take it as a sign of surrender, and—”
“It wasn’t like that,” I said, running some cold water onto a washcloth. And then slapping it over my aching eyes. Dear God, I was never drinking again.
“Oh, okay. So what was it like?”
“A . . . time-out,” I mumbled incoherently.
But apparently not incoherently enough.
“A time-out.” Billy did sarcasm pretty well, too.
“Which means what?”
“Which means it didn’t count,” I snapped, and then wished I hadn’t, because it hurt. I stifled a groan and put my elbows on the counter, supporting my throbbing head.
“And who decided this?”
“And which part of ‘we’ came up with the get-out-ofjail-free card?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Yeah,” Billy said. “That’s what I thought.”
I took the washcloth off so I could glare at him. “I don’t recall appointing you my conscience!”
“You don’t need a conscience. You need some goddamn common sense! You used to have some, remember? You’re the one who told me what those things are like—”
“Mircea isn’t a thing.”
“Oh, so he’s not a monster all of a sudden? He got upgraded? I guess I must have missed the memo!”
I turned and walked out of the bathroom. Billy’s faintly glowing backside was sticking out of the wall above the dresser, framed in the mirror like a bizarre trophy. But all things considered, I liked it better than the other half right now. Get him wound up and he could go for hours, and I was so not up for it tonight. Or this morning. Or whenever the hell it was. The room was dark, but there were blackout shades under all the drapes in the suite, so that didn’t mean much.
“Okay, ‘monster’ is out,” Billy said, getting himself sorted. “So what are we calling him now? Sugar Tits? Baby Cakes? Angel Boy?”
I got a sudden image of a very naked Mircea, fire-warm skin backlit by flames, the same ones that had formed a vague halo around his head. He wasn’t an angel, I knew that. But regardless of what Billy thought, he wasn’t the devil, either. And it had been only one night, and he’d sworn it wouldn’t make a difference—
“Why are you here, anyway?” I demanded, going on the offensive, because my defense kind of sucked right now. “I fed you before I left.”
“Yeah, and that’s all I care about! You were supposed to be back hours ago!”
“Well, I would have been, but . . . there was a delay.”
“A delay that left hickeys all over your neck and made you walk funny?”
“I’m not in jail, you know,” I snapped. “I can come and go whenever I—” I stopped. “What hickeys?”
He pointed silently at my neck. I pushed the old-fashioned collar of the coat aside and leaned closer to the mirror. And saw—
“Son of a bitch!”
“You didn’t notice?” Billy demanded.
I winced. “No. And keep your voice down.”
“Why? No one can hear me but you.”
I rested my forehead on the cool top of the dresser. “That’s kind of the point.”
He snorted. “And to top it off, you’re hungover!”
“It was the wine. It always does this to me.”
“Then why’d you drink it?”
“Because after the night I’d had, I thought I deserved it,” I muttered.
Billy sighed, and a moment later I felt a ghostly chill on the back of my neck. It felt good. “What went wrong this time?”
“Short version: everything.”
“And the long version?”
“I’m too hungover for the long version.”
“Gimme the CliffsNotes, then.”
I pried myself off the dresser and started sorting through a drawer. “Let’s just say, it looks like my luck runs in the family.”
I went back into the bathroom to change, and this time, Billy left me alone. I pulled on an old pair of khaki shorts and tried a couple of different shirts, finally settling on one with orange and white stripes. It was soft, thin cotton with a mock turtleneck and no sleeves. It had been part of my work wardrobe, worn under a jacket to keep me from dying of heatstroke in the Atlanta summers, and it looked a little dressy for the shorts. But it was better than announcing my evening’s activities to everybody I met.
Only now that I was dressed, I found that I didn’t really feel like meeting anybody. I kind of felt like going back to bed. I walked into the bedroom, yawning. “What time is it?”
Billy looked up from his card game. “Four a.m.”
I sighed in relief and fell face-first onto the bed. Jonas was coming at one for our lesson, and I had nothing to do until then. And nothing sounded pretty damn good right now.
“Move over,” I told Billy, because he was hogging the bed as usual. He gave me maybe another two inches of space, also as usual. I turned onto my side, since it was easier than arguing.
The room was dark but the bed was spotted by watery blue-white rectangles, the light shadows from Billy’s cards. They moved across the duvet as he played, silent, intent. For about half a minute.
“You can call him what you want, but he’s still a monster,” Billy said, because of course this wasn’t over. “They all are.”
“I don’t know why you hate vamps so much,” I said sleepily. “What’d they ever do to you?”
“They are not.”
I didn’t point out the irony of this coming from a guy who would send most people screaming in terror if they could see him, because the door cracked open. A thin sliver of slightly less dark leaked in from the hallway and fell over the bed. It highlighted dust particles dancing in the air and a massive head poking around the doorjamb.
“Hey,” Marco said softly, like he thought I might already be asleep.
“You have fun?”
“Thought so.” I couldn’t see his expression, but his voice was smug.
It would have been weird coming from a human, but vamps got a lot of their self-worth from their masters. Anytime Mircea did something well—negotiated a treaty, got recognition from the Senate, banged the Pythia—their egos all got a boost. In a real sense, when you dated a master vamp, you dated his entire family. All of whom thereafter took a proprietary interest in your business.
It was something I tried hard not to think about.
“You hungry?” Marco asked. “We got pizza.”
Actually, I thought one more bite of anything, and I might just pop. “I’m good.”
“Just gonna get some sleep.”
“Yeah, you probably need it,” he said, sounding satisfied. The door closed.
“No, that’s not creepy at all,” Billy said sourly.
I sighed and pulled the pillow into a more comfy position. “It’s just the way they are.”
“And I don’t like the way they are.”
It wasn’t surprising. Billy had never liked any of the guys in my life, not that there had been many. It wasn’t jealousy so much—not the physical type, anyway—but more of a natural distrust. I guess getting drowned like a sack of kittens would do that to a person.
“You don’t like anybody.”
“Not when they look at you like he does,” he said sharply.
“Like the way hardened gamblers on the riverboats used to look at young rich guys. Like here comes dinner.” He glanced at me. “I don’t want you to be dinner.”
“For anybody,” he added. “He’s no worse than the rest of them; they all want a piece of you.”
“That’s how the game is played.”
“Yeah, well the game sucks.” He wiped a hand across his own game and it dissipated like mist, leaving only a lightly glowing cloud above the bed. It made the room darker, but not cozier. Someone must have fixed the window, because the air conditioner was running like it was trying to make up for lost time.
I pulled up the comforter.
“What is wrong with you tonight?” I asked. Billy could bitch with the best of them, but usually he had a better reason than my missing curfew.
“It’s . . . I don’t know,” he said, turning to face me. The scruffy features under the Stetson were unusually sober. “It’s nothing I can put my finger on. But lately . . . it feels like there’re ants running over my skin, all the time.”
I didn’t say anything, but I had to consciously refrain from smoothing my hands down my own arms. Because I’d had the same feeling for days. Not localized on anyone or anything; just a general impression that something wasn’t right. And that had been before somebody tried to kill me.
It was one reason it had been so damn hard to leave that warm hotel room this morning. Last night really had felt like a moment out of time. For once, no one had been after me, no one had wanted to hurt me, no one had even known who the hell I was. It had been really nice.
But I couldn’t hide in the past forever. And now that I was back in my time, that antsy feeling was setting my skin to crawling again. It was less than reassuring to know that Billy felt it, too.
How bad did things have to be before the ghosts started freaking out?
“I thought after that son of a bitch Apollo died, things were gonna calm down,” he said fretfully. “But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like it used to, when Tony’s bastards got too close. If we were still back in Atlanta, I’d be bugging you to start packing.”
“And if we were still back in Atlanta, I’d probably be doing it,” I said honestly. “But I don’t think running is going to help now.”
He waved a hand. “I’m not talking about running. Plenty of people ran; he always caught them. You got away because you’re . . . I don’t know. Not smart, exactly—”
“—but clever, resourceful, stubborn—and freaking lucky.” He saw my expression. “What?”
“It’s just . . . someone else said that to me recently.” Well, minus the stupid part.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing.” Except that I didn’t want to have to be resourceful. I didn’t want to need to be lucky. I wanted to sleep late. I wanted to get up and putter around the suite. I wanted to go light a fire under Augustine before I ended up going to the damn coronation naked.
I didn’t want to have to figure out what was trying to kill me this week.
But while I didn’t know who or what had it in for me, at least I knew what didn’t. “All that stuff with the gods . . . it’s over,” I told him. “They can’t hurt us if they can’t get back to Earth, and they can’t.”
“You sure about that?” he asked skeptically.
I didn’t answer, because no, I wasn’t. Not entirely.
It had been a shock to find out recently that a lot of the myths I’d grown up with were all too real. But not nearly as much as discovering that some of them were still alive. And that they were plenty pissed.
Their bitch was that they’d been banished from Earth, aka the land of milk, honey and slavishly devoted worshippers, by one of their own, Artemis. She’d turned traitor, teaming up with some of the less-devoted types, because her fellow immortals viewed humans as disposable. And they had been disposing of a lot of them.
So Artemis gave humankind the ouroboros spell to solve the problem. It banished the gods back to their home world and sealed off Earth so that they couldn’t return to their favorite playground. The Silver Circle, named after the alchemical color sacred to Artemis and in the shape of her symbol, the moon, had been formed to furnish the power needed to fuel the barrier.
It was still doing so, all these millennia later. But no one believed that the Circle or the spell were foolproof any longer. Not since one of the self-styled gods had found a way past them barely a month ago.
Fortunately, it had been a short trip.
“Apollo got in,” Billy said, like he’d been reading my thoughts.
“And he’s dead,” I said harshly.
“Yeah.” Billy fell silent, and I rolled over, pushing the conversation away.
It was surprisingly easy. The bed was extra soft, just the way I like it, with a duck-down mattress pad and matching comforter. They were usually too hot, and the comforter often ended up on the floor. But tonight it was perfect. I felt myself start to relax, start to sink into the warm cocoon between all that squashy goodness, start to drift off—
“Where do you think they go when they die?”
Billy’s voice jolted me back to unwelcome consciousness. I turned my head to frown at him. He’d stretched out on his back, hands behind his head, and was staring at the reflection of his own ghost light on the ceiling.
“Where does who go?”
“The gods.” He turned his head to look at me. “They have to go somewhere, don’t they? Everybody goes somewhere.”
“I don’t know.” Somewhere nasty, hopefully. “Why?”
“I was just thinking about that thing that possessed you. It wasn’t demon or Were or human or Fey, right?”
“Jury’s still out on Fey.”
“But not any Fey we ever heard of.”
“So what about a god?” Billy gestured, throwing leaping patterns like blue candlelight on the walls. “They were said to be able to possess people, weren’t they? In some of the old legends?”
I frowned. So much for sleeping. “Apollo’s dead,” I said irritably. “He couldn’t possess anybody.”
“I’m dead. And I possess people all the time.”
“You’re a ghost.”
“So? Maybe he’s a ghost now, too. You killed him—”
“And now he’s come back to haunt me?” I asked incredulously.
He shrugged. “I know it’s far-fetched, but compared to some of the other shit that’s happened to you—”
I pulled the pillow over my head. This was so not what I needed to hear tonight. Or any other night.
“I know you don’t wanna think about it,” he said impatiently. “But we gotta figure this out—”
“It wasn’t Apollo,” I said, my voice muffled by the pillow.
“How do you know?”
“Because he wouldn’t have waited this long to attack me.”
“Maybe he learned something last time. He underestimated you, and look where that got him. Straight down the metaphysical crapper.”
“And I haven’t had any more visions—”
“Maybe he figured out you were spying on him and blocked you somehow. He was the source of your power, wasn’t he? So he should be able to—”
“And he wasn’t human,” I said, throwing off the pillow. Because obviously Billy wasn’t going to let me sleep until we had this out. “And nonhumans don’t leave ghosts!”
“That we know of.”
“In a century and a half, how many nonhuman ghosts have you seen?” I demanded.
“None. But we’re talking about gods here. Who knows what they can do?”
“Well, they can’t do this. Whatever went after me was driven off by cold iron. That wouldn’t have bothered a god at all.”
“That could have been a coincidence,” Billy said stubbornly. “Pritkin even said so—”
“Stop eavesdropping on my conversations! And the spirit also didn’t know English. We could barely communicate.”
Billy thought for a moment. “Maybe he forgot?”
I snorted. “Yeah. And then he grew feathers.”
I stared at him. “Did you just say ‘damn’?”
He grinned, unrepentant. “It was a beautiful theory, you gotta admit.”
I didn’t have to admit anything of the kind. “Look, the gods are gone. Finished, kaput, out of the picture. Okay?”
He held up his hands. “Hey. Preaching to the choir here.”
“Beautiful theory,” I muttered, and swung the pillow at him.
It was a wasted effort, because he disappeared before it landed, fading away until only his laughter remained. It was the last thing I heard as I finally drifted off.
I walked into the living room sometime that afternoon, yawning and bleary-eyed from too much sleep, to see Marco coming out of the lounge. At least, I assumed it was Marco. It was a little hard to be sure, because while the height and girth were the same, the face was completely covered—in flowers.
“Hey,” I said, as a perfect red rose dropped off the towering stack he was carrying and plopped at my feet.
“Hey, yourself,” Marco’s voice told me, heading out of the apartment. “Get the door, will ya?”
I got the door. “What are you doing?”
“Taking out the trash.”
He strode over to the elevator and punched the button, shedding blossoms all the way. One had a little card attached. I bent and picked it up. Cassandra Palmer.
I frowned. “Marco?”
“Are you throwing out my flowers?”
“Go look in the lounge.”
The elevator arrived before he could say any more, assuming he’d planned on it, and a man got off. He was dressed in a crisp blue suit and shiny black shoes and was carrying more roses. “Thank you,” Marco said, plucking them out of his hand and stepping into the elevator.
The elevator doors shut before the man could retrieve his bouquet. “Goddamned vampires,” he muttered, and then he turned around—to see three of the guards loitering in the open doorway of the suite.
He lost what color had been in his face, which wasn’t much, since he was a pleasant-looking white blond. The vamps came forward and started circling him like sharks in water. “I liked the last one better,” a brunet said. “This one’s a little weedy.”
“And please tell me that’s not your best suit,” another commented, eyeing the man’s pinstripe with a moue of distaste. “I’m thinking what? One ninety-nine ninety five?”
“And they throw in an extra shirt,” the third vamp added.
They all laughed.
The man flushed but stood his ground. “See here, I have an appointment with—” he caught sight of me and his expression lightened. “Ah, you must be—”
“Too busy to talk to you,” the first vamp said, putting an arm around him and turning him back toward the elevator.
“Get your hands off me, vampire,” the man snarled, pushing the vamp’s hand away. “And I think I’ll let her tell me that!”
“Ooh. This one’s spunky.”
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
The man—or, I guess, the mage—came forward, holding out a hand. The hand had a box in it. The box was full of candy, judging by the glossy photo on the front.
“For you,” he said, obviously proud to have rescued part of his offering.
“Uh, thank you?”
He brushed it away. “I’m not sure what to call you,” he said frankly. “Lady Cassandra isn’t technically correct until after the ceremony, and it sounds too formal in any case. And Miss Palmer is little better. Would you like for me to call you Cassie?”
“I’d like for you to tell me who you are.”
The man blinked. “David Dryden.”
I just looked at him.
“Your one o’clock?”
“My one o’clock what?”
“Date,” the third vamp said, grinning.
“For what?” I asked, confused.
“Well, you know.” The mage looked a little awkward suddenly. “The usual.”
“I think we’ve got a contender here, boys,” the brunet said.
“Smooth operator,” the second vamp agreed.
“Can you do something about them?” the mage asked me angrily, as the elevator dinged.
“They’re supposed to be here,” I pointed out.
“As am I! The Lord Protector sent me.”
The Lord Protector and his hair got off the elevator. “Ah, Dryden, my boy. There you are.” Jonas beamed at him, and then leaned over to dust a minute speck off his coat. “Have you met our new Pythia yet?”
“I’m trying!” the mage said, exasperated.
“Jonas, can I see you a minute?” I asked mildly.
“Of course, my dear, of course. It’s why I’m here.”
“Can you repeat that pickup line for me?” I heard one of the vamps ask. “I want to write it down. Something about the usual?”
“Go to hell,” the mage told him.
I preceded Jonas into the apartment, but stopped in the doorway to the lounge. Or what had been the lounge. It looked more like a greenhouse now, with what had to be four dozen vases of flowers, loose bouquets and potted plants sitting around.
“Jonas.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “What is this?”
“Options, my dear,” he said, surveying the sea of flora approvingly. “It’s always nice to have options.”
“It’s nice to have a place to sit, too. And we discussed this.”
“Did we?” he asked vaguely.
“Yes. We did. And you promised—”
“I didn’t, in fact.”
He held up placating hands. “But truly, very little of this is my doing.”
“It was Niall. I believe he was . . . perturbed . . . about the desert incident. He returned in time to insert a piece in this morning’s Oracle about our eligible new Pythia and, well . . .”
“The power of the press,” he said, patting my hand. “But don’t worry. I’m sure it will blow over in a week or two—”
“A week?” I stared around. I’d be able to open my own florist shop by then.
“Smells like a New Orleans cathouse in here,” Marco agreed, coming back in and handing me a handkerchief.
I took it gratefully. “How would you know?”
He just raised an eyebrow at me and gathered up another load. “I’m heading to bed after this,” he told me, glancing at Jonas. “It’s about to get surreal up in here.”
He just grinned and sashayed out. I sneezed.
“Can we do our lesson in the living room?” I asked Jonas, wiping my streaming eyes.
“Oh, I think we can postpone that for today,” he said genially.
“We don’t need to postpone. I’m not going out with—with that man,” I sniffed, trying and failing to recall the guy’s name.
Jonas regarded the mage, who was standing by the kitchen door, looking about the way you’d expect. “Why? What’s wrong with him?”
The man twitched.
I sighed. “Nothing.”
“Then perhaps a late luncheon—”
He sighed and gave up. “Handsome boy . . . very good family,” he muttered, reentering the living room.
I blew my nose and followed. And almost ran into an old-fashioned blackboard that was taking up most of the space beside the new sofa. I blinked at it, because it hadn’t been there a minute ago.
“Well, in that case, perhaps you could help me with a few small matters,” Jonas said, feeling around in his coat for something. “I used to do this with Agnes, you know. We had tea every Thursday, and I would go over any affairs of interest in the magical community, in case she saw something of significance.”
“I haven’t seen anything lately,” I said, eyeing the blackboard suspiciously. I poked it. It was solid.
“Which is rather the point,” Jonas said. “Agnes sometimes had dry spells, too, and other times she had visions about all sorts of things, but most were entirely unrelated to what we needed to know. But if we’d recently discussed something . . . well, it seemed to help focus her energies. I thought it might do the same for you.”
“Okay.” I edged around to the sofa.
“Good, good.” Jonas had been turning out his pockets as he spoke, one after another, leaving him looking like he had little gray tongues all over his suit. But I guess he hadn’t found what he wanted, because he made a gesture and plucked a small package out of thin air.
I stared at it, because I’d never seen anyone do that before, except on TV. But I didn’t think Jonas had used sleight of hand. Particularly not when he had trouble getting the cellophane off whatever it was.
“Now, I realize that visions can’t be made to order, as one might wish,” he said, fiddling with it.
“What is that?” I demanded.
He looked at me from behind heavy glasses. “What is what?”
“That.” I pointed at the package.
Jonas peered down at it. “This?”
“Yes, that! What is that?”
“For the chalkboard,” he said, looking a bit bewildered.
“But . . . where did you get it?”
“Where did I get what?”
His forehead wrinkled slightly. “Ryman’s. They had a sale.”
I opened my mouth to say something else and then closed it abruptly. I wasn’t doing this with him. Not again. Not today. I sat down on the sofa and crossed my legs. “All right.”
Jonas regarded me warily for a moment, as if I were the one acting strange. But in the end, he didn’t say anything, either. He just fished out a piece and started scribbling on the board, like a more than slightly batty professor.
“Now, as I was saying, visions can be a bit . . . dicey. Agnes often described them as less of a narrative than a kaleidoscope or puzzle, with pieces here and there that, without context, made little sense. Would you agree?”
I shrugged. “I’ve had both kinds. The jumbled ones are the most irritating.”
He nodded. “Yes, so she said. She also told me, however, that having a starting point, some clue as to what she was seeing, often went a long way in helping her sort them out. And once she knew to focus on a particular piece, the others that went with that puzzle often presented themselves.”
“So what puzzle piece do you want me to focus on today?”
“One I’ve been working on for some time now. I’ve been doing some fascinating research into the—”
He stopped and looked at something over my shoulder. I turned my head to see the mage peering around the chalkboard. He looked back and forth between the two of us. “I, er, I was wondering—”
“No, no, we’re past all that,” Jonas said.
The man looked at him for a moment and then decided to focus on me. “Are we having lunch?”
“It’s just . . . I haven’t eaten.”
I just looked at him.
“Could I have my chocolates back?” he asked after a moment.
I silently passed them over. He disappeared back behind the blackboard. Jonas looked at me. “Where were we?”
“I have no idea.”
He thought for a moment. “Oh yes. I was telling you about my research into the old Norse sagas—the mythology of ancient Scandinavia. Have you read them?”
“You’d like them, Cassie.” He waved the hand with the chalk in it. “All sex and violence.”
I frowned. “Why would you think that I’d—”
“And in a real sense, they’re very like visions, in that they give us pieces. Not necessarily the best pieces, you understand, nor in the right order, nor with the right emphasis, but pieces nonetheless. It’s up to us to decode what those pieces mean.”
“Pieces of what?” I asked, trying to figure out where he was going with this.
“Our current situation, I hope. As we recently had demonstrated somewhat . . . vividly, many of the world’s ancient myths have a basis in real events. Take the ouroboros legend, for instance.”
“The ouroboros?” I repeated faintly. Artemis’s protection spell wasn’t my favorite topic of conversation.
“Yes. As with most cultures around the world, the Norse have a legend about a giant snake who grasps its own tail, and in doing so somehow protects the planet. In their case, the snake was Jörmungandr, one of three children of the god Loki, who could shape-shift into a reptile.”
He stepped away from the board so that I could see what he’d been drawing. Only that didn’t help much, because what I saw looked a lot like a lopsided soccer ball with eyes. Or maybe some kind of deformed squid—
“The legend states that eventually Jörmungandr grew so large that he was able to surround the Earth and grasp his own tail. He was believed to be holding the world together, and that when he let go, it would end.”
He added a line across the top of the board and wrote “Loki” in the middle. Then he made three branches coming down from it, like an abbreviated genealogical table. The soccer ball was attached to one of them. He underlined it helpfully.
“That’s Earth?” I asked, just to be clear.
“And that thing wrapped around it, that’s Jor—whatever?”
“Yes.” He frowned. “Can’t you tell?”
He leaned over and did something to the drawing. “Is that better?”
I didn’t see any difference. Until I looked closer. And saw that the thing with eyes now also had a tiny, forked tongue.
“Now, the interesting thing about the Norse myth,” he told me, “isn’t so much how it differs from the others, but what it adds.” He drew a little line down from the soccer ball and scribbled a name below it. He looked at me expectantly.
“Thor?” I guessed, because Jonas’s handwriting wasn’t any better than his art.
“God of thunder, big guy with a hammer?”
“Quite. And Jörmungandr’s archenemy. The legend says that in Ragnarok—” He saw my expression. “That is the Old Norse term for the ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ the great war that will decide the fate of the world.”
I nodded, mainly because I wanted him to get to a point already.
“The legends say that Thor will defeat Jörmungandr during Ragnarok, only to die himself shortly thereafter,” he told me. And I guess that was it, because he just stood there, rocking back and forth on his toes and looking pleased.
“I’m kind of still waiting for the interesting part,” I confessed after a few moments.
Jonas blinked at me. “But don’t you see? That is essentially what we have just experienced. The ouroboros spell was defeated, allowing the return of one of the old gods, who died almost immediately afterward.”
“But that was Apollo,” I said, my stomach falling a little more. Because if there was one thing I liked discussing even less than the ouroboros, it was the guy who had defeated it.
Apollo had been the source of the power that came with my office, gifting it to his priestesses at Delphi so that they could help him keep an eye on those treacherous humans. But once the ouroboros spell kicked him out along with the other gods, the power had stayed behind, bound to the line of Pythias who continued their work, only on behalf of the Circle and the humans he had despised.
Or at least it had until I came along. Apollo thought he had it made when a clueless wonder inherited the Pythia position instead of one of the carefully groomed Initiates the Circle kept under its watchful eye. He’d intended to use me to help bring back the bad old days of gods and slaves and nothing in between by helping him get rid of the barrier once and for all.
He’d been less than pleased when I’d declined.
In the end, I’d been the one left standing, although I still wasn’t quite sure how. But I suspected that a heck of a lot of luck had been involved. Now, as far as I was concerned, I could happily go the rest of my life and never hear that name again.
“You know, it’s really quite fascinating,” Jonas said. “But many of the old Norse gods have parallels in the myths of other cultures. From Scandinavia through Ireland, India and even beyond, their names may change, but they are essentially the same entities with the same powers and, in many cases, the same symbolism.”
“Are they?” I asked, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it was coming; I could feel it.
“Oh yes. Take Thor, for instance. As you say, he is best known as the god of thunder. But would it interest you to know that, when famine threatened, it was Thor to whom the ancient peoples of Scandinavia prayed to send a good harvest—a role traditionally allocated to a sun god? Or that sun gods the world over have customarily been depicted holding axes—which look a great deal like Thor’s famous hammer? In fact, some scholars have suggested that they were the prototypes for it.”
“But what does that have to do with—”
“And that, according to legend, of the four horses that drew Apollo’s chariot, one was named Lightning and another Thunder? Or that Apollo was said to have used lightning and thunder—the elements, not the horses—to drive away marauding Gauls who threatened his sanctuary at Delphi?”
“Um, okay, but—”
“The ancient Gauls also considered the god of thunder and the sun god to be one,” Jonas said, really getting into it now. “Images have been found in France of a god resting one hand on a wheel, the symbol for the sun, and holding a flash of lightning in the other. And the Slavonian god of thunder, Perun, was honored with an oak-log fire.”
“In Greece, oak was the wood dedicated to the sun god.”
I stared at the chalkboard, and the queasy feeling doubled. I swallowed. “So . . . so what you’re trying to say is that—”
“And then there’s the Hindu god Indra. He had early aspects of a sun god, riding in a golden chariot across the heavens to bring the day. But he is more often known as the god of thunder, wielding the celestial weapon Vajra—a lightning bolt.”
“And then there’s the fact that Thor’s home was said to be in Jotunheim, in the east, connecting him again to the rising—”
“Jonas!” That was Pritkin.
I looked up at the sound of his voice to see him standing in the doorway to the foyer, arms crossed and green eyes narrowed. He looked pretty pale, for some reason, and instead of his usual ramrod posture, he was leaning against the wall. But he was alive and looking pissed off and I’d never been so happy to see him.
“Hm? Yes?” Jonas blinked at him.
“Are you trying to tell us that Thor and Apollo are two names for the same being?”
“Well, yes,” Jonas said, as if that went without saying. “And once I realized that, well, naturally I began to wonder. . . .”
He and Pritkin stared at the board for a long minute. “Wonder what?” I finally blurted out.
Jonas looked at me. “Well, if we aren’t fighting Ragnarok right now, of course.”
“Breathe,” Pritkin told me, and I tried. But suddenly, that seemed a lot harder than normal.
“It’s merely a theory,” Jonas said, fussing about the kitchen. We’d moved after that little revelation, because he’d declared that we needed tea. Personally, I didn’t think tea was going to fix this.
“Even if we accept the identification of Thor with Apollo,” Pritkin said, “which many scholars do not—”
“They don’t, you know,” Jonas assured me. “Really they don’t.”
“—there remains the fact that the creature in question is dead. Whatever his name, he is no longer an issue.”
“That’s very true.” Jonas and his hair nodded emphatically.
“Then why did you bring it up?” I asked harshly.
“Why, because of the others, of course.”
Pritkin and I looked at each other, while Jonas kept opening cabinets. He paused slightly when he came to one that had a fork sticking out of it, half-buried in the wood, but he didn’t comment. “You haven’t any tea?” he finally asked me, looking as if he knew that couldn’t be right.
He blinked. “None whatsoever?”
“In there,” Pritkin said. He nodded at one of the lower cabinets.
“Oh, good.” Jonas looked vastly relieved, as if a major crisis had been averted.
I started to wonder if I was insane.
After a moment, I cleared my throat. “What others?” I asked, as Jonas began examining Pritkin’s little boxes and tins.
“Hm? Oh, the other two gods, of course,” he said absently. “Ah, Nuwara Eliya. Yes, very nice.”
“Nuwara Eliya is a god?” I asked, confused.
He regarded me strangely. “No. It’s a town in Sri Lanka.”
I looked at him.
“Where they grow tea. Very good tea, too.”
Pritkin put a heavy hand on my shoulder, which was just as well. It probably wouldn’t have looked good to choke the head of the Silver Circle to death right before the coronation. Then again, my reputation was shot to hell anyway....
“What other two gods?” Pritkin asked quickly.
“Oh, didn’t I say? Ah, well that’s where it really becomes interesting. According to the sagas, Ragnarok involves the deaths of three main gods: Thor, Tyr and Odin. The legends state that the war will end only when all three are dead, and that the three children of Loki are the ones fated to kill them.”
“Well, that’s just it,” Jonas started filling up the kettle. “I’m not sure. But I did locate some clues that might be useful. The first child of Loki was Jörmungandr, which we now know stood for the ouroboros spell. The snake was opposed by Thor, or Apollo if you prefer. He defeated the spell, but died soon afterward. This, of course, has already happened.”
“Of course,” I said faintly.
“Now, the second child of Loki was Hel,” Jonas said. He reached across the counter to draw what looked like a crooked smile or possibly a banana on his blackboard, which he’d set up just outside. “She was thrown into the underworld by Odin and became the goddess of death.”
“Hell?” I repeated. “You mean, like the place?”
“Yes, in a sense. Our modern word derives from her name. She was said to have power over the nine hell regions—”
“Yes, the same number that Dante would later record in his Inferno. Fascinating how the myths intersect on so many—”
“Jonas.” That was Pritkin.
“Yes, well. In any case, she was said to have control over the hells, as well as the pathways between worlds. Quite a powerful figure.”
“Like the Greek goddess Persephone,” Pritkin said.
Jonas wrinkled his nose. “No, not exactly. Persephone was queen of the underworld, yes, but only because of her marriage to Hades, who already ruled it. Hel was queen in her own right. She was one of those powerful virgin goddesses you find sprinkled throughout the pages of mythology who lived independently of the authority of any man. Which is why I don’t think Persephone quite fits the bill. And, of course, the moon wasn’t her symbol—”
“Hel’s symbol was the moon?” I asked, finally figuring out what the banana was supposed to be.
“Yes, the dark side, at least. She was—”
“The dark side?”
I guess my voice must have changed, because Jonas looked up sharply. “Yes, why?”
“It’s probably nothing,” I said, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of explaining my little toy to Jonas. But he was standing there, looking at me intently, and I didn’t really have a choice now. “It’s just . . . I have this tarot deck and—”
“You saw something?”
“Well, no. I mean, I didn’t have a vision or anything, you know, magic—”
“Forgive me, my dear, but the tarot in the hands of the Pythia is magic. Yes, indeed. What did you see?”
“Well, it’s not a normal deck,” I explained awkwardly. “So I didn’t have a spread to go on, just the one card—”
“The Moon, I take it?”
“The Moon reversed.”
“Ahhh.” Jonas slowly sat down.
“Like I said, it probably doesn’t mean anything—”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” he said mildly, staring off into space. “No, no. I shouldn’t at all, really.”
I just sat and looked at him for a while, but he didn’t say anything else. Pritkin tried to ask something, but Jonas just waved a hand. “Talk amongst yourselves,” he said vaguely.
I looked at Pritkin helplessly. Most of the time I thought Jonas was a sharp old bastard who was playing some kind of weird mind game with everyone for his own amusement. But there were days when I honestly wondered if the magical world was being led by a complete nut.
“It isn’t even a real deck,” I told him, trying again.
“It’s a toy I was given as a child.”
“I don’t even choose the card. It chooses for me!”
May as well have been talking to the wall.
“I’ll be right back,” Pritkin said, apparently giving up. He headed out of the kitchen and I went along because, frankly, it was getting kind of creepy in there.
“I’m just going back to my room for a moment,” he told me, when he realized I was following him. Which would have been fine, if he hadn’t turned around and tripped on the stairs leading from the living room to the foyer.
He caught himself before he face-planted, and for anybody else, it would have been no big deal. I tripped over that same step an average of once a day. But Pritkin wasn’t me and he didn’t regularly fall over his own two feet.
I grabbed him before he could escape, and I didn’t need to ask what the problem was. Blood was seeping through the lower part of his shirt, staining the soft gray cotton. Of course it was, I thought furiously. Of course it bloody well was.
“Damn it, Pritkin!”
“I’m fine,” he told me, which was less than comforting, considering he’d probably say the same thing after losing a limb. I crouched down and pushed up his T-shirt.
“Fine?” I said, staring up at him angrily. The blood was leaking out of a bandage that covered half his stomach.
“Well enough,” he said, trying to push his shirt back down. I slapped his hands and started to pry up the edge of the soaked bandage with a fingernail. It had already come loose and would have to be replaced, and I needed to see—
A steel-like grip caught my wrist. “I’m fine,” Pritkin repeated. “It will be healed by tonight, by the morning at the latest—”
“And what kind of a wound takes you that long to heal?” I demanded. I’d seen him shrug off a knife to the chest in a matter of minutes.
“A Fey one,” he admitted.
I said a bad word and started to pull off the bandage with my other hand, but he caught that wrist, too. And then he tugged me to my feet. “You said you were going to see friends!” I accused.
“Do your acquaintances usually want to kill you?”
“It’s not completely unknown,” he said wryly. And then he saw my face.
“Let me go,” I told him dangerously.
“So you can slap me?”
“So I can get you a new bandage!” I’d slap him later.
Pritkin let go and I stalked off. We didn’t have a medicine cabinet in the suite; we had a medicine closet. I didn’t know what the guys were preparing for, but they could have stocked a small clinic out of there. Usually, I thought it was a big waste, since I was the only person around here who could benefit from that stuff, and if I needed that much I was a goner, anyway. Today, I was grateful for it.
I grabbed what I needed and went back to the living room, but it was empty. I found Pritkin in the lounge, seated at the card table. I guess he didn’t want to bleed all over the new sofa. The vamps had cleared out, leaving us alone except for a forest of plants and a guy eating chocolate in a corner.
“What are you still doing here?” I demanded.
The blond mage jumped slightly and looked up. “I—No one told me to leave.”
“Leave.” I slammed the medical supplies down on the table.
He scurried off.
I glared at Pritkin. “You swore you’d be all right!”
“And as you can see—”
“I didn’t lie. I merely didn’t anticipate walking into a—What are you doing?”
I’d knelt on the floor and now I was pushing his legs apart so I could fit between them. “I’m going to rebandage you. If you’re smart, you’ll sit there and let me.”
“I can do that my—” He stopped when my fingernails sank into his thighs.
“Open your legs and hold your shirt up,” I snapped. And to my surprise, he did.
The bandage came off easily since it hadn’t been put on right to begin with, and underneath was—
I sucked in a breath.
Pritkin started to say something, but stopped when I glared up at him, so angry I could barely see. “Don’t.”
The thing about having superhuman healing abilities is that you’re seriously out of practice when you actually need to do some first aid on yourself. At least, I assumed that was why the bandage had merely been slapped into place, why the cleanup job underneath had been halfassed and why the line of black stitches holding an ugly red wound together might have been done by a farsighted three-year-old. Or maybe he was just trying to piss me off.
If so, it was working really well. I was so mad my hands were shaking, but I didn’t know if it was at him or at me for letting him go. Damn it, I’d known this was going to happen. He was Pritkin. He couldn’t walk across a freaking street without getting shot at, and I’d let him go into goddamn Faerie.
I must have been out of my mind.
“I suppose you had to sew yourself up?” I asked harshly, going into the kitchen to run some water into a bowl.
“It seemed . . . advisable.”
Yeah. If the alternative was spilling your guts everywhere.
I brought back the water and the hand soap. Marco had told me that hydrogen peroxide wasn’t a good idea in deep cuts. Apparently, it could cause bubbles to form in the bloodstream that would kill you a lot faster than whatever had caused the cut in the first place.
I sat everything down on the floor and knelt back in place. I thought about asking him to unzip, because his jeans were in the way, but he usually went commando so I didn’t. I just tugged the fabric, which was soft and old and loose, down enough that I could see to work.
It looked like he’d showered before he came over, which, ironically, had left him clean except for the large patch of skin that had been covered by the bandage. I started on the dirt and the grass and the God knew what that he had somehow ground into the wound. And for once, he just sat there, without trying to give me orders or critique me or tell me a better way to proceed. It was odd but nice.
“What happened?” I asked after a few moments.
He cleared his throat. “I was ambushed.”
“Why didn’t you go back through the portal?” I was assuming he’d used the one the Circle had recently opened, since it was pretty much the only option available right now.
“I would have, had I been near it at the time. But I’d already made my way to the village where one of my contacts lives—or I should say, where he used to live.”
Some blood had dried around his belly button. I scrubbed at it with a fingernail until it came off. “Is he dead?”
“What?” Pritkin sounded a little strange.
“Your friend. Associate. Whatever.”
“Er . . . no. At least . . . I’m not sure.”
He fidgeted, and I tightened my hand on his thigh. “Don’t.” I was about to start cleaning the actual stitches now and I didn’t want to rip any out. He froze.
I pushed his jeans down enough that I could see the bottom of the wound, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. He’d already started to heal around the thick black cord he’d used as thread, but the wound itself was ugly and looked infected. And when I gently put the back of my hand against it, it was like a line of fire against my skin.
“Are you supposed to be this hot?” I asked, frowning.
He didn’t answer, and I looked up. And found him staring at me with a strange expression, part tender, part exasperated, part . . . something. I didn’t get a chance to figure it out before he looked away.
“Yes. When I’m healing.”
I decided to take his world for it, since I didn’t have a lot of choice. Pritkin had a severe allergy to doctors, and I knew better than to suggest one. I rinsed out the rag and carefully started cleaning the angry red line.
“What did you mean, you’re not sure?” I asked. “About your friend?”
“I meant . . . his village was deserted. There were clothes dropped in the road and many doors and windows had been left wide-open. I went into a few houses, and found half-eaten food on the table in one and a dog tied out back of another. I let the dog loose, and it took off down a road. I followed it—”
“Of course you did,” I said sourly.
“—and picked up the trail of the villagers almost at once. That in itself was strange enough—”
He broke off, probably because I’d gotten the rag a little too wet that time. “Sorry,” I said, wiping up the dribbles below the wound before they wet the front of his jeans. He closed his eyes.
“The Fey are excellent hunters and trackers,” he told me roughly. “They are usually very difficult to follow.”
“But not this time.”
“No. I found a number of personal items that had been discarded along the way, haphazardly, as if they had fallen out of . . . of peoples’ arms while they ran. It had rained and the forest had a number of muddy areas, and the footprints I saw were running, too. Clearly, the villagers were fleeing some—” He looked down suddenly, his face a little flushed. “Are you almost done?”
“Almost. So you followed them?” I prompted.
“Yes. And that was when I was ambushed. I foolishly hadn’t considered that they might leave some of their number behind, to slow down whoever was pursuing them. That is, I hadn’t considered it until—” He sucked in a breath.
“I’m being as careful as I can,” I told him, patting him dry.
“Just hurry it up, will you?” he said harshly.
“I wouldn’t have to do this if you’d done a better job yourself,” I pointed out. “Having sped-up healing won’t do you any good if you get an infection.”
“I’m not worried about a damn infection!”
“Well, you won’t have to be now,” I said, smacking on a new bandage. And this one, I decided grimly, wasn’t going anywhere.
Pritkin watched me work for a moment in silence. “That’s adhesive tape,” he finally said.
“That’s . . . rather a lot, wouldn’t you say?”
“Never hurts to be sure.”
“But it’s going to hurt like the devil when I have to take it off.”
“Is it?” I looked up innocently and slapped on another piece.
His eyes narrowed, but before he could say anything, Jonas poked his head out the door. “Are you two done, then?” he asked politely.
“Yes,” I told him, cleaning up the cleaning supplies. “Pritkin is about to tell us what happens when you follow a bunch of panicked Fey into an unknown forest all by yourself.”
“Oh yes?” Jonas said curiously.
Pritkin closed his eyes and leaned his head back, looking martyred. “I ended up swinging from a rope, upside down, while some of the village men poked at me with poisoned spears,” he said dully. “I managed to convince them that I was not one of their enemies, but not before—”
“They gutted you like a pig?” I asked brightly.
He flushed and cracked an eye at me, but whatever brilliant riposte he’d managed to come up with was ruined by Jonas. “Who were these enemies?”
“The Alorestri,” Pritkin said, sitting up and wincing.
“The Green Fey,” Jonas translated for me. “They share a border with the Dark and have had an on-again, offagain struggle over land, resources, hunting rights”—he shrugged—“what have you, for millennia.”
“And currently it appears to be on again,” Pritkin said. “According to the villagers, the Green Fey broke through the border defenses a few days ago and overwhelmed the local Dark Fey forces. They were fleeing ahead of a contingent of Green Fey said to be coming their way.”
“There was an invasion?” I asked, my stomach sinking. I had a friend at the Dark Fey court, and I liked the idea of him remaining in one piece.
Pritkin noticed my expression. “This sort of thing isn’t unusual,” he told me. “The Dark Fey army will regroup and likely battle them back within a few weeks. But in the meantime, there is no way to reach my contacts, or even to know for certain where they are. And without them, there is no way to know what attacked you.”
Frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. I was just grateful to have him back, beat up and bloody or not. “It may not even be Fey,” I reminded him. “Billy’s decided it’s Apollo’s ghost come back to haunt me!”
“Oh no,” Jonas said, apparently serious. “I shouldn’t think so.”
“Well, yeah. I wasn’t actually suggesting—”
“This world leeched the gods’ power; it did not feed them. That is why all the old legends speak of them visiting Earth but living elsewhere: Asgard, Vanaheim, Olympus. And if they could not feed while alive, they certainly could not do so dead.”
“Yeah, well. Like I said—”
“No, I believe the gods we are dealing with are still quite alive.”
“Jonas, please!” I looked at him impatiently. “This isn’t freaking Ragnarok, all right?”
“It would be nice to think so,” he said mildly, the same way someone might say that it would be nice if it wasn’t raining, while standing in the middle of a deluge.
I was about to reply, but the kettle started whistling its head off, so we trooped back into the kitchen. Jonas made tea, and I waited for some kind of an explanation. A coherent one, preferably, but I wasn’t hopeful. Which was why it was a shock when a suddenly brisk Jonas sat down at the table.
“Three children of Loki; three gods to be overcome,” he told us. “Apollo has already been dealt with, leaving two. The difficulty was in knowing which god would be opposing us next, but I believe your tarot may have shown us that, Cassie. It is an invaluable aid, but it leaves us with a daunting challenge.”
He patted my hand. “Almost done. Now, I believe that the second child of Loki, Hel, may be another name for the Greek goddess Artemis. Not only was she a virgin goddess with the moon as her symbol, but she was also associated with hunting. Not personally, in her case, but in the form of the Moon Dogs she loaned Odin for the Wild Hunt every year.”
“Okay,” I said wearily, not because I understood what he was talking about, but because it was simpler just to go with it.
But, of course, Pritkin had to argue. “But Artemis wasn’t a death goddess.”
“Oh, but she was, dear boy,” Jonas said. “Most certainly. If you wanted a quick death in ancient Greece, you didn’t pray to Persephone or Hecate, but to Artemis, who would give you ‘a death as swift as her arrows.’”
“But Hecate is more traditionally associated—”
“But we don’t care about tradition,” Jonas interrupted, a little sharply. “Hecate has nothing to do with our current situation, whereas Artemis has been deeply involved from the beginning. I think there is little doubt that the goddess we are searching for is Artemis.”
“Searching for?” I asked. “When did we decide—”
Jonas leaned over the table. “If we assume that Artemis and Hel are the same individual, as Thor and Apollo were, then she becomes a person of the utmost importance. According to legend, she is protected by a fierce guard dog named Garm, and together they are destined to defeat Tyr in Ragnarok.”
“Tyr?” I asked, feeling more confused by the minute.
“Ares,” Pritkin said. “If Jonas’s reasoning is correct.”
“Yes, the identification is a bit easier there,” Jonas agreed. “As far back as ancient Rome, it was assumed that the war gods were one and the same. They even celebrated Ares, or Mars as they called him, on Tuesday.”
“Why Tuesday?” I asked, my head spinning.
“Because it means ‘Tyr’s day.’ Just as Thursday was named after Thor.” He looked at the chalkboard. “There is, of course, a third child of Loki, the wolf Fenrir. He was shackled by Odin, king of the gods, but eventually escaped and killed him. But I do not believe we are there yet.”
I stared at the wildly decorated chalkboard for a moment, and the sick feeling in my stomach settled into a familiar, ulcer-inducing burn. “Wait. Are you trying to tell me that to win the war, we have to kill two more gods?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Jonas said, and I felt my spine unknot slightly. “We have to help the children of Loki kill them.”
“That what you call lunch?”
I looked up to see Marco loitering in the doorway of the kitchen, massive arms crossed over an even bigger chest. When Marco fills a doorway, I thought vaguely, he does it right. I wiped chocolate off my mouth and swilled some now-tepid tea. “Only thing here.”
“Gonna make you sick.”
He sighed and swung a massive thigh over a kitchen chair. It groaned. “Wanna tell Papa Marco about it?”
“You’re not my papa.”
“Coulda been. I had a little girl once.”
I looked up from sorting through the mage’s abandoned candy box, trying to find another cream. “I didn’t know that.”
He nodded. “Kinda looked like you. ’Cept she smiled more.”
I thought briefly about asking what had happened to her, but that sort of thing was risky with vamps. The answer usually didn’t make anybody happy. “I smile,” I said instead.
“Just not today.”
“The damn mage ate all the creams.”
One bushy eyebrow rose. “And here I thought it was that old coot pissing you off.”
He sat back and the chair shrieked for mercy. “What is it this time?”
I crunched a toffee. “Well, Marco, apparently we’re in the middle of the Norse version of Armageddon and just didn’t know it. Ares, god of war, is out to get us, and the only way to defeat him is to find Hel—the goddess, not the place—who may or may not also be known as Artemis, and may or may not actually be a person instead of a spell or a weapon or a jelly doughnut. But we have to find her, because, despite the fact that the old legends say she defeats Ares, they said the same thing about the ouroboros spell and Apollo, so, clearly, the old legends are whacked.”
“So Jonas needs to know who or what or where, and expects me to tell him.” I threw my chocolate-stained hands up. “Somehow. See how that works?”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“So you’re sittin’ here, eating candy.”
“And that’s different?”
“Candy is candy. Chocolate is therapy.”
“Got plans for this afternoon?”
“Eating more chocolate.”
Marco just shook his head. “You shouldn’t let that old guy get to you. He’s nuts.”
“Yeah.” I was kind of coming around to Marco’s way of thinking.
“Where’d he go off to, anyway?”
“Home.” Or wherever he went when he wasn’t blowing my mind.
“And the mage?”
“Same.” At least, Pritkin had said he was going to his room. I chose to believe him, because if I shifted down there and didn’t find him resting, I was going to lose it. And I was close enough anyway.
“Well, I’m going to bed,” Marco announced, placing massive hands on the table and levering himself to his feet. He didn’t need the help, even in the middle of the day, but vamps like to play martyr when they have to be up past sunrise.
“I thought you went an hour ago.”
“Wanted to wait till everyone cleared out.”
I rolled my eyes. Yeah. Because Jonas or Pritkin might suddenly decide to take a cleaver to my head.
He ruffled my hair and left. I found a coconut cream hiding in the second layer and sucked out the ooey-gooey innards. Things were looking up.
And Marco was probably right about not paying too much attention to Jonas. The guy told me one minute that he knew visions couldn’t be made to order, and then the next he asked for exactly that. I was supposed to hand him Artemis on a silver platter with nothing, absolutely nothing, to go on except a name that might not even be hers.
I’d tried to explain how unlikely that was. Like really, really unlikely. Like not-going-to-happen unlikely. But all he’d done was tell me that he was sure I’d come up with something.
To find someone, I’d need at least a photo, preferably something she’d owned and touched, or, even better, a trip to her last known place of residence. And even then, I wasn’t a damn hound dog. I might get a flash of something; I might not. But under the circumstances—
No. Just no. Even assuming Artemis actually existed, even assuming she was a person and not a metaphor, even assuming Jonas hadn’t made up this whole crazy thing in that brilliant but cracked head of his, the answer would still be no. There were no photos, nothing she’d personally owned, and she hadn’t been at her last known place of residence for something like three thousand years.
Not that I wasn’t going to try, because what the hell. But my track record for made-to-order visions wasn’t great. Actually, my track record for made-to-order visions was zero, but Jonas had looked so hopeful, I hadn’t wanted to tell him that.
He’d find out soon enough.
I sighed and sat back, hearing my own chair creak. Probably not a good sign. Probably should lay off the creams, not that there were any left.
I scrubbed my face with my palms, feeling a little light-headed from all the sugar. Maybe ordering some real food might be smart, after all. The phone was on the counter, all of five feet away, but it seemed really far for some reason. I sighed again and followed Marco’s example, putting my hands on the table to lever myself up—
And went in the other direction instead.
The room spun wildly, my legs collapsed underneath me and I dropped like a stone. Something shot overhead as I hit the tile, and a loud crack reverberated around the kitchen. I looked up, dizzy and confused and wondering why there was a knife bisecting the back of my chair.
I stared for a split second at the shiny, shiny blade, which was still quivering, slinging little shards of light around the room. And then I shifted.
Or I tried. But the woozy feeling that had sent me to the floor made it hard to concentrate, and when I finally did feel the familiar swoop catching me, it stuttered and jerked and wobbled and fractured. And the next thing I knew, I was kneeling by the fridge, staring at a familiar pair of glossy black shoes.
The vamps should have told him, I thought vaguely; they were totally the wrong color for the season.
And then one of them kicked me in the head.
It hurt like a bitch, despite the fact that I’d dodged at the last second and it only clipped my ear. I grabbed the fridge door and swung it open, hard, just as three more enchanted knives ripped through the flimsy material. Stainless steel, my ass.
I’d have been dead, but I was on my knees and the knives burst through overhead, shattering plastic and breaking condiments, before slamming into something behind me. I couldn’t see—literally—because I’d just gotten a face full of pickle juice. I blinked it away to find that the knives had also exploded some hot sauce, forever ruining my blouse, which concerned me less than the eyes peering at me through the lacerated fridge door.
They had been my would-be date’s best feature, a soft, melting, cornflower blue that had looked a little girlie for a war mage. That wasn’t so much a problem now. I stared into something cold and black and boiling, and then I threw the rest of the hot sauce at them and scrambled away on all fours.
The mage screamed and it was nothing human, but a high-pitched, keening cry of pure rage. The eyes had been a big clue, but that sealed it. Whatever had possessed me before must have hitched a ride in a new body, obviously with the idea of finishing what it had started.
I scrambled for cover behind the table, eyes burning, head spinning and fingers fumbling for the little pouch Pritkin had made for me—only to remember that I didn’t have it anymore. Goddamned Niall! If I lived, I was going to send him back to the desert—this time the freaking Gobi.
I jerked open a cabinet door and crawled inside.
It wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. I had to find something made of iron and I had to do it quick. It was either that or use the only weapon I had on me, and while I’d killed when I had no other choice, it had never been some poor schmuck who nobody had bothered to tell that dating me was a hazardous occupation.
I really didn’t want to send him back to Jonas in a body bag. I really, really didn’t. Even when knives started slamming through the cabinets and ricocheting back and forth in the small space like BBs in a jar. They also let in slivers of light that glinted off pots and pans and colanders and bowls, all nice, modern, worthless stainless without an iron skillet in the bunch.
And then a knife bisected a water line under the sink, spewing me in the face.
I was only blinded for a second, but it was long enough for a hand to reach in and jerk me out—by the hair. It hurt bad enough to bring tears to my eyes, but it also left me with an opportunity. Fucking Sahara, I thought viciously, and then I grabbed a knife out of a block and slashed—my own curls.
The sudden loss of his handhold caused the mage to stumble. And then my foot in his ass caused him to sprawl on the floor. And then I stepped on his shoulders and heard his face smack against the tile as I ran full out for the hall, screaming for Billy and my useless, useless bodyguards—
I didn’t make it.
Halfway there, a blast picked me up and sent me hurtling toward the far wall of the lounge. My feet left the floor, my head hit the wall and pain lanced through my skull. But that wasn’t the main problem. That would be the film of what felt like hard plastic flattening me against the dark red wallpaper like a bug under cellophane.
Make that shrink-wrapped cellophane, because in another second it had molded to every inch of my body, including my nose and mouth and eyes. I struggled furiously, feeling the possessed mage approach, even though I couldn’t turn my head to see him. I also couldn’t twitch a finger or contract my throat to swallow or blink my drying eyes or—
Suddenly, it was like being in the bathtub all over again, unable to move or breathe or even to cry out for help. And isn’t that just the wrong analogy? I thought, as stark terror hit me like a fist. My heart sped out of control, my palms started sweating, and my stomach twisted violently, until I was sure I was going to be sick right here.
In desperation, I tried to shift, because I needed to go only a foot or so. But this time, nothing happened. I could close my eyes and see the bright, familiar energy, like an ocean of power sparkling in the sunlight. But I couldn’t reach it. It was trapped by the weird, cottony feeling in my head, just like the bracelet that formed my only weapon lay locked tight and useless between me and the wall.
And then the mage came up alongside.
The pleasant-looking face didn’t look so pleasant anymore, distorted by the thick, wavy barrier like an image in a fun house mirror. But I could see him pretty well anyway, because he bent close, close, so very close. Like he wanted to see my expression at the end.
Only the end didn’t come.
Of course not, I thought blankly. Why waste the energy to kill me when all he had to do was stand by and watch me suffocate? I was trapped like an animal, splayed out like a trophy already mounted on the wall. Any minute now I was going to go from living human being to useless piece of meat, those pitch-black eyes watching as my spirit finally gave up the fight and left my lifeless—
Some idea skittered across my brain, just out of reach. I couldn’t grasp it, could barely think at all, because I was panicking—oh yes, I was—even though someone had warned me about that, had said it was the very best way to die in a situation where you didn’t have to. And he’d said something else, something he’d pounded into my head so many times I’d gotten sick of the very word—
An image of a pair of furious green eyes floated across my vision. Assess. The problem. Now.
Okay, okay. For some reason, help couldn’t get to me, so I needed to get to help.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move. Not an inch, so how could I—
But that wasn’t right. My body couldn’t move. My spirit was a totally different thing. Because I was Pythia. And Pythias could leave their bodies, could shift into other people’s, could—
But I couldn’t shift, at least not now. And that meant I couldn’t reach the safety of another body, couldn’t do anything except...
Yes, I could do that. I could just leave my body behind as if I’d already died. But since I hadn’t yet, it should serve as an anchor holding me to this world. But I didn’t really see the point, as it would leave me merely an unhoused spirit, no better than a ghost. Worse, in fact, since a ghost had a renewable source of energy, and mine would be left behind as soon as I—
As soon as—
I couldn’t think, couldn’t finish the thought, because I was losing consciousness. And that meant end and that meant fail and that meant death, and whatever I was going to do, I had to do it, I had to—
And then I was stumbling backward, dizzy and disoriented and sick, but not as sick as when I caught sight of my body. Tiny and pale and helpless, it lay huddled against the wall, hair smushed around distorted features, face bleached bone white out of fear. The same fear that had one hand locked, white-knuckled, on the edge of a door, a door it couldn’t go through.
But I could, and I didn’t waste any time, diving past the mage and my own almost corpse and into the blessed darkness of the hall.
I called for Billy, desperately, because if anyone knew about these kinds of things, it was him. But either he was out for the count or he’d gone off somewhere, because I didn’t even get a blip in response. This time, it looked like I was on my own.
That was true even when I finally found my bodyguards hanging out in a spare bedroom, playing poker. And weren’t they just looking relaxed. Ties were loosened, collars were popped and a bucket of ice sat on the floor with a dozen frosty longnecks poking out of the top. I guess so they wouldn’t have to make the huge trek all the way to the kitchen.
Where, you know, they might have seen someone trying to kill me.
“Comfy?” I asked harshly, but of course nobody heard.
I watched them play cards for a second, happy and carefree and unconcerned about the knife-wielding mage prowling the apartment or my trip to la-la land or anything but their stupid, stupid game, which I sent flying with a sudden swipe of my hand. Bills fluttered, chips flew, and cards reshuffled themselves all over the floor. And that was before I tipped over their damn card table.
Of course, I knew this wasn’t how it was supposed to work. The name of the game for ghosts was to preserve energy. To guard every tiny scrap carefully, jealously, spending it in little dribs and drabs and only when absolutely necessary. Because to run out was to die.
But I was about to die anyway, and I didn’t give a crap about the rules. I wasn’t trying to conserve energy; I was spending it all in one last, crazy spree. At least I’ll go out with a bang, I thought, laughing hysterically. And then I grabbed a beer and threw it at the nearest vamp’s head.
I missed, but it made a satisfying thump when it hit the wall, so I did it again. And again and again as the vamps stumbled back, knocking over chairs and staring around wildly. Several pulled guns, but they had nothing to shoot.
“Why do I have bodyguards, huh?” I yelled, throwing a bottle against the dresser, which exploded with a satisfying crash.
“What is the freaking point?” Another hit the mirror, leaving a big web of cracks radiating out from the center.
“We have to watch you sleep, Cassie!” Thud.
“And eat, Cassie!” Bang.
“And paint your freaking toenails, Cassie!” Smash.
“And dog your every step, Cassie!” Splinter.
“But when someone is actually trying to kill me, what the hell are you doing?” A bottle took out the overhead fixture, shattering the decorative shell and raining sparks down onto the already freaked-out vampires.
And then I stopped, not because I’d run out of things to say, but because one of the vamps had caught sight of the mysteriously floating beer bottle. And it seemed to piss him off. “I have had enough of this shit,” he announced viciously, lining up a shot.
I didn’t bother moving; I just waggled the bottle provocatively. “Want it, motherfucker? Want it? Then come get it!” And then I ran like hell.
A bullet smashed into the wall beside me, another shattered a hallway light and a third tore through a pretty little painting, drilling the girl on the swing straight between the eyes. I didn’t care; I was more concerned about the girl on the wall, who was looking pretty damn blue and pretty damn dead. I stopped for a split second, staring in horror at my slack features and my lifeless face, and then I was merging with my poor abused body and—
Until someone started screaming. “Don’t you die, don’t you die, don’t you fucking die on me—”
And someone was pounding my chest and someone else was forcing smoke-flavored breath down my throat, and he really needed to gargle because that was just gross, and then I was choking and gasping and flailing weakly and Marco was dragging me against his huge, rapidly moving chest. “Are you all right? Are you fucking all right?” he yelled right in my face.
“Urp,” I said brilliantly. And then I threw up on him.
I thought there was a good chance the fridge was possessed.
It was subtle about it, but I had its number. I knew its ways. Oh yes.
“How the hell did nobody hear him?” someone demanded harshly. I couldn’t see who it was because he was outside the kitchen. But it sounded sort of like Marco. Or like Marco might sound if he wanted to bite someone’s head off their body.
One of the vamps must have thought so, too, because he was awfully tentative when he answered. “He . . . apparently, the mage threw a silence spell over the lounge. We couldn’t hear any—”
“I’m more interested in why you couldn’t see. All of you congregated in one place, with not a single fucking one watching your fucking charge—”
“The apartment was supposed to be empty!” Another, slightly less cowed voice said. “And she hates it when we hover—”
“Then you play pool, you play cards, you watch without making it obvious. But you fucking well watch!” Something crashed into a wall.
Nobody said anything that time. Or maybe I just wasn’t listening. After all, someone had to keep an eye on the fridge.
There were slash marks in the front, spaced evenly like evil eyes, glowing with yellow light from the inside. And that couldn’t be the usual fridge light, could it? Wasn’t that supposed to go out when the door was closed? I thought I saw something move behind one of the slashes, but then I blinked and it was gone.
Oh yes. I knew.
Pritkin came in and knelt by my chair. “You can’t go to sleep yet, Cassie,” he told me, handing me a heart murmur in a mug. It smelled good, but not good enough to wake up for. I mumbled something and turned over, burying my face in the nice, warm shoulder someone had thoughtfully provided.
Only to be hauled up again.
So I sighed and snuggled into a nice, warm chest instead.
“Drink.” My hands were wrapped around the mug.
I pushed it away. “Don’ wanna. Wanna sleep.”
“Then why am I in bed?”
He sighed and pulled me to a sitting position, putting the mug firmly in my hands. “A healer is coming and he wants you to stay awake until he arrives, all right?”
I drank some too-hot coffee and scowled at him, annoyed although I couldn’t remember why. The light from the lounge was leaking in, highlighting his spiky blond hair. I decided that must be it.
“You really hate my hair, don’t you?” he asked, a smile flickering over his lips so fast I might have imagined it.
I reached out to touch it, and was surprised as always to find it mostly soft. Just a little stiff in places from whatever product he used on it. It felt weird, imagining Pritkin having anything in his hair but sweat. But he must have; nobody’s did that all on its own.
“It’s like . . . angry hair,” I said, trying to pat it down and failing miserably.
He caught my wrist. “Most people would say that suits me.”
“I’m not most people.”
I went back to watching the fridge. I could see the door over Pritkin’s shoulder, and it wasn’t closed after all. It was very slightly open, like a panting mouth. And some kind of multicolored mucus was dripping out the bottom.
Condiments, I told myself firmly.
Or so it wanted me to think.
“Dryden’s finished hugging the toilet,” one of the vamps said, walking into the kitchen. “Do we need to dose her, too?”
“She took care of that herself,” Marco said, joining the party. He’d pulled off the barfed-on shirt but hadn’t yet bothered to go to his room for another one. That left him in dark gray slacks, a pair of Ferragamo loafers and a lot of hair.
A lot of hair. It was even on his shoulders. It was like a pelt.
He crouched down on the other side of me. “You’re really hairy,” I told him, impressed.
“And you’re really stoned.”
I thought about that for a moment. It seemed like an outside possibility. “Why am I stoned?”
“It was the goddamned chocolates. I always taste everything before you eat it, yet I sat right there and watched you scarf half the damn—”
“You couldn’t know.”
“It’s my goddamned job to know!”
I sighed and pulled his curly head to me. He was warm and fuzzy, like a big teddy bear. A big teddy bear with fangs.
I patted him softly.
“Why didn’t the wards detect that shit?” one of the other guards demanded angrily. He was a redhead, his fiery hair worn in a slick style that went with his natty blue-plaid suit. He was one of the ones who had made fun of the mage when he first arrived, but who’d let him follow us in. I wondered if he’d caught flak for that.
“They detect poison,” Pritkin told him. “This was a narcotic.”
“What the hell was the point in that?”
“Probably hoped she’d eat enough to kill her,” Marco said savagely. “Don’t have to be poison to do the job if you consume enough of it! But even one or two pieces would make sure she couldn’t shift away from that asshole.”
“That asshole ate half the box himself,” Pritkin said, “hoping he’d pass out before that creature could make use of him.”
“Then why the hell didn’t he?”
“He doubtless would have, given more time. Unfortunately, our meeting broke up too soon and Cassie found the box—”
A phone rang. Marco pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the readout. “I gotta get the rest of my ass chewed off by the master,” he told me. “Think you can maybe not die for five minutes?”
“I’ll try,” I told him seriously.
“You know, if anyone else said that, it would be funny.” He left.
“What I don’t get is how that thing knew that particular mage would get in,” another vamp said. He was a tall brunet in nice tan jacket that was now covered in beer. “We’d been tossing them out on their fortune-hunting asses all day. He’d have gone the same way if he hadn’t shown up with the Lord Protector.”
“Maybe that’s what it was waiting for,” a third vamp said, glancing around. He was another brunet, in shirtsleeves and dark brown slacks. A bright blue tie was askew under one ear, but he didn’t appear to have noticed. “It could have been there all morning, watching us, waiting for someone to get in. . . .”
“Someone who just happened to have poisoned chocolates?” the redhead asked sarcastically.
“They weren’t poisoned,” the brunet said, scowling. “And he could have gotten them—”
“Where? At the gift shop?” The redhead rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’ll take the drugged kind, please. Do you have any in mint?”
“Well, you sound like an idiot! Obviously, the bastard brought them with him, meaning this wasn’t random opportunity. It was planned.”
“I agree,” Pritkin said, causing their heads to swivel back his way. “But not by him.”
“You would say that,” the redhead sneered. “Then where did he get the damn things?”
“He brought the candy with him, but it wasn’t drugged. He said he did that later, under the influence of the entity.”
Pritkin reached into a pocket and tossed something to the vamp, who caught it easily. It was a little vial, the type war mages wore in bandoliers or on their belts. A lot of them were filled with dark, sludgy substances that sometimes moved on their own, but this one was just plain, colorless liquid.
“And this does what?” the vamp asked, wisely not opening it.
Pritkin didn’t reply. He just knelt beside me, green eyes assessing. He held up a finger. “Cassie, can you tell me how many—”
I grabbed it and laughed.
He looked over his shoulder at the vamp. “That,” he said drily.
“What the hell was he carrying this shit around for?” the second vamp demanded.
“It’s useful in making captures, subduing difficult prisoners.” Pritkin shrugged.
“Then . . . this is a weapon.”
“But he was going on a date.”
Pritkin looked confused. “Yes?”
The redhead threw his hands up.
“How do we know the mage was really possessed?” a skinny blond asked, leaning over the counter. “Maybe somebody hired him—”
“He’s been in the Corps for seventeen years,” Pritkin said.
“And mages can’t be bribed?”
“He also comes from a wealthy, prominent family. He has no need—”
“That guy?” the blond asked incredulously.
“He didn’t dress like it,” the redhead sniffed.
“Not everyone cares about such things,” Pritkin said.
The redhead looked him over. “Obviously.”
“Blackmail, then,” Tan Jacket put in. “Maybe somebody had something on him.”
“There will be an investigation,” Pritkin told him. “But his actions speak for him. If—”
“His actions? He tried to kill her!”
“He tried to save her. Not only did he attempt to eat the chocolates whenever he was lucid enough, but he also slowed down his reflexes in the fight, skewed his aim. And when she ran, he threw a nonlethal spell instead of a fireball. He fought it every step of the way—”
“And we know this how? Because he told you?” Tan Jacket interrupted.
“We know this because she’s still alive!” Pritkin snapped. “Essentially, he and Cassie were both fighting it. He bought her time, and she used it, brilliantly.”
He bent over and topped off my coffee cup. Pritkin hadn’t shaved for a few days, and I put my hand to his cheek. “Fuzzy,” I told him seriously.
“I don’t understand why this thing needed to hitch a ride in the first place,” the redhead said. “If it’s powerful enough to possess a war mage—”
“Anyone can be possessed if his guard is down,” Pritkin said curtly. “And no one’s is up every minute.”
“It didn’t possess one of us,” the vamp pointed out snottily.
“Vampires are more difficult,” Pritkin admitted. “You can be possessed, but it takes considerably more energy than possessing a human. The creature might not have had the strength to manage it and also force you to attack.”
“But why did it need someone else to attack at all? If it’s such a big, bad evil entity, why not go after her itself?”
“It already tried that—” Pritkin said.
“It tried to possess her, not simply attack her. If it can get past the wards, why not go for an all-out assault?”
Pritkin shrugged. “In Faerie, it doubtless would have. But outside its own world, its power is weakened.”
“We still don’t know that it’s Fey,” the vamp said.
“Yes, we do,” a new voice said hoarsely.
I looked up to find a slim blond figure standing in the doorway to the kitchen. For a frozen second, I looked at him and he looked at me, and then I screamed and threw my coffee, which hit him square in the groin. And I guess that didn’t feel too good because he screamed, too, and for a minute there was a whole lot of screaming going on.
Then Pritkin put a heavy hand on my shoulder and I belatedly noticed that Dryden was flanked by a couple of vamps, each of whom had one of his arms. It looked less like they were restraining him than holding him up. And then I noticed other things, like the fact that his eyes were back to blue and his nose was all bloody and he was pale and shaky and his nice suit was torn and dripping coffee.
He smelled like hot sauce.
“Sorry,” I told him.
Dryden didn’t say anything. He just stood there and shook at me.
Pritkin handed him some paper towels. “How do you know?”
Dryden swallowed and dabbed at his crotch. “My . . . my great-grandmother was Fey,” he said shakily. “Somehow, it knew that. It tried to talk to me—”
“I’m . . . not sure. I—”
“You don’t know the language?”
“A little, but—”
“Then take a guess!”
“That’s what I’m trying to do, if you’ll give me a chance!” he snapped, tossing the wet paper towels in the trash. “I only caught maybe one word in ten, but I think . . . I think it was trying to apologize.”
“Apologize?” The redheaded vamp sneered. “For what?”
Dryden scowled and flailed a hand angrily. “For this? For almost getting me killed? For almost making me—” he broke off and glanced at me, and his lips tightened. “I don’t know. I didn’t get that much. Just something like ‘they made me do it,’ and that she was afraid of them—”
“She?” the vamp asked.
“Yes. It . . . She . . . I think it was female. It was using the female form of address, anyway. Like I told you, my grasp of the language isn’t good and that goes double for the High Court dialect—”
“High Court?” That was Pritkin.
“It’s the version of the language spoken at court—”
“I know what it is,” Pritkin snapped. “How did you recognize it?”
“Because my grandmother spoke it!”
“And your grandmother was?”
“A Selkie noblewoman.”
Pritkin cursed. “Dark Fey.”
The mage didn’t deign to respond to that. He looked at me and took a deep breath. “Before I left, I just wanted to say . . . thank you.” It came out a little strangled.
I thought about it for a moment. “You’re welcome?”
“Do you know what I’m thanking you for?”
Damn. I’d hoped he wouldn’t ask that. It couldn’t be for lunch, since we’d never had any.
And I guessed we wouldn’t now, what with a possessed fridge and all.
“No?” I said, figuring I had a fifty-fifty shot.
He knelt in front of my chair, or maybe his legs collapsed; I don’t know. He wasn’t looking so good. “I know what that is,” he said hoarsely, nodding at my wrist, where my bracelet of interlocking knives lay hard and cold against my skin. “It’s my job at the Corps to disenchant confiscated dark objects and . . . I’ve seen one like it before.”
His eyes searched my face. He seemed to be waiting on some kind of response. So I nodded.
“You could have killed me,” he said. And then he kissed my hand. “Thank you.”
He just stayed like that for a while, head down, on one knee, like a supplicant in front of a priest. Or like a guy making a marriage proposal. I started to get nervous. Because the last thing I needed was another one of those.
I decided to let him down easy.
“You seem like a nice guy,” I told him. “I mean, you know, when you’re not trying to kill me. I just . . .” I sighed and came out with it. “I just really don’t want to date you.”
He suddenly looked up. His eyes were wet, but his smile was blinding. “Then it seems I have something else to thank you for.”
According to the alarm clock on my nightstand, I slept for seven hours, despite already having slept for most of the day. It was almost midnight when I rolled out, groggy and thickheaded and gritty-eyed and yucky. And saw a man in the corner of my room.
I didn’t scream, because the man was a) sitting down, b) reading a paper and c) had the golden-eyed glow typical of Mircea’s masters. I just snatched up the sheet, because I’d been too high to worry about pj’s, and scanned the room for more. But I didn’t see any, unless they were hiding in the closet or under the bed.
And wasn’t that just a fun thought?
“What are you doing here?” I demanded after a moment.
He didn’t bother to reply, just flipped over another page.
“You’re not supposed to be in my room!”
Talking to a vamp who’s not in the mood is one of life’s biggest time wasters, so I didn’t try. I also didn’t attempt to budge him, because master vamps go wherever they damn well please. I just wrapped the sheet around me and dragged myself off to the bathroom.
I stood in the cool air for a minute while my eyes adjusted to the brilliant light on all that tile. But even after they did, I still stayed where I was, one hand on the doorknob, like I was waiting for something. It finally occurred to me that I was expecting another freak-out, only my body didn’t seem interested. It felt chilly and kind of achy and kind of high. But not particularly panicked. I gave it a little longer, until I started to feel stupid; then I dropped the sheet and checked out the damage.
It wasn’t all that bad. Other than putting a new bruise on my ass and a lump on my head, I’d come out pretty good this round. Whatever is trying to kill me is obviously going to have to step up its game, I thought viciously, and looked in the mirror.
I might not have been too beaten up, but I still looked like hell, especially my hair. Not only was it still faintly green, but it was now missing a large chunk. I pushed it around for a while with clumsy fingers, but nothing seemed to help. I tried parting it different, but the only way that kind of worked looked suspiciously like a middle-aged guy’s comb-over. And it still left me looking like something had taken a bite out of my head.
Damn it all! Not so long ago, my hair had been a shimmering red-gold wave that cascaded down my back like a cloak. It had been my one claim to real beauty, and I’d cried like a baby when I had to cut it while on the run from Tony, because it was too recognizable.
I didn’t cry this time. I was too freaking mad. I just brushed my teeth, washed my face and dragged my big wad of fabric back to the bedroom.
The vamp still didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I also didn’t turn on a light, which was stupid, because he could probably see about the same either way. But it made me feel more naked to have it on, which was why it took five minutes of hunting and grumbling and falling and cursing around in the closet to find what I wanted.
I finally emerged with an old Georgia Bulldogs baseball cap, a pair of silky blue track shorts and a faded pink tank top from my comfort-clothes stash. None of it matched, but right then, I didn’t give a damn. I hauled everything back to the bathroom, and after dressing and combing and slapping on some mascara, I decided I looked mostly normal.
If normal people had green hair and wore hats indoors.
The vamp folded his paper and got to his feet when I started out the door, even though there was another guard just outside. He was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, looking bored and butt-sore. He didn’t say anything and neither did I. I just padded across the hall to the living room, because stomping doesn’t work so well in bare feet and on carpet.
The rest of the crew was in the lounge, playing cards. Of course they were. I felt like asking them if that’s how they’d envisioned spending eternity, but I had other things on my mind.
Marco was sitting at the card table, doing one of his fancy shuffles. He looked up and a smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. “What?” I demanded.
“You and the bulldog got the same expression.”
“Very funny! What the hell—”
He held up a hand. “First of all, how you doing?”
“I’m fine! Or I would be if—”
“You sure? We got the doc on standby.”
I scowled. That was where that sadist could stay, too. “No, thanks. And can we—”
“You hungry? ’Cause we got Chinese coming.”
“Not from room service; from that little place around the corner. Kung pao chicken, ginger beef—”
He sighed and gave it up. “I told the master this was how you were gonna react. But you gotta see that it makes sense, at least until we figure this thing out.”
“It does not make sense! There’s nobody in the apartment but us, and the creature can’t possess a vamp—”
“We don’t know that.”
“—or it would have already done it instead of hanging around the foyer, waiting for Mr. Mage to show up.”
“Mr. Mage,” one of the vamps said. “I like that. I’m gonna start calling all of ’em that.”
“I can think of a few things to call them,” another one muttered.
“And if you think it can possess a vamp, this makes even less sense,” I pointed out. “You just left me alone in my room with one for hours!”
“You’re right,” he told me.
“Yeah. We obviously need two.”
He held up placating hands. “Just kidding.”
“This isn’t funny. It’s like being a freaking prisoner!”
He started to answer, but the phone rang. It wasn’t the main line, but a black cell phone sitting on the card table. Marco picked it up, glanced at the readout, scowled and hung up. He looked at me. “Better than being a freaking corpse.”
“Didn’t you hear me? This isn’t going to help!”
“It will if that thing goes after you. It already possessed you once—”
“And won’t again.” I pulled out Pritkin’s little amulet. He’d left me another one before he took the mage off to the Corps’ version of a hospital. It might be stinky, but I liked it a lot better than the alternative.
“That only works on Fey,” Marco pointed out, wrinkling his nose.
“Which this thing is.”
“Which this thing may be. That ain’t been decided yet.”
“It spoke in a Fey dialect—”
“And demons don’t know that shit? If it’s trying to throw us off, of course it’s gonna pretend to be something else.”
“Or maybe it really was trying to communicate.”
“For what? To apologize?” Marco’s tone said clearly what he thought about that. He dealt another round. “Anyway, until we get some solid proof of what we’re dealing with here, the master don’t want to take chances.”
“That isn’t his call. It’s my life!”
“Yeah, well. You’re gonna have to take that up with him.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Fine, I will. Get him on the phone.”
“And why not?”
“He’s in a high-level meeting—”
“—and told me not to disturb him until morning.”
“Then get a note to him.”
“That would be disturbing.”
“Damn it, Marco!”
The phone rang. He glanced at it, sighed and put it back down again. “Look, it’s only for a little while—”
“Oh, please!” I couldn’t believe he was trying that. “Sell it to someone else. I know how these things work!”
He took his smelly cigar out of his mouth and rested it on the ashtray. “And how do they work?”
“I go along with this now, and I’ll have Mutt and Jeff here dogging my every step for the rest of my damn life!”
The taller vamp looked at the shorter one. “Guess that makes you Jeff.”
“I ain’t no Jeff. He was a crazy little bugger.”
“Well, Mutt was an idiot.”
“They were both idiots, and shut up,” Marco told them. He looked at me. “You know I don’t have any say over this. But you’re already up now, so it don’t matter anyway. And you can talk to the master in the morning.”
I just stood there for a moment, debating options. Because giving in, even for a few hours, wasn’t smart. Give a vamp an inch and he wouldn’t take a mile; he’d take the whole damn continent.
My stomach growled.
“Kung pao chicken,” Marco wheedled.
Mircea and I clearly needed to have a conversation, but I also needed to eat. And only one was currently available. And I was starving.
“Oh, shut up,” I told him.
I sighed. “You order egg rolls?”
Marco spread his hands. “Please.”
I decided that I’d bargain better on a full stomach, and swiped a beer. He dealt me in, and I grabbed a chair before looking at my cards hopefully. Nothing—not even a pair of twos.
The phone rang.
“Can’t you turn that off?” one of the guards groused. He was an attractive blond I didn’t recognize. Probably one of the new guys.
“It’s my private line. Could be important,” Marco told him tersely.
“Your private line? How the hell—”
“I don’t know, but I’m getting it changed tomorrow. Just play your cards.”
“I would if I ever got any worth a damn,” the guy muttered.
They anted up. I folded. The phone rang.
“Damn it, Marco! I can’t play with that thing going off every five seconds!”
“Then don’t play,” Marco told him.
“Just tell the mage to go fuck himself—”
“What mage?” I asked, and everyone froze.
“Thank you,” Marco told the guy viciously.
The phone rang. Marco had left it on the table, and it had jittered its way over to me. So I picked it up. “Don’t,” he said.
I flipped it open and checked the readout. PRITKIN. I shot Marco a look and put the phone to my ear. “Hel—”
“Goddamnit, Marco, you’re supposed to be—” He cut off abruptly. “Cassie?”
“What is it?” I asked, feeling my heart rate speed up.
“There’s no emergency—not right now,” he said, apparently hearing the alarm in my voice. “But I need to see you. I’m coming up.”
“The hell you are,” Marco said, grabbing back the phone. “I already told you—”
“I want to see him,” I said, crossing my arms.
Marco looked at me, clearly frustrated. “You need to rest!”
“I’m playing cards and drinking beer. How is that not resting?”
“You were gonna go back to bed soon.”
“I slept all day!”
The doorbell rang.
Marco got to his feet, looking conflicted.
“What are you going to do—bar the door?” I asked, also standing up.
“I got orders,” he said defensively.
“Mircea told you to lock Pritkin out?”
“Just for tonight. He don’t want the mage here while you’re vulnerable.”
“He’s my bodyguard! When I’m vulnerable is when I need him!”
“Look, you really gotta—”
“Take that up with Mircea,” I finished for him.
“Fine. I will.” I pressed the menu button on Marco’s phone.
And there it was. I hit the button. The phone rang.
“Yes?” The familiar voice was smooth, with no sign of irritation. Not yet.
“You said you weren’t going to do this.”
There was a pause. “Cassandra.”
“Wow, we just leapt right to it there, didn’t we?” I asked, furious.
“You are supposed to be asleep.”
“I was. And then I got up to discover that I’m a prisoner.”
“You are not a prisoner.”
“Then I can leave?”
Another pause. “In the morning, when you can shift.”
“So I’m only a prisoner for the night, is that it?”
“It is for your protection.”
“And how does that work, exactly? I’ve been assaulted twice. And where have they both been again?”
“You were vulnerable the first time due to our ignorance of the threat. You were vulnerable the second because a mage provided a conduit for the creature—”
“And that explains why I can’t see Pritkin?”
A third pause. That had to be some kind of record. Mircea usually had the defense prepared.
“No. Considering the probable nature of the entity that has been attacking you, I consider the warlock to be a threat in his own right.”
“He had a demon servant at one time, did he not? Encased in that battle golem he devised?”
I frowned. “I guess.”
“Then he is a warlock, not merely a mage. Only warlocks can summon demons to their aid.”
“Is there a point?”
“Merely that warlocks are a notoriously unstable class. They are prone to strange behavior, increasingly so as they age, with some going mad over time. It is one reason that many mages avoid the specialization, despite the added power it gives them.”
“But Jonas had a golem once,” I protested. “He told me so.”
“Forgive me, Cassie, but Jonas Marsden is hardly an example of well-adjusted behavior!”
“And we are discussing the warlock Pritkin.”
Actually, we weren’t. Because Pritkin wasn’t a warlock. His ability with demons came not through some arcane magic, but because he was half demon himself. His father was Rosier, Lord of the Incubi, which made Pritkin sort of a demon prince. Or something. I really didn’t know what it made him, since he hated that part of his lineage and almost never talked about it. But I didn’t think mentioning that I was being guarded by the son of a prince of hell was likely to go well.
Of course, neither was this.
“He’s a friend.”
“Those creatures are not friends, Cassie! They are selfserving, power-hungry—”
“They say the same thing about vamps.”
“—and unpredictable. Not to mention that this one may well be part demon himself.”
“That is the rumor Kit has been hearing. And it would explain why he heals so quickly, how he has lived—”
“A lot of people are part one thing, part another—”
“But most of them don’t bother to cover up large areas of their past. Yet despite all of Kit’s efforts, he has been unable to discover anything about the man before the last century—”
“Because he wasn’t born then!”
“We both know that isn’t the case.”
I didn’t say anything. Mircea had recently seen Pritkin on a trip we’d taken back in time. And while mages tended to live a century or more longer than most humans, it was kind of hard to explain why he’d aged maybe five years in a couple hundred.
Of course, I didn’t intend to try. I didn’t think that explaining that Pritkin had been in hell for much of his life was likely to make him seem more trustworthy.
“I would like you to consider dismissing the man,” Mircea said suddenly. It caught me off guard, which I suspected was the point.
“I can’t do that.”
“I need him,” I said flatly. “If he hadn’t been training me, I might have died—”
“Or you might not have been in danger at all. Have you noticed that your problems with demonkind always seem to come when the warlock is around?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“That perhaps he is the source of the threat, rather than its solution.”
“Is it? I know only that every time you have trouble with demons, he is there.”
“He’s my bodyguard! He’s supposed to be—”
“You have bodyguards.”
“Yeah, only I think most of them would like a new assignment. And this wasn’t a demon.”
“According to him.”
“Well, I trust him!”
Pause number four. “And I do not.”
And there it was, as plain as any challenge ever given. And to underscore it, as if anything else was needed, Marco quietly took the phone out of my hand and put it in his back pocket. His expression said clearly that it wasn’t coming out again.
All right, then.
The doorbell rang.
I glanced around the room. One thing about Vegas hotels, especially those built before the widespread use of cell phones, is that they put land lines everywhere. Busy executives needed instant access to the empires they were gambling away and wouldn’t stay anywhere that didn’t offer it. As a result, there were no fewer than three telephones in sight—one in the living room, one in the bar and one sitting on the counter in the kitchen.
And a vamp was casually loitering near every one of them.
I turned on my heel and went back to my room.
Unsurprisingly, there was no cell phone in my purse. I hadn’t really expected one. When a master vampire gave an order, his men were thorough in carrying it out. And Marco had never been a slouch. But there were things that a vamp might not notice, especially one who had been around as long as he had.
I went back to the bathroom, turned on the exhaust fan and the shower and blasted Led Zeppelin from the built-in radio.
Vampires don’t use bathrooms all that much, especially the toilet facilities. And, of course, housekeeping kept the place clean. As a result, I was willing to bet that the guys outside had never bothered to so much as crack the door on the toilet cubicle.
And then I knew they hadn’t, when I opened it and saw what I’d expected—yet another phone, this one mounted on the wall. It was big and kind of complicated-looking, like something that ought to have been on the desk of an executive secretary, not sitting above the toilet-tissue dispenser. But it was there, and when I lifted the receiver, I got a dial tone.
Pritkin picked up on the first ring, like he’d been expecting a call. “Do you still have Jonas’s keys?” I asked quietly.
There was silence for a beat, as if he hadn’t been expecting that. But he recovered fast. “See what I can do.”
He hung up and so did I. After waiting another few minutes, I turned off the water and went back to my room. I couldn’t change clothes, because somebody might notice. But I put on a bra, jammed my feet into an old pair of Keds and shoved some cash and my keys into my pocket. Then I went back into the lounge.
The guys were still playing poker, quietly now, as there was no need to keep up audible patter for the human. So they didn’t fall silent when I entered and picked up my half-finished beer. But ten pairs of eyes watched as I made my way across to the living room and then to the balcony.
The wind chimes were tinkling in the breeze blowing off the desert. It was hot, but after the deep freeze the vamps had going on inside, it felt good. I hung over the rail and drank my beer and waited.
“Is there a problem?” Marco asked, sticking his head out the door.
“Need some air.”
He looked at me suspiciously, but I guess his orders stopped short of actually confining me to my room. He went back to the game, and I went back to my beer. I hadn’t even finished it when my ride showed up.
“Best I could do on short notice,” Pritkin told me, grabbing my arm as I scrambled over the railing. And into the front seat of a beat-up green convertible that was idling in the air twenty stories up.
“No problem,” I told him, hanging on for dear life as the rattletrap belched smoke into the startled faces of half a dozen vamps, who had taken a fraction of a second too long to figure out what was going on.
“Cassie!” I heard Marco’s infuriated bellow behind me. But by then we were out of there, soaring away into the star-shot indigo high above the Strip.
“You coldhearted son of a bitch.”
Pritkin looked up from perusing the stained piece of paper posing as a menu and gave me what he probably thought were innocent eyes. They weren’t. I didn’t think that was an expression he was all that familiar with. “Is there a problem?”
“You feed me tofu while you’ve been eating here?” I gestured around at the cracked Formica, orange Naugahyde and grimy windows of what had to be the greasiest greasy spoon in Vegas.
“No one eats healthy all the time.”
“That’s not what you always say!”
“And do you listen to what I say?”
“Yes.” He just looked at me. “Sometimes.”
“Which is the point. If I told you to eat well merely most of the time, then you’d do it occasionally at best.”
I started to reply to that, and then realized I didn’t have one. “So why bring me here now?”
“Because some days, everyone needs pizza.”
That, at least, we could agree on. He ordered for us, which normally would have annoyed me, but there wasn’t much of a menu to choose from. This wasn’t so much a restaurant as a dive, and you either ordered pizza and beer or you went home.
Unless you ordered ice cream. I decided on a chocolate shake instead of more beer, and although Pritkin didn’t say anything, his expression was eloquent. “You’re going to run it off me anyway,” I pointed out.
“Anything else?” he asked drily. “Onion rings? Pie?”
“They have pie?”
“No.” It was emphatic.
I was in too good of a mood to argue the point. The seat was sticking to my thighs, a broken spring was stabbing my left butt cheek, and the air-conditioning, while present, was completely inadequate for August in Nevada. But I was out. I’d won this round. And tonight, I’d take what victories I could get.
“Are you going to explain what’s going on?” he asked, after the waitress left. “When I tried—”
“Wait a minute.”
There was an old jukebox in the corner, with dirty glass and yellowed titles, not one of which was less than twenty years old. But it had Joan Jett’s entire repertoire, so I fed it a couple of quarters and punched in a selection. The sound quality wasn’t the best, but that wasn’t my main interest, anyway.
“It’s Mircea,” I said, when I rejoined him. “He’s got this crazy idea that you’re a danger.”
Pritkin’s jaw tightened. “I know.”
“You know? Has he said—”
“He didn’t have to. But you may assure him that I am no threat in that regard.”
“I have,” I said impatiently. “But when these things keep happening—”
“They do not keep happening. It was one time.”
I frowned. “One time?”
For some reason, he flushed. “Of any consequence.”
“Well, excuse me for thinking they were all pretty important!” Any time something was trying to kill me, I took it seriously.
Pritkin ran a hand through his hair, which didn’t need the added torture. “I didn’t mean to downplay the significance of what occurred—”
“I would hope not!”
“—merely to assure you that it won’t happen again.”
“You can’t know that.”
Green eyes met mine, with what looked like anger in them. “Yes, I bloody well can!”
I just sat there, confused, as he abruptly got up and went over to the jukebox. He received a glance from a woman in a nearby booth on the way, and it lingered. He was still in the same jeans as earlier, having just thrown a gray-green T-shirt over the top. Although you couldn’t see much of it because of the long leather trench he wore to cover up the arsenal all war mages carted around.
But he’d somehow jammed everything under there without noticeable bulges, because the dark brown leather fit his broad shoulders sleekly. Likewise, the soft, old jeans hugged a rock-hard physique, and the T-shirt brought out the brilliant color of his eyes. Pritkin would never be conventionally handsome; his nose was too big, he missed six feet by at least three inches and he only remembered to shave about half the time.
But I didn’t have any trouble understanding why she was staring.
“This is what you listen to?” he demanded, his back to me as he perused song titles.
“It’s ‘I Love Rock ’n Roll.’ It’s a classic.”
That got me a dark glance thrown over his shoulder, but he didn’t say anything. He just dug a couple of quarters out of his jeans and made a selection of his own. And oh, my God.
“What’s wrong with Johnny Cash?” he asked, sitting back down.
“What’s right about him?”
“Country is based on folk music, which has been around for centuries—”
“So has the plague.”
“—longer than the so-called ‘classics.’ For thousands of years, bards sang about the same basic themes—love and loss, lust and betrayal—and ended up influencing everyone from Bach to Beethoven.”
“So Johnny Cash is Beethoven?”
“Of his day.”
I rolled my eyes. That was just so wrong. But at least “Ring of Fire” covered the conversation pretty well.
I leaned forward and dropped my voice. “I wasn’t trying to be rude a minute ago. I just meant that, to the vamps, a demon seems like the most likely culprit, and Mircea’s decided—”
Pritkin frowned. “What do they have to do with this?”
I stared at him. “Well, what are we talking about?”
“I’m not sure.”
I took a breath. “Mircea thinks you’re a warlock,” I said, slowly and clearly. “He’s decided that’s how you’ve lived so long, why you’re as strong as you—”
“Is that what he told you?”
He looked away. “No reason.”
I waited, but he didn’t say anything else. And after a pause, I soldiered on. “Anyway, that’s why he told Marco to lock you out for the night. He was afraid you’d call up something else—”
“—while I couldn’t shift away.”
“Yes, I’m sure that was his main concern.”
“Is there something you want to tell me?” I demanded.
“No.” He didn’t say anything else, if he’d planned on it, because the waitress returned with our drinks. He poured beer, tilting the glass to minimize foam, because this wasn’t the kind of place where the waitstaff did it for you. “If you were merely instructed not to see me until tomorrow, why go to these lengths?” he asked, after she left. “Why not simply agree?”
“Because I couldn’t. V—” I caught myself. The jukebox had gone quiet, and I was kind of afraid of what he might select next. So I settled for modifying my language. “They will push and push, to see where your boundaries are. And if you knuckle under once, they’ll expect you to do it every time.”
“That if I hadn’t left, next time it wouldn’t have been, ‘It’s only for tonight, Cassie.’ It would have been ‘It’s only for this week,’ or this month, or this year. . . .”
“And they chose to push when they knew you were vulnerable.” He sounded like he expected nothing less.
“They didn’t choose,” I said, frowning. Because Pritkin always assumed the worst about vampires. “They probably thought I’d sleep all night and it would never come up. But it did, and in their society, you can’t afford to ignore a challenge like that. If you do, you’ll be labeled weak, and that’s a really hard thing to undo.”
Pritkin looked confused. “Are you trying to say that Marco wanted you to defy him?”
“This isn’t about Marco. He was just following orders.”
“Then Mircea wanted you to defy him?”
I laughed. “No.”
Pritkin was starting to look exasperated. “Then what—”
“Mircea wants me to do what I’m told. He’d love it if I did what I’m told. But he wouldn’t respect it. He wouldn’t respect me.”
I took a moment to work on my shake, which was thick and rich and headache-inducing cold. I’d sort of given up explaining any vamp to any mage, much less Mircea to Pritkin. But he’d asked, and I owed him one, so I tried.
“Mircea didn’t give that order expecting me to ever know about it,” I said. “But he did give it, and once he refused to rescind it, it became a direct challenge.”
Pritkin’s eyes narrowed. “And you couldn’t ignore it because it would have made you look bad?”
I had to think for a moment about how to answer that. It was surprisingly difficult sometimes to put into words things I had accepted as the natural order since childhood. But they weren’t natural for Pritkin, or for most mages, other than for those who worked for the vampires themselves. And they didn’t talk much.
“It wouldn’t have made me look bad,” I finally said. “It would have made me look like what he was treating me as: a favored servant. Someone to be petted and pampered and protected—and ordered around. Because that’s what servants do: they take orders. But that isn’t how one of his equals would have responded.”
“But he wouldn’t have tried that with one of them.”
I snorted. “Of course he would. They do this kind of thing all the time, testing each other, seeing if there are any chinks in the other person’s armor, any weaknesses that maybe they didn’t notice before. And if they find one, they’ll exploit it.”
“It sounds as if you’re talking about an enemy, rather than a . . . friend,” he said curtly.
I shook my head. “It’s part of the culture.”
“That doesn’t make it right!”
“It doesn’t make it wrong, either. It’s how they determine rank. If you knuckle under to some other master’s demands, especially without a fight, then you’re accepting that he or she outranks you. And afterward, everyone else will accept that, too.”
“But you’re not a—” Pritkin caught himself. “You’re not a master.”
“But I have to be treated as one.”
“Why?” He looked disgusted. Like the idea that any human might actually want to fit into vampire society was unfathomable. For a moment, I thought about telling him just how many humans were turned away each year by courts much less illustrious than Mircea’s. But somehow, I didn’t think it would help.
“Because there’s no alternative,” I said instead, as our artery-clogging pepperoni pizza was delivered. It was New York style, which meant the pieces were so big I had to fold one over to eat it, and a trickle of grease ran down my arm. I sighed happily.
Pritkin started working on his own meal, but to my surprise, he didn’t drop the subject. “Explain it to me.”
“There are only three types of . . . us . . . as far as they’re concerned,” I said, in between bites. “Servants, prey and threats. There’s no category for ally or partner, because that requires viewing us as equals, and they just don’t do that.”
“They are allied with the Circle, at least for the duration of the current conflict,” he argued.
“Yeah, well. Words have different meanings to different groups,” I hedged.
“And what does ‘ally’ mean to the Senate?” Pritkin demanded predictably.
I hesitated, trying to think of a phrase that wasn’t “cannon fodder.” “Let’s just say I don’t think that they’re planning on a real close association.”
“They had better be,” he said grimly. “We need strong allies. We have enough enemies.”
There was no arguing that.
“My point was that, right now, I’m seen as an especially useful servant, like the humans who guard their courts during the day or cast their wards for them. And as long as I follow orders, accept restrictions and do what I’m told, that’s how it’s going to stay.”
“Then defy them!”
I gestured around. “What does this look like?”
He shot me a look. “You’re eating pizza. That is hardly defiance.”
“It is by their standards.”
“I meant, get out.” He gestured sharply. “Tell them to go to hell. You could go—”
“Where?” I demanded. “To the Circle? Where who knows how many of Saunders’s buddies are still hanging around? To my lovely court?”
“You’re going to have to set up your court sooner or later.”
“Later, then. After the alliance.”
I reached for the grated cheese, and he frowned. But I guess my health wasn’t the cause, because what he said was, “What alliance?”
“Of the six senates? What Mircea’s been working on all month?”
“What does that have to do with you?”
I shrugged. “Having a vamp-friendly Pythia is the trump card in his argument. It’s something the vamps have never had. They’ve always felt like they were on the outside of the supernatural community, that the Pythia was part of the Circle’s arsenal, not theirs.”
“And now they think the opposite.”
“They’re coming around.” They knew Mircea. And when they looked at me, twenty-four and fresh off the turnip truck, I doubted they had any trouble believing that he could wind me around his little finger. That wasn’t a problem for me as long as it helped us get the alliance.
And as long as he didn’t start believing it, too.
“But if you were suddenly removed?” Pritkin asked. “If you were killed, for instance?”
I shook my head. “I know what you’re thinking, but that can’t be it.”
“Why not? You said it yourself—you are the only Pythia the vampires have ever felt was theirs. Your replacement would likely come from the Circle’s pool of Initiates—”
“Which wouldn’t make them happy. But they’re not talking because of me. They’re here because of the war and because Apollo showing up scared the shit out of them. I’m just something to sweeten the deal.”
“But if someone didn’t know them well enough to know that—”
“Then they wouldn’t know why they’re meeting in the first place. They’ve been using the coronation and some other stuff as cover while they hash out the details. Like who gets to lead—”
“And Mircea is attempting to use you as an argument for his consul.”
“ ‘Attempting’ would be the right word.”
Pritkin swallowed a bite of fatty goodness. “Why? You just said—”
“That I’m seen as a vamp-friendly Pythia, yeah.” I shrugged. “But it takes a little more than that. Half the senators aren’t convinced that I know what the hell I’m doing. It’s easy for them to imagine me being under Mircea’s thumb; it’s a little harder for them to believe I’m strong enough to be a real asset.”
“And without believing it, they’re bickering and feuding over leadership instead of doing anything about the war.”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
I didn’t say anything; from what I’d seen, Circle politics were no different, but I wasn’t in the mood to argue about it. “Anyway, the point is that I’m better off where I am right now—”
“—but to be able to work with the Senate, I have to be accepted by them, and not as a servant. A servant takes orders; she doesn’t give them. But that’s sort of my job now, isn’t it?”
He looked at me with exasperated eyes, brilliantly green in the harsh lights of the diner. “The former holder of your office gave orders, and they were obeyed.”
“Were they?” I munched crust. It was slightly burnt on the bottom and chewy, with little dough bubbles here and there. Perfect. “How often did Agnes persuade the Senate to do something they didn’t want to do?”
“I’m sure there were any number of times.”
“Yeah. They might have fiddled around a little, debating some issue they didn’t really give a damn about, and then let her think she’d had a victory. Particularly if they wanted something in return. But to actually give up part of their sovereignty to someone they viewed as being in the Circle’s back pocket?”
“The Pythia is supposed to be neutral.”
“Try telling that to a vamp.” I caught his hand as he reached for more red pepper flakes. “Seriously?”
I nodded at his current piece of pizza, which was almost completely red—and not because of sauce. “You’re going to give yourself heartburn.”
“I don’t get heartburn.”
I let him go. That was completely unfair. I ate antacids like they were candy.
“Anyway, we weren’t at war in Agnes’s reign, so it didn’t matter as much,” I said, digging a half-finished pack of Rolaids out of my shorts. “It does now.”
Pritkin cocked an eyebrow. “And you think that going out for the evening is going to make them respect you?”
“More than staying in would have.” I chewed a couple of tablets while he thought that over.
“It still sounds like something an enemy would do,” he said. “Pushing you, testing you—”
“An enemy would use the information to hurt me,” I pointed out. “Mircea would never do that. At least, he wouldn’t intend it that way. But burying me under a stack of guards, restricting who I can see, where I can go . . . it is hurting me.”
“It’s also safer,” Pritkin said, looking sour. Probably because he was being forced to agree with a vampire.
“You can say that after the last few days?” I sat back against the seat. “Nowhere is safe. Nowhere has ever been safe. I’ll take reasonable precautions, even unreasonable ones sometimes. But I’m not going to live like a prisoner.”
“It’s only been two months—”
“It’s been my whole life!” I said, harsher than I intended, because nobody got that. Not Mircea, not Pritkin, not Jonas, who would have loved to add a couple dozen war mages to the crowd of guards already milling about the suite. Nobody understood that ever since I could remember, I’d been locked away. Like I’d done some crime I didn’t recall, but kept having to pay for.
It was getting really old.
“You’re talking about that other v—Your old guardian,” Pritkin said.
I nodded and popped another antacid. Tony had that effect on me.
“But you ran away from him.” Pritkin sounded oddly hesitant suddenly, as if he were sure I wouldn’t talk about this, that I’d shut down, shut him out. Maybe because that’s what he’d have done, if the situation were reversed. He was the most closemouthed person about his life of anyone I’d ever met—okay, barring a certain vampire—and while I knew more about him than most people, I didn’t know much.
But I didn’t mind telling him. In fact, I wanted to, wanted someone to finally get it. “I ran away twice, actually. But I never really got away. Tony was always there, at least in my mind, right on my trail.”
“Because you set him up for what he did to your parents.”
I nodded. “I tried to ruin him, to get him on tax fraud, because I didn’t know how to kill him. It didn’t work, but I knew he’d never forget it, never stop looking for me.”
“And part of you didn’t want him to.”
I had been scraping a fingernail over the label on Pritkin’s empty beer bottle, but I looked up at that. Because until he said it, I hadn’t fully realized it myself. “Maybe,” I said slowly. “Maybe part of me did want that showdown I never got. But I don’t know what I’d have done if he’d come looking for me. I’m not a trained assassin, and even if I had been . . .”
“You’re not a killer,” Pritkin said flatly.
“Sometimes, I really, really wanted to be.”
He didn’t ask, didn’t say anything. But I could tell he wanted to. I hesitated, because I hadn’t planned to talk about this. I never talked about this. But there was no way he’d understand without it.
“Eugenie,” I finally said, and I was proud of myself. It came out pretty steady.
“My governess. Tony told his people that she’d helped me escape, that she knew where I was. But he lied. I knew that even before I saw his face as she lay there in pieces, bleeding out at his feet.”
“He killed her for no reason?” Pritkin asked carefully.
I laughed and ripped the label off. “Oh, he had a reason. He was a miserable, sniveling, cowardly, vindictive bastard who was furious that some little human had come so close to bringing him down. Somebody had to pay for that. Somebody had to bleed. And if it was somebody whose death he knew would hurt me, so much the better.”
And it had hurt, as much as if I’d been there, bleeding myself. But even worse was the crippling fear that had followed. I went from being somebody who had risked everything just to watch him fall to being too scared to leave my own apartment.
“The first six months after I left him were the worst in my life,” I said. “Because he wasn’t keeping me a prisoner anymore—I was doing it to myself. I was so sure he’d find me, so sure I’d end up like Eugenie, that I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go anywhere, except to look for work, buy groceries—just what I had to do. And then I went straight back home. People in actual prison probably have more human contact than I did.”
“But you had a roommate,” Pritkin said.
“That was later. After I started going places again, meeting people . . . after I figured it out.”
“Figured what out?”
“That this was my life now. And that I could let some bastard decide how I was going to live it, let fear decide or I could decide. And I decided; I wasn’t going to give Tony that kind of power. I wasn’t going to give him any more of my life.”
“You just woke up one day and stopped being afraid.” Pritkin’s expression hadn’t changed, but for some reason, he sounded almost angry.
I flashed on my performance a day ago, slumped in a sniveling heap on the bathroom floor, and grimaced. “No. I mean, you don’t, do you? At least, I never have. And I kind of think it would have happened by now if it was going to.”
“Then what do you do?” He’d leaned over the table, close enough for me to map the ring of jade around each iris, and the pale amber-green layer that darkened to golden brown around the pupils. There were striations, spokes of gold, and specks of brown and emerald, all of which blended to just green at any distance at all.
Beautiful, I thought randomly—for a second, until he abruptly pulled back and looked away.
“You go on, anyway,” I said, after a pause. “And, yes, you’re scared sometimes. But it’s better than being scared all the time. Better than letting your life be about fear and nothing else. So, no, I’m not going to let them shut me away ‘for my own good.’ I’ll take precautions, as many as I can. But I’m going to live.”
Pritkin ran a hand through his hair. “Yes,” he said brusquely. “You are.”
We walked out a few minutes later to find a trio of vamps loitering in the parking lot, next to a shiny black SUV. Pritkin swore, but I wasn’t exactly surprised. I had at least three trace spells on me that I knew about, and two of them were the Senate’s. The point of leaving hadn’t been to get away; it had been . . . well, to make a point.
Which I obviously hadn’t done, or they wouldn’t be here.
It was late or, to be more accurate, really early, and the lot was dark. A lone streetlamp leaked a watery yellow puddle in one corner, illuminating cracked pavement and a sagging chain-link fence. But alongside the building, most of the light came from the flickering sign outside the diner. It cast a ruddy tint across the vamps’ faces, enough for me to see that they weren’t looking too happy.
That was especially true when Pritkin strode over and grabbed one of them by the collar. It was the good-looking blond who had complained about the phone. I guess babysitting me was his penance.
Or maybe that was being slammed against the side of their SUV.
“Are you trying to get her killed?” Pritkin snarled, about the time a brunet got him in a choke hold.
“Break his and I break yours,” the brunet said matterof-factly. “And I know who’s gonna recover first.”
Instead of answering, Pritkin pulsed out a small section of his shield. It was only a vague blue iridescence against the night, as filmy and insubstantial-looking as a soap bubble. But the brunet’s arm flew off his neck like he was giving a salute.
The blond didn’t struggle; his expression clearly said it was beneath him. He looked at me, past Pritkin’s shoulder. “Would you call off your pit bull? Please? I just bought this suit.”
“And they’ll bury you in it if you don’t answer me!” Pritkin told him harshly.
“Too late,” the vamp said, baring glistening white fangs.
“Stop it!” I said. “Pritkin, they’re just standing there.”
“And putting a neon sign over your head in the process!”
I didn’t understand that, but apparently the blond did. “What do you take us for?” he sneered. “Amateurs?”
“Well, technically, I am,” a mousy little vamp said. He was perched on the hood of the SUV, feet drawn up, watching the scene with big eyes.
Everybody ignored him. He kind of looked like he’d expected it.
“Did anyone follow you?” Pritkin demanded, giving the blond a shake.
Pritkin didn’t seem to like that answer, judging by the way the blond’s eyes suddenly bulged. He rotated them at his buddy. “Are you just going to stand there?”
“What do you want me to do?” the brunet asked in Italian.
A muscular shoulder rose in a shrug. “Won’t get through the shield.”
“Then help me drain him!”
“Girl might object.”
“Yes, the girl might!” I said in the same language.
The dark-haired vamp looked mildly surprised. “Your Italian is not so bad.”
“I grew up at Tony’s court,” I reminded him.
He grinned, a sudden flash of white in a handsome olive face. “That would explain the accent.”
Pritkin was starting to look apoplectic, which experience had taught me usually precipitated pain for someone. “Would you please answer him?” I asked.
The vamp stole a cigarette from the blond, who was in no position to object, and took his time lighting up. He was tall, with black hair cut short to minimize a tendency to curl, judging by a few at his neck. That wasn’t so odd—a lot of the younger vamps wore their hair short, including plenty of those who belonged to Mircea. But they didn’t also have five o’clock shadow or a tribal tat decorating one bicep, or dress in jeans and tight black muscle shirts.
“We’re new—we flew in last night,” he finally said, taking a drag. He blew out a breath and regarded Pritkin through the smoke. “Mage, why would anyone follow us when they don’t know who we are?”
Pritkin thought about that for a beat and then finally released the blond. The vamp took his time straightening up, brushing out the wrinkles in his silver-gray suit. Then he looked at me. “You need him on a leash,” he said viciously.
“Would somebody please explain what is going on?” I asked.
“What is going on is that your safety depends on no one knowing where you are,” Pritkin told me, still glaring at the vamps. “And considering how we departed, no one should. We exited directly into a ley line, under cover of the hotel’s wards, and didn’t leave it until halfway across the city. No one saw us—a fact that does little good if someone leads your enemies straight to you!”
“Well, we didn’t,” the blond snapped, rubbing his neck under the pretense of adjusting a rumpled burgundy tie.
“That’s why Marco couldn’t come after you himself,” the brunet informed me, leaning back against the SUV.
“What is?” I asked.
The cigarette glowed against the night as he waved a negligent hand. “The paparazzi have marked him. He was waylaid outside the hotel a couple of days ago by a mob shouting questions, wanting photos. . . .”
“Of you. You’re front-page news. Haven’t you seen the papers?”
“Not recently.” And considering what they’d been printing the last time I did look, that was probably for the best. “But I haven’t seen any reporters—”
“They’re not allowed in the hotel.”
“And you don’t exactly use the front door,” the blond added. “I’m Jules, by the way.” He extended a slim hand, which I took after a brief hesitation. If they intended to stuff me into the SUV, they could do it whether I cooperated or not. “And this is Rico and Fred.”
“Fred?” I looked at Mousy, because no way was the brunet a Fred. He smiled weakly.
“I get that a lot,” he said. “I’m thinking of changing it. What do you think about André?”
I thought I’d never seen anyone who looked less like an André.
“So Marco’s afraid of the paparazzi?” I asked skeptically.
“More the other way around.” Rico grinned.
“He threatened to do something anatomically impossible to one of their men,” Fred told me.
“Not impossible,” Rico blew out a thoughtful breath. “The camera could be made to fit, although the case—”
“What about the tripod?”
“I don’t think he was serious about the tripod.”
“The paparazzi aren’t the issue,” Jules interrupted, shooting them a look. “But if they’ve managed to figure out that Marco’s your bodyguard, more dangerous types could have done the same. He couldn’t risk leading anyone to you, so he sent us.”
“To do what?” I asked, pretty sure I already knew.
“You want it verbatim?”
“Minus the profanity.”
Sculpted lips pursed. “Well, that would shorten it a bit.”
“What. Did. He. Say?”
“To paraphrase? ‘Let her finish her pizza and then drag her back here. By the hair, if necessary.’”
“Doesn’t he get it?” I demanded. “That’s the kind of attitude that forced me to leave in the first place!”
“Oh, he gets it,” Rico said. “He just doesn’t want it.”
“I don’t give a damn what he wants! He has to understand—”
“He understands that you’re twenty-four,” Jules told me, swiping his cigarette case back from his friend.
“What’s wrong with being twenty-four?”
“Nothing. Unless you’re dealing with a guy who’s well over a thousand.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Marco,” he confirmed, tapping a cigarette on top of the case. “Saw the fall of Rome, or so they say.”
“The fall of—” I stopped and stared. “Gladiators, Colosseum, guys in leather miniskirts—that Rome?”
“That would be the one.”
“I wouldn’t mention the miniskirts,” Rico advised. “Marco used to be in the army.”
“Have to wonder how anyone took them seriously,” Jules said.
“I think if you laughed, they cut your balls off.”
Jules paused, halfway through lighting his cigarette, the flame dancing in wide blue eyes. “That would do it.”
“But . . . but why is he working for Mircea?” I asked. Vamps that old were Senate members or headed up powerful courts. They didn’t work for masters a third their age.
Jules shrugged. “You’d have to ask him; I was always afraid to. But you can see why he doesn’t react well when someone he considers a child—”
“A fetus,” Rico put in.
“—ignores an order.”
“An order he had no right to give!” I said heatedly.
“Technically, the master gave it—”
“Who also has no right to order me around!”
“I like this one,” Rico said. “Feisty.”
I shot him a glare, which had no effect, except to widen his smile.
“I guess Marco figures, if he still has to take orders after all this time, why not you?” Fred asked.
“Because I’m Pythia,” I said, striving for patience.
He blinked at me, obviously confused. “And?”
I threw my hands up.
Jules frowned at him, but not on my account. “Stop it.”
“It’s driving me nuts,” the little vamp said, tugging at the polyester monstrosity around his neck.
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it. And why do I have to wear a tie, anyway? Rico doesn’t,” he looked pointedly at the brunet.
“Rico is a law unto himself,” Jules said drily.
“Well, I’m not used to this.”
“What are you used to?” I asked, wondering where a guy like Fred fit into Mircea’s somewhat more . . . glossy . . . family.
“I just wear clothes, you know?” he said, pushing wispy brown hair out of his eyes. “I mean, nobody cares what an accountant looks like, as long as the books balance. Not that we use books anymore, but you know what I—”
“You’re an accountant?” Pritkin asked sharply.
Fred jumped and then regarded Pritkin warily. “Why shouldn’t I be an accountant?”
“Because you’re supposed to be a bodyguard!”
“Well, I am.” Pale gray eyes shifted. “I mean, I am at the moment. I mean—”
“He means that it’s none of your business,” Jules interjected.
“Well, it is mine,” I pointed out. “What is he doing here?”
I didn’t get an answer because Rico’s head snapped up. He didn’t move otherwise or even tense, as far as I could tell, but there was suddenly something dangerous about him.
Pritkin must have thought so, too, because his expression tightened. “Accountant?”
“Never said I was,” Rico said, his eyes on the empty street.
“Then what are you?”
“You could say I’m on the troubleshooting squad.”
He put a hand on the back of his waistband. “I see trouble, and I shoot it.”
“Well, don’t shoot them,” Jules said irritably. “We have enough problems.”
“Shoot who?” I asked.
“Circle,” Rico told me, to the accompaniment of a car screeching around the corner and into the lot.
It was actually a limo, the kind that carted high rollers, honeymooners and anybody with a wad of cash all over Vegas. They were almost as ubiquitous as taxis, and often used back streets like this one as a way of avoiding clogged thoroughfares. But the ten or more grim-faced people piling out were too muffled up and too bulging with concealed weapons to be anything but the Circle’s favorite sons.
“Aren’t we supposed to be past this?” I asked Pritkin, as a familiar six foot five inches of pissed-off war mage got out of the limo and strode across the lot. The imposing mountain of muscle in the long leather trench had coffee-colored skin, a military-style buzz cut and a handsome face—when he wasn’t looking like he’d like to rip someone else’s off.
This wasn’t one of those times.
“What the hell?” he demanded in his deep voice, before he’d even reached us.
“Hi, Caleb,” I said, resigned.
“I was asked to get her out; I got her out,” Pritkin said obscurely.
“You were told to bring her in!”
“Bring me in where?” I asked.
“HQ,” Pritkin said. “After Jonas found out about this latest attack, he insisted—”
“And instead, you bring her here!” Caleb gestured sharply. “Middle of goddamned Vegas in the middle of the goddamned night—”