… June 28, 2021
The past has come roaring back. Exposed, her cover in peril, her enemies circling her and without her powerful defender to back her, can Tasia overcome a thousand years of history …
The explosive epiphany of their unique connection triggers the bondmates in different ways and simmering animosity drives a wedge between them. While their adversary and her shadowy sponsor get bolder, Tasia faces a tough decision.
The Alpha dredges up Vampire secrets to sow the seeds of dissension among the Clan, while Lady Bethesda struggles to right her ship. Sienna comes out, Temi makes a friend, the Blood Mages pick a side and ElMorad goes on a rampage. As more of the Oracle’s clues come to light, the investigation must make audacious moves and riskier bets, even work with the Guardians and other capricious partners, to checkmate their adversary. When a twist of fate forces Tasia to confront her worst nightmare, she has nothing to fall back on. As a multitude of threats converge on her, can Raoul shake off the chains of the past to help Tasia outrun her destiny?
On Kindle Unlimited
The Paladin is Book 4 of Saga of the Chosen and continues the story from The Siren.
The books are not standalone and are intended to be read in order.
The Griffin will conclude the saga.
eBook on Kindle
Paperback @ Amazon
On Kindle Unlimited
Sign up for new releases and sneak peeks.
Never shared. No Spam.
A widening rift and an explosive bargaining chip
The door swung open noiselessly. Tasia, on tenterhooks, heard the hushed sound, nonetheless. Her eyes shot to the Alpha’s Room. Two Shifters strode out briskly, followed by the man himself. He paused in the doorway, head cocked at a familiar arrogant tilt. The tall, deceptively lean body was marked by his usual fluid grace; every movement sparse and controlled, as if carefully choreographed. The attractive face was shuttered, the striking features leached of all emotion. However, even the blank visage could not cloak the firestorm within. Something in the way he moved, and held himself, hinted at what lay beneath the surface.
An observant stranger would conclude that this was a Magick to avoid, despite the impression of deliberate restraint and tethered aggression. And the stranger would be correct in his observation. The Alpha Protector of the Northern California Pack ran true to Wyr form — fueled by testosterone, territorial, aggressive, dominant, relentless, unyielding, hostile to defiance and a formidable foe. Yet, Tasia also knew that the cold impervious face, he presented to the world, only went skin deep. The steely reserve could transform in the blink of an eye — the uber controlled Shifter exploding into a preternally fast, ferocious and brutally strong Chosen, with a streak of raw violence and cold-blooded intent that was the signature of a Wyr Alpha.
Gifted a front row seat, she’d had the privilege of observing the man behind the mask. There was so much more to him than met the eye. Under the Wyr persona beat a fierce and indomitable heart. He was a man of his word with an unswerving creed and a Shifter who lived by an uncomplicated, timeless code of ethics he would never compromise. Also, in addition to the Shifter brawn, there lurked a formidable intellect in him. As well as a darkness he fought to conceal from the world, the fallout from a horrific interlude that had shaped the Wyr and cast a long shadow over him.
Tasia studied him silently, the yearning in her ruthlessly suppressed. This man was fanatical about leashing the darkness inside him. She had often wondered what he shackled with such fierce discipline. And finally, she had her answer — an inkling of why he kept up a constant and ceaseless vigil. He loathed his Spell Caster heritage and rejected it. Yet, he could not embrace his Wyr ancestry full-heartedly, because the equation with his beast was ruptured. By all measures, he should not be the powerful, commanding and fearsome Alpha Protector he was. Yet somehow, against the odds, a wondrous metamorphosis had come to pass. The bewildered, tormented and persecuted teenager had cobbled together his battered spirit and wounded soul, with unalloyed will, grit and tenacity, to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and evolve into the impregnable Raoul Merceau that nothing could touch or shake.
She had accidently flown too close to the sun and been burned by her proximity to it. Much like Icarus, her wings had been clipped. In the blink of an eye, she had lost the ability to soar, and so much more. Her mistake had been to inadvertently stoke the latent inferno smoldering within him; hellfire he guarded fiercely from everyone. For that transgression, she had been banished from his world — relegated to the sidelines, looking in as before, always fated to be the outsider in every Chosen milieu. There had been a fleeting and short-lived dream of finding a little corner in the sun, enfolded and welcomed by friends, allies and him. But that fantasy had crumbled into dust, shattering her dreams and endangering Magicks whose fates she had no right to gamble with. She had been destined to live on the fringes and the more she ignored her fate, the deeper the hole she dug for herself. Tasia could no longer fool herself. When her world had come crashing down around her, she had been compelled to make a tough call, alone in the desolation and solitude of her chamber in the Lair. There would be no more fighting against fate. The painstakingly constructed citadel, meant to safeguard her from those that coveted her kind, might have collapsed but there were some Chosen she could still protect from the coming fallout. Sirens she owed a debt to.
The Alpha’s gold-colored eyes swept the room, aloof and unattainable, like a desolate but fortified island amidst the vastness of a crowded ocean. A throng of Shifters dotted the cavernous Pack Room. Despite the certainty in her heart, when the gold eyes swung in her direction, for a wild moment, hope rekindled in Tasia’s breast, defeating her best efforts to tamp it down. Perhaps, she would be granted an audience today. Straightening unconsciously, she packed away the document she was working on, in anticipation. But the cold eyes passed indifferently over her, without lingering, to someone beyond. An acute sense of loss lambasted her, with the brunt of a gale force. Tasia stiffened her spine. She’d had plenty of practice dealing with disappointment, since the night everything had crashed and burned, three days ago. This time, she had utilized official channels to request the Alpha’s time, as every member of the Pack was entitled to. But she was not like the other Shifters in the Pack. She had never been. He had gone out of his way for her before. It was apparent that, not only was any special consideration at an end, she was not to be extended even the courtesies due to Pack members. For the first time since her affiliation with the Pack, Tasia had a taste of being at the base of the totem pole, when the Alpha had gone out of his way to accommodate her before.
He had frozen her out, excluding her from the inner circle and ripping away any residual feelings for the Spell Caster he’d briefly pursued. If she’d had any concerns that the Alpha might demand his pound of flesh for her perceived treachery, his actions had set her mind at rest. She was persona non grata to the daunting and imposing Alpha. The Wyr, who had tantalized, enticed and beguiled her, awakening wild hope and a sense of wonder in her, had faded away into thin air, without a trace. The man that remained behind was the cold, unapproachable and intimidating Alpha Tasia had avoided in the early days of her association with his Pack. Perhaps, she reflected dejectedly, this was for the best. With the Alpha unwilling to forgive or even hear her out, and the rest of the team preoccupied with other matters, it would be easier to extricate herself from the investigation and this city. With that end in mind, she’d set things in motion, reaching out to the Chosen her father had trusted for a new cover and supporting documents.
With an inward sigh, Tasia gave in to the inevitable. She would have to make her peace with leaving San Francisco, without resolving the inflamed, poisoned welts or the widening chasm between them. But as she reached for her discarded report, her companion directed a questioning glance at her.
“You want to talk to Alph, Tas?” the young Shifter asked, a hint of puzzlement coloring his voice.
Though a frontline witness to much of their tempestuous equation in the past, Hawk had observed no hint of any strife between Alph and Tasia in the last month. Thus, her unusual hesitation in approaching Alph flummoxed him. Perhaps, she was merely being cautious, he mused sanguinely. Having spent a fair amount of time with the Pack, Tasia might be learning to pick up on subtle cues. Alph had been in a foul mood recently. Every Shifter around him was acutely aware that the leash was likely to be very short right now. Always attuned to her, since Hawk felt an acute sense of responsibility towards Tasia, he’d noted that his friend was unusually subdued. Hawk hoped that she was merely preoccupied with logistics for Tasia was about to move residences.
Tasia did not look up from the document. “Nothing urgent, Hawk” she said easily. “I’ll talk to Duncan instead.”
As before, she was careful to provide no fodder for the Shifters. The Pack was a hotbed of rumors and innuendo. And Tasia intended to ensure there was no gossip about the Alpha’s changed attitude towards the Wizard he’d granted Pack status. No one should suspect that everything was diametrically opposite from before. Especially not Hawk, who would try and change her mind if he even suspected what was afoot. It would be hard enough to turn her back and leave everything behind, without her friends probing her reasons. The timing was nothing short of a miracle, she reminded herself for the umpteenth time, hoping it was a sign from the universe. Sienna and Jason had decamped for San Diego the morning after her showdown with the Alpha. Nandini had accompanied them. With Roman Durovic also away on business, the investigation was enjoying a brief respite. It was a blessing in disguise. Tasia had the opportunity and space to lick her wounds in private, without having to put up a brave front before the others.
As the realization, that her time with the Pack was limited, sank in afresh, Tasia turned impulsively to her companion. “Want to take a break?” she asked Hawk. “I’ve the hall reserved for an hour.”
The young Shifter looked all at sea. “What hall?”
“The one by the gym” she prompted, hoping he would take the hint.
Reminded thus, Hawk acquiesced with alacrity. “Sure.”
There would be no Shifters to practice with soon. Or friends, aware of the magic she concealed from the Chosen. But for now, she could still train with Hawk. In unspoken agreement, they locked the stack of reports in Tasia’s room, before making their way to the hall.
From her corner, Elisabetta watched the duo exit the Pack Room, her agile mind swirling with questions. Her eyes flicked towards the Alpha’s Room, the door to which remained stubbornly shut.
Hawk proved an amenable training partner. Once he understood what Tasia wanted from him, he put her through her paces enthusiastically. But Tasia could discern the differences between Hawk, a superlative young Shifter, and his Alpha, who wasn’t much older in Wyr years. Some of it was a lack of experience and the disparity in Wyr power but mostly, the Alpha was a thinking Shifter, one constantly looking for an edge against his opponent. Whereas Hawk tended to fight as a traditional Shifter, exploiting his physical superiority against a non-Wyr.
Tasia devoted a few more hours to the documents the GCW had released to the Pack, following Guardian Thorne’s newfound appreciation for the Alpha. With neither Sienna nor Nandini to assist her and Hawk busy, with the Shifter responsibilities that had piled up due to his work on the investigation, Tasia pored over the reports alone. This would be her last contribution to a historic inquiry and she was determined to do a thorough job of it.
That evening, she met with Duncan in the supplementary Pack Room, to give him a preliminary summary of the various GCW probes into Lady Bethesda.
“Any early impressions?” the Were-Alpha inquired. She’d had two days to peruse what the GCW had sent over.
“There’s a plethora of evidence regarding the targeting of Chosen children” Tasia submitted. “I haven’t gone over it all in detail yet but there are dates, times and witnesses — more than enough to call her in for questioning. Also, a majority of the targeted children were First Ones.”
“Faoladh did say that it was ElThor who pushed the First Wizard to question her” Duncan murmured. “And that is, finally, when Lady Esmeralda overrode GCW objections, to send Guardians to Chicago to interrogate her sister.”
It struck Tasia that, much like the inquiries carried out by the Office of First Wizard, the GCW had resisted calling Lady Bethesda to the mat for partisan reasons. In a way, the election for the position of First Wizard, and the resulting polarization that had divided the Guardians, had played a huge part in allowing Lady Bethesda to dance away from the charges. Far longer than anyone else in her circumstances should expect to.
“What about the Chicago explosion?” the Shifter asked Tasia.
“I haven’t had a chance to go through the reports from that investigation yet, Duncan. There’s a lot of material.”
“I’ve had a quick word with Sienna” he explained. “Nandini and she are engaged on a similar exercise in San Diego. They’re helping to compile evidence from the GCW’s investigations, to prove to the Guardians that the charges against Lady Bethesda were not politically motivated. Given their work, it might be more fruitful for you to focus on Chicago.”
“Will do” Tasia consented. No point in duplicating the work.
Before Duncan could end the meeting, she made the announcement. “I’m leaving the Lair” Tasia said.
The English Shifter’s eyebrows shot up, a question in his eyes.
“Moving in with Caroline” she explained briefly. Tasia was calm, certain that Duncan would not question her decision. The only Shifter that would was the man who had refused to grant her a hearing. At the thought, a little relief papered over the bleeding wound in her heart.
The Were-Alpha studied her. “Does Raoul know?”
She shook her head. “I put myself on the list in the Pack Room but the Alpha has been busy.”
Duncan was puzzled. She had never before attempted the formal route with Raoul; always gone straight to him if she had anything to discuss. The Alpha had been more buttoned up than usual — in a foul mood, withdrawn and closed down, like the old days he thought Raoul had left behind. The boy had come a long way in the past few months. So, he had thought nothing of it, convinced that Raoul would sort out whatever had him worked up. For the first time, Duncan wondered if there was more to it.
Tasia smiled at the Wyr, a strained effort she had to labor at. “I’ve been here over three months, Duncan. It’s time I tried living on my own.”
The Shifter frowned silently. What was going on, he wondered.
“When?” he asked.
“Tonight. Hawk and Evgeny are helping me move my things.”
Duncan kept his own counsel. But he was starting to sense that something that gone off the rails here.
“Anything else?” he inquired, as she hesitated.
There was a palpable stiffening of her shoulders. “If the Alpha plans to meet with a Vampire Master, I might have something he could use” Tasia averred.
The new objective of the investigation was to isolate Monseigneur, by instigating other influential Undead over the Lombardi Master’s chancy alliance with Lady Bethesda. At their last team meeting, the Alpha had indicated that he would initiate the endeavor with a request to Mistress Franciszka, for a one-on-one with her powerful Pure Blood Master.
The English Were-Alpha did not bat an eyelash. “I’ll let Raoul know.”
The lady paused at the entrance to the vast gallery, to take stock of the spectacle in progress. The lavishly decorated space was bursting to capacity with glittering guests, many dressed in elaborate period costumes. Monseigneur was old school and held firm to the belief that power must be displayed. He surrounded himself with First Ones, the custodians of old magic and the true descendants of the Forebearers. Everything he was not. And he loved extravaganzas, the more ostentatious the better. Hence, this travesty of a flamboyant court. Yet, despite the trappings and the pretense, at his heart, he would always be a Vampire. With the insecurities and the cravings of one.
A thousand candles illuminated the ginormous ballroom and brightly clad men and women sparkled like gems under the luminescence. Chosen, dressed to the nines in fine silk and expensive couture, their jewels glinting under the candlelight, filled the palazzo. Hushed music drifted through the gallery, drowned out by the muted conversations and laughter from the distinguished guests. The lady, watching from the entrance to the ballroom, was confident that, as always, Monseigneur’s court counted as many Ancients as Blutsaugers.
Her eyes swept over the buffed and elegant, and the occasional gaudily dressed, guests. At the other end of the ballroom, on a gilded seat shaped like an ornate throne, sat one of the handful of Pure Blood Masters in the world. His cronies crowded around him, basking in the Vampire’s reflected glory. Monseigneur, she knew, had attempted to recreate Bourbon King Luis XVI’s court at his magnificent Venetian palazzo. Rumors abounded that the Master, once a close confidant of the last king of France, had fled when the hordes descended on the Palace of Versailles, forcing the royal entourage to retreat to Paris. The whispers suggested that Monseigneur had seen the writing on the wall about the coming revolution that would consume the royals and topple the existing order in France. And, had hastened to greener pastures in Italy with his Vampires, taking out the Master of the Lombardis to usurp his territory and Nest.
As she watched, one of his liveried guards stepped up to the throne to whisper into Monseigneur’s ears. Likely, she suspected, to inform him of her presence. This visit of hers was unanticipated and unannounced. The Lombardi Master, no slouch, would guess that his Belize indiscretion had been rumbled. She waited as he excused himself from the admiring crowd around him, to make his stately way to her.
“Ma chérie, this is an unexpected surprise.” The masculine voice, tinged with a strong accent, greeted her in the language she was most comfortable in. While conversations ranged around her in a mix of European and Asian languages, punctuated with some expressions in the Ancient tongue, Monseigneur was always punctilious in speaking English with her.
He was in full court regalia with a wig of fastidious curls, a bright satin frock coat embellished with embroidery, an elaborate cravat with the folds falling to his chest and large exquisite ruffles at his wrists. Scarlet stockings and high-heeled shoes, with bejeweled buckles, completed the attire. Jewels winked all over his person — fashion popularized by Louis XVI. The lady knew what was expected of her. Her pariah status meant that she had never formally been presented at his court. Yet, she had watched from the sidelines many times before. Though she was far too casually attired for this extravaganza, she accorded him a graceful curtsy. He bowed, raising a pale veiny appendage, with a supersized ruby on one finger, to kiss her hand.
The coal black eyes, set deep in a gaunt face with skin like fine parchment, wandered her face.
“I am, as always, delighted to see you in Venezia, ma chérie. What brings you here?” he inquired, placing her hand on his arm, to usher her towards his throne and the faithful who danced attendance on him.
“A matter of urgency, Monseigneur” she responded composedly. “A few minutes of your time in private would be appreciated.”
“Of course, ma chérie. I am always at your service.”
He raised a languid hand, the lace ruffles falling back to expose a bony pale wrist, and two Vampires, in elaborate court dress, appeared out of nowhere to clear a path to a side door. The corridor led directly to Monseigneur’s private quarters, guarded by his personal guards. She was ushered into a drawing room, opulently furnished with fussy baroque furniture in cream and burgundy velvet. She had often reflected, on her visits to Venice, that if Monseigneur’s lifestyle was an example of the excesses of the French court, it was a wonder that the starving people of France had waited as long as they had, to start a revolution and oust the monarchy.
“You have lost my daughter, Monseigneur” she asserted calmly, refusing his offer of refreshment.
While she was always circumspect with her dangerous ally, he was in the wrong this time. Thus, she felt comfortable in pressing her advantage. Their alliance had always been an unequal partnership, for she had lost her status among the Wizards and was forced to live on Monseigneur’s largesse, until she could resume her rightful place in Chosen society again. The Lombardi Master had been generous with money and his Undead but she was always cognizant that one false move on her part would asunder the partnership, to leave her penniless and without his resources to further her interests.
He did not react to the accusation, leisurely filling his goblet from the decanter on a side table. As suspected, he had guessed her reason for making the trip to Venice unannounced, despite the risk she ran with the hounds after her.
“Not lost, ma chérie, merely misplaced.” The empty black eyes met her gaze. “The Pure Bloods who misplaced her have been punished. Once she is back in my custody, no one will make such a mistake again” he said softly.
The lady was no shrinking violet. Yet, she repressed a shiver at the look in the depths of the sunken dark eyes.
“When do you expect to have her back in your custody?” she inquired coolly.
“In a few days. I have located her and am in the process of retrieving her.”
“Good” she declared, not hiding her relief at the news. “My plans are at a delicate stage. This would be the worst time to misplace my daughter.”
He took a sip from his goblet, to sink into the opulent couch across from her. “You have not yet retrieved your other daughters” he remarked conversationally.
But the lady knew that nothing was ever casual with the Lombardi Master.
“I’m working on it” she professed.
“If you want to send a message to the Guardians, my Nest is at your service” he offered unexpectedly.
This was his idea of compensation for losing her daughter, she surmised. With Monseigneur, everything was a transaction. He did not understand or care for anything else.
The lady pondered the offer. “Not the Guardians” she submitted. “But perhaps, a shot across another bow …”
“Have Rafaelo fire it” he said agreeably. “Anyone in particular?”
“There’s a Wyr Alpha leading the charge against me.”
“I thought you had the Wyrs locked down, ma chérie.”
Every muscle in her body tensed at the innocuous comment. The lady worked hard to hide it. Time was running out for her, and Monseigneur would soon start calling in his markers.
“I’m working on it” she assured him. “Once Faoladh comes over to my side, all his Shifters will follow him.”
Monseigneur quaffed his drink, savoring each sip like it might be his last one. He didn’t care about Alpha Protectors. They were chump change. His ambitions were far grander. But then, a thought struck him. A Wyr had been brought to his notice recently. That one was no ordinary Shifter.
“The Council had its first ever trial, ma chérie.”
“I heard, Monseigneur.”
“Are you aware of the verdict?” he asked her.
Her eyes shot to his face.
“The Guardian has been sentenced to death” he announced.
The black eyes assessed her clinically and the lady held her composure under the scrutiny.
“The Wyr, he attempted to poison, is the one Faoladh has digging into the past” she admitted. Monseigneur likely knew that already and the lady didn’t intend to get caught withholding information from him.
This time, she had a reaction from him, minor as it was. He leaned back on the couch to study her thoughtfully. “He was under the influence of a surfeit of silver” he remarked, a hint of respect in his voice. “That one is near impossible to kill.”
“I don’t want to kill him, Monseigneur” she retorted. “He will lead the charge to protect my interests, once Faoladh throws his lot in with me.”
The dark eyebrows arched, the black eyes flickering. “Then, what do you want, ma chérie?”
Her eyes grew hard. “I want him to kneel before me.”
“A man that reacts to a threat with such fierceness will not kneel easily before another” the Vampire warned softly.
She smiled, looking forward to humbling the Alpha who had bested her in their only encounter. “He is a Wyr, when everything is said and done. The power of magic is not to be underestimated, as you know.”
“My court is at your service.”
Having been granted the boon, she deliberated on how to bring the Alpha to his knees. “Perhaps, SiLoran could do the trick” she suggested, testing the waters. Monseigneur had never before granted her the services of his elite Ancients.
“She can certainly bend a Wyr to your will” he agreed.
Satisfied by his accommodation, the lady allowed the last of her worries to drain away. Things seemed to be on the upswing again. Her daughter was in the process of being carted back under Monseigneur’s patronage and she had his consent to deploy one of his powerful First Ones to teach the upstart Alpha a lesson.
“Do you know anything about the Rune Mage?” he quizzed her abruptly.
She frowned, a little taken aback by the unexpected query. “Should I?”
“Probably not.” He pursed his lips, as if in thought. “How has Rafaelo been performing?”
“He is adequate for my purposes.”
“When you sit at the high table, you will have more competent lieutenants to implement your orders” the Vampire promised her. “I will make sure of it.”
She fixed her eyes on him. The lady knew more was coming.
“But timing is everything, ma chérie” he prodded her, gently swirling the contents of his goblet. “You are in danger of running out of time.”
The lady clenched her teeth silently. This was a warning. Monseigneur was getting impatient with the delays.
“Perhaps, you should also send a message to the Guardians that oppose you” he proposed. “It would be a shame to see you stumble, when the prize is within your grasp.”
She considered his suggestion. The GCW was too delicately poised right now to risk making new enemies. But sending an indirect message to the Wizards, that opposed her, might not be a bad idea. One valuable lesson she had learned from Monseigneur was that sometimes, the trappings of power were just as good as the real thing itself.
“The Guardians are close to calling for a full assembly” the lady proclaimed, hoping it would be enough for the Master to back off. For now, anyway.
He looked up from the dark red liquid in his goblet. This was news to the Blutsauger. Once the invitations went out to the Guardians, it would no longer be a secret from him. But even the Lombardi Master was not privy to private discussions within the GCW.
“What is on the agenda?” he asked.
“A new election” she said, keeping it brief.
He took another sip from his goblet but the lady knew that she had just bought herself some time.
“You are to be congratulated, ma chérie” he lauded her, before delivering another warning. “But the window is shrinking. I don’t have to remind you that my term on the Council is nearing its end.”
They needed Monseigneur on the Council of Chosen for their strategic maneuver to have the best chance of success. And given the rotating terms the Vampires had agreed upon, another Pure Blood Master would represent the Blutsaugers on the Council in two years.
“I will deliver on my promises, Monseigneur” she assured him confidently.
“I know you will, ma chérie. Though it concerns me that Faoladh continues to lead the campaign against you.”
The lady secretly agreed with her Undead benefactor. Of everything that had not gone her way, Faoladh was on the top of her list.
Before she could reassure him, Monseigneur went on the offensive again. “Are you sure that Faoladh will go to bat for you? His affinity to your sister was apparent during the recent trial. They were reading from the same script, even more so than ElThor. I found it very odd, considering that one of her Guardians was on trial for assaulting Faoladh’s Wyr.”
The lady held on to her temper with an effort. Everything, she had heard about the trial and the events leading up to it from her Wizard sources, implied that Faoladh and the First Wizard had been much too cozy for comfort. However, she would never betray even an inkling of how much the unlikely alliance stuck in her craw. Monseigneur could not be allowed to doubt her. Therein, lay disaster for her.
“Her cozying up to Faoladh is one of the reasons she has alienated the Guardians, Monseigneur. The GCW feels she puts other interests before that of Wizards. Once she has been replaced on the Council, Faoladh will throw his support to me. I am his friend’s wife, the one the Oracle prophesied he would champion” she reminded the Vampire. “My sister was only ever the Oracle’s protégé.”
Monseigneur reached for the decanter again, to refill his goblet. He had been taken aback by the First Wizard’s actions during the trial, especially since it was a Guardian under judgement. He’d also been rattled to find himself the only holdout on the Council, on the Guardian’s sentence. He did not intend to be caught off guard like that again. It was a position that made the Master deeply uneasy.
Though he did not voice any further concerns, the lady could read him just fine. Fortunately, she had one more card to play from the arsenal she cultivated carefully. A significant piece of information she knew he was not privy to. The lady hoped it would be enough to preoccupy Monseigneur for a little while, as she worked to get her ducks back in a row again.
“The Guardian, sentenced to death on the Council’s orders, revealed something to the Wizards that might be of interest to you” she declared, holding his gaze. “He claimed that his reign of terror on female Wizards was a means to ferret out the daughter of his friend — a witch with unparalleled magic. The friend he talked of was Gabriel Azevedo.”
The sunken black eyes sparked eerily as if a light, long extinguished, had attempted to fire up again. “You’re sure of the name, ma chérie?”
“I was acquainted with Gabriel during my time in the GCW” she said. “Of course, I’m sure.’
Monseigneur’s expression darkened and the lady’s alarm subsided. Her gambit had paid off. What little she knew about Azevedo’s relationship with Monseigneur suggested that the Vampire had never forgotten the Wizard’s betrayal. The former Guardian had worked for Monseigneur, before turning his back on the Lombardis. By all accounts, the Master had been wild with rage, until his flunkeys had confirmed Azevedo’s death. Though she was unaware of the particulars, the lady had long suspected that Gabriel was one of the very few who’d managed to outwit the devious Pure Blood Master.
Now that she had bought herself some time, it was imperative to even the scores with the Wyrs and bring the Alpha in line. She’d been handling Faoladh with velvet gloves, hoping to woo him over to her side. But that was at an end. She would be the next First Wizard and it was time Faoladh learnt that she did not bluff. When you got in bed with a conscienceless savage like Monseigneur, you could not afford to make threats you did not intend to follow up on.
The Eru King’s fortress, North America
The man, with the regal bearing and a thick white mane, gestured at the young guard who waited by the door.
“Send him in” ordered the Eru King of the Americas. He was not of royal blood for there were no monarchies among the Chosen. But he was royalty in Eru eyes and that had earned him the title of King.
An imposing man with broad shoulders and dark hair, cropped short, strolled in unhurriedly. There was a cat-like grace to him and, for a big man, he was surprisingly light-footed.
The King greeted him warmly. “Walk with me, Bastian” he invited. “I want to stretch my legs.”
His visitor fell into step beside him. Though he had bold, strongly etched features, his sheer size dominated, superseding others to make it his most memorable attribute. In most crowds, a majority would recall only his towering frame, not the gray eyes that sparked silver in the sun or how the pale orbs glowed against his swarthy skin.
The young guard, attuned to his leader’s habits, opened a set of double doors that led to a covered porch. The two Ancients exited, to walk down the steps into a well-tended garden. A trail meandered through the garden, leading away from the main house. The house sat on three acres of land and the landscaped garden, enclosing it, soon gave way to untended brush.
They were well away from the house, before the King broke the silence. “Is she settling in?” he asked.
“Everything is new to her” the gray-eyed visitor responded. “The bastard exerted control over every aspect of her life.”
Despite the pronounced lack of inflexion in his voice, there was a note that had his host giving him a sharp look.
“The Blutsaugers have always been paranoid by nature.” The Eru leader did not hide his distaste or disdain. What he’d been told about her story vexed the King. That an Undead had, to all purposes, held a First One hostage, curtailing her liberty and actions, did not sit right with him. If their brethren got even a whiff of this, many of the old arguments from a thousand years before might be resuscitated. Unfortunately, even though he vehemently disagreed with the Elders’ decision, it bestowed the Undead with the same rights as other Chosen. Which meant that they must be circumspect about this.
“There is more to this than the usual Blutsauger paranoia” his visitor remarked.
“In what way?” the King inquired.
“She was not allowed to mingle with anyone from outside the Nest. That might be Undead paranoia. However, given Monseigneur’s unique proclivities, his lavish court and collection of Ancients, I find it very strange that he kept her isolated. Here’s a First One with an impeccable pedigree and an illustrious heritage. And yet, instead of showing her off to his allies, he chooses to hide her very existence from them.”
His host digested the information. “What do you suspect, Bastian?”
“The Canonical claim on her might not be as straightforward as the Blutsauger represented it to her.”
The older man came to an abrupt stop. “Would he get away with something like that?” he exclaimed, his voice incredulous and threaded with skepticism.
“Very easily, IsBoKel. She was his prisoner, in everything but name. All she’s ever known is the Venice Nest and its Undead. And her isolation ensures she has no recourse at all. Even if their claim on her is dubious, she can’t verify it.”
ElMorad was unsurprised by the King’s reaction. IsBoKel was savvy, farsighted and astute in the ways of the First Ones and would never let his Erus be outflanked by anyone. However, like many senior Ancients who lived in a cocoon surrounded by their brethren and their age-old traditions and norms, the King did not mingle with the Blutsaugers and was blind to the insane lust for power in the Monseigneurs of their world. Whereas, Bastian, whose job it had once been to enforce the Elders’ sentences, understood the dredges of Chosen society only too well.
As his leader stared at him, ElMorad reiterated his point. “I know enough of Monseigneur to be certain that he would not hide a First One he had legitimate claim on.”
“This is very precarious for an Undead” the King muttered. “If proven, it would stir up a hornet’s nest.”
“There are Undead and there are Pure Blood Masters, IsBoKel. Many of the direct descendants of the original Blutsaugers strut like royalty and put on airs that would astonish even the Elders. But it takes a singularly ambitious and cutthroat Vampire to put his head in the lion’s mouth, especially with a First One. Monseigneur is vicious and venomous, with grandiose delusions to boot. If he thought he could harness ElDarZin’s progeny’s magic, without getting caught, he would not hesitate. In this case, the risk was minimal anyway, as long as he kept her isolated. That is what he did.”
The King shook his head in disbelief but did not question Bastian’s inference any further. ElMorad was not a man to make unfounded allegations, least of all about a Pure Blood Master. And IsBoKel had immense faith in Bastian’s judgement. The two Erus went back a long way and the King had known Bastian since before he had become ElMorad, the Elders’ most fearsome and successful enforcer. Bastian had inherited a lot of magic, many of it exotic and reminiscent of the mystical powers believed lost with the Forebearers. But power, on its own, was only one ingredient. A successful enforcer needed to learn to use it properly and with utmost effect. ElMorad had mastered that.
They resumed their perambulations, before IsBoKel broke the silence. “This might resurrect the old controversy about the Undead’s full membership as Chosen.”
“I have to tread carefully” his visitor concurred. “And catch Monseigneur with his hand in the cookie jar.”
“What will you do, my friend?” the King inquired, certain that Bastian had a plan.
“I’m going to dig into her father’s history with his First Ones. But first, I have to stash her somewhere safe, in case Monseigneur sends his bloodsuckers after her.”
“They’re already at the door, Bastian. They’ve been sniffing around searching for your whereabouts. They know who has her.”
ElMorad had been sure that Monseigneur would eventually put two and two together. Not only about her escape from the resort but also what had befallen the Lombardi Undead in the forest, who had by now crawled out of the earthly grave he had given them. “That is why I’ve delayed my trip, IsBoKel. I’m not sure she would be safe on her own.”
The King cast his eyes on his hulking visitor. “You want to leave her in my care” he murmured. If so, this would be the first time, Bastian had asked him for anything. They had a strange relationship. He counted ElMorad as a friend, though he wasn’t sure exactly how the former enforcer looked upon their relationship. They trusted each other implicitly but ElMorad was a loner. He maintained a loose connection to the Erus in North America by associating with their leader and offering his considerable experience and expertise as an advisor to the King or for special delicate missions. At the same time, he remained on the sidelines when it came to their affairs.
ElMorad’s gray eyes met his leader’s. “I’d consider it a favor.”
“You have it, Bastian. Of course, we will look after her while you check on her antecedents. But if Monseigneur lays claim to her and demands her return, my hands will be tied” the King warned. “Unless you bring me proof that he has no claim on her, I must take his word for it.”
Where ElMorad had more leeway and could hide the girl from the Vampires, a leader of the Erus was duty bound to obey the Chosen charter. And the Primogeniture Canons lay at the core of their implicit credo.
Bastian sighed inwardly. It was too risky to leave her by herself and too much of a gamble to entrust her to IsBoKel. At the same time, he could never disprove the Lombardi Master’s claim until he dug into ElDarZin’s past and history.
“There is a way to protect her, Bastian” the King reminded him. “A claim that would override a Blutsauger’s Canonical one on a First One.”
ElMorad, who had considered the idea but put it on the back burner as a last resort, cast his gaze up at the darkening sky. “I’ll think about it.”
San Diego, California
Moonlight bathed the darkened forest, casting a silver glow on a narrow strip of brush surrounded by slender trunks rising up, towards the sky. A young woman waited alone, silhouetted by the faint light. In the ghostly luminescence, every line of her body was tense, as if she was in the grip of strong emotion. The towering trees that enclosed the tiny patch cast ominous shadows around her. A gentle breeze had these shadows swaying, almost reaching for her. But the girl remained curiously motionless, her back ramrod straight, like she was gearing up to face her worst fears. A distant howl broke the silence, its echoes reverberating. Again, the woman did not move a muscle.
She was so still that only the blinking of her eyes signaled that she was no statue. Suddenly, without any warning, she seemed to come alive. Though there was no sign of an intruder, her head swiveled to peer through the pale halo that marked the edges of the moonlit patch. A man strode out of the mist; a wraith emerging from the adumbral. The moonlight gave him an aura, a silvery radiance, that made him appear larger than life. Where the woman had ignored all previous hints of danger, she snapped to attention as he prowled closer. The contrast between the two could not be more marked. Intense strain characterized the woman, whereas the man seemed at his ease, even relaxed. Tall, with broad shoulders and a lean build, he had a graceful loping stride. Ignoring everything else, he fixed his eyes on the girl delineated by the celestial brilliance of the moon. As he neared her, it became apparent that despite appearances, he wasn’t as nonchalant as he appeared at first glance. He came to a stop within touching distance and the woman met his gaze. Shadowy light played over his face as the glittering eyes swept over her. She drew herself up, girding herself for the confrontation.
Pale starlight, ringed by dark shadows, spotlighted them. For a few seconds, neither said anything. The man was the first to break the silence.
“We finally find ourselves on opposing sides” he stated calmly, his voice even.
She flinched. “I’ve feared this day” she confided, her voice a mere whisper. “But I never thought to end up like this.”
The man cocked his head, his eyes never leaving her face. If he was surprised by her words, he did not show it.
“What will it be?” he asked. “If you give in, it will go easier for you.”
She inhaled deeply, to release her breath slowly. “I can’t do that” she said quietly.
His expression shifted, a subtle hardening of his features. The girl seemed to sense the threat. She took an involuntary step back, before recovering swiftly to move forward and go toe to toe with him.
The man did not miss the momentary faltering. “Are you sure you want to take me on?” Amusement streaked through his voice this time.
“Not sure, no.” The woman hesitated. “But it’s what I have to do.”
She glanced away from him, to the side, her eyes searching the shadows. The man reached unhurriedly for her, his large palm landing flush against her neck, to wrap his fingers around it. Her slender neck was no match for the oversized palm, the long fingers encircling it completely. She jumped, her eyes flashing to him and her face paling.
He studied her in the silvery luminance, his eyes glinting — a predator closing in on his hapless prey. The big hand was loose around her neck but there was no mistaking his intent.
“Be careful what you sign up for, witchling” he reminded her. “You’ve never had to fight me before. And I’m not talking about the training hall. But a real winner-takes-all match.”
She squared her shoulders. “I have never underestimated you.”
“Perhaps, you’re counting on me to go easy on you” he countered, his eyes glittering. “I won’t, witchling.”
Deadly intent vibrated from the man and the girl looked askance at him. For the first time, she appeared uneasy, as if she could no longer hide her alarm from her adversary.
Sienna jolted up in the bed, breathing hard like she had been running flat out. The room was dark but what she had seen was bright as day in her mind. Her throat seized and her heart sank, as the images replayed in her head. Beside her, Jason stirred groggily, fumbling for the light by the nightstand.
He sat up, directing sleep-drenched eyes on her. One good look at her served to banish all remnants of sleep for the Guardian.
“What is it?” he asked urgently.
“Vision” Sienna wheezed out, gulping in huge mouthfuls of air. She felt like she was drowning and a wall of water pressing down on her.
Jason drew her to him, offering silent comfort. She snuggled closer, clasping him with hands that trembled. For a few minutes, they remained silent, merely holding onto each other.
He soothed a hand over her bright hair. “Bad?”
“The worst” she murmured. “There’s no way to misinterpret what I saw this time, Jason. It’s what I have been afraid of.”
The Guardian could feel her heart racing under his palm. “Just remember, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings, Sienna. No matter how it looks.”
She sighed into his tee, her breath a warm puff of air. “I’d like to go back to San Francisco. We’ve been away too long.”
He kissed the top of her sleep-tousled hair. “A few days more, Sienna.”
“What are we doing here anyway, Jason?” she mumbled into his chest, giving voice to a question that had bubbled up multiple times in the past few days.
He let go of her reluctantly to face her, his hand reaching for hers to entwine their palms together.
But it was Sienna who spoke first. “Nandini and I are trawling through the old investigations to find a smoking gun, while Trev and you try to convince sundry Guardians that Lady Bethesda has always been bad news. But do we have to be in San Diego to do that?” she asked. “We have access to the GCW reports in San Francisco now. And Trev can do the job by himself, since Sebastian Thorne has come around to the view that she’s a loose cannon the GCW can’t afford, given their tarnished reputation from the trial.”
Jason leaned back, to cup her face, his thumb brushing her cheek. He’d wanted to keep the news from Sienna, due to her strong feelings about her aunt. “There’s a reason Thorne came to us.”
She frowned, sensing that she would not like what he was gearing up to share with her. “What are you not telling me, Jason?”
“Lady Bethesda has been gauging her chances, if an election for First Wizard was held.”
She made the connection. “She made contact?”
He confirmed it. “And word got back to Seb. They’re running scared that, if they call an election, she could win it. That’s why I asked you to find the smoking gun and why Trev and I have been working feverishly to convince the Guardians that voting for her is a terrible idea.”
Sienna looked stunned. “She still wants to be First Wizard” she muttered, half under her breath. After all this time, the immense damage and innumerable lives lost, it was all coming full circle. Her mother’s ambitions remained as malevolent and grandiose as ever. As if what had set her back before had been immaterial and unimportant. Ignoring history and the last twenty-five years, Lady Bethesda was on her merry way to make a second play for what she had always wanted — the power that came from leading the Wizards and the prestige of being First Wizard.
“Faoladh says the position would also give her immunity for past actions” Jason explained. “Likely makes her covet the office even more.”
Sienna rubbed her eyes. History was circling back, on its way to a repeat, with a different conclusion. And she could do nothing but be a silent and helpless bystander. “Losing the first election to Aunt Minnie is what sent her down this path” she said heavily. “She won’t give up … can’t give up. It’s like she has to prove to everyone that she should have been the First Wizard.”
The knowledge that the same slice of history, responsible for her childhood trauma, was about to play out again lay heavy on Sienna’s heart. Until another picture rose in her mind. One indelibly imprinted in her memory. A shaft of light pierced the dark clouds over the horizon, to bring a glimmer of hope through the gloom. All was not lost yet. This time, Lady Bethesda faced a stronger and more unified opposition. And, even fate seemed set to not smile down on her. The Alpha led the charge against Lady Bethesda, not the Wizards. He would not make the same mistakes, as before. More importantly, he would give her no leeway or cut any deals to bring her into the fold. Neither would he underestimate her, for the Alpha had the measure of his adversary. Sienna perked up, her bleak mood evaporating.
“What?” Jason prompted her, taking in the buoyant light in her eyes.
She laughed, light-hearted and nearly giddy. “For once, the cursed visions have shown me something that helps our cause.”
“No, the visions before. The one with Tasia at the Council” she said excitedly. “We have to go to San Francisco, Jason. There’s something the Alpha needs to know.”
An outpost in the Canadian Rockies, Alberta, Canada
Alexei cast a sidelong glance at his sister. They had been travelling for hours and were on the last leg of a long journey. As the car rattled over the dirt road, Alexei wished, for the umpteenth time, that Alya had not rushed into this. He suspected her guilt, about the past, and self-flagellation, for her indiscretion with the Guardian, was driving his sister to rush headlong into an inferno. Alexei wanted her to think it through, before stoking the cold embers of a flame snuffed out a long time ago. Rekindling that blaze, without considering the potential ramifications of the ensuing wildfire, could thrust everyone into the center of a firestorm. Not just the Blood Elementals, but also the young woman Alya had confirmed as their niece. Unfortunately, all his arguments to proceed with caution had fallen on deaf ears. In the end, Alexei had given in to his sister. Alya was an immovable force of nature when she was resolved on a course of action. And he deferred to her because, as the leader of the Blood Elementals, the decision was up to her. He knew how much she still struggled with the old decision to surrender her twin, in order to keep the peace with the Blutsaugers. It was an event that haunted Alya. Perhaps subconsciously, she saw this as an opportunity to balance the scales in some form. When she would not be swayed, Alexei had stepped up to the plate. He’d trawled through the past and his contacts to get what information he could on all the major players, before she confronted the Guardian.
Reading his concern, Alya gave her brother a reassuring nod. Despite Alexei’s reservations, she was convinced that she could clean up this mess. Her actions had put Aleka’s daughter in danger and she was determined to eliminate any further threat. Once her initial shock had abated, Alya had quizzed her brother on the details of the crime alleged at the Council trial. It struck her that no one had stepped up for the Wizard victim. The Wyrs had bayed for blood, though their demands had primarily focused at the attempt on the Alpha Protector. No one had explicitly pressed for justice for the Wizard caged with him, neither the Guardians nor any other party. That no family had come forward to speak for her, except for the Pack she was affiliated with, spoke volumes. Alya suspected that her father was dead. Aleka’s erstwhile jailor might not come forward publicly for fear of revealing his presence to the Blutsaugers but the absence of anyone advocating for her at the CoC trial suggested strongly that she was all alone. That suspicion gave greater impetus to Alya’s resolve to stamp out any remaining clouds hanging over the girl’s head, given that she had been responsible for drawing a bullseye on her niece in the first place.
That the Guardian was relegated to Faoladh’s custody had been welcome news. Alya had taken it as a sign that fate was smiling down on the Blood Elementals for once. It would have raised too many eyebrows, if she asked to visit the Guardian while in First Ones’ custody. But the Wyrs would not ask her any questions. Thus, Alya and Alexei had reached out to Faoladh to request access to the condemned Wizard. And set forth across the Atlantic Ocean to a rendezvous in western Canada.
Their car came to a stop in a clearing, with a few scattered single storey structures. They were ushered to a structure, a short walk from the clearing. The Guardian sat by a table inside, his feet shackled. Behind him was an unkempt bed, the sheets rumpled. Alexei chose to stand, parking himself by the closed door, while his sister took a chair across the table from the condemned Wizard. The utilitarian table was uncluttered, except for a couple of bottles of water and two pieces of fruit. The accommodations, though not luxurious, were not basic either. They were, however, better than what the felon deserved. Yet, the Guardian looked like hell; his clothes hanging off a gaunt frame, his face haggard and eyes bloodshot. The trial and his sentence had sunk in, Alexei realized with a fierce sense of satisfaction. Anderson was beginning to appreciate that he had passed the point of no return. There would be no second chances for him anymore and neither were there any doors left to knock on. As a member of the GCW, the Guardian had held a position of considerable power and influence. Falling from grace from such a pinnacle likely made it harder to come to terms with his new circumstances.
Alexei watched his sister study the man, wondering what tack she intended to take. The Wizard ignored her, his fingers idly scraping the paper wrapped around a bottle of water. He appeared apathetic and indifferent to his surroundings and his visitors.
“I know why you did what you did” Alya announced.
The bloodshot eyes, across the table, squinted at her, the fingers scratching at the bottle in a nervous gesture. “You’re not GCW” he muttered. “Who are you?”
“Someone from the past.”
For the first time, the Guardian evinced some interest in his visitors. Ignoring the man by the door, he peered at the woman across the table. “Not a Wyr either” he stated, with a subtle change in demeanor.
Now, Alexei could see a semblance of the old arrogance and confidence the Guardian had once wrapped himself in.
“You should never have crossed me” Alya said quietly.
The condemned man slumped into his chair. “What can you do to me anymore?” he scoffed, with an air of bravado. “I’m already at the end of the road.”
Alya had done her homework. Or rather, Alexei had done it for her. “I hear that your Guardian friends are asking around for Chosen signatures, on a petition to commute your sentence from death to life” she stated.
At her words, Anderson merely looked resigned. From what Alexei had gathered, so far even the First Wizard had refused to push the petition requesting mercy for him.
“To have any chance of success, you’ll need, at least, two representatives on the CoC to advocate for the petition” Alya emphasized. “The Wyrs will never agree. They’d much rather tear you from limb to limb than allow you a more merciful death from an enforcer.”
The Wizard stirred. “You offering to help me?”
“I could” Alya responded. “Or I could squash the effort right now.”
There was a short silence, while the Guardian stared at his visitor. “What do you want?” Anderson asked eventually, with a hint of belligerence.
“Persuade me to your side. Convince me that this was all a mistake and that you never set out to do what you have been convicted of.”
“I wanted to punish the Alpha Protector. Teach him a lesson. But my men lost their heads and went too far.”
To Alexei, it felt like the Wizard justified his crime almost by rote, as if he had repeated this so many times that Anderson had started to believe his own lies.
Alya did not let up. “Why?”
“He was getting too big for his britches.”
“You mean because he put a damper on the search for your friend’s daughter.”
The comment had the Guardian tense. His reign of terror, directed at low level Wizards in San Francisco, had come out during the trial. But not who he had been searching for.
“My friend?” Anderson repeated carefully. “Who do you mean?”
“The one who went to work for Monseigneur and escaped with one of his hostages.”
The Wizard gawked at her, thick brows furrowed together, trying to make the connection.
Alya allowed her fury to show on her face. “You’re wondering how I know about Gabriel Azevedo, when I’m neither Wyr nor Wizard. You should remember who it is that told you about his daughter in the first place.”
Anderson shot up in his chair, the shackles clanging. “You’re the sister — Alina?”
The Guardian’s eyes shot from her to the man who stood guard behind her. “Blood Elementals” he said wonderingly.
Alya clenched her teeth. “Seriously pissed off Blood Mages” she corrected him. “Why did you go after the daughter?
The condemned man shook himself like a dog and seemed to recover his equanimity. “Gabriel is dead. There has been no sign of him for years. I wanted to provide his daughter with protection” he said glibly.
Alya did not hide her skepticism. “Your idea of protection is to terrorize Wizards, in the hope of running her to ground?”
The Wizard sat down. “If the Undead ever discovered Gabriel had a daughter, they would do far worse to her.” Anderson justified his actions, showing little regret for the havoc he’d wrought. “I thought to preempt that and offer her the protection of the GCW. We could keep her safe from Monseigneur.”
“Your explanation would carry more weight, if the Vampires were after her. Monseigneur has no clue she even exists. It is your actions that would have drawn their attention to her.”
“Without the Wyr Alpha shoving his nose in, no one would have been the wiser” Anderson reiterated stubbornly.
“He merely drew attention to what you were doing, while your Guardian friends looked the other way. And then, when you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar, you tried to kill my niece” the Blood Mage accused him, her eyes spitting fury.
Shock flashed across the Wizard’s face. “Never” he stammered. “I wanted to shield her.”
“You wanted to exploit her powers” Alya retorted.
“Whatever you believe, I didn’t set out to kill her. What good is she to me dead?”
An astonished Alexei worked to keep his consternation under wraps. Why had the Guardian shoved their niece into the cage with the poisoned Wyr, unless he wanted her eliminated?
Alya, equally astounded, proceeded more carefully. “Why did you target the Wizard with the Wyr?”
“She happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Anderson shrugged, not wanting to reveal that they had hoped she would be in Merceau’s company when his men nabbed the Shifter. Bianchi had hinted that the Wyr had a relationship with her. Though Anderson had not believed the Vampire, he knew the Wizard was under Pack protection and that had been good enough to make an example of her.
Alya exchanged a confused look with her brother. It struck both siblings, at the same time, that the Guardian was unaware that the Wizard, he had victimized, was the one he’d been scouring for everywhere. Alya was fairly certain that Anderson spoke the truth on this. It did not serve the Guardian’s purpose to kill his friend’s powerful daughter. But she still needed to nip this thing in the bud. Anderson was slated to leave this world soon. He would not be around to spread the rumors of Azevedo’s daughter to any other Chosen. But just in case, the Guardian had shared his suspicions with others in the past, Alya wanted to make sure no one would ever again go on the hunt for Aleka’s daughter.
“If you’re saying that the search for Gabriel Azevedo’s daughter is what put you on death row, then the joke’s on you, Guardian” Alya declared, fixing her eyes on him.
The condemned man frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Your friend never had a daughter. I made it up.”
The Guardian’s mouth fell open.
Alya shrugged. “When you reached out to me, you were grieving. I threw you a bone. And it did the trick.”
The Blood Mage’s eyes hardened, into something cold and flinty. “If I had suspected that you’d go on a rampage against this mythical daughter, I’d have exterminated you myself.”
Anderson sat up straighter. “I don’t believe you. Why would you lie to me?”
“By all accounts, you searched for her for years. Did you ever find any trace of her, Guardian?” the Mage countered, hoping with everything in her that he had not.
When the felon remained silent, she went on the offensive. “Did you?” she pressed. “If a Guardian can’t find any trace of a Wizard, who can?”
Her target roused himself. “She might not identify as a Wizard.”
“First Ones don’t operate like Wizards” Alya said witheringly. “You know that, Guardian. Genealogy dictates what sect a First One belongs to. If there was a child, he or she could only approach the Blood Elementals. No other Ancients would take her on. I’m sure you looked into us, before you went searching for a Wizard.”
The Guardian merely stared back at her, having no answer to her question.
Alya got up, almost giddy with relief. “There is no daughter. There was never any daughter. My sister did not reach out to me, once she was Monseigneur’s hostage. Your friend tried to help her and they both died during the attempt. It is the reason no Blutsauger is looking for them. You think they’d ever let it slide, if there was a chance either of them made it out of Monseigneur’s dungeon?”
Turning her back on the Wizard, she strode towards her brother. Alexei opened the door for his sister. With a final glance at the speechless man inside, who looked at a loss for words, he followed her out. Alexei was pleased as punch. His sister had handled the situation admirably. But they’d also been lucky to catch a break. Without that, it would have been a much harder knot to untangle. The Guardian remained unaware that the Wizard, in the cage, with the Wyr Alpha was the one he’d been in pursuit of.
Closing the door on the doomed Wizard inside, the siblings walked into the sunshine where their Shifter usher waited for them. Alexei turned impulsively to the Wyr. “Would it be possible to meet with Faoladh for a few minutes?” he asked. “We have come a long way and would like to pay our respects to him.”
He sensed his sister’s confusion, beside him. But she remained silent, certain that he had his reasons.
“I’ll check” the Shifter responded amiably. “If you don’t mind waiting.”
“We’ll wait” Alexei assured him.
Alya arched an eyebrow at her brother, as the Wyr strode away from them.
“Request Faoladh for a parley with the Alpha Protector” he said, keeping it brief, in case Shifter ears listened in.
She jerked her head, confident her sibling would explain when they were more private.
Much later, once Faoladh had granted their request and they were on their way home, Alexei provided an explanation.
“When I asked around about the Alpha, something interesting popped up” he revealed. “He is fronting an investigation for Faoladh. There has been Blutsauger interference in the inquiry. And one Undead, who kidnapped a Wizard in San Francisco, is known to be from the Lombardi Nest.”
Alya’s eyebrows shot up. “There is a connection between the Wyr Alpha and Monseigneur?”
“A tenuous one” her brother admitted. “But it is worth having a conversation with the Alpha. If he is looking into the Lombardis, we might be able to help each other.”
His sister did not respond but her expression made it clear that she was skeptical and unconvinced.
“The Wyrs are not the First Ones, Alya” he reminded her. “If they are going after our enemies, we could come to an agreement. And there’s another reason to approach him. On the off chance that he knowingly shields Aleka’s daughter, we should give him what we can to help guard her better. Kill two birds with one stone.”
San Francisco, California
Tasia was summoned to the Alpha’s Room, two evenings after moving in with Caro Hamilton. Since Duncan had tasked her with sorting through the GCW investigations, Tasia still spent a majority of her time at the Lair. Hawk gave her a ride in the morning and when he was done for the evening, he dropped her off at Caroline’s. She worked feverishly on the reports, often poring through the archaic fine print to drill deep and gather useful information. This would be her final assignment for the investigation. After she wrapped it up, she intended to leave.
The young Shifter, to bring her the summons, ushered her into the Alpha’s Room. The Pack Room was not crowded yet and the Shifters in there paid her scant attention. Not only was she a familiar presence at the Lair, they were also accustomed to finding her in a corner, at all hours of the day, perusing her stack of documents.
The Alpha, seated behind his gigantic desk, gestured silently to the chair across it.
As the door closed behind her, Tasia eyed the lounge space at the other end of the room. It was where she usually hunkered since her early days at the Lair. The seat across the desk reminded her too much of being castigated by the man in the big chair.
He said nothing as she hesitated, the gold eyes impenetrable. Tasia strode forward to take the chair, perching on the edge of it. Five days of being banished and treated like she was invisible; and yet, she still had to remind herself, every now and then, that he was a stranger again. The pace at which everything, between them, had imploded left her gasping for breath in her vulnerable moments, even now.
“You’ve moved in with Caroline Hamilton” he said.
Tasia had prepped thoroughly for this session. And she gave herself a stern admonition to hold it together. She’d held her own with the Alpha in the early days, when he had intimidated and terrified her. She could do it again, when he held a different kind of power over her.
“I wanted to notify you but you were unavailable” she responded.
The gold eyes apprised her, aloof and inaccessible. He was a fortress no one could breach and nothing could surmount. The only way in was if he opened the gate himself. But whatever festered inside him would not allow it. Tasia’s head understood this, though her heart lagged behind, unwilling to accept it.
“Duncan said you have information for me” he prompted her.
Tasia sighed. Better to get this over with. She was here to repay a debt, not hanker after what might have been. Any fantasy of a future with him had always been a mere phantasm, one even someone with her abilities at building illusions could not affect.
“Nearly six hundred years after the Elders stepped in, to bring about an uneasy peace between the Blood Mages and the first Blutsaugers, the Clan went to war again. This time, to wipe out the Sirens. The Vampires had more foot soldiers, after so many centuries, and the Blood Elementals were vastly outnumbered. When things were looking very grim for the Mages, a Pure Blood Master offered them a deal, to end the conflict that was bleeding the Elementals dry. The bargain was that one Siren would be given to the Vampires every generation. In return, the Blutsaugers would not kill Blood Mages indiscriminately.” Tasia’s words came out matter-of-factly, almost conversationally, with little emotion behind them. She had rehearsed this speech umpteen times in her room. The goal was to give him enough ammunition to incite the other Vampires against the Lombardis, while withholding any extraneous details.
Though the gold eyes remained blank, Tasia knew that she had his attention.
“It was Monseigneur who struck the deal with the Blood Elementals” she explained, certain that he would grasp the import of her words. “My father told me that, from what he heard during his time at the Venice Nest, only the Lombardi inner circle is aware of this arrangement.”
The Alpha stirred in his chair, making the connections to come up with a staggering conclusion. “What are you saying, witchling?”
She did not beat about the bush. “Monseigneur struck a private bargain with the Blood Mages, leaving the Clan in the dark about it.”
Heavy eyelids descended to screen the gold eyes as he settled back, to consider all the angles. Tasia waited patiently.
“You’re sure about this?” he confirmed, trying to digest the extraordinary information.
“My father believed it” Tasia said. “Though I don’t have all the details, like what the Lombardis told the other Blutsaugers to make them back off from the Blood Mages.”
“Likely, that the Sirens had been exterminated” he murmured, as a picture of the manipulative Lombardi Master’s jockeying, to take advantage of the situation, began to take shape for him.
That calculating, brutal, duplicitous leech had played everyone, Raoul realized. The Clan, as well as the Blood Mages. He could see how such a pact might work, with none the wiser. The Blood Elementals likely had no clue that the unholy deal, they’d struck with the Lombardis, did not extend to the rest of the leeches but as long as Monseigneur kept his side of the bargain, the Mages would never suspect it. And it was a given that the Blood Elementals would keep a low profile and their distance from the Clan — the war with the Vampires had demonstrated that they were outgunned and outmanned. While the leeches could never compete with a Blood Elemental’s magic, the Undead still held an advantage over them. Not only one of numbers, but also the ability to propagate faster. Six hundred years after their birth, they’d had an inexhaustible supply of Undead to wage war.
Raoul had no doubt that the ruthless Vampire Masters had been willing to sacrifice their foot soldiers, in order to eliminate the Siren threat, once and for all. No leech would refuse such an order. The blood ties that bound an Undead to his Master would not allow it. This was the cornerstone of leech ethos. A devious Monseigneur had the Blood Mages right where he wanted them. But the pact also left him vulnerable. The other Pure Blood Masters would be furious if they discovered that Monseigneur had double-crossed them. The Pure Blood Families held great sway among the leeches and the Masters were known to be fiercely competitive. They distrusted each other and shared power very uneasily. Something like this could blow the existing fractures wide open. And might even unify the Pure Blood Masters, to collectively go after Monseigneur for his silent coup to benefit his Nest over the rest of the Clan.
The witchling had just handed him a bargaining chip against the powerful Lombardi Master. The Alpha waited for a spike of excitement to hit him. They’d been searching for leverage against Monseigneur and this was much more. It was explosive munition, with the power to annihilate the Lombardi Vampire. Yet, he felt nothing. Just a vast emptiness. There had been a time in his life when he would have given an arm and a leg to feel like this, instead of the rage and bitterness spewing a trail of destruction in its wake. But he had left those days behind him, battling hard for over a decade to do so, and Raoul realized that he didn’t favor the emptiness anymore. No longer did he welcome the numbness he had once embraced. Frowning inwardly, he glanced over the desk at the woman who had both roused him to the possibilities, as well as shoved him back into the darkest legacies of his past.
Her head was bent, a faint crease between her brows. She appeared preoccupied, drawn and weary, with dark circles under her eyes. But he could sense nothing from her. Unlike before, neither a glimmer of her thoughts nor any hint of emotion came through. Since their very first meeting, he’d always been able to read her — initially, her expressive face and body language and later, other emotions. Now suddenly, she was a locked box whose mysterious contents could not be scrutinized or studied. Since the extraordinary connection between them had been a consequence of the ayo srayta, the Magick bond that linked them together, if she presented as a locked box to him, it was likely that he too was a cipher to her. He ought to be pleased. This is what he’d desired. Yet, it left him dissatisfied. Deep inside, something stirred — a spark, temporarily extinguished by shock and past horrors, rekindling again.
Since the bombshell that the witchling’s nightmares were merely echoes of his, the Alpha had retreated within. Locked into a death struggle with his resurrected demons, he’d hunkered down, going through the motions and sleepwalking through his days. Overwhelmed by the encroaching darkness, an enemy he thought he’d already vanquished, he had paid scant attention to anything but surviving his old nemesis. All his animus had been directed squarely at the woman responsible for reviving ancient ghosts from the ashes he had spent his life consigning them to. For the first time since he’d been gut-punched, Raoul took stock, not pleased by his observations. It forced him to question his assumptions.
His eyes swept over her again and his brows furrowed. He did not like this version of the witchling who hoarded her feelings and masked her thoughts from him. At the same time, he recognized that he was being unfair. After all, he was the one who had warned her to not exploit the bond between them. Yet, he felt an inexplicable desire to shake her composure.
“Why tell me this?” he asked.
At the pointed question, her eyes rose to his. “Monseigneur wasn’t significant to the investigation before. Now, he is. This will give you leverage against him.”
Raoul waited, certain that she understood what he was asking.
“If you weren’t aware of the backstory, I would not reveal this” she said simply, without any attempt at dissembling. “The Sirens have never been my secret to share.”
She paused, as if expecting him to interject. When he didn’t, Tasia continued on. “But you know what I am. Keeping this from you is counterproductive. If he is the power behind Lady Bethesda, Monseigneur must be stopped.”
“What’s the but?” he quizzed her, sure there was one.
Her gray eyes were somber. “What I told you has the power to cause Monseigneur’s undoing. However, it could also have devastating consequences for the Blood Elementals. Use it wisely, Alpha.”
Tasia had no doubt that he would comprehend how sensitive this information was. She knew, more than most, that under the Shifter muscle hid a thinking man.
For a few minutes, the room was silent. As he processed the information, Tasia handed over the last piece of the puzzle. This knowledge, powerful as it was, would be fruitless without the evidence to back it up. The Blutsaugers would not take something so incendiary on trust, especially since the Alpha could not use Azevedo’s name as the source of his information.
“My mother was the Blood Mage forfeit for her generation. Daughter of the previous chieftain and sister to the current, she was a captive of the Venice Nest for two years before she escaped” Tasia said. “Any Pure Blood Master should have the resources to verify, at least, some of this.”
Her words jolted the Wyr. The witchling was taking a mighty gamble on him. And he couldn’t help but wonder why now, his faith shaken by her admission of a few nights prior. He’d fought like the devil to scrub away the imprint of the past, eventually coming within touching distance of the normal and even dreaming of putting his heart in play. But the witchling had laid everything bare, scraping at the gashes until he was raw and bleeding. And pulsating with rage, hostility and resentment. However, once the first shock had abated, Raoul recognized that it wasn’t just the srayta he’d condemned the witchling for. That had just been the catalyst. Their short but tumultuous history was riddled with many such interludes. He had forgiven her much. And he’d indulged her more than anyone else. Every time he went out of his way for her, making allowances for her apprehensions and secrets, she blindsided him anew. Except this time, the revelation had ripped into an oozing abscess, slashing open the wounds, an evil witch had inflicted on him, and the resulting vulnerabilities he guarded ferociously from the eyes of the world. The blow had ambushed him, knocking away the ground from under his feet and rousing the tempest buried within him. Though he understood that he had to confront it, and not simply bury it deep within, the Alpha wasn’t ready to deal with that yet. Not while her deceit was a living thing that ate him up inside, bleeding him in ways that even the blue-eyed witch’s dark deeds had not.
“Anything else?” he nudged her.
Her eyes tangled with his. What he read in them had him stiffening. The witchling was here to bargain with him. Suited him just fine. He’d rattle the armor she’d donned against him.
Across the desk, Tasia took a deep breath. This was the final item on her to-do list. And after, she’d close this chapter and prepare for a new one. It was proceeding better than Tasia had anticipated. She had looked forward to, as well as dreaded this meeting, the first after the bitter words flung at her, wondering if it might shake her resolve. But this daunting, forbidding and remote man was not the Shifter who had stolen her heart, tempting her to abandon the pledge to eschew romantic entanglements with a Chosen. In a strange way, it was going to be easy to leave this man behind, when walking away from the other would have proven extraordinarily tough and heartbreaking.
“In a few days, my three months with the Pack are up” she reminded him.
There was no reaction to her comment but Tasia had a feeling that he was surprised. Perhaps, the date had slipped his mind.
“In other words, you want out” he said smoothly.
Tasia did not hesitate. “It would be for the best.”
After days of feeling numb, Raoul felt a shaft of anger slice through him. A reminder that he wasn’t inured to her yet. But if the witchling thought that he would allow her to bring him to life and then saunter away, with a thank you for services rendered, she was sorely mistaken.
“For someone who assured me she doesn’t run, you do it with disastrous regularity” he remarked dispassionately. “Every time you have to make a hard call, you turn tail.”
Tasia’s hand clenched involuntarily in her lap and she had to force herself to relax. She could not allow him to goad her.
She squared up to him, refusing to back down. “I’m a liability for the Pack. A clean break …”
He interrupted her coldly. “I will not smooth your path anymore, witchling.”
Tasia bit back the words on her lips. What was this? He had already cut her loose, in every way that counted. And yet, he was refusing to let her break the last tie between them.
She worked hard to project a calmness she did not feel. “I don’t understand?”
He laid down the law with steely determination. “I don’t give a fuck whether you want to live at the Lair or be a part of the investigation. But you will not leave San Francisco until you fix this.”
Tasia’s heart sank. “Fix what?” she asked, even though she knew exactly what he meant.
“The ayo srayta, witchling. I refuse to be saddled with it.”
She looked him in the eye. “It can’t be severed.”
“I don’t buy it” he rebutted, without emotion. “If you can forge with magic, you can undo. And until you do, you’re not running out on me.”
They stared at each other, across the width of the desk. So many of the turning points in their turbulent relationship had been reached in this room. But this particular conflict went to the crux of everything that held them individually hostage to their respective histories. His eyes were implacable, and though she was now alive to what he muzzled inside of him, the gold depths reflected nothing. They were blanked and cold.
There was no reaching him, Tasia brooded. Her house of cards had collapsed, its ramparts breached, leaving her exposed and in danger. Bereft of her defenses, she was a sitting duck. If she stayed, she’d lead the Magicks that hunted her straight to his doorstep, sooner or later. Had the lines of communication not been shuttered, they might be able to mitigate the situation and throw the hunters off her scent, at least for a while. But as it was, that was impossible. Also, there was another reason driving Tasia to flee, one she dared not admit even to herself. With every passing day, he disappeared further into his shell, unreachable and impervious. She could not stay here and watch him become someone she no longer recognized.
Tasia jumped to her feet, the chair scraping back with a screech. More than ever, she was sure of what she must do, for herself as well as the Pack. He might not forgive her for a while but, once the first flush of rage was past, she hoped he understood that she had taken the only step available to her.
He made no move to rise but the gold eyes did not stray from her. Tasia strode to the door. She was almost to it, when he broke the hushed silence.
“Don’t run, witchling. You won’t like the consequences if I have to chase after you.” Though the tone was silky, even neutral, the threat was unsubtle.
Tasia spun around to face him. She wished fervently that he would let this go. The damage was done, to both of them. Once he’d routed the phantoms that held him in their vice grip, as he had successfully before, he would reign again as Raoul Merceau — formidable, intimidating and impregnable Alpha Protector. But she could no longer be Tasia Armstrong — nondescript Wizard with little magic. Her protective shields had been subverted, in all but name, leaving no other recourse open to her. The life she had built here, as well as the tentative hopes she’d started to harbor, lay in tatters around her. It would be tough enough to gather up whatever little pieces she could but if the Alpha hunted her, like the other Chosen, it would be a perilous existence. And it would break her heart, all over again.
She tried to reason with him, one last time. “I’ve sensed nothing, since … since the night I told you about it.”
On her side, she’d tried to shut down the bond, praying that the rumored control over this legendary magic, the Sirens had been granted by their maker, held true. But without a guide, her efforts had been a mix of instinct and desperate belief.
Tasia was hoping that the srayta had been as inactive for him as it had for her. When he said nothing, she heaved a sigh of relief. But it was short-lived.
“I’ve never believed in luck and I don’t do blind faith” he pronounced. “Magic like this doesn’t dissipate on its own.”
Tasia had no comeback for him. There was nothing to be said.
The gold eyes skewered her. “You want a clean break, witchling? Then, put your magic where your mouth is. While the srayta binds us, there is no possibility of any break. I will not come running, like your lapdog, to save your ass the next time you’re in trouble. Sunder the connection and you may walk away.”
His eyes narrowed on her, driving his point home. “You will stay in town, until I’m convinced this bond has been undone.”
Tasia paled as the import of his words hit her. What he saw on her face had him surge to his feet.
“Did you think you were the only one to suffer the side-effects of what you forged without my say so?” His voice held an odd ring, a strange note Tasia could not decipher. “I’ve been witness to some of your exposed edges too. The night Hawk took you to Coit Tower, after I caught you lying about Azevedo. The night you tried to stop Aze …” He paused, as the expressive gray eyes lost their equanimity.
“Papa” she whispered, faltering for the first time. “What did you see?”
Keenly aware that his temper had led him to reveal something he had never intended to, Raoul cursed himself. Before he could assuage his lapse, the door behind her rattled gently. Unnerved by the implications of the Alpha’s inadvertent admission, Tasia did not react fast enough, merely half-turning towards the door as it began to open into the room. Her position put her squarely in the path of the swinging door. Noise-proofed and made of steel, the door was hefty and heavy. Though her brain screamed at her to get out of its way, Tasia stood frozen.
But if her response to the threat was sluggish, the Shifter’s was hair-trigger. Kicking his chair out of the way, he vaulted over the massive desk, to plant himself between her and the steel door. The swinging door shoved him into her, before he could attain his balance. He stumbled, reaching out a long arm to snag her by the waist, the iron grip the only thing holding Tasia from crashing to the floor. With his other shoulder, he rammed the door, slamming it closed. Whoever was on the other side of it seemed to get the message. The door remained sealed.
The rush of air had Tasia’s eyes close involuntarily. She felt herself falling and then, it ceased, as suddenly as it had begun. But the surge of fear took longer to subside. The near escape from serious injury played over in her mind, while her galloping pulse slowed down. But as the thundering of her own heart quietened, the steadier beat of another under her ear became more apparent — a reminder of whose arm sheltered her against the hard body she drew comfort from. It was no splash but rather, a deluge of cold water and hard reality. Tasia came to her senses.
Pushing away, she slipped out from under his arm to put some distance between them. Only then did Tasia meet the frowning gold gaze. In his eyes, she could see the dawning awareness of what had just transpired. Without any hesitation, he’d leapt in to defend her, instinctively essaying the role he had always played for her. An eerie echo of the accusation thrown at her, five nights before — of trapping him with the srayta, as insurance against a world that coveted her powers and hunted her. This had been an insignificant example, with no ramifications to his decision. But the longer she remained, the more complicated it would get.
If he went after Monseigneur, not all of his choices would be free from consequences. Especially, if he was also encumbered with the responsibility of shielding her from the burdens of history she had inherited at birth. Investigating Lady Bethesda had posed no threat to her. But Monseigneur was the shadowy monster at the heart of her nightmares, the ringmaster of every single trap that awaited her if she slipped up. A campaign to bring down the Lombardi Blutsauger would put the Alpha in an untenable position. He might even be forced to choose between exposing Monseigneur’s atrocities and protecting her secrets and confidence. She could not do that to him.
Tasia’s breath escaped in a soft hiss. “You threw many accusations at me that night. But you were right about one. I endangered the Pack and tied your hands by not sharing that the Lombardis are mortal enemies” she admitted to the Wyr, hoping to get through to him. “You’re gearing up to go after Monseigneur. If I stay, sooner or later, the Vampires will suspect the truth about me. My presence will only jeopardize the investigation.”
Let’s cut our losses, please.
The gold eyes did not relent. “Don’t leave town, until we sort this out” he reiterated brusquely.
With a last glance at her, he yanked the door open. Duncan waited on the other side. With a murmured greeting for the English Shifter, Tasia made haste to slip away.
Duncan strode in, to cast a discerning glance at the Alpha, sensing the simmering turmoil under the impassive façade.
“Did Tasia give you something useful, Raoul?” he asked.
“She did but the information could prove deadly in the wrong hands.”
“You can’t use it?” Duncan quizzed placidly.
“I must tread carefully.”
The English Shifter read between the lines. “With the leeches?”
“No, the Ancients” the Alpha admitted somberly. “It’s explosive stuff, Duncan. But at the same time, a booby trap.”
The Were-Alpha didn’t ask him what it was. Raoul would tell him in his own time, he knew.
Duncan’s eyes swept his protégé’s face, reading the weariness and bleakness underneath the mask. He frowned inwardly. “What is it?”
The Alpha looked at him, the gold eyes unfocussed for just an instant, before the familiar alertness seeped back.
“Too many balls in the air” he said easily. “Have to make sure I don’t drop any.”
Duncan hesitated, wondering whether to prod him. This was not the old Raoul, not even the one from a few months ago. He had been immensely pleased by the change in the Alpha. But something troubled the boy now and whatever had gone awry had to do with Tasia. Since the Wizard had been the catalyst for the Alpha’s transformation, Duncan speculated whether it was a hoary beastie rearing its head again. The witch’s blight went deep, the roots of it entrenched in Raoul. When he had come upon the half-starved boy in the shed, the eyes that had looked up at him had been neither human nor beast. The witch had not succeeded in breaking his spirit but everything else had been mangled horrendously. Yet, Duncan had refused to give up on the half-wild boy — something, a glimmer in the feral gold eyes, driving him to save the young Shifter.
Rafaelo Bianchi strode into his mistress’ presence with his heart in his throat. He had spent the past few days on his guard, expecting the sword over him to swing down any moment. Her daughter’s disappearance had been divulged to his Wizard mistress in the desperate hope that she might confront Monseigneur with it. And hopefully, buy him some time to sort out his Rune Mage transgression with the Pure Blood Master Rafaelo feared over everyone else on this earth. The revelation about her daughter had his mistress run post haste to Venice. In the meanwhile, to Bianchi’s great relief, he had received no summons from his Nest. But he could not lower his guard yet. Sooner or later, Monseigneur would haul him in to demand answers for the mess in Belize.
The lady looked up, as he strode in to offer her his customary bow. She gave him her hand to kiss, in her usual imperious manner. Though she wore her best poker face as usual, Rafaelo had worked with her for more than two decades and he could tell that she was pleased. He allowed a little hope to bleed into his own heart. Whatever he had been summoned here for, his mistress was clearly looking forward to it. Bianchi wanted to believe that she would not be so cheerful if she intended to give him his marching orders. And anyway, it was not Monseigneur’s modus operandi to have others punish his Pure Bloods. The Lombardi Master enjoyed correcting recalcitrant Vampires, a sadistic pleasure he would never grant to someone else.
“The Wizard you kidnapped in San Francisco” she prompted Bianchi, without preamble. “What was her name?”
The Italian Vampire looked confused by the question. “Caroline Hamilton” he stammered, not having expected this particular query from her.
“Pick her up again, Rafaelo” she ordered. “I want to send a message to both her father and the Pack.”
Bianchi refrained from reminding her that he was persona non grata in San Francisco. He could work around that little issue. But there was something of greater import to consider. His last mission with the Hamilton girl had failed because the Chosen in the city had come after him together, in force.
“The Chosen in San Francisco have an alliance, my Lady” he submitted. “It includes the Pure Bloods. I don’t know the city well and without local support, there is nowhere to hide her.”
“Don’t hide her in the city. Take her to Venice.”
Rafaelo was taken aback. The Lombardi Master tended to keep his hands clean of matters that might draw undue attention to his Nest. He wondered if Monseigneur was trying to make amends for losing her daughter, by offering his dungeon to the lady. Whatever his motives, Bianchi was immensely relieved that Monseigneur had not yet called him to the mat for the misadventure with the Rune Mage. However, he did not kid himself that the Mage business was over and done with. It was only a matter of time, before the guillotine came swinging down over his neck. But he had bought himself a small respite. Just enough to find some leverage for when he had to pay the piper. After replaying what he had witnessed in Belize many times, Rafaelo had come to a conclusion. If the Beast Lord had any powers similar to the Sirens of yore, there was only one Chosen they could be attributed to. Though he didn’t understand how a Siren could gift her magic to another, Bianchi wanted a closer look at the only non-Wyr in the Alpha’s Pack. But she was guarded like Fort Knox. Now that his mistress had given him the green light to target Caroline Hamilton, he wondered if he could use this to get his hands on a different witch in a much too cozy relationship with the Pack. Once he had the witch, he would get his answers out of her.
“I’ll take care of it, my Lady” he assured his mistress, even as his brain churned away at the problem, hoping to find a loophole he could exploit.
“There’s no time to waste, Rafaelo” she declared high-handedly. “I want this done quickly. Send me word once you have her. It would be the perfect time to grant the Alpha the audience he wants.”
Bianchi hurried out of the room, to confer with one of his trusted lieutenants. Since he could not set foot in San Francisco without setting off all kinds of alarms, he needed someone not only trustworthy but capable of carrying out his orders, without messing it up.
Two days later, came the call that soothed a jittery Rafaelo, giving him renewed hope that he just might save his scalp. While Monseigneur and many of the Clan did not believe in modern technology, Bianchi did not follow the old ways in such matters. He had a cell phone he used to keep in touch with many of his younger Pure Bloods, as well as his Wizard mistress.
“The Hamilton girl works for her father but she is unguarded at night. It would be the best time to scoop her up” his Vampire informed Rafaelo over the phone.
“Take her on a Friday, Matteo” Bianchi directed. “And hustle her out of the city immediately. That way, no one finds out until she is well beyond San Francisco.”
“There is a slight wrinkle with that plan” Matteo explained.
“The girl has a roommate. A Chosen associated with the local Pack.”
Excitement bloomed in Bianchi. Was it possible, he wondered? After spending so much time pondering the thorny problem, could fate have led the witch to fall into his lap with such ease?
“Tasia Armstrong” he said her name slowly, unable to believe his luck.
“A Wizard” Matteo confirmed. “Moved in recently with the Hamilton girl. She’ll raise the alarm, if her roommate goes missing.”
Rafaelo did not have to think too hard to solve this conundrum.
“Change of plans, Matteo” he directed, thinking on his feet. “Take the Armstrong witch but make sure your Pure Bloods think it’s Caroline Hamilton you have. And time it perfectly. Have the plane waiting on the tarmac and fly her straight to Venice. That way, even if her roommate raises the alarm, she will be beyond their reach. I’ll sort everything out on this end.”
Matteo hesitated. He would never go against Bianchi, who he reported to on the chain of command. Hierarchy was of supreme import to the Blutsaugers. But Matteo also knew who Bianchi had been deputed to. Those orders came straight from the top; from a Pure Blood notorious for accepting no excuses and harshly punishing mistakes, as well as missteps. “You are sure, Rafaelo?” he verified.
“I’ll take care of it, Matteo” Bianchi assured him. “There will be no blowback on you.”
Matteo was reassured. Bianchi had always kept his word before. “Okay. We’ll pick her up this Friday.”
“Watch your back” Rafaelo warned him, conscious of the many times he had gone up against the Beast Lord, only to be outsmarted. “She’s affiliated with the Pack and their Alpha doesn’t fuck around.”
End of excerpt ...