Last Breath

Chapter Four


I had heard many insane things during my lifetime, and more than half of them had come from Myrnin - friend, servant, occasional enemy, chaos personified on the best of his very numerous days. Today, when he burst into my office, disregarding the warnings of my assistant, I was in no mood to tolerate him.

I turned from the candle I was lighting to face him, put on my best royal expression of anger, and said, "You do not have leave to barge in whenever you wish, and you know that. Go back to your - "

He strode toward me with his ridiculously heavy black leather coat flaring about him, and sailed a letter toward me with a flick of his wrist. I caught it with instinctive ease and turned it over to see the front. It was modern paper, of a smooth, bland construction, but the writing on the front reminded me of other times, other places, not all of them as pleasant as this one.

"It's from Morley," Myrnin said, and slapped his large hat down on my desk, ruffling the paperwork. "He sent a runner from Blacke."

That caught my attention, and I stared at him for a beat. "A runner," I repeated. "Has he quite forgotten we live in more modern times, or has he simply adopted the lordly attitudes he once so despised in others?"

"Read it," Myrnin said. The writing said For the eyes of the Founder only, and the only had been underlined three times. The envelope was still sealed. I slit it open with the side of a sharp fingernail and glanced at him again.

"I sense you are well aware of what it says," I told him. "What magic trick?"

"The oldest. I held it to the light."

"Ah." I slid the paper out and unfolded it - one thin sheet, and only one word on it, drawn in straight slashes of ink, spiked with an ancient style but also with alarm. If he'd written it in blood, the urgency could not have been more clear.


For a moment I failed to understand what it meant, or perhaps I didn't wish to know; that couldn't last, and didn't. I took in a sharp, aching breath, expanding to the fullest lungs that were no longer used to the exercise - a human's reaction. The realization affected me that deeply.

"You see?" Myrnin whispered. "We both knew it would happen. We knew it was coming, however slowly. He'll be organizing things there in retreat, and we must begin to mount our defenses. Today. Now. We may already be too late."

My dear old friend. He sounded dispirited, and afraid, and I wished I had consolation to offer him, but he was most appallingly right. For whatever reason, Morley - a ragged, grubby vampire of no particular skills except a peculiar luck for survival - had stumbled over something I had missed. Something we'd all missed.

We might already be too late; Myrnin was entirely correct. I had known it would happen, eventually; I'd known things would come to this. But now, I looked helplessly around at the office, at the once-vital, suddenly meaningless paperwork, at the warm, cherished glow of the world I'd built around myself. Outside the windows, the clouds were gathering, heavy with threat, but people still walked the town square; normal life still proceeded.

But it was all a lie, a terrible and cruel lie.

I picked up the telephone and dialed, feeling lost and numbed. Myrnin was pacing on my much-cherished Persian rug, and I did not have the heart to tell him to stop. It didn't matter. None of it mattered.

I rang Oliver, and he picked up almost immediately. "Amelie," he said. "I've been meaning to speak with you again about this foolish business of the engagement party - "

"Come," I said, stopping him cold. "Whatever you're doing, drop it, and come now."

Even then, he hesitated for a second to say, "What's happened?"

"Not on the phone," I said, and hung up. I put my palms flat on the desk and leaned into it, suddenly feeling faint, as if I'd starved myself for months. It was shock, an ancient and unremembered reaction. "Who else knows?" I asked.

"Claire was with me," Myrnin said. "And the boy. Shane."

I closed my eyes. Heartbreak on heartbreak, glass walls crashing down. They had never protected any of us, really, for all our pretending.

"Silence them," I said.

"But - "

I lifted my head, and I knew my eyes were flaring with white power, driven by my rage, my revulsion, my desperation. "Silence them, Myrnin. You know you must."

He stared back at me for a moment in mute horror, and shook his head. "I can't," he said. "God witness me, I cannot do it. Not to her. The boy, yes, but not her. Amelie, there must be another way."

"Jesu, you think if there was, I wouldn't take it?" I shouted it at him, fists clenched against the need to strike. "You will do it. You must." And I put my will on him, pushing in a way that I so rarely did these days. That I so rarely had to do.

Tears filled his eyes, and Myrnin swayed in place. He grabbed for the back of an armchair and braced himself, but even so, his knees sagged, and I heard the sounds of pain he made as he fought to escape my influence.

"Say you will," I said. "You know we have no choice."

"There's always a choice, ma belle." His voice was soft and shaking, just a thread of sound on a dying breath. "That was what you gave us here. A choice. Don't take it away now. I will not do it. Not to her."

I could have crushed him, with a further exertion of will; I had done it before, to others, shattered them into mindless creatures that did my bidding no matter what the cost. It is not always pretty, what I am. What I do to others. In my position, mercy is the last option considered, not the first.

But the idea of shattering him, destroying the core of what made him the bright, fevered candle of brilliance he was . . . No. I could not do that, as he could not do it to the girl.

"Very well," I said, and let my will depart from him. "Not the girl. But I cannot have two of them with this knowledge, at twice the risk. You must silence the boy."

Myrnin still clenched the armchair in a death grip, like a drowning man clinging to the water-soaked remains of his salvation. The tears that he'd held in his eyes broke free when he blinked, and slid silver down his cheeks. "That will destroy her just as surely," he said. "She loves him, as much as you ever loved Sam."

Ah, Samuel, my love. I'd tried to protect us both, and in the end, it had gotten us nothing but grief and death, loss and silence. I'd knelt at his grave for months, hands buried in the ground, wishing to feel something. Some hint of his belief that part of the human soul continued after death, even the contaminated souls of vampires.

Someone had taken him from me, for hate. And now . . . now I would be doing the same, not from hate, but from fear.

And it wouldn't be the first time.

"Do it." I said it kindly, but I meant it.

And Myrnin slowly nodded. He picked up his hat and walked out, head down, shoulders slumped beneath the weight of all that I'd just heaped upon him.

There were no good choices. Not now.

Oliver took only another moment to arrive, slipping in the door and shutting it on my assistant's exasperated protests. He was wearing the odd and faintly ridiculous clothing that he kept to blend in with the human population, forsaking his own natural liking for dark, plain lines and fabrics. He took in my expression, my stiff back, the look in my eyes, and crossed to pick up the fallen piece of paper that Morley had sent us.

He read it and let it fall back to the floor. Without looking up at me, he said, "It's come, then."


Now he met my eyes. "And what will you do, Amelie? Will you retreat as you've always done?"

"It's called survival, Oliver."

"Often confused with cowardice," he said.

I shot him a hard look. "Aren't you afraid?"

He gave me a smile then, spare and warlike, and it steadied me. "Fear is the natural state of anything that dies, even us," he said. "So of course I am. But perhaps it's time to use the fear."

"To stand and fight?" I said. "That's always your answer, you know."

"That's because it works."

I shook my head slowly. "You only remember when it does. Avoiding the fight means you stay alive. And I prefer to live, Oliver. I always have."

"And I prefer to fight," he said. "And always will." He was very close to me, and beneath the camouflage of modern clothing he was the same as he'd ever been, spare and hard, lean and cold. The very opposite of Samuel's light and spirit of gentleness.

But perhaps now I needed a warrior more than I needed a saint.

That is the only reason I can think for the kiss.

I think the sudden and half-desperate attraction came as a shock to us both, but it was . . . oddly inevitable. And the kiss . . . the kiss was sweet, and commanding, and it soothed something mad and terrified that had broken its cage within me.

I could see a sudden wariness on his face when I pulled back from him; he thought he had just made a serious tactical error. In truth, I wasn't sure he hadn't, or that I hadn't, but I gently put a hand against his face, and smiled without a word.

He put his fingers over mine, staring into my eyes. "This has been a long time coming," he said. "And yet I must confess, it is something of a surprise. Why do you think that is?"

"Because we are well matched in stubbornness," I said. "And pride. And fear."

Our smiles faded, and I mourned them a bit, because seeing Oliver relaxed in this way was something radiant, and rare as a unicorn. "Perhaps it's something we should take up later," he said. "When we have leisure to explore all of those questions that have just been raised."

"Yes," I said. "We must - yes." I took in a fresh, shallow breath and said, "Claire and Shane know about the note. Myrnin did not tell them all of it, but I have no doubt he gave them enough to make them curious, and we cannot afford curiosity. Not now."

The spark went out of his eyes, and it was only the warrior general facing me now, not a man, or even the immortal shell of one. He took a physical step back, breaking the contact between us. "Then you must stop them from telling others. I don't think harsh words will suffice. We need to buy time to prepare, and if the human community suspects . . ."

"I know that," I said, irritated. "Myrnin - "

Oliver barked out a laugh. "You send Myrnin to do such a thing? Not that he isn't an enthusiastic little killer under the right circumstances, I will grant you that, but he's as sentimental as a dewy-eyed child about some things, and that girl is one of them."

"I've agreed he can spare the girl. We can control her, so long as the boy is gone." Even as I said it, even as the words came out of my mouth, I realized what I'd just said.

And how very, very wrong it was.

Oliver was shaking his head. "If that boy dies, she won't bend. She won't break. She'll be the perfect spark to ignite this powder keg, and we cannot afford the fight, not now. You know this girl, you know. You must call Myrnin off."

And he was right. I'd reacted foolishly, and even Myrnin, sweetly insane Myrnin, had known. He'd tried to tell me.

"Then stop him," I said. Oliver nodded and headed for the door. "Wait. Do it quietly, and don't hurt Myrnin unless you have to."

"Sentimental," he said, and shook his head again, smiling that razor-edged smile. "I find that oddly beautiful in you, princess."

I sat down, and stared out the windows at my fatally ill town, and wondered why I always realized too late what I wanted.

And why what I wanted was never good for me.

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