On her way to the dining room-the room where she had fought countless battles in front of the dais-she scented Giordan. So he was here. Or had been.
A little shiver ran over Narcise's shoulders. What had Cezar done with him?
She hadn't been able to dismiss Chas's dire words. If he was correct, Giordan's actions had been a sacrifice beyond comprehension. She knew what he'd suffered as a boy, in the dark alleys, at the hands of men...but all along, when the worst had happened and she'd witnessed the hedonistic scene in Cezar's chambers, she'd suspected Giordan of hiding his true self, his real desires.
Not so very different from Chas, who was revolted by her vampirism...but yet craved it, wanted her. He was reduced to begging her for the very thing that disgusted him.
It had all made sense to her-or so it had seemed at the time, and confirmed over the years. Giordan had really wanted Cezar all along, but could never admit it.
But Chas seemed so certain...and if Giordan truly wanted Cezar, why hadn't he come with them when they left Paris?
Narcise's insides had been a muddle of nausea and self-recrimination during the entire trip from London, but now she must put that out of her mind. She had to be cunning and strong to survive whatever punishment her brother would mete out to her for running away.
Chas had insisted on coming with her, to her great dismay and impotent fury...yet part of her was relieved to have someone with her. She meant to use her influence with her brother to keep Chas from being imprisoned.
Knowing that she had influence was a nebulous thing...but it was probably the only reason she wasn't engulfed in the flames of fury by Lucifer. The continued throbbing of the Mark was painful, but not unbearable.
Inside the dining room, Narcise found that nothing had changed since her escape...only four months ago.
Four months. It had seemed a lifetime, even for one who was immortal.
But a moment after she walked into the dining chamber accompanied by Belial, everything did change. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity.
The next thing she knew, Cezar was there, standing on the dais behind the long table above her. Next to him was Giordan, a stony expression on his face. He was bare from the waist up and his sleek, tanned skin was marred with bitemarks that made Narcise's stomach turn. Two of the marks still oozed, and she could scent his lifeblood.
She heard Chas hiss behind her, and suddenly they were separated by a clan of her brother's men-Chas shoved and pulled away, held immobile by two vampirs, and three of the others surrounding her.
"My darling sister, I have a confession to make," he said. "I do hope you aren't too upset about it, but the truth is, Bonaparte is much too busy with his coronation to actually consider invading England. As I'd hoped, you took the bait."
Narcise tried to pull away from the two men holding her, but they were just as strong as she was. "I should have known better than to trust you," she spat.
"I could still send my army, if it would make you feel better about it all," he added. Then, when she gave him no further response, he commanded, "Strip her." His eyes glittered with delight.
The next thing she knew, they were tearing at her dress. The flimsy muslin of her traveling gown ripped easily, and they flung the remnants away as they grabbed at her corset, yanking at the laces, jerking her body every which way as they tugged it loose. She stumbled and fell, twisting as she tried to fight them off, and keep her balance. One of the three finally caught her arms and pulled them up and away from her torso so that the others could loosen the laces and pull the corset, then Narcise's light linen chemise, from her.
They allowed not even her drawers to remain, those loose, light pantaloons that covered her from waist to knee. That last bit of shield from avid eyes was yanked away by one of the makes as the other two held her arms out on either side. When they were finished, all three stepped back, leaving her to stand there in the chamber completely nude. Her skin was marked and scratched from the harsh scrape of the grommets and hard edging of her stays, along with sharp, rough fingernails, and her hair sagged from its anchor at the back of her neck-unable to be used for any sort of covering.
Cezar made a sharp gesture for one of his men to take her clothing away, and now he looked down at her with what could only be described as a vivacious smile on his face. "There, now, my dear. That is much better. Not only was that the ugliest frock I've ever seen-even you couldn't do it justice-but now we can all see what it is Belial will be fighting for."
Narcise leveled a cool look at him, hardly aware of her nudity. She'd been thus exposed many times in the past. "I suspect it will be nothing more than a distraction. Belial hasn't a chance, and you know it. Are you certain you wish to lose your most faithful servant?"
Her brother looked at her for a moment, and her heart sank when she saw the crafty look that eased into his eyes. "Perhaps you are correct, Narcise. My confidence in your ability is profound, and, to my dismay, Belial hasn't the skill to match you."
Her heart was pounding hard now and she, foolishly, glanced at Giordan. Their eyes met and the terror she saw in his nearly knocked her breathless. His face had gone white and stony, and for a moment, she thought he was going to faint.
But then her attention was drawn back to Cezar, who'd had a long, metal box brought onto the table in front of him. With a sly glance at Giordan, and then a benevolent smile at Narcise, he said, "But you must be chilled by now, my lovely sister. And I haven't properly welcomed you home. I have something for you." He started to lift the top. "No." Giordan's voice was sharp and desperate. He slammed his hand onto the top of the box, clanging the metal top back into place. His voice was low and unsteady, and she could barely hear him say, "Anything else, Cezar. Name it."
By now, Narcise's heart had plunged to her knees, which trembled and threatened to buckle. What was in the box? She glanced at Chas, who was held against the wall by one of the makes, and their eyes met. But his gaze, instead of being wild with concern or fear, was wide and intense. As if he were trying to tell her something.
Instead of being angry with Giordan for his outburst, Cezar seemed amused. "My, you are free with your promises now, Monsieur Cale. If only you'd been so accommodating a decade ago. When it really mattered." And yet, despite his cool words, he was gazing up at Giordan with such a baldly lustful expression that her own stomach lurched with revulsion.
Giordan's face was shiny and hard and she swore she could hear...or feel...the pounding of his own heart as he looked down at her brother. Cezar murmured something that she couldn't hear, but that turned Giordan's face gray. The marks on his skin stood out in sharp red-black relief against a suddenly ashen backdrop and his throat convulsed as he nodded. Once. Quickly and short.
That was when Narcise knew for certain that Chas had been right. That whatever had happened with Giordan and Cezar, it had been under duress. Her vision wavered and she was assaulted by a rush of grief and shame. How could I?
"Stop," she cried. Her voice rang out and drew her brother's attention. "I need no one to fight my battles for me. Release my friends, Cezar, and you'll have whatever you want."
His eyes danced and he smiled. "Take the vampir hunter away, then. My sister is correct: I have everything I want, right here."
He lifted the lid of the box as Giordan made a sound of protest, but it was too late. Narcise realized immediately what was inside.
Feathers. Many of them.
As Cezar reached into the box, Giordan launched himself at him, and they tumbled to the floor. Narcise started to move, whirling around to notice that Chas was gone-they'd taken him away-and then toward the dais before someone caught her by the arm. Someone else slammed into her, and she flew to the floor, her bare skin scraping across the cold, gritty stone.
By the time she was dragged to her feet, she saw that Giordan had been subdued and was being forced down from the dais and onto the same level on which she stood. By his slow and jerky movements, she could tell that he was weak or somehow inhibited-loss of blood, or for some other reason.
He didn't look at her as they pulled him past, but as they went by, Narcise smelled him, felt him, so close as he came by...and then she saw Giordan's back.
She gasped and stared, hardly noticing as Belial came up to where she stood, held in place by two strong men, and slid his palm under one of her breasts.
Giordan's Mark was...white.
The corded, rootlike brand was no longer black, no longer full and pulsing and throbbing...or even merely dark lines...but it was white. Nothing more than a scar...as if it had been burned away.
What did that mean? What had happened?
But she had no time to think on it, for, as Giordan was strung up by his arms on the wall, she felt her own body turn slow and sluggish. The feathers.
Narcise turned to look, and the men holding her dropped her arms as finally she saw what Cezar was pulling from the box. Even Belial had stepped away, as if unable to stay near her for this.
She couldn't breathe, for she recognized it.
It was the cape...made only of feathers. Rows and rows of soft, light, brown...burning...feathers.
Now her breathing came fast and hard, shallow with panic as Cezar flung the cape out with a flourish, as if to shake off any dust or wrinkles. If that touched her... If he wrapped her in it... The room tilted, turning dark and off-center, and her knees nearly gave away.
"No," she whispered as her brother stepped down from the dais, sauntering toward her as if about to present her with a most precious gift.
"Stop!" The desperation in Giordan's cry penetrated even Narcise's terror and pain. "No. Don't...do...it."
"By Lucifer," Cezar said, pausing, his face hard and foxlike as he looked over. "If I had known how deep your attachment was, Giordan, I would have asked for a month instead of three nights."
"Please," he breathed, his voice a low, rough rumble. His eyes shone with misery and desolation. "Whatever you want."
Narcise could hardly think. Her limbs were heavy as boulders, her lungs as tight as if they were being crushed by the very same thing. Pain from the proximity of the feathers added to the paralysis, and she could feel them as their presence wafted through the chamber...but somehow, through it all, Giordan's words, his intent, penetrated.
It humbled her, weakening her even more than the feathers.
She gathered every bit of strength she could muster and said his name. "Giordan."
And when she did, she put every bit of apology and shame and humility in those syllables as she could.
He looked at her then, and she felt the strength of his love and devotion for her travel across the chamber, through the pain and sluggishness.
And then she could no longer breathe. Cezar was there in front of her, his face a cold, tight mask, and with a flick of his wrist, the feathers were wafting down over her shoulders in a smothering blanket.
Narcise tried to smother the scream of agony, but even Luce's most furious blaze through her Mark was nothing compared to this. Shaking uncontrollably, she started to collapse as the soft brush of the burning feathers encapsulated her, and someone caught her on each side, holding her erect.
The pain was so great that she couldn't gasp or breathe or feel... She tumbled into a vortex of mad sensation: the softness of each feather, branding into her skin, the insubstantial weight pulling her down.
Vaguely she was aware of being held upright, and hands on her flesh...molding over her breasts and hips...the smell of lust and perspiration, heavy and cloying...some shadowy, indistinct dampness, heat, pressure...
Then, in her dreamlike paralysis, she was aware of being moved: the brush of her feet against the stone floor, the change of position as she went from vertical to horizontal...something hard beneath her, pressing the cape of feathers even more deeply against her skin.
She was aware of crying out, perhaps screaming...but she hardly had the breath to do so. A mouth was on her, hands, a body shoving against her, questing and invading...the shift as the feathers were pulled away from one of her shoulders and that pain was replaced by the sharp penetration of fangs.
And then, suddenly, nothing.