MY FINGERS CLOSE AROUND THE CHAMPAGNE glass and with a crack, the fragile crystal shatters. Champagne sprays, my palm convulses and a shard of glass slices into my skin. Blood mixes with the bubbles spilling onto the polished hardwood floor. Both Frey and Steffan leap to my aid.
But not quickly enough.
Someone steps between us, taking my hand gently in his own. He pulls the sliver of glass free and brings my palm to his lips. His face is half-hidden by a veil of long, dark hair but instinctively, I know he's the stranger whose voice I heard before. Where his lips touch my palm, a tingling begins. It travels up my arm, warms my face and neck, makes my nipples harden. I close my eyes, wanting to moan with pleasure.
Another's hand is pushing the stranger away. When I open my eyes, Frey's face is red with fury. He puts an arm around my shoulders and leads me to a bench along the wall. I let him. Not looking back. Not wanting to see who it is that has such power over me.
Frey examines my hand. "It's healed."
There's nothing remarkable or magical in that. Vampires have the ability to heal. But it's the way Frey is looking at me, as if he knew I was feeling more than the healing process. I remember wanting to moan in pleasure-sexual pleasure.
Could I have actually done it? Moaned out loud at a stranger's touch?
Anger shakes me back to reality. "What the fuck?" I look into Frey's eyes.
Relief softens his face. "There you are. What the hell happened?"
I look past him to Steffan. He is talking with the stranger who has his back to me but Steffan's body is rigid, his face a mask of surprise and anger. All I see of the stranger is a long black duster that stands out in stark contrast to the formal dress of everyone else in the room. The coat brushes the tops of leather riding boots much as his long dark hair brushes the upturned collar of his coat. Even with my ability to penetrate most vampires' thoughts, this one is completely closed to me.
"Who is that with Steffan?" Not the question I really want to ask. But asking if this powerful vampire could be Vlad Dracul sounds like something out of a bad Goth novel even if it is what is going through my head.
Frey glances over his shoulder. "I don't know. Listen, maybe we should get out of here. This place gives me the creeps."
Frey stands up and extends a hand. I take it and get to my feet. "I'm ready but where's Chael? We should tell him we're leaving."
Frey looks over the crowd. "I'll find him." Then his eyes focus on my face. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Okay. I won't be long."
I turn my back on Steffan and his mysterious guest and watch Frey work his way through the crowd. In a moment he's lost from view. I try to pick up Chael through mind links, but there are so many conversations going on, it's like trying to distinguish a single drop in a bucket of water. When I do focus on an exchange, all I get are snippets. Local gossip, some of it about me and my family; who's been turned recently; who's met with the second death. I pick up nothing about a take-over plan or a hint of dissension or unhappiness with Steffan.
Of course, we are in Steffan's house.
Damn. Steffan is in my head. I don't want to turn around. I don't sense anyone with him but I didn't sense the creepy stranger before he grabbed my hand, either.
Creepy stranger? Over the centuries I've been called a lot of things but I do believe that's a first.
My shoulders bunch. I know I had shielded my thoughts. How was he able to hear?
Reluctantly, I force myself to turn. Slowly. And find myself staring up into a face that could have been sculpted from granite. Sharp angles at the jaw and chin, high cheekbones, a thin Roman nose that seems a physical trait of every European royal family. Only his eyes are soft. Deep brown with flecks of gold. They give character and compassion to an otherwise stern visage. There is too much steel in his bearing to call him handsome. His hair is too unruly to be stylish; his clothes under the coat not fashionable or couture.
But there is something. He has presence. What the old ones might call gravitas.
Even so, I find myself wondering if this could possibly have been the man who affected me so dramatically a moment or so ago. In spite of it all, standing before me so solemn and serious, he seems-ordinary.
Steffan pulls me back, frowning in concern. "Are you feeling better?"
Shit. It's the second time I've shown weakness and both times it was because of the vampire standing beside Steffan. I drag my eyes to Steffan's face at the same time the stranger says to him, You may leave us.
Steffan moves off without another word, crossing the floor into the great room and disappearing into the crowd. It's unnerving.
Then the stranger turns back to me, extends a hand. Vlad Dracul, former prince of Wallachia. Ordinary? First creepy, then ordinary? I must be losing my touch.
Embarrassed, I force myself to take his hand. The smile on his face sends blood rushing to mine. He knows everything I'm thinking-everything I'd been thinking since he approached. It overcomes my sense of astonishment that I am face-to-face with the legend.
As our hands touch, I steel myself for another thunderbolt of sexual heat, determined not to react this time.
Nothing happens. We shake briefly, then both step back. I want to laugh with relief. And he grins. Shit. He's done it again. Gritting my teeth, I snarl, I'd appreciate it if you'd get out of my head.
Sorry, he says. Force of habit.
You can read anyone?
Is there anyway to turn you off?
Only if I wish it.
Great. How do I get him to wish it?
I doubt you could.
This time my skin flushes with anger instead of embarrassment. I turn away to scan the crowd again for Frey. The sooner we get out of here the better.
He will return in a short while.
The simple pronouncement raises goose bumps on my skin.
Where is Frey? What have you done with him?
He holds up his hands. Nothing. Please don't alarm yourself. He is with friends. Fellow shifters, in fact. They are having a very pleasant conversation.
But he was coming right back. He is not the kind to be easily distracted.
He taps a finger against his forehead. He has many admirable qualities, but he can be controlled. I'm sure you know that.
The next instant, it's as if he's linked directly into my brain and is replaying a scene from the car ride on a screen that only he and I are privy to. It's the standoff between Frey and Chael.
My temper flares at the intrusion. I don't control Frey. Chael is a nuisance not worthy of his wrath.
I agree. But all the same, it is because of you he backed down.
No. It's because he was smart enough to realize the time wasn't right.
As you wish.
His smugness pushes me over the edge. Is this what you do, Vlad? After hundreds of years on this earth the only way you can get off is playing little mind games? You're not much better than a common Peeping Tom.
I expect to get some kind of knee-jerk reaction-most likely negative-from a six-hundred-year-old vampire who is obviously used to running the show. So I brace myself. And I play a little mind game of my own. I use his same technique, linking our minds to let him see how I vanquished Lance's sire-one who purported to be a direct "descendant" of Vlad-months ago here in France.
But there is little reaction
Just a casual lifting of his shoulders. I do not know this Julian Underwood. Through the centuries there have been many who claim I was their sire. He smiles. It is like your wonderful Woodstock festival-if everyone who says they attended actually did, the numbers would have been staggering.
Then he sobers. But you acted righteously in bringing an end to this vampire. Histories written about my own mortal life portray me as an indiscriminate butcher. Very seldom is it noted that I strengthened my country's economy, improved life for the peasants, built an army. Sometimes being a leader means doing what no one else is willing to.
I find myself staring. Okay, so I didn't get the reaction I was expecting but what was the point of this trip down memory lane? What is he trying to tell me?
There is a rustle from the great room, anxious voices, a shuffling of feet. Vlad takes my shoulders and turns me so that I'm facing into the room.
Steffan is being pulled into the center of the floor by three Hulk-like figures. Chains, huge silver links that even Steffan as an old-soul vampire cannot break, bind him. His face is battered and bleeding. Behind him, six more vampires are led in, tied together with the same kind of chains. Their clothes are torn, blood seeping through the ripped fabric.
My breath catches in my throat. What is happening?
But Vlad is no longer by my side. Moving faster than the eye can follow, he has left me to reappear beside Steffan.
And in his hand he holds a sword. A curved blade with a jeweled scabbard. One side of the blade is smooth, the other jagged like the teeth of a shark.
From somewhere behind me, a hand touches my arm. A voice whispers in my ear, "It's me."
Frey. Without turning, I pull him close. I can't seem to draw my eyes away from the spectacle taking place in front of us.
Frey follows my gaze. "I guess Chael wasn't bullshitting us after all. The sword-it's a Turkish kilij. Reputed to have been Vlad Dracul's weapon of choice."
I don't have to ask how he knows this. As Keeper of the Secrets, he has studied the history of the supernatural down through the ages.
"Do you know what is happening?" I ask.
"Not everything. But from what I gather, Vlad is not happy with Steffan's power play."
"I thought Steffan was their leader." My voice sounds strained and incredulous.
"Evidently only serving at Vlad's pleasure. And Vlad was not pleased at the idea of bringing about a revolution, no matter how carefully orchestrated."
Vlad has raised his arms, calling for quiet. It takes less than a heartbeat for it to be achieved. He lowers his arms and starts to speak, pacing as he does.
Some of you know why I am here tonight. He glances back at a cowering Steffan. Certainly not because I was invited. I was made aware of a plot being spun, a plot involving Steffan and those you see behind him. It was a crafty plan. A plan to integrate vampires into every office in every country in Europe with the aim of asserting domination.
It would take time, part of the plan's cleverness. When full assimilation occurred, this generation of mortals would be in the ground. There would be no bloodbath, just a gradual assumption of power. So gradual, mortals would not be aware of what was happening until it was too late.
Vlad pauses, as if appreciating how that must sound to a gathering of vampires. I listen transfixed, impressed by his intuitiveness. He knows what they're all thinking, just as I do: the many who are thankful that they have not been included with the hapless ones bound together inside the circle; those who are asking why the plan would not work and seeing no negative side to it; the wiser, older ones who know what would happen if the seemingly flawless plan was put into action.
Vlad finds my eyes. He nods and I know it is to the latter that he will address his remarks. He begins to speak again.
We are arrogant, we vampires. We think that because we are immortal, we should reign over all life on earth. But mortals are smarter than we give them credit for. It is to them that we owe much of the earthly delights we enjoy. A smart vampire once said that man has created the world we vampires merely inhabit. We lack the wisdom of mortals because we lack the urgency to create and innovate.
His last words give me a jolt. He is quoting my speech before the Council. How could he know about it?
Vlad looks at me and smiles and sends the answer right into my head. Chael, of course.
I smile back. Chael. Of course. I look around. Wonder where the sneaky little bugger is right now. For this at least, I owe him an apology.
Vlad continues to speak. But the very worst thing that can happen will inevitably happen. At some point, we will expose ourselves to mortals. Then predator becomes prey. It's happened before. During the Crusades, the Inquisition. Those among you who lived it know.
Throughout the room, heads bob, soft voices murmur an affirmation. Vlad recognizes them and continues.
There are billions of humans. Our numbers are small in comparison. How long do you think we will last when we have bounties on our heads? We have survived this long because we have been content to hide our true nature. We have assimilated in a way that allows us to walk among our symbiotic human partners unmolested. To pursue any type of lifestyle we wish. Why threaten a system that has brought us peace and prosperity? It is my contention that we should not.
A pause as those mesmerizing eyes sweep the crowd. I know it's not possible that he is connecting individually with everyone in the ballroom and yet, when he raises the sword again and shouts, "Who is with me?" another murmur starts at the fringes of the crowd and crescendos. Shouts of "Vlad" and "Dracul" echo off the walls. He holds both arms high in acknowledgment.
Good. It is settled. We continue to live in peace.
He faces Steffan and a hush once again descends-complete and immediate, like the throwing of a switch. It's as if Vlad is controlling the crowd with nothing but the power of suggestion.
Steffan, however, is feeling something quite different from the rest. Fear rolls off him in waves as visceral as smoke. He blanches and cringes back under Vlad's gaze.
Vlad once more begins to speak. Steffan, I have long given you free reign to serve our community as you will. You have taken advantage of my generosity, even proclaiming yourself a king. That I could overlook. But now you have put the well-being of the entire European Vampire League at risk. That is an arrogance that cannot go unpunished. You must pay for such treachery. As the eldest of our tribe, I condemn you to the second death.
Those closest to Steffan step back. Steffan sees the reaction and his eyes sweep the crowd. No one comes to Steffan's defense, not a word is raised in protest of Vlad's proclamation. The hush that descends on the crowd becomes even more intense but it is intermingled with a sense of relief-relief that it is only Steffan and the six who have been singled out for punishment.
Vlad reads the crowd, too, and I have the feeling he is taking stock of those who think they have escaped his notice.
Steffan's body stiffens at the realization of all he has lost and a new emotion radiates from him. Anger.
But there isn't time to reflect or react to what Steffan is feeling.
Faster than a heartbeat, Vlad swings his sword.