Crouching Vampire, Hidden Fang (Page 4)

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“Well, that looks…”

“Ominous,” I said, pausing next to Magda as we emerged from customs at the Vienna International Airport. Three men stood waiting at the end of the hallway for us. All three were tall, clad in black or midnight blue, and each wore the same identical suspicious expression. Two were dark-haired, one blond. All three were gorgeous enough that more than one woman's gaze lingered on them.

“They look familiar,” Magda whispered to me as we walked toward them.

“They should. The one on the left with the scowl is Andreas, Kristoff's brother. The middle one is their cousin Rowan. And the guy on the left is named Sebastian. I don't know what his connection is to everyone else, but he seems just as unflinching as the others.”

“Oy,” Magda said under her breath.

I thought for a moment of turning and running back to the plane to demand that I be taken back to safety, but I had a feeling that Julian, the messenger, would grab me before I took more than a few steps. “You're the one who begged to come with me,” I reminded Magda in an equally soft voice.

“I didn't beg. I just had you suggest to your watchdog that if he ponied up tickets for Ray and me, you would be less inclined to smite him with that blinding light you can summon up. And you have to admit he didn't really protest much once you told him you changed your mind.”

I glanced behind us. Ray walked alongside the messenger, the former chattering happily and looking about with bright, interested eyes, while the latter stared at me in stony silence.

“I just wish we didn't have to involve an innocent bystander in all this. You're sure Ray is OK with the whole vampire thing?” I asked Magda.

“He is, rather surprisingly. He said he always suspected there was more going on around him than people were willing to admit, and who am I to poohpooh general paranoia? To be honest, he's dying to see them, since he's a big Joss Whedon fan. He was a bit disappointed when I told him they don't change their appearance at all, but he'll survive.”

My gaze moved to our reception committee. “The question is, will I?”

“They do look awfully grim, don't they?” Magda agreed.

“Hello, gentlemen. I expect you remember my friend Magda,” I said as the three men stepped forward to greet us. I gestured to Ray, who stopped on Magda's other side. “This is Ray Victor. He's a friend of Magda's who has kindly consented to accompany us.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Ray said, sticking out his hand. After a moment's slight hesitation, Andreas shook it. “Can't tell you how grateful I am you let Mags and me come along. I've been a big fan of Angel ever since the show came out, and it's a real thrill to meet a vampire in person.”

The three men introduced themselves briefly to him before turning back to me. I was a bit puzzled by the cold reception we were getting-although I hadn't parted on the very best of terms with the Dark Ones, we weren't enemies, either. In fact, Christian had gone to great trouble to ensure that I was not blamed for the murder of an innocent woman, handing over to the police the person to blame. I knew how much that had cost him, and was duly appreciative, a fact about which Christian was aware. So why was I now getting the icy treatment?

“Hello, Andreas. How's your brother?”

Andreas had blue eyes, as did Kristoff, but where the latter had eyes of the purest teal, Andreas's were darker, a midnight blue that considered me now without the slightest bit of warmth. “You will find out soon enough,” was all he said before he turned around and started walking out.

The two remaining vampires fell into place behind us as we were escorted out of the airport to a waiting limousine.

“Your vampire friends sure know how to travel,” Ray said in a hushed voice as we filed in to occupy the backseat of the limo. Andreas and Rowan sat facing us, while Julian and Sebastian took up positions in the front of the car. “This is very nice. Are we going to the hotel first? I'd like to get my camera out of my bag so I can get some pictures for my travel album.”

“I assume so,” I said, puzzling over Andreas's comment. I leaned forward a smidgen. “Is Kristoff here? In Vienna?”

Andreas ignored me, turning to look out of the tinted windows.

I switched my attention to Rowan. “I realize there's no love lost between us, but I would appreciate it if you could overcome your natural aversion to me and answer my question.”

Rowan had reddish brown hair and grey-green eyes. His face was not as angular as his cousin's, and had hints of laugh lines around the mouth and eyes. There was no evidence of any form of amusement on his face now, however. He simply looked at me as if I were a bug before answering, “He is here.”

I sat back, my heart beating wildly all of a sudden. Kristoff was here, in Vienna. I was going to see him.

Magda touched my hand and mouthed, I told you so.

I shook my head at that-if Kristoff had suddenly been possessed by a change of heart regarding me, he would have told me, not had the council summon me with grim faces and a pronounced air of suffering. Still, he was in Vienna. That meant something. Didn't it?

To my surprise, we weren't taken to a hotel. Instead, we stopped at a large pale pink stone house that sat at the end of a row of connected tall, narrow cream-and-yellow houses in the fringes of Josefstadt, a section of downtown Vienna.

“This house belongs to the Moravian Council,” Julian said, showing us into a room on the top floor. “The administrative offices are below us. The top three floors are set aside for residents and guests.”

“Nice,” I panted as I dropped my bag and tried very hard not to collapse on the floor. “Sixth… floor… Nice… view.”

“Sweet Mother Mary.” Magda gasped as she, too, staggered into the room. Ray propped her up on one side, his own breathing a bit frantic as he leaned against the wall. “Couldn't you people put in an elevator? Or at least install a bench halfway up?”

“Your room is across the hall,” Julian said, a somewhat martyred look on his face as he opened the door in question.

Magda shot him a narrow-eyed look, but followed him out to the other room. I looked around while I caught my breath, admiring the clean blue-and-white decor of the room. It was rather sparsely furnished, but the bed, bureau, and small writing desk and chair were all antiques.

“Do you wish to change your clothes?” Julian asked as he returned to my room, eyeing me in a manner that had me tugging self-consciously at the collar of my blouse.

“That would be nice.” It hadn't occurred to me that I would want to change as soon as I got here, but seeing the coolly elegant vampires made me feel sticky, sweaty, and decidedly unattractive. I might not be able to do much about the last item on that list, but at least I could greet the council looking a little less unkempt.

Julian gave a short nod. “I will tell the council you will be ready to meet with them in a quarter of an hour.”

“Can you make it half an hour?” Magda called from the room given over to her and Ray. “I'd really like to take a quick shower. I had no idea Vienna got this hot in the summer.”

Julian paused on his way downstairs, frowning slightly. “Your presence will not be required.”

“Now, wait a minute,” Magda said. I stopped digging through my suitcase for something that wouldn't leave me looking like a rumpled tourist, and went to my own door. “You guys agreed that we could come with Pia. I was there when she talked to you, remember? You said that it would be fine if we accompanied her.”

“To Vienna,” Julian said, glancing over at me. “The council agreed to the Zorya's terms because they had no other option, but only she will be permitted in their presence.”

Magda looked at me. “What do you think? We can leave if you're not comfortable with the idea of bearding the lions by yourself.”

“The Zorya already agreed-” Julian started to protest.

I raised a hand to stop him. “I'll be OK by myself.”

“You sure you don't want someone with you when you tell them you want… you know.” She cast a glance toward Julian.

He raised his eyebrows at her.

“I don't think you can help me there, but thank you,” I answered.

“All right, but I'm willing to make a fuss if you need me.” Magda's face, normally filled with sunny good humor, was clouded with worry.

I gave her a little smile. “I'm still technically a Zorya. I think Christian knows the sort of power I can wield if anyone gets out of line.”

Julian took an involuntary step backward.

“You have a point,” Magda agreed, watching him. “All right, but if you need us, just yell.”

It didn't take me long to get cleaned up and presentable. I spent a few minutes shaking out my clothes, trying to decide between a pair of linen harem pants that were flattering to my figure, or a gauzy peach sundress with a matching shrug, eventually going with the latter. Although I knew the vamps would not have forgotten the fateful evening in Iceland-or, more to the point, my role in it-I figured it couldn't hurt to emphasize the fact that I was a woman.

“If men insist on being chauvinists,” I muttered to myself as I slipped on the thin shrug and tied it beneath my breasts, adjusting so it exposed a smidgen more cleavage, “then they can't complain when it's used against them.”

Julian was waiting outside my door when I emerged. He said nothing, just gestured toward the stairs. I caught him wrinkling his nose, though, as I passed.

“Is something wrong?” I asked, pausing on the landing.

“No. Why do you ask?” He looked surprised at my question.

“You made a face when I walked by you. I'm sorry if you don't like my perfume. I didn't use much of it because I know some people are sensitive, but I hate going out without a little dab of something.”

An oddly embarrassed look flitted across his face as he gestured again toward the stairs. “It's not that. It's… er… you are a Beloved.”

“Technically, yes.”

“Has no one told you what that means?” he asked, marching down the stairs beside me.

I met the frankly curious glance he slid my way. “Not really, other than the fact that I evidently gave Kristoff back his soul or something along those lines.”

“It's a bit more complicated than that,” he said slowly. I continued down the stairs, grateful we were going down, not up, so I wouldn't arrive before the all-important council sweaty and out of breath. “Once Joined, a Dark One can't exist without his Beloved.”

“I hate to doubt you, since you must know your people much better than I do, but I'm pretty much a contradiction to that statement. I haven't seen Kristoff since the night he got his soul back. So obviously Dark Ones can get along just fine without their womenfolk.”

He didn't look surprised, just gave a little shake of his head. “You will judge for yourself how well Kristoff has been without you.”

I stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked at him, a sudden stab of fear piercing my heart. “Is something wrong with him? Is he sick?”

Julian just waved toward a hallway. We were on the second floor, at one end of a long hallway that ran the length of the house. “As a Beloved, you must know the mental, physical, and emotional state of the one mated to you.”

I laughed a grim little laugh. Julian's prim, chiding manner somewhat reassured me that nothing serious was wrong with Kristoff. Surely if he had been injured, someone would have told me? “June Cleaver I'm not. Besides, communication is a two-way street, and thus far Kristoff has refused to venture down that particular avenue.”

“I find that difficult to believe.” Julian paused, his hand on one handle of twin doors. “He could not stop himself if he wanted to, and I can't imagine why he would want to do so. His state makes it obvious that one or both of you is trying to deceive us. I will warn you not to speak such obvious lies to the council. They take a dim view of people who attempt to mislead them.”

“Lie!” I stopped him as he was about to open the door, anger at being so clearly wronged doing much to drown out my concern and nervousness at the thought of seeing Kristoff again. “Me? I haven't lied to any of you vampires, and I'm certainly not deceiving anyone. I'm sorry you don't believe me when I say that Kristoff won't answer me when I try to talk to him, but it's the truth. I tried just a couple of days ago, as a matter of fact, and he shut me down quickly enough.”

Julian frowned at me for a moment, his gaze searching my face. I had a feeling he was trying to judge whether or not I spoke the truth.

“Why would he do that?” he finally asked, evidently realizing I was speaking with absolute honesty.

“I have no idea. If he's saying I'm refusing to talk with him, he's either delusional or… well, he's lying, but I don't think that's very likely. He didn't seem like the sort of man who lies.”

“He has proven himself a master of deception,” Julian said simply, dumbfounding me as he flung open the twin doors. He indicated the room beyond. “That much has been demonstrated during the last month. The council awaits you.”

It took me a moment to gather my scattered wits, so shaken was I by Julian's statement. Kristoff, a master of deception? What on earth was he talking about?

I entered the room, my gaze quickly searching it for any signs of the man who haunted my nightly dreams. There were four people standing together, three men and a woman, the latter speaking as I came in.

“. . . might have at least warned me she was coming so I could make her comfortable. Honest to God, Christian, you may be nine hundred years old, but sometimes you act like a caveman! That poor woman is probably as confused as all get-out, and you're not helping-Oh, hello.”

The woman who was, to my utter amazement, chewing out the very frightening Christian Dante turned and limped over to me with a friendly smile and outstretched hands. “I'm so sorry about this. You're Pia, aren't you? I'm Allie, Christian's wife. You'll have to forgive him for simply dumping you in the attic like you were a bundle of old laundry. I didn't have a chance to check your room first to make sure you're comfortable up there, but I'll do so just as soon as we're done here.”

“There's no need; my room is lovely,” I reassured her, momentarily nonplussed by the fact that her eyes were mismatched-one was very pale grey, almost white, while the other was an odd sort of mottled brown.

Her smile took a wry twist as she gestured toward her eyes. “They're a bit freaky, aren't they?”

“They are not freaky in the least,” Christian corrected, frowning at his wife as he moved over to stand next to her. Behind him, the other two men-Sebastian and Rowan-stood silent and watchful. “They are charming and unique.”

She made a face at him before turning back to me. “I tried contacts, but I'm allergic to them or something, so I just have to live with what I have. Josef! No! We do not bite guests!”

I spun around, looking in surprise at the toddler who had crept up behind me. He, too, had eyes that didn't match, one being green, the other brown, but the difference was not nearly so pronounced as in the woman I assumed was his mother.

Allie scooped up the boy and told him to say hello.

“Hello, Josef,” I said, smiling.

He bared his teeth at me. I was stunned to see that he had fangs.

“No!” the boy said, pointing at me. “Bad!”

“Not bad, pumpkin. She's a Beloved, like Mommy,” Allie corrected. “I'm so sorry, Pia. He just got his fangs, and we're in the process of weaning him off mortal food and onto a blood diet. It makes him a bit fractious sometimes, and he tends to want to bite people.”

“Allegra,” Christian said, a warning in his voice as he moved to stand protectively between us, as if I posed some threat.

“Oh, stop it! I don't for one moment believe anything you lot have been wringing your hands about,” she answered back in a tone that I wouldn't even dream of taking with the head vampire.

His frown grew darker. “We are Dark Ones! We do not wring our hands!”

“You know what I mean! You guys have your panties in a bunch over nothing.”

Christian made a quick, angry gesture. “Allegra, your irreverence is out of place here.”

Behind him, the two vampires nodded.

“Bah!” She snorted, glaring back at her husband. “I'm not going to let you railroad someone just because it assuages your conscience.”

Christian took a deep breath. I backed up, not wanting to be near him if he exploded. “Your arguments have already been heard, and your presence is therefore not required at this hearing. You may take Josef to the park if the sun has set.”

“Oh, don't even think of trying to get rid of me, Fang Boy,” she snapped back, handing over the boy to a middle-aged woman who bustled into the room. “Edith, I think he's hungry. Can you find something for him?”

“Fang Boy!” Christian said, outraged. Rowan snickered. Sebastian gave Christian a sympathetic look. Christian glared at his wife, his hands on his hips. “I have told you before that you are not to refer to me by such names. It is an especially appalling breach when conducted in front of outsiders!”

“Hungry,” Josef said, burying his face against the woman's chest in the manner of a child suddenly turned shy.

“She's not an outsider,” Allie said, waving toward me. “She's a Beloved!”

“She's also a Zorya!”

“I'll go see if we have any fresh meat,” the woman named Edith murmured, taking the little boy away. He looked like he was about two or three, grinning and waving at me over his nanny's shoulder.

“Now look what you've done,” Christian said, gesturing toward the door as it closed behind the pair. “He's waving at her! I will not have my son endangered-“

“Oh, blow it out your piehole.” Allie snorted, stomping over to a long table. Four chairs had been set along one side of it, a single chair on the opposite side. She grabbed one of the four and hauled it over to the other side, sitting down with sublime indifference to the fact that her husband looked as if he were going to blow his top.

“Allie, my dear, a lady never refers to a gentleman's hole, pie or otherwise, not even if that gentleman is her husband,” a disembodied voice said.

I spun around in a circle, trying to pinpoint it. A small glimmer of light at the far end of the room grew brighter, cohering into the unmistakable image of a short, dumpy female ghost. She beamed at me as Allie answered, “You have to admit that sometimes he has it coming.”

“No matter how trying a gentleman may be,” the ghost answered, switching her smile to Christian, who was now wearing an odd, martyred sort of expression, “and heaven knows dear Christian could never be considered trying, references such as that are inappropriate. How do you do. I'm Esme. Have you seen Mr. Wuggums?”

“I don't think so,” I said hesitantly.

“Mr. Wuggums is Esme's cat,” Allie said from her chair. “Esme, as you can see, is a ghost. I had several others, but she's the only one who's remained. Other than Antonio, that is, but Christian and he have an ongoing war, so Antonio only comes out when the coast is clear. And you can stop swearing at me under your breath, Christian. Just because I don't understand Czech doesn't mean I don't know what you're saying.”

Christian sputtered but, with immense control, managed to get a grip on his emotions.

“Allie, my dear,” Esme started to say, but Allie stopped her by holding up a prohibitive hand.

“Another time, please. Right now I'm more concerned with keeping Pia from being bullied than maintaining proper decorum.”

Esme pursed her lips but said nothing.

“No one is bullying anyone,” Sebastian said, moving over to stand next to Christian. “We simply wish to get the facts of the situation.”

“If you will take a seat, we can begin the hearing,” Christian said, gesturing me to the chair next to Allie. He shot his wife a look that she met with raised chin and crossed arms.

“Yes, I will, but… um… this might be out of line, but are you by any chance looking for Ostri?” I asked Esme, who was humming softly to herself.

“Ostri?” she asked, looking surprised for a moment. “I'm afraid I don't know him. Is he a friend of yours? I do love it when we have visitors.”

“Ostri is kind of like heaven,” I said, at a bit of a loss to explain it to a ghost. “I'm a Zorya, you see. It's my job to take people to wherever it is they're supposed to go.”

“Oh! You're just like Allie! Only I've never heard of Ostri.”

I glanced in surprise at the woman sitting in the chair, currently engaged in glaring at her husband. “You're a Zorya, too?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. I'm a Summoner.”

I stared at her in blank incomprehension.

“We Summon ghosts. We can also Release them. That's sending them on their way to the next plane of existence. From what I've heard from Christian, it's very similar to what you do as a Zorya.”

“You are nothing like a Zorya,” Christian said emphatically. He held out my chair, obviously waiting for me to sit in it.

I did so, not wanting to irritate him any more than he already was.

“We'll talk about it later,” Allie said in a confidential tone.

“You will do nothing of the kind,” Christian declared, taking up his spot on the other side of the table. Sebastian and Rowan flanked him on either side, the three of them making an intimidating presence.

“Pfft,” Allie said, leaning toward me. “Don't let them scare you. They're really not that bad when you get to know them. Just as soon as we get this business cleared up, you'll see that underneath all that bluster there are some really nice men. But I expect you've found that out with Kristoff.”

“This business?” I asked. “What business, exactly?”

Allie gaped at me for a moment before turning her stunned gaze on her husband. “You didn't bother to tell her?”

“That is what this hearing is for,” he said with a faint air of discomfiture.

Allie stared at him for a couple of seconds before saying, “I'm going to have a few things to say to you when this is over, you know.”

“I know,” Christian said, looking grim.

Allie snorted to herself, but gave me a supportive pat on the hand. “Don't worry about anything, Pia. I'm sure it's all just a big mistake. And I apologize right now for you being brought here without having the slightest idea why.”

“To be honest, I came because I have my own agenda,” I admitted, meeting Christian's gaze with what I hoped was composure.

“I have no doubt of that,” Rowan said, speaking up for the first time since I'd seen him in the car. His voice was carefully neutral, but I sensed hostility from him that I hadn't felt in Iceland. I wondered if Kristoff had bad-mouthed me to his brother and cousin, but almost immediately dismissed the idea-Kristoff might not want me in the place of his dead girlfriend, but he wasn't the sort of man who would indulge in a smear campaign.

“Why did you want to see the council?” Allie asked, obviously curious. Esme perched on the edge of the table until Christian shot her a look. She drifted over to the wall, where a couple of satin-covered armchairs sat in a cozy arrangement.

“I… er… I want to talk to Christian about Mattias and Kristjana.”

She looked surprised. “The two reapers? One of them is here. The woman is still in Iceland, though. Christian said something about it being more trouble to move her than was worth the effort. Did you want to see Mattias? I'm sure he'd be happy to see you. He's been a bit vocal about wanting someone, anyone to visit him. I think he's suffering from a touch of cabin fever, if you want to know the truth.”

“They're all right, aren't they?” I asked her, since she seemed to be much more forthcoming with information.

“Of course they are.” She smiled and glanced at the frowning Christian for a few seconds. “Honestly, Pia, these guys may look like badasses, but they don't hurt people without a really good reason.”

“Our asses are as bad as they come,” Christian insisted. He stopped himself, closed his eyes for a second, then opened them and said, “This conversation is not to the purpose of the meeting at hand. If we might start?”

“We'd better let him. He gets a wee bit cranky if he doesn't get to do things properly,” Allie whispered.

“I heard that, woman!”

“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sidetrack anyone. I just wanted to make sure that the Brotherhood people are all right.”

Sebastian's eyes narrowed on me. “Why is it that I don't find it surprising that you are concerned with the welfare of the people who tried so hard to kill us?”

“Probably for the same reason I'm not surprised you would ask that,” I heard myself say, somewhat to my horror. “You didn't like me back in Iceland, and it's clear you're still of the opinion that I'm the devil incarnate. Given that you obviously have your mind made up about me, I guess it's clear that whatever this hearing is about, it will not be unbiased.”

“Brava, Pia,” Allie said, applauding.

Sebastian, who had sat down after speaking to me, leaped to his feet again.

“Outbursts will not be tolerated,” Christian said smoothly, shooting his friend a warning glance.

With a sharp look at me, Sebastian sat down again.

“That's the pot calling the kettle black,” Allie said under her breath to me, a little chuckle following the observation.

“Nor will interruptions be allowed,” Christian continued with a pointed look at his wife.

To my surprise, she blew him a kiss and sat back with a smile.

Christian eyed me for a moment before saying, “You are concerned about the welfare of the prisoners. As my Beloved says, the woman Kristjana is detained in Iceland. Would you like to see the sacristan?”

“Yes, I would. I don't believe you would deliberately harm either of them without cause, but at the same time, I can't help but feel somewhat responsible for their welfare.”

Christian nodded to Rowan. “Have the prisoner brought in.”

Rowan slid him a questioning glance, but Christian sat with calm assurance, his gaze flickering from me to his wife.

No one spoke for the next few minutes. Despite that, I had an odd sense that Christian and Allie were holding a mental conversation, for every now and then a frown would flicker across his face, and once I heard her laugh to herself.

The door opened at last, and behind it marched a familiar man, tall and blond, with an open, friendly face, and a manner to go with it.

“Wife!” Mattias said, taking a step toward me as if he were going to rush me.

Sebastian leaped from his chair, causing Mattias to flinch backward, yelling, “The evil one will torture me!”

“We haven't harmed you yet,” Sebastian said with obvious lack of patience as he pushed Mattias into a chair along the wall. Esme drifted over to sit next to him. “Tempting as it is to fulfill your opinion of us, you will notice that we have thus far refrained.”

“Hello, Mattias,” I said politely. “You look well.”

“You have come back for me,” Mattias said, nodding. He was as handsome as ever, an obvious throw-back to his Viking ancestors, but he left me feeling as cold as a dead flounder. “It is only right that you do so, wife.”

I grimaced at the last word, not wishing to be reminded that in the eyes of the Brotherhood, we were legally married.

“You will tell these vermin to release me,” Mattias continued, his incarceration obviously doing nothing to eliminate some of the hatred he felt for the vampires. “I have endured their company long enough.”

“Oh, my,” Esme said, her cheerful face suddenly turning dark as she glared at him. “You are a very rude young man to speak of dear Christian and the others in such a manner.”

Mattias's expression of surprise as Esme chastised him was comical. “I… Who… You're a spirit?”

“Yes, I am, and I am very fond of Christian and Josef. Very fond of them! If I weren't a lady, I'd take you out back and give you the thrashing you deserve for referring to the Dark Ones as you have.” Her large grey curls bobbed angrily as she spoke.

Mattias's eyes widened at the threat.

“That's enough, Esme,” Allie said, pulling out a little yarn bobble, the kind found on the tips of winter hats. “Bobble time.”

“I have not yet finished giving this young man a piece of my mind,” the ghost answered.

“Yes, you have.” Allie held her other hand over the bobble and mumbled a few words. To my amazement, Esme dissolved into nothing.

“How did you do that?” I asked, profoundly curious.

“I'll show you later, if you like. It's the best thing I ever learned.” She smiled at her husband. “Well, almost the best.”

He looked distracted for a moment before he recalled himself and turned to me. “As you can see, the reaper has not been starved or tortured.”

“Yes, and I'm very gratef-“

The door opened again, and Rowan and Andreas appeared with another person slumped between them. They hauled the man in and let him fall to the floor.

The words dried up on my lips as the crumpled heap of man raised his head.

“Pia,” a familiar voice croaked.

I was on my feet and running toward him before the word could even form in my mind… Kristoff.