Crouching Vampire, Hidden Fang (Page 6)
You talked to me!
“I don't know, Christian. They've been apart for two whole months. I think they deserve a little reacquaintance time.”
You did the mind thing!
“I'm not disputing their need for time together, my love. I simply would prefer that we finish up here before they indulge in acts better suited to a more private situation.”
Of your own free will you mind-thinged me!
“Might I point out that you are the one who detained Kristoff? Personally, if I were Pia, I'd jump his bones right in front of you just to make a point, but she appears to have more dignity than I do. That really must be one humdinger of a kiss, though. I haven't seen them stop even once to breathe.”
Kristoff's sigh was a mental one, brushing around in my mind with a disturbing sense of intimacy.
Why did you not tell me you didn't want Alec?
I broke off the kiss, moving back a few steps, my fingers touching my still-burning lips. He might be easier in his mind now that he knew I wasn't secretly pining for Alec, but that hadn't really changed anything between us. He was still mourning the loss of his love, and there wasn't anything I could do to change that.
“I'm sorry,” I said, turning around to apologize to the vampires. Allie grinned at me. The others had less pleasant expressions.
“If you're quite through?” Christian inquired politely, his eyebrows raised in gentle chastisement.
“We haven't seen each other in a while,” I said lamely, waving a vague hand toward Kristoff. “Obviously, there are some issues we still have to work through.”
“Ones I trust you will discuss at another time,” he said with a pointed look at Kristoff.
“Assuming you allow Pia the opportunity to visit me while you have me incarcerated, certainly,” Kristoff answered with no little sense of irony.
“Nice one,” Allie said, nodding approvingly, adding, “What?” when her husband turned a frown on her. “I can root for both sides, you know.”
“You're supposed to be on my side,” he said with a touch of indignation.
“Only when you're right, my little mashed potato of love,” she answered.
Christian's expression bore an uncanny resemblance to the one I'd seen on Kristoff's face, but it slipped away quickly enough when he glanced back toward us, eyeing me a moment before saying, “Your argument, albeit out of place, was regardless convincing. I admit to finding it confusing as well.”
“Confusing how?” I asked, waving toward Kristoff. “He was sitting right next to me when I told Alec that he and I had spent the night together-“
“You can't possibly blame me for thinking that you only did that to steal my thunder, not that I was going to tell Alec,” Kristoff interrupted me.
I rounded on him. “How was I supposed to know that? You told me you were dumping me on Alec, and that I was his problem!”
“You just had to set that off, didn't you, Mr. Trou-blemaker?” Allie said, laughing at her husband.
Christian sighed and, before Kristoff could protest, said quickly, “If we could refrain from continuing the 'I said, you said' argument and stick to the facts.”
“You know, you guys sound just like Christian and me on a bad day,” Allie said in a confidential tone.
Christian took exception to that. “They do not! We never argue!”
“In your dreams we don't! What about last week, when I wanted to send Josef to a nursery school for some socialization, and you had that great big scene where you ranted and raved about him mingling with mortals?”
Sebastian snickered. It distracted Christian from the retort he was clearly about to make, but it didn't stop him from sending his wife an annoyed glance. “We have strayed from the point again.”
“I've told you I'm innocent of your ridiculous charges,” I said-somewhat snappishly, it was true, but I was beginning to feel the effects of jet lag. “I don't know anything about Kristoff's financial status, but I'm just about willing to guarantee he hasn't done any embezzling.”
” 'Just about'?” the man of my dreams asked, obviously outraged.
“We haven't known each other very long,” I said in a soothing voice before turning back to Christian. “Just exactly what proof do you have that either one of us committed such atrocities?”
“There are financial records,” Christian said, gesturing toward a file folder lying on the table.
“I've seen them. They're clearly false,” Kristoff said. At a nod from Christian, I shuffled through the paperwork. Most of it was financial statements and transaction logs, showing sums of money in various currencies being moved from one account to another. “Easily created, but not so easily proven.”
“There is the matter of your own personal account,” Christian said as Sebastian held out a single sheet of paper.
“What about it?” Kristoff asked, his brows pulling together. “I gave you the access information for my account so you could see for yourself that I do not have an inordinate amount of money.”
“I printed this balance statement for your account this morning,” Sebastian said, offering Kristoff a sheet of paper.
He took it with a swift intake of breath. I peered over his shoulder to read it, my eyes widening as I did a swift mental exchange-rate calculation. “Holy moly. It's too bad we really aren't married-you could really keep me in style with that metric butt-ton of money.”
“Pia, my dear, I may not have known you for long, but as you are a friend of Allie's, I feel I can offer a little morsel of advice-a lady never refers to a gentleman's holdings except in the most obscure terms, and never as a metric butt-ton,” Esme chided.
“Sorry,” I said, amused.
“That isn't mine,” Kristoff protested, shoving the paper back. “I don't have anywhere near as much money as that.”
“And yet, the money was transferred to your account two weeks ago, just about the time that Alec disappeared,” Sebastian said. “You'll notice that the amounts deposited over a five-day period correspond exactly with the funds withdrawn from the trusts set up to provide for the families of those slain by the reapers.”
“It's not mine,” Kristoff repeated with stubborn finality.
“You know, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to transfer money to someone else's account. Someone is setting Kristoff up.” I felt obliged to point that out, since it obviously hadn't occurred to anyone else.
“Why would anyone want to do that?” Rowan asked. “The money has gone to him. No one else would benefit from that.”
“Oh, I don't know,” I said in a tone lighter than the way I felt. I held his gaze firmly. “I can see someone who hated Kristoff going to all sorts of lengths to get revenge. Someone he thought of as close, but who turned out to be a traitor.”
Rowan leaped to his feet and was over the table before the last word left my mouth. Instantly Kristoff was between us, his hands fisted as he scowled at his cousin.
“Oh, my!” Esme said, clutching the belt of her tattered bathrobe. “Fisticuffs!”
“Your Beloved is ill advised to speak thusly to me,” Rowan spit.
“And you dare much to threaten her, cousin ,” Kristoff answered, making me look at him in surprise. His lovely lyrical, Italian-accented voice was thick with anger. It warmed me that he'd be so protective, even when his heart wasn't touched by our bond.
“Sit down, both of you,” Christian said, sounding weary. “What the Zorya says is true.”
“My name is Pia,” I said somewhat forlornly as I sat back down in my chair. “I really hate being called the Zorya.”
“It is what you are,” Sebastian pointed out.
“Not for long it isn't.”
“Zoryas cannot be unmade,” he answered with a curl of his lip.
I smiled. “They can if you approach it the right way. But before I discuss that, I'd like to deal with the rest of the ridiculous charges against us.”
“It's so nice to see another Beloved who refuses to be a doormat,” Allie said with a happy sigh. “Remind me to introduce you to Nell. You'll love her. She doesn't take any crap, either.”
“Nell is perfectly charming and has exquisite manners,” Esme agreed, with a look at me that told me she found mine lacking.
“The charges against you were not brought without ample proof, I assure you,” Christian said after giving his wife a long look. “Nor do we make them lightly.”
“You sure could have fooled me. So far all I've seen is a bunch of confusing paperwork that anyone could have faked,” I said. “You might find that compelling, but I certainly don't. And while we're on the subject of this council, can we discuss the fact that you're all so very quick to turn on Kristoff? I'd think you would be acquainted with him well enough to know he isn't the sort of man to embezzle. I mean, really! You've all known him for what? Three hundred years? Four?” Without intending to do so, I found myself on my feet again as I expostulated. “What sort of friends are you that you are so willing to believe the worst about someone who you've known that long? Don't you have any concept of what loyalty means, what it means to call someone a friend?”
“Pia, dear-” Esme started to say.
I ignored her. “From where I'm standing, you guys are nothing more than a bunch of hypocrites, talking big, but when it comes right down to standing up for a friend in a time of need, you're all nothing but lame-asses. Yes, you heard me! Lame-asses! Of the… er… lamest kind!”
I sat down with a hrmph . Silence fell heavily in the room. It was at that moment that I realized just who I was yelling at-a roomful of vampires who had made it their life's calling to rid the world of Zoryas.
“I really like you,” Allie said, applauding. She met the look her husband was sending her way with one of her own. “Oh, don't look at me that way. I told you all along that I never believed Kristoff would do any of the things you guys believe he's done.”
“Tsk,” Esme said sadly, shaking her head. “Women these days just have no idea about the subtle art of persuasion. One never shouts, dear. And one certainly never refers to those in a superior position as asses of any kind, no matter whether or not they deserve it.”
Christian shot Esme a look of surprise.
She smiled a little regretfully at him. “I'm sorry, dear Christian, but I do believe that in this case, the ladies are right and you gentlemen are the teensiest bit mistaken. Kristoff has been nothing but polite and a true gentleman when I pay my daily call on him, and, as you know, a gentleman would never steal money from others.”
“Thank you, Esme,” I said with a curt little nod at Christian.
“I am willing to concede that perhaps we have been overhasty with regards to the proof of the financial issue, although I find myself most curious as to how such a sum of money could have found its way into Kristoff's personal account without his knowing. Regardless…” He held up a hand to stop me when I was about to protest. “I agree that it would be relatively easy for someone to arrange for him to look guilty, so I am willing to dismiss those charges, pending, of course, a further investigation into the matter.”
“One down, two to go,” I muttered to Kristoff.
“It matters not,” he grumbled.
I patted his hand before I could stop myself. His eyes darkened as my fingers lingered on the backs of his, capturing them in a gesture that made me flush to the tips of my toes.
“However…” Christian continued in a louder voice. I dragged my attention off of Kristoff and onto him. “However, two charges do remain.”
“Yes, let's talk about that,” I said agreeably, trying not to let the feel of Kristoff's thumb stroking the back of my hand distract me. “I don't know where you got the idea that I killed Anniki, but I certainly did not. In fact, it was because of her that I got involved in the first place. If she hadn't been mere seconds from death when I discovered her, I never would have agreed to become a Zorya.”
“Exactly,” Rowan said, sitting back in his chair, his fingers tapping ever so lightly on the table.
“What sort of a comment is that?” I asked a bit testily.
“He means that they all believe you wished to become a Zorya, and you simply took the most expedient method to do so,” Kristoff explained, his thumb still stroking my hand.
“They're nuts, then,” I said, giving them all an astounded look. “I'm doing everything I can to stop being a Zorya.”
“Indeed.” Christian pursed his lips slightly. “And what, if you do not mind me asking, would that entail?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but thought better of it, taking my time before I finally said, “We'll come to that, but after we've taken care of your stuff first.”
“I have a foreboding suspicion that your issue is very much connected with ours,” he answered dryly.
“You bet your-” I glanced over to where Esme watched with bright, interested eyes, and an air of being about to impart some of her homey advice. “Er… you bet.”
“Very well. As for the situation with the Zorya, she was found in your bathroom, a dagger stabbed into her heart. Locating and charging her killer is obviously beyond the mortal police; therefore, the crime falls under our jurisdiction. We have reviewed the facts, and can come to only one conclusion.”
“An erroneous conclusion,” Kristoff scoffed. “Pia said she didn't kill the Zorya. I was hesitant to believe her at first, but I know now that she would not be capable of such an act.”
“Thank you,” I told him with a little smile that had his eyes darkening.
“Then who did kill her?” Sebastian asked. “You've stated that you didn't. If it's not you or the Zorya, who did?”
I hated to dwell on this, but now was not the time to worry about niceties. “I wasn't alone that night.”
“Mercy!” Esme gasped.
Kristoff's fingers tightened around mine.
I'm sorry. I'm not trying to rub it in.
He said nothing.
“We are aware that Alec was with you.” Christian inclined his head in an acknowledgment of what I was hesitant to say right out. “But he left shortly after two a.m., and the Zorya did not arrive until approximately three hours after that, whereupon she asked the desk clerk for your room number. He refused to give it to her, and she apparently left but, in reality, entered the hotel by a secluded side entrance, after which she was seen entering your room.”
I blinked at him a couple of times. “How on earth do you know all that? Even the police didn't know what she'd been doing before she died.”
Kristoff's fingers tightened again. “I was watching your room,” he admitted.
“You were watching me?” I asked, turning an incredulous look on him. “Why?”
“You are a Zorya. We had to know where you were at all times.”
My astonishment fizzled into irritation. “You mean you and Alec both spied on me?”
“It is our job…” He glanced toward the other vampires. “It was my job to be aware of all movements of the reapers, you included. It was not until I realized that you were different that I ceased surveillance.”
“You surveyed me,” I asked, outraged. “Like I was a criminal? Before or after we slept together?”
He had the grace to look embarrassed. “Mostly before.”
I punched him in the arm. ” Mostly before? Do you have the balls to sit there and tell me that you followed me around after we spent the night together?”
“Dear, a gentleman's personal accoutrements are never mentioned in polite-“
“I had no choice. Alec was busy trying to find another reaper, and I had no idea if you were just using me or-“
“If we might continue,” Christian said in a mild tone.
“Using you!” I was surprised to find myself on my feet. I was even more surprised at the fact that I was yelling at Kristoff. He sat before me, still gaunt, but with color in his face now, and his eyes burning with a cool blue heat. “If our marriage had been legal, I would divorce you right now!”
“Please-” Christian said, but he didn't stand a chance.
Kristoff jumped to his feet. “Our marriage is legal, and you can hardly blame me for suspecting that you might be manipulating me, since you had made it clear you preferred Alec to me, and yet there you were in my bed.”
“It wasn't a bed. It was a bunch of moldy straw, and don't you dare try to make yourself out to be the victim! I'm the one whose trust was abused!”
“I never abused your trust,” Kristoff said with a grim note to his normally sensual voice. “I didn't believe you were actively working against us, but I knew that the reapers could use you without you being aware of it. I was simply trying to protect you and us at the same time.”
“You were?” I asked, surprised. You really believed me?
Oh. I… oh. Thank you.
“Enough!” bellowed Christian.
We both turned to look at him.
“Still think they're putting on an act?” Allie asked him.
A flicker of irritation was momentarily visible in his face before his mouth relaxed. “I am beginning to see your point.”
“It takes them a while sometimes,” Allie said with a fond smile at her husband before turning to me. “But they usually get there in the end.”
“The fact remains that the Zorya was killed in your bathroom.”
“That means nothing,” Kristoff answered abruptly, warming me with his quick defense. “Anyone could have gotten into her room. The door to her balcony was open, and the bathroom connected to the room next door.”
“The room containing the same woman who accompanied you here,” Christian said, looking thoughtful.
“Magda had nothing more to do with Anniki's death than I did,” I said.
He continued looking thoughtful. “No one else was seen entering your room.”
“Exactly. No one was seen entering. But much as the idea gives me the willies, it doesn't mean someone didn't enter.” I turned to Kristoff. “Where were you watching?”
“Outside, in the garden beneath your window.”
“That means you couldn't see who was coming or going.”
He shook his head. “I could see both hotel entrances that were still unlocked, and your door through the window. No one entered after Alec left.”
I thought for a moment. It was true my room had been at the end of the building, but there was more than one way into it. “Then someone must have come through Magda's room. She had a balcony, too.”
“It's possible, of course,” Christian said. “But likely? Why would anyone but you wish to kill the Zorya?”
“Why don't you ask some of the other vampires you seem to have granted the right to kill Brotherhood members?” I asked somewhat snappishly.
“Ooh, she has you there, love muffin,” Allie said.
His mouth tightened. “Despite what you may think, we do not encourage our people to murder reapers without a reason. We imprison, yes, but that is only for the safety of our people, and as you see, our captives are treated humanely.”
“I will grant you that, but I'd just like to know how we're supposed to prove we didn't do something.”
“In mystery books, that would be motivation for finding the killer yourself,” Kristoff said.
That astounded me. “You know how to find a killer?”
“Yes. But not in this situation. There were only so many people who had access to your room. One of them must have done it.”
I thought over the list. Magda and Ray had been asleep in the room next to mine, the one that shared the bathroom. But neither of them would have a reason to kill a woman they didn't know. That left Alec and Kristoff, but I couldn't believe they had done it.
Thank you for the vote of confidence in my moral base.
Oh, I don't mean you wouldn't have done it-I think under the right circumstance, you'd be perfectly capable of killing a woman like Anniki. I just don't think you did.
“I really think you're going to have to go with a verdict of death by a person or persons unknown,” Esme suddenly piped up. “Like they say in those fascinating police shows you like to watch when no one is around.”
“I do not watch television,” Christian said sternly. “That is a mortal pursuit.”
“Uh-huh. Think I didn't discover your secret stash of those British homicide DVDs that are so conveniently hidden in your study?” Allie asked.
“Very well,” Christian said, obviously ignoring the teasing tone in his wife's voice. “I am willing to withdraw the charge of unauthorized murder against the Zorya pending further evidence. But the last charge will not be so easily dismissed.”
“I don't see how you can think Alec going to ground has something to do with us,” I said, wishing Kristoff would hold my hand again, but lacking the nerve to just take his.
His fingers curled around mine, warm and strong and bringing me untold comfort. I slid a quick glance at him, but his face was impassive, his attention on Christian as the latter reiterated the charges.
“I have not seen Alec since he left Iceland. Neither has Pia,” Kristoff said firmly.
“We have evidence to the contrary,” Sebastian said with a smug little smile.
“Evidence? What evidence?” I asked, suddenly worried. What if someone had gone to the trouble of manufacturing evidence against us the way they had against Kristoff?
Christian nodded to Rowan, who rose and left the room. “We will bring in our proof.”
I gnawed my lip a moment as I considered Kristoff. “Alec hasn't been in contact with you at all?”
He shook his head. “I haven't seen him since that night in Iceland. He said he was returning to his home in California.”
“Where do you live?” I asked, somewhat surprised to hear that the very urbane Alec made his home in California.
“Outside of Firenze.”
“That's Florence, isn't it? In Italy?”
He nodded as the door opened and Rowan reappeared with Mattias.
“First you put me in the cell. Then you take me out and taunt me with the sight of my wife. Then you put me back in, and now you bring me here again. Your methods to break me are most cruel, but I will never give in to you. Never!” Mattias said in a dramatic fashion. “Wife! Have you convinced them yet to set me free?”
“She's my wife, not yours,” Kristoff grumbled as Rowan shoved Mattias into a chair. “I married her first.”
“She's a Zorya, and I am the sacristan. A Zorya must be wed to a sacristan in order to have full access to her powers, and since we've all seen proof that she has those, it is the marriage to me that is valid,” Mattias retorted.
“I'm afraid he has a point,” I murmured.
Kristoff's glower turned even darker.
“The discussion of your release hinges, as you have repeatedly been told, on your cooperation,” Christian told Mattias in mild chastisement.
My ears perked up. Christian was considering releasing Mattias? Perhaps it wouldn't be as hard as I thought to get him to see reason.
“You will repeat what you told us earlier.”
Mattias's pale blue eyes rested with consideration on me. “I will speak only to my wife.”
Sebastian made an impatient gesture. “We can force you to speak.”
“You may torture me all you like-I will speak only to Pia!” Mattias yelled.
I began to see a way to present my case. “Am I to understand that Mattias has said something that connects us with the disappearance of Alec?” I asked the council members.
“He stated…” Christian shuffled a few papers until he found one he liked. “He stated that he knew how you and Kristoff were involved in engineering the disappearance of Alec, and where he was now. He refused to say any more when pressed.”
“Tortured!” Mattias shouted. “I was tortured.”
“You look just fine to me,” I told him. And he did; he was practically radiating health, whereas poor Kristoff had nearly wasted away. “I'm afraid you've been had. Mattias is either confused or lying.”
“Wife!” Mattias sputtered.
Kristoff glared at him.
“That eventuality crossed my mind, which is why we asked you here,” Christian answered smoothly.
Allie snorted but said nothing.
“You know…” I looked at Mattias with what I hoped appeared as innocent speculation. “If you were to release him to my custody, I'm sure I'd be able to get from him everything he knows.”
Both of Christian's eyebrows went up at such a bold suggestion. Sebastian scowled and said in a voice rife with scorn, “Although we have not done so, despite what the reaper says, we are not above using force to extract the information we need. I doubt if you could bring yourself to do so.”
“Ah, but I have two points in my favor,” I said, smiling my most winning smile.
“And those are?” Sebastian asked.
I held up two fingers and ticked them off. “First, you guys may talk the talk, but I don't seriously think you're going to torture Mattias and Kristjana, although I don't think I'd blame you where the latter is concerned. She definitely has more than one bat loose in her belfry. But cold-blooded torture?” I considered the vampires before me for a moment, shaking my head. “No. You guys aren't that way, not really.”
“Brava,” Allie said, nodding.
Sebastian looked disgruntled for a moment before asking, “And the second point?”
I tossed a little more charm into my smile. “I am the Zorya. Mattias has to do exactly what I tell him. So if I tell him to spill everything, by the laws of the Brotherhood, he has to spill. But I'm not going to do that unless he's in my custody.”
“Impossible,” Sebastian pronounced.
Christian, to my surprise, said nothing. He looked thoughtful, though, which gave me hope.
“To have you and the sacristan running free… it is impossible,” Sebastian repeated.
“What exactly are you holding Mattias for?” I asked, curious.
“Exactly what I have asked them myself, wife!” Mattias said, shooting an outraged look at Rowan. “I have done nothing wrong.”
“You are a sacristan,” Rowan answered.
“Yes, but he hasn't actually committed any crime against you guys,” I pointed out. “He wasn't even present at the ceremony where Frederic and the others tried to use me to hurt Kristoff and Alec. You guys had nabbed both him and Kristjana before that. So I really don't see that you have any grounds to continue to hold them. And as I am willing to guarantee their good conduct, I don't see a reason you shouldn't turn them over to me.”
Sebastian sputtered and grumbled at the idea. Christian continued to look thoughtful, finally saying, “You seek to have them released. That is why you agreed to meet with the council.”
I slid a look at Kristoff. He was watching me with an impassive expression. “Well… yes. But not because I didn't want to help Kristoff. I had no idea he was in this state, or I would have come weeks ago. But yes, I have been asked to facilitate the release of Mattias and Kristjana.”
“I knew it!” Mattias said gloatingly. He smiled at Kristoff. “I knew you truly wanted me and not that one there, the one you had carnal relations with right in front of me. I knew it must be a mistake.”
Allie's eyebrows went up as she gave me a long look.
“It wasn't at all like that,” I told her, my blasted genes kicking in with a blush that was hot enough to fry bacon. “Mattias wasn't actually right there with Kristoff and me. We were locked in a cell. By ourselves. In the dark, actually. And Kristoff was handcuffed-“
“Pia,” Kristoff interrupted me, his lips twisting a little. “I don't think anyone wishes to know about our time imprisoned in the Brotherhood house.”
“Sorry,” I said hastily, the blush cranking up another notch. “I just want to say right here and now that I've never had sex in front of an audience.”
“Well, then, there you go,” Allie said cheerfully.
“Er…” Christian looked a bit dazed. “Where were we? Ah, yes. I assume there is a reason other than altruism that you wish us to release the two reapers into your custody?”
“Yes. It's a means to an end-mine. Or, rather, my career as a Zorya. If I can convince you to release Mattias and Kristjana, the Brotherhood will revoke my permit to be Zorya, or something along those lines. The end result would be that I would no longer have any special powers against vampires.”
“No!” Mattias gasped. “An execration? You cannot mean that! You cannot give up!”
Everyone ignored him.
“Sounds like a smart plan to me,” Allie said, nodding at me. “I approve.”
“Well, I do not!” Sebastian snapped. “Nor will any other member of the council tolerate such an idiotic idea. Is that not right, Rowan?”
Kristoff's cousin shook his head slowly. “I do not think it would be wise for the Zorya and the sacristan to be together. We have no guarantee that the reapers will do as they have promised her.”
“Agreed. Andreas?” Sebastian looked to the man who'd been standing so silent, it was easy to overlook his presence.
Andreas roused himself from what appeared to be a deep meditation. His face gave none of his thoughts away. “I object to the release of reapers on general principles. There is no reason to believe they will not later harm our own people.”
“You are not helping,” I told him. His sneer faded away to a pout.
“Christian?” Sebastian asked.
Christian was even slower to reply than Andreas. “We have held reapers before who have not been directly responsible for harm. Since Kristjana and the sacristan are both members of an active chapter, a chapter that we know has made several attacks against both Kristoff and Alec, we are within our right to continue to hold the two of them, regardless of whether or not they themselves participated in the attempts to harm Dark Ones.”
My heart sank. So much for doing this the easy way.
“There is also the possibility that they do, in fact, have information regarding Alec's whereabouts,” he added.
“That, at least, I think we can clear up.” I turned my attention on Mattias. Beside me, Kristoff stiffened. “Mattias, you told me once that since I was a Zorya, you were obliged by Brotherhood laws to honor any demands I made of you. You will now answer me truthfully-do you know anything about Alec's disappearance?”
Mattias's normally sunny expression turned petulant. “It is not right for you to ask me such in front of the evil ones.”
“Do you know anything about Alec?” I repeated.
His expression was sullen for a good minute. “No.”
I relaxed. “Then why did you tell the vampires you knew Kristoff and I were responsible for Alec disappearing?”
I thought for a moment that he wasn't going to answer, but he finally did. “The evil ones would not bring you to me as I asked!” he answered, waving his hands around in expressive unhappiness. “I knew that you would come to rescue me if they would allow you in. Therefore, I said what needed to be said in order for them to summon you to me.”
Kristoff muttered a rude word under his breath, exchanging glares with Mattias when the latter heard it.
I looked back at Christian. “I rest my case.”
“This proves nothing,” Sebastian said, waving away Mattias's confession. “They are working together to confuse us.”
“I believe,” Christian said slowly, with deliberation, “the charges against you precipitated by the sacristan's original statement will require further investigation.”
I found a little smile. “That means you'll let Kristoff go.”
My spirits, which had been frolicking around happily, stumbled to a stop. “What?”
Christian shook his head. “We will investigate further. Once we know the truth of the situation, then we'll act.”
“That is not acceptable!” I said, slamming my hand down on the table. “I'm not going to let you do this to us!”
“You're a Zorya,” Mattias said with a gleam in his eye. “Use the power of the light to smite them.”
Sebastian rounded the table to stand near me, obviously prepared to spring if necessary.
Kristoff growled deep in his chest and leaped to his feet.
I jumped up to stop him from doing anything rash. That was impressive. Can you bark, too?
The look he gave me should have dropped me dead on the spot, but for some reason, I just found it amusing.
“I would be very unhappy if you smote Christian,” Allie said calmly, her hand on her husband's arm. “Tempted though I am to see you use this mysterious moon power. But it's probably best if you don't.”
She's not the only one who's tempted , I told Kristoff. I don't suppose if I distracted everyone, you could grab Mattias and escape?
Too bad. I have a horrible feeling we're going to have to do something drastic to get out of here. I just wish I knew what happened to Alec, whether the Brotherhood really has him, or if he's off doing something covert. He said nothing to you after that night?
He said a few things, but they are not worth repeating, Kristoff answered, reluctance evident in the brush of his mind against mine.
He was your friend, wasn't he? I mean, he wouldn't knowingly leave you in a situation like this?
We have an extensive history, and yes, I've considered him my friend.
Then why are you suddenly worried? I turned to face him, peering deep into his eyes. You're hiding something , I said with a sudden realization . I can feel it. You're holding something back, hiding it from me. Is that why you refused to speak to me this way?
Everyone has things they wish to keep private , he said stiffly, and gently but firmly pushed me out of his mind.
I was shaken to my very soul by a sudden, horrible fear that the man I thought I'd known never really existed.
“As I see it, there are two choices we can make,” Christian said, nodding toward us.
I took a step closer to Kristoff. Stop looking at me like that. I can't help it if it makes me feel better standing next to you. Safety in numbers and all that.
Kristoff made an inarticulate noise of disagreement, but he reached out, wrapped an arm around my waist, and hauled me up until I was pressed against him, a defiant look on his face as he eyed the other vampires.
Allie beamed at us.
“Our first option is to incarcerate both of you until such time as one of you three-Pia, Kristoff, or the sacristan-decides to be forthcoming with information regarding the whereabouts of Alec, at which point due justice will be meted out.”
“They will torture you just as they will me!” Mattias shouted. “You see what this has come to, wife? It is the end!”
“Oh, stop it!” I snapped, at my wit's end with him. “You're not hurt at all, so you can just stop your belly-aching! No one has tortured you, although right now, I certainly wouldn't blame them if they did.”
Mattias's eyes opened wide. “Wife!”
“And stop calling me that!” I was so frustrated, I could have screamed.
“Why don't you simply light-bind him if you're tired of his constant whining?” Rowan asked.
Mattias gasped. “She wouldn't!”
“Light-bind?” I asked, confused by his use of the term. “What's that?”
“You're a Zorya. He's a sacristan,” Rowan said, just as if that explained everything.
“Er…” I looked at Kristoff for help. He avoided my eye.
“Do not listen to them, wife,” Mattias said hastily, his eye fixed sternly upon me. “They do not know of what they speak. There is no way you can enslave my mind. That is an old wives' tale, nothing more.”
I pursed my lips as I looked at him. “There's a way to enslave his mind? Would that make him shut up about being tortured?”
“Of course,” Christian answered with a shrug.
“Do not listen to the evil ones, Pia. They are trying to confuse you, and to divide our joined strength.”
“How do I do it?” I asked, my gaze still speculatively on Mattias.
He tried to get to his feet, but Rowan pushed him back down in the chair before answering. “You are a Zorya, yes? You wield light. The light is what dazzles reapers, bemusing their minds and leaving them open to your command.”
“Wow. How come Summoners don't get some sort of brainwashing skill like that?” Allie asked, looking a bit disgruntled. “I think I went into the wrong line of work.”
“Wife, I insist that you cease listening to these devils,” Mattias said with an arrogance that was the last straw.
I summoned up a ball of light and held it for a moment, imagining it bending Mattias to my will before tossing it at him. The ball exploded around his head, swirling slowly around it in a corona of glittering, silver light. It glowed as it slowly revolved, fading away after a few seconds until all that was left was a vague look in Mattias's blue eyes.
“Mattias?” I asked, concerned that I might have done some harm to his vision.
“Are you all right?”
“I'm quite fine, thank you.”
He looked at peace, a mild expression on his face.
“The vampires are going to torture you now, all right?” I asked, seeing if he really was bedazzled, as they claimed he would be.
“That's fine. Or would you prefer I torture myself?”
“Er… no. You don't need to do that,” I said, a little taken aback. “You don't mind if they set your hair on fire, do you?”
“No, that's fine,” he answered, uncharacteristically agreeable. “Unless, of course, it's any trouble to you, in which case I would be happy to do it myself. Which would you prefer?”
“I'll get back to you on that.” I turned to Christian, demanding, “Why the hell didn't anyone tell me about this before?”
He shrugged again. “I assumed you knew. You are, after all, a Zorya.”
“One who hasn't been around the Brotherhood block,” I pointed out, watching Mattias. He was humming softly to himself, his body language relaxed and happy. “How long will he stay like that?”
“Him? Probably a couple of hours,” Rowan said with a disgusted look. “The weaker the mind, the easier it is to light-bind.”
“Glory hallelujah,” I murmured, trying to wrap my brain around the idea of such a thing. “Can I do that to anyone?”
Allie laughed. “I was just wondering the same thing.”
Christian hesitated for a second before admitting, “I understand you can, although reapers, as worshipers of the light you wield, are supposedly more susceptible. I assume it has a much shorter duration on someone who is not a reaper, or one who has a very strong presence of mind. And as you can see, the effect on someone who already has a tie to you can be quite… profound.”
Mattias made odd little whistling chirrups until I looked at him, at which point he simpered and said, “Pia, Pia, Pia!”
“More like drunk than bedazzled,” I said, somewhat startled by his change in behavior.
“It has been likened to that, yes,” Christian agreed.
“Do you need a hug?” Mattias asked, his face scrunched up with worry. “You're frowning. I should hug you. And then take off all your clothes and lick-“
“No! No hugs! Or anything else. In fact, I'd like for you to just sit there quietly and not mention anything about torture or hugging. And stop doing that.”
A rapt look came over his face as he stopped making loud kissing noises. He clasped his hands together as he answered, “I will lick you later.”
I blinked at the offer. “Er… OK.”
Kristoff shot me a look.
“That is to say, no, thank you. Um… where were we?”
“I love you,” Mattias told me.
Everyone ignored him.
“Christian was just saying that he could toss everyone in jail, but he's not going to do that because it's patently obvious that Pia and Kristoff haven't been separated as part of a big, elaborate plan to not only siphon away funds from widows and orphans, but also to kidnap and hide Kristoff's oldest and dearest friend, not to mention killing off an innocent woman who hadn't even taken up the job of Zorya, because instead of archcriminals, they are instead victims of what seems to be a really nasty twist of fate,” Allie said, smiling at her husband. “So instead of damning them for something that was not their doing, you're going to let them go on their way so they can try to live happily ever after, not that living with a Dark One is easy by any stretch of the imagination. Isn't that right, snuggles?”
“Our second option,” Christian said, trying to look stern, but I could have sworn his lips twitched a smidgen, “is to allow one of you to prove the innocence you so vehemently claim.”
“One of us?” I asked, my stomach feeling as if it were made of lead. “Just one?”
“How do you expect us to prove that?” Kristoff asked at the same time, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I believe in this instance my usage of pronouns is confusing,” Christian answered. “My apologies. My intention is to allow Pia to prove both your and her innocence.”
“All right,” I said without hesitating. “If it will end all of this nonsense, I'm willing to do whatever it takes.”
“Good.” Christian glanced at the other two vampires at his table. “Then it is the decision of this council to postpone the hearing until such time as Pia has located and freed Alec, and identified the person behind his abduction.”
“What?” I almost shrieked. “Wait a second! How am I supposed to do that?”
“You are a Zorya,” Sebastian said. “You are a member of the Brotherhood no matter if you decry them or not.”
“That doesn't mean they're going to tell me anything if I march up and ask where they keep the captive vampires!”
I could swear I heard Kristoff snicker, but when I glanced at him, his face was without expression.
“You stand a better chance of gaining information from them than any of us do-without, that is, the use of those practices that you find objectionable.”
“You do know what you are asking me to do, right? Here I am trying my darnedest to get out of the Brotherhood, and you guys want me to stay in so I can be some sort of super-secret double agent for you.”
No one said anything for a moment. Even Allie looked a bit nonplussed.
I turned to Kristoff. I don't have a choice, do I?
If there is another way, I don't see it , he admitted.
Great. Now I have to find Alec, when I have no idea where he is or what he's doing. Guilt stabbed at me at the memory of Alec's stricken expression when he realized I was Kristoff's Beloved, not his.
Kristoff, did Alec… That night, Alec was upset, wasn't he?
Again I sensed Kristoff's reluctance to speak to me. His presence in my head was tentative and hesitant, and I felt once again a darkness within him, something he shielded me from seeing.
That worried me more than anything.
Do you think he would have done anything stupid?
Suicidal, you mean? Kristoff turned that thought over a few times. I don't believe he would. If you had turned out to be his Beloved and you were taken from him, he might, but not otherwise.
Pain twisted inside me at his casual words. Alec might have felt despair at the thought of losing his Beloved, but Kristoff had managed quite well on his own for two whole months.
Yes, nearly dying of starvation was my master plan all along .
I stared at him, startled by both the amusement and the self-loathing in his mind.
“Do you agree to our terms?” Christian asked, pulling my train of thought back to the present.
I was torn. Part of me wanted nothing more than to figure out the mess that was my conflicted emotions toward Kristoff, but there were other things at stake. If I could find a way to locate Alec before I was de-Zoryaed for freeing Mattias and Kristjana, then everyone would be happy. The question was, could I pull off both tasks? “Yes, I agree,” I said at last, my shoulders slumping as I leaned into Kristoff, drawing comfort despite the horrible situation. “But only on the condition that Kristoff help me find Alec, and that you release Mattias and Kristjana to my custody.”
“My first inclination would be to refuse both demands, but since Allegra would take issue with keeping Kristoff from his Beloved, we will accede to the first.”
“If you expect me to get anything out of the Brotherhood people without having Mattias and Kristjana released-” I started to say.
Christian gave me an odd look. “I expect you to do whatever is necessary to achieve your goal. I cannot authorize the release of the two reapers, however. You will have to find another way.”
“There is no other way,” I protested. “I have to have Mattias and Kristjana.”
“You may have me,” Mattias said, opening his arms. “I'm all yours. Take me!”
“You cannot infiltrate the Brotherhood as our 'supersecret double agent' if you are no longer a Zorya,” Christian said with a hint of a smile.
“It is too dangerous,” Sebastian said, getting to his feet when Christian rose and offered Allie a hand. “The sacristan must be held in custody. To have the two of you together and unattended is too risky.”
“But if he's this way, he's not dangerous at all,” I said, gesturing toward Mattias.
He blew me a kiss and waggled his eyebrows.
Kristoff rolled his eyes.
“As he is now? No. But what guarantee do we have that you will not lift the light-binding, or order him to do some act harmful to Dark Ones?” Sebastian countered.
“You really don't like me, do you?” I said, my hands on my hips as I faced him. Mattias got to his feet and mimicked me, his hands on his hips as he glared at Sebastian. “What have I ever done to you?”
Sebastian blinked in surprise, his expression disconcerted. “You are a Zorya.”
“Move past that,” I said, too tired and jet-lagged to listen to the voice of reason warning me against an outburst. “Is it something about me personally you don't like? Every time I come near you, you make a face like you smelled something bad!”
“You make a face,” Mattias accused. “You do not want to lick the beauteous Pia!”
Sebastian stammered out a nonanswer as Allie laughed. She came around the table, taking my arm. “Come on; I'll go up to your room with you to make sure you guys will be comfy there. And while we're on our way, I'll explain to you about Dark Ones and this really obnoxious thing they have about Beloveds who aren't their own smelling like roadkill.”
“I will come with you,” Mattias said happily, bat-ting his eyelashes at me. “Pia, Pia, Pia.”
” Dio , he's worse than he was before,” Kristoff muttered, elbowing Mattias aside when he tried to crowd me.
Mattias blew Kristoff a kiss, causing the latter to look in horror at him.
“Mattias, calm down and behave yourself,” I told him. “Rowan is going to take you to your room. I want you to be very nice to him and do as he says.”
“I will be very nice to him,” Mattias repeated, beaming at Rowan. “He is pretty, too. Should I kiss him?”
“No kissing. Just go to sleep. No, not here. Sleep in your room.”
Mattias left, waving madly as Rowan led him away.
“It's not going to cause his brain permanent damage to be like that, is it?” I asked, worried about Mattias's extreme change in personality.
“How could you tell if it did?” Kristoff muttered.
“It will wear off in time,” Christian said, laughing. “Then it will be up to you whether or not you re-light-bind him, or let him return to his normal state.”
Allie grinned. “I don't know; I think he's kind of cute this way. He reminds me of Antonio when he doesn't have someone to lust after.”
Christian heaved a martyred sigh and said to Kristoff, “I would like a word or two, if you don't mind.”
“Roadkill?” I asked Allie as she pulled me toward the door, glancing over my shoulder to Kristoff. “You're joking.”
His eyes glittered with a light I found hard to understand.
“I wish I were. There's a lot you have to learn about vampires, Pia. Take it from someone who went into her relationship kicking and screaming all the way-the learning curve may be steep, but it's also a whole lot of fun.”