I'd Save the Last Bullet for Me

I sat on my bed surrounded by readouts, stacks of printed paper, and a pad, as well as my laptop, with half a dozen tabs open online and twice that many files open. I was studying several things at once: the Vampira Carta, the deep background histories of Leo's people and Derek's Vodka and Tequila Boys. I was also looking for a way out of the trouble I was in, the trouble Leo was in, and was searching for the traitor we still had to have in Leo's ranks. Though I couldn't totally rule out anyone, I had narrowed it all down to two vamps - both longtime troublemakers: Amitee Marchand and Fernand Marchand - and two Tequila Boys, both new men on Derek's team: Tequila Sunrise and Sneak Cheek. Both had been present at the raid on de Allyon's three-story building in Natchez, and both had significant financial troubles. Worse, I didn't know them well enough to make a judgment on their trustworthiness or lack thereof. Just in case, I sent texts to Bruiser, warning him to either keep all four away from the parley or keep eyes on them. I could deal with the problem people - alive and undead - later, when other situations were handled, and concentrate for now on the parley, and what I might do to fix things.

The day was mostly gone when I figured out what I could do. Could do. Maybe. If I could pull it off. I fell back on the bed and stared at the clean ceiling, thinking. Working it through. Crap. This was gonna be a booger. Leo and Bruiser were dead set (pun intended) on a parley with the murderer de Allyon and his scions, and I was going to be there, undercover, so to speak.

I'd had little sleep in days. Little sleep, less rest. The parley was fast approaching. Beast, normally so active in my mind, had been silent, watching, as tense and expectant as I was. She knew we were about to face an enemy, and she chose now to put a paw on my mind and force me into a deep sleep.

* * *

It was nearly sunset, two days before the new moon, and I was dressed for hunting, not in pelt and claws, but wearing guns and blades and lots of silver. And, weirdly enough, wearing makeup.

"So. Whadda you think?" Christie asked. She was popping gum, a black eyeliner pencil in one hand and a large dusting brush in the other. Her clothes were opaque, thank God, or the lights in my bathroom would have revealed far more than I wanted to see.

"She looks hot," Deon said from the corner chair, his voice awed. "And scary as a demon." He crossed himself.

I didn't react, except to turn, my reflection turning with me in the mirror. I was wearing thirteen wood stakes and thirteen silver-tipped stakes in pouches and loops. I wore armored leathers, butt-stomper combat boots, and I was carrying newly sharpened blades - three heavily silvered vamp-killers and four throwing knives - and my vial of holy water.

I carried the two red-gripped Walthers in Blackhawk vertical shoulder holsters, on top of a skintight vest and T-shirt, the M4 on my back in its old harness, a short-sword-length vamp-killer in one boot, and a nice little, dependable .38 revolver in the other. A nine-mil was strapped against my spine under the vest and another was at my waist in a belt holster, next to two CS canisters. Two flashbangs were on the other hip, so I didn't get the canister-style grenades mixed up with the colloidal silver ones. My gold nugget necklace now also carried my emergency shifting tooth, the tooth of the biggest Puma concolor I had ever seen. I had wired the tooth into a loop and now wore the nugget and tooth on the double gold chain underneath the double vamp-collars that protected my throat from vamp-teeth and talons. I was carrying a good twenty pounds of gear, enough to clank when I walked. But I had spent the time adjusting everything to make sure that I didn't.

Christie handed me a tube and I slashed on crimson lipstick, the same shade as the Walthers' grips. My hair was in a queue so tight my scalp hurt, and my tiny derringer was knotted into the bun, a last-ditch weapon. I figured if I got down to that one, I'd save the last bullet for me.

I studied myself in the mirror, my coppery skin a rich hue against the black of my clothes and my hair. My eyes were all wrong, and that might save my life. I was sporting heavy eyeliner in an ancient Egyptian style, eye shadow in a storm-cloud gray, and - most importantly - a brand-new pair of colored contact lenses. I now had eyes so dark they looked vamp-black. They made me blink, but they weren't completely uncomfortable. I looked like a pureblooded Tsalagiyi, not like a skinwalker. Not at all. As long as I stayed far enough away from de Allyon so that he couldn't smell me, I should be safe. Yeah. Right.

"Well?" The single word was laced with emotion and meaning - sarcasm, mockery. If Christie had added, "You idiot," to the question, her meaning would have been no clearer.

"I look like an Enforcer," I said.

"Yes, you do."

I turned to see Bruiser standing at my bedroom door and I almost did a double take. I had seen the primo in a tux, in a business suit, in casual dress, in night camo, and in jeans. I had also seen him soaking wet in my shower. But I had never seen him wearing Enforcer garb. Not ever. My breath drew in over my tongue, and Beast peeked out at the world through my eyes. I lowered my lashes, so he wouldn't see my black contact lenses, knowing he would think I was being coy or shy, rather than devious.

"Now, that is hot," Christie said, crossing the room to him. "To-tal-ly hot. Sugar, if you want to come work off some excess energy before the parley, I am your girl." She ran her hand from his collarbones, across his chest, and down his abs. He caught her wrists before she could head farther south. I could hear Deon gulp from across the room, and the pheromones of lust and excitement filled the air.

A slight smile lifted Bruiser's mouth, but his eyes never left me. "Thank you, Christie. But I am fine."

And indeedy he was. Bruiser was wearing armored leather and weapons from top to toe, formfitting, clearly handcrafted, matte black leather, four guns that I could see, two knives, and the two short swords I had given him at his waist, the scabbards set for a cross draw, or whatever they called it in sword fighting. His brown hair was slicked back, the goop he'd used making it look nearly as dark as mine.

Bruiser crossed the room to me and stood behind me for a moment. Fast as a magician, he slipped my silver and titanium throat protector around my neck. I hadn't seen it since that awful night in Leo's lair when Katie had removed it from my neck and I had discovered just how little protection it really was. Bruiser latched it, the metal icy on my throat, his fingers hot. "I'm sorry," he said. I nodded, the motion jerky.

He stood beside me, our reflections side by side in the mirror, his fingers still touching my throat. "We are perfect together," he said. And though I didn't know if he meant perfect as a fighting pair or as a couple, my Beast purred. Bruiser's smile widened. He took my hand and lifted it, curling my knuckles under. His lips pressed into them, hotter than human, and that heat seemed to zing through me like lightning on roofies. A memory of big-cat scent followed on the trail of the heat. Rick . . .

Christie said, "Son of a bitch. I never guessed."

Deon swatted her. "Language," he hissed.

I never got the chance to ask her what she had never guessed because Bruiser turned me in a dance step as elegant as anything from a Victorian ballroom and led the way to the front door. Eli waited there, geared up in black-and-gray camo combat clothes, night-vision gear on a strap around his neck, with crosses, silvered blades, and trank guns in among his regular battle gear.

He looked us over, expressionless, taking in our enmeshed fingers and our lookalike clothes. "Just so you know," he deadpanned, "no way am I dressing up in leather. Not now, not ever. Don't ask."

"Never crossed my mind," Bruiser murmured. "My lady, your carriage awaits." He opened the door, I picked up my go-bag, and Eli pulled his headgear in place, crouched, and took point. Alex followed.

In a standard security detail, we had four vehicles, Derek's men driving SUVs before us and after, his cadre of men geared up for battle, one I hoped to avoid. Wrassler drove the limo, Vodka Hi-Fi was in charge of the SUV in front. Angel Tit, redeemed and forgiven, drove the point vehicle, with Eli and Tequila Sneak Cheek in the back: Eli was keeping a eye on Sneak Cheek for any signs he was our mole. If he was, I wouldn't want to be him if Eli went all Ranger on his butt. Chi-Chi and Sunrise were in an SUV directly behind the limo. The SUVs were full of Leo's best fighters, all decked out in evening wear. Kabisa and Karimu - sworn to Gregoire and Clan Arceneau, and looking like Egyptian monuments - were in identical designer sheaths that sparkled with crystals sewn into the cloth and blades strapped to their thighs. Koun and Hildebert wore tuxedos, Koun's Celtic blue tattoos stark on his pale skin, his sword at his waist. Sabina, the priestess, rode with them. I was surprised to see Lorraine and Cieran, who had been part of an uprising against Leo only a few months past, but maybe they volunteered to make points with the boss. Ronald, the Texan, heir to and sworn to Bouvier's coleaders, was in jeans and boots, with six-shooters at his hips. Alejandro and Estavan, both of Spanish origin wore swords. Five others I didn't know. Until tonight, I had been included in the decisions for choosing the vamps who would be present in difficult parleys, but I had left the plans to Bruiser and the details to Eli and Derek. I had other things to concentrate on. Like staying alive.

Derek and the rest of his men were waiting for Alex to tell them where to search for Katie. They were decked out for armed search and rescue and soon they would be waiting near Leo's helo, and two armored Humvees ready to fly - or drive fast - as soon as we got coordinates for Katie.

Leo, Gregoire, Bruiser, Eli, and I rode in tense silence. Leo had something up his sleeve, something I had not been informed about. If I had been preparing security on this gig, that would have made me a tad antsy. Okay, it would have made me mad. But I was not security. I was an Enforcer. Except, not really. I had shifted enough and Beast had loosened - maybe broken - Leo's binding on my soul, just in time to actually need some good vamp power. Go, me. My timing sucked. Bruiser had suggested I'd be safer if I was bound more tightly to Leo. I figured I'd rather be in danger, thank you very much.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

Leo said softly, "The Nunnery."

"Ah. Of course." The Nunnery was a converted warehouse in the Warehouse District of New Orleans, and was owned by the Council of Mithrans. It was used by the clans for soirees and events, and for self-help workshops on the top ten ways to seduce a human for dinner, for all I knew. It also had a steel-barred cage in the basement suitable for holding werewolves through the full moon, or a rogue vamp until it could be dealt with. I'd seen the cage once, when I was trying to help Rick deal with his first full moon. That seemed like ages ago now.

"Are you sufficiently prepared?" Leo asked.

I wanted to screech, "No!" like Beast, but I kept it in. "I'm good," I lied. "I'm okay."

Bruiser had sent me instructions on the parley and my part in the two-hour meeting. Vamps in parley used a form of parliamentary procedure similar to Robert's Rules of Order, and Bruiser had sent me the words I was supposed to say when discussion turned to the accusation of murder and the trial. I had memorized the phrases that would keep de Allyon and his scions busy for as long as it took Leo's people to locate and rescue Katie, but that rescue was no way guaranteed, even with Reach and Alex both working on invading every cell phone carried by the enemy and tracking every GPS, call, and text made on the units in the last two days. Yet, even if everything went off without a hitch, nothing about tonight was guaranteed. I might be forced into a trial. Katie might not be found, not in only two short hours.

So I had come up with my own plan in the hours of my study of the Vampira Carta, a plan that was sure to tick off everyone but would give us adequate time to rescue Katie. Like maybe all the hours until dawn. I didn't have to do it. I could just stand in my place and keep my mouth shut and hope for the best. I could take the easy way out. But I wouldn't.

"Everyone, don't forget to turn off your cells or leave them in the limo. That decreases any chance the Kid will waste valuable time tracking the wrong signals."

Alex snorted, as if such a mistake was impossible. It probably was.

We pulled down the narrow roadway between perhaps a half dozen vehicles and up to the building. The Nunnery was an old-brick, Spanish-style warehouse with wrought-iron curlicues protecting the blown-glass windows, the lights inside wavering through like water. There were porches on each of its three floors, and the grounds were planted with semitropical flowers and shrubs. Heavy limbs of live oaks wound sinuously across the ground.

The car pulled to a stop and Eli murmured into his mic to Derek, who was not on the premises but was waiting to initiate the hunt for Katie. It felt seriously weird to have only limited access to the security channels, but I didn't want to be distracted by com chatter, so I had elected to wear only the general channel in my earbud. I shook out my arms and rotated my head on my neck. I was tense - not healthy around vamps.

Wrassler opened the limo door and Eli was out like a flash, listening to security babble, moving fast through the night. A moment later, Wrassler assisted Leo and Gregoire out. George followed, and I was last, feeling totally off my game. Bruiser leaned in close and placed his lips at my ear, murmured, "This time, don't play nice."

My mouth curled up in the first real smile all day. His command was the exact opposite of the one he gave the last time we had attended an event at the Nunnery. "Are you telling me to do something really stupid, or really violent?"

"You are anything but stupid, Jane Yellowrock. Anything but. And you look dangerous and gorgeous and violent and deadly tonight."

I knew it was absurd, and way too girlie for me, but I could I feel my nerves settle with his words. It was a description I could live with, even if the gorgeous part made no sense whatsoever.

Wrassler led the way, Leo behind him, and the rest of us followed like good little servants. Beast padded to the forefront of my mind and flooded me with her strength, speed, and night vision. The world went sharp and bright, full of greens and silvers and oddly tinted blues. The shadows lightened until I could see the men standing in them, Derek's boys - one of whom might be a traitor. As we ascended the short steps, other cars began to arrive, the rest of Leo's vamps and blood-servants showing up for the parley.

Inside, warm, dry air fought the sudden cool spell, dropping from overhead vents. The smell of vamp was muted but distinct, and it made my hackles rise. Beast peeled back her lips and showed me her teeth, hissing softly, eager and powerful. For this night, the Nunnery was neutral territory, where Leo might meet and parley with the invading master vamp.

The front half of the building was one huge open area with three-foot-thick brick walls, slate floor, and thirty-inch-diameter brick pillars holding up the second floor, which was fifteen feet overhead. As always, gas-flame sconces lit the area, flickering in the artificial breeze. The entry floor was used for entertaining, with a dining area to the right big enough to seat a hundred at the long table, which was pushed against the wall.

The last time I was here for a party, the air had been redolent of meat and spices. Tonight it just smelled empty, vampy, slightly moldy, and the chill that wafted off the old brick would have been uncomfortable except for Beast's energy pulsing through me.

To the left of the entrance, where usually there was an area set up like a parlor with couches, chairs, tables, and a fireplace scaled to fit the warehouse, tonight there were two dozen chairs set up in two Vs, twelve facing twelve, with the apex chairs only six feet apart. The twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth chairs were between them, set back, on the opposite ends of a square. One was the place for Sabina, the priestess. The other one was for . . . I had no idea.

Before I could ask, I smelled the priestess arrive, her scent the aroma of old blood and dried rose petals and wind from a desert, stripped of moisture. It caught on the air currents and filled the lower floor. Her nunlike white robes swishing, her hands held clasped at her waist, hidden in her voluminous sleeves, she stepped through the doorway and Leo moved to her. He bowed from the waist in an old-world gesture, like something he might have done to royalty in his youth hundreds of years ago.

When he was at the lowest point of his bow, Sabina said, "Tonight, I am not your outclan priestess, Leonard Eugene Zacharie Pellissier, Blood Master of New Orleans. I am the emissary of the Outclan Council of Mithrans."

If Leo had been human, he would have started. As he was a vamp, he just did that still-as-death thing they do. I knew Leo had contacted the council, but I'd thought it would be a long time before they responded. Until last night, I hadn't known that Sabina had a phone line or cell at the cemetery where she slept by day. Now she talked to the council? By his slight pause, I knew Leo had been factoring this new info into his plans for the evening, plans that included trickery and deceit. Things one did not do when the Outclan Council was involved. Only a heartbeat too slowly, he rose and smiled at her. I had no clue if all this was a good thing or a bad thing.

I slid my eyes to Bruiser, but he was watching Leo like a hawk, and then his gaze moved to the entrance, and his eyes widened. I felt de Allyon as much as saw him, his power firing into the room like a torch, like a dozen lasers, like a flashbang going off. His energies prickled against my skin and made the hair on the back of my neck want to curl up and hide. And then I smelled him, that odd, beery scent that seemed all wrong for vamps, the scent on the man I'd killed in my hotel room, the death of the Enforcer that had started all this. Crap. I knew what it was. It was the scent of a blood-drunk master vamp. A Naturaleza who had been drinking his fill of humans for centuries was going up against Leo, who had been drained to the point of insanity recently. I remembered the note he'd left on the dead body in the Learjet: "You killed my Enforcer, Ramondo Pitri. You will die with your Master, in a massacre such as you have never seen. This, at a time of my choosing."

Except that it would be at a time of my choosing, not his. Some of the tension eased out of my body at the thought. My choosing. Not his.

Lucas Vazquez de Allyon was dressed in a tuxedo, the cummerbund and one of those little handkerchiefs in the color of old blood. His black beard was the same pointy Vandyke style he'd worn in the small pen-and-inks of him in the history book. He looked like a modern-day version of the devil. Satan in Armani. Death's Rival in a ten-thousand-dollar suit that caressed his body like living hands.

As he stepped closer, the power in the room ratcheted up, my skin feeling parched and prickly. Now I wished I had broken down and asked Leo to translate the text in the book for me. This guy wasn't just a master vamp. He was something more, something other. Arrogance and condescension oozed from every pore - assuming that vamps had pores. It occurred to me that drinking all that skinwalker blood so long ago might have done something to him. I looked at Leo, wondering what my blood had done to him, and if the old master would be able to tell. If so, then he would know that Katie had sipped a little too. So much to know; no time to discover anything useful. Without raising my head, I scanned the room and located the air vents, making certain that I stood well away from any that might take my scent to my enemy.

I remembered that Sabina had spoken inside my head, telling me that my enemy would know me by my scent. And he would if I got close enough, if he hadn't forgotten what skinwalkers smelled like. I surely would not be that lucky.

Leo and Sabina stood their ground, letting the conquistador cross the room to them, his footsteps oddly hushed in the suddenly silent room, his people fanning out behind him. They were all vamps, all vamped out, showing the three-inch fangs and long talons of the old, old, old vamp. As they all entered, the sense of power grew; I could feel it pressing against me, hot and electric. I knew that Leo's legal team had stipulated a maximum of twelve vamps, the rest blood-slaves and the new Enforcer. Somebody had come prepared to make a point or start a blood-feud in earnest. Maybe both.

De Allyon met Leo and Sabina in the center of the huge room, the beery stink of blood-drunk vamps, dried herbs, funeral flowers, dissipation, and the scent of sickness whooshing ahead of them. Our visitors had brought sick vamps with them, but none of the others seemed to notice. I found it odd that the vamps couldn't smell the only disease that could kill them. I touched my mouthpiece for the first time tonight and informed the crew, including Bruiser, that some of our guests were less than healthy.

"Acknowledged," Bruiser said into his mouthpiece. "Can you tell numbers? Which ones?"

"Not without getting a lot closer than I want," I said. Which brought up an image of a big dog sticking his snout into a vamp's crotch. Then of me doing the same thing. Bet that would liven up the proceedings. I curled my bottom lip in and bit down slightly to keep from grinning. The level of tension Bruiser had reduced with his compliment earlier decreased another notch, and my shoulders relaxed. I took a few steps back from the group clustered around Leo. Studying. Planning. Waiting.

De Allyon got in the first sally. "We are Lucas Vazquez de Allyon, Master of the Cities of Atlanta, Sedona, Boston, and Seattle. We present our heir, Hellene de Romanova, our secondo heir, Adam Jonas, and our Enforcer, Jude Talley." The royal "we" was a bit much, and de Allyon did it unconsciously, as if he considered himself the king of, well, of America. Which was a scary thought.

Point to de Allyon.

His heir and spare were an odd couple, Hellene looking like the bust off an ancient Greek coin, from the shape of her nose to the light brown braids woven around her head, while Adam's ethnicity was indeterminate. He looked Mediterranean European, as though he had been swarthy skinned when he was turned.

Leo inclined his head to indicate he had heard and spoke his title. "Leonard Eugene Zacharie Pellissier, master of the territory of Southeastern United States, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, east of the Texas border at the Sabine River to the Atlantic, and south to the Gulf, with the exception of Florida and Atlanta." He paused a bare moment, and added, "the largest single hunting territory in these United States." De Allyon didn't react and Leo went on. "My heir you have met and shackled. My acting secondo scion is Koun." He gestured to the Celt.

"Acting secondo?" de Allyon asked. The room went quiet. Interrupting a vamp while he's speaking is a gross offense. Leo didn't react except to let a small smile touch his face.

"Gregoire is occupied elsewhere." Meaning that unlike their guest, he'd not put all his eggs in one basket. De Allyon blinked slowly, realizing that if he had miscalculated, if Leo attacked and won, he could lose his entire crew tonight.

Leo's smile widened and he went on. "And my dual Enforcers, George Dumas and Jane Yellowrock. Yellowrock who has been accused of murder, yet who first was attacked, unprovoked, in her hotel room."

Point to Leo. And a line that worked toward my plan. Thank you, Leo.

Before de Allyon could respond to the claim, Sabina said, "I am Sabina Delgado y Aguilar, outclan, and emissary of the Outclan Council." De Allyon's reaction was even less intense than Leo's, but his scent changed. In fact, the scents of all his people changed, growing tart as they calculated the meaning of a hurried response from the Europeans. No one had known the council was getting involved in this little war. Point to Sabina, and maybe to Leo. We would see.

"Lucas Vazquez de Allyon," Sabina said, "you have broken truce. Twelve of your scions may stay. Choose which Mithrans you keep at your side, and which will go. If you refuse, then I will choose."

De Allyon's Enforcer, a big man with oiled black skin, a bald head, and weapons up the wazoo, stepped slightly to the side, as if he was getting ready to rumble if his master needed muscle. Bruiser shadowed his moves. I didn't bother. I knew how powerful Sabina was, and if she said she was in charge, then she was totally in charge, and she had the metaphysical weapons to back up her claim.

"And how would you enforce such a demand?" de Allyon asked. It sounded like real curiosity, not a taunt, but his facial expression didn't shift from arrogant, and I got the feeling that de Allyon thought he could take the priestess. Dumb-ass.

"I am the bearer of the BloodCross." Sabina pulled her hands from the sleeves of her habitlike robe, revealing that she wore thick gloves. In one gloved hand was a black cloth, which she allowed to drop to the floor. "Behold the sliver of the all-powerful BloodCross." The sliver of wood she had hidden beneath the cloth began to glow. De Allyon threw up a warding hand and took two steps back before he caught himself. His people cringed even farther, leaving a space around the old vamp. "I have wielded this weapon for millennia," Sabina said, "and should you refuse my will, while I act as the emissary of the Outclan Council of Mithrans, I will thrust it into your flesh until you burn brightly." The room suddenly smelled of fear pheromones, the odd, musky, old herb scent of most vamps growing stronger, bitter.

The old conquistador kept his head averted from the sliver of wood and lifted one finger at his secondo. The man quickly pointed at the vamps he was kicking out of the proceedings. I might be wrong, but I thought they looked relieved to be sent away. They didn't scurry like rats from a sinking ship, but they didn't dawdle either. By the change in scent, I could tell that most of the sick vamps had left the building. I was guessing that the secondo wanted to keep the healthy ones around for a fight that now had even odds.

When the numbers of vamps were equal, Sabina snapped her fingers and de Allyon's secondo bent to the floor, rising with the black cloth. I was pretty sure he hadn't planned to bend and pick it up. The look of shock on his face was pure comic relief, and when he backed away, he ended up in the back of the crowd, his eyes on Sabina. Sabina tucked the glowing length of wood back into its covering and slid her arms into her sleeves.

"There is no reason for the Outclan Council to interfere in this parlay," de Allyon said. Which took a lot of nerve, I thought.

"You drew the eyes of the legal apparatus of this nation with the debacle in Natchez. You will be judged and governed no matter the outcome of this parley. Take your seats." Sabina walked between the enemies and across the room. Sat in her chair. Point to the priestess.

I held my breath, waiting, watching the thoughts flit across de Allyon's face. Moments passed, and I let my hand drop to my hip and the weapon there. But the old conquistador knew when to fight and when to talk. He moved after Sabina and took the seat to her right. Leo took the seat to her left. Their vamps filled in the places in the expanding rows behind them.

"We are now gathered," Sabina said. Cold energy sparked through the air as her power shot out, and I heard gasps from de Allyon's people. Yeah. Go, Sabina. "De Allyon has issued accusation of murder against the Enforcer of Pellissier. Therefore de Allyon has first salvo."

And that was my cue, which had come way too early. Bruiser's men had better be rescuing Katie. "Point of order," I said from the back of the room.

Leo turned shocked eyes to me. Surprise must be a difficult thing for an old vamp to experience. After a few centuries of life, there is nothing new. Right? Wrong.

"While acting as Pellissier's Enforcer, I was attacked, without cause, without proper challenge. I was forced to act in my own self-defense. That unwise action on de Allyon's part precipitated a blood-feud and this accusation of murder. Therefore, as per the history of the Sedorov versus Nikitn blood-feud of the fourteenth century, and the Sergius versus Giovanni murder trial of the tenth century, I challenge the new Enforcer of the Master of the City of Atlanta to personal mortal combat, as a way to determine my innocence or guilt."

The place went dead silent, not a vamp breathing, everyone thinking, putting together what I had just done. Sabina blinked once, an unusual motion on the face of the ancient priestess. Then she turned her head to me and smiled. It was not a happy moment for me. I was hoping she had figured out what I was trying to do and approved, but she was just as likely to be happy that I was about to be killed.

"Does anyone wish to speak to this point of order?" Sabina asked.

Bruiser, his voice careful and measured, said, "I wish to speak to the point of order. The challenge of mortal combat as a means to determine innocence or guilt is an outdated legal concept."

Sabina said, "Outdated, but well within her rights." The place went silent again, and I could feel the weight of Bruiser's eyes on me. He was ticked, and I had no idea if he would understand what I was doing or why.

Whether I lived or died, Leo would win, because my challenge, if accepted, would force de Allyon back under the directives of the Vampira Carta. Of course, if de Allyon didn't accept, we were back where we started, with me going to trial, but I was betting on hubris and ego to make him accept, and also betting that he didn't know what was in the VC codicil about personal mortal combat.

The Enforcer, Jude Talley, raised his eyes to me and grinned, exposing huge, white fangs.

Crap. De Allyon's new Enforcer was a vamp, an old, powerful vamp. I had fought a master vamp once, and I would have lost had Leo not been snared in the insanity of grief, and run off. This guy was at least as old as Leo, and better trained. A warrior.

Beast pressed down on my mind. Beast is not afraid, she thought at me. We will hunt him and eat his heart. His mass will make him slower than other vampires. I/we are fast, have silver-edged claws and Beast strength.

Which made me feel better, but still . . . A vamp with three-inch fangs was no easy prey. Jude was more than six feet six, and his muscles had muscles. The ones on his chest started dancing beneath his thin-knit shirt. If he had been wearing pasties, they would be twirling. Beast hacked with amusement at the image, and suddenly I grinned. Eat his heart, eh? I thought.

My good humor seemed to surprise the big guy. He blinked and vamped out fast, his pupils going wide, sclera suffusing with blood. Jude didn't have much control for an old vamp. If he didn't overpower me and kill me in the first rush, I could use that against him. Maybe. If I was very, very lucky.

"This woman murdered our previous Enforcer," de Allyon said. His expression didn't change. It hadn't changed the entire time he'd been in the room. But his scent changed, and I could tell he was not a happy fanghead.

"Point of information," Bruiser said, his eyes on me. There was speculation in his gaze, and something else. Something like trust. I gave him a slight nod. He said to the gathered, "Personal defense is not murder. There were no witnesses, no challenge, and no resolution. All human police reports were sent to the Outclan Council and we await their ruling." Which was news to me.

"Human police are of no interest to us," de Allyon said.

"Maybe not in the past," a voice said from behind me.

I whipped my head to the back of the room. Rick. The arm of the law. Beside him were the white wolf and the neon green grindy. To his side was Soul, looking like an escapee from a realm of succubae, dressed in layers of misty, shiny gauze that moved in the room's air currents. I looked over at the chairs, and knew who the fourth chair in the proceedings had been set for. The Psychometry Law Enforcement Department of Homeland Security.

Why was PsyLED involving itself with a blood-feud? My heart started beating fast, too fast, and I took a breath to calm its racing. But the vamps were too focused on Rick to even notice me. Sabina's face stretched into an unfamiliar, satisfied smile. I thought back to her words, "You drew the eyes of the legal apparatus of this nation with the debacle in Natchez." Sabina had hatched plans of her own to end this war? Sabina had called PsyLED to the parley? If not her, who else? I looked around the room. No one else. Dang. Go, priestess.

Rick took his place in the vacant seat across from the priestess and said, "PsyLED is interested in these proceedings, and wishes to know how the Vampira Carta handles rogue, Naturaleza vampires." De Allyon's vamps bristled at the term "rogue" being applied to them. It was an insult. Rick knew better, which meant he had used the word deliberately. "We are also looking into numerous deaths and disappearances in the Atlanta area among the homeless, as well as the use of possible weapons of mass destruction in Sedona, Seattle, and Boston."

Weapons of mass destruction? I thought. Oh yeah. Plague was considered a WMD. Now, that I did not consider.

De Allyon's mouth curled down. "We are not humans, we are not cattle, to be brought beneath the hand of the human law and the human world."

Sabina said to the gathering, "The Outclan Council has approved the presence of this nonhuman and his nonhuman creatures, and observation by the human law enforcement agency, at this parley.

"The human police have determined that the evidence," she continued, "in the attack in the city of Asheville, is consistent with personal self-defense, not formal mortal combat, nor murder. The Outclan Council will rule shortly on the conclusion reached by the human law enforcement. For now, we must rule on this point of order."

To de Allyon she said, "How say you? Do you accept the challenge of Pellissier's Enforcer? If so, such combat will take place immediately, before the discussion on the agenda resumes."

De Allyon's lips drew down in the faintest of frowns. "We accept."

My breath eased out between my lips. Oddly, though I now had to fight an old, powerful vamp, I relaxed. By his fighting me, the entire blood-feud could be averted and de Allyon would be back under the Vampira Carta and the rule of the Outclan Council. Whether I lived or died, others would survive the bloodbaths recounted in the histories.

Sabina said, "Combat is approved by the council. As Pellissier made the challenge, de Allyon has choice of weapons. Pellissier will have choice of location. De Allyon will decide the number of rounds, not to exceed ten, and no fewer than three. Combat will begin at my count. De Allyon? Weapons."

"Bare hands," the Enforcer said. "No defensive gear, no weapons except skill and muscle and what the combatants find in the field of battle."

Ice flushed though me. That was not what I wanted to hear. Not when I was wearing such cool weapons and when Jude was such a hulk. Not when the field of battle was a bare floor and brick walls. If I shifted, would it be considered cheating? If I shifted, my secret would be out in a very real and dangerous and final way. Beast put a clawed paw on my brain and pressed down, the claws bringing both pain and relief. Unlike my opponent, I wasn't alone.

Beast sent me an image, and I wondered what would happen if I just pulled a gun and shot the Big Guy. Though there was no guarantee that a bullet would actually pierce the wads of muscle. It might take an RPG. My grin widened, and the bag of muscle's confidence slipped for a whole second. And then the perfect location for this little fight popped into my mind and I hoped Big Guy remembered that lapse when I killed him.

"Pellissier. Location?"

I was still smiling when I said, "Couturie Forest in the New Orleans City Park." De Allyon's Enforcer blinked at that one. So did Leo. Heads turned to me. Yeah, I'd kept something from them, a lot of somethings actually - like being a skinwalker - and if I was going to be outed as a supernat tonight, or killed saving Katie, then I was going to do it on my terms. Beast growled low in my mind, a warning, a challenge. Her strength flooded through me.

Sabina was the only one in the room to show no surprise, and she set her dark eyes on me in consideration. Her head tilted slightly, acknowledging much more than just my choice of location. Acknowledging what I was. "Number of rounds?" she asked de Allyon, while keeping her eyes on me.

"The full ten rounds. But if our people are in the park, how are we to know when a round is complete?" the old vamp asked.

Sabina considered me, the faintest of smiles on her pale, pale face. "Each round shall be one half hour long. If the combat is concluded with the death of one of the participants before the end of the specified number of bouts, or if a participant should surrender and concede the challenge prior to the termination, the bout will end."

Concession sounded like a pretty great thing on the surface, but I'd learned that if I conceded, the referee - Sabina - would offer me the coup de grace and kill me. Conceding was a way to ask for mercy when one opponent was totally beaten and the other guy was just playing with him. Like the way Beast played with her food while it was still alive. It was a mercy stroke, not a way to stay among the living.

"Point of clarification and . . . maybe point of privilege," I said, trying to remember the Rules of Order for asking for something personal before the bout started. "Clarification - no weapons means we fight with the abilities and gifts nature gave us, right?" I didn't want to be beheaded after the fact for drawing on Beast or shifting.

"That is correct," Sabina said, her black eyes glinting. Except for Rick, Sabina knew more about what I was than any other supernat here. "And what is your point of privilege?" she asked.

"I would like to keep my personal jewelry with me." I almost laughed at Leo's expression, and I thought Bruiser was going to choke. It was such a girlie request. Even better, the bag-a-muscle Enforcer smirked, as if I'd just proven how easy I was going to be to dispatch. Might as well go with the helpless and dumb female act - it seemed to be working. "My gold necklace, and this." I held up the lion's tooth. "It's like, uh, my lucky rabbit's foot."

Sabina smiled again, her face softening. It was such a rare thing that for a moment I just stared. "Does de Allyon refuse or reject the personal point of privilege?"

"The woman may do as she wishes," the vamp said, his tone both irritated and insulting.

"We will retire to the Peristyle, in the City Park, where stairs lead down to the edge of Bayou Metairie. There, the bout will begin upon my order." Sabina turned to Leo. "Bring the carriages around." Leo bowed again and Bruiser spoke into his mouthpiece. De Allyon's people backed toward the door. Pellissier's vamps followed Leo, leaving me alone in the center of the Nunnery.

Rick walked up to me, standing close. I knew it was him, without looking, and I could feel his concern. "Can you take him?" he whispered. "Bare hands and teeth?"

"Bare claws and fangs," I said. I turned and met his black eyes with my own black ones, and felt him start, shock shooting through him.

And then he grinned. "I like the new look. So, what?" He glanced after de Allyon. "He knows?"

"He killed my people. Drank their blood. It's in a history book Leo has."

"Beautiful woman, undercover, with guns and knives and things that explode. I'm in love."

I laughed, the sound filling the quiet warehouse. The remaining vamps turned to look, hearing my laughter. "Great lotta good it's doing me."

"Being in love or the weapons?" Rick asked.

"Yeah. Both."

Rick lifted a hand and stroked my jaw. I closed my eyes and leaned into his caress. "Are you going with us to City Park?" I asked.

"I'll be there. We'll follow in our vehicle. Don't get yourself killed, Jane."

"I'll do my best." I opened my eyes and met his. "I may have to break some rules."

"Like I said. My kinda girl. Just don't kill any humans and eat their livers, not even with fava beans and a good Chianti."

"Not planning on either."

Moments later, we were on the way.

* * *

I was silent on the drive, looking away from the others in the limo, staring into the night. The new moon was in two days' time, and the final challenge between the masters, de Allyon and Leo, would take place then, assuming I died tonight or failed in some other way.

I had planned as well as I could for this fight, but I had planned to fight a human, not a vamp with three-inch fangs. I needed something to create an edge for myself so I could survive the night. I needed something deadly. Some game-changer. Something to defeat a vamp warrior. But my mind was blank.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies