“Where’s your brother?” Zepar asked as he handed me a steaming cup of tea.
I sniffed at the brew; something cinnamon. “Back at the dorm. I didn’t want him to endanger himself by wandering around. It’s not safe.”
“They say the Composer was caught yesterday.”
“Well, I know Lizzy. I believe they caught her, but not that she’s the Composer.”
It was October fifth, the Friday of the same week two of my warlords turned out to be working for the Composer. Although on the surface the culture had accepted that explanation, underneath, rumors were flying left and right. The fact that the Paladins had seemingly managed to capture the Composer had done a lot to ease the tension. Or at least direct it somewhere other than the culture itself.
The remaining warlord frowned. “Hm. Well, I will admit the possibility that Butler is stretching the truth to improve morale and prevent a panic—”
“Zepar,” I interrupted. “You didn’t call me here to talk about ‘sarian propaganda. Two days ago, I helped you kill two of your best friends. How are the Mals going to move forward from here?”
My warlord sighed and set his steaming cup down on the floor in front of him. We were sitting on the floor of the secondary penthouse (the first was still in ruins) on small mats. I was cross-legged, but Zepar sat with his legs folded under him, Japanese-style. For the first time, I wondered what ethnicity he had been before he became a vampire.
“There is such a thing as taking one’s time, Honored Nightstalker. You don’t have to attack every topic like it killed your puppy.”
“Normally, I might agree. But this is far too important to put off for even a minute longer. The culture was suffering enough after Baal’s assassination. With the loss of Abigor and Bileth, I’m not sure we’ll even survive the winter.”
“That is an excellent assessment. I’ve been able to keep the news contained to the Mals for now, but…” His powerful tail twitched. “It is only a matter of time before we are found out. And then, they will come. Like vultures.”
I nodded. “The angels.”
“Not just them. The Nessians have always been our largest competitor, though they have faded in recent years, and are content to trade slaves to the fey when killing doesn’t pay the bills. Not to mention that some of the Nosferatu bloodlines are still angry about the way our culture was founded…”
“What about the Levisans?”
The dusky-faced vampire grimaced. “You mean ask them for help? No, no, that is not an option. Even if I was willing to put aside the fact that they are largely responsible for the continuation of the Twilight War—and by extension, the assassination of Baal—Levistus is missing. Those racist pricks wouldn’t be able to help even if I asked.”
“Then maybe the warbloods are a better option. We’ve always been close to them, right?”
“Well…” he looked away. “That was always more Abigor’s area of expertise. Dispater never really liked me.” He waved his hand. “After he locked himself in the Iron Tower, I played a harmless prank on him, and he took it far too seriously.”
I sighed. “Okay, fine. There’s still the Avernans, the Canians, the daevas, the Draculas, the Glasyans—”
He ticked them off on his fingers. “Bel is in the middle of a war with the Belians—the stupid chem-heads blame him for the murder of some legate or whatever. The Canians are insane in the best of cases, and word is Mephistopheles has been depressed lately. The daevas are whores—”
“That’s not an automatic strike against them,” I noted.
“Whores without a warlord,” he amended. “The Dragon won’t help us. Glasya is far too busy playing with the ‘sarians toy boxes to do anything.” He shrugged. “That’s about it. Unless you suggest the Belians? The ghouls? Or maybe the Mammonites?” He shook his head. “We’re alone, Lancaster.”
I wasn’t ready to give up so quickly. “We can look outside the vampires. I have a few kemo friends, and a Dagonite owes me a favor.”
He just smiled slightly. “A Dagonite? Really?”
“Yes, really. Since you’ve apparently alienated every other culture in the city, it’s not like we have any other choice.”
He closed his eyes. “That’s not what I meant. I just—”
“I know what you meant. You don’t think they’d be useful.”
Zepar sighed. “I…yes. This is…slightly out of their area of expertise. Besides, they’re still dealing with the Rahabs.”
“Again: Are there any better choices?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said slowly. “I think we can both agree I’m not the perfect warlord.”
He paused, maybe expecting me to correct him. I didn’t.
“Ah…right. What I mean is, we need someone who can help make up for my faults. Someone who is concerned about the culture itself. I’m just too self-centered and individualistic to be much help.”
I sighed and picked up my tea. “I’ll look into it, but don’t hold your breath. We’re assassins. I’m not sure we have the right kind of people for this. The only choice might be more recruiting.”
He smiled, his fangs peeking out a little. “That’s exactly what I was thinking. But luckily, we’ve already been recruiting. And I think I have the perfect candidate in mind.”
Oblivious, I frowned. “Really? I can’t think of anyone.” True, I hadn’t met everyone, but I figured someone like that would stand out.
“Someone who has already proven her loyalty to the culture,” he said, still smiling. “Who was recruited in the first place due to a combination of her protective nature and drive to succeed.”
“Who are—oh.” You have got to be kidding me. “No. No no no.” I shook my head vehemently. “By all Nine Hells and the black gates that guard them, no.”
“Any particular reason?”
“Any—I’m not a warlord, Zepar!” I gestured at my body, only barely augmented by the toy maker. “I can’t fight, or run an entire culture! I can barely run the nursery you guys gave me!”
“I’m pretty sure fifty or so infants are actually harder to handle than a few hundred assassins.”
“No,” I said again. “I don’t…I can’t deal with this. I haven’t slept in two days—Abigor’s death haunts me, is giving me nightmares. To make me do that again…”
“And that’s another good reason. In many cultures, killing a warlord automatically grants you their position.”
I pounded my fist against the floor. “We’re not the ferrets! Or those Nessian dogs! Or…” I struggled to think of who else promoted people that way. “Or the lupes or the Rahabs or the freaking Morgen. If you make me a warlord, Maladomini will fall. I guarantee it.”
“Nyashk,” he said quietly. “That’s the name I was going to give you.”
That derailed me a bit, and I struggled to remember why it sounded familiar. “Nyashk is Baal’s consort.”
He smiled a little. “Well…in theory. We never did give anyone the name before he died. But still—I think it fits.”
I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t. It implies—” Then my brain started working again, and I smacked myself in the face at my own stupidity. “It implies I was sleeping with Baal, giving my position more legitimacy.” I sighed. I really hated politics.
“Obviously, we’ll need to give you at least one more run through the toy box, disguise your identity—”
“No. I am not doing this, Zepar.” Something lukewarm spilled on my hands, and I looked down and realized I was trembling, making my cup shake like a leaf.
He didn’t seem concerned. “Maybe if you gave me more detailed reasons—”
“I’m nineteen,” I spat. “How’s that for a reason? I just started college, I’ve got a brother to look after, not to mention one of my friends—” I took a deep breath and placed the cup on the floor. “I have a lot on my plate right now.”
“Don’t you dare.” I met his gaze with a glare strong enough to kill a man. “The answer is no, Noble Zepar. It is not up for discussion.”
He broke my gaze. “Sorry. I just…” He closed his eyes. My only other option is to take Maeve up on her offer.”
My brow furrowed in confusion. “I haven’t heard of that one. She sounds…I’m not sure what. Nordic, maybe? She a giant?”
His eyes remained firmly shut. “She is a fey.”
“What?” I shook my head. “No, the fey don’t have names. I mean, not normal ones. In this area we’d have…” I thought about it for a second. Maladomini was in the west, and it was still Autumn… “Virtuous Dusk for day and Murdered Asp at night.”
“I’m just repeating what she told me. She said that she was the Maiden of the Unseelie Court, Princess of Wind and Frost, Maeve. Her hair was a maiden’s cut, at least.”
I snorted in derision. “Yeah, because its so hard for a girl to cut her hair really short.” For a master of stealth, Zepar sure was gullible. “Did she give you any evidence other than her hair cut and nudity?”
“Actually, she wasn’t nude. She was wearing a black evening gown.”
Was he an idiot? “Zepar, the fey don’t wear clothes. Ever. Some girl is swindling you.”
He gave me a level look. “Don’t you want to hear her offer?”
I rolled my eyes. “Sure, why not.”
“In addition to a few good buffs which will attract new recruits, she said she’d give you back your baby.”
I frowned. “My kids are all in nice, stable orphanages. I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
“She said ‘Nikoli’s.’ That mean anything?”
My heart stopped in my chest.
Nikoli was an ave I had dated a while back. When he turned out to be far too possessive for my liking, I made a deal. I gave one of my eggs to Dayborn Light in exchange for getting him off my back for good. Not just any egg, though. A fertilized one. Zygote, I believe that stage is called.
The Queen-Mother had promised they’d keep it on ice, that they only needed it for research purposes.
I really should have known that was a lie.
“Seena? Are you all right?”
I couldn’t…I couldn’t sacrifice my culture for a changeling child I had never met. But the only other option…
I didn’t know who this Maeve was. But dealing with the fey would always come back to bite you—this situation made that quite clear.
I couldn’t let Zepar bring the culture to ruin by making the deal. What she’d get in return—
“Wait,” I said as something occurred to me. “What did she ask for? In exchange for the buffs and…” I swallowed. “…the baby.”
“That’s the thing: Nothing.”
“I know, right?”
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “You know, if something seems to be too good to be true…”
He thumped his tail on the floor angrily. “Yes, thank you, I do know that. This is obviously a freebie, to get her hooks in us. But if we’re careful, we can still spin this into an advantage for the culture.”
“No, we can’t. Dealing with the fey is impossible—”
“The Glasyans do it. The sibriex do it.”
“Yeah, and see where it got them! The sibriex got their Helix stolen, and Glasya’s assistant—”
I stopped dead, literally biting my tongue to keep from saying anything more. Neither of those things were anywhere close to common knowledge. The only reason I knew about the thing with the Helix was because Simon let something slip.
And as for Jelena…
No. That was something I could not let Zepar know. Killing an unwitting spy of the fey was both well within the culture’s mission and exactly the kind of thing he was best at.
Thankfully, despite being a world-class assassin rumored to have killed an entire Host of angels by himself in retaliation for the death of Baal, he was still an idiot.
Zepar quirked his eyebrow. “The sibriex got their Helix stolen? I would have thought I would have heard about that.”
Good. He was focusing on that instead of the thing with Glasya. That was perfect.
Still, I had to sell the deception, so I waved my hands frantically. “N-no! Of course not! Don’t worry about it! It’s nothing!”
“Oh yeah, and your brother is a sibriex…”
“No he’s not! I mean, he is, but he’s new, and they don’t let him—”
He sighed. “I don’t care.”
That took the wind out of my sails. “Eh?”
He rubbed his head. “Meh, that’s all a pain, and I don’t want to deal with it. Here’s the bottom line.” He pointed his finger at me. “Dealing with the fey is bad, but they’ve got your kid. Becoming a warlord means giving up your old life, but it will save the culture.” He lowered his hand and sighed. “You’ve gotta decide which is more important.”
“Turning me into a warlord won’t save anyone! It will just cause more problems, and sooner or later—”
“Maybe,” he said quietly, not meeting my eyes. “But it will cause less problems than dealing with the fey.”
Had a point.
I swallowed. I couldn’t deal with this right now.
“I…need some time to think about this.” I stood up and headed for the door.
His voice was so soft, I could barely hear it. “Take as long as you need, Noble Nyashk.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 135)
Okay, there are some confusing terms here that need to be clarified: Bel is the leader of the Avernans, a subculture of vampires based in Avernus. Belial was the leader of the Belians, another vampire subculture, based in Phlegethos. They’ve been at war for a very long time, partly for good reasons (Bel hates drugs), and partly for petty ones (Bel is still pissed Belial managed to lay claim to the Belian name before he did).