As if she’d heard me, Pemphredo suddenly turned her gaze on the nearest mage, a delicate Asian woman, who didn’t even have time to scream before the heavy lacquered chandelier came crashing down on her head. Pieces of splintered wood went flying everywhere, and the woman disappeared under a pile of red silk lanterns. It seemed the gals had been practicing.
The mage managed to crawl out from under the fixture a few seconds later, looking battered and bloody, but still breathing. She was in no condition to rejoin the fight, though, and her companions were having trouble holding Enyo on their own. She was tearing through the net almost faster than they could reform it, and it was starting to look like a question of who would tire first. I couldn’t tell whether she was getting weary, but even with their backs to me, the mages looked strained, with their raised arms visibly shaking.
“We have a problem,” Casanova said.
“Duh.” I watched as Pemphredo glanced at one of the other mages, who promptly shot himself in the foot. Deino was sipping beer and trying to flirt with the new bartender, who had crouched behind the bar with his arms over his head. Casanova was probably going to get requests for combat pay after today. I decided that I could live without learning what her special talent was.
“No. I mean we
have a problem.” I glanced up at Casanova’s tone to see a pissed-off mage standing in the doorway, a sawed-off shotgun leveled on us.
I sighed. “Hello, Pritkin.”
“Call off your harpies or this will be a very short conversation. ”
I sighed again. Pritkin has that effect on me. “They aren’t harpies. They’re the Graeae, ancient Greek demigoddesses. Or something.”
Pritkin sneered. It was what he did best, other than for killing things. “Trust you to side with the monsters. Call them off.” An edge of anger threaded through his words, threatening to grow into something more substantial soon.
“I can’t.” It was the truth, but I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t believe me. I couldn’t recall Pritkin ever believing anything I said; it kind of made me wonder why he bothered talking to me at all. Of course, conversation probably wasn’t foremost on his list. It’d be somewhere after dragging me back to the Silver Circle, throwing me in a really deep dungeon and losing the key.
I discovered that a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun sounds very loud when cocked in a small room.
“Do as he says, Cassie,” Casanova chimed in. “I like this body as it is. If it acquires a large hole, I will be very annoyed.”
“Yeah, and that’s really what’s worrying us.” The comment came from the ghost who had just drifted through the wall. Casanova swatted in his direction as you might a pesky fly, but missed him. “I thought incubi were supposed to be charming,” Billy said, wafting out of the way.
Casanova couldn’t see Billy, but his demon senses could obviously hear him. His handsome forehead acquired an annoyed wrinkle, but he didn’t deign to respond. I was glad about that, since it meant that Pritkin couldn’t be sure that Billy was there.
Billy Joe is what remains of an Irish-American gambler with a love for loose women, dirty limericks and cheating at cards. Because of that last item, he cashed in his chips for the final time at the ripe old age of twenty-nine. A couple of cowboys hadn’t liked his faint Irish accent, his ruffled shirt or the fact that the saloon girls were paying him a lot of attention. But the real kicker had come when he won too many hands at cards and they caught him with an ace up his sleeve. Billy was soon thereafter introduced to the inside of a croaker sack, which in turn made the acquaintance of the bottom of the Mississippi.
That should have ended a colorful, if abbreviated, life.
But a few weeks earlier Billy had won a variety of favors off a visiting countess—at least he claimed she’d had a title— one of which was an ugly ruby necklace that doubled as a talisman. It soaked up magical energy from the natural world and transmitted it to its owner, or in this case, to its owner’s ghost. Billy’s spirit had come to reside in the necklace, which gathered dust in an antique shop until I happened along looking for a present for my notoriously picky governess. I’ve been able to see ghosts all my life, but even I was surprised by my gift with purchase.
We’d soon discovered that not only was I the first person in years who could see him, I was also the only one of the necklace’s owners who could donate energy in excess of the subsistence it provided. With regular donations from me, Billy was able to become much more active. In exchange, I got his help with my various problems. At least in theory.
He caught my look and shrugged. “This place has too many entrances. I couldn’t watch them all.” He glanced behind the mage. “He’s got his helper with him.”
He was looking at what appeared to be a man-sized clay statue. I had mistaken it for one the first time I’d seen it, but it was actually a golem. Rabbis versed in kabbalah magic were supposed to have invented them, but these days they were popular among the war mages as assistants—maybe because it’s hard to hurt something with no internal organs.
I reviewed possible strategies, but none of my usual defenses seemed like a good idea. The lopsided pentagram tattooed on my back is actually a ward that can stop most magical attacks. It was crafted by the Silver Circle itself and I had seen it do some fairly amazing things, but I didn’t know if it would stop a nonmagical assault of that caliber. This didn’t seem like the best time to test it.
I also had a bracelet made of little interlocking daggers that seemed to dislike Pritkin even more than I did. It had once belonged to a dark mage who had used it mostly to destroy things. He’d been evil, and I suspected his jewelry was, too, but I couldn’t seem to get rid of it. I’d tried burying it, flushing it down a toilet and feeding it to a garbage disposal, but no go. No matter what I did, the next time I looked it was on my wrist again, whole and shiny and new, glinting at me impudently. Sometimes it came in handy, and mostly it obeyed my commands, but it never passed up a chance to relive old times. All on its own it had sent two ghostly knives to stab Pritkin the last time we met. The hand with the bracelet was firmly in my pocket at the moment; no need to escalate this further. Fortunately, I had another option.
“Hey, Billy. Think you can possess a golem?” Pritkin’s eyes didn’t waver, but his shoulders twitched slightly.
“Never tried.” Billy floated over and eyed the golem without enthusiasm. He doesn’t like possessions. They sap his energy level and often don’t work anyway. Instead, his favorite trick is to drift through someone, picking up any stray thoughts and leaving a hint or two of his own behind. But that wouldn’t help us now. “Guess there’s only one way to find out,” he muttered.
As soon as Billy stepped into the thing, I found out why experiments are done under controlled conditions. The golem began careening about the outer office, knocking over tubs of plants and sending the girls screaming into the next room. Then it altered course and crashed into Pritkin, sending him sprawling.
I couldn’t tell whether that had been deliberate, but I sort of doubted it when the creature started ricocheting around our tiny cubicle like a pinball on speed. It knocked me a glancing blow on its way to destroy the table and sent me stumbling into the mage. I started to yell at Billy to get out of the thing, but my breath was knocked out by Pritkin’s knee, which came into contact with my stomach when I fell on him. To be fair, my high heel might have gotten him in a sensitive spot, but it had been an accident. I didn’t think his knee was.
As I was struggling to get enough breath back to tell him off, a very familiar and extremely unwelcome feeling came over me. Time shifting is supposed to be under the Pythia’s control, not vice versa, but someone needed to tell my power that. I had only enough time to think,
Oh no, not now
, before I was flailing about in that cold, gray area between time.
After my short free fall, the ground rushed up and hit me in the face. When my vision cleared, I identified the surface as carpet with a red and black oriental pattern thinly stretched over very hard wood. For a stunned minute I thought I’d ended up back in the bar, but then I noticed the two sets of feet in front of me. They didn’t look like they belonged to tourists.
The woman was wearing tiny black silk heels with a scattering of jet beads on the toe. They matched the beadwork on her elaborate black evening gown, the hem of which was about a foot in front of my face. The beading ran up the front of the dress to an impossibly small waist, then disappeared, I assume so it wouldn’t detract from the fortune in diamonds she wore draped around her slim throat and clipped into her golden curls. I glanced at her lovely blue eyes, narrowed in distaste as she regarded me, and quickly looked away. It isn’t a good idea to stare a vampire in the eyes for long, and that is unquestionably what she was.
I scrambled to my feet and got another shock. I almost fell again—only Tony would be sadistic enough to make waitresses wear three-inch heels—and a hand reached out to steady me. A very familiar hand.
Like the woman, her escort was obviously dressed for evening, in a black swallowtail coat over a low-cut vest, white shirt and white bowtie. His highly polished shoes shone more than his understated jewelry—plain gold cufflinks that matched the clip holding his hair in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. The discreet accessories didn’t surprise me—Mircea has never liked showy clothes. What threw me was the abrupt, overwhelming sense of joy that spread over me as soon as our eyes met.
I was suddenly struck by the sheer masculine beauty of him. He was so gracefully made that I caught my breath, all long limbs and elegant lines, like a dancer or a long-distance runner—or what he was, the product of noble blood going back for generations. Only one feature didn’t fit that picture: his mouth was not the thin-lipped aristocratic version, but had the full, beautifully sculpted lips of a sensualist.
Maybe there had been more peasant stock in the gene pool than the family would admit, people who might not have had the airs and graces of their lords, but who knew how to laugh and dance and drink with a passion the aristocrats had forgotten. Dracula was supposed to have been the one born of a fiery gypsy girl, but I’d sometimes wondered whether the old rumors had gotten things mixed up, and instead it was Mircea who had Romany blood. If so, it suited him.
His hand was under my elbow in a light, impersonal touch, but for some reason it made my whole arm tingle. I tried to sense the
Casanova had talked about, but nothing registered. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn there was no spell to find.
I realized vaguely that my hands had begun smoothing the thick silk of Mircea’s waistcoat. It was crimson with red dragons embroidered on it and seemed a little flashy for him, although the tone on tone made the designs almost invisible unless the light hit them just right. The embroidery was smooth against my fingertips, a beautiful, intricate design. I could even see the tiny scales on the dragons. Then my wandering hands discovered something more interesting, the faint prick of nipples, barely discernable under several layers of fabric.
My fingertips traced them delicately, my whole body vibrating with pleasure from that small sensation. Being near Mircea caused none of the mind-numbing effects of Casanova’s attempt at seduction. I could have pulled away; I just couldn’t think of anything I wanted less.
Mircea also wasn’t going anywhere. He just stood there, looking bemused, but the hand on my arm began pulling me gently towards him.
I went willingly, lost in admiration for the way the gas light gleamed in his hair, and a thrumming energy suddenly ran up my arm. It hit my shoulder, then dove back down to jump from my fingertips like electricity. Mircea jerked slightly as the sensation hit him, but he did not let go. The feeling echoed back and forth, holding the two of us in a loop of sensation that made the hairs on my arm stand up and my body tighten.
The dark eyes examined me as slowly and thoroughly as I had inspected him. The sensation of that gaze made me shiver, and Mircea’s eyebrow climbed a fraction at my reaction. His hand moved to the small of my back but encountered only the tough frame of the corset. His touch slid down to the curve of my hip, his fingers splaying over the thin satin of my shorts as he pressed us close.
I took a deep breath and tried to cope with the waves of emotion that were rolling over me, but it did no good. Mircea didn’t help by reaching up to delicately brush my cheek with the backs of his fingers. A spark of gold leapt in his pupils, a color that I knew from experience indicated heightened emotion. When he was truly angry or aroused, cinnamon amber light spiraled up to fill his eyes, giving them an otherworldly glow that others found frightening but I had always thought beautiful.
Someone cleared his throat in a harsh bark. Pritkin’s voice sounded over my shoulder. “My deepest apologies, sir, madam. I am afraid one of our actresses is not well. I trust she has given no offense?”
“Not at all.” Mircea sounded distracted, and he made no move to release me.
“I will take her backstage, where she can rest.” Pritkin put a hand on my arm, to haul me away, but Mircea’s hand tightened on my hip. His eyes had begun to glow, the green and light brown flecks no longer visible against the rising tide of reddish gold.
“The child does not look well, Count Basarab,” the female vamp said, taking his free arm, mirroring Pritkin’s stance with me. “Let us not detain her.”
Mircea ignored her. “Who are you?” he asked. His accent was thicker than I had ever heard it, and his tone was filled with the same wonder I felt.
I swallowed and shook my head. There was no safe reply. I didn’t know where or even when I was, but since the female vamp had a slight bustle on her gown, I didn’t think it was anywhere I’d find familiar. There was a good chance I wasn’t even born yet. “Nobody,” I whispered.