At the Royal Opera, Salt Lake City, Utah:
Prince Aurora arrived at the opera house with her entourage: Cock Robin, Vincent, Rebekah, Samuel, and Amber. David and Angelique greeted them on the grand staircase.
There’s no need to be concerned about the inquest, David, the Prince murmured to his mind as he bent over her hand. It’s just a formality.
It’s just Amelia being a megalomaniac, David thought. The Prince gave him a sharp look, but said nothing.
Wolf stepped forward to kiss the ring. “My Prince, we don’t have to worry about the media attention surrounding Dr. Shepherd’s indiscretion anymore. Nicholas and I have taken care of everything.”
The Prince blinked. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“We orchestrated a diversion in Wendover, Nevada," Cock Robin explained. “To divert the media from from our good doctors.”
Wolf tried not to look too pleased with himself. "The humans are already reporting that a seventeen year old boy shot his father, mother, and twelve year old sister before turning the gun on himself.”
Vincent grimaced in disgust.
“You murdered an entire family?” the Prince asked in disbelief. The other women looked horrified.
“I assure you, dear ladies, this family was not culled at random,” Wolf said. “They were painstakingly chosen due to their detrimental impact on both kindred affairs and mortal society. The father was a greedy, corrupt United States congressman. He was blocking environmental legislation you need passed, Prince, to honor your agreement with the lupines. The mother was an alcoholic adulteress and disease carrier. The son had a history of mental illness. In fact, an MRI scan indicated that he had low activity in his orbital cortex. That’s the part of the brain that regulates ethical behavior, moral decision-making, and impulse control.”
“A psychopath,” David mused.
Wolf nodded. “It would seem so. Lots of pets missing from their affluent neighborhood. Just think of all the harm he could have done to the mortal herd.”
“I suppose you’re about to tell me the twelve year old shot laser beams out of her eyes and breathed fire,” the Prince said coldly.
Wolf frowned at her tone. “The little girl suffered from cerebral palsy. She was bound to a wheelchair."
“She couldn’t walk,” Cock Robin said softly. “It was a mercy kill, Aurora.”
The Prince stared at them in silence. Everyone else stepped backwards.
“Prince, please,” said Wolf. “What could a crippled child possibly contribute to society?”
“Love,” Angelique interjected softly.
“Why didn’t you clear this scheme with me first, Wolf?” Aurora asked.
“You’ve been… preoccupied, my dear. I cleared it with Nicholas.”
The Prince spoke through gritted teeth. “Last I checked, I am Prince, not Nicholas. You would do well to remember that from now on.”
Wolf bowed low. “Clearly, I have displeased you. Forgive me, my Prince. I only meant to serve.”
“And you.” The Prince rounded on Cock Robin. “Have you lost your mind along with your humanity? I’ve explicitly forbidden the murder of children. It’s punishable by diablerie. You know that.”
“Forbidden in your domain, you mean,” said the Nosferatu. “These killings occurred outside your jurisdiction. It’s the Giovanni’s mess now.”
She blanched as if she’d been slapped. “Get away from me. I don’t want you anywhere near me.”
“Aurora, we must be reasonable. Think about the Masquerade-”
“Reasonable? REASONABLE? Prince Daniel is asking for reinforcements. We don’t have the resources to fight the Sabbat and the Necromancers at the same time. If this circus gets traced back to us, I’m holding the two of you responsible.”
Cock Robin caught her gaze in his. You think I enjoyed giving that order, sweet Childe? I did it to protect you. I’d kill a thousand mortal children to protect you.
Make no mistake, Nosferatu, Aurora sent, presence blazing, If you were anybody else, I would have you executed.
His eyes widened.
“GET OUT OF MY SIGHT.” Everybody on the staircase cringed at the icy blast of her anger.
He bowed curtly and left.
At Oak Forest Estate, Salt Lake City, Utah:
Karl knocked on Emily’s door. Arabella slipped out.
“Is she ready to go? It’s growing late.”
Exasperated, Arabella took his arm. Come with me, she sent.
She pulled him down the hall. Emily is stronger today. The gray shroud around her aura is all but gone. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I think she’s finally broken free of him. She must have a very strong will.
“What do you mean?” he mouthed silently.
Don’t you know? William’s been using blood magic to weaken her.
“I thought she was just healing from broken bones and blood loss.”
No. He’s still trying to break her. He’s invaded her mind with his voice for three nights.
“What has he been telling her?”
She looked at him pointedly. What do you think?
Goddamn him. “Does she know where he is?”
No, and you shouldn’t trouble her by asking questions. God knows, she’s in a pleasant mood for once. She patted his arm kindly. She’s excited to see you.
She nodded and swept down the hall in a whisper of champagne satin.
He opened the door.
Emily stood, unassisted. She was perfectly made up, her long brown hair half up and half down. She wore a long, sleeveless gown of flowing black silk overlaid with sheer black organza embroidered in silver roses. He realized belatedly that she had no jewelry save for the simple diamond earrings she always wore. A pair of black opera gloves and silver shoes completed the ensemble.
“You look amazing.”
She smiled playfully. “Stop. Stay there."
“Put your hand out.” She lifted her own hand, coaxing forth a wisp of darkness in her palm. A shadow moth flew from her fingertips, fluttered across the room, and batted at his skin with its soft wings.
“I’ve been practicing in secret.”
“Obviously.” He twisted his entire shadow into a tree for the moth to land on. “I’m pleased, but you mustn’t demonstrate this power to anyone but me. It’s rare amongst the Camarilla and greatly feared.”
“Good,” she said, with ferocity. "I’m over being helpless.”
“Trust me, you’re far from helpless.” He cupped her face and kissed her deeply.
A vermilion sigil blazed upon the upper curve of her left breast. A star.
The heat crept up on him. For a few seconds, he mistook the warmth for desire. By the time he stepped backwards, it was too late. His blood was boiling.
At the Royal Opera, Salt Lake City, Utah:
Thomas and Blake arrived at the opera house. It didn’t compare to the grand palaces of Vienna, but Thomas couldn’t care less about the architecture.
Amelia sat alone in her private box, watching the opera with her back to him. He still recognized her. Her long hair (once auburn, now dyed a violent shade of crimson) was pulled up in a ponytail, revealing small ears and a spattering of freckles across the nape of her neck.
She turned around. They studied each other for a long moment.
Amelia extruded a confidence far beyond her apparent age of twenty two. Thomas was a little startled by the fitted black suit she wore; he just couldn’t get used to seeing pants on women. She’d replaced her little wire spectacles with designer plastic frames, but she wore the same golden amulet inscribed with runes around her throat.
“Welcome home.” She offered him her hand.
He bent over it.
“Did you have a pleasant journey?” she asked.
“Oh, the train from Portland was delightful. I would have vastly preferred a luxurious ocean voyage to a NightWing overnight crate for the first leg of my journey, but you said it was an urgent matter.”
“So it is. But for the record, I bought you a first class plane ticket and specifically told the reservationist to seat you next to a very pretty single woman.”
Thomas snorted. “You should have saved your money. You knew I’d choose safety over style.”
“I did, but I thought it was a nice gesture. Did you wrap up all your loose ends in Vienna?”
“As much as I could with one evening’s notice.”
“Are you unhappy that I’ve summoned you home?”
“On the contrary. I just wish you’d tell me why.”
She grinned. “I have a job offer for you.”
At Oak Forest Estate, Salt Lake City, Utah:
Karl went down on one knee, clutching his chest.
“What’s wrong?” Emily reached for him in alarm.
“Wait.” He put his hand out to stop her. Every vein and artery in his body burned with liquid fire. He closed his eyes in concentration, willing his cells to heal themselves.
She dropped to her knees next to him. Was he having a heart attack? He couldn’t be. His heart didn’t beat. All of her medical knowledge was useless. Then the truth dawned on her. “It’s me, isn’t it?” she whispered.
The red star over her heart began to fade.
Karl’s agony receded. His chest hurt like hell, but the pain was bearable. He was ravenously hungry. Almost of all of his vitae had been boiled away or consumed to absorb the damage. He needed to replenish it. Fast.
“I’m all right,” he said. “Let’s go.” He offered Emily his hand.
“Don’t touch me,” she cringed. “We can’t touch.”
“Yes, we can.” He clasped her bare upper arms. “See?” Fuck you, Holladay. You can’t have her.
“No! I’m cursed.” She tried to twist out of his his grasp, but he was stronger by far. "I don’t want to hurt you.”
“We can touch." She struggled harder. "Listen to me!” He captured her gaze. “It’s okay. We can touch. I held you in bed all day long.” He smiled bitterly and released her arms. “I just can’t touch you in ardor.”
She wiped angry pink tears away with the back of her black gloved hand. “Karl, you have to let me go. I don’t want you or anyone else harmed because of me.”
“No. That’s what he wants.” He took both her hands in his. “Don’t you see? He’s trying to drive a wedge between us. We can beat him, but we have to stay together.”
“He just tried to kill you, Karl. He won’t stop.”
“Let him try. I have a few talents of my own. Besides, he’ll have to find us first.”
The audience hall was almost bursting with Kindred. Angelique looked around, recognizing many Malkavian faces in the crowd. It was a good turn out. Lots of out-of-towners.
The Primogen filed in and took their seats on a raised dais at the end of the hall. As always, one Primogen was physically absent. The telecommuter was usually Amelia; she lived in Colorado and vastly preferred to attend court via Skype. Tonight, it was Stefan on speaker phone. (“Is this machine on? Are you sure? I can’t see anything.”)
Prince Aurora stepped into the hall with Vincent at her side. The din of voices faded to murmurs and the crowd parted like Red Sea to let her pass. Griffin held his hand out to her; she accepted it as she stepped up onto the raised platform. She gracefully took her seat in the middle of the dais, with two members of the Primogen Council on either side. Court was in session.
Without preamble, the Prince announced that the Gangrel Roman Montague, due to his three month absence, was hereby forfeit of his holdings and title of Sheriff. Griffin’s face was impassive. Aurora summoned Bobby to stand before her. He took off his cowboy hat and held it politely in his big hands.
“Robert Han of Clan Brujah, are you a true and faithful member of the Camarilla?”
“I am, my Prince.”
“Will you enforce the decrees of your Prince and protect the realm with your life’s blood?”
“I will, my Prince.”
“Then kneel, kiss my ring, and rise as Sheriff, old friend.”
Bobby kissed the ring and then flashed Violet a huge grin. She beamed.
“I need a new Keeper of Elysium,” Prince Aurora continued. Nobody dared ask what had become of the old Keeper after the Prince discovered the mutilated corpses of her great-nieces in her bed. “Angelique?”
Angelique rushed forward and dropped to her knees in deep a curtsy.
“Angelique of Clan Malkavian-”
“Toreador,” Angelique blurted, her eyes wide and earnest. Rebekah and Amber glared at her.
The Prince resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Angelique, you’re not a Toreador.”
“I am. I am a Toreador.”
The Prince continued. “This position has many responsibilities. First and foremost, the keeper must keep the peace in Elysium. She must ensure that our customs are observed. The keeper is also the caretaker of the Opera House. Security is paramount. So the keeper must be observant, calm, rational, and level-headed at all times. Are you confident that you can do all these things without fail?”
“Yes, my Prince. I will do everything you ask and more.”
“Very well. I hereby appoint you the interim Keeper of Elysium. I’m confident that you’ll do a much better job than your predecessor and that we’ll be celebrating your promotion in a few months.
“Thank you.” Angelique blinked back tears of happiness and planted several dainty kisses on the Prince’s hand.
“Cameron Roth of Clan Nosferatu. Come forward.”
He approached the Prince boldly, arms crossed.
“I will be blunt. I am not fond of the position of scourge. I have seen far too many scourges lose themselves completely to the beast. However, I need someone to ensure that our city is not infiltrated by Sabbat and other dangerous entities. Your Primogen assures me that you’ll do what needs to be done, but that you will act with judiciousness and not brutality.”
Cameron cleared his throat. “Just so we don’t have any misunderstandings down the road… I have the authority to decide what needs to be done, right?”
Prince Aurora narrowed her eyes at him. The crowd went silent. One word from the Prince, and the housekeeper would be scrubbing his vitae off the audience hall floor come dawn.
“I give you the authority to exercise your own judgement on the streets, to be merciful or ruthless as the situation dictates. I expect that you’ll expel trespassers and rabble from the domain. If you find any caitiff or bastards born of rouge embraces, I want you to bring them to me so I can decide their fate. Notify the sheriff immediately should any lupines enter the city. But your most important duty is to execute any Sabbat or criminals. I’m sure you’ll have to make tough calls. The outcomes may not always be pretty. So long as you act wisely and in good faith, I’ll support you. If I find you derelict in your duties, I will replace you. There is no room for weakness or corruption or wanton cruelty. Sound fair?”
Cameron sized her up. “All right. Just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Amelia leaned over and whispered something to the Prince.
“So soon?” Aurora asked. Good God, Amelia. What did you do, pop him in a box and ship him overnight?
Amelia smirked. Something like that.
“Oh, very well. Thomas Stratton of Clan Tremere. Where are you?”
Thomas stepped forward, ignoring the tittering of the crowd. The Prince and the dwarf regarded each other intently, momentarily transported to a night decades ago filled with fire and smoke and screaming.
“The Prodigal Son returns,” she said. “Welcome.”
“Prince Aurora,” he said, “Your beauty outshines a thousand stars.” He meant it. When he’d met her in 1935, she had short bobbed hair and the flat-chested, straight-hipped figure of a boy. The height of fashion at the time, perhaps, but Thomas preferred women who actually looked like women. Her long waves and subtle curves were a vast improvement, although the poor child still didn’t look a day over fourteen.
“How was your stay in Vienna?”
“Enlightening, Prince, but I am thankful to be home.”
“Your sire speaks of you often. And I’ve heard the most extraordinary things from Prince Leopold. If we make you Regent of Salt Lake City, will you promise not to burn the chantry down?"
“That would be quite a feat, Prince, considering that Salt Lake City has no chantry.”
“It does now.”
David glanced over at Amelia, who was smugly watching her dwarf childe pledge his fealty to Prince Aurora. The Prince had stonewalled Amelia’s ambitions to expand Tremere influence in Utah for seventy-five years; so why agree to raise a wizard tower in her own backyard now? This little power play must have cost Amelia dearly. David wondered if her most dangerous rival amongst the Tremere was part of the bargain. How convenient for her. Typical megalomaniac behavior.
Aurora took a sip of blood from a wineglass. It was going to be a long night. "Robert. Angelique. Cameron. Thomas. I commended your alacrity to serve not only your Prince, but every Kindred who shelters in my domain. I welcome you to your respective posts and to my circle of advisors. May you live forever in the arms of the Camarilla.”
The crowd applauded the new appointments.
“My Prince, did I come late to the call?” Stefan asked in confusion. “I thought we had five appointments tonight, but I heard only four.”
“You heard everything, my friend,” the Prince said. “I am finished with appointments for the evening.”
Wolf looked like he just swallowed vinegar, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.