Qhuinn was absolutely sure his nuts were on Wrath's menu tonight, but even so, he was amazed at the sight of the Brotherhood's training center. The thing was the size of a small city, made up of blocks of stone that were big as a male's torso, with windows that looked like they were reinforced with titanium or some shit. The gargoyles around the roof and all the shadows were perfect. Exactly what you'd expect.
"Sire?" the butler said as he indicated the cathedral-worthy front door. "Shall we go in? I must needs get to my cooking."
The doggen slowed his speech down as if he were addressing a moron. "I cook for the Brotherhood as well as tend to this, their home."
Holy shit...This wasn't the training center; this was the Brotherhood's digs.
Well, duh. Check out the security. There were cameras mounted over the doors and under the roof, and the retaining wall of the courtyard was like something out of a movie about Alcatraz. Hell, he expected a fleet of Dobermans to come trucking around the corner with their chompers showing.
Then again, the dogs were probably still gnawing on the bones of the last guest they'd turned into pulled pork.
"Sire?" the butler repeated. "Shall we?"
"Yeah... yeah, sure." Qhuinn swallowed hard and walked forward, prepared to face the music with the king. "Ah, listen, I'm just going to leave my stuff in the car."
"As you wish, sire."
Man, thank God Blay didn't have to see what was about to go down¡ª
One side of the mammoth double doors opened and a familiar friend lifted a hand.
Oh. Great. Blay would miss the show, but John was having a front-row seat, evidently.
The guy was dressed in the blue jeans and one of the deconstructed button-downs they'd gotten at Abercrombie. His bare feet were pale on the black stone stairs, and he seemed relatively calm, which was kind of irritating. The bastard could at least have had the grace to sport a cold sweat or a case of the sympathy shits.
Hey, John signed.
John stepped back, clearing the way. How are you doing?
"I wish I were a smoker." Because then he could put this off for the duration of a cig.
No, you don't. You hate smoking.
"When I face the firing squad, I may rethink that hard line."
Qhuinn walked through a vestibule that made him feel totally underdressed, what with its black-and-white marble floor and its chandelier¡ªwas that made of real gold? Probably¡ª
Holy fuck, he thought as he stopped dead.
The foyer in front of him was palatial. Total Russian royalty, with its brilliant colors and its incredible gold-leafed everything and its mosaic floor and its painted ceiling... or, shit, maybe it was more like something out of a Danielle Steel novel, with all its romantic marble columns and arching expanse.
Not that he'd read any of her books.
Well, okay, there had been that one, but he'd been twelve and sick and had focused just on the sex parts.
"Up here," a deep, echoing voice said.
Qhuinn looked to the top of an ornate staircase. Standing with shitkickers planted like he owned the world, dressed in black leathers and a black T-shirt, was the king.
"Come on, let's do this," Wrath commanded.
Swallowing hard, Qhuinn followed John to the second floor.
As they got to the top, Wrath said, "I just want Qhuinn. John, you stay here."
John started to sign, I want to be his witness¡ª
Wrath turned away. "Nope. There's going to be none of that."
Shit, Qhuinn thought. He wasn't going to be allowed any defense testimony?
I'll be waiting, John signed.
Qhuinn stared beyond the open doors the king had gone through. The room before him was... well, it looked like the kind of place his mother would have liked: pale blue, with spindly, girly furniture and drippy crystal light fixtures that looked like earrings.
Not exactly what you'd expect Wrath to hang out in.
As the king went in and planted it behind a delicate desk, Qhuinn stepped inside, shut the doors, and linked his hands in front of himself. As he waited, the whole thing struck him as surreal. He could not possibly fathom how his life had come down to this.
"Did you mean to kill Lash?" Wrath asked.
So much for opening statements. "Ah..."
"Did you or didn't you?"
In quick succession Qhuinn reviewed his answers: No, of course not, the knife was acting of its own volition, I was actually trying to stop it... No, I only meant to give him a shave... No, I didn't realize that slicing open someone's jugular was going to lead to death...
Qhuinn cleared his throat once. Twice. "Yeah. I did."
The king crossed his arms over his chest. "If Lash hadn't gone for John's pants, would you have done the same thing?"
Qhuinn's lungs stopped working for a moment. He shouldn't have been surprised the king knew exactly what had gone down, but shit, hearing the words was kind of shocking. Plus, talking about the whole thing was hard, given what Lash had said and done. It was, after all, John.
"Well?" came the demand over the desk. "If Lash hadn't gone for his pants, would you have throated him?"
Qhuinn gathered his thoughts. "Look, John told me and Blay to stay out of it, and as long as it was a fair fight I was prepared to let it ride. But..." He shook his head. "Nah. That shit Lash pulled wasn't fair. It was like using a concealed weapon."
"But you didn't have to kill him, did you. You could have peeled him off John. Clocked him a couple of times. Rolled him out."
Wrath stretched his arm to the side as if to loosen it, and his shoulder let out a crack. "You're going to be totally fucking honest with me now. If you lie, I'll know it, because I'll smell it." Wrath's eyes burned behind his wraparounds. "I'm well aware you hated your cousin. Are you sure you didn't use deadly force for your own agenda?"
Qhuinn dragged his hand through his hair and remembered all that he could about what had gone down. There were holes in his memory, blanks spaces carved by the tangle of emotions that had had him palming the knife and lunging forward, but he remembered enough.
"To be honest... shit, I couldn't let John get hurt and humiliated like that. See, he froze. When Lash went for his pants, he froze. The two of them were in the shower and John was up against the tile and all of a sudden he went dead still. I don't know whether Lash would have followed through with... well, you know... because I wasn't in his head, but he was just the type who would try it." Qhuinn swallowed hard. "I saw it happen, saw that John couldn't do anything and... it was like everything went blank... I just¡ªfuck¡ªthe knife was in my hand and then I was on Lash and the slice was quick. For real? Sure, I hated Lash, but I don't give a fuck who pulled that shit on John. I would have gone gunning for them. And before you ask it, I know what your next question is going to be."
"And your answer is."
"Yeah, I would do it again."
"Would you now."
"Yes." Qhuinn looked around at the pale blue walls and thought it didn't seem right to be talking about such ugliness in a room that was so fricking lovely. "Guess that makes me an unrepentant murderer, huh... so what are you going to do to me? Oh, and you probably know this already, but my family has disowned me."
"Yeah, I've heard that."
There was a long silence, and Qhuinn passed the time looking at his New Rocks and feeling his heart skip in his chest.
"John wants you to stay here."
Qhuinn's eyes shot to the king. "What?"
"You heard me."
"Shit. You can't approve that. No way can I stay here." Black eyebrows crashed down. "Excuse me?"
"Er... sorry." Qhuinn clammed up, reminding himself that the Brother was king, which meant he could do whatever the fuck he wanted, including but not limited to renaming the sun and the moon, declaring that people had to salute him with their thumbs up their asses... and taking roadkill like Qhuinn under his roof if he were so inclined.
King was spelled c-a-r-t-e b-l-a-n-c-h-e in the vampire world.
Plus, why the fuck say no to something that would help him? Duh.
Wrath stood up, and Qhuinn had to fight not to take a step back even though they were separated by about twenty-five feet of Aubusson.
Jesus, the male towered, though.
"I spoke to Lash's father about an hour ago," Wrath said. "Your family has indicated to him that they're not going to pay the restitution. As they've disowned you, they say that you owe the money. Five million."
"Lash was abducted by the lessers last night. No one thinks he's coming back. You're up for proximal murder, as the assumption is that the slayers wouldn't have bothered snatching a dead body."
"Whoa..." God, Lash... and, shit, that was a lot of green. "Look, I got the clothes on my back and a spare set in my duffel. They're welcome to the shit if they want it¡ª"
"Lash's father is aware of your financial situation. In light of it, he wants you to become an indentured servant in their household."
The blood rushed out of Qhuinn's head. A slave... for the rest of his life? For Lash's parents?
"This would," Wrath tacked on, "be after you went to prison, of course. And actually, the race still has one in operation. Up north of the Canadian border."
Qhuinn just stood there, utterly numb. Man, your life could end in so many different ways, he thought. Death wasn't the only way out of it.
"What do you say about all this?" Wrath murmured.
Prison... in God only knew where for God only knew how long. Slavery... in a household that would forever hate him until he kicked it.
Qhuinn thought of that walk through the tunnel at Blay's and the decision he had come to on the far side.
"I have mismatched eyes," he whispered, lifting his fucked-up stare to the king. "But I have honor. I'll do whatever has to be done to make it right... provided," he said with sudden strength, "that no one makes me apologize. That... I can't do that. What Lash did was beyond wrong. It was intentionally cruel and done to ruin John's life. I. Am. Not. Sorry."
Wrath came around the desk and strode across the room. As he passed by, he said briskly, "Right answer, son. Wait out there with your boy. I'll be with you in a few."
The king opened the door and impatiently nodded. "Out. There."
Qhuinn stumbled from the room.
How'd it go? John signed as he jumped up from a chair that was against the hall wall. What happened?
As Qhuinn looked at his friend, he was not about to tell the guy that he was going to jail and then being released into the custody of Lash's parents to be tortured for the rest of his days. "Ah, not too bad."
You're the color of fog.
"Well, hello, I had surgery, like, yesterday."
Oh, please. What's happening?
"To tell you the truth, I have no clue¡ª"
" 'Scuse me." Beth, the queen, came up with a grave expression. In her hands was a long, flat leather box. "Boys? I need to get in there."
As they stepped apart, she ducked into the study and shut the door.
John and Qhuinn waited. Then waited some more... and some more.
God only knew what was doing. Guess it took a while for the king and queen to draw up his Go to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $500 papers.
John took out his phone, like he needed something to do with his hands, and frowned as he checked the thing. After he texted someone, he put it back in his pocket.
Weird that Blay hasn't checked in yet.
Not really, Qhuinn thought, feeling like a son of a bitch. The king threw the doors wide. "Getcha asses back in here."
There was a scramble of their feet, and then Wrath shut them all in together. The king returned to his desk, parked it in the doll-like chair, and propped his huge shitkickers on the mound of paperwork. When Beth fell in by the side of where he sat, he reached up and took her hand.
"You boys familiar with the term ahstrux nohtrum?" When the two of them shook their heads like idiots, Wrath smiled a cold, nasty little grin. "It's an antiquated position. It's like a private guard, only they're allowed to use deadly force when protecting their master. They're killers with a pass."
Qhuinn swallowed hard, wondering what the hell that had to do with him and John.
The king continued. "Ahstrux nohtrum may be commissioned only by royal decree, and the standard is kind of like the U.S. Secret Service's for protection. The subject must be a person of interest, and the guard must be capable." Wrath kissed his queen's hand. "A person of interest is someone whose presence is significant as judged by the king. Which is me. Now... my shellan here, she's the most precious thing in the world, and there is nothing that I won't do to make sure her heart is protected. Also, in terms of the race as a whole, she is queen. Therefore her only brother most definitely falls into the person-of-interest category.
"As for the qualified-guard part... I happened to know, Qhuinn, that out of the training class, you were the best fighter, aside from John. You're vicious with the hand-to-hand, a great shot on the range"¡ªthe king's voice grew wry¡ª"and we're all aware of how good you are with a knife, aren't we."
Qhuinn felt a weird rush go through him, like some kind of fog had lifted and revealed an unexpected path out of the wilderness. He reached for John's arm to steady himself even though it totally slapped the Hello! My Name Is Nancy tag on him.
"One thing, though," the king said. "Ahstrux nohtrum are expected to sacrifice their own lives for the one they protect. If shit comes down to it, they will take a mortal hit. Oh, and it's a lifelong commitment, unless I say different. I'm the only one who can issue a pink slip, feel me?"
Qhuinn's mouth talked of its own accord: "Of course. Absolutely."
Wrath smiled and reached over to the box Beth had carried in. He took out a thick sheaf of paper, at the bottom of which was a gold seal with red and black satin ribbons. "Gee, would you look at this."
He casually tossed the official-looking document to the far edge of the desk.
Qhuinn and John leaned in together. In the Old Language, the thing stated that...
"Holy... fuck," Qhuinn breathed, then abruptly looked up at Beth. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to use foul language."
She smiled and kissed the top of her hellren's head. "It's okay. I've heard worse."
"Look at the date," Wrath said.
It was backdated... the fucker was backdated to two months ago. According to the document, Qhuinn, son of Lohstrong, had been functioning as John Matthew, son of Darius, son of Marklon's ahstrux nohtrum since late June.
"I'm really rat-ass awful at paperwork," Wrath drawled.
"I just forgot to tell you two what was doing. My bad. Now, of course, this means that you, John, are responsible for the restitution, because the subject being guarded has to settle all debts incurred as a result of protection."
John immediately signed, I'll pay¡ª
"No, wait," Qhuinn cut in. "He doesn't have that kind of money¡ª"
"Your buddy's worth about forty million at this point, so he can handle it just fine."
Qhuinn looked over at John. "What? Why the hell are you working in the office for clothes money?"
Who do I make the check out to? John signed, ignoring him.
"Lash's parents. Beth, as the Brotherhood's CFO, will tell you which account it comes out of, right, leelan?" Wrath squeezed the queen's hand and smiled up at her. When he refocused on Qhuinn and John, the loving expression was gone. "Qhuinn's moving into the house effective now, and he's going to have a salary of seventy-five thousand a year, which you will pay. And, Qhuinn, you're so totally out of the training program, but that doesn't mean the Brothers and I won't... oh, I don't know, spar with your ass to keep your skills sharp. After all, we take care of our own. And you're one of us now."
Qhuinn took a deep breath. And then another. And then¡ª "I need... I need to sit down."
Like a complete flippin' lightweight, he stumbled over to one of the pale blue couches. With everyone staring at him like they were about to offer him either a paper bag to breathe into or some Kleenex, he put his hand to where he'd been operated on in hopes of making it seem like he was overcome by his injury, not his emotions.
Trouble was... he couldn't seem to draw any air into his lungs. He wasn't sure what the fuck was going into his mouth, but whatever the shit was, it wasn't doing a damn thing to clear the dizziness in his head or the burning sensation around his rib cage.
Curiously, the one who came over and crouched down in front of him wasn't John or the queen. It was Wrath. The king suddenly appeared in his watery vision, those sunglasses and that cruel face at total odds with the soft voice that he used.
"Put your head between your knees, son." The king's hand landed on his shoulder and gently pushed him down. "Go on now."
Qhuinn did as he was told, and started to shake so badly that if it hadn't been for Wrath's big palm holding him steady, he would have fallen on the floor.
He would not cry. He refused to let one single tear out. Instead, he gasped and he shook and he grew drenched in a cold sweat.
Quietly, so only Wrath would hear, he whispered, "I thought... was all alone."
"Nah," Wrath answered just as softly. "Like I said, you're one of us now, feel me?"
Qhuinn lifted his eyes. "But I'm no one."
"Ah, to hell with that." The king shook his head slowly. "You saved John's honor. So like I said, you're family, son."
Qhuinn shifted his eyes over to Beth and John, who were standing side by side. Through his unshed tears, he saw the resemblance in their dark hair and deep blue eyes.
Qhuinn steeled his spine, got to his feet, and pulled himself up to his full height. Straightening his shirt and then his hair, he became completely and utterly composed as he walked over to John.
With set, straight shoulders, he put his hand out to his friend. "I'll lay my life down for you. With or without that piece of paper."
As the words came out of his mouth, he realized it was the first thing he'd ever said as a full-grown male, the first vow he'd ever taken. And he couldn't think of a better person to offer it to, except for maybe Blay.
John glanced down, then clasped the palm that was presented to him, his grip firm and strong. They didn't hug, they didn't speak.
And I for you, John mouthed as their eyes met. And I... for you.
"You can ask me about Phury if you want. When you're finished with that."
Cormia straightened from the white candle she was lighting and glanced over her shoulder. Bella was lying on her back in the big bed across the room, her thin, pale hand on her rounded belly.
"Really, you can," the female said with a small smile. "It'll give me something else to think about. And right now I need that."
Cormia blew out her match. "How did you know he was on my mind?"
"You have what I call a ¡®male brow.' Which is a frown brought on when you're thinking about your male and you either want to boot him in the ass or wrap your arms around him and hold him 'til he can't breathe."
"The Primale is not mine." Cormia took the gold incense burner in her hand and moved it three times around the candle. The chant she recited was soft but insistent, calling upon the Scribe Virgin to watch over Bella and her young.
"He doesn't love me," Bella said. "Not really."
Cormia put the burner on a table in the easternmost corner of the room and double-checked that the three candles had good, strong flames.
Past, present, and future.
"Did you hear what I said? He doesn't love me."
Cormia squeezed her eyes shut. "I do believe you are wrong about that."
"He just thinks he does."
"With all due respect¡ª"
"Do you want him?"
Cormia flushed as what had happened in the movie theater came back to her. She relived the feel of him... the power she'd had with his sex in her hand... the way his mouth had moved against her breast.
Bella laughed softly. "I'll take that blush as a yes."
"Dearest Virgin, I have no idea what to say."
"Sit with me." Bella patted the bed next to her. "Let me tell you about him. And why I'm sure that he's not in love with me."
Cormia knew that if she went over and listened to how the Primale couldn't possibly feel as he believed he did, she was just going to get more lost to him.
So naturally she sat down beside to Bella on the comforter.
"Phury's a good male. A great male. He loves deeply, but that doesn't mean he's in love with everyone he cares about. If you two just take a little time¡ª"
"I'm going back soon."
Bella's brows went up. "To the Other Side? Why?"
"I've been here a long time." It was too hard to say she'd been passed over. Especially to Bella. "I've been here... long enough."
Bella looked saddened. "Will Phury be leaving too?"
"I don't know."
"Well, he'd have to come back to fight."
"Ah... yes." Clearly the female didn't know he'd been removed from the Brotherhood yet, and now was not the time for her to have any unpleasant shocks.
Bella's hand smoothed over her belly. "Has anyone told you why Phury became the Primale? Instead of Vishous, that is."
"No. I didn't even know there was a substitution until the Primale was the one who was with me in the temple."
"Vishous fell in love with Doc Jane right about the time it was all going down. Phury didn't want them to be parted, so he stepped in." Bella shook her head. "The thing about Phury is, he'll always put others before himself. Always. It's his nature."
"I know. That's why I admire him so. Where I am from..." Cormia struggled to find the words. "To the Chosen, selflessness is the greatest of all values. We serve the race and the Scribe Virgin, and in doing so we joyfully put the whole before ourselves. It is the highest order of virtue to sacrifice yourself to the greater good, to that which is of more importance than the self. The Primale does that. I believe that is..."
"That is why I respect him so. Well, that and his... his..."
Bella laughed in a throaty way. "His keen mind, right? It's clearly got nothing to do with the yellow eyes or all that wonderful hair?"
Cormia figured that if her blush had spoken for her once already, it could do it again.
"You don't have to answer," Bella said with a smile. "He is a special male. But back to the selfless stuff? Here's the thing. If you spend too much time focusing outward, you lose yourself. That's why I worry about him. And that's why I know he doesn't truly love me. He believes I saved his twin in ways he couldn't. It's gratitude he feels. Intense gratitude and idolization. But it's not true love."
"How do you know this, though?"
There was a hesitation. "Ask him about his relationships with females. You'll understand."
"Has he been in love often?" She braced herself for the answer.
"Absolutely, positively no." Bella's hand went round and round her belly. "This isn't any of my business, but I'm going to say it anyway. Save my hellren, there isn't a male I hold in higher esteem than Phury, and I like you a lot. If he continues to stay here, I hope you do, too. I like the way you look at him. And I really like the way he looks at you."
"He's passed me over."
Bella's head came up. "What?"
"I am no longer the First Mate."
"So I really should go back to the Sanctuary. If only to make things easier on whomever he chooses to replace me."
It was the right thing to say, but she didn't really believe it. And her feelings showed in her voice. Even she could hear the strain.
Funny, the practice of saying one thing while keeping what she truly thought to herself was a skill she'd honed over the span of her life on the Other Side. When she'd been over there, lying had been as easy and comfortable as the white robe she wore and the proscribed way she did her hair and the rote recitation of ceremonial text.
Now it was hard.
"No offense," Bella said, "but my bullshit meter is going off."
"You're lying to me. Look, may I offer you some unsolicited advice?"
"Don't allow yourself to get swallowed up and lost in this Chosen thing. If you truly believe what you've been taught, then that's fine. But if you find yourself fighting an inner voice in your head all the time, then it's not where you're supposed to be. Being a good liar is not a virtue."
That was it, wasn't it, Cormia thought. That was precisely what she had always had to do. Lie.
Bella shifted on the pillows, pulling herself up. "I don't know how much you've heard about me, but I have a brother. Rehvenge. He's a hardheaded handful, always has been, but I love him and we're very close. My father died when I was four, and Rehv stepped in as head of the household for my mother and me. Rehv took great care of us, but he also was controlling as hell, and eventually I moved out of the family house. I had to... He was driving me nuts. Jesus, you should have heard the fighting. Rehv meant well, but he's old-school, very traditional, and that meant he wanted to make all the decisions."
"He sounds like a male of worth, though."
"Oh, he absolutely is. But the thing was, after twenty-five years under him, I was just his sister, not me, if that makes any sense." Bella reached out and took Cormia's hand. "The best thing I ever did for myself was get away and get to know myself." A haunted light came into her eyes. "It was not easy, and there were... consequences. But even with what I had to go through, I highly recommend figuring out who you are. I mean, do you know who you are as a person?"
"I am a Chosen."
"And what else."
Bella's hand gave a squeeze. "Give you some thought, Cormia, and start small. What's your favorite color? What do you like to eat? Are you an early riser? What makes you happy? Sad?"
Cormia looked across the room at the incense burner and thought about all the prayers she knew, prayers that covered for every eventuality. And the chants. And the ceremonies. She had a whole spiritual vocabulary at her disposal, not just of words but of actions.
And that was about it. Or was it?
She shifted her eyes to meet Bella's. "I know... I like lavender tea roses. And I like to build things in my head."
Bella smiled and then hid a yawn with the back of her hand. "That, my friend, is a good start. Now, you want to finish Project Runway? With the TV on, you'll feel less awkward about being in your head while you're with me, and Fritz won't be here with dinner for another twenty minutes."
Cormia eased back into the pillows beside her... friend. Not her sister, her... friend. "Thank you, Bella. Thank you."
"You're welcome. And I love the incense. Very calming."
Bella pointed the remote at the flat screen and pushed some buttons, and Tim Gunn appeared in the sewing room, his silver hair as neat as pressed cloth. In front of him, one of the designers was shaking her head and looking at her partially constructed red dress.
"Thank you," Cormia said again, without looking over.
Bella just reached out and gave Cormia's hand a squeeze, and they both focused on the screen.