Midnights kiss, p.1
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       Midnight's Kiss, p.1

         Part #8 of Elder Races series by Thea Harrison
 
Midnight's Kiss


  To my author friends who are so patient,understanding and supportive, even when I get that crazed deadline look in my eyes. You know who you are. Thanks for being there.

  One

  S

  omething happened to Julian as he stood in the San Francisco alleyway, looking down at his progeny and longtime friend.

  Xavier lay curled on his side on the ambulance stretcher, the lines of his poison-wracked body rigid. Blood was everywhere – the stretcher, the concrete underneath. It had poured like a river out of him and had run in a thin red line down the gutter. The EMTs had had to drain out the poison and infuse him with as much fresh, untainted blood as quickly as they could.

  Julian didn’t know what it was, the thing that had happened to him. He wasn’t like Xavier. He wasn’t especially introspective or philosophical. He was most comfortable with taking action.

  Whatever it was, his reaction ran deep. It felt like something essential had broken inside him.

  His patience, maybe.

  Yeah, that was pretty much broken all to hell and back.

  Xavier gazed up at him, his young-looking face drawn with pain. His eyes still leaked crimson at the corners. While he had passed the danger point, or “magic hour” as the EMTs called it, the brodifacoum would make every joint and muscle in his body ache for the next three weeks, as his immune system worked to rid itself of any remnant of the poison.

  Mindful of that, Julian kept his hand gentle as he touched Xavier’s shoulder, when all he really wanted to do was grab the other man and clench him in a bear hug.

  No, he wasn’t ready to live in a world without Xavier in it. For too many decades to count, Xavier had been his Jiminy Cricket and the one example Julian could always look to whenever he wondered what it meant to be a fine man.

  He spared a quick glance for Tess, the human woman who hovered so protectively near Xavier’s dark head. When Julian had first seen Tess at the Vampyre’s Ball, she had been rigid with terror and antipathy. Now as she gazed at Xavier, her expression was filled with so much love, Julian felt as if he was witnessing something naked and profound.

  Cynically, he wondered just how long that would last. Weeks, or months?

  Even if her feelings lasted for a few years, what concerned him most was that Xavier looked at Tess with the same expression.

  Xavier didn’t fall in love lightly or as a passing fancy. He would not stop loving Tess after a few fleeting years, and she had made no secret of the fact that she had serious issues with Vampyres.

  However, any potential outcome of their liaison was an issue to be confronted on another day. Right now, Tess looked more than happy to look after Xavier, which was all that mattered, because Julian had a traitor to hunt down, and he needed to focus all his attention on the task.

  And he planned on enjoying every minute of it.

  Justine, the woman behind the assassination attempt, was an old, Powerful Vampyre and a member of the Nightkind council. For years, Justine had been undermining him, quietly and sometimes not so quietly sabotaging all of his attempts to genuinely unite the council members. Trying to kill Xavier was just her latest gambit – but this time, with her attacking a Nightkind government official, Julian was fiercely glad she had finally gone too far.

  This time, he thought, I’m going to destroy you, and every one of your co-conspirators, even if they sit on the Nightkind council too.

  It was time for him to clean house, and if his hands got a little dirty in the process, why then, so be it. The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero, who had lived and died two hundred years before Julian, had once said, “Laws are silent in times of war.”

  If that was true, so too was Julian’s threadbare, incomplete conscience.

  As he strode toward his black Jaguar, he ran through the names of the twelve who sat on the council. Of all the members, he trusted Dominic the most.

  The other Vampyre had been a Norman lord under William the Conqueror, and had run one of the most successful mercenary companies in Europe during the Middle Ages.

  He was calculating, calm in a crisis, and along with another council member, Marged, he was also the most neutral of all the council members. Unlike Marged, whose main abilities lay in commerce, Dominic knew how to respond when situations escalated to violence.

  Pulling out his cell phone, Julian dialed Dominic’s number.

  Just when he thought the call would roll to voicemail, the ringing stopped and Dominic’s deep baritone voice sounded. “Good evening, Julian.”

  “Where are you?” Julian asked.

  Despite his terseness, the other Vampyre’s voice remained courteous and neutral. “At home. Why?”

  Sliding into the driver’s seat of his car, Julian did some quick calculations. Dominic’s estate lay in Napa Valley, a couple of hours’ drive away, but the other Vampyre had a helicopter and could make the trip to Evenfall much quicker if necessary. That, however, was assuming Dominic would be willing and able to drop everything and come at a moment’s notice.

  Starting his car, Julian headed for his house in Nob Hill. While the great, hulking Norman-style castle Evenfall was the Nightkind King’s official residence, it lay in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge. For the sake of convenience, Julian also owned a house in the city, a nineteenth-century mansion that was located not far from Xavier’s own townhome.

  As he negotiated through the heavy traffic around the site of the attack, Julian told the other man, “Justine tried to have Xavier assassinated tonight.”

  A brief, intense silence took over the other end of the connection. Then Dominic said, “Tried?”

  “He survived, along with one of his attendants, but he’ll be incapacitated for a few weeks.” Julian’s voice turned savage. “It was brodifacoum poisoning.”

  The other Vampyre drew in a breath, the quiet, telltale reaction as strong as a curse. “Do you have proof that it was Justine who tried to kill him?”

  Dominic’s neutral tone was beginning to grate on Julian. He growled, “Don’t tell me you don’t believe what I’m saying.”

  “Not at all,” Dominic said. “I’m trying to ascertain what you know, and whether or not you have enough to take to the council.”

  Fuck the council.

  Julian caught himself up before he said it aloud. Instead, he replied between his teeth, “I have two surviving witnesses.”

  Dominic said, “I realize you’re very angry. If someone tried to murder one of my progeny, I would be too, but think for a minute. While Xavier’s integrity is well known, the council won’t accept testimony from either him or his attendant. Attendants can be spelled into believing something is true when it isn’t, and as your progeny, Xavier would have to say anything you compelled him to.”

  The fact that Dominic’s cool reasoning was correct made Julian even angrier. He snapped, “Goddammit.”

  “All I’m trying to point out is that you’re going to need more than just their stories,” Dominic told him. “But never mind that for now – what actually happened?”

  Julian yanked his unruly emotions back under control. “Justine bribed one of Xavier’s attendants in order to get him into the city. If everyone had been killed in the attack, there wouldn’t have been any witnesses at all. Xavier nearly did die. If his one surviving attendant hadn’t known what needed to be done when he’d been poisoned and taken such quick action, he would have died.”

  “Where’s Justine now?”

  “I don’t know. That’s what I need to find out.” Julian pulled in front of the black wrought iron gates to his house and keyed in the security code. As the gate swung open, he told the other man, “Maybe going after Xavier was an end play for Justine. She’s certainly held a grudge against him for long enough. But maybe assassina
ting him was just the first step in a broader agenda, and maybe Justine wasn’t the only Vampyre involved. I need to track her down, and I need for you to get to Evenfall as quickly as you can to keep things stable while I’m gone.”

  If Xavier had been killed, his loss would have indisputably weakened Julian’s political position even further. Setting aside the friendship factor, not only would Julian have lost his staunchest supporter in the Nightkind government, but he would have also lost his spymaster and most reliable source of information.

  Dominic said, “I need some time to wrap up some personal matters, but I can be in Evenfall by tomorrow evening. Will that be soon enough?”

  “Yes. I’ll be in touch when I know something.”

  “Be smart, Julian. Use your head. Justine has allies. Whether or not you find her, just make sure you bring back proof that you can take in front of the whole council, enough so that even her allies would have to back down. That way, if nothing else, you can see that she’s discredited and removed from office.”

  “I hear what you’re saying,” Julian said. Finally, for the first time in their conversation, he achieved a semblance of equanimity.

  He did, in fact, hear exactly what Dominic was saying – and not saying. Dominic knew very well Julian had no intention of bringing Justine back to Evenfall, and he was warning him to get all his ducks in a row. It was sound advice.

  With a punch of a thumb, Julian disconnected the call. As soon as the gate opened wide, he gunned his car down the short, curving driveway and braked in front of the huge, sprawling mansion.

  The building had a hint of European flair. Built out of golden limestone, it had tall, stately windows trimmed in black iron. Alerted by the house security system, Gregoire, Julian’s majordomo, opened the double front doors and stood waiting attentively, his intelligent, plain features impassive.

  As Julian jogged up the front steps, he was already dialing another number.

  Evenfall’s IT administrator, Gavin, answered on the first ring. “Yes, sir?”

  Julian nodded at Gregoire as he swept past. He said to Gavin, “I want Evenfall on a total information lockdown within the next ten minutes – five if you can manage it. No Internet, no cell phone reception. The only lines of communication I want open are the dedicated phone lines under our control. Got it?”

  “Yes, sir.” Gavin sounded somber and unsettled. “But I have to warn you, I might not be able to make the lockdown total.”

  “What do you mean?” Julian raced up the stairs to his suite.

  “These days, a lot of people have independent Internet access with hotspots in their cell phones,” Gavin said. “I don’t have any control over shutting those down. Evenfall is a big place, but I can see about putting out enough interference to scramble their signals.”

  “Do that until you receive further instructions from either me, Xavier or Dominic.” He disconnected and dialed his head of security, Yolanthe. When she answered, he told her, “Two things. I’m putting Evenfall on a lockdown. Until further notice, nobody is allowed to enter the castle walls or leave, except for Dominic, who will be arriving tomorrow evening.”

  “Very good,” Yolanthe said. Unlike Gavin, she sounded calm to the point of sleepy. “And the other thing?”

  “I want a strike team to meet me here in the city,” he told her. “Keep it lean and mean, no more than ten fighters. Get them here as soon as you can.”

  That woke her up. Sounding very alert, she said, “We’ll grab a chopper and be with you in twenty minutes.”

  “Good enough.”

  Twenty minutes. Thinking quickly, Julian did some math.

  It had taken him fifteen minutes to navigate through city traffic to get to the house from the alley where Xavier had almost died. Before that, Julian had spent some time on the scene, waiting to hear if Xavier would survive and questioning various officials who had been first responders. And it had also taken him time to get to San Francisco from Marin County.

  How long ago had he kicked Justine out of Evenfall?

  Even though the Nightkind political season was over for the year, Justine had been insisting upon reconvening the council. She had claimed that Xavier had exceeded his authority when he had made this year’s trade agreements with the Light Fae heir Melisande.

  As always when Julian’s thoughts turned to Melly, a hard knot of old pain and anger tightened in his chest.

  She had once meant the world to him, and the affair they had begun so lightly in defiance of all convention had quickly turned into something much more serious. The kind of serious where a man started thinking of ways to change his life in order to be with the woman he cared about.

  At least it had for him. Clearly it hadn’t for her, or she would never have betrayed him with the Elven heir Ferion.

  The whole thing had happened decades ago, in the 1990s, and time wasn’t the only thing that had moved on. Melly and Ferion’s affair hadn’t lasted either. Just recently, Ferion had become the Elven lord of his demesne, while Melly still lived the carefree life of a rich, jet-setting single.

  Virtually everyone had gotten on with their lives, except for him. Some part of him still remained frozen in that terrible moment of realization when he had stared at the photos of Melly and Ferion together.

  Now, every time he saw her photo online or in the papers, he snarled and snapped like a wounded tiger at anyone who had the misfortune to be in the vicinity. He couldn’t even summon a pretense of indifference. Whenever he was forced to be in the same room as Melly, any attempt at conversation quickly devolved into a shouting match.

  Their troubled dynamic made it even more difficult to understand why Melly’s mother, Tatiana, had sent Melly to conduct this year’s trade negotiations with the Nightkind – unless Xavier was right, and Justine had been behind that ploy too. Julian and Melly had flamed out as usual, and none of the trade agreements had been approved until Xavier had stepped in and talked to Melly personally.

  When Justine had tried to claim the agreements weren’t valid, Xavier had outmaneuvered her once again by recording Julian and Melly in verbal agreement with each other. Julian had confronted Justine with the recording, and she had left Evenfall just after sunset.

  Now Julian reexamined things in a different light.

  With the Nightkind political season over, the council had already met and disbanded for the year. Had Justine been looking for an excuse to get the council together one more time?

  If they had reconvened upon her insistence, and the assassination attempt against Xavier had been successful, what would have been her next move – an assassination attempt against Julian?

  And who would have made it with her?

  Julian had a sense of time trickling away from him. The more time that passed, the more time Justine had to figure out her next moves. Even as she had left Evenfall hours ago, she would have been thinking ahead and rerouting any plans she had laid in place.

  By now she had to know the attempt against Xavier’s life had failed, so she would be rerouting again.

  I have questions for you, Justine, he thought savagely. Many questions.

  What are you doing now?

  Upstairs in his suite, he washed and changed quickly, donning black fatigues, boots, and a T-shirt. When he was finished, he jogged downstairs and called for Gregoire, who appeared again almost immediately.

  He told the human, “I’m here for only a short while, and I don’t know when I’ll be back in the city. Evenfall is on lockdown. You need to keep the house here on lockdown too. Don’t allow anybody on the property, except for Xavier or Yolanthe.”

  “Of course,” Gregoire said. “Do you need to feed before you leave?”

  Julian shook his head. Then he paused to look into the other man’s eyes. While he did not encourage the kind of familiarity in his household that some other Vampyres did, Gregoire had been with him for almost forty years, quietly and unassumingly going about his tasks, and somehow always managing to ensure that everythin
g was exactly the way that Julian wished.

  He put his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “No, but thank you for thinking of it. Look after yourself and the others. I would be – most displeased if something happened to you.”

  Gregoire smiled and somehow managed to look worried at the same time. “I will, sir. Please look after yourself as well.”

  Over the normal sounds of the city at night, Julian could hear the steady chopping of an approaching helicopter. Yolanthe’s strike team was almost here. He left Gregoire and strode into his study, where he went to a weapons cabinet that was tastefully concealed behind a walnut panel. By the time he had armed himself, the helicopter had landed on the helipad on the grounds behind the detached garage.

  Yolanthe met him at the rear door.

  Standing at five foot ten, Yolanthe was tall for a woman, but not unusually so. She had a lean, muscled body and panther-quick reflexes. Her strong-boned, olive brown features were classic Greek, and she wore her sleek black hair cut short in a no-nonsense style that hugged her shapely skull.

  Julian had met Yolanthe when he had been a young Vampyre and still a general in the Roman army. They had been on opposite sides of a small, nasty border war.

  With the weight of superior numbers on Julian’s side, the war hadn’t lasted long. Impressed with Yolanthe’s fighting skills and intelligent tactical ability, he had successfully recruited her, then several years later had turned her. She was one of his first progeny.

  He told her, “We’re not staying.”

  She fell into step beside him. Together they made their way quickly to the military helicopter waiting on the helipad. She asked, “Where are we headed, and what’s our mission?”

  Julian leaped into the helicopter, glancing around and nodding at the nine familiar faces inside. He was unsurprised to find who Yolanthe had picked for the mission – all of the fighters present had served him for a long time. He knew them well, and trusted them.

  As Yolanthe joined him, he told the team, “Justine tried to kill Xavier, but she didn’t succeed. He’s survived and he’s going to recover. He was also able to tell me what had happened. We’re going to take control of her estate. I doubt she’ll be there, but I’m hoping we’ll find some clues about where she’s gone. Expect extreme resistance.”

 
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