Authors: Colleen Gleason
© 2016 Colleen Gleason
All rights reserved.
Cover illustration: Ravven
Cover design: Dan Keilen
~ A Secret Mission ~
In the shadow of Muntii Făgăras
“If Victoria knew about this
, she’d have your bloody head.”
Sebastian Vioget glanced at his companion in the moonlight and quelled the ever-present surge of emotion—or, more accurately, emotions,
—the man evoked. Even though eighteen years had gone by since things had—well, ended the way they had…Max Pesaro still made him want to dust the floor with his arrogant face. And then hang him by his thumbs over a hot pit and watch him suffer.
But at the same time, after what the two of them had done together—what they’d each sacrificed for the women they both loved, what they’d lived through in a hideaway in this very mountain where Lilith the Dark had once resided—there was immeasurable respect and trust between them.
One could say it was an incredibly warped relationship that had settled between Sebastian Vioget and Max Pesaro.
“More precisely,” Sebastian replied as he lifted his lantern to see ahead of them, “if Victoria knew you’d agreed to go with me—and, more importantly,
bloody head.” He smiled humorlessly at the man who had everything he once thought he’d wanted. “But that would only be after she made your life miserable for several days.”
“You’re assuming she doesn’t already make my life miserable.” Pesaro grimaced. “In her own unique way.”
Then his expression—a dark one of haughtiness and arrogance—softened. “I had to get the bloody hell away from London. The girls…Christ, if it isn’t one damned ball or fête or theater or musicale, it’s something else. Not to mention the gowns and the damned shoes. Gloves. Ribbons. And the
. There aren’t enough bloody hat racks in all of London to hold their millinery acquisitions. Feathers exploding every-damned-where, fake flowers on the landing—even lace in my study.”
Sebastian couldn’t contain a snort of laughter, despite the fact that they were approaching a very dangerous place during the middle of the night. The moon was full and the swath of stars broad, making it nearly as bright as day.
He was certain they were being watched by more than one set of eyes lurking deep in the harsh crevices or behind clumps of brush. Though Lilith was long gone, that didn’t mean all of her minions and relatives were as well.
Nevertheless, together he and Pesaro were well prepared and could handle anything—despite the fact that Victoria wasn’t there with them, though she would certainly disagree—and that was why he’d asked the arrogant bastard to accompany him.
“Ahh…the travails of being the father of debutantes,” he said with mock sympathy. “And taking into account your own severe lack of fashion sense, one can only imagine the pain it must cause you to be inundated with that particular matter.”
Max cast him another glance, and to Sebastian’s continued delight, it was filled with chagrin. “I never imagined one could spend so much money on bloody damned
“Isn’t Isabella’s coming out this year? You needing to outfit her as well as the twins—not to mention your lovely wife—well, one can only imagine the cost. Not that you can’t afford it, being richer than the Vatican.” Sebastian didn’t feel one iota of sympathy for the man. At least
wasn’t going to live forever.
Or at least live for a very long time—which was the case with Sebastian.
would be existing forever…or until he completed his “long promise.” Whatever it was, and whenever the hell that might be.
“It’s not the damned money so much as it is the bloody
spent on it, and the incessant
and squeals and
—and the sheer
of gowns and fripperies,” Max grumbled, and scanned the craggy brush that grew up along the side of the moonlit trail on which they road. Always on guard, always watching. He stiffened almost imperceptibly, and Sebastian noticed, meeting his eyes in a brief confirmation.
Just as they’d suspected. They were not alone. Undead, for certain. Tutela members? Just as possible.
“And you’ve got it wrong, Vioget. Bella won’t be out for another three years. Eighteen is apparently the magic age. Probably just as well for society, though my hair might be completely silver by then.”
“So she’s a hellion, is she?” Sebastian asked with relish. It was one of his favorite pastimes, imagining Max Pesaro with an entire herd of females in his house—and being utterly overrun and overruled by them. Sebastian would have loved every minute of it, but Pesaro…he should stick to the undead, for he was simply not equipped to handle the female race.
“Worse than her mother, if you can believe it. Stacia and Juliette raised hell enough when they were younger, but Bella…good God, I have no idea what I did to deserve that red-headed termagant.”
Sebastian lifted a brow. Pesaro might not have any idea, but Sebastian sure as hell did. The man was insufferable, autocratic, and cold. It sounded as if his youngest daughter was precisely his opposite.
And just like her mother.
He grinned to himself. He couldn’t wait to meet her—Isabella Sebastiana, as she’d been named; a decision that had surely been made despite Pesaro’s certain vociferous arguments.
“And then there are the blasted
,” the father in question muttered. “Underfoot all the bloody damned time. Lining up at the door on social call days, and lurking about on other ones. Flowers and bouquets and blasted notes
-bloody-where. Those boys turning up in the parlor, the library—one of them even walked into the
when Victoria and I were—er—training.” The slight, unconscious curve of his lips confirmed Sebastian’s suspicions about the type of training they’d been doing, and he couldn’t help but smile himself.
Ah, those had been the days.
“Much more comfortable than a carriage,” Sebastian said lightly, relieved that he could do so with hardly a pang in the vicinity of his undead heart.
“Naturally.” Pesaro cast him a sidewise look noticeably devoid of apology, and also intended to covertly signal the presence of yet another watcher among the craggy mountainside. A slight twitch of his brow, barely noticeable in the faulty light, confirmed for Sebastian that his companion sensed undead—something more difficult for him to do himself.
“But no weddings yet? I presume I would have been invited if there was one on the horizon.” Sebastian’s pulse skipped a beat when he saw the large, hulking tree that grew in a skeletal black canopy as broad as a house. Its branches were dark veins against the starry sky.
The pool was there—just beyond the Tree of Masidies. The last time—the
time—he’d been here was eighteen years ago, with Victoria and another Venator named Brim.
“Not yet, but it appears inevitable that we will soon be relinquishing Juliette’s future wardrobe bills to a bloke named Denton. But only if he promises never to touch her.” Pesaro’s voice was filled with flat determination.
“And only after you’ve paid for the trousseau, of course.” Sebastian grinned, feeling a twinge of sympathy for Denton, the poor sot. Then he sobered. The time was at hand.
“Naturally.” Max’s voice remained even, but his dark eyes were sharp. His body emanated readiness like the sun radiated heat.
They rode beneath the Tree of Masidies and its spectral-hand black branches. Pesaro had to duck to avoid the lower-hanging ones, and Sebastian saw his hand move down as he did so, pulling a weapon from inside his boot.
Sebastian casually withdrew a stake from beneath his cloak as well, keeping it hidden among the folds. He had a pistol within reach on the other side as well.
The Pool of Samung hadn’t changed in the last two decades. It was hardly larger than a puddle in the center of a London street, and was surrounded by an outcropping of rocks, apathetic grass, and scrawny bushes. Reflected beneath the night sky, it looked like a perfect mirror.
He and Pesaro alighted from their mounts, both on alert even as the other man continued to gripe about his three adored—but expensive—daughters. Anyone who actually knew Max Pesaro would have figured out by now that he was much more verbose and forthcoming than usual, but the conversation was a necessity to obscure their actions.
“And there’s an
devil named Stoker,” Pesaro continued grimly. “And I have to bloody look
at him when I talk to the bloke.”
“Surely he’s not interested in Isabella,” Sebastian said, setting his lantern on a tall rock.
He walked near the edge of the pool, looking for the right place. Where had he been when he felt that angular, pointed object in the water? Though it had been almost two decades, the events of that day were imprinted on his mind.
“Devil take it, Vioget. Bella’s only
. It’s Stacia that Stoker’s sniffing around. I see the way he looks at her—though he hasn’t had the stones to do more than cast puppy eyes at her. She’s been leading a trio of rakes on a merry chase this year,” Pesaro said. “I’ll almost feel sorry for the damned fools when she drops them like a hot potato.” There was definite relish in his voice.
“I think this is the spot,” Sebastian said, kneeling next to the glass-still pool. The air was filled with a strange, subtle scent wafting from whatever it was that filled the indentation in the earth.
Pesaro walked up next to him, his shadow long and ominous as he clumsily knocked two stones into the pool near Sebastian’s feet. Sebastian watched three concentric ripples disappear into the flat, smooth water as quickly as they’d come. One of them, aplop he’d caused when he knelt, was much closer to the shore than the others.
His companion jabbed a stick into the cursed liquid. The branch immediately vibrated, fried, and disintegrated. “Good God, Vioget. Are you certain you mean to put your hand in there?”
He looked up at his longtime friend and rival, whose face was completely in shadow. “We’ve got to get the stone. Now that Nicholas Iscariot is free from whatever curse in which Lilith imprisoned him, you know he’ll be after it.”
“Better you than me,” Pesaro said dismissively, but Sebastian read the underlying edge in his tone.
And by now, he too felt the subtle, eerie chill at the back of his neck—more difficult to discern, as he himself was undead—but there, and familiar, nevertheless.
They were being monitored until just the right moment. So it was up to Sebastian to make it good.
“Here I go,” he said, kneeling at the edge of the pool. And damned if he didn’t feel a little stab of trepidation as he prepared to lower his beringed hand into the flat, silvery water.
The five copper Rings of Jubai had been fused to his digits ever since he’d thrust his hand into the pool eighteen years ago. Wearing all of them was the only way to safely insert anything into the water—appendage, stick, metal sword…
As he looked down at the mirrorlike surface, Sebastian couldn’t help but wonder whether the protection might have worn off since his last visit, or whether this second immersion might somehow reverse the fusion of copper to flesh.
If the protection had worn off, he’d be less a few fingers before he realized it, for he assumed the evil fury of the mercury-like pool worked instantly on flesh as well as wood.
Without looking at Pesaro, he plunged his hand into the silvery substance that wasn’t precisely water, but wasn’t really anything else. Sebastian breathed a mental sigh of relief when he didn’t feel the searing, shocking pain he feared.
Now that his lingering uncertainty was gone, Sebastian was able to focus on the task at hand, which included scrabbling around the bottom of the pool. When he brushed against the hard, angular sides of the small pyramid he’d encountered during his last visit, a rush of relief flooded him. It was still here.
“Any luck?” Pesaro asked, as if reading his mind. He sounded supremely bored, but Sebastian wasn’t fooled.
“Not…yet,” he replied, still putting on a show of feeling around with his hand. All the while, he felt the increased intensity of the chill at the back of his neck. Still crouched, he withdrew his hand covertly. Little droplets of liquid formed and bounced like tiny opalescent moons, then disintegrated with individual puffs of ash during his movement. Sebastian scooted a short distance around the pool to search another area of its bottom.