“I’m okay,” I gasped. “Woo! Thanks for that. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.”
“I assure you, this is not a joke, Sabina,” Tanith said.
Could have fooled me, I thought. Her offer was so absurd it made my brain explode. I finally got a hold of myself and wiped the mirth from my eyes. “Oh, I know you’re serious. You’ve never had a good enough sense of humor to be this intentionally hilarious.”
Tanith gasped. “I never.”
“Dude, I know.” I was being disrespectful and knew it. But I couldn’t help myself. I should have seen this coming, but they’d caught me off guard and had me cornered. That left me with two choices, violence or sarcasm.
“Sabina, that’s quite enough,” Orpheus said. “The Despina just offered you a prestigious position based on my own recommendation.”
That sobered me right up. “Wait, you suggested me for this? Why?”
He straightened his shoulders. “Believe me, it came as a surprise to me, too.” His tone was disconcerted. “But once it became clear that other candidates might not be a good fit,” he said, alluding to our talk about Alexis’s temper, “I realized that you were the perfect choice.”
“Okay, I’ll play along,” I said with a sigh. “First of all, my personal connections to the Council would make it impossible to be an unbiased advocate for vampires.” I ticked off the reasons on my fingers. “Second, as far as I’m concerned, my ties to vampire politics were severed when Lavinia died. The mere idea that I’d even want to advocate for the race that treated me like an outcast my entire life is preposterous. And third, Slade is my friend and, despite his faults, he’s a good leader. I’m not going to screw him over for a position I have no interest in.”
“Are you saying your answer is no?” Tanith said, raising a brow.
My mouth fell open at her obtuseness. “Not just no, Tanith. Hell no. I’d rather French-kiss a rattlesnake than work for you.”
Alexis jumped forward then. She must have had some sort of hidden pocket in her dress, because in a split second she had a dagger in her hand. “Show some respect, mutt!”
“Miss Vega!” Orpheus snapped. “Sabina is High Priestess of the Blood Moon and a member of noble bloodlines for both the mage and vampire races. How dare you draw a weapon on her!”
“I don’t care who she is. No one disrespects the Despina like that.”
“Alexis!” Tanith’s voice cracked through the air like a bullwhip. “Stand down. This is precisely the behavior that prevented us from taking you seriously as a candidate for the governorship. You are excused.”
Alexis jerked back as if Tanith had struck her. “Despina?” she whispered. “I’m sorry, I—”
Tanith pointed to the door. “Go!”
The Enforcer’s cheeks turned as red as her hair. Ducking her head, she stalked out of the room, looking wounded and unpredictable, like an injured animal. Even though I could barely stand the bitch, I felt bad for her. I’d been on the receiving end of public shaming by the Dominae on several occasions myself. And from what I knew of Alexis, her greatest flaw was a need to prove herself to the Despina. Just like another naive vampire I used to know. She’d not recover soon from the humiliation.
After Alexis slammed out of the room, Tanith sighed. “Sabina, I understand that my offer is not an easy one for you to accept. But Orpheus and I had several long discussions about this and we both believe you are the only choice.”
“I’ve already refused it,” I said, raising my chin.
“Then I’m afraid we’re going to have to insist.”
My eyes narrowed into slits. “Are you saying I don’t have a choice?”
Orpheus saw the warning signs that hurricane Sabina was about to blow. “Er, no, that’s not what we’re saying. But perhaps you should take a few days to consider—”
“I don’t need a few days. I had fifty-four years of experience with the Dominae’s very special approach to leadership.”
“Things have changed, Sabina. The Dominae died with your grandmother. I am ushering in a more democratic form of government.”
I snorted. “Forgive me, but isn’t Despina the feminine form of the word ‘despot’? Last time I checked, democracies weren’t led by dictators.”
Tanith’s jaw hardened. “Why must you make this so difficult?”
“Why must you refuse to take no for an answer?” I shot back.
“Because she doesn’t have another choice!” Orpheus said, his voice rising in frustration. “Part of our agreement is that I have the power to veto her candidates for the New York governor. After Alexis killed Tiny, I knew she was a poor choice for the position and I refused to accept her as a candidate. That leaves you, Sabina. There is no other vampire I trust more.”
His grudging admission brought me up short. “Really?”
He grimaced and nodded. “Please do this. For me.”
Orpheus and I had had our problems. But at that moment, I felt like I’d somehow achieved some impossible feat. He hadn’t come right out and said he respected me, but trust was close enough. “Gods, Orpheus,” I said. “You really know how to play hardball.”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “So you’ll do it?”
I sucked a deep breath in through my nose. “I’ll think about it.” I paused, as it occurred to me that Slade was going to be pissed when he found out they’d asked me to take his job. “In the meantime, please don’t mention this to Slade.”
“You have until the end of the night to accept.” Tanith looked annoyed that I hadn’t fallen at her feet and kissed her hem for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Don’t worry about Mr. Corbin. He was not invited to attend tonight’s festivities.”
I rolled my eyes. I bet Slade’s reaction to being excluded wasn’t pretty. He’d served the Hekate Council for decades and now he was tossed aside like trash. I wished I could say I was surprised, but part of me wondered if all of this was Tanith’s sick way of punishing Slade for abandoning the Dominae three decades earlier. More proof that the Despina’s grudges had a long shelf life. “And you wonder why I have qualms about working for you.”
“We really need to head down to the festival and get the rituals started,” Orpheus said. “Sabina, we’ll discuss this matter later. But I’ll urge you in the meantime to really think about the opportunity. I really do think you’d be an excellent leader.”
I nodded and crossed my arms. “We’ll see.”
A gauntlet of vampire, fae, and mage security guarded the entrance to the Sacred Grove. No weapons, magical or mundane, were allowed.
The vampires had argued that mages should be required to wear brass bands, but Orpheus had held firm. Vampires without weapons still had fangs and preternatural abilities. Therefore, he argued, mages should not be handicapped by magic-dampening brass. The Despina agreed only because enough guards were around so that if any fights broke out someone could step in quickly. In addition, the leaders sat behind a table inlaid with brass. Not only would this prevent any spells from reaching them but it also assured the Despina that the mages couldn’t alter the peace treaty with any last-minute spells.
Because of my position as High Priestess of the Blood Moon, I was allowed to sit in the front row on the mage side. I sat next to the rest of the Council and Rhea. As my minion, Giguhl was allowed to sit with me but I’d insisted he stay in cat form to avoid making the security nervous. After all, a hairless cat in a black fleece sweater and hat was far less imposing than a seven-foot-tall demon with black horns.
Adam was on guard duty so he stood up on the dais behind Orpheus and Maisie. He wore the ceremonial black chiton that identified him as a Pythian Guard. He looked so handsome and proud that my chest tightened. It was the first time I’d seen him since our nasty fight and it was more difficult than I’d anticipated. It was easy to build myself up as the injured party when I wasn’t looking at him. But now? Now I had to face the fact that our problems were as much—if not more—my fault as his.
The fact we’d both been through hell together to make this night possible made the moment even more bittersweet. We should be standing side by side, enjoying this victory together. Instead, we were separated by both physical and emotional distance. Distance I wasn’t sure we’d ever be able to breach.
Tanith sat between Orpheus and Queen Maeve. Persephone cowered in the background, flanked by guards. It could have been my own prejudice talking but it seemed like they were holding her captive as much as protecting her.
Alexis stood behind Tanith’s other shoulder. Her eyes scanned the crowd like a sentinel, searching for any hint of a threat. On one of her passes, her eyes landed on me. A slight tightening of her jaw was the only indication of emotion. Alexis might be a hothead, but she’d been trained well. Once the job was done, she’d probably vent her anger on some unsuspecting mortal. But in the meantime, she’d do the job.
Queen Maeve looked… confusing. Her tunic was winter white. Winterberry-red embroidery danced along the high tab collar and wide cuffs at her wrists. Rubies twinkled from her Celtic scrollwork crown. But it wasn’t her outfit that confused me. It was her aged appearance. Last time I’d seen her she looked like she’d done more than fifty hard years of living. Now, her pale, gnarled hand gripped a wooden cane adorned with bay leaves, white flowers, and blackberry vine, and her face had taken on the translucent, papery cast of an octogenarian.
I leaned over to Rhea. “Is the Queen ill?” I whispered.
Rhea frowned at me. “No, why?”
“She looks like she’s aged twenty or thirty years since I saw her in November.”
Rhea snorted before she could stop herself. A couple of tight-assed fae courtiers shot nasty glares in our direction. Rhea nodded to them and schooled her features. Leaning in, she whispered, “Remind me to give you a lesson in the Queen’s quadruple nature.”