“Mind giving me a quick overview in the meantime?”
“She ages twenty-one years every season, which takes her through all the stages of a female’s life—child, maiden, mother, crone. It’s winter, so right now she’s in her crone stage. Just before the spring equinox, she’ll die and come back as a child and start the whole cycle over again.”
I pulled back, giving Rhea a no-shit look. My mentor nodded to assure me she wasn’t kidding. “That’s fucked up.”
I turned my gaze back on the Queen, looking at her with new eyes.
“Each new equinox and solstice takes the Queen into a new stage of life. That’s why the courtiers’ costumes and customs always correspond to the seasons. They’re honoring each new stage of her life.”
“I always wondered about that. I guess it makes sense, though.”
Rhea nodded. “That’s also why they wanted to get the treaty signed now,” Rhea continued. “The closer she gets to spring, the weaker she becomes.”
I nodded, my eyes still on the regent. She had to be thousands of years old. And each of those years she’d sped through a complete life cycle. No wonder she was so bitchy. I would be, too, if I had to go through puberty again every year for millennia.
Onstage, Orpheus rose and clacked his gavel on the table. Normally, the beginning of diplomatic speeches would have me sighing and preparing for hours of boredom. But Rhea had told me the leaders all decided to keep the long speeches to a minimum. Everyone, it seemed, just wanted the peace treaty signed, sealed, and sanctified.
After brief opening remarks where he welcomed everyone, Orpheus surrendered the stage to Maisie. “And now, Maisie Graecus, High Priestess of the Chaste Moon and the Oracle of New York, will offer the traditional Imbolc prophecy for the coming year.”
I crossed my arms and braced myself for the moment of truth. Even though Rhea claimed Maisie was ready to deliver a prophecy, I knew better than to relax. After everything we’d been through with my twin, I couldn’t quite trust that one dream incubation miraculously cured her.
Maisie rose from her seat. She wore a white chiton that skimmed her curves. Her hair was wrapped into a chignon at the nape of her slender neck and her skin glowed in the torchlight. I couldn’t tell if her improved appearance was the result of a glamour or if the incubation had improved her overall health, but she looked beautiful and every inch the High Priestess.
I held my breath as she gathered herself to speak. This was her first public appearance since she’d returned to New York. She’d been in the Council meetings, of course, but a room full of allies is a world of difference from an official gathering where everyone was depending on her to predict a peaceful resolution to centuries of hostilities.
“The Goddess has blessed me with a vision,” Maisie said without preamble. A gasp rippled through the crowd from the assembled mages. Despite Orpheus’s best efforts to keep her struggles under wraps, I found it hard to believe that the wider mage community hadn’t speculated about the Oracle’s lack of visions over the last several months. Even if they hadn’t known, Maisie finally sharing a vision was an auspicious sign for the proceedings. But for me it was a sign that there was still hope for my sister. “The gods have spoken and the drums of war have been silenced. The white stag stands in the crossroads, ready to lead all the dark races to a different future.”
I stilled. The white stag? Surely she didn’t mean the same one that scared her in her dreams. I knew from past conversations that Maisie’s prophecies were often difficult to take at face value. Often, the complex symbolism of the dreams had several layers of meanings. Still, it seemed too much of a coincidence. I looked at Rhea, who leaned toward me and said, “In many folk traditions, the white stag leads people to their destiny.” She patted my leg and looked back at the stage.
Maisie continued in a tone I didn’t recognize. Almost as if she were speaking in a trance. Figuring she was just playing up the Oracle role, I leaned forward to hear more. “The blue and the red will finally unite. As one, they will soar over vast seas and dine on olive leaves. The Great Mother will hold them close to her bosom and her blessings will shine upon them.” She paused for that to sink in. “The Goddess has spoken. So mote it be.”
With that, the sacred grove fell into reverential silence. I let out the breath I’d been holding. I wasn’t sure exactly what the prophecy meant, but it certainly sounded positive. Blue and red could easily symbolize mages and vampires, respectively. And olive leaves? Weren’t they a symbol of peace? There was no mistaking that the blessings of the Great Mother were auspicious. Yeah, I decided. The vision was definitely positive.
Others must have agreed because applause rippled through the crowd. Slowly at first, and then gaining energy. Soon the night sky was filled with praises to Hekate and Diana and Lilith. Everyone, it seemed, let out a collective sigh of relief.
Onstage, Orpheus rose and embraced Maisie. She sagged in his hold, as if delivering the prophecy had weakened her. Over his shoulder, her eyes met mine. I don’t know if it was a twin thing or if some magical energy was at work, but the look in her eyes made me shudder. She looked away then, as if she couldn’t stand the scrutiny.
That’s when I knew my sister had lied. Whether she’d made up the whole thing or left something important out, I didn’t know. But something was definitely wrong.
Out of habit, my gaze sought Adam. He stood still behind Orpheus, surrounded by cheering beings. But his eyes were on Maisie, watching her with a look I knew well. It was the same one he directed at me when he suspected I was up to something. I willed him to look at me. Finally, his gaze shifted, seeking me out as if summoned. Our eyes locked. A question passed between us, but no answers. He broke the contact first, and I felt the loss of connection viscerally, like he’d withdrawn physical contact, as well.
But before I could figure out what had happened, Orpheus spoke again and yielded the podium to Tanith. She rose regally, like she had been born to the purple instead of earning her title through trickery and backstabbing. All around, the mages in the audience tensed, as if expecting Tanith to call her vampire compatriots to fangs. After all, the last time vampires had stepped foot on this sacred ground it had been to murder their family members.
The Despina smiled at the crowd like a polished politician. “High Councilman Orpheus, thank you for the warm welcome. I speak for all vampires when I say we have eagerly awaited this auspicious moment in history. Thank you also to my good friend Queen Maeve”—she turned to smile at the fae regent—“for your hospitality and support through the rough weeks leading up to and following my predecessor’s defeat.”
I noticed she didn’t actually say Lavinia’s name. Smart.
“My advisors tell me that Imbolc is a time of new beginnings for both mage-and fae-kind. The perfect time, then, for all the dark races to finally rise above centuries of animosity to join together in peace.” She paused to let the audience know they were expected to clap. And they did, just as she knew they would. “I am delighted by the Oracle’s fortuitous augury this evening. It answers all our prayers for a peaceful future.”
Another round of applause. “And in the spirit of new beginnings, I have an exciting announcement to make.” She paused, drawing out the suspense. “Earlier this evening, Sabina Kane, High Priestess of the Blood Moon and beloved daughter of one of the most noble vampire families in the history of our race, agreed to accept the position of the vampire governor of New York.”
“Oh, shit!” Giguhl hissed. I jumped out of my chair before I realized what I was doing. Rhea’s hands grabbed at me, making me sit down. “Not now,” she said, her tone firm.
If Tanith noticed my outrage, she covered it smoothly. “As both vampire and mage, Sabina is the perfect symbol of the new spirit of cooperation between both our races.”
All those years of yearning to be accepted by my vampire side. All that energy wasted on wanting to be acknowledged as more than just the bastard child of a forbidden love affair. All of those times when I’d felt the sting of rejection from my own blood kin. All that history had coalesced into this crystalline moment. I should have felt triumphant, fulfilled.
Instead, I felt betrayed and used. I’d become nothing more than a convenient symbol in a public relations campaign. It didn’t matter that I’d thrown their offer in their faces. Or that they both knew that even given time to consider, I’d refuse again.
I was so angry, my vision filled with red static. But worse than the anger was the helplessness, the fucking impotence. I couldn’t renounce the Despina of the vampire race two seconds before she and the other leaders signed the peace treaty. No, I couldn’t call Tanith out. And I couldn’t kill her. But at that moment, I certainly felt capable of it. Luckily, Rhea maintained her grip on my arm, a not-so-subtle reminder to keep it together long enough for the treaty to be signed.
Orpheus sat still, his eyes averted from mine. His expression stoic, resolved. And standing behind him, Adam looked as if he’d been sucker punched. He looked right at me, his expression a mix of betrayal and shock. Clearly, he believed I’d known all about this and hadn’t told him. Considering our last argument had been about my vampire nature, he probably felt this was some sort of sick move on my part to embrace that side of my nature. After all, the position would make me one of the most powerful vampires on the East Coast. I tried to shake my head, to show him this wasn’t my fault, but his eyes skittered away as if he couldn’t bear to look at me any longer.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, I felt Alexis’s glare on my forehead like a target. I ignored her. Her wounded pride was the least of my worries.
“I am also told it is customary at Imbolc feasts to offer toasts with spiced wine,” Tanith continued. She nodded to a servant bearing a tray of goblets offstage. The female rushed up the stairs and proceeded to set the goblets in front of Orpheus, Tanith, and the Queen. “So before we sit down to sign the treaty that will unite us all, let me be the first.” Tanith lifted her goblet and waited for the other leaders to raise theirs as well. “To a future filled with tolerance, cooperation, and, most of all, friendship for all the dark races.” She looked up to the sky. “Great Goddess Lilith, mother of all the dark races, bless all your children on this sacred night. To peace!”