Twenty-four hours later, Ellen Brézé whistled softly as Adrian handed her out of the cab in the chill dampness of the Paris night and she looked up at the palace.
"Well, that's quite something. Rococo, Louis XV, and well done. Very impressive."
"In more senses than one," Adrian answered grimly. "Particularly if you know the history. The history of my family, near enough."
The great house—or small palace—was shaped like an elongated H in form, the front court enclosed by the outer arms and more courtyards within down the length of it. The frontage was pale stone, three stories high with engaged columns. Light streamed out of the tall windows, but outside the illumination was from iron crescents of burning wood, shedding highly illegal sparks along with a yellow-red light that flickered across the wet stone. Footmen in eighteenth-century liveries and white powdered wigs were bowing the guests up the sweeping stairs to the gates. They were just as politely attentive to the pair of Siberian tigers padding by as they were to the ones in top-hat and frock coat, or Jazz Age beaded dresses, classical kimonos, Chinese changsan or Zulu outfits of cow's-tails and leopard skins.
A frieze of running low-relief wolves gamboled above the entranceway amid lambs and babies.
"That's a joke, right?" Ellen said.
"The center of the ancestral estates was known as Beauloup, from the thirteenth century and possibly earlier," Adrian said. "Domain of the Beautiful Wolf. A very ancient family joke. Individuals strong enough to nightwalk came along every few generations back then. They did not understand genetics, but they did marry their cousins, or worse. And the genes... reach back along the lines of descent, from future to past, protecting their own potential existence. They want to find each other."
"Jesus, them and the One Ring. Ah, and the little symbol too."
That was a motif set into the wrought iron of the gates, a jagged gilt trident across a broken black circle representing a shattered sun. The sigil of the Order of the Black Dawn, and the Council of Shadows.
"And they say you're stuck with your in-laws. How true," Ellen said, tucking her hand into Adrian's arm as he threw back his cape.
The Hôtel de Brézé had been built when the French nobility abandoned the more central, medieval Marais district for the Faubourg Saint-Germain, then a greenfield suburb made newly fashionable by Louis XIV.
The Revolution had come and gone; young Henri de Beauloup had reopened the townhouse when he emerged from the family's discreet retirement to fight for Napoleon; indeed, that Emperor had referred to his exploits in Spain as showing that at least one of his cavalry commanders knew how to deal with rebels without false sentiment. Goya himself had painted several of those episodes, then kept the work secret for forty years.
Eventually, a Brézé with the Victorian taste for science and statistics had made the acquaintance of an obscure monk by the name of Gregor Mendel, and suppressed his findings while he applied the cleric's work to a breeding program that had previously relied on mere superstition and on incest practiced mainly for its own sake. Combined with the new science even his limited command of the Power had produced startling results. His far more adept son Étienne-Maurice Brézé had celebrated his own twenty-first birthday by torturing and butchering his father, in the waning days of the nineteenth century.
Inside the main doors the host was waiting, smiling, chatting with each guest as they entered and handed hats and cloaks to the servants... or in a few cases transformed back into human form and accepted robes. One had arrived as a golden eagle, flown into a window, and was now rubbing at his forehead and cursing in some language Ellen didn't even recognize, a brown-skinned man with a heavy bold features. Behind him a great silverpoint gorilla knuckled by, deep in soundless conversation with a blade-nosed man in a black burnouse and gutrah headdress, who fingered a curved knife thrust through his sash as if that was his hand's natural resting-place.
The Duc de Beauloup had been postcorporeal for over a century. The form he wore was his own, in what his own era considered the prime of life, so that he looked like a slim, swarthy, vital man of around forty. His height was average for the twenty-first century, which made him tall for a Frenchman of the nineteenth. The face was eerily similar to Adrian's, though blunter and somehow a little coarser. His black hair fell down his back nearly to his waist, the top layer gathered in a horse-tail by a jet clasp above the loose torrent below; he wore a full robe of thick black silk that swept the floor, embroidered with black yli-silk thread down the front panel and around the neck and cuffs.
The Shadowspawn's eyes were hot yellow pools, blank glowing fire. An attendant carried a sheathed sword, carefully keeping the hilt within reach, a gray shadow against the gilt and convolutions and worked plaster of the interior.
"Great-grandfather," Adrian said politely, bowing to kiss the extended hand and the golden ring with the Council's sigil.
"We have met twice in a year now, my descendant," the head of the Council said. "There is hope for you yet. And many of your earlier attempts to kill me for the Brotherhood terrorists were truly ingenious, worthy of a Brézé, if a trifle childish and impulsive."
And I thought I had a dysfunctional family! ran through Ellen's mind as she sank into a curtsey.
"One attempts to maintain some traditions, sire, even as a rebel," Adrian said coolly. "You have met Ellen."
The molten-sulfur eyes turned on her. For an instant Ellen felt a sensation roughly like the mental equivalent of having your skin plucked off with tweezers. Constructs Adrian had planted within her mind came alert with a clanging of internal barriers, and the Shadowspawn lord smiled.
"And your lovely and now very well-guarded wife," he said. "Enchanted, my dear." To Adrian: "There is even something to be said for it from a eugenic point of view. I have come to think that reconcentrating our heritage beyond a certain point is... problematic, is that the word currently used for possibly unwise?"
She could tell Adrian was actually interested now. "Why, Sire?" he said.
Étienne-Maurice smiled thinly. "Have you ever tried to compel a cat to obedience by inflicting pain upon it?" he said.
"No, I cannot say that I have," Adrian said carefully.
"An interesting but ultimately futile pursuit, producing only a thoroughly uncooperative cat. The most you can do is drive it away. Whereas with dogs, and of course humans, that approach often works well. I suspect that our remote ancestors were too much like cats for comfort; at least, for the comfort of those who seek to impose discipline and rule upon them."
Adrian nodded. "You were perhaps thinking of me, Sire?"
"And your sister. You are as near pureblood as we have achieved to date. And while your command of the Power is admirable, formidable... "
Adrian bowed wordless, polite thanks at the complement.
"... postcorporeally the command of the Power increases little by little anyway. I have more raw strength now than you, for example, however much you surpass what I had at your age and in the body. Given that there are certain drawbacks to excessive purity of blood... Perhaps it would be better to stop after we achieve consistent survival past the body's death, which would require a much lower score on the Albermann than you have, for example. Between fifty and sixty percent would do."
"Oh, you are always so serious, Étienne," a woman's voice said. "Wasting this splendid golden creature on mere breeding when she is obviously meant for pleasure!"
Seraphine Brézé's natural appearance—insofar as the term had any meaning with a postcorporeal—would have been very much like Adrian or his sister. Today she was wearing one of her victims, a petite Asian woman in a tight sheath crimson áo dài, slit nearly to the waist at the sides over some sort of hose and jeweled slippers. She had acquired it during the French conquest of Indochina, an after-dinner story of which she was fond. Her piled hair was secured by long golden pins whose ends were wrought into Art Nouveau butterflies by Lalique. She took her spouse's arm and smiled at them:
"Such a fascinating mind... it would be a pity not to kill her, a wonderful project spanning years, spanning circle upon descending circle of horror and pain, spiritual and physical torment and degradation complementing each other. Only a great soul is capable of a really satisfying despair, which adds so much to the experience..."
"My dear, you paint an enchanting picture, but perhaps another time?"
The doll-like face smiled at Ellen impishly. "They can be such... such grim puritans, the men, can they not?"
Ellen contented herself with another curtsey, and they moved ahead to let the next in line follow.
"You know," she said when they were hopefully out of earshot, "this assumption that I'd be a party pooper not to appreciate the grand fun of my own slow tortured demise gets really old, quickly. She isn't the first Shadowspawn to suggest it, either."
"Even humans are prone to solipsism," Adrian replied. "Imagine being a thing of murderous power and darkness and unfettered will for generation after generation... "
"I'd rather not," she said. Then, dropping into English because there were things you just had to say in your native tongue: "I'm not one to insist on vanilla heteronormativity. But why does coming into contact with this bunch make me feel I should be wearing a whole-body condom?"
"I presume that is a rhetorical question? The answer being because they are vile, degenerate and evil?"
"Yup, pretty much. What next?"
"My great-grandfather will want to torment us by delay, of course," Adrian said matter-of-factly. "And indeed with this Council meeting coming up—the first full gathering in decades—he will be very busy."
"Why Tbilisi, by the way? Why not here in Paris?"
"Two reasons. First, paleontologists working for the Council determined back in the twenties of the last century that the Shadowspawn probably evolved in the Caucasus late during the Riss glacial period, trapped in a little pocket by the ice. They escaped and overran the planet during the Riss-Würm interglacial, when the warmth returned."
"Some Empire of Shadow, putting the bite on lice-crawling cavemen and Neanderthals and those little hobbit thingies out in Indonesia."
Adrian shrugged. "The Order of the Black Dawn were depraved Satanists, but they were also Victorian romantics and loved dramatic grandiose titles and dressing up in elaborate costumes, imposing their own concepts upon the past. They thought of it as the French or British empires of their time, or those of Rome and Greece they had studied at school. Only more evil, with Wreaking, prehistoric beasts, better clothes and run by themselves."
"Great, Sir Walter Scott and Quo Vadis with magic powers and all done to an obbligato composed by demons."
Adrian nodded. "And so the meeting is a return to where we began."
"Oh, sort of a 'roots' thing."
"And... would you want this assembly of devils in your backyard any longer than you must, even if you were the arch-devil? In the meantime, we should circulate."
"Mill-and-swill at the serial killer's convention," Ellen said hollowly. "Joy."
He looked around and hissed slightly in anger, drawing a few dark looks or sets of barred teeth. Occasionally his body-language reminded you that he might think of himself as a human being, but his genes were another matter.
"I have never been in a single building with this many adepts present, all tangling the world-lines. It's like being blind. I dare not extend my senses! There are reasons Shadowspawn are not gregarious with their own kind."
"Yeah, you sort of cancel each other out."
Inwardly she shivered. In a way—several ways—outright fighting the Shadowspawn would be easier that socializing with them. More terrifying, more dangerous, but less...
Gruesome, she decided. Not least because if you're fighting them, you don't have to acknowledge they rule the planet, and don't run it only because then they'd have to work too hard, reading reports and going to meetings, and they don't do that because they're lazy. The Brotherhood's la resistance and not a very strong example of the type, either. Great-granddaddy back there is the Emperor of the World, or near as no matter, as long as he doesn't use the power so much it's obvious. And they're planning to remove that limit too.
The interior of the Hôtel was more or less standard Rococo, if of high standards. The gathering was a substantial one. Not only were many adepts here, but some brought their higher renfield aides, or a favored lucy or two, or both—Shadowspawn custom was to have humans about their gatherings, to damp down the primal emotions of their highly territorial breed. She'd heard it compared to control rods in a nuclear reactor. You could usually recognize the lucies by the haunted look in their eyes, and the renfields... well, if you knowingly served evil, it left its mark.
Some of both shot her looks that bordered on hatred. I'm popping their illusions about what they are.
Many of the Shadowspawn inclined their heads deferentially to Adrian, as to a walking legend. He'd killed more of their kind than any other individual in history, with the possible exception of Harvey Ledbetter, which was something that brought profound respect. Ellen surprised herself by feeling a perverse but warm sense of pride in the accomplishment. It wasn't as if they didn't deserve it. Or he had any choice.
No, he did have a choice. He could have joined his relatives and been a lord in darkness. He chose to fight for people instead of preying on them.
"Ah, my dear boy, you are in Paris once more!" a voice said.
It was apparently a man in his thirties, and to all appearances corporeal—his eyes were a common Shadowspawn color, very dark brown with yellow-amber flecks, like Adrian's. In fact he looked very much like Adrian, except that he was dressed in full Edwardian formal turnout, of a rather foppish nature—black swallowtail coat, double-breasted white piqué waistcoat, white tie, a double strip of black braid down the outside seam of his trousers, pearl and moonstone links and studs, and white kid gloves. A carnation graced the buttonhole.
"Great-great-uncle Arnaud. Not accompanied by thugs and trying to kill me on this occasion?"
Arnaud made an elegant gesture. "It would have been great fun to do so, and then throw your bride down across your corpse and ravish her in some amusing form and drain her, but it was the mere impulse of a moment. Something... told me it would be advisable."
"Ah, well, no hard feelings, then," Adrian said, and even Ellen could barely detect the ironic edge.
"None whatsoever!" Arnaud said cheerfully. "Another time. There are tiresome matters of business my so-arrogant brother has delegated."
"You volunteered? I was under the impression that you had spent an entire century in absolute idleness."
"I volunteered, but under threat of death."
"I am not surprised. Is there anyone even in the Council's ranks who does not desire to see you meet the Final Death?"
"Only those who have not met me," the dapper figure said with a charming grin. "But then, that is no particular distinction."
"Farewell, Arnaud. You may not be so lucky if you try to indulge another such impulse."
"We shall see."
The name rang a bell as he turned away; that and the style of dress.
"Was he the one who tried to kill Professor Duquesne last year?" she said. "Him and those hired goons."
That had been the first time she'd had someone try to kill her, and had to kill in self-defense. It had been necessary... but she would very much have preferred not to lose that particular virginity.
"And to kill us, yes."
"No hard feelings, then, but at the first opportunity... let's kill him. Nothing fancy, no artistic embellishments, just dead."
"He turned into a giant... that Madagascar lemur-eating cat thing just before he blew Dodge, the... "
"Fossa, yes. He spent some time there a century ago, or a little more. In la legion, oddly enough."
"What was a brother of the honcho doing as a Foreign Legionnaire back in the Beau Geste days?"
"Having fun, mostly. They had to be more... cautious, then, here in Europe. That was why Étienne-Maurice and Seraphine went on long holidays to the Congo Free State under Leopold, and to Mexico in the Porfiriato, to Yucatan and the Valle Nationale. Of course, Diaz and King Leopold were Shadowspawn themselves, albeit not of very pure blood. Leopold almost transitioned to postcorporeality, but not quite."
Something else teased at her mind as they strolled through the corridors and chambers. She thought for a moment and snapped her fingers.
An elegant sloe-eyed woman in a late Edwardian hobble skirt outfit that would have wowed them on the Titanic raised a lorgnette and stared at her for a moment before turning away to take a champagne flute from a tray. Her companion was a young-looking man in full fig of shaggy brown hair held back by an embroidered headband, long mustaches, tie-died shirt, fringed buckskin vest, bell-bottoms and love beads.
And for some reason it's more disturbing than all that Masterpiece Theatre and Downton Abbey stuff.
Her own grandfather might have dressed that way, if he'd been a privileged college kid in 1969 rather than a blue-collar draftee humping bad bush in Vietnam. She briefly met eyes as blue as her own before they reverted to slits of hot yellow.
She turned away and cleared her throat as she returned to the thought that had struck her: "Juste Aurèle Meissonier!"
"Who?" Adrian said.
"The designer who did this place. Juste Aurèle Meissonier. He was one of the Rococo greats, he did commissions all he way from Lisbon to St. Petersburg."
"Did I mention that?"
Adrian's brows went up. "Very thorough research. I remember hearing the name as a child, before Harvey... removed... me from the Brézé family, but offhand I would not know how to find out otherwise. The records all perished long ago in fires or other convenient accidents. Even the municipal maps show no building here, the databases have false images and data."
"Research, hell," Ellen said, glad to distract herself for a moment. "I thought I recognized the touch. All that overlapping asymmetric carved plasterwork on the ceiling and the surrounds? And those mirrors with the ormolu frames, and the engraved mahogany legs and intaglio tops on that side-table? Right out of Livres d'ornements en trente pieces. He was the Frank Lloyd Wright or Julia Morgan of his day, he designed everything from the building down to the shape of the chamberpots—he'd do your snuffbox, too, and the buckles on your shoes, if you'd let him."
"Isn't she a charming asset, not least culturally?" a warm voice said, a tone like a knife stroked over velvet. "I complement myself on your taste, and vice versa."
"Merde alors," Adrian said very quietly.
Ellen turned, making herself do it at a natural speed and sternly suppressing mingled impulses to scream and flee and draw her knife and attack. No nausea; she wouldn't permit it. Control the sudden pounding of her heart, and the rush of rage as Adrienne cocked an ear at the sound and sent her an air-kiss and playful-predatory snap of the teeth. The Shadowspawn woman was wearing a gown that was a shimmering black sheath, with her neck and shoulders covered in bands of wrought platinum and a headdress of the same framing her face. Ellen decided that she looked like a very elegant wasp.
For once, truth in advertising.
Then Adrienne smiled at Adrian, a roguish expression, as if inviting him to share a private joke. Standing within arm's reach of each other their likeness was shockingly apparent, the way identical twins would look if they came in different genders.
"How are the children?" she asked.
"Well, and well cared for," Adrian said neutrally. "Unfortunately I have not had time for much... personal interaction yet. They seem happy, from their auras and behavior."
"I told them that they might be visiting with their father's household and that they should not worry," Adrienne chuckled. "And of course I walk in their dreams."
"You told them?"
"I had a Seeing to that effect."
Adrian's brows rose; that was a term of art for detailed prescient dreams. They showed a future, since the course of events was probabilistic, not fixed, but a powerful adept could deduce how likely it was. Often the distinction between a high probability and utterly inexorable fate became very thin. The world had a massive inertia at times.
"I have always been more prone to those," he said clinically; an expert exchanging data with someone in the same field.
Adrienne nodded at her twin. "Yet they come to me occasionally, particularly on personal matters. I understand you have had several dealing with the results of the Trimback One and Two options. Great-grandpère takes your Seeings seriously. That has been quite useful to me in discrediting Trimback One."
Adrian's teeth showed. Trimback One was a global blitz on modern technology using electro-magnetic pulse from high-altitude fusion explosions. The more radically reactionary Shadowspawn lords favored it, to destroy the modern world and return the world to preindustrial stasis forever. It would be simple enough to do; all of the governments powerful enough to bother with had long been the Council's puppets. How could you resist ruthless telepaths who could walk through walls in the form of ravening beasts? A few orders to a few generals, and the thing was done.
His Seeings had shown that the consequences, from nuclear power plants melting down to firestorms in refinery complexes, were much worse than anyone had thought. Shadowspawn tended to be conservationists, because they all intended to live in the world for a very, very long time. And they dreaded radiation, since the aetheric body was so vulnerable to it.
Adrienne's Progressive faction favored Trimback Two, a tailored plague they had used renfield scientists to develop. Dalager's Parasmallpox was more contagious than the flu throughout its month-long sub-clinical period, and then swiftly more deadly than Ebola in its final stage. The Council could emerge at just the right point with the vaccine, when everyone was utterly desperate but before things broke down completely, and take over open rule of the world by default. A world with just enough population and industry to furnish the Shadowspawn with luxuries, and a unified planetary government to keep the masses in order and suppress inconvenient research.
Virtually all of the Council's Shadowspawn favored one or the other, reluctant as they usually were to disturb the status quo; that was why a full meeting had been called after decades of squabbling. More and more humans had been stumbling on aspects of the great secret, and none of the clandestine rulers of the world were willing to chance the masses becoming aware of who had been pulling the strings this past century. If all the swarming billions of true humanity turned on the few Shadowspawn and their collaborators at once regardless of casualties... the Power was strong and subtle, but more subtle than strong. Brute force could turn the nocturnis back into a harried remnant hiding from the witchfinders.
"It was not my intention to aid you," Adrian said crisply. "Both options are psychopathic revenge fantasies. The main difference is that Trimback One is a stupid revenge fantasy."
"While Two is Brézé, hence brilliant... and psychopathic and cruel. And of course it wasn't your intention to help me, beloved brother. That is the delicious aspect, no? Your Seeings are trusted because you are known to be sentimental about the apes and favor neither option; yet your Power and skill and purity of blood are incontestable... like mine. In the meantime, as far as the children are concerned, perhaps we should launch a custody battle in the California courts?"
She laughed musically. "As opposed to the battle with assault rifles and Wreaking you staged to seize them from my wicked clutches, slaughtering my renfields and mercenaries left and right? Showing such noble determination to put the children's moral welfare ahead of the mere bagatelle of risk to their lives."
The woman beside her winced. Monica, Ellen thought. But blond. Even the eyebrows... must be a Wreaking... oh, icky-poo, it makes her look even more like me. Adrienne probably role-plays that she is me... oh, très icky-poo.
The two Shadowspawn had locked eyes, something halfway between wrestling and communication taking place on a level she couldn't follow, with a feeling like trains rushing past in total darkness close enough to feel the hot metal brush you. Adrian made a very small gesture with his left hand, and Ellen fell back six paces; it put her back against a pillar and gave her room to act if it came to a fight. It probably wouldn't... that would be a social solecism by Shadowspawn standards... but you never knew.
Then the tension broke slightly; Ellen could feel it recede, more conspicuous by its absence.
"Phew! Now that was nerve-wracking! It's so good to see you again, Ellen!" Monica said, in her perky SoCal accent with the rising inflection on every sentence. "I'd give you a hug, but—"
She looked down at her dress. It was a sleeveless jade-green silk affair with a plunging décolletage; a wide diamond-encrusted belt cinched in her waist, matching the diamonds edging the asymetrical neckline.
"— I'm not really dressed for it! I mean, we're not that sort of friends!"
"Yeah, that outfit's stunning, really, but it must be held up by a Wreaking," Ellen said, which was true enough.
Monica chuckled. "You should have seen what I was wearing last night for the walk home. It wowed 'em, let me tell you, but there were goosebumps."
"Ummmm... I see you're blond these days? I'm surprised."
Monica gave a little crow of laughter. "Not as surprised as I was! I staggered into the bathroom that morning, and I was platinum. Platinum everywhere."
"That must have been... alarming."
"It's a good thing my kids were staying with Mom, because I screamed the house down. But it was sort of funny once I calmed down, it usually is after a shrieking fit. You know how the Doña is, she loves a joke. The blond stays that way, too, no need for follow-ups and it doesn't even dry the hair or give you split ends. Beats Madame Clairol all to hell!"
Monica beamed at the younger woman, and Ellen responded with a smile of her own, a little unwillingly.
Miss Stockholm Syndrome of Simi Valley, Class of 2012, she thought mordantly. Which is very true, but not the whole story. Poor Monica!
"I've missed you. The Tennis Club in Rancho Sangre have all missed you," Monica went on. "And Josh and Sophia have missed you."
Those were her children, and charming. Ellen blinked in surprise as she realized she actually had missed Monica's kids a bit, when there was time to think. They'd been next-door neighbors for months, after all. Granted they'd been months of sadism and torture and abuse both mental and physical, subtle and overt, seasoned with mind-crushing fear and horror. And that all of it still gave her nightmares and cold sweats. None of it had been Monica's fault, and she'd done everything she could to make Ellen welcome, right down to dropping by the first day with home-made lasagna and brownies.
The Welcome Wagon of Nosferatu Manor, Ellen thought. I thought she was insane then, and she is. Functional, but insane... and there are times when insanity is what keeps you from going crazy, here in the unreal Real World, ™.
"Lucy Lane is sort of lonely these days, since Jabar left—"
He'd run away, and been hunted down, by Adrienne and her postcorporeal parents. She didn't want to imagine what they'd done in the course of his polluted death, but couldn't help getting ideas.
"- and with you gone, and Peter, and Cheba, and Jose retired—he's married, did you know? His wife's expecting, she's a really nice girl, Vietnamese parents, they invite me over fairly often. I suppose the Doña will bring more people in eventually, when things settle down, but it won't be the same. The good old days, eh? Remember those Saturday potluck barbecues we all used to have, and the afternoon tennis at the club?"
"Ah—" Ellen said. "You know, I really like you, Monica, and you were always good to me. But the Rancho was a nightmare, and did you ever notice that Jose aside people on Lucy Lane mostly just die eventually unless they escape? As in, she kills them?"
"Well, it's my home, you know, Ellen, and it's really not very cool to be judgmental about other people's relationships... oh, let's not quarrel," she said, and cocked an eye at Adrian. "Mmmm, nice. I never saw him in his own human form before. He was in disguise that time he came to the Ranch and took you away. Is that the body, or aetheric?"
"The real him."
"He looks just as sexy in person as when the Doña puts on his seeming. She's done that with me a couple of times when she was nightwalking in his form, and my, my, my, no complaints, floor to ceiling and lively. It makes a nice change from, you know. Not that that's not fun too."
Ellen opened her mouth and then closed it. The Shadowspawn could assume the form of anyone or anything when they went Nightwalking, as long as they had a DNA sample to model on; that was one source of the succubus-incubus legends, as well as the myth about vampirism being catching. Adrienne had done that switcheroo into Adrian's form with her once. It still wasn't an image she wanted to have in her head, and thinking about Monica in that context...
Oh, twice over I do not want that image in my head.
"So how is he at the tying up and whipping thing?" Monica said cheerfully; she'd always been a chatterbox with a poor sense of boundaries. "The Doña is still using that lovely little nine-tailed silk switch she found in your stuff on me, and those restraints. You really broadened her horizons, you know, made her try more subtle methods and I'm having such a good time! Well, I always did, after I, umm, got used to things, but it's even better. Thanks!"
"Ah... glad to be of service, Monica." I think.
"Well, I'll see you around," she said warmly, as Adrienne turned and sauntered away, raising one hand, snapping her fingers without looking around and crooking a finger. "Duty calls."
Ellen put a hand over her eyes for a second. Adrian touched her gently on one shoulder. "My darling?" he said softly.
"You know, your sister just loves to put thumbtacks in people's heads. Not just in person, either."
"We have been married less than a year, yet already our thoughts move in tandem. It would have been even more unpleasant without you. Though the metaphor I used to myself was fishhooks."
Ellen thought for a moment, then nodded. "Better choice of words. Fishhooks come with lines attached, so you can pull on them. How is it that she's planning to destroy the world and she still finds time for this?"
"It's all part of her plan. Also... I did tell you how she would punish her dolls when we were children?"
Ellen shivered and nodded; she knew exactly how the toys would have felt, if they'd been sentient beings.
Being Shadowspawn means you never have to grow up.
She liked children, but children were like housecats, safe to be around because they were small and relatively powerless. Jillyboo the Kitten was loveable and amusing. Jillyboo the five-hundred-pound tiger wasn't. And a tantrum or cruel impulse with the Power behind it...
"You know, I don't think Adrienne would make a very good ruler of the world," Ellen said. "Though she'd enjoy the hell out of it. I can see her issuing National Misery Quotient targets at meetings, and starting a Disaster Production Agency."
"My great-grandfather has no intention of retiring from his position as Emperor of the Earth at any time in the next few millennia. He does not approve of... "
"Klingon promotion," Ellen said. "At least, not for other people doing it to him."
They looked at each other and smiled grimly. Ellen felt a knot relax slightly in her middle, and she was conscious of her hunger in a way that nerves had suppressed. A servant passed by with a tray of canapés. She reached for one, then had a sudden horrid thought and glanced at Adrian. He shook his head.
"With the al-Lanarkis, you would have to be careful about the kebabs and shwarma. They always thought of themselves as ghūl, ghouls, and their favorite transformation is to cave hyenas."
Ellen shuddered and rolled her eyes. "And cave hyenas, I suppose, are big."
"Two hundred and fifty, three hundred pounds. The size of a smallish lion."
"What is it with Shadowspawn and the huge? Freudian, much?"
Adrian smiled at her. "Size is not altogether to be despised. I have transformed into a giraffe on occasion."
"A giraffe?" she said, and he nodded solemnly. "What's it like?"
"Peaceful. Extremely peaceful. And the view, my darling, is superb. Not just the height, but the two-hundred-and-seventy degree arc of the eyes... "
She laughed, relaxed despite herself. He went on:
"And with some of the other families one must be cautious as well; the von Trupps, for example, who are deeply committed to the werwolf legend."
She nodded understanding as he used the Germanic v pronunciation. Before the eugenic program of the Victorian period, the part-breed witch-clans had mostly believed the legends that were based on their own remote ancestors. They still formed part of the family traditions.
He went on: "But the Brézés traditionally took only the blood. When they were in human form, at least. Cooking humans would be... intolerably crude. This is, you understand, an aesthetic and culinary judgment, not a moral one."
The liveried servant had halted with blank-faced politesse, the big wrought-silver tray held at a perfect angle. Ellen wondered how he'd ended up here, if some household renfields hadn't simply kidnapped him because they needed a footman. He was so polished that even thought seemed to glance off—which was probably a survival skill in his position, working for people who might suddenly decide you looked better with your hair on fire or transfer you from the staff to the menu. She took one of the beignets D'Huitres au vin and followed it with a concoction of fig jam and foie gras with a very slight touch of cinnamon on a piece of baguette.
Adrian offered her a glass of wine and his arm, and they strolled off down a corridor. He gently steered her from chamber to chamber, which was normally something she didn't like outside the bedroom. After something glimpsed out of the corner of her eye through a set of great doors she was grateful. She wasn't sure what it had been and forced her mind not to speculate.
At least I don't have to sense what's going on in the private rooms the way he does. Christ, I'm partying in the middle of a mass murder. Getting case-hardened or what?
"Like Grand Guignol," she murmured. "But for real."
"My darling, who do you think founded the Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol? And formed a good many of the audience? And it was real, often enough."
"You're joking, aren't—" she winced at the sadness with which he shook his head. "Oh, man... "
They gravely examined painting and sculpture, and in a few minutes her interest was genuine. The Hôtel de Brézé wasn't exactly a museum, but it had been in the family's hands a long time, and they collected. In recent generations, by just walking off with anything they fancied, starting with the Louvre, too. The management of the museums and galleries simply substituted fakes.
A servant coughed discreetly, and her heart thudded. The disadvantage of living in a place like this was that things could be very far apart indeed; it took ten minutes to bring them to the library the master had chosen. An odd-looking group—dark men and women wearing striped ponchos and derby-style hats—was leaving as they arrived.
When they entered the Duc de Beauloup was sitting in a leather chair before a fire, cradling a brandy snifter while Seraphine leaned against the mantle with hers; she was wearing a new form, a slender freckled redhead with great brilliant green eyes, in a 50's-style Chanel classic, the Little Black Dress.
"Peruvians," Étienne-Maurice said, with a weight of disgust, and his wife laughed.
Adrian raised an eyebrow. His great-grandfather went on:
"Your Californian branch of the family is responsible. They brought the message of our discoveries to the Andes for the Council. The Spanish-speakers are well enough, for Spaniards, if a trifle provincial and given to hidalgo airs. But the cult up in the Andes called themselves lik'ichiri, fat-stealers, and dealing with them is... ah, but enough of that. Even the Power cannot turn a dirty dog of a savage with a bone through his nose and a tom-tom fixation into something worthy of civilized company."
Ellen blinked. Remember, born in the 1870's, she told herself. Hasn't seen sunlight since Hitler was a two-bit agitator in Munich.
It was surprising how dealing with an inhuman monster became so much more difficult when he also had the all-too-human casual prejudices of someone born shortly after the Franco-Prussian war.
The décor of the library was Victorian rather than Louis XV, dark woods and books and carved oak, globes and mounted maps and a few stuffed animal heads. Which was natural enough, he was old but not Louis XV old like the Hôtel; this study would have been very mildly out of date when he was a young man. There was a faint smell of fine tobacco beneath the leather and old books, and Isfahan rugs that looked as if they were from the same generation as their owner.
She'd gotten used to that scent because Adrian smoked occasionally—a purebred couldn't get cancer. Even with environmental insults like tobacco smoke, that required bad luck on the cellular level.
I don't think the Pompidou Center has much future if the Empire of Shadow ever comes back full-bore. I suspect great-granddaddy there would have everything built after he went postcorporeal torn down.
Adrienne entered a moment later, alone: she wouldn't bring a lucy to a conference. In a way, it was an affirmation of Ellen's status—the Shadowspawn operated in families like the Mafia, only with a bit less old-time sexism since the Power had never been a respecter of gender. In another, it was a one-up for Adrienne, that she dared leave Monica unattended. She was probably terrified, and not in a good way...
The servant picked up a crystal decanter that gleamed with a silvery sheen like polished hematite, marked with platinum fleur-de-lis designs. He poured three more glasses, offered them about, then retired to the doorway, standing with his hands crossed before him. Ellen suddenly noticed that he had a tiny radio-bud in one ear, nearly hidden by the antique wig. She sat silently, sniffed aromas of vanilla and spiced flowers, then let the Black Pearl run over her tongue like the essence of passion fruit and sandalwood.
"Very nice," she said.
Actually true. I never liked brandy until Adrian introduced me to the real thing. And I have to keep the Demon King there sweet, if we're to have any chance of blocking Adrienne's coup and then springing our own surprise on her. Which means I have to help save great-grandpa... for now. Politics makes strange... oh, God, get that image out of my head!
"Thank you, sire," she went on.
Étienne-Maurice inclined his head with a gracious-host smile. "Quite good, is it not? A blend of over a thousand eaux-de-vie, I understand, some of them laid down before I was born and none less than forty years old. There are things this modern age does better, even if the aesthetics are deplorable. When I still dwelt in the flesh I sampled cognac put in the oak during the reign of the first Napoleon, and it was not quite so fine. Less subtle, though of course my perceptions have improved."
He nodded to Adrienne. "A point you have made to me, ma fille. If we deny the humans all their inventions, there is so much less we can take for ourselves. After all, where would we be if my own father had not been scientific and progressive, in his way?"
Adrienne made a wordless sound of appreciation as she sipped her own, with her eyes held reverently closed for a moment before she spoke. The Brézés might not be really human, but they were certainly old-style French about some things. Ellen thought her appreciation was genuine, not just flattery:
"I shall add this to my mental cellar, sire, for only in trance will I see its equal, alas. Also, if we returned the world to the dark ages I would miss my aircraft. And motorcycles and fashion shows, for that matter. Castles are so drafty and boring! And I prefer my victims to wash and not have skin diseases."
The lord of the Shadowspawn put his snifter down and made a small gesture over it to keep the servant from refilling.
"So, Adrian," he said after a brooding stare over steepled fingers. "You claim that Adrienne is attempting to use a rogue Brotherhood agent to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the Council meeting, despite my embracing her policy preferences? Presumably to wipe us all out and leave her and her faction to inherit the Throne of the World after the humans are put in their place."
Seraphine smiled, covering her lips for a moment with two fingers as if smothering a chuckle. Adrian kept his face expressionless as he nodded.
"In essence, yes, sire."
Adrienne chuckled and shook her head indulgently. "And I am supposed to be concealing a nuclear weapon from nearly a thousand powerful adepts... in what way or manner, exactly? If I could Wreak on that level, I would be God. Not a God, the God. Which would be delightful, but which is beyond even my ambitions at present."
Étienne-Maurice raised his glass and tilted it, viewing the low flames through the dark honey-colored liquid.
"That is the crux of the matter, is it not? I could not conceal such a weapon, not if I intended to use it so. If you know of such a means, Adrian, will you drop your shields so that I may verify?"
"If Adrienne will do the same," Adrian said.
Something went clank in Ellen's head, Wreakings activating to conceal her thoughts, and suddenly all her emotions felt curiously muffled and distant, as if she had just taken a heavy hit of Percocet. It was actually rather welcome in itself, since what she'd been feeling was mostly fear and loathing, but this was the crisis point. If Adrienne was willing to do that, then the Brotherhood's secret would be out. That would be a disaster, and destroy the first real advantage the Brotherhood had ever had in the long war: Adrian had given every oath he could think of to its commanders, and submitted to Wreakings that made it impossible for him to betray it to his kin, despite the fact that it would instantly make his story of the smuggled bomb credible.
Adrienne had ferretted it out, of course. If she agreed to open her mind, the secret would be revealed.
Thankfully, the chances of that are—
"No, of course I will not," Adrienne said cheerfully. "What, and expose my plots?"
Ellen closed her eyes in relief and completed the thought: —very low. Then she finished off the brandy to hide the gesture.
"What, you are plotting against me? I am shocked, chère pucelle, shocked to the depths of my wicked soul," Étienne-Maurice said.
He and his wife and great-granddaughter all laughed, his deep, Seraphine's silvery, Adrienne's warm and soft. Ellen shivered slightly. Adrian's face showed nothing at all.
I have met a family that's worse than mine was. And the drawback of being totally—justifiably—paranoid is that it makes you more vulnerable to treachery, not less. Because he assumes she's always been plotting against him along with everyone else, the real plot vanishes in the background noise. It's... diabolical. It is so fucking Adrienne!
A touch on her arm told her that Adrian had picked the thought out of her head, though she wouldn't have been surprised if both of them had had it at once anyway.
"And so this accusation... one cannot take it seriously," Seraphine said.
Étienne-Maurice cocked an eyebrow. "That does not mean it should not be dealt with at all, or that there is no element of truth involved. I will arrange a ritual this evening... there is certainly enough talent available. Eastern Anatolia, you say, Adrian? I never liked the area, though the Armenian business had a certain crude grandeur—that was the al-Lanarkis, of course. Throwing a curse in that general direction will be a... pardon the expression... good deed."
"Yes, sire," Adrian said, rising and bowing. "I would not presume to advise you on the details of a black curse."
"If I did not know better, I could find an accusation in that!"
Seraphine wiggled her fingers at Adrienne. "Perhaps you would join me instead?" she said. "There is a... guest. A very sincere young priest—a rarity in these degenerate times. I have an amusing scenario in mind, involving a form I picked up in the 40's of the last century, a gloriously beautiful youth of fifteen, just barely sufficiently ripe."
"That would be lovely, madame," Adrienne said cheerfully.
In the corridor outside Ellen shivered. "That went better than I thought it might," she said. "Essentially, we won... sorta."
"And yet Adrienne is not dissatisfied. That is a bad sign."
"Would she let you know if she was doing a slow burn?"
Adrian quirked an eyebrow. "She and I are twins; she could not entirely conceal it. She is planning some devilment, probably by proxy. And we have many vulnerabilities."
Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>