Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen

"Your room, Councilman Rivera," the butler announced, opening the wide French doors of the suite and standing back to allow Damali and Carlos to proceed ahead of him. He motioned for the henchman to bring in their luggage, and addressed the maids. "Let there be nothing that our honored guests call for that hasn't been supplied." He turned to Damali and Carlos. "Pull the bell tapestry, and they will be at your service."

The ebullient manservant waited as Carlos perused the villa-sized suite. A small Greek-styled fountain running blood with a Grecian stone love seat surrounding it was the focal point in the outer room. A long marble bar was to the left, and was filled with the black private-label bottles that he'd come to know by now contained blood. Tuscany-designed stools faced it, and just beyond the bar, two Egyptian carved stone doors opened out to a castle terrace. To his right was an overstuffed Louis the XIX - style sofa and matching chair upholstered in burgundy satin, with an armoire and German writing desk beside it. Just beyond the fountain was a long, eighteenth-century, plantation-style banquet table with full linen, ornate candelabra, and two high-back, midnight blue silk upholstered chairs.

The spoils of war, Carlos thought to himself, as he checked the ornate stone doors that led to the terrace, coming away satisfied that the light seal on the room was adequate.

"Shall I turn down your bed for you before dawn?" the servant asked, his voice rich and inviting.

"No," Carlos said as he walked toward the bedroom, holding Damali's elbow, "but I do want to appraise the seal in there."

The butler nodded and followed the couple through the inner-room, double-steel doors that were engraved with Hell's crest, down five steps into the sunken inter sanctum. He pulled heavy burgundy drapes away from the terrace's vault doors and stood back as Carlos inspected the room.

Fully keening his senses to detect a possible threat, Carlos spun the heavy gold-plated airlock mechanism that allowed him to pass out of the room and onto the terrace through one ton of banker's steel. He glanced back toward Damali and addressed the butler.

"Can my wife close these easily?" he asked, not waiting for an answer as he strolled out to the terrace and glanced down the two hundred foot cliff-side decent into thunderous surf.

"To be sure, Councilman," the butler replied. "These have been balanced to Masonic-level specifications."

Carlos nodded, satisfied, and snapped his fingers to call his dogs. "I want one on the terrace and one posted outside in the hallway at all times - and only I feed them."

The butler again nodded, the small retinue of staff watching Carlos's every move, occasionally glancing at Damali. Carlos scanned the steepled ceiling over the bed, his eyes narrowing to be sure there was no light source that could cook them both at dawn, then his gaze slowly roved over the crŠme and burgundy raw silk wallpaper to ensure there were no hidden panels or secret doors that could be opened. He nodded to the butler to pull back the drapes surrounding the bed that sat in the middle of the floor fully curtained by thick Turkish tapestries, his gaze scanning the lush Moorish textiles on the double-wide king-sized bed.

His eyes took their time sliding over the exquisite Egyptian cottons, raw silks from Asia, and burgundy goose-down duvet. The bed sat up high on a three-foot solid marble pedestal, but after assessing it, he nodded. He just needed to first be sure that there was no portal beneath the bed.

The huge French armoire, antique dresser, and ladies vanity sans mirror checked out. But the bathroom could pose unimaginable risks. He and the butler shared a knowing glance, and one of the maids came to Carlos's side. He leaned in to her throat and caught her scent as her eyes slid shut. He could feel her near ready to arch into his hold. Definitely vamp. She'd do.

"Would you mind turning on the water sources for me?" he murmured to her, giving Damali a glance to be cool and remain steady.

"As you like, sir," the female vamp said, her voice husky as she left his side, beckoning him with her eyes to follow her.

All burgundy marble surrounded them, gold fixtures looming out from the oversized, kidney-shaped Jacuzzi canopied by sheers. The maid ran the tap, and dipped her fingers in the thick spray as it gurgled loudly to demonstrate that no holy water sabotage had been committed, smiling when the tension left Carlos's body. Then she switched another lever so that pure blood ran into the tub, then pulled her hand back and licked her fingers. She then went to the double sink across the room and performed the same test, even testing the commode and bidet for him.

Upon his nod, the maid sauntered past Damali at the door and stood by the butler, her appraisal of Carlos nearly a challenge to the first lady.

"Thank you," Carlos finally said. "Everything appears to be in order."

"Do summon us, sir, should you or your lovely wife require anything before dawn."

Damali watched the staff back out of the main vault door, and then hastily exit the suite. She moved like someone punch-drunk�a little wobbly on her feet, staring at first one thing then another, glancing back to Carlos, and then shaking her head.

"This is outrageous," she whispered.

He smiled. "Care to take a stroll on the terrace?"

He came to her side and ushered her to the smooth, centuries-old stone lookout post of the fort, watching the night wind lift her locks and caress her hair. He brought her to the railing and chuckled to himself as his dog got up grumbling at having to move to accommodate Damali.

Somehow the insistent pound of the surf, the sting of the salt air in the most precious hours of the night, drew his arms to encircle her while she stared out, her back melding against his chest... the smell of her hair an intoxicant.

"You happy?" he asked into the crown of her head as he kissed it.

"This is gorgeous," she murmured, closing her eyes. "At this height you almost feel like you're wind, part of it, as though you can fly."

"You can," he said, chuckling deeper in his throat, but was slightly disappointed when she shook her head no.

"You sure?" he asked, baiting her.

"This place can make you lose focus," she said wisely, but snuggled against him nonetheless.

"Ahhh... the mission," he said, his tone amused. "Maybe I was too hasty when I said I didn't want to be distracted by you while here, mi tentacion."

She chuckled low and sexy. "It was the security check that made me remember."

Carlos glanced back at the bed. "Yeah," he said on a long sigh. "Oh, man..."

"This joint ain't no joke, Carlos," she said very quietly, her tone cautious, breaking the mood as her body tensed. "It's built like a fortress."

He laughed, letting her go. "It is a fortress, baby. That's what I'd been telling you. All primary master lairs are. They're set up for battle." He turned her around, cradling the sides of her face so they could more easily transmit thoughts. Nuit's lairs were nothing by comparison - because he'd lost favor, was rogue, and on the run.

When she nodded, he dropped his hands to her shoulders. The familiar embrace which always led to a kiss was definitely why he called her his temptation. There was so much more he'd wanted to say, but didn't dare chance it - especially not when she straightened his tie, and brushed a piece of invisible lint off his lapel, then touched his cheek.

The warmth of her palm radiated through his skin, and her eyes were so deep, dark, intense as she opened her gaze and sent back a quiet message. I feel it, too... but I'm worried for you, baby. These bastards will try to kill you. I'm not trying to lose you on my watch.

He smiled and kissed the inside of her palm, electrified by her protective instinct regarding him. He nodded. Indeed they would try to assassinate him. But it would sure be worth it. No telepathy needed. She smiled, gently removed her hand, and began walking back into the room. When she looked over her shoulder, he wasn't sure how to read the all-feminine message. Was that a yeah, okay? Or a yeah, I hear you, but no, not tonight? She shook her head then chuckled at the faint disappointment that threaded through him.

"You hungry?" he said, trying to sound casual.

"Pulling out all the stops, Mr. Councilman?"

He had to laugh at himself. "Aw'ight. I'll stop." He went up to her and traced her cheek. You like this, don't you?

She smiled, which was enough of an answer. He watched her sit down on the side of the bed, sinking into the soft feathered oasis, then run her hand over the plush linens, luxuriating in the feel of the textures. He wanted to touch her like that. To pleasure her the way only one of his kind could. Surely she didn't want to give all that up... and not tonight?

Vaguely he remembered that the Aussie would be waiting for him down in the study. If he weren't a head of state, he would have made the bastard wait. But Damali needed to stop playing with him, because he wasn't about to go downstairs with an oral erection. The fact that she'd chuckled let him know she knew exactly what she was doing.

"You ain't right, woman," he said, smiling and running his tongue over his teeth.

"It's the castle," she murmured. "The energy here is so dark, so all-consuming," she murmured. "Makes it hard to concentrate..."

Her comment snapped him back to awareness. "Yeah," he said, on guard. He closed his eyes and held out his arms, sensing their environment with total concentration. Just as he'd expected, every stone in the place was charmed down to the mortar, designed to protect the residing master at all times. Some stairs weren't real stairs, no rooms were impenetrable to the castle's owner, no seal was solid, unless McGuire wanted it that way.

It was having a drugging affect on Damali. Getting her high, sedating her survival instincts, making her so looped that she'd draw him into a sure seduction - that's what he'd felt coming from her in the halls! Normally Damali wouldn't care a damn about a gilded cage - wasn't her style. It would definitely make her open to another master's pull, just like it had fucked with his confidence as he walked the long corridors.

"Get up off the bed. Now," Carlos said, becoming further enraged as Damali looked up, dazed, unzipped the back of her dress and stared up at him.

"I'm impressed," he said to the nothingness. "But you're pissing me off." Dark energy concentrated within him, making the tips of his fingers and center of his palms burn as he spun slowly, sealing the lair with his own power against power, will against will, his council-level strength discharged with a crackling streak of fury that scorched the walls, the ceiling, the doors and terrace. The dogs bayed and howled while he released his protective seal around his temporary lair and all of those within it.

Every wall and surface instantly blackened, then normalized. Immediately he felt the sensual pull lift and the energy in the room calibrate to his command. He began walking the perimeter of the room as Damali stood on wobbly legs and zipped up her dress.

"What the hell just happened?" she whispered, her voice tense and her eyes cleared of the seductive haze.

"I'm gonna address it later," he said. "But the room was charged, every carnal act ever performed in here left a residue." Carlos smiled. "That's cool. I'm gonna assume that our host did this to make our stay more comfortable," he said, going to her and holding her face. But you and I know that sonofabitch did it to set me up, to totally distract me while I'm here. "I'll have to let McGuire know that although I'm council-level, unlike the old boys, I don't need Viagra."

"Damn," she said, taking a short sip of breath.

He held her face tighter. This is why I told you to stay by my side at all times. That if you have anything important to tell me, you do it like this. Understand?

Satisfied when she nodded, he released his hold on her. But he watched her cock her head to the side and walk past him. What could she hear that he and his dogs couldn't? Then a light mewling sound made him almost run to catch her. He knew what it was before he saw it.

Pacing quickly to her, he rushed over to the large in-room dining table by the blood fountain. Damali's gasp was so visceral that it made him snatch her arm, spin her around hard, and physically cover her mouth with his hand. With his eyes he told her not to panic, but panic reflected back at him regardless. Slowly, he removed his hand from her mouth, his eyes steady on hers, as he lifted the large gold-domed serving tray cover and looked down. Not now, D. Not now. Don't scream.

"It's a baby," she said, her eyes darting to the door and toward the infant. "They delivered it on a gold platter."

"Listen to me carefully," he said low, controlled and slow. "Of course they did. You are the wife of a head of state, and they said they'd leave dinner in the room, si?" He nodded to get her to follow his lead. "If you aren't hungry, you still have to sample it - " He stopped her gasp, snatching it in his fist on the wind. "Or it will be taken as a serious affront, to - "

She broke his hold, whirred toward the tiny bundle on the table, swept it up, although saying nothing. But her eyes said it all as she pressed the struggling thing to her chest, and then scanned the room. He could tell she was looking for an escape route, somewhere to flee, and he watched her back away from him, moving with the agility of a lioness as she stalked toward her luggage. No, do not draw the Isis on me in here! Are you nuts? Come to me!

A wave of panic rocked his system as he pried open her quickly closing mind. That crazy woman would actually attempt to rappel off the balcony - a two-hundred-foot drop over the Great Barrier Reef, baby in arm, Hell-dogs in an attack flight pattern after her? He put his hands on his hips and stared at her hard. What you gonna do, hold the Isis between your teeth?

You cannot have it! Game over, man! You all are fucking crazy - a baby? Oh, hell no!

Her mind was so strong and her words so fierce that he sat on the edge of the table, hoping his deliberate distance would calm her down.

Bring it to me, he told her after a moment. I won't hurt it. Trust me.

She nipped him the bird, and began cooing to the now bleating bundle. The sight of her transformation was disorienting, and the timing was profoundly bad. He could smell it, Neteru in full force, no vamp trace in her.

You have to nick its finger with the blade and press a dab of blood to your lips - then let me kiss you.

Her eyes widened in horror, but he was thankful that she didn't speak.

Listen, I don't do kids. He waited until she began to relax before probing her thoughts again. But when I go downstairs, McGuire has to catch the scent off me... has to know we've fed. Again, he waited until she glanced down at the infant and then back up to him, this time less unnerved. That's the only way I can safely transport this baby out of here without starting an international incident tonight.

It bothered him that she took her time retrieving the small Isis dagger from the Louis Vuitton trunk, as though she didn't completely trust him. But as he watched her kiss the tiny cheek, nuzzle it, and cradle the child in her arms, it did something to him. So strange a juxtaposition... her protectively holding the baby to her body while brandishing a weapon, her arm cocked, biceps drawn taut with the other arm. Her eyes were soft as she tenderly looked down at the baby. Then she shot him a lethal glance that told him she'd cut out his heart if he as much as blinked wrong. Damn, that was some powerful shit.

She walked closer to him, tucking the blade under her armpit so she could hold the infant more firmly. She gave her finger to the baby and a tiny fist gripped her index finger. When the baby brought her finger to its mouth to suckle, hot tears rose in Damali's eyes.

"Look at him, Carlos." Her words came out in a rush. "So innocent, and hungry, and scared. Oh my G - "

His fingers touched her lips. Don't say it. Not here, ever.

"How could they?" she whispered.

He glanced tensely at the walls. This is what I was telling you would happen. Tomorrow there will be a banquet, and you are going to

have to be cool - no matter what. "It's the purest blood source, a delicacy. Hard to acquire, even for a vampire. Our host went to great lengths to provide this, honey. So, after we dine on some light hors d'oeuvres, I'll tuck you in bed. Then I'll be back later."

For a moment, she just stared at him, then nodded.

Cut the finger, she heard him say in her mind. Just a small nick.

Damali squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head no.

You have to do it. You're human. If I draw blood, I'll mark the child as a vamp helper for life. Just the aura of my energy could pollute the wound on a human this young. Feel me?

"Shit," she said in a tense whisper, then extracted the blade from under her arm.

Make a small cross on the pinky with your Isis, Neteru. This way its system will have a little more immunity to any sort of possession till I get it home. Then seal it with a kiss, from the Neteru, hand me the child so its smell will be on me, and kiss me so its blood will be in my mouth as well.

She didn't answer, just did what needed to be done. Her hands almost shook as the baby's wails escalated with the small cuts she made. But she followed his instructions to the letter, and pushed the child into his arms, wiping at hot tears, streaking her once-flawless makeup and breathing hard to keep herself from vomiting.

It was the hardest thing he had to do, silencing the piteous wails while the innocent twisted and writhed, trying to break free of the presence of evil. All babies had survival instinct, could feel the presence of harm, and were most closely connected to the Divine Source. Up to this point, he'd never seen himself as that�truly evil - until the child's screams rose to hiccupping cries. Every one of his nieces and nephews came into his mind as he put the child into a sleep trance. This was someone's future, someone's fragile heart he held, and its paper-thin throat was two inches from real fangs.

He shook his head in disgust as he ran his palm over the soft downy hair. A treasure... how could they sacrifice a baby when there was plenty of grown meat on the hoof, adults, that had lived and wanted to be vamps?

Carlos tilted his head; Damali's gasp passed through his skeleton as she pulled the blade to protect the baby and the child vanished; he hastily returned it to its parents.

He glared at her. I turned my head to listen to its rhythm, smell its smell, and get a contact to where it was supposed to go! You oughta know me better than that.

"I'm sorry," she yelled across the room, then checked herself. "I should have saved you some."

He turned and looked at her, and relaxed. Okay. Baby was catching on to how this game was played. Everything said aloud was part truth, part lie, the language of the masters of deception. Then she needed to play this to the bone. Let the host think they'd been caught off guard. That his snit over the bedroom thing was because it assumed he needed the extra boost in there - challenged his virility, thus offended him highly. Carlos smiled, placed his finger to his lips. Wanna really hug them out?

Damali smiled, and he loved that it was that wicked one from the old neighborhood when they'd game and bait other street racers into losing bets when they were kids.

He waved his arm and banged a chair against the suite's hallway door. He winked at her and crooked his finger, and she quickly walked over to him. Then he kissed her hard. "That thing had adrenaline all through it - pure adrenaline!" he bellowed. "You toyed with it long enough before you drained it dry, then didn't save me any?"

"Aw, baby," she said calmly, "I'll make it up to you later, I promise."

"Make it up to me now."

She covered her mouth and ran from him when he reached for her, and squealed when he sent the sofa crashing into the bar as he came after her. The sound of her heels clacking against the polished sandstone and her giddy laughter was music to his ears. He wanted her to loosen up, play, shake the nerves, because some seriously tense shit was about to go down soon - and baby had to be able to work the environment to her advantage. Then, again, truth be told, he needed the tension release just as much as she did.

"Now you're running from me?" he said, laughing hard, and trying to shake the image of the child in Damali's arms out of his head. Yeah, he had to keep moving. The way she'd held it so naturally, her eyes so tender, so intense, so ready to give her life to protect it. Just as he'd always imagined she'd hold his child...

He exploded several blood bottles at the bar, making her shriek, loving the sound of her voice.

"You know I don't play that!" he hollered across the room. "You're putting me in a bad mood for my meeting, woman."

"I'm so sorry," she said, her voice escalating in false alarm.

"I don't want any other vamp in here while I'm gone, or I'll take a limb! Go to bed. Wait for me. Don't even call the maid to clean up this mess!"

"Yes, baby," she said, winking at him and slinking into her bedroom, blowing kiss over her shoulder. "I know I've been a very bad girl."

"Councilman," the Aussie said, standing as Carlos swept into the study. "Can I offer you a skein?"

Carlos nodded and sat heavily in the leather wingback chair before the man's huge, polished mahogany desk. "Absolutely, and thank you for the lovely surprise in my room," he said. "My wife thoroughly enjoyed it."

Carlos leaned forward and smiled, watching the nervous tension ease away from his host's face. His line of vision scanned the room, quickly sensing for any danger among the large stuffed animal heads, heavy walnut bookcases that held an extensive library, and across to the crackling fireplace that had an opening the height of a man. The room looked like it had been modeled after a combination of old European libraries and smoking rooms.

"She sounds like a handful," McGuire replied as he slowly assessed Carlos. He walked over to the long bar behind his desk to pour Carlos a drink. He peered over his shoulder, seeming unsure if it was safe to turn his back on his guest, then quickly uncapped a crystal decanter.

"She is," Carlos said, his awareness taut as he sensed for poison, his olfactory capability keened, while his drink was being prepared. Just a bit of colloidal silver would eat his insides out, but his expression remained amused. "She's feisty, still has a lot of Neteru in her," he said, knowing it was the most prevalent and tempting question in the Aussie's mind.

He watched McGuire sit down slowly, unabashed curiosity glittering in his moss green eyes. Carlos could see the man breathe in slowly, as if trying to control his inhales, as the scent of Damali coming off Carlos's body lit him up. Excellent.

"How on earth... Mr. Councilman... if you don't mind me asking?" The Aussie leaned forward and handed the drink to Carlos with caution, tilting his head, sniffing hard as he withdrew. He raised his skein in a gesture of respect, and then took a quick swig from it.

Carlos returned the gesture with a smile. "Crazy woman was fighting were-demons in Brazil, took a mortal wound, had almost bled out when I found her. Was still trying to swing the Isis at me when I got to her. Her immune system was compromised as her body went into death shock, but timing of the bite is everything. I beat death to the punch while her defences were down." Carlos shook his head and chuckled. "Neteru to the bitter end."

His host nodded, and took a long, deliberate sip from his skein. "She's trailing it all through the house," he whispered, swallowing hard.

"Yeah," Carlos said, standing, going to the window. "Died with it in her system... will, at times, make you do foolish things�but that's part of her allure. She wears it for me now as a signature fragrance that she conjures." He glanced at McGuire over his shoulder, and looked down at his drink. Yeah, they had to get this shit straight so it was clear. Reach for her and you're dying for placebo. "That's why I don't travel with an entourage anymore. Gets too messy; a waste of energy, and my dogs were becoming gorged." He looked up at McGuire. "I would hate to have an incident in the castle. While I'm sure you understand, we do have a few older foreign ambassadors who might not. Let's not have any confusion."

McGuire hesitated, fully comprehending the threat. "Oh, the castle is a sure sanctuary for you while you visit, sir."

"Good." Carlos nodded and came back to his seat and gestured for the Aussie to relax. "Do you have any particular regional problems that you'd like me to bring to the council table after my visit?"

The Aussie stood and began pacing slowly near his desk with his hands behind his back. "Of course, you're busy, and I'm honored that you've even asked, especially after your long travel here, but, uh, the Aborigines, their prayer lines have carved up my territory so badly. It's an old regional problem, but my previous entreaties to the council have gone ignored as a low priority for them. I've been lobbying council since the nineteen-eighties, when our drug traffiking operations really needed to cross those lines at will. When flying, you had a butcher at it, right?"

"That's a bitch," Carlos said, raking his fingers through his hair, while trying to sound empathetic. Now came the bargain for the shaky promise of support. "I saw them - just crisscrosses your whole region, and so old they glow." Carlos stood and went to the window.

"My point exactly. They're like electric fences. I need to annex some well-trod areas where the lines are not as lethal. Lost two good vamp drivers last week and was mad as a cut snake. My pilots have all gone blind; they have to sense their way in. Makes transporting lucrative products overland a shipping hazard." The Aussie went back to his chair and sat with a thud and waited as Carlos slowly found his seat.

Both men's eyes locked across the desk. Carlos could feel the Aussie siphoning information from the Dananu language before speaking. It morphed daily, and it took lower levels a moment to calibrate to it - lest they offend a higher rank by misspeaking even in the smallest way. So he waited, watching strengthened respect dawn in his host's eyes as McGuire picked up the new strand of Spanish that ran through the negotiation syntax.

The Transylvanian's territories are vast, and have been coveted for a long time by many. The Aussie didn't blink as he spoke slow and easy.

Carlos wrapped his mind around the harsh guttural tones of the familiar language.

That is a significant concentration of power, Carlos replied, much like Africa.

Stunned, the Aussie nodded as his will fractured and then regrouped. You would consider new realignments?

Mark Twain wrote that "Satan made Sydney"... he quoted an unknown traveler; I believe perhaps one of us who actually knew, si?

You are very progressive, Mr. Chairman. As I'm sure you know, your youth was not fully appreciated in the descent by the other masters, but they have overlooked your shrewd forward thinking.

De nada. Carlos stood, feeling McGuire's will begin to bend then twist out of his hold. A sudden concentration of power is what made Fallon Nuit. We cannot have that in the empire again. Transylvania concerns me, as does Africa. But we will not discuss China - too powerful and too old to take by storm. Carlos moved to the window again, his hands behind his back as he studied the moon.

McGuire nodded. True. But Transylvania, especially the Russian provinces and the old Czech Republic, concerns us all, the Aussie said, his gaze level at Carlos's back, but weakening. Thank you, for even considering my request, he added quickly, then summarily disengaged the negotiation in Dananu and pulled out of the negotiation-lock.

Carlos waited, allowing the man to collect himself. The exchange was no joke. It took serious focus just to seem unflustered by it. It hadn't helped that McGuire was a little high from Damali's scent. Carlos returned to his chair, sitting down, then leaned back casually and breathed out a slow, unseen exhale.

"Tomorrow evening," McGuire said brightly, appearing recovered, "once the other masters have arrived, we have something special planned."

Carlos made a tent with his hands before his lips, his elbows resting on the high arms of the chair and kept his eyes on the man behind the desk. He didn't like surprises. "Talk to me," he said, and then smiled.

"We've got this game here called the Masters Cup Hunt." The Aussie stood, smiled and looked out of the window. "In the heartland, the dirt is red - iron ore - nothing but rocks, sandstone flats, goes on for miles - it's the bloody core of the continent."

Intrigued but wary, Carlos stood and went to the window again to look out. "Extreme sports in the desert plains?"

"Tomorrow is a full moon, and the were-roos can only come up to feed then. Six-hundred-pound beasts. Can flip a Range Rover with their tails." The Aussie chuckled. "It's bloody beautiful huntin', mate. A man of your prowess would love this. The feed after the hunt is awesome... and the ladies love it."

The Aussie had definitely been compromised by the negotiation and the scent of Neteru. He'd dropped all formalities, and his thick Australian brogue almost slurred. Most excellent.

"Objective and wager?" Carlos took his time showing enthusiasm. Street sense told him this was a good place to get smoked and have it look like an accident. But he needed to know more, had to understand how they might possibly come at him. Relax, McGuire... take the bait.

McGuire laughed. "Every man has to put a piece of land, or a territory on the table. Somethin' sweet that he's willing to gamble, against somethin' he really wants to win... like a barmaid's blush."

"Rules of engagement?"

"A human driver, no intervention, unless crossing prayer lines is imminent."

The two men stared at each other for a moment.

"Lost a few championship drivers when their Jeeps or Range Rovers crashed. Human drivers can't see the lines, so the master riding shotgun has to help steer while using only conventional weapons - crossbow and silver-tipped arrows - to bring down the were. Those bloody bastards breed like vermin in the region. Incineration is ten points; tackle and chain it alive, or behead it before it burns, twenty." The Aussie wiped his nose with the back of his hand and shuddered from the increasing effect of Neteru in the castle. "All while moving between eighty to hundred miles per hour."

"Ugly sort, too," McGuire went on. "Huge fangs, drooling acid, thirteen-inch claws that they can't retract, strong as bloody hell. They use portals to go underground, then pop up outta nowhere to flip ya. But we gotta make the game interesting. You can't use your powers unless you're in mortal danger. Then, you can use flight to keep away from the lines, but you lose what you've put on the table. Winner takes all. You'll love it."

"What time do we play?"

The Aussie's grin widened. "From sunset till two A.M. The course runs from where there's a human sacred rock formation, Uluru - Ayers Rock, goes up for eleven hundred feet, glows red, changes color during the day the humans tell us, and is covered in twenty-thousand-year-old prayers that will fry your ass if you bump it. The whole course runs to the other marker, Kata Tjuta�the Olgas, fifty-three kilometers west, to the sacred human stone markers, thirty-six gigantic rock domes that hide gorges and crevices. Fucking incredible, Mr. Chairman, if I do say so, myself."

"And while we're out, the ladies?"

"Oh, mate, it's way too taxing on a female. They watch from the choppers. Makes 'em - "

"I hear you," Carlos said, holding up a hand. This could allow him to get them all together, even before the concert. With a blood sport going on, it would be easier to detect alliegences, if any. And with adrenaline pumping through their systems, if one of them bit his man, Berkfield, he'd smell it for sure. Against his better judgment, Carlos found the allure of it thrilling, but what was more essential was the fact that it presented an opportunity to take out an opponent and make it seem like an accident. If he could do that, then the threat level on Damali's whack plan would be reduced. Carlos chuckled. "My problem will be trying to figure out what I'm willing to put on the table."

The Aussie smiled. "Sir, you have many assets that I'm sure would bait the foreign ambassadors... and I know you don't doubt your own abilities, do you?"

Carlos's deep laughter filled the room. "I never doubt my own abilities, hombre." He knew where his host was going, but wanted the man to tell him out of his own mouth. It was always best to ferret out for sure where an adversary was coming from.

"If you put your wife on the table, I'm sure no one would be offended, sir." McGuire took a deep swig from his skein, watching Carlos's reaction over the rim of his cup.

Carlos smiled. "I'm offended," he said after a pregnant pause that made the Aussie set down his cup with care, "that no one would ask me first for my council seat."

The Aussie choked and spit out his blood. "That's not on the table, is it?"

"No," Carlos said, standing. He walked away from the table, dismissing the comment. "I'm just surprised that wasn't your first request."

Carlos could feel the Aussie's penetrating gaze on his back and he turned around with a smile. "But I understand. She is magnificent." Carlos shook his head and walked back to the desk. "You're high, McGuire, so I'll take your request as a compliment."

"Thank you, sir," he sputtered, trying to regain his composure. "I meant no offense. Just admiring one of your finest assets."

Carlos's expression hardened. "Just so you know, any other time that kinda shit will get you killed in your own home."

When the color drained from McGuire's face, Carlos sighed. The man wiped his nose again with the back of his hand.

"You might want to bargain with the Transylvanian ambassador for some of his estates, but do not ever bet against me," Carlos said, no threat in his tone, just amusement over the proposed wager. "I'm telling you that because you're cool. Not quite like the rest." A slow chuckle of appreciation bubbled up. "Damn, man, you just flat-out told me - I like the honesty in that. You Australians are all right."

Relief swept through McGuire and he laughed with Carlos. "You're gonna make my old lady put me out in the daylight. Already got her in chains in the basement, the scent is making her chuck a berko - she's totally wonky. Before your wife ate, she was begging me for a menage a trois, or couples... and I told her I'd see what I could do, would propose it to you man-to-man later. Then after your woman put on her perfume to get ready for bed, Evie began screaming madness about your wife being a human, and me being daft. But I told her that if her jealousy made her say anything that offends, even after eighty years, I'd rip 'er heart out myself."

"I've told Damali that she had to tone down her arousal, but we've only been together a few months and she still likes what the fragrance does to me," Carlos said, laughing and slinging an arm over his companion's shoulders.

When the other master slightly stiffened in reflex, Carlos gave him a relaxed tug, holding him firm and slipping into casual urban language to bond them. If his host thought that he only spoke that way around him, then it would give him a false sense of security; make him feel closer to Carlos than the other masters. "It's cool man, chill. I wasn't coming in for a kill." He wanted McGuire to tell him more about this new variable neither he nor Damali had considered - the female vamps.

McGuire audibly let out a breath, turned and shook Carlos's hand. "Mr. Councilman, you're all right. A fair cobber, no tight-arse."

To this Carlos could only laugh. "We're both young men, and our territories are relatively new - not like the old boys in the other sectors, as regions go. Both territories were settled by their fair share of criminals, no doubt we hail from that, too, in our former lives; were never bluebloods." He eyed the master beside him. "But young or old, power is power, man. Believe that shit."

A deep resounding belly laugh came from the Aussie, and he threw his head back, fangs glistening. "I thought this visit was going to be a torture - since we're speaking freely, mate." Excitement shone in his merry eyes. "After the hunt, we could jog the choppers through the Outback in the Southern territory, and cross over to hit Sydney, which is just a few clicks away, maybe sail back up the coast to Queensland. Aw, Rivera, Sydney has the best dining..."

Alarmed at the prospect of taking four masters and their entourages through a densely populated city, with a Guardian team to arrive shortly, and Damali in tow, Carlos politely declined. "Let us savor the experience and try not to squeeze everything into one night, my friend. We could find ourselves bloated and in the sun that way. Then the older dignitaries would have every right to call us reckless."

"True words," McGuire agreed. "All righty, then, we'll do the formal pomp and circumstance banquet here after the hunt, get our wits for the next night; we can do Sydney after your lady's concert. Now that is going to be a night to remember."

"Much better plan," Carlos said, and resumed walking them both out of the study.

The Aussie paused as they stood at the bottom of the main staircase, looked up, and closed his eyes. "She actually drew the Isis on you, mate?" He shuddered, and rubbed his mouth, but his fangs didn't retract.

Carlos chuckled and allowed his voice to dip sensually, a new lie forming in his mind. "Yeah... but that stays just between us. She's got it on her."

McGuire opened his eyes and stared at Carlos. "You lucky bastard," he whispered.

"Since we're cool," Carlos said slowly, watching the Aussie practically writhe with anticipation, "I can send her to your room one night, with both the Isis and the dagger in her hand."

"Don't game me like that, mate," he said as he swayed in Carlos's hold. He looked at him hard, but his eyes were practically pleading. "You serious?"

"Watch my back on the hunt, and I'd have no option but to fulfill at least one of your desires. I told you we were cool."

The Aussie closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, and shuddered again. He opened his eyes and cast a wistful glance up the staircase. "She'll wear the fragrance, too, won't she?"

"Of course," Carlos murmured.

"You're gonna make me kill my mate for her."

"Do what you have to do, but the offer stands... if you want it."

They both stared at each other for a moment.

"When?" The Aussie's breaths were so irregular now that he put his hand over his chest as though fighting to concentrate on the normally involuntary reflex.

"After the concert," Carlos said carefully. "I don't know if I'll be able to part with her myself after the hunt." McGuire nodded. "At the banquet, we're all gonna be amped. Just make sure that nobody rushes me for her. I'll dust her myself before I allow any other master to just take my shit."

"Of, course," the Aussie said with authority. "It's a matter of honor." Then he smiled. "And I, for one, definitely don't want you to dust her before I've been with her."

Carlos extended his fist for a pound. The Aussie just looked at it, seeming unsure what to do.

"Like this, man," Carlos said laughing, showing the foreigner how to give back a pound. "That means we're boys, cool... we blood. Mi casa es su casa, type of shit. You watch my back; I'll watch yours. What I got, I'll share... if you just be cool."

"Done," the Aussie said. Cool.

"Tell her I'm honored," the Aussie murmured.

Carlos just nodded. "Treat her right, and we'll be peace."

"I'll do her right, sir." His gaze was fastened to the staircase, then went to the ceiling where their suite was. "I will not dishonor this rare gift, I assure you."

"I'm going to bed," Carlos said, breaking the seduction trance. "Talking about this is working me like daylight."

McGuire this time offered his fist first. "Catch you later, mate. I'm right there with you. Mi casa definitely es su casa... and if you ever want Evie, or anything else I've got, just let me know. No worries."

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