“Is apparently otherwise occupied.”
Kritanu looked at him, something suspiciously like pity in his handsome face. “And you shan’t tell her you’re here?”
“I have no desire to be ordered about, as she would be wont to do. To be at her beck and call. I’m no longer a Venator, and can be of little use to her or to any of you.”
“Then why come to London? The world is vast, and there are many places to hide from Lilith that she would never suspect.”
No one was more acutely aware of that fact than Max himself. But he’d been compelled to come to London, foolish as it had been.
He bloody well could have gone on, knowing that it would be safer for everyone if he went to Spain or Denmark or America, or even the wilds of Africa. Lilith would never find him there. But Vioget had raised the concern about Victoria, leaving Max with little choice but to assure himself all was well.
And, apparently, Vioget was still taking his job as protector quite seriously.
At least Max could give him credit for that.
He realized Kritanu was still watching him and selected a slightly easier topic. “Briyani and I were in Vauxhall, looking for vampires, when we got separated. I found some undead, but he never returned to our rooms. I returned to Vauxhall hours later and found no trace of him.”
“Briyani wanted to be a Venator,” Kritanu said. “He was a better Comitator than he would have been as a Venator, but he was preparing to attempt the trial for the vis bulla. I suspect he would not have succeeded, for although he was very brave, and a skillful combatant, he lacked many necessary attributes, including a cool head under pressure.”
Max looked at the swaddled corpse. Grief stirred again, more deeply. “I didn’t know of his intentions.” The flash of a memory of his own trial, where he knew the choice was either success or death, assaulted him. He’d been more prepared for death than for success, for only five men over the centuries had ever achieved the vis bulla without the blood of the Gardellas in their veins.
Kritanu turned from his nephew and looked up at Max. “How does your training go?”
“I’ve neglected it as of late.” Yet, his body desired it—the quick, measured swipes with the kadhara knife, the kicks and leaps and thrusts of hand-to-hand kalaripayattu . . . and especially, the easy gliding of qinggong, where his body actually left the ground in long, sweeping arcs.
“Why should you do so? A lack of vis bulla does not eliminate what you have learned these years, Max.”
A soft scuff drew their attention to the entrance to the chapel, and Max immediately began to slip into the shadowy alcove next to the altar. It was better for Victoria not to know he was here.
But it wasn’t Victoria who moved toward them.
“Pesaro. Such an unexpected pleasure,” Sebastian said as he drew near.
Max sensed an air of frustration about Vioget and saw no reason to let it pass. “It’s rather early to be ending the evening, isn’t it? I thought you’d be engaged much longer.” He scanned the other man’s well-tailored coat and the white shirt that, though still tied at the throat, was missing a neck cloth.
Vioget’s eyes narrowed, but then he smiled coolly. “If it’s Victoria for whom you’re concerned, allow me to assure you that she’s happily ensconced in her bedchamber. With a smile on her face.”
“With the painting of Circe and Odysseus in full view.” He assumed the picture in its heavy gold frame hadn’t been moved. “Not the finest rendition, but an acceptable one nevertheless.”
Vioget’s expression darkened, validating Max’s assumption, but then his features rearranged into another smile, laced with contempt. “Does Victoria know that you’ve been skulking around London, unwilling to show your face?”
“There’s no reason—”
“I disagree. She should know you’re here, so that arrangements can be made to see to your protection. I’ll be certain to advise her of your presence.” Vioget fairly oozed condescension and confidence and Max felt a sharp pain shoot along his jaw as he ground his teeth. “I’m certain she’ll want to see for herself that you’re safe, particularly in light of poor Briyani’s fate.”
“It would delight you no end, wouldn’t it?” Max was under no illusion. Vioget knew that he would show to his best advantage next to a weakened, vis bulla-less Max, who had been reduced to living on the run. Merely a man.
The other man’s reply was nothing more than a bland smile.
A Crowded Parlor
Victoria knew it would only be a matter of time before the news of James’s arrival spread. But even she didn’t account for the efficiency of the gossip trail spread by the house servants—as evidenced by the presentation of Lady Melly in St. Heath’s Row’s parlor scarcely past noon the next day.
She wasn’t alone. She’d brought reinforcements in the form of Ladies Nilly and Winnie . . . and a bulging portmanteau.
“Hello Mother,” Victoria greeted her, trying to sound more glad than she felt. “I thought you were going to the race today with Lord Jellington.” Lady Melly’s beau had nearly lost his position when she was in Rome, being wooed by a handsome vampire. A vampire who’d turned out to be Sara Regalado’s father.
“I thought it would be best if I—we,” she added, gesturing to Nilly and Winnie as if their presence might protect her from Victoria’s annoyance, “paid a call to determine whether you’d recovered from your fright yesterday.”
“Indeed,” squeaked Lady Nilly, her pale, slender hands fluttering at her throat. “I cannot even imagine how you must have felt after seeing that poor girl! Why, I’m sure I’d not sleep for a week, for fear of the nightmares.”
“Ah, nightmares,” inserted Lady Winnie in a rather carrying voice. Her hand hovered over the plate of cinnamon-iced almond biscuits that had been summoned at the instant of their arrival—despite the fact that they were three hours early for afternoon calls. “I know all about them, I do. Why, I daresay, that visit to Rome put me in a state, for I’ve nary slept a wink since the trip. I spend all night tossing and turning, dreaming about vampires and other horrific things.” She paused in her search for the perfect biscuit—namely, the largest and with the thickest swirl of icing—to pat her hand over the saucer-sized silver and gold cross she wore pinned to the side of her bodice. Its weight caused the blue floral muslin to sag slightly, pulling the scoop neckline off center just a bit.