“What he’s doing to you—”
“Is exactly what I would do in his place. I knew the risks when I got into the Order. The Order has done absolutely nothing to renege on the terms of our bargain. All the fault lies with me. I deceived it, and if discovered, I’ll pay the price. I accept that.”
“What is the price?”
A spike of anxiety pinched me. My throat closed up for a moment. “They’ll throw me out on my ass.”
“Is that all?” he asked. “Are you sure they won’t send someone after you to make sure you don’t join the opposite side?”
“I’m sure,” I said. “Their conditioning is very good. It would take a lot to break my devotion to the Order even if they put me out on the street. Promise me.”
“Fine. I promise.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes.
Raphael’s eyes darkened. “Maybe we should be careful with public displays of affection.”
I gave him my thousand-yard stare. “Oh no. I think you misunderstand the nature of our relationship. You are mine. If there is an attractive female in speaking range, you will be publicly affectionate to me. Otherwise I’ll end up pistol-whipping them off you, and I’m pretty sure injuring innocent civilian hussies would be considered ‘conduct unbecoming a knight.’”
Raphael showed me the edge of his teeth in a slight smile. “And what will Ted think of you shacking up with a bouda?”
“Ted is welcome to show me a section in the Order’s regulations that forbids me to do so. My knowledge of regulations is extremely extensive. I can quote entire passages from memory. I guarantee that I know the rules much better than Ted.”
My brain took a second to process the words that had just left my mouth and realized how many things I had taken for granted. I said softly, “At least I hope you would be publicly affectionate.”
Raphael laughed softly, like a bemused wolf. “You ruined a spectacular alpha snarl.”
I had seen Raphael fight. He was devastatingly lethal. The way he tore up Cerberus’s head took both skill and the berserk frenzy that made boudas feared in any fight. Physically he could overpower me. I was barely five feet four; he was six feet and change. He outweighed me by about eighty pounds of hard muscle, toughened by constant exercise. He was without a doubt the best fighter of the bouda clan. But he was also a male, and bouda males preferred the beta role. I had snapped into an alpha mode without even realizing it.
“I didn’t mean . . .”
“I trust you to take the lead most of the time,” he said. “With the understanding that when I really insist, you will listen.”
I exhaled. “Agreed.”
The Casino, the People’s HQ in Atlanta, occupied the enormous lot that had once housed the Georgia Dome. The People’s architect had taken the Taj Mahal as a model and expanded the blueprint to twice its original size. Pure white in daylight, the Casino seemed to float above the asphalt, buoyed by the glittering streams of many fountains surrounding its walls. Its slender towers reached to a dizzying height, flanking the ornate central cupola. Elegant passageways united the towers, ethereal as if woven of spider’s web or carved from a chunk of ivory by a patient sculptor. Its elaborate central gates always stood open, just as the guardhouses and engines of war on its thick walls were always manned.
I parked in a side lot and nudged Raphael to put Kate’s book down.
A hundred yards from the gates, both of us paused in unison. The stench of undeath spread through the lot like a sickening miasma. No words could adequately describe it, but once you smelled it, you never forgot it. It was a sharp, leathery, dry stench, unmistakably of death but not of rot, the scent of sinew and bone wrapped in a foul, foul magic. I nearly gagged. Raphael slowed and I followed his example.
I’ve had the acclimatization training to accustom me to vampiric scent and presence, but it was one thing to watch a single vamp held tightly in check twenty yards away and completely another to be walking into the den of more than three hundred of them.
We made it through the doors past twin sentries dressed in black and armed with wickedly curved scimitars and stepped into the sea of slot machines. The air rang with a discordant cacophony of bells and chimes. Lights flashed. People screamed in manic glee, cursed, and laughed. More than half of the slots had been reworked to be completely independent of electricity. Even when the magic hit, the one-armed bandits would continue to quickly and mercilessly siphon cash out of the public’s pockets and into the coffers of the People. Necromantic research wasn’t cheap.
We halted before a service desk and I told a young man in a business suit who I was, flashed my Order ID, and explained I was here to see Ghastek. The young man, having introduced himself as Thomas, promptly affixed a smile on his face. “I’m sorry, ma’am, he’s incredibly busy.”
“Tell him I’m here on behalf of Kate Daniels.”
Thomas’s eyes went wide. He tapped the intercom, whispered into it, and nodded at us. “Unfortunately, he’s in the stables and can’t leave at the moment. He’s most eager to see you, and someone will be here to guide you to him very shortly.”
We walked over to the waiting area by the wall. A row of chairs waited for us, but I didn’t feel like sitting down. I felt like someone had painted a giant bull’s-eye on my chest and a dozen hidden snipers were ready to take a shot.
Raphael’s lips bent in an odd little smile. If you didn’t know him, you could mistake it for the dreamy absentminded grin of a man quietly enjoying his private thoughts. This little smile meant Raphael was a single infraction away from whipping out his knives and slicing everything around him to pieces. He wouldn’t do anything unless provoked, but once provoked, nobody could hold him back. The Pack and the People represented two sides of the same power coin: among all civilian factions in Atlanta, they were the most powerful. They had divided the city between them and stayed out of each other’s territory, knowing that if open conflict broke out between the two of them, the fight would be long, bloody, and costly, and the victor would be so weakened, he wouldn’t survive for long.
But as much as they avoided provoking each other, both found it prudent to show their opponent their teeth—and Raphael was all about proper etiquette.
A vampire dropped into the doorway. Female and probably black during life, now it had gained an odd purple tint. Hairless and emaciated, as if knitted together from twine and tough jerky, it stared at us with hungry eyes. Its mouth unhinged with mechanical precision, and the voice of a female navigator issued forth. “Good morning. My name is Jessica. Welcome to the Casino. Master Ghastek sends his deepest apologies. He’s engaged in something he cannot postpone, but he instructed me to take you to him. With my sincere regrets for your inconvenience, I must ask you to please leave your firearms at the desk.”