"No. Putting sharp-bladed things into your hair isn't a good idea."

"Why not?"

"First, someone could hit you in the head, driving the blades into your scalp. Second, eventually you have to pull the blades out. I have no desire to dramatically unsheathe my hair weapons and end up with half of my hair sliced off and a giant bald spot."

A wooden tower clawed at the sky about a hundred yards from the Arena, close enough to cover the entire roof with the fire of the machine guns and cheiroballistae mounted on the platform at its top. The people manning the tower wore distinctive black-and-red uniforms.

"Red Guard?"


"I guess blood sport pays." Otherwise the hosts of this little shindig wouldn't be able to hire the most expensive guard unit in the city. I knew a few Red Guardsmen, and they deserved their pay. A few years ago I had considered joining them for the steady paycheck, but the work was dull as hell.

"The Coliseum, the pride and joy of Rome, could seat fifty thousand people." Saiman permitted himself a smile. "Fifty thousand spectators at a time when the horse was the most efficient method of transportation. Blood sport pays, indeed. It also attracts rule breakers, which is why the Guardsmen patrol both the outer perimeter and the inside, especially the ground floor, which surrounds the Pit, where the fights take place. The fighters' rooms are located there and the House doesn't tolerate any squabbles outside the Pit."

My evening had just gotten a lot more complicated. Tag along with Saiman, give him the slip using the ninja skills I didn't have, get past the best guards in Atlanta, penetrate the ground floor full of gladiators, find the girl with dark hair, hand her the note, and get back before Saiman suspected anything amiss. Piece of cake. Could do it in my sleep. Once again, I felt a distinct urge to punch Derek in the mouth.

We crossed a two-foot-wide, fluorescent white line painted on the pavement.

"Why the line?"

"We are now under the protection of the Guards," Saiman answered. "Inside the line they take an interest in our welfare - up to a point. Outside the line, we're on our own."

"Ever had deaths in the parking lot?"

"If you weren't an agent of the Order, I'd tell you we had two in the last month. But since you are, I have to claim ignorance." Saiman gave me a coy smile. Spare me.

We headed toward the brightly lit entrance, flanked by four Red Guards, two armed with automatic weapons and the other two carrying Chinese spears decorated with crimson silk standards. Odd choice of weapons but they looked pretty.

Saiman and I passed between them and stepped through the narrow arched entrance into a hallway. A woman stood in our way, sandwiched between two male Red Guards who looked as though they lived for a chance to run into the woods with a fifty-pound rucksack so they could blow up a loup compound. Their boss was slightly taller than me, a shade leaner, cinched into a light brown leather vest and armed with a rapier. Her right hand was bare, but a thick leather glove shielded her left. A sheen of emerald green coated the rapier's blade as if it were made of green bottle glass. Ten to one, enchanted.

I gave the woman a once-over. Short red hair. Clear gray eyes. I looked into the eyes and saw a hard-ass looking back.

"Rene. As always, a pleasure." Saiman did his ticket trick again and handed the two rectangles to Rene.

Rene favored the tickets with a glance, returned them to Durand, and fixed me with a territorial stare making it obvious the ao dai hadn't fooled her for a second. "Don't kill anybody in my building."

"Do your job right and I won't have to."

I let Saiman lead me away, down the hallway. He bent to me and said in a confidential voice,

"Rene is - "

"The head of security."

"Her sword - "

"Is enchanted, probably poison, and she is preternaturally fast with it."

"Have you met her before?"

I grimaced. "The rapier is a duelist's weapon, best in a one-on-one fight. It relies on precision: you're trying to puncture vital organs and blood vessels with an inch-wide blade. A normal rapier wouldn't stop an enraged shapeshifter, for example. The damage area is simply too small, which means for Rene to be effective, she has to bank on poison or magic and she has to strike very quickly to give it a chance to work. I suspect poison, because Rene wears a left glove, which means she doesn't want to touch the blade with bare skin, even though the tech is up. Am I correct?"

"Yes." Saiman seemed a bit taken aback.

Rene's rapier probably functioned similarly to Slayer. My saber smoked in the presence of undead and liquefied undead tissue. If I left it in the undead body, it also absorbed the liquefied flesh. Unfortunately, I rarely had a chance to leave it in the body long enough, and as a result, Slayer turned thin and brittle after too much fighting, and I had to feed it. I would bet a good portion of my salary that Rene had to replenish her rapier as well.

We rounded the bend, climbed a narrow staircase, and stepped into a different world. The floor was Italian tile, rust and sand, laid in an elaborate pattern of small and large checkers.

Light peach walls offered narrow niches on the right, filled with spires of bamboo in heavy ceramic pots. On the left, tall arches cut the wall, each blocked by a heavy rust curtain. Ornate feylanterns, now dull in the absence of magic, decorated the space between each arch. A dozen fans slowly rotated on the ceiling, their lamps spilling soothing light onto the hallway.

The steady hum of a gathering crowd filtered through the curtains. We were on the third floor.

The magic hit, choking the electricity. The lamps died a blinking death. The fans slowed to a lazy stop and the twisted glass tubes of feylanterns ignited along the wall, tinting the hallway

with their pale blue radiance.

A deep, throaty bellow ripped through the white noise of the crowd, a hoarse, inhuman sound of fear, rage, and pain rolled into one. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck rose. Saiman watched me for a reaction. His expression had a smug look to it.

I ignored the noise. "Where are we going?"

"To the VIP observation deck. If you recall, I mentioned my need for your professional opinion. The members of the team you are to evaluate typically loiter there before the fight."

"Which team would that be?" I asked, recalling Derek's note tucked away in my left wrist guard. Give the note to Livie of the Reaper team . . .

"The Reapers."


Chapter 8

THE SEMICIRCULAR OBSERVATION DECK WAS BARELY a third full. Most of the light came from the clusters of candles burning on the small, round tables. Beyond the tables, a crescent-shaped floor-to-ceiling window offered a view of the parking lot and the city steeped in darkness.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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