“What the hell are they wearing?” Jim murmured next to me.
“They’re playing soldier. It probably cost them an arm and a leg.”
“Still might,” Jim offered.
Ghastek carefully stepped over the thorns into the circle. Rowena followed him.
The horde of undead rippled again and Hugh rode out. He wore dark leather armor and a long cloak edged with wolf fur. Nice touch. When you’re going to confront a Keep full of people who turn furry, make sure you’re wearing some dead animal’s skin on your cloak. His enormous black horse, a massive Friesian, danced under him, long black mane flying, the black feathers on its legs raising powdery snow. Steam rose from the stallion’s nostrils.
Hugh should’ve brought a banner with I AM BAD stitched on it in gold. The horse, the armor, and the fur weren’t making enough of a statement.
Jim leaned forward, his gaze fixed on Hugh.
“Don’t,” I murmured.
Hugh guided the horse along the thorn border. The Friesian circled us, never crossing over the boundary. Hugh was clearly an “obey the letter of the agreement, not the spirit” kind of guy.
I wanted to pull him off his horse and grind his face into the dirt.
“Have you apprehended the murderer?” Ghastek asked.
“Yes.” I passed him a piece of paper with Double D’s handwritten confession on it. He read it and glanced at Hugh. Hugh was staring at me. Looking is free. Try to come closer and I will cure what ails you and me both.
Ghastek read further. Distaste twisted his face. “That is . . . unfortunate.”
“I think it’s tragic, personally, but we can go with unfortunate, if you want.” My deadline was rapidly approaching. Beau Clayton was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he had hung me out to dry.
Ghastek folded the paper in half and passed it to Rowena. She read it and looked up. A rapid mental calculation was taking place behind Rowena’s eyes. She directed the People’s public relations. This whole thing was a PR nightmare for everyone involved.
“Did you read the part where d’Ambray walked in on her, held a gun to her head, and forced her to kill Mulradin, so he could manufacture this war?”
Ghastek looked like he had bitten into a peach and realized it was rotten. “I am sure she says that he did. I have not read the part where she presents evidence of this wild story. Perhaps there’s a rider or an exhibit I missed?”
That’s okay, I had more. “Why would she lie?”
Hugh kept circling us. A small smile curved his lips. He looked like a man who was enjoying himself. Snow, sunshine, brisk air, a fast horse . . . and impending slaughter. All the things a growing boy needs.
“To prevent this conflict. Perhaps it was a lovers’ quarrel,” Ghastek said. “Perhaps she wanted to rob him. I don’t know, and quite frankly, I don’t care at the moment. Can you prove that she is the killer and not some sacrificial lamb?”
“You’re welcome to run her DNA. It will match what’s on Mulradin.”
“Are you prepared to turn her over to us?”
Ghastek leaned forward. “Kate, I hate to resort to threats, but there is a certain responsibility you and I both have to the people we’re leading in this conflict . . .”
To the left of him, three horsemen emerged from under the trees. Beau or not Beau?
“The casualties and financial costs of war will be catastrophic,” Ghastek said. “I understand that you’re counting on the help of whatever navigator you hired, but I assure you, we’re more than capable of neutralizing him or her.”
“The one who assisted you last night at the Conclave.”
What was he on about?
Apparently I had hidden too well. For all of his intelligence, Ghastek still hadn’t put two and two together. He knew with absolute certainty that I couldn’t pilot vampires. He had seen me not pilot them on numerous occasions. In his mind, I couldn’t possibly do it, so I had to have hired someone else and that someone must’ve grabbed control of the vampires at the Conclave. Right.
“We have a duty to avert this,” Ghastek said.
“You’re right. You should send your undead army home and we’ll discuss this like reasonable people.”
Ghastek sighed. “I’m a reactive party to the bloodshed.”
“Ghastek, you’re an intelligent man. You’re standing here wearing ridiculous fatigues and getting ready to assault a place full of families and children with a horde of vampires. Does this seem right to you?”
Ghastek’s face jerked. “The concepts of right or wrong are inconsequential in this case.”
“The concepts of right or wrong are always consequential. It can’t be situational or it’s not right or wrong.”
“I didn’t come here to debate ethical obligations with you,” Ghastek said.
“You opened the door. I just walked through it.”
“You’re harboring a fugitive. Deliver her to our custody.”
A shout made me turn. A man jumped from the wall of the Keep and sprinted to us. Brandon, Jennifer’s pet wolf. Now what? If he did anything to disrupt this, I’d break his neck.
Brandon dashed across the snow and leaped into the circle. He was clutching something in his hand.
“What the hell are you doing?” Jim snarled.
Brandon dodged him. He opened his fingers and I caught a flash of what he was holding—Jennifer’s water bottle. He ripped the cap off it and hurled the liquid at me.
I moved, but not fast enough. Cold water splashed my right cheek, soaking my hair. Behind me, Ghastek threw his hands up, and what missed me landed on his fingers. The Master of the Dead stared, bewildered, water dripping from hands. His eyes bulged in angry confusion.
Jim moved. His hand closed on Brandon’s wrist and twisted. Brandon dropped to his knees into the snow, his arm wrenched out of its socket.
The whole world had gone nuts on me. I couldn’t even get angry anymore. I’d run out of rage.
“It’s done,” the blond man squeezed out. “I did it for her.”
What the hell? I would kill Jennifer. I would do it myself and save Desandra the trouble.
Jim twisted his arm, bending him into a pretzel. “I’ll just be a minute.”
He grabbed Brandon by his collar and dragged him out of the circle toward the Keep. The gates opened just enough to let a person pass, and Derek and another shapeshifter shot out. Jim shoved Brandon in their direction, turned around, and came back into the circle.