Thrones are a pain in the ass.
Shifting uneasily in the hard wooden chair, I tried not to let my discomfort show, but I’d been parked here for almost three hours and now my butt had fallen asleep. It didn’t help that I’d been asked to adhere to a strict dress code, and the high-waisted charcoal pencil skirt I was wearing was digging into my ribs.
I moved again, and my brand-new, red, four-inch Jimmy Choo peep-toe pumps made a grinding noise against the platform.
Sig pivoted his head slightly and gave me a disapproving look. Next to him Juan Carlos grumbled something in Spanish. At this rate I was going to have to learn the language if I had any hope of keeping up with him on the insult front. Maybe my live-in boyfriend, Desmond Alvarez, could teach me a few choice phrases.
I stopped squirming, but Sig kept staring at me.
“I understand it’s been a difficult adjustment, love, but you must try a little harder to radiate the appropriate authority.”
“I’d be a lot more radiant if I had a cushion to sit on,” I replied.
And why did I have to wear a silk blouse and skin-tight skirt when our fearless leader was wearing a pair of black trousers and nothing else? Compared to Sig, Juan Carlos and I looked conspicuously conservative. The former Spanish conquistador on Sig’s left was wearing a neat black Armani suit that made his already dark features appear somehow cloudier.
Under the scrutiny of Sig’s icy blue stare, I crossed my legs at the ankle and placed my hands in my lap. My grandmere would have keeled over to see me dressed up so ladylike. Even my typically wild-child loose blonde curls were pulled back in a sophisticated French twist.
Leave it to the Tribunal to make a lady out of a former assassin.
There was a soft knock on the heavy oak doors to my right, and I tensed. Once upon a time I dreaded coming into this room because it inevitably meant I was in trouble. Now that I was sitting on the other side of the doors, I dreaded those knocks for another reason altogether.
It meant I wasn’t getting out of here anytime soon.
Stifling a sigh, I bit my tongue and waited for Sig to permit entry to whoever waited on the other side of the door. Instead he continued to watch me, and when he spoke at last, it was to me and not our visitor.
“You will be responsible this time.”
I started to protest, but Juan Carlos did it for me. “Surely you cannot be serious.”
“I am never not serious,” Sig replied.
And don’t call me Shirley, I answered mutely but couldn’t hide the smirk.
“You find this humorous, Miss McQueen?” Juan Carlos asked, directing his attention towards me for the first time all night. It was difficult to find humor in anything when he looked at me that way. The furious curl of his mouth was punctuated by the scar which split his upper lip into a permanent snarl. That was nothing compared to the glimmer of abject hatred illuminating his eyes.
“No, Juan Carlos.” I no longer had to refer to him as a Tribunal Leader, because in the eyes of the vampire council we were now of equal power.
But try getting him to see it that way.
There was a second knock, this one more tentative. Juan Carlos leaned back with a huff, throwing his hands in the air and refusing to look at either of us.
“She’s been on the Tribunal for seven months,” Sig reminded the vampire at his side. “It’s time she be allowed to express her power accordingly. She cannot fail too badly.” He said this last line with a twisted smirk.
He was testing me.
Now I understood that up to this point I’d been playing in the shallow end. Splashing around in the kiddy pool. Tonight Sig was going to throw me into the ocean and see if I’d learned how to swim or if the current was going to swallow me whole.
“C-come in,” I stammered, kicking myself for how miserable I sounded.
Straightening my posture, I sat tall and fixed a cool, calculating expression on my face. Whatever I was about to do, I wanted to give the impression I knew how to handle it. I needed my best poker face.
The door swung open, and a young man stepped into the room. All the tension melted out of me because I recognized him and knew perfectly well he wasn’t a vampire. He was human, and he was so nervous the smell of it was wafting out to fill the chamber. I could handle this, since once upon a time it had been me standing where he stood now.
A thin smile fanned across my lips, and from the corner of my eye I could see Sig watching me rather than looking at our new guest.
The man was handsome in a beat-up way. His hair was dark enough to be called black and stuck out in every direction as if it were at odds with itself. He had a few days’ worth of stubble covering his cheeks except for a jagged white line on his right cheek where no hair grew to cover an old scar. His nose had once been broken and hadn’t healed properly.
His eyes were bright blue and focused on my forehead, but his jaw was clenched with the determination of a man who wouldn’t let his fear show.
I waited for him to greet us in the appropriate manner, as I’d been trained to do when I was the council’s designated bounty hunter. When he didn’t speak, I frowned and cleared my throat pointedly.
“Good evening, Tribunal Leader Secret,” he acknowledged with a terse nod before turning to Juan Carlos. “Good evening, Tribunal Leader Juan Carlos.” When he looked at Sig, some of the fierceness faded from him. Sig, my two-thousand-year-old Finnish vampire boss, had an unusual gift for putting others at ease and was using it in spades on our visitor. “Tribunal Leader Sig,” he said almost reverently.
“Welcome, Shane.” I nodded so he would know to direct his attention to me.
Shane Hewitt was the third bounty hunter we’d hired to fill the void left by my promotion. I’d tried to convince Sig—on multiple occasions—I should be allowed to continue my work hunting rogues, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I was a huge liability now, and he needed to keep me protected in order to stop anyone else from trying to take my place at his side on the Tribunal.
There was only one way to lose this job, and that was to die. The only way to get the job was to kill someone who had it. Career advancement hadn’t been my goal when I’d decapitated the vampire who’d formerly occupied this seat, but if sitting here meant I was still alive, I’d take it.
The downside was we’d had a lot of difficulty finding someone as adept at hunting rogues as I’d been. Since I was half-vampire myself, I had the benefit of knowing how they operated. No full-blood vampires were willing to take a job killing their brethren, so that left humans.
And humans had a bad habit of shucking off the mortal coil when a rogue vampire refused to come quietly.
Shane Hewitt had lasted longer than any of the others, though his nose had been perfect when he’d started the job three months ago. Now he looked like a barroom brawler with a bad attitude. That bad attitude must have led him astray at some point, otherwise he wouldn’t be standing in front of us now.
I knew a thing or two about the pitfalls of a bad attitude.
“What brings you before us tonight?” I hoped I sounded pretentious enough. I was remembering everything Sig, Juan Carlos and the dearly departed Daria had ever said to me and amping the smarm up a few notches.
Shane blanched, and his shoes suddenly became the most interesting thing in the room, a sure sign we weren’t going to like what he had to tell us.
Twenty bucks says unsanctioned kill, I mused. Sig smirked and the timing gave me a chill.
“Spit it out,” I insisted, after the silence had gone beyond dramatic and into awkward. If Juan Carlos could have facepalmed inconspicuously, I think he would have.
Shane jolted like I’d woken him out of a deep sleep, then crammed his fists into the pockets of his leather jacket. It was still February, so the jacket must have been a statement to make him look tough since it was worn too thin to actually keep him warm.
“I was issued a warrant to kill a vampire who was posing as a tour operator in Times Square and picking off tourists.”
I knew all about his warrants. I was here when they were issued. He was stalling. I urged him on. “And?”
“Well, I was successful.” He gave me a sheepish smile, but when someone refuses to look you in the eyes when they smile at you, the result is a little unnerving.
There was also a lingering unspoken but at the end of his sentence. I placed one of my hands on each wooden arm of the throne, and the intricate engravings dug into my palms when I squeezed. The way I was glowering at him must have indicated my impatience, because he spoke again, this time more quickly.
“I killed the vamp in front of a crowd. The wardens got most of it under control, but a few people got away without being wiped.”
Wiped. That was a new one. I guess having your memory augmented by the thrall was similar to having it erased.
“I don’t know.”
“How many?” I repeated, shocked by how my voice boomed through the small space. I sounded downright menacing. One point for me.
“A half dozen, maybe?”
Since Sig was the expert on how to make an assassin feel as puny as a gnat on a horse’s ass, my next response was taken straight out of his greatest hits. I sighed dramatically, burdening the exhalation so much it radiated like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. Like the complications of Shane’s actions would keep me tossing and turning late into my daytime sleep. I groaned a little for added effect.
“Do you understand what you’ve exposed us to? How your stupidity has endangered us all?” I filled my voice with restrained rage, then darted my gaze sideways to see how my colleagues were reacting.
Sig was watching Shane with a careful eye, reading what he could from the man’s words and judging how truthful he found them to be. The full focus of his attention was a lot to bear; I knew that all too well. Beyond Sig, Juan Carlos had propped his chin onto one of his curled fists, but instead of watching Shane, his eyes remained on me. He looked bored, but there was a fire lit in his pupils that showed something other than repressed hatred.
Juan Carlos was proud of me.
I returned my attention to Shane, swallowing the icky feeling of having done something to please the surly conquistador.
“What was your payment to be?”
“You will forfeit the payment for this kill, and for the next. You are lucky I’m not having your hands ripped off.” I said it so matter-of-factly I gave myself a chill.
Shane opened his mouth, likely to protest, but I waved one freshly manicured hand towards the door and turned away, telling him he was no longer of concern to me. The bounty hunter stomped over to the big double doors, and as he jerked them open, I couldn’t resist a famous Tribunal parting shot.
“Oh, and, Mr. Hewitt?”
Shane turned, and he must have been mad because he made the mistake of meeting my eyes, something a smart hunter would never do with a vampire unless they wanted to risk being enthralled.
“Don’t disappoint us again.”
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— RT Book Reviews on Deep Dark Secret
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