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Authors: Ashley Meira

King's Gambit (4 page)

BOOK: King's Gambit

“I don’t think Elise would appreciate you scaring her guests,” said Khalil.

Without a word, Dorian swept a hand down the hall, to a pair of glassy double doors, before curtsying and scurrying upstairs. If there was a reason beyond scaring me that had him walking uncomfortably close to me, I couldn’t see it.

Much like the rest of her home, Elise’s sitting room was bathed in somber firelight from both the fireplace and the litany of candles spread around the room. Was my home the only one that didn’t have a fireplace? Maybe I could move into this neighborhood and fit in with all the other magic users. With the rent around here, I’d probably need a roommate, though. Fuck that.

The theme for tonight seemed to be “Meet Powerful Vampiric Figures in Their Living Rooms Against a Halo of Firelight.” Ruby-red highlights danced over everything, casting wicked shadows against the mahogany furniture. Elise sat in front of us, sipping from a flower-patterned china teacup, her pinky held up in the perfect form of bourgeois class. A heavy, red velvet robe covered her body, slipping to reveal one white, skeletal shoulder. Her hair was the same shade as Dorian’s and startlingly straight, cut in a severe bob that ended at her pointed chin. Her hazel eyes were narrow and focused like a hawk. She was all sharp edges and defined bone structure, like a mix between a Grecian and art nouveau sculpture.

She rose, her shadow an ominous arch against the filigree-patterned wallpaper, and held out a thin hand, the bone of her wrist jutting out almost impossibly so. “Good evening, Mademoiselle Maxwell.”

I shook her hand and said a quiet greeting before taking a seat as Khalil did the same, bringing the sorceress’ hand up to his lips. He sat next to me and Elise stepped, almost floated, towards one of the bookshelves behind her.

“The king–
Castinus has informed you of the situation, I presume?” Elise said, coming back to us with a giant tome under her arm. Even her voice was severe and dry, like ice.

“There’s a plan to, um, put him back in power?” I said, wine and unease affecting my manner.

Elise quirked a pencil thin brow at my words. I’ve always wanted to do that, but whenever I tried to raise one brow, the other came right along with it, causing me to do a poor man’s Groucho Marx waggle.

“It’s a rather simple affair.” She placed the book on the coffee table in front of us.

The book’s edge bumped against her tea cup and the liquid inside sloshed around, leaving a red stain against the porcelain. Blood. Of course. What was I expecting, coffee? All food and drink tasted like dirt to vampires.

“As you know, the king is nothing without his parliament. Ruling without one draws attention from the elders in Vienna, and no vampire would wish that upon themselves,” said Elise. “King Flavius’ plan –
plan – to execute Monsieur Castinus’ people was well-formed. They were very powerful creatures, after all. I’m sure he’s been planning this for quite some time.”

“Is that your way of saying our plan won’t involve murdering people?” I asked, trying to avoid noticing how close Khalil was – another inch and we’d be pressed right up against each other. “Because I already knew that. Though I’m sure Marcus wouldn’t mind if we just killed everyone,” I muttered.

“On that we can agree,” she said.

“Our dear past and future king is surprisingly hot-headed for a man who has lived hundreds of years and survived dozens of political upheavals,” Khalil said with a small smile and wave of his hand. “I was feeling a bit left out.”

“Poor baby,” I said.

The corners of his lips turned down and his brows came together in a startlingly effective hurt puppy look.
Hot damn
. “I am suffering from the lack of attention, truly. It does help that I am in the company of two beautiful women.”

“Monsieur Khalil,” Elise said sternly. “Please.”

“How come you use his first name?” I asked.

“It’s the only name I have,” said Khalil.

I wanted to press for more information, but this was neither the time nor the place. “So, what’s the plan?”

“For now?” said Elise. “Information gathering.”

“Why did I think this was going to be a quick job?” I sighed.

“The duration of your part will depend entirely on you, Miss Maxwell,” Khalil said with a wink. “Though I do hope we will be working closely with each other for quite some time.”

I failed to fight back a smile.
You are in a committed relationship, damn it.
“You can call me Morgan. Both of you.”

“Morgan,” he purred the name out, dangling an arm behind me over the back of the couch. “You–”

“Please work your ‘talents’ later, Monsieur Khalil,” Elise sighed, the hush of air that escaped her lips jarring. For a species that no longer needed to breath, I’ve seen my fair share of vampires sigh; it was kind of cool to see the undead acting so “lifelike.”

Allowing herself another moment of scowling at Khalil, Elise continued, “These politics are the games of my kind…Morgan. Not yours.”

Ah, there’s that vampiric sense of superiority.
“Why am I here, then?”

“Because our dear king has precious few friends at the moment,” said Khalil. God, did that roguish grin ever leave his face? “And you do have quite a reputation.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.”

“I’d prefer to judge that for myself.” No, apparently it didn’t. It was still there, perfect as ever. Fuck.

“Bring me samples of each of the parliament members’ blood, and if possible, the king’s,” Elise said, giving up all pretense of keeping Khalil down. I could imagine her bringing a spray bottle of cold water to our next meeting.

“You need blood,” I said. “You’re a thaumaturge.”

Thaumaturgy was a school of magic – like elemental magic or necromancy – that focused on using blood. It used the life force as a catalyst for spells or as an ingredient in special potions. Because of its main area of focus, most people view it as a sinister practice, right up there with infernalists who sold their souls to demons for power.

Infernalists like Lucas, the vampire who had a bitchy version of my mother’s face and a hard on for getting in my business. Not that I was still fixated on him or anything. I guess, technically,
was the one who kept stumbling into
business, but I refused to believe it was a coincidence that our beams kept crossing. And since I had no clue what he was up to, that meant he was the one pulling all the strings. Prick.

“I am,” said Elise. “Is that a problem?”

The edge in her voice told me if it was, I had better lie about it. Luckily, I didn’t particularly give a rat’s ass about thaumaturgy. As a school of magic, at least. I was against mages draining people of their blood to fuel spells, and I didn’t like how even a small amount of blood in the hands of a competent thaumaturge could spell doom, but the art itself was actually rather interesting.

I shrugged. “It’s not. Why do you need the blood?”

She looked at me as if I should already know. “Blood can be used for many things. In this case, it will be used to provide me with insight.”

“Into…?” Why are these situations always like pulling teeth?

Elise tilted her head in a way eerily reminiscent of Dorian, though it was nowhere near as creepy. She didn’t say anything, though. She just gave me that same expectant look as before, like I was supposed to give her the answer.

Blood magic fell under the category of things hunters practiced but never spoke of, and “unaffiliated” magic users guard their secrets ferociously, making knowledge of the subject difficult to obtain. While I didn’t practice the art myself, I did have a fair number of books on thaumaturgy. Though I always put off reading them, which I now regretted, because they may have given me an idea of what Elise was planning.

Alas, regrets couldn’t help me now. I sighed in resignation. “What’s the dirt on these guys?”

“I thought you would make it a point of knowing the new players,” she said.

Maybe I was just tired, but it was hard to tell if she was actually mocking. Both her gaze and manner of speaking gave off the vibe that she was always unimpressed with everything around her.

“I just got back,” I offered as a lame excuse.

“There are always six members in the king’s parliament, with one of them serving as a magical advisor” she said. “Two of Flav–” she cut off, rubbing her temples “–King Flavius’ people are in Germany at the moment. That leaves four here. One of them works for us, the other three are your targets.”

“We have a mole?”

“Everyone has a price,” said Khalil.

It was ironic to hear that from a mercenary. Come to think of it, he didn’t really look like a mercenary. A gigolo, maybe. There’s a lesson about stereotyping people in here somewhere, I’m sure.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Sergei Koskov,” said Elise. “Five-foot-eight, blonde hair, and small blue eyes.”

“Beady,” said Khalil, forming a small circle with his thumb and forefinger. “Like a rat. A friendly rat.”

“And the others?” I asked, unable to resist returning the handsome vampire’s grin.

“There is Allison Rollins, Robert Franklin, and Zhen Zhu-Li,” Elise said. “Note that Zhen is her last name. In China–”

“The last name is put before the first name,” I said. “I know.”

“She is the king’s magical advisor. That, along with her reclusive nature, makes her the most difficult target.” Elise took a sip from her cup, the leftover blood on her lips a startling crimson against the deathly pallor of her skin. “Monsieur Franklin will be the easiest. He is a hedonist and throws parties almost every night. He planned the soiree tonight, actually.”

“And is hosting another tomorrow,” Khalil said, his honey-colored eyes turning molten gold as he gazed at the china cup. “Which we’ll be attending.”

“Rollins?” I asked, dreading another night in heels while simultaneously trying to decide what to wear.

Khalil ran a hand through his hair, and I watched with fascination as the strands fell back into the exact same place. Seriously, why couldn’t magic do that? “Miss Rollins makes Flavius most of his money. She’s his stockbroker, and rumor has it, his lover. She’ll be at the party if Flavius is; the woman is practically his second shadow. Zhen refuses to appear at any party unless she has to.”

“In any case, your first goal should be Monsieur Franklin,” said Elise. “Though you are welcome to try getting blood from Mademoiselle Rollins if you see an opportunity.”

“Yeah, about that…How am I supposed to get a blood sample from someone without them noticing? Especially someone whose every fiber is hardwired to seek blood. I’m pretty sure they’d notice something.”

“From the way Monsieur Castinus speaks of you, I wouldn’t think this a challenge,” she said.

I’d jump her if I didn’t think she’d boil the blood in my veins. Plus, I was a little distracted wondering what exactly Marcus had said about me. “How much blood do I need to collect?”

Elise stood up and headed to the desk in the corner. “More is better, of course, but a few drops will suffice.” She came back with four small test tubes and held them out to me. “If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, fill them completely. One vial per person.”

Chewing my lower lip, I took the vials. How the hell was I supposed to inconspicuously fill these up? Last I checked, sleeping potions didn’t work on vampires, and I doubt there’s any way to “accidentally” stab all four of them.

“Maybe I’ll just hit them all with a car,” I mumbled.

“Do you have a car?” Khalil asked, his perfect white teeth bared in a smile.

I scoffed. “
your issue with my plan?”

“I admire a woman who can think in unique ways.”

“You enjoy women of all types,” Elise said dryly as she turned to me. “Attend the party Robert Franklin is hosting tomorrow night. If you have an opportunity to get his blood, do so. Otherwise, gather information and plan accordingly.”

Khalil crossed his hands over his heart. “So dismissive, my dear. Keep saying those hurtful things, and I may begin to take them seriously.”

“Take them however you want,” she said. “Outside, for example.”

Elise stood and we followed suit, bidding each other good night and all those niceties as I wondered if she could be the first vampire/gargoyle hybrid, before making our way out. A cursory glance revealed a pleasant lack of creepy children, but there was no shaking the feeling I was being watched as the winter air kissed my face.

Khalil was kind enough to offer me a ride home. That, or he knew I’d set him on fire if he left me here to hunt for a taxi. Fire was a vampire’s greatest weakness – even the slightest spark against their skin could cause insane amounts of damage. It was the “sun’s curse" or something much more eloquent I couldn’t remember.

Sitting in the car, I let my thoughts drift to Elise. She was a hard woman to read – I’ve seen more expression on a blank piece of paper. Marcus trusted her, though, so I guess I couldn’t complain. Then again, the thought of giving blood – even if it wasn’t my own – to a thaumaturge made me feel prickly all over. She’s on my side, however, and that was what mattered right now. I’d cross any blood-soaked bridges when I came to them.

Khalil’s dulcet tones interrupted my reverie. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“That’s rather cliché.” I pressed my temple against the cool glass window.

“You’re deflecting.”

“No, I’m just not answering.”

“One might argue that you are in fact answering, but I’m not the type to waste time on semantics.”

“Is that so?” I asked with a lazy drawl. He had heated seats, which were currently winning a gold medal in lulling me to sleep.

“Things tend to go better for me when people don’t look too closely.”

He’s a con man, then. For some reason, the thought put a smile on my face. It added to his whole charming criminal appeal. We drove in silence a while before I peered at him from the corner of my eye.

“How do you know Marcus?”

“Through a few business contacts,” he said with a throaty chuckle. “I make a good living providing the more influential of my kind with a variety of services.”

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