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CLAIMED BY SHADOW


 
         CHAPTER ONE           


              
            Any day that starts off in a demon-filled bar in a casino designed to look like Hell isn’t likely to turn out well.  But all I thought at the time was that a brothel should be more fun–especially one for ladies only that was staffed by handsome incubi.  But the demon lovers slumped miserably at their tables, holding their heads as if in pain, and completely ignoring their companions.  Even Casanova, lounging across from me, looked unhappy.  His pose was unconsciously seductive–a matter of habit, I guess–but his expression wasn’t so nice. 
            “All right, Cassie!” he snapped, when one of his boys suddenly began weeping uncontrollably. “Tell me what you want, then get them the hell out of here!  I have a business to run!”
            He was referring to the three old women who were perched on stools at the bar.  They were giving the satyr serving drinks a wilt in a place rarely seen at anything but full attention on one of his kind.  That wasn’t surprising: none of them looked a day under a hundred, and their most obvious attribute was matted, greasy locks–gray since birth–that streamed in a web of tangles to the floor.  I’d tried to wash Enyo’s, whose name appropriately means “horror,” last night, but the hotel’s shampoo hadn’t made much of an improvement.  I’d given up after finding what looked like a decayed rat in a snarl under her left ear.    
            The hair did have the benefit of distracting attention from their faces, though, so you didn’t immediately notice that they had only one eye and one tooth among them.  Enyo was currently trying to take back the eye from her sister Deino (“dread”) because she wanted to check out the horrified-looking bartender.  Meanwhile, Pemphredo (“alarm”) was using the tooth to rip open a pack of peanuts.  She finally gave up and stuffed the whole cellophane-wrapped package into her mouth, gumming it happily.
            I had once assumed that the Graeae were merely myths thought up by bored (and fairly peculiar) Greeks a few thousand years before the invention of TV.  But apparently not.  I’d recently acquired–ok, stolen–a bunch of items from the Vampire Senate, the body that controls the actions of all North American vampires, and had been trying to figure out what they were.  The first one I’d examined, a small iridescent sphere in a black wooden case, had started to glow as soon as I picked it up.  A brief flash of light later and I had house guests. 
            I couldn’t figure out why the trio had been imprisoned, especially in so grand a place as the inner sanctum of a vampire stronghold.  They were annoying as hell, but didn’t seem particularly dangerous, other than to my room service bill. I’d brought the gals along because it was either that or leave them unsupervised in my hotel room.  They had a lot of energy for old women, and I’d had a hell of a time keeping them amused so far. 
            I’d sat them in front of three nickel slots while I went on my errand, but of course they hadn’t stayed there.  Like three ancient toddlers, they had very short attention spans.  They’d wandered into the bar shortly after I did, carrying a load of no-doubt ill-gotten souvenirs.  Deino, clutching a little red devil plush under her arm, had dropped a snow globe off with me before heading for the bar.  It contained a plastic image of the casino that, instead of being surrounded by fake snow, had tiny flames that danced about whenever you shook it.  I thought it would be just my luck to get arrested for shoplifting something that tacky.
            Despite the annoyance of babysitting the weird sisters, the expression on Casanova’s face as he regarded them told me it might work to my advantage.  I smiled and watched the flames of Hell consume the tiny casino again.  “If you don’t help me, I may just leave them here.  They could use a makeover.”  I didn’t bother to point out how bad that would be for business. 
            Casanova winced and tossed back the rest of his drink, giving me a glimpse of a strong, tanned throat under the loose collar of his dress shirt.  Technically, of course, he wasn’t the historical Casanova.  Possession by an incubus demon tends to increase mortal lifespan, but not that much.  The Italian cleric who was remembered for having unmatched success with the ladies died centuries ago, but the reason for his reputation lived on.  And there was nothing to complain about in his newest incarnation.  I had to regularly remind myself that I was here on business and he wasn’t even trying. 
            “I don’t care about your problems,” he told me fiercely.  “How much to take them away?” 
            “This isn’t a money matter.  You know what I want.”  I tried to discreetly pull the tight satin shorts I was wearing into a more comfortable position, but I think he noticed.  It’s hard to look intimidating in a sequined devil costume complete with pointed tail.  And sinful scarlet did not go well with my strawberry blond curls and whitest of white girl’s complexion.  I looked like a kewpie doll trying to play tough guy–no wonder he wasn’t impressed.  But I’d had to think of some way to reach him without being recognized, and borrowing a costume from the employee locker room had seemed like a good idea at the time. 
            Casanova lit a tiny cigarette with a brushed gold lighter.  “If you have a death wish, that is your affair, but I won’t put my head in a noose by crossing Antonio.  The man is psychotic about revenge.  You should know.”
            Considering that Tony, a master vampire and my old guardian, was at the head of the list of people who wanted me in an urn on their mantel, I couldn’t argue the point.  But I had to find him, and the person I strongly suspected was with him, or the urn wouldn’t be necessary.  There wouldn’t be anything left of me to require a funeral.  And since Casanova had once been Tony’s second-in-command, it was a good bet that he knew where the crafty old bastard was hiding.
            “I think Myra’s with him,” I said shortly.
            Casanova didn’t ask for details.  It wasn’t exactly a secret that Myra was the most recent person to try and help me shuffle off the mortal coil.  It hadn’t been personal–more of a career move, you might say–until I’d put a couple of holes in her torso.  It was safe to assume it was personal now. 
            “My sympathies,” Casanova murmured.  “But I am afraid that is all I can offer.  You understand that my position is somewhat . . . tenuous.”
            That was one way of putting it.  That Casanova had occupied such an important place in Tony’s criminal organization was unusual, to say the least.  Demons are normally considered unwanted competition by vampires, but incubi aren’t exactly tops on the demonic power scale.  In fact, most other demons view them as something of an embarrassment.  Casanova was an unusual incubus, though. 
            He’d taken up residence in an attractive Spanish don centuries ago, thinking he was simply trading an aging host body for a newer version.  He hadn’t realized until the possession was in progress that he’d actually invaded a baby vampire, one too young to know how to evict him.  Before the vamp figured it out, they’d reached an understanding.  The centuries of practice Casanova had in seduction helped the vamp feed easily, and having a body that wouldn’t age and die on him suited Casanova.  So when Tony decided to organize the incubi of the States into a money-making deal for him, Casanova was the perfect choice to run it. 
            His Decadent Dreams spa is located in a monstrosity of a building adjacent to Tony’s newest Vegas casino, Dante’s.  While vacationing husbands throw away the family fortune at the roulette wheel, their neglected wives take consolation in the extravagant spa treatments, among other things, on offer next door.  Tony gets rich from the proceeds, the incubi get more lust to feed from than even they can use, and the ladies come out with a glow that lasts for days.  It’s actually one of Tony’s less reprehensible businesses, except for being highly illegal-unlike some people seem to believe, prostitution is not ok with the Vegas PD.  But then, vamps have never paid much attention to human law. 
             “What’s the penalty for slaving these days?” I asked idly.  “Bet it makes that noose look pretty good.” 
            For the first time, Casanova lost his superior look.  He dropped his cigarette and hot ashes splattered his suit, leaving tiny burnt marks on the silk before he could brush them away.  “I never had anything to do with that!” 
            I wasn’t surprised by his reaction.  Tony had been breaking both human and vampire laws by engaging in the very profitable but extremely dangerous trade of selling magic users.  The Silver Circle, the council of mages who act for magic users the way the Senate does for vamps, are violently opposed to the idea, and their treaty with the vamps specifically outlaws it.  Ignoring the treaty risked war, and the Senate would have staked Tony for that alone, if they didn’t already have plenty of reasons to want him dead.
            “You’ll have a hard time convincing the Senate of that if your boss tries to pin the whole thing on you.”  Judging by his expression, Casanova felt that was a good possibility.  He knew his employer as well as I did.  “But if I find him first, Tony will be out of the picture and you’ll be in the clear.  It’s to your advantage to help me.”  I expected that line to work–self interest was usually the best way to get a vamp’s cooperation–but Casanova recovered quickly.
            He lit another cigarette with steady fingers.  “Why are you so sure that I know where he is?  He doesn’t tell me everything.  He has that Alphonse character to help him now.”
            Alphonse was Tony’s current second-in-command and personal bodyguard.  He was easily the ugliest vamp I’ve ever seen, and his personality was no more attractive than his face.  But I much preferred him to his boss.  Alphonse didn’t actually like me, but I doubted he’d hunt me down if Tony wasn’t around to give the order. 
            “Tony had to leave somebody in charge when he disappeared.  I’m betting it was you, and that you know where he is.” 
            He regarded me through a haze of smoke for a long minute.  “I’m in temporary control,” he finally admitted, “but only of Vegas.  You want to contact Philly.”
            I shook my head emphatically.  That was what I definitely didn’t want.  There were too many people in Philadelphia, Tony’s main base of operations, who remembered me less than fondly.  Way less.  “Uh-huh.  They might give me something, all right, but it wouldn’t be information.”
            Casanova’s lips twitched, and the amusement in those whiskey-colored eyes was even more attractive than his usual smoldering seduction.  I swallowed and pretended indifference, which won me an actual grin.  But no information. 
            “You know as well as I do that the family does not take disloyalty well,” he murmured.  “That is especially true for a demon/vampire hybrid that most regard as a freak.  And the fact that I have recently taken over temporary control on this coast hasn’t won me any more admirers.  There are many waiting for me to put a foot wrong, and betraying the boss would definitely qualify.”
            I hadn’t been prepared for candor and it threw me.  I stared at him as a surge of fear fluttered through my stomach and up to my throat.  I tamped it down; I couldn’t afford to show uncertainty now.  If I didn’t find some way to get Casanova to open up, pretty soon Myra would be doing the same to me–with a knife. 
            I leaned across the table and played my best card.  “I understand all about the family’s idea of revenge.  But think about it.  If Tony gets staked by me or the Senate, you’ll be in a perfect position to grab some property.  Wouldn’t you like to own this place yourself?”
            Casanova ran a hand through his shoulder-length chestnut hair, which fell in perfect waves without any obvious artifice.  He was dressed in a raw silk suit in a rich brown that almost matched his eyes.  I wasn’t an expert on men’s clothes, but his saffron-colored tie looked expensive, as did his gold watch and matching cufflinks.  Casanova had caviar tastes, and I doubted Tony overpaid him–generosity wasn’t one of his character traits. 
            He looked around longingly.  “What I wouldn’t give to redecorate,” he said.  “Do you have any idea how difficult it is, getting patrons past the ambiance?”  I could see his point.  The gloomy opium-den interior and dragon’s head bar, complete with an occasional wisp of steam emanating from its carved nostrils, didn’t exactly scream romance.  “My boys have to work twice as hard as they should.  I engineered a water leak last month to give me an excuse to gut the lobby, but there’s so much left to do, and don’t even get me started on the entrance!  It scares off half the would-be customers before they make it in the door.” 
            “So, help me out here.”
            He shook his head regretfully, expelling a thin stream of smoke with his sigh.  “Not possible, chica.  If Tony found out, he’d ruin me.  I’d have to find a new body after he staked this one, and I’ve become somewhat attached to it.”
            It figured Casanova didn’t want to risk it.  Hanging out on the sidelines, waiting to see who won, was the practical move–and practicality is pretty much the defining vamp characteristic.  Unfortunately, that option wasn’t open to me.  
            A legacy from an eccentric seer had recently left me Pythia, the title for the world’s chief clairvoyant.  Agnes’ gift came with a whopping amount of power that everyone wanted to either monopolize or eradicate, but I was stuck with it for the moment since she’d thoughtlessly died before I could figure out how to give it back.  I hoped to pass it on to someone else, assuming I lived so long, but in the meantime, Tony wanted to kill me, the Senate wanted to make me their stooge, and, oh yeah, I’d also managed to piss off the mages.  What can I say?  I’m an overachiever. 
            “Tony isn’t going to win against the six senates,” I said flatly.  “They have reciprocal agreements–if one is hunting him, they all are.  Sooner or later, they’ll catch up with him and he’ll start blaming everyone else for what happened.  They’ll stake him anyway, but ten to one he’ll incriminate you and a lot of others before then.  Help me out and maybe I can get to him before they do.”
            Casanova studied me while he stubbed out his cigarette in a black lacquered ashtray.  Dark eyes swept over my outfit, and a faint smile came to his lips.  “Rumor has it that you’re Pythia now,” he finally said, stroking the back of one long-fingered hand lightly over mine.  “Can’t you use your power to deal with this?  It would be worth a lot to me.”  My skin felt warmer than usual where he touched me, a feeling that spread outward along my arm.  His voice dropped an octave, going husky. “I could be a very good friend, Cassandra.” 
            He raised my hand, turning it over to run a finger lightly down the middle of the palm.  I was about to make a sarcastic comment about my so-called power when he bent his head.  His lips brushed along the line he’d drawn, silken soft but feeling like they left a brand, and I forgot what I’d been about to say.  He looked up at me through dark lashes, and it was like staring into the face of a stranger, one with a darkly beautiful visage and a hypnotic gaze.  I remembered the old saying that the only difference between Don Juan and Casanova, the world’s two greatest lovers, was that when Don Juan ended relationships the women hated him, and when Casanova left they still adored him.  I was beginning to understand why. 
            I snatched my hand back before I was tempted to use it to drag him over the table.  “Cut it out!” 
            He blinked in surprise and reached for me again.  This time, the warm feeling was stronger when we touched, sending a frisson of heat dancing across my skin.  I had a sudden image of sultry Spanish nights, the scent of jasmine, and warm, golden skin sliding against mine.  I closed my eyes, swallowing hard, trying to reject the sensations, but that only seemed to help them become more real.  Someone pushed me back against a thick feather mattress, practically burying me in its plump folds, and I could actually feel the soft weave of the sheets under my hands.  A fall of silken hair spilled all around me and strong hands skimmed down my sides, a teasing touch that barely registered, but flooded my veins with heat. 
            Then, with no warning, the sensation changed, going from seductive warmth to scorching heat.  For a moment, I thought Casanova’s touch would actually burn me, but he released my hand before it edged over into real pain.  I opened my eyes to find us still sitting in the bar; the only signs that anything had happened were my flushed face and pounding pulse.
            Casanova sighed and sat back in his seat.  “Whoever did the geis knew what he was doing,” he told me, signaling for a refill.   “Out of curiosity, who was it?  I would have said there were none I couldn’t break.”
            “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I rubbed my hand where it felt like he’d left an imprint of his fingers behind, and glared at him.  I didn’t appreciate the attempted distraction–I was not his afternoon snack–nor whatever had ended it so painfully.   
            “The geis.  I didn’t know anyone had a prior claim or I wouldn’t–”
            “What’s a gesh?”  He spelled it for me, which didn’t help.  A waiter brought us both new drinks and I gulped some of mine, my mood blackening by the second.   
            “Don’t play games, Cassie, you know what I am.  Did you think I wouldn’t see it?” he asked impatiently; then something in my expression made his eyes widen.  “You really don’t know, do you?”
            I stared at him resentfully.  More complications, just what I needed right now.  “Either make some sense or–”
            “Someone, a powerful magic user or a master vampire, has put a claim on you,” he said patiently, then corrected himself.  “No, not a claim.  More like an immense KEEP OFF sign a mile high.” 
            I sat there, feeling a new wave of heat creep up my neck.  I remembered a cultured, amused voice telling me that I belonged to him, always had and always would.  I was going to kill him.
            “What does that mean, exactly?”
            “A geis is a magical bond, usually involving a taboo or prohibition over personal behavior.”  He saw my confusion.  “Do you remember the story of Melusine?”
A childhood memory surfaced, but it was vague.  “A fairy tale, French I think.  She was some half-fairy who turned into a dragon, right?”
            Casanova sighed, shaking his head at my ignorance.  “Melusine was a beautiful woman six days of the week, but was cursed to appear as a half-serpent on the seventh.  She married Raymond of Lusignan after he agreed to a geis prohibiting him from ever seeing her on Saturday, even though she refused to say why.  They had many happy years together until one of his cousins convinced Raymond that Saturday was the day she spent with her lover, and he spied on her to find out the truth.  That broke the geis, causing Melusine to become a dragon permanently and losing Raymond the love of his life.” 
            “You’re telling me that story was real?”
            “I have no idea.  The point is, that’s how a geis operates.”  His hand hovered over mine, but he didn’t attempt to touch me again.  “This one is the strongest I’ve ever felt, and it’s been in place for some time now.  It has a good grip.”
            “Define ‘some time.’”
            “Years,” he said, concentrating.  “At least a decade, maybe more.  And a decade isn’t a simple matter of ten years, you know.  For purposes of the spell, it’s measured as a percentage of your lifespan.   You’re what, early twenties?” 
            “I’ll be twenty-four tomorrow.”
            He shrugged. “Well, there you have it.  For roughly half your life, someone has owned you.”
            “No one owns me,” I said shortly, but Casanova didn’t look impressed.  “What does this geis do, other than to warn people off?”
             I soon wished I hadn’t asked.  “The dúthracht geis is a strong magical connection–one of the strongest.  During the Middle Ages, paranoid mages with non-magical wives employed it as a variation on a chastity belt.  I’ve also heard of it being used in arranged marriages, to smooth out initial awkwardness.” 
            He concentrated for a moment before continuing.  “As far as I can determine, it allows whoever put it in place to know your emotions–your true ones, not whatever you’re trying to project–so you can’t lie to him.   It also gives him a rough idea of where you are at any given time.  He may not know your exact location, but he’ll certainly be able to narrow it down to a city, and possibly further.”
            I remembered the arrogant jerk who I strongly suspected was behind this telling me that he had been able to find me once because he’d had help from the Senate’s intelligence network.  Maybe he had, but it seemed there had been more to it.  I wondered how many other times he’d only told me part of the truth. 
            “And last but not least, it heightens the attraction between you, with each meeting becoming more intense.  Eventually, you won’t want to run.”
            I felt myself go cold.  “Then nothing I feel is real.”  I couldn’t believe he’d stooped that low.  He knew damned well how I felt about having my thoughts or feelings altered. 
            The jerk in question was Mircea, a five-hundred-year-old vampire whose biggest claim to fame was being Dracula’s older brother.  He’d also been my first crush.  I hadn’t cared about his family name, or that he was a first-level master and a Senate member.  I’d been far more interested in the way his rich brown eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed, in the mahogany hair that spilled over his broad shoulders and in that wickedly perfect mouth, still the most sensual I’ve ever seen.  Among his other titles, Mircea was also the vamp Tony called Master.  It was something that should have made me question the sincerity in that handsome face a lot sooner. 
            “The dúthracht doesn’t create emotions,” Casanova corrected me.  “It isn’t a love spell.  It can only enhance what is already there.  Which is why it’s odd that anyone would have used it on you at what, age eleven, twelve?”
            I nodded numbly, but the truth was that I didn’t find it odd at all.  My mother had been heir to the Pythia’s throne before she ran away with my father.  The fact that she’d been disinherited meant nothing as far as my chances for succeeding were concerned, however, because it isn’t the old Pythia who chooses the new one.  The final selection is made by the power of the office itself.  In all but a handful of instances over thousands of years, it has selected the designated heir, the one groomed as a successor by the old Pythia.  But Mircea had gambled that I would be one of the exceptions, and had spared no effort to insure that I’d still be eligible when the moment arrived.
            For reasons I didn’t fully understand, the heir has to remain chaste until the changeover ritual begins, and Mircea hadn’t wanted to risk a teenage infatuation removing me from contention.  So he’d marked me as off-limits by putting a claim on me himself.  Bastard.
            “You said it boosts emotion,” I said, thinking about the first time I encountered Mircea as an adult.  “Are you only talking about mine?”  Mircea hadn’t appeared exactly uninterested when I saw him last, but it was difficult to be certain.  Most vamps are excellent liars, but he is the undisputed, number one champ, possibly because it’s his job.  He’s the Senate’s chief diplomat, the guy sent into tricky situations to get whatever they want through persuasion, seduction or deceit.  He’s very good at what he does. 
            “No, it’s a two way street, one of the spell’s big drawbacks in most people’s opinion.”  Casanova leaned forward, apparently enjoying lecturing me.  “Think of it as an amplifier on a stereo: every meeting edges it up a notch.  You have to give it something to start with, but once it’s up and running, you’re on the path to obsession with each other whether either of you likes it or not.”
            I turned away so he wouldn’t see my expression and treid to ignore the knot in my chest and the tight ache in my throat.  I didn’t know why I felt so betrayed.  It wasn’t as if I had ever completely trusted Mircea.  I knew that no master vampire, especially a Senate member, fell into the category of nice guy.  He couldn’t have achieved his current position by being anything less than ruthless.  But I would have given odds that he wouldn’t do something like this.  Tony, yes, that I could see, but I’d foolishly believed that his boss was different.  Stupid.  Who did I think had trained him?
            I looked back to find Casanova carefully expressionless.  “You’re saying this is dangerous.”             
            “All magic is dangerous, chica,” he told me gently, “under the right circumstances.”
            “Don’t hedge!”  I didn’t need my feelings spared, I needed answers.  Something that would help me figure a way out of this. 
            “I’m not hedging,” he insisted.  A woman let out a high-pitched scream and his eyes shifted to a spot behind me.  “Damn!” 
            I looked over my shoulder to see that my three roommates had decided to take up darts, despite the fact that the bar was not actually equipped with a board.  While I’d been distracted, Deino had positioned herself at one end of the bar and Pemphredo at the other, while Enyo stood in front blowing toothpicks at the hapless bartender.  Before we could make a move, Enyo blew another mouthful of tiny projectiles, leaving the poor satyr looking like a very unhappy pincushion. The woman screamed again as a forest of little red dots sprouted on his chest, and Casanova gestured for her companion to take her away.  He went to rescue his employee and I followed to rescue him.  The girls sometimes listen to me–when they feel like it–although I get the impression that I’m considered a spoilsport.  
            Casanova sent the trembling bartender on a much deserved break, while I placated the girls by fishing some cards out of my purse.  It’s a standard tarot deck I received for a birthday present years ago that is charmed to act as a sort of metaphysical mood ring.  It doesn’t do specifics, but its forecasts of the overall climate surrounding a situation tend to be eerily accurate.  I was not happy to see the card that poked up from the deck as soon as I touched it.   
            Despite the common misconception, The Lovers rarely has anything to do with finding a soul mate or even having a good time.  The Two of Cups normally indicates that romance is on the way, but The Lovers is more complex.  It points to a looming choice, one that will involve temptation and pain.  And, like the depiction of the card in my deck–Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden–the final decision will have huge consequences for everything that follows.  Needless to say, it has never been one of my favorites. 
            While I confiscated the remaining toothpicks and gave the girls their new toy, Casanova arranged for another bartender.  Finally, we rendezvoused back at our table.  “It all depends on your point of view,” he said, picking up the conversation as if nothing had happened.  I suppose he’d dealt with worse over the centuries than a few bored grandmas.  “Of itself, the geis is harmless.  But then, so was Melusine’s–as long as it wasn’t broken.  Your version merely causes devotion to one person.  If nothing interferes with that relationship, both of you live happily ever after.”
            The fact that I might not want to live, happily or otherwise, in a magically induced state of mind was obviously not important.  “What if something does interfere?”
            Casanova looked faintly uncomfortable.  “Love is a many splendored thing, as I have cause to know.  But it has its ugly side, too.  If anyone or anything is perceived as posing a threat to the bond, it acts to remove that threat.”  He saw my impatience and elaborated.  “Say a person, non-magical obviously, was to take an interest in you.  A norm would be unable to sense the geis, so the warning would go unheeded.”
            “What would happen?”
            “It would depend.  If the bond was new and the two of you had not spent much time together–if the amplitude, in other words, was set on low–maybe nothing.  But the higher the volume, the more the interference would be resented.  Eventually, one or both of you would move to eliminate the threat.”
            “Eliminate?  You mean, as in kill?”  My jaw dropped.  Mircea must have been out of his mind. 
            “It probably wouldn’t come to that,” Casanova assured me, and I felt my stomach unclench slightly.  “Most suitors would exit quickly enough when you started screaming abuse, or your lover began threatening them.” 
            Great, I thought as my stomach went back to its former knotted state.  I could go cuckoo’s nest at any moment thanks to Mircea’s idea of insurance.  “But what if the originator of the geis wanted someone to seduce me?” 
            It wasn’t an idle question.  Mircea had sent a vampire named Tomas to befriend me when the Pythia’s health began to fail.  Lady Phemonoe, the Pythia better known to me as Agnes, had realized she was dying and begun the rites that would free the power to go to a successor.  And that had started a whole new ball game.  Agnes could initiate the ancient ritual, but only I could finish it–by losing the virginity Mircea had guarded so carefully.  I guess he had designated Tomas to take care of that little item for him to avoid getting caught in his own trap. Mircea had been born before the notion of a woman choosing her sexual partners was fashionable, and Tomas was the servant of another master vampire and expected to follow orders.  So, of course, neither of us had been consulted about any of this.       
            Tomas was one of those rare vamps able to mimic the human condition so perfectly that we lived as roommates for six months without me guessing what he was.  We became close, although not as much as Mircea would have liked.  I was reluctant to involve anyone in my crazy life and thought I was protecting Tomas by keeping him at a distance.  But all it had done was force Mircea himself to have to stand in for the ritual. 
            As it turned out, we had been interrupted before the main event, something I’d been pleased about once my head cleared a little.  Completing the ritual meant that I would be stuck as Pythia for life–a no doubt extremely abbreviated period of time considering how much of a target that made me.  Not that my life expectancy at the moment seemed all that great, either.
            “The originator of the geis can lift it for a particular person,” Casanova confirmed.  “I’ve heard of instances when the spell was used on heiresses by their guardians, to insure that they remained chaste until appropriate suitors were selected.  The devotion aspect of the spell was supposed to guarantee that they would happily accept whoever was chosen.”
I didn’t like Casanova’s expression.  “What happened?”
            He fumbled getting another cigarette out of a slim gold case.  Considering how graceful his movements usually were, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like the answer.  “The geis fell out of favor because it tends to backfire,” he explained, lighting up.  “Sometimes it worked, but there were cases when girls committed suicide rather than marry someone other than their guardians.” 
            At my appalled expression, he hurried to explain.  “It is a very difficult spell to cast properly, Cassie.  Devotion can mean so many things.  The geis is designed to insure loyalty, but how many human emotions do you know that have only one facet?  Loyalty easily transmutes to admiration–for why, you think, would I be loyal to someone who is not, in some way, admirable?  Admiration becomes attraction, attraction grows into love and love usually leads to the desire to possess that which is loved.  You follow?”
            “Yes.”  Apparently, my body was a few steps ahead of my brain, because my arms had broken out in goose flesh.  
            “Possessiveness commonly develops an aspect of exclusivity–this person should belong to me and no other, we were meant to be together, that sort of thing.”  He waved a negligent hand, causing his cigarette smoke to weave drunkenly on its way towards the ceiling.  I felt kind of like that, too.  My brain was stumbling about, trying to make sense of this mess, and my emotions were all over the place. 
            “That leads to covetousness,” Casanova was saying, “which can convert to despair or hatred if thwarted.  Even when cast properly, the spell often causes problems, with how many and what kind depending on the personalities of those bonded.  And because it’s so complex, it can easily be screwed up.  Most mages won’t even attempt it any more.  Your admirer is either a powerful magic worker or he knows someone who is.”
            “He can afford the best,” I said absently.  Possibly he’d even had one of his contacts on the Silver Circle cast it, without saying why.  It must have seemed the perfect solution: leave me with Tony, one of his supposedly loyal servants, and put me under the geis so I would remain untouched until he saw if the power was going to come to me.  It was a great plan, if my feelings were discounted.  And, of course, they had been.  Master vampires tend to treat their servants like pieces on a chess board, moving them about with no concern over little things like what the piece itself might want.  
            “It can’t be Antonio,” Casanova mused, regarding me speculatively.  “You were at his court for years before you ran away.  The spell would never have allowed you to leave him, nor would you have wanted to try.”
             I winced.  Even the thought of being infatuated with Tony was enough to make me slightly sick.  “Can it be removed?”
             “By the person who originated it, certainly.”
             “No, without him.” 
             Casanova shook his head.  “I couldn’t do it, and I’m very good, chica.”  He gave me an arch look.  “Of course, if I knew more about who we’re discussing, it might help.  Perhaps one of my contacts . . .”
            I didn’t want to tell him.  Tony was his immediate boss, but Mircea was Tony’s master.  He therefore had a claim to anything Tony had and to anyone who owed him loyalty.  There was normally a certain amount of maneuvering that had to be done before a senior master could simply take one of his underling’s possessions, at least if that subordinate had reached third-level master status like Tony.  But since Tony was now in open defiance of both Mircea and the Senate, everything he owned had reverted to his master’s control.  Which was a roundabout way of saying that Mircea was Casanova’s master.  The incubus was unlikely to defy him, but he obviously wasn’t going to give me any help without more information. 
            I sighed.  I didn’t like being backed into a corner, but who else was I going to ask?  “Mircea,” I said, after checking to make sure we weren’t being overheard.
            Casanova looked blank for a moment, then jumped up as if someone had given him a hotfoot.  “You might have mentioned that earlier!” he hissed in an alarmed whisper.  “Getting this body skinned alive is not on my daily agenda!”
            “Sit down,” I told him in irritation.  “Tell me how I get rid of this thing.”
            “You don’t.  Take some advice, chica,” he said seriously.   “Go home to the nice master vampire, beg forgiveness for causing him any inconvenience and do whatever he tells you.  You do not want this one angry with you.”
            “I’ve seen Mircea pissed off,” I said.  That was true, although so far it had never been at me.  I nudged Casanova’s chair with my foot.  “Sit down.  People are starting to stare.” 
            “Yes, they are,” Casanova agreed, “which is why I’m going straight to my office, picking up the phone and giving the big boss a call.  If you don’t want him to find you, I suggest you use the time between now and then to run like hell.  Not that it will do you any good.”
            “You’re afraid of him!” 
            “Let me think,” he said sarcastically.  “Yes!  As you should be.  He makes Tony look like an amateur.” 
            I stared up at him in confusion.  The vamp I knew wasn’t someone to be trifled with, but I’d never seen him do anything that would explain why an ancient demon would be shaking in his designer shoes.  “We’re talking about Mircea, right?”
            Casanova glanced around, then slid into the seat next to me, looking almost
comically grave.  “Listen to me, little girl, and pay attention, because I am never saying this again.  Mircea is the greatest manipulator I’ve ever known.  There’s a reason he’s the Senate’s chief negotiator–he always gets what he wants.  My advice: make it easy on him, and perhaps he’ll go easy on you.”
            I grabbed his tie to keep him from running for the phone and jerked his face close to mine.  I’m not normally the violent type–I saw too much of it growing up to want any part of it–but at the moment I was too mad to care.  “You’ve had your speech, now listen to mine.  I know all about manipulation.  I haven’t lived a day when someone wasn’t pulling my strings.  Even this whole Pythia gig wasn’t my idea.  But you know what?  It does change things, doesn’t it?  Mircea doesn’t own me, no matter what he thinks.  No one does.  And anyone who tries to jerk me around from now on is going to find that I make a very bad enemy.  Do you get it?”
            Casanova pantomimed choking and I released him.  He fell back in his chair, looking more amused than frightened.  “If you’re so powerful, why do you need
my help?” he asked archly.  “Why not remove the geis yourself, and rain down your wrath on Antonio while you’re at it?”
            “It doesn’t work quite like that,” I said dryly.  “And what is so damn funny?”
            The grin that Casanova had been attempting, unsuccessfully, to restrain broke over his face.  “Inside joke,” he chortled.  “You’d have to be an incubus to understand.”
            “Give me the condensed version.”
            He looked coy.  The expression should have appeared odd on his strong featured face, but he pulled it off.  “Anticipation, you might say.  Like looking forward to the next heavyweight championship match.  In this corner,” he said, his voice taking on the cadence of a veteran ringside announcer, “we have Lord Mircea, never defeated in five hundred years of political and social maneuvering.  And in this corner, his opponent, the deceptively sweet-looking Cassandra, newly elevated to the Pythia’s throne.”  He grinned even wider.  “You have to understand, Cassie.  For an incubus, it doesn’t get much better than this.   If I wasn’t so protective of this body, I’d be wrangling for a ringside seat.”
            “You’re babbling,” I said in disgust.  “Tell me something I can use!”  
            “Why don’t you tell me something for a change?” he countered.  “What, precisely, do you think you’re going to do if you find Tony?  He’s been around for a long time.  He isn’t going to be easy to kill.  Why not relax and let Mircea handle him?  He’ll find him sooner or later and then you and I are both–”
            “Mircea can’t deal with Myra!”  I couldn’t believe Casanova still didn’t get it.  “He might be able to protect me in the here and now, but it isn’t the present that worries me.”  Myra had been Agnes’ heir until she fell in with some very bad company and was disinherited.  But her fall hadn’t taken away her abilities, meaning that she could slip into the past and attack me long before I even knew who she was.  She could even kill one of my parents, insuring I was never born.  And Mircea couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
            “But if Antonio is protecting her, how do you expect–”
            “I have a few surprises for Tont.  What I need from you–”
            “Is likely to cost me greatly.  You cannot believe–” He broke off at my expression.  “What is it?”  I jumped to my feet, wobbling a little in the heels, and stared over his head at the sight barreling in the bar’s entrance.
            My least favorite war mage was heading across the lobby at a dead run.  His short blond hair looked like it had been hacked at by a machete, and his icy green eyes were angry.  Not that that was unusual: I’d never seen him smile and normally considered it a good day if he wasn’t trying to kill me.  Considering that he was wearing his usual knee-length leather coat, the one that bulged with concealed weapons, it didn’t look like today would be one of those. 
  
         

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