Queen’s Gambit – Karen Chance

The one-hundred-eighty-degree sweep of floor to ceiling windows would normally have been a little odd for a ball room, but when you’ve got an uninterrupted view of the pyramids, you make sure that everyone knows it. And I had to admit, it was pretty spectacular. The sun was setting, giving the golden hued monuments a salmon, tangerine and navy backdrop, with the latter including a few faint stars overhead. It looked like a postcard, although it was hard to concentrate on it when there was something even more dazzling standing in front of it. “Some view, huh?” Raymond Lu, my self-described go-to guy, had sidled up with a couple of champagne flutes. “You mean the pyramids or the man?” I asked. Raymond frowned. Maybe because he was uncomfortable. His shock of black hair was slicked down and behaving, but he was tugging on the collar of his perfectly tailored tux and shifting from one foot to the other, like his shiny dress shoes hurt his feet. His usual idea of dressing up was a multicolored snakeskin jacket that had fallen off the back of a truck, paired with a black silk shirt and a lot of gold chains. Ray was out of his element. Of course, so was I. My work uniform was jeans and a T-shirt, with maybe a black leather jacket thrown over it when the weather warranted. I liked boots with a heavy sole and a steel tip in case I needed to kick down a door, and a duffle bag full of illegal weaponry in case the boots didn’t work. But no such luck tonight.

Tonight, I was in a slinky black silk number, cut down to here and up to there, and a pair of shiny black stilettos. The get up went well with my short dark hair, giving off a vaguely nineteen twenties vibe, although it would have probably gotten me arrested in the twenties. But it made me have to watch every movement so that I didn’t flash somebody. Plus, the thong it pretty much required had migrated inward. Again. I resisted an urge to dig it out and drank champagne. Raymond scowled. “He needs a scar.” I assumed he was talking about my new husband, Louis-Cesare, who was standing on a dais at the front of the room, surrounded by beautiful people who looked completely at ease in their clothes. And jewels.

And elaborately made up faces that were laughing at something my lover had just said. I saw several women shoot me envious glances and raised my glass to them. “Die mad about it,” I murmured, despite being pretty sure that they could hear me. We were across a crowded ballroom from each other, but vampire hearing has exceptional range. And they were all vamps, members or high-ranking flunkies of the North African Vampire Senate. It was a subsidiary of the huge African and Middle Eastern Senate, which had so much land to cover that they’d had to split it into more manageable chunks. But it was all under the control of its iron fisted consul, Hassani. He was here, too, his handsome, bearded face—a glamourie but a good one—shown to effect in a turban and a blindingly white burnoose. He and Louis-Cesare were soon to make pretty speeches about the current war and the great victory that our united front had won us. Then would come the presentation of gifts, including spoils taken from the plundered capitol of an alien world.

They were already on display, in warded cases scattered around the large room. I was supposed to be over there, smiling and schmoozing and explaining the exotic booty to all and sundry, in order to help shore up the tentative alliance between the world’s six vampire senates. It had been forged after some home-grown enemies joined up with the fey king Aeslinn to wreak havoc, and the only way to get them to stop had been to invade Faerie and kick some ass. Only nobody knew how to fight a war on another world. So, we’d united our forces, for the first time ever, with old enemies forged into reluctant allies by a serious threat. But that threat was over, right? So, what happened to the alliance now? It was a problem, since the threat wasn’t really over. We’d won a battle—a major one—but a battle wasn’t a war. Yet people who hated each other’s guts tended to forget that, especially when they were also worried that the consul of the North American Senate, who headed up the shaky coalition, might decide to make her rule over vampire kind permanent. After all, it was what they’d do. Enter Louis-Cesare and I, on a good will tour to hand out largesse and compliments in equal measure, and try to keep the allies allied.

So far, it wasn’t going great. I didn’t know whose brilliant idea it had been to send a dhampir, the traditional enemy of vampire kind, on a diplomatic mission, but it wasn’t working. I made the locals nervous simply by being in the same room, which was fair. You spend five hundred years bringing back their heads in a bag and it tends to cut into the general sense of goodwill. I’d noticed that whatever display case I was standing by suddenly got very lonesome, and when I walked through a room, people tended to step over each other to get out of the way. I’d smiled at one woman, whom I’d mistaken for a human servant, and she’d passed the hell out. I’d retreated to my corner after that, allowing my famous, gorgeous spouse to take over the schmoozing, which seemed to be working better. Maybe a little too much better, I thought, eyeing the admiring throng. And then eyeing him, mostly because I enjoyed it. His fashionably pale skin—or fashionable for vamps, anyway—was as flawless as the mane of burnished auburn hair that fell half way down the muscular back and was currently being limed with fire by the setting sun.

It had been leashed tonight, as much as possible, by a tortoise shell clip at the base of his neck. It was a popular compromise by the men in the family, who understood that styles had changed but were damned if they were going to wear the short hair of a peasant. In LouisCesare’s case, the sleek style only served to highlight a profile that would have made an ancient Greek sculptor weep, and was accompanied by the rest of the Greek god package: broad shoulders, long legs, and the best butt in memory. And I had a long memory. Damn, I hated being the ugly one. I glanced at Ray, who was scowling even more furiously. “A scar?” “You know.” He drank champagne. “Something to give his face some character.” “It has plenty of character.

” “Yeah, if male model is considered character.” “You’re just jealous.” “Damned right, I’m jealous. I’m five foot seven; he’s six four. I look like a penguin in this get up; he’s Mr. Universe. Plus, I got hair on my ass, and I bet his is silky smooth—” “Don’t start about your ass.” “I was just making the point—” “Well don’t.” “—that I gotta shave to get my trousers to lay right, while he—” “I’m not listening.” I walked out onto a terrace.

Unlike most vampire courts, which tended to be underground, cramped and inward looking, this one was wide open, with the sand colored terrace outside almost as expansive as the ballroom within. I took my champagne over to some stone benches that looked like they’d been looted from an ancient temple, and prepared to try to enjoy myself. Of course, Raymond followed. “Why aren’t you in there, anyway?” he demanded. “Needed some air.” “No, I mean in there. At the front of the room, smiling with the bigwigs.” “When I smile at people, they tense up.” “That’s ‘cause you don’t really smile. You grimace, and half the time, you show fang.

” “You show fang.” “Yeah, but I’m not a diplomat.” “Neither am I.” “Ah.” Ray settled down on the organically curved piece of granite, which was high enough to leave his legs dangling. “Then you know.” “Know what?” “That Louis-Cesare married one woman, but he wants another.” I felt my hand move instinctively to the stake I’d shoved into the top of my thigh high. “Oh,” I said nonchalantly. “Which one?” Ray rolled his eyes.

“That’s not what I meant. If there was a rival here, do you think I’d tell you? What, am I crazy?” “Then what did you mean?” “Look,” Ray said, and his face in the odd, pinkish light was earnest. Which meant that either I was about to get played, or he was actually serious. “I don’t want to tell you your business—” “Since when?” “—but you’re a killer, and we’re at war. What the hell are you doing here?” “Getting more well-rounded?” “I’m serious.” “So am I. At least, that’s what I was told.” I drank champagne. “And you believed it?” “I believed I was going to get divorced if I ran off on another errand for the senate. Remember what happened last time?” “That was not our fault.

” Ray looked indignant. “And we saved a city!” “It’s never our fault, and we almost got killed. Louis-Cesare thought I was safe at home, only to discover on waking that I was halfway around the world battling an ancient demon. He . didn’t take it well.” Of course, that might have had something to do with the fact that we had just, and I mean just, finished fighting a queen of the light fey, during which time his body had been taken over by an outside force and used as a weapon to try to kill me. He had very nearly succeeded. He had also been seriously traumatized by the whole affair, more than I’d realized, frankly. And then my unexpected side trip took place and . well.

After I recovered, I’d been forcefully reminded of the fact that my husband had red in his hair. He’d presented me with an ultimatum and I chose him. Ray was eyeing me. “If this is some kind of extended honeymoon, then why did you call me?” “Call it an itch.” I got up and walked to the railing. Damn, it was beautiful here, and romantic—or it would have been, had Louis-Cesare and I gotten half a second alone. Instead, we’d been wined and dined and escorted to that famous site and this ancient statue, as the local senate pulled out all the stops for their illustrious guests. Well, guest, anyway. “What kind of itch?” Ray asked, joining me, although his eyes were darting worriedly around the terrace. There was nobody else out here, with the main event about to start inside, but I didn’t blame him.

We’d been through a lot lately. “You mean, like intuition?” “No, I mean like being on unfamiliar ground with a famous senator during a war. The consul’s control over the alliance is tenuous and everybody knows it. If Louis-Cesare was to get assassinated, it might tip the political balance. He wants me on this damned tour because he thinks it’s safer. I think —” “That he’s a target.” I nodded. “You’re a senator now, too,” Ray pointed out. “Why aren’t you a target?” “I’m not a dueling champion. If anyone wants to be considered a legit successor to the consul, they have to duel her, and she’s named Louis-Cesare as her champion before—” “Dory—” “—so why not again? Nobody wants to fight him, and a war is the perfect time to take him out before a challenge is even issued and blame it on somebody else—” “You’ve thought about this.

” “Of course, I have. Two birds, one stone. Weaken her politically and make the challenge easier at the same time. It’s how they think; you know it is—” “Dory!” Ray put a hand over the one I had clenched on the railing. “He’s a dueling champion surrounded by vamp bodyguards. I think he’s fine.” I eyed the four huge vamps inside, who were dimly visible through the striations of setting sun on the glass. They were trying their best not to look like gorillas in their tuxes, which was a complete waste of time standing near my elegant husband. They were big, they were badass—or so they thought —and they were all but useless against the kind of things we had been fighting. And I didn’t mean just our enemies.

I narrowed my eyes at Hassani, who had started life as an expert assassin and, as far as I knew, had never gone out of practice. I hadn’t had to ask if he wanted to head up the new Vampire World Senate. He was a master vamp; he wanted it. And Louis-Cesare could be his ticket to ride. Especially when the so-called bodyguards were busy scanning the crowd, while completely ignoring the much more dangerous man standing right beside them! Not that I really thought that Hassani—or anyone else—would try something so openly, but vampires were tricky, especially the old ones. You never knew how their minds worked. And, yeah, I was paranoid, but I had reason to be, and my nerves— Were a little on edge, I thought, realizing half a second after it happened that I had whirled, my body splayed out in a lunge, to hold a terrified waiter at knife point. He didn’t move and he didn’t scream, although the front of his nice dark trousers got a little darker as we stood there in our little tableau, staring at each other. “What?” I asked, realizing that Ray had said something. “I was gonna ask why you don’t rate any guards,” he said dryly.

“Two of them are mine. I put them on Louis-Cesare,” I said, and pulled the knife back. It was at the other end of the stake for convenience, and thin enough not to bulge my dress. I’d been flashing it all night anyway, whenever I moved just right, like a gunslinger in the Old West with a .45 under his arm. But I was past caring. Screw diplomacy; my party was going home with all their limbs attached, and if Hassani or anybody else had something to say about it, they could— The waiter dropped his tray of drinks and screamed as the delayed reaction hit, then fled. Several people glanced outside, with the bored disinterest of beings who had seen everything and didn’t think much of it. There wasn’t even a break in the subtle ebb and flow of conversation. “Sorry,” I told Ray, taking the handkerchief he proffered to wipe the spilled champagne off my hand.

“I’ve just been a little on edge late—” “Shit!” he yelled, and tackled me. I heard it a split second after he did: a high-pitched whistle, unmistakable to anyone who’d ever been at war. A missile, incoming. And then here, a split second after Ray threw us behind one of the massive old benches, which I guess were as sturdy as they looked. Because the explosion tore around and over us, but not through us. Not through us. I was on my feet and tussling with Ray, who despite appearances was a vampire and a master at that, while debris was still in the air, while heat was still radiating outward in waves, and while the wind of the explosion was still blowing my hair around. I didn’t care. I threw him off and ran, into a once nice ballroom that was currently falling to pieces. Damn it, I knew it! “Louis-Cesare!” I didn’t see him.

I did see a jagged edged hole in the sky outside the windows, or more accurately, in what I guessed was a shield surrounding the ballroom and terrace. The pretty view was still being projected onto the inside of what was left of it, while everywhere else . Was destruction. A heavy ceiling tile crashed to the floor at my feet, sending sharp edged shards to pepper my legs and the arm I threw over my eyes. Blackened furniture, much of it still on fire, lay scattered around; destroyed columns were in chunks on the floor, one of them crushing a servant; smoke filled the air, chokingly thick; and the charred bodies of vamps and glassware crunched underfoot. But there were signs of survival, too. There was movement amongst the fire, with the power levels of those in attendance on clear display. The weakest were burnt corpses, mere shells of gray ash that puffed away into nothingness as I passed. Those with more years and more power under their belts were stirring, some weakly calling out for help in a dozen languages, the stronger struggling to get up or staggering back to their feet. But the masters .

Were furious. A woman jumped up beside me with a snarl, her finery burnt away except for a few scraps clinging to her blackened, naked body. Much of her henna dyed updo was also missing, and the rest was down around her shoulders, one of which was smoldering like an ember. She clawed it out, grabbing a chunk of her own damaged flesh and tearing it off before it took the rest of her along with it, then ran to the other side of the room. Others were congregating there as well; rallying around Hassani, who was suddenly surrounded by an army of his creatures, blackened and bloody, but still deadly. And they needed to be. Because the missile had only been the first volley. It had somehow broken through the shield surrounding the court, like a medieval trebuchet making a breech in a wall, and now the army was pouring in. Only an army of what, I wasn’t sure. They were human in shape but swathed in black, including their heads, so I couldn’t tell much about them.

Most were on the short side and thin but fast, even by vampire standards, being mere blurs across my vision unless they paused for half a second. And they were strong—insanely so. One lunged for me and I ducked, came back up and got my knife in his neck. But that gave another a change to grab me from behind, and for a second, I couldn’t break his hold. Because I’d been treating him like a human, which judging by the rapid heartbeat against my back, he was. But that wasn’t human strength. So, I switched tactics, shucked my shoes, ran up a cracked support column and flipped over his head. And slit his throat. I looked up, panting, but while there were plenty of black clad forms running around, no more were targeting me. Maybe because Hassani had just given a shouted order and his vampires had rushed the invaders, making me think for a second that it was all over.

But the army in black pushed back against what should have been an overwhelming show of force, half of them somehow stopping the charge while the rest . Went for the warded cases of artifacts. And I finally got a clue. This wasn’t an attempted assassination; this was a heist. Somebody wanted the fey artifacts badly enough to risk attacking Hassani’s court for them—and they were getting away with it. An explosive charge was slapped onto the blue column of a shield to my right, and I heard it go off as I ran. Another just ahead wreathed a shield in black smoke, and a second later it cracked and then shattered like glass. Artifacts disappeared into black plastic garbage bags, which would have usually gotten a reaction from me, since they were our responsibility. But right then, I couldn’t have cared less. “Louis-Cesare!” I finally saw him, over near the shattered main shield, looking down over the city.

He turned his head to stare at me for a second, before yelling something that I couldn’t hear over the fires and cries and roar of a furious Hassani. Who leapt over the fleshly breakwater of clashing forces with a scimitar in one hand and a long knife in the other, and began demonstrating, that, yes, his assassination skills were as sharp as ever. The enemy army broke and stumbled back into me, and the vampires yelled and charged. And by the time I fought my way through all of that and ran over to the opening, Louis-Cesare was gone. Or almost. I spotted him in the distance, running hard into the night, chasing . someone. It was almost dark and I couldn’t make out who it was. But I could see the shadows that peeled off the walls all around and followed. Goddamnit! “No,” Ray said, running up beside me as I tore the trailing hem off the damned evening dress.

“No, you are not going to—” And then I threw myself onto the roof below, and took off.

.

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