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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
It was the power of contentment, loyalty, and satisfaction, all those things that were so elusive to those who held greater abilities. He had never quite understood it until now. Now, he realized, it was because they did not have to worry every moment that someone might stab them in the back or take off their heads at the first opportunity. They had remained limited to the same land, the same clan, the same relationships all of their lives. Yet it gave them security, not boredom.
It fascinated Damien to watch it.
At least, it did now. Now that he was finding contentment himself. He had avoided this land and these people for quite a long time now, because they had disturbed him and frustrated him with their seemingly simplistic pleasures of life. He had not understood it then the way he understood it now.
He could tell by the jubilant atmosphere that they were very happy he had returned to the homeland at last. That they had missed the presence of their Prince. If only those of more elevated rank would be so welcoming, he thought dryly. But he would deal with that as it came.
Once the main hall was filled with at least ten domestic Vampires that he knew, Damien finally pushed away from his wall. No one would dare be stupid enough to give Syreena any trouble now that so many knew she had his approval to be in charge of who came and who went. Those who now surrounded her would also see to her protection if anyone was stupid enough to challenge her. It was clear that she was the Prince's woman, and she would be respected and protected as much as the Prince himself.
So Damien took the opportunity to seek out Jasmine, who had requested a private audience with him at his earliest convenience. Since he wanted to give special care to making Jasmine feel she was still important to him and that he valued her input and opinion, it was high in his mind to attend to her summons. It was very true that he felt that way; he only needed to make certain Jasmine felt it.
Jasmine was instructing a petite girl named Lucia on how she desired her room to be kept and where her things were to be best organized, when Damien found her.
It was not lost on him that Jasmine had chosen new quarters as far away from his as possible, whereas she had always done the opposite these past five centuries. It put a sadness on his heart to see this passive resistance to the changes in his life, but he had done all he could for her, and she was doing all she could to accommodate him. Perhaps over time this would better resolve itself.
"You requested an audience, madam?" he greeted her, his voice echoing in the large chamber.
Lucia gave a terrible start, and Damien had to work at not being amused when she looked at him with eyes that nearly popped out of her head. She could not be more than a couple of decades old, and she certainly had never seen the Vampire Prince before. Between his mere presence and the stories and rumors she had no doubt been raised on, Damien figured she had cause to be intimidated.
"Damien," Jasmine greeted him with a warm smile. She set down the bottle of perfume she had been inspecting and moved to embrace him. Her slim body leaned against his with warm affection, her lips pressing to his cheek with fondness. "I am glad you have come. I wish to discuss something with you."
She linked her arm through his, giving her gawking maid a shooing wave back to her work as she led the Prince out into the hallway. She chose a nearby door and led him into a heavily dusted, abandoned storeroom.
"You are plotting something," he said immediately after the door was closed behind her back.
"I admit it, I am. While I agree with most of what has already been discussed about this situation with the Nightwalker renegades, I believe we have a course of action that must be taken."
"Jasmine, you are looking for trouble," he warned her.
"Exactly," she breathed in earnest. "And so should you! Damien, you are Prince and I am your most trusted advisor. I have always been in charge of domestic troubles, and you have always entrusted them to me." She moved to grasp him by both shoulders, making sure he looked down into her serious eyes. "Since when do we allow others to manage our domestic problems? We have a responsibility here that must be attended to immediately. The rogue Vampire. His identity must be discovered. We must know who among us is a traitor, lest we find ourselves giving information away where we do not want to."
Damien looked at her, searching for her motivations in her expression and body language. What she said made very good sense, but he could not escape the instinctive feeling he had that there were ulterior motives behind her logic.
Then again, Jasmine always had ulterior motives to everything she said or did.
"It is very likely one of those whom we would not trust to begin with," he told her, unconcerned with her reasoning.
"And if it is not?" She sighed in frustration. "It is not like you to ignore potential threats."
"I am not happy to do so, Jasmine," he said darkly, "but I am not about to run off and confront a Vampire who is backed by someone like Ruth…and quite possibly black arts as well. Whoever he is, he has killed an innocent. There is no coming back from that. It will change him forever."
"And you and I have both seen what a Vampire who crosses that line can become. In the past, you and I would not rest until we stopped such a being. Why do you hesitate now?"
"Because I no longer have only myself to think about, Jasmine."
"You mean you are afraid of upsetting your fragile little mate?" she taunted him.
"I mean," he snapped, "that I have a people to run and I am responsible for leading them into this era of peace even you have seen the wisdom of. If I should die now, who knows what manner of Vampire will supersede me?"
"It would very likely be me," she said cockily. "Do you have so little faith in my upholding your ideals?"
"You?" He laughed harshly, purposely provoking her indignant emotions. "Jas, you cannot manage to stay aboveground more than a century at a time. You would be deposed the moment your first melancholy struck."
"That is not fair!"
"It is, or you would not be so upset by it," he pointed out, being a little more gentle with her now. "You do not have the patience to rule, dearest. I love you and I depend on you very much, but I know you. In your heart, you know it, too. My death, which would be necessary for you to reign, would by itself send you into a tailspin of pain and depression."
"You think far too much of your importance to me," she said, but they both knew it was pure bravado. "Anyway, I am not asking you to engage in battle. I think we should do some recon, however. Tell me you do not burn to know who would betray our people in such a way and I will promise you never to suggest it again."
As usual, Jasmine knew him too well, so she called him on his bluff perfectly.
"I suppose you have a proposition on how we should go about discovering this?" he asked, ignoring the triumph that lit her eyes.
"We should start at the Library. Perhaps we will find a clue there. If we are lucky, Ruth's trail will not be too cold to follow."
"Just to follow," she said quickly. "Only we would have the power to sneak up close without detection from her."
"And what if the Vampire is powerful enough to detect us?"
"Powerful enough to circumvent your cloaking abilities? Even I cannot do that."
Damien went silent for a long minute, trying to make himself think clearly, rather than act on impulse. He wanted to do this; more than anything, he wanted to find out who would do such a thing. Unless punishing that person counted separately. That was one thing he wanted to do with an even greater passion. If they could determine who their traitor was, then they would have an advantage over him. He would think he could still move among them, with others none the wiser for his duplicitousness. Perhaps that would give them the advantage to separate the Vampire from the Demon, making each more vulnerable, to the point where Damien could take care of punishing his own, as he had always done. If there was ever going to be a time when that was possible, it would be now, before Ruth had the opportunity to exploit her knowledge of the Exchange or before the Vampire started to pick up the Demon female's black magic tricks.
"Very well," he said at last. "Just give me a few minutes with Syreena-"
"You do not have the time, Damien. Already there must be Lycanthropes tromping over and over our only trail as they start to empty the Library."
"But I cannot just leave her alone with a house full of Vampires who do not realize who and what she is," he argued.
"Is she as fragile as that? After killing Nico, I would think her more than capable of keeping a group of mere servants in line."
Jasmine had a point. He was being a little overprotective. Syreena was a lot tougher than he gave her credit for, and she was very used to running a household full of strangers. There was no one who could really do her any harm. If she could defeat Nico's son on her own as easily as she had, then she could certainly stand her ground against any one of the domestics.
Damien's desire to know who the rogue Vampire was won out over all other concerns.
He left his Romanian holdings quickly, with Jasmine at his side.
It was over an hour before Syreena realized that Damien had completely left the property. In that time, she had been busy settling small squabbles, sorting out duties, and ignoring suspicious glances from more and more corners of the rooms she walked through. The Vampire staff was quickly beginning to realize she was not one of them. She could tell because it was getting increasingly difficult to get them to respond to her requests.
She did not want to go crying to Damien, so she tried very hard to handle it all herself, but she had not a single ally, and it was taking its toll on her ability to be efficient. Jasmine, of course, had been hoping for just such a thing to happen. That was no doubt why she was nowhere to be found.
Syreena expected that, but she had not expected Damien to leave her alone in such hostile conditions. On the other hand, she was glad he had moved out of the way and let her try to take care of everything without him hovering over her shoulder.
"Well, Syreena, you can't have it both ways," she muttered to herself under her breath.
He had probably just gone hunting for the night. With or without Jasmine, Syreena couldn't care less. She did wish him a speedy return, however, as she saw a maid who was supposed to be sweeping out the fireplaces wandering the halls for the third time.
Syreena had had enough by then.
She marched up to the maid just as she entered the main parlor, where four other workers were trying to put it all in order. Syreena gave a glance at the already cleaned fireplace and then let her temper simmer over.
The chatter in the room ceased abruptly as the girl jumped in her own skin at the way the Princess called her name, the cut of it slicing across raw nerves.
"Yes?" the indolent girl asked, clearly returning to her smirking, uncaring attitude.
"The fireplace in this room has already been swept," Syreena informed her.
Syreena glanced at the avid interest of the four others who were in the room.
"So unless you want to start washing down the lavatories," Syreena said with pseudocharm, "I suggest you get back to the ones that need cleaning."
The girl's hands immediately shot to her hips, her spine straightening in indignation as she worked up a retort.
"And if you sass me," Syreena interjected in a warning tone, "you will never return to this house again after you get kicked out of it, do you understand me?"
"You can't do that. You aren't anybody. Next month Damien will be tossing some other girl around in his bed and you won't mean a thing!"
There were muffled chuckles from the others in the room.
For about three seconds.
That was how long it took for Syreena to grab the smart-mouthed girl around her throat and rush her up against the nearest stone wall with a smack that sounded frighteningly damaging. The maid made a gurgle of protest, her hands reaching to claw at the iron wrist that held her pinned to the wall. The Vampire girl was too young to have learned how to do without oxygen, so she struggled to catch even the smallest portion of a breath.
When the others moved to come to her aid, Syreena turned on them with a snarl of warning that froze them mid-step.
"Anyone who thinks to touch me will find out exactly how much I mean to your Prince," she threatened with cold surety. "I assure you, he will do far worse to you than banish you from his home."
Her confidence was unnerving to them. Enough to make them step back and watch her with wary eyes as they rethought their actions. She turned back to the chit she had clasped between her fingers.
"Yours will be the lesson that the others learn, girl. I do not like to repeat myself, and I only warn someone once. I am a Lycanthrope Princess, and I am used to being obeyed without question. I will accept no less in my mate's household."
And with that one statement, the Vampire grapevine was satisfied and forewarned. The four in the room would quickly tell who and what she was, and that her easy-going nature hid a very short fuse that probably should not be lit.
"Leave this house under your own power, or you will leave it under mine. And remember, you only get one warning."
Syreena let go of Oria, letting her slide unprepared to the floor. Ignoring the crumpled heap of girl at her feet, she turned to smile at the others.
"You are doing an excellent job in this room. When you are done, do not forget to go to Sybil for new directions. Remember, her voice is the same as mine, just as my voice is the same as Damien's. I expect you will behave for Sybil far better than this baggage has behaved for me."
She cast a look of disdain down at Oria, then turned so she could find Damien.