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Diana snorted in disgust. “Yes, if we want them to live as if they are prisoners. Our fledglings, especially our female fledglings, need to have the freedom to come and go as they please without an armed guard.”

Pandeia sighed. “Perhaps the Dark Daughters should be directed not to hold rituals on Bloody Island until this conflict with the sheriff dies down.”

“The island is ours!” Diana said, slamming her hand down on the table. “It has been named thus because of our rituals—we shouldn’t allow an overbearing human to infringe upon the rights of our fledglings.”

“St. Louis is no longer a barbaric outpost.” Pandeia’s answer was swift. “Its human population has more than doubled in the past few years. It has changed from a dusty trading post on the river to a thriving city.”

“And Tower Grove was a thing of beauty and serenity when St. Louis was a filthy, uncivilized infant of a settlement,” Diana said.

“Of course it was. Vampyres have always created beauty wherever we live. But with the changing times we cannot afford to alienate those who surround us, and if that means our Dark Daughters perform their rituals here on the vast acreage of Tower Grove and the prairie that we call home, rather than a sandy island within view of the city docks, then so be it. I hate to say it, but I can foresee a time when we will have to hide our identity from the human populace. It is a horrible thing to imagine, but a small price to pay for our young to be left in peace.”

“Humans will never leave us in peace. They hate us!” Diana snapped.

“Not all of them,” Pandeia countered. “Many of them do envy and fear us, but some of them respect us. You know there is no shortage of humans who willingly share their blood with us—there are even several vampyres here at this very Council Meeting who have human consorts, though the current trend is for humans to pretend disinterest in mingling with us.”

“I am afraid, High Priestess, that the trend is more than simple disinterest. With Sheriff Biddle’s encouragement, humans may think they can act against us,” Shaw said.

“They cannot stand against our Warriors,” Pandeia said, clearly upset at the direction the conversation had taken.

“Then let us send our Warriors into town to teach Biddle that he cannot harass our fledglings!” Diana said.

Anastasia couldn’t stay silent any longer. “But, has the High Council not expressly forbidden Warriors to take action against humans other than in defense?”

Diana snorted. “That is a rule created by a Council who live in Venice—a place where it is considered elegante to be a human desired by a vampyre. They cannot comprehend what is happening here in uncivilized America.”

“Enough!” Pandeia’s voice had utterly changed, and the power of her command had the fine hairs rising on Anastasia’s forearms. “Diana, your words are inappropriate. My House of Night will not rebel against its High Council. And one misguided human will not turn an entire city against us. We should remember that we were all once human.”

Diana bowed her head. “Forgive me. I did not mean disrespect. It is just unthinkable that our fledglings should be afraid to leave campus unless they are disguised or in the company of Warriors.”

“Which is why I agree with Shaw’s inclusion of our newest Sword Master in this Council Meeting,” Pandeia said. “Dragon, I would like you and the sixth-former males who have shown Warrior aptitude to be sure that our females do not leave campus without at least one of you present in each group.”

“Of course, High Priestess,” Dragon said, fisting his hand over his heart and bowing his head to Pandeia.

“I know it is not a perfect solution to this problem, but it will ensure our girls are not so easily intimidated by Biddle, who, like most bullies, will probably lose interest in harassment when faced with more than young girls armed with candles and herbs. So they will be protected, and still have the freedom to come and go without being under a guard of adults.” Pandeia looked at the rest of the Council Members. “I am going to send a missive to Venice. The High Council should be made aware of what has been happening here.” Then she surprised Anastasia by saying, “Professor Anastasia, I have been impressed by the strength of your spellwork. I would ask that you cast a spell for the House of Night—something protective.”

Anastasia hesitated and almost didn’t speak except to agree placidly, but her mentor’s firm voice spoke through her conscience: Follow your instinct; trust yourself. So she squared her shoulders and said what she felt she must. “High Priestess, I would respectfully like to recommend a different type of a spell.”

“Other than one of protection? Why?”

Anastasia drew a deep breath and followed what her instincts were telling her. “A protective spell is, at its very heart, focused on violence. After all, if there was no need to protect against an aggressive act, the spell would not need to be cast at all.”

“And is there something wrong with that?” Pandeia asked.

“Usually, no,” Anastasia explained. “But in this case I wonder whether the very act of the casting wouldn’t be like poking or prodding this Biddle person.”

“I think poking and prodding him sounds like an excellent idea,” Diana said, and several of the Council Members nodded agreement.

“Not if the goal is to have him leave us alone,” Anastasia said. “That might actually keep us in his mind, when otherwise, with the presence of Dragon and the other Warriors in Training, Biddle would, as our High Priestess said, lose interest in us.”

“You make a good point,” Pandeia said. “What would you suggest instead?”

“A peace spell. And I wouldn’t cast it here on our land. Even though recent acts have aroused our anger, we have peaceful intent. It is the human who needs spellwork. It would work best if I am closer to wherever Biddle finds sanctuary.”

“The jailhouse near the town green. That is definitely his sanctuary,” Shaw said.

“Then I should cast the peace spell near the jailhouse. As a side benefit it would have a general calming effect on the city, which would help soothe any human nerves Biddle has begun to fray.”

“I have to agree with Anastasia. Cast your spell, Professor. Just be certain you are escorted by a Son of Erebus Warrior.”

“It would be my honor, Professor,” Shaw said, bowing to her.

“I do not mean to insult you, but I cannot cast a peace spell while I’m being guarded by a Warrior. It simply goes against the very heart of the spell.”

“But it is not safe for you to go so near to Biddle’s haven alone,” Pandeia said.

“Is it just the presence of a vampyre Warrior that will disrupt the spell?” Diana asked.

“Yes.”

Diana smiled. “Well, then, we will send the next best thing to protect you—Dragon Lankford. He is not yet Changed, so you will not be protected by a Warrior, though you will be watched over by a Sword Master.”

“Would that not solve the problem of your protection?” Pandeia said.

Anastasia cleared her throat before she spoke. “Yes, it would.”

The High Priestess turned to the young Sword Master. “What say you, Dragon?”

He smiled, fisted his hand over his heart, and bowed to Anastasia. “I say I am Professor Anastasia’s to command.”

“Excellent! Cast the spell tonight, Anastasia. St. Louis needs all the peace it can get as soon as possible,” Pandeia said. “And this Council Meeting is adjourned. Blessed be to you all.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

“You have been frowning since we left the House of Night,” Bryan said, and then clucked to the pair of matched grays that were pulling the buggy. “Hey there, easy!” he soothed, glancing sideways at Anastasia. “See, even the horses can feel your frown.”

“I am not frowning. I’m concentrating,” she said, frowning. “But you’re right about the horses acting skittish.”

He grinned at her. “I’m right about more things than horse behavior.”

Anastasia turned her body so she could look directly at him. “Has anyone ever explained to you the difference between confidence and arrogance?”

“If I say no are you going to lecture me?”

She hesitated before speaking and then said, “No, I don’t think I will.”

They rode on in silence and after a short time Dragon sighed. “Okay, lecture me. I like it. Really.”

Anastasia opened her mouth to tell him that she didn’t give a hoot about what he liked or disliked, but first he added, “Truth be told, I’d listen to you say anything. Your voice is pretty.” His eyes met hers briefly. “Almost as pretty as you.”

He sounded young and silly, but when she looked into his eyes she saw a depth of kindness that had her cheeks warming. “Oh, well, thank you. And thank you for the sunflowers, too. I’m assuming you’re the one who has been leaving them for me,” she said, looking quickly away.

“I am, and you are welcome. Did you like them? Really?”

“Yes. Really,” she said, still looking away from him. Flustered at her own reaction, she tried to figure out if it was this Dragon she was responding to or the older version who still haunted her thoughts.

There was another long, silent stretch between them, and then he blurted, “They don’t hate me.”

Anastasia raised her brows. “They?”

“The thirteen girls and two boys.”

“Oh, they. And how do you know that? I didn’t tell you who they were.”

He smiled. “Doesn’t matter. No one’s been hating me. You know what that means?”

“My spell didn’t work?” she said, adding a smile so he knew she was kidding.

Dragon laughed. “You know our spell worked just fine. It means I’m not so bad.”

“I never said you were.”

“No, you said I’m an arrogant misdeeder.”

“I don’t think misdeeder is a word,” she said.

“I just made it up,” he said. “I’m good with words.”

She rolled her eyes and muttered, “Boasting. Again.”

He laughed again. “You looked up my records, didn’t you?”

“Maybe.”

“You did. And you found out I’m almost as talented at schoolwork as I am at sword work.”

“Arrogant…” She breathed a long sigh and looked away from him so he couldn’t see her smile.

“How is it arrogant if it’s the truth?”

“It’s arrogant if you boast, whether it’s the truth or not,” she said.

“Sometimes a vampyre has to do some boasting to get a priestess to notice him,” he said.

Still not looking at him, Anastasia gave a little snort. “You aren’t a vampyre.”

“Not yet I’m not.”

“And you have lots of females who notice you.”

“I don’t want lots of females,” he said, all teasing gone from his voice. “I want you.”

She did look at him then. His brown eyes were honest and unwavering. This night his hair wasn’t tied back and it framed his face, making his firm jaw seem more pronounced. He was dressed in a simple, unadorned black shirt and pants. She knew the color was supposed to blend with the darkness around them, but to her it made him look older, stronger, and as mysterious as the limitless night.

“I wish you’d say something,” he said.

Her gaze went from his broad chest quickly up to his eyes. “I–I’m not sure what to say.”

“You could tell me I have a chance with you.”

“Am I just a conquest? Something for you to win, like the title of Sword Master?”

He pulled the buggy up short and turned to face Anastasia. “That’s a load of bullocks! Why would you say that?”

“You’re competitive,” she countered. “You have a predator’s skills. You chase. You catch. You conquer. I’m probably the only female in quite some time who hasn’t fallen at your feet to worship you. So you want me because I’m a challenge.”

“I want you because you’re beautiful and smart, and beautiful and talented, and beautiful and kindhearted. Or at least I thought you were kindhearted.” He blew out a long, frustrated breath. “Anastasia, the spell we cast was supposed to draw the truth about me. So, I’ll admit to being arrogant.” He shrugged. “I think with my skills a bit of arrogance is warranted. But I want you to understand that me wanting you has nothing to do with conquest or predatory skills.”

His brown eyes captured hers and she saw hurt, not anger, in their depths. Slowly, she reached across the space between them and touched his arm. “You’re right. You don’t deserve that from me. I’m sorry. Bryan.” She sighed and shook her head, correcting herself, “I mean Dragon. I’m a little confused about what I feel for you.”

He covered her hand with his. “You can call me Bryan. I like it when you say my name.”

“Bryan,” she said softly, and felt him tremble under her hand. “I didn’t expect someone like you in my life.”

“It’s because I’m a Sword Master, and going to be a Warrior, isn’t it?”

She nodded silently.

“Why does that bother you?”

“You’re going to think it’s foolish,” she said.

He took her hand from his arm and laced his fingers with hers. “No, I won’t. I give you my promise. Tell me.”

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