Kyle was still in the cage in the middle of the park, heavily guarded; Claire caught a glimpse of the barred square box and the heavy police presence as the car passed the borders of the square, and then took a ramp down to the underground parking beneath the buildings. Hannah had a reserved space, and as they walked toward the elevator it opened with a hiss. One of Amelie's black-suited guards--the woman--nodded to Hannah and looked at Claire with pointed intensity.
"She's with me," Hannah said. "I'll take responsibility."
"Good enough," the vampire agreed, and pressed the button for the meeting floor. "I'll warn you, they're not in a wonderful mood."
"They never are."
The vampire chuckled, a very human sort of sound, but somehow at least twenty percent more sinister. "Well, that's true. Good luck."
Once they'd stepped out of the elevator, the vampire was all business again, following Hannah and Claire as they walked down the long marble hall to a set of polished wooden doors that opened before they arrived, from inside. Claire supposed that was intended to look impressive, but it wasn't any big trick; the vampires could clearly hear them coming.
There was only one guard in the room this time, and their escort stopped outside and pulled the doors shut behind them. Amelie was seated in her place, and so was Richard; there were folders on the table, each one neatly labeled.
Oliver was pacing, hands behind his back.
"You're late," he snapped at Hannah. The guard was right--he was clearly not in a good mood. Hannah sat down beside Richard, leaving Claire standing in indecision. "And you've brought a friend. How . . . nice."
Claire quickly sat down in the first available chair. Oliver was eyeing her like a piece of trash he was considering taking out.
"Claire," Amelie said. "This is unexpected." Unexpected, Claire thought, did not mean welcome. Amelie, like Hannah, looked un-characteristically tense.
"I needed to talk to you," Claire said. "Both of you." "Must we always be distracted by the yapping of your favorite pet?" Oliver said, and crossed the room in a flash to slap both hands flat on the table, glaring at Amelie. "Silence her until we're done. She shouldn't be here."
That was . . . shocking. Claire had never seen him quite that aggressive toward the Founder before. It occurred to her, uneasily, that maybe she ought to have called Amelie first before showing up.
Amelie didn't flinch, blink, or react to Oliver's anger in any way. "She's not my pet," she said evenly, "and I don't take orders from you, Oliver. Truly, you must try to remember that from time to time."
He showed his teeth, but not his vampire teeth. Not quite. He pushed off from the table and paced again, moving like a lion who wanted a gazelle very, very badly.
Amelie turned her attention to Claire and said, "You'll wait until our business is done. He's quite right. You shouldn't be here."
Claire nodded. She didn't really want to wait--she wanted to blurt it all out--but there was a warning in Amelie's cold gray eyes that made it clear blurting was not a good idea.
"You are on edge, Oliver," Amelie said. "Sit, please."
He threw her a filthy look and kept on pacing, back and forth. "I had to put down one of my own last night, like a rabid dog. Do you imagine I should feel relaxed?"
Claire bent her head close to Hannah and whispered, "What happened?" Hannah shook her head in warning. "But I--"
Oliver rounded on her, eyes flaring red. "Do you want to know what happened, Claire?" he said. "Which part of it? The part where one of my oldest associates lost her mind and began to attack humans in the street? The part where I couldn't reason with her? Or the part where I was forced to kill her, on Amelie's orders?"
That met with ringing silence. Amelie continued to watch him, face calm and smooth, body very still. After a moment, she said, very quietly, "You are overwrought. Sit down, Oliver. Please."
"I will not," he snapped, and turned his back.
After another moment of silence, Amelie went back to the open folder before her. "Then let us move on to the business at hand. This request to expand the hunting permits is unacceptable. They're asking for four times the current limit, and they want to include the university grounds as well. This is highly risky to all of us. My proposal is that, rather than expanding hunting licenses, we discontinue the program altogether and seek another alternative. There are always a few humans who would willingly volunteer to be bitten."
Richard started to say something, but he was crushed by Oliver. "This is an old, tired argument. Are we vampires or not? We hunt. That's our nature. Restricting it, even outlawing it, doesn't curb our instincts. It only makes us criminals for having them."
"Oh, but I fully expect you to control your instincts, as I do. Unless you're unable to master yourself. Are you, Oliver?" Amelie's tone was sharper than Claire expected, almost . . . angry. It occurred to her, finally, that Amelie was upset, too.
Very bad combination, having both of them on edge, in a confinedspace.
This time, Oliver did flash fangs at her. "You're on dangerous ground, woman. Don't push me." Amelie's guard took a step away from the door. "And don't presume to have your dogs threaten me, either. I've supported your rule in this town. I've even agreed to your experiments and social rules of behavior. But I will not allow you to make us into pale copies of humans. It is not who we are, or who we should be, and you know that better than anyone."
"I take it you will not entertain any alternative plans," Amelie said after a moment. "Then we will leave the program as it is, with a limited number of licenses, and the university remains protected ground."
Oliver laughed. "Are you listening? They won't obey you for much longer. They'll do as they choose, regardless of the law. They're angry, Amelie. You've allowed humans to kill vampires and walk away. If you choose to punish vampires for following their natures, you're as stupid as you were when you thought you could manipulate your way onto a throne as a girl of twelve. You never did reach that goal, did you? I'm sure dying a mere princess never sat well with you. That must be why you appointed yourself queen here."
Amelie stood up, and the room went very, very quiet. Claire no longer felt the urge to try to talk. She felt the urge to crawl under the table. It was as if she, Richard, and Hannah no longer existed, at least to Amelie and Oliver.
"Are you telling me that you no longer want to serve as my second?" Amelie asked him. "Because that is what I hear."
"Amelie . . ." Oliver's voice was full of angry frustration. He, at least, hadn't forgotten the presence of others, and glanced quickly aside at the humans. "Send them out. We need to settle this. It's been a long time in coming."
"Richard and Hannah are equal members of this council. I will not dismiss them like servants."
He laughed, and Claire saw the sharp glitter of his fangs. "Equal? How long have you been deluding yourself like this? You think any of them are ever equal to us? You are ceding control of this town to fools and mortals, bit by bit, and we are all going to suffer for it. Die for it. It cannot go on!"
"Sit down," Amelie said. "Now."
"No. You are destroying us, Amelie, and I can't--I won't permit it to continue."
They froze in place, staring at each other, and Claire hardly dared to breathe at all.
Oliver didn't blink. He finally said, "Your human pets are turning on us. They're turning on you. The boy in the cage down there is proof enough of how much in contempt the humans hold your rules, and you. And they're not wrong, because we are killers, and they are our natural victims. If we let them have control, they will destroy us. They have no choice."
"That's not true," Claire said. She hadn't exactly meant to say it, but now it was out, hanging in the air, and Oliver's attention was on her like a freezing blanket of snow. "It doesn't have to be that way."
He whirled to face her, and she wished she'd kept her mouth shut. "So what is your solution, little Claire? Keep us in zoos, the way you keep other predators who threaten you? Exterminate those you can't control? That's what humans do. We know this. We used to be just as flawed, just as human." Oliver looked back at Amelie. "I'd have wiped all vampires off of the face of the land, in my breathing days. If I could have managed it."
She smiled thinly. "I know very well what you would have done," she said. "You did the same in your day with humans who worshipped differently from you and yours. But not all humans are as genocidally inclined as you."
He hit the table so hard it vibrated. "I did what was right!"
"You did what was right for those who agreed with you, and that is all in the past. We are talking about our future. Oliver, we cannot live as we did. We cannot hide in the shadows and run when discovered, like rats. In this modern age, there is no hiding among the humans, not for long. And you know it." She hesitated, and then said softly, "You must trust me, as you once did."
He laughed, a rusty, raw sound, and turned to go. Amelie flashed around the table in a white blur and put her back to the door before he reached it. He paused just a step away from her. Seeing them that close together, Claire realized how tall he was, and how he towered over her. Amelie looked fragile, suddenly. Vulnerable.
"Don't make me do this," Amelie said. "I value you. Don't destroy the peace we have."
He reached out and fastened his hand on her arm. The guard moved toward them. Amelie shook her head, and the guard stopped, but stayed ready to jump. "Out of my way," Oliver said. "This is useless. I've bowed to you for too long, and if I continue to do it, we will all suffer. You can't change us, Amelie. You can't change me. For the love of God, stop trying."
"No. I've been your trained dog long enough."
She broke free of his grip and slapped her hands on both sides of his face, freezing him in place. Her eyes . . . her eyes went white. Pure, cold, icy white. Claire looked away, because what howled through the room just then was a feeling of wild power nothing like she'd ever felt from Amelie before. Hannah and Richard had moved out of their chairs and were pressed against the far wall. Even the guard was backing up.
"Do not defy me," Amelie said fiercely. "I don't want to destroy you, but I will rather than allow you to hunt and kill as you wish. Do you understand me?"
It had to be impossible for Oliver to do anything but agree. Claire felt the pressure in the room increase, a kind of heavy psychic weight that made her gasp and want to curl into a ball--and it wasn't even aimed at her.
Amelie opened her mouth, and her fangs slid down, elegant and slow. She was no longer vulnerable. Not at all. She was . . . terrifying.
Oliver had to kneel to her. He had to. Claire could feel just the edges of what Amelie was doing, but the pressure on Oliver must have been like the weight of the ocean, driving him to submit.
He took a deep breath and brought his arms up sharply between hers, and knocked her hands away from his face. Amelie's eyes widened in surprise, and then he reached out and put his hands on her face.
Amelie's eyes faded back to gray, then turned very dark. "No," she said. "No."
"Yes," Oliver said. "I warned you before. I won't be ruled. Not even by you. I don't wish to do this, but you've left me no choice."
Amelie was shuddering now. Power was pouring out of Oliver, and unlike Amelie's cold control, his felt hot, blood-hot, pounding like a pulse. Overwhelming. Claire's head was splitting from the pressure, and she saw that Richard and Hannah were feeling the same pain.
"Submit," Oliver said. "Submit and I'll spare you the humiliation of kneeling."
"No," she whispered, but it was weak. Only a thread of sound. Her eyes had turned black. "You will never have me, Oliver. Never."
"I already have you," he said.
"This has been coming for so many years. You knew it. Let go. Amelie, I don't want to hurt you."
It seemed to take everything Amelie had, but she struck his hands away from her face, just as he'd done to her. Her eyes paled back to gray. She was breathing, visibly breathing, which for a vampire meant she'd just done something extremely hard. "I will never be your creature, Oliver," she said, voice trembling. "I will accept you as an equal. Never as a conqueror. You should know that by now." He stared down at her, and Claire felt the pressure in the room slowly bleed away. She should have felt relieved, but instead she just wanted to collapse and sleep. Hannah and Richard were holding hands, she noticed. That seemed odd. Maybe they were just as freaked-out as she was.
"Equals," Oliver said. "How could we ever be equals, do you imagine? We aren't made for such things. We both need to rule. It's in our natures."
"Then force me to submit. Or walk away."
Oliver shook his head, and Claire thought he started to turn, but then his right hand shot out and closed around Amelie's throat, slamming her back against the wood. She tried to speak, but his grip was cutting off her voice.
"We can't be equals," he said. "I'm sorry. I never wanted it to come to this."
And he bit her in the throat.
Oliver was drinking Amelie's blood. Amelie was fighting him, but he was too strong for her, and her guard . . . her guard wasn't moving.
"Do something!" Claire screamed at the guard, but he just stood there. She dashed to the other door and threw it open. The female vamp was on guard there, and turned when Claire screamed at her, too.
But she didn't do anything, either.
Oliver suddenly let go of Amelie and stepped back, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of one hand. She stood there, eyes closed, and put a trembling hand over the wound on her neck. There was blood spilled on her immaculate white jacket. She didn't speak.
Oliver turned to the guard and said, "See her to a chair. Gently."
The guard bowed his head briefly, then came toward her, but Amelie's eyes snapped open. "Don't touch me," she snapped, but he didn't obey her. Not at all. He took her arm and guided her back to a chair at the side of the table . . . not the head, where she'd been sitting before. Amelie shook free and sank down. She looked ill now, and angry, and humiliated.
Oliver stood where he was for a moment, then turned and addressed the other guard. "Go get Ysandre and John," he said. "I want them here."
The guard nodded and left. "Ysandre?" Claire said. "You're bringing her in here?" Ysandre was a stone-cold menace. Amelie had kept her in prison for a while, and Claire hadn't seen her much recently. She'd hoped that someone had accidentally thrown her under a bus.
Ysandre had tried to hit on Shane. And that alone was reason enough to hate her.
"Quiet," Oliver said. "Sit down, all of you. You have no reason to panic. The situation is under control." Under his control, which was in itself plenty of cause for panic, not to mention freakout. But Claire didn't dare not obey, not until she understood what had happened, and why.
Richard looked at Amelie and asked, "Are you all right?"
She opened her eyes and made her face into a smooth mask, showing nothing of whatever she was feeling now. "I'm well enough," she said. She took her hand away from her throat. The wound was already closed and healing. "Don't interfere. This is an internal matter."
"I know, but if you need me to help--"
"You can't help. I tried to keep my position. I failed." She lowered her gaze to the table. "Oliver leads the town now."
"No," Claire whispered. "No, that can't be true. That isn't right. You're the Founder; you're--"
"Defeated," Amelie said. "Enough, Claire. There is nothing to be done now. He spared me some of the more humiliating aspects that could have accompanied the transfer of power. I won't disrespect that favor by rebelling now."
Oliver didn't say anything. He took his seat at the head of the table, and a moment later the vamp guard came back, with two others--John, who owned the hospital and several clinics in town, including the blood bank. John had long blond curly hair and a proud, sharp face. He looked like he'd rather be anywhere else. And next to him . . . Ysandre.
Ysandre was just exactly as Claire remembered her from her days as Amelie's father Bishop's follower. She was beautiful, and smoky, and sexy in a sleazy kind of way--that was mostly her clothes, because she loved low-cut crop tops and even lower-cut jeans. She trailed fingers over the back of Richard Morrell's neck, and he slapped them away with a glare.
"Temper," Ysandre purred, and even in that one word Claire could hear the sickly sweet Southern accent. "I'm just trying to be friendly. We're all friends here now, right?"
"Oh, for God's sake, do shut up," John said wearily. He had an English accent that was a lot more charming than Ysandre's put-on drawl. "Founder? You had something to--" Awareness dawned in his face, and Claire thought he must have sensed what had happened. His expression looked a lot like horror, and he stared at Oliver. "No. No, that's not possible."
"I'm afraid it is," Oliver said. "You command loyalty from many of Amelie's closest friends and supporters. I need you to spread the word. I am now in charge. You may hear it from her own lips."
John definitely looked horrified now. Claire couldn't blame him. She was feeling pretty awful herself. "Madam?" He went to one knee beside Amelie's chair. "Command me and I'll obey."
"There is nothing to command," she said. "You can feel the shift of power. It is a fact of nature, one none of us can fight. Obey him, John. I wouldn't wish to see you, or any of you, harmed."
John took her hand and pressed it to his forehead in what looked like real grief, and then stood up and faced Oliver. "No one will support this," he said. "Watch your back, Oliver. You were well treated, and you've betrayed her. We won't forget."
"John, don't," Amelie said. She sounded tired.
"I'm not threatening. I am stating facts. Which you know well, Oliver."
Oliver nodded. "I don't care how you feel about it. Bargain with yourself as you wish, but go and tell your fellows that I am now in charge, and I won't take any challenges to my power. I am not Amelie. Test me, and I'll destroy you."
John's eyes flared a rebellious red, but he bowed stiffly and walked out of the room.
Ysandre laughed. "What a sanctimonious old frog," she said. "Well, Ollie? I think I threw my lot in with the winning side this time. We're going to have a wonderful time. Where should we start? Let's just declare open season on the humans and kick it off right. I feel a good hunt coming on."
Oliver looked at her with the same kind of distaste he'd just gotten from John. "You're not my second," he said. "Don't presume to be informal with me. I spared your life for a specific reason, but don't think that it has anything to do with fondness."
She frowned. "What do you mean, I'm not your second? Who's going to challenge me for it, John?"
"There's to be no challenge. Amelie is my second."
"Amelie?" Ysandre sounded furious, and Claire saw her hands clench. "You can't be serious. You can't keep her around. She'll have a dagger in your back the first chance she gets--" "Like you would? I've seen how you treat your friends as well as your enemies, presuming you make any distinction between the two at all. Don't push me. I interceded for you when Amelie wanted to wall you up in a cell with Bishop. You can show your gratitude by remembering your place, which is definitely not at my side," Oliver said. "Go to my people. Tell them what's happened. Tell them I expect nothing to change until they hear differently, but that change will come. But it will be controlled, and measured, and I will look badly on any attempts to push it faster."
Ysandre stared at him through narrowed eyes, and Claire thought she was just as angry as John, but for different reasons. She finally shrugged and said, "Whatever you want, boss man. If you want to be a fool, go right ahead. You just got the big chair. Good luck holding on to it, with that kind of attitude." She turned her attention to Claire, on the other side of the table, and smiled. "Well, if it isn't the little bit of nothing. How's Shane?" She licked her lips. "I've been missing him."
Claire gave the vampire her best impression of Amelie's cold look. "If I see you around Shane, I'll stake you."
Ysandre made a little O of her mouth, and then said, "No empty threat, is it? I'll just bet you've got a stake somewhere, don't you? Bet you never go anywhere without it."
Claire glanced over at her backpack. She'd brought it, but she'd set it in the corner, out of the way. It was on Ysandre's side of the table.
"I'd better go on and disarm her, boss," Ysandre said. "Security and all."
Oliver looked irritated, but he didn't stop her. She went to the backpack, opened it, and dumped books and papers all over the floor.
A silver-coated stake tumbled out to thump on the carpet at her feet. Then a silver-coated knife.
"Well, well, well. I think these ought to be illegal, don't you?" Ysandre grabbed one of Claire's papers and wrapped it around the stake's handle, and one around the knife's, and strolled back to the table. "Dangerous weapons, especially in council chambers."
And before Claire or anyone else could suspect what she was going to do, she stabbed Amelie in the back, through the heart, with the stake. Amelie screamed and toppled out of her chair, limp, to the floor. Claire felt like the world was moving at nightmare speeds--Ysandre was too fast, Claire was too slow, and she couldn't do anything to stop it as Ysandre yanked on Amelie's white-blond hair and exposed her throat to the knife.
"No!" Oliver shouted, and sprang to his feet.
"I'm going to be your second whether you like it or not!" Ysandre yelled back, and put the knife to Amelie's throat. "And the first thing is, get rid of the competition!"
Oliver lunged across the table. He hit her so hard he threw her into the far doors, which broke off the hinges, and Ysandre and the doors slid down the marble hallway for twenty feet before coming to a stop. She was still moving, weakly, but Oliver snapped his fingers and pointed the guards in her direction.
"No," he said. "You're finished. Amelie was right after all: you're too stupid to be allowed to live."
He went to Amelie, kicked the fallen knife out of the way, and dropped to his knees beside her. She was frozen by the stake, and where the silver touched her, it was burning her. Ysandre's paper handle had fallen off, but Oliver didn't wait. He grabbed the silver and pulled it out of her back in one fast motion, and threw the stake into the corner. Claire caught a glimpse of his hand turning black from the contact, but he didn't pause, didn't seem to feel the pain. He cradled Amelie's head in his hands. "It's out," he said. "Can you hear me? Amelie!"
She still wasn't moving. Oliver pulled her into his arms. The female guard came back, pulling Ysandre's struggling body by the hair, and he snapped, "Get Theo Goldman. Now. And put that one in a cage until I decide how we should be rid of her. Something painful, preferably."
Amelie's eyes slowly blinked. She focused on Oliver's face. Claire had never seen her look so pale; her lips looked blue, and even her eyes seemed faded. "You should have let her finish," she whispered. "Better death than dishonor; isn't that our code?"
"Hundreds of years ago it was," he agreed. His voice was different now. Gentle. "You're the last one to cling to the past. How bad is the pain?"
She seemed to think about it. "Compared to what? To what you've done to me?"
He was holding her hand, and now he raised it to his lips. "I wouldn't have acted unless you forced me. But we both know that I don't lose once I'm challenged."
"You did," she whispered. "Once. To me."
He kept her hand at his lips. "So I did," he said, so softly Claire almost missed it. "I will never hurt you again. I swear it." He hesitated, and then drew one sharpened fingernail across his wrist. "Drink. I give it to you freely."
A drop of his blood hit her lips, and she gasped, opening her eyes wide. She reached for his arm and pulled the cut to her lips, drank, and then let go. She sighed and went limp. Her eyes closed. Claire's throat closed up tight. She wanted to ask, but couldn't.
Richard asked for her. "Is she dead?"
"Not yet," Oliver said. "A silver stake wouldn't kill her immediately at her age, even in her weakened condition with the loss of blood. But she needs additional treatment." He looked up at Richard, at Hannah, and finally at Claire. "No one speaks of this. No one."
"You mean we don't say that you saved her?" Richard asked. "Or that you love her?"
Without blinking Oliver said, "Say it again and we will be electing a new mayor, boy. I'm not in the mood to tolerate more human nonsense today. Do you understand me?"
"I understand that you want to turn this town into a cattle pen. That my people are going to be hunted and killed without mercy. So you know what, Oliver? If you want to run Morganville your way, you won't just be looking for a new mayor. You'll be looking for a place to hide while we tear this town apart." Richard got up and just . . . walked out. Hannah sat for a moment, then got up and followed him.
Leaving Claire alone with him.
Oliver was looking down at Amelie's still, quiet face. He said, without raising his head, "You should have gone with them. You have no part in this."
"I can't go," Claire said. "I need to tell you something."
"Then say it and leave."
Her throat was dry, and she knew--knew--that he was ready to kill the next person who annoyed him just now. Amelie wouldn't, couldn't stop him. But she had to say it. She had to try.
"You said you had to kill a vampire last night," she said. "Not the one from the diner?"
"No," Oliver said. He didn't look up at her. "An old friend. I couldn't stop her any other way."
"Did she say anything?"
"What?" Oliver looked up, frowning. "No. She was beyond speaking anything like sense."
"But she did speak."
"Only to scream that nothing was right."
That confirmed it, and Claire felt a cold, heavy sense of guilt. "People are forgetting who they are. Or where. Or else they know something's wrong, but they can't tell what it is, and it's driving them crazy."
"Then it's obviously not confined to humans," Oliver said. "Blood analysis on the affected vampires shows nothing. It's not the same as the illness we were enduring before." So he did know. And he'd even done something about it, or tried.
"Then it's got to be the machine, the one Myrnin and I fixed. It started about the time we turned it on." He raised his head and met her eyes, and her mouth, if possible, went even dryer. "Myrnin doesn't think there's anything wrong with it. I . . . I wish that was true, but I think he's in denial. I think the machine is doing this to us, and it's getting worse the longer it's on."
Oliver was silent for a moment, then said, "And if we turn it off?"
"Then the barriers go down. But I think the memory problems stop, too."
"You're certain of this."
Was she? Because she knew she was staking her life on it. "Yes."
Oliver growled, low in his throat, and said, "Then turn the damned thing off and fix it. Find what's wrong. We can't do without the barriers for long; our human residents are already defying authority, and once they realize the barriers don't function, we will lose control entirely, and this will become a true bloodbath. Do you understand?"
"Yes. I'll turn it off. We'll fix it."
"Then you'd best get to it. Now get out."
Claire scrambled out from behind the table and grabbed her backpack. She hesitated over the knife and stake, but scooped them up and stuffed them in before throwing it over her shoulder and running for the door. She looked back once; Oliver didn't seem to have noticed she'd left. He was still holding Amelie in his arms, and for the first time she saw real, raw emotion on his face.
Dr. Theo Goldman stepped off the elevator carrying his doctor's bag. He blinked at Claire as they maneuvered around each other, him coming out, her going in, and said, "I was told I had a patient. This is an odd place to find one."
"It's Amelie," Claire said. "That way. Theo?"
He looked back, but kept walking.
"Please help her."
He nodded, smiled reassuringly, and the doors closed on her before she could say anything else.