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“I kept my vow, Nyx. I never spoke of it to them, or to any living being,” Kalona said.

“I know.” Nyx leaned forward and kissed him. “You did not break that vow, even when you were filled with Darkness and rage. That was when I first began to hope that you would find yourself and your way back to me.”

“I will never lose my way again.”

Nyx went into his arms, resting in complete contentment within the circle of his love and strength.

“I do miss them, though. Our vampyres,” he said. “And, of course, my son.”

She smiled up at him. “You should visit Rephaim.”

Kalona blinked in surprise. “You would not mind it?”

“Of course not! He is your son, mated to a special favorite of mine.”

Kalona held his Goddess tightly. “I forget that you have never trafficked with jealousy and hatred.”

“Nor will I ever, my love,” Nyx said. Then her serious expression brightened. “Shall we look in on them, our children?”

“Now?” Kalona’s gaze took in the boat, the lazy lake, and the beautiful Goddess.

She smiled. “Yes, now. But we can do so without disrupting your surprise for me.” Nyx changed position so that, even though she still rested within the circle of his arms, her back was against his chest. He peered over her shoulder as she leaned over the lip of the boat and waved her hand over the waters of the Otherworld lake.

Magickal lake I call on your crystal might

open to me, bringing what I seek to light.

My wish is to see those who we hold dear

Though far away, I would they were near.

From across the veil of time and space,

Show us our children in their mortal place.

The waters swirled gently, rippling as if Nyx had skipped a stone over the surface of the lake, then they went still and perfectly glass-like. Like the magickal equivalent of a mortal television screen, a scene was being played out before them, in full color and with sound.

“It’s Zoey and Stark and Grandma Redbird!” Kalona said. “They’re all backstage of the auditorium at the House of Night.”

“Shhh, my love,” Nyx said softly. “Let us watch without intruding upon them.”

“What is Zoey Redbird up to now?” Kalona whispered to his Goddess.

Nyx’s shoulders shook in silent laughter. Kalona wrapped his arms more tightly around her and watched, admitting silently to himself how eager he was for news of those whom he had come to think of as his family.

Zoey

“I’m nervous. Ugh, and my stomach’s upset,” I said, trying not to pick at my fingernails. “Do I look okay? Maybe I should change into jeans. This dress is kinda over the top.” I looked down at myself and picked a long orangy-cream hair from my über-dressy dress and glared at the big orange and cream cat who was attempting to look innocent as he purred and rubbed against Stark’s legs. “Skylar, you’re not fooling me. You’re shedding on purpose.”

“You look gorgeous, Z. Don’t change. Again. You don’t have time anyway. And Skylar has long hair—he can’t help it that he sheds. A lot,” Stark said, and bent to tickle the big cat on the top of his head. Nala padded delicately into the room, sneezed at Skylar, and then, belly swaying, my fat cat took off. Looking very kitten-like, Skylar chased happily after her.

“He’s really growing on me,” Stark said, smiling after the cat. “And he’s not as mean as he used to be.”

“Well, don’t tell Duchess. Her nose is still bleeding from where he smacked her the other night.”

“She’s gotta learn to leave him alone. His new collar does say KNOWN BITER.” Stark was trying to sound nonchalant, but I noticed that even he was fidgeting with the kilt he’d chosen to wear.

“I think your legs might be better than mine,” I said only half jokingly.

“Do not tell your Rooster that, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. He already struts enough,” Grandma teased, patting Stark’s cheek fondly. She came to me and smoothed the low, heart-shaped neckline of the crimson velvet dress I’d let Aphrodite talk me into wearing. Then she brushed off another cat hair from the silver embroidered image of the Goddess with her hands raised cupping a crescent moon that rested over my heart. “There, that is the last of Skylar’s shedding. And you look absolutely lovely, Zoeybird. This dress becomes the first High Priestess of the new North American High Council.”

High Priestess of the North American High Council—when would my stomach stop clenching whenever I heard my new title?

As if reading my mind, Grandma took my face in her hands. “Your title will rest easily with you when you rest easily with yourself. I believe that will happen after you complete what you must today.”

“Yeah, Z. You know what you need to do. The sooner you get it over with, the better,” Stark said.

I met his eyes, looking for signs of jealousy or anger, and I saw none. All I saw was love and trust. I drew a deep breath. “You’re right. You’re both right. Let’s stop wasting time. It’s not going to be that bad.”

“Bad, Z? Are you kidding? It’s going to be great! Hey, remember—the world is a small place. We’re not losing anyone. They’re just going to fledge.” Stark chuckled and gave me his cute cocky smile. “Get it? Fledge.”

I shook my head but managed not to roll my eyes at him. “I get it.”

“Zoeybird, you must not think of this as the end of something. Think of it as the beginning of a grand adventure for all of you,” Grandma said.

“Okay, yeah, you’re right, Grandma. And anyway, we’re going to circle one more time before everyone takes off. Let’s do this.” With Stark on one side of me, and Grandma on the other, I walked out onto the auditorium’s stage.

The auditorium was packed, and I could see people standing all along the rear and side walls.

“Where did they all come from?” I whispered to Stark, trying not to move my lips.

“Uh, Z, your mic is on,” Stevie Rae’s voice lifted from somewhere near the front of the auditorium.

“Ah, hell,” I whispered. And then pressed my lips together as my ah, hell echoed out over the crowd. Laugher rippled back to me, but it didn’t feel mean-spirited. It felt friendly. I blinked, and as my eyes accustomed themselves to the gaslights in the auditorium, I saw that yes, the crowd was, indeed, huge, but it was also smiling up at me. I searched the faces until I found a curly blond head next to another blonde whose hair was long and straight and almost impossibly perfect. I met Aphrodite’s gaze. She lifted a blond brow and nodded at me. Then I met Stevie Rae’s sparkling blue eyes. She gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up. I let out the breath I’d been holding, cleared my throat, and began.

“I want to thank all of you for coming tonight for this swearing in of the North American Vampyre High Council, especially the humans who are here and who have become such good friends of this House of Night.” Detective Marx was easy to find in the crowd—he was taller than almost everyone else. I smiled at him and he tipped an imaginary hat to me. I liked that a half dozen or so uniformed officers had accompanied him, and made a mental note to remember to buy a bunch of tickets to the next TPD fund-raising event. “Today we’re going to do something that has never before been done in vampyre society. We’re going to make a new beginning of our own, and we’re going to include humans in that beginning.”

I paused when spontaneous applause broke out, so surprised that I could feel my cheeks get warm.

“So, well, I’m going to start by calling up to the stage the six new members of our High Council.” I met her eyes and began with my BFF. “Stevie Rae!”

There were a bunch of whoohoos accompanied by arm pumps coming from the seats behind Stevie Rae. I grinned, realizing her family had made the drive up from Henrietta. Stevie Rae kissed Rephaim quickly, then hurried to the stage.

“Aphrodite!”

All of the Sons of Erebus Warriors, led by Darius, stood and applauded loudly as Aphrodite flipped by her hair and gracefully came up to the stage.

“Shaunee!”

“That is right! Good job, Shaunee!” Detective Marx called, as he and the other TPD members, along with Erik Night all cheered and whistled.

“Shaylin!”

I was happy to see that Erik had stood and high-fived her as she walked past him—after Nicole kissed her smack on the lips.

“Lenobia!”

A big cowboy whooped and waved his appropriately white hat as the Horse Mistress, looking ethereally beautiful, made her way to the stage.

“And the last name I call is the first male to be a member of any vampyre High Council. Damien!” I said. And I joined the clapping and cheering as Damien, blushing but smiling, smoothed his impeccably tailored shirt, hugged Adam Paluka, and hurried to join us.

My friends spread out on either side of me, all looking to me for what was to come next. I swallowed my nerves and sat. They followed my lead, taking the seats waiting for them.

Okay, it wasn’t like the Vampyre High Council that still reigned in Europe from San Clemente Island. We didn’t have stone thrones and big rules about how everyone in the crowd had to act. Nor did we exclude humans from our auditorium/High Council Chamber. Right up front we’d decided to do things way differently here. To start with, we’d decided that our “thrones” would be stools with comfy padded seats that were decorated in the school’s plaid of purple, blue, and green on a black background. As I perched on mine, I continued the ceremony.

“Now I want to call to the stage our Vampyre poet laureate, Kramisha, who is also a Prophetess of Nyx. She is going to swear us in as your new High Council. Kramisha, come on up!”

The red fledglings all cheered super loud as Kramisha clomped up the stairs to the stage. She was wearing her favorite six-inch gold patent-leather stiletto boots, which matched her gold bobbed wig. She had one of her lavender-colored notebooks with her, and as she took the microphone Grandma offered her, she opened it and moved into position facing us.

“Is you ready?”

“Yes,” said the seven of us.

“Then say what I say, and know that this oath be binding from now until you’s dead.”

“Uh, or until our first four-year term is up and the North American House of Nights vote us back into our positions,” I corrected her quickly.

“Yeah, what Z says.” Kramisha nodded, totally unrattled. When she began speaking the words of the oath, her voice changed, was amplified, and seemed as if a silently watching Nyx had suddenly breathed power into her.

New times call for new places, faces.

Balance restored, we now look ahead.

Kramisha paused. Together, the seven of us repeated the binding words of her poem:

Our tests were great, but we stayed true.

Our losses were great, but we came through.

Again she paused and we repeated her words:

Tonight we pledge to stand in the Light.

To lead with wisdom, love, and might.

As I spoke the words with my six friends, I prayed that Nyx would help me, help them, to continue to grow in wisdom, to be filled with love, and to always show others the respect they deserved as I wielded my Goddess-given might.

Behold! The new High Council you see!

So we have chosen; so mote it be!

As we repeated the last lines of the oath, the seven of us stood and, as one, bowed to the crowd, who all erupted in riotous cheers.

“Okay, Z. Now tell ’em the rest of it,” Stevie Rae said. “After all, it was your awesome idea.”

I nodded, nervous again, but faced the crowd and finished what I’d started. “As you guys know, we plan on being a totally new kind of High Council because we want the world to see a totally new kind of vampyre.” The crowd instantly quieted, listening intently. “Part of what I decided, well, what we decided, all seven of us, was that we weren’t going to stay here, shut away from what’s really going on in the outside world.”

“And grow cobwebs from our butts,” Stevie Rae added, causing laughter to ripple through the audience.

“Well, yeah, something like that,” I said, grinning at my BFF. “So, starting tomorrow, your High Council is going to go out into the country, visiting different Houses of Night, listening to the problems and concerns of normal, everyday vampyres and fledglings, as well as the humans who live in their nearby communities.” I drew a deep breath, and irrevocably scattered my friends.

“Stevie Rae, you’ll go to the north.”

“So mote it be,” she said, smiling, though her eyes were filled with tears.

“Damien, you’ll go to the east.”

“So mote it be,” he agreed solemnly.

“Shaunee, you’ll go to the south.”

“So mote it be,” she intoned.

“Shaylin, you’ll go to the west.”

“So mote it be,” she said, smiling kindly at me.

“And I will stay here with thee,” Aphrodite said, her gaze wise and steady on mine.

“So mote it be,” I agreed. I turned to the audience and said, “Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again. And may you all blessed be!”

Everyone clapped, this time more soberly than before. Obviously, a bunch of people were shocked at the decision my Council and I had made, but I felt good about it. And, judging by the looks on my friends’ faces, they felt good about it, too. We’d all seen how messed up things could get when a High Council lost touch with its people. We were determined that wouldn’t happen to us.

But I had one more thing I needed to do, one thing I hadn’t told my friends about. I turned to them and said, “Guys, before you go, we need to circle one last time.”

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