“Jameson,” I wheezed. “Who told you that?”
“I…” He checked the bonds holding me and Nolan and seemed satisfied they were secure. Behind me Nolan groaned, finally starting to come around.
If Jameson was someone’s daytime servant, he lacked any of the sensibilities of the ones I had previously met. Other human servants were whip-smart, devoted and cunning. You had to maintain certain skills in order to survive for centuries without the speed and strength of a vampire. Jameson seemed lost and bumbling. Even during the brief encounter we’d had at Bramley, he had been self-assured and larger than life.
This Jameson was an empty husk of his former self.
“Oh, Jameson, you stupid old fool. You of anyone should have known.”
He stared at me blankly. “I don’t know what you mean.” He still sounded like himself. The Jameson of old was in there somewhere, probably trying to claw his way to the surface. But he had been turned into a Renfield. He was some master vampire’s errand boy now.
“They got you.”
“No one got me.” He walked over to the main doors of the room and yanked one open. “Noriko said you were one of them and she was right. You must be sacrificed for the cause.”
I blinked my one eye uselessly. A giant hand of pain squeezed my skull.
But Jameson had vanished through the open door, leaving Nolan and me alone in the room.
“Nolan, wake up. Please.”
“Wuhh.” At least they were starting to sound like real words now.
“Wake up,” I screamed, throwing my head backwards and knocking it against his.
“Ow.” I felt him shake his head and he groaned, but the sound was more frustrated than pained. He’d probably just realized how far up shit creek we were without paddles. “Secret?” He craned his neck back. “Oh, Christ, they got ya.”
“So it would seem.”
“I didn’t think they could.”
“Tell me everything you know,” I demanded.
“He doesn’t know anything,” Noriko announced, stepping through the door. She was followed by Jameson, and two of the vampire ghosts trailed behind them.
Of the two, only one was recognizable as once being human in any capacity. Her skin was still mostly intact, and she had both of her eyes, but they had faded to white. Her hair was patchy and only clumps of it remained, dangling in stringy bunches from her mottled scalp.
The other one was more repellant than the first I’d experienced. Huge chunks of skin were missing all over his body and both of his eyes were gone. His grinning skeletal face was staring at me with his fangs bared and ready. Ready for what, I didn’t want to know.
Noriko wore the same black catsuit as she had the last time I’d seen her. She looked like she should be breaking into a bank vault rather than tormenting captives, but if it was her look, who was I to question it?
“You look like a rejected extra from Mission: Impossible.” Oh, that’s right, I was still me.
“You insolent little bitch,” she spat. “Don’t you know when you’re beaten?”
I thought about it for a moment. “No.”
Nolan was riveted in terror, staring at the two ghosts. For the time being, neither of them was doing anything threatening. They seemed content to just be creepily corporeal in the background. Their presence was threat enough.
Noriko, carrying the same katana with which she’d attacked me outside of Havana, came to stand in front of me. She raised the sword so it was one hard gulp away from puncturing my neck, and gave me a look that was meant to be a challenge.
“Can I ask you something?” I whispered, careful to not engage the blade.
“What?” was her irritated response.
“I don’t understand.”
“Why Jameson? Why Nolan? Why did you go to Bramley and find them?”
“Because sooner or later, even the most foolish vampire hunter will stumble on to a great prize, Secret. They…” she indicated Jameson and Nolan, “…found the first of the council-guarded vampires for us by sheer dumb luck.”
She’d said us. So that explained her part in this. Noriko was a daytime servant, which seemed quite obvious to me now with her holding a sword to my throat and being followed by an entourage of the undead.
“How old are you?”
She pulled back the sword a bit and contemplated the answer to the question.
“I was born in 1614 in Edo. So, I suppose, I am nearly four hundred.” She was briefly delighted by this, as though it never occurred to her to take stock of something so menial as age.
“Who were you in Japan?” I asked. My knuckle-duster ring had slipped loose, and I had nudged it low on my fingers. When I’d punched Sig earlier that week one of the diamonds had shifted, creating a sharp, blade-like point on the surface of the ring. I was trying to cut through my ropes using that point, plus the broken wood from the back of my chair. Nolan was being no help whatsoever.
Noriko’s eyes clouded and something approaching rage crossed her face. “I was an Oiran. A respected prostitute.” Her jaw was tight. I’d asked the wrong question. Why couldn’t she have been a sweet tea server or someone’s devoted wife? “Enough of this. It’s time for your end, McQueen.”
But she didn’t raise her sword again. Instead she nodded to Jameson, who left the room.
“I said enough.”
“If you can even still pretend you’re human, promise me something.”
“I promise you nothing.”
I ignored her dismissal. “Nolan has nothing to do with this. Let him live.”
Her face sank with regret. “It’s too late for that.”
“It’s not too late. Why is it too late?”
“Because the master is here.” She looked over to the door as Jameson reentered, followed by a beautiful, smartly dressed blonde.
My heart stopped and all warmth drained from my face. I would have been less shocked to see my own mother walk in. A lot less, actually.
“Daria?” I sputtered again, still unable to connect what I was looking at with the part of my brain that converted seeing to believing. For a minute I thought she was there to help me.
But of course that wasn’t the case.
“Hello, Secret.” She was pristine, as always. Her hair was pulled back into a smooth chignon, showing her dancer’s neck and revealing the delicate features of her face. She wore a simple black dress with a modest neckline. Her lipstick was red, but understated, making her look like the wife of a presidential candidate. She even wore pearls.
This was not the vision of a vampire-killing, diabolical monster I had conjured.
She smoothed her unwrinkled skirt and clasped her hands together in front of her. No part of her seemed shocked by my current condition, and why should it? This had all been her doing.
“No,” I protested. “This isn’t right.”
Daria shrugged, then smiled a little too sweetly for my taste. “This is the way of the world, Miss McQueen.” She indicated the vampire ghosts with a perfectly manicured hand. “The strong survive while the weak perish. Simple Darwinism.”
“This isn’t evolution.” I was shocked by how cavalier she was being. “It’s murder.”
Her hands reclasped. “So be it.”
“Why them? Why would you kill the protected ones? They trusted you to keep them safe.”
Daria huffed. “What fool trusts a vampire? They were idiots to believe anyone could keep them protected forever.”
“What benefit was it to you to kill them? And what are they?”
Noriko shot me a warning look and raised her sword, but Daria stilled her with a flick of the wrist. “No, no, Noriko, let her ask. She may as well know what she’s dying for. She’s been Sig’s pawn for long enough. It’s time we treated her like an equal for once.”
“I’m not Sig’s pawn.”
“You were the council’s pawn, and Sig is the council. If you are stupid enough to believe he wasn’t using you, then you deserve what’s coming to you.”
It felt like she’d slapped me.
“I chose my path.”
“Foolish girl. Did you choose to let Peyton live? Did you decide who to kill? You come at his beck and call. You are the council’s dog. Sig has used you to achieve his ends and he would keep using you for whatever pleases him. You should thank me for releasing you.”
“You’re just as guilty as he is.”
She laughed, clapping her hands together with delight. “You think there is anything approaching equality in the Tribunal? Sig is lord and master, and don’t let yourself think any differently.”
“So this is all about him?”
Daria sighed, exasperated. “It’s about power.”
“You have power.”
“But I am still bound to obey him.” Her face contorted with anger and became momentarily hideous.
“What did the protected vampires have to do with it? And Holden?”
“Chancery was an easy target. I had another vampire bring forth evidence against him and accuse him of the slayings. Sig was forced to issue the warrant, but assigning it to you wasn’t my idea. That was pure Sig. Until right now I’d thought he was being cruel, but now I see it was another controlling move on his part. And a clever one at that. You came quite close to the truth.”
I dared not look out the window to see if the owl was still there, but I hoped he had taken wing. Daria had said more than enough.
“And the vampires?” I inclined my head to the less scary of the two.
“Elders. Their power was incredible. I was able to drink from them and take that power into myself. They have begun to fade the more I feed, but they are still bound to me as long as they live.”