Our assigned table was off to the side and near the back. Grant and Heathe brought their own recording devices, but more were provided at our table. Everyone else had them, too. It didn't really matter; many in my party had perfect recall anyway, and some of us (Reemagar and Thurlow) could play back images in 3-D if they wanted.
While I sat at the table making small talk with Rigo, Thurlow and the others, I recalled going to meetings when I'd worked as a court clerk in Oklahoma City. We went to conferences on harassment, human resources, policy changes, all kinds of things. Nothing as momentous as this might turn out to be.
At least we all knew each other, pretty much, back at the courthouse. I didn't know a single soul, here. I will say this, though; the Governor of the Realm from Refizan, with his eight guards and assistants, stopped by my table. "You look very much like the one who saved Refizan, many years ago. I've watched those ancient vids many times." He smiled and held out his hand. I stood to take it.
"I enjoyed my visit to your world," I told him truthfully. I had—even though it had been three hundred years or more in the past and dangerous as all get out.
"Welcome to the Alliance," he said and moved away.
The next one to pass our table wasn't nearly as friendly—it was the Queen from Twylec and she had ten with her. She hissed out a rude name as she passed, but that wasn't what had me drawing in a breath and almost coming out of my seat—if Reemagar and Thurlow hadn't been sitting on either side, holding me down, I would have gotten out of my chair right then and there and things would have gotten ugly.
Queen Tamaritha of Twylec was being trailed by three Ra'Ak, all in humanoid form. Well, I'd thought these meetings were going to be interesting before I came. Now they were going to be not only interesting but also dangerous—to the hundredth power.
The entire morning was completely boring, and I heard a few snores throughout the crowd—a late night spent drinking and carousing, followed by three long and boring speeches made by Nemizan's King and the President and Vice President of the Reth Alliance Conclave will do that to you every time.
Heathe, Grant, Rigo and I all had blood substitute for lunch, while everyone else except Reemagar had a meal served by the hotel. "You really drink that stuff?" That might have been the fiftieth time I'd heard a variation of that question during the mingling throughout the meal. I wondered if any of them were going to call me a fucking vampire.
I had a retort ready, but I think they knew better than to do that. Instead, I smiled and asked if they'd like to join me. I didn't get any takers. Wisps of smoke curled from Garde's nostrils from time to time, and I speculated as to whether any of those people knew that not only did they have an angry High Demon within striking distance, but I had their scents down and would never forget them.
Twylec's contingent managed to stay away from me, though, after their Queen's first insult. They should. I was watching them like a hawk and I think Rigo, Reemagar and Thurlow were, too. We discussed several agenda items that afternoon, but they didn't really amount to much and the votes were cast quickly.
The item I wanted to discuss most came on day four—that's when it would be decided whether each world could approve its own religions. I wanted my say and Grand Alliance Council oversight on that one. Grand Alliance Council oversight meant that each petitioning religion would be carefully investigated by the Grand Alliance Council before they were allowed to set up temples and collect donations on any world. In Solar Red's case, they'd be investigated before they could set up temples and start maiming and killing.
Meanwhile, there was a lot of other political bull crap to get through, and if Queen Tamaritha's pet Ra'Ak didn't tip their hand before the meeting was over on the seventh day, well, I was going to find a way to follow them right back home, and they were going to get a quick send-off. I wondered if Tamaritha, cousin to Satris who'd helped kill Davan, knew what was following her around.
I learned later that more than half the Alliance members had been invited to a dinner and ball held that evening by the royal family on Nemizan. Of course, I wasn't invited. That was fine with me—we went back to the hotel and had a quiet dinner. Afterward, Grant and Heathe put a list together of all the members who'd made a point of insulting us. More than two hundred had gone out of their way to be rude. Of that two hundred or so, twenty-seven had vampires on their planets. I found that interesting. Were their vampires being mistreated? I asked Grant and Heathe to check on that for me when we returned to Le-Ath Veronis.
We were watching the late local news before going to bed, and all stations had reporters positioned throughout the Nemizana Palace, talking to this world leader or that. It was truly boring, too, until my name was mentioned.
"It hasn't gone unnoticed," the reporter stated, "that Queen Lissa of Le-Ath Veronis has chosen not to attend. Some contend that it is due to the price on her head. Many leaders are concerned for their safety, as they are forced to be in such close proximity to Queen Lissa during the meetings." Then they cut to this member or that, most of whom had already made their feelings known about me already.
"I can't say that the Alliance is capable of protecting all of us, with that much money being offered for her death. It makes me wonder just why she has a price on her head to begin with." That was the president of Deveiphis speaking—she was a petite brunette who affected a delicate shiver at how much danger she might be in. It made me wonder how she'd gotten her job.
Overall, I was stunned at the media firestorm that now surrounded me. I hadn't been invited to the stupid ball to begin with and now they were accusing me of snubbing people or putting them in danger. Figures. Twylec was putting them in a lot more danger, the way I saw it. I found myself wishing Le-Ath Veronis had never joined the Alliance. Erland rubbed my back and shoulders while I watched the entire debacle and then the reruns.
"Don't let them get to you—politics can be a backstabbing business," he murmured. "We'll get through this." Well, I hadn't heard his name dragged through the muck like mine had been over this thing or that. Before, when Gabron had sold me out, that media feeding frenzy had been awful. I didn't find out until later that Kifirin removed all damaging information concerning Gabron from memories and records, just for me. The ones it had affected the most, though; we still remembered.
Reemagar had to place a healing sleep that night; I would have tossed and turned if he hadn't. The following morning brought more surprises, too, and none of them were good. World leaders and heads of state were demanding that their tables be moved as far from mine as possible.
That wasn't all I knew, either. Reemagar and Thurlow knew it too—Twylec's Ra'Ak had just made their intentions clear and it chilled me to the bone. I'd known since the first day that these were connected to the one I'd killed on Vionn. They had le'meruh as he did, and had just placed their deadly coercion on the members who attended the ball the night before. It terrified me—if they had plans to take over the Alliance, well, this was the way to do it.
I heard Tamaritha laughing over the moving of tables at one point. Not only was she clueless to what was going on around her, she didn't think I could hear from that distance. The Queen of Twylec should have studied up on her vampires. Honestly, if there'd been any vampires on Twylec, they would now have a standing invitation to relocate to Le-Ath Veronis, all expenses paid.
"I feel they are accomplishing their goals in this way, and will cause no physical harm at the Conclave itself," Thurlow whispered in my ear as we took seats at our table. Nobody else was within forty feet of us. It felt as if we clung to a small, round raft, adrift in a sea filled with manipulated hate, fear and disgust.
"What kind of harm do you think they've caused by casting coercion on the leaders of more than half the Alliance?" I hissed back. "If they get the green light to approve their own religions, and you can bet they'll vote that way in two days, what kind of harm do you think is coming?"
"Lady, do not upset yourself, I beg you," Thurlow said gently, taking my hand and kissing it.
"This is so fucked up," I sighed.
"Le-Ath Veronis may be an island in this storm, if the worst comes," Erland breathed next to me. I sat between him and Thurlow at the table. "Wylend has refused to join the Reth Alliance many times, and Karathia is heavily shielded as a result. We do not depend on Alliance troops to protect us. At least we know that Kifirin, Le-Ath Veronis and Karathia will stand, even if the others fall."
"Erland, that's not the answer I want," I turned to him and searched his beautiful, dark eyes. "I'm thinking of children, sacrificed to Ra'Ak and Solar Red's sadistic lusts. As soon as this Conclave is over, I'm hunting those bastards down and killing them. It's the only way I know to neutralize the coercion they've placed."
Erland turned on the vid screen the moment we arrived at our hotel, and we watched special news vids broadcast across the Alliance. This was what I'd asked Erland to do for me through his spying efforts—a reputable journalist stood before a temple on one of many worlds he'd investigated, which had ties to Solar Red or Red Hand. He spoke of how those religions had posed as legitimate organizations or blatantly offered money to place their temples on Reth Alliance worlds. Somehow, too, the journalist had smuggled spies inside two temples. We saw human sacrifices in living color, via hidden cameras.
A list of worlds was given, all belonging to the Alliance, which now had temples attributed to other religions but belonging to Solar Red. A spokesman for the Founder and twenty Charter Members of the Grand Alliance Council, who'd formed the Reth Alliance in the beginning, blamed the worlds themselves for not providing complete information on the religions before they were approved, and the worlds were blaming the Alliance, of course.
None of those worlds admitted that they'd taken money in any way, and Twylec wasn't on the list of exposed worlds. The Ra'Ak influence, I'm sure. It looked to be a good-sized battle shaping up over the whole thing. My honey Erland had come through for me, though, with flying colors. I think I told him I loved him at least half a dozen times.