The sun would rise today on a new era, Marcel Chavinier, general of the Milice de Sorcellerie and commander-in-chief of the war effort against Pascal Serrier and his rebel wizards, thought with grim satisfaction as he surveyed the scene in the waiting room off the main tracks of the Gare de Lyon. He and his wizards no longer faced the two-year-old threat alone. Around the room, each of his twenty operatives still present was joined now by a vampire attuned to his or her magic, fruit of the alliance he had worked to forge with Jean Bellaiche, chef de la Cour of Parisian vampires, these past six days. They had just faced the first test of the new bonds, their maiden battle against Serrier’s forces as a single force, vampires and wizards working side by side: twenty pairs of Milice operatives against twenty of Serrier’s rebels. They had captured fifteen and killed the other five with no losses of their own. He counted that as quite a success, especially given how quickly they had defeated their foes.
The functional details of the alliance still had to be smoothed out, but as his eyes settled on Alain Magnier, one of his two top captains, and his partner, Orlando St. Clair, he knew that the partnerships could work. He had been a little stunned at how quickly and deeply the two men had bonded, Alain offering Orlando the deepest commitment a mortal could offer a vampire within days of their first meeting. Alain seemed happy, though, a fact that comforted the old patriarch still residing beneath the façade of military man Marcel was obliged to project. So many of those he was now ordering to fight, possibly to die, were the children he had never had. Marcel’s pet project, Raymond Payet, a defector from Serrier’s ranks, had formed his partnership at almost the same time, with the chef de la Cour himself, but Marcel had his doubts about how well that union would work. Raymond was distrustful in the best of circumstances, and being all but forced to share his blood with a vampire on a regular basis did not qualify as anywhere near the best circumstances. He had promised Raymond and the others that they only needed to give enough blood to protect their partners from sunlight while they were on patrol, a promise he would do his damnedest to fulfill. He could not help marveling at that twist in this saga. Who would have thought that the right wizard’s blood could allow a vampire to feel the sun and survive? He certainly would not have believed it if anyone other than Alain and his other captain, Thierry Dumont, had told him.
He glanced to Thierry where he stood with his partner, Sebastien Noyer, the apparent black sheep of the Parisian Cour, if Bellaiche’s shocked, almost angry reaction to his arrival was any indication. He thought that match rather fitting given Thierry’s own habit of bending the rules when it suited him. He only hoped Bellaiche – Jean – would be able to set aside whatever animosity lay between the two vampires. For the sake of the alliance, if nothing else.
Seventeen other sets of newly-discovered partners stood scattered around the room, wizards and vampires flanking the dark wizards they had just defeated, one on each side, ensuring that they did not escape. Marcel surveyed the prisoners, noting the restless movement as the less experienced ones sought solace in the expressions of the older ones. He recognized some of them. Others he had never seen before. It worried him a little that Serrier was recruiting wizards from somewhere, but they could do nothing about that at the moment, certainly not without more information. He wondered if they would be able to learn anything pertinent from the prisoners.
A wave of his hand wrapped the fifteen prisoners in spells that left them blind and dumb to all around them. “Now we can talk without worrying about them overhearing,” the general declared. “I don’t know how long it will be before Serrier comes looking for them, but we certainly don’t want to be here when he does. We need to get them back to base where we can interrogate them properly.”
As he spoke, a distinct shudder ran through the room and the vampires began backing toward the far wall. “What…?” Thierry began, unsure why his partner and the others suddenly pulled away. Realization dawned. The sun was rising and none of the vampires, except perhaps Orlando, had fed deeply enough to survive the light of day. He looked around the waiting room. In its current state, there was no private place for the pairs to go to feed, and Thierry suspected, from Bellaiche’s earlier comments, that none of the vampires would want to feed in the open room.
Orlando felt the unease that daylight always brought, but he rejected the impulse to cower against the far wall. The large windows faced north, so the sunlight would not come in for hours, if ever, but even if it did, Orlando knew he had nothing to fear from it. He could still feel Alain’s magic singing through his body, surrounding and protecting him. He turned to the other vampires. “Watch,” he said, starting for the door, his confidence in Alain’s magic complete.
Alain fought the urge to pull Orlando away from the door. It had been hours since he had fed and they had no idea how long the protection would last. He knew better than to stop Orlando, though. His lover had an independent streak a mile wide and Alain recognized he had to trust that Orlando knew what he was doing. If he felt protected still, Alain would have to accept that it was so, no matter how much he feared otherwise. He watched with apprehension knotting his stomach as Orlando walked out the door and onto the platform, right into a patch of sunlight. He stood there grinning broadly for several minutes, the early winter sun warm on his face there out of the breeze. He tipped his head back, rejoicing in being out in daylight. He had spent the day before outside as well, but the experience was still new enough to savor. Finally, though, he went back inside. The point was to show the others that there was nothing to fear once they had fed.
Alain met him at the door, eyes flying over Orlando’s face and hands, searching for signs of the ashy grey color that had indicated his overexposure the last time. He wanted to pull Orlando against him and order his lover to cease such recklessness, but that was not the image that either group needed of how the alliance would function. Nor was it the dynamic he wanted between Orlando and himself. Orlando had been abused, controlled, dominated for far too long in the past. Alain would not do that to him, however much he wanted to protect his vampire.
The vampires, even Jean who had stood in the sun the day before, examined Orlando just as closely as Alain did, though for a different reason. “Will this really work for all of us?” Jude asked. “It’s not just because of the Aveu de Sang?”
“It worked for me,” Jean replied, “and I have no Avoué.” As he spoke, his gaze clashed with Sebastien’s. Sebastien looked back impassively, refusing to acknowledge Jean’s silent accusation, but likewise refusing to look away.
Thierry was aware of the interaction between the two vampires, but had no idea what caused the tension between them. He would ask Sebastien about it later. They could not afford conflict within the alliance. They needed to be able to rely on each other, within pairings and between pairings.
Once he had assured himself that Orlando was unharmed by his time in the sun, Alain turned back to look at the waiting room. With memories of his own experience fresh on his mind, he saw immediately the problem the open room would pose.
Crossing to Marcel, he murmured, “We can’t do this here. It’s too personal, and the room is too open.”
“And yet they can’t leave,” Marcel replied just as softly. A simple wave of his wand could have sent the vampires anywhere they wanted to go, but that would not set the tone of cooperation between partners he wanted to establish, nor demonstrate the advantages of the alliance to the vampires. He looked around the room. Chairs could be transformed to create a physical barrier and magic could silence any sounds, creating at least a modicum of privacy.
“I’ll take care of it,” Marcel said. “You and Thierry figure out who we can get some information from, and quickly. I don’t know how long the feeding will take, but Serrier isn’t going to give us all day.”
Alain nodded and crossed back to where Thierry still stood. “Marcel wants us to start the interrogation while the vampires feed. It won’t do any good to start with Pacotte. He’s undoubtedly the leader, but he won’t tell us anything.”
Sebastien coughed uncomfortably when he heard Alain speak so casually of feeding. He looked around the large room. It did not offer even the illusion of privacy. Even as he opened his mouth to protest, some of the chairs began to change, metamorphosing into walls the height of a man.
Thierry looked up and followed Sebastien’s gaze. “Privacy,” he said with a smile. “It’s not what we might have hoped for, but we aren’t completely uncouth.”
Sebastien chuckled. “Not everyone is aware of our sensibilities, and given the way we met….”
“We’re learning,” Alain assured him. “As quickly as we can. Don’t hesitate, though, to tell us if there’s something we still need to know. As Thierry said, it’s hardly perfect, but with Marcel’s magic added to the screens, it will be as private as a completely different room. It won’t stop everyone from knowing what’s happening, but it will mean that no one sees or hears what transpires.” He risked a glance at Orlando and saw the hunger in his eyes, a hunger he felt reflected in the pit of his own stomach. Orlando did not need to feed, but the memory was bright in his eyes and heart. Alain knew it would be a long and busy day, but he hoped he could steal a few minutes alone with Orlando, even if just for a kiss and a cuddle.
Jean, too, saw what Marcel had done and appreciated the gesture, one more example of Marcel’s respect for the ways of the vampires and one more reason to respect him. Three cubicles stood in separate parts of the room, providing the vampires with a place to feed away from prying eyes. Now it fell to him to make sure they were used. After Orlando’s demonstration, Jean knew he would not need to feed, so he could not rely on Orlando to provide the example. He would have to be the one to go first. He grimaced at the thought of tasting Raymond’s fear again, but he really had no other choice. The sun had risen and he could not stay in this room all day. Serrier had found out about the meeting somehow and would be expecting his people to return. When they did not, he would undoubtedly come looking. Leaving was the only safe option, and that meant Raymond. He walked over to where Raymond stood guard still on the dark wizards. “Come,” he ordered, heading toward one of the cubicles.
Raymond glared at Jean’s retreating back, but he followed grudgingly. It was not as if he had a choice. Any resistance would be turned into treason, the one threat the vampire could use against him to make Raymond do just about anything.
“Shall we do this?” Sebastien asked, glancing at Thierry.
“Yeah,” Thierry replied. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Alain, and we’ll figure out who to question then.” Alain agreed and watched the pair walk toward the second cubicle.
“I’m nervous,” Thierry admitted as they reached the entrance. “I don’t really know what to expect.”
“I’ll go easy on you,” Sebastien quipped. Then his face grew serious. “I trusted you to protect me out on that platform. Trust me to take care of you now.”
“I can do that,” Thierry replied and knew that he was telling the truth. He and Sebastien had worked together beautifully, anticipating each other’s moves. He would trust Sebastien to help him through this new experience as well.
They stepped behind the screen and as the rest of the world fell away in the silence of Marcel’s magical vacuum, Thierry understood the vampires’ preference for privacy. Raising his wrist, offering his arm to Sebastien was as fraught with tension and emotion as his first kiss with Aleth, his estranged and now-deceased wife. His mind shied away from the comparison. He had made his peace with the exigencies of the alliance as he dealt with her death two days before, and he could not have been more pleased with his partner. The way he and Sebastien had worked together rivaled the way he worked with Alain. It was not the partnership he feared. It was not the pain of being bitten. He had already been bitten enough times that night as he searched for a partner among the gathered vampires to get beyond that issue. It was the intimacy he could not wrap his mind around. He had seen the almost instantaneous connection between Alain and Orlando, and it scared him. He had lost his wife two days ago, damn it! He could not just forget her and jump into a new relationship with the first person to come along. No matter how tattered their marriage had been, its ending, particularly as it had, was still a cause of grief, and Thierry would not dishonor Aleth’s memory by moving on so quickly.
Sebastien took the hand Thierry offered and turned it over, examining the wrist. “It’s going to hurt if I bite you here,” Sebastien said, gesturing to the puncture-riddled skin.
“It’s only pain,” Thierry replied, his hand steady in Sebastien’s. Sebastien thought again how well matched they were in temperament. He would have found it very difficult to work with someone who complained at the slightest problem.
“Maybe so,” Sebastien agreed, “but there’s no reason to make it worse. May I?” He gestured to Thierry’s sleeve.
Rather than replying, Thierry pulled up the sleeve of his sweater himself. He did not think he could handle having Sebastien do it. He closed his eyes when he felt Sebastien’s gentle lips and tongue on his arm. The vampire was not doing anything to intensify the sensation, to make the act overtly erotic, but nothing could change the fact that Sebastien’s lips and fangs were moving over his skin in a way none but a lover’s ever had.
Sebastien could feel the tension gripping the wizard and knew instinctively that waiting to bite him would not help, so he let his fangs move onto and into Thierry’s skin, feeling the hot blood fill his mouth. He had gotten a taste of Thierry before, but this was his first chance to really enjoy the flavor that revealed so much about the man.
Once again, Thierry’s strength and determination flooded Sebastien’s senses, showing the vampire Thierry’s depth of commitment. Beyond that, there was grief, so strong that it overwhelmed everything else. Sebastien fed deeply, letting the blood strengthen his body and the magic surround him, layer upon layer until the feeling of insulation was complete. And with every swallow, Sebastien’s own determination grew. Jean might not want him here. Jean might prefer that he roast in the fires of hell, but Sebastien would fight at Thierry’s side as long as there were enemies to fight. For a brief moment, he knew a perfect communion with another soul, a feeling he had thought lost to him when his Avoué died four hundred years ago.
Finally, he raised his head and offered his own hand for Thierry to take. When Thierry gripped it firmly, Sebastien shook to seal their unspoken bargain. “Thank you, my friend,” Sebastien said.
Friend. Thierry could live with that. “Anytime,” he replied, starting to leave so the next pair could use the cubicle.
“Wait,” Sebastien said. “Who did you lose that your grief is so strong?”
“My wife was killed in battle two days ago,” Thierry replied dully.
Sebastien flinched. No wonder the emotion was so powerful. “I’m so sorry. I know how hard it is to lose someone you love.”
Thierry simply nodded, hearing some echo of his own grief in Sebastien’s voice but not yet ready to talk about it, and left the cubicle. Sebastien followed behind, resolving to respect Thierry’s loss. He would offer Thierry his friendship if the wizard would accept it, but nothing more. It would not be fair to offer something he knew the other man could not accept.
Alain watched the cubicles as the first pairs came back out. Raymond and Jean were the first, and Raymond looked pale and wan. He left Jean’s side immediately, finding a chair in the corner and collapsing into it. Alain frowned. That was not at all the reaction he had to Orlando’s feeding. He wondered why Raymond had reacted that way and wondered if that, too, was an effect of their Aveu de Sang, the bond that tied them together for the rest of his life. When Thierry came out a moment later, his face set but strong, Alain decided Raymond was the problem, not the process. Adèle’s face glowed when she reappeared, much the way Alain imagined his had done by the time Orlando had finished with him the morning before. He relaxed. As long as Raymond was the only one showing ill effects from the vampires’ bites, Alain would not worry about it. Thierry led Sebastien back to where Alain and Orlando still stood, surveying the captives.
Alain gestured to the young man he and Orlando had captured. “That one, I think,” he told Thierry. “He’s young, and clearly didn’t know what he was doing. If any of them will break, it’s him. It’s sad, really, to see one so young so full of hate. If we knew what had drawn him to join Serrier in the first place, perhaps we could persuade him back.”
“It would depend on how firmly he believes in what he’s doing,” Thierry replied. “If he has doubts, we can prey on them, perhaps, and use them to our advantage.”
“And if he doesn’t, we’ve exposed our hand too soon,” Alain countered. “I wish there were a way to be sure.”
Jean arrived in time to hear the end of their conversation. “But there is a way to tell, or have you forgotten who your allies are?”