“I’m an outsider,” Urs sang, “looking in.” She signaled the band to repeat the bridge. This time, she would not serenade the whole stand-in crowd of wait staff arriving for work and basement dwellers waking for play. She would not sing for herself, her bandmates and their art. Instead, across the mostly empty club, through melody and harmony and steady beat, she sought the eyes of the one listener who mattered: the Raven’s owner, Lucien Lacroix. Tall and blunt-featured, he leaned against the bar with his arms crossed over his black-on-black-on-black suit, his white-blond hair cut militarily short, his expression unreadable.
Urs wrapped her voice around him. “You can’t run from what you are; you can’t hide all the pain.” She plied the vocalist’s role with a century of experience, offering each word as intimately as if it had just come to her. She could do this, she reminded herself; she would not let anyone down. Here, inside the music and in front of an audience, she had always been appreciated and approved. Here, she had never been alone. “I’m the outsider...”
When the final chord capped the song, Urs dropped her gaze and stepped back from the microphone. She could hear mortal hearts beating in the sudden silence, but nothing else. No applause, no derision. No decision. When Urs looked up, she found everyone else’s eyes on Lacroix. Lacroix’s eyes were on her.
“Gentlemen — and lady.” Lacroix raised his red-filled glass. “That will do. Tuesdays and Thursdays for now. Begin tonight, if you have no prior obligations.”
Urs gasped in relief.
Someone began clapping; others joined in. “All right!” Morris thrust his left fist in the air; his right hand balanced his guitar on its strap. Theo ran a cheery flourish up his keyboard. From behind his drums, Hiroshi said, “You can count on us, Lacroix.”
“I trust that I can,” the ancient, vampiric, club owner sipped his drink. “Now, I believe that we all have preparations to complete before the doors open.” Lacroix strode toward his broadcasting booth in the back. The bartenders, servers and bouncers clocked in, and the Raven’s remaining residents wandered out into the winter night on their own pursuits.
“Our first gig! On our first try!” Theo jumped up from his bench and hugged Urs and then Morris; Hiroshi fended off his hug, wielding his drumsticks like weapons. The skinny, bespectacled pianist blew him a kiss instead. “I’ve got to call people! I’ve got to—”
“You’ve got to take a deep breath,” Hiroshi raised his eyebrows, “and then we’ve got to plump up our set list. I wasn’t expecting this kind of turnaround! When Lacroix finally stopped the cage dancing and strip teases, I figured that the Raven would go back to being a discothèque, the way Janette ran it — all recorded music — especially considering the old dragon’s interest in that radio station.”
“You said that he put out the call for live entertainment himself. We're alive!” Morris’s grin gleamed against his bushy black beard and brown skin. Urs and Hiroshi, the band’s two vampires, exchanged a look. Morris said, “It’s our good luck that the exotic stuff didn’t give the business whatever he was looking for.” Morris lifted his guitar strap over his shoulder and set his instrument in its case. “Oh — no offense, Urs.”
“None taken.” Urs had been employed at the Raven as a dancer for several months, since shortly after the club’s previous owner had moved on. At first, Urs had appreciated a familiar way to earn her keep as she settled into Toronto’s unusual vampire community, but, recently, it had become an anchor in waters from which she was trying to surface. She danced for others. She sang for ... herself as well as others. It was a start. “Believe me, I like this better, too.”
Hiroshi tapped the hi-hat cymbal. “So! Great job on the audition, everyone. Now for the real thing! Theo, give that other ballad a run-through. Morris, yeah, we’ll need the amp after all.” He hesitated. “Urs, not that you don’t look spectacular, but—”
Urs glanced down at her pink t-shirt and loose jeans. “I should change, shouldn’t I?”
“Singer’s burden,” Hiroshi said. He and Morris were wearing t-shirts and old jeans themselves; Theo had pulled on a screenprinted sweatshirt because he was cold. “Woman singer’s burden,” Hiroshi amended. “All eyes are on you. Can your wardrobe say alternative-folk-synth-metal-jazz?”
“And overnight success?” Morris asked.
Theo laughed. “Also sexy-innocent, smart-stupid, tough-vulnerable...”
Urs rolled her eyes. She ran downstairs to the small room she shared with two other women vampires and dug into her third of the closet. Neither as showy as what she had worn when dancing, nor as classy as she had heard Janette had favored, the outfit Urs settled on combined a black leather skirt and boots with a white lace blouse, topped by a red velvet ribbon around her neck. With the mirror to herself for once, she quickly resettled her short blonde curls and touched up her cosmetics; blue shadow to match her blue eyes was a decade out of style, she remembered with disappointment, settling for silver instead.
In less time than it would take Morris to set up the amp, Urs was upstairs again. On her way to the stage, the phone on the wall near Lacroix’s booth caught her eye. Like Theo, she had people she wanted to tell, and Screed had wired the vacant church building into Bell Canada on a so-far overlooked line, but she hesitated. Lacroix, standing in the doorway of his booth with his arms crossed, nodded for her to go ahead. She dialed.
After ten rings, Javier answered. “Yeah?”
“It’s me. We got the job!”
“That’s great. Congratulations.” Javier paused. “I’m really glad that you have a new crew to run with.”
Urs felt her brow crease. “You’re welcome to join us, you know.” He had planned to leave her behind in Toronto to fend for herself again. As her father had left her family; as every man so far had betrayed her, eventually, when she had looked in them for him, as Jacqueline had seen. Only Nick — Detective Knight — intervening had made Javier stay, and Nick had given her more moral support than Javier since Jacqueline. Javier had made Urs a vampire, but ... he could not be suggesting that she was the one pushing him away now, could he? “I wouldn’t even have thought of another guitarist if—”
“I know,” he interrupted gently. “Break a leg.”
— ♫ —
“Hush him, Nicholas,” Lacroix growled. “With your sword’s pommel, if necessary.”
Obediently, the former crusader dropped back to attend the moaning steward suspended in an awkward sling between two of the servants’ horses. The man's broken leg had been splinted, but he had proven immune to vampiric ensorcellment and incapable of bearing the pain silently without ... encouragement. Ah, there. With all human voices stilled, only the shifting horses, clinking tack and skulking forest fauna interrupted the sputtering winter wind.
Expecting more snow, Lacroix adjusted his black wolf-fur cloak and returned his gaze to the moonlit ridge on which Castle Ventadorn towered over them. High above the confluence of the Ardeche and Fontaulière, it appeared to be of typical Savoy construction, with the keep attached to the surrounding wall, and a drawbridge entrance to the exterior fortification. They would not normally gain access after sunset — night being the dominion of monsters even more than bandits, as everyone knew; a recurring inconvenience on Lacroix’s travels — but they had sent messengers ahead to beg indulgence for the members of their party injured in the snowslide days before. More, the Count de Ventadorn had fought in the ill-fated Damietta campaign alongside Lacroix’s protégé.
Nicholas reined in his horse at Lacroix’s side. “I know that you don’t approve, but I hazard that it is more for the sake of a comrade in arms than for Christian charity that Ebles opens his door and burns welcoming torches this frigid night.”
“Need I remind you of what happened at Castle Brabant ten years ago?” Lacroix snorted. He had willed his passion for Nicholas’s sister from his mind, never dwelling on the loss to himself and their kind that she remained mortal, but only on the bargain by which Nicholas had so blithely exchanged his future for her present. Lacroix had placed a premium on that future. It was enough. It had to be. “My stance on entangling yourself with the fetid trailings of your mortal existence stands. Still: never scorn an advantage.” He raised a gloved hand and signaled the party to press forward again, up the narrow mountain path. “How is Monseiur Savaric?”
“He will live,” Nicholas said. “Must he live?”
Lacroix chuckled. “He who controls this inheritance controls the woman who controls the Doge. I cannot do without him ... yet.”
“If Janette had come, she could have impersonated the Lady Garsenda directly.”
“If you can dislodge Janette from Venice and its parties in deepest winter, Nicholas, to journey overland in service of a political intrigue that may not yield fruit for a decade hence, your powers exceed my wildest imaginings.”
The party surmounted the ridge. Once the guards confirmed their identities, servants led the horses away in one direction and carried the injured in another. Ushered into the great hall, Lacroix was surprised by luxurious candle trees and oil lamps, and rich music — instruments and voices both — that tapered away as attention turned to the strangers. This was not the rural stronghold, isolated in the mountain fastness, that he had expected.
“Sir Nicholas!” A bald man in a bearskin robe broke from a clot of courtiers and waved them over.
“Sir Ebles!” Nicholas grinned. Then he remembered, and bowed. “Monsieur le comte.”
The Count de Ventadorn inclined his head, but, when Nicholas rose, embraced him heartily. “I am blessed to see you again, Sir Nicholas! Your misfortune with that snowslide is the great fortune of our court, to entertain such visitors and brighten this bleak cusp of winter.” Under his breath, Ebles added, “There’s not a day of age on you, man! You must tell me how you do it.”
A graceful noblewoman entered from a side room, accompanied by a handful of attendants. Black and silver curls snuck out the hem of her white barbette and coiff. Ebles introduced her: “My wife, Ventadorn’s Countess, Maria de Turenne.”
“Madame le comtesse,” Nicholas greeted her.
“Welcome, Sir Nicholas. You have always figured largely in my husband’s tales of his Levantine exploits.” Her smile crinkled the corners of her eyes. “I am told that your injured companions are well settled for the night. Those versed in healing will see them in the morning.”
“My thanks, your ladyship.”
“I have heard that name,” Lacroix said, pleased to be able to flatter with fact as he made his obeisance. This unplanned sojourn was beginning to show promise. “Lady Maria, the most wise and generous patron of the new poetry in the Limousin, and the lovely inspiration of many a lovely verse.”
She laughed. “And to which of the troubadours should I convey this compliment, I wonder? It surely belongs to them, not me.”
“A muse should not be without honor from her artist’s audience, as well as from her artist.”
“Prettily said!” Another matron entered from the side room. Dressed on a par with the Countess, she stood more than a hand taller, and honey-blonde hair filled the crespine net at the back of her neck. When she boldly turned her eyes up to Lacroix’s, he froze — colder than winter, stiller than death.
It could not be.
“Lucien, please, take me. I cannot live without you.”
She said, “I was checking the injured, so I missed the beginning of this, but dear Lady Maria is more like Athena than a mere muse, you will surely agree when you know her better. She crafts verses herself — well enough to goad even Lord Gui d’Ussel!”
“We have a surprise for you, Sir Nicholas.” Ebles beamed. “And for you, Lady F—”
“Nicholas?!” The late-arriving woman cried. In two steps, she was in Nicholas’s arms. “Oh, my dearest brother! I never thought I would see you again.”
Lacroix curled his fingers into fists to keep himself from reaching for what should have been his all along. Emotions woke that he had slain and buried. Ten years, it had been, and though her mortal body had changed, nothing in him cared. The tang of her thorn-pricked finger in the garden of Castle Brabant stirred on his tongue and in his veins.
“I’ve never felt such closeness as this bond I seem to have with you.”
“As if we’ve been together forever.”
“Fleur de Brabant, the Comtesse de Corréze,” Ebles finished.
Ten years, it had been. Lacroix’s agreement with Nicholas was his tithe to Hell.