Mero lifted his chin. “The answer to your question, Goliath, is right there. If she can do such to him, she might be able to do it to all of us. Therefore, she is a threat to VEIN in general, both on the local Cleveland level, and on a higher political level.”

Frowning, Goliath asked, “If that is true, what sense does it make to convey her to the Excelsior? Would that not be inviting her to attempt snarking him?”

“In a controlled environment that could not happen.”

Goliath smiled slightly at that. If Mero thought he could control the environment, he was underestimating the Lustrata.

“If she will accept the Excelsior’s marks upon her, then his power would trump any she would have over Menessos. It would ensure that she does not use her authority over him against the vampires.”

As second-in-command—Alter Imperator—to the Northeastern Quarterlord, Goliath had been told many of the secrets Menessos knew. Some concerned Mero. He knew that Menessos had turned both Mero and, years later, the son Mero fathered in life. That son was now the Excelsior.

Goliath had to wonder if this course of action was meant to ensure no embarrassment befell the Excelsior’s reign, or if Mero could be seeking to strengthen his son’s position, giving him sway over Persephone because she was the Lustrata.

There were many prophesies concerning the Lustrata. The one that the vampires were most concerned with claimed she was incredibly valuable to them. Because of this, they could not dare to kill her. But they could do much without killing her. The question was: What would interfere with her destiny, and what wouldn’t?

Menessos would know the most about it, so Goliath resolved to follow his Maker’s lead. “Dabbling in the destiny that Menessos, the witch, and the Domn Lup share is a hazardous pastime, Mero. I strongly suggest you stay the hell out of their way.”

Mero opened his mouth to reply but the door opened and Menessos returned. He reclaimed his seat. He was calmer.

“What you suggest,” Menessos said, “cannot be, Mero.”

“It must be.” Mero quoted the prophesy:

“Lustrata walks,

unspoiled into the light.

Sickle in hand,

she stalks through the night

wearing naught but her mark and silver blade.

The moonchild of ruin, she becomes Wolfsbane.

“According to my interpretation,” Mero concluded, “she must be marked.”

Menessos breathed deep. Releasing it, he said, “Your interpretation is bullshit.”

Mero’s brows rose in surprise.

Goliath struggled to keep a laugh from getting out.

“The Witch Elders Council will not stand for their Lustrata to be marked by the Excelsior,” Menessos said. “Would you risk a war?”

Mero shook his head. “The witches are divided on whether or not they believe she is the Lustrata. Surely the intelligence you have gathered has not failed to inform you of this?”

Menessos waved him off. “Regardless, she is not without power and influence. The goddess favors her. That they cannot deny.”

“VEIN will not stand for you to be twice marked by a witch.”

“What does it matter? I have been stripped of all rank.”

“You are not without power and influence, either. The fact that one of those marks came at the direct interference of her goddess makes it worse.”

“She is also my goddess.”

Goliath had sat silently while they spoke, but when Menessos’s fingers began tapping lightly, he recognized it as a sign of his irritation. He hoped Mero recognized it as well.

“Are you saying that Deric is willing to risk Her wrath?”

It surprised Goliath that Menessos used the Excelsior’s given name and followed it with emphasis on “Her”—meaning the goddess.

Mero said nothing.

“He does not know Her, does he, Mero?” There was accusation in Menessos’s tone.

Mero’s cheeks reddened. “He knows the tormentor.”

“Hecate is not our bane!” Menessos retorted.

“We are not all as fortunate as you. You lived on and escaped the suffering for eons,” he replied. “We have not all had the opportunity to ally ourselves with deities that might show us favor.”

Menessos stood. “In that you lie! You chose a path bearing the magic of Her ways, yet you have let Deric proceed into the highest rank our kind offers without spiritual guidance. Do not blame me for this and do not say you haven’t had the opportunity to know and ally with Her.”

He walked out.

•  •  •

The sisters had taken seats in the area outside the Haven Master’s suite, but when Menessos exited, Ailo touched Talto’s hand and thought to her sister, Give me a few minutes before you leave here. I will meet you in the media room later. She stood up. She rolled her shoulders and resettled her gown. Twitching her fingers, she made the magic that created the dove-gray silk remove all wrinkles.

Ailo walked speedily in the direction Menessos had gone. He was also moving fast. She wanted to speak to him privately, where no others would see, and he was on the stairs—catching him between floors was perfect for what she wanted to do.

She stopped suddenly. With all her will and magic focused, she centered her meditative self into her core and touched the bond she now had to him, feeling of those the threads with ethereal spirit hands. One thread was for Talto. It felt like silk and resonated anger into her palm. One was for the witch, Persephone. It felt like velvet and crackled like static electricity in her hand. The final thread was for Menessos. It felt metallic, like barbed wire.

She stabbed her spirit-hand onto the sharp twist of metal and real physical pain gripped her body. But she felt Menessos stop. Squeezing that wire, she imagined her bleeding hand holding his and thought, Please wait. I am following you.

Releasing the barbed wire, she pulled herself out of the semi-meditation and hurried on.

When she arrived at the stairway, Menessos stood at the bottom, waiting.

The hardness of his features expressed only displeasure.

Ailo descended the steps without rushing.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Mero bound my sister and me to him loosely. But you”—she tapped the chains at her throat—“you are more thorough.”

“Indeed. I know you.” He turned on his heel. “I trust you less.”

“I helped you long ago.”

Menessos stopped.

“Even so,” she continued, “I bore an equal share in the Fate you designed for us.”

“You were all dangerous, Ailo. You remain so now.”

“You bound us away then. Will you do so again, at your first chance?”

Slowly he spun toward her. “Yes.” He studied her. “I want no part of monitoring you and your sister forever, Ailo. It would doom anyone.”

“I may share my sister’s treacherous past, but I have always been the more mindful of us three.” She paused, then deposited the seed she had come to plant in his mind: “I know when I am beaten.”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously, then he said, “Good.”

“They may deserve the stone again, but I do not. I aided you before and it was your deceit that put me into the statue. I will aid you again—wait and see, I will. And this time, I hope, you will reconsider my fate.”

When he walked away she let him, smiling as she watched him go.

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