“You are suggesting a surprise attack?”
“Not really.” Leila twitched the end of her braid. “More like…in a sword fight. You need one surprise move that will give you the opening to finish your opponent.”
I grinned widely. “Now that is a metaphor I understand!”
She laughed, then straightened when headlights trundled down the driveway. “I think that’s finally my truck.”
“Thanks for your advice, Leila,” I said. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
Leila offered me another smile—this one more relaxed. “You’re welcome. I’m just an observer—I don’t know anything about Court life, and I’m not a strategist. But I’ve witnessed fae cruelty enough to know how they think. Good luck—with whatever happens.”
I waved as Leila climbed into her truck and pulled away, watching until her tail lights disappeared into the trees that screened the snaking driveway.
She’d voiced some of the concerns I already had.
If it did come down to a war—or even just a certamen—I didn’t want a bloody conflict where vampires, wizards, and fae were sacrificed. I was hoping we’d be able to come up with a strategy that hit Queen Nyte and Consort Ira and either captured them or, if it came down to it, eradicated them.
I’d been trying not to think too deeply about it—we didn’t even know for sure if the Night Court would challenge us to a certamen or declare war. But Leila’s warning served as another reminder that we were dealing with a different type of supernatural. Facing them would require a different kind of strategy from facing off with vampires.
I frowned thoughtfully as I turned and started up the stairs that led back into the mansion.
But how could we get that surprise factor…attack during the day, maybe?
“You are looking rather thoughtful, which frankly is a bit frightening.”
I laughed as I looked up from the stairs. “We meet again, Elite Bellus! I hope you and Adept Bellus are enjoying yourselves?”
“Given that I left my wife cackling with Pre-Dominant Harka as they trashed some of the werewolves in a game of Pictionary, I’d say we are.” He laughed as I joined him on the top stair, and together we slipped back into Drake Hall.
“I’m surprised by the number of attendees,” I admitted. “We gave them pretty short notice, and Celestina said almost everyone accepted the invite.”
I didn’t know if it was because they were curious since Drake Hall had never held a party for supernaturals besides vampires, or because they didn’t want to miss the possible politics, but that so many supernaturals had come was a pretty big deal.
“In general, it seems the party is a tremendous success,” Elite Bellus said. “I’d say Killian has solidified his position as the wronged-party-who-is-unfailingly-innocent.” He glanced down at me. “He wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without you, you know.”
“If you’re implying I am Killian’s accessory used to soften up his image I’m afraid I’ll have to challenge you to a killer round of Pictionary,” I warned him.
We strolled across the foyer, and Elite Bellus waved to a few wizards who offered him slight bows. “You have softened him up, but not in the way you’re thinking,” he said.
I furrowed my brow. “What do you mean by that?”
“He’s slower to bring his brutal brand of justice down,” Elite Bellus said. “A year ago, he’d react to any threat that showed even a hint of surfacing. If it were pre-Hazel Killian, this party wouldn’t have happened, and he would have brutally attacked the Night Court and likely killed Queen Nyte and Consort Ira. There would have been a scuffle between vampires and fae, but he would have used the situation to his advantage politically.”
We stopped next to a fountain Celestina had brought in for the occasion—she said something about needing it to “provide peaceful ambience”. (It seemed like she was pretty concerned about everyone’s stress levels at the party, because the string quartet had a very specific list of calming music they could play, and there were lavender candles burning everywhere in the mansion.)
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s still pretty cut-throat. He’s only biding his time, you know.”
“Most everyone figured as much,” Elite Bellus grunted. “But it’s not that he won’t fight. It’s…well…it’s the new law he passed about the Unclaimed. Everyone thought he’d tighten his control over all the Unclaimed vampires after that one almost killed you at the start of summer. But instead he gave them a provision so they can band together and actually survive.” He snapped his fingers. “It’s mercy. You’ve brought at least a little mercy into his previously do-or-die thinking.”
“Maybe that’s true.” I appeared to smooth the skirt of my dress, but really I was feeling for the reassuring line of my thigh holster. “He used to complain whenever I asked him to refrain from killing someone,” I said. “But don’t get me wrong. If someone comes after House Medeis or the Drake Family, I’ll be right behind Killian when we get them.”
“Yes, I’ve witnessed that firsthand.” Elite Bellus smoothed his goatee. “Which brings up the real matter I wanted to discuss with you. Your future.”
For a moment, I felt like a high school student who had been called to the guidance counselor’s office. “I’m sorry…what?”
“I propose that in the next year, you should join my office.”
“Elite Bellus…” I struggled for a moment, trying to figure out how to phrase the next part. “You do remember that I’m Adept of House Medeis, right? I’ve got enough things I have to sort through, I really can’t take on a job, too.”
“I wasn’t suggesting you work as a staff member!” Elite Bellus laughed, a jolly noise that reminded me a little of the way my dad used to laugh. “I’m asking you to be my protégée.”
“Your protégée?” I parroted.
“Exactly.” He smiled slyly. “I’m a long way off from retiring, but it’s considered standard for the Elite to start training his or her protégée a decade before handing over the position. Given that you are rather young, no one will mind if your training lasts a few years extra, and I think you’ll be useful and fun to have around.”
My heart slammed in my chest. “Wait, are you seriously saying you want me to be the next Elite?”
“I am. The wizards will have to vote on it when I finally do retire, of course. But that’s the merest formality. There’s never been a protégée who wasn’t approved in the Midwest. And I have a feeling your approval rating will be even heartier than normal,” Elite Bellus said.
I didn’t know what to think—or say! I had never imagined becoming the Elite. The job had always been way beyond my reach when my magic was sealed, and it was a much bigger deal than I had ever planned on being!
“Why would you think everyone would approve? If anything, I’d assume no one would want me as the Elite,” I finally managed to say.
“Nonsense,” he laughed again. “The staff overseeing the Wizard Council will probably cry with relief since it means you won’t be able to meddle in local politics once you make Elite. But everyone else will be even happier since you’ve got the Eminence trained, which means wizards might stand a better chance at getting their voices heard.”
“So you want me to be your protégée because of my connections,” I said. “Not because of my skills or who I am.”
“I said that’s why other wizards would approve your appointment.” Elite Bellus tapped his nose. “I didn’t say it was why I wanted you as my protégée.”
“Then why do you want me as your protégée?”
“Because we need change, and you’ve done it.” He slid his hands into the pockets of his suitcoat and nodded. “In roughly half a year you’ve managed to form a deep friendship with the most lethal vampire Family in the region. You’ve turned your House around and have entirely changed the core basis of what your people believe in—without any backlash. If we want to save magic, we need to start working faster. You’re a unique mixture of open-mindedness, action, and perseverance to do what needs to be done.”
He hesitated, then added, “Though it would be a lie if I didn’t admit I’m hoping you’ll be able to muzzle Killian in the meetings. And don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve got the Paragon buddying up with you, too.”
I nodded slowly as his words sank in.
I still didn’t really know how to react. A part of me knew he was right. With everything I’d gone through since spring, something should have imploded on me. But neither the House nor my family had objected to the huge structural and philosophical changes we’d gone through. And no one had threatened me after Killian and I took our alliance public. I didn’t know how much of that was actual skill on my end, or sheer luck.
Besides, I wasn’t an idiot. The position of Elite came with a lot of extra responsibilities. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sign up for that.
I glanced at Elite Bellus, who offered me a smile.
I drew my shoulders back. “I’ll think about it.”
“Excellent!” He took my hand and pumped it in a firm handshake. “That’s all I can ask for. Now…to find my wife.” He turned to survey the crowd meandering through Drake Hall.
“You think she finished her Pictionary game with Pre-Dominant Harka?” I asked.
“Absolutely. It wouldn’t take long for those two to trash those puppies.” He raised his chin as he tried to peer above the crowd. (Or I assumed he was peering above the crowd. The only time I’d ever been high enough to experience that was when Gavino had me slung over his shoulder when we were breaking into a magic-guarded vault system owned by a dragon shifter.)