Theme song for this interlude:
3 a.m., the Haven
Mila blinks, startles, realizes she’s been staring blankly at her laptop long enough that the screen is dimming. Fuck, how late is it? Or, rather, how early? She sighs. Funny how that reflex remains even after then need for breath is gone. Once again, she thinks, I seem to have flung myself headfirst into something that might just be more than I can handle. Oh well, not like that’s anything new. Just . . . this time the stakes seem a fuck of a lot higher. Stakes. Heh. That’s funny. No it isn’t. Jesus Christ, girl, focus. There has to be a pattern here that will lead me to my quarry. If only I knew who he was.
48 hours earlier
Pushing open the Camarilla Room’s impressively anonymous front door, Mila feels the familiar rush of nervousness and anticipation. After her group’s unexpected audience with the Prince, the ghoul servers seem to be treating her with a modicum of caution rather than their usual disdain, still . . . this feels like a test. Everything feels like a test. With terrible consequences for failure.
The impeccably composed ghoul maître d’ nods to her, cocks his brilliantined head towards what she’s come to think of as Adrian’s booth. Pull yourself together, girl. It’s a job interview. It’s always a goddamn job interview, she thinks. She approaches, consciously projecting confidence that stops short of cockiness, deference that avoids any tinge of subservience. I am not your equal, but nor am I your servant. As she reaches the curtained alcove she pauses, waits until he gestures for her to sit.
“Miss Goodlove. How good of you to come.”
Impossible to read him. This is their first real contact since she made her audacious request of the Prince and had it unexpectedly granted. She’d expected Matthias would maybe allow her some sort of provisional status, set some tests to pass to be considered, but no. Big casino. The genie grants your one wish. Yeah, she thinks, we all know how well those stories usually turn out.
“I’m honored to do so, Mr. Pryor. I . . . hope that I was not too . . . forward . . . the other night? I would of course have discussed such a significant issue with you had the Prince’s offer not been such a surprise.”
Steely eyes meet hers. As ever, there seems to be a hint of amusement behind the calculated gaze. She’s always been good at reading people, but she simply cannot tell if it’s a sign of some affection or interest, or just the amusement a cat feels as it toys with its prey.
“I must admit, Miss Goodlove, I had not expected matters to proceed quite so quickly. But the Prince of course has his reasons, and we are but his humble servants.”
“Of course. I hope to be only a credit to you as a mentor and sponsor.”
“You have no other option. Now, I had asked you for a proposal. Do you have something for me?”
“I have the initial concept. I would like to get your feedback and input before proceeding further. I know your time is valuable and while I’m happy to take up as much of it as you have to give I rather imagine efficiency is one of the ways to your, ah, heart."
Was that an overstep? Too overtly flirtatious? Frivolous? Stay calm, meet his gaze, slight smile that says, “a little joke.”
After what feels like an eternity, his lips quirk slightly. "Indeed. You do seem to have a …way with people. But remember, I am not people. "
“Of course.” The moment passes. She still cannot tell if there is some bizarre form of flirtation between them, or just a power dynamic so strong and instinctive that it feels like that eternal dance. File that away. Not the time to think about it now.
“As you know, I’ve been working to create a . . . pool . . . of policymakers in the financial and political realms, and to build a web of information that will be of use to the Invictus in dealings with the mortal realm.”
“Indeed. Your…shall we say…diplomatic missions, have been impressive. You appear to have developed quite the following among several very powerful men…” He stops, that slightly amused quirk again. “And at least one very powerful lady.”
Mila’s carefully maintained composure slips just a fraction. Sofia. That was…unexpected. Female clients are almost unheard of, but perhaps once a CEO is that rich and powerful, she takes her privilege like a man. Sofia’s laptop had yielded a wealth of Intel on global financial strategy. The hours before Mila commanded her to sleep and forget everything were…well, ironically, rather unforgettable. At least for Mila. Damn.
“Thoughts, Ms. Goodlove?”
“Ah, no, a momentary distraction. Apologies.”
She takes a moment to compose herself. Good thing Kindred can’t blush.
“While I am pleased that you feel my efforts have to date been of use to the Invictus, they’ve also been a bit . . . scattershot. My sphere of influence is limited to those mortals with . . . certain appetites. Luckily this seems to be more the norm than the exception in the corridors of power, but still. It’s a strategy that can only go so far.”
He nods almost imperceptibly.
“To build a more strategic, long-term network I think I’ll need a few things. Most importantly at this juncture, I need, if you will, a man on the inside."
Again, the unwavering gaze.
“Do you? Explain.”
“Well, I can only do so much in the hours of darkness and as an outsider. I have faith in my ability to build a social network and sphere of influence over the long term. After all the Masquerade is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, perhaps the ultimate long con."
Was that a smile? Almost?
“But to that end,” she went on, in full business presentation mode, "I think that a judiciously chosen ghoul could be immeasurably helpful. Someone who can operate during the daytime, do my investigative work in the day, and who has access to places I don’t. Can’t.”
“And who might you choose for this . . . great honor?” Again, the slight quirk of the lips.
“That’s the next step. I wanted to be sure you felt this was a valuable avenue of exploration before I took it any further.”
“It is an . . . intriguing concept. Of course, you would have to choose very wisely so as to avoid any possible breach of Masquerade. However, I feel comfortable telling you that I am not the only member of the Inner Circle who has noticed your potential. I’ve been encouraged by . . . interested parties . . . to encourage you in developing your talents."
Her immediate instinct is to ask, “by whom?” but knows that would be gauche at the very least. If he wants me to have information…
“…then he’ll tell you,” Adrian says, with his predatory smile. “I expect a report on possible options at your earliest convenience. Do not disappoint me.”
“Is this a test?”
“Miss Goodlove, you know better than to ask such a foolish question. Everything is a test.”
Driving home from the meeting, her thoughts roil almost incoherently.
I need to find something really good. Obviously, can’t be a truly public figure . . . someone’s going to notice if a leading political figure or top banker suddenly gets all . . . ghouly. We need the power behind the throne, the man who whispers in the ear. The trusted but almost invisible nonentity. How high do I go? What’s the best prize I can deliver Invictus without totally overreaching and looking like an idiot. Her mental list of possibles looks like a conspiracy theorist’s watchlist . . . the Bilderberg Group. The Trilateral Commission. The G-20. Geez, why not add the Elders of Zion and the Illuminati and have done with it.
Haven, 4 a.m.
After a couple of nights of research, gathering background information on networks of power both overt and less so, trying to figure out who in her growing stable of influencers is connected to whom, and how, she’s got reams of data, but no strong direction. Got to put it all together, find the pattern, follow the thread. Fuck you Theseus, why is this so difficult?
She’s just trying to go intuitive now. Turn off your brain, slide between the search terms, just try to get a feel for these groups, who belongs, who doesn’t belong but always seems to be on the sidelines. Airline reservations, hotel check-ins, security camera feeds . . . weave it together, find the pattern.
>Looking for something?
What the fuck? I’m not logged into G-chat . . . where the hell did that text box pop up from? She’s so on edge, her first thought is oh man, is the NSA tracking vampires now? Did I just trigger some alarm? Can the undead even end up on no-fly lists? Oh well, there’s a reply field. Nothing ventured nothing gained. I always did want my very own FBI file.
>>Just browsing, thanks.
>Very amusing. Answer the question.
>>Who are you?
>Perhaps a friend. Perhaps not.
>>How do we proceed then?
>Good question, Miss Goodlove.