Eventually Father Castillo’s eyewitness report reaches the appropriate ears. Here the Agrun Nam meet to discuss the repercussions, and Nijmege realizes her nemesis has returned to the living.
She wasn’t the first to arrive at the restaurant. As Bertrada Nijmege was ushered into a private dining area, she saw two of her colleagues already seated. Samuel McCall and Aiden Cassidie rose at her approach and remained standing until she was seated by their maitre’ d.
“Bertrada.” Cassidie raised a glass of wine. “Try the merlot. It has a unique fragrance.”
“Thank you, Aiden. Good evening, Samuel.” Nijmege nodded to the maitre’ d. The servant bowed and reached for the bottle of wine Cassidie had suggested. She watched him pour the rich, red liquid into her glass and dismissed him with a thank you. Glancing about the table, she pointedly noted the empty chairs. “The others aren’t here?”
Despite the exquisite setting of the high class restaurant, McCall wore blue jeans and a button up shirt open at the throat. “Not yet.” His grin made him look like a teenager, attesting to his status as the youngest member of the Agrun Nam. It was obvious the maitre’ d found McCall’s casual dress insulting; it was also plain that McCall’s social station gave him the freedom to flaunt his disobedience to proper apparel with no fear of the consequences. “Ernst called me before I left; he’ll be a bit late. Something to do with spreadsheets and errant reports from outlying provinces.”
“And I assume Lionel’s on his way.” Cassidie studied the color of his wine. He had dressed for the occasion, donning as impeccable black suit and tie, his shoulder length brown hair tied back at the nape of his neck. Their maitre’ d fawned over him, quick to add more wine to his glass.
“Better than that. I’m here.”
Nijmege turned to see the oldest member of their number stride into the room.
Lionel Bentoncourt waved off the sycophantic maitre’ d, preferring to pour his own glass. The servant appeared affronted, but gracefully bowed acquiescence as the leader of the European Sanguire settled into a seat at the head of the table. “Shall we order? I’m afraid Ernst won’t be making it this evening.”
“Number crunching a bit too strenuous tonight?” Nijmege cocked her head.
Bentoncourt raised a dark eyebrow that contrasted sharply with his snow white hair. “I’ve already filled him in on what I wanted to discuss with the council. He’s gathering more information for me.”
McCall scoffed in amusement. “Ernst Rosenberg, errand boy? Whatever he’s looking for must be quite important.”
“Yes, it is.”
Cassidie leaned forward, a vague smile on his face. “What is it?”
“Soon,” Bentoncourt promised as a bevy of waiters descended upon them.
Used to Bentoncourt’s cryptic surprises, Nijmege and the others allowed the distraction and ordered their meals. Soon a round of hors d’oeuvres arrived and conversation revolved around their day-to-day tasks. Nijmege discussed a recent appeal that had come across her desk since their last meeting, and Cassidie shared a humorous tale about an ambassador from the Tairo Dynasty and his confusion over European etiquette.
“Apparently, their kizarusi are quite a bit less… involved in the process than ours. He certainly didn’t expect her to begin moaning when he sampled her.”
The others chuckled in appreciation as the appetizers were cleared. When the soup and salad courses arrived, Nijmege decided to move things along. “Well, Lionel? Why schedule a meeting away from the compound in the dead of winter? Certainly it wasn’t a desire for a change of scenery?”
“It has its benefits.” McCall blotted his mouth with his napkin. “At the very least, the ambiance is much nicer than our conference room. But Bertrada has the right of things. Why not wait until our weekly session? What’s so hush hush?”
Bentoncourt leaned back in his chair, casting an eye over his fellow sañari. “Could we have some privacy please?”
“Of course.” The maitre’d waved the servers from the room, following in their wake. “Your main course will be served at your request, Gentlemen, Madam.” Bowing, he backed out of the room and closed the door, leaving them alone.
“This certainly seems ominous.” Cassidie’s handsome face dimpled to belie the seriousness of his words.
Nijmege frowned in agreement. Obviously Bentoncourt wanted to keep this discussion off the record. Had they been in chambers or the board room, their every word would be recorded by various means for future posterity. Being chief judiciary, she wasn’t certain she approved of these methods. “It can come back to bite us.”
“Very possible.” Bentoncourt nodded agreement. “But I can’t vouch for the validity of the information I’m about to impart. Until I can verify the truth, I’d rather it not be in our meeting transcripts.”
“Now I’m really curious.” McCall’s amusement faded. He now looked like a studious college student. “Stop toying with us, Lionel. Spill it.”
Bentoncourt studied them for several moments. “There’s really no delicate way to say this, so I’ll simply toss it out for you. I have a report that Elisibet Vassilas has been sighted in the colonies.”
A surge of fury curled Nijmege’s lip, the emotion so strong that she felt her canines elongate. Her heart pounded too loudly; she barely heard her companions’ responses through the roaring in her ears.
“Impossible.” Cassidie waved Bentoncourt away, and reached for his wine glass.
“You’re joking,” McCall said.
Bentoncourt sighed, his craggy face mournful. “I’m afraid it’s not a joke. Whether or not it’s true remains to be seen.”
“Who’s seen her?” Cassidie asked.
“A young man in Seattle, Washington,” Bentoncourt said. “His name is James Castillo. He’s a priest with the Church.”
“Never heard of him,” Cassidie said dismissively.
McCall smiled faintly. “I doubt that has anything to do with it, Aiden.”
Nijmege forced her canines to sheathe, conquering her visceral and violent response to the Sweet Butcher’s name. “For what is Ernst searching?”
“I’ve asked him to find confirmation.” Bentoncourt’s voice was deceptively mild as he pinned her with a stern gaze.
“Good gods, that is patently ridiculous.” Cassidie set his wine glass on the table with such force, the stem snapped. He cursed as the dregs of his wine splashed his sleeve. “The Sweet Butcher is long dead. She can’t have been seen anywhere.” He dipped his napkin in his water glass in an attempt to get out the worst of the stain before it set into the material.
Nijmege’s grip on her silverware was hard enough to bend the metal. With careful movements, she placed the utensil beside her plate. “And if it’s true?”
“It’s not,” Cassidie said.
“If it is,” Bentoncourt overrode his colleague, “then we’ll deal with it through official channels.”
Nijmege glared at Bentoncourt. If it is, I’ll finally get my revenge. Despite the distance of time, she still woke from nightmares that revolved around the Sweet Butcher’s vicious ways. Even now in this pleasant setting, it took little for her to recall in vivid detail the sound of Nahib’s screams as he was flayed alive before the entire royal court.
“Until then, I don’t want word if this getting out, which is why I chose to inform you here rather than at the compound,” Bentoncourt continued. “It took Castillo the better part of two months to get through to me. His ability for discretion is good. Chances are that no one else knows but he and us.”
“It’s been two months?” Nijmege asked, a measure of dismay in her tone.
“Yes. As I’ve said, he’s been quite sensible about the nature of his news. He spotted her coming into his organization’s charity kitchen.”
Cassidie chuckled, though his expression remained grim. “Charity kitchen. A true rags to riches story, eh? What does our priest have to gain?”
“Gain?” Bentoncourt shook his head. “Castillo has nothing to gain through this. He’s only done what any loyal Sanguire would do in the same situation.”
Nijmege made a rude noise. “You always see the best in people, Lionel, rarely the reality.”
“I’m afraid I have to agree.” McCall gave the chairman a conciliatory look. “If he believes his discovery to be true, he will expect some sort of recompense.”
“We are veering off topic.” Cassidie gave up his shirt as a lost cause, throwing the napkin onto his plate. “Do you know what’s going to happen to our people if news of this gets out? This poor woman’s going to be torn limb from limb! And I can’t even begin to fathom the political arena. We walk a very delicate balancing act with the other governments. Telling them the Sweet Butcher is back will certainly bring everything crashing about our ears.”
“She will bring order to chaos,” McCall quoted.
Cassidie glared at him. “Mahar’s Prophecy is fiction, my friend. Nothing more.”
Bentoncourt raised his hands to interrupt the debate. “First we need to substantiate Castillo’s report. If she’s an innocent, we can take the steps necessary to protect her from over zealous revenge seekers.”
McCall frowned at his plate. “Do you think it’s wise?”
Nijmege grimaced as if she’d eaten something sour. “If anyone can discount this priest, it would be Valmont. He has the most experience of all of us with the Elisibet.”
Cassadie stared at her. “You’re not suggesting—“
“I’m not suggesting anything, Aiden. I’m simply stating fact.”
Bentoncourt cut into the conversation with a sharp wave of his hand. “I’m not certain it would be a good idea to enlist Sublugal Sañar Valmont’s assistance right now, if at all.”
McCall looked up. “The only other who knows the Sweet Butcher best is Kyria O’Toole.”
Aiden snorted. “She’s also a bit unstable, isn’t she? I mean, I’ve heard reports that she’s been… somewhat disturbed since Elisibet’s assassination. Are we sure she won’t buy into the priest’s belief to ease her own sense of loss?”
“I know Valmont personally,” Nijmege said. “He may have been lulled into complacency in the beginning, but he eventually saw the light. He’ll know what to do when the time comes.”
Bentoncourt quickly responded. “Yes, he would, which is why he’ll have nothing to do with this. He is not to bring about this woman’s death.”
“Death?” McCall blinked in surprise. “There’s no reason for her to be killed, whoever she is.”
“She’s probably not even Sanguire,” Cassidie stated.
“Castillo believes she might be, but she’s young. She hasn’t begun the Turning.”
Cassidie snorted in disbelief but didn’t speak further.
McCall pursed his lips. “There’s another option we’re not considering.” When his dinner companions focused their attention on him, he continued. “What if she’s a plant? Maybe she is Sanguire, a youngling, but is involved in some bizarre plot of this priest’s — whether it be with full knowledge and consent or not. I think one of us should do a full investigation of this Castillo.”
Bentoncourt nodded albeit with reluctance. “By all means, Samuel. I’ll send all the information I have on him to your aide.”
The discussion continued for several more minutes, but nothing more was forthcoming. When they began repeating themselves, Bentoncourt called their impromptu session to a close and bid the wait staff to deliver dinner. Nijmege spent the following three quarters of an hour pretending all was well and making small talk with her colleagues, but inside she seethed. As soon as it was courteous to do so, she thanked her host and begged her leave. Shortly she stared out the window at the passing scenery as her limousine drove back to the compound.
Ever since Mahar the Oracle had arrived before the Agrun Nam with her prophecy about the Sweet Butcher’s return, Nijmege had secretly hoped for it to come to pass while she still lived. Valmont had saved the day by executing Elisibet Vassilas, but Nijmege had always regretted that she hadn’t had the opportunity to draw the bitch’s life’s blood with her bare hands. She’d rued convincing her husband’s protege to follow the council’s plans, wishing she’d been the one to exact punishment for the excruciating agony Nahib had suffered before he had died.
Cassidie was correct to disbelieve this unknown priest. It was obvious this Castillo had no connections, else it wouldn’t have taken two months for word to reach them of his suspicions. Not to mention that after centuries of life, Nijmege had never met a single person — Human or Sanguire — who she considered was a soul returning from death. The whole idea of reincarnation was preposterous in the extreme, the theory nothing but a pathetic attempt for Humans to grasp at some sense of immortality.
“But if she is alive,” she breathed.
She didn’t notice the almost beatific expression on her face reflected in the glass.