I’ll be counting down to the April 27th release of Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff, the next book in The Many Travails of John Smith, by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. On Tuesday, I shared the prologue and Chapter 1. Today, we continue John’s very bad date, which has been crashed by no fewer than three vampires. Here is Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff: Chapter 2.
If you haven’t read Investigation, Mediation, Vindication yet, please be aware that some of these sample chapters do include spoilers from that series. Read at your own risk!
IN WHICH THE PAST CHOOSES NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN
Queen Lucia Borghesi, Lady of Winter, was the most beautiful woman I’d ever met. She was also the richest and the most arrogant. Like Anastasia and Juliette, she was a vampire. Unlike them, she had a stick the size of an aircraft carrier lodged up her curvaceous ass.
My first supernatural mediation had been on behalf of Lucia’s House. Against all odds, I’d succeeded. I’d also exposed a traitor within the vampire ranks and helped Lucia’s subjects stop a bloody coup in the process.
And then one argument had sent everything sideways.
Next thing I knew, the queen had me pinned to the wall. She’d then gnawed on my throat like a rabid dog and torn her way through my supposedly impregnable mental defenses to make me her human servant.
The only good news was that the process hadn’t taken. Not entirely, anyway. A proper thrall spent the rest of their no-doubt-terrible life in service to their master. It wasn’t like that for me. A bond had been forged between us, but Lucia hadn’t been able to use it to make me do anything.
I was the worst thrall in vampire history. For once, me sucking at something was actually a good thing.
Unfortunately, the queen was also unable to remove the bond. I’d be stuck with her in my head until the day I died. Worse, there was a chance our bond would continue to strengthen over time. If the books were correct, the femmepire might even be able to take sustenance from me without blood someday, making me a two-legged battery pack for a woman I’d be happy to see starve.
This early in what promised to be many decades of awfulness, the only thing our bond did do was allow us to sense each other’s presence. After giving me a month to get over my petty irritation and return to her House’s service—her words, not mine—Lucia had used that bond to stalk me across San Diego, trying to force a face-to-face confrontation.
I’d been doing the exact opposite. Whenever I felt the queen coming closer, I’d run like hell in the opposite direction. It had worked for two months now, and there was no way Lucia should have been able to approach Banker’s Hill—let alone Mister A’s—without me noticing. Unless…
I mentally fumbled about in my head for the sense of her, feeling the first stirrings of hope. Had our bond dissolved on its own? Had my natural immunity finally come to the rescue?
Nope. I could still feel Lucia, like a cold lump (or tumor) in the back of my brain. However, when I tried to get a location or a direction, I felt… nothing. If Lucia had figured out a way to mask her presence, my days of running were over.
I shivered and gave the queen a half-hearted wave of acknowledgement. “You could have warned me she was coming.”
“And miss out on seeing that look on your face? Please!” Juliette took another sip of Carly’s wine. “Honestly, when the queen invited me on a hunt, this wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“What does she want? If she thinks I’m going back to the House like a proper thrall, she’s even crazier than I thought.” I kept my voice quiet, not that it did any good. Private conversations were an impossibility among the People, given that the whole damn species had super hearing.
“Little bird, I don’t think you could be a proper anything, except by accident.” Juliette smirked, then softened it into a smile. “As for what she wants? Ask her yourself; she’s coming this way.”
I turned around yet again and saw that Juliette was right. Lucia moved through Mister A’s in a bubble of silence. Conversations stilled, eyes widened, and mouths gaped open as she dropped whatever glamour she’d been using to cloak herself from the masses.
As much as I loathed the vampire queen, there was a part of me that understood the crowd’s reaction. Lucia truly was indescribably beautiful, a golden-skinned, platinum-blonde angel with a body right out of a comic book, her jaw-dropping form straddling the border line between lushness and voluptuous excess. As always, she was wearing white. Tonight, it was a sleeveless silk blouse atop a bandage style pencil skirt that hugged her hips and thighs. Her A-line bob was perfectly styled, hair tucked behind one of her ears to expose no less than three glittering diamonds. Similar stones marked her fingers, and the platinum band around one golden arm. Eyes the pale blue of an arctic sky sparkled invitingly, and raspberry-colored lips slowly spread in…
Was that a smile? At me? Usually, the queen looked at me like I was a particularly loathsome bug splattered across her windshield.
I waited for Lucia to speak, my clenched fists hidden under the tablecloth, but she turned instead to her spiky-haired femmepire subordinate. “Thank you, Lady Middleton. Perhaps you should go in search of Mr. Smith’s date? I would like a moment alone with my thrall.” Her voice was cold and clear, the auditory equivalent of fine crystal.
I’m not sure which of us bristled more at the queen’s words, but Juliette, at least, was bound to obey. She clamped down on her irritation with obvious effort and stalked off in the same direction Carly had gone.
Lucia took the now twice-vacated seat, her strangely warm smile making a reappearance. “Mr. Smith, I was hoping we could reach an understanding. I come under a flag of truce.”
“You’re basically wearing a flag of truce,” I pointed out, distracted by the sudden mental image of a giant waving the white-clad vampire queen about in the air. Did giants even exist? The research I’d done in the past few months had been nebulous on that point. Apparently, even Google didn’t know everything. “And us finding an understanding seems unlikely when you keep calling me a thrall.”
“Why is that? It is what you are.”
“Great talk, Lucia. Enjoy your dinner.” I started to rise but was stopped by the queen’s hand on my wrist. Literally stopped. My imaginary giant would have struggled to break her grip, and I didn’t even lift weights.
“Sit down, Mr. Smith. I would hate to tear your arm from its socket.”
“I’d hate it even more.” I dropped back into my seat and waited until she’d let go of my wrist. “Look, I think we’ve said all there is to say. Can’t we just agree to go our own separate ways for the next seven or so decades until I die?”
“That would be a waste of the opportunity presented to us.”
“See, every time you say opportunity, all I hear is slavery.”
Lucia’s eyes narrowed and a thin film of frost formed over Carly’s wine glass in a physical manifestation of her displeasure. Like many of the older vampires, Lucia had a magical ability, called a Talent. Hers involved ice and snow. When she was irritated, temperatures plummeted. When she was truly angry, blizzards were not out of the question, even in San Diego. During the attempted coup, she had frozen several of her attackers solid and then shattered them like ice sculptures.
That had been the moment I stopped referring to her as Lady Snow Cone behind her back. I was an idiot, but I wasn’t suicidal.
“Why must you insist on making this a struggle? If you had the decency to behave like a normal thrall, none of this would be necessary! Instead, you invariably perform like an uneducated and poorly mannered monkey!” Her annoyed sigh was a bitterly cold wind on my skin. This was the femmepire queen I was used to.
“Members of my House insist that I acted precipitously in claiming you as my thrall,” she continued. “I have considered the matter at length and believe they are correct. However, what has happened cannot be undone. The bond between us is an admitted inconvenience, but you are this city’s mediator. If my House requires your services, I must be able to trust in your willingness to provide them, uncolored by bias due to past squabbles. I have come to you tonight that we might put our unpleasantness behind us.” She ended with a smile that would have brought the statue of David to its knees.
I was less impressed. Her calling me an uneducated monkey probably had something to do with it. Just because it was true didn’t mean she was allowed to say it.
“After much thought, Mr. Smith,” I parroted, “it has occurred to me that matters beyond my control may have led to an action that could potentially have been somewhat hasty and left us bonded for life, but you know… bygones. Seriously? Worst. Apology. Ever.”
Lucia’s control, never solid at the best of times, didn’t so much splinter as shatter. Frost coated the table, silverware, and glasses. It occurred to me—far too late, as usual—that, even in the middle of a crowded restaurant, there was absolutely nothing preventing Lucia from killing me.
Maybe I was both an idiot and suicidal.
The femmepire queen rose from her chair, like an exceedingly short, white-clad angel of death—
—which was when our waiter arrived, bearing food. He didn’t blink at finding Lucia in Carly’s place, which told me the queen’s glamour was back in full effect. With a bow and a smile, he placed a large, steaming bowl of soup in front of her, heedless of the frost-covered table. To me, he gave a smaller plate, piled high with greens.
I dug in as soon as he left. I even remembered to use the proper fork, despite being well past the point of trying to impress anyone. After one bite, I looked over at Lucia. “I would take it as a personal favor if you waited to kill me until after he brings out my lamb.”
The waiter’s interruption, coming when it did, had almost certainly saved my life. Lucia’s voice was quiet, almost tired. “I did not come to kill you. I have subjects who would happily do so on my behalf. Instead…” She trailed off. “Very well. I apologize. You performed a great service for my House, and it was inconsiderate of me to claim you as my own.”
Her Royal Majesty, Queen freaking Borghesi, apologizing to a lowly human? That was something of a stunner. It was also nowhere near as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. An unbreakable bond went a long way past inconsiderate, and all the words in the world wouldn’t change that.
But an apology was better than nothing.
“What about Jee Sun?” I asked, citing the name of the little girl who’d been at the heart of our original argument.
“Lady Middleton explained that the child’s value as leverage against Lord Beel-Kasan had been grossly overstated.” The femmepire frowned. “The girl has nothing to fear from my House.”
“Good.” If Juliette, aka the recently titled Lady Middleton, had shared that information before I lost my temper with Lucia, we might have avoided the whole confrontation. Of course, the same could have been said of me mouthing off to a room of vampires. Unfortunately, Lucia and I had a way of pushing each other’s buttons. Rational thought too often took a back seat with us… when it wasn’t left stranded on the curb entirely.
The femmepire queen sampled her soup, glacial blue eyes trained on my face. “I am over four hundred years old, Mr. Smith. I have had a dozen thralls over the centuries, and not a one resented being claimed. In truth, the most trying aspect of the process was choosing from the pool of applicants. Until you.”
She seemed confused and a little bit lost. It was a rare moment of vulnerability for the queen, and more devastating than all the low-cut outfits in her wardrobe put together.
“Americans have a thing about freedom,” I said. “It’s kind of what our country was founded on. That and something about tea, I think. It was different in Italy?” For the first time, I spared a thought about how awful it must have been for her to be stripped of her throne, exiled from Rome, and forced to travel across the world in search of sanctuary.
“It was. However, this is the New World, and like all the long-lived, I must adapt or perish.” Eyes glowing like cut sapphires, she extended a golden hand across the table. “Will you accept my apology, and renew your association with my House? I know that the Ladies Middleton and Dumenyova have missed your presence.”
My heart did a little backflip at the mention of Anastasia, who’d owned a place in my heart ever since she saved me from crabman assassins during Comic-Con. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to take Lucia’s outstretched hand.
“I’ll think about it.”
The femmepire’s expression was equal parts shock and… something darker, bloody, and violent. I hurried to explain myself before that second emotion could take over.
“I appreciate the apology. Seriously. But working for your House again, after what happened last time? That’s not something I can just agree to without a lot of consideration. I’ll have an answer by Monday if that’s acceptable?”
To a woman who was used to having people (not to mention People) jump whenever she snapped her fingers, the delay clearly wasn’t acceptable, but Lucia nodded anyway. Which was so unlike her that I couldn’t help but worry.
“Is there already something going on that needs mediating?”
It was the most logical explanation for the queen’s behavior, but she shook her head. “Not at present. A short time ago, there was a minor squabble where we could have used your services, but that situation has since been resolved.”
“What often happens in our world when mediation fails, Mr. Smith,” Lucia replied tiredly. “People died.”
I did get to eat my lamb. It was every bit as good as I’d hoped, even if my latest and greatest attempt at internet dating had been blown to hell. Lucia ate the soup and lobster Carly had ordered and we had what was, on the surface at least, a nice and relaxed dinner. When she finally took her leave, joined by a silent but always-fabulous Anastasia, I had almost come to peace with the idea of working with the People again.
Given how things had ended in July, that said a lot.
Then the waiter delivered our bill, and I discovered I’d been stuck paying for the meal the ultra-rich vampire queen had just eaten. Worse, Juliette had never come back, so I still had no idea where Carly had gone. I sighed, painstakingly calculated a twenty percent tip, and left to search for the brainwashed technical recruiter.
I wish I could say it was the worst date I’d ever had.
The sad truth is it didn’t even crack my top five.
Next Tuesday, I’ll be back with Chapter 3. See you then!