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"Someone's coming," Bliss warned.
Lawson nodded, preparing to subdue whoever walked into the room.
"Check me out!" Malcolm said. He was wearing a wool toga with red edging; it was short and sized for a child and the hem didn't come down quite far enough to hide his sneakers. "Nice, right?" The rest of the group were all dressed in similar costume. "We looked out the window, everyone's in red for the parade."
"Here," Edon said, handing folded linens to Lawson and Bliss. "Go and get changed."
When everyone was suitably attired, Lawson called them together and told them how he intended to preserve the timeline. "Remember, everything has to happen the same way. Romulus has to give the signal."
"But the orders from the oculus will tell the hounds to take the women - not kill them," Ahramin said, nodding. "We will take care of it."
Ahramin, Edon, Malcolm, and Rafe left to find the nearest oculus and change the orders. Bliss had opted to stay with Lawson. She was the only one who knew there was more to his plan than simply securing the timeline and saving Tala.
"You don't have to come with me. I can take care of Romulus," he said.
"I know you can. But even Fenrir can use a friend, can't he?"
For once, Lawson did not argue.
Bliss followed Lawson through the city. The buildings were cursory structures; the Rome she was familiar with was filled with enormous monuments, basilicas, and temples and palaces, but she reminded herself that they were back at the beginning, before most of those things had been built.
She looked around the plaza, down at the unpaved dirt packed under her feet. The open-air plaza was vast, the crowd overpowering in its size as they waited for the horn that would blow twice to signal the opening of the Consualia, the games that would celebrate Neptune's day. The red banners flapped and cracked in the wind, and the buildings around them were covered in brightly colored paint and graffiti. Splashes of animal blood dripped from the walls into open sewers and there were flies everywhere.
Rome smelled like a corpse. It was a far more vulgar place than she'd imagined. The air was filled with the scent of incense and smoke from burning effigies of Roman gods, mixed with the stink of people sweating in the woolen togas, as she was. She was starting to be able to tell that there were some class distinctions - the wealthier citizens wore togas that appeared to be made of cotton, and accordingly, they looked cooler and more comfortable than everyone else, her included.
Lawson explained that the temple Romulus had been standing in front of was the Regia, the home of kings. They walked toward it quickly, past donkey carts filled with fresh produce, and she plucked a date from an open basket and sunk her teeth into the rich fruit. A man jostled her, and cold wine sloshed from his wooden mug onto her dress.
Everywhere Bliss looked, she saw soldiers like the fierce warriors from her memory. The ancient wolves were magnificent and golden, while the hellhounds, disguised in the same armor they usually wore, were darker and smaller in size and bearing. She almost bumped into one as she made her way deeper into the crowd.
"Sorry," she whispered.
The hound leered at her. He was clearly of a lower order; his armor was made from hardened brown leather, sculpted into the shape of a muscled torso. "Stay a while," he said.
"She's with me," Lawson said.
The soldier spit at the ground but did not fight. Bliss moved nervously away, and Lawson held her hand as they made their way closer to the Regia.
The crowd was edgy and boisterous; it had the air of a mob, restless and eager for trouble. More soldiers were arriving, pouring into the arcades and gathering in groups on the roofs of the crude houses just outside the plaza. The crowd was growing more anxious by the minute. Bliss felt an elbow hit her in the back as two women pushed past her. Another dashed behind them, also elbowing Bliss. The soldiers scanned the crowd with impassive faces.
The games were due to start in moments, at which point the hounds disguised as soldiers would reveal themselves, beginning the slaughter that would end the line of the wolves.
Bliss felt a rough hand on her shoulder. It was the hound she had jostled.
"There you are, pretty." He smiled. "Leave this loser and come with me."
"Leave her alone," Lawson growled.
"Ah - screw you," the hound said. "Romulus said we can take what we can before the signal ..." He pulled on Bliss's toga and tore it from the clasp.
Bliss gasped, held her dress together, and turned to the hound.
"No, it's all right," she told Lawson, who was ready to throw a punch. If he fought the hound, they would start a fight, and the hounds were ready for bloodshed. Ahramin and the boys had to get the orders changed - nothing could happen before then. They couldn't risk the soldiers and the hounds jumping the gun.
She turned to the hound, her eyes boring into its crimson eyes and silver pupils. "You dare threaten me? Do you know who I am?"
The hound looked at her and quivered with fright. "No ... it cannot be ... how is it ..." It backed away, fear in its eyes.
"How do you keep doing that?" Lawson asked when the hound was gone. "Who are you? You have never answered that."
She hesitated as she fixed her strap. Could she lay all her cards on the table? Could she trust him to trust her? "Lawson, at the butcher shop - when I spoke your language ..."
"You asked how I knew Hroll. It was because I saw something in my memory then. I think it was a wolf in his true form. It was an amazing sight. Beautiful." In her mind's eye she could see Lucifer standing at the top of a marble staircase, looking down at the magnificent form of the warrior in front of him. Her father had spoken its language. But now, as Bliss closed her eyes and relived the memory, she saw what happened next, and described it to Lawson.
"I saw Lucifer holding out his hand, and the beautiful warrior fell to his knees. There was a blast of smoke, and when it cleared, the warrior was a wolf, wearing a collar, and his golden eyes were silver."
Lawson stared at her. "What you're describing is the punishment of the wolves," he said. "How could you have seen this?"
Bliss shook her head slowly. She wasn't sure if it was the right time to tell Lawson the truth; she had no idea how he would react. And they had so much ahead of them, so much to do. But she didn't want to keep the secret any longer. "Because it's not only my mother's memories I share. I share my father's memories as well. I had access to his mind once, and he was part of mine."
She flinched. "My father ... was Lucifer," she whispered. "I am the daughter of the Dark Prince of Hell. I was kept alive, hidden by his loyal followers, reincarnated through the centuries, to keep his spirit alive on earth. I did not know. He used me as a vessel for his evil. I have his memories and I am his flesh and blood."
For a long time, nothing happened. Lawson didn't speak. Bliss was worried he was trying to figure out a way to kill her in public, without anyone noticing. But when she finally dared to look at him, he didn't seem angry. Only contemplative.
"So you're not just an ex-vampire," he finally said.
"No." She could see the wheels in his mind turning. He was putting all the pieces together.
"The hounds know," he said. "They sense it, they sense that you carry the blood of the Dark Prince himself. It frightens them away."
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. And I'm sorry for what my father did to your people. But I'm not him. I don't want any part of him."
"You are part of him, though," he said, and finally there was the anger that she had expected.
"That sword that you have ... I used to kill his spirit inside me. I wanted to die rather than live with what I had done. Please," she said. "Please believe me. Look." She pulled down her neckline to show part of the scar across her torso, right across her heart. "That's all that's left. I'm not lying. I thought I would die, but instead I became mortal."
"We owe you a debt, without your memories, we would never have been able to use the chronolog. But after this is over ... we will part ways. The wolves owe no debt to the vampires. We will fight no demons in your name. Now leave me, for I have no wish for your company. I have a hound to kill."
There were tears in her eyes when she turned away from him, but Lawson hardened his heart, even though the sight of the vicious scar on her chest had given him pause. She was a distraction; he was here to kill Romulus and save Tala; he couldn't spare a moment to think of Bliss. If she was working with the enemy, then it was better that he had sent her away. If she was who she said she was, an ex-vampire, an archangel's daughter, then she would still be safe. The hounds would not harm her; he saw that much.
The crowd was restless for the games to begin, but he knew they had some time; only Romulus could signal the opening of the games, and Romulus had not yet returned to the balcony. Lawson planned to find Tala first, then kill the general only after Romulus had given the signal. History must be allowed to flow as it had. At the steps of the Regia, he tried to sniff out Tala's scent, but the smell of the hounds masked everything else, the stench of their evil filling the air.
The Regia was enormous, easily the largest of the surrounding buildings. Lawson evaded the guards watching the steps and slipped into the main chamber, unsure which of the numerous corridors to follow. Where would Romulus keep Tala? Lawson would have expected that he'd keep her by his side, but he hadn't seen her on the podium with Romulus when he stood before the crowd. She must be here. But where?
Lawson began exploring the palace. He wandered through room after room on the first floor. The dining room, filled with recliners for royalty to lie on during their meals. No chairs for the elite, not in ancient Rome. Some of the recliners were clearly meant for one person; others were semicircular and could seat a number of people. An interior kitchen, with a fire pit for roasting meat and long tables and serving stands. Bedroom after bedroom, with sleeping couches holding high, fluffy feather beds, covered in blankets and pillows. If Romulus was keeping her by his side, then she'd be in a room closer to Romulus's chambers, or even in his chambers themselves. The thought twisted his stomach, but he had to keep going.
Corridor after corridor, room after room. Finally, he saw a door that bore the sigil of the republic. Romulus's quarters. She had to be in there. Tala, where are you?
The bedroom was larger and more elaborate than any he'd seen so far. The bed was enormous, the mattress higher off the ground than any of the others. Lawson sat down and sunk deeply into the plush feather bed. Apparently firm mattresses were a thing of the future, he thought. He tried to picture Tala here, to pick up her scent. Nothing.
He heaved himself off the tall bed and explored the rest of the room. Wooden shelves held togas, spare armor, leather sandals. The togas were lighter and softer than the one he wore, some made of cotton, some of silk. Too bad there weren't any extra weapons lying around. No sign that a woman had been here; none of the tunics looked like dresses, like the ones Bliss and Ahramin were wearing.
He turned his head to the corner of the bedroom. There was a pile of what appeared to be laundry sitting in the corner. Funny how some things stayed the same, no matter what century you were in, he thought; people still left their clothes on the floor. But then he looked closer. The clothes appeared to be silk; they glistened as he moved toward them. He picked up the fabric and saw that it was a woman's tunic, soft to the touch and beautifully cut, as best as he could tell.
And covered in bloodstains.
Lawson felt as if he couldn't breathe. Tala ... where are you? What happened here?
It couldn't be hers, could it? But it had to be. Romulus had taken no mate, and he'd shown himself to be insistent on doing whatever he could to destroy Lawson, to destroy whatever power he thought Lawson possessed. He didn't want to think about what Romulus had done to her, about the prospect of never seeing Tala again. It couldn't be true.
"She's not here, my boy."
Lawson turned around to see Romulus standing at the doorway.
Bliss stumbled into the crowd blindly, blinking back tears, not caring where she was going, not knowing what to do, or what to think. She had trusted him to accept her as she was, and he had rejected her. She could still see the hate that had been in his eyes when she'd told him - but what did she expect? Of course he would react that way - her father had cursed his people, turned them into beasts, made them slaves. How could he see past that? She barreled through the crowd, unseeing, until by accident she bumped into Rafe.
"Bliss!" he cried.
"What's wrong? What happened?" she asked. "Why aren't you at the oculus?"
"Ahramin sent me to find you. The oculus does not respond. We cannot change the order. She thinks the masters have locked it off somehow, to keep anyone from tampering with it. Where's Lawson?"
Bliss shook her head. "We don't need Lawson right now." Lawson might have dismissed her, but Bliss knew what she had to do. Lawson had sent the wrong person to the oculus. She was of the same blood as the masters, and because she was Lucifer's daughter, the hounds would follow her every command. Only she could stop the massacre. "Take me to the oculus, quickly."
The oculus was housed in the great Temple of Mars, and when Bliss arrived, Ahramin and the boys had managed to clear the area; the hellhound guards were dead or subdued, bound with silver chains. There was no time to explain, and Bliss stepped directly into the light of the oculus in the center of the room.
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