En route to Beijing, China
Giovanni Vecchio eyed the impassive water vampire from across the compartment, casually draping an arm around Beatrice’s shoulders as she sat next to him on the plush couch.
“Remind me why he is here.”
She rolled her eyes and refused to answer, so Baojia spoke for himself.
“I am here because Beatrice has a very concerned grandfather who offers her the finest protection of his clan.”
“Are you sure you’re not just homesick?”
The Asian vampire’s face betrayed no emotion when he replied, “Unless we have changed course to San Francisco, I do not understand the question.”
Beatrice snorted and lay her head on Giovanni’s shoulder.
“Leave him alone, Gio.”
“I dislike having someone else on the plane.” Particularly someone who looked at Beatrice the way her grandfather’s enforcer did. Beatrice may not have noticed, but the quiet water vampire watched her every move with keen interest.
“You’re overreacting,” she murmured. “Besides, Ernesto wouldn’t send anyone with us who wasn’t on our side.”
He saw an almost imperceptible smile flicker across Baojia’s face, and there was a wry amusement in his eyes when he looked back at Giovanni.
“And it is always beneficial to have another interpreter,” Baojia said in perfect Mandarin.
When Don Ernesto Alvarez, Beatrice’s powerful ancestor whose clan controlled Southern California, had offered to send his child with them to visit the legendary Eight Immortals of Penglai Island, Giovanni could hardly refuse.
Baojia’s prowess as a fighter was almost as well-known as Giovanni’s, despite his youth, and the offer was evidence of both how highly Ernesto viewed his granddaughter, and how valuable he saw her connections in his world. Giovanni couldn’t deny the offer without alienating a powerful ally and causing a rift in Beatrice’s family.
Though she had initially been intimidated by the silent water vampire, Baojia made every effort to set Beatrice at ease in his presence. From casual observation, the vampire, who was only known by his given name, did not seem particularly intimidating, and his medium build and even features were unremarkable.
But the minute a canny opponent looked into his black eyes, Giovanni knew they would reevaluate. Baojia was one of the most lethal water vampires Giovanni had ever known, including his own sire. His mastery of his element, combined with a natural grace and training in various martial arts, had quickly become legendary. He was known for his ruthless and efficient combat and was also an exceptional swordsman.
The enforcer had monitored Beatrice for her grandfather in the years before Giovanni’s return, and he could tell Baojia’s interest in the young woman had been piqued.
He looked down at Beatrice, whose eyes had begun to droop. “Yes, tesoro?”
“I’m going to go lay down. When will we be in Beijing? Do I need to be awake?”
He shook his head. “We’ll arrive mid-afternoon, but we’ll remain in a secured hangar until nightfall. Sleep as long as you like.”
She leaned over to place a kiss on his cheek, but he turned his head and captured her lips. Giovanni heard the small murmur of satisfaction she made and the contented sigh when she pulled away. He let his eyes rake over her, delighting in the slight blush that colored her cheeks.
“I’ll join you soon,” he said with a wink before she turned, gave Baojia a slight wave, and walked back to the secured bed chamber he’d installed in the belly of the cargo plane.
Giovanni watched her go, letting his eyes wander over her supple body and ignoring the instinct to follow her. Then he turned back to Baojia; he still had a few questions for the enigmatic man.
“Why are you really here?” he asked in Mandarin.
The water vampire offered a placid smile before responding in the same language. “As I said, I am here on orders from my father to guard Beatrice. As you have the same goal, I’m sure there will be no conflict. We will…cooperate, di Spada.”
He flinched at the name he had used as a mercenary and assassin. Giovanni had chosen a different name for a reason.
“Please,” he offered a stiff smile, “call me Giovanni.”
Baojia nodded with respect before his eyes flicked to the room where Beatrice had gone to rest.
“So, you are here to guard my woman?”
He smiled again. “Does she like it when you call her that?”
Beatrice didn’t like it in conversation, but he knew without a doubt she liked it in other, more intimate, moments. “She prefers it.”
“That surprises me.”
“Do you think you know her?”
“She’s an interesting human,” Baojia said, avoiding the question.
“She is.” Giovanni paused. “And what lengths will you go to protect my woman, Baojia? What did Ernesto ask of you?”
“That is between my father and me.”
Giovanni cocked his head. “Is that so?” He looked between Baojia and the door Beatrice had walked through. “He told you to turn her if she is in danger, didn’t he? Ernesto told you to sire her if her human life is at risk.”
A shadow flickered in his black eyes, and Giovanni leaned forward. It was the truth, but Baojia was not pleased by the command from his sire.
“I was instructed to protect her by whatever means necessary.”
Giovanni gave a rueful smile. “Not particularly pleased by that, are you?” He wasn’t either, which was one of the reasons he was so eager to join Tenzin. The reassurance of Beatrice having the protection of another immortal—one he trusted implicitly—was vital to him.
“I have no desire for children,” Baojia said.
Particularly not a human you are interested in. Giovanni decided he was tired of parrying with the vampire, so he stood up and stretched his tall frame. “I’m going to retire for the day. I hope you are comfortable on the couch.”
Baojia nodded. “I am perfectly comfortable, thank you.”
Giovanni grunted and walked to the bedroom door, opening it, then locking it behind him with the multiple deadbolts, safety latches, and bars he used to secure the room. He turned to see Beatrice looking at him with a sleepy smile.
“You’re in a mood tonight.”
He shrugged. “I don’t trust him.”
“I think he’s fine.” She yawned, reaching across the bed toward him. He stripped off his clothes and climbed in next to her. Tugging her arm, he pulled her on top of him and began kissing along her neck. Beatrice continued, “As interested in me as Ernesto is, I hardly think he’d send anyone to guard me that wasn’t trustworthy.”
He tugged at the small shorts and tank top she had put on to sleep. Her habit of dressing for bed annoyed him. Sleep clothing was an unnecessary layer, in his opinion, and highly uncomfortable against his skin.
“I’m going to donate all your night clothes to charity,” he murmured against her neck as his hands slipped under her shorts, sliding them down her hips.
“And you know how much Ernesto is scared of you and Tenzin, so I hardly think—”
He rolled them over and pressed his hips into hers, smiling when the sigh left her throat.
“I don’t want to talk about your grandfather.”
His gaze traveled from her dark eyes, across her pale skin, and down the slim column of her neck before his mouth followed.
“Okay,” she breathed out.
“I don’t want to talk.” His mouth moved down her body, and he enjoyed the rush of energy that followed his lips and hands as he explored her skin. “At all.”
“Okay.” Her voice was higher pitched, and he smiled in satisfaction as he nipped at the inside of her thigh.
She may not have kept quiet, but he decided he didn’t mind after all.
Giovanni woke the next evening to see her smirking at him.
“You think you’re so sneaky.”
“Hmm?” He rubbed at his eyes.
“I don’t think you wanted me to be quiet at all, Mr. Possessive.”
He grunted and blinked as she propped her head on his chest.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She gave an adorable snort. “I should be pissed off, but—”
“We’re going to a place with far thinner walls and far more vampires, so I suggest you get over any unnecessary modesty, tesoro,” he said as he ran a hand along her back.
She rolled her eyes at him, and he grinned at the gesture. The previous months had been the happiest in his memory. The move to Los Angeles had gone smoothly for the whole family, and he was satisfied with the security he had arranged for Ben, Caspar and Isadora while they were gone. Matt Kirby and Desiree Riley were aware of the situation, and Ernesto Alvarez had arranged his own security for Beatrice’s grandmother, who had charmed him, to no one’s surprise.
His family was as protected as it could be, and Beatrice was with him. Despite the danger and uncertainty he knew they were facing, Giovanni was content.
“I love you,” he said quietly, as he ran his fingers over her skin, causing her to shiver.
She sighed and lay her cheek on his chest. “I love you, too.”
He knew the plane had landed, but he delayed leaving the safe cocoon of their cabin, knowing that uncertain reality would face them as soon as they unlocked the door. They weren’t meeting the boat to the island until midnight. Her fingers played along his chest, waking him and arousing his hunger. As if she could sense his fangs descending, she moved up his body, tilting her head to the side.
He growled low in his throat as her scent washed over him. Giovanni loved the fragrance of her skin when she first woke. His fangs descended, but he shook his head.
“I took too much yesterday. I’ll drink a bag later.”
Beatrice frowned. “I don’t like it. You’re not as strong from the bagged blood. I can tell.”
She was right, but he shrugged anyway. “I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t want you ‘fine,’ I want you as strong as you can be.”
“I know you don’t like feeding from other humans, but we’re going to have to figure something out eventually.”
He rolled away from her, annoyed she had brought up the argument that had plagued them for months. “Can we not talk about this here?”
“You’re not going to be able to feed from me forever. Not if you want me to—”
“I don’t want to talk about this when we are about to go into a very unknown situation, Beatrice!”
She glared at him and sat up in bed. “And I don’t want you going into an unknown situation at anything less than your strongest. It’s not smart.”
He snarled, pacing the small cabin, but she didn’t back down. Instead, she rose to her knees, brushed her dark hair to the side, and took a fingernail to her neck, scoring it so deeply she bled.
Giovanni hesitated only a second before he rushed her, licking at the thin line of blood that marred her skin for a second before he latched on. He could feel the quick bite of her nails on his shoulders when he pierced her neck, but the flash of pain was quickly overwhelmed by pleasure as his amnis spread across their skin, and the rich, warm blood flowed down his throat.
She held his head to her neck, and arched her body against him, but he took only a few deep swallows before he stopped and sealed the wounds by piercing his tongue. He closed his eyes and looked away from her, angered by her actions.
He shook his head and walked to the small washroom attached to the cabin.
“Don’t do that again,” he said before he shut the door.
The boat from the mainland left at midnight, ferried by a young water vampire who greeted them with a nod and a polite smile. They climbed aboard the small junk and walked toward the seats the pilot indicated near the bow of the vessel. Giovanni’s senses were on alert, but he could only feel faint traces of old energy signatures and the expected hum of their escort.
“Just us,” Baojia murmured in English, his eyes scanning the water around them. “Nothing in the sea, either.”
He nodded and placed a hand on Beatrice’s back to lead her forward. They had come to a uneasy truce since their argument earlier in the evening, and he caught her eye, giving her a slight smile as they took their seats. As soon as they were seated, the young water vampire held out his hands at the stern, propelling them forward in the dark water and toward the hidden island in the Bohai Sea.
“How does he know how to get there?” Beatrice whispered.
She had dressed in her typical uniform of slim black jeans and a black t-shirt before they left but had failed to bring a coat in the warm summer air of the city. The wind on the water was brisk, so he put an arm around her and drew her closer as he answered.
“Penglai Island has a particularly strong energy signature because of the high immortal population. Even I can feel it, and it is not my home.”
“And you’re sure they’re expecting us?”
“We wouldn’t be going if they weren’t, tesoro.”
“Tell me what to expect again,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to forget.”
“There will most likely be some sort of reception when we arrive, since we are expected and friends of Tenzin’s.”
“Why is Tenzin so important?”
Baojia chuckled quietly. Even Giovanni had to smile.
“Tenzin’s sire is one of the Eight Immortals, Beatrice. The one I think your father sought out, Elder Zhang Guo.”
He heard Baojia mutter something under his breath, clearly displeased by their destination.
“So, what? Tenzin’s really important, then?”
“Tenzin could be one of the Elders if she wanted,” Baojia said. “Unfortunately for them, she’s too smart and has too low a tolerance for bullshit.”
“She’s older than most of them, Beatrice. And far more powerful.”
“And her father’s one of the main guys? Is he a good guy?”
Giovanni glanced back to their pilot. Though he was smiling and looking straight ahead into the night sea, he knew the vampire was memorizing their every word.
“Elder Zhang Guo is a great and powerful immortal. We are fortunate that he chooses to see us. He is deserving of great respect.” He nudged her shoulder when she frowned at his rote answer, and she looked up at him. Giovanni made sure she caught the long look he gave the unknown vampire out of the corner of his eye, and he saw her mouth part as she nodded in understanding.
“I’m looking forward to meeting him then,” she said in a cheerful voice. “And to seeing Tenzin. It’s been weeks since I’ve talked to her.”
Giovanni smirked. Beatrice had proven to be a natural at the more political side of his life, and there was no way their pilot had missed the implied intimacy between the legendary wind vampire and the young human woman.
The sky had become strangely overcast, and a thick fog covered the surface of the sea the farther they sailed away from the mainland. He glanced to the side to see Baojia curl his lip. The water vampire lifted a hand to reach out in front of him and, with a broad sweep of his arm, brushed the fog away. The dark blanket parted to reveal a great, glowing mountain, rising out of the water. Its stone walls were lit with golden lamps, and a wide avenue curled around, leading to a large palace that spread across the summit. The whole island glowed like a jewel in the moonless night, and Giovanni could feel the energy rolling out from it in waves.
“The Elders do like their fancy castles,” Baojia muttered as he stared at Penglai.
Giovanni turned to him. “You really didn’t want to come here, did you?”
Baojia only shook his head.
“I thought you were Chinese,” Beatrice said.
“I’ve been an American far longer than you have, Beatrice De Novo.” He curled his lip again as he stared ahead. “There’s a reason I was willing to enslave myself to the Pacific Railroad in order to leave this place.”
Giovanni glanced back at the silent water vampire who piloted them, and Baojia caught his look, but only shrugged, seemingly unconcerned to make his opinions public.
They entered a small bay and approached the dock that reached into the ocean. A crew of humans met the junk and tied it up before helping them off with quick movements and near-constant smiles.
The sounds of Mandarin filled the air, though the humans looked to be a mix of ethnicities from all over China. Giovanni pushed the humans back to help Beatrice off the boat and up the walkway, only to be met at the road by two hand-drawn carriages that were pulled by even more human servants. He tossed their small bags into one which Baojia boarded with a quick nod, then Giovanni helped Beatrice into the second, and they started up the cobbled road toward the castle at the top of the hill.
Taking advantage of the weak human ears, Giovanni whispered to Beatrice in English. “Remember what we talked about. Be very cautious what you say or what you commit to when talking with anyone. You are taken at your word here, and must always follow through or you will lose face.”
“Got it. I’ll be careful.”
“And remember, everyone will smile. Even if they want to kill you, they’ll do it with a smile to your face and a knife to your back.”
He felt her begin to tremble and he pulled her closer.
“I won’t ever leave you unless I absolutely must. Trust me and Tenzin. No one else.”
“And now I’m scared.”
Giovanni was too, and he hated bringing her into such an unknown situation, but he knew that the possibility of open conflict on the sacred mountain in the middle of the sea was also very low.
“Don’t be scared. Be smart. You’ll do fine. Just remember, everyone has an agenda.”
He tucked her head under his chin and stroked her hair. A part of him wanted to force the carriage around and take her back to the safety of the plane, but he knew that running was no longer an option. Lorenzo had forced their hands with Ioan’s death and Beatrice’s abduction. Giovanni was convinced they had to find her father and the book he carried if they were ever going to end this.
Their carriage approached the grand gate to the Temple of the Eight Immortals. Two giant stone lions guarded the steps leading to the entrance and Baojia waited nearby. He held a hand out for Beatrice and helped her down when the carriage came to a stop. Two human servants in dull brown robes rushed off with their bags and the carriages sped away, leaving the two vampires and the human woman standing at the great gold gate of the palace.
He heard Baojia sigh. “Let’s get the circus over with, I’m hungry.”
The two vampires flanked Beatrice, Giovanni walking slightly forward and to her right, while Baojia stepped behind her and took up her left side. Their eyes scanned the long staircase and the surrounding forest as they began climbing.
When they reached the top, two human servants met them and swung open massive doors painted gold and decorated with semiprecious stones set in elaborate patterns. The entrance to the palace was designed to impress, and by the look on Beatrice’s awestruck face, it was working.
A hum seemed to come from beyond the antechamber when they walked in and two smaller, but more richly decorated, doors swung open. They walked into a massive stone courtyard lit with more golden lamps and decorated with ancient stone statues. Fountains and pools cut through the space and a huge open lawn ran through the center.
The flaming lanterns and flowing water, the open earth and empty sky all combined to provide a perfect balance of the four elements mastered by the immortal Elders that dwelled in the palace. Giovanni, Beatrice, and Baojia crossed the lawn dotted with tall, twisting rocks, and walked up another set of steps leading to the main hall of the complex.
Through it all, Giovanni kept an eye on Beatrice, watching her as she took in the grandeur of the Palace of the and the wealth on display. She was subdued and looked around with curiosity, but no great outward reaction. She was handling herself perfectly, he thought, as he reached back and gave her hand a quick squeeze.
They climbed the steps and waited for an even more elaborate set of carved doors, overlaid in pure gold, to be pulled open by saffron-robed monks. Finally, they entered the Hall of the Elders and Giovanni paused, taking a deep breath to sense the air.
The few times he had come to this place in his five hundred years of existence, the sheer spectacle of it was enough to start his heart. The hall was lined by great malachite pillars and the walls were coated in silver. The oil lamps were gold, and the floor was a pure, white marble. Deep red, rosewood benches lined the walls, but his eye was drawn to the end of the hall, where eight ancient thrones were placed, each from the era and province of the immortal who sat upon them.
His eyes moved from left to right as he faced them.
Elder Zhang Guo, the oldest of the eight, was Tenzin’s sire and a warlord of some kind from the ancient steppes of the North.
Royal Uncle Cao, the youngest of the eight, was still over twelve hundred years old. An earth vampire of unknown origin, he usually wore a pleasant smile.
The Immortal Woman, He Xiangu, sat next to Cao. Giovanni met the eyes of his fellow fire vampire, who nodded at him with respect.
Lu Dongbin, the ancient water-master, scholar, and reluctant leader of the eight, sat near the center next to Zhongli Quan, a wind vampire who met him in an uneasy truce. The two had been embroiled in a somewhat polite tug-of-war for power for almost two millennia.
The earth-master and legendary healer, Iron Crutch Li sat next to Zhongli, and next to him was possibly the most enigmatic immortal Giovanni had ever met.
Lan Caihe was a fire vampire and had been turned at a very young age, but that was all anyone knew about him…or her. No one even knew that much, and Lan wasn’t sharing.
The last of the eight was the philosopher and water vampire, Han Xiang, a watchful immortal with an cautious smile that never reached his eyes.
Giovanni estimated that at least sixty other vampires and numerous humans milled around the room, positioned in relation to their allies and associates. All of them paused and turned when Giovanni, Beatrice, and Baojia entered the room.
As one, the Eight Immortals wearing identical white robes rose to greet them, and the rush of energy that rolled through the room was enough to make Beatrice stumble back.
“Welcome, Giovanni Vecchio,” Zhang greeted him in Mandarin. “And welcome, Baojia. Your presence is unexpected but not unwelcome.”
Baojia nodded, but refrained from bowing toward Zhang.
He Xiangu, the Immortal Woman, smiled as she surveyed the group. “It is pleasant to have such respected vampires in our midst, particularly a famed one of my own element.” She nodded toward Giovanni. “But who is this young human you have with you? Who is this girl who warrants protection from both the lion and the dragon?”
Giovanni stepped forward. “Elder He, may I introduce the granddaughter of Don Ernesto Alvarez, a friend of Tenzin, and my companion, Beatrice De Novo.” He motioned Beatrice forward, and she nodded respectfully toward the Eight, as Giovanni had instructed her. When she spoke, it was in English, which Giovanni knew all the Elders spoke.
“I am honored to be introduced to the hall. Thank you for your invitation, Elder Zhang Guo.”
“You are welcome here, Miss De Novo,” Zhang answered with a smile. “It is my pleasure to meet my daughter’s dear friend.” He looked to Giovanni as if searching for a reaction when he continued. “I believe there is another present in the hall who is even more pleased to see you than the Elders.”
Zhang looked at Lu, who lifted an open hand and motioned to the side of the enormous room. The crowd parted to reveal a slim vampire dressed in the dull, grey robes common among scholars of the court. Giovanni recognized him immediately and turned to Beatrice to hold her hand as she gasped in recognition.