The woman was still alive. Her throat had been cut, but not enough to make her bleed out fast. Her eyes, big and dark, danced wildly about the room. Landed on me.
A sudden intense wave of nausea made vomit rise in my throat. Images from another feast hall, another table, another human bleeding out on a wooden slab—shown to me by my own father—assaulted me.
I glanced at Raihn. His face was still for a moment—frozen, as if stuck momentarily between masks. Then it softened into a predatory grin.
“What a treat.”
I took a drink from my wine glass because I desperately needed something to do with my hands and immediately choked. Whatever flowed over my tongue was thick and savory, punctuated with an iron bite.
My stomach lurched.
And yet—yet my body did not reject it. It accepted it. Some dark, primal part of myself purred as I forced myself to let the blood slide down my throat.
Goddess, what was wrong with me? I swallowed hard just to keep myself from throwing up.
The woman before me kept looking at me, her eyes blurring out and then refocusing. Like she knew that I wasn’t one of them.
Several other humans had been placed on the tables. Most were listless, alive but not moving. Some still weakly struggled and were secured to the table to keep them from moving—a sickening sight, when it was children doing the securing.
Mische sipped blood from her wine glass, doing a poor job at hiding her fascinated disgust. If the Bloodborn were surprised, they didn’t show it, gracefully accepting human wrists and throats, observing the rest of the room with wary interest. Septimus offered a pleasant smile and raised his glass in a wordless toast before setting the goblet down in favor of the woman’s limp wrist.
At the other place settings, children climbed over the tables, clustering around the corpses like starving flies, their only sounds the frantic drinking and the stifled moans of pain of their human offerings.
Raihn cast me a glance so quick I thought I might’ve imagined it. Then he grinned. “You have spoiled us, Evelaena,” he said, placed his hands on either side of the woman’s head, and turned her face towards him. Her eyes widened, a little whimper of fear escaping her lips—more like a gargle, actually. This woman was already dead, I knew. Nothing could save her now. She’d drown slowly in her blood, conscious while the rest of them drained her.
I watched Raihn, a knot of disgust in my stomach. I’d never seen him drink live prey before—let alone from a human. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him do this. He’d tricked me many times before. He was a vampire, after all.
And yet, a little silent sigh of relief passed over me when I saw the shift in his face when he looked into her eyes. I wondered if I was the only one who saw it—the brief trade of the bloodthirsty hunger for silent compassion, intended only for her.
He tilted her head back, lowered his face, and sank his teeth into her throat.
He bit hard—hard enough that I could hear his teeth slicing the muscle. Little flecks of blood spattered my face, which I promptly wiped away. He drank for several long seconds, his throat bobbing with deep gulps, before lifting his head again, crimson at the corners of his mouth and seeping into the lines of his grin.
“Perfect,” he said. “You have fine taste, Evelaena.”
But Evelaena frowned down at the woman—whose eyes now stared half-closed, vacant, to the other side of the room, bare chest no longer fighting for breath.
“You killed her,” she said, disappointed. A quick, painless death. A mercy.
Raihn laughed, wiping the blood off his mouth with the back of his hand. “I got a bit overzealous. But she’s still plenty warm. Will last the next few hours, at least.”
Evelaena looked put out by this. Then a smile rolled over her lips. “You’re right. No need to waste. Besides, there are many more where she came from.”
His grin stiffened, so tight it looked like it might crack.
A regular occurrence here, then. Then again, wasn’t it a regular occurrence everywhere? I’d just let myself be sheltered from it for so long.
The Oraya of the past wouldn’t be able to hide her revulsion. She’d let it all show on her face, and trigger a messy argument, and we’d all get kicked out of this city before we even had the chance to start looking for what we came here for.
But then again, the Oraya of the past wouldn’t be here at all.
So I decided to try my hand at acting. I lifted my glass and offered Evelaena my best, most bloodthirsty smile. “No such thing as too much for a family reunion,” I said. “Drink, cousin. You’re too sober for how late it is tonight.”
The tension snapped. Evelaena laughed, her childlike delight befitting of a little girl presented with a doll. She clinked her glass against mine, hard enough to send blood wine sloshing over both of our hands.
“The truth, cousin,” she said, and drained her glass.
“YOU’RE MUCH BETTER at this than I would’ve thought,” Raihn whispered in my ear, several hours later. He snuck up on me—the sensation of his breath against the crest of my ear sent a shiver over my skin, leading me to take a big step away from him.
“It wasn’t very hard,” I said.
“Still. I give you points for even trying it. Feels like a very different kind of move for you.” He nudged my arm with his elbow. “Daresay you’re evolving, princess.”
“Your approval means so much to me,” I deadpanned, and Raihn’s laugh sounded like one of genuine delight.
All night, I had been working on getting Evelaena as drunk as possible, and I had been very, very successful. Raihn and I stood in the corner of the ballroom, watching her spin around in circles with one of her child nobles, laughing hysterically while the child’s face remained that of porcelain-still calm. The humans, now mostly drained, lay slumped over tables and against the walls, though a few of the children still crawled over them to lap at their throats or thighs. The Bloodborn remained clustered together, watching the scene before them warily, lazily sipping their blood.
“She,” Raihn said, “is going to be in a lot of pain tomorrow.” “That’s the idea.”
There’s no one looser with secrets than a drunkard. No one easier to slip around than a vampire who needed to spend the next two days recovering from gorging themselves the night before, on blood or alcohol or, better yet, both.
“I loved the night after parties, when I was growing up,” I said. “They’d all be asleep and I could do whatever I wanted for a few hours. If she’s drunk enough, she’ll tell us what we need to know, and then she’ll be out of the way for the next day or two.”
Perfect, so long as Evelaena was the only one we had to worry about. I still wasn’t sure that was the case. Lahor might be a city of ruins, but there had to be someone living here other than her.
“Have you seen anyone else?” I asked, voice low.
“You mean, other than the fifty-something golden-haired children in this room? No.”
We both paused, watching those children. They crawled over the bodies and grabbed at goblets, ignoring Evelaena’s wild flailing until she pulled them in and insisted they dance with her.
Even for vampires, their stares were so… still. Empty. And every one of them fair-eyed blonds.
“They’re Turned,” Raihn said, voice low. I glanced at him. “What?”
“They’re Turned. The children. They’re all Turned.”
I looked at the children—lapping at pools of blood like stray cats drinking gutter water—with fresh horror. The suspicion had been there, in
the back of my mind, but now that the thought had been yanked to the forefront… the horror of it rose up my throat slowly. With every second I considered it, it became a greater atrocity.
Born vampires aged normally. But children who were Turned would be stuck that way for eternity, both their minds and bodies frozen in eternal, crippling youth. A terrible fate.
“How do you—” I started.
“Have you tried to talk to any of them? Many of them don’t even speak Obitraen. Found one that only knew Glaen.”
Another wave of disgust. “She brought them here from the human nations?”
“I don’t know how they got here. Maybe she pays traffickers. Maybe some were shipwrecked. Maybe she gets some of them from her human districts. Hell, there are enough of them. Probably all those things.”
I watched Evelaena spin around the room gleefully, clinging to one of her child servants, who seemed to stare a thousand miles past her.
All the same appearance. All so young. And young forever, now.
My stomach turned. Raihn and I exchanged a glance—I knew we were both asking the same silent questions and both repulsed by every potential answer.
“Your cousin,” he said, between his teeth, “is a fucked up piece of work.”
I shook away my discomfort. “Let’s just get whatever the hell we’re here for and get out.”
I started walking into the thick of the party, but Raihn grabbed my arm. “Where are you going?”
I yanked away from his grip. “Getting some information out of her before she passes out.”
I tried to pull away from his grip, but he tugged me closer. “Alone?”
What the hell kind of a question was that? I expected my face to earn the usual chuckle and teasing remark, but he remained serious.
“What about these?”
His fingertips ran over the curve of my shoulder. Goosebumps rose on my skin, a chill trailing his touch. Then a twinge of pain, as he brushed the still-bleeding, half-moon marks Evelaena had left behind.
It was so shockingly soft that my rebuke tangled on my tongue. It took me a moment too long to say, “It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing.”
“Nothing I can’t handle. I’m used to being hated.”
“No. You’re used to being dismissed. Being hated is infinitely more dangerous.”
I pulled my arm away, and this time, he let me go. “I won the Kejari, Raihn. I can handle her.”
Raihn gave me a half smile. “Technically, I won the Kejari, actually,” he said, and didn’t move, but he also didn’t take his eyes off me.
EVELAENA WAS ALREADY VERY, very drunk. When I approached her, she released the hands of her child companion and held hers out to me, instead.
I genuinely could not bring myself to take her hands, but I let her drape them over my shoulders.
“Cousin, I am so happy you have finally come to visit me,” she slurred. “It does get so very lonely here.”
Not that lonely, if she’d Turned an army of children to keep her company.
She swayed a little closer, and I watched her nostrils flare with the movement. She had been gorging herself all night—there was no way she was hungry, but human blood was human blood.
I stepped away from her grasp, looping her arm through mine and holding it firmly, so that she couldn’t get any closer.
“Show me my father’s possessions,” I said. “I always wanted to see where he grew up.”
I wondered if the words sounded as unconvincingly sickly saccharine as they felt coming out of my mouth. If they did, Evelaena was too drunk to notice.
“Of course! Oh, of course, of course! Come, come!” she crooned, and stumbled with me down the hall.
I didn’t look back, but I felt Raihn’s gaze following me the whole way down the hall.