The music had gotten louder, more chaotic. I couldn’t hear myself think over it. The alcohol had flowed freely. The blood, too. The blood vendors had arrived, a dozen humans who had clearly been
chosen for their appearance just as much as their blood. All were dressed in finery no human in Obitraes could possibly afford—dressed by Cairis, I was sure. Some were obviously professionals—I even recognized a few from Vincent’s parties. Others seemed new. One sat on the lap of the Shadowborn prince, her cheeks and chest flushed, eyelashes fluttering as he nipped at her throat, his hand wandering up between her legs. Her bodyguard—one of Ketura’s—stood beside them, clearly struggling to fulfill her job of watching over the human without making awkward eye contact.
That was the difference between this party and Vincent’s: every one of the blood vendors had a bodyguard. I recognized these ones. They were among Raihn’s best. And this was what they had been chosen for tonight. Not guarding Raihn. Not serving the Shadowborn guests. They were watching over these humans—humans that, under my father’s rule, would have been considered disposable.
It was Raihn’s order. He’d probably gotten pushback over it. Vampire nobles didn’t like to feel like they were being chaperoned while they nibbled on beautiful humans.
I took a sip of wine that I immediately regretted. I subtly spat it back into the cup. Vampire wine was strong. I had the nagging sensation that I had to keep my awareness intact.
My mind, involuntarily, wandered back to Raihn, and that little stumble, and that flicker of confusion.
I glanced around the room and didn’t see him anywhere. I didn’t see Mische, either, even though her dress would’ve made her stand out. Vale and Lilith were still at their table, not partaking in the dancing, Lilith looking curious and Vale looking like he was very ready to go to bed.
Everyone else was engaged in… debauchery.
I found myself fidgeting. I let my hand fall to my side, brushing the hilt of my blade strapped around my thigh, just to check that it was still there.
“Quite a party, isn’t it?” I glanced up. Ugh.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you not smoking,” I said.
Septimus smiled. It was the same smile he had given me the first night I met him—the kind designed to loosen lips and undergarments.
“Afraid I’ve run out,” he said. “I’d offer you one.”
“I don’t like to have too many anyway. Addiction is for the weak.” He took a sip of his wine. “Oh, how she wounds.”
He had a smear of red at the corner of his mouth. Apparently, he’d been having plenty of fun with the blood vendors tonight.
My gaze fell across the ballroom, where a set of open arched doors led into the castle. Simon’s wife was heavily occupied with one of the young male blood vendors, while Simon approached her and whispered something in her ear. She turned back to him and laughed, offering him the human’s wrist.
Mother, I fucking hated them. Meeting them once was more than enough. They seemed far too happy.
Perplexingly happy, actually, for two nobles who’d just had to bow to a former slave.
“I have to admit,” Septimus said, “though I knew you had many talents, I never thought you were much of an actress.”
I said nothing, still watching Simon across the room, brow furrowed.
An uneasy sensation tingled at the back of my neck.
Something just seemed…
“Actress?” I said to Septimus, half-listening.
“The dance,” he replied. “To be honest, I’m not sure what you would have to gain at this point by making Raihn believe that you want him.”
That got my attention. My gaze flicked back to him, and he chuckled. “My, you are an actress,” he purred. “Look at that little startle on you.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Don’t play stupid with me.” The smile didn’t move. But his eyes narrowed, glinting like sharpened steel. “I know you’re a very smart young woman. Though…” He set down his glass and leaned closer, his breath warming my cheek. “No, I don’t think you are much of an actress, after all.”
His hand grabbed my forearm, hard enough that his sharp thumbnail pierced my skin, and I jerked away.
The clock struck.
In a lifetime here, I’d never heard it this loud—as if the entire room inflated to take it into its lungs, the marble and stone and glass vibrating with it. The music only grew louder, as if emboldened by it.
Across the room, Simon and his wife rose, abandoning the half-limp blood vendor. They went to the door leading from the ballroom.
Why the hell were they doing that alone? Why would they be allowed to go anywhere in this castle?
Suddenly I didn’t even care about the blood running down my arm. “Excuse me,” I muttered, and set off across the room before Septimus had time to say anything.
Everyone was drunk. The dance floor was little more than a mostly dressed orgy. Some of the Rishan attendees were slumped on the ground, laughing hysterically to themselves with blood running down their chins.
Simon and his wife had disappeared down the hall.
I followed. The ballroom was so hot that the moment I stepped from the room, I met a rush of cold air. The hall was quiet. Distant footsteps faded ahead. I glimpsed Leona’s purple silk skirt disappearing around the corner.
“How noble of you,” a silken voice said. “Charging after your lover’s captor, blades drawn. How sweet.”
I didn’t even notice I had drawn my blades.
I turned. Septimus stood in the doorway, his hands in his pockets, that eternal smirk on his lips. Behind him, the arched door framed a tableau of decadence in the party beyond.
I wasn’t about to wait for whatever snarky bullshit he was going to say next. I started to move—
But just as quickly, his hand was out of his pocket, fingers lifted.
Pain shot through me. My body seized. I glanced down—down at the cut he’d made on my arm, just minutes before.
I couldn’t move. Red mist slowly thickened around me—my own blood, turning against me. I wasn’t anticipating it. Mother, Septimus was a strong magic wielder. Stronger than most others I’d encountered in the Kejari. Then, I could at least fight through some of it.
Now, I was frozen, choking on air, as he stepped closer.
“You could have had everything, dove,” he murmured—and for a moment he looked so deeply disappointed, so confused. It was perhaps the only genuine emotion I’d ever seen on his face.
I tried to choke out, What are you doing?
But only managed a garbled, “Wh—”
The world dimmed at the edges of my vision, just in time for me to see blood-soaked chaos break out in the party beyond—as Bloodborn soldiers turned on Ketura’s men. A wave of animalistic shouts rose to overtake the music, swords through flesh, teeth through throats.
But none of it was louder than Septimus’s voice as he cradled my face.
“I told you I only make winning bets, Oraya,” he whispered. “I’m sorry this time it wasn’t on you.”
He flicked his fingers.
CRACK, as my body contorted.
Everything went black.