When I woke, there was a man sitting in the armchair beside my bed, long legs crossed, hands folded neatly in his lap. He was dressed in clothing from well over a century ago, and what little skin wasn’t covered was pale. He had delicate features and long, silvery hair that cascaded down his body in subtle, elegant waves.
“Ah, the warrior prince awakens,” he said. His voice was all grace and and nobility.
I glared at him. “What are you doing in my room?”
“Oh, Stefan,” he replied, as though he had all the time in the world to get his point across, “you have it backwards. You are a guest in my castle, meaning that you are in one of my rooms.”
“Your castle?” I asked as I sat up.
“Yes. My name is Damien Averel Thorne. I am the master of this bloodline, and of this castle.”
“Then you’re the one who ordered Leila to be kidnapped,” I growled, eyes narrowed.
“I never used that word,” he replied. I didn’t appreciate how smug he sounded. “I simply asked for her to be brought here so that she could help us. Those I have sired are simply efficient and fulfilling my requests.”
“Yeah, your lackeys serve you so well.”
He smiled. I wanted to slap that self-satisfied look right off his face; I never did appreciate how nobles acted like they had all the time in the world and nothing to worry about.
“They know very important it is that she help us.”
“And you couldn’t just ask us?” I snapped.
He make a soft laugh and shook his head. “Erik did try that. Jean-Marc, of course, would not even consider it, and I am quite certain that even if he did, you would crush that idea in an instant.”
I couldn’t deny that he was right about that; I didn’t want her going anywhere near vampires. It was hard enough accepting that they actually existed.
“So then tell me: what do you need her for?”
“Oh, Stefan, I believe you’ve worked it out by now.”
My arms crossed over my chest. “How about you stop the games and just speak plainly?”
He grinned at me and inhaled sharply. “Such hot blood you have. It makes me wonder why Leila is so entranced by you. Well, you are lovely to look at.” He looked me over at added, “And you are gentle with her in a way that nobody else gets treated to.”
“If I agree with you, will you take me to her now?”
There was that self-satisfied grin again. He was toying with me, and he knew it. He also knew that I knew it. I wanted nothing more than to punch him and go find Leila myself.
“Your need for her is like nothing else,” he said, as though he were giving me a revelation. “I suppose I should deliver you to her so that she can quench this thirst you have and keep you from being consumed by the flames in your heart.”
“You’re so full of shit,” I growled.
He got up from the chair and offered me his hand. “Despite what you say, she has asked for you, and I can no more deny her what she desires than you can.”
I scowled at his and and got out of bed on my own. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Only that all the world would kneel before her if that was her request.”
“Heh, that’s where you’re a fool: she wouldn’t let anyone kneel for her sake.” I headed for the door.
“And she is all the more beautiful for it.”
He followed me out into the hall, where Larsa and Killian were already waiting.
“Åh, hej Stefan, jag är glad att du är vaken!”
“Larsa,” I groaned, “keep it down, would you? What are you so excited about, anyway?”
“What do you mean? We’re in a castle, Stefan! Isn’t that cool? And there are vampires– but they’ve been really nice.”
“Ummm…. sure, whatever you say, Larsa.” I looked to the vampire lord. “Can we continue on to where Leila is?”
“Did you know that Lord Thorne knows a lot of languages?” Larsa asked as we headed down the hall. “Even Swedish.”
I ignored him, hoping he’d drop it and let me focus on Leila.
“Not Sámi, though. Even he knows I have magic!”
I was a little curious as to what he could do that the little stones he’d used a few nights ago, but that wasn’t the time to ask. Instead, I focused on following the vampire down several hallways. I was surprised when he didn’t take us up or down any stairs; he just stopped outside a door that looked much like all there other ones and knocked.
“Grand-master,” a soft voice intoned as the door opened.
“Claire,” Lord Thorne replied. “I brought visitors.”
The door opened wider, revealing a modest room with a single bed and humble furnishings. My view of the bed was partially obstructed by an armchair, but I knew from the way the blankets were rumpled that at least one person was lying there. Lord Thorne walked further into the room, to the far side of the bed.
“Lady Moss, how are you feeling?” His voice was smooth and low, and I did not like the seductive overtones he was using.
I followed him, feeling my heart pound the closer I got. Her back was still to me, and she was wearing a full, formal gown, and had jewels in her copper hair. Why was he dressing her like this? Why was she letting him? My breathing quickened as my frustration grew.
“I’m all right,” Leila said, speaking calmly, softer than usual. “I think it’s starting to help them.”
“Leila,” I gasped, choking on her name. I walked closer, past Lord thorne, ready to hit him if he tried to stop me.
Leila looked up at me when she heard her name. “Stefan!” Her face brightened; she looked so happy to see me, so surprised, but she remained seated on the edge of the bed. She reached one arms for me, but the other stayed where it was, close to one of the women lying nearby.
“Oh, Leila!” I wrapped my arms around her, needing to hold her, to be surrounded by her scent, to feel her touch. When I felt her return the embrace with only one arm, I tried to lift her up, only to hear her gasp in pain.
I froze. “Leila, what–” I looked down at her arm and realized that the pale woman, whose blonde hair had become limp and dull from days without washing, had her mouth on Leila’s wrist. More than that, Leila seemed to have offered it to her freely. I leaned in closer and notice a thin line of blood running down into her palm.
Leila looked up at Lord Thorne, the smile she’d had upon seeing me gone. “You said you’d prepare him for this.” She sounded annoyed and disappointed.
He gazed back her for a moment as though in thought. “I did want to,” he told her, “but he was far too intent on seeing you to listen to me.”
“Leila…” I breathed, gazing down at her wrist, “what… what are you doing? Is that–”
“That’s Ingrid,” she told me. “Look just sit down, okay? I realize you would have freaked out regardless of how you found out a bout this.”
I blinked and watched the vampire wrap her hands tighter around Leila’s arm. When I didn’t move, Leila pointed to an opened chair and asked me again to sit. As dazed as I was by what was going on, the sternness in her voice was enough to get me into the chair. I hardly acknowledged Erik, who sat in the armchair on the other side of the bed, even though he was watching my every move.
“First off, I’m fine,” Leila said, her tone certain. She look from me to Killian and Larsa. “I agreed to help.”
“Wow…” Larsa breathed. “You’re feeding her? But isn’t… isn’t that the one who drain Sir Maël?”
“It is,” I all but growled. I met Leila’s eyes. “Why would you do this?” I wanted to yank her arm away from the vampire, to get Leila out of that room, but Erik looked ready to lead from his chair if he didn’t like what I did, and Lord Thorne stood right next to my chair; I was in no position to test him.
“They need my help,” Leila said.
“Leila, ye heard the story Sir Maël told us,” Killian reminded her. “He couldnae sustain them; she was ne’er meant tae turn Brielle.”
“Is that Brielle?” Larsa gasped, pointing to the woman sleeping beside Ingrid. “Oh no…”
Brielle hardly looked alive– or as a live as a vampire can be. He skin was pale and ashen, her frame thin, as though she’d been starved. To be honest, the only reason I didn’t think she’d completely perished was because the other people in the room weren’t weeping and mourning.
“You see now why we sent for Lady Moss,” Lord Thorne said. “We cannot allow Tierney Ríocht’s cellist to die, and nothing else we’ve done has helped.”
He glanced around the room, then asked Erik, “Has Matthias still not returned?”
Erik shook his head.
Lord Thorne scowled. “We may have to send his master to drag his back. He cannot abandon his fledglings like this.”
“Where did Matthia go?” I asked.
Erik muttered something under his breath and shook his head. Leila, at least, was kind enough to give me an answer. “He hasn’t been seen since very early this morning. The only reason we can think for him to leave is that he’s upset I hadn’t agreed to help Ingrid and Brielle.”
“You mean he left because you said no?” I asked. “Basically rage-quit?”
Leila shook her head. “I hadn’t given any answer, actually. By the time I made up my mind and Lord Thorne brought me here to tell them, he was gone.”
“He was here when I left with Xanthus to retrieve our guests,” Erik added. “When I came back to check on him, he was gone.”
“Maybe he needed to go hunting?” I suggested.
“He’d be a fool to do so that close to dawn,” Lorne Thorne said.
“Not only that,” Erik went on, “but all of us let someone know when we’re leaving the castle. He’s been telling Ingrid, or at least leaving a note, when he so much as goes to bed. Disappearing like this isn’t normal for him.”
I would have replied to him, but I was distracted but the fact that Ingrid was still firmly attached to Leila’s wrist. I gave her a worried look. “Leila, how much have you given her? Hasn’t she had enough?”
“It’s all right, Stefan,” she said. “She’s drinking slowly. I can’t be drained in a matter of minutes like in the movies.”
“But– Look, can’t you just stop for a few minutes? I can’t watch you do this, Leila.”
“What?” she replied with a sort of laugh, as if I were being absurd. “Stefan, we’ve given blood together plenty of times before.”
“This isn’t the Red Cross, Leila.” I gave her a serious look.
“Think about it Stefan. They take blood donations for crises, right? Well, Tierney Ríocht is in a crisis– and it’ll get a lot worse if we lose Brielle.” There was a sense of urgency about her, and a desire for me to truly understand. “I’ll be okay. Lord Thorne and Erik are watching over me to make sure I take breaks. Ingrid is being gentle, too.”
I shook my head. “But Leila…” I croaked out, my throat feeling very dry.
“She’s a strong woman,” Erik pointed out. Again I had the desire to knock him out. I didn’t want him near her, I didn’t want him talking about here– I don’t even want him to know her. “She has the imagination and strength of will that allowed her to come here. She cares about this world even though she’s only just learned about it– and that includes us.”
By ‘us,’ I knew he meant the vampires; possibly other creatures of the shadows, too. Of course she cared– she was the same way back on Earth, always friendly, thinking the best of people. She wasn’t a fool about it, though, and I kept trying to tell myself that. Apparently she’d taken a long time to consider the vampires’ request for help– and I still hadn’t gotten to ask why it had to be her– so I believed that she hadn’t just rushed into this. Still, I couldn’t shake the desire to want to take her away from all of this.