"Damn you both," I muttered, turning my face away. Zeke's gaze still hadn't left me, and I squeezed my eyes shut. "All right," I whispered. "If that's what you want, Zeke. I promise I won't Turn you. But that means you can't give up." Opening my eyes, I glared at him. "You can't roll over and die. Promise me you'll keep fighting, for as long as it takes. We're not dead yet."
Zeke gave the smallest of grins. "Technically, you are," he whispered, and if my hands were free, I might've smacked him. "But you have my promise, vampire girl. I don't intend to give up. I'll fight beside you for as long as I can."
The elevator stopped with a ding, and the doors slid open. Stick greeted us on the other side, smiling like a cat with a bird. His human bodyguards waited impassively behind him. "This way," he sang as the vampire Elite pushed us out. Zeke stumbled, barely catching himself, and I bared my fangs at the one who'd shoved him, my gaze flicking to the katana still looped around his shoulder. His face remained impassive as he jerked his crossbow down the hall, motioning us forward.
This hallway was more ornate than the ones on the previous floors. Thick red carpet lined the dim corridor, with electric lights set into alcoves on either side. Large paintings hung from the walls: a peaceful countryside, city streets filled with light and people, horses grazing within a fence. Scenes of a world I'd never known. The painting of a mountain range caught my eye, snowy peaks tipped with red and pink, a sunrise that I would never see again.
At the end of the hallway stood two massive double doors, a vampire guard on either side. As we approached, Stick held up a hand and turned to us with a smile.
"Wait here a moment," he said. "I will inform the Prince of your arrival." His watery gaze shifted to the guards at our backs. "Make sure our guests do not move from this spot. If they try anything, shoot them if you have to, but don't kill them." He smiled at me then, secure in his authority. "We don't want to deny the Prince his amusement."
At one time, I would've been angry, but right now I just felt numb. What's happened to you, Stick? I wondered as he strode away, snapping his finger at a guard, who pulled the door open for him. Do you hate me that much for leaving? Or did you always despise me, even when we were Fringers together?
"Well, he's a real charmer," Jackal muttered as the door closed. "You two must've been such great pals. I hope you don't mind when I say I'm going to rip his tongue out through his nose and make him eat it."
Zeke moved closer, brushing my shoulder with his. "You all right?" he asked softly, watching my face. I nodded. I couldn't think about Stick. I had to focus on Salazar, what I was going to say to him once we went through those doors. What would he want? What could I say that would appeal to the vampire Prince? His city was falling apart around him, so maybe he would be interested in what we knew about Sarren and the other lab. Did he know Kanin was so close, right below his tower? And if Kanin was somewhere beneath us, Sarren was probably here, too.
My skin crawled at the thought of Sarren being nearby. If he found us now...
Dammit, I wasn't going to die here. We'd come too far. Salazar was a Master and had us completely at his mercy, but I was not ready to stop living. I would not let Kanin or Zeke down, either. Whatever it took, we were all going to walk away from this.
The door creaked open, and Stick emerged, wearing his ever-present smile. "Bring the prisoners forward," he called, and I clenched my fists behind my back. "Prince Salazar will see them now."
Well, this is it.
As the guards prodded us through the doorway, Zeke's gaze met mine, solemn and grim. Remember your promise, he seemed to say, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. It wouldn't come to that. I wouldn't allow it.
The doors creaked shut behind us.
I didn't get a good feel for the room at first, only that it was very large and dim. Nearly the entire opposite wall was glass, showing the night sky and the other two vampire towers silhouetted against the black. A huge desk sat in front of that wall, dark and shiny, but the man standing before the desk, leaning against the wood, demanded all our attention.
Prince Salazar regarded us curiously as we came in, like we were some kind of strange new insect he'd found on his floor. Even leaning against the desk, he was well over six feet in a perfectly tailored black suit, his inky hair tumbling to his shoulders in waves, not a strand out of place.
"So," Prince Salazar said, gazing directly at me, "you are Kanin's daughter."
He knew who I was.
Prince Salazar, the Master vampire of New Covington, the one who hated Kanin so much he'd kept a citywide manhunt going for weeks when the vampire was in the city, knew who I was.
Things didn't look good for me.
"Don't bother to deny it," Salazar said, his voice rich and deep, with the faintest accent I couldn't place. "Your friend Stephen has already told me everything about you. Where you lived, where you slept, the other members of your small gang. Rat and Lucas, I believe their names were? All Unregistered. Not in my system."
I spared a quick glance at Stick, standing off to the side, his gaze solely on the master. His face was slack, almost adoring. My stomach turned, and I forced myself to face Salazar again, who still watched me with no hints as to what he was thinking.
"Nothing to say?" he asked, raising a thin, elegant eyebrow.
"What do you want me to say?" I challenged. "You seem to know everything about me."
Salazar smiled. Turning, he raised a hand and gestured to one of the guards standing rigid beside us. "Release them."
The guard snapped to attention, and Stick jerked, glancing at me and then Salazar, who watched everyone calmly. "Master, are you sure that's a good idea?"
I was stunned, too, and stared at the Prince as a guard moved up behind me, inserting a key into my shackles. Salazar plucked a wineglass of blood from where it sat on the corner of his desk and swirled it thoughtfully.
"They are newcomers to my city," he stated as the cuffs dropped away and my hands were freed. "I do not wish to appear rude. The law states that I meet visiting kindred as guests unless I deem them an obvious threat. And they are not a threat to me. I do not need them in chains if I wish to destroy them."
Still shocked, I watched as Jackal and Zeke were released as well, Zeke rubbing his arms as the shackles were taken away. My gaze strayed to my katana, still looped to a guard's back, tempting me to lunge forward and snatch it away from him. I desperately wanted my sword, but getting it would be hard. There were the four armed vampire guards to contend with and, worse, there was Salazar himself. I did not want a fight with the vampire Prince of the city, as Kanin had showed me just how powerful a Master could be.
"Mr. Stephen," the Prince said as Stick continued to look sullen. "Please inform the guards outside the room to wait in the elevator hall. Inform them that, unless there is a lifeor-death situation, I do not wish to be disturbed by anyone. Is that clear?"
"Of course, Master."
Stick bowed and left the room, shooting me an unreadable glance as he left. His two human bodyguards followed him out. I heard him speaking to the sentries outside before the door creaked shut and they were gone. The four armed vampires in the room, however, stayed.
Salazar straightened and walked around his desk, dropping into the chair behind it. "Sit, please," he said politely, nodding to a trio of chairs. With nothing else to do, we sat, and the vampire Prince smiled. "I would offer you refreshments, but I'm afraid I have a bit of a situation here, and our blood supply has been...compromised. I do apologize for the state of my city. Rest assured we are doing all we can to bring it under control." His gaze went to Jackal, and then Zeke, sitting to either side of me. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage," he said, turning to Jackal. "I know of the girl, but I don't yet have the pleasure of your name."
"Jackal." Jackal crossed his legs and leaned back in the chair, looking perfectly at ease. "Former King of Old Chicago."
"Ah." Salazar nodded, giving him an appraising stare. "Yes, I have heard the rumors of a vampire who ruled a city entirely of humans. They say he was raising an army to take out the other vampire lords, only it didn't work out the way he'd hoped." Jackal raised his eyebrows, and the Prince smiled. "I like to keep tabs on my competition," he explained, and his smile turned dangerous again. "Assess possible threats before they grow too big to ignore. You are welcome here, raider king, so long as you remember who the Prince is." His gaze flicked to Zeke on the opposite side, turning slightly predatory. "And who is this...human?"
I stiffened, but Jackal broke in before I could speak. "He's no one," the former raider king said dismissively. "One of mine. In case I get hungry, and because he's actually a pretty good shot. Not the sharpest tack in the bunch, but he's amusing, for a pet. So I let him follow me around."
I saw Zeke briefly clench his jaw, as if struggling not to say anything. Jackal caught my eye, one corner of his mouth twitching, and I bit my tongue. You are such a bastard, I thought, though I understood what Jackal was doing. Ignore the human, he was telling the Prince. The human isn't important. If Salazar knew who Zeke really was, where he really came from... No, it was better that the Prince think of Zeke as a nobody, unimportant. Jackal had been right to shift the Prince's focus away from him. Though he didn't have to look so damn smug about it.
"Hmm." The Prince nodded and, much to my relief, appeared to lose interest in Zeke. "Well, enough pleasantries," he went on, and his piercing stare centered on me once more. "You have come for Kanin."
I gripped the edges of my chair, feeling Zeke and Jackal tense. "What do you know about that?" I asked. The Prince's smile grew, showing fangs.
"Because he is being tortured in the lowest level of my tower," he continued, matter-of-fact, "and his pain calls out to you, his offspring. Because you dream of him, starving, going mad with Hunger, clawing at the chains around him like a beast. Because he is screaming for salvation, and you cannot resist your sire's call. It drew you here, to my city, and it compels you to find him. But you cannot save him now."
I swallowed hard. Salazar had Kanin. But how? How had he gotten him away from Sarren? Had he killed the psychotic vampire, or had Sarren simply lost interest and left Kanin for the Prince to find?
I shook myself. None of that mattered. Sarren was gone, and the Prince was the one we had to deal with now. "Why are you doing this to him?" I whispered. "He was trying to find the cure for Red Lung and Rabidism. He was trying to save everything."
"He betrayed all our kind when he went to the scientists." Salazar's voice was suddenly hard and terrifying, his eyes gleaming with hate. "He turned on his own kin, allowed the humans to experiment on those who would be their masters, and he is responsible for the abominations outside the city." Salazar sat back, composing himself, though his voice was no less scary. "What he allowed those humans to do to our former brethren is unforgivable. What he helped create has damned us all to the darkest pits of hell. Kanin will suffer for his crimes. I have all eternity to watch him writhe and scream and become that which he created. A fitting end, I believe." Salazar's gaze sharpened, cutting into me. "Perhaps you would care to join him."