"So, what are we supposed to do?" Zeke asked Jackal as a pair of big dogs growled at us from the ends of their leashes. Now only a few yards separated us from the gate, and the entrance to the vampire's lair. "They're going to know I'm human, Unregistered and armed. Isn't the punishment for that kind of thing death around here? Or is that what you're hoping for?"
"Kid, I got this. Trust me." Jackal gave us one last selfsatisfied glance. "Just look dangerous."
Trust Jackal. That didn't sound like a good plan, but there was nothing we could do about it now. The patrol had stopped us at another checkpoint, and the lead soldier was speaking to another guard. The man in uniform looked up from the gatehouse, peering through a small window, and narrowed his eyes. I shifted uneasily, feeling a restless flicker of the Hunger stir to life. So many humans...
The man inside the gatehouse emerged and walked toward us, his pinched mouth drawn into a frown. Jackal glared, waiting imperiously as the human, flanked by two more soldiers with large guns, strode up.
"Sir," he greeted, with the obvious air of someone who thought they were important. "Welcome to New Covington. Please excuse the current state of the city. I understand you wish an audience with the Prince's aide?"
"No," Jackal said, giving the man a clear look of disdain. "I don't want an audience with the Prince's pet. I want to see Salazar himself. But since the sniveling little human is the only way to get to him, I'm being polite and following the rules. What I don't understand is why I'm standing here, talking to you."
This last must've been punctuated with a flash of fangs, for the man deflated a bit, looking paler then before.
"Well, you see, s-sir," he stammered, and gave Zeke a pointed look, "Unregistered humans are not allowed into the Inner City. If he came from the Fringe, I'm afraid we must quarantine him immediately. He could be infected, and we cannot risk the spread of disease within the city, certainly not inside the towers themselves. We must ask you to turn him over."
I tensed, a growl rising to my throat, barely stopping myself from stepping up and drawing my sword. Beside me, Zeke was frozen, his expression grim but not surprised. As if he'd been expecting this. The man gestured to his two guards, and they stepped around him toward Zeke. I did growl then, baring fangs, ready to jump between them, but Jackal's next words stopped everyone in their tracks.
"Lay one finger on him, and I'll tear your heads off."
Now everyone froze. Jackal's voice was calm, he hadn't even moved or turned around, but when a vampire made threats like that, you believed it. The two guards backed hastily away. The other human sputtered a protest, but Jackal stepped forward, looming over the man, and his objections fell silent.
"Tell me, human," the vampire said in a soft, dangerous voice. "What does the law say about seizing a vampire's pet?"
Zeke stiffened, though it went unnoticed by the other humans, who were still focused on Jackal. I saw anger flash across his face, but he remained silent as Jackal pressed closer, crowding the man.
The human swallowed hard. "Under pain of death, no one is allowed to lay a hand on a specifically branded aide without direct permission from his owner. Sir."
"And do you see Salazar's brand on him?"
"Then get out of our way," Jackal continued, still in that soft, deadly voice. "Before I rip your heart out for your insolence and eat it in front of you. I've wasted enough time here already."
The human was in no mood to argue. His face was white, and his pompous attitude seemed to have fled with his courage. "T-take our guests to Mr. Stephen's office," he ordered, motioning to his guards. "Inform him of what is going on. He might be with the Prince now, so let him know it's important."
"Yes, sir!" The guards stepped forward, bowing slightly to Jackal. "Please, follow us, sir." And without any hesitation, they turned and marched through the checkpoint as the other human waved us through.
Incredible. We were past the gate without having to fight our way in. Without having to kill anyone for trying to take Zeke away. Jackal had pulled it off. I wouldn't have done it that way; I wasn't sure that I could. And I was still shocked that he had stood up for Zeke. He hadn't let the human be taken, though his insistence might've lessened our chances of getting in.
By Zeke's quiet, thoughtful expression, I knew he was stunned, as well.
The guards led us across the road, past several smaller buildings on the corner, and then up a sprawling flight of concrete steps to the wide double doors at the base of the first tower. Another guard opened the door for us, and we entered a massive lobby, green-and-black pillars lining the walls, and a huge wooden desk up front. Yet another security checkpoint waited for us beyond the door, where a couple humans arriving before us had to scan their tattoos to be allowed through.
How much security does the Prince need? I thought, as the guards on the other side of the desk eyed us warily. Is he really that paranoid, to surround himself with so many guards, or is this because of the situation in the Fringe? You'd think the Master vampire of the city wouldn't be afraid of a few rogue humans wandering his tower, or even rogue vampires.
A blonde woman in a business suit waited for us on the other side of the checkpoint, waving at the guards to let us through. She bowed as we came up, giving Jackal a bright smile as she straightened. I could hear her heart pounding in her chest and smelled the fear surrounding her, though she hid it well. In fact, all the humans in this place reeked of fear.
"Welcome to the Prince's tower, sir," the woman announced, as Jackal raked his gaze over her body and leered with appreciation. "I am Mr. Stephen's secretary, and if you will follow me, I will show you to his office. Mr. Stephen is in a meeting now, but he will be with you as soon as he is able."
"He'd better be," Jackal growled. The secretary didn't give any outward sign of emotion, though her heartbeat picked up and her shoes made anxious tapping sounds as she led us farther into the tower.
I shifted my focus, letting my consciousness flow outward, searching for something else.
There. I could feel it. I could feel him, very close, but... below us. Somewhere beneath the tower, just barely clinging to sanity.
Hang on, Kanin. We're almost there.
The woman led us from the brightly lit lobby into a maze of long, shadowy corridors, her heels clicking rhythmically over the tile. The halls were mostly empty. No light shone from beneath the doors or adjoining wings, and no humans walked the hallways except a single woman with a mop, scrubbing the floor. It was nearly as cold in the tower as it was outside. Zeke's breath hung in the air as we continued deeper into the maze, the shadows closing around us. The tower had a cold, stark, unfriendly feel to it, though it was far cleaner and well taken care of than any building I'd seen before.
A door opened ahead of us, and two men in business suits stepped out. Both were tall and pale, vampires, not a hair out of place or a speck of dirt on their clothes. I tensed as they spotted us. The secretary bowed her head to them as we went by, but they ignored her, watching us with glittering eyes, smiling faintly. I tensed, ready to draw my blade if they lunged, but they let us pass without incident and continued down the hall. I wondered if these were the Type-2 vampires Kanin had told me about, the nobles of vampire society. I also wondered what they did all night in this monstrous tower. Kanin had explained a little of vampire politics to me before we were separated, the constant backstabbing and maneuvering and climbing up the chain of command, trying to get closer to the Prince. I hadn't been very interested in hearing it at the time, having no desire to fit in with the city vamps. Now I wished I'd listened closer.
"In here, please." The woman opened a door that led to a large, well-tended office. "Mr. Stephen will be right with you."
Stepping through the frame, I gazed around, pushing back my distaste. The pets might be sellouts and traitors to their own race, but they were certainly well taken care of. The carpet beneath my feet was plush and soft, and heavy curtains draped the windows, keeping out the chill. A huge wooden desk, polished to a mahogany sheen, dominated one corner of the room, surrounded by shelves and files. It was warmer in this room, much warmer than it was in the halls, probably because of the fire flickering cheerfully in the marble fireplace on the far wall. I was shocked that the vamps allowed live flames within their buildings, even well caged as the fire was, but I supposed they couldn't have their prized humans freezing to death.
A leather sofa sat against the far wall, pillows and blankets folded neatly on the cushions, as if the pet slept here, and often. An object on the worn leather caught my attention. A book, open and upside down, straddling the armrest. Unable to help myself, I edged closer, leaning forward to read the title. Of Mice and Men. John Steinbeck. I glanced up, looking past the sofa, and saw another shelf standing in the corner by the window. This one was full of books, more then I'd ever seen in my life. And for just a moment, I felt a tiny prick of envy.
When I was Allie the Fringer, I used to collect books like this, from anywhere I could find them. Of course, in the Fringe, owning them was highly illegal. The vampire lords didn't want their cattle to be able to read-it might put ideas in our heads if we knew what life was like before. But one of my greatest secrets was that I could read. My mom had taught me when she was still alive, and I'd clung to that accomplishment fiercely. It was the one thing the vampires couldn't take from me.
When Kanin made me a vampire, however, I'd had to leave my collection behind, and it had been burned by the humans who'd moved into my old home. Years of effort, gone in a heartbeat.
But the pets could read without fear. They could have a book collection if they wanted, without having to hide it away from all prying eyes. They didn't have to scrounge and scrape just to get by, or huddle with a friend beneath a filthy blanket to avoid freezing to death. No, they had everything they could possibly want or need, for the low price of selling out their own kind.
Must be nice.
"I still don't think this is a good idea," Zeke was saying behind me. "Those were vampires in the hallway. If the Prince figures out who we are, we won't be able to fight our way out of the building, much less back to the Fringe."
"Stop being so twitchy," Jackal replied, and I heard him sit in one of the chairs near the desk, swinging his boots up. "I told you before, Salazar doesn't know us from Adam. No one here does. And it's better to act like you belong here than be caught sneaking around. So relax, pet." I heard the grin in his voice and could almost feel Zeke bristle. "We're vampires. What could happen?"
Something on the bookshelf caught my eye. A sliver of color among the darker, more subdued books. For some reason, I felt drawn to it. There was a nagging sensation in the back of my mind as I stepped around the sofa and approached the shelf. As I reached for the thin cover, the nagging turned into a sense of foreboding.
"Allie?" Zeke said, though I barely heard him as my fingers closed on the spine. "What are you doing?"
Pulling the book from the shelf, my mind went blank and a cold fist gripped my stomach. Bright animals danced across the cover of a children's picture book as familiar to me as the back of my hand. Unlike the other books on the shelf, it was dirty and torn, a mold stain eating one corner. I knew it instantly. This had been my mom's book, the one she'd read to me hundreds of times when I was a kid, the one I regretted losing the most. The cold spread from my stomach to my entire body. If it was here, that could only mean one thing....