"Wait," Zeke whispered as I drew back. "Allison, please. Don't run off again."
I shook my head. "Good night, Zeke," I told him simply, and walked away, out of the room and into the hall, leaving him alone.
There was a guard, a human one, outside the door to the guest room Salazar had assigned me that night, standing there calmly with his hands clasped behind him. I gave him a wary frown as I approached, but he didn't acknowledge me until I stood right in front of him. And still, he stared over my shoulder, blocking the doorway, and didn't look like he was going to move. I was tired, both in body and spirit, the encounters with Kanin, Salazar and Zeke all tugging at different parts of my mind. I did not want a fight with a nameless guard in the middle of the corridor.
"Are you going to let me in?" I asked, feeling the approach of the sun outside the building and just wanting to crawl beneath the covers of a bed to pass out. "This is my room, right? I didn't get Jackal's quarters by mistake?"
He ignored me but lifted a hand and rapped twice on the door. "She's here, sir," he called through the wood. There was a muffled reply from within, and the guard stepped aside, nodding for me to go on. Puzzled, I pushed the door open and stepped warily through.
Say what you would about Salazar, he certainly knew how to live, if this guest suite was any indication. It was a pretty impressive room, much grander than what I was used to. The lighting was muted, orange lamps throwing shadows across the floor and rose-colored walls. Real lamps. Not flickering candles or oil lanterns, or the rarer battery-powered flashlight. A massive bed stood against the far wall, long black curtains draping the frame to ensure total darkness while you slept. Even thicker curtains hung from a pair of glass doors at the back, which I assumed led onto a balcony and a view of the city below.
Standing in front of those doors, arms crossed over his thin chest and watery gaze meeting mine across the room, was Stick.
Inwardly, I groaned. I was tired. Dawn was almost here. I did not want to deal with him right now. Stick wasn't alone, either. Another guard stood in the corner, eyes blank, gazing straight ahead. But his hands held a crossbow, already strung, ready to unleash it on me if I tried anything.
"What do you want, Stick?" I asked, coming slowly into the room, keeping a wary eye on the guard with the crossbow. Strangely enough, I wasn't even that angry. Disappointed, perhaps. Disgusted with his choice, that he had become a pet in the vampire regime I despised, a fawning lapdog to the Prince himself. But I was more weary than angry, and not even remotely surprised. I'd always known, deep down, that Stick had betrayed me. And it seemed he'd taken to this new role like a fish to water. I couldn't even muster the energy to care.
His pale eyes narrowed. "It's Mr. Stephen, now," he reminded me in a sharp tone. "And I want to know what you're doing here, Allie. Why you're really in New Covington. Is it revenge? Come to get even for what happened?" His lips thinned. "I'm warning you, I'm not the same pathetic Fringer you knew before. My word carries power around here. I can get you thrown into the dungeon if I wanted. Remember that, if you're thinking of sneaking into my room one night."
"I didn't come here for you," I told him disdainfully. "Trust me, you were the farthest thing from my mind when I entered New Covington. I'm here for Kanin, nothing else."
That didn't please him at all. His nostrils flared, and he stiffened, as if offended. You'd think he'd wanted me to have come back for revenge. "Liar," he accused. "You always hated me. You wanted to see me gone, just like Lucas and Rat. And now that you're a vampire, you've come back to punish me for..." He trailed off.
"For what?" I challenged. "Selling me out? Giving the Prince the location of your friend, so you could come live in the tower as a pet?"
"You were a vampire." Stick glared back, remorseless. "You showed up in the middle of the night after disappearing for weeks, and you were a monster. What was I supposed to think? What was I supposed to do?"
"I don't know, Stick." My voice came out soft, resigned. "Maybe talk to me? Let me explain my side of the story? You could have given me that much, at least. I think..." I hesitated, to see if the words were true, if they were real. They were. "I would have done the same for you."
"Well, it's too late for that now." There might've been a hint of regret in Stick's voice, or I might've imagined it. "What's done is done, and we both chose our paths. Because you did choose this, right, Allison?" His watery gaze sharpened. "There's no way you became a vampire by accident. You chose to become a monster."
Now, I felt a hot stab of anger. And something entirely unexpected. Hurt. "You want to know how I became a monster?" I snapped, making Stick flinch and the guard raise his crossbow threateningly. "Remember the night outside the Wall, where Rat and Lucas died? Remember the rabids that were chasing us, the ones that I led away from you? They killed me. Ran me down and tore me apart. And then Kanin showed up as I was dying and gave me the choice. Die for real, or become undead. So yes, I took the deal to become a vampire. And you took the deal to become a pet. I guess that makes both of us monsters, doesn't it?"
Stick's jaw tightened. He nodded slowly, as if he had just confirmed something he'd known all along. "I knew you blamed me," he muttered, and I clenched my fists to keep myself from flying at him and slamming his skinny frame into the glass. It's not about you, I wanted to scream at him. It was never about you. I never blamed you that I became a monster-that was my choice. But you betrayed me to the Prince without a second thought. Vampire or no, I thought our friendship meant more than that. I thought...I meant more.
Unclenching my fingers, I composed myself, forcing my fangs back into my gums. The rage flickered and died, and cold numbness spread out to take its place. I hadn't known him, not at all. The realization was a bitter lump in my stomach, acrid and poisonous. "Stick," I said dully, feeling as if a part of me had died. Or worse, that it just didn't care anymore. "I'm tired, and it's nearly dawn. If there's nothing you want, please go away so that I can sleep."
Stick shook his head, his expression curling in disgust. "You always thought you were so superior," he said, as if he were the one betrayed. "You never thought I could be more than I was. That I was just some poor, pathetic kid you let hang around. You never thought I could have dreams beyond trailing in your shadow, did you?"
"Are you done?" I asked flatly. He sneered.
"You haven't changed," he stated, determined, I supposed, to get a rise out of me. I wondered if he knew what a risky game he was playing. Favored pet or no, you could only push a vampire so far. "You might be a bloodsucker now, but you're still the same ignorant street urchin you always were. Who's this new kid you have following you around like a lost puppy? Does he know what you really are?"
"Leave Zeke out of this," I snapped, shooting him a warning glare. Fear rose up, and I stifled it, keeping my voice steady. "This has nothing to do with him. He's no threat to you or anyone."
"That remains to be seen," Stick replied, smirking faintly. He'd gotten what he wanted-a way to raise my hackles- and wasn't about to let it go. He didn't know how very, very dangerous this newest game was, especially when it came to Zeke. "As far as I'm concerned, he might've been the one to shoot that crossbow at the Prince." Stick met my gaze, mean and challenging. "Better be careful, Allison. He's only human, and around here, humans go missing sometimes. If you want to ensure his safety, I suggest you start treating me with respect."
I took a deep, calming breath, trying to dissolve the sudden fury, the urge to stalk forward, grab my former friend and snap his skinny little neck.
"Stick," I said very softly but making certain he heard every syllable. My voice trembled, but it was from an icy rage, from holding myself back. My fangs flashed in the dim light as I faced him. "Listen to me very carefully. If you lay one finger on Zeke, if he is harmed, for any reason, all the guards in the world won't be enough to protect you from me."
Stick went pale, but he still raised his chin, eyes flashing. "You...you can't talk to me like that anymore, Allie," he stammered. "I'm in charge here, and you're supposed to listen to me now. I could order your human thrown in the dungeon, and the Prince wouldn't care. I could have him tortured, drained until he's nothing but skin and bones, and no one would raise a hand to stop it." He was feverish now, staring at me with a mix of superior defiance and fear. I'd never seen him like this, and I didn't care. All I knew was that he was threatening Zeke, who had never raised a hand to him or even spoken to him. And if he didn't leave my room right now, things were going to get ugly.
I snarled, baring fangs, and he jumped, skittering backward. The guard raised the crossbow, pointing it at me, but I didn't move. "Get out!" I told Stick, barely holding on to my rage. The Hunger had emerged full force with my anger and was goading me to attack, to rip out hearts and snap bones and sink my fangs into soft fleshy throats. "Get out of here, Stick," I hissed through my fangs. "Right now, before I tear off your stupid head and throw it through the window."
Stick still looked defiant, like he didn't believe I would really hurt him. Thankfully, his guard was a bit more sensible. "Sir," he said tightly, easing forward with his crossbow raised. "Sir, we should go. The Prince will be upset if you're harmed by one of his guests. Sir, we need to leave now."
Gently but firmly, the guard took his elbow, pulling him away. Stick resisted a moment then relented with an irritated huff.
"Get your hands off me." Stick yanked his arm loose, but continued to walk toward the door, glaring back even as the guard continued to herd him out. "Remember what I said, Allie," he threw over his shoulder. "I'm in charge around here. You're not the important one anymore."
I stood there seething long after the door closed. And, for the first time since that night in the rain, I wondered what would've happened if I'd just let Stick...die. If I hadn't led them away, straight to my death. If the rabids had taken him, instead of me.
I didn't expect to dream, but I did.
A flash, a brief stab of confusion. My eyes open to a strange room, one I haven't seen before. It is different than what I'd become used to: darkness, stone, iron bars, anguish. Pain has been my world for so long; I had forgotten an existence without it. And now, just like that, I am free. Because of her.
Except...there is still something wrong. Something inside me, a dark coiling intruder that I can barely feel, spreading through my veins. What happened to me, in the time I was gone? And where is he in all of this mess?
I opened my eyes, Kanin's suspicion ebbing away into reality. I lay at the edge of the enormous bed with my sword clutched to my chest, gazing at the ceiling. The room was very dark; the thick curtains across the balcony doors shut out all light, but by my internal clock, the sun had just gone down.
I swung my feet off the mattress and stood, still in my black coat and original clothes. I'd locked my door, even considered dragging the dresser in front of it, as I did not trust the vampires in this tower, or even the humans. Worse, I did not want Stick to come creeping back into my room. Just the thought of him sent curls of anger and loathing through my stomach. He was my enemy now, or he thought he was, anyway. I remembered the sullen contempt in his eyes, the resentment, as if I was offending him by being here, by still being alive. I still didn't fully understand it. Maybe we'd never been friends at all.