I scanned the crowd of nocturnes, searching for my prey. My fangs descended, pulsing with the adrenaline coursing through my veins.
The word held more meaning since my primal instincts had been dragged closer to the surface by that one decision. It had changed my life. Irrevocably.
Correction, she changed my life.
A rainbow of soft lights from ornate gas lamps flickered across the marble walls, highlighting the silver veins. The multicolored flames created by the alchemists were pretty and yet unnecessary, like so many other things in this club. Synth and sweat permeated the air, swirling with an array of perfumes and smoke.
Still, the thief’s unique scent lingered. I followed him through a back entrance, losing his thin form among the twisting bodies on the dance floor below.
He was here somewhere.
I slipped through the nobles drowning in opulence and luxury. They relaxed on velvet chaises and drank synth and wine from crystal goblets. Any one of them could be responsible for the human blood bags I sunk to the bottom of the lake.
And maybe none of them were responsible at all. Could they be just as clueless as I’d been a few days ago?
Images of brilliant green eyes I couldn’t forget bombarded my mind. My lips burned with the memory of hers. Her scent. Her taste. All of her had been branded into my soul.
When a Collective plane crashed near the border of Draconis, I had no idea my life would be turned upside down and shattered by the little human inside. I couldn’t know that giving her my blood to save her would form a blood bond between us. There was no way to predict the feelings she would free from the usual hard exterior surrounding me.
Those same feelings needed to disappear because if I let them consume me, it could trigger the prophecy that would kill every human and nocturne in New Isos.
We didn’t know how or why. Just that it would be brought about by the love between a human and nocturne.
I shook my mind clear, forcing her to the dark recesses where she was supposed to remain. I had to stay focused on the task at hand. I’d screwed up, and my only way back to normalcy was to capture this criminal.
My back pressed against the cool wall on the second level, my body shrouded in shadows. No one noticed me. They’d stare if they had. I wasn’t one to frequent the club. This was Xander’s world, not mine, which was exactly why he thought he’d easily take down the thieving taranoi before I could. Xander didn’t shy away from the attention and was already announcing to every group of nobles that he was here looking for a wanted criminal. I was surprised I didn’t hear his voice over the loudspeaker demanding the taranoi surrender.
Hopefully that wouldn’t happen. I needed to be the one to bring the thief in.
The king was furious I was MIA for two days. I spent those two days safely escorting my little human back to Imera where she belonged.
A lump rose in my throat. Was she all right? Was she in trouble? Was she keeping her promise not to search for answers?
Did she miss me?
Gods. I was pathetic. Instead of forgetting the last few days, I was wallowing in the absence of something forbidden.
The bond was clearly still in place, for now anyway. With the distance, I couldn’t sense her emotions. Only a low hum resonated in the background. Her presence. I wasn’t sure how much longer it would last. Every second felt like a countdown to the moment this connection would finally sever.
It was for the best.
Those words had crossed my mind a dozen times since returning to Draconis. I’d read the prophecy over and over to remind myself of the danger that just knowing Solaris posed.
The glass lights glimmered on a plaque a few feet away, the words of the prophecy etched into the metal.
A nocturne and a human shall unite,
Love will blossom, overpowering all that is right.
Great disaster will befall
Ending both mortals and vampires, one and all.
But why should I believe the two of us had anything to do with the prophecy? She was a human and I was a nocturne. So what? That didn’t automatically make us the ones the prophecy spoke of. I already kissed her, and our worlds didn’t implode.
I dragged my fingers through my hair, pulling on the roots. Then again, could either of us really take that chance?
The raucous laughter of two men caught my attention. One of them had spilled an entire bottle of synth. The taranoi serving them smiled and quickly began cleaning it up. I could see by the tightness of her jaw how much she hated them.
The taranoi were given a certain amount of synthetic blood to live on as were nobles and royals. The difference was, nobles and royals could afford to buy plenty more sold in this club and other places in the city. Synth was expensive and taranoi didn’t make much money.
Over a hundred years ago there was no such thing as synth. Like our vampire ancestors, nocturnes drank human blood back then.
A shiver tattooed a trail down my spine as images of crimson filled bags flashed behind my eyes. The briny liquid had been as mesmerizing as it was terrifying.
It shouldn’t have been on that plane in the first place. Drinking human blood had been outlawed after the prophecy was foretold, but someone had been expecting a massive shipment of it from Imera.
They’d never get it.
And I’d try my best to forget I’d ever seen it.
An ache twisted my stomach, from fear that my little human would not be able to forget it. She was too daring for her own good. Looking for answers to this secret could get her killed.
A couple staggered toward the wall I was leaning against. I cursed and slinked further down. My brother came into view several feet away, talking to Tessamia, a female noble who wanted nothing more than to be queen.
This was the first time I’d seen my twin since saving Solaris from him. Searing heat bubbled through my chest like acid. My hands curled into tight fists, wanting nothing more than to crush every bone in his face. He drank her blood only a few days ago, but I could detect the little pep in his step it still gave him.
Inside he was probably still burning for more.
My fangs pulsed. He’d never get it.
I crept along the wall, searching for disturbances in the crowd. Taranoi typically wore drab colors that could easily be spotted among the glittering nobles. This one had on gray pants and a dingy white shirt, unlike the solid gray uniforms of the club workers. His blonde hair was also shaggy and unkempt, framing his face in greasy waves.
He was spotted stealing synthetic blood from a truck making a delivery to a noble family’s home. He’d given the Royal Guards the slip. The king assigned his capture to Xander and then included me when I returned.
It was a test under the guise of training. I’d only just returned when Anders called me into my father’s study. The king was furious at my disappearance. He was ready to chain me in the dungeons for it.
Lies I’d practiced during my flight across the Shadow Lands fell from my lips.
I took the plane out for training and had engine trouble. The radio wasn’t working, and I had to land, nearly tearing a wing off in the process.
The scrapes along the charcoal steel were proof something had happened.
It took me a while to clear a spot for takeoff again. I returned as soon as possible.
My father didn’t know what to think. I’d always been the perfect, obedient son. Why would I suddenly start rebelling now?
This was his way of assessing my commitment to the trials. He’d already sent Xander to capture this criminal an hour ago, a task normally reserved for the guards. The winner would prove to be a better tracker, a better hunter.
But much more than that was at stake. Even with Xander’s head start, if I failed, I’d slip from the king’s good graces. He wouldn’t excuse any more odd behavior, and he wouldn’t favor me over my twin.
That couldn’t happen.
If my brother thought for one second the king didn’t blindly trust my word, he would spill what I’d really been up to the past few days. He would tell the king I’d had a human in Draconis. With no evidence I could deny it, but I’d be punished regardless. It wouldn’t be a simple slap on the hand either.
A squeal echoed from the crowd dancing below. My pulse spiked as I finally caught sight of the taranoi.
Unfortunately, so did Xander.
He dashed across the room and vaulted over the iron railing, landing on the bottom floor. Nocturnes clapped, and he took the time to bow, lapping up the attention.
I rolled my eyes. He couldn’t keep a low profile. Not ever. It did give me an advantage, though: while he put on a show, I was able to survey the taranoi and anticipate his actions. He made a mad dash for the employee door in the back and Xander followed. But before the taranoi slipped through, his eyes cast toward the very upper left of the building. Moonlight illuminated the outline of a window. That was his way out. He’d lead Xander through a maze in the back and then find his way up to the rafters.
I melted into the shadows again, slinking against the wall. A commotion was unfolding downstairs, laughter and whistles resonating through the crowd. The young nobles thought this was funny.
It left a sour taste in my mouth.
When the window was directly above, my knees bent and I jumped. My fingers clutched a hefty iron hook in the wall used to hold lights during special events. I swung myself up, grabbing onto a solid steel beam.
My legs dangled, the air cooler in the darkness. I pulled myself up, my feet balancing on the flat edge. I was already several stories high despite the building only being two levels. A fall to the bottom would prove long and end painfully. I leaped higher and pressed myself against the wall next to the window outside the shaft of moonlight streaming in. Not a soul could see me.
The nobles continued partying as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Not like me.
The phantom feel of gold silk slid through my fingers, and the scent of honey and jasmine saturated the air. Soft lips pressed against mine, hungry and terrified at the same time.
My fists clenched, and I fought the urge to punch a hole through the marble behind me. I had to stop thinking of her. I had to forget her name, forget everything.
We would never see each other again. Never.
My nostrils flared as warring emotions crashed inside like battling tides in the ocean. One wanted to cast a spell to make me forget Solaris. The other wanted to take a plane and steal her right out of Imera.
A flicker of movement suddenly caught my eye. The taranoi I’d been chasing landed on the ledge in front of the window. Adrenaline spiked through me again, washing away Solaris’s image.
My arm shot out, grabbing his in an iron grasp. “Where do you think you’re going?”
His dark brown eyes widened. “How did…” he trailed off, quickly recovering from the shock. A hard expression morphed his features.
“Don’t even try to fight me,” I warned as his body tensed. “You won’t win.”
A snarl curled his lips, revealing a pair of sharp fangs. “I’d rather go down fighting than surrender to any of you greedy royals, Prince Kaige.” He spat my name as if it were poison.
My silver eyes reflected in his. “Fine.” I shot onto the stone ledge, my arm quickly securing around his neck.
He struggled against me. “You royals and nobles are all the same. Choking on synth while we starve. It doesn’t matter which one of you rules. You’re all selfish and merciless creatures.”
Did all taranoi think that of us? The crime rate had increased, most cases involving the theft of synth. Could I really blame them for wanting more food? Maybe if I talked to the king—
My thoughts were cut off as the club around me disappeared. The music, the taranoi, the scents—it was all gone.
A dull gray cement wall came into focus, illuminated by harsh white lights.
What the hell is going on? Where am I?
A familiarity began to creep through my mind moments before pain exploded across my nose.
Red haze flashed through my vision, and I was back in the club, struggling with the taranoi. He’d slammed his head into my face, cracking my nose. Curses tumbled from my mouth, garbled by the blood leaking down my face. I should have just compelled him the moment my fingers curled around his arm.
My grip loosened so I could spin him around to do just that. His shoulder rammed into my chest, and his foot slipped on the stone ledge. Glass shattered against my back.
The stars appeared above and cold air rushed over my body as we both fell from the window, the hard cobblestone street far below.
My eyes snapped open, and harsh white lights blinded me. I blinked, trying to bring the room to focus. A dull gray cement wall boxed me in.
Dammit. I’d hoped it had all been a terrible nightmare.
I sat up and scooted to the edge of the cot, still squinting from the bright lights overhead. This had to be some form of torture. I glanced at my watch; it wasn’t even 5am yet.
After getting captured sneaking back into Imera last night, I’d been transported to the OrderComm detention facility. The weirdest part was that Turstan didn’t say a word to me the entire ride over. His soldiers handcuffed me then escorted me to their Hummer. After they dumped me in this cell, I expected a visit from my favorite Collective leader, but instead it’d been radio silence ever since. Not even Malcolm came. My chest tightened.
What if they’d done something to Malcolm because of me?
I shook my head, trying to chase the dismal thoughts from my mind. Everything would be fine. No one would ever find out I’d been in Draconis. I’d had a lot of time to think while hiking with Kaige through the Shadow Lands, and I had the lie ready to go.
My heart flip-flopped just thinking about him. I hadn’t had much time to focus on him since my arrival in Imera. It hadn’t exactly been the homecoming I’d imagined.
He should’ve been back in Draconis by now, safe and sound, preparing for the trials or doing whatever princes did when they weren’t hiding fugitive human girls.
I rubbed at the middle of my chest, a spot just under my collarbone. I could still feel him, but it was faint. He was alive, but his emotions were dulled. Like mine were without him.
I exhaled a slow breath. I had to let go of the prince of darkness; I’d never see him again. We’d tempted the prophecy more than enough over the past week. Not seeing him was for the best—for everyone.
Footsteps echoed down the corridor, and I jumped to my feet. I positioned myself by the door and stared as the handle turned.
The door jerked open with a whoosh and Turstan stepped through, his cold, gray eyes piercing right through me. The temperature in the cell dropped by ten degrees when he entered. He buttoned the top button of his high-collared pale blue suit, covering the scar at the base of his neck.
“So glad to see you’re awake, Ms. Levant.” His upper lip twisted into a sneer. “I take it the facilities were satisfactory?”
I crossed my arms against my chest, and the soft fabric of the top Kaige had given me glided over my skin. Crap. If anyone noticed it, they’d know something so fine could never have come from Imera. I glanced down at the flowy purple material. It was wrinkled and dirty. Hopefully no one would give it a second glance in its current condition.
“Yes, they were fine,” I finally answered. “Why are you keeping me here?”
“Careful, young lady.” He raised a finger, his yellow brittle nail making my skin crawl. “I’m the one asking the questions today.”
I gritted my teeth to keep my mouth from exploding a slew of curses.
He walked toward me, grinning like the Cheshire cat. His white mustache moved with his lips, the ends pointing upward. “Let’s put aside for one moment the fact that you stole Collective property, a crime that alone could imprison you for the rest of your life, and focus on where you’ve been for the past week?”
“Collective property? I thought that was your personal jet?”
“Everything belongs to the people of Imera. You know that.” His words slithered from his thin lips like molasses.
I grunted. “Of course. How could I forget?”
“And? Where have you been?” he hissed through clenched teeth.
“Wandering around the Shadow Lands trying to make my way back here.”
He furrowed his unruly white eyebrows. They were permanently arched, giving him a perpetually surprised expression. “And the plane?”
“At the bottom of some lake.” I grinned. The only good thing about losing that magnificent jet was the look on Turstan’s face right now.
“You crashed my—the Cessna?”
“It wasn’t my fault. The whole system shut down. I was lucky I made it out alive.”
He huffed. “Yes, you’ll have to tell me how you managed that without a scratch.” His icy glare raked over me. Maybe taking Kaige’s blood to heal all my wounds hadn’t been such a great idea.
He pulled a chair from the corner and moved it next to the cot. He eyed it with disgust before lowering himself onto it. “Sit.” He pointed to me, then at the makeshift bed.
I shuffled over and slumped down.
“Tell me everything. Do not leave out a single detail.”
I went through the whole story, using most of the real facts. Those were always the best lies, the ones with as much truth as possible. I, of course, omitted the part about Kaige and the blood bags.
“So, the entire plane caught on fire?” he asked, glaring.
“Yup,” I swung my legs back and forth, “right before it rolled into the lake.”
“And you never saw border patrol as you neared the wall on your return?”
“Nope. I looked for them for help but didn’t see any. I remembered hearing about that secret entrance so I went for it.”
He stood and paced in front of me, his fingers twisting the ends of his mustache. “Now, Ms. Levant, did you see anything in the plane before you took off or perhaps after you crashed?”
“See anything? I was kind of preoccupied with other things like getting away and saving my butt.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Why? Are you missing something?”
He scratched at his beard, the sound like nails on a chalkboard. “Hmm? Oh yes, I believe a few personal effects may have been on the jet. I was hoping they didn’t end up at the bottom of the lake as you so eloquently described.”
I tapped my foot on the cement floor. “So can I go home now? I’ve told you everything.”
An unexpected chuckle burst from his lips. “Can you go home?” He approached me, his frosty eyes narrowing in. A chill slithered up my spine. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in?”
I gave him my best smile. “Oh, come on, Head Minister, can’t you cut me some slack like usual?”
His jaw twitched. “I believe I’ve done that too often now, Ms. Levant. And for the wrong reasons. Your mother’s untimely death can only excuse you so many times.”
A pang sliced through my heart, like a hot knife through butter. Somehow I always knew that was the reason Turstan had looked past so many of my prior transgressions. It wasn’t just because of Malcolm’s undying loyalty. It was guilt.
A far, dark corner of my brain knew the reason why. No one would admit it, not even Malcolm, but I was certain. Now more than ever. Turstan had been behind my mom’s mysterious death.
I wrapped my fingers around the metal frame of the cot, squeezing so not to scream as Turstan marched out.
Not only would I prove he was behind the blood bags being sent to Draconis, I’d also find out why he had my mom killed.
And then I’d kill him.
I stared at the cement ceiling, my vision blurring. It had only been a few hours of solitary confinement, and I was ready to blow my brains out. I couldn’t just sit there, not knowing what Turstan was up to. It was obvious he was behind the blood bags. I didn’t buy his story about personal effects for a second.
I shot up and began pacing the length of the cell. It was only about ten feet across so I spent most of the time turning. I reached the wall and slammed my palms against it. “Let me out!” I shouted to the void. The longer I stayed in this cell, the more I thought about my time in the royal dungeon in Draconis.
An icy chill raced through my veins as the dark memories flashed across my mind. Xander had almost killed me. My hand flew to my neck, my fingers tracing the invisible scars. Kaige had erased every physical remnant of the attack; too bad he couldn’t remove the emotional ones.
Where was Kaige? What was he doing?
I wished I could tell him about Turstan’s connection to the blood bags. I knew I promised him to let it go, but how could I? If he knew me at all, he’d know that.
Earlier I’d felt a twinge in my chest. For a second, my heart rate had skyrocketed and just as quickly as it had come, it vanished. It was the strongest emotion I’d felt through the bond since Kaige disappeared through the tunnel back to the Shadow Lands.
Gods, I miss him.
I chuckled. Now I even sounded like him—in my head anyway.
The lock clicked and I jumped, whirling toward the door. It opened slowly, and a familiar face poked in. Bright green eyes, mirrors of my own, ran over to me. I swallowed down the unexpected emotion tightening my throat.
“Solaris.” He approached me, his arms stiff at his sides, his beige suit an exact replica of Turstan’s, with the exception of the color. The shine in his eyes softened his dark expression.
My legs wanted to run to him and bury my face in his chest, but my brain wouldn’t let them. Things hadn’t been the same between us since mom’s unexplained death two years ago. One day she was dropping me off at school, and the next her body was found on the side of the road.
“Malcolm,” I muttered.
He slowly shook his head, his eyes dulling. “Please don’t call me that here.”
“I’m sorry, Father. Or should I say Minister Levant?” I certainly wouldn’t want to risk his precious position as Senior Equality Agent—whatever that meant. All I knew was that he sat behind a desk at the Capitol and crunched numbers all day.
He took a step closer, his hand extended, and I took two back. I hit the wall and wrapped my arms around myself.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. You know, besides the fact that I’m locked up like some pharma-stealing criminal.”
“You stole Turstan’s airplane for God’s sake!” he roared, his typically calm mask slipping. “What were you thinking, Solaris? Did you really think you’d get away with just a slap on the wrist?”
I shrugged. A girl could hope, right?
“You’re going to be eighteen soon. When are you going to stop acting out like this? I can’t protect you forever.”
My cheeks burned, and hot tears pricked at the back of my eyes. I wouldn’t let them fall. I squeezed my eyes shut and willed them back, my fingernails digging into my upper arms.
“So now what?” I jutted my lower lip out. “I’m going to jail?”
He huffed and raked his hands through the patches of blonde fuzz that still remained on his head. “No. You’re not.”
My eyes widened, a twinge of hope expanding in my chest.
“Turstan told me what happened. He was ready to send you to a public trial to face your punishment.” He walked in a circle, his hands buried in his pockets. “I begged him to reconsider. You’re almost eighteen and if you were tried as an adult, you’d face life imprisonment.”
Crap. I scanned the gray walls around me, and my lungs constricted.
“This is your absolute last chance, Solaris. I promised to be personally responsible for anything you do in the future. It was the only way he’d agree to my terms. That means that if you get caught doing anything out of line, I get punished.”
Double crap. How was I going to find out about the blood now?
“Thanks,” I finally mumbled, “for doing that for me.”
“I’m your father, Solaris. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” He turned toward the door, and my gut twisted.
I couldn’t let him get hurt for what I was going to do. The only way around that was not getting caught.
He stopped at the door and held it open. “Are you coming or not?”
I darted through the doorway, not bothering to answer.
As we marched past the countless doors on this level, I wondered how many were filled with prisoners. What offenses had they committed? Were they the ones Turstan was getting the blood from?
We stopped at the desk adjacent to the entrance of the detention center, and two soldiers eyed me. Their drab gray uniforms were dull in comparison to the royal guards’ sleek black ones in Draconis. I didn’t need a blood bond with either one of these guys to feel the contempt rolling off them.
“Hold out your left arm,” said the taller one.
“Why?” I arched a brow, throwing identical disdain right back at him.
Malcolm looked down at me. “Remember how I mentioned some terms to your release?”
A meaty hand closed around my forearm, and a black device was slapped on my wrist.
“What the hell is this?”
He tightened the band, and a lock clicked. “Tracking device, Ms. Levant.” The soldier sneered.
“You’re on house arrest until further notice.” Malcolm squeezed my shoulder with a tight-lipped smile.
A slew of curses sat poised on my tongue, but I held them back. Right now all that mattered was getting out of there. I’d deal with everything else later.
I followed Malcolm down the hallway toward the glass sliding doors and freedom—well, almost anyway. The hair on the back of my neck bristled as I crossed the threshold. I glanced over my shoulder and cold gray eyes locked onto mine. Turstan leaned against a white column, his severe gaze shooting daggers.
I spun back around and quickened my pace. I needed to get home now.
I walked around my room, somehow expecting things to look different. They didn’t. The white walls, the gray furniture and small window were all exactly the same as when I left. I was the only one that had changed.
I flopped down on my small bed, the coarse cotton sheets rough against my skin. It didn’t even smell like me anymore. A smile tugged at my lips as I remembered Kaige saying I smelled like honey and jasmine. I sniffed at my shoulder, and my nose crinkled. Bleh. Definitely not honey or jasmine—I needed a shower badly.
I ran the hot water and stripped down, glancing at my new high-tech accessory. A one-inch monitor showcased a blinking red dot. I yanked at the black strap, but just as I’d suspected it didn’t budge. I jumped in the shower, hoping it would short circuit but no such luck.
The hot water ran through my hair and for a few short minutes, the racing thoughts in my mind stilled. Then the rush slowed to a dribble, hot water turning to cold and I was forced back to reality. Stupid water rationing.
Wrapping myself in a towel, I walked out into my bedroom, clutching the top and jeans Kaige had given me. The smart thing would’ve been to throw them away. To get rid of all the evidence. I pressed the soft fabric up to my nose and just couldn’t do it. It reminded me of him. His woodsy scent still lingered from our day in the abandoned building after I’d almost frozen to death. The feel of his warm arms enveloping me were still fresh in my mind.
I pulled an old gym bag out of my closet and stuffed the top and jeans inside. I’d wash them eventually but not today.
“Solaris!” Malcolm’s voice seeped through the locked door.
“Gavin’s here for you.”
My heartbeat picked up as excitement rushed through me. “Okay, I’ll be right out.” I pulled a gray long-sleeve shirt over my head and slipped into some sweatpants. I usually hated wearing my plain old government-issued clothes, but today even my thrift store finds paled in comparison to the ones hidden in my closet. At least these were safe, and if I was going to succeed in my mission, I had to play the good little soldier.
I rushed out to the living room and jumped into Gavin’s open arms. He laughed as he ruffled the top of my head, messing up my wet hair. In the past few years, he’d become much more than just my flight instructor. He was one of my best friends.
“How’d you know I was here?” I released him and took a step back.
“One of my buddies saw you at the OrderComm detention center.” He ran his hand over his light brown buzzed hair.
“You’re spying on me now?” I smirked. “Don’t you have better things to do as a fancy AirComm pilot?”
“I had everyone on the look out for you. You’ve been gone for a whole week, Solaris. What the hell happened?”
I opened my mouth to respond, and Malcolm cleared his throat from across the room. “Can I speak with you for a moment?”
I squeezed Gavin’s hand and pointed toward my room. “I’ll meet you in a sec.”
He nodded and disappeared down the hall.
I threw my hands on my hips. “What’s up?”
“No one can know about the plane, Solaris. Not even Gavin. Do you understand me?”
“What’s the big deal?”
He glared at me. “No one.”
“So how am I going to explain this?” I shoved the blinking device in his face.
“The official story is that you stole a car and wrecked it in the Shadow Lands. There is to be no mention of the secret entrance through the border wall either.”
I guessed Malcolm thought I’d stolen that information from his files too. He didn’t need to know Gavin had been the snitch. “Fine,” I huffed.
I stared at the tracker as I walked down the hallway to my room. What if this was some sort of listening device too? I wouldn’t put anything past Turstan. I needed to figure out a way to get this thing off ASAP, and I knew just who to ask.
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