Walking towards Cassie, Kahli reached for the coat, stroking her arm, “This has got to be the weirdest coat I’ve ever seen. And it’s thin!” As her fingers pressed over the silky curly coat, she couldn’t feel much padding. “You’re going to freeze in that.”
“You’re so old fashioned. Let me guess. You’re wearing two pairs of everything right down to your panties, right?” Cassie folded her arms over her slender coat, grinning ear to ear.
Kahli’s face turned beat red, “At least I won’t be cold.”
“Yeah,” she nodded, still smiling, “We’ll see who stays warm longer.” Cassie heard four other girls approaching from one of the halls that spilled into the living room. The massive windows showcased the sprawling lawn, glittering with deep snow. “Hey, Jess!” she called, and a girl with a curtain of black hair and pale skin stopped and looked up at her. Cassie pulled Kahli’s arm and walked over to the group. “This is Kahli. She’s had a rough start, but she’s catching up.”
The girl extended a mittened hand, “Jess. This is Taylor, Livia, and Katie.” The other three girls nodded, but seemed leery of Kahli. Jess released her grip on Kahli’s hand. It wasn’t the gentle shake of a demure person. It felt more like a challenge. Jess may have had snow white skin, but her sleek black hair and ruby red lips made her stunning. The Queen didn’t bother with girls who weren’t striking. Kahli didn’t really see how she fit in. Her hair was pumpkin orange. There was nothing dark and pale about her.
Cassie was practically jumping up and down, “Let’s go! The other team will have the jump on us. They’re already gone.”
Jess asked, “When?”
“I don’t know. When I woke up this morning, they were both gone. And after coming in so late, I was surprised. I didn’t see why until I looked through the drapes.”
“Damn,” Jess muttered and turned toward the door. The four girls trailed behind her like a string of pearls. Each was wearing thin pants and a jacket. Cassie was the only one who looked like poodle. They grabbed white caps and tossed Kahli one. “Tuck your hair under. It’ll help.”
“Kahli,” Will called out to her. The girls turned in unison and stared at him. He took a step toward her, “I need to talk to you before you go out.”
Cassie lowered her gaze, asking, “Will, can’t we tell her? I mean, it’s not like she’s frail. We all know what happens at the end of today, and Kahli isn’t the one who has to worry.”
Silence passed between. Cassie finally glanced up at Will. He nodded slightly, his arms folding over his chest. “Tell her before things get going.” His eyes shifted to Kahli’s worried face. “It’s not a game.”
Cassie tugged Kahli’s arm, pulling her away from Will before he could say more. She didn’t want to hear it. Out of all people, she knew exactly what today meant and she wasn’t going to spend it weeping over the inevitable. She was enjoying her day in the sun.
Kahli snatched the cap out of the air and tugged it on her head. They were all dressed in solid whites and grays. It made them more difficult to see in the snow. But why? She wasn’t sure that she wanted to know. Kahli followed the five girls outside, glancing back at Will, but he was already gone. She wondered what was going on.
A team of guards trailed behind them, keeping their distance. Kahli’s throat tightened. She hadn’t been outside since the altercation with Will. The thought of him made her touch her lower lip. It was like the memory wouldn’t fade. It was a tattoo that was freshly painted in her mind. Nothing would scrub it away. Kahli’s stomach twisted.
Cassie looked back at her, “You okay?”
She nodded, “Yeah, I’m fine. What are we doing?”
Jess spoke this time, “It’s a cross between hide and seek and capture the flag, but a little more intense. We’re broken into two teams—losing team from last time always gets the new girl. That might work out better for us, though. Anyway, when there are several feet of snow outside, we play. It usually only happens once a year. There has to be enough freshly fallen snow and no ice. You’ll see why when we start. It’s one of the only occasions that the Regent let us run around like wild animals.” She glanced at Kahli.
Kahli looked at them like they were nuts. The vamps treated them like they were glass dolls. Everything they did was carefully, calmly—but this was rowdy in comparison. “Aren’t they afraid you’ll get hurt and bleed out?”
Kahli knew the anemia this group had was beyond bad. They bled, if you looked at them funny. Dying from a scrape seemed like a horrible waste of life, but it was reality for these girls. That was why the handlers drew their blood and quickly sealed them up. Her roommates had returned on more than one occasion and were taken to the infirmary to be reworked. Their necks wouldn’t stop bleeding. The puncture wounds wouldn’t heal. A scrape could end this girl’s life and yet, they were walking into the frosty morning air like it wasn’t a big deal.
Jess sneered at her, “Listen, wild girl. We may not rip the skin off wolves barehanded like you, but we can manage a snowball fight without dying. God, you sound like the Queen.”
“She doesn’t want you to do this?”
“No,” Cassie replied, quickening her stride to walk between Kahli and Jess. “The Queen would keep us locked up in her curio cabinet. The King is the one who allows this, uh, requires it. He’s also the one that rewards the winning team.” She clapped her mittens as she yelled for us to hurry up. Kahli quickened her pace to keep up with the others. She would have had no problem blowing past them, but she saw something that made her stop in her tracks.
A group of men, slender with dark hair—each so similar looking that you’d think they were brothers—stood at the foot of the hill. A frozen forest glistened behind them. One turned his head and looked up. Kahli froze.
Cassie clapped her mittens in front of Kahli’s face and she flinched. “What’s with you? Haven’t you ever seen a guy before?” When Kahli didn’t reply, Cassie realized with excitement that she hadn’t. “Oh my god. You’ve never met a human guy before, have you?” Kahli’s green eyes glanced quickly at Cassie. She shook her head slowly, her heart racing slightly faster than before. She was marked for marriage—promised since childhood to a man she didn’t know—a man who was no doubt dead.
“Well, they’re on our team. Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Cassie bounded ahead, and within two steps she fell face-first into the snow. She must have wandered into a drift because her leg sank into the snow up to her knee.
Kahli rushed toward her at the same time as the man standing nearest to her. They each put a hand under Cassie’s arm and pulled her up. She was laughing. No scratches, no cuts. Good. Kahli didn’t like this. She had started to care about Cassie—Cassie who never shut up, who woke up too early, who was always excited about something—and didn’t want her to die because of a something stupid.
Still laughing, Cassie said, “Thanks. Didn’t see that there.” She brushed the snow off her face with her mittens and said, “Kahli this is Cole. We were at the same place when we were kids. He’s kind of like a brother. An over-protective brother. I’m fine.” She yanked her arm away from him and made a face. Cole didn’t seem convinced, but Cassie knew how to distract him. She blurted out, “This is the wild girl that stabbed Will.”
Kahli’s jaw dropped, “Cassie!” That was the worst introduction she could have imagined. She didn’t know why but her face flamed bright red. It was old news, everyone who lived in the palace already heard about the crazy wild girl who stabbed her Handler. But she’d never met another boy, a human boy. She didn’t care what he thought, she just wanted a chance to meet people before they knew those savage things about her. It was difficult to do that here. It seemed like everyone knew about her, but she knew nothing of them.
Cole smiled at her, and extended his hand, gripping her hand firmly, “Good to meet you.” His eyes were dark brown with scattered flecks of gold, “And anyone who stabs Will is worth their weight in blood.” It was an odd saying, but an old one. Life and death was divided by blood. Humans lost the ability to clot and vampires lost their endless blood supply. It didn’t matter which side of things you were on, vamp or human, blood was a deadly issue.
Kahli’s mouth was still hanging open when Cassie pushed it shut. Her mitten lingered for a moment below Kahli’s chin. When Kahli turned to look at Cassie, she said, “Get over it already. You are what you are.”
Jess stepped between the group, “Now’s not the time for this. Remember what happens to the losing team? We can’t lose again.” She glanced at Cassie, her eyes narrowing. She slammed her fist into her palm, “I won’t allow it. We have to make sure we don’t lose.” Kahli was still clueless.
Cole leaned in, “This isn’t something fun to do to pass the time. It’s an edict of the King, a way to make sure our blood doesn’t get weaker than it already is.” Jess barked orders as Cole whispered in her ear, “The two teams play each other and the losing team has to hand over their weakest member to the King.”
Kahli’s voice was hushed, “For what?”
Cole swallowed hard, his gaze falling on Cassie. “Execution. They call it Purging, and say it’s to ensure that our bloodlines continue—that we don’t die out. Things are that bad. The Queen would never allow us to risk playing a game like this, but the King won out on this issue. It happens every year. The only perk we have this year is you. If you survived in the wild and stabbed Will, then we might actually have a chance.”
Kahli’s head spun as he spoke, her heart spasming like a startled rabbit. Why didn’t Cassie tell her any of this? As Cole spoke, his gaze rested on the giddy girl. Kahli felt sick. A prickling sensation ran down her spine as she asked, “You already know who they would purge from this group, don’t you?”