Kahli nodded, not saying anything about Will’s blood on her skin. It wasn’t like she could change that and she didn’t think that it counted. “What would they do that required me to be untouched? What’s the difference between a tasting and a feeding anyway?”
“Power,” Cassie’s eyes slowly drifted to Kahli’s. “Oh my god.” Her face went pale.
Kahli stared at her, “What? You can’t say that and then just sit there? What!”
“Power. Blood is power. It’s the essence of what commands them, what controls them. It’s not that the Queen wants to keep you pure, it’s something else. Something about your blood. Something about smaller amounts.” She tapped her nail on her front tooth while she thought. Glancing at Kahli, she asked, “What’d Will say about it?”
Cassie’s eyes widened. “That’s not good. He usually spills everything, unless it’s something horrible that he can’t control—like the Purging.” They were both quiet for a moment.
Kahli felt like she should know the answer, but it kept floating away. She shook her head. “Maybe they can’t handle straight wild blood anymore. Maybe they’ve grown accustomed to the watered-down version from their camps.”
“That still doesn’t sound quite right,” Cassie said, her eyes vacant as she thought. “If that were the case, the Queen especially would want to be building up your blood in her system. It would ensure her queendom, and silence any rivals. But she won’t take more than a taste. There has to be another reason.”
“There is, and I bet you anything Will knows exactly what it is.” She glanced at Cassie. “Is there a way to call him here?”
She shook her head. “No. Handlers only show when the Queen wants you.”
“So, let’s make the Queen want me.”
Before she could come up a plan, there was a knock at the door. It opened and another vampire stood there. He was thin and tall, gangly like most of them. His pallor was chalk-white, his eyes black as crow feathers with hair to match. “I am here for Kahli. Please see Mariam and dress for dinner. The King beckons you. I will return for you within the hour.”
Kahli’s eyes went wide. When the vamp closed the door she turned to Cassie, “The King? Why would the King want me?”
Cassie’s gaze locked with hers. “The Purging. You made him look like a fool.”
“I thought he got over it, since he didn’t do anything.” Kahli thought she was home-free. The week had passed and the King didn’t do anything to her. Kahli thought she was in the clear.
“A week, a day, an hour—vampires have screwy concepts of time—especially smaller units of time. The Queen went after another vamp nearly two months after a comment was made at court. This might be old news to you, but it probably feels like recent trauma to the King.”
“Should I go?” She remembered Cassie’s warnings, and Will told her the same thing—stay away from the King.
“I don’t think you have a choice,” worry pinched her face. “Kahli, there’s something you need to know.”
But before she could tell Kahli what it was, Mariam pushed through the doors, “Come now. The King isn’t someone we want to upset.” Mariam stood, her body taking up most of the doorway. She glanced between the two girls once and then turned on her heel, indicating Kahli should follow by snapping her fingers.
Kahli shot a quick glance at Cassie and followed Mariam, hoping that Will would find her before the hour was up.
“These were here last time,” Mariam scrubbed the runes on Kahli’s side with a bristle-brush filled with foam.
Her skin was going to bleed if the woman kept scrubbing, “Mariam, leave it. You’re going to scrub my skin off. It’s a tattoo. It won’t come off. The color fades when it dries off.”
Mariam huffed like it would too come off, but they were running short on time. The bath hall was nearly empty. It was strange. Kahli looked up and down at the empty tubs filled with steaming water. There were at least a dozen girls in the palace. At any given time, about half were in the bathhouse.
“Mariam,” Kahli asked, taking a towel and wrapping it around her wet body, “Where is everyone?”
She shrugged, “Got me. I haven’t seen a few of the girls for a couple of days. It’s not like them to not show up. I was thinking of telling William to look into it. Wouldn’t want them to be covering up a cold or some illness that could have been treated.” Kahli nodded as Mariam spoke, but her mind was drifting back to her roommate’s empty beds, and the lack of women in the living room. She didn’t really notice it until now. The girls were usually together and Kahli was alone or with Cassie. Kahli assumed they were in the bathhouse or that she just kept missing them, but Mariam’s words made her wonder if something else was going on.
Mariam dressed Khali in a silk gown. The supple violet fabric flowed to the floor. When the corset strings on the back of the dress were cinched up tightly, Kahli could barely breathe. Mariam set her in front of the mirror. Kahli didn’t recognize the girl looking back at her. Over the past few weeks she’d changed. The haunted green eyes became vibrant and no longer looked as savage and desperate. Her skin was smooth, her hair tucked into neat curls on top of her head with loose strands flowing down, framing her face. That moment broke her. It fractured a piece of her mind that had lied dormant, waiting to make her escape.
Kahli’s eyes drifted to the objects on the table under the mirror—a silver and gold brush with white bristles and an equally ornate comb with an intricate design that extended onto the long slender handle that ended in a dull point. Mariam used the comb to do Kahli’s hair, pulling back one section at a time until her red mane looked perfect.
Before she could thank Mariam, the vampire that appeared in her room earlier was standing across the bathhouse. The gleaming pale tiles stood in stark contrast to his dark suit, “The King requests your presence.”
Warnings were flashing through her mind, although she didn’t know why. The vampire who brought her to the King was a servant, biding his time—hoping to get enough blood to survive. From the translucent pallor of his skin, Kahli thought he looked ill. She followed a step behind the man, winding through the massive palace until they stopped before a large set of double doors. They were recessed into an archway made of stone. The golden handles gleamed as if they’d never been touched. Kahli’s heart was in her throat. She constructed a faulty plan on their silent walk through the building, all the while secretly hoping Will would intervene, but the boy was nowhere to be seen.
The vampire abruptly stopped and stepped to the side. His pale hand pushed open the door as he bowed. Kahli watched him, her eyes darting between the open door and the vampire staring at the floor. Was he a guard? A messenger boy? Would he wait at the door to retrieve her when the king was done? She felt sick. When he was done doing what? Kahli still felt like she held too many puzzle pieces to understand what was happening. She had the parts, but failed to see how they fit together. Living within the palace walls required survival skills that differed from the set she attained in the wild. There were no fanged beasts, lurking in shadows waiting to pounce on her. Instead they were in plain sight, smiling, waiting to use her body and her blood. Death would not be an option. They would do everything in their power to keep her alive. Which is why, if things went the way she was dreading, she would act.
Kahli didn’t want Will to be in trouble because he hadn’t reformed her. She wanted him to be free as well, but the boy didn’t seem interested in leaving. A million reasons why rushed through her mind, raging in a silent stream, but there was nothing that made sense. Breathing deeply, she held her head high and walked through the door, refusing to succumb to her fears.
Without a word, the vampire pulled the door closed and Kahli found herself standing in the center of a large round room. The décor was the exact opposite as the Queen’s ballroom. Instead of pale hues and soft tones, this room was dark with rich blues and opulent blacks. Every inch of the room screamed of masculinity, even the scent of the air held a seductive fragrance.
Kahli blinked a few times, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Clasping her hands together, she turned and examined the walls, looking for signs of life. Instead she only found ornate carvings, wooden bookcases filled with priceless treasures, and plush drapes that hung floor to ceiling over the window, sealing out all the light. Sconces lined the perimeter of the room, washing the walls with a dim glow of pale gold. It was near sunset, though there was no way to be certain in a room like this. There was no way to have any idea of the passing of time. There was no clock, no sunlight stretching across the floor to let her know the hour.
Just as she began to think that no one would come, a piece of dark wood paneling opened across from her. The King stepped through, dabbing at his lips with a linen handkerchief as if he’d just eaten. He glanced up at her, and his smile instantly widened into a look that made her hyper-aware of every inch of her body. The King was beyond handsome and his charisma made her question him. It wasn’t that he was likable. No, that wasn’t the problem. It was that she shouldn’t feel anything around him. It should have been like sensing a piece of wood. Vampires were dead, but she felt him, she sensed him more than she sensed anything in her life.
Sliding his hand into the pocket of a pair of well-tailored dark slacks, the King approached. His golden eyes slid over the curves under her violet dress. A burn rose to her cheeks, unbidden. Irritation crept through her veins. She had to get away from him. There had to be a reason why he could manipulate her emotions. There was no doubt in Kahli’s mind that that was what the King was doing and she wished she knew how so she could stop him. Kahli stared ahead, stony, and did not bow.
“If it’s not the Queen’s most treasured object. Ah,” he said stopping in front of her. His toned body towered over her small frame. His skin didn’t have the sickly pallor of the vamp in the hallway. Instead he almost seemed flushed, like he was aglow. He placed his hand on the small of Kahli’s back, “Well, turn so we can see you in this stunning gown. Mariam has truly outdone herself. You know she makes these gowns? She’s quite a talented seamstress, and she only dresses the girls who tend to the royal family.”