SIRE

A Zenros Story

Felix Marlowe-Cain

ONE

A luxury hotel was packed with the wealthy, the powerful, and the unattainably beautiful. The highest stars the fashion industry had to offer, all dressed in their absolute best. Elegant, expensive decor of a gold and cream ballroom was illuminated by crystal chandeliers. Light glinted on flutes of champagne and generous glasses of wine. The general chatter of the guests was muffled beneath live music. String and wind instruments played something old and sophisticated: Vivaldi, if I wasn't mistaken.

I came through shadow and slid past security like a ghost to materialise in an empty bathroom. I straightened out my clothes and altered my appearance with illusionary magic learned from my new master– just enough to pass as human. Then I joined the crowds of well dressed, sparkling people. Tonight, I challenged myself to walk among them as if I belonged.

I ran a hand through ebony hair, the locks just long enough to conceal the usual point of my ears. However, with spells in play, I could move freely and copy humans' natural gestures without alerting them to my foreign nature. Ruby eyes had been dulled to a rusty brown. The white of my skin came to life with a dusky colour. Even my hands appeared shorter than they were. Still, once satisfied that my hair was elegantly tousled, I pushed those hands into the pockets of my smart black trousers, just in case. The magic I had learned from Matthew was still new to me. Should the spell slip, the unnatural length of my fingers would be the first thing noticed.

Eyes scanned the room. Ears listened to the symphony of a hundred mortal heartbeats thrumming with the song of life. A soft sniff and I was almost overwhelmed by the choice of flavour marinated in perfume, silk, and carefully laundered shirts. My appetite was aroused.

I found what I'd been looking for and paused, courage almost faltering as my eyes settled upon her person. A tall, slender woman dressed in floating cherry blossom chiffon. Her blonde hair was pulled into an elegant knot at the back of her head, held aloft with sparkling combs and jewelled pins. Surrounded by beautiful models and fawning designers, and yet, she outshone them all — a goddess among men.

Amanda Knox. I'd obsessed over her image for years. She was my muse and the feature of my greatest paintings. Her grace and beauty had won me the highest prize in every small competition I'd ever entered into. In those pitiful mortal days, I'd never once entertained a hope of meeting her face to face. What would the world's most glamorous supermodel want with a pathetically shy art student? But… things had changed so much since then.

I picked up a glass of champagne from a silver tray balanced on the hand of a smartly dressed waiter. I circled her little group and watched from a distance as she laughed and made pleasantries. Such beauty. Such elegance. Hunger ached in my chest. My tongue darted out to wet my lips. Yes. She would do nicely.

I stood a little way off and took a perch by the bar, waiting. Like any good predator, my prey would come to me.

She felt me watching her and glanced over her shoulder. Her gaze met mine across the room. Blue eyes flashed with mild curiosity, then she turned away again. But it was enough to whet her appetite. Sure enough, a few minutes later, she looked again, checking to see if I was still admiring her. A smug smile graced rosy lips. Her gaze flitted over me with mounting interest. I took the opportunity and reached out, caressing the edge of her consciousness with mind magic. I nurtured her curiosity and moulded it into something more akin to desire. 'Come this way,' was the subtle command. 'Take the bait.'

But she had a sharper will than I was expecting, and though her smile widened as she completed her inspection of me, she turned away again to laugh at something said to her. She was playing me, daring me as I dared her. She enjoyed the chase – flirtation so subtle it could be missed. She tested my bravery. Was I bold enough – interesting enough – to play against a goddess?

It was a gamble. I could exercise a little more control over her, but with a will like hers, the sudden intensity – the abrupt change in her emotions – could unnerve her, perhaps even enough to frighten her away completely. I could take her dare and approach her: introduce myself in front of her companions and make a spectacle as I tried to charm the most beautiful woman in attendance. But I was never good at playing to the crowd, and I would only appease her if I could appease them. My only other option was to goad her a little more, turn the dare back on her, and hope she was fascinated enough to take it. If she wasn't, however, I would appear dull and uninteresting. I would lose my chance entirely.

Daring the latter wouldn't usually have been my first choice. Still, words my master had cried out in frustration as he attempted to train me in illusion magic echoed in my ears suddenly, as sharp and shocking now as it had been then:

'Until you see yourself as more than a whore, that is all you'll ever be!'

I'd chosen this path to escape the past. I hadn't known how it clung to me until that night. I was determined to shake it off, to become a vampire worthy of my master… worthy of Matthew.

I turned from Amanda, sipped the tart champagne, and became interested in a woman a little way off. Her biggest competition on the catwalk, and now, her biggest competition for my interest. A challenge. A dare. A taste of indifference that she had likely never been faced with before.

I didn't look at her. I didn't need to. I knew she'd peeped back, surprised that I hadn't taken her subtle baiting. I knew she was slighted by the turn of my attention, especially when she saw the woman I'd chosen in her place.

I felt her look away yet again. I felt her irritation bubbling. Once more, I reached out, stoking her curiosity, swirling it with the simmering offence until it enriched into new enticement.

I enjoy toying with minds. I enjoy wrapping thoughts and emotions around my own desires. It is an art form of its own kind and requires a careful and steady artist to master it.

I also confess that I struggled to contain the thrill that shot down my spine as I felt her move.

Amanda excused herself from her group and glided as gracefully as an angel over to the bar where I perched. She drew my attention back to her as she placed herself between me and her competition so subtly it could easily have been an accident. Her hands rose to rest against the edge of the counter. She spared me a slight glance and a smile before getting the barkeep's attention. She ordered something expensive then turned her gaze on me again as she waited for it to be delivered. There was a challenge in her eyes. 'Your move,' she seemed to say.

I'd scorned her enough. She needed appeasement: something to soften the irritation still brewing just below the blue of her eyes. I donned my most charming smile and leaned a little closer to her. "Does it not become tiresome? Playing goddess to fawning mortals?"

She glanced at me again, unimpressed with the cliché of my words. She looked me over once before replying, "Do I know you, sir?"

"Not yet." I inclined my head to her politely. "Nathan Arben. I'm a PA." I allowed her the security of her elevated rank. Designers and models alike had brought their aides and assistants: so much so that they almost outnumbered the invited guests. Thus, my falsehood was an easy lie for her to swallow.

Her drink arrived, and she sipped it elegantly. "Well, Mr Arben, you certainly have a flair for the dramatic."

"It must be the artist in me," I apologised.

That caught her interest. It was enough to abate her earlier irritation and win me her renewed interest. She turned her body towards me, engaging fully in the conversation. "An artist? What kind?"

I smiled again. "Every kind." I sipped at my own drink, allowing the implications to dance in her imagination. I carefully drew the most desirable fantasies to the forefront of her mind to make promises to her.

She gazed out over the room. "I admit," she said with a small sigh. "This life can be…" She frowned a touch as she answered my earlier question. "Exhausting."

"I can only imagine." I laced my tone with sympathy. "Every moment of every day governed by business. Every move of every dance so carefully calculated." I inched a little closer to her, allowing her to feel my presence. I lowered my tone to little more than a whisper. "They tell you that you're beautiful, then abuse you trying to achieve perfection." I felt my words strike deep into her mind, playing with feelings and insecurities that she buried deep behind her make-up. I drew back just a touch, let her mourn the intensity of my aura, and continued. "When do you have a moment to be yourself, I wonder?" I smiled as she looked up at me, the pride in her blue eyes cracking enough to reveal some of the pain beneath. 'I can give you that moment,' was my silent promise. 'I will worship you.'

Her gaze hardened over again. Not an unexpected move. Humans were so defensive – so unwilling to open themselves to anyone. "You have a way with words, Mr Arben… but I think you say sweet things to try and entice a lady into doing something rash."

I smiled in amusement. "Beautiful and clever. Angels must have wept with envy when God made you."

She scoffed at me and took another drink– more than a sip, closer to a nervous gulp. Was she afraid of me, or what I was offering her?

Both, my seer's eye told me. She thought the mask I'd put on was handsome. The poetry of my words spoke to a part of herself she'd long forgotten: a part she hadn't met since her days in a cheap London apartment, scraping by on tip money, as a man she thought she'd love forever coated canvasses with paint in one failed masterpiece after another. I was the most dangerous kind of man. I was a distraction.

The glimpse of her past fascinated me. It certainly wasn't something they mentioned in the magazines.

"So… is it working?" I asked her.

She looked up at me again, eyes both startled and politely puzzled. "Is what working?"

I leaned in close enough that she would hear my whisper. "Are my pretty words enticing you to do something rash?"

Her cheeks flushed to a bolder shade of rose, and she spun abruptly, her hand resting against the bar again. She gulped the last mouthful of her drink, set the glass on the bar, then retrieved a napkin and a pen from her small purse. She scribbled something onto the soft paper and, with a quick glance to be sure no one was watching her, slid it towards my hand. Without another word, she turned and strode away, withdrawing to the sanctuary of her companions.

I glanced down at the napkin. A room number and a time. Classy. Perhaps I wasn't the only one that viewed myself as little more than a whore? I folded the tissue and slotted it into my jacket pocket, feeling her eyes glance my way to watch as I did. 'I'll be there,' I promised her.

xXx

I lingered at the party, leaving a few minutes before Amanda to slip back into the shadows. I sought out her room in my ghostly form and slid under the crack in the door to allow myself entry. She expected me to come later – to knock and beg her to let me in. I didn't beg. Not anymore.

Her suite smelled of hotel cleaning, but beneath it, I could make out the rose of her perfume. Her closet was left open, and I noted how her evening gowns and casual clothes were so painstakingly separated. On her dresser, it was the same: different arrangements for her work and personal make-up. The woman was fastidious in keeping her profession separate from herself. She was terrified it might infect her, claim her completely, and leave nothing left. I could understand. It was a terrible burden having two such identities. She would make a fine illusionist, should she ever become a vampire. Unluckily for Amanda, I had no intention of taking on another fledgeling, not so soon after my embarrassing and painful failure with Lizzy. No. I'd learned my lesson. Tonight, I was here for one thing only.

I stood by the window, my back to the door, gazing out over a city still twinkling even so late. I heard footsteps come down the corridor, heard her laugh and bid goodnight to her last entourage, and then… I heard her key in the lock.

She gasped in shock as she stepped into the suite. "You!" The door behind her was shut quickly, as if hiding a shameful secret. "How did you get into my room?"

I smiled at the window, letting her see the smirk in my reflection. "I'm an excellent PA, Miss Knox."

Slowly she came down from the shock, her hands going to her skirt to smooth the chiffon over her hips. "You're early," she complained tartly. "I was going to take a bath."

"Feel free too." I gave a slight glance over my shoulder. "I'll wait here."

She strode towards her dresser, her hands busying themselves retrieving the jewelled pins from her hair. "And let you rummage through my things as you like?" She paused abruptly and cast me a sideways glance. Her expression was all threatening anger, but within, I felt a tremble of fear. "You're not a reporter, are you?"

I chuckled and turned to face her, my hands folding behind my back. "If I wanted to rummage through your things, Amanda, I would have done it already. As you see…" I gestured to the immaculate organisation of her dresser. "Nothing has been touched, and no, I'm not a reporter. I have absolutely no interest in exposing you to any scandal or finding the 'real you'. My interest is entirely carnal, just like everyone else you have ever invited to your bed."

She frowned and deposited the jewelled pins onto the dresser on her way into the bathroom. "And here I thought you might be interesting," she called back.

"Just because my intentions are the same as everyone else doesn't mean that I am. I assure you, you'll find I am entirely unique." I picked up one of the pins and admired how it twinkled in the lights from the city. Was it a diamond? Cubic Zirconia, perhaps? Whichever, it reminded me of my master's cold eyes.

Amanda returned from the bathroom, her hair let down. However, the lingering hairspray had it desperately twisting as it tried to keep its elegant twirl. She narrowed her gaze as she saw me fondling her pin. "Are you a thief?"

I laughed at the absurdity of asking such a question and tossed down the pin to hold out my arms. "Do I look like I need your baubles, Amanda?"

"You're not a rich man," she accused. "Regardless of what you try and pretend to be."

I was somewhat startled by her conviction, that she had seen through that lie, despite it being so tiny a part of my facade. I got over it quickly enough and smiled at her again. "I find having rich friends is just as good as having wealth of your own."

"And you want to make me into your wealthy friend?" She arched an eyebrow, looking me over with a scolding expression.

"I wouldn't dare insult you. You hardly need a toy to make yourself feel beautiful," I assured her. "And I already have a patron."

"You're not a PA, then, are you?"

"My, you really are as clever as you are beautiful."

"How did you get into the party?"

"Like a thief," I told her with a wink.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't call security and have you removed." She dared me with a lift of her chin and defiant eyes.

I closed the space between us faster than she could blink. Her surprised gasp was swallowed by my kiss. She didn't resist as I backed her against the wall, nor did she protest as I ran my hand along her thigh and hoisted her leg around my waist, pressing my hips tight against hers. I broke away so that she could gasp for breath, a small moan escaping her as I turned my attention to mapping every sensitive spot on her neck instead. The scent of perfume, the softness of skin: it was almost as intoxicating as the beat of her quickened pulse.

She gripped my shoulder for less than a second before burying her hand in my hair. "Mr Ah…!" Brows pulled upwards in an expression of need as my control over her mind stoked the embers of lust to a raging inferno. "Nathan," she gasped breathlessly.

It was a fantasy I was playing out. One I'd spent many mortal nights dreaming of. How would she feel beneath my hands? How would her skin taste as I suckled on heated flesh? Would she writhe, wanton and desperate? Or would she be the perfect statue she was in all her photos? Cold and marble even as I made love to her body. It seemed I had my answer. Indifferent though she was to the camera, Amanda was a passionate woman. She pressed herself to me, desperate for the contact, needing to feel every inch of me as I worshipped her.

Wandering hands found the zip on the back of her dress, and slowly, teasingly, I slid it down, making sure that my fingertips brushed along her spine as I went. The fabric crumbled at her feet, revealing the elegant white lace she called underwear cradling her warm, creamy skin. A glittering along her toes caught my eye. I looked down long enough to catch a glimpse of sparkling stiletto sandals.

Again, images of my master's androgynous beauty trespassed into my mind. He had a similar pair that adorned his elven feet whenever the fancy struck him. Never had any man cross-dressed to such a dazzling effect…

Amanda cried out in alarm when I gripped her waist and lifted her. Long legs wrapped around my middle as I carried her to the bed and deposited her onto the pristine covers.

Expensive white stockings. The texture was like silk under my fingertips. I ran a teasing touch along the inside of her leg to her upper thigh. The flesh beneath hummed with life. I could feel it rushing through an artery just below my fingers and licked at hungry lips. Falling to my knee, I lifted her feet and kissed along the edge of her sandal. Deft fingers flicked the buckle open with practised ease. My kisses pressed along the lace adorning the top of her thighs. Matthew…master…was always cold as stone, but she…? She was hot as the summer sun.

I had to wrestle with the instinct to simply bite her, to enjoy the symphony of screaming as she realised what a monster she'd invited into her bed. I imagined the terror stretched over that beautiful face: the pleading sobbing that might escape her lips as I held her life in my hands. Her blood would pour like wine, soaking – staining – the perfect white sheets. How long I could toy with her? How beautiful the torture?

My demonic nature had me growing hard with the want – with the need – to hear her scream. Alas, I would have to settle myself with a scream of ecstasy.

Her sandals were tossed from her feet. The sheer lace of her knickers was torn away, leaving her painfully exposed. She cried out as I ran my tongue over her centre, her hips arching against me. She tasted of piety drenched in sin: as if I feasted upon a fallen holy woman. I hooked one of her legs over my shoulder and kept her pinned against the edge of the bed. She propped herself up on one hand, the other tangling in my hair as I flooded her with pleasure. I could smell her blood as it rushed, heated and desperate. My mouth watered.

"Please!" she was gasping. "Oh, god…!"

I gave her one final swipe of my tongue, and with a smug smile, I drew away from her. She cried out her frustration. Her fingers pulled on my hair, trying to have me resume the blissful torture. Grasping her wrist, I pulled her hand from me with a patronising tut. My touch ran along her arm to catch her shoulder, tight enough to keep her from pulling away. With sharp, demanding tugs, I divested her of the last clothing.

Her breasts spilt free, as full and perfect without the support of her bra as they had been with. My fascination didn't escape notice. With a coy smile, Amanda shifted up the bed and lounged against the pillows in comfort. Her flawless chest rose and fell with each breath: the movement as hypnotic as her 'come hither' gaze.

"Perhaps you should undress and join me?" she purred.

I smirked as I knelt on the edge of the sheets and crawled over her, still fully clothed. Reaching down, I ran the back of my fingers over one generous breast. "Why would I do that?" I leaned my weight against her. She gasped as my suit pressed to her bare skin. "I don't need to be naked to fuck you."

A sweet moan of desire escaped her. I bestowed teasing kisses to her chest, and as before, she pressed herself into my touch. She was quite the sight as she writhed in pleasure. Her cheeks had flushed to a dusky red. Her hair tumbled over pillows in long, tousled waves. She responded to every slightest caress.

"Your hands are like ice," she gasped as I rubbed a thumb into her nipple.

"You don't like it?" I ran that same hand down between our bodies to play with her damp centre. She let out a whimpering cry and arched into my hand. "I think you do."

"Yes…" Her eyes closed tight. She turned her face into the pillow. "God, please, a little more… please, Nathan."

I smirked into her neck and, again, felt the race of her tantalising pulse. I lashed my power against her mind one more time and felt her desperate lust spike. I could smell her in the air. I could hear her heart pounding out a fervent rhythm. She was ready: worked up to the insatiable degree I needed.

I turned my hand and flicked open the buckle of my belt to release my length from the confines of my trousers.

Feeling the movement, Amanda wrapped her legs around my waist and threw her head back, her neck perfectly exposed. I entered her in one swift thrust and got my scream of ecstasy as I fucked her with fast abandon, chasing her to her peak. I became so keenly aware of her body, of the thundering of her heart as it echoed through me. I kissed her neck and ground my hips against hers to wrench another cry from her – loud enough to muffle the sound of teeth shifting to fangs. I waited patiently, thrusting erratically, holding off my own pleasure until, finally, she hurtled over the edge.

Her arms flew around my shoulders and pulled me against her neck. Her body tightened euphorically as she blossomed. It took every mental discipline I'd ever learned not to simply follow her into overwhelming pleasure. To use the moment to strike, to bite deep into her neck at the point when she would be so lost the power of my mind that she would remember it only as a sharp kiss in a desperate moment.

I drank deeply as she cried out. I pushed my hips gently, carrying her into powerful, rippling aftershocks that helped to weave my spell. She tasted as sweet here as she had at her core. Her blood was so beautifully heated from the excursion and reminded me of summer rose gardens with its scent. I felt her grow weary, heard her heartbeat begin to slow, and knew that I was playing on the spell's edge. I stopped my feast and nipped my own lip with my fangs, then kissed the savage bite I'd left on her neck. My blood slowly sealed the cut and healed even the scar. I pulled away from her throat and rocked into her spent body to find my own euphoric finish.

She managed a few contented gasps, her head already spinning from blood loss that she would call exhaustion from another day on her feet. She relaxed against the sheets, every tension draining from her as I freed myself and stood to re-buckle my belt.

She was on the edge of sleep, her body draped against the covers of her bed, her eyes so heavy I could only see a strip of blue behind thick lashes. She was beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful mortal I'd ever tasted.

"You could stay a while," she offered amiably, her voice slow and thick. "I wouldn't mind it." She wanted me to remain. I read it in her mind, laid as open and as naked as she was in her aftermath. She wanted me to distract her a little longer. She wanted me to hold her, embrace her with cool skin, and make her feel special the way so few before me ever had. Was she selfish to want it, she wondered? Was she wrong to think I felt something for her beyond the carnal?

She was wrong. It was a lingering effect from the spell I'd weaved on her mind. She was beautiful, and I had admired her for many mortal years. But I didn't love her. Not like I used to. Her beauty… it paled against his. I wanted her blood and her flesh, but I'd certainly never set out to capture her heart. I was mildly surprised that I'd been able to. It'd been so easy.

I gave her a smile. "Not tonight, Lover. I have thiefly things to do." I leaned over the bed and kissed her, feeling the grease of lipstick as she returned the affection ardently. "Sleep well, Goddess."

No use burning bridges. I even paused to pull one of the covers over her. Perhaps I'd seek her out the next time lust for my master drove me to the edge of insanity.

"You will come again, though, won't you?"

I gave a soft chuckle. Well, well… It was as if she'd read my mind. I drew the napkin from my pocket – the one she had written on at the bar – and used the hotel pen on her bedside unit to scribble my number at the bottom. "Maybe," I said, leaving the note by her bed. "Get your sleep, Amanda. No doubt you have a busy day tomorrow, and I'd hate for you to have a headache."

I circled away from the bed and made for the door.

"Goodnight," she whispered.

I didn't reply. I wasn't supposed to have heard her. I let myself out and slipped back into the shadows as her door closed behind me.

xXx

I allowed all illusion spells to drop as I made my way through grand doors to the VIP lounge of a high-end casino. It was loud, alive with the laughter of the undead and the clinking of crystal glasses full of thick blood and expensive wine. Sleek black and silver decor gleamed against blue accents that were soft on vampire eyes. Matthew's demand for excellence extended to his headquarters. His seemingly inexhaustible wealth glittered from every glossy surface.

'The Black Palace', it was aptly called. Like a metaphor of the master himself, the front of house was used to lure in prey – a luxury bar and casino open to the clamouring public – while behind the closed doors of the exclusive lounge, the threat lingered. At its peak hours, the dead would come out to dance among the patrons, feeding on their money and their youth both.

At the back of the hall, powerful guards in smart suits flanked an ornate elevator. One of them spied me coming and pressed the button to open the doors. They both nodded to me as I stepped inside and inserted a small silver key into the control panel. The light around the penthouse button came on. All at once, the doors slid closed, and the lift sped into soft upwards motion.

At the top, I was greeted by a long corridor with black marble walls and a blood-red carpet. Expensive artworks lined the passage, which then opened under an arch into a grand hall. The opposing wall was entirely darkened windows and looked out over the twinkling skyline of Birmingham City Centre. Lighting was kept low: soft golds only where they were needed, the rest decorative blues, purples, and magentas — a dazzling urban rainbow for the creature of the night that dwelled within.

Immediately before me stood a polished grand piano and a sweeping couch for any who wished to listen. The hall then extended out to the right, partitioned by a two-way fireplace mantled in obsidian. The ceiling was lowered to accommodate the overhead gallery, accessed by a spiral staircase crafted from reinforced glass. A mirrored bar was tucked in the corner behind. White couches and armchairs circled an elegant coffee table. All were crowned with an eclectic collection of modern art — vibrant coloured splashes to interrupt the otherwise uniform black, white, and silver.

Disappointingly, there was no obvious sign of my benefactor, although I sensed the magnetism of his presence close-by. With a sly smile, I lifted the lid of the piano and ran my fingertips over the keys, pressing in the first few bars of a Moonlight Sonata. Matthew loved the reverberating passion that was Beethoven almost as much as he loved his own reflection.

I'd resisted him at first. My natural sire had called him an enemy and, after observing the magnitude of his magic at the fight for Torsk, I'd come to fear him. I'd never known a vampire so powerful. I didn't know they existed here in the Earth-Realms, but there he was: regal, beautiful, and so utterly deadly. The moment I saw him, I knew I could get lost in those cold eyes. He was poison — a siren's song entrancing me to my doom. And yet, ironically, I could not have survived without him.

My maker had perished at the battle, and Matthew had come for me, offering a bargain of mercy and sealing it in blood. He was my sire now – my lord and master – though he suppressed all the effects of the blood bond. Our minds and souls were kept painfully separate. There was no comfort from him. No affection to ease the solitude of the vampiric existence. It was maddening! The seductive call of his beauty nurtured a mad artistic obsession. He sang to the demon in me, promising me things I could never have, but such was the nature of his power. All who looked upon him loved him, regardless of their usual preferences, despite his character's obvious flaws. Demanding. Self-serving. Impossibly vain and filled with arrogance. He was all that could be expected of the last Prince of Vampires: the last of the born royals. The final Dracula, as the humans might know him. He was the Harbinger of Obsidia – the zenronian goddess of death – and everything that I had ever wanted in a muse and in a lover.

But a man like him would not so much as look at a creature like me. I was so far beneath him.

I heard a door open somewhere along the corridor. "Then, you came to ask permission to operate in my territory?" Matthew tutted irritably. "I have barons for that."

"I felt your lordship would appreciate it if I avoided the lengthy bureaucracy of an official request. The distinctive, accented voice of his feminine guest made me sick with loathing. Heather Rees had caused me nothing but misery in the nights since my change. "I need to return to my post as soon as possible. I'm sure you'd agree. Not to mention how traceable my coming to the West Midlands would be if I put it all on paper like that–"

"–Yes, yes. Be sure to conclude your business with Valkyre quickly. Take her back to Torsk with you if you wish to rekindle your romance." The lord wandered into the main hall. He was dressed casually tonight. Just a white silk top and a pair of black velvet trousers: proof he hadn't expected any intrusions. His long snowy hair tumbled loosely over his shoulders, hiding the elf-like point of his ears and the long earrings I knew he would be wearing. Piercing diamond eyes were lined with black and shadowed with pearlescent shades of blue and grey. Lips were painted black, a striking yet effective contrast to the flawless alabaster of his skin. Even in casuals, Lord Matthew Schwartz never neglected the details. His dark power rippled through him with such grace as to need no third eye to detect.

Heather inclined her head as she followed him through the arch into the main hall. She stopped sharply when she saw me at the piano. "Well, well… Nathan Arben. I wondered where you had scurried off to after the skirmish." She glanced towards Matthew then back at me, curiosity filling green, cat-like eyes. "Quite the knack for survival you have."

Heather was precisely as I remembered her: tall, voluptuous with over-styled chestnut hair and a striking gaze that put on a good show of pretending to know all your darkest secrets. She wore her corset tight, pressing her breasts upwards in cheap offering, and a great deal of overly-red lipstick... like a slut attempting class.

I returned to my music, refusing to even acknowledge her.

She scoffed and followed Matthew to the bar. "You have some purpose for him, I assume?"

"What I do or do not plan for Nathan is none of your concern."

Heather laughed, apparently finding Matthew's chastisement funny. She spoke a word in Zenronian – one I knew painfully well: 'Amorte.' The term for a male whore or sex slave. "'Whatever floats your boat,' as the humans say," she added with a smirk. "Do you mind if I mention this to Lord Einen? This is exactly the kind of juicy gossip that makes me look like a good little spy."

Matthew busied himself pouring a glass of burgundy wine. "Do as you like."

I frowned at the piano keys but made no protest. I didn't know what bothered me more: that Matthew would allow other vampires to think I was his 'Amorte' or that I wasn't.

Their conversation turned to Einen. Matthew asked Heather detailed questions about what the rival lord was up to. Heather told him everything he wanted to know and more. Much as I hated her, it seemed she was good at her job. I wondered what Matthew was plotting to need Heather of all agents to keep so close to Einen. Rivals though they were, they had – for now at least – forged a tenuous peace to stand against Lady Eris of the East Midlands. Vampire alliances rarely lasted, of course. It was to be expected that neither Matthew nor Einen would trust each other. But Heather was powerful – more powerful than she wanted anyone to know. Why would Matthew send her to a backwater ghost town like Torsk?

My thoughts were interrupted. My brow furrowed as my third eye suddenly focused on something lingering on the horizon. What…? I kept my fingers playing but reached out, tentatively probing the edge of that something — a consciousness. A black power: dark, bold… but very much alive. Not a vampire, then. It approached with a frantic intent, and it closed fast.

"Someone is coming," I interrupted. "Someone important. They're here to see you."

Both fell silent at my warning. Heather glanced at my master, but Matthew's gaze was fixated on me. His eyes narrowed slightly. He brought his glass towards his lips. "You can read the mind of a Faustus?" he asked.

"I… uh–" The question didn't follow with my own train of thought and caught me off guard.

My master sipped at his drink. "–The approaching presence that you sense," he clarified. "It belongs to Lord Stefan Faustus. I recognise him because I have met him before. But he passes through Birmingham on business regularly. You know he's coming here? You read his mind?"

"If he'd read a Faustus mind, he'd be ash on the floor," Heather tried to insist.

Matthew raised a hand to silence her.

I shook my head. "No, my lord. I sense his intent. It's empathy, not mind mastery…"

Matthew gave a small smile.

Heather looked as dumbstruck as a lady of her self-imposed importance would allow. She tore her shocked gaze from me to settle on Matthew. "That he can read anything of a Faustus – beyond the threat of their power – is remarkable. What have you been teaching him?"

Matthew scoffed. "My dear Heather. I am the only mind master in existence who is not borne of a seer's bloodline. Empathy…is not a power I possess." He sipped his drink, his mannerisms a little stiff. He didn't like to confess an inability. "I always thought it was a power I wouldn't need."

Heather folded her arms over her chest. "And then you met the Faustus family. People who were not only wildly unpredictable but whose thoughts are also impossible to read."

"And dangerously powerful," Matthew added. "I confess: I find the Faustus bloodline fascinating yet…unnerving."

"Is that why you keep Nathan?" she asked. "To bolster your power with empathy?"

"Bethany is an empath," I reminded Heather. "A better one than me."

Heather narrowed her gaze at my master. "The day you make sense will be the day the world ends. I'm certain of it."

He looked at her over the top of his glass. "You should know better than to try to understand my motives."

She rolled her eyes and turned away. "I should go. I'm the last person that should be in a room with Stefan Faustus."

"Why?" I asked the question before I'd had a chance to consider the wisdom of it. Everyone seemed to like Heather, or at least have a use for her. It pissed me off. Yet hearing that Stefan was on his way had unnerved her. It showed in a subtle shift of her body language: a tension on her shoulders and a concern hiding deep in her eyes. I could feel a buzz in her power, a pressure to put distance between herself and this approaching visitor.

"None of your–"

Matthew set down his now empty glass and leaned against the bar. "–Heather tortured and almost destroyed Eldora Faustus, Stefan's daughter. His only child at the time." Both his long hands ran along the edge of the glossy countertop behind him. Despite addressing me, his cold gaze was fixed on his agent. She was squirming under the scrutiny, now hinting at distress and annoyance. It was a turn that thrilled the demon in me.

"She did so on the orders of her mother," Matthew went on, "the tyrant queen responsible for the catastrophe that was the Century war. Lilly Rees."

A small smile graced my master's lips. I watched it form with surprise. He was enjoying this: putting her on the spot and outing her history to me, a man he knew she despised. My master was by no means a kind person, but he wasn't usually spiteful to his allies. After observing Heather and Matthew at the battle for Torsk, I'd thought they were at least that, if not friends. But with that slight smile, it was made evident to me that I had been painfully mistaken. Matthew despised Heather. It was a strange realisation. At that moment, I found my master and I had something besides our power in common. But why I wondered? She seems pathetically loyal to him…

Again, my thoughts were rudely interrupted by that frantic presence. Stefan Faustus had arrived in the building, his power looming thick and hot in the air. Whatever business he had with Matthew, it was urgent.

I heard the ping of elevator doors and footsteps on the carpet approaching quickly. Bethany rounded the corner.

She was a short, curvaceous young woman with a round freckled face framed by masses of ginger curls. Thick glasses sat before wide leaf green eyes. She was only a seer – I could hear her heartbeat thudding just below her ribs – but of that community, she was infamously powerful. Her family was, after all, something like seer royalty. Bethany and I were likely related somewhere along the line: a cousin of a cousin, however many times removed. The House of Illusia – her house – was the parent house of the Arben family.

"Apologies for the interruption, sir," she addressed Matthew breathlessly. "Lord Stefan Faustus requests an immediate audience with you. I tried to tell him you were busy, but he was insistent…" She hesitated a moment, pushing her large glasses further up her nose. "It…seems unwise to keep a fretful Faustus waiting."

Most people – his vampire peers included – would not dare to dream of giving my master an opinion on his business. But Bethany was special. As I understood it, Matthew had gone to great lengths to secure her services as his aide. He even allowed her to claim his protection and drop his name in favourable situations. It added up to one thing that I knew Matthew would never confess to. He not only respected Bethany's abilities as a seer but actually liked the girl. Not romantically, certainly, she wasn't his type. But he was fond enough that he would value her judgements. I was surprised, therefore, that Matthew hadn't turned Bethany; her powers would only be strengthened as a vampire.

My master made a beckoning gesture with one elfin hand. "Send him up, but be sure to mention Heather's presence. If he's really that fretful, then I'd hate to shock him… It took years to perfect this penthouse."

Bethany inclined her head and turned to hurry back the way she had come.

"You want me to stay?" Heather asked. "Is that wise?"

Matthew's eyes flashed at her dangerously. Hers was an opinion he didn't value. "If he's unnerved enough that Bethany feels the need to interrupt me, then it's likely something to do with Eldora. You swore to protect her after William taught you some semblance of morality, did you not? Regardless of whether he'll openly accept your help, you may yet be of use to him." He frowned, glanced towards the archway, and brushed some of his hair over his shoulder. "Gods know I would not see the end of that woman. Besides. You cannot shadow dance, so you will pass him in the casino anyway."

There was some detail I was missing: some crucial information that meant I understood very little of what was going on. I knew the Faustus family were powerful black sorcerers. I even understood Heather's unfavourable connection to them, to some extent. But I couldn't understand what my master would have to do with Stefan or his daughter? Traditionally, he cared very little for anyone but himself.

I frowned but quickly straightened my expression to address my master with a gesture towards the piano. "May I stay and play?"

Matthew gave a knowing smile but inclined his head in permission. Apparently, he approved of my curiosity.

The elevator doors pinged again, and I heard fresh footsteps on the carpet. That hot, frantic power consumed the penthouse. Bethany re-entered and presented 'Lord Stefan Faustus' to Matthew and Heather.

He was striking to look at. Tall – almost as tall as Matthew – with a long, lanky build. Shocking blue eyes gazed out from a sallow face of sharp, overly defined features and a mess of blonde hair. He wore a white shirt and smart black trousers. Unusual, skeletal fingers toyed nervously with the collar of a grey trench coat slung over one arm. He approached Matthew full of apprehension. It made his heavy power spark in a way that might have been threatening if the man himself were not poised to grovel.

For all I'd heard of the great and powerful Faustus family, I'd expected someone more…frightening. As it was, the only genuinely unnerving thing about Stefan Faustus was that Heather had been quite right: he was 'unreadable'. Instinctively, I'd mentally reached out but found myself snatching back before I'd even made contact. I could feel the rushing pressure of his thoughts. His being was so chaotic and impossible to fathom that it hurt like an electric shock even to peek. Gods only knew what it would do to me if I actually put the effort in and tried to read him!

Stefan spared a cold glance for Heather as he passed her, but otherwise, he seemed content to ignore her entirely. From what little I could gather, I figured this was the best possible outcome of their bumping into each other.

"Stefan, mae Chidrea, it's been too long." Matthew greeted him with a smile, his tone suggesting open-armed friendship. It was a guise he had perfected. In truth, I was sure Matthew was as unnerved by Stefan and his impossible mind as I was. He was, after all, even more accustomed to instinctively reading people. It was as natural to him as looking at a person's face. He kept his smile as he took a second glass from the shelf behind the bar and poured an offering of wine for his guest. "Gods, I haven't seen you since… hmm, how long has it been?"

"Zenros. Eldora's engagement party," Stefan reminded with a sharp tenor voice. "One hundred and twelve years ago… thereabouts." He refused the wine, and so Matthew claimed it for himself.

"And to what do I owe this great honour?" He gazed at Faustus, his diamond eyes twinkling with the same seductive gaze he used to lure prey to their demise. I felt a spike of jealousy like a knife to my dead heart. Stefan was Matthew's type. Powerful, both magically and politically and, if I'd heard right, obscenely wealthy… not too bad on the eyes, either. I wasn't sure Matthew would be serious about a lover he couldn't read, but I didn't think he would turn the man down for it.

"Do you still want her?" Stefan asked abruptly, the question bursting from his lips impatiently.

Matthew arched an elegant brow. "Excuse me?"

"Eldora. You wanted her for your house once. Would you still take her?"

Matthew looked away, his smile faltering. To my shock, I felt a tremor in his emotion. It was so strong it had pushed through the block he'd placed on our blood bond to keep us separate.

"I fail to see the point to this question." He dropped all efforts of seduction. His guise of friendship failed against the cold venom of his very sudden – strikingly defensive – anger.

"If Eldora could be made vampire, if you could turn her… would you do it?" Stefan persisted, his bright eyes fixed desperately upon my master.

Matthew's lip curled in a small snarl. "Save your breath," he snapped. "It won't work. My blood is not his blood."

I turned back to the piano keys with a slight frown. There was some old wound festering, something deep and dark enough that it weakened Matthew just to speak of it… cut him enough that I could glimpse behind the wall he'd placed between us. Excitement rushed, manifesting into a faster tempo for the music I was playing. I'd never seen anything of Matthew's mind, nor felt anything of his heart. He had always been so painfully cold to me. Terrible though his pain had to be, the demon within was thrilled.

"Had it been any other bloodline, I would agree," Faustus insisted urgently, "but he was your biological son – a natural offspring, not just a fledgeling." Gods, he was desperate. The air reeked of it, his own substantial power tainted and made vulnerable. "The boy believes he can manipulate it – force a bond to establish and allow you to turn her yourself."

"He is a mere child playing with things he cannot comprehend!" Matthew shot back, understanding Faustus' mad rambling better than I could.

"He is the harbinger of Pyrenus himself!"

My master scoffed. "That does not work in his favour, Faustus."

Stefan fiddled with his coat again. He was bent over slightly, intense eyes fixed with pleading. "He has been harbinger since the age of six!" He struggled to remain polite. "He is more than even my mother could have–"

"–It must have skipped a generation," Matthew spat out coldly.

"He has made the study of blood magic his life's pursuit," Stefan continued, gathering his courage. He even straightened up to his proper height. "And he would not gamble with Eldora's life. He is obsessed with her survival…"

"Even if that is so, your daughter resides well over my borders. To turn her would be a direct violation of vampire territory laws."

"I will bring her to you," Faustus cried. "Lord Schwartz, I beg of you! Eldora's life meant something to you once!"

Matthew gazed at Stefan with an expression as cold as his voice. He let nothing show, but I felt another tremor of emotion push against the block on our blood bond. There was a struggle between his head and his heart. I gazed at him, transfixed by this little window into my master's so far elusive being. He loved 'Eldora'. He loved her enough that the risk seemed almost worth it…

Matthew's long jewelled fingers played absently with a silver pendant that hung around his neck.

"She is too weak to be moved back and forth…" Matthew spoke carefully, his mind still not entirely certain of his choice.

Faustus opened his mouth to protest, but Matthew dropped his necklace to raise his hand in a silencing gesture. "Take her to your summer cottage near Cheddar. It is remote. There is far less chance of interruption or discovery, and the spiritual energies in that area will likely do her much good–"

"–Then you will?" Childish hope made his magic spark again.

Matthew wrinkled his top lip into a sneer, displeased. He did not like to see great men reduced to such wrecks. It stirred old, terrible memories in him: memories I tried to chase while the gate between us was open.

I was detected. My master sent me a brief, sharp glare. I felt the walls slam down between us, cutting me off before I had any hope of understanding the misery I'd been allowed to glimpse.

"I will attend to her there," Matthew went on, his attention back with Faustus. "Have the harbinger make his preparations. Gods willing… she will have her second chance at immortality."

Faustus was so relieved that he fell to his knees, words of thanks spilling from his lips.

Matthew was clearly just as displeased with this display as the last. "Speak with Bethany on your way out," he told the sorcerer. "She will arrange a suitable time for me to make my first visit." He gestured towards his secretary, still lingering by the arch.

Faustus took the hint. He pulled himself to his feet, and with an overly respectful bow of his head, turned and walked away, one skeletal hand wiping pitiful tears from blue eyes.

He vanished through the archway, Bethany going with him to escort him out. I heard them step into the elevator, the doors whirring shut behind them.

Heather was gazing at Matthew, somewhat dumbstruck, it seemed. "You're going to turn Eldora?" She spoke as if she didn't really believe it.

Matthew took a generous gulp of his wine. "So it would seem."

"It's impossible. She's too far gone–"

"–Thanks to you!" Matthew's sudden viciousness had Heather flinching. He stilled himself, making a visible effort to reign in his anger. "I have heard impressive things about this newest harbinger." With graceful steps, he went to sit on one of the sofas. Cool eyes turned on the city beyond his tall windows. "Some say he is most powerful Faustus to have come yet." Matthew looked thoughtful, some memory clouding his gaze. His hand rose up to rest against his face. "Even after his grandmother… and I witnessed her and her lover end the Century War." He gestured dismissively. "The Faustus family have kept her alive for over a century, despite the odds. They would not risk her now if they thought there was any chance it wouldn't work."

Heather inclined her head respectfully. "I sincerely hope you're correct."

"Do you think she will forgive you if she is restored?" Matthew sneered at her.

Heather shook her head, a forlorn look crossing over her expression. "I neither seek nor want redemption."

"Good," came Matthew's cold retort. "You do not deserve it." There was a heavy pause between them, then he added, "She may yet require your protection. Disregard what I said before. Extend your stay with Casadarah as long as you can without arousing any suspicions with Einen. I will settle things with the baron in her area."

"You want me to keep an eye on Eldora? From the border?"

"Quietly," Matthew emphasised. "And be aware that area belongs mostly to werewolves. Don't step on their paws if you can help it. I have enough issues with them at the moment."

Heather inclined her head. "On your orders, my lord."

Matthew tutted at her irritably and waved his hand again. "Go. Don't keep your warrior maiden waiting."

Heather moved obediently and made her way out, casting one final glance of disapproval my way.

Then there was quiet, my continued piano music the only sound in the penthouse. Matthew listened, waiting for the music to come to its natural end.

Before I could start anything new, he stood. "You reek of roses."

"I ate one for dinner."

"You fucked one for dinner," Matthew corrected me, his vulgar language catching me off guard.

"She was an old muse," I confessed. "I wanted to know what she would be like."

Matthew scoffed and made his way to the glass staircase, slipping his shoes from his feet and discarding them. "A mortal is hardly worth your fascination."

I closed the lid on the piano and rose to follow. I couldn't pass up an opportunity to speak privately with Matthew, even if his mood was foul. "Who is worth my fascination, then?" I asked. "Heather? Lord Faustus?"

Matthew sneered and glanced back at me with angry warning marring his beauty. "If you ever let Heather into your bed, I'll kill you."

"You hate her," I detected.

"I hate most people."

"But why her?" I dared to ask. "She's clearly loyal to you."

Matthew gave a cold, short laugh and climbed the steps to the gallery. "She is loyal because she knows I will kill her if she ever even thinks of betraying me."

I climbed after him. "Why?"

"She murdered my son."

I stopped in my tracks, watching as Matthew pushed open his door and vanished into the room beyond. My master… had a son?

I knew frustratingly little about my adopted sire, besides the fact that he was powerful and of the royal vampire line. Matthew was Zenros-born. Thus most of his history remained in his home realm. I was Earth-born. The concerns of Zenros seemed far away to my family, so I wasn't taught that much of their histories or houses.

Matthew had left his door ajar, a sign that he was not yet entirely fed up with my company. Unable to resist the unspoken invitation, I followed after him.

Matthew's chambers were every bit as magnificent as the rest of his home. It was a long, thin room, his large bed clad in steel coloured silk. There was a handsome feature hanging above, lit with more soft blue light. It was the only light in the room bar a small overhead lamp stationed above a trio of full-length mirrors in the far-right corner. All the furniture was black and glossy, the walls an alternation of black marble and what I presumed was smooth magnolia made blue and gold by the meagre lighting.

"I didn't know you had a son, Master," I confessed.

"I had twins," Matthew informed me, his tone casual, despite the stiffness in his movements warning me it was a sensitive subject. "William and Vivian." He moved to his mirrors and gazed at himself. One hand reached up to run through his long hair. "They were both killed in the Century War. Vivian died by Lilly's hand alongside her mother. William had been murdered by Heather – Lilly's general at the time – sometime before that."

"I… I'm sorry." It was a weak platitude, but I couldn't think of anything else to say. My sympathy was genuine, but at the same time, I was thrilled that Matthew would even tell me any of this. He provided for me and trained me in my power, as was expected of a sire, but nothing more. The bare minimum was met, which seemed to be enough for him, however, it pained me. I hungered for the intimacy that came with a sire's bond. I missed the closeness – the reassuring presence that a fledgeling could always feel.

"Do you know why I tell you this?" Matthew asked so abruptly that I wondered if he'd read my curiosity from my mind.

"No, Sire."

He gestured at me to follow as he turned through a door to the right of his mirrors. He crossed a handsome stone bathroom beyond and went into another door that I knew led into his 'closet'… if it could rightly be called that. It matched his bedroom's shape and size but was lined with closets, drawers and vanities crafted of rich, dark wood. They were complemented by a plush caramel carpet and coffee coloured walls. In the centre was an island unit that housed precious jewels in a sleek display case. Silver, diamonds, and gemstones were lit with enough light that they twinkled with allure. In the centre, dazzling upon a black velvet pedestal, was a vicious but handsome crown set with the same glowing blue stones that adorned Matthew's necklace.

I marvelled every time I saw it… I also found it comical that Matthew would be so fond of silver when so many humans mistakenly thought vampires could not bear its touch. A misconception. Humans had confused the weaknesses of vampires with werewolves.

I tore my eyes away from the crown and watched as Matthew opened the display case and went through the motions of removing his long earrings from under his hair.

"My son, William, was engaged to Eldora Faustus," he announced. "They fell in love during the Century War but fought on opposite sides. The House of Schwartz was at the time aligned with Lady Lilly."

I frowned, my eyes narrowing as I began to put the pieces together in my head. "And Heather was sent to kill William to stop him defecting?"

"In part," Matthew confirmed with a slight nod. He placed his earring into the vacant space and continued with removing the twin. "William was in the process of siring Eldora. She was already a mighty sorceress: the union child of the Houses of Faustus and Gray. You have heard the Grays, I assume?"

"Your day-watchers." I recounted what little I'd learned of Zenros' political history. "Powerful sorcerers allied with the House of Drakule… Schwartz, as you're now known."

"It went deeper than that," Matthew explained. "My father raised the Grays. He saw the potential of an ambitious but otherwise insignificant young sorcerer. He gave him the edge he needed to succeed against his peers. He orchestrated a marriage into the House of Kesen that gave the Grays rank while simultaneously ensuring that young David's children would be greater in power than even their father."

I nodded, remembering some of this information for myself. "And the Grays did rise. They surpassed the Kesen's in the end, didn't they?"

"The Kesens were a mixed house. Warriors and sorcerers both, so that is not such a surprise." He finished putting away his jewels and shut the lid on the display. "But the point is: the House of Gray and my house were very close. We considered them our 'mortal kin'. We were desperate to join our houses in blood and matrimony." He paused, his hands lingering on the glass, his diamond gaze fixed on the crown. "The wedding of Eldora and William would have been such triumph. Their child would have exceeded all the forefathers of Houses Schwartz, Gray, and even Faustus."

"Lilly was afraid of their offspring."

Matthew waved a dismissive hand and turned towards the vanity at the far end of the room. "Eldora was that offspring," he pointed out. "William was to sire her. She would, in essence, have been both his wife and his child. Such is the vampire way. So yes, Lilly was terrified. She sent Heather to stop Eldora from being turned."

"Then why kill William?" I asked with another frown.

"Why indeed? Because Heather was as insane and corrupt as her mother. She murdered William as a means of torturing Eldora…because she was jealous."

I took a step towards him, Matthew's eyes watching me in his mirror. "Jealous?"

"Heather has a passion for beautiful, powerful women. She obsessed over Eldora as you obsess over me," he explained. "In truth, I doubt she had any desire to kill Eldora. She wanted to turn her herself and was furious when William began the process ahead of her. As I'm sure you understand, switching sires is a risky business… and Heather has never been able to make a fledgeling for herself." Matthew picked up a comb from his dressing table but didn't yet use it. He stared at his reflection for a long moment, the memories dancing in his eyes. "So she killed William. Eldora was not yet a vampire, but she had been William's dependent for years. His death weakened her to the point just before death. In his final moments, my son used his mind magic to 'awaken' Heather." He turned his head slightly to look at me over his shoulder. "He freed her from her mother's corrupting influence and taught her a sense of empathy that devastated her."

For a long moment, I thought it over, placing things in my mind's eye. "Then…Heather has vowed to watch over Eldora in repayment, even if Eldora would never forgive her, I presume?"

"You presume correctly." He began to comb through his hair. "She's been watching over the Faustus family for over a century… from a respectful distance, of course."

"Yes, I understand. But why does she jump to your order? Surely it's smarter to avoid you after killing your son?"

"She needed protection," Matthew enlightened me. "After she failed to end Eldora, her mother tried to consume her. She knew the Faustus and Gray families would kill her if she approached them, so she threw herself on my mercy and begged my help."

"And you gave her your protection in exchange for a lifetime of service? Even though she killed William?"

Matthew set down his comb, tutting as he turned to face me. I could feel his irritation and old hurt pressing against the wall between us, which he was carefully reinforcing to prevent another 'leak'. "There was no manner in which I could have killed her that would have satisfied my anger. Death was too great a mercy." He gestured his frustration and went back to his hair. "No, it was better to keep her alive and useful. Let her rot in my service, a slave to my will, never allowed to forget the monster she was and what it had cost her." Satisfied that his hair was as flawless as ever, he set his comb back in its place. "Besides, I had the perfect work for her. I still had kin that needed protection."

There was another moment of long quiet. Matthew had started to remove his makeup. I watched, transfixed, hoping for an opportunity to glimpse his naked face.

"We stand upon a precipice…" Matthew paused with only his lips cleared of black. He gazed at my reflection in his mirror. "I know you wonder why I rescued you at Torsk. And you want to know why I chose tonight to tell you these things."

I inclined my head politely, not bothering to tell him he was right.

Matthew turned, swivelling on his stool so he could look at me properly. "I rescued you for the same reason I let Heather live. Change is on the horizon, and you are too useful to abandon. Tonight… Hmm." He frowned and looked away. "One does not have to be a seer to know that tonight will set events in motion." He turned back to his dresser. "You must be prepared for what is to come, and you must decide where your allegiances lie."

"My allegiance is to you," I insisted without hesitation.

"For the moment. However, in a few short evenings, your fledgeling year will come to its end, and you will reach maturity. You will be free to operate as you like, under the orders of whomever you like…"

I took another urgent step towards him. "That doesn't change my loyalty, Master."

Matthew gazed at me, an unexpected and unreadable expression in his eyes. "Come Tuesday week, I will no longer be your master, Nathan." He spoke carefully as if there were some deeper meaning to his words. But I couldn't read his mind. I couldn't even sense his heart. I was so utterly blind to him. It was infuriating! Even as a mortal, I'd seen more in others than I saw in him now.

I frowned, a panicked shock rushing through my body as a fear pressed its way into my mind. In a few nights, I would no longer be dependent on my sire, and Matthew's obligation to keep me…would be at its end. "Will I be permitted to stay?" I asked, trying to stifle my desperation.

Matthew leaned against his table, his chin resting lightly on his elfin fingers. "If you desire it."

Relief sent a dizzying wave through my blood and calmed my inner panic. "Thank you. I will endeavour to be useful to you."

That pleased him. An unusually soft smile graced his now pale lips. "Good." He straightened up suddenly, the smile vanishing as subtly as it had arrived. Matthew waved his hand to dismiss me. "Go rest now. The dawn will be upon us soon enough, and I still have much to do."