house of judges (house of royals book 4)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Keary Taylor

 

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system,

without the prior written permission of the author.

 

First Edition: June 2016

 

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

 

Taylor, Keary, 1987-

House of Judges (House of Royals) :

a novel / by Keary Taylor. – 1st ed.

 

Formatting by Inkstain Interior Book Designing

www.inkstainformatting.com

 

 

The Fall of Angels Trilogy

The Eden Trilogy

The McCain Saga

What I Didn’t Say

 

To view all of Keary’s books, in series order, click
HERE
.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

About Keary

 

 

 

 

 

 

JUST A FEW DAYS AGO, I was a queen.

Just days ago, I had two mansions full of immortal Born vampires ready to follow me to the ends of the earth.

Days ago, I killed a poor girl whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Days ago, the one man I thought would be loyal to me until the end of my days left me.

Just days ago, I was framed.

Just a few days ago, I thought I was going to die.

Just a few days ago, everything fell apart.

And now, I burn.

 

 

THE SUN BLAZED THROUGH THE spring air, shining over a beautiful little town tucked away in a valley in the mountains of Austria. It warmed the dew that had collected overnight. It coaxed spring flowers up toward the light. It grew the spring crops that would feed the residents.

It then finds its way into a small hole in the ceiling above me. It reflects and intensifies, zigzagging downward through the mirrored tube leading into a stone and steel prison. Before it reaches me.

I cower in a corner, my body curled into a small ball, my knees pressed against two of the steel walls. My elbows rest on my thighs, my hands pressed hard into my eye sockets. My entire body quakes, aware of the blinding light at my back. Pain laces into every muscle of my body. Fiery sparks shoot through my eyes, despite their covering, exploding into my brain, tearing down the back of my neck, sending the alert to the rest of my changed, immortal body.

A choked off sob escapes my throat.

Just a few days ago, I was a queen.

“It will be dark soon,” a voice calls from the next cell. “Deep breaths. Try not to move.” He takes a sharp, hissing, deep breath. His own agony is so apparent. “It will be dark soon.”

This is a prison, and its inmates are all vampires.

I want to respond. To agree—that it will be dark soon. To acknowledge the encouraging words he’s been offering all day. But I can’t move. I can’t breathe. If I do, my entire body will alight into flames and I will be nothing but a pile of ash on the stone floor.

I reside in a prison, and the sun is my tormentor.

“Two cups of warm water,” I breathe out through the pain. “Yeast. A teaspoon of sugar. Salt. Honey. Five cups of flour.” I start rattling off the ingredients to the first recipe that comes to mind—my mother’s homemade pizza crust dough. “Water. Yeast. Sugar, salt, honey. Flour.”

In my mind, I’m kneading the dough. I’m flattening it into shape. I’m watching my mother’s hands as a seven-year-old. There’s flour all over the floor, a smear of it on Mom’s cheek. And smiles on both of our faces.

I’m back in the old bakery, it’s five in the morning and I’m just finishing the blueberry scones. Mrs. Kachinski is standing outside the doors, waiting for us to open so she can get her morning coffee and muffins. The snow is softly falling outside, and the mountains of Colorado are barely visible through the dark.

But I’m
not
there. I’m cowering on the floor. I’m quaking in pain and fear.

“It’ll be dark soon,” I breathe to myself.

 

 

I FEEL THE SUN RECEDE, one ray at a time. It drops behind the horizon, the darkness creeping in one tiny inch at a time. Marginally, my cell grows from one shade of gray to the next. And finally, I feel the dark take over with a loving, comforting embrace.

And I collapse onto the floor.

A collective sigh rushes from several of the other prisoners. Followed by loud cursing from the German speaker.

For the first time in twelve hours, I open my eyes. Everything is a grayish yellow haze with a halo of light clouding my vision. I blink several times, attempting to clear it, but it doesn’t go away.

“You’ll be able to see again in about ten minutes,” he says from the next cell.

His voice causes a catch to snag in my chest. I bite my lower lip, attempting to gain control of something fast and fierce beneath my skin.

He takes a deep breath. “You okay?”

His voice is the bandage ripped off. The heat applied too quickly to the glass. My tipping point.

The breath rips in and out of my chest, at first in a hiccup. And then faster and faster, until it develops into a sob.

“I’m so sorry, Ian,” I cry as I lie on my back, on the hard, stone floor. “I’m so sorry.”

“Hey,” I hear him say; his voice sounds uncomfortable. “Don’t…  Don’t say that. You didn’t…”

But he can’t finish his sentence, because there’s so much that I
did
. That he did. That we never were together.

I curl into a ball once again and roll onto my side as I let the tears silently consume me.

 

 

HE DOESN’T TRY TO TALK to me, and for that, I am grateful. But I can tell, I just can, that he’s every bit aware of me as I am of him. Of every breath. Of every step taken across the tiny space. Of every blink.

But we don’t say a word.

What would I say? Where would I even start?

Footsteps demand my attention as they come down the narrow passageway that drops down into the prison. Two of them. Down the aisle.

I scramble to my feet, righting my clothes, wiping my face clear of the tears and dirt and humiliation. I hold my chin high as metal screeches against metal and the door slides open just a bit.

Trinity stands there, a guard just behind her. For a second, I debate if I can overtake him, make a break for it. But there’s not a chance. I couldn’t even find my way out of the castle.

“Hey,” Trinity offers. She takes a step forward, into the cell, and the guard slides the door closed. He locks us in.

“Are you okay?” I ask, searching her over for signs of damage. Her hair is still as unwashed as ever, her nose ring gleaming in the dark. Her black clothes are un-rumpled.

“I’m fine,” she says, and the words come out rather grudgingly. She doesn’t want me to care about her, but for some reason, I do. She even gives me a little glare. “They put me up in a room. Sent me a feeder. I’m fine.”

I nod, still looking her over for signs of distress. The only ones there are seem to be directed at me. “You’re sure?” I ask in relief.

She’s having a hard time looking me in the eye, but she does meet my gaze for just a moment, nodding, before her eyes dart away. “You don’t look so good.”

My first instinct is to tell her what she can go do to herself, but then I remember that I am a prisoner here, and she volunteered to be my escort. “Been a while since I’ve seen the sun. Our reunion was a complicated one.”

Trinity swears under her breath, and her eyes instantly find the light tube. “Some prison,” she says.

“Is there any word on my trial?” I ask. “What are they planning to do with me?”

She doesn’t look back at me with my question, but continues to stare at the tube that leads out into the dark night. “I haven’t heard anything yet. The way they were talking last night after they dragged you off, I don’t think they’re in a hurry to deal with you. You could be here for a while.”

My heart races faster with each word she offers. My memory goes back to last night, when I sat tied to a chair, eating at the dinner table as if I were a guest. Until someone grabbed me from behind and started dragging me off into the dark underbelly of the castle.

“What about…” My breath catches in my chest. And a sweat breaks out onto my palms. Because everyone can hear everything in this prison. Especially the man in the cell next to mine. But I have to know. “What about Raheem? Is he okay?”

Trinity gives me a funny look, not understanding the way I’m acting because of my question. “A couple of guards hauled him out of the dining hall pretty quick after they took you away. He was freaking out. Screaming in some language I didn’t even recognize. One of the King’s people jabbed something into his neck, though, and knocked him out.”

Now, it’s my turn to swear. I turn away from Trinity, my hands fisting in my hair. I squeeze my eyes closed and try to calm down the angry tiger rearing its head inside of me.

“He’s too valuable to the King,” I say, mostly to myself. “He won’t kill Raheem. He can’t.”

“I don’t know,” Trinity says. “He didn’t seem too pleased to find out his favorite spy was sneaking around behind his back with his favorite maybe-resurrected queen.”

And all the blood in my resurrected body drops into my feet before disappearing all together.

There. She’s put it out there, for anyone in this prison to hear.

I swallow hard.

“Thank you, Trinity,” I say through gritted teeth. “I do hope you’ll come back with more updates later.”

She gives me a look, but she’s met with my own deathly one. Recognizing the command to leave, she knocks on the steel door twice. The guard opens it, and with one last look over her shoulder, she walks out.

I beg for their footsteps to retreat more slowly. I don’t want to look Trinity in the eye any more, but I pray for them not to leave me alone with the giant elephant in the prison. But in just a few seconds, the sounds of their shoes on the stones are gone, and all is quiet again.

One silent beat. Two.

A full silent minute that feels like a vampire eternity.

“Don’t you have anything to say?” I finally breathe.

Ian lets out a sigh. I hear him shift, sitting on the stone floor and rests his head against the steel wall. “Nope, not really.”

“Really?” I challenge him. I sink to the floor, resting myself against the very same wall Ian sits against.

“Really,” he says. Tight. Sharp.

“You’re so full of shit sometimes, Ian,” I say, letting out a slow breath.

“Yeah, well, you wrote the book on how to stuff the turkey,” he shoots back.

“You know, you keep acting like all of this is my fault,” I bite. “That I brought this on the both of us. But you seem to keep forgetting that we were both
born
this way.”

Ian lets out a disgusted sigh, and I hear him climb to his feet. “You should really just go the hell back to Silent Bend. Things have been a lot less dramatic around here in the last month without you around.”

“You’re calling me a drama queen?” I screech back. I climb to my feet as well, facing the wall, yelling at it. “Look at you, acting all typical Ian Ward—in denial of reality!” I throw my arms up in the air, behind me, and take a bow to the wall.

Someone yells at us in German and the Spanish speaker lets out a string of curse words at us.

“Stay the hell out of this!” Ian and I both somehow shout at the same time.

“You’re freaking unbelievable,” I mutter under my breath. My heart cracks a little further, and I hate myself for that.

“Me?” he hisses. “What about you, Alivia? We were…  We had…  And now, I hear you’ve already moved on, well and good, sleeping around with someone when the King might have killed you for it.”

“At least Raheem doesn’t
hate
me for something I couldn’t do anything about!” I scream. I rush that wall and smack both my palms against it, sending a bolt of pain racing through my hands.

“I never hated you!” he spits. “I hate this freaking system, this bloody race. And you just ran towards it, blindly, with open arms!”

My mouth drops open in disbelief. “You are an ignorant idiot, Ian Ward! You talk about bravery and making your own fate, but you turn a blind eye to anything different than
your
black and white version of right and wrong.”

“Apparently, you don’t know the difference yourself,” he seethes. “You’re here in prison!”

“I could have left,” I say through clenched teeth. “I was going to escape. But Elle asked me where you were, and I couldn’t walk away from her. I let them take me for her. For you.”

And that finally turns him silent. Ian would do anything for his sister. She was the last person he expected to come up in this conversation.

“So yeah, Ian,” I say, kicking him while he’s down for a beat. “I went into Raheem’s arms willingly. I went to someone who embraced everything I was, all the good I was trying to do, despite my circumstances. Because you turned your back on me. Time and time again. I’m a Royal, Ian. I have to act like one. I’m not the moldable, lost little child you keep treating me as.”

And maybe I’ve hit the right nerve, because finally, for the first time in maybe ever, Ian doesn’t have anything to say in response.

 

 

 

 

 

ONE DAY OF BURNING. ONE night of utter silence.

Five screaming prisoners.

The sun rises and sets four times. Five. Six. And Ian and I do not say another word.

The air grows thicker and thicker by the minute, just a little more pressure. Just a little more pain added to the mix. But all the more pride set upon our chests, making it harder to breathe and harder to offer the first word.

But I refuse to back down. Ian needs to recognize he’s being far too self-righteous. That this life of ours has never been black and white. He needs to accept reality.

Ian’s silence tells me he’s not forgiving anything, either.

So we go another one—two days in utter silence. Except for the screams of pain during the day.

And with each passing day, I fear I’m losing another piece of my mind. All I can think about is the burn in the back of my throat. The dehydration taking over my body. The growl in my belly, begging for food. I haven’t been offered an ounce since stepping foot in the prison.

I’m slowly starving. Dehydrating. I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse, though, that it won’t kill me.

On the ninth day of imprisonment, I hear footsteps coming down the stairs. Heavy boots, worn by a heavy body. The sound of chains rattle through the air. Past the first cell. Past the next. Down the aisle before they stop at my own cell.

The sound of a key grates against steel and the lock pops open at the same time my heart leaps into my throat. The door slides open and I’m greeted by a hard-faced man with a beard that touches his chest. A thick scar runs down one side of his face. And there’s a smear of blood on his lower lip.

“Hands,” he says in a thick German accent. He holds up a set of handcuffs with a link of chain between them.

I swallow once before holding my hands up, bringing my wrists together. The guard secures the inch-thick bands around my wrists before snapping a similar pair around my ankles.

“Liv?” Ian suddenly calls out, a hint of worry showing in his voice.

“It’s okay,” I assure him, my heart suddenly racing. “It’ll be okay.”

The guard yanks on one end of the chain, dragging me forward. My weakened body isn’t prepared for the force of it. A little yelp instinctually leaps from my throat as I stumble forward.

“Liv!” Ian yells again. I hear his hands smack against the steel door as we walk past it.

“I’m okay!” I yell to him. “I—”

But I’m cut off when we reach the stairs and I’m being dragged up them.

“Try anything funny and you’ll regret it,” the guard says. I look to the side, where he stands, and see he holds a stake securely in one hand.

“Nothing funny,” I promise him. I study the huge arm muscles. The thick ropes of strength that wrap around his chest, even climb up his neck. This man could crush me with one hand. He could drive that stake clean through my chest and pop it out the other side.

My body has physically weakened in the time I’ve been here. I couldn’t fight him, and I’m sure that was designed on purpose.

I have little doubt that he has been given orders to kill me if necessary. Since Cyrus has confirmed I am not the queen, he has no need to keep me around.

I wonder briefly what will happen to my House should I die here in
Roter Himmel
. Silent Bend will once again be without a Royal leader. It will once again fall into poverty and discord.

No
, I tell myself. That won’t happen. I will get out of this framed mess. I will return to the people who need me.

Up and up a thousand stairs. Down hallways. Down another set of stairs. Across a huge ballroom. Winding up a spire. It feels as if we’ve been walking for an hour. When, finally, we stop at a massive, ancient wooden door.

The guard knocks on the door five times, one long and four quick raps on the wood. “You don’t have long; use the time wisely.”

I’m about to ask him what he means, but the door suddenly opens, and my eyes meet Raheem’s beautiful ones.

“Thank you, Mads,” Raheem says as he takes the chains from the guard, who also offers a key. “We’ll be quick.”

My mouth hangs open, speechless as I shuffle inside. Raheem closes the door behind us and makes quick work of removing my chains.

“I am sorry for these,” he says as the shackles on my wrists fall to the floor and he sets to work removing the ones on my ankles. “We had to be careful in case you were seen. You are a prisoner, and I didn’t want this looking suspicious.”

The bands fall from my ankles, and Raheem rises to his full height, his dark eyes studying me.

And the openness there, the worry and the underlying anger, they cause the very fragile wall I’ve built around myself in protection to crumble and fall.

My arms fly to Raheem’s neck, wrapping myself against him. My body molds to his as his arms come around me, clinging hard and tight.

“I’m here, my
nofret
,” he breathes into my neck.

“What happened?” I ask as tears pool in my eyes. “After they took me away. Did they hurt you?”

I back away just slightly so I can study him. He seems to be in one piece, no bruises, no missing limbs. He wears his usual tunic and matching pants, a black keffiyeh on his head.

“They didn’t appreciate my final break of secrecy,” he says as a smile cracks in one corner of his mouth. He brings his hands up to either side of my face, cradling me so gently. “I’ve been banned from the presence of the King until further notice, but no, they did not do anything to me.”

A relieved sigh escapes me, and I collapse forward into his chest, my cheek resting against him as my arms wrap around him once more. “I’ve been so terrified.”

“You needn’t worry about me,” he whispers into the top of my head, his lips brushing there. “Have they been treating you fairly?”

I shrug, shaking my head. “They’re just leaving me down in the prison to rot,” I mumble against the soft fabric of his shirt. “There’s been no word. Nothing for over a week.”

He lets out a noise of displeasure. “I’m afraid they will take their time,” he says. “In the King’s long lifeline, he’s never in a hurry for anything, unless it is Sevan.” He lets me go and crosses the room to the kitchen area. He opens a fridge and takes something out. “Here,” he says, extending it toward me. “You need this.”

The moment I realize it’s a blood bag, I’m across the room in a single heartbeat, my fangs dripping. I tear into it, the cold liquid cascading down my parched throat. When I finish it in less than ten seconds, Raheem hands me another.

“It’s one of their favorite tactics,” he says as he hands me a third. “Dehydration. You get thirsty enough and you’ll confess to anything for five drops of blood.”

“So they will try to convict me, even if I am innocent?” I ask as I drag the back of my hand over my mouth, wiping away the remaining drops.

“You mustn’t underestimate the King’s brutality,” Raheem says, his brows furrowing. “He’s an addict. Even if it isn’t logical, even if the truth is staring him in the face, if he needs a fix, he will get it.”

The weight of that sends me back a step. My foot catches something, and I sink down into a chair. I know this. I’ve been witness to it. Antonia. Micah. Jasmine. Over a dozen Bitten.

I’ve toyed with the King. I made him believe I was his queen, finally returned to him after 271 years. His thirst for my blood will be strong.

“I’m not ready to die,” I breathe to myself.

Raheem comes to crouch in front of me. He brings a hand to my cheek, forcing me to look him in the eye. “You are innocent. Of this, I know. And of this, your House knows.”

“No,” I counter, shaking my head. “They don’t. They think I did this.”

“Not all of them,” he says. “I’ve been in contact this entire time with Dr. Jarvis. They are working tirelessly to gather evidence in your favor.”

My lower lip quivers as the tears that have been pooling in my eyes break free. “They are?”

He nods. “You haven’t lost them all, Alivia.”

I sniff, looking away from him as I wipe the tears from my face. I don’t want to be this crying, terrified girl. But everything has been taken away. I am stripped to the bare bones. And I am left with very, very little.

“Why don’t you go take a shower?” Raheem says as he stands. “Eat something. We don’t have long before someone might come looking for you, but we do have a few minutes.”

I nod, letting the numb fog take me over once again at the thought of returning to the prison. I climb to my feet and head for the door Raheem points to across the room. Behind it, I find a massive bathroom.

Black walls stretch high and grand. Two chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Red accents are splashed here and there, highlighted by gold. Absentmindedly, I peel my disgusting clothes off, taking in the grandness of it all.

Movement to my left catches my eye, and I turn to find a mirror. Huge in size, floor to ceiling, rimmed in intricate gold patterns. But it’s myself I can’t look away from.

Already, my body looks thinner. My arms spindlier. The gap between my thighs growing wider. My cheekbones more prominent. The change would probably be unnoticeable to human eyes, but to my enhanced vampire ones, it’s certainly there.

But it’s the veins that draw my attention first. Black, inflamed veins spread around my eyes, tracing down my cheeks, stretching toward my neck. Before just a few minutes ago, it had been over a week since I’d last had blood. I’m still practically a newborn vampire. I have to feed. Or I begin to waste away.

As I study myself, though, I see the blackness begin to dissipate, easing back. My body has been fed, sated for the moment.

I take one last look at my disgusting, dirty, naked body before I turn for the shower.

Hot water cascades down my frame, washing away dirt and grime and blood. I haven’t had the luxury of a shower since I was back at the House of Conrath. And, oh, how I have missed being clean.

When I exit the shower, I find clean clothes folded on the counter. Black slacks and a dark blue sweater. I smile in appreciation at Raheem’s thoughtfulness and pull everything on.

Using just my fingers, I comb through my hair and let it hang loose.

“Are you hungry?” A crack in the bathroom door opens and Raheem’s face appears.

A little smile pulls on my lips, and I nod.

A simple spread waits for us on the kitchen table when I walk out. Exotic cheeses and flat bread. Dehydrated fruits and nuts. Two plates and two glasses of water.

“Thank you,” I say sincerely as I sit on one side when Raheem pulls my chair out for me. “For everything.”

“You are a Royal,” he says as he pushes the serving plate in my direction. “Some of us at the castle haven’t forgotten that.”

I shake my head as I gather food onto my plate. “It isn’t just that. You always offer exactly everything that I need. I don’t know how you always manage it, but you do.”

And I look up just as I finish speaking, just in time to catch the flicker of pain that darts across his face.

Need.

Not long ago Raheem and I kissed, very passionately, and then had a discussion about what we were. He had pinned us exactly. Just need. Not love.

Need.

A fissure opens up in my chest, running right down the center of me.

I have to tell him.

I have to be honest.

But I want to throw up just thinking about it.

“I have to tell you something,” I say. And it comes out as barely more than a whisper. My eyes have difficulty rising to meet his. And when they do, he’s hardly paying attention, taking a bite out of his dinner. He has no idea what is coming.

“Cyrus lied to me,” I say, suddenly not hungry in the least. And this does bring Raheem’s eyes to mine. “He told me that the night I died, that Ian had left me. For good.”

And a thought comes to me then. Raheem was in the room that night, as well. He saw everything that happened.

“Did you know?” I ask in a quiet voice.

A mix of emotions rolls over his face and his eyes drop away from mine.

“Please,” I beg. “Tell me the truth.”

He takes a sip of his water, stalling in answering. One beat. Two.

“You died, and Mr. Ward went ballistic,” he finally says. “Two court members rushed into the room and started dragging him away. The entire time, Ian was yelling ‘she did this because of you.’  They took him away. The next day, when Cyrus was telling your House members that Ian had left, this time for good, I did not question it.”

Something bites at the back of my eyes and I shake my head. For the first time ever, I feel betrayed by Raheem. And it makes my stomach roll.

“Well, he didn’t leave. And you certainly failed to tell me that it was him that bit me and ended my life. He’s here,” I say as I stand. I walk back toward the door. “He’s down in the prison with me.”

I open the door to reveal the guard who brought me here. “I’m ready to go back to my cell,” I tell him.

“Alivia, I—”

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” I say through a thick throat as the guard begins chaining me back up. “I understand why you did what you did.”

“Alivia, don’t,” he says as he takes a step toward me, but I walk out the door, dragging the guard behind me.

I get down five steps before I turn back to where Raheem stands in the doorway. “I forgive you,” I say as my heart breaks just a little more. “Truly. I don’t hold this against you.”

I study his eyes and see in them that he doesn’t believe me. Which is okay because I’m trying to decide if I really believe myself. I want to. But I’ve been manipulated and betrayed so many times.

So I turn around and continue walking down the stairs, chained like the prisoner that I am.

 

 

 

 

 

THE SUN TRIES TO BLAZE behind the dark gray clouds. Fat raindrops missile into the cell and splash to the floor, creating an enormous puddle on the stone. The pain is less severe than most days, but still I wish to claw my eyes from my skull just to end the burning and searing.

But slowly, the sun sets. Slowly, I am able to unwrap the sweater from around my eyes. Slowly, I take deep pulls once again, breathing in the moist and cold air. The sun fades away, but the rain does not cease.

I let out a sigh of relief as darkness engulfs me. Resting my back against a steel wall, I open my eyes and study the one opposite me.

For just a moment, I listen to the prisoners that surround me. Down four cells, the German man rustles for just a moment and then not thirty seconds later, begins snoring loudly. The Spanish man paces in his cell. The unknown silent one huffs as if they are doing pushups.

And Ian. I hear him breathe. Just on the other side of this wall. Slow. Thoughtful.

My heart aches.

I don’t think my heart has stopped aching in years.

“Why does everyone lie, Ian?” I ask through the dark.

He doesn’t answer me right away, but I hear his breathing change and know he’s heard me.

“I feel like everyone has lied to me my entire life,” I say as the weight on my chest grows heavier. “My mother lied by omission. By never telling me who my father was. Rath would never tell me anything about Henry. Cyrus said he was the one who killed me. Raheem let me believe you really did leave.”

I let my head fall back against the wall with a dull
thunk
. “Maybe they don’t so much as lie all the time, as they keep secrets.”

“People just want to protect themselves,” Ian finally responds. This voice is thick, muffled, as if he didn’t really intend to speak out loud.

As I think back on every scenario, I find he’s right. My mother was protecting herself. Rath was protecting his own heart from more pain at having lost his brother. Cyrus was protecting his small chance at winning my heart, and Raheem the exact same.

Who am I to judge? I’ve kept my own secrets. I still keep my secrets. And it is to protect myself.

“At some point, we’re all going to be hurt by the lies and secrets that those we love keep from us,” he says quietly. I hear him rub a hand over his face and then through his hair.

“Do you think you’ll ever find out who your biological father is?” I ask.

He lets out a small sound of disgust. “Highly doubtful. The only way would be to ask my mom, and she’s been dead for fifteen years.”

“Would you ever want to know?” I ask as my brows furrow.

Ian doesn’t respond right away. I can practically hear the gears turning in his head. Mulling it over, considering the consequences. “I honestly don’t know,” he finally says. “I loved my dad, the man who raised me. He and my mom were fire and ice, always bound to extinguish one another. They were no good together. And when I first found out, all I wanted to do was hunt down and kill the vampire who impregnated my mom.”

He pauses for a long time, his breathing growing deeper, more ragged. “But now…”

Ian can’t continue. And I understand it. Finally. He’s come to see that not all vampires are what they seem by their name. The longer he is one, the more he’s connecting the crooked and gray dots. The more he sees that he is a part of this picture.

“It’s okay to be curious,” I say as a sad little tug pulls at my heart.

Two more weeks. Fourteen days of sun. Fourteen days of burning. Days of starvation and dehydration. Sleepless days and nights.

I feel like death. And I have no doubt I look like it, too.

The German man is dragged away one day and doesn’t return. Two women are brought into the prison. One cries almost constantly. The other doesn’t say a word.

The rain continues to fall, and soon, the entire floor of my cell is covered in water. My skin is constantly pruned. My lungs vie for dry air to breathe, so I simply stop breathing more than once every few minutes.

Ian coughs from the next cell over, the first sound anyone has made in at least twelve hours.

“You okay?” I ask as I huddle on my flat, hard platform of a bed.

“Fine,” he says. I hear him shuffle, turning on his own bed. I imagine him lying flat on his back, his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling.

I tuck my knees into my chest, my back pressed against the hard stone. My old human instincts tell me to shiver, that it’s cold and wet, and I should be freezing. But this vampire body of mine doesn’t feel anything.

“Can you tell me something, Liv?” Ian asks.

“What?”

He takes a few deep breaths, taking his time in deciding how to ask his question. “Were you happy? Having the House and everything that came with it?”

I pick at a piece of fuzz on the hem of my sleeve. “I don’t know if happy is the right word,” I respond. “It’s hard to be happy when the King is always looming over your head. When Jasmine was making constant attacks on me. She and Micah are dead, by the way.”

Ian makes a surprised grunt, but doesn’t say anything.

“It’s kind of hard to be happy when your heart is broken,” I add quietly. But I need more truth. More honesty. Because I’m so, so tired of lies and secrets. “But in a way, I felt…completed, I guess. Running the House. I had a purpose. Before I moved to Silent Bend and found out about…everything, I just kind of, got by. I went through the motions of being a responsible adult, but I never did anything of worth. I just was.”

He’s quiet for a while, taking in what I’ve said.

“I never had a purpose until I found the House. I know you hate everything this system is and everything it stands for, but I did some great things while I ruled, Ian,” I say. “We were helping the town. We were protecting Silent Bend from this Snake army. I even got Markov to stop feeding on anyone in the borders.”

“That is quite the accomplishment,” Ian says with a little bit of a smile in his voice.

I feel one pull at my own mouth.

“Being dragged away from it was a lot harder than I expected,” I continue. “I know you hate them, but those vampires, they’re my family. They’re all I have.”

Another long pause. “Most of them have been a part of Jasmine’s broken House for a long time, and they followed the Kask’s father before that. And I grew up hating them, because they were the same as what killed my mom and dad. So, I think when you accepted your birthright, it felt like you were welcoming their killer into your home. I couldn’t separate the actions of one from the masses.”

“That makes sense,” I say with a nod. “And they’re all far from perfect. They make mistakes. But so do humans. No one is perfect. Ever.”

“No one is perfect,” he whispers in an echo.

And as he says the words, I feel something in him change.

That hard edge softens.

 

 

FOR ANOTHER WEEK, WE ROT in prison. Another prisoner is brought down, an older sounding man who I swear sleeps all the time. Even if he is a vampire.

A letter is slipped under my cell door. I open it up to reveal handwriting that is difficult to read, as if English is not the first language they learned to write in.

I’m so sorry, my nofret. R

It’s no question, R for Raheem.

I don’t know what to respond back. Not that I could respond. My feelings toward him are so incredibly complicated and twisted at the moment.

And time keeps passing.

So to pass the time, I catch Ian up on everything that has happened since he removed himself from my life. The tearing down of Jasmine’s house. The arrival of the King. The games. The way we massively expanded. My descent into darkness. Rath’s departure from the House of Conrath.

The plot to frame me.

Everything.

I leave out no small detail, because I have to get all of the secrets and lies out of me.

Including my involvement with Raheem.

“Do you love him?” Ian asks quietly. We’ve struck this weird balance of re-building friendship and keeping our past emotions and feelings removed. We’re repairing and not laying out judgment.

It’s not love, it’s just…need. Raheem had said it, and while I’m not sure it was true for him, it was for me. “No,” I answer. “I needed him. He was there, offering what I desperately craved at my weakest point. But I don’t love him.”

No matter how unfair it is.

“Do you still need him?”

Now that is a complicated question.

“Doesn’t matter,” I say, easing back from this circle of ease we’ve created between us. “I’m probably going to die soon, anyway. If they don’t forget about me down here for forever.”

“You’re not going to die,” he says. “They will see you have no reason to try and kill the King, all those Royals. Your House will come through.”

“We’ll see,” I sigh.

 

 

TWO DAYS LATER, ANGRY VOICES descend the stairs, hurried and chaotic. I leap from my bed and walk over to the door. Steel screeches against steel and suddenly, Ian yells.

“The King’s got a problem, and you’re just the man to take care of it, I hear.” I recognize that voice. Godrick. One of the Court members who came with Cyrus to Silent Bend.

“What are you talking about?” Ian demands. I hear him struggle as chains clang and a fist meets flesh.

“Got a vampire who needs putting down. One who’s trying to run,” Godrick’s deep voice bellows, echoing off the walls. “You catch him, put him down, the King says he’ll release you.”

“Release…” Ian questions. Suddenly, he gives a hiss of pain. “Ah!”

“To keep you from running,” Godrick says with a smile in his voice. “You don’t return to the castle with a body in forty-eight hours, this little chip under your skin will detonate. A hundred wooden barbs shot straight into your heart.”

“Ian!” I yell.

“It’ll be fine!” he yells, and already, I hear his voice retreating. “I’ll be back soon!”

And then, it’s silent. He’s gone.

 

 

 

 

 

THERE ARE FORTY-EIGHT HOURS BEFORE something implanted into Ian will kill him. Within those forty-eight hours, there are twenty-four of them in the daylight. How is he supposed to use those hours? I can only hope they gave him some sun goggles.

I could sit here and drive myself mad with worry.

Or I could do something to distract myself.

“Tell me about yourself,” I say, loudly enough to be heard. My voice echoes against the steel walls, being absorbed by the stone ones.

“Who are you talking to?” the Spanish man asks.

“Any of you,” I say. I stand with my back against the wall. “All of you.”

“Why do you care?” he responds. “We’re all probably going to die, anyway.”

“Death or not, I’m getting awfully tired of the silence,” I say. “How about I start?”

He gives a little scoff, but doesn’t protest.

“My name is Alivia Ryan,” I begin. “I’ve only been Resurrected for about two months. I didn’t know I was a Born until about nine months ago. I’m from the States. My father was Henry Conrath, my uncle Elijah. I’ve heard I’m a descendant of the third son.”

“Conrath,” a woman’s voice perks up. The silent one who came in with the crier. “He was a House leader. Does that mean you are, too?”

I nod, even though she can’t see me. “Yes. My uncle who ruled was killed quite some time ago. I just recently took over leadership.”

“You’re the most recent queen investigation,” a deep voice rumbles—the silent man who hasn’t made a peep since arriving. The accent is thick, African sounding.

“Yes,” I say. “As you can guess, things didn’t go so well.”

“Someone really does want to take you down,” the Spaniard says. “I think it’s safe to say we all heard you telling your boyfriend everything. Somebody set you up bad. No wonder everyone thinks you did it.”

“Yet you knew nothing about our world until a few months ago?” a new voice perks up. The crier.

“No,” I say, shaking my head. I wish I could see the other prisoners. To read their faces and see what they really are thinking about what I am saying. “What are your names?”

“Horatio,” the Spaniard offers right away. “From Spain.”

“Luce,” the quiet woman says. “And my sister Lina.” The crier. “We’re from Vancouver.”

“My name is Obasi,” the African says. “I am a child of all Africa. I fall under no House.”

There’s strength in Obasi’s statement. Defiance. Fight.

“It’s nice to finally speak to you all,” I say, smiling to myself.

“Who do you think they dragged your boyfriend off to kill?” Horatio asks, a hint of amusement in his voice.

I shrug. “I’m sure the King has plenty of enemies he needs taken care of. It could be anyone.”

“And what makes him so specifically qualified to take care of this?” Luce asks.

“He didn’t know he was a Born, either,” I say, debating how much of someone else’s history I can disclose. But I’m tired of holding things at bay. And besides, Ian is going to be released soon. “Before he Resurrected, he was a hunter. He protected the town where my House is.”

“Sounds like a complicated relationship,” Luce says.

“You have no idea,” I breathe out. A million miles of complicated strings attached. “Tell me, why are all of you here?”

It’s a bold question, but one they asked of me. I hope I’ve offered enough of my own secrets to gain some of theirs.

“My sister fell in love with the wrong man,” Luce says. And there’s a hint of an edge to her voice—resentment, anger. But protectiveness. “He is engaged to the House leader in the Pacific Northwest. When this leader found out what was going on, there was a confrontation. I couldn’t just idly sit by.”

“So, the House leader sent you here?” I ask in surprise.

Neither of them answers me straight away, and I can just imagine the looks between them. “Attempts on a Royal’s life are never dealt with in a gentle manner,” Luce finally says.

I am not sure what to say at first. Who is right and who is wrong in how this situation is being dealt with, I’m not entirely sure. “The heart does have a way of cutting in and making things messy.” It’s all I have to offer to the two of them.

The air is weighted, heavy. I can only imagine the tension that must exist between these sisters.

“I hope things work out for you both.” I say it quietly. But I don’t know that I have much hope. The brutality of the Court is so obvious, and I’ve not even gone through my own trial yet.

“What about you, Horatio?” I move on.

“I said something that offended a Court member,” he says. “I think he put me in here just to get a backhanded laugh in.”

“So, you should be released any time?” I respond.

“I should expect so,” he says, and his tone implies he has nothing more to discuss about the situation.

Suddenly, feet sound on the stone steps, two sets of them, through the passageway and then stopping in front of my cell. A key grates in the lock, and a moment later, it slides open to reveal Trinity, a guard once again behind her.

“Holy shit,” she breathes, her eyes going wide. She steps forward, placing her hands on my upper arms as she takes in my sad state. “Have they fed you at all since they brought you down here?”

I shake my head, even as my eyes search her over quickly. She seems in good shape. Clean clothes. No black veins of hunger.

“What’s going on?” I ask, now searching her eyes for answers. “It’s got to have been a month now. What’s happening?”

“Christian and Markov are on their way here,” she says. She sounds nervous. “They should arrive in two days and then your trial will start.”

“They’re coming here?” I ask in disbelief. “Does that mean they found evidence to prove me innocent?”

She shrugs, the look in her eyes telling me she’s overwhelmed. She may be over forty-years-old Resurrected, but she’s trapped in the body of a seventeen year old, and she’s still that age in so many ways. “I don’t know. The Court won’t tell me much of anything.”

“What
do
you know?” I demand. I take a step toward her. “Is everything okay in Silent Bend? Have there been any more attacks?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know!” she says defensively, acting nervous. “All I know is that things are finally going to move forward. Those two are on the way.”

I nod my head, frustrated. “What about Ian? Have you heard anything about what’s happening?”

“Just some radical type that the King didn’t like,” Trinity says as she sits on my platform bed. “But I did hear Cyrus is going to release him if he kills whoever it is.”

So, maybe it is true, that they will let Ian go. Not just an empty promise.

I let out a slow breath. “So, what do you think? Are they going to convict me?”

Trinity shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’ve been listening around the castle, but it’s almost like they’ve forgotten about you. No one is saying anything about what happened.”

“It feels like I’ve been forgotten,” I say. I’ve already spent half of my life as a vampire in this prison.

“There is something,” she says. “The third son wants to meet you.”

My blood runs slow and cold at that. King Cyrus himself is a legend, a man most vampires are never likely to meet. Now I have. But almost as enigmatic as the King are his grandsons. Once there were seven of them, but they rose up against Cyrus, with his son. So the King killed most of those who rebelled, and gave the world to the two that did not.

I am a descendent of the third son. My claim to royalty.

“When?” I ask, my heart suddenly racing.

“At some point in the trial,” she says. “I think you’re about to meet a lot of very important people, Alivia.”

“Time’s up,” the guard says, suddenly yanking the door open.

“Thank you,” I say to her as I follow her toward the door. “Please, if you hear anything more, come tell me.”

“I will if I can,” she says, offering a sad smile before the door slides closed between us.

The footsteps retreat, and then it’s just us prisoners once again.

“At least one of us is getting out of here soon,” Horatio says. “Dead or alive.”