The newcomers—taller and stronger than Victoria had imagined, and she’d imagined very tall and very strong—formed a backward V. A war formation. Too many times to count, she’d seen her father act as the center of just such a V. It was a pose meant to intimidate, to show unity. A kind of “you mess with one, you mess with all” thing.
The man in front tilted his head to the side. There was no deference to the action, of course, just an I-am-the-scientist-and-you-are-the-lab-rat surety. “At last. You arrive.” He didn’t sneer, but the insult was there, an implication that Aden was a coward for having made him wait.
The old Aden might have ignored the implication. The new Aden raised his chin and said, “At last, I honor you with my presence.”
A fierce scowl. “We are not your subjects, and we are not honored by you.”
The warrior to the speaker’s right placed a firm hand on his shoulder, and he pressed his lips together in an obvious bid for calm. The second man said, “We are not the ones who wish to speak with you, Aden the Beast Tamer.”
At least they acknowledged his power. Names were important to her kind, identifiers of personality, skill and conquest. Vlad the Impaler. Lauren the Bloodthirsty—which was saying something among a horde of vampires. Stephanie the Exuberant. Victoria the Mediator.
A pause, the eye of the storm, before another male teleported to the head of the V, and every person in the room, save for the newcomers and Aden, gasped in astonishment.
“Sorin,” she breathed. She’d known he would come, yet seeing him live and in person still managed to astonish and amaze her. Her brother was here. Her brother was actually here!
The little girl she used to be wanted to run to him, to throw herself in his arms. They’d never before touched, never spoken, and they’d only met gazes a total of six times. Yet still, the forgotten part of her wanted to do those things and more.
“You know him?” Aden asked her, but didn’t wait for her answer. “I think I know him, too.” His eyes darkened, then lit back up, going from violet to black, black to violet, as he looked through her. “Is there a way to stop him?”
He frowned, shook his head. “I don’t believe you, Elijah.”
Of course. The souls were bothering him, but sadly, they were not helping him.
Victoria reached out and twined their fingers, offering what comfort she could while trying to bring him back to the here and now. He blinked, the black gobbling up his eyes and remaining. He gave her a reassuring squeeze, comforting her.
Sorin snorted. “I heard you were insane, human. I am glad to see the gossips can get things right every now and then.”
Aden’s grip tightened, but he did not reply.
“Has Elijah…has he predicted something terrible?” she whispered.
A muscle ticked under his eye. Again he remained silent.
Was he lost to a prediction even now? Trembling, she returned her attention to her brother. “He is not insane,” she said. Maybe she could convince these boys to get along. “Underestimating him will get you killed.”
Sorin met her gaze. Seven, she thought, keeping score in her head, just as before. His hard expression did not change or soften. Did he even remember her? He’d been gone so very long.
Vampires aged much more slowly than humans. While Victoria was eighty-one years old, she was the equivalent of an eighteen-year-old human. Sorin was just over four hundred years old, yet he looked to be in his mid-twenties, with pale hair and eyes as blue as hers. He was taller than Aden by almost a foot and packed with more muscle than any football star.
“Sister,” he said, bowing his head in tribute. “I also heard you were dating the insane human king, but I did not believe it until this moment. And do you really think he could harm me?”
Her first thought: He remembers. Her second: Have I ever been so happy? Her third: There is going to be trouble. Her last: He remembers!
“Do not anger him,” she said, pleased by the evenness of her voice. No matter what happened, no matter what was said, she had to remain emotionally distanced. If there was one thing Riley had taught her during their many self-defense training sessions, it was that emotions ruined perspective and rationality. “Your beast will not like it and will punish you for it.”
A muscle began to tick under Sorin’s eye. Interesting. He must have experienced his beast’s displeasure already.
Sorin’s gaze left her to rake Aden up and down. “You do not look like a vampire king.”
“Thank you,” Aden replied with a nod of his head. Good. He was back in the throne room and out of his head.
A pause. A sigh from Aden. “I’m to tell you that what you’re planning will not end well.”
“And exactly what am I planning?” Sorin asked, unconcerned.
“Very well. Let’s not. Let’s just get started.” With that, Sorin advanced, reaching up and clutching the hilts of the blades peeking above his shoulders. Metal whistled against leather, then the silver tips were gleaming in the light of the chandelier.
Aden stood as still as a statue until the wolves erupted in a chorus of growls and snarls. He held up his hand for silence. They obeyed, but their bodies remained taut, the hair on their backs standing on end. And though he didn’t order any of the vampires to fight, though he shouted for them to return to their formation, several of them rushed forward, closing in on her brother.
She knew why they did so. Their beasts. Chompers was going crazy inside her head, banging against her temples with enough force to hurt, wanting out, wanting to stand guard over Aden. Every bit of her strength was required to keep him inside, to keep her own feet in place as his failure to escape drove him to try and control her body.
She watched, shaking, as Sorin spun—and there went someone’s internal organs. He spun again—and there went a head. He went low, and a leg separated at the knee, each piece falling in a different direction. Gruesome, but all Victoria could think was how good the spurting blood looked. Not just to Chompers, who finally stopped fighting her as he focused on the substance he so craved, but to her. And if it looked good to her…
She glanced over at Aden. He was licking his lips, and his eyes were electric, crackling with lightning. Was he entranced? If so, there would be no saving him.
Sorin stopped just in front of Aden, who continued to watch the blood. He was. He was entranced.
I should have forced him to eat before coming here. Now he might dive for one of those puddles. Might lie there and lap up every drop, leaving his body vulnerable to attack.
“Get the bodies out of here,” she shouted, fearing Aden’s ability to raise the dead would kick in, and the walking corpses would attack.
“Aren’t you frightened?” her brother demanded. The tips of his swords were pointed toward the floor, blood dripping down, down, down, sliding so perfectly. She had only to crouch and stick out her tongue, and the flavor would explode through her mouth.
What are you doing? Trembling, she directed her attention to the boys. They were still nose to nose. She must have squeezed Aden’s hand with every bit of her strength because she’d cut off circulation in her own fingers. They were tingling. Relax, just relax.
Aden cleared his throat, somehow pulled himself out of the entrancement as only an older, practiced vampire could, and straightened. “Frightened? Of you?”
“Why would I be? I’m already dead.”
That gave her brother pause, wiping away his amusement. “You were told wrong, were you not? So far, this has been very good for me.”
“I never said this wouldn’t end well for you.”
“Then why—never mind.” Sorin met Victoria’s gaze. Eight. “Is he always this cryptic?”
The fact that her brother was speaking directly to her again thrilled her, and she couldn’t deny it. In fact, she was so thrilled she couldn’t think up an intelligent reply. She could only stand there, staring at him, open-mouthed and sputtering like a fool.
“Just say what you have to say,” Aden commanded, “so that we can get started.”
Get started? With what? Fear replaced her pleasure.
Sorin sucked in a breath. “Very well, then. I came to tell you that your allies are dead. I killed them.”
“Killed them? When Aden only just took the throne?” she gasped out. Finally. Words.
An impish shrug. “I’ve been knocking them off for the past decade, striking at Vlad every chance I could.”
Father had never told her Sorin had turned on their clan. You’re shocked by that? He’d never told her anything. “I don’t understand,” Victoria said. “Why would you do such a thing?”
She was ignored.
“I know your secret,” her brother said to Aden.
“I know you do,” he replied evenly.
“His strength grows daily, you know. He will return one day soon. He will attack.”
His. Sorin knew Vlad still lived. No one else knew, but if they found out… They won’t connect the dots, she assured herself before she could work up a good panic. For all they knew, Aden and Sorin were discussing Dmitri. Or someone else, someone they didn’t know. Yes, that worked. Please, yes.
“I know that, too,” Aden said. “I also know you want to be king. You want to be the one to destroy him when he reappears. You’re willing to challenge me to get what you want. Even to the detriment of the clan.”