Read the first chapter of Out for Blood by Kristen Painter, The next instalment in Kristen Painter's fast-paced and original urban fantasy series about a race of humans bred to feed vampire nobility.
Paradise City, New Florida, 2067
Deep in sleep, Chrysabelle curled against a cold, steely form that paralleled her own. The oddness of that burrowed through her consciousness and tugged her toward the surface. She reached behind her. Her fingertips collided with a hard midsection.
A body. In her bed.
Years of comarré training kicked in. Coming awake, she twisted and looked directly into dark, familiar eyes. She stared, a thousand responses firing across her synapses, the foremost being relief. She blinked twice and shed the remnants of sleep enough to find words. “You’re in my bed.”
Mal nodded, irises sparking silver. “I do have to sleep occasionally, you know.” A lilting smile curved his mouth. “I’m glad you finally woke. How are you feeling?”
She ignored the question, not sure enough of an answer to give him one, and pushed to a sitting position, gathering the coverlet around her. In doing so, she exposed him. He wore only pajama bottoms she didn’t recognize. The names scrawled over his skin glared back from his chest and arms. Somehow she managed to look away, scooting to the edge of the bed until her toes touched plush ivory carpeting. “How long have I been out?”
“Not long. About a day and a half.”
She rubbed her forehead, then pushed the hair out of her eyes. “That’s long enough. What happened? I don’t remember much beyond going to see Atticus, then . . .” She squinted, trying to think. She’d gone to Dominic’s signumist to replace the signum Rennata had stripped off her back. Before that, they’d been in New Orleans, retrieving the ring of sorrows. She’d needed the ring’s sacred gold for her new signum. But her memory faded not long after she’d lain down on Atticus’s table. After the first puncture of his needle. She shook her head. “There’s nothing after that.”
“Nothing?” The bed moved as he shifted. “You’re sure?”
“Positive.” She kicked her foot out, rubbing her toe through the carpet fibers. The signum arching over her foot glinted back. “Everything fades to black after Atticus started stitching the signum into me.” She rolled her shoulders, examining the way her body felt. There was an eerie lack of pain. She turned to look at him. “I take it you brought me back here when he was done?”
Mal nodded. “After Atticus said it was okay to move you. Velimai helped me get you settled.”
“Did anything else happen? I should be in pain.” A lot of it. “It takes longer than a day and a half to recover from new signum.”
“Yes, something else happened.” Mal growled his displeasure. “Not long after we got you into bed, you decided you were well enough to visit the Aurelian. I only found out because I smelled blood. Velimai and I had to break the door down. That’s when we discovered you’d opened the portal on the bathroom floor.” He shook his head, eyes flaring silver. “Of all the foolish things. You should thank that wysper. She made me go after you—”
“What?” Chrysabelle cringed. Why didn’t she remember any of this? “You went through the portal again? You know what happened the last time—”
“Chrysabelle, the Aurelian killed you. I found her cleaning blood off her sword and you on the floor, bleeding from a gut wound. No pulse. No breath. You were dead.” He peered at her more intently. “Or at least I thought you were.”
“Obviously, I wasn’t.” Or was she? That might explain why she couldn’t remember anything. But how was she alive now? “Besides, you knew I was going to go see her to find out as much about my brother as I could. That was the whole point of getting the signum.” But how had she found the strength for a trip to the Aurelian so soon after getting them? There was no way she would have been healed enough for that. She hugged the coverlet a little tighter and turned to see him better. “Do you know if she told me anything?”
He looked down at the bed for a second, then shook his head slowly. “You told me she knew your brother’s name but wouldn’t say it so you could hear it, or something like that. I wish things had gone differently for you. I really do.” A black determination shone in his gaze. “If I ever see the Aurelian again, I will kill her for what she did to you.”
Fortunately, Mal would never get that chance, so his threat didn’t worry her. “Not telling me my brother’s name isn’t really a crime punishable by death.”
“She killed you. How is that not upsetting to you?”
Chrysabelle spread one arm out wide. “Do I look dead? You must have misunderstood what happened.”
Tension tightened his jaw. “I misunderstood nothing. I carried your lifeless body back here.”
“Maybe I just passed out.”
“And had no heartbeat and no breath?” He rolled his eyes. “Is cheating death a comarré power you never told me about?”
“No, of course not.” She pulled her arm against her side and hunched her back, her skin suddenly too tight. The need to stretch was overwhelming. “There has to be an explanation for what happened.”
“There is. You were dead.” With a shake of his head, he lay down again and stared at the ceiling. “Stop ignoring what happened.”
But she wasn’t ready for that truth. It implied things had gone wrong with the gold. That melting the ring of sorrows hadn’t removed its power like it should have. If she didn’t concede something to Mal, he’d never let this conversation end. “I’ll admit everything’s not a hundred percent right.”
“When is it ever?” He shoved off the bed and padded across the room to stand by the French doors going out to the balcony. He pushed the curtains aside. The sun had just set, leaving the world awash in purple shadows. He peered out, then let the curtains drop and turned back to her, crossing his arms over his bare chest as he leaned against the doors.
She tossed the coverlet aside, wrapped the sheet around her like a strapless dress, and walked to him. “Let’s not go looking for trouble. I survived a killing blow. That’s something to be thankful for.”
“I agree, but”—he shook his head—“you don’t seem like yourself.”
Her brow furrowed. “In what way?”
“The way you . . .” He shrugged. “It’s nothing, I guess. Just the leftover stress of it all. Never mind. I’m sure you’re fine.”
She ignored his sarcasm. “Absolutely.” But she wasn’t and she knew it. He was giving her an out, but he didn’t believe his words any more than she did, and that knowledge hung in the air between them. A shard of thought pierced her mind, but it was a shadowy, hollow awareness she wasn’t ready to acknowledge. And telling Mal her suspicions would only mean he’d rant and rave. That would solve nothing. What was she going to do? Have the signum removed from her skin because of a hunch? Having them torn out once was enough.
“You’re still a bad liar.”
She tried to smile. “See? Nothing’s changed.” She rubbed her eyes and yawned. “I’m starving.”
His eyes went completely silver. He turned toward the balcony as his face shifted into the hard, angled mask of a noble vampire.
She lifted her chin. “So are you. I felt how cold you were when you were beside me.”
He kept his eyes focused on the horizon. “I’m fine.”
“Now who’s the liar?” The urge to touch him, to soothe him, surged through her. Instead, she walked back to the bed and occupied herself with straightening the coverlet. “Let me get a shower, then I’ll get you some blood. Will you ask Velimai to make me something to eat?”
His face human again, he nodded and looked toward her. “Of course. I guess you’ll want to see Damian after you eat. He’s at the freighter, guarding another—”
“Tatiana’s comar is at your freighter?”
“Yes. I know you don’t remember, but you said his name before you passed out. You must want to talk to him about something.”
She sank down on the bed and tried again to recall what the Aurelian had told her, but nothing came. “I must have thought he could help me find my brother.” She shook her head. “I’m not up to seeing anyone yet. Maybe in a day or two. Right now, I just want to shower, eat, and feed you. Then I need to do some thinking.”
He tipped his head to one side as if suppressing the urge to say something. “Your call, but don’t you think it’s possible the Aurelian told you something Damian might be able to help you with? Maybe he knew your brother?”
She shrugged his words away. “Without knowing more than the singular fact that I have a brother, how can he help me? I have no name to give him. No idea who my brother’s patron might have been. Nothing.” She sighed. “It’s so frustrating.”
“What if Damian is your brother?”
She glared at him. “He’s not. Don’t you think I’d know if he was?”
“No, I don’t. You didn’t even meet him when he was here. How could you know?”
“Stop pushing. I’ll talk to him, I will. Just not yet.” She rolled her shoulders again, trying to alleviate the uneasiness coursing through her. Mal’s insistence wasn’t helping her mood.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” He studied her as if she might suddenly grow a third eye.
“I’m well enough, considering,” she lied, nerves fraying slightly. “Please, just leave me alone to shower, okay? I’ll feel better after I eat.”
He held his hands up and headed for the door, grabbing a T-shirt off the end of the bed as he went. She sighed. She’d apologize for snapping when she went downstairs, but he must understand she wasn’t quite herself at the moment. Why did he have to push so hard?
When the door closed, she walked to the bathroom, dropped her robe, and stared at the signum Atticus had replaced. Nothing about them looked any different than her other marks, and yet she knew that the gold had changed her. For better or worse remained to be seen.
Chrysabelle wasn’t fine—that much Mal knew. Her glow was different. Darker. He also knew that what she didn’t want to talk about—the power from the ring of sorrows being somehow responsible for her surviving the Aurelian’s sword—wasn’t just going to magically wear off. He never should have put his blood into her, never should have let her get the signum replaced, never should have let her go to the Aurelian alone. Never never never. Weakling.
He snorted in anger as he plodded down the steps from her suite, half agreeing with the voices. As if he had any control over any of those things. He’d no more let her die than she’d let him stop her from doing what she wanted. And now there was a price to pay.
How high a price? Who knew. But having the ring’s power coursing through her had to mean more than just keeping her alive when her life was threatened. That was too simple. He ducked into the hurricane shelter room that had served as his sunproof sanctuary and changed into his T-shirt, jeans, and boots. Power had a way of exacting a price for its use. Tatiana was proof of that. So are you.
He shut the door behind him and headed down the hall and into the kitchen. Velimai, the wysper fae who’d been Chrysabelle’s mother’s assistant, sat at the table with a cup of tea, scanning her e-reader. It was good she’d stayed on after Maris’s death. He didn’t like Chrysabelle being alone in this huge house, and with Velimai’s vampire-killing voice, the fae offered good protection should Tatiana come calling.
Velimai looked up when he came in. She signed something he didn’t understand, then pointed toward the upstairs.
“Yes,” he answered, guessing at what she’d asked. “She’s awake. And hungry. And a little cranky.” Who wouldn’t be around you?
The wysper offered him a wry smile, set her reader down, and headed for the refrigerator. She pulled out a few things, then gave him a questioning look and a nod toward Chrysabelle’s rooms as she went to the counter.
He pulled out a chair and sat, his back to the wall. “She’s in the shower. Should be down shortly.”
Velimai stopped seasoning a steak to give him a good, long look. She slowly mouthed, “You look tired.”
“I am.” Tired of always being at odds with Chrysabelle’s stubbornness. “And frustrated. She doesn’t want to talk about what happened.” He tilted his head back until it touched the wall, then closed his eyes. “Or what’s still happening. Or going to happen, depending on how you look at it.”
Two soft clinks on the tabletop brought his head back down and opened his eyes. Velimai tapped the top of the whiskey bottle she’d put there with a squat glass, then glided back to the range where the grill was heating.
“Thanks.” What he really needed was blood, but that could wait. No, now. He’d had enough practice in delaying his own gratification. Another hour or so meant nothing. He poured a couple centimeters of whiskey into the tumbler and tossed them back. The burn felt good. Substantial. Something he could quantify. Unlike Chrysabelle, who continued to bewilder him. “We’ll have to discuss it sooner or later.”
Velimai nodded. The steak sizzled as she laid it over the grill, the scents of searing, bloody flesh reminding Mal of his human days. A muted whir filled the room as the vent kicked on to suck up the smoke. She put down the tongs she’d been using, came back to the table, scrawled something on an e-tablet, then held it out to him.
She’ll talk when she’s ready. You & I know it’s the ring in her system. Maybe your blood too. But what can you do until she’s ready? Fight with her? No use.
Mal set the e-tablet down and leaned back. “No use is right. I just can’t help but wonder what the final cost of all this is going to be.”
Velimai sighed and went back to the steak.
“The final cost of what is going to be?” Chrysabelle cinched her robe a little tighter as she entered. Her hair was dry. Maybe she’d changed her mind about showering. The look in her eyes said she understood perfectly well what they were talking about.
He didn’t want to fight with her. Do it. But neither did he want to ignore something so critical. Velimai glanced at him, her expression plainly asking him to drop it. But he couldn’t. This was too important. This was Chrysabelle’s life. Her future. “The final cost of what’s going on with you. With the ring’s power in your system.”
“The ring’s power was destroyed when Atticus melted it down. I told you I’m fine. If you can’t accept that, maybe you should go.”
He canted his head to one side, trying to quell his building frustration. “Chrysabelle, don’t be—”
“It’s my house,” she said quietly. “I’ll be whatever I want to be, understood?”
He rose, thankful there was no sun in the sky to keep him captive here. “Let me know when you’re ready to be someone who wants to face reality, because if you think the ring’s power and my blood in your system aren’t somehow responsible for you still being alive, you’re wrong. And we need to figure out what else it means before something new happens. Tatiana’s still out there. The first sign of weakness in you and she’ll exploit it. You think she won’t?”
Her face went slightly ashen. “You don’t want me to have a moment’s peace, do you?”
“Of course I do.” He tried not to growl in frustration but failed. “I just want to figure this out. To help you.” Help yourself. Bite her. Drain her.
She crossed her arms like a shield against him. “Yes, I know how you help. Like the time you followed me to the Aurelian. And the time you put your blood into me to save my life. Your help is never really that helpful, is it?”
He came closer, staring down at her maddening glow. “You’re still breathing, aren’t you?”
“Yes. And I’m tired of the air smelling like vampire.”
She turned away. “Go home, Mal. When I’m ready, I’ll come find you.”
Every cell in his body ached to fire back, but he stayed silent despite the voices trying to pry his jaws open. He stalked out of the house and slammed the door behind him. The voices raged like drunken carnival revelers.
Maybe the voices were right. Maybe it was time to let Chrysabelle go. Let her deal with her life on her own.
If only he could get his heart to agree.