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Part 003

Ashe wait­ed impa­tient­ly while Illia cor­rect­ed the lay­out of her expan­sive office. White Eyes had burned the body with fire, but their pow­er wiped the blood from the car­pet with a hair-rais­ing pulse. If there was any blood left, it no longer stained the cream red. Such casu­al cleanup left Ashe’s mouth dry. He’d seen humans killed, but he under­stood he was food and noth­ing more. That Illia could kill anoth­er vam­pire, and appar­ent­ly with­out con­se­quence, was anoth­er dis­turb­ing reminder that these mon­sters were dif­fer­ent. They did­n’t even have to pre­tend to be human.

Illia sighed at she pushed her high-backed rolling chair into place behind the desk. Her beau­ti­ful fea­tures shift­ed to neu­tral. They were no less ele­gant, though. From head to toe, Illia’s sheer, sil­ver gown caught and reflect­ed the light so it danced in Ashe’s eyes. He’d nev­er seen them dressed in any­thing less than ful­ly for­mal gowns, each one a mar­vel of col­or and shape.

White Eyes said, ”The blood-tithe from Kragen has been acknowl­edged by the Arcane. Kragen has list­ed the first ship­ment to arrive at the bank before sun-up tonight.”

”Typical that he’d keep his humans like a harem rather than in an account.” Illia tapped their fin­gers on the back of the chair. ”Ensure Seneca knows the ship­ment is com­ing in. They’ll need to admin­is­ter med­ical. I don’t want to imag­ine the state those humans are in.”

The pause was brief. ”Done,” White Eyes said. ”What would you like me to do with the o‑type?”

Illia looked at Ashe with cal­cu­lat­ing con­sid­er­a­tion. ”If Abbé is going to retal­i­ate, it’ll be through him.”

Ashe did­n’t know an Abbé, but he kept rapt atten­tion. If he was in the mid­dle of some kind of coven bat­tle, he had to know who all these play­ers were.

White Eyes said, ”You could send him to the bank.”

Illia made a brief face at the thought. ”Too expen­sive. And if the oth­ers think I’m about to start buy­ing up o‑types who knows what kind of trade war will start.” They approached Ashe, ges­tur­ing with two long fin­gers. ”Present.”

Ashe instant­ly threw his tat­tooed arm up for their con­sid­er­a­tion. Their fin­gers were dry and cold on his skin.

Illia shift­ed to male sud­den­ly. His grip hard­ened on Ashe’s wrist. ”Send him to Marsh. A gift. Let them use him for as long as they want. Have him returned to me when they’re done.”

”Contingencies?” White Eyes asked. Light and rows of dig­i­tal text flowed over their eye.

”The min­i­mum. No mor­tal harm, no vis­i­ble scar­ring.” Illia’s long fin­ger stroked Ashe’s throat, fol­low­ing the curve and twist of his new scar.

”Should I strip the para­graph about report­ing to their coven leader?”

”No.” Illia turned away from Ashe and the train of his dress glit­tered behind him. ”Too bare-bones and Marsh will get sus­pi­cious. I don’t want to trap them, I just want the o‑type out of cir­cu­la­tion for a few days. Let’s see how Abbé responds to Kragen’s blood-tithe. The oth­er spon­sors will prob­a­bly want reas­sur­ance that I’m not attempt­ing a hos­tile takeover.”

”Which, of course, you are.”

Illia flick­ered between neu­tral and male for a moment before set­tling on neu­tral. ”Watch your words.” They tipped their head at Ashe.

White Eyes nar­rowed his glare at Ashe for a moment. ”It’s just a human.”

”Just because they’re phys­i­cal­ly sta­t­ic does­n’t mean they’re men­tal­ly defi­cient.” Illia leaned against their desk and into their female pre­sen­ta­tion. She smiled and Ashe saw her pri­ma­ry fangs had descend­ed. ”You would do well to con­sid­er the humans as indi­vid­ual as our­selves.”

”You give them too much cred­it,” White Eyes dis­agreed.

”And you, too lit­tle.” Illia laced her fin­gers togeth­er before her. ”Ashe,” she paused to let White Eyes roll his gaze. They did­n’t approve of her using Ashe’s giv­en name. He did­n’t war­rent one. It made him unique among the lump of humans they want­ed to bun­dle him with. ”I have time for one ques­tion.”

Ashe swal­lowed tight­ly. One ques­tion? When he had a thou­sand swirling around in his skull? He licked his lips. Where was he sup­posed to start? The blood bank, the tithe, Illia’s moti­va­tion to pro­tect him? Should he ask about Marsh? No, Ashe had seen that vam­pire more than once before. Their name was already on his arm, right above Illia’s.

”Today, o‑type,” White Eyes snapped.

Ashe jumped. ”What should I know about Abbé if they’re going to retal­i­ate?”

Illia laughed and clapped her hands once. White Eyes dropped his expres­sion entire­ly. Illia said, ”See, not so dim after all. An excel­lent ques­tion, Ashe.”

He flashed her a quick smile of appre­ci­a­tion, but ducked his head away from White Eyes. He did­n’t want to cause any trou­ble.

”Abbé is a coven leader. They’re about equal to me in the size of their coven”–she ignored White Eyes’ snort–”but while I have focused my efforts in blood wealth, they instead man­age sev­er­al spon­sor­ship of low­er-lev­el coven lead­ers. The the­o­ry goes that a vam­pire who ris­es in the ranks under their guid­ing hand will be an ally among sharks, though I have my doubts. Frankly, I find the man­age­ment to be too much work. I’d rather have my rich­es orga­nize them­selves.”

Ashe adjust­ed his posi­tion on his knees. ”So an attack from Abbé could come from any oth­er vam­pire under them. Any oth­er…” he cocked his head. ”Sponsored coven?”

”Correct. There would be lit­tle way to tell where, when, or how Abbé will respond.”

”Does Marsh pro­vide enough pro­tec­tion? They are only high­born–”

White Eyes snarled and Ashe imme­di­ate­ly pros­trat­ed him­self flat on the cream car­pet. ”Sorry, sor­ry. I am food. I only meant that Abbé is a coven leader who com­mands coven lead­ers. Marsh has no rank among them and must do as they say.”

”Sit up, Ashe, you speak cor­rect­ly.”

He glanced up at White Eyes only to find them turned away and at the oth­er side of the room. Illia had­n’t moved from her reclined posi­tion against her desk. ”Your con­cern is accu­rate. I’m impressed with your grasp of rank and influ­ence. If Marsh’s coven leader had less influ­ence you would indeed be in dan­ger. However, Marsh is in Quaith’s coven and she is far more pow­er­ful than either Abbé or me. Abbé won’t dare make a move against her to spite me. The risk is far too great.”

”And you gain influ­ence with Marsh in the mean­time.”

”That will account for lit­tle, I’m afraid. Marsh is, as you said, only high­born.” She winked.

Ashe bowed his head low. ”Thank you for answer­ing.”

”You are full of delights, Ashe. I’m only sor­ry I don’t have time to dis­cuss this fur­ther with you.” She made a flat-hand­ed ges­ture toward White Eyes who turned toward them both as if he’d heard a silent call. ”Go. Be unseen.”

”Yes, Ma’am,” White Eyes said solemn­ly.

Ashe scur­ried to take up his expect­ed posi­tion behind White Eyes, atten­tion firm­ly on the vam­pire’s pris­tine white shoes and not an inch high­er. White Eyes had seemed indif­fer­ent to Ashe last night, but now there was open hos­til­i­ty radi­at­ing off of them. Ashe only had Illia to thank for his con­tin­ued life. White Eyes had dis­patched Feeder so quick­ly Ashe had­n’t seen how, but the attack had been strong enough to remove Feeder’s head clean­ly from his body. No doubt they could do worse to Ashe, much more slow­ly.

A lev­car await­ed them out­side the Lotus’ front door, and it was­n’t the taxi that had brought Ashe here. This car was sleek, black, and near-silent. Instead of the com­mon blue, the lev­i­tat­ing force that emmi­nat­ed from the car’s base glowed faint­ly pur­ple. It was near­ly invis­i­ble.

White Eyes stepped inside. Ashe shad­owed them, tak­ing up the same posi­tion on the floor as he had last night–as far away from White Eyes as he could get. The lev­car closed its door and flew with­out a sound. White Eyes imme­di­ate­ly pinned Ashe to the wall by the throat, shift­ing to male as he snarled, ”I should take your blood for myself the way you speak to my coven leader.” His fangs gleamed, both sets descend­ing before Ashe’s very eyes. ”You are noth­ing. Less than noth­ing.”

Ashe trem­bled under White Eyes’ intense grip. He gasped in shal­low breaths, but tried not to make a sound. Just because Illia liked him, did­n’t mean he was stu­pid enough to say so. She would­n’t miss him for a minute if White Eyes decid­ed he was bet­ter off dead. He knew his place, he just had­n’t real­ized the free­dom Illia gave him meant White Eyes would become his ene­my. How did these crea­tures bal­ance so many con­nec­tions at once?

White Eyes leaned in close enough to smell Ashe’s neck. ”Marsh does­n’t deserve your o‑type blood. You’re a gift, but I could drain you. It’s my right–” His grip tight­ened on Ashe’s throat for an alarm­ing sec­ond, cut­ting off air entire­ly. When it soft­ened Ashe could­n’t help but gasp. White Eyes dropped him on the lev­car’s floor and took his seat, atten­tion flick­ing to the light over­layed on one eye. He fad­ed from male to neu­tral and back again for the rest of the trip.

Ashe remained bowed low. He did­n’t make a sound or even once risk glanc­ing up from the floor. His nose became inti­mate­ly famil­iar with the grit tex­ture of the lev­car’s sur­face. And when the vehi­cle descend­ed and came to a stop, Ashe threw him­self out almost before White Eyes released him. He land­ed on his ass in the mid­dle of a man­i­cured green lawn. The lev­car, and White Eyes with it, took off. Ashe watched it fly away with his stom­ach flut­ter­ing. He’d sur­vived one mon­ster and had been hand­ed off to anoth­er. This was­n’t relief, exact­ly. Being threat­ened by White Eyes was cer­tain­ly prefer­able to his imme­di­ate future…

A meaty pale hand land­ed harsh­ly on Ashe’s shoul­der. He star­tled onto his knees, bowed, and pre­sent­ed his right arm for inspec­tion. Marsh’s heavy foot­steps land­ed just in front of him. ”This is a very inter­est­ing devel­op­ment,” Marsh said, their voice crack­ling. ”I might nev­er give you up.” Their grin held two pairs of descend­ed fangs. Despite their size, Marsh struck like a snake.

Ashe was on the ground, pinned, before he could gasp. Marsh’s fangs sank into his throat.

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Next: Part 004