Authors: Shannon Bell
Costin was gone before I could look up. I took a deep breath and settled into the cushions of the couch as I tried to calm my breathing. My palms were sweaty and I pressed them to the fabric on my thighs to dry them and catch my breath. Nico walked around the corner with the wine glass that was now very much needed. He looked at me inquisitively as he sat down and handed me the Chianti.
“Wow,” I breathed, reaching up with a shaky hand to grab the glass of wine.
“What did he say?” Nico settled next to me, his arm wrapping securely around my shoulders.
I brought the wine to my lips, drinking it faster than I should have been. “You knew he was here? Did you know before you took me here?”
“Yes and no. He made himself known once we got here and I was told not to interfere.” He leaned in closer. “What was said? You look a little bit shaken.”
I took another heavy sip. “That’s putting it mildly. You couldn’t hear?”
“Some,” he admitted. “But it is difficult with this many people around.” He leaned in close to me to have some privacy from anyone who could possibly overhear.
I swirled the wine in the glass and watched the red liquid slosh along the sides before it finally made it to my lips again.
He placed a hand over mine. “You may want to slow down,” he whispered.
I took another sip, throwing caution to the wind. Finally, after yet one more sip, I set the glass down on the table in front of us. “He said you have to mark me.”
Nico made a disgruntled face. “Yes – yes, I suppose I do. I was hoping to put it off for as long as possible.”
“Why?” He didn’t seem to want to do this, which confused me. Did he not want to make me his? Not that I was in any hurry to be bitten, but if even
wasn’t looking forward to it, this was definitely not a good sign.
“You understand what the mark is, right? Costin explained it to you?” Nico was looking stressed. The news of having to mark me was not sitting well with him.
I nodded. “It’s a bite mark.”
“Yes and no. I am afraid it is a little more complicated than what you think.”
“You’ll need to explain then.” Sure, I’d read my share of fiction, but this was completely unfamiliar and I didn’t understand what the big deal was.
“It is not just a bite. It is you giving yourself over to me, allowing me to claim you. We will form a bond that is beyond sinking my teeth into you. Our minds will synchronize, creating the mark that other vampires will be able to see. From what I hear, it is a very intimate transaction of faith.”
It didn’t make much sense to me, but then again, there was a lot of my new life that didn’t make a whole lot of sense these days. “Okay, it sounds simple enough.” I stared into his eyes and read the displeasure in them. There was obviously something here I wasn’t getting. “So?”
“So I have to bite you – I have to drink blood from you,” he paused and leaned in closer. “Which means I have to pull the willpower together to stop, which is always the most difficult part of sipping.”
“Oh.” It took me a second to process what he was saying. “Oh!” I gasped again. I looked at him, though, pressing my hand to the side of his face. “You can though, right?”
His eyes met mine and he covered my hand with his. “Of course, mia mortale. It is
, after all.”
I smiled nervously. Of course he could.
“YOU PROMISE TO actually answer some of my questions this time?” I asked, settling onto the red gingham plaid blanket Nico laid out on the grass.
He sat cross-legged on the blanket and had placed the basket in between us. He had packed it full for a picnic, despite the fact that it was one in the morning. “I do, but first you should eat something.”
There were a few streetlights on the corner that strained to provide a decent amount of light into the waterfront park. Depending on the breeze that pushed through the trees, the light was just enough to make out both Nico’s facial features and what was inside the basket.
Most of my meals lately seemed to consist of cherries, oranges, and anything else I’d use to garnish a drink at Yankee Bar. But tonight, Nico was thoughtful and packed a basket full of snacks for me. I picked through the basket, finding a sandwich of questionable filling. It seemed that it was best not to ask when it came to Italian meats, I learned, so I plucked it out and bit into it. A small tremor shot through my jaw and made me realize just how hungry I was.
“So do I get to ask the questions?” I asked, leaning forward with my elbows on the wooden basket.
“You do. But can I ask a question first?”
I somehow knew what he was going to ask but I nodded, letting him go ahead.
“Will you be moving into your apartment sometime soon? You’ve had the key for almost a week.”
Yep, I knew it. I had been putting it off for a while because, well, I didn’t know. I was just nervous to take this next step, even though it wasn’t as though I was living with Nico. Moving in to a permanent place was just so permanent. Although I knew I was staying, it wasn’t a step I was quite ready to make yet, though it seemed as though there was no choice, not really.
“I’m paid on the hotel through tomorrow. I can move in tomorrow night, I guess.”
Nico nodded his head. “Then it’s settled. It’s all taken care of and you have the address, yes?”
“Yes.” The suitcases were piling up and my new clothes were starting to cramp the small closet in a big way.
Nico watched me intensely as I picked through the basket and left part of the sandwich to the side. “You’re hungry.”
He said it as a statement, not a question.
I looked up at him because of the way he said it. “No,” I said, trailing off. I was trying to be lady like but the truth was that ravenous was more of the word I would have used. “I just didn’t get a chance to eat tonight – it was busy at the bar.”
He let out a soft sigh. “Dylan, you can’t starve yourself. You need to eat.”
“And I am,” I said, pulling out a bag of chips.
“Should I take you to a restaurant?” He started to rise. “Of course I should. How inconsiderate of me.”
I rose to my knees and grabbed his hand. “Sit, I’m fine. You can buy me dinner tomorrow night when I don’t have to work. You promised me answers tonight and that’s all I’m really hungry for.”
He shook his head to reprimand me in his own quiet way and let the subject drop away for a while.
The South Centro traffic was almost non-existent. Aside from a few cars passed along the main road periodically and the sound of my chips crunching, which suddenly sounded much louder than it should be, only the wind blowing through the trees that made any noise.
As the breeze made its way through the trees behind us, it let the lights on the riverfront illuminate our picnic a little more, allowing me to watch as Nico leaned on his side, his muscular arm folding to prop up his head.
“When are you going to mark me?” I asked suddenly. Costin made it sound important and Nico wasn’t in too much of a hurry to heed his words. “Because Costin—”
“I know what he said, and soon. I want to make sure this is what you want before I claim you. You need to know the facts.”
“Fair enough,” I answered as I took the same position as Nico so I could watch the strands of his hair hang just over his forehead.
Nico pushed his hair back and licked his lips. “I suppose it’s only right to start at the beginning. The history of our race is a little mixed. It started tens of thousands of years ago, before Christ was born. We are all descendants of one of five vampires, now known as the Imperial Five. It is believed that each of these five vampires came to be what they are through different means – witchcraft, sorcery and such. With each line of vampires, the changes are slightly different, though we all have the same basic weaknesses.”
“Right. None of us can go out during the day, however some of us transformed from human into vampire differently. Not everyone looks like me, mia mortale.”
Goose bumps crossed my arms and a chill ran up my spine. “How do you mean?”
Nico stared off in the distance and twisted his mouth a couple times before answering. “It’s hard to explain. I appear human, yes?”
“Not all vampires do. Some shift from human to vampire at will, leading them to appear very different in their vampire form. This can include claws, fangs, and various other changes. I have only met one other vampire line other than myself so I can only speak from what I know. The one vampire I met from another line looked much like myself with some slight differences. The other three lines of vampires are much rarer and it is more speculation on what makes them different than fact.”
Different than human. Oh god. I pray I never meet one of those. The horror flicks I’ve seen growing up could have it right after all….
Nico focused in on me. “That’s the history of us, though it can be confusing. Do you want to ask your questions to help clarify this or to make sense of the stories you’ve read?”
I wish I had written all the questions I had for him down. Though he probably would have laughed. “If you were made from one line, then what happens if one of the Imperials dies?”
“Our blood bonds us together but it doesn’t affect whether we live or die. My maker or one of the Imperials can pass and it wouldn’t make a difference. I already have the blood coursing through me, therefore I can’t die. The blood connects us in different ways, though. It allows us to communicate telepathically with each other. Once you are turned, you and I will be able to communicate just as I can with my maker.
“Is Costin your maker?”
“No. He is my sovereign only. I have taken a blood oath to him to be in his territory.”
My eyes narrowed and I could feel a wrinkle forming across my forehead.
“This will make more sense in a year,” Nico said, pushing the basket towards our feet, allowing us to close the distance between us a little easier. “For now, I can explain that there are sovereigns all over the world, keeping track of the vampire population in each city. We are led to believe that the Imperial Five appoint the sovereigns but Costin states he has never met any of them. He came into power because the previous sovereign ended his life and handed reign to him.”
My fingers massaged my temples, trying to take all of this in. “Okay, so how many sovereigns are there?”
“Two hundred or so.” My eyes widened and he smirked. “Keep in mind that is across the globe. Some watch over three or four vampires, others watch over a hundred or so. It’s to ensure no one creates too many more vampires and don’t drain too much of the population.”
I gasped at the thought. Innocent people’s lives were at stake. Yet it didn’t seem to matter, not really. The idea that people were dying so vampires could exist didn’t seem tragic to me. Maybe it should have bothered me but it didn’t. Cows and chickens die every year for humans. Vampires are simply higher up on the food chain.
“Then how many vampires are out there?” I asked. A car screeching around the corner snapped me out of my thoughts.
“No more than about a tenth of a percent of the human population – if a sovereign is doing his or her job. But this is across the globe. Tokyo and many larger cities have more. Otherwise, there is maybe only a handful here and there.”
Did I even need to leave the United States to find a vampire?
On cue, he read my mind. “There are groups in the United States, but much smaller. Mainly in the Northeast. I’m glad you left to come here to find us.” He leaned in to kiss me and pulled me by the hip to get me to scoot closer to him. I gave in and closed the gap the rest of the way between us.
He licked over my lips, waiting to be invited in. I kept my mouth shut, toying with him. His lips twitched in a smile and I finally opened my mouth to give him access to delve in deeper. I let him taste me and explore me like he wanted. As my tongue fought his and traced his fangs, the taste of copper pennies overwhelmed my taste buds for a moment.
I pulled back. “When did you feed?”
Instinctively, he put his hand to his mouth. “You tasted blood?”
“Right before I picked you up at the bar. Does it bother you?”
Nico seemed to tread lightly on this issue, not wanting to upset me. “No, it just surprised me.”
He reached into the basket and pulled out a piece of chocolate, popping it in his mouth. “Better?” He raised an eyebrow.
He’d never eaten anything in front of me. The surprise must have been written across my face because his warm laugh suddenly filled the small space between us.
eat. I just choose not to. Food cravings don’t happen anymore.”
“What else can you do? I mean, vampires,” I wanted to get back to some of the questions I had for him while he was still willing to answer them.
“Well, vampires have basic skills. This includes the healing powers of the saliva and the mind control. As a vampire ages, they can pick up some additional skills. This can include flying and others. You will see soon enough what I am capable of.”
Goose bumps traveled across my body. I already knew what he was capable of in one department, I thought to myself.
“What do you mean by mind control? Like when you take a sip from someone?”
Nico stretched, his slender frame arching and his arms coming down to rest by my head. “Yes. Some have stronger powers, though. I have known vampires who can lure victims to them. Then the victim goes back to their evening as though nothing ever happened.”
First vampires are in the U.S. Then they can lure victims in? I could have been a victim without ever knowing it.
My face told too much, again. “You were never a vampire victim,” Nico commented with amusement in his voice.
“You weren’t. I’d sense it. Besides, most humans that survive these attacks are never quite the same again. The mind control can weaken the mind after a while, which is why we should never go after the same victim more than a few times. No matter how good they taste. Otherwise a sovereign steps in to handle the situation.”
“And by handle you mean kill.”
Nico nodded, watching my reactions to everything he said. To everything he explained. While I was glad I was getting the answers I’ve been waiting a lifetime to know, the way he kept saying ‘human’ made me all too aware that he and I were different in a way that was frightening and exhilarating at the same time.
“Do you have more questions for me?”
“One more,” I admitted.
“Can you explain how you make me into a vampire yet?” The question has come up a few times and each time, he dismisses it completely.
He shook his head. “Not yet,
. Once you are marked, then I will be able to discuss more with you. But only then.”
“Okay,” I said, settling in, slightly annoyed that I couldn’t get all my questions answered.
Nico sensed I was disappointed. “Come closer,” he tugged at my hips to bring me against him. As I moved in to an intimate distance, I knew all too well why he fed before picking me up. It was pressed into my belly, sending butterflies swirling into my stomach and much lower.
He effortlessly rolled me over so his body was pinned over mine. I laughed lightly and delighted in the strength of his body. Pools of royal blue stared down at me. His tongue traced the lines of my lips and my hands went to the back of his neck.
“Mmmm,” I moaned into his ear, nibbling on his lobe a little.
“That’s it.” His hand was halfway under my shirt when I felt his entire body tense.
“Don’t move,” he mouthed to me.
“What’s the matter?” I whispered almost inaudibly.
He pressed a finger to my lips to quiet me. “We are not alone.”
My eyes grew wide as I stared up at him. I was afraid to breathe, let alone to look past him and see what had him so uneasy. Nico didn’t seem thrilled about his findings so I remained quiet and pondered if I would regret looking up.
Nico remained tense above me, though I could feel he was ready to spring up if the situation called for it.
“Do. Not. Move,” he warned, sensing I grew impatient under him.
I simply nodded, not knowing what else I could do.