Home > After Darkness Falls (After Darkness Falls #1)(11)

After Darkness Falls (After Darkness Falls #1)(11)
Author: May Sage

“On my way.”

Priorities

The large, round study was mostly empty during the day. In a few hours, a dozen vampires would be hunched behind their work stations, engrossed in their research.

He'd deliberately asked the woman to come here at eleven so that they could speak privately.

This wasn’t the first time that Levi De Villier had met a prospective bride. The first few had been bothersome. Now, he was used to their buzzing around him wherever he went like a moth to a flame.

He drove away those who were easy to manipulate, but the woman in front of him didn't look like a faint-hearted shrew, to his displeasure.

One glance, and he already knew she'd be a handful. Her eyes were a little like his. Cold. Calculating.

She may have been young by all standards, but she was a true vamp nonetheless.

“Your name is Catherine, I hear.”

“Yes. My friends call me Cat.”

“You're a Stormhale. That makes you, what, seventeenth in line for the throne ruling over the European covens?”

She nodded.

“Do you have friends, Catherine?”

She didn't miss a beat, he had to give her that.

“People like you and me don't have friends,” she replied. “We have pawns. I misspoke when I said ‘friends,’ but ‘my pawns call me Cat’ would have made me sound like a James Bond villain.”

At least she was honest. He wondered how many truths she'd be willing to reveal.

“Tell me why you're here, Catherine,” he said, using her full name. No one had ever accused him of being a pawn in anyone's game without his consent.

She crossed her legs elegantly. “Because my family wants me to marry you. I've been asked to make myself useful to you for the next three years, and to seduce you at the first opportunity.”

Very honest, then.

“Why did you comply?”

The stunning blonde tilted her head. “It's my understanding that you might eventually become king in this part of the world. Our intelligence has reported that your niece, the Queen of Germania, has very little support from the other families. Her reelection is approaching, and she may lose. I wouldn't mind being a princess, and I sure would like to be queen someday.”

In the Age of Blood, the vampire covens around the world elected the rulers who would reign over humans and paranormals alike. When they retired to the shadows, their kind allowed regular human politics to do as they chose, but they maintained their monarchical systems, to Levi's great sorrow.

It had made sense. Before the Great Reveal, most vampires had been either isolated or part of many little covens often at war with each other, fighting for territory, power, or perhaps just out of boredom. Having one king per continent, and a clear system with laws and structure, had considerably reduced the amount of immortal blood spilled without cause. Overall, Levi would have approved, if he wasn't, as Catherine had pointed out, far too close to the throne.

She was right. Bella would not be reelected. No other De Villier was fit to rule. Except him. He was the logical successor, on paper.

“You did your homework,” he stated. “You would have also noted that I’ve never taken a wife. What makes you think I’d change that now?”

Most immortal weddings were contracts, set to be broken within a predetermined length of time—a hundred years, typically. Levi didn’t know many elders who’d remained bachelors through the ages. But he’d never encountered a person—male, female, mortal, immortal, regular, shifter, or anything else—who’d captured his interest. He liked to have sex occasionally, and enjoyed the company of some of his kind. But marriage?

His mind involuntarily flickered back to his encounter with Chloe just a few minutes ago. He was annoyed at himself for thinking of her now, but he couldn’t help it.

She smelled of some fruity moisturizer and, underneath that, of forest, earth, and rain. Wild and sweet.

She was a problem he had no time for. A problem he couldn't ignore.

Just like the woman in front of him.

“I didn’t think you would,” she replied. “But my aunt insists. And I was tired of Rome, in any case.”

He nodded. At least she was under no delusions.

“Well, you're welcome to remain in Oldcrest, of course, and you're invited to attend the conclave on Night Hill during your stay, Catherine. If you wish to be of use to me, you may join my outings. My assistant will notify you, and you may address any question to him. You will not disturb me during my studies here at the Institute. If you bother me, you'll be on the next plane to Rome. Understood?”

The woman acquiesced. “Perfectly. I thank you, Your Grace.”

Levi sighed as she moved away. All the ridiculous fuss went with his name.

Ignoring her, as he intended to do for the foreseeable future, Levi headed to his computer. He placed his hand on his identification pad, and a small needle pricked his finger, drawing a drop of blood.

The system let him in.

As he was here earlier than usual, he took the opportunity to check on the patients, opening a live video feed.

The main camera showed all seven cells on each level of his dungeons. Inside each cell was a vampire. Some looked very young, others ancient. Some were truly ancients, and others just days old.

All were doomed.

Everyone was asleep on the first and second levels. On the third, three of the seven were aimlessly wandering their cells, their gazes void, their steps awkward.

Levi entered a few commands, and bags of blood dropped from the ceiling.

Immediately, every creature in the level stirred, grunting, searching everywhere like animals, and then attacking the bags. Most of the blood fell on the floor. They licked it, mindlessly ravenous.

Levi's eyes never gave away the slightest expression. He pressed on the recorder in his pocket to make a note. “Containment level three, five weeks after contamination. Subjects unstable. Remedy ineffective.”

He shifted to the last level, which held only one vampire. A small boy of nine, or so he seemed. He was called Steven, and he was nineteen—not much older. A child, to his eyes.

Levi pressed on the inter-phone, activating it.

“Steven, are you with me today?”

The boy lifted his head. “It's early. You're normally not talking to me before nighttime.”

The room had no window, and the boy had been in there for a long time now.

“How do you know when it's nighttime?”

“I count,” the boy replied. “Every day, every night, I count. That's one way to distract myself.”

Levi scribbled the word "counting" on his closest notepad.

“How are you feeling today, buddy?”

“Same,” the boy said. “Like I want to kill. I want to destroy everything. I want to get out of here. And then I want to hunt you down and tear you to pieces.”

Of course he did.

“Why don't you try?”

The boy shrugged. “Because I know that when I lose it, you'll kill me.”

Levi paused.

“Do you know why you're here?”

The boy nodded. “I do. That's why I'll keep on fighting as long as I can.”

Levi hesitated before releasing the bag of blood.

Steven watched it fall, then slowly, carefully, got up and grabbed it. He tore one side with his teeth and sucked on it neatly, not letting any of the blood drop.

Levi watched him. Seven years had passed since he'd locked him up. Seven fucking years, and Steven was still holding it.

The blood sickness that had turned so many vampires feral was irreversible, forever tainting their blood. Those who succumbed to it were killed on sight by huntsmen. The exceptions were the twenty-two subjects currently in his lab.

Twenty-one of them might make it if Levi managed to figure out the formula that made Steven different.

This was his priority. This. No one else. Nothing else. Not kingdoms, and queens, and brides.

And certainly not Chloe Miller. His…problem.

Oaths

“And Art. I’m definitely taking Art. Have you seen what that dude did with his paintbrush?”

After spending the day exploring the classes, Gwen was ecstatic, and Chloe overwhelmed. There were too many choices for her liking. They headed straight to the mailroom, where the unpleasant Martie grumbled a greeting.

“How do I go about sending a message to Blair?” she asked him.

“You write it. Can you write, newbie?”

He seemed, if possible, more irritable than yesterday, maybe because some raven had quipped at her merrily. A small one—the same one she would have sworn had followed her to her dormitory the previous day—flew around her. She lifted her hand and the raven took the invitation, perching on her index finger.

“Don't the talons hurt you?” Gwen asked. “My grandma keeps birds. They don't like me much, but they love my brother. He has loads of cuts from holding them, though.”

Chloe looked at her hand. Indeed, the small talons did seem sharp.

“No, I think this baby is being careful.”

“Listen, Miller,” Martie grunted. “I've had this job for the last thirty years, and my uncle had it before me. We're servants of the Seven. You can't come here and take over.”

She blinked, flabbergasted.

“All right, glad you got that off your chest. But I'm here as a student; I have zero idea what sort of tricks you do to send these to the right people, and, anyway, no offense but your job is my idea of a nightmare. A boring nightmare. I have zero intention of stealing it.”

“Swear it,” Martie demanded.

Gwen opened her mouth to speak, but Chloe had already said, “I swear I'm not after your job.”

The witch sighed. Martie smiled and handed her a blank piece of paper.

“Well, write your stuff, then. I'll take care of it.”

Chloe wrote to Blair, asking to meet her when she could free up some time, and Gwen did the same with her mentor.

On their way down to Adairford a few minutes later, the witch told Chloe, “All right, I may be out of bounds here, but I figure someone should tell you. Never swear to a sup. Ever.”

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