Eyes and bodies turn; villain and victim peer through the dim at a figure leaning casually against the wall on the other side of the alley several metres away. Everything about him screams nonchalance – the setting, the setup, the characters, none of it seems to concern him.
Languidly, he tips his chin up, revealing an unnatural light in the green depths of his eyes.Everyone is unsure, except him.
The moment is his, the alley, the city, the night – all his, and this confidence dares anyone to disagree.
I take this moment of distract to attempt an escape, not wishing to let the opportunity slip by, but the back of my neck is snatched the moment I put this thought into action.
The world is a sudden blur of colour and sound, and I do not blink: not once.
Kiril’s cashmere coat flutters dramatically as he slides between the men, the cape of a hero pounding out great splashes of blood with his fist, driving teeth into flesh and ripping through veins until three men have fallen and do not move.
I do not blink: not even now, Kiril standing before me, his ludicrously stoic face a smear, his lips parted and stained.
“Now’s the part where you release her and beg for your miserable existence,” Kiril drawls, before the tip of his tongue touches the sharp point of a far too long canine tooth.
“That’s… not going to hap…” the remaining ‘man’ says, but his voice dies as Kiril sounds out behind us, even though he’s still plainly right before us.
“Wrong answer,” he whispers in the man’s ear, causing him to flinch.
And flinch again, tumbling me on hands and knees at Kiril’s feet.
Looking up – he’s there.
Looking back – he’s…
My mouth drops open in silent horror as Kiril squeezes his fingers tightly where they’re protruding from my attacker’s chest, his heart still in Kiril’s grip until it drops to the ground with a sickening splat. A few seconds later, the last body joins the rest, and I am alone with this monster wearing Kiril’s face.
His unhurried approach, perhaps designed to calm my obvious anxiety, explodes an energetic flight response. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so fast in my entire life, scurrying along like death was snapping at my heels – maybe it was?
Before I can exit the alley, however, I skid to a sudden halt in the face of a brick wall that hadn’t been there a moment ago.I think.
Panting and on the verge of hysteria, I spin into Kiril’s arms, drawn nose to bloody nose.
“Now might be a good moment for you to just accept my suggestion, and sleep,” he exhaled, holding my gaze with the fierce caress of green flame against my face.
“Let me…” I begin, wanting to struggle and shriek, but finding my limbs heavy and resistant.“Come on, Miho,” he breathes, paradoxical tenderness in the eyes of a murderer.
“Just sleep, and everything will be alright, I promise.”
“You… promise?” I hiss, but he’s holding all my weight now. “Don’t… don’t…”
I don’t remember finishing my sentence. Nothing makes sense, while maybe it makes sense now more than it ever did. Kiril’s face is so close to mine, pressed up against the wall somewhere in London, blood on his tongue – my blood – but his name is Alex, and Narumi shouts at him from somewhere nearby.
Teeth and eyes and blood.
So much blood – because of Konstantin? Because I chased him?
In the black, it falls into place.It’s so typical for me, to wander – no, charge – into a situation so blindly I don’t see the vampire for the trees; but for some reason I’m not nearly as surprised by this revelation as I should be.
The coldest part now, is realising Kiril is a bloodsucker, then Konstantin probably is too.
“Jazz!” I exclaim, sitting bolt upright in room I recognize.In bed, in my suite, I’m dressed in my nightgown, and the outfit I was wearing is hung up on the outside of the carved, wooden wardrobe.
“She’s not here,” Kiril says, and my head snaps to the chair beside the bed where I hadn’t even noticed he was sitting.
“Why did I even wake up?” I wonder, and though Kiril’s head tilts the slightest bit, his expression remains sombre.
“I have no desire to kill you, Sparrow,” he declares, unmoving as I slip out the far side of the bed: not that I think a simple piece of furniture could stop him from zapping in behind me and crush my spine. “Or crush your spine,” he adds, simply watching me. “Honestly, I don’t wish you any harm.”
“Oh really?” I spit, far more vehemently than I intend.
“Antagonising a vampire is hardly a good idea.”
Then I think about all the times we’ve been together alone, how I’ve acted and spoken to him.
“You remember now, don’t you?” he prompts, somewhat of a rhetorical question. “How is your head?”
“I just watched you slaughter four guys: slaughter,” I reiterate, my hands moving to animate my statements in macabre fashion.
He has washed and changed his clothing, and though he is no longer covered in blood, I can still see it patterning his pale skin.“And you’re asking how my head is?” I continue, exasperated. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Does it seem like I am?” he asks, so bland now it’s hard to resist the urge to smack some emotion into him.Which brings back the memory of me slapping him in that expensive café.
“That’s right,” he nods. “If I wanted to hurt you, you’ve given me ample motive and opportunity.”
“Stop that!” I snap, swiping my arm through their air. “Stay out of my head; I knew you were in my head.”
In long, agitated strides, I pace across the room and back again, and finally Kiril rises.
“That’s not the only place,” he adds simply, and I spin and point viciously.
“Don’t you FUCKING DARE pull that shit!” I roar, apparently losing all sense of self preservation. “You’ve been dangling Konstantin in front of me like a carrot since I met you, playing some sick game – why? What the hell do you gain from messing with me like that?”
“Because you remembered,” he answers flatly, his single step in my direction bursting my bravado and sending me scooting back. “The mind-splitting headaches, flashes of a past events, of faces and names; something you shouldn’t have recalled.”
“Alex,” I shudder out. “He attacked me for asking about Konstantin and he…”
Kiril’s brows lift.
“He licked me,” I swallow, “and then he was…
“Hmph,” Alex grunted, leaned closer to Miho’s throat, inhaling deeply before slithering his tongue over the slowly oozing wound he found there.
Though Miho drove her free hand up under his chin, Alex tossed her aside, and she cartwheeled.
“Now that’s a nifty secret,” he snarled, about to pounce once more, when the back exit of the club opened abruptly, and a woman appeared in the doorway.
“I see,” Kiril nodded slowly, knowingly, and took another step forward.
“Just, stay right there!” I command, but my voice is trembling.
And Kiril is no longer before me.
Instead, his arms wrap around me from behind.
“Get off!” I bellow, wriggling and writhing like a mad cat, but at the same time my skin is suddenly singing.
“Stop struggling, Miho, you’re not in danger here,” he hisses, his cool breath tickling my ear. “Damnit please, relax.”
My body freezes, and it’s only half because Kiril’s entreaty actually sounds genuine. I watched him spit out a chunk of a guy’s neck, punch another’s heart right out of his body – I should be petrified, and I am – but at the same time, the clench of his arms and the pressure of his body against mine, the press of his face over my shoulder and his lips so close to my skin fires shocks of wanton anticipation all through me.
“What did you do to me?” I rasp, feeling his arms loosen a little. “You’re a murderer, you just…”
“I didn’t do anything to you,” he growls, one hand sliding up my throat to rest lightly under my chin, “but I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more.”
“Kiril, let me go,” I plead, but the sensation of his exhale against my neck makes me shiver, and weaken my legs.
“In case the guys in the alley weren’t enough of a wakeup call, you’re in over your head,” he rumbles, turning me to face him. “Konstantin and Jazz are one thing, but you are in danger if you pursue this, more than you know.”
“Apparently I don’t know anything anymore,” I blink tearily, but Kiril’s expression isn’t sympathetic, it’s… pained?
“If they discover what you are, even Narumi,” he says softly, one finger stroking along the line of my jaw, “they will kill you.”
“They? And you?”
“If I did, you’d be dead,” he points out, and I have to concede the point; he’s right, he’s had plenty of chances, and yet his touch now is so gentle.
Of its own accord, my head turns into his touch, but my stomach is a violent, churning squall of conflicting emotion.
“Please, Kiril,” I beg, reaching out with my eyes, “just let me go – if what you say is true – I need space, and I can’t think while you’re…”
“That’s just it,” he frowns, but it’s not by me he’s confused. “I don’t want to let you go. I want to feel your warmth, hold it closely, hold it safe.”
Thankfully, despite his words, he steps back, rubbing at the back of his neck, while I find the edge of the bed to sit down on before I fall down.
“Vampires is a lot to drop on a girl,” I murmur, watching him pace to the window and then back to the middle of the room. “And the chosen one too huh? Brilliant.”
“Hardly the chosen one,” he sniffs, a sharp sound I can see he immediately regrets. “And I cannot be one hundred percent sure, not yet, not without…”
His expression is now imploring, but he’s also holding himself back: me too. I both want him to tackle me against the mattress, but need to him to stay away.
“Without…?” I prompt, but I already know I’m not going to like the answer.
“Without tasting you,” he answers plainly, honestly, and though his posture could be called relaxed, I see his eyes flicker with desire.
I know he’s talking about my blood – that is what vampires are about after all – but I cannot help but blush and squeeze my thighs together a little more tightly.
“And what would that prove exactly?”
“Every person tastes a little different,” he answers, his hands unfolding as he provides some crucial exposition, “and the older I get, the more I can tell about a person: intricacies of their health, hints of the genetic heritage, and whether they are human or not.”
An exhale explodes from between my lips.
“So, the vampire is telling me I’m not human?” I balk.
“I suspect, strongly, you’re not entirely human,” he agrees, hazarding to slowly move toward the bed at the far end. “As you have recalled, you were attacked,” he continues, sitting down a good five feet away, “by one of Konstantin’s friends, I suppose you could call him, and Narumi stopped him from killing you.”
“The woman from the police station,” I mutter. “She’s a vampire too?”
Kiril confirms this with a nod.
“And it’s her job to clean up mistakes like Alex made,” he adds.
“I remember being somewhere after that alley,” I admit, “and her voice.”
“We don’t go about killing people,” he says. “We will make you forget anything that might be problematic for us.”
“But I remembered.”
My lip bears the brunt of my bubbling anxiety.
“Regular humans don’t just shrug off power like Narumi’s,” he nods slowly. “It’s not possible.”
“Did you? Have you ever messed with my head?” I ask, and Kiril doesn’t look ashamed.
“I forced you to sleep last night,” he admits. “But if I had changed any of your memories, you would likely have remembered by now.”
“So you,” I inhale, “you didn’t make me…”
“Make you what?” he prompts.
“Ugh, make me want you so stupidly!”
And the moment after I think that ridiculously loud thought, I realise he’s been hearing the inner workings of my mind since we met.
Oh yeah, he’s grinning.
“Believe me when I say it is taking all my self-control to keep my distance,” he declares, turning a little. “But I will wait until you trust me.”
“Would you trust you?” I ask, swallowing the lump in my throat.
“To protect something important to me? Absolutely,” he affirms without a second of hesitation. “And knowing you, you will need protection.”
“Knowing me, huh?” I chortle. “When did we meet again? How much could you possibly…”
“I know you’re relentlessly loyal,” he interrupts. “Sassy and sharp-witted, tenacious and principled despite your ‘madam of the club’ façade, and a tactile, passionate woman, who has been haunting me for far longer than you think.”
“The hell am I supposed to say to that?” I think, and again I see Kiril’s lips twitch. “If you want me to trust you, you can start by staying out of my head,” I scowl reproachfully.
“You’re all but broadcasting,” he defends, “when you’re thinking about me.”
Burning – oh yeah, my face is flaming.
“I could try to teach you to be more guarded,” he offers.
“But I’m not a vampire… am I?”
Kiril shakes his head and rises again, making his intention to approach me clear before he does- and I let him; I know I shouldn’t, but I let him.
“You,” he says, looking down at me, his shadow casting cold over my exposed skin, while the light at his back makes him glow divinely, “are something I should kill right now, before you can become a real danger, to me, to my kind.”
My lips part to respond, in fright, in my defence, but the feathery touch of his thumb against me, silences the words before they can emerge.
“Fully awakened hunters are immune to the mind manipulation of many preternaturals – vampires included – and can detect our true identities no matter how human we look.”
“I didn’t,” I admit, but his thumb presses more insistently.
“Because you’re not awakened,” he clarifies. “And if I have anything to do with it, you never will.”
Gently, slowly, his thumb opens my mouth, and without even thought, just base instinct that somehow overwhelms that of survival, my lips wrap around it. The moist warmth of my tongue touches him tentatively, and for a second before the horror of my actions hits me, I suckle provocatively against the very tip.
My backward flinch is jarring, my eyes wide, and I’m shaking my head like that can dispel the pheromone laced fog controlling my actions.
“I’m sorry, I…” I shudder out, my body crying out for me to taste him far more, but my mind shrieking grave warning. “I hate this, I hate feeling like, like someone else is controlling me actions!”
Calmly, Kiril watches, his fully clothed legs brushing lightly against the dangle of mine.
“You can’t seduce me like this,” I growl adamantly, and it’s Kiril’s turn to shake his head.
“I told you, what you feel for me is my doing.”
Frustrated, I stand and shove him away so I can begin pacing again.
“What am I supposed to do now, huh?” I eject, throwing up my hands. “Lions and tigers and bears, and I want to just rub myself all over one.”
Clearly, Kiril was struggling not to smirk.
“Stop that!” I tell him once more, slashing the air with my hand. “I came here to find Jazz, not to get all tangled up in your bullshit.”
“Then that is what we do,” he asserts. “ The men who attacked you were locals, which means just as you did in London, your search for Konstantin aroused interest.”
“Well it’s a little late to ask them what they know,” I point out.
“They were asking you for information,” he points out, “which suggests they didn’t know he was here. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Prague’s gentry is unaware.”
“Given they attacked me, is said gentry likely to part with any information they might have?” I frown, but Kiril sniffs with arrogant confidence.
“Arno will deal with me whether he likes it or not,” he states, “I just need to make a call or two.”
Miho took a long shower while Kiril made his phone calls. She didn’t know or care who he was talking to; the last thing she needed to do was add to the mountainous pile of unbelievable she’d be blindsided with. Some of it she just knew, even though she didn’t know how she knew – a voice deep within told her Kiril was not lying, not about vampires and not about herself being an unawakened hunter. Surprisingly, it was the inexplicable attraction she felt toward Kiril – despite everything – that vexed her the most. As the warm water caressed her body, she replayed all the times they had been in close proximity – and shuddered, her hand sliding between her legs to press against the aching of her clit.
“Not good,” she sighed, her head leaning against the glass wall as she rocked against her hand.
Even as she relished the burgeoning, pleasure, a part of her remained deeply concerned by the mental image she’d created of Kiril nuzzled in behind her, his hands on her, in her.
And she really hoped he couldn’t hear her thoughts from the other room.
“Feel better?” Kiril enquired, when Miho finally emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed and preened.
Praying he took the flush in her cheeks as heat from the shower, she nodded, but her attention was soon drawn to the wafting scent of coffee and a tray of various consumables.
“Your stomach was growling,” he smiled, tipping his chin in the direction of the table.
“It was not,” she huffed, but moved to pour herself a mug just the same.
“Oh? Then I suppose you were growling for another reason?” he posed, one eyebrow raised provokingly. “Hm, perhaps not growling, maybe moaning is a little more accurate.”
Miho blinked, then rallied.
“Well, if I was it certainly had nothing to do with you,” she sniffed, casually filling her mug and grabbing a slice of fruit. “So, what’s the plan?”
Better to stick to business.
“We’ll walk right into Arno’s court and politely ask for his assistance,” he replied, not looking the slightest bit daunted by his suggestion.
“Is that really the wisest idea, considering you just killed four locals?” Miho asked sceptically, surprised by how good her appetite was considering the traumatic events of the previous night.
With a shrug, Kiril rose from his seat, thrusting his hands into his pockets.
“Arno is old,” he admitted. “That’s Europe for you, but the old world doesn’t hold nearly as much sway as it used to.”
“Okaaay,” she agreed, taking a sip before continuing. “But this we business. Before, you were all ‘Oh I should kill you because you’re a hunter and you need to be protected’, and now you’re suggesting I march down the throat of a vampire court? That doesn’t seem all that smart.”
“So long as you behave like you’re under my thumb, everything will be fine,” he told her, and now looked mighty pleased with himself.
“I am not under your thumb,” Miho ruffled, glaring at him over the rim of her mug.
“And this defiance is something I admire in you,” he nodded, “you never cease to entertain, but unless you want me to leave you here, you’re going to have swallow your pride for a little while and play like a good little pet.”
Grinding her teeth, Miho considered being stubborn by refusing to go, but it seemed she was getting closer to finding Jazz, and did not want to just leave it to Kiril.
“Fine,” she grumped.
“Understand, Miho, a false step here could me we both end up as little more than unrecognisable fragments of flesh,” he explained frankly, though he didn’t appear fazed by this prospect. “I can hold my own, make no mistake, but at the centre of Arno’s kingdom, he definitely has the advantage.”
“Kingdom,” Miho repeated. “So what? Vampires follow a monarchical hierarchy?”
“In some countries, yes,” he affirmed. “In others, it’s a matter of who has the most power and who can cling to it.”
“Not big on democracy huh?” she sniffed, finishing off her coffee and placing her mug back on the tray.
“Well, the human world messes that up enough for everyone,” he expounded with mild amusement. “And no matter how much power within our own we hold, we cannot help but be in some way influenced by the machinations of human politics.”
“And in the UK?” she prompted, taking another piece of fruit before moving slowly around the table to the other side; another piece of furniture between them.
“Monarchy,” he affirmed, but his lips remained parted as if there was more.
“And? Come on, the time for secrets is over,” Miho urged, emphasising her statement with a pointed look.
“And, do you remember when I warned you not to pursue my father?” he replied, not having to say much more for her to cotton on.
“Seriously?” she coughed, shaking her head. “Your dad is the king of the UK?”
“I’ll spare you the indignity of calling me you Highness,” he smiled. “At least in private.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she sighed shakily, casting her mind back to the business dinner and the whole thing with the man named Hardwick. “I feel like I’ve been walking around with my eyes closed.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s normal not to see that which defies the well accepted status quo,” he philosophised, glancing at his watch before looking back up. “Shall we go?”
With two loud cracks, Miho tilted her head from one side to the other, then levelled her gaze at Kiril – eyes brimming with determination.
Continuing to smile, perhaps a little too genuinely for Miho to actually believe it was genuine, Kiril watched her snatch up her bag and head for the door.
“You’re going to need this,” he told her softly, and before she could look away from the door, she felt the light pressure of her coat folding over her shoulders, Kiril’s hands smoothing down her arms a second later.
The gesture caused her to shiver, made parts of her clench so tightly she’d leaned back against him like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Stop that,” she hissed, his thumbs stroking her upper arms, but she hadn’t straightened, nor reached for the knob… the door knob.
“This, whatever this is, is as difficult for me to resist as it is for you,” he whispered, then reached around her to open the door. “After you.”
Far from the pretentiousness of his usual limousine, Kiril has already called ahead to have a city taxi waiting for us out the front of the hotel. Like a gentleman he opens the door and sees me comfortably inside, before joining me in the back. I’m not stupid, I haven’t forgotten the things I’ve just learned or seen, but Kiril’s right – the attraction between us is unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and it demands I touch him, feel him and that I let him have the same of me. Fighting it is exhausting, even if my logical mind tells me I should not be putting myself in the path of a killer, a predator, all for the tingle of my nethers.
“It’s not just for that,” I tell myself sternly, as Jazz has always been my number one priority.
Denying how much I want Kiril to take me right there in the back of this cab, however, is becoming more and more difficult.
Our hands brush.
I blush like some ridiculous otome ‘heroine’ whose only exposure to grown men is her stern and uptight father. Trying so hard to rein in the raging fire in my face, I completely miss Kiril stating our location to the driver, but try to piece together our destination from what landmarks I’m familiar with.
“Relax, Sparrow,” Kiril instructs, leaning his shoulder against me a little, and it’s only when his hand touches mine again that I realise I’ve made tight fists. “You don’t want them to smell blood in the water.”
“If they do,” I hiss quietly, “it’ll be because you spilt it everywhere.”
“Do I win no points at all for saving your life?” he wonders aloud, and I think, I think, there is a hint of sadness behind a giant wall of irritability.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” I concede. “You’re bloody Batman, and you totally saved my ass from getting it handed to me.”
Surprisingly, he doesn’t press for more.
“Actually, you may just have given them a challenge,” he declares, and I turn my head to find his so very close to mine. “There is a part of you sleeping, yes,” he goes on, “but your instincts seem to be surfacing – the unnatural angle of one thug’s arm attested to that.”
“What’s an arm to a…” I grunt, but catch myself before saying the v-word. “It was a reflex.”
“Exactly,” he smirks. “Just remember to hold off on those when we are inside, and leave the talking to me.”
“With pleasure,” I agree, and look down when Kiril slides his fingers through mine – skin as cold as the grave. “Kiril,” I begin, slowly. “If Jazz isn’t dead, I mean, if Konstantin didn’t… if she’s been with him this whole time…”
My unspoken question terrifies me – as much as I want the answer, what it might mean could change everything.
“Let us make no assumptions,” he replies, a warmth of reassurance in that simple sentence that makes me forget the iciness of his flesh. “There is no going back for either of you, but this is hardly an end.”
Caught off guard by this tenderness, my mouth gapes, and I see Kiril’s eyes flit to my lips.
“Assuming he didn’t just kill her and flee the country,” I point out breathily, my heart a thundering rapid flush with adrenaline.
“Konstantin and I are worlds apart,” he reveals, his face inching slightly closer. “My brother is all heart.”
“And you?” I exhale, barely audible even as such close proximity. “What are you… all?”
For what seems like an eternity, all the sounds of the world beyond our bubble is hushed.
“Right now,” he answers, cool breath against the flush of my cheeks, “I am all self-restraint, Sparrow – and that is the only reason you are still clothed right now.”
There is a strange pressure behind my eyes as I try to break this spell I’m under, this quagmire that seems to hold me even stronger the more I struggle against it.
“I am not…”
“Liar,” he interjects, dipping his head forward, his forehead lightly pressed to mine, the tips of our noses touching, “and you cannot lie to me, or yourself.”
Taxi driver ex machina – the man clears his throat and I pull back to press myself against the window, while Kiril just chuckles.
“Do you always play so hard to get?” he queries lightly, running one hand through his hair. “That isn’t the impression of you I’d formed from watching you at Pale.”
“Are you saying you took me for a slut?” I scowl, but even I know this question is a defence mechanism.
“I am saying, it seems out of character for you to deny yourself something you want,” he ripostes effortlessly.
“What I want, is my best friend back,” I state clearly. “Nothing comes before that.”
“Not good with multi-tasking?” he laughs, giving my hand a squeeze, and it’s only then I realise he’s still holding it.
“Don’t make this any harder for me than it needs to be,” I grumble, but do not retrieve my captive fingers.
Kiril’s smile turns into grin.
“Hey, I believe that is my line.”
“Crude,” I snort, but the joke raises my spirits a little, unwinds a little of my tension – right up until the cab comes to a stop outside the Prague National Theatre.
I recognise its unmistakable architecture as Jazz and I have seen various shows there before, but I question why we’re here now. Kiril, meanwhile, exits and opens my door, offering me his hand.
“I figured he’d hang out in the Old Royal Palace,” I admit, as Kiril ushers me away from the closed main entrance of the impressive building, and around the corner to a far less obtrusive door.
“He has his own residences,” Kiril explains, glancing coolly about, nonchalance stamped on his countenance, “but here is where the king holds official proceedings and audiences.”
“So you booked an appointment with his secretary?” I ask, my stomach knotting as Kiril pounds an assertive fist against the tall wooden door beneath one of many stone archways.
“Something like that,” he grins, winking before adding one last reminder before the door opens. “Remember, Sparrow; here you are my subservient plaything – try not to think too loudly.”
“I’ll just focus on how absolutely you think I’m in love with you,” I volley quietly, before sobering up my expression at the appearance of a woman before us.
“Prince Kiril Lambert,” Kiril announces casually. “I am expected.”
The woman’s severe expression doesn’t alter, though she offers Kiril respectful bow from the waist. I’m sure some silence exchange takes place between them as she straightens, though she doesn’t so much as spare me a glance.
Trying not to allow my apprehension to show, I follow along behind Kiril as we’re led into the building, down a cool corridor and then to a brightly lit, plush room decorated in rich red and gold.
“If you would be so kind as to wait here,” we’re instructed, or more accurately Kiril is instructed – I may as well be invisible.
Questions bubble away behind my eyes, seeping through the cracks of my best intentions to seems focused on being Kiril’s ‘good little girl’, and I can tell because of the sharp look Kiril sends me.
“I will punish you,” he drops coldly, and I don’t have to feign how this threat – more like a promise – causes real fear to slither, to gather in my chest. “You are fortunate I deigned to bring you at all.”
“Of course,” I say quietly, lowering my head. “I apologise.”
Obviously dissatisfied with my nearly immediate transgression, he turns and pinches my chin.
“Do not embarrass me, Sparrow.”
It’s a performance, I’m okay with this, because in Kiril’s eyes I see none of the taunting arrogance I usually do when he’s teasing me.
“I would never,” I assure him, biting my lower lip, looking up at him from beneath my lashes.
Subservience is not my thing, but I’m no stranger to play-acting.
“See to it you don’t,” he sniffs, stepping away from me to the sound of a door opening at the other side of the room.
Though uninvited, Kiril strides confidently through into a much larger chamber, at the far end of which stands an ornate throne, upon which sits a lean man with a prominent hook nose, his thin hair silver at the temples.
In and of itself his physical appearance is unremarkable, but palpable waves of displeasure roll from the dais and crash into me; Kiril, however, remains as unaffected as ever.
“Thank you for granting me an audience as such short notice, King Arno, most honoured son of Josef Sovák,” Kiril greets in perfect Czech – not a word of which I understand.
Still, as he bows, I follow suit, lower and for longer than my ‘master’, and I so not seek eye contact.
Don’t want to make eye contact.
“If I did not know well enough of your family, Kiril Lambert,” Arno replies in English, though his accent is very thick, “I might consider some measure of truth in that statement. And you… despite your airs and graces, you are a wolf.”
I doubt very much his choice of language is for my benefit – perhaps more likely he wants to show Kiril he’s just as adept at English as with his native tongue – but this is merely conjecture.
“If only I could convince my father of as much,” Kiril smiled easily, while I want so much to cower.
Contemptuously, the Czech king grunts an undignified sound and points a thin finger directly at Kiril.
“Am I to believe you think me a fool?” he growls, grey eyes narrowing to nearly closed. “I should have you shipped back to your father in pieces for your brazenness, your audacity – to threaten me?”
What Kiril has threatened Arno with I am unaware, but can only think it has something to so with the phone calls he made before arriving. Whatever it is, everything about Kiril screams he is completely comfortable with his actions and in no way intimidated by Arno’s attempt to assert dominance in his own throne room.
“I’m making no threats,” Kiril disagrees, eyes forward still, even as doors on either side of the chamber open, and several figures enter, none of them looking all that pleased. “But I do have a grievance with you in need of recompense.”
“You have a grievance?” Arno chuckles darkly. “I suppose that is why several accountants under my employ cried out suddenly in unison and proceeded to panic?”
“Yes, that would be why,” Kiril smiles thinly, reaching slowly out to curl his fingers around the back of my neck and give me a little nudge forward. “I sent this one to find my brother,” he continues, and though his voice is sure, growing more and more displeased, I exert what feels like the limit of my willpower not to tremble. “And in no less than forty-eight hours she is set upon by while strolling your streets, and threatened for the very information she came in search of; I will not ask your pardon for expressing my annoyance at such a gross breach of etiquette.”
Kiril’s fingers against my nape are tense, but his grip is not tight. As he speaks his thumb grazes my skin, lightness of his touch re-centres my thoughts on him.
“Do not talk to me of etiquette, Prince Kiril, when you entered my city and spilled blood on my streets before so much as a glance of acknowledgement for courtesy and tradition.”
“That is true,” Kiril nodded, slowly drawing him back against him. “But, had I done so, she would be dead, and you and I would be having a whole other… conversation.”
Those figures around us shift; none of them are stupid, so despite dancing a semantic game, everyone is well aware Kiril just rolled into the court of the Czech vampire king and started making threats.
Any second now they’re going to pounce us both, and I’m going to end up even worse than the vampires Kiril slaughtered; his arm slithers over my hip and rests there.
“Let me make this as easy for you as possible in order to save time, effort, and further bloodshed,” Kiril goes on, his free hand making slow sweeping motions as he speaks. “In recompense for the attack against my assistant, I want your network to find my brother and his partner, and report their whereabouts to me. Following that, the four of us will return quietly to the U.K. and bother you no more.”
Arno listens in silence, but he looks about ready to lurch from this throne and permanently end the conversation. Those around us don’t blink, don’t move, but I can feel their stares crushing my chest, stealing my breath.
“I want this over quickly, so I can get back to my own affairs,” Kiril adds. “My economic machinations are merely insurance that I get what I’ve come for – something which should cause you no great loss considering the hostility my little Sparrow met with at the mere mention of Konstantin’s name. I would sooner not interfere with the financial stability of the Czech Republic’s ruling house to get my way, but as you’re probably aware, I am very used to getting what I want.”
“All except your father’s approval,” Arno sneers, but his is the only expression that alters.
“Well, you’re at least half right there,” Kiril shrugs, but doesn’t clarify which part. “So all that remains is your cooperation, and we shall leave.”
If I stood in Arno’s position, I would no doubt like to tear Kiril’s head off, especially in front of his ‘subjects’ – if that’s what they’re called. He has to somehow save face, but it’s obvious from his hesitation whatever Kiril did with regards to his finances is no small matter. How, exactly, he’s managed to corner this man, a king and older than him by Kiril’s own admission, I don’t know.
“Do not think for a moment,” Arno says finally, rising and stepping slowly from the dais, “I will forget your audacity.”
“I would not expect you to,” Kiril acknowledges, his fingers beginning to drum lightly against my hip. “All things have a price. I am sure, however, should you require my considerable influence in the future, I could find my way to be of your assistance.”
At this, Arno chuckles, a sound that rattles around between his ribs for a little before spilling from his lips.
“You would be wise to not stray too far from the power of the old world,” he warns, coming to stand before us, no more than an arm’s reach away from me. “Your love affair with humans, these fragile things…”
His eyes linger on me.
“… may be your undoing,” he finishes.
“No doubt you’ll fully enjoy the celebration that follows,” Kiril grins. “I’ll leave arrangements to send you something suitable for such an occasion.”
“Keep your head down in Prague,” Arno commands coldly. “Leave details with Marika. If you are not out of the country within twenty-four hours of your brother’s location, I’ll kill you and take your little Sparrow for my plaything.”
“That sounds fair,” Kiril agrees, but his smile falters when Arno reaches out toward my cheek.
“You’d better hope…” he begins, but doesn’t finish before Kiril pulls me in behind him.
“But unless that eventuates,” he says frostily, eyes narrowed, eyes afire, “she belongs to one man, and he is most certainly not you.”
Amused, Arno tips his chin, satisfied at having apparently – finally – unsettled the intruder, but his eyes do not leave me. His gaze is nothing like Kiril’s, and in it I can read the desire to humiliate, to punish Kiril, through me.
Leaving floods me with the kind of relief that weakens my legs, and on the street with Arno’s court behind us, I lean against Kiril who has not let go of me since Arno’s approach.
“Did you really just bully a king by threatening to bankrupt him? In front of his people? In his throne room?” I sigh, my hands gripping his coat lapels.
“I never used that word specifically, but yes,” he answers, wearing none of the weariness I feel. “I do not want to linger here,” he continues, “as it is clear you cannot be trusted not to rush off in a frenzy screaming Konstantin’s name.”
Those last few words spoken, Kiril pauses to consider them – his brows twitching.
“Ensuring Arno had no choice but to help us locate my idiot brother was the fastest means to our desired end, so I can get you back to England,” he adds, smoothing his hands from my shoulders to my elbows.
Before even thinking, I’ve dropped my head against his chest and exhaled a long breath.
“Will this really work?”
“If Arno wants to avoid complete financial ruin and get me out of his hair as soon as possible, he will have his goons scouring the city and beyond,” he assures, gently sliding his fingers through my hair.
And it feels so good I could almost forget that with a twitch he could break me in half.
Feels too good.
“Well, thank you, for putting yourself on Arno’s bad-side for me,” I declare, but avoid his eyes as I step back out of his arms.
“I am unsure he has a good side to be honest,” he chuckles, and this forces a smile from beneath the tension I’d been holding since waking up.
“So what do we do now? Just, sit and wait?”
Almost unconsciously I take both cell phones from my pocket: the one with a local sim card and my regular one.
The latter has several missed calls and messages from Sebastian, one from Mieke – the former has none, and I cannot help but cringe a little.
“Something wrong?” Kiril queries, leaning a little closer again.
“I want you to be honest with me,” I begin, chewing the inside of my cheek a little because I’m not sure what it means if I get the answer I suspect I will. “Sebastian warned me to stay away from you, vehemently; does he know?”
“Mr. Ross and I are acquainted in the most basic sense of the concept,” Kiril responds, and it sounds like the words a politician might spout to avoid an uncomfortable truth.
“Okay, let me rephrase; I want you to be honest and clear,” I insist, narrowing my eyes at him, even as he moves to the curb to hail us a taxi. “Does he know you’re a vampire?”
“Yes,” he answers more in accordance with my guidelines. “He does.”
“No wonder he’s losing his shit,” I mutter, both sympathetic and irritated at the same time. “He knew there was a vampire in my club all this time and said… did nothing?”
“To be fair, Mr. Ross is in no position to reveal secrets,” Kiril says, and though the sentence itself literally attempts to exonerate Sebastian for his silence, the tone in which it is spoken conveys his disdain.
Turning this over in my mind, I just climb into the cab when Kiril holds the door open for me and we’re moving before I even know my destination.
“How?” I ask finally, shifting my whole body a little more sideways. “How does he know? Wait…”
It hits me.
“No way, Sebastian’s a…”
“No, he most certainly is not,” Kiril snaps back, glaring, and the sourness of his expression only deepens as I speak again.
“I suppose not,” I admit, reclining. “His hands are warm.”
And a split second later, Kiril has pulled off his dark leather glove and snatched up my hand.
“This is new,” I note, as he threads his fingers through mine. “And now I know you don’t have to be so cold.”
He knows I’m not just talking about the temperature of his skin, but he doesn’t react adversely. Meanwhile, I – not being completely oblivious – note this revelation as an act of jealousy?
“So if he’s not a vampire then…” I begin again, but then Kiril untangles our fingers and places his hand against my thigh – even through my jeans the sensation threatens to chase away logical thought.
“I do not wish to talk of Sebastian Ross,” he states flatly, sliding his palm upward a little until I catch his hand and prevent its progress.
“You can’t end a topic by feeling me up,” I point out, but I’m simultaneously imagining the downward curl of his thumb riding further up between my legs.
“I am not ending a topic,” he argues lightly, “but beginning a new one, one your tensing muscles, your body, tells me you are aching to have.”
My fingernails dig into the back of his hand a little, but he seems to enjoy it.
“What a chauvinistic conclusion,” I huff, looking out the window at the passing city.
“But not untrue,” he points out with a smirk.
Resisting Kiril’s presence, his allure, required constant vigilance and willpower on Miho’s part, especially when it became clear he didn’t mean for them to simply wait in her suite for the phone to ring. Instead, he further occupied her mind with an all access tour of the city.
Together they viewed a private art collection, ate lunch at the most exclusive restaurant in the city, shopped places Miho’s credit card would never have permitted, and after night had fallen ended up at Prague Castle well after visitors were no longer allowed on the premises.
“I’d ask if it’s okay to be here,” Miho whispered, following along one step behind Kiril, left by the hand, “but it doesn’t seem you care much for rules. Visitors aren’t even permitted in this area, let alone at this hour.”
“Do not fret,” he said at full conversational volume. “I happen to know the owner.”
“Oh, I suppose you’re on a first name basis with the president,” she scoffed, but a second later realised that wasn’t too far from the realm of possibility. “What are we doing here?”
“Dinner,” he answered, as they entered the second courtyard and continued their journey.
“Now you’re just showing off,” she muttered, passing by the soft rush of water in Kohl’s Fountain.
“Hardly,” he chuckled, quickening his steps until they had crossed into the third courtyard and were swallowed by the deep shadow of St. Vitus Cathedral.
Miho had seen it before during the day – magnificent – but now its sharp gothic features were swathed in a cold that made its tall spires feel like looming giants poised to crush them both.
“You have an over active imagination,” Kiril noted, obviously amused.
“Oh really? Mr. Vampire?” she snorted, speeding up to fall in flush beside him. “I don’t think my imagination can afford to be active enough right now.”
“I suppose it is better you focus on that than other things,” he agreed, and it was only then Miho realised she hadn’t thought about Jazz since the morning, nor had she felt nearly as tense about the chances of finding her unharmed.
“Huh,” she murmured, freeing her hand in order to loop her arm around his, even as he so casually opened the doors of the Old Palace with his other. “Was all this, today, distraction by design?”
“Oh, getting you to let your guard down is plenty motive enough for me,” Kiril responded, closing the doors beside them and leading them through the dim building until a soft glow ahead peeked through the gloom.
Emerging into Vladislav Hall, a place for State gatherings, coronations and formal Czech affairs, Miho found a wide ring of grand golden candelabras creating a halo of orange light around a single, small table dwarfed even more so by the empty space of the high vaulted ceiling.
Suddenly breathless, she became unaware of Kiril’s attention gaze as they approached, two figures – a man and a woman dressed as waiters – standing motionless at attention nearby.
With a chivalrous flourish, Kiril separated from Miho and pulled out a chair at the table, upon which already sat fine crystal and gleaming cutlery.
“Sparrow,” he prompted, and with a quick nod, Miho took her seat.
“Kings have been crowned in this chamber,” Miho exhaled in awe, “and you arrange a private dinner like it’s nothing.”
“I would not say nothing,” he smiled, and for once there was no hint at all of smugness. “But what trouble it might have cost was well worth it for the expression on your face.”
“How am I supposed to survive this?” she sighed under her breath, glancing to the left of the waitress offered her the wine bottle’s label before pouring the near black liquid into an immaculately etched goblet.
What followed was a magical, dream-like dinner where everything was simply perfect. To Miho it seemed Kiril was on his best behaviour, effortlessly recalling the original construction of the Old Royal Palace in the ninth century.
“Ninth century?” Miho blurted. “You’re that old?”
Slowly, Kiril nodded.
“But that’s over…” she began, crunching numbers in her head. “Over eleven hundred years!”
“One thousand, one hundred and seventy-three to be precise,” Kiril corrected: no biggie. “I had reached the peak of my vampiric development by that stage, and was hungry to explore the world.”
“I can’t even fathom that,” Miho sighed as she laid her spoon in her empty bowl, and rested her chin on her hand. “All the things you must have seen and heard, the change.”
Nodding, Kiril smiled a nothing smile.
“Good and bad I bet,” Miho added, studying his expression.
“My upbringing was not like yours for a great many reasons,” he expounded. “Reasons I will not bore you with now.”
“Because I have so much on my plate right now,” Miho smirked, spreading her hands, but as she did, Kiril rose from his seat.
With his movement, a much greater light flooded the entire hall, and suddenly the empty chamber was bursting with life. Gaping, craning her neck to peer at men and women dressed in the finery of former centuries, Miho exhaled a small noise to express her puzzlement.
“One of my powers is to create illusion,” he explained, stepping around the table to offer Miho his hand. “Which is surprisingly useful.”
“Surprisingly?” Miho breathed, touching her fingers to the palm of his hand, and she quickly found her body hauled upward.
“Not everyone agrees,” he smiled, making a sweeping motion with his hand down the length of her body, and an immaculate gown bloomed around her like an opening flower. “Cinderella.”
“Holy shit,” Miho grinned, reaching out to touch the luxurious fabric, but her fingers passed right through to what she was actually wearing.
“Not real,” Kiril affirmed, pulling her forward against him to the swell of a grand orchestra.