As the blue light of day succumbed to the pale lavender of evening, a bitter cold moved over the land, shook the snow from the trees, and curled around the veana and the balas who sat on the front steps of the smal credenti elementary school. The snow on the ground that had been melting just a few hours earlier now glistened under the rising moon as water quickly turned back to ice. It was nearing six p.m., and in accordance with the laws of the Order, it was time to end the labor of the day and begin the calm of night. Most residents of the credenti had left their work or schooling and had entered their homes for family meal and reflection.
Kate Everborne, however, had no family to go home to.
What she did have was a belief that reflection was for unthinking drones and the unwelcome responsibility of a seven-year-old balas who once again had to be watched until his mother showed up.
"She's not coming."
Kate glanced down at the boy. With his large black eyes and shock of white hair he didn't blend in well. She knew how that was. "She's coming. She's just late."
"She's always late," he grumbled.
"Give her a break, okay, kid? She's doing the best she can."
"She should work inside the credenti. Like you. Do what veanas are supposed to do."
The smile on Kate's face was tight and forced, just like the white purity bindings on her wrists and throat. The last thing in the world she wanted to be doing was living inside the credenti, or any vampire community, for that matter.
And her work at the elementary school, passing out lentils and fruit during midmeal-well, it was utter bul shit, a way to keep her in plain sight, see if she could live among society again.
But she didn't have a choice in where she resided. Not yet.
"She dishonors my father's memory by leaving the credenti," the boy continued.
"You're a good kid, Ladd Letts, but right now you're acting like a brat."
He crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't care."
"Yeah, I can tell."
"I don't care about me and I don't care about her." He puffed out his lips. "Maybe I wish she'd never come."
Kate sniffed. "Maybe she wishes that, too."
Ladd's eyes grew wide and balas-wet as he stared up at her, took in what she'd just said and molded it into the worst possible abandonment scenario.
Ah, shit. Kate released a weary breath. She could be a real asshole sometimes. "Listen, kid, I didn't mean it like that. I was . . ."
"I'm here. I'm here." Mirabelle Letts came running across the tree-littered play yard toward them, her feet sinking calf-deep in the heavy snow. She was a pretty veana-small, curvy, with soft brown doe eyes that did their best to exude happiness. Slightly breathless, she cal ed out, "Sorry, Kate."
"No problem," Kate returned, coming to her feet. She was just relieved the veana had shown up. She real y sucked with kids, wasn't sure what to say to them, how to comfort them. Sticking her in a school wasn't the Order's smartest move, but hell, she wasn't about to complain. She had two months left on her work release, two months until she could final y consider her time spent in the vampire prison, Mondrar, over and done, the debt for another's crime paid.
Until then, she was keeping her nose clean and her fangs retracted.
Ladd jumped to his feet and waved his arms like he was landing planes, al anger gone now. "Mommy! I see you!"
Kate chuckled at the quick recovery. At Ladd's age, it seemed that no matter what a parent did, said, or forgot, they were always a welcome sight.
Give it a few years, kid.
No more than ten feet away, Mirabelle waved back at her child as she waded through the snow. "Training went over and there was a gardening demonstration-"
It happened in an instant. Something shot out of the shadows of the trees, cutting off Mirabelle's words. A paven, tal and dark. In under a second, he was on Mirabelle, ripping the scarf from her neck, searching her flesh. Kate opened her mouth to scream when she saw a flesh. Kate opened her mouth to scream when she saw a silver flash. A knife! Oh, shit. No! Terror locked the scream in her chest, and she fought the dual urges of running to help the veana and protecting the young balas at her side.
Before she could make her choice, the paven plunged the knife deep into Mirabelle's chest, then yanked it back out again and took to her thighs, slashing at her skin until he severed the two main arteries. Blood exploded from her legs in violent sprays.
Her attacker released her, let her limp body drop to the ground, and a piercing scream whipped through the night and jerked Kate from her horror.
His face contorted with panic, he ran at his mother, but Kate caught him in her arms and held him back.
The dark-haired male suddenly glanced up, locked eyes with Kate, and grinned. Fuck. It was there in his eyes, in his smile-hunger to spil blood. He was going to take her out and the kid too if she didn't run or fight him off.
The butcher paven started toward her and Ladd, his movements graceful, catlike. Knowing she couldn't outrun him, not with the boy, Kate shoved Ladd behind her back, opened her arms to the evil coming at her, and flashed her fangs. Come and get it, then, asshole. His smile widened, the moonlight catching the tips of his fangs. Then suddenly he stopped, lifted his chin, and sniffed the air. With a growl of annoyance, he turned around and ran back across the field, into the trees.
What the hell?
Kate sucked in the bitterly cold air scented with blood and screamed, "Help!" Silently praying that Mirabelle was stil alive, she raced to the female's side, Ladd at her heels.
The veana's eyes were open, but her quick, shal ow breaths signaled how close to death she was. Kate dropped down in the snow and pressed her hands to the gaping wound in the female's chest. Forcing up the healing energy al Pureblood veanas possessed, she blew on the wounds in Mirabelle's thighs-back and forth, back and forth, each breath a show in pure determination and desperation. But the cuts were so deep, the femoral artery calculatedly severed. Red death seeped between her fingers, over the veana's chest, spil ing out onto the pure white-powdered floor.
"Goddammit!" Kate screamed. "We need help here!"
Darkness had come. Where were al the selfless, community-first, pious bastards when one of their own needed them?
Ladd laid his head on his mother's bel y and howled in misery.