Home > Born in Fire (Fire and Ice Trilogy #1)(15)

Born in Fire (Fire and Ice Trilogy #1)(15)
Author: K.F. Breene

“I can make it so you are not tied to us.” Darius rose and took a step forward, ignoring the questions.

“How?”

“I will keep from you that which is secret. First, you will study the entrance point of the secret place, but will venture no further. After that, we will head to the Brink. Your dealings with us will be limited to this contract.”

I squinted at him. “Why didn’t you make that offer in the beginning?”

“Forging bonds is in our interest. Doing that with fear of death has shown to work the best.”

“Clearly not, since you can’t trust mages.”

He blinked quickly, clearly surprised by my comment. Truth bomb!

“What about the money?” I asked, skeptical.

“How much more do you require?”

“Thirty grand.” It was a knee-jerk reaction. I’d really been asking if all that money was still on the table, but I wasn’t about to decline getting more. “But I will settle for another fifteen.”

He nodded.

Don’t do the happy dance. Don’t do the happy dance. Stop that foot from moving!

“No forced loyalty?” I reiterated.

“No. We will settle for a contractual relationship.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“What about me?”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to be with you the whole time.”

“Of course you do.” His brow furrowed. “All female humans do, and many males.”

“Good gracious. How does the weight of that ego not crush your spine?” I shook my head in wonder. “But no, Mr. Suave, I don’t want your company all the time. In fact, I’d rather you give me directions and bugger off. I work best on my own.”

“Foolish,” he scoffed. “You would die in the first day. I will give you privacy for toiletries and other human functions. Will that ease your mind?”

“Wait.” I held up a hand. “You’re planning on being with me all the time? Like…in the same room?” I chuckled. “That’s not going to happen.”

“It’s settled, then.” He stalked toward me with an outstretched hand.

“You have a listening problem.” I hid my hand behind my back so he couldn’t grab and shake it. “I won’t be sharing rooms with you. When I’m off-duty, I’m off-duty.”

“Of course. Let us begin. Time is wasting.” He loomed over me with his hand held out. Granted, he was only a head taller, but it seemed like so much more, what with the broad shoulders and all the muscle.

I took a step back. “Tonight? Don’t I get time to sleep?”

“When you are ready to fall from exhaustion, I will give you something to revive you.”

“Not your blood, I hope.” I eyed his hand, which had changed position. He was no longer looking to shake, but now directing me to the side of the room as if the shake had already happened.

“I didn’t mean my blood, no, but I would be willing.”

“I’ll bet you would. A few swap-a-roos and you could leave that mark on me. I have no idea why you’re trying so hard. I’m the best bounty hunter in the area, but certainly not the best in the nation.”

“Vlad is eager for an alliance with you. Come.”

My legs went numb and I stumbled, no longer trying to stand my ground about the rooming situation. All I could focus on was that name.

“That was Vlad?” I whispered. Having Vlad’s attention was very bad news. Very bad. Probably the worst news of the day, actually.

“Yes. I relayed my experiences from our meeting yesterday. Naturally, he wanted a meeting of his own. His offer speaks volumes of his hopes for you.”

Pressure squeezed my chest. “I’m confused.”

“You are human, at least in part. That is to be expected.”

“This partnership between you and I isn’t going to work, I can already tell,” I said on autopilot. My lips were numb and my mind was blank.

Vlad was, quite possibly, the oldest living vampire in existence. He played with Brink nations like children played with toys. The guy was a constant, constant thorn in the elves’ side, and was whispered about in the magical community.

I’d almost turned him down. That would have been worse than agreeing to work for him. Probably.

I swallowed down the lump in my throat. Darius had said he wouldn’t tie me to the vampires. I had to make sure that was true.

We walked into a tunnel off the main hall. It looked more like an arched-ceilinged hall from another era. The walls resembled that of historical palaces, lined with candleholders and oil paintings wrapped in large, gaudy frames. The soft glow of candlelight illuminated the way.

“You guys have really put some work into this place,” I said, my voice a little strained. “This is great.” I ran my finger along the wall. Painted stone.

“Where did you think we lived, in a pit?” he scoffed. I didn’t mention that the appearance of their entryway was pretty close. “We had thought to welcome you with light.” He gestured to accentuate his comment. “Were you using magic to see in the darkness?”

“Yes?”

“You are lying. It seems you have a very rare ability.” He glanced back at me. “Only humans bonded to vampires have such an ability. Yet your name is not in our records.”

A mental light bulb blazed through my thoughts. Big C hadn’t been using magic after all—he must’ve been bonded to a vamp.

I grimaced as I eyed an interesting ivory plaque that hung on the wall. “What happens when a human bonded to a vampire is killed?”

“The killer is hunted down, questioned, and then justice is meted out. We protect those who are bonded to us.”

“You aren’t protecting them all that well,” I muttered. At his glance, I added, “If they’re being killed, I mean.”

“Our bonding practices are extremely selective.” We came upon a fork in the tunnel. On the left, the light cut out. Within the darkness moved shapes, graceful and languid, not hurrying. One was moving toward us and stopped, looking out. Waiting.

I wondered if she knew I could see her staring at me.

The soft glow of candlelight continued down the hallway to the right, where Darius led me.

“Each potentially bonded subject is scrutinized by a middle-level vampire or higher, for what they can offer us.” Darius gestured at the wall, silently drawing my eyes to an oil painting of a woman holding a girl. It was probably by a well-known artist, given how valuable everything looked and the fact that he was pointing it out. Not like I could tell. I didn’t speak art. “Only the very best, or very influential, are noticed. This is not limited to magical people—humans are bonded equally as often. The selection is then presented to three elders, who must approve of the union. Often the bond is denied. Those who are approved are then entered into our records. The vampire holds the responsibility of guarding their bonded.”

We reached another intersection in the hall, and Darius again led me right. “Magical people aren’t as guarded as thoroughly as humans, of course,” he continued, “since they are usually selected by their magical prowess. Powerful mages, or the leader of the east centaur pack, as examples.”

I hoped he didn’t hear my gulp. “So, does the individual vampire hunt down the perpetrator, or is there a team of you…”

“Whatever is necessary.”

“And, just out of scholarly curiosity, how long does it take for vampires to learn of their bond…person dying?”

“They feel it when it happens. Shortly thereafter, they will go about finding out who did the deed.”

“Ah.” It would seem I’d already tied myself to vampires. “Do any of you ever bond someone in secret?”

“Yes, of course. Often it is a pet, or a strategic move. When found, the vampire and bonded are both killed.”

“Ah, sure. Of course.” So there was hope that I’d killed an illegal bond-mate, and then would only have one vampire after me.

“While you are involved in this investigation, you are protected from the follow-through of these rules,” he said. “In that time, your bond-mate may apply for your bond. I am sure it would be accepted. When this investigation is complete, you will have nothing to worry about.”

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