I spend the next few days hunting in the forest. I avoid Elliot as if he were a plague. I know that I cannot see him, for if I do, I don’t know that I could control the anger simmering inside of me over his cowardly actions. Taron accompanies me to the market instead, on the days that I manage to kill a deer or a few rabbits.
Travant and Garrison spend a lot of time in the caves a few miles from the tree homes. I know they are organizing a rebellion and talking about a potential uprising against the Nokturns. It’s all they’ve discussed since I told them of the explosion in Arcanum. I also know that is where every single coin I make goes. Taron often goes with them into the caves, but they refuse to discuss anything with me. I think they worry that I’m fragile after going through the Arena. I am anything but fragile. I am stronger now than ever before and more resolved in the face of the current state of Maldara. I know the reign of Nokturns must end. There must be equality.
I have not seen or heard from Ash since I left him at the falls. I can only assume that he has returned to Mortem and that his brief interest in me has waned in my absence. When I sit up in the trees, waiting patiently for signs of life to cross my path, I find my mind drifting to him. I remember the sharp angles of his perfect face, the definition of his arms, the feel of his fingertips on my cheek. I chide myself each time I catch my thoughts going in that direction. It would not benefit me to think about him with any sort of attraction or affection. Nokturns could not be romantically involved with a human. They didn’t have the same capacity for human emotions that we did. Ash’s fascination with me had been purely curiosity, because I am not like other humans he has encountered. He basically said so himself.
Humans shouldn’t be interested in Nokturns either, but their sheer physical appeal is hard to deny. It led many humans to their deaths. They could charm you into thinking that you could fit right into their world. Then, when the time is right, they would shatter you.
After an unsuccessful morning in the woods, I step into the tavern to find my father, Taron, Garrison and Elliot around the usual table, heads bent in hushed conversation.
“What’s going on?” I ask, avoiding looking at Elliot directly.
“Just planning a rebellion, you know, the usual,” Taron says, humor in his eyes.
Travant gives him a withering look of disapproval.
“I want to help,” I tell them.
He shakes his head, “Absolutely not. It is far too dangerous.”
“I’m the best fighter you have!” I argue to my father.
“That may be so, but you are also recognizable by many Nokturns for having won the Arena. I am surprised they haven’t hunted you down yet,” he says.
“Why should that stop me?” I ask defiantly.
“I am not discussing this with you,” he says, “You will not be involved in this!”
As if manifested by his thoughts alone, six Keepers dressed in blood-red uniforms enter the tavern. Their eyes scan the patrons until they fall on me.
“Larkin Kravinoff,” one of them says, stepping forward, “You are hereby under arrest by the order of High Lord Adaro and the Arcanum faction.”
“What is the meaning of this?” my father demands, stepping in front of me slightly.
“Miss Kravinoff escaped imprisonment and stands to be sold to the highest bidder at the human auction in two days,” the Keeper informs him, “As punishment for her escape.”
“And if I don’t let you take her?” my father challenges.
The Keeper smirks, “With all due respect, sir, which isn’t much, you can’t stop us.”
They move to take hold of me and my family begins to step forward to stop them. A Keeper grabs hold of each of them swiftly, binding their hands behind their backs. I am marched out of the tavern and down the main street. Everyone’s eyes follow me, a spectacle to behold. I am tossed roughly into a cart with a couple of other ragged looking girls. The cart begins to move, the gravel under the wheel crunching as we move farther away from my home. This time, I have a sinking feeling that I will not be escaping.
It takes nearly two days to travel back to Arcanum. By the time we arrive, the human auction is already underway. They put us into a holding cage, crammed with other people. Vampires, Werewolves and Reapers all surround the large stage where humans are paraded out and sold to the highest bidder. I watch in disgust as human after human is sold to a fate of death or possibly worse. What could be worse than death? Being kept alive as a feeder, wishing and praying for a death that will never come.
When it’s finally my turn, I am marched onto the stage. I am probably cleaner than most of the other humans.
“A rebel human who escaped the Arcanum prison,” the Vampire on the stage announces, “She deserves quite the punishment indeed,” he flashes the crowd a wicked grin, “Shall we start the bidding at one thousand coin?”
Hands begin flying up through the crowd, bids going back and forth. The amount of coin is disgustingly high when the bidding starts to slow.
“Twenty-five thousand coin,” he says, “Going once.”
The man who currently holds the highest bid grins monstrously, excited by the prospect of being my punisher. He is a Vampire, that is for certain. His cream-colored skin, flawless appearance and protruding fangs give him away.
“Thirty thousand,” a smooth, familiar voice calls out.
I look up and find that I am relieved to see Ash in the crowd. He stares at the auctioneer with steely eyes, as if threatening the man to take another bid.
“Sold, to Lord Sebastian Alsop, Heir to the Mortem crown,” the auctioneer announces.
The reminder that he is the heir to the Mortem throne makes me wonder, again, what in the world he wants with me.
A Keeper practically drags me from the stage and shoves me down the steps. My hands are bound so I can do nothing but pitch forward. I close my eyes in anticipation of smacking the hard ground, but instead, I am caught up in the muscled arms of my savior, captor? I’m honestly not sure anymore. I look up at him, but his gray eyes are locked on the Keeper at the top of the steps.
“Apologize,” Ash commands.
“I’m sorry, My Lord,” the Keeper says.
“Not to me, you idiot,” Ash says, “To the girl.”
The Keeper looks at Ash in disbelief, “But, My Lord, she’s merely a human servant.”
“She is not simply a human servant, Keeper,” Ash says, “She is MINE. So, apologize to the girl so I can be on my way.”
The Keeper looks at me with a fierce disgust, “My apologies, Miss.”
Ash gives him a smirk before turning on his heel and walking away from the stage. His hand is around my upper arm as he pulls me along. He ducks into a dark alley and he spins me so that my back is pressed against the wall. He plants a hand on the wall on either side of my head and he bends, so that he is eye to eye with me.
“What happened?” he demands.
“What do you mean?” I ask in confusion.
“How did you end up here?” he clarifies.
“Keepers came to Medeor and arrested me for escaping Arcanum,” I tell him.
“Did you tell them anything?” he asks.
“What?” I ask, then realize he wants to know if I said anything about his involvement in my escape, “Of course not,” I roll my eyes, “I wouldn’t do something like that.”
He gives me a grim nod, “Lucky for you that I was here then.”
“Why are you here?” I ask, unsure if ‘lucky’ is the right word.
He steps back to cut the ties from my wrists, “Lord Killian is an old friend of mine.”
“A Vampire?” I ask, a little surprised, “You are friends with a Vampire?”
“Try not to judge me so harshly, Lark,” Ash remarks.
“What happens now?” I ask.
“Now, we will return to Mortem,” he says.
I swallow the large lump in my throat. He had just paid a ridiculous sum for me, I couldn’t possibly think he would let me go home, again.
“It won’t be safe for you to return home,” he says, as if reading my thoughts.
“What about my family?” I ask desperately.
He shakes his head, “I’m sorry, Lovely. That just isn’t in the cards right now. You would be putting them in danger.”
I nod, knowing he is right but wishing badly that he wasn’t. He takes me by the wrist and leads me down the alleyway. The streets are mostly empty on this side of town as most everyone is gathered at the auction. He leads me to a large black carriage attached to four jet black horses. A servant sits on top awaiting instructions. Ash opens the carriage door and motions for me to climb in.
It is the most luxurious carriage I have ever seen. The seats are lined with black velvet cushions. There are black silk curtains over the windows. It is far more spacious than one would think of a carriage, easily big enough to hold ten people. Ash says something to the driver that I don’t hear because I am too distracted. He climbs in and settles onto the seat across from me and closes the door. We lurch forward and I suddenly feel nervous.
“How long is the journey?” I ask him.
“Two days’ time,” he informs me.
He seems more distant and colder than I recall, choosing to sit in silence when he had been so talkative before.
“What will my job be in Mortem?” I ask.
He tears his gaze from the window to look at me, “Aye, I suppose I will have to figure that out.”
“Why did you buy me, Ash?” I ask.
His answer is simple and unexpected.
“To make sure no one else could.”