I have never been so thankful for blinding lights. I can hear the crowd gathered in front of the stage, I can hear the sea of murmuring voices, but I can’t see them.
I’m sure I’m breaking the bones in Phoenix ′ hand but he’s not reacting. He steps forward and the room grows eerily silent. Phoenix gives my hand a reassuring squeeze before his voice booms over the waiting crowd.
“I must apologize to you all for skipping the gala. I called this gathering to introduce you to Noelle,” he looks at me with soft, loving eyes, “my fiance, your future Queen.”
Whispering erupts from the crowd. After a moment a voice breaks through the crowd, ringing out loud and clear “she’s human!”
The murmuring gets louder. I squint my eyes, trying to make out anyone in the crowd. A woman’s voice breaks through, “Everyone calm down, surely he is going to turn her. She won’t be human much longer.”
Phoenix steps forward slightly, his brows furrowed, “Whether I turn her or not is of no consequence. Noelle is my beloved and she will be your Queen, human or otherwise. You will respect her, you will serve her, you will protect her and you will love her, as I do.”
“Your beloved?” I recognize Madam Viciosos voice, full of anger.
“Yes.” Phoenix ′ voice is deadly, I’m sure he recognizes her voice also.
I feel Phoenix pull me by the waist, his hands grip me firmly but with a gentleness, he leads me off of the stage while the bewildered crowd continues to frantically talk.
“See, easy,” he smirks down at me as soon as we’re away from prying eyes.
I can’t help but laugh, “Yeah, right, easy. I’m sure none of them are plotting my murder right now.”
He tenses and the smile falls from his beautiful face.
“Ellie, anyone tries to hurt you and they have to get through me. I will die defending you. I’ve had Sloane bring in a few extra guards that she trusts. You will not be harmed. You can’t be... I can’t survive without you.”
Right on cue Sloane and two other guards enter the small stage-side room we’re standing in.
She bows quickly “Majesties, this is Dannon” she points to the female guard who quickly bows her head, “and Miles.” Miles smiles and bows his head. “They can be trusted to protect the Queen.”
“I will protect you with my life, Highness.” Miles says.
“Let’s hope that won’t be necessary,” I shudder and grip Phoenix tightly, “It’s nice to meet you both, please, call me Noelle.”
They both snap their wide eyes to mine. “No, my Queen, we can’t,” Dannon says, shaking her head adamantly. Phoenix chuckles at their shocked reactions.
“Highness,” Sloane leans toward Phoenix , “Your father has requested you both join him in his quarters for dinner.”
The smile fades from his face, “I guess this can’t be avoided forever.”
I’m filled with dread as we walk through the cold stone hallways to the dining hall. I can’t say that I’m particularly excited to meet the King. Phoenix warned me to expect that Arius will be there. The thought of seeing him again has my wolf on high alert.
Having to sit through an entire meal with them is not high up on my list of things that I want to be doing. Before we reach the dining hall the strong metallic scent of blood fills the air, choking me. I look at Phoenix , his face is twisted in disgust. I see concern in his eyes, he’s worried about how I’ll handle this. We simultaneously squeeze our already interlocked hands a little bit tighter.
Everything about the palace is dark and cold. I can hear the heels on my shoes clicking against the marble floor, that’s the only sounds that can be heard in the eerie quiet.
Everything is made of some type of smooth dark stone that only helps to hold the frigid feeling in the air. There are no candles or fires in any of the hearths that we’ve passed, no lights, all the windows have thick dark shades drawn over them. It’s like we’re in a tomb. Which, to be honest, feels fitting, there is something about this that feels like being led to your death.
When we enter the hall there is a long dark table illuminated by candlesticks. I see the King at the head of the table and Arius sitting at the place to his right.
The table has seating for at least a hundred, we have to walk past the empty seats to get to them. I feel Phoenix slow down, prolonging the inevitable. My feet feel heavy with each step, everything in my is saying to run the other way.
They don’t rise or acknowledge our presence until we reach them.
“Son,” the King states coldy, his voice is like gravel.
I know I should keep my eyes trained to the floor but I can’t. I peek up at him through my lashes. The sight makes my knees tremble. He is gaunt and sickly. He’s a vampire so he has a sort of inherent beauty but it is buried under layers of sickness and misery. His skin is yellowed with jaundice and his eyes are sunken into his pinched, angular face. His lifeless eyes look wet and completely dead inside. He looks frail.
“You must be Noelle,” his voice gives nothing away. There is a cold, harshness to his tone but it is devoid of any emotion.
I bow my head, silently. I don’t trust my voice.
For a moment the only sound in the room is Phoenix haggard breath. He is hard as stone beside me, so tense that he could crack. I feel him struggling to calm himself down. I bring my free hand to our intertwined ones, holding him tightly in both hands.
“Wonderful to see you again,” Arius’ oily voice makes me shudder.
As much as I want to run from the room screaming, if I must stay, I’m grateful for the seat. My legs feel like they could give out at any moment. The tension in the room feels like physical weight on my shoulders.
Once seated I notice that there is no food. Several bottles of blood are lined in a row, casting an ominous, red shadow on the table in the light of the candles.
I wonder if they can hear my heart pounding in my chest? My wolf is like a cornered animal, defensive and guarded.
“Bring the food,” Arius speaks into the silence.
Almost immediately a trembling servant brings in a single tray and places it before me. Phoenix and I exchange weary glances. Arius begins to pour blood into glasses.
“Eat,” the King barks at me.
“Are we not eating?” Phoenix questions.
“We’re drinking” the King replies with no further explanation.
I’ve never seen Phoenix drink blood before. I know what he is, I accept it, but I’m nervous to see it for the first time. I’ve seen vampires drink before, but it feels different thinking of him doing it.
“Do you not eat anymore?” Phoenix sounds horrified.
Maybe this is an explanation for his appearance. Only drinking blood has half starved him.
“Well, that explains a lot,” Phoenix scoffs, “how long have you been feeding on blood exclusively?”
“Don’t question me, boy!” His voice is angry and shockingly loud.
Phoenix grabs my hand and gently pulls me from my seat. “This was a huge fucking mistake. I won’t expose her to this. Come on, Ellie, we’re leaving.”
I hear the Kings chair scrape against the ground. “Don’t turn your back on your King, boy!”
“Don’t turn around, Noelle, walk, quickly.” He squeezes my hand as we rush from the room, almost running.
I hear the King’s screams echoing in the halls but I can’t make out what he’s saying. Once we’ve slowed our pace to a brisk walk Phoenix brings my hand to his mouth, kissing it softly.
“I don’t know how I didn’t see this before. When a vampire stops eating, when they live on blood alone,” he shudders slightly, “they become... that. A shell, it’s like poison that doesn’t kill you, just everything about you that is decent or good.”
“He looks horrible,” I whisper.
“Yeah, he does. It all makes sense now though. Surviving on blood alone makes us less human. His cruelty, his disregard for my mother, his appearance and obvious aversion to sunlight, it all points to that. It makes us so vile that the practice is actually outlawed. Why would he do this?”
“Why did it have to be outlawed? It doesn’t sound like something anyone would want to do.”
“For a while there was a fanatical group that thought it made them pure. That only consuming blood made them more powerful. Most of us want to hold onto our humanity, they didn’t, they thought it held us back.”
“I mean, I don’t know him but that definitely seems like it fits with Arius.”
He lets out a long sigh as we step outside. “Shit just got a lot worse. There will be no reasoning with him, no rational conversation. My father is gone, he’s been replaced by that...creature.”
Sloane and Dannon are waiting in a trolley to drive us home. They look tense as we approach. I can see that they are trying to quickly end their conversation before we can hear them.
Sloane makes eye contact with me for a moment, she looks afraid.
“Take us home then go get Mercer, please,” Phoenix sounds dejected and broken.