The voice that had interrupted us belonged to an actual faerie; a man who had literally materialized in the throne beside Orlina. I glanced at him despite myself: He had not been there a moment ago. Even without having been looking, I had heard nothing from that spot before he began to talk.
The faerie had a gorgeous face, with golden hair and pointed ears and crystal blue eyes. He wore some renaissance finery: soft blues and whites with elaborate brocade, and a crown of white crystal flowers tied together with white ribbons. I took in the crown and the throne and made the obvious connection, confirming my guess as to his identity: this was Archarel.
Really, his outfit made a suitable match for my own, and I briefly considered forgoing my potential claim over Reid so that I could spare Archarel and keep him instead. I discarded that thought, though. I really wanted to make an example of the arrogant faerie lord and pay him back for all the inconveniences he’d heaped my way. And utterly consuming him really was the only fair way to go about that. Anything less would mean letting him think he could get away with getting in my way.
And that was utterly unacceptable.
“And don’t dissemble,” Lord Archarel added. “It doesn’t suit you, Lady Megan.” He turned to Orlina. “This is a friend of Megan’s,” he told her. “Another one of those who insisted on crashing our wedding, and I’m afraid she didn’t have so kind a reception as Lady Fumiko did.” He then pointed at Megan and waved a chiding finger. “But don’t let Lady Megan try to mislead you. Yes, her friend was drained — but I felt the surge when Lady Megan pushed aura to her, and I can see enough emotions in her aura now to know that she is not ’emptied’ any longer.”
Lord Archarel turned back to Megan and tsked. “Really, that wasn’t very wise on your part. Yes, you’ve given your friend some sliver of emotional capability, but that just means there’s enough in her for us to torment her further if you prove troublesome.” Then he rounded on me. “And you may as well stop trying to pretend to be an emptied doll, my dear,” Lord Archarel said. “Your emotions are clear to everyone here except my bride-to-be. Really, you are quite awful at hiding them. I would have expected better auric control from anyone brazen enough to invade our realm.”
I looked up. I took a deep breath in, then let it out. And then another. I couldn’t answer immediately, because I had to focus on drawing my fangs back despite my hunger. I didn’t want Archarel to spook and flee before I could catch him, and that meant not giving away Sebastian’s misunderstanding. “I’m not yours,” I said when my tongue confirmed that not even the tips of my fangs were evident. “And I’m getting bored of all you faeries trying to slip that claim in unnoticed. You’re immortals. Surely you can come up with something new? Or at least new to me?”
Archarel laughed. It was a careless and carefree laugh: he clearly didn’t realize who I was. “That’s what I love about nearly empty mortals,” he said to no one in particular. “Without their fears to temper their tongues they blurt out the damnedest things.” He grinned at me, and I smiled back.
“If you liked that,” I said, “then I think you’ll love the rest of what I have to say. Megan is mine. I object to your highhanded theft, and I will be taking her back now.”
Archarel chuckled. “You see?” He said to Orlina.
I scowled angrily. I did not appreciate being taken so lightly. But the only thing that fae seemed to appreciate were debts and force.
“Lord Archarel,” I warned, “some insults are not to be suffered. Megan is mine, and I will have her, and your plans for the city can rot.” I didn’t mention that he had already gone past the point of unallowable insult by the very act of taking Megan to begin with. He would discover that when my fangs buried in his throat.
Archarel raised an eyebrow. “Indeed,” he agreed, “and you are beginning to approach that point,” he added with a smirk. “But then, you aren’t in your right frame of mind right now, so some allowances must be made. As such, I will wait for your aura to replenish before having your limbs fed to a troll.” His smile widened when Megan squeaked with fear I couldn’t feel, myself.
I wanted to fling myself at Archarel and tear out his heart for that. The only reason I didn’t was that he had enough other faeries — faeries who had taken an interest in our conversation and were paying attention — about to prevent a clean kill, and if he got the chance to escape he would. I stood, instead. I twirled my parasol lazily while I considered options. One obvious one leapt out at me.
With a mental shrug, I took it.
“Lord Archarel, I can see that we will not agree on this matter,” I said. I pointed at the archway that Sebastian had brought me through. “I will be leaving with Megan. And Fumiko. And everyone else who is mine. And if you want to contest my right to do so, you will have to fight me.” I smiled sweetly and gestured to the other archways that surrounded the gathering. “We are at a crossroads, Archarel. The sun is high here, but that is a lie: the sun is always high here, and the time in reality is midnight. If you wish to fight me then by your own traditions it will mean a duel. A duel where I have the choice of weapons.” I smiled, but didn’t show my fangs. I wasn’t trying to intimidate Archarel — I was trying to trap him. “I will win,” I declared as haughtily as I could. “And when I do, the boon I will demand from you will be everything. You are trying to take away what is mine. So when I beat you, I will take everything that is yours.”
Abruptly, the whispered conversations of those faeries who had been listening in on us went silent. That silence rippled outward with unnatural swiftness, until Archarel and I were shortly the center of attention for all of the gathered fae.
Lord Archarel heaved an exaggerated sigh. “And that’s the problem with mostly-drained mortals,” he bemoaned to Orlina. “Without their fears they invariably say something suicidal.” He smiled at me, to all appearances oblivious to the hush that had fallen over the gathered fae. “I have plans for Megan,” he said. “I cannot allow her departure.” He shrugged. “You are making a stretch in your claims about a duel, but I will accept your reasoning if only because it entertains me.” He smiled. “And because the only reason you were brought to attend this gathering was to show to Megan what her friends would suffer if she antagonized me. I can think of no better way of demonstrating exactly how fierce my displeasure can be than cutting you down in front of her and letting her sit across from your ravaged corpse.”
Megan choked back a whimper. Archarel stood.
“I challenge you,” Archarel declared in a clear voice that effortlessly reached all those who were gathered. “Name your weapon.”
Fae courtiers scurried back. Orlina disappeared among them, and Melvin appeared from the crowd to drag Megan away. I smiled at Archarel while the feast table and chairs faded and dissolved like dispelled glamours, leaving us in an empty circle surrounded by faeries. It was like being at the epicenter of some twisted fantasy version of a schoolyard fight.
“Physical force,” I answered Archarel. “No spells. No geases.” I could have said ‘fangs,’ or something more explicit — but I didn’t want to give away my ace in the hole: the truth about who I was. Not until Archarel was well and truly trapped, and he still had one way out. In my very first duel, before I had even died the first time, Melvin had said that only faerie nobles had the right to choose a champion when I’d tried to claim ‘vampires’ as my weapon. That was the only way Archarel could escape: by sidestepping the duel entirely and sacrificing some worthless lesser faerie in his place. “Now name your champion,” I ordered him. “So everyone can see just how cowardly their thief of a lord is.”
Archarel’s eyes blazed angrily at the insult. “Oh, I will face you myself,” he said. And then, with no further warning, he lunged. His sword appeared in his hand with blinding speed — and then disappeared into my gut. I heard Megan shriek as the fae metal pierced me, leaving the length of the blade jutting out of my back.
“It was a nice try,” Archarel commented. He leaned in close so he could whisper in my ear: “But not clever enough by far. Even without my magic, I am a warrior with centuries of experience — and you don’t even carry a blade. This was over before it began.”
I let my parasol tumble from my grip. Blood stained my gown: whether it was real or just a part of how the glamour reacted to my being stabbed, I wasn’t sure. I felt my shreds of aura slipping out through the wound — and I reached out to grab Archarel. Leaning forward to whisper had been a mistake on his part: it put his neck in easy reach. “Yes,” I agreed. My fangs descended. “Because I’m not mortal.”
I snapped forward, biting into Lord Archarel’s neck before he could pull away. He didn’t even try to. My fangs tore open a connection between us; I swallowed Archarel’s blood and power flooded into me: far more than I had taken in a single swallow from Melvin or Pipsqueak or Sebastian.
Archarel’s free hand tangled in my hair, but he didn’t try to tear my mouth away from his flesh. Instead, he pressed down, holding me in place. “Oh, I know,” he chuckled. “I mean: what kind of idiot doesn’t find out what the vampire opposing him looks like?”
For a stunned second I didn’t understand what I was hearing. More power was rushing into me, distracting me. Each drop of Archarel’s blood was more potent than entire swallows of Sebastian’s. My aura filled almost instantly, and my ability to panic came crashing back to life. I felt pressure against my soul: pressure that rapidly went past the comfortable bloat I’d felt from feeding on Pipsqueak and toward the agonizing force I’d felt when Lewellan’s aura had poured unchecked into my soul. I tried to pull away, but Archarel refused to let me go. His strength was matched to his aura, and my struggles meant nothing.
“You see,” Archarel said cheerfully, “most fae are afraid of your kind, and with good reason. But I am a faerie lord, Abigail, and this is my land. The very seat of my power. You were right: the sun here is a lie. A glamour, actually. All of the land is: a glamour that I maintain for my subjects; a glamour so powerful it is this realm’s reality. This land is bound to me, and through it so too are all of those who make their homes upon it.”
The sense of my soul stretching against the aura that continued to flood into it was so violently painful I could barely register Archarel’s words. I tried desperately to find someone to push it to, some way to relieve the force threatening to rip my soul open, but my options were too limited. I topped off Emma and Fumiko both almost instantly, and with no noticeable reduction of the aura that continued to pump into me. Megan hadn’t been drained by anyone: I’d felt her aura, solid and vibrant, when she’d tried to push it into me at the table. All of my other donors were on another world, and they had all been filled with Lewellan’s aura, anyway. I screamed in helpless agony — only for the cry to be lost on the gag of Archarel’s flesh. He rolled his shoulder against my mouth, forcing my fangs to cut deeper and tear his flesh; letting his blood spill faster.
“You may be able to intimidate some pathetic refuse that has been cast off to prey upon the mortal realm with the threat of destruction,” Archarel derisively allowed, “but I’ve broken vampires before, and I think you will find that I am too large a bite, even for a soul stealer like yourself. After all: mortal souls have their limits, and although your soul was caught and shoved back into your corpse before it could pass into the weave, it remains derived from the mortal mold. Eventually your soul will burst. I have an entire kingdom to feed into it until it does. And then, all the aura that pours out of your ruined soul on my land will return to me.”
He laughed once more. “I will lose nothing, Abigail — but there won’t even be enough left of you to form a ghost, let alone a viable soul. Your false life is an abomination, Abigail. You are dead. And this time, you’ll stay that way.”