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|A Blood Seduction(Vamp City #1) by Pamela Palmer|
"I suppose it does sound kind of perfect from a vampire's point of view. But if it's so great, why do . . . did . . . some of you live in the real world, too?"
"Personally, I am fond of modern conveniences. And I have many investments to look after."
"Only a fool or a layabout would not be after six hundred years."
As they crossed the next street, the buildings all but disappeared, nothing left but foundations. "What happened here?"
"Fire. We lost several blocks before we were able to contain it. It happened decades ago."
No volunteer all-vampire fire department, she supposed, which was probably too bad. As fast as they moved, with the right equipment, they could probably put out a fire in seconds.
"How many vampires live here?"
He glanced at her with amusement. "You are full of questions this morning, cara."
"I'm a scientist. I'm always full of questions. Do you mind answering them?"
His response was a little late in coming and not as enthusiastic as she might have liked. But he shrugged. "There are roughly four hundred vampires divided into nine kovenas. Most prefer to live in the strongholds though some prefer their own abodes."
"Like me." He pulled something out of his pocket and held it out to her. "Would you like one?"
"What is it?" The silvery wrapper shone in the low light. "SweetTarts?" she asked incredulously.
"I have a weakness for them."
She reached for the roll and pulled off the top candy, popping it into her mouth, enjoying the explosion of tart green apple. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." He placed one of the candies into his own mouth and pushed the roll back into his pocket.
When they were past the Treasury Building, Quinn glanced left, drawn to the sight of the White House, standing like a once-beautiful woman, now age-ravaged and graying, and very, very alone. "I'm surprised no one moved into the White House. It would have been fully furnished."
"It was. And we did. For nearly a hundred years it was my master's stronghold."
She looked at him in surprise. "What happened?"
"Time and neglect. The president's mansion, as it was known back then, was built of sandstone. Without proper maintenance, sandstone slowly turns to mud."
"But the real White House hasn't disintegrated."
"It is painted regularly. And it underwent a full reconstruction in the early 1950s, when it was discovered to be in imminent danger of collapse."
"I didn't know that."
"You weren't around at the time." A lilt of humor lifted his voice.
"So is that when you decided you needed to move?"
"Five years prior, the ceiling over the kitchens in our version collapsed. The deterioration here had been more swift, but then we've never maintained our properties with the same vigilance as the humans."
"Your house seems to be in great shape."
"Because you care about it."
A distant scream broke the stillness up ahead. Quinn tensed. She could just make out what appeared to be a walled compound beyond the derelict properties making up the next block. The sound of classical piano music carried on the air, along with voices and a peal of laughter.
"Is that where we're going?" she asked warily.
"It is." As they rounded the corner, the compound came into full view. The walls were made of stone and were at least twenty feet high, all but obscuring the large house within. "Is this it, the castle?" She grunted. "Calling it a castle might be pushing it a bit."
They followed the wall, approaching a pair of huge, black, iron gates with a design of intricate swirls. When they were finally upon them, she got her first glimpse of the mansion inside. And it was huge. Maybe castle wasn't a bad name for it after all.
Just inside the gates stood two guards, dressed in what appeared to be some kind of eighteenth-or nineteenth-century military uniform, swords strapped to their backs.
"Who do they guard the place from?"
"Everyone." His tone was short.
"Do the kovenas war against one another?"
"Of course," he snapped. He was getting testy. Why?
Rather than opening the massive gates, one of the guards opened a small door within the nearby wall for them to enter.
"Arturo," the guard said with a deference that surprised her. Her vampire master must carry some weight around here.
Arturo allowed her to precede him through. As the door clicked shut behind them, they started the long walk to the house. Shouts of laughter and gaiety filled the air as if a party were in full swing. She heard the splash of water. A pool? She'd imagined a vampire castle to be a dark, broody thing, but this one was lit up like an octogenarian's birthday cake.
As they climbed the brick steps, the massive front doors opened, two liveried butlers standing back to let them in.
"Arturo," the two said as one, bowing.
Arturo acknowledged them with a shallow nod. Taking her upper arm in a firm grip, he led her into a massive marble-and-ivory foyer the size of a small ballroom, in the center of which sat a mammoth black lacquer grand piano. There were vampires everywhere, holding drinks, fondling the Slava females who walked among them in what appeared to be a uniform of short skirts and low-cut peasant blouses. Along one of the walls sat a line of velvet benches, where two vampires appeared to be making out. Close by, a silk-robed vamp male grabbed one of the Slavas to him, pulling her back against him, baring and fondling her breasts as he bit her. As Quinn watched in horrified fascination, his lashes swept up, his white-centered eyes spearing her as if imagining his fangs in her neck instead. As if promising her just that.
Quinn shivered and looked hurriedly away, her face flaming, her body flushed with intense discomfort. This place was like a playground for the depraved.
"Ax!" One of the male vamps, in blue jeans and a black silk shirt, strode toward them, a drink the color of whiskey in his hand. He had dark circles under his eyes, lines of strain along either side of his mouth. Despite that, he seemed genuinely glad to see Arturo.
The two vampires greeted one another warmly. "How do you fare, Bram?"
"Not well. I'm going fucking crazy in this place." He lowered his voice. "They lie around doing nothing but drinking and fucking as if there's nothing else to life. If the magic's going to kill me, I wish it would just do it and get it over with. Take me out of my misery."
"I've heard a rumor a solution may have been found."
Bram's eyes widened. "Pray you're right about that." He turned to Quinn. "Who's this?"
"My most recent acquisition," as if that were all she was.
She was tempted to thrust out her hand and introduce herself simply to make them acknowledge her as more than a slave. But an instinct for self-preservation warned her against drawing any more attention to herself in this place than she had to.
"Are you bringing her to Kassius?"
"No," Arturo replied slowly. "She's of Blackstone's ilk."
Bram's brows shot up, and he turned to stare at her as if she were suddenly the most fascinating thing in the room. Quinn turned to Arturo for explanation. But his attention was on the other man.
"Thank, God," Bram murmured, then frowned. "I don't smell it." Without warning, he leaned close to her, sniffing at her hair.
Quinn reared back. "What do you mean Blackstone's ilk?"
A bloodcurdling scream sliced the air, raising the hair on the back of Quinn's neck and lifting the heads of several vamps nearby. Bram stiffened, his breath turning suddenly short, and shallow. The screaming continued until Quinn wanted to cover her ears to shut it out. Someone was being tortured mercilessly. Killed. Her breath hitched. Half a dozen vamps disappeared in a blur of silk and velvet, reappearing at the top of the curved stairs.
Bram's expression grew pained, his eyes filling with misery. "I have to go." He shoved his glass into Arturo's hand, then turned and climbed the stairs, human pace, his shoulders bent as if he fought every step, and lost.
Arturo took her arm and steered her away from the stairs and out of the huge foyer, into an even larger room, but the change of rooms did little to dampen that horrible, continual scream. Vampires played billiards on one of the two tables, while others played poker at one of three gaming tables. At the far side of the room, an entire wall of glass doors had been opened to the outside and a swimming pool lit by torches.
None of the vampires appeared to even hear the woman's screams, let alone care. She glanced at Arturo. "How can you all ignore that?"
"Calm yourself, cara. Cristoff is a pain-feeder." He said it so matter-of-factly.
"And that makes it okay?"
His dark eyes flashed. "We are vampires, Quinn Lennox. One way or another, we feed off humans or we die. We're at the top of the food chain."
"So all we are to you is food?"
"To most vampires, yes. I am afraid so."
She wanted to ask if he felt the same and couldn't, afraid she didn't want to know. She had a feeling she wouldn't like his answer, not at all. "The vampires who ran for the stairs. They're pain-feeders, aren't they?"
"Yes. As is Bram, as much as he hates it."
And she'd seen that, Bram's misery, his reluctance to climb those stairs and join the others. She thought of Arturo's words to him. "What did you mean I'm of Blackstone's ilk?"
"Quiet, piccola. That was not meant for other ears." He leaned closer, his voice dropping to a bare whisper. "There is danger here."
With that cryptic warning, he steered her through the game room and out onto the pool deck, where several vampires swam in the nude.
Her instincts told her to pursue the question, that she needed to know. But she hardly trusted Arturo to tell her the truth. So she held her tongue. For now. "Is there no other way for Bram to feed?"
"Before the magic began to fail, he worked as a trauma doctor in the emergency room at George Washington Hospital. He has for the past twenty years."
She looked at him with disbelief. "A vampire doctor?"
"Bram is an excellent doctor. He genuinely likes to help humans in pain. He hates that he's forced to feed on that pain, but it has been a good compromise for him."
"And now he can't get to the hospital." She was beginning to understand his misery, though. Were there really vampires who were that moral, that altruistic? Maybe there were. "Do you have an outside job?"
He led her around the pool while she kept her eyes averted from the carnal play going on in the water. "I do not."
"Do you have a house in the real world?"
"No, but a friend of mine does. I have an office in Micah's house, where I work on the computer a couple of nights a week. When I was able to get there."
"Is Micah still in the real world?"
"He is. But I've no way to contact him. He's as locked out as we are locked in. Would you like a drink?" he asked, steering her to the bar.
She would, absolutely, if it might dull the piercing screams that went on and on and on. But she had a feeling she'd better keep her wits about her in this place.
"No, thank you."
Slowly, the screams began to die away. As did, undoubtedly, the screamer. She tried not to think of her, of how she was dying, even now, for fear she'd start screaming herself. And she couldn't. No matter what happened, she had to keep it together. For Zack.
"Come, piccola." Arturo steered her back toward the foyer. "We must speak with Cristoff, and this will be a good time, now that he's fed."
She shuddered at the thought of what might happen if they approached a pain-feeder at a bad time. As Arturo led her past the piano, toward the stairs, Quinn was hit with a terrible smell, like something burning. The smell only worsened as they climbed. At the top of the stairs, he ushered her a short way down a wide hallway to a pair of open doors, then inside a huge room. A throne room. There was no other word for it. The ceiling soared, propped up by thick, gilt pillars. The walls were hung with all manner of weapons and tapestries and coats of arms. At the far end, the marble floor rose to a low dais graced by a huge golden chair . . . a throne . . . upholstered in dark red velvet. And upon the throne sat a young man staring with unrestrained pleasure at the naked woman lying in the middle of the room in a shallow puddle of blood, being fed upon by four vampires.
Around them stood half a dozen vampires, including Bram, who appeared to be coming out of the throes of pleasure. Bram's mouth was tight as he raked his fingers through his hair and turned away.
As Arturo led Quinn into the room, she caught sight of the woman's arms and legs, the raw, fresh burn marks, and knew she'd found both the source of the screams and the horrific smell. Burning flesh. Her stomach cramped, her head turning hot, then cold as Arturo steered her toward the man sitting upon the dais.
Cristoff? He looked too young, too strange, to be such a powerful vampire. Then again, vampires didn't age. He could be very, very old, and he'd still look twenty-five, she suspected. He had good bone structure beneath a shoulder-length fall of bleached white hair, his eyebrows and small King Tut beard jet-black in contrast. His mouth was thin and cruel, his pale blue eyes as cold as a killing frost. A pain-feeder.
A primal anxiety crawled across Quinn's flesh. She wanted out of here, out of this room, this house, this world. And she wanted out, now! But she swallowed hard, tamping it down. Fear was an emotion she couldn't afford to show, let alone feel. Not in this place, where they fed on such things. There would be no hiding it.