1 Before my eyes were open, before I was actually awake, I was drinking. Four great gulps, and I gasped for more. I clawed at the empty glass tube held to my mouth and flung it to the ground.
I don’t know which called to me more, his music or his blood. Trapped in darkness, weak to the point of death, I woke only to suck his soul dry until the notes and droplets merged in my veins. Whoever he was, he was my inferior, my prey, and his life was my due. What’s the point of being a princess if you can’t kill your subjects?
His blood was spiced with wine; I could tell that much. As I listened, stilling my breathing and willing my heart to pump again, I realized that I didn’t know the song he was playing. It wasn’t any of the Freesian lullabies from my childhood, nor was it anything that had been popular at court. I could even pick out the sound of his fingertips stroking the keys without the telltale muting of suede gloves. Peculiar. No wonder I could smell him, whoever he was—he wasn’t protecting his delicious skin from the world. From me.
He stopped playing and sighed, and my instincts took over. I lunged toward that intoxicating scent. But the attempt to pounce was painfully foiled by . . . something. Leather. I was trapped, tucked into a ball, boxed and balanced on my bustled bum. When he started playing again, my hand stole sideways toward the musty leather. With one wicked claw, I began to carve a way out.
The tiniest sliver of light stole in, orange and murky. Fresh air hit my face, and with it, his scent. It took every ounce of well-bred patience for me to remain silent and still and not fumble and flounder out of whatever held me bound like a Kraken from the deep. My mother’s voice rang in my mind, her queenly tone unmistakable.
Silence. Cunning. Quickness. That is how the enemy falls, princess. You are the predator’s predator. The queen of the beasts. Now kill him. Slowly.
My fingernails had grown overlong and sharper than was fashionable in court, and the rest of the leather fell away in one long curve. I lifted the flap with one hand and dared to peek out.
The room was dim and mostly empty, with a high ceiling and wooden floors. Spindly chairs perched on round tables. Across the room, lit by one orange gas spotlight, was a stage, and on that stage was a harpsichord, and playing that harpsichord was my lunch.
Seeing him there, the princess receded, and the beast took over. Body crouched and fingers curled, I sidled out through the hole, my eyes glued to my prey. He hadn’t noticed the creature hunting him from the shadows. His eyes were closed, and he was singing something plaintive, something about someone named Jude. I wasn’t Jude, so it didn’t matter.
The refined part of my brain barely registered that I was dressed in high-heeled boots and swishing taffeta. I knew well enough how to stalk in my best clothes and had been doing so since my days in a linen pinafore and ermine ruff. As I slipped into the shadows along the wall and glided toward the stage, hunger pounded in time with my heartbeat and his slow keystrokes. It felt like a lifetime had passed since I had last eaten. And maybe it had. Never had I felt so drained.
I made it across the room without detection. He continued moaning about Jude in a husky voice so sad that it moved even the animal in me. I stopped to consider him from behind deep-red velvet curtains that had definitely known better days. But I didn’t see a man. Just food. And in that sense, he had all but arrayed himself on a platter, walking around with his shirt open, boots off, and gloves nowhere to be seen. Exposed and reeking of alcohol, he was an easy target.
He broke off from his strange song and reached for a green bottle, tipping it to lips flushed pink with blood and feeling. I watched his neck thrown back, Adam’s apple bobbing, and a deafening roar overtook me. I couldn’t hold back any longer. I was across the stage and on him in a heartbeat.
Tiny as I was, the momentum from my attack knocked him backward off the bench. The bottle skittered across the floor, and he made a pathetically clumsy grab for it. I had one hand tangled in his long hair, the other pinning down his chest, long talons prickling into his flesh and drawing pinpoints of delicious blood to pepper the air. I took a deep breath, savoring it. The kill was sure. I smiled, displaying fangs.
His red-rimmed eyes met mine in understanding, and he smiled back, a feral glint surprising me. Something smashed into my head, and he rolled me over and lurched to his feet with a wild laugh. Red liquid streamed through my hair and down my face, and I hissed and shook shards of green glass from my shoulders. The uppity bastard had hit me with his bottle. If I hadn’t already planned to kill him, I now had just cause.
As I circled him, I wiped the stinging wine from my eyes with the back of my hand. I was dizzy with hunger, almost woozy, and he took advantage of my delicate condition to leap forward and slice my forearm with the jagged ends of his blasted bottle. I hissed again and went for his throat, but at the last minute, something stopped me short. He didn’t smell so good, not anymore.
The beast within receded, and my posture straightened. My arms swung, useless, at my sides. His finger was in his mouth, and when he pulled it out with a dramatic pop, his lips were stained red with my blud. Now he just smelled like me. And less like food.
“Not today, Josephine,” he said with a cocky grin.
I struggled to stand tall and not wobble. Now that he had swallowed my blud, the beast wasn’t controlling me, and there was nothing holding me up. I was as empty as a cloud, light as a snowflake, beyond hunger. My heart was barely beating. And I felt more than a little bewildered.
“Oh, my,” I said, one hand to my dripping hair. “I do believe I might swoon. And you’ve ruined my dress as well. Your lord is simply going to draw and quarter you.”
I did swoon then. As the world went black, I felt his hands catching me, his delicious—if no longer maddening—blood pumping millimeters away from my own.
“Easy, little girl,” he said. I smelled wine and sadness on him and something else, something deep and musky and not quite right.
I was delirious as he gently helped me fall to the ground. I could barely mumble, “I’m not a little girl, and you’re the most badly behaved servant I’ve ever met.”
The world fell away, and his laughter and music followed me into my dreams.
“More,” I rasped. “I demand more.”
Another tube replaced it, and I sighed and swallowed again. Someone chuckled. The blood ran down my throat, cool and warm at the same time. It tasted exotic. Must have been the local flavor.
“How long have you been hiding in that old suitcase?”
I opened my eyes, suddenly aware of the unladylike nature of my predicament. I sprawled on the ground, legs splayed out over the dusty wooden boards. A man’s arm was around my shoulders, his ungloved human hand holding a vial to my lips as I drank the blood as greedily as a child with holiday sweets. My hair had fallen to disarray, and some of the straggling locks around my face were tinted red with what smelled like old wine. I slapped the vial to the ground—after I’d finished the last drop, of course.
“You varlet,” I growled in my most ladylike growl. “You blasphemous dog. How dare you touch me? I’ll use your blood for ink.”
I jerked out of his hands and tried to stand, but my legs couldn’t hold me. Without his body behind me, I toppled right back over and flopped on my back like a fish. Whatever had been done to me, two vials of blood wasn’t enough to get me back on my feet.
But what had been done to me? And by whom?
“You,” I said. My eyes narrowed, focused on him.
He sat on his haunches a few feet away, elbows easy on his knees, watching me. I’d never seen so much exposed skin on a servant who wasn’t being offered as a meal. His eyes were bright blue, regarding me with curiosity and a noticeable absence of fear and respect.
“What did you do to me, offal?”
He chuckled and grinned. He had dimples. “I’m pretty sure I saved your life, right after you attacked me. I don’t hold it against you, though. Looks like you were drained.”
“You can’t even stand, little girl.”
I tried to lift a hand to crush his throat, but my arm weighed a ton. I was starting to get woozy again, as if there was a block of stone on my chest. It was a struggle to breathe. Movement caught my eyes, and I saw a fresh vial of blood glinting in his hand, flipping back and forth over his knuckles. I’d never seen anything so beautiful, and I had to swallow down an unbecoming drop of drool.
“Give me that,” I said, voice husky and commanding.
“Tell me who you are first.”
I was starting to pant, watching the blood twirl around his fingers. He may have ingested my own blud and calmed the beast within me, but he still smelled like food. If I could have ripped his throat out, I would have been sunk to my ears in his neck, drinking in ecstasy. But I forced that image from my mind and met his steely blue glare, fighting for control over the beast beginning to surface again.
“Let us understand each other,” I said, enunciating every word clearly. “I am not little, and I am not a girl. I am twenty-seven years old, and I am a princess. And you, whoever you are, are my subject. You owe me obeisance, fealty, and blood.”
“Come and get it, then.” His grin taunted me with unexpected good humor as he held up the vial, the amber light glinting off the glass.
“You know very well I cannot,” I spat, struggling for control. I had never been so helpless, and he was mocking me, and it was untenable. Once I was strong again, he was going to pay.
“Then we’ll have to strike a bargain, won’t we?”
“I don’t bargain.”
“Then good luck, princess.”
He stood and walked back to his harpsichord. Long, tangled chestnut hair rippled over his stained white shirt, and I pledged to make a mop out of it one day. Rage consumed me. Rage and hunger.
As if sensing my fury, he turned back and winked with one damnable blue eye, then threw the vial into the air. I swallowed hard, watching the precious glass tube flip over and over in a perfect arc. When it smashed against the floor, I let out an inhuman wail and tried to drag myself over the worn boards. I was a princess, but I would gladly have licked the glass-dusted blood from the dirty ground. I couldn’t move, not even an inch. All the training and breeding and hunting in the world had never prepared me for such utter helplessness.