Gene burst into my room and jarred me upright in my bed. Nausea burrowed into my gut, finding its old nesting hole to roll around in. Oh god. I was going to be sick again.
“Get dressed. We’re expected in the clearing.” He drew the sheets back to hurry me along.
“What’s going on?”
The shift to get out of bed set off warning bells, and my head dropped between my knees.
My esophagus shrank.
I bolted to the bathroom, kicking the door closed as I bent over the toilet and puked. This had been my routine for the last few weeks. Gene was unhappy to admit that my lack of faerie blood contributed to it, but he gladly filled in the gaps as he could.
“We do not have time—”
I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. “Pull out something for me to wear. I won’t be long.”
Another wave trampled me.
My stomach churned out more bile.
I rinsed and waited.
Twice was my pattern, but some days…so I lingered.
Five deep breaths, and I opened the door to a dress.
“Come on. Are you kidding me?”
“We do not have time.”
Ugh. I snatched it and threw it over my head, snagging the heels that would only sink into the grass. Gene both ushered and supported me as I slipped into the shoes on our way out of the apartment.
“I didn’t know James was looking for anyone.” Fidgeting with the dress top, the line didn’t match the sports bra I wore beneath it.
“He’s not the only one with the job.”
We stood around the semi-circle as Phea strode across the lawn, waiting in her usual spot in front of the entrance to the grounds, dressed like the true queen she was. Powerful. Elegant. Elevated.
She took up the entire clearing with her presence.
Not that long ago, I tramped through that foliage to face the queen of the vampires and ended the evening with a stake beside my heart, dying, and claimed by a man I didn’t know—the one I’d grown reliant on, connected to, comfortable with. I suppressed the urge to reach for his hand now.
The brush rustled, and Vincent stepped through—all doom and danger—then Julia appeared.
That couldn’t be.
Julia was dead.
The blonde hair shimmered, and Julia vanished. In her place stood the small blonde woman I’d seen in Vincent’s memories. A patch of hair buzzed around her ear, a gold piece holding her hair in place to expose it, and her rainbow eyes glowed with the kind of power that seemed regal.
Not what I expected out of a renegade.
Nor was the corset cinching her abundant dress.
Phea’s surprise shifted her unnaturally, like when a cat tilted its head on its side but not nearly as dramatic. Scarlet stood from her dais on the porch behind our queen—a queen of her own. Bloody, they said. The Scarlet Queen.
“May I present Nani, Maka Nani, noble faerie of the underwater mound.” Vincent presented her in the same way James, my maker, presented me to Phea. An offering.
And that’s exactly what she was.
“Oh, Commander, how naughty you’ve been.”
His bow held an intimacy that came from a reformed renegade. One that made her third in command so loyal to her. Nani, the new vampire, fell into a graceful and practiced curtsy without buckling under fear.
Certainly not a normal renegade.
Scarlet’s obvious interest countered her usual demeanor, wicked and cold—colder than Phea, and it seemed to spark a challenge between the two, given the recent trend of sacrifices they paraded through the grounds.
“She is my claim, Your Majesty.”
“General.” Phea’s demand hung in the air, and James dragged a bent over T that once chained him in place to punish him for my vampirism. Now, he thrust the sharpened end into the ground as Vincent stepped forward to take it. “We have a punishment to dole out, and if your fae wants to be tested as yours, she will have to watch and wait through it before she undergoes her own trials.”
“She’s strong enough.”
Nani shifted behind him, but Vincent kept his attention on our queen as he efficiently disrobed and braced himself within the metal cuffs at the ends of the T-top.
It was more than I wanted to see of him, looking over James instead in his suit and newly shortened hair. He stood as her soldier with a large, wooden box in hand.
Phea flicked her wrist, and the shackles snapped around Vincent’s.
James presented her whip.
She touched the scar on his chin before taking the weapon and slashing it across the grass, a snake promising to strike.
Feet jarred from under him, Vincent took the weight in his shoulders, but instead of the devoted bliss he often aimed at our queen, he seemed to find solace in his new claim.
Nani’s hands clenched the puffy fabric of her skirt, but she maintained her decorum. Like a princess.
Man, I really didn’t want to witness this again. I barely endured it when she’d done this to James. Well, if you could call it that. Felix taunted me right in the middle of this group while she split James’s skin open. Vincent held me as Felix and Gene fought. I hadn’t seen so much of the act.
Felix, our queen’s pet, was gone now, too.
Did Phea think he was out on a renegade hunt? That the new vampires I’d killed and sent off with the Assetato merely ran off or got themselves killed? She had to suspect me.
I’d stabbed him in the heart after all. Like they’d forced me to do to Harris.
Too many deaths under my belt in too few weeks.
The whip struck flesh, breaking the sound barrier and bringing me back from the neurotic melancholy I’d grown too used to sulking in.
The musky scent of his blood tapped the heartbeat in my fangs and curdled my insides.
Each strike uncovered Phea’s madness—one I didn’t see when she’d done this to James—then, I hadn’t exactly been watching her.
Her whip slid around her, leaving traces of blood across her dark clothes.
And they referred to Scarlet as the bloody queen?
I traced the lines of Gene’s jacket with my gaze, the way his hands folded together in front of him, the clean press along the creases, the swoop of his dark hair styled in almond oil. The scent calmed me from here. My attention must have burned his skin because his shoulders rolled, and he tipped his face my way to spare a glance.
I forced a smile to say I was okay. Just trying to not really pay attention over here.
I flinched, working on my breath. It didn’t help, funneling more of Vincent’s musky blood into my sinuses. I could practically taste him.
James shifted on the other side of the circle, far enough to keep clear of the gore. With his expensive taste, I understood why.
The new persona he’d taken on after he changed me and brought me here didn’t fit him like his suit did. Standing at ease, clasped arms behind him exaggerated his shoulders’ width.
He met my gaze between the full-fledged vampires I stood behind. The planes of his face were blank, but amusement twinkled in the blackness of his eyes; beyond the gruesome display he found humor in my rushed attire. At least, that’s what the trajectory of his examination suggested.
I tugged at the clingy fabric, the static twisting it between my thighs.
Did a corner of his mouth quirk?
I jerked and shifted again, aware of someone else watching me.
Torture consumed Phea, Nani, and most of those gathered, but not Scarlet. No, I seemed to fascinate her. As much as the thought wormed its way down my spine and made me squirm, it had been this way since Tahe and I returned from the attack at the mall. For a while, I assumed she sensed Boden on me in some way, but I didn’t know if fae possessed that kind of discernment.
Wishful thinking kept me from examining this too closely.
Maybe she got wind of my more-than-inflated reputation.
It’s not like I held a candle to either queen.
But those too-round eyes, that demeanor, those gloved hands…all unsettled me.
Might be the stories and gossip Tahe whispered in my ear when we went into town to feed.
Scarlet smiled at me, manipulative and sweet.
Had this been a few weeks ago, I might have reached for Gene’s hand to stabilize my emotions and my abilities, but my mentor has put in the work with me, gotten me to put in the work, too, and I had control. At least in times like this.
Put me against her directly, however, and I’d likely be singing a different story.
Scarlet paced on the dais behind the performance, giving her an excellent view of the gory bits—something she enjoyed—but her head tilted, remaining privy to my every move.
Shaking my head, I tuned her out and rubbed the scar on my chest. It didn’t dull the burning reminder of how the wood felt as it slammed between my ribs.
Damned glad this wasn’t my problem.