Once Burned Page 22

That made Szilagyi smile again. ’’We share the same sire. If Vlad thinks about it long enough, he'll figure it out.’’

’’Can you tell where he is?’’ Vlad asked in a hiss.

’’No,’’ I replied with a sudden burst of insight. ’’He must've known I'd come looking for him. That's why he's in the same windowless concrete room that I saw when he ordered my attack. There's nothing in it but a big fur blanket, and even his clothes are so average;you can't tell anything from them.’’

Szilagyi gave a concurring shrug. ’’I thought it possible that you could locate me through an object I'd touched. Why do you think I wanted to retrieve you so badly?’’

’’Or kill me,’’ I reminded him in a curt tone.

Another shrug. ’’Anyone who isn't on my side is my enemy.’’ Then those deep brown eyes gleamed. ’’You could still be on my side, Frankie. With that clever defense you have against mind reading, Vlad need not even suspect. Lead him to the place of my choosing, and I will ensure that you never spend another day bouncing on trampolines for pennies.’’

’’Yeah, because I'll be dead,’’ I scoffed. ’’Jackal was going to kill me as soon as my usefulness ran out. I'm supposed to believe you'll be any dif-ferent?’’

’’Why would I kill someone with your priceless abilities if I can use you to my benefit?’’ he asked silkily.

’’Ooh, a lifetime of captivity, sounds nice,’’ I mocked. ’’Thanks, but no.’’

Szilagyi's expression hardened into the merciless one I recognized from other people's memories. ’’You believe that Vlad will let you go? Is he pretending to be kind? I've seen that act from him before, but only a fool falls for it.’’

’’I'm not getting anywhere with him,’’ I said to Vlad, ignoring Szilagyi's taunt. ’’Do you have something you want me to relay before I go?’’

’’Yes.’’ Vlad's voice was pleasant. ’’Tell him the next time I see him, I'll rip off his head and make a new toilet out of it.’’

’’He hates you a lot,’’ I summarized to Szilagyi.

’’Accept my offer while you still can,’’ the vampire replied.

I dropped the link, the confining gray room morphing into soaring ceilings with tapestries depicting various scenes of ancient life. Vlad's fingers drummed on his armrest, the faint smell of smoke emanating from him. Behind him, Maximus was immobile, but Shrapnel paced in front of the fireplace.

’’How is he even still alive?’’ he muttered.

I didn't think the question was to me, but I answered it. ’’He was vague about the details. Said something about him and Vlad sharing a sire, and Vlad figuring it out if he thought about it long enough.’’

Nothing but the crackling of flames for a few loaded moments. Then Vlad laughed, but it sounded far uglier than his usual half purr, half amused growl.

’’He has Tenoch's gift of degeneration.’’

Comprehension dawned on everyone's face except mine. ’’What's that?’’

Vlad's fingers drummed against the armrest hard enough to produce tiny splinters.

’’Tenoch, the vampire who turned me, had many powers. One of them was the ability to degenerate into a withered husk, mimicking the appearance of true death for a vampire. Szilagyi was also turned by Tenoch, but while I inherited Tenoch's control over fire, Szilagyi must have inherited his gift of degeneration. That's why I thought I'd burned him to death, but he wasn't dead. The filthy usurper was faking it.’’

Flying. Pyrokinesis. Degeneration. What other vampire powers would I learn were possible?

’’What happened between you and Szilagyi?’’ I asked to distract myself from the scariness of undead abilities. ’’Three hundred years later, you're still trying to kill each other.’’

That scent of smoke coming from Vlad increased. ’’The first time I was imprisoned, I was a boy and the Ottomans were my captors. The second time, I was a vampire and my jailer was the king of Hungary, who was mesmerized into imprisoning me by his uncle, Mihaly Szilagyi. My human allies were unable to free me and as my vampire sire was dead, Szilagyi could do with me what he wished without repercussions from the vampire world. He intended to break me and rule Wallachia through me as he ruled Hungary through his nephew, but’’-cold smile-’’I would not break. Szilagyi would've killed me if not for Mencheres. He was Tenoch's most powerful progeny and declared me to be under his protection despite my protests that I'd rather die than be subject to a filthy Turk, as I considered Mencheres at the time. But since Szilagyi was afraid of Mencheres, he kept me alive. Years later, as a condition of my freedom, I married the king of Hungary's pregnant cousin and claimed the child as mine. Szilagyi pretended to want my help in overthrowing the Ottomans, so he had the king of Hungary assist me in reclaiming Wallachia's throne, but he'd secretly allied with the sultan.’’

Vlad paused, a savage smile flitting across his face. ’’When it came time to war, the Church paid Hungary to join me in fighting the Turks. My armies went. Szilagyi convinced Hungary's army to stay behind, but he never returned the money. Instead, he fabricated tales of my viciousness and spread them far and wide. My people suffered because of his lies and greed, and my reputation had been tarnished so badly that many allies abandoned me. When my brother ambushed me, I allowed my country to believe I'd been killed so that my son could rule. Then he was murdered shortly after he'd begun his reign. Two centuries later, I discovered Szilagyi had sent the assassin, and I trapped him at the Royal Court of Targoviste, where until today, I thought I'd burned him to death.’’

I winced. There was bad blood, and then there were centuries old virulent hatred.

’’Why would Szilagyi wait so long to come after you?’’ He clearly wasn't the forgive-and-forget type.

Another smile that made me think of blood-coated knives instead of good humor. ’’After I believed him dead, I hunted down and exterminated every member of Szilagyi's line, plus his friends and political allies. It would take centuries for him to build up enough support to mount a successful attack against me. If he came after me alone, he'd be slaughtered.’’

Now that Szilagyi had finally made his move, neither he nor Vlad would stop until one of them was really dead this time.

’’At least he can't hear my thoughts when I link to him,’’ I said, trying to look on the bright side of this bleak situation.

Vlad's gaze swung to me. ’’How?’’

’’Bones taught me that playing really annoying songs over and over in my head acted as a barrier against mind reading. I was supposed to use that on you, but then things changed.’’

’’Remind me to kill Bones next time I see him,’’ he bit off.

Being tricked by his enemy for so long had obviously pushed Vlad into new heights of rage. I didn't think the blazing in the hearth was accidental, and he would shred that armrest into sawdust with his increasingly vicious tapping. All of this should have made me head quietly toward the door, but I stayed where I was, mulling these developments.

’’Shrapnel, notify the guards to pick up Leila's family and bring them here,’’ Vlad said, shocking me.

The massive bald vampire nodded and left. I gaped at Vlad. ’’My family? Why?’’

’’Szilagyi asked you to betray me. You refused,’’ he stated. ’’His next attempt to turn you to his side will involve taking the ones you love hostage. Hence, bring them here.’’

’’He can't come after my family, he doesn't even know my real name. He keeps calling me Frankie,’’ I sputtered.

Vlad's look was jaded. ’’He's already begun researching your identity. Even if your voltage meant you never used a credit card, everyone has a paper trail. That's why I've had guards watching your father and sister since the day you arrived.’’

’’But how? You don't even know my last name, let alone my family's names!’’

’’Leila.’’ No emotion colored his voice. ’’Marty gave me your full name, your father's name, your sister's name, and their locations within ten minutes of my speaking to him.’’

His words were like a punch to the stomach. Nausea rose, leaving a vile taste in my mouth. ’’You tortured it out of him.’’

’’No, I told him if he didn't tell me what I wanted to know, I'd ask you next,’’ was his implacable reply.

I flashed back to Marty's worried question when I'd first seen him. You really okay, Frankie? Vlad had used Marty's love for me against him, making him believe any reticence on his part would result in me getting the same brutal treatment he had.

I didn't need my psychic abilities to figure out why Vlad wanted to know all my family's details, either. They were his insurance against me changing my mind about helping him. He would've used them against me just as ruthlessly as he'd used me against Marty. Rage mixed with the bile inside me. No wonder Vlad knew what move Szilagyi would make next. The two of them thought exactly alike.

Vlad would've heard every word of my mental accusation, but he said nothing, and his silence was damning confirmation. I got up, walked over to where he sat, and then slapped him across the face as hard as I could. Maximus looked like he was going to have a stroke, but nothing changed in Vlad's expression except a bright red handprint that quickly faded.

I left the room without looking back, fury stiffening my spine, but my heart feeling like it had shattered within me. Marty had been right after all. The thought haunted me as I climbed the curving stone staircase. Once I'd finally reached my bedroom, I made sure to lock the door behind me.

Chapter 30

The sun had slipped halfway behind the mountains when Maximus entered the library. It wasn't quite six, but night fell quickly here-and dragged on interminably when anger and anxiety led to insomnia. I'd spent much of the previous evening staring at my doorknob, waiting to see if Vlad would attempt to come in and apologize. That shouldn't be too much to expect, former infamous medieval ruler or not. But the handle on my door never moved. All day, I'd told myself that was a good thing.

’’Shrapnel called. They'll be here soon,’’ Maximus stated.

The words brought no small measure of relief. I was still furious with Vlad over why he'd kept tabs on my family, but they'd be safer here than in Szilagyi's hands. I might not be in the pom-pom-waving mood, but I hadn't changed my Team Vlad status. If not for Szilagyi dragging me into this undead feud by ordering my kidnapping, I'd still be enjoying a balmy winter with Marty in Gibsonton. Not sitting in Romania wondering how my father and sister would react to being dragged halfway around the world-and unable to go home anytime soon.

But when I followed Maximus out of the library and saw a familiar dark-haired figure at the end of the hall, nerves competed with my simmering anger. At once, I began to recite a montage of lyrics to mask my thoughts. I'd slapped him last night and avoided him all day, yet a small, absurd part of me was still disappointed that Vlad hadn't sought me out.

The closer I got, the more my discomfort grew. His back was to me, hands clasped behind him, showing that his cuffs had tiny black stones embroidered in them. Vlad's coat hung to his knees, and the material looked so sleek, it must've been cashmere. His pants were matching ebony, boots peeking out from under the hem. When I drew alongside him, a glance revealed that his collar had the same subtly glittering embroidery as the cuffs, but his charcoal shirt was understated enough to make the outfit elegantly imposing instead of ostentatious. His hair was slicked back, and the severe style made his eyebrows look like curved wings. It also showed off those etched cheekbones, that darkly shadowed jaw, and those mesmerizing, copper-colored eyes.

I suddenly felt very underdressed in my brown slacks and beige turtleneck. Why hadn't I worn the indigo dress instead, and would it have killed me to put on some makeup?

Vlad's lips twitched. It occurred to me that during my admiring evaluation, I'd forgotten to keep blasting a song in my mind. I remedied my mistake, but the lyrics to ’’Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’’ seemed too close to home at the mo-ment.

’’Culture Club?’’ Now his mouth curled downward. ’’And you accuse me of practicing cruel and unusual punishment.’’

’’That's not funny,’’ I muttered, letting a swath of black hair fall over the scarred part of my face. It was more habit than self-consciousness, but when his gaze followed the movement, his mocking frown vanished.

’’Every part of you is beautiful, Leila. One day, you'll come to believe that.’’

I looked away, cursing the tightening in my chest at the words and his low, resonant tone. Compliments didn't change what he'd done. That was what I really had to focus on.

Again, I'd stopped masking my thoughts, but Vlad didn't comment. He pulled out a long, flat box from inside his coat.

’’For you.’’

I stared at it without reaching out. It looked like a jewelry box, and from its size, something big was inside. Was he one of those men who thought any awful deed could be overlooked if he forked over something sparkly?

My chin rose. ’’If I accept this, then it'll feel like I'm saying everything is okay between us, and it isn't. I shouldn't have hit you, so I'm wrong, too, but jewelry won't change . . . oh!’’

Vlad had flipped open the box during my speech. What it contained made me wish I could stuff back my words with a pitchfork. Inside was a pair of long black gloves, one slightly thicker than the other. I touched them, blinking in amazement. Specialized rubber from the feel of it, but the outside looked like leather, and they were no bigger than normal gloves.

’’The material is thin, but I'm assured that the gloves can repel up to twelve thousand volts,’’ Vlad stated. The faintest hint of wickedness colored his tone as he went on. ’’They don't, however, sparkle.’’

Somebody, please kill me now.


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