I propped my elbows on the balcony rail that hung over the Death’s Angel dance floor. Below me, industrial music pounded against scantily-clad bodies contorting to the beat. A man in a wolf mask and tight pleather pants ground against a girl wearing a tattered red cloak and strategically placed electrical tape. A zombie in more chains than clothes shambled past the couple, headed for a coven of dominatrix witches. Fictional characters and sexualized movie monsters milled everywhere. What most of the clubbers didn’t realize was that among the costumed masses were real monsters—and I was one of them.
I glanced at the man beside me. Well, not a man exactly, more like vampire. Nathanial leaned against the wooden balcony rail, his back to the club and dancers. A white opera mask covered half his face, but unlike the famous mask of the fictional phantom, the thin porcelain didn’t cover deformity or ugliness—far from it. Nathanial’s features were as sharp and perfect as if they’d been carved by an artist. They were also currently set in an expression of annoyed arrogance that was as fake as the mask. He’d held that exact expression since we arrived at the club an hour ago.
“We showed up. We’ve been seen. Can we go now?” I asked, swirling the contents of my untouched Bloody Mary.
My name. Just my name, without any inflection. I took his meaning as ‘No’ or maybe that I already knew the answer. And I did. Tatius, the big bad vampire king of Haven, had summoned us to his little party for a visiting master vamp. So here we were. I balanced the acidic smelling drink on the rail. And here we’ll stay until we’re dismissed.
So far, my introduction into eternity as a vampire sucked—and not just blood. Sighing, I shoved the untouched alcohol aside. The bartender, dressed as, shock of all shocks, a vampire—complete with genuine fangs—retrieved the precariously balanced glass before moving on to a customer whose drinking habits required a lower iron content.
Without the glass, I had nothing to fidget with, and my attention returned to the writhing bodies on the dance floor. So many people. So many hearts racing and crashing below thin skin. So many heartbeats drowning out the blaring music. Pressure built in the roof of my mouth, turning to pain as my fangs descended.
A warm hand landed on my shoulder, and I tore my gaze from the dancers. Nathanial watched me, his fingers sliding from my shoulder, down my arm, to my hand. My knuckles were white where I gripped the balcony rail.
I pried my fingers from the wood. Nathanial’s crystal gray gaze flicked to the movement, then back to my mouth.
“It’s nothing,” I whispered, trying to keep my lips pressed over my fangs as I spoke.
Not that it mattered.
“Perhaps we should mingle.” His expression didn’t change. Not a feature twitched, despite the fact I knew he had no interest in talking to anyone in the balcony crowd.
The balcony was VIP only. Or really, VIV—Very Important Vampire. Some humans were present, as snacks. Thankfully, I hadn’t noticed any public bloodletting. Yet. But, as vamps didn’t trigger my prey instinct, mingling with them was less likely to result in my accidentally eating someone. On the other hand, it also meant I had to talk to the other vamps—which was way more dangerous, in my opinion.
It wasn’t an option I was eager to embrace. “I just need some air.”
The edge of Nathanial’s lips tugged downward. A small motion, barely noticeable. It was his first slip all night—and it wasn’t approval. We disagreed on my eating habits, or more accurately, the fact I was subsisting on only animal blood. He was of the opinion that I needed human blood. I was of the opinion that it was his fault I was on a liquid diet in the first place, and he better put up with my sustenance of choice. I sighed, blowing a lock of my tri-colored hair out of my face and intentionally misinterpreting his look.
“I know, I know. Vampire. I don’t need to breathe,” I whispered in an exaggerated huff. “But I can’t change twenty-four years of expressions just because I recently woke up slightly less than alive.”
Nathanial shook his head, but a smile touched the edge of his mouth. “Walk with me.”
His fingers slid through mine and tugged me from the balcony rail. Reluctantly, I followed him into the crowd of vampires.
The costumes on this level were more diverse than those on the dance floor below. True masquerade outfits, elegant dresses, velvet top coats, and jewel-encrusted masks made the balcony crowd colorful. But for every Victorian dress or harlequin was a vampire wearing only leather straps across strategic body parts. I couldn’t recognize the native Haven vamps by sight, but considering my previous experience with the local vamps, and the fact Death’s Angel was operated by them, I suspected the visitors weren’t the ones in bondage gear.
Nathanial conformed to neither group. His porcelain mask was plain, unadorned, and his black hair hung in a long ponytail trailing down the center of his back, blending with the lush fabric of his opera coat. His costume defined elegance in simple stark black and white.
In contrast, my costume was garishly bright. Black and orange tiger stripes decorated my skin-tight unitard. Faux fur rimmed my white gloves and fuzzy white boots. A striped mask completed the outfit. My mess of calico locks—my hair’s natural color and a reminder of what I had been until a couple weeks ago—almost matched the costume. Almost. Nathanial had asked me if I could be anything, what I would be.
I glared at the stripes. Tiger stripes. Like my father’s. Me and my big mouth.
“Hermit, it has been a long time,” a male voice said. I cringed. Only vamps called Nathanial ‘Hermit.’ Nathanial turned toward the voice, moving me with him, and Ilooked up, and then up some more. The speaker towered over us, and while I was on the short side, Nathanial wasn’t. The man wore a fitted crushed velvet maroon frock coat I could have used as a dress. Falls of lace escaped from his cuffs and collar, and a gold mask set with rubies obscured wide features. He was so massive, it took me a moment to notice the small woman at his side. She was his exact opposite. Where he was all blunt edges she was sharp, petite. She was my height, but beside him she looked like a fragile doll in her frilled dress and silver mask.
“Three hundred years, I believe, Traveler,” Nathanial said, his voice polite but disinterested.
“At least.” The giant’s gaze moved from Nathanial to me and then back. “A lot has changed in that time.”
I groaned silently—or perhaps not all that silently, as all eyes moved to me. Oops. Still, I didn’t want to listen as they hashed out three hundred years of vampire history as small talk. I glanced around. There was an empty spot on a couch in the far corner of the balcony. “I think I’ll just . . . ” I pointed at the couch. Nathanial’s eyes frowned at me. Not his mouth, or his expression,
I’d just come to know those eyes, to know him, well enough over the last few weeks to see the fact he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“It’s just right there,” I said, backing away as I spoke.
He didn’t stop me, so I turned tail, all but running for the sanctuary of the couch.
Most of the seating on the balcony was filled—vamps tended to sprawl, but the couch I claimed had only one other person sitting rigidly at the other end. She wore a simple, black–and-white, harlequin jumper with an elaborate, full-faced mask, a large feathered hat, and brown curls that looked so synthetic they had to be a wig.
She didn’t move as I collapsed onto the far cushion, and I let out a relieved breath. At least I won’t be expected to socialize. I refilled my lungs—the habits of the living die hard—and that was a mistake.
The cloying scent of blood rolled over my tongue, caught in the back of my throat, filled my senses. The scent was cold, bitter, not all that appetizing, but it was very close and thus, tempting. Oh, so close. My fangs burst free in a flash of hunger, and I slid across the cushion without consciously deciding to move.
The woman didn’t react or look up as I sidled up next to her. There was something off about the scent of her blood. But that didn’t matter. Not right now. All that mattered was the smell of it.
My fingers brushed her shoulder. The mask tumbled forward. The hat and wig followed, the wig's synthetic curls flying.
I jumped to my feet. Above the frill of her collar was a stubby, raw neck. No head.
A fake mannequin head plunked against the floor. Rolled. It stopped finally, settling three feet from the couch. I backed away, aware of the heavy silence suddenly coalescing on the balcony. Industrial music still pounded below me, but the vampires had gone deadly still.
A large hand closed around my arm. The grip tight. Painful.
“What did you do?” A rough voice whispered the question behind my ear.
“I, uh . . . ” I gulped and made a wild, floundering motion from the head to the body. “Her head just fell off?”
A woman in a gold-trimmed gown stepped forward and knelt to study the fake head. Un-seeing glass eyes stared out of it. As if all tied to one string, every vampire in the room shifted their gaze from the head, to me, and then to the body, which was still perched primly on the couch. Her hands were in her lap, one gripping a glass balanced on her thigh, but she was definitely not a mannequin. The smell of blood aside, I could see the white of her exposed spine among the pinker flesh of her throat.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded the woman in the gold trimmed gown. “Where is her head?”
I thought, at first, that the woman was asking me. As if I had any idea. Then I realized her glare went over my shoulder, to the man still gripping my arm. I glanced back, but didn’t recognize the vamp holding me. Based on the leather pants loaded with silver studded straps, and the electric blue hair that fell to his chin in jagged tapered tips, I guessed he was one of the local vamps. Then I noticed his eyes: green and old, with a gaze that landed like a physical weight on my skin.
I swallowed hard. Oh crap, a decapitated body and the attention of the king of Haven. Did I know how to break up a party or what?