It's been storming for three days straight when he finally returns from a meeting with the leader of the Big Bend huddle. Two of his seconds are already inside his home, waiting for him with wary expressions.
"The Vampyre woman-she backed out."
He grunts as he wipes his face. Smart of her, he thinks.
"But they found a replacement," Cal adds, sliding a manila folder on the counter. "Everything's in here. They want to know if she has your approval."
"We proceed as planned."
Cal huffs out a laugh. Flor frowns. "Don't you want to look at the-"
"No. This changes nothing."
They're all the same, anyway.
Six weeks before the ceremony
She shows up at the start-up where I work on an early Thursday evening, when the sun has already set and the entire bullpen is contemplating grievous bodily harm.
I doubt I deserve this level of hatred, but I do understand it. And that's why I don't make a fuss when I return to my desk following a brief meeting with my manager and notice the state of my stapler. Honestly, it's fine. I work from home 90 percent of the time and rarely print anything. Who cares if someone smeared bird shit on it?
"Don't take it personally, Missy." Pierce leans against our cubicle divider. His smile is less concerned friend, more smarmy used car salesman; even his blood smells oily.
"I won't." Other people's approval is a powerful drug. Lucky me, I never got the chance to develop an addiction. If there's something I'm good at, it's rationalizing my peers' contempt toward me. I've been training like piano prodigies: tirelessly and since early childhood.
"No need to sweat it."
"I'm not." Literally. I barely own the necessary glands.
"And don't listen to Walker. He didn't say what you think he did."
Pretty sure it was "nasty bitch" and not "tasty peach" that he yelled across the conference room, but who knows?
"It comes with the territory. You'd be mad, too, if someone did a penetration test against a firewall you've been working on for weeks and breached it in what, one hour?"
It was maybe a third of that, even counting the break I took in the middle after realizing how quickly I was blowing through the system. I spent it online shopping for a new hamper, since Serena's damn cat seems to be asleep in my old one whenever I need to do laundry. I texted her a picture of the receipt, followed by You and your cat owe me sixteen dollars. Then I sat and waited for a reply, like I always do.
It didn't come. Nor had I expected it would.
"People will get over it," he Pierces on. "And hey, you never bring lunch, so no need to worry someone'll spit in your Tupperware." He bursts into laughter. I turn to my computer monitor, hoping he'll peace out. Boy, am I wrong. "And to be honest, it's kind of on you. If you tried to mingle more . . . Personally, I get your loner, mysterious, quiet vibe. But some read you as aloof, like you think you're better than us. If you made an effort to-"
When I hear my name called-the real one-for a split, exceptionally dumb second, I experience relief that this conversation is going to be over. Then I crane my neck and notice the woman standing on the other side of the divider. Her face is distantly familiar, and so is the black hair, but it's not until I focus on her heartbeat that I manage to place her. It's slow like only a Vampyre's can be, and . . .
"You're hard to find," she tells me, voice melodic and low. I briefly contemplate slamming my head against the keyboard. Then settle for replying calmly:
"That's by design."
I massage my temple. What a day. What a fucking day. "And yet, here you are."
"And yet, here I am."
"Why, hello." Pierce's smile gets a notch slimier as he turns to leer at Vania. His eyes start at her high heels, travel up the straight lines of her dark pantsuit, stop on her full breasts. I don't read minds, but he's thinking MILF so hard, I can practically hear it. "Are you a friend of Missy's?"
"You could say that, yes. Since she was a child."
"Oh my God. Do tell, how was baby Missy?"
The corner of Vania's lips twitches. "She was . . . odd, and difficult. If often useful."
"Wait-are you two related?"
"No. I'm her father's Right Hand, Head of his Guard," she says, looking at me. "And she has been summoned."
I straighten in my chair. "Where?"
This is not rare-it's unprecedented. Excluding sporadic phone calls and even more sporadic meetings with Owen, I haven't spoken with another Vampyre in years. Because no one has reached out.
I should tell Vania to fuck off. I'm no longer a child stuck on a fool's errand: going back to my father with any expectations that he and the rest of my people won't be total assholes is an exercise in futility, and I'm well aware of it. But apparently this half-assed overture is making me forget, because I hear myself asking, "Why?"
"You'll have to come and find out." Vania's smile doesn't reach her eyes. I squint, like the answer is tattooed on her face. Meanwhile, Pierce reminds us of his unfortunate existence.
"Ladies. Right hand? Summon?" He laughs, loud and grating. I still want to flick his forehead and make him hurt, but I'm starting to feel a frisson of worry for this fool. "Are you guys into LARPing or . . ."
He finally shuts up. Because when Vania turns to him, no trick of the light could hide the purple hue of her eyes. Nor her long, perfectly white fangs, gleaming under the electric lights.
"Y-you . . ." Pierce looks between us for several seconds, muttering something incoherent.
And that's when Vania decides to ruin my life and snap her teeth at him.
I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose.
Pierce spins on his heels and sprints past my cubicle, running over a potted benjamin fig. "Vampyre! Vampyre-there's a- A Vampyre is attacking us, someone call the Bureau, someone call the-"
Vania takes out a laminated card with the Human-Vampyre Relations Bureau logo, one that grants her diplomatic immunity in Human territory. But there's no one to look at it: the bullpen has erupted into a small panic, and most of my coworkers are screaming, already halfway down the emergency stairs. People trample each other to get to the nearest exit. I see Walker dart out of the bathroom, a strip of toilet paper dangling from his khakis, and feel my shoulders slump.
"I liked this job," I tell Vania, grabbing the framed Polaroid of me and Serena and resignedly stuffing it into my bag. "It was easy. They bought my circadian rhythm disorder excuse and let me come in at night."
"My apologies," she says. Unapologetic. "Come with me."
I should tell her to fuck off, and I will. In the meantime, I give in to my curiosity and follow her, straightening the poor benjamin fig on my way out.
The Nest is still the tallest building in the north of The City, and perhaps the most distinctive: a bloodred podium that stretches underground for hundreds of feet, topped by a mirror skyscraper that comes alive around sunset and slides back to sleep in the early hours of the morning.
I brought Serena here once, when she asked to see what the heart of the Vampyre territory was like, and she stared open-mouthed, jarred by the sleek lines and ultramodern design. She'd been expecting candelabras, and heavy velvet drapes to block the murderous sun, and the corpses of our enemies hanging from the ceiling, blood milked from their veins to the very last drop. Bat artwork, in honor of our winged, chiropterous forefathers. Coffins, just because.
"It's nice. I just thought it'd be more . . . metal?" she mused, not at all intimidated at the idea of being the only Human in an elevator full of Vampyres. The memory still makes me smile years later.
Flexible spaces, automated systems, integrated tools-that's what the Nest is. Not just the crown jewel of our territory, but also the center of our community. A place for shops and offices and errands, where anything one of us could need, from nonurgent healthcare to a zoning permit to five liters of AB positive, can be easily obtained. And then, in the uppermost floors, the builders made room for some private quarters, some of which have been purchased by the most influential families in our society.
Mostly my family.
"Follow me," Vania says when the doors swish open, and I do, flanked by two uniformed council guards who are most definitely not here to protect me. A bit offensive, that I'm being treated like an intruder in the place where I was born, especially as we walk parallel to a wall that's plastered with portraits of my ancestors. They morph over the centuries, from oils to acrylics to photographs, gray to Kodachrome to digital. What stays the same are the expressions: distant, arrogant, and frankly, unhappy. Not a healthy thing, power.
The only Lark I recognize from personal experience is the one closest to Father's office. My grandfather was already old and a little demented by the time Owen and I were born, and my most vivid memory of him is from that one time I woke up in the middle of the night to find him in my bedroom, pointing at me with trembling hands and yelling in the Tongue, something about me being destined for a grisly death.
In fairness, he wasn't wrong.
"In here," Vania says with a soft knock to the door. "The councilman is waiting for you."
I scan her face. Vampyres are not immortal; we grow old the same as every other species, but . . . damn. She looks like she hasn't aged a day since she escorted me to the Collateral exchange ceremony. Seventeen years ago.
"Is there something you need?"
"No." I turn and reach for the doorknob. Hesitate. "Is he sick?"
Vania seems amused. "You think he'd call you here for that?"
I shrug. I can't think of a single other reason he'd want to see me.
"For what? To commiserate? Or find solace in your filial affection? You have been among the Humans far too long."
"I was thinking more along the lines of him needing a kidney."
"We are Vampyres, Misery. We act for the good of the most, or not at all."
She's gone before I can roll my eyes, or serve her that "fuck off" I've been meaning to. I sigh, glance at the stone-faced guards she left behind, and then walk into my father's office.
The first things I notice are the two walls of windows, which is exactly what Father wants. Every Human I've talked with assumes that Vampyres hate light and relish darkness, but they couldn't be more wrong. The sun may be forbidden to us, toxic always and deathly in large quantities, but that's precisely why we covet it with such intensity. Windows are a luxury, because they need to be treated with absurdly expensive materials that filter everything that might harm us. And windows this large are the most bombastic of status symbols, in a full display of dynastic power and obscene wealth. And beyond them . . .
The river that slices The City into North and South-us, and them. Only a few hundred feet separate the Nest from Were territory, but the riverbank is littered with outlook towers, checkpoints, and guard posts, heavily monitored twenty-four seven. A single bridge exists, but access to it is closely surveilled in both directions, and as far as I know, no vehicle has traveled across it since well before I was born. Past that, there are a few Were security areas, and the deep green of an oak forest that stretches south for miles.
I always thought it smart of them not to build civilian settlements next to one of the most sanguinary borders in the Southwest. When Owen and I were children, before I was sent away, Father walked in on us wondering why the Vampyre headquarters had been placed so close to our most lethal enemies. "To remember," he explained. "And to remind."
I don't know. Twenty years later, it still seems pretty fucked up to me.
"Misery." Father finishes tapping at the touch screen monitor and stands from his luxury mahogany desk, unsmiling but not cold. "It's good to see you here again."
"It sure is something." The past few years have been kind to Henry Lark. I examine his tall frame, triangular face, and wide-set eyes, and I'm reminded of how much I take after him. His blond hair is a little grayer, but still perfectly slicked back. I've never seen it anything but-never seen Father less than impeccably put together. Tonight the sleeves of his white button-down may be rolled back, but meticulously so. If they're meant to trick me into thinking that this is a casual meeting, they've failed.
And that's why, when he points at the leather chair in front of his desk and says, "Sit," I decide to lean back against the door.
"Vania says you're not dying." I'm aiming for rude. Unfortunately, I think I just sound curious.
"I trust that you're healthy, too." He smiles faintly. "How have the last seven years treated you?"
There is a beautiful vintage clock behind his head. I watch it tick eight seconds before saying, "Just peachy."
"Yes?" He gives me a once-over. "You'd better remove them, Misery. Someone might mistake you for a Human."
He's referring to my brown contacts. Which I considered taking out in the car, before deciding not to bother. The problem is, there are many other signs that I've been living among the Humans, most not so quickly reversible. The fangs I shave to dull points every week, for instance, are unlikely to escape his notice. "I was at work."
"Ah, yes. Vania mentioned you have a job. Something with computers, knowing you?"
"Something like that."
He nods. "And how is your little friend? Once again safe and sound, I trust."
I stiffen. "How do you know she-"
"Oh, Misery. You didn't really think that your communications with Owen went unmonitored, did you?"
I clench my fists behind my back and seriously debate slamming the door behind me and returning home. But there must be a reason he brought me here, and I need to know it. So I take my phone out of my pocket, and once I'm sitting across from Father, I lay it face up on his desk.
Copyright © 2024 by Ali Hazelwood. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.