Temple Of The Heart

Temple Of The Heart: Legends Of A Dark Empire

In Atlantis, vampire Niko is  despised. When he pulls priestess Laila from a fire, he breaks so many taboos they must flee those who won’t tolerate contact between his kind & hers. Laila can’t resist Niko’s dark charisma and will risk any danger to be with him. But there is more to the Atlantean pursuit than fear of blood drinkers. A powerful enemy wants Laila dead & will destroy any who aid her.

TEMPLE OF THE HEART

By Tori Minard

Copyright © by Tori Minard 2011

Cover image by Tori Minard

 

This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author.

 

Chapter 1

 

The most sacred rule in the Temple of Desou was this: no priestess should look upon the world outside or be seen by any man. She belonged to the god, reserved for his pleasure alone. Laila planned to break that rule.

The dormitory was quiet, although many of the priestesses were still awake. Evening offerings were being made in the outer court, where the public came to honor the god. When all the offerings had been laid on the altar and the people had gone home to their families, the night priestesses would emerge to collect what had been left.

In the room Laila shared with her childhood friend Malina and several other women, the only sound was the call of a nightingale in the courtyard, and the shushing of Malina’s fingers as she undid the braids in Laila’s ankle-length hair. They were relaxing alone after the evening dance ritual they had performed.

“I want to do something exciting tonight,” Laila said.

“We have the dark moon ritual tomorrow. Isn’t that excitement enough?”

She scoffed. “Dark moon comes every month.”

Malina unwrapped the tie on the next braid. “What is it you want, then?”

“To see the people. Let’s sneak up to the attic and watch them make the offerings.”

Her hand stilled. “You can’t do that.”

“Why not? No-one will know.”

“It’s forbidden, that’s why not.” Malina resumed unbraiding with so much vigor that she pulled Laila’s hair. “Do you have any idea what they would do to you if you were discovered?”

“Don’t you think it would be worth a whipping to see that just once?”

“No.”

Laila reached up to catch her friend by the wrist. “You used to sneak to the outside windows with me all the time. You were the one who showed me how to climb the tree in the courtyard. What’s happened to you?”

“I’m not a little girl anymore, and neither are you.”

“Well, I want to go. Will you come with me?” She twisted around to look at Malina.

“I won’t report you, but I won’t go with you either.” Malina looked afraid. When they were children, Laila had never seen that expression on her face. She sighed. Adventures were always more fun with a friend along, but she wasn’t going to let Malina’s timidity stop her.

“Alright, I’ll go by myself.”

She stood and arranged her skirts. The way to the outside windows overlooking the outer court involved sneaking through a servants’ passage and a dusty attic. She ought to remove her dancing clothes before she left, but that would take too long and might cause her to miss the show.

Laila padded to a door in the back of their bedchamber, which led to a small prayer room. At the door, she paused and looked at her friend.

“Are you sure?”

Malina nodded silently. Laila opened the door, crossed the prayer room to a second door which opened on a service passage. If all went well, no-one would be here at this hour. She couldn’t be caught or they would punish her, and in spite of her brave words to Malina, Laila didn’t want to be whipped.

There were no lights in the servants’ corridor. The air was hot and still. She entered and turned left, toward the back stairs.

Climbing up the stairs made sweat pool under her arms and drip from her forehead. As she emerged in the attic, she wiped moisture from her temples and tried to catch her breath. She ought to have changed her clothes after all – her costume was drenched with perspiration.

But at least no-one had seen her.

Enough lamplight from the streets filtered through the vents to illumine the crowded space. The high priestess’ library lay directly under her, so she must be exquisitely careful to make no sound.

Laila wended her way on silent feet around piles of old votive figures, broken furniture, and trunks filled with the ceremonial garb of priestesses long dead. The things up here had always given her an odd feeling, as if the previous owners of the objects might be watching her.

She bumped into a carved and painted screen with figures of the god and his many wives. The piece fell on its side with a crash that echoed off the bare walls and sent up a cloud of dust. Laila froze with a gasp, heart pounding. Surely someone downstairs had heard that.

But no-one came to investigate, and after a few minutes of waiting, she pressed forward again. The excitement combined with the punishing heat to make her lightheaded, even dizzy, and she had to support herself with a hand against the wall.

She had almost reached the vent that overlooked the outer court. Outside, people chanted. Some of the voices were high, female and familiar, yet some were deep and strange. Masculine.

The last time she’d looked out that vent, no-one had been in the outer court. It had been mid-morning; she’d been ten years old, with a nurse to guard her and the other young girls at night. She and Malina had never been able to get away from their sharp-eyed guard after dark when the people came to the temple.

“Bring the offerings forth!” a deep voice shouted over the chanting. It must be a male voice. The sound came from a vent to her left. That direction must be the front of the temple, where a portico separated the outer court from the street.

Laila dropped to her knees in front of the vent. Her heart raced again. She was about to view at least one man. Would she be able to distinguish them from the women at this distance? She wasn’t sure what men looked like.

She leaned forward, hands on the wall on either side of the vent. Something delicate and faintly sticky brushed across her face. It stuck to her hands when she pulled them away. Spiderweb.

With a muffled shriek, Laila batted at her hair. Ugh! Please don’t let there be a spider on me. She brushed her hands on her skirt, shuddering. Disgusting things. Spiders hadn’t been on her mind when she’d decided to come up here.

What if they’re poisonous? There could be more around here. They could be crawling up my dress and I wouldn’t know it.

She ought to forget her plan, go downstairs and remove every stitch of clothing. Ask Malina to brush her hair and make sure there weren’t any nasty creatures hiding in it. But then she’d lose her opportunity to see the offering. Another might not come along for years.

“I’m not giving up just because of a spider.”

Gritting her teeth, she leaned forward again and peered through the lattice-work that covered the vent. At least five lamps on stands as tall as she was cast golden light across the street and the people who waited for access to the temple. Many of those people wore trousers and were taller than most of the women she knew.

She’d never actually seen a man until now, and the vent cover was blocking her view. There might never again come a chance to see the outside world, and the line of people was already moving into the outer court. Laila pressed her nose to the vent, ignoring the spiderwebs that coated it.

With a creak, the poorly maintained lattice-work tipped out toward the street. Oh, no. If someone were to look up and notice the cock-eyed vent cover, they might come up to the attic to fix it. And if they did, they would find her tracks in the thick dust that lay all over the floor. Laila reached out to pull in the cover and knocked it out of the opening completely.

She stared with wide eyes and open mouth at the hole in the wall. The latticework hit some hibiscus bushes with a rustle she could hear even though they were four stories below her. Surely everyone in the street had seen what she had done.

Laila peeked out, trying to keep herself behind the solid part of the wall. Outsiders must not see her face. All the people stared ahead toward the place of offering, as if they were oblivious to her. She moved closer to the opening.

Wait. Someone was looking right at the hole in the wall. The person was tall with longish black hair and a shadow along the jawline that might be the beginnings of a beard. A man? He stared intently up toward the open vent. He could see her and yet she didn’t move. She couldn’t move.

His brows were as black as his hair. He had high, strong cheekbones, a sharp jaw and a straight nose. His lips were as beautifully shaped as those of the prettiest woman in the temple, yet he did not have a woman’s face. He looked… different. Rougher, somehow.

Deep inside of her body, she began to ache. Her belly filled with the most peculiar sensation of tingling and warmth as she looked at him. She must be getting sick. The intelligent thing to do would be to leave the attic and go to bed, but Laila wanted to stay. She wanted to continue gazing at him.

“You there!” shouted the guard.

The black-haired man turned his head toward him with arrogant carelessness.

“Your kind isn’t allowed in the temple. You’ll have to leave.”

“My money isn’t good enough for you?” Black-hair said. His voice had a mocking quality, as if he’d expected a cold reception.

The guard put his hand on his sword hilt. “Atlantean law states that vampires are not allowed on sacred ground. Sir.”

Vampire? Laila stuck her face as far out the opening as she dared. If only she were at ground level and could get a better look at him. Seeing a vampire was even better than seeing an ordinary man.

The vampire shrugged. “Have it your way, then.” He turned and shouldered his way through the remaining crowd of devotees. At the edge of the crush, he stopped and looked up at her. She wanted to touch him. Just once. But he was too far away, and they would never meet in truth.

Laila left the attic and crept downstairs to her room. Her eyes were heavy, her whole body aching from the effort of her earlier dance performance. She sat down on her mattress.

Malina snored in her bed. Laila needed to remove her costume and wash the paint from her face before she went to sleep. But she was exhausted. She stretched out and stared at the painted beams of the ceiling. Just a few minutes of rest – then she’d get up and change her clothes.

Just a few minutes of rest. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.

When Laila regained consciousness, she couldn’t breathe. She was caught in the attic, and there were spiderwebs over her mouth, smothering her. The spider hung on a glittering thread above her, screaming at her to wake up, yet no matter how she tried she couldn’t fight her way to the surface.

Finally she wrenched her eyes open. There were no spiderwebs. But the air reeked of smoke, and was even hotter than it had been in the attic. It hurt to breathe.

The Temple must be on fire.

Malina screamed again. It had been Malina all along, yet her dream had turned her roommate into a spider. She sat straight up on her bed, shrieking.

Laila still wore her costume. She’d fallen asleep before she could wash up or take off her dancing clothes. Well, at least when she got outside she’d be dressed.

Although she’d never experienced a fire, she could see this one was catastrophic. Her roommate’s panic was going to make things more difficult, but one way or another they had to leave the Temple. Otherwise, they would die.

Rolling out of bed, she grabbed Malina’s arm and tried to drag her from their bedchamber. Malina stared up at her, eyes white against the soot smudged across her cheeks. She made no attempt to get up, and she was far too heavy for Laila to carry.

“Come along,” Laila said. “We must leave here. I know a safe route.”

“Wait! I remembered.” Malina reached under the mattress of her bed and pulled out a small, dark vial of liquid. “I have some laudanum I saved from when I had that earache. There’s enough for both of us.”

Laila shook her head. “No.”

Malina pulled the stopper off the vial and tipped the contents into her mouth. She grimaced as she swallowed. “May it work quickly.”

“Let’s go.” Laila pointed toward the door of the prayer room.

“No! No, we can’t leave.”

“We have to try.” She tugged on her friend’s arm.

“Are you mad? We can’t go outside.”

“Who will stop us?” Laila gestured around the already smoky room. “All the silly chickens waiting for their turn to be roasted? We haven’t got much time.”

She pulled on Malina’s arm.

Malina shook her head so hard that her hair covered her face like a screen. “I won’t leave. It’s sacrilege. I’m dedicated to the god and I will die here as he has bidden me.”

“You’ll burn! Please, Malina, I beg you to get up. I don’t want to leave you here.”

“You must stay as well. Desou demands it of you. You brought the fire on us with your disobedience.”

Laila’s mouth opened in protest. She hadn’t caused this mess. She would never endanger the priestesshood. All she’d wanted was a glimpse of the outside world.

The roar of the flames was loud in Laila’s ears, louder than it had been moments before. She glanced at the closed door. Black smoke boiled under the gap between the door and the floorboards. The temperature in the room went from the usual steamy Atlantean summer heat to blast-furnace intensity.

“I’m leaving. Will you come with me?”

Malina only shook her head, her lips pinched into a thin white line. A popping noise came from the door, like the sound of wood in a fireplace. Laila ran for the prayer room. Malina might be willing to die. Laila wasn’t.

She closed the door of the tiny chamber behind her. There were no windows and it was utterly black. Somehow she had to find the door into the servants’ hallway. Laila shuffled forward, hand held in front of her, until she came up against the far wall. The door to the service hall that she’d used just this night was here somewhere in the dark.

“Please, O Desou, Lord of my fate, spare me and my temple-sister Malina. Let someone rescue her. Let someone stop the fire before it reaches her.” She prayed under her breath as she ran her hands along the plaster of the wall, searching for the door frame.

Wood under her fingers. There. Cool wood, untouched by fire. Safe. Laila groped for the handle as tears rolled down her face. Where was it? Where was it? She pressed both palms to the carved surface, fumbling across it until she bumped into a curve of metal.

“Thank you. O, Desou, thank you.”

She opened the door and stared into more darkness. The passageway on the other side was unlit, by windows or lamps. But she knew where it led – down to the kitchens and the basements, areas which had windows that opened onto the street.

In the bedchamber, Malina coughed and groaned. Laila looked over her shoulder, even though she could see nothing. Could she really leave her best friend to burn? No, it was impossible.

Her eyes stung from smoke and tears as she fumbled her way back to the bedroom door. Oh, Desou. If she opened it, she might let the fire into her little sanctuary. But she couldn’t give up on Malina.

Laila took a deep breath and opened the door a crack. The heat was worse than standing in front of the sacrificial fires. In the time she’d been gone, thick smoke had filled the room, obscuring nearly everything above the level of her knees. Above her, through the smoke, embers glowed in the ceiling beams.

“Malina!” she yelled. “Come!”

“No.” The raspy voice of her friend came from the floor in front of her feet.

She leaned down to grab the uncooperative woman when a chunk of burning wood fell just feet away from them. Laila clamped her hands, hampered by her long ceremonial fingernails, around Malina’s arms and dragged her back toward the prayer room.

More wood fell, charred and glowing. Malina scrabbled on the floor, trying to pull herself farther into the room by her heels. She’d always been plump, and her extra weight combined with her resistance made it impossible for Laila to get her out of danger.

There was a loud whistling noise in the ceiling, like a demon’s scream. Then a bang. A huge beam crashed down, bringing with it a mound of coals and embers from the room above. The carpets and bedding kindled as the flames raced along the floor toward Malina. Laila heaved, her back giving a howl of protest.

Her hands slipped off Malina’s arms. Everything around her burned. The flames licked Malina’s skirt. Laila sobbed. She grabbed for her friend, but the fire already had her. Another beam fell. And then Malina was gone, disappeared in flames and burning wood.

Laila staggered into the prayer room, shutting the door behind her. Smoke had invaded. She ran into the narrow service passage and shut that door as well. Maybe the two doors would buy her a few extra minutes.

With a hand on the wall, she ran blind. The floor was uneven beneath her feet. Laila stumbled, slamming into the opposite wall. She straightened herself and kept going.

How far was it? Years had passed since she’d been in this end of the corridor. The walls felt warm, but not hot. Not yet. Soon the flames would eat through the door into the prayer room and then into the passage. She had to get out before then.

In her mind’s eye, she saw the fire catch in Malina’s skirt. Why wouldn’t she come? Malina had always been one of the mischievous girls, the ones who tried to climb the garden walls and sneak into the kitchens for a peek out the window at the forbidden public street.

Now she was dead because of a stupid rule that priestesses should never be seen by outsiders. I hope she’s dead. Let her be dead. Don’t let her suffer.

Her foot plunged downward. She snatched at the walls with a shriek and managed to catch herself before she lost her balance to the stairs. Her breath came in rough gasps, her throat raw from breathing smoke.

The stairs led to the kitchens. She felt her way to the first step. A breeze drifted up to her, sweet and cool with evening air. Laila thumped down the staircase, one hand still on the wall for guidance.

At the bottom, she found another door. It was cool to the touch. Laila yanked it open and slammed it behind her. The kitchens were another place forbidden to the priestesses, especially the young ones, because the staff came from the world outside. They were a corrupting influence.

A single oil lamp burned on the work table in the center of the room. The kitchen workers must have already fled, leaving the dinner dishes dirty in the sink.

She pushed the heavy table across the floor to the window and climbed on top of it. A carved wooden screen, simpler than the ones in the priestess’ chambers, covered this window to hide the occupants from people in the street. Laila wrapped her fingers through the piercework and heaved.

The screen wouldn’t budge. She was trapped.

 

Chapter 2

 

Niko saw the fire from a mile away, where he sat by the river eating fried fish and pickled onions wrapped in a thin piece of griddle bread. It wasn’t any of his business if buildings burned in Atlantiri. He was an outsider here, and the Atlanteans never lost an opportunity to remind him of it.

Flames speared up into the night sky over Temple Hill, and smoke rose to hide the stars from his view. That was a tremendous fire. It must have been burning for some time, but he hadn’t noticed it in his rush to get some food.

He’d gone too long without blood. Soon he’d have to drink, whether he wanted to or not. In the meantime, he had a ravenous appetite that overrode most other interests and made it difficult to focus his mind unless he’d just eaten.

He finished his meal and handed the tin plate back to the vendor. An acrid, smoky odor drifted on the evening breeze, blotting out the usual stench of the streets. His stomach churned, slightly queasy in spite of the food.

One of the temples must be on fire. They’d kicked him out of the Temple of Desou earlier in the night, when he’d gone to make offerings. His piercing had given him away, and Atlanteans did not tolerate vampires in their sacred enclosures.

Which temple was burning? There were a great many in Atlantiri, more scattered across the countryside. Maybe it was the one he’d visited. In his mind’s eye, he could still see the girl in the window, her painted face half hidden by long unbound hair. He would be willing to bet that she wasn’t supposed to be peering out of attic windows at the public street, since the priestesses of Desou were completely sequestered.

There had been something about her, about the way she had looked at him, that had made it difficult for him to leave. Even after the guard had ordered him to go. Had she gotten out of the attic? Niko pictured her with her hair on fire and clenched his hands.

He grabbed the arm of an old man passing by. “Which temple is burning?”

The fellow quirked his brows. “Temple of Desou, I believe.”

They’d probably gotten all the priestesses out already. She was safe. She had to be. The priestesses of Desou were among the most holy people in Atlantis.

Then he heard a thin, faraway scream from the Temple, so faint it was probably inaudible to human ears. He couldn’t ignore that.

Niko released the man and broke into a run, keeping to the shadows to avoid drawing attention to himself. Street lamps were sparse except in the best neighborhoods, which this was emphatically not, but he’d rather no-one notice how fast he could move.

He rounded a corner. Flames roared out of the windows of the Temple of Desou, consuming the roof and half the walls. Lines of citizens passed buckets of water to douse the blaze, each bucket like a thimbleful tossed on a bonfire.

Ridiculous. They’d never put it out that way.

“Are there any more buckets?” he said to the last man in one of the lines.

The fellow glanced at him, then did a double-take with wide eyes. “You’re a vampire.”

Niko sighed. “Yes, I’m a vampire. Are there any more buckets?”

“We don’t want help from your kind.”

“Have you rescued the priestesses?”

The man glared at him. “They’re none of your concern. Get out, vampire.”

He turned without another word. If the Atlanteans didn’t want his help, then it wasn’t his problem. Their precious temple could burn to the ground, for all he cared. As long as the girl is safe. Although why he gave a shit about her was more than he could explain.

A shrill scream rose above the growling of the fire. The hair on Niko’s body stood straight up. More shrieks followed. The thimbles of water continued, passing up and down the lines without a pause. There were people trapped inside, and no-one on the bucket brigades seemed to notice.

Niko grabbed a woman’s arm. “There’s someone trapped in there.”

“The priestesses.”

“How many got out?”

She stared at him blankly. “None.”

“What do you mean, none?” he said, his voice rising.

“You’re a vampire.” She shrank away from him.

He wanted to shake her. “Why hasn’t anyone gotten the priestesses out?”

“They’re not allowed out of the temple.”

Niko’s mouth dropped open. They were allowing the women to burn to death inside that temple because of some prissy social custom? He looked up at the conflagration. The acrid stench of burning hair floated to his nostrils, along with bits of ash.

He remembered that smell. His heart went bang-bang-bang in his chest. Sweat broke out all over him, and a thin trail of ice slithered down inside his belly. It was happening again, and people were dying. Because of him.

How could it be your fault? You were never inside the place.

He had to get the priestesses out. By now, the fire had devoured over half the compound and invaded the rest. Whoever was still inside had very little time before escape became impossible.

While he stood gaping at the woman on the fire line, another man came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Vampires aren’t allowed on sacred ground,” he said.

“I just want to help.”

“We don’t want you.”

He pointed at the building. “Women are burning to death in there. Don’t you care? What’s wrong with you people?”

“Get out of the temple district, defiler, or we’ll have the city guard on you.”

Niko threw up his hands. “Fine. Let them burn.”

He spun on his heel and walked away along the right side of the compound. They’re not my people. Why should I care what happens to a flock of cosseted Atlantean priestesses? He’d come here to study at the University, not to rescue ladies in distress. And even at school, he was forced to hide himself away from the other students, listening to lectures in special balconies where he was separated from the decent people.

Atlantis had a law that all vampires had to present themselves for registration upon landing on the island. If they stayed past six months, they were required to have a facial piercing that labeled them for easy identification by any citizen. Niko had received his two years ago, and his life had turned to shit overnight.

This morning, before going to sleep for the day, he’d come to a decision. Leave Atlantis. There was no longer any point in continuing to fight the Atlanteans’ determination to block him at every turn. He couldn’t go home, being what he was, but anyplace had to be better than this.

All of Atlantis could burn, as far as he was concerned.

So why was he turning to the left along the cramped alley that bordered the back of the temple compound? Leave now. Go back to the hostel. Go anywhere. Don’t get involved. But he remembered a little house on fire, the roof caved in, people lost. The temple girl’s face appeared in his mind like a vision. He kept walking.

Halfway down the alley, Niko heard the sound of banging on wood. Sobs. He peered into the shadows along the bottom of the stucco wall and found a basement window with a piercework screen. There were fingers wrapped around the open spaces in the wood. Women’s fingers.

Niko crouched by the window. “Can you hear me in there?”

“Oh, thank Desou! Please help me.”

It was a woman’s voice. Shadows too deep even for his vampire eyes hid her face from him, but he could smell her. Fear, sadness, smoke.

“Get back from the window. I’m going to pull out the screen.”

He heard scuffling as she moved away. Niko stuck his fingertips through the piercework. His fingers were thicker than hers, so it was a little trickier for him to grab it. Niko pinched the wood between his forefingers and thumbs, and gave a sharp tug.

The wood popped off, and he tossed it to the side. He stuck his hand into the opening. The woman clutched at him. She had grotesque fingernails as long as her hands.

“Give me your other hand.”

She reached both hands through the opening. The nails, painted or dyed an orangey-red color, scraped against his skin. Some bizarre Atlantean idea of beauty, no doubt.

He pulled her out by her arms and set her on her feet. She wore a full-skirted dress of pink silk embroidered in silver and gold and spangled with beads, with matching beaded fringe around the sleeve edges. Dark hair tumbled loose almost to her ankles. There was something familiar about her.

Her face was a smudge of black, and more soot marred the fabric of her dress and hid the true color of her long, loose hair. Under the soot, she wore the kind of exaggerated make-up he’d seen in Atlantean plays and operas. Her dark eyes were rimmed with thick lines of kohl, the lids painted blue, yellow and white; her cheeks were pink and her mouth a bright carmine bud.

She was like an exotic, if bedraggled, bird with her face paint and fancy skirts. Or maybe a tropical flower – something precious and rare that he yearned to shelter. He gave himself a mental shake. Have you been in the opium dens again? She’s just a girl in a pretty costume.

The young woman looked up at him, light from the fire playing across her face and giving her hair a reddish halo. Her eyes went round as saucers as her mouth slowly opened. Here came the part where she reviled him for being a vampire. He pressed his lips together.

“It’s you,” she whispered hoarsely.

Niko blinked. “You were the girl in the window?”

“Yes. You saw me.” She looked and sounded dazed.

“Was anyone with you? Can we get anyone else out?”

“No. I don’t know. They wouldn’t come. I was the only one.”

“What?” Niko glanced at the burning temple. “You mean they had a chance to get out and they wouldn’t take it?”

“They wouldn’t leave. Why wouldn’t they leave?” She stared at him as if begging him to explain.

“We’re too close to the wall. It’s not safe to stand here.”

“I have to get them out.”

Serpent tongues of fire already played around the upper windows of the building. It was too late for rescue, especially if the priestesses didn’t want to cooperate.

“You can’t go back in there. It’s not safe.” Niko extended his hand. “Come. You need a doctor.”

“No doctor.” She took a backward step. “I shouldn’t be here.”

He reached for her and caught her hand in a movement too fast for her human eyes to follow. She jumped at the contact, her eyes going round again as she stared at him. With a shake of her arm, she tried to escape from his grip, but he was too strong for her.

“Do not touch me.”

“I’m trying to help you, for pity’s sake. You’ve got black marks all over you, you’re probably burned and who knows what other injuries you’ve got.”

Someone approached them from the main street. Niko couldn’t see the person, but his ears told him it was a man, tall and heavy-set. Perfect. He could leave the bird with this newcomer and be on his way.

“You don’t understand,” the woman said. “I must – I must hide. It’s forbidden for priestesses to leave the temple grounds. If they see me like this, they’ll… . “

Her voice trailed off as she looked past his shoulder at the man behind him. Her chin came up, her shoulders pulled back, her jaw tightened as if she expected a fight. Niko turned. The man was the same fellow who’d rejected his offer of help with the fire.

“What is going on here?” the man said in a belligerent tone. “I told you to leave.”

Niko shrugged. “It’s a public street, friend. I have as much right to walk here as the next man.”

Behind them came a new and ugly roar of fire. The three of them turned to see flames shooting out of nearly all the windows on that side of the temple. Including the window through which he’d rescued the priestess. She would have been incinerated if he hadn’t come along when he had.

The interloper’s gaze shifted from Niko to the priestess. His eyes narrowed. “You are a priestess. How did you come to be on the street?”

“I pulled her from the fire,” Niko said.

The man glowered at him, clenching his meaty hands into fists and sticking his chin out like a fighting dog. “You are a defiler,” he said, circling Niko and the woman. The fellow was either unusually courageous or very stupid to pick a fight with a vampire. Then again, Niko had no intention of fighting.

The Atlantean grabbed the woman’s arm as he came around her left side. He dragged her with him in the direction he’d come, as the priestess stumbled behind him. Her face was blank now, as if she’d gone somewhere deep inside herself to hide. She looked like she was in shock.

At least he’d gotten her out. She wasn’t going to burn to death, and now she was no longer his problem. Niko watched them for a moment.

“A defiled priestess must be purified,” the man muttered.

Purified. He caught up with them. “What are you going to do to her?”

“She’ll be whipped in expiation for whatever the priestesses did to cause the god to burn down the temple.” The Atlantean never looked at Niko as he spoke, keeping his eyes fixed on the pavement ahead of him

Shit. He couldn’t leave her like that.

He struck the man’s forearm, and the fellow dropped her with a shout of pain. Niko swept her into his arms. She gave a little cry of shock.

“No!” she said, slapping his arm.

Niko ran back down the alley, away from the bucket brigade and the pious Atlantean. He wasn’t going to let her stay and be whipped.

The man shouted for help. Niko stopped at the end of the alley and looked up at the building which bordered one side. It was three stories tall, with a parapet at the top. He bent his knees and leapt upward. The girl gasped, flinging her arms around his neck.

The roof of the building was unoccupied. He ran across it and made another leap to the next building, and then the next. The priestess buried her face in his shoulder, saying nothing, making no sound that might give them away.

Niko brought the girl back to his rooms and set her on the bed. She smelled strongly of terror and pain, emotions that aroused his hunger for blood. Sweat beaded on her forehead and her breath came in rapid little pants. The pale, set expression of her face never changed. It was as if she didn’t know or care where she was.

Niko swallowed with difficulty. He’d just eaten, so the blood hunger ought to be manageable. Now all he had to do was find out where her family was, and he could pass her off to someone who could be responsible for her. As long as he could control his appetite, everything should be fine.

The priestess made a low moaning sound, clutching herself around the middle as if for comfort. She had a tear in the hem of her dress, the fringe on her sleeves was coming undone and one of her curled-toe slippers was missing.

The horror of the fire must have stunned her. That was why she was having such a muted reaction. Yet, she was courageous. She hadn’t screamed or panicked, even though he was a vampire and had jumped to the roofs with her. Niko ran his fingers lightly across the crown of her head.

None of the other priestesses had even tried to escape the fire. His lovely bird was strong. A fighter.

He lifted her chin so that she looked at him. Her eyes were deep brown, with tiny flecks of gold and green. Thick black lashes and dark eyebrows showed through the soot that covered her face, in addition to three angry-looking red burns.

“What is your name?” he said.

She blinked. “Laila.”

“Laila. I’m called Niko.”

With a shudder, the woman shrank from him. “You’re a vampire.”

He was a hungry vampire, one who hadn’t drunk for almost two weeks. He could see the pulse in her throat, just beneath her pale, delicate skin, and he leaned forward, wishing he could taste it. Imagining the hot, coppery-sweet liquid flowing into his mouth.

Gods, what was wrong with him? He couldn’t take advantage of her in this vulnerable state. She was weak, confused, and afraid. Niko forced himself to concentrate. He never allowed the blood lust to control him, and he wasn’t going to surrender to it now.

“I’m not going to drink your blood. I just need to know if you’re hurt.”

Laila shook her head. She coughed. “I am well.”

Then she coughed again and couldn’t seem to stop. Her face was screwed up in pain as she bent over at the waist, clutching her middle again as if to hold in the coughing. He took the water cup from his table and held it to her lips until she drank. She had tears in her eyes.

Niko pulled up a chair and sat down in front of her. He picked up her hands, trying not to think of the pleasure of touching her. They were cold. Her right had two broken nails and her left had one which had pulled back from the cuticle and was bleeding. He turned them over. Her palms were blistered in several places.

“You’re not well. You’ve got blisters on your hands and face, your lungs are probably damaged, and I think you’re in shock.”

Laila didn’t respond. She stared at her lap. “I can’t stay here.”

“Alright. Where do you want me to take you? Do you have family?”

“No.”

Under the fear, her scent was warm, full of life; it made his mouth water. He frowned, cleared his throat. “Not one single relative?”

“I don’t know. They brought me to the temple when I was one year old,” she said tonelessly.

“Then where did you plan to go once you were out of the fire?”

She lifted her shoulders, and then hissed as if the movement was painful. “I hadn’t thought that far.”

Perfect. He was about to leave Atlantis, and now he was saddled with a useless priestess who probably didn’t even know how to dress herself. This was what he got when he made the mistake of caring, of involving himself in other people’s affairs.

He ran his fingers through his hair. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Malina is dead,” she whispered.

“What?”

“She’s dead. I tried to get her to leave, but she wouldn’t. She wanted to stay there.” Laila stared at nothing as she spoke. “I saw her dress catch fire. And I let go of her. I let her burn so I could save myself.”

“It’s not your fault,” he said reflexively. “You couldn’t force her to come with you.”

“I should have.”

She obviously wasn’t in a rational state of mind. He had no place to take her, and he certainly couldn’t keep her in his rooms for very long before his landlord complained. No, he couldn’t keep her here at all. His tenancy was terminated and he had to be out of the building by the following evening.

He’d forgotten that. The blood lust was only growing worse, from deprivation and from exposure to a mouthwatering female sitting on his bed like an offering. Niko ran his fingers through his hair again. He needed to drink before he lost control with her, and he had to get her well enough to have a real conversation.

There must be some place he could take her where she could recover her emotional equilibrium. Maybe once she was rational he could figure out where she belonged and get her to safety, because she’d never be safe with him. First, though, he must get the hunger under control.

He stroked the back of her hand.

“Laila. I have to go out for a little while.” He made his voice as gentle as possible. “You need to stay here and be very quiet. Can you do that for me?”

Laila nodded.

Niko gave her a long look as he paused in his door. She didn’t look good. He had to take the first victim he found and get back here quickly.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

He ran down the stairs of his apartment building and out onto the street. At this hour, there weren’t many humans still abroad, and the temple fire had probably drawn many of them out of the neighborhood. He needed a busier area.

Niko turned and walked up the hill toward the Blue Mermaid tavern, whose patrons often lingered until the dawn. Even with a fire on Temple Hill, there would always be drinkers at the Blue Mermaid.

A skinny whore with a missing front tooth batted her eyelashes at him as she leaned against the wall next to the tavern door. She reeked of cheap wine and sweat. Niko paused. She’d have to do.

“Looking for a tumble?” she said in a low voice that he guessed was meant to be provocative. She leaned forward a little so that her blouse fell open in front and showed her meager breasts. Either she hadn’t noticed his piercing or she was starving and didn’t care. Probably the latter.

There was a convenient alley right next to the tavern. He smiled at her. “Over here,” he said, tilting his head toward the alley.

“Standing up? I have a room upstairs, much nicer.”

He took her by the arm. “In the alley.”

The whore shrugged. “It’s your money, love.”

Niko led her into the dark. By the gods, how he hated this. For a hundred years he’d been doing this, selecting victims, robbing them of their blood and their memories. He always took their memory of the event, to avoid detection. It was one of the only real vampire powers he’d bothered to cultivate.

The stink of urine and shit filled the shadows of the alley. Even shining Atlantis had seedy streets of run-down apartments populated with desperate and violent people.

He stroked the side of the whore’s neck with gentle fingers, so that she tilted her head to give him better access. Leaning down, he pressed his lips to her skin as if to kiss her. She hadn’t washed in a long time.

His fangs extended. He pushed them through her skin, clasping her to him so that her cry of protest and her struggles would seem sexual to anyone who happened to see. His powers didn’t extend to pain control. When he pulled his teeth from her skin, her blood flowed from the wound and he drank.

She tasted of alcohol and malaria. Disgusting. But the blood was necessary. It satisfied the monster in him, a monster that would never be quieted with fish or bread.

When he was finished, he stroked her neck again, this time willing the puncture wounds to close so she wouldn’t bleed out. He reached into his pouch and retrieved a coin which he pressed into her palm. She closed her fingers around it, staring up at him in a stupor.

“Forget me,” he said. If only he could forget himself.

 ***

 When the vampire returned, Laila began to shake and couldn’t stop. Her hands trembled so badly that she clasped them together, and still they shook. Whatever he wanted, it couldn’t be good. Yes, he’d saved her, but then he’d taken her to this rundown set of rooms. Didn’t that prove his intentions were less than honorable?

She would resist him. No man, human or otherwise, would get anything from Laila. She was a priestess of Desou.

He was so big. At least a head taller than she was, and much broader in the shoulders. In the darkness, his hair looked black and she couldn’t tell the color of his eyes. He probably had fangs. All vampires had fangs, didn’t they?

Maybe it was better that Malina had died, because if she’d accompanied Laila, she would also be in the hands of a vampire.

He sat next to her on the bed. “I told you I wouldn’t bite. You don’t have to be afraid of me.”

“I do not fear you,” she lied, trying to stop her voice from trembling.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him smile ironically – and without showing his teeth. “You need to lie down and rest,” he said.

Her thoughts were muddled and slow, half her mind still trapped in the fire, but even she knew that lying on a man’s bed was a bad idea. Laila shook her head.

The vampire—Niko—pushed her down anyway. When her back hit the mattress, she yelped at the pain, and flopped onto her side.

“Turn over,” he said. “I want to see your back.”

She ought to fight, to scream or run away, but she was so tired. Niko pushed her onto her belly. He got up to lift her feet and legs up to the mattress. His hands were large, in perfect proportion to the rest of him, and warm against her chill skin.

He folded the end of the blanket so that it raised her feet a little. Then he sat down next to her again and looked at her. “I need to examine you to see if you’re injured.”

Laila stuck her hands under her thighs to stop them from shaking. She had a crushing headache, her throat and lungs hurt, in fact her body hurt in every part, as if she’d been trampled by a warhorse.

“I’m not injured. You mustn’t touch me.”

“I don’t have any interest in your body,” he said sharply. “I had plans, and they’re going to have to wait because of you, but I’m responsible for you now and I need to know what we’re dealing with.”

Laila turned her head to the side and peered up at him. He had a gold ring in his left eyebrow, proclaiming him a vampire. And he was angry with her. She was holding him back from whatever it was he’d been planning to do.

Maybe he didn’t have designs on her after all. However, she obviously wasn’t wanted here and that fit in with her plans just fine because she didn’t want to be here.

Laila pushed herself up on her elbows.

“What are you doing? Lie down.”

“I won’t inconvenience you any longer.”

Niko gave her a shove and she collapsed back onto the mattress, her head swimming. Laila closed her eyes. Any more of this and she would throw up all over his rented room. She moaned.

“Don’t fight me, or I’ll tie you to the bed,” he told her.

 

 Chapter 4

 

Niko pulled off her remaining shoe and tossed it to the floor. Dizziness swirled inside her skull, making her want to retch again. She clung to the bedcovers as he lifted her skirt all the way to her upper thighs. A good priestess would resist even while overcome with nausea, but Laila couldn’t even move her head.

“Your legs look alright, except for some blisters on your right foot. Let me see your arms.” His tone was as dictatorial as the head priestess’s had been.

She remained quiet as he pushed up her sleeves. Until now, she hadn’t noticed how much her arms pained her. When he touched her with a careful fingertip, she flinched.

“Burns on your forearms,” he said. He brushed her hair to one side and loosened the tie at her neckline. “Your hair is all different lengths and charred in places. Didn’t you know that you’d caught on fire?”

“No,” she said. “No, I never caught on fire. Malina was on fire.”

“Your dress is singed down the back and stuck to your skin in some places. You were burning. You’re lucky you survived.”

Her hair had been on fire? She must have rolled to put it out, or doused it somehow. But she couldn’t picture it. She saw fire eating Malina’s dress, burning beams on the floor, darkness and smoke. She saw a dark corridor. The kitchens, their high windows blocked with piercework screens. But she couldn’t find the memory of her own hair burning.

“But how did I put out the flames? Why don’t I remember?”

“I don’t know.”

Niko left the bed, returning a few moments later with a bowl of water and a pile of cloths. He wet the cloths one by one and laid them on her back. The cool dampness stung at first, and then soothed her. She closed her eyes.

When she woke again, the room was so hot she found it hard to breathe. Her eyelids seemed to be glued together and her back was on fire. Laila touched her eyelashes. Something gritty was stuck on them and she rubbed at it until she could open her eyes.

She was looking at a plaster wall whose paint had probably been white once. Now it was the color of dust, and badly chipped. The walls of her dormitory room were painted a brilliant red, and they weren’t chipped or dirty either.

Laila turned her head to the other side. Dim golden light leaked around the edges and through cracks in the shutters on the window. There was a man on the floor, far away from the fingers of light, sleeping. A man. Oh, no. No, this cannot be real. This must be a nightmare, and I want to wake up right now. I want to wake up. Right now.

Nothing changed.

There had been a fire, and her hair was burned off, and Malina was dead. She gave an involuntary whimper. No, she was not going to cry in front of the man. Vampire. Not going to cry. He already thought she was worthless; she could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice last night.

Or maybe all men sounded like that.

He opened his eyes and looked right at her. They were strange and beautiful eyes, large, long-lashed and gray like a winter sky. Cold. He always seemed to be angry with her, which didn’t make any sense. Rescuing her had been his choice—he could have left her there and forgotten all about her.

The man sat up in a cross-legged position with effortless grace. “How are you?” he said coolly.

“I feel terrible,” she admitted.

“I’m not surprised. Do you remember who I am?”

“Niko?”

He nodded.

She didn’t know what women customarily did when they found themselves unexpectedly in a strange man’s bed. Should she get up? Staying here would be a mistake, yet she couldn’t leave. She had nowhere to go.

“I apologize,” she said. “For being a burden to you.”

Niko shrugged. “I chose to take you with me.”

Laila noted that he didn’t protest when she called herself a burden. She rolled to her side. Her ruined dress flopped open, exposing her naked chest to his gaze. Laila gasped, clutching the silk to her body.

“I cut it last night,” he said. “I couldn’t get it off you without waking you, so I just left it.”

Carefully she sat up. Her whole body seemed to be blushing in shame. Men were not supposed to see her, ever, even fully clothed. She was a bride of Desou.

But Niko had made it plain that he wasn’t interested in her, so maybe it didn’t matter. She gave him a surreptitious glance and discovered he wasn’t even looking at her. He’d gotten up to rummage in the narrow cupboard against the opposite wall.

In the temple, the elder priestesses used to fuss over Laila’s beauty. She’d always thought it silly until now, when she suddenly missed the attention. All those women were dead. Everyone she’d ever known was dead.

She felt so strange. Everything that had happened since yesterday afternoon felt like a dream, unreal. She ought to be crying, mourning, but no tears would come. Her eyes remained dry and there was a cold empty space where her emotions should be.

Niko turned from the cupboard with half a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. He broke off a chunk of the bread, handing it to her.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Eat it anyway. You need food.” He took a bit of the remainder.

Laila set the stale bread next to her on the mattress, which drew a glower from him.

“Eat it. I need you to be strong today.”

She picked a few crumbs off and chewed them listlessly. “I wanted to survive, but now I have no place to go.”

“Feeling sorry for yourself?”

Laila frowned. “No. But I can see you don’t want me here.”

“What I want has never interested an Atlantean before. Why start now?” His words emerged in a lazy, mocking drawl as he leaned one hip against his table.

“You dislike Atlantis?”

“Not everyone worships your glorious country, my lady. I was planning to leave as soon as I could get a berth out of here.”

“And now you’re saddled with me.”

“I’m sure I’ll survive.” He pulled something white off the table top and threw it at her. “Put that on. We have to find a new place to stay.”

She examined the garment doubtfully. It was unadorned and undyed, the sort of dress a scullery girl might wear.

“You do know how to put on a dress, don’t you?”

Laila glared at him. “Of course I know how to put on a dress, but I’ll not do it in front of you.”

He turned his back on her. “Is that better?”

Better would be out in the corridor. She tried to shrug out of the remains of her priestess gown. The silk had stuck to one of the burns on her back, which hurt when she tugged on it.

“Ow!”

“Leave off,” he said impatiently, turning around again. “Let me do it.”

His hands felt heavy and hot against her back. His breath tickled the hair on the back of her neck and made her shiver. Something cold touched her skin. Laila jumped.

“Easy,” he said, his voice low. “I’m going to cut around the part that’s stuck.”

Something warm blossomed deep inside her as he sliced through the fabric of her gown. He was so close to her that she could feel his body heat. His knee pressed against her hip as he leaned toward her. She’d never felt this way with any of the priestesses, and she had no other men to whom she could compare him. Or her reaction to him.

The dress fell away from her back.

“We need to clean you up,” he said. “Anyone can tell at a glance you’ve been in a fire. But I don’t think a full bath would be a good idea.”

“I’ll manage it by myself.”

“First, I’m going to cut your hair.”

“No!” Laila reached up to protect her tresses, losing her grip on the dress in her haste. She grabbed for the fabric with her right hand, and kept her left on the back of her head.

“You can’t cut my hair.”

“It’s all ragged from the fire anyway.”

She hesitated. “How much are you going to cut off?”

He captured her hair and held it in his fist. “Right here,” he said, displaying it to her. “It will still fall almost to your shoulder blades.”

He’d already been far too intimate with her. She couldn’t have him touching her hair, running his fingers through it. Yet only priestesses had hair down to their ankles. If she kept it long, it would identify her.

She sighed. “Alright.”

“And your nails.”

Laila looked down at her right hand, where it held up her dress. The nails were as long as the length of her hand, including her fingers, so long they curved to the side. They were stained with henna and had tiny gems glued to them. They were the mark of a bride of Desou, a priestess whose sole purpose in life was to serve the god. They had to go.

“Do it,” she said.

His knife sawed at her hair until the long bulk of it began to give way. When the first lock fell to the floor in front of her, she put her hand over her mouth. Cutting the hair was also against Desou’s rule. She’d never even had hers trimmed.

When Niko finished, the hair that was left brushed her shoulders and swung freely when she turned her head. She felt lighter, and almost naked without the curtain of hair down her back.

Laila changed position on the bed so she could offer Niko her hand. With a twist of his knife, the first nail fell onto the floor. He bent his dark head over her hand as he worked, and she stared at him. His hair looked shiny. Soft. What would he say if she touched it?

He finished the job and turned away from her as if unaware of her regard. I have no interest in your body. Well, she had no interest in his, either. He was a vampire, an unnatural creature, and a foreigner.

“Where did you come from?” The words left her mouth before she could think better of them.

He glanced at her. “A long way from here,” he said, returning to the cupboard where he began to remove the contents. He unfolded a sheet and began to tear it into strips.

Apparently he didn’t have any interest in talking to her, either. Laila picked up the servant girl dress. It slipped on over the head and laced at the neck in front. She turned toward the wall and lifted the dress.

“Wait,” Niko said. “We need to bandage those burns.”

She thought of his hands on her bare skin. If he touched her again, she might embarrass herself. “They’ll be quite alright.”

“They could fester if they’re not bandaged,” he said. He came up behind her. “Hold still.”

She scooted forward on the bed. “You must not touch me anymore. I’m sworn to the god. No man may touch me.”

“You’re not in the Temple anymore.”

“I still belong to him.”

He grasped her by the upper arm. “Laila, you can’t reach your back and someone has to take care of these burns. Now hold still.”

Were all men so bossy?

Laila closed her eyes, shivering as Niko’s fingers brushed against her back. He dabbed some cool salve on each burn, placed small pads of cloth on them, then wrapped strips from the sheet around her torso. Each time he passed the bandaging around her, he leaned closer and his arms went under hers, his hands passing just over her breasts.

He smelled of ocean air, sandalwood, and sweat. Something in her responded to that smell, in a way she had never responded to any of her female friends. It’s not personal. It’s a primitive mating urge, that’s all. One he clearly didn’t share.

In the temple, Laila had learned to read and write. She had memorized all the stories of Desou and his brides; had learned the sacred dances and how to light the ritual fires and keep them going. She had even learned how men and women came together to create children. But the priestesses had never been able to explain the power of that mating urge, because none of them had ever experienced it. Theirs was a world without males.

She trained her gaze on the shuttered window. The light outside had softened in the time she’d been awake and had taken on an orangey glow. The sun must be setting.

“Is it true that you can tolerate no sunlight?” she said.

“Only if it’s direct. My… powers are diminished during daylight hours, though.” He had the deepest voice she’d ever heard.

“But there are cracks in your shutters. Could that not hurt you?”

“Usually I hang an extra blanket over the shutters, but this morning I forgot.”

He sounded amused. And it was her fault that he’d forgotten. He could have been injured because of her.

“Why would a vampire risk his own safety to care for an Atlantean priestess?” she muttered under her breath.

“That’s a very good question,” he said.

He’d heard that? Laila blushed again. To cover her embarrassment, she picked up the dress, throwing it over her head as soon as Niko had tied off the bandage.

Her hands felt lighter without the ceremonial long fingernails. There was nothing to catch on the inside of her clothing as she put it on, and no need to plan every movement of her hands to prevent the nails from breaking. Laila reached up and touched her hair, running her fingers through it like a comb.

She imagined what Malina would say, and felt nothing. There was something wrong with her, if she could lose every friend she had overnight and not cry for them. What was wrong with her?

Niko picked up her temple dress. He stuck his knife into the fabric at the neckline.

“What are you doing?” She reached out to snatch the dress from him.

He held it out of her reach. “I’m taking your beads. We might be able to trade with them if we need extra money.”

“But—”

“We need the money more than you need this dress.” Niko tore the beaded neckline from the body of the garment.

“You could have asked me first. And anyway, no-one in Atlantis trades for beads. Only barbarians do that.”

He returned her glare with a cool lift of the eyebrows. “You’re looking at a barbarian, my lady.”

Laila crossed her arms over her chest. Maybe I should have stayed and burned. I only wanted to live. But now I’m just as trapped as I was in the Temple. Trapped with a destitute, barbarian vampire for a companion.

 

Chapter 5

 

Niko had originally planned to simply leave the island this evening. Now he had to search for a new apartment instead, while a homeless priestess hung on his tunic sleeve the whole time. The cheapest neighborhood on the island was centered on the docks, so that’s where he would go.

Laila carried a sack with the extra loaf of bread and some of his clothes in it. He planned to tell anyone who asked that she was his slave, so she might as well do her share of the work. On his own back, he took the rest of his clothes, all his books and some of his tools.

The sky was deepening to indigo when they left his building, and although the cobbled streets and stucco walls still held heat from the day, it was blessedly cool compared to the oven-like apartment. An occasional breeze off the ocean managed to penetrate the maze of ghetto streets and lighten the stench of filth and poverty.

Laila stuck so close to him that she made it difficult for him to walk.

He glanced down at her as they made their way through the early evening crowd. With her hair and nails a normal length, and all the make-up and soot wiped off her face, she was pretty. She was more than pretty.

Her eyes were large, outlined by thick black lashes and arched eyebrows. She reminded him of a water nymph, with her straight little nose, high cheekbones and gracefully curved body. He wished he’d never met her.

Niko, you pick up too many strays. We can hardly feed ourselves. His mother used to say that to him every time he brought home another starving dog or shared part of their gleanings with a beggar.

As always, the memory of his mother brought a sharp pain to his chest. He needed to think about something else.

He’d never had a dependent before, not in all the years that had passed since he’d become a vampire. Laila was no stray dog. He couldn’t just leave her with the first kindly family they encountered and forget about her. She was more responsibility than he was accustomed to. More than he wanted.

She looked up at him, her cheeks pink with the blush she sported every time she spoke to him. “Where are we going?”

“The waterfront,” he said gruffly, fixing his eyes ahead. It was better not to look at her. Looking brought temptation.

“But—isn’t it dangerous there?”

“I want to get off the island. My plans haven’t changed just because you happened along.”

“Oh.”

A glance out of the corner of his eye revealed that she was staring at her feet with a slapped-puppy expression on her face. Gods. Now he’d have to watch every word that came out of his mouth for fear of hurting her tender little feelings.

He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry. We had to leave because I’d already told my landlord I was moving out today and he has another renter coming in. The waterfront is cheap, that’s all.”

She continued to walk with her head down, almost as if she hadn’t heard him. Niko shrugged inwardly. If she wanted to pout, he couldn’t stop her.

They had to try four different buildings before they found one that was taking new tenants. The new place was cramped and smelled like fish, but it would do for a few days until he could get to his stash of money. And it was in the basement with north-facing windows, which suited his vampire nature quite well.

Laila glanced around at the crumbling plaster, battered pine furniture and moth-eaten blanket with tight-lipped disapproval. She kept her arms close to her sides, as if afraid to touch the furnishings. Yes, it was going to be delightful getting her settled in her new surroundings.

“Why did you tell that man I’m your slave?” she said after tossing her burden on the bed.

“I have to explain you somehow.”

“You could have said I was your sister. Or your wife.”

Niko pointed to his piercing. “I’m a vampire, remember? We don’t usually have sisters, and in Atlantis we’re not allowed to marry.”

Her lips parted. “Why can’t you marry?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s to keep the Atlantean race pure. There are a lot of things we vampires aren’t allowed to do here.”

Laila sat down suddenly. “Then why are you here?”

He gave her a careless grin. “Adventure. Fame and fortune. Why else?”

She raised her eyebrows skeptically, but she said nothing. Instead, she removed one of the cheap rope sandals he’d bought for her and began to rub her foot.

Niko crossed to the window and unlatched the shutters.

They had a perfect view of the street, at eye level. He could see a parade of feet and ankles tramping along the cobblestones on the other side of the iron grate that protected the room from passersby. A rotting orange rind was stuck in the grille and Niko pried it loose.

“It’s not what you’re used to, but we won’t be here long,” he said.

“How would you know what I’m used to?”

He raised an eyebrow. “You were wearing silk and a fortune in beads last night. You were a priestess at the most prestigious temple in the city. It looked like a palace on the outside.”

“It was very fine, I suppose.” Laila shrugged. “I never saw the outside.”

Niko dragged the room’s only chair nearer to the bed and straddled it. “You really never left the temple the whole time you were there?”

“Never.”

She’d been nervously rubbing the coarse linen of her dress since they’d arrived. On the way over, she’d practically clung to him. Maybe she hadn’t been pouting when she stared at the pavement. Maybe she’d been scared.

“So did you never go outside? Had you seen the sky before last night?”

She gave her head a little shake. “There was a courtyard, but it wasn’t very large. And it had a tree. We couldn’t see much of the sky.”

“Is it frightening for you?”

“Yes,” she said softly.

“It will get easier.” He hoped.

She nodded without enthusiasm and plucked at her dress. “I reek of smoke. I need a bath.”

He shook his head, knowing she wouldn’t like his answer. “We can’t go to the public baths. You’ll have to wash up here.”

“With what?”

“I’ll get you some water from the well. Just don’t get used to it because I’m not going to fetch for you forever.”

She pressed her lips together.

The sound of booted feet on the pavement outside made both of them look toward the window. Most city Atlanteans wore sandals. Only the City Guard wore boots, and they didn’t usually come to the docks en masse.

This was not a promising development. Something told him the Guardsmen were here because of him and Laila. Niko sidled up to the window, pressing himself to the wall so he couldn’t be seen from the outside. From this position, he should be able to hear what transpired at the front door of the tenement.

Laila shrank deeper into the nook that held the bed. When she was safely in the deep shadows, she put on her sandal. He nodded approval at her.

His position made it impossible to see the outside. Niko closed his eyes, focusing on his other senses. Muffled rustling sounds came from the Guardsmen as they waited. Fists pounded on the front door of the tenement until it opened with a creak of the hinges, and the landlord answered in a wary voice.

“We’re looking for a young woman of the temple of Desou,” the Guardsman said.

“The temple? A priestess?” The landlord sounded baffled.

“Yes. One of the priestesses is missing. We have reason to believe she is being held by a vampire, a male, with black hair and light eyes.”

“Shit,” Niko said under his breath. They were making him the villain in the story.

“I rented a room to a man like that just this evening.”

Niko pointed at Laila’s bundle. She lifted it, raising her eyebrows at the same time. His pack was still on his back. He beckoned to her and she crept off the bed.

“What are we going to do?” she whispered. “I can’t go with them.”

“Run.”

 Chapter 6

 

Taking her by the hand, Niko opened the door. Dying sunlight dimly illuminated the corridor through a window at the far end. He pulled her toward it.

Laila shut the door so softly it made no sound. She ran noiselessly behind him. On the landing above, booted feet clomped into the building. The guardsmen were coming.

Like most tenement windows, this one wasn’t glazed. Niko peered out and found that it led into a narrow no-man’s-land between their building and the next one over. It wasn’t even wide enough to call an alley, but it would do.

He grabbed Laila by the waist and boosted her through the opening. The linen of her dress clung to her backside as she wiggled out, and the image brought up a surge of lust. This is not the time. And I’m the last person an innocent like Laila needs.

Niko hauled himself through the window after her. The pavement on the other side was little more than packed sand, and surprisingly clean. Mud-brick walls rose up three stories on either side, with parapets at the tops.

“The window!” someone yelled from inside.

He grabbed Laila’s hand, leading her deeper into the gap between the buildings. With a glance behind them, he saw a helmeted head poking out of their escape route. Excited voices rose up from inside the building.

“I’m going to jump,” he told her. “Can you hang on to me?”

She nodded.

“Good. Put your arms around my neck.”

Her eyes went so round it would have been comical except for the danger. “I cannot—that’s indecent.”

One of the guardsmen rounded the front corner of the building and came at them down the gap.

“Do it or stay here and wait for them.”

Laila threw her arms around his neck, her breasts crushed against his chest. Niko pressed her to him, one arm around her upper back and the other around her waist. He bent his knees.

“Hey! You there! Stop right now!”

As if he would actually listen to an order like that. Niko leapt upward, wishing he knew how to fly. He’d met vampires that could do it, but he’d never learned the trick.

“Stop, or we’ll shoot!”

He landed on the parapet. Laila panted against his shoulder, her arms and legs as snug as they’d been at the beginning. She felt good wrapped around him like that.

Arrows whistled around them. Some bounced off the hard brick and a few passed overhead. Sharp pain slammed into his left calf, just as he stepped off the top of the parapet. He grunted.

They’d hit him.

Niko jumped down to the main roof, ignoring the fire in his leg. The wound could wait. He scooped Laila into his arms and ran with her.

The arrowhead in his calf was agony. It felt as if the projectile worked its way a little deeper into the muscle with every step he took, but he didn’t have time to stop and remove it. He had to get them far enough away from the Guard.

He ran east, leaping with some difficulty to the next roof. Guardsmen had already reached the top of their erstwhile tenement and were shouting at each other and at Niko. He spared one glance behind him, in time to see a Guardsman attempt to leap the gap between buildings.

The soldier managed to fling himself onto the edge of the parapet, where he clung, unable to pull himself up. His comrades would soon be following through the streets and over the roofs.

Niko jumped to the next building, and gave an involuntary cry from the pain in his calf. He set Laila down near the roof access door. Then he bent over and grabbed the arrow.

“Crack-brained son of a motherless dog,” he swore in his native Dacian.

“You’re hurt,” Laila said.

“Yes.”

She leaned closer. “Let me help.”

“No. Get back.” He clenched his teeth, grimacing in silent pain as he pulled the arrow out of his leg and dropped it. Blood flowed darkly from the wound. The injury would force him to drink again, much sooner than he’d planned.

Niko pinched the edges of the wound together. Almost instantly the skin began to close, knitting his flesh into an unmarked whole. He straightened. Laila was staring at his leg with her beautiful mouth hanging open.

“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.

He blinked. Not the response he’d expected from her.

A pounding racket came from behind the access door. He picked her up again. Behind them, the door slammed open just as he leapt across to the next building. Thank the gods that most of the roofs on Atlantis were flat.

A few more arrows showered down around them as he raced across the rooftop toward the next building. The guardsmen shouted warnings that Niko ignored. He made yet another leap and found himself on top of a building at least twice as large as any of the tenements he’d already crossed. It must be a warehouse.

“Are you alright?” he said.

“I’m fine. Are you?”

“I’ll do.”

He turned south, away from the docks. The last light drained away, leaving the sky deep, and dark, and full of stars. There was no moon, which gave him the advantage.

“Can you see the guardsmen?” he said.

Laila peeked around his shoulder. “No. It’s too dark.”

“Good. Then they can’t see us.”

At the southern edge of the roof, Niko paused to look down. A stunted holm oak broke the harsh outline of the building. Across the way, too far for him to jump, was yet another warehouse. The street in between was quiet, with no lamps lit and no traffic.

“We have to go down,” he said.

“The same way we came up?” She sounded anxious.

“Yes. Can you handle it?”

“I’m not sure.”

He gazed down at her. She looked beautiful, fragile, in the starlight, her body warm and slight in his arms. She would feel even better wrapped around him as he made love to her.

His sex began to swell. Could she feel it? Did she know what it meant? The priestesses of Desou were a mystery to him, since his people had no deity even remotely similar. He’d passed by the temple frequently, curious to know what was inside and what kind of woman would choose the priestess life.

Now he had one in his arms and he wasn’t sure what to do with her. However, making love to her on a rooftop while being pursued by Guardsmen was definitely not appropriate.

Finish the task at hand.

“Are you ready?” he whispered.

“Let’s go.”

Niko’s cock throbbed in response. She’s not for you, he told it.

He stepped onto the parapet. Laila buried her face against his chest. Her grip on him was frantic. Niko shifted to the very edge and bent his knees in preparation to jump. She whimpered in her throat.

“It’s alright,” he whispered. “Hold on and I won’t let you fall.”

The voices of the guardsmen drifted to him from the front of the building. They were still looking for him, but they didn’t know which direction he’d taken.

He leapt into the darkness.

Time seemed to slow down as they plunged over the side of the building. He pressed Laila’s face to his chest to muffle her wail of terror. The ground came up under him with awful speed. He struck, bending his knees to soften the impact. It wasn’t enough.

Niko took a couple of stumbling paces forward to absorb more of the fall’s energy, and fetched up half way across the empty street.

 ***

 Laila fought to keep from screaming like a child. They hit the ground so hard that she heard the crack of Niko’s feet meeting the hard-packed sand. He ran all the way into the middle of the street before he was able to stop, yet he wasn’t even a little out of breath, while Laila was panting in fear. I never knew I was afraid of heights until now.

Niko bent his head and kissed her on the mouth before he released her. She stood gaping at him and he grinned with a flash of white that must be his fangs. “First time I’ve ever done that with a woman in my arms.”

The scuffle of feet came from the far corner of the warehouse. Niko ran, compelling her to stumble blindly behind him.

She couldn’t see the street beneath her feet, or anything more than a couple of paces ahead of her, and she’d always been a little afraid of the dark. This was no time to indulge in silly fears. Her courage or cowardice would determine whether they managed to escape.

He ran so swiftly she could hardly keep up. Her toes seemed to catch every stone and pothole along the way. When she tripped for the third time, Niko turned with an oath and scooped her into his arms.

He was inhumanly strong, and could apparently see in the dark like a cat. Her weight didn’t seem to bother him at all as he finished the dash across the street. Without hesitation, he turned and ran in another direction for several minutes, then turned again down a side street.

The fishy smell of the docks receded as they followed the winding street to the next intersection. In the new area, lamps burned at uneven intervals. People walked the streets, passing in and out of the buildings along the way. Niko set her on her feet.

“Pretend to be relaxed,” he murmured as he led her into the crowd.

He kept his hand around hers. People pressed in on every side, laughing, talking loudly, giving her the occasional incurious glance. In the street, a donkey pulling an overloaded cart clopped by, followed by two men on horseback. Her heart began to race. She’d never been among so many people, even on the way to the waterfront apartment house.

Smells assaulted her, making her queasy. Sweat, perfume, wine, rotting garbage. Manure from dogs and donkeys. Her head throbbed. She tried to breathe through her mouth to make the stench bearable. Be strong.

To distract herself, she looked at each place of business they passed. Every shop had a sign, either hanging above the door or on the wall next to it, painted with the name of the establishment and sometimes with an animal or other picture. One place had leaping dolphins, another a red dog.

Most of the women wore make-up that reminded her of the temple dancers, except it was applied with much less skill. They smiled at Niko, thrusting out a hip or leaning forward to show off their breasts through the filmy clothes they wore. He ignored them, although they were obviously trying to catch his attention.

He squeezed her hand, as if he knew how difficult this was for her. Laila sneaked a sideways glance at him. She’d heard of vampires, of course, through stories told by the older priestesses in the evenings. In the stories, they had always been the villains, debauched predators who stole innocent young women and ruined them in ways never fully described.

So far, he had been nothing but kind to her. But he’d kissed her. Why had he done that, if he had no interest in her body? Maybe his reluctance to keep her with him was just a ruse to ease her suspicions, and when he had her alone he would… he would what? Drink her blood. Ravish her.

He’d kissed her. She could still feel the imprint of his lips on hers. It was shameful, and the only reason she wasn’t paralyzed by embarrassment was because she felt too sick.

Niko turned down a side street, which had less than half the traffic of the road they’d just left. The lamps were twice as far apart here. Most of the businesses were shuttered and dark. The smells and noise diminished, too, yet she didn’t feel any better. This isn’t the time to get sick. We can’t afford to stop.

He turned down another, even emptier street. Laila’s head ached abominably. Her tongue felt oddly swollen and her stomach hurt. The nausea that had been dogging her swelled, making her gag. Her steps lagged as she pressed the heel of her free hand to her forehead.

Niko paused. “What’s wrong?” he said in a low voice.

“I feel very ill.”

He laid his palm against her forehead. “You’re feverish. We need to get you to a safe resting place.” Once again, he lifted her into his arms.

She’d never felt so exhausted, even after hours of dance training. Her head lolled against his shoulder because she was too tired to hold it up. Above them, the sky was so dark, so deep that she had the bizarre sensation she could fall into it and disappear.

His body felt hard and strong against hers, a refuge from the enormity and chaos of the world outside the temple. Just this morning, the idea of taking refuge with a vampire—or any man—had been laughable, even terrifying. Now she wanted nothing but to curl up against him.

“I hoped we wouldn’t have to do this,” he said.

“Do what?”

He looked down at her. “Visit Sosima.”

They had left the neighborhood of small houses and better quality apartment buildings. To their right a high stucco wall topped with jagged shapes that looked oddly like broken glass or pieces of metal rose up and blocked what meager lamplight had traveled this far. At regular intervals, a small square window pierced the wall.

“Who is Sosima?”

“She’s a vampire. The head of the local vampire community, in fact. She wanted me to join them when I first came to the island, but I refused her.”

Vampire community. There was such a thing as a vampire community? Laila tried to force her fuzzy brain to focus on Niko’s words, but her mind kept drifting into a foggy place where she couldn’t hold on to anything.

They came to a set of massive doors with brass fittings. The door had a window in it, just like the wall, and a bell hanging on one side. He rang the bell.

Chapter 7

 

Going to Sosima was the last thing Niko wanted to do. However, Laila needed help that he couldn’t give her. She needed to drink and eat, and rest. Unless he humbled himself and asked for assistance, she might become so ill she wouldn’t recover.

He wasn’t about to grovel, though, and he wasn’t going to give away Laila’s identity. Sosima would only use that information against them.

Niko felt the mask descend over his face as the view-hole in the wall opened and someone peered through at him. The man inside wore a ring through his eyebrow to show his vampire status. Like all Sosima’s vampires, he’d reported himself to the Atlantean authorities. He was official.

“Who are you and what do you want?” he said in a bored tone.

“I’m here to see Sosima.”

“No-one gets in without an invitation.”

“Tell Sosima that Niko is here. She’ll want to see me.”

The guard stared at him for another minute. Niko looked back at him blandly, as if he couldn’t care less whether he got in or not. Sosima’s people imagined themselves to be vampire elite, and any show of eagerness or subservience would only get the door— or window— slammed in his face.

“Alright, you can wait in the garden.” The fellow slid the bolt and opened one side of the double doors. He wore the typical Atlantean loose trousers and shirt, made of indigo-colored raw silk. When he saw Laila, he frowned.

“Who’s that? I didn’t know you had someone with you.”

“She’s a friend. She’s sick.” Niko moved to the side of the garden path, to make it harder for the man to shove him back out the gate.

“She’s not a vampire.”

“Just tell Sosima I’m here.”

The man sighed and shook his head, grumbling as he walked toward the house. The front garden had a bench against the house wall, so Niko sat down with Laila in his lap. Her eyes were closed. Either she’d fallen asleep or lost consciousness.

He leaned his head against the wall, which still radiated heat from the day. Next to the bench grew a little orange tree, but there were no oranges on it. The season was wrong.

Laila needed food and drink, especially drink. She needed rest. He’d gotten her this far, and he didn’t intend to let her die on him. If Sosima wouldn’t help them, he’d find another way.

The door to the house opened, spilling light into the garden. A tall, blond woman in an ankle-length robe of crimson silk emerged. Her sandaled feet crunched lightly on the gravel walk as she came toward him, smiling. He curved his lips in response.

“What a pleasure to see you again, Niko.” Her voice was as smooth as the silk she wore.

“The pleasure is mine, Sosima.”

She glanced down at Laila, still smiling. “And who is this?”

“She’s a sick friend. I couldn’t care for her at my apartment, and I thought you might be willing to take us in for a few days.”

“I see.” Sosima cocked her head as she contemplated him. “I wasn’t aware you had any friends.”

“There are probably a lot of things you don’t know about me.”

She laughed. “Yes. I’m sure of that. Bring her inside and we’ll talk.”

He followed her into the house. The central hall boasted a mosaic floor with a pattern of waves surrounding a center medallion of a dolphin. Oil lamps burned in fancy piercework sconces on the walls.

Sosima passed through the hall and out a door on the far side, which led into a larger and more elaborate garden. Groups of people, both vampire and human, sat on cushions on the ground or lounged on benches, talking and laughing. A woman played a lyre under a pomegranate tree covered in scarlet blossoms.

Sosima had created her own little fiefdom here, where she could pretend to be queen and all her loyal subjects would play along. But she still had to answer to the Atlantean authorities.

She indicated a padded bench under a plumeria tree, and Niko deposited Laila gently on her side. There was just enough room for him to sit on the end, at her head. Plumerias were rare, imported from a mysterious continent on the other side of the world, and each one cost a literal fortune. Sosima had more money and influence than he’d realized.

A couple of fragrant white plumeria flowers brushed the top of his head. His vampire hostess took a seat on the bench opposite, arranging the folds of her robe so the side opening showed her long, pale legs to advantage.

“What kind of care does your friend need?”

“Drink, more than anything. She is ill from thirst.”

She clapped her hands. One of the human men rushed to her side, listening attentively as she whispered in his ear. He bowed and scurried off to do her bidding. Probably a slave. The whole performance was a good reminder of why Niko kept his distance from Sosima.

“I must say, Niko, I’m surprised to see you here. I’d thought you would never come to visit me.”

He bent his head. “I didn’t expect to, but circumstances force me.”

“How flattering.” She studied Laila’s half-unconscious figure. “Do you intend to share your prize?”

Niko wrinkled his brow. She implied that Laila was his blood-pet. Sosima probably couldn’t imagine another reason for him to keep a human with him. He gave her an apologetic smile.

“I don’t. Laila knows only me, and she’s too delicate to serve more than one master.”

“Is she, indeed? In that case, I’ll have to think of some other way you can compensate me, since it seems you’re in need of sanctuary.” Her self-satisfied expression gave him a chill. Sosima suspected. She knew of the missing priestess, and suspected him of harboring her; she’d only been toying with him when she spoke of Laila as a blood-pet.

“I would be glad to do you a favor, within reason.” Niko leaned casually against the back of the bench. “I’m not in the habit of taking hand-outs.”

“I’m well aware of your independent nature.” She gestured languidly toward Laila. “A man in your position shouldn’t keep such a creature, Niko. She’ll only be a burden to you.”

“She’s no burden.”

“Oh, come. A delicate little flower like that could never keep up with a vampire’s… appetites.” Sosima smiled like a cat. “Of course, if you lived in community like the rest of us, she’d be no trouble at all.”

He met her blue eyes. “I don’t share.”

The male human returned with a tray of food and drink, which he set on the low table between the benches. Niko picked up a goblet of liquid and tasted it. Citrus juice mixed with wine and water.

He lifted Laila to a sitting position. She groaned, opened her eyes sleepily and frowned. “Drink this,” he said, holding the goblet to her lips.

She sipped. Niko had one arm around her shoulders to keep her steady. Looking down at the top of her sable head while she drank, he had the strangest urge to kiss her again. She had courage. Few women as protected and spoiled as she would be able to cope gracefully with the stresses she’d had over the last two days.

“Don’t I merit an introduction?” Sosima smiled her feline smile. If she’d had a tail, she would have twitched it.

“I’m sorry. May I present Laila,” he said. “Laila, this is Sosima, our hostess.”

“It’s an honor to meet you,” Laila said politely. Her eyes traveled over the vampire’s silk-clad body and lingered on her face and the gold ring she wore through her eyebrow. Then she ducked her head and returned her attention to her drink.

“And what is it you’d like me to do for you?” Niko said.

“I’ll let you know eventually. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to.” She swept off with a regal air.

Niko turned his attention to Laila. Whatever Sosima’s plans were, at the moment Laila’s health was more important, because they couldn’t move on until she was strong enough.

“Feeling any better?” he said.

“A little. May I have more of this, please?”

He refilled her cup from the pitcher on the tray.

“Aren’t you hungry? You haven’t eaten much more than I,” Laila said.

Once she’d drawn his attention to it, his body let out a famished wail. “Starved,” he said.

The tray was covered in plates of sliced meats, cheese, roasted vegetables, flat bread, and dates stuffed with almonds. He hadn’t seen this much food in one place in years.

“She’s left us a feast. What would you like?”

Laila shook her head. “Truly, I’m not hungry.”

“You need food. Here, eat some cheese.” He took a chunk and pressed it to her lips until she sighed and opened her mouth.

“Why are you being so kind to me?” she said.

Yes, Niko, why are you being so kind? It couldn’t be due to his better nature, since he had none. He shrugged. “I pulled you out of a fire. I don’t want to see my effort wasted.”

She regarded him with a skeptical air. “You don’t seem like the sort of person who goes out of his way to help others.”

“You haven’t known me very long.”

“That’s true.” She reached out and selected a slice of roasted duck. “And you’re the first man I’ve ever met.”

Niko gave her a subtle shake of his head. There was no need to let anyone listening know what a sheltered life she’d led. Laila colored.

“I mean to say, the first man with whom I’ve ever been intimate.” Her eyes widened, her cheeks even brighter pink, as she seemed to realize what she’d implied.

He grinned. “You’ll get used to it.”

***

They were talking about her. Laila couldn’t hear the precise words they were saying, but she knew somehow that the vampires gathered in the garden were whispering to each other about her. She lifted the goblet to her lips and drank, pretending an utter lack of interest in them.

Niko had gone to find the privy. For the first time, she was alone in the presence of other men. Laila turned casually and looked through her lashes past the plumeria tree to a group of men surrounding the woman musician. Some of them were pleasing in appearance, but none of them gave her the jolt of excitement that Niko did.

Could all these vampires perform the feats he had? She contemplated the musician, with her long slender fingers and her graceful form. Tried to imagine her leaping three stories to the top of a building. It must be exhilarating to have so much physical power.

A soft rustle of cloth brought her attention back to the benches. Sosima had returned, and was regarding her with an ironic smile. Laila bristled. There was no need to look at her as if she were an object of pity.

“You care for him,” Sosima said.

Laila felt a sharp drop in her stomach. “I hardly know him.”

“Oh, pah.” The vampire waved her hand dismissively. “I can tell when a woman longs for a man. I see it in the way you look at him, or try not to.”

“My feelings for Niko are private.”

Sosima’s eyebrows rose. “Are they? You seemed so unguarded I thought you wouldn’t mind talking with me about them.”

Well, I do. Laila studied Sosima’s face. She looked pleased with herself, smug. She seemed to be waiting for Laila to do or say something to make herself vulnerable. This woman disliked her. But why? She could hardly be jealous.

“What is it you want, Sosima?”

The vampire’s lips tightened, then curved up in a forced smile. “To give you advice, my dear.”

“Advice.”

“Yes. You’re young and inexperienced, and I can completely understand how you might become infatuated with Niko. He’s very handsome, isn’t he? But he’s not for you. A little human like you will only slow him down and endanger him. Niko should be with other vampires.”

She is jealous. She wants him for herself.

Laila made herself smile at the woman. “He’s exceptionally handsome. But Niko has no interest in me. I’m a burden to him, and I know he’ll be relieved when he can find a family to take me in.”

Sosima frowned as she considered this. Then her face lightened, the perturbed expression wiped away as if it had never been. “He’s not taking you with him, then?”

“No. Why would he?”

“You see, some of us vampires like to have a human companion. Since Niko holds himself so aloof from the rest of the vampires on Atlantis, I thought… well, no matter. I’m pleased to know you’ll have a normal home and life.”

“Why, thank you, Sosima.”

“I do wonder why Niko took you under his wing in the first place, however. It isn’t like him to take on foundlings. Are you in some trouble, dear?”

Laila shrugged. “I lost my family recently.” It was close to the truth.

“I’m so sorry. Perhaps I can help you find a place. You could stay here with me until we locate a family who can take you in permanently.”

Stay here? In a house full of vampires, headed by a woman who obviously disliked her? Not likely. Laila shifted on the bench seat, trying not to squirm.

“I wouldn’t want to impose upon you.”

At that moment, Niko rejoined them. He looked from face to face with a puzzled air, yet he said nothing. Instead, he took a seat next to Laila and slid an arm around her waist.

She dipped her head as a blush heated her face. His casual gesture undermined everything she’d just said to Sosima, and didn’t make much sense either. Except for that kiss in the street, he’d shown no affection toward her. He baffled her.

“Your human and I have been having a lovely talk,” Sosima said.

“Oh?”

“Yes. We’ve become friends already, haven’t we, Laila? I’m so pleased I can help the two of you. Now, my steward will show you to your quarters for the night.”

The room Sosima’s steward found for them had only one bed. Laila said nothing about it, since Sosima and her people seemed to think she belonged to Niko and he seemed content to allow them to believe it. She wasn’t sure what Niko was up to, but one thing was certain. He knew a great deal more than she about life outside the Temple.

The single window in the room looked out over the city. She could see the twinkle of lamplight here and there in the darkness. Clean ocean air blew in without the fishy reek of the docks. If only it were morning, she could see the ocean for herself.

“Sit down, Laila.” Niko patted the bed next to him. “You need rest.”

She looked at him warily, and perched on the end of the bed as far away from him as she could get. Whatever game he was playing with Sosima, she wanted no part of it.

“You still think I’m going to bite?” he said.

“No. I suppose not.”

“You suppose not? I swear I won’t hurt you.”

Laila glanced at him and then looked at her lap. Niko was not merely handsome. He looked like a god. Up close he was even more beautiful than he’d been when she’d stared at him through the temple window. She coped with him more easily when it was too dark for her to see him clearly.

Sosima had implied he didn’t normally help others. Yet he’d gone out of his way, even put himself in danger, in order to rescue her. While she knew his actions had nothing to do with her personally, he was still the man who had pulled her from a burning building. She would like to know him better.

“Thank you for saving my life,” she said quietly.

 

Chapter 8

 

He shrugged, looking self-conscious. “I couldn’t leave you there.”

“Why not? Everyone else did.”

“I’m not an Atlantean. In my country, we’d never let people burn to death without trying to help them.” He sounded angry.

Laila gave him a hesitant smile. “You’re a good man.”

“No.” His face darkened even further. “I’m not.”

“Well, you’ve been good to me.”

Niko didn’t reply. What had he done that was so awful? He was a vampire. There were all kinds of things he could have done—drunk someone to death, perhaps. Maybe it was better not to know, since for the time being she had to depend on him for survival.

She knew nothing of men save what she’d read in Temple archives. Their ways were no doubt utterly foreign to her. And Niko was a vampire, not an ordinary man, which made him even more puzzling.

“What exactly were you doing looking out that window?” he said, breaking the chain of her thoughts. “I was told priestesses of Desou aren’t allowed to see the outside world.”

Laila’s face burned. “We’re not. I was in the attic. I wanted to see the offering.”

“So you were sneaking around. I thought so.”

“I was hoping to see some men.” She blushed even more hotly.

“And instead you got me.”

Laila turned to him. “You’re a man.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” he said with a wry smile. “Your fellow Atlanteans disagree with you.”

How it must have humiliated him to be turned away from the offering.

“I’m sorry for the way they’ve treated you.” Laila put her hand over Niko’s, as she would have offered comfort to another priestess. His skin felt so warm, so human beneath hers. He felt good.

I have no interest in your body.

She snatched her hand away, face flaming all over again.

Niko stood up and walked to the window. He leaned on the thick sill, looking out at the night. She shouldn’t have touched him. Another woman, yes, that would have been fine. But a man, no. Did women of the outside world touch men they didn’t know very well?

Now that her skin had met his, she might never be able to return to the priestesshood. That barrier was breached on the first night you spent with him. No purification ceremony would be sufficient to wipe away contact with a male vampire. Not even if they whipped the skin off her back.

“Niko, why do you suppose they sent the city guard after us?”

He turned from the window, a lock of black hair falling in front of his eyes. “I assumed they thought I’d stolen you.” He pushed back the hair. “Do you think there’s another reason?”

“I don’t know. It just seems strange. I’m the only one who survived the fire, so the priestesshood is gone. Why would they care about me?”

Niko leaned against the wall. “You’re probably even more valuable because of that. They might want to use you to re-establish the Temple.”

“But I’m just a dancer. I’m not one of the high priestesses. I didn’t even have access to all the archives.”

“As the only survivor, you have great symbolic value, Laila.”

She chewed her lip as her fingers worried the fabric of her dress. They might catch up with her and make her go back, even with the defilement on her. And what would happen to Niko then? The authorities would punish him for touching her, although the only thing he’d done was save her life and look after her.

He came to her and crouched in front of her. “Do you want to go back?”

“I don’t know.” Laila shook her head. “No. I don’t think I do.”

“I’ll take you back if that’s what you want.”

“They would hurt you.” She glanced at him through the screen of her lashes. “I don’t want them to punish you.”

“I’d be alright. They wouldn’t be able to catch me.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “If I went back, they might shut me up in a new temple. I’d never see the outside again. I haven’t even seen the ocean yet.”

“Then you won’t go back. I won’t let them take you.”

Laila felt tears sting her eyes. The liquid spilled down her face before she knew why she was weeping. She brushed them away, but they only flowed more quickly.

“Oh, no,” Niko murmured. “It’s alright. Don’t cry.”

Laila put her hands over her face and sobbed.

The bed creaked as he sat down next to her. He patted her back gently.

“Please don’t cry, little bird. Everything will be alright.”

But she couldn’t stop. She cried for all of it: the deaths of everyone she’d ever known, the loss of the Temple, the archives, the beautiful paintings and statues. Her own miraculous escape, and the fact that, at last, she was free.

He stopped patting and slid his arm around her shoulders. It wasn’t much of an embrace. She’d felt more held by him when they were running from the City Guard. He was probably repulsed by her and was only touching her to be kind. That thought made her cry even harder. What a fool she was.

The weight of Niko’s arm felt safe and comforting. She began to lean against him until she had the hard warmth of his body all along the side of her. It was wrong, but she couldn’t help it. He was all she had, and at the moment he didn’t seem to mind terribly.

Slowly Niko turned to face her, drawing her fully into his arms. He was saying something, words she didn’t understand, in a soft low voice. Laila allowed her body to relax against him, resting her cheek on his chest. She could hear the beat of his heart.

He felt so much bigger and harder than she was, like a living wall. She let her arms sneak around his waist. This was different from hugging another woman, and the difference began to penetrate the fog of her sorrow.

Laila sniffed and wiped tears from her face. She tilted her head back to look into his eyes. He didn’t seem annoyed. There was a softness around his eyes that she hadn’t seen before.

His gaze seemed to caress her face. He tilted his head to the side as he bent slowly toward her. Was he going to kiss her again?

She waited. She let him cup the side of her face in his hand. She closed her eyes and let him brush his lips over hers. And again.

Laila trembled. He caught her upper lip between his own, then her lower. The center of her body turned warm and liquid as she tried to kiss him back. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she moved her lips against his anyway.

He made a low noise in his throat as his hand came around to the back of her head. His mouth opened over hers, and she instinctively responded by parting her lips. And then his tongue—was this how people kissed? He put his tongue inside her mouth.

The sensation of it, so slick and warm, made her lightheaded and achy. Her breath came faster. She met his tongue with her own, sliding over him, tasting him. She had never dreamed that a man would have a taste.

Her hand came up along his arm, as if it had a mind of its own. She threaded her fingers through his hair, and it was as soft as she had imagined.

Niko pulled away from her.

Laila opened her eyes. He was breathing unevenly, looking at her with lines of strain around his eyes.

“That was a mistake.” He ran his fingers through his hair.

A mistake? Laila pressed her hand to her mouth. She was damp where he’d kissed her, and in other places as well. She ached.

“I’m sorry.”

Niko frowned. “Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.”

He got up and went back to the window, turning his back on her. The hard muscles of his shoulders showed clearly through the linen of his shirt. “We should leave as soon as you’re able. There are still a few hours left before dawn.”

“You mean you don’t plan to sleep here?” She tried to match his brisk tone.

“I’d rather not. This isn’t a safe place.”

Laila thought of their hostess, with her clever eyes and ironic tone. “You don’t trust Sosima.”

“I don’t trust anybody.”

She frowned, considering that. “Not even your friends?”

“I don’t have friends, milady.” He said it in an offhand tone as he leaned an elbow in the window opening.

What a lonely life he led. Her friends had been the only thing that had given her any lasting pleasure. They’d been her family, her confidantes, nearly the sum of her world.

What would life be like with no friends? She could hardly imagine it. The closest she could come was her secret retreat to the Temple archives, where she read all the material on the outside world that she could find. Even Malina hadn’t known about that habit.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he growled.

“Like what?”

“Like you think I’m a lost dog starving for affection. I don’t need your pity.”

“Good, because you don’t have it.” Her words came out sounding snappish instead of jaunty as she’d intended. He was impossible. First it was a mistake to kiss her and now she was insulting him with her pity.

If all men behaved this way, then perhaps she didn’t belong in the outside world. However, it was wrong to judge an entire group of people by one example. She knew that much of ethics from her reading.

Niko had turned back to his city view as if she’d never spoken. There wasn’t much to see in the middle of the night with no visible moon. He must be avoiding her.

“Can you walk?” he said coolly.

“If I must. I don’t think I would get very far.”

“Then we’ll stay through the day.”

“Niko, you don’t have to stay with me. I’m not your responsibility.”

He said nothing and didn’t look at her. Laila sighed. Apparently there was no talking to him and she truly was exhausted. She stretched out in the bed and went to sleep.

***

Niko stared out the window until Laila’s breaths became slow and soft with sleep. The silly chit felt sorry for him, when he neither deserved nor wanted her pity. If she knew even half of what he’d done, what had been done to him, she’d run away in disgust.

The moon had set, but the starlight was sufficient to see the maze-like pattern of streets and buildings covering the hillside. The scents of jasmine and roses drifted up to him from the garden below.

Maybe Laila was right. She wasn’t his responsibility and he ought to leave her. The worst that would happen was she would enter a rebuilt temple and resume the life she’d left behind. If she stayed with him, he’d eventually give in to his lust and take her.

He tapped his fingers on the window sill. That was nonsense. Going back to the temple life was hardly the worst thing that could happen to her. She could end up enslaved, either privately or, worse, in a brothel. There were quite a few men in Atlantis who’d be willing to pay an outrageous sum to deflower a priestess of Desou.

There were houses that specialized in virgins and that sometimes used them in shows. The thought of Laila being raped before an audience made his stomach hurt. And why should I care what becomes of one spoiled priestess? Hundreds of girls in this city are sold into brothels every week.

He shouldn’t care, but he did.

Light had begun to seep into the sky along the horizon. Dawn was nearer than he’d realized. As he stared at the pale edge of the sky, weariness came over him like a heavy cloak. He’d have to take the floor again, since Laila had the bed.

Someone knocked on the door. Niko glanced at Laila, who seemed oblivious to the noise. He went to the door and opened it.

Sosima stood in the corridor, still clad in the crimson silk. Her hair looked tangled, as if she’d been running her fingers through it repeatedly. Niko tensed. He was too tired for her manipulations. All he wanted to do was sleep.

“You have to go into hiding immediately,” she whispered, leaning toward him.

He braced an arm in the doorway. “Why? What’s happened?”

“The Guard is here, looking for you. An hour ago we had someone come to the gate asking questions. We turned him away, but now they’re here.”

He lowered his arm to let Sosima enter the room. “I would have thought you’d turn us in.”

Her jaw tightened. “If you think so poorly of me, why did you come here?”

“I told you. I was desperate.”

“Indeed.” She glanced at Laila. “You should leave her here with us and save yourself. She’ll only slow you down.”

“I’m not leaving her.”

Sosima narrowed her eyes at him. “Why is this little human so important to you?”

Because maybe if I save one person, I can make up for the others.

He shrugged. “Who said she was important? I find her amusing, that’s all.”

“Amusement in this case could be dangerous. You ought to leave her here with me. I can find a place for her.”

Niko almost laughed. “Why would you want to help Laila?”

“I don’t. I want to help you. She’s going to get you killed, Niko.”

What if he did leave Laila here? Sosima had a large staff and luxurious home. She could easily provide everything Laila needed, and she had many contacts in the city, both business and social. If anyone could find her a home, Sosima could.

Niko’s gaze slid to the young woman on the bed. He would be free of her. Free to continue his life without the complications of a dependent. Alone again.

“No. I’ll take care of her.”

The blonde sighed. “Alright, if I can’t talk sense into you then get your pet and come with me.”

Running would be preferable to hiding, but with dawn already here, he couldn’t go outside. And fighting was impractical. He might kill every one of the Guardsmen, but that would only bring the rest of them down on his and Laila’s heads. For now, he would play the mouse and hide.

Laila opened her eyes. She took in Sosima’s presence with no sign of surprise, merely sitting up with a yawn.

“We’re moving to another room,” he told her.

She got out of bed and picked up the bag she’d been carrying all night. Sosima smirked.

“You have her well-trained already.”

Apparently she’d decided to drop her pretense of friendship. Laila gave her a murderous sideways glance, but said nothing. Niko slung his pack over his shoulder.

“She’s a good girl,” he said, mostly for Sosima’s benefit.

“I see that. Follow me.”

Niko took Laila by the hand. She tried to pull away, giving an annoyed huff when he wouldn’t allow it. He smiled to himself. His little bird would probably like to peck his eyes out just now.

Sosima took them to the end of the corridor and down a narrow staircase. It wasn’t the staircase they’d taken earlier when the steward had shown them to their room. That had been grand, for the use of the householders and their guests. This one was a narrow servants’ stair, lit only by one lamp on each level.

Now he was truly putting them at Sosima’s mercy. If anything went wrong or she decided to betray them, there would be only one way out. No escape route.

On the way down, Sosima took the last oil lamp from a holder on the staircase wall to light their way. They descended into a cellar filled with huge baskets and clay amphorae, which presumably contained wine and olive oil. The walls were made of stone, and the temperature in the room was chilly enough to make the hair on Laila’s arms stand up. He wondered how uncomfortable she’d become before they were able to leave.

“I hope you don’t mean to put us in those baskets,” Niko said. “They wouldn’t fool anyone for long.”

Their hostess shook her head. She went to the back wall and pressed on one of the stones. The wall swung away into an even darker space, a hole completely un-illuminated. Sosima walked into the room without hesitation, holding up her lamp so they could see what the chamber held.

There was a string bed against one wall, with a couple of blankets on it. A small table held a pitcher, presumably of water or wine, and a tray with bread and cheese. The low ceiling just cleared Sosima’s head—Niko would have to duck to move around.

Laila looked up at him with such apprehension on her face that his chest went tight. He squeezed her hand. “It will be alright.”

The gesture was only to comfort her and keep her quiet, not because he really felt sympathy for her. The constriction around his heart meant nothing. Nothing at all.

He led her into the little room and sat down on the bed. Laila sat next to him, her back stiff and straight. His task until they were able to leave would be to keep her calm.

“Someone will come to release you when the danger has passed,” Sosima said. “I have to go now and make them welcome. Otherwise they’ll be suspicious.”

She departed with the lamp in her hand. As the light left the room, Laila’s grip on his hand tightened. Sosima swung the hidden door back into place, closing them in perfect darkness. Laila made a muffled sound of distress.

“Are you afraid of the dark?” he said softly.

“I am now. Why didn’t she leave the lamp?”

“The light would probably show through the crack in the door. We’ll have to be very quiet in here, you know. The guardsmen will search the whole house, even the wine cellar.”

Laila shivered. He felt the tremor in the bed. “What if she betrays us?” she said.

“If she were going to do that, she could have simply told the guardsmen we were in her house.”

“That’s true.”

Niko patted her hand.

All around them, the Dark waited, as it waited for him every night. It had presence, substance, consciousness. Over one hundred years ago, he’d made a compact with the Dark, had agreed to its terms in exchange for the powers and eternal life of a vampire, yet when it reached for him he always found himself turning away. Niko closed his mind to it.

“Let’s lie down. We’re going to be here awhile, so we might as well get some rest,” he said.

He let go of her hand and stood up. The chamber smelled damp and earthy, like a cave. Or a crypt. There was a rustle in the dark as Laila stood up too.

“I can’t see anything,” she said nervously.

“Just stay where you are. It’s a small room, anyway. You can’t get lost.”

She gave a soft, startled laugh.

Niko bent to pull down the covers. He reached for her hand, drawing her toward the bed. She climbed in after him and he covered them. The scent of jasmine, lingering smoke and ripe young woman made him ache in his groin.

He hadn’t been with a woman in months. Whores didn’t interest him, he shunned other vampires, and he had no place in his life for a good human woman. When he couldn’t go without any longer, he swallowed his pride and found a prostitute – but only when he was desperate.

Laila brushed lightly against him from shoulder to hip. She held herself rigidly, as if trying to avoid full contact with him. Either she still feared him, or she simply wanted to stay away from the corrupting influence of a man.

 

Chapter 9

 

Niko thought of Laila’s smooth skin under his hands, the taste of her mouth, and his cock pulsed. The bed was made for two people, but it wasn’t generous in its proportions. He moved as far toward the wall as he could manage, to keep some distance between them.

“Can you see in here?” she said.

“No.”

“I thought vampires could see in the dark.”

“Even we need a little light, and there’s none in here.”

“Do you think we’ll be able to hear them when they come into the cellar?” She twitched the blanket higher.

“If I’m awake, I’ll hear them. Go to sleep, Laila. They won’t find us.” He made his voice as confident as he could. If the Guardsmen did discover the two of them, he’d be forced to kill them, but he didn’t want to tell her that.

“I can’t sleep. I’m too scared.”

“Talk to me, then. Tell me about the Temple.”

He felt the bed jiggle as she moved her head. “What do you want to know?”

“How did you spend your time?”

Laila sighed. “I danced. I spent at least two hours every day in dance training and practice. About half the time I also had some kind of ritual performance.”

“Do you like dancing?”

“I love it.”

Niko tried to picture her performing. As a vampire, he’d been barred from participating in most religious activities in Atlantis, but he had seen quite a few street dancers in the markets and at fairs and parades. The thought of Laila performing the erotic movements of a street performer did nothing to calm his raging cockstand.

“What were the dances in the Temple of Desou like?”

“Some are slow and serious. Some are quick, with a lot of leaping. They’re about Desou fighting demons. Some are about the—uh—the relationship between Desou and his wives.”

“The relationship? You mean sex?” he said, smiling into the dark.

She squirmed. “Yes.”

“So you had a bunch of virgin priestesses dancing about sex.”

“It’s not funny.”

“I think it is.” How much did Laila know about sex, anyway? Maybe the priestesses didn’t consider it an important subject for a girl who was destined never to know a man.

“Well, it doesn’t matter what you think because we only performed for the eyes of the god,” she said tightly.

He opened his mouth to reply. Outside their little cell, there came the sound of boots on stone. There were several men approaching, coming down the narrow servants’ stair. Niko laid his hand on her arm.

“Someone is coming,” he whispered into her ear.

She tensed, with a sudden intake of breath. Niko listened. The footsteps came nearer, into the wine cellar itself. A thin line of golden light appeared around the edge of the cell’s hidden door.

“Check those baskets.” It was a rough, male voice, vaguely familiar. Probably one of the men who’d been chasing them earlier.

“Niko?” Laila whispered.

“Yeah?”

“What if they find that door?”

“Then I fight and you stay out of the way.” He carefully peeled back the covers and crept out of bed. The frame squeaked as he moved. Laila touched his wrist.

“Don’t fight for me. I’ll go peacefully and you won’t be hurt.”

Was she joking? Her remark seemed out of character, yet she sounded completely sincere. Niko glanced in her direction, although there wasn’t enough light for him to see her.

“That’s very thoughtful of you, Laila.”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I care about your welfare.”

He couldn’t keep the smile from his voice. “Your surrender won’t stop them from trying to hurt me.”

“But—”

“Hush.”

In the wine cellar, the men scuffled around, each sound making a picture in Niko’s mind. The scrape and clink of amphorae being dragged, the muted thump of baskets being opened, all in the search for a fugitive vampire and his “captive.”

“Curse them to the seven hells,” one of the guards said. “They’re not in here. His Majesty won’t be happy about this.”

“His Majesty isn’t the one you should be worrying about,” said another.

“You know something I don’t?” said guard number one.

“The word is it’s one of the other temples behind this search. But don’t tell anyone you got that from me.”

The first guard whistled between his teeth. “Sounds like everybody wants a piece of this woman.”

His voice came so clearly that he must be standing right in front of the hidden door. Even Laila’s ears could probably pick up the guards’ speech.

A third person came creeping down the stairs. No booted feet this time.

“Guardsmen?” said a feminine voice. It wasn’t Sosima.

“What is it?” the second Guardsman said brusquely.

“I wanted you to know—that is, I thought I should tell you—Sosima is hiding the fugitives here.”

Niko closed his eyes. This day just got better and better.

“You would betray your mistress?” said the Guardsman.

“I disagree with her actions.” The woman’s voice was stiff, defensive. “She shows gross disloyalty to Atlantis by not cooperating with your search.”

“I see. Well, where are they?”

“Here.”

There was a tapping sound as the woman knocked her knuckles against the wall. The door moved slightly. Shit. He was going to have to fight after all.

“Will you look at that,” the guard said.

“I’ll be going now.” The woman scurried back to the stairs. She probably knew that Niko would attack her just as quickly as he’d attack the Guardsmen and wanted to run and hide. He spared a thought for Sosima. Things were not going well for her either, but he and Laila had no time to rescue her. Maybe she had an alternative hiding place.

The Guardsman pushed and the door opened a full handspan. “If you’re in there, come out nice and quiet and you won’t get hurt.”

Niko turned to make a gesture of silence at Laila.

“I’m right here, Guardsmen,” she said.

Niko gritted his teeth. “Laila, no.”

The little vixen pushed past him, taking hold of the door and swinging it open far enough to admit her. At the same time, the Guardsman tried to come into the chamber. They bumped into each other, the guard grabbing Laila’s arms. He yanked her roughly into the wine cellar.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt me!” she protested.

“Shit,” Niko muttered.

“Come out of there, vampire.”

“Piss off.”

The guard gave an exaggerated sigh. “You can come out or we can light one of these bottles of oil on fire and toss it in there. Either way works for us.”

“Let him go,” Laila said. “He was only trying to help me. None of this is his fault.”

“Milady, I have orders to take both of you.”

Niko waited. He didn’t know how many guards there were, but he was guessing just two. Why had the Guard sent only two men after him? Either they didn’t know how dangerous vampires could be, which seemed unlikely, or there were more men waiting above ground.

“I’m coming in, vampire.” The guard pushed the door open another handspan. “There are twenty more men upstairs, so it won’t do you any good to fight.”

He didn’t answer. The guard entered the chamber. Niko kicked out and broke the man’s kneecaps in one strike. The fellow howled as he sank to the floor.

“By Desou!” The other guard had terror in his voice. “Are you alright?”

The injured man couldn’t answer except with a groan of agony. He writhed on the floor. His sword was out of his reach because he was laying on it, but he tried for the knife in his boot. Niko stepped on his wrist.

“I’m taking the priestess upstairs,” his partner said.

Things were going from bad to worse. If the guardsman took Laila upstairs, Niko would lose her. By now the sun was well over the horizon and to go outside would be suicide for him.

Is losing her such a bad thing? Curse you, yes, he answered himself. The involvement of this other temple worried him. Their plans for her couldn’t be benign.

Fighting was now inevitable. He slipped out of the chamber, the crippled guardsman still moaning on the floor. The remaining guard was backing up the stairs, holding her in front of him like a hostage, a knife at her throat. Laila lifted her head and Niko’s eyes met hers. She sagged in the guard’s hands so that he almost dropped her.

“You daughter of a motherless goat. Get up!” The guard saw Niko and his eyes widened.

Before he had time for more reaction, Niko leaped over Laila where she crouched on the stair. He kicked out at the guard. His feet connected squarely with the man’s chest.

The guard fell backward. His skull hit the edge of one of the steps with a sharp cracking sound, his eyes rolled up and he went still. Niko paused, turned on the stair. Laila gaped at him.

“You killed that man.”

He glanced down at the guardsman. Another death on his conscience, but there was nothing he could do about it now. “Maybe. Doesn’t matter. We have to get out of here.”

“Doesn’t matter? Of course it matters!”

He ignored her, leaping over her and the guardsman to land in the center of the wine cellar. The one he’d kneecapped had dragged himself out of the not-so-hidden chamber. Niko stepped over him and went for the bedding.

They were going out into the sun, and he needed protection. Stripping the bed, he dropped the blankets on the floor and rapidly tore the sheets into strips. Laila followed him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to wrap these around me.”

She frowned. “You’ll look like a leper.”

“That’s the plan.” He took up the second sheet.

“It won’t work. They’ll know it’s you.”

Niko kept tearing. “Can you think of a better idea?”

Laila shook her head. The fabric was old and worn thin, so it ripped easily. When he had a pile of strips, he threw some to her and began to wrap the rest around his body. He started with his legs, covering his trousers in bandages.

“Hurry,” he said. “The others will be down here soon.” Her human slowness was damaging their chances.

She rolled her eyes at him. “What about me? They’ll recognize me.”

“Wrap your face and hands.” He began to bandage his own head.

“Nobody will be fooled by this,” Laila grumbled as she made a makeshift turban for herself.

“People don’t really look at lepers. We’ll be practically invisible. You’ll see.”

“What about you? This won’t protect you from the sun, will it?”

“We’re about to find out.”

“We’re going to get caught,” she said.

Niko turned on her with a glare. “Quit whining. I’m not going to give up and let them take me. We’re going to go out like this, and you’re not going to do or say anything unless I tell you to. Understand?”

She gave him an answering glare. “I never asked you to stay with me. In fact, I think I remember telling you to leave.”

He wasn’t going to argue the point with her. Maybe he should’ve left her, maybe he never should’ve removed her from the Temple precinct in the first place, but he had. She was his responsibility now, and nothing was going to stop him from doing what he must to protect her.

Niko threw one of the blankets over his head for extra protection from the sun. He shoved her bag in her hand, took her by the wrist and led her from the room. If she didn’t cooperate with him, though, he was tempted to spank her.

They reached the first guard. The man still moaned softly, but had stopped trying to drag himself. The fellow’s companions waited upstairs, or outside the house. Niko crouched down next to him. The guard stared up at him with a befuddled expression.

He laid a hand on the man’s shoulder, pressing into his consciousness with the power of his mind. It was a skill he’d never really mastered. He could sense the other fellow’s mind, yet couldn’t tell for sure if he was having any effect on it.

“Are there really twenty men upstairs?” Niko said.

“Ten. In the street,” he rasped.

“Forget you saw us leave. Remember us dressed in ordinary clothes.”

The man stared at him for another moment. Then his eyes fluttered and closed as if he’d lost consciousness. Please, any gods who are listening, let that work the way it’s supposed to. Niko straightened, his other hand still wrapped around Laila’s wrist. He motioned toward the staircase with his head.

The lamps in the staircase still burned, probably to light the way for the guardsmen. They crept up to the ground floor. All the windows were tightly shuttered and the house was silent. Whoever had let the guardsmen into the house had apparently hidden at the sound of the fight. This was going to have implications for Sosima’s standing with the Atlantean authorities—but that was her problem, not his. Laila’s safety was more important.

Niko and Laila padded across the entry hall into the back garden. The outdoor space was flooded with light so bright he could hardly see. He’d wrapped several layers of linen over his eyes to protect them from the sun and the light still made them water. His skin began to sting. Niko hitched the blanket over his head.

“Laila, help me find the back gate,” he murmured in her ear.

None of this would have been necessary if he hadn’t spent the past hundred years trying to convince himself he could be almost normal as long as he didn’t pursue the full range of his powers. He’d probably know how to fly. How to fascinate and fully control human minds. He would have been able to take Laila to his bolt-hole in the mountains without any help from Sosima, without running into the City Guard.

That was all true, but the pursuit of power was dangerous. His desire for it had made him into a vampire in the first place. Desire for power had turned him into a monster, killed his family, ruined any chance he’d once had for a good life. He refused to give in to it a second time.

 ***

Laila couldn’t recognize Niko. If she hadn’t seen the transformation for herself, she wouldn’t have believed it was he. Dingy white bandages covered him from his crown to his feet, completely obscuring his face and his inky black hair. She probably looked much the same, except for the dress she wore.

He shut the gate behind them. Then he took her arm, leaning into her as if he couldn’t quite support his own weight. Laila glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. With the bandages covering even his eyes, she couldn’t see his expression.

“Let’s go,” he said in a hoarse whisper.

The gate let on to an alley between Sosima’s garden and the garden of a neighbor. Since it was still morning, the gravel felt cool beneath her feet, and the garden walls cast thick shadows over the ground. Here everything was peaceful. Once they reached the major streets, noise and danger would surround them.

They began a shuffling walk to the end of the alley and the main road. Laila looked over her shoulder at the other end of the narrow way. In the night she’d gotten so turned around that she wasn’t sure which end opened onto the street they’d taken to Sosima’s house. One road held the watchers. The other road was free.

As they neared the intersection, the smells and sounds of a busy city road filled her nostrils. Laila’s pulse whirled. So many people—at least twice as many as last night. Horses clattered past, dense crowds of young slaves and freemen shouted at one another as they went about their business, a rooster crowed in one of the gardens.

She swallowed. She could get through this without panicking. It was only noise and movement, nothing more. Nothing compared to the punishment she and Niko would receive if the Guardsmen caught them.

At the intersection, Niko paused. He never turned his head, and he probably couldn’t see much through the layers of linen anyway. So what was he doing, lurking in the shadows at the corner?

She peeked around him. Everything looked safe in that direction. Then she turned her head and saw the Guardsmen, clustered around the heavy front gate of Sosima’s house, waiting to capture her. Whoever was looking for her wasn’t interested in reinstating the Temple and the priestesshood.

Sunlight reflected off their breastplates and feather-crested helmets. They looked fearsome. Laila’s throat tightened. Her breath came in shallow little pants as she stared at them. She began to feel lightheaded.

“Don’t stare at them,” Niko said under his breath. “They’ll sense you looking.”

“How do you know what I’m looking at?”

“I can feel it.”

A group of poorly dressed commoners was walking toward them, coming from the direction of the Guardsmen. Niko pulled her out just as the commoners came abreast of them. The man closest to them jumped sideways with a little hiss.

“Get back, lepers,” he said.

“Alms?” Niko croaked.

The commoner sneered at them. “If I had any money, I wouldn’t give it to the likes of you.”

He and his companions strode away, leaving Niko and Laila behind in the street. But there were others surrounding them, going in both directions. If the gods were kind, the Guardsmen wouldn’t see anything strange about a couple of lepers hobbling along asking for alms.

They made slow progress, with Niko hunched over and dragging his right foot. People cringed away from them rather than risk touching a fiber of their garments. Everyone knew about lepers. They were considered irredeemably unclean, even worse than vampires in their ability to defile anyone who came in contact with them.

Niko paused at the next intersection. He pointed to the wall of a building, where several young men were leaning. “Let’s rest there.”

Laila stopped. “They’re looking at us. I don’t think they like us.”

He snorted. “Of course they don’t like us. We’re lepers.” Niko turned his head casually, taking in a view of the street and the Guardsmen. “Never mind. We’ll go on.”

She was afraid to look, in case one of the Guards was looking at them. Instead, she kept her gaze fixed on the ground in front of her as she and Niko shuffled along. Laila had never met a leper. She’d only read about them and she didn’t know what they really looked like or how they behaved.

She did know that lepers were sick. Her body hadn’t fully recovered from the fire, so it wasn’t especially difficult to pretend to be tired and ill. She was tired. Her head still ached. In fact, all her muscles ached and her legs felt as if she had lead soles in her shoes.

A shout came from behind them. Laila turned to look before she thought better of it. The Guardsmen were talking urgently together, some of them gesturing toward Sosima’s house. They looked angry. Maybe it was alright that she was staring. Wouldn’t anyone look if they heard a sound like that?

“It’s the Guards,” she said, picking up her pace.

Niko held her back. “Don’t rush. It’ll draw their attention.”

“But what if they see us?”

“Keep your voice down and stay calm.”

She pressed her lips together. Remain calm. Right. This is not so different from all those times you snuck into the restricted section of the archives or climbed the tree in the courtyard. Except then no-one’s life had been in jeopardy.

She shouldn’t have spoken to the Guardsman in Sosima’s house. Until they’d grabbed her, she’d expected they would treat her with respect, but the Guard’s touch had been brutal. Whatever the searchers wanted with her, it wasn’t to reinstate her in a new Temple, and she was pretty sure they’d execute Niko for his part. She couldn’t accept that. He might be impossible, but he’d saved her life.

Three more Guardsmen came around the corner just ahead of them. They bore down on her and Niko with grim faces, their booted feet making a stamp-stamp that she could hear over the other noise in the street. They seemed to be looking at the crowd of Guardsmen in front of Sosima’s house, but at any moment they’d glance at her and they’d know.

They were so close now. Don’t look. Keep your eyes on the ground. Almost there. Laila’s stomach twisted so hard she wondered if she would throw up.

“Alms?” Niko said. “Alms for the lepers?”

Sweet Desou, he’s talking to them.

 

Chapter 10

 

“Get back.” The Guardsman raised his hand as if to strike them.

She flinched. And then they’d gone past, the sound of their steps receding into the distance. Niko was right. Lepers were practically invisible, or at least so repulsive that no-one wanted to look closely at them.

He took the next street that led away from the harbor. It wasn’t an alley, but it was much narrower than the street that led to Sosima’s house, and it wound back and forth as it climbed the rocky hillside. The houses rose straight up all around them. Any gardens they had must be in the back only.

Where was he taking her? Did he have a plan?

The sun had already heated the stones and Laila began to sweat under her wrappings as they struggled up the hillside. They weren’t even trying to shuffle or drag their feet anymore, but were striding along as quickly as Laila could move.

The road they followed ended in a stone wall overlooking a ravine, so they turned onto another even narrower lane, even more steeply overshadowed by tall and skinny houses. Laila’s tongue had begun to feel sticky and sweat had soaked her armpits and thighs. It seemed they had been walking forever.

Niko must be suffering much worse things. What happened to a vampire when he was exposed to sunlight? Surely a little sun was getting through to his skin. It was a huge disadvantage to vampirism, balancing out the superior strength and speed his people had.

“We need to find a place for you to rest,” she said.

“Look up the street. Is there a blue door somewhere ahead of us?”

“Yes. Two houses up.”

“We’ll stop there.”

She looked at him. He reminded her of a corpse wrapped in a burial shroud. No wonder people were afraid of lepers, if they went around bandaged like dead bodies.

“Do you know the people in that house?” she said.

“It’s empty.”

“No caretakers?”

Niko shook his head. “Not the last time I checked.”

The blue door was unlocked. As Laila pushed it open, some of the tension went out of her. At least they would be safe here for awhile, long enough for Niko to recover from his sun exposure.

On the other side of the door they found a small entry courtyard, with another blue door that apparently led to the house proper. A few desiccated weeds struggled through cracks in the earthen tiles of the courtyard floor, and stains marred the stucco walls. The place certainly looked abandoned.

She barred the outer door before opening the house. “How did you know about this?” she said as they went inside. The entry hall smelled stuffy, but it was dark and cool, all the shutters tightly closed.

“I spend a lot of time finding bolt-holes around the city.” Niko began unwrapping his hands. As the linen came off, he revealed reddened and blistered skin.

“Oh, no.” Laila took his left hand. “Is your whole body like this?”

“Probably.”

“You need to rest. Is there any furniture in this place?”

“There’s a couch built in. That room.” He pointed to a doorway on the right.

The chamber had white walls covered in frescoes of dolphins and fish swimming in the waves. A low platform bounded one side, with a few ragged pillows tossed along its length. Niko sat on the platform to continue unwrapping himself.

Laila sat down beside him. “I don’t mean to be rude, but why didn’t you take me here last night instead of Sosima’s house?”

“There’s no food here.”

“Oh.” She pulled the linen strips off her head. “But couldn’t you have gone out to get something?”

“I didn’t want to leave you alone.”

She gave him a furtive glance. Surely he wasn’t saying he cared about her. No, he wasn’t saying that. He did seem to have some notion that he was responsible for her, though.

Laila bent her head as she removed the bandages from her feet. If she were honest, she’d have to admit she was glad Niko was with her. She didn’t know what she would have done on her own—she might have ended up anywhere, starving in the gutter or servicing men in some brothel.

At least she didn’t have to worry about that with Niko, who had no interest in her body. Who thought kissing her had been a mistake.

“What if the Guard searches this house?” she said.

“I have a hiding place. A good one, that no-one will find.”

“They found Sosima’s room easily.”

“Enough!” He snarled the word so fiercely that she gave a start. “I understand I didn’t protect you very well this morning. I apologize. Is that good enough for you, milady? Or perhaps I should throw myself at your feet.”

His gray eyes glared at her as if she’d given him a terrible insult. She opened her mouth. Shut it again. Turned her head so he wouldn’t see the hurt on her face.

“I wasn’t trying to criticize you, Niko.”

He didn’t answer.

“Well. I’m going to see the kitchen. Perhaps they left something behind.” She got up and left the room without looking at him.

They might just save the Guard some trouble and kill each other before nightfall. Before that happened, though, she’d like to have something to eat. A priestess shouldn’t go to her death on an empty stomach.

Laila smiled at her foolishness. She wouldn’t care about her stomach once she was dead. But right now, it mattered. She was hungry, thirsty and tired.

She found the kitchen downstairs, in the basement, as it had been in the Temple. Keeping it underground let the cooks work in a room that was tolerably cool, even in the summer. Would Malina have known where to find the kitchen in a strange house?

Maybe she would have—she’d spent enough hours getting into trouble with Laila that she was familiar with the kitchen staff and the work they did. But she’d never had the patterns of thought Laila had. She’d never wondered and dreamed about the world outside, never cared to read the forbidden archives, never even wanted to look outside the Temple once she’d turned sixteen.

Laila had done all those things. And she was still alive, where Malina was dead.

The kitchen had been stripped of most of its furniture, except for one battered cupboard with chipped pink and yellow paint and one door hanging off its hinge. The fireplace still contained a pile of ashes and charred wood. Some open shelves next to the cupboard held a few badly chipped dishes and one pitcher.

She opened the top cupboard door. The shelves were bare, nothing on them but dust. Bending down, she opened the bottom door to find the same situation.

Why am I even doing this? Niko said there’s no food in the house.

As she straightened, her gaze fell on the open shelves. There was probably nothing there besides old tableware, but she had to try. Laila began moving the little piles of plates and cups back and forth, checking behind them and finding nothing but more dust.

The pitcher was almost out of her reach. She had to stand on her toes to pull it down. Then she strained, pushing her arms to their limits as she felt along the wooden shelf. Please don’t let there be a spider or scorpion up here.

Her fingers met something cold and smooth. Metal. She dragged it closer with her fingertips and took it off the shelf. It was a long, narrow tin box with a tightly fitted lid. Laila opened it.

Inside were honeyed walnut pastries, dates, and dried strips of spiced meat. One of the cooks probably kept her stash of treats in it and had forgotten it when the household moved. She poked through the food with her forefinger, but didn’t find any mold.

Eating something would probably be good for him. Laila hurried up the stairs.

When she returned to the front room, she found Niko on his side with his head on a pillow. He was naked except for a loincloth.

Laila stopped in the doorway. His eyes were closed, his mouth tight with what looked like pain. The skin over his chest, belly and legs was almost as reddened and blistered as his hands.

She shouldn’t stare at him. It was rude to stare. But he looked so different, so male, and she’d never even seen a picture of a naked man. His chest was thick with heavy planes of muscle. A light furring of black hair arrowed down his taut belly. Beneath the loincloth there was a… bulge of flesh that she couldn’t seem to stop looking at.

Niko shifted on the couch. He opened his eyes and squinted at her, and she flushed with shame. To cover her embarrassment, she held out the box.

“I found some food.”

“Was there anything to drink?”

Her shoulders sagged. “I didn’t think of that.”

“There’s a well in the courtyard. Get some water and bring it here.”

Laila set the box on the floor. It was silly of her to want his approval. What did she care if he liked her or not? He didn’t seem to like anyone, come to think of it, which was probably another reason why he had no friends.

The house was designed around a surprisingly large central courtyard. She saw the well immediately, as it was surrounded by a stone coping at knee height. On the coping sat a bucket attached to a length of chain, as if waiting for her to use it. A lemon tree shaded the well and perfumed the air with its waxy blossoms.

Laila lowered the bucket into the well. There was a splash as it hit the water. She drew it up again, and realized she hadn’t brought anything to hold the water. So she went back down to the kitchen to fetch the pitcher and some cups, which were dusty inside and needed rinsing.

Back in the courtyard, she wondered if anyone in the surrounding houses could see her. A pergola covered in a rampant grapevine shaded the opposite half of the courtyard, but she could make out the rose tones of the slightly higher walls on the house next door. A person could possibly look over the top of that house’s parapet and spy on this garden. It would be a disaster if she were seen.

Lemon leaves and shriveled lemons littered the pavement under the tree. No-one had cared for this place in months, so any movement here might arouse the suspicion of neighbors. On the other hand, who would spy on the garden of an empty house?

Ordinarily, they wouldn’t. But somewhere in the city are people willing to burn down a temple with all the priestesses inside. If they can do that, they can certainly have spies.

She rinsed the pitcher and cups and filled them with fresh water, then hurried into the house with all three items balanced in her arms.

Niko had pushed himself into a sitting position. He looked about as ill as she had felt the night before. Laila handed him a cup of water and he gave her a curt nod. She sat next to him and sipped from hers, which was made of red clay with a clear glaze. The glaze had hundreds of fine cracks in it, and there was a chip in the foot, but it would do.

“We should be safe here for a few hours,” he said. “At any rate, I’m not leaving until the sun goes down. We’ll get into my hidey hole and sleep for awhile.”

She went to the box, picking it up and opening it. “Do you want any food?”

“I’ll eat when I wake. You should do the same. Otherwise, you’ll be hungry too soon.”

“I’m going to have a piece of this dried meat. There will be plenty left for later.”

He didn’t answer her. Laila took the smallest strip and bit a chunk off the end. It was salty, peppery and smoky, and very hard to chew. But it calmed the growling of her stomach admirably.

Niko stood. He gathered his clothes and the linen bandages. Then he walked around the room, smearing the bandages on the floor in some places and leaving footprints in the dust in others. Laila watched him for a minute.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to make it look like there were more than two people here,” he said. “Get up and walk around some. Your feet are much smaller than mine.”

After leaving their prints in the front room, they did the same in a second room on that floor. It had probably been a dining room, but now it was bare of furniture. When the dining room had enough of its dust disturbed, they went to the stairs leading to the basement.

Niko walked up and down the stairs several times before he stopped two steps from the bottom. He bent to the heavy granite tread of the third step and pulled it off, setting it on the tread above. Underneath it was nothing but a dark hole. Oh, no. He wants me to crawl in there?

He looked over his shoulder at her. “You go first.”

Her eyes went round. “Uh–uh. I’m not getting in there.”

“Laila, it’s the only safe place we have. There’s nothing scary in there, I promise you.”

“What about spiders and scorpions? They like to hide in dark places.”

“By the god of war and pillage,” he muttered with a dark look. “Alright, I’ll get in first.”

He leaned down and stuffed his bundle of clothes, tin box and blanket in the hole. His head and arms followed. Then he wriggled, pulling his torso through. The fabric of his loincloth pulled against the muscles of his rear end, clearly defining the round firmness of his anatomy. Laila had the oddest desire to touch him there.

She was not a good woman. In the Temple, she’d been legally married to Desou when she’d formally become a priestess at sixteen. She wasn’t supposed to lust after human men—or vampires—yet she did anyway. Not a good woman at all.

Niko pulled his legs and feet in and disappeared from view. Scuffling sounds came from inside the hiding place. Laila’s skin crawled. All kinds of nasty creatures might be lurking in there, and they wouldn’t take kindly to being disturbed.

He stuck his face up to the opening. “Hand me the pitcher and cups.”

“They might overturn in there.”

“Well, we can’t leave them out to be found.” He extended his hands.

Laila sighed and gave him the objects. She waited as he set them aside somewhere in the darkness. Then he poked his face out again. His black hair looked gray with dust.

“Alright, your turn.”

“Are you sure it’s safe for me?”

“Don’t worry. I sent all the residents packing and they won’t come back until after we’re gone.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t tease me.”

“I’m completely serious. Come on, now. Nothing will hurt you.” He sighed when Laila shook her head. “Don’t make me come out there and force you.”

Her palms were wet and her chest tight at the thought of climbing in there. Yet she couldn’t sit out here and wait for the Guardsmen to find her. Gingerly she bent down and grasped the edge of the hole. Niko had retreated into the darkness and all she could see of him was part of one arm.

“You’re doing fine,” he said. “Put your head and arms through. I’ll help you.”

Ah, gods. She squeezed her eyes shut as she poked her head into the hole. Niko took her hands, guiding them in and down. Her palms hit dry, cool earth.

“Now come forward,” he said.

She walked on her hands, dragging her legs behind her. The stone of the riser bit uncomfortably into her belly and then her thighs as she moved forward. She was almost in. Her shins scraped on the stone, making her wince.

Laila bent one knee to the earth. Then the other. She’d done it. She was inside the crawl space, and she hadn’t fainted yet.

“Good girl,” he said. “Now just come a little farther in so I can replace that tread.”

Laila shuddered. “I don’t know. I don’t think I can.”

“You can do it.”

His fingers brushed her shoulder. They traced down to her hands and grasped her firmly. He tugged. Laila followed where he led her. She wasn’t going to think about spiders. There was nothing in here to hurt her.

“That’s perfect,” he said. “Now I put back the tread and we’re done.”

She opened her eyes. Niko had moved so that he was right in front of—or under—the stairs. He reached through and up. There was a heavy scraping sound as he dragged the tread into position for lowering. The tread and his arms now blocked most of the light.

Niko had the stone balanced on his fingertips as he slowly lowered it into place. The last of the light disappeared. It was like being swallowed whole. The sensation was worse than when Sosima had shut them into her cellar room. The closeness of the walls and the feeling of bare earth under her made Laila shiver. The little hole smelled like the Temple crypt—like old death. Was this kind of place a natural refuge for vampires? If so, she couldn’t be one of them.

Again, his fingers brushed her. This time they passed lightly over her breasts, making her jump a little.

“Sorry,” he murmured. He grasped her by the shoulders. “You’ll be fine. I promise you.”

“I’m scared,” she confessed.

He drew her toward him. She shouldn’t touch him. She was promised elsewhere, and that oath still held even though the Temple was gone. But he was warm and solid, and she put her arms around his bare waist, resting her cheek against his chest.

Niko wrapped them in the blanket. “Lay down for awhile,” he said. “Rest. Everything will be alright.”

She let him turn her around and lower her to the earth floor, with the linen bandages and his arm as a pillow. His body pressed tightly against her back, his other arm across her waist. His breath lightly stirred her hair. There was only one layer of fabric between them; it was almost as if they were naked together.

The warmth and pressure of him against her bottom and thighs made the deep parts of her body feel strangely heavy and full. Between her legs, she tingled. The first time she’d seen him, from the attic window, she had felt the same sensations and she’d imagined herself to be ill. But it was him.

She wouldn’t embarrass herself a second time by showing him the way he made her feel. In fact, it would be better for her if she could snuff out her inconvenient, inappropriate longing for him since she couldn’t have him anyway. Her promise had been made to another, and Niko didn’t want her.

Laila stared into the darkness for a long time before she fell asleep.

She awoke with a start. Something was wrong. Niko still pressed up against her back, his body warm and comforting behind her. Their hiding place was cool and silent, but her heart beat fast and she knew that whatever had awakened her was a warning of some kind.

“Shhh,” Niko whispered in her ear. “Be very still. The Guardsmen are here.”

Then she heard muffled male voices somewhere above her. Heavy feet clomped back and forth across the floorboards of the ground story. Laila tensed, her heart banging so hard she wondered if Niko could hear it. The Guards had found their hiding place once. What if they found it again?

She waited in agony as the Guards moved through the house. Their footsteps came closer, their voices growing louder as they neared the staircase. Laila’s mouth went dry. She began to shiver.

The Guards started down the stairs. Their feet made a different, duller sound on the stone treads than on the wooden floorboards. She tried to swallow but she had no saliva.

Niko stroked his hand down her thigh. His fingers massaged the muscle with slow squeezes, which might have been sexual under other conditions. Now she simply found it comforting. Laila focused on his touch as the Guards passed overhead and into the kitchen.

Their voices came to her as an unintelligible rumble, rather than as words. The rumble approached, retreated, then approached again. What if they were looking at the stairs? What if they suspected? Laila closed her eyes and began a prayer to Desou under her breath.

Then suddenly the heavy feet pounded over her and Niko’s heads as the Guards went back up the stairs.

Laila continued to shiver. On the floor above them, the Guardsmen walked back and forth a couple of times and then the front door slammed. She strained to hear them outside, but they were beyond her capabilities now.

“We’ll wait for awhile,” Niko murmured. “Just to be sure they’re really gone.”

“Maybe they left someone behind to trick us into coming out.”

“Maybe, but unlikely. I don’t sense anyone in the house besides us.” He put his arm around her and hugged her. “You did well. Didn’t make a sound.”

“I suppose you expected me to sing and dance?” she said, with more acid than she’d intended.

“Sometimes when people are panicky they make involuntary noises.”

Although the guards were gone, he continued touching her, caressing her thighs and sliding his hand up to her belly. If he didn’t want her, he had a strange way of showing it.

“I was afraid, not panicky.”

“I stand corrected.” He sounded faintly amused. His lips touched the back of her head. “You smell delightful.”

“I smell like sweat and smoke.”

“So argumentative.” He brushed the hair from her neck and skimmed his lips across the exposed skin. Laila shivered again, but not from fear.

“Says the man who nearly bit my head off. Are all males so temperamental?”

“I don’t know.” He had a definite smile in his voice. “I haven’t met all males.”

“Anyway, I’ve hidden from people before.”

“Have you?” Niko pressed his lips more firmly to her throat. The gentle heat made her sigh with pleasure. If he kept this up, he would have her betraying her vows to Desou.

“Why were you hiding?”

“I used to go places I wasn’t allowed,” she said breathlessly. “The restricted archives, the kitchens, the attic. I read many books that were reserved for the high priestess alone.”

He laughed softly, his breath gusting against her skin. “Why am I not surprised?”

“I have no idea.”

His hand tightened on her arm. “The Guardsmen are back.”

 

Chapter 11

 

Laila gasped, although she’d heard nothing. “Oh, no. Maybe they suspect we’re here.”

“Shhh. Everything will be alright.”

Guardsmen in the house again. Her breath came so fast and shallow that she felt lightheaded. The front door banged open and shut, making her jump.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m j-just scared.”

“I won’t let them take you.” He made a trail of kisses along her throat, her jaw, her cheek. “Let me distract you until they’re gone.”

Impossible, that’s what he was. Insulting, sweet, dominating, protective—and impossible.

A low sound came from his throat as he moved his hand upward to cup her breast. At the warmth of his hand capturing her there, she gasped again. Quiet. I have to be quiet. Boots clomped through the rooms as Niko held her breast in his palm.

With his hands, he urged her to roll toward him. Then he captured her lips with his. Oh, yes, this was what she’d been longing for. The sweet slick of his tongue against hers, the softness of his lips, his breath ragged, his hand cupping her head, possessing her. Laila hardly noticed the noises the Guardsmen were making as they clattered down the stairs.

She put her arms around Niko’s shoulders. Was that right? It felt right, but she had no clear idea of what people did when they were physically intimate.

He wasn’t wearing anything except that loincloth. Her palms rested on naked male skin. Laila moaned into his mouth. She rubbed her hands over his upper back and across the tops of his shoulders. Outside their shelter, the Guardsmen were talking, and she didn’t care. All she wanted was Niko.

One of the Guards walked part way up the stairs, then back down. He stepped onto the first tread and jumped up and down. Laila let out a squeak.

“I won’t let them take you,” Niko whispered against her lips.

She clutched at his shoulders, burying her face against his chest. Ah, gods. His skin was so smooth and hot against her cheek. His fingers combed through her hair, then massaged the back of her neck as the Guard repeated his performance on the next tread.

Laila breathed in Niko’s scent. Her lips touched his skin, and he shuddered. The Guard landed on the third tread, the loose one. Niko and Laila both went utterly still.

The Guard stomped his feet on the stone. It didn’t budge. He moved on to the next tread. Thank you, Desou, Laila prayed. Whether Desou would listen to her now was doubtful, but to what other god should she pray? She’d always prayed to him alone.

Rumbling voices and clomping feet passed overhead as the Guards left the basement. Laila went limp with relief. Let them leave now.

“I think I chose the wrong kind of distraction,” Niko muttered as he shifted against her.

“Is that because you have no interest in my body?”

For a moment there was silence. Then Niko blew out his breath. “I said that, didn’t I?”

“You did.”

He sighed again. “I apologize. I only wanted to reassure you that I didn’t mean to force you. You seemed to be afraid of me.”

Yes. She had been afraid of him, afraid he might drink her blood, that he might rape her, that merely being with him made her unfit for the priestesshood.

“I suppose you have a point.”

“You’re not afraid of me now, are you?”

They were still whispering, which distorted his voice. Yet she could hear a note of tension in it, as if he worried what she might answer. Laila moved her hand down her body until she encountered his where he embraced her. She lifted his hand to her mouth and kissed it.

“I’m not afraid of you, Niko.”

He rested his face against hers. The stubble of beard on his cheek prickled her skin. “I’m glad. I don’t want you to fear me.”

“You’re awfully volatile, though. I don’t know if you like me or hate me.”

“Oh, I like you.” Now his voice had an even stranger note in it. “I like you too much.”

He caressed her face where his cheek had rested, then trailed his fingers down her neck to her shoulder. Laila shivered.

“H-how can you like someone too much?”

“I’m not a good man, Laila. I wouldn’t be good for you.”

Niko withdrew his arm and unwrapped the blanket that cocooned them. He pulled away from her, leaving her cold in the cave-like space. She wanted him back. She wanted to hold him within her body, to bind them together so that she would always have him. Her desires were as impossible as he was.

“They’re gone from the house. It should be safe to leave now,” he said.

The tread scraped against the risers as he moved it. Although fresh air from the kitchen swirled against her face, very little light came into their hole. The sun must have gone down while they were hiding.

“You go first,” Niko said.

Laila pushed her head out and took a deep breath of air that didn’t smell like a hole in the ground. Now that they had emerged, she needed to keep as much distance between them as possible. She wriggled out as quickly as she could manage, banging her shins in the process. For a moment she lay on the tiled floor, staring up at the ceiling, which seemed very far away after the confinement of the hiding place.

Niko handed out the pitcher and cups, then his bundle of blankets and the supply sack. Finally he pulled himself out and rolled onto the floor next to her. She turned her head. In the dim light, his skin looked pale and smooth again.

“Did you heal?”

“Yes.” He got to his feet and began to dress. The muscles in his forearms flexed as he pulled on his trousers. She’d never seen muscles like that. Women’s forearms never got that hard and they didn’t ripple with every movement of the hand.

Niko lifted his shirt over his head, which brought her attention to the flat plane of his belly and the fascinating line of hair that descended into his pants. Her heart beat faster than it ought to, and she throbbed in places she’d never really noticed before.

“I’ll get more water.” She needed to be in another part of the house right now.

Laila padded up the stairs, trying to keep the noise she made to a minimum in case someone was still listening. In the courtyard, the air felt soft against her skin and the sweet scent of lemon blossoms drove the remnants of the crypt-smell from her nose.

Although the sky above had some light in it, the courtyard itself was in deep twilight. Crickets chirped in the corners. She lowered the bucket slowly into the well to avoid splashing, and drew it up again. Where would she and Niko go from here?

She filled the pitcher with fresh water. He must be heading for his “bolt-hole in the mountains.” Desou, please don’t let it be another hole in the ground. She’d survived a day in one hole, but she didn’t want to experience that again any time soon. Or ever.

And after they made it to the mountains, what then? She had no place else to go, no family, no future. There was no place on Atlantis for a former priestess of Desou. It was forbidden to leave the priestesshood, for any reason, and she’d heard tales of priestesses who attempted it being put to death.

A hand descended on her shoulder. Laila jumped, stifling a gasp.

“Sorry,” Niko murmured. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She turned around to look at him. He appeared as a tall, dark shape in the darkness of the courtyard. Only his face and hands showed, paler than his surroundings. His eyes were hidden by shadow, but his lower lip caught the light and her body flushed with the memory of kissing him.

Niko took the pitcher from her. “I want to show you something.” He walked toward the side of the house, gesturing for her to follow.

There, a narrow staircase paved with colorful tiles rose two stories to the roof. Laila climbed behind Niko, carrying the cups in her hands. Sosima was right. Niko was not for her, and she had to put away her attraction for him. Maybe they could be friends, though.

At the top of the stairs was a roof garden with trees in pots and a small fountain that didn’t run anymore.

“It’s beautiful,” Laila said.

“I thought you would like it.”

“Are you sure the Guardsmen are gone?” She peeked into the garden.

“I’m sure. I watched them march down the road while you were getting the water.”

She sometimes forgot how quickly he could move.

Niko sat down on a bench, so Laila joined him. He produced the metal box of treats and they began to eat without speaking. Above them hung a slim crescent moon which hardly shed any light at all.

In the courtyard, the grape arbor and lemon tree had sheltered her from the hugeness of the sky. Here on the roof, the deep-blue vault above her seemed like an enormous spangled creature looming over her, waiting to pounce. Laila hunched over on the bench. She wouldn’t look up, and then maybe it wouldn’t disturb her so much.

Niko glanced down at her. In the dark she couldn’t see his expression. “Does the sky still bother you?”

“Yes.”

“You know it can’t hurt you, right?”

“Of course I do.” She was anxious, not stupid.

“I wasn’t insulting you,” he replied with a smile in his voice.

“You don’t know what it’s like.” Laila traced her sandaled foot across the terrace floor. “In the Temple, everything was controlled. Nearly every minute of our lives, supervised. We had rules for everything.”

“But you managed to break those rules sometimes.”

She lifted her shoulders. “I wanted to escape. I wanted to know what it was to live in the world outside. And now that I’m here, it seems too big. Like it might fall on me and squash me.”

Now he would laugh at her. Tell her what a silly little girl she was.

Niko placed his arm around her shoulders. “You’re right,” he said softly. “I can’t know what that’s like. But I know one thing—you have courage, Laila. You’re strong.”

“No, I’m not.” She hated how weak her voice sounded.

“You are. Not everyone could do what you did, break out of that place after a lifetime of imprisonment. You were raised to be nothing more than a slave, and look at you.”

“Yes, look at me. I’m sitting on a roof, afraid to look up at the sky.”

He tightened his hold. “You’ve only been out for—what—two nights? Give it some time.”

The words were in her mouth—what will become of me, where will I go, how long can I stay with you? I don’t know how to survive out here. But she couldn’t bring herself to say them. She sounded whiny enough already.

“You don’t remember your parents, do you?”

Laila shook her head. “No. Not at all.”

“Why do people bring their daughters to the Temple?”

“It’s a great honor to give a girl to the god. Not every child is accepted. But I always suspected that my parents didn’t want me. Maybe they had too many children already.”

He didn’t tell her she was wrong, as others had done when she voiced this notion. Instead he squeezed her shoulders lightly and said nothing at all. Laila closed her eyes for a moment, letting her head rest against his arm.

“Did you have a family? When you were still human, I mean?”

Crickets began to sing as she waited for him to answer. Some of the insects were on the roof with them. She could hear them so close, making their peaceful chirping sound.

Niko shifted his weight on the bench. “Yes. I had a family.”

“What was it like?”

He made a soft noise, like a stifled laugh. “I don’t know. It was good. My parents loved each other, I think. I hardly remember my father.”

“You were lucky.”

“We had a harder life than you can imagine.”

She angled her head up to look at his face. “But you had someone who loved you. Someone who… wouldn’t give you away.”

Niko’s brows came together as he studied her. His hand came up to the side of her face. His thumb brushed across her lower lip. “I’m sure people loved you.”

She tried to smile. “I’m not.”

“My poor little bird,” he said as he bent his head and kissed her. “Believe me. People loved you there.”

He was so confusing. “Why did you call me little bird?” she whispered.

His gaze dropped as a look of embarrassment came over him. “You reminded me of a bird the night we met. An exotic bird with fancy plumage.”

Laila smiled. She leaned against his body, savoring the contact with another human. No, not human. But another living being, who seemed to care about her although he was one of the thorniest people she’d ever met.

“Laila, do you have any theory about why people from another temple would be looking for you?” he said after awhile.

“For me in particular, no.”

“But?”

She sighed. “It’s just a feeling. I don’t even know where I got this idea—but I think they might be trying to kill me. Us. The priestesshood, I mean.”

He looked down at her. “You think someone started the fire on purpose?”

Now that it was in the open, the words spoken, her nebulous feeling of unease gelled into something more solid.

“I do. It didn’t occur to me until that Guardsman said the search originated in another temple. The high priestess didn’t discuss political events with us lowly temple dancers, but there were rumors.”

“About?”

“The Temple of Desou wasn’t always the most powerful. A couple of generations ago, it was relatively obscure, but we had some very ambitious priestesses and a royal sponsor. We displaced the Temple of Sorin.”

“But it still exists.” His arm slipped down to her waist.

“Yes, it exists but it’s much reduced. Their Temple buildings are in bad repair, or so I heard. The priestesses of Sorin never forgave us for pushing them aside. So I think they, or someone they hired, were the ones to set the fire. When they found there was a survivor, they decided to find me and kill me too.”

“If you’re right, then you can’t stay in Atlantis. It will never be safe for you.”

“Where else could I go?”

“You could come with me. Not forever, of course,” he amended quickly. “Just until we find a place on the mainland for you.”

“Who would want me? All I know how to do is dance.” Laila pushed her foot over the tiles again. They had a light-colored pattern she could just make out in the thin moonlight, and she followed it with her toes.

“Any man with eyes would want you,” he said.

He meant they’d want to marry her, or maybe keep her as a concubine. She felt a little sick at the thought of some strange man touching her, doing things to her, mating with her in exchange for giving her shelter and food. Besides, she didn’t want some random stranger.

I want Niko. And he doesn’t want me.

“I’d rather not talk about this right now.” She busied herself with choosing between the last two pastries in the box.

“Alright. We should be going, anyway.”

“Are you going to carry me?”

“Yes.” Niko held out his arms.

Laila stood, and he swept her up so quickly she threw her arms around his neck. The embrace put them close, their faces within inches of each other, and suddenly she didn’t know where to look. In the moonlight his eyes were darker, like tarnished silver. The heavy black fringe of his lashes looked so sensuous she wanted to touch.

He smiled at her. “Ready?”

“Yes,” she said, clutching her bag more tightly.

He carried her to the edge of the roof and stepped up onto the parapet. Laila closed her eyes, bending her head toward his shoulder. She couldn’t look, didn’t want to see the ground so far away. His body tensed and dipped as he prepared to jump, and then they were soaring through the air.

They came down on the next roof with a thump. Niko stopped. Why was he stopping? She opened her eyes enough to peek. This roof also had a garden, with heavily laden peach trees and a trickling fountain.

“This isn’t going to work,” he said. “There are too many obstacles, and sooner or later we’re going to run into people using these rooftop gardens. I’m going to jump to the ground. Hold on.”

“Wait—can we have some peaches?”

“Alright.” He went to the potted trees and quickly harvested four peaches, which he handed to her to put in the bag. “Is that enough for you?”

“Yes.” Here we go. Another night of running.

Laila clutched his neck as he turned and leapt off the roof. They dropped so suddenly her stomach seemed to fly right up to the roof of her mouth. Niko grunted when his feet hit the ground, and broke into a trot.

Even going uphill, he could run faster than any horse she’d ever seen. Alright, she hadn’t seen many—but surely no horse could move so quickly that buildings and trees went past in such a blur the rider couldn’t see any details. Especially not on a steep hill road that wound back and forth in hairpin curves.

They came up to another intersection, and Niko slowed. He put her on her feet. She looked up at him questioningly, and then she heard the sound of voices. A group of people were headed their way. He must have heard them before she could.

Niko reached up and pulled out his eyebrow piercing. Then he took her hand with a nonchalant smile and kept walking. Laila tried to arrange her face in an expression of unconcern, as if she’d just come from the forbidden archives and needed to look innocent.

Around the bend three young men came, singing. The fit and drape of their clothes seemed expensive even in the darkness, and their long hair was carefully curled. The men were weaving a little, their voices off-key and not entirely coordinated with each other.

O, it was a slim mermaid

Who kept me from home, they bellowed.

Her tail was as silver

Her hair like sea foam

She kept me from you, maid,

She bids me to roam

Beneath the cold ocean… .

“Is she for sale, friend?” the middle youth said as his companions finished the last line of the song.

 

Chapter 12

 

Laila edged closer to the vampire. Of all the possibilities, she hadn’t considered these drunkards might want to buy her.

“No.” Niko scowled at him.

“She looks like a good fuck.” He swayed in a cloud of alcohol fumes, peering down at her. “How mush d’ you want?”

“I said she’s not for sale.”

The fellow reached out to touch Laila. She recoiled as Niko intercepted him with a hand clamped on his forearm.

“Leave off before you get hurt,” he said.

“Unhan’ me, you feeble-minded bar-bar-barbarian.” The youth tried to free his arm, and the purple silk of his tunic sleeve made a tearing sound.

“You’re not in any condition to fuck, drunken fool. Go home and sleep it off.” Niko gave him a little shove.

He stumbled back, running into his friends and knocking them off their feet. The other two laughed uproariously. The youth staggered to his feet with a roar.

Niko watched him as he drew a knife from his belt. A few of the youth’s meticulously-arranged curls had come loose from their pins and were dangling over his left eye. He waved the blade at Niko.

Laila’s heart began to race so fast she felt lightheaded. Should she be more afraid for the three drunks, or for the vampire? Be afraid for yourself, if Niko loses.

The vampire merely looked bored. Both of the youth’s friends stopped laughing and got up when they saw the knife. They ranged around their companion, knees slightly bent, arms loose and ready at their sides. They seemed to know what they were doing, although she was a poor judge since she’d never seen a fight before.

A glance passed between the three of them. They rushed Niko simultaneously. Laila saw a blur of fists and feet, arms and legs. Voices yelled. Then the three youths lay on the pavement, moaning.

Niko stood over them, shaking his head. His clothes weren’t even rumpled. In his hand, he held the young man’s knife.

“Aristocratic idiots,” he said, tossing the knife onto the pavement next to the pile of defeated bodies. “When a man tells you his woman’s not for sale, you’d best believe him.”

“You wait.” The one in purple lifted his head to glare at them. “I’ll get you.”

Niko snorted. “Good luck with that.” He took her elbow and strode up the street so fast she had trouble keeping up with him.

“I’ll get you, son of an ape!” the drunkard shouted.

“Can you see them?” Niko said as she jogged beside him.

“I’m afraid to look at them. They might get the wrong idea.”

“Try anyway.”

Laila glanced over her shoulder. She could see nothing but vague dark shapes in the road.

“I can tell there’s something in the road, but not what it is.”

“Good enough.” He picked her up and ran.

The city of Atlantiri had high walls built all along the sea, yet on the mountains to the south there were no fortifications. Niko simply carried her past the fringe of houses sprinkled along the hillside at the edge of the city and continued into the hinterlands. The light of an occasional lamp shining from a house window disappeared as they left the town.

Now they had only the light of the stars, for the moon had already set. Laila glanced upward, and an odd swimming sensation came over her. She ducked her head. Maybe someday she would get used to the sky, but for tonight she was going to ignore it as much as possible.

They came to a section of road so steep it hardly seemed like a road at all. It forced Niko to slow down to almost-human speed as he climbed around and between giant boulders so high they almost blocked the sky altogether. At the top, he set her on her feet and leaned against one of the rocks.

The wind blew hard up here, whipping their hair around wildly, buffeting her so that she grabbed onto Niko for support. He put his arms around her and drew her against his body. No, I could never go back to the Temple, even if they wanted me to. I’ve come to crave his touch after only two days.

“Are you hungry or thirsty?” he said, putting his lips next to her ear.

“No.” Laila shook her head.

“Then let’s continue. We need to be at my house by dawn.”

Going down was no faster than coming up, and they didn’t descend as far as Laila had expected. The trail they followed was nearly invisible to her, so Niko continued to carry her. It dipped into small, high valleys and then climbed almost to the peaks again, repeating this pattern so many times she lost count and began to doze.

Then he stumbled, cursing, as a splash of icy water hit her bottom and thighs. Laila yelped. The burble of gently flowing water came from all around them.

“Sorry,” Niko said. “I just tripped over a rock. It’s alright.”

“A wet rock”

“We’re walking downstream so if they track us with dogs, they’ll lose the scent.”

“Do you need to put me down?” she said.

“No. It’s faster if I keep carrying you.”

The dark shapes of trees loomed over them, black against the dark blue of the night sky. He had to be getting tired by now. She probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with him very well, however, since he was still walking faster than a human.

If I were a vampire, I could keep up easily.

Finally Niko left the stream, striding confidently through the sparse forest as if he could see exactly where he was going. Which he probably could—but how did he know just where he was?

“Do you always take this route when you come here?”

“About half the time. I have several ways to get to my house, and I try to always have at least one escape route wherever I am. What happened at Sosima’s house was an idiotic mistake I should never have allowed.”

He sounded angry with himself.

“Why do you suppose Sosima had a hiding place that was so easy to find?” she said.

Niko snorted. “I don’t think they would have found us if her follower hadn’t shown them the hidden room. Her people are strange to me. They kiss up to the Atlantean authorities even though they’re treated as if they were diseased. They go about with rings in their eyebrows, looking proud to be marked.”

“You wore a ring.”

“Not by choice. And not anymore.”

Laila chanced a peek at the sky. “Niko, it’s getting lighter.”

“The house is just ahead.” He pointed.

She could barely make out the shape of a small building in the dim pre-dawn light. It had a steeply pitched roof. Off to the side was a structure that looked like a well, and a little distance from that was a huge, gnarled oak. Niko set her on her feet and they walked to the front door hand in hand.

He pushed the door open, and it swung quietly on well-oiled hinges. Niko shut and bolted it behind them, which blocked out any light from outside. Laila waited while he shuffled around.

“I’m not going to light a lamp,” he said. “It wouldn’t be worth the trouble to start the fire at this hour.”

He took her hand, leading her to a bench seat made of wood. She extended her hands in front of her and promptly bumped them into the edge of a table. There was a layer of dust on the top that she felt when she set down her bag.

Behind her came the sound of Niko opening the shutters. Just enough light came into the room for her to see the simple, packed-earth floor, fireplace and work table pushed against the wall next to a tall cupboard. Above the dining table was a rough dropped ceiling, with a ladder leading upward. Maybe he slept up there.

Niko took out a couple of plates and cups from the cupboard, along with some jars which he opened. He put food on plates and filled the cups with liquid before carrying them to the table. “All we have is dried stuff, but it’ll have to do for now.”

“We have peaches,” she said, taking two out of her bag.

He smiled at her. “I’d forgotten those.” He gave her a cup. “There’s wine, too.”

They feasted in companionable silence on dry flatbread, dried meat, peaches and wine while the sky slowly lightened. Presently Laila got up to close the shutters before the light made Niko sick. The window framed a lovely view of the valley below, with its rough patchwork of woods, vineyards, olive groves and small farms. At least, she thought that’s what they were. Until now, she’d only seen such a view in paintings. If only they had the time, she could have sat outside on the well coping and stared at it all day long—except then she’d be exposed to the heavens.

She pulled the shutters together and latched them. It was unfortunate that Niko couldn’t enjoy the view. Now that the window was blocked, she could hardly see well enough to bumble her way back to the table and sit down.

A thought struck her and she paused. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Where are you going?”

“I want to stand outside.”

Niko’s brows quirked, but he said nothing. Laila opened the door. Her heart wasn’t even racing yet.

From the safety of the interior, she could look at the sky unafraid. What a glorious blue it was. She stepped across the threshold, shutting the door behind her to protect Niko from the light.

The oak tree in the yard cast a long morning shadow over the earth. Laila walked over the dusty ground without looking up, until she stood at the edge of the shadow pattern. Now she was completely in the open.

Lifting her gaze, she took in the expansive blue ahead of her. It seemed to hold the olive groves and vineyards tumbling down the hillside in a great azure palm. She was part of that landscape now, held in it by earth and sky.

Laila tilted her head all the way back until she could see nothing but blue. Her pulse picked up speed. There was nothing to which she could anchor her vision, nothing to see but endless sky. She swayed, dizzy, feeling the pull of it as her heart slammed against her ribs.

Then she lowered her head and walked swiftly back to the house.

Inside, Niko watched her for a moment without comment. He turned to the cupboard, shuffling things around in a way that seemed completely random.

“How long do you think we’ll be here?” she said.

“A couple of days at the most. I want to get both of us off the island.”

Laila nodded. At least they were safe for now, and she had managed to look directly at the sky without panicking. Her situation was improving.

 ***

Niko couldn’t look at Laila. They were going to be together all day, sleeping, and he must keep his hands off her. He could bring nothing good into her life. He destroyed anyone he came to care about. Laila didn’t need a monster hanging around, especially not one who yearned to strip that ugly dress off her and take her like the animal he was.

He shouldn’t even be thinking that way. She needed a permanent place to live, a family, and he was going to help her find one. If he took her virginity, few men would treat her with the respect she deserved, even if they were willing to marry her for her beauty. So he couldn’t look at her.

“I need to take a bath,” Laila said, standing up. “Is there any way to do that here?”

“Uh—just a pail of water. I don’t have a bathtub.” And he wasn’t going to think about what she would look like in it, if he did have one.

“Do you have soap?”

“Yes. But you’ll have to draw the water.”

He found the pail and she disappeared into the bright sunlight outside to fill it. Niko laid a towel, a washrag and his only cake of soap on the table. He needed a bath, too. He smelled like dried sweat.

Laila came back in carrying the heavy pail and smiling. “It’s beautiful here.”

Not as beautiful as you are.

“I think it’s sad you can’t see the view,” she continued, setting the pail on the floor next to the table.

“I’ve seen it.” He sounded gruff even to himself. “By moonlight and at dawn and dusk. Remember, I can see a lot better than you in the dark.”

She glanced at him, then looked away. “I suppose that’s true.”

“I’ll be in the loft if you need me.” Niko climbed up the ladder to his sleeping area before Laila had a chance to answer him.

He stretched out on his bed and tried not to listen to the rustle of her clothes as she removed them, or the slosh of water in the pail. He tried not to imagine the sweet curves of her breasts, or the rosiness of her nipples, or the dark hair that curled between her thighs.

Niko’s cock pulsed with an ache that was almost painful. The sooner he found a placement for her, the better.

The door slammed as she went outside to dump the pail. Yes, he needed to find someone else to take care of her, someone who wouldn’t destroy her the way he would. If he kept her with him, there was no telling what would happen—except he would take her.

Niko reached into his trousers and grasped his cock. For now I’ll take care of this on my own.

The door slammed again. He jerked his hand out of his clothing.

“I brought in some clean water for you,” Laila called.

“Thank you.” Niko rolled off the bed and clambered down the ladder before he realized that she might still be naked. But she was dressed, and he was relieved. He really was. If she’d been naked, he would have done something neither of them could ever take back.

Her hair hung down her back in wet shining strands. “I feel so much better,” she said. For the first time since he’d met her, she looked happy.

Her skin and hair smelled like his soap. Her lips were so soft and pink, and he wanted to kiss them again. She seemed to know it, because she looked up at him with a welcoming smile, her lips slightly parted, her body inclined toward him just a little.

Niko turned his back on her. “Go up to the loft. I’ll follow when I’m done.”

Laila sighed. He waited until she’d climbed all the way up before he began to undress. At this rate, he wasn’t going to make it until they found a man for her.

He took his time washing. Maybe she’d fall asleep before he joined her, and he’d have a few more hours of peace. No, not peace. There’d be no peace for him lying next to her and wanting her when he couldn’t have her. But at least if she slept he could avoid doing anything about his yearnings.

After he’d rinsed his hair and toweled off, he ran out of excuses to stay away from bed, so he went up to the loft. She lay on her side, facing toward him, her hair spread out on the pillow behind her. Niko knelt on the loft platform next to his mattress. Laila opened her eyes.

His cock swelled again. Shit, this wasn’t going to work. “I’ll sleep downstairs.”

She put her hand on his arm as he moved toward the ladder. “There’s no bed down there.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Sleep with me. I don’t mind.”

“Curse you, Laila, I can’t sleep with you!”

She flinched as if he’d slapped her. Niko pinched his eyes shut. “I can’t. I’ll do things that I don’t want to do. That you don’t want me to do.”

“You have no idea what I want,” she said in a small voice.

“Laila, if I take you, no other man will have you. Or if he does, he won’t treat you well because you’ve been with me.”

“You really want me?”

“Ah, gods. Yes, I want you.” He ran his fingers through his wet hair.

Laila stroked his forearm. “I want you, too.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He pulled his arm away.

“I know it feels good when you touch me.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I want you to have a decent man. Not me.”

His eyes were still closed, but he knew when she sat up by the noises she made. Her small hand closed over his.

“You are a decent man, Niko.”

“You don’t know anything about me, and if you did you’d never say that.”

“Then tell me.”

He shook his head. If she knew, she’d never look at him the same way again, and he was too much of a coward to face that. He never wanted to see disgust for him in her eyes.

“I’m afraid to sleep alone.” Her voice was so soft he almost couldn’t hear it. Maybe he hadn’t—maybe he’d picked up her thoughts. Niko hunched his shoulders.

“I’ll harm you.”

“No, you won’t. I trust you.”

He laughed bitterly. “Don’t.”

She removed her hand from his, and his skin felt cold. The blanket and mattress rustled. Niko waited, but she didn’t say anything. Did you think she’d beg you?

He didn’t need to see disgust in her eyes, because he saw it all the time in his own heart. Without looking at her, he found the ladder and climbed down. For some reason, his throat felt tight, but he couldn’t be getting sick. Vampires never got sick.

Niko crawled into the deep shadows under the table to sleep. Blade-like lines of light outlined his shutters and door. Under the table he was safe from them. Unfortunately, he could also feel the Dark.

Outside, the sun reigned, but in his house the Dark was always present. He’d feel it like an old, unwanted friend until the night he died, and maybe for eternity. For years, he’d wondered if death would free him from the Dark or throw him whole into its maw.

Even when he slept, it whispered to him. Come this way, Niko. Closer. You’re promised to me, Niko, and I want you. I want you. And there were fingers in his dreams, fingers like black smoke, like fur, like dark deep water, caressing him and touching his face.

He woke with a cry. A voice came from above him, hoarse sobbing that in his sleep-befuddled state took him a minute to identify. Laila.

 

Chapter 13

 

Shaking the dream from his mind, Niko climbed up the ladder. Laila had her back to him, the blanket pulled all the way over her head. He crawled to her on his hands and knees. She responded by curling into a tighter ball and pinching the blanket tightly across her face.

“What is it?” He laid his hand on her shoulder.

The only answer she gave was a muffled sob. Shit. He’d always hated it when women cried—it made him feel helpless and guilty, even when he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Niko stretched out next to her. He put his hand back on her shoulder and left it there while her body shook and she made miserable little noises. A long time ago, he’d had a younger sister and when she had cried he used to put his arms around her to comfort her. Slowly he fitted his body to Laila’s, wrapping his heavy arm across her waist and snugging her to him.

“I’m here,” he whispered, because he didn’t know what else to say.

She clutched his arm to her as her tears wet his skin. Niko kissed the back of her head. Laila sniffed and cleared her throat.

“I killed them,” she said roughly.

“Who?” He stroked her hair. “It was just a dream.”

“No. The priestesses. The Temple. Desou destroyed us because of all the times I broke the rules.”

“Laila, you did not cause the fire.”

“I was upstairs looking at you when I should have been in bed. I wanted you, even then.”

He tried to make her turn over. She resisted him until he picked her up and turned her to face him. Her nose was pink and her eyelashes were stuck together with tears.

“We already discussed this. Someone in another temple started the fire, not you.”

Laila stared at him, her lips trembling. “But what if they were just an instrument of Desou?”

“I don’t believe that.” He wiped away some of her tears. “Why would the god want to kill you just because you desired a man?”

“We’re promised to him. Married to him, actually. By wanting you, I’m betraying Desou.”

“Oh, Laila.” He pulled her against him. “You’re made of flesh and you need a mate who’s flesh and blood too. Humans can’t marry gods.”

“But the priestesses said—”

“I thought you broke all those rules because you didn’t believe in them. Don’t you think the priestesses might have been wrong?”

“I don’t know.” She sniffed. “Maybe.”

He put her away from him, took a corner of his sheet and used it to clean up her face. “You didn’t kill anyone. You could have been killed yourself. Don’t blame yourself for something that isn’t your fault. Alright?”

“I saw them,” she said, dropping her gaze. “They said it was my fault.”

“Saw whom?”

“The priestesses. Malina.”

Niko’s hand lingered on the side of her face. Her skin was so smooth. “Who is Malina?”

“She’s—she was my friend. We had a room together.” Laila pressed her lips together. “She said I had brought the fire on them.”

“You were dreaming, yes?”

“Yes. But I think she was really here!” She raised watery dark eyes to his.

She must be talking about a spirit visitation. Niko pushed a damp strand of hair from her face. “Darling, even if Malina was here and did accuse you of bringing on the fire, she was wrong.”

Laila moved back into his arms. Holding her, a strange feeling came over him. He wanted to pet her and make her smile again, to kill anyone who threatened her, yet the way she snuggled against him made him ache to bury himself in her body.

When was the last time he’d felt tenderness toward anyone? More than a century. So many years that he’d forgotten what it was like. And he’d never experienced tenderness mixed with lust.

A dim memory stirred in his mind, of his mother and father together in the early years of his childhood. He could still see them laughing together, kissing playfully until the kisses turned into something else he hadn’t understood at the time. They’d loved each other, for awhile. Until his father had died.

Was that what was happening here? Could he—no. He and Laila had only known each other for a few days, and besides, he wasn’t the kind to—become attached in that way. But he hungered for her anyway, and he shouldn’t—couldn’t—do anything about it, yet he couldn’t back away from her either because that would hurt her, he knew that now, and he wouldn’t hurt her if he could help it.

Niko’s head dropped slowly toward hers until he rested his cheek on her crown. He would hurt her. Everything in him was made for it. Yet he wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop now. Couldn’t put her away.

Laila tilted her head back so that her face turned up to his. Her lips pressed stiffly against his mouth, and he almost smiled at her awkwardness. She did it again. Niko cupped her face, feeling the delicate bones under her skin. He kissed her.

She was so warm, so moist, tasting of wine and peaches as he licked the inside of her mouth. Her breath came in little gasps, little whimpers, as if the pleasure of kissing was nearly too much for her, and he knew that yearning, felt it in his own body. A low moan escaped him.

Shit. He was trembling like a boy with his first lover. His hands moved up and down her back, over her hips, trembling. Niko pulled at her dress, tugging it up so he could put his hands underneath, on her slim, muscular legs.

She was a dancer and he could feel it under his palms. He slid his hand up her calf, pausing to massage the muscle there, then farther up, to her thigh. Laila moved restlessly, scissoring her legs back and forth.

Her arms wrapped around his neck, her head angled as she plunged her tongue against his. Mmm, yes. Niko kept his hand on her thigh and explored her mouth as she undulated against him, moaning. With all this passion hiding inside her, she must have been miserable in the Temple.

He tugged at the hem of her dress. “I need to see you,” he whispered hoarsely.

His words seemed to break the spell. Laila drew back, her eyes round. “Is that how it’s done?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

She seemed doubtful. “No man has ever seen my body before.”

Niko flinched.

Gods, what am I doing? I have no right to touch her. Swallowing hard, he moved back a hand span so their bodies were no longer pressed together. His cock throbbed painfully.

“This is wrong,” he muttered. “We have to stop.”

“No.” Laila grabbed his wrist. “I’m part of the world outside now. If I’m to lose my virginity, I want it to be with you.”

“Laila—”

“Please, Niko.” She blushed. He could see the color in her face although the loft was very dark. Then she began, slowly, to draw up the hem of her dress, shifting her weight onto her knees so that she freed the length of it.

He couldn’t look anywhere else now. The white edge of the garment moved upward, over her pale thighs, the lovely shell-like curves of her hips and waist, her rib cage. He was trembling again.

She exposed herself fully to him as she drew her dress over her head. The bandages were gone. Her nipples were rosy, beaded peaks on the white fullness of her breasts. His hand moved, almost of its own accord, to cup one soft mound in his palm, and Laila gave a little gasp.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said. “The most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.”

For a man of his age, he wasn’t very experienced. Yes, he’d had a certain number of sexual partners, but they’d mostly been quick liaisons that he’d abandoned as soon as his immediate needs had been met. None of his women had been virgins.

This had to be good for her as well as for him. He needed it to be good for her, and he didn’t know how. She was afraid; he could tell. So he brushed his palm lightly over her breast, just to accustom her to his touch. She gave another little gasp, and as he continued, she began to moan.

He couldn’t wait any longer. Niko lifted her breast, bent his head and took her nipple in his mouth. When he suckled, she cried out, clasping his head to her. The sounds she made excited him so much he thought he might spill in his pants.

Think of something else. Like what? Atlantean politics, his medical studies, , deer hunting… . Deer hunting? He hadn’t hunted a deer in decades.

The idea of it gave him just enough space to control his lust.

Niko eased Laila back onto the mattress and began stroking her thighs. She looked up at him, her eyes glittering even in the dark. Did she understand what they were going to do?

“How much do you know about this?” he whispered.

“I know how our bodies fit together.”

Good. “I’m going to touch you, to get you ready for me.”

Her breath caught. “Will it—will it hurt?”

“Perhaps, but only for a moment.” He kissed her forehead, her nose, her lips. “I’ll do everything I can to make it feel good.”

“A-alright.”

He kissed her mouth again as his hand moved around to her inner thighs. She had them clamped together now, as if to deny him access. Niko caressed her smooth skin, going a little higher on each stroke, until he cupped her pubic mound. He rubbed her there in slow circles with the heel of his hand.

Her arms crept around his shoulders. The musky scent of her arousal began to perfume the air as, gradually, her thighs relaxed and opened. He drew his forefinger gently along the creases of her upper thighs, making her gasp with each pass, and then across the petals of her sex.

“Oh!” Laila tossed her head back against his pillow.

“You liked that.”

“Yes.” Her eyelids fluttered down.

He did it again, and she moaned. She was already wet. He traced along the folds and surfaces of her, as she trembled and whimpered her pleasure. Her legs were fully open now, bent at the knees, and she rocked her pelvis tentatively against his searching finger.

“I want to taste you,” he growled.

***

 Taste her? Laila lifted her head to stare at his shadowy form as her heart began to race. “You promised you wouldn’t bite me.”

His breath blew out in a soft laugh. “I don’t mean bite you, darling. I mean lick you. Here.” And he stroked her most intimate flesh again.

“What?” she gasped. She’d already bared herself to him, even the secret part of her that she’d never shown to another person. Even her own fingers had never done the things Niko’s were doing. She’d let him touch her there… and now he wanted to put his mouth on her?

He moved down her body, trailing kisses down her belly, flicking his tongue into her navel and making her giggle nervously. Laila tried to bring her thighs together. If he went any farther, he’d have a clear view of her. Of course he will, you silly chicken. He’s going to stick his face there. Oh, dear.

Niko lowered himself, settling between her legs. He easily pushed them apart, holding her open with his palms on her thighs. She could see the dark bulk of him, peering at her sex, and squirmed with shame and excitement.

He was too big, too strong, and she shouldn’t have tempted him into taking her. But it was too late to back out now, and she needed him. Until she lost her virginity, there was still a chance they could force her back into a temple.

His tongue brushed her delicately, just teasing, and pleasure shot through her like an arrow. She jumped with a yelp. Niko pressed her down into the bed and began to lick with slow, gentle movements all around the folds of her.

She’d never known that such sensations were possible. The warm wet strokes made her aware of herself in a way she’d never been before, every intimate surface glowing with delight. Then he began to lap at a particular, exquisitely sensitive spot, and the pleasure turned to ecstasy.

Her whole body seemed to pause, waiting for something she couldn’t identify. The fullness in her core gathered power until suddenly it burst through her in wave after wave of release. Laila gave a gasping cry as she clutched at the bedcovers.

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “What was that?”

Niko laughed softly. “It’s called an orgasm.” He sounded pleased with himself.

He rose over her and kissed her with an open mouth, and she tasted herself on his lips. His hand touched her entrance. One finger slid inside of her aching sheath. An even sharper pleasure speared through her.

Laila cried out with her whole voice. Something about the way he moved his finger inside of her made her feel like she was on fire. He pierced her, a sweet torment, and she screamed.

Niko bent his head down to hers, kissing her again, devouring her as she moaned into his mouth. When he removed his hand, she reached for his wrist, thinking to draw him back. To make him continue.

He stretched her arm over her head as he positioned himself between her thighs. Laila’s stomach flinched. He was going to do it, to enter her, hurt her. But she’d wanted this, and she wasn’t going to stop now. She took a deep breath as his sex touched the entrance to her body.

His hips flexed, pushing him inside of her. “So tight,” he murmured.

Laila whimpered. His cock felt huge as he stretched her. How could he possibly fit that thing all the way inside her?

“Easy, love,” he said. He pushed again, going deeper this time.

“I’m scared.” Laila whispered the words so low she could barely hear herself, but Niko heard them.

“Don’t be scared.” He kissed her gently.

Gods, how she loved his kisses. Laila drew his head back to her and took his mouth with her own. Niko groaned, plunging his cock into her in one smooth stroke. She tilted her head back with a cry. He seemed to fill her all the way to her navel, but it didn’t hurt.

“Are you alright?” His voice sounded husky.

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m going to—I need to—” He broke off with a groan as he began to push rhythmically into her body. His breath came rough and heavy as he worked.

And it felt so good, so good she couldn’t speak. Strange, animal noises came from her throat, groans and whimpers and sounds for which she had no name. Again the pleasure seemed to tighten and gather together, until it crashed over her.

Niko groaned, too. Maybe he felt the same overwhelming pleasure she had. Laila stared up at him, watching his eyes close as he moaned her name. He trembled, flooding her with hot moisture as a cry escaped him.

Afterward, Niko rolled to the side and tucked her against his body. Laila rested her head on his shoulder, throwing her arm across his torso. His skin burned against hers, and the press of him all along her length filled an empty place in her that she hadn’t known existed until now.

Her hand wandered across his chest and down his belly. There was little that was soft about him. Satiny skin covered hard muscle, with no fat that she could detect. She wanted to touch and explore him everywhere. Then she paused.

“Do you mind if I touch you?”

“No.” He covered her hand with his own. “I like it.”

“I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do.”

“It’s been a long time since anyone touched me.”

There wasn’t enough light in the loft for her to read his expression, even when she propped herself on her elbow. His voice sounded matter-of-fact, as if he were discussing the weather or some food he hadn’t eaten in years. Laila trailed her fingers across his face and brushed a lock of hair from his cheek.

To a vampire, a long time could mean decades, even centuries. How old was Niko? The empty place inside of him must be even bigger than hers. But he wouldn’t want her open sympathy—he’d probably see it as pity and be angry with her.

She nestled back into her place against his side, rubbing her palm over his ribs and down to his hip. “I like touching. It feels good. We didn’t touch a lot in the Temple.”

“You weren’t ever… intimate with the other priestesses?”

“Intimate?” What was he talking about? Of course, she had friends. Oh. Maybe he meant the “special friendships” a few of the Temple women maintained. There had always been whispers about them but no-one discussed them openly.

“I think I know what you mean. There were some women who had –I suppose they must have been lovers—but they were very secretive about it. I never did.”

Niko pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. “Poor girl. We’ll have to make up for that by touching as much as possible.”

“I like that plan.”

She draped her leg over his while running her hand up and down his thigh. Yes, she liked that plan a lot.

“Now go to sleep,” he added. “We’re going to have a busy night.”

Laila gave a soft groan. She’d almost forgotten they were being pursued. Tension replaced the sensual languor of sex as the reality of their situation returned to her. They’d escaped the city, but they were still in danger.

How long would it take the Guardsmen to find them in this remote place? They didn’t usually leave the city at all, but in her and Niko’s case they’d probably make an exception—and if the king didn’t send out the Guards, he might use the army.

“How am I going to sleep when I’m worried?”

“Try closing your eyes,” he muttered.

“Very funny. What if they find us while we’re sleeping? This doesn’t seem like the best place to hide.”

“Go to sleep, Laila.”

Laila raised herself on her elbow again, but she couldn’t see his face any better than she had before. There seemed to be no light at all up here in the loft. A low sigh escaped Niko.

He must be exhausted after carrying her through the mountains all night. Even vampires had their limits, it seemed. She wished she could watch him fall asleep. Instead, she curled up next to him, throwing her forearm across his lower abdomen. It was strange that she could feel so safe, just because she was touching him.

Hours later, she awoke hot and restless. The loft had no ventilation, and although the stone walls of the cottage were thick, it still turned sweltering in the summer heat. Laila sat up, rubbing her face. She was alone in the bed.

Downstairs, Niko moved around, singing under his breath. He had a melodious voice, although the tune was foreign and she couldn’t understand any of the words. It was a pretty song. What other hidden talents did he have?

A smile crossed her face as she stretched her arms over her head. She was no longer a virgin, and her lover was right downstairs. If she joined him, they could kiss freely. They could touch and embrace as much as they liked, maybe even make love again.

 

Chapter 14

 

Laila left the bed. Niko’s voice stopped in mid-verse. She climbed down from the loft, relying on her sense of touch to find the ladder in the dark. Downstairs, enough light came through the shutters that she could see him standing by the table.

“That song you were singing,” she said. “Is it in your native tongue?”

“Yes.” He set a tin plate on the table top with a bang. “Even barbarians have music.”

“Now what did I do?”

“Nothing.” Niko snagged another plate from his cupboard. “I didn’t mean for you to hear that.”

Her brow wrinkled. “Why not? You sounded beautiful.”

“It’s not something I do around other people.”

Laila tried to smooth her expression. She went to him and laid her hand on his arm, which only earned her an impatient glower.

“You can sing for me any time.”

Niko shook his head. He pulled away from her to rummage in the cupboard. He was truly impossible, and every time she thought they’d reached an understanding, he proved his impossibility once again.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Where did you come from originally?”

He slanted a glare at her as he picked up a wine jug and brought it to the table. “Somewhere else.”

“Come on, Niko. Why won’t you tell me?”

Bang went the jug. “Why do you need to know?”

“Because I want to know you. Aren’t we at least friends? Don’t friends tell each other things?”

“I don’t like to talk about the place I came from.”

She stared at him. He’d tied his hair back with a strip of wool and exchanged his city clothes for the coarse garb of a peasant. His jaw looked even darker and rougher, since he hadn’t shaved. She wanted to touch that roughness.

“The priestesses never told me where my family came from. I’m not sure if they even knew.”

He turned and looked at her, tilting his head slightly to the side. “Laila, this isn’t about you. I’m not angry with you. I just don’t like to talk about it.”

“Alright. I’m sorry I bothered you with it.”

Niko caught her by the elbows and drew her toward him. “I told you I’m not a decent man.” He bent down and kissed her on the lips.

Uh-huh. Trying to sweeten her into forgetting. “If you won’t tell me about your life before, will you tell me what you’re like now?” she murmured against his lips.

He released her and spread his arms to the sides as if displaying himself. “You see what I’m like.”

“Not really.” Laila gave him an exasperated frown. “How do you earn your money? How do you spend your time?”

Niko groaned. “You don’t give up, do you?”

“No. So, go on.”

“Once in awhile, I work. Usually as a private guard, or working a warehouse or unloading ships at night.” He recited the details rapidly and without expression. “My needs are simple and I save most of what I earn. When I’m not working, I study medicine at the University.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Medicine?”

“Yes.” He crossed his arms.

“Why medicine?”

“It interested me.”

“Are you allowed to practice in Atlantis?”

“No.” He sat down at the table with his back to her. Then he spun to face her again.

“What about you, Laila?” he said, almost belligerently. “What interests you?”

She tilted her head to the side, a smile teasing the corners of her lips. He seemed so defensive. His attitude made her want to tickle him until he laughed again.

“I’m interested in everything. Especially you.”

He snorted. “That shows a certain lack of common sense.”

“What a grouch you are. It almost makes me wonder whether you might be afraid.”

“I’m terrified. Let’s eat. I have to go down to Tisoi tonight.”

“Where?”

“It’s a little fishing village near here.”

“Will you take me with you?”

“No. I want you to stay here.”

She put her hands on her hips. “I don’t want to be alone.”

“By all the gods, Laila. Be a normal girl and just do as you’re told for once.” He opened a canister of flat bread, shaking his head as if in disgust. “I’ll never find a husband for you if you can’t follow orders.”

“Find a husband for me? You can’t be serious.”

He grabbed her wrist and pulled her up to the table. “Sit down. Eat.”

“You can’t tell me what to do just because you’re a man.”

“That’s usually how it’s done.”

“And I don’t want a husband. I want—” You. Fool that I am, I want you. She sat next to him, as the bottom seemed to drop out of her heart.

Niko glanced sidelong at her. “What do you want?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

Laila hefted the wine jug, pouring a portion of wine in each of the cups he’d set out. She was as silly a chicken as any of the other priestesses, imagining there was tenderness between her and Niko when really there was only lust. Naturally he wouldn’t have any use for her. She’d never fit into the life of a vampire.

And besides that, he expected her to do as she was told.

He laid some flat bread on her plate, along with the last of the dried meat from the house with the blue door. They still had two peaches, but after this meal they’d be out of food. That must be why he needed to go into town.

She chewed her bread without enthusiasm. It was dry and stale. Only the wine helped her choke it down. A husband. After what they’d shared in the loft, he still wanted to fob her off on another man.

Niko sighed. “Alright. You can come.”

“I can?” She couldn’t help smiling at him.

“You’ll probably be safer with me.”

 ***

Laila trudged down the dirt road with her eyes trained on the ground. Every so often she peeped at the sky, just to see if she could tolerate it. Niko had been silent since they’d left the cottage. Was he angry with her? It didn’t seem unreasonable to want information about the man she was spending all her waking hours with. The man who was her lover.

Laila glanced at him. As usual, in the dark she couldn’t read his expression. His gray eyes looked almost black, and his black hair riffled in the breeze that blew warm across the plains.

“I’m not going to obey you just because you’re male,” she said. “Or any other man, for that matter.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“And I don’t think it’s wrong of me to want to know you.”

He said nothing.

“Will you at least tell me how old you are?” she said.

Niko continued walking, without looking at her. “Over one hundred.”

A hundred years. How much he must have seen and done in that time. What would it be like to live without fear of dying?

“You’re very quiet,” he said. “Have I finally shocked you?”

“I’m not shocked. I’m intrigued. How many years over one hundred?”

“I don’t know. Maybe 25 or so. I’ve been vampire for about a century, that’s all I can tell you for sure.”

Laila reached out and touched his hand. She drew back instantly. He probably didn’t want her to touch him. But he clasped her hand easily in his and gave her a brief smile.

“Does that information help you?” he said.

“Yes.”

“How old are you?”

He must see her as little more than a baby. She bit her lip. “I’m twenty-four.”

“You seem younger than that.”

“I’m not a child.”

Niko laughed. “I didn’t say you were. Most women your age are worn down a bit, unless they’re from a wealthy family. That’s all.”

“Do you regret what we did, Niko?”

He stopped walking. “I probably should. But, no. I don’t.”

“Then why are you pulling away from me?”

With one hand, he tilted up her chin. “Little bird, I’m not pulling away from you. I think you want something from me that I’m not able to give you. I don’t want to hurt you.”

He was already hurting her. Laila tried to force her expression into a happy arrangement, so he wouldn’t know. Was it because he was a vampire that he was so secretive? Or because he was male?

“Do men—is it impossible for men to share their feelings? Are all men so close about their lives?” she said.

Niko smiled. “I don’t know. Perhaps. Not all men have as many secrets as I do.”

“I would never betray you.”

He stroked the side of her face. Then he bent down and kissed her, right there on the open road. This was all she’d ever have of him—a few kisses, some lovemaking—but she’d take whatever she could get.

They took to the river to cover their scent, and Niko had to carry her. Miles later, they left the water and returned to the narrow country road. He set her on her feet.

The dark sky loomed overhead. Behind them were the mountains, and before them an open plain. Somewhere out there was the ocean, but she couldn’t see it. Laila forced herself to tilt back her head and look at the stars. She managed a few more seconds of looking than the last time she’d tried it.

They rounded a bend in the road. On their right squatted some blocky shapes that might be farm buildings. A dim light shone from a window in one of the buildings, probably the house. Niko seemed to be staring at the light.

“I need to drink,” he said.

“Didn’t we bring water?”

He glanced at her. Although she could see the movement of his head, his expression was hidden by the darkness. “Not water. Blood.”

“Oh,” she said faintly.

“I’m going to the house to see if I can take someone there. Wait here by the road. If anyone comes, lie down in the ditch behind those rosemary bushes.” He pointed to some blobs sticking up a few paces away from them.

“You’re not going to kill anyone. Are you?”

“No. I don’t take that much.”

He moved soundlessly toward the buildings, leaving Laila standing in the middle of the road. It was so dark she couldn’t even see her own feet, and without Niko there, the night suddenly seemed bigger. Above her, the star-filled sky arched, yet she couldn’t look at it. Her morning courage had deserted her.

Crickets chirped all around her. Laila shivered.

A wail curled up on the night air, sounding like a ghost or an evil spirit. Her eyes went round and she clamped her arms around her torso for comfort. The sound came again. What was that?

More voices joined the first, until there was a whole choir of wailing. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Sweat broke out all over her body. Where in the name of the gods was Niko? Surely it didn’t take very long to drink a little blood.

Laila scrambled to the rosemary bushes and crouched behind them. Their sharp resinous scent filled her nostrils as she brushed against their leaves. They probably wouldn’t protect her from whatever was out there, but she felt a little better with something between her and the open sky. She’d be alright. She just had to hang on until Niko returned.

I must be crazy. I’m waiting for a vampire to come back and make me feel safe.

“Laila?”

She started at the sound of his voice.

“Why are you hiding? I didn’t hear anyone come by.”

Laila jumped to her feet and into his embrace just as the chorus of wailing began again. “What is that horrible sound?”

He stroked her hair. “It’s just the wolves.”

“Wolves?” she squeaked. “You left me out here alone with wolves?”

“They’re a long way off. Let’s go before the farmer discovers I’ve taken a drink from his wife.”

Niko hustled her back to the road.

So, he’d drunk from the wife and not from the husband. What did it look like for a vampire to drink? She’d heard they usually took from the neck. There was something disturbingly sexual about that image, Niko’s dark head bent to the throat of the unknown woman.

“I don’t want to take you all the way into town,” Niko said.

“Well, I’m not going to sit around outside waiting for the wolves to find me.” Laila caught her toe on a rock and stumbled.

“I’ll find a place where you can wait for me.”

“Why can’t I come with you?” She sounded so whiny that she wished she hadn’t opened her mouth.

“You slow me down. I can move a lot faster without a human. Besides, it’s still a long way into the town and I doubt you could make it all the way there and back to the cabin.”

Her feet were hurting, and the sandals seemed to be raising blisters where they rubbed. Her back and hips had begun to ache, too. Walking used different muscles than dancing. Maybe he was right.

Laila sighed. “As long as I’m completely hidden, I won’t mind waiting.”

He squeezed her hand. “Good. The next farm has a hayloft that will work.”

A low, dark shape moved across the road in front of them. It stopped. A cloud passed across the moon, making it impossible for her to see clearly. Whatever it was, it was watching them. The hair on the back of her neck prickled.

The creature was the size of a large dog. The cloud drifted away, unveiling the moon. In the faint light, the animal’s fur glinted silver. Its eyes stared at them, watchful but unafraid.

“Is that a wolf?” she whispered.

“Yes.”

The wolf continued staring at them, not even flicking its ears at the sound of their voices. There was something intelligent in its gaze, as if it knew them and their kind, and was waiting to see what they would do. It reminded her of Niko in its cool watchfulness.

“It won’t hurt you,” Niko said.

“W-why not?”

“I’m here.”

The creature cocked its head. Then it loped into the black shadows on the side of the road. Its body made a rustling sound as it moved through tall dry grass.

 ***

Niko left her curled on a bed of straw in a barn occupied by cows, goats, and a plowhorse. It was a prosperous farm. While the animals might draw the attention of predators, they were snug behind the thick walls of the barn, and so was Laila. The wolves wouldn’t bother her again.

He broke into a run as soon as he cleared the farmyard, hoping to make up for time lost dawdling at a human pace. Tisoi clung to the cliffs above a small bay where local fishermen anchored their boats. There would be supplies available for the taking, and maybe even a berth off the island.

When he arrived, it was near midnight. Only a few hours of darkness remained, and in that time he must steal enough food to keep them for at least a week and get himself and Laila back to the cottage. Niko didn’t like killing humans, but tonight if anyone tried to interfere with him he’d have no choice.

Tisoi was much quieter at this hour than Atlantiri. He walked along the sea wall, as the surf slammed against the cliffs below. Most of the townspeople were in bed, and the streets were nearly empty.

One of the problems vampires faced was getting supplies when most businesses were only open during daylight hours. Many vampires employed human servants or owned slaves for that purpose, but naturally Niko had never followed the custom. Come to think of it, he’d never followed most vampire customs. For over one hundred years, he’d lived on the margins of both vampire and human society.

He couldn’t send Laila in to buy the things they needed. She was too vulnerable, and would soon be spotted as the missing priestess if word of the search had reached this village. His only recourse would be taking the supplies and leaving his coin.

Tisoi had two taverns, The Albatross, which overlooked the sea wall, and The Laughing Dolphin two blocks away. Niko chose The Albatross because it was closer.

He went around to the back entrance, which reeked of fish and half-rotten garbage. The door here was painted red, as in front, and it was standing open to admit the night air. Cautiously, he peered around it. If all went well, he’d be in and out before anyone noticed him.

Oil lamps brightened the generous kitchen, which bustled with barmaids, scullery girls and cooks. To the side was a smaller, unlit room which he guessed was the storeroom. Niko slipped into the pantry, moving too quickly for the humans to see him.

There was enough light for him to make out the shapes of flour sacks, amphorae of wine and olive oil, and various baskets and tin boxes. He took a half-empty sack of flour and a box of dates. A few onions and a jar of preserved lemons followed. Unfortunately they didn’t have the ham he’d been hoping for.

“We’re nearly out of salt and we’re low on pepper, too,” said a female voice. Niko froze in place. Don’t come in here. You really don’t want to come in here.

“I know it,” a man answered her.

“What are we going to do when they’re gone?”

“Do without.”

Niko relaxed. If they were completely out, they wouldn’t go into the storeroom for more.

The woman snorted. “Don’t the king’s men know we depend on the sea for our supplies?”

“They don’t care about the likes of us, woman. Besides, replacements will be coming overland in a week or so.”

“A week,” she grumbled. “A week, he says. We’ll lose our customers.”

“The king is more interested in these fugitives he’s chasing than our business. Quit complaining and get to work.”

Niko bent to tie his sack, cursing silently. There’d be no berth off the island if the government had closed all the ports. They wanted Laila more than he’d realized. And that meant he needed to either find another way off the island, or come up with a better place to hide, because the cottage wouldn’t be safe for long.

He laid a coin on the shelf to pay for the things he’d taken. Then he hoisted the bag to his back and left the tavern the same way he’d entered.

The town seemed even darker and more silent now than when he’d come. Clouds had blown in, covering the stars and blocking their light. In the narrow streets, the blackness was almost impenetrable.

Yet he felt eyes watching him. Someone was here, someone not human or vampire. The presence that always reached for him at night seemed to lurk under every tree and in the shadows of every doorway. Tonight, the Dark could go bugger itself. He had no time for it.

In his mind’s eye, Niko turned his back on that presence and forced himself to think of something else. How was he going to get Laila off Atlantis? Swimming was out of the question. Even he couldn’t swim all the way to the mainland in one night. The ports had been closed, so they couldn’t sail.

He reached the edge of town. From here, there was only the narrow dirt road leading through farms and groves and up into the hills. Niko broke into an easy lope that would carry him miles without exhausting him.

They had to escape the island. The only other way to leave Atlantis, besides swimming or sailing, was flight. And he didn’t know how to fly.

Embrace me, and I will teach you to fly, whispered the Dark.

 

Chapter 15

 

Niko ignored the Dark’s voice as he raced up the country road toward Laila. The presence was always strongest on a night with no moon, but if he refused to acknowledge it then eventually it would go away. He’d been ignoring it for over a century, hoping it would permanently abandon him.

I will never leave you.

“I want no part of you,” he muttered.

You are mine. You hurt yourself by running from me.

He entered a large olive grove that bordered the road on both sides. A little starlight trickled between the branches, just enough to show him the way.

Perhaps he could steal a small boat and sail it to the mainland. It would be dangerous, and he’d have to get past the warships guarding the ports. But unlike humans, he could sail at night with no fear of running onto rocks.

A boat small enough to slip by the warships would be too small to carry enough water and food for the journey. Laila would never survive.

“Shut up!”

Shadowy laughter mocked him. Niko stopped in the middle of the road. He glared into the darkness beneath the trees, daring it to come forward and show itself to him in human form.

“You already got everything you’ll ever get from me,” he snarled. “You took all I had. What more do you want?”

I want you, Niko.

The Dark reached for him with ethereal fingers, caressing his face, his neck, beneath his shirt. You shouldn’t fear me. To you, I am a friend, not an enemy.

“You’re no friend of mine.”

Look in your heart, Niko. Do you really believe I am responsible for what happened to you?

He stalked up the dusty road. “Yes. I do.”

You lie to yourself.

And then the presence was gone.

Niko glanced behind his back. He peered into the grove, under the olive trees, and tilted his head back to stare at the sky. Of course, the Dark wasn’t really something he could see, but he looked anyway. It was no longer there.

He thought of Laila hidden in the barn. She ought to be safe. But what if the search had already spread beyond the city? The government kept outposts all along the coast, so it was possible their agents were in the area.

If they caught her… gods, if they caught her. With luck, they would merely kill her outright, but otherwise—well, he’d heard stories bad enough to give even a murderer like him nightmares. Considering their pursuers, he was the lesser of the two evils.

What had happened to Laila in his absence? He longed for her, longed to bury himself in her and forget all the horror the Dark brought. Yet, by loving her he would only immerse her in the same evil that had dogged him for the last century.

He was all she had at the moment. Unworthy though he was, she needed him. Anything could have happened while he’d been gone. The king’s men. The farmer, come to check on his livestock. Thieves. Nightmare images pressed in against his mind’s eye, taunting him. Niko ran.

When he reached the barn, all the animals appeared to be asleep. Even the farm dog made no sound as he lifted the bar on the door and slipped inside. Niko left his sack at the foot of the ladder and climbed into the hayloft.

She lay curled in a nest in the straw. One of her hands supported her head and the other was folded under her chin. Her curls tumbled over her face and shoulders.

Niko crouched next to her, brushing her hair away from her eyes. In the last few days, she’d nestled herself right under his skin. That wasn’t supposed to happen. She was a burden, a hindrance to all his plans. And he was nothing but a killer.

Her cheek felt like the finest silk under his fingertips. No matter how much he needed her, he’d give her up, give her to some other man, and the last piece of his heart would go with her. Ah, gods. Maybe it would be better for both of them if he walked away now.

Niko began to straighten when she opened her eyes. She blinked at him.

“Is it you?” Laila sat up, straw sticking in her hair.

“Yeah.” His voice sounded husky. He dragged her into an embrace.

Laila put her arms around him, resting her cheek against his chest. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” Just him being an idiot. “I was worried about you. Wanted to make sure you were safe.”

Her hands slid up and down his back, as if to offer comfort. The irony of it made him want to push her away. Doesn’t she understand what it is she’s holding? Niko clasped her even more tightly.

“I was fine,” she said. “The wolves howled for awhile, but after that it was quiet.”

“They’ve closed the ports.”

“What?” She tilted her head back, although it was too dark for her to see him.

“The navy has warships at all the ports. I heard the tavern keeper talking about it. No craft of any kind going in or out.”

“I don’t understand. Why would they go to so much trouble over me?”

“That’s a good question.” He bent his head to press his lips to hers. “We have to leave now, while there’s still enough darkness left.”

The two of them clambered out of the loft. Back on the road, Laila slipped her hand into his, walking in silence beside him. She seemed easier with the night and the open sky. That was good, because she’d encounter a lot more of it during the time she spent in his company.

“We’re not going to be able to leave the island, are we?” she said.

“I don’t know yet.” If he had all his vampire powers, it would be easy. But then he’d have to give himself over utterly to the Dark.

“I have to admit that I’m not excited about leaving.”

Niko looked at her. “I thought you wanted to know all about the world outside.”

“I do.” Laila shrugged. “But I don’t want to live with savages. People on the mainland still use stone tools. Stone, Niko.”

He suppressed a smile at her indignant tone. “You might be surprised. Not all people are so primitive.”

“But they don’t even have running water. They live in mud huts.”

He laughed. “That depends. The world is a big place.”

“How much of it have you seen?”

Too much. “Not a lot. Mostly the lands between my own country and the Mediterranean.”

“I still haven’t been to the ocean,” she said wistfully.

“You will.” He urged her off the road. “This is the way to the river.”

“I can’t see under the trees.”

Niko picked her up and carried her the rest of the way to the water. In his imagination, he saw the king’s agents dragging Laila away from him. Beating her. Throwing her in some hole under the royal palace. She was a human and had few defenses, and he was a vampire without powers.

If he did embrace the Dark, he’d be able to protect her. He could fly with her to the mainland. Fascinate and compel the minds of anyone who tried to stop them.

Wait. What in the name of all that’s holy was he thinking? To embrace the Dark would mean accepting its terms, accepting the unspeakable things he’d done. As if there was nothing wrong with murder, with terrifying people helpless to stop him, with blood lust so uncontrollable he couldn’t even recognize his own family.

“Niko?”

Laila’s voice jolted him out of his brooding.

“Yeah?” he said roughly.

“There’s someone here in the grove with us.”

All the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. “I hear no-one.”

“I think it’s a spirit. I feel like someone’s watching us. Listening.”

The Dark. Ah, gods. Why Laila? The only thing stopping him from shouting at the Dark was his reluctance to scare her.

“If you ignore it, it’ll go away,” he said.

“Do you know what it is?” Laila turned her head, peering into the darkness of the grove.

“I do. It’s evil. Leave it alone, Laila.”

She sighed in a heavy gust. “You don’t trust me.”

“I’m trying to protect you.”

“Then tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s the Dark, alright? The power that made me a vampire. It follows me around, trying to make me give myself over to it. Now do you understand?”

He tripped on an exposed root and almost fell. “Son of an ape.”

“You think you’re evil because you’re a vampire?” she said, sounding almost surprised.

“Yes. Don’t you?”

“I don’t think you’re evil at all.”

Niko splashed into the river and began wading against the current. It was no use reasoning with her. She wanted to see him as her savior, not as the bloodthirsty monster he really was. Maybe he should let her see him drink. Then she’d understand.

“It’s gone now,” Laila said over the roar of the current.

“Good. May it never return.”

The river made too much noise for conversation, thank the gods. If only he could be the man she imagined he was. Quit dreaming and wake up, fool. You could never be that man.

He needed to get her off the island and situated with a normal human male before he damaged her beyond recovery. Yet how could he do that without further immersing himself in the vampire world?

Niko gave up trying to think his way through the problem. It seemed there was no honorable solution, just a choice between allowing Laila to die at the hands of the Atlanteans and slowly ruining her himself.

I can’t let them have her.

 ***

To Laila’s relief, they made it back to the cottage just in time to avoid Niko being roasted by the sunrise. He’d been silent for the remainder of the journey. Laila studied him out of the corner of her eye as they approached the house. He didn’t look angry, but his face had that remote expression she remembered from their first days together.

He didn’t want to talk about the presence. The Dark. Niko had used the term as if it were a proper name instead of merely the absence of light. Peculiar. She’d never before thought of the dark as a person or a spirit, only as a principle.

The presence was gone now, at least for her. Maybe it had to hide during daylight hours, or maybe she simply wasn’t sensitive enough to it. In her Temple studies, she’d been taught that darkness was inherently evil. The being she’d sensed had felt neutral, not threatening, but perhaps that was its way of luring victims.

Niko sat at the table next to the lamp he’d lit, slumped forward and leaning on his elbows, his head bent. She reached out, placing her hands on his shoulders carefully. He didn’t flinch, but reached up and covered one of her hands with his.

“Even vampires get tired,” she said.

“The run to the village was farther than I thought.”

“Would you like to sleep right away?”

He looked up and smiled, a little sheepishly. “Actually, I was thinking about asking you to do something for me.”

His pale cheeks looked suspiciously pink. He was blushing.

“You were? What would you like me to do?”

“Dance.”

Oh. Oh! Laila blinked. She’d never danced for a man. She’d never danced for anyone who wasn’t another priestess. Performing the dances outside of the Temple was forbidden. Her face heated as a smile slowly turned up the corners of her mouth.

“A-alright. What kind of dance do you want to see?”

“Whatever you’d like to show me.”

“Um.” She smoothed her hair. “Well, I could do the lightning dance. But that takes a lot of space, which we don’t have. Or I could do the maiden’s greeting dance. But I don’t have my costumes. My face isn’t painted.” She glanced at him sidelong. “It won’t look the same without them.”

“It doesn’t matter. Do the maiden’s greeting. I’d like to see that one.”

“Yes. Alright.”

Laila went to the middle of the room. She turned away from Niko, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The belt of her dress was wrong—it should go across her hips, not around her waist. She took it off and retied it.

There was no music, not even a drum. With her eyes closed again, she imagined the melody that accompanied the maiden’s greeting. Her head bent downward, like that of a shy virgin; her arms described a graceful arc toward the front of her body and crossed at the wrists before she drew them back to her sides.

In her mind, the delicate notes of a lyre and flute swelled around her as her hands turned in tiny circles, her fingers extending and flexing in a wave-like gesture. She was the young bride meeting her lord for the first time, approaching him with fear and desire and love.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Niko staring, his face rapt. The dance had taken her—she hardly felt the weight of his attention.

Laila brought her arms up, arched her back as she lifted her gaze toward her imaginary bridegroom. Her whole body undulated, then contracted as she jackknifed forward and brushed the floor with her hair. She straightened, made another undulation moving down toward the floor.

The dance ended with her on her knees, slowly folding herself back until her head lay on the floor, arms over her head, hair spilled all around her. Like an offering.

The music in her mind faded away with the last haunting notes of the flute. She lay there for a moment longer, eyes closed. When she opened them, the expression on Niko’s face stopped her breath.

He extended a hand. Laila unfolded herself and hopped to her feet. As she took his hand, Niko drew her against his body.

“That was exquisite,” he said in a hushed tone. “You’re astonishing, Laila.”

She bent her head to his shoulder to hide the flush of pleasure that came over her. “There were others in the Temple who were just as good.”

“They’re not here with me. They’re not you.”

Biting her lip, she forced herself to look at him. His eyes—there was a whole world of feeling in them as he caressed her face with the backs of his fingers. Then it was gone, his expression guarded as it usually was.

“I’m glad you liked my dance.” With a smile, she tried to move out of his embrace.

“Don’t go,” he said in a husky voice. He unlaced the neckline of her dress.

Her belly cramped with want. “It’s late. We’re both tired.”

“Not that tired.” Niko angled his mouth over hers.

She loved it, loved the way he toyed with her lips, sucking and nipping at them as if they were a delicacy. He plunged his tongue into her mouth, sweeping it over hers. Laila responded with her own tongue. When she entered him she felt a tiny scratch. It must be his fangs. She moaned.

Her hands went to the neck of his tunic and tugged. Take it off. Please take it off.

Niko laughed softly as he pulled back just enough to yank the garment over his head. The lamplight gave his pale skin a golden tone. Laila stared at him. It was rude, probably, but she couldn’t help it. He was so beautiful, his shoulders so straight and powerful, his belly flat and decorated with that inviting arrow of dark hair.

His eyes were solemn now as he watched her staring at him. Laila placed her hands on his shoulders, feeling the muscle underneath. She bent her head and pressed her lips to his skin. He smelled and tasted like sex, like hungry male.

She brought her hands down his arms, then up to the planes of muscle on his chest. Bent her head again, this time kissing him over his heart. He made a low sound in his throat.

How lonely he must be. She wanted to kiss him everywhere, fill up the empty space inside him. She began a row of kisses across the top of his chest, interrupting her plan to nuzzle at his neck. Niko’s arms slid around her. His big hands coasted down her back to cup her rear. He squeezed.

“You have the sweetest ass, little bird.”

She laughed. “Flatterer.”

“Is it flattery if it’s true?” He took a fold of her dress between thumb and forefinger. “Take this off for me.”

Laila stripped off the dress. Niko’s gaze traveled slowly over her, a reverent expression on his face.

“Have I told you yet how beautiful you are?”

She smiled. “Maybe once.” Laila kissed his neck and bit his earlobe. “You’re beautiful too.”

“No, I’m not.” Niko cupped one of her breasts. “I’m a great hairy barbarian who just wants to throw you on the ground and take you.”

“Beautiful,” she whispered in his ear. “And I want to see the rest of you.”

He stood up, removed his pants and dropped them on the floor. Laila petted his thighs. They were so hard they might have been made from stone.

“The loincloth, too,” she said.

Niko untied his undergarment. Her gaze followed the line of hair on his belly all the way down to his cock. It was thick and long, jutting out from his body. Beneath it hung two heavy sacs softly furred with curly black hair.

“By all that’s holy,” she murmured. “It’s a wonder you were able to fit that into me.”

He laughed in a husky voice. “I’ll consider that a compliment.”

She moistened her lips. “May I touch?”

Niko gave a single nod. Her fingertips stroked gently across the hot length of him and his breath caught. The skin of his sex felt silky, almost delicate over the firm core beneath it. There were visible veins in it, and a tip shaped a bit like a mushroom.

She rubbed her finger across the slit at the end of his penis. Niko shuddered. Carefully, Laila cupped his testicles in her hand. Even his body was full of contradictions—soft, hard, smooth, rough.

“Beautiful.”

“You’re making me insane,” Niko growled.

He caught her face in his hands and brought his mouth down to hers. In an instant he’d taken control away from her, plundering her mouth as his hands plundered her body. She melted against him, panting with excitement.

Together they tumbled to the floor. His mouth and hands delved everywhere, tasting her, teasing her until she begged him to mount her. He slid into her, all the way in, and they moved together, moaning, until they shattered in each other’s arms.

Laila nestled against him with only their clothes under them for a bed. She didn’t care. The floor was a paradise when Niko lay with her there.

 

Chapter 16

 

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” Niko murmured. Only his voice was so quiet she wasn’t sure if she’d heard him correctly.

“What was that?”

He cleared his throat. “We ought to go upstairs if we’re going to sleep.”

Laila raised herself on one elbow. “Do you think we’re really safe here?”

He nodded. “If you’re very worried, we can sleep in shifts.”

“You go first. I slept in the barn.”

Niko kissed her on the lips and then the forehead. He got up and went to the ladder, pausing there to gaze at her. “I meant what I said earlier. The Dark will try to seduce you. Don’t let it in. And don’t light a fire. Searchers might see the smoke.”

“Alright.” Laila made herself smile at him. “I’m sure everything will be fine. Go to sleep.”

He climbed up to the loft. Laila found a cloth and wet it in the water bucket. She cleaned herself before dressing. Then she sat down on the bench and put her feet up on the seat. She had never walked so far in her life. Her feet not only hurt, the soles tingled, and she wished she had a hot bath for them. Heating water, however, was out of the question.

Where would they go when the sun set? Niko had refused to tell her his plans. He was the most secretive person she’d ever met. Secrecy had probably helped keep him alive, so she couldn’t blame him for it.

Yes, I can. He ought to trust me by now.

When her feet had stopped tingling, she opened the shutters, leaning on the windowsill to look out over the plain below. In the Temple, there had been paintings of scenes like this, which was how she’d been able to guess about the olive groves and vineyards. But no painting could do justice to the beauty of the real article.

No painting could capture the lazy circling of that bird flying overhead. What was it? A hawk, maybe, or an eagle. Did eagles even live in this area? Her knowledge of birds—in fact, most animals—was extremely limited.

Laila’s gaze traveled all the way to the horizon. It looked bluish, whether because of distance or because of the sea. How she longed to view the ocean.

The king and his advisors must want her desperately if they were willing to shut down all the ports on the island, and that made no sense at all. She was a nobody. Just a minor temple dancer in a temple that didn’t exist anymore. Even if they wanted the Temple of Desou destroyed, her presence shouldn’t be a threat to anyone.

Granted, it was forbidden for a priestess to leave the Temple. But shutting down the ports because of one woman seemed excessive.

Although she had read a great many books that were forbidden to her, they couldn’t possibly know that. So her reading habits and knowledge of Temple history and practice couldn’t be the reason they wanted her dead. There was something else, something she couldn’t see.

If only she had a book to read here. Niko did have a few, but they were medical texts. Besides, he’d wrapped them up and put them in the cupboard. She wasn’t sure he wanted her to look at them.

Laila found a broom propped against the cupboard and used it to sweep the floor. Then she found a towel and dusted all the furniture. After that, there was nothing to do in the little house. She closed the shutters against the summer heat and sat down at the table to wait. They would be moving on this evening; maybe the new hiding place would be cooler and less confining.

The shutters blocked a surprising amount of light, allowing only thin slivers in through a couple of cracks and around the edges. In the gloom, Laila began to feel sleepy. But she mustn’t sleep. She had to be awake to sound the alarm if anyone happened by.

Her arms and legs were so heavy she could hardly move them. Her eyelids, too, seemed to be weighted and kept drifting shut. Laila yawned hugely, forcing her eyes wide open.

Then she felt it—the presence. The sense of being watched by someone or something, and this time it was close. So close she could feel the power of it, like heat from a fire only her mind could perceive.

The hair on the back of her neck rose. Laila scooted to the end of the bench with her back toward the wall, so she had something solid behind her. Near the fireplace, a hazy image began to form and the sense of power intensified.

“Go away,” she whispered.

Laila. She heard its voice inside her head.

Ah, Desou, it knew her name. “Leave me alone.”

The shadows near the hearth seemed to thicken, coalescing into a figure that was neither male nor female. The figure had a strange, inside-out quality, with lighter areas where she would have expected shadows and shadows where she would have expected light. The inside of the nostrils, for example, seemed lighter than the surrounding flesh, if that thing could ever be described as flesh. And when it opened its mouth to speak, it was light inside there too.

Laila put her arms around herself. “Are you the Dark?”

The figure chuckled. “Yes. Niko has told you of me.” This time the voice was audible.

“He told me not to let you in.”

It opened its hands, palms up. “As you can see, you cannot keep me out.”

She was reasonably sure Niko had been referring to her mind, or perhaps her heart, not to the cabin itself. “I thought you could only appear during the night.”

“I go wherever there is darkness.”

Laila refused to shudder. This creature would not see her fear. It might be able to sense her mood, but she wouldn’t give it the satisfaction of an outward demonstration.

“What do you want?” she said, as sweat beaded in her palms.

The figure smiled. In the dark of the shuttered house, Laila found it difficult to read the being’s expression. The reversal of dark and light across its surface made its appearance even more confusing. But she could see the smile.

“Niko, of course. And you. But you haven’t come to me yet, and Niko has broken his promise to me. He is afraid of me, and his fear will destroy both of you.”

“Is that a threat?” Laila said.

It chuckled again. “Not a threat. A prediction.”

“Why are you here?”

“You already know that, Laila.”

“No, I don’t!” Her fear made her voice sharper. “Your quarrel is with Niko, not with me. If you think I’m going to campaign for you, you’re mistaken. I trust his judgment.”

“Do you? Why?”

Its gently questioning tone caught her off guard, and she hesitated. “He’s—because he’s over one hundred years old and he knows a great deal more about such things than I do. Besides, he’s met you before. He knows your tricks.”

“My dear, one hundred years amounts to very little in the larger scheme of things. Niko is a boy. An intelligent, resourceful boy, yet still a boy.” The being took a couple of steps toward Laila. “He made his promises to me, and then in a time of terror and rage he took them back. He’s been suffering, punishing and weakening himself, ever since. No matter how I approach him, he refuses to listen to reason.”

“Because you’re evil,” Laila whispered.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” It sounded genuinely puzzled.

“You’re the Dark.”

“Ah. The opposite of the Light, is that it?”

“Yes.”

She wished she could see its face more clearly, discern its gender, read its expression, but no matter how she squinted at it she couldn’t quite make it out.

“Shall I tell you a secret?” the being said.

“Do I have a choice?”

It laughed aloud. “The Dark and the Light are not enemies, child. We are lovers. When we embrace, we create universes.”

Laila blinked. “That isn’t true.” At least, it wasn’t what she’d learned in the Temple.

“You Atlanteans have been confused for a very long time. By human standards, that is.”

Her head hurt. “I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t believe you. You’re trying to seduce me.”

“Yes, I am.”

She wanted Niko. If she tried to get to the ladder, would the Dark stop her?

“Go to your lover. Tell him what I’ve told you,” it said.

Laila bolted for the loft.

She scrambled across the plank floor and threw herself on Niko. He gave a soft grunt as his arms came around her and his head lifted from the pillow. Laila buried her face against the comfort of his bare chest.

“What happened?” he murmured. “Is someone coming?”

“The Dark.” Her body shook.

“Here?” Niko said sharply. “It spoke to you?”

“Yes.” Laila shuddered.

“I won’t let it hurt you.”

She closed her eyes, resting her cheek against his warm skin. His heart beat steadily beneath her ear. He was real and alive, not some bizarre fusion of light and shadow. Niko played with her hair, and it soothed her.

“It’s gone now,” he said.

“Thank Desou.” She’d forgotten to pray. Her mind must have been partly shut down, because she hadn’t even thought of it.

“Did it threaten you?”

“No. It was friendly.” She told him what the Dark had said to her.

She could sense Niko’s glower as she finished her story. “I wouldn’t believe a word the Dark said,” he told her.

“I know.”

“It was trying to seduce you. It does that.”

“Yes, it told me so.” Laila swallowed. “What if – what if it was telling the truth?”

Niko growled. “There is no truth in the Dark.”

“It said you made promises to it. And that you took them back in a moment of rage and terror. What did it mean by that?”

“You don’t need to know.”

“Yes, I do. We’re together now. I told you that I want to know all about you.” She smoothed her palm against the side of his face, to soften the demand in her words.

“Laila, we’re only together temporarily, and you don’t need to know about my past. I don’t want you to know.”

“But—”

“I said no.”

Laila sighed. “You’re being completely unreasonable. I’d tell you anything you wanted to know about me, and you’re withholding yourself.”

“You don’t have a past like mine.”

“How would you know? You’ve never asked,” she said as she withdrew from his embrace.

“You’ve said a lot of silly things since I met you, but that is downright stupid.”

Laila’s breath caught at the cruel remark. “I may be stupid, but you’re vile.”

She rolled off the mattress and scrambled to the ladder.

“Laila—”

If she’d known any, she would have flung some filthy curses at him, but she had to content herself with ignoring him. She reached the bottom of the ladder.

“Laila, come back.”

Rotten, filthy barbarian of a vampire. She should have remembered how rude he could be. He wasn’t even Atlantean, so of course he would behave like a savage.

Something rustled in the loft. Probably Niko rolling out of bed. She dashed to the door and unbolted it. When she opened it, blinding daylight flooded in. Niko said something harsh in a foreign language. Apparently he hadn’t expected that of her.

“Come back here,” he snarled.

She went outside and shut the door behind her.

“Laila, get in here right now!”

He could shout until he lost his voice, but she wasn’t going back inside until she was sure she could look at him and not want to cry. Or murder him. That was one advantage of being a human with a vampire companion—she could always escape him during the daytime and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Niko continued to yell her name and pound on furniture.

Laila sat down in the dust under the shade of the gnarled oak tree that graced the cottage yard. Tears prickled against her eyelids. Curse that vampire, anyway. She wasn’t going to cry over him.

Eventually, Niko stopped bellowing.

The ground under her was littered with tiny acorns from last autumn. They poked her. She brushed them away from her sitting spot and rested her back against the oak’s trunk.

Some day she would look back on this moment and feel nothing. Some day there would be so much time and space between her and Niko that she wouldn’t be able to remember what he’d looked like. Or tasted like. The pain she felt now would be nothing but a faint memory.

A faint memory. This hurt won’t last forever. She gazed at the acorn-strewn ground until the urge to cry left her. But she didn’t go inside.

 

Chapter 17

 

Laila closed her eyes. Although the oak’s bark was rough against her back, the air was hot and still and her lids began to droop. She dozed.

A few rocks clattered down the slope above the house. Laila started awake. More rocks slithered down the hillside. She got to her feet, as two young men dressed like peasants and with typical dark Atlantean coloring came around an outcropping of boulders and into view. They stared at her.

Holy Desou, now what did she do? She didn’t want them to know about Niko, because then they’d figure out who she was. If she ran into the house, they’d probably try to follow her. But she could bolt the door against them… and then she’d arouse their curiosity for sure. It was better to brazen it out than to hide.

“Good afternoon, mistress,” one of them said. They were within a few paces of her now. “Have you taken this house?”

Laila nodded cautiously.

“Where is your husband?” He gave her an assessing look, as if he were trying to see through the fabric of her dress.

“He sleeps.” She crossed her arms protectively over her chest.

The second man stood close to her. Too close. She edged away from him, and he took her by the upper arm. “I like a man who sleeps while his beautiful wife works outside alone.”

“Let me go.”

The first one, who wore a faded blue tunic, lifted a handful of her curls and grinned. “Pretty hair.”

Was this what Atlantean women endured every time they were in the company of strange men? Her life in the temple hadn’t prepared her for it. Niko, she thought. But if he came out here, he’d be burned severely and she didn’t want that to happen.

“Don’t touch me.” She tried to pull out of their grasp. “I’m a faithful wife.”

“Then you’re about to have a treat,” Blue-tunic said. He released her hair and grabbed her breast instead. Laila slapped him in the face.

“Whore!” He smacked her so hard she felt dizzy. “Get her arms.”

Before he’d finished speaking, his companion caught her free arm and pulled it behind her. “She’s got fire,” he said, laughing.

Blue-tunic took her dress in his hands and ripped it down the front, completely exposing her breasts. “Ah, look at that.” He lifted them in his hands. His touch was rough, his hands dirty. She cringed back, shamed, and was stopped by the chest of the man holding her. Blue-tunic bent his head and sucked hard at her nipple.

It hurt, and Laila shrieked. She kicked him in the shins. He bit her. She screamed.

The cottage door slammed open, and a dark blur leaped on the men. Blue-tunic let go of her and staggered back. The one holding her arms yelled as something broke his grip on her. Laila scuttled toward the house.

Niko pounced on Blue-tunic, grabbing him by the throat. His companion, face white as chalk, escaped down the road to Tisoi. Blue-tunic’s eyes bulged. He croaked in Niko’s grasp, while the vampire’s pale skin turned crimson as she watched. The sun was going to kill him.

He glanced at her, eyes slitted against the brilliant light. Could he even see her? Niko dragged Blue-tunic toward the house by his throat. The man beat at his torso with heavy fists, and Niko didn’t seem to notice. Laila stood aside as he brought the fellow into the cottage.

“Shut the door,” he said.

She obeyed with shaking hands, closing them into the gloom. Niko, his face so red it looked bloody, held the struggling man in both his arms as he opened his mouth wide. Her breath caught. His fangs were huge, long like needles. Somehow, they’d grown. He struck hard, burying his teeth in Blue-tunic’s neck. The man screamed.

Laila shuddered. Niko made swallowing sounds as he drank his victim’s blood. She did nothing to stop him. Maybe he’d kill the man. So what? That son of a goat deserved what he was getting, the way he’d attacked her.

His friend, though, was long gone. He’d tell someone about the woman and her strange husband he’d met on the mountain, and soon the villagers would be here in force. Unless they chose to wait for the army to arrive? Either way, she and Niko would have to leave as soon as possible.

Niko lifted his head from Blue-tunic’s neck and wiped his mouth on the peasant’s sleeve before dropping him on the floor. Blood ran from the man’s wound and stained the top of his tunic as he drew deep, shuddering breaths. Niko shoved him across the floor with his foot, until the man lay next to the door.

“Can you drag him outside?” he said roughly.

“I’ll try.”

“Wait a moment.”

Niko went to his cupboard and pulled out a length of rope. He used it to tie Blue-tunic’s wrists and ankles together. Then he tore a strip of cloth from the hem of the man’s tunic and gagged him with it.

“There. That should be sufficient.”

“Aren’t you going to kill him?” Laila said. “He’ll talk eventually.”

Blue-tunic turned his gaze toward her, wide-eyed.

Niko looked at her, one brow raised. “I’d rather not kill, thank you. His companion got away, anyhow.”

“Alright.” Laila opened the door. She grabbed Blue-tunic by his ankles and dragged him backward across the threshold. His head cracked against the stone, drawing a grunt of pain from him. Oops. He was heavier than he looked.

Her would-be rapist stared up at her from the ground. Laila still shook in the aftermath of his assault. She wanted to spit on him and kick him until his bones broke, make him cry for mercy. He needed to learn what it felt like to be helpless against someone so much more powerful.

No, that would be wrong. That would only lower her to his brutish level. Laila crouched next to him and leaned close.

“Know this,” she whispered. “Until you, I’d never wanted to kill anyone. You’re lucky I’m not a violent person, or you’d be dead.”

She left him under the window and went back inside to Niko. In the dark it was hard to tell whether his condition had improved. He looked a little less red than before he’d taken the blood.

“Are you well? You were burned badly out there,” she said, peering at his skin.

“I’ll be recovered in a few more minutes.”

Niko stood next to the hearth, watching her solemnly. In the bluish twilight of the cottage, with his long black hair around his shoulders and his pale foreign eyes, he seemed even more like a savage than ever.

Laila rubbed her forehead. Suddenly it was hard to look at him.

“You scared the wits out of me going outside by yourself.”

Laila merely stared at the floor.

“What if I hadn’t woken when I did? You would have been raped, maybe even murdered, Laila.”

“Thank you for rescuing me,” she said in a flat voice.

“Next time some strange man comes along, you run to safety before he gets anywhere near you.”

“Yes. I’ll do that.”

He said nothing. Laila turned toward the cupboard and opened the door. Inside she was still trembling. She picked up the sack Niko had brought from the tavern and brought it to the table.

“I apologize for what I said earlier.” He sounded more sad than angry. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way.”

She lifted her gaze to his face. “Whatever happened in your past isn’t my fault. Don’t punish me for it.”

“I know.” Niko extended his hand to her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Can you forgive me?”

“Maybe,” she said, ignoring his hand. She turned away.

“I can’t talk about it, Laila. I just can’t. Don’t ask me. Please.”

That was the most humility she’d ever heard from him. “I’m not sure I can promise that. But I’ll try.”

“Thank you.”

Laila ached with the desire to comfort him. She was hurting, too, and she wanted his arms around her. No matter how many times he proved to her what a barbarian and a savage he was, she still longed for him. But he wouldn’t trust her, wouldn’t confide in her, and didn’t want to stay with her. She might be young and naïve, but she’d had some failed friendships that had taught her she couldn’t make anyone love her.

If he didn’t want her, there wasn’t much she could do about it. From now on, she would hold herself aloof from him. They had to cooperate until Laila found a place to stay permanently, but they didn’t have to be intimate.

“When are we going to leave?” she said coolly.

He looked at her. “As soon as we eat and get our things together.”

“But it’s hours until dusk.”

“I’ll have to play a leper again,” he said, shrugging.

The sun was still high above the horizon when they left the cottage, Niko wrapped once again in torn strips of sheeting. He carried their provisions in a heavy pack on his back, while Laila toted a similar but smaller bag with books and a few other extras. Her dress had been mended with crude and hasty stitches.

She looked down the road. There was a dust cloud in the distance. Laila frowned. Feet kicked up dust, so maybe a great many feet would produce a cloud like that. The villagers were already hunting them.

“Niko.” She tugged on his sleeve. “Look at that.”

He shook his head. “I can’t see in this light.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. There’s a big dust cloud on the village road.”

His mouth tightened. “They’re faster than I expected.” He struck off across country.

“What are we going to do about it?”

“We’re going to hurry.”

“But—” Laila had to scramble to keep up with him. “Won’t they see us? You’re all in white.” So was she, for that matter.

“Hadn’t thought of that.” He wiggled out of the pack. Throwing himself to the ground, he rolled around in the dust like a dog.

Laila frowned. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m getting rid of the white. You try it, too.” Niko rubbed his filthy bandaged hands over the linen on his head.

It worked. The white fabric was now a light reddish-brown from all the dust he’d ground into it. Laila dropped to her knees. The ground was rough and rocky, not a place where she wanted to lie. She blew out her breath.

Spiders, scorpions, holes in the ground, near-rape. Compared to all that, I guess this isn’t so bad.

She arranged her body in the dust and rocked back and forth. Then she rolled onto her belly and repeated the performance. Yuck.

“We’re still going to kick up our own dust cloud,” she said.

“There’s not much we can do about that.”

Niko took up the path again, striding away without checking to see if she would follow. Laila trotted behind him. Her sandals scraped against her heels with every step. If it weren’t for all the rocks, she’d go barefoot just to get away from the pain of her shoes.

“Where are you taking me, again?”

“Somewhere the Atlanteans can’t follow us.”

“And where is that?”

Niko pointed toward the east. “Over there.”

All she could see was sky and dusty rolling hills. Alright. He didn’t want to talk. Maybe there was some magic key that would open the locked box that was Niko, but she had no idea where to look for it.

A few hours later, opening Niko had ceased to be a concern. Laila just wanted to survive the hellish walk he was forcing on her. No, he wasn’t forcing it—the Atlanteans were. When had she begun to think of them as “the Atlanteans,” as if they weren’t her own people?

She stumbled along next to the vampire, as one stony scrub-cloaked hill flowed into the next. Her feet were raw. If only he would offer to carry her. He didn’t, however, and Laila refused to ask him.

Gradually the sun descended toward the horizon. The light turned golden, throwing long blue shadows from every rock and gnarled tree they passed. Ahead of them, a strange sort of mountain rose up from the plain. It was shaped like a giant tower, but was obviously natural. No human labor could create something that big.

Laila looked back the way they’d come. Dust clouds and movement on the crest of a far away hill caught her eye. The villagers were on their track.

“I know they’re behind us,” Niko said. “I can feel it. We’re almost to the butte.”

“The butte?”

He pointed across the plain to the tower. Its top looked jagged and irregular, as if there were human structures on it, although it seemed impossible that anyone had ever climbed up there with building materials.

“That’s where we’re going?”

“Yes.”

He’d been curt and distant during their journey, which she had matched with the same attitude. She glanced at him covertly. Niko didn’t seem to notice that she was looking at him.

“How are we going to get up there?” she said.

“Climb.”

He expected her to climb up a sheer rock wall? Laila refrained from shaking her head, even though she wanted to. Of course, he’d also expected her to hide in a hole in the ground, and she’d managed to do it. Maybe she really could scale the butte. It was a good thing they’d cut off her fingernails. She snickered.

“What?” Niko barked.

“Nothing. I was just thinking my long nails would have gotten in the way.”

His lips twitched.

“Be careful not to smile. I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself,” Laila said.

“Vixen.”

“Jackass.” She put her hand to her mouth. “Did I really say that?”

Niko unbent enough to smile. “You are looking for trouble today, aren’t you?”

“Not I.”

He linked his arm with hers. “Listen, Mistress of Doubt, we are going to get to the top of that butte. I’ll carry you on my back, so don’t think I’m going to make you climb it on your own.”

“Your back is probably burned by now.”

“The pack has protected it. I’ll do.”

Laila pulled her arm away, drawing another look from him. “What are those shapes on top?”

“It’s an ancient temple complex. The locals claim it was built by the gods, or at least by magic. They think it’s haunted or cursed. No-one goes near it.”

“How clever of them. I thought perhaps they flew up to it every evening to watch the sunset.”

“You’re definitely looking for trouble.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek.

“Really, Niko, I’m not.” She took a step away from him, out of kissing range. “Let’s keep moving. It looks like a long climb.” Laila strode across the plain with much more confidence than she really felt.

***

Niko pulled the bandaging away from his eyes and tilted his head back to study the granite wall of the butte. The rock was so hard there were few handholds that he could see. Climbing that while carrying Laila was going to be an ordeal. He’d already carried her across yards of loose rock to reach the solid part of the outcropping, because her pace had been too slow.

His sense of the villagers’ presence strengthened. There were a lot of them, probably all the men in the town, and they were gaining ground because the terrain had slowed him to an almost human speed. Laila would never be able to scale the butte on her own—he had no choice but to carry her on his back. He’d been around the base of the formation many times and had never found any other way up.

“You’re going to have to hold on tight for a long time,” he told Laila.

She nodded, her mouth pressed into a hard line. He slipped the big pack off his back and settled it on hers, then stuffed the extra bag in a crevice to be retrieved later. Laila seemed to sag a bit under the weight of her burden, but she didn’t complain. Niko knelt on the ground in front of her. She wrapped her arms and legs around him and he pushed to his feet.

“You’re strong,” he said. “You can do it.”

“I can do it,” Laila muttered.

Niko reached for his first handholds and pulled himself onto the rock face. Laila clung to his back, her skirt pushed up her thighs so her calves were exposed to the stone. She’d have some scrapes before they were done.

And how do you plan to bring her down? whispered an inner voice.

He ignored it, focusing all his mental energy on hand and toe-holds as he began to crawl upward. Her strength wouldn’t last long. He had to go as fast as possible, before her arms gave out and she fell.

Voices came to him, carried on the wind. He could almost make out what they were saying to each other. The sun was setting, and the searchers were nearly at the butte. At least nightfall would give him an advantage.

He scrambled up the rock as fast as his vampire reflexes would allow him to go. Find a hand-hold, shift, reach with his toes, shift, next hand, next foot, on and on, move quickly, don’t think about what waits below. The ground receded and he refused to look at it, refused to dwell on what would happen to Laila if either of them failed.

She gripped him so fiercely it felt like a chokehold. Lucky for her, Niko wasn’t vulnerable to chokeholds. Don’t think about that. Keep rising. Hand. Foot. Other hand. Other foot.

The voices were closer. Torchlight flickered on the granite. He was too high for them to pull him down, thank the gods.

Halfway up, he began to feel the strain. Most of the benefit from the blood he’d taken that afternoon had gone toward healing his burns. He could have used even more. Blood always gave him a surge of extra strength and agility. Don’t think about it. Keep moving.

Laila shifted her weight slightly.

“Keep still.”

“Sorry.” Her voice was strained. “I’m slipping.”

“Hold on, Laila. You can do it. We’re almost there.”

There was still too much light for him to see well, but he tilted his head anyway, trying to judge the remaining distance through the blurring in his eyes. Maybe a quarter of the way left. Maybe less. Don’t think about it. Keep moving.

The humans at the base of the butte started shouting. He couldn’t understand them. It didn’t matter anyway. They had nothing to say that he wanted to hear.

His palms had grown sweaty. Niko carefully wiped his right hand on his tunic. He replaced it. Now, the other hand. Good. New toehold. Reach with his right hand.

He slipped.

The toehold under his left foot gave way at the same time as he reached for a new hand placement. With a lurch, they swung away from the rock and dangled, Niko clinging desperately with his left hand. Laila gave a muffled wail. A roar came up from their pursuers.

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