A Court of Frost and Malice Chapter 1

I rushed down the vampire-infested streets of Sangrael with both eyes wide open. Usually, I’d take care to move more slowly, to not draw a predator’s attention, but not today. It was a risk–if I looked too appealing, too healthy, I might draw someone’s interest. But I craved my weekly bath like a leprechaun craved gold and that was making me act rashly.

Tomorrow night, Palais Immortael was hosting a ball and that meant long working hours for the last two weeks. After all, the noble vampires of the court required new gowns, tunics, and jackets, and Master Aldéric was happy to accommodate. As one of his best seamstresses, I’d been working double-time. That would be bad enough, but unfortunately, fashionable attire was not all the noble vampires required.

A royal party meant all the bloodletters in the city were also quite busy.

To provide for the noble lords and ladies arriving in the city, Lord Aldéric’s letter had taken more of my blood than usual. Just hours ago, I’d donated two full cups and, though I’d eaten since then, I was feeling the effects. My body ached from the work, and lethargy clung to me from the drawing.

I tried to thank the stars for my blessings, though. Some masters were sending their property to the palace rather than donating blood. It was bad enough that I had to be punctured and robbed of my blood every two weeks. To offer my life-force from the vein to the most powerful and cruelest of vampires? What a nightmare. I was thankful that Lord Aldéric was wealthy enough to forgo the extra coin, even if he only did it because he didn’t want to risk losing seamstresses and tailors.

I swung a corner and, with a jolt of my heart, gave a leering vampire merchant eyeing my wings a wide berth before cutting back and entering the public bathhouse. On the edges of the city, the bathhouse had been created out of a cave system, a natural and cheap source of hot water. The moment I opened the door, the steam and tang of minerals in the air calmed me. I exhaled, relieved to have arrived without incident. 

Though I wore a collar proclaiming I belonged to a vampire of great power and influence, I always remained on alert. Hungry vampires, especially newbloods, didn’t always think things through. And because fae slaves were rare amongst the humans, vampires tended to covet the blood of my kind the most.

“Your master’s name?” asked a red-haired human guard standing behind the desk that blocked the door to the baths. Another remained seated, a book in hand. 

“Lord Aldéric.” I waited for the man to check the ledger, while the other set down his book and looked me over. His gaze lingered on my wings for many uncomfortable seconds and a hard glimmer sparked in his eyes, making me recoil.

The humans given the job of protecting the bathhouses and other establishments meant for blood slaves were a nasty sort. Because the House of Laurent gave them a uniform and a sliver of authority, they thought they were better than the rest of the slaves. As if they didn’t see the bloodletter bi-weekly too. 

“His account is in good standing.” The guard gestured to the door behind him. “You have an hour.” 

An exhale parted my lips. One blissful hour of no one telling me what to do. Of quiet. Of peace. I darted through the door, determined to take advantage of every second of rest. 

The disrobing area was empty, just as I had hoped it would be. This time of day was slow, and that was precisely why I’d chosen this time slot. 

Quickly, I threw off my pants, tunic, and boots, and retrieved my small sliver of soap from my pocket. I carefully tucked my garments under a bench in a place where they wouldn’t get wet. Threadbare towels waited on a table by the door. I plucked the freshest looking of the bunch and wrapped it around my ample curves before entering the bathhouse. 

My shoulders eased as I traversed the uneven and water-slick ground. Hung on craggy walls, lanterns provided enough light for me to navigate between pools. I took care to watch my step. People had tripped over a stray rock and injured themselves many times.

Closer to the bathing pools, the scent of lavender grew stronger. The purple flower was sprinkled throughout the pools. One less accustomed to vampires might consider it a kind gesture meant to calm the bathers, but that was certainly not the case. A vampire’s nose was sensitive and lavender shrubs grew wild in the Vampire Kingdom. Not every master provided soap to their slaves, and many slaves worked in physical labor to build the city, making them stink. Using the plant provided a cheap and effective way to reduce their workers’ stench.

A dozen interconnected grottos made up the bathhouse complex. Usually, I’d search for a private one, but no one was around, nor did voices float from connected grottos, so I scanned the room. Light from an opening in the rocks above illuminated a single pool, which made it particularly inviting. I padded over, weaving between the other pools as I went. When I reached it, I droppedmy towel, set the soap on the edge, and slipped into the warm waters. 

I sighed and dipped beneath the hot water, allowing it to cover my head and soothe the tension in my shoulders. Upon surfacing, I slicked back my long silver hair, draping it carefully over my wings, and smiled. Stars above, the water felt amazing. My strength was already returning.

Though I was rarely cold, even in the dead of winter, after a bloodletting, sometimes a chill snuck up on me. Partaking in the mineral waters, feeling the heat rising from the ground and into me, was like being reborn.

If only claiming a new life were that simple.

I grabbed the soap and began scrubbing my body, face, and hair. Unlike the more frugal masters, Lord Aldéric provided us with rose-petal soap, and soon enough, I was clean and smelled like a rose bush in full bloom. I dunked once more, trying to get all the soap out of my long hair. 

When I surfaced, whimpers filled my ears. I stiffened and before I could be sure that was what I’d heard; the sound fell quiet. My gaze raked over the empty cavern. Had I imagined the noise?

I drifted to the side of the pool, content to sit and rest for a while, but I had just reached the stone bench when the whimpers came again.

They sounded fainter, coming from deeper in the bathhouse. Thinking someone might have slipped on the damp stone floor, I hopped out of the pool and wrapped my towel around myself. Following my ears, I entered the next chamber. It, too, was empty. As was the one beyond. I moved deeper into the grotto and my blood chilled when the whimpers turned to sobs. 

Should I leave the person alone? This was, after all, a slave bathhouse. The majority of people who frequented this place were miserable. But a niggling voice inside told me I had to check because this felt wrong. The cries weren’t morose but more frantic. Someone needed help. I knew it.

When I entered the fifth chamber, I stiffened. 

No one had fallen. No one sobbed because the stars had forsaken them. The person I’d heard wasn’t even conscious any longer, thanks to the vampire drinking from her neck. 

Bastard! My fists clenched into hard balls. The woman had been bathing and the monster must have sneaked up on her. 

How he got into the bathhouse was a mystery. The only vampires allowed on the premises were the masters, and judging by this male’s disheveled attire, he could not claim that status. No . . . he had to be a newblood if he dared sneak into the bathhouse and assault someone’s property. 

He hadn’t noticed me either, practically confirming he was a newblood in a fit of bloodlust. As a fae, I smelled especially good to most vampires. But once a newblood found a target, their focus was unmatched. I wavered over what to do. It would be all too easy to slip through the bathhouse and retrieve the guards. But would they do anything to help the woman?

I doubted it. Newbloods were ravenous. And once this vampire finished his meal, he might need another one right away. I swallowed thickly, knowing what that could mean for me but unable to leave. Saving this woman was up to me. 

Pivoting, I scanned the area, and my attention caught on a rock dislodged from the cavern wall. Moving as light as a feather, I scooped up the rock and tiptoed closer to the vampire, still hunched over the woman hanging like wet silk in his arms. Her legs floated in the pool she’d been bathing in, lifeless. 

Terrified that I might be too late, I approached and wound up. Using all my strength, I slammed the rock into the back of his head, hoping to knock him out. 

A hiss of pain made my heart stop. It hadn’t worked. He didn’t drop, nor go unconscious. I struck again as the vampire turned toward his assailant, pinning his red, crazed eyes on me. This time, I slammed the rock into his face, knocking him backward. 

“Worthless shrew!” he screamed. 

“You shouldn’t be in here!” I yelled back. “If the masters—”

My words died on my lips as the vampire lunged at me. I spun out of the way in time, thankful that even though my fae magic was extinguished, I still possessed the natural speed and strength of my kind. 

“Help!” I screamed, hoping that the guards at the front would hear. “Someone fell and is bleeding out!” 

The guards wouldn’t help if they knew a vampire was attacking, but if a blood slave fell and was losing what made them valuable, they would come.

“Soon, you’ll be bleeding too,” the vampire growled and darted toward me a second time. 

I spun out of his grasp again and as I did so, I clocked him in the back of the head with the rock. The vampire stumbled, his own speed driving him straight into the uneven stone wall. 

A roar rang from his throat, and I darted backwards as far as I could into the next chamber. The vampire twisted, focusing on me once more, and I winced beneath the power of his stare. His face had taken the brunt of his collision, resulting in a dozen scrapes surrounded by a gouge out of his cheek. 

“You little—” 

A blast sounded behind me, and air blew by my right shoulder. I gasped as a wooden bullet flew toward the vampire. It missed, veering so far away that I questioned if the attacker was even trying. 

The monster’s eyes burned a deeper crimson. 

With heat pummeling through me, I twirled and ran toward the red-haired guard standing just on the precipice of the room. His eyes widened when he saw the threat behind me. 

“Give me that!” I ripped his weapon out of his hands. The device was fashioned after a weapon in the human world. It was only to be used to dissuade vampires from harming a master’s property. But the weapon would kill too.

“Bleeding skies!” he snarled. “Give it back!”

Instead, I took aim at the vampire blurring my way. I released the bullet and closed my eyes, hoping I hadn’t missed.

When the monster shrieked, I sucked in a shuddering breath. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes to find that the bullet had buried itself deep in the vampire’s heart. He jerked in pain before falling to the ground and stilling.

I dropped the weapon. By the stars—I’d killed him.  

“Get out,” the guard spat, coming up around me and scooping up his weapon.

“What?” 

Leave.”

“There’s a person in the pool. I need to check on her.” 

The guard opened his mouth to argue, but now that no one would rip my throat out, nothing could keep me from the woman. I ran back into the next chamber, slipping on the slick floor as I went. 

Her arm lay splayed against the ground, keeping her nose and mouth out of the pink pool. Maybe I hadn’t been too late.

My hope dissolved as I fell to my knees and gripped the female’s shoulder. I swallowed. Touching her, no magical imprint or warmth leapt out at me. My throat tightened and with a shaking hand, I searched for her pulse, finding nothing. 

“Are your ears broken, fae? I said, get out!”

“Did you even want to hit him?” I asked and gestured to the vampire on the ground. “Or is your aim really that atrocious?”

“Killing a vampire is against the law. I scared him off.” 

What a lying piece of dragon dung.

A poorly flung bullet had no chance of scaring off an enraged newblood. It would only piss them off more.

“You’re weak,” I spat as I pulled the woman from the pool so that she laid on the rocks. “And a traitor to your own kind. How could you side with that monster?”

“I’m sending a messenger to your master,” the guard retorted, his face turning as red as his hair. “And his sire. They’ll know what happened, and that I had nothing to do with this. That I—” 

“Do what you must,” I cut him off. “And if you can find it in your shriveled heart, take care of her body too.” I gestured to the woman and marched past him to prepare for the punishment sure to come my way. 

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