Chapter 20: Always

My question hung in the air between us, a dead weight, anchoring Keel and me to this moment. Perhaps it was always destined to come to this. If not in this utility closet, than somewhere else.

I'd finally drawn my line. Everyone has one. And, on the other side, was the thing which you would do anything to prevent. And while you could guess at where it might be and what that thing was, you never could be certain until you came toe-to-toe with it.

Somehow I'd begrudgingly accepted the king's bloodletting and torture - as long as he was doing that, he wasn't killing me, and as long as he wasn't killing me, I still had some chance at escape. But being a vessel for the next generation of vampires was something I was never going to accept. I'd sooner die; death would be the final, inevitable outcome anyway - a horrific, perverted, eaten-alive-by-your-offspring kind of death.

I still hoped it wouldn't come to that, though - kill or be killed.

What I needed was a back-up plan. I also needed Keel. But he was far from on board.

"He'd kill me for helping you escape," he said. It was a stock answer that lacked Keel's usual bravado; his eyes flickered off mine when he rolled it out, belying the deeper truth underneath. As much of a free-thinker as he was, he was still Nosferatu royalty. By asking him to help me escape, I was quite possibly also asking him to compromise everything he had ever worked for, just to save me - from him. Or not him. Who didn't matter to what was on the line.

"You're his only son," I reminded him.

"Wouldn't matter. He'd kill me, then sire another. We live much longer than humans. He still has time, if he wanted to."

"Keel, please," I implored. "Who's to say you'd even get caught? You know this place better than anyone, if anybody could get me out unseen, it's you. Besides, I'm not asking you to do this tomorrow, only if... when -"

"I can't. I'm sorry." Keel was massaging his temples and staring at the floor, as if this whole thing gave him a head full of stampeding elephants. "I'll find another way to stop it, but I can't help you escape. That's asking too much."

"It's asking for my life."

"Listen, if I can't talk him out of his plan, we'll just fake it. It doesn't always work with the humans, so who's to say it would work with a sorceress at all? And once I'm king, it won't matter."

"Won't it?" I asked. "Who will you be when you become king, Keel? Who will you be after the transition? I know it changes you. How much? What if what I want doesn't matter to you anymore then? Maybe I'm stupid to even be asking you for your word; maybe I should just be stating my terms."

"Mills -" Keel tried to break in, but I didn't let him.

"You saw what I can do, right? So you know what I would do - to your father, to you, to any vampire I could - if any of you ever tried to force yourself on me." My voice cracked, my composure wobbling like an amateur tightrope walker. I hadn't wanted to threaten him. I wanted him to do the right thing. I wanted him to say that if it came down to it, he would save me.

"There's a really good reason we're taught to fear sorcerers and it seems I'm no better at learning my lessons than my father," Keel said dourly, getting up from where he'd been perched on the ladder. "I can't promise you what you want, so I guess we're done."

His words had a finality to them that was alarming. He didn't acknowledge me as he ascended the ladder and replaced the grate covering the entrance to the duct - the Mothering would remain unseen, along with anything else he might have shown me. He didn't look like a vampire as he folded up the ladder, and tucked it back into its spot beside the mop and bucket; his distraught expression was totally human, and totally my fault, since the blood bond kept screaming out my feelings.

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