Chapter 2

 H.M. Ward

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Looking up at him, Kahli licked her lips. They'd become dried and cracked. The movement stung more than it helped.
Will watched her, his attentive gaze unwavering. He was silent, breathing in long slow breaths, but Kahli could feel his pulse. She knew he was nervous, scared even. But, he blocked everything else from her. She didn't know why he'd be afraid of her. Or, maybe, he blocked her for another reason, but Kahli wasn't about to ask.
After a moment, Will broke the gaze and looked down at his chest. "If that's what you need, I will." He released her arms and started to peel off his coat. As his fingers worked the buttons on the front of his shirt, Kahli couldn't look away. She didn't know what he was doing. It was freezing, even with the fire right next to them.
"You saw the runes on my chest once before. Do you remember?" His fingers undid another button and his shirt began to fall open.
Now that he said it, Kahli thought she remembered something, but the recollection was fuzzy and faded, like an old photograph left in the sun, bleached white with all the details missing.
Brow pinching together, she nodded, "Vaguely."
Will pulled his arms out of the shirt, revealing his bare chest. His body was all muscle and smooth skin. Kahli stared, wanting to touch him, to feel the rise and fall of those muscles beneath her fingers. The thought shocked her. She tried to bury it, but Will smiled softly, like he'd already heard her. He took her hand in his and pressed the pads of her fingers to his chest.
Kahli couldn't breathe. She didn't know what he was doing, but she didn't pull away. "What are you - ?"
He cut her off, "Look. Read them. I know you can."
When Kahli looked down at his bare skin she saw a string of runes appear under her fingers. Will lifted his hands from hers knowing that she wouldn't pull away. As she slid her hand across his chest, rune after rune appeared. Some of them didn't make sense. They seemed to be more like symbols than words, but as her fingers grazed across his chest and down his side, Kahli recognized a rune. She slipped her fingers over his skin slowly, tracing a line down his side. As she touched him, blood-red runes seemed to burn under his skin, throbbing bright crimson, until her fingers passed over them and they faded back to the color of his skin. When her hand trailed down to Will's waist she stopped.
Swallowing hard, she looked up at him. Will was watching her, his lips parted slightly. "It's your name," she said, shocked. Will nodded slowly.
The moment felt surreal, like time bent and stopped. The two stared at each other. Kahli didn't know how much time passed before she spoke again. Will's blue eyes were locked on hers, holding her in place. They were so close, but when she dropped her hand neither of them touched. The runes faded, hiding his real name - the one the vampires could use against him.
Kahli moved her palm to his side again, hovering her hand over his warm skin. She wanted to touch him again, she wanted to feel the runes burn under her palm. Instead she hesitated, holding her hand less than an inch from his side. Her heart was pounding violently. Her mind couldn't make sense of it, of what it meant.
She pressed her lips together and tried to step away, but Will took her hand. "Say it," he commanded. "Say my name."
Kahli was wide-eyed. She shook her head. The name wouldn't tumble from her mouth. "No. It's enough to see it. I trust you. I believe you." It was what she needed, something of equal value - something equally damning - to be trusted with. She still couldn't believe he showed her.
"Then, why are you shaking?"
Kahli looked at her hand, her fingers next to Will's. He was so strong and her blood made him stronger. Blood. The thought jarred her. "Those are blood runes. They aren't the same as mine."
Will nodded, his thumb rubbing the back of her hand, tracing small circles on her smooth skin. "You're right. They aren't. They're more powerful, more binding. Marriage runes connect you to another person. They're a promise. I assume you have another rune with his family's crest?" Will turned over Kahli's wrist, the wrist that had the Section 8 brand, and examined it. "Maybe it was here? Under this one?"
"Maybe," she confessed, her lips slowly pulling into a smile. That was exactly where it was. Her wrist rune could only be evoked by her betrothed's blood. Until then, it would remain hidden. These were things that would have been part of the marriage ceremony, part of a life that was gone.
Will smoothed his hand over her wrist, and returned her smile. "I always liked that ritual. It was romantic, professing love like that, being bound to another person - willingly." When he said the last word, Kahli's insides twisted. They were not willing linked. Continuing, he said, "Mine are different. They're blood runes. There's nothing willing about them. I guess that makes me more vamp, than human." He smiled sadly. It was a difference between them, clearly marking that they were different.
Kahli nodded, "I suppose so," she said softly, staring at his smooth skin. Looking into his eyes, she asked, "How come I can see them? I mean, runes don't just pop up like that."
"Because vampires mark runes in blood, and my blood is inside of you. You can evoke my runes and read them. They respond to you, treating you like an extension of me." Will raised his hand to her cheek, and touched her soft skin gently with his thumb. The way he looked at her made Kahli's heart pound harder. He smiled at her and dropped his hand to his side.
Kahli's voice shook slightly as she spoke, "What are these?" She pointed to the pale flesh on his upper chest, sliding her finger over the spot and awakening the runes. They burned under her touch. "These don't look like any runes I've seen." Will shivered as the runes appeared under Kahli's finger, flashing bright orange, like flames.
He smiled sadly at her, "Property runes. They identify who I belong to, which vampire clan I serve."
Kahli could feel the weight of something, some decision he made long ago, crushing him. As he looked into her eyes, she wished she could fix it and remove that pain, but she didn't know what caused it.
"Who do you belong to?" Their gazes met and held. She could feel longing burst through his body, but nothing else. No name. No sign that said THIS GUY BELONGS TO with a name tacked on the end.
Will shook his head, "Can't say. It's forbidden."
She nodded slowly, wondering who owned him. Her guesses included the king, queen, and Reggie, but she wasn't sure. "How can you be marked by more than one owner?"
He smiled at her, "They can't see the runes. As long as their wills don't conflict, I can be branded by the entire Regent." He cringed thinking about it. "Thankfully, I wasn't that stupid, to let them all brand me. Not that I had much of a choice." He saw the question in her eyes. Will sighed and pushed his hand through his hair and responded, "Stupid mistakes. I made too many of them. That's all I can say, Kahli. I'd tell you, if I were able. Being able to talk to someone about it would be freeing."
Her throat tightened as she listened to him speak. He was a slave. For some reason, Kahli didn't see it before, but she did now. Kahli knew what it felt like to be trapped. The vampires held her captive for a few weeks, but Will, he was enslaved for years.
The way Will gazed at her made Kahli notice it, the sensation snaking through her stomach. It wasn't hers. It was Will's. When he looked at her, he saw hope. It filled him up and made him stronger. What hope could she possibly bring him? There was nothing she could do to save him. She couldn't even save herself. If Will hadn't followed her from the palace, she would have bled to death.
Looking into his eyes, Kahli knew she'd fight for him, free him if she could figure out how. The way he looked at her made her uneasy. It was like Will wanted to kiss her - or more. The thing that scared her most wasn't knowing that he was drawn to her, it was no longer being repulsed by his attraction. She had feelings for him. She felt it. Will was everything she would have wanted in a mate, but he was a vampire. His blood separated them. It always would.
Looking down, Kahli stepped back. Will didn't object. He turned to grab his shirt, pulling it onto his strong shoulders, followed by his coat.
"So." Kahli's voice was firm. She looked up at Will, understanding him a little better, wishing she knew him more. "How much of this assassination have you planned?"