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Cassie paced nervously as she watched the three empty beds in her room. Each fluffy white bedspread sat untouched with every pillow still perfectly in place. Moonlight cut through the tall window panes, casting a soft glow on the vacant beds. Cassie's fingers drifted across Kahli's bedspread as she passed it.
No one had returned, yet. They should have all been back. How long was dinner? In her dealings with the King, he was only after one thing, and when he got it, he tossed her out. She cringed and pushed away the memory. It's just nerves, she told herself. There was no explanation for it, but Cassie felt like she was going to wretch. From the time they came in and summoned Kahli, something didn't feel right. The last time she felt this way, something hideous happened. When the King was involved, they were always at risk. Add in this feeling and she was a nervous wreck, pacing and jumpy.
Before it was too late to leave the maiden's quarters, Cassie pushed through the doors. She managed to find Cole. He was wandering the hallways like he usually did. Cassie once asked him why he did it, but she didn't get much of an answer. Cole appeared to have an agenda, but she didn't really understand why. They were both trapped, bred to be in this place. Maybe acting like a spy made him feel like he had some control over his life. Besides, it was easier to pretend that he was Cassie's sentry, always nearby waiting to help.
"Hey," Cole said, when he looked up and saw his sister walking toward him. He was still dressed in his dinner suit. The dark blue fabric was supple. It was perfectly tailored to his body, accentuating his broad shoulders and narrow waist. The Queen must have called for him. He only wore that suit when he was summoned by her. Guards were stationed at either end of the hall, getting ready to usher them back to their chambers for the evening. The Queen liked everything to be orderly, and being confined to quarters at night made certain that they weren't doing anything naughty. Not that Cassie had anyone that she wanted to do anything naughty with.
Hurrying, Cassie walked so fast that she was nearly running by the time she reached Cole. A guard snapped, "Slow down!"
Panting, Cassie slowed just as she reached Cole. His expression pinched into concern as she raced toward him. Taking her by the elbow, he scolded, "We can't draw attention to ourselves. Kahli's already done enough of that. Ever since the Purging, the vamps won't leave me alone." They had found out he was stronger than they thought. Cole's guise was ripped away, and it was Kahli's fault. Before he had a chance to say more, Cassie cut him off.
"The King took, Kahli. She's been gone all night." Eyes wide, she looked up at Cole hoping he'd know what to do. Normally, she didn't panic like this, but something didn't feel right. Cassie was more than worried about Kahli. Her stomach churned like she had eaten glass.
Cole turned sharply and they started to walk back toward the maiden's rooms. Leaning close to her ear, he whispered, "When? I've been with the Queen and haven't heard anything. What happened?"
"Hours ago, before sunset. It's dark now, Cole. She shouldn't have been there that long. He invited Kahli to dinner and told her to dress up. She was nervous when she left. Something felt wrong, but she had to go. It's the King. It's not like we can say no thanks."
Cole held onto Cassie's elbow and he walked silently as she filled him in. Cole didn't say much, just nodding at the right times. He rarely spoke, because they were always being watched. Eyes and ears where everywhere. Cole didn't survive this long by acting like they weren't under constant surveillance, and while he didn't like how Kahli handled herself, he didn't wish harm upon her, either.
Taking a deep breath, he ran his fingers through his hair. It was the end of the day. Everyone should be exhausted, but Cole was not. He feigned his fatigue, slowing his pace to match his sister's. Finally, he said, "Don't worry about it for tonight. I'll tell you what I know in the morning. If she comes back, send a message. Remember what they taught us?"
Cassie bobbed her head, knowing exactly what he was referring to. Hands twisting, she looked up at him. "Yes, but that was before we came here."
Cole shook his head, "It doesn't matter. It's still true. Don't assume anything until there's blood. With our kind, with our anemia, there is always blood and lots of it when something goes wrong. Don't freak out until then. It won't help you and it won't help Kahli. All right?"
Nothing was all right, but what was she supposed to say? They turned a corner and walked down a hallway with floor to ceiling windows. All the drapes were pulled shut to seal in the heat. Even so, Cassie could still feel the frozen air wafting in and spilling under the thick curtains.
Something Cole said came back to her. She didn't know what he meant. Cole always spoke using as few words as possible. She glanced up at him, "What do you mean, they're watching you?"
Cole's gaze cut to hers. He slipped his hands into his pockets, continuing to walk like nothing was wrong even though everything was falling apart. "Exactly that."
Cassie sighed, frustrated with him. For once, she wished he would just talk to her the way he used to. Coming to the palace was exciting at first. It meant a better life, but Cole never acted like that. Instead he seemed to shut down and was constantly anxious, like he was going to be attacked at any moment. There were more rules in the palace, more protection. But that didn't help Kahli, she thought sadly. Maybe Cole's been right all this time. Cassie rubbed her face and looked up at him. "Gonna tell me anything else about it?"
"Not at the moment. I shouldn't have mentioned it. I just don't want more attention and running draws it. Although, Kahli shone a spotlight on us, so maybe it doesn't matter." Cole wanted to strangle Kahli. She was reckless. Her behavior would affect Cassie, and while Kahli was protective of his sister, she couldn't protect Cassie from the vamps if she was dead.
Cole turned toward his sister. Taking her elbow, he stopped her. "Hey, sorry I snapped. I've tried so hard to make sure that we survive. I'm not handling this very well. Kahli doesn't mesh with my ideal situation."
Cassie arched an eyebrow at him. "Ideal situation? Are you nuts? The ideal situation was before the ice shelf snapped off and drown half the world. The ideal situation was before everything was covered in ice. Nothing is ideal, Cole, not anymore. We're at the bottom of the food-chain, living in hell. And honestly, if it wasn't for the vamps, we'd be dead by now. People can't survive on their own out there. Not anymore."
Cole's voice was soft, pensive. He looked straight at her, saying, "And yet Kahli did, from age seven, and she was alone. Makes you think, doesn't it?"
Cole didn't say anything else. He couldn't. The vamps were too close. They heard every word he said. He led Cassie back to her rooms and told her not to worry, that he'd look into Kahli's whereabouts as well as the other girls who were missing. He gave Cassie a kiss on the head and shoved her through the door and told her to go back to her room.
As he walked away, Cole wondered what happened to him. Since Kahli arrived, he'd gone from just another piece of vamp decor to socialite status, drawing attention and turning heads. No one looked at him the same way anymore. He was lucky to get a reprieve between feedings. The Regent would have tried to tap him tonight if the Queen hadn't requested him. They noticed Cole, now. They watched him closer, and he didn't like it. That made everything he worked for harder, but there was no way he was giving up now.