Under the light of the moon, each ripple on the lake seemed magnified. Aedan’s emotions felt the same way.
Sitting with his back to the slim trunk of a small tree, he watched Bradan by the side of the lake. He’d cleaned the blood off his face and neck, and was now washing his shirt.
Blood stains wouldn’t show on the black fabric. Bradan had said so when Aedan had told him to wash off the blood. What Bradan didn’t understand yet was that it wasn’t about stains. The issue was the smell.
After so many years, the scent of blood did not bother Aedan anymore, but he did remember his first days—his first years—as a vampire. Blood back then, whether the scent or sight, had always drawn out his fangs, made the hunger within him roar louder, and made it harder to resist his impulse to hunt and feed.
It would take time for Bradan to learn to control the hunger and himself. The trouble was, they did not have time.
Bradan rinsed his shirt one last time, then wrung it out and came back toward Aedan, barefoot, bare-chested, his pants rolled up almost to his knees. He looked different, and it had nothing to do with his appearance. It was all in the way he moved.
That morning, he’d been human. Strong, agile, and graceful: a fierce fighter, but nonetheless human. Now, he was a predator, and he moved like it, each step secure, his body coiled as though ready to attack at any moment. Aedan wasn’t sure whether Bradan realized it yet, or even understood the depths of how he’d changed.
For that matter, even knowing what he’d done, Aedan still had a hard time wrapping his mind around it. He watched the silver pendant on Bradan’s chest, absently touching his own through his shirt. After years of being twins yet different, they were back to being the same. That had never been part of their plan.
“It doesn’t feel cold,” Bradan said, sitting down next to Aedan. “The water, I mean. Why doesn’t it feel cold?”
With a shake of his head, Aedan pushed away the grim thoughts echoing through his mind.
“Why should it?” He plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between his fingers. “Water only feels cold to a warm body. I’ve told you before when you warmed washing water for me that it wasn’t necessary.”
He didn’t ask whether Bradan understood now; he knew he did.
“I’ll never do that again,” Bradan murmured as if to himself.
When Aedan gave him a questioning look, he shrugged.
“Warm up water. Or channel. When we were hunting, I tried… I mean, I know I can’t channel anymore, but I just didn’t think. It felt so weird not to find the Quickening when I reached for it.”
Aedan dropped his gaze to the blade of grass he held, only to realize he’d shredded it.
Bradan had lost the Quickening, yes; Aedan had taken it from him. And even if the alternative had been death, Aedan knew from personal experience that the loss was shattering. They’d still been children when they had learned to grasp the Quickening and channel. It had become as normal, as instinctive as breathing. Aedan remembered it well.
“It took me years,” he said, his voice even quieter than Bradan’s. “Years before I stopped trying to channel without thinking about it. It’s hard. But eventually, it gets easier.”
He didn’t add that, even when he’d stopped trying to channel, he’d still felt the loss as acutely as ever. Bradan wasn’t even a day old; there was no reason to trouble him with what would happen in the next decades. The next few weeks would already be complicated enough.
“How’s the hunger?” he asked, raising his gaze to meet Bradan’s again. Bradan’s eyes were still silver; they wouldn’t go back to blue for more than seconds at a time for months, maybe even more. Not until Bradan learned to control his hunger.
“Never mind that,” Bradan said gruffly. “Tell me—”
“I asked you a question,” Aedan cut in, his voice mild but bearing no contradiction. “I’ll be asking it a lot in the next months. And you will answer your—answer me when I do.”
Answer your Maker, was what he’d been about to say. How many times had Ciara asked him the same thing in the two or three years after she’d turned him? It had taken that long before she trusted him around humans.
Bradan’s eyes widened slightly before he inclined his head.
“It’s better,” he said, “but it’s still there. I drained one ceash fully, and most of a second one. Is that… is that normal? It seems like a lot of blood. You don’t eat that much, do you?”
Without thinking, Aedan looked to the side, where he’d dropped the body of the second ceash after carrying it out of the woods. Bradan had killed that one on his own, and they’d fed from it together. It was a fine animal, too fine to let its meat go to waste. They’d take it back to the castle for Doril to cook. It was smaller than the first one, but both combined had held far more blood than a human body.
The issue wasn’t how much blood Bradan had drunk tonight. He could drain three more ceashes and still feel pangs of hunger. What his body needed, what it craved, was human blood.
The one thing Aedan had to forbid to him.
Thinking back about his own awakening, about Ciara explaining all this, Aedan considered using the same words to explain to Bradan, but he couldn’t make himself. Aedan had chosen this life for himself. He’d thought he knew what he was agreeing to. He’d been wrong, but at least the choice had been his to make. Bradan had not had any such choice.
“You’re right, I don’t eat much,” he said instead. “But I used to. You’re going to be hungry just about all the time. Drinking from animals will help, but it won’t feel like it’s enough, not for a long time. So, when it gets to be too much, whenever it dulls your mind because you can’t think of anything else…” He drew up the sleeve of his shirt, much like he had done earlier that night. “I want you to come to me. And tell me. Don’t wait for me to ask. Do you understand?”
Bradan’s gaze was fixated on the bite marks visible on Aedan’s wrist. They were healed already, and would disappear within a day at most, but at the moment they were still very obvious on Aedan’s pale skin. After a few seconds, Bradan shook his head and looked away; it was clear that doing so cost him.
“I can’t bite you every time I’m hungry,” he protested, his words rough. “Wouldn’t that weaken you? If I’m not at the top of my form, you should be. For our dame.”
When Aedan let out a snort, Bradan’s eyes flew back to him, his brow already set in a deep frown.
“So, what you want to do,” Aedan tried to sound teasing, but his voice came out too cold for that, “is guard her while you’re so hungry all you can think about is her blood. Oh, yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea.”
“I’d never hurt…”
Bradan’s voice and outrage tapered off when Aedan brought his wrist to his mouth and ran one fang where his skin was the thinnest. No more than a trace of blood beaded to the surface of his skin, but Bradan’s nostrils flared and, probably unconsciously, he started to lean forward.
“You’d never want to hurt her,” Aedan murmured. “I never wanted to hurt anyone, either. But my first year as a vampire, I bit three humans. Came close to attacking nine more.”
And without his Maker to stop him every time, he might have killed all of them without ever meaning to.
Blinking several times, Bradan tore his gaze from Aedan’s wrist to look at his face instead.
“Why… why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Aedan shrugged, but his discomfort clung to him.
“Because I didn’t want you to be afraid of me.”
Also because he’d been too ashamed of himself: too scared that he’d never get control over his hunger, and never be worthy of being part of the QuickSilver Guard.
Without warning, Bradan shoved at his shoulder. Aedan glared at him and received an identical glare in return.
“You idiot,” Bradan said, but the hint of a smile was soon tugging at his mouth. “Like I could ever be afraid of you.”
A retort rose to Aedan’s lips, but he swallowed it back. This wasn’t about him or about the past. It was about Bradan right here, right now.
“Well, maybe I was an idiot, but I won’t let you be one. So. Whenever you’re hungry, what are you to do?”
With an excessively deep sigh, Bradan yielded.
“Fine. If I get too hungry to think clearly, I’ll tell you.”
Aedan raised an eyebrow and waited. He didn’t have to wait very long.
“I’m hungry,” Bradan said with another sigh. “Which you know because it filters through the bond.”
Tugging his sleeve higher up his arm, Aedan held out his bare wrist to Bradan.
“Like with the ceash,” he said. “Make the conscious effort to drop your fangs. And this time you’ll stop at the exact moment I tell you to. Got it?”
Bradan’s nod seemed a little impatient. Both his hands clasped Aedan, one on his wrist and the other higher up his arm. His brow furrowed in concentration, and it only took him a handful of seconds to let his fangs out. His bite was more controlled than when he’d first awakened, and it didn’t hurt as much. It was a good first step.
“And yes, it does filter through the bond,” Aedan murmured, watching his brother drink from him. “But just the same. I want you to tell me. That way you’ll be on the look-out for the signs. That’s how you’ll learn. Stop now.”
He didn’t tug his arm back as he said the words. This, too, was how Bradan would learn. And he had so many things to learn in so little time…
The suction stopped, but Bradan tightened his hold on Aedan’s wrist rather than letting go, and his mouth didn’t leave Aedan’s skin.
“I know it’s hard,” Aedan said quietly. “I know you’re hungry. But you’ve got to learn to control your hunger rather than let it control you. That’s the only way you’ll be safe around humans.”
Bradan’s eyes closed and, still holding on tight to Aedan’s wrist and arm, he pushed himself away. The effort seemed to take all he had, and when he let go, he lowered himself to the grass, lying there, panting.
“The only way humans will be safe around me, you mean,” he said after a few seconds. “The only way she’ll be safe around me.”
Only when Bradan’s eyes opened again and sought his gaze did Aedan reply.
Bradan folded his arms behind his head. He stared up at the sky above them, devoid of stars because the shield masked them, and Aedan focused on what was filtering through the bond. The hunger was there, would always be there from now on, a background note that would grow louder at times, and at times recede until it almost—but not quite—disappeared.
Right now, the hunger was a presence but not overwhelming. What came through much more clearly was Bradan’s love for their dame, mixed with worry. It was good that he worried. Aedan did, too.
“How is she?” Bradan asked after a few moments, turning his face back to Aedan. “What happened with Rhuinn? Did she go to the party at all?”
Aedan nodded absently.
“She did. I wish you could have seen her. She marched in there like she was already the queen, called him out for having you and Anabel murdered, and challenged him to a duel. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rhuinn that shocked. Or angry.”
But Rhuinn wasn’t the only one shocked. Bradan sat up again, his eyes wide and gleaming like silver coins.
“She challenged him to a duel?” he repeated, choking on the words. “But she just learned to channel! How could you let her—”
He fell silent when Aedan burst out laughing. There was no joy to the sound, however, and soon Aedan quieted down again.
“Let her?” Aedan said. “There was no ‘letting her.’ She told me what she wanted to do, and it was pretty clear that I could either go along with her or watch her go on her own. And yes, she just learned, but she’s strong. She has five days to practice and get even better.”
“Five days.” Bradan shook his head. “That’s not much time at all. I’ll start sparring with her tomorrow using nothing but the Quickening and…”
Aedan didn’t have to say anything. Already, Bradan had remembered that, no, he wouldn’t be able to do that. He could still coach their dame into using the Quickening, but he wouldn’t be able to channel with her anymore.
The look of loss that flickered over his features, matching the painful pang that came through the bond, reawakened Aedan’s guilt. He wanted to apologize, but what words would be enough to make up for all that he had taken from his brother by making him a vampire?
Reaching for Bradan’s knee, he patted it twice a little awkwardly.
“We’ll figure out some way for her to practice,” he said. “She’ll be fine, you’ll see. She’s strong. She was devastated after… after what happened to you, and still she stood her ground in front of Rhuinn.”
“You’ve stopped calling him the king,” Bradan noted, a small smile touching his lips. “It took you long enough.”
Looking away, Aedan pushed himself to his feet.
“Like our dame said, he deserves the title of murderer more than he does the name of king. Come on, let’s go back.”
Bradan stood and picked up his shirt from the branch. It was still wet, of course, and Bradan’s hand flicked toward it in the familiar movement that had accompanied his channeling. Aedan’s insides tightened, and he pretended not to have noticed, nor did he comment on the feeling of frustration that resonated through the bond.
Had he been able to restore Bradan’s life, give him back his heartbeat along with his ability to channel, Aedan would have gladly given his own life in exchange. But what was done was done, and there was no changing it.
He picked up the body of the ceash and carried it across his shoulders as they started back toward the castle. For a while they were both quiet, and it was Bradan who broke the silence.
“What’s upsetting you?” he asked, eyeing Aedan sideways.
“I’m not upset.”
Bradan snorted and pushed at Aedan’s shoulder. “You’re usually better than that at hiding what you feel.”
With a frown, Aedan once more considered what was filtering through the bond. Were Bradan’s emotions stronger, clearer than they used to be, or was he only imagining it?
Back when they’d been children, the bond had seemed louder. No, not only then. Even after Bradan had moved to the Otherworld, leaving Aedan to grow up faster than he did, whenever they met again the bond would be bursting with emotions, each one as clear as a limpid sky. Only after Aedan had become a vampire had the bond changed.
It had not disappeared, nor had the feelings been completely muted, but they had been a little muffled. Combined with Aedan’s acquired skill at holding back what he felt, it had allowed Aedan to hide some things from his brother, and in particular—at least for a time—his feelings for their dame.
But now… Now the bond seemed to be back to its full strength from their childhood, from before Aedan had taken a different path and become something other than the human Bradan still had been. Now, they were the same again: vampires.
That didn’t mean Aedan couldn’t hide how he felt anymore, but it did mean he’d have to be better at it.
“We’ll have to go back to the palace before Dame Vivien’s duel,” he finally said in reply to Bradan’s question. “New vampires need to be presented to the head of their clan within three nights of rising. Ciara already knows about you.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Bradan stumble.
“That… doesn’t sound good,” Bradan said warily.
Aedan didn’t reply. ‘Not good’ was very far from the mark when it was possible only one of them would come back from that meeting. Who would keep Bradan from Dame Vivien’s blood, then?
… continued in Bloodchild