The vampire lay in the bottom of the iron cage, his pale skin cluttered with bruises and burns from the torturer's trade. The blood in his hair had dried to a crust, matting the dark locks against his skull. His eyes were closed, one puffy and discolored; one unmarked.
His tormenters had also broken his nose. Snot-slimy blood leaked out of one nostril and dribbled down his cheek to vanish into the darkness of his hair. His clothes--or, what remained of his clothes--were dripping wet, as if they had doused him with water before dragging the iron cage out into the courtyard.
Perhaps they didn't want him to burn so quickly when the sun rose.
In truth, if Val hadn't told me about his arrest, I wouldn't have recognized this wreck as Joshua. I clutched the folds of my cloak tightly together as someone jostled me from behind and tried to think over the quiet din of the crowd. Could I get back to the castle, have an audience with Daddy, and convince him to call off the execution before daybreak?
My breath condensed on the cold iron bars as I stared down at Joshua's battered face. He hadn't been a vampire a week ago. I'd seen him in daylight, hung-over and sneering, his breath reeking as he spouted off some nonsense theory about the murders.
And now, he lay in the bottom of an iron cage, accused, tried--without a proper trial, even--tortured, and sentenced to death at dawn.
A hand closed over the back of my arm and pulled me away from the cage and into the crowd. Peasants scattered around us along with sleepy-eyed nobles and the inevitable host of students from the University. I twisted away, careful to keep my hood up to shield my identity as I faced my attacker.
"You shouldn't be here," Val said, his black hair tousled in wild disarray. He'd dressed in a rush, his shirt untucked from well-patched pants and his shoes untied. "If your father finds out you're here--"
I folded my arms and gave him what I hoped was a stony stare. "I might be able to stop this."
He scowled as he reached for my arm again. "Even you don't have that kind of influence, Anna. You're risking your life out here!"
I eluded his grasp, eyeing the nearest soldiers. "This is not the right place for an argument, and Joshua is running out of time!" I grabbed his arm and pulled him behind a wooden stall--the execution ground was a market during the summer months--and waited for a moment to see if the guards would take an interest in two quarreling students.
Val sagged against the nearest wall and ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry. If you think you can do anything, then by all means, do it. I know you don't like Joshua--I don't like him much either, but--"
"I might not like him, but he doesn't deserve to die like this." I glanced up at the dark sky. Could I get to the castle before dawn? Or could Val help in some way? "And anyway, I know he didn't kill the first five people, because he wasn't a vampire a week ago."
The first five were the kingdom's version of 'helpless' maidens. The sixth was a palace guard--an anomaly--and the seventh a girl I vaguely knew from University. After the second girl was found drained of blood, the spectre of a vampire loose in the city had been on everyone's minds.
"Someone made him into a vampire," Val said, showing once again that student wizards were masters of the obvious.
"Do you want me to try to save him or not?" I asked. "I might need your help and we're running out of darkness." Joshua was an idiot who didn't think princesses (meaning, me) should be allowed to mingle with commoners (meaning, all my friends. Not that I had many friends, but still.) We never agreed, but he didn't deserve to die like this.
Val turned to stare at the iron cage, shivering as a cold wind whipped through the narrow alley between the stalls. He tucked his hands under his armpits and stamped his feet. "What do you need?"
"A quick way to the castle," I said, glad of my heavy cloak.
A group of nobles passed our alley and one glanced my way. I ducked my head just as Val moved to block their view.
"Not here," he said, glancing nervously at the crowd. "Farther back. And if you get me expelled--"
"If we save an innocent person's life, you won't need to worry about getting expelled," I said, and followed him deeper into the maze of stalls. By the time we reached the backside of the nearest building, the only evidence of the crowd was the steadily growing noise. Executions were rare in Chelsea.
Val chose a likely wall and cast another nervous glance towards the unseen crowd. He traced a door on the dirty bricks, muttered a spell under his breath, and stepped back. The path he had traced erupted into light, casting a green glow across his face that made me wonder if the stories about sorcerers held a grain or two of truth.
The glowing bands of light crept across the bricks to fill in the entire door. Then they faded away, leaving the cold black of a portal behind.
Val rubbed his hands together, more for warmth than show. "Hurry back."
"You're coming with me." I stepped up to the portal and pushed my hood away from my face. The cold air stung my skin.
"To the castle?" Val raised his hands and took a step back. "That's your specialty, not mine."
"Come with me." I didn't want to order him to follow me. Val was my friend, not my servant. But I also didn't want to leave him behind; because I didn't think he could stand by and watch Joshua die without trying to save him. And interfering with an execution held a punishment much worse than being expelled.
He hesitated. "I've never been to the castle before."
"There's always a first time for everything," I said to cover my surprise. My father had been holding tours of the castle for years and although I had never seen Val at the castle, I had assumed he'd participated in one of the tours. Especially since he hadn't asked me for specifics when creating his portal. Something that wizards were supposed to have to do.
Something flickered in his gaze, as if he suspected I had guessed a deadly secret.
"I'll come with you." He swallowed hard. "You can trust me. I swear."
"I do trust you." My response wasn't entirely automatic. Val was one of my few good friends. In truth, my only good friend. I held out my hand. "We don't have much time."
After a moment, he took my hand and let me pull him through the portal into chaos--and the royal family's private apartments.
Which was impossible, because the spells that protected us from magical attack should have prevented anyone from anchoring a portal within the barriers.
Not to mention the fact that no commoner had ever set foot inside these particular walls, and Val's mere presence--not to mention his muddy boots on my mother's white carpet--triggered every alarm in the castle.
With klaxon sirens screeching in our ears, I grabbed Val's hand and pulled him into the hallway.
He tugged his hand free. "I have to banish the portal." He actually turned away from me, as if he intended to go back.
I didn't even want to think about what the guards would do to him if they caught him.
"You're going to be banished if you get caught," I shouted, breathing hard. "What did you do? How did you get past the barriers?"
"You said you needed a quick way to the castle," Val said, avoiding my gaze.
"But these are the royal family's private apartments!" I wanted to shake him, but I held myself back. "You're not supposed to be able to--"
The sirens stopped. My ears rang in the silence. I heard the sound of a blade sliding out of a scabbard, and for the first time in my life knew how a thief feels just before discovery.
Val closed his eyes. "I don't really like him either, but he shouldn't have to die like this."
Which was true, damn him. "Stand behind me, then," I said as the guards appeared at the end of the hall.
Val moved to obey, then froze, staring at something behind my back. With a glare at the guards, who had stopped, confused by my presence, I turned my head to look.
"You have a lot of explaining to do, young lady," my father said, standing in the kitchen doorway with a frown on his face and a piece of toast in one hand.
Val dropped to his knees and bowed his head. "Your Majesty."