Samir bowed smartly and left, taking the rest of Vlad’s people with them. I heard Samir order three to stay on this floor, however, and I looked at Vlad with fresh alarm.
“You think someone’s about to attack?”
Vlad’s mouth twisted in a humorless smile. “Probably not. If that was the goal, they would’ve struck when I was consumed with worry over you. Still, no need to neglect due diligence.”
Then he touched the bloodstained smear over my chest. An electric current slid into him with the contact, and I marveled at how weak it felt. Being that close to death must have drained me more than the lightning rods I normally used to offload my excess kinetic energy. Vlad’s gaze moved to the other bloody stains on my dress. His expression darkened, and when his eyes met mine, new fury burned in their depths.
I tried to head off the inevitable fight. “Vlad, I was just about to tell you about that—”
“How long was Mircea cutting into you before you called out to me?” he interrupted.
I was so busted, not only for hiding those initial slashes today, but also the other times. The glint in Vlad’s eyes warned me that he’d figured that out, too.
“About six times that you don’t know about, but Mircea never did anything this serious before, I swear.”
“Six times,” he repeated. His hand grew hotter, until I was surprised that my dress didn’t catch fire beneath it. “And you decided to hide this from me why?”
“I can’t stop Mircea from using our link this way,” I replied, frustration leaking into my tone. “Nor can I stop him from mentally taunting me when he does it, which is something else I hadn’t told you about. But I can stop him from hurting you.” My voice caught. “I told you before, I am sick of being the weapon your enemies use to bludgeon you. Every time I didn’t tell you about Mircea’s attacks, I was thwarting him from hurting you. I might not be able to stop him yet, but I can damn sure not play into his hands.”
Vlad closed his eyes. For nearly six hundred years, he’d built up his power, abilities, and brutal reputation to ensure that neither he nor his people would be at an enemy’s mercy again, and he’d been successful . . . until me.
Admitting that he loved me had done everything Vlad had warned me about. In his enemies’ eyes, I was now the ultimate tool to use against him, and Mircea had hardly been the first to exploit that. As a result, I’d been through hell and back over the past year, yet every wound that others had inflicted on me had hurt Vlad worse because he blamed himself.
When he opened his eyes again, their color had changed from coppery green to bright, vampiric emerald. “I understand why you did it,” he said through gritted teeth. “But promise me that you will never hide such a thing from me again.”
If Mircea hadn’t nearly killed me several minutes ago, I might have refused. But the stakes had just been substantially raised. “I promise,” I said, holding his gaze. “Vlad, I—”
Razorlike pain hit me in multiple places, stopping me from saying anything more. I clutched my abdomen, which did nothing to protect me from blades that were magical instead of tangible.
Vlad let out a vicious curse as fresh blood leaked out between my hands. His shields dropped and his emotions once more smashed through mine. Amidst the blasts of rage, I caught barely controlled panic as he watched Mircea magically cut into me. Would he stab us both in the heart again, finishing the job this time? Had my reprieve been a cruel trick?
If so, there was nothing I could do, so I tried to calm both Vlad and myself in case the worst wasn’t about to happen.
“It’s not that bad,” I said in a tight voice. Thank God our sire tie went only one way and Vlad couldn’t feel that I was lying. “He’s not going near my heart,” I added.
The new cuts were all well below my chest, and I fought not to wince at each fresh slice. These weren’t the long, deep slices Mircea normally went for. They were short, shallow, and connected. What was Mircea doing? Trying the famed death-of-a-thousand-cuts torture on me?
“I am going to break my brain thinking up ways to make him suffer,” Vlad swore, his fists clenching. Then his gaze narrowed and he leaned closer, ripping my now-sodden dress off me.
“Stay still,” Vlad ordered, surprising me by grabbing the vase of flowers from the nightstand and dumping the water it contained all over me. Then, he stretched a dry sheet over me.
When I saw the new bloodstains mar it, I thought, First my dress, now the sheets. Mircea has been hell on the white fabrics today. Then a loud voice in my mind broke through the pain. It was Mircea, and he sounded panicked.
Respond back through your flesh or they’ll kill me!
“What?” I said out loud. “Who are ‘they’?”
Vlad looked around. “Who are you talking to?”
“Mircea,” I said through gritted teeth, trying to focus, but I only heard silence in my mind now. What do you mean? I mentally shouted back, yet still heard nothing in response.
Vlad gripped my shoulders. “Mircea? What did he say?”
I shook my head, wincing at the continued slashes that I now realized were the words Who is there? carved over and over. “He said, ‘Reply back through your flesh or they’ll kill me.’ I don’t know who he means and I can’t ask. He’s gone now.”
“They?” Vlad repeated, his mouth tightening into a steely line. “If this isn’t Mircea’s doing, who is it?”