Queen by Katee Robert

1

Inever gave much thought to pregnancy. Not even when my father sent me to Malachi’s home with the intention of sacrificing me, body and blood, to the trapped vampire. At the time, I’d planned on escaping or dying before he knocked me up.

Look at me now.

I slump back against the tub in the cheap motel bathroom. My head spins and sweat slicks my skin. My mouth tastes… Well, best not to think about that too hard or I’ll start retching again. I drag myself up to the sink and brush my teeth for the tenth time today. An exercise in futility. I’ll be puking again before too long.

As if being sick isn’t bad enough, my thoughts feel as fuzzy as the inside of my mouth. I need to be planning, to come up with some idea to free my men, but I barely have the energy to move. My father has Malachi, Wolf, and Rylan, and I should be coming up with a way to rescue them.

Instead, it’s all I can do to navigate the crappy hotel room where I currently reside.

I stagger out of the bathroom to find Grace lounging on one of the two queen mattresses in the hotel room, flipping through channels with a bored expression on her face. I still don’t know enough about this woman, for all that she’s helped me. She’s a white woman with long dark hair and an athletic build. She also seems to want to be anywhere but helping me. Yet she hasn’t ditched me yet. Her pile of weapons is carefully arranged on the desk, and once again I’m left wondering about this one-woman army.

She glances at me and raises her brows. “You’re a mess.”

“I know.” I drop onto the free bed and wait for my stomach to decide if it’s going to rebel again. After a harrowing moment, it settles and I exhale in relief. “Did you have a chance to look over the plans of the compound I drew up?”

“Yeah.” She sits up. “They’re nicely detailed. You have a really good eye for security and what to look for.”

Of course I did. I’d been planning on escaping the first chance I got. I had my father’s patrols, security measures, and everything mapped down to the smallest detail, and I’d had to do it by memory because if I wrote something down and he found it… I shudder. “At least growing up in that hellhole was good for something. We can help the men.” We have to help them.

“About that.” Grace won’t quite meet my eyes. “I’m going to be brutally honest with you—”

“When are you anything less than brutally honest?” We’ve only been traveling together for two days, but Grace’s bluntness is both a balm and an aggravation. She doesn’t lie; she doesn’t even bother to cushion harsh truths. I sit up. I’m about to get another of those harsh truths right now. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s a lost cause, Mina.” She doesn’t look happy about it. “If I had a trained team, we might be able to get in and get out, but the odds already aren’t good because of what we’re dealing with. By your own estimate, there are hundreds of vampires in that compound. Even if they were only turned and had no powers to speak of, those numbers just aren’t surmountable. It doesn’t matter than only a third or so of them are trained soldiers. Any vampire is a threat to the success of a rescue effort. Add in the fact that all your father has to do is speak and we lose, and it’s impossible.”

“No.” I shake my head. This isn’t right. None of this is right. Malachi and I were just talking about plans a few days ago. We should be safe in the mountain stronghold that is owned by Grace’s family. We should be prepared to win.

Instead, I’m alone with a woman who obviously doesn’t want to help, but just as obviously feels obligated to try. And my men? They’re currently enjoying the questionable hospitality that comes with being my father’s captives. I shake my head again, harder this time. “I refuse to believe that.”

“They’ll kill us.” She doesn’t say it unkindly, and somehow that makes it worse. “If you’re lucky, they’ll kill you, too. If you’re not, your father will lock you up somewhere until you birth that little monster and then he’ll kill you.”

I press my hand to my lower stomach where the little spark of life pulses in time with my heart. “It’s not a monster. It’s barely a cluster of cells at this point.”

Grace opens her mouth but hesitates. When I stare, she finally says, “It’s making you weak. You can barely use your powers, and you’re sleeping more than you’re awake right now.”

I drag my hand through my hair. She’s right. I haven’t been operating at anything resembling normal capacity since I found out I was pregnant a few days ago. I will admit to not knowing much about pregnancy, but it seems like the symptoms have come on far too quickly. I should have weeks before I start to see side effects.

Unless you’ve been pregnant longer than you or the men realized.

I clear my throat. “I know. It’s not ideal, but—”

“There are options.” She still won’t meet my gaze. “You don’t have to keep it.”

I freeze. My brain knows what she’s saying, but it still takes me a few moments to let the offer sink in. Terminate the pregnancy. I press my hand to my stomach. Hard not to be resentful of the little presence that isn’t quite a presence. I thought pregnancy was my option to take my father’s throne, but I can’t even get in there, and I certainly don’t have the energy to fight. If I show up and publicly declare myself his heir…

I want to believe it will stick.

I desperately need it to be true.

But there’s a chance—and it’s even a large chance at this point—that he’ll do exactly what Grace says and lock me up until I have the baby and then kill me for all the trouble I’ve caused. More, my half-siblings are hardly going to support my claim. As far as they’re concerned, I’m a powerless dud, which means I’m not a legitimate contender for the head of clan.

If I had an army at my back, it wouldn’t be a question. I could bust open the front gates, make my claim in front of the entire compound, and take over. No one could stop me. No one would dare stop me.

But with just me and Grace? And me being incapacitated more often than I’m not?

She’s right to bring up this option, no matter how conflicted I am talking about it. “It’s not just my decision,” I finally say.

“Actually, it is.” She shrugs when I look at her. “Hey, I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just presenting options. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which way you land on the topic, because it’s not going to change the end result; we have no way into the compound that doesn’t get us both dead.”

I wish she wasn’t right. I press the heels of my hands to my eyes, trying to think. “There has to be a way.” I have no allies. I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for them, and it would take far too much time. Grace seems to be a lone wolf. Who the hell could we possibly call for… I drop my hands. “Azazel.”

What?

The familiarity in Grace’s tone nearly distracts me, but I’m too focused on what appears to be the only option we have. He asked for seven years of service to break the seraphim bond I have with my men. We might not have agreed to those terms, but if he can do that, surely he can offer some kind of real help to get my men back. Even if it’s the same price, seven years is nothing compared to potentially hundreds of years under my father’s control.

I might not live that long, but Malachi, Rylan, and Wolf certainly will. It means there’s no release waiting in the wings. Just endless suffering. I can’t let that happen. I won’t.

“Mina!”

I blink. “What?”

Grace is on her feet and looks like she can’t decide whether to shake me or leave the room entirely. She rocks back on her heels. “Say that name again.”

“Azazel.” This time, I’m paying attention. I see the way she flinches and narrow my eyes. “How do you know that name? Do you know him?”

“No.” A sharp shake of her head. “But I know of him. I know what he does.” The way she speaks, it sounds like she’s talking about more than just deals. Like there’s an element of sinisterness to it I don’t understand. Having met Azazel, I can’t say he’s anything less than terrifying, but he was rather frank about the terms. There were no hidden catches or trickery. It’s more than I can say for how my father operates.

“He seemed fair,” I say finally. “Or, if not fair, then honest.” He spelled out the terms clearly. Maybe the contract itself would have been a problem, but we didn’t get that far. The men drew the line at my paying seven years of service.

“Shows what you know.” Grace paces back and forth in the small space at the end of the bed. She pulls her ponytail out and starts braiding her hair in short, agitated movements. “Are you aware of what he does? He rips women away from their families and most of the time they never return.”

The way she talks, it sounds like she’s speaking from personal experience. I frown. “Who do you know that’s bargained with him? And, seriously, he only bargains with women? That’s kind of…outdated, isn’t it?”

“Take it up with the demon.” Grace drags her fingers through her long dark hair, disrupting her braid and restarting it. She’s long since changed out of the camouflage hunting gear in favor of faded jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Somehow, it doesn’t make her less intimidating…or less dangerous. She drops her arms and pins me with a look. “He took my mother.”

“You mean your mother made a deal.” I don’t know why I’m arguing this. I don’t owe Azazel anything. Wolf made it extremely clear how dangerous the demon is. If anything, I shouldn’t be listening to Grace since she has just as much experience with demon deals as I do at this juncture. I wrap my arms around myself. “What were her terms?”

She turns away. “I don’t know. The last time I saw her was the night he came to collect. I know she made a deal, but I’ve never been able to get more information. I…” She exhaled slowly. “I don’t know how to summon him. Do you?”

Do I?

I know what Wolf did. It seemed simple enough, at least in theory. His bloodline vampire power is the ability to manipulate blood itself. Thanks to my seraph half, I’ve somehow managed to acquire that ability, along with Rylan’s shapeshifting and Malachi’s fire. It would be enough…except I got these powers less than a week ago and I’ve had exactly one training session with Malachi to learn how to control them. Since then, I’ve barely had the energy to keep up with Grace, let alone try again.

I close my eyes and try to walk back through what Wolf did to summon Azazel. A blood circle that became a blood ward of sorts. I think. He fucked Malachi in it, but I don’t know if that’s part of the ward or just because Wolf is, well, Wolf.

As far as I can tell, after creating the ward, he did nothing at all. Azazel showed up quickly after Malachi and Rylan left, but Wolf didn’t even say his name before the shadows went weird and the demon appeared. It has to be the circle. Which is a problem because I don’t know the first thing about creating a blood ward. “Do you know how to create a blood ward?”

“Mina, I’m human.”

Right. Of course. I shake my head slowly. “Then, no. I don’t think I can summon him.” Then again, maybe I’m overcomplicating things? I lift my voice. “Azazel? Can you hear me?”

“Holy fuck.” Grace flings herself back against the wall, her dark eyes wide as she searches the room. The seconds tick into a full minute, and we both breathe a sigh of something akin to relief when nothing and no one materializes. Grace glares. “I cannot believe you just did that.”

I can’t believe I just did that, either. I shrug, trying to pretend I’m not as shaken as I am. “It was worth a shot.”

“It was worth a shot,” she repeats, shaking her head. “You are out of your damn mind, Mina.” Grace scoops up her backpack from the floor and a small gun from the desk to tuck into her waistband. She pauses with her hand on the door. “Get some sleep. I’m going to see about taking a look at this compound myself. I think it’s a long shot, but maybe there’s something you missed or something that’s changed since you were there that can provide us a way in.”

It’s not safe for her to go scouting on her own. My father is sure to have sentries farther afield than just the compound walls, and Grace might be human and therefore not seen as a threat, but she’s a beautiful human. I wouldn’t put it past them to try to snatch her off the street to either be turned or tossed into my father’s pool of humans that serve as mistresses and blood banks. “Grace—”

She’s gone before I can get my warning out.

I mean to follow. I truly do. But one minute I’m trying to get the energy to stand and move to the door, and the next a wave of dizziness hits me hard enough that I have to throw out a hand to brace myself on the bed so I don’t topple. “What the fuck?”

Is this an attack?

I try to push my magic out, to sense, but it’s like I’m wrapped in a thick cotton straitjacket. I can’t feel anything at all. With a curse, I turn inward. A quick body scan leaves me even dizzier. Oh no. This is so bad. I let my hand drop, feeling ill in a way that has nothing to do with morning sickness. I’m not being attacked; at least, not from the outside.

It’s the baby.

It’s draining my magic.