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Trinity Ward waited with the other dozen convicts, her wrists aching from the grip of the padded cuffs that kept her hands locked together at her waist.
Not that she would have fought to escape. This was where she was supposed to be, among these poor, lost souls whose punishment was to be more terrible than mere imprisonment. Or even death.
They were condemned to a life of blood slavery to some Nightsider master in the Opir city of Erebusan existence of unending servitudeuntil they were too old to provide blood or serve in any other capacity.
But these living offerings around Trinity, men and women who had committed only the most minor crimes, were not old. Some were in their late teens; the eldest couldn't have been more than fifty. If not for the Treaty and the need to maintain the Armistice, they might have lived normal lives, sentenced by the Courts to jail time, probation and reparations.
Except that there were only two jails in the Enclave, and they were nearly empty. Crime had dropped to levels unknown in all of human history. Dropped so far that the bloodsuckers were growing restless.
"What did you do?" a young woman standing next to Trinity asked in a surprisingly calm voice.
Trinity met her gaze. She knew what the woman saw: normal human eyes, not the catlike pupils of a half human, half Nightsider dhampir. In a way, the contact lenses were like shields, not only concealing Trinity's identity, but also helping her keep her distance from those around her.
Distance, Trinity thought, shouldn't be a problem. She had been chosen for this assignment because she was known as the most unflappable, most controlled operative in all of Aegis. The one without close friends or lovers, because she wanted it that way.
Still, it was hard looking at this woman's face, knowing she hadn't earned the fate that awaited her. None of these people had.
"I didn't pay my taxes," Trinity whispered. "You?"
The woman's brown eyes filled with tears. "I stole a pair of earrings. They weren't expensive at all, but I hadn't had something pretty like that in" She broke off, her calm dissolving in grief and fear.
"I'm sorry," Trinity said, awkwardly touching the woman's arm.
"It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for my daughter," the woman said, wiping her eyes on her forearm. "She's going to stay with my parents now. They'll take good care of her. But I"
She didn't have to finish. Trinity knew what it was like to lose family. Not that she'd ever really had one. Her Nightsider father, whom she didn't remember, had been killed at the end of the War when Enclave soldiers had found him in possession of Trinity's mother and their daughter, treating both as prisoners rather than anything a human would call a "family."
Trinity's mother had taken her back to the Enclave. But there had never been another father. And Trinity had grown up half vampire in a world of humans who feared and hated the part of her that made her so different, so much faster and stronger and keener of vision, able to see in the dark and with teeth made for drinking blood.
Something most dhampires would rather die than sink to.
"My name is Trinity," she said to her companion.
"Rachel," the woman said, raising her bound wrists. "I can't shake your hand."
Suddenly they both laughed, the laughter of people without hope. Trinity wasn't completely faking it. She knew her odds of coming out of this alive and free were minimal, but that wasn't what she feared. She had to obtain the necessary information and get word out of Erebus. If this was to be her last assignment, she intended to make it count.
"Attention," the soldier at the front of the column shouted, his helmet reflecting the sunlight. "You'll be boarding the ferry now. When we reach the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, you will board a transport to the border of the Zone, where we will proceed on foot to the transfer point." He scanned the small gathering, his eyesand his feelingshidden behind his visor. "Any disruption or attempt to escape will be met with force."
He glanced at his fellow soldiers flanking the crooked line of dozen convicts and moved closer. "Stay alive," he said in a soft voice obviously meant only for the prisoners. "There's always a chance things will change. If we ever beat the bloodsuckers"
"Sergeant!" one of the other soldiers said. "Ferry's ready to board."
The sergeant stepped back and nodded brusquely, gesturing with his rifle. The convicts walked onto the boat and moved to the center of the deck, heads down and shoulders slumped. The soldiers instructed them to sit on the hard benches under the canvas canopy and then clipped the prisoner's ankles to rings fixed to the deck at their feet.
Trinity watched the soldiers patrolling the deck, far more than were needed to escort a dozen petty offenders. Did any of them have relatives or friends who'd been deported? She knew that the kin of politicians and higher-ups in the government were usually spared this punishment, including the board of directors of Aegis itself.
It wasn't fair. But neither was the fact that the bloodsuckers had devastated the earth before the attrition of their own numbers had forced them into a truce. These men and women were soldiers, and sometimes soldiers did what they didn't want to do.
You can never forget you're only a slave from now on, she told herself. You have to make sure you 're chosen by the right Bloodmaster or Bloodlord. And then you have to make yourself indispensable to him.
That meant playing the part of a proper serfand, if necessary, revealing her dhampir nature. Because, in spite of the supposed rarity of half-breed captives among the Nightsiders, it was believed that the leeches found nothing more delectable than dhampir blood.
Or more addictive. Some Nightsiders were highly prone to physical dependence on that same blood. And that was Trinity's most powerful secret weapon. A dependent Nightsider was one she could manipulate.
But she intended to keep her true nature hidden as long as possible. In addition to the contacts, she wore caps over her front teeth to conceal her longer incisors, and no Nightsider she encountered would immediately be able to detect the difference in the smell and unique taste of her blood.
The experimental drugs she'd been givendrugs whose antidote had been inserted into one of her molarswould mask those differences until she didn't need to hide them. They would also counter the addictive qualities of her blood until she required them. But just as important were the injections that were supposed to lessen the risk of Conversion or pregnancy.
Of course, no one was completely sure what happened when a dhampir was converted, in spite of the many times Aegis operatives had come into contact with Opir agents in the field. If any dhampir had become a Nightsider, he or she had never returned to the Enclave. And no one had ever seen the child of a dhampir and a Nightsider.
The engine of the ferry rumbled beneath Trinity's feet, drawing her out of her thoughts, and soon the vessel was pulling away from the pier. No one spoke until they reached the Terminal in the old county of Marin. One boy of about eighteen let out a yell of sheer terror and then went silent when one of the soldiers turned his way.
After that, there was only more silence as the soldiers herded the prisoners to the truck.
The ride was jolting and uncomfortable, the truck carrying its unwilling passengers over roads left to weeds and weather, across fallow and overgrown fields, past empty towns and small cities that seemed to echo with ghostly voices.
Trinity stared straight ahead as the truck cut north toward the transfer point in the abandoned city of Santa Rosa. It was dusk when the truck reached its destination. The soldiers helped the exhausted prisoners climb down from the vehicle, unfastened the cuffs and offered them dinner rations and water. Some ate as if they were starving; others ignored the food completely.
Trinity ate. She needed all her strength, and because she was one of the sixty percent of dhampires who didn't require drugs to digest solid food, she was free to eat whatever she wanted. Once she was finished, she listened to the hoot of an owl and the nearly silent footfalls of a coyote in the hillssounds none of the humans could detect.
By sunset, as the human soldiers watched with guns raised and night visors glowing, the Nightsiders, anonymous behind their own visors, emerged from the fringe of oak woods at the base of the hills to the west.
In minutes the formal exchange had been made. The Enclave soldiers stepped back, and the Nightsiders closed in around the exiles.
No one put up a struggle. The Nightsiders spoke no more than was strictly necessary. The prisoners climbed into the hills and walked along narrow roads that wound through the Mayacamas mountains, wreathed in darkness lit only by the sweeping beams of the Opir soldiers' headlamps. Halfway up to the pass, the Nightsiders made camp and allowed their charges to eat and sleep.
Trinity remained awake, listening and observing as the bloodsuckers spoke among themselves in their ancient language, hoping that one of them would be careless enough to reveal something that might be of use to her.
But none said anything she didn't already know. After a while, the soldiers and their prisoners continued up the mountain, making camp again with the rising of the sun. The Nightsiders set up a shelter of heavy canvas, and two rested while the other two kept watch.
Near the end of the second night, they saw Erebus.
The vampire city was all black crystal spires and obsidian facets, a vast hive surrounded by pastures and fields of grain that produced food to keep the serfs alive and healthy. Trinity knew that Erebus housed some five thousand Opiriand three times as many humans. Below the Citadel's foundations lay countless chambers occupied by the lowest-ranked free Opiri and public serfs who served the city as a whole.
In the spires, the Towers, lived those of highest rank: the Bloodmasters and Bloodlords with their Households of vassals, serfs and client Freebloods. In their feudal society, rank and power were everything.
One of the prisoners began to weep and collapsed to her knees. A wiry man in his twenties helped her up with quiet words of comfort. Then they were moving again at a faster pace as the Opir raced the sunrise, descending out of the hills.
When the exiles were within a quarter mile of their new "home," three of the soldiers picked up the slowest prisoners and flung the humans over their shoulders like sacks of grain. The rest, including Trinity, crept closer and closer to the Citadel until they were at its foot, gathering under the stares of the Freeblood guards along the sheltered battlements.
Trinity gazed up at the tall, heavy gates, obsidian black like the rest of the Citadel, and watched them swing inward. More Opir soldiers waited inside to take charge of the prisoners.
The humans stood inside a wide, enclosed area between the curtain wall and the Citadel proper. Heavy material that seemed to be a combination of canvas and plastic stretched across the open space several yards above Trinity's head, protecting the Opiri within. Bright lights, harmless to the Nightsiders, shone from niches in the walls, obviously installed for the benefit of the human serfs, who were hard at work performing various tasks. The towers, visible through a slight gap in the canopy, pierced the lightening sky and the scudding, orange clouds.
The second set of soldiers uncuffed the prisoners' wrists and gestured with their rifles toward a second gate on the other side of the courtyard. Moments later they entered a wide, dimly lit corridor, elaborately etched and painted with baroque designs and stylized figures in different hues. The corridor led to another and yet another, a maze humans might negotiate only with the aid of the changing colors and designs on each wall. Trinity could feel the passages descending into the bowels of the city, smelling of dampness and a taint of old blood.
The final corridor ended in a row of holding cells. Two by two the new serfs were ushered into the cells, and Trinity found herself housed with Rachel. The cell itself contained only two narrow cots, a toilet and a sink with towels.
"Are we supposed to clean up in here?" Rachel asked in a dull voice.
"I don't know," Trinity said, examining the sink. "There's some kind of soap dispenser, but I can't believe they expect us to do much with it."
Nevertheless, she wet one of the towels, squirted a little soap on it and washed the grime off her face. She undid her hair from its rough ponytail and shook it out.
"You've got pretty hair," Rachel said.
"Thanks," Trinity muttered, hardly knowing how to react to the compliment. She wasn't good at that even under the best of circumstances.
As Rachel washed her own face and sat on the edge of one of the cots, slumping in exhaustion. Trinity lay face up on hers, pillowing her head on her arms, and tried to clear her mind.
She knew what was coming: the Claiming, where the highest-ranked Opiri were given a chance to bid on the new serfs. Considering the process from an entirely intellectual perspective, Trinity knew the experience was going to be unpleasant. But her only goal was to catch herself a Blood-lord or Bloodmaster who would unwittingly help her achieve her goals. The higher the rank of her owner, the more freedom she was likely to have within the Citadel. And such freedom was what she needed to carry out her mission.
Trinity woke to the sound of the door to the cell swinging open. She jumped to her feet in a single motion, forgetting that she had to blend in with the untrained serfs. Rachel got up more slowly, shrinking behind Trinity as if she knew her cell mate was capable of much more than her ordinary appearance indicated.
In the doorway stood a Freeblood, white haired and pale skinned, no soldier but some kind of functionary in plain black robes. He gestured to Trinity and Rachel.
"You are to be prepared," he said in a voice that told Trinity that he had little interest in the proceedings. "Come with me."
She assumed her role as a subjugated human and walked out of the cell, Rachel on her heels. The other female prisoners were huddled in the corridor under the supervision of several black-robed Opiri. The Nightsiders herded the new serfs to the door of a much larger room, fitted with open showers, a row of curtained booths and three female attendants.
As Trinity and the other convicts entered the room, two of the attendants, wearing shapeless white shifts, smiled encouragingly. The third woman, dressed in a white tunic and trousers, was considerably more severe.
"You have to be examined," she said without preamble.
Trinity stiffened and then forced herself to relax. She'd been thoroughly briefed, after all. The bloodsuckers had to know what they were bidding on.