"What's going on, master?" Ryan asks as they leave the Gold Room.
Zan holds a finger up to his lips and winks, but doesn't answer.
Everyone on the balcony is crowding the railing, couches empty. They part without being asked as Zan approaches, allowing space for the owner and his new boy. Ryan grabs the rail and looks over. Zan wraps one arm around his waist.
There's a disturbance on the dance floor beneath them. Music starts to play, not in the headphones but out loud in the club. It's from Giselle, though Zan very much doubts any of his patrons recognize it. People have stopped dancing, some of them tapping the headphones, or checking their phones to see if they've run out of time. They start looking around as mist slowly rolls across the floor. Duncan had insisted on sparing no expense for the fog machines. Even Zan's hearing can only just register the faint hissing.
"Your headphones haven't malfunctioned." Duncan's voice floats through the club, though he's nowhere to be seen. "Regardless of how much time you paid for, it's our time now. You were warned! In this house, the Dead live."
Blood-smeared and moth-bitten, grimy white ribbons drop from the ceiling. Every head turns upward to watch them fall, so at first they miss the six Columbines entering the dance floor. Their spiderweb dresses are gone. In simple white slips to match their masks they're somehow more ghastly than all the costumed humans.
"Each lovely Columbine was once a mortal girl, like many of you," Duncan narrates as they dance through the patrons until they stand next to a ribbon. "But she loved unwisely, and succumbed to a broken heart."
Each girl extends a hand, barely touching the worn silk.
"Now, at the command of their queen, they rise again!"
Music crescendoing, the Columbines float into the air. Eddies of fog swirl around them as they rise. The humans ooh and ahh, watching the masked girls defy gravity.
"Do the Dead truly walk among the living?" asks Duncan. "No, darlings. We fly!"
The Columbines release the silk to a chorus of gasps, but the girls don't fall. They hover near the ceiling, gently bobbing like a buoy on the waves as they resume their dance. They leap through the air in macabre mockery of the ballet. One spins into another girl's arms, earning a wolf-whistle from the crowd below.
"But why?" Duncan's silvery voice is filled with pain. "Why does Queen Myrtha impel these restless souls from the grave?"
Darkness sweeps over the club as the lights go out. A few people titter at the sudden black, not true fear, only surprise. One spotlight bursts to life, highlighting Duncan as he rotates slowly in midair. His velvet dress is gone, replaced with a slashed-up bridal gown and veil. As he turns to face the crowd, they see he holds an attractive man in his arms. The man is barefoot and shirtless, jeans unzipped just enough. Duct tape covers his mouth, and his hands are bound behind his back. Blood drips from his neck. His eye are wide in fear.
"My girls are tormented by scorned love, and so they cannot rest. They must dance." Duncan's mouth barely moves beneath his white gauze, but his vila's voice easily reaches every pair of ears in the club. "They dance for one reason, and one reason alone."
The man struggles against Duncan's grip, kicking his feet to no avail. Slowly, Duncan raises his veil. Mask-less, he stares down at the crowd through eyes ringed with running mascara.
"They dance for vengeance!"
Duncan opens his arms. Screams rise from below as the man plummets. The sick crack as he hits the floor seems to echo through the club as the music abruptly cuts.
Zan smirks as Ryan's hands fly to this mouth in horror.
A few people rush to the man's side. A bikini policewoman reaches in to press her fingers against his neck.
"He's dead!" She shouts, fumbling backwards.
The body jerks, and someone screams again. With inhuman grace given his bound hands, he rises to his feet in a single motion like silver-screen Dracula from his coffin. A quick tug of his arms frees his hands, and he poses with them above his head before dipping into a grandiose bow.
"To love forever," Duncan whispers directly into every ear, "live forever."
Stunned, the crowd can only stare before erupting into applause. The man, still with taped mouth, draws the eye to Duncan and joins the clapping humans. Duncan curtsies, then gestures to his left, to his right, where the Columbines have fallen in line beside him. As one they join him as Duncan curtsies again.
"Tonight, gentle humans, the victim was only for show," he says as the ribbons slowly draw back up into the ceiling. "But tomorrow night, it could be real. Tomorrow night, it could be you. That's the razor's edge you walk at Masquerave. Remember my lovelies that humans own the day, but the night belongs to the Dead!"
"That was incredible," Ryan gasps as the people below the balcony swarm the one who had been playing the victim, taking selfies and shaking his hand. "They had no idea the magic was real, do they?"
"Oh, some of them probably do," Zan says. "There are always a select few, like you, who know the secret."
"I'm afraid the witching hour is upon us again, my pets. Good little monsters must be in bed before the dawn." Duncan is still airborne, but the Columbines have descended and are collecting the headphones. "Humans, if you haven't been chosen, now is the time to make your way to the door. Those of you lucky enough, or, perhaps, unlucky enough, to have earned a mask may stay. Maybe some of you will live to see another night!"
He laughs, and the sound bounces through the club. A few people heading towards the exit laugh too, almost like they can't help it.
"He's very good, master," Ryan says, rubbing the shivers out of his arms.
Zan rolls his eyes. "Duncan's a vila, unique even among us, but his true gift is a singular flare for the dramatic."
"A vila, master?"
"Yes, pet," Zan says. "Some women of our kind have seductive, hypnotic voices."
"But Duncan is a man," Ryan says slowly.
Zan shrugs. "Sometimes."
Ryan fidgets, watching Duncan. "I'm gonna meet him? Like Selda and Tyler?"
"Nervous, pet?" Zan teases.
"A little," the boy confesses. "I want them all to like me if…"
"If I'm really gonna be your boy forever."
Squeezing his hand, Zan says, "You will be, pet. Every day we're together, I'll grow stronger. Then the Seeking will finally break, and I won't need to keep you human anymore. You'll be mine. Siempre."
"What's it like, master?" Ryan asks. "Living forever, I mean."
"I wouldn't know, pet." Zan gives a self-deprecating smile. "I'm not actually that old, for one of us."
"But you're already in charge of all this, aren't you?" Ryan gestures around the club. "Tyler said you were strong."
"And with your blood in my veins I'm stronger still."
The balcony is emptying. Zan's people are heading toward the door with a white handle, and their humans are clomping down the stairs. Tyler and his tech boys are filing out of the Bronze Room now that the show is over.
"Where are they going, master?" Ryan asks, glancing around.
"The humans are charged with upkeep of the club," Zan explains. "They're heading to the supply closet on the bottom floor. Their masters are heading to our conference center, the White Room, so we can debrief before we sleep for the day."
"Oh," Ryan says. Then, "Do I need to help clean while you're sleeping all day?"
"No," says Zan instantly, leading Ryan away from the railing. "You're mine. I don't want the blood whores thinking you're one of them."
Ryan looks down with a small smile, trying not to look too pleased.
"Zan, a word please." They're both startled by Selda stepping out of the Silver Room's open doorway. Her cold black eyes sweep over Ryan. "Privately."
"Head down to the bar, pet," Zan tells the boy. "Wait for Duncan, and ask for the usual. Make sure he has my mask."
"Y-yes, master," Ryan whispers, cowed by Selda's presence. He goes just a shade too quickly.
"Shall we talk in the Gold Room?" Zan says, willing to give her the time, but in his room rather than hers.
Selda stares after Ryan, face void. "Fine."
"What is it, Sel, that tears you away from your senator's boy?" Zan asks after the door clicks shut.
She stalks away from him. "Love is blind all day, and may not see."
He stifles a sigh. "Pardon?"
"It's what my bringer said to me when I started seeking." Her back is tense, fingers clenched at her side.
"Selda, I haven't the patience for your games today." He isn't sure what brought on this spat of dramatics, but already he'd rather be elsewhere.
Finally she faces him, expression somber. "Need I remind you that you came to me at the advent of your seeking, asking for advice?"
Drawing himself up, Zan says, "You have been through it, I had not. It was only logical."
"Indeed," she says, and he can't tell if she's mocking him. "Remind me, if you please, what logic I imparted?"
"You told me the Seeking is the dead part of us yearning for life." Zan arches a brow. "Death's cold hand, I believe was the phrase, pulling us back to the grave. It's why the craving intensifies. Only those humans whose short lives burn the brightest can ease the torment."
"Yes." She nods once, clipped but somehow still elegant enough that her nearly-white hair barely moves. "And?"
"Caution. Such an intense craving can make the bloodlust almost unbearable. Some of our kind," he continues pointedly, "become so desperate for relief they run rampant, biting and killing in sprees trying to find the one. They don't care how much attention they draw, even if they must flee the continent afterwards, so long as their blood thaws."
"True," she replies. "All of it. But there is more, a word of warning yet delivered."
"Deliver it, then."
He blinks. "Who?"
"I heard you speaking," she says. "You promised him eternity."
"Ah." His voice cools. "Whomever I gift with my blood is no concern of yours."
"Kill him," she says again, like he hadn't said a word.
"He calms my craving," Zan says. "I would be mad to dispose of him now."
"Not now," Selda agrees. "But when the Seeking finally breaks, why not? Why bring him over? Why share immortality with this boy you barely know?"
Staring at her in silence, he has no answer.
"I know the pull of a human boy who thaws the Seeking," she says, almost wry. "The connection that forms as your crescent scars his neck is a powerful one. Powerful enough to mimic love. It isn't ordinary enthrallment. A sealed human obeys because the Seeking makes him want to obey."
"I know this," Zan says, impatience coloring his tone.
"But do you know it works both ways?" Her voice has softened, smoothed. "This is what I haven't told you. The Seeking is a cursed sword. Cut, and be cut. We are a cold kind, Zan. We aren't meant to love. It poisons our judgement."
"My judgement is clearer than ever," he snaps. ''If that will be all—"
Selda dares to interrupt. "It will not." She steps closer as Zan's eyebrows pull together. "Please listen." She strokes a pale hand down his cheek.
"You overstep." He grabs her hand off his face, but doesn't push her away. "I am the master of this house."
"Exactly, mi amo." Her face is haunted as she stares up at him. Though she looks into his eyes, she's seeing the past. "My bringer tried to warn me, as well. If only I had listened. Instead, I allowed myself to love. I should have killed my charming human boy, left him dead in the gutters where I left his family, but the Seeking was strong between us. I brought him into the night, and brought myself to ruin."
"And so you caution me not to make your mistakes?" Zan asks, disturbed despite himself at the cracks in her demeanor. "If you're so certain of my doom, why say anything at all?"
"Because your boy is a universal," she says. "He cannot be one of us."
Zan sighs, dropping her hand. "That old bringer's tale."
"It is more than superstition, my love," insists Selda. "I have seen a universal brought over. Kindness, not cruelty ends their lives. Their craving cannot be quenched. They loose themselves in the bloodlust and become valgus."
"That was before we knew anything about blood types," he says. "We know better now, know enough to keep O-negative on hand for a universal. If I choose to bring him over, he won't become a mad dog. I would save him from the craving."
"But isn't it safer not to risk it?" Selda asks. "Imagine it, Zan. Truly picture it: a valgus with the power of the Seeking. That boy would damn us all."
"Only if I bring him over, and if he becomes valgus." Zan stares at her, intent. "It won't happen. I won't allow it to happen."
Sighing, she shakes her head. "I know if you value anything, it's power. Consider the strength that flows into you as he thaws your blood. Kill him, and you need not waste any of that power in his transformation. You will keep it all for yourself. Perhaps you'd finally learn to fly." Touching her forehead she drops into a bow, and this time her mockery is clear. "I beg your leave, master."
She goes before Zan can say anything. He stares after her, thoughts whirling.