SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, OLD COUNTRY
“Long live the King.”
At the sound of the deep, grave voice, Wrath, son of Wrath, had an instinct to look around for his father … a spark of hope that the death had not occurred and the great ruler was as yet still with them.
But of course, his beloved sire remained gone unto the Fade.
How long would this sad searching last? he wondered. It was such useless folly, especially as the sacred vestments of the vampire King were upon himself, the bejeweled sashes and silken coat and ceremonial daggers adorning his own body. His mind cared naught for such proof of his recent coronation, however … or mayhap it was his heart that remained unswayed by all that now defined him.
Dearest Virgin Scribe, without his father, he was so alone, even as he was surrounded by people who served him.
Composing his visage, he turned around. Standing in the doorway of the royal receiving chambers, his closest adviser was like a column of smoke, long and thin, draped in dark robes.
“My honor to greet you,” the male murmured, bending low. “Are you ready to receive the female?”
“Shall we initiate the procession.”
As his adviser bowed again and backed out, Wrath paced across the oak-paneled room. Candles wafted in the drafts that somehow infiltrated the castle’s stone walls, and the roaring fire in the chest-high hearth seemed to offer only light, not warmth.
In truth, he had no desire for a shellan—or rather, a mate, as it inevitably was going to be. Love was required for the former, and he had none to offer a soul.
From out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of brilliance, and to pass the time before this dreaded meeting occurred, he went over and regarded the sets of gems that had been displayed upon the carved desk. Diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, pearls … nature’s beauty captured and anchored by hammered gold.
The most valuable were the rubies.
Reaching out to touch the bloodred stones, he thought, It was too early for all of this. His being King, this mating arrangement, the thousand different demands he now bore and yet understood too little of.
He needed more time to learn from his father—
The first of three pounding knocks reverberated through the room, and Wrath was grateful that no one was about to see him flinch.
The second was just as loud.
The third was going to require his response.
Closing his eyes, he found it hard to breathe through the pain in his chest. He wanted his father with him—this should be happening later, when he was older, and not guided by a courtier, but his own sire. Fate, however, had robbed the great male of years that were his due, and in turn, subscribed the son to a sort of drowning even though there was air about him to breathe.
I cannot do this, Wrath thought.
And yet, as the third rap upon the panels faded, he squared his shoulders and mimicked the way his father’s voice had always sounded. “Enter.”
At his command, the heavy door swung wide, and his eyes were greeted by the sight of a full complement of courtiers, their somber gray robing identical to that of the adviser who stood at the front of them. But that was not what registered. Behind the group of aristocrats, there were others, tremendous of stature, narrow of eye … and those were the ones who began to chant in a concerted growl.
In honesty, he feared the Black Dagger Brotherhood.
According to tradition, the adviser stated loudly and clearly, “My lord, I have an offering to bring before you. May I proceed with its presentation?”
As if the noble daughter were an object. Then again, tradition and social norms provided that her purpose was for breeding, and at court, she would be treated as any prized broodmare was.
However was he going to do this? He knew naught of the sexual act, and yet if he approved of her, he would be engaged in the activity sometime after nightfall on the morrow.
“Yes,” he heard himself say.
The courtiers filed in through the doorway in pairs, splitting and forming a circle around the perimeter of the room. And then the chanting grew louder.
The magnificent warriors of the Brotherhood entered in a march, their tremendous bodies clothed in black leather and strapped with weapons, the cadence of their voices and movement of their forms so synchronized, it was as if they were one.
Unlike the members of the glymera, they did not part, but stayed shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-chest in a box-like formation. He could see nothing of what was in their midst.
But he could smell the scent.
And the change within himself was instant and immutable. In a single heartbeat, the plodding nature of life was washed away by a prickling awareness … one that, as the Brothers came closer, matured into an aggression that he was unfamiliar with, but utterly disinclined to ignore.
Breathing in again, more of that fragrance entered his lungs, his blood, his soul—and it was not the oils she had been rubbed down with or the perfumes that had been applied to whatever clothed her form. It was the skin underneath all that, the delicate combination of feminine elements that he knew was unique to her and her alone.
The Brotherhood stopped in front of him, and for the first time, he was not in awe of their deadly auras. No. As his fangs elongated into his mouth, he found his upper lip lifting in a snarl.
He even took a step forward, prepared to rip the males asunder so he could get at what they were shielding from him.
The adviser cleared his throat as if seeking to remind the assembled of his import. “Our lord, this female is being offered by her bloodline for your consideration for birthing purposes. Should you desire to inspect—”
“Leave us,” Wrath snapped. “At once.”
The shocked silence that followed was easily ignored on his part.
The adviser dropped his voice. “My lord, if you shall permit me to finish the presentation—”
Wrath’s body moved on its own, pivoting itself around until he could match stares with the male. “Get. Out.”
Behind him, a chuckle rose from the Brotherhood, as if they rather enjoyed the dandy getting put in his place by their ruler. The adviser, however, was not amused. And Wrath did not care.
There was also no more conversation to be had: the courtier had much power, but he was not King.
The males in gray shuffled out of the room, bowing, and then he was left with the Brothers. At once, they stepped aside and …
Revealed within their heft was a slender form draped in black robing from head to foot. In comparison to the warriors, the intended was slight of stature, narrower of bone, shorter of height—and yet hers was the presence that rocked him.
“My lord,” one of the Brothers said with respect, “this is Anha.”
With that simple and more apt introduction, the fighters disappeared, shutting him in alone with the female.
Wrath’s body took over again, prowling his chaotic senses around her, stalking her even as she did not move. Dearest Virgin Scribe, he had meant for none of this, not his reaction to her presence nor the need coiling in his loins nor the aggression that had sprung to the fore.
But most of all, he had never thought—
’Twas as a lightning bolt out of the night sky, changing his landscape, carving a gashing vulnerability in his chest. And yet even with that, he thought, Yes, this was right. His father’s former adviser indeed had his best interests at heart. This female was what he needed to carry him through the loneliness: Even without seeing her face, she made him feel the strength within his sex, her smaller, daintier form filling him out in his skin, the urge to protect giving him a priority and a focus he had been sorely lacking.
“Anha,” he breathed as he stopped in front of her. “Speak unto me.”
There was a long silence. And then her voice, soft and sweet, but quavering, entered his ears. Closing his eyes, he swayed on his feet, the sound echoing throughout his blood and bones, lovelier than anything he had e’er heard.
Except then he frowned as he had no idea what she had spoken. “Whate’er did you say?”
For a moment, the words that came from beneath the cover of the veil made no sense. But then the definitions of the syllables were verified by his brain:
“Would you wish to see another?”
Wrath frowned in confusion. Why would he—
“You have removed naught from my form,” he heard her answer as if he had voiced his inquiry.
At once, he realized she was trembling, her robing transmitting the movement—and indeed, there was a heavy undertow of fear in her scent.
His arousal had clouded any further awareness of her, but that required rectification.
Collecting the throne, he brought the vast, carved chair across the room, his need to provide comforts unto her giving him superior strength. “Sit.”
She all but fell into the oxblood leather seat—and as her draped hands clawed onto the armrests, he imagined her knuckles going white as she held on for dearest life.
Wrath sank down onto his knees before her. Staring up, his only thought, aside from that of his intention to possess her, was that he would never see her frightened.
Beneath the layers of weighty robing, Anha was suffocating in the heat. Or mayhap it was terror that choked her throat.
She did not wish for this destiny of hers. Had not sought it. Would give it to any of the young females who had, over the years, envied her: From the moment of her birth, she had been promised to the son of the King as the first mate—and because of that supposed honor, she had been reared by others, cloistered away, hidden from all contact. Raised in solitary confinement, she knew not the nurture of a mother or protection of a father—she had been adrift in a sea of supplicating strangers, handled as a precious object, not a living thing.
And now, at the culminating event, at the moment she had been bred and avowed for … all those years of preparation appeared to be for naught.
The King was not happy: He had thrown all and sundry out of whatever room they were in. He had not removed a single drape from her, as was his due if he wished to accept her in some fashion. Instead, he was stalking around, his aggression charging the air.
She had likely angered him further with her temerity. One was not supposed to offer suggestions to the King—
Anha followed the command by letting her weak knees fall out from beneath her body. She expected to meet the cold, hard floor, but there was a cushioned chair of some great mass to catch her.
Creaking floorboards informed her he was circling her again, his footfalls heavy, his presence so great she could sense the size of him even though she could see nothing. Heart pounding, sweat breaking out down her neck and between her br**sts, she waited for his next move—and feared it would be violent. By law, he could do anything he wanted with her. He could slaughter her or toss her to the Brotherhood for their use. He could undress her, take her virginity, and then reject her—leaving her ruined.
Or he could simply render her na**d and approve of her form, saving her virtue for after the ceremony the following night. Or even mayhap … as she had imagined in her most futile dreams … he would regard her briefly and re-cover her with gifts of special cloth, signaling his intent to rank her among his shellans—so that her life at court would be easier.
She’d heard too much about courtiers to expect kindness from them. And she was well aware that though she was to be mated to the King, she was on her own. If she had a small measure of power, however, mayhap she could remove herself from this to a certain degree, leaving the machinations of court and kingship to females of greater ambition and avarice—
The pacing stopped abruptly and there was protest from the floor directly before her, as if he had shifted position in some manner.
Now was the moment, and her heart froze as if it did not want to attract attention from His Majesty’s blade …
In one quick moment, the hood was off her face, and great drafts of cool air were free for her lungs’ taking.
Anha gasped at what was before her.
The King, the ruler, the supreme representative of the vampire race … was on his knees in front of the chair he had provided her. And that should have been shocking enough, but indeed, his apparent supplication was the least of what struck her.
He was utterly beautiful—and of all the things she had sought to prepare herself for, this first, magnificent sight of him had never been contemplated.
His eyes were the color of pale spring leaves, and they shone bright as moonlight upon a lake whilst he stared up at her. And his face was the handsomest she had e’er beheld, although that was perhaps not compliment enough, given that she had not been allowed to look upon anything male before. And his hair was black as crows’ wings, falling down a broad back.
Except even that was not what penetrated her consciousness most.
It was the concern in his expression.
“Be not afraid,” he said in a voice that was velvet and gravel. “None shall e’er harm you, for I am here.”
Tears pricked in her eyes. And then her mouth opened itself, words jumping out. “My lord, you should not kneel.”
“How ever else would I greet a female such as yourself?”
Anha tried to respond, but caught up in his gaze, her mind became entangled—he seemed not real, this powerful male who bowed his honor afore her. To be certain once and for all, her hand lifted and moved to close the distance between them …
Whate’er was she doing? “Forgive me, my lord—”
He captured her palm and the impact of the flesh upon flesh made her gasp. Or was that both of them?
“Touch me,” he commanded. “Anywhere.”
As he released his hold, she placed her trembling hand upon his cheek. Warm. Smooth from a blade’s recent passing.