“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. “My lord?” 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?” No. “Indeed.” “Shall we initiate the procession.” “Yes.” 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 chesthigh 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-tochest 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— Mine. ’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. Ever. 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— “Sit.” 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 breasts, 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 naked 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. The King closed his eyes and leaned in, his great body shuddering. When he just stayed as that, she felt a surge of power—not in an arrogant fashion, nor with any ambition for self-gain.
It was simply from unexpected footing gained on what had seemed like an indelibly slippery slope. How was this possible? “Anha…” he breathed, as if her name were an incantation of magic. Naught else was spoken, but the whole of their language was unnecessary, all parts of speech and vocabulary rendered worthless to offer any mere nuance, much less definition, to what bond was shaping and tethering them one to another. She finally dropped her eyes. “Would you not care to see more of me?” The King released a low growling purr. “I would see all of you—and looking would not be the half of it.” The scent of a male’s arousal rose thick in the air, and incredibly, her own body responded to the call. But then again, that sensual aggression of his was well and truly bound by his singular will: he was not going to take her the now. No, it appeared that he was going to save her virtue until he had paid her the honor and respect of properly mating her. “The Scribe Virgin answered my prayers in a miraculous way,” she whispered as she blinked through tears.
All those years of worry and wait, the anvil poised for three decades to fall upon her head … The King smiled. “If I had known a female as you could exist, I would have beseeched the mother of the race myself. But I had no fantasies—and that is well enough. I would have done naught but sit and wait for you to cross into my destiny, wasting years.” With that, he burst up to his feet and went over to a display of robing. The colors of the rainbow were all represented, and she had been taught since an early age to know what each hue meant in the hierarchy of court. He chose the red for her. The most valued of all, the signal that she would be the favored amongst all his females. The queen. And that honor should have been enough.
Except as she envisioned the many he would take, pain struck in her chest. As he came back toward her, he must have sensed her sadness. “What ails you, leelan?” Anha shook her head, and told herself that sharing him was not something she had any right to mourn. She— The King shook his head. “No. There shall only be you.” Anha recoiled. “My lord, that is not tradition—” “Am I not the ruler of all? Can I not decree life and death o’er my subjects?” When she nodded, a hard cast came upon his face—and made her pity any who would try to deny him. “So I shall determine what is and is not tradition. And there shall only be you for me.
” Tears sprang anew to Anha’s eyes. She wanted to believe him, and yet that seemed impossible— even as he wrapped her still-clad form with the blood-colored silk. “You honor me,” she said, staring into his face. “Not enough.” With a quick turn, he stalked across to a table that had been laid with gems. The largesse of jewels had been the last thing on her mind as he had lifted her hood, but now her eyes widened at the display of wealth. Surely, she did not deserve such things. Not until she gave him an heir. Which abruptly seemed not a chore, a’tall. As he returned unto her, she inhaled sharply.
Rubies, so many she couldn’t count them—indeed, a whole tray … including the Saturnine ring which she had been told had always graced the hand of the queen. “Accept these and know my truth,” he said as he once again lowered himself at her feet. Anha felt her head shake. “No, no, these are for the ceremony—” “Which we shall have here and the now.” He put out his palm. “Give me your hand.” Anha’s every bone was shaking as she obeyed him, and she let out a gasp as the Saturnine stone went onto her middle finger on the right. As she looked into the gem, candlelight refracted amongst its facets, flaring with beauty sure as true love lit the heart from within. “Anha, do you accept me as your King and mate, until the door unto the Fade is offered afore you?” “Yes,” she heard herself say with surprising strength. “Then I, Wrath, son of Wrath, do take you as my shellan, to watch over and care for you and any begotten young we may have, sure as I would and will my kingdom, and its citizenry.
You shall be mine fore’ermore—your enemies are mine own, your bloodline to mix with mine own, your dusks and your dawns to share only with me. This bond shall ne’er be torn asunder by forces within or without —and”—here he paused—“there shall be one and only one female for all mine days, and you shall be that only queen.” With that, he brought up his other hand and laced all their fingers together. “None shall part us. Ever.” Although Anha did not have knowledge of it currently, in future years, as destiny continued to roll forward, transforming this present moment into past history, she would return to this instant over and over again. Later, she would reflect that they had both been lost that night, and the sight of the other had given them the solid ground they had required. Later, when sleeping close to her mate in their bedding and hearing him gently snore, she would know that what had seemed like a dream was in reality a living, breathing miracle. Later, on the night that she and her beloved were slaughtered, when her eyes latched onto the crawl space where she had hidden their heir, their future, the only thing that was greater than the two of them … she would have as her last dying thought that it was all meant to be. Whether the tragedy or the luck, all of it had been predetermined, and it had started here, in this instant, as the King’s fingers intertwined with her own and the two of them became locked one into the other, for eternity.
“Who shall attend you this night and this day afore the public ceremony?” he asked. She hated to leave him. “I should return to my quarters.” He frowned deeply. But then he released her and took his sweet time adorning her with the rubies until they hung from her ears and her neck and both of her wrists. The King touched the largest of the stones, the one that hung over her heart. As his lids lowered, she believed that he had gone somewhere carnal in his mind—mayhap he was imagining her without benefit of clothing, nothing but her skin to frame the heavy golden settings with their diamond accents and those incredible red gems. The last of the suite was the crown itself, and he lifted the circlet from the velvet tray, placing it on her head and then sitting back to survey her. “You outshine it all,” he said. Anha looked down at herself.
Red, red, everywhere, the color of blood, the color of life itself. Indeed, she could not imagine the value in the gems, but that was not what touched her. The honor he was paying her in this moment was legendary—and as she considered that, she wished this could have been private between them fore’ermore. That would not be, however. And the courtiers were not going to like this, she thought. “I shall take you to your quarters.” “Oh, my lord, you should not bother yourself—” “There is naught else to consume me this night, I assure you.” She could not stop her smile. “As you wish, my lord.” Except she was not sure she could stand with all the— Anha didn’t make it all the way onto her feet.
The King swept in and gathered her in his arms, holding her up from the floor as if she weighed naught more than a field dove. And with that, he marched across, kicked open the closed door and strode out into the corridor: They were all there, the hallway full of aristocrats and members of the Black Dagger Brotherhood— and instinctively she turned her head into Wrath’s neck. Whilst being raised for the King’s purpose, she had always felt like an object, and yet, that had gone away when she was alone with the male. Now, exposed to the invasive gazes of the others, she was once again in that role, relegated to a possession rather than an equal. “Wherever goest thou?” one of the aristocrats demanded as the King strode by without acknowledging them. Wrath kept walking—but clearly this one courtier would not be denied that which was not his due. The male placed himself in their path. “My lord, it is customary for—” “I shall attend her in mine own quarters this night and all others.” Surprise flared in a thin, pinched face. “My lord, that is the queen’s honor only, and even if you have had the female, it is not official until—”