“The key to understanding is listening.” Bryson settled his arms on the table once again to get the assembly of Vampires to listen to him. He might as well have been on the moon discussing cheese.
“Listen? Listen to what?” Aquinas, the second in command of the House, stood.
Gia, the true leader, watched him stand with a steadiness that spoke of allowing the Vampire more than perhaps she should. They were not bonded, but after centuries things didn’t matter as much as they used to—if they were used to having their way in everything. Bryson was here to shake that authority, more precisely to take it from them.
“The Immortal Council is filled with witches and dogs, none of which listen to us.” Aquinas touched his chest gracefully. His disdain was perfectly clear. “We have kept our House away from connections for centuries.”
On Bryson’s left, Warren snorted. Bryson hid his shock behind a mask of indifference, expecting Aquinas to snap at the younger Vampire. Rightly so, he’s obviously not ready for dealing with ancients.
Aquinas dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment. A condescending smile lifted his pale lips. “It may be true that at one time we strayed into dark dealings, but we have learned that these connections are of no benefit to us. Indeed, this Immortal Council is nothing more than warlocks attempting to rule all the other species. They will not listen to us mere Vampires—”
“Of course not, why would they?” Warren muttered again, drawing attention to himself.
Bryson steadied the younger Vampire with a hand on his arm. Now was not the time for the man to speak about his obvious hatred for ancients.
“The council is not run by one person. It is a council and all voices can be heard. Our degree of commitment to what the council deems important is, of course, limited by what Aidan thinks is best.”
“And we should trust one man to decide this?” Gia spoke softly, but every one of the twelve Vampires present listened and turned to him to await his answer.
“Aidan is our king. He is our leader. This House has ignored that for far too long.”
“Was it not Aidan who ignored us for centuries?” Aquinas peered up from his inspection of his nails with a sharpness to his otherwise lazy gaze. Bryson wasn’t surprised as much as he was angered that now, at this meeting, the elder thought to question his lot in life. “Now that he wishes to take his father’s role, we should bow to his wishes?”
Bryson’s temper rose. “He turned his back for reasons you know well. But he is willing to guide us again.” He steadied his anger and added, “I understand your misgivings, Aquinas, but, to gain his trust, you must trust him as well.”
Aquinas sneered and turned to take his seat again, the noble with no time for the commoner sent to call him to heel. Little, if any, of the prejudices within the Vampire Houses had changed. Gia ruled this House much as she had for centuries. Her authority was given by her direct relation through blood to their forefathers. Such things still weighed heavily on all of the people in these Houses—even the lowest born would not stand against their royal leaders. Vampires like Aquinas and Gia fed off and scrutinized every single Vampire within their House so that they would never dream of attempting to change this sickening system.
That, among other even less savory traditions, was precisely why the Vampire Council was being formed. Aidan believed that, with more of a voice in their lives, Vampires would learn that royal authority meant nothing. The goal today was to take the authority from these two Vampires. Bryson wasn’t fooled one bit into thinking they both weren’t aware of that. They would fight this tooth and nail, but subtly, behind Aidan’s back. But to that, Bryson had no answer. It was also the way Vampires had always acted. Serving their own desires above all others.
Gia stared pensively at him, then at her followers, and sighed. “He demands much from us.”
“Such as?” Bryson held on to his temper with difficulty.
“Such as?” Aquinas repeated in a sarcastic sneer. He crossed his legs and tapped his long nails on his chair arms. The table was set up by the House, with Gia and Aquinas at the head, in chairs that resembled a bishop’s cathedra. The seats were not quite thrones, but they were elegantly carved with crosses in the center high above their heads while the other plainer and less comfortable chairs were a blatant reminder that everyone else was not as blessed.
Christian, Warren and Jacob sat near him on his side of the table, while the Vampires of the House sat across from them. No one was seated at the opposite head from Gia and Aquinas because there were no chairs there. The lack was a direct slap in his face. As a captain of the king’s guard, he should have been awarded a seat of honor. His lack of blood line was remembered, and would always be remembered, when dealing with the Houses.
“Aidan has left us, deserted us and we survived. Not only survived, but flourished. Our numbers are great. The age has provided us with freedoms we never possessed when his father, Aaron, ruled.” Christian glanced at Gia who nodded to him.
“True,” Bryson acceded. “Your rule has also led you to turn the name Vampire into a curse. More of our number side with the Death Stalkers than any other species. More death, more sickening horrors, have been done by Vampires and worse, sanctified by this House. Aidan has given you a choice.” He paused and studied the disdain on Gia’s porcelain face. He sat forward and rested his hands casually on the table. His king’s guard signet ring was large and clearly visible in the glow from their extravagant chandelier. “If you do not wish his rule, then your choice is quite simple. Do not send an envoy to the council next week. Easy, you see?” He sat back and folded his arms. “You will be his enemy, but the choice is yours. I suggest you choose wisely, if you are able.”
Gia stiffened, clearly offended. “You would dare to speak to me in this way?”
“I will always speak the truth, Gia. Take care how you address me.” At her gasp of outrage, his anger rushed to the top. “Centuries of shit can’t be brushed under the rug because you are high and mighty to be faced with your actions. That time is gone. Try to catch up before your entire House pays the price. Do you so easily forget what Aidan did to the House in Seattle? I think not.” He slammed his fist down on the table hard enough to dent the wood. “Your response decides if your House will survive, or also become a public park for humans to enjoy summer strolls in the sunshine.”
Silence, filled with the complete attention of everyone in the room, pinned on him. He narrowed his eyes in warning when Gia dared to open her mouth. She snapped it shut with a comical widening of her eyes.
“Nice one. Love your sense of diplomacy,” Christian mumbled and sat forward. “What we’re saying, is that there is still time for diplomacy, Gia. Bryson is allowing you that, but if you choose not to listen—”
“Then you will lose that chance. This is a wakeup call. Things have changed,” Bryson bit out. “But perhaps Christian can explain it more…eloquently.”
Christian laughed. “I doubt I will be more eloquent, Bryson. The time for that, I agree, has long since passed. But, my dear Gia, what Bryson is trying to explain is that after this House sided with Balrick and tried to annihilate not only Aidan, but also Alrick, King of the Lykae, Circerran, the head of the Jade Coven, and several top Vampire captains, not to mention aided in the creation of the changelings, it will take time to mend Aidan’s trust in your ability to rule this House. Until then, we suggest you bide your time, say, for a few centuries, and let others make decisions for you.”
Gia and Aquinas gasped almost as one and stiffened in their seats until they appeared more like statues of people rather than ancient Vampires. The Vampires across from them appeared to hold their breath.
“You call that smooth?” Bryson rubbed his mouth and sat straighter. “Two members of your House will sit on the Vampire Council. There will be two from each House, no more. You may choose, of course, but I would recommend you send ambassadors who can relay your concerns.”
Aquinas lifted his nose higher. “Then we have nothing to gain.”
“Your existence,” Warren muttered. “Other than that, you’re right, nothing.”
Gia glared at Warren. “How dare you!”
“I’d dare a lot more.”
Bryson steadied Warren with a hand on his arm. Again. The younger Vampire wouldn’t have been his choice to bring along. He was a hothead, not ready to face ancients with their high opinions of themselves. He was also too new for Bryson to gauge where his alliances truly fell.
At Bryson’s touch, Warren scowled. “Bryson, they’ll never listen to—”
“Enough,” Bryson snapped.
“Yes, listen to your elders, child.” Aquinas laughed.
Warren’s muscles flexed as he reached for his sword.
Bryson hardened his grip. “I said enough.”
After a pause, the younger man nodded and relaxed his tense muscles. He would have to learn control, sooner rather than later, if he wanted to become a captain. Aidan needed to hear that the younger Vampire wasn’t there yet. Not if he grew angry so easily. Not if he would go against Bryson’s direct orders.
Bryson caught Jacob’s eye and nodded to him. Jacob acknowledged him with a slow frown and sat forward, closer to Warren in case the young Vampire did something insane, such as attack the two ancients.
Bryson studied the pair at the head of the table as his men gained their feet as well.
“He is correct, Gia.” Bryson stood. The meeting was done. “Aidan is firmly set on this council being a reality. I would not push where there is nothing to gain.”
Gia sniffed. Aquinas narrowed his eyes.
Christian gave an exaggerated sigh. Jacob stayed silent, but he had enough age to know that dealing with the Houses was never going to go well. With a nod from Bryson, Jacob moved aside and gestured for Warren to precede him to the door.
Bryson turned back to the House, assured that even-tempered Jacob would keep Warren in line. “If you wish to continue, you will do as we demand. Next week we’ll expect to have your ambassadors at the council or we will return, and you will be brought before Aidan to answer to him for your continued defiance of his authority.”
“And you will lead this council of course, not Aidan.” Aquinas also gained his feet. The words dripped with sarcasm, but Bryson was used to it.
“Yes, Aquinas, I will lead the council.”
Aquinas took that like he’d swallowed sour lemon juice.
“Is there a problem?”
The Vampire bowed his head, hand over his chest. “Of course not, Bryson.”
Gia rose to her feet, with Aquinas holding her hand. Graceful as a snake, she dipped her head ever so slightly. “We will send our envoys. It seems Aidan has left us little choice.”
“I am pleased you were able to make a wise decision.”
Bryson started walking, but Warren couldn’t keep his mouth shut, “Other than facing the dawn.”
Bryson narrowed his focus to the younger Vampire. Warren shook his sandy-blond hair out of his eyes. There was anger there, as well as something else. Jacob touched him on the arm and the two walked out ahead of Bryson down the hall.
“If I’d wanted a smart ass with me I would have brought Jaxon. In such situations, it is diplomacy that will win out, not throwing their mistakes in their faces.”
Warren’s shoulders stiffened, but he didn’t acknowledge Bryson’s dressing down otherwise.
Christian chuckled. “Jaxon wouldn’t have come. He hates bullshit like this.”
They walked on in silence, the Vampire sent to lead them out of the House ahead of them. Gia and Aquinas, of course, accompanied them, but were farther back, obviously more than ready to see the last of them.
“Are you really going to head this council?” Christian asked suddenly. “It sounds like hell to me. Give me a battle any day.”
“Yes, well, we’re trying to keep those to a minimum,” Bryson snapped. His irritation was growing, not lessening. Dealing with the Houses was part of it, but he couldn’t seem to find the cause of the deeper frustration he felt.
“Bloody hell we are. We still have plenty more of these to tame.” Jacob snorted. He’d always been as bloodthirsty on the battlefield as he was calm off. His own dislike of the Houses was from his past, and the tortures he’d endured as a young Vampire. “If we even can tame them, that is.”
Bryson agreed. This House was by far one of his least favorites. None pleased him, but Aquinas and Gia had a way of making his teeth ache. He’d feel better if every single ancient, save very few, were eradicated from the face of the earth. But he and Aidan were alone in that. And, at times, they did find decent, ancient Vampires. Christian was one of those rare ones.
A scent struck Bryson as he walked, stopping him in his tracks. I know that scent.
Christian barreled into him from behind. “Bryson? What the hell is it?”
“Wait.” He took Christian’s arm and scanned the corridor. Jacob was doing the same, Warren scowling at the walls now as well. The Vampires from the House halted, a sudden nervous presence at Bryson’s back.
Jacob’s dark brow furrowed. He shifted his silver eyes to the wall next to them and reached out as if to touch the stones. “There’s something here.”
Bryson couldn’t move. He could barely draw his hand up to lay his palm against the tapestry. A heartbeat, small and barely making a sound, pulsed every few seconds against his hand. A rush of awareness, along with memories he’d suppressed for centuries, erupted and paralyzed him. Isobel?
“What is it?” Christian asked. “We should go. This House sickens me.”
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Isobel. She is…here. With the realization, he switched his focus onto the ancients. Aquinas backed away from him. He grabbed the Vampire by his silk shirt and brought him in close to snarl, “Why do I suddenly want to rip your throat out, Aquinas? Do you know?”
The Vampire paled to a pastier white, but didn’t fight back. His gaze landed on the wall then back on Bryson so quickly Bryson almost missed it. He didn’t miss the faint, very faint heartbeat—in the walls.
She was here, entombed in the House. It was an old custom, one reserved for the most severe punishments.
“There is someone there.” Jacob indicated the spot where Bryson sensed the same.
Bryson dropped Aquinas.
Aquinas stumbled back and raised his hands. “No, you are mistaken. It is nothing. Rats, I assume.”
Jacob shook his head. “No. You have entombed a young Vampire here.”
There was no need for more. Bryson drew his sword.
“Bryson!” Christian shouted and grabbed his sword arm. “What are you doing?”
“Let him go, Christian.” Jacob dragged Christian backward.
“What’s going on?” Warren yelled, drawing his own blade.
Bryson ignored them all. Urgency pulsed along his limbs. He ripped the tapestry off the wall. Behind it someone had placed newer, different colored stones from the flagstone floor to shoulder height. The texture was still ancient. Six hundred, nearly seven hundred years ancient.
He punched into the plaster with his sword hilt. Stones fell at his feet, but he kept pounding until he broke through to another wall, this one of round river stones mudded together into a hastily constructed wall.
“Stop at once! We demand you stop!” Aquinas shouted.
Jacob, Christian and Warren subdued the other Vampires. He ignored them. All his focus was centered on the faint heartbeat.
“Holy fuck. Is that… Is there really a person in there?” Christian cried.
There was more shuffling behind Bryson but he was unable to think past the rage choking him.
“Stop! I demand you stop. This is our House! We do what we feel is right to punish offenders of our rule!” Gia grabbed his arm, digging her nails in his flesh. “This is our business, not yours, Bryson!”
Bryson cocked a brow at the woman. There was no way she knew how close he was to ripping her head from her body. Something must have come through because she gasped and dropped her hand.
“This is your House, but these punishments are banned. And have been for centuries.”
“Who is in there?” Christian muttered at his elbow.
“No one of importance. No one of…” Gia backed away from him.
It was spoken quickly, and was, he knew, untrue. The elder brushed her hair from her shoulders and straightened her pristine white gown. The high collar had her holding her head up, but Bryson believed she always had her nose in the air—the dress made no difference.
He seized her by her chin.
Her eyes flared wide, in outrage, he thought, not concern.
“Lie to me one more time, Gia, just once more, and I will end you and make it so your name is never uttered again. Not even in whispers.”
She trembled under his hand—finally, she seemed to realize that he was the one to make or break her. The fall would be hard, and he’d warned Aidan of the rage and hatred Vampires like this would feed to others. For now, though, her existence hung on a thread.
He tightened his hold. “Who is it you have entombed?”
Gia’s trembling increased. Her eyes widened so that he could see the telltale sign of her addiction to killing when she drank. The red glow was there, behind the contacts she wore to hide it, but the colored contacts slipped, revealing the bloodlust.
“Answer me. Name her. Now. Aloud.”
Gia paused only a moment before she said, “Isobel Katrina Fernandez-Augustine.”
A pin could have fallen and it would have shattered the silence. Gia’s whispered words sounded louder than battle drums. Isobel Katrina Fernandez-Augustine, King Killer. Gia left off the epithet but it was there, hanging in the hallway.
Warren moved closer. “How long has she been entombed?”
“For six-hundred and seventy-five years,” Bryson answered.
He dropped Gia. She staggered back, holding her neck. Aquinas wouldn’t meet his eyes, neither would his men. Christian had eyes only for the bricks holding the woman who had killed Aaron, Aidan’s father.
Jacob turned to him, frowning. “How did she get here? And how is it we were never told?”
“Does it matter?” he snarled past the pain slicing through the walls he’d built around his heart. “For her crimes, entombment isn’t enough. Dig her out, Jacob. When you do, take her to Aidan. He will decide her fate. Anyone that plots against the king will follow.” He faced the heads of the House. Both held themselves perfectly still. Gone was the arrogance of earlier, replaced with fear. “Do you understand me now?” he shouted.
He didn’t wait for the replies that immediately fell from their lips as they went to their knees.
He shifted, escaping to his home, deep in the highest mountain peaks of the world. There, he released his rage, shouting to the heavens. It didn’t ease the impotent fury. It rose to bury him underneath such renewed sorrow it even eclipsed the bitterness of what life had given him—a killer for a bride.
Isobel recognized the difference between living and dying. She knew the trap she was in, the long sleep that would keep her between these places—for an eternity if her tormentors so chose.
But she also knew that there, within the walls they’d built to hold her in, she was free. Free to dream and free to leave the world and its pain behind. Free to be someone she’d never been allowed to become. The ties of her obligations had been tight. The duty to her family, her lineage, had been far too heavy for her to shift even the slightest bit to gain a miniscule amount of independence. But here, in the in-between place, she spun dreams from the scattered memories of her life. She had once treasured the study of all that made the world beautiful—from the vast mountains, to the smallest flower sprouting up from the deserts’ harsh, unforgiving landscapes. To live again, to have a choice, that was the biggest dream of all. A family of my own…
But she knew, even as she floated on the highest, most freezing air above the tallest peaks that she was merely dreaming. So, even as she did, she carried sorrow with her, coloring the fiber of each moment with its painful brush.
A sound entered the existence she’d built. The walls of her mind shivered. There had been no break in the constant sleep in so long. Not even mice ventured near her now. No insect crawled along her still form, nor sought to nest in her long hair. She couldn’t recall the last infestation.
A sensation she’d nearly forgotten, air, touched her skin, prickling the long unused flesh with the shift of it along her bare arms before it disappeared. Tingles began again, so like the spiders that had crawled over her in those first few years. She tried to scream and yet no sound passed her dry, brittle lips.
Not again. Please, not again. I cannot stand the insects. Anything but not the insects, please. The vermin had nearly driven her madder than the constant struggle for freedom.
Ropes had once held her, woven in a pattern of spells she had been too weak to decipher. Over time those spells had wasted away, leaving only tattered bits of rope behind. But by then it had been too late. With no food, no blood, and drained to the point of near death, she had wasted away. When the time came for the ropes to fall, freeing her, she had no means of lifting her hands, even if she could have beaten the stone wall down to gain her freedom.
Another odd sound filled her existence.
After a time, she realized it might be…shouting. Men cursing, and the sounds of battle, not sharp with the ring of swords, but harsh with voices she heard deep within her being. A man’s voice, rough with rage and loud with fury, drew her awake, fully, painfully awake.
No! Ignore it. Do not listen. Do not follow that path of madness.
No one will save you.
No one will hear you.
Even if you beg for release, no one cares.
Outside the warnings in her mind, the voice continued shouting. Other sounds intruded until it was too painful and loud to bear after so long with nothingness as her only companion. She raced for the deeper, blacker sleep that lay in wait under the third healing sleep and the fourth forgetful sleep. The fifth, it was named, and known only to a few of her kind.
It rose up like a lover to cradle her in its black arms. Dark, velvet dreams cocooned her, memories of walking through the woods at night, her brother a laughing, heavy shadow ahead of her as they raced over the lush, scented landscape.
Everything else fell away. Once again, she held her innocence without understanding how precious it was. Once again, she followed where her brother led. Once again, in her dreams, the world made sense.
When next she rose, sounds and sensations she’d gone centuries without assaulted her. Wind. Air. Lights. Voices. People speaking in murmurs near me. Whispering things I should know. Her skull ached. She dived down again, craving the soothing caress of her own mind, but was halted by a voice of command.
“Isobel. I order you to rise.”
The words rushed along her skin and dug deep into her long-forgotten muscles to her bones. She refused, clutching the darkness to her. I will not listen. I will not rise. I cannot. I am of no use. I can do nothing that I promised.
“Isobel! I order you to rise.”
Something warm, something rich, something loathsome was pressed to her lips. She struggled, fighting as hard to deny the offering of blood as she had the imprisonment. But it was not to be. Her heart beat faster, her body clenched, and she strained to gain more even as she refused the call. Her eyes flew open as blood saturated her parched lips.
As quickly as it was offered, she shoved it away and launched herself from it. Never drink from another Vampire. Never allow connections! The room was a bright, painful white. The floor was constructed of cold marble, too smooth against her long-unused bare feet. A man faced her, his terrible features set in rage, his eyes glowing silver-bright and filled with the authority she recognized on a cellular level. My king. To him I owe my allegiance, my life.
“Isobel. You will come to me. Now.”
Obey. She stood, unable not to, and began putting one foot in front of the other. Her strength was gone. Her limbs were weak and, even with his blood coursing through her, she stumbled several times. Memories, filled with faces and people she had once known, rushed up from the past and crowded in her mind for purchase. She couldn’t bear it. Each one wanted something from her. Each demanded she listen and obey. The inner torment continued as she walked to him, halting only when he raised his hand.
“Stop. Look at me.”
Her head rose on its own at his command. She stared into the silver eyes of Aidan, the king of all Vampires. The memories solidified into faces shouting at her, mouths gaping, spittle flying. They made their demands, their curses, and when she denied them, once again she felt the burn of their whips and weight of their heavy chains.
Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill every last one of his House. Kill them all and only then will our House be satisfied. Only then will we rise to where we should be. Only then will you be safe. Only then will your brother be returned to you!
She screamed silently even as she faced Aidan’s heavy gaze. Within her mind, memories dragged her downward, clawing, grasping in a battle for leadership. Brother! Aid me now! Aid me now so I may aid you. There was no response. Just as there hadn’t been all those nights before when she’d been caught and imprisoned. He is lost to me. It’s only my will that will save him. Is this my chance? Will he question me? I can save you, brother, if only they allow it!
Aidan’s gaze was strong, his mind as unbreakable as his control. No sound left his lips, no question was spoken, but she knew judgment had once again been passed. ‘No one will ever ask you, Isobel, no one will care to ask. They will see a killer and nothing more. Take care, for what you choose will decide your fate for all eternity.’ As if those hated words were a prophecy, she stood, helpless to defend herself as her king passed judgment.
“You have been accused and found guilty of crimes against your people. You will burn, Isobel, and your ashes will be spread throughout this land so that you may never rise again.”
Stillness settled in the room again. It spread, filling her with a sense of wonder. Is it this simple? Were all the silent years simply a torture leading up to this? This fated ending?
She lifted her hands, touching her mouth as a smile lifted her lips. My lips feel the same and, yet, they are not mine. Nothing of me is mine. Not even my mind. She laughed. All the years of suffering and hoping for a chance to save her brother disappeared, replaced by something so vast it overwhelmed everything else. The laughter built, spilling out, tripping and falling like the streams she used to play in as a child. Surely, I am mad now.
His command was heard, but there was no stopping nature. She was a stream, flowing downhill to her death.
A sharp slap jerked her head to the side. Memories of more beatings surfaced, along with other, harsher punishments before her entombment. The laughter built, causing her pain, but spilled from her as all her dreams were crushed. What was left she didn’t understand but couldn’t control.
“Take her. She’s clearly insane. Tie her to the post and leave her for the sun.”
It’s almost over. It’s almost done. Soon, Jorge, soon, I, too, will be finished with this world. The pleasure at the thought diminished. I have failed, then. You will never be free.
Longings, hopes she’d once dreamed as a young Vampire sprang up like bright daisies in the fields she and Jorge used to run through. They had always pushed the limits placed on them from the night and waited, watching as the dawn had colored the sky. Jorge had always held her hand, smiling in joy at the colors of the sunrise.
The sunshine was always bright, but also deadly.
So too were the oaths she swore—oaths she would now be unable to fulfill.
‘Kill them, Isobel, only then can I join her.’
‘I will, Jorge. I vow it.’
And now, after all this time, I fail you, brother.
Pain, worse than any other, filled her mind, ripping into her chest and slicing deeply. Even as she allowed two Vampires to tie her in the Chamber of the Sun, it clawed at her.
It cannot end like this. Not after so many years. Not this way. More laughter bubbled up as she realized it could, in fact, end like this.