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For centuries, they thought themselves alone at Darkfrith, but the arrival of a stunning letter from the Princess Maricara sent from the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania suggests the existence of a lost tribe of drákon. It is a possibility that the Alpha lord, Kimber Langford, Earl of Chasen, cannot ignore. For whoever this unknown princess may be, she's dangerous enough to know about the drákon's existence—and where to find them. That, as Kimber can't help but concede, gives her a decidedly deadly advantage. And, indeed, it wouldn't be long before Maricara breached the defenses of Darkfrith and the walls around Kimber's heart. But the mystery of the princess's real identity and the warning she has come to deliver, of a brutal serial killer targeting the drákon themselves, seem all but impossible to believe. Until the shadowed threat that stalks her arrives at Darkfrith, and Kimber and Maricara must stand together against the greatest enemy the drákon have ever faced—an enemy who may or may not be one of their own. They have no choice but to yield to their passionate attraction for each other. But for two such very different drákon leaders, will an alliance of body and soul mean their salvation, their extinction… or both?
Perhaps not. The room was round. Voices echoed. That could be all it was.
He'd been passing the time by putting on his spectacles and acting like he was examining the documents laid out before him, petitions written for him by his chamberlain, prepared in the order in which he would see each man. But it was all scratches and nibbles to him, tiny grievances blown into feuds: this field, that field, his hog, my acorns.
Sandu was fifteen years old. Breakfast had been hours ago. He was hungry, and he was chilled, and she was late, and he honestly didn't care about anyone's damned acorns.
The letters began to blur against the parchment. He pushed his spectacles back up his nose but it didn't help; the black ink ran to blue, the colors shifting, the words changing.. .they said something new now, something he could almost make out..
Pay attention, rang his sister's voice inside his head. You are Alpha. Every man's concern here is your own.
He blinked, and everything righted again. Sandu sighed and rubbed his nose. He wished, for what had to be the thousandth time, that the Convergence Room had a fireplace. It was mid-April but the Carpathians were still gripped with snow, and his court stockings were not woven for warmth.
The double doors opposite his table swung wide. Maricara entered the chamber, and that was when the air actually froze.
She was beautiful. No one would deny that. All their kind had a beauty, but in Mari it had grown into something beyond even them. She wore rouge and kohl, and a wig of long, heavy slate coils, and the violet of her gown lent purple to her eyes, but Sandu thought all these things really only served to distract from her true nature. It wasn't the whiteness of her skin that set her apart, or the lift of her shoulders, or the shape of her jaw. It wasn't her fashion or her figure, or her gliding walk. It wasn't anything so clear and physical. She was beautiful because she simply was: Of all the women of the mountains, she was the only one who could Turn.
It was why she had been chosen as princess. And it was why every person here, drakon and human alike, gazed at her with a seed of fear in their hearts. Sandu had realized that long ago.
It was possible they had good reason to fear her. He wasn't certain; he hoped not. This fey and otherworldly creature was his sister, and he loved her. But even Sandu had to admit he didn't fathom the depths of her.
The Convergence Room had windows filled with sky on every side, flooding the chamber with light. It was tall and vast, nearly four open floors of an entire tower, with marble pillars and tiles, and a ceiling carefully frescoed with stars and the moon and silvery, blazing beasts. For all its strength and solid luster, this was one of the few rooms in Zaharen Yce that was created very obviously for something other than humans. When Maricara took her first step into the morning sunlight she blazed as well, brighter and more brilliant than even the painted dragons above. Her skin and hair and colors abruptly ceased to matter; she was only planes and angles, and power simmering beneath.
Alexandru felt a brief flash of gloom. No one feared him. They listened to him because they had to. He could Turn, but so could a score of other men here. He was called prince strictly because of her, because by their nature a female could not rule, no matter how potent she was.
She moved through the rows of waiting people without glancing left or right. Her pale, cool eyes held the same faintly distracted cast it seemed she always had of late; Sandu wondered if his own looked the same. She didn't appear tired, although he knew she was. She didn't look like someone who had been missing the entire night although he was fairly certain that was true, too.
He stood, and when she was close enough, he bowed. It was a good bow, a French bow, and he knew she'd be pleased.
He rose from it just as she was completing her curtsy. He held her chair for her—to the left of his, slightly behind—and she accepted it, settling in with a gentle crinkling of skirts.
There was a tradition to this, a formality he'd had drummed into him these past eight years that was as old as the mountains, as the castle itself. This was the sole day they mingled, the drakon and those who served them. As a child he had once accompanied his father here to this wide, marbled cavern. He remembered just where they had sat, wrapped in their homespun: far in the back, and the prince seated in this chair had seemed as hard and cheerless as winter rime.
It had been cold then, too.
The chamberlain—human—stepped forward.
"Your Royal Graces."
Sandu turned to the first page of his documents. The petitioners were seated in strict order, from eldest to youngest. Another rule, another tradition.
He squinted at the parchment, and repressed another sigh. This was the one with the hog—
But the chamberlain at his shoulder bobbed and slipped a fresh sheet in front of him, something that had never happened before. Sandu accepted it, surprised, and dropped his gaze to the writing.
Two goats, one wool, one milk.
Twenty-four chickens, twenty laying.
Four piglets, one sow.
Sandu kept his face blank. He looked up, not at his sister, but at the hushed mass of people in front of them. With an unpleasant sense of awakening, he realized how many Others there were here, crowded into this room. He understood their agitation now, the whispers. He smelled their excitement in dried sweat and wool.
The events of that night eight years before remained seared in his memory like a brand. The aroma of tar and burnt pine. The angry buzz of distant voices. He'd been awake because his parents had been awake, because the light from the serfs' torches had lit a patch of orange against the clouds and the castle, visible miles distant. Because the village had emptied of people, one by one, by foot or by horse, as everyone ascended the mountain to witness what had occurred: Prince Imre, the last of the pure-blooded drakon, was dead.
His young bride was not.
Sandu had been seven, and Maricara but eleven. His parents had latched the door to his room and refused to let him leave it. In the murk of the early morning Mari had come to him anyway, easily slipping through the shrunken slats of the roof, and materialized beside his bed.
He's gone. I've chosen you to rule.
And in his sleepy stupor, all Sandu had managed was: What?
I've chosen you, she'd repeated, patient. Come up to the castle. Come up at dawn. And he had. It had been the last night he'd spent in the village.
He hadn't known how the prince had died. He hadn't known anything at all. But when he'd finally made it up the mountain, he saw the blood fear in the eyes of the other peasants, the fallen torches extinguished in greasy puddles around the castle courtyard. He saw Maricara, thin and brave, put out her hand and quell the uprising that wanted to come. The Alpha of the drakon was dead, and all that was left of his reign was a slip of a girl whose sole grasp on authority was dragon teeth and scales and little else.
She'd had that hand out ever since, he thought. And because she was who she was—what she was—she'd managed it. Barely.
Sandu stared again at the paper. He hadn't known about the belfry. Sheep and pigs could be replaced, or at least paid for. A belfry would mean a priest. A priest could bring in an outsider, a whole contingent of them.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Maricara lean forward, and adjusted the paper so she could view it better. Perfumed with powder, garbed in silk, she seemed every bit an aristocrat; her breathing remained steady as she took in the contents. She turned her head a fraction and the rubies at her throat released a knot of fiery sparks.
"Your Graces." The chamberlain bowed once more, touching the curve of his fingers to his forehead. "Your most gracious pardons. A list has been compiled of a few recent losses from the villages. Nothing so very serious, as you see, however."
"Yes," said Sandu, finding his tongue. "Yes," he said again, and cleared his throat. "Most lamentable. Our people will not be allowed to suffer, no matter the cause. Compensation will be made."
Another bow from his servant. Mari remained taut in her chair. A farmer from the middle of the crowd climbed to his feet.
"Noble One," said the man, not quite inclining his head. "Forgive me. We wish to know how the losses will be stopped."
"It was my prize sow. Four fine piglets. Sucklings. How will this be stopped?"
Now, despite himself, Sandu glanced at his sister. She gazed back at him without expression. This close her eyes shone mirror clear, nearly colorless. He could see nothing at all in them.
"We do not know how, precisely, these creatures are being lost," he said at last, very slow. "We do not know the manner of their deaths, or how these structures came to be damaged. We know wolves have been sighted—"
"Destroyed," interrupted a new man, also standing. This one was paler, leaner; Sandu could sense a dim pulse of drakon in his blood. "The belfry was destroyed, my lord, from the inside, as if by a very great beast. Not a wolf."
"My sheep," began another serf, his voice throbbing. "My ewe, devoured—"
"None of us would do such a thing," Sandu said. "You know that. We would not."
No one contradicted him. They would not dare. Not here, and not yet. But it seemed every face before him turned to her, to the young woman seated at his side. The sunlight filling the room burned very bright.
She stood. Without touching him, without looking at him, without speaking or acknowledging anyone else in the chamber, Maricara walked carefully around the table, back down the center of the people. Her skirts trailed purple. Her footsteps struck lightly against the marble floor.
The footmen opened the double doors for her, shut them again after she had passed through.
"Compensation will be made," Prince Alexandru said once more, into the vast and hungry silence.
When she was younger, and new to this place, Maricara used to enjoy pretending she was one of the olden drakon who had built the fortress of diamonds and might. She would hold out her arms and pace out the massive squares of the keep—also pretending she could still find them whenever she came to a rug—and whisper secret words to herself: Here we place the southwest stones, for our heat and security. Here we place the northern stones, to brave the worst winds. Here will go the middle stone, for heart, for completion....
And they had names, too: Bogdan, Ilie, Lacrimioara, Rada. Because all friends needed names.
The first time he caught her at it, Imre had asked what she was doing. She told him; she had no reason to lie—besides, lying to Prince Imre tended to lead to remarkably unpleasant consequences. So after that when he saw her counting he would only watch her with that small, condescending smile he had. Stones were no threat to him, to his dominion over her. Or so he had thought.