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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?
Maricara knew every inch of this castle. She knew precisely how many steps it would take to reach her private drawing room from the doors of the Convergence Room, and how many more past that to reach the bower window that overlooked the courtyard, and the fountain of alabaster fish.
"Breakfast," she said to the hallboy who had followed her in, and took her seat upon the cushions. She waited until he was gone to look down at her hands.
They weren't shaking. Hardly, she corrected herself. They were hardly shaking.
She fisted them together in her lap.
Sheep. Sucklings. She closed her eyes and forced down the small, strange noise that wanted to rise from the back of her throat.
As if she were naught but an animal herself, as if she were little more than some base, marauding creature that savaged belfries and squealing pigs in the dark—
She exhaled, very slowly. She stared down at the beds of her fingernails pressing white and concentrated on remembering the details of last night. The ruffles on her nightgown. The heat of the bed brick. The smooth luxury of the sheets against her bare hands and feet, the pillow cool beneath her neck. The colors of the canopy in the last of the firelight, burnished bronze and rust, the chocolate satin cords lashing it to the posts.
And after that, nothing. She had fallen asleep. She had awoken atop the tower this morning. Just as she had nearly every night for the past six months.
When the first signs of her Gifts began to manifest, her parents had been terrified. No one knew how true the bloodlines of the drakon ran through the mountainfolk any longer. They were all descendants of mixed blood these days, all except Imre. Neither of her parents could Turn. Her grandfathers had been able, a few great-uncles, many years past. But for a woman to have this power, for a female child to balk at boiled cabbage for supper one night and transform into smoke rather than taking a bite—
It had not been done in generations. The Gifts were growing rarer and rarer, and no one even knew why.
She had felt so special. She had been so delighted. She had not truly realized what it meant. From that minute on her life had been mapped for her, first by her husband and then—resolutely—by herself. And Mari had thought, for a while, that she had carved her path deep enough and sure enough to thwart any new changes. That she was safe now, that her fate was secure. She had nearly twenty years behind her, and thought she knew how to bend the very mountains to her will.
Until six months ago, when her nights began to vanish.
The sky beyond the window was lifting into a sheer, bottomless azure. It was going to be a sunny day. The snowdrifts in the courtyard were already blinding, which is why she heard the crumping footsteps of the approaching party of men before she saw them. She looked out, squinting, then lifted a hand to shield her eyes.
Five men at the gate, huntsmen, carrying a dark something between them. A deer, most like. Or a wild boar. She sighed and closed her eyes, leaning her temple against the glass. She felt unwilling to witness more death, even accidentally.but when she opened them again the men were closer, and the thing they carried had one limp, pale hand trailing the air.
Maricara was not the first to reach them. The doormen had gathered in the courtyard already, along with two milkmaids, and four of the grooms. They parted at her approach, lips compressed, heads ducked. In her haste one of the maids slipped in her wooden clogs; the liquid from the bucket balanced on her head splashed into invisible drops against the snow.
The dark shape was a man. His skin was oddly gray, his hair flaxen, his eyes glazed and open. As she walked nearer the light shifted. She realized that what she had perceived as gray was actually frost, a frozen sparkle across his cheekbones and whiskers and straw-colored lashes. He was comely and somehow familiar, dressed well in a torn Parisian coat and boots that looked new. The hand that had trailed free wore a signet ring of gold. Clearly not a serf.
"Who was he?" she asked, looking up at the huntsmen.
"Noble One." The headman nodded to her, not lifting his eyes. "My deepest apologies. We don't know. We found him on the road before dawn. No horse or carriage, no papers."
"The woods, my lady." "Where?" she asked again, sharper. "Deda," muttered another man. "Near to Deda."
Mari blinked, but that was all. She gestured for the hunters to lay the man down, knelt beside the body—the ground an icy jolt against her knees—and opened the coat. It was stiff with blood, glittery and dark. No need to guess at the source: The gash that had torn the greatcoat had also pierced his coat and waistcoat, and even deeper, enough to reveal the skin beneath, his chest. What would have been his heart.
Maricara sat back on her heels. She looked down and noticed a flake of frozen blood upon her stomacher, and flicked it hard away.
"This was the work of men," she said aloud, and then glanced up at the faces surrounding her. No one met her gaze. One of the milkmaids was staring, whey-faced, at the ravaged waistcoat, her eyes wide and watering.
"Men did this," Mari insisted, and came to her feet.but she was forced to remain still a long moment, fighting a wave of dizziness that washed the color from her sight and sent electric barbs down into her fingertips.
Do not faint. Do not. Do not surrender here.
She set her jaw and, when she could, gestured once more at the huntsmen. They roused, blowing clouds and exchanging looks, stumping closer to the body. This time when they lifted it Mari made herself touch that cold hand, to fold it over the stranger's chest.
The band of the signet caught her eye. She worked the ring around the knuckle until its face was upright, until she could make out the design carved into the metal.
A dragon, wings out, fangs bared, entwined against the letter D.
She knew that crest. She'd seen it exactly three times before in her life, carved carefully into wax on the letters from England. From the Earl of Chasen.
This man had been an Englishman. And a dragon.
Someone, somehow, had managed to kill a drakon.
God help her if this was the earl himself.
"Take it to—to the granary. You, summon the prince. You five—go! Are you listening? Stay with it until His Grace arrives. Let no one else come near."
"Yes, my lady."
"The rest of you—have you not work to finish? Cows do not milk themselves, as I recall."
She watched them as they scattered, watched until she stood alone in the courtyard beneath the sightless eyes of all the windows of Zaharen Yce. A long, spiraled lock from her wig blew lazily against her left forearm: gray, like the dead man's skin.
Mari could hear the pines rustling in the mountains, and birds shifting in their nests, and the small heartbeats of all the little creatures burrowed under the earth. She could certainly hear the hissed conversation of the two milkmaids as they hurried back down the walkway that led to the dairy.
"How can she say it was men who did it? How can we be certain it wasn't—"
"Because," answered the other, just as soft, "she wouldn't have stopped with his heart. She would have eaten all of him."
He'd never liked tea. It seemed somewhat ridiculous to him, to interrupt his day with miniature cakes and dry, crustless sandwiches, and fragile china that always seemed about to snap in half between his fingers. Tea, Kimber reasoned, was a feminine invention, ruled by females of a certain type: ruffled, beribboned, and iron-willed.
At least it was here at Chasen. It was the hour his sisters always paired to outflank him.
"But Kim," Joan was saying in her pretty, reasonable way, "you do realize how impractical it has become. We still have scarcely any idea of even how many of these other drakon there are. If they're as scattered as Lia's letter suggested, we'll waste a good deal of resources merely locating them."
"We have already," Audrey pointed out, taking a sip from her ridiculous, dainty cup.
"And to what results?" Joan responded, a perfectly timed counterpoint. Kim knew from experience they could go on like this for hours. "Rumors and hearsay. A smattering of frightened peasants who can barely string together a full sentence in French. No castle. No certain means of even ascertaining how the letters from the princess had managed to reach us, or ours to her. It's as if they manifested from thin air."
"Like smoke," said Rhys quietly from his corner chair, and returned Joan's glance with innocently raised brows.
Kimber regarded his siblings in silence. He supposed it did him some good to be challenged, even in such a sugar-coated, sideways manner. If nothing else, he could count on these Wednesday afternoons to sweep away the illusions of his station from his mind and remind him, quite firmly, that although he was the leader of his tribe, to these particular three people he was still family.
And that was good, he told himself. He eyed the tepid Ceylon in his hand. Surely it was good.
Very gently, he set the flower-painted teacup upon the table at his feet. The butter yellow of the cinquefoils was an exact match to the edging of the Westmorland rug, and the Swiss applique curtains that framed the parlor windows and glass garden doors. Everything in this chamber, in fact, was premeditated and coordinated, right down to the iced cakes—also yellow, with tiny pink marzipan roses swirled on top.
Chasen Manor was nothing if not vigorously well planned.
He longed for water. Or wine. Or even cider. He longed for plain bread and cheese and a decent slice of meat.
Joan, seated beside him on the settee, leaned forward to pour fresh tea into his cup, then added a wedge of cucumber sandwich beside it. Beneath her lace cap her curls glinted in the light of the candelabra; like Kimber, she had inherited their father's coloring, green eyes and dark golden hair.
Unlike Kimber, she usually cared enough about what other people thought to take the trouble to powder it.
"I am merely suggesting," she was saying, "that before we commit further to the council's scheme of finding and controlling these Zaharen, we take a breath, so to speak, and consider all the implications."
Rhys spoke again. "You act like he has a choice. You act like Kim controls the council."
"Well," countered Joan, "he is Alpha, since Father is gone. He could tell the council at their next meeting—"
"What," interrupted Rhys, impatient. "Tell them what? That until this princess decides she wants to trust us enough to send us her direction, we'll just have to sit on our hands and simply hope none of them decides to reveal to the world exactly what we are? Where we live? That we should wait for bloody Lia to show up, or Mother and Father to come home, and all our secrets will be safe? The tribe is teetering at the edge of reason as it is. You know damned well the council made the best decision possible given the—"
"Sending three of our men over to the Continent with little or no information on how to navigate to this castle—forbidding them to use their Gifts to help discover these other drakon—" "We've only done what we've had to do to survive—"