It is no longer enough
to be gentle things;
blood has too long a memory.
Hunter’s moon, Ives Olade.
The Mercy Trials were the great equalizer. They took place at the same time in every village and city from the Nortan empire, starting on the fall equinox and ending on the winter solstice. Participation was mandatory for every mortal ranging from 15 to 25 years old.
Winning granted citizenship and comfortable life in the capital. Archeon, the safest place in all of the empire.
Losing meant you could never participate in the trials again... or death. It was a risk the people of Norta were happy to accept.
The crown prince had always looked forward to the Mercy Trials since he was a little kid. Being a warrior himself, he enjoyed dissecting the strategies that the red-blooded contestants crafted to win each instance until they made it to the arena. In the arena, the best fought on hand to hand combat until one remained.
The king’s advisors would then handpick a few other winners, a celebratory feast would take place, then the caravan would leave for Archeon.
This year it was different.
This time, however wrong it may be, the prince had a favorite.
The warrior with the purple mask had impressed him from the first moment he had laid eyes upon them. Test after test, they had proved new, ingenious ways to overcome them until the prince could only look at them while the trials took place. There was something familiar, a tug at the back of his memory, about the way the warrior moved, or the shape of their body, barely insinuated behind the baggy gender-neutral clothing they wore.
The royal houses sat silently at their luxurious boxes surrounding the arena, watching with bored eyes the bloodbath taking place below them. On the other half of the circular arena, the spectator stands brimming with common folk, were a frantic chaos of shouting, chants, and bets as heavy rain punished their backs.
Red mud splattered the dark stone of the high walls protecting the audience from the fighters' rage as alliances broke down into smaller groups that would inevitably dissolve as well. Twenty fighters in two opposing teams. Then ten. Then five; two against three.
The purple mask had allied themselves with a fierce, much taller warrior clad in red. Back to back, they took down their opponents.
“They must’ve trained together,” the crown prince leaned over to talk to his younger brother. He didn’t need to raise his voice. The boxes were separated from the arena by thick glass windows, so the sounds from the exterior barely reached them. The windows also shielded them from the smell of blood.
The younger prince was draped over his chair, propping his sharp chin on his fist, leaning his elbow on the armrest.
“What makes you say that?” he drawled just to indulge his brother.
“Same weapon choice.” Dual Daggers. “Similar fighting techniques.” Astounding brutality, taking into account neither of the warriors were bulky. They were both lean and fast as vipers.
“What a tragedy,” the younger prince yawned. “They practiced together, they made an alliance to get this far, and now one of them will have to betray the other.”
“Uh, I didn’t think of that.” He leaned forward on his cushioned seat, paying attention when the purple mask got cornered by two others. “But it was inevitable. So, is it really a betrayal?”
“You could say it adds some drama to this otherwise barbaric display,” he answered under his breath.
“Maven,” the king’s booming voice startled them both. He twisted his head to the side, to look back at them and give the younger prince a reprimanding look. “You should show a little more respect for tradition. You know well how the Mercy Trials came to be. Or do you need Cal to refresh your memory?”
“We created the trials as an act of mercy for the mortals. The gods forgot about them, leaving them to their own devices in a world plagued by creatures capable of destroying them.” Cal said diligently, realizing too late how Maven must have felt at the unnecessary correction. “I’m sure Mavey knows the rest.”
“Yet we sheltered them. We gave them a chance to take a seat at the table with us, the god’s chosen.” Maven finished the last part of the speech through gritted teeth.
“That’s right, son.” King Tiberias didn’t acknowledge his youngest son's effort. “It is important to select the strongest among this-” his lips quirked down in a disgusted scowl “-this rotten kind, and give them the privilege to serve us.”
The purple masked warrior finally neutralized one of their opponents, shoving a dagger to the back to their knee, at the cost of turning their back to the second.
Cal held his breath when the opponent took advantage of that and put the purple mask on a chokehold. During the fight, they had both lost their weapons so now they had to rely on their physical strength. Bad news for Cal’s favorite, because they were short and scrawny while the other was a massive beast.
It all seemed lost, until purple mask tucked their chin down, elbowed the opponent on the ribs, ducked down out of the choke, and tripped them to the ground in a single fluid movement. The crowd went wild.
Cal rose from his seat, heart pounding in his ears. That maneuver.
Purple mask kicked the back of their adversary’s head, rendering them unconscious.
Only the red and the purple masked warriors remained, facing each other across the distance. They met in the middle and one of them recovered a dagger from the mud. The fight was over too fast. When one held a dagger over the others head. It felt oddly rehearsed but the crowd was too exhilarated, and the royals too bored to care.
And Cal was dizzy with a mixture of shock and relief so he didn’t dwell too much on the oddity either.
Even as he stared at the champion, covered in mud and gore and their image distorted by the pouring rain, he knew who they were... who she was. He should’ve recognized the shape of her body, the contained nature of her movements. And even if none of those things had been familiar, he would’ve never missed the maneuver she had used to free herself from the chokehold.
He had taught her that. They’d practiced it together.
The referee ran into the arena as the defeated crawled or were dragged away. He grabbed the champion's wrist and inclined his head to ask her name.
Cal didn’t realize he had walked up to the window until his face was practically against the glass. Maven walked over to him.
The champion let her hood fall and unclasped the leather straps of the mask that hid the face Cal had memorized over the past few months.
Brown piercing eyes locked on his as she lowered the mask.
The king and queen rose from their seats with magnanimous expressions plastered on their pale faces.
“Isn’t that...?” Maven whispered next to him.
The referee lifted the champion’s arm into the air and announced with voice amplified by a brass cone. “People of Norta, celebrate your 254th Mercy Trials champion, Mare Barrow!”
Mare let the purple mask fall to the rain and blood-soaked dirt at her feet. For a second, Cal didn’t recognize the hateful defiance in her gaze, as she stared at the royal family gathered at the box. It made his cold blood run even colder, sensing something terrible brewing right in front of him.
But then she smiled and bowed to the monarchs and the feeling went away.
“Are you practicing some new dance I haven’t heard about, brother?” Maven mocked his fidgeting and nervous leg movements.
He was doing a terrible job of keeping it cool as they stood at the grand staircase landing, waiting for the king to arrive from one of the branching staircases and the champion from the other.
The ballroom chandeliers illuminated the room with its miracle of electric light, dangling like jewelry from the 25ft ceiling. Polished black marble floors and scarlet columns were the backdrop for the entourage of nobles, finally having fun now that they weren’t surrounded by mortals. The ladies wore wide skirts with generous lace and gems adornments in shades of gray and black, as was mandatory tonight. The same rule applied for the men’s dress code; silk and velvet frock coats, waistcoats, and neckbands were all of some dark shade.
This was meant to make the protagonists of the feast stand out. The princes were allowed to wear clothes embroidered with navy blue vines in Maven’s case, along with a matching cravat, and gold thread for the crown prince’s formal military garb.
“She didn’t tell me she was going to enter the trials this year,” Cal ignored his brother’s joke.
“Maybe she didn’t want to jinx it,” Maven shrugged, crossing his arms behind his back, far more relaxed than him.
“She could’ve been hurt,” he grumbled.
This caused his brother to stand before him for a moment, speaking in a hushed worried tone.
“Cal, you’re not like this. If father senses anything out of place. Worse, if he finds out of your... association with this mortal, champion or not, he won’t tolerate it.”
“I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” he schooled his features into something like indifference. “She’s a servant here at the palace. I remember her pouring my tea once or twice but that’s it.”
Mavey nodded approvingly, his blue eyes glinting with camaraderie. “Much better.”
The king and queen were announced and, a second later, so was Mare Barrow.
All caution went out the window as he allowed himself to openly take in the sight of her coming down the black marble steps. What a sight it was.
Her brown hair was tied up in a complicated braid crown that let a few strands fall to frame her heart-shaped face; high cheekbones, expressive eyebrows, and soft lips painted red. Crismon red as the regal dress that exposed the tantalizing angles of her shoulders and cleavage, hugged her slender waist and fanned out with a wide rubies-incrusted skirt.
It was so different from the image of the girl in the grey servant uniform that he had met back in September. Still, it felt right.
She kept her gaze respectfully lowered as she descended the last steps, without looking at him. And he had to hold back the sudden impulse of kneeling before her and touching her in the ways they’ve done so many times before.
It was her the one who had to kneel as soon she reached the landing.
The king, clad in white and gold military garb, stood before her and reached for the golden laurel wreath a servant presented on top of a platter.
“Daughter of Norta, you’ve honored your family and your people with your victory.” He held the wreath over her head as he pronounced the speech. “The gods have favored you and so will I. Do you, Mare Barrow, accept the honor of ascending and leaving your old life behind?”
Cal’s lips tugged upward in a proud smile.
“I accept the honor, your majesty.” Her strong voice, unwavering, echoed in every corner of the ballroom.
King Tiberias lowered the wreath and the courtiers clapped. Mare rose to her feet, only then raising her eyes. She had an unreadable expression. Was she nervous or afraid to mess up? Probably the former, for Cal couldn’t imagine her being afraid of anything.
“Let the feast begin!” the King clapped once and the music from the orchestra at the back of the salon swelled as servants started to walk among the courtiers. Without a second glance, the king held out his arm to Elara and they went to enjoy the party.
Cal managed to hold himself back long enough for Maven to approach the champion first.
“Congratulations, Mare!” He bent to kiss her extended hand briefly. “I knew you could do it.”
“That makes one of us,” she let out a breath and allowed her posture to relax, smiling.
“What do you mean you knew?” He couldn’t keep the slightly annoyed tone that crept into his voice as he stepped forward.
“I didn’t know exactly who she was, just that she was participating.” Maven explained looking for an excuse to leave until he found the perfect one. “I’m going to congratulate the rest of the winners. If you excuse me.”
The winners picked by the king advisors had quietly entered the ballroom and were huddling together in a corner like they were ready to pounce. It was a funny scene; Cal wanted to laugh and tell them no one was going to bite them.
“Jealous, your highness?”
Now that they were alone, Mare’s demeanor went back to normal. He found himself gravitating closer to her.
“I am,” he admitted with an easy smile. “May I have this dance?” He offered a gloved palm, and she placed her much smaller hand in his.
“No more dancing in secret dark rooms,” Mare sighed as they went down the stairs, into the mass of gracefully spinning couples. “I think I preferred those. At least there, no one could mock my lack of coordination.”
“You’re the champion of the trials. No one would dare.”
At the center of the floor, Cal spun her around once and pulled her close to him, placing one hand high over her back and holding her hand at shoulder height with the other. He saw her mouth the one, two, three they had practiced so many times to get the timing of her steps right; her brow furrowed in concentration.
His heart grew a size inside his chest from how adorable he found the image. Mare could drive a dagger through a man’s knee while kicking another unconscious with the grace of a gazelle but got frustrated over the waltz. He desperately wanted to lean into her and kiss every inch of her face. Instead, they started to spin with the music with practiced steps.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He wasn’t demanding. Only curious.
“I didn’t want to worry you. You would’ve gotten yourself in trouble trying to protect me.”
He could not deny that. The music from the violins and the cellos sped up the tempo, filling the air with an entrancing melody that had a sense of urgency to it.
“You don’t need my protection,” Cal smirked proudly. “But I’m glad you didn’t forget the chokehold escape we practiced.”
“How could I forget?” Mare’s gaze turned into clear windows of her thoughts; the rest of her face softened as she remembered their stolen moments alone. He was thinking of that as well, it made him hold her a bit tighter.
The light of the chandeliers made her wide eyes sparkle like fireflies in the depth of the woods. Not many got to traverse the hidden paths of her thoughts. She kept everything locked up but had allowed him to know her. It was an honor Cal didn’t take lightly.
In turn, he’d found himself confessing to darkest parts of his soul to her. Told her of the fears that kept him up at night, the dreams that made him eager to rule the realm someday, the little details that didn’t matter at all to the world but mattered to him.
Even to him, it felt impossible to try to quantify how much he cared for Mare. Only one word seemed to fit his emotions.
“Stop looking at me like that.” Mare pinched his shoulder beneath the epaulet.
That’s what Maven had been talking about minutes ago. Cal wasn’t like this. He was a soldier, a future king, a paramount of stoicism. Hiding emotions had been the easiest thing in the world until she had shown up. The longer they were together, the harder it was to stay away.
“I’m just impressed,” he said kindly. “Do you have any other surprises under your sleeve?”
An almost pained expression crossed Mare’s face and she swallowed.
She looked away. “I trained hard, that’s all.”
“About that. You and the warrior in the red mask seemed to be on the same page. I assume you trained with them.”
“Farley, yes. She was Shade’s girlfriend before he got picked last year.” There was an edge to her voice like she was testing him.
He spun her around in time with the swelling melody of the violins.
“She is a fierce warrior, I’m sure she got picked. They’ll meet again in Archeon,” he offered, hoping it was the right thing to say.
Shade was a sensitive subject for Mare. She erroneously saw his ascension as a loss, as if he’d been ripped away from her instead of the honor it was. Surely, now that she was on a similar path, she would understand.
“Of course.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “The queen is about to speak.”
The song ended and queen Elara raised her diamond-clad hands into the sky.
“Looking at the wonderful selection of winners and our champion, it couldn’t be a more auspicious year for the crown prince’s prime ritual.” She took a ruby-encrusted goblet. “I propose a toast,” her terrible gaze glinted with a wicked delight Cal couldn’t understand; it made his skin crawl. “To Tiberias the Seventh and to the new blood of Norta. May your strength raise us all to a new era.”
Everyone around them raised glasses or reached for the nearest servant’s wrist. A servant walked up to Cal, offering him both options with a neutral expression. Her naked wrist or a silver chalice filled with fresh crimson blood.
Cal took the chalice and glanced at Mare to see her take a glass of champagne from a platter. There was that look again. The one from the arena. Aimed straight at the king and the queen like a blazing arrow, but when she turned to him it morphed into something he couldn’t decipher. She stared at the chalice in his hand, then back to his eyes as her mouth formed a determined hard line.
He blinked and it was gone. Mare smiled up at him, sweetly as always. Maybe he had imagined it
“Strength and power!” Elara grinned and her sharp canines stood out.
“Strength and power!” the crowd echoed and drank blood from their glasses or straight out of the servant’s wrists.
Cal barely took a sip. For some reason, he didn’t like feeding in front of Mare.
“For a new era, your highness,” Mare whispered only to him. “Only you can lead us there.”
“I can’t see how,” he chuckled sheepishly, leaning closer.
“I can,” she used a sultry tone as effective as the daggers she’d wielded in the arena. It made him hungry for something very different than blood. She downed the bubbly liquid in her glass. “Find me later.”
He watched her retreat into the crowd like a drop of blood sinking into a sea of black ink.
Cal landed on the champion’s bed-chamber balcony on nimble bare feet, barely making any sound.
Despite the cold winter breeze, she had left the double doors open ajar. The storm had ebbed but the thick clouds seemed to have swallowed all of the light from the firmament, leaving an oppressive obsidian atmosphere instead.
He entered her chambers.
Mare had washed the make-up off her face and wore a loose white nightgown. Her hair spilled in generous waves over her back and partially hid her face from view. She was sitting on a chair, hugging her knees to her chest, staring at the flame of an oil lamp on her vanity.
Shadows danced on her face making her usually lively face seem ghostly.
Her locket lay open next to the lamp. She’d been looking at Shade’s picture.
“Is everything alright?” He gently placed a hand on her shoulder. She was cold.
Other than reaching to close the locket, she didn’t react.
“Can I ask you something?” Her strained voice wouldn’t have been audible for mortal ears.
“Anything,” he crouched next to her but she still wouldn’t look at him. It started to worry him.
“At the frontlines, did you ever made a choice that you came to regret?” She lowered her gaze and her hair fell around her like a curtain. “Even if it had a good outcome.”
Cal reached to tuck her hair behind her ear and gently brushed his knuckles over her cheekbones, her jaw, wishing his skin could be as warm as a mortal’s if only to chase away the cold that had crept into her soul tonight.
“There were moments when I thought the weight of a decision would crush me. But then I thought of what I was fighting for. I thought of the greater good and that made any regret disappear. I don’t regret anything.” He cupped her face and a surge of affection expanded on his chest. “Especially when everything led me to you.”
Mare stilled. Cursing inwardly, he thought he may have been a little too honest there. He started to withdraw but Mare held his hand in place. She finally looked at him.
Her gaze burned more than any flame could.
“Thank you. I needed that.”
“Happy to help.” He grinned, rubbing his thumb over her cheek.
Mare smiled and rolled her eyes. “I didn’t summon you here to talk.” She let her knees down and reaching for a decanter, she poured two small glasses of cherry wine.
It had become a sort of a tradition for them. She had once asked him how it tasted, since it was too luxurious for common folk to afford. Cal had offered her the beverage in question; which she had accepted on the condition he drank as well. It made sense. If they ever got caught, a servant drinking during work hours was inexcusable, but a servant accepting a drink from a prince could be overlooked.
He took the glass and drank.
“This is the last fun before we go on that damned tour. I wish we could go to Archeon by boat like the rest of the court.” She took a sip and made a face. “All those hours sitting alone in that carriage. I’ll go mad.”
“The people of Norta need to meet their champion.” He finished the wine. “And I could go with you.” His cheeks flushed white at the idea of spending so much time alone with her. It was a scandalous idea, but he was feeling a little reckless.
She perked up on the chair. “Would you? And Maven wouldn’t mind?”
“Are you kidding? Maven will be thrilled about getting the carriage all to himself.”
Mare left the empty glasses back on the vanity and threw her arms around his neck.
“And we’ll find ways to entertain ourselves,” she insinuated a painful inch away from his lips.
His blush extended all the way to his forehead. Dear gods, Mare had the most debased ideas. What a delight.
He opened his mouth but nothing came out. His mind was too clouded with his own ideas of the things he wanted to do to her.
“Well, are you waiting for an invitation, Cal?”
“Now?” He said dumbly.
Mare laughed. “Yes, now.”
With supernatural speed, he lifted her in his arms and took her to the bed as their mouths clashed in an enthusiastic kiss.
“You’ll have to do all the work, though. I’m too tired from fighting this morning.” She said against his lips as he lay her on the mattress.
Oh, he could do that. Placing his hands on either side of her head, he settled between her parted legs. Smooth and always so magnificently warm.
“I’ll make sure to reward you properly.” He kneeled to get rid of his silk shirt, not missing the way her heated gaze roamed over his frame. His body reacted with pulsing desire.
He kissed her again, drinking her in, tasting the cherry wine. He tangled a hand in her hair and let the other traverse down her neck, chest, stomach, and up again to cup her breast. His touch wasn’t soft, it always let purple marks behind. But she liked it this way and had made sure to let him know several times. All the times he had tried to back away in the past, she had just held him tighter and demanded more.
His strong, beautiful girl. Cal abused the peak of her breast with expert fingers until she was lifting her hips against his. Then he went for the other. Mare sighed and moaned in his mouth and it went right to his manhood like a drug.
“Cal, touch me,” she ordered him in a whimper.
He bit her earlobe lightly. “That’s what I’m doing. Is it not?”
As an answer, Mare dug her nails into his shoulder blades, sending a bolt of sweet pain to his head.
“You’re so demanding, my dear.” He chuckled capturing her lips once more and did as he was told.
He rubbed tight circles where she needed him to, and started kissing her neck when it became apparent she needed to focus her efforts on breathing. How he loved seeing her like this. Needy, shivering, and calling his name over and over.
He slipped in a finger into her and felt how ready she was, so he wasted no time in adding a second while keeping his thumb busy with the bundle of nerves. She moved against him and his grasp on reality started to thin out like the layer of ice over a lake. When he fell, instead of cold, he felt like he had fallen into a pit of fire. He was hungry and only she could satiate him.
Mare’s pulse drummed beneath her skin and he sucked licking at the tender skin. Just a bite and he could fill himself with her hot blood. Would it taste as good as the rest of her?
With a low growl, he ripped off the nightgown from her body. More skin. He wanted- needed all of her. He moved so fast she gasped in surprise.
He was now kneeling so his head, his mouth, hovered between her thighs, over her core. Mare looked at him with wide eyes like a deer. He felt like a wild creature. He was a wild creature, with dilated pupils as dark as ink pots and his hair falling messily over his pale brow.
“Are you-” he cut her off by unceremoniously dropping his mouth to the source of his frenzy.
Yes, this was much better. He growled deep in his throat as he sucked and used his tongue to do what his fingers had been doing seconds ago but more efficiently. More desperately.
By the noises Mare was making, it was a miracle no guard had come into the room to check on her yet. It was fortunate. In the state the prince was right now, he would’ve ripped the head off from whoever dared to interrupt.
It didn’t take long. Mare’s body reached breaking point and she moaned shattering into shivers, pulling his hair and grinding into his mouth. That sound. Her taste. The rush of blood.
He continued his ministrations all through her aftershocks until Mare’s body relaxed in a puddle of liquid satisfaction under him.
The blood rushing through her femoral artery sang in his ear. It called him. Cal clenched his jaw, pressing his forehead to her navel as his canines lengthened painfully.
He took deep breaths, trying to control himself. He had never bitten a human before, always feeding from harvested blood. However, as his prime ritual date approached, the call to feed directly from the source grew stronger and stronger. He felt it now. It was almost unbearable.
“Cal?” Mare’s tone was worried. Not angry. Not disgusted. She tenderly ran her fingers through his hair. Gods, he didn’t deserve her. “Cal, are you ok?”
That made him regain his sanity. Slowly, like emerging from the depths of a lake.
He crawled up her body and hugged her against his chest, breathing in the scent of her hair. Horrified by his own instincts, by what he was capable of doing to her. His throat constricted.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Mare,” he said raggedly.
They stayed like that for a few minutes. Mare moved so she was curled up to his side, using his chest as pillow, and dragged the covers over their bodies.
“You don’t have to apologize. We knew what we were getting into when we started this.”
“It’s getting more difficult,” Cal cleared his throat from the knot of emotion. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I know,” she muttered quietly.
They held each other like they were afraid an invisible force was going to tear them apart. Stubbornly.
After a while, Mare spoke. “You’ll hurt me and I’ll hurt you. It’s the way things are meant to be.” He thought he felt a tear land on his skin.
How could she hurt him? She was life itself. That was impossible.
Cal made up his mind then. He would have to turn her. Turn her warm spring into eternal winter, her red blush into pale cold skin, her numbered days into centuries. It was the only way for them to be together.
He drifted into unconsciousness, dreaming of brown hair, brown eyes, and rough hands that held his heart.
First, Cal would need to ask the king for authorization. No mortal could be turned without his permission.
The king wasn’t going to be happy about it, and would surely deny his request. Especially when he heard of the reason behind his son’s request.
But for the first time in his life, Cal was willing to fight his father and oppose his will.
The rain from the previous day had turned into a sleet storm. A less than ideal weather for traveling. The gargoyles perched on the palace’s ledges glowered at the long line of ornate black coaches waiting on the driveway.
Cal snuck into the champion’s carriage and let his hood down. The strong wind had managed to get his black hair wet and he shook his head sending drops of freezing water in Mare’s direction. She stifled a laugh as she reached to close the door. All the curtains were drawn so he comfortably sat on the seat facing hers.
The carriage started to move immediately. He had waited till the last second to go, to make sure no one saw him.
Mare’s all-black outfit consisted of a corset, leather trousers, polished boots, and a body fitting trench coat. The only splash of color was the red and gold brooch with the royal insignia; a crown engulfed in flame. Her dual daggers were strapped to her thighs, one on each. While comfortable for travel, this outfit was supposed to show her off as the warrior she was.
No more dull linen dresses and aprons for her. They were equals now. Well, almost.
“What did Maven say?”
“He asked where I was going and I told him not to worry. If he said something after that, I have no clue.”
“Look at you, misbehaving like a spoiled boy,” Mare tsked but her eyes had a mischievous gleam. “You’ve come so far.”
“We both have.” He said contentedly.
The coach rattled slightly as the rain drummed on the top. Mare drew her curtain open and waved at the people waving red handkerchiefs from the sidewalks and windows. At first, she smiled, but as they traversed through Summerton and then the run-down village known as The Stilts her smile became less of a smile and more of a frown.
“You don’t have to look if you don’t want to. You know?” Seeing all of this was probably making her homesick.
“I have to,” she didn’t elaborate further. They were reaching the edge of the village when Mare pressed her palm against the crystal and stared beyond with a somber expression.
Cal opened his curtain just enough to catch a glimpse of a house with a curious-looking set of pulleys next to the porch. She’d mentioned something like this when she’d told him about her father. The man was a cripple so he needed a wheelchair. This must be her house.
It was eerily empty. No one was there to wave her goodbye from the boarded-up windows. Cal’s heart sank in his chest with sympathy. Her family meant everything to her. Why weren’t they here?
She let out a long breath once they left the village behind and the forest swallowed up the royal caravan.
The naked trees’ branches extended to the grey skies like skeleton fingers clawing at the clouds, blurring as they passed them by and minutes died one after the other. Mare kept him engaged in a stilled, cordial conversation about Archeon or the empire’s most recent conquest as if they were strangers.
To say that she was acting in an increasingly odd way was one way to put it. Maybe she didn’t think he would notice the furtive glances she kept casting out the window or the way she clenched her fists to keep her hands from shaking, but he did.
He couldn’t ignore it any longer. Leaning forward, he took her fists into his hands, startling her.
“Hey,” he kissed her knuckles. “Cravens wouldn’t attack such a large convoy. Even if they did, we are stronger than them. You have nothing to fear.”
That seemed to affect her somehow because her hands stopped shaking.
“What do you know about fear, my prince?” She leaned forward as well until their foreheads nearly touched. Her question was casual but there was something else too. Something bitter.
“I do not understand.”
“You see,” she licked her lips. “the Cravens are the least of my worries. If you asked the people in the villages, most would agree with me.”
“I was under the notion mortals were terrified of them. I’ve heard the stories and legends your people tell,” he furrowed his brow.
“Oh, we are afraid of them. But at the end of the day, they’re nothing but instinct-driven insatiable monsters. They can’t figure out how to open a lock.” Mare chuckled darkly and freed one of her hands to touch his face. Entranced, she followed the sharp angles of his bone structure with her calloused fingers.
“They can’t organize to attack beyond moving in packs like wolves. They don’t know about politics,” she joked and planted a feather-light kiss on his jaw. “So whatever atrocity they commit, ends with them.”
This was an... interesting conversation to be having as they touched each other with tender passion. At least she didn’t look pale and nervous anymore.
Cal placed his hands on her neck and felt her erratic pulse. He started to move forward until he loomed over her in the seat. Heat curled inside of him like an animal waiting to pounce.
“They craven aren’t cunning or strategic enough to subjugate entire kingdoms for generations.” The strange, intense look from the arena reappeared. Hate. So that’s what it was. Rich burning poison. Her loaded voice trembled. “It’s incredibly easy to recognize the horrible features of a Craven, of a monster, and know to run away. Other creatures-” She let the word simmer for a few seconds “-have more effective ways of terrorizing the lives of mortals.”
“Your people fear the silvers?” he asked incredulously. Cal tilted his head to the side as he inspected her blushed face. Parted lips letting out rapid breaths and wide eyes like luminous gems. He remembered what those soft pink lips were capable of, and his voice lowered an octave. “Are you afraid of me, Mare?”
Mare smirked and pushed him back, so he was back in his seat and she was straddling his hips. “Not anymore,” she declared and closed the distance between their lips.
This kiss was unlike any of the others they’d shared. There was urgency, a punishing vehemence in the way she dragged her teeth over his lips. It made his cold silver blood boil in his veins and heightened his awareness of her body to the point where she was the only thing he knew. He surrounded her waist with his arms and pressed her against him.
The carriage shook but he didn’t care. He would’ve kept kissing her even if they had crashed. Mare pulled away from him just an inch and whispered through gritted teeth. “It is time for your kind to be afraid of us.”
A sharp stab of pain right below his ribs stole the air from his lungs. He looked down at the half-buried wooden stake angled toward his heart. Silver blood poured from the wound and tainted the same hands he’d kissed minutes ago.
He went numb, he couldn’t even feel pain as he raised his confused bronze eyes to Mare. He should have pushed her away and pulled out the stake, but the weapon must’ve been imbibed in poison because he felt weak and powerless. Or was it the shock? Probably both.
Tears streamed down her cheeks, yet her gaze was filled with wrath. And now he did feel it. The worst pain of his life. As if he was being staked a thousand times, and his flesh was being ripped off his bones. As if she had transformed into a Craven, sank her fangs into his heart and swallowed it whole in a single bite.
“I’m sorry it had to be like this,” Mare sobbed, pushing the stake deeper into his chest and the world went black.
They met at the rose garden.
No. That was inaccurate. To say that they had met as if it had been mere happenstance what had brought them together.
After months of careful planning, Mare had found the crown prince sitting all alone on a stone bench surrounded by fragrant red roses in full bloom, just like she had planned.
She had known beforehand he was beautiful. She’d heard the gossip from the servants of the Hall of the Sun that had been working there longer, and she had seen the portraits in the wing of the palace she wasn’t allowed to go (but she’d managed to sneak in anyway).
She’d known this. And yet, when she had laid eyes upon him through the bushes, she felt her heart had stopped beating. As she struggled to breathe, the rational part of her that still functioned wondered if this was how they did it. If this was how the silvers incapacitated their prey.
Why would they need to, though? They already had inhuman strength, speed, and senses. Why would they need the extra factor? They didn’t. Just like everything else about them and the way they ruled the world, it was meant to be excessive. To show the reds their place in the food chain.
Alabaster skin and raven black hair coiffed back in an effortlessly elegant way. A rebel lock fell over his forehead as he went through the pages of a book and wrote things down on the margins. His plain black vest emphasized his narrow athletic hips and wide muscled chest. And it helped her plan because he wore no royal emblem or any other detail that could’ve given away his identity.
She moved through the maze of bushes, approaching him but making it seem she was a busy servant. With a pair of gardening scissors, she loudly started to chop some white roses and place them at the basket hanging from her elbow.
“White as pearls and nothing else,” she muttered angrily, imitating the snobbish tone from one of the courtesans that had arrived at the palace earlier that day. “And quickly. If you don’t hurry, I’ll have your head placed in the vase instead. Oh dear, of course, Lady Samos. I’ll run into the thorns if that will please you.”
“I doubt she’ll enjoy you harming yourself if she isn’t there to witness it.”
The deep velvety voice was right behind her. Her yelp and surprise were completely real as she whipped around and the basket with flowers fell to the cobbled path. She hadn’t heard him coming.
She was stunned for a moment by how beautiful he was for a second time. Recovering she bowed to him and played her part.
“My gods, I- I apologize for intruding, my lord. I didn’t know there was somebody else here,” she stammered, doing a wonderful job of keeping her bone-deep resentment for his kind out of her voice.
When he didn’t answer, she hesitantly dared to straighten without his permission.
The prince was looking at her with an amused expression. “Really? I assumed staring at me for the past five minutes from the bushes over there-” he nodded in the direction she’d just been. “Would be enough time to realize there is in fact, someone here.”
Dread gripped her stomach. Could he really sense her from such a long distance? She gulped. Time to play another part, since the blushing maid wouldn’t do.
“I haven’t seen you around here before, my lord. Curiosity got the best of me.” And to prove her point she let her eyes roam over his striking features, looking for imperfections. There were none.
He chuckled. “I could say the same thing about you. What’s your name?”
Mare smoothed her hands over her coarse apron and did a little curtsy as she replied. “Mare Barrow, at your service. I started to work at the palace just a few weeks ago.”
Farley had convinced Walsh to convince the head of staff to hire her. A chain of favors to get her inside the palace and close to the Scarlet Guard’s target.
“And how are you liking it so far?” he asked politely and Mare had to keep the dumbfounded expression from her face.
Why did he care? He was the prince, heir to an empire.
“It’s fine. The other servants are very nice.”
“And Lady Samos?” There was a glint in his eyes that made her speak the truth, knowing he wouldn’t slap her for the impertinence.
“She’s really adamant about the white roses for her lover. That’s the best thing I can truthfully say about her, my lord.”
The prince laughed and, had it not been fall, Mare could have sworn butterflies swarmed her skin with a wonderful thrill.
“Yes, that’s her,” he shook his head. “You better hurry up with her request. I wouldn’t want to cause you any trouble by entertaining you.”
“Yes, my lord.” She kneeled to pick up the flowers and the basket. He kneeled as well, surprising her yet again, by helping her.
His pale knuckles brushed her hand and Mare gasped. Electricity. Freezing cold skin caused her to recoil in disgust. She tried to hide it but he had noticed.
She cursed herself for the slip. The prince’s cheeks were slightly flushed white and his smirk was gone.
“Thank you, my lord.” They stood up at the same time. “I get to keep my head on my neck thanks to you,” she smiled brightly, trying to rid the air of the awkwardness her overreaction had caused. “For now, at least.”
“Don’t mention it. I wouldn’t want your neck to be harmed in any way.” His golden gaze lingered for a second. Then he left in a hurry.
The second time they met in the garden, he found her before she could even figure out where to start looking for him.
“More flowers for Lady Samos?”
The equinox feast was that night, which meant she could still pretend she didn’t know who he was.
“No, my lord.” She bit her lip as she shortened the distance between them. “I’m afraid I’m doing what I’m not supposed to right now.”
“And what is that?” He took a step toward her and just like that, they started walking side by side through the flowery paths.
“Servants aren’t allowed in here unless strictly necessary,” she sighed. “But I couldn’t resist coming back. I’ve never seen roses like these. So big and colorful this time of the year. Please don’t tell the king.” She finished with a playful smile he returned in kind.
As if they could ever share some sort of camaraderie. What understanding could be found with monsters? None.
“I’ll keep your secret. And you’re right about the flowers. They look like this all year round thanks to magic.”
Magic being used for life instead of destruction? All she knew about the wizards of the court was that most were generals in the imperial army. Tramy and Bree, her elder brothers, spoke of the shadows they released from tiny vials into the enemy’s trenches. How they crawled over the barren land and drove the enemy soldiers mad so the Nortan armies could slaughter defenseless men.
“If magic can be used for plants why isn’t it used to help with the crops?” she forgot her act for a moment, outraged by the memory of all the times unfortunate weather had left thousands hungry in The Stilts. When she realized her mistake, it was too late to take it back.
“I’m afraid I don’t know the answer,” he pensively admitted after a while.
“Of course, this had nothing to do with you, my lord. I misspoke.”
“You didn’t.” The prince’s gaze was intrigued as he examined her profile. “A great empire should be improved by asking the important questions.”
Relieved, she let herself fall back into her role. Getting close to him was turning out to be surprisingly easy. The prince didn’t try to correct her with his proper title, neither did he provide a name, nothing. As if he enjoyed the anonymity. He asked her many questions about The Stilts, her family, the mortals. In turn, she answered honestly, growing more confused by his character by the minute.
Tiberias the seventh, the ruthless soldier that had crafted vicious strategies to win territories for a blood-soaked crown. An empire that literally fed on innocent’s blood. She could not lose sight of that, even as this gentle creature walked beside her as pleasantly as the sweet rose fragrance that enveloped them.
They reached one of the walls of the garden where a section had collapsed, pushed by the roots and branches of an ancient magnolia tree. Half of the tree outside the garden was grey and bare, while the half inside the walls was covered in white buds. A single flower had bloomed in the lowest branch; high above her head.
Mare didn’t consider herself a poetic person, but there was something fascinating about the symbolism of wild nature breaking down barriers and feeding of the magic that wasn’t intended for it. She stared at the flower with dreamy a half-smile.
“Do you like it?” The prince asked. She’d been so struck by the beauty she’d forgot her company, and she hadn’t noticed she was on her tiptoes, looking up.
His gaze was molten gold with flecks of sunset. Her heart made an unwelcome flutter.
She brushed a nonexistent strand of hair away from her face to hide her blush, feeling incredibly silly. “The smell reminds me of summer. Of warmth. I mean, I can’t smell them from here, obviously.” She rambled digging herself deeper in the stupidity. Gods, if Farley saw her right now.
The prince stretched his arm up, grabbed the branch, and pulled it down like it was nothing. The tree creaked in protest. Mare gaped like a fish.
“Go ahead,” he motioned to the flower with his free hand.
She snapped her mouth shut and leaned in, unsure of everything suddenly. She inhaled the scent at the same time he did and their eyes met. Vertigo like she’d been pushed off a cliff blurred the world around her.
Mare took a step back and forced a smile through the dizziness. “Just like I remembered. Lovely, isn’t it?”
“Lovely.” His eyes were still locked to her face as he whispered his reply. Her heart swelled and left her no room for air in the confines of her ribs. “I agree, Mare.”
He let go of the branch. Not before taking the magnolia flower and offering it to her. The violent shake of the tree as it returned to its normal position dragged her mind back to earth.
“It will die overnight,” she joked but she meant it. “You just killed a flower, my lord.”
“I’m Cal,” he said amiably. “Please stop calling me my lord.” He insisted on the flower and she had no other choice but to accept it.
Cal. Short for the last name that signed the decrees that sent men marching to their deaths and the laws that kept mortals living like sewer rats.
“I can’t take this back to the palace,” she excused herself feeling her good manners slipping away as she remembered who was standing before her. “And I can’t call you Cal, my lord. I would get in trouble for both.”
Bile rose up to her throat when he took both of her hands with his and closed them around the stem of the magnolia. Cold, so so cold. The hands of a killer.
“I’m the crown prince of Norta and rightful heir to every tree and flower in the empire.” The sheer authority in his kind tone was a striking contrast, like a sword made of crystallized honey. It made no sense. “If I say you can have it, you can.”
“I won’t forget that,” Mare managed to reply, keeping her tone lighthearted despite the heaviness at the bottom of her stomach. “Cal.”
She grinned sweetly at him, thinking of how much she would enjoy ripping the life out of him. How the smell of his silver blood dripping to the floor once the Scarlet Guard was done with him would be the sweetest fragrance in the world.
Mare stared at her blood-stained hands and started to hyperventilate. The carriage shook again and the signal knock hit the roof again. She had to move. She had to follow through with the next part of Farley’s plan but all she could do was blink the tears that blurred her vision of the man lying limply beneath her.
Cal. Cal. Cal. She wanted to scream but a vicious claw squeezed her heart, her lungs, her stomach, her head.
She wanted nothing more than to pull the stake from his body and beg him to not hate her when he woke up. That was unavoidable at this point. There had been no other way this could’ve ended. She loved him. It was her greatest misery and her heaviest suffering.
The window shattered sending shards of glass flying inside the carriage. Mare threw herself over Cal’s body to shield him, though a bit of glass could hardly harm him... especially when he already had a stake buried in his flesh.
“What’s happening here?” Farley’s face poked from the window and she reached to open the door from the latch on the inside. She jumped in and pulled the red scarf covering half of her face down. “Mare, what the fuck are you doing?” Her blue eyes blazed with urgency. “Get it together!”
Right, no time for tears. She would allow herself some of those after the plan was done.
Get inside the palace. Earn the prince’s trust. Win the Mercy Trials. Kidnap the prince. Ransom him in exchange for the mortals held prisoner and being used to harvest blood in Archeon. Make the silvers pay for their cruelty. Avenge Shade.
The memory of her brother slapped her across the face and she wiped her eyes with her cuff.
“Let’s move him,” Mare’s voice was steady again.
Farley was giving her a strange concerned look. Still, she nodded.
Placing themselves at either side of his body, they threw the prince’s arms over their shoulders and lifted him with a grunt.
“Bloody hell, did he eat rocks for breakfast?” Farley huffed, kicking the moving carriage’s door open.
A rackety wagon rode alongside them, barely keeping up. Walsh sat at the reins, spurring the horses on.
“Hurry! The bridge is up ahead!”
They dragged the prince up to the door, head hung forward and his legs scrapping the luxurious rug.
The carriage hit a rock in the road and they almost fell out. “Can’t we stop for a minute?” Mare shouted.
“So the next coach in line can catch up to us and deliver us some pleasant silver nobility? No, thank you.” Farley bent her knees slightly and placed a hand at Cal’s back. “Walsh, get as close as you can! Ready?”
“Yes. On the count of three!”
“Ladies! The bridge!” Walsh panicked.
“NOW!” Farley ordered.
They pushed Cal as hard and as far as they could. The prince landed with an undignified thump on the wagon like a sack of potatoes, making Mare flinch. Farley jumped after him and his unconscious body cushioned her fall.
Walsh yelped as she pulled the rains, making the horses change direction at the last second. Mare jumped and the lower half of her body was left hanging from the edge of the cart. Heart beating like the horses’ hooves against the dirt and brow covered in sweat she turned to see the empty champion’s carriage go over the bridge as they sped away along the river bank.
Farley helped her up and clasped her shoulder in what Mare assumed was her version of a comforting gesture.
“Are you ok?”
“Never better,” she lied drily.
They made it to the old barn that was the rendezvous point. Kilorn and Tristan were waiting there.
Thank the gods, it wasn’t raining anymore. A layer of milky white mist curled around their ankles as they got off the wagon and Kilorn rushed to help them unload the prisoner.
“Where is the other Carriage?” Farley barked.
“Not here, obviously.” Tristan was tying up the prince’s hands behind his back as an extra caution measure, then he sat him against a tree. “Maybe the little prince has trouble keeping up with schedules,”
Mare rolled her eyes. “Maven will come through. Any news about my family?”
“They reached Montfort two days ago,” Kilorn informed her.
One less thing to worry about. She let out a breath. In a few hours, when the silvers realized who was missing, it wouldn’t take much deduction to figure out what had happened. They would show up to the Barrow’s ready to return her the favor, but they wouldn’t be there. Her family was out of reach, safe.
Mare went to untether the horses from the wagon. An excuse to avoid looking at the prisoner. She was feeling sick and couldn’t wait for this part of the plan to be over. Also, being this deep in the woods was never a relaxing experience.
“Fuck you, your highness.” She heard Tristan spit. “Don’t mind if I take a little memento, do you?”
She whipped around to the sight of Tristan about to cut Cal’s ear with a pure silver knife; the only material that caused permanent damage to silvers. She saw red, an explosion of rage that tensed her muscles. She reached for one of her daggers and threw it at him with expert precision. The point sunk in the tree trunk next to Cal’s neck, taking Tristan’s sleeve with it and making him drop the knife.
“Hey!” He freed his arm with an indignant scowl as he stumbled back. “What is wrong with you?”
In the blink of an eye, Mare had planted herself in front of the prince, facing Tristan with the wrath of hells burning in her eyes. “Do not touch him,” she hissed, wielding her other dagger ready to strike.
“Stand down, both of you.” Farley placed her hands at her hips, exasperated like she was dealing with children.
Tristan ignored her and faced off with Mare, lifting her own dagger against her. “You’re going to protect that?” He pointed at Cal with the blade. “Got so twisted in his silk sheets that you can’t remember where your loyalties lie?”
“I know it damn well. We are not like them, we don’t use unnecessary violence.”
He barked a disdainful laugh. “You did forget, eh?” Up until that point, Mare was going to remain somewhat calm, but then he said. “Even after what they did to Shade, you still turned into his whore.”
She lunged at him and punched him across the jaw, possessed again by rage. Swiping his feet from under him with a kick, she threw him to the ground. Then she pressed him down with one knee on his sternum as she held the dagger to his throat. A drop of crimson slid down the side of his neck, from where she’d nicked the skin.
“Say that again and I’ll kill you.” Her growl was like a river carrying stones.
“And I’ll help her,” Kilorn muttered kicking some dirt in Tristan’s face.
A pair of arms surrounded her waist and dragged her away. She didn’t resist too much. Mare shook off Walsh’s grasp.
“That is enough.” Farley stood between the two of them, fuming. As she unwrapped the scarf from her neck, she put her foot down. “We are not going to harm the prince because of a whim. And cover that up before we attract every Craven in a 50-mile radius.” She threw her scarf at Tristan, who pressed the cloth firmly to the cut.
Blood attracted Cravens like pollen did to bees.
“We might want to rethink what our next move is, while we’re at it,” Kilorn supplied. “Because our friend, Maven did not-”
“He did. There they come.” Mare was relieved to see the incoming horses with the police carriage in tow.
Maven had been an unexpected ally. He had promised them a getaway vehicle as well as costumes to make it safely to the place where they would keep the prince captive as they negotiated with the king.
“He took his sweet time,” Walsh complained behind her.
The carriage halted a few feet from them.
“Hello, comrade. Glad you could make it,” Kilorn hopped on next to the driver. “Are the uniforms in the back?”
Two things happened at the same time.
The driver slowly turned his head toward Kilorn, his glassy eyes empty as he pulled a knife from his cloak and cut his own neck. The man’s carotid artery was a geyser of red that showered Kilorn as he cursed and fell on his ass on the ground.
“DON’T OPEN!” He tried to warn the others but it was too late.
Farley pulled the single back door of the windowless carriage open and a gory mass of entrails and body parts fell, some human, others from animals, drenching their feet as blood poured like a river from the inside.
“Motherfucker,” Farley’s voice was unusually high and frightened. “Motherfucker! He set us up!”
An ear-piercing screech cut the air as mist rose like a sticky white tide and reduced visibility at unnatural speed.
Tristan was already running to one of the four horses. “Let’s go before-!”
A grey creature lunged at him from the mist.
The Cravens were here.
There were two ways to create a Craven.
When a silver fed from a human and drained them of blood, if the body wasn’t burnt, they would transform into a Craven. The other way was if a human got bitten by a Craven.
There was no way of knowing which of the two ways happened more often. It wasn’t like the creatures had any brainpower left to discuss the last minutes of their life.
All they had were fast, elongated limbs and saw-like sharp teeth. They were strong, terrifying, red-eyed nightmares that moved inside the mist with an acute sense of smell.
In a lot of ways, they were like their creators. Except there was no trying to negotiate with them.
The Craven snapped its fangs inches away from Tristan’s face, as the tall, scrawny guy held it at arm's length.
Mare jumped on the Craven’s back and plunged the knife into its head. It exploded into a reeking mass of black coagulated blood, throwing her back. Quickly jumping to her feet, she helped Tristan up.
“Thank you,” he was shaking like a leaf.
A chorus of screeches filled her veins with icy fear. Growls and the sound of twigs snapping came from every direction.
She needed to get to Cal. He was completely vulnerable right now, she thought and her stomach twisted into knots. Normally, the creatures avoided his kind. But a living, unconscious prey was too good to ignore.
What had Maven done?
“Are we sure he is responsible for this?” Mare didn’t want to believe he had betrayed them. Blindly, she started to retrace her steps through the mist.
“The driver slit his own throat. He was under compulsion. Maven did this on purpose.” Kilorn held on to her arm and followed her lead.
As soon as Cal became visible, she made a run for it.
Three Cravens appeared to her right. “Get the horses from the wagon,” she ordered and Kilorn took off to the left without hesitation. Diving to the ground and rolling she avoided the first two that lunged at her, but there was no avoiding the third.
The creature swiped at her chest. She arched back and the claws got her champion’s brooch, ripping it off the coat and sending it flying into the woods.
“Rude. I intended to sell that,” Mare gasped offended, throwing her dagger at the Craven’s eye.
It exploded and she slid over the mud and remains to recover her slippery weapon.
Farley had reached one of the monsters and was screaming as she used a short saber to chop off its limbs, only stopping to twist around it and decapitate it. Walsh and Tristan had managed to subdue another.
They had a good idea, untethering the two horses from Maven’s trap carriage. And Farley helped Tristan and Walsh mount one, while she ran to the other.
Mare got to Cal just at the same moment Kilorn arrived dragging the horses by the reins.
“Split up and let’s meet at Will Whistle’s!” Farley said spurring the horse closer to them.
Mare and Kilorn managed to throw Cal over one of the horses.
“What about him?” her friend looked at the body like it was a problem to be solved. He kind of was.
“Well,” Farley shrugged, unsure. “He’s still in our possession, isn’t he?”
“I’ll take him.” Mare hoped on the horse with the body draped across face down and held on to the clothing on his back to keep him in place.
Farley looked like she wanted to argue but the chorus of screeches approaching once more cut her short. More Cravens would keep coming to the blood.
“I’ll go with you.” Kilorn’s offer was resolute but she wouldn’t risk slowing him down when he was covered with the very substance that attracted the monsters.
An elder Craven, much bigger and more disfigured than the others, jumped from the mist and tackled Tristan down from the horse. Walsh’s scream pierced the air. The boy didn’t even get to scream before his stomach received a lethal bite.
“Go with Farley!” Mare cried before spurring her horse away from them and into the mist.
“No! Mare!” his voice was cut off by Farley bossing him into listening and taking him in the opposite direction.
Blindly riding through these treacherous woods as fast as the frightened animal carrying two people could, all she could think about, was how much of a nuisance Cal’s silk coat was. It kept slipping out of her sweaty fingers as she tried to keep him from falling, hunching over his frame, and holding to the horse’s mane with her other hand.
Tristan was dead now and they didn’t even have time to burn his body so he wouldn’t become one of those monsters. Had it been her fault? Was it because she’d made him bleed? Fear and horror gripped every single muscle of her body.
The branches of the trees behind her started to crack and shake as a Craven jumped from one to the next, chasing her and the delicious defenseless silver meal. A two for one.
The sound of the river made her veer the horse in that direction. She would try to lose it there. Reach a bridge, pull the stake from Cal’s heart, jump down from the horse, fight the Craven, and hopefully, by the time he woke, he would be far away and safe. It was a shitty plan, but it was the only one her adrenaline rushed brain could come up with.
If she could get Cal out of the woods, everything would be fine.
The ground ended on an abrupt cliff and the river’s turbulent waters ran 20 feet beneath. Changing direction again, she rode along the cliff’s edge, praying for a bridge somewhere near.
Her relief at finally leaving the mist behind was short-lived when the Craven lunged at the horse with a powerful leap.
Mare, the crown prince of Norta, the poor horse, and the Craven that didn’t think his strategy through, all fell into the river.
Right before they hit the water, she reached around the prince’s torso and pulled the stake from his heart.
Water burning in her lungs. Air. Blackness again. Her body was pushed down and shaken around like a ragdoll in a rabid dog’s maw by the water currents.
Gisa embroidering a white magnolia on a handkerchief. Cal kissing her for the first time under the magnolia tree at the rose garden. Her mom kissing her cheek and telling her to be careful when she went to collect berries. A blueberry pie for Shade the day he signed up for the Mercy Trials. Shade’s last secret letter telling them it had all been a lie. The first time she’d felt guilty about lying to Cal when she told him she didn’t know what the Scarlet Guard was. Farley telling the story of how Shade and she had met and what truly happened to the winners of the Mercy Trials. Cal’s blazing eyes as they danced in plain view of the entire court because she had won.
Memories without order swirled around her mind, one dripping into the next like spilled paint of a thousand different colors.
Something gripped her waist and her head surged from the water.
Mare coughed and gasped for air as the iron grip pulled her to the riverbank. Crawling on her hands and knees once they reached the shallow part, the arm around her waist left her.
A growl at their back alerted her that not only were the Cravens fast runners, apparently, but they were also excellent swimmers. Exhausted as she was, Mare only managed to flop to her back and instinctively reach for her daggers, but of course, they weren’t there; one lost in the woods and the other in the river.
She watched as the creature dropped to her face like a guillotine, then another figure was on top of her. The sharp fangs sank on Cal’s forearm, that he held defensively over his face.
“Mare, go!” his low growl was almost inhuman.
She clambered back, freeing herself of the weight, looking for a rock, something, anything to help him.
The Craven swiped at Cal’s unprotected abdomen, drawing a pained roar out of him. It made her hair stand on end.
Cal kicked its ribs and managed to get on his knees. Refusing to let go of his prey’s arm, the Craven tried to swipe again. But this time, the prince grabbed the bony grey arm and ripped it off its thorax with shocking ease. Cal moved fast as lighting, so he was standing behind the Craven and with a final effort of his free arm, crushed the decaying skull against his chest. A nauseating wet crushing sound, an explosion, and the Craven was gone.
His face was something she’d never seen before; eyes completely obsidian without a trace of white, lips twisted into a feral snarl showing long sharp canines, the silver of his veins visible under his skin. He towered over her, covered in monstrous remains and the blood oozing from his wounds.
RUN. Her instinct screamed, but she was frozen in place.
Slowly, like clouds clearing after a storm, his eyes returned to their normal bronze color and his sharp teeth retracted back until they weren’t much longer than those of a human.
He slumped to the side like he was about to fall but managed to remain upright.
“Are you ok?” He rasped, clearly not ok himself.
“Yes.” She snapped out of her shock and stood up on shaky limbs. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
It occurred to her; he wouldn’t want to go anywhere with someone who had betrayed him in the worst possible way. But he was too weak to even walk by himself, so he just nodded and hugged his stomach with the wounded arm.
Mare threw his other arm over her shoulder and supported him as they made their way to an abandoned watermill downriver.
His shallow, labored breaths were needles at the back of her head. She’d done this to him and he still had saved her.
They went up the stone steps and Mare kicked the door open. Once inside, the prince staggered away from her as if she’d electrocuted him, pressed his back to the farthest wall, and slid to the floor. The hurt, the betrayal in his eyes was so raw she couldn’t bear to look at him.
She occupied herself barricading the door and collecting wood from the abandoned furniture to light up a small fire in the furnace at the center of the room. Unless she was willing to survive a Craven attack only to die of hypothermia, she would have to take her chances with lighting a fire.
Silvers could heal themselves, she knew that much, but it would take some time.
Cal’s gaze burned her as she went about the reduced place, collecting things. She had to shed the coat, vest, corset, and put them to dry. There was a rusted butcher's knife in a corner and she placed it near the fire with the rest of her stuff.
She wouldn't look at him as she sat next to the furnace, facing him, but pressing her forehead to her knees, hugging them to her chest. She wouldn’t. The sound of her chattering teeth and his shallow breathing had to be some form of torture.
“So, is this how you do it?” He asked and her eyes shot to him. “A rusted knife at some shit-hole location?” He laughed, clapping sarcastically. It turned into a cough that made him choke on his own blood. “Bravo, you’re an excellent actress.”
Mare felt her heart being bludgeoned for what felt like the hundredth time that day.
“Will you at least tell me why?” The sharpness of his words made her flinch. Not that she didn’t deserve it.
“I could ask you the same question.” Bitterness dripped from her mouth. What she felt about him didn’t change anything in the grand scheme of things. And she hated that she’d been weak enough to fall for him anyway.
“I didn’t drive a stake through your chest.”
“No, you just took my father’s legs, Kilorn’s father’s life. You dragged Bree and Tramy to your war, and Shade-” she choked up.
“I thought you would under-” Cal stopped and took a deep breath as if to keep himself from coughing again. “Understand, now that you were my equal. You were your people’s champion.”
Was he being willfully obtuse? O did he really not know?
“A champion?” she scoffed feeling the heat return to her body in the shape of anger. “Tell me this, prince. Have you ever met a single winner of the trials in Archeon?”
He narrowed his eyes, confused by the question.
“They live in their own neighborhoods. They work honorable jobs. They live comfortable and-”
“And safe. Yeah, that’s what you, silvers, say. Every year a certain amount of your kind goes through that prime ritual, and the same number of winners are picked at the trials.”
“You can’t possibly know how the prime ritual works when even I don’t know.” His nostrils flared. “It’s a rite of passage for silvers where we step into adulthood, it’s symbolic.”
“Symbolic,” Mare echoed with disgust twisting her features. “Nothing symbolic about the way my brother died trying to escape you, monsters. You entertain us with a pretty show where we kill each other, competing for the honor of becoming the sacrifice for that precious ritual of yours. One by one the winners turn into your meal, and the champion goes to the highest house like a lamb at an auction.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Blood is harvested with compassion and freely granted by mortals. Why would we kill?”
“You know why. You fucking know it but you refuse to see it.”
His gaze went around the room as if the walls could give him the answer. Comprehension dawned on him as he went still like he’d found a corpse lying under his bed.
“The iron reserve,” he muttered, putting the puzzle pieces together.
It was known among the silvers, that a human drained of blood still had a last bit of blood rich with iron in their spleen that the body released trying to stay alive. They licked their lips when talking about it. A delicacy. A forbidden pleasure that had the cheap price of a mortal’s life. For some, it was an addiction they couldn’t control. So they killed without a care, left the drained bodies lying there like a piece of trash. The dead turned into Craven that way.
“Exactly. That’s what happens during your beloved rite, except it is embellished with a bunch of nonsense. The best feast, a champion’s blood, for the mightiest silver... you, your highness.”
“I did not know any of this.” His was the living image of inner turmoil, with furrowed brows and lips pressed into a firm line.
A draft crept into the dusty room through a narrow crack on the door. Mare hugged herself tighter, feeling like she’d vomited months' worth of truth onto the floorboards and now she was empty except for the guilt and love she shouldn’t feel for her enemy.
Haunted by those two emotions even in her sleep.
“How could you think I was in on this?” The pain in his eyes cut her worse than his anger. “If you knew me-”
“I know your kind. Excellent liars.” And yet she’d trusted Maven, a little voice chided her. She’d trusted the wrong prince.
“Did it feel like a lie? Every time I touched you or kissed you until I was half-mad. None of it was a lie for me.”
“The terrible part of it is that it wasn’t for me either. I meant every moment that was just ours. But you wanting my body was never going to save me,” she bit out, trying to hold on to something, a core belief before she lost her mind over him again. “Or my people! If anything, it was a condemnation!”
“Yes. It was condemnation to want your body, Mare.” Another blow. “But you don’t have the faintest idea if you believe that’s the whole truth. If I only wanted your body, I could have compelled- or seduced you in the rose garden and had my fill. Yet, that’s not what happened. I want your kind words, your cruel words, your curses, and blessings, I want all of them,” the intensity of his gaze and his voice was scathing. “I want your smile and your pain and your dreams and I want you to look at me for the rest of my life. Don’t you understand? I want you.”
She was stunned into silence, breathing through the arrow that had pierced her heart like she’d pierced his.
“If what you say about the rite is true.” He said, agitated. “I would have sooner died than lay a single finger on you.”
There was no room to doubt him. And she didn’t know what to do. She was lost. Knowing it was probably a bad idea, she went to his side and sat down cross-legged, resting her back against the stone.
“We were going to hold you ransom in exchange for the mortals at Archeon and to negotiate our freedom from your father’s rule.” She explained quietly, fidgeting with her long braid. “The Scarlet Guard didn’t plan to kill you. I wouldn’t- couldn’t have allowed it.”
He chuckled and winced, hugging his ribs. “Good to know there’s a limit to what you’ll do to me.”
“That depends on the context,” she playfully shoved her shoulder against his arm and he smiled at her. It quickly turned into an expression of longing and sadness. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “It doesn’t change anything, but this morning I prayed to the gods for the first time in years. I asked them for you to not come to the carriage, so I wouldn’t have to do it.”
“The gods had their own plans, I guess.”
They remained in silence for a while. The air had the ashen calm of the morning after a stormy night when one had to check for damages and pick up the pieces.
“Is this all we are? War and destruction?” his deep voice was odd, slurred like he was about to pass out.
“Maybe we could be more.” You could be my shelter and I could save you. The knot in her throat didn’t allow her to say the second part, it threatened to dissolve her resolve in tears. She thought of all the moments Cal had turned into bliss just by wrapping his arms around her. The moments when she’d forgotten her mission, the color of their blood.
“Mare.” He was barely breathing, his eyes closed for too long every time he blinked. “Did you poison me?”
Another punch in the gut. She had. She’d been doing it for months, putting drops of verbena oil in the cherry wine. Otherwise, the stake wouldn’t have worked.
“The cherry wine,” she said simply and he nodded, accepting it without anger. She’d already destroyed his heart, what was another drop to the sea? Nothing at all.
“I won’t heal. You need to leave before the bloodlust takes over.” His voice was as soft as a spring breeze.
“I’ve lost too much blood, and there’s poison in my system. I’m not strong enough to heal, which means my instincts will take over when I reach critical condition. Leave now before I hurt you.”
“What?” A terrible weight at the bottom of her stomach settled along with the fear. Fear for him. “No! Tell me how to help you. I’m not leaving.”
“I won’t be able to stop myself and I’ll hate myself for it. lease leave.”
“No.” She was done wasting his scarce energy with a futile discussion. She stood up with a goal in mind. “If you feed, you’ll heal, right?”
She rummaged through the items she’d placed near the furnace.
“Unless you’re hiding a bunny in your hat, I don’t see where... what are you doing?” He startled, clambering back, pressing himself to the wall.
Mare had wiped some of the rust from the butcher’s knife tip and turned around to face him, revealing she was holding it to the side of her neck.
“You need blood. I have plenty.” She kneeled in front of him.
“I won’t be able to stop,” he blurted out with wide desperate eyes trying to get the knife from her but she evaded him.
“Then it’s a risk I’ll take because I’m not leaving without you.” And without further ceremony, she nicked her skin, just enough to draw a drop of blood.
The smell hit him first. A tidal wave of a mouth-watering scent of cherry and jasmine. His fangs grew longer and sharper and his mind turned off.
Mare’s big beautiful brown eyes gleamed with equal parts of expectation and fear. Even from the few feet that separated them, he could smell them from her skin, hear them in her wild heartbeats.
Overtaken by bloodlust, he rushed to her in a blur of movement, picked her up, and pushed her against the wall. One arm surrounding her waist, the other grabbing the hair at the back of her head to tilt her neck at the perfect angle, while she clutched her hands over her chest.
A faraway part of him thought how rare it was to leave her speechless.
Her body was so warm and alive, flush against his. He lowered his mouth to the spot where she’d nicked the skin, right under the angle of her jaw.
The smell of her blood kept drowning him and he couldn’t hold back from hungrily lapping the skin with his tongue. The rush of flavor made him moan low on his throat and Mare shivered.
“Do it.” Losing her fear, she held on to the lapels of his waistcoat.
He bit down, hard. A small whimper escaped her lips as he sucked the wonderful life she was willingly giving him and it was unlike anything he’d ever tasted before.
Her body was connected to his and he felt her reactions as if they were his own. First, there was a flash of pain, then surprise by how good it felt.
His own body blazed awake the same moment hers did. He’d been told feeding could also be turned into a pleasurable experience for the human, but he hadn’t been told how. Yet that’s exactly what he was doing. Turning the pain of his bite into a hot, pulsing desire that caused Mare to gasp and strain against his body.
Her blood. Gods. It was better than he had dreamed. And maybe that made him a bad man, but he’d fantasized about this for nights on end. Spice and cherry filling him and making him want more at the same time.
Mare’s pulse was starting to weaken. He had to stop but he kept drinking and she just sighed his name, running her fingers through his hair.
Panic started to grip his mind. She’d been a fool to think he could stop himself, or maybe she wanted this. Her apology for breaking him in every possible way was to grant him her last breath. She wasn’t fighting him. He would never have enough of her… especially not if he killed her right now.
With a grunt, he stopped sucking and released her from his fangs.
The way she was staring up at him through her thick lashes was sinful. So was the way she asked. “How was it, Cal?” and nervously chewed her lower lip.
“Perfect,” his tone was harsh, overtaken by a different kind of lust. He took his coat off and started working the buttons of the ruined waistcoat. “Bare yourself to me, now.”
Her eyes widened a fraction but she immediately set to ridding herself of her boots, the breeches, but hesitated with the flimsy undershirt.
She looked so indecent, with the hardened peaks of her breast showing through the shirt. It stoked his greed for her.
“You want to keep that?” he taunted, cornering her. Bare from the waist up, his unbuttoned pants hanging low on his waist, there were no traces of the set of nasty wounds he’d received that day, only smooth white skin over toned muscle. “Fine by me. I can always rip it off you later.” He hoisted her up and she locked her legs around his hips with a gasp of surprise.
“Do that and I’ll stab you with the butcher's knife,” she got over the surprise to glare at him.
His violent, demanding girl.
“You can do anything you want, Mare,” his tone was coarse against her lips. “I like to scream your name just as much as you enjoy screaming mine.” To prove his point, he thumbed both of her breasts as he kissed her deep and without mercy.
They kissed and moved against each other enflamed by the lingering effect of the bite. Mare started dragging her center over his hardened length with such enthusiasm he had to place his forearm between her back and the wall, so she wouldn’t scrape her skin raw. His impatient, lovely girl.
She dropped one small hand over his chest, down his tense abdomen, and snuck her hand in his pants. They stopped kissing long enough for her to get what she’d gone for.
Cal cursed closing his eyes when her fingers wrapped around him and stroked him a few times. In any other moment, he would make sure she was ready for him and make her curl in anticipation. Not now. Not in the state feeding from her had left him.
He replaced her hand with his own and arranged himself at her warm entrance. Then, in a single thrust, he filled her making her scream.
He braced a hand against the wall while holding her up with the other.
Cal gave her a second of mercy to adjust to the intrusion. Only a second. Then he took her with the same viciousness she’d displayed when she’d staked him.
He was burning from the inside out as he set a rough pace and alternated kissing her and sucking on her neck, everywhere but the spot he had bitten.
The future could try to rip her away from him, or worse, she could decide to finish what she’d started. What did it say about him that he didn’t care about the latter? At that moment, he possessed her like she was an extension of himself. Her moans, loud and strained told him she was near.
He couldn’t bear losing her.
“Am I the monster you thought?” He panted, grabbing her by the neck to make her look at him. Her eyes were glazed over with ecstasy, but she managed to focus them on him.
She caressed his cheek and whispered reverently. “If you’re a monster, so am I.”
That was enough to loosen the tension building up inside him. He shivered and moaned burying his face in the crook of her neck as he reached his peak. He felt her reach bliss as well and kept moving inside of her during her release. They both had died a little and been reborn in the same act.
Mare went boneless and Cal changed their position in a swift movement. He carried her near the glow of the furnace and sat on the floor, keeping her tucked against his chest.
“Have I mentioned how much I hate it when you manhandle me like that?” she murmured against his chest, moving her head like it was a pillow.
Cal’s laugh reverberated in the room. He reached for Mare’s discarded trench coat, mostly dry by now, thank the gods, and covered her lithe frame with it.
“I thought you were done with the lies.”
“I am. I promise.” Her face was open and he believed her. Maybe it made him a fool, but he didn’t care.
They would rest for a while and then figure out what to do. Of one thing he was sure, wherever she went, he would go too.
“Cal,” she called him and the sound of his name on her lips filled his heart for the thousandth time.
“Will you help us? The reds?”
“Yes. And just to be clear, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing. I’ll talk to the Scarlet Guard.” Mare was beaming like the sun. “We could have reached this agreement without all the stabbing.”
“Doubtful. But I don’t want to argue right now.” She settled on him again.
“I’m sure you’ll find the strength to do so later,” he muttered and kissed the top of her head.
Much later than evening, when the odd pair arrived at Will Whistle’s burrow, Mare had to convince Farley that she hadn’t been compelled into leading him to them. She also had to convince her to change the plan now that the Prince was a willing participant.
There was too much blood in the river for Farley to accept another silver in their midst just like that. But one thing was sure, it could be the first step in the long road of healing the corruption that plagued Norta.
Maybe they could heal, one act of forgiveness at a time.