He came to gloat, leaning against the doorway with a barely checked grin. “We Vrekeners find cold water’s good for the mind and body.”
His eyes flickered. “I’ll warm you up. . . .”
Some time later, when they emerged, Lanthe was a cold-water convert. Now she was grinning like a boss.
After she dried off, she reached for her clothes from the night before. Full regalia. Including the mask.
The beauty of metal and leather garments? Easy cleaning. She tugged on her skirt.
“Shall I find you some gowns?” he asked as he dressed again.
She studied his face. “You can, but I won’t wear them until I have them altered.” Lanthe had lived through the Victorian age; out of necessity, she’d learned how to transform a high-necked, floor-length, long-sleeved gown into a proper sleeveless minidress. Or, rather, to give directions for someone else to. “I’ll feel more comfortable in my own clothes.”
He parted his lips, hesitated, then said, “Very well.”
Good man, she thought again. “I feared we were about to have our first married fight.” She slipped on her top. As far as Sorceri clothing went, the outfit wasn’t even that provocative. Her hemline almost reached her knees. Her boots did, so little of her legs would be exposed.
“I know how much you compromised to come here with me,” he said. “I want to meet you halfway. Besides, if you scream at me, it should only be because you’re about to erupt/explode/die with ecstasy.”
“In other words, later today?” She reached forward to cup him between the legs, loving how he rocked on his toes to her hand.
When he groaned, she released him with an affectionate pat.
She donned her boots and gauntlets, then did a quick job braiding her hair. Thronos watched her every movement with undisguised fascination.
He hastened to get it, returning to lace it over her head. “I kick myself for not giving you this sooner.”
“Well, we were a mite preoccupied with dragons and demons and pests and all. I treasure it as if you presented it to me—since you put your life at risk to retrieve it. Even if it weren’t silisk gold, it would always be my favorite.”
“Sorceri exchange rings with marriage, do they not?”
She whirled around. “Yes, I want a ring! A gold one, with extra gold.”
His lips curled. “When my mate sets her heart on something, who am I to deny her?”
With an answering grin, she slipped on her mask. “Okay, then, let’s go get this over with.”
He offered his hand; she proudly took it.
The moment they walked out the door, a Vrekener male greeted them, as if he’d been loitering just outside. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a rangy build like Thronos’s, he had olive-green eyes and sandy brown hair tied in a queue.
Lanthe stiffened when she saw his silvered talons. A knight. She wondered how many Sorceri he’d killed. Or neutered?
“Greetings, Jasen!” Thronos said. “I didn’t think anyone knew we’d arrived.”
Lanthe frowned at Jasen’s reaction to Thronos; the male’s pensive expression had turned to one of abject relief, the way one might look when handing over a ponderous weight—or a rabid animal.
“Melanthe, this is Jasen,” he said, introducing the man to her first, showing her deference. “Jasen, this is Princess Melanthe, my bride.”
Lanthe didn’t offer her hand. Because it was glimmering blue behind her back.
After a moment, Jasen appeared to shake away his shock at this development. He turned to Thronos. “My liege, the knights have assembled in the Hall for an important security meeting. Will you attend?”
Thronos was calm and cool on the outside, but now that she knew him better she could see that his scars were a touch lighter, which meant his face was tense.
—I’m sorry, Thronos. I know you’d wanted to get something settled with Aristo.—
—Gods only know what he’s up to out in the worlds.— To Jasen, he said, “Melanthe and I will attend.” Hand in hand, they followed the knight down the steps to the sandy vale. —In this assembly, I will not tolerate disrespect to you. Remember that you are their princess.—
Talk about a trial by fire! She drew her sorcery close. —I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go. What if the meeting is about my presence here? What if I’m in danger?—
He glanced at the power swirling around her. —You can take care of yourself. Just try not to hurt anybody.—
—You know I’d slay them all before I let them touch a hair on your head.—
On the hills above them, Vrekeners stopped their daily routines to stare down at her.
What would Sabine do in this situation? Her sister would put her shoulders back and never let anyone forget she was a noble daughter of the Sorceri. Lanthe would do no less. To those who stared the most boldly, she inclined her head with a regal air.
Of course, she could understand their interest. Her garments must shock them, plus she had sorcery around her. Not to mention her one-of-a-kind, priceless necklace. She defied any female not to secretly pine for it.
The Vrekener males all wore white lawn shirts and leather breeches. Each female’s dress was drab and baggy, revealing only her face and hands. Their wings were pinned so tightly, one would think the Vrekeners were embarrassed by them. These people absolutely looked like they had quiet, boring sex.
They were the anti-Sorceri.
But then, Thronos had once been too—before she’d gotten ahold of him. These Vrekeners had no idea that Hurricane Lanthe had just made landfall in the Skye. —Are Vrekeners always so somber?— If she didn’t know better, she might have thought someone had ensorcelled their land with misery.
To be fair, she would’ve expected shrieks as mothers shoved their kids back into their weird roofless houses. But the people were steady and unflinching.
—Not usually this tense. I’m keen to find out what’s going on.—
The moment he’d come within sight of his people, Thronos had clenched his jaw and worked not to limp, which must be killing him. She had used her powers on him last night; maybe she could try to help with his pain.
But pain obliteration was a command that could seriously backfire. As she debated the pros and cons, she realized what was missing from this picture. —Where are the Sorceri?—
—Good question. I’ll soon have answers for you.—
Then the grand Skye Hall loomed over her and Thronos. Last night she’d gazed upon it and marveled that she was that close to the seat of Vrekener power.
Now she was about to enter. Sabine would never believe it!
As Lanthe and Thronos climbed the stairs, his wings rippled, as if he was preparing for battle.
They entered what looked like an anteroom of sorts. The construction was awing, but she couldn’t quite wrap her mind around it. Without a roof, it seemed like a ruin—or an arena. Yet it was pristine.
From there, she and Thronos crossed through a double doorway into a larger room with a giant round table. Forty or so males were seated about it in backless chairs.
Shocker, it was a sausage fest. Not a single female knight. Ugh.
There was no throne or dais. The arrangement looked like one of those town-hall kinds of settings where royalty acted like they were just normal folks, and no one got elevated above others (though the royals were the ones whose heads would roll if shit went down).
All the males appeared astonished to see Melanthe.
“My wife and princess.” Thronos held up her gauntleted hand. “Melanthe of the Deie Sorceri.”
She peered up at him, and her heart thudded. He gazed at her with absolute acceptance. My husband. When her sorcery sparked with her pleasure, several hawk-eyed gazes locked on it, but no one said a word. They probably assumed it was just sorcery left over—after Thronos had harvested her power.
The Vrekeners who recovered quickest shot to their feet, in respect for their prince at least. The ones who hadn’t stood received a murderous look from Thronos until they did.
“My wife and I are eager to hear news of the realm.”
When all the males took a step away from the table and began to kneel, Thronos’s scars grew even lighter—and Lanthe got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. . . .
These males would kneel before only one male in this domain or any other. Their king.
Jasen answered, “He has recently passed on, my liege. I apologize for not saying something earlier, but I couldn’t reveal any details out of the assembly. And there is . . . much to be explained.”
—I’m sorry, Thronos.— Melanthe looked as shocked as he felt.
Working to make his tone even, Thronos said, “Be seated.” He led her to a chair, taking the one beside her. “How did he die?”
“He was murdered,” Jasen said. “By the king of the Deathly Ones demonarchy.”
“There is no king of that demonarchy,” Melanthe said. “I’m friends with Bettina, their princess. She’s half Sorceri. As of a few weeks ago, she was unwed.”
Jasen told her, “We understand that the male who wed their princess is a Dacian vampire who won her in a recent tournament.”
Thronos cast her a questioning glance. —Dacians actually exist? I thought they were a myth.—
—I’ve always believed they did. Thronos, I fear we’ve been gone for longer than we thought.—
—As do I.— Aloud, he asked the others, “What reason had this king to murder another?”
“There are those who say the act was purportedly carried out in retaliation for some perceived violence done to his Bride.”
Thronos frowned at Jasen. “Perceived violence?” Compared to Melanthe’s straight-from-the hip talk, this deferential speak grated.
With regret on her face, she told him, “A few months ago, Bettina was attacked by four Vrekeners. Though she’s a young, ninety-five-pound waif who’s never harmed anyone, they broke every bone in her body. Then they doused her with spirits, about to burn her alive. She was rescued just in time.”
He recalled Melanthe telling him that she and Sabine weren’t the only ones brutalized. Thronos expected denials from the knights. Any second the warrior males would staunchly reject the idea that a Vrekener could be capable of such a craven act.
All eyes turned to Jasen to continue. Thronos supposed the male had assumed the role of leader in the absence of a king, which was surprising. Thronos would’ve expected Cadmus, their general knight of war, to lead. Yet Cadmus sat quietly, as if biding his time.
Jasen said, “The vampire took your brother and three of his knights.”
“From here. The male traced to Skye Hall.”
A leech had located this kingdom. “How is that possible? A vampire can only trace to a place he’s previously been. And what about our wards?”
“We have no idea how he did it—or if he’ll lead more vampires or demons back here. We’ve posted extra sentries.”
Hidden guards. So that was who’d watched Thronos last night.
“We’re ready to take more action. My liege, this has understandably sent shockwaves through the populace.”
All Thronos had wanted to do was wed Lanthe and come to an understanding with Aristo, or to endeavor to. Now . . .
I am king. The last of his line.
He could scarcely process that his brother was dead—and that the welfare of all these people rested on his shoulders. “Why would the vampire target my brother so specifically?”
Jasen said, “There might . . . there’s a chance King Aristo was one of the four who inflicted those injuries upon Princess Bettina, not understanding who she was.”
His brother might have tortured a tiny young sorceress, intending to burn her alive. Aristo’s voice sounded in his head: “Death to every last one of them!” Though Thronos felt like he couldn’t get enough air, he fought to keep his expression neutral.
“My liege, there’s more. The vampire stole your brother’s fire scythe.”
“This is a grievous loss, but there are three others.” And Thronos didn’t intend for the knights to use the scythes for sorcery harvesting in the future.
Because my word will be law.
“The vampire turned it over to Morgana. She perverted its purpose, using it to loose the powers from the vault. She has reclaimed them all.”
“She emptied the vault?” What else could she do with a scythe?
Jasen nodded. “She sent some of the powers out into the ether to reach their original possessors. We know this because a few of the Sorceri here received theirs.”
“They fled. As far as we can tell, one of them reclaimed a teleportation ability. The rest left with him.”
Fled. So they had been as miserable as Melanthe had said, escaping at the first opportunity.
Thronos gazed at her. —You were right. About everything.—
Lanthe didn’t necessarily want to be right, now that she’d signed on for life above the clouds. Nor was she pleased about being queen of the Vrekeners.