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Dark Heiress: An Ema Marx Novel, #5

Dark Heiress: An Ema Marx Novel, #5

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Dark Heiress: An Ema Marx Novel, #5

Length:
538 pages
7 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 21, 2019
ISBN:
9781393685463
Format:
Book

Description

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Mother Scorned.

Ema will stop at nothing to keep her innocent unborn twins safe. But with one prophesied to be the Messiah and the other pure evil, she may as well paint a target on their backs. And time is running out.


With war looming on the horizon, Ema must abandon her family to attend Elite training. Spies lurk around every corner and no one is who they say. Least of all the man Ema loves most.

Lives will be lost in the final battle for the Neo-Draugrian crown as passions are sacrificed for the survival of the vampyre race.

Who will fall and who will rise?

Find out in the thrilling conclusion to The Ema Marx Series! Get your copy of Dark Heiress now.

NOW A COMPLETE SERIES:
DARK HEIRLOOM (Book One)
DARK LIAISON (Book Two)
DARK BECOMING (Book Three)
DARK ASCENSION (Book Four)
DARK HEIRESS (Book Five)

NOVELLAS:
ATHENA'S ORACLE
THE WARRIORESS
A VAMPYRE CHRISTMAS CAROL

Publisher:
Released:
Oct 21, 2019
ISBN:
9781393685463
Format:
Book

About the author

J. D. Brown has written about China since 1984, when he taught at the Medical College in Xi’an. Among his previous works are The Sudden Disappearance of Japan (Capra Press) and the award-winning Digging to China (Soho Press). Based in western Oregon, he continues to explore the Far East.


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Dark Heiress - J.D. Brown

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Chapter 1

Jesu’s handsome accent came to a stop as he finished translating the contents of the Jumlin scroll. He rolled the parchment, fastened it with a length of string, and then peered at me with his dark emerald gaze as though waiting for a reaction.

We sat across from each other in the castle infirmary; Jesu’s chair pressed against the far wall, mine seated beside the hospice bed. I lowered my gaze to peer at my comatose father. Thin white sheets covered him from chest to toes. The cotton edges spilled over the side to brush against my pale knuckles. Dad’s even pulse and steady breath kept pace with the machines that stood opposite. They beeped at regular intervals while recording his vitals.

I considered the contents of the scroll. Jesu promised the information would be boring, and he didn’t disappoint, but some of what he translated did answer a few questions. The Jumlin were a clan of unique vampyres that only bred human offspring. When the children came of age, they were given a choice: Stay human or transition.

According to the scroll, turning into a vampyre required the completion of a complex ceremony, though the text gave no details—stating only that those who completed the rite were required to abandon their human life immediately. Records of the Jumlin population showed decreasing numbers, suggesting that most chose humanity, thus making the clan an endangered species.

Those that remained human, however, were sworn into a brotherhood of hunters called The Sword of Somnus where they learned the fine art of dream magic, weaponry, combat, and—I imaged—many other skills that enabled them to hunt succubae and incubi. Why they dedicated their lives to eradicating the creatures, I didn’t know. Nor did the scroll say.

Though it was Jalmari who killed Lilith in the end ... And I who take credit for it now.

From what I could tell, no other options existed for the Jumlin. Either join the brotherhood or live the rest of your life as a vampyre.

Hardly seems fair.

Jesu leaned forward and covered my hand with a warm calloused palm. Are you all right, Ema?

The edges of my mouth teetered. Just a lot on my mind.

He nodded and stood, causing his hand to fall to his side. I rubbed my knuckles as the urge to thread my fingers with his whispered against my better judgment.

It has been a long week. You should get some rest before the Hunter arrives. Jesu extended the scroll in my direction.

Keep it. I shrugged. Give it back to Maria and Naamah. They had borrowed the scroll from the Neo-Draugrian Council on my behalf. It was probably time we gave it back.

Jesu lowered the document with a nod. I will get you something to drink.

Wait. I stood and stuffed a hand into my pants pocket, producing two claror necklaces. The wooden charms alerted the wearer when a succubus or incubus was near. Lilith might be dead, but her son, Valafar, was still out there and he had kin.

Jesu upped his brow. I thought those were lost.

Tancred found them. I looped one over Dad’s head, letting the cord rest against the pillows and drape over his collar bones, then offered the other to Jesu. He shook his head.

I gave it to you.

I pulled my lower lip between my teeth but didn’t argue. Instead, I placed the second leather cord around my neck and let the talisman dip below my shirt to rest between my breasts.

There’s one more thing, I said, keeping my gaze down. I signed the contract with Brinnon. They’re calling it the Alpan-Marx Protection Act.

Jesu was silent for a long moment, and I couldn’t bring myself to meet his gaze. Then, Congratulations. You got everything you wanted.

I winced as he turned away and exited the infirmary, not sure if the sting I felt was intentional or a projection of my own guilt. Jesu swore he understood my motives, but he also made it clear he didn’t agree with my liaison to the Alpan crown. Too late now.

The door clicked shut and my gaze went to my father. I wished for the dozenth time since Valafar rendered my father unconscious that he would wake up. Every second he did not, a strangeness came over me, as though I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if he suddenly opened his eyes. But that was dumb, wasn’t it? Of course I knew what I’d do. I’d hug him tight. I’d apologize for every time I was mad at him. I’d ask him a million questions and listen patiently to his answers.

Wake up. Please wake up.

The door opened and Princess Sara entered. She scanned my father and a deep rose color bloomed across her pale completion. The princess tore her gaze away and then lowered it. Maria sent me to fetch you. The Huntsman just arrived. They are waiting in the foyer.

Apprehension thrummed through my blood and I threw my arms around Sara, hugging her willowy frame. Thank you. For everything.

She tensed, then melted against me as her hands slid across my shoulders. What are friends for?

Brinnon mentioned plans for the nursery. I want to hear all about it after this.

She stepped back to look at me and her smile stretched from ear to ear. Yes! she squealed while bouncing on her toes. Absolutely!

I smiled too, her energy contagious. Can you do me a favor and stay with Dad while I meet this guy?

The princess nodded.

Thanks. I hugged her again to show my appreciation then drew a deep breath and left the room. The short hallway opened on the left to the ballroom. I cut across the marble floor, passing the majestic tapestries and mosaic mural depicting all manner of wild animals, to the wide arched corridor that led directly into the castle foyer.

Devoid of all its furniture after Jalmari blew it up, the cavernous bi-leveled foyer sported new floorboards and wall panels made of dark brown wood that lent masculine joie de vivre to the room. New banisters in the same dark lacquer finish lined the stairs to the second landing. Before the explosion, expertly carved heads of different woodland predators topped the banisters like sentinels bearing witness to all who entered the Alpan castle. I wondered if King Brinnon planned to have new ones fashioned.

With no furniture and nowhere to sit, Maria and Tancred stood in the center of the room exchanging simple pleasantries with a stout man whose human scent permeated the air. I drew a sharp breath through my fangs and exhaled slowly. I knew the Hunter would be human, and yet I hadn’t thought to prepare my most basic Nephilim cravings. The sensation was like holding an unwrapped chocolate bar under the nose of a toddler. Only, instead of sugar, this guilty pleasure smelled of flesh and blood. I pulled both hands behind my back and phased the tip of my pinky finger. The energy wafting from his aura was thin like watered down syrup, but still found the essence of my phased digit and clung to it. I absorbed just enough to keep from drooling, then solidified my finger and approached the threesome.

The man faced the room and noticed me first. Amber brown eyes locked with mine and he lifted his chest, squaring his shoulders. My gaze traveled the length of his beige knitted bomber and gray slacks. The sleeves were pushed up to his elbows and layers of wooden beads circled his wrists. His bronze hands were large for a man who wasn’t very tall, yet he carried himself with an authoritative posture. A charm from one of his bracelets hung lower than the others, and I noticed a claror symbol carved into the wooden piece worn on the same hand that held a black duffel bag.

As though following his line of sight, Maria turned to face me. She smiled and swept her hand in a small arch. Here she is. Ema, meet Snow Chayton. Mister Chayton, meet Logan’s daughter, Ema.

I offered him a pleasant smile. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Chayton.

Please, he extended his open hand, Call me Snow.

He clasped my palm and gave it a solid shake before stepping back to examine me as thoroughly as I had examined him. My stomach did a little flip. Can this guy really pull Dad out of his coma?

Snow seemed to finish his assessment as he turned his attention to Maria. I’d like to begin as soon as possible. Where is Logan?

In the infirmary, I said, and pointed to the arched corridor behind me. I can show you.

Snow nodded, and I lead the group to my father’s bedside. Tancred followed only as far as the hall at the end of the ballroom. As we veered right, he went left to the king’s office. Inside the infirmary, Sara gave my hand a quick squeeze and then slipped out of the room. Snow went to Dad’s side and studied him. I rounded the bed to my father’s other side and stood facing the Hunter with no idea what to expect. I didn’t think he had any kind of medical skill, but then that wasn’t why Maria had called him here.

Maria stood to my left. The vitals machine and other medical equipment crowded my right, but I tried not to think of them as I took my father’s lifeless hand and pressed it to my cheek.

No, not lifeless. Just sleeping.

His chest rose and fell, and the machines whirred as his breath was recorded.

I must go into a trance and enter his subconscious, said Snow. I need to get an idea of the level of damage we’re dealing with.

Have you dealt with this sort of thing before? asked Maria.

He nodded. It’s a common hazard in our line of work. What concerns me is ... the man paused and then shook his head. No, sorry. It does no good to speculate. Once I know the extent of it, I can tell you with more certainty.

"Tell me what with more certainty?" I demanded. My stomach clenched. I’ve seen Dad go into a trance before, using what he called dream magic to enter Valafar’s mind and keep the incubus asleep while Jesu and I plotted against his mother, Lilith. But I had no real idea of what dream magic entailed. Part of me thought Snow would utter a chant, wave a wand, snap his fingers, and then poof. Dad would wake up and everything would go back to normal.

Snow lowered his gaze and covered Dad’s other hand with his own. You said Valafar did this. You’re sure?

That’s right. Maria’s tone carried a defensive note and my stomach twisted.

Does that matter? I asked.

Let’s hope not. Snow sat his duffle bag on one of the chairs and unzipped it. He removed several candles, placing them on the counter space, with a book of matches. I’ll need everyone to leave the room and not let anyone inside until I’m finished. If I wake from the trance prematurely, it could alter things and make it difficult to get back inside.

Maria narrowed her gaze. How long will this take?

Snow gave a half-hearted shrug. I can’t say for sure.

Part of me thought Maria would argue or threaten. Instead, she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. Very well. I will instruct a soldier to guard the door. She stepped away from the bed and crossed the room, but paused at the ingress and looked back as though waiting for me to follow.

I couldn’t. Not yet.

My heart ached as I lowered Dad’s hand and drew a breath for courage. Mr. Chayton, this man is my father. I’ve only just met you. I lifted my gaze and pressed my lips into a tight line. How do I know you mean well?

He exhaled and a small grin tugged one edge of his mouth. I’ve known Logan a long time. We grew up together. Trained together. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to see him safely awake and on the mend. He’d do the same for me.

I pulled my lower lip between my teeth and gazed at Dad’s peaceful features; at the shape of his nose and cheekbones, a trait we shared. I wanted to believe the stranger across from me, but I just wasn’t ready to leave Dad’s side. What if something happened while I wasn’t there? What if my presence was the driving force behind his will to beat whatever spell Valafar held over him? Would he give up if he could no longer sense me near? Would he think I abandoned him?

Many of our trainees, Snow continued gently, struggle with taking the lives of the creatures we hunt despite the very real threat they pose to both human and vampyre. I was one of the trainees that struggled, but not Logan. Your father never hesitated to do what was right. I asked him once how he could take a life without even flinching, and he told me something I’ll never forget. He said every purple-eyed bastard he put in the ground made the world that much safer for his little girl. Knowing you were out there put things into perspective for him.

My breath hitched. He told you about me?

Snow chuckled. Are you kidding? He wouldn’t shut up about you. Or your mother. I’ll be damned if the two of you don’t get back the time you lost.

I looked away and swallowed my nerves. I knew Snow was trying to reassure me, and it was touching to think I was the motivation behind my father’s strength, but something didn’t add up. Dad said he joined the brotherhood to divert their attention from Mom and me. Why, then, would he talk about us so flippantly as Snow suggested?

I guess Dad really does trust him.

Pushing my insecurities aside, I nodded to the Hunter and then followed Maria out of the room. She closed the door as I slumped against the corridor wall and sighed.

He’s not lying, said Maria. I did my homework before contacting him. They really do know each other. That’s why I chose him.

Of course she did. Maria was always incredibly thorough.

I managed a small smile. Thanks. That does make me feel better.

Jesu appeared from the ballroom opening. He carried a coffee mug in one hand, though I could smell the salty metallic liquid from where I stood and knew it was not coffee. Upon seeing us, he paused and lifted his brow in askance, as though not expecting us to be in the hall.

Sorry, he said to Maria while offering me the mug. I did not think you would be here or I would have brought you one too.

Maria waved a hand at his apology. I’m fine, dear. Dinner will be served soon.

Dinner for us meant breakfast for Mom and Anthony. I wondered if Snow would like something to eat after he finished his assessment. How long would he have to stay?

Jesu nodded in the direction of the infirmary door. So why are you both standing out here?

The Hunter’s inside, I explained. He’s in a trance using dream magic to enter Dad’s subconscious so he can assess the damage. He warned us not to interrupt him before he’s done.

Jesu arched his brow. That was quick.

I took the mug in both hands—mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with myself now that I was away from Dad—and peered at the scarlet liquid. The scent pulled at my cravings like the plucking of a thousand taut strings and I imagined the rich flavor coating my tongue, but my stomach didn’t seem the least bit interested. It clenched too tightly to fit anything inside. I lifted my gaze. You guys mind waiting on Dad for me? I need to get some air.

Of course, dear. Maria nodded.

Jesu studied me. Are you okay?

I will be. I smiled at him while pushing the mug into his grip, hoping the grin passed for reassurance, then left the corridor without another word. In truth, I had no desire to go outside. The sun would be well above the horizon by now. I just needed ... space? Time to decompress? Both?

I took the foyer stairs to the second landing and then opened the door to the spiral tower, climbing the stone steps to the guest wing. So much had happened in such a short time, and it was only now hitting me. I paused somewhere in the middle of the tower and pressed my spine flat against the curvature of the stone wall. My ribs constricted against my lungs as images assaulted my memory. Of all the things to agonize over, the recollection of Jesu lying on the dirty floor of the dimly lit gallery room held my mind hostage. The beam of the projector light flickered through the mental image like the ominous haze of a bad 1980s horror film. I drew a deep breath and closed my eyes.

I couldn’t recall much about the room itself; couldn’t remember the faces of the twenty or thirty other people who were killed by proxy; couldn’t even conjure Jalmari’s expression or hear the words he spoke. All I remembered was Jesu.

He lay on his back, too still. Too quiet. Too breathless. A beam of green light had hit him square in the chest. A hole the size of a fist burned through his shirt, welting the smooth muscle beneath. He was dead. The man I loved was gone in an instant, his body nothing more than a husk. The truth of it hit me like a freight train—too real and visceral to wrap my mind around.

I clutched the jutted rock behind me as if I could physically keep myself from falling apart at the memory. He’s downstairs, I reasoned with myself. He is alive and fine and none the wiser. It’s just all this stress ... too many near deaths.

Jalmari had revived Jesu using Apollyon’s philosopher’s stone and my blood, but I hadn’t had time to consider what that meant. I didn’t even have time to question how Jalmari knew where we would be or that we would need him. I was just so relieved that Jesu was okay.

But what difference does it make?

I had thought, for a fleeting moment, that it might be better to throw caution to the wind; hang the contract and hang my insecurities. Just love Jesu for however long I could. Wasn’t I lucky to get a second chance?

The truth, though, was that nothing had changed. I still signed the contract with Brinnon, selling my soul to the entire Alpan royal family.

Congratulations. You got everything you wanted.

I was leaving in a year to become an assassin. One year. How would loving him now be fair to either of us?

Besides, Jesu had a contract of his own.

Jesu

A small voice whispered in the back of my mind; the words more comparable to the sensation of a light breeze than sound, the command like a photograph that had lost its color to the passage of time: Keep her alive. I closed my eyes a moment, letting the sensation pass. Opening them, I peered into the cup I had prepared for Ema. Red liquid life stared back.

It is not like her, I murmured. To not gorge herself.

Hm? Maria stared to the side, likely more preoccupied with the goings-on behind the infirmary door than my musings. I listened as well, one ear acutely aware of every breath Logan and the Hunter summoned.

The blood, I explained before taking a sip for emphasis. She walked away without drinking it.

Can you blame her for not having an appetite?

I could not. Except Ema was with child. Two of them, to be exact. I tried to recall how other vampyresses behaved while pregnant; what was considered normal? But I had never paid attention to such things before.

If Maria is not concerned, then there must not be cause for alarm.

Across the hall, the door to the king’s office opened and Brinnon approached along with his Second in Command, Tancred. Maria and I straightened our postures, acknowledging the presence of a sovereign as custom demanded.

Tancred tells me the Huntsman has arrived, said Brinnon.

He’s inside, said Maria. He gave strict orders not to be disturbed, for Logan’s sake, until he completes his assessment. I would like to request the help of a guard.

Brinnon nodded. Tancred, station someone for them. And see that Mr. Chayton is given comfortable accommodations should he need to stay longer.

Tancred nodded then stalked off, presumably to complete the request.

My gaze narrowed, following the Alpan’s back until he disappeared beyond the corridor. Tancred might have regained the trust of his king, but he had lost mine completely the moment he endangered Ema with that scheme to end Lilith. I had verbally threatened him in Shanghai, but my fangs itched to do worse.

If that is all, I’ll be on my way. Brinnon nodded and then left at a slower pace than his Hand.

You know, said Maria once Brinnon was out of sight, you haven’t given me the finer details regarding what happened in China.

Ask my brother, I said, turning my thoughts away from Tancred. He was there.

I wasn’t sure how Jalmari managed it, but my suspicions were on the matriarch standing before me. Her dark gaze narrowed.

I’m more curious about the Ch’ing Shih, Shénshèng. What did she tell you?

Nothing, I lied. I smoothed a hand down the front of my shirt, thinking of the claror necklaces from earlier. Thank goodness Ema had hers. The blasted incubus responsible for Logan’s current state was still out there. He could be listening to our conversation right this very moment and we would be none the wiser. There is nothing to be done for the boy.

Maria’s brow lifted. Boy?

Fraternal twins, I said. A boy and a girl. That was all we got from the alchemist.

Maria gave me a sidelong glance and crossed her arms; a sign that meant she knew I was lying. I smirked in response. She had known me all of my very long life. Since birth, I suspected, though I couldn’t remember that far back. Of course that meant I knew her just as well, and I knew she would drop the topic. For now.

Not wanting to wait around for the guard, I turned and walked away without an excuse. Maria stayed behind. As I crossed the ballroom, I thought about the truth. Shénshèng wasn’t just an alchemist, but a Seer as well. From what I could tell, she peered into the future at will, the way Mother used to. And like Mother, she guarded her knowledge, giving Ema just enough information to make her worry.

The sins of the father seek to grow from the son as strangle weed grows from a tree.

Apollyon cheated death once already by possessing Jalmari’s body like a parasite. Now he was doing it again, using the body of my yet unborn baby brother.

I paused in the foyer and blinked in realization.

Baby brother.

I had thought the twins were conceived through Jalmari, but Shénshèng suggested a far more repulsive reality. Apollyon used Jalmari to deposit his own seed. I hadn’t forgiven myself for not realizing it sooner, for not saving him or Ema from our father’s corruption. Thank goodness Ema was able to exact her revenge and entrap Apollyon in her own version of a philosopher’s stone. But where is the ruby now?

I entered the foyer while pulling my cellphone from my pocket and paused before the banisters. My gaze rose to the set of doors along the second landing. Ema’s scent left a fresh trail leading to the tower. She had said she needed air but went to her room instead.

All the better. It was stupid, but I was never comfortable with her leaving the safety of the castle walls. Bad things tended to happen when she went outside. I worked my jaw, still hesitating at the bottom of the steps, as her confession came to mind.

They’re calling it the Alpan-Marx Protection Act.

I knew she would sign the damn document. Didn’t make it any less hurtful.

She did not do it to hurt me. She did it for her kids.

I sighed and turned away, facing the castle doors. Too many times I wanted to shake her. Too many times I wanted to tell her to get over herself. Just let me love you. But I couldn’t deny that she was right to keep her distance. I wasn’t hers, and she wasn’t mine. Our paths might’ve crossed, but they were not meant to stay together, and the fork in the road loomed ever closer.

I dialed Jalmari’s number then cradled the device between my chin and shoulder while pulling my sunglasses from another pocket and placing them over my eyes. The line trilled as I opened one side of the castle’s large double doors. The morning light bathed my senses in the humid heat of summer. I drew a deep breath, inhaling the scent of maple saplings and dandelion pollen as a weight lifted from my shoulders. Despite the annoyance of the sun’s harsh rays, nothing soothed the spirit quite like nature.

Voicemail answered the call.

I hung up without leaving a message and tucked the phone into my pants pocket, knowing Jalmari would call back when he felt like it. The sun’s uncomfortable heat against the pallid skin of my bare arms prompted my steps. I stuck close to the cobblestone wall, using its shadow as protection, and rounded the castle’s exterior to the small wooden gate at the back of the stone fence. Past the gate, a footpath led downhill to what would become a creek if ever the summer rains came, but I knew of a wider, deeper river that ran through the woods not too far from here. To the right of the divot was an abandoned barn. On the other side was the forest. Her emerald beauty beckoned like a woman on the prowl.

Something triggered my senses as I followed the decline—a shifting of the air, a presence—and I paused to examine it. Vampyres, I realized as the familiar scent hit home. Brinnon’s soldiers. They patrolled the castle grounds in their beast forms, but I was a guest of the king. I could roam where I wished.

I climbed the grassy knoll to the first line of tall shrubs and then shrank down to the size of a house cat. My clothes fell in a puddle of cotton and I padded over them, feeling the cool earth between my claws. Picking up the scent of freshwater and the sound of a current running over smooth pebbles, I trotted through the woods under the shade of large oaks and tall pines. I reached the riverbank quickly and admired the rushing rapids. Some men used cold showers to work through their frustrations. I preferred to swim until my brain went numb.

I started to shift back into my vampire form when the murmur of gruff voices gave me pause. They grew louder and more urgent, and I realized they only sounded faint at first because they were far away. As they neared, the rapid slap of footsteps joined what was becoming shouts of hysteria, and I realized a group of civilian vampires was running through the woods as though their lives depended on it. Soldiers ran after them. The military’s shouts for them to stop suggested that perhaps the vampires were running for their lives.

What a quandary. Stay and enjoy the lavish rapids, or join in the chase? I did not know what the civilians had done to trigger the king’s men—only that running and catching them would definitely take my mind off other matters. I could always return to the brook after.

The decision made, I rose to my full height, and the sky darkened.

Chapter 2

Damp tresses framed my face as I glanced sideways at my reflection in the full-length mirror. The button of my jeans fastened, but barely. The buttonhole stretched taut as the waistband squeezed my bloated belly and I sighed. A knock at the bedroom door drew my attention and my acute senses zeroed in on the scent that lingered just behind the threshold. My mind put an identity to the familiar perfume.

Come on in, Sara, I called out while pulling a T-shirt over my bra. The claror necklace rested against my skin, hidden under the shirt. The door swung open as I added a silver rose bracelet, a gift from Jesu. It once held my philosopher’s stone in a small charm, but I didn’t have time to ponder the stone’s whereabouts before my nasal cavity was caressed by the buttery-sweet scent of oatmeal, toast, and sausage links.

I hope you’re hungry, the princess sang as she lowered two serving trays onto the nightstand near the bed.

I released a wistful sigh. If only human food still tasted the way it used to. The improved menu options must have been Mom and Anthony’s doing while Dad and I were away. All the items still came pre-cooked, needing only heating and maybe a little extra butter, but it beat eating canned soup three times a day.

Starving, I said while poking a sausage link with a fork. I wanted to pop the entire thing in my mouth but settled on a cautious nibble. Human food tasted like licking an ashtray ever since I became a vampyre. Mom’s taking a shower. An unfortunate truth, since my mother’s natural Romani scent stunk up the entire room. I was getting used to the rancid scent of her essence, but it always worsened after she took a shower, like soap and shampoo somehow amplified the scent instead of masking it.

Sara nodded. I brought something else, too.

Oh yeah? I sat on the edge of the bed and took another small bite. The princess dipped a hand into her pocket while I side-eyed the toast. She produced a few folded magazine pages and opened them while sitting beside me.

I wanted your thoughts. I know the color is a little presumptuous, but everything comes in blue too. Or if you like, we can go for something gender-neutral like yellow or green. The glossy image at the top of the pile depicted a baby nursery that looked as though the Easter Bunny had chugged a bottle of Pepto and then projectile-vomited it all over the display room. I winced.

What’s the opposite of pastel? I said, hopeful. Maybe a toffee color?

Sara’s golden gaze widened. I have just the thing. She shuffled the pages and then pointed. I saved the best for last. Look.

A simple matching nursery set made of natural oak wood surrounded by coffee-colored teddy bears with black-and-white checkered bowties graced the page. My heart warmed at the image and I couldn’t help but smile.

I knew it, said Sara. That’s the one.

I nodded in agreement. We’ll order two of everything and call it a day.

Two? Sara arched her brow.

Didn’t Brinnon tell you? I reached for a slice of toast and bit into the buttery wheat only to be disappointed that it didn’t taste like either. I’m expecting twins. A boy and a girl.

"What? Sara jumped from the bed and squealed before wrapping her arms around me. Are you serious?"

As a heart attack, I said while leaning over her shoulder to take another bite. A few crumbs landed in her hair. Oops.

Oh Ema, that’s fantastic news.

What’s fantastic news? The privacy curtain that divided the bedroom and bathroom opened and Mom stepped into the room wearing jeans and a cotton blouse, her hair hidden under a towel coiled on top of her head. Steam from the shower wafted into the room with her, releasing a mushroom cloud of sour stench. I wrinkled my nose.

Oh, um ... Sara looked at me and upped her brow in askance.

I laughed and waved a hand. Sara just found out I’m having twins.

Mom scoffed. Does this mean I can talk about them now?

Might as well. Turns out everyone knew all along.

Sara winced. Would you like to help with the nursery? She grabbed the magazine cut-out of the oak wood crib and changing table set and offered it to my mother.

Mom upped her brow. Oh, honey. Brown? Why not pink? Or I guess blue if they’re boys.

I rolled my eyes. Oh look at that, Mom, there’s food. Better eat up.

That reminds me, said Sara. "Now that the secret is out, you can join us in the dining hall again. Rudo even prepared a special meal for you. You know ... one that will give you all the special nutrients an expecting mother needs."

My brow rose. Wait. If Rudo made a meal for me, then whose food have I been eating? I pointed to the extra serving tray that was now half devoured.

Sara stifled a laugh. Anthony’s.

The clatter of utensils and the humdrum of polite conversation rose as Sara and I descended the red velvet stairs leading from the guest wing to the dining hall. The majestic room had been stripped of the grandeur that had graced the high walls the day of the king’s coronation, but it still appeared just as impressive with its extra-long table seating fourteen guests. The dark wood chairs gleamed in the soft candlelight and the mighty tapestries depicting the Alpan crest of two wolves poised for battle over a chalice in royal blue and gray threads hung from the ceiling. The guests in attendance that night were also gone, leaving only Brinnon, Tancred, Cecelia, and Maria—in addition to a handful of Alpan warriors who came and went as they pleased.

Conversation paused as Sara and I joined the table. Two servants in coattails pulled out chairs for us and no sooner had I sat down when a silver platter appeared in front of me. A third server lifted the lid from the plate to reveal a T-bone steak, three chicken livers, and collard greens. All of it raw. All of it drenched in blood. Including the vegetables. A crystal glass appeared, and someone filled it with a scarlet liquid, completing the picture. My stomach gurgled in anticipation and I lifted my fork, but hesitated as I considered the options. Since becoming pregnant, blood had the off-putting effect of triggering morning sickness, and even before then I couldn’t seem to ingest the stuff without becoming inebriated on the pure energy high.

Maria watched me from across the table and I worried she would ask if everything was okay. Her lips moved, but she was interrupted as two figures entered the hall from the ballroom corridor. Everyone stared as a soldier escorted Snow Chayton to a chair at the table. Brinnon waved a hand to dismiss the Alpan. Mr. Chayton, please join us for—

Is Dad okay? I said, speaking over the king.

Chayton blinked in my direction then took his seat and watched in some amazement as a plate of toast and cooked breakfast sausage was placed before him. Yes. I mean no. I mean ... I should be able to wake him in a day or two.

A day or two? Maria said as though she found this astounding. Why not now?

He frowned at her. What I meant is that it will take a couple days’ worth of effort on my part before he rouses. I will have to work carefully. The human brain is a sensitive organ no one fully understands. One’s subconscious even less so. My estimate of two days accounts for bathroom breaks, meals, and sleep. I will work diligently, needing complete solitude with the patient, but I must also rest and keep up with my own health if I am to be successful.

We will provide everything you need, said Brinnon. Tancred—

I will assign a footman to assist him, said Tancred.

One that speaks English, Snow requested, none too subtly.

Tancred nodded, and Snow reached for his fork.

A knot pitted my stomach. I wanted to ask Snow how bad it was. I wanted to know the details. How would he wake my father? Were their dangers involved? Side effects? What was so wrong that it would take two days?

But then someone else joined the fray. His scent hit me first, like wet dirt and the sweaty musk of male. I turned in my seat to see Jesu march into the room with his fists swinging casually at his sides. Small swipes of mud stained his shirt and dirtied his fingernails, but the sideways smirk on his lips suggested he wasn’t the least bit bothered by whatever had caused his disheveled appearance.

You had a breach in your security system, Jesu announced. He pulled out the chair next to mine and dropped his full weight onto the velvet cushion. His long artist fingers scratched the top of his head then shook a few leaves free from his long tresses.

Yes, said Brinnon, narrowing his gaze. I am aware.

Breach? said Snow.

Jesu glimpsed at the Hunter and his brow furrowed.

There was a prison break at the holding center while you were away, said Maria. Victor and several others escaped.

You mean the Rebels from the Wolf Den? I inquired. The Wolf Den was an underground bar—literally located underground in an abandoned subway station—where members of an illegal vampire gang known as the Rebels gathered. Under Victor’s leadership, the misguided crew worshipped Apollyon and dreamed of the day vampyric tyranny like the kind Apollyon boasted would return to the world.

Not to worry, said Tancred. We’ve already dispatched a team to go after them.

Let me guess. Maria sounded as though she were scolding Jesu. You had a bit of fun playing cat-and-mouse?

Jesu grinned. It lit up his features. Caught three of them singlehandedly.

Congratulations. Maria rolled her eyes.

What of the incubus? Brinnon asked Snow, changing the subject. His choice of topic surprised me, and my gaze went to the Hunter.

Yeah, Jesu scowled. He is still at large.

I already have my people looking for him, said Snow.

You do? My voice cracked and warmth blossomed over my cheeks as I flitted my gaze to Brinnon.

The king lowered his golden-yellow irises and swallowed. As do I.

My jaw fell open. I knew Valafar was responsible for Dad’s current state, and Brinnon had promised to hunt him down if anything happened to my father, but I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted Valafar to be captured or harmed. I was so certain he would have been a friend if not for Lilith, but then again ... she was his mother. His attack could very well have been an act of vengeance. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that if Valafar truly had malicious intent, Dad would already be dead.

No offense, said Jesu as he faced the Hunter and crossed his arms, but it took a vampyre to finally put Lilith down.

Snow lifted his nose and scoffed. And you are ...?

Prince Jesu ta Korento of the Neo-Draugrian clan. Maria made the introduction. Jesu, meet Snow Chayton. The man who traveled across an ocean to help Ema’s father.

Jesu pressed his lips together and eyed Maria.

Well, Your Highness, said Snow. We weren’t looking specifically for Lilith or Valafar before.

No? Jesu inquired.

Snow shook his head. "We were quite content in killing any incubus or succubus we found."

We’re all very grateful to have you here. Maria faced Jesu and narrowed her gaze. "Aren’t we?"

Jesu looked at me, and I quickly turned away. Yes, he murmured. Very.

Silence filled the room for longer than a minute. Then something cold and wet touched my palm under the table, and I startled. Leaning back to peer below the thick wooden tabletop, I spied a big black nose attached to a fawn-colored snout. The nostrils flared and snuffed as the she-wolf pressed her snout between my lap and the table. I didn’t know when she had joined us—there were so many overbearing scents in the room already—but I was glad she had, and I giggled in response.

Lupa! Are you hungry? I half expected her to answer. In the underworld, Lupa’s spirit had a child-like voice, but this corporal version was as silent as any other animal. A pang of sadness pressed against my chest, but I pushed it aside and ruffled her fur while stabbing the T-bone steak. Before I could lower it beneath the table, Lupa snapped the meat between her jaws and gobbled it up. I laughed. Brinnon, don’t you feed her?

All the time, he scowled. She’s insatiable. And spoiled.

Jesu arched his brow. New pet?

Something like that. Brinnon lifted his glass to his lips and took a long sip.

My gaze went to Maria. She had lifted a forkful of food toward her mouth, but paused and

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