Rafe gave a rueful laugh as the memory of that first encounter faded. He’d kept that promise and what an arrogant ass he’d been. Still, of the forty-three would-be warriors who’d entered the trials in eighteen-forty, he’d been one of only twenty who’d made it through to the end.
Now, one hundred and seventy-seven years later, Rafe gazed down on London spread out like a glittering cloak beneath him. Keeping a firm grip on the cross with one hand, he turned up the collar of his long black coat. It was mid-December and an icy weather front had descended from the Arctic and swept through the city. In a week’s time, he and his kind would celebrate the Winter Solstice; he’d never felt less like celebrating anything in decades. The wind rocked him, he tightened his hold on the cross and shook his head to clear freezing rain from his eyes. He welcomed the rain. It made him feel cleansed. Turning his head, he saw four humans bent almost double against the wind as they struggled across the Millennium Bridge stretched over the Thames. Hardy souls, braving a night like this. What would they think if they knew they were being watched? Not by the many cameras surveying London’s streets, but by him, a vampire, standing on the golden ball supporting the great cross at the top of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The city had seen so many changes since he’d begun patrolling it as a lowly foot soldier straight out of training. It certainly smelled a lot better. Queen Victoria had been a fresh-faced young woman only four years on her throne and he had been a green and inexperienced warrior with lofty ambitions, reckless talent, and a fierce determination to succeed.
Rafe sighed and rubbed the centre of his chest to erase the hollow feeling inside; it seemed he was beset by memories tonight. In a street not far from here, now gentrified and trendy, he had once come across a poor human woman frozen to death with a weak, mewling babe in her arms. He had prised the infant out of her death grip, wrapped it in his cloak, and delivered it to the doorstep of the childless blacksmith and his wife in the village close to his childhood home. Now, when he occasionally visited the village, long since transformed into a picturesque tourist town, he could see the descendants of that baby boy.
Over there, in London’s East End, he’d rescued a mother and her three young children from a collapsed house during the Blitz. His sharp hearing had picked up their thin cries from beneath the rubble and he had dug them out and carried them to safety in a nearby street.no onehad believed their stories of being rescued by a tall, young, handsome man with blue eyes and the strength of ten men.
So many memories, he had served this city and its people, humankind and his own kind, he still did. His head whipped round as Big Ben chimed out the midnight hour over at the Palace of Westminster. Time to go; he had an appointment to keep. He had failed to save his mother, but he could still save his sister. As for the price, he could deal with that. He was resigned to it. Sweeping his gaze over the city one more time, Rafe shut his eyes and concentrated his mind as he shifted out and disappeared in a swirling black vortex.
Materializing high up in the wilds of the North Yorkshire moors; he shivered and pulled his coat tighter. God, he’d thought London was freezing, but it was positively Arctic up here. All those decades based in the south of France had softened him. The mist swirled silent and thick in front of him and filled him with a powerful feeling of foreboding that made him want to turn away. His father had obviously strengthened the confusion field protecting his property. He was wise to be cautious. Humans encroached on the secret hidden world of their kind from all sides now. When his father had built here as a young man in the dying days of the reign of Elizabeth the First, there had been relatively few humans nearby. Nowadays, in the reign of the second Queen Elizabeth, there were thousands of them in the surrounding countryside.
It was time to bite the bullet. Rafe forced himself to concentrate, strode into the mist, and kept going until he emerged in front of the sprawling Elizabethan house that had been his childhood home. This time, the sense of foreboding and dread he experienced had nothing to do with confusion fields. He swallowed; he had left this behind him. He hadn’t been here for decades; he had thought he was over it all. Obviously not. The realization filled him with the old familiar feeling of futile and helpless rage. Brushing his soaking wet hair back from his eyes, he straightened his coat, squared his shoulders, and pulled the chain that rang the heavy bell by the side of the oak door.
Minutes later, he stood in the warmth of the panelled hall as Belstaff took his dripping coat and called for a towel. How old was Belstaff? The man had been his father’s butler for eons and had always looked ancient and decrepit.
“How old are you, Belstaff?”
The elder smiled and handed him the towel. “I am well past my seven-hundredth summer, Master Rafael. I fear I have not many left.” The old man stopped and dipped a bow. “I apologize, I should address you as commander. Forgive me, sir, it has been so long since I last saw you though I glimpsed you earlier this year on the day the treaty was signed.”
Rafe touched the old man’s shoulder to reassure him. “Nothing to forgive. You’ll live forever, Belstaff. What would this household do without you? What’s worrying you?”
Belstaff’s eyes flitted nervously from Rafe’s gun in its holster under his arm, to the second gun tucked into the waist of his combat trousers at the back. Then the old man stared at the commando knife in its leather sheath fixed at Rafe’s hip. “Sir, the Councillor does not allow his visitors to bear arms in his presence.”
Rafe took a deep breath and tightened his mouth; nothing had changed in this house. “I am a soldier of the Warriors’ Council, Belstaff. It is my right to bear arms. Please, don’t worry, I will remind my father. How is my sister?”
Belstaff grimaced and Rafe’s heart thudded wildly as the old man stepped closer and looked over his shoulder. “Mistress Artemisia is ill, sir. Please, please tell me you have come to take her away from here.”
Rafe fought to control his panic. If Artemisia was ill, he could guess why, and it was his fault. He should have agreed to his father’s demands sooner. He shouldn’t have tried to play his father at his own game. He touched the old butler’s shoulder. “I will not leave here without her. Now, take me to Councillor Deverill. I am expected.”
Rafe acknowledged wearily that he still braced himself before entering his father’s study. His father rose to greet him and indicated one of the carved oak armchairs arranged in front of the stone fireplace. The room was exactly the same as it had been when he had last visited four decades ago; in fact, apart from electricity, the phone and the computer, it was the same as it had been two centuries ago. Rafe sat and looked around quickly; there were too many memories in this room and none of them were happy ones.
“Do you still drink whisky? I have a fine single malt,” said his father from the table in the corner.
“I came here to conduct business. I’d rather just get on with it.”
His father smiled and poured himself a drink then carried it back to his armchair and sipped in silence. Rafe returned his father’s cool blue-grey stare. He remembered this tactic. Who was going to break first?
“You have forgotten your manners since you started mixing with soldiers, Rafael. You have lost your polish. I see you still carry your arms, did Belstaff not remind you I do not allow arms in my presence?”
“I have been a soldier for over seventeen decades, Father, I apologize for not behaving like a courtier. And yes, Belstaff did remind me. May I remind you that as a soldier of the Warriors’ Council, I have a right to bear arms wherever I go.”
“I had greater plans for you, my only son. My heir,” his father snapped.
“I am no longer your heir, remember? You cut me off in eighteen-forty when I left to enter the trials for the Warriors’ Council.”
“If you had spoken to me first I could have arranged for Alejandro of Seville to take you on at a more senior level. My only son, a descendant of a noble bloodline, working his way up through the ranks!”
His father glared. Rafe suppressed a sigh; how many times would they have to go over the same old ground?
“Everyone who makes it through the trials and gets accepted onto the Warriors’ Council starts as a foot soldier. You know that. We are a meritocracy without exception. Even LaSalle started as a foot soldier as did Javier of Seville and his Supreme Commander was his own father, for god’s sake. Only those who prove their worth rise to the top.”
“Yes, and you did it in record time, Rafael. You were the youngest warrior ever to be appointed a commander on the Warriors’ Council. Ever. Have you given thought to rising further?”
Rafael hid his surprise. Was his father actually showing some pride in his achievement? What was his game?
“LaSalle is our Supreme Commander, he was promoted to that post by unanimous vote. He is in his prime, barely three centuries old. I hope he will be there for a long time. Our people respect and admire him as do the leaders of the Empaths. He has my complete allegiance.”
His father finished his drink and stared into his glass. When he looked up, Rafe felt a shiver of unease pass through him. “His Lordship the Comte de LaSalle rises above himself. What if he were no longer there? You could rise to that post. The successor is always one of the six commanders.”
Rafe leaned forward in his chair and spoke softly. “That is treachery, Father. If LaSalle died, we would most likely vote for Gabriel Bathory as our next Supreme Commander. It would not be me, I am the youngest and least experienced of them all. I am not ready.”
His father laughed but Rafe sensed the anger behind the laughter. “Count Bathory? With his past? He may be a lethal warrior, but he is no diplomat and he prefers the shadowy world of Intelligence. That’s before we even mention his Empath consort. Max von Lansdorff has no ambition to rise further, Luca Fabri is too tainted by scandal, and Michael Avery, like von Lansdorff, is happy in his current role and is wedded to the Americas. That leaves Javier of Seville, he has all the diplomatic qualities necessary and is, by all account, a fine warrior, but is he ruthless enough? I think not. No, only you, Rafael, have all the qualities a Supreme Commander needs. You are just like me and the Deverills are one of the oldest and noblest Vampire bloodlines.”
Rafe kept his expression impassive even as his heart raced. He wasn’t sure what troubled him most; that his father thought he was just like him, or that he himself feared this was essentially the truth. As for the rest, it was dangerous talk, especially when it came from his father, Councillor Amund Deverill of the High Council of the Vampires.
“I did not come here to discuss the business of the Warriors’ Council. The High Council has no jurisdiction over us. Rather, it is we who hold the balance of power. Where would the High Council be without our support? We have been your military arm for a thousand years. We have proven ourselves again and again and our people know it and trust us. Now please, let us get down to business so I can take my sister home.”
“Complacency Rafael, can be fatal, remember that. Now, to business… this is your sister’s home. Brandt of the bloodline of Haakon Blood-Axe would be a suitable alliance for her. Why do you insist on supporting her infatuation for that commoner…what is his name? Andreas? His bloodline is humble, his family are nobodies.”
“Brandt is a sadistic bastard as is his father Lord Gunnar, however impeccable and ancient their bloodline. And it is no infatuation Father, Artemisia and Andreas are bonded. How could you suggest an alliance with Brandt, with anyone, knowing that fact? You would condemn your own daughter to a living hell. No, she and Andreas love each other, they belong to each other, and I shall be happy to be a witness at their joining ceremony as soon as I get her back to the island. Now, where do I sign? I assume you have the legal documents ready?”
Rafe followed his father to the large desk in the corner. As he signed the documents and took off his ring to affix his seal he felt nothing but relief.
“Do you not wish to know anything about the girl?” his father asked.
Rafe shook his head. “No, I don’t care. She’ll be just like her father and her half-brother, a branch from the same rotten tree. The great warrior Haakon Blood-Axe would be sorely disappointed if he could see his descendants. You may stand as my proxy, I do not wish to see her. Keep her here, my name is all she is going to get. I’m sure Lord Gunnar will get the money he needs for selling his daughter, and you will have his support in whatever political scheme you are currently cooking up. Now, where is Artemisia?”
He stood eye-to-eye with his father. As a child, he had stared in terror all the way up to his father’s formidable six feet six. Now, they were exactly the same height and his father was no threat to his hard, warrior’s body. The terror had long since been replaced by distrust and hatred.
His father smiled in triumph. “You always had a chivalrous streak, Rafael. Your conscience is your weakness. I knew you would step in to save your sister. The silly girl refuses blood from the Donor, she lies in her old room. I removed the restraining collar, she does not have the energy to shift anymore. Go, take her to her commoner. I have no more use for her. She has served her purpose.”
Rafe forced himself to stay calm. He would never kill an un-armed civilian, let alone break the Ancient Laws by committing patricide. How well his father knew him. There was nothing more to say. He turned and left the study then raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time. When he arrived at the door to his sister’s room, he saw she had been locked in. Heart pounding with apprehension, he unlocked the door, entered the dimly lit room, and made his way to the four-poster bed with its rich hangings.
Swallowing a moan, he leaned down to stroke his sister’s hair. “Artemisia, Missy…darling, it’s me. It’s Rafe. Missy, please wake up. I’ve come to take you home. I’m taking you home to Andreas.”
Artemisia’s cheeks were white and ice cold. He tuned in to her slow, sluggish heartbeat. She was desperately in need of blood. Why hadn’t she accepted the Donor’s? She was barely an hour away from slipping into a coma. Rafe sighed; he knew the answer to that one. Bonded couples nourished each other. They did everything they could to avoid taking blood from anyone else; it caused them severe emotional and physical pain. He would happily offer his sister every drop in his body, but he knew she wouldn’t accept it. No, there was only one person who could save her now.
Pulling out his phone he hit speed dial. The call was answered immediately. “Andreas, I’ve got her. I’m shifting with her straight back to your quarters. I’m afraid she’s in a bad way.”
He had no time to answer Andreas’s questions. Ending the call, he wrapped the silk quilt around his sister, lifted her up in his arms, and hurried back down to the hallway praying he wasn’t too late. Belstaff opened the front door after draping his sodden coat around his shoulders. There was no sign of his father; he knew better than to expect a farewell from him.
“Hurry Master Rafael, hurry! Please send word, I shall be waiting. The spirits smile upon you both, sir!”
The old butler’s final words were shouted above the howl of the wind as Rafe went back into the freezing, rain-lashed night. Hugging his sister close, he shut his eyes and shifted them both out in a flurry of black energy arriving seconds later at his destination hundreds of miles away on an island off the French Riviera.
Andreas waited anxiously in front of the neat, white-washed cottage that was his quarters as a Lieutenant on the Warriors’ Council. As Rafe transferred his sister gently into the blonde warrior’s arms, he was shocked anew by his appearance. His sister had been missing for two weeks before his father had admitted to taking her forcibly back to her childhood home. Andreas had gone almost mad with worry as the two of them worked round the clock to track her whereabouts. Andreas and Artemisia were bonded through blood and Andreas’s protective instincts over the woman he loved had gone into overdrive. What was it like to love someone like that? Rafe couldn’t imagine it. He didn’t need it. It made you too vulnerable.
He followed Andreas into the cottage then watched, heart pounding, as Andreas sat on the sofa and cradled Artemisia in his arms. The warrior opened the vein in his wrist with sharp canines and held it over her lips, flexing his hand to make the blood flow faster. His sister lay white and still as though already dead.
“She’s not taking it, she’s too weak. Oh god, Andreas, she’s not taking it. Missy! Please!” Rafe begged.
Should he race across to the chateau to fetch Hera? Gabriel’s consort was a paramedic, surely she’d be able to administer a blood transfusion.
Andreas bent close to Artemisia, and to Rafe’s astonishment, started to sing. It was a modern song that had been very popular in the Riviera nightclubs all through the summer. A simple, whimsical love song Andreas sang low and slightly out of tune. He was halfway through it when his voice hitched, but he took a breath and carried on. Artemisia’s eyes flickered open then her canines descended sharply into her mouth. She bit down into her lover’s wrist and began taking blood in deep, desperate draws. Andreas stopped singing and lifted her closer, whispering endearments against her hair. Rafe got up and made to leave quietly, fighting down the torrent of emotions that rose up and caused tears to sting his eyes. He was almost at the door when Andreas called him back.
“They were playing that song when we first met. She loves it, she’s always humming it. Rafe, what did your father want in exchange for her? What did you agree to?”
“Nothing I can’t handle. Look after her, I’ll drop by at sundown…that is…I’d like to…if I may.” Rafe faltered. He was a commander on the Council, ranking high above Andreas, but over the last fortnight, that barrier had come down. They’d both worked as equals, united in their hunt for Artemisia.
Andreas smiled and Rafe noted the deep shadows under his eyes. He must look just as bad. The two of them had scarcely slept for days.
“Visit whenever you want, you will always be welcome. You’re family,” Andreas bowed his head. “Thank you, Rafe. I pray the price was not too great.”
Rafe pondered on the price of Artemisia’s freedom all the way back to the chateau. As he bent to the retina scanner and waited for the heavy double doors to unlock, he realized with icy clarity how well his father, the master manipulator, had engineered this outcome. He’d never had any intention of forcing his daughter into an alliance with Brandt of the bloodline of Haakon; no, he himself had been his father’s target from the very beginning. His father had gambled on him stepping in to save his sister. Why? What did he have to gain? What was the bigger picture? Whatever his devious plan turned out to be, he wouldn’t let it affect him. He would carry on as usual. No one needed to know. He would keep his private life to himself, just as he had always done.
He stepped into the elegant hallway, headed into the salon, and poured himself a large cognac. Swallowing it in one gulp, he squeezed his eyes shut as it burned its way to his stomach. Oh, he needed that. In fact, he needed another. Picking up the bottle, he was just about to emerge back into the hall when the sound of laughter made him hang back in the doorway. He wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. He’d report to LaSalle later. Right now, all he wanted was to collapse into bed and sleep like the dead.
Leaning against the doorjamb, bottle in hand, Rafe watched a tall raven-haired woman stride across the hall and run up the wide, curving staircase. She wore black jeans, a black T-shirt, and biker boots with multiple buckles. Rafe sighed, uncapped the bottle, and took another swig. Cassia was magnificent. He had once thought he’d been in with a chance, but it hadn’t taken him long to realize she was in love with his fellow commander, Javier of Seville. The two of them were now bonded life consorts. Cassia had been a beautiful bride.
Javier was a lucky bastard. At this precise moment, he would give anything to swap lives with him. He had everything; stunning looks, wealth, position, a daughter, Cassia Mathrafal, and above all, a father who loved him. Life could be bloody unfair.
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