Excerpt for Opposing Forces by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Chapter One

I sat on the edge of my bed with a stiff posture, my hands folded neatly against the dark blue silk of my gown. If I stood, I would pace and Sanguinese dresses were made for elegance, not walking. I was going to die. In less than a week, there would be no more me and I accepted this fate with all the grace and dignity fitting my station. But telling Maxwell? I dreaded the conversation to come. He would likely become—emotional. Part of me couldn’t blame him, as a protector with one charge missing and the other to soon be executed, he had a dismal record, but it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.

A knock on the door made me jolt and I quickly fought to gain my composure. “Come in.”

My Maxwell, handsome and rugged as ever, came in glistening in sweat. His leathers covered in dust from a day and night of riding. He hadn’t even washed before coming directly to me. I would miss his scent. “Claudia, I’ve searched from one end of the kingdom to the other, every corner. Julian is nowhere to be found.”

He thought this was about Julian. Of course he did, how many disasters could he possibly foresee? I walked over to him and caressed his cheek, the start of a beard prickling my palm. “My brother is in mourning. When he is ready to return, he will. Don’t worry. He’s smart. He’ll be fine on his own.”

I pressed against him hoping my closeness would ease his pain. “There is something I need to discuss with you, however. But first you must promise me you will try to remain calm.”

He nodded, his dark eyes narrowing with worry. He had zero chance of keeping his promise, but I could remind him of it after he flew into a rage.

I sighed, the words refusing to pass my lips. “The Deabru king has sent word in regards to his sister.”

Max’s shoulders slumped. “So the truce is over? If ever people needed their king, it’s now. What was Julian thinking?!”

I shook my head. Tears welled in my eyes. I hadn’t even said it yet and I was already starting to crumble. I dug my nails into my palms in attempt to distract myself. I needed to remain strong, for Maxwell, for my people. I couldn’t be remembered as weak and simpering in the face of my fate.

“No...” I said, my words soft against the stale air of the room. “The truce will remain intact as long as I hand myself over to the Deabru.”

He took a step back, his eyes wild with shock and fear. “No. Lucius agreed to this? I need to go talk with him—”

“It’s already been decided.” I said sternly, my voice echoing off the walls to ensure he had heard me. He turned back to me, seemingly hurt and confused. “We can’t survive another war. If we have any chance at peace then this has to happen. My uncle knows and accepts the reality of the situation. Try to understand. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

My fist was so tight that my nails finally broke the skin. Max’s gaze fell to the spot where my blood began to pool on the marble flooring. There went my dignified exit.

“No. No!” All of the nervous energy I felt was reflected in his stance. The outline of every muscle was visible through his leathers. Rage would lead him to shift at any moment, but he had nothing to battle. There was no beast he could slay to save me. “I won’t let you. Even if I have to kill every damn Deabru with my bare hands, I won’t let you!”

I never thought Max and I would last. We were so young when we became lovers. Yet, for almost a hundred years, he’d never even looked at another woman the way he looked at me. I had always expected him to reach a phase where he decided he needed to try new things, to venture beyond me, and I had prepared myself to let him go when it came to that. But that moment never came. Maxwell would be faithful and loving until the day I died, which was why what I had to do was so hard. “As your liege, I command you not to follow me to Deabru territory. You will not try to stop me, save me or avenge my death. Do you understand me?”

His hand shifted, hairs sprouting out around long black claws as he tossed my nightstand into the bed, shattering the crystal candlestick that had been sitting atop of it. “No! I do not understand! I don’t understand any of this!”

As he tore apart my room, I waited patiently at the center of the tempest. There was a peace to be had as I watched him tear apart things I’d never need again. He was a surrogate for the rage I couldn’t express. Once he exhausted himself he fell to his knees and wept. In all the years I had known him, I’d never seen him cry before. Those tears were for me and the life we could never have.

I knelt down next to him and placed my hand on his trembling shoulder.

“I have to die. I can’t let my kingdom fall just to save myself. My life isn’t worth my kingdom.”

He blinked up at me as if I had made some sort of serious miscalculation. “Your life is worth everything.”

In that moment my heart shattered, every part of me wanted to hold him and let him fight but my better judgment won. There was nothing anyone could do. The Deabru king wanted my life in exchange for allowing his sister to kill herself. He had to know we couldn’t sustain another war. For a demon, the trade was almost…merciful.

I needed to hold my ground, find my composure and tie up my affairs. Clearing my throat I pushed myself to my feet, strode to the heap that used to resemble a desk and found a piece of parchment. I wanted to make sure everything would be taken care of whether I was around or not. If my Maxwell was this tortured, I feared what my blood slaves might do when they heard the news.

No other being could understand the unique connection a vampire had with the people that nourished them. We often pretending they meant little to us for appearance sake, but we were insanely protective of them. Even the idea of other vampires feeding on my slaves pricked me. But I wouldn’t let my feelings cost them the long life and good health that came with being owned.

I offered Max the parchment. “Maxwell, I need you to look after my slaves.” I could feel his eyes on me but I refused to look. If I did, I might break. “They will need to be placed with new owners. I need you to do this for me.” A lump formed in my throat.

“They will need new homes, good homes. I don’t want them anywhere near the southern border. I would prefer them to stay at court if at all possible, but if they must leave I want them as far from danger as possible.”

“I took the liberty of writing down my preferences for them and each one’s personal needs to better assist you.”

I mustered up every ounce of courage I had and looked into his eyes. “I need you to do this for me, Maxwell. Just this one last order.”

His eyes searched mine for any hint of my resolve crumbling, but he would find none. My mind had been made up, the decision was final.

Defeat blanketed his sweet features and his tear-filled eyes fell from mine as he nodded in compliance before slowly taking the note.

The mask I wore had grown far too heavy. Max’s pain was a mere fraction of my own. Biting back the urge to scream, I rushed from the room, the silk train of my dress fluttering behind me.

Chapter Two

I headed straight for the carriage. I didn't stop in the halls where Julian used to carry me on his shoulders. I didn't peek into the ballroom where we celebrated the end of the war and my slaves got so drunk I had to carry most of them to bed. And I most definitely didn't look over the balcony at the waterfall where Maxwell and I made love for the first time under the glowing light of a silver moon. The truth of the matter was I loved living and I didn't want to give it up. But there was something I loved more, my people, human and Sanguinese alike. I couldn't let my people die because I was too cowardly or selfish to do what was right.

When the twelve-foot high, golden embroidered doors were pulled open, I expected a lone carriage, packed with the few things I needed on my journey, ready to take me to my destination and a small escort. At first the light of the midday sun blinded me, but as my eyes adjusted I gasped. Filling the garden was every resident of the palace. Every man, woman and child had come to see me off, including my blood slaves. I could tell most had been crying, but as they stood there, they watched with their heads up and their chins high, just as I would wish.

My uncle, Lucius, stood closest to me. Though far older than Julian and I, he appeared around thirty in human years making him look more like my older brother than my uncle. In my brother's absence, he served as regent, a golden crown encircling the twisted locks of his blond hair, indicating his station. As I approached him, he knelt before me. A show of respect for my sacrifice. The rest of the court followed as I made my way past them to the ivory trimmed carriage. I wanted to say something to them, but what could I possibly say?

The footman opened the door and helped me in. I sat down and began to bundle the reams of fabric that made up my accursed dress. No one should be in a hurry to their own execution, but this was just too hard. I needed to get out of the palace before I broke down and made a spectacle of myself.

Once we were past the gates I thought there would be some reprieve, but it seemed as though news of my sacrifice had made it through the city and everyone my carriage passed stopped what they were doing and fell to their knees. Many cried, calling out my name and reaching for me as I rode on. When they got too close, a firm glare from one of my guards was usually enough for them to wilt away.

Things got quieter after we got past the bounds of the city. In the cool country air, I was left to my thoughts. And of course there was only one thing on my mind. How were they going to kill me? The Deabru enjoyed burning their enemies. That would be a particularly slow and gruesome death. I would be hard pressed not to scream as my body tried again and again to heal itself despite being immolated. Given my royal status maybe they would give me a quick beheading. That would be nice and dignified, well at least until after I was dead and my head rolled away. Though I figured the most likely scenario was being tossed from the highest point of the Deabru castle which resided at the top of a mountain. The fall would be long enough for me to get bored on the way down. Given that's how Zuriel's sister died, it would most likely be my fate. And probably one of the least painful, most dignified options I could think of.

I just hoped that whenever Julian came home he didn't blame himself for my death. I knew he would, but that was yet one more thing I had no power over. The only thing I could do was not struggle too much when they tossed me into the volcano.

The journey from the palace to the Deabru castle took a week by carriage. We stopped nightly at forts and keeps that peppered the long southern road, leaving behind the lush green lands of my kingdom to the barren rock of the Deabru. They made their homes high in the mountains, hidden by fog, they were nearly impossible to find until they descended down on innocent villages like starved beasts hunting for a meal. They may have had the faces of humans but their leathery wings and black eyes told their true nature. Something dark and evil. How my brother could have drunk from such a creature let alone fallen in love with her was beyond my understanding.

But that was the nature of men. They'd lay with a turnip if you carved it into an appealing shape.

And it was the duty of women to bear the brunt of men's poor choices. So as the clouds turned gray and everything I ever cared about was far, far behind me I steeled myself for what was ahead. I would die well, and do my people proud.

When the Deabru stronghold came into view my jaw dropped. Since women did not fight, I'd never been this far south and had only imagined what the castle might look like. I'd always pictured a Sanguinese fort dark and brooding, high up with no entrances by foot. Instead onyx-colored pillars pierced the sky, weaving in and out of clouds that flickered from shades of grey to purple in the fading sun light. Silver accents brought out the natural colors surrounding the castle giving it an ethereal beauty that threatened to steal my breath.

The carriage stopped. My awe inspired gaze dropped from the castle and I was about to ask one of my escorts why we'd stopped when I noticed what was on the road before us. Four winged men, dressed in dark metal armor and wearing the crest of the Deabru royal guard waited on the road next to a black and silver litter curtained with white silk. Behind them were four drakes, saddled and tied to the litter.

We had arrived. Mournfully, the footman opened the door for me and helped me out of the carriage. "May the gods look after you, Princess Claudia."

I placed a gloved hand on his shoulder. "Thank you." I looked at the ten men who had seen me safely to my execution. "Now you should all head home. You've done your duty." It was time for me to do mine.

Wanting to go with as much dignity as possible, I didn't wear traveling clothes on the last day of my journey. Instead I wore my most extravagant red gown, with a hand-embroidered bodice, the v-cut neckline descended down to my belly button as the nine foot train trailed behind me. Several dainty chains of gold hung from my neck. Rubies covered my tiara and were beaded through my hair, clinging to various pale locks like crimson droplets of blood scattered across soft sand. I was not going to step into that barbaric court as anything less than what I was, a princess of the greatest house in the history of the realm.

I walked up to the four men alone and unarmed, even without their wings each of them towered over me. But I showed no fear. "I am Princess Claudia of the House of Corvus. Your king is expecting me."

One of the men gestured for me to enter the litter. I'd expected for their faces to be twisted with hatred, but instead they had the cold detachment of military men simply doing their job. That bothered me more than hate. What was the point of executing me over something which people felt indifferent about? After I sat down and began to gather up my dress, to my surprise one of the guards leaned down to help me. Wide-eyed, I mumbled, "Thank you." As small as the gesture was, it was something I would never expect from a Deabru.

As the guards headed to their mounts I noticed my escorts hadn't left. Instead, they stood at attention watching as my litter was lifted from the ground and towards the sky. As they became specks in the distance beneath me, I realized I'd never lay eyes on my people again.

The litter was lowered onto a giant stone balcony that led directly into the grand throne room. Great stone pillars lined the path between me and the throne, on either side—demons. I guess some might call it a royal court, but dressed in leathers and furs they looked more like beasts than high born. Though the king was different. He lounged comfortably in his throne without a care dressed in a black linen tunic that held few embellishments. The throne next to him was more delicately carved, fit for a queen, though it hadn't been occupied since her death many years prior. I only knew of her legend, a female warrior, fierce as she was beautiful. When she should have been home producing an heir, she was instead leading troops into battle. As a child, I idolized her. I named my prettiest doll after her, though when news came that she'd killed my father on the battlefield, I burned it. It had been so hard not to cry when mother climbed onto father's funeral pyre. After all, I was just a child and lacked the discipline I learned as an adult. But somehow, I managed.

I held on to the image of the little girl watching her world go up in flames, clutching it as if it was a lifeline. I was strong then and I was strong now. I would not cower. I strode past the Deabru "court", every eye in the room locked on me in shunning silence and stopped right in front of the king with my head held high. "I am Claudia Corvus, Princess of Sanguine."

He rose from his throne and approached me. He was ridiculously tall, with broad shoulders that seemed even wider due to the black wings tucked behind him. He lifted my chin forcing me to look into his glassy charcoal eyes. They were bottomless. I could fall into them and never be found. I wanted so badly to look away, but I wouldn't let myself.

"You are very pretty," he said it like I was a horse he wanted to buy.

Or worse... Maybe he wouldn't just execute me. Maybe he'd make sport of me first. No. He couldn't. I was a princess! If he dishonored me in that way, my uncle would be forced into war regardless.

My stomach sank.

He could have his revenge and his war. Why didn't I see that before? Was it because it was hard for me to imagine that level of evil?

"We didn't hurt her, your sister. She died by her own hand." Maybe if he knew we treated our royal captive with respect, he'd do the same.

He released me. "You don't think I have spies in your court, vampire? They might not have been able to get her out, but they were able to get me news of her condition and if she had been harmed I would have brought that gaudy golden hut down around your heads."

Hut? Did he call my ancestral home a hut? Anger flickered across my expression before I could bury it. It was obvious he had noticed as he wore a long satisfied grin.

"If you knew we played no part in her death, why would you ask for me?"

He walked back and forth in front of me, his eyes trailing down the split in my dress. "I wouldn't say your people played no part. Do you know what we do to traitors?"

My eyes followed him as he paced. "Why would I?"

"We bind their wings and toss them out of the castle. My sister didn't put a dagger through her heart or drown herself. She chose to die a traitor's death. Why did she see herself as a traitor?"

Because she'd fallen in love with my brother. Her heart was torn between her people and her greatest enemy. "You wish to kill me because your sister couldn't resist a handsome face? I didn't seduce her."

He froze, a glimmer of amusement shading his features. "Wait. You think my intention is to kill you? And you accepted the offer anyway?"

"If I'm not here to pay the blood debt owed to your family, then why am I here?"

He sighed into his palm. "Our kind have been fighting on and off since before I was born. But after Shaya was captured, there was peace. And more than that. One of your kind was capable of loving one of ours. Do you understand what that means? There is some glimmer of hope that we can do better, be better, so our children won't have to grow up in a kingdom ravaged by war. I didn't ask you here to kill you. I asked you here to marry you and unite our peoples."

"But, I hate you." The words just shot out before I had a chance to consider them. The shock of my situation slamming into me at full speed. All around me were gasps and whispers, reminding me at the very heart, I was on a diplomatic mission. "I don't mean you, personally. I don't know anything about you. I just mean I have a strong aversion to your species."

Those cold black eyes gave no hint of emotion, which was unusual for Deabru, they tended to show their every emotion. I suppose as a king, he had to be better. "Take some time. Think over my offer. I've had a room set up for you in the meantime."

He made a simple gesture, dismissing me from his court and one of his guards stepped up to escort me to my quarters. I followed behind the iron clad man trying to figure out what to do next. Anyone I'd turn to for advice was a world away. I was alone in this prison of a kingdom.

Fully and utterly alone.

Chapter Three

The walls of my room were the same onyx that made up the rest of the castle, so smooth that I could see my reflection. But instead of the silver, gray and purple hues that seemed to be everywhere else, the furniture in this room was made up of the same red and gold colors of my house. Connected to my room was a large wardrobe with dresses on display that were neither the elegant gowns of my people or the crass leathers of the Deabru, instead some strange hybrid of the two styles. An attempt at both elegance and function.

It was clear he was serious about his plan to unite our peoples. Every aspect of my quarters was a testament to that goal. But it wasn't that simple. Sanguinese women submitted to their husbands in all things. If the truce failed and war broke out once again, could I massage my husband's back and wash the blood of my people off his aching limbs?

That would be the vow I'd have to make and if I didn't believe I could do it, I wouldn't even be able to utter the words. Killing me would be so much... cleaner. I would only have to wear the mask for as long as my execution took. If I agreed to marry him, I'd have to wear the mask for the rest of my life. And being an immortal being, short of accident or murder, that would be a very long time.

The idea of taking him to my bed and having his little winged droppings wiggling out of me, made me want to fall to the ground and weep in despair. And what about Maxwell? Mourning my loss was one thing. The news of me marrying another man would destroy him.

As strong as I was trying to be, I could feel my heart shattering into fragile pieces inside my chest.

Why hadn't Julian married me off to some noble years go? All of this could have been avoided. His deep affection for Max kept him from using me to form a political alliance with some other kingdom. At the time, I couldn't complain, I had no desire to surrender my will for the pleasure of another even if it was considered the greatest honor a woman could aspire to. Though part of me desired it, I could never marry Max because he was my lesser. He was safe.

Now I wished with all my heart my brother had married me off to some elf or fae or even a dwarf. Anything to spare me from what I had to do. And I knew I had to accept. If the only other option was war, the choice I was being given wasn't a real choice at all.

I crawled into the massive bed, and curled up under the soft silk sheets letting them curl around me in false comfort. I didn't even bother removing my dress. I was just so weary, both physically and emotionally. I needed to rest. Though my mind raced with the new twists of my fate, sleep found me quickly and I succumbed to it willingly. Anything to distract my frayed thoughts was welcomed with open arms.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of curtains being torn open. Blinding white light flooded the room and beamed brightly onto my face. Squinting I made out a woman in front of my window. She seemed different than other Deabru women, instead of tight leather, she wore a loose linen dress. Her red curls were tied up in a bun instead of falling over her shoulders and her dainty wings hung behind her like a cloak.

When I sat up, she attempted to curtsy. She'd clearly never even seen a curtsy let alone attempted one, but I appreciated the gesture. "Good morning, your majesty," she said in a sing-song voice. "I am Leya, your lady-in-waiting."

She waved at the door and in walked five young women who got to work tending to me and my room.

As two of the girls undressed me, Leya walked over to my wardrobe. "Have you decided what you want to wear today, my lady?"

I had had my eye on one dress in particular after seeing them, whatever the reason it stuck out to me more-so than the rest.

"I like the blue one, with the chain belt." The cut of it reminded me of an upside-down flower.

Leya retrieved the dress, carrying it across her arms, careful of the delicate fabric. "That's one of my personal favorites also. When I explained to the seamstresses your unique needs, I thought the one that designed this dress had understood particularly well."

My unique needs? "Why not have them make dresses in the style of my people, or better yet, why not be clearer about why I was coming here and I would have brought my own clothes."

She smiled as she laid the dress across the bed. "So had you known you were coming here to marry the king, you would have come anyway? That bodes well for me in the betting pool. I don't think the king intended to mislead you. If you understand that executing a helpless woman for something she had no part in isn't something that any of us would do, then the intent behind the king's request becomes apparent. I'm sure next time he'll factor in how little your people think of us and will be more explicit in his desires."

Her tone was so chipper, her eyes so bright, it was almost like she wasn't insulting me. "So you bet that I would accept his offer?"

She was right, I would. Not that I had much choice.

"No, my lady. Everyone is assuming you'll accept the offer. The bets are on how many times you protest before doing so."

I hated these people. Leya was quite possibly the least annoying of all of them, and I still wanted to slap her.

If my people stood half a chance against a flying warrior race, I'd be planning my escape already. After I was dressed, my servants took care of my hair and makeup, until finally I was ready to throw myself at the king's feet in front of the entire court.

I quietly gave myself a brief pep talk and practiced my half-smiles before leaving my quarters. I was going to need them if I planned on making it through this.

Standing outside my room was a sandy haired man with ruddy wings in full military garb. I turned to Leya, "I guess the king isn't so confident of my acceptance if he's sent a soldier to make sure I don't run away."

The man took a step forward and bowed, "Your majesty, I'm Tinnen, Commander of the queen's guard. I just wanted to introduce myself and see if you needed anything."

"I have a queen's guard?" My eyes narrowed skeptically. "Are you here to protect me or report back to him?"

Leya answered before Tinnen could, "My lady, everyone in your service is oathbound to you. The king made sure only people who supported the alliance were assigned to your household. We all want you to succeed."

His people wanted us to succeed? As off putting as it felt, I was in shock that they would care as much as they appeared to.

As I headed to the throne room, the reality of it all hit me. This was really happening. Soon I would be wife to my most hated enemy, queen to a race of people whose very existence sickened me.

Never had my garment been so light, yet my steps so heavy.

The room was filled with chatter until nobles began to notice my arrival. One by one they quieted and by the time I stood before the king, there was dead silence.

I clasped my hands together to keep from fidgeting as I willed myself to look up at the man I was soon to marry. "I have considered your proposal and I accept."

Half the room burst into applause. The other half glared. I felt a sort of kinship with the ones that glared. They wanted this about as much as I did.

Zuriel stepped off his throne, still towering over me. If not for the gentleness of his smile, he would have been unbearably intimidating. "Excellent. The ceremony is scheduled at midday and after that there will be a feast."

Today? The wedding was a few hours away! "I need time to prepare! Arrangements have to be made!"

He waved me off. "Everything has been taken care of. Unless there is someone you'd like to invite, Julian perhaps, then things could be postponed long enough for him to get here. But otherwise, I'd like to get this done before you have time to reconsider."

There was no way I'd announce in the middle of Deabru court that the Sanguine king had gone missing. Though if Zuriel had spies in our court, he probably already knew about my brother and his offer was his way of pointing out exactly how vulnerable me and my people were.

Defeated, I replied with barely a whisper, "No, if it pleases you to have the ceremony today, then we shall have it today."

He clapped his hands together. "Yes, that pleases me very much, little wife." And kissed me on the cheek. The warmth of his lips on my cheek sent electric waves through my body. I paid the sensation no mind. Of course, I'd physically react to his handsome features and commanding presence, it was my mind that understood what kind of monster his kind were, not my body.

"May I be excused to prepare for the wedding?" I couldn't sit in that room for hours pretending to be happy about what was to come.

He tilted his head to the side with pinched brows and spoke in a softer tone, "You don't need my permission. You are the future queen of the Deabru, you may come and go as you please."

I took that as a yes, gave a quick curtsy to my soon-to-be lord and master and hurried from the throne room as fast as my legs would take me.

Leya and Tinnen followed after me. "Are you alright, my lady?"

No, I wasn't alright. I was anything but. However, I couldn't say that, so I changed the subject. "Did you win your bet?"

"No, I bet five gold you'd give at least one excuse before agreeing to the marriage."

"You should have told me. I'm sure I could have come up with something."

She laughed. "What's the fun of gambling if you're going to cheat? Speaking of gambling, you look like someone in need of a distraction. Do you play cards?"

I stopped in my tracks. "How much do you have on you?"

By the time I needed to get ready for the ceremony I'd already cleaned out three of my handmaidens and most of my guards.

"I don't understand how someone who can't lie is so good at bluffing," complained Tinnen as I stacked the last bit of his coin.

"It's because I can't lie that I'm so good at misleading, after all, every good lie has a bit of truth."

As individuals, I liked Leya and Tinnen. They were warm people going out of their way to make me feel welcome. I wasn't so naive to think just because I hated a species, I'd hate every single person of that species. Regardless of how I felt about the Deabru chosen specifically to get me to feel positively about them, that didn't change the fact that they invaded our lands, burned our villages, killed my father and caused the death of my mother.

There was a huge difference between a friendly card game and giving birth to them. But it was the duty of every princess to sacrifice for her people. So I'd do what was required of me.

Compared to Sanguinese ceremonies, Deabru weddings were simple. Back home my dress would require twenty women to carry my train, ten on each side and the ceremony itself would take four days of feasts and sacrifices and vows.

Instead, I met Zuriel on the highest tower of the castle—alone. He took my hands in his and swore before the gods to cherish and provide for me. Though I knew the vows weren’t of his own words something about them struck me. They were still beyond sincere and honest. At least that was how he portrayed them. There was no hint of hatred in his eyes. As he made his pledge to me, he looked at me as though I was the most precious being in creation. It made me feel confused and conflicted. I pushed my feelings aside, ignoring my body’s reaction and carried on with my own. When Leya explained to me the vows Deabru women make to comfort and counsel, I almost laughed. What man would want that? Taking the same liberties, Zuriel took with my clothes, I instead altered my vows to represent both cultures swearing to honor, comfort and obey.

Zuriel had just the slightest grimace at my changes before quickly recovering. Maybe he misunderstood and thought I meant as his wife I'd bring him honor, when I meant I'd honor him. I made a mental note to clear things up in the future. I didn't want him thinking he was saddled with a presumptuous wife.

Chapter Four

After the wedding, I was shell-shocked. As I sat at the head of a table surrounded by Deabru nobles with my demonic husband by my side, the full weight of what I'd done came slamming down on me. I thought of Shaya tossing herself from the highest tower of the palace and I understood why she did it.

Once the people I loved found out what I'd done, what would they think of me? I did it for them, but I doubt that would matter. And the worst was yet to come. My lord would take me to bed and sample what was forever his.

Dish after dish was sat before me, but I didn't touch any of it. Strange smells, unfamiliar spices. I occasionally ate human food for novelty, but the queasiness I felt wouldn't make it possible to try any of Deabru delicacies sitting in front of me.

I must have made a face when yet another sizzling plate was placed in front of me because Zuriel offered me his wrist. "Are you hungry, wife?"

I recoiled from his offering, regaining my composure far too late. "No. I'm fine. Thank you." The idea of sucking down his black blood was more nauseating than the food.

"Disgusting," mumbled a noble woman wearing form fitting black leather with white trim, whose dark hair fell wildly around her face with thick plaits in the back.

The man next to her softly scolded her with her name, "Mara."

But instead of discouraging her, it had the opposite effect. "I accept that it has married the king, but I shouldn't be forced to watch it slurp down his royal blood like some greedy leech."

Had I been home, she'd been dead before finishing her sentence. Julian would have never tolerated such blatant disrespect. I turned to Zuriel to see what he was going to do about Mara.

He was leaning back in his chair watching me as if he expected me to say something. I was being insulted in his court and he was going to allow it.

I rose from my chair and stormed from the room without a word to anyone. Zuriel told me I didn't need permission to come and go and I pleased. It seemed like a fine time to test that.

I ran until a reached a balcony. The castle walls seemed to close in on me. I needed air. I leaned over the ledge taking long, deep breaths.

How dare he just allow her to speak so ill of his new wife?! But what should I expect from the ruling king of demons. I clearly expected too much from such a vile species.

Between the clouds, I could make out the full moon. Tonight I would have been running barefoot through the woods with Max. The wind would brush my cheeks and my laughter would echo across the palace. Behavior unbecoming of a princess, but I was allowed some leeway.

My heart broke at the thought that I'd never feel that free and light again.


I whipped around to find a young human holding a glass of spring wine. He must have never been trained to block his thoughts from vampires because his mind was completely open to me. He thought I was too lovely to be so sad and took it upon himself to remedy the situation.

I held out my hand to accept his offer. "And who might you be to so casually approach a queen?"

He handed me the glass and then took a step back. "I'm Alik, I take care of the drakes."

I lifted my glass in a mock toast. "Alik the Stableboy, my hero."

His studied his feet. "You just looked like you could use a drink. That's all."

I sipped the wine as I examined him. He looked nineteen, maybe twenty, with soft curls and still a hint of baby fat in his cheeks. He had a cuteness that would have gotten him taken as a blood slave in Sanguine, though, not by me. His thoughts would make a prostitute blush and I was prominently featured in them. I didn't fault him for his inability to shield his thoughts from me, but they were most certainly distracting. "You do realize that's physically impossible, even for me, right?"

He starred at me wide-eyed as the color drained from his face. "I forgot that you can do that."

"You aren't the first person I've caught thinking of me. Though I must admit, you were rather generous with my proportions. My bosom isn't really that large." I bit back a smile. Teasing some poor human boy, I could almost pretend I was still home.

"I'm going to go sit under a drake now. It was an honor meeting you, your majesty."

I held up a hand to stop him. "Wait! Stay with me for a bit."

He stayed put, focusing as hard as he could on tending to the drakes. His daily routine of feeding, cleaning, shoveling hay played through his mind on repeat. I found it interesting that he wasn't afraid of them. My kind had tried to tame drakes as the ability to fly would have made a huge difference in the war, but every attempt had ended in disaster. Yet this mere human boy had memories of soaring through the clouds.

"Were you born here? You don't seem very familiar with my kind."

He shook his head. "I was born in Kent. Being on the border, we were constantly raided. My dad died in the war, and my mom followed after him a year later when the Deabru attacked, setting the village on fire."

This was why I hated them. Humans were so vulnerable. I didn't understand how the Deabru could so easily take their fragile lives. My kind had ruled over mankind for as far back as the recorded history of the realm. When the Deabru came in with their cold brutality, we did our best to protect what was ours. But we shouldn't have had to. The Deabru's only reason for terrorizing the humans was to expand their borders because they bred like animals.

"I'm so sorry. Every time I hear stories like this I feel like my family has failed all of humanity."

"It was a long time ago. I was four years old wandering The Wastes, lost, starving, alone. Zuriel found me. He nursed me back to health, personally. He's a good man."

"He's not a man," I corrected.

"Deabru can be cruel and violent, but they also can be loving and kind. There is goodness in them, you just have to give them a chance to prove it. Especially, Zuriel. If his father was still around when Shaya was taken, he would have never accepted a truce. He would have pressed harder until the war was won and if she was killed in the process he would have tortured whatever vampires survived. And there is no way he would have taken a vampire wife. Zuriel is different from other Deabru. You need to give him a chance."

While I wanted to give him a chance, all I could think about was how he allowed me to be insulted in my own court without doing anything. He didn't seem much different from the others to me. "Even if I gave him a chance it wouldn't matter, they all hate me."

"That's not true. From what I've seen about a quarter hate you. Another quarter see you as the messiah, come to end the suffering and bloodshed and the rest are undecided. Give them a chance to know you and they will fall to their knees and worship you."

I finished off my spring wine, and sat the empty glass on the ledge. "I'm flattered, but I fear the rest of the court isn't so enamored with me."

He tilted his head to the side. "Do you really think your looks are the only amazing thing about you?"

I brushed the sides of my dress with my hands, not quite sure what to do with them now that I'd finished with my drink. "It's not like you know enough about me to find something other than my appearance appealing."

"I know that you came here willing to die for your people. I know you married a man you hate to protect them. I know you stared him down like a leopard facing a bear."

Now it was my turn to blush. "Like I said before, I don't hate him. I just hate his people. And for good reasons."

Alik nodded. "Both sides have good reasons to hate and they both have good reasons to stop."

I smiled. "How did someone so young get to be so wise?"

Alik returned my smile with a half grin. "Zuriel gets preachy late at night. You'll get used to it."

I laughed. It was getting late and as much as I dreaded it, I had wifely duties to perform. "Speaking of Zuriel, can you show me to his quarters?"

While Zuriel may have been trying to change his dress to please me, his room was very much that of a Deabru king. The heads of beasts he'd probably slain were mounted all over the walls. His bed was covered in thick furs of his kills instead of sheets. His furniture was well-made but sparse. Other than the bed there was only a desk and weapon rack. Not even a fireplace to warm him against the night's chill.

I removed my clothing and climbed between the furs and waited for my husband. Hours passed before he finally decided to leave the festivities. He bust through the door, laughing, a bottle in his hand. He halted at the sight of me. "What are you doing here?"

Was he serious? "It's our wedding night."

He stood there waiting for more.

"I'm here so that we can consummate the marriage."

He shook his head, words slightly slurred. "No, we don't do that. I gave my vow, you gave yours, we're married. And I won't bed a woman who recoils from me."

I tossed off the furs revealing myself to him. "Well, this is how we do things. And how exactly do you expect me to produce an heir if you won't touch me."

He desired my body. I could see the war in his eyes between the man that wanted to win my affections and the one that wanted to just climb on top of me and take what was his. I hoped the latter would win because he wouldn't be able to win my affections and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life pretending like he had them in order to do my duty.

But luck was against me. He backed out of the room and closed the door, leaving me alone in his bed. I buried my face under his furs not knowing which option I hated more, him leaving or him staying.

Chapter Five

The next day I woke up with clarity. I'd made my choices. I'd vowed to honor and obey and I would keep my word. He would reel at how completely I gave myself, subjugating my will to his in every area. I would live for his happiness and pleasure, like my mother did for my father and her mother before her.

I put my dress on and headed to my quarters. Even though I wasn't fully familiar with the castle's layout, it was straightforward and easy to figure out. When I reached my room, Leya and my servants were already waiting for me. She offered a curtsy and the others attempted to copy her. I'd have to eventually teach them the proper way to do that. With a knowing grin, she asked, "Sleep well, my queen?"

Subtle. "I slept fine. I need you to do me a favor. Bring me the dress you think would be most pleasing to the king."

Leya rushed into my wardrobe while the other women worked on undressing me. She came back with the last dress I would have guessed. A leather garment with linen lining, two high splits on the skirt and thigh high boots. It looked more appropriate for riding or hunting than seducing a king. "Are you sure?"

"When he sees you in this, his jaw will hit the floor."

I trusted her judgment. The servants went to task getting me cleaned and ready. Leya convinced me to wear my hair down and to try darker makeup more common in Deabru court.

I looked like a tart, but there was something empowering about my free flowing hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. Once I was ready I turned to Leya and asked, "So where exactly is my husband?"

“Last I saw, he was in the center courtyard with Lord Alaster and Lady Mara.”

I tried not to cringe at the mention of that woman’s name. I wondered how frequently I’d have to see her. “Are they close with the king?” If Zuriel was good friends with Alaster that would explain why he was slow to shut down that shrew of a woman the night before.

Leya nodded enthusiastically.

Well that explained it. He hadn’t wanted to embarrass his friend, who had lost control of his female at court.

“You must understand. The king and Lady Mara have been friends from childhood. She’s only concerned about him, she doesn’t mean to quarrel.”

Quarrel? Was that really what she called it? The woman tried to insult and humiliate me in front of everyone. Yet, she was the kind of person the king chose to keep company with. My role as wife and queen seemed to get more complicated by the second. “Center courtyard? I’m sure I’ll be able to find it.”

I managed to find Zuriel with little difficulty right where Leya had mentioned. I approached one of many high arches that separated the hall from the courtyard. Plush green grass met the vibrant dark stone walk way and a large water fountain spewed water rhythmically just beyond Zuriel and the others.

He was shooting targets with Mara and Alaster. The ease with which he spoke to his friends quickly faded as he spotted my approach. But Leya had been right, when my change of attire registered, he stared with his mouth hanging half open.

I strolled over to him and suggestively ran my delicate fingers up and down his bow. “Are you winning?”

“Huh? Wha…?” he asked, still gawking.

I gestured toward the targets with arrows jutting out of the white and brown rings. “I assume you’re competing to see who can hit the target, correct?”

He managed to tear his eyes from me long enough to look where I was pointing. “We’re not keeping score, but I’m the better shot. Would you like to try?”

I laid my chin against his broad shoulder blinking up at him. “I’d rather watch you.”

Mara, who seemed to be determined to undermine me interjected, “Why do you bother asking her? You said she swore to do whatever you told her to. Just tell her to do it.”

My desire to fire the bow increased exponentially, though I had no interest in aiming for the target. I slipped the bow from Zuriel’s fingers. “If it pleases my king …”

I picked up three arrows from their holder, noting their balance. “I noticed you’re no longer referring to me as it, I’m curious what prompted this change.”

She shrugged, her wings rising and falling with the motion. “Aly and Zu convinced me that even if you’re a thing, you’re a female thing, and referring to you as it was needlessly rude.”

I positioned each of the arrows between my fingers and against the bow string. Zuriel took a step toward me assuming I was confused on how bows worked, but the glare I gave him stopped him in his tracks. The idea of Mara calling him by a nickname grated on me. He was a king, the least she could do was call him by his entire name, it was only two syllables. “I suppose you consider the rest of the rudeness needed for some reason.”

“I’m trying to protect my king. Same as you.” Another insult. Zuriel became my king the moment I married him, but she was implying my loyalty really belonged to my brother. But as long as there was peace between the two kingdoms, my loyalty wasn’t split.

I let lose all three arrows at once. Unsurprisingly, they all hit the target, dead center. Both Zuriel and Alaster were impressed. Mara looked irritated. I offered Zuriel his bow back with some advice. “You shouldn’t mistake submissiveness with incompetence.”

“If females don’t fight, why did anyone bother training you anyway?” Mara snapped.

“Due to vampire females’ exquisite grace and tractability, men of other species covet us. Especially those stuck with less delicate women. We are taught to defend ourselves. Being of royal blood, I'm highly trained in several forms of combat.”

“Interesting,” Alaster interjected.

Mara whipped around to look at him. “You can’t tell me you believe that crap?”

“No. But she believes it. Else she couldn’t have said it.”

His wife waved off the idea. “Her species has turned deceiving without lying into an art form. That just makes her more dangerous. You never know what she’s thinking. You never know who you’re really dealing with.”

“Your majesty,” Alaster said, “can you recall a single instance where a Deabru male violated a vampire female?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but he was right. I’d heard stories of Deabru tearing people apart and eating their insides but not a single story of a woman being violated. “No. Why is that?”

Once again, Mara took it upon herself to answer for others. “You don’t understand the first thing about us, yet you hope to rule us? Can I ask you something, your majesty? How many lovers have you had over the years?”

“Mara…” there was menace in Zuriel’s tone, as if she’d finally crossed a line that I had no hope of seeing.

“Six,” I answered not sure where this was going.

“That’s not that many when you consider her age,” Alaster said to Zuriel as if defending me. But I didn’t understand why I needed defending. Deabru weren’t chaste.

“Yes, that’s what? Only one lover every thirty years or so. Given how delicate vampires are, perhaps they all died forcing her to move from one to the next. How many of these men still live?”

While she was talking to me, her eyes were on Zuriel. Was this really something Deabru cared about? “Four of them still live. And it wasn’t one man ever thirty years, I was with Max for almost a century.”

“You abandon a man you’ve loved for almost a century, and are already trying to seduce our king?”

“No. I—” The shock of my own words stopped me. When she asked me if I abandoned a man I loved, I said no. It was pretty obvious that I abandoned him, lost and broken, stuck carrying on while I died, so I must have meant that no, I never loved him. He made me happy, but I always knew the depth of my feelings didn’t compare to his. We deceive without lying. That’s what Mara said. Had I deceived Max for over half my life?

I changed topics, no longer wanting to discuss my past. “I am his wife. It is my duty to bear him heirs.”

Mara grabbed Zuriel by the arms. “Listen to her. She cares nothing for you. Her kind is incapable of love. She just wants your seed because she sees that as her purpose. Are you really considering giving a thing like that your soul?”

Rage radiated from my core, threatening to boil me alive from the inside. This was too much. I couldn’t maintain my composure much longer. I was very close to ripping Mara’s head from her neck and causing the very war I sacrificed to prevent. “Please, excuse me.”

I left them there, debating what to do about me. It was like none of them understood this was my life. I had to win Zuriel’s heart, or my brother’s kingdom would forever be in danger.

Chapter Six

I rushed through the halls of the castle. Every pitch black pillar served to remind me of how desperately far I was from home. For the first time in my life, I was utterly alone among strangers. I’d been arrogant. I thought my appearance and willingness to please would be enough, but whatever attraction Zuriel had toward me was countered by a hatred for my kind as deep as mine for his. How did I think I could live like this? Scorned and mocked by everyone around me.

The walls became shadows, closing in around me. Cutting off my ability to breathe. I had to get out. But that was just one more sick joke. Without the ability to fly, there was no way out of my dark coffin. Laughter bubbled from my throat. Me? The Queen of the Deabru. I was a prisoner in my own castle. The absurdity of it was driving me mad. I should have never agreed to marry him. I should have begged for him to accept my life as payment for his loss. I hadn’t thought things through. There were things far more precious than my life that I could lose— my dignity, my sanity, my spirit.

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