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Chapter 1


 

I loved the Queen like a puppy loves its master. However cruel she might be, I loved her still. I was only a child and servantette of Her Majesty the Queen of the Asia, Grand Duchess of Persia, and Humble Servant of the Eastern Crown.

I'd been sold during that time when mothers were not given a choice. I, with my brown-black eyes, wild black hair, and almost-white complexion, had caught the eye of Her Majesty. I had the likeness of her, and she thought me pretty and wished to turn me into a vampire. She wanted to keep me eternally as her child, a live doll to dress up and decorate her side. Even during those times, though, such things were not done to children without consent, and my mother did not consent. Her last words to me were a plea that I vow never to consent, not ever, not for any price.

It was a vow I kept, for love of my mother as well as for fear of damnation. Until the Queen bought me, I'd attended mass every morning of my life. That was a year before the Queen destroyed the churches of the Old Religion and declared any who did not loosen their collar for the Order Sangre guilty of heresy—a crime punishable by death.

I was kept ignorant of most of the darker things my Queen did—I was too enchanted with her to take much notice. I was spoilt, basking in Her Majesty's favor for some four years. Queen Anca kept me by her side every evening, yearning, as many vampires do, for children. She showered presents on all her servantettes; on me, most of all. We had tutors and our own rooms, decorated with our every fancy.

Until the Prince of the Eastern Crown came.

Prince Nikolai was the only personage, human or vampire, who I had ever seen Her Majesty defer to. On the day he entered the throne room—days after my twelfth birthday—she rose from her chair and executed a grand curtsy. He had a face cut with lines of arrogance and power, but his dark brown eyes shone with kindness.

It was not without some cunning that I had become the Queen's favorite. I had learned to observe and listen without notice, playing innocently as pleased the Queen. While the servants and servantettes and courtiers stared in stunned silence, I went to her side and wrapped my hand around hers, dipping into a matching curtsy.

Only then did the others follow suit.

"Welcome, Your Imperial Highness," she said.

I echoed her words. She spared me a smile. "Go play, Daniella."

I curtsied to her, too. "Yes, Your Majesty."

The Prince took the Queen's hand. "Such a young child to have the bearing of an old woman. I almost mistook her for a vampire."

"She has always been so. Even when I first acquired her, she spoke with the solemnity of a High Priestess of old."

I pretended not to hear and settled down to a game of marbles with the twins, Dara and Javed. It was a game I despised, but I played with feigned delight as I eavesdropped.

"Servantettes?" he was asking the Queen. "These are what you have for children?" His gaze turned to me, and I tried to ignore it.

"What will you do when they grow up?"

She scowled. Her gaze rested on me and I pretended not to notice as I shot a marble into the ring.

"They will agree to be turned or they will become nothing but servants," she said coldly. I shivered at her words.

"A long way to fall, is it not? Some would call it cruel."

"Asia does not breed appetizers as the Eastern Court does," she said icily.

"Or heirs?" the Prince asked.

Dara picked up the marble I forgot to retrieve and tossed it to me. When she scowled, I tickled her side. I endeavored to pay attention to the game more, but the Queen was getting angry. I've always been sensitive to the Queen's moods, though most could not mark them. I could hardly describe how I knew when she grew angry, save to say that she smoothed. Her manner slowed. Her smile became pleasant; her shoulders, easy; her eyes, sharp.

"Your Imperial Highness," she said. "Surely the Kings and Queens of your lands would be better suited to the line of succession to the Empress than the off-spring of whores and indebted men."

I observed the Prince and noted that his anger expressed itself differently. He stilled, as some vampires do: he stilled as if he'd gone as stiff and as dead as a statue.

Dara hit my arm. "Your turn!"

"Hush," I said to her. I positioned myself so that my ear was tuned better to the words of the Prince.

"You disapprove of our decision?" he asked so blandly, it seemed he cared naught for her answer.

Queen Anca had not yet fed this week, but still the faintest tint of rose flooded her face. She bowed her head. "I only seek to serve the Eastern Crown."

"Do you?" he asked. "Then we demand proof of it." He turned to us so quickly that I didn't have the chance to look away and pretend I wasn't paying attention. "This one, the one who curtsied to me, the one who looks at me with the eyes of an old woman. Come here."

I looked to the Queen first and waited for her nod. When I started toward him, he met me halfway.

"Give me your hand."

He waited as if he would wait forever, as if he would never reach out and take my hand unwillingly, and that there was no rush for me to obey.

His patience relaxed me, and I offered my palm to him.

He blew on the center. It tickled unpleasantly, and I snatched my hand away.

"Do not fear, una mica." He stood calmly, waiting for me to offer my hand to him again.

"I'm not afraid," I snapped.

The servantettes and several courtiers gasped, but he laughed softly at my lie. He removed a shiny silver dagger from his belt, and I balked. Holding out his hand, he said softly, "Give me your hand."

I swallowed. I knew he meant to draw blood from me, and that both frightened and sent a thrill through me. I wanted to step away from him, but I felt drawn to him. He was a pool of calmness, and I wanted to wrap myself in its safe embrace, immerse myself in its soothing waters.

Except he held a dagger. "You're going to hurt me," I said.

"Yes," he answered. "It will hurt, but not too much."

Oddly calmed by his promise and apprehensive at the same time, I offered him my palm once more.

"What is your name?" he asked.

"Danie—" While I was distracted with answering him, he pricked the center of my palm. "Ow!" Tears rushed to my eyes; there was no preventing them.

The pain receded, and I watched as a few drops of bright red blood pooled and darkened. I half expected it to look like wine, as my Lord's blood did in the Old Religion.

The Imperial Prince of the Eastern Crown gave me a little bow. "May I have a taste, my Lady?"

I glanced at the Queen. At her nod, I nodded to the Prince.

His tongue scalded my palm, like salt to the wound. Quickly he was done, and the burning sizzled away. I relaxed, thinking it was over, but he squeezed my hard—much harder than he needed to restrain me.

I exclaimed in pain and surprise, but he didn't loosen his grip. He crushed my hand with his, willfully increasing my pain. My bones shifted under the pressure, and I feared he would break them. No one had done such to me, ever. My mother had never had cause to punish me, and I was careful that I did not give the Queen cause, either. I gave plenty of cause to my tutor, but he had never raised his rod to me.

It was confusing. Helpless to escape his grasp, I cried, "Why are you hurting me?"

Oddly, his smile was gentle. "I want to see what you'll do."

I burst into tears.

When his gaze pinned mine, I could feel him plumbing the depths of my mind. There would be no secrets from this vampire. I could neither shelter certain thoughts from him nor calculate my way to his favor. There was no cunning, no plotting, for I could think of nothing but the pain. He twisted my hand and the pain sharpened, and my world shrank until it was only the two of us. There were no playmates, there was no Queen, no throne room. Only the Prince and the pain and the strange blanket of security around us. His eyes flickered, and his mind dug deeper into mine.

And then it started at the core of me: a loosening, an easing, a letting go. It was not that he used compulsion to relax me; my mind eased because there was no reason to guard my thoughts or calculate my next move. I felt safe—even in the pain—safer than I'd felt since before I'd been bought by the Queen.

Only when I completely relaxed did he loosen his grip. He massaged away the pain he'd caused, still holding my gaze in that compelling way vampires sometimes did. As the pain faded, my awareness expanded. I didn't dare look at the Queen, but a heavy fear surrounded my heart. I spent my time keeping the Queen's favor because it was how I survived—and survived well, but now it seemed an awful burden.

I wanted to disappear into the pain again, but his touch was gentle and indulgent, as if I were as young as the twins.

"Cunning," he said softly. "Spoilt, a touch too haughty." He dropped my hand and peered down at me. "There's a core of solemnity to you that would suit." His sudden grin startled me. "And an agonie aperitiv, I'd guess."

He turned from me, releasing me from his gaze. Unthinkingly, I moved with him, unwilling to leave his calming presence.

"Where is this one from? She carries herself like a Princess."

I closed my eyes, remembering my mother's gentle hugs.

"Naught but a whore's daughter, Your Imperial Highness."

I gasped. "She was not!"

And I saw the Queen's cruel streak then. It had never been used against me before, but then I had never been so careless as to give her reason. As I stood before her, rage and shame filling me in equal measure, she took pleasure in my pain. "Is this a surprise, Daniella?"

It was true that I had often slept nights alone, but my mother had never offered an explanation and I'd never thought to ask. She'd always come home in time for us to attend morning mass.

While I had that thought, the Prince compelled me anew. He must have caught the last image of mass in my mind, because he asked, "Do you serve the Old Religion?"

It was all I could do not to gasp in horror. I tried to hide the memories from him, but I failed. I remembered the candles my mother and I lit before mass, and the way we knelt side by side. I'd had my First Confession and First Communion the year before the Queen found me. I remembered Father Paul, the way he spoke kindly to me after mass. I longed to have a Priest bless me again, to offer me a crumb of my Lord's body and the sweet wine of his blood.

Perhaps I loosened my collar for the Order Sangre, but my heart was still in the Old Religion. It was the second thing I'd denied the Queen, although she was unaware of it. It was something of myself that was true; the rest I had given wholly to please the Queen and to survive.

I was lucky I was already in tears, because the Queen would have guessed something was amiss. Vampires can smell fear, and the air around me was thick with the scent of it. To be accused of following the Old Religion was very near to being convicted, in the Queen's eyes. If she even suspected, I'd be turned over to the Priest of Discipline and lucky to survive his questioning. If he deemed my guilt to be true, I would be publicly whipped near to death, then have a sword run through my heart.

I held the Prince's gaze and lied, my voice breaking until I could speak only in a whisper. "No, Your Imperial Highness. I loosen my collar for the Order Sangre."

Each time I blinked, a tear dropped down my cheek. My throat ached with a fearful pressure, and I silently pleaded with him to have mercy on me.

He leaned forward and whispered in my ear. "That is twice you have lied to me." He paused as I shuddered. "Be at peace, una mica. I'll lash you for it, but I won't betray your secret. Now smile and giggle and make light of our conversation before your Queen suspects your falsehoods."

I giggled and choked on a sob, all at the same time. I widened my smile and tried to force my eyes to twinkle. "I am glad to please, Your Imperial Highness."

He released my hand. "The Empress has sent me here to collect tribute from you, Anca. I am to choose a girl to beget me heirs. We will accept this one as suitable, when she comes of age."

Queen Anca didn't respond, didn't move, save a single twitch of her finger.

"Will that please you?" he asked me.

My breath caught. It didn't please the Queen, if her finger twitch was any indication, but I felt so safe in the Prince's presence, that I would have followed him into Hell itself. I tried, "Her Majesty is my Queen, Your Imperial Highness. If she wished me to scrub the floor at her feet—or at your feet—I would do it with a willing and grateful heart."

"Well-answered," he said wryly.

I didn't like the way the Queen was looking at me.

"I have paid for her service until she is of age," the Queen said.

Prince Nikolai dipped his head to her. "I will come to collect her then. I want her fresh, unharmed, and unpunished. If she is an agonie aperitiv as I suspect, then I want to introduce her to the delights of her art myself."

The Queen smiled coldly. "I have no authority over the Priest of Discipline." Although this was written as truth in the catechism of the Order Sangre, everyone knew—at least every human knew—that the Priest of Discipline served the Queen's interests. "And surely the Eastern Crown still honors their precious precept to respect and allow all to celebrate the religion of their choice."

Prince Nikolai stiffened. "You dare to use that against me, when you refuse to allow your subjects that freedom?"

"It is an inconvenient precept that weakens a ruler's power," she said. "Will you cast it aside for this one?"

He answered without pause. "No."

I suddenly felt a pawn in a political struggle I didn't understand. After they finished negotiations, the Prince left without another word or glance at me. As soon as he stepped away from me, I felt bereft of his protection. The Queen continued to watch me. It was disconcerting, and the more I tried to act normal, the more I failed.

"Daniella!" she finally called. I went before her throne and curtsied.

"You pleased me greatly today, Daniella." I let the rush of pleasure burst into a grin on my face, and I peered up at her despite my bowed head. I regretted it. She looked anything but pleased.

She gestured for me to rise, and I continued picking up our playthings. The other servantettes left them scattered for the servants to pick up, but I'd hoped that taking care of my things personally showed the Queen I treasured her gifts. I received more than the others, so it seemed to be so.

"You are growing old," she said. "And cunning. I did not see it before." She tapped her finger on the arm of the chair. "Come here."

I obeyed.

"Kneel before me and gaze into my eyes."

If I could have fought the fear, I would have. She had never demanded such an interrogation of me before. Fear billowed out from me in waves, alerting the Queen to something amiss.

"You lied today. What did you lie about?"

The shaking started then. I kept my mind carefully blank, but I could see this quickly angered her. I allowed what was safe to bubble up. "Your Majesty, must I leave your service?" I spoke passionately, with all the dismay and fear I felt filling my voice. "The Prince is cruel and takes pleasure in my pain." Queen Anca was oft displeased with tears, save the ones shed under her cruelty, but I burst into them now.

The Queen softened. "There is only one thing that can save you. Do you still refuse me, Daniella? I would make you a princess."

I hated when she asked me if I would consent to becoming a vampire, because I always feared she would punish me for my answer. "Your Majesty, I made a vow to my mother. 'Twould be grave to dishonor it." I shuddered. "The Priest of Discipline would near kill me with his whip for it, and you, Your Majesty—" I let the tears spill over my lids in streams "—you could never trust me, if I broke a vow."

She grabbed my chin harshly, fearing I played her. In this, I did not. As she gazed in my eyes, she compelled all that she desired to know to rise to the surface of my thoughts. I mentally pushed all thoughts that wouldn't please Her Majesty behind a black wall. It worked; her powers were weaker than the Prince's. Vows to parents and royalty were held sacred in both the Order Sangre and the Old Religion, but only the former would please Her Majesty; the latter would be my death sentence. As Queen Anca gazed into my mind, I divided my mind and let her see as much as she liked from me, save those thoughts of the Old Religion.

She finally released me from her compulsion and looked away. "I will be sorry to see you grow."

***

After Prince Nikolai's visit, things began to change for me. The Queen suspected I had the skill to hide parts of my mind from her. I was often subjected to her compulsion and questioning, but she never found something she disliked. Perhaps she could sense the walls I made in my mind and the blockades I put up. The presents she gave me dwindled.

I still had my childhood room, and for that I was mostly grateful. Sonia woke me up with her screams from the next room nearly every afternoon. She was plagued by nightmares, memories of the death of her parents and brother by vampires. When she lay sweating and trembling in my arms, she feared the same bloody death at the hands of the Queen.

So even though it sped up my downfall from the Queen's favor, I taught Sonia everything I knew about pleasing the Queen. If she used that knowledge against me by night, I forgave her. There was something about her insistent belief that her worst fears would come to pass that frightened me.

More and more, it was not my toys I picked up, but the others'. All the servantettes had duties, mostly to charm visitors and look pleasing. My duties gradually changed to cleaning. I rarely attended the Queen in the evenings as a servantette; mostly I served in truth, as any other servant.

I was still the favorite of our tutor, Master Thomas. He was kind to all of us, and we doted on him. When I remember him, I remember him smiling, his eyes twinkling in amusement. Even when he had to correct his pupils with the rod, he did it with such kindness that not even Sonia—as spoilt and sullen as she'd become with age—bore him any resentment.

He never punished me, though I believed often that I'd given him plenty of cause. The other children certainly believed so. As much as they adored him, they never blamed him for this favoritism. In their minds, I was at fault.

Perhaps I was. I was lax in all my studies, save the meditations we practiced. Master Thomas rarely explained why we spent so much time in meditation, but we all knew it was to protect our thoughts from the compulsion of vampires.

I spent an hour before bed and an hour when I woke up, doing extra meditation exercises. I never forgot Prince Nikolai. If he did come for me, I hoped to keep him from discovering the secrets of my mind.

The Queen grew more distrustful of me every day.

As her questioning increased, I grew more confident in my abilities to hide my thoughts from her—so confident, that I asked Master Thomas about the Old Religion.

"Is it still practiced?" I asked. I missed the love, the forgiveness of it. I missed the ritual, the kind priest, the blessings, and the chants.

"In other parts of the world, yes. Here, only in secret."

"In secret?" I asked. "Where?"

He shook his head. "No, child, don't ask."

"Please," I whispered. "I just want to go to mass, just one more time." My voice broke. "I miss my mother."

"Hush," he said, more sharply than I'd ever heard him speak.

His sharp word of reproof made me ache more than his rod on my backside would have. I hated displeasing him. I begged his forgiveness and left him in peace.

The older I got, the more vigorous the Queen's questioning became. She chased thoughts around my mind, but I mentally put them in a mirrored box, flipping the sides until she pushed me away in anger. It was a dangerous game I played, but she could not punish me for thinking of boxes. Afterwards, I had headaches so bad that I would vomit.

There was a bit of her that still liked me. I believed a small part of her respected me for the privacy of mind I maintained.

One day, she greeted me with a smile and open arms.

"Daniella! You turn of age next month, do you not?"

I curtsied. Sonia sat at the Queen's feet, playing a lively tune on her lap harp.

"My first servantette to grow up. We must celebrate!"

I tried to smile at her enthusiasm, but I felt the prick of fear. Her Majesty had not thrown me such a party since I was ten, since before Prince Nikolai had come.

I curtsied again. "As it pleases you, Your Majesty."

She clapped her hands. "It does!" She stood up and opened her arms to me, wrapping me in a cold, vampire hug. "You shall have a party. I have loved you, you know."

It moved something in me. I felt my old desire to please her return, my childhood ache for her approval. "Truly?" I whispered to her. Yes, even after she'd cast me from her, I still longed for her favor.

Sonia stopped playing abruptly and glared at me.

"Truly," the Queen answered, glancing at Sonia with an amused expression. "We'll do it a week before your birthday, before Imperial Prince Nikolai can whisk you away from us."

I didn't believe her, as much as I wanted to. At best, she wanted to show the Prince that she'd treated me with the care worthy of one who would beget heirs to the empire. At worst, she would use me for some larger, political purpose.

"We'll do the same thing for your Rite of First Chastisement. I know you wouldn't want to miss that, either."

I thought of the masked Priest of Discipline and his long whip. Suppressing a shudder, I smiled for the Queen. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

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