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Chapter One


 

I knew the dead man hanging in the square: Liam was his name. My mistress’s stallion, one could call him, bid by Prince Nikolai to sire a babe in his stead. Liam swung in the breeze, noose tightened around his neck. It was an unpleasant sight, and I turned away. I’d expected him to be pardoned by Prince Nikolai. After all, Liam was the Prince’s human grandson several times over.

But then Liam had tried to murder Prince Nikolai’s consort, my mistress. Father had leapt in front of the knife and suffered the mortal wound instead.

I blinked away tears. I seemed to be doing that nonstop since I could no longer sum up the energy to cry. I fingered Father’s medallion, now hanging at my neck for comfort.

Forcing myself to behold Liam again, I wished I felt some satisfaction, some healing from the death of my father’s murderer, but I did not. I only wanted them both alive and for the past to change. I wanted that Father would live.

It had been the plot of Patriarch Seán of the Old Religion and Queen Anca of the Asias, but I thought Liam had really been motivated by a rage of jealousy. Because vampires could not make babies, he’d impregnated Princess Consort Daniella at Prince Nikolai’s request.

Lightning flashed across the sky. The rain held off, but the fog did not. It seemed apt for a funeral, even though I missed the heat of my homeland: Persia.

I made my way to the Cathedral Sangre, where the Archbishop Alexandru had allowed me to insist the service be held immediately. My little brother waited in Persia with no knowledge of his father’s death—and worst of all, he was in grave danger of becoming a victim of Queen Anca’s retribution, should she arrive before I could rescue him.

When I stepped into the Cathedral Sangre, I was only partly surprised that no more than five humans were in attendance. I didn’t know them; Father had been the Priest of Discipline for Queen Anca of the Asias, and on that basis alone he was hated during his visit here.

Archbishop Alexandru greeted me, taking my hands in his. “Kiana.” He led me to my father’s casket. It seemed apt that the windows were colored red; I glanced in the pew where my father had been stabbed, but the blood had been cleaned.

The Order Sangre liked to make humans bleed; it was no surprise they knew how to make the stains disappear.

Before I could see Father reposed in his casket, I stepped back. “I don’t want to see him like this, Your Eminence.” An inexplicable jolt of terror ran through me; I burst into tears and started again to cry.

Archbishop Alexandru touched my arm gently. “It helps, Kiana. It hurts, but it helps.”

I didn’t see how. Of course, I knew Father was dead, but looking at him lying there as still as stone would erase all hope that I would wake up this evening and he’d be alive; that this would’ve all been a bad dream.

I rammed my heel into my shin to stop myself from crying. I bit my lip next, and when I wiped away my tears, my vision cleared and my crying stopped. I took a deep breath and forced myself to step forward.

He was still as stone, just as I’d feared. I touched a finger to his cheek, surprised when it was not solid. It gave me the courage to wrap my hand around his forearm, to close my eyes and imagine for a moment that I held my father’s arm and he was alive.

“I’ll give you a moment,” Archbishop Alexandru said.

As he stepped away, I recalled the last words I’d spoken to him: I’d told him I was ashamed he was my father. As the Order Sangre’s Priest of Discipline in Persia, he was forced to do the bidding of Queen Anca, which meant he’d whipped humans bloody and run their hearts through with a sword. Worse, he’d claimed he’d had no choice if he’d wanted me and my brother to live, so I bore the weight of his sins as well as my own.

I wished I’d been able to make peace with him. He’d been a kind and loving father and I’d loved him, no matter what he’d done for the Queen. The Order Sangre in Asia was corrupt; the Queen had bent and rewritten the catechism to suit her political purposes and control the masses.

The door banged open, and Princess Consort Daniella and Prince Nikolai stepped in. I stared in astonishment, both touched and shocked. Prince Nikolai’s face was drawn and ragged—whether from the death of his grandson or the pain of staying awake during midday, I didn’t know.

Princess Daniella rushed up the aisle to me. She wrapped a hand around my arm, burst into tears, and bowed her head. I waited for her to say something, but she did not.

I curtsied. “Thank you for coming, Your Imperial Highnesses.”

Prince Nikolai gave a nod. “Please accept our deepest condolences.”

“I am sorry about Liam,” I offered.

“Thank you, Kiana.” He glanced around at the sparse audience. “I gathered that he wanted a service free of vampires, as he wished it to be held in the middle of the day. I hope I did not overstep by attending. I felt I would be remiss if we did not pay my respects, given our circumstances.” He sighed. “And express my gratitude.” He had the courtesy to wince as he said it, at least.

I curtsied again. “You both are welcome to attend.” I was most surprised that Princess Daniella came. Though I was her personal servant, she’d watched my father kill her beloved tutor, and while Queen Anca had killed her friend, she blamed my father for that, too.

She finally spoke. “I did not love your father, but I owe him my life.” Prince Nikolai put a hand on her arm, as if to quiet her. I, however, appreciated the honesty.

“As I owe mine to you.” I curtsied again. If they had not taken me in, the Queen would have used me to further control my father; he feared it would be my death, and so he’d beseeched the Prince to take me with him to London, with the promise that if ever his life could serve the Princess, he would gladly relinquish it.

I hated that he’d made that promise.

The violins began a terrible, heartbreaking melody. We all sat down, and the service began.

***

After the service ended and everyone left, Archbishop Alexandru joined me on the pew. “He was a man of faith, though he was forced to the Queen’s bastardization of his religion.”

I could not help my surprise. “He chose the Order Sangre?”

“He didn’t tell you?”

I shook my head. Father had spoken rarely of religion; we’d been forced to memorize every word of the catechism so we’d always have the correct answers for the Queen, but we were not allowed questions or discussion. Father once said that such things bred thoughts that were dangerous, because vampires could read our minds.

“He loved a vampire once.”

My jaw dropped open.

Archbishop Alexandru didn’t react to my surprise. “She was killed by a human. That was when he came to France to the seminary of the Order Sangre. He hoped, one day, that vampires and humans would live peacefully together, grateful for what each race offered the other.”

I stared at my shoes. “If he believed that, I never heard him speak of it.”

He smoothed his black robe and straightened his red cape. “Such beliefs are dangerous where the Queen holds power. He spoke of it to me a few days ago.”

The tears came again. I didn’t bother wiping them away. “Did he tell you what I said to him?”

Archbishop answered without elaboration: “Yes.” When I said nothing, he added, “He stood for the Rite of Judgment and afterwards the Rite of Atonement. I know it’s not a comfort, but in retrospect, it seemed your father was preparing for his death.”

“You whipped my father?” I accused.

“It was his faith, Kiana.” I cringed at the coldness that had crept into his voice; I took his tone as a warning that he would not stand for any further disrespect.

“Your Eminence,” I began, hoping my address of him acted as an apology of sorts. “You must know I am also guilty for every drop of blood my father spilt.”

Mayhap I expected him to deny my responsibility in the matter. Instead, he said, “And so it is you who must right the wrongs in the Asias.”

Again, my mouth dropped open. “How?”

“I do not know, child.”

It was such a stunning and impossible charge, I dismissed it immediately from my mind.

“You have not had your First Chastisement. It is time, is it not?” he said.

I could not speak. I’d watched my father die yesterday; I’d attended his funeral today, and he wanted me to be whipped as well? I shook my head.

“I am guessing, considering how quickly you desired his funeral, that you will be leaving for Persia tonight.”

I wanted to, but I didn’t answer. I feared someone would stop me, if my intent were known.

“If you go into Persia without the Rite, the Queen could use it to kill you.”

“I don’t care if I am killed,” I said. I was surprised how truthfully I meant my words.

That silenced him.

Prince Andrew entered the cathedral, wincing in pain. I knew immediately he must be a younger vampire than Prince Nikolai. As he made his way down the aisle, his form gradually relaxed.

Archbishop Alexandru stood. “Your Imperial Highness, I wish for Kiana to undergo the Rite of First Chastisement before she enters into Asian lands.”

“As you wish,” he said to me dismissively. “Perhaps in a few days, though?”

“I don’t wish,” I said.

The Archbishop said, “It must be today, if she is leaving tonight.”

Prince Andrew frowned at me. “She will not be leaving tonight,” he said, giving me a frightening look.

The Archbishop said nothing.

“Why have you come, Your Imperial Highness?”

“The Empress wished me escort you home. The Imperial Guard stands outside.” While Prince Dmitri concerned himself with the politics of court, Prince Andrew led the military with the enthusiasm of a child—or so I believed. “Come,” he ordered me.

I obeyed instantly, thankful for escaping the Rite of First Chastisement.

As we left, Archbishop Alexandru pushed a book into my hand. “So you may learn the true ways of the Order Sangre. Please return for the Rite before you leave, Kiana.”

I stared at him a moment, then decided to do him the courtesy of the formal leave-taking of an Archbishop. I dropped to my knees and loosened my collar. His little rod struck below my nape; the smarting brought tears to my eyes again. Then he rested his hand on top of my head. “Go in peace, and I will pray for your safe journeys. May your blood burn with blessings.”

I couldn’t help it: I looked at Prince Andrew and thought of vampires could “bestow those blessings.”

Prince Andrew laughed, a startling, foreign sound after such a somber day. Whatever had inspired his mirth, I could not join in.

We walked back to the castle in silence, the guard clicking their heels on the streets behind us, until my curiosity could no longer be controlled. “Your Imperial Highness, Prince Nikolai has promised that I would be included in the trip to Persia.”

“We plan our strategy this week; we depart the next.”

My brother would be a week dead by then, and I’d be all alone in the world. No family, no friends, no one.

“Is not speed of the essence?” I asked. “She has swiftly left and will arrive in Persia just as swiftly. If I wait, my brother will die.”

Prince Andrew gave me a kind look. “Queen Anca has taken Patriarch Seán on a tour through Russia. The clash of the Orthodox religion and her Order Sangre has been causing much bloodshed. She is hoping to add an Orthodox priest to stand with Patriarch Seán. If she can slightly alter each religion to resemble the other, she thinks the religious strife will calm down, and she will once more have full control.”

“Is it true that she changed the Order Sangre as much as Archbishop Alexandru suggests?”

Prince Andrew opened the door to the back kitchens of the castle. It seemed odd for him to enter here, but as he led me to the servant’s wing, I understood: he was escorting me home. “The Order Sangre has changed much over the years. Humans do love altering religions to suit their political purposes. Queen Anca’s brand of the Order is from centuries ago. It is the Archbishop’s predecessors who have changed the Order, not Anca.”

***

Despite the Prince’s assurances, I had no intention of waiting a week before leaving for Persia. I would need money, however, and I could think of no way to get it except to steal it. The thought filled me with both fear and shame, but I could find no other way. Just a few of Princess Daniella’s jewels would do. Besides, my father had died saving her life. Didn’t she owe me a few jewels?

As many times as I justified it in my head, I avoided her gaze as I helped her get ready for court. I brushed her hair, unable to break the silence between us.

“I need to know if you are my enemy, Kiana. I will not have one attend me who bears hatred for me or my child. I remember well how I resented you after my tutor’s death.”

Already, I loved Annabelle with a fierceness I could not explain. Even as a babe, she managed to be proud and haughty—I imagined her a bit like me, but I knew it was the Petrescu blood that ran in her veins. Liam had been a descendent of Prince Nikolai, and they shared the same stubborness and contrariness. I adored it. And she was lovely, with her astonishing long, black hair. Because the Prince had healed the Princess a few moments after conception, the baby had grown to full term in a matter of weeks. When the babe had been borne, she already looked a six or seven months old, except with long, delicate limbs.

“Your Imperial Highness, I promise you, I will tend Annabelle as if she were my own.”

Princess Daniella smiled at me. “You do love her, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“Go dress in your finest, then; you will accompany me to court. Annabelle is to be presented at court, and I require your attendance.”

I stared down at my servant’s dress. “This is my finest, Your Imperial Highness.”

She reached around my head an undid my bun. With her fingers, she shook out my hair and let it spread over my shoulders and down my back.

“Kiana,” she said. “You have such beautiful auburn hair!” She began tugging and fussing over my hair. It felt unnatural; I was the one who was to prepare her; not her, me. Still, I stood obediently.

“The green one.” She opened her wardrobe and pulled out a half-sleeve, long gown of green velvet with cream satin bodice and gold embroidery.

“Your Highness, I could never—”

“You will. I command it.”

I ran my hand over the fine dress, already calculating if it was enough to get me to Persia. “It is too generous.”

“No, it is my wish. I would make you my lady in waiting, if you will consent.”

“You are too generous as it is, Your Imperial Highness.” I burst into tears of shame, because as fine as her dress was, I would need to steal a few jewels.

“Kiana, I owe your father my life. What is mine is yours.”

I wondered if she would think the same when she discovered her missing jewels and my disappearance. But then I thought of my brother, alone and vulnerable in Persia. No matter the cost, I had to save him.

***

When Annabelle was presented, I stood at Princess Daniella’s right; Prince Nikolai stood behind his consort, his expression beaming with pride. It was a jovial occasion that angered me; my father had died saving her, and everyone was celebrating. It seemed wrong, but I kept my head bowed so no one would see my feelings.

People filed past, and I took a small pleasure in the fact that no matter how many people waved their fingers in front of her face and spoke in baby-toned voices, Annabelle beheld them solemnly. She seemed already an Empress, even at a few days old.

An older woman touched her long hair, and I saw the flash of disgust cross her face. There had been more than a few whispers at the unnatural and astonishing speed with which the child aged.

Only when Prince Dmitri passed by did Annabelle react. In spite of his solemn, unsmiling expression, her face broke into a delighted grin and she cooed in delight. With both arms, she reached up toward Prince Dmitri and made grunting sounds.

The woman gasped and stared at Prince Nikolai in horror. “She is only a few days old.”

Prince Nikolai’s expression turned angry, but before he could respond, Prince Dmitri indulged the baby and picked her up. His broad face rearranged itself into a smile—something it probably hadn’t done in centuries, from the looks of it.

Princess Daniella snatched her from his hands immediately. “Need I remind you that you are never to come near my baby?”

Annabelle broke out in the loudest, angriest wailing I’d ever heard. While Princess Daniella rocked the baby in her arms, Prince Dmitri returned to his throne, his face set in an expression as stoic as ever.

“I will not have Prince Dmitri near my child,” Princess Daniella hissed to the Prince.

Empress Regina stood, and I trembled. “It is clear she wants Prince Dmitri. Let her go to whom she wants.”

From my vantage point, I saw Prince Nikolai’s hand squeeze the back of Princess Daniella’s neck and force her head down. A moment later, she curtsied. “Of course, Your Imperial Majesty. She needs changing, though.”

The Prince would not let Princess Daniella stand, though I could see from her trembling muscles that she was trying with all her might.

“Go then,” the Empress commanded angrily. “Take her, change her, and put her to bed. You’re excused from returning, as I know you’ll want to watch over her.”

Princess Daniella’s cheeks turned red at the veiled reproof, but she kept her silence. After gathering the baby’s things, she nodded to me, and we both left court after another curtsy.

I could barely keep up with her, she was walking so fast. After we were halfway down the hallway, Princess Daniella started ranting in undertones. “Of all the humans and vampires she’s been exposed to, Annabelle has to reach for the one vampire I want her to have nothing to do with. I will not have it. The Empress may trust Prince Dmitri as much as she wants, but I will not; I will not ever; and I will not ever let my daughter be exposed to his evil plots.”

She stopped so quickly, I nearly ran into her. She spun around. “And if you ever let Prince Dmitri touch her when I am not around, I will have you turned out.”

I felt as if she’d slapped me. She owed my father her life and she said what was mine was hers, but a couple hours later, she was threatening to turn me out. I kept my eyes downcast so she would not see the bitterness I felt.

“Yes, Your Imperial Highness.”

She sighed. “I am sorry, Kiana. It was callous of me.”

My throat ached and clogged, but I didn’t want to give Princess Daniella the satisfaction of hearing me clear it. I swallowed silently and managed a clear voice when I said, “It is nothing, Your Imperial Highness.”

“You are angry.”

I curtsied. “I am sorry for being impudent, Your Imperial Highness.” I thought my tone civil, but she winced.

She held up her hand as I started to apologize again. “And please stop addressing me as ‘Your Imperial Highness.’ I told you to call me ‘Daniella’ when we were not at court.”

I curtsied again, but I did not speak. I knew she meant to be kind. It was no matter. In hours I would steal her jewels, and I knew now that she would not forgive me, in spite of her declaration that what was mine was hers. Besides, it was easier to consider taking from her when she was being cruel, instead of kind.

***

After Princess Daniella fell asleep in the rocking chair with her baby, I closed the door to the nursery and entered the master bedroom. I took a few moments to pick up a few things before I considered the jewelry on her dressing table.

I took a diamond ring, an emerald necklace, and a bracelet made of rubies.

When I turned to go, I saw Prince Andrew in the doorway, standing as still and quiet as death itself. I couldn’t help it: I gasped. “Your Imperial Highness, you startled me. How long have you been standing there?”

His frown sent chills through my body. “Unclench your hand,” he ordered.

I started shaking. My knees shook, I was so terrified. I squeezed my hand tighter, trying to come up with an excuse.

“Stealing from your mistress, Kiana?”

 “I was only cleaning—”

He interrupted me. “Do not lie to me. You selected them, picked them up from the dressing table, and you were leaving with them.” He crossed the room and wrapped his hand around my wrist.

 “Pity to lose such a beautiful, delicate hand. The ax man likes to aim a little higher, make sure he doesn’t miss.” Prince Andrew traced a line on my skin just below the elbow. “I thought you better than a thief, Kiana.” He dropped my hand with a disgusted expression on his face. “Unclench your hand, or I will save the ax man the trouble.” He hissed in that angry, vampire way and it gave me such a fright, I dropped the jewels on the floor.

“She won’t miss them. My father saved her life. She owes me, please,” I begged.

“She owes you nothing. She is your mistress. She is of the royal family and you are but a servant. Your duty is to obey and serve.”

I knelt and gathered the jewels. “Please, Your Imperial Highness. I must go save my brother.”

Prince Andrew had no mercy for me. “Replace the jewels and I will stand you at the whipping post in the servant’s hall to wait for the Chastiser’s rounds.”

I had no choice but to obey.

“Kiana, because of your father’s sacrifice, we would have provided for you beyond your greatest desires. But now you have taken what is not yours, and you have shamed yourself and your father.”

I had only to blink before I imagined I saw my father’s disappointed gaze. Tears poured down my face, and my chest hurt so much I thought my ribs would crack. I sunk to the floor and wrapped my arms around my knees.

“I can’t,” I cried.

“Can’t what?” Prince Andrew dragged me up to standing, but as soon as he let me go, I collapsed again.

“I can’t survive,” I choked out, squeezing my knees to my chest and bawling.

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