Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1600
England’s holy ground was not the place anyone might expect to come upon a meeting of the damned. Yet, beneath the unseeing stone eyes of saints and kings, an assembly of cursed immortals had gathered to air their grievances.
Lian Redmond was not among the eldest who had arrived at the cathedral, though he already carried a scent of age and parchment in his blood that other elders of his species shared. Just into the four hundredth year of his gifted, second life, he had come into the power of his bloodline in full. His was the ability to read the innermost thoughts of those around him — an intrusion that came less often now. Still, under the whispers and quiet laughter of those who had the benefit of belonging to a true, recognized House of the Aegeans, he could hear their more insidious thoughts, like snakes wending through tall grass.
Closing his eyes against them, he pressed a hand to his brow. He did not belong here among the established Houses that made up the Assembly of Elders. Nor did the other Free Immortals who had crowded into the pews. These meetings were meant to pacify the Free, more than to rectify their concerns.
“Gently, brother.” The quiet murmur from the man at his side was almost dry, despite his warning. Lian sensed the look that flicked his way. “Or you will be wont to bring the stained glass down upon their heads.”
“I would at least have more control over that,” Lian answered in a whisper. He shifted where he stood to fold his hands neatly in front of him. Among the mortals he was, for all intents and purposes, a noble. He and his brother dressed as they did: in fine satin doublets and short capes whose linings matched the royal blue-and-burgundy palettes. To the English he was the Earl of Rosse and his brother, the Conte De Castile.
And yet, he was not a noble here.
Lian turned to glance at his brother; as dark in color as he was golden. Such was the nature of the stock born in Castile, long before Dorian’s second life. Theirs was a brotherhood counted not in mortal bonds but in the immortal gift Lian had bestowed.
“Lian Redmond,” a voice droned, carrying down the stone walls to reach the place where the brothers stood. As if in an echo, the whisper of thoughts rose again to swirl through the immortal’s head.
“Good luck,” Dorian offered. It was too flat to have been genuine.
Flexing his fingers Lian turned to walk down the aisle, chased by the reminder of what he was not from the stares and minds that regarded him.
Overseeing the proceedings from the front of the cathedral, the Royal Council observed the gathered numbers with apathy. Four of the Council members, Jaime, Adaeze, Synne, and Iona, were the surviving children and Heirs of the Immortal Mother, the Empress Mother, who had given the British Isles the gift of her curse so many centuries ago. Already ancient, despite the youthful beauty of their features, they sat as still as the stone saints around them in seats pulled before the altar. One brother, three sisters; the children who had survived a betrayal. Nested in the seat between them was the Sovereign of the Aegean Immortals, Silvanus; the son of the traitor.
Their brother’s blood, his father’s blood.
Behind them sat the heads of the Houses and their Councils, Elders who occupied the velvet-lined chairs of the recessed choir loft like the pigeons that flocked in the buttresses outside. The signet jewelry that marked their stations winked and glittered — blood-red stars in the candlelight. Their whispers were quiet; a flutter of birds’ wings echoing off stone walls and reverberating from the stained glass before coming to rest upon the altar and the ancients at the head of the nave.
“Your majesty. Your highnesses,” Lian began, respectfully as he must; still, he felt a faint pinch in his chest as he bowed before the altar.
“Redmond,” answered Jaime from his chair. He was olive-skinned and dark-haired, a Spaniard once, though the accent had long been chased from his voice.
Lian was no noble, no true Arch Lord, but he was not unknown. His family belonged to no House, but they had wealth and numbers to rival most established covens.
“I come before the Assembly of Elders and the Royal Council to address disturbances in the peace between the Free Immortals and the Aegean Houses,” the blond began, straightening. “My family takes care to respect the territories of the Houses and gives a wide berth to their boundaries. Yet time and again, fledglings of Aegean Houses cross from their territory into the hunting grounds of Free Immortals. My children have had meals stolen from them on their hunts, and altercations besides. In the most recent engagement, one of my queens was wounded — as was another in her defense.”
The queen’s blood matted her golden hair and stained her dress. . . .
Lian’s fingers flexed with the memory, as they had that night.
She leaned into the support of her sister, bloodier than she, though the wounds had healed already. “I only stood between them,” her sister had said, meeting Lian’s eyes. “I raised no hand to the man.”
She could not. Their family was not protected from the wrath of the Houses.
Lian felt the rise of thoughts that were not his own, whispered as if through water, and he pushed down against them as he continued. “I do not bring a grievance or desire to name the House whose fledgling took advantage of their security in the pacts to wound my own. My only desire in standing before the Council is the hope that peace can be maintained. If the boundaries of the Houses are made clear both to their own offspring and the Free Immortals, I am hopeful further engagements can be avoided.”
“The boundaries are established at our will, Redmond.” The unusual, purple-eyed stare of the taller of the two blonde Heirs, Synne, rested on Lian, and he could sense the bored indifference accompanying her words. “They are limited by neither the needs nor wants of the Free.”
Synne’s bond and the second of the blonde Heirs stirred. Iona, with bright green eyes and a cherubic face, leaned forward and curled her fingers against the roundness of her cheek. “Do you suppose the lords and ladies of our Houses are slaves or servants otherwise, Free one?”
A soft titter of amusement rustled the pigeons in their perch.
“Supposing is far above my station, my Lady Iona,” Lian answered evenly as he bowed. “Otherwise, I might have supposed clarity regarding the boundaries was not all that was lacking in the fledglings who seek continued engagements with my sons and daughters.”
“That is some cheek for a rogue, Redmond,” Jaime murmured. “You will lose your audience quickly for it.”
“It is the confidence of ignorance that speaks, we shall be kind enough to assume. It is not as if the rogue understands the way of things. He can be forgiven much for a pretty face and a deep pocket.” A ghost of amusement colored the smoky tones of Adaeze, the dusky-skinned, Moorish daughter of the Empress Mother. “You may be assured, should a House seek for more than a meal from the hands of your wildlings, there would be no lack of clarity about the matter.”
“Let him ask forgiveness from the Royal Council for his ignorance if he is to receive it,” offered Silvanus in a voice lined with frost. He alone was older in appearance, adorned in black robes with gold accents that seemed to weigh down his lean form. “Make your bid for it, Redmond. It will be the most sensible of the words you have spoken today.”
Lian’s gaze swept across the Royal Council in a slow study. He had known he had never had an audience here. Not truly. The Free, the rogues, had no voice here, but far better no voice than no heart.
His father’s blood.
The immortal bowed his head. “I apologize for my words and any offense I may have caused the Council and the Assembly.”
Jaime straightened only briefly before waving a dismissive flutter of his hand. “The Council has noted your apology. Take your seat, Redmond.”
There was little else Lian Redmond could do but as the Lord bid.
Anowen Castle, East Yorkshire
It took seven days for Lian Redmond and Dorian to arrive home to the sprawling giant that was Anowen Castle. In the hidden depths of a forest, north of the River Humber, the fortress had been built stone-by–stone to house the twenty-three souls Lian had claimed for his family.
A constant work in progress, the castle was updated and expanded by laborers during the years it spent vacant. Their eternity was divvied into cycles of rotations that carried the family from one of their smaller homes to Anowen and back again. It was as large as it would grow now, Lian knew. There were well over one hundred rooms, most unfurnished and still exposed to the elements, with little more than tarpaulins to cover them.
Much of his family was too young to see the sunlight. Their gift gave them eternity, but not without the price of two hundred years spent in darkness. The castle could not be expanded without being first able to shelter those within from the dangers of the light. And until he was assured of their well-being, his family could grow no more, besides.
Without pacts to protect them, his coven already bowed under its own weight.
This was the thought that followed Lian Redmond up the stairs and into the suite where his bond and chosen queen waited patiently. Tired though he was, the lord met his silver-haired starlight with kisses, and remained to linger in Celia’s embrace while she worked the knots free from his shoulders.
Her touch brought him peace and, selfishly, he leaned against her, listening to the sound of harps her music made in his blood. It was another gift of eternity, the music.
He and his were bound by song, as closely knit to one another as the instruments in a symphony that played endlessly through the centuries. What one felt, they all knew; and, as if they followed the same scores, their songs harmonized.
Under his skin, he felt his music shift in a ripple of harpsichord notes, tinny and briefly discordant among the smoother harmony of the coven. His bond’s music eased beneath his, as if her harps could carry his melody, and he turned to bury the question she meant to ask in another kiss.
“Council,” he murmured. “We must call our Council.”
“As hopeless as that then, beloved?” Celia’s understanding was in her touch.
“No more than we thought.” He kissed her hands as he freed himself from her peace. Her brows furrowed slightly at his retreat, but smoothed with her nod as she turned away to arise herself.
They were no true House, but he abided by the way of the Aegeans as best as he was able. It had meant being particular about his first offspring; the lords and the ladies who would form their version of a High Council within their coven. He had gathered them from across Europe during his exile, long before he had found the will to return to England — and long after the treachery that had claimed his father and sister had come to a tumultuous end.
One brother, three sisters. It should have been three brothers, four sisters.
His father’s blood.
There could be no promise or assurance that the relationship the Aegean Houses had with the Free Immortals would improve. Their only choice was to be wary during a hunt and surrender their meals and their ground if approached by an immortal belonging to a House.
The music in his blood echoed the disappointment of his Council when he finally stood before them, and held a quieter vibrato — the buzz of a disturbed hive — for their tempered anger.
There was nothing that could be done.
The silence that weighted the Council Chambers upon their departure was all the heavier for how their symphony lingered with him.
A voice like warm honey interrupted his thoughts. “There is one thing, Lian.”
Lian lifted his head. He had expected to remain alone in the chamber after the dismissal of the others. It was not his queen, his starlight, who had returned to fill the open doorway, but a dark-haired and dusky-skinned queen he had claimed for a sister: Mercedes, dressed in gold and red, as if she were still a Spanish courtesan, charming the nobility.
Here, among the English, she was only Mercedes, whose dark eyes regarded Lian with an astute assessment.
“My Lady,” he offered, and curved her a smile as he slid his fingers from his brow and straightened in his chair.
“Don’t.” A twitch of a smile took some of the sharpness from her gaze. She swept into the room with a rustle of silks worthy of a court. “It will satisfy me to have your honest answer in lieu.” The queen lowered herself into a seat at his side.
“I find few things in this lifetime more frightful than you cornering me for an honest answer, Mercy,” he said, still smiling despite the wariness that crept into his tone. Watching her smooth a hand over the golden embroidery in her gown, Lian bowed his head. “But I will not deny you.”
It was not as if she had ever been kind enough to allow him to do so.
“Good. One of us has to have the wit to scare you to your senses.” She turned toward him, and her brown eyes touched over his expression, softening slightly. “It is unnecessary, brother, this bowing to the whims of the Houses, when you have the means to your deliverance, and ours, within your grasp.” A fan appeared from somewhere in the depths of her skirts. It served as the rod with which to reprimand him with a light rap to his knee. “You are the true Heir of our Immortal Mother by blood — our Sovereign — and it is past time you set aside ancient slights to petition the Councils for your rights. Denying who you are — who we are — is not the means of making things right.”
“Ah, Mercy,” Lian breathed, and his face disappeared behind the splay of his fingers. “What honest answer should I give in light of a scolding?”
He was Dunstan’s son. Dunstan, the bond and mate of Athanasia, the Mother of them all. Dunstan — a brother missing at the Royal Council.
His father’s blood, slick and warm as Lian pressed his hand to the wound.
His father’s hand grabbed his collar, still with enough strength to shake sense into the infant immortal he had claimed for a son.
Nested beneath the layers of Lian’s clothes was his father’s signet, a gold ring set with a jewel made of Athanasia’s blood. It had been a wedding ring shared between two bonded souls as much as it had been Dunstan’s claim to Sovereignty as her first-born Heir. The elder’s fingers lifted, easing open the buttons of the doublet so he could unearth a chain and the ring it secured to hold them to the light of the fireplace.
“Perhaps there is no better way,” he offered, speaking toward the jewelry as it twirled lazily on the chain. “But it is the way I have chosen. I would have our own path before I walk the way of the Aegean Houses — before I rule them. They have had nothing but treachery to offer their own blood, and apathy besides for the Sovereign warmonger they now recognize in House Eromerde. No, we fare well enough on our own strength, and I will take their slights before I take that mantle.”
Mercedes’s lips curved slightly in a wry twist of a smile. “How you rage against our brothers,” she murmured, “without seeing how very like them you are in your proud heart.” Leaning forward, she touched a kiss to his cheek. “But we are all our Mother’s children. There can be no help for it.” She sat back. “You have given us all that you can give, Lian, and we are happy for the cause. Now, it remains only for the giving of what you alone cannot.” Briskly, she rose to her feet.
Lian watched her; watched her as she spared a moment to tuck her fan away and as she smoothed the feathered coils of her hair back into place upon her head. She lingered there only as long as she took to decide he would give her no further words. Then, with that same slight smile that had bewitched so many men of the court, Mercy bowed and left Lian alone.
His gaze left the door as her shadow disappeared, only to lower to the ring in his grasp before he tucked it away and out of sight once more.