Lover Enshrined: A Novel of the Black Dagger Brotherhood (Collector's Edition)

Overview

#1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward’s “frighteningly addictive” (Publishers Weekly) series continues as a dutiful twin must choose between two lives....

Fiercely loyal to the Black Dagger Brotherhood, Phury has sacrificed himself for the good of the race, becoming the male responsible for keeping the Brotherhood’s bloodlines alive. As Primale of the Chosen, he is obligated to father the sons and daughters who will ensure that the traditions of the race survive and ...

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Overview

#1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward’s “frighteningly addictive” (Publishers Weekly) series continues as a dutiful twin must choose between two lives....

Fiercely loyal to the Black Dagger Brotherhood, Phury has sacrificed himself for the good of the race, becoming the male responsible for keeping the Brotherhood’s bloodlines alive. As Primale of the Chosen, he is obligated to father the sons and daughters who will ensure that the traditions of the race survive and that there are warriors to fight those who want all vampires extinguished.

As his first mate, the Chosen Cormia wants to win not only his body but his heart for herself. She is drawn to the noble responsibility behind the emotionally scarred male. But Phury has never allowed himself to know pleasure or joy. As the war with the Lessening Society grows grim, tragedy looms over the Brotherhood’s mansion, and Phury must decide between duty and love....

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
Praise for the Black Dagger Brotherhood

“J.R. Ward's unique band of brothers is to die for. I love this series!” —New York Times bestselling author bestseller Suzanne Brockmann

“Utterly absorbing and deliciously erotic…The Brotherhood is the hottest collection of studs in romance. I can’t wait for the next one!” —New York Times bestseller Angela Knight

“It pulls the reader in and will grip your heart…J. R. Ward has created a world that I love…along with characters I can’t get enough of.”—Night Owl Reviews

“The newest in Ward’s ferociously popular Black Dagger Brotherhood…will give Brotherhood addicts a powerful rush.”—Publishers Weekly

“Best new series I’ve read in years! Tautly written, wickedly sexy and just plain fun.”—Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author

“I found myself turning pages faster and faster—and then I wished I hadn’t, because there was no more to read!”—Angela Knight, New York Times bestselling author

“A dynamite new Vampire series—delicious, erotic, and thrilling! J.R. Ward has created a wonderful cast of characters, with a sexy, tormented, to-die-for hero…A fabulous treat for romance readers!”—Nicole Jordan, New York Times bestselling author

“J.R. Ward has a great style of writing and she shines…You will lose yourself in this world; it is different, creative, dark, violent, and flat-out amazing.”—All About Romance

“Awesome…a midnight whirlwind of dangerous characters and mesmerizing erotic romance. Dark fantasy lovers, you just got served.”—Lynn Viehl, New York Times bestselling author

"J.R. Ward takes you deep into her intense, dark world of vampires and holds you captive until her last breathless word…sure to satisfy lovers of vampire romance everywhere."—Affaire de Coeur (Reviewer Pick, 5 Stars)

“Hold on tight for an intriguing, adrenaline-pumping ride…[that] leaves readers begging for more. Fans of L. A. Banks, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Sherrilyn Kenyon will add Ward to their must-read list.”—Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451466020
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Series: Black Dagger Brotherhood Series, #6
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 180,152
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

J.R. Ward

J. R. Ward is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of numerous novels, including the Black Dagger Brotherhood series and the Fallen Angels series which includes Rapture, Envy, Crave, and Covet. Writing as Jessica Bird, Ward is the author of Leaping Hearts, Heart of Gold, An Irresistible Bachelor, and An Unforgettable Lady. She lives in the South with her family.

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Read an Excerpt

Praise for J. R. Ward and her novels

“Now here’s a band of brothers who know how to show a girl a good time.”

—Lisa Gardner,
New York Times bestselling author of Hide

Lover Unbound

“The newest in Ward’s ferociously popular Black Dagger Brotherhood series bears all the marks of a polished storyteller completely at home in her world…. This fix will give Brotherhood addicts a powerful rush.”

Publishers Weekly

“Loss, sacrifice, and darkness continue to be major themes as one of Ward’s most damaged heroes gets his story. Sex and violence make this tale of emotional redemption unusually graphic and powerful. Ward pulls no punches and delivers an extraordinary paranormal drama.”

Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4 1⁄2 stars)

“Ms. Ward provides nonstop action in a story that’s brimming with emotion, desire, and passionate romance. A great paranormal escape.”

Affaire de Coeur

“This book will grab at your heartstrings. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It might even make you angry. But know one thing—it will make you stand in awe at the writing ability of the very talented J. R. Ward. If I had a black dagger, it would be raised high in the air in salute of Ms. Ward for gifting us with such an exceptional story for such an exceptional brother.”

—Romance Junkies

“J. R. Ward delivers another heartwrenching book assured to take your breath away. Just when you think this author cannot get any better, like a magician she is able to pull a book such as Lover Unbound out of her hat. The last hundred pages of this book will nearly cause you heart failure; this is one you definitely cannot miss. Very highly recommended.”

—MyShelf.com

“Lover Unbound is another winner and a perfect ten in this fabulous series…. It is a book you won’t want to put down once you begin. J. R. Ward is a wonderful storyteller—she has created a dark, fascinating imaginary world and makes it feel very real. I eagerly await her next book.”

—Romance Reviews Today

“J. R. Ward delivers yet again with 500+ pages of delicious Black Dagger Brotherhood goodness. Her books are like crack; you’ll be hooked instantly…. I loved Lover Unbound in all its testosterone-soaked, melodramatic, sexy glory. I’m already dying for the next one.”

—Vampire Genre

Lover Revealed

“[T]hese erotic paranormals are well worth it, and frighteningly addictive…. It all works to great, page-turning effect…. In just two years, the…series [has] earned Ward an Anne Rice-style following, deservedly so.”

Publishers Weekly

“It’s tough to keep raising the bar in a series, but the phenomenal Ward manages to do just that! From book one, human ex-cop Butch O’Neal has seemed like the odd man out in her vampire brotherhood, but in this amazing novel he definitely comes into his own. The world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood continues to grow and become more layered, ramping up the tension, risk and passion. This is awesome stuff.”

Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4 1⁄2 stars)

“[Ward’s] Black Dagger Brotherhood books are some of the most delicious guilty pleasures. No one writes emotion like Ms. Ward, and her books have a dark sensuality that is addictive…. These vampires are hot, and the series only gets hotter…so hot it gave me shivers.”

—Vampire Genre

Lover Awakened

“[A] raw, gritty tour de force, creating an array of ugliness and beauty, pain and pleasure in a tale that sparks enough plot stunners to keep readers fascinated for years to come. Not for the faint of heart—strong sexuality and stronger language rule here—this genre-bending third novel in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series…is a perfect fit for those who like fast-paced urban fantasy rich in both fury and poignancy.”

Booklist (starred review)

“J. R. Ward’s unique band of brothers is to die for. I love this series!”

New York Times
bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann

“When it comes to tormented heroes, few can top the dangerous and tortured Zsadist. In a change of pace, it’s the hero who has sexual issues, resulting from his violently abusive past as a blood slave. Both the hero and heroine have suffered greatly, but it’s Zsadist’s journey to self-acceptance that makes this book so compelling. Ward pulls no punches in this dark, dangerous, and at times tragic series. Waiting for successive installments is getting harder and harder.”

Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4 1⁄2 stars)

“Best new series I’ve read in years! Tautly written, wickedly sexy, and just plain fun.”

—Lisa Gardner

“Lover Awakened is utterly absorbing and deliciously erotic. I found myself turning pages faster and faster—and then I wished I hadn’t, because there was no more to read! The Brotherhood is the hottest collection of studs in romance, and I can’t wait for the next one!”

—Angela Knight, New York Times
bestselling author of Master of Dragons

Lover Eternal

“Ward wields a commanding voice perfect for the genre…. Intriguing, adrenaline-pumping…. Like any good thrill ride, the pace changes with a tender story of survival and hope and leaves readers begging for more. Fans of L. A. Banks, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Sherrilyn Kenyon will add Ward to their must-read list.”

Booklist

“[A] fun ride.”

—Monsters and Critics

“Extremely intense and emotionally powerful…colorful, dangerous and richly conceived. With both intricate plots and believable characters, [J. R. Ward] has penned a surefire hit.”

Romantic Times (Top Pick, 4 1⁄2 stars)

Dark Lover

“It’s not easy to find a new twist on the vampire myth, but Ward succeeds beautifully. This dark and compelling world is filled with enticing romance as well as perilous adventure. With myriad possibilities to choose from, the Black Dagger Brotherhood series promises tons of thrills and chills.”

Romantic Times (Top Pick)

“A dynamite new vampire series—delicious, erotic, and thrilling! J. R. Ward has created a wonderful cast of characters, with a sexy, tormented, to-die-for hero…. A fabulous treat for romance readers!”

—Nicole Jordan, New York Times
bestselling author of Touch Me with Fire

“J. R. Ward has a great style of writing, and she shines…. You will lose yourself in this world; it is different, creative, dark, violent, and flat-out amazing…If you read only one paranormal this year, make it Dark Lover.”

—All About Romance

“An awesome, instantly addictive debut novel. It’s a midnight whirlwind of dangerous characters and mesmerizing erotic romance. The Black Dagger Brotherhood owns me now. Dark fantasy lovers, you just got served.”

—Lynn Viehl, USA Today bestselling author of Evermore

Novels in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series

by J. R. Ward

Dark Lover

Lover Eternal

Lover Awakened

Lover Revealed

Lover Unbound

Lover Enshrined

J. R. WARD

LOVER
ENSHRINED

A NOVEL OF THE BLACK DAGGER BROTHERHOOD

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

With immense gratitude to the readers of the Black Dagger Brotherhood and a shout-out to the Cellies!

Thank you so very much:
Karen Solem, Kara Cesare, Claire Zion, Kara Welsh.

Thank you, S-Byte and Ventrue and Loop and Opal for everything you do out of the goodness of your hearts!

As always with gratitude to my Executive Committee:
Sue Grafton, Dr. Jessica Andersen, and Betsey Vaughan.
And with much respect to the incomparable
Suzanne Brockmann.

To DLB—RESPECT love u xxx mummy
To NTM—as always, with love and gratitude. You are indeed a prince amongst men.
PS—is there anything you can’t find?

To LeElla Scott—are we there yet?
are we there yet? are we there yet?
Remmy, cruise control is our friend and we are nothing without LeSunshine.
Love to you, my bestie.

To Kaylie—welcome to the world, baby girl.
You have a spectacular mother—she’s absolutely my Idol,
and not just because she keeps me in hair care products.

To Bub—thanks for schwasted!

None of this would be possible without:
my loving husband,
who is my adviser and caretaker and visionary,
my wonderful mother, who has given me so much love I
couldn’t possibly ever repay her,
my family (both those of blood and those by adoption),
and my dearest friends.
Oh, and the better half of WriterDog, of course.

GLOSSARY OF TERMS AND PROPER NOUNS

ahstrux nohtrum (n.) Private guard with license to kill who is appointed to his or her position by the king.

ahvenge (v.) Act of mortal retribution, carried out typically by a male loved one.

Black Dagger Brotherhood (pr. n.) Highly trained vampire warriors who protect their species against the Lessening Society. As a result of selective breeding within the race, Brothers possess immense physical and mental strength, as well as rapid healing capabilities. They are not siblings for the most part, and are inducted into the Brotherhood upon nomination by the Brothers. Aggressive, self-reliant, and secretive by nature, they exist apart from civilians, having little contact with members of the other classes except when they need to feed. They are the subjects of legend and the objects of reverence within the vampire world. They may be killed only by the most serious of wounds, e.g., a gunshot or stab to the heart, etc.

blood slave (n.) Male or female vampire who has been subjugated to serve the blood needs of another. The practice of keeping blood slaves has recently been outlawed.

chrih (n.) Symbol of honorable death in the Old Language.

the Chosen (n.) Female vampires who have been bred to serve the Scribe Virgin. They are considered members of the aristocracy, though they are spiritually rather than temporally focused. They have little or no interaction with males, but can be mated to Brothers at the Scribe Virgin’s direction to propagate their class. Some have the ability to prognosticate. In the past, they were used to meet the blood needs of unmated members of the Brotherhood, and that practice has been reinstated by the Brothers.

cohntehst (n.) Conflict between two males competing for the right to be a female’s mate.

doggen (n.) Member of the servant class within the vampire world. Doggen have old, conservative traditions about service to their superiors, following a formal code of dress and behavior. They are able to go out during the day, but they age relatively quickly. Life expectancy is approximately five hundred years.

Dhunhd (pr. n.) Hell.

ehros (pr. n.) A Chosen trained in the matter of sexual arts.

exhile dhoble (pr. n.) The evil or cursed twin, the one born second.

the Fade (pr. n.) Nontemporal realm where the dead reunite with their loved ones and pass eternity.

First Family (pr. n.) The king and queen of the vampires, and any children they may have.

ghardian (n.) Custodian of an individual. There are varying degrees of ghardians, with the most powerful being that of a sehcluded female.

glymera (n.) The social core of the aristocracy, roughly equivalent to Regency England’s ton.

hellren (n.) Male vampire who has been mated to a female. Males may take more than one female as mate.

leahdyre (n.) A person of power and influence.

leelan (adj.) A term of endearment loosely translated as “dearest one.”

Lessening Society (pr. n.) Order of slayers convened by the Omega for the purpose of eradicating the vampire species.

lesser (n.) De-souled human who targets vampires for extermination as a member of the Lessening Society. Lessers must be stabbed through the chest in order to be killed; otherwise they are ageless. They do not eat or drink and are impotent. Over time, their hair, skin, and irises lose pigmentation until they are blond, blushless, and pale eyed. They smell like baby powder. Inducted into the society by the Omega, they retain a ceramic jar thereafter into which their heart was placed after it was removed.

lewlhen (n.) Gift.

lheage (n.) A term of respect used by a sexual submissive to refer to her dominant.

mahmen (n.) Mother. Used both as an identifier and a term of affection.

mhis (n.) The masking of a given physical environment; the creation of a field of illusion.

nalla (n. f.) or nullum (n. m.) Beloved.

needing period (n.) Female vampire’s time of fertility, generally lasting for two days and accompanied by intense sexual cravings. Occurs approximately five years after a female’s transition and then once a decade thereafter. All males respond to some degree if they are around a female in her need. It can be a dangerous time, with conflicts and fights breaking out between competing males, particularly if the female is not mated.

newling (n.) A virgin.

the Omega (pr. n.) Malevolent, mystical figure who has targeted the vampires for extinction out of resentment directed toward the Scribe Virgin. Exists in a nontemporal realm and has extensive powers, though not the power of creation.

phearsom (adj.) Term referring to the potency of a male’s sexual organs. Literal translation something close to “worthy of entering a female.”

princeps (n.) Highest level of the vampire aristocracy, second only to members of the First Family or the Scribe Virgin’s Chosen. Must be born to the title; it may not be conferred.

pyrocant (n.) Refers to a critical weakness in an individual. The weakness can be internal, such as an addiction, or external, such as a lover.

rahlman (n.) Savior.

rythe (n.) Ritual manner of assuaging honor granted by one who has offended another. If accepted, the offended chooses a weapon and strikes the offender, who presents him- or herself without defenses.

the Scribe Virgin (pr. n.) Mystical force who is counselor to the king as well as the keeper of vampire archives and the dispenser of privileges. Exists in a nontemporal realm and has extensive powers. Capable of a single act of creation, which she expended to bring the vampires into existence.

sehclusion (n.) Status conferred by the king upon a female of the aristocracy as a result of a petition by the female’s family. Places the female under the sole direction of her ghardian, typically the eldest male in her household. Her ghardian then has the legal right to determine all manner of her life, restricting at will any and all interactions she has with the world.

shellan (n.) Female vampire who has been mated to a male. Females generally do not take more than one mate due to the highly territorial nature of bonded males.

symphath (n.) Subspecies within the vampire race characterized by the ability and desire to manipulate emotions in others (for the purposes of an energy exchange), among other traits. Historically, they have been discriminated against and, during certain eras, hunted by vampires. They are near to extinction.

the Tomb (pr. n.) Sacred vault of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Used as a ceremonial site as well as a storage facility for the jars of lessers. Ceremonies performed there include inductions, funerals, and disciplinary actions against Brothers. No one may enter except for members of the Brotherhood, the Scribe Virgin, or candidates for induction.

trahyner (n.) Word used between males of mutual respect and affection. Translated loosely as “beloved friend.”

transition (n.) Critical moment in a vampire’s life when he or she transforms into an adult. Thereafter, they must drink the blood of the opposite sex to survive and are unable to withstand sunlight. Occurs generally in the mid-twenties. Some vampires do not survive their transitions, males in particular. Prior to their transitions, vampires are physically weak, sexually unaware and unresponsive, and unable to dematerialize.

vampire (n.) Member of a species separate from that of Homo sapiens. Vampires must drink the blood of the opposite sex to survive. Human blood will keep them alive, though the strength does not last long. Following their transitions, which occur in their mid-twenties, they are unable to go out into sunlight and must feed from the vein regularly. Vampires cannot “convert” humans through a bite or transfer of blood, though they are in rare cases able to breed with the other species. Vampires can dematerialize at will, though they must be able to calm themselves and concentrate to do so and may not carry anything heavy with them. They are able to strip the memories of humans, provided such memories are short-term. Some vampires are able to read minds. Life expectancy is upward of a thousand years, or in some cases even longer.

wahlker (n.) An individual who has died and returned to the living from the Fade. They are accorded great respect and are revered for their travails.

whard (n.) Equivalent of a godfather or godmother to an individual.

Table of Contents

Prologue

Twenty-five years, three months, four days,
eleven hours, eight minutes, and thirty-four seconds ago…

TIME WAS NOT, in fact, a draining loss into the infinite. Up until the very second of the present, it was malleable, not fixed. Clay, not concrete.

Which was something for which the Omega was grateful. If time had been fixed, he would not be holding his newborn son in his arms.

Children had never been his goal. And yet in this moment, he was transformed.

“Is the mother dead?” he asked as his Fore-lesser came down the stairs. Funny, if you had asked the slayer what year he thought it was, he would have said 1983. And he would have been correct, in a way.

The Fore-lesser nodded. “She didn’t survive the birth.”

“Vampires rarely do. It’s one of their few virtues.” And in this case apropos. Killing the mother after she had served him so well seemed ungracious.

“What do you want me to do with her body?”

The Omega watched as his son reached out and grabbed hold of his thumb. The grip was strong. “How odd.”

“What?”

It was hard to put into words what he was feeling. Or perhaps that was the point. He hadn’t expected to feel anything.

His son was supposed to be a defensive reaction to the the Destroyer Prophecy, a calculated response in the war against the vampires, a strategy to ensure the Omega survived. His son would do battle in a new way and kill off that race of savages before the Destroyer chipped away at the Omega’s being until there was nothing left.

Up until this moment, the plan had been executed flawlessly, starting with the abduction of the female vampire the Omega had inseminated and ending here with this new arrival in the world.

The infant looked up at him, budding mouth working. He smelled sweet, but not because he was a lesser.

The Omega didn’t want to let him go, suddenly. This young in his arms was a miracle, a living, breathing loophole. The Omega had not been granted the act of creation as his sister had, but reproduction had not been denied him. He might not have been able to bring a whole new race into being. But he could bring a part of himself forward from the genetic pool.

And he had.

“Master?” the Fore-lesser said.

He really did not want to let the baby go, but to have this work, his son had to live with the enemy, be raised as one among them. His son had to know their language and their culture and their ways.

His son had to know where they lived so he could go and slaughter them.

The Omega forced himself to give the infant over to his Fore-lesser. “Leave him at the gathering place I forbade you to sack. Swaddle him and leave him, and when you return here I shall draw you forth unto me.”

Whereupon you shall die as I so will it, the Omega finished to himself.

There could be no leaks. No mistakes.

As the Fore-lesser did some fawning, which would have interested the Omega at any other time, the sun came up over the cornfields of Caldwell, New York. From upstairs, a soft fizzling sound bloomed into a full-blown fire, the burning smell announcing the incineration of the female’s body along with all the blood on that bed.

Which was just lovely. Tidiness mattered, and this farmhouse was brand-new, built especially for the son’s birth.

“Go,” the Omega commanded. “Go and carry out your duty.”

The Fore-lesser left with the infant, and as the Omega watched the door shut, he yearned for his offspring. Positively ached for the boy.

The solution for his angst was at hand, however. The Omega willed himself into the air and catapulted what corporeal form he had to the “present,” to the very living room he was in.

The change in time registered in a rapid aging of the house around him. Wallpaper faded and peeled off in lazy strips. Furniture ratted and became worn in patterns consistent with over two decades of use. The ceiling dulled from bright white to dingy yellow, as if smokers had been exhaling for years. Floorboards curled up at the corners of the hallway.

In the back of the house, he heard two humans arguing.

The Omega drifted down to the filthy, wilted kitchen that merely seconds ago had been shiny as the day it had been built.

As he came into the room, the man and the woman stopped their fighting, freezing with shock. And he got on with the tedious business of emptying the farmhouse of prying eyes.

His son was returning unto the fold. And the Omega needed to see him almost more than he needed to put him to use.

As the evil touched the center of his chest, he felt empty and thought of his sister. She had brought forth into the world a new race, a race engineered through a combination of her will and the biology that was available. She’d been so proud of herself.

Their father had, as well.

The Omega had started to kill the vampires just to spite them both, but had quickly learned he fed off deeds of evil. Their father couldn’t stop him, of course, because, as it turned out, the Omega’s deeds—nay, his very existence—were necessary to balance his sister’s goodness.

Balance had to be maintained. It was his sister’s core principle, the justification for the Omega, and their father’s mandate from his father. The very basis of the world.

And so it was that the Scribe Virgin suffered and the Omega drew his satisfaction. With each death wrought on her race she hurt, and well he knew it. The brother had always been able to feel the sister.

Now, though, that was even truer.

As the Omega pictured his son out there in the world, he worried about the boy. Hoped that the twenty-plus years had been easy for him. But that was a proper parent, was it not. Parents were supposed to have concern over their offspring and nurture them and protect them. Whatever your core was, whether it be virtue or sin, you wanted the best for what you had brought forth into the world.

It was stunning to find that he had something in common with his sister, after all…a shock to know that they both wanted what children they begot to survive and thrive.

The Omega looked at the bodies of the humans he had just laid to waste.

Of course, that was a mutually exclusive proposition, wasn’t it.

Chapter One

THE WIZARD HAD RETURNED.

Phury closed his eyes and let his head fall back against his headboard. Ah, hell, what was he saying. The wizard had never left.

Mate, sometimes you take the piss out of me, the dark voice in his head drawled. You truly do. After all we’ve been together?

All they’d been together…wasn’t that the truth.

The wizard was the cause of Phury’s driving need for red smoke, always in his head, always hammering about what he hadn’t done, what he should have done, what he could have done better.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

Cute rhyme. The reality was that one of the Ring-wraiths from The Lord of the Rings drove him to the red smoke sure as if the bastard hog-tied him and threw him in the back of a car.

Actually, mate, you’d be the front bumper.

Exactly.

In his mind’s eye, the wizard appeared in the form of a Ring-wraith standing in the midst of a vast gray wasteland of skulls and bones. In its proper British accent, the bastard made sure that Phury never forgot his failures, the pounding litany causing him to light up again and again just so he didn’t go into his gun closet and eat the muzzle of a forty.

You didn’t save him. You didn’t save them. The curse was brought upon them all by you. The fault is yours…the fault is yours….

Phury reached for another blunt and lit it with his gold lighter.

He was what they called in the Old Country the exhile dhoble.

The second twin. The evil twin.

Born three minutes after Zsadist, Phury’s live birth had brought the curse of imbalance to the family. Two noble sons, both born breathing, was too much good fortune, and sure enough, balance had been wrought: Within months, his twin had been stolen from the family, sold into slavery, and abused for a century in every manner possible.

Thanks to his sick bitch mistress, Zsadist was scarred on his face and his back and his wrists and neck. Scarred worse on the inside.

Phury opened his eyes. Rescuing his twin’s physical body hadn’t gone far enough; it had taken the miracle of Bella to resurrect Z’s soul, and now she was in danger. If they lost her…

Then all is proper and the balance remains intact for the next generation, the wizard said. You don’t honestly think your twin will reap the blessing of a live birth? You shall have children beyond measure. He shall have none. That is the way of the balance.

Oh, and I’m taking his shellan, too, did I mention that?

Phury picked up the remote and turned up “Che Gelida Manina.”

Didn’t work. The wizard liked Puccini. The Ring-wraith just started to waltz around the field of skeletons, its boots crushing what was underfoot, its heavy arms swaying with elegance, its black shredded robes like the mane of a stallion throwing its regal head. Against a vast horizon of soulless gray, the wizard waltzed and laughed.

So. Fucked. Up.

Without looking, Phury reached over to the bedside table for his bag of red smoke and his rolling papers. He didn’t have to measure the distance. He was the rabbit who knew where its pellets were.

While the wizard whooped it up to La Bohème, Phury rolled up two fatties so he could keep his chain going, and he smoked while he readied his reinforcements. As he exhaled, what left his lips smelled like coffee and chocolate, but to put a dull on the wizard, he would have used the stuff even if it had been like burning trash in the nose.

Hell, he was getting to the point where lighting up a whole fucking Dumpster would have been fine and dandy if it could get him some peace.

I can’t believe you don’t value our relationship more, the wizard said.

Phury focused on the drawing in his lap, the one he’d been working on for the last half hour. After he did a quick catch-up review, he dipped the tip of his quill into the sterling silver pot he had balanced against his hip. The pool of ink inside looked like the blood of his enemies, with its dense, oily sheen. On the paper, though, it was a deep reddish brown, not a vile black.

He would never use black to depict someone he loved. Bad luck.

Besides, the sanguinary ink was precisely the color of the highlights in Bella’s mahogany hair. So it fit his subject.

Phury carefully shaded the sweep of her perfect nose, the fine lashes of the quill crisscrossing one another until the density was correct.

Ink drawing was a lot like life: One mistake and the whole thing was ruined.

Damn it. Bella’s eye wasn’t quite up to par.

Curling his forearm around so he didn’t drag his wrist through the new ink he’d laid, he tried to fix what was wrong, shaping the lower lid so the curve of it was more angled. His strokes marked up the sheet of Crane paper nicely enough. But the eye still wasn’t working.

Yeah, not right, and he should know, considering how much time he’d spent drawing her over the last eight months.

The wizard paused in mid-plié and pointed out that this pen-and-ink routine was a shitty thing to do. Drawing your twin’s pregnant shellan. Honestly.

Only a right sodding bastard would get fixated on a female who was taken by his twin. And yet you have. You must be so proud of yourself, mate.

Yeah, the wizard had always had a British accent for some reason.

Phury took another drag and tilted his head to the side to see if a change in viewing angle would help. Nope. Still not right. And neither was the hair, actually. For some reason he’d drawn Bella’s long, dark hair in a chignon, with wisps tickling her cheeks. She always wore it down.

Whatever. She was beyond lovely anyway, and the rest of her face was as he usually depicted her: Her loving stare was to the right, her lashes silhouetted, her gaze showing a combination of warmth and devotion.

Zsadist sat to her right at meals. So that his fighting hand was free.

Phury never drew her with her eyes looking out at him. Which made sense. In real life, he never drew her stare, either. She was in love with his twin, and he wouldn’t have changed that, not for all his longing for her.

The scope of his drawing ran from the top of her chignon to the top of her shoulders. He never drew her pregnant belly. Pregnant females were never depicted from the breastbone down. Again, bad luck. As well as a reminder of what he feared most.

Deaths on the birthing bed were common.

Phury ran his fingertips down her face, avoiding that nose, where the ink was still drying. She was lovely, even with the eye that wasn’t right, and the hair that was different, and the lips that were less full.

This was done. Time to start another.

Moving down to the base of the drawing, he started the curl of the ivy at the curve of her shoulder. First one leaf, then a growing stem…now more leaves, curling and thickening, covering up her neck, crowding against her jaw, lipping up to her mouth, unfurling over her cheeks.

Back and forth to the ink jar. Ivy overtaking her. Ivy covering the tracks of his quill, hiding his heart and the sin that lived in it.

It was hardest for him to cover her nose. That was always the last thing he did, and when he could avoid it no longer, he felt his lungs burn as if it were him who would no longer be free to breathe.

When the ivy had won out over the image, Phury wadded up the paper and tossed it into the brass wastepaper basket across his bedroom.

What month was it now…August? Yeah, August. Which would be…She had a good year left of the pregnancy, assuming she could hold it. Like a lot of females, she was already on bed rest because preterm labor was a big concern.

Stabbing out the tail end of his blunt, he reached for one of the two he’d just made and realized he’d smoked them.

Stretching out his one whole leg, he put his lap easel to the side and brought his survival kit back over: a plastic Baggie of red smoke, a thin packet of rolling papers, and his chunky gold lighter. It was the work of a moment to roll up a freshie, and as he drew in the first hit, he measured his stash.

Shit, it was thin. Very thin.

The steel shutters rising from the windows calmed him out. Night, in all its sunless glory, had fallen, the arrival bringing freedom from the Brotherhood’s mansion…and the ability to get to his dealer, Rehvenge.

Shifting the leg that had no foot or calf off the bed, he reached for his prosthesis, plugged it on below his right knee, and stood up. He was toasted enough so the air around him felt like something he had to wade through and the window he headed toward seemed miles away. But it was all good. He was comforted by the familiar haze, eased by the sensation of floating as he walked naked across his room.

The garden down below was resplendent, lit by the glow from the library’s bank of French doors.

This was what a back vista should look like, he thought. All the flowers blooming with health, the fruit trees fat with pears and apples, the pathways clear, the boxwood clipped.

It was not like the one he had grown up with. Not at all.

Right beneath his window, the tea roses were in full bloom, their fat, rainbow-hued heads held up proudly on their thorned spines. The roses brought his train of thought to another female.

As Phury inhaled again, he pictured his female, the one who he rightfully should be drawing…the one who, according to law and custom, he should be doing a hell of a lot more to than sketching.

The Chosen Cormia. His First Mate.

Among forty.

Man, how the hell had he ended up Primale to the Chosen?

I told you, the wizard answered. You’re going to have children beyond measure, all of whom shall have the enduring joy of looking up to a father whose only accomplishment has been letting everyone around him down.

Okay, nasty as the bastard could be, that was a hard point to argue. He hadn’t mated with Cormia as ritual required. He hadn’t been back to the Other Side to see the Directrix. He hadn’t met the other thirty-nine females he was supposed to lay with and impregnate.

Phury smoked harder, the weight of those big-ass nothings landing on his head, flaming boulders launched by the wizard.

The wizard had excellent trajectory. Then again, he’d had a lot of practice.

Well, now, mate, you’re an easy target. That’s all there is about that.

At least Cormia wasn’t complaining about the dereliction of duties. She hadn’t wanted to be First Mate, had been forced into the role: On the day of the ritual, she’d had to be tied down on the ceremonial bed, splayed out for his use like an animal, utterly terrified.

The moment he’d seen her he’d gone into his default setting, which was full savior mode. He’d brought her here to the Black Dagger Brotherhood’s mansion and put her in the bedroom next to his. Tradition or not, there was no way in hell he was forcing himself on a female, and he figured that if they had some space and time to get to know each other it would be easier.

Yeah…no. Cormia had kept to herself, while he went about his daily business of trying to keep from imploding. Over the last five months, they were no closer to each other or a bed. Cormia rarely spoke and showed her face only at meals. If she went outside of her room, it was just to the library for books.

In her long white robe, she was more like a jasmine-scented shadow than anything made of flesh and bone.

The shameful truth of it was, though, he was okay with the way things were. He’d thought he’d been fully aware of the sexual commitment he was making when he took Vishous’s place as the Primale, but the reality was far more daunting than the concept had been. Forty females. Forty.

Four-oh.

He must have lost his damn mind when he stepped in for V. God knew, his one shot at trying to lose his virginity hadn’t been a party—and that had even been with a professional. Although maybe trying things out with a whore had been part of the problem.

But who the hell else did he have to go to? He was a two-hundred-year-old clueless celibate. How was he supposed to climb on top of lovely, fragile Cormia, pound into her until he came, and then hightail it to the Chosen’s Sanctuary and make like Bill Paxton in Big Love?

What the hell had he been thinking?

Phury put his blunt between his lips and jacked up the window. As the summer night’s thick perfume rolled into his room, he refocused on the roses. He’d caught Cormia with one the other day, one she’d evidently taken from the bouquet Fritz kept in the second-floor sitting room. She’d been poised next to the vase, the pale lavender rose between two of her long fingers, her head bent down to the bud, her nose hovering over the fat bloom. Her blond hair, which was as always up in a twist on her head, had let loose delicate wisps that fell forward and curved in a natural curl. Just like the rose’s petals.

She’d jumped when she caught him staring at her, put the rose back, and quickly gone to her room, the door shutting without a sound.

He knew he couldn’t keep her here forever, away from all she was familar with and all that she was. And they had to complete the sexual ceremony. That was the deal he’d made, and that was the role that she’d told him, no matter how scared she’d been at first, she was prepared to fulfill.

He looked over to his bureau, to a heavy gold medallion that was the size of a large fountain pen. Marked with an ancient version of the Old Language, it was the symbol of the Primale: not just the key to all the buildings on the Other Side, but the calling card of the male who was in charge of the Chosen.

The strength of the race, as the Primale was known.

The medallion had rung again today as it had rung before. Whenever the Directrix wanted him, the thing vibrated, and theoretically he was supposed to poof his ass to what should have been his home, the Sanctuary. He’d ignored the summons. As he had the other two.

He didn’t want to hear what he already knew: Five months without sealing the deal on the Primale ceremony was pushing it.

He thought of Cormia holed up in that guest room next door, keeping to herself. No one to talk to. Away from her sisters. He’d tried to reach out to her, but he made her jumpy as hell. Understandably.

God, he had no idea how she passed the hours without going mad. She needed a friend. Everyone needed friends.

Not everyone deserves them, however, the wizard pointed out.

Phury turned and headed for the shower. As he passed by the wastepaper basket, he stopped. His drawing had begun to unravel from the ball he’d wadded it into, and within the crinkled mess, he saw the ivy overlay he’d added. For a split second, he remembered what was underneath, recalled the upswept hair and the wisps that fell on a smooth cheek. Wisps that had the same curl as a rose’s petals.

Shaking his head, he kept going. Cormia was lovely, but—

Wanting her would be appropriate, the wizard finished. So why in a million years would you go down that road. Might ruin your perfect record of accomplishments.

Oh, wait, that would be fuckups, mate. Wouldn’t it.

Phury cranked up Puccini and hit the shower.

Chapter Two

AS THE SHUTTERS LIFTED for the night, Cormia was very busy.

Sitting cross-legged on the Oriental rug in her bedroom, she was fishing around in a crystal bowl of water, chasing peas. The legumes were hard as pebbles when Fritz brought them to her, but after they soaked for a while, they became soft enough to use.

When she’d captured one, she reached to the left and took a toothpick from a little white box that read, in red English letters, SIMMONS’S TOOTHPICKS, 500 COUNT.

She took the pea and pushed it onto the end of the pick, then took another pea and another pick, and did the same until a right angle was formed. She kept going, creating first a square, and then a three-dimensional box. Satisfied, she bent forward and attached it to one of its brethren, capping off the final corner in a four-sided base structure about five feet in diameter. Now she would go upward, building floors of the latticework.

The picks were all the same, identical slices of wood, and the peas were all alike, round and green. Both reminded her of where she was from. Sameness mattered in the Chosen’s nontemporal Sanctuary. Sameness was the most important thing.

Very little was alike here on this side.

She’d first seen the toothpicks downstairs after the meals, when the Brother Rhage and the Brother Butch would take them out of a slender sliver box as they left the dining room. For no good reason, one evening she’d taken a number of them on her way back to her room. She’d tried putting one in her mouth, but hadn’t liked the dry, woody taste. Not sure what else to do with them, she’d laid out the picks on the bedside table and arranged them together so that they formed shapes.

Fritz, the butler, had come in to clean, noticed her machinations, and returned some time later with a bowl of peas soaking in warm water. He’d shown her how to make the system work. Pea between two picks. Then add another section and another and another, and before you knew it you had something worth seeing.

As her designs got bigger and more ambitious, she’d taken to planning out in advance all the angles and the elevations to reduce errors. She’d also started working on the floor so she had more space.

Leaning forward, she checked the drawing she’d done before she’d started, the one she used to guide her. Next layer would decrease in size, as would the one after that. Then she would add a tower.

Color would be good, she thought. But how to work it into the structure?

Ah, color. The liberation of the eye.

Being on this side had its challenges, but one thing she absolutely loved were all the colors. In the Chosen’s Sanctuary, everything was white: from the grass to the trees to the temples to the food and drink to the devotional books.

With a wince of guilt, she glanced over to her sacred texts. It was hard to argue that she’d been worshiping the Scribe Virgin at her little cathedral of peas and picks.

Nurturing the self was not the goal of the Chosen. It was a sacrilege.

And the visit earlier from the Chosen’s Directrix should have reminded her of that.

Dearest Virgin Scribe, she didn’t want to think about that.

Getting up, she waited for her light-headedness to clear, then went to a window. Down below were the tea roses, and she noted each of the bushes, checking for new buds and petals that had dropped, and fresh leaves.

Time was passing. She could tell by the way the plants changed, their cycle of budding lasting three or four days for each bloom.

Yet another thing to get used to. On the Other Side, there was no time. There were rhythms of rituals and eating and baths, but no alternation of day or night, no hourly measure, no change of season. Time and existence were static just as the air was, just as the light was, just as the landscape was.

On this side, she’d had to learn that there were minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years. Clocks and calendars were used to mark the passings, and she’d figured out how to read them, just as she’d come to understand the cycles of this world and the people in it.

Out on the terrace, a doggen came into view. He had a pair of shears and a large red bucket and he went along the bushes, clipping them into place.

She thought of the rolling white lawns of the Sanctuary. And the unmoving white trees. And the white flowers that were always in bloom. On the Other Side, everything was frozen in its proper place so there was no trimming needed, no mowing, never any change.

Those who breathed the still air were likewise frozen even as they moved, living and yet not living.

Although the Chosen did age, didn’t they. And they did die.

She glanced over her shoulder to a bureau that had empty drawers. The scroll the Directrix had come to deliver sat on its glossy top. The Chosen Amalya, as Directrix, was issuer of such birth recognitions and had appeared to complete her duty.

Had Cormia been over on the Other Side, there would have been a ceremony as well. Although not for her, of course. The individual whose birth it was received no special due, as there was no self on the Other Side. Only the whole.

To think for yourself, to think of yourself, was blasphemy.

She’d always been a secret sinner. She’d always had errant ideas and distractions and drives. All of which went nowhere.

Cormia brought her hand up and put it on the windowpane. The glass she stared through was thinner than her pinkie, as clear as air, hardly any barrier at all. She’d wanted to go down to the flowers for quite a while now, but was waiting for…she did not know what.

When she had first come to this place, she’d been racked by sensory overload. There were all kinds of things she didn’t recognize, like torches that were plugged into the walls that you had to switch on for light, and machines that did things like wash dishes or keep food cold or create images on a little screen. There were boxes that chimed with every hour, and metal vehicles that carried people around, and things you ran back and forth across floors that whirred and cleaned.

There were more colors here than in all the jewels in the treasury. Smells as well, both good and bad.

Everything was so different, and so were the people. Where she was from, there were no males, and her sisters were interchangeable: All Chosen wore the same white robe and twisted their hair up in the same way and had a single teardrop pearl around their necks. They all walked and talked in the identical quiet manner and did the same thing at the same time. Here? Chaos. The Brothers and their shellans wore different clothes and they conversed and laughed in separate, identifiable patterns. They liked certain foods, but not others, and some slept late and others didn’t sleep at all. Some were funny, some were fierce, some were…beautiful.

One was definitely beautiful.

Bella was beautiful.

Especially in the Primale’s eyes.

As the clock started to chime, Cormia tucked her arms in close to her body. Meals were a torture, giving her a taste of what it was going to be like when she and the Primale returned to the Sanctuary.

And he looked upon the faces of her sisters with similar admiration and pleasure.

Talk about change. In the beginning she had been terrified of the Primale. Now, after five months, she didn’t want to share him.

With his mane of multicolored hair, and his yellow eyes, and his silky, low voice, he was a spectacular male in his mating prime. But that wasn’t what really compelled her. He was the epitome of all that she knew to be of worth: He was focused always on others, never on himself. At the dinner table, he was the one who inquired after each and every person, following up about injuries and stomach upsets and anxieties large and small. He never demanded any attention for himself. Never drew the conversation to something of his. Was endlessly supportive.

If there was a hard job, he volunteered for it. If there was an errand, he wanted to run it. If Fritz staggered under the weight of a platter, the Primale was the first out of his chair to help. From all that she’d overheard at the table, he was a fighter for the race and a teacher of the trainees and a good, good friend to everyone.

He truly was the proper example of the selfless virtues of the Chosen, the perfect Primale. And somewhere in the seconds and hours and days and months of her stay here, she had veered from the path of duty into the messy forest of choice. She now wanted to be with him. There was no had to, must do, need to.

But she wanted him to herself.

Which made her a heretic.

Next door to her, the gorgeous music the Primale always played when he was in his room cut off. Which meant he was heading down for First Meal.

The sound of a knock on her door made her jump and twirl around. As her robe settled against her legs, she caught the scent of red smoke drifting ino her room.

The Primale had come for her?

She quickly checked her chignon and tucked some of the stray hairs behind her ears. When she opened the door a crack, she stole a glance up into his face before she bowed to him.

Oh, dearest Virgin Scribe…the Primale was too glorious to stare at for long. His eyes were yellow as citrines, his skin a warm golden brown, his long hair a spectacular mélange of color, from the palest of blond to deep mahogany to warm copper.

He bowed in a short, quick body bob, a formality she knew he disliked. He did it for her, though, because no matter how many times he told her not to be formal, she couldn’t stop herself.

“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” he said.

In the hesitation that followed, she worried that the Directrix had been to see him. Everyone in the Sanctuary was waiting for the ceremony to be completed, and all were aware it hadn’t been yet. She was beginning to feel an urgency that had nothing to do with her attraction to him. The weight of tradition was growing heavier with each passing day.

He cleared his throat. “We’ve been here for a while, and I know the transition’s been tough. I was thinking you must be a little lonely and that you might like some company.”

Cormia brought her hand to her neck. This was good. It was time for them to be together. In the beginning, she hadn’t been ready for him. Now she was.

“I really think it would be good for you,” he said in his beautiful voice, “to have some company.”

She bowed low. “Thank you, your grace. I agree.”

“Great. I have someone in mind.”

Cormia straightened slowly. Someone?

*   *   *

John Matthew always slept naked.

Well, at least ever since his transition, he slept naked.

It saved on laundry.

With a groan, he reached between his legs and palmed his rock-hard erection. The thing had woken him up as usual, an alarm clock as reliable and stiff off the ground as Big Fucking Ben.

It had a snooze button, too. If he took care of the thing, he could rest another twenty minutes or so before it got up to stuff again. Typically the routine was three times before he left the bed and once more in the shower.

And to think he’d once wished for this.

Focusing on unattractive thoughts didn’t help, and though he suspected getting off actually made the drive worse, denying his cock wasn’t an option: When he’d backed off a couple months ago as a test pattern, within twelve hours he’d been ready to fuck a tree, he was so horny.

Was there any such thing as anti-Viagra? Cialis Reversailis? Limpicillin?

Rolling onto his back, he shifted one leg out to the side, pushed the covers off his body, and started stroking himself. This was his preferred position, although if he came really hard he curled over onto his right side in the middle of the orgasm.

As a pretrans, he’d always wanted an erection, because he’d figured that getting hard would make him a man. The reality hadn’t worked out that way. Sure, with his enormous body and his innate fighting skills and this permarousal he had going on, he was flying the he-man flag and then some on the outside.

Inside, he still felt as small as he’d ever been.

He arched his back and pumped up into his hand with his hips. God…it felt good, though. Every time this felt good…as long as it was his palm doing the pneumatics. The one and only time a female had touched him, his erection had deflated faster than his ego.

So actually, he had his anti-Viagra: another person.

But now was not the time to rehash his bad past. His cock was getting ready to go off; he could tell by the numbness. Right before he came the thing went dull for a couple of strokes, and that was what was happening now as his hand moved up and down the wet shaft.

Oh, yeah…here it comes…. The tension in his balls tightened into a twisted cable and his hips rocked uncontrollably and his lips parted so he could pant easier…and as if all that wasn’t enough, his brain anted into the action.

No…fuck…no, not her again, please not—

Shit, too late. In the midst of the swirling sex, his mind latched onto the one thing that was guaranteed to make him multiple it: a leather-clad female with a man’s haircut and shoulders tight as a prizefighter’s.

Xhex.

On a soundless bark of air, John flipped onto his side and started to come. The orgasm went on and on as he fantasized about the two of them having sex in one of the bathrooms at the club she was head of security for. And as long as the images shot around his brain, his body wouldn’t stop releasing. He could literally keep it up for ten minutes straight until he was covered with what came out of his cock and his sheets were totally wet.

He tried to corral his thoughts, tried to get a rein on things…but failed. He just kept coming, his hand stroking, his heart pounding, his breath choked in his throat as he pictured the two of them together. Good thing he’d been born without a voice box or the Brotherhood’s whole mansion would know exactly what he was doing over and over and over again.

Things quieted down only after he forcibly removed his hand from his cock. As his body slowed its roll, he lay in a limp heap, breathing into his pillow, sweat and other stuff drying on his skin.

Nice wake-up call. Nice little exercise sesh. Nice way to kill some time. But ultimately hollow.

For no particular reason, his eyes wandered and settled on the bedside table. If he were to open the drawer, which he never did, he would find two things: a bloodred box about the size of a fist and an old leather diary. Inside the box was a heavy gold signet ring bearing the crest of his lineage as the son of the Black Dagger warrior Darius, son of Marklon. The antique journal contained his father’s private thoughts from a two-year period of his life. Also given as a gift.

John had never put on the ring and he had never read the entries.

There were a lot of reasons, but the main one for shutting both away was that the male he considered his father was not Darius. It was another Brother. A Brother who had been MIA for eight months now.

If he was going to wear any ring, it would be one with Tohrment, son of Hharm’s crest on it. As a way to honor the male who had meant so much to him in such a short time.

But that wasn’t happening. Tohr was likely dead, no matter what Wrath said, and in any event had never been his father.

Not wanting to sink into a mood, John pushed himself up off the mattress and lurched into the bathroom. The shower helped focus him, and so did getting dressed.

The trainee class wasn’t meeting tonight, so he was going to log some more hours down in the office and then meet up with Qhuinn and Blay. He was hoping there was a lot of paperwork to do. He wasn’t looking forward to seeing his best friends tonight.

The three of them were going across town to the…God, to the mall.

It was Qhuinn’s idea. As most of them were. According to the guy, John’s wardrobe needed a style injection.

John looked down at his Levi’s and his white Hanes T-shirt. The only flash he sported was his running shoes: a pair of Nike Air Maxes in black. And even they weren’t very flashy.

Maybe Qhuinn had a point that John was a fashion victim, but come on. Who did he have to impress?

The word that popped into his head had him cursing and rearranging himself: Xhex.

Someone knocked on his door. “John? You there?”

John quickly tucked in the T-shirt and wondered why Phury would be seeking him out. He’d been keeping up with his studies and doing well on the hand-to-hand. Maybe it was about the work he did in the office?

John opened the door. Hi, he signed in American Sign Language.

“Hey. How’s you?” John nodded and then frowned as the Brother switched into ASL. I was wondering if you might do me a favor.

Anything.

Cormia is…well, she’s had some challenges being on this side. I think it would be great if she had someone to spend a little time with, you know…someone who’s tight in the head and low-key. Uncomplicated. So, do you think you could do the honors? Just talk to her or take her around the house or…whatever. I’d do it but…

It’s complicated, John finished in his head.

It’s complicated, Phury signed.

An image of the silent blond Chosen popped into John’s mind. He’d watched Cormia and Phury studiously not look at each other for the past few months, and had wondered—like everyone else, no doubt—whether they’d sealed the deal.

John didn’t think so. They were far, far too awkward still.

Would you mind, Phury signed. I figure she must have questions or…I don’t know, things to talk about.

Truthfully, the Chosen didn’t seem as if she wanted to be hung out with. She always kept her head down at meals and never said a thing while she ate only food that was white. But if Phury asked, how could John say no? The Brother always helped him on his fighting stances and answered questions outside of the classroom and was the type of person you wanted to do nice things for because he was kind to everyone.

Sure, John replied. I’d be happy to.

Thanks. Phury clapped him on the shoulder with satisfaction, like he’d plugged a hole. I’ll tell her to meet you in the library after First Meal.

John looked down at what he was wearing. He wasn’t sure the jeans routine was fancy enough, but his closet was only stuffed with more of the same.

Maybe it was a good thing he and his boys were malling it. And too bad they hadn’t gone already.

Chapter Three

THE TRADITION IN THE Lessening Society was that once you were inducted, you were known only by the first letter of your last name.

Mr. D should have been known as Mr. R. R as in Roberts. Thing was, the identity he’d been using when he’d been recruited had been Delancy. So Mr. D he had become, and he’d been known by that for the last thirty years.

Weren’t no nevermind, though. Names never did matter none.

Mr. D downshifted as he headed into a turn on Route 22, but going into third didn’t help him pull through the curve much. The Ford Focus had getup like a ninety-year-old. Kinda smelt like mothballs and flaky skin, too.

Caldwell, New York’s farm alley was a stretch of about fifty miles of cornfields and cow pastures and while he putt-putt-putted through it, he found himself thinking about pitchforks. He’d killed his first person with one. Back in Texas when he was fourteen. His cousin, Big Tommy.

Mr. D had been right proud of himself for getting away with that murder. Being small and appearing defenseless had been the ticket. Good ol’ Big Tommy had been a roughneck, with ham hands and a mean streak, so when Mr. D had run screaming to his mama with a beat-in face, everyone had believed his cuz had been in a killing rage and deserved what he’d got. Hah. Mr. D had tracked Big Tommy into the barn and riled him up but good for to get himself the fat lip and black eye necessary to argue self-defense. Then he’d taken the pitchfork he’d propped up against a stall beforehand and gotten to work.

He’d just wanted to know what it felt like to kill a human. The cats and the possums and the raccoons he’d trapped and tortured had been okay, but they weren’t no human.

The deed was harder to do than he’d thought. In the movies, pitchforks just went right into people like a spoon to soup, but that was a lie. The tines of the thing had got tangled in Big Tommy’s ribs so bad to where Mr. D had had to brace his foot on his cousin’s hip to get the leverage to yank the fork out. Second thrust had gone into the stomach, but got jammed again. Probably in the spine. More with the foot bracing. By the time Big Tommy stopped baying like a wounded pig, Mr. D was puffing the sweet, hay-dust air of the barn like there was too little of it to go around.

But it hadn’t been no total bust. Mr. D had really liked the changing expressions on his cousin’s face. First there had been anger, the stuff that got Mr. D hit. Then disbelief. Then horror and terror at the end. As Big Tommy had coughed up blood and gasped, his eyes had peeled with righteous fear, the kind your mama always wanted you to have for the Lord. Mr. D, the runt of the family, the little guy, had felt seven feet tall.

It had been his first taste of power and he’d wanted it again, but the police had come and there been a lot of talk in town and he’d forced himself to be good. A couple of years passed before he did something like that again. Working at a meat-processing plant had done right by his knife skills, and when he was ready, he’d used the Big Tommy kind of setup again: bar fight with a bulldozer of a man. He’d madded up the bastard, then lured him over to a dark corner. A screwdriver, and not the kind you drank, did the job.

Things had been more complicated than with Big Tommy. Once Mr. D had started in on the bulldozer guy, he hadn’t been able to stop. And it was harder to pull self-defense out your pocket when the body done been stabbed seven times, dragged out behind a car, and dismembered like a machine that were broke.

Packing the dead guy into some Heftys, Mr. D’d taken his little buddy on a road trip, heading north. He’d used the guy’s own Pinto for to make the miles, and when the body started to smell, he’d found what passed for a hill in rural Mississippi, set the car on the incline facing backward, and given the front bumper a push. The trunk with its stinking cargo had gone smack into a tree. The bomb burst had sure been exciting.

After that he’d hitchhiked to Tennessee and then hung around doing odd jobs for room and board. He’d killed two more men before drifting up to North Carolina, where he’d almost been caught in the act.

His targets were always big, beefy assholes. And that was how he’d come to be a lesser. He’d targeted one of the Lessening Society’s members, and when he’d nearly killed the guy in spite of his size, the slayer had been so impressed he’d asked Mr. D to join up and go after the vampires.

Seemed like a good deal. Once he’d gotten over the whole good-dog-was-this-for-reals.

After his induction, Mr. D had been stationed in Connecticut, but he’d moved to Caldie about two years ago, when Mr. X, the then-Fore-lesser, had tugged in the Society’s reins a little.

In thirty years, Mr. D hadn’t been called by the Omega.

That had changed a couple hours ago.

The summons had come in the form of a dream when he’d been sleeping, and he hadn’t needed his mama’s manners to get him to RSVP in the yes. But he had to wonder if he was going to live through the night.

Things weren’t going so good in the Lessening Society. Not since the prophesied Destroyer had pulled his horse into the barn.

The Destroyer had been a human cop, from what Mr. D had heard. A human cop with vampire blood in him who had been tinkered with by the Omega to real bad results. And, of course, the Black Dagger Brotherhood took the guy on and used him but good. They weren’t no dummies.

Because a kill by the Destroyer was not just one less slayer.

If the Destroyer got you, he took the piece of the Omega that was in you and drew it into himself. Instead of the eternal paradise you was promised when you joined the Society, you ended up stuck in that man. And with each slayer what got destroyed, a piece of the Omega was lost forever.

Before, if you fought the Brothers, the worst that could happen was you went to heaven. Now? More often than not you got left half-dead until the Destroyer could come by and inhale you into ash and cheat you out of your rightful eternity.

So things had been right tense lately. The Omega had been nastier than usual, the slayers were prickly from looking over their shoulders, and new membership was at an all-time low because everyone was so worried about saving their own skin that they weren’t looking for new blood.

And there had been a lot of turnover of Fore-lessers. Although that had always been the case.

Mr. D hung a right on to RR 149 and went three miles down to the next RR, the sign of which had been flattened, probably by a baseball bat. The winding road was just a footpath frosted with potholes, and he had to slow down or his guts milk-shaked it: The car had suspension like you’d find on a toaster oven. Which weren’t none.

One bad thing about the Lessening Society was they gave you POSs to drive.

Bass Pond Lane…he was looking for Bass Pond La—There it was. He wrenched the wheel, stomped the brake, and just made it onto the road.

With no streetlights, he blew right by the shitty, overgrown yard he was looking for and had to throw the clunker into reverse and backpedal. The farmhouse was worse off than the Focus, nothing but a loose-roofed, barely sided rat hole choked with New York State’s equivalent of kudzu: poison ivy.

Parking on the road because there was no driveway, Mr. D got out and adjusted his cowboy hat. The house reminded him of back home, what with the tarpaper that showed and the sprung windows and the poorman’s lawn of weeds. Hard to believe his fat, housebound mother and his worn-out farmer father weren’t in there waiting for him.

They musta passed a while ago, he thought as he walked over. He’d been the youngest of their seven kids, and both had been smokers.

The screen door had almost no screen and a frame that was rusted out. When he opened the thing, it squealed like a stuck pig, squealed like Big Tommy, just like the one back home had. Knocking on the second door didn’t get him no answer, so he took off his cowboy hat and pushed into the house, using his hip and his shoulder to bust free the lock.

Inside smelled like cigarette smoke, mold, and death. The first two were stale. The death was fresh, the kind of juicy, fruity stuff that made you want to go out and kill something so you could join the party.

And there was another smell. The lingering sweet scent in the air told him the Omega had been here recently. Either that or another slayer.

With his hat in his hands, he walked through the dark front rooms and into the kitchen in the back. That was where the bodies was. Two of them on their stomachs. He couldn’t tell the sex of either because they’d been decapitated and no one was in a dress, but the pools of blood from where their heads should have been mingled, kind of like they was holding hands.

It was real sweet, actually.

He glanced across the room, to the black stain on the wall between the harvest gold fridge and the spindly Formica-topped table. The bomb burst meant a fellow slayer had bit it and bit it hard at the hand of the Omega. Evidently the master had fired another Fore-lesser.

Mr. D stepped over the bodies and cracked the fridge. Lessers didn’t eat, but he was curious what the couple had in there. Huh. More memories. There was an open package of Oscar Mayer bologna, and they were almost out of mayo.

Not that they had to worry about making sandwiches no more.

He closed the fridge and leaned back against the—

The temperature in the house dropped by twenty degrees, like someone had cranked a central-air unit on so the dial read, Freeze Your Nuts Off. The wind followed, roughing up the still summer night, gathering in force until the farmhouse groaned.

The Omega.

Mr. D came to attention just as the front door blew open. What came down the hall was an inky mist, fluid and transparent, rolling along the floorboards. It coalesced in front of Mr. D, rising up into a male form.

“Master,” Mr. D said as he bowed at the waist and his black blood raced in his veins out of fear and love.

The Omega’s voice came from a vast distance and carried an electronic cadence with static. “I am appointing you Fore-lesser.”

Mr. D’s breath caught. This was the highest honor, the single most powerful position in the Lessening Society. He’d never even hoped for it. And maybe he could actually hang for a spell in the job. “Thank—”

The Omega misted forward and blanketed Mr. D’s body like a coating of tar. As pain took the place of every bone in his body, Mr. D felt himself get spun around and pushed face-first into the counter, his hat flying from his hands. The Omega took control, and things happened that Mr. D would never have consented to.

There was no consent in the Society, though. You had only one yes, and that was the one that got you into it. Everything else that came after, you had no control over.

When what seemed like centuries passed, the Omega stepped out of Mr. D’s body and clothed himself, a white robe covering him from head to foot. With ladylike elegance, the evil arranged his lapels, his claws having disappeared.

Or maybe they’d just been worn to stubs after all the ripping and tearing.

Weak and leaking, Mr. D sagged against the pitted countertop. He wanted to get dressed, but there wasn’t much left of his clothes.

“Events have come to a head,” the Omega pronounced. “The incubation is done. It is time now to shed the cocoon.”

“Yes, suh.” As if there was another answer? “How can I serve you?”

“Your task is to bring this male to me.” The Omega extended his hand palm up and an image appeared, hovering in the air.

Mr. D studied the face, anxiety kicking his brain into high gear. For sure, he needed more details than this translucent mug shot. “Where do I find him?”

“He was born here and he lives among the vampires in Caldwell.” The Omega’s voice was out of a sci-fi movie, echoing with eerie displacement. “He is newly transitioned by but months. They believe him to be their own.”

Well, that sure did narrow it down.

“You may marshal the others,” the Omega said. “But he must be taken alive. If anyone kills him, you shall be accountable unto me.”

The Omega leaned to the side and put his palm to the wallpaper next to the black bomb burst. The image of the civilian imprinted on the stretch of faded yellow flowers, burned there.

The Omega tilted his head and gazed at the image. Then, with a gentle, elegant hand, he caressed the face. “He is special, this one. Find him. Bring him back here. Do this with haste.”

The or else didn’t have to be said.

As the evil disappeared, Mr. D bent down and picked up his cowboy hat. Fortunately, it hadn’t been crushed or stained.

Rubbing his eyes, he counted the ways he was in it up to his buckle. A vampire male somewhere in Caldwell. It was gonna be like looking for a blade of grass in an acre of meadow.

Picking up a paring knife from the counter, he used the thing to cut around the image on the wallpaper. Peeling the sheet off carefully, he studied the face.

Vampires were secretive for two reasons: They didn’t want humans interfering none with their race, and they knew that the lessers were after them. They did go out in public, though, especially the newly transitioned males. Aggressive and reckless, the young ones hit the seedier parts of Caldwell’s downtown because there were humans to have sex with and fights to get into and all kinds of fun things to snort and drink and smoke.

Downtown. He’d get a squad together and head to the bars downtown. Even if they didn’t find the male right away, the vampire community was a small one. Other civilians were bound to know their target, and information gathering was one of Mr. D’s strengths.

To heck and gone with truth serum. Give him a claw hammer and a length of chain, and he was a machine with getting a pair of lips to babble.

Mr. D dragged his sorry, too-used body upstairs and took a careful shower in the dead people’s shitty bathroom. When he was done, he changed into a pair of overalls and a button-down, which were naturally too big for him. After he rolled up the shirt cuffs and cut three inches off the legs of the pants, he combed his white hair flat to his skull. Before he left the room, he put on some Old Spice from the guy’s bureau. The stuff was mostly alcohol, like the bottle had been sitting there for a while, but Mr. D liked to be classy.

Back downstairs, he swung through the kitchen and picked up the strip of wallpaper with the male’s face on it. Eating up the features with his eyes, he found himself getting bluetick hound dog excited even though he was still aching all over.

The hunt was on and he knew who else to use. There was a crew of five lessers who he’d worked with on and off during the past couple years. They were good guys. Well, good was probably the wrong word. But he could deal with them, and now that he was Fore-lesser he could give them orders.

On his way out the front door, he tugged his hat into place and tipped the brim to the dead people. “See y’all later.”

Qhuinn walked into his father’s study in a bad mood, and he sure as hell didn’t expect to leave feeling all glowy and shit.

And there you go. The second he entered the room, his father let one side of the Wall Street Journal flop loose so he could press his knuckles to his mouth, then touch each side of his throat. A quick phrase in the Old Language came out in a mutter, then the paper was back up in place.

“Do you need me for the gala,” Qhuinn said.

“Didn’t one of the doggen tell you?”

“No.”

“I told them to tell you.”

“So that would be a no, then.” Like asking the question in the first place, he pressed for the answer just to be a pain in the ass.

“I don’t understand why they didn’t tell you.” His father uncrossed then recrossed his legs, the crease in his slacks as sharp as the lip on his glass of sherry. “I really only want to have to communicate things once. I don’t believe that is too much—”

“You’re not going to say it to me, are you?”

“—to ask. I mean, honestly, the job of a servant is self-evident. Their purpose is to serve, and I really don’t like repeating myself.”

His father’s free foot tapped at the air. His tasseled loafers were, as always, by Cole Haan: pricey, but no more showy than an aristocratic whisper.

Qhuinn looked down at his New Rocks. The treaded soles were two inches thick at the ball of his foot and three inches at his heel. The black leather went up to the base of his calves and was crisscrossed by laces and three boss chrome buckles.

Back when he’d been getting an allowance, before his change hadn’t cured his defect, he’d saved up for months to get these mean-ass motherfucking shitkickers, and he’d bought them as soon as he could after his change. They were his prezzie to himself for living through his transition, because he knew better than to expect anything from the parents.

His father’s eyes had nearly popped out of his establishment skull when Qhuinn had worn them to First Meal.

“Was there something else,” his father said from behind the WSJ.

“Nah. I’ll get good and ghost. Don’t you worry.”

God knew he’d done it before at official functions, although really, who were they kidding? The glymera was fully aware of him and his little “problem,” and those cobassed snobs were like elephants. They never forgot.

“By the way, your cousin Lash has a new job,” his father murmured. “At Havers’s clinic. Lash fancies becoming a doctor and is interning after his classes.” The newspaper flipped around and his father’s face briefly appeared…which was a curious killer, because Qhuinn caught the wistful cast to his old man’s eyes. “Lash is such a source of pride for his father. A worthy successor to the family mantle.”

Qhuinn glanced at his father’s left hand. On the forefinger, taking up all the space beneath the big knuckle, was a solid gold ring bearing the family’s crest.

All the young males from the aristocracy got one after they went through their transitions, and Qhuinn’s best friends both had theirs. Blay wore his all the time except when fighting or out downtown, and John Matthew had been given one, although he didn’t put it on. They weren’t the only ones with the flashy paperweights, either. In their training class at the Brotherhood’s compound, one by one the trainees were going through the change and showing up with a signet ring on their finger.

Family crest pressed into ten ounces of gold: five thousand dollars.

Getting it from your father when you became a true male: priceless.

Qhuinn’s transition had occurred about five months ago. He’d stopped waiting for his ring four months, three weeks, six days, and two hours ago.

Roughly.

Man, in spite of the friction between him and his dad, he’d never thought he wouldn’t get one. But surprise! New way to feel out of the fold.

There was another rustle of the paper and this one was impatient, as if his father were shooing a fly away from his hamburger. Although, of course, he didn’t eat hamburgers, because they were too common.

“I’m going to have to talk to that doggen,” his father said.

Qhuinn shut the door on his way out, and when he turned to go down the hall, he nearly bumped into a doggen who was coming from the library next door. The uniformed maid leaped back, kissed her knuckles, and tapped the veins running up her throat.

As she scampered off, muttering the same phrase his father had, Qhuinn stepped up to an antique mirror that hung on the silk-covered wall. Even with the ripples in the leaded glass and the blackened flecks where the reflective part had flaked off, his problem was obvious.

His mother had gray eyes. His father had gray eyes. His brother and sister had gray eyes.

Qhuinn had one blue eye and one green eye.

Now, there were blue and green eyes in the bloodline, of course. Just not one of each in the same person, and what do you know, deviation was not divine. The aristocracy refused to deal with defects, and Qhuinn’s folks were not only firmly entrenched in the glymera, as both were from the six founding families, but his father had even been leahdyre of the Princeps Council.

Everyone had hoped his transition would cure the problem, and either blue or green would have been acceptable. Yeah, well, denied. Qhuinn came out of his change with a big body and a pair of fangs and a craving for sex…and one blue eye and one green eye.

What a night. It had been the first and only time his father had lost it. The first and only time Qhuinn had ever been struck. And since then, no one in the family or on the staff had met his stare.

As he headed out for the night, he didn’t bother to say good-bye to his mother. Or to his older brother or sister.

He’d been sidelined in this family since the moment of his birth, set apart from them, benched by some kind of genetic injury. The only saving grace to his pitiable existence, according to the race’s value system, was the fact that there were two healthy, normal young in the family, and that the oldest male, his brother, was considered acceptable for breeding.

Qhuinn always thought his parents should have stopped at two, that to try for three healthy children was too much of a gamble with fate. He couldn’t change the hand that had been dealt, though. Couldn’t stop himself from wishing things were different, either.

Couldn’t keep from caring.

Even though the gala would just be a bunch of stuffy types wearing gowns and penguin suits, he wanted to be with his family during the glymera’s big end-of-summer ball. He wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother and be counted for once in his life. He wanted to dress up like everyone else and wear his gold ring and maybe dance with some of the high-bred, unmated females. In the glittering crowd of the aristocracy, he wanted to be acknowledged as a citizen, as one among them, as a male, not a genetic embarrassment.

Not going to happen. As far as the glymera were concerned, he was less than an animal, no more suitable for sex than a dog.

Only thing missing was a collar, he thought, as he dematerialized to Blay’s.

Chapter Four

OVER TO THE EAST, in the Brotherhood’s mansion, Cormia waited in the library for the Primale and whoever it was he thought she should spend time with. As she paced from couch to club chair and back, she heard the Brothers talking in the foyer, discussing some upcoming fete of the glymera’s.

The Brother Rhage’s voice boomed. “That bunch of self-serving, prejudicial, light-in-the-loafer—”

“Watch the loafer references,” the Brother Butch cut in. “I have some on.”

“—parasitic, shortsighted motherfuckers—”

“Tell us how you really feel,” someone else said.

“—can take their fakakta ball and blow it out their asses.”

The king’s laugh was low. “Good thing you’re not a diplomat, Hollywood.”

“Oh, you gotta let me send a message. Better yet, let’s have my beast go as an emissary. I’ll have him rip up the place. Serve those bastards right for how they’ve treated Marissa.”

“You know,” Butch announced, “I’ve always thought you had half a brain. In spite of what everyone else has said.”

Cormia stopped pacing as the Primale appeared in the library’s entrance, a glass of port in his hand. He was dressed in what he usually wore to First Meal when he wasn’t teaching: a pair of perfectly tailored slacks, cream tonight; a silk shirt, black per normal; and a black belt, the buckle of which was an elongated, golden H. His square-toed shoes were buffed to a shine and bore the same H as the belt.

Hermès, she thought she’d overheard him say at one meal.

His hair was loose, the waves breaking on his heavy shoulders, some in the front, some down the back. He smelled of what the Brothers called aftershave, as well as the coffee-scented smoke that lingered in his bedroom.

She knew precisely how his bedroom smelled. She had spent a single day lying beside him in his room, and everything about the experience had been unforgettable.

Although now was not the time to remember what had happened between them in that big bed of his when he’d been asleep. Hard enough to be in his company with a whole room between them and people out in the foyer. To add those moments when he’d pressed his naked body to here—

“Did you enjoy your dinner?” he asked, taking a sip from his glass.

“Yes, indeed. And you, your grace?”

He was about to reply when John Matthew appeared behind him.

The Primale turned to the young male and smiled. “Hey, my man. Glad you’re here.”

John Matthew looked across the library at her and lifted his hand in greeting.

She was relieved by the choice. She didn’t know John any more than she knew the others, but he was quiet during meals. Which made his size not quite as intimidating as it would have been if he’d been loud.

She bowed to him. “Your grace.”

As she straightened, she felt his eyes on her and she wondered what he saw. Female or Chosen?

What an odd thought.

“Well, you two visit.” The Primale’s brilliant golden eyes shifted her way. “I’m on duty tonight, so I’ll be out.”

Fighting, she thought, with a stab of fear.

She wanted to rush over to him and tell him to be safe, but that was not her place, was it? She was barely his First Mate, for one thing. For another, he was the strength of the race and hardly needed her concern.

The Primale clapped John Matthew on the shoulder, nodded at her, and left.

Cormia leaned to the side so she could watch the Primale going up the staircase. His gait was smooth as he went along, in spite of his missing limb and his prosthesis. He was so tall and proud and lovely, and she hated that it would be hours before he would return.

When she glanced back, John Matthew was over at the desk, taking out a small pad and a pen. As he wrote, he held the paper close to his chest, his big hands curling up. He looked much younger than the size of his body suggested while he labored over his letters.

She’d seen him communicate with his hands on those rare occasions he had something to say at the table, and it dawned on her that perhaps he was a mute.

He turned the pad to her with a wince, as if he were not impressed with what he’d written. Do you like to read? This library has lots of good books.

She looked up into his eyes. What a lovely blue color they were. “What is the difficulty of your voice? If I may ask.”

No difficulty. I took a vow of silence.

Ah…she remembered. The Chosen Layla had said he’d taken such a pledge.

“I see you using your hands to talk,” she said.

American Sign Language, he wrote.

“It’s an elegant way of communicating.”

It gets the job done. He wrote some more and then flashed the pad again. I’ve heard the Other Side is very different. Is it true it’s all white?

She lifted the skirting of her robe as if to give an example of what is was like where she was from. “Yes. White is all we have.” She frowned. “All we need, rather.”

Do you have electricity?

“We have candles, and we do things by hand.”

Sounds old-fashioned.

She wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “Is that bad?”

He shook his head. I think it’s cool.

She knew the term from the dinner table, but still didn’t understand why temperature would have anything to do with an apparently positive value judgment.

“It’s all I know.” She went over to one of the tall, narrow doors that had glass panes. “Well, until now.”

Her roses were so close, she thought.

John whistled, and she looked over her shoulder at the pad he was holding face-out. Do you like it here at all? he’d written. And please know you can tell me you don’t. I won’t judge.

She fingered her robe. “I feel so different from everyone. I am lost in the conversations, though I speak the language.”

There was a long silence. When she glanced back at John, he was writing, his hand pausing every once in a while, as if he were choosing a word. He crossed something out. Wrote some more. When he was finished, he gave the pad to her.

I know what that’s like. Because I’m a mute, I feel out of place a lot of the time. It’s better since my transition, but it still happens. No one judges you here, though. We all like you, and we’re glad you’re in the house.

She read the paragraph twice. She wasn’t sure how to respond to the last part. She’d assumed she was tolerated because the Primale had brought her in.

“But…your grace, I thought you had assumed the mantle of silence?” As he flushed, she said, “I’m sorry, that’s not my concern.”

He wrote and then showed her his words. I was born without a voice box. The next sentence was crossed out, but she was able to get the gist. He’d written something like, But I still fight well and I’m smart and everything.

She could understand the subterfuge. The Chosen, like the glymera, valued physical perfection as evidence of proper breeding and the strength of the race’s genes. Many would have viewed his silence as a deficiency, and even the Chosen could be cruel to those they viewed as beneath them.

Cormia reached out and put her hand on his forearm. “I think not all things have to be spoken to be understood. And it is well obvious you are fit and strong.”

His cheeks bloomed with color, his head dropping to hide his eyes.

Cormia smiled. It seemed perverse that she should relax in the face of his getting awkward, but somehow she felt as though they were on more level footing.

“How long have you been here?” she asked.

Emotion flickered across his face as he went back to the pad. Eight months or so. They took me in because I had no family. My father was killed.

“I am so sorry for your loss. Tell me…do you stay because you like it here?”

There was a long pause. Then he wrote slowly. When he flashed her the pad, it said, I like it no more or less than I would any other house.

“Which makes you displaced like me,” she murmured. “Here but not here.”

He nodded, then smiled, revealing bright white fangs.

Cormia couldn’t help but return the expression on his handsome face.

Back at the Sanctuary, everyone had been like her. Here? No one was at all. Until now.

So do you have any questions you’d like to ask about stuff? he wrote. The house? The staff? Phury said you might have some.

Questions…oh, she could think of a few. For instance, how long had the Primale been in love with Bella? Had there ever been any feelings on her side? Had the two of them ever layed together?

Her eyes focused on the books. “I don’t have any questions right now.” For no particular reason, she added, “I just finished Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”

They made that into a movie. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon.

“A movie? And who are all those people?”

He wrote for quite a while. You know television, right? That flat panel in the billiards room? Well, movies are on an even bigger screen, and the people in them are called actors. They pretend to be people. Those three are actors. Actually, they’re all actors, when they’re on TV or in the movies. Well, most of them.

“I’ve only glanced into the billiards room. I haven’t been in it.” There was a curious shame to admitting how little she’d ventured out. “Is television the glowing box with the pictures?”

That’s the one. I can show you how it works if you like?

“Please.”

They went out of the library into the magical, rainbowed foyer of the mansion, and as always, Cormia glanced up to the ceiling, which floated three stories above the mosaic floor. The scene depicted far above was of warriors mounted on great steeds, all of them going off to fight. The colors were outrageously bright, the figures majestic and strong, the background a brilliant blue with white clouds.

There was one particular fighter with blond-streaked hair that she had to measure every time she passed through. She had to make sure he was all right, even though that was ridiculous. The figures never moved. Their fight was always on the verge, never in the actuality.

Unlike the Brotherhood’s. Unlike the Primale’s.

John Matthew led the way into the dark green room that was across from where meals were taken. The Brothers spent a lot of time here; she’d often hear their voices drifting out, marked by soft cracking noises, the source of which she couldn’t identify. John solved that mystery, though. As he passed by a flat table that had a green felt covering, he took one of the many multicolored balls on its surface and sent it rolling across the way. When it ran into one of its mates, the quiet knocking explained the sound.

John stopped in front of an upright gray canvas and picked up a slim black unit. All at once an image popped up in full color and sound came from everywhere. Cormia jumped back as a roar filled the room and bulletlike objects rushed by.

John steadied her as the din gradually faded, and then he wrote on his pad. Sorry, I turned the sound down. This is NASCAR racing. There are people in the cars and they go around the track. The fastest wins.

Cormia approached the image and touched it with hesitation. All she felt was a flat, clothlike stretch. She looked behind the screen. Nothing but wall.

“Amazing.”

John nodded and put out the slim unit to her, jogging it up and down as if encouraging her to take it. After he showed her what to push among the multitude of buttons, he stepped back. Cormia pointed the thing at the moving pictures…and made the images change. Again and again. There seemed to be an endless number of them.

“No vampires, though,” she murmured, as yet another broad-daylight setting appeared. “This is just for humans.”

We watch it too, though. You get vampires in movies—just not good ones usually. The films or the vampires.

Cormia slowly sank down onto the sofa in front of the television, and John followed suit in a chair next to her. The endless variation was enthralling, and John narrated each “channel” with notes to her. She didn’t know how long they sat together, but he didn’t seem impatient.

What channels did the Primale watch, she wondered.

Eventually, John showed her how to turn the images off. Flushed from excitement, she looked toward the glass doors.

“Is it safe outdoors?” she asked.

Very. There’s a huge retaining wall surrounding the compound, plus security cameras are everywhere. Even better, we’re insulated by mhis. No lesser has ever gotten in here, and none ever will—oh, and the squirrels and deer are harmless.

“I’d like to go outside.”

And I’d be happy to take you.

John tucked the pad under his arm and went over to one of the sets of glass doors. After he unlatched the brass lock, he swung one half of the pair wide with a gallant sweep of his arm.

The warm air that rushed in smelled different from that which was in the house. This was rich. Complex. Sultry with its garden bouquet and humid warmth.

Cormia got up from the couch and approached John. Beyond the terrace, the landscaped gardens she’d stared at from afar for so long stretched out over what seemed to be a vast distance. With its colorful flowers and blooming trees, the vista was nothing like the monochromatic expanse of the Sanctuary, but it was just as perfect, just as lovely.

“It’s the day of my birthing,” she said for no particular reason.

John smiled and clapped. Then he wrote, I should have gotten you a present.

“Present?”

You know, a gift. For you.

Cormia leaned her body out and craned her head back. The sky above was a dark satin blue with twinkling lights marking its folds. Wondrous, she thought. Simply wondrous.

“This is a gift.”

They stepped out of the house together. The flat stones of the terrace were chilly under her bare feet, but the air was warm as bathwater, and she loved the contrast.

“Oh…” She breathed in deep. “How lovely…”

Turning round and round, she looked at it all: The majestic mountain of the mansion. The fluffy, dark heads of the trees. The rolling lawn. The flowers in their orderly sections.

The breeze that swept over it all was gentle as a breath, carrying a fragrance too complex and heady to label.

John let her lead, her cautious steps carrying them closer to the roses.

When she got to them, she reached out and petted the fragile petals of a mature rose as big as her palm. Then she bent down and inhaled its perfume.

As she straightened, she started to laugh. For no reason at all. It was just…her heart had abruptly taken wing and was soaring in her chest, the lethargy that had been plaguing her for the past month lifting in the face of a bright surge of energy.

It was the day of her birthing and she was outside.

She glanced at John and found him staring at her, a little smile on his face. He knew, she thought. He knew what she was feeling.

“I want to run.”

He swept his arm toward the lawn.

Cormia didn’t let herself think about the dangers of the unknown or the dignity that Chosen were supposed to wear along with their white robing. Casting aside the great weight of propriety, she hiked up her white robe and tore off as fast as her legs could carry her. The springy grass cushioned her feet and her hair feathered out behind her and the air on her face rushed by.

Though she remained earthbound, the freedom in her soul made her fly.

Chapter Five

DOWNTOWN IN THE CLUB and drug district, Phury was flying through an alley off Tenth Street, his shitkickers pounding the ratty pavement, his black windbreaker flapping behind him. About fifteen yards ahead of him was a lesser, and given their positions, technically Phury was in pursuit. In reality, the slayer wasn’t trying to get away with all this heel kicking. The bastard wanted to get deep enough into the shadows so that the two of them could fight, and Phury was so on board that train.

Rule number one in the war between the Brotherhood and the Lessening Society: no roughhousing around humans. Neither side needed the hassle.

That was about the only rule.

The sweet smell of baby powder wafted back to Phury, the wake of his enemy one hell of a nose-cloying nasty. It was so worth the stink, though, because this was going to be a good fight. The slayer he was after had hair that was fish-belly white—which meant the guy had been in the Society a long time: For reasons that were unknown, all lessers faded to pale over time, losing their individual hair, eye, and skin coloration as they gained experience in hunting and killing innocent vampires.

Great trade-off. The more you murdered, the more you looked like a corpse.

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