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The Black Lily
Tales of the Black Lily
By Juliette Cross, Tera Cuskaden
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Juliette Cross
All rights reserved.
"Come in, Deek."
The creaking door to her shack closed as she cinched her boot strings tight.
"Are you ready for the ball?"
She stepped from behind the dressing screen, gold silk gown sucking the life out of her. Better her corset than a bloody vampire.
"Does a meatsack bleed?" she asked, hands on hips.
His eyes widened. "Damn. You sure do clean up good."
"Aye. When I'm not covered in sweat and cow dung."
He laughed, crossing beefy arms over his barrel chest. With a jerking nod to her legs, he said, "Let me see."
She lifted the skirt and petticoat past her stockings to a garter harness that held her double-edged, serrated, gold-tipped blade. "Satisfied?" She swished her skirts back down around her ankles.
"No. How do you plan to get close to him?"
She scoffed and squared her shoulders, pushing her breasts up to a delectable height. "I believe these will do."
Deek grinned, his gold-capped tooth glinting in the candlelight. "They're lovely. But there will be plenty of large breasts and vulnerable necks on display for the prince's taking. That's not enough to entice him."
Arabelle swallowed the ire flaming through her chest. As always, anger helped her focus and steady her resolve. She smoothed her palms over her waist, then her hips, walking toward him with an exaggerated sway of her curvy frame. The ringlets she'd pulled loose from her up-do brushed one bare shoulder. Deek's mouth fell open slightly. His dark gaze dropped. When she reached him, she uncrossed his arms and placed his broad hands on her hips, pressing her body to his, her cleavage plumping against his chest.
"Is this enticing enough?"
She licked her lips to draw him in further. He never saw her slip her skirt up to grab her blade.
"Arie, what —"
With a deft clip of his knee, done by her boot, he fell backward onto the wooden floor. She straddled his chest, pinned his biceps with her knees, fisted one hand in his hair, and pointed her gold-tipped blade at his gullet. "Will that work?"
"You're fast. I'll give you that."
"Not really. Men are easy to distract is all. Even vampire men." She lifted off him, but not before nicking his chin with her dagger. "And don't call me Arie."
He wiped the drop of blood from his scruffy chin as he pushed off the floor.
"Where did you get this dress anyway, Deek? Didn't know you dabbled in the silk trade."
"I know someone."
"So," she said, swishing her silken skirts and forcing an artificial smile, "do I look like an aristocrat?"
"Not near tame enough. But it'll have to do. You'll need this as well."
He handed her a black silk satchel with a drawstring for the wrist. Arabelle opened it and pulled out the heavy bauble weighing it down. She whistled as she lifted a dark crimson ruby bigger than a chicken's heart. The gem dangled from the end of a silver chain.
"Good God, Deek."
"Yes, I know. It's on loan, of course, so I'll need it back. But you must look the part. Every noble woman who goes to the Glass Tower wears jewels. Especially those seeking to be the prince's blood concubine."
Arabelle cringed at the thought. But he was right. She must play this part well if she wanted to get close enough to complete her mission. She latched the necklace, wondering which friend of Deek's loaned him such a jewel. But he was a resourceful man. He was rough and rugged but also handsome enough beneath the scruffy exterior. Sometimes well-born ladies liked to get dirty. Who better to toss up their skirts when they needed satisfaction than the muscular blacksmith with wickedness in his dark eyes?
"The invitation is in there as well," he added.
She pulled the square from the satchel and opened the flaps, noting the monarch's seal had already been broken. Within was the invitation to the ball for Prince Marius. She trailed her finger over the silver lettering on fine parchment before she skimmed down to the name and title in the black box at the bottom.
"Lady Grace Constance Merriweather?" She snickered, then continued reading. "Daughter of the Earl of Lakeland of the Bridgerton Province. Where on earth is the Bridgerton Province?"
Deek grinned and shrugged a brawny shoulder. "Doesn't exist."
Arabelle's mouth fell open. "This is a forgery?"
"Of course. Do you think I'd risk you getting caught with a stolen invitation?"
Arabelle refolded it, then examined the red embossed seal — a bold letter V wrapped in flourishing swirls. Beauty and power in one. A shiver crawled down her spine at the enormity of whom they were about to take on with tonight's act of treason. She'd never killed anyone before. But whenever her conscience pricked and stung, she would harden her heart with the memory of her dead mother, eyes wide and glassy. This was the right course. She believed it, as if fate itself had laid out the plan.
"This is the real seal. How in the world were you able to craft such a forgery?"
"I know someone."
She shook her head and stuffed the invitation back into her black silk purse. "You truly are a wonder, Deek."
"I've heard that before."
"I'll bet you have."
"Your mask is in there as well. That comes with compliments of Maggie."
Arabelle smiled at the thought of dear Maggie who worked for the dressmaker in town.
"I'll bet Maggie was eager to help you out. Not so much me."
"Enough prattle," he said, waving a thick hand. "Time to go."
"All right then. I'm ready."
He took two steps to the door, which was about half the span of the one-room hut she lived in since shortly after she came to serve the House of Pervis. She preferred her cozy shack to the servants' quarters in her master's mansion. Madame Pervis was a witch of a woman. And her two daughters were her equal in both cruelty and shallow odiousness. The farther she could get from them the better. Unfortunately, they'd taken her in when her mother died. Her choice was either to serve them or become a bleeder for the vampire guards, the Legionnaires. At a young age, she'd already seen the corpses on carts taken from the back gates to be buried in distant fields. The Legionnaires were known to bleed them dry, which was allegedly against Varis Law.
There was no choice for her then, as a vulnerable orphaned girl. But now she was a woman with a mind of her own and more courage than the lot of Sylus. She had plans. Starting with the death of one Prince Marius.
She passed through the door then came to an abrupt halt. A black carriage with silver-plated wheels and filigree decorating each corner waited for her. The driver, dressed in the proper livery, tipped his hat from his seat.
Mouth agape, Arabelle turned to Deek, unable to even formulate a response for five full seconds. And she was rarely speechless.
"Let me guess," she finally said. "You know someone."
"I couldn't let you go on that old nag."
"Willow is not old." She jerked a glance to her brown mare in the single paddock Deek had helped her build from scrap wood. "It's okay, girl. He didn't mean it."
Deek shook his head. "Up you go, milady."
Arabelle laughed as he took her gloved hand and helped her into the carriage, the action so foreign.
"Don't laugh," he growled. "Best get used to being treated like a lady in the getup you're in. Play the part, Arabelle," he said in all seriousness. "Now, this carriage isn't on loan."
"You stole it?"
He leaned forward and replied in a whisper, "Borrowed without permission. The driver has orders to depart the Glass Tower at exactly the stroke of midnight. If you aren't in the carriage at that time, it will leave without you. I can't risk the owner finding it missing. That's all the time I can afford you."
"No worries. I have a backup plan. I hope to make my escape by that time, but I have another route set up just in case."
"Good. Remember, Prince Marius will be weaker than normal because of their damned tradition to fast before one of these blood balls. But he won't be weak. Do not underestimate him."
"I won't," she declared, straightening her shoulders.
"And, Arabelle, if you don't get the right opportunity, abort the mission. Come home safely, and we'll find another way."
She leveled her gaze on her dearest friend, the one who'd conspired with her for the past two years and had become her greatest ally in their growing resistance. This was it. The moment they had both been planning and waiting for.
"Don't worry," she said with strength and confidence. "I will kill him, Deek."
"Aye," he said with a tight nod. "I've no doubt you will. But if things go wrong, don't die trying, woman. We need you. The Black Lily needs you."
He was right. And she heard his warning all the way to her rebellious heart. She would die trying for those who were counting on her. She had started this movement. Word had spread farther than she could've imagined. If she died, it could all fall apart before it ever truly began.
Deek shut the door and rapped twice on the side, signaling the driver to move on. The carriage jostled forward. Arabelle sat back on the cushioned seat and gazed out the window, the moon and stars beaming on the pumpkin fields. An overwhelming sense of duty hardened her resolve, no matter that her disguise felt foreign and uncomfortable.
She watched the rows of shining pumpkins slide by, imagining every face of every person who was now counting on her to start their revolution with this one act against the Varis Empire. Then she recalled the faces of those she'd seen drained of blood by these monsters. Not just the ones who were an accident of overfeeding, but the ones she'd found when harvesting herbs in the woodland.
The vampires promised order, to take only from the bleeders offered to the Empire, and to never overfeed. That had always been the vow to keep the balance between the species. Yet bodies had been found of villagers who'd gone missing, their necks savaged by beasts. More than one pale corpse had been found tossed into the woods without care. All low-born peasants. And the nobility had turned a blind eye, as they always did, living in their fine houses and basking in luxuries begotten on the backs of the poor.
Well, no more. Arabelle pulled out the mask made for her by the hands of little Maggie, an orphan herself until the dressmaker took her in. Covered in black silk and edged in black lace, and gold rhinestones winked at the tips where the eyes winged up. Lovely craftsmanship.
Arabelle smiled and hooked the mask into place. Now her disguise was perfect. As the carriage rolled on, with the same dogged determination that had ruled her for most of her life, she envisioned her target and her mission — to kill the vampire prince.CHAPTER 2
Marius slipped on a black collared shirt and fastened the line of obsidian buttons ringed in silver. His valet, Baines, waited patiently to the side, with a black vest in one hand and cufflinks in the palm of the other. While fastening the silver cufflinks, in the shape of the imperial V, Marius ruminated over the incident earlier that day, still perplexed. He was now more determined than ever to discover why the servants were behaving like he was a predator waiting to pounce.
"What in the world are you doing?" came the voice of his best friend behind him.
Marius slid his vest on. "Thank you, Baines. That will be all."
"Yes, Your Highness. Good night."
Baines slipped out past Nikolai, who stood, one hand low on his hip, clad in his Legionnaire uniform, his usual scowl in place. He watched Baines leave. "I rushed up here after I got my men in place for the ball, ready to help you escape before festivities began — as you had requested, might I remind you — only to find you're dressing for the damned event you swore you wouldn't attend. What the devil is going on?"
"I changed my mind," said Marius with a smirk, stepping up to the oblong mirror hanging on the wall, then circled his collar with the black silk tie.
Nikolai scoffed, his foul temper showing. "Would you mind sharing what events have suddenly changed your mind? Because as I recall, you've been planning to go on a long hunt on this very night to escape this bloody ball."
"Something strange happened this morning. Close my door."
Nikolai's frown softened to an expression of curiosity as he shut the door and came farther into the room. Arms crossed, he leaned against the wall next to the mirror. "All right." He crossed one leg at the ankle. "You have my attention. Let's hear it."
Marius continued to fit the tie just right, sliding one loop over the other until the wide flat of the sash tucked smoothly under the vest.
"It was the scullery maid."
"The scullery maid." Nikolai arched a brow, a lock of his blond hair falling over one eye.
"Yes." Finished with the tie, he reached over to the standing rack where Baines had left his jacket hanging neatly and lifted it from its hook. "I stepped into my private parlor earlier today and there was a scullery maid cleaning the grate. I startled her enough that she dropped the bucket of ashes. I stepped closer to offer my help, as I could see the poor girl was scared to death. But she —" Marius drifted back to that moment, remembering the look of sheer horror on the young girl's face.
"She what, Marius?"
"She ran away in terror." He shifted into his sleek jacket and tugged his shirt at the bottom, the cufflinks winking from the candle-lit chandelier.
"Of course she did. You're Prince Marius. You'd intimidate and terrify any young girl having never seen the great prince," he said with a wave of his hand to his tall figure.
"Shut up, Nikolai. It wasn't as simple as that. She thought I was going to hurt her. I sensed it. I could smell raw fear."
Nikolai's brow pinched together. Both he and Marius were experienced vampires with senses honed to detect the subtle differences in human emotions.
"That's not all," continued Marius, stepping over to the silver salver that held his red mask. "When I questioned Ms. Owsland, she said the girl quit her position and returned to her home in Hiddleston that morning. Even Ms. Owsland regarded me with fear in her eyes." And the housekeeper had never behaved that way before, fidgeting with her apron like she was about to tear a hole in it. "I may be an ass on occasion, but I've never been so cruel as to warrant such behavior."
Marius chuckled, eyeing the red satin mask in his hands, wondering what he was missing behind the frightened faces of the palace servants.
Nikolai shoved off the wall. "She didn't give any indication why the girl left? Or what had spooked her?"
"None. What's more, now that I take more note of the past week or so, all of the human servants have stayed well out of my way."
"Have you noticed anything different with Baines?" asked Nikolai as they made their way toward the door.
"No. But Baines is his own creature. He keeps to himself." Marius fitted his mask into place. "I'm telling you, Nikolai. Something is going on." He sensed it like a whiff of smoke on the wind, gone before he could catch the direction of the scent.
"And so you figured what better place to discover the origin of this mystery than in a room full of humans."
Marius tilted a smile at him as they exited his chamber. "A ballroom full."
"So we have a task, I see."
"Yes. We do. Glad you're on board."
"Nothing I like better than a challenge. You know that."
They made their way down the red-carpeted corridor to the white marble staircase, then paused on the mid-level platform and gazed at the view below. The hordes had arrived. Noblemen escorted their single daughters who were dripping with jewels, squeezed into overly tight corsets, and puffed up with layers upon layers of silk and lace.
The fact that any man could corral his daughter into a ball as a well-priced whore in exchange for favor from the king disgusted Marius. And he pitied the daughters, even the ones who appeared overeager to become his next blood concubine.
Yes, it was a privileged position for any noble lady to achieve. However, the practice had lost its luster for him. To choose the finest prize from the flock felt something like selecting the fattest cow for the feast. Even Marius felt demeaned by it. Yet, as his mother reminded him so often, it was tradition — the noose around his neck that seemed to squeeze tighter every day.
The receiving hall filled to brimming. "Your father grows impatient," said Nikolai. He nodded to the tall, dark-haired king at the top of the receiving line, scowling at every person who crossed near him. "They won't let the masses into the ballroom until you're in line."
"I'm going. You'd best go and get changed yourself."
Nikolai chuckled. "Not on your life. I'll be attending as lieutenant on duty. Not one of those hellhounds looking for fresh meat." He nodded to the other officers and soldiers in their formal regalia, eager to lure in a new bleeder to add to their collections. "Now your mother is glaring. Best get down there."
Excerpted from The Black Lily by Juliette Cross, Tera Cuskaden. Copyright © 2017 Juliette Cross. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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