Briar Rose cut an eerie silhouette into the moonlit night. Sharp turrets and massive battlements would be formidable to scale and climb for most men. And vampires. But not for Mikhail and his four brethren in the Bloodguard. They’d watched from the woodlands since sunset. Watched and waited.
Mikhail flicked a hand, signaling his men. As one, the hooded vampires melded with the shadows and flashed to the eastern gate. Gregoravich cracked the neck of the first Legionnaire guard, then severed his head with a clean, deep slice. Dmitri, the second. They dropped the bodies along the inner wall.
There were two ways into the well-guarded eastern tower, which most assuredly held Princess Vilhelmina. Either through the palace itself and likely two dozen guards, or through the tower window. They’d opted for the path of least resistance.
The heavy concentration of Legionnaires clad in red-and-black dress—denoting King Dominik’s men guarded her rather than her own—was like a beacon shining a spotlight on her location within the castle.
Dmitri had asked Mikhail at sunset, “Incapacitate or kill?”
There was only one answer Mikhail could give with icy conviction. “Kill.”
They would show no mercy to these brutal bastards who’d imprisoned the princess. Especially since they were under orders of the nefarious butcher king himself. The evil Queen Morgrid’s announcement that her eldest son would take the captive Princess Vilhelmina as his bride set the members of the Black Lily into action. Friedrich, the Duke of Winter Hill, had told Mikhail why it was imperative that he save her at all costs. “The fate of us all depends upon the success of your mission. She cannot come into the hands of King Dominik or Queen Morgrid.”
And so here they were, embarking on said mission. Beyond Friedrich’s warnings, Mikhail had another reason for saving the Princess of Arkadia. One that bore so deep his blood hummed with the possibility that she could be the key to avenge the wrong done to him and his family. A wrong that still pricked with sharp teeth upon that tender organ beneath his ribs.
Slipping through the shadows to the wall beneath the eastern parapet, Mikhail gave a swift nod. Together, they climbed, finding the notches and grooves of brick to hoist themselves up in swift silence. With claws extended, for they’d all summoned their inner beasts to the surface, they made quick work of the wall. Upon their leap over the top ledge, they fell upon the unsuspecting guards with deadly swiftness.
Mikhail unsheathed his serrated dagger as a Legionnaire attacked. With little effort, he gutted the vampire and opened his throat before he’d even drawn his longsword. By the time Mikhail turned to his men, there was a pile of seven eviscerated Legionnaires. His men faced opposite directions to await more who would come when they smelled the blood. The only sound was the whipping of the Arkadian flag atop the corner battlement—the white dragon sigil roaring upon the forest-green backdrop.
Without delay, he slipped a sleek black rope from within his coat and looped it around a jutting square along the parapet wall. He’d estimated this post would serve well for his purposes hours earlier when they’d watched from the woodlands. He’d been right. Looping the other end of the rope around his waist and tying it with a slipknot, he stood backward on the edge of the parapet and leaped over the edge into the night.
His feet made contact with the wall, then he repelled with ease down the tower to the window. Peering through the mottled pane, he noted there were no guards within the chamber. With both feet on the ledge, one hand holding the rope, he pulled his razor pick from the leather strap across his chest, securing his tools of the assassination trade. Scoring one square pane along the frame, he then slid the pick back where it belonged. With one, two, three taps of his finger, the pane cracked then fell free, shattering a second later on the stone floor. After sliding his hand through the opening and popping the lock free, the casement doors swung open.
Once inside, he untied the rope from around his waist and looped it over the window latch to keep it from slipping away. No candles burned in the room. No fire, either, leaving the chamber in a wintry chill. Heartless bastards.
The circular room bore few furnishings. A table with a bowl and ewer along the wall, a chair, and a bed.
He approached the bed, where gossamer curtains framed the woman within. His heartbeat reverberated in his ears, a quickening drum as he beheld the princess entombed in her bloodless sleep. The Princess of Arkadia was known for her grace and beauty. Still, his breath caught in his throat when he pushed aside the bed sheer.
Resting upon her back with her arms draped across her abdomen—an unnatural position for one in sleep—she still appeared at peace. Dressed in a white nightgown and a green velvet robe that was fastened with a row of black buttons down the bodice, her lithe body appeared too thin. As any vampire would be, having been starved with only one drop of blood per week to keep her in this torturous state.
And yet, her face.
Mikhail inched closer. The darkness could hide nothing from his vampire senses. Waves of the palest yellow hair, like sun-bleached wheat when it’s tall and ripe, draped down to her waist. High cheekbones, delicate nose, full lips. Overly full. He dragged his gaze upward to her lashes, black against her pale complexion. What shade of blue would her eyes be? All born vampires had blue eyes. Royal born, the bluest of all. A marked trait.
Her chest rose and fell steadily, even after being in this cursed slumber for months. He’d heard of powerful warriors being induced into the bloodless sleep who died within a fortnight. Wandering the darkness of their minds, confronting and reliving the nightmares that await there, had been enough to stop the heart of bigger, stronger men. Yet, here lay this pale beauty, soft and serene as if in a natural sleep. He hoped she survived the transition to reality. He’d heard of those awakening with their minds unhinged, never regaining full control of their sanity.
He and his brethren had discussed when to awaken her, but Mikhail had rejected all votes that they should wait until they’d carried her to safety. Mikhail had heard tales from survivors of the bloodless sleep. The dark agony of sensing everything going on around oneself but never being able to speak or open one’s eyes or make any move at all. And all the while, an aching pain stabbed the sleeper’s gut, ricocheted out, and rattled bones.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he lifted a lock of her silken hair, sliding his fingers till it fell away. The sensual caress striking a vulnerable cord in his chest. He clutched his fist together. Her beauty made him breathless. The fact that she lay imprisoned in her own body cut through the tough veneer of the captain to the man beneath. No way in hell would he leave her in such a state of agony a second longer.
Awakening a victim from a bloodless sleep was a precarious job. He must be gentle, careful not to overpower her system and jolt her body to full wakefulness. She could likely go into shock. Friedrich had suggested the best-known method—the blood kiss.
Leaning close to her ear, he whispered, “Princess. If you can hear me, listen well. I must awaken you from this deep slumber. Pardon the intimacy and have no fear. I mean you no harm.”
His canines fully extended, he bit into the fleshy part of his palm and smeared his lips with his own blood. Wrapping his other hand behind her slender nape, he leaned close, inhaling the fragrant scent of white jasmine and sunshine. He paused, faltering at the sweetness of her, an unexpected punch to his senses.
With tight control, he swept his lips over hers, wetting them with his blood and coaxing them apart. The slightest relaxing of her mouth gave him entry. Raising his palm, he licked a swath of his own blood across his tongue then angled his mouth over hers with firm possession, delving in to awaken her starving body. Sliding his tongue over and against hers, he slicked her thoroughly.
His pulse pounded an erratic beat. He heard hers quicken in timing with his own. Her senses stirred.
Unexpected arousal crashed through him, hardening every inch of his body. His fangs extended to their most painful length, demanding succor.
He’d come to offer his own lifeblood, not take what little she had. And yet his body trembled with bone-shaking hunger.
Stifling his rebellious body’s needs, he sucked a few drops of blood from his palm wound and pressed his mouth to hers once more, letting the blood seep inside and down her throat. He couldn’t help delving back in, licking the delicious taste of her onto his tongue.
A low moan emanated from her throat. He jerked away, remembering himself. By God, his thoughts spiraled down a dark, wayward path when his mouth was on hers. Panting, he leaned farther away, giving himself some distance.
She lifted a slender hand, her brow furrowing as she moaned a second time, rousing from her deep, paralyzing sleep. Her eyes shot open, and she sucked in a deep lungful of air. Her wide-eyed gaze landed directly on his. Mikhail was sure he’d slipped and fallen off a cliff, flailing helplessly.
Fathomless pools of blue, burning brightly. His father used to take him to the ocean shore during the summers as a boy. They’d walk along the sandy beach collecting shells. Once, he’d found the most beautiful clear gem washed upon the sand. Sea glass, his father had told him. A broken piece of bottle or jar that the ocean had tumbled and smoothed into the clearest, purest blue he had ever seen. That was what he thought of when he looked into the eyes of this princess who smelled like sunshine and tasted like heaven.
“Welcome back, Princess Vilhelmina.” Steel clashed against steel on the battlement above. Footsteps pounded on the staircase leading to the tower. “Time to go.”