Magick Marked (The DarqRealm Series), page 2
The royal family demanded perfection and submission. When the last executioner died in action, dozens of coven members had applied for the opening. She didn’t add her name to the sign-up list. Prestige and fear didn’t appeal to her in the least.
Yet here she stood, silver daggers in hand, carrying the title of executioner.
Sure, all vampires were expected to contribute to their coven. She’d thought her training and service on the Guard for the past two years fulfilled that obligation. Apparently the Lamia King didn’t agree. The promotion had chapped some asses, hers included. She’d had no idea why he’d selected her, but she didn’t dare decline the offer. Everyone knew better than to tell the king no.
Who needed friends, anyway?
She tugged the sleeves of her black cashmere turtleneck down over her wrists. The king required her to keep her tattoos covered in public. Frederick, the prince, wasn’t a huge fan of them either. She wasn’t sure what bothered him more— the fact that so many of the designs signified someone she’d killed, or the fact that he’d ordered those killings.
Stalactites dripped from the ceiling, showcasing the monstrosities Frederick liked to call thrones. The massive room held dozens of vampires, their voices quieting as she advanced to her seat at his right hand. The heavy ebony wood thrones were inlaid with mother of pearl, carved with intricate scrolls and fitted with marble seats.
Beautiful, sure. But literally a pain in the ass.
Taking her seat beside the prince and scanning the assembly of vampires, she tried not to fidget. Their answering stares offered her only a callous combination of fear and resentment. No surprise there.
Frederick tilted his head, his bleached blond hair and pale skin contrasting starkly against his black suit. “Good evening, Rhowen.”
Man, she hated that name. She’d asked him a hundred times to call her Rho, like everyone else, but he never did.
“Good evening, my lord.” She offered him a small smile despite her dismal mood.
After all, they only called her in at this stage of the trial for one reason.
Crossing one leg over the other, she propped an elbow up on the arm of the chair and rested her chin on her hand. Yes, court proceedings were important. Yes, holding people accountable for their actions was necessary to ensure they knew who held the power. Blah, blah, blah.
She really didn’t give two shits about procedures and decorum. They only stalled the inevitable. If she’d been summoned, the vampire in question was guilty, and the prince had already made up his mind. The pomp and circumstance was an excuse for a public execution to set an example, which she didn’t care to be a part of.
“William, child of Marcellus.” Frederick’s booming voice snapped her back into reality. “Why are you in my court tonight?”
She sized up the vampire lying on the dirt at their feet. His eyes were a muddy shade of hazel, his dark hair trimmed close to his skull. The shirt he wore had been ripped and his jeans were covered in filth. He was a youngling, less than a year old if she had to guess. Older vampires didn’t bother breathing or blinking, but the young ones hadn’t been undead long enough to lose the habit. The guards had clearly worked him over once already.
His gravelly voice muffled against the floor. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
Like she hadn’t heard that one before.
“Who brought the charges against him?” Frederick glanced at Rho.
She peeked at the docket sitting on the table by her chair. “Marcellus Antonescu.”
A long, blond lock escaped the bun she’d twisted earlier. Discreetly, she tucked the misplaced strand behind her ear and tried to pretend it didn’t annoy her.
“Thank you, Rhowen.” Frederick gave her a quick nod. “Marcellus, come forward.”
Shoes scuffled against the dirt floor as people made room for the tall man, his shoulder-length black hair swaying with each step.
Eyes so dark they were nearly black met hers as he strode forward, towering over the crowd. A smile touched his lips, and she couldn’t help but stare at him. Something about him felt familiar, though she’d swear she’d never seen him before.
He paused in front of the thrones. “My lord, this man must be held responsible for his actions against the vampires of the DarqRealm.”
William sprang into the air, a wooden dagger in his hand. The room erupted in voices as Rho vaulted from her chair and landed on the ground, then curled her body and rolled across the floor.
Silver-tipped blade firm in her grip, she settled into a crouch between the prince and his would-be assassin. How the hell had he managed to sneak a weapon into the courtroom?
He lunged toward Frederick with the wooden point, but months of training made her far faster. His outstretched arm met her blade, the sharp edge melting through his skin like a hot knife through butter.
A bloody hand fell to the floor. He screamed, the silver coating of her wooden blade burning his vampire blood.
She clasped a dagger in her left hand and hovered over his writhing form, “That was really fucking stupid. You just bought yourself a one-way ticket to the other side, my friend.”
Her voice projected cool detachment, but her mind was hot with anger. Frederick was her boss and her only friend in this dark world. That stunt would cost this vampire his life.
A guard stepped up to restrain William upon the prince’s signal, pinning him to the floor. Rho turned to reoccupy her seat.
William let out a bellowing laugh.
She stopped mid-stride and whirled around to face him. “Are you mocking this courtroom?” Surely he wasn’t that stupid.
He grunted, the pain from the silver no doubt still coursing through his blood as he held the stump close to his body. The limb would grow back, of course, but the process would take hours and hurt like hell. Not that it mattered, considering her plans for his future.
Silver burned like a son of a bitch, but it couldn’t take out a vampire in a permanent way. A sharp wooden object to the heart, on the other hand, would kill instantly. The Guard’s daggers were silver-tipped wood, reserved for the worst offenders. And a threat to the royal family was a significant offense. Really significant.
Rho studied the man lying on the ground for a moment before turning the dagger’s grip with care and tucking the sharp end into the sheath at her waist. He was lucky he didn’t rip her slacks, or worse—ruin her shoes. She didn’t dress out in her leathers for court sessions. Usually didn’t have to.
Frederick raised a hand to hush the crowd.
She slumped back into her seat and crossed her legs, one hand holding firm on each arm of the chair. Anxious, she wiggled her black stiletto back and forth.
Nothing like a little attempted assassination to put her on edge.
Frederick continued as if nothing happened. “You know killing a coven member isn’t necessarily punishable by second death. Explain yourself.”
Marcellus nodded. “Certainly, my lord. Death alone is not the cause. I ask because he murdered a mated coven member.”
Hushed whispers thundered against the cavern walls as the spectators realized the magnitude of William’s offense. Rho gaped. Murdering a mated coven member was a cruel and malicious crime, one of the worst for their kind.
As far as Rho knew, vampires were the only race in the DarqRealm who could be soul struck. The connection was supposed to be immediate and life-altering. She’d heard that when struck, the vampire’s souls cease to exist independently, that they actually bound together to create some special union. Humans called that sort of thing love.
After being soul struck, most vampire couples wanted to make their bond public. The covenant of the blood bond could be formed only with the consent of two participating vampires, each pledging themselves and their blood to the other for eternity. Mated vampires could only rece
If one died and the other lived, the living vampire was unable to eat yet incapable of dying, and would slowly be driven insane. The bond and connection were so strong, many feared the dependence. Yet those who had been soul struck would just as soon be dead without their mates.
Rho never dreamed of making that sacred vow, both because she couldn’t imagine wanting to mate anyone for eternity and because the idea of being driven insane didn’t sound so appealing. The risk was too great, especially in her new line of work.
Frederick studied the crowd, his fingers in a steeple touching the tip of his nose. “What evidence do you have of his guilt?”
Marcellus waved over a woman in the crowd. “Charlotte Antonescu?” She carried the Antonescu surname, indicating her coven alliance.
Frederick pointed a finger at the female. “You. Come forward.”
She trudged toward the throne, the sour stench of her grief thick in the air.
“Do you have anything to add?” Frederick asked.
Charlotte lifted her eyes to meet the prince’s, liquid welling in the corners of their deep blue depths. “My lord, my mate was killed this week. I am now fated to die because of what this child calls a mistake.” Her voice thickened with tears as she pointed to the man on the floor. “I witnessed this man murder my mate.”
Marcellus offered another bow. “My lord, I request you take William to his second death tonight, and offer mercy to Charlotte. She won’t last much longer in her current state.”
Rho ground her teeth. Offer mercy, her bright, shiny ass.
He was asking her to do what he didn’t have the stomach to do. Murder an innocent woman before she lost her mind. These were the deaths that fed her nightmares, the reason she didn’t want this job. Killing the bad guys was justifiable homicide. Killing the innocents was a death sentence to her soul.
Frederick met her eyes with his matching set of gray. Despite an age difference of around two hundred years, people said they looked alike. She didn’t see it.
You know what to do. Frederick spoke clearly into Rho’s mind, giving instructions without spelling it out. All creators carried a telepathic connection with those they created. Frederick had Rho on speed dial.
Yes, my lord.
She examined the crowd, catching the few grim faces of those losing a coven member. Others smiled in morbid anticipation.
Her high heels hit the ground and she stood with ease, craning her neck around to loosen up. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. Who said she couldn’t do her job in heels, too? She didn’t even have to hunt people down if they were found guilty in court, which made this a piece of cake.
Except for killing the innocents.
“Charlotte, come forward,” Rho ordered, not yet moving to unsheathe the wooden dagger from her waist. This girl didn’t deserve to see death come for her. She’d done nothing wrong.
Charlotte lumbered forward, meeting Rho in the center of the room. The jumble of voices surrounding them concealed their conversation.
Rho leaned forward and put her lips to the girl’s ear. “Charlotte?”
“Yes?” The girl trembled, fear nearly shaking her off her feet.
“I want you to close your eyes. Envision your mate,” Rho murmured.
Charlotte did as instructed. “His name was Asa.”
“Did he enjoy reading?” Most vampires did. They were often older than the invention of television.
“What did he read?”
Charlotte chuckled. “He always told me his favorite book was Charlotte’s Web.”
“That’s a great book.” Rho slowly removed the wooden dagger from her waist. “Picture him reading it to you.”
A smile crossed the girl’s face. Rho plunged the wooden knife into her heart, feeling a sliver of her soul leave her chest as the girl crumpled to the floor. Damn it all. Their hands met as Rho crouched down to be closer to her victim. The quick convulsions of death overtook her small body and Rho wished desperately to take her pain away.
“Go with Asa,” was all she could whisper to the girl, watching the end near. Charlotte’s eyes fluttered. She smiled as she turned into ash at Rho’s feet.
Rho stood up, dusting off the ashes stuck to her black dress pants. Frederick met her gaze and she quickly glanced back down to the ground. Senseless. Deaths like this were such a waste.
Frederick’s voice carried over the mumbles from the spectators in the court room. “William Antonescu, child of Marcellus Antonescu, I do hereby sentence you to second death at the hands of the executioner for defiance of laws set forth for vampires of the DarqRealm. Let your conduct be a lesson to others who would errantly choose to follow in your path.”
That was always Rho’s cue.
She removed a dagger from her waist. William had met its acquaintance once already tonight. He squirmed, pinned to the floor like a bug in a child’s science project.
She stooped low, one knee resting on the dirt floor. His deranged laughter only pissed her off more, serving as a catalyst for the rage and self-loathing swirling in her brain. Fuck. Him.
“Have fun in hell,” she murmured, her lips only inches from his ear. Rho slammed the dagger through his chest and into his heart.
William’s face contorted into a deranged smile as he gazed at Frederick. “The wheels have been set in motion. We already have what we came here for,” he said in a quick rush.
Frederick jumped to his feet. “What did he say?”
But it was too late. Screams of agony intermingled with maniacal laughter echoed against the stone walls. The stink of William’s flesh burning permeated the room. Blood seeped from his body, slowly absorbed by the dirt beneath him.
“What did he say?” Frederick repeated, pointing to her victim as he marched toward Rho.
A puddle of dark brown sludge formed around the writhing almost-corpse. As the silver mixed with his blood and burned away from the dagger, William’s heart met the wood hidden inside. His eyes faded from terror to vacancy. When his body stopped twitching and descended into ashes, Rho turned to Frederick.
He glanced at the body, then back at her. “We needed to question him.”
Disapproving eyes of her fellow coven members bore into her, and she felt naked despite her well-covered skin. He’d never taken that tone with her before.
Her mouth gaped open. “I’m… It was too late. You issued the sentence, so I killed him. I didn’t realize—”
“I must speak with the king.” Frederick stormed off, leaving her alone in the room with their witnesses. She nodded meekly and stared at her feet. The room cleared, but she didn’t move until the last member of their small audience made his exit. And then she ran into her room.
“I will never understand why you feel the need to mutilate your body like that.” Frederick leaned against the doorway, arms crossed. His disapproving tone contradicted his sly smile. Rho knew at once he wasn’t angry. Relief struck her and she welcomed the sensation.
Ever since the night two years ago when he’d saved her life and turned her, he’d played the role of overbearing big brother. He’d checked in on her every day for the entire year after her transition, when she’d been kept in isolation until she could control her urges and learn to fight.
He’d even been positive about her joining the king’s guard, despite his gentlemanly opposition to females in combat. When she’d learned of her new appointment as executioner, he’d been her sole supporter and friend. He still was.
She bent her right shoulder forward to inspect her new design in the mirror and shot him a smile. “It’s not mutilation. It’s badass.”
A dense myriad of colors and designs already covered her arms, so she’d
Frederick shook his head. “Why do you punish yourself like that?”
He moved from the doorway to sit on the massive four-poster bed behind her. She scanned his reflection in the mirror as he made himself comfortable on the overstuffed duvet.
“I’ve told you before. It’s not punishment. It’s my way of making sure I don’t forget.” She examined the intricate spider web sprawled across her shoulder blade, a tiny black widow near the center. In her mind, she cast Charlotte as the delicate web and William as the disgusting arachnid.
“Don’t forget what?”
She turned away from the mirror to face him. “Not every person who dies at my hands is guilty of a crime. I don’t want to forget the value of a life because I’m so jaded I can’t remember how many people I’ve killed. Evil or not.”
Every single tattoo covering her skin was a memory. She’d only been fourteen when she’d found her parents dead. That’s when her obsession with the inking started, a desperate attempt to preserve the memories.
The night she’d lost them still haunted her.
And here she was, a murderer. No better than the people she hated for making her an orphan. How ironic.
“Rhowen, if you don’t want to do this job anymore, I won’t make you,” Frederick said quietly.
A faint smile crept to her lips. “My lord, you and I both know that isn’t an option.”
Those sad, gray eyes told her he’d change the circumstances if he could. “I’ve told you, you can call me Frederick when it’s just us.”
“And I’ve told you, you can call me Rho.”
The sound of knuckles against the heavy wooden door stole their attention. They turned to find Costel in the doorway, his massive build filling the opening.
Geez, he was quiet, even for a vampire. She preferred heels for that very reason— the stilettos made her feel a bit more human. The clicking let people know she was coming. Like a vampire cowbell.