Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 14
Lucian leaned against a stone pillar, lost in thought. Although nominally in charge of the cleanup, he paid little attention to the bustling activity, so heartsick was he at the news of Sonja’s engagement.
He knew it was irrational to despair so. She and I could have never been together, he reminded himself. It was inevitable that she would someday wed another pure-blooded vampire—if not Nicolae, then some other highborn member of the coven. Why, then, should this moment come as such a blow?
And beyond his own suffering, his heart ached for the princess’ own sake, unwillingly given away in marriage to a callous libertine she had every reason to detest. Moreover, in his heart, he knew there was a bond between him and Sonja. He felt it whenever their eyes met. There was a palpable tension in the air each time they were near each other.
But what did that avail him, as long as she was the Elder’s daughter and he was but a half-human animal? The gulf between them was too vast ever to be bridged, no matter how fervently he might wish it otherwise.
I cannot lose what was never mine.
Bells rang high overhead, warning that the sun had risen once more. Lucian looked up to find himself alone in the empty hall. All evidence of last night’s banquet had been carried away. Dying torches sputtered in the sconces. Only the faint aroma of roast meat and cold blood remained in the cool morning air.
But no, Lucian realized. He was not quite alone. A familiar musky scent teased his nose as he heard a pair of bare feet pad across the floor behind him. Lithe arms wrapped around his waist, and an impertinent chin rested upon his shoulder.
“Why so morose, Lucian?” Leyba whispered in his ear. Her hot breath, redolent of leftover wine and blood, warmed his neck. Her full breasts pressed against his back. The smoky odor of the kitchen clung to her rough wool kirtle. “I know just the remedy you need.”
Apparently his weeks away from the castle had not dimmed the scullery maid’s ardor—or, more likely, her desire to attach herself to the highest-ranking lycan in the Elder’s household. Her busy fingers toyed with the pewter badge on his tunic before descending lower. Sharp teeth nibbled at his ear.
No, he thought, pulling away from her. Unlike the last time Leyba attempted to seduce him, Lucian was not even tempted. How could he sport with another while the shards of his broken heart bled freely within his chest? All he could think of now was Sonja’s imploring eyes as she stared at him behind her father’s back. She had looked very nearly as forlorn as he felt.
For the same reason?
Not easily discouraged, Leyba held on to him with stubborn determination. Her lips and tongue came at him again, nuzzling his exposed throat, while her fingers tugged at the buckle of his belt. She growled huskily, like a she-wolf in heat.
“Enough!” He shoved her away, forcefully enough that she stumbled backward, almost falling onto her rear. The bitterness in his soul made him speak more harshly than he might elsewise have done. “Find another panting cur to ply your wiles upon. What we had was a youthful folly, nothing more.”
Fury flashed in Leyba’s dark gypsy eyes. Her fists clenched at her sides. “You arrogant ass! You think my love’s not good enough for you?” Her mocking laughter echoed throughout the hall. “I’ve seen the way you moon over the Elder’s daughter, like she would ever have anything to do with your sort. Beneath your fancy airs, you’re just a lycan like the rest of us, and don’t you forget it! You’re nothing but a trained hound performing tricks for your masters!”
Lucian did not argue with Leyba as she stalked angrily out of the hall, glaring back at him over her shoulder. Her dark curls billowed about her like a departing thunderhead.
He knew she spoke nothing but the truth.
Lucian tossed and turned on his straw pallet, but sleep would not come. After attending to the feast all night, he should have been exhausted, yet his mind was tormented by the thought of Sonja marrying Nicolae. Jealousy and depression combined to make every moment an ordeal, keeping him from his rest.
He opened his eyes to see a shadowy figure creeping toward him. Irritation flared in his heart as, for a moment, he thought that Leyba was making yet another blatant attempt to seduce him. Will she never leave me alone? he thought angrily. What must I do to discourage her?
His unwanted visitor drew closer, however, and Lucian saw that it was, in fact, another lycan servant, named Grushenka, who worked as a laundress within the castle. Of peasant descent, she was scrawny and towheaded where Leyba was dark and voluptuous.
“Yes,” he inquired, sitting up. “What is it?”
Grushenka looked about her nervously, as though to assure herself that no one was watching, then reached beneath her dingy apron to extract a roll of yellow parchment, bound with a gold silk ribbon.
Lucian’s heart leaped at the sight of the ribbon. No lycan female ever possessed anything so fine, but Sonja and the other highborn vampire ladies often wore such ribbons in their hair.
Can it be, he wondered, that the missive comes from the princess herself?
“Lady Sonja asked me to give this to you,” Grushenka whispered, confirming Lucian’s wishful supposition. She glanced around furtively once more. “But not when Soren or anyone else might be looking.”
Lucian nodded, trying his best to conceal his mounting excitement. “Many thanks, Grushenka,” he said sincerely. “I’m sure the princess appreciates your discretion.”
As do I, he thought.
The fretful laundress seemed more anxious to conclude her mysterious errand than curious about the contents of the parchment. She slunk back into the corridors outside the murky alcove in which Lucian slept.
He waited until her footsteps had faded away before carefully untying the ribbon, taking pains not to rip the delicate silk. He lifted the ribbon to his nose and inhaled the unforgettable fragrance of Sonja’s hair.
Heart pounding, he unfurled the parchment. Inside he found a short message written in an elegant hand that could only belong to the learned princess. Lucian thanked fate that, unlike many of his lycan confreres, he had taught himself to read:
Meet me in the castle chapel at the stroke of noon. Pray tell no one of this note.
Your companion in adversity,
Lucian read the brief missive over and over, the tumult in his soul growing by leaps and bounds each time he perused the tantalizing lines. Although he tried to keep a tight rein on his fevered imagination, wild fancies raced through his brain, filling him with both hope and anxiety. What does this mean? he wondered fervidly, all thought of sleep forgotten. Why this secret meeting?
Rising from his pallet, he hastily dressed and made himself ready to answer Sonja’s summons. The bells had only recently tolled eleven, yet he hurried as though his immortality depended on it. He ran a crude bone comb through his black hair and scraped his teeth with a dry twig he kept for that purpose. He told himself that he was merely making himself presentable for the princess; still, he felt like a nervous swain preparing for his first midsummer dance.
Who knows what the lady intends? he thought. She has seen me kill in her behalf. Perhaps she simply wants me to dispose of her odious fiancé? If so, I will gladly play the assassin for her.
The halls of the castle were quiet as he made his way through the fortress. Most of the household, lycan servants included, were resting after the exertions of the night before. Lucian encountered only a handful of guards and scullions, none of whom questioned his purpose in strolling through the hushed corridors.
The chapel was located on the uppermost floor of Castle Corvinus. Few ever visited the abandoned chamber of worship; being immortal already, the castle’s inhabitants had little interest in the Church’s promises of a life to come. Lucian himself could not remember the last time he had climbed the spiral staircase leading to the chapel’s entrance.
Sculptures of long-dead saints f
Rusty hinges creaked loudly as Lucian tugged the doors open. He winced at the sound, but the noisy echoes appeared to attract no attention. He reminded himself that Viktor and Soren and the other vampires were all sleeping the day away.
Which made it the perfect time for him and Sonja to meet.
The chapel itself bore ample evidence of disuse and neglect. Dust covered every surface, from the altar itself to the carved wooden icons arrayed within the chancel. A faded tapestry, depicting the fable of the Wolf and the Lamb, covered the stained-glass window behind the altar, making the chamber safe for Sonja. Cobwebs hung like curtains from the ceiling, veiling the crumbling portraits of Christ and his apostles painted on the plastered walls of the chapel. The reek of ancient incense hung in the stagnant air. Rat droppings littered the floor. No chaplain attended the lonely chamber; the coven had no need of one.
Lucian saw at once that Sonja had not yet arrived. His disappointment was eased by the knowledge that he had come early to the… dare he call it a rendezvous?
Restless and impatient, he tore down the hanging cobwebs. The musty chapel was not fit to receive a lady such as Sonja, for whatever purpose. Cleaning the chamber helped to turn his mind away from fruitless speculation, but only to an infinitesimal degree. What if she does not come? he worried. What if her plans were discovered, or she has changed her mind, perhaps come to her senses? What if I never find out what she truly intended?
At last, the bells tolled noon. Lucian’s heart thundered in anticipation. He held his breath until, on the twelfth stroke, the door creaked open enough to allow Sonja to slip into the chapel.
She is here!
She wore the same yellow samite gown she had worn at the feast some hours ago, suggesting that she, too, had found sleep impossible after her father’s shocking announcement. Her chestnut eyes were tinged with red, as though she had been weeping. She closed the door behind her and bolted it shut before turning to face Lucian.
“You received my note,” she said softly.
“Aye, milady,” he answered.
An awkward silence ensued as they stared at each other across the untidy floor of the forgotten chapel. Lucian realized that this was the first time they had been alone together since the day they spent in the crypt beneath the ruined monastery. “It seems we are fated to keep company on holy ground,” he said with a lightness he did not feel.
His weak jest elicited a sad smile. She looked about the chapel, her gaze alighting on the portrait of Christ and his disciples. “You look somewhat like him,” she commented, pointing out the slender, bearded figure painted on the wall. “Does that make you a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I wonder?”
“I am whatever you wish me to be,” he told her. She had already seen him in his most bestial state; there was nothing left to hide from her, save the boundless depths of his true feelings. “What do you require, milady?”
Consternation clouded her lovely face. “You were there,” she said bitterly. “You heard what my father intends.” She shook her head in dismay. “You were the only one I could think to turn to, the only one who—”
A wracking sob swallowed her words. Tears streaming from her eyes, she ran forward and threw her arms around Lucian, holding on to him as for dear life. Her body quaked against his as she wept openly on his shoulder.
He could think of no clever phrases to comfort her. Hesitantly at first, then with greater conviction, he embraced her, offering Sonja whatever strength was his to tender. He gently stroked her hair as he sought to quiet her muffled sobs.
As the moments passed, he grew increasingly aware of her shapely form pressed tightly against him. He caressed her back through the delicate samite, and long-frustrated desires arose within him. Sonja’s physical presence affected him as powerfully as a full moon, unleashing emotions and impulses beyond his control. His blood throbbed through his veins until he could resist no longer; his fingers dug into her pliant flesh as he buried his face in the curve of her neck, licking and nuzzling her cool, clear skin.
A gasp burst from her lips, shocking him back to himself. He tore himself away from her throat and stared anxiously into her eyes. Would he see anger there? Fear? Revulsion?
Brown eyes gazed back at him, showing only surprise. “Lucian?”
He could not contain himself. “I love you, milady!” he blurted. “More than you know!”
To his infinite wonder, a look of joy came over the princess’ face. A gleaming smile lighted up the murky chapel. “And I you, my dearest friend!”
Lucian could not believe his ears. Am I dreaming? he thought deliriously. Is this truly happening?
Emboldened by her words and smile, he kissed her ruby lips, which opened invitingly. Honey and coriander sweetened her breath. Passion overcame them both, and they tugged on the lacings of each other’s garments, until lustrous silk and coarse brown wool mingled together on the floor of the chapel, forming a bed of sorts upon which they eagerly explored each other’s bodies. Lucian peeled one last linen shift from Sonja’s head and shoulders and took a moment to savor her naked beauty in all its splendor. Her ivory skin was clear and unblemished. Her perfumed flesh smelled of lavender. Flaxen hair spread out beneath her head like a golden halo.
“Your skin is so warm,” she marveled, running her hand across his chest. “Like a blazing hearth on a winter’s night.”
“And yours is as cool and refreshing as a mountain stream,” he told her as he lay down beside her. His hands found her breasts, and he kissed her deeply, reveling in the sensation of touching her inside and out.
He knew that what they were doing was forbidden. That Viktor would surely have him flayed alive or worse if he knew. But Lucian didn’t care. All that mattered was that at long last, his beloved Sonja was within his arms. I would happily trade eternity for this moment.
There, in the moldering sanctity of the old chapel, they made love on the strewn garments. He took her gently, face to face, not roughly in the lycan manner. Her delicate fangs teased his flesh, never quite breaking the skin. In the end, as their conjoined bodies attained the peak of ecstasy, two sets of eyes glowed brightly in the dark.
The bell tolled five times, rousing them from blissful slumber. Sonja sat up in alarm. “I must go!” she exclaimed.
“The others will be rising soon, and I need to be back in my chambers before the sun sets.” She hastily gathered up her discarded clothing. “Soren checks on me every evening without fail—to ensure my safety, he says.” Frustration entered her voice. “He will do anything to regain my father’s favor.”
Lucian knew that she was not mistaken. As much as he wanted to hold on to Sonja and never let her go, their safety depended on keeping their tryst a closely guarded secret. He hurriedly helped her dress, even offering her back the golden ribbon she had used to tie up the scroll that had brought him there. “For your hair, milady,” he suggested.
Sonja laughed softly. She stopped lacing up the front of her bodice long enough to give him an impish grin. “I should think, friend Lucian, that after what has just transpired between us, you would finally be ready to address me by my name.”
He smiled back at her. His blood thrilled at the memory of the intimacies they had so recently enjoyed. “There may be something to what you say… Sonja.”
“That’s much better,” she said. She nodded at the strip of golden silk in his hand. “Keep the ribbon. Carry it secretly upon your person, as a token of my undying love.”
“I shall treasure it always,” he assured her.
Sonja glanced down at her person. A rumpled samite gown had restored her modesty. She made a vain attempt to smooth out the wrinkled fabric with her palms, then slipped her feet into her pointed leather shoes. “
Lucian crept obediently to the exit. Opening the heavy door just a hair, he peered out into the corridor outside. To his relief, the hall appeared just as unfrequented as before. After all, what business would any vampire or lycan have in visiting the abandoned chapel?
“The way is clear,” he told her. “Hurry.”
He opened the door wide enough to let her slip past him. “I will follow later,” he promised, “so that none will see us together.”
“That is wise,” she said, lingering on the threshold. Haste was imperative, yet she paused in the doorway, unwilling or unable to depart.
Lucian knew precisely how she felt.
He inhaled deeply of her perfume, then shared one last tender kiss with her before forcing himself to pull free of her lips. “Go now,” he urged hoarsely. “For our love’s sake.”
She nodded, too choked with emotion to speak, and hurried away down the lonely corridor. Lucian watched her go, then stepped back into the chapel and drew the door shut behind him. He felt drained yet exhilarated at the same time.
In her arms, he thought, I am more than just an animal. With her, I am a man.
A voice, nagging at the back of his mind, reminded him that nothing had really changed; that Sonja was still engaged to marry Nicolae in some three months’ time; that the love of a lycan for a vampire, and of a vampire for a lycan, could never be accepted by the twilight community to which they belonged; and that their present happiness seemed destined to end in tears.
But, for now, Lucian chose not to dwell on such things. It was enough that he and Sonja had finally found each other.
We have already achieved the impossible, he reasoned, so who can say what the future might hold?
A furious thunderstorm raged outside the castle. The howling of an icy March wind competed with booming thunderclaps, their tumultuous contest audible even through the thick stone walls and tapestry-covered window of the chapel. A candle, calibrated to mark the passing of the hours, was now less than an inch high, testifying that nightfall was only an hour away.
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