Sophina’s eyes nearly gazed over as she watched Briella hug Dragos’ little brother tightly. “Engaged?” Sophina repeated, the word tasting sour on her tongue. “I’m sorry, I do not understand.”
“She is the princess of Halina, and I the prince of Auguria. What’s there not to understand?” Indy asked. “It is a simple engagement.”
“Of course it is,” Sophina murmured. “Though, I seemed to have gotten the impression that you were interested in Dragos Draknar, Lady Briella.” Sophina spoke Briella’s name as if it physically pained her to do so. In a way, it did. Briella was no lady. She had the life of freedom and was willing to give it all away for the false promise of power. She would simply be a pawn in a larger game that Lady Bethany was playing. A mother who would simply toss her daughter aside for another more malleable young lady with a lower self esteem.
“I have eyes only for Lord Indy Draknar,” Briella said, batting her eyelashes and leaning into the male. “Future king of Auguria.”
“Not Dragos?” Sophina asked. “Really? He is the eldest, the crown goes to him.”
“It’s none of your concern,” Indy said, waving Sophina away. “If you have no pressing matters to attend, Briella and I only have a few hours to bond before she must embark back to Halina. You should be honored I am even entertaining the visit of a traitor.”
“A traitor?” Sophina scoffed, looking around the room wildly for Dionyus’ support. Where was he? A man who had to stay hidden amongst people like this. “I am no traitor for wanting to live my life the way I see fit. People like you would never understand.”
Sophina turned to leave the foyer when large hands grabbed hold of her arms. “Agh! Let me go!” She kicked and she screamed, but it was no use. The man was much stronger than she was.
“You are a traitor, worth a lot of money to Halina. We cannot simply let you go,” Indy replied to the girls’ huffs. “Guards, take her to a cell and we shall contact the King of Halina immediately.”
“No!” Sophina cried, kicking even harder, but still to no avail. Just a few weeks ago she was to marry Dragos. This very castle was going to be her home. Now, she was being hauled away by the palace guards. “Briella, please. We’re friends! We spent so much time together!” Briella looked to her feet, biting her lip. “Please, just remember who took the time to teach you how to read and write letters to your parents!” Sophina called, before the guards holding her turned the corner. She hoped Briella had heard her. Maybe that memory would penetrate her psyche and snap the elf out of whatever selfish state she found herself in.
“As per all prisoners, you do have the right to speak to one person who can possibly clear your name. They must be a citizen of Auguria, or Halina in your case, and have a veritable account,” The guard had said once Sophina was settled in her cell.
She let out an angry sigh, banging onto the metal of the cell. “Where is the man I came here with? Dionysus? I wish to speak with him.”
“The prince’s royal adviser has more important things to worry about than the likes of you,” The guard replied. “He will not speak to, or for, you.”
“Adviser?” Sophina cried, feeling tears build up in her eyes at what Dionysus had kept from her. “That can’t be right. He wouldn’t do that to me.”
“Do what? Lead you to a place where justice can be had?” The guard asked. “You are foolish, and Dionysus is a respected member of Auguria’s royal council. Now, pipe down until it is time to move you back under Halina’s jurisdiction.”
Dionysus frowned at the boy who he would be working closely with. “This isn’t how it was supposed to happen,” Dragos muttered angrily. “I’m supposed to be king and Indy is supposed to be called upon by the divines. He wants this power more than I do.”
“You can’t exactly choose what the divines dole out. If they’re looking for you to be their progeny, you should be honored,” Dionysus said. “Regular people don’t get to wield any powers. You are unique.”
“I refuse to live a slave to the divines, carrying out their bidding for them!” Dionysus cried. “I will not go to the ceremony. You can’t make me. You were gone when the news came in anyhow. You have no right being here to indulge in my suffering!”
“I am sorry about that,” Dionysus said, bowing his head. “I met a girl. She looked as if she needed to make a big decision about her life. I wanted to help her. Being conflicted is no life to live.”
“You go and save everyone, but not me,” Dragos muttered angrily. “It isn’t fair. I was even willing to marry a woman I didn’t love if only to be a leader to my people.”
Dionysus placed a hand on Dragos’ back. “Everything will work out as it is supposed to. I do not mean to leave again, but I must check on a guest I brought with me. She may have made up her mind already.”
Dragos waved the man off, too angry to even speak. This was the exact opposite of what he had wanted, a life dedicated to a divine he could not even see.
Lavina’s breath quickened. She didn’t feel comfortable in the forest at night after the reports of an attack on a young noblewoman. People had said it was quite the bloody murder, one Lavina knew only a vampire would be capable of. That was only one of a few attacks she had heard of in a similar fashion. Pregnant women were being attacked in the forest. The target: their unborn children. Lavina shuddered at the thought. What was the end game here? The vampires she knew of were violent, but this was a new level entirely. “Vampires if you are here, please heed my words,” Lavina began. She was in the clearing where one of the young women was murdered. “My name is Lavina Gray. I am appealing to you for your help. I have nowhere else to turn.”
She needed help and knew no one else closer to the arcane than Elisha Van Winkle himself. “I carry no weapons on my person. No hidden blades or potions. I simply need help with my brother. He is sick and no regular doctor can help him. I need a supernatural. Please.”
She looked around, not really expecting anyone to show themselves to her. Why help her, when she had spent nearly her entire life trying to hunt them down? “I know I have not shown anything to deserve much help, but I promise that I will do whatever it is you ask of me. I just need help.”
A moment of silence turned into moments as Lavina dropped to her knees, tears forming in the corner of her eyes in frustration. “Elisha Van Winkle, you say you want to help humans. That you mean us no harm. What of these attacks on women in the forest at night? Prove yourselves to us! Prove that you want to help us!” Lavina broke down in tears thinking about her younger brother. How was it that this was happening to him of all people? He was the sweetest kid who meant no one any harm.
“Stand up,” A voice ordered. “Don’t beg on your knees. Have some respect for yourself.”
“Respect?” Lavina demanded, meeting eyes with a vampire she had never seen before. “You don’t get it. I’d bear shame for my entire life to protect the people I care about. Surely vampires have the same concept, no? Respect and honor goes out the window for love.”
The man outstretched his hand. “Love is a strange concept in and of itself, isn’t it?” He mused. “Allow me to help you. My name is Altiere. I am no ruler, but I think you’ll find my services just fine.”
“No,” Lavina replied, lifting herself up on her own. “I will only speak to Elisha. Vampires roaming around at this place at night aren’t what I’m looking for.”
“Yet you’re here at night, when vampires feed,” Altiere said with a smirk. “Bad planning if you’re only looking for the big bad leader. Something tells me you need someone dangerous to help. Someone close to the darkness.”
Lavina felt her throat closing up. “Darkness…what do you know? About the voices of the night?”
“Enough,” He replied, steeping closer to her. “Enough to help you. Unless you still want to talk to Elisha.”
She balled her hand into a fist. “Yes, I would rather take my business to him. He is the one who promised us humans he’d make a change. He needs to prove it, with all due respect.”
Altiere placed his hands in his pocket. “Of course, Ms. Gray. Whatever you’d like.”
Altiere slammed the door to the small lair he had built. He didn’t have another word for his abode but lair seemed to have sufficed. it was a building he had spent most of his personal time in when he was away from Elisha’s people. “Honey, I’m home!” He mocked in a sing-song voice.
Amanda surfaced, hair in her face and sweat dripping down the back of her dress. “This was not what I had in mind when I suggested a partnership,” She cried. “I am no mother, raising all of these babies that you kidnapped. You are a maniac.”
“A maniac?” Altiere asked, stifling a grin. “There is a method to my madness, love. I am giving you what you always wanted, no? A potion to prolong life. I can achieve that for you, but it’s going to cost your services.”
“I thought you wanted me,” She hissed. “Not some glorified caretaker. This is everything I didn’t want in life.”
“You are important to this operation, Amanda,” Altiere said. “You may not see it now, but I promise with my help you’ll be alive to enjoy it.” The sound of babies crying could be heard in the background. Amanda had no desire to go back into the den and comfort babies who were ripped from their mother’s wombs. Yet, the life of promised virtue and success was enough to keep Amanda going.
“You promise when Fortitude is created that I will have a place at the top?” Amanda asked. “Promise me there is a spot for a human like me.”
“With your drive, aspirations and willingness to work, of course there is,” Altiere assured her. “We will repaint the way people see us. No longer will we be looked down upon by society. No more, Amanda. We will be taken seriously.”
Elisha tossed down the notepad, willing Lucis to look at him. “Each woman found in the forest had bite marks on their flesh. This is a job done by the vampires, yet we promised to do better. Why now?”
“The political state is calm,” Lucis replied. “The mages are cooperative and willing to work with the vampires. I do not know why the humans are being targeted once again, but if it continues the mages will no longer cooperate. We joined forces because we knew that you were trying to change the negative outlook of your people. But if that was a ploy, we will not stand for it.”
“I understand,” Elisha said slowly. “These attacks are not of my orders, I can assure you that. Yet, the vampires are under my jurisdiction and I will take full responsibility for their actions. I should have kept better watch.”
“What will you do?” Lucis asked. “If you can prove that you have no interest in hurting the humans, we will happily help you clean this mess. But until then, I cannot offer any assistance. I trust you, but my people do not.”
“I know,” Elisha replied. “I can’t ask you to go out of your way for me. You’ve been a good friend to me otherwise, and having your belief in me is enough. I will settle this mess, I promise.”
“This didn’t start happening until Altiere came,” Lucis pointed out. “And now Amanda has run off with him on several occasions. I would look into hi first, if I were you. The pretty smile and kind demeanor may be just that.”
“Yes,” Elisha said with a nod. “I will look into his dealings. For now this meeting is adjourned. I wish to no longer speak about this.” Elisha felt sick to his stomach. How could his people do such a thing? There was no valid reason why humans were still being hunted. His people were supposed to be the bigger ones, rising above the hatred of the humans, not joining it.
“How did it go?” Lady Bethany asked, placing a comforting hand on Briella’s shoulders. “Well, I presume? Did Indy swoon for you?”
“He did,” Briella mumbled, touching her beating heart with her hand. She had never felt this way before. Then again, she had never quite had that kind of attention on her. “We are to be married. He has accepted the offer.”
“That is great news!” Lady Bethany cried. “Our kingdoms will be united. Think about how prosperous the world will be because of you, my child. You are everything a mother could want. Unlike some people.”
“Yes…” Briella murmured, her stomach twisting in knots. It didn’t feel right. She liked the reaffirmation of affection, but not at the cost of Sophina’s freedom. The girl didn’t want to live the life of a princess, but did that warrant an arrest? “What will you do with Sophina once she is brought back here? Will she be set free?”
“Why, of course not. Don’t be silly. She is a threat to all we are trying to build,” Lady Bethany said, patting Briella’s head. “She will be brought to our dungeons and will face a trial. Treason is punishable by death, so that will most likely be her fate.”
“She is your daughter,” Briella began. “You cannot let her die, can you?”
“She has chosen this fate herself,” Lady Bethany said. “There is nothing I can do about it now. She should have accepted her role as a princess. Do you know how many girls would love to have been born into this? Just look at you, a poor beggar girl turned into royalty. She has thrown her life away, for what? A few weeks in a small town in the lower lands. Ridiculous.” Lady Bethany turned to leave, her dress swishing as she moved. “But, you would never turn on me…would you, my darling?”
“No,” Briella said, feeling her heart drop. “I would not.”