The link between the world of man and Elfhame had sundered long ago, the elven people and their magic fading to legend. Tall beings of extraordinary beauty, the fae preferred a world of peace. But seven elves—considered mad by their own people—longed for power and war. They stole sacred magical scepters, created their dragon-steeds, and opened the gate to the realm of man again and flew through.
Each elf carved a sovereign land within England, replacing the baronies that had so recently been formed by William the Conqueror. They acquired willing and unwilling slaves to serve in their palaces and till their lands. And fight their wars. Like mythical gods they set armies of humans against each other, battling for the right to win the king, who’d become nothing more than a trophy. They bred with their human slaves, producing children to become champions of their war games.
The elven lords maintained a unified pact, using the scepters in a united will to place a barrier around England, with only a few guarded borders open to commerce. Elven magic provided unique goods and the world turned a blind eye to the plight of the people, persuaded by greed to leave England to its own, as long as the elven did not seek to expand their rule into neighboring lands.
But many of the English people formed a secret rebellion to fight their oppressors. Some of the elven’s children considered themselves human despite their foreign blood and joined the cause. And over the centuries these half-breeds became their only hope.
London, England, 1724
The people lining the streets of London cheered while General Dominic Raikes rode to his doom. Not that they had any idea what awaited him at Firehame palace, and if they did, he doubted they would care. He resembled the elven lord too much for that. Yet he had won the final battle and they hailed him as their champion despite his elven white hair and pointed ears.
Young women threw flowers from upper-story windows, the petals flickering through the air like snow and coating the dusty streets with color. Gray skies covered the sun and in some places the buildings nearly met above the streets, further shadowing the rider’s passage with gloom. The glass-fronted shops had been locked up as their owners joined the throng in the streets: painted harlots, street urchins, costermongers, servants, and the occasional prosperous Cit, distinguishable by his white wig. The fishy smell of the Thames overlay the stench of the streets as his troops approached Westminster Bridge.
Over the murky waters the flaming turrets of Firehame palace beckoned Dominic onward.
He shook back his war braids and straightened his spine and glanced back at his men. They had cleaned their red woolen coats as best they could, and lacking wigs, had powdered their hair to resemble the elven silver white. They had polished their boots and buttons, brushed their cocked hats. Despite their stern faces, Dominic could see the glitter of pride in their eyes and nodded his approval at them. They returned his gesture with wary respect.
Dominic turned and sighed. They were brave, good men, every one. Some he owed his victory and life to. He would like to oversee their promotions himself but it would be too dangerous. He didn’t know the personal life of a single man, nor did they know of his. Dominic had grown used to his solitary existence, yet sometimes he regretted the necessity of it.
The hooves of his horse met the road at the end of the bridge with a crunch of pebbles. The noise of the crowd faded as they neared the open gates of Firehame palace. Red flame jutted from the top of the stone pillars flanking the entrance, danced along the outlying curtain walls. Dominic halted his mount for the span of a breath, studying his home with the unfamiliar gaze of one after a long absence. Elven magic had tinted the stone walls a glossy, brilliant red. Warm yellow flame slithered up the stone, whorled over the buttresses, making the entire structure shimmer in his sight. The towers soared above the three-storied palace and Dominic’s black eyes quickly sought out the tallest, looking for a flicker of wing, a jet of red fire. But he could see no sign of the dragon and so flicked his reins, urging his horse into the courtyard.
Dominic wanted nothing more than a bath and then the quiet of his garden or the sanctuary of the dragon’s tower. He knew he wouldn’t manage any of his comforts until he’d been tested in fire.
He thrust away the memory of pain and dismounted, feeling his face turn to stone, his body conform to rigid military posture as he crossed the paved courtyard and ascended the steps into the opulence of Firehame palace. Several of his officers followed, although many decided to forgo the privilege of coming to the attention of the Imperial Lord of the sovereignty of Firehame.
The back hallways they marched through displayed the magic and wealth of the elven lord. Delicate tapestries that rewove their pictures every few minutes covered the walls, and thick rugs of rippling ponds and bottomless chasms carpeted the floors. Dominic breathed in the scent of candle wax, perfume, and elfweed, ignoring the portraits framed in gold with their moving eyes that followed their passage. At the end of summer the air in the corridor still felt chill against his cheeks. His ears rang from the silence.
Then Dominic opened the door leading to the great room and the thunder of applause broke that brief moment of quiet. He paused, waiting for his men to compose themselves, then started down the middle of the enormous room through the crowd of gentry that awaited them.
Fluted columns lined the sides of the hall, capped with ornately carved capitals that supported archways even more ornately carved with golems, gremlins, and gargoyles. Courtiers milled between the stone supports, a riot of colorful silk skirts and gold-trimmed coats. Full court wigs of powdered white sparkled with the addition of the ground stone the nobles used to imitate the silver luster of elven hair. Buckled shoes flashed with diamonds; ceremonial swords sparkled with ruby and jet.
The smell of perfume became overwhelming and Dominic suppressed the urge to sneeze. He kept his gaze fixed on his goal, the dais of gold where the elven lord Mor’ded waited, but he caught the faces of the courtiers from the corners of his eyes. The lustful gazes of women—and more than a few men—followed his every movement. Despite their fear of the elven, humans could not resist their beauty, and Dominic had inherited more elven allure than his half blood warranted.
When he reached the Imperial Lord’s throne, Dominic stared at Mor’ded for longer than he intended. Silvery white hair cascaded past broad shoulders in a river broken only by the tips of the elven lord’s pointed ears. Black, fathomless eyes stared coldly into Dominic’s own, the expression robbing them of their almost crystalline brilliance. Smooth, pale skin glistened like the finest porcelain over high cheekbones and strong chin. A full mouth, straight nose, high brow.
When Dominic looked at the Imperial Lord, he might as well have been gazing into a mirror of his future, for although his father must be over seven hundred years old, he did not look a day over five-and-thirty. And despite the thickness of his elven blood, Dominic aged at a normal human pace. In ten years, Dominic would look like the man before him.
Dominic dropped to one knee and bowed his head, war braids dangling beside his cheeks and eyes fixed on the marble floor. A wave of silence rolled across the room until he could hear nothing but the breathing of his men and the rustle of the ladies’ silk skirts. “I have won the king, my lord.”
At his words, the room erupted in applause again and Dominic stood, gazing at his father, hoping to see a glimmer of pride in those cold black eyes. He had fought for years to achieve such acknowledgement.
Imperial Lord Mor’ded smiled, revealing even white teeth, and cut his hand through the air, signaling the court to silence. He stood with a grace no human could possess and stepped down from the dais, one hand wrapped around the black scepter that enhanced his magic. Dominic’s eyes flicked to the rod, the runes carved upon it swirling momentarily in his sight before he quickly looked away.
As a child he’d been constantly hungry. He’d been stealing food off the sideboard in the grand dining room when his father and court had entered. He’d hidden under the table and his father had sat, the triangular-shaped head of the scepter jutting beneath the crisp white linen. Dominic didn’t know what made him reach out and stroke the forbidden talisman, for everyone knew only one of true elven blood could hold it without being flamed to ash. But he hadn’t tried to wield it, had only touched it, and since then he couldn’t look at it without feeling strange. As if the thing possessed a conscious awareness of him. It bothered him that he had such a fanciful thought.
Mor’ded reached his side and placed his other hand on Dominic’s shoulder. The chill of his long fingers penetrated the heavy wool of Dominic’s coat. “After a hundred years the king will finally be returned to his rightful place. Thanks to my son, the champion of all Firehame.”
Applause thundered again. The elven lord’s words echoed in Dominic’s ears. His father had publicly acknowledged him as his son. Fierce pleasure rose in Dominic’s chest and he had to force himself to concentrate on Mor’ded’s next words.
“General Raikes has defeated Imperial Lord Breden’s forces and we have won the ultimate trophy—King George and his royal court. London will again be the center of taste and fashion. The sovereignty of Firehame will house the man who decides what color breeches you wear.”
A ripple of excited pleasure ran through the courtiers and Dominic stared coldly at the assemblage. Did they not hear the disdain in his father’s voice? Did they not understand the mockery toward the king who should be their rightful ruler?
Mor’ded’s fingers tightened on Dominic’s shoulder, and the elven lord’s magic shivered through his spine. Dominic forced himself to relax under the painful grip. It did not matter if the ton understood or not. They could do nothing about it, anyway.
“Tonight we will feast in my son’s honor.”
His fingers gave Dominic one last painful squeeze before he released his grip and climbed back up on his dais. With a flourish of his scepter, Mor’ded filled the long great room with sparkling white fire, the flames harmlessly bouncing off the wigs of the men and the silk skirts of the ladies. The courtiers laughed and wove their bodies through the magic, and Dominic watched them with hooded eyes until his father grew tired of amusing his playthings.
When Mor’ded swept the skirts of his red silk coat through the door behind the throne, Dominic followed, resisting the sudden urge to draw his sword and run it through his father’s back.
He’d tried it once. It had cost him the life of his best friend.
His father lit their way through the gloomy passage with white fire that slithered on the ceiling above them. Dominic knew most of the passageways behind the walls of the palace. He’d spent hours as a youth exploring them. This particular one led from the throne to Mor’ded’s private chambers, and branched off only once by means of a tunnel that his father told him twisted far beneath the palace, finally opening onto an entrance to the fabled land of Elfhame. Of course, only a chosen one could pass into that land, and Dominic had still failed to prove worthy. They both ignored the heavily warded door blocking the tunnel as they continued on to the end of the passage.
Mor’ded opened the door to his chamber and Dominic followed him into the room and suppressed a shudder. Very few people were allowed into the Imperial Lord’s private chamber, and he didn’t count himself lucky to be one of them. The walls glowed with iridescent color, a copy, Mor’ded had once told him, of the truly living walls of his old rooms in his homeland of fabled Elfhame. Plants grew in the corners of the room, pale pink pods that occasionally liked to dine on warm meat through some corrosive process Dominic didn’t want to understand. A striated crystal sat next to the double doors that led out onto a balcony broad enough for a dragon to land. The stone picked up the color of the gray skies and threw it into the room. Large enough for a table, and yet shaped like a cone, the crystal held a hole in the top of it that Mor’ded often slipped his scepter into.
Chairs that resembled flower petals, a bed that could be some sort of deformed swan, and a desk that snapped closed like the jaws of some great beast completed the room.
Dominic always felt displaced here, as if a part of his mind rejected the surroundings. But then again, he’d become quite skilled at projecting his mind out of his body. It was the only way he’d survived the trials with his sanity intact.
Mor’ded slid into one of his petal-chairs, the scepter carelessly laid across his lap. He liked to play with Dominic a bit before he began, taunting him to display any human weakness.
“You used magic to gain your victory.”
Dominic clasped his hands behind his back and widened his stance. No use in denying it. He’d seen the shadow of the dragon hovering over the battlefield, his father atop the great beast, enjoying the sight of the games. “I used it to save the lives of my men.”
That handsome mouth crooked, so like Dominic’s own. “It looked to be quite a firestorm.”
Mor’ded shifted, the swish of his silk coats loud in the silent room. “Breden is furious, of course. He says we should not allow any of our bastards to play in the games. Indeed, that we should cull any of those possessing the slightest degree of power.”
Dominic kept his face impassive. He did not doubt that the elven lords would destroy all their offspring on a whim, for he knew of their madness better than anyone. “One of Breden’s bastards tried to quench my fire with a wave of water from the Bristol Channel.”
“Which I pointed out to Breden,” replied Mor’ded. He waved a graceful hand. “It matters not what he says. His pride has been injured by the loss of the king. He had become complacent, and we elven must never succumb to that human weakness, eh, Dominic?”
“Never, my lord.”
“Aah, but it makes me wonder. Have I allowed myself to become complacent?” Mor’ded leaned forward, his glittering eyes intent on his son’s face, baiting him with the agony of anticipation.
Dominic clenched his teeth.
Mor’ded collapsed back in his chair, the petal swaying with his laughter, a ringing song emanating from the depths of the flower. “You were one of my greatest mistakes, and yet a most amusing one. We elven procreate with you animals so rarely, and yet a brief rut with a common kitchen maid produced a bastard with enough of my blood to bear a marked resemblance to me. And sometimes I swear your heart is all elven.” He shook his head, pale locks winking with silver. “Still, who knew that when I saw you fighting with the other kitchen boys and threw you into the game you would rise to claim the king one day? Not I.”
“You’ve taught me well, Father.”
“Indeed. And now we must again test your worthiness. You know what has to come, do you not?”
Dominic lifted his chin.
His father stood, the scepter held before him with both hands, calling on the additional power the talisman gave him. “There is no other way to be sure of your power. Defend yourself, boy.” And he unleashed the black flame.
It engulfed Dominic with a hiss and a scream, licking at his feet, shivering down his arms. His clothes appeared unaffected by the flame, and yet he felt them melting into his flesh, fusing into him. His skin still looked whole, and yet he felt it searing into ash. The black flame only burned in the mind, but ah, even the worse for that. He gritted his teeth and vowed that this time, he would not fall. His own little game he always played against his father.
Dominic held up his hands, his own magic instinctively responding to the assault. White, blue, gray—he could call the entire spectrum of fire magic except for the black, but only the red fire did any damage, and his father easily squelched the blaze before it could sizzle the tiny fibrous hairs off his monstrous plants.
“Come on, lad. You can do better than that,” said Mor’ded. And increased the magic twofold.
Dominic gasped for breath. The blackness slid down his throat and into his lungs, charring them until he could not breathe. The pain he could withstand, but the suffocation always defeated him. He dropped to one knee. His magic flared again and he imagined he felt the power of the black fire within him, the flame that burned only in the mind. Dominic tried to call it forth, but as always, nothing happened.
He always forgot how bad the pain could be. How could he forget?
Dominic had been wounded in battle many times. His men whispered that his elven blood made him impervious to pain. They did not know his mind had been tempered in fire, that the cut of a sword or sting of a bullet seemed a minor ache compared to the agony of his father’s magic.
And Dominic knew he couldn’t possess the power of black fire, as much as he wished for it. The gift would have been revealed when he reached puberty, when any elven powers first appeared, and he would have been sent to Elfhame with the rest of the chosen children. Only those with small magics stayed in the human world.
Yet his father continued to test him again and again, as if he suspected his son held stronger power as well. Or perhaps Mor’ded just enjoyed torturing him.
Dominic’s lungs began to falter, his breath reduced to no more than a strangled wheeze of agony. His other knee collapsed and he fell to all fours, cursing his weakness. Cursing his father.
And suddenly the burning fire ceased.
Blessedly cool air caressed his cheeks and he sucked in a deep breath. Dominic resisted the urge to run his hands over his face, his hair--to reassure himself that he stood unharmed as he’d done the first time he’d endured one of his father’s trials. Mor’ded had laughed at him and Dominic had vowed never to give the man the satisfaction of that pleasure again.
Dominic rose with elven grace.
Mor’ded studied him with narrowed eyes. “No elf could withstand such pain and not instinctively call forth his own magic in defense. Again you’ve proven how truly weak you are…and yet…”
Dominic let out a tired sigh. He did not bother using the blue healing fire. His body might be whole, but it always took some time for his mind to heal from the memory of the pain. And he rarely used so much of his power; he felt tired unto death. “Either destroy me completely or allow me to leave. I’m half human, you know.”
“Indeed, indeed.” Mor’ded chuckled, lifted his scepter and the door of his chamber flew open with a breath of fire. “You look so elven I forget you’re half animal. Go lick your wounds, then. I want you rested for the feast tonight, and of course, your marriage tomorrow.”
Dominic halted in midstep. He had forgotten the date. Easy to do, since he’d almost forgotten what his intended looked like. He’d met Lady Cassandra a few times and could only recall a plain wisp of a girl with brownish hair and eyes. “Is it tomorrow, then? I suppose it’s best to get it over with.”
Mor’ded rolled the scepter between his palms, his black eyes glittering. “It will make the humans happy, seeing my son wed to one of their finest aristocrats. And who knows? Perhaps you will breed true and produce another champion.”
Dominic sighed. Fatigue shrouded him and it took all of his will to pick up his feet and put one before the other again. He had realized years ago that it would be pointless to fight the destiny his father had forced upon him. If Mor’ded wanted him to take a wife and breed champions, so be it.
It mattered only that Dominic never allowed them to be used against him.
When he left Mor’ded’s room his feet took him to the tower stairs and not his own chambers. Halfway up the curving staircase a wave of nausea overtook him and he allowed himself a brief moment of weakness. In the dark, where none could see. He felt again the searing of his flesh and the constriction of his lungs. Sweat broke out on his forehead while his body trembled in wave upon wave of remembered pain. But he gritted his teeth against the sobs that threatened to rise from his chest and for a brief moment pictured his father’s slim neck between his battle-hardened hands.
He thrust the futile image away and began to climb again. The elven lord could level London if he so chose. Dominic’s strength would never be a match against Mor’ded’s and he’d been forced to accept that.
But he had won a victory today. He’d made his father proud enough to call him son before the entire court. Dominic would grasp that slender victory, as he’d grasped even smaller accomplishments over the years.
He shoved open the wooden door and stepped out onto the flat roof of the tower. Humid air caressed his skin; a light breeze swept his silver hair against his cheeks. The metallic smell of the dragon teased his nose and he glanced across the rooftop at the huge beast.
Ador raised his black-scaled head and blinked at Dominic, his red eyes glowing even in the overcast day. Strange eyes, with elongated pupils with black lines radiating from them, separating the red color like pieces of a pie. The dragon’s leatherlike wings lay tucked against his sides, appearing deceptively small against his long, sinuous body.
Dominic removed his woolen coat and spread it out in his usual place at the base of a merlon and sat, his back against the stone. He leaned his head against the hard surface and closed his eyes with a sigh of utter weariness.
The dragon shifted. Dominic heard it in the slide of scale on stone, felt it in the tremble of the floor beneath his feet. It had once frightened him, the sheer size of the beast. But no more. He’d gotten used to the beast and Ador…well, the dragon had finally managed to tolerate him.
“Do you remember the first time I came up here, Ador?” Dominic didn’t wait for the dragon to answer. He rarely received a response to his musings. But for Dominic it was enough that someone listened. “Father had tested my magic by burning Mongrel to ashes. He was a good dog and a loyal friend. I didn’t think I’d ever forgive myself for not having enough magic to protect him.”
The pungent smell of the Thames swept across the tower, even at this height, and for a moment, Dominic thought he could hear the muffled sounds of the city below them.
“It was the first time I realized I could no longer allow myself to care for anyone. Man nor beast. For Father would always use them to test my magic.” Dominic blocked the images of those who had suffered because of him. He’d found it much easier to bear the pain himself. “But my human weakness for companionship made me think of you. All alone, atop your tower. And then I realized Father would never harm his dragon-steed. That I could care for you, at least. Even if you couldn’t return the sentiment.” Dominic cracked a hopeful eye. But Ador appeared to have fallen back to sleep, his lungs like a great bellows pumping beneath those black, shiny scales.
Dominic sighed and allowed the solitude of their high perch to settle over him. The world seemed very far away up here. The wars, the court, his father, all dwindled to minute specks of matter. One final small tremor shook him, dispelling the last memory of pain. And when he spoke again his voice held the coldly rigid control it always did.
“I have done well, in most respects, to be like my father. Remote and untouchable, concerned only with my own pleasure. But you know the truth of me, don’t you, Ador? Whether you willed it or not, you’ve been forced to hear my true thoughts over the years.” Dominic scrubbed a weary hand across his brow. “This elven face of mine is deceiving, for I’ve been cursed with an all-too-human heart.”
Ador snorted and his wing twitched, his only reaction to Dominic’s damning statement. Ah, well. Dominic should consider that a remarkable response. Usually the dragon resembled nothing more than a still lump of shiny black coal.
Dominic rose and arched his back, wincing at a stab of pain. Just an ordinary pain, though, from an old bullet wound in battle. He smiled with relief that it held none of the taint of black fire magic. “Are you aware I’m to be married on the morrow? A dangerous proposition, for one such as I. I almost feel sorry for the girl…but the aristocracy are used to being breeding stock, are they not?”
He picked up his coat and slung it over his back. His mind felt settled again, the memory of the burning fading to a manageable degree. Dominic couldn’t be sure if the dragon’s quiet presence soothed him or if the release of his thoughts brought him peace. He knew only that he always healed faster atop the tower.
He’d taken a few steps toward the door when the dragon’s rumbling words stopped him.
“I smell a change in the wind.”
Dominic turned and stared into those red eyes. “What do you mean?”
Ador, of course, did not answer. He closed his eyes again and huffed a small stream of smoke through his nostrils.
Dominic considered the implications of the dragon’s words. Ador had once told him Father was mad. An obvious statement, it seemed, and yet those words had allowed Dominic to deal with his father time and again. So he did not think the dragon referred to something as simple as the coming of the king. Yet no matter how he twisted the statement around in his head, he could not fathom it.
Ah, well. How could Dominic know the turnings of a dragon’s mind? It would become clear in time…or until Ador chose to make it clear.
Lady Cassandra Bridges knelt on the wooden step of the pew in front of her and pressed her palms together. The small chapel lay shrouded in shadow, the gray clouds failing to light the stained glass windows above the altar. Several students surrounded her and so Cassandra kept her voice to less than a whisper. “Almighty God, please let my new husband be happy with me tomorrow—”
She started at the light touch on her shoulder, turning to face Sister Mary, who only nodded her veiled head towards the open chapel door. Cassandra mutely followed the sister down the aisle, noting with satisfaction that none of her classmates noticed her departure. She’d worked hard to make herself almost invisible to them, fostering no friendships or acquaintances.
They stepped out into the long hall with its arched roof and mosaic-tiled floor, their footsteps echoing softly over scenes of glorious battles and cherubic angels. Sister Mary slowed to walk beside Cassandra.
“You must be sure to pay extra attention during your private lesson today,” said the blue-eyed nun.
Cassandra mutely nodded, waiting for the other woman to explain herself. She’d learned that if she kept her mouth closed, people talked more freely than if she’d asked them a hundred questions.
Sister Mary clasped her hands before her bosom. “General Raikes—your intended—has won the king today. So you must be even more diligent in your studies, for when you go to court, you will not only have to impress the Imperial Lord, but King George as well.”
Cassandra’s heart fluttered with excitement. Not because her future husband had accomplished what no other man had done for over a hundred years. Not because she would live under the same roof as the king. But because the king’s most trusted advisor, Sir Robert Walpole, would be coming to Firehame. Having the counsel of the leader of the Rebellion might make her task easier.
“So you must listen well to Father Thomas,” continued Sister Mary, a slight hitch to her breath at the mention of the handsome priest. “Practice your curtsies and table manners and forms of address, so you will do our school proud.”
Cassandra glanced at the nun. She required a response. “Yes, Sister.”
The nun nodded with satisfaction. Sister Mary had elven blood somewhere in her family line, for Cassandra caught the brief flash of a halo around the other woman’s head, the brilliant white plumage of angel’s wings behind her shoulders. The illusion faded, though, at Sister Mary’s next words. “Although I can’t imagine anyone not paying close attention to Father Thomas.” A small sigh escaped her pretty mouth.
Cassandra stifled a smile. She didn’t blame the nun, despite the other woman’s vows of chastity. The handsome priest would cause any woman’s heart to yearn for just a touch of his hand. Indeed, Cass had even once thought herself in love with him, when he’d first come to tutor her.
Sister Mary stopped just outside a heavy wooden door, a relief of elven figures being warmed by rays of light from heaven carved into the oak surface. “Do you wish me to accompany you inside?”
Cassandra heard the note of longing in that request but had to shake her head. The staff had strict instructions from the headmaster to never enter this room. And despite Sister Mary’s longing to catch a glimpse of Father Thomas, it would be safer for her not to become too familiar with the priest.
The nun sighed and left, the long sweep of her robes floating back down the hall, her wings reappearing and flowing in her wake like some feathered train. Cassandra took a breath and slowly turned the doorknob, allowing not a hint of a squeak, a ghost of a sound, to announce her presence. Although her fellow students chose to wear the silk gowns befitting their aristocratic status, Cass had years ago traded them for soft, brushed wool and modest-sized hoops. Her skirts did not rustle nor did her hoops catch on the doorframe.
She closed the door as silently as she’d opened it.
Father Thomas stood with his back to the room, his hands on the windowsill, contemplating London’s dreary skies. Tables littered the room, where he’d taught her all the card games with which the court amused itself. Near the columned fireplace sat two velvet chairs and a tea tray, arrayed with meticulous precision. A pianoforte waited on the left wall, music sheets carefully arranged for her instruction.
But the middle of the room lay bare, nary a rug or carpet to break the smooth expanse of flagstone. Her true lessons took place within that empty space.
Cassandra waited with bated breath. Father Thomas appeared deep in thought, unaware of his surroundings. One of his ancestors had ties to Dreamhame, for the man possessed some of that sovereignty’s elven power of illusion and glamour. He often startled Cass by appearing silently at her side. Had her tutor really made such a mistake, or had he orchestrated a clever trap?
She slowly removed the cloth-of-gold belt from around her waist. A tune formed in her head. She felt the slight shiver of elven magic run through her blood as her feet began to move to the tempo of the music in her mind. Her body trembled in anticipation of the dance; the kettledrum pounding a growing beat, the flute twittering its notes, the bassoon growling beneath the increasing tempo.
Cassandra wrapped the ends of her belt firmly in both hands and allowed the music to possess her. It fired her blood, strengthened her muscles, gave her a speed that surpassed all but an elven lord’s. She danced across the room within the blink of an eye. Looped the belt around Father Thomas’s neck and twisted.
His hands scrabbled at the cloth around his throat. She could feel his magic rising within him in defense of the attack. But speed and surprise aided her. The need of his body for air overwhelmed his instinct for the magic. He fell, his heavier weight bringing Cass to the floor with him, knocking over a small mahogany table and shattering the pale blue vase that sat atop it.
Lady Cassandra squeezed until Father Thomas stopped struggling. Had she really caught him by surprise, then? Had he broken the rule he’d pounded into her over the years? “You were distracted,” she accused him.
He didn’t respond. Fear fluttered in her stomach, and she loosened her hold. “Thomas?”
He grunted and she slid her belt off his neck, tossing it aside as she crawled over his body to look into his face. Despite the slight blue tinge to his full lips and the scowl tightening his brow, he still managed to look incredibly handsome. The annoyance in his gray eyes softened to something else as Cass continued to study him with genuine alarm.
“Have I hurt you?”
He smiled. “My pride more than anything else.”
Lady Cassandra humphed. “Because you were bested by a woman?”
“No. Because I was bested by my student.”
She suddenly realized their faces lay only inches apart. That she sat close enough to him to smell the scent of his cologne. Cass scrambled backward, smashing her hoops against the wall. “Well I should think,” she continued, “that you’d be pleased with yourself, Viscount Althorp. Isn’t the best teacher the one whose student surpasses him?”
He sat up, rubbing at the red mark around his throat, his priestly garb twisted around his lean body. Cass never understood how he’d managed to fool so many with that clothing. He had the eyes of a wicked man.
They looked at her with a glitter of wickedness even now. “Perhaps. And I suppose the timing is fortuitous, since you’re to be married on the morrow.”
Cassandra abruptly rose and he copied her movement, his eyes never leaving hers. He reached out to touch her hand and she turned away, facing out the same window he’d been standing at but a moment ago. “You’ve heard that he has won the king?”
Cassandra didn’t need to name her intended. They both knew of whom she spoke. And suddenly her doubts overwhelmed her. If only she had inherited some of that elven beauty, perhaps she wouldn’t be so unsure of winning him over. Her brown hair had a hint of red, her brown eyes a touch of gold, but her appearance held nothing unusual enough to tempt him. Fie,the nuns likened her to a little brown wren. She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “The very thought of him frightens me sometimes. I think he is more elven than human. I worry I shan’t be able to please him.”
“Cass.” Thomas’s own voice lowered to a husky timbre. “Look at me.”
She never should have spoken of her fears. Not to him. Truly, not to anyone. But her marriage had always seemed a distant thing, something she needn’t worry about for a long time. The day had come faster than she had been prepared for.
When she didn’t turn around, Thomas clasped her shoulders and spun her, forcing her to look at him. “You don’t have to go through with this.”
She looked into those gray eyes and saw to her utter astonishment that he meant what he said. “Do not allow me to give in to a moment of cowardice, Thomas.”
“I’m serious.” His hand brushed her cheek.
When he’d first come to tutor her, she would have given her life for that touch. But Thomas had kept himself aloof, recognizing her infatuation for what it was. Or so she had thought.
“Come away with me,” he said. “You don’t have to go through with this. The Rebellion will find someone else to marry the bastard.”
Just the thought that she would stray from the path laid out for her dizzied Cassandra for a moment. Nearly every day of her life had been in preparation for her marriage to the Imperial Lord’s champion. The thought that she wouldn’t fulfill her destiny set her adrift. “It would be impossible.”
He misunderstood her. “No, it wouldn’t. I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past few days. I’m the most skilled spy in the Rebellion, Cass. I can get you out of Firehame into one of the neighboring sovereignties before anyone suspects you’re even missing. I can keep you safe.”
She shook her head and his temper flared. “You are going to your death, Lady Cassandra.”
Her own temper retaliated in response. “You’ve known this for years. Need I remind you that you are the one who taught me the death dances? You are the one who swayed me to the Rebellion’s cause. How dare you take advantage of my cowardice to offer me this false hope.”
“It’s not false.” He picked up her hands and went down on one knee. “Marry me.”
“Because I don’t love you.”
His breath hitched. She hadn’t meant to put it so baldly. “You don’t love the bastard either. And you can’t marry him.”
She pulled her hands out of his. “I can. I will. That’s different and you know it. It’s a path I decided to take long ago. I’ve made my peace with God and am willing to risk my immortal soul.”
“Don’t spout that holy drivel at me, Cassandra. This priestly garb is nothing but a disguise, you know.”
She couldn’t help the half smile that formed on her mouth. “And well do I know it, Viscount Thomas Althorp.”
He stood, raking his gold hair away from his eyes, scowling at her stubbornness. “You used to love me, once.”
“I admit I was infatuated with you. How could I not be? Besides my father, you’re the only man with whom I’ve spent any company.” She didn’t mention her betrothed. She’d been allowed out of the confines of the school to meet with him on several occasions. But it had all been formal functions, and Dominic Raikes barely seemed to notice her.
Thomas made a strangled sound, stepped forward, and roughly took her into his arms. And then he kissed her.
Cassandra had never been kissed before. He caught her completely unawares and at first she could do nothing but study the peculiar sensation of having a man’s mouth on her own. Warm, wet…and decidedly odd. She couldn’t quite decide whether she liked the experience or not.
Thomas pulled back his head and stared down into her face. “You don’t feel a thing, do you?”
She frowned. “What exactly am I supposed to be feeling?”
He let out a sigh of exasperation and kissed her again.
Cass wondered if it would feel the same when her intended finally kissed her. Although she couldn’t be sure if he would, not knowing if it was necessary for the act of…procreation. He’d made it very clear he would do only his duty and nothing more. That he viewed her as his breeding stock.
The thought made her try to respond to Thomas. This might be her only chance to experience a true kiss. She cautiously curled her hands around his shoulders, which made him moan and lean even closer to her, nearly bending her backward with the force of his mouth.
Cassandra could think of nothing other than the pain in her back and the need to breathe.
Thomas pulled away and raised his golden brows. “Despite your lack of enthusiasm I know you aren’t frigid,” he muttered.
“What do you mean? I’m not the slightest bit cold. Indeed, your hold is nearly suffocating me with warmth.”
He straightened and set her away from him. “You could come to love me, you know.”
“I’m not destined for love. I knew that the moment I decided to join the Rebellion.”
He spun and sought out the chair by the fireplace, sat with his elbows propped on his knees and stared into the embers. “You’ve always been stubborn. Once you set your sight on something, there’s no changing your mind. I had to try though.” He glanced up at her, gold hair tumbling over his brow. “Do you know how many assassins we’ve set on the elven lords? And they’ve all failed, Lady Cassandra. Every last one of them.”
The look in his eyes frightened her. She prayed to God for courage and took a moment to compose herself. She smoothed her sleeves, fluffed her skirts. Their lesson today had not gone as she had thought it would. Fie, she had never imagined having such a conversation with Lord Althorp. Had never imagined that the man who’d always reassured her would now require that same sentiment back.
She folded her hands in front of her and gave him a cheeky grin. “How many of them managed to nearly strangle you to death, Thomas?”
He couldn’t seem to resist smiling back at her. “Confound it, girl. I can’t help but admire you. There’s nothing I can say to change your mind, is there?”
“No.” She felt her smile falter as she thought of the enormity of her task. “I cannot think of myself, Thomas. Nor you, nor my father…or the elven bastard, for that matter. The freedom of the people of England is at stake. And just the chance”—she clasped her hands tight—“the mere chance of ending these ridiculous war games and setting the king in power once more is worth my soul.”
“Not to me.” She opened her mouth again and he held up a pale hand to quiet her. “Enough. Do you know your eyes glaze over like a nun at prayer when you say such things?”
“Had I not been chosen for this task, I would have liked to have taken the vows.”
Thomas laughed at her, slapping his knees. “Oh, no, my girl. Becoming a nun is not for the likes of you.”
Cass raised her chin, miffed at his opinion of her. “I would make a very good nun.”
He laughed harder, wiped the tears from those wicked gray eyes. “Sometimes I think I know you better than you know yourself. There’s a fire within you, Lady Cassandra. I felt it in your kiss. And one day it will be set free, and heaven help the man who stokes it.” He motioned her to the chair across from him and Cassandra took it, although her back stayed as stiff as a rod. He eyed her for a time in silence, only the crackle of the fire and the muted sounds of a carriage rumbling past the window disturbing the quiet.
All trace of humor vanished from his expression, and he leaned forward, his brow creased in earnestness. “I do not think your father did you a favor by having you raised among all this religious dogma. You’ve taken it to heart and I’m not sure if it will help or hinder you.”
Cass frowned. She’d always considered Thomas’s lack of faith a peculiarity, another oddity to his character compared to those she’d always been surrounded by. She pitied him for it.
Thomas sighed. “Well, then, there’s no help for it. Despite my teaching, the nuns have managed to keep you pure, anyway. What a paradox you are, my dear. The court won’t know what to make of you.”
“Unless they get in my way, they hardly matter.”
“I dare say. Now, this will probably be the last time we will be able to meet privately.”
Cassandra felt her stomach twist. In many ways, Thomas had been her only friend. How would she manage without his company?
He patted her hand then snatched his away, as if he had to force himself not to hold onto her. Their conversation today, that kiss of his, had changed their relationship, it seemed. Perhaps it would be better if they did not meet again.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “You shall still see me. But not as Father Thomas. Viscount Althorp, however, will reappear at court, to the surprise and delight of all, I am sure.” He gave her that crooked grin that had once made her younger self swoon. “But it wouldn’t be safe for us to talk often, or privately, so listen closely.”
She nodded, relieved they had resumed their familiar roles as tutor and student.
“I don’t know,” he said, “if having the king’s court in Firehame will make your task easier. See if you can aid our leader, Sir Robert Walpole, but do not risk your task for his sake. We’ve never had an assassin this close to an Imperial Lord before. Your mission is far more important than the leader of the Rebellion, do you understand?”
“Your magic for the dance will not be enough. You never would have returned home after your trials if you had enough magic to truly threaten the elven lord. Only surprise and skill will overcome him.”
Although Cass vaguely remembered her trials, she knew her father had been disappointed when she hadn’t possessed enough magic to be sent to the elvens’ home world, the fabled Elfhame. His friend, Lord Welton, had bragged for years that his son had been a chosen one, and the duke had been decidedly put out when he could not say the same of his only child.
It had soothed her father somewhat when she’d become affianced to General Raikes. And now that her intended had won the king…
“It may take you years to get close to the Imperial Lord,” continued the viscount. “It will help you immensely if you can manage to make your new husband trust you. But even then, do not rush forward blindly. Remember your most important lesson.”
The words fell from her mouth without thought. “Patience.”
“Just so. Practice it with Dominic Raikes. I’m sure he will tax it.”
Cassandra smiled. Thomas did not return it this time. Instead he leaned forward, his gray eyes hard as steel. “Make sure of your opportunity before you seize it. If nothing else, remember that, my girl.”
“I will. I promise.”
The bell rang, signaling the end of prayer, and made both of them jump. Thomas smiled at her rather sheepishly, and Cassandra feared the smile she gave him in turn held too much sadness in it.
He walked her to the door, bowed low over her hand. “If you ever need me, leave a message for Father Thomas. I will come…if it’s safe.”
She understood. From this moment forward, she should depend only upon herself. She turned to leave, but he would not let go of her hand.
“Are you sure?” he murmured.
“Yes.” Oh, how confident she sounded! Was it false or true? She supposed the next few days would tell.
His grip loosened and she felt her entire body grow cold. Would she ever be truly warm again?
“Farewell, then, Lady Cassandra. You have been a most excellent student.”
She might never see him again, at least in this guise. She wondered what he would be like in the full role of Viscount Althorp. “Goodbye, Father Thomas.”
Cass slipped out the door almost as quietly as she’d entered. Some of her training had become pure habit. The hall flowed with the colorful skirts of the ladies of quality and she insinuated herself within the crowd of students with barely a notice. She knew she should go to her rooms, that her father had sent his servants along with her wedding gown so she would be prepared for tomorrow.
But the entire encounter with Thomas had shaken her belief in the path she had chosen to take. Her widowed father had no idea of her involvement with the Rebellion; he would have disowned her, since he stood to gain status and funds with her union to the champion.
She’d missed her mother over the years, but never as much as she did at this moment.
So when Cass passed by the chapel she slipped inside and closed the door behind her. She’d always had God to talk to. For a moment she enjoyed the silence, the chatter of the girls muffled behind the walls. Prayer time had ended and so she had the entire place to herself.
She passed the pews and went straight to the altar, sinking to her knees on the bare stone, as close to the cross as propriety would allow. She bowed her head, pressed her palms together, and continued her interrupted prayer, her words barely above a whisper.
“Almighty God, please let my new husband be happy with me tomorrow so I can murder his father.”
Cassandra sat within the carriage, trying not to rumple the silk of her wedding dress. The sunshine streamed through the windows and struck the silver edging decorating the cream fabric, and shot tiny sparks of light around her. Father had insisted on the silk, had chosen the pleated gown himself. He wanted his daughter to shine.
Cass wanted only to disappear.
She glanced across the coach at her father. The press of traffic to Westminster Abbey impeded their progress, and the Duke of Chandos grumbled again.
“Devilishly foolish of the lot. They’re all here to see the wedding and they can’t have one without the bride. We shall be late because of all the gawkers.”
He checked his gold watch for the hundredth time. Age had not diminished her father’s handsome looks. His silver white wig made his hazel eyes appear lighter and they made a striking contrast against his tan face. He loved to hunt, spent a great deal of time outdoors, which had kept up his youthful physique. He had not mourned Cassandra’s mother for long, although she supposed she couldn’t blame him, when women kept throwing themselves at his feet.
He’d inherited only a pretty face from his elven blood.
“Please, Father, don’t be concerned. They will wait for us.”
“Eh?” He glanced up, as if he’d forgotten her presence. “Yes, quite right.” The Duke of Chandos leaned over and patted her hand. “As you are my only child, your son will inherit the title. Of course they’ll wait.”
Cassandra gave him a weak smile and turned to stare out the window. Her new stays itched. And Father had insisted she wear the most outlandishly wide hoops; as a consequence, they kept popping up in her seated position. She gave a sigh of relief when she saw the Gothic arches of the Abbey. The carriage stopped in front of the ornately carved entry. The area had been roped off to hold back the crowd, and a line of uniformed officers standing in rigid military attention created an aisle for her to walk through.
Their uniformed escort leapt down from the back of the coach and opened the door, stepping aside to create another barrier against the watching crowd. Cass felt as if she were on display and confined all at the same time.
A sudden flare of cool white fire highlighted the officers and the entrance to the church, dancing upward past the tops of the spires in curling waves of crystal scintillation. Cass could feel the strength of the Imperial Lord’s magic like a shiver in the very air. Her hands began to sweat inside her silk gloves.
Father stared out the window and swallowed. “Don’t worry, my dear. We’ll do just fine.”
She couldn’t be sure if his words were to reassure her or himself.
Father exited the carriage first, adjusted the lace at the sleeves of his satin coat, and held out his hand to her. Her fingers trembled as she clasped it. The sweep of her gown preceded her from the carriage and when she raised her head a sudden beam of fire touched her satin pinner, radiating outward to join the already swirling beams. Her knees felt like pudding and for the first time in her life she thought she might swoon.
Cass muttered a prayer, took a deep breath, and walked forward to her doom.
But the moment she entered the grand abbey, the carved images of saints and apostles calmed her. Statues of angels stared lovingly down at her, the feathers in their wings, the very folds of their robes, appearing softly real from the skill of the artisan that had sculpted them. Father led her down the nave and she ignored the hundreds of staring eyes of the nobles sitting in the pews, keeping her gaze focused on the great cross over the high altar. The music of the choir soared above and beyond the Imperial Lord’s magical fire that had led them inside, and she let the melody carry her slippered feet down the very, very long aisle.
She didn’t trip on her gown. Father didn’t stumble in his new high-heeled shoes. Cassandra thought she might manage this public display without too much fuss after all, until they neared the altar. And she saw her intended. And his father.
General Dominic Raikes’s handsome features had always flustered her. But today she realized the elvenkind had brought the beauty of angels to earth for them…and Dominic looked so strikingly similar to his elven lord father. Her intended stood with military precision; indeed, he’d worn his uniform, although she doubted he wore this version in battle. The red wool had been replaced with red velvet, with gold trim about the sleeves and flared skirt of the coat. Dozens of gold buttons trimmed the wide cuffs of the coat and down the opening, although only one clasped it closed at the waist. His cravat and sleeves dripped with black lace and that color matched his shiny boots and the velvet cloak slung over his shoulders.
Not the normal dress for a marriage, but it suited him well.
He wore no wig, of course, since after all, the reason the gentry wore them was to copy the elvens’ silver blond hair, and the general had inherited the original. As she drew closer to him, she noticed he wore his battle braids in his hair, but they’d been drawn back and fastened behind his head, revealing his pointed ears and the high cheekbones in his face.
Cass had her attention riveted on him, but he didn’t return the favor. Indeed, his gaze roamed the vaulted ceiling and he looked…bored.
She glanced over at Imperial Lord Mor’ded. He’d dressed in the same manner as his son, although Cassandra imagined he’d never fought on a real battlefield in his life. His face looked slightly paler than his son’s, his shoulders narrower, his legs less muscular. And his black eyes…
Cass’s face swiveled between the two of them. Large elven eyes, as shiny and black as coal, they almost looked like they had facets in them. Both their eyes would be beautiful—glittering like exotic jewels—if they hadn’t looked so very cold. So very cruel.
Instead of the angels to whom she’d compared them, she should have been thinking devils.
Cass turned her attention toward the archbishop and kept it there as her father brought her to stand next to General Raikes. He didn’t so much as blink to acknowledge her presence. Her head just topped his shoulders and she fancied she could feel the heat of his body.
She refused to allow her intended to intimidate her by his mere presence.
The entire wedding party waited in a frozen tableau while the choir finished its song. Yet beneath Cass’s dress her toes continued to tap in time to the music. She felt the dance swell inside of her, seeking direction. A brief thought came to her and made her stomach flip. Could she kill Mor’ded now and put an end to this farce? She’d resigned herself to the knowledge that she wouldn’t survive the assassination. Surely the Imperial Lord’s son would kill her if she moved now. What better way to send the sovereignty into chaos and advance the tide of the Rebellion?
Her heels lifted. Her knees swayed.
General Dominic Raikes leaned down and whispered in her ear. “Do you have an itch?”
The archbishop frowned at them. Imperial Lord Mor’ded fastened those cold eyes on her.
Cass froze. Had she detected a note of mockery in the general’s deep voice? She stole a glance at him. His emotionless eyes stayed fixed on the archbishop as well, but the corner of his mouth twitched. She vowed she’d seen it twitch.
She felt a flush creep from belly to nose and knew her face had turned a deep red. And knew her opportunity to act had passed. The choir ended with a crescendo of glorious song, and without further ado the archbishop began the ceremony.
Perhaps it was just as well. Thomas had cautioned her for patience and she’d almost rushed forward. And as she stood through the painfully long ceremony and went through the motions required of her, she chided herself.
Imperial Lord Mor’ded’s body nearly vibrated with tension, his eyes watching the assembled guests without appearing to. His white fire magic still swirled among the guests and she suddenly wondered if it had all been for show. Could he search for hidden dangers with it? Could he sense an attack, whether magical or physical, with his power?
Cass couldn’t be sure. The information that the Rebellion had on the elven lords was sketchy. Thomas had done the best he could, but she suddenly realized she’d been ill-prepared for her task. She could feel the power of Mor’ded’s magic, and the tiny bit she possessed seemed negligible by comparison. Perhaps the wiser course would be to discover all she could about the elven lords and their magic before she acted at all.
Cass now stood facing her…new husband. She supposed she’d have to get used to that idea. Although she didn’t think she could ever get used to the coldness of his beautiful eyes. She’d hoped she could use the general to gather information about the elven, but right now he did not look like a man who could be used. Indeed, when his eyes met hers for a moment, a shiver of dread went through her.
The few times she’d visited him, he had treated her with a disinterest bordering on contempt. She’d foolishly thought that when she became his wife that might change, but it appeared the ceremony affected him not at all. Faith, how would she manage to share his bed tonight? Best not to think of that.
She blanched as her new husband slid a ring on her finger. A band of gold with a rose carved atop it. But the rose looked so real, the edges of the petals as delicate as the true flower. Cass couldn’t resist the impulse to bring it closer to her face, then nearly jumped when the petals curled closed, changing the carving to a tight bud.
He’d given her a ring crafted with elven magic.
Her eyes flew up to his in alarm.
General Raikes lowered his head. “It won’t harm you,” he muttered, a note of exasperation in his velvety voice. And then he lowered his head and kissed her, signaling an end to the ceremony.
Cass’s heart flipped over. She stood quite frozen, unsure of what had come over her. The general had done nothing more than press his lips to hers. And her entire body had shivered. From that one dispassionate touch.
As the onlookers broke into polite applause, Mor’ded leaned close to his son and said, “Surely the champion can do better than that.”
She watched her husband glance at his father. Saw his face harden with challenge. Then the general wrapped his arms around her and roughly pulled her against his chest and Cass could only pray.
Her new husband kissed her again. But this time, he kissed her like Thomas had, bending her backward in his arms, moving his mouth over hers as if he sought to eat her alive. But the experience was totally unlike the one she’d shared with Thomas.
The world seemed to fall away. Cass became aware of nothing and no one but the man holding her in his arms. The heat of his mouth, the fire that ran through her body, the sheer exhilaration of the taste of him. Her senses heightened. She felt her breasts tighten and strain toward him. Felt a wetness between her legs that frightened and excited her all at the same time. His tongue pressed against her lips and lacking any experience of what to do, she opened her mouth and he invaded it, stroking and tasting until she just forgot to breathe.
Her new husband abruptly let her go and set her away from him. Cass swayed. The applause in the room had risen in volume and she blushed again to realize she’d behaved in such a manner in front of an archbishop, half the country, and in the house of the Lord, no less. She couldn’t account for what had come over her.
General Raikes gave his father a heated look. “Will that do?”
When Dominic took her hand and led her back down the nave, Cass could do nothing but weakly follow. But she noticed the rose in her ring had come unfurled, spreading out into a glorious open blossom.
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The Fire Lord's Lover
Book One of THE ELVEN LORDS