The astral storm forced him from the lei lines onto solid ground in the middle of nowhere. He thought he was in the mountains, but exhaustion had blurred his vision too much to tell. He stumbled a few steps eastward, and then he fell to his knees.
He was sure that nothing could bring him to his feet again, but when a woman cried out, frightened, he reacted by instinct, reaching out for enough power to shield himself as he brought his trembling body to its feet. It was then that he realized how close he'd come to draining the sword that acted as a reservoir for the extra magic his body couldn't contain.
That didn't stop him from continuing to search the area for whatever threat had frightened a witch into screaming.
The psychic scent of Moon's blood filled his nose and his nostrils flared. Suddenly, it didn't matter that he was exhausted and outlawed, or that his weapon was close to the shattering point. He could only sense one other presence in the area, and the knowledge that there was a vulnerable witch nearby--alone--scraped his already-fragile temper.
Baring his teeth, he pivoted slowly in the center of the clearing, searching for the source of the noise--and the scent.
She stood by a mountain stream, fingers clenched around a canteen. Blue eyes met golden-brown and her eyes flashed as she demanded, "Who are you?
He didn't want to lie to her. The knowledge surprised him, but he didn't question it. Still, he couldn't tell her the truth. The chance that word had reached her of his crimes was too great, and the witch storm over the mountains meant he couldn't run any farther. Though he knew she wasn't a threat--even if she could have channeled power through her weakened body, he doubted she would have been a threat to the darkness of his Sapphire jewel--he had no idea who she could call upon for help.
Then again, the fact that she was alone on a mountaintop during her moontime tended to imply that she had no one to send after him. So he ignored her question and asked one of his own, "Why are you alone?"
Her eyes filled with feral bitterness. "This is my territory."
Mother Night. She was a Queen. The knowledge tripped his rage and as he glided toward her, he felt himself sliding up to the killing edge.
She didn't flinch, didn't back away. Since all she would have accomplished would be to get her feet wet and to scrape his predator's temperament with her fear, he approved.
"But why are you alone?" he crooned.
"There isn't anyone whose company I want."
"Where is your Court?" They shouldn't have let her mood interfere with her safety. When he got his hands on them, they would learn--
"I don't have one."
The information shattered his cold, sweet rage, sending him off balance. "What?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
He told her the truth. "Burke Khatovan."
She tilted her head, sending curly brown hair over one shoulder and revealing her neck. "What is your caste?"
His lips curved into a twisted smile. "I don't know," he said, and without fury to fuel him, he fell to his knees.
She flushed and her eyes filled with concern. "Oh," she said, then sighed. "You need to eat."
His gaze turned to the east, though his vision was still blurred. "No time," he said, gasping at the effort it took to force out the words.
"Don't worry," she said. "I won't let anyone hurt you."
That was what he was afraid of; he believed her. She might harm herself defending him against his pursuers. Then, she might hurt herself trying to carry him.
He couldn't remember why that might matter, but he forced himself back to his feet.
# # #
He woke to the smell of food. Sitting up, he saw the Queen watching him. "You never told me your name," he said after a moment.
He looked around the simple cabin he was lying in and tried to remember getting there. He couldn't. "Where am I?"
"My cabin on Ebon Askavi. You should eat."
His stomach growled in counterpoint to her words. "Thank you," he said as she brought him a wooden bowl.
She watched him eat for a few moments, then asked, "What is so important in the east that you braved a witch storm over the Black Mountain, drained your jewels and exhausted your body trying to get there?"
He froze. The spoon tumbled out of his hand, but with effort, he met her golden-brown eyes and said, "They say that the Keep is a sanctuary."
"Why do you require the sanctuary of the Keep?"
"The men following me intend my execution," he said, fearing her reaction.
She quirked a brow. "Why?"
He bared his teeth at her. "I'm too dangerous," he said, remembering the young Prince he had killed. The other males had thought his reaction was extreme, especially considering the Prince's rank, but even now, the memory of the sick fear and anger in the eyes of the Blood female he had insulted threatened to snap the leash on Burke's temper.
Daelia frowned, puzzled. "The Blood are supposed to be dangerous." Then, she shrugged. "Well, they won't find you here. Finish your soup. In the morning, I'll take you to the Keep."
Something inside of him immediately rebelled at her travelling that far in her condition. "You don't have to--"
She skewered him with a glare and as she leaned forward, he saw a Green Jewel in a triangular setting. If she could wear her Jewels, then she was past the vulnerable part of her moontime. "I have business of my own to attend to at the Keep."
In that case… "I would be honored to escort you, then," he said, and picked up the spoon.
# # #
The mountain was beautiful. The land called to him, singing to his blood the way the fields and orchards of his homeland never had. The legends surrounding his people swore that they had been created to be caretakers of the realms, that the power they had been granted to allow them to rule the territories in the dragons' stead had been given because it was impossible to protect without the authority to govern. Watching Daelia caress leaves of bushes she passed and smile in greeting at a young fox drinking from a pond, Burke wondered if there might not be more to it than that.
They walked several miles in companionable silence, following a trail that Burke knew existed but couldn't see. Then, they walked to the top of a steep incline, and in the distance, he saw the Keep. It was the most intimidating structure he had ever seen. Much of the building was built into the mountain, he could sense that much, but the dark power emanating from it was strong enough to stagger him--and Burke's Sapphire was one of the darkest a male had ever worn.
Daelia glanced back at him, at his pale face and wide eyes, and frowned. "You're still not well," she said. Irritation rose in her voice. "We should have waited until tomorrow."
His eyes stayed focused on the Keep as he shook his head. "I'm fine."
"No you aren't," she snapped. "You look like you're about to collapse."
"It just took me by surprise, that's all," he said, trying to regain his composure.
"What did?" she asked, frowning and still suspicious.
The incredulity was strong enough to tear his gaze from the Keep. "You're kidding, right?"
The frown deepened before understanding flashed across her features. "I suppose it could be a bit startling at first," she said, considering the dark sanctuary with her head tilted.
"A bit," he agreed, then took a deep breath and started walking again.
# # #
"Welcome to the Keep, Prince," said the woman who had introduced herself as Draca, the Keep's Seneschal. Dark power surrounded her, creating a fog about her that masked much of her psychic scent. There was a reptilian cast to her features that unnerved him, but Daelia's familiarity with the other woman--he couldn't even tell if she was a witch--had eased some of his nerves.
Then she had left, citing a need to visit the library.
"Thank you, Lady." He offered her the bow a Blood male gave to a woman of unknown but higher rank, wondering at the title she had used for him.
"What bringssss you to the Keep?"
"I have heard that the Keep sometimes offers protection to travelers."
"Who do you need protection from?"
He hesitated, but lying to the Seneschal would be unconscionably rude considering that he was asking for her help. "The Queen ordered my execution. The squad she sent after me won't stop until they catch me. I caught a faster wind than they could ride, but I could sense them behind me still when I hit the witch storm."
Her eyes unfocused, blurring as she looked east. After a moment she glanced at the Sapphire at his throat and frowned. "You don't need ssssanctuary to keep yourself ssssafe from those malessss, Prince."
That title again. "It's not me I'm trying to keep safe," he told her.
"The young Queen?"
Emotions swamped him, sweeping under his defenses too fast for him to identify. "They're good men," he said. "They don't deserve to die for serving their Queen honorably."
She considered him with those hard, lizard eyes. "Why do they think you desessrve to die?"
Ghosts and shadows swam in his eyes as he said, "I lost my temper."
Sad, gentle amusement danced in hers. "I imagine you did, Prince."
She was laughing at him. "I am not a Prince," he snapped, forgetting the commitment he'd made to checking his temper and minding his manners.
The air around him cooled. "Prince is the Protocol title of a Warlord Prince."
Why would Prince be the proper title of a Warlord? Lord was a Warlord's proper title. Was the woman daft? She couldn't be. She was the Seneschal. He had to have misunderstood something. "What?"
She reached out to pat his cheek. "Let'ssss join Daelia in the library. I have ssssomething you need to sssee."
Draca led him from the foyer, and he followed, feeling off-balance and a little frightened by the shadowy things that ran along the walls as they travelled the dark, winding hallways that led through the Keep--which, he discovered as they walked, and walked, and walked, was even bigger than he had suspected. They climbed down a spiraling staircase of wrought iron, the darkness below masking the bottom steps. He stifled an impish urge to ask, Are we there yet?
Then they were.
The ravenwood doors they faced were three times Burke's height and decorated with depictions of creatures that Burke had heard of only in tales--and some, like the small spider inlaid with gold, and the horned horse, that he had never heard of at all. The Seneschal opened them and preceded him inside.
Daelia was there, talking to an older Warlord with a distinctive widow's peak. Rage and jealousy filled him. His blue eyes flashed with anger, at the Sapphire at his throat flared with dark power. In a deadly, midnight voice he met the Warlord's eyes and snarled, "Mine."
The Warlord froze, then slowly stepped to the side. He didn't back up--didn't show fear, didn't run away--but the movement acknowledged Burke's claim, and something wild inside of him relaxed. Daelia whirled on him to say something cutting, but her eyes widened at Burke's glazed expression. Burke closed the distance between himself and the Queen and put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Draca shook her head fractionally, and Daelia said nothing as Burke calmed himself. The sleepy, dangerous haze left his eyes and he looked toward the Warlord. "My apologies, Lord," he said, almost cringing.
Only then did surprise cross the Warlord's face. Then, compassion. "I had not known you claimed the Queen," he said. "I apologize, Prince."
"Claimed the Queen?" Daelia asked the Warlord, struggling to cover the biting outrage with humor.
"Yesss," Draca said in her sibilant voice. She smiled. "He issss a Warlord Prince. It is his right and privilege to sssserve you unless you chose to dismiss him."
"I don't understand," Daelia said.
"Neither do I," said Burke from behind her.
The Seneschal called in a thick black book. The word "Protocol" was embroidered on its front. "This will help."