“All the kings, queens, and nobles, gathered in one place. I always expect these things to end in civil war.”
“Would you object?” Hunter sounded amused. His dark gaze followed the servants as they scurried across the throne room, setting up tables on either side of the procession-way and throwing open the curtains over the floor-to-ceiling frosted glass windows. “I have no intention of instigating a war between the lands under my power. And no one else would have the balls.”
“You assume.” Seth took his customary position at the right of the throne upon which the King of Kings sat in all his night-black and steel-grey glory. The black stone in the center of Hunter’s crown glimmered with light that seemed not to reflect off its surface but to glow from within it, captured inside its depths. “Must you invite the nobles? Do their complaints and opinions really matter?”
“Of course not, but you know what they are. Symbolic. These councils are always dick-measuring contests. As the Emperor, I cannot very well keep my laces tied the entire time.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “I thought that was why you forced me to endure these pointless things.”
“It is. So be sure to look intimidating.”
He was teasing, but Seth could not quite help it; the servants had set up ornate candles in twos along the tables, and Seth flicked his wrist, lighting each candle at once. Servants jumped, startled, and cast wary glances toward the dais upon which the Emperor and the Crown Prince overlooked the hall. Seth flashed a smirk.
Hunter huffed out a quiet laugh.
Seth sat down on the arm of the throne, tucking a lock of dark brown hair behind his ear. He lowered his voice. “You do remember what happened last time AJ Styles and Randy Orton were in the same room together, don’t you?”
“Are you referring to when Randy tried to kill AJ via his pet viper, or when Randy ‘accidentally’ let it slip that you and AJ are sleeping together, which now the entire Empire knows?” Hunter reached up to fiddle with the golden clasp of Seth’s cloak. Seth made a face and waved him off, fixing the clasp himself.
“I don’t care what everyone knows. AJ and I have not exactly been trying to keep it a secret. He brought me six fully grown sakura trees as a gift the last time he visited. Subtlety is not one of his talents.”
“I hear he has many others,” Hunter said, deadpan, earning him a withering look from Seth.
“Randy’s big mouth isn’t what I’m worried about,” Seth said, sobering. He regarded Hunter closely. “He does it for fun, you know. He knows he’ll never be able to kill AJ. He just…”
“Are you worried for Styles’ safety?” Hunter inquired mildly, tilting his head a little at Seth. “Or for Randy’s?”
Seth bristled. “They could both drop dead,” he said, icily. “I don’t care. Don’t insult me with unfounded accusations.” Hunter chuckled. “But the two of them being at each other’s throats impedes the council, and it always makes these things much longer than they should be. And I want this nonsense over with as quickly as possible.”
“Knowing the tensions between my kingdoms and the reasons for them is part of why I have these councils,” Hunter pointed out. “Leave them to it, and rest assured I would not allow either of them to murder the other right under my nose. Besides, I think you rather enjoy watching them squabble over you.”
Seth scoffed, but this accusation he did not bother to refute.
AJ Styles, the King of the Blue Kingdom, strolled in with an air of perfect ease, like a man who feels completely at home. Of average height, he was broad-shouldered and handsome in a rugged sort of way, his skin tanned and roughened by long hours spent outdoors. His eyes, the clear blue of calm summer skies, found Seth at once. He broke into a crooked grin, and seemed to ignite like one of the candles Seth had lit with his magic earlier, glowing with affection and joy. Seth didn’t smile back, but it took great effort. AJ didn’t seem offended.
“King Styles,” Hunter greeted, rising.
“Your Majesty.” AJ bowed at the waist. His gaze found Seth again. “My prince.” His tone held the same heavy air of solemn humility as when he had addressed Hunter, but those blue, blue eyes twinkled.
Seth inclined his head, suppressing an eye-roll. “Styles.” Most people addressed him the same as they did the Emperor, but AJ always called him that, “my prince.” My. As if he could lay claim.
“The Queen is not far behind you, I assume,” Hunter said, and sure enough, the words were barely out of his mouth before the candles blazed with sudden brilliance, slender pillars of fire roaring from the wicks, licking at the ceiling before diminishing again to tiny flames, the sticks of wax of each candle reduced to stubs.
“As a matter of fact,” AJ agreed, seeming amused.
Becky Lynch, Queen of the Blue Kingdom, arrived in a blaze of light. She wore a black gown, decorated with patterns of red-orange flame—real flame, flickering and dancing across her slender body. Fire trailed behind her in the form of a cape, and crowned her head in an incandescent circlet. Her eyes burned, too, glowing with the light of her magic. Sparks capered around the long cascade of her orange hair. A sorcerer of fire, Becky never seemed to turn down an opportunity to display her power.
She glanced around, and a frown tugged at her lips. “Where is everyone?” She looked at AJ. “Wait, are we early?”
“We’re the first to arrive,” AJ informed her. “As usual, you impress only yourself.”
Becky let out a disappointed huff and the flames shrouding her were quite suddenly snuffed out, leaving her clothed in simple black and orange fabric. “Of course you make us early,” she snapped at AJ. “Who the hell are you trying to impress?”
“I, for one, find you quite impressive, Queen Lynch,” Hunter said warmly. “Welcome.”
Becky broke into a grin. “Your Majesty.” She snapped down into a dramatic bow. As she did she burst into flames again.
Seth rolled his eyes. He had never understood why Hunter liked Becky or her ridiculous antics, but he seemed to find her very entertaining, hence why he had allowed her to take the crown of the Blue Kingdom, which she had snatched—quite literally—from Charlotte’s head after nearly killing the other woman in a fit of righteous, jealous rage.
“Oh, Becky, Becky. All flash, no substance. You never change.”
Speaking of Charlotte.
The former Queen, now a noble, wore an elegant dress of sapphire that rippled around her like water. Diamonds encrusted her cape, reflecting shards of blinding light as she moved. Her long, pale blonde hair had been gathered in a loose bun, tresses falling artfully into her face. Taller than both Becky and AJ, she hardly deigned to glance at either of them as she passed them to stand before the throne. Becky scowled after her, eyes flashing red-orange. AJ pursed his lips, looking like he was trying very hard not to laugh.
“Charlotte,” Hunter said.
She gracefully lowered to one knee, inclining her head. Her dress shimmered. She was a sorcerer of water, and clearly she was showing off, too, although she was slightly subtler than Becky about it. “Your Majesty.” She stood up before dipping her head again in Seth’s direction. “Your Majesty.” Her respectful tone never wavered, but there was just the slightest contemptuous twist to her mouth.
Still pointedly ignoring Becky and AJ, Charlotte went to take a seat at the table to the left on the procession-way. Becky made as if to follow her, looking like she had something very scathing to say, but AJ put a placating hand on her arm and she subsided, albeit reluctantly. Seth heard Hunter release a quiet snort of laughter and again rolled his eyes.
On either side of the dais where the throne stood, three large chairs had been set up. On the left side two chairs were draped in red and one in gold; on the right there were two chairs in blue and one in gold. AJ took the blue chair closest to Seth (of course). He flashed Seth another crooked grin as he sat down. Seth, a la Charlotte, pointedly ignored him. Normally the King and Queen of the Blue Kingdom sat on the Emperor’s left, but Hunter had mixed things up today. He had claimed it was just because he wanted a change, had to try and prevent things from getting too boring, you know, but Seth knew he had done it so AJ would be sitting in full view of Seth.
Becky started to follow the King, but she paused, looking up at Seth. She seemed to hesitate for the slightest instant, and then, bizarrely, she curtsied. “Prince,” she said, and her dress glowed briefly with subdued firelight. It was quite flattering to her. Faint color had bloomed in her cheeks, but it was hard to tell if that was the glow of her magic or not.
Seth, bemused, nodded to her. “Queen Lynch.”
Her gaze lingered on him a second longer, and then she hurried over to sit next to AJ. The Blue King looked like the effort to hold back his laughter was physically paining him now.
Hunter raised an eyebrow at Seth, wordlessly inquiring what that had been all about. Seth shrugged, indicating he hadn’t the foggiest.
Perhaps ten minutes later Samoa Joe and Mustafa Ali arrived. Samoa Joe was dressed in yellow and black, looking a bit like the world’s largest, most intimidating bumblebee. Mustafa was lucent, his skin emitting a soft opalescent light, brightest in a small circle that shone through his clothes where his heart would be. His eyes were dark as onyx against it. He looked ethereal, almost translucent, as if he was made of light, barely contained in an effigy of a human form. Mustafa’s magic was very similar to AJ’s, allowing him to harness and absorb the pure energies of the living things around him and turn them into light and power.
Both nobles of the Blue Kingdom, Joe and Mustafa arrived together, which Seth found…interesting. There were all sorts of salacious rumors surrounding the two, but Seth very much doubted their veracity. Joe was a wicked, heartless man, who delighted in torture and blood. Mustafa was quite the opposite, kind and generous. Having only received his title a year ago, Seth had heard Mustafa Ali spent more time out helping peasant women wash clothes than he did in his new palace. The idea a young man like that would be sleeping with a man like Joe, who had been sitting grinning on a pile of dead soldiers the first time Seth had seen him, was ridiculous. But, after they performed the requisite obeisance, they did sit next to each other (a good distance away from Charlotte).
Carmella was the next to stroll into the throne room, wearing a silver dress and practically dripping in diamonds, her long brown hair bundled up in a jewel-encrusted net. Naomi followed close behind her, wearing vivid green. The two women took their seats at the table near Mustafa, and the three of them started whispering and giggling together. Joe had a look on his face like he had dreaded this happening.
Sasha and Bayley, nobles of the Red Kingdom, arrived as they always did, hand in hand and with dazzling smiles. A sorcerer of earth, Sasha showed off a little of her power by causing the floor to rumble gently as entered the room, almost knocking over a few candles; Bayley, a sorcerer of air, announced her presence with a gust of wind that ruffled the cloaks and dresses of those present and caused the candles to flicker. Becky sniffed, quite loudly and obviously.
A hush fell as the Queen of the Red Kingdom walked in. Alexa Bliss, dressed in a slim black gown adorned with rubies, was diminutive in stature, but her presence seemed to engulf the room, arrogance and contempt and power. She bowed to the Emperor and the Crown Prince and took her seat on one of the red chairs to the left of the dais, all eyes on her, none of them friendly.
Seth, who at this point was already bored, perked up a bit when Baron Corbin entered with a massive black wolf at his heels. It took a tremendous amount of effort for Seth to remain at his place and not immediately run down to pet the wolf as Baron kneeled before Hunter, and as Baron went to take a seat, Seth looked longingly after the animal, who laid down behind Baron’s chair, his brown eyes alert and watchful.
The royalty and nobility of the Gold Kingdom all arrived almost simultaneously—probably by accident rather than design. Like Bayley, Ricochet was a sorcerer of wind, but he was more of a showman. He came soaring into the throne room on a jet-stream of moving air that sent capes and dresses billowing. He leaped, flipped in mid-air once, twice, thrice, and landed gracefully on his feet, arms outstretched. Applause and cheers erupted. Even Hunter was clapping, grinning like a proud father. Samoa Joe and Baron Corbin looked distinctly unimpressed. Seth just rolled his eyes.
Adam Cole stormed in not far behind, looking ruffled and none too pleased, his hair all disheveled and windswept, glaring holes in Ricochet’s back. Velveteen Dream, on the other hand, took full advantage of Ricochet’s wind, entering with a dramatic flourish, his cape flowing elegantly behind him.
Ricochet tipped Adam a cheeky wink as he turned to take a seat near Sasha and Bayley. Adam looked incensed.
The Gold King, Tommaso Ciampa, and the Gold Queen, Io Shirai, walked in together, both of them resplendent in black and gold, gilded crowns glittering as bright as the grandest dreams of fortune. Kairi Sane and Johnny Gargano, nobles of the Kingdom, were not far behind. Kairi had her arm hooked through Johnny’s, and she was beaming, looking around with shining fascination. She had only just become a noble, appointed by Hunter when he had crowned Io—Kairi’s closest friend—queen, and this was the first time either of them were attending a council. Why that would seem an exciting prospect to anyone Seth could not fathom, but Kairi was practically bouncing with nervous excitement. Io, by contrast, looked as calm and cool as ever, as did Tommaso. Johnny’s expression suggested he felt much the same way Seth did—that he’d rather be anywhere else right now.
They settled in, Tommaso sitting in the gold chair beside Alexa, Io taking the chair by Becky. There was quiet, then, for a time. Even Mustafa, Carmella, and Naomi had stopped whispering to each other. An air of tension had fallen over the room suddenly, a pall of uneasy anticipation. There were only two missing now.
“My, my, am I the last to arrive? How unssssseemly.” The sibilance drew out in a serpentine hiss. Seth’s shoulders tensed. He tried to ignore the way his skin crawled as Randy Orton slithered into the room, dressed in black, form-fitting tunic and breeches and observing the gathering with malevolent blue eyes. Coiled around his shoulder was Vi, the black and green eastern pit viper that served as his familiar. She lifted her flat triangular head, forked tongue flickering, tasting the tension in the air.
“Not quite the last,” AJ said. His tone was cool, his eyes cerulean chips of ice.
“Ah, yes, I see. Lesnar still hasn’t deigned to grace us with his presence.” Randy approached the dais, swift and graceful, his steps making no sound on the thick carpet of the procession-way. He kneeled, bowing his head. “Your Majesty.” As usual, the very respect in his words seemed disrespectful, disingenuous, mocking. He lifted his gaze, and it took a great deal of willpower for Seth to meet his eyes, unwavering and disinterested. Randy smiled, and Seth wasn’t sure if the shiver that twisted down his spine was revulsion or arousal. “Your Majesty.”
“Lord Orton,” Hunter said, the slightest edge to his formality. Randy noticed, his lips quirking in a brief smirk. He stood up, his eyes still locked on Seth. He didn’t take a seat; instead he stood near the door, leaning against the wall, half in shadow. Ever the dramatic one, Randy Orton, but then, he was a witch. Seth tried to ignore his presence, to not be distracted by how Randy’s clothes clung to him like a second skin, outlining the sculpted muscle beneath, to not let those cold blue eyes capture him, draw him in. Infuriating, the way Randy affected him, tipping him just slightly off balance.
Half an hour after Randy’s arrival, Becky spoke up, sounding irritated. “Where in the hells is Lesnar?”
“Who knows,” AJ sighed. “He was three hours late last time, remember?”
Becky groaned, and a few of the nobles echoed her. Mustafa leaned over to whisper something to Joe, who snorted. Tommaso slumped back in his seat. “Might as well get comfortable, kids,” he said, closing his eyes. “We might be waiting around a while before the great Beast decides to show up.”
Hunter hummed, his expression somewhere between amusement and annoyance.
The doors burst open. Carmella screamed, and then everyone was on their feet, staring in shock as a man strolled down the procession-way and threw down Brock Lesnar’s head before the dais. Blood dripped from the Beast’s severed neck, a dark stain spreading in the carpet. His eyes were wide and glazed, his mouth gaping in a furious, agonized scream.
“Your Majesty,” the man said. He was very tall, only a few inches shy of seven feet, broad-shouldered and thickly muscled. He was dressed in a sleeveless black tunic, faded black breeches, and scuffed boots. A massive sword was strapped to his back. Pale blue-gray eyes glinted behind a tattered veil of long black hair.
“Who the hell are you?” Seth demanded, when he found he could speak again. Lesnar’s dead eyes stared up at him. His hand had risen immediately to grip the hilt of his broadsword, but of course he didn’t have his sword; none of them were permitted to bring weapons here. A silly rule, really, when they were all sorcerers who could kill just as easily without weapons, but it was a sign of mutual respect and trust, or so Hunter claimed. Instead, he clenched his fists, heat rising under his skin as he gathered his magic. A molten red-orange glow ringed his irises. As if in response, he felt the stirring of over a dozen different energies, all the others preparing to strike.
Pale eyes found Seth’s, and Seth actually stepped back, the breath driven out of him as if he had been struck by a physical blow. Those eyes seemed frigid, but they burned, dark, furious hunger and want.
Hunter looked down at the man, utterly calm. The man regarded the Emperor. He kicked the severed head at his feet, sent it flying into the dais. It struck and bounded off, tumbling back to the floor with a sickening, fleshy squishing sound. Someone—a woman, maybe Carmella again—gasped.
“The King of the Red Kingdom is dead,” the man declared, rather redundantly. “My name is Drew McIntyre. I have slain the Beast, and I bring you his head. Now I demand his crown. And I demand to have the Crown Prince Seth Rollins’ hand in marriage.”
Silence. The room sat in stunned disbelief, not even Baron’s wolf moving a muscle. The man—McIntyre—gazed steadily at the King of Kings, the Emperor of the World Empire, his hands stained crimson with the lifeblood of the former Red King. Seth gaped, frozen where he stood, his mind struggling to process what he had just heard.
AJ Styles stood up with a flourish, and suddenly a blinding white brilliance flooded the hall. Nobility and royalty ducked their heads and tried to shield their eyes, all except Mustafa Ali and Randy Orton. AJ’s eyes glowed, and the very air seemed suffused with that same light. It seemed to have weight, a barely perceptible pressure upon all of them. The hall had become noticeably warmer.
AJ strode forward, until he and McIntyre were face to face—well, almost face to face, as McIntyre stood head and shoulders taller than the Blue King. He did not seem taller in that moment, however; in that moment, AJ’s sheer force of presence dwarfed the other man. The cross around AJ’s neck—the symbol of an ancient religion from another land—shone like a captured star.
Cold fury laced AJ’s voice. “Who the hell do you think you are, boy?”
McIntyre looked down at him, squinting against the light but apparently unperturbed. And just like that, the power balance shifted, just slightly, and AJ Styles no longer seemed to tower over him. “I’m the man who did what you couldn’t, King Styles,” he said. “How many times did you try to slay the Beast? Twice? But you never could. The most powerful sorcerer in the world, they call you, but not powerful enough to kill the Beast…or to win the heart of the Prince.”
AJ punched him in the face. McIntyre went sprawling. He started to laugh as he got to his knees, wiping the blood from his mouth. “Weak,” he said, almost dismissively. He started to get to his feet, but then Becky Lynch was standing behind him, shrouded by flames, her eyes incandescent. She grabbed his hair and wrenched his head back, so he was looking up at her. She grinned down at him.
“Impressive,” she said, indicating the severed head of Brock Lesnar. “That guy was a real thorn in all our sides, we should thank you. But do you know how often kings die in this Empire, Drew? All the time. Wannabe usurpers? They die even more often.” Her other hand burst into flames and she held it in front of McIntyre’s face, just close enough so the heat seared his skin. He flinched back from it instinctively, but she held him in a death-grip. He laughed again, harsh and mocking.
“Kings and queens,” he pointed out. “But none by your hand. Charlotte Flair is sitting right over there, and Ronda Rousey would be, too, if she hadn’t decided to flee. The talk has started about how powerful you are growing to be, but it’s all an illusion, isn’t it? Shadows and half-truths. You weren’t powerful enough to take that crown on your own.” He lowered his voice. “And you’ve never even been able to get the Prince to notice you.”
Becky scowled. The flames engulfed her whole arm and she raised it, ready to strike, but then a deep, commanding voice reverberated through the hall.
Becky and AJ both jerked back as if pulled by invisible strings, and their magics fizzled out as Becky lost her focus and AJ broke his spell. Hunter was on his feet, huge and imposing, his eyes hard and dark as stones.
“Drew McIntyre. Stand up.”
McIntyre stood. His smirk was gone.
“I must admit,” Hunter said, “this is a first. Someone barging into my throne room unannounced, carrying the head of one of my kings and demanding my heir’s hand in marriage. I’m almost impressed.”
Seth had just been standing there, staring dumbfounded, but now rage broke through in a boiling torrent and the candles, all down to the last of their wax, suddenly blazed into towering infernos that sent all the nobles scrambling back from the tables. Seth’s eyes burned red-orange. The hall had become stifling hot. He stormed down from the dais. A trail of flames followed his steps, engulfing the carpet that marked the procession-way. Unlike AJ, he did not hesitate; he hauled back and punched McIntyre square in the face, breaking his nose with a dull, meaty crunch. McIntyre’s head snapped back and he staggered, once more falling to his knees. Blood streamed down his face. For the first time, he looked rattled, his eyes wide.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Seth growled. Flames roared around him, never quite touching him. A flickering glow danced across his skin, as if reflecting the light of the fire. “You demand my hand? Because you killed Brock Lesnar? I am not a prize handed out to whatever fool thinks he is the strongest in the land. Peasant. You aren’t worthy of a crown, and you are certainly not worthy of me.”
He turned on his heel, and with a swish of his cape the flames were extinguished, smoke and ashes left behind. He ascended the dais and stepped up beside Hunter, standing just slightly in front of the Emperor. The room was still, all eyes on the Crown Prince.
Adam Cole and Ricochet looked awestruck.
Charlotte looked mortified—her dress had been singed—and ever so slightly shaken.
Carmella looked terrified, a hand over her heart.
Baron looked terrified, too, though he was trying (badly) to hide it. He had one hand on the head of his wolf. The animal looked ready to pounce, hair standing up, lips pulled back from razor-sharp fangs in a warning snarl.
Alexa was scowling, holding her cape up over her mouth to protect against the smoke.
Velveteen Dream scoffed, muttering something about “barbarians.”
Kairi Sane and Io Shirai both had their hands over their mouths, looking somewhere between scared and mesmerized.
Tommaso looked slightly disappointed, as if he had hoped things would escalate into more violence.
Samoa Joe seemed to share his sentiments, a contemptuous little sneer curling his upper lip.
Johnny looked bored.
Mustafa and Naomi both looked anxious.
Bayley and Sasha began to clap. Soon Adam and Ricochet joined them.
Randy, lingering half in shadow, was grinning from ear to ear.
“That was so badass,” Becky whispered.
AJ didn’t seem to hear her; he looked like he’d fallen in love all over again.
A slow smile spread across McIntyre’s bloodied face. He was breathing heavy, his eyes locked on Seth with cold burning intent.
Hunter, meanwhile, looked intrigued.
“Now, now, Seth,” he chided mildly. “I think you do our friend here a disservice, dismissing him out of hand like that.”
Seth whirled to stare at him, brow furrowed. “What?”
The King of Kings descended from the dais, sparing Lesnar’s head a curious glance. McIntyre watched, looking almost wary now, as Hunter approached him. He did not get up off his knees.
“Drew McIntyre,” Hunter said. “I remember you. You were a soldier in my army, powerful and ambitious, but reckless. You disappeared. Some of your fellows said you were killed, some said you ran off. I heard rumors of a man with your power in the Impact Kingdom. I should have known it was only a matter of time before you returned.”
Seth frowned. A soldier? The Impact Kingdom? What was Hunter talking about?
McIntyre stood. He was several inches taller than Hunter, and he did not cower before the King of Kings as most did, but the subtle mark of fear in his expression diminished him.
Hunter turned around and walked back up the dais. He put a hand on Seth’s shoulder. Seth tensed, wondering what, exactly, Hunter was about to do. There was a twinkle of mischief in Hunter’s eye, and that was never a good thing, for anybody.
“Drew McIntyre and AJ Styles. You both want the hand of the Crown Prince Seth Rollins.”
“So fight for it.”
AJ and Becky exchanged bemused glances. McIntyre’s eyes narrowed. Seth blinked.
“Um,” he said. “What?”
Hunter winked at him, and oh, this was definitely not good.
“I invite all of you to remain here at the castle for the next seven days. That is when I will coronate you King of the Red Kingdom, Drew McIntyre. I feel you have…more than earned it. On that day, Seth will decide whether or not he wants to marry one of you—” he pointed at AJ and McIntyre, “—or whether he rejects both of you. It is, ultimately, his decision, although bear in mind I must be willing to allow it. So that’s how long you have, boys, to win over the Prince, and me. One week. Use it wisely. If, of course, you both survive that long.” He clapped his hands together once. “Council dismissed.”
Silence. No one moved for a very long moment.
Drew looked at Seth. AJ looked at Hunter, stunned.
Seth stared at Hunter, too, mouth hanging open.
Randy Orton’s low laugh echoed across the room. “This is going to be fun.”