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A Ballad of the Moon and the Sun

Chapter Text

Cover art by Jay Mooers

The region of Kent, England has been inhabited for centuries. A quarry in Swanscombe was once mined in the Paleolithic era by ancient humans, their weapons made of stone. The Megway megaliths still stand today, monuments proving that even the most primitive can leave their impressive mark. The Regnenses, a powerful Celtic tribe, ruled the region farming the land and raising their livestock until the Romans invaded bringing with them new technologies advancing civilization there to a new degree. The Jutes, the Vikings, the Normans all came for the lush and fertile land. A squash of people, mixing, building, thriving, forming cities and ports, harbors and naval military stations. All necessary for residents of Kent to trade their hops, apples, plums, apricots, pears and whatever domesticated livestock they produced. The Garden of England made sure their assets were well protected and any natural predators destroyed.

All this was irrelevant though to a flock of sheep grazing in a meadow adjacent a cliff on the southern seaside. Two collies watched their charges with eager eyes waiting for their master to finish eating his quaint lunch of thick, chewy bread and ripened, hard cheese. He sat just over a small ridge under a large, loan oak tree in which a single thrush watched for dropped crumbs.

Bred for their fleece and guarded fiercely by their watchers, the sheep grazed in peace on the fresh, green, summer clover. There was a sweetness in the breeze stemming from the water just over the cliff side, and the sun shone brightly bathing the earth in yellow and orange, the rays unhindered by clouds. The ovines had absolutely nothing to fear, especially a particularly plump ewe, gorged on grass lying fat and happy at the center of the herd.

A rash wind swelled up over the cliff giving a flock of egrets reason to startle. They alighted as two, splitting rapidly down the center escaping to either side in a panic.

The fat ewe didn't even blink an eye in all the avian ruckus. Why would she? Her hounds where calm, panting merrily and ever vigilant on the peripherie. Her herd was around her keeping watch on the perimeter. She didn't even feel the large talons sink into her body and pierce her heart when she took her last breath.

The shepard finished his meal and returned to a chorus of bleating, his flock scattered, his hounds cowered and whimpering in a spot of heather next to the stone wall meant to separate grazing fields. He counted the herd thrice over to be sure - a task that proved a study in frustration as the sheep were panicked and flighty. There were sixty-seven when he had moved them this morning from the lower pasture and now only sixty-six remained. He found no blood nor body parts despite having scoured the entire field. Even feral dogs weren't that clean.

By dusk he'd managed the skittish sheep back into some semblance of a flock - no thanks to his dogs, still too afraid to return to the field - when he saw the most peculiar thing. Upon a flat stone next to the wrappings from his meager lunch lie a chunk of gold. It wasn't ore but pure metal, though in the oddest of shapes as if it'd sprang directly from the smelter. It was warm to the touch, sending a suspicious shiver down the shepard's spine. He wasn't a superstitious man - god-fearing and church-going, but he couldn't help remembering stories his grandmother told him of faeries and sprites and magical creatures. In some of them they offered you treasures but demanded something greater in return. A thumb. Your first born child. A part of your soul. The shepard placed the gold back on the stone.

He looked up to the sky seeing not a cloud in sight. The fae folk preferred the mists and the moors and the sprites felt safest in the deepest of forests - at least in the stories. What creature would be daring enough to prowl the English seaside in the broadest of daylight?

A strange feeling came over the shepard as if a powerful, dangerous presence were watching him. He wanted to run, should have too, but his feet seemed fixed to the ground.

It began as a whisper in the background of his thoughts, lapping at him like the waves swashing on the beach in the distant below.

"Take your payment it," it said.

Louder and louder it became, not in sound but rather in its demand. "Take it," it said over and over.

The shepard couldn't ignore it, he couldn't resist it. He snatched the gold and shoved it in his pocket with a trembling hand. He grabbed his herding stick and whistled to his dogs which gladly followed him as he scrambled over the stone wall and strode in the direction of home.

May luck be with his sheep that night.

His wife enjoyed a new tea set, replacing the old chipped one. His children pranced about in their new thick-soled shoes and everyone savored the yeast cake with fruit baked now every Sunday as the family could afford a large sack of sugar.

When they asked where he had acquired the funds for such extravagance, he simply shrugged his shoulders and mentioned they'd had a good year.

Some things are simply best left unexplained.

Chapter Text

Chasen Manor
Darkfrith, England
August 14, 1778


Kimber Langford couldn't sleep. He flopped over onto his side kicking the sheet off his legs and wiping his black hair from his sweating face. Now sprawled atop the duvet of his ebony bed, he followed the faint moonlight peaking through the windows creeping over the floor onto his bare chest.

It was hot and humid, a right balmy summer in the shire of Darkfrith. The summer solstice had passed a few weeks ago and Kimber was thankful for that: it would soon become cooler and the days progressively become shorter.

The heir to the marquisate and future Alpha of the tribe stood up from his bed and went to the open french doors leading out to a balconey hoping for the slightest of breeze. He stretched his arms wide, gripping the iron window panes and stood before the night, neither glass nor shade between them. He contemplated the view from here, the shadow-casting hills and rich black trees and the beckoning skies above them both.

The air was oppressive, as thick and sour as curdled milk, the threat of rain a mere suggestion dancing in the stratosphere.

He'd already been out that evening, with his brother and sisters, with his tribesmen and had only returned just a few hours prior. His father hadn't joined him, nor his mother, because Christoph Langford, Marquess of Darkfrith and Alpha of the tribe was away in London conducting the necessary standard business; trade deals, land acquisitions and such actions befitting a man of nobility. He’d taken with him his wife and Kimber's noble mother, Rue.

The night was dark and the cloud cover low, dropping spirals of fog into the forest. Why not? thought Kimber, what's another few hours in flight before sun up if sleep won't come?

There would be few of his kin in the skies now apart from the occasional patrol. It was well past midnight and although their kind took to the skies whenever possible, they still had fields to tend, silver to mine, metal to smith. By day and by law the shire appeared as any other community in the rural Northern hills of England.

Kimber curled his toes against the warm maple floor, a final grounding before Turning to smoke. His briefs dropped to the floor as he surged out the window up and away from the balcony. The feeling of weightless was none like any other, rendering gravity a mere illusion that held lesser beings to the earth. He gained a bit of distance from the slate roof, oozing through the thick air before taking form.

The first breath was always marvelous, sending light and energy through his entire being. He stole his second delicious breath as his wings beat the vapors vigorously, slicing through the thickness daring the atmosphere to deny him. He looked back down upon his large chamber, just a small fraction of what was the entirety of Chasen Manor. He adjusted his eyes gaining a wider view of the manor. In truth from above - apart from its size - it wasn't all that impressive apart from a great, glass Adam dome. Because from above it wasn't intended to be admired. A grand home for a marquisate, outfitted with every facet of grace and luxury in mind, it turned even the most difficult to impress to true aesthetes, for it was meant to draw wandering glances away from the sky.

Kimber was climbing now, searching for thinner air, his need for cooler temperatures dire. Anything to escape the sludge. He caught a mild current, a pocket of hot gas trying to escape and rode it up.

He inhaled twice catching a hint of something peculiar riding the back of an errant vapor. It lingered but a fleeting moment, beckoning Kimber to follow.

He loved the view from up high, looking over everything before he broke through the clouds. It all seemed so small though, so little for a man of ambition. He was meant for greatness, he knew.

He began to think of her again, his future mate. A surge of something primal fluttered through him. He started with faces of the young women he knew in the shire. The faces of all the women on the verge of the rebirth. There was Gheillis, fair with eyes like corn flowers. Elizabeth, tall and shapely, breasts begging to be cupped. Eleanor, slender and elegant. Charlotte, Hattie, Myrtle. Sara and Nora. Mildred and Mercy. And then there was Lydia. Beautiful Lydia. Fire red hair, with a heart to match. Clearly an Alpha amongst the females apart from his mother and sisters, she exuded beauty even for a drákon; her long, graceful limbs; her lithe gate full of confidence; her eyes that beckoned. They'd kissed many times, and once or twice even stole away into that spot in the wood were young sweethearts often went believing their elders didn't know.

But Kimber was no longer a boy and no longer interested in a sweetheart offering doting kisses and heavy petting. He was a man grown, next-in-line for Alpha and the prospect of his future wife was unrelenting. He wanted a woman that was truly drákon and he needed a mate who could Turn. And all those women were just pretty faces with a whisper of dragon inside them.

The strati were well beneath him now, and the guards underneath them. They would be patrolling in patterns, flying in close formation maintaining visibility over the shire and not taking their pleasure in the higher altitudes. Not a single one had even seen him in his ascent. It was irrelevant really, but still a source of pride that he'd bypassed them undetected.

Kimber did a swirling loop cleaving a small cloud in two. He was rising now climbing higher beating his wings enjoying that animal ache of pulsing muscle. The moon was brightly visible up here casting an eerie ring as if ensnared by the light of the sun.

He caught the scent again, this time stronger with hints of sunlight and fresh, spring grass sending sweet anticipation along his sleek lines. He stretched his neck out seeking it, keeping it near, following it back down through the atmosphere.

The clouds were receding, taking their threat of rain with them as if something had scarred them into retreat. He looked back North as he crossed the boundary seeing most of the shire. Past this point it was forbidden to take shape as dragon. A deviant smile escaped from his lips -or at least something resembling a smile. Sharp fangs hardly made for an inviting face.

The scent was alluring, addictive even. Closer now to the ground it mingled pleasantly with the neutral flavors of moist earth and forest duff. His talons reflexively contracted grazing his own pads sending the impulse to go on. It pulled him forward, beckoning curiosity. He was certain there was almost something lyrical to it, never constant. Sometimes notes of sun-dried apricots, or a crescendo of melons ripening in the sun.

The sound of hooves striking ground pulled him from his daze. It was a single horse, one whose rhythm Kimber knew; a dapple gelding his father had acquired this past winter sold for its overly calm nature. The horse certainly didn't sound calm, snorting and gasping for air.

That the animal was terrified was no surprise. Lesser beasts instinctively shied away from those with dragon blood. In Darkfrith there were wild birds in the trees, and mice tucked away in barns, but that was nearly all. There were no wild pigs, no foxes, no hedgehogs or rabbits. Sometimes the occasional stag braved his way into the untouched green, gorging himself on abundant acorns and hickory nuts, and then fleeing as quickly as he had come. The tribe kept a single flock of sheep in the hills to keep up appearances – but the sheep had to be herded by the children. They panicked too easily when adults wandered near. And horses were unfortunately a necessity – a beast which by nature spooked easily, a dragon atop its back notwithstanding.

What concerned Kimber was the fact that there was a single rider spurring his mount on. The drákon rarely travelled outside the shire and - excluding the Alpha - never without permission from the council. When they did then always in twos or threes or more. Something had happened and no doubt it was Kimber who the guard would be seeking.

The rider passed him and Kimber was close enough to catch that frisson of energy that all their kind emitted. It was Quinten, one of his father's oldest guards who wasn't due back for a few more days and with Rufus and George with him.

Kimber forced himself to release that last sliver of pleasing fragrance, despite the dragon whispering otherwise. He banked hard and stayed as low to the tree line knowing that Quinten would likely Turn upon crossing the border. He didn't permit him knowledge of his presence though, preferring to avoid a lecture later about why Turning outside their territory was not permitted. Besides, Kimber was the epitome of stealth. If his own kind couldn't detect him, humans didn't have a chance. Excursions outside the shire remained a secret for him and him alone.

With tipped wings he slowed his pursuit giving the guard time to cover adequate ground. As predicted he felt the energy rise from the man's Turn to smoke and saw as he breached the tree line rising up high enough to take form. The guard was dragon now, flying with intent towards Chasen manor.

Kimber beat his wings thrice and very hard, accelerating after him. He passed over the tethered and riderless horse on the single road leading into Darkfirth, the desperation for air a roar in Kimber's ears. The man must have had it dire, racing as if the dawn lapped at his tail. Kimber made his presence known, causing the guard to loop back around to. He waited for Kimber's Turn like waiting for his command, then trailed him down through the trees where they could speak. As dragons, unfortunately, they couldn't. Not even the slightest gutteral utterance was possible for them in their pure form; for nature, ever keeping balance, always demanded a price be paid for Gifts. And one paymeny was the affliction of silence.

"My Lord!" exclaimed the guard.

"What news, Quinten?" asked Kimber nearly simultaneously.

"We've got a runner."

****

It was a serious threat that Kimber had not been expecting, but one he nonetheless felt prepared to handle.

With his father away, Kimber was obligated to care for the tribe’s safety - a task he'd been raised and molded for. And the tribe’s safety, as he had learned that very early morning, was in jeopardy.

For countless years the tribe had lived in near perfect silence, echoes of an older time, of ancient spells and hybrid magic. No one knew the *drákon’s* true origins. Some claim the serpent came first learning to exist in disguise, to fight the Turn and walk among the humans, to live as they did. Others said they were powerful sorcerers, using spells and runes to change their human form to beast, giving them and their children the innate ability to Turn to smoke, to dragon and back again. But what was certain and unanimously agreed upon, was that humans, fearful by nature, preferred to destroy anything they didn’t understand. It seemed an instinct that they snuff out the beauty of the world and was simply best that they never found out about the drákon and their hidden slice of heaven tucked away in the green hills of northern England, where the mists still stroked the earth, where smoke and clouds could mingle as one.

There was nothing they would win by meeting before dawn so Kimber waited to rouse the council until after sun up. Despite the early hour, the sun was already preparing another hot day.

Council meetings were formal affairs. So it certainly was a sight to behold when all the members showed up leaking sweat from under their powdered wigs and sporting pit stains encircling the sleeves of the finest of frock coats.

As presiding Alpha, only Kimber had the gall to attire himself in something more suited for the sweltering heat and that certainly did not involve a coat.

The windows were usually kept sealed in the council's quarters maintaining the image of authority. The council, after all, made laws and governed the tribe. And the Alpha ruled above them.

Kimber filed in last after all eleven members were already seated, tucked in at their tables. Instead of taking a seat in his sequestered chair looking out onto the men, he waltzed behind them throwing open every casement abandoning the tradition of secrecy. The collective relief from unstifled air was audible.

"Please Quinten, repeat your discovery so that we may all hear," commanded the Earl, who remained standing by an open window.

Quinten was not on the council, but rather one of the marquess’ most trusted guards. He had preceded Lord Langford’s return from London, who wasn't due for another fortnight. As was custom he wasn’t granted a seat and stood in the open before the council.

The few who sat with their backs to him twisted their necks to listen.

"We were passing through Bradford by coach. Thought we would stop there before sun down so as not to risk an accident with the horses. We sat down for dinner and caught word that the Wakesfield manor just outside of town was robbed. I didn't think much of it until I felt a presence as the sun went down. Just me."

"Are you sure it wasn't the men you were traveling with?" asked Adam Richards, sitting towards the back.

"Yes," he replied with irritation, "I can tell the difference between my own men and another."

A grizzled, older gentleman, Quinten was a skilled hunter. There was no doubt he had felt the essence of drákon that all their kind emitted.

"It wasn't in the tavern so I went outside. It became stronger and was certainly moving. We couldn't risk following it further. But he seemed to be headed North. I took one of the horses here as soon as I could. Rufus and George are still in Bradford with the carriage."

"Anything else?" asked Devon Rickman.

Quinten shook his head.

"Thank you Quinten," said Kimber.

Quinten gave a bow and left.

The council waited until the chamber doors had been shut before resuming their meeting.

"Well?" began Kimber with a sweeping gesture of the hand. "Anyone have any theories how a runner has gone so long without notice?"

A species that was bound by the strictest of secrecy was also bound by the strictest of rules. And at the forefront of all the rules upon rules, the unflinching law from which all other laws stemmed, was loyalty to the tribe. Silence.

Containment.

Containment meant that no Other would chance upon man dissolving into smoke moving about with clear purpose. It meant on the clearest of nights, no well-respected, sober member of human society would look up and report having seen scales and talons streaking across a violet sky. It meant the drakon could exercise their Gifts (within reason) in the safety of Darkfrith. It meant that the Alpha, and a select few chosen by the council would go out when necessary and represent the shire for the mirage it needed to be; a place with farms and orchards, mills and smiths and schools, and black-deep mines laden with silver; a place filled with simple country folk living simple, country lives.

Every now and then one was born who could not stand the life. Who could not bear the rules of the shire, its iron-clad laws, the secrets, the stringency of the council. And sometimes, such a person would run and the tribe had to act quickly to bring him back.

John Chapman, a stout man in his sixties, was the first to speak. "I've gone through all the records. Birth certificates, deaths. I've pulled out the names of youths who met untimely ends. Perhaps we should start there?"

Kimber swallowed the sour taste in his mouth. It wasn't unknown that member's of the tribe faked their own death to escape. There were two individuals that came strongly to mind having been coincidentaly linked.

The first was his own mother before his birth. Long thought dead, Clarissa Rue Hawthorne had lived as the infamous Smoke Thief of London stealing gems for a living. Once her illustrious career became too illustrious, Kimber's father, the marquess Christoph Langford, was forced to take notice and after much trouble took her as his bride.

The second was a man named Tamlane Williams. He had cut off his own hand to stage a drowning. He’d been unfortunately intertwined in the Langford’s tumultuous courtship and after a nine year stint in London was discovered, hunted down, and captured. He now lived in a small cottage outside the village, never having attempted escape again.

Kimber nodded his head granting Chapman permission to continue.

"There is Nathaniel Dover, drowned in the river during the spring thaw 3 years back."

"His body was found," informed Kimber. He had pulled the blue corpse from the river himself, the mere memory sending a chill down his spine despite the heat.

"Alright," answered John Chapman, pulling out a string of papers and placing them face down in a separate pile. "Moving on. Then there is Dick Willoughby. Six months ago got a blood infection after lodging an axe in his foot. Turned to mist. Never rematerialized."

"Interesting. Worth keeping in our peripheral. But this thief has been at it for a year now," said the Earl. "Anyone else?"

"Zacharias Plimkin. Died of the pox at 2 years-"

"Good god man don't waste our time!" snapped Kimber’s brother, Rhys, as he ripped the sweltering wig off his head. He was two years younger than Kim’s twenty-eight, handsome, poetic in the way only a second son could be; brash and crude when it pleased him; a prince’s heart beating beneath white lawn and a waistcoat of Italian silk. Born to his position on the council, Kimber was certainly glad to have him there with his father away. Disguised in a nonchalant veneer, Rhys was an astute, practical man who could say the reckless sort of things that an Alpha could not.

“Who else?” prompted Kimber.

“That’s it. Every other possible runner has been captured in the past eighty years.”

The chamber was silent as Kimber looked from face to face of the men who were out of ideas. He moved to one of the tables, reaching across its expanse pulling out various news clippings.

Bath: Vaggard Robs Visitors, No Suspects

Guest's Jewelry Taken at Perrot's Brook Ball

The Lodger Thief Strikes Again - Teddington

Duke Offers Reward for Lodger Thief

Coventry Spared Lodger Thief's Attentions

The Lodger Thief was mentioned again and again and again. Kimber hadn't paid much attention until now as there was nothing suspicious about the bloke or his methods.

“Will someone fetch a map.” It was less of a request and more of a command directed at the sitting gentlemen. A large atlas of the British Isles was unrolled onto the table. Kimber proceeded to put large x's at every location mentioned by the press.

"He seems to hit country house parties and balls. Taking nothing of extravagance. He follows a pattern, moving from South to North," explained the Earl.

"All the more reason to bolster our boarders," interrupted Claude Grady. Grady, unwed and slightly older than Kimber, was a strictly traditional man, preferring adherence to the strict practice of isolation and approached issues without any imagination. Like his father before him, he was a constant thorn in the Alpha’s side.

“Are we preventing an invasion?” Kimber asked snidely. "We want to catch him, not scare him off. It just so happens Hawkshead will be holding their annual hunt this coming weekend. I’m willing to bet my finest stallion that that’s where he will hit next.”

"I say we take to the skies if the night permits. A few of us fly over Hawkshead, prompt him to Turn, herd him back to Darkfrith and then take him down," suggested Calvin Acton.

There were a few mumbled agreements, though the idea of permitting the Turn outside the shire was hardly palpable to most of the council members. The safety of the tribe depended on their secret being kept. Besides, the weather had been too clear lately to depend on it.

Kimber closed his eyes, pondering the mind of the thief, the peculiar game he seemed to be playing with the tribe. What sort of person would he be?

Cunning, without a doubt. He had figured out a way of slipping out of Darkfrith undetected and unmissed.

Defiant. He’d allowed the press to spotlight him and still kept stealing.

Intelligent. Using his Gifts to steal without garnering those tell-tale names such as The Smoke Thief.

Brazen or stupid? Kimber couldn’t decide if it was a death wish or a challenge. Why would a runner follow such a predictable pattern leading right to Darkfrith’s doorstep?

"He is trying to draw us out. Probably means to goad us into exposing ourselves. We aren't going to let him."

"And if he escapes?" asked Calvin Acton.

"He won't escape."

"How can you be so-"

"Have I ever lost a runner?"

There was silence in the room, as it dawned on each councillor that he meant to hunt the runner alone.

"Even your father would never be so reckless," snapped Grady. "We cannot allow you to leave without a contingency of-"

"Need I remind you that I am acting Alpha while my father is away. You allow me nothing," Kimber said, placing his knuckles on the table and raising his shoulders towering over the seated men. It wasn't a threat of a haughty youth, but rather the quelling of insubordination by a powerful man having earned his right to be there. His voice sliced through the room sharp as hardened steal, resounding into silence.

He waited a pause for good measure, letting his authority sink in.

"Rhys and my sister Joan will accompany me."

The acrid murmurs began.

Permitting his brother to leave the shire was one thing, but allowing one of the women to leave on a potentially dangerous Hunt was unheard of.

"And you'll what? The three of you fly over to Hawkesmead and chase the runner down? Your sister is too valuable for us to allow such thing."

Grady again. Absolutely no imagination.

"The Langfords are invited to this hunting party annually. Who better to attend incognito than two bachelors and their unwed sister."

Kimber needed a female of his family at his side. He needed someone who could move around a country manor at ease, who was permitted to go where the men were not. He needed someone that felt at ease with Others and was familiar with their ways. He needed someone who would unsuspiciously be travelling with jewelry. And he needed someone who could, if need be, Turn.

Joan was one of the three women in existence that could. The other two being Kimber's mother who was away with the marquess, and his twin sister Audrey who was heavy with child.

"The thief is betting on a large number of *drákon*. He'll be expecting a retinue of our finest men and above all he'll be expecting my father," explained Kimber. "Are we in agreement then?"

"A vote, as you well know, must be issued first," snipped Grady.

By their own laws, an Alpha could quash a vote, but not call on one.

Sometimes Kimber wished Grady had the gall to openly challenge him and get it over with. This feudal political struggle that the man seemed to take pleasure in was tedious and it would have been easier settled in blood.

"All in favor of permitting myself and my sister Joan as escort to the Alpha?" Rhys didn't even need a prompt from his brother. He relished the idea of a short getaway from the shire and knew his sister would be delighted as well.

Grady sat there puffed up and red wishing he could change the laws so that sons of the Alpha were no longer given seats on the council. How he craved that kind of power.

Seven hands shot up in favor and Kimber allowed himself a fleeting smile.

"It's settled then."

Chapter Text

The driver brought the carriage through the portico of Hawksmeade manor. Once all three Langford siblings had alighted, the nervous horses were more than eager to continue their way down the horseshoe drive.

"My lady. Sirs," the butler greeted as the three entered the manor. Each gave him a slight nod as they walked past him into the vestibule.

"Do you sense him?" whispered Kimber.

"No. Nothing," replied Rhys.

Joan shook her head in response. "Do you suppose he's not arrived yet?" she asked.

"Perhaps. Keep vigilant. Quinten should have reached the servants entrance by now.”

Kimber had decided to bring his father's guard along. The Langford siblings could hardly prowl the servants quarters and Quinten had once long ago served as footman to Kimber's grandfather, enabling him to blend in more naturally. Besides, he was the only one who knew the thief’s aura.

"It won't be long before he hands your jewelry over to be locked in the silver closet," noted Kimber.

A wicked, anticipatory grin stretched across Joan's face. She'd picked out the pieces of bait herself; a multi-stranded cuff of pearls with a golden clasp and a necklace to match. As daughter of the Alpha she had difficulty finding a modest set with which to tempt the thief, as he didn't seem interested in grander items.

Kimber saw her smile and thought to correct her. There was nothing that should be enjoyed about a Hunt. It may very well be that he would have to kill tonight, destroying one of their own because of their ancient laws.

He decided against saying something, allowing her to enjoy that flux of adrenaline that would be her constant companion for the next few days. Besides, she was only here as surveillance. He could not let anything befall her. His father would have his hide and give it as a gift to the council should she be harmed.

The three were led to the parlor where they were met with cucumber sandwiches, scones smothered in clotted cream, black tea freshly brewed and the most mundane of conversation.

"Kimber Langford," exclaimed Mr. Patterson, the host of the event. "I feared none of you might make it what with Lord Langford being away."

Kimber gave a polite bow. "Yes, I must say it's selfish of me leaving the mundane to my father, but I'd hardly miss your annual hunt."

His demeanor became that of a careless youth enjoying the privilege of nobility, perfectly acted and performed. It was a practiced facade he found necessary when dealing with the Others. They expected it, so he gave them just that: an ordinary, rich, young man, yet to come into his inheritance, savoring the delights enjoyed by the young and powerful.

"And Rhys my boy! Still a great shot?"

"No where nearly as accurate as you Mr. Patterson," jested Rhys.
Mr. Patterson let out a hearty laugh. "And who is this lovely addendum?" he asked turning to Joan.

"We've brought reinforcements,” quipped Kimber. “Someone to make sure we keep our napkins on our laps. May I introduce my sister, Joan."

Joan extended her hand, the very picture of a prim young lady.

"My dear, I am positively delighted," exclaimed Mr. Patterson.

Joan gave him a twinkling smile, her eyes crisp and teeth flashing white. She wore a pale blue dress with checked trim on the sleeves and her hair was ironed into precise, tight curls partially pinned up and powdered white. Hours in a carriage hadn’t ruffled her a bit. "The delight is all mine, sir," she replied with the most practiced of curtsies.

They could all hear the man's heart pulsing to a rush. Like any mortal, he was rendered breathless: skin of unblemished alabaster, chocolate eyes demanding a gaze, an unexplainable brilliance setting her apart from mere humans.

They were all like that, the drákon. Radiant beauty rendered into flesh and bone. It was a flaw really, in their clever disguise, yet it most often played in their favor.

"Forgive me madam," said Mr. Patterson realizing he'd been staring at her far too long. "I've neglected my duties. Allow me to make introductions."

Another smile, another flash of her perfect teeth and she was escorted around the room followed by her brothers.

It was the perfect opportunity to rule out a few suspects. Some of the visitors were new to Kimber, others old faces. He bowed at this gentleman and took that lady's hand, on and on through the throng of guests casting his senses wondering if the thief was one among them.

"How did you fare the coach ride Miss Langford?" asked Georgina Thompson- an annual regular of this event - sitting on a Hepplewhite settee. She stuck a fat finger through the delicate handle of her tea cup. Kimber was sure it would crack, but the porcelain held fast.

"Just so, indeed, Lady Thompson," answered Joan, lifting her own tea cup to her curled lips and took a sip.

Kimber looked down upon his own tepid Ceylon, wondering how anyone could enjoy the beverage. His sister made the perfect addendum to their trio, drawing in attention leaving him to his senses, an otherwise daunting task when forced to make idle conversation.

"Might I introduce to you my youngest daughter?" Misses Thompsen asked waving over a young lady standing by the sweet cakes. "Miss Elizabeth Thompson, just out in society like you Miss Langford," she explained.

Her daughter gave three succinct curtsies, the last directed pointedly at Kimber. She was a typical girl of good breeding; clean, coiffed and well-dressed. Certainly well-fed. Yet as with most women of means there was a fabricated beauty about them, their cheeks rouged and eyes kohled. All devices to bring out their positive features and hide the more repulsive. Such pseudo-qualities Kimber found absolutely off-putting.

Elizabeth offered her hand to Kimber who took it as any man of good breeding would. Eyes lit up like street lanterns on a foggy evening, she was immediately taken by the abnormally comely Earl, marveling at his pale skin and black hair and eyes. The painted red spots on her cheeks suddenly bloomed more brightly.

"Good day, madam," Kimber said, distracted. His thoughts were elsewhere, thinking, seeking out anything that might hint at the runner. He gave his brother the slightest of glances which was immediately understood.

"Madam, your humble servant," began Rhys, holding out his hand with a pirate's grin. He placed a kiss across her fingers. "A happy day to you and us all," he said after exacting a humble bow, playing the perfect gentleman.

The girl attempted to hold back a smile peeling across her reddened face. Rhys could hear her quickened pulse, thumping like a rabbit in heat. Though of different colorings, he was certainly as comely as his older brother. Hair of deep chestnut tied back by a simple leather strap and eyes of piercing viper green, it was a simple question of where one’s tastes lie on which was the prettier brother.

"As we've barely just arrived I dare say I'm famished. Miss Thompson, would you give me the pleasure of pointing out the tastiest of treats for my traveled soul?" He looked at her with his enticing, green eyes, batting his long eyelashes.

"It would be my pleasure, sir."

Rhys offered her his arm which she gingerly accepted.

He looked back at his brother who gave him a single, succinct nod of approval as one of the 'eligible bachelors' made his way toward the table of food.

****

It was dinner time when Kimber felt it, as faint as a glimmering taper's wasted light, a subtle tingling itch at the tips of his ears.

One of the male guests was droning on and on about the breeding of his draft horses including the voracity of his prize Percheron stallion when Kimber pulled his brother's bored eyes. He shot a look at his sister as well. She was daintily eating her pea soup pretending to listen to the conversation, but placed her spoon back in the bowl as she noticed her brother's gaze. She raised her eyebrows, a question at his glance.

The sun had begun to set and the already lit candles in the chandelier above finding purpose.

As was custom, rank and title dictated the seating arrangement with the hostess at the head and the host at the foot. Spouses where never placed together and children not yet in their inheritance were placed further back leaving Miss Elizabeth between the two eligible bachelors, a fact Kimber found most irritating.

Kimber was pulled from his thoughts by the clinking of silver clearly performed purposefully.

"The soup? How is it?" asked Miss Elizabeth Thompson likely for the second time. Her again. She’d been purring nonsense at him ever since they sat down.

He looked down at the green medley before him. "Oh, it's rather delicious," he replied, his focus in another place. Time dragged. The unwed girl continued to jabber at Kimber, strings of syllables he paid no attention to. He resisted the temptation to pull out his pocket watch, instead watching the candles melt down into bulbous mounds. He did his best to supply ample conversation despite the presence. His brother and sister filled in or turned the attention to themselves where they could, but they too now felt the presence of *drákon*. The relief slid over Kimber like a wave when he was permitted to retire, no longer distracted by idle chatter of phony characters.

He lingered a moment at the entrance of his room, the door a solid, quiet base against his back. He closed his eyes and washed his senses of the manor's irrelevances; the kitchen maids scouring iron pots; the servant's bell, a guest summoning a nightcap saucer of warm milk; a cat catching a fat rat in the rafters. He sat down on the four-post bed, a great mahogany monstrosity, and contemplated his next move.

He couldn't sleep that night wondering where precisely the thief might be. He'd never explored the manor, never needing to, only familiarizing himself with the necessary guest wing, dining hall and parlor. He assumed the man was in the servant's wing - the energy coming from a section of the house unknown to Kimber - waiting until all was quiet to Turn to smoke and infiltrate the silver closet.

It pulled at him, beckoned him. Kimber envisioned what the thief looked like and fantasized a grand fight with the bastard in dragon form, up in the skies untethered by witnesses and breakable objects.

He pulled himself back to reality. He wondered if it would be worth venturing out of his room into the servants quarters as none of the guests were suspects. If he were caught as a human it would be a great scandal and if he were caught as smoke...he didn't even want to entertain the consequences. He decided against it. The thief wasn't moving so a chase was not yet justified.

The longer into the night the more it irked him, taunting him, teasing him, asking to be challenged. It made no sense. Why would the thief linger? Why wasn't he cleaning out the valuables and stealing away? The drákon were strongest at night, it was the only possibility that made sense to Kimber. What game was this thief playing?

Kimber rose completely dazed not knowing when he had drifted off. The sun had risen, its piercing rays reminding him of the morning. In a panic, he raised his awareness trying to find that vibration again.

Only, there was nothing.

He didn't wait for Quinten to come help him dress, pulling on the clothes from yesterday and scurrying out of his room. It didn't matter anyway cause Quinten was only a guard posing as a servant. Perhaps he had more luck sensing the runner in back halls and the tucked away parts of the manor.

Servants. At this hour they were busy as bees. House maids with buckets and brooms. Valets rising to iron their master's shirts and polish their buckled shoes. Scullery maids scurrying to the kitchens with pales of milk and baskets of eggs frantic to prepare a breakfast for a party of twelve. Not a single one emitted an ounce of drákon.

Kimber forgot his way wishing to get out as soon as possible convinced the thief had escaped when he dozed off. If only he hadn't fallen asleep, he thought, chastising himself. He rounded a corner and ran smack into a servant boy, a mere inconvenience to Kimber with his tall stature and muscled physique. The boy, however, fell backwards to the ground dropping something with a loud clank.

"Oi, watch where you're...sorry m'lord." The boy glanced up for a snap at the nobleman and then immediately lowered his head. Kimber thought, for the briefest of moments, he saw the boy’s eyes shift. He blinked once adjusting his own to the new light.

The boy rose to his feet and picked up what turned out to be a candle snuffer. "No one but the servants are usually awake at this hour," he said pulling back a curtain and then snuffing out one of the many candles lighting the hallway on the opposite side. "A thousand 'pologies."

He grasped the boy by the sleeve of an arm he had yet to grow into and pulled him closer. Plain, grey eyes peered up at him filled with an emotion Kimber couldn't quite pinpoint. The boy's breathing was quick and he clutched the bronze rod close to his chest.

Like the desert showing a thirsty man water, Kimber was looking for any sign possible of the thief. He chalked it up to the beams of sun mingling with shadows and candlelight dancing through the halls. The lack of proper sleep surely contributed as well. He ended the exchange with a perturbed look and released the boy.

"Tell me how to get outside," Kimber commanded desperately looking down the hallway.

"That way. Follow the corridor. You'll find a stairwell with a side exit just beyond the Blue room," the boy said, scratching his neck.

Kimber began walking, taking long strides. And then it came to him. The feeling was miniscule, almost imperceptible, as faint as the hum of distant bees.

He paused for a moment and turned, searching for the boy he had knocked over. The hall was empty apart from the lingering scent of something sweet. He thought about turning back, unsure of the trail. A breeze with promises of fresh air brushed his face carrying that sweetness with it. Kimber followed it outside where it spread on the wind.

Not the slightest hint of drákon.

Damn it to hell!

The sun had risen well up over the tree line blinding Kimber with violent rays. He walked the grounds extending his awareness as far as he could. He could feel his sister still slumbering in her bed, his brother sitting already in the dining room. The winds carried notes of sheep feasting on parched grass, and the fetor of a drying pond. Sounds of gardeners scratching in the dirt and the distant hustle of wildlife in the forest beyond accosted his ears. Nothing suggested that a drákon had ever been here.

It wasn't until midday when the men where out in the fields with their guns that Kim had a moment to speak to his brother without the ears of Others around.

Rhys aimed sloppily not wishing for every shot to meet a target. The event could hardly be called a hunt. Hunting implied stalking, a chase and possibly a kill. This was like spearing fish in a barrel. The drought had forced the birds to seek scarce water causing them to congregate near a trickling stream that fed the pond. Despite his purposeful mis-aim the lead still made contact.

A setter retrieved the pheasant bringing it to the estate's keeper of hounds.

Rhy held out the now empty gun to be reloaded. "That will do for a time. My shoulder needs a moment. Wait here," he ordered.

"Very good Sir," replied a gun page, hanging the empty gun over the crook of his arm.

Kimber kept hold of his, still loaded. He slowly and carefully let go the percussion cap, rendering his musket harmless as he and his brother put some distance between them and the Others.

"Never before have I lost the scent," he confessed quietly.

To anyone else, Kimber was calm and collected, a pool of deep, still water always maintaining the appearance of control. He couldn't fool his brother though. It wasn't some twitch of the eyes or pursing of lips or any other physical telling. It was that Rhys knew his brother better than anyone and Kimber Langford simply did not lose. He'd grown into the model Alpha, always thinking ahead, calculating outcomes, foreseeing what others could not. Qualities that made him as clever as he was dangerous, with an unfathomable depth of devotion to their people. It was something Rhys never wanted, never envied, free from such burdens, at liberty to enjoy the privileges as the second son.

Rhys placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I laid awake until dawn and it was like the feeling decreased without moving. I've never felt anything like it. I even thought perhaps he had met an untimely end. Caught by a guard with a pistol. But the breakfast table would have been overwhelmed with gossip and we would have heard a shot."

"There was a boy. A servant. It could have been him. It was so weak I could barely sense it. Perhaps he has yet to Turn. Or he is someone wicked crafty."

"A young boy? The runner?" asked Rhys, incredulous. "I find that hard to believe."

"There is something more suspicious at play here and I can't put my finger on it. The jewelry is still in its place. Let us wait. The thief will either strike tonight or is already gone. There is naught else we can do." Kimber felt smothered in shame and anger. The responsibility was his. Perhaps the council was right, he'd simply grown too confident in his abilities, allowing the runner to slip through his fingers. He would get this thief. He would get him good, he swore.

****

That evening just before dusk, Joan Langford began the tedious task of dressing for supper. She was assisted by a young woman with a heart-shaped face and dull, brown hair stuffed under a ruffled headpiece. Most likely employed in the kitchens, tonight the lass served as a lady's maid 'graciously' loaned by the hostess' wife.

Joan emerged from her bath, a copper tub half-filled with now lukewarm water.

The maid returned and quickly opened all the curtains letting the sunlight in. She placed a silk dressing robe over Joan's shoulders and tied it around her waist.

Joan sauntered into the bedroom where her clothes were already laid out on the bed.

They started with a silk shift, lace-trimmed and soft. The maid slid it over Miss Langford's arms and torso tying the front string at her breast.

She returned to the bed for the next piece giving her neck a subtle scratch. She picked up the stomacher only to place it back down as if unsure what came next.

"The stockings, then the garters," Joan instructed.

The girl nodded handing them over.

"I suppose I'll put them on myself then," Joan said sarcastically as she scrunched the length of the stockings down her thumbs.

The maid stood there unaffected by her tone, waiting for her next instruction.

"The stay comes next."

The maid was quick but sloppy with the laces, but Joan was becoming too impatient to correct her. Like her brothers, she hadn't felt the thief's presence since that morning, a fact that was gravely irritating. She gripped the bed-post as the maid violently yanked the strings closed causing Joan to gasp.

"Not so tight if you please!" she barked.

The maid nodded her head and loosened her work a bit all the while sneaking a scratch just above her own neckline. She lifted Joan's heavy evening gown effortlessly, a fine thing with embroidered ivy and delicate, tooled frills. Joan bent slightly until the bodice was over her head then straightened up, the hem now resting on the floor. The maid worked quickly, her hands a skilled tempest tying off this string or that, closing up the gown with the stomacher.

Joan sat down in front of the armoire not looking forward to tedious application of rouge and powder. The maid stood at her back, the reflection of her concerned face clear in the mirror.

"I can manage," Joan informed pulling open a draw and retrieving a brush and set of hair pins. "Just hand me what I need."

She couldn't expect a scullery maid to style hair anyways. She held out her hand for a pin from the maid who was now fidgeting at her own collar.

"Is something amiss?" asked Joan.

"No, Miss. Well, I'm not accustomed to this livery," she explained. "It's rather itchy is all."

There was something disingenuous about the maid's tone as if it were merely an excuse. Though why she might lie about an uncomfortable uniform Joan couldn't ponder, nor did she really care.

She finished with her hair and reached for the powder, catching a whiff of something spicy. A hint of a distant fragrance. "Are those peonies I smell?" Joan asked, usually able to identify flowers without issue.

The brown-eyed maid gave a timid smile and a barely perceptible shrug of the shoulders. She scratched at her collar again, this time blatantly.

In the reflection of the mirror, Joan saw the girl staring, eyes creased and lips pursed. The servant girl was certainly peculiar.

"Will you be needing any more help, Miss?" she asked, with an obvious eagerness to get away.

"Inform my valet Quentin that I will be needing my jewelry," she instructed, applying the last of the powder.

"Yes Miss," the lady's maid replied with an awkward curtsy. She paused for a moment looking back at Joan and giving herself another scratch.

The young woman left the room closing the door silently. Joan felt it then, just for a moment, a tinge of aura emitted by powerful beings like herself. She slid a nailed thumb over her ear not sure if it had only been a phantom. Perhaps she wanted too badly to help on her first Hunt.

****

The maid scurried down the main hall of the guest wing, the walls ensconced in beige and cream highlighted by the sun's last breaths. A jib door leading to the servants hall hid behind a tapestry. She slipped through finding a small spiral staircase which she scampered down. She passed through a narrow corridor until she reached the niche where she kept her stash of clothing. A collection of cleaning supplies such as feather dusters, pails, and rags as well as firewood and a carrier, it was one of many maid's stations positioned in the underbelly of the mansion.

She crouched on the balls of her feet reaching her hand between a pair of brooms and pulled out a footman's livery. She'd have to work quickly now, the sun's light was vanishing and it would become all the more difficult in the dark . She shimmied out of the apron and undid the top few buttons of the chamber maid dress peeling the whole thing off and down her back like a serpent shedding it's skin. She left the silk stockings on. Forcefully, she shoved her legs into the footmen trousers and punched her arms into the double-waisted coat. She rolled up the maid's livery and concealed it behind the brooms. Still squatting she looked into the shiny surface of a copper mopping pail.

"Quintin, darling, the Miss Langford requires her jewelry. Be quick about it man. She mustn't be kept waiting," the brown-eyed lass said addressing the reflection.

"Of course. Right away!" she replied to herself. The reflection in the pail no longer was that of a young woman with a round face. Where there had been long, straight brown locks there were now short, blonde spikes. Instead of smooth, youthful skin there was now sun-dried leather with a hint of graying stubble.

Quentin ran his hand along the rough contour of his chin then pointed at himself in the shiny surface clicking his tongue. "You're a handsome fellow Quintin. Let's go be the man you are and get some jewels," he said with a wink.

The silver closet wasn't far. Farnsworth the butler would be waiting to dole out the visiting ladies' jewelry for the night. The rotten old man, always grabbing at women's asses. Quentin would have loved to steal the gems in a much more confrontational manner, but the knowledge that the old butler might get blamed and sacked would have to suffice.

Quintin walked with a certain swagger he had seen from earlier. No, it wasn't a swagger born out of cockyness. It was a limp from an old wound that hadn't healed properly. Tight scare tissue in the outer thigh just above the knee keeping his right leg a bit shorter than the other. Perhaps it had been a gun wound? A boar's tusk? The jaws of a large serpent?

He chuckled silently under his breath focusing on his new found stride. He caught the eyes of the butler as he rounded the next corner. The wrinkled old coot looked at him and Quentin looked right back not faltering an inch.

"Come for the Langford's frosting for the evening?" asked Farnsworth upon final recognition.

Quentin shot him a quick grin. "It's a tough job, but someone has to do it," he replied with sarcastic gristle.

The butler gave a chuckle and produced a key. He disappeared into the closet and came out with a polished, birchwood box decorated with a family crest. He opened it up, presenting it to the valet.

Atop a black, velvet pillow rested a necklace and matching bracelet of pearls.

Quinten's eyes lit up. Relieved that the daughter of a nobleman hadn't brought a family heirloom he held out his hands steady as a rock, silently sucking in a gulp of air as he took the loot. The smooth, round stones were cool on his palm, humming a soft song. Both pieces would be easy to sell.

"All seems well here," Quentin replied, as if he'd seen the treasure a hundred times before. He slipped the pearls into his coat pocket and began to walk away, focusing on keeping a calm demure. He was just a valet bringing his mistress her jewels and that was all he would be for the next twenty minutes or so. Then he would disappear safely into the night.

"I could have sworn you were taller," the butler called after him.

Quentin paused for a moment looking over his shoulder. "It's the ol' wound," he said, patting his thigh. "Weather pulls it together like drum strings. Likely to rain soon, I'd wager. Makes it so I can't walk all that much upright."

The old guard gave him a patriotic salute. "The things we do for our country."

"The things we do indeed," Quentin replied. He returned the salute and walked off.

****


Kimber knocked on the door to his sister's room only entering after receiving the obligatory 'enter.'

Joan sat at the vanity looking at herself in the mirror. Rhys was there too, next to the bed digging his nails into the bedpost.

"Shall we make for supper then?" he asked.

"Hardly. I sent that little maid for my necklace and earrings over twenty minutes ago. What is taking Quentin so long?"

Kimber cocked his head suspiciously. "Quentin is just outside the door. He has been with me the whole time."

"Well, send him in," she demanded impatiently.

"Quintin, would you come in please?" He needn't speak loudly, all being drákon, their hearing was impeccable.

"Did no one ask you to fetch my necklace and pearl bracelet?" asked Joan, once the guard had shut the door behind him.

Quentin shook his head. "No my lady. But I will go straight away," he said once Kimber gave him a permissive nod.

The three Langfords had nothing to do but wait. Kimber moved to the window and pulled back a lacy curtain.

The sun was creeping down over the horizon, slowly vanishing in streaks against blood-red trees. Despite the still air, their eerily cast shadows danced like ghosts on All-hallowed-eve daring to be seen.

"Do you feel that?" Kimber asked, the faintest of energies creeping over him.

Rhys released the bedpost and sent a wave of awareness out. "I do. He is still here. In the house."

"So do I," said Joan.

The three kept still and focused as the energy grew.

The thief would run soon Kimber was sure of it. His mood shifted, an instinctual excitement coursing through his veins awakening a primal drive he often kept buried.

A knock came at that and Quentin entered.

"My Lord, the strangest thing. The butler says I already retrieved your jewelry. I played it off casually. I figured there would be no use alarming anyone."

Kimber nodded his head. "Good thinking."

Rhys began unbuttoning his jacket and Joan was already removing her shoes.

"No. I'll go alone,” commanded Kimber. “You two must attend supper. Just say I'm indisposed. We must wait till the thief runs. We'll gain nothing trying to catch him in the house. And I need to be ready to fly at a moment's notice."

They protested simultaneously.

"You can't be serious!"

"But it's my first time!"

"You two will go to supper. You will eat. Drink. And be merry."

Despite being family, even his sibling knew to obey that tone.


****

Rhys could barely stand picking through the quail. He wanted to Hunt and navigating a small game bird with little meat and lots of bones made his skin crawl. He discretely spat out another bone, reached for his wine glass and finished the rest with a large gulp.

His sister shot him a glance. Her hands held her fork and knife in a death grip.

The thief was moving now, they could feel it. Their eyes met asking the same thing: had their brother left yet? Kimber was Gifted in ways that no one of the tribe in living memory was. At night he could practically disappear, suppressing his own presence leaving not a single trace. Even their father couldn't track him. It made him a more deadly adversary than a squad of skilled veterans, a devious extension of the dreadful night.

****

Kimber drew the curtains after locking and bolting the door. It wouldn't be long now.

He felt the challenge again, a hot smoke singing to his senses. The thief had his sister's jewels and it was a matter of time before he tried to leave.

Dinner was over, a fact Kimber was aware of, hearing the clinking of silver on china and the fall of heeled feet moving to the lounge where the men would enjoy a brandy and the women likely a game of cards.

The energy of the thief changed. The sun was gone and Kimber could feel him scurrying about. He was below stairs, his movement now much more poignant aimed at the North side of the manor.

A change slid over Kimber. He could feel the dragon squirming under his skin daring him to contain it for longer. He was consumed by the Hunt now, radiant and remote, his essence turned bestial, his core black and crackling. The silent, deadly creature within would no longer be swayed.

The Alpha stood in front of the fire place, the surge of adrenaline coursing through his veins. Then, he Turned to smoke. His clothes fell down in a heap on his shoes as he swirled up into the fireplace and out the chimney. He didn't even linger before fully transforming.

He was dragon, hovering over the manor letting his wings warm and stretch. The full moon beamed down upon his back bathing him in swathes of silver.

He took a moment to orient himself. The front of the mansion faced south with an oak-lined avenue leading to the entrance. At the back were a few sprawling gardens dotted with willows and elms eventually fading into forest.

Kimber opened his senses summoning the energy the thief emitted. It was there, certainly, but something about it made no sense. Erratic, a confusing kerfuffle of energy sometimes pulsing strong and a second later feeling like a beast, wounded and in distress.

At least the direction was clear; the thief had gone North....

...in the direction of Darkfrith.

Kimber turned to the tree line where his prey await, swirling his long elegant body, surging forward following the vibration of energy.

He wanted to give the runner a bit of time allowing him further North, further away from any Other that might see him Turn. Kimber flattened his wings taking a gentle glide, meandering back and forth as gained distance from the human manor. Every now and again he dipped low enough to graze a tree with a deft talon. On his approach his ears picked up the soft squashing of feet on humus and the occasional snapping twig. Kimber's heart pounded.

He was just above him now, the thief picking through the underbrush maintaining a steady pace. There was something peculiar though: a sort of strange glow -if Kimber could even call it that - lurking around the figure. Kimber would get his chance for a better look soon enough.

It's time, he thought, releasing his own energy making his presence known waiting for the thief to panic and Turn.

Oddly, the chap only scratched at his neck as if a mosquito had bitten him and looked once over his shoulder.

On the ground.

Where he stayed.

To Kimber's surprise he kept walking on his own two human feet.

Kimber circled back around silent as the grave. He Turned to smoke and settled on the forest floor just meters away. He pulled himself together, his beautiful body a wonder in the moonlight.

"How far did you think you'd get?"

The thief stopped dead in his tracks in a bright pocket of moonlight and cocked his ear. He wore an over-sized valet's livery and had a mop of curly, unkempt hair. Kimber could feel his pulse rise, could feel the crackle of magic that this drákon possessed.

Turn, he thought. Turn and try to flee.

"I would caution against midnight strolls in the wood, my Lord. There are oh so many predators about."

If Kimber hadn't been so consumed with the Hunt and captivated by an indescribable flutter weaving around this stranger he might have caught the higher pitch, the feminine undertones.

"I'm the only predator you need be concerned with," he warned.

The thief whipped around planting their two feet firmly as if preparing for a fight. He wore an over-sized valets livery and had a mop of curly hair. He resembled that boy snuffing out candles and opening curtains, but there was something different. The thief raised their head defiantly and looked straight into Kimber's unwavering eyes.

"Is that so?" came the most sensuous voice Kimber had ever heard.

Dear God, it was a woman.

Kimber looked precisely at the thief. The over-sized clothes masked her feminine curves, but they were certainly there. A hint of breast arched a lovely silhouette under the white, linen shirt not covered by the valet's coat which hung wider where her hips began. Her short hair had first suggested something boyish, yet now Kimber saw gentle curls lacing around a delicate face. A peculiar halo seemed to surround every inch of exposed skin, playing tricks on his senses.

Kimber's heart skipped a beat. The adrenaline already coursing through his veins took a terrifying new turn. What once was a familiar feeling was now all new territory, a thrill Kimber wasn't prepared to process.

Chapter Text

Just a little further, she thought, approaching a junction.

To the left would lead to the servants quarters with an exit near the South leading out into a sprawling garden. She'd have to go around the entire house to reach the woods delaying her escape, but she'd likely avoid anyone who might question her.

If she went straight, only a short walk through the main hall would await her, allowing a faster escape. The danger though would be risk of confrontation with the face she was wearing.

This 'Quinten' did not seem like someone she wished to scuffle with. He and the family he came with had some odd quality about them. Their presence scraped her senses, a crackling panache encompassing everything and nothing at once. Certainly not human, of that she was certain, though she'd never felt anything like them. So potent. So powerful. She wondered what they could be. What was their name? Landfjord? It hadn't been on the attendee list a week ago. They must have been a last minute addition.

The maids were all a flutter about the two brothers and argued over who would clean their rooms. Usually skeptical, the thief found the gossip surprisingly understated when one of them ran into her in the hallway. Hair of deep pewter and eyes of unrelenting darkness, he was dreadfully comely, so much so that she could hardly tear her own eyes away. He was alluring in a way that human males simply weren't.

Initially thinking it luck, not one of the girls had volunteered to assist the nobleman's sister - who hadn't brought a lady's maid and would need help dressing. The thief couldn't understand why they all feared the sister. It was the perfect opportunity, so as one of the lowly kitchen maids wishing to work her way up the service hierarchy, the thief 'bravely' volunteered.

It wasn't until she met the young woman that she realized the comely brother wasn't a fluke. She too got under her skin beckoning the scales to come out.

Perhaps it hadn't been wise to steal from another Mythic, she finally thought. There was no point in regret now, it was too late for that. She reached into her pocket and linked the clutch of pearls through her fingers, cool and soothing to the touch. Caution won out over brevity. She chose the servants quarters and the route around the house.

Assuming she'd be safe until outdoors it came as a shock when she reached the last hallway. It was long and had no windows - a fact the thief had been aware of. But for once since she'd been there not a single candle or lantern lit the way.

Perhaps the main hall didn't seem such a bad route after all.

Most creatures were hidden in the dark, predators and prey alike using this to their advantage. The thief was different. She had a special magic in her used to conceal herself making her appear as one of Them. That is, plain and ordinary. Like with any magic a source was needed and hers happened to be light. Be it that of a flame or the moon or the powerful sun itself, she needed that light to create her mirages. In places where darkness reigned, she became a glowing beacon like a star in the sky on the night of a new moon. Her prowess was minimized and her senses dulled, rendering her vulnerable. Despite her efforts it was the only time she couldn't maintain a disguise no matter how simple.

She paused a moment inhaling deeply taking in the smells and sounds. It seemed no one was nearby. She took a step into the darkness.

The hallway seemed longer than it was, as anything does when unpleasant. She looked down at her arm emitting a feint glow. Brighter and brighter it grew the darker it got. The mirage of the Landfjord's footman - or whatever he was - had long since faded away.

She was sure the pounding of her heart rattled the walls around her. If a servant came around the corner, despite being far away, they would see her immediately. A woman shining fiercely in the dark was not something someone would oversee nor was it a sight easily chalked up to failing eyes or a bit of bad beef. She didn't want to turn a theft into a murder, but secrecy was paramount to beings like her. She kept her pace quick, sure she was near the end.

Her fingers shook as she wrapped them around a simple, iron door handle. Gripping it tightly, she gave it a turn using the singing metal to steady herself.

The sun's last breath spilled over her as she opened the door to the outside. She washed herself in the glow, regaining a facet of calm. She took the dull variation of her own terrible face – one she'd practiced and honed – so that maintaining it required little effort. She needed her senses sharp till she was well into the forest.

There was no time to linger. The guests most likely would have discovered the theft by now and would begin gathering the servants for questioning. They would find no one missing so the house would be searched from top to bottom. By then she would be as good as gone. No one would consider venturing into the forest to look for the thief. Even hounds would be too instinctually frightened to pursue her.

She scampered along the edge of the house like a mouse stealing cheese from a pantry, the stone facade of the manor steadying her trailing fingers. Upon reaching the Northwest corner she gave a quick glance before darting across the expanse of lawn, finding respite in a small coppice of willows preceding a pond stocked with bespeckled carp.

Usually the escape was a thrill, her body bursting with adrenaline as she fled. Tonight it was different. She felt as if the air itself was watching her, permeating through her stolen clothes into her bones. She was breathing heavily but rest would have to wait. As fast as her legs would carry her she fled into forest as the sun's final rays graced the earth.

The first stretch of woods were thin, full of brambles and painful to pick through. She cut her hand and cheek after tangling with a batch of briars and was relieved when she found a game trail easing her traversal. She lengthened her stride moving much faster than before.

As if perfectly planned, she reached older growth as the moon emerged. The place held a familiarity, despite her never having been here. Ancient yews and old beeches with thick trunks stood far apart as if each tree jealously guarded its territory.

This place holds power, she thought, as she passed between two isolated redwoods jutting out as extensions of the earth like pillars of warning standing stoically amidst the others. A semblance of something darker than the forest fluttered over her skin. She scratched where the valet's lapels tickled her neck, her breath deepening, her heart racing.

You're not alone, whispered the winged huntress within.

She slowed her step listening for the predator to betray a sound, but all she felt was a subtle, intangible quake mounting in her bones. The moon was high and bright and a sudden urge to Turn arose. It was likely she could frighten off the being with sharp teeth, terrible talons and a well placed growl, but then she'd be revealed for what she was. There was much more power in mystery than a show of brute force, so she held her form, because whatever was stalking her was right behind her now. She caught the scent of smoke and night and then the musky fragrance of man.

"How far did you think you'd get?" came a silvery voice.

It was that Lord from the party. The rather comely Landfjord. How could he have possibly found her out here? This time it wasn't a mere itch that she felt due to his vicinity; a sudden frisson pulled at her from behind sending a chilling burn through her blood. Her instincts were right, they were something much more than human. Powerful, deadly. But so was she.

She would show no fear even if she had any. It was a simple rule when dealing with predators. Fear meant weakness, weakness was a signal to attack, to take your prey by the throat and close your jaws around them. She wasn't weak. She wasn't prey. Like the creature standing at her flank, she too was a predator. And she knew she was the greatest of them all.

"I would caution against midnight strolls in the wood, my Lord. There are oh so many wild beasts about," she said as husky as she could manage.

She wanted him to know she was Aware, that she didn't need to see with her eyes.

"I'm the only wild beast you need be concerned with," he answered, a dangerous challenge in his undertone.

"Is that so?" she wheeled around, taking a menacing pose, hands turned out as if she had claws.

She sucked in a silent breath as she caught sight of him. The unclad, muscular body of male shimmering in the moonlight poised to strike. His hair was a midnight shade of smoldering black and his eyes completely covered in darkness. She couldn't help but flick her gaze downwards, only once, catching sight of his unhindered manhood. It took all she could to maintain her mirage, keeping her natural shine at bay. Luckily the moon was at its peak and she was standing directly in a beam, manipulating the light as she needed.

She had to disarm him somehow. A jest perhaps?

"What in heavens are you doing out in the forest late at night, stark naked under the full moon? Have you gone mad, my Lord?" she asked with a sneer.

The runner was a woman, something Kimber hardly concieved as possible. At her jab he became suddenly conscious of his nudity. The drákon weren't modest like humans being naturally primal creatures. Practically everyone in the tribe had seen his bare body, an asset he had often flaunted. Yet here was a dragon-woman mocking him for it. Try as he may to maintain his unfaltering control, he wavered.

"Same thing could be asked of you," he stuttered, "being out in the forest I mean."

She shot him a wicked grin. "Smooth. Smooth as a spirit's wing in flight. Perhaps you should return to your wine and company, to your own element." She released some of the tension in her shoulders, having regained an ounce of control. With a cocked head she studied him through long lashes as if issuing a challenge to demand what she had stolen. His demeanor had changed, she recognized, his original intention no longer there, whatever it may have been.

He didn't move, didn't take his eyes from hers. He looked straight back, searching her for anything familiar. The memory of a face or smell. He tried placing her amid the intricate shoots and branches of the tribe families. There was nothing recognizable about her. Her scent was foreign and her energy utterly unknown.

At first glance she was plain; messy hair, soiled skin and eyes that hardly glimmered. And yet, she radiated drákon, cleverly disguised behind some power he didn't understand; a fervency crackling barely kept at bay by a practiced exterior.

His stomach felt of butterflies alighting a blossoming tree. A dragon. Born unshackled. Wild and free. He felt as if he could smell the winds on her, her skin soaked in a thousand skies and her marrow steeped in the blood of the earth.

"Who are you?" Kimber asked, his voice filled with desparate wonder.

"Just a country jewel thief," she replied, dismissively, her smile still sly.

"I beg to differ."

"Beg all you want." Her mouth took on a mischievous slant. "I think the more pressing question is what are you?"

He cocked his head curiously. "Is it not obvious?"

She looked at him with eyes bright, as if burning through to his very fiber. "You're not the first thing I've seen go bump in the night, noble Lord" she stated dismissively. "Well, if you’re not human..."

She tapped her lips in thought. He wasn't using magic like her, suggesting he looked as he appeared now. He'd found her using an altered form, a deduction gathered from his nudity. Wolf? Bear? He smelled like neither and their Turns were always so violent. Unlike her he was clearly a creature of the night, a being of shadow and phantoms. And he was suggesting they were the same species, a truly ridiculous notion. Her smile deepened into a puckish grin and she spun on her heel racing deeper into the wood.

A challenge then.

Kimber couldn't help but match her devilish smile. It wasn't the chase he had planned for, but it would no doubt be pleasurable. He'd let her get far, let her think she had won. He wanted to toy with her, goad her, push and prod her till she revealed that secret something she hid. If she wanted to see what he was then he would demand the same. It would be a game of cat and bigger cat.

The gracious breeze changed in his favor gifting him her scent. Something resembling peonies: sweet and spicy, rose and citrus. Feminine. Woman. He licked his lips and pursued her on his own two human feet.

She was lithe and quick and fleeting, skirting the trees and darting past old decaying stumps. An owl above instinctively flew off in a flutter, leaving a pother of down in its wake marking her flight. She was quiet, certainly, but to the senses of a dragon her graceful footfalls and thundering heart betrayed her.

Kimber trailed her easily, delighting in her sounds and scents, letting them wash over him. There was a certain appeal to it, a woman not readily giving into him. The young ladies of the shire had always gladly welcomed his intimate presence, fluttering their eyelashes at him inviting his caress over their naked bodies without pause.

He shook his head, wondering why his thoughts went there. Whether she knew it or not, she was a runner, a threat to the tribe. He was going to catch her, bind her and bring her home, as his was his duty. And that would be all.

The thief altered her path, changing directions more than once trying to throw him off course. Sometimes east, sometimes west, attempting to avoid being downwind. Clever, he thought. She certainly wasn't inexperienced. It made no difference though. Her scent - now a mixture of those summer flowers and feminine sweat - was just a gratuity. His ears twitched to the gentle slip of pearls against scratchy wool and the soft fall of a coat landing on a branch as the thief veered off her path again hoping he would fall for her trick.

He sped up, not following her directly, instead giving her a wide berth to maneuver around her. If she wanted to escape him she'd have to do much better than her human form.


No longer able to feel that faint shadow behind her, the thief began to slow. She continued a quick, but less demanding pace just to be sure.

A cluster of clouds had gathered around the moon casting menacing shadows onto the forest floor. She instinctively avoided the dark spots, meandering around them like a cat avoiding a puddle. She finally stopped as she came to a small spring gurgling up cold, clean water from the depths. She turned around cocking her ear for anything that would reveal the strange man. Her nose only caught the distinct bitterness of conifers and decaying stumps. She tried to recall that feeling that his family gave her, to reconstruct the sensation hitting her senses like a bee against a window caught indoors, summoning the recent memories of the strange man. All she felt was the cool humidity of sweating trees. Convinced she had lost him, a triumphant and smug grin stretched over her face.

And for a moment, Kimber saw, from the cover of a witch hazel bush, a hint of sadness. He couldn't imagine being alone. He'd always had that constant of his kind in his life, the strength of his parents and comfort of his brother and sisters. His tribe.

He remembered when he had first Turned. Ten years old, the youngest the tribe could even remember. It had been a bitter winter.

It began with a refusal to practice his sums and multiplication tables and ended with one of his father's lectures revolving around his role and future and his responsibility to their people. Kimber had yelled at him, telling him he hoped he would never have Gifts and ran out into the bitter cold. They were words he never meant, words he regretted saying even to this day.

In a cosmic joke of irony that was when he first Turned to smoke. It hurt terribly, the frigid air coming between every bit of the intangible essence he had become, threatening to tear him apart. His father found him like that. He comforted and coached, helping him to pull himself into form until he had substance. His scales emerged, teeth and talons gathering into sharp tips, wings spreading victoriously.

He took flight for the first time that night. It came so naturally. Just him and his father soaring through the moon-lit night. No guards, no footmen or council members. Just them.

He could not imagine his life any different. He felt a certain responsibility to the drákon standing in the small clearing before him lost and clueless as to his presence.

The very essence around her shifted and warped and that crackle passed through Kimber again at her sight, drawing him out, drawing him to her.

"Disappointed?" His voice was filled with bravado as he sauntered out, his arms triumphantly stretched.

She jerked quickly towards him, the blood draining from her face. "That hardly proves anything," she replied with forced poise.

He cocked his head. “Doesn’t it?” Kimber hid a smirk in anticipation, watching her contemplate.

She reached slowly into her pocket pulling out his sister's necklace, the pearls like distant moons. She bunched it up in her hand. "Fine. You win," she stated in mock surrender. "If it truly is that dear to your sister," it made a chink as it landed at his feet, “then take it and leave me be.” She retrieved the bracelet from her pocket as well, reuniting it with its pair on the ground.

“Only a little jaunt in the woods and you’re ready to give in?”

She gave him a shrug, all the while her cautious eyes on him.

"I'm sorry, but it's not the necklace that I'm tasked with bringing home. If you try to leave now I'll simply have to fetch you."

It was a deliberate provocation, one he dearly hoped she would answer with smoke and scales.

She considered it too. She considered many things. How his eyes were fixed on her, how his muscled chest tightened and released with every breath, how his manhood hung there, sleek and taunting.

He took a tentative slow step closer. Then another. And another. His eyes focused, his pupils expanding.

Kimber felt the depths of pines needles poke against his foot, a reminder of the Earth beneath him, marked by every step closer he got to the thief. He lifted his foot once more, slowly, carefully.

She was breathing harder and harder. Her thoughts were spinning, her mind a tumultuous fuzz. He smelled delightful, his body tempting. A wave of power flooded over her, undeniably stemming from him. She stood there, frozen. Yes, whispered the shining dragon from that dark part of her heart. He is a part of you. Show him. Show him what you are.

No.

Instincts be damned.

She lashed out at him with her foot, meeting his chest with her heeled-boot, knocking him back. She heard the wind leave his lungs in a single, succinct gust.

Kimber grabbed his chest startled by the blow, now on the ground holding himself up on one knee and a closed fist. He'd only been hit once that hard before; his brother Rhys, long ago during one of their boyish tumbles. He looked up at her just to make sure. It was still just a woman, plain eyes fixed upon him and postured for retaliation.

"I am not going anywhere with you," she said, sternly.

Kimber couldn't help it, a singular laugh escaped his lungs as he rubbed his chest. It hurt, aye, but mostly, it thrilled him. He'd played Catch What You Can with women in the shire, a more flirtatious version from his childhood; a rehearsed chase through the trees and inevitable capture of his prey. There was always some eager young drákon maiden happy to succumb. But with her he was met with a fierce unyielding, the likes of which he had only dreamt of in a woman.

"I’m afraid that is not up to you," he snarled. Without warning he leaped forward from the ground and caught her left wrist in his right hand. He felt it as a shock, a sudden crack striking at their connection, with the sinewy strength of her pull and fettered magic coursing through him.

She hadn’t time to jerk away, as swift as he was. She twisted her arm around trying to writhe from his grip, but he was far too strong. She kicked at him again, but he was ready. He jerked her to the side causing her foot to hit a tree.

Kimber had avoided the blow, but also regrettably sacrificed his hold on her.

"You're doing well," offered Kimber, in encouragement, genuinely impressed.

She was circling him, debating taking the offensive or defensive. "What the deuce do you want from me?" she demanded as she threw a nasty punch. When he blocked it she launched another.

It wasn’t possible, she thought. She’d always bested even males of any species. What manner of beast was this man?

He had to give it to her; she was strong, quick and wildly determined. But Kimber had grown up living this spiel; rough-housing with his own kind, winning mock fights, and on occasion even being forced to kill. Not that he would consider such a thing with her. Females were far too valuable.

Besides all of that he had the natural edge. He was larger, stronger, and male. Not to mention the offspring of an Alpha. It hardly seemed a fair fight.

"Well, you see, our kind doesn’t tolerate theft either." He had a hold of her arm after a barrage of strikes, relishing the contact.

"Pfft. Our kind," she scoffed. "If I had known what your family was I might not have stolen from you. It hardly seems worth the trouble now." His fingers hurt as they dug into her skin.

As he jerked her towards him she threw her knee into his stomach. He tensed his abdomen and pulled back avoiding the brunt of it, still maintaining the hold on her arm.

"Perhaps. But that's beside the point. Steal from us, steal from them, you're bound to get caught eventually and we can’t risk exposure. Especially, not so close to our home."

She launched every free limb she had at him, quick and with no discernible pattern. Kimber wished he could boast of having left without a scratch, with having blocked her perfectly, but it would have been a lie. She fought tooth and nail, making an occasional painful impact.

"I would never get caught. Not by humans anyways."

"Never is a long time," he retorted.

“Then I’ll leave. I’ll go far away from your territory.”

She made one last attempt to free herself, trying to twist under his arm for more leverage. The error cost her as he caught her other arm on the up spin and gripped it tightly.

“I’m sorry dear lady, it’s too late for that now.”

He had both her wrists firmly in his callused hands, her arms criss-crossed. She tried one last jerk, but he was ready for it using her recoil to pull her nearer. It must have hurt as she gave a suppressed whimper. His demeanor quickly changed from amusement to pity as he looked down upon her, tribeless and alone with fury in her eyes. He couldn’t blame her for her anger: to meet the first of her kind only to be accused a criminal - which she technically was - and snatched from a freedom that was natural to her, that she had possibly known her whole life.

“Could you not feel what we were?" he asked her softly, sorrowfully, searching her eyes. "Have you never known another drákon?"

It cut her like a knife. She let the word spill out of her lips in a whisper.

Drákon.

Is that what she was? Dragon, Drache, Drage, Dragão. Every language seemed to have a word for her, yet none of their stories seemed to represent the truth.

She said it again, the word rolling over her tongue, soothing a fray she’d long since supressed. Her throat tightened as she tried to swallow. She looked up into his eyes, deep orbs of coal pulling in the light around them inviting her in. She felt the bubbling under her skin as her magic began to weaken, siphoned by this man moving closer, inch for inch blocking the moonlight. She could Turn, exploding up into the sky like a comet and escaping on leathered wings. It was a risk she couldn't take. If he too were dragon he would catch her without trouble, of that she had no doubt, extrapolating from his prowess in human form. If she truly had to go with this man, she needed to have her secrets as armor.

So she did the only thing she could think of…

...and kissed him.

It was an act of a practical nature, she told herself. She didn’t want to kiss him. Or still be kissing him. He would have seen her and she couldn’t allow that. Self preservation, that's all it was.

But his lips were soft and his breath like the first drops of rain in a droughted summer. And...

...he kissed her back.

She’d tasted the lips of men before. Each one as mundane as the next, even letting them touch her, hoping for a spark, her body craving something she didn't understand. She never let it exceed a fondle, feeling that fizzling-out as they ran their boring fingers across her skin, as thick and unappealing as oozing mud. She always ended it before it went further.

But this peculiar man was different. The touch of his lips, the firm grip on her wrists. Skin touching skin sending cool, cool, burns up and down her spine. A thick black strand of his hair dropped to her cheek, tickling, reminding her he was real.

Perhaps this stranger was like her. A winged beast of myth hiding behind a carefully practiced facade. They were the embodiment of power, barely contained in flesh, sinew and skin, hiding behind pretty eyes, and pretty words. She wondered what that vibration was when he was near, that energy that he emitted making her nerves stand on the edge of a precipice and threaten to jump. Scales and wings, fangs and talons, the awe and dread of heavens.

Kimber allowed her to tug her hands free and move them up into his hair. He hadn’t expected the kiss. He didn't really know what he expected. He'd caught her. He had her detained, but what next? He'd never chased a female runner and she wasn't even really that. She was an outsider, not of the tribe. Regardless though, it was his duty to contain even the meekest of drákon to Darkfrith. He knew down to his marrow that she was one of them. She emanated that certain energy that all his kind did. When he first felt her he thought maybe she was simply thin of blood, her signal so weak and barely perceivable. But as the night came it was strong as if she wished to assert a birthright, switching from being a lowly serf to a queen who was warranted veneration.

And his lips were on hers now and she was lovely. He felt a change coalesce over her pulling him in, a swelling of heat and lustrous light. Kimber couldn’t help himself, he wrapped his arms around her back pulling her closer to him.

She felt his arousal against her stomach, delighted at the prospect. Yes, whispered the terrible dragon, let him take you. She wanted to just enjoy the kiss, the first one in a lifetime that pleased her, but the voice kept hissing louder and louder in her ear. She imagined him turning her around roughly and shoving into her hard. Or bending her down to her hands and knees and mounting her naked body. Moisture was already gathering between her thighs and her nipples hardened. Fucking instincts.

Her eyes shot open. She could see her glow illuminating his closed eyelids and pale face. If he paused for a moment to catch a breath or pulled away for any reason he would see. A thick beam of moonlight crossed the forest floor just beyond him. She needed to reach it quickly before he opened his eyes. His strong arms still held her close. An inkling sprouted to just let it play out, to let fate take her where it would. But she was sure it would lead to this stranger deep inside her.

Would that be so terrible?

Shut up.


Kimber felt like he was melting into to her, her body taut and demanding. He merried in the tension that spiraled and bound gathering as a hot rush through his groin. His hands were splayed across her hard back keeping her body pressed close to his. He moved them down testing new territories, wanting to explore more of her.

She didn't want to stop it. She wanted to give him a free rein, but she couldn't risk passing the opportunity. He was moving his hands, the pressure no longer as stringent, down the small of her back his fingers teasing the top crest of her buttocks. She painfully ripped her lips from his, a resounding pucker resonating through her ears, and slipped out of his grasp ducking under his arms.

She held for a moment, bathing herself in the moonlight, warping it, bending it around her, relieved at the return of her shield.

Kimber was left standing there in a daze, realizing now the absence of her warmth. He turned to face her yearning to touch her again. "I apologize," he began, "I didn't mean to-"

"Don't trouble yourself noble Lord," she said, cutting him off with a dismissing wave of the hand. "You're not the first man I've known to get a bit handsy." She knew passing it off as his fault was unfair. She'd been just as willing, just as wanting, but self preservation got the better of her.

Kimber didn’t even know this woman and the mention of other men sent a spear of irritation through his gut. A subtle southern breeze offered him her scent and the realization that she was no longer pressed against his naked body hit like an unexpected downpour. It filled him with regret, remembering her firm flesh in the palm of his hand, but deeper still in that dim place where the black dragon lurked - desire. She was unlike anyone he had ever known, something bewitching hidden just out of reach. He gripped his hands into tight fists, willing every muscle not to move. He felt the shadow slither up, the beast stirring just under his skin. Take your mate, it hissed in his ear. Claim what is yours, it demanded.

The thief saw the change in him, she’d seen that look before: men in the throws of passion denied what they considered their due. She’d crushed a man’s larynx once and even severed another’s fingers with a meat cleaver for grabbing her uninvited. There was something, though, much more perilous and primal prowling in this creature before her. He was no man, but “drákon”. She feared, despite her strength, there was little she could do to stay him should his instincts take over. She gripped him with warning eyes wondering how under control that beast inside of him was - whatever it may truly be.

Kimber had been Alpha heir since birth. Gossip and speculation abounded on who he would take as a mate all of his years. It was a natural law of their kind that Alpha wed Alpha and since Kimber was directly related to all the women that could Turn, the issue was a bit more muddled. The young ladies of the shire -every one of them alluring, every one of them dragon-girls – competed fiercely for the honor, vying for that coveted position of wife of the marquess and mate of the Alpha. He’d dallied aplenty. Meeting them in the woods. Turning after they begged so they could ride atop his back to the moon, clinging to his body with warm, strong thighs. Letting them undress him and explore his body. They always hoped that maybe he would slip up, that they might be the one to catch him in that moment of weakness, snared in their eager hands and moist lips. That was always were it ended. Kimber never let it go further. It wasn’t difficult really. Not one of them truly allured him. So he figured, if they were going to use him, then fair was fair. He certainly enjoyed the release their bodies offered.

The drákon by nature coupled for life. Once mated, interference between husband and wife was considered a mortal offense. Either the challenger fought and killed for the object of their desire. Or they lost their life. For appearances sake vows were taken in the chapel in Darkfrith, if only to make it well known who now belonged to who. So, young couples were damn careful when they stole off into the woods knowing that sex meant matrimonial permanence. 'Til death do you part' ran bloody deeper than the culturally constructed practices of Others.

Kimber finally came back to himself. He looked at the thief shrouded in moonlight, so plain and ordinary, glaring at him with dull eyes. Practically human.

He berated himself for almost having bonded with her, having lost a degree of control. In fact, it even frightened him how much he had wanted it. She couldn't possibly be his mate. He wasn’t even sure she could Turn. For a moment he was angry. She had kissed him. She had tempted him. Like all those other girls waiting for him to slip, she was trying to claim him. It was all illogical really, to presume she had such a poignant agenda. Besides, she had stopped the kiss when he hadn’t the willpower. Never before had the black dragon risen like that and it filled Kimber with unease.

"What's your name?" he asked, realizing he should find out at least that much. His voice had mellowed and erection subsided.

The thief released a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. She gave him another cautious look through guarded lashes.

"Will you be needing identification for my prison cell?"

Kimber suddenly remembered why he was here. A runner, the Hunt. She was his captive. Of the shire or not he was bound by law to bring her back to Darkfrith, whether it be at the end of a tether or of her own free will. He preferred the latter.

"I was hoping the circumstances might be different," he said. He made no move towards her. "You are one of us, you must know?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

The thief remained still, her stare fixed on him.

"It can't have been easy out there, alone. Always wondering what you were. Never knowing why you can pick out the words of a whisper in a crowded room, or why you can catch the scent of a stag miles away. Why even the most hardened soldier is no match for you?"

His voice soothed her with a lyrical element. He gazed at her with his deep eyes, pulling her into his depths.

She felt found, after living in a sea of lost.

"Aren't you the least bit curious?" he asked. His expression was soft and full of sympathy.

In truth, she was curious. She'd spent her life searching for those like her, always wandering from place to place only to be disappointed. She'd uncovered many secrets and discovered countless hidden pockets of beauty that this world held, but never had she found another dragon. The loneliness had become palpable. She began to believe that she truly was alone, a freak of nature abandoned to her fate. And now before her stood a man, claiming to be the same, more beautiful than any creature she had ever seen, offering to take her with.

She looked away, a single tear drop threatening to fall. There was a certain danger, she knew, like entering a lions den with a bleeding wound. But she couldn't not go. She waited for the tear to fall before turning back to him, wondering if he had heard it hit a decaying twig by her feet. She certainly had.

"What if I forgot the theft? What if I ensured you forego judgment and simply came as a curious visitor? Would you come with me then?"

She perked up.

"To see your home?"

He nodded. Her interest was clear.

She took a few steps pacing to a fallen tree and back. Her eyes shot to the moon and then fell upon Kimber, hardening at once. "One week. I'll come with you for one week."

His mouth twisted in dissatisfaction. "Two," bargained Kimber.

"One. And then I decide whether I stay," she repeated sternly.

A breathy laugh escaped his lips. "I fail to see your leverage in this negotiation," he asked with a curious grin.

"My leverage is simply going back the way I came," she stated haughtily.

"I doubt that. I caught you with ease. What's to keep me from dragging you all the way there?"

"With ease you say? The cut on your face and swelling bruise on your shin beg to differ."

He pressed a hand to his cheek feeling a crust of dried blood. In all the kerfuffle he hadn't even noticed.

"You may be stronger, you may be faster, but you didn't succeed without damage. Imagine dragging me, stark naked as you are, fighting you the entire way. Who knows, maybe next time I'll get lucky and hit something of greater value." Her eyes dropped from his, settling for a moment with a raised brow on his manhood.

He let out a breathy chuckle. "You drive a hard bargain."

"Sorry noble Lord. I'm not accustomed to giving quarter," she replied, with hands on her hips.

Neither am I. Kimber was beyond amused. She knew she had lost and still she made demands of him.

Whether she'd agreed to stay for a day, a week, or a year was irrelevant. She was going to her new home in Darkfrith for the rest of her days. Once he had her there, she hadn't a chance of escaping the finest hunters on the planet. He contemplated denying her, hoping for one last attempt to provoke a Turn (if she could), an idea that sent a spark through his belly.

He could tell her right now the truth of their world; their strict laws; their relentless containment. He could make clear to her the order of things. She'd probably hate him for it and fight him every step, but at least he could take her back with a clear conscience and, if by luck she Turned, then he would claim her right here in the forest. By morning he would go home with a mate and she would eventually come to accept the facts.

But he liked her like this, confident and defiant yet still playful and interested. He didn't relish the idea of dragging her back and risking her threats. He'd have plenty of time anyways to coax the truth from her once she was safe in the confines of the shire.

"Well? Which will it be?" she asked impatiently.

He opened his mouth still undecided. He settled on a simple "agreed," and a tip of his head.

"I admit I'm a little disappointed," she confessed. "It's been my experience that noble Lords never accept not getting their way."

You have no idea, Kimber thought with a crooked smile.

"Well I suppose if we are going to be spending the next week together, then introductions are in order. My name is Sunniva."

Chapter Text

After two hours of walking in the dark towards the single road leading to Darkfrith, they slept on the forest floor behind the tree line. Kimber knew the direction, the North star being one of his companions at night.

Sunniva still wore half of her valet's livery with Kimber now sporting her stolen coat. They'd gone back and retrieved it and the stolen jewelry, sniffing both out in the dark.

Kimber didn't actually sleep. He had her agreement, but no way of verifying its authenticity.

It wouldn't be till morning that his siblings would arrive - or so he hoped. Rhys, having been on Hunts before and not lacking in imagination, was certain to assume that either the runner was safely within the confines of Darkfrith or still in Kimber's clutches. He would either way - upon discovery of an absent brother - make up a suitable excuse and head with the carriage in the direction of the shire.

Kimber used the time till sun up to contemplate her. Retaining his vigilance throughout the night he watched as his captive slumbered curled up at the base of a tall birch. He, on the other hand, propped himself against an opposing tree where he had her well in sight, allowing his gaze to roam.

A few buttons from the blouse had gone missing in the skirmish, now exposing her throat pulsing slow and steady. She had pulled off her oversized boots revealing a pair of impish feet tucked close to her thighs. She seemed perfectly at ease out here on the forest floor: a mess of pine needles and mulch for a bed, the distant lullaby of a nightingale, a blanket of silver moonlight wrapped around her. Hardly the sight of a feral dragon.

There was a danger to any secrets she held, possible threats to his home and people. He'd have to sniff them out, and if she didn't relinquish them, coax them out more forcefully.

Where all had she been? Did anyone know what she was? Was there another tribe of dragons? More drákon hidden away in a place like Darkfrith. He didn't think it likely, as it was clear she didn't even know what he was, but it was a possibility he had to consider.

She surely couldn't be from the shire. He'd met every young female in the past twenty years that could have made a suitable mate and she definitely had not been among them.

Mate.

It was another issue on his mind. The woman lying there could quite possibly be Kimber's bride even if she didn't know it. If she had the Gifts, if she could Turn, then by law she was his. Alpha mated with Alpha. He relished the idea of no longer having that uncertainty hanging over his head, of having fulfilled that last responsibility sealing his position. But he needed to know first. He was duty-bound to take the strongest of women sending that strength through generations to come.

His thoughts reached back to the recent past, of memories of her lips, the taught muscles of her back - a treacherous trail leaving him wanting more. His eyes raked once more down the still figure lying there like a wood nymph. She stirred for a moment, letting out a sleeping whimper. He wished he could touch her again.

The sun slipped through the trees as fingers of gold and white, grasping at Kimber's eyes, blinding. His hand instinctively rose to shield them. It was nearly imperceptible at first, the aura of Sunniva shifting like the wax and wane of the moon, but as the sun continued to rise the luminescence surrounding her pulled tighter and closer. By the time the light had consumed her, she seemed nothing more than a rugged country girl in a man's clothes. He realized she hadn't been asleep before, her pulse slowing even more and her breath deepening.

Kimber blinked twice, his eyes filling in for what his other senses could not. He yearned for that creature of the night no longer before him, wishing dearly for her return. Even her scent was no longer as potent. He continued to contemplate her for the few hours she slept as he waited for his siblings and guard. He straightened his back against the tree once she began to stir.

Sunniva awoke to the quaking thunder - at least it was to her - of racing hooves and metal-rimmed wheels striking packed dirt. She peeled herself away from the earth with her ear cocked to the South. Kimber was staring at her, his face indiscernible.

"Good morning," he offered amicably, a well-rehearsed greeting by a man born and raised as nobility.

"Do you hear that?" she asked.

Kimber tipped his head as well.

"Horses and a carriage. Yours I presume?" She sat up like a mermaid perched on a rock, legs tucked close and palms against the ground.

He looked at her incredulous adjusting his head still hearing nothing.

"Quite the early birds aren't they?" she added.

Kimber closed his eyes concentrating his ears. "My brother and sister aren't ones for breakfast."

He opened his eyes settling them on Sunniva. How confounding she was.
She seemed so plain, hardly that of a drákon at all. In the light of day her eyes were a dull gray and her hair a peasant's blonde. Her skin was hardly that of alabaster, instead sun-kissed and freckled. And yet she heard his carriage coming from leagues away, a feat he couldn't even accomplish.

She stood up from her impromptu bed. "As you can see, I've kept my word,” she said. “I'm still here ready and waiting for penance." She held out her arms towards him as if waiting to be shackled.

"I thought our agreement was that there would be no penance," he reminded jovially.

A mirroring of satisfied smiles formed at that.

They remained just behind the treeline as the embarrassingly ornate Langford carriage with gilded carvings and tasseled windows came over the hilltop. The horses wheezed and a white froth surrounded the harness and leather straps that touched their fur and skin. Quintin sat atop the driver's seat which he expediently abandoned after a skidding halt. He pulled two axes from a luggage compartment hung on the back and tossed one to Rhys who had emerged from within.

Sunniva recognized them both from the hunting party, noting how much more menacing they looked than before. Beautiful noblemen transformed into barbarous warriors, poised for battle as they charged to meet their foe.

"What kind of thief did you expect to catch?" she asked Kimber, brows raised.

"Someone much more dangerous," he stated playfully.

"I'm insulted. I'm much more dangerous than you give me credence."

Kimber tipped his head to hers dusting the tip of her ear with his breath. "Then prove it."

It tickled her senses when he drew near, her skin sprouting savory little goose pimples roused by a few words. She drew her bottom lip between her teeth biting down in excitement.

Kimber stepped out from behind a tree and promptly spoke once the men were near. "That won't be necessary."

Sunniva followed close behind him. She noticed that same change in demeanor in the men as with Kimber the night before, albeit more subtle. They simply hadn't expected to find a woman.

"This is the thief?" Rhys asked in disbelief, his jaw dropped and eyes large.

"Not quite," replied Kimber. "I think things best be explained after we return to Darkfrith."

****

His name was Kimber Ellery Darce Langford, Earl of Chasen. It sounded so preposterous, too comical of a facade, a visage so tame Sunniva wanted to laugh. She'd spent the latter half of her life keeping apart from humans with the exception of her recent necessary thefts in which she moved among the Others in a way that no one noticed her. Sometimes as a chamber maid, sometimes a livery boy, and recently, as an exception, the valet of a marquess' son. She'd dawned the faces of gardeners, pages, hall and boot boys, always junior staff requiring little skill to pass as authentic and to whom one of importance paid little mind. She was a dragon after all. Scales and teeth and talons and flame had no use for fancy dinners, or warm baths, or luxuries mortals held so dear.

And sitting next to her in this ridiculous carriage drawn by ridiculous horses was a noble family of dragons (possibly) who ruled a territory filled with mortals. Genuine princes among men.

She wasn't sure whose disguise was more clever. Though why they simply didn't fly home was beyond her. Humans had terribly poor eyesight using the right light. Still, if these siblings were reluctant to show their true colors she refused to show them hers.

She needed to be careful here. They may be her kind, but she knew, like every Mythic she'd encountered, they had their own set of rules, creedos by which they lived, social hierarchies determining their place among their own people.

Even the fact that they had positioned Sunniva strategically seated in the middle of all three instead of two across from two was something she noticed; the sister across from her and the two brothers on either side. It seemed an odd seating arrangement, like that of a prisoner rather than a guest. None of them spoke as if not sure what to make of her. Perhaps they were expecting some other type of thief or were simply wary of her, just as she was of them. Still, she wasn't being dragged by her throat so evidence of a criminal status wasn't conclusive.

She leaned her head back resting it against a velvet, double-welted cushion fixed to the interior. The carriage was well-sprung, the only feature that Sunniva was thankful for, allowing her to relax without the violent jerks as with horse-traps and hacknies.

Kimber kept the shades open. There was no hope of keeping his catch a secret so he figured he would at least spare everyone a carriage ride in the hot summer without fresh air. He didn't need to see though what he felt in his bones as they crossed over the unmarked border. They passed the first gameskeeper's house, a quaint log cabin tucked away in the trees. It was an inaccurate title of the profession as they weren't there to monitor game, but rather to watch the borders and keep the drákon well within them.

The further they got into the shire the more relieved Kimber felt knowing Sunniva was contained. It didn't give him, however, any ideas what to do with her.

Procedure for runners was fairly standard. Assuming they came quietly they would undergo judgment by the council. It would be assessed whether the perpetrator was a flight risk and the punishments ranged from clipped wings to execution. Those doomed for death were burnt and laid to rest in a forbidden cemetery where they were shamed and forgotten.

The woman at his shoulder - her feminine scent and slight smile a constant reminder - was no runner. He decided it might be best if given a few days to adjust before becoming subject of an interrogation. He'd keep her secluded as long as he could and hoped his father might have some wisdom upon his return.

He was glad that the village was further North and all that was between them was road and trees. The shire was designed like that on purpose, allowing the ruling family first knowledge of any visitors. In this case he could get the woman inside without too many inquiring faces.

"We're nearly there," announced Kimber as the road changed from dirt to crushed gravel. He felt her shift and knew she sensed what he did. His guards were waiting for his return.

It struck at Sunniva like jolts of lighting, the electricity burning away her skin leaving nothing but her core exposed. She tried concentrating on her other senses: chirping crickets hiding in shaggy ferns, the fragrance of the forest drifting across her nose with each short gust. And Kimber, cool against her left shoulder smelling of the moon and delicious male. She didn't mean to, but in a betrayal of her own instincts she pulled closer to him.

The carriage listed to a halt. The door was flung open, letting more light pour in. Rhys was first to alight, placing buckled shoe directly on the ground avoiding the footplate all together. Joan came next, graceful as a cat, hardly making a sound as her heeled pump met the iron and then the small rocks of the driveway. Kimber waited till his sister had moved further on before climbing out of the carriage.

Overwhelmed and unprepared, Sunniva froze. So many of them surrounding her, their energies flaunting and surging in sharp waves, it was all she could do to keep the skin on her back. She glanced out of the carriage where the eyes of servants peered in, feeling the fire rise in her throat threatening to escape.

"It's all right," came a deep, soothing voice from outside.

Sunniva hadn't realized she’d closed her eyes. She opened them to see only the earl's face. She concentrated on him, using her only familiarity in this new place like a raft afloat a flooding river. She put her hands on the door frame and pulled herself up from the seat making herself get out quickly before she lost her nerve. Practiced feet landed on the ground spryly. She realized Kimber had offered her his hand, quite the gentleman's custom. Unfortunate she hadn’t noticed, she would have loved the feeling of his palm under her fingers.

The servants lining the path were all men and Sunniva wondered if they might instead be soldiers, all disciplined males, their focus on their Lord awaiting his word. A few eyes flickered towards her as her boots softly crunched pebbles.

Sunniva pulled her back straight and tightened her shoulders. She met a few eyes with her own, boldly daring them to keep looking. It was a simple law of beasts she had learned, that a certain degree of respect was held in the eyes. But these men were all predators and not one shied away. How she wished she could parse what they were thinking.

She stopped before the first step of the massive house hearing the whispers of curious faces much further away. She turned a moment catching a pique ripple over the onlookers.

Kimber noticed it too, a spark that lit from face to face of the crowd gathered at the edge of the perfectly manicured lawn of Chasen manor.

"Who are they all? Why are they all looking?" she asked.

There was no way that word had reached the shire about what he had caught. Even his men patrolling the perimeter couldn't have known that a strange woman would emerge from his carriage.

Rumors certainly had a way of spreading quickly in such a tight knit community. They knew that Kimber Langford had left three days ago to Hunt a runner. And they knew that when the Alpha's heir was involved, somebody would always emerge from the carriage either alive, trussed and hooded; or dead, wrapped in burlap.

So of course everyone wanted to know who’d been returned. But when a stranger, unbound, unhooded, female and dressed in men's clothing, crawled out of that carriage, the gossip caught and spread like a wildfire.

Kimber would give it a few days and ask his sister what the running theory floating around the tribe was. He'd figure out later how to properly present her to society hoping to avoid insult or injury. For now he just wished to avoid a headache.

"This is our tribe. Our people. They are merely curious about you," he stated vaguely.

He pressed a firm palm against her back encouraging her forward.

"Come."

****

Joan poured a large pitcher of scalding water over the thief's head washing away the grime of last night. Her brother hadn't felt comfortable letting another member of the tribe close to the thief yet, so the task fell to his sister to see her dressed.

She drew a silk robe over the thief's shoulders after she climbed out of a large copper tub and waited for her in the bedroom.

A fine frock of green velvet with lace was already laid out on the bed. Once dressed she sat her down in front of a vanity carved of white aspen with gold inlay cut into delicate grooves. The thief ran a thumb across the metal lines likely appreciating that natural hum it emitted. It wasn't the only stone singing a song in the room. The silver candelabras in the corner waltzed a jive. The brass handles on the vanity produced a smooth melody. And inside the thief's pants hanging off the back of her chair thrummed something unique, deep and smoky.

Joan produced a comb from one of the ornate drawers and promptly applied it to Sunniva’s hair. Piece by piece Joan freed the strands from tangles, a task hardly daunting since her hair was short.

"Your jewelry is with your brother," began the thief.

"I know," replied Joan. She pinned back the few measly strands of hair with pins as stylishly as she could manage.

The thief continued. "You must be wondering how I acquired it."

Joan gave her a polite smile. She was trying to keep conversation to a minimum, knowing her brother wished to be in control of what information was revealed.

"Not even a little curious?" the thief prodded once more.

"Jewels go missing all the time." Joan opened one of the drawers pulling out various tins and cosmetic boxes arranging them carefully on the vanity. She opened a few, examined them and set them aside with a frown.

"Your skin is far too tan. I believe only a lead base might make you look appropriate but we've nothing but powder. We've never had need of it."

It was a simple fact. The drákon were pale, their alabaster skin conveniently fitting with the fashion of the time. Joan prided herself on keeping up with the latest trends of London. She was tasked by her brother to make their 'guest' more comfortable and for her that meant experiencing the finery of the upper class.

The thief's face in the reflection changed and it became clear to Joan she'd taken her words as a slight.

"Your jewels didn't go missing. They were stolen," corrected the thief, her manner sneering.

Joan couldn't entirely put her finger on what was so irking about this woman. That beast within crackled and boiled and wished to rise up to the provocation.

"It was a meager set," dismissed Joan, putting the finishing touches of black kohl around the thief's eyes.

"I take it you have many then?"

"Jewels? Of course. Why wouldn't I?"

"Is it a part of the human facade to be this conceited or is this how you actually are?"

Joan couldn't believe the thief's hubris. Had she any idea who she was talking to? She was the daughter of Alphas, her parents the greatest to rule the drákon in living memory. Out of hundreds of women only she, her mother and sister could Turn. She was the Alpha female of the tribe. Who even was this woman to challenge her?

"I find it not worth my while to engage in conversation with a criminal," snapped Joan.

"I thought as much. Though I hardly find it a crime to steal trifles from nobles who gouge every last penny from their tenants."

"That's not how we are!"

That Joan was on edge was obvious.

"Oh? Enlighten me," prompted Sunniva, as if pleased to have touched a nerve.

Joan felt the desire to snatch the woman's throat. This halfling was hardly even a dragon and dared to insult Joan in her own home.

She reached into the pocket of Sunniva's pants pulling out a silvery-white pearl hung on a delicate platinum chain. It was the size of a robin’s egg and shaped like a dried plumb, puckered and shiny. She held it up to the light, the ivory-like surface reflecting the evening sun in stark hues of red and orange. Joan had heard it ever since Sunniva entered the carriage.

"Trifles? You steal only trifles?! I'd hardly call *this* a trifle."

The thief snatched it away. "I didn't steal that," she insisted clutching the pearl to her chest.

"Oh? Enlighten me," retorted Joan.

Sunniva uncoiled the chain from her hand and clasped the necklace around her neck. "It was my mother's," she finally confessed.

"And I bet she is just like you."

"No,” she corrected. “No one is like me," said the thief proudly.

Joan raised her eyes in disbelief. The thin-blooded peasant woman sitting in front of her was without a clue. Everyone here was like her and most of them even greater. That Kimber even brought her in the first place seemed a bit overkill. Still, she knew the rules; even the weakest drákon left to the outside world was a threat. Her brother had only done what their laws required of him.

"Dinner will be served soon and I must get changed. Someone will fetch you. In the meantime, wait here."

She left the room allowing herself a chuckle once the door had latched at the thief's misguided bravado. A guard had already been placed at the room's entrance. He gave her a nod of acknowledgment.

Sunniva was relieved the sister had left. She wasn't sure why such a sudden feeling of animosity had come over her as if the barbarous dragon within had been waiting for an opportunity to show its talons.

Sunniva kicked off the uncomfortable pumps and sat down on the bed, legs dangling off the edge. She found the lace over her décolletage terribly itchy but resisted the urge to rip the offending fabric from her chest. She closed her eyes allowing her senses to wander as she waited for supper. It was easier now, without the jostle of the carriage and the enticing scent of the Earl next to her.

The sister was down the hall, no longer moving much apart from the expected to and fro of a woman in her dressing room. A man - she was sure it was male judging from the pungent perspiration - lingered outside her door. These "drákon" were all around her, above, below. Everywhere. Yet it still didn't match the brutal force she had felt on their approach.

There must be more, so many more, she thought, a mischievous idea creeping up from below.

Along with it came a useful realization. She'd always been a creature of the day hiding in the light, staring blatantly down upon the keenest of predators unaware, the sun behind her shining its terrible rays. It was when she was her strongest, her magic most potent. They hadn’t picked her out at Hawksmead despite having been very close, a useful fact she’d have to remember.

And there was theory she wished to test. Kimber said she was their guest yet the sister still considered her a criminal and she was clearly being watched. "Let us see how honest dear Kimber is," Sunniva whispered to herself.

****

Kimber sat in his father's chair opposite his brother, a large, mahogany desk filling the expanse between them. It was kept meticulously tidy, a set of goose quills lying parallel to each other, a cloisonné inkwell to the right of those and in the center a perfectly aligned stack of parchment. A cacophony of clocks rang in imperfect unison signaling the change of the hour. It was three now. They had arrived too late for lunch and too early for dinner.

Kimber's stomach began to rumble. He was hungry and tired and could think of nothing except for what to do with the new addition to the tribe. He told his brother the events of last night careful to leave out the kiss.

“Do you suspect she can Turn?" Rhys asked. They had all initially assumed it. How else would someone have been so successful robbing jewels? But sitting in the carriage with her made them doubt.

"I couldn’t confirm it," replied Kimber. He stuck his fingers into his hair. "I thought so at first but now...I honestly don't know," he finally confessed, pulling his hands out leaving greasy black strands behind. "Last night in the woods she was so vibrant and when the sun rose she became..."

Kimber wasn't sure how to finish the sentence. He pressed a hand to his eyes, rubbing the gritty sleep away.

"Dull?" His brother offered. "Lackluster? Plain? Human?"

Kimber nodded in agreement.

They sat for a moment in silence, in thought, the ticking of the clock counting the seconds that went by.

"Do you suppose it a Gift?" his brother finally asked.

Kimber perked up.

Like every other people on the planet the drákon ranged greatly in their abilities. Some could smell better, others had ears that reached far. Some had an uncanny sense to feel their own kind, making them formidable hunters. The men still had the Gift of smoke and scales and sharp talons and wings that ripped apart the night in broken spears of color.

They of course had their legends of individuals blessed with more.

Red-haired and fire-willed Nadus who had first touched down talon to this land in what would become Darkfrith. By force of will alone he had pulled his people to this rough and untested isle.

And Illan, who with powers of seduction, swooned a Celtic witch and claimed her as his own.

There was Clarimonde, who was said to control Water and to have charmed an entire legion of human soldiers set out to kill her.

There was Theodus the Mystic.

Kieran the Unfortunate.

William the Blessed.

And for generations those legends had been folk tales for adults to exhalt their children of those ancient times of greatness, or morals used for stories of purity or virtue or other such idealistic nonsense. They'd been fictional and falsified beacons of hope, depressing the cynical and encouraging the optimistic. No one doubted a stem of truth to them, but like any story over time they grew and twisted like the gnarly branches of an old great oak. Apart from the wishful imaginations of children no one truly believed that the drákon could ever be blessed with anything more than the Gifts the tribe saw every night in the sky over Darkfrith.

Until Kimber.

The product of two true Alphas, the golden child, the perfect offspring of the perfect mates. His Turn was seamless, his senses uncanny, his prowess unmatched but he was more than that. He could, even on the clearest of nights, render himself unseen. Not man or moon or even the keenest of drákon could seek him out. It wasn't clever tactics, like remaining downwind or taking advantage of ever changing clouds. He could simply disappear. One moment he was there and the next, without even moving, he seemed gone.

There was a correlation among their kind: the strongest of them exhibited the greatest presence, emitting that frisson that every drákon did, an unmistakable force warning those of their place. But for Kimber even that was something he could hide. A truly dreadful feeling for anyone he hunted.

"What do you suppose that Gift might be?"

Rhys shrugged his shoulders. "I couldn't say. Something like you?"

Kimber's eyes widened.

Rhys perched himself on the edge of the desk. "Or maybe she is just a thin-blooded fluke. What do you plan to do with her?" he asked grabbing a quill and running his fingers down the feather.

Kimber raked his palms down the length of his face.

"Wait till Mother and Father return. I'll keep her close, gather information. We need to find out how she came about outside of our territory. In the meantime I need something to eat."

****

Kimber trudged up the stairs thinking about how to approach this strange drákon. At his wits end trying to empathize, Kimber conjured the perspective of a young, human female – of whom he had adequate experience – discovering the shire for the first time. Certainly in awe of Chasen manor and most likely impressed by his title, he imagined her being flattered with gifts of jewels more grand than any she had stolen. Eventually he’d reveal to her his position as Alpha and explain what that meant among their kind.

He had told one of his guards to linger near her room before he met with his brother for precaution’s sake. Inconspicuous was the word he had used. He didn't want Sunniva knowing she would be observed and guarded.

Kimber gave the man a single nod before knocking on the door.

"Sunniva? Supper is ready. May I enter?"

No answer. He knocked again, this time louder.

"Sunniva?"

He put his ear to the door hearing not even the sound of breath. He turned the handle and swung the door open, taking great strides as he entered. She was nowhere to be seen. The room held the barest scent of her. It pulled Kimber's thoughts to the first night they had met when she had been pressed close to him. She certainly had been there, that spicy scent still lingering. He checked the windows, looking for any clues.

If she had Turned to smoke she would have had to open a window beforehand and would not have been able to close it behind her. As smoke, they weren't able to manipulate things as they could as human or dragon.

Kimber blurted an expletive loudly, banging his hands against the stone holding the window frame.

The guard rushed in. "Is something amiss Sir?"

"How did she escape?"

"What?"

"The woman! The runner! I mean the...the one you're supposed to be guarding! How could you not hear her leave?" chastised Kimber, feeling a bit frayed around the edges.

"She was quiet as a mouse. Nothing seemed amiss," replied the guard.

Kimber turned back to the window, threw it open and leaned out. He looked down wondering if she might have jumped. He contemplated an attempt but knew he would have to Turn to smoke before landing. She must have gone out her own door when the guard wasn't paying attention. It was a ludicrous notion. George was hardly a novice, considered even one of the marquess' more trusted men. He wouldn't have been careless. He hadn't simply been preoccupied as the thief casually left. Sunniva clearly had Gifts indeed, her stealthy escape being proof of that. He'd have to find her before she got too far.

Kimber's anger dissipated as quickly as it had come. The thought of the Hunt stirred the black dragon. The idea of chasing a female who could Turn roused a white hot heat so foreign and welcomed that he could hardly keep the skin on his back.

"Should I call Quinten? Rufus and the others? Should I rouse the council?”

"No. I will hunt her alone," he commanded, the urgency clear in his tone.

"My Lord?"

"I said, I will hunt her alone," Kimber repeated, lower now in a more dangerous tone.

It would have been wise to accept the assistance, he knew, and his father would have chastised him, but the thought of other men pursuing her felt like an onslaught of jagged thorns digging into his side. He wouldn't permit it, couldn't allow it. If she could Turn by all rights she was his. His Alpha female. His bride. His mate.

He felt that cool, collected control slip and a greater, more dangerous one begin to take hold.

"Inform no one. Those are your orders and I will not be disobeyed. Now go."

"Yes, my Lord."

Kimber turned back to the windows, the slanted light covering half of the room.

When he was young, his father told him about how he tracked his mother by her scent alone. Lilacs it was. As a boy Kimber loved hearing that story, begging his father to retell it again and again.

He dreamed of a moment like this. Of chasing his mate as they were meant to be; streaks of scales ascending to the heavens, wings cutting swaths through the sky, taking her throat between his teeth and claiming her. The animal in him always so close to his skin awoke, uncurling its talons and flexing its wings.

He'd caught her once. He alone had the strength for this. He licked his lips still able to taste her from just twelves hours ago. He brought himself to the window's edge breathing deep the dry summer air, smelling harvested wheat, and drying moss on river stones, and the sweet nectar of honey suckle climbing a pergola in the extensive manor garden. He moved out of the sun's beating rays and paused to close his eyes, concentrating, stretching his senses.

He felt the black dragon rising, its hunger glittering through his blood, and welcomed the power that flooded him.

He brought her back to him. He summoned her face, the feel of her hands gripping his arms. The surge of power he felt when she kissed him revealing something beneath.

He filled his lungs again.

Tobacco, lit with a wooden match smoked from a pipe. Roasting venison, gin from the tavern, the metallic odor of a scythe being whetted. The forest, Darkfrith's single flock of sheep, perfumed maidens. Drákon, drákon, drákon, and familiar drákon - and then -

Nothing.

He opened his eyes, faced the four-post bed where that fading scent of her still lingered, then turned back to the window. Again nothing.

Try as he might there wasn't a trace of her apart from the enticing scent resembling those summer flowers from the bed. He snorted at the irony of it and sat down, sinking into the feathers.

The odd memory of once hiding under the bed popped in his head. He had wanted to scare his sister Audrey, waiting till bedtime and then grabbing her feet as she climbed in.

It would be ridiculous but he decided to check anyways. He bent over and looked under the frame. Sunniva was not there of course, but he did find the source of her scent. A pair of pumps and discarded stockings laid in a messy pile beneath. He picked up one, imagining himself the prince in some bastardized version of Ella in the Cinders.

Kimber pulled back the duvet and when he found nothing tore the sheets off as well. He was looking for an empty dress, hoping for some proof that she had Turned. He tossed the many pillows to the floor and lifted the mattress. So possessed with finding anything, any clue to Sunniva, he hardly heard Rhys at the door as he began tearing the rugs away from the floor.

"Have you lost something?"

Kimber whipped his head towards him. He was leaning against the door frame with one foot casually crossed over the other.

"Did George tell you? I specifically told him not to-"

Rhys raised both hands innocently. "George said nothing. I simply came up here to confirm something."

"And what would that be?"

"That the strange woman reportedly wandering about is in fact your jewel thief."

"She's been spotted?" Kimber jerked up.

Rhys nodded. "By a certain Daniel Hawthorne," he stated with familiarity.

"Who the hell is that?" Kimber knew all the names of every scout, hunter, guard, and soldier in his father's retinue. He'd even made a point to memorize their wives and children's names. But the name offered no face.

"I am told he brings the post from the village. Which is precisely where she has been seen. Wandering around looking perfectly human."

Kimber didn't hesitate nor did he ask more. He ran out of the room leaving his clothes and human skin on.

****

Sunniva could feel them; so many - similar to the noble family with whom she came - but all at once bombarding her with their presence. It seemed impossible to count them like sand specks in a dust storm assaulting her in a single, violent cloud. It was clear to her now what the power of this place was.

She stood in the very center of the village next to a communal fountain in front of the court house. Fully dressed if not slightly disheveled she stretched her hands outward, reaching for invisible somethings.

Kimber felt a twang of disappointment hoping for her to be less human. He approached slowly wondering if she was aware of his presence.

"It's overwhelming," she said without turning, addressing Kimber who was just behind her back. "So many of them, a thousand breaths, a million heartbeats, their energies bouncing off each other. Like bats in a cave. Have you ever seen bats leave a cave at dusk?" she asked turning her head ever so slightly.

Kimber saw a small trail of moisture running from the corner of her right eye to the sharp edge of her jaw.

"I can't say that I have," he replied.

"I have," she said turning back to the hustle of the village. "Many times. Blind as they are, it's amazing how they never collide coming out at night in such droves."

Kimber was pulled in by the look of awe on her face. He wondered what she might be feeling, seeing so many drákon all at once for the first time. He completely forgot about the circumstances for which he had come: she’d escaped and he came to capture her.

Sunniva glanced at the man now standing at her side finding him temptingly beautiful in the afternoon sun, his black hair shining like polished obsidian, his aura beckoning.

"Can you tell me what this feels like, right now? Being around them all for the first time. I can't imagine it. My kind have always been around me."

His eyes were fixed on her now, fathomless, dark, forcing her gaze despite her resistance.

"It's like lighting in a dry, desert storm pulling the hair on your arm giving you goose pimples and you feel that potential under your skin, with the smell of rain lurking, but it’s so high it dries before reaching the ground."

Kimber had only read about deserts and she had even been there, in a storm no less. He watched her close her eyes again and stretch her hands and he was perceptive to nothing else but her.

"If I concentrate," she continued, "I can pick them out like individual drops of rain. One falls on a leaf, another on a rock, another on a branch, all ever so slightly different. Unique."

Kimber couldn't help stepping closer to her. He caught her scent, subtle and secluded. A seductive mixture of contradictions: sweet and spicy, rose and citrus. With his chest almost pressed to her back and his shadow blocking the sun he could feel that power radiating from her, a white hot heat pricking pins into his skin.

She was not the hunted but the huntress. Not the prey, but the predator. Not human, but drákon, carefully concealed in soft skin and a gentle face. The thought sent a spiraling heat into his belly, traveling down, down.

He reached out as if in reflex, grazing her sleaved elbow with spry fingers. She didn't pull away instead bunching her fingers into a loose fist.

"For instance, that gentleman over there browsing the yarn selection," she said as she stretched out a single finger.

"He feels exactly like the gentleman who has been standing outside my door ever since I arrived."

Kimber's excitement choked in his throat. There, outside the window of the fabric shop, looking at a basket of died and spun wool, was George.

What in blazes was he doing here? thought Kimber.

"What makes you think he was guarding your door? He is just a servant ready to tend to whomever has needs of his service and is now coincidently perusing yarn."

She raised her brows at his slip. Kimber chastised himself for it. It was a juvenile mistake, one that he couldn't afford. But he was tired and hungry and running on the fumes of primal instinct.

"Yes, certainly. I wonder though, what sort of man goes from footman waiting on a dangerous prisoner to shopping for spun wool?"

"I'd like to think of you more as my guest."

"Tactfully salvaged. It was a part of our agreement after all. I'm curious do all guests receive guards?"

"You are an accomplished jewel thief," retorted Kimber.

"And there are certainly many treasures hidden in that labyrinth you call home," she stated casually.

Kimber pondered her meaning, wondering if in the short time she was left alone she'd seen more of Chasen Manor than permitted; the hidden undercroft, The Dead Room, the vault where the tribes most sacred gems were held. Perhaps she was bluffing; a pure act of speculation on the treasures held within the manor's depths. Besides, those places were impossible to break into, even for a dragon. She was clever, he knew, poking and prodding and testing him. Acting to elicit a response investigating what manner of man he was and what type of place she was in.

"I can see that one guard was not enough. An error I'll have to rectify in the future," he half teased.

He felt her tense under his fingers. Even through the scratchy lace of her sleeve, he felt that twitch of contracting muscle.

She hadn't meant it that way. It was only that in the few minutes she'd been in the manor she'd felt the hum of power in the depths beneath her. She wondered if maybe not all the drákon shared her sensitivity – at least during the day. Her face became sincere, her tone serious. "I meant nothing by it. Truly. I won't steal from you or any of your kind."

Your kind she had said. She still didn't believe that they were the same. It was smart of her, he thought, living a life of secrecy. But now she was home and it was time for her to reveal to him who she truly was. It was time for her to show the Alpha her secrets and take her place among the tribe.

"Then I suppose I'll have to rethink the guards. On account of your good behavior." He offered her a puckish grin making his jest clear.

She smiled at him understanding and smoothed some hair out of her face.
"Truth be told I'm more of a seeker of treasure anyways. And treasure is meant to be admired, but never taken."

"And what, then, did you do with all that treasure gone missing from the homes of the gentry, Lady Lodger Thief? Admire it into disappearance? I can't imagine the logistics of such an act."

"What? Oh that. That's wasn't treasure. Merely currency. I have to eat too you know."

He wanted to throw his head back and laugh, but he merely watched her with amused eyes as she began to walk away.

"Speaking of eating," she said, a pleased smirk spread across her face, only pausing a moment to see if he would follow.

He clasped his fingers behind his back and walked beside her towards Chasen manor.

Eventually Kimber's curiosity got the better of him. "How did you leave your room?" he asked, barely able to sound casual.

She stopped and grinned at him mischievously. She grabbed her skirts lifting them up to her knees, sticking a bare foot out soiled and covered in dust.

"It was quite a feat climbing down that palace of yours," she quipped wiggling her toes at him.

Kimber blinked not wishing to believe her. She had climbed. Like a primate she had descended the smooth stone without a rope using only her hands and feet in pleated skirts and a corset to boot. His blood cooled, the truth sobering the wild imaginations of her in flight and the disappointment welled in his stomach. At least he'd regained a bit more control.

It was in a coppice of willows on the edge of the manor gardens that Kimber could no longer contain his burning question.

"Why?"

Sunniva paused and looked into his lovely eyes.

The desperate shrubs and flowers gave off a woody scent scorching to a crisp in the gardens. It was nothing compared to the man standing before her smelling of silver and night jasmine and his enticing self.

None of this place was what Sunniva expected. She had expected a village of humans ruled by a few of these creatures, not a nest of nearly a thousand of whatever they truly were. She expected them to be subtle and sly in their human form, yet they dressed to draw attention, each one of them dripping in jewels and many appearing as aristocracy. The only hint she had that they could take another form was their apparent leader had found her at night in the woods completely devoid of clothing. And now he stood before her in knee breeches and a silk vest.

"I wanted to see what you would do," she stated plainly.

"And did I disappoint?"

"Hard to say," she replied, an icy chill to her tone.

"You don't trust me?"

Sunniva knew she shouldn't. He appeared the leader of powerful beasts, a position one wasn't in were they stupid or weak. Behind those glittery winter eyes there was bound to be jeopardy.

"I don't know you. I don't know your people. I don't know your ways or laws or-" she began to shake her head. "Why am I so drawn to you?"

He took a step towards her now and placed a hand on her shoulder. She was warm, unnaturally so, warmer yet than the sweltering summer air surrounding them.

"I'd like to show you something tonight. I think it might make things clear.”.

Slowly, she watched him slide his hand down her arm, waiting for an objection which she never gave. He found her fingers and laced his own among them.

Skin touching skin, soothing cool against blazing fire, it came to Kimber as a jolting lash, a sudden flood wrecking his heart, and if he had any doubts, they burnt away in that instant, the terrible heat of her skin and the full force of her power surging through him.

He tipped his head down, his face now covered in the shade of an isolated willow wisp shrouding his eyes inscrutable. Sunniva felt as if he were looking into her, past her disguise and every other defense wishing to see. It terrified her, yet she didn't want him to stop.

It was all a mirage, the listless pallor of her face, the seeming void she had become in the light of day. It seemed a Gift, one Kimber had never even heard of before. He looked down at her marveling at the trick, wondering what she really looked like, her true visage hidden beneath that shell of magic. It didn't matter now though, there would be time to find out. He had found his mate. She was his.

He dropped his head further, lower now still until his lips found hers.

It was different, this kiss, softer, less urgent, but the passion was there, a languorous, sleek sensation sliding over her lips. She parted them slightly, surprised with her body's invitation.

Kimber wanted to take what she offered and more, yet he retained his modesty wanting to demonstrate his capacity for self control. She made it difficult, letting out a voiceless whimper as he turned his lips to her cheek. He nuzzled her neck, his rough chin a surprising scrape against her throat towards which she arched in submission.

His teeth grazed her skin as she wrapped an arm around his head pulling him closer. She found his lips again and pressed her hips into his, lost to the craving that unfurled through her body, a caldera in the making as the molten metal bubbled and broiled waiting for the right touch, the right man.

Yessss, hissed the terrible serpent.

Even here, even now with the power of the sun Sunniva felt herself falter, the image of bland human trickling away as she lost herself to Kimber's deep embrace.

He must have sensed something different, the change in him apparent. His fingers tensed with new intent, his kiss deepened, exploring and penetrating.

Sunniva jerked away.

Kimber's heart was pounding, his every breath an airy roar. His eyes searched her face for what his body had felt. God she was maddening. He wanted that dragon inside her with an unbearable aching. But every time it showed its face, Sunniva forced it back into it's lair. What was she so afraid of?

"It's too much. Too soon," she panted.

Kimber wanted to lecture her about the instincts of their kind. They weren't simple desires to be fought, but primeval drives that governed them. It was a natural law of drákon, one that had kept them strong since their dawning: Alpha mated with Alpha. And he'd never known power like this in a female, despite having been close to many. What Gifts she was hiding wasn't clear but whatever they were - new to the tribe or not - thrust her into position as Alpha female and by rights his mate.

He chose the course of patience, wishing to give her time to adjust, to accept him as an inevitability. She'd grown up with humans and perhaps required a certain degree of convention. He resolved himself to allow her this. After all, if he'd learned anything from his own parents, the strongest female would not accept her mate's words on principal alone.

He steadied his pulse and controlled his breathing. He softened his face, trying to look less intent not wishing to invoke fear, or even caution. He didn't move to touch her.

"You're right. Perhaps it would be best if we at least ate dinner together first."

It was a risky jest, he knew, wagering that she wasn't too modest for risque jokes. He found himself rather relieved when she let out a husky giggle and an amused smiled spread across her face.

"At the very least, noble Lord," she quipped.

"Kimber. Just call me Kimber."

"Kimber," she repeated deliberately letting it roll over her tongue.

It sent shivers through him. He wanted to return to her lips, her heavy lids and silky eyes inviting him without words. He knew though that she didn't trust him yet and he doubted she would give herself to him until she was sure what he was. It wouldn't be too much longer till the sun went down. What was a few hours of waiting anyways? Tonight she would fly by his side and take her place in his bed.

Chapter Text

Tamlane Williams had hardly slept, his thin, tattered quilt lay twisted - a result of endless tossing and turning - at the foot of his bed. A layer of sweat covered his entire body, thin and sticky from the grime of the mines he worked in. Curiously enough, it hadn't been the unbearable heat that held him from sleep that night.

Tamlane had caught word a few days prior that a runner had been discovered just South of Darkfrith. He'd listened carefully as prissy and prim women speculated, curious about who it could be this time. Even the men from the silver mines were abuzz. All he had learned though was that the marquess had left for the Hunt.

Since their departure the skies had been filled with sleek scales proffered to the moon like an armory of daggers presented to an assassin. Tamlane even ventured up with them careful to keep his distance risking a more advantageous view. His tattered and scarred wings only allowed him a glimpse of their patterns before forcing him to Turn to smoke and drift back to the earth. He'd seen enough though to fathom their plan. The Alpha would drive the runner North and the soldiers at the border would take him down.

Evidence suggested that is was hardly necessary. The Alpha - in other circles known as Lord Christoph Langford - would certainly bring his heir who exhibited a hunting prowess the likes of which their kind had never seen. It filled the men with envy, the women with sexual desire, and any potential runner with fear. The tribe had called him many things, but the moniker most consistently uttered was "The Dreaded Night".

Tamlane felt sorry for the boy who would be returned home. It had to be someone young and male, he surmised. Male, because apart from Rue Langford and her daughters, women couldn't Turn. And young, because no man would be brazen and stupid enough to think they could escape by traditional means.

Was the boy poor and peculiar, pondered Tamlane, like he had always been? Was he weak of Gifts, like him? Could he not bear the unbendable rules and that iron grip the bloody Alpha and council kept on their kind?

'You will do what you are told, when you are told, for the good of the tribe' his father had always said. Those despised words drummed through his head even to this day.

He propped himself up on an elbow, gritting his teeth as he pushed through the constant ache in his back. His feet flinched as he brought his full weight down upon them finally rising from his bed. Dawn had just broke after only a few hours of darkness, a bitter reality of summers so far North. Work began early and lasted till two hours before dusk, giving every man ample time to sup before flight.

Tamlane ran his left hand over his face - the only things he'd bothered to wash the night before. He dressed in loose fitting wool pants, a soiled muslin shirt and breech leather as befitting a miner.

He stood before the open cupboard, which offered the same meal as it always did: a crust of bread, some hard cheese and, depending on the time of year, dried sausages.

Years ago during Tamlane's nine year stint in London he saw gaggles of poor, gaunt and begging for food. Street urchins for example, fighting over a potato that had rolled off a cart, while nobles sat in their cushioned chairs, in their gilded halls, at their vast tables covered by more food than they could possibly finish. The drákon, as savage as they were, took care of their own. True, the marquess and his family ate better than the council, the council better than a lawyer, the lawyer better than a smith and so on. But no one ever went hungry, including Tamlane, a three-time runner and social outcast. That didn't mean he ate well though.

He sat down at the small table to break his fast, unfolding the cheese cloth and taking the last crusts of stale bread from the tin, placing the food on a round, wooden board.

He'd have to leave work early today to make it in time to the bakery. The foreman was generally understanding. An older gentleman whose wife had died in childbirth many years ago, he understood the difficulty of acquiring anything edible absent a mate.

And Tamlane once had a mate too, an old lifetime that he kept in the secret safety of his thoughts. He remembered her face as if they'd met yesterday, soft and round and longing for his caresses. Her hair was a mousy blond and her eyes the color of clouds on an overcast day. Nothing like the women here, neither exotic nor illuminating, nor begging for attention, for she was mortal. A mere human, but she was his and he loved her more than anything.

Tamlane finished his meal, wetted his thumb and pressed it firmly to the board picking up the few remaining crumbs which he scraped off across his teeth. He pulled his boots on and took off to the mines leaving the empty tin, wooden board and strewn cloth on the table. Who would be there to see the mess anyways? He lived alone. For twenty six years he'd been alone.

Mining came naturally to their kind, as they felt the whistle and hum of the metal lurking beneath the Earth, calling to them. There was no blind digging making the miners of the shire inhumanly efficient and the envy of every land owning noble in the country. On top of that, silver was normally a very tricky element usually found in the form of ore. It had to be processed to achieve the pure product. Darkfrith, held many secrets, and one was the abundant nuggets of pure silver it kept hidden below. Most likely it was why the drákon's ancestors had chosen to settle here.

The men had opened up a new shaft a week ago and it proved fruitful. The tricky part was simply digging it out. Tamlane had mastered using a pickax with only one hand – a byproduct of his third escape – yet he still wasn't as productive as the other men. It didn't matter, he still received the same salary as a single gentleman with no family. He always looked forward to lunch which was provided at the mine. Usually a hearty stew, he enjoyed every bite before returning for the second half of the day deep under the earth.

When he emerged for the second time that day, the warm, summer air stifled his lungs. He placed his pickax on the rack by the entrance and emptied his pockets of silver into an iron pan.

"Out of bread?" the foreman asked.

"Aye," replied Tamlane.

The foreman tossed him a fast coin, which he caught effortlessly. Though older and almost crippled he still had the reflexes of a dragon.

"Pick a loaf up for me too?" asked the foreman. "This lots gotta be weighed up and shipped out by tomorrow," he said, motioning to the full baskets of silver nuggets.

"Of course."

The baker only had a few day-old loaves. The fresh ones were always gone by noon. He laid the coppers on the counter as the baker's daughter wrapped two loaves in separate pieces of parchment. The scrape of the metal against wood touched his ears as she collected the coins. He tipped his hat politely before he gathered the bread into his arm and then walked out the open door.

The sun still hung well above the horizon. Tamlane had to shield his eyes with his arm as the light hit him, almost losing a loaf with the reflex. He turned his head catching a flash of bright from the corner of his eye. A young woman stood in the center of the road her hands outstretched and eyes closed. She wore a fine dining gown, the caliber of the highest class yet her hair was sheered short into flimsy wisps. Everyone was looking at her, an unusual stranger in a place were strangers were seldom present. There was hardly anything about her that suggested drákon, yet she seemed too wild, too unorthodox to be just human. A certain familiarity drew Tamlane to look further, deeper. It pulled him back to a night long ago. Of passion and love and heartbreak. Of a fight among fireworks and gunpowder and the loss of his freedom. He'd given it up for them.

For her.

Tamlane had to concentrate on breathing. He wasn't powerful, rarely sensing when those of his kind were near, but it was their consanguinity that allowed him to see.

He thought about what he might say, how he might explain to her who he was. Who she was.

A man walked by him, tall and shadowing, silent and dangerous, the marquess' first born going toward the young woman standing there in the light of the sun. They talked for a bit, a playful back and forth most likely, but Tamlane had recognized that menacing glint that every Alpha wore in pursuit of a runner. It was a look he'd seen himself and never wished to again.

And then it dawned on him. There was no runner. The Alpha had caught a wild dragon, born free and far from the tribe and brought her here to be tamed. His daughter. The only freedom Tamlane had come to care about. After all this time and all this distance and careful secrecy they had found her.

He watched as she smiled and laughed in conversation with the Langford boy. No matter how hard he concentrated Tamlane simply wasn't close enough to pick out a word. She took the Earl's arm likely smitten by his roguishly good looks and charming demeanor. A rush gripped his heart as they walked away. He had to reach her, had to warn her of the danger. He knew where they were going, he wouldn't have to follow.

Tamlane ran as fast as his painful leg would allow him, hoping to make it back home and to the Alpha's manor before the Langford family sat down for their evening supper.

He Turned to smoke just before reaching his cottage, leaving his miner's livery in a pile by the door trailed by the day's dirt that shortly before clung to his skin. It was a useful aspect of Turning to smoke: dirt and dust and anything not of their body fell away when they abandoned their physical form.

Tamlane yanked on his only other outfit: fraying silk trousers, a discolored muslin shirt and an oversized coat of blue-dyed velvet he'd inherited from his father. Hardly fit for an audience with the Alpha, it was all he had and would have to do. He returned his boots to his feet and was out the door.

As a last effort to look presentable he slapped his hat against a tree, shaking out the dust and dirt. Too bad he couldn't Turn his clothes to smoke as well.

****

The dining hall was certainly more elaborate than the bedroom Sunniva had spent a short time in. Sheets of malachite and amber covered the walls, a ceiling adorned in painted animals and sunset clouds bleeding down into the stone in green and yellow. Bright orange damask curtains were held open by lengths of cloth attached by golden clasps and the sweet, honeyed smell of beeswax candles fixed on great iron braziers in the corners was subdued by the numerous dishes brought out by footmen.

Sunniva had been given a seat to the left of Kimber positioned at the head of the table while his brother sat to his right and their sister next to him. There were footmen and livery boys lining the far wall, waiting to serve. They too emitted that thrum of power, though not nearly as strongly as her hosts.

Kimber motioned to a footman who hurried over with a bottle of cooled champagne. The Earl took the bottle before he could pour and filled Sunniva's glass first. After serving himself he let the footman tend to his siblings. The glasses where gold-rimmed and etched with flowers, and Sunniva couldn't help but run her finger around the edge.

"This evening calls for celebration," began Kimber, his glass raised. "I'd like to propose a toast to Sunniva, long lost member of the tribe. Fate has returned her home and may we keep her safe."

They all lifted their glasses in toast.

Sunniva had never tasted such a beverage. It tickled her tongue and tasted peculiar. She rubbed her nose at the sensation not sure whether to consider it pleasant or irritating. The siblings each let out a smirk, amused or delighted she couldn't tell.

With a wave of a hand food was served. Green beans with a thick, flour coating, roasted root vegetables and buttered potatoes with chopped parsley were placed eloquently before Sunniva. It had been ages since she'd eaten as a human, always so inconvenient and never tasting as good. Much to her chagrin a slab of roast, utterly pink in the middle and trickling red across her embossed China plate, was laid next to the rest of the food.

“I hope you like beef,” asked Kimber.

It wasn't beef that was the problem. She'd certainly dined happily on cattle before. It was the thought of ingesting practically raw flesh that made Sunniva’s stomach churn.

“I’m sure it will be delicious,” she replied with a polite smile.

Sunniva poked at the meat with her fork swallowing a gag as more bloody juice seeped out. She was able to salvage a few of the vegetables cutting them into small bites and choking them down hardly chewed.

"Did you enjoy your visit to the village?" Joan asked, spearing a piece of beef and raising it to her rouged lips. She wore a tan and black striped gown with a black crepe bow on the bodice. Her hair was encrusted with small diamonds and her neck laced with large, ovular sapphires set in gold.

Sunniva scooted another green bean to the edge of her plate. "I was curious," she replied with innocently raised eyebrows.

"How does the saying go?" responded Rhys. "Curiosity killed the cat?"

Sunniva looked across the table at him and smiled pointedly. "Well, I suppose I'm lucky I'm not a cat."

Rhys released a snort while Joan chuckled under her breath. Kimber merely offered a sleek smirk as if he were privy to some secret.

The Langfords were as sophisticated as any noble family that Sunniva had encountered, their napkins placed perfectly in their laps and silver cutlery held delicately and with grace. They cut their food into small pieces, careful not to soil their lips as they brought each bite to their mouths.

The only difference that a human could possibly perceive was their exquisite beauty: eyes shining like polished gems, skin resembling the finest marble, features that any noble would envy. Their colorings passed believably as human. Shimmering black and rich chestnut and golden blonde. Perhaps that's why they didn't use tricks of the light. Or perhaps, as luck would have it, they couldn't.

The thought churned in her stomach in anticipation of tonight. It wouldn't be long before dinner was over and Kimber would show her what he was. Sunniva was filled with trepidation unsure of how similar they truly were. The sister didn't like her, that was clear, and to the brother she seemed indifferent. But sweet, attentive Kimber gave her hope that she could find a home here.

“I hadn’t expected so many of you,” she continued. “Tell me, how do you keep so well apart? This place isn't exactly located outside of the civilized world.”

“It’s rural enough,” Rhys retorted, as if she needed correcting.

Kimber looked at his brother in disapproval. “We’ve learned to hide very well,” he stated.

Sunniva opened her mouth to delve deeper, but Rhys spoke again.

"So you've lived your whole life outside the shire. What's that like?"

"I can't really know what it's like. I've never lived in the shire so I've naught to compare it to. I take it you have lived here your whole life? What's that like?"

"Touché," he replied. "But we haven't lived here our whole lives. We've both attended Eaton and Cambridge. Not to mention the frequent stays in London."

"Is that so?" she said in a mockingly impressed tone. "London is an absolute piss pot," declared Sunniva. "It has no redeeming qualities."

"I'm rather fond of London," Joan inserted. "The shire is of course home but there is nothing like the artisans of a grand city. Dressmakers, jewelers," she held out a hand with splayed fingers adorned with rings of topaz and emeralds and gestured to bring attention to her chintz gown with engageante sleeves.

"The operas and musicians," added Rhys.

"The painters and palaces," supplemented Joan.

"It stinks," insisted Sunniva. "I prefer clear winds free of the scent of sewage."

A smile emerged from Kimber's face. "My sentiments exactly,” he agreed. "When were you last there?"

"I was born and raised there, but I've not been back since I left that gutter."

“Oh?" Kimber raised his eyes curiously. "What made you leave?"

Rhys raised the fluke to his lips and took a gulp.

Sunniva laid her fork and knife down on her plate. "I killed a man and burnt down a building," she said as blunt as a hammer.

"Blimey," blurted Rhys, slightly choking on his drink. Joan’s eyes grew wide. Only Kim, with his cool composure, looked at her unchanged.

Sunniva took note of their reactions. "Well, some men think they own women. And some men end up in flames. So like I said, London: an absolute piss-pot."

There was silence around the table until Kimber rose his glass with a large smile. "To burning down piss-pots."

Sunniva met it with a clink. “To burning down piss-pots.”

She felt so at ease with him. She'd known him first without his title, without his position or any pretension, just a hunter wild and free in the night. He was like her, dragon to the marrow. And he'd promised to show her, tonight, after supper. She wanted to see him, to know truly with her own eyes if they were kin. She imagined what he might look like, the pattern of his scales, the reflection of light on his back as he cut through the skies. She wanted to show him too, though it filled her with trepidation. She'd never shown anyone the beast within, her true self that made her a freak, isolating her from everyone. She wondered what he would think. Was she just as beautiful as other women? Just as fierce? Just as skilled? She hated to admit it, but she wanted him dreadfully and wasn't sure if she could bear him not reciprocating.

Sunniva wanted to ask more about the drákon. Their customs and practices so far seemed hardly different from the British social structure. Perhaps that was why they hid so well.
As Sunniva contemplated her next question, a footman entered the room and whispered into Kimber’s ear. The Earl looked first to Sunniva and then to his brother.

"My most sincere apologies, but something has come up. It shouldn't take long."

He placed his napkin on his plate, scooted out from the table and left the dining hall.

****

Tamlane hadn't even made it as far as the Chasen lawn before he was met by a guard who demanded he go home until he mentioned having information about 'the girl'. The guard led him to another guard, who spoke with a footman that relayed the information to the butler.

He was permitted to stand in the vestibule of Chasen Manor as the Alpha was informed. It was possible that the marquess would prefer finishing his meal before seeing the likes of Tamlane Williams. Or he would make him wait, standing for hours just because he could. Or worst of all, he had no interest in what he had to say. Just as Tamlane remembered to remove his hat which he was now clinging to for courage, he heard the scant steps of fine leather boots on the granite floor.

Tamlane's heart pounded. He feared the Alpha, having faced him in battle his last night in London. The night he lost everything. Tamlane knew the outcome of his visit depended on the Alpha's whimsy and resigned himself to be the pinnacle of courtesy and obeisance. But it was his son, Earl Kimber Langford that now stood before him, with every bit of menacing dominance as his father.

"Lord Alpha," began Tamlane with a low bow slightly exposing his neck. "I come with a petition of the utmost importance.”

Kimber let out an annoyed sigh. "My men said you had information about someone in my care. If not, then we'd like to finish our supper."

"Yes. I understand. I'll be quick about it. I've come here to claim my daughter."

****

The Earl returned to dining hall in a flutter.

He wasn't very inclined to grant Williams an audience preferring to keep Sunniva isolated until she was bound and wed to him. He was unfortunately obligated to collect information on her background and her alleged father refused to say more until he saw her. He should have reminded the man that he was Alpha and was to be obeyed without question. Instead he found himself fetching his bride.

"Sunniva, I think you best come with me." His voice held a certain gravity to it.

"What is it," she asked rising, as a serving boy pulled back her chair.

"Just come, please."

Kimber led Sunniva into the study. On a plain, wooden chair sat an older gentlemen, red of hair with graying edges and piercing blue eyes. He held a crumpled hat in his tense hands and rose as Sunniva entered the room. His eyes shined with tears as he looked upon her.

"This here is Tamlane Williams. He asserts to be your father, Sunniva," explained Kimber. "Now Mr. Williams, the evidence you claim to have?"

"I took a mate when I was in London. A human woman. She became with child shortly before...before I returned to the Darkfrith."

Kimber wasn't so convinced. No one, apart from members of the Alpha family, was permitted to live outside their borders. And still there were restrictions, precautions put in place. Council members and selected individuals were granted short visits outside of the shire and Tamlane Williams -a downright nobody - was certainly never one of those individuals. Kimber knew the man had once been a runner and he could safely assume it had been his father who had brought him back. And Kimber knew how great of a hunter he was. Certainly this weak-blooded man before him could not have escaped the tribe long enough to have taken a mate and conceive a child.

"It seems purely circumstantial," Kimber said.

"What was her name?" demanded Sunniva. "My mother, her name?"

"Her name was Karina. When I met her, Karina Linnaeus."

Sunniva clasped a hand over her mouth. Try as she might she could not fight back tears.

"When she told me she was with child I gave her a pearl of which there is no likeness," revealed Tamlane.

"And I still have it." The words came out shaking as she pulled the pearl from her bosom. Her mother had told her it was a gift from him that he had given before he died. She had always suspected it was her father that had given her these Gifts, but neither she nor her mother knew anything about his history.

"I'd like a moment of privacy. " Sunniva turned to Kimber. "Alone. With my father."

Kimber in principle didn't feel all that obliging. With what words might this criminal poison his mate? Yet he couldn't avoid her teary doe-eyes capturing his gaze. It was a calculated risk, if he denied her what would she think then?

"I shall allow it," he replied, his voice full of tension.

The door closed behind him with a resounding click yet no footsteps followed.

Sunniva searched for the right words to begin with. Her father put his fingers to his lips and moved close to her.

He moved his mouth almost even without the sound of a whisper. Can you understand me?

Sunniva nodded her head.

We have to be careful what we say, they are probably listening.

She nodded her head again, looking at the door. She knew all too well the Gift of heightened senses.

He switched to a normal volume. "I want you to know that I never planned to abandon you. I never wanted to leave you. Or your mother." And then back to a whisper. But I had to protect you both.

"Our lives were very difficult." Why did you then?

"I had to return to the tribe. I was hunted and brought back here.

"But why?"

"I had a responsibility to our kind." We are never permitted to leave this place.

Sunniva felt the bile rise in her throat at the thought of being confined to a small place like Darkfrith. She was a creature free as the wind, soaring wherever she pleased. The air became stifling. She moved to the window wishing to throw open the pane. Her father caught her hand before she could grasp the latch and shook his head.

They will think you mean to escape.

She felt trapped, the walls closing in on her like the jaws of a great beast, consuming her whole. The small supper she had forced down and it's iron aftertaste boiled in her stomach. She searched the room, like everywhere in this mansion the study was drenched in finery and she couldn't find a suitable place to vomit. She stumbled to the fire place and heaved, the contents of her gut releasing into old ash and soot. A small plume rose from the splatter. Her father placed a soothing hand between her shoulder blades.

He didn't have much time, the Earl would certainly return at the sound. Tamlane leaned into the fireplace as she wiped her mouth on her sleeve ignoring the acidic scent.

Can you Turn?

When she looked at him, he hoped she didn't understand the meaning of the word, that she, like nearly every female, was stuck in human form, that she would be safe from them.

His heart stopped as she nodded.

The handle of the door barely made a sound as it rotated, but they both heard it. Tamlane was able to reveal one last bit before the earl returned.

They must never know.

Kimber was by her side in two strides taking Sunniva's hand.

"Are you alright?"

She straightened up, careful to avoid hitting her head on the hearth.

"I'm fine. No need to fuss," she insisted.

She pulled her hands away from both men and scraped her hair off her moist forehead.

"It's all a bit overwhelming is all. I'm perfectly fine." She managed to squeeze out a smile, though hardly an authentic one. She straightened her back and smoothed her skirts with her hands.

"That will be enough for tonight, Mr. Williams. Daughter or not my guest needs her rest," Kimber said addressing Williams.

"But I'm not tired," Sunniva retorted. It was lie. She hadn't slept in days.

"You're probably still running off the excitement of the day. Perhaps an early evening would do you good," he retorted.

Sunniva caught the inflection in his voice, a command rather than a suggestion. She didn't like it and opened her mouth to challenge him, until her father gave her a pleading stretch of his lips, so she held her tongue.

"I was hoping my daughter could come stay with me," asked Williams, making himself appear much smaller.

An incredulous look washed over Kimber Langford's face. "That will be for the council to decide. Such matters are out of my hands as you well know."

It was a lie for the most part. The council took a great role in the governing of the tribe, but an Alpha's ruling in most individual cases was headed whether they liked it or not.

He would let Sunniva's father petition the council and have his hearing for the sake of formality, but if Kimber wished to keep the girl then the council would adjudicate in his favor. Despite the mountain of responsibility, there were a few pleasant perks of being next-in-line as Alpha.

Tamlane took Sunniva's hand one last time before being escorted out. "It will be alright," he said.

Sunniva wasn't so sure as she listened to her father's footsteps moving further, a tragic tapping on the cold stone beneath them.

A servant came from a side entrance with a lighting pole in hand.

Sunniva looked at him as he lit the candles in the study one by one, their light dancing across the room in mired tones of orange and yellow. For a moment she missed that life, a servant whose face ever changed, to which little attention was payed. The servant scooped up the contents of the soiled fireplace and left as quickly as a ghost, disappearing as they had come. The ash had luckily prevented the smell of vomit from traveling too far.

"No harm done you know," exclaimed Kimber, mistaking Sunniva's grave expression for embarrassment.

He pulled back a slack curtain and looked out the window. The sun was practically gone and tendrils of smoke were already spiraling up towards the heavens. He looked back at Sunniva, partially veiled in shadow, the flickering candle light dancing across her more prominent features. Like night jasmine, she bloomed in the darkness, haloed by some unseen aura. Kimber could see it clearly now. It was so faint and subtle he wondered if others could see it too. He hoped not, otherwise it wouldn't be long before she had a string of suitors, and she was his.

"Would you join me on the terrace? There is a lovely view from it in the evening, especially on such a clear night." He smiled like a cat caught in a milking pail.

The man who Sunniva had thought she'd seen so clearly seemed suddenly shrouded in a thick, unpenatrable mist. A serpent hidden behind a facade of capturing eyes and sinewy muscle ready to pounce. As if steeped with the instinct to seduce, practiced and honed, he had lured her in. And why oh why did she desperately want him?

How could she have been so careless? She was deep in the lion's den now. Perhaps she'd grown too accustomed to her power and abilities, believing she was the fiercest creature in existence. Her father's few words drummed in her head. They mustn't know. She knew what Kimber wanted to show her and what he wanted to see. He was dragon, there was no doubt in her mind now. The curiosity tugged at her skin - which that terrible beast begged her to shed - but there was too much hidden jeopardy to risk it.

"I think I shall retire. It has been a long day," she said.

Kimber was visibly flustered. "Are you certain?"

She didn't look at him afraid she might change her mind. "Like you said, perhaps an early evening would do me good."

Kimber raked a hand over his neck.

"Is something amiss, love?"

"My father, who left my mother and I, who I had resigned to the grave, is alive and well. How would you feel?"

She gave him a curt look, and hardly waiting for an answer, hustled away with her skirts billowing at her legs leaving Kimber standing there gripping his own palms.

Of course it seemed natural that the revelation of her father had been a shock. He considered his own father, a man who helped him become everything he was and shared no equal. Kimber couldn't even imagine what Sunniva was going through. Despite the thick walls he'd heard their exchange, nothing peculiar had been said, so he thought. He would make it a point to find all the council's records on Tamlane Williams. Later though. He needed to fly first. He needed to release the black dragon into the night before he sat down to dry paperwork. He'd show Sunniva tomorrow once she'd had time to settle.

****

Sunniva was surprised she found her room without assistance. She'd been in numerous country homes but Chasen Manor put them all to shame. It was quite simply massive.

She let the door handle slip roughly from her fingers and heard the latch catch the frame. She hadn't slammed the door, but certainly had not been gentle. She fumbled at the back side searching for a lock finally finding a bolt just around eye level. It wouldn't keep out a determined dragon, but would at least prevent a servant from barging in unannounced. She waited tentatively.

It took a bit before what she expected arrived. The footsteps halted just outside. She held her breath, listening. There were two guards this time their alternating breaths like a pair of bellows on a forge. Apparently her visit to the village scraped more nerves than she had thought. She couldn't quite feel the men standing outside her chamber but they were there, making sure that...well, Sunniva was honestly not sure why they were there.

She peeked out the windows into the star-covered sky. Streaks of metallic green and yellow and velvet gold flitted over the moon in a symphonic ballet. Wings sliced the sky, beating fast and hard bringing some higher and others folding flat casting the creatures into a dive. They tumbled and looped and swirled and then circled around catching pockets of updrafts and warm wind currents. Sunniva's mouth hung open and loose in awe and fear.

They were like her yet not. They were smooth and sleek and colored splendidly. They Turned from smoke to dragon and kept a deafening silence. Creatures of the night, all of them. Even here, she was a mutant, she was a freak. Perhaps that is what her father meant. Perhaps he was like her. She had seen it in other beasts, attacking their own for having inborn peculiarities.

Of those she could see she counted thirty. She didn't know their Gifts, or prowess, or skill. She wasn't sure of their speed or ability to hunt. Kimber alone had tracked her as human through a forest and had no difficulty catching her on foot. If he was anything like what she was witnessing now in the sky then she was at his mercy – at least at night.

She wondered which one might be him when a consuming feeling of shadow began to tickle. It lapped at her senses and the bright dragon drew up from her belly, through her chest straining to meet it. God it felt good. She wanted to give in, give the beast inside her free reign to explore what it wished. Her light flickered sending creased waves across her eyes. She saw for a moment a black shadow hovering low as if peering into her chamber. She swept the curtain closed in a quick jerking motion.

A lamp sat on the armoire, lit and full of oil. She snatched it to her feeling a moment of respite from the darkness as she clung to the cool porcelain base.

A fireplace was located on the north side of her chamber directly across from the bed. The hearth and header were a creamy travertine, while the mantel, adorned with figurines and a small bracket clock, stood apart with milky marble, beckoning soft.

There was no wood to be found, and the firebox itself was clean of ash, holding only a lonely pair of andirons. Even if she had something to burn, the room would have filled with smoke - as Sunniva discovered - the fluke being securely closed and a locked and strangely sealed.

She slipped a foot out of a pump so it hung from her toes and kicked it hard across the room. She didn't care that it had left a scratch in the perriwinkle wallpaper. She launched the other one just the same, leaving an even more impressive mark. The dress wouldn't permit such a swift removal. Angry and shaking she tried untying this and unbuttoning that, only to ultimately rip it off violently. She hated such superfluous attire. Plus, it itched worse than a rash.

She sat down at the vanity with her lamp looking upon herself in the mirror. Her rouged cheeks and kohled eyes disgusted her. She rubbed it all off on her bare arm.

You're no princess among men, came the whisper. You're a queen of beasts!

It seemed all a lie though.

Her eyes burnt violet, smoke and fumes trailing away from her lids. Her hair paled to a molten silver and her skin shone a white light.

The smell of burning pulled her back. She lifted her hand from the top of the vanity where a black print scorched into the wood remained. The terrible dragon had gotten the better of her. She'd have to be more careful now. It could no longer be released as freely as it used to.

Sunniva covered the torched spot with a large doily. She slouched down feeling the exhaustion overcome her. She placed her single source of light on the nightstand and crawled naked into bed. At least the mattress was feathered and the sheets soft, she thought as she pulled the covers up over her bare body and closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

 

She awoke to a loud rapping on her door. The lantern had run out of oil hours ago and the room was rather dark. Sunniva lurched up at the sound, terrified that someone might let themselves in as a plume of smoke. She leaped from the bed and was at the window in three stretchedpaces ripping the curtains open letting as much light in as possible. She snatched a blanket from atop the bed and wrapped it around herself.

The knock came again.

"I'm coming!" screeched Sunniva.

The bolt stuck at first so Sunniva gave it a yank bending the metal slightly. When she opened the door she was greeted with the stern face of an older woman, elegant, clearly a lady's maid.

"I'm here to get you dressed and down to the breakfast table," the maid informed Sunniva.

"I think I can dress myself and find the way."

"Oh? How do you plan to tighten a corset all on your own?"

"Well, I want to wear something a little more plain so that..."

"This is the home of the marquess,” interrupted the maid. “There is nothing plain around here."

She was certainly not overstating it. Even the maid was adorned with fine gems. From her ears hung hoops of silver studded with little diamonds and the cuff of her sleeves were kept closed with silver white pearls.

"Besides, Alpha's orders."

"That I wear a nice dress?"

The maid pursed her lips as if she'd remembered something. She kept her talk to a minimum limiting it to curt commands as she assisted Sunniva, helping her into a white muslin dress with a canary yellow overlay. The cut was too tight at the shoulders and the corset delved painfully into her mid. She fantasized about Turning, watching the threads of fabric burn away as she exacted her freedom.

Once done the maid bid Sunniva to follow, escorting her to breakfast with the guards maintaining an inconspicuous distance as they trailed behind them.

Upon entry to the dining hall Sunniva was met with the chipper eyes of the Langford brothers.

"Good morning," bade Kimber.

Sunniva's face remained passive, a night's restless sleep having done little to alleviate her unease.

"Where is Joan?" she asked.

"Oh she'll take a breakfast tray in bed I imagine," explained Rhys. "She isn't much for mornings." A yawn sprouted from his own lips before taking a cautious sip of steaming black coffee.

Something resembling a frown lurked behind Kimber's slack lips. He stood and pulled back the chair next to his and motioned Sunniva to be seated, which she took tentatively.

"Did you sleep well?" he asked, returning to his own chair.

"Yes, thank you. And yourself?"

"Quite well indeed," fibbed Kimber.

He had hardly slept. When he flew he usually covered Darkfrith's entire territory, but last night he'd stayed in a small radius above Chasen knowing that with his presence the other men would not dare draw near. He even took the room next to Sunniva's, paranoid of any unwelcomed visitor. And if that wasn't enough to keep him from sleep, her addictive aura called to him, seductive and sensual with promises of what was to come. Once even he crawled from his bed considering going to her, roused by the idea of her legs wrapped around him and her breasts smothered beneath the weight of his chest. Fortunately, the sun came up and he could no longer feel the maddening pull allowing him the shortest lick of sleep. At the time it hadn't seemed like a ludicrous idea at all.

"I'm sorry I'm late," came Joan's voice as she waltzed into the room. She lacked a wig and her face was bare though her lips were still a glorious, natural hue of red. Her golden hair was tied back by a simple green ribbon like a young girl trotting off to school.

"Ah. So it won't be a tray after all?" jabbed Rhys.

"Ha. Ha. Apologies," was all she offered while taking a seat.

Kimber surveyed his sister carefully with eyes that seemed to miss nothing. "Do you think Father would approve?" he asked.

Joan gave him a look of warning. "As with Audrey, Father has only wished for me the best of happiness," she replied with proudly raised eyebrows.

A glimmer of envy or disapproval or maybe both played shadows on the brothers' faces. Kimber turned to a large bowl before him filled with soft-boiled eggs and scooped one into a small cup. He smacked the top a few times with a little ivory spoon and carefully peeled off the bits of broken shell clinging to the pliant membrane.

Rhys mumbled something under his breath.

Sunniva didn't know the context nor the background of the exchange but she could smell the hint of an unfamiliar male lurking beneath a pungent lavender oil.

She served herself a healthy pile of breakfast sausages, well-cooked and greasy, and placed a single roll with a pad of butter and dollop of raspberry marmalade on her plate for good measure. The food went down easier this time what with every bit being well cooked and the fact that she was terribly hungry. She pulled her shoulders forward and then back, aggravated by the tight neckline of her dress.

"Is your clothing not to your liking?" asked Kimber, scooping out a bit of goopy egg yolk seasoned with a dash of salt.

A mantel of scales would be preferable, Sunniva thought, instead of woven threads, but before she could speak, Joan answered for her.

"Kimber dear, you can't expect a woman to feel comfortable in another's clothing. It would be silly for us to insist she wear our baby sister's old dresses forever. Lia was always such a string bean," she said turning to Sunniva. "We should send for the Lane girl, the seemstress' daughter. You know the one with the pale hair?" directing her question at Kimber.

"Zoe," supplemented Rhys, still looking at his plate. "Zoe Lane." His eyes brightened as he said her name. He turned to address his brother. "I could send word if you like. I'm going to town anyways."

Kimber gave him an obliging nod.

"Fine, then," Joan said with indifference. "Make sure she comes tomorrow afternoon at the latest for measurements." She looked back at Sunniva. "I'm sure she'll have something finished by the end of the week."

The end of the week. The words stung. Sunniva thought of her agreement with Kimber and wondered if he'd planned to hold to it.

After breakfast Kimber took Sunniva for a stroll in the gardens explaining some of the landscaping history of the grounds. Her quiet demeanor came as little surprise.

"This is one of the newest additions to the garden," he explained as they entered an area marked by a large archway covered in vines.

"My mother had it constructed two years ago. It's been just this year that the flowers have begun to bloom," he said, cupping one of the closed buds in his hand like a tamed snake. "It's rather mundane by day, but at night...ah, at night is when it's meant to be seen. I had hoped to show you. Tonight if possible."

Sunniva avoided his hopeful gaze feeling the pressure mounting like steam. She feigned interest in a springy tendril of a vine seeking something to climb only to be left dangling in the air.

Past the pergola were boxes spilling with flowers; lillies, brugmasia, phlox, tuberose and evening stock, all mingled together hiding their beauty from the sun, waiting for starlight. Kimber sat down on a secluded bench nestled between two of the beds.

"I have something for you," Kimber said. He gestured to a spot next to him on the bench, a piece of furniture contrived for timid lovers looking for an excuse to sit close.

Sunniva hesitated suspicious of what he wished to give her. Her body wanted to be close to him, her blood already rising red in her cheeks. He was so beautiful sitting there in the pre-noon sun, simply irresistible. Despite herself, she sat down next to him, their knees touching, and felt as her wits seemed to boil away.

"I know this must be a difficult time for you, but I wish to do everything I can for your comfort. I have never really known your father, nor have first hand knowledge of his history so I did a bit of digging."

Sunniva met his eyes for the first time that day.

"Apparently he had thieved for years in London, using his Gifts and risking exposure. When he was approached for his behavior he threatened to reveal us. Thank goodness for the Others love of alcohol. He was a danger to the tribe and had to be contained. Our secrecy has sadly been tantamount to our survival. Do you understand?"

"Yes,” she said, “I do understand. Humans tend to destroy that which they fear. A sad but awful truth."

Kimber put his hand over hers. The snap of connection arose as their skin touched, like it did every time.

"I'm glad that is clear."

His words were kind and soft, but underneath them was a warning. It was the first time he'd revealed something of their rules, unsurprising of course that his kind expected a degree of responsibility from their own. She appreciated it, growing weary of the uncertainty.

She turned her hand around in his so their palms were touching. Kimber laced his fingers through hers and she felt that persisting trepidation begin to melt away.

"Anyway, he was returned to the shire and that's history."

Perhaps Sunniva had it all wrong. Her father had just been a criminal and was brought rightly to justice. She may not know the tribe's laws or all their ways, but she certainly understood that sacredness of secrecy. There weren't only dragons in this world. She'd met all manner of magical creatures whose survival depended on remaining hidden. Among them the punishments for recklessly revealing yourself to humans were often severe.

"I want you to know this reflects nothing on you,” explained Kimber. “We would never punish or judge someone for the sins of their father."

It was as if he could predict every concern and offer her comfort. He was so sincere and attentive, giving her something she never knew she wanted, never knew she needed.

"Thank you Kimber, for telling me that." She put her free hand to his face, his skin rough yet inviting. As she pulled it away he covered it with his own, pressing it firmly to his cheek.

"There is something else I wish to give you."

He released both her hands and reached into the inner pocket of his coat pulling out a small, tear drop diamond hanging from a fine silver chain.

"We consider children here the purest of blessings. Every single infant receives one of these as a gift from my family when they are born," he explained handing the delicate bauble to her.

"It's meant to hang from a bassinet or a cradle. A trifle really, smaller than you deserve, but you should have it all the same."

Sunniva felt a deluge of warmth, a sense of belonging wrapping around her like an afternoon tide. Vulnerable yet safe. Apart, but one.

"Kimber, it's lovely," she told him, small beads of moisture gathering at the corners of her eyes. "I don't really know what to say."

"You don't need to say any thing," he replied softly. It was the first of many stones he vowed to gift his bride, ones befitting a true dragoness.

Since Tamlane Williams had come forth, Kimber harbored a new swelling of aggression towards the man who was his mate's father. Had that runner not been so selfish, had he even a semblance of responsibility, Kimber - heir to the tribe - would not be twenty six and still unwed. He would not have hungered and thirsted for the woman who had been betrothed to him since her Gifts emerged - whatever they may be. His mate might have been happily pregnant now with their third or fourth or even fifth child, her swollen belly his to caress.

He swallowed his hostility thinking of a way to make her father's wrong doing clear.

"Your well-being is my responsibility and my highest priority, Niva. We take care of our kind. We do not leave our infants to the cruelty of the world. We do not abandon our kin to their fate. You should have been born here, among your people. Cared for. Cherished. Raised to know what it means to be drákon. You are a part of the tribe as much as any of us."

Sunniva ate up his beautiful words of belonging and sank towards him.

He wrapped his arms around her pulling her close to his chest and nuzzled the crown of her head, her hair a tickling delight.

She looked up into his eyes, willing him to kiss her until she felt the relief of his lips. His restraint was clear, the tension in his muscles holding his body back.

"You make me feel like I'm losing control," he whispered, his lips brushing her nose, her cheekbones, her jaw - little enticements that chipped away at her reluctance. "I want you. Terribly," he confessed. "More than I've ever wanted someone before." Despite his words his kisses remained measured and deliberate.

She closed her eyes enjoying his grazing lips on her skin. "I would be lying if...if I said the feeling wasn't mutual." Her words were breathy and hitched. She kept her eyes open, holding the light around her determined to enjoy the moment. She gripped the little silver chain now threaded throughout her fingers, using it as an anchor. Even it began to feel like a slice of heaven.

Her hands disobeyed her creeping up the muscled curves of his arms reaching high to grip his nape.

He mired in the pleasurable solitude of her curious hands and the scrape of warm metal on his skin. In turn he reached for her head, cupping her face to deepen the kiss.

So bedeviled with each other they heard the soft crushing of grass later than they would have. Kimber let out a deep, guttural sound resembling a growl at the disturbance as the intruder rounded the curve of the augustine path. He was finely dressed, like that of an aristocrat, a wig of sausage curls and a bleached cravat.

Kimber stood putting himself between him and Sunniva.

"I thought I'd find you here," the man said. He leaned to the side scouring Sunniva with scrutiny.

She stood as well moving out from behind Kimber looking directly into the perusing eyes. They were deep blue, as secretive and treacherous as the deepest of oceans.

The man proffered a hand decorated with gems of scarlet and jade. "Claude Grady, member of the council." His introduction was seeping with a boastful authority.

The Earl shifted minutely on his feet. Grady retracted his hand at once.

"To what do I owe this disturbance," asked Kimber caustically, his eyes narrowing.

"The council is convening as we speak." He flicked his eyes to Sunniva and back to the Earl.

Sunniva saw Kimber's dominance right then, with merely a look forcing the man's eyes to lower until they saw little but lush lawn.

"I thought I made myself perfectly clear."

"Nevertheless my Lord, the men have gathered," the haughtiness now absent, “and your presence is required.”

****

He found them in their splendid chamber, still standing and holding glasses of port they'd served themselves from the sideboard. A bunch of grand dragons shining with gems and gold, the candlelight dancing jigs across their crystal goblets. They were stout and proud, all eleven of them dusted in powder and pungent perfume.

Their chatter subsided upon Kimber's entry. He was glad he had sent Sunniva with Joan to his twin sister's home for tea; he wasn't sure how well she could truly hear and the councilmen had been rather loud.

One by one they found their seats, four to a table and a scribe in the corner. As acting Alpha Kimber took his place in the appropriate chair apart from the others. It was his grandfather's design. This wasn't King Arthur and the round table where everyone had their say. There was one Alpha, the strongest and most cunning of all, and that chair reinstated that message.

John Chapman began. “My Lord, the subject of the runner you recently apprehended is in need of discussion. Rumors abound throughout the shire-”

“And what rumors might those be?” Kimber said dangerous and deliberate.

The men looked at each other wondering which of them daring enough to share. It was his brother who spoke. Rhys was not only willing to speak his mind, but did so with a haughtiness that only close family could get away with.

“That you mean to take the halfling stray as a wife.” He sat slack in his chair hardly concerned with his nonchalance.

If it had been any other man to disrespect Sunniva he'd have taken him by throat and held him to the floor till he submitted. He had more patience for his brother and with those few words now knew accurately what all the other men were thinking.

“Ah, for once there is truth to the gossip that seems to spread like wildfire.”

Claude Grady, now brazened with courage spoke up. “You of all should know that matches must be approved by the Alpha before-”

“I am well aware," interrupted Kim seething. "And may I remind you that I am Alpha while my father is away.”

“You are acting Alpha," Grady corrected, "temporarily until the marquess’ return. Long term issues are not for you to rule on. As heir to the tribe it is paramount that your mate be an Alpha and seeing as the Williams girl is hardly thus, the subject of your bride remains unresolved."

Kimber looked over to Claude Grady his chest puffed out with consequence, lecturing him about his responsibilities of taking a mate. He was unmarried, despite being a few years older. The thought of any man keeping him from Sunniva filled him with a ferocity he had never known. But Grady. Ah Grady, his own personal nemesis. Kimber imagined in lucid clarity ripping the man’s throat out. The metallic scent of blood. The messy display of tissue and severed spine paired with a perfectly white cravat growing crimson. The leaking sound of his death seeping out onto the cream and gold rug.

But the pompous ass was right. It was Kimber’s responsibility to take an appropriate mate. He wasn’t at liberty to marry for love, or affection, or even property and riches like the Other’s did. A drákon’s currency was power and might and their beloved Gifts and Kim needed a mate with all three.

"She can Turn." Kimber chastised himself for saying it, revealing what he alone knew to be true. But they needed to know were they ever to accept her as suitable.

All the councilmen stilled. Even Rhys was taken aback.

"She can Turn?” came a voice from the back, incredulous.

“She hardly even radiates an ounce of power,” chimed in another.

“Have you any proof? Any evidence?” asked Grady.

He didn’t. Kimber wasn’t sure how to explain what he knew, how that dragon inside her reached up to him every time they touched.

He sighed, feeling his exhaustion begin to creep in. “Not yet. Tonight though, you will have your precious evidence and I will have my mate.”


****

They took tea in the parlor.

It was certainly nice, though not nearly as fine as the many parlors in Chasen manor. The carpet, upholstery, and curtains were a deep red with golden floral contrasted by innocent cream walls reaching up to a high ceiling capped by cornice. Three Queen Anne chairs with cabriole legs bore their burden in perfect, triangular harmony around a Chippendale table. The tea cups were rimmed in gold and hand painted with ferns reflecting the British pteridomania of the time.

With the sweet memory of darling Kimber still fresh, Sunniva resolved herself to play the role of a lady. Though tired she felt revived and confident, like this place could become her home. She thought it wise to refrain from antagonizing Joan and make a good impression on Kim's twin sister Audrey, whose home she was now sitting in.

It was a newly built house classically designed and filled with a number of imported fineries. A home of the upper-middle class, it was ardently clear that a close relative of means was involved in the furnishings and décor.

It was still horribly hot, the summer refusing to relent. The ladies kept the windows open and the curtains drawn.

Despite Audrey's massive belly and the sweltering heat, she was still every bit an aristocrat as the other Langford siblings. If she was bothered it certainly didn't show.

"One lump or two?" she asked, her hand hovering over the sugar bowl.

"One, thank you."

Sunniva took the cup and saucer and placed it on the table. It would be polite to wait till the others had their tea before taking a sip. Sunniva wouldn't have minded waiting an eternity, as she despised tea, a fact she wouldn't make known. Not today. "Your house is lovely," she added.

"That's kind of you to say," replied Audrey passing a tea with cream to her sister Joan. "I've thought of redecorating. These colors are going out of style. Or so I'm told," she said looking at Joan.

"Pastels, dear sister, are all the rage now in London," stated Joan proudly. She was met with a passive smile.

Audrey took the first sip, followed by Joan and finally Sunniva.

"When are you due?" she asked, careful not to spill her tea.

"Another month."

Sunniva's eyes stretched to her scalp. The gown did little to hide the mother-to-be's monstrous belly and she still had a month to go.

"I suspect it's twins," Audrey explained, noticing Niva's surprise. "They run strong among our kind."

"Oh? I wasn't aware."

"Of course you wouldn't be aware," came the snide comment from Joan.

"Joan, be a dear and fetch some fresh biscuits from Cook,” Audrey said without taking her look from Sunniva. It was polite and nice, yet the hints of a command were there.

"I'm not really in the mood for something sweet.”

"Fetch them all the same."

Audrey stared her younger sister down with icy eyes until she complied. Joan left the parlor in quick steps.

Audrey waited till the door had closed. She placed her cup and saucer down.

"Forgive my sister. She sometimes forgets her manners."

Audrey uncrossed her ankles and leaned back in her chair resting her arms lazily across her belly. "I think though, that some manners are perfectly appropriate to ignore." She slipped off her pumps and stretched her legs out across the floor.

"This heat is dreadful and pregnancy is horrid. There, I've said it."

Sunniva smiled and slipped her own shoes off, feeling at ease.

Audrey gave her an approving smile. "Might I ask you a question?"

"Certainly," replied Sunniva.

"Why is it that you keep your hair shorn?"

Sunniva reached up and grasped the wisps of hair tickling her neck.

"It makes travel safer."

"Ah. To look like a boy?"

Sunniva gave her nod.

It was partially true, however her illusions were easier with less hair. She wasn't actually transforming into the faces and bodies she wore, it was merely a trick of the light. If she had long locks she would constantly have to compensate for the movement.

"May I ask you a question?"

Audrey nodded.

"What is the council?"

Audrey considered her words carefully.

"Quite simply, it consists of the ruling members of the tribe."

"And Kimber is on it?"

"Generally yes. But with my father gone he is acting Alpha, so for the time being not technically a councilman."

"Alpha?"

"We use the title of marquess to simplify dealings with the Others, but it is the word Alpha that holds meaning among us. He is the strongest, most cunning and powerful. The most capable of leading."

"Like a king?"

"Somewhat. But not strictly inherited. My brother, though, has proven time after time that he is most worthy of the role once my father feels no longer capable."

Sunniva felt a swelling of pride. She'd caught the eye of the strongest of their kind, felt his hard body pressed against her.

Instincts were a terrible thing made all the more dreadful by the fact that Sunniva hardly understood her own. Her caution slithered away, all the worries and concerns about this place fading into a single sensual shadow. Kimber was all that was left. All that she wanted was him. The bright dragon preened at this, ready for him, ready to let him have her when the time came.

****

The night promised perfection for his plans. A cooler wind had moved through the shire mingling with the warmth radiating from the earth below. Kimber was certain of the updrafts and airstreams offering them a veritable dragon’s playground.

He returned with Sunniva to that section of the garden, their last kiss still a persistent sensation on his lips. A gamey smirk took to his face at the thought of their bodies finally entwined as they were meant to.

Small clouds tore by overhead occasionally rendered asunder by swift scythes of scales and wings. Sunniva didn’t look up keeping her eyes forward on the man leading her through trellises laced with night jasmine, the blooms splendidly aromatic. Kimber stopped in a large open clearing encircled by a hedge of laurel and faced Sunniva taking her hands in his. He bent to give her the sweetest of kisses and she rose to meet him.

“What did you wish to show me?” she asked, her voice hitching in anticipation as he drew away. She knew what he would do next, knew why he had brought her here, rendering the question redundant, but she asked anyway.

Alpha.

He smiled and she watched as his body faded into smoke and his clothes fell into a heap at her feet. He swirled around her once, touching her where he could in ethereal caresses, then drifted to the large, open space in the garden. To a simpleton it could have been an eerie mist settling on the dewy ground, a midnight fog that was the wey and wine to a place like Darkfrith, but it was drákon.

Sunniva could feel the potency of it all, the ancient magic that coursed through her and him and their kin above. Her eyes flashed for a moment bright and terrible as Kimber pulled himself into form.

She marveled at him, utterly spellbound. He was like the others in the skies above but not; like her but different.

A myriad of rugged, black scales adorned his back and underside; rough and armored instead of smooth and sleek. His talons looked to be as if formed from obsidian, razor sharp. Not a single color or shimmer on his body of shadow would betray him. He was darkness, the dreadful night.

It was hard to tell with his smoking coal eyes, but she knew he was looking, watching her, waiting for her reaction.

Enamored and transfixed, she reached out placing her hand upon him beginning at the crest of his neck slowly running her fingers through his dark mane. His scales were rough on her finger tips, sending a cool current through her burning body. She may have let out a moan or something deeper resembling a growl, she couldn't quite recall.

He was stunning, terrifying, downright bewitching. A dark to her light, smoke to her flame, chilled water to her fevered blood. She wanted more than anything to Turn and fly to the heavens with him.

Her touch felt like fire. As dragon, senses were heightened, sensory information made all the more potent by the fact that his mate was so near, grazing his lines, feeling deep within. Every scale she touched, every fiber that tugged at her fingertips sent a licking flame down Kimber's spine. The breath Sunniva tried so hard to control came as a purr to his ears. Kimber could even pick out the different notes of her scent; the one of spice just behind her ears, the sweet tang from her lips, the citrus notes of her hair, the rosy qualities of her wrists. He closed his eyes, focusing and filling his lungs even deeper. He even caught the inviting scent of arousal hidden between her thighs. For but a moment, he felt like an intruder, trespassing somewhere he had yet to be invited. He rationalized it. Their pairing was an inevitability he was sure of and that secret place between her legs his domain.

Her hand had reach his hips. He couldn't bare it any longer. He Turned to human not even bothering with smoke, tugged her roughly to him, and wrapped his lips over hers, covering her with a dominance Sunniva had never experienced before in a man. This time there was nothing soft about it, not even the slightest attempt at restraint. He meant to take her, out here in a garden filled with blooms under the open sky.

Alpha.

That fragment of Niva that was human was wary, but that horrible beast inside was consumed with thrill. It met him just as aggressively biting his lower lip, tasting what was hers. She couldn't control herself. She hadn't taken form in over a week and the dragon would no longer be contained. It didn't want to fly though, it wanted something else. She found herself shifting her weight, one leg moving of its own accord to the side, widening the space between her thighs. She stretched her arms around Kimber's neck, her muscles clenching him tightly towards her. Whether she was pulling herself up to meet him or him down to meet her could be considered a matter of perspective.

Kimber hardly needed encouragement. He grabbed her buttocks and lifted her, backing her up hard to the lip of a stone fountain. On impact he ground into her despite the layers of fabric between them unable to resist the compulsion to thrust. Her incisive fingers suddenly dug into his backside sending him and his member towards her again.

He pushed her offending skirts just enough up her legs to get a proper reach between her thighs, the source of the beckoning scent of her arousal demanding attention. A curious thumb slid over her moist curls. Again, this time more exploratory parting her warm folds.

He was aware of his need for urgency, wanting her mated and his, but he couldn't help but slip a finger in. She was all shivers and pliancy, her sheath tight and begging as he slid in and out. A deep, sharp moan escaped her lips warning him of her luscious, hot readiness and he could bare it no longer.

He grasped himself guiding the head to her entrance-

- and stopped. He need only thrust, a slight jerk of his hips and they would be one.

He'd never felt this kind of power surge through a drákon female despite having met them all - quite a few even intimately. He knew it in his bones that she could Turn, that she was a true dragon. He believed it as he believed the sun would rise tomorrow morning and set the subsequent evening.

But what if...

He needed the support of the ruling men of the tribe if he were to continue his family's peaceful reign. There was something he needed to know. Something he needed confirmed before making her his mate, a fact the bloody council had insisted upon.

He required proof of his mate's strength.

"There is something I need to ask you," he whispered, his body frozen before her.

"Yes?" she squeezed out.

"Can you Turn?"

"What?"

She was dragged out of her delirium, coming back to herself piece by piece.

He pulled his head up from the crook of her neck and looked down at her.

"I need to know if...if you can Turn."

"Why would you ask that?"

She lowered her legs.

"It's just something I need to know."

His eyes were painfully hopeful, his mouth far too intent, his arousal too prominent.

She wasn't quite sure how to classify what she was feeling about it all. About Kimber, about Darkfrith. Unease, trepidation, distrust? Awe, fascination, belonging? Certainly lust. Suspicious, consuming lust. It coiled like a snake in her stomach.

Kimber was so kind and charming and lovely. And irresistible. She wanted him horribly, that much was clear. Her body yearned each time he withdrew his touch. But there was something she couldn't see about him, about this place. Too many inconsistencies for him to be an altruist who happened to belong to the gentry. Nobles were never noble anyways. She'd snooped through numerous aristocrats' mansions and uncovered far too many skeletons to think otherwise.

Kimber and his family -the Alphas of the tribe- were hiding something from her.

The Langfords didn't want her alone in the village. They didn't want her to have contact with her father. They'd placed guards to watch her and Kimber seemed impossibly keen on convincing her to Turn. The implication was there: some of the drákon couldn't. But what one or the other meant was unclear to Sunniva.

She looked at him and sorrowfully lied.

"No." She forced it out, concentrating on contracting her lungs to make the word emerge.

His reaction nearly broke her.

His brows unraveled as he registered what she'd said. His hands unwrapped from her back as if in disgust, the pressure of his chest diminishing with every breath. He no longer held her eyes instead looking anywhere but. He gathered his fine garments in his arms not bothering to clothe himself as if the need to put distance between them more pressing. He left without a single utterance, disappearing quietly into the vast gardens.

It was as if she'd been stabbed through the heart by ice.

She lowered her legs from the fountain's edge finding her shaky feet with difficulty. Her thighs were still coated in anticipation of their coupling. She was embarrassed and confused, the anger and hurt of it all swelling up. Her eyes changed from their artificial dull gray, to their natural violet and finally to the dragon's burning white. Shaking, she clenched a fist and brought it down against the stone basin of the fountain, cracking it through the middle. Water leaked out over her feet and onto the lawn.

The stringent desire to Turn was there. To hunt Kimber down and show him the truth. To lure him into a dance in the skies, to soar and tumble and ultimately finish what they'd started. Her skin was growing hotter and if she didn't reign in the beast it would be over.

She cupped her hands together gathering water from the fountain and splashed it over her face. She did it again and again until her skin was dry and red and the difference between tears and cool water was indistinguishable.

He was just a man, cruel and self-serving, she surmised. She'd go to her room now. She would sleep. Tomorrow would be another day. Tomorrow she would find out why.



 

Chapter Text

 

Sleep hardly came and when the first rays peaked over the dark woods of Darkfirth, Sunniva rose despite her fatigue. Eager to get some answers, she ensured her silk stockings and a fresh shift were already on before the maid arrived to help with the rest. It was an apple-green day dress this time - also too tight in the shoulders - with a stay that cut into her ribs.

She moved through the milky, pastel corridors feeling like a specter. For the first time she noticed just how many servants busied themselves in the great house.

A footmen passed by with a breakfast tray pressing his back to the wall as she approached. He greeted her cordially with a bow of the head, his hands held steady so as not to spill milk out of the miniature pitcher meant for the pot of Earl Grey. She stared at him as she walked by. Joan wouldn't be joining them for breakfast then. Tired from another late rendezvous perhaps?

She tightened her lips, wondering if he was an ordinary footman or a guard posing as one. It probably was irrelevant. Footman or guard everything was most likely reported.

She fell into her old habit of watching each servant she passed; their livery, where they were going, what they were carrying, at what hour. They all eyed her, some suspiciously, others with faces full of questions, but not a single one said more than a simple 'good morning, miss.'

She'd passed seven by the time she stood before the dining hall. Two more footmen, a kitchen maid, three valets and a livery boy carrying firewood. The size of the place certainly left no one idle.

There was a single presence just beyond the door;

Male. Strong. Virile.

Certain it must be Kimber she turned the brass knob only as much as necessary before swinging it open. Much to her chagrin only Rhys awaited her. He had already begun eating and was ensconced in a newspaper as she entered.

"Will Kimber be joining us?" she asked pointedly.

Rhys folded his paper towards his chin peering out over the top at her. "I dare say not. Some urgent business has arisen that requires his immediate attention."

"I see," she replied, dryly as her lips drew flat. There was no sense in delving further. He was clearly lying.

Rhys flipped his newspaper back up, shielding his faced and paid her no attention for the rest of the meal.

The afternoon came and along with it the dress-maker that had been promised.

Not much younger than she, the seamstress had the blackest of eyes and thick silvery-blond hair. A wig or powder to achieve the latest fashion would not have been necessary, only perhaps a hot iron to mold her heavy, straight locks into curls. She didn't seem interested in all that anyways, keeping a simple long braid thick as a tangle of vines draping down her back. She wore jewels - like everyone in this place - but hers were modest. A few rings adorned her hand, thin bands of silver and gold. A chain, also of silver, hung around her neck with a diamond at the end cowering between her bosom. Sunniva didn't need to see what her blood could hear. And that wasn't all it heard; a peculiar organic hum of flesh and light, dim and quaint and stemming from the woman. She was drákon, but there was a subtle variance in that radiance she carried.

They were granted the privacy of Sunniva's chamber, who was surprised the whole ordeal wouldn't be supervised by at least one of the Langfords. It seemed, until today, everywhere she went Kimber or one of his siblings was present.

The seamstress withdrew a measuring tape, a bit of parchment and a pen from a small basket, all of which she placed atop a small writing desk tucked into a corner of the room.

She helped Sunniva undress, first with the gown, then the skirts finally removing the painful stay and cumbersome petticoat.

"You may leave your shift on," she said as she neatly laid the borrowed garments onto the bed. Sunniva already had the thin fabric nearly over her head. She let it fall slipping back over her breasts and hips like a gentle waterfall coursing over rounded river stones.

The silence between them was deafening. The scratching of quill on parchment clawed at Sunniva’s ears and the measuring tape chafed every time the seamstress held it against her skin.

"Have you been instructed not to say anything of significance to me as well?" Sunniva asked, thinking of the maid that helped her dress.

Zoe pulled the length of the measuring tape taught and smiled. "I was told to take your measurements and have at least one gown finished by next week. That was all. A brand new one isn't possible in that amount of time of course but I can alter another I've nearly completed."

"So you weren't forbidden to talk about the shire or the drákon or whether the Langford's ritually sacrifice humans on the night of a full moon?"

Zoe Lane let out a laugh. "I can assure you they most certainly do not."

"A shame. It makes them appear so harmless."

"Appearances can be deceiving. Hold up your arms please."

She wrapped the measuring tape around Sunniva's mid then jotted down the number on the bit of parchment.

She did the lengths and circumferences of arms brushing skin against skin.

"Miss Lane can you Turn?" asked Sunniva abruptly.

Zoe let one end of the tape slip from her fingers. "That's a rather personal question," she replied, not making eye contact.

Sunniva found her patience running thin. The sting of Kimber's rejection was still fresh and she couldn't make sense of it.

As Zoe raised the tape to her neck Sunniva snatched her wrist.

"Can you?" Her voice was low and dangerous, her question a threat.

Zoe Lane tried to jerk away but Sunniva's fingers dug into her tendons. The woman was afraid, betrayed by the thumping of her heart, a fact that didn't escape Sunniva who only cocked her head and gripped tighter.

The rumors were true, the thief was feral. A human with an ounce of drákon blood enjoying their strength. And then Zoe saw it. A dragon's eyes staring back at her, bright and terrible and...glowing. It was unlike any she’d ever seen.

"I cannot," whimpered Zoe.

Sunniva wanted to ask her more question, but the anger bubbled up from her throat. She wasn't angry at this woman, but rather at this place, at Kimber. Why was it so important she need to Turn?

Sunniva released her, shaking her head trying to regain a semblance of her civilized self.

Zoe rubbed her wrist, a ghost of a smile threatened an appearance until her face twisted in pain as the blood returned to her fingers.

"I'm sorry," Sunniva said.

"It's alright. No permanent harm done."

"Do you have what you need?" Sunniva asked looking away.

"I still need to measure your-"

"Make it up," Sunniva demanded. "And get out."

"Is there something wrong? Something you would like to-"

"No,” snapped Sunniva and then she sighed. “I need to be alone."

Zoe gathered her things and left swiftly.

Sunniva began pacing back and forth thoughts churning. There was no one she could ask. No one to tell her the truth. A den of liars. Kimber had insisted she was a part of the tribe, but at every step she was met with scorn and distrust.

A storm was drawing near, the hot, summer air taking on an oppressive degree of moisture, thick and stifling as curdled milk. Sunniva threw open a window sucking air deep into her lungs. A few gardeners down below drawn by the scraping of iron looked up her as if waiting to see what the feral dragon might do. Not quite ready to give up on the visage of a civilized woman of good breeding - though she wasn't very good at it - she resigned to take the front door. She'd only gotten part of the dress on and laced, as high born lady's fashion was constructed such that assistance was always necessary. The petticoat was left on the bed as was the stay.

The clouds were black and thick by the time she left the manor. Upon reaching a juncture in the gravel path she took a right instead of going straight, heading towards the fields. A small wall of flat, stacked stones rose on either side separating the tracts from the road and from each other. She came up over a hill crest giving her a nice view of wheat, golden and awaiting harvest. The path beyond was blocked by a wagon half filled and lacking horses. Men vigorously swiped scythes back and forth, while others wielded rakes sweeping the stalks into organized piles where they were then gathered and tied off, all of them racing against the imminent rain.

The wagon continued to fill, the men working frantically. Sunniva marveled at the sight of shirtless bodies, showing off the sensual concurrence of muscle and bone covered by glistening skin. The wind picked up sending a pleasant combination of musk and sweat her way. All dragon. Powerful and masculine.

They paid no attention to her, intent on their arduous task. It was better, she thought. She wanted to watch them as they naturally were, not putting on a show for her benefit.

A shout came from near the wagon and the men gathered, flinging tools atop the bundles of wheat. Two of them took up the wooden shafts lugging the harvest forward. It made perfect sense - oxen or mules would only frighten and were probably not much stronger than a male drákon anyway.

The rest remained as they were near the stone wall watching the sky, waiting. The wind picked up again sending eddies of dust swirling across the field. A few large drops fell breaking that soupy pressure that always mounted before a storm.

The first to Turn was a mature man with flaxen hair hair held back with a leather strap. He'd worn a thin muslin shirt and linen trousers which were now left in a pile atop the stiff, shorn stalks. Glimmering eyes watched as he rose in a streamer of smoke merging with clouds before taking form.

Sunniva couldn't see him, he'd waited till out of sight, but that snap of power was unmistakable. The other men took it as a cue and like a line of dominoes Turned one after the other rising like errant ribbons caught in a wave.

The clouds broke releasing their fury, the downpour stinging her eyes and soaking her clothes. She welcomed the soothing tap-tap-tap, the mellow of cool water running down her chest culminating in her bodice and sending streams of water along her legs.

She trailed the deepened ruts of the wagon not particularly certain where else she'd like to explore. Her guards had of course followed, towed along behind her through the drenching rain at a distance they probably considered inconspicuous. She paid them no mind. They hadn't moved to stop her, probably ordered just to watch and report, so she kept walking.

The rain pulled her short hair into a few thick strands. She wiped a palm across her face moving them to the side to see better. Just ahead was a small cluster of buildings standing like apparitions behind the silk sheets of rain that fell.

Upon closer inspection it became clear that it was a farm house with a large gambrel barn and a few sheds for whatever purposes a farmer might need. The wheel tracks led straight into the barn, doors flung open where the wagon was being unloaded. Strong arms tossed wheat into the loft quick and effortlessly most likely driven by the need to fly.

Sunniva understood this, having always taken any opportunity she could to merge with the heavens. The thought brought her back to Kimber, wondering if he was up there now soaring with his kin. The impulse to find out rose as bile in her throat; she wouldn't, couldn't Turn until she understood his behavior. His painful rejection.

"That'll be it Alec. Let's fly!" one of the young men whooped.

"Wait a sec. Mother said she'd have our hides if we left our clothes out to be soiled again."

A scoff was made, but both young men dissolved into smoke under the cover of the barn regaining their naked human form only a few seconds later. They slung their garments over the back of the wagon, Turned to smoke again, and shot up into the sky.

Sunniva felt tickled. What a humbling sight. Two dragon boys taking care to not upset their mother before transforming into the most ferocious of beasts.

She cast out her senses wondering if she could pinpoint their location when she caught the feeling of a cluster just a short distance away. Standing under the covered porch of the farm house was an older woman in twill weave. Most likely the mother the lads had spoken of. Her eyes were fixed upwards, with a glaze of sorrow covering them. Next to her stood a girl of similar coloring and next to her two more. Twins most likely, though they weren't identical.

The mother caught eyes with Sunniva. She turned with a scowl to her daughters. "Come on girls, off you go. We've work to finish."

Sunniva felt the bite of her look. Distrust. Hostility. Darkfrith was no place for strangers.

She left quickly not wishing more disdain than necessary.

She followed her senses to the village. The concentration of energy made it easy and she had a general recollection of the direction having been there once before. There were few out on the cobblestone streets, understandably so. Those who were carried dripping parasols or held shawls over their heads as they scurried from shop to shop.

Past the main square, beyond the courthouse, Sunniva came upon a structure with a covered pavilion. There sat a large gaggle of well dressed ladies quaffing tea and thumbing cucumber sandwiches and scones with clotted cream. Sunniva couldn't understand this country's obsession with the drink, though understood the appeal of the pastries, pleasing morsels at every bight. None of the women looked pleased, though. The conversation was stunted and between sips from dainty cups the women stole glances upward.

She couldn't understand why they were here, why they wouldn't join their husbands and sons in the sky.

Can you Turn? I need to know.

Kimber's last words to her echoed in her thoughts accompanied by the memory of his naked body pressed against her.

The realization came over her in a sickening swell. They can't. All of the women, drákon, steeped and stewed in the magic of this place, each containing a slumbering beast within that simply would not awaken. Earth-bound and forced to watch their men enjoy the freedoms of the heavens as their kind was meant to. Sunniva couldn't imagine such an existence. She couldn't look at the envious faces any longer; wives, mothers, grandmothers, young, hopeful women; all of them had the same look. A painful longing for something they had lost.

Sunniva walked back to the manor slumped and wet wondering the implications of her own abilities. As far as she could tell she was unique. And being unique could either be a blessing or a curse.

Chapter Text

Rhys Langford had a secret. He was in love. It had started out as something juvenile, infatuation and attraction growing into something that consumed his every thought.

And like any secret it becomes two and three secrets, multiplying into a tangle of lies that one must constantly prune and cultivate lest the truth be discovered.

It was nearing midnight and Rhys lay wide awake in his bed listening to the swaying arc of the grandfather clock with a brass-steel Gridiron pendulum keeping watch just down the hall from his room. The chime was deactivated allowing for sleep, but he knew the time anyway. One of the family guards would be making their rounds soon, give or take a few minutes depending on whether someone had corrected the time; Gridiron pendulums weren’t the most accurate of time keepers, but they certainly looked nice.

He stood upon the guard’s approach and drew a silk dressing gown from the wardrobe. Binding the sash around his waist, the warm tassels spilling over his fingers in the dark, he opened his chamber door just before the man walked by. He stepped out into the corridor leaving the passage to his room wide open.

“My Lord?”

“Anything to report David?”

“Not a thing.”

“Thank you. Carry on.”

He watched as the guard progressed further down the hall eventually disappearing into the darkness. He returned to his chambers, only stepping just inside and closing the door behind him. The room was still and quiet and Rhys peered at it, covering every inch with careful eyes.

The open windows were masked with a crème voile permitting even the scarcest of breezing entry while shielding Rhys from prying eyes. They’d been a summer request necessitated by the heat wave, replacing the heavy, winter veronese drapes. Most of the floor was covered with a hand woven rug the design consisting of four cornucopias spilling flowers onto a brick chevron ground.
Against the windows stood a small writing desk which Rhys sometimes used for social correspondence, though really just a table with a top of marble that he placed the occasional glass of scotch.

Over by the hearth Rhys thought he caught a semblance of a flutter. His senses prickled, his breathing deepened as he slunk closer and closer. His hand snapped out only to grip empty air. He let out defeated huff.

“You’re a downright vixen,” he whispered playfully still trying to pick out her location. “Alright, I give up,” he sighed, glancing now quickly about his room.

Rhys’ bed was large and featured a crown with a banded acanthus leaf motif reminiscent of the Greek’s love of ivy. Atop it was a thin bed linen, the edges finished with a French seam and still wrinkled from Rhy’s back. It began to smooth itself as a phantom hand ran across it.

“I am not a vixen Lord Rhys Langford,” came a retort. Like sheets of frost thawing from a window revealing the glass beneath so too did the lush skin of a young woman begin to appear.

And this was the greatest secret that Rhys could never reveal, lest she be taken from him.

They’d been a constant in each others lives since they were even capable of forming memories. Only a few days different in age, Zoe and Rhys had found each other a suitable distraction from watching yards of silk and Lampas liséré and atlas weave be examined and chosen for Rue Langford’s lastest gown. The Alpha’s wife had a fondness for fine clothing.

Their friendship grew through games of hide-and-seek and find-the-rock and the two began to look forward to the order of a new dress. One day Zoe’s mother forbid her to come with, insisting she was old enough to stay home and best practice her needlepoint.

They still found time and ways to meet, Rhys regailing her with his experiences at Eaton boy’s college and her sharing with him the latest gossip of the shire. After Rhys Turned for the first time, Zoe was the first person he showed his scales of emerald and azure. And when Zoe’s Gift emerged Rhys was the only she showed. He thought that was when he realized he loved her. He was a member of the Alpha family and their kind was supposed to love power and Gifts. But when she looked at him with terrified eyes wondering, he knew he loved her long before that and promised to hide her secret until they could wed.

They staged a nasty, public falling out under the pretense of Rhys being a haughty snob, biding their time until they could truly come together. It was the safest course of action, and by all outward appearances one they maintained to this very day.

But in the secret of the night, in the tentative safety of his chambers, Rhy moved towards her. If there was any doubt of his desire one only need listen for the vigorous thumping of his beating heart thrashing about in his chest when he saw her – especially like this, naked and in his room. Black eyes, pearly blonde hair, skin of porcelain, the body of a caryatid without a cloak. She seemed too pure to touch as he stood before her, a goddess casting judgment on his every move.

So she touched him, slipping her hand between the folds of his robe, feeling his heaving chest, the course hairs and firm muscle. She looked up at him daring him further.

“If not a vixen, then what are you?” he asked, in awe of her icy perfection.

She raised an eyebrow and smirked an invitation.

He kissed her and it was anything but reticent. The force of it pushed her butt against the bed, his bed, relieving her from her feet. She teetered on the corner and wrapped a strong calf behind his thigh urging him to her.

But Rhys was stronger and had other plans. He lifted her effortlessly and tossed her roughly further onto the bed. He shed the robe and grabbed one of her feet, beginning at her ankle, biting and grazing her skin with his teeth.

She wiggled and writhed pleased with the sensation despite not making a single sound. When he reached her inner thighs she pulled one leg up and the other to the side, as wide as she could giving him perfect access to her sex.

He rested a hand in the crook of her knee and pinned the other leg to the bed with his palm. He closed his mouth over her folds in one thorough movement causing her hips to buck and her back to arch. He dug his fingers into her skin keeping her open as she tried to close her thighs due to the sheer sensation, while he lapped her to pleasure with his tongue.

She was caught in the terrible tight torment of it all, feeling the mounting burn ebb and flow as he varied his pace. He was maddening, a downright pirate holding her treasure for ransom. She could feel that male part of him, satiny and hard against her calf teasing an unknown delight, demanding the same in return.

He bit at her now and that taut coil inside her released like a compressed spring. He knew her well, knew her body, how to give her pleasure and how to make her moan. So he knew, like a well-evolved instinct, to place a hand over her mouth once her fingers gripped his hair with a new desperation and the strength of her squirmings shifted to something uncontainable. Her breath was hot on his skin filling him with satisfaction, her scream contained to his palm.

He crawled up alongside her laying on his side, his head propped against his elbow. He looked at her with eyes of glowing jade, sensual.

She recovered in gasps and reached down between her legs feeling her own slickness, marveling at his accomplishments. Her hand met his hip becoming a tender coercion encouraging her lover to his back. She crawled on top of him holding herself at a distance on her knees.

They kissed deeply, tongues entwined in perfect symphony. She cupped his face as he cupped hers. She reached down grasping him, guiding him between her legs, teasing her own entry with his smooth tip. It was a temptation they had fought for years, yet she was finally permitted to give in. She began to lower herself, ready at last to have him, only to feel a tight grip on her hips as she was tossed to the side.

"Zoe, you know we can't," he said, regrettably.

“But your brother is-”

“He is not mated.”

Her brows drew together. "What could they really do to us?"

"Plenty. We’ve been through this. The council would have no issue with a public whipping, weeks in the Dead Room, or worse, taking you away from me and giving you to my brother. And do you think he would intervene? Show me mercy because of our shared blood? He'd think me at best a deviant for breaking tradition and at worst a traitor if he ever found out what you can do. You know how he is. Devoted to duty. I thought with the arrival of that woman we might have a chance, but-"

It was a practice from an older time, the eldest, the Alpha heir marrying first. It was meant to ensure he had access to an Alpha female hindering a younger brother from mating with one and rising up against him. It was meant to keep the peace, facilitating a line of succession and might have made sense when the drákon took mates at a younger age and the women could all Turn.

"But what?" interuppted Zoe, frustrated.

"The council insisted he get proof. It was the first time I thought the model Alpha, my brother would ignore the will of the council, ignore our rules. He was so convinced she could Turn. I didn't believe it either. But they were right in their caution. She can't. She told him. I don't know the details, but she is just what everyone says she is."

The popular rumor in the shire was that Sunniva was a thin-blooded waif who posed enough threat to be brought in, but was of little consequence to the drákon way of things.

Zoe raised her eyes at this. "Don't be so sure about that. I saw her."

"You saw her Turn?" Rhys rose quickly to his elbows.

"No. Not precisely. Her eyes though. Just her eyes for a moment, they flashed white and bright."

It was one of the known Gifts of their kind, rare and, despite being basically useless, was considered extraordinary. Rhys had the ability as did his brother and sisters. In fact the entire Alpha family could. For the drákon it represented the mingling of the two halves. Not one or the other. Not beast or man, but both seamlessly dancing in blurred lines. It was a reminder that they weren't truly human no matter how tame they seemed.

Rhys pulled Zoe close. Closer than she already was and placed a kiss on her forehead. For the first time he felt a sliver of hope, holding his secretly-betrothed in his arms.

"How will you tell him?" she asked.

Zoe was born the daughter of a seamstress, to a simple life of sufficient comfort without high enough standing to be in a position of consequence. She'd never been exposed to the kind of conniving that Rhys had been submerged in since the beginning, the inner workings of drákon government being reserved for males of high status. It hadn’t even interested her. That is, until her Gifts emerged. But such skill required practice and knowledge so in the spirit of self preservation, she reverted to Rhys on such matters.

"I'll think of something. Don't worry."

****

Rhys made sure he arrived early to breakfast. He left his usual daily folded and lying on a side table where he would read it later. The food was brought out dish by dish in the usual silver platters. It was Wednesday, so offal would be served. He wasn't keen on eating innards, even though many considered it a delicacy. He'd stick to the pastries and his usual coffee, but first for sake of politeness he would wait for her.

Sunniva came punctually wearing wine-colored muslin that the maid no doubt had chosen for her. Her face was lacking rouge, powder and kohl giving her a tameless look. Despite that, there was something else different. Her skin was brighter perhaps or eyes gleamed with something terrible. Or maybe it was just the knowledge he now had of the woman he first thought to be a simple halfling.

He stood as she entered and offered a cordial smile. "Good morning."

She said nothing in return, her face guarded, eyes hooded.

He moved to her regular chair pulling it out as a polite gentleman would, tucking it in as she sat down.

She removed the lid off the serving tray where the offal had been carefully arranged, spearing a few cuts of liver with a two-pronged fork onto her plate.

Looking at Rhys with a supine quality to her face, she rhetorically asked, "I take it the Earl won't be joining us today."

"No. I'm afraid he won't be," Rhys confirmed, flicking open his bleached napkin.

"I didn't expect as much," she replied, placing her own upon her lap.

Rhys snatched a warm croissant from a basket and began slowly covering it with orange marmalade.

"Forgive me for prying, but did you two quarrel?"

Her eyes snapped to him full of malice. "I find it hard to believe that you aren't aware of what transgressed between us."

Rhys met her with an almost passable smile of innocence. "Kimber does not speak to me on such matters." He hadn’t in detail anyways.

"Then we've nothing of importance to discuss." She cut the pungent liver into small bites, examining each piece before placing it gently into her mouth.

Rhys took another pastry, this time a scone with wild blueberries some of the maids had found in the woods a day past. He tore it in half and took a bite. "He adores you, you know," he remarked, still not finished chewing.

Sunniva kept her eyes fixed on her plate, the details of gilded flowers on the rim surrounding her meal.

"Look, I don't mean to pry-"

"But you do don't you?” she snapped. She lowered her cutlery and leaned back in her chair. “What is it that you have to gain from meddling?"

"A happy brother," he confessed.

The creases around her eyes softened.

"I know him better than anyone and I've never seen him so happy since you've arrived. I'll be frank, he's been with other women, but no one has caught his attention like you."

Because you can Turn, he thought, one which he was careful not to betray.

"Never before has he been so enamored, so attentive, it's like he's a different man, a better man. Look, I'm sure you've both just had a misunderstanding."

Sunniva opened her mouth to argue then shut it again. Her brows drew together and she bit her lip.

“Let me speak to him,” he suggested.

Sunniva sighed. “Thank you, Rhys.”

****

Rhys found him down in the undercroft. It was here he had spent his time since he’d quarreled with the girl. He held Herte in his hands staring into the blue diamond's depths as if it could offer him answers.

The drákon had found, in the course of their history, a few unique, special gems. For some their power was known, others held a mystery to unravel. And Herte, The Heart of the Tribe, was their most cherished. It held a special place in the Alpha family, as Kimber's mother had discovered its secret. It could bring back a drákon on the brink of death, healing him, making him whole.

Kimber wondered if it could heal him, take away the pain that seemed to consume him.

He was ashamed of his actions, so desirous of Sunniva he'd nearly lost control. He'd convinced himself of her power, that phantom bright that he believed was there. It was a ridiculous thought, a drákon being able to suppress their brilliance. In his stupor Kimber didn't even realize the hypocrisy of it, seeing as he could. The worst part though, is he couldn't be near her, afraid that he would lose that civilized part of himself and take her despite what she was. He still wanted her terribly, an enduring ache that would last lifetimes.

"Speak to me," Rhys prompted, approaching him from behind.

"I've nothing to say," came a rough voice from the stranger that had become his brother.

"That's poking bogey!” insisted Rhys. “You've not slept properly since she came, you've not eaten for two days, you're clearly of unsound mind. Now tell me what happened!"

Kimber told him what had occurred two nights ago down to every horrible detail.

He and Rhys had made the occasional lewd joke to one another, and years past shared vague descriptions of exploits in the woods with young maidens - typical of young men boasting of their escapades. But this issue was embarrassing and private and painful for Kimber to convey.

Rhys let himself fall back against the wall and released an astonished huff. "Oh Kim. And you left her there, knees up and skirts around her thighs?"

Kimber nodded reluctantly unable to look at his brother. He turned paler than he already was, to a ghastly white. He thumbed Herte as a placid comfort.

"Ohhh Kim," berated Rhys once more. He rubbed the back of his neck in thought."You must go to her."

"Have you heard nothing of what I've said?” he asked, as if completely insulted. “She can't Turn! She made a fool of me. There is no point in her staying here. She can't stay here. As soon as-"

"You’ve made a fool of yourself! And you're even dafter than I thought," snapped Rhys.

Kimber cocked his head towards his brother. He supposed it did him some good to have someone besides his parents with the gumption to speak so boldly to him. He regarded his brother in silence waiting for his next words.

Rhys shook his head with a self-satisfied smile. "She lied to you. It's as plain as day."

The thought never occurred to Kim. He was Alpha and if she could Turn, then she was therefore Alpha as well. They'd be drawn to each other, an irresistible urge bound in instinct tying them together.

"Why would she lie? She has no reason to." He realized the stupidity of his question before his brother even spoke.

"She has plenty of reason to. You asked a lone dragon, a woman who has never known others like herself, one that has maybe never revealed to anyone what she is...you ask just before you are about to enter her if she can Turn. Dear brother, I'd lie in her position as well. And not the good kind of lie."

Kimber placed Herte back on its stone altar.

It made perfect sense. Everything she was, everything he’d experienced of her was the truth. Not his own wishful thinking, instead a great power she kept behind a barrier. His brother was right, he'd been daft and rash and impulsive.

"Kim, I can empathize. All this waiting must be quite difficult," Rhys acknowledged.

"You can't even begin to fathom it," Kim said, finally turning to look his brother in the eyes.

For the most minuscule of seconds a hatred stabbed at Rhy's heart. He'd never envied his brother; his responsibilities, the title he would inherit, the decisions he would be forced to make, the actions he had to take. But in this moment he despised his brother for having been born first. Rhys had carried the knowledge for years that Zoe would – by the laws of their people – already be his had he been firstborn, just as she already was in heart and soul.

"Then you must go to her and do whatever it takes to make her yours."

****

Her face hurt from her ridiculously over-acted smile. Sunniva kept a chipper pace, because she wanted the brother to believe she was chipper, skipping off to her room like a smitten girl with a bouquet of flowers from a handsome boy.

Her stomach gurgled, but not because of the food she'd eaten. In fact she loved rich innards; hearts and livers and kidneys abundant in iron and fat filling her to satisfaction. All that the breakfast morsels had been missing was a nice, smoky flavor.

No, the discomfort in her stomach was simply a manifestation of anger stemming from uncertainty. This place, Kimber, his family, everything simply made no sense as if it held some dreadful, terrible secret.

The gurgle came again as she took the turn to her room. She could wait there of course, until Kimber sought her out, but she'd be damned if she gave him patience.

The brother, who had all but ignored Sunniva since her arrival, seemed suddenly determinately keen on bringing the two together. He'd smiled kindly and played on the sympathies of a loving family. He'd portrayed what she had with Kimber as love, but she wasn't fooled. It was primal and carnal and nothing more. She’d realized this after his rejection, that she knew nothing about him, about this place, and despite it all, she was so willing to let him bed her.

And now, with the revelation of Rhy’s meddling, she had no intention of talking to the blaggard, so she continued past her chambers, out of the ladies guest wing into a new section of the house.

Sunniva was never one for plans, at least not long term ones anyways. She was an opportunist, an attitude that suited her nomadic lifestyle. So, when she began to open the doors to each room in the newly discovered wing of the house she wasn't really sure what she was looking for.

The rooms varied greatly. Someone had taken great care decorating each and every one uniquely and with great splendor. They were all themed of course; the Orient, the ocean, one a hubris of periwinkles and posies, another horrid green with pastel hues vomited everywhere.

To Sunniva it was all the same. Finery and luxury coated upon finery and luxury, someone wishing to say "look how grand I am, marvel at my greatness."

A servant, likely a chamber maid judging by her livery, passed by with challenging eyes. Sunniva prickled prepared to answer, already teetering on that precipice. If there was protocol regarding such matters she didn't know. She didn't care. A swipe of the hand to the neck, quick and easy, would be all that was necessary. She'd squeeze, she'd lift and when the woman yielded she'd release her. And if she didn't...

She reminded herself that she wasn't here to draw attention. Quite the opposite actually. Her teeth clenched as she forced herself to admire an oil painting clinging to the wainscotted wall. What it depicted she couldn't make out, her thoughts completely consumed. The maid passed and Sunniva released a fraction of tension held in her fists.

Another room, this time with greenish-gray walls and an abundance of Chinese porcelain. It seemed Chasen manor had no end.

As she moved further into the wing she caught a familiar scent outside of a lacquered door. The scent was stale suggesting its source hadn't been there for two hours at least.

Rhys. The brother. Like Kimber, but less potent, less insisting of dominance. It could have been his room. It could have been one he'd been in. She couldn't be certain until further inspection.

She listened first and when she heard nothing she cast out her senses. Again, nothing. Her usual guards hadn't even followed.

Her fingers gripped the brass handle, a vibrating volition against her palm, and turned. Like an errant autumn leaf she slipped in the room closing the door behind her with a skittish jolt as the latch connected with the frame. She'd crept around houses likes this dozens of times but never in a dragon's lair.

She wasn't sure what she would find in there; a diary, letters, anything informative. The room was certainly more lived in than the many others she'd investigated. A bed with a rustled sheet. A writing desk emptier than usual. A door to a dressing chamber still cracked. A duchesse brisée with worn spots and a book atop it, its gilded titled gleaming. Sunniva ran her fingers across it all. Still, there was nothing of interest.

She stuck the tip of her thumb into her mouth and bit down hard on the end of the nail tearing it too close to the skin. The tang of pain was there, the reddened skin throbbing from exposure. She grimaced at this, but it was mostly masked by adrenaline.

Her eyes took one last sweep of the room finally falling upon a pile of soiled clothing reeking of Rhys clumped in a corner waiting to be washed. It wasn't a well thought out plan but it was a plan nonetheless. With Rhys' garments and face she could move in places she otherwise couldn't.

She gathered the trousers, shirt and waistcoat. It couldn't hurt the authenticity of it all, but she left the more intimate undergarments not feeling quite that committed. She intended to hide everything under her skirts and find a nice place to change when a frisson of energy scratched at her skin paired with the sound of footsteps. Of course, she thought, the room needed to be tidied up.

Sunniva violently tore her dress off, stitches popping, fabric ripping, and stuffed the damn thing between the mattress and box spring just in time for the door to open.

"Oh, apologies my Lord. I thought you'd be out," a young maid blurted, red rising to her cheeks.

'Rhys' flashed a rakish grin at the girl with sparkling eyes then raised his eyebrows.

"Of course. My sincere apologies," said the maid.

Sunniva altered her voice to a seductive, masculine purr.

"No harm done, love. Off you go then."

The maid tossed him a curt glance below his belly and smiled before closing the door.

Sunniva looked down. He should be thankful that I was more than generous, she thought.

She threw Lord Rhy's clothing on as fast as she could and left the room.

There was a small staircase not too far – likely a private one just for the family – leading down to a long gallery with portraits of stern looking men lining the wall. Wafts of geese and walnut drifted by and that was certainly something she could work with. She followed the source leading to the study. It was a good start. There had to be something in there.

A bespectacled man sat at an escritoire – dwarfed by the much grander desk in the center – wielding a pen and quill, scratching and scribbling out text.

Sunniva had the Rhys-ensemble, she looked the part, with a gold brocade waistcoat on her shoulders, eyes of jade, chest puffed, nose up, exuding that air of aristocracy. "What are you doing here?" she asked with authority.

"I'm just making copies for the Alpha's records," the man replied.

"Of course. I'd like to go over it if you have one ready."

"Certainly," he said handing over an ink-covered parchment.

They were minutes, a record of discussion among the leading men of the tribe.


Transcript from Special Session of the Drákon Council, called This Noonday, July 24, 1778

As faithfully transcribed by Council Scribe

Sir Nicholas Beaton

In Session: Sir Rufus Book; Calvin Acton; Theodore Henry; John Chapman; Erik Sheehan; Adam Richards; Anton Larousse; Claude Grady; Devon Rickman; Marcus Danks; Lord Rhys Langford: Lord Kimber Langford, E.oC.

Without: Christoff, Marquess of Langford


[In the absence of the Marquess of Langford, eldest son Lord Chasen presides as Alpha]

Drákon female of initially unknown origin was recently discovered by Alpha heir, Kimber Langford. Suniva Williams, confirmed to be offspring of Tamlane Williams and unknown human, was retrieved with moderate ease and returned to Darkfrith on July 23, 1778. Female exhibits limited abilities: increased olfactory and auditory capabilities, above human strength and speed, aura present but lacking.

Marital status: unmated

Status of Turn: purported Positive, unconfirmed

Status of Dragon: purported Positive, unconfirmed

Status of additional Gifts: unknown

Age: estimated 25



Request made by biological father to release subject to his custody.

Request denied.

Motion made before the Council to wed Suniva Williams to Alpha Heir Kimber Langford as soon as possible.

Not approved. Evidence required of Alpha status of female. Further containment to Alpha's domicile recommended.

Motion to further question Tamlane Williams about possible additional offspring.

Passed.


"Does everything look in order Sir?"

Sunniva cocked her jaw. She swallowed her rage, finding it more difficult than forcing a dry pine cone down her throat.

"You missed an 'n' in the female's name," she said with emphasis.

"Oh. It's an odd name I must admit."

"It's Northern, she replied snidely, “meaning Gift of the Sun." She slung the parchment into a spin towards the scribe, the minutes landing atop his feathered quill. "Amend that, Mr. Beaton!"

She strode out of the study before she did something regrettable.

She wanted to Turn and flee, but she wasn't certain she could outpace and elude hundreds of determined dragons. And Kimber, dreadful and horrid, would exact what he considered his right when he caught her.

She refused to shed tears over him. She refused. But she did anyway. Just one. She'd allow herself that.

Dragons were meant to be free, to roam the skies as they wished. They were rulers of higher beasts, and yet they still treated their women like chattel. She would not become some noble's broodmare - dragon or no. She had a critical piece of information at least: if Kimber heeded the will of the council, he needed her to Turn. And if she never Turned, she need never wed.

She had to go somewhere safe to someone she could trust. She couldn't stay at Chasen any longer. She needed someone who knew this place, their rules, their abilities, their weaknesses. She needed to find her father.

 

Chapter Text

"Leaving early again Williams?" the foreman asked. "You seem to run out of bread quickly, lately." He took Tamlane's silver and tossed the pieces onto a scale. "Ten ounces less than usual," he sighed, "Williams at some point I have to inform Mr. Carlisle."

"I, um, I know. It’s just that I'm trying to get my daughter released into my custody. The council only accepts appeals in written form before six pm."

The foreman shot him a sympathetic smile. If the rumors were true and the daughter was betrothed to the Alpha, then Williams didn't stand a chance. He hadn't the heart to tell the man to forget it.

"Go on, Williams."

"Thank you."

It was a good quarter hour before he reached the beaten-down narrow path leading to his cottage. The grass surrounding it had perked up a bit from the recent rain and his boots collected dew drops as he brushed through.

He would write again tonight, a petition for his daughter. Every day since she'd arrived he wrote a letter for her release and every day he went unanswered. So when he opened that sorry excuse of a door made of crude plank wood he never thought to see her sitting at his dining table waiting for him.

"Hello Father."

She wore men's clothing and smelled like one too. The tension in her lines was clear highlighting the weary bags beneath her eyes.

"Sunniva!" It came out as relief. He made no move towards her. "Did the Alpha release you?"

"Release me?"

A look of confusion consumed Tamlane's face.

"I thought it was time we had a talk,” she said. “There is simply too much I don’t know.”

"Are you mated to the Earl?" asked Tamlane.

It was blunt and came out desperate, but all he could feel was a protective need for his only child.

"Do you mean did we have intercourse?" Sunniva asked, wishing to clarify as her lips took a sour slant.

Tamlane gave a diffident nod.

"Most certainly not. Neither are we married. Unless you have some odd understanding of a wedding that I unknowingly participated in."

Tamlane finally let the air escape his lungs.

"So he doesn't know you can Turn?"

"Why is everyone so concerned with whether I can Turn?"

"Because if you can you are bound by our laws to wed the Alpha's son."

She had figured as much. She ran a hand through her hair tensely, pulling out a few loose strands. She looked at them, letting them fall to the floor.

"And if I choose not to?"

Tamlane shook his head. "There is no choice in a place like Darkfrith. Whether you happily consent or are bound and forced doesn't matter to them. There are three women in the tribe that can make the change and all are directly related to the Alpha heir. Our people are desperate. They will do anything. If they know you can Turn-"

"But they don't. They won't! The council has demanded Kimber acquire proof before he lays a hand on me. "

"You cannot rely on the word of the council. If the Alpha decides to take you anyways they will most likely comply."

"Kimber wouldn't go against the will of the council."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because he didn't. He was close and he didn't." She looked almost remorseful.

"Sunniva. You don't understand our kind. You're different. I don't know how but there is something ineffable about you."

A frown caused the creases of her mouth to compress into little sunbursts.

"Would you like to see? Do you want to see what I can do that I think none of you can?"

Tamlane remained still.

Sunniva left her chair and closed every shutter and curtain until she reached the window from which the last bit of sunlight still flooded the room.

"Look at me," she directed.

Tamlane watched as the light around her rippled and warped and the face of his daughter no longer looked upon him. Instead he found himself staring into blue eyes surrounded by red hair laced grey, a mirror image of himself, but it was his daughter.

"With light I can appear as anyone I wish. The King of England. A lowly serf. Or even Lord Kimber Langford himself. But in the darkness..."

She pulled the last shutter closed along with its curtain.

Her hair resembled spun silver and gold as if made from metal. Her skin looked like translucent marble but instead of veins visible there a was white light coming from beneath. Her presence was achingly undeniable. Tamlane was unable take his eyes away.

Sunniva stood there examining his reaction.

He couldn't help it. His heart swelled with pride seeing his child displaying Gifts their kind had never been known to possess. He himself had always always been plain, lacking the magnificence of his brethren despite being able to Turn. His mate had been a human and logically his offspring should have been ordinary, but she stood there in all her exquisite splendor.

"You are beautiful, Sunniva," he stated, his breath positively taken.

She looked down in disbelief and scoffed.

"I didn't always look like this. The hair came first, slowly paling. I was born with eyes like Mama, but after she died those left me too. I concealed both with kerchiefs, hoods and downward gazes. But after I...Turned," she said as if the word now brought her pain,"I transformed into this monster."

Tamlane realized the danger of it all. It was worse than he could have possibly imagined. That she could Turn made her desirable enough, but she was much more special than that.

She wouldn't be seen as a freak among the drákon. They would consider her a treasure and whoever claimed her would guard her jealously. The council would undoubtedly see her Gifts a threat to their secrecy and confine her to the shire not willing to risk a human ever seeing her like this. His expression grew grave.

"Listen to me. The drakes will be drawn to you if they even with the suspicion that you are more than you seem. Your light is like a moth to a flame."

Sunniva snapped the curtains back open. The glow left and she returned her disguise; a dull variation of her true visage.

A still silence lingered between them.

"I look just as terrible as a dragon. Not like what I've seen here with your sleek scales of jade and crimson and all those splendid colors," she revealed bitterly.

Tamlane swallowed and opened his mouth to speak. He wanted to ask in what way, but her expression gave him pause.

"How old were you?" he asked instead.

"Thirteen."

She turned to the window, her face no longer visible, and clasped her hands just above the tail of her coat.

"I always knew I was different, at least in some way. The Others, as you call them, seemed afraid, always avoiding me. Some were polite, others not so. I could hear their whispers despite walls between us and feel without looking their fearful eyes. Maybe it concerned me as a child, but remaining apart was something I became comfortable with early on. And I had Mama. She wasn't scared of me. So proud, she said I would grow up to be a powerful woman and make a difference for us. But then she died and my "differences" appeared and you weren't there to teach me."

The anger and hurt seethed through her teeth.

"I didn't want to leave you," insisted Tamlane. He stood and turned her to face him.

"God I have thought about you and your mother every day since then. But I don't regret it. If I had returned with you here you would have been chained since the day your Gifts emerged. You would have been wed and bred and if you tried to leave, hooded and imprisoned to the Dead Room."

She let out a sharp gust of air through her nose and turned her head a masking angle away. The tears were still clinging to her lids as if forbidden to fall. Her shoulders slumped forward in defeat.

"You're right," she admitted.

They remained silent for a time, adjusting to the truth between them. The light shifted in the room drawing both their eyes.

"The sun is going down," stated Sunniva. "Soon we shall see whether Kimber believes me the halfling child of a criminal or his terrible dragon mate."

She didn't believe for a second that Kimber had been fooled by her lie. He was coming, she could feel that foreboding shadow draw closer.

"Niva?" her father asked, his face filled with dread.

"Light candles," she commanded. "Lanterns or a lamp. I need-"

"Niva! You have to fly! Fly as hard and fast as possible. I'll hold them off as long as I can."

"No," she said as a calm command. "I appreciate your willingness to sacrifice your life, but it would be in vain. I don't think I can outpace them. Not at night and like you said if they see me the charade is over."

****

Kimber bathed and took the opportunity to shave, using the time to concoct a plan. His brother had correctly made the point that he was beginning to look like a madman. He felt like one too.

He needed to go to her. He wasn't sure how to convince her, but he needed to see her, to be with her. Kimber had avoided her since he'd shown her his form and had been devastated when she didn't reciprocate, his feelings still a bit raw. Why couldn't she understand that they were meant for each other? To rule the skies together.

He should have mated her that night. She'd been so ready, so supple and pliant urging him between her thighs. Thinking back on it he had known deep down what she was, what she had always been. He felt the twitch in his groin just thinking of it.

He regretted having let the council plant doubts in his mind. He should have taken her whether he had proof or not and if the council had challenged him, put them in their place with sharp fangs and talons.

He stood before her door now. It smelled lovely, like summer, like Sunniva. He thought maybe he would start with an apology for his behavior. He would leave out an explanation. If she wanted to know, the onus was on her to ask and he would blame it on 'official business' or some other obscure trite. And then perhaps an invitation for a walk to the village. It was Wednesday. Hudson's bakery would have cream puffs and someone at the market always sold irises this time of summer. He would get her both. She would like that. Women liked that. Liked him. He was the Alpha after all.

He felt a fool, the dark dragon inside mocking him for a trivial whooing reserved for mortals. He would go through the motions, though, go through the romantic games if that's what his mate required. He sometimes forgot that she was raised in the world of humans and it was now his responsibility to coax the dragon out of her.

"Sunniva?" he called, while knocking on her door.

A leaded feeling sank in his stomach. He didn't knock again.

"Sunniva!" he called, this time more loudly, more insistant.

She wasn't there. Or maybe she was? It wouldn't be the first time she'd eluded him. He opened the door to an empty room, the curtains wide open and the bed made.

He breathed in catching a hint of her. It was coming from the door he had just entered, not the bed or the vanity or even the writing desk.

That couldn't be right. Though it was hard to tell with her, the scent certainly seemed fresh. He followed it back out and down the shadowed corridor lit by occasional candles ensconced on the walls. It tugged him onward, past the main staircase, beyond the upper parlor, into the family wing where his own room was located. A spark came to mind of her in his room, on his bed, waiting for him to apologize with his hands and fingers and tongue. The scent didn't continue though, stopping outside his brother's suite.

Rhys would never, ever betray him. There was no one Kimber trusted more than his own brother. Or would he? With Sunniva as the prize might even his closest ally, his brother, attempt to claim that which was Kimber's?

He should have kept her locked in her room. Better yet, in his room. He should have ignored the council's wishes and bound her to him that night in the woods when they met. He should have marked her and mated her and made her his.

He didn't even check if the door was locked. He threw it open ripping a section of wooden frame with it. The black dragon seethed under his skin. If he found her in there...

His brother had been sitting on a cushioned lounge chair next to the window, reading a book whose gilded title reflected a light into Kimber's eyes.

Rhys jerked his legs up to his chest - which until that moment had been extended from the edge of his seat lazily onto the floor.

"What in hell’s-" spouted Rhys.

"WHERE IS SHE?" bellowed Kimber.

Rhys didn't have to guess who he meant. He'd convinced him of her ability to Turn and that ravenous look had returned to his eyes as he searched for his mate.

"If she's not in her room then I don't know where she's popped off to," he said, standing and tossing his book onto a side table.

"Don't play daft with me. I smell her here!" hissed Kimber.

Rhys took a deep breath and looked around, sampling the air. "I smell nothing."

Kimber scowled at him, his eyes had taken on a preternatural black gleam lacking pupils and sclera, a dreadful void of black. He began searching the room, throwing back curtains, tearing open Rhys' armoire. He even looked up the chimney, but it was locked tight and sealed.

"Kim, you're beginning to lose it."

Rhys couldn't believe what he was witnessing. His brother had always been cool and calculated, exact in his actions and diplomatic with his words; the model leader. Only when the tribe was endangered did that frightening side of him appear - or apparently when it involved the woman he perceived as his mate.

Rhys shouldn't have blamed him. He knew the dominating draw a woman could hold. Yet he had never been so possessed as his brother was now.

Kimber had dropped to his hands and knees crawling around on the floor looking under his brother's bed.

Rhys saw it first, a corner of apple-green silk peaking out between his feathered mattress and the box spring. He pulled it, his brother following the fabric with flaring nostrils and feral eyes.

“Kim...” Rhys said his name as a reminder, but it did nothing. His brother’s grip was already around his neck. Rhys dropped the wrinkled dress as Kimber's fingers delved into his windpipe cutting off air. Rhys needed to Turn but he couldn’t, the lack of oxygen too grave, his brother's grip too tight.

For whatever reason Kimber released him. It became quickly clear why as he launched a powerful fist into Rhys' chest sending him flying.

Rhys Turned to smoke before slamming into the wall. His clothes were spared no such fate. He needed to try and reason with Kim, terrifying and possessed. He put some distance between him and his rabid brother before returning to man.

“Kim, you fool! Think for one moment!” he yelled clutching his chest trying to force air into his lungs.

Kim hesitated.

“I have not, nor will I ever touch your mate! And even if I did, why would I hide her dress in my own bed!”

The words seemed to sober Kimber whose eyes had now returned to normal. He thrust his fingers into his hair stretching the skin of his face backwards. He was losing himself, losing control. He wondered when he'd last slept. His body was fatigued and hungry. With sheer force of will he reined the beast in, pulling it back into his heart where it belonged.

“I’m...I’m sorry. I don’t understand what’s come over me. I just kept imagining you naked with her, touching her and all I could think...all I was driven to do was...I’m so sorry.”

Rhys remained cautious and kept his muscles primed just in case.

"I have to go to her."

"It seems like she doesn't want you to know."

"And that's exactly why I need to find Sunniva."

****

The sun was gone and Sunniva knew Kimber was coming. She couldn't escape him now, but she sure as hell would resist him. She refused to go back to Chasen with the Earl. She refused to become his wife and as sure as hell was hot she would not Turn.

Her father tensed sensing the approach, gripping the coarse wood of his chair. The Earl had brought men with, how many she couldn't say, as she was hardly perceptive once the sun went down. She knew her father feared them. He had told Sunniva as much as he could in the time they had. Of the tribe. Of their customs. Of the prison that was Darkfrith. Of what was most certainly planned of her.

Sunniva wasn't sure if she was scared, as every part of her seemed overshadowed by rage. She wouldn't let it get the better of her, knowing that it could show Kimber exactly what he needed to see. She turned that rage into icy steel hearing the footsteps draw closer. She took a lady's pose, her ankles crossed with both hands placed delicately atop her knee. She'd play the meek maiden, show nothing of strength or authority, refrain from provoking him as her father had suggested. He was looking for a dragon and she wouldn't give it to him.

It came as no surprise that Kimber didn't even knock, simply opening the door as if the home belonged to him.

"Oh look father," she spouted politely with searing undertones. "Earl Langford has come to pay us a visit. Noble Lord, do join us for a glass of tepid water. I'd offer you tea, but unfortunately water is all that is afforded to someone you consider a criminal."

Kimber scanned the room with no hint of amusement, looking like a snake coiled and ready to strike.

"Sunniva, it's time we return to the manor," he said commanding and stern. He remained at the door, head dipped to clear the frame, his menacing figure outlined by the darkness of night leaking in from behind.

"That's very kind of you. However, I feel I've been too much of a burden for the likes of an Alpha, so I found somewhere else to stay."

"Sunniva, this is not a request."

At his demand she lost a bit of that cold exterior and rose to his affront. She was never very good at being icy anyways.

"Or what? You'll cover my head with a hood? Truss me up and lock me in the...what was it called? The Dead Room? I hear the Alphas have used these methods for centuries to prevent rogue drákon from Turning. Seems it would hardly be useful for me as I cannot."

She shrugged her shoulders yet in her face Kimber only found derision. Her father must have said much about the more brutal side of the tribe. He wondered what else he had told her.

"Give us a moment alone, Williams. Your daughter and I have a matter which requires discussion," ordered Kimber.

Tamlane did his best to keep eye contact. He lifted his chin and offered a resounding "no" in reply. He knew how they were. The man perceived his daughter as his bride and would stop at nothing to mark her as such. Tamlane didn't know what he could do to prevent it. He hadn't thought that far ahead. Even in his prime he was never a match for an Alpha. But he would do anything to protect his daughter.

The Earl was taken aback. No one refused an order from him. He contemplated what to do, the first ideas instinctively involving violence. He smoothed his hair, a symbolic gesture Kimber often used to sooth the beast.

"Don't worry, Papa" Sunniva said, surprising both the men. "Earl Langford would never try something untoward. He's a gentleman, isn't that right noble Lord?"

Tamlane Williams looked at his daughter wishing to plead, but she kept her eyes, ferocious and stoic, on Kimber. The Alpha was staring at him, as if one false move could mean jaws around his neck. He rose and hobbled to the door. The Earl moved only slightly to the side forcing Tamlane to suck in his chest and press his back to the door frame lest he risk a brush with death.

Once past, Kimber stepped in and closed the door. He had his mate alone, but he wasn't sure where to begin.

Now standing in the light of a lantern positioned upon the table, Sunniva noticed how frayed Kimber looked. He was clean and shaven and his lapels had been freshly ironed flat, but the skin above his cheekbones seemed darker, his feral eyes glazed over, his taut posture hiding a hint of exhaustion.

"I thought we had matters to discuss? If you've nothing to say, then you might as well leave."

"Not without you," he replied, with a flimsy veil of composure.

She let out a laugh.

"Who do you think you are? Who are you to tell me what to do?"

There was so much she didn't understand about their kind. He contemplated grabbing her by the hand, pulling her to him. She was his and it was high time this be clear to her. He would cover her, conquer her, devour her. And then what? He doubted that would resolve anything, that she would fight him even more.

Kimber decided for caution and tenderness, despite the ferocity of his instincts.

He moved closer to her causing her to rise from her chair. "Sunniva, please. I can explain everything. Just return with me." He reached out and slowly took her hand.

She couldn't explain why she permitted it. She hated him in this moment, but what's more, she hated that her body responded to his touch. She quivered, as he rubbed his thumb in small circles across her skin.

"You lied to me," she spat, "about this place. About my father. Why?"

Even closer now, he reached up with his other hand to touch her face.

"Why do you think?" he asked softly.

"I want to hear you say it."

"Sunniva..."

"Tell me," she demanded, looking into his eyes.

"We are a species of power," he stated, the backs of his fingers smooth over her cheek. "We crave it and covet it and infuse ourselves with it's very essence."

His knuckles became a gentle caress.

"It's how we stay strong, sending that strength through generations to come. Alpha mates with Alpha. This isn't some credo we live by, it's written into the very fiber of our being. It's why you were drawn here, why you crave me..."

Sunniva had fathomed as much, but she had hoped he'd felt something towards her besides just instinct.

Kimber couldn't help himself now, that bit of their skin touching and her precious doe eyes looking up at him. The creature within himself stirred, feeling her power, so lush and enticing.

His.

He let his finger trail down her neck and along her collar bone, flicking his eyes briefly to her now clenching fist. "It's why I can't resist you." Lower still, to her chest. He grazed the top curves looking at her with possessive, hungry eyes. "It's why you are mine."

He grabbed her breast and covered her lips with his.

She shoved against him and let a fist fly, striking him across in the jaw. "I am NOT yours!" It sent him back, knocking his head severely to the side.

She was red with anger. Despite her promise, she was ready to Turn if he touched her again, if he made one move to take her she'd make sure it wasn't without injury.

And she'd hit him hard. His lower lip had split, coloring his mouth with a smudge of crimson.

He licked it away, a menacing smile curling upwards. It certainly hurt, but not as much as her declaration. He wouldn't show this weakness, the fact that her words had caused injury to his ego.

"Not yet. But you will be. We're as good as mated anyways, Sunniva," he stated with eyes full of suggestion.

Sunniva's face smoldered, her shoulders raising with every angry breath. "I am not your mate."

The wicked smiled left Kimber's face.

"There is no point in continuing the charade. I grow bored of it anyways. So let me enlighten you as to the facts of our people. You won’t be leaving Darkfrith. Ever. You will wed me, that is a fact I suggest you get used to. I know you're lying to me. It's only a matter of time-"

"You seem to forget noble Lord," she interrupted.

She'd returned to calm composure, a gentlewoman awaiting polite conversation except for the contradiction of his brother's clothes on her back. It still irritated him, so much he wanted to rip them off and cover her in his own scent, with his own body.

"Alpha mates with alpha, and I’m just a poor halfling who can’t Turn and never will. I suggest you find some other roost for your cock. Now, it's supper time and I'm afraid we've only enough for two."

Her expression had practically transformed to stone, unyielding and unforgiving. Only the red in her face betrayed her anger.

Kimber didn't like the idea of leaving her, but this was a fight he couldn't win. Not tonight, not like this. He needed her to Turn, not to bed her. That would come later.

No one else suspected there was a power inside her, so the risk of her bonding with another seemed unlikely. Everyone considered her the halfing daughter of a criminal, a woman who by appearances hardly had the makings of a wife. He'd leave a few trusted, married men to watch her though, just in case.

He backed away from her, turning only once he'd reached the door.

"I'll permit you to stay in this piss-pot your father calls a home," he said looking back once more, his tone mocking. "I hear shabby shacks can get ruddy cold at night. When you're ready, my bed is always warm and available. Just fly on over to my balcony and give me a knock."

Sunniva kept her eyes fixed on the Earl as he retreated into the night. There was laughter beyond the door as the men surrounding the little cottage dissipated into the woods.



Chapter Text

Two days later the marquess and marchioness returned. An emergency session was called by a majority of the council members.

Christoph Langford sat at the Alpha's chair sequestered from the rest and looked with eyes of jade out upon each regally dressed dragon. His gaze last landed on his son Kimber whose eyes had turned to piercing daggers as a particular gentleman spoke.

"How could you just allow her to live out there?" berated Claude Grady. "May I remind you that her sire has run thrice in his lifetime. The last of which resulted in a nine year career of thieving in London until he was returned. He nearly exposed us!"

Claude Grady was just like his father, arrogant and brash. One of the seven on the council that had – as was custom – Inherited the position from his father. He'd apparently also inherited his father's knack for being exceedingly obnoxious.

"I've positioned men to watch her," offered Kimber, thoroughly unamused. A part of him did wish she was returned to Chasen, but he had left her there and reneging would make him appear weak. Besides, he felt a rousing rush at defying the council for the first time in his life.

"She must be returned here to the manor where she can be properly supervised."

"Correct me if I am wrong, but are you suggesting you now believe that she can Turn?" Kimber asked behind a veil of civilized composure. "If that's the case then the motion from the last session regarding the postponement of my marriage should be withdrawn." His words were polite, yet there were coiled hints in his voice of danger.

"No one doubts your conviction and sincerity that she can Turn", he said dismissively, then turned to Christoph. "But it is the Alpha's responsibility to take a female that the tribe perceives as Alpha as well."

Christoph Langford leaned forward, his face grave, the light glinting his eyes viper green. "Do not lecture me about the responsibilities of an Alpha," he warned, his voice insidiously low.

The Parishes had been trying to weasel their way into the Alpha family as long as Lord Langford could remember. Parish Grady, Claude's father, had once coveted Christoph's wife. Claude had attempted to court both his older daughters and now hoped his sister, Lydia, might catch Kimber's eye. She was certainly comely and was effectively the most dominant single female of the tribe that wasn't related to his son. Despite her appeal, Christoph knew, like himself years ago, that his son was waiting for a dragon.

Claude straightened a stack of papers, an excuse to avoid the Alpha’s glower.

"Unless there is a legitimate flight risk, the girl will be permitted to stay with her own blood," insisted Lord Langford.

Kimber's father was always careful with his words. Should the men on the council confess that Sunniva might have a chance at escape, it would be an admission to the belief that she could Turn and they would be forced to support the marriage. If they let the girl remain, they had to accept that the Alpha and his son had allowed a subject to go against the will of the council.

"But my Lord, you cannot allow this to stand. Kimber Langford made this decision as acting Alpha and we, the council, demand that-"

Christoph's words whipped through the room.

"If you wish to challenge my son, then challenge him. As the issue pertains to his mate there is no doubt in my mind he will regard your demand with less patience than I have."

Kimber's glare was locked on Grady with a primed power a mere spark away from exploding. Grady sank into his seat. "She is not his mate," he mumbled, quietly enough to show submission, but loud enough so all could hear. “Not without proof.” He looked down at his thighs terrified of meeting Kimber's eyes, as were the other eleven men.

"I motion that we proceed with the hearing of Sunniva Williams and subsequent interrogation of Tamlane Williams," prompted Rhys.

"Seconded," came a arbitrary voice from the back.

"Then let us proceed," said Christoph.

Sunniva was brought in and placed before the council in a single, small chair set against the thirteen. She sat down, not like a lady, but like a bored king, legs cocked out and a single elbow supporting her chin. She wore a man’s attire and her hair was a snarled mess.

It was the first time Christoph was seeing the girl. When word had come that his eldest son would take the rogue dragon as his mate, he was eager to meet her. Kimber had assured him of her power and might and ability to Turn, yet the woman who came before him was less than ordinary. He wondered what madness had possessed his son.

"Young lady, hearings are formal affairs," instructed John Chapman. "Perhaps no one informed you of the proper etiquette and attire."

"Oh I was informed,” she retorted. “In fact a dress was delivered, but this suit is just too lovely to part with. It has such a wonderful smell." She lifted the collar and rubbed it affectionately against her cheek giving Rhys a wink. "I simply couldn't bare to change."

Christoph saw his eldest son shift uncomfortably in his seat, clearly displeased and effected by the purposeful slight. His younger son looked uncomfortable as well.

Sunniva's attire, though, didn't interest him in the slightest. He was looking for something else, hints of the beast Kimber was so convinced she contained.

"For our records your name is Sunniva Williams. Daughter of Tamlane Williams?" he began.

"If you'd like," she replied.

"Is that not your name?"

"Have you not been informed? The surname Williams is new to me," she replied haughtily. "May as well start jotting it down somewhere."

The scribe continued once he'd received a nod from Lord Langford, scribbling out the name in blue ink.

"Are you aware of who I am?"

"I have been told. Lord Christoph Marquess of Langford and Alpha of the Drákon."

Christoph inclined his head in affirmation.

"And do you understand why you've been brought here before us?"

"I couldn't say. I've done nothing wrong."

"Miss Williams, our well-being is based off the fact that we keep our existence hidden as we have for centuries. We must be sure that is still the case. You've lived twenty-five years-"

"Twenty-six years," she interrupted.

The men seemed shocked she would interrupt the Alpha. Christoph only cocked his head curiously.

"Twenty-six years you have lived on the outside and we must ascertain the chances that Others know about us."

“I can assure you Lord Alpha, no one knows what I am.”

Only Kimber caught her hidden meaning.

"Can you Turn?"

She rounded her eyes to perfect innocence.

"Turn, my Lord?"

"To dragon."

"Ah. Forgive me, I am not familiar with your terminology. No. I cannot Turn. When your son kidnapped me in the woods I wasn't even sure what he was talking about. Drákon? I was positively terrified and kept to my room the first night I was here. But because my father had revealed himself, I came to accept what I am. Even so, the first time I saw a dragon...well, I’ll never forget it. "

Kimber scoffed at the lie, drawing her eyes towards him for a moment as she delivered her contrived monologue. His father as well as the men of the council, however, exhibited not even an ounce of skepticism.

"Did you know there was something different about yourself?"

"Yes."

"Such as?"

"I can smell fairly well, hear a bit more decently than most. Am fairly strong, fast, et cetera, et cetera."

"Could you give us a concrete example?"

"I once crushed a large man's larynx with a single hand for touching me without permission. A large bloke, with wide shoulders, black eyes, dark hair. A downright scoundrel."

She looked at Kimber now, a subtle warning in her eyes.

"Thank you Miss Williams we get the point."

They didn't.

"Is this how you robbed so many?"

"I suppose it helped."

"How precisely did you take so many jewels then?"

"I am...well, I was," she corrected, "an opportunistic thief. I never planned anything. I stole when it was convenient."

"Why?"

"To eat."

“Did the songs of the stones not call to you?”

“I can hear them if that’s what you mean. But I don’t have a need to litter myself with gems.”

There were a few murmurs from the council who all wore jeweled rings and encrusted cuffs.

"Can you tell us about your mother?"

"No," Sunniva said firmly.

"Why not?" asked Christoph ever calm.

"Because my human mother is none of your business," she said looking at the council.

"Miss Williams, it is important."

Sunniva gave Christoph a polite smile, but still said nothing.

"You do not seem to understand the position you are in," snarled Grady.

She leaned forward, elbows to her knees and raised her eyebrows extending him an invitation to clarify.

The council didn't seem to know what position they were in either.

Christoph mirthed at the challenge, a lone female, brazen, sitting right and rebellious afore a thunder of dragons. Perhaps his son hadn’t been entirely mistaken.

"You will grant us the courtesy of an answer!" demanded Grady.

Sunniva squeezed her lips tightly in refusal.

Abashed, the men looked from face to face until Grady snapped.

“Force her,” he said in a gaunt, stiff voice. “Force her to speak Lord Langford, or we will.”

Christoph leaned back in his chair offering an invitation of his own, turning his hands passively upward encouraging the man to take action. It was a calculated move with two outcomes, both desirable to the Alpha.

Grady shot to his feet and Kimber was there in two strides. He grabbed him by the neck with a single hand hurling him to the floor, a resounding thud permeating the splendid council chamber.

“You will not touch my mate,” he demanded in a cutting voice, gripping the man's throat dangerously tight.

Some men sprung up in the excitement, knocking their chairs backwards, holding themselves steady with coiled fists against the wood of their tables. A few eyes gleamed preternatural, intent on the display of dominance.

Sunniva snickered and when Kimber turned to look she was tracing the grain of wood on her armchair, disinterested, as if nothing had occurred. She resumed looking at the men only once they had all retaken their seats and silence reigned.

"It must be frustrating dealing with someone who doesn't respect you," Sunniva said after a bout of silence. "But for the sake of not having to suffer your presence longer than necessary-"

Kimber had the sickening feeling she was actually addressing him.

"-you'll be happy to hear my human mother died many years ago. And never did I once hear her suggest that she knew what my father was nor where he came from."

"Thank you, Miss Williams,” said Christoph cordially, “I have just a few more questions."

****

Tamlane Williams sat outside the council chamber, his fingers locked and stomach churning waiting to be summoned. He tried to hear what was being said, but couldn't. He never really was all that Gifted.

He feared the council would take her away from him. He'd just gotten her and he was sure they would. She'd defied them and the Alpha's heir - a deed that never went unpunished in Darkfrith.

It was why all those years ago he had never come for her and her mother. He wanted to spare his child everything he had endured; being considered an oddity and never fitting in a society that you can't leave. He wanted his child to be free of the prison of the shire. And so twenty-seven years ago, when he became aware that the Alpha and his mate were hunting him in London he let them take him lest they discover his precious secret.

The soft ruffle of skirts and clicking of a woman's heels caught his ear accompanied by the faint scent of lilies.

Speak of the devil, he thought, and she shall appear.

Clarissa Rue Langford was the impeccable embodiment of a female Alpha. She'd been the first woman to make the Turn in four generations: a dragon of pearl-white with golden tips. The tribe marveled every night when she took to the heavens. She'd given their kind five children, including a powerful heir for Christoph and two daughters that could Turn.

She strode towards him stopping an arm's length away.

Every time Tamlane saw Rue she looked positively regal. She'd foregone a wig today, allowing her deep chestnut hair to trickle down her shoulder in a thick plait. He thought maybe it was a point of pride, sporting a unique color in a tribe that mostly ran blonde and red. She was shorter than most of the women, a deceptive quality making her all the more dangerous. Only once did another woman foolishly challenge her who, despite Rue's size, was put in her place the way dragon’s ritually did.

"May I sit?" Rue asked, hands folded prim and proper over her windowpane-check skirt.

Tamlane looked away demonstrative, but she sat down anyways.

"Kit is doing everything he can to make sure she stays with you, despite the councils' displeasure," she informed him. Her voice was kind and laced with sympathy.

Tamlane shot her a look of incredulity wondering if she expected gratitude. He wouldn't give it to her. He hated her more than she could understand, though perhaps it was now clear as to why.

He used to feel a peculiar kinship to her. They'd never known each other growing up – he a poor farmer’s son and she the halfling daughter of a widow – but after her successful escape from the shire she had inspired him. Faking your own death, it was quite clever. For authenticity and to ensure they'd never look for him – as males can Turn – he cut off his own hand as evidence of his demise. It wasn’t his intention to follow her, but they both coincidentally wound up in London. They had – or so he thought – an unspoken truce. They stayed out of each other's territory, robbing the gentry of London without stepping on each other's toes. He'd never even seen her, but always suspected that it was that little halfling girl from the shire that prowled the city, having escaped her fate and become free.

It was the night of the Marlbroke’s Masquerade that he saw her for the first time. He'd been hired to play in the string quartet, a pastime he dearly loved. The night was perfect and all of London's finest were present, their jewels humming and singing to his own music. He'd worn a simple black mask and a gray coat, never one to stand out. At first he had thought it was circumstance that she came, hoping to steal some heirloom necklace. She always did go for the finest. She had approached him after a set. He asked her why she was following him and it was that moment when he noticed the Alpha, hunting eyes locked on him, crazed and bloodthirsty. He had grabbed her in panic and when Christoph Langford approached, he Turned to smoke escaping.

"Well, isn't that kind of him,” replied Tamlane. “I'm sure he is going through the trouble because of a sudden bout of altruism."

His words were like bile. Rue swallowed deeply searching for a reply.

“Why didn’t you tell me? All those years ago, you could have trusted me. I would have made sure-”

“Trust you?” He let out a cruel chuckle. “You accused me of stealing Herte, hunted me with the Alpha, and brought me back here all in exchange for your freedom. And in the end you took him as a mate and returned to the tribe anyways."

His expression was cold and cutting now.

"You got a title, a position, while I remained an outcast. Everyone marvels when you Turn and take to the sky, while my wings are battered and broken. You got to watch your children grow, while I always wondered what my child even looked like. Yours enjoyed the privilege of being the offspring of two Alphas, while mine was forced to scrape a life out of the gutter. But at least she had a life of true freedom, something you and I always wanted and never rightly had. And yet your family has managed to take that away from her and myself as well.”

His potent words pierced her like a viper, striking again and again until the venom permeated her blood.

"Do you know what it's like to feel truly powerless?"

"Yes, I do know what it's like," she replied, with genuine pain in her words.

It was an answer that he wasn't expecting, but he scoffed anyways.

"I was once hunted, captured and brought back here to Darkfrith. I was given less than a night to accept that I would be married to Kit. It was coincidental that the Heart of the Tribe had also been stolen.”

Rue didn’t need to explain what that implied. It had been luck those many years ago that the council believed she had stolen Herte. And with that luck she was able to return to London, giving her time to hunt Tamlane and the diamond and fall in love with her mate. Ultimately, she had returned with Christoph of her own free will.

"If that's true, then you know what my daughter is facing."

She looked at him confused.

“You don’t even know,” confirmed Tamlane. He let out a singular, mocking laugh. “Your son has decided that my daughter can Turn and therefore, whether she agrees or not, his mate.”

Her disgust was clear, her face changing from anger to sorrow.

"I tried, we tried so hard to change the tribe," she whispered.

Tamlane wasn’t feeling feeling very compassionate, sitting there waiting to find out if Rue’s husband and son would take his daughter away. He wanted to hurt her, say something that caused her even a fraction of the pain that he had felt since that fateful night at the masquerade.

"Well it wasn't enough. You don't even have your own house in order,” he said smoothing the legs of his trousers. He sat up straight in his chair and turned his head to her.

“Do you remember that last night at Colin's Amphitheatre? You and the Alpha came to hunt me. I knew you were after me and you knew I knew. A smart man would have fled the city when I encountered you at Marlbroke’s masquerade. But I stayed. I laid a trap, in a sense, because I knew if the Alpha didn't find me, he and the council would have scourged London and stumbled upon my little secret. I accepted my death that night and your husband didn't grant it, returning me to this prison. Another attempt at escape would have roused questions, the answers I meant to keep buried. I've had to live with that my entire life yet I have no regrets. I wonder, Clarissa Rue Hawthorne, what will you regret?

Rue heard the footsteps first. Tamlane cocked his head and rose quickly full of fear as the door to the council chamber opened. His daughter emerged, waltzing out proudly in the second son’s clothes which he had warned her not to wear. They were permitted a short embrace before Tamlane was lead in before the ruling men of the drákon.

****

That night two families convened.

The first began with a song, a gentle melody of love and laughter. The strife of the musician was noticeable as unpracticed fingers struggled across the neck of a viola.

The second began with a hard slap across the face.

"I cannot believe you," snapped Rue.

Kimber remained still despite the stinging in his jaw.

"What would you have had me do mother?"

Rue pursed her lips and shook her head unsure of what to say. She looked at her husband who sat hushed in his chair, waistcoat unbuttoned and cravat loose over his shoulders.

"I only did what was required of me," said Kimber with an air of certainty.

She growled at this. "What was required of you," she repeated like an insult. "It's the same excuse those bastards have used for ages."

"By the laws of our people I was well within my rights," defended Kimber.

Her eyes grew big in astonishment.

"Rue-flower," spoke Christoph, "you know as well as I do that if the girl can Turn she belongs with our son."

Her mouth dropped at this. "I cannot believe you, Kit! That you of all people would support this!"

She threw her hands up in the air before storming out of the room.

Kimber went to his father's desk and inched the cloissone inkwell a bit to the right centering it above the goosefeather quills laid out parallel to each other. He was gathering the courage to speak, to demand certain answers from his father.

"Why did you side with the council? Why didn't you insist she be married to me?" he asked accusingly.

Christoph leaned forward in his chair and laced his fingers together.

"Wouldn't that be convenient?" he asked as the lines of his mouth pulled straight. "The girl clearly doesn't want you, so you would put blame on the Alpha having forced her into your hand."

His fingers unlocked as they touched tips forming a taught upside-down V.

"Some day you'll be this old bastard; the Alpha that makes hard decisions for our well-being. So you may as well get comfortable taking responsibility for yourself. If she is your mate then take her!” he taunted. “It's your right. You wouldn't be the first drake to have done it. Who would even dare stop you?"

Kimber couldn't tell if it was a test or a challenge.

"The council," he replied, resigning himself to a safe answer.

"The council," Christoph scoffed, "as if they could."

"Keeping the peace is vital-"

"Oh bullocks!" he barked. "You're smart Kim and you have a strong sense of obligation, but if anyone rose against us they would garner no support and could be dealt with swiftly and you know that."

The candlelight of the room cast Kit's eyes into feral jade.

"What's holding you back? She’s yours. Go to her. Take her. Rouse her from her bed and make her join you in yours. Or if you prefer demand she allow you into hers. Either way you must show her that she is to bend over whenever you-"

"I don't want her like that," snapped Kim. "I want her to want me.”

Christoph nodded in approval.

“If I forced myself upon her she would never forgive me. She would never submit." Kimber let out a defeated sigh. "I don't know if she'll ever forgive me for what I’ve already done."

Pleased with his son's admission, Christoph's brief smile transformed into a frown at what he too needed to admit.

"I understand you are...infatuated with the Williams girl. She is certainly unlike any of the women of the shire. She's brazen and bold and sat in front of us today as if we were school children to be lectured."

Christoph tightened his lips considering his next words.

"The tactical part of me claims my ruling was a compromise; standing behind your decision to let the girl stay with her father and simultaneously supporting the council's demand for evidence of her Turn."

He looked his son in the eyes thinking he owe him at least that much.

"The truth is, I don't believe she can. I think you stand with your nose to a lone tree and because you can smell bark you believe it to be the forest."

Kit watched his son process his words and the disappointment that overtook his face.

"You're wrong," stated Kim as a fact, wondering how to explain what he knew to his father. "She can disappear without a trace, as if able to contain a terrible power, keeping it hidden. But sometimes it peaks out the likes of which I've never experienced. When we've been close, intimate, I could feel that veil drop but then she would pull away and it was gone. She had you all fooled showing up in my brother's clothes, bedraggled, sitting there telling you lies. But she is drákon with Gifts the likes we have never seen."

"And what Gifts might those be?"

"I don't know."

"Then it's your responsibility to coax the truth from her," replied Christoph. He stood from his chair, the oiled oak and grain leather creaking like a departing fanfare.

"Where are you going?" asked Kimber, wishing for council on repairing things with Sunniva.

Christoph gave him a look of sympathy. "To smooth things over with your mother."

****

Tamlane lifted the bow from the strings and hung it at his side. He'd fumbled the spiccato during the refrain and the B sharp in the third measure had fallen a bit flat.

"What do you think?" he asked, believing in that moment that her answer was the only one that mattered.

"It was lovely," Sunniva said, her hands clasped at her left cheek, eyes bright and wide, cheeks flushed in awe.

"It's been some time since I've played. I wrote that piece for your mother."

Niva drew her lips together at her mother's mention. She motioned with her head to his wooden hand. "Does it trouble you?"

"No," he answered holding it up. "I had it made so I could still hold a bow. It reminds me every day that I gave up something trivial to gain something else truly special."

Tamlane looked at her feeling whole for the first time in twenty-seven years. She reminded him so much of her mother. The looks were trivial, but her heart was the same.

"We'll figure out a way to free you," he said.

"I know Papa," she replied, the word still feeling strange to say. "I know," she repeated looking once more at his wooden hand.

Chapter Text

 

It had been two weeks and three days since she had arrived in this prison her captors called Darkfrith. And it had been two weeks and five days since she last took form as dragon. The shining beast licked at her as if to ask why it was to be punished.

After telling her father of her own Gifts they'd made a plan for her escape. It was simple in theory: at day break of the longest day of the year she would Turn and fly never to look back. They'd had to make a few assumptions though.

One: Sunniva could render herself invisible to most beings if in dragon form given sufficient sunlight. It might have been a stretch to assume it held for the drákon, but it was a risk they had to take.

Two: Sunniva was practically a beacon at night and like moths to a flame, the drákon would be drawn to her. They assumed her aura would be stronger as dragon, which meant no matter where she was she could not Turn at night.

Their hope was she could get as far away as possible on wings till the sun set and then continue on two feet. Perhaps at such a distance and despite the revealing darkness even the The Dreaded Night couldn't sense her direction.

But the most important part of their plan was before that day Sunniva could not show her true colors and above all could not Turn. Otherwise the council – which had tentatively become her only shield – would insist on a hasty marriage to the Alpha of the tribe.

Ah, the Alpha. Kimber Ellery Darce Langford - technically next-in-line for Alpha - had hardly left her alone, so thoroughly convinced she was meant for him. Sunniva hadn't seen him since she and her father had been dragged before the council, but his reach was ever long.

Every day he'd sent her a gift. One day it was a dresser with curled feet and golden handles, another it was a feinting couch with pale blue velvet cushions. Sets of fine china, silverware, imported curtains made of the finest weaves, the deliveries seemed to have no end. He'd even sent her the dresses commissioned from Zoe Lane.

Sunniva couldn't understand it. She'd seen human men buy their way into women's hearts, which she considered a ridiculous weakness, and wondered if it worked on the women of the tribe. What did a dragon want with domestic fineries anyways? The gifts didn't stop though and she'd resorted to stacking the things outside behind the cottage.

Enough is enough, she thought, pulling a sheet of parchment from a desk and scratching out a message in blue-black ink. She needn't look far for someone to deliver it. The constant harrowing of drákon slithered around the cottage, meandering about the forest, always keeping her surveiled. It was a retinue of guards that kept watch over her. They no longer feigned subtlety, often lurking just before the trees, their eyes intent as if expecting her to disappear should they lose sight of their ward.

She knew they were there all the same during the night, though she never ventured out fearing a moment without light.

Sunniva marched over to one and handed him the folded letter commanding him - as if he were her own personal servant - to deliver the message.

Kimber smiled upon its arrival, lifting the parchment to his nose reminding himself of her scent. It washed over him in a vortex of pleasure.

He'd admitted to himself that he'd been a fool. The sting of rejection was something he'd never experienced and knew his behavior had been in poor taste. Horrible even. He thought better than to be the first to reestablish direct contact, giving her the chance to cool down. She was ready to talk now, desiring to receive him.


Noble Lord,

Please drop by for a spot of tea tomorrow at three. Bring something strong to drink as well. I enjoy a spark to my herbal water.

- Sunniva


It wasn't cordial, but neither was it hostile. He'd do as she asked and at two minutes till three the following afternoon, he stood on her doorstep a bottle of spirits in the crook of his left arm knocked on her door.

She made him wait, neither calling out an apology nor bidding him patience. He could hear the quiet tapping of men's boots on oak flooring wielded by a pair of feminine legs. She still had his brothers footwear on. As she opened the door he saw she had his brother's clothes on as well.

He wouldn't grant her a frown, fearing that was precisely what she was aiming for. She hadn't washed the clothes either, the stench of his brother still lingering, merging with her own. It struck Kimber with a spark of jealousy, the belief that his scent was what should cling to her body. Still, he forced a smile and offered the bottle.

"As ordered," he said.

She took his offering with dimpled cheeks, revealing neither malice nor satisfaction.

"I'm glad to know you can take instruction," she said almost kindly, turning away. "Won't you come in?"

"I'd very much enjoy that."

He smoothed back a stray, black strand of hair and ducked low to clear the beam over the threshold as he followed Sunniva to the kitchen.

She motioned to a pulled out an uncushioned chair positioned in front of a crude oak table.

"I'm glad you wrote. We've much to talk about," he began, his eyes focused on her.

Sunniva raised her eyebrows incredulous. "Do we?"

"After the way we left things I thought we should-"

"Give me a moment will you. I'll just get the tea ready."

She strode out of the kitchen.

Kimber's stomach churned wildly. It shouldn't have. He had everything under control. He just needed to be soft with her, give her time to adjust, show her a more tender side of himself. It was only a matter of waiting really. He knew she was drawn to him. The laws of their species did not exempt her merely because she'd grown up apart. That fact gave him confidence. The strand of hair had come lose again, but he let it hang, more interested in listening to her movement, enjoying being close to her again.

His eyes settled on a worn cabinet with paint curling off the side. There were a few tin plates visible on the shelves behind cracked glass and the hinges of the doors were rusted. She’d not have to suffer this place much longer.

"Noble lord?"

Niva still hadn't quit calling him that, though he couldn't tell by her tone if she was mocking or genuine. For his ego's sake he chose to believe the latter.

“Yes, love?” he answered full of ego.

"Could you come help me with something? I'm afraid it's beyond my strength as a little shire maiden."

There was that sarcastic glint he'd hoped to be spared. He realized he was in the kitchen where an old oven sat cold against the Northern wall and lacked a tea kettle. He realized too that he had not seen anything he had sent her in the poor man’s cottage. Like glass, the illusion he’d built of her shattered.

Kimber followed her voice through the cottage out to the back porch beyond which a large pile of fancy furniture lay. She stood there holding a stick wrapped in linen already a flame. It was after she sent it flying that he registered the strong notes of alcohol and saw the empty bottle he'd brought lying at her feet. She gave it a hard kick sending it cracking into the roaring fire.

The pile of gifts flared about in hues of orange, and purple, and green, lapping up the drink. Kimber even saw the fine fabrics of dresses curl and melt before finally succumbing to the hungry flames.

"I do like fire,” she said with glee. “It burns away pretension and is so cleansing for the soul."

She eyed him carefully hoping to see anger, or pain, or even dismay. Anything to suggest the slightest hint of defeat.

If Kimber was affected, he certainly didn't show it. He held his jaw relaxed yet flush to his upper teeth and his eyes remained perpetually ovular. He rolled his mouth upwards into a heart-felt smile.

"And its light certainly dances wonders across your face."

The creased ridges of her smug grin took a downward slant.

"Get out of here," she demanded.

"Niva..."

"I said get out!"

****

Not convinced he had received the message, it came as no surprise to her when a loud knock fell upon her door the very next day.

"What now," snapped Sunniva, as she opened the door.

There stood a regal woman, dressed in blue silk and frothy lace, potently dripping small gems from every appendage. She held a small, wooden box in both ring-covered hands and gave Sunniva a sneering look moving her eyes up and down the woman who was to be the Alpha's bride.

"A gift from the Earl," she said proffering the box.

Sunniva could already hear the gentle hum from within. Sapphires, she thought, lain in silver. "I don't want it," replied Sunniva.

"Suit yourself. It's already been paid for anyhow." The woman placed the box at Sunniva's feet and left in a bustle of frilly skirts.

The next day the woman returned with a similarly sized box. From it Sunniva could hear a mellow twang, less subtle than the sapphire necklace she'd received yesterday, but just as potent. It was an emerald ring this time, set in rose gold.

Six days and six exquisite pieces of jewelry later, Sunniva decided it was time to put an end to it. She sat down at the dining table, quill in hand and wrote six copies of a letter. She felt a bit cruel every time she dipped the tip into the walnut ink and penned another message. That is, until she wrote the seventh letter intended for the Earl. Her smirk elongated as she smeared the ink across the vellum.

****

Kimber wasn't sure what to expect. He certainly wasn't as hopeful anymore despite the sweet words of the message. He stood where the message instructed, by the public fountain in the city square. It was exactly where he had found her that very first day she had arrived and saw their people for the first time.

Kimber remembered how fascinating she had appeared, bathing in the sights and sounds and energy of drákon. He remembered how she looked at him, no notion of his betrayal, so sweet and yearning. He wished for that look again.

Streams flushed out of six spigots jutting out of a stone column in the center of the fountain churning the water into a gentle froth. The sculpture of a siren kept watch from atop, copper skin oxidized to a lovely patina and bare breasts brandished. Kimber looked up into her hazy green eyes swearing that the figure was passing judgment upon him.

A flash of blue light caught his attention, the unmistakable refraction of sunlight through sapphires. His heart skipped like a sharp staccato as he turned to see her.

Only, it wasn't Niva.

Long red hair piled high atop a head held high and wearing a dress cut low for the necklace, Lydia waltzed towards him unable to contain a smile.

"I thought it was you. Who else would think to give me sapphires? You know how I adore them," she said, with an outstretched hand expecting Kimber's lips upon them.

Oh no.

Kimber whipped around searching for the bearer of the rose-gold ring with a large emerald. He heard its mellow twang first, accompanied by fair skin and corn-flower blue eyes. Gheillis sauntered towards him with a seductive sway of the hips. She eyed Lydia jealously, a look that was perfectly mirrored by the red-head wearing Niva's sapphires.

One by one, four other women joined the fray, adorned in topaz, rubies, garnets, and amethysts.

"Is the this some sort of jest?" asked Elizabeth.

"How irrevocabley cruel," declared Eleanor.

"In all my years-"

"Why would you-"

"Despicable!"

Kimber thought he heard a distant laugh beyond the crowds surrounding him and the six women.

"Ladies I am terribly sorry. It's all been a misunderstanding," was all Kimber offered.

He scooted out of their way, ignoring their scoffs and followed that feint lingering of wicked humor. It took him out of the village, past the old pear orchard, and through a wide patch of daisies where her feet had trampled a trail.

Sunniva kept her back to him as he approached.

"You won't deter me. Don't think I'm giving up," he called after her.

She stopped and turned to him. "What exactly is it about me that howls 'try harder'?"

Her eyes had gone to violent slits.

"The scent of arousal every time I'm near you," he said, as plainly as if stating it might rain because there were dark clouds in the sky.

Her lids scrunched and her jaw dropped as a little vein in her forehead rose above the taut skin.

"You're delirious," she snapped. She might have been less angry if it weren't true. Despite despising the man, her body still craved his touch.

"No, actually. I'm a realist,” replied Kimber. “I know our people well enough to be aware that our union is an inevitability."

"I am not your people," she insisted.

"Oh but you are. Like it or not you are drákon. You live by the same natural laws that we do. Come from the same blood. And I'm sure that you sprout fangs and talons when the need becomes overwhelming."

She stomped towards him hackles - if she had them – raised, angered by the reminder that she was forced to remain as human.

"You don't know anything about me. You like to wear the stones of the Earth whereas I merely enjoy their song from a distance. You like to contain yourselves to a tiny tinder box, whereas I have traveled to many places, my territory vast! You're the Dreaded Night whereas..."
I am the Terrible Day.

"...I cannot Turn." She tried to sound as earnest as possible.

Kimber wasn't swayed and moved closer to her. Niva lingered for a moment captivated by his splendid scent. She thought of his mention of her arousal only to find her nipples had grown taut. She backed away wondering what else he could fathom from her.

"I want this to be your home."

He said it so sweetly, so tempting it hurt to increase the distance from him.

"But it isn't. Do you even realize what you did? Do you even comprehend the crime you committed against me?"

He couldn't understand her. He'd tried his best to make amends even asking his sisters for advice which both resulted in disaster. Why wouldn't she be pleased to have a home now? She'd never have to steal for food again, or be worried where she had to sleep next. He could give her every luxury she could possibly wish for. And she was among her own kind now, no need to feel lonely, no need to fly alone. She could even start a family with him, their strength combining to affect the future generations of their kind.

"By our own laws I did what was required of me. No crime was committed."

As the words escaped his lips, he realized how recklessness it was, spouting tribal law as if it meant anything to her.

She squeezed her lips together in a hateful line.

"And that is why I will never, ever be with you. Accept it. You're stupid, conceited, pompous, a self-serving brute. You are a horrible man Kimber Langford and I hate you."

"You don't really mean that," he said behind the safety of a side glance.

"With all my heart. Wouldn't that make a nice wedding vow? Now leave me alone."

She left the Earl standing knee deep in the happy white flowers, his jaw slack and mood anything but happy. She didn't care. She'd meant to hurt him, meant to get revenge any way she could. She knew he was the type of man who wasn't accustomed to being denied so when her words scorched away that look of haughty certainty from his face she became filled with gratification.

****

Sunniva began to settle into a new peace. The Earl hadn't pestered her in over two weeks, a fact for which she was glad. She'd also begun to navigate life a bit better in human form, despite her skin feeling on occasion somewhat tight.

Twice a week she would go into the village and buy bread, cheese and various necessities. She wasn't accustomed to the mundanity which came with not Turning and felt pity for the women of the tribe - the Alpha's withstanding.

Cooked and prepared food had become somewhat more palatable. Now that her father had a second person in his household, especially a female of child-bearing age, he was given a greater salary as was custom which extended their meal options. They didn't use it though on fineries that many of the other families spent their coin on. Neither had a thirst for tea, nor a desire for sweet pastries and chocolate. Instead once a week, when the trader - a drákon male permitted to leave the shire and acquire meat from the neighboring counties - passed through, they bought a large cut of venison, beef, or wild hog.

Her father even charred the meat extensively before adding the vegetables to his signature Sunday roast. He didn't like it so blackened, but every time he watched his daughter gorge on the meal he proudly smiled reminded of why she liked it prepared thusly.

In an effort not to be a great burden to her father, Sunniva took it upon herslef to pick up a new skill as often as possible. She had first taken over the shopping - that was simple enough - making certain that they had enough edibles. It was a simple matter of walking to the village and paying money for the same items every week.

Then, she did her best sweeping dirt from the cottage using a broom with bristles of fine twigs. It frustrated her immensely, feeling the contraption to be absolutely worthless. Later her father informed her that it was meant for leaves and he'd another with straw bristles for the cottage.

The next task she would master was washing the clothes she had stolen from Chasen Manor. She thought to combine it with a bath since it had been weeks since her last, and she and Rhy’s livery had become a bit putrid. There was a stream not too far running through the woods where she could wash. She had a bar of soap, she had her clothes, and she had her dirty self; everything that a bather might require.

Sunniva walked a good twenty minutes before reaching the disappointing stream, reduced to a mere trickle over a few round stones and a muddy bottom in the summer heat. It was hot and sticky and her clothes clung to her sweaty skin. She peeled off the shirt first, slapping it hard and angry against the creek bed. The soap followed bouncing off a rock and landing in a slightly deeper puddle with a resounding platsch.

It was so tempting to Turn. Not to dragon, but that phase in between. The drákon here Turned to smoke before taking form. Sunniva was unique in that she Turned to flame. Both forms however, shed anything on them, grime, dust, powder, make-up. It was the simplest way for a drákon to cleanse themselves.

If she hadn't felt her guards close by she might have tempted it. In the past she Turned often and stole new clothes - usually freshly washed and drying on a clothesline - when she had need of them.

She bent down, her knees resting in a pool of water barely an inch deep, gathered the soap and shirt and did her best to scrub. It was severly tedious and hardly fruitful. The shirt seemed to collect mud and much faster than she could spread the soap. A large horsefly landed on her neck exacting a stinging bite. When Sunniva slapped it she felt the insect crush against her neck leaving its innards smeared on her skin. She scooped up a small bit of water to bring to the red welt, unsuccessfully avoiding the lowest layer of sludge of the creek bed. Moisture welled in her eyes as she opened her fingers letting the smelly scum slip through. Defeated yet alone, a few tears had the gall to slip down her face.

****

Kimber had pondered Sunniva endlessly since their last encounter. In fact, he’d pondered her ever since they met. He simply couldn't unravel her. At a loss he finally went to the one who he should have asked in the first place.

"Let's assume she can Turn," his mother had said.

"She can," he had stated plainly.

"How would you have lived your life if you had had that freedom?"

"I would have sought out my people."

His mother had sighed at that. "Oh Kimber. She isn't a runner. She isn't a scared little girl not wishing to force a man to marry her despite the lack of love, like I was. She is a grown woman who has always been free, who has always made her own rules. And now a strange man has chained her, ordered her to be his wife, bear his children and accept a society which is utterly foreign."

Kimber took a walk after that feeling worse than before he had sought his mother's council as the ignorance truly had been bliss. A twisted, incomplete bliss.

Her words repeated, pulling him into a deep contemplation until Kimber found himself at the forests edge. He pulled off his waist coat, the heat almost unbearable and hoped the shade-offering trees might grant him respite.

As a child he’d visited the Darkfrith forest on a near daily basis. He’d hid beneath the green bracken ferns and gripped the rough bark of wide trunks with small hands stalking his brother and sisters in youthful play. It had been years since he had just enjoyed being on the earth under the cover of protective leaves, memories of a time when he had no burdens or expectations. That all had ended once he could Turn to dragon and the path of Alpha laid before him.

Kimber walked and walked, not taking a particular trail nor any specific direction wishing to clear his mind. The trickle of the stream reached his ears, not so far off in the distance. He wondered how shallow it would be, considering the lack of rain the past month.

He found his thoughts occupied by the same subject he was trying to let go.

Her. Always of her.

And that of course, after rounding a large oak, was when he saw her, crouched down in the remnants of the stream her unclad torso and breasts soaking up the sunlight and her head slumped down.

It startled her, she hadn't thought someone could have gotten so close without her being aware. She'd felt her guards moseying within a certain radius and didn't care if they saw her naked. But after turning and realizing who it was, she suddenly grew modest, snatching the dripping shirt and slapping it across her breasts.

Of all the things Kimber could have encountered in the woods, of all the people it had to be his mate, perfect breasts exposed to boot. He was certain he'd never be able to think of anything else except how her pink, small nipples contrasted exquisitely with taut, darkened areolas. Had she not despised him so, he might have proudly looked, daring her to show him more. But he didn't wish to feed her hatred, so Kimber averted his eyes.

"What are you doing here? Are you following me now," she demanded to know, gripping the shirt as if Kimber might attempt to snatch it away.

He glanced back at her quickly and lowered his eyes again."I...I can still see your..."

She looked down and adjusted her arms to cover the small mounds.

Kimber offered her his coat cautiously like someone not wishing to get bitten by a dog with raised hackles.

"I don't need anything from you. Just quite your spying and leave," she snarled.

Kimber held his palms up as if in surrender.

"I didn't mean to find you here. Truly. I was merely out for a walk and well-"

"Well what?!"

"Are you trying to bathe?"

Niva attempted to remain proud, but she felt beaten. After the broken promises of clean skin and unsoiled clothes mixed with the pain in her neck her head tipped forward. She hated it here. She hated him seeing her like this. Apart from her father, Kimber was the only one she even remotely knew in this hellhole and she was supposed to hate him.

"Yes."

It slipped out pitifully before she could come up with an excuse, some reason why she didn't need him and that he should leave. She was breathing hard, working to retain the tears congregating just behind her eyes.

Kimber thought to ask why she didn't just fill a basin from the well and bathe inside the privacy of her own home. He thought to point out that her father certainly had a wash board for her to clean her soiled clothing and there was a well not too far from the cottage. He even wanted to mention that she only need ask for clothes that were more appropriate for her. She'd looked so lovely at Chasen in his sister's dresses.

Then it came to on him. She was drákon, perhaps more so than even he. She donned her human disguise only when necessary. She didn't know how to bathe because she didn't have to. She didn't know how to wash clothes because scales had always given her shelter. And she didn't ask him for anything, because she'd be damned if it pleased him.

She had told him she liked treasure. An idea sprung to mind. It might be insignificant, but he would offer it anyways.

"I know a better place," pausing to gauge her reaction. She didn't trust him, a fact that was clear by her guarded eyes shadowed by lowered lashes.

"If you'll allow it, that is. I can show you." He motioning to the trickle of water just beyond them, "Except during the spring thaw, this stream has never been all that impressive."

He offered her his coat again, eyes still averted holding his breath as she examined him. She took a step closer. Kimber held his muscles tight, forcing himself not to move, knowing that even an unexpected flinch could push her away.

To his surprise and immense pleasure, he felt the gentle tug of the fabric from his fingers as she took it.

With his back now turned to her, granting her a modicum of privacy, he heard the slop of wet linen hit the ground.

"May I turn around now?"

"No," she forbade, "just walk."

He wasn't sure if she would follow. Maybe his coat was all she would accept from him. He released a breath when he heard the footsteps fall softly at his back.

Apart from air escaping her lungs and the soft tenor of feet crunching leaves she was nearly perfectly silent. No wonder he'd always had so much trouble finding her when she disappeared. It should have made him nervous, made him clutch his talons onto her tighter, but it truly thrilled him. It didn't help that he caught her scent mingled with his own musky flavors, his coat draped over her shoulders. He wanted to touch her again, put his scent in all the places the fabric didn't reach.

Now was not the time for that, he knew. He began to speak in the hopes to curtail that black dragon unfolding its wings perpetually drawn out by her presence.

"I used to come here sometimes as a youth to escape.”

She didn't reply, so he continued.

"I've no idea if others know about it. I've never seen anyone there. Hopefully it's still a secret."

Kimber searched for something to say. Anything to break the silence and possibly put her at ease. He hated small talk, something that he was forced to do when out in society. The woman at his back, haphazardly dressed in a man’s coat, walking through the woods barefoot and smelling strongly of female was hardly a giggly girl at some soiree. She was brutal and direct and ever since they'd met been unwillingly tangled in a web of lies.

"The role of Alpha has been assumed for me since my birth. I've always been pushed into what was expected of me. Even as a child I was treated differently than all the other children."

"Oh you poor thing. Growing up in the lap of luxury. I'm sure getting everything you wanted must have so hard."

It was bitter, but it was something.

"I remember when I was fifteen," he continued, ignoring her jab, "I was already as tall as my father. I thought I was so great, so indomitable provoking anyone into a fight. I ridiculed those who declined, and tormented those who lost. It's every boys dream to be the strongest, the fastest, the most adored by the women, and the most feared the men. My father knew what I thought of myself, as well as the danger of it. So one night before we took to the sky he issued a challenge."

Kimber ducked under a low-hanging branch.

"He never partook in those mock fights we younger drákon thrived on, so I was more than eager to accept, thrilled with the idea of proving myself as his heir. Showing the tribe I was stronger, at fifteen, than even the Alpha. We hadn't even fought for a minute before he had me by the throat. I Turned when we hit the ground - and we hit the ground hard."

Kimber touched his temple with a grimace as if remembering. He could feel Sunniva intense at his back now closer to him than before.

"He rose, utterly unphased and proceeded to beat me, with his fists, his feet. I can still remember the feeling of his heel strike hard across my back."

The ground began a gentle slope and Kimber had to weave around the trees for a suitable path.

"Much of the tribe was there to watch his relentless onslaught. In that moment I didn't understand why. I thought perhaps he'd become crazed. Some blood fever maybe. How else could my own father who I knew loved his children more than anything do such a thing. No one lifted a hand to help me, not even my mother. When I finally found my father's eyes I didn't see a crazed man. I saw sorrow behind a mask of responsibility. After I'd nearly lost consciousness he carried me inside and placed me on my bed. I couldn't even see, both of my eyes swelling shut. I stayed in bed for near on a week, even soiling the sheets, too in pain to reach the chamber pot."

He let out a chuckle and thought he heard her stifle a laugh. He didn't look back, though, continuing with his story.

"Later on he asked me if I understood. He explained that being Alpha wasn't glory and worship. It wasn't a title granted inalienable. It was a position of responsibility. He wanted me to understand that someday I would have to hurt, maim, maybe even kill to protect our tribe. It shouldn't be something done without thought and never for enjoyment. That someday some runner might feel that very same fear I experienced."

It was a story he thought he would never tell, paired with a memory he could never forget. Kimber wanted to give her an understanding of what governed him, to perhaps know a fraction what his life had been like, to be privy to the forces that drove him. Sunniva hadn't been a pretty dalliance that had caught the eye of a spoiled nobleman. And it was unfortunate that she became subject to the laws that Kimber was beholden to uphold.

"Ever since that night I've approached my duty as seriously as possible. Forcing a blunt numbness over myself as I navigate my role. I care about our people more than myself, but I rarely take pleasure in the many things I must do in my position."

Kimber stopped and against better judgment risked turning around to face her. Her right cheek was smeared with mud and she clutched his coat closed over her breasts. Her face was curious, as she listened to his tale.

The truth of Sunniva hit him in a sudden rush, the essence of her being so very different from his own. His mother's words suddenly made simple transparent sense: a dragon, born free. An abrupt feeling of being shackled made his limbs heavy and looking down upon this beautiful woman full of contradictions lacking pretense or convention, he felt a stab of envy.

A certain realization came over Kimber in that moment. With her it was the first time that he wanted something for reasons besides what was best for the tribe. It was selfish and reckless and he didn't care.

"And is that how you see me? A cold, calculated piece to fit with your position and duty?" she asked.

She may have been once, for a singular instanve when he became certain she could Turn. He almost wished that's how he still saw her. It would make everything much less painful, make him feel less desperate. Every leer she gave him, every rejection he received singed his heart. She twisted and turned constantly in his thoughts, a mingling of cold smoke and scorching fire blurring the lines between an instinctual drive, devotion to duty, and furious passion. He opened his mouth to tell her, but self preservation got the better of him. If she truly did hate him, he couldn't bare her use of this knowledge as a weapon.

"Enjoy the spring," he said politely. "I'll see to it that no one bothers you while you're here," he answered guarded.

Sunniva tore her eyes away seeing a large, clear pool of water, fed by a gush emerging from an overhang above. She'd been so consumed by Kimber's words she hadn't even heard the plunge of the falls into the pool's depths. When she looked back Kimber was already out of sight.

To her surprise Sunniva wasn't pleased. She almost followed him to demand an answer. She wasn't even sure why it mattered. She'd be leaving him eventually either way.

She stood there unmoving for some time expecting him to return. She even extended her senses wondering what trick it might be. No longer was that signature trace of drákon lingering nearby. The guards must have been ordered off, the Earl having made good on his promise. She let Kimber's coat fall from her shoulders almost regrettably.

She spent the rest of the day there in solitude, for once enjoying something in her prison of Darkfrith.

Chapter Text

It seemed Sunniva’s guards had not returned to their duty after that day at the spring. That constant leering intent and hyper-vigilant sense of being watched no longer surrounded her everywhere she went. She was thankful for it, though it didn't change her habits.

Kimber, she knew, was responsible of course, perhaps a calculated moved to get her to lower her defenses. Sunniva liked to think it wouldn't work but she found herself more at ease the past few days. So when the Earl knocked on her door she was genuinely startled. She cast her senses feeling that unique frisson of moon-touched skin and thunder and undeniable dominance. Who else did she even expect to find waiting beyond the few planks of wood between them?

The Earl stood before the white-washed door frame of the little cottage silhouetted by an noon sun. His fingers were locked behind his back, a stance he quickly rectified letting his empty hands hang at his side.

"I wasn't sure you would be home," he said.

"Have your guards failed to inform you of my every movement?"

His lips teased a semblance of a smile. He knew she was perfectly aware they were no longer there.

"I was hoping you'd fancy a walk."

Sunniva’s eyes narrowed into suspicious slits. "Why?"

"It's going to be a fair afternoon. The sky is clear. There's a pleasant breeze carrying harvest wheat with it. Everything is scented of Autumn."

She was absolutely still, glaring him a stoic mask.

"I want to show you something," he admitted. "Something that few of the tribe are ever permitted to see."

Sunniva was torn between keeping Kimber at a distance and seeing a treasure of this place. It was probably another of his hidden springs, maybe a cave or some other pretty landmark. She looked behind her as if searching for a possible excuse. The kitchen was positively tidy, the dishes put away, the table and small counter clean. All the floors were free of dirt. She was downright bored in the cottage and curiosity got the better of her.

"Fine," she finally agreed reluctantly.

She was still dressed in her ridiculous outfit, but had since rolled up the legs of the pants and crudly trimmed the sleeves of the over-sized shirt. He wondered if she'd kept the pearl cuff links or merely discarded them in some obscure place. He was thankful at least that she still wore his coat which hadn't been washed and was still covered in his scent.

“How long is this going to take?” she asked as she stepped off the covered porch and looked up into the sky.

“Depends on how fast we walk.”

“Well then try and keep up noble Lord,” she said, taking long strides through the small, foot-trodden path leading from the cottage.

They passed through an orchard first, with sun-ripened fruits drooping from old trees. Niva snatched three pears and shoved two into her pockets. The other she immediately began to eat. Kimber carefully plucked an apple from a tall branch and inspected it as he walked.

"Do you know of our history?"

"Don't be daft, you know I don't," she spat, her mouth full of sweet fruit.

"You seem to have a knack for finding hidden things. I just wondered, maybe you had heard of something those many years on your own." He tossed the apple carelessly into a tuft of grass preluding the forest.

Sunniva shook her head. "Apart from the surly legends told to children, and the fantastical tales written for bored housewives, I've never heard a single version that didn't contradict-"

She stopped herself from finishing the sentence. One slip and it might be off to the chapel with her.

"-that didn't have an element which contradicted what I've seen of your people."

"Our people," he corrected with a smile.

"If you say so," she said dismissively.

They crossed the little stream where Sunniva had once tried to clean herself. It was drier than before, the Summer drought still exacting its toll. She let the cleaned core of the pear fall into the remaining creek sludge.

"Most of our origins are just passed down fragments from family to family. The most prevailing version is that we originated from the Carpathians and were driven away by hunters finally ending up here. Our ancestors developed a strict code of secrecy which has allowed us to survive in this hidden pocket of England. We've lived by this code, in the greatest of secrecy for at least fifteen generations, growing, thriving. As you might imagine this is why we are so terrified of exposure."

Kimber noticed a bush heavy with plump, black fruits growing in a rare spot of sunlight just before a family of oaks. He detached a strig of ripe currants left untouched by the birds, popped one into his mouth, then offered some to Sunniva.

"They usually aren't so sweet and rarely grow in the forest. Just goes to show that sometimes, things sprout unexpectedly in the strangest of places, resulting in the most pleasant of outcomes."

Sunniva frowned at the allusion and plucked a single current, stem still attached and examined the little morsel. She squished it between her fingers and brought it to her lips to taste.

"It's still rather sour, noble Lord," she pointed out.

Kimber popped another into his mouth. "Hmm, if one prefers their berries overly sweet they could use a bit of sugar. But I like them just so, wild as they are."

He offered her more which she declined and then ate the rest as they resumed walking, returning to his history lesson once his mouth was empty.

"What if the hunters came back? What if there is some pocket of them in the world that still exist, teaching their children to hate anything that isn't human? What if they come here where the women are bound to the Earth along with our helpless children?"

The thought of humans, organized and armed hunting the dràkon sent a swell of fury up her throat. Despite her disdain for this place, she wished no harm to any of them. As Kimber liked to remind her, they were her people too. And she'd seen it all before, in the rural, forgotten places of the world, humans attempting to destroy anything they didn't understand, banded together with torches and pitchforks screaming "destroy the monsters."

They came upon a large opening in the forest with a large depression in the center, bare of grass or leaves. Kimber stopped at the edge and looked down.

"We aren't perfect at keeping our guises. Perhaps even you are aware. The Turn sometimes becomes overwhelming under certain circumstances. Illness has also been known to force even the strongest of us into smoke and dragon and back, unpredictably and violently. And despite that knowledge sometimes a member of the tribe decides to leave with full knowledge of the consequences. Which is why leaving the shire without permission is a mortal offense."

"This," he said lifting his arm and sweeping it in an arc over the expanse of the clearing, "is where their bodies come to rest. Even in death they are shamed and quickly forgotten."

Sunniva sucked in a quick breath and let it back out with a hiss finding the scent highly disagreeable.

"Have you brought me here to frighten me? Send me a warning?"

"No. I brought you because you deserve to know the truth about our people. You deserve to be familiar with our ways."

She cautiously stepped closer to the pit. A few white protrusions jutted out from the earth. They could have been jagged crops of stone, but only a fool in denial would mistake them as such.

"Are some bones here because of you?"

"Yes", he forced out.

"All runners?"

"Five of them. Three refused to return. And the other two Turned after giving an oath not to. The last was a human who wandered too close to our borders and witnessed what we are."

A subtle wind sifted through the forest, dragging a few loose leaves into the pit of bones.

"Would you kill me if I ran?"

Kimber turned to face her.

"Never," he answered without a hesitation.

"Only because I'm a woman," she added.

"The council would never kill you because you're a woman."

It was true, the council wouldn't allow a female of breeding age to be destroyed. They would keep her detained, forever if need be, but they would find a way to make her do her part for the tribe.

Kimber had other reasons. He knew he could never destroy someone so lovely, someone he was growing to care deeply for. Even the thought of her locked away in the depths of Chasen left him uneasy, her precious light snuffed out.

They remained quiet for a while staring out onto the desolate graveyard, the ghosts of rogue drákon raked into one, solitary pit.

The wind grew stronger, shifting the trees to and fro, sending the foulness of that place into an upward whirl.

"I've killed as well," Sunniva confessed, breaking a staleness between them.

Kimber could scarce believe it, though it shouldn't have surprised him. Like everything about her this revelation drew him to her. He took a cautious step closer blocking the rays of the sun which now hung lower in the sky.

His shadow wrapped around her like a familiar blanket. She shouldn't have liked it, but it felt comforting and encompassing.

"My mother died when I was eight. We had no family to take me in, so I found work as a scullery maid in the Baron of Bilfshire's mansion in London."

Sunniva felt entranced. Maybe it was the feeling of death surrounding her. Maybe it was the lingering of fire, and ash, and burnt bone permeating this place.

She continued without a thought, a crease forming between her brows.

"I began to grow breasts, become wider in some places and thinner in others. Everything began to quickly change. I looked abnormal. Unnatural. One of the footman called it exotic."

Kimber knew it was a feature of their kind. The drákon often began looking peculiar. Sometimes even considered ugly. When they began to mature they transformed into creatures of polished beauty. Even those of the thinner blood stood out among mere mortals.

He knew Niva was using an unknown magic to hide, concealing whatever exotic truth that she was. The regret of having tried possess her with deceit grew more severe with each passing day. He wanted more than anything to gain her trust, have her show him of her own accord who was behind the mask.

"The Baron took a fancy to me," continued Niva, "first brushing by far too close than was necessary. Or wiping dust off my bosom as an excuse for a touch. One morning, the day after my twelfth birthday, I was summoned to his chamber under the pretense of cleaning some soot from the fireplace that had spilled onto the floor. The bastard had kicked it out with his own boot, the grey dust spread across the heel. When I bent down to scrub he grabbed me, pulling me against him his pants already down to his knees. As he tried to lift my skirts up, I shoved him away and-"

Sunniva realized she was about to tell him about the first time she Turned. Something she had never told anyone.

Her body had melted away into fire burning the man's hands once her clothes had gone to ash. His terror fueled her into form, the delicious surge in power of becoming dragon. The bed's canopy had caught fire, the bright light reflecting red and black fear in the Duke's eyes. When he ran she snatched him in her jaws feeling delight as bones crunched and blood gushed through her fangs. Humans: such fragile creatures. She flung his limp form against the wall, then spat flame across the lifeless body and beyond intending for the whole place to be destroyed. She burst through the crumbling ceiling shooting out into the skies freeing herself from that wretched city forever.

Kimber was drawn even closer by her hesitation. His eyes bore deep as if to look inside her, as if he could beckon secrets from her with the will of his mind, his lips a silent lilt, a single strand of black hair tickling the center of his temple.

Sunniva gave a dismissive laugh and waved her hand aways as if to banish her thoughts. "I grabbed a lantern and smashed it across his face. He fell unconscious, the house caught fire and I let the flames take him. I couldn't say if everyone escaped the mansion in time."

She knew they hadn't. The desperate screams still haunted her, visions of laughing flames as she scorched wall after wall.

There was a telling hitch in her voice and her eyes cast downward hiding the guilt of knowing she'd caused many undeserving deaths.

He couldn't divine the details, but Kimber knew that very look on her face, one he himself had worn before. God he wished she would open herself to him. But he didn't deserve that trust. Not yet.

Sunniva had tried to blame it on the novelty of her first Turn, the barbarous power intoxicating every vein and muscle of her new body. Sometimes the explanation was fear. She'd panicked in reaction to an attempted rape and that terrible beast protected her.

The truth of it was she'd known what she was for a long time. Maybe not precisely, maybe not to what extent.

When she chewed her food as a child with soft, stunted teeth she imagined biting down into flesh with powerful jaws and sharp fangs. When she dashed across soot-dusted rooftops in the dregs of London she felt as if she might sprout wings at every leap. And when the telling attributes of a woman began to emerge her appearance became inhuman. Colorless hair. Violet eyes. Features she quickly learned to contain. She knew before she Turned that she was something else.

After her mother's death, with nothing to tie her to civility, she had waited for an opportunity, an catalyst to summon that terrible beast, the guilt of it to be felt for a lifetime. She would never give the burning dragon such unbridled freedom again.

Something deep down forced her gaze towards Kimber. The light haloed him exquisite, the contrast of consuming dark surrounded by a translucent glow capturing. She had vowed to hate this deceptive man for eternity, yet she was far less innocent than him. Though it pained her to admit it, they were both beasts, driven by instinct, so very much alike. Her animosity began to melt away, her expression and feelings shifting from wary to conflicted.

Kimber noticed the change. The last of the day's sunlight peaking out over his shoulders danced shades of amber across her face, daring him to risk a caress. He thought better of it, willing away his own dreadful instincts to touch her.

"It will be dark soon," he said, not caring to look into the sky to check the verity of his words.

Sunniva pulled from his gaze with a gasp. She turned to see the pinks and blues bombarding the forest floor in shards of fading light. Torn between hiding in her little cottage and a sudden craving to join Kimber, the draw of him and the heavens a deepening desire, she gave her head a swift shake, a dreamer awakening.

"The others will be smoke soon. You should join them. I can find my way back," she said no longer looking at him.

Kimber shook his head. "I'd walk you to your door, if that's alright," he said softly, hopeful.

She had little time and the moon in the forest was a tricky thing, not always found when required.

"It's not," she said, with a resonating finality. She took off with a sprint before stopping briefly.

“Kimber?”

The use of his name startled him.

“Thank you” she said.

He cocked his head confused.

“For showing me this.”

And she disappeared quickly into the trees.



Chapter Text

Dragon women were not like human women. They looked similar, yet were far more radiant. They spoke like them, yet with deep, sultry voices. And they enjoyed fine things, finer even.

But where human women bashfully hid their painted lips behind lacy folding fans and batted their lashes at passing beaus, dragon women winked their eyes without subtlety and whispered improper innuendos to men who caught their eye. Where human women feigned weakness at the prospect of exiting a carriage unaided or fainted at the sight of blood, dragon women leaped through hills and bracken-filled woods and grew emboldened by the thrill of a hunt. And where human women fought their battles with snide remarks and petty gossip, well, dragon women did that too. But they had no qualms settling disputes or questions of dominance with fists and feet.

In fact, altercations were more frequent than one might expect. The stronger girls often picked on the weak and those of small stature. They went after the ones they deemed poor or peculiar.

Sometimes the females even grouped together, mean girls prowling about the meadows or woods, hoping to chance upon a secluded maiden which they could abuse, their thirst for violence insatiable.

It was likely a impulse from an ancient time when Turning was not confined to a single sex and the drákon interactions less civilized. They fought for dominance and they fought for mates, the two tightly linked.

Either way, as long as Zoe Lane could remember, she had been on the receiving end of those aggressive women.

She had been quite the ugly duckling as a child, with queer, black eyes and mousy grey hair. The other girls teased her and pulled at her braids asking if they were made of feathers.

When she began to grow breasts and the Langford boy paid her attention, they cut her ribbons, broke her slates and emptied her lunch pail on her way to school.

Zoe never understood why the women still tormented her. She didn't get in their way, didn't cause trouble. She didn't challenge them or even look at the men they desired.

The truth, though, was something she couldn't see. She had grown into a painfully beautiful woman. Married men followed her with their eyes as she passed by. Bachelors dared each other to speak to her, to ask for a dance or if she fancied a stroll. Her tortured youth had turned her expression into hardened stone, perpetually frozen in scourn and those would-be suitors always lost their nerve in the face of that chilled exterior.

Yet she was desirable and as a woman of twenty-three very much elligible as a wife, a fact that didn't escape the females of the tribe. The married women were more subtle, distracting their mates with a passionate kiss or an arousing graze of the buttocks. The maidens however had only their poisonous words and their stinging nails and made use of them often.

Zoe grimaced at the pain developing in her palms. The skin had most certainly scraped opened and she could already smell the metallic tang of her own blood.

She'd skipped over Lydia's foot, having suspected she might try something, but hadn't avoided Gheillis' outstretched parasol.

They leered down at her with bright shining rays beating down upon their shoulders.

"I say Zoe, you must be careful traversing these cobblestones, especially in heeled boots. They can be quite treacherous to the ungraceful," warned Gheillis.

"That's right," chimed in Lydia, "Zoe dear, do be more careful. Perhaps you'd be better suited with a pair of stable boots."

They broke out into a laugh. The two locked arms and huddled together beneath Lydia's now open parasol as if the sun could mar their perfect skin.

Zoe could hear the clicks of their heels as they sauntered away decicively pleased with themselves. She peeled herself away from the road and brushed herself off as best she could. Bolts of fabric were strewn about having escaped her arms when she fell. She gathered them quickly hoping none of the finer weaves had been damaged by her fall. She would wait to inspect them once in the safety of the seemstressy.

The back of the shop offered a more private room where dresses could be altered to fit, measurements taken, and clothing changed. Zoe poured a bit of water from a white, porcelain pitcher into a matching basin and dipped her hands in. The water burned her skinless palms and turned a shade of pale pink as some of the dried blood sloughed off.

Across from the single window in the room where the light was brightest hung a full length mirror set in fine, curving bronze. Zoe examined herself in the reflection. Strands of hair had escaped her braid hanging haphazardly around her face. There was dirt on her right sleeve and a crimson stain on the left cream-colored cuff.

The little, brass bell hanging over the door rang, signaling the arrival of customer. Zoe tucked the loose hair behind her ears and brushed herself off as best she could.

Much to Zoe's dismay it was the thief who'd refused the Earl still wearing Rhy's clothing. Zoe couldn't help but narrow her eyes.

"Hello Miss Lane," greeted the thief.

"Miss Williams," replied Zoe in acknowledgment.

"What happened to you?"

"I tripped and fell," she fibbed, careful to conceal her wounded hands.

"How clumsy of you."

Zoe pursed her lips to conceal her anger.

"What can I do for you Miss Williams?"

Sunniva slapped down a fistful of coins onto the counter.

"I need a dress."

"A dress? But I made you five? Were they not to your liking?"

"Not at all. I burnt them."

"You...why?" asked Zoe, exasperated.

"Because they were gifts from the Earl and I do not accept gifts from liars. Now I don't need something extravagant. In fact the plainer the better. Homeweave or whatever the devil you call that stuff."

The aversion Zoe felt for this woman rose up through her throat. Sunniva could Turn and should have been wed to the eldest Langford by now, giving Rhys the freedom to be with Zoe. Until then, she had to remain a maiden, subject to the cruelty of the other females wishing to prove their position in the hierarchy.

"Homespun. And we don't carry that here. You best try the general store. They sell needles and thread as well," Zoe's made certain to say as chilled as possible. She wanted to make it clear that this woman was not welcome here.

"But I can't sew," replied Sunniva.

Zoe shrugged smugly. "I'm sorry. I can't help you." She half expected the thief to strike at her considering the flare to her nostrils and feral quality to her eyes.

But she merely scraped the coins off the counter into an open palm and stomped out of the shop. The door slammed so hard that the windows rattled and the little brass bell jerked upwards becoming stuck.

Zoe remained at the counter top till Sunniva was well past the storefront before going to the door and flipping the tin sign hanging from a nail to "closed". She reached up and freed the bell so it hung freely again.

Zoe had never been aggressive, never been even remotely dominant. She always wondered why she was given the abilities she had, to walk unseen among her own. A curse was what she'd always considered it, but Rhys insisted it a Gift, so unique and pure.

She was tired of waiting, tired of playing the distant ice queen. She wanted unrestrained love and passion and warmth. She wanted Rhys in her arms and between her legs. She wanted his children, to be a mother and a wife.

Oh her darling Rhys. There was no one she depended on more. He'd kept her secret despite his obligation to give her to his brother. They bade their time using Zoe's Gift to sneak around and upon the arrival of the Williams girl believed her an odd sort savior. Sadly she'd yielded nothing, too stubborn to give them the freedom they deserved.

Rhys had had a plan and Zoe had always believed in the validity of his schemes and machinations. And that too had yielded nothing.

A beast began to uncoil inside her as if awakening from a winter slumber, hungry and pursuing. It crept up the wells of her heart no longer content with a passive whispers. Sunniva might be a dragon, but within Zoe hid a silent serpent, just as poised and deadly and prepared to strike.

The rationalization oozed over her like thick tar and she no longer cared about the immorality of it all, no longer concerned with who it might hurt as long as she could be with her beloved. This woman's obstinance stood between her and her mate. She could Turn, she belonged to the Alpha and all Zoe needed was sufficient evidence for the council to deliver her.

Rhys couldn't help them anymore. It was up to her now to fight for and claim what belonged to her.

Zoe strode quickly to the back room and peeled back the cobalt curtain framing the single window. No one was on the small side street that ran behind the shop. She threw open the window and then snapped the curtain closed for safety. Her dress ripped once at the sleeve as she pulled it off in a violent jerk. No matter, she'd fix it that evening. It had to be washed anyways. She shimmied out of her shift and stockings and left it all in a neat pile on a venetian settee hidden behind a coromandel folding screen. She took one more glance out past the curtains before slinking as an unseen shade through the window out onto the street.

****

Sunniva had discovered a lucrative and well-suited-to-her-abilities activity to pass the time. Burgundy truffles were all the rage across Europe and the thick forests of Darkfrith just happened to contain a hidden trove of them.

Humans paid upward of a pound per ounce and used specially trained female pigs to sniff them out. An entire industry had developed around the collection of truffles, breeding the animals precisely for the purpose of discovering the rare morsels. Drawn by the scent of the dirt-dwelling fungus the sows rooted about the forest floor seeking out the bounty. The trick of the handler was to snatch the fungus first before the sow gobbled down the treat.

Sunniva needed no such beast, as her nose was keener than any swine. She merely need peruse the area where the pine trees had taken claim of the forest.

It had taken her a brisk hour's walk from Lane's Seemstressy to reach her hidden niche. With a basket hung at the crook of her arm and attired - still - in a ragged set of nobleman's clothing, she looked like a bastardized mixture of Riding Hood and The Wolf.

She'd forgone shoes, preferring to experience the tendrilled glory beneath her toes of ivy and peat sprawled over exposed roots. A preliminary shedding of orange and red leaves already dotted the forest floor signaling the oncoming Autumn. Too bad the temperature hadn't been informed as well.

Sunniva caught that signature scent between the base of two Scots pines, of earth intertwined with garlic and the smell of a musky man, naked and ready for coitus. She went to her hands and knees bringing her nose close to the ground following the whiffs of truffle. Here it was weaker, there it was stronger, stronger and stronger until she was certain her hands would yield something if she dug. She pulled up the mushroom, an ordinary looking thing, dull-black of color and covered in dirt and nubs resembling warts. That people paid exorbitant prices for them made no sense. Still, she'd collect them anyway, delighted by the prospect of a second meal that week befitting a carnivore.

She had hoped her first harvest would go towards a dress. The gentleman's clothes didn't bother her, but they drew attention which Sunniva preferred to avoid. If she wished to continue playing the meek maiden she had to remain unnoticed and at the bottom of the pecking order, appearing a woman of insignificance among the tribe. Her trip to the Lane woman though had sadly been an utter disappointment.

Sunniva spent most of the afternoon in her hunting ground enjoying the quiet and solitude. She dug once more into the earth, carefully scraping away to expose the mushrooms. The pressure between her fingers and nails of wedged dirt reminded her of talons furrowing in the ground after a fast landing. She stretched her arms wide recalling the pleasant ache of spanning her wings before flight after taking form. She looked up into the sky until the pull became a beckoning threat and she had to tear her eyes away settling them on a fallen branch.

Though her basket was hardly full, she treated herself to a break atop the spongy forest ground, a cozy weave of decaying mulch and a sheet of last year's shed needles.

It was so strange, the silence of this place. Not a single trill of a bird or bellow of a buck graced her ears. If any creature wished to draw near they'd have to be very careful indeed.

Sunniva dozed off comfortable in the surrounding calm, remaining in that state between sleep and dreams, until the dragon inside jerked alert. For a mortal it might be described as that inescapable feeling of falling, plummeting to ones death off a seaside cliff where jagged rocks await. But a dragon had no such fear.

Niva thrust her senses out like a spider's web feeling nothing, hearing nothing, smelling nothing. But she did see. She saw the flaw in her watcher's disguise. 

A fluttering in the light like an oasis in the desert stood over by a solitary pine with a thick trunk lacking any low branches. Niva's eyes floated downwards and she allowed her peripheral vision to adjust to the figure, gathering any information it could. It wasn't detailed, just feint warping waves around a single, feminine body.

In nature predators can easily be identified, eyes located in the front, a feature used to hone in on and follow prey. Humans were predators, despite their fragile bodies and dulled senses. They had used this knowledge with their domesticated livestock and beasts of burden. There was an old horseman's trick when approaching an animal; don't look them in the eye, don't look at them like a hunter. So Sunniva did just that, keeping her eyes unfocused on the ground.

She stood casually, adjusting the legs of her pants and gathered her basket as if to seek more fungi. She kept the blur of light in that unfocused region of her vision. The woman hadn't realized yet that she'd been caught; a fact that was only a matter of time.

Meandering around the trees arbitrarily, appearing as if she caught the scent of a truffle, Sunniva moved closer and closer to the observer.

There was a tension in the air, like when one holds their breath so long their lungs hurt. The woman was so still, so quiet Sunniva almost wondered if it was actually wraith, but then the warmth of flesh and body tickled her skin as she drew near.

A jaw dropped as a gasp escaped the half second before Niva's hand gripped her throat. She lifted effortless removing the woman from the ground.

"Why are you spying on me?" Sunniva roared. "Did the Earl send you?"

Desperate lungs could neither contract nor expand restricted by digging fingers and all that came out was a wretched weeze. The woman's feet dangled helplessly as she clawed at Niva's arm causing her only to grip tighter.

"Tell me what you are doing out here!"

The light faded around the woman like raindrops removing dust from glass revealing Zoe Lane.

Sunniva dropped Zoe - whose legs gave out - letting her fall to the ground in a naked, crumpled heap.

Zoe grasped at her throat, rubbing frantically as oxygen finally filled her lungs again. Her eyes were bloodshot and lips sported a purple tinge. "How...did you...see..."

Sunniva's father had told her of all known Gifts of the tribe and Miss Lane's certainly hadn't been among them. She transformed from acute anger to delighted wickedness, her eyes squinting and lips curling.

"That is a rather special Gift you have Miss Lane. Quite impressive indeed. I may be new to the tribe, but I'm willing to wager it's not a common one is it?"

Zoe didn't have to answer, the terror in her face revealing what she didn't say.

"Shouldn't it please you?" continued Sunniva. "You could take a position beside the Earl? Alpha mates Alpha do they not?"

Sunniva was a healthy head taller and far more menacing than Zoe. "Well you are certainly no Alpha. Still, I'm sure the ruling family would be pleased to hear about it. They are always looking to improve their line."

"No please! Please don't tell them!" Zoe begged.

"Then tell me what you were doing out here spying on me."

Zoe looked anywhere but Sunniva's eyes until she shifted towards her, threatening fingers like claws at her neck again.

"I was hoping to see you Turn," Zoe said quick and desperate.

"I most certainly cannot." Apart from Kimber, it was the incorrect truth that everyone believed. "Why would you think I can Turn?" asked Sunniva suspiciously. 

"They talk in the village. They say-"

"They say I'm just a poor man's halfing daughter."

Sunniva squat down to eye level, softening her features in attempt to appear less ferocious.

"Miss Lane, Zoe, I ask you again, why are you spying on me?"

Sunniva watched the conflict in Zoe's face. She was scared, certainly, but there was something else, something Niva couldn't quite put her finger on. She'd give her time to answer, to choose honesty over lies.

"I wanted to see if I could trust you. If you were Gifted in any way like me then I thought, maybe, we could be friends. Maybe someone might understand what it's like to be special."

It almost came across as authentic, delivered with soft eyes molded to a wishful round and a reverent reach upward without touching.

Sunniva stood. "Well isn't that sweet," she said.

Zoe released a breath. She pulled herself off the ground looking at Sunniva hopeful.

"Are you Gifted like me?" Zoe asked, taking on an expression resembling candidness.

Sunniva let out a laugh. "How quaint. You're quite the actress Miss Lane, but your pulse betrays you. You should work on controlling it."

Zoe's skin went paler than it already was.

"I'm going to ask you once more. Why are you here?"

Zoe remained silent and Sunniva was growing impatient.

"By the laws of your people you belong to Kimber Langford. I'm sure he'd make good use of you," Sunniva said, lewdly, turning to leave.

The Lane girl finally found her voice and shot back in a tone just as lewd.

"By the laws of my people, you belong to him more so than I."

Sunniva's eyes turned to slits and her mouth took on a not-quite satisfied slant.

"There it is. You don't want to marry the Earl, so you thought if you brought the council evidence, they'd wed me to him and you'd be safe. Does that sound about right?"

For a moment Niva felt sorry for this woman. Chained against her will to the laws of this place just as she was. But that moment of pity turned to ash in the face of reality as to why she was here.

"I've no further need of proof. I saw it already. All I need do is tell the council," hissed Zoe.

"You've got nothing to tell them."

"You're wrong. I saw it the day I took your measurements."

Sunniva shot her puzzled look.

"Dragon's eyes. I'm sure the Earl and the council would love to hear about those terrible glowing white orbs. Only those who can Turn have eyes like that." Zoe straightened proudly as if she'd won, watching her adversary's face grow grave. Better than any drug, she enjoyed finally having power, of being able to lord it over someone, making them feel as small as she always had.

The fear hitched in Sunniva's throat and she tried to maintain the illusion of control. She didn't even know that was an ability she had. She hadn't lost yet though.

"If that would convince the council then you would have already told them."

The telling twitch in Zoe's lips confirmed Sunniva's surmisal.

"Come to think of it, if Kimber Langford can't convince those goats of my ability to Turn, what makes you think you and your flimsy evidence can?"

"What makes you think you can convince the council that I can become invisible?" Zoe shot back.

Sunniva took a threatening step forward. "What are they more likely to believe? That a half-breed stray looking plain as day can become dragon? Or that Miss Zoe Lane, a beautiful woman of good tribal pedigree, with her unique pearl hair and exotic black eyes has a Gift the likes of which your kind has never seen?"

Sunniva took another step closer, close enough so that the woman felt the threat of her warm breath. Zoe stood her ground, forcing herself not to yield, but her pulse thundered and Sunniva could hear it.

Sunniva tucked some of Zoe's loose hair behind her ear brushing her nails against her lobe.

"Do not think for a second," Niva said in an ominous whisper, "that I have scruples against dragging you before the council and forcing you to show them your trick to protect myself. I've more secrets than you could fathom Miss Lane. How else do you think I could see you?"

Ignorance of others could certainly be powerful and Sunniva used Zoe's against her. Apart from the threat of violence she had no known way of revealing Miss Lane.

Zoe took the only step backwards that she could, pressing against the rough bark of the tree behind her and lowered her gaze in submission. "You belong here you know," she choked out, shaking, yet still daring to utter her spiteful piece.

Sunniva raised her eyes.

"You're just like every other dragon bitch. You're a cruel brute," Zoe said, closing her eyes waiting to be struck or kicked or taken by the throat again.

Niva only spoke with searing clarity. "Then get out of this bitches territory." She didn't move nor did she touch the Lane woman. She remained with her piercing eyes as if to melt ice with a terrible heat. 

Zoe slithered out from between the tree and Sunniva keeping her eyes low and focused on her as she slunk away.

"Oh and Zoe?" called Sunniva, causing Miss Lane to pause. "I'll see you in a week for my dress...in exchange for my silence of course."

Zoe's skin faded into to the backdrops of her surroundings as Sunniva shot her a nasty grin.

****

It was Wednesday meaning the meat vendor would be there selling his cuts of veal and beef. Sunniva's dress wouldn't be ready but she wanted to remind the Lane woman of their little deal.

She stopped by the storefront window peering in cupping her hands around her eyes to prevent the glare. 

At the counter was a gathering of young women dressed finely and blocking Sunniva's view. Two of the women jerked suddenly, a curious smack resonated through the glass, and another woman shifted allowing Sunniva to see. 

She realized the noise had been skin against wood as Zoe lay bent across the counter, each arm held tightly by two of the women. Sunniva could make out their voices perfectly as they threatened Zoe.

She watched as Zoe crunched her face and closed her eyes as another woman slapped her across he back. Not even a cry escaped Zoe's lip resigned to take what they were dolling out. Why wasn't she fighting back? Why wasn't she even trying to resist them?

Sunniva had the urge to go in. She'd never seen women behave like this before. Six against one, it hardly seemed fair. Perhaps it was a truth of their kind, though she'd never had the urge to pick on anyone that hadn't wronged her. And Zoe had. Maybe she was right to let them beat up Zoe who had just a few days ago threatened to expose her.

She lowered her hands and turned away from the glass.

Anyone could hear the maniacal giggles and sound of fists against flesh stemming from inside. A familiar pair of gentlemen greeted Niva with a tip of their hats as they walked by. Adam Richards and Devon Rickman, both members of the council. They were completely unaffected by the ongoings just beyond the thin sheet of glass. They strolled merrily away with walking canes clacking against the cobblestone street.

Sunniva peered in again and her instincts insisted once more to join the fray. It would be six of them against her so hardly a fair fight. If it were Joan or Audrey or the Marchioness it might have been different, but these women were peons, small shadows of might in the bitter sun. Sunniva was dragon, the strongest of them all.

And that was exactly where the danger lie. She could go in there and thrash every one of them proving that she was the strongest, the most dominant, that she was Alpha. What if someone of consequence walked by? What if word got out that she single handedly took down six grown women? What if the council decided that was sufficient to send her to Kimber in a white wedding frock?

She couldn't risk it. She pulled away from the shop window and kept walking.

****

Zoe had never expected them to be so bold.

Gheillis had come with her permanent fixture Lydia along with their little pose complaining of sloppy stitching on a sheet dotted muslin gown she'd bought months ago. As Zoe explained that a back stitch was more durable when Eleanor and Elizabeth grabbed her arms flattening her out onto the counter.

She pulled and pulled as Lydia berate her, eventually realizing it was futile, resigning herself to take the beating, retreating into her thoughts to escape the sting of the blows. It would be over at some point. She had some salve for the open wounds and would make a poultice of witch hazel for the pain. The most embarrassing part of it all was the tears escaping in frantic drills, spilling down her face onto the wooden counter. She squeezed her eyes shut willing it to stop when she heard the little brass bell to the shop door ring.

Zoe knew it wouldn't stop there. The women would act like proper ladies perusing dresses, biding their time until the customer was done. It made no difference to the other members of the tribe what a few mean girls did another female. As long as they weren't permanently damaged everyone looked the other way. It was, after all, the natural way of beasts.

Lydia was the first to speak. "My, my, aren't you looking lovely," she said to the intruder seething with sarcasm.

The grip on Zoe's arms released and she tried to see who had come in.

"Hello Lydia, we haven't been properly introduced. I'm sure you've deduced who I am. And I know who you are based on the fact that I sent you those sapphires hanging from the scruff of your neck."

It was Sunniva.

The women began to shift position, all sensing the challenge, moving in a choreographed pattern to surround the intruder impeding their fun.

"These sapphires were a gift from the Earl," retorted Lydia proudly, stretching her neck in a ridiculous display of braggadocio.

Sunniva let out a haughty laugh. "Just like Gheillis' emerald ring," she said gesturing, "and Eleanor's topaz bracelet. I know them all, intimately. Don't flatter yourself darling."

Lydia, emboldened by the women surrounding Sunniva and wearing a contrived grin, spat some words of her own.

"So the rumors are true. The Alpha did catch a filthy rat from the gutter. Perhaps it's time we show you your place. Ladies..."

Zoe, in a growing influx of courage, pushed herself up from the counter inspecting Sunniva's  battle stance. Her heels had lifted slightly, knees bent as well. Her arms had become coiled springs and her face filled with cheeky daring.


Sunniva didn't need to see to feel their clumsy movement behind and before her. Her senses were primed, filling the vicinity like a still pool of water waiting to be rippled. 

Like a coward, Lydia refrained from attacking first, instead letting one of her sneaky companions attempt a strike from the back.

Sunniva ducked under the reaching claws of Eleanor, giving her a powerful kick in the ass sending her flying. Her face met the edge of the counter and a crack rang out. No one was sure if it was the wood splitting or bones breaking.

It didn't matter in the moment, Sunniva was facing five angry women, all of which were fortunately now at her fore. Elizabeth and Eleanor tried to attack her as a pair, but Niva was too quick. She hit one in the stomach causing her to keel over in pain. The other received a punch to the chest retreating off to the side clutching her breast not daring to risk another gruesome blow.

The remaining three, determined to strike in tandem moved towards Niva with measured steps in a tidal wave of ruffled skirts. The key to their strategy was perfect unison, like lionesses taking down a buffalo.

So when Gheillis suddenly broke formation Niva utilized the opportunity and her hand shot out grabbing an unprotected jugular. But it wasn't Gheillis in her grips, it was Lydia, her eyes filling with fear and red and her feet dangling as Niva lifted her from the floor.

When Niva heard the telltale smack of knuckles hitting flesh and bone she knew why Gheillis had abandoned her pursuit. The woman lay on the hard wooden floor with an emerald-adorned hand pressed over a swelling eye as Zoe Lane stood triumphantly above her brandishing a closed fist.

Hattie, the last enemy standing, lost her nerve watching her pitiful Alpha dangling in the air by the throat. She moved to the corner with her delicate hands up in surrender.

Sunniva gripped tighter and tighter as Lydia scratched her arm leaving red streaks across her skin. She didn't care and neither did the terrible dragon.

"Williams," cried out Zoe, pointing at her own eyes as a warning.

Sunniva released her grip, jerked back to reality.

Lydia landed in a paltry pile on the floor. The hem of her petticoat had ripped and one of the heels of her pumps had been knocked off in the landing. The desperate attempts for air signaled the one-sided outcome of the battle.

Sunniva looked in a small mirror on the counter seeing the terrible glowing eyes of a dragon peering back at her. She closed them tight, willing the beast back into its lair. It had felt so good, so right to lash these women into submission that she'd almost forgotten what was at stake.

When she opened them again only a peasant looked back at her. Her skin still boiled and she hardly looked contained but that telling draconic quality had been squeezed back into submission.

She strode over to Hattie, her back pressed to a shelf filled with cloth still too scared to move.

"You won't be talking about this," said Sunniva, her voice like a foreboding rumble just before a storm.

Hattie blinked once.

"I said, you won't be talking about this will you?"

She shook her head rapidly confirming that she understood.

"Good," said Sunniva, "now gather your hens and go back to pecking around the coop."

Hattie helped her downed friends to their feet.

Eleanore was retrieved last needing first to come to. She'd had the most embarrassing aftermath, lying flat on the ground with her petticoat holding her skirts high in the air like a ship's sail, leaving her not a single modicum of modesty.

The women left with their eyes glued to the floor avoiding the dominating gaze that Sunniva cast down upon each and every one until the little brass bell rang as the door closed behind them.

Zoe watched Sunniva, contemplating the tentative truce between them. She'd risked imprisonment in a marriage she didn't want to help someone who had attempted to wrong her.

Alpha, whispered the waking serpent.

"Why did you do that?" asked Zoe.

Niva ignored her, bending over to pick up a fallen dress form covered in an unfinished bodice. The shop was in a minor state of shambles.

"Why would you risk exposure for me?" asked Zoe more pointedly.

Niva busied herself by picking up reams of cloth that had been knocked to the floor attempting to shove them into the already packed shelves.

"Here let me," insisted Zoe. "They go in a certain order." She retrieved the cloth from Niva and put the reams in their appropriate place. With pleading eyes she asked the thief again for answers.

"I suppose," Niva said, leaning against the counter considering her words, "if I didn't do anything I'd be no better than those bitches. I'd be no better than every prick who walked by your shop and suddenly found the sky to be more interesting."

"It's how our kind are," replied Zoe.

"As if it's all they could ever be. As if they have no choice. It's not acceptable." 

Sunniva ran a hand across the grains of the counter, the corners of her mouth suddenly taking a satisfied slant. "Looks like miss Eleanore doesn't have a broken nose after all," she remarked, thumbing a crack in the wood.

Zoe didn't look as satisfied. "If any of the council saw that display. If Lydia talks talks to her brother..." She paused not sure how to finish, finally settling for an unsure shake of the head.

"Well I guess we'll find out how deep her new found shame runs," said Niva, her voice quivering. The steady confidence that she always exuded wavered, exposing the underlying fear.

Zoe opened her mouth to speak, but Niva's words hit first.

"That invisibility act, am I the only one who knows about it?"

Zoe looked at her cautiously.

"I'm not going to tell anyone," added Niva. "Least of all Kimber."

"Rhys Langford," confessed Zoe.

Sunniva threw her head back and let out a singular laugh. "Why doesn't it surprise me? A girl like you? No wonder you aren't already married and with child."

Zoe shifted a basket of thread and needle-covered pin cushions.

"He should have told his family years ago but he never did."

"Because he covets you," said Niva, blunt and harsh.

"Because he loves me," corrected Zoe turning to Niva. "And I love him. Like you said we drákon are capable of more than what that barbarous beast within desires. I may not be able to Turn but it's in there always whispering just as it is in every single one of us."

Sunniva replied with a mocking laugh. "Or maybe Rhys is just clever. Biding his time to move against his brother. Waiting for him to settle on some trollop while he takes a mate of exceptional Gifts."

"But Kimber already has settled. And that woman is no trollop. You're Alpha, Sunniva. Who else would risk everything to protect someone like me? I know what you are now. You do too. And so does Kimber."

Sunniva scoffed.

"Kimber knows nothing. He is just waiting for me to slip so he can be granted the council's approval. If those horrid men find out my secret they'll give him what he needs to take me."

"Do you really believe that Kimber is only waiting for the council's permission to have you?"

Sunniva couldn't take Zoe's words as perfectly genuine. There were personal reasons why Zoe might thrust Niva into Kimber's arms.

Her beginning with the Earl had been one of unbridled lust and either luck or circumstance had shown her that devious side of him, that cruel, calculating beast that lurked behind his lovely facade. There was merit to Zoe's sentiment though. None of those soggy men could rival Kimber. He was strength and terror and dominance. He was the Dreadful Night. Alpha. Who could really stop him if he decided to take what he wanted? 

Sunniva began to wonder if Kimber was actually the shield and the council the sword. The thought of a sweet smile, of soft hands, of a kind man who wanted more from her than a dragon to bear his children slipped past her carefully constructed barrier. She snuffed it out as quickly as it had sparked. She didn't need Kimber tying her to this place, because when she left would never look back.

And didn't need a friend either.

The shop now appeared as if a brawl had never occurred, neat and tidy and ready for customers. 

"I've got to get going," Sunniva said. "Thank you for the stimulating conversation Miss Lane."

"Zoe," corrected Miss Lane. "I think fighting side by side puts us on a first name basis. I hope it does anyways."

Sunniva scrunched her eyes at odds with herself, hating the cold she forced across her heart. She couldn't agree to it, but she couldn't bringer herself to forbid it either. Slowly she put one foot in front of the other, heading towards the door.

"Sunniva?" called Zoe. "Come back by in a few days. I'll probably have a dress about your size."

Sunniva turned as a natural smile escaped her lips accompanied by a nod.

The little, brass bell rang signalling her departure.

Chapter Text

The Autumn weather had finally caught up to the shire with smoky mists and heavy rainfall. The brown and red and orange leaves were lacking in lustrous color, often times sagging from the branches soaked until finally being beaten to the ground by rain. Little streams that had nearly run dry towards the end of summer were now swollen and the river's banks no longer restrained the rushing currents.

It was welcomed weather to the drákon who now no longer waited for nightfall, soaring the winds as they pleased.

During the day Sunniva could feel their constant presence, at least a dozen of them above her at any given time. They weren't guards or spies or even curious onlookers, but simply dragons doing what was natural to them. She envied those men, taking a break from the mundanity of repetitive work, becoming splinters of sky with no constraints above or below.

She snorted with a frown as she picked up a shopping basket kept in the kitchen. It was market day and farmers would be selling their produce, traders of meats their cuts, and the creamery supposedly had a fresh wheel of unripened cheese. Sunniva couldn't stand the strongly ripened ones. She'd pop by the bakery to buy some fresh bread for the next few days and perhaps some of those doughy soft rolls as well.

She donned a simple gown of plane worsted wool with a beige apron of flax and a dull chocolate shawl. Miss Lane had snuck in pearls instead of wooden buttons, a feature that Sunniva considered redundant. Yet she found herself often fingering the round spheres whenever her thoughts began to drift, reminding her of the ones on the Earl's coat she still had in her possession.

The rain had let up, but the fog still kissed the earth, gathering as beads on Sunniva's skin. Her thoughts wandered again up into the sky and her thumb found it ways over the smoothness of the small white orbs at her wrist.

"Here we have a haunch of venison, a prime rib and I still have some mutton," the meat trader said. It was a different man than usual this week. Younger, with more vigor and less coughing. Perhaps the son of the vendor; both had eyes of brilliant amber and hair of deep red.

"I'm sorry what was that one again?" Sunniva asked, pulling her eyes downward and pointing at a dark crimson hunk of flesh.

"The veal haunch," the vendor said smiling.

"Yes. My pardons. My mind is a bit adrift today. I'll take the mutton," she said, pointing at a cut with a thick layer of fat running along the top side.

"It's quite alright," he said as he placed the meat on a scale. "I kinda wish I was up there right now too."

Her lips pursed downward.

"What makes you think I want to be up there?"

"You're one of us. And we all want to be up there, all the time."

He spoke the truth of it and she wondered if things were easier for the women who couldn't Turn. She'd resisted the urge since arriving here, but now during the day with her senses heightened and the drákon in the sky, the draw became that of a notched arrow seconds from release.

"You're the Williams girl aren't you?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Well, at some point one has seen every good looking young woman in the shire, so someone new stands out."

She was positively tickled. The man was flirting with her. A smile crept across her face.

"As a matter of fact, I am the Williams' girl," she exclaimed, proudly.

"Is it true what they say?"

"Depends on what they say."

"That you are betrothed to the Earl?"

She let out a hearty laugh. "Do I look like a woman who would be betrothed to Kimber Langford?" She held out her arms motioning to her peasant's attire.

She watched the face of the vendor change from amused to serious, feeling that unmistakable shadow creep over her shoulders. He sunk back behind the meat as if to take shelter andSunniva mumbled an expletive under her breath.

"I didn't think noble Lords had reason to visit the market,” she said without turning. “They have servants for such tasks.”

“I gave them the day off,” he quipped, moving into her line of sight.

“How did you know I would be here?” She meant it as an accusation and it had come out just as intended.

“I didn't. I merely had an itch for a stroll and it was chance I saw you here,” he said, sending her a glance beneath his lashes.

Sunniva paid the meat vendor and, after placing the parchment-wrapped cut into her basket, headed towards the bakery with Kimber close at her side.

“Did I give you permission to escort me?”

“I most certainly am not escorting you," he retorted. "I didn’t realize I needed permission to walk near you as I go to the bakery. I have a hankering for something sweet.”

“Something sweet?” she asked incredulous, her brows raised.

“Yes,” he affirmed whimsically. “But if you prefer, I can attempt to appear a bit more inconspicuous.”

He linked his hands demonstrative behind his back and scuddled around like a penguin, inspecting a puddle that had gathered on the ground.

Niva scoffed and left him there, continuing on to the bakery only a few meters away.

It smelled strongly of yeast and a remnant puff of flour floated across her vision as she opened the door. She could feel Kimber lingering outside, quite possibly watching her through the window. She paid him no mind as she approached the counter where the baker stood.

“A loaf of rye and four of those soft rolls," she said, pointing at the bread.

She rummaged through the little leather pouch containing her coins and pulled out a handful. Before she could pay the man, the door opened letting a breeze in carrying the scent of silver-soaked moon.

“Good day Lord Langford,” bid the baker bowing low, ignoring Sunniva’s outstretched hand full of copper pennies.

“Good day, Davis," Kimber replied, shooting Niva a smile that was anything but contrite. "I’ll have four raspberry tarts, four Chorley cakes, two of those sausage pastries, and two mince pies. No make it four mince pies. Now let me see...”

He held his fingers to his chin contemplating his next purchase.

Sunniva looked at him exasperated. “I was here first, you know!”

Kimber met her eyes in mock astonishment. “Miss Williams! What a pleasant surprise! I didn’t know you would be here.”

“You are ridiculous!” she spat.

“I know,” he said with a playful smile. He turned back to the baker who was waiting waiting for his next order. “I think I’ll also take some parkin, enough for two, flies graveyard as well oh and some of those soft rolls that Miss Williams here has.”

“Of course my Lord,” replied the baker.

Kimber cocked a hip against the counter waiting for the baker to wrap up the rest of his wares. After being told the sum, Kimber tossed a gold coin on the counter. "I'd like to cover Miss Williams items as well."

"You most certainly will not!" she said slapping a few coins down.

"I'm sorry miss it's already been paid for," replied the baker.

"Oh don't be ridiculous. Give him his change and give me my bread!"

The baker looked with shock to Kimber for permission and after a single nod did as Sunniva demanded.

As Sunniva placed the bread into her basket Kimber tried to balance one item on top of the other in a cumbersome heap failing each time he gathered his things.

“It appears that I haven’t enough arms,” he remarked.

“It appears so,” she replied with raised brows.

There was mischief in eyes, gleaming from lid to lid. She couldn’t completely stifle a smile at his obviously contrived attempt to get her attention.

“You know, you seem to have plenty of space in that large basket of yours Miss Williams. Would be a shame for it to go to waste.”

“I still have to make it to the creamery,” she said, pointing with her thumb to the door.

“Come now, a mere wedge of cheese will barely make a difference. Your basket looks deep enough. I’ll even carry it.”

His mouth had taken on a determined slant with stiffened lips giving her the impression that he would not relent.

“Fine,” she huffed, eliciting a triumphant smile from Kimber.

She slung the basket into his chest and didn’t bother to help him pick up his own fallen pastries from the floor before walking out the door.

Kimber caught up to her quickly. He carried their purchases happily through the main street of the village, proudly even, like a wolf with a rabbit in its jaws.

“Don’t look so pleased with yourself,” Niva remarked, skirting a puddle that had collected in a patch of sunken cobblestones.

“Why not?”

“Think of that as a loan," she said, motioning to the basket, "not a privilege.”

“Only if you insist," he replied, offering her a smile.

"I do."

"Good thing then that the true privilege is being at your side.”

She decided not to grant him the courtesy of a retort.

The foot traffic on the streets was moderate for a Thursday afternoon. It gave each passerby ample space to skirt the Alpha and his companion.

Sunniva led him north up the main road, the most direct route she knew of out of the village. She took quick steps not particularly wishing to be seen with Kimber publicly, holding her basket no less. It would lead to gossip, which lead to speculation, which might give people the idea she was Alpha, a position others could wish to confirm.

If only they hadn’t gone by the tea house.

Patrons sat under the covered terrace drinking tea and enjoying delicate little cakes. Sunniva caught the eyes of a particular group of women, all of which quickly threw their gazes down into their cups.

That terrible beast unfurled its head not quite content with the freshly inflicted wounds.

Sunniva's stride slowed of its own accord and she couldn't help but stop and greet the women with a smug smile.

“Good day Lydia,” she said, forcing her to look up. Lydia wore a tucker tied high to cover her neck. Sunniva caught a hint of purple and blue skin barely exposed just under her chin.

“Good day Sunniva,” answered Lydia cordially.

Sunniva greeted the others by name as well. “Are you all acquainted with the Earl?”

“Yes,” answered Kimber, to Sunniva's surprise. He took each of their hands and exacted a courteous bow.

Sunniva had meant this all as a taunt to her recently defeated rivals, but when Kimber touched each of their delicate hands she felt a spark of annoyance, and had trouble quenching it.

"Those daisies are lovely, Lydia," said Kimber, remarking on the pressed flowers laced about the trim of her hat. "Are they from your garden?"

His eyes gleamed with something more than polite curiosity and Sunniva didn't like it one bit.

"Why yes Lord Kimber they certainly are," confirmed Lydia. "How kind of you to notice."

Sunniva's tense jaw slowly drifted opened.

"Who could miss such lovely flowers in summer in front of the Parish house?"

"I pressed quite a few for safe keeping in the Winter. I'd be happy to bring some by Chasen for your sister or mother."

"That would be delightful!"

Sunniva slipped her fingers around Kimber's arm from which her basket hung.

"Well, we wouldn't want to disturb your tea. Good afternoon!" she spat, quick and curt.

Kimber hardly had a moment to bid them farewell before being towed away.

She took him down a small side street running behind the tea house where the cobblestones were less frequent. The path was wide enough to allow strands of rays through highlighting a section of the street.

"If I didn't know any better I'd think you were bringing me to this back alley for a good mugging," said Kimber, enjoying her sudden fit of jealously.

"The thought did cross my mind."

"Are we in hurry?"

"No. Well, yes. I've got things to do at home."

Kimber deliberately slowed his paced despite her urging palm wedged between his arm and rib cage.

"Such as?"

Sunniva's wits failed her. She couldn't think of an appropriate excuse.

Kimber kept a smirk to himself, amused at her behavior. He thought better than to mention it.

"That was your handwork back there I presume?" he asked.

"Hmm?" she replied, as though she were baffled.

"Those women aren't known for dressing modestly."

Sunniva suddenly realized she still had hold of Kimber's arm and yanked her hand free.

"I've no notion of which you speak."

"Come now. Lydia's bruised jugular? Gheillis' carefully concealed black eye? The essence of damaged egos infusing that part of the tea house?"

"It's been rather rainy lately. Perhaps they tripped and fell into a door or something," she mentioned.

Kimber was still walking slowly, his pace matched by Niva.

"How clumsy of them," he remarked.

"Very clumsy indeed," she added particularly aloof.

"Lydia was always one to leave her throat exposed."

"Fine choice of words."

Kimber stopped in a dollop of light, the bright fall incandescence transforming his raven hair into near purple. "I'm not going to tell anyone you beat up some women."

She had no reason to tell him, but he already knew and against better judgment she decided to trust him with this.

"I didn't start it. They were picking on someone they shouldn't have been. I was simply defending her."

"Just you? Against six of them?" he asked with faked incredulity and a devilish smile. "That must have been a sight to see."

She raised her brows at this. "It's a good thing no one did."

"Yes. It certainly is."

Kimber's face held a genuine quality to it. A new-found comfort swelled within Sunniva and the animosity she held for him began to smolder away.

"For the unofficial record, Gheillis' black eye was not my doing," she added.

"That's very noble of you. Might I inquire as to whose it was?"

"Certainly not."

They took a turn down a narrow path where the old houses of red and green with exposed beams leaned towards each other like the tall trees bowing over the gravel path leading to Chasen Manor. It was then that Niva realized she wasn't leading Kimber and hadn't been for quite some time.

"Where are we going?"

"I'm not sure about you but all this walking has left me famished."

The path led to an open juncture with a large oak tree in the center surrounded by curved metal benches with an ivy motif.

"Care to join me?" he asked, gesturing towards the bench.

She blinked at him, head cocked, wondering how he'd managed to lure her there.

"Think of it this way," he said sitting down, "if we finish the food now then I'll no longer have need of your basket and you'll be rid of me faster."

It was clear he'd already settled on eating with or without her, his contents from the basket already being laid out. The treats he'd bought smelled delicious enhanced by the fact that Niva actually was hungry. They were all practically delicacies, ones that she couldn't make herself and wouldn't have been able to afford without forgoing the one meaty luxury she had a week.

"Unfortunately you make a good point," she admitted.

"Don't I though?"

He began unwrapping the food always offering some to her first, explaining what each was. It was in the middle of her third mince pie that she realized she'd had more of her share of pretty much everything. She looked up seeing his intent eyes filled with pleasure. Niva put the pie down which had a large bite missing.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Watching you enjoy yourself," he said, his rising cheeks formed little dimples. "I mean to court you, Niva."

She swiped her hands together and brushed any lose crumbs off her face.

Perhaps it was the warm bit of sun peaking out through the clouds gracing her face with warmth. Perhaps it was the contentment induced by a belly full of good food. Emboldened by the fact he knew perfectly well that she could Turn, she decided to forego speaking to him so carefully and with such omission. She figured as long as she didn't reveal in what capacity she could become dragon, there was no point insisting she couldn't.

"It won't work you know. I'm not going to Turn."

"Yet. Not yet. I can be quite persuasive. If given sufficient opportunity."

His dark eyes were hooded with long black lashes, an addictive shadow she'd tried so hard to hate. She tore herself from his gaze settling on the remaining food between them.

"It seems unwise to share your strategy with your conquest," she said, retrieving her half-eaten mince pie and popped the last portion into her mouth.

"Not at all. The object of my affection values honesty."

"She also values freedom." Sunniva looked up into the sky feeling that power above, like glowing metal raking across her skin. She clutched her hands to her knees as if to hold herself to the earth.

Kimber's eyes followed her glance.

"Yes. Sadly, we are dealt the cards in our hand.”

Sunniva angled her knees away from where he sat.

"Niva," he said, placing his hand overs hers, his fingers warm against her skin.

She halted her retreat enjoying for a moment that jolt his touch always sent through her. It took her back to the beginning when she had held him with a wild look and he’d returned it just as savage. When she’d thought him a prospective lover, but he had decided she was much more than that.

Sunniva ripped her hand from his grasp, his palm still on her knee.

"I did what I had to do. I had to bring you here. Our safety is and always has been dependent on our secrecy," he tried to explain.

"Ah. And I'm sure you needed to bed me in all my ignorance as well?"

His face grew grave and serious and he retracted his hand.

"No. That was a mistake. It's something I regret. Something I deeply apologize for."

Her face softened a bit, yet her legs were still pressed together, her posture defensive. Kimber wanted to reach for her again, but prudently decided against it.

"That truth of our kind is told to us since we were children: Alpha mates with Alpha."

"Seems an inappropriate bed-time story."

"Probably," he chuckled. "When I was young I believed it, seeing my parents together. And when I came of age, when it was expected of me to begin looking for a wife, I kept waiting for that pull, that undeniable draw to a woman. I would be Alpha so naturally it should have been easy to find my counterpart. I tried to become attached to many of them-"

"Was Lydia among them?" interrupted Niva on a sour note.

"Yes. She's strong and a leader. By many considered an Alpha."

"She's cruel and hurts for sport. She's no leader."

"Are you saying there is a better woman for the position?"

Sunniva avoided his intrigued look.

"Lydia didn't interest me anyway. Just like all the others she didn't draw me in the way I thought it was supposed to be."

Kimber scooted an inch towards Niva.

"When I met you that first time in the woods, when we kissed, it was indescribable and I wasn't prepared. That draw was greater than I could imagine. I lost myself. The more I was around you the more you bewitched me. I felt like I had to do anything to posses you."

Niva’s gaze rose to his and her lips set into a soft, demure bow. "Do you still feel that way?" she asked tentatively behind guarded lashes.

Kimber adjusted his posture, now coincidentally even closer to her,.

"Niva, there isn't a second that passes that I don't think of you. Not a minute that I don't crave you. And it doesn’t stop. I...do you know how hard it is to stay away from you? Every night when I fly over your sleepy little cottage that beast inside wants to slip into your window, under your covers."

As if not of his own volition, Kimber was now leaning closer to her, his eyes intent, his breath heavy.

"Too bad it gets ruddy cold in that cottage," she said, "no place for a noble Lord." It was a warning, a purposeful reminder of where he stood.

He'd startled her. He hadn't meant to. He pulled himself straight giving her some distance.

"I'm sorry. Truly I am. I'll never be able to erase those cruel words. I was angry and desperate. And..."

He shrugged his shoulders in defeat.

Niva drew her lower lip between her teeth and bit at the skin. She looked anywhere but the Earl, clutching her hands to her upper arms.

"Would it really be so dreadful to be with me?" he asked.

She shuffled a few lose pebbles on the ground with her foot.

"It's not just you. It's this place. This way of life. It's suffocating."

"You would have all the finery in the world. Any luxury would be at your finger tips. The sky would be yours within reason and within Darkfrith. I don't see-"

"You don't see because you've never left this place."

"I've been plenty to-"

"Yes, you've been plenty to London. London is a flea on the back of a dog."

She was gripping her arms so tight the muscles twitched. She forced her fingers to relax.

"Your women can't Turn. So many of your boys die trying. And not one of you thought that maybe something needs to change?"

"We've existed successfully this way for generations. We shall endure," he replied, stoutly. He almost believed the lie that so many of them clung to. Almost.

"No. No you won't."

She put her wrapped goods back in the basket and stood to leave.

"Niva, please. Don't go."

"I've got to get home."

"Can I at least walk you there?"

"No, Lord Langford, I can manage."

She turned on her heels and walked away leaving Kimber on the bench alone.

****

It had begun raining again and Sunniva was soaked through by the time she reached home.

Much to her surprise, Zoe Lane was waiting for her, pressed against the beams framing the door of the house; the only spot on the porch safe from the downpour.

"Hello Niva," greeted Zoe, cheerfully.

"Are we on a first name basis now?"

"I thought we were. I'd like to be."

"I don’t quite recall agreeing to it.” Niva watched Zoe frown with disappointment. She didn’t want to hurt her, she just felt it best to keep her at a distance.

“I saw Lydia and her gaggle today looking right at reign," she shared, wishing to lighten the tension. "Apparently high necklines and wide-brimmed hats are coming in. A taste for conservative fashion has arrived in Darkfrith." Her voice was dripping with sarcasm.

"Well it seems high time it did," replied Zoe just as smug and pleased to be apart of their secret.

The rain was now coming down so hard it sprayed a second mist and even Miss Lane was no longer safe huddled by the door.

"I assume you came for a reason. Best we go in then."

Sunniva was still trickling water all over the porch. “Untie me?”

"Don't you want to go inside first?" asked Zoe.

"And get the clean floor dirty? Not on your life," she replied.

Zoe undid the sash at her waist and helped peel the layers from Niva stopping once she was wearing only her stockings and boots. Niva bent over and tore those off as well. She took each item of dripping clothing, wrung them out and draped them over her arm.

"You have no shame do you?" asked Zoe.

"There is no one around. Don't you feel that?"

Zoe closed her eyes and concentrated. It was something she had never been very good at, despite its use. Rhys had tried repeatedly to teach her, only for it to end in argument. But strangely, ever since the incident at her seemstressy she'd begun to feel an intense presence of those around her.

"And no," added Niva, drawing Zoe back. "I don't have any shame. But I am cold so-" she opened the door to the cottage" -shall we?"

Zoe sat down at a small chair near the fire place in the front room. "I don't suppose you have any tea?" she called out to Niva, who had retreated to one of the bedrooms.

"No. It costs too much and I don't like it," she called out.

"That's a shame." Zoe smoothed her damp skirts while she waited. The wrinkles sprung back each time she lifted her hand. She’d have to take an iron to them later.

Sunniva returned with her hair combed and slick against her head. She was barefoot and wore only a nobleman's coat.

It was Kimber's.

Zoe knew the full-skirted knee-length cut which on Niva’s hung to mid-calf. She had sewn small pearls with a golden thread to the inner seam and had a devil of a time making the tails hang properly.

“Is your wardrobe running low?” asked Zoe, with something of a suggestion. She had given Niva two dresses and wondered where the other was.

Sunniva gathered a few logs from the carrier, sank to her knees in front of the fireplace and began placing the wood in a conical fashion. “No,” she replied, not entirely convincing. “I’m just still wet is all. I’d have a dickens of a time trying to pull wool onto my slick skin,” she said, retrieving a tinderbox from the mantle.

She stuffed a bit of tinder beneath a few small twigs and the fire caught after the first strike. Even the larger logs became quickly consumed in flame.

“Learn that on the road?” Zoe asked.

“It’s a skill that comes in handy,” replied Niva. "So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?" she asked, sitting down across from Zoe. She didn’t cross her legs and Kimber’s coat concealed a great deal more when she was standing.

“No shame at all,” Zoe quipped.

“None whatsoever.”

To which Zoe shrugged.

"My sister Celise is getting married, did you know?"

"I don't really keep up with the matrimonial what-nots of the shire."

"I fathomed as much. I'd like to cordially extend you an invitation."

"Me?" asked Niva, perfectly perplexed.

"Yes."

"At a wedding?"

"Yes," confirmed Zoe once more.

"You can't be serious."

"I have never been more serious."

"Why would you invite me?"

"Because I've no one else to go with."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Niva, it's true. I've no desire to go with a man and I've no other friends except you."

Niva shot her with a pair of slitted eyes thinking of ulterior motives. "Are we friends now?" she asked suspiciously.

"We are entangled in each other's secrets. Is that not a good basis for friendship?" queried Zoe, genuinely hopeful.

Niva bristled. "It's also a good basis for a peace treaty between warring countries."

Zoe huffed and stood to leave. "Fine. If you don't want to go then just say so. I just thought...never mind."

She lifted her skirts and stepped towards to door, her heeled boots loud against the oak floor.

"You thought what?"

Zoe paused and pivoted back towards her. "You've been here for what? Four months now? You only come out to go shopping once a week. You don't know anyone of the tribe apart from Kimber and myself. I thought you might like to experience something other than sitting in this cottage, hiding from everyone. I thought maybe it would be nice for you to see that we aren't all just talons and teeth and brute force. There is tenderness and love and laughter. Even for women like us."

Niva gripped the arms of her chair. When she'd first learned of Kimber's betrayal and realized Darkfrith was a prison, she had no interest in contact with others. She didn't need anything tying her to this place and, apart from her father, preferred leaving no one to miss her.

The toxin of isolation was beginning to permeate. The unfortunate truth was that she had come to enjoy Zoe's company and, though it pained her to admit it, she even, just a few hours ago, had enjoyed Kimber's as well.

Despite all that, she could use this to her advantage. The appearance of permanent seclusion might cast even more suspicion upon her. What if Kimber became fearful and stationed guards again? What if the council decided to question her more? Her best chance was, for only appearances sake, show interest in the customs practices of “her” people until she could finally flee.

"Alright. I'll go," she reluctantly agreed.

Zoe's tense face relaxed into a joyous smile.

"Splendid. The date isn’t nailed down yet but I will let you know as soon as I can. I can lend you a dress. Unfortunately you will have to wear a corset."

"Perhaps I've been too hasty in my agreement."

"Too late Niva dear. Too late."

Zoe stood to leave. The rain pelted against the windows as if the devil were knocking.

"Where are you going? You can't go out in that mess!" insisted Niva.

"Well, some of us came prepared!" Zoe produced a canvas parasol Niva hadn't noticed before.

It would do nothing to protect her from rain slanting sideways.

“Zoe, wait,” Niva said before she reached the door. “Stay a while. At least till the rain lets up. Maybe I can scrounge up something resembling tea.”

Zoe set the parasol down by the door. "Hang your poor man’s tea. If you'd like, I could maybe whip up some scones."

"That sounds...yes, I would like that."

Chapter Text

The wedding ended up taking place mid-December.

Zoe dolled Niva up in a white jeweled gown with a violet velvet overdress with a fur wrap to match. Her shoulder length hair was still too short to style fashionably and she refused to wear a wig so Zoe pinned it up as best she could. It was, however, now long enough to accentuate a femininity that Niva had always seemed hell bent on concealing.

After much discussion and convincing on Zoe’s part, Niva wore her mother's fine pearl as well.

They’d arrived early to the chapel Sunniva found herself tying up dried agastaches and chrysanthemums to the pews. She felt a downright domestic fool decorating for wedding, but refusing to help seemed cruel.

"I didn't realize I would be put to work," complained Niva.

"It's part of the experience," replied Zoe. "Make sure the flowers aren't too slumped over."

Sunniva fluffed the blooms upwards frowning each time they slumped back down.

The guests eventually filed in, the families sitting in the front, the higher standing members of the tribe in the middle and everyone else in the back. Sunniva had no illusions as to where she should stand.

The balls of her feet began to hurt and her toes seemed crushed inside the high-heeled pumps she was forced to endure. Finally, after a long bout of waiting and restless whispers, the deep tones of a cello cued up.

The first to enter were the Alphas. Lord Christoph and Lady Rue Langford looked every bit as imperial as the leaders of beasts should, with his eyes glinting green and hers a glaring gold scanning the room taking an account of their subjects. After a thorough perusal they settled at the front facing forward where an altar might be in a traditional church.

The bride came next wearing a virginally-white taffeta gown clutching a bouquet of dried autumn flowers matching those on the pews. Sunniva had half imagined a trussed woman being dragged screaming and wailing all the way to the alter, but instead she walked willingly with a smile on her face that seamed to stretch forever. The groom looked just a smitten bringing up the tail end of the wedding party, the last to stand before the leaders of the tribe.

A great, round stained-glass window glittered behind them all letting the sun's glorious rays pour through. It wasn't a depiction of some biblical story, but rather streaks of magnificent figures in magenta and vibrant saffron and dazing puce laid in glass of blue and murky white. They could have been comets or simply tree tops shedding their leaves in autumn, but everyone in the chapel knew what they represented.

The Alpha removed something from his pocket and placed it in the hands of the betrothed. It was a stone purring a seductive melody. The pair held it tightly with Lord Langford's hands closed around theirs, who began to speak.

A clear and commanding recitation of ritual words delivered in an authoritative manner filled the serenity of the room, yet Niva couldn’t seem to listen to the words. The tiniest minutiae of ongoings in the little chapel pulled her attention instead. Kerchiefs were brought to weepy eyes, a fussy babe was brought to the bare breast and soothed. A boy, likely bored to mischief, contemplated tugging a ribboned braid dangling just in reach from a girl sitting in front of him until his mother swatted his hand.

Niva picking out a few heads she recognized. Rhys Langford sat three pews behind Zoe Lane and – Niva suspected – stared intently at back of her head. She felt a pang of guilt knowing she stood in the way of their matrimony. The guilt dissipated as quickly as it had come when she noticed the council members sitting to the younger son’s left and right, necks stiff and head adorned with ridiculous sausage curls.

No, she thought, it is they who stand the way.

A kiss was made and a cacophony of cheers rang through the stone of the little chapel. The newly wedded pair walked arm in arm back down the aisle followed by the family. The pews emptied gradually, the guests filtering outside. Sunniva got swept out in the wave dragged by an undercurrent of sorts behind the wedding party making their way to Chasen manor for the celebration.

Zoe found her eventually, bounding up to her with a bouquet of flowers cradled in one arm. There was snow on the ground and the ice had already been packed down into a path by foot traffic.

"What did you think?" Zoe asked.

"It was all over very quickly," said Niva.

"Well, the reception won't be over that quickly.”

Niva squeezed her lips together.

“Sorry to disappoint," added Zoe unapologetic.

"I'll just have to bare it, then."

Zoe linked her free arm with Niva's and pulled her forward.

“I didn’t see Kimber there,” Niva remarked as coy as she could manage, which wasn’t very. “Joan and Rhys came. I figured the Alpha family was expected at weddings.”

Zoe shot her a sly smile. “Rhys has known my family for years and Joan is rather close with Celise. Only the Alphas are required, or should I say ‘invited by default’. Who else would perform the ceremony?”

Niva’s hit a patch of ice and – to the fault of her fashionably heeled boot which she was unaccustomed to - stumbled against Zoe.

Zoe, to Niva’s surprise, pulled her with a strong arm upright.

“Why on earth did they decide to get married in Winter?" complained Niva. "I thought weddings were summer occasions.”

Zoe looked conspiratorially around and pulled her close. “They’ve been married for two months now,” she said in near on a whisper. “This is all just for fun and show. And speaking of showing,” she added with an excited giggle, “I’m surprised you didn’t notice. You’re usually so perceptive.”

Niva looked around at the surrounding faces checking for eavesdroppers, then back at Zoe astonished. “Anyone could hear you you know. You’re louder than an chickadee in spring,” she hissed.

Zoe gave her a tight squeeze. “It’s not like it's actually a secret. It's a joyous thing really. Besides, the match has been approved for ages by the Alpha and the council,” she added as if to brag. “That’s all that matters here.”

Niva gave a snort at that. “I’m surprised the council doesn’t insist on supervising the coupling as well, the way they lord around here.”

“Shh,” snapped Zoe, giving Niva a more aggressive squeeze before glancing cautiously around. “Now that is something I would not say even in a whisper.”

The glint of unhindered sunlight on smooth ice drew Niva’s eyes forward where councilman Grady was looking back with reprimanding eyes. She looked right back, chin up, eyes raised until he faced forward again.

The guests filed into the ballroom which, like everything in Chasen, was grand beyond measure. It jutted out from the manor into a section of the gardens and was lined with tall, arching windows. Decorative columns and ivy motifs adorned the walls covered with gilt whose golden light reflected on a polished floor. On the far end were groupings of small tables for dining each adorned with a candelabras that matched the room. They were split down the middle by a much larger table where the food would be served as a buffet.

Punch was served first with little cakes and canapes. Sunniva took handfuls of both garnering a scornful look to the valet holding the tray. She didn't pay him any mind, shoving the food into her mouth as fast as she could chew.

"Just be sure to wipe the crumbs off the dress when you're done,” instructed Zoe.

"And if I soil it beyond repair?" asked Niva with garbled words as she shoved a puffy pastry between her teeth.

"You will become the proud owner of your very first expensive ball gown," warned Zoe.

"Lucky me. I suppose I'll have to be careful then," replied Niva, carefully flicking away the mess.

After a small speech by the groom, servants brought out roasted meats on massive platters lined with roasted vegetables.

The two women skirted the perimeter of the dance floor, moving closer to the tables laden with silver trays beaming with steam.

A line formed and Sunniva found herself behind an older gentleman with paling blonde hair. The line moved slowly and Niva felt her stomach grip in anticipation as they neared the food.

"Liver?" the older gentleman asked holding a long serving fork, from which hung a slab of cooked flesh.

"Please!" replied Niva, with big eyes.

The man slapped the meat onto her plate and then retrieved a second cut and slapped that one on as well. The sconces on the wall danced a line of light across the length of the silver fork making Niva's eyes gleam with delight.

The gentleman gave her a wink and said, "for good measure," as kind as could be.

Sunniva felt the warmth in her cheeks and her lips twitched into a smirk. She didn’t know what to say so she gave into the smile, letting her cheeks reach her lashes.

As she moved down the length of the table she piled her plate, not sure what she might like best.

“The food will be out for a while,” explained Zoe, noticing Niva’s predicament. “You can always get more.”

At the revelation Niva decided to forgo a goose leg and followed Zoe to their dining table.

The atmosphere began downright ravenous with people returning for a second and sometimes third helping. There was a special table reserved for the Alphas who were being served instead of fetching their own food. Christoph Langford laughed raucously at a joke told by someone at the nearby and Rue chattered with a few of the ladies she had summoned to sit with her.

As the trips to the buffet slowed, people moved on to drink which flowed in copious quantities giving the ballroom a more raucous air.

Conversations increased in volume spurred on by alcohol as well as competition with their neighbors to be heard. Sunniva caught a familiar voice in an impassioned discussion nearby. It was Joan sitting with her knees touching a man with hair of burnt copper.

Don't understand me wrong darling I don't want you any other way but as the sweetling you are.

Niva heard the sound of wet, sloppy kisses.

But if my brother is to make a display worthy of Alpha, he should have taken the Williams girl and showed the council to their faces that she his is mate.

Sunniva put her hands on her thighs and rose. A hand grasped her wrist.

"Niva, it's not worth it let it go," came the voice of reason.

"I can't Zoe. But I promise I won't break her. Physically anyways."

Zoe watched her in terror as Sunniva weaved around the half-filled tables, the length of her gown flipping back and forth as she skirted the chairs.

The couple hadn't noticed Niva standing there, too consumed nuzzling their noses together and dancing their fingers on each other's thighs.

"What did you say?" barked Niva loud enough to startle them, but not enough to draw outward attention. Joan looked up at her sending a whiff of strong wine her way.

"It's very rude to eavesdrop," she garbled.

"It's hard not to hear when you're as loud a cow," spat Niva.

Joan's curled back her lips and might have flashed dangerous eyes, but as it was she was drunk and her eyes remained an unfocused green.

"Then to make sure you didn't miss anything, I said I can't understand why Kimber didn't just bind you and force your hand. So what if you can Turn or not. If he decides it, you belong to him."

Niva examined at the young man who looked down bashfully. His coat hung from his chair with fraying seams and a tear to the lining. His pants hung baggy likely borrowed from his father or a relative and one side hung looser than the other. Niva realized he was missing a leg from the knee down.

Her eyes snapped back to Joan.

"Are you too stupid to realize you enjoy this luxurious life because you were born to Alphas that allow you a semblance of freedom?”

Joan looked back at her with a sneer. "It's the way things are. Besides it doesn't really affect me so I don't give a snit."

Niva's mouth hung wide at her arrogance and lack of empathy. Perhaps it was the liquor speaking - which Niva hoped it was - but she still had to say something.

"If another took over-" Niva paused and considered what she might say. She’d have to use brutal words to make her point . "If another challenged the Alpha, if he ripped your father's throat out who do you think he might perceive as his mate? Most likely the only unwed woman in the shire who can Turn. He'd drag you into his bed hooded and trussed and force himself between your pried open legs no matter how much you begged. No matter how much you screamed. No matter how much you didn't want it. He'd rape you until he got you got with child. Who knows, maybe you'd be lucky. Maybe he has eyes for your sister instead. He'd kill her husband first since he can't mate a married woman. Then he'd rip the babes from her breast and force her into his bed to secure his own new dynasty. And who would stop him?" she said her eyes resting on her companion's missing leg. "After all, he'd be within his right, performing his duty as your kind has deemed necessary for centuries. As you still, in your privilege, find acceptable to uphold. You'd better pray that your brother does become Alpha when your father no longer can."

Joan had gone a new shade of pale and her suitor looked down.

"Now I'd thank you to keep your voice down. In fact, you're drunk and perhaps you need sleep instead!" As Niva spoke the words her chest rumbled, as if the sound reverberated against stone walls.

Like a stout command, Joan nodded her head meekly and helped her companion rise.

"Niva, you've got more nerve than a cat in a hen house," said Zoe once Niva had returned to her seat.

"Have you ever seen a cat? Much less a chicken?"

Zoe thought for a moment. "Only on my plate... chickens I mean. But I do read and it's a common idiom."

“Far be it for me to suggest experience replace books,” replied Niva with a wave of her hand.

A pair of fiddlers in the west corner struck up a jaunty tune rousing a few already loosened by wine and ale to their feet.

The clapping of hands and stomping of practiced feet made Sunniva sit up as pairs swiveled around each other.

“Want to try it?” asked Zoe, referring to the currently-danced forlana.

“You must have had far too much wine to think I’d join in that atrocity.” Niva said, pointing a lazy finger at the dance floor.

“I’ve not had a drop,” said Zoe in her own defense, “but I suspected as much.” She let out a defeated sigh. “Then we shall just sit here as two sullen maids since no one will ask you to dance with that ready-to-bite-heads-off posture and, based off of prior experience, they certainly won’t ask me either.”

“Oh I don’t know,” replied Niva, unconvinced. “Rhys Langford looks awfully intent and appears to be coming this way.”

Zoe jerked her head up to, surely enough, see Rhys approaching.

"May I have this dance?" he asked in the heavy, seductive voice all the Langford men seemed to posses.

Niva was briefly reminded of Kimber and glanced past Rhys only to recall that the Earl hadn’t been invited to the wedding.

Zoe's eyes grew wide in disbelief as Rhys Langford stood before her with a proffered hand.

"Um, my Lord?" she stuttered.

"Well don't sit there gaping, Zoe, he asked if you wanted to dance," said Sunniva, practically pushing her off her chair with a solid palm.

Zoe shot Rhys a curious scowl and his lips twitched a grin in return.

"I'll be fine here by myself," said Sunniva in another fit of encouragement.

Zoe accepted the invitation gathering up her silk skirts to join Rhys Langford in a lively cotillion.

Sunniva, legs ironically tired from sitting, took a place off to the side to watch Zoe enjoy herself. A content smile flitted over her lips seeing both of them put up the facade of ‘practically strangers’ and attempt to hide their smirks.

Niva wondered what had possessed Rhys to ask Zoe to dance in such a public forum when a glass of cold champagne was pressed into her hand. She glanced to her left to see the marchioness standing there holding one herself.

“Forgive the distraction. I didn’t wish to leave Miss Lane unattended. Come. Join me at my table.”

The marchioness wore a gown with embroidered green and gold floral with a standing collar.

Despite the champagne still untouched, Niva noted a sour taste in her mouth that hadn’t been there moments before and she tightened her lips. “Is that a request or a command?” She’d never spoken directly with Lady Langford, but considered her an adversary as she did the council all the same.

“You don’t take well to commands do you?”

“Lady Langford,” Niva said, making certain she had her attention, “probably less so than you even.”

Rue studied her for a moment with a grave face. Sunniva noted the shape of her nose and twist of her lips, clear from whom Kimber had inherited some features.

The side of Lady Langford's mouth slipped into an upward curve - amusement or something sinister, Niva couldn’t tell.

“Let’s begin it as a request," said Lady Langford politely.

Niva curled her fingers tightly around the fluke, chilling her fingers to icicles. The room was filled with prominent dragons and though she found it difficult to decline a challenge, a scene would be disastrous. She feigned a swig and suppressed a face at the taste despite not having swallowed.

"After you, Lady Langford," she said, holding out an inviting hand.

Rue coiled her arm around Niva's, forcing her to walk at her side.

The table had been vacated and no one would dare there without an Alpha's explicit permission. Lord Langford was at the opposite end of the ballroom speaking to one of the gameskeepers, giving them relative privacy. Plan or coincidence, thought Niva.

"How are you fairing since you've arrived in Darkfrith?" asked Rue as they both sat.

"Perfectly well Lady Langford thank you for asking."

"And how are you actually fairing?" she asked, her volume much lower.

Niva refrained from granting her an answer.

"I can't expect you to give me an honest opinion of any of it, really."

"It is unfortunate how you came to be here. And it's unfortunate how my son treated you. Were he still a boy I might have beaten him, but then again young boys are interested in making mischief, not searching for mates."

Lady Langford brought the champagne fluke just to her lips, if only to moisten them.

"Our males can be quite aggressive. And once an Alpha chooses a mate-" she paused for the right words. "No, that phrasing would be disingenuous. When their own nature compels them to take a certain woman they are nearly helpless to resist. Nearly."

Niva scowled at her own drink drawing her lips into a tight line.

"I was a runner once, my escape flawless. It took nine years to be discovered and the Alpha was forced to hunt me." She glanced across the room, her eyes falling lovingly on her husband.

"He didn't even know who I was at first, much less that I was a woman. The first one to Turn in over four generations,” Rue shared less proudly than expected. “Can you imagine his desperation? Or the desperation of the council?”

Niva shifted unconfortably in her seat.

"After much ado, Kit,” continued Rue, deliberately using her husband’s short name, “ultimately gave me a choice: come back here with him or disappear with my freedom forever. That's a powerful thing to give as someone responsible for a species facing extinction."

It was something Niva had never considered. The harsh rules and rigid structure perhaps a result of a people determined to survive. She didn’t get the impression that the marchioness was sharing this with nefarious intent, but what her purpose was had yet to be revealed.

"And yet you're here," noted Sunniva.

"And yet I'm here," confirmed Rue. She took a real sip this time from her champagne. "I chose to come back. I won't deny that love had something to do with it. He drew me, as Alphas are naturally drawn to each other.”

Rue’s expression grew grave. “But I also made that sacrifice so our sons and daughters-" she added a gesture emphasizing every one in the room "-could have something better than what my husband and I were born into."

“Forgive me, Lady Langford. I wasn’t born here so I couldn't judge whether there have been any improvements,” she said sounding slightly brittle.

Rhys waltzed by tugging a grinning Zoe with. Both women watched them – Lady Langford with a tickled smile and Niva curiously – as the two flitted away across the dance floor.

"I'd consider it a failing as a mother to not recognize when my sons are in love."

Niva studied Rue with apprehension. "This is the first time they've danced. How could you possibly think that is love?"

Rue shot her a quick side glance.

"The Lane girl. She's quite pretty. Exotically beautiful in fact. Very sweet too. Hardly looks like her sister. Older though and still unwed. Curious.”

She brought a tapping finger to her lips and drew her eyes to Sunniva.

“Kimber courted her, did you know? Well, they went on a walk once anyways, only for him to return complaining of utter boredom. I honestly was eager to see when his younger brother had the nerve to break with a useless convention."

Lady Langford’s face reached a subtle intensity as if to say something without words.

"She reminds me of myself as a young woman. The only woman in an entire tribe with a Gift. I know what it's like to hide. I know that face because for years I saw it staring back at me every time I looked in that polished tin I had for a mirror."

Niva tried not to betray the realization that Lady Langford knew what Zoe was.

Rue's eyes softened a bit.

"But on you, that face doesn't fit. You've tried it on like a mask, many times, but it never looks quite right. The base is too small or the feathers far too quaint to contain that terrible beast. Some quality that just doesn’t fit.”

Rue placed a soft hand on Niva’s arm.

“Maybe that quality that Miss Lane and I lack is exactly what's needed. It's exactly what I lacked when I took my place at Kit's side. I applaud your courage. And I applaud your discipline since you've been here. But you must know there are other ways to resist."

The marchioness seemed so confident and dauntless when they'd sat down. But now, with her eyes wide and pleading, she looked like a spectator in a zoo watching as wild animals paced around their cages, and despite her desire to free them, could not find the key.

Sunniva realized that Lady Langford was not her enemy. She was a wife, a mother, and a leader who longed for change. But her words were so riddled - rightly so in a room full of dragons - that Sunniva had trouble parcing her true meaning.

Rue's head snapped up as Lord Langford approached. She returned to calm composure as smoothly as polished pearls.

"My love," she cooed, with an outstretched hand covered in jeweled rings.

Her husband bent down placing a lasting kiss on her lips, one she eagerly returned. He stood up straight and gave Niva a lordly nod, slow and with little incline of the head.

"Miss Williams, a pleasure to have you here. I hope I'm not interrupting."

He glanced back at wife, as if they shared a deep secret.

"Not at all Lord Langford. We were just finished," replied Sunniva standing to leave.

"Do stay,” he directed in a polite tone. “The cakes will be brought out in moments. I can already smell the icing."

Niva inhaled smelling nothing, wondering if his nose was actually that acute or if the timing was just right.

"I'll consider it a tactical advantage," she said, sinking to her seat. "Sitting here I won't have to break any noses to get the largest piece."

The Alphas both broke into genuine laughter.

The sun now hung low in the horizon flooding the large windows with light, stretching through the ballroom like the hand of a goddess reaching for her lover. It wouldn't be long before the night came and since Niva had no forests to traverse and the moon would be in full bloom - she'd counted thrice and carefully - she saw little risk in leaving after sundown.

In the middle of an indeed very large slice of a cake, Niva felt an indicative crepitus beneath her flushed skin. Her head snapped up, her eyes scanning the room. Beyond the dancing, behind young maidens flaunting their necks at prowling men, near a side set of doors was a hint of darkness, of shadow slipping by the guests along the western wall.

He was coming closer and closer and Niva wondered how contrived her current seat at the Alpha's table was. But as she met his eyes she found only surprise and curiosity.

Kimber looped around behind the table as if to keep his appearance as minimal as possible.

"My Lady. My Lord," he addressed his parents in the formal fashion. "Miss Williams," he said with a low bow.

"What are you doing here?" she asked curiously.

"He's come to retrieve The Lover's Blood," Lord Langford said reaching into his pocket.

"The...what?"

Christoph placed a stone into Kimber's open palm, which he then held before Sunniva to see.

It was a ruby as big as a chestnut, unpolished and hauntingly red proving its name had been apt.

"It must be returned to it's resting place with the others," stated Kimber.

"Others?" Niva asked suspecting there were more unique stones just like this one.

"Throughout our history the drákon have acquired a collection of powerful gems”, clarified Rue.
“They belong to the tribe, but it is the responsibility of the Alpha family to guard them.”

"Kimber, perhaps it would be prudent to show Miss Williams. After all, she is a member of the tribe," suggested Lord Langford with a scheming smirk.

"I think that is a fine idea," added Lady Langford.

"Only with Miss Williams permission of course," said Kimber.

Niva looked across the dance floor at the celebration in full swing. Rhys and Zoe were still tightly embraced and didn’t as though they might separate any time soon. Niva had no longer had an obligation to stay and the Alpha family - whether through careful cunning or coincidence – had her trapped with her own piqued curiosity.

"With all these thirsty dragons here, perhaps you could use an escort. A drunken ball is a dangerous place for a treasured gem."

She smiled and offered him her hand, which he gladly took.


Chapter Text

They left the way Kimber came slinking behind the guests and out the side.

Though the roar of the party was still loud it had become muffled behind closed doors and Niva found a fresh peace in that. A certain tension slowly worked its way out of her body and Kimber must have noticed rubbing his thumb over the span of her knuckles.

It would have been prudent for her to retract her hand, but she found the cool touch of his finger tips pleasant.

“It seems odd that you wouldn’t be invited to a wedding that is held in your own home,” remarked Niva.

“The wedding took place in the chapel," corrected Kimber. "The celebration is taking place in the Alpha's home."

"A technicality,” she said with a dismissive hand. “You’re practically Alpha. Won’t this be your home some day?"

"It seems the most likely outcome. Still, I'd rather not intrude without due cause."

The west gallery, which connected the ball room to the grand hall, was already lit brightly, the firelight casting thick lines of darkness only under each protruding board of the wainscotted wall. The floor was covered in a thick carpet runner allowing healed shoes a bit of respite.

Kimber walked at a deliberate pace and gave nods to each servant that passed.

"I certainly didn't expect you to be there," mentioned Kimber.

Sunniva gave him a coy smile still unsure. "I thought you had recognized that I appreciate honesty."

"Certainly,” he affirmed. “I truly never expected to walk in to find you. In conversation with my parents no less."

Sunniva’s eyes twitched up. "Is it really that surprising?"

Kimber glanced upward for a moment in thought. "No. I suppose it's not."

"What did they summon you there for?" he carefully asked.

Sunniva cocked her head and smiled. "You really didn't organize some elaborate scheme to get me alone with a stone that sings something seductive," she stated to confirm what she’d surmised.

"Is it working?" he asked, sounding puckishly hopeful.

"Of course not," she insisted, locking onto him with resolute eyes.

For the most part it was true, but she did find the impulse to move closer to Kimber a bit disconcerting, a fact she would never reveal. She remembered him mentioning an awareness of her arousal and snapped her head back forward.

"That’s a shame,” he said, giving the ruby a wipe over with his thumb. “It's said to act as an aphrodisiac. Appropriate for a drákon wedding don't you think?"

"Hmm. Seems by the time drákon couples get to the chapel it's a bit late for that," she quipped, aluding to the fact that the bride was already pregnant. Kimber replied only with a voiceless laugh.

The servants were no longer as frequent this far into Chasen and only the occasional guard stood at doorways opening them with a bow when the two neared.

Niva waited till a pair of doors was closed behind them still on an earlier train of thought. "It was your mother who invited me to her table."

“Oh?” he replied with inquisitive eyes.

“Your father was certainly not ignorant of it all.”

“What did she say?” Kimber asked with authentic inquiry.

Niva wasn’t sure if Kimber knew what had been confirmed to her that evening at the Alpha’s table; his parents knew she could Turn and encouraged a union with their son. But Rue had said much more and Sunniva wasn’t finished contemplating her words.

She settled on a vague reply. "She gave me...something to chew on."

The smell of stale air seemed a permanent fixture just outside the entrance to the undercroft. Two surly men stood at either side of a pair of battened, oak doors. Even with their entrance still barred, Niva could the hear songs coming from the depths like the one emitting from the jewel in Kimber’s hand. They were faint and hard to make out, more like echos than actual music.

"My Lord?" one of the guards asked looking at Sunniva.

"She has consent from the Alpha," replied Kimber.

The man nodded, produced an iron key and drew back the left door, the opening just wide enough for them to fit through individually. Kimber released Niva's hand and stepped just inside and emerged with a small lantern which one of the guards lit it for him.

He took Niva's hand again, this time with his fingers laced between hers, and gently tugged her forward.

Not a conscious decision, but rather an instinctual reaction, she gave him a stringent resistance as she got just past the door. Her heart raced as she looked past the light of the lantern into the dark abyss.

"How deep does it go?" she asked.

"Deep," he answered. "But there are no minotaurs I can promise you that," he said in jest, attempting at humor to ease her.

She squeezed out a chuckle to hide her fear, but a quiver stemming from her lungs betrayed her. "I wouldn't be so sure," she replied. She forced herself to move forward and jumped when the door was closed, a loud scraping of metal as the key was turned. Kimber gave her fingers a firm squeeze.

Locked in a cave with a dubious source of light in the presence a powerful dragon who desired her, Niva began to doubt her own soundness of mind. What had she expected when he offered to show her the family jewels?

The air grew mustier with each step as they moved down a narrow corridor. The walls hadn’t been built with stone and mortar, rather carved out of the limestone and resembled more of a blanket of draping vines over a pergola than the precise, supportive archways of a catacomb.

The occasional offshoot passed by like a ghost flitting away in the faint light of the candle, disappearing as fast as it had come.

Niva wondered what else was kept hidden in this place. She involuntarily gripped Kimber’s hand tightly and pressed closer to his candle. With only a sliver of flickering flame, even her simplest of illusions was damn hard down here in the bowels of the earth.

"I never expected you to be afraid of a little darkness," smirked Kimber.

Not finding any of it amusing, she shot him a curt glance. "I'd hardly call this a little. And it's not the darkness I fear."

"Ah. Plunging into the depths of a dragon's lair, with the dragon no less?"

"Something like that." Exactly like that.

Her hands had gone clammy and despite the cool conditions, a few beads of sweat gathered at her hairline.

"I suppose then you're braver than is to be expected," he jested.

"Or foolish," she added.

The music was no longer a muffled melody, but thrummed loud in Niva’s blood, pressing against her veins. The tunes were all off and did nothing to compliment each other, as if each stone fought fiercely to drown out the others.

"I heard these songs. When I was here at Chasen."

"Impressive. Even at these depths many still cannot hear them."

“These depths? How much farther to go?”

He didn’t answer, only gave her an ambiguous smile and trekked on.

It took another ten minutes for them to reach the last chamber where they were met by a door of iron a few feet thick. Kimber pulled a key from his coat and handed Niva the lantern, as well as the Lover’s Blood. He had to lift the door while pushing to get it to open, an endeavor he made seem effortless.

The air was thick with moisture down here and it caught in Niva’s lungs with each exhale. She carefully handed the lantern back to Kimber and followed him into the chamber.

Sconces holding thick wax candles lined the room, which Kimber, starting by the entrance, lit one by one from his lantern.

With the relief of more light which also was no longer stemming from a single, unreliable source, Niva felt at liberty to take her eyes from the flame and gave the room a look around.

Ten fingers of stone jutted up from the earthen floor like pedestals. They didn't seemed carved but rather summoned out of the Earth. In the middle was another of similar fashion with a wider basin at the top, like the heart of a stone giant.

Kimber retrieved the Lover’s Blood from Niva with a simper and returned it to its resting place.

"So this is the treasure of the tribe?" she queried.

"Yes. Not a cache of gold and little jewels, but a few singular gems. Some we have riddled out. Others have attributes of legend, but don’t seem quite as powerful as our ancestors claim. And a few remain a mystery."

Kimber moved to a translucent jade the size of a fist.

"This one here is The Serpent’s Bane. It’s thought to bring prowess in battle. Though its last bearer was taken from power by my great-grandfather so I’d be doubtful. They say the fights was unforgettable."

Kimber lingered for a while gauging her expression. When she barely flinched a brow he went to the next stone.

"We call this Ruhe. It sooths a troubled mind. But only a mind that seeks the calm."

Niva gave him a polite smile and nothing more.

"But the most prescious," he said stepping to the center of the room where a blue diamond lay in sacred solitude glinting firelight into cerulean, "is Herte. The Heart of the Tribe." He caressed the stone with the tips of his fingers and closed his eyes.

"Huh," was all Niva said. Kimber opened his eyes and blinked at her.

"It can bring a dragon back from the brink of death," he explained in defense of the stone's value.

"That sounds very special indeed," she said in an attempt to gratify him, though not convincingly.

Disappointed he admitted, "I wished to impress you."

"I am but...I don't think I'm drawn to stones like your people are. I hear them, yes. And their music is fine. But I don't have a need to touch them or plaster them all over my body."

Kimber looked at Niva’s pearl hanging just above her breasts.

"Our people."

"Kimber, I know you want me to find happiness here, but-"

She didn't know how to explain it to him and settled for a huff.

"Is there nothing here that brings you happiness?”

“Happiness,” she whispered thoughtfully.

There were certainly lovely aspects about this place, people and kinship both for which she had grown fond of. She fought hard to keep them from muddling her plans, but they crept into her heart like clouds seeping over the moon. It just simply wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be enough.

"Have you ever felt something tug at your senses? It's not just a scent or sound it's something much more encompassing. It just feels right to go where it leads, an ache to see what that enticement might be?"

“Yes”, Kimber answered, with one such enticement standing just in front of him. “I have.”

Niva’s face lit up, hopeful. “And what did you find?”

“Nothing. I never made it further than just past our borders.”

Niva’s shoulder’s slumped. So deeply rooted here, she was reminded yet again, he’d been molded and baked like clay, too brittle to change, entrenched in laws that their ancestors had laid down and that a ruling council was hell-bent on upholding.

"What is it that you have you found?" inquired Kimber. At least he was interested in what might lie beyond his small domain.

"Places of power, where the intensity crackles off your skin. Secluded havens of beauty where pixies and faeries tend their magnificent gardens. Beings like us even, hiding their own nature from Others."

Kimber’s eyes grew wide.

Niva drew a hand over Herte.

"I think that's why I was drawn to Darkfrith in the first place,” she confessed, then added, “much to my dismay.”

“I've found so many treasures in this world, little pockets of magic as if the earth desires for me to see it. I cannot ignore that feeling when it arises. But after a while some new allurement arrives on the wind and I go searching again."

Kimber recognized what she was careful not to say. I mean to leave.

He didn't know when nor did he know how, but he knew when that day came he would be forced to drag her back, because of the laws they were subject to. He'd accepted this responsibility years ago and had stopped questioning his role. But with her sitting here sharing what a slice of her freedom had been he wasn’t so sure anymore. He wished the day she went missing that someone else would be forced to deal with it.

There was no point in mentioning it now. Perhaps she might grow to love him. Perhaps the Earth would never again call her away and she would be happy with him in their little shire. She was peaceful in his presence now, the way he dreamed of her, the way he'd always wanted her. He'd not ruin it with the fact that there wasn't a place that she could go where he wouldn't find her.

Tonight though, in this moment, he'd enjoy her willing company.

"Are you hungry?" he asked, maneuvering the subject into something safe.

"After such a huge feast?" she asked. There was amazement in her voice as if it was a silly question, but her brows rose pointing at humor. "Always."

"It's not too late. The kitchen has probably yet to be cleared. I'll bet we can still filch something."

"I didn't take you for a thief, Lord Langford."

"It's not stealing if it's from your own house," remarked Kimber.

"Your father's house," she corrected. "And yours only if the most likely outcome comes to pass."

They shared a whimsical smile.

Kimber snuffed out candles one by one, Sunniva remaining close.

When the last sconce was empty of flame and Kimber turned to leave he realized she wasn't at his side.

"What gem is that?" she asked, standing near the last pedestal by the door.

"That one? Oh that's just...honestly no one knows why it's in here. It's silent. We call it the Black Star."

Niva took a step closer transfixed on the jewel. It was a black lump of stone, perfectly round and smooth and appeared as if it'd been polished.

She reached her hands out and then jerked them back. "May I touch it?"

"Certainly, if you'd like."

Niva scooped it up with both palms and brought it near. She shifted it back and forth, to and fro, rolling it about, its smooth surface a gentle stroke on her skin. No matter the angle a small six-rayed star floated across the surface.

"Hmm. That's odd," Kimber said. "I've never noticed the little starburst. It must be the lantern. Though I must admit, I've never paid much attention to it."

A string of bliss swept over Niva exciting and calming her both. She relaxed into an ease she hadn't had experienced since before Darkfrith. Yet here in the heart of her prison, in the depths of stifling darkness she was experiencing a euphoric ecstasy. The little light she held around her began to slip, sliding, sliding into rapture until she’d released it all.

The star grew, stretching it's tips across the curves of the stone. Niva tilted it again watching it's blaze remain constant no matter how she turned it.

She should've been glowing now, having dropped the illusion, but she saw on her hands only the paleness of human skin in winter. Niva felt something solid at her back and leaned against it, tilting her tired head, nuzzling into the steady tranquility. An ethereal breeze drew across her crown and maybe whispered her name. She might have fallen asleep, she couldn't be sure.

A cool persuasion slid over her hands, a sensation she accepted, welcomed even.

The beguiling wind spoke her name which she quickly discounted until a shadow slipped over the star.

"Niva," it came once more, this time loud, precise and concerned.

Niva's eyelids raked moisture over stinging dryness and she closed and opened her jaw as her tongue moved new saliva through her mouth.

Kimber stood pressed at her hind, his head tucked over her shoulder, his arms curled around her with firm hands cupping her own.

"What are you doing?" She'd meant to say as an accusation, but it came out breathy.

Kimber swallowed and led her hands to the pedestal, urging her forward with the weight of his body.

She let him guide her, finding it difficult to release the stone and when it dropped from her grasp felt like ripping off skin fused to icy metal.

The star remained fixed and unchanged.

Kimber had relit the sconces now wax-covered the candles already in dregs and the lantern Kimber had burnt its last.

"You've been like this for well on an hour," worried Kimber in her ear. "I became concerned."

Niva thought it prudent first to disentangle herself from him, his intimate proximity always making it difficult to work her magic.

"I'm fine. It was just-" she paused not sure herself how to explain what just happened. "I'm fine."

Kimber didn't press her for more simply letting it be.

With great effort she pulled what little light there was back around her ensuring that she had the control. The Black Star returned to its original darkness, the burst of light now absent.

Before she could concern herself with getting out of this hole unseen, she heard the flutter of warping tin as Kimber refilled the lantern with oil. Apparently in the corner by the entrance was a stash of candles as well.

"I'll replace them next time," he said, giving Sunniva a courteous glance.

With the treachery of unfathomable darkness behind her and the promise of fresh air ahead, the ascent seemed instantaneous compared to the timeless way in. The relief of passing the guards and their thick iron doors came as overflowing relief.

Still trying to untangle exactly what had happened she caught a few fleet glances that Kimber gave her, and even then couldn't decipher what he was thinking.

She'd never desired a stone before and certainly not with such an aching intensity. The memory of the tension it eased was still fresh in her bones and muscle, a pain that must have propagated in the time since she arrived here.

"Damn," cursed Kimber, pulling her from her thoughts. They stood in front of the kitchen doors. "They've already gone."

Sunniva remembered a mention of food. Her stomach remembered as well, loudly to boot.

Kimber presented her with a sultry smirk and eyes of mischief.

"Wait here," he said, leaving her with the lantern.

He emerged a few brief minutes later smelling of smoked meat and something starchy. He held his coat tightly closed and fell into a run.

"Quick!" he hissed and Niva scurried along after him.

"Who are we running from?" she hollered, realizing it was the first time she'd spoken since the catacombs.

"Can't explain!" he huffed. "Just run!"

When they reached a side staircase she bound up after him, cursing her heeled boots laced up to her shins. She couldn't fling them off like pumps so she made sure to land on the balls of her feet, springing up after Kimber.

He was long-legged and lithe, an unfair advantage over her, able to take the steps in groups of three.

When she lost sight of him she thrust her senses forward. He'd stopped just above her and when she rounded the next flight saw an open door. She burst through and Kimber snapped it shut.

Still holding the handle of the door and clutching his pilfered goods Kimber's lips stretched far above his teeth in a victorious smile.

"What," she wheezed, "was that?"

He answered with breath less broken than hers. "Misses Flinch, the head cook, would have my hide if she caught me rummaging through her kitchen."

His giddy demeanor was contagious and fueled by her own adrenalined high Sunniva broke into an uncontrollable fit of giggles.

"Are you laughing at me?" he asked hardly able to contain a laugh of his own.

"Kimber Langford you are a fool! I thought, I thought..." she sputtered unable to finish her sentence.

She took a deep breath. "I thought we were being chased by something dangerous."

It was so silly she started again. What in this grand home of great dragons could be more dangerous than man she had just chased?

"Don't underestimate Misses Flinch. She has a nasty whipping arm. My brother and I got our share of licks in our time."

They’d escaped into a upstairs storage area. Furnature, most likely, filled the room with sheets atop them to keep the dust off.

"Let's see then if the risk was worth it," she demanded, tugging at his coat.

He produced links of firm, black sausage and a half a loaf of bread.

It was no grand feast, but after their race up to the peaks of Chasen they were pleased to eat anything. They sat down on the floor between the ghost of an old chair and what was likely a painting easel.

"I have to fess up Niva," said Kimber, tearing off a hunk of dark bread.

Niva was terrified he would confess something horrid, but his lighthearted tone eased her a bit.

"This may actually have been an elaborate ruse. Not my parents or the stones. Everything after. The kitchen heist, the pilfered goods, the escape."

"And Misses Flinch?"

"Well, she would have my hide had she caught me ransacking her kitchen. But she's likely long since fallen asleep so the danger may have been exaggerated."

He tore off another hunk of bread and handed it to here.

"I did all that so you wouldn't return to the celebration. I wanted to spend time with you. Is that so terrible?"

It wasn't sarcastic or playful and his eyes had gone to a hopeful round.

Niva carefully swallowed the sausage in her mouth and took the bread from his hand. "No,” she said. It had all been so playful, so innocent she felt bashful for a moment and looked down as warmth spread over her face.

Kimber mouth curved upwards into a restrained smile and he nudged another sausage her way.

They dusted the few stray crumbs from their laps once they finished their stolen meal.

"So if it was all a ruse,” queried Niva, “why did you bring me all the way up here? You nearly killed me up those stairs."

"Gaining altitude is hard without wings," he remarked, to which he received an amused grin. "I thought you might want to see how dragon weddings end," he said rising to his feet. "Give me just a second." He disappeared for a moment and returned with a thick fur stole. With one hand he pulled Niva to her feet and wrapped it around her.

He led her through the covered furniture to a small door leading out to an even smaller balcony with a flimsy iron railing. She pulled the fur closer around her neck protecting her exposed skin. The view was spectacular from this high. The stars were out in gales and the moon beat silver down on the entire shire reflected in the glossy snow.

"Do you feel that?" he asked. "Here they come."

Even on such a bright night her senses were shoddy. Without the power of the sun she was 'blind as a bat at night,' as she had once put it, only to realize – upon seeing bat for the first time – that the metaphor made no sense.

She followed where his finger pointed. The entire party spilled from the ballroom onto a large terrace, the snow flattening in a swell of shiny black shoes and heavy skirts. The wedded pair was at the forefront.

"One more confession," Kimber whispered reaching into his coat, " I snagged some of these as well."

He pulled out a paper wrapped around itself in a cone with the tops tucked in. He opened it up releasing a burnt, sugary scent.

"What are they?" asked Niva.

"Candied almonds," he replied, dumping out a handful to offer.

She took a few and popped them into her mouth.

"These are delicious," she exclaimed still not finished chewing.

"Then it was all worth risking my hide."

Kimber slung back the remaining almonds in his hand and shot her a bulged-mouth smile.

After a quick speech, the bouquet of flowers was thrown. They couldn't see who'd caught it.

After the married pair gave each other one more cheered kiss, the groom Turned to smoke. He settled just before the crowd, a dragon with a scarlet body and indigo streaks across his wings. He crouched low to the ground, his tail sweeping the snow into crescent-shaped banks. The bride scrambled up quickly, as if she'd done it a dozen times before.

"This is how dragons end a wedding," explained Kimber.

"What? Riding each other?" Niva quipped.

One of Kimber's eye brows shot up followed by a lascivious smirk.

Kimber took Niva's hand and they watched as the mated couple alighted into the night.

A solitary cloud flitted over the moon just as a number of the men Turned to smoke to join the newlyweds in the sky.

It came as a violent surge sweltering from her chest, the terrible dragon suddenly demanding release. Sunniva swallowed a yelp that threatened escape. At least she hoped she did. Her eyes flashed for a moment illuminating the odd shadows of the night. She ripped the stole from her shoulders trying to quench her searing skin and sunk her head low.

“I have to go,” she whimpered. “It’s dark. I need...can you get me the lantern?”

It had been a good five months since she'd last Turned and with the power of her kin between her and stars arranged in an enticing lattice it would be a matter of moments before she would succumb, showing those below and above who she really was. Kimber would have all he need leaving the council with no doubt she must marry him.

He need only linger...

Kimber gripped her palm tightly and pulled her with him. Her skin burnt something glorious on his hand and he could feel her overwhelming compulsion cascade, her power surging through him, lapping the barbarous dragon awake. Kimber worried she might even carry him down with her.

Hunger gripped him. He saw in the glass of the window-door the eyes of a dragon. His eyes, gone black and preternatural, primed for hunting. The savage beast had tasted what it desired and laughed at Kimber’s attempt to contain it.

But he had to contain it. He had to keep his instincts at bay. He mustn’t Turn.

They swept past the ghosts of forgotten furniture. The lantern Niva needed was waiting for them in the spot where they’d shared an innocent midnight picnic mere minutes ago. Kimber released her hand with regret and backed away. His skin had gone hot from her touch which he tried to rectify by removing his cravat.

Now in relative safety behind wooded walls and slated roofs guarding them from the crowd outside, Niva sagged down next to the little lantern.

“I’m just...I’m just not feeling well is all. Must have been those sausages,” she said, releasing a nervous chuckle. She wrapped her shaking arms around her mid.

“Indeed,” replied Kimber, “I had a few myself.”

She gripped her stomach tightly, but even that didn’t prevent her from shaking.

“It’s alright Niva,” comforted Kimber picking up the lamp and pressing it into her tense palms. He remained squatted at eye level, hoping she might have the courage to look up. When she didn’t he offered to get another, larger lantern.

“No! I think...I think I’m ok now. Please, just stay with me.” She put her palm against the wooden floor indicting that he should sit, then clutched the lantern to her breast. By luck or by design she was nestled in a sliver of moonlight that had snuck its way in.

“Alright,” agreed Kimber, slumping down next to her in a plash of contrasting black shadow next to her beam of silver moon.

He reached up to smooth her hair, deciding he would chance a comforting touch. He heard a tear drop fall to lace applique and wasn’t sure if he had ellicited it.

He’d never seen her scared, wasn’t even sure she felt fear until now, crumpled on the floor crying. But it became clear to him now how terrified she was of everything this place would expect from her, everything their people would demand of her if they knew what she was.

He ran a soothing hand down her head again. “My sister and I had this game when we were, oh five maybe, as I recall."

"Audrey?" she asked with a sniffle.

"Yeah. Joan was still at the breast. So Audrey and I had discovered passing gas and thought it was the most hilarious thing ever. We farted any chance we got and always broke out in roaring laughter afterwards. My parents were not so amused, as you might imagine, their highborn children tooting away during supper, sometimes even with councilmen in attendance. My mother spanked us for every single fart, but it was too comical to sway us. We did however get more secretive about it because my mother certainly didn't make it pleasant."

Niva gave her eyes a swipe and looked up.

"So one time I was sneaking around because, like most little boys, I was seeking mischief when I saw my sister in the parlor sitting at the piano. Her governess wasn’t there so I figured she had stepped out of the room for whatever reason. It was the perfect time, I thought. So I ran in there, squatted down next to Audrey and prepared to let out something horrid. And horrid it was. A bit more came out than I had planned for. Actually, a lot more. I'll never forget that smug grin as she turned to that side of the room where I hadn't thought to look. There sat the governess, my mother, and whole bunch of important ladies dressed in their finest come to watch my sister play. My mother was the first to break and I guess once the others figured it was ok to laugh at her little Lord they broke out into a thunderous chorus. I ran out, red as rose hips, shite working its way down the legs of my trousers. God it stunk. One didn't need a dragon's senses to know. My mother didn't spank me. Said it was punishment enough. I wish she had. Instead she made me wash my clothes all on my own. Outside. In the front lawn, where everyone could see."

When Kimber’s eyes fell upon Niva, he was greeted with a feathery smile. He drew a thumb across the moist streaks on her cheeks.

Then her face grew grave with knitted brows and parted lips and she asked “Why did you do that?”

“Shat myself in front of half the ladies of the shire?”

“No. Before that. You had all you needed. The place. The right witnesses. The Turn.”

“Don’t you know, Niva?”

Kimber didn’t take his eyes off her even as she looked away. He couldn’t see whether she approved or understood and didn’t think he could bare a spurn, not with the beauty of her company still fresh in his mind. "Come," he said before she could speak, gesturing with his head. "Let’s get you home."

Yet before he rose to leave he felt her fingers curl over his.

"Will you accompany me?" she asked, lifting her eyes.

And with that little request Kimber began to hope.

****

On the walk to Niva’s cottage Kimber told her stories from his youth; about life growing up here and his years at Eaton and Cambridge. He’d slid into a lulling way of conversation that Niva no longer thought about what had happened atop Chasen manor.

The sharp breath of the cold winter air had laced the barren branches of bushes and trees alike with a delicate frost. Niva snapped one off of the mulberry bush before stopping in front of her cottage.

"I had a...interesting time tonight," she said, rolling the twig between her fingers.

"Fun?" Kimber asked hopeful.

Niva’s lips teased a smile and she nodded.

They stood for a bit, neither wishing to part nor certain how to proceed.

Kimber took a step closer and when Niva gave no sign of displeasure he said, "I'd very much like to kiss you.”

Niva's brows gradually rose as she carefully considered his proposition.

"I suppose all things considered...yes. I think I would like that."

Kimber cupped her head with a gentle hand, painting her cheek with lazy circles from his thumb. Slowly, he leaned down closer and closer until her breath dusted his chilled lips with broiling flurries. He lingered a moment offering her one last chance to protest their impending kiss.

But Niva rose to him. When their lips met she flinched towards him, that dangerous spark igniting. She gripped her fingers into fists riveting herself still, willing her body to keep it tame, but his cool might avalanched through her.

Kimber felt it too. It was a feeling he'd thought about every day since they first met. A feeling whose mysteries he'd been unraveling since then. He reminded himself that he wasn't here to find his way into her bed as much as he would like to. He was here for something more.

So when she slipped him a whimper and her lips parted and a strong hand showering him in warmth found its way to his nape he made himself pull away.

He smiled something satisfied and when she mirrored it back he knew she agreed.

"Would you keep them safe for me?" he asked, tugging at his clothes.

She gave him a smile and a nod.

"Goodnight Niva," said Kimber, before Kimber drifting away as smoke up into the sky.

"Goodnight Kimber," she whispered once he was far away.

Niva gathered his clothes and walked into the cottage.

****
"You're home rather late."

He sat in a chair in front of a lit hearth, the flames of the fire rendering her father's scowl aghast.

"Yes," she said, trying to ignore it as she latched the front door.

He gripped the armchairs as if for courage. “You don't know drákon men like I do. We are primed with the instinct to seduce. Langford's original tactic didn't work and now he is trying another. Don't let that boy's sweet words and doting kisses and seeming innocence fool you."

"I know what I'm doing," Niva insisted in defense. She began folding Kimber’s clothes and laying them into a neat pile.

"And what are you doing?" Tamlane asked leaning forward, his face brandished.

Niva didn't have an answer, because she didn't know. She picked up the tidy stack of trousers and coat and began walking away.

"Do you still want to leave this place?" Her father’s questions stopped her in her tracks.

"Yes. You know I do," she insisted, yet only offered him a sidelong glance.

"Then you cannot establish something that will drag you back here. Dragons mate for life, Niva. You can't understand how powerful it is until it has sunk its talons in. You'll crave your mate something dreadful and each day it will eat away until you've been devoured whole. Sometimes even death is not enough."

Niva let Kimber's clothes fall slowly in a heap at her feet. She'd been reckless and impulsive and the worst part was that even unmated she already craved Kimber.

"He'll use that. He knows how our kind are. He'll lure you to him, make you think it was your idea. It's more effective than iron links. He'll let your body chain you to him."

Niva’s fists went to tight balls. "Then why hasn't he just taken me? Why would he wait all this time?" she countered.

Tamlane was quiet. "Just remember Niva, once they know what you are they will never, ever let you leave. Remember that."

He stood up and went to bed.

Chapter Text

A key element about meetings where plots are orchestrated against the rulers of a people is that they are secret. Scribes are not present nor are records kept. Deals are made in whispers and agreed upon with silent handshakes. Depending on the character of those involved, the place in which the meeting is held might be a consequential clue to devious schemes.

An unknown room, in an anonymous house happened to contain both an ominous setting and traitorous players.

Six council members sat around a lone, deceitful candle on the bare floor. The walls were of thick stone and beyond them the infinite earth. Not a single window, nor door was lodged in the walls, for it was a place of betrayal, a place of secret control, a place for men. A tiny hatch on the ceiling permitted the entrance of small items such as a knife or a rope or the aforementioned candle flickering nefarious shadows across the gloomy space and conspiritous faces.

"The survival of our species is paramount," announced Grady as if the speaker of a political rally. He was naked, like all the men there.

"Kimber Langford has neglected his duties for far too long. He is twenty-seven as of last week and still has yet to take a mate. Even his father had a woman with child before that age."

Disgruntled murmurs filled the dark and the light of the candle trembled.

Their hypocrisy seemed to elude them, as many present were older than the Earl and still unmarried.

"His Gifts cannot be wasted," continued Grady. "He must be mated to the Alpha female of the tribe, hastily, if not sooner. His offspring are tantamount to our continuation."

"Aye," the others agreed in unison.

"Gentlemen,the choice is clear," said Grady, pausing for emphasis. "My sister has been the most dominant female for years, with not even a close contending rival."

Devon Rickman spoke next, contrasting Parish’s ardor with doubt. "He won't agree to it so easily," he said. "He still pines after the Williams girl, convinced she can make the change, blinded by his own hubris.”

“Even though we know her possession of Gifts to be untrue,” added Adam Richards with a scoff.

"Aye. The issue of Sunniva Williams must be rectified,” interjected Grady, “for the good of the drákon."

Another round of agreement echoed through the room.

"What do you suggest?" piped up Theodore Henry.

"She must be rendered unavailable."

The realization of what that meant cultivated like a weed through the room that no one wished to pluck.

"The Jones’ have two sons of age," offered Anton Larousse finally. The Jones family was notoriously poor and had little social standing. A perfect match for an even poorer, halfing woman. "A swift marriage to-"

Grady broke him off. "Don't be a fool” he snapped. “It would take too long and it would be too dangerous to explain what is at stake. If either of those boys failed in their courtship – or betrayed us – the results could be catastrophic to us all. It must be someone in this room. It must be done quickly and discreetly and such that neither our decision nor collusion has a chance to escape."

The men looked from face to face, none of them yielding.

Grady's voice grew to a contrived grave. "Our kind is in peril. Never before has there been so reckless an Alpha as Christoph Langford. He permits his women freedoms which threaten their very safety as if not realizing their value. His wife and daughters frequent London where their well-being cannot be guaranteed. He allows his female offspring to choose their mates. Fortunate for the eldest to have chosen well, the younger has fallen in love with a cripple who cannot fly. And his heir appears to be following in his footsteps, just as irresponsible.”

He cocked his head allowing a calculated look of sympathy spreading from chin to hairline. "You five sitting here, are the greatest our kind has left. Legacies, each and every one of you. I understand, what asking you to cheapen your bloodline means. Diluting the power our fathers and grandfather's worked so hard to propagate is not something easily given up. But we must make sacrifices for the good of our kind."

Despite his compelling oration, he was met with muted tongues.

"Are there are to be no volunteers?"

"What if the Alpha objects to the marriage?" questioned Marcus Danks.

"Once the deed is done, once she is bound there is naught he can do to interfere. Our laws dictate-"

"And his heir?” interrupted Larousse. “If he challenges for an annulment?"

Another round of 'ayes', this out of concern for an answer. There was a scent of fear in the stale air at mention of Kimber Langford.

Annulment was, among the drákon, a polite term for fight-to the-death when mates were contested.

"I vow to stand behind any one of you, should the Dreaded Night retaliate. We must all stand behind whoever makes this sacrifice. Because we are the only thing that stands between survival and oblivion. Kimber Langford can’t challenge us all.”

“What about the Alpha? If Lord Langford objects and throws behind his son?”

“Lord Langford is not as strong as he used to be. And we have more support than you realize. If Lord Langford objects, then perhaps a new Alpha is in order."

****

As if in competition Winter had come as bitter as the Summer had been hot. With the severity of a blasting furnace gales of biting cold hounded the shire unrelenting.

Sunniva's excursions to the woods had ceased completely, the extreme temperature too unpleasant. She sat glued to her chair in front of the hearth, arms wrapped around herself clutching a shawl, eyes lit by the bustling flames before her. A time ago she would have been angered by the thought that Kimber’s words – then meant to be cruel – had merit; it was ruddy cold in here, and his bed now held a certain appeal.

When the first knock came she cast out her senses. What is he doing here? She saw no reason to answer the door though she knew he was aware of her presence.

A second knock came which she deigned to answer as well. The visitor shifted his weight elliciting a creak from the front porch’s wooden floor and then another creak from the door’s hinges.

Niva's eyes went big when the visitor entered and she craned her head to glimpse him.

"I wasn’t aware that a closed door and lack of acknowledgment meant ‘welcome, do come in’ in Darkfrith."

"Miss Williams," greeted Theodore Henry. He wore a gentleman’s top hat and a thick Ulster coat extending down to his knees. He removed both and hung them on wooden pegs jutting out of the wall next to the door.

Like all the councilmen, Niva had burnt his memory into her thoughts; golden hair with threads of copper, eyes of sugar grey. She hadn’t had contact with him or the other council members since long ago when she was summoned, but she had remember each and every one of their dastard faces.

"What do you want?" Niva asked, turning back to the flames.

Henry pulled up her chair's twin and sat down next to her. He straightened his spine and ran a palm down the length of his trousers.

"I don't believe we've ever been properly introduced, Miss Williams. My name is-"

"I know just fine who you are," interrupted Niva tartly.

"Well, then that saves us that."

"Why are you here Mr. Henry?"

He lifted his chin and raised his brows. "I've come to ask for your hand in marriage."

Niva looked him the eye for the first time since he'd stepped into her home and let out a mocking laugh.

"You? Don't be ridiculous," she gibed.

He was visibly insulted. His eyes tightened into a odious squint, his lips twisting foul. He straightened his lapels as if to compose himself before speaking. His hands, somewhat stiffer than before, found a place on the arm rests of his chair.

"Miss Williams you should be pleased with the proposal. I'm a man of means with considerable standing in the council. I’m from a strong bloodline. You'd want for nothing, Miss Williams."

"And you’re clearly a romantic," she furthered with a curl to the corners of her mouth.

Henry pursed his lips. "This is no jesting matter," he lectured, his tone stern. "You are a woman of twenty-six-"

"Twenty seven," she corrected with a rectifying finger.

"Twenty seven,” he continued. “And still unwed. I am aware that you've lived with Others most of your life, but here things are done differently."

Niva leaned forward and began stoking the fire with a poker. Sparks flew as she prodded a large log that had caught but was not yet aflame.

"And what does the Alpha think of this?"

"He thought it would be in everyone’s best interest.”

Sunniva turned her head toward him in disbelief. She was met with unflinching eyes and a severe mouth. If he was lying then it certainly came easy to him.

“The council,” he continued, “has decided it time you took a husband. We’ve agreed you’re too old to remain here unwed in your father’s cottage and that a match between us would be appropriate."

"No," she said firmly, looking back into the flames.

Theodore Henry paled a bit. "No? What do you mean no?"

"I do not consent."

"Irrelevant Miss Williams. This isn't a question. Nor a negotiation."

"I staved off the Alpha. What makes you think-”

"Alpha heir," corrected Henry.

"Of course," she mockingly acknowledged. "What makes you think I can't stave you off, too?"

His corners of his mouth twitched downward.

"Perhaps the Alpha's son lacks determination and conviction," he retorted.

"Not in the slightest.” Niva’s lips twitched a bit.

"If that is what you think, then perhaps you still don't know the slightest about our kind."

He slung a calf over his knee, placing his clasped fingers atop it.

"You'll find that when need be we are willing to do anything and everything to secure the tribe's survival. That means ensuring that everyone fulfills their role." There was an undecipherable resolution to his eyes, a determined slant to his mouth. "It would be easiest if you realized that this is best for everyone.”

Henry cleared his throat once and loosened his cravat, pulling his chin upwards. “Now,” he began with a new, dangerous tone, “kindly go to the bedroom and remove your clothes."

She stood up slowly and faced him, feet planted and posture enlarged. “Get out, you disgusting lizard,” she said with as much venom she could muster.

Henry snickered and let his head lop to the side. Tired of her snide remarks and crude behavior, he decided to get this over with using his fake amusement and lax posture as a diversion to grab Sunniva by surprise. He dug his fingers into her writs and when she jerked dug in harder, using her recoil to pull himself to his feet.

He felt a violent fist meet his cheek and threw the back of his free hand against her face in retaliation. It subdued her somewhat, her arm increasing in slack and head teetering from side to side. He’d hit her hard enough to convey his conviction, yet not enough to inflict permanent damage; she was still conscious after all, she would be fine.

He had agreed to marry the Williams girl and had bargained shrewdly with his conspirators for this sacrifice. Grady would pay him in tracts of land, Larouse with a few of his own special family gems and the others had only been able to offer silver – varying amounts every year till their deaths.

But there was no pleasure in taking a woman who could hardly be considered a drákon even with the riches he would acquire. She was a burden, a distraction that had to be dealt with. And because of her stubbornness she was forcing his brutal hand. Very well. If that's what she required for the good of the tribe.

He'd make it quick, not entirely pleased with the prospect of her as a wife. A few quick thrusts, and they would be mated. Once she was bred and his there would be time for her to come to terms with the facts. He just had to get her there.

With one hand still on her wrist and the other gripping her neck he tried towards the bedroom only making it as far as a small corridor, her resistance still a significant hurdle. To his surprise she wasn't giving him as fierce a fight as he'd expected with no more kicks or punches, but she still pulled away. There was at least strength to her.

Her face contorted and her eyes became blank as if her thoughts were somewhere else. But then they flashed and he knew the truth that everyone had failed to see. Everyone but the Alpha heir.

Theodore Henry was a dutiful man, and duty dictated that he bring her this very moment to the Alpha, inform the council, and insist on a hasty marriage with Kimber Langford.

But he began to wonder why the heir to the tribe was owed her. Kimber Langford had insisted from the beginning that she could Turn, proving he knew what she was. He’d been aware for too long and left her here unbred and unprotected, while still staking a claim to her. He'd forsaken his responsibility and wasn't deserving of a dragon.

Besides, Henry was smart and cunning and came from a strong line. Why shouldn't he be the one to have her? He was as good as any Alpha, willing to sacrifice everything for his people. He deserved an Alpha female. He greeted the savage beast unfurling its wings, allowing the creature within to take full control.

He needed to hold her, grip her, force her to him, spread her legs and make her submit. She was his. His!

He'd make her his.

He retreated to the front room and slammed her over the top of a table, deeming his need too urgent, a bed too superfluous – and too far away. She seemed to allow him. He convinced himself his demonstration of might had swayed her to their coupling. Alpha mates with Alpha.

He relished the idea of entering her, of spilling his seed inside her making certain she belonged to him. A dragon-woman. His dragon-woman. He’d have to be quick not willing to risk someone else learning her secret. He would have time to enjoy her later.


Sunniva ignored the sensation of unsanded wood, grinding splinters jabbing her cheek and focused on the attacker at her hind.

It was a painful truth how strong dragon men were. Fast as well. Henry kicked her legs wider, then released one of her arms, the grip on the other growing even tighter to hold her in place. He hiked up her skirts, piling the fabric over her buttocks and backside and as soon as she was exposed to him began fumbling at his waist line.

Sunniva had warned him with her eyes, wondering how devoted of a councilman he truly was. But it had only spurred him on. She'd have to Turn.

Likely, she'd only get one good chance to maim him. He might be stronger in a fight, but he wouldn't be intent on damaging her. He’d proven that when he had struck her. But he wouldn't be prepared for what she could do as dragon. She'd have to Turn.

It sadly became a simple choice: rape now by this stranger, or in the marriage bed by Kimber. At least she found pleasure in Kimber’s touch.

She would have to Turn.

"I'll kill you," Niva snarled as her attacker pulled down his trousers freeing his erection. She felt it slithering over her backside, poking and prodding, trying to find her entrance.

It wasn’t even a decision. She rejoiced as the terrible dragon took control scorching her skin away.


When Theodore Henry reached back to grip the Williams woman he felt the oddest of sensations in his hand. The scent of sulfur and burnt fabric and blistering flesh stung his olfactory senses as his back slammed into something very hard knocking the breath from his lungs.


As smoke, dragons didn't have a front nor a back. They didn't have a head or a tail. They were simply a diaphanous cloud without shape or substance. A learned skill of Turning from smoke -or in Sunniva's case fire - to dragon, was pulling that in-between phase together such that they were facing a practical direction. Young dragons sometimes formed upside down or sideways and had to either correct for it or return to smoke and try again.

Niva had planned to be facing him, ready to snatch his head in her jaws, but she'd been too unpracticed and too hurried to manage. The table she'd been sprawled over was crushed to splinters and Henry was now behind her, back pressed against a thick beam framing the front door. She had no time to turn so she lashed out at him instead with her tail. She felt the barbs plunge into wood, wondering if they first had pierced flesh and bones.

When she looked behind her a nobleman's livery clung to the wall and the pellucid cloud that was Theodore Henry had become drifted out from the silk garment. Sunniva yanked her tail out, pulling split boards and shredded cloth with it and wound her tail back at the ready.

He'd likely not Turn to dragon in the house; the space was barely enough for Sunniva. Instead he billowed around as smoke, touching her in intimate places.

Disgusted Niva tried to beat her wings to break him up. Her barbed tips grazed the wall scouring deep grooves. It certainly seemed to deter him and he began to seep outside.

Outside.

If he was waiting for her as dragon she would be at a disadvantage.

She filled her lungs with air fueling the fire in her belly, willing it to catch and consume her. It didn't work. She tried again to Turn to flame, fear beginning to culminate. Still, nothing happened.

But she had to get outside. Quickly.

She twisted her head and closed her jaws around the main beam of the roof. The wood snapped at the first heave and the roof collapsed upon her. When she crawled from the rubble she trailed straw thatching behind.

The smell of her own blood was unmistakable. A gash about the length of a fence iron oozed blood from her left hind leg. Adrenaline masked the pain. It wasn’t important now, Theodore Henry’s location more pressing.

She cast her senses out looking for him. He’d not gone far. Just ahead drifted a cloud of smoke down the snow-covered path leading away from the remains of her cottage.

What is he up to, she thought, wondering when he would Turn. The notion to follow him crossed her mind, harass him with beating wings until she realized he remained as smoke because taking form would likely be fatal. She had struck him.

As smoke, dragons didn't feel cold because they had no nerves, didn't bleed cause they had no blood. And they didn't feel pain because they had no body to be damaged.

Triumph turned to panic as his speed picked up in the direction of the village. She couldn't be sure of his plans, but of one thing she was certain; the members of the council had colluded without the knowledge of the Alpha. What other sinister plots might they concoct?

Even if he couldn’t speak, even if he died the second he became human, questions would arise. Henry hadn’t come her coincidentally. It had been planned. When the injured councilman was found there was no doubt they would know to come for her.

Niva's conclusions kept circling back to the same. Chains, containment, some man's bed. At this point, whose bed was irrelevant. A comfortable prison with Kimber was still a prison. And with the knowledge of what she was, the council would likely insist Kimber do everything expected of an Alpha, everything he was trying let her come to terms with in her own time.

Above, the clouds were thick, heavy with snow; below, the ground already covered in crystalline white. The sun had yet to set and would be up for another two hours, Niva guessed. All that planning and waiting only to be given a snowball's chance in hell. Or whatever the opposite of that was.

Now or never. Those were her choices.

With her leg bleeding it would be difficult to cover her scent. She could use what little light she had to mask herself, but the blood would still leave a trail. There was little she could do about it now. It would likely coagulate soon.

In this weather with visibility poor there were certainly other drákon in flight. Men taking the opportunity to stretch their wings would be concentrated over the village. If she wished to ultimately fly south she'd have to give the shire a wide berth costing her too much precious time. North would send her to Scotland but would leave her cornered at its coast. The passage there across the North sea to Norway was far too great to travel in one day and she wasn’t familiar with the harboring isles to hop and skip across the water.

West presented the most sensible direction, taking her to Ireland and giving her a few more minutes of sunlight. There she could safely move South and eventually East, back into and through England, then on to the rest of Europe.

Sunniva lifted her head high. Henry was out of sight and sense now, with no telling how long it would take till the other drakes arrived.

She spread her wings and tested their might. Like a broken limb freshly healed after being kept immobile for a time, the joints at her back felt stiff and unresponsive. The wound in her haunch burned as warm blood slid over cold scales leaving drops of crimson in the snow. She used her three working legs to sprint forward and leap upwards, frantically beating her pitiful wings.

Her breath drew painfully heavy and that once pleasant ache of animal muscle testing it's limits only seemed to weigh her down.

After a moment of near crippling doubt she began to finally gain altitude. She tipped her wings and changed the stroke to a sweeping curl so, instead of a vertical ascent, began an angled crawl forward and up towards the firmament.

The air was becoming heavy the further she rose, the bottom tips of the clouds like a sheet of ice over a pond. In her condition she wouldn’t be able to puncture the clouds. She straightened out, determined to remain as high as possible.

The first dragon approached just before the border. He’d swept down from the North in an arc, wings wide as he flew towards her. He was a rich hazel brushed with speckles of orange, not much larger than she was.

Niva thought he’d been drawn to the blood, but realized, as he drifted well below her, that he was a guard running a routine pattern.

Her relief shifted to panic when a bead of blood collected on the top of her foot and threatened a revealing spill to the earth. She clenched her teeth and tuck her foot painfully close, a pool of fresh red blending with dark cruor in the half-webs between her toes.

They criss-crossed and Niva, unseen, allowed herself a grin as the guard coasted away to the South following the strict outline of the shire.

She looked back at that prison. At that place that had been her home for longer than any other. She thought of her father who’d risked, since her conception, everything for her freedom yet was left there alone and with a heart of boundless emptiness. She thought of Zoe her dear friend, due to be punished by her departure and the strident rules that governed their kind. And she thought of Kimber.

Niva wasn’t sure what to think about him. He’d lied to and tricked and seduced her and it was because of him she’d been imprisoned in the first place. He had announced a claim to her, demanding she was his, as if she were chattel. He did all that because it was expected of him, yet in his ultimate duty he’d resisted. He was a victim of that place just as any other there. Helpless, certainly not. But a victim nonetheless.

And that night at the wedding when his defiance had become clear, hope opened her heart. Had he done it for her or was it his own desire to change their ways? It hardly mattered now.

He’d showed her kindness and caring and a tenderness that even she didn’t posses. The memory of his embrace warmed her against the chill as she braced the inclement weather. She almost wished to look back and find that dreadful shadow trailing her tail.

Was this what freedom had once felt like? It had been so long she couldn’t remember.

She stretched her head forward and pushed on.

The pressure in the sky began to build pushing Niva further down. The bleeding from her leg had stopped, the pool of blood gathered between her digits frozen. She let her leg hang partially limp. The first flurries streamed over her scales brushing her in flecks of cold, unpleasant but not unbearable.

But then the skies released their furry.

Thick onslaughts of fat ice flakes pelted her skin and clawed at her eyes. The sudden squall tossed her to the left so she angled hard to the right to correct for it. She held it for a solid minute until the burn in her muscles became too great and she had to give.

The sky had become a sea of blinding white too thick to see – apart from her own smoky breath before her. Sunniva felt something scrape at her wings like the bristle of a brush and in a urgent response to grim imaginations used what energy she could muster to beat her wings. She gained a few meters in altitude, then dropped again feeling the pricks on her underside. They were trees, she realized, not ghosts or goblins or even dragons; sharp, unforgiving tree tops.

She'd have to Turn lest the storm impale her on a branch. She needed to get higher into safety, but couldn't manage, her withered muscles a devastating betrayal. She let herself dissolve to flame – a feat she had been unable to do a mere hour ago. No longer feeling the ruthless jaws of the frost she tried again to rise above the piney pinnacles, but the storm still blew her down, down into the forest.
The frigid cold and savage wind threatened to tear her apart, despite her attempt to hold the fire together. She fought and fought, but the fatigue finally won, the option between survival and death simple. If she didn’t take a solid form immediately, she’d dissipate and extinguish.

The deep snow cushioned her fall, though it still was hard enough to knock the breath from her lungs. Sunniva drew up on her hands and knees willing herself to stand. Uncontrollable shivers avalanched through her bones, the cold determined to finish what the trees and fall had failed to do.

Darkness descended on her eyes, a strangely pleasant relief from the burning canvas of white, until the blackness shrank inward, sapping the last of her strength.

Odd, she thought, death is a freedom in its own way.

Chapter Text

Kimber found her near death, cold and with only a faint putter of a heart beat. He'd carried her back to Darkfrith gripped in his talons, holding her as close to his belly to keep her warm.

He couldn't understand. He'd known she meant to leave, but this seemed impulsive and, considering Sunniva, stupid. She simply wasn't the type to forfeit life just to escape.

The council firmly theorized that she had attacked Theodore Henry, unprovoked, likely due to denying her nature as dragon. She'd remained human too long and when her instincts consumed her she lost control. She was a danger and needed to be contained.

In the dark. In the depths.

The Dead Room was a prison deep in the undercroft of Chasen. The walls and ceiling were formed from heavy blocks of ordinary grey stone holding back the engulfing earth and keeping any hapless drákon in. In one corner was a narrow bed, in the other a plank table with matching chairs. By the door hung an unlit lantern, rendered superfluous by the glaring source of light that was Sunniva.

She didn't belong here, thought Kimber. She belonged somewhere comfortable. His bedroom came first to mind, sunk into his feather mattress next to a roaring fire.

He kept her covered in thick quilts and had hot stones placed between the blankets to keep her warm. Once sure of her survival, he finally had the peace to go over what had happened.

His betrothed had gone missing and a councilman had been mortally injured.

Theodore Henry had arrived at Chasen as smoke and when he Turned to human had two large gashes across his chest and one over his throat. He'd been unable to speak, but the wounds were unmistakable. And her scent had been on him.

Kimber had used the knowledge that she would eventually become his tether the ferocity for which he craved her. He'd tried not to let it eat him whole, fighting every ancient instinct that thirsted to dominate her. But that possessive dragon flicked it's barbed tail newly awakened and now refused to be ignored.

It wasn't until he had returned her to Chasen that he caught the scent of Henry on her as well. The only certainty keeping Kimber from insanity was that the two hadn't coupled, the telling signs no where to be found.

He repeated what he knew over and over until it hurt to think.

Niva didn't seem one to attack without provocation. But she must have been scared. The marks across his neck and chest were no knife cuts or claw marks. They were unmistakably from a dragon's barbs, razor sharp and sloppily administered.

What could have possibly happened to cause her to do the one thing she'd so disciplined refused to do?

The realization culminated in sickening arcs like lighting striking limbs of a trees.

Henry had tried to mate her the way males of their kind sometimes brutally did. And she had fought back.

Now, she lay here.

There would be no more thinking, or pondering, or plotting. The black dragon demanded action. Retribution.

No one would take her. No one.

Theodore Henry had tried and paid a terrible price. And now Kimber would finish what she couldn't.

He knocked on the thick iron, barring them both from the outside.

"My Lord?" came a voice from the outside.

"Send for my brother," commanded Kimber.

He hadn't permitted a single person to see her and nor had he left her side guarding her vigilantly every second. Everyone knew now that she could Turn, but having her here in the dark revealed her for much more than that.

His brother must not have been far, the knock on the door coming within minutes.

"Unlock and unbar the door," Kimber commanded the guard, "and then step back ten paces."

The door was made of iron a few feet thick. It was designed to keep dragons in, but Kimber was now using it to keep other men out. Once he heard the turn of the key, the sliding arch of the bar, and ten careful steps Kimber pushed the door open a few inches. He cast his senses out confirming only his brother stood there.

Rhys waited at the crack of the door with a lantern, an artifact he wouldn't need.

"Rhys," Kimber said, emphatically.

"How is she?" asked Rhys grimacing upon seeing Kimber. He must have looked dreadful.

"There is something I want to show you," said Kimber.

Rhys stepped cautiously forward. Kimber backed up into the room watching as his brother saw why.

Rhys' mouth dropped. The light beaming from the corner where Sunniva lay atop the bed cast his eyes into orbs of polished jade.

"Dear God," he whispered. Rhys had thought his brother was going to unnecessary extremes for a woman that could Turn. But upon seeing Niva he now understood Kimber’s strident precaution. Despite his lack of romantic interest for the woman, her brightness tugged at his senses.

"You always supported our union," stated Kimber, "even when father did not. You knew what she was, didn't you?"

"Not like this," answered Rhys amazed. He ran a hand down his mouth.

Kimber scrutinized his brother carefully, listening to his pulse, looking for any flush of heat or dilating pupils, checking for any signs of desire or lack of control. "Does it change anything?"

Rhys knew in this moment Kimber was not his brother. Neither was he a friend. He was a dragon, purely an Alpha protecting his mate and would not hesitate to eliminate rivals. Rhys was careful to keep his eyes on Kimber, avoiding any look of intent. "Not a thing," Rhys said, careful and measured. He took a small step forward.

Kimber stiffly rose as if only just contained.

Rhys froze. At first, he felt ardently offended that Kimber was wary, but he realized he was guilty of distrust as well. He had broken their laws, kept his precious secret hidden for years for selfish reasons. Letting out a deep sigh he decided to risk his love in exchange for the trust of his brother.

"You're not the only one in love with a woman of great Gifts," said Rhys.

Kimber cocked his head inquiring, yet didn't take his eyes off him.

"Zoe Lane. Because of her I've known what Niva was. And it's because of her that I've blindly pushed for you to marry. Not because it was right or because you were in love, but because I'd rather lie and cheat and kill before letting Zoe become the mate of another man."

I know the exact feeling.

Rhys explained what Zoe could do, pausing frequently to judge Kimber's reaction. Kimber listened carefully and a semblance of relief took the place of the strain carved on his face.

"I never would have taken her from you," Kimber finally replied.

"I couldn't risk it,” argued Rhys. “You were always so prudent and perfectly followed every fart of a rule this place has. If she had ever been discovered she would have been forced into your arms and I had to assume you would've wed her in the name of duty."

"You really think I would have let the council dictate me in that?" he asked moving to sit on the bed next where Niva lay.

Rhys creased his lids, his disbelief clear.

"It doesn't matter now," added Kimber. He brushed Niva's cheeks with the back of his fingers. "By rights she is mine and Zoe is yours. Even the council can't contend that fact."

He straightened the blankets on top of Niva, her glow illuminating his dark face.

"And yet I was challenged even though to the council's ignorant knowledge I've upheld the laws of our tribe. I don't know what precisely what happened, but I do know that a traitor lies in comfort while my mate is imprisoned down here like a criminal."

Kimber stood from the bed as if it pained him to leave. He went to Rhys and placed his hands on his shoulders. "With father in London, you're the only man here I can trust." His face softened, asking a question he needn't ask with words.

Rhys understood. He replied, returning a gripping hand of assurance on Kimber's shoulders. "I'll stay here with her. I'll let no one see her, let alone touch her."

Kimber gave him a thankful nod and left the Dead Room.

****

Kimber had been in the Dead Room with Niva ever since he'd returned her. He'd lost track of the days and was surprised to find it night time when he emerged from the depths of Chasen.

"My Lord?" asked one of his guards not granted even a pause. The guard quickened his step to keep apace.

"I'm going to retrieve Herte," Kimber said, not slowing.

The guard gave him a precarious look. The council had insisted the stone be placed with the injured to ensure his return to good health.

"Councilman Henry no longer has need of it," stated Kimber with dry resolve.

The guard understood exactly what he meant. "Shall I gather the council?"

Kimber paused for a moment to think.

"Yes," he said. "It would be prudent for them to bear witness."

The guard bowed and left.

Councilman Henry had been granted the luxury of Chasen to convalesce. His room was located in the guest wing, with fine tapestries and furniture of carved mahogony.

Next to the bed sat Joan scowling at down at the councilman. She'd been placed there for the sake of Herte, tasked with guarding the Heart of the Tribe. The council had disapproved of it, but with Kimber's father and mother gone the Alpha family was spread somewhat thin and Kimber didn't see why his sister shouldn't share the responsibility.

"Kimber?" she asked with surprise when she saw her brother. "I didn't think-" she paused, clearly rethinking her words. "Is Niva awake?"

He shook his head. There was more disappointment in her face than simply sympathies for her brother.

"Will she be ok?"

Kimber nodded. "She's breathing well and the wound in her leg is healing nicely. Rhys is with her," he explained.

Joan gave a nod of understanding and something resembling approval. Kimber went to the bed and pulled back the blanket from Henry revealing the wounds that Niva had inflicted. They were nearly healed, streaks of knotted pink across his chest.

"Kimber you must know what he did?" asked Joan in disgust.

Kimber twisted his lips, a mixture of fraternal pride that she had deduced what he knew and dismay at what the deduction actually was.

"If he was bold enough to try that,” she furthered, “what else do you suppose him capable of?"

Kimber saw an added glint of worry in Joan's eyes, begging her brother for answers.

"Whatever he is capable of he won't be around to follow through.” He looked straight at the man and continued poignantly. “Betrayal of an Alpha is a mortal offense, isn't that right councilman?"

Theodore Henry's lids rose and startled, Joan’s eyes snapped to him.

"Joan," said Kimber, not taking his eyes off the councilman, "return Herte to its resting place, please."

Joan took the blue diamond from Henry's chest. She gave him a final sneer before leaving the room.

"You seem to have made a full recovery."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Good," replied Kimber, yet there was nothing suggesting he either pleased or relieved.

"The council will be gathering soon which means we have little time to talk, so I'll be frank. What possessed you to attempt a claim on my mate?"

Henry licked his dry lips, swallowed and licked them again likely in an attempt to give himself time.

"She can Turn," he finally said. "Any man would have taken the chance."

"Only disloyal ones," said Kimber, knowing it was a lie. "If you wanted a mate who can Turn why not go after my sister Joan? It would have been the more reliable option. Why try to take a pauper's daughter who is barely dragon?"

"But she is a dragon," argued Henry.

"You didn't know that. None of you ever believed it," countered Kimber. "It was a fact she was careful to conceal from everyone. So tell me why you went to her home to rape her."

Neither of the men blinked.

"It's how our kind have taken mates since the beginning of our time,” Henry finally said. “It's how Alphas have always claimed their females."

A sinister smile spread across Kimber's face. "Is that what you think you are? Well then I'll tell you a secret Alpha to Alpha. It took me some time to unriddle this. Alphas don't claim females through force. Do you know why?"

Henry gave no hint of understanding.

"Because such a woman that would be desirous of an Alpha would kill any man who tried to take her. And so would I." Kimber hissed his words with deadly intent.

Henry remained frozen until they both felt the power of drákon approaching just outside the window down on the lawn.

"The council is here," Kimber said, taking a step back from the bed. "Would you prefer to meet them in their chamber or shall we get this over with in the sky above Chasen?"

Henry waited a moment and after a hefty snuff flung back the blankets. He stood proudly and walked over to the nearest window, turned the hinge and opened it letting a flush of brisk air in. He gave Kimber a cryptic smirk. "I'll take my chances out there," he said before Turning to smoke and drifting outside.

Kimber became smoke as well taking the same route out the window to the lawn where he found Henry standing as man among the council. Kimber took form before him.

"What is the meaning of this my Lord?" asked Claude Grady.

"Theodore Henry is found guilty of treason. He attempted to steal my mate nearly resulting in her death. For that as you all know, death is the punishment."

"My Lord perhaps this was a misunderstanding," attempted Devon Rickman.

"Let's not be too hasty-"

"Perhaps if we-"

There was a strange, new daring in Henry's eyes as a few council members tried to defend him. Did he think he might escape justice?

Curious, thought Kimber, for these stiff bastards to attempt averting convention, to dodge their own tradition and laws. A man had indirectly challenged the Alpha by trying to take his female. Disputes like that were settled, as they had always been, with one victor and one corpse.

What were they up to?

Kimber couldn't abide insubordination. And he would no longer grant them the illusion of asking permission. He Turned from man to smoke to dragon already wound back in a tight coil. Before any of them could react he struck at Henry, catching, perfectly as intended, the man's head between his jaws. He jerked only once and ripped it clean off. He tossed it to the side letting it role to the feet of Grady, whose eyes had gone shockingly wide with a jaw dropped nearly to the ground. None of the men moved, nor did they attempt to Turn, all remaining still like statues of petrified stone.

Kimber became man again with the executed's blood seeping from a severed neck out onto his feet.

"Anyone else wish to challenge me?" Kimber cordially invited as if proposing a game of skittles. He looked each man in the eyes giving them a chance to speak and when no reply came, lowered his head to a deadly glower. "I'll say this once more for clarity's sake: Sunniva Williams is mine. Is that understood?"

The men seemed to sink into their feet, heads lowering one by one submission.

"Yes, my Lord," came a voice from the back.

"What was that?" Kimber asked with a raised brow.

"Yes, my Lord," muttered a few more in tandem.

"Good," replied Kimber.

****

"How far did I make it?" was the first thing she asked when she awoke.

Kimber, sitting on the wooden chair that was a permanent fixtures of the Dead Room, pulled his heavy head up from his palms and blinked the sleep away.

"Niva," he gasped.

"How far?" she demanded.

"Halfway to Leeds."

Niva gave a snort and looked away angry. "Couldn't even manage to find my way West. Pathetic." She surveyed the bare room – the stony bleakness of the walls, the thick iron door. “So this is the Dead Room?"

Kimber gave her an ashamed nod. "Yes, unfortunately. It's where we hold our kind for penance. Or until..."

"Execution? And which will it be for me?"

He looked at her gravely. "Until we marry."

With both hands she gripped the blanket closer to her chest like a shield. "So now you know," she stated like a taunt.

"I found you farther from here than anyone could possibly go on foot, lying in the snow, naked. No one saw you, but the only natural conclusion is what I've always known. And now the council does too."

She wasn't currently glowing. Kimber had kept the room well lit, knowing she'd feel more comfortable in the presence of fire than darkness. Still, Niva knew he had seen her exposed without the guise of her magic.

"Of course," she sniffed in return. "The sacred tribal laws. You must be pleased now that you have the council's support. The strongest mate with the strongest? Like breeding livestock. What a relief it must be that you finely found an appropriate brood mare to keep your Alpha line powerful and your bed warm."

"Niva-"

"How will it happen? Will you hold me down, bite my neck as you force yourself upon me? Or will you flatter yourself with kisses and a soft caress?"

She didn't really believe him capable of it, yet she was sitting in the Dead Room and was no longer sure what to believe the drákon capable of. And Kimber could only defy the council so much.

He stood up in a rush running his hand swiftly through his greasy hair and let out an exasperated growl. "After everything, how could you think I would do that? I don't want you like that. I never wanted it to be like that."

"Then what did you expect that first night you lied to me?"

Kimber dropped his head, throwing his gaze to the ground. "I don't know. I was stupid. Every part of me, every instinct told me to keep you near, to take you with me whether it be with a lie or by force because you are my mate, so I did what my blood demanded I do. I'll always regret it. I want to make this right."

He felt stripped and bare and to hell with it, if she was going to see him like this then he would tell her his final truth. He knelt down by her bed, palms out in a pleading array. The light of the candles threw his hair and eyes into a deep purple.

"I want you so much. God, I've wanted you since I found you in the woods and you kissed me with such passion.” Kimber began pacing a frantic rhythm.

“I've wanted to show you my home and make it our home. To give you a tribe, a family. Our family. To share with you my treasures. And yes, I won't lie, I've ached to have you naked in my arms, gasping my name while I'm inside of you. I've wanted to ride the winds with you, and hunt with you. I've wanted you to show me your secrets so I could see you. I still want all of that, and goddammit if you think I'm selfish, I want you to love me like I love you!"

Niva held herself frozen. She couldn’t admit that she had grown to want those things as well and damn her eyes for threatening to reveal her emotions. She shook her head slowly. "I- I can't give you that,” she stuttered. Tears streamed down her face. “Not like this. You think you love me? You don't know who I really am. You don't understand what I am. And this place is not who I am. Your laws are not who I am. I cannot live like this, Kimber, let me go, I beg you! I'll go far away and you'll never even catch a wisp of me I swear it! You'll find some nice dragon-girl to be your wife. Someone who will yield to the laws of this place. Someone who will be happy to be obedient and give you children. Just let me go."

She knew it wasn’t possible. Even if he granted her freedom the talons of the council were driven too deep. And what was worse, if he couldn’t hold his position, she’d be pawned to the next in line. But she would still make this one last, desperate plea.

"Is that what you want? To be free of me?" Kimber asked. His face was still, but severly focused.

She wished a reply would be easy. All she had to do was nod her head, move her lips to say that simple word. Yes. What if he did let her go? She wet her lips, once, twice. She couldn't say it. She hung her head ashamed, prepared to accept this prison as an inevitability.

"No." It escaped her lips like a hopeless prayer. She wasn't even sure he'd heard her at first, his face shadowed and indecipherable. Then he released a sharp breath.

"Then let me go with you," he whispered. Kimber didn’t know how or when, but he did know he wanted to do anything to free her.

She jerked her head up not sure if his words were true.

"Wh-What?"

"Let me come with you," he repeated, moving to sit at the edge of her bed.

"Are you saying-"

"Niva-,” he took her hand and placed a begging kiss on it. “I want to be with you, however you'll have me. Show me your treasures, your secrets. Let me see you, and fly with you. Share with me what this freedom is that you covet so much. And if you discover that you do not love me-” it was almost too painful to say, the words catching in his throat. “I will release you forever."

Niva bit her lip and moved her head giving him his answer.

****

Kimber sat down on the fur covered chair before the hearth in his study with a curious knot in his stomach. He leaned forward resting his head on his open palms and allowed the fire to warm his face.

He couldn't stand that she was still down there locked away instead of warm in his arms - a sad fact he would be forced to endure.

"Let me go!" she had roared and kicked the table so hard the top split in half.

He had no other choice but to leave her there in the confines of the Dead Room. That horrid place of penance and contemplation.

It became a routine. He visited her every day and every day he was met with fury, or scorn, or sometimes even mockery. Sometimes candles flew - though he always insisted they give her more - and sometimes she ignored his very presence.

Particular council members insisted she stay there until she demonstrated a consistent improvement in behavior - something that Kimber's strong-willed betrothed was not willing to grant. Other council members delicately expressed their concern for his 'patience'. The Alpha heir hadn't the time to wait for his mate's invitation to the bed.

Spring passed, with summer hot on its tail and still the Earl's bride-to-be was confined to prison beneath Chasen manor.

Clearly at a loss as to what action to take Kimber finally -as he was wont to do in matters of the heart - turned to his mother. She was the most similar to his bride, most familiar with her plight and could possibly sooth the woman's fury. His father even agreed, thinking it a wise decision.

The day she was to visit the prisoner just so happened to be the same day as a council meeting, both of which coincidentally fell on the summer solstice - the longest day of the year.

It was to be a lovely early breakfast – Kimber had suggested to his mother – who had the kitchen prepare a tray fit for a princess. Fresh scones from the oven, strawberry marmalade and clotted cream to go with them, piping hot offal and fried eggs as well. The cafe au lait was prepared hotter than normal so that the temperature would be right by the time the marchioness reached the bowels of the manor.

"Mama?"

Rue turned just as she was handed the breakfast tray from one of the kitchen maids. It had been ages since Kimber had addressed his her thusly.

"Yes, darling?" she replied with a sympathetic smile. She fretted for her son, on whom the current situation took an incredible toll.

"I just wanted to say that I'm lucky to have you as my mother. And I know I've disappointed you in the past, but I want to be better. I'm trying to make things better."

"I know you are, Kimber." Rue would have pet her son's cheek if her hands hadn't been full.

He looked nervous, eyes flicking around and sweat beading on his forehead.

"Are you all right?" asked Rue, cocking her head concerned.

"I think so. I think I'm doing the right thing."

"Whatever could you mean?"

He shook his head dismissively. "I'll tell you later."

She nodded with a tender, maternal smile. "Go on. Don't want to be late for those old sods," she said referring to the council.

He smiled one last time at her and turned on his heals to leave.

****

"Members of the council are convinced you are crazed," Rue said as she placed the tray on the recently replaced table.

"They see what they want to see," replied Niva with an uncanny demure. She rested both hands atop her knee.

"Is that so?" Rue asked pouring the hot coffee and steaming milk into a saucer. Niva took it with a thankful nod, placing it on the pauper's table.

"I spent a night in here once," explained Rue, looking about the stone prison. "A long time ago. I can't imagine having kept my sanity for much longer." Rue brought her own steaming cup to her nose and inhaled.

"Why Lady Langford are you suggesting that I've gone insane?" Niva didn’t bother with cutlery. She grabbed an entire liver and stuck the whole thing in her mouth.

"Heavens no,” protested Rue. “I actually mean to give you a compliment. I've been known for my determination and stubborn will, but you have me outmatched by far."

Niva raised her brows proudly. She popped a few slices of kidney into her mouth.

Rue blew the rising steam off the top of her hot drink. "But I think you underestimate how set in stone the ruling men of this tribe are. I've fought them every step of the way demanding miles and they have given less than an inch."

"And your husband? Is he among those men?" Another liver. Niva licked the small amount of runny escaped grease off the corner of her mouth.

"No,” answered Rue. “Well, long ago, yes. But I saw to it that at least he adapt his ways. It's afforded our children a degree of freedom that has been unprecedented. Why, even my youngest daughter Lia was, after showing no signs of Gifts, permitted to attend finishing school in Edinburgh. But that was where it ended. So many seemed perfectly happy to keep the status quo." Rue finally took a sip, deeming her beverage cool enough.

"There are more women in the tribe you know, begging for that same freedom," Niva mentioned, perusing what she might stuff herself with next.

Rue’s brows rose. "Then where are they? Where were they when I needed them? Where was that support?"

With a mouth full of the remaining offal Niva offered, “to reveal yourself as a woman with Gifts is a dangerous thing among our kind as I'm sure you are aware,” demonstratively waving her hands at the room. She gulped loudly and added absentmindedly, "perhaps they are too isolated, scattered and scared that no one else thought like them.”

Rue’s eyes narrowed. "You're quite right,” she concurred, revealing with a twist of her lips a hint of revelation. “Perhaps they need a woman with the right gifts to show them not to be afraid."

Sunniva stared at Rue, then took am impromptu sip of her coffee – which had until remained untouched – clearly affected by Rue's words.

Rue’s porcelain cup made a delicate clink as she set it down on the saucer, suggesting a new frank purpose. "Sunniva, the council will not relent. You have no leverage. They will not release you from this place unless it is with a wedding band around your finger and my son's child in your belly.”

Niva licked her lips. The last to go were the scones smothered in jam and cream. “You almost sound just like them,” she scoffed, her words muffled by pastry.

“I am not them,” snapped Rue. “And I'm not telling you this as a threat."

Niva struggled to swallow. "Then why are you telling me this?" she beseeched once her mouth was clear.

"You must find power in a position as Alpha."

Sunniva’s eyes dropped to the empty plates, as if to find crumbs and globules of cooking grease more interesting. There was remorseful slant to her lips and when Rue searched for acknowledgment, only received a further glance away.

Rue shook her head exasperated. "I'd like to return tomorrow if that's alright with you?" she asked, rising to leave.

Sunniva gave her a faint nod. Perhaps the matriarch was right. Perhaps she could pick up where Rue couldn't continue, finding power as a leader among their people. The marchioness was wrong about one thing though...

"Lady Langford?"

Rue turned to her daughter-in-law.

"I appreciate what you are doing and all that you have tried to do. I think if I asked you, you would help me, but it's too dangerous and that burden can’t be yours."

"Whatever could you mean, dear?" asked Rue.

"Forgive me."

Rue’s eyes hadn't even time to contract. She felt a terrible warmth surround her, swelling quickly and gathering at her back. The air became lacking, an unknown force pressing down across her throat. She tried to Turn, but the weakness cut through her. Losing oxygen fast her eyes began to close.

****

Lady Rue Langford picked up the breakfast tray, then applied her knuckles to the thick iron door, calling out a name. As she waited she looked back at the prisoner covered in blankets.

Metal grinded and scraped against metal as a bar was lifted, a key sliding into a lock from the outside. She slipped through, careful to keep balance for the sake of the candle atop the tray. She halted just outside the door allowing the flame to steady on the wick.

With a council meeting underway, two of the Alpha's most trusted guards - married as well - were left to tend to the Alpha-heir's mate.

"May I take that for you my Lady?"

"No, no, I can manage," replied Rue. "You must mind your duties."

She walked with haste into the main tunnel eager to get out. Gasping at the first hint of fresh freedom she slowed a bit to not extinguish her only source of light. Her heart pounded as she knocked on the last doors separating her from liberation. The door seemed to moan as it was lugged open. Rue sucked in her first breath of precious air as she stepped out into a flood of blinding sunlight.

"Take this to the kitchens”, she said to one of the guards passing him the tray.

"Of course my Lady."

"Is the council still in session?" she asked the other.

"Yes, my Lady."

She gave them both a nod and walked away with purpose.

Rue didn’t even blink when the prismatic light from the rock-crystal chandelier tickled her eyes and skin as she walked up the grand staircase, grazing the banister with her fingers. She took a small, inconspicuous door towards the top, opening up to a steep corkscrew of stairs. After climbing and climbing she emerged to a gently sloping rooftop, the glass Adam dome arching proudly above the tiles.

The lustrous sun warmed her face giving her a last push of courage. Not a single cloud threatened her, giving way to the infinite blue.

Rue took a sure step onto the tiles. A smile flitted across her face as she Turned, disappearing into the clear sky.

****

Kimber glanced once more out the window as sweat ran down his brow. The meeting was filled with topics of relative triviality; silver sales, a few minor neighborly disputes, expenses, expenses, expenses. He heard the furious footsteps before anyone else did and was already looking at the door when his mother burst in, four guards at her flank.

“What is the meaning of this!” snapped Claude Grady at the sight of her.

Lady Langford gave him a dismissive flick of the hand. "Sunniva is gone," she snapped, addressing her husband and son.

The roar of the council was a flood of pleasure in Kimber's ears.

"You helped her didn't you!" accused Grady pointing a finger at Kimber’s mother.

"No, she couldn't have possibly,” spoke one of the guards.

“We saw Lady Langford leave the Dead Room,” continued another guard, a confused look upon his face. “But when he heard nothing for over an hour we looked in to find Lady Langford unconscious under the blankets on the only bed in there. Alone. Miss Williams appears capable of tricks we are unaware of."

The clamor of enraged councilmen swelled again.

"All the more reason to find her," yelled Grady.

"She must be captured!" insisted Acton.

"And contained!" added Larousse.

"The gameskeepers must be notified!"

"But we can't Turn now in broad daylight-"

"Someone will have seen which direction-"

"We can still pick up her trail-"

"-start on foot-"

Kimber almost revealed a smile at their vain attempts. None of them could track her. None of them knew how. He kept his expression grave to show that he indeed agreed the news to be dire.

"My Lord this escape is your son's fault," accused Devon Rickman. "Had he bred her like we advised she might have been properly subdued."

Christoph pounded an angry fist on the table, the inkwells and quills and abaci jumping like beans with it. “Then perhaps you best direct your complaint to him, Sir Rickman.”

The faces of the councilmen turned to Kimber who stood looking out the window, a shadow from the glazing bar slashing grey across his face. He held his hands loosely behind his back as he peered through the glass.

"I asked for approval for my marriage to Miss Williams nigh on a year ago which was denied due because of a foolish belief.” Kimber kept his voice was low and deliberate, hoping to convey gravity. “When I decided on patience allowing Miss Williams time to Turn when she was comfortable, I was betrayed by a fellow member of the council. It almost resulted in the death of the most powerful female any of us have ever known.” He turned to the men, unsmiling, wondering if at least in their limited way, they understood the grave error they had made. “Neither your wisdom nor your advice seems to be of value."

Eyes flicked back and forth as if to cast blame on this man or that.

"She still must be returned," reminded Adam Richards.

A round of agreement fluttered through the room. Even Lord Langford gave a small nod.

“You are certainly right, Sir Richards,” said Kimber. “Tonight then. At sun down as our laws dictate. So I suggest we all get some rest.”