A rustling to my right made me swirl around just in time to see a man jumping down from a tree. Had he been wolf or human, that stunt would have cost him at least a sprained ankle, but he gracefully landed on both feet without so much as a scratch on him. One look at his face confirmed my theses: the man was a vampire. He must have been turned in his early forties. Pitch black hair, thick dark eyebrows, and skin the color of honey, his ancestry appeared to lay in the middle east.
“My Lady.” He took a deep bow. “I am delighted to make your acquaintance. My name is Hamid, a member of the Council’s guard.”
Contrary to his fellow Councilors, the Council didn’t directly rule over a coven or the clans associated with them. He watched over and advised the Councilors and the clan heads under them, but he couldn’t command them as he pleased. That’s why he had his guard, a group of ten vampires turned by the Council himself and only loyal to him. So the brief lesson Caleb had given me on vampire politics prior to our dinner date with the Council in Paris proved to be useful after all.
I probably should have anticipated to meet someone while exploring, but so far, I had lucked out and didn’t encounter a single soul. Now that I actually did meet someone, I just stood there, completely thunderstruck and at a loss for words. My little furry friend was no help in this situation. Her big eyes rested on me as if she waited for me to pass my verdict on the stranger.
“May I ask what about the garden incurs your displeasure, my Lady?”, the vampire asked. That I hadn’t returned his greeting didn’t seem to bother him at all.
Was my repugnance showing so openly on my features?
“It’s too perfect”, I honestly replied. Something about Hamid compelled me to speak the unadorned truth without thinking – maybe the fact that he was so straightforward himself. “It doesn’t have a personality.”
“Then help it get one”, he shrugged, as if this conclusion was obvious.
“You are the Lady of the house”, the guard declared. “As such, you have the authority to change whatever you desire.”
He flashed me a challenging smile, a cheeky sparkle in his eyes.
“I am looking forward to see what you’ll do with the place.”
Gone he was, vanished into thin air from one second to the other.
Flabbergasted by this strange encounter, I needed a few moments to collect myself and process what just happened.
“I am … I am not the Lady of the house!”, I stammered, even though the vampire had disappeared and I was well aware I talked to myself. I needed to say the words out loud, get them out of my head and into the world. No matter what the Council or any of his underlings claimed, no matter what powers this cursed tattoo held that had been forced on me: I wasn’t and never would be a mate to anyone else but John! Never!
Fueled by anger, my steps took me further and further away from the castle until I reached an old, lonely Oaktree that guarded the entrance to a small forest. Suddenly overtaken by exhaustion, I propped myself up against the trunk, beads of sweat on my forehead. Instinctively, I called on my wolf to lend me some of its strength, but I got no answer. Confused, I looked at my still painfully human hands that refused to turn into paws, until the red teardrop on my wrist caught my eye. The harsh reality of what had been done to me found its way back into my conscience, and I clasped a hand over my mouth to suppress the scream that lay on the tip of my tongue.
My feet too wobbly to carry me any longer, I sank on my knees into the soft grass. The white puppy sat down beside me, pity in its gaze as if the animal understood what was going on. I reached out to pet it which it happily accepted. The feeling of its soft, warm fur under my fingers was soothing. Pleased, the puppy curled up beside me, eyes closed in silent bliss. Being content. Being happy. I didn’t even remember how that felt like. After John's death, I was convinced my life had hit rock bottom. Never could I have imagined that was merely the beginning of my misfortune. Now here I was, stripped off my wolf and at the mercy of one of the world’s most lethal creatures: the head of the vampires. Where did it all go wrong? What did I do to deserve this?
A shiver ran through my body and I rubbed my cold, bare-naked arms. The chilling autumn weather hit me with full force now that I hadn’t moved for some time. I had exchanged my nightgown with a simple, short-sleeved, thin cotton dress, but it hadn’t crossed my mind to take a jacket or a shawl with me. I had just wanted to get away from this horrible place as fast as possible.
"Here, take this."
A knitted cardigan dangled in front of my eyes. Looking up, I saw the Council towering over me. As always, he wore his charming smile that was devoid of any warmth and a suit that fit him to a T. Great, just the person I was waiting for!
I snatched the cardigan out of his hands. Refusing it would be childish, and I didn’t want to give the vampire anything he could hold against me.
"Leave me alone!", I snapped through jittering teeth.
"Dinner will be served shortly", he let me know.
"I am not hungry."
"You can either walk back on your own two feet, or I'll throw you over my shoulder and carry you. The choice is yours", the Council replied infuriatingly calm, not even trying to reason with me.
Swallowing my disdain because he wasn’t one to make empty threats, I took the hand he had extended and allowed him to help me up. The puppy got on its feet as well, locked eyes with the Council – and then ran towards the castle. I couldn’t blame the animal. I would have done the same if I could have.
We hadn’t even reached the vast, too perfect garden yet when exhaustion hit me hard once more. I instantly knew I wouldn’t make it back without breaking down. Right after that thought had crossed my mind, I was swept off my feet and found myself in the arms of the Council.
"You are still weak from the transformation", he stated as dry as sandpaper. “I should have taken that into consideration.”
Yeah, and whose fault was that? I clenched my fists, biting back all the snarky comments that lay on the tip of my tongue. There was no point in arguing with that arrogant bloodsucker. It was a battle I couldn’t win.
"I'll order the maids to prepare a hot bath for you, that will relax your sore muscles."
Neither of us said a word until we entered the castle.
"You can put me down now, I can walk the rest of the way."
He ignored my command, which didn’t come as a huge surprise. I was carried until we entered the dining hall and reached the head of the ridiculously long table that was the center of the room. The table was only set for two, which seemed even more absurd. The Council pulled a chair out, silently ordering me to sit down before he claimed the seat at the head of the table.
“Henceforth, we will dine together should I not be engaged otherwise”, he declared. “Breakfast is usually served at half-past seven, lunch at half-past twelve, and diner at six.”
The double doors swung open and three servants entered with food tablets and drinks.
“My duties as the Council require frequent travels on most of which you will accompany me”, he continued after everything had been served. “You will have the majority of this time at your disposal. It will suffice if you show yourself as my blood mate at a handful of selected social events and smaller private gatherings.”
My nails dug into the table. The Council treated me like a mindless puppet he could toss around however it served him best, not even bothering to ask about my opinion in any of this. But then a flash of inspiration hit me.
“And what exactly makes you think I’ll just comply like an obedient little girl?”
I flashed him a challenging smile.
“Caleb fulfilled his side of the bargain, he kicked me out of the pack. That I would act as your willing slave was never part of this shady deal of yours”, I reminded him, scolding myself that I hadn’t thought of that earlier. “There is nothing you hold over my head anymore.”
The Council’s fake, charming smile never slipped.
Out of nowhere, two vampires appeared. Both radiated an intimidating aura, and a tight knot formed in my stomach. Whatever he was scheming, it couldn’t be something good.
One of the vampires was a young Asian female, her facial expression arctic. The dark red lipstick she wore combined with her almost white skin and her raven-black eyes, brows, and hair that she had tied back into a tight ponytail only added to that awe-inspiring effect. She wore a modern, dark-grey coat and a black turtleneck. The other one, a male of African descent, looked no less threatening than his female colleague. His chiseled, stony face held not the slightest hint of emotion, and his breathtakingly beautiful dark skin combined with the black wide coat and the brown tunic he was dressed in made him appear even more daunting and unapproachable. That he had a long, white scarf slung around his neck didn’t soften his appearance in the slightest.
“Gag the new servant boy and bring him here”, the Council ordered.
Gone they were again.
He gracefully unfurled a thick white napkin and draped it over his lap. Then, he started to elegantly spoon his soup. In other words, he was calmness impersonated, as always.
“Eat as long as it’s warm”, he advised, as if the ominous scene with his two scary minions hadn’t happened.
I was so dumbfounded by this unexpected reaction of his that I was at a total loss for words. What, in the goddess’s name, was the meaning of all this?
A mere minute later, the two creepy vampires returned – a gagged, young human male with a panicked face between them. The human desperately mumbled into his gag and brazed himself against their tight grip with all his might, but it was obvious he didn’t stand a sliver of a chance. Vampires were much stronger than humans.
The Council took his napkin and lightly dabbed the tips of his mouth, then he nodded towards an empty spot on the table.
“Break the bones in his right hand”, he commanded.
Lín and Badu effortlessly dragged the human to the indicated spot, forced his hand on the table, and while Lín held his hand in place, Badu formed a fist and did what he had been instructed to do in one quick, forceful blow. A horrifying cracking sound reached my ears that made all my hairs stand on end. Everything happened so fast that I didn’t have time to avert my gaze. The man’s eyes widened in pain and he screamed in his gag.
“You are right, I do indeed not have anything to hold over your head anymore, although our little friend here probably hopes otherwise.”
The Council took a sip of his wine, not bothered by the whimpering human at all.
“Having all the bones in your limbs shattered … It must be very uncomfortable, don’t you think?”, he casually asked, the glass still in his hands.
It was a rhetoric question, of course, a threat to make clear what would follow if I continued to disobey him.
“Let him go, he has nothing to do with this!”, I demanded, voice so thin I feared it would break any second. “I am the one you are dissatisfied with”, I swallowed and put my hand on the table, “so you should punish me instead!”
“Continue with his other hand”, the Council said, paying my words no heed.
“No, stop!”, I screamed, foolishly thrusting out my arm as if that could change anything. Why, just why, were a bunch of those humans stupid enough to devote their whole life to one of those crazy bloodsuckers?
The Council held up his hand and the two vampires immediately stopped in their tracks. Then, he turned towards me, eyebrows raised in expectation.
“I will obey”, I promised, angry tears in my eyes. I knew I could never forgive myself if he continued to torture that human to punish me for my defiance. Yes, the man was very likely well aware what madness he was getting himself into when he signed up to serve a vampire, but to my frustration, that didn’t lessen my guilty conscience the least bit. “Let him go, and I will obey.”
“Escort the young gentleman to his chamber and call for the doctor.”
Lín and Badu took a light bow and dragged the still pain-stricken young human out of our sight.
“You are a monster”, I bit out between gritted teeth.
The Council took another sip of his wine.
“I never claimed I wasn’t.”
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