The White Goddess

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Over the Top


Someone had left a pair of white boxes on the bed and a fancy gold embossed box with a white chiffon ribbon on top like small, medium, and large. Serafina didn’t get presents very often and couldn’t help a leap of excitement in spite of the occasion.

“These are all gifts from Mr King.” Elder Roselina smiled indulgently at Serafina’s tiny squeal. King never sent her gifts. He preferred to give her presents in person and always brought her birthday gift when he came to visit the week after her birthday.

The extra preparations turned out to be a bath, complete with a fizzy bath bomb that left a fine sheen of glitter on Serafina’s skin, and a visit from Elder Macklin, who showed up at her bedroom door with a perfunctory knock and a weird, almost paternal smile that gave Serafina the creeps.

Elder Macklin roamed around her room as Elder Roselina braided the vines and flowers in her hair, peering into her gift boxes, looking out the window, and scanning the sketches Ian had taped to her wall as he used words like ‘momentous’ and ‘bittersweet’ to describe the evening ahead.

When Serafina asked for specifics, Elder Roselina giggled and Elder Macklin would only say that it was a surprise. Then he started talking about Serafina’s impending womanhood again and she stopped listening.

It felt like forever before Elder Roselina finally shooed him out so she could help Serafina with her dress. Okay, something weird, Serafina mindlinked Ian. Apparently I suddenly need help getting dressed.

What? Why? came Ian’s immediate reply. The White Goddess’s dresses were always white, simple flowing silk or muslin sheaths, comfortable and light, more like fancy nightgowns than dresses. Nothing she needed any help putting on.

But the dress Elder Roselina took out of the big white box was anything but simple and light. Serafina supposed this was what happened when a man like King tried to shop for a fancy dress. He probably walked into some store and bought the most expensive white dress they had. The sales person had probably been too scared to tell him it wasn’t appropriate for a twelve year-old girl. King scared everybody except Serafina, Ian and Boone just by being himself. And Ian and Boone were scared of him sometimes, too.

Hello? Ian sounded irritated when she didn’t reply. Why do you need help getting dressed?

Oh wow. Serafina’s lips parted in shock as a beaming Elder Roselina fastened the last few hooks in the mirror. The white strapless dress clung to her budding hourglass curves and flared out at her waist in a full length princess skirt. The heavy fabric was sewn with pearls and lace appliqués. It looked more like a bridal gown than anything the White Goddess would wear.

What’s ‘oh wow’? Ian demanded. Let me see.

Serafina allowed him in, frowning uncertainly at her reflection in front of the full-length mirror. I mean, it’s pretty, but...

It looks like a wedding dress, Ian said flatly.

I know, right? The dress made Serafina feel uncomfortable, sort of squirmy inside like her body wanted it off. But it would hurt King’s feelings if she didn’t wear it.

The Elders must have been drunk when they picked it out, Ian grumbled.

Serafina giggled at the thought. It was a present from King, actually.

King bought you that dress? There was a frown in Ian’s voice.

And shoes, and something else. Serafina smiled as Elder Roselina took a pair of shoes out of the medium white box. These, King had definitely gotten right. Serafina slipped the soft, gold leather ballet slippers on her feet and wiggled them happily. A perfect fit. She loved them.

Ian waited for Elder Roselina to finish fussing and leave the room. What’s the other thing King bought you? he asked when Serafina was alone.

I don’t know yet. Serafina reached for the embossed gold box Elder Roselina had placed on the dresser beside the wood-framed standing mirror. There’s supposed to be a card, but I don’t see it.

Standing outside next to Conrad at the front of the Church, Ian’s eyes widened as Serafina opened the box with a gasp. Is that a crown?

Conrad gave Ian a strange look. “Do you know them?” he asked, following Ian’s unseeing gaze to a couple climbing out of their car.

“No.” Ian didn’t meet Conrad’s eyes as refocused his view to his present surroundings. He hadn’t told Serafina but he was ninety percent sure his trainer had figured out they could mindlink. Conrad hadn’t said anything though, not to Ian or the Elders.

Oh wow. A giggle escaped Serafina as she picked up the headpiece from its velvet pillow. He is so over the top.

With Conrad’s gaze fixed on the arriving guests again, Ian returned to Serafina’s view as she turned the crown in her hands, running her fingers over the intricate forest scene etched on the golden sides. Green stones sparkled in the leaves and blue stones studded a winding stream of water. A shiver of dread rippled down Ian’s back at the a pair of wolves under the clear glittering stones of the full moon. One was very large, with black stones for eyes, the other wolf much smaller with eyes of sparkling amber.

It’s beautiful though, Serafina said, turning to face the mirror. Watching through her eyes, a cold, dark shadow passed over Ian as she lowered the delicate gold headpiece onto her head.

Ian’s entire body tensed with the effort not to storm up to her room and tear it off her head. Serafina looked so happy right now, excited about her presents and wearing something sparkly like any young girl. Ian couldn’t ruin that for her over a bad feeling. Even if it was a bad feeling on top of the growing unease Ian had been feeling since the came back from the festival.

Ian forced his gaze back to his current surroundings, pretending not to notice Conrad giving him another strange look.

Where are you? Serafina was asking him now.

Look out your window, he said, turning to look up as the window flew open. Serafina leaned out, shivering as the rush of cold air hit her bare shoulders and arms. She always glowed, but today her skin actually sparkled in the sunlight, picking up the glittering stones in the golden circle on her head. Ian winced at the renewed shiver down his spine.

Conrad followed Ian’s gaze, giving him a thoughtful look before nodding a greeting to Serafina and fixing his eye straight ahead again.

Ian saw Serafina take in the long line of cars winding down the driveway, waiting to let their guests out in front of the doors. Guests had been arriving steadily for the past half hour and Serafina was meant to make her grand entrance soon. Ian was dreading it and he knew Serafina was too.

It seems like a lot more people than usual. A tremor of fear quivered in her voice. Serafina hated these events. Even regular Friday services made her feel overwhelmed and claustrophobic, plus the strain of playing Goddess, hiding her discomfort and anxiety behind a mask of gracious calm and pleasure.

And a lot more strangers, Ian agreed before he thought better of it.

Is that bad? Her voice, even through the mindlink, was small.

Ian couldn’t lie to her. His eyes remained on hers in the window. I don’t know.

Her sigh squeezed his heart. At least there won’t be any healings tonight, right?

Right. Ian offered her a tight smile, the most he could manage with the dark shadow of dread hanging over him. Other holidays had fallen close to Friday services before without combining the healings but Elder Macklin had been concerned that with the additional strain of the special twelfth birthday-slash-ascension to womanhood ceremony, it would be too much for her.

Ian had been pleasantly surprised and very relieved by his flexibility and concern for Serafina, the girl. It was getting harder and harder to defend Church leadership and Elder Macklin in particular for their expectations of the White Goddess.

They’d spent Serafina’s entire life trying to squash, then ignore, the needs of the human little girl who embodied her. Last year they even stopped calling her by name. Only Ian, Conrad (when no one else was around), King and Boone called her Serafina now. Everyone else, even her old nanny and the cook who had known her since babyhood, only addressed her as ‘Goddess’.

Ian took Elder Macklin’s decision to combine the healing services—something he had previously refused to do based on an obscure point of Church doctrine—as a sign that the old man, fanatic that he was, still cared about Serafina and not just the White Goddess.

But the huge SUV limo that came around the curve as it moved up in line told Ian differently.

It wasn’t his usual vehicle, but Ian’s sharp vision zeroed in on the ever-present wolf’s head hood ornament and the massive form behind the wheel. This was the reason Elder Macklin had combined the services. This was why Serafina wasn’t doing any healings tonight.

King’s here.

The thought materialized into words before Ian could stop it. Elder Macklin didn’t want King to know Serafina was still doing healings. That’s why. Combining the services had nothing to do with her well-being at all. Disillusionment washed over him. What made it even worse, deep down he wasn’t surprised.

What? Serafina’s entire demeanour had changed at the mention of King. Where? I don’t see him.

In that huge black limo, Ian said a little grudgingly. Serafina adored King, who never came to Church events. Whether his appearance was a good thing or a bad thing, Ian wasn’t sure.

He’d always had mixed feelings about the Church’s most important patron. For the most part Ian was glad when King and Boone came to visit. It made Serafina happy and the Elders eased up on her while they were here. King was kind to her, indulgent and affectionate, a father figure she sorely needed. Ian didn’t fool himself that as her Guardian he could fill every role in Serafina’s life.

But today... Today Serafina’s excitement felt like...like...Ian struggled to put his finger on it, but it was bad.

Can you not fall out the window please? he snapped as she leaned further out, the cool wind fluttering the flowers in her hair. Like a happy frolicking lamb who doesn’t see the shadow of the wolf behind her.

Ian’s heart wrenched with dread. That was it, exactly what Serafina’s excitement felt like. And the wolf was King, advancing closer and closer up the line in his hulking black limo.

Ian didn’t know many shifters—four, to be exact, including Elder Macklin and not counting himself—but there was no questioning King’s off-the-charts strength and power. To everyone but Serafina he was cold, ruthless, and unpredictably violent. Even Conrad, former Special Ops in the Empire Guard and USFC champion, submitted to King’s dominance.

King was a dangerous man. That was nothing new. But for the first time, Ian felt like he was a danger to her.

He told himself it was stupid. Serafina had King totally wrapped him around her paint-stained fingers. She drew everybody in, but King’s attachment to her was obsessive. Ian had heard Boone say as much himself.

Serafina was right: King was over the top and looking at some of the gifts he’d given her over the years, buying her a fancy dress and some jewellery wasn’t really out of character.

It wasn’t hard to imagine King walking into a store and buying the most expensive version of whatever he had in mind. It was probably just a weird, creepy coincidence that the dress King bought her looked like a wedding gown. And that instead of a necklace or ring or a bracelet, he’d bought her a crown.

“What’s wrong with you?” Conrad asked in a low voice beside him.

Ian turned to meet his trainer’s gaze. If King was Serafina’s father figure, Conrad was Ian’s. He was an outsider, a non-believer with a whole life outside the compound. Conrad never spoke against the Church and kept his thoughts on Ian’s role as Guardian to the White Goddess to himself.

What Conrad did do was ask questions. What would happen after the prophecy was fulfilled? What would Ian do if the Elders sent him away? He rarely waited for the answer, preferring to just plant the seed in Ian’s mind.

It was Conrad who taught Ian about wolves, packs, and the shifter Empire. Conrad taught him how to shave, how to hunt prey, how to talk down an unwanted hard-on. He was Ian's window into human and shifter world events.

Sometimes after training, Conrad brought Ian back to his house in Willow Beach. Conrad would order food and they’d eat and watch sports on TV. Sometimes Conrad’s buddies came over and if it was the Superbowl or some other big televised event, they made a party of it and invited women.

Ian was popular with women. A little more popular than he would have liked, but he wasn’t complaining. Conrad’s friends found it hilarious the way women of all ages hung over him. Ian was jailbait, despite his size and innate dominance over the average human male, but the twenty-nine year-old who took his virginity in Conrad’s bathroom when Ian was fifteen didn’t care. Neither did the series of women five, ten, and more years older than Ian over the next two years, by that time including women inside the Church as well.

Conrad never said as much outright, but his message was clear: This is the real world. He wanted Ian to know the life he was giving up by spending his life in service to the White Goddess.

Ian enjoyed the lessons enough not to tell Conrad the truth—that it was irrelevent. It didn’t matter what was out there, or how great life could be. Ian’s need to protect Serafina trumped everything, including his own life. They were bonded by blood and spirit. Wherever she was, that’s where Ian would always be, until someone came along he trusted enough to protect her. It was hard to imagine who that would ever be, but one thing Ian was sure of—it wasn’t King.

Conrad was still waiting for a reply. Ian decided to be honest. “I have a weird feeling about tonight.”

Conrad’s expression didn’t change. “Weird? Or bad?”

“Both,” Ian admitted, unable to help a look up at Serafina, still half-hanging out the window.

Conrad followed his gaze. “Is she wearing a crown?”

Ian nodded. “King bought it for her,” he said after a pause.

Their eyes held, then turned to the black SUV limo pulling up, the silver wolf’s head glittering in the winter sun.

“King buys her a lot of things.” It was Conrad’s turn not to meet Ian’s eyes.

Ian could make out the man behind the wheel now. He was huge, but he wasn’t Boone. If he worked for King, he might not even be human. The driver climbed out and walked around to open the rear passenger door.

“King!” Serafina called as soon as he stepped out. Boone and two men Ian didn’t recognize climbed out of the limo behind him.

Like he was yanked by a chain, King’s head snapped up to her window. Ian and Conrad exchanged a look at the slow, possessive smile that spread across King’s face.

Boone and the two men with them stared up at Serafina as well, the strangers’ heads together in whispered conversation. Talking about her. Boone’s gaze kept moving, sweeping across the front of the Church before returning to rest on Ian’s face. The cold, dark shivers returned, rippling over Ian in an unmistakeable warning.

The gnawing sense of danger hadn’t dissipated ten minutes later as Ian climbed the stairs to the second floor. If anything, it had grown stronger. It was time for Serafina to make her grand entrance but thanks to King’s unexpected appearance, she was dreading it a little less.

Ian couldn’t help a smile as she appeared in the doorway before he could knock. She looked beautiful, of course. Like a princess bride from a Disney movie. Ian’s smile immediately faded.

“Listen.” He didn’t move as Serafina stepped into the hall and closed the door behind her. “No wandering off on your own tonight, okay? Not with anyone. Not even to pee.”

She searched his face. “Is this about King?”

Ian brushed a stray curl from her face. “Why do you say that?”

“You just seemed weird about his presents and when he showed up you didn’t seem happy.”

“If you’re happy, I have to be happy?” Ian said lightly. “Is that how it works?”

“Well, yeah. Usually.” Serafina looked at him closely. “I thought you liked King. Well, trusted him,” she amended at the look on his face.

“Trust King?” Ian laughed shortly. “Uh...no. I trust him to protect you from getting hurt when you’re together. That’s about it.”

“What more is there?” Serafina asked, looking up at him innocently. A surge of love and protectiveness washed over him.

“Just—promise me.” He held her gaze. “Please.”

“Okay. I promise.” Serafina eyed him strangely. “But you’re being really weird.”

“I know.” Ian’s eyes went to the crown on her head and skittered away. “That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

Serafina sighed, clearly dreading every step closer to the evening ahead. The sounds of voices and tinkling glassware over soft strains of music grew louder as they reached the top of the stairs.

“Oh, no.” Serafina stopped short.

“What?”

She sent Ian a guilty look. “I didn’t close my window.” Her bedroom would be freezing by the time she got back and full of moths since she probably hadn’t turned her lights off, either.

Ian exhaled an impatient breath. “I’ll go.”

It was already cold in Serafina’s bedroom when Ian stepped inside, the wind fluttering the paper sketches on her wall. He stalked to the window and slammed it shut, earning a swift look from Conrad maintaining his position down below.

Ian let out a long breath. Pausing in front of the mirror before leaving, he tried to relax his expression. Serafina was already stressed enough without worrying about how he was feeling.

A flash of white caught his eye on the floor near Serafina’s dresser. Ian bent down to pick up the small white envelope. This must be King’s missing card. It was sealed, but Ian didn’t hesitate to open it.

No. Ian’s blood chilled at the three words scrawled on the card in King’s bold, sprawling handwriting, even as he told himself he was mistaken. He had to be.

Ian shoved the card into his pocket and stalked out of the room, but the words were etched on his brain.

For my Queen.

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