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Jessica Rules the Dark Sideby Beth Fantaskey
The snow swirls around her, and she stands with her back to me, her body enveloped in a bright red cloak. Crimson . . . Mihaelas color. The queen who once ruled the Dragomirs looks like a splash of blood against the expanse of white, and yet she is as strong and substantial as the jagged Carpathian rocks that rise out of the lonely Romanian mountain where we always meet.
I step toward her, not understanding. Why doesnt she turn to greet me? “Mother?”
And then Mihaela Dragomir does turn, her face obscured by the cloak. And in her hands she holds an object, something she presses against her chest the way a nun would cradle a cross. But Mihaela is no humble, pious sister, and that thing . . . It is no holy relic.
The stake . . . The bloodstained stake . . .
Luciuss stake, which he used to destroy his uncle—and which hed once nearly used to—
Thrashing, fighting off something that seemed to press against my chest, I struggled to sit up and opened my eyes to see firelight flickering against stone, and for a second I wasnt sure where I was.
Gradually, though, my surroundings sank in. I was in Luciuss home—our home. In our bed. That pressure on my chest . . . it wasnt . . . it was just the heavy blankets that we always needed in his—our—huge, chilly bedroom, even though a fire burned in the fireplace.
Taking a deep breath, I stretched out my arm and rested my hand on his shoulder, reassuring myself that everything was okay. As long as Lucius was with me, Id be okay.
Still, images from the nightmare came rushing back.
The stake, which I hadnt seen since the night Lucius pressed his fangs against my throat and recreated me as a vampire . . .
Why had I dreamed about it? And why had my birth mother—who would never harm me—been holding it?
Id started dreaming about Mihaela back in Pennsylvania, and those dreams had become more frequent since I married Lucius and moved to Romania. It was like my mother, destroyed shortly after my birth, was trying to protect me as I tried hard to follow in her footsteps and become a ruler, relying on a journal shed left for me for help. A posthumous wedding gift to guide me as I learned to be a princess.
My heart started beating faster again. Was I learning? I was trying . . .
Wriggling back down under the blankets, I moved toward Lucius in the massive bed—in which, as hed once confessed, hed probably been expected by the Vladescu Elders to take my life, conveniently removing his Dragomir bride from power and allowing the Vladescus to have unchallenged dominion over both our families. I kicked at the covers, sort of swimming through them, suddenly impatient to be right next to him.
Everything in his home—our home—seemed so big sometimes. Including the burdens.
Lucius slept on his side, facing away from me, and I pressed myself close to his back, feeling the coolness of his body. I shared that coolness, too, since hed bitten me, sealing our fate and a decades-old pact that had decreed our marriage in the interest of stopping a war between our rival families. Pressing tighter against my husband—how weird that still sounded—I listened to his steady breathing, which always calmed me down when I got nervous. Lucius wasnt scared. He thrived on ruling the clans. That was what hed been born and raised to do.
Or did he worry sometimes?
“Lucius?” I got up on one elbow and shook him gently, needing to see his dark eyes and hear his deep, reassuring voice. “Lucius?”
“Yes . . . yes?” he mumbled. He rolled onto his back and fumbled for me under the covers, which were expensive and stiff and made me miss the soft, worn-in flannel sheets on my bed in Pennsylvania. But how could a princess ask for flannel? “Yes, Jessica . . . ?”
Resting my hand on his chest, I felt it rise and fall so slowly that I wondered if he had already fallen back asleep. But I couldnt help asking in a whisper, so the guards outside our door wouldnt hear, “What does it mean if a vampire dreams about a stake?”
Lucius didnt answer, and I realized he was definitely sleeping—probably exhausted from yet another day of struggling to unite our obstinate families—so I lay back down and nestled against him again. In response to the pressure of my body, he turned and pulled me close, so I could feel the entire length of his powerful warriors body against mine, like a shield at my back.
High on top of that Romanian mountain, in the heart of a confusing castle that I supposedly governed but where I still got lost in the twisted corridors, the night got very still. Even the crackling fire seemed to get quieter. After a few minutes of forcing myself to forget about the nightmare, I started to drift off to sleep again, when suddenly Lucius muttered, barely whispering, his breath chilly against my neck, “Betrayal.”
I stiffened in his arms. Was he answering my question or caught up in his own dreams? His own nightmares?
Even if it was the latter, that wasnt exactly comforting. Did my husband have disloyalty—treachery—on his mind? And Lucius, like all vampires, put great stock in dreams . . .
“Betrayal.” I said the word out loud, trying to make sure it was even what Id heard him say. “Betrayal.”
At the sound of my voice, which was soft but audible enough to break the profound mountaintop silence, Lucius, seeming to get restless, wrapped his strong, scarred arm tighter around me, so I was trapped against his chest.
I took his hand and tugged to give myself some space to breathe. He didnt let go, though, and I tried to move him again. Against my fingertips, I could feel another deep scar—an X on his palm that marked him as mine, cut into his flesh at our marriage ceremony—and his wedding band on his left hand. His dominant hand. The one hed used to wield the stake when hed held me in a very different way, in that same castle, not too many months before.
Of all the grim chambers in the Vladescu castle—not counting the subterranean dungeons, of course—the one that served as a courtroom had to be the worst.
Like every other room aboveground, this one had a fireplace with a blazing fire, but the flames seemed more hellish than cheerful. They cast scary, shifting shadows on the gray rock walls and definitely didnt do much to warm up the stark décor, which consisted of a semicircle of benches for witnesses, a worn spot on the stone floor where the accused would stand, and a long table, where I sat next to Lucius in a hard, straight-backed chair. The Elders waited in similar seats on either side of us, all of the ten older vampires sitting remarkably still.
Shifting in my chair, I tried—and failed—to get more comfortable.
I should sue the people who designed the My Little Pony Crystal Rainbow Castle I played with in kindergarten. They led me to believe that castles were filled with rainbows and cupcakes and pastel-pink furniture. Not stone and fire and . . . blood.
Turning a little bit sideways, I tried to meet Luciuss eyes, but he was staring straight ahead, obviously preoccupied. He was also very still, except for his left hand, which absently rubbed his jaw right where he had a small scar. I knew that meant he was hiding tension, and the butterflies in my stomach got worse.
If Lucius is tense, how can I even imagine handling this?
My husband seemed to sense that I was getting very nervous, and he shifted his eyes just long enough to remind me, “Dont freak out, Jess. Weve talked about this. Its part of our duties.”
Well, Lucius had never used the phrase “freak out,” but we had discussed how my new responsibilities included handing down justice, and sometimes sentences of—
“Let the accused come forward.”
I jumped as Luciuss commanding baritone suddenly echoed off the walls, and turned with a sinking heart to see that we had been joined by a vampire who stood at the back of the room, hands shackled and head hanging low.
Hes a killer, I reminded myself as my mouth got dry. A bunch of witnesses saw him destroy my uncle Constantin Dragomir. And what Im doing is just like serving on a jury. Regular humans do that all the time!
I glanced to my left, seeking reassurance that I wouldnt be alone in deciding the fate of the prisoner who was shuffling toward that pale spot on the floor. But my uncle Dorin—the only Elder I considered an ally—wasnt there, and I ended up meeting the gaze of Claudiu Vladescu, who smirked. Maybe at the growing panic that must have been apparent on my face—or maybe at the prospect of hearing testimony about a murder.
My stomach got queasier. Claudius just like his older brother, Vasile—another evil, vicious vampire, whom Lucius destroyed.
Although I knew I was squirming way too much for a princess, I turned to watch Lucius again, just as he said, in a steady voice that I couldnt imagine summoning if I had to speak, “Tell your story to this panel, Dumitru Vladescu, and we will decide if you deserve mercy—or punishment.”
I should have given my full attention to the vampire who was about to fight for his life, but I kept watching my husband, who had stood on that circle himself just months before and fortunately been found not guilty of Vasiles death. Luckily, the majority of the Elders—not counting Claudiu, of course—had believed that Vasile attacked first, giving Lucius no choice but to defend himself.
I never let myself think about what could have happened at that trial, and was glad I hadnt even known about it until long after the verdict had been handed down.
I continued studying Lucius. How can he even bear to be in this room, let alone coolly direct everything? And if todays verdict is guilty, wont he have to . . . ?
“Speak,” Lucius urged his relative. “This is your chance to save your existence.”
I heard both command and compassion in Luciuss order, but my cold blood suddenly felt like ice. An existence might really end today. Im not just part of a jury. Im the judge, and Lucius might be . . .
Fingers gripping my chair, I finally forced myself to face Dumitru Vladescu, who raised his head, so I could see his dark, terrified eyes, because if he was found guilty . . .
I wasnt even sure Id cried out loud, but the squeal of my chair as I jumped up probably drowned out my voice anyway. “Excuse me,” I mumbled, bowing my head. “I . . . I need to leave. I dont feel well . . .”
I couldnt look at Lucius as I stumbled from his side. And I certainly didnt look at Claudiu or the other Elders, who would be all too aware of why the American girl raised by vegans was rushing out of the room, nearly tripping over her long formal dress.
“Excuse me.” The Elders pulled in their chairs so I could pass behind them. “Sorry . . .”
I knew that I was—again—hurting Luciuss and my chance of winning a crucial vote of confidence later that year, when the most influential Vladescu and Dragomir clan members would convene at a big summer congress of vampires. A vote that could elevate Lucius and me to king and queen. Yet I couldnt stay there, even if leaving doomed us to failure.
I practically ran past the prisoner, not looking at him, either. But as I hurried toward the door, I did catch the eye of one vampire I hadnt noticed before, even though I should have expected her to attend the trial of her fathers killer. My cousin Ylenia Dragomir, eighteen, like me, small and wearing black, sat alone in a corner, blending into the shadows as if she didnt want anyone to see her face while she heard the story of her dads murder recounted in detail.
I wasnt sure what the verdict on the prisoner would be, but I had never felt so guilty as when I left that room, letting down not just my husband, but the first friend Id made in Romania.
“Dont be so hard on yourself, Antanasia,” my uncle Dorin urged. He hovered near my desk, twisting his hands nervously, sympathy in his eyes. “I . . . I didnt make a very strong effort to attend the trial, either. Sitting in judgment—its not for everyone, you know?”
“Claudiu seemed okay with it,” I noted miserably. “And Lucius was fine!”
At least, hed acted fine, which was what really counted.
“Yes, well, Vladescus are legendary for their sang-froid,” Dorin reminded me. “They all have ice in their veins. And a few, like Claudiu, salivate to mete out some punishment. We Dragomirs, on the other hand, tend to be a little . . .” He couldnt find the right word, but I could finish the sentence easily enough.
Soft. Meek. Cowardly?
But was it so bad to want to avoid ending lives?
I pushed myself upright in my huge office chair, which had once belonged to my birth mom. The silk nightgown Id changed into—in a desperate attempt to make everyone believe I really was ill—kept making my butt slip off the leather seat, and when I shoved back, my feet dangled, so I felt even more like a kid playing at being a princess. A shamed kid.
At least one Dragomir—Mihaela—never shied away from a trial.
Have I gone too far, with the pajamas?
“I guess theres nothing I can do now except try to redeem myself at tomorrows meeting with the Elders,” I said, looking glumly at a huge ledger that was open on my desk. “I can at least try to make a few intelligent points when we discuss this budget.”
Yet I didnt have much hope for that, either, as I scanned columns of numbers that supposedly represented how much Lucius and I intended to spend to govern a shifting, borderless, crazy kingdom of vampires I hadnt even known existed until recently.
I slumped in my seat, thinking, Sure, Im a mathlete, but Im also a teenager who just last year worked for three-dollar tips, not millions of euros in taxes!
And who even knew vampires collected taxes?
“Dorin?” I closed the ledger with a thud, because my worried, distracted mind kept skipping ahead to an even bigger meeting that would take place later that year, making it impossible to focus on numbers. “What is the vampire congress really like, anyhow? I have trouble picturing this event where Luciuss and my fate will be decided.”
“Oh, goodness . . .” Dorin stepped back and wrung his hands again, but this time he seemed happy and nostalgic about a week that I dreaded. “The congress is quite an event! The most prominent Vladescus and Dragomirs gather from all over the world, and while business is conducted, of course, its also a chance for us to socialize. Parties every evening for a full week, with the best food and music. In the past, the estates have been decorated beautifully enough to rival your wedding!”
His eyes practically glowed, and I wished that I could get excited about the prospect of hundreds of my relatives wandering around the castle. “So its basically an oversized undead family reunion?”
“Yes.” Dorin nodded. “It has been held each year since the pact that decreed your marriage was signed, uniting our clans. And this year will be extra special, as we celebrate the lasting peace achieved at your wedding.” He smiled even more warmly. “Your mother hosted the very first congress, shortly before her destruction. She would be so proud to see you take over that role.”
I slipped on the seat again and pushed myself back up.
How would I feed and entertain eight hundred vampires when I couldnt even order dinner from the kitchen for Lucius and me? I would mess up the whole event, and my relatives would all laugh as they cast their “no” ballots in the vote of confidence on the last day. I was doomed to bomb at my own party, and ruin Luciuss future, too.
“Its going to be a disaster,” I admitted out loud, for the first time.
“Antanasia!” I looked up to see Dorin pressing a finger to his lips, shushing me and nodding toward the door.
I knew immediately that Id made yet another mistake. Emilian, the young guard who was always posted just outside the room whenever Lucius couldnt be with me, was never supposed to hear me complain or show weakness. Servants—even loyal ones—were notorious gossips, according to my husband, whod dealt with “underlings” his whole life, while Id been mucking out stalls on a no-kill farm.
If Emilian told anyone I was predicting disaster at the congress, word would spread like wildfire that I couldnt even handle planning a party.
Dorin and I looked at each other, both of us probably thinking the same thing. That the only thing I did royally was mess up.
How is Lucius doing at the trial without my support?
And is my cousin Ylenia, whom I also abandoned, crying behind her thick glasses?
“Lets get back to the budget,” I sighed, opening the ledger again and speaking more quietly. “I think Im translating the Romanian wrong, because it seems to me that Lucius wants to spend sixty-five thousand euros on rabbits next year.”
“I do have a taste for hare—but I could never consume more than fifty thousand euros worth in one twelve-month span.”
I froze at the unexpected sound of a deep masculine voice and sensed my uncle seizing up, too, as we both swiveled to see Lucius leaning against the door frame, arms crossed.
And although hed just made a joke, his face looked troubled, maybe because Id admitted my ignorance too loudly after all, or maybe because of what hed just done at the trial . . .
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