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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Blood-Bound

Copyright © 2018 by Kaelan Rhywiol

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

June, 2018


eBook ISBN: 978-1-948608-80-0

Print ISBN: 978-1-948608-91-6


Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers, rough sex with willing participants, reference to tickling as coercion, graphic violence, discussion of depression, suicidal ideation and past attempt, on page panic attack, ableist language as self-identification, allusion to rape, blood-letting and exchange, reference to self-harm.

Blood-Bound

Ace Assassin, Book One

Kaelan Rhywiol

Table of Contents

Dedication

Glossary

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Dedication

This book is for my husband and life partner, Kieru.

I could not do any of this without you.

Thank you for sharing my life.

One: Remember You Vows

RHIAN


“This is a story of vengeance, magic, lust, what it means to love, and what you’ll pay to have it. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s mine, and it’s real. Oh, and I swear a lot. Fair warning.”



Everything ached. I lay back in the hot water lapping around the curves of my breasts and inhaled the intoxicating aromas of jasmine, rose otto, and sandalwood. I needed to restock my essential oils next time I went Earth-side, or maybe just pay someone to go for me. I didn’t really like going to Earth anymore; it brought back too many bad memories. So many things I’d rather forget.

I lifted my foot and tried to let the cascade of drops from my toes distract me.

It didn’t work.

My heart burned like molten lead in my chest and my eyes stung with unshed tears. It’d been three hundred years since I’d fled our small, garret apartment. I’d carried nothing but my clothes and my beloved husband’s guitar.

My family had welcomed me with open arms, and I’d started training in their arts the next day. I rubbed my fingers together over the flat roughness of my bow-string calluses. I’m not sure I would’ve come if I’d known they were assassins. Not even with my father’s threat.

I dropped my head back against the curve of my pool and let the scalding heat of the water soak into my bones. I couldn’t age, but my years weighed heavy as the depths of the sea god Manawydan’s dark home tonight.

I opened my eyes to find dusk had stalked in on cat paws as I soaked. The coronas from my candles gleamed sparkling gold through the steam rising in drifting curlicues on the evening air.

My bath sat in the middle of my backyard, surrounded by riotous dark-green yew hedges. Eldritch hot tubs were so much better than the kinds on Earth. Or so I tried to convince myself. I leaned forward to refill my glass, then settled in to rest against the curved and polished bottom of the pool to sip my wine.

Hoping it would ease the ache of repressed tears as well as numb the pain in my arm.

I finished my drink, and the glass clicked against the polished stone lip of the pool. I needed my solitude, especially tonight. With a glance, I took in the wild pixies zipping over my garden and then listened with closed eyes to the buzz of their wings. All underscored by the mournful howls of the spirit-hounds as they cried their grief.

I’d caused that.

I nibbled a piece of cheese—also imported—a rich, double-cream Brie. Expensive as all get out, but what good was being a god’s assassin if I didn’t use my murder-gotten gains as I wished?

The hellish fire of strained muscles painted my shoulders from grappling my opponent, and I winced as I extended a leg. I think I’d pulled a glute too. Gave new meaning to the concept of pain in the ass.

Which this contract had been, and then some. My prey had taken me all over—this side of the veil—before I’d found and finished her. She’d made me slew through bogs, avoiding the water-leapers, so they didn’t try to eat me. The bat-winged, frog-like, carnivores called llamhigyn y dwr usually left we hunters alone, but avoidance equaled wisdom with something that could make me its dinner.

I lifted my left arm out of the water. Searing claws still raked up the nerves, but I sat watching the wound close that would’ve left a human in surgery for months. It had finally stopped bleeding and healed over.

I poked at it and winced. “Gormless nimrod.” My muttered exclamation hushed the pixies’ quiet murmurs for a moment, but then they went about their business.

The arm was still incredibly tender, and the skin stretched thin and silk smooth over the gouges and punctures. The rogue cwn annwvyn had been evil in the worst definition of the word, and canny with it. The spirit-hunting, red-eared, white hound had marked me well before I’d taken her down.

She’d betrayed our Lord and Master Arawn. She’d taken numerous children in a disgusting pact made with one of the Dark God’s banned scions. But she’d been my friend, and my heart ached with the memory of her blood spraying in searing arterial jets—the same brilliant red as her ears—across my face. My gut twisted at the recollection of how her eyes had glazed over as her life fled. I’d known Halley all my life—or most of it—for all the years since I’d run away from Earth, anyway.

I hadn’t wanted to kill her. The cries of her kin on the wind tortured my already broken heart.

I smiled through my heartache, a battle rictus more like, reaching for some joy to alleviate the grief. At least, I’d been able to restore a child to its family and recalling the sight of the mother’s face filled me with gladness. I only wished I could return all of the stolen bairns. I’d never wanted kids of my own, but seeing the mother’s weak-kneed joy had warmed my heart from the death-born chill of murder. For a while.

A buzzing whir akin to the sound of a hummingbird’s wings came from the darkened maw of the open doors of my home. The jet-black six-inch form of one of my servants—also known as nagging busybodies—zipped through the opening, her eyes blazing gold.

“Tsk. I wish you’d be more careful, mistress.” One of my few servants, Carys, was a burly pixie female dressed in nothing but her saffron yellow hair. She lifted the clay pitcher of wine to fill my glass. “You heal well, but I don’t like seeing you injured. You may be a big, bad hunter for our god, but you’re still my charge.”

Pixies, like most of us otherkin, took their vows seriously.

“Don’t fuss, Carys. Please. I’m absolutely knackered.”

“Yes. Well. I’ll worry if I want to.” She stuck her nose in the air and sniffed at me. With a sad look on her face, she said, “A messenger has just come and brought this for you, mistress.”

Carys’s great-granddaughter, Aderyn—one of the other pixies belonging to the small clan that made its home with me—flew into the back garden. She dodged curls of steam, carrying a gold-flecked green-black scroll case. I dried my hands on a plush teal towel before I reached for the elaborately carved item.

Only one being would send me something like that. The value of it on Earth-side would be enough to feed a small country given the price of kin-stone. The gemstone created from the crystallized blood of my people was rare, tightly regulated, and difficult to work with.

My guardian pixies waited like attendant cats while I uncapped the case, pulled out and unrolled the high-linen-fiber paper from its kin-stone spool. I read the words written in old Welsh three times before I believed them, and then rage boiled like bile in my gut, threatening to overwhelm me.

“No.” My voice echoed a broken note against the enshrouding hedges and standing stones of my garden as my present life crashed into the wreckage of my past.

“What is it, mistress?”

For a long moment, I couldn’t speak. Then I didn’t as I closed my eyes, concentrating, reaching within myself for the blood-bond with My Lord and Master. A bond born of loyalty and arcane blood ritual. ‘Why?’

He answered immediately. ‘As you have had a trying day, I will explain. This time. You are the only available hunter I have with the appropriate skill sets. You are deserving of the boon. You have served me well as a hunter for two centuries. It is more than time I honored you with a promotion and lands of your own. You are beautiful, which will be of aid to you as my ambassador. You have contacts in many layers of society, and you are currently off mission. It behooves me to send you there. Your abilities and attributes are ideal for the assignment and… you have avoided it long enough, my hunter.’

No, I don’t want it. No.’

Yes.’ His tone made it clear He’d accept no argument. That to Him, an immutable decision had already been made. ‘You have crossed the veil several times over the centuries, and you have never seen him. Never dealt with it. Aside from that, your predecessor has been murdered, and you are the only one with enough skill on the otherside in the twenty-first century to be able to solve the mystery. You are the only one of my hunters who I can send. It is immaterial that it is to London.’

He’s there.’

Yes. I expect you to find amelioration with him and remember your vows.’

I won’t—’

Do you love and trust me, my hunter? Do you have faith in me to know what is best for you, and to look out for your well-being?’

I did love Him, and I trusted Him, but this asked too much. I reluctantly answered, ‘Yes, My Lord.’

Congratulations on your promotion, my pwca.’

Yes, My Lord.’

He cut off the contact, and I sat in my bath, my arms wrapped around my waist. Tears leaked down my face in a scalding rain as my pixies looked on in worry.

“Which bloody vows?” My voice echoed forlornly in my garden, sounding as lost as my soul felt.

I liked the life I’d forged here in Annwvyn. I loved my home. I glanced up at its graceful, silvery branches swaying above my head. I adored my place among the other hunters, free of burdens other than the contracts given us by our Lord. I held no title and wanted none. I had the honor of being part of Arawn’s court with none of the responsibilities and the freedom to avoid most of my nasty family.

As His warrior, His messenger, His enforcer and assassin, He paid me well, and I got to exercise my bloodlust within acceptable boundaries. This? This boon of His? It tore me from everything I loved about my life, taking with it every ounce of peace I’d managed to find to fill the void in my heart.

“Fuck.” I reached for my wineglass and guzzled it.

Carys silently refilled it. “My lady?”

“He’s promoted me. The rat-bastard is sending me to the otherside to hold Ontario for Him.”

“But…isn’t that where—”

“Yes, of course. He knows that too.”

“Oh, my lady, I’m so very sorry.”

I laughed, harsh and bitter. “Me too, Carys. Me too.” I swallowed through a tight throat full of sandpaper. It hurt to force words out. “Pack my bags. I’ll need to cross over soon. His Lordship hasn’t ever been known for patience.”

“Yes, mi’lady.” The two pixies, jet-black bodies and brilliant hair flashing, disappeared into a tree the size of a skyscraper, my home, to pack my things.

I stayed in the tub, drinking wine like water and silently raging at my Master.

The hounds of Annwvyn continued to mourn.

Two: They Sing Their Pain

RHIAN


Earth-side, again. I’d crossed over a couple days ago, making calls and getting ready to move to Canada. Now, I sat on a passenger train as it slowed for its final approach into London two hours or so outside of Toronto.

Freaking settlers must’ve been missing home, almost everything I’d seen on the cross-country train-ride had been named after cities in the old-country. I adjusted my reclining seat as the train slowed with an easy, rhythmic, clacking of wheels on tracks. The polite announcement, in both English and French, that we’d arrived in London shouldn’t have sent chill fingers worming through my gut, but it did.

I slid my Chopard de Rigo Vision sunglasses over my face. I’d been ridiculously in vogue as a model the last time I’d tried to come back, and if I were photographed wearing the glasses, I’d get a kickback from the company.

I wasn’t rich enough that I couldn’t use more money, and I had no intention of modeling again, so a payout would be welcome. I’d popped back to do shoots for years, so I was still current…and, unfortunately, recognizable.

If I’d known My Lord had this planned for me, I would have stopped modeling and let my face become less well-known. At least the bloody glasses were large enough that I hoped I wouldn’t be spotted. Fat chance of that.

I tugged the frayed edge of my oversized dark-blue hoodie down over my forehead and nibbled my lip. Being back on this side of the veil irked me. This whole assignment enraged me. I hated what My Lord and Master had assigned me to do. I loved hunting, the track, the pursuit, and when I was being honest with myself, I loved the kill as well. It got me hot like sex never did. Almost never, you lying wanker. This position, this promotion, would take so much of that away from me. Especially now that I’d arrived in London. Investigating a murder wouldn’t let me ease my bloodlust. It just wouldn’t.

Here, I’d be responsible for overseeing the heads of otherkin clans and working out problems between them. I’d have to clean up any messes they’d inevitably make before the humans found them. I’d also need to maintain alliances and treaties with the various non-Welsh clans of supernats.

My Lord and Master had taken me from my beloved home, my job of an assassin, and plopped me into a fucking bureaucrat’s position. If He could die—and stay dead—I’d almost consider it, I was so pissed off at Him.

On top of that, I could almost feel the nearness of him. Of my husband. My beloved, my betrayer.

Fuck,” I muttered and stood up. The rest of the business-class passengers glanced askance at me, and I bit my lip again. I’d have to rein in my urge to cuss like an old sailor if I were going to be schmoozing with some of the upper crust. Gods forbid one act real around that lot. They’d glance away at their peers, delicately shudder and wince at the slightest hint that I wasn’t refined, cultured, normal. I could ape it with the best of them—but damn me for a sinner—it’d gotten old a few centuries ago, and I just wasn’t in the mood.

I shouldered my bag; it too was a gimme from a company hoping I’d be photographed with it. Unlike the sunglasses, I loved my bag. I adored it so much I’d used and worn it for close to a decade.

I didn’t have much in it, just a few personal mementos, ID, a change of clothes, a hair pick, and toothbrush. Intercontinental flights weren’t my favorite, because I actually hated to fly inside a plane, but I knew the routine well from my last sojourn on this side.

The last time I’d tried to come back. ’Cause fuck me with a swizzle-stick? That’d been a piss-poor idea. Just wait, I’m good at those.

In the time it’d taken me to get my bearings and travel from Cardiff, Wales, to London Ontario, Canada, my assistant and friend Meg would’ve managed a lot. She was almost eerily efficient and by now would’ve either ordered clothes for me or had my shipping container brought over. Probably both.

My heart rocketed in my chest, hoping against hope that he’d be there when I stepped off the train. He’d been informed by then that I was assigned here. What I’d have done if he were there, kiss him or kill him, I didn’t know.

I cursed myself for a pillock as I made my way through the vestibule, past the smiling service attendant and clunked down the metal steps. The sound of my heavy leather boots echoed in the well. My worn jeans chuffed as I purposefully dragged my heels against the floor.

Anything to break the habit of the catwalk stalk I’d used professionally. Anyone trained to kill thinking beings—you know, like me—could recognize another by their walk. I couldn’t let myself forget there was a murderer in London. It could even be Kai for all I knew, and he’d know what I’d become by now. After all, I knew almost everything about him.

In the sanguine trade, a person’s walk and hands were just as recognizable as their faces. With a murderer on my to-do list, I needed to change as much about me as I could. I walked into the VIA terminal and couldn’t stop myself from looking for Kai. But there were no towering, dark-haired, bronze-skinned men waiting for me. I’m barmy, bleeding daft.

I shook my head, stuffed my despair—stupid emotion—down into the darkness of my soul where it belonged, and pushed out of the station and into the balmy caress of fall sunlight. At twenty-four degrees Celsius, you’d never know it was late October.

I guess it must’ve been because this tip of Ontario was farther south than much of the upper northeastern US. The latitude and weather were apparently close to northern California’s, or so Meg had informed me when I called from a layover.

“Risk!”

I looked up just as my best friend rammed into me. My breath oofed out as she wrapped soft arms around my waist and buried her blonde head under my chin. I turned mine and rested my cheek on the top of her expensively highlighted hair. I held her deliciously curvy body close.

Meg.” I inhaled the scent of her; she always smelled like cinnamon and vanilla. I wished my body responded to her the way I wanted it to. I wanted—so badly—to love her as more than a friend, had wanted that for a long time—to be able to return her love, but I just didn’t work that way. There was only one person on the planet I’d never regretted having sex with. Him.

Last time I’d been on this side of the veil, I’d finally found words to describe my experiences with sex and romance. It still felt weird to have actual words, but at least knowing I’m gray-aromantic and demisexual made a huge difference in how gently I treated myself. For too long, I’d thought I was broken ’cause I didn’t feel desire like most everyone around me. Because, in general, romance in real life confused me.

Take the gorgeous armful of woman in my arms. I’m bisexual, and we’d been close for years. Having sex with my best friend could’ve been something to make me happy. Unfortunately, without a deep, emotionally satisfying connection, I didn’t desire sex. Just the way I’m built. If I tried to force myself—and I’d done more than my share of stupid shit trying to feel normal—I’d end up empty, numb, and really wishing I hadn’t gone there. Then would come the self-punishment because I’d tried again, adding nauseated and dirty to the mix. After that…well, some people ate to punish themselves. Some exercised. Me? I washed. I scrubbed myself ’til I almost bled to maybe, finally, get it into my thick freaking head that sex just didn’t work for me.

The soft weight of Meg’s breasts against my chest and the curve of her underwire push-up bra would’ve stirred just about anyone to desire. Not me. Even if I did just go for it and had sex with my gorgeous—in love with me—best friend with the delicious Irish accent, I’d regret it in the morning. My reaction might even ruin our friendship. I squeezed her, using a fraction of my strength, and she squeaked.

“Careful, a chéadsearc. I’m just a human.” She whispered the words against my throat in her heavy Dublin accent and dropped a quick kiss on my shoulder before pulling back. “Come on. Parking costs are rapacious here.”

I looked around the small downtown parking lot on Richmond and York. While the train station was gleaming and pretty—all concrete and shining glass—downtown itself mixed old buildings with faded murals and new pavement, upscale boutiques, mom-and-pop convenience stores, and head shops.

The stink of road work—tar, oil, and gasoline fumes—blended with the crisp scent of death floating in the air. The loamy reek of dying leaves and the earth sliding into sleep.

I hadn’t been back Earth-side for more than a day in over five years. Now My Lord expected me to live there. I shuddered. I’d gotten used to not hiding who and what I was. It would take me a bit of time to blend again, time I couldn’t afford.

Meg guided me to a lux BMW Z-series roadster. She unlocked the two-seater with a beep from her key fob. “I’ve got the house opened up, a rúnsearc, and we’ve an appointment at the couturier tomorrow for your first fitting.”

I groaned, let my head fall back against the butter-soft leather of the seating, and yanked the door closed. “Not another bloody dress?”

“Of course, you have a position to maintain. We’ll need to be holding some sort of formal meet and greet, like a ball with your clan heads sooner than later.”

The door sealed with a muffled, well-crafted thump as I belted myself in and tugged the hoodie down again. Meg’s vociferous hug had skewed it, revealing the scarlet shock of my hair.

She glanced sideways at me from big blue eyes as she pulled out of the parking lot and onto York. “You can’t hide who you are, Risk. The second you show your face without those ridiculous glasses, you’ll be recognized by someone. North Americans love European models, and you’re world-renowned.”

“Hey, these are the most expensive sunglasses in the world.” I cringed at the sight of my own face on a Balenciaga billboard as she drove up Springbank Drive. “Modeling was a bad idea.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I liked that black-and-white bikini on you. Their spring collection is sharp. Made you look as sexy-scary-dangerous as you really are.” She pushed her sunglasses up on her perfect—plastic-surgeon enhanced—nose. “Besides, if you hadn’t modeled, I’d never have met you, and I’m rather glad I did.”

“True, but I still have this sneaking feeling I shouldn’t have done it. It was different the last few times.”

Meg made a derisive noise akin to bodily effluvia and smirked. “Yes, darling… when the artists are using oil paint, it’s a bit different from digital photography. Besides, you said it yourself, the money was brilliant.”

“I didn’t need the dosh that badly.”

“Everyone needs the money, Risk. Even you. Even if it’s only as a cover for where your real lolly comes from.”

I stabbed a finger into the on button of the stereo system and smiled at the sounds of Yelawolf’s “Best Friend.” My soul happy, I said, “Cheers, Meg. I missed my music.”

“If you can call it that.”

“They sing their pain. It lets me feel mine. That’s why I like American hip-hop so much.”

Hmmm.” Meg turned onto Colonel Talbot and gunned the engine to take us over the hill. The car responded like the well-oiled, expensive ride it was and raced up the curving lanes of the road. Dark-green shadows of still heavily leafed trees wearing fall colors raced over us as Meg drove us to my new home. My new life. Our new home. My stomach roiled.

She put on her blinker and turned right onto Southdale. We passed small farm stands selling local produce. Cornfields and defunct orchards zipped by. We drove up and down twisty hills until we turned right on Westdel Bourne. A quick dog-leg and a left had us cruising up Elviage Drive to a private entrance.

Multimillion dollar homes dotted the landscape, surrounded by discreet, elegant gardens and old hardwood forests. She guided the overpriced car up the private driveway and reached up to tap the garage door opener on the back of her visor.

One of the four—my eyes widened—four garage bays opened up. Meg slid the Beemer into the cool dark of the building and turned off the engine as the door slid almost soundlessly shut behind us.

“I instructed the chef to prepare a luncheon for us before I left.”

My stomach grumbled, loudly. “We have a chef?”

“And a butler, accountant, lawyer, on-call concierge medical service, landscapers, poolkeepers, stable keeper, mechanic, underbutler, IT staff, web security, security team, personal trainer, on-call media liaison, and a masseuse.” She took a deep breath and rattled off another stream of people who worked for me. “We have a head housekeeper and cleaning staff, as well as a floral gardener on top of the landscapers. I’m pretty sure most of them are Tylwyth Teg, except perhaps the social secretary. Though, of course, I haven’t asked. The budget for entertaining the heads of your clans could feed a small country, and the one for entertaining the ambassadors of the non-clan otherkin? Wow.” Her lush lips—painted scarlet—quirked to the side. “Though I don’t recommend doing the two at the same time.”

“Gods. Fucking. Dammit.” My tone dripped vituperation. “I almost hate Him for this.”

How can you hate Him? He’s a god. Your god to be specific.”

“He’s also an arsehole who’s taken a very large portion of my choice away from me. I have no option but to see Alkaios again.”

Hmmm.” The disbelief and gentle I-told-you-so were so clear in Meg’s voice that I slid out of the car, grabbed my bag, and stalked into the house.

“Gods blind me.” My eyelids ached with how widely they stretched.

Meg’s smirk was audible. “Right? We’re used to the good stuff, but I wouldn’t doubt that the faucets and taps are real gold.”

I didn’t respond but looked around the new place.

The garage let us out onto the mosaic-tiled foyer behind one of two sets of sweeping stairs curving in opposing arches to a landing at the top. The staircases looked like wings and the mosaic depicted, with many tiny tiles, the Dark God in all His glory. Stag horns, cloven feet, and red robe. It didn’t come close to capturing His majesty, though.

Meg insisted on giving me a tour of the main floor, library, entertainment room, fully staffed kitchen, dining room with a table that could’ve seated thirty, ballroom with ridiculous chandeliers, and various other rooms, and then she led me back to the foyer and the front stairs.

“Come on, then.” With a wave of her hand, Meg kicked off her heels—heels that made me wince at their height and everything they reminded me of—and walked in her stockinged feet up the ivory-colored runner on the crimson-carpeted stairs.

I eyed the gracious curve of her calves and wished I felt desire for her. You know, good old-fashioned want-to-have-sex kind of desire. I didn’t, and that made my heart ache, because I wanted to. As it stood, I just appreciated the view. Aesthetic attraction, we asexuals called it. The desire just to appreciate how someone looked without going there, sexually.

The ivory gave way to gold-and-cream edged Prussian blue in the upstairs hall, and I sighed in pleasure when she showed me the bedroom. It was like someone had designed it just for me. Shades of peacock blue and black covered the real-silk wall coverings. Thick, soft carpets with designs carved into the nap cushioned our feet and the wood gleamed a deep, dark cherry. The bed was big enough to sleep a soccer team and dressed in cream-and-black sheets under a black-velvet duvet with an appliquéd silk peacock on the top.

Artwork in complementary tones hung on the walls and oh…maybe the hot tub on the otherside wasn’t as nice as that delicious Jacuzzi taking up half the floor space in the washroom. I could see right through the damned thing; it looked like it’d been crafted of transparent glass.

“Downstairs is the formal office, but there’s a small, top-of-the-line work space up here as well.” She strolled over to one of three walk-in closets and opened the double doors. “I’ve had the staff pack up Alan Ap Owain’s things, and you’ll need to decide what to do with his personals. I don’t know where his body is yet, but it won’t take me long to find out what your people have done with him. I’ve shipped in your designer and haute couture clothing. I doubt a few years out of date will change their value, and knowing you, you’ll bitch if I try to order too many more. Your personal effects have also been installed here from the shipping container in Cardiff.”

She turned and leaned her soft and curvy figure against the deep teal of the walls. “There’s one more shipment of gowns coming in. Your bike is in garage bay four, your helmet, too, and I’ve updated all your paperwork. It’ll take time to get your official cards, but you’re legal here.” She shrugged golden-skinned shoulders clad in a flowing purple asymmetrical top. “You also already have numerous phone calls to return to the groups you’ll be overseeing. Including to a Mr. Alkaios Caro de Leon.”

I set my bag on the bed and sighed as I shrugged out of the hoodie and stood in my thin tank top and jeans. Meg’s gasp was quiet but pointed. I raised a brow at her, a habit I knew bothered her because she couldn’t do it.

“How in the world did you get through an international airport and a train station with so many weapons?”

I let my lips kick up at the corners, even though that made my dimples cut deeply into my cheeks. “Glamour, what else?”

“You’re wild. Do you know that? I can’t imagine anyone trying that and actually getting away with it.”

I shrugged. She could be right.



KAI


“Yes?” I said into my phone, my heart in my throat.

“Aye, and you sure married yourself a tall drink of water, didn’t you?”

“She’s in town then? She came?” I closed my eyes in relief. I’d worried she’d throw her traces rather than come to the same city I lived in. I leaned my hips against my desk and crossed my arms over my silk button-down.

“She is at that. Last I saw of her, she was canoodling with a tasty blonde I wouldn’t mind sharing with you, My Master.”

“It’s the redhead I want.”

“And don’t I know that? I’m just teasing.” Lynn’s voice was a whiskey-smooth tenor, and just the sound of it eased me.

My blood-vassal Lachlan, Lynn for short, stopped razzing me.

“I saw her, Kai. She got off the train, wearing ridiculously expensive sunglasses if they’re real, and her friend took her off in Alan’s red Beemer.”

“Thanks, Lynn. I’d have gone myself, but there’s no way she wouldn’t have recognized me.” My heart ached that I couldn’t get close enough to my wife to hug her the way I wanted to. She’d been crafty quarry for centuries, and now that she’d been assigned not only to my province but the very city I lived in, I could exercise patience. It was the only way I’d ever get close enough to her to tell her how sorry I was. “I wish I’d thought to ask you to get a picture of her. I’d kill to see her again, but a picture would’ve been nice.”

“Check your texts, my Master. I sent several to you.”

“You’re so good to me, Lynn. Thank you.”

“I’ll be home soon, love.”

“Good. I miss you.”

I hung up and tried to distract myself with work. Of course, I failed miserably.



The door to my suite opened behind me as I stood looking down through a wall of glass over my gardens. A clink of glassware came from the bar and then liquid sloshing into crystal.

Lynn came to stand next to me, handing me a glass. “You look like you need a drink.”

You could say that.” I slugged back a sip and gasped at the burning. “Puta madre! How can you drink this stuff all the time?”

He shrugged one purple silk-clad shoulder. “Mother’s milk.”

I side-eyed him. “Wasn’t your mother a laundress?”

“Aye, and that she was. Why do you think she drank?”

Hmm.”

“Finish your scotch and I’ll get you a glass of wine. Pansy.”

“You did not just call your vampiric Lord and Master a pansy.” His teasing had the desired effect, and I didn’t bother to suppress my smile. Lynn could always do that for me.

“Sure an’ I did, now.” His lips curled as he sipped his drink. I shook my head and drank the nasty liquor like medicine.

The second sip wasn’t so bad, likely because I’d killed my taste buds.

I tried holding the liquor on my tongue like Lynn did and then puckered my lips. Yuck. “I need to get you to call Tiriaq, on the northern border. I was supposed to do it, but I’m frazzled, can’t hold a thought straight.”

“Of course. I’ll ring him up after dinner. He’s going to push, you know.”

“I know. I haven’t figured out how to give him what he wants yet. The tribes are really resistant to him because he’s infected with white-eyes magic. Even if he is one of their own.”

“I don’t get that. I really don’t.”

“You also aren’t part of a repressed and abused minority.” I shook my head and grimaced my way through the rest of my drink. “His idea is solid; it’ll get badly needed funds and infrastructure to the northern tribes, we just have to sell it right.”

“I’ll leave that to you then, but I can call him. Been too long since we chatted, anyway.”

“Still not comfortable with social media?”

“Nah.”

“You can’t let yourself fossilize, Lynn. Staying on top of change is the only way you survive as a nigh-immortal.”

“I’m not one.”

“I know. We should talk about that.”

“Not tonight.”

He took my glass and I let him avoid the conversation again. Eventually, I’d have to push the issue. As time passed, it became urgent. The pop of a cork behind me dragged my attention away from my grim thoughts.

Three: The Fucking Phone Rang

RHIAN

Two days later


The fucking phone rang.

I didn’t want to answer it. I knew who’d be on the other end. It’d be him, one of the few assigned clan heads who I hadn’t blood-bonded yet. My husband.

“It’s him, again,” Meg said as she bumped the drawer of the filing cabinet closed with her ample hip and sauntered into the kitchenette. I appreciated the way the full curve of her ass swayed in her skirt and propped my heels on the desk. Meg didn’t mind if I admired her. “I know it’s him. I can see the bloody caller ID, can’t I now? And how did he get this number, anyway?”

“So answer it.” Her voice licked over me in an acerbic flame.

“I don’t want to.”

“Risk.”

“Fuck.” My cuss should’ve scalded the desktop I sat in front of. The phone shrilled again. My hand gleamed a ghostly white against the black plastic of the handset as I picked it up.

Dyma ei’ch cartre chi hefyd,” I said, giving the ritual greeting of an ambassador to Annwyvn to one of their people. “Risk speaking.”

“Rhian.”

Just the sound of his fucking voice and the crotch of my panties grew wet. I rolled my eyes up—heaven fucking help me—to look at the decorative carvings on the ceiling ten feet above my head. The black leather office chair squealed as I leaned back. The dark blue of the walls should’ve been soothing, but just then they weren’t. The gleam of the expensive white Italian-marble floors echoed under Meg’s heels as she moved around in the kitchen.

“You’ve reached kin-home. How may I help you?”

Really? Me estás jodiendo verdad?”

I clenched my jaw, and it almost creaked. “Yes. Really, I’m not fucking with you.”

He blew out an impatient breath. “Fine. Stubborn, as always. Why am I not surprised? Scuttlebutt in the supernat community is you’ve left me for one of the last. Are you ever going to get around to bonding with me? It’s a weakness in your defenses, and mine, to leave it undone.”

Eyelids closed, I nibbled at my bottom lip for a fraction of a second. “Are you available tonight?”

“I can be.”

“Well, fuck.” I blew out a frustrated breath. I really didn’t want to see him again.

“Always your favorite swear, Rhian.”

“Stop.”

“No.” His amusement layered heavily in that growly bass voice of his, and my nipples tightened under my tank top. They ached around the curves of my piercings.

“When? Where?” I bit out the words like they tasted bad.

Two hours. My estate.” His voice, that voice, melted me from the inside out. “I assume you know where it is.”

A growl that had nothing to do with a human throat erupted from me. “I know where you are.” I always had. “Out on Kilally Road.”

“Good. I’ll be waiting, Rhian.”

I slammed the phone back into its cradle without regard to my strength. The plastic splintered and the buttons went flying. “Fuck fuck fuckity fuck.”

“I’m sure he still would.” Meg’s sultry soprano voice came from the high-end kitchenette in the office. She stood in front of the espresso maker, warming cream for my tea.

“Dark God curse me… Why did He send me to London? He could’ve sent me anywhere but Canada, anywhere. Why here?”

Meg seemed abnormally absorbed in making the drinks. “You know the answer to that, Risk.”

He said I’d hidden long enough. I wasn’t hiding.

She snorted. “You were too. You went to the otherside five years ago to lick the wounds your modeling career gave you. You were trying to re-accustom yourself to this side of the veil. It failed miserably, and you ran home with your tail between your legs. Don’t lie to yourself.”

I puffed a breath up over my face and cracked my neck to ease the tension.

“Alkaios. He’s not—”

“Your husband anymore? The only person on the planet other than your god—who isn’t even on this plane—that makes you squeeze your thighs together? The only one who makes you want to kneel at his feet? Of course, he is.”

“For fuck’s sake.” I shoved my office chair back and braced my black leather biker boots on the edge of the polished ebony desk. My fingers tingled, so I flipped a dagger out of my thigh sheath and flicked it through my fingers in a soothing motion. It bugged the ever-living shit out of me that Kai could get into my heart and my panties so damned easily. So little else in life actually moved me; it pissed me off that Kai still could.

“You can’t continue avoiding him.” She opened the mini-fridge to fetch some snacks to go with our beverages.

I blew out a breath. “I want to.”

“I know, honey. I know. You can’t.”

“Well, why the fuck not?”

“Risk, really. That’s so childish. You married the man after all.”

I glared mutinously at the busted phone and shot the blade in my right hand to my left. It reflected light like a flying fish as I caught it and rapidly interwove it through my fingers.

“How can you do that?”

“Do what?” I muttered, continuing to glare at the phone.

“That.” Meg pointed at my left hand.

I stilled the blade and brought the flat to my lips. The cool metal against the heat of my bottom lip grounded me. “It’s…it’s just me. Centuries of practice?”

She snorted and tossed back a lush fall of hair the color of ripe wheat as she sauntered toward the desk with more natural feminine allure than I’d ever possess—despite an almost immortal lifespan. Me? I just envied her curves.

She set my tea and a glass of water on the desk for me. “I see. What does your husband want?”

“Me.” I spoke against the stark silver certainty of my blade. “He’s always wanted me, and I him. That’s rather the problem…given my assignment here.”

Meg hitched a hip up onto the edge of the desk and pursed her lips to blow the steam off her espresso.

I eyed the taut blue velvet of the skirt outlining her thigh and admired the pretty, pretty woman on my desk.

Her voice thoughtful, she said, “There has to be a way to work it out. If you want to be together, I mean. Your vow to him came first.”

“I don’t want to be with him. If I did, I’d have found him the second I came back from the otherside the first time, in the 1820s.”

“Don’t lie to yourself, Risk.”

“I’m not.”

She raised both eyebrows over cobalt blue eyes. She knew me too well. Best friends tended to, I guess.

I shut my mouth and, after sheathing my blade, drank my tea.



An hour and a half later, I stood next to my weapons safe sliding my preferred choices into place on my person. In an ankle holster, I carried three small needlelike bo shuriken. Two forearm-long stilettos on my thighs, a DW Razorback RZ-10, ten-millimeter pistol in an inner-pants holster, my garrote bracelet, and the whisper-thin tiny blade at the nape of my neck. Attached to my collar. Meg’s voice came from the direction of the desk as I checked the load on my pistol.

Surely you won’t need all of that. He is your husband.”

He’s also become an incredibly powerful mhlentyn y Rhibynnau, and I haven’t seen him in more than three hundred years.” I grimaced. “We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms; he’d be within his rights to still be pissed off at me.” With the shush of hard leather against metal, I holstered the ten mil at the base of my spine and pulled my shirt down over it. I picked up my last blade from the safe.

“Risk, I don’t speak old Welsh—what did you just say?”

I glanced up in surprise at Meg. “I’m sorry. I called him a mhlentyn y Rhibynnau. Child of Rhibynnau.” I nibbled my lip. “Closest thing you’ll equate him and his kind with is a vampire, but Welsh vamps aren’t at all like the ones from other cultures.”

She dropped her cup with a clatter. “Wait, the bloodsuckers from myth are real?”

“Um?” I looked away.

“Risk, I’ll tickle you ’til you can’t breathe if you don’t tell me.”

I blew a breath up my face. I’d goofed and knew it. So much for my hopes of keeping Meg as clear of the supernatural as I could. I closed my eyes and said, “Yes, the Dracula-type bloodsuckers are real, though extremely rare, much more so than Kai’s type.”

“Well. Isn’t that something. I mean, I knew supernats existed. Obviously, I know you after all, and I knew your husband was one, but I didn’t think any of the popular myths like ‘I Vill Suck Your Blud’ type vampires were true. I’m going to sit you down and get you to tell me what else is out there.” Her eyes sparkled with excitement.

I shrugged, fiddling with the handle of a knife and testing the edge with my thumb. “Myths come from somewhere, and most myths you were raised with have a thread of truth to them.”

She picked up her cup and fetched a napkin to clean the smudge of coffee off the desktop. “Huh.”

“You’re not bothered?”

She glanced up in surprise. “No. Why would I be?”

I made a helpless gesture with my hands, and the recessed lights in the ceiling flashed off the blade in my hand. Meg confused me sometimes. Spill something on a couture dress and she went ape-shit. Confess that legendary predators of humanity existed in fact and she took it in stride. “I’m trying to keep you safe, as in as removed from supernatural life as I can. It’s not a safe space for a human.”

She smirked and winked. “You know I don’t want safe. If I did, I wouldn’t be your assistant; I’m a big girl. You let me make my own decisions.” She nodded to the weapons I wore more happily than jewelry. “You honestly think he’d hurt you?”

I braced the flat of the stiletto against my forehead and closed my eyes. “No. He wouldn’t. Not unless I asked him to. He’d make me beg for him to hurt me, too, and I would. They’re a security blanket, okay?”

“What will you do about the bond? Wait. Is it ’cause he’s a vampire that you have to blood-bond him? Geez, I feel slow.”

“God’s blood. I have to bond with him; it’s part of my Dark God’s damned job. I need to be able to speak with him mind-to-mind and monitor his activities as Guardian. I need to make sure he, like the rest of the clan heads, isn’t Alan’s murderer. The only way for that is a blood-bond.” I really didn’t want to do this. “There’s no reason for you to feel slow, Meg. We’ve never talked about it before, and blood-bonding is new for me too. It’s part of being a Guardian, not my previous job.”

It hurt like flame licking my soul to call my stint as a hunter previous, but that’s exactly what it was. “You read fantasy, right?” At her nod, I continued, “You know those people who can feel others’ emotions? Empaths? The blood-bond is like that, and if we concentrate, we can talk to one another mind-to-mind too. I’ve had one with Lord Arawn for centuries. Now I have to have one with my underlings.”

“Well, that’s neat. I think. But won’t that cause trouble given who and what you are to one another?”

I nodded my head, fingering the pommel of the blade and refused to meet Meg’s eyes. “Likely. But it’s a weakness in our metaphysical defenses to leave him unbonded. A weakness other supernatural species can use against us.”

She came to stand behind me, resting her hands on my biceps. She was too short to comfortably reach my shoulders. I hate to be touched or touch someone I don’t know well and like a lot. It makes me feel gross, like I have to wash or reclaim parts of myself that people have contacted. But Meg had been my friend for close to a decade, my assistant for half that—handling my affairs on this side of the veil—I’m touch-averse to use Earth-lingo, but I didn’t mind hers. Her skin was warm against the bare curve of my arms.

“Risk. Can you go through with it?”

I tossed the blade up in the air, smirked as she gasped when I caught it, then flicked it around the back of my hand and easily slotted it into place on my thigh. “Yes. But it’s him. The challenge will be in not taking it further than that. Fucking him is not on the agenda. I do that, I’ll be in serious trouble.”

I don’t get why. He’s your husband.”

“It’s the way it works, Meg. I’ve explained as best I can. A long time ago, I took a vow to Lord Arawn. To put His needs above my own.” I lifted my hand to trace the embossed leather of the collar My Lord had put on me when He took my oath of service. “He needs me here, as Guardian. Guardians… we’re supposed to be able to police our people. We protect the veil, the physical aspect of it, as well as keeping the majority of humans from knowing that we even exist. Getting involved with one of my charges, my vows forbid it.”

I nibbled my lower lip. “You know how the military basically owns your ass when you’re doing your years? You’re not supposed to get tattooed sort of thing? It’s kind of like that. My service and body belong to my Dark Lord.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

I shrugged, then rolled my shoulders to ease my tension. I tended to agree with her. The echo of the vow I’d taken centuries ago reverberated in my mind.

I, Rhian ferch Cynwrig, do swear my body and service to you, My Lord Arawn.

I will do as you bid me, go where you send me, and give my loyalty only to you.

And His response.

I, Arawn, King of Annwvyn, do take you, Rhian ferch Cynwrig as my own.

To be my hunter, my messenger, my assassin. You will shed blood if I will it.

You will do as I bid, go where I send you, and your loyalty is mine.

I shall care for you as my own, love, protect and honor you for all time.

Then He’d buckled my collar around my throat, and I’d served Him willingly, even eagerly ever since.

But I’d violate my vow if I took things back up with Kai. The only person to ever truly own my heart. The only man I’d ever been sexually or romantically attracted to. My loyalty would be sundered by a renewed relationship with my husband. I didn’t know if I wanted to have anything to do with him, though. In all honesty, I was still mad at him for what he’d done, or rather, how he’d done it. Oh, come on. I’m an assassin; I don’t need to be the forgiving type.

“Risk?” Meg’s voice broke me out of my maundering.

“Enough lollygagging, I have to go. Keep the fires warm.” I turned and stalked to the bathroom. I grimaced at my reflection. I hated how I looked. The face that had made me millions I’d have given away if I could.

“Hey, legs?”

I glanced over my shoulder through the open door at her as I scraped my hair back into a tight braid. “Yeah?”

“Is he as good-looking as the magazine shots of him?”

My belly ached as if she’d punched me in the gut, so I concentrated on arguing with my hair. “He wasn’t when I knew him. He was beautiful, but the change to mhlentyn y Rhibynnau smoothes away imperfections… so I can’t honestly tell you if he’s that good-looking or not. I assume he’s at least that lovely, if not more so.”

“Will you?”

I rolled my eyes in the mirror and proceeded in my attempt to tame my hip-length mass of blue-streaked scarlet hair into a french braid. “Don’t tell me you’re a fangirl?”

“Maybe a little. He’s seriously gorgeous, and he likes kittens, runs that charity, you know.” She shrugged. “Plus he’s kinky, owns the only kink club in town. I’d love to go there one night if you’re in the mood to dance.”

I hmmmed in a noncommittal fashion, though the idea of dancing did appeal. I hadn’t shifted in days, and I was getting antsy.

I know he’s gorgeous. He always has been, but he’s also got a temper that would melt an iceberg. And a cruel streak a mile wide,” I muttered as I wrestled with my hair. When I’d achieved victory, I tied it off with a coated elastic and turned to look at Meg.

Her eyes were shadowed, and it made my heart ache. At least you’ve learned to honor the way you’re made now, instead of trying to force yourself to be what you’re not.

I’d only ever actually wanted one person in my life. And I was about to see him again for the first time in three hundred years.

Four: That Went Well

RHIAN


My Moto Guzzi California purred like the air-cooled kitten she was as I brought her to a halt in front of Kai’s remote estate on Kilally Road. It thrilled me to ride her once more. Nothing technological worked in Annwvyn, so to be able to straddle my baby again lifted my spirits.

Kai’s place was certainly a long way from the dilapidated single-room we’d shared in Wales. A sprawling white mansion several stories taller than it needed to be sat nested in the middle of the forested fields and farmlands surrounding London. It loomed over a skirt of manicured gardens and well-kept lawns. A jewel set in the midst of old forest.

The elaborate faux-iron gates slid aside before I could do more than lift my visor. The handle grip twisted easily as I revved the engine and guided my bike up the long driveway, then slid her into a parking space in the basement garage.

I took my helmet off and pulled my braid out of my jacket. It thumped against my hips. Time to cut the wretched stuff again. What? Look, I know a lot of women want long hair. Try having it whether you want it or not. Then feel free to judge.

Unfortunately, my hair was part of my dark essence, and even if I cut it or dyed it, every time I melted a full shift, it came back tickling my ass and brilliant red. I could expend the energy to change that or put up with it. I usually just put up with it.

The crisp night air made the garage chilly as I sat on my bike, balancing its weight between my thighs. Nights were so much cooler than daytime temperatures; it felt more like fall as it edged toward 9:00 p.m.

I dismounted my graphic-black custom beauty and strapped my helmet to the rack. I blew out a breath. I shouldn’t be nervous at seeing him again. We know one another. We’re… friends of a sort. I guess. I rolled my eyes at myself. You fucking twat. I looked around at the spread of elegant cars and bikes in the garage, wondering if I could pick out Kai’s taste.

This wasn’t just his home; it was the gathering place—if not the home—of his blood-family. From what I knew of mhlentyn y Rhibynnau power structures, it would act as a sort of clan home as well.

As soon as I saw the Bugatti Veyron in crystal blue, I knew it was his. I hadn’t seen him or spoken to him—except for the phone call this afternoon—in over three hundred years, yet I knew that car was his. He’d always loved blue.

I closed my eyes and concentrated, shifting them from the teal blue I’d been born with to a deep forest green. It shouldn’t have made me feel better, but it did. Any armor I could don against him helped.

My breath puffed up over my face in a cloud of steam as I sighed again. I’ve changed. I’m not the person he used to know. “Nitwit,” I muttered out loud. “He’ll have changed too. A few centuries passing will do that, dearie.”

And he’s not your husband anymore or whatever they’re calling it now. Dominant, yeah, he’s not that either. Not really. Keep this to business. It has to be business because of what you’ve become. I shifted from foot to foot for a moment.

The echo of my conversation with My Lord Arawn resonated in my bones.

His voice had been such a large thing to contain the first time I’d heard him speak. Even after almost three hundred years, it could still come as a shock.

You have crossed the veil several times over the centuries, and you have never seen him. Never dealt with it. Aside from that, your predecessor has been murdered, and you are the only one with enough skill on the otherside in the twenty-first century to be able to solve the mystery. You are the only one of my hunters who I can send. It is immaterial that it is to London.’

He’s there.’

Yes. I expect you to find amelioration with him and remember your vows.’

I won’t—’

Do you love and trust me, my hunter? Do you have faith in me to know what is best for you, and to look out for your well-being?’

Yes, My Lord.’

Congratulations on your promotion, my pwca.’

Yes, My Lord.’

Shaking off the memory, my lunacy, and my heartache, I pulled my key from the bike and shoved it into the front pocket of my leather riding pants before unnecessarily checking my weapons. You’re stalling, Rhi. No matter what passed between you before, it’s in the past. This is your job. Business. Just business.

I shook my shoulders to settle the heavy jacket; the buckles made soft chiming sounds as I walked to the private elevator and showed my face to the camera. The doors opened and I stepped inside. My belly bottomed into my pelvis as the thing shot me to the roof. The roof? Typical Kai.


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