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Pasion Pasiva

The Conception of an Empire

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There was a modest sized throne room within the luxurious walls of Cantorra, a gallery sized space with impossibly high ceilings, silkscreen walls in crimson and black, and an impressive open space set before a dias upon which sat two chairs -- two thrones. It was the remnants of the life  that Raphael had dreamed for them, once upon a time. That is where the servants who had greeted her upon her arrival had taken her after showing her to a collection of private rooms where she was given all that was necessary to freshen up. A hot shower, a fresh set of clothes from a vast wardrobe that was kept in her size and in the colors that her cousin preferred to see her in, white and gold. And finally, a portion of blood that was poured into an elegant glass chalice after she refused to drink from one of the countless blood dolls that eagerly awaited the chance to serve their queen. The sheer amount of favor that may have been gained from the Duke of Veelos for providing blood to his precious cousin was simply unimaginable, but sadly, not to be gained on this day.

 

Gabriela had chosen a white gown -- something extraordinary, a diamond among a sea of gems made of silk, velvet, and all of the very best fabrics of this realm and beyond. It was a wonder to her, even now, to find such thoughtful afterthoughts of the life that Raphael had wanted for them. How could a man who picked out such beautiful outfits have been so cruel and harsh to her? In fact, gone were many of the skimpy, humiliating, and degrading outfits that her cousin had often forced upon her when she was his supposed Empress.

 

But that title was long gone, and with it, she had to try and force herself to forget the darkness of the not so distant past. What Raphael had wanted so badly, what he had been willing to sell both his as well as her own soul for, was gone. They had no future, at least, not one that Roen would ever allow. But still, she had to try to calm her anxiety regarding the news she was about to deliver, and what it might mean to Raphael and to his new Empress. Guilt, heavy and thick, riddled her like a disease in her blood. Regardless of the sort of creature that Rou was, or the sort of monstrous things the woman had attempted to do -- and those things that she had succeeded in doing -- somehow, Gabriela had never harbored a sense of spite or a desire  for vengeance. It was enough to banish the thief into the nothingness that came form a lack of concern or care. There was also the unknown, and the terrible uncertainty that came with the silence that had greeted her upon informing Roen of her transgressions against him, their son, and the small family they had just begun.

 

She had betrayed Roen -- and her betrayal had borne fruit.

 

Upon the larger of the two thrones, Gabriela sat with her gorgeous white gown spread around her. It was a comfortable fit, though a bit snug around the waist. She imagined herself to be short of twelve weeks pregnant, but she had heard that following the first pregnancy, a woman always showed earlier and earlier. With this in mind, she set her hands upon her belly and smiled. Given the circumstances, the pain she had caused her dear devil, and the pain she was going to cause a person she had never cared for, but did not care to hurt, she still could not feel regret for the little being growing inside of her.

 

“You’re a miracle,” she whispered, “even if no one else thinks so.”

 

Just then the doors to the throne room opened. There was no announcing Raphael’s entrance. The man needed no introduction. Besides, he had come alone -- the pomp of servitude forgotten, perhaps in a rush to come and see her or perhaps because she was no longer worth the effort of it. She couldn’t begin to imagine. But even so, the sudden force of his presence caused her to rise off the throne, to stand suddenly with a nervous hand touching the edge of a black and red arm rest.

 

“Raphael…” she said, his name a breathless whisper on her lips upon sight of him. Up until now she had honestly believed that she was ready for this moment, but the truth was that her constitution and her conviction wavered as the Carmine Emperor and one of her last living relatives, bound toward her.

 

Did he know?

 

Could he sense it?

 

Would he be upset…

 

Would he be happy…

 

Oddly enough she wished Roen was here. She had grown accustomed to his presence, and had become dependent on his strength. Without him, she felt naked, vulnerable, and incapable of controlling the swell of tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. But it was beyond selfish, beyond ridiculous, and simply beyond realistic to expect Roen to be a part of this. He had ever right to turn his back on her -- just as Raphael did.

 

She had made a mess out of all of their lives.

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There was no call to impress or stand on ceremony between the two cousins, and such frivolity hadn’t existed for quite some time. It wasn’t that Rafael saw Gabriela was unworthy of the propriety, or that he was simply too lazy to champion such demands, but rather, it was disenchantment with the need of it. Thick-skulled as he was known to be, it had taken the Elder quite some time to realize there was no fruit to be had in impressing Gabriela. Where other women might throw themselves upon a sword without hesitation to be subject to his obscene wealth and power, his cousin did not so much as bat an eyelash.

He’d thought her playing a game at first, exemplifying her humility and frugalness for the sake of being spiteful, but time was the greatest of all teachers. Rafael had learned, albeit slowly (as he was known to do when it came to matters involving her), that he could give her this world and a thousand others, and she would love him no more, hate him no less, and their cyclical existence would continue unbroken.

It was for that reason his great hall was rather lacking in regards to exuberance, which was, indeed, a stark contrast to the elder vampyre’s grand tastes. Even the thrones, one of which Gabriela sat upon, might seem plain—dull, even—when compared to the descriptions he would often talk of as they strolled the palace halls in Versilla, her close at his side, never by choice. They were hollow remnants of a life he’d envisioned for them, the fragments of a plan that now lay broken at their feet, the shards treacherously sharp as they mockingly reflected their faces back at them. But there was no bitterness in the way Rafael carried himself as he strode into the room, no regret weighing on his broad shoulders, or trouble tilting his proud head south.

The Elder stood tall, hands clasped at the small of his back, keen eyes—notably blue (a testament of his absence from the Red City, his seat of absolute power—appraising Gabriela as she promptly rose to greet him. As in all things, he stood dressed in her opposite, matte black slacks and a tunic that fit him loosely but displayed his muscled physique in a most appealing manner. He looked every bit the Mediterranean prince he was, ready to lounge ‘pon cushioned divans as he endured the stuffy Orisian weather. But there was only rain her in Veelos, buffeted by the highstorms that brewed on the eastern Genesarian coast.

After a moment of his eyes lingering on her, Rafael met her eyes, held her gaze. “You looked comfortable.” It was an invitation for her to sit once more, though he doubted she would accept.

Rafael…

“You look as though you’ve come to tell me someone is dead,” Rafael said, his tone expressing neither excitement, anger, nor confusion. He continued his unhurried approach until she was within arm’s reach, though abstained from reaching for her temporarily. “Philippe is well,” he continued matter of factly, gesturing with his hand to the east where the capital awaited. “And, from what I hear, so is his father. So, you needn’t look so glum.”

At long last, a smile curved his thin lips behind the fullness of his dark beard. His eyes fell to her stomach, hugged tightly by the white dress she wore, and he palmed her belly in that loving, caring way he had for all those months she’d carried little Philippe. “This is what you asked me for that night I visited you,” he reminded her in their native tongue, the words a whisper on his lips. “It’s what you wanted more than anything.” It didn’t matter to him if it had only been in that moment, or if she’d called it a mistake the morning after, and the way he thumbed beneath her navel, those gentle, broad strokes, conveyed his sentiment on that fact. “It’s what I have wanted from the moment you were born, and at long last…

The words fell away from him, and Rafael’s smile grew brighter, broader. With his right hand, he cupped her cheek and lifted her face, no longer content to have her cast those eyes down at the hand against her belly. He pressed the crown of her head into his nose and breathed in deep, savored the sweetness of the orange blossom extract thick in her tresses, and for a quiet moment, allowed her to bask in the wholeness that was only ever possible when he possessed her. Then he tilted her head back further and captured her gaze as he thumbed her full lips, already parted in that way she knew he enjoyed most. He thumbed them firmly, opened her mouth further, but did not nip his flesh against her fangs.

You should have known that I would never let you go, Gabriela,” he whispered against her tongue, hot and slow. “Tha you will never escape me; that I will never let you go. And now—,” he pressed his palm flat below her navel in emphasis—“We are bound as we have never been before. Did I not tell you that this was inevitable, my love? That you were born to be mine, to bear my children into the world? Destiny is all.

His smile matured into a satisfied grin, borderline smug, as he eased spaced between them. Then his lips pursed as he maneuvered his hand around, learning her body, gauging the changes he could feel—through their bond—as he guided and directed it. He could feel the addition of a thread, so thin it was barely palpable, but it was there. This signature, it was unlike the chord that tied him to Philippe. This, it was unique and familiar, a combination of the DuGrace and Bartolome essence as is only possible through pregnancy.

It was his child—the fact still a surreal truth to him. Nearly fifteen hundred years of wading through this existence, and now, Rafael finally had a child. It nearly brought him to his knees.

“I would be lying to say that I’m not displeased you’ve waited so long to relay this news to me. Though, I suppose late is better than never.” He spared a deep, penetrating glance at her. “I suspect you’ve already informed Philippe’s father of this development.” This, too, vexed him, but he made no mention of it. Only a curt twist of the lips, and a harsh set of the jaw, expressed this particular ire.

Stepping further away, Rafael circled to her backside, then took his place upon the throne which she had just sat. He tilted his head to the side, nursing his cheek with a pair of fingers, while he commanded her to his parted lap with an inviting pat of the other hand.

“You carry inside of you the future of our species,” he praised her, thumbing the curve of her hip. “A fact which has pleased me beyond words.” Leaning forward, he ran his nose along the length of her spine, breathing her in once again. “Oh, my sweet love, why do you look so crestfallen? If there is one thing that Irene Gabriela DuGrace de Bartolome enjoys more than her freedom to live as she so pleases, it is being a mother and creating life. Have I not granted you this? So tell me, what is it?”

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To his surprise, Gabriela took the offered seat or rather she obeyed the implied command, without so much as a dirty look or a complaint from her freshly toyed with lips. Instead, as he circled around her and sat himself down -- hand steady upon her body, taking in by tactile sense the many changes that were already occurring to her form and shape -- Gabriela allowed herself to be moved, to be manipulated no better than a doll. And when he patted his wide and muscled thigh in that tell-tale way of his, she backed up and sat where he had indicated. His arms did not encircle her, nor did they wander over the swells of her breasts or the curves of her hips. What touches he did provide seemed to be careful.

 

“You carry inside of you the future of our species. A fact which has pleased me beyond words.”

 

Would that his pleasure be her own. But she could feel no joy, even at the knowledge that through this pregnancy a new hope would be granted to a dwindling people. She knew exactly what this child meant. She had not been idle during her time in Umbra, and so she had taken to reading and learning as much as she possibly could about a people she abandoned more than three hundred years ago. Her pregnancy could potentially unlock the dire plague of infertility that had afflicted the Atitlan Vampyres since before her birth. Once upon a time, her mother and father had been seen as the saviors -- and she, in the innocence of her birth, the messiah that would save them all from extinction. But her birth had come and gone and no other children were conceived. She had been the first and the last to be born in a period of nearly five hundred years.

 

She knew what this child meant -- what it could mean.

 

But there was no pleasure in knowledge of it, and only added weight to the guilt she seemed to perpetually carry upon her back. Things between her and the devil, they had been far from perfect -- they had been downright terrible. However, there was something there -- a distance sense of normality, of relief, of completion. She hadn’t been ready to accept it, but now it felt like it was gone forever and while she wanted to mourn it, she didn’t know with any level of certainty what it had been.

 

“Oh, my sweet love, why do you look so crestfallen? If there is one thing that Irene Gabriela DuGrace de Bartolome enjoys more than her freedom to live as she so pleases, it is being a mother and creating life. Have I not granted you this? So tell me, what is it?”

 

She could feel his nose traveling up the length of her spine -- the blood in her veins followed the delicate touch, leaving her feeling a little lightheaded. What a strange thing it was to feel betrayed by the very blood in her veins. He was an elder and a blood magician at that, but she knew that a large part of this attraction was pure biology. She paled in comparison to his age, and for beings who gained strength and endurance with age, there was simply no way to ever overcome primal desire to submit. It made her sick and angry to be reduced to such animalistic traits and to be so predictable, but she struggled still and valiantly against countless generations of evolution. In the same way she would not submit herself to her thirst and desire for blood like some mindless animal, she refused to lose her reason and logic to lust.

 

And yet, she already had…

 

She had thrown away everything during a moment of passion she could hardly rationalize.

 

“I betrayed him,” she replied, her golden eyes dim and dark -- so much darker. Gone was the molten gold, and in its place was a dark, raw, speckled honey, like hard candy broken inside. She had been crying, perhaps too much. Her brows pinched, and her hands came together over her stomach. Slowly, she rubbed the barely noticeable swell. “I don’t know  what I want anymore. I always thought… I imagined that I understood it. But now… I just don’t know what any of it means.”

 

A hand rose, and a soft, white palm pressed against her forehead as she felt the swell of tears in her eyes. There were two things in this world that Gabriela had a very difficult time dealing with -- one was pain, physical pain, and the other was confusion. The mental turmoil she was feeling from Roen’s reaction to the pregnancy, it confused her. Roen who had made a captive of her, who had forced her back onto the throne as nothing more than his puppet -- Roen who had kept his promise and bound them by virtue of a child, a child who was now to have a half sibling. She should hate Roen, and yet she felt nothing but despair and fear -- for his eventual absence.

 

“He’ll take Philippe from me,” she cringed at the thought and let her face fall into both her open hands. “And when this child is born, you’ll take him away as well.”

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Rafael frowned at his cousin’s bold accusations, leaning back from the arch of her spine, allowing his fingers to resume the trail his nose has previously blazed. He stroked her idly, consoling her with the gentle touch, as he ruminated on her worries—unfounded though they may have been. “You truly do think the worst of us, don’t you? If it was the devil’s desire to take Philippe from you for this transgression, he would have done so already. He certainly wouldn’t have let you come all the way to Veelos, by yourself, and deliver this news to me.” Despite the firmness of his tone, the Elder’s touch remained soft as a feather, reassuring as the most supportive of lovers dared be.

Of course, she was right to worry. While it may not have been either of the two titan’s agendas, if ever such vindictive intentions bore fruit, Gabriela would be helpless to dissuade either of them. Beautiful, elegant, persuasive—but utterly powerless in the face of the two men she’d enraptured with her love. They could take what they chose from her at will, and she knew it. She’d always known it. And yet, it seemed that only now, as his seed took root in her womb, that she felt the gravity of the fact. “As for our child, I’ve no desire for my son or daughter to grow up without the presence of their mother. A terribly capricious lover you may be, but a terrible mother, you are not. Our child will know your company intimately, and they will be better for it.”

The hand he’d placed on her hip worked its way around the swell, cupping the rise of her belly now that she’d buried her face in her palms. Rafael thumbed beneath her navel pensively, a habit he’d formed during her pregnancy with Philippe. He always seemed to be touching her stomach those days, as if the child’s presence brought him clarity. “Your devil will never let you go, Gabriela,” he said matter of factly, just barely able to bite back the disdain in his voice.  “You, Philippe, a family – it’s what he’s wanted for years. He has that now. It may not be perfect, or even close to what he’d hoped for the very first night he took you to his bed, but reality is often disappointing.” Finally, the stroke of his thumb came to a halt at the peak of her stomach’s dull hill—and the blood there became keenly aware of him, as if focusing on the single touch of his fingernail. “But, as you know, you already belong to me.”

Lifting his leg a little higher, angling it toward him, he eased her back until she was flush against his chest and her bottom sat centered in the bowl of his lap. The pressure of his hand against her stomach remained lightly, barely there at all, and yet an immovable barrier to any escape. “You’ve made a mess of things, my love,” he whispered against her neck through the thick, luxurious veil of her hair. “And now, as always, it’s up to me to clean it all up.” If he was bothered by the notion, wasn’t audible in his tone, nor visible in the light, amused expression she could not see behind her.

“You belong to me,” he reminded her darkly. “But, there is a part of you that also belongs to him. I’ve spent too much time ignoring it, trying to eliminate it, and for all my failures I’ve naught but exacerbated the issue. We are a family”—he pressed his hand against her stomach for emphasis—“all of us, and it’s time for us to accept that fact. I’ll not have our child separated from his brother because of petty in-fighting. We’re better than that, and if we plan to be a strong example for our people, we’ll need to start thinking, working, differently. Outside of the box, so to speak.”

The enthusiasm in his voice vanished as he leaned away from her, parting his lips from the lobe of her ear, and instead let his weigh anchor against the tall back of the throne. “You can’t very well run your own life, Gabriela, you’re too indecisive for that. You’d bring all the world’s nations to war if you were allowed to follow your heart, or yet alone, acquire that elusive freedom you’ve been searching for. It’s clear to me, now more than ever, that you are in need of education—to remind you of your place in all of this nonsense and chaos.”

With his left hand, hooked around and arrested her wrist, pulling her hands from her face. Not firmly, but dismissively, as if the mere act of her crying—or languishing—was a sight too lowly to behold. Then he pressed his fingers against her spine, forcing her upright, and adjusted her shoulders with light pinches as he maneuvered her into a more stately posture. “You’ve slouched long enough, my love,” he whispered, leveling a finger beneath her chin, tilting it back so that she had no option but to hold her head high, honeyed eyes gazing out into an empty room. “We’ll have no more of that, you understand?”

The fingers beneath her chin pressed to the opposite side of her jaw, turning her head so that she could see him over the supple rise of her shoulder. “The devil and I will work together in the endeavor of your education,” he said plainly, though the hint of a smile touched his lips. “Together, we shall love you, protect you, guide you… and you will serve us with all that you are.” Instinctively, his thumb rolled beneath her navel, emphasizing the point. “We will become the family we should have been years ago, the three of us. We will consolidate our power and resources, govern it all as a triumvirate. It will bring peace. You understand that, don’t you?”

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“No, I do not believe she understands.”

The glint of a ring, the smell of peat and smoke and spice and citrus, these things preceded the Outsider like omens, like heralds of fortune and favor, or disaster. Then, like the trick of magic it was, he was there in a well-lit corner as if he had always been there, dressed in the brocade and finery he had last been seen in. Neat and tidy of cloth, he cut dashing figure, if not a bit of a mussed one. He wore his hair long and loose with no sense of rhyme or reason, and he was not clean shaven. Not bearded per se, but an attempt was being made from cheeks to chin and throat. Raising a hand and scratching at this attempt growing on his face with blackened nails manicured to decency, the Outsider moved his gaze from one vampyre to the other the way oil moves across water, then examined his surroundings for the new experience they were. 

Silence had greeted Irene and the news she had brought the Outsider’s villa, a great and terrible silence and stillness that had driven her off. Now, the silence was gone, but the stillness remained. Without urgency or the sense of it, he moved through the throneroom with stiff consideration, his expressive face and sensual mouth moving through various degrees of interest and wonder. Orisia might have been the home he chose, but there were curiosities aplenty, such as this mausoleum to futures that were no more than dreams. He had made an accord with a God of Blood once in a room such as this, long ago. It was not with an unappreciated sense of irony that the conditions of that pact and the fruit it bore would be evaluated again and inspected in a place so strange, yet so familiar. 

“The contract has been fulfilled to satisfaction.” 

Looking up at the draperies, the Outsider noted their color, fabric, and cut. Then, looking at the walls, he noted their masonry, mortar, their shape and fitting. He looked at everything and anything, except Irene and her cousin. He did not have eyes for them, now, despite them being of cloth and stone. No matter how beautiful and perfect and fitting they may be, he did not look at them and their shared happiness, if not triumph. “The Warlord has gone, and with him his influence, as intended. The Summer Isle is my Garden at last, and Eden’s heir sleeps, happy for mother and father. His Imperial Majesty has kept his word, and in the little mother’s quickened womb is a new heir, now, but one to the race of vampyres. My vampyres, my night creatures and children..” 

Trailing off, the Outsider pocketed a hand. Then, speaking in a different vein, he carried on. “If it is his Imperial Majesty’s will to pursue peace, he needn’t look any further for a loyal and eager servant. He has given me nothing but happiness in all regards, and I will serve him in his designs, whatever they may be. My power, my resources, such as they are..,” another trailing off, the Outsider’s mind and attentions flitting, preoccupied. “I have matters to attend to off-world, however. I’ve come only to observe the end of an agreement and the start of something more.” Only now did he look their way, eyes like ruby descending on elder, then mother. Not her eyes or her face, but the long hair she tied back by virtue of his strength. Reaching out, he called the World Splitter to his outstretched hand, and caught the slab of sharpened metal by it’s lathed hilt. The edge sung like a low-struck bell until he touched the outside of his leg with the flat, silencing the vibrations. 

"You understand that, don't you?" He asked Irene, reiterating her cousin's previous query. 
 

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“You’ve made a mess of things, my love. And now, as always, it’s up to me to clean it all up.”

 

There was a wickedness to his tone, an edge of amusement that left a thin but deep cut along her ego. He was entertained by her predicament, and even seemed to find humor in his own involvement. The heavy weight of guilt carried by her heart didn’t seem to matter much to him and for some reason that stung the young vampyre more than she could have described. Her agony and anxiety, it was reduced to caprice with not but a brushing of his thumb against the barely notable swell of her stomach. He was the father of her unborn child, but already he was showing their child how to properly undermine her in all things. How could she make such a stupid mistake and create life with someone who held so little value for her? Upon such a thought, visions of the night when the child was conceived came to her -- but they were misty and distant, and not at all like the sharp, clear, and potent memories of her moments of conviction. And then there was that urge to argue with him and deny his claim that she had made a mess of things. Her lovers, cruel men that they were, tended to blame her for all the troubles that they suffered. She always maintained her innocence against such claims, but this was perhaps the first time in her life that she could not. So as she sat there, manipulated into the center of his legs, no better than a small child, she knew there was no denying his words.

 

There was a blurred vision of Rou, the treacherous woman, and of Zenahriel. She remembered speaking with her about things that made her terribly uncomfortable. She remembered being angry with Roen and having some deep and ugly part of herself, some prideful part of herself, built up with thoughts of mothering into health a whole species on the brink of extinction. Who else could ever say they had done such a thing? Who else could ever again claim to be Eve incarnate, mother to all?

 

How could she have been so foolish…

 

There were lips at her ear, and a teasing nip from Raphael’s teeth brought her forth from her internal conflicts. She jolted upon his lap and nearly pulled away, save that there were wide arms encircling her, keeping her secure and set on a firm throne of muscled thighs.

 

“You can’t very well run your own life, Gabriela, you’re too indecisive for that. You’d bring all the world’s nations to war if you were allowed to follow your heart, or yet alone, acquire that elusive freedom you’ve been searching for. It’s clear to me, now more than ever, that you are in need of education--to remind you of your place in all of this nonsense and chaos.”

 

Every inch the child she claimed not to be, Gabriela was manipulated into a position with a proper posture. Her slender wrists were pulled and her hands were taken from her face and brought down onto her lap. Her back was adjusted, and straightened, and then her hips were rounded and squeezed. Wide, spidery fingers wrapped around her small shoulders and pulled them back and then pinched them for good measure, until she sat up straight and pretty, and until she could see that the double doors had opened and that Roen had appeared in that way of his, without a sound, without a warning. But this time she saw him before catching the scent of his perfume.

 

“You’ve slouched long enough, my love.”

 

Her golden eyes were drawn away from the sight of Roen -- he looked sad, or bored, unable or unwilling to look back at her where she sat. An ugly and awful desperation began to swirl in her belly just as Raphael’s long, sharp fingernail caught her under the chin and tilted her face over her shoulder so that she was looking at him, so that she could see his handsome face -- his elegant expression.

 

“We’ll have no more of that, you understand?”

 

“Is this real?” she whispered, the words barely audible above the sudden thundering of her heart. This felt like a dream -- or rather, the forever nightmare that Roen had promised her. But she couldn’t tell. It had been so long now since she could tell the difference between the waking world and the prison created just for her within the confines of her unconscious mind. Raphael had done his part to play with her mind when she was under his care, and Roen had not been one to be left behind. In their own ways, they had blurred the edges of reality enough that their beloved princess no longer knew when to rejoice and when to fear.

 

“The devil and I will work together in the endeavor of your education.”

 

“What?” she asked, her brows pinching and her pretty lips pressing into a firm and deeply displeased line, “--I don’t…”

 

“Together, we shall love you, protect you, guide you…”

 

“Roen…” she turned from Raphael, or rather, attempted to but her cousin was insistent on keeping her eyesight. The gentle touch under her chin became a pinch that kept her head turned toward him, even as her golden tried to search out Roen from her peripheral. She called to him as if he might stop this, as if he might correct it.

 

“...and you will serve us with all that you are. We will become the family we should have been years ago, the three of us. We will consolidate our power and resources, govern it all as a triumvirate. It will bring peace. You understand that, don’t you?”

 

There were tears in her eyes -- glossy, crimson, ruby tears. The golden of her eyes darkened to amber, and her bottom lip trembled as if she were on the verge of sobbing. She held Raphael’s gaze until at long last he let her go, her chin dimpled from the force of the pinch that had kept her in place. Immediately she sought out Roen, who had moved closer, but still did not seem to see her at all. It was as if he weren’t really there, or worse -- as if she weren’t there.

 

“Roen…” she whimpered.

 

“No, I do not believe she understands. The contract has been fulfilled to satisfaction.”

 

It felt like someone had opened the void in her blood and her heart had fallen into it. The sensation of freefall made her cheeks ache, but that was probably just due to the fact that her jaw was clenching hard enough to crack a human’s molars. Raphael would feel it -- the sudden and terrible disenchantment, the ache in her gut, the ache in her breast, but would he enjoy it? Their blood bond made them closer than any two living beings, and having her sit upon him now, what sort of satisfaction might he achieve from being witness to this awful revelation. How much hurt had she caused him and how warranted did he believe her own pain was...

 

Whatever the case, Gabriela did not move save to slump again. Her shoulders, which Raphael had gone to such lengths to adjust, simply fell forward again and her hands reached up to catch between her breasts at the ache that threatened to swallow her whole.

 

“...I have matters to attend to off-world, however. I’ve come only to observe the end of an agreement and the start of something more.”

 

“How could you,” she blurted then, suddenly, angrily. The hands between her breasts had turned to firsts, and while she intended to fling herself at him and beat at his chest -- at the place where a heart should have beat -- she was held back. Raphael held her back, kept her seated, and kept her safe. There was no point in having her enter physical altercations when her pregnancy was still so very early and delicate. But that did little to ease her ire. “I hate you! I hate you!”

 

And, as if to explain how little he cared that she did -- Roen reached out a hand, but not to comfort her. His fingers, which had only days ago caressed her so very longingly, now only beckoned forth the black ribbon from her hair, leaving the mass of luxurious dark waves to fall around her like a greevers veil, while the ribbon itself was transformed back to metal and stone. The devil stood there, a fearsome sight with blade in hand and broken heart hidden well beneath a stoic face.

 

“You understand that, don’t you?”

 

It was the first he spoke directly to her, and under the weight of his gaze and his words, she fell apart into tears. Her face was in her hands again, and small and precious as she had ever been, she wept bitterly and angrily. She had to give no other sign that yes -- she did understand.

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Indeed, there were a myriad of feelings that Rafael felt assaulting his senses through the bond he shared with Gabriela. They weren’t explicit in detail, nothing so clear as to say he could read her thoughts, but rather, impressions of raw and unfiltered emotion. Anger, insecurity, disbelief, pain, sadness—and, if he didn’t know better, he could have sworn there was a sense of relief buried beneath it all. It was little more than a thin, errant strand of emotional fabric that had woven itself into the tapestry of her state of being, but it was there.

How could you?” she asked the devil. “I hate you! I hate you!

Sadistic as she liked to believe her cousin to be, Rafael took no personal enjoyment in her despair, and it showed in the muteness of his expression. Gabriela’s loss and sacrifices were all necessary, though she often failed to see how or why. Young as she was, her vision proved too crowded, too unfocused. Where she saw only that which was placed before her, he, one many times her age, was cursed to see both the then, now, and what could be—every action and its consequence days, weeks, months, and years down the road. Everything the Black Queen had endured, it had led her to this moment. To the lap she sat upon; to the ruby eyes that searched her expression from across the room; to the soft, pale palms she sobbed into now.

“Don’t be childish,” Rafael murmured from behind her shoulder, his voice strangely empathic as it passed his thin lips. He began gathering the child-queen’s hair in his hand leisurely, setting the thick, dark tresses over her right shoulder when he was finished. “There’s no need to say such things, especially when they are untrue. You love that man, the same as you love me. Otherwise, you’d not be sitting here, your son at home, resting well, and our son”—he could not help but caress her belly at the words—“growing inside you.” Rafael paused, humming in satisfaction. “Whether you know it or not, Gabriela, this is what you wanted. It’s what you’ve always wanted.”

It might have disgusted her at the moment, hearing the truth put so plainly, but she would learn to accept it. Rafael suspected the devil to be unbound by time, and the vampyres lived long, robust lives. She would have all but an eternity to adjust to her new circumstances and the parameters of her relationship. After all, Gabriela was a marvelous student, when the proper leverage was applied.

In a show of manners, Rafael shifted Gabriela’s weight from the bowl of his lap to the left, then slid from beneath her. He left his child-queen sitting on the throne, whether she be crying, murmuring, or glaring bitterly at the two authors of her fate. However, as her ire seemed more fixated on the devil, he remained between them, more than aware to catch her mid-stride were she to attempt something foolish. The sword in the devil’s hand was a concerning matter, though the elder vampyre chose to acknowledge it as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, Roen would find no need to defend himself.

“Peace,” Rafael said, the wording tasting strange on his tongue. “It is my motive, yes, but not so to have you serve me. It is as I’ve said to Gabriela just moments before: that the three of us form a collective of our resources and powers, governed together… as a family.” His head tilted ever so slightly toward his shoulder, as if to silently ponder Gabriela’s position amongst the triumvirate. Neither of her lovers had ever paid any heed to her council, and Rafael suspected that would not change once these arrangements were finalized. She was at her best when she was seen, not heard—at least for now. Perhaps when she was a bit older the elder vampyre supposed, they could revisit the subject.

Then, Rafael stepped aside in a single motion, allowing the devil a clear viewing of their sobbing beauty, if he so chose to look. Already knowing what he would find if he dared look himself, Rafael kept his attention focused on the devil, still gauging his reaction. “What I propose is acceptance. We should share her, Roen, and all that entails. She will never stop loving you, no matter what you do to her, no matter what happens between the two of you, and I have denied that truth for too long. At the same time, Gabriela and I’s attraction is beyond either of our control,” he said, flattening a pale hand against his stomach. “We were born to be paired together, and that is not something that can be”—he snapped his fingers—“turned off. To that end, no matter which man she chooses, the other will always be there. We are all, in a sense, a single package. Let us be that and prosper.”

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“I’d rather not.” 

Wilting Hræðilegr until it was a ribbon he was able to tuck away much like the impulse to break character, the Outsider flicked his attention away from Irene and her weeping to lay his gaze on her cousin, Raphael. Gesturing vague negation with his free hand, the Lord of the Black City made his sentiments on the matter abundantly clear: he didn’t want to discuss love, sharing, attraction or choice. The mercenary discussion concerning Irene was an uncomfortable one, as was the unexpected pregnancy that precipitated it. He simply wanted done with it all, now more than ever. 

“My only cares at this point are the Summer Isles and the heir that will one day rule them. As far as I am concerned, your cousin’s mind, body, and soul belong to you. A more beautiful pair I have never seen.” 

Lazily, the Outsider turned his eyes elsewhere, his attention distracted and unfocused. “I am not interested in anything more than this..,” he said, more to himself as a whisper than a declaration spoke for outloud. “I want to be left alone.” Then, remembering where he was and to whom he was speaking to, the Outsider flicked his attention back to Raphael, firming it upon the elder. The Outsider straightened. “So long as she attends to her motherly duties, I am satisfied well enough. You both know where I can be found.” 

Shifting on his feet and pulling his hand out of his pocket, the Outsider opened a time piece, inspected the hands, then clicked it closed and put it back. Unbound by time indeed, but even at his coldest, the Outsider was slaved to theatricality, no matter how inconsequential. Body language made it clear: he wanted to be anywhere else but here. “As I said, I have business to attend to offworld. The Heaven or Hell event is set to begin, and I have an appointment with a rival.” 

He looked at Raphael keenly. “Again, I will help you in your endeavors, whatever they may be. And I trust you to watch my son while I am gone. One family, yes?” 
 

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“...As far as I am concerned, your cousin’s mind, body, and soul belong to you…”

 

Her anger was spent. It had burned itself out after burning fiercely and brightly. There was nothing left now but smoldering hurt, a deep and painful ache that made it hard to breathe.

 

It was the ending of something -- she knew it deep in her bones. It was the ending of something that was meant to be eternal.

 

In her desperation she looked up, with all the panic and wild fear of the implications that came with the infinite suddenly becoming finite, but found that she --  and she alone -- was aware of the terrible truth. That sentiment, however, quickly changed as she realized it was not a lack of knowledge, but rather, a lack of concern that kept her newfound keepers from even regarding her as her heart broke into pieces before them.

 

Roen was looking at his pocket watch -- an elegant addition to his outfit or maybe something she had never noticed -- and Raphael was carefully combing his mind for his next set of words now that he was playing peacemaker. Neither of them cared, neither of them turned to look in her direction. The panic felt like a whirlwind inside of her, swirling and expanding -- pushing against her skin and threatening to tear her apart.

 

Alone she sat upon a throne that did not belong to her anymore and probably would never again. She had to feel for her heart because it had slowed significantly. The ice, she wanted to tell them, was creeping back in.

 

Oh, you poor thing…

 

She touched between her breasts. It was so faint -- her heartbeat.

 

It hurts so much.

 

Too long you’ve wandered in the sun, far from my fathering gaze…

 

Her eyes closed and she forced her hand down and away, onto her lap. Like a bitter poison, she drank her sorrow and settled her features into still detachment just as the frost appeared, touching the edges of her temples, hidden under feather-light strokes of dark, waving hair. She settled into the cold, she felt it extinguish what little remained of Roen’s precious blood, felt the last of his taste on her tongue go numb.

 

You don’t have to feel it. You shouldn’t. It’s not fair.

 

They were speaking -- the two men in her life, they were talking like old friends, like new friends. She got up, hands gathered before her, neatly held before her stomach, and then after neither of them bothered to look at her as she made to excuse herself, she stepped down from the dais and walked past Raphael, brushing his shoulder and setting the familiar cold and influence of Tenebre into his flesh, through layers of fabric. She walked until she was standing close to the devil, close enough that he would have to purposely turn his head to disregard her, a thing he might very well do. And for the first time, in a long time, she did not melt at his mere presence. The heat of him did not thaw her slow beating heart. The ache she felt as her eyes traced the edge of his jaw and the shape of his lips was quickly iced over, and the sensation of loss -- the physical clenching of the abdominal muscles and the hurt that the heart suffered during strong emotional distress -- all of it stopped, and afflicted her no more.

 

“You said it wasn’t a dream... But it seems, I am orphaned again.”

 

There was nothing else to say. She did not blame the devil for his change of heart. The weight of her betrayal was real, and it would only grow as the child in her womb began to show. She would not apologize for that child. She would not take it back, or say that she had been coerced, or that it had been a mistake. The baby she carried, it deserved to exist just as much as Philippe -- and though she had lost a precious love there was a sense of relief, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride that she wished she could have shared with him in that moment. Where he could not even look at her, she wondered what it may have been to be looked at with a father’s approving gaze for having lived up to such dire responsibilities -- the salvation of a species, should the pregnancy stick.

 

It didn’t matter. She had done without a father for most of her life, she didn’t need Roen’s approval now, and much less, his love.

 

“That is mine," she said, gesturing with a nod of her head to ribbon in his hand. "I expect you to return it. Good luck with your match.”

 

And then she was gone, turning her back on them and leaving them to discuss how they planned on running her kingdom.

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“Fair enough.”

It seemed that devil’s temperament concerning his cousin was as unpredictable as the sea; serene and inviting in one moment, a hellish and violent in the next. He spoke of the Summer Isles and its heir, but Rafael was not naïve enough to believe that this would be the final chapter in Gabriela and Roen’s story. It never was. Perhaps not that night or for many that followed it, but sooner or later, one of them would once again pick up the quill, ink its end, and continue writing. Still, he’d not argue with the man or force the issue, as the current terms were more than favorable to the elder vampyre’s ends.

Rafael nodded to the devil’s terms, both more than acceptable. “I will do my best to respect your solitude and limit your involvement to the direst of situations, or when your particular talents will provide the most sensible course.” After so many years of turmoil and treachery, it almost seemed ludicrous that their long campaign of back and forth, tit-for-tat, came to such an abrupt and simple end. Rafael couldn’t help but wonder how much time they’d wasted pointlessly hating each other. Would this have been the result had they’d talked sooner?

“One family,” Rafael agreed, nodding curtly as he met the devil’s eyes. “He is the heir of Orisia’s throne and will be looked—”

It was the brush of Gabriela’s shoulder against his that killed his claim, earning a suspicious glance as she continued toward the Outsider. You again, he thought bitterly, having long-since grown tired of Tenebre’s obsession. While the coldness that crept into her heart from his touch was a welcomed reprieve from the overwhelming emotion she was prone to fall victim to, which often times proved too rich a meal for Rafael to stomach, that it was Tenebre’s doing vexed the elder vampyre to no end. She is mine by every right, he thought as he watched her walk and engage the devil over the wicked sword in his hand, and you won’t have her.

Then she was off, gliding into the mouth of the grand hall so that her captors could finish their conversation. Rafael approached the devil next, hands clasped at the small of his back. “Not to occupy too much of your mind before your appointment,” he said in a hushed voice, as if the shadows themselves mind betray his confidence. But Rafael was not like Tenebre’s other children, and his words were his alone—mute to the Dark Father. “But once you return, I’ll need your help with something of great importance. We’re going to kill Tenebre.” After a moment, he added: “Or, if that proves impossible, we will seal him away. He’s toyed with our family long enough.” Then, after another moment and cautioned glanced at the sword in his hand. “Good luck with your match.”

Continuing his stride, Rafael followed his cousin’s steps out into the hall, trusting the devil to see himself out. Gabriela’s pace was lackluster, uninspired. In fact, she almost seemed to be wandering the citadel’s halls in an aimless daze. “You shouldn’t have left,” he said firmly, announcing his presence from her rear. Several steps later, he was beside her, a hand around her slender arm to impede her gait. It wasn’t anger in his eyes, nor bitterness, but the hardness an adult takes when lecturing a child on inappropriate behavior. “You heard what he said, Gabriela. You belong to me, mind, body, and soul—just as I’ve always told you—and I did not dismiss you. Never do that again.”

Guiding her closer to him, Rafael hooked a finger beneath her chin and tilted her head back. The smoldering flames of her golden eyes had gone out, leaving dark, honeyed cores behind. Not distant, not dull or unaware—just darker. “This is not a dream,” he whispered down at her, looking her over as he committed her expression to memory. This day, this face she made, he would remember for all time. “And now, you can finally cast off the last of those foolish, girlish notions you’ve clung to for nearly all your life. This is where you belong—by my side, in my hands, and in my bed. This is who you were born to be.” He thumbed her lips as he spoke this last bit, pressing the tip of the digit into her mouth at the crest of the motion.

“Now, tell me: who do you belong to?”

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The click of heels and the approach of a cold like death, the Outsider knew these heralds intimately. They were beloved, once upon a time; before the advent of truth, they were cherished. Now, her cool tempo inspired dread, dread and anguish and deep, enduring pain. He felt it as he rose from internal exile, bits and pieces he sequestered away for the sake of dignity and pride stirring like great, slumbering giants, reminding him of the sentiment he had thought to bury before journeying to this den of self-styled animals. Now it rose like gorge and bile, and tasted just as bitter, at her approach. Now she was before him, seemingly determined to draw from him the attention he staunchly refused to give her, both here and at the villa, where she had first unburdened her soul to him, and he hated her for it. He hated her for the demand, for the necessity of confrontation. 

There was nothing dignified about heartbreak.

Roen turned his head, but it was not to ignore or otherwise dismiss Irene. She demanded his attention, and so he gave it, as whole and undivided as he never intended. Cold, yes, that is what he saw she aspired to be, as if his reaction towards her infidelity, preordained or otherwise was anything less than deserved. Offended by her arrogance, the Outsider curled his lips with distaste and disgust, the scent of her pride like tainted offal to his sense of decency, and frowned severely. I saved you, he thought as he looked for some semblance of humility on her otherwise pale, pretty face. I dirty myself to wash you of shame, and you dare to look at me so. There was none, of course. No humility, or regret. Not now, that he assumed responsibility for her transgression. Not now, when he played the master of puppets with no strings. 

He hated her for her infidelity, but he hated her more, in that moment, for her complete and total willingness to cede the onus over to him. A child, yes, the same one that had run from home was the same one that stood before him now, ignorant and proud. He saw the atrophy of emotion, the placid mask that fell over her countenance to conceal her hidden depths, and he almost reached up to strangle her. It was there, of course. The intent, the half articulated gesture. His hands twitched, his fingers curled, and there was the half-step towards her, as if he might embrace her where she stood and not break her neck before asphyxiation could steal the life from her, such as it was. His pretty orphan, his sheltered daughter - his ruin, and his bane. How wonderful it had been, finding and having and making love. How dreadful it was now, seeing the fruits of love. 

“No more dreams,” Roen murmured, feeling the distance return, the cool impassivity. There had been freedom once, in love. He had let it run wild and rampant and undaunted, and it had wrought many great things, left so unchecked. Now, it was a wounded beast, and it, like so many vital parts of him, slinked off easily, unwilling and unable to reveal themselves, lest they recieve more of the cruelty that wounded them at the start. Better to be reserved, Roen vaguely thought. Better to be callous. He had learned many things, loving Irene over the years, but this was by far the greatest lesson of all she taught: be cold to the world, and it could never hurt you. He applied it now, and felt secure if nothing else, hidden behind a sheet of ice. 

His attention sliding away lest her changing expression threaten to melt the frost and encourage vitality to return and bring with it the pain of suffering, the Outsider looked at something abstract and unclear, much like he soon started feeling himself, and frowned. He felt empty, and cold. His heart stopped beating, and the breaths he took only served to push the words out of his mouth, soft and dry, as if pressed of emotion; an automaton that concealed tragedy beneath. He could have raged at Irene, he could have denounced her and pulled at the frayed ends of her sanity until she unspooled before him, a heaving mess of sorrow and shame, but he didn’t. It was worth nothing but his own pride, and he had learned long ago the folly of an obstinate one. Whatever she was worth to him, his disgraced orphan, it was enough so that even now, at this sorry state of affairs, it was enough to leave her with relief. 

He did not trust her with sentiment, and he did not trust her with grief, for he knew her and knew her well. They belonged to him, now, just as they ever did. He knew how to tend to them, the Outsider. He knew how to nurture them. They were friends of his, the pair.. dear, valuable companions, and he’d take them home with him, when he was done here. “Of course, your Grace.” Roen said, his eyes following Irene but never alighting on her, his reply reflexive. He watched her go, then turned his head to Raphael to listen to his machinations, not having to pretend to be interested. But before the Outsider could ask the most important question, such as why Father Darkness should be killed or otherwise made indisposed of, the elder vampyre was moving away, presumably to follow his wayward cousin, wherever she may roam. A duty and privilege that was once the Outsider’s, now his to observe in another. 

And he did, of course. He observed, he watched, and he listened. He turned his head and sights towards the thrones, a pair of them seeped in shadow and misfortune. He frowned, sighed, shook his head, and left through the same passage he came, intent on returning back to his villa, and from there offworld through a portal, alone. It would be some time before he returned. 
 

Edited by Roen

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Gabriela stopped when a wide, warm hand wrapped itself around her arm and exerted a force upon her that she could not break. She had no other choice. There, she stood as her cousin circled around her, talking down to her as if she were a child. And in all fairness, she was a child when compared to him. What was her three hundred years, generations worth of human lives, to the centuries upon centuries that he had lived? There was no way to skirt around the fact that he was her elder, and by virtue of their blood, he was stronger, faster, and more powerful. Even so -- even with all of that stacked against her, and newly wounded from Roen’s abandonment -- Gabriela retained something that was surely as impressive as it was foolishly pathetic. Perhaps it was the explanation for the deep love that so many had felt for her -- perhaps it explained why Raphael and even Roen still felt for her. She was a small bird, a fragile thing, a damaged and injured creature, and yet she faced the violent winds and harsh downpours of the most powerful tempests head on. She was a force to be reckoned with for her sheer durability through all of the madness and agony.

 

He lifted her face with a touch upon her chin, tilting her into the light so that the shadows that loved her so very dearly washed away from around her eyes and lips. Bathed in light -- in the light of him who sought to own her -- she regarded him with a beautiful, placid face, but her eyes could hardly contain the loathing that swirled around the molten core of her eyes. She was full of rage and hate.

 

“You heard what he said, Gabriela. You belong to me, mind, body, and soul -- just as i’ve always told you -- and I did not dismiss you. Never do that again.”

 

Lazily, she blinked her eyes up at him. Her jaw clenched.

 

“This is not a dream.”

 

How his eyes flickered across her face. She felt herself consumed by his gaze, like a thing to be looked at, studied, and committed to memory. He swept over her features, his eyes a palpable caress from her brow to her chin, lingering upon her lips. He wanted to kiss her, she felt the desire burn in her veins like liquid fire, like the memory of Roen’s blood. Raphael was all passion, he was need, he was hunger -- but he was also power, pure and unabashed. It would be a lie to deny her attraction to it. Their age marked her as the subordinate, but her submission did not come from a place of surrender. She yearned for his power, and for his strength, and for his age. Just as he wanted to consume her for her beauty and youth, she yearned for his command.

 

How can I hurt him…

 

Tell him the truth.

 

“And now, you can finally cast off the last of those foolish, girlish notions you’ve clung to for nearly all your life. This is where you belong -- by my side, in my hands, and in my bed. This is who you were born to be.”

 

A thumb -- hot like brand -- slid across the swell of her bottom lip.

 

She jerked at the sensation.

 

“Now, tell me: who do you belong to?”

 

Her long, black lashes flickered and the gold of her eyes nearly disappeared. When her eyes opened again, there was a smile upon her face, her lips curling at the edges -- a smirk more than a grin. His thumb pressed into her cheek, she felt the pressure of it.

 

“You are so disappointing -- needing his permission to lay claim to what you claim belongs to you. Tisk, tisk, tisk. What a sad, lonely, and pathetic old man you are.”

 

The words slid like silk past her lips -- dry, cool, and decadently soft. It was a lover’s whisper, and her bedroom eyes offered only injury to his pride. She was mocking him, and all of his desires, and his gentle treatment. She would have laughed, if she did not think Raphael unhinged enough to end Gabriela’s life right then and there.

 

“The only version of me that could ever love you was the stupid, ignorant child you attempt to condition to your whims. It was when I was at my simplest that I loved you, Raphael -- don’t you ever forget that.”

 

She leaned close, she rose up onto her tiptoes -- their noses nearly touching.

 

“My soul and my heart,” she whispered, almost against his lips, “will never be yours, and you’re a bigger fool than I ever though, if you truly believe they were ever Roen’s to give away.”

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There was a time, not so very long ago, when Gabriela’s words would have hurt him. The bitterness, the cruelty, the sheer viciousness in the manner at which she attacked those cherished memories he kept—it would have been a lethal strike, masterfully delivered, that left the elder vampyre without words, and least of all the conviction to pursue her further. Nothing burned quite like the cold, after all. But that time had passed, the opportunity squared away the moment his seed had stuck in her womb. True, he was a man in spite of his power and wealth, and he loved the petulant child-queen dearly, but her attempt to wound him had proven little more than a glancing blow. Rafael had the upper hand, and they both knew it.

Buying into the comfort of Tenebre’s abyssal corroboration, Gabriela strayed threw herself into the dance of wolves, tempting her husband with the closeness of her lips, the iciness of her breath. He took her by the head with both of his hands, twisting and locking his fingers at the roots of her hair. Those coils, he secured in massive fists, ensuring she’d not be able to retreat until he desired to allow so. He kept her there as he bit onto her bottom lip, pulling back to stretch the flesh between them. Long, feral fangs pricked the inside of her skin, drawing small beads of her black blood to the surface. Even Tenebre’s presence could not dampen the sweetness of it.

“Mm, my sweet Gabriela,” he purred against her lips. “Mouthy, petulant bitch doesn’t suit you in the least.” The elder vampyre had become something of an authority on the topic in previous weeks, his past company considered. “You aren’t nearly as clever as you think you are, my dear.” It was then that he released her with a dismissive flip of his wrists, looking down at her from the peak of his nose.

“It was when you stood for something that you loved me,” Rafael corrected her, clearly more than amused that she believed herself to be somehow different from the child that ran away all those years ago. “You were a princess, the future of a nation. You had the potential to be the greatest monarch our kind had ever seen. Our people, they weren’t perfect, but they were ours—and you abandoned them. For what? Freedom? Peace? A people that you can be proud of? How has that gone, my love? How is your grand, complicated life panning out for you, hm?”

Rafael thumbed the corner of his mouth where her flavor had collected, then gently sucked it away in a slow, pointed manner. “The truth, Gabriela? You’ve never been a simpler creature in your life,” he said with a low, derisive chuckle. “You aren’t a queen, and you have never been. You're barely a mother. You’re little more than a crown, Gabriela; something to be worn on display. If not by me, then by the devil—though he doesn’t seem too enchanted with you any longer—and if by neither of us, then by Tenebre.

Smirking, he gestured to her in a revealing manner. “You truly believe that your love is required? That it is the final goal of all of this, the ultimate prize? Are you slow-witted? This is all that manners,” he said, gently pressing a hand beneath her navel. “Keep your heart, keep your soul; I have what I want. Just as the devil has what he desires. All that talk of love, of family, of happily ever after—ha! You were stupid enough to believe that?” The devil masked his pain behind apathy, but Rafael knew it was there. It was disappointing in some regards, and admirable in others—they were both so young. “I couldn’t care less how you feel about your predicament, so long as you understand it. This is your reality now, and whether or not you accept it, you belong to me. No one else wants you, Gabriela. There isn’t another soul alive that can stomach you as I do. Hate it, fight it, but I am all you have—all you’ve ever had.”

Rafael allowed for a moment of silence as his words sank it, searching her expression. The cold did well to hide the things she felt, but it didn’t erase them. Rather, it encased them in sheets of ice, contained them—but there were ways to crack and chip away that casing, and with the proper leverage, one could shatter it. “Time is on my side, love,” he said softly. “By the right of our births, you will never be stronger than me. Never. And so, you will forever be subject to my whims. You may be rebellious at times, as is expected from a child, but you will grow. You will learn.”

Thunderous blue eyes strayed from her face, eying the shadows. “And you will not be able to protect her always.”

Yes, Tenebre had proven himself a worthy nuisance to Rafael’s progression. His obsession with Gabriela, while understandable, could no longer be tolerated. There wasn’t enough of her for the three of them, and the elder vampyre was only prepared to share her with a single soul—one whom, much to his pleasure, had no immediate interest in the offer. It was in the pursuit of distancing Gabriela from the Dark Father that Rafael had taken certain liberties in Cantorra, when this keep had been constructed to serve as a “mobile” throne for the royal pair. And while the halls remained absent of love and affection, the wards set into the foundation of their chambers proved quite powerful—and most of all, effective.

“Come,” Rafael said, taking her by the wrist firmly. “Let me show you just how quickly ice can thaw.” He guided her further into Cantorra’s black depths, to a place where neither devil nor god could help her.

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