I've planned for a June release, which makes it exactly eight months after "Bloodgifted" had its debut on Amazon. That's a good distance between the two books, especially as each is approximately 100,000 words long. It's the perfect length for any reader to sink their teeth into (sorry for the pun!) as they await the next one.
So, I'll end my waffling here and let you enjoy this teensy excerpt!
The sun had dipped behind the horizon by the time we got back to Luc’s house. I left Laura in the kitchen with her mother, Judith, and made my way to the gym. When my sire bought the place, nearly a century ago, he had a Roman-style bathhouse constructed on the grounds, complete with sauna and swimming pool. Over the years, he’d added shower cubicles and up-to-date gymnasium equipment. After waking, his men—the Ingenii’s bodyguard—usually make their way here. Even after eighteen hundred years, they never missed training; never stopped being Roman soldiers.
The clash of steel rang out as I pushed open the heavy wooden doors. Terentius Sextus and Sempronius, or Terens and Sam, as they are now known, were sparring with rapiers. Last week it was cutlasses. They keep a collection of various weapons, both ancient and modern, displayed along one of the walls.
Calixtus, or Cal, was pushing weights. He had readjusted the balance by adding more force to the machine to cater for the strength of our kind. A light sheen of sweat covered his upper body, highlighting the Antonine crest of a coiled serpent tattooed on his chest. All the men have the same image on their bodies; a symbol of their brotherhood and their shared curse. At my transformation, it had appeared on the left side of my chest—the image of Marcus’s sword flanked by the twin serpents—marking me as Luc’s man.
Jake, or Justinius, as he used to be known, plunged into the pool. As his head surfaced, he waved me over. ‘Can guess why you’re here,’ he said, as he swam to the side.
He smiled and flicked wet hair from his eyes. ‘When was the last time you used this place? I mean, Roman style—no clothes—and sparred with us?’
I sat on one of the marbled benches near the pool. ‘I’m not used to being naked in public.’
‘You prude,’ he laughed.
‘Blame the century I was raised in.’
He laughed again and shook his head. ‘Give me a minute, then.’
Jake was one of my best friends. He was instrumental in helping me accept my transformation nearly a century before, by teaching me to use my enhanced senses into becoming a better doctor. He’d been one himself, a long time ago.
He hauled his body out of the water, strode over to the towel racks, took one from the hook, tied it around his waist, then came back to sit next to me on the bench. Water dripped down his legs and left a puddle at his feet. ‘I assume it’s about the three Eastern European Prefects?’
‘I meant to ask you when you got back,’ I replied.
’Things kind of… you know.’
I nodded. More important matters arose.
The three Eastern European Prefects, Count Timur Széchenyi, Baroness Milena Flaks and Karel von Czernin controlled the ancient territories that now spanned the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian republics. Over the centuries they had raided each other’s lands, killing both Brethren and non-Brethren alike. It’s kept the human population in that part of Europe dangerously aware of our existence. That’s why Luc had sent Jake over, not just to sort out the problem but also to convey the Elders’ warnings. All three were currently in danger of losing their exalted positions; perhaps even their lives. They missed the Ritual—the ceremony that took place every fifty years to introduce the next Ingenii into our world —each fearful of encroachment on their territories by the others.
‘Luc mentioned they hadn’t yet responded to the Pledging summons,’ I said.
‘They’ll be here. I’m sure of it. Especially Milena.’
He stared at his feet, brows drawn. Something was bothering him, so I waited.
‘There, um… was no evidence of recent trouble. Actually, when I summoned each of them to meet me in Vienna, at one of our safe houses, von Czernin and the Count Timur were faintly surprised. Not Milena.’ He paused, then angled his head and looked directly at me. ‘I didn’t tell Luc all the facts. He’s been too preoccupied lately, but he needs to know. There’s growing tension among the Brethren in Europe, as if they sense the Curse is coming to an end, and there are just as many who fear it—like Milena—as those who long for it.’
‘I see. So, she wanted to warn you?’
‘Something like that. Without arousing suspicion.’
He looked away and rubbed the back of his neck. I rarely saw Jake uncomfortable, but something must have happened. He wasn’t sure how to divulge it, or perhaps whether he even ought to.
In a brisk movement, he got to his feet and strode to the edge of the pool. ‘Alec, when we were cursed, none of us foresaw an entire political system built around the Ingenii. When it ends, you and Luc will lose your superiority. It’s happening already. Luc’s getting more nocturnal as Judy’s blood weakens. And…’ he paused, ‘something else.’
Judith had been the previous Ingenii, but her time was over. The gene that provides daylight tolerance wanes after fifty years and the next in line replaces them. Laura was the current Ingenii, and her induction had only taken place less than a week ago.
I rose and went to Jake’s side. ‘Tell me everything.’
He nodded and glanced at his brother soldiers. ‘We’re Luc’s men, bound to him as long as there’s an Ingenii.’
I became aware of growing quiet around me. The clash of steel ceased. Terens and Sam looked in our direction.
‘When the Curse is lifted, we can leave his service, that is, if we choose to remain as we are,’ Jake said.
I looked around and saw Cal put down the weights as he too, gave us his attention.
If Jake wanted this to be a private conversation, then he’d lost the opportunity. Yet, I sensed he wanted the others to hear. They were brothers, in many ways; had been together for over eighteen hundred years. Experiences such as the ones they had shared over the centuries must have created an almost unbreakable bond. I doubt they had any secrets from each other.
He took a deep breath and let it out, slowly. ‘Milena’s looking for a powerful consort. Someone to keep the other two off her lands. Someone they’d respect.’
‘I have a nasty feeling I know where this is headed,’ Terens said.
Jake didn’t look at him, but focused on me. ‘As long as the Curse is in effect, you and Luc are feared. That’s going to end, once you and Laura have a child. Problem is, we don’t know whether her blood will retain its potency. If it doesn’t, we can expect a war, and Milena’s lands will be one of the first to be overrun by rogues.’ He glanced briefly at the others before coming back to me. ‘So far, only we know that Laura is the Child of Light and Darkness and that you’re descended from the witch who cursed us.’
We all knew the prophecy, that the curse could only be lifted when a descendant of Marcus Antonius—the Child of Light and Darkness—willingly wed and had a child with a descendant of the Pictish witch who had uttered it.
I began to understand what Jake was trying to say. ‘You mean if Laura and I delay having a child, we could avert a war?’ They found out only yesterday that Laura and I intend to marry.
‘I know I’m asking a lot.’
‘You are. But, on the other hand, if it’s as you predict and the lifting of the curse results in her blood losing its potency, then it also means she’ll be of no use to them. Both Laura and our child will be free. So, the sooner we can end this thing, the better.’
’We need you strong, Alec,’ Jake said.
‘Don’t worry about me. I’ve got plans. But, that’s not all that’s concerning you, is it?’ I prompted.
Another silence ensued.
‘Oh, for the love of… Spit it out, Jake!’ Terens said.
‘All right! Milena asked me to be her consort.’
It took a second or two for his news to hit them and then they all spoke at once.
‘You’re not seriously…’
‘C’mon man, we need to talk about this…’
Jake said, ‘Who better than one of us? In one move, she gains lover and protector. Von Czernin and Count Timur wouldn’t dare raid her territory, knowing that.’
‘You have a point,’ Sam conceded.
‘I knew it!’ Terens exploded.
‘Why are you doing this, Jake?’ I asked.
‘I didn’t say I was going to do it. But it makes sense.’
‘Let her choose someone else,’ Cal said.
‘Hell, she knows a lot of men just as loyal to Luc as we are. One of them should do fine.’
‘Allegiances are changing.’
‘Jake’s right,’ I said. ‘The Elders are worried. That’s why Zhao left directly after the Ritual. Things are brewing in China as well, not just Europe.’ Zhao was one of the Elders who had presided over the Ritual.
‘It’s as if… I dunno… the Curse itself were sending out signals that it’s over. It’s run its course,’ Jake said. ‘The old order’s about to end’.
‘You becoming Milena’s consort isn’t going to stave off the inevitable, Jake. Maybe delay it for a bit,’ I said. ‘Besides, Laura’s blood might not lose its potency—after all she’s half-vampire. If anything, it’ll begin with the next generation. Any children she and I have will be free of the curse and their blood will be normal.’
‘If you’re right, that gives us at least fifty years to prepare,’ Sam remarked.
‘And… otherwise?’ Cal asked.
The same thought had occurred to me. Yet, I knew Luc had been preparing for this very day. Plans he hadn’t shared with his men—as yet.
Terens huffed and ran his thumb down the length of his sword. ‘Looks like I’ll need to keep this sharp cause I’ve no intention of allowing a bunch of rogues to take over.’ The edge in his voice as deadly as the blade he handled.
‘The Principate has to remain in some form,’ Cal said. ‘It’s the only way to maintain the peace and keep our existence secret.’
‘It will. Luc and Marcus have already taken steps. Nothing much will change for now, but when the time comes, the Elders will choose the next Princeps from among themselves. Of course, the Ritual will be replaced by something else,’ I said.
‘And us?’ Cal asked. ‘All these years we’ve been bodyguards to the Ingenii. Where does that leave us?’
‘Free to do as we want, Cal,’ Jake told him, ‘since we’ve decided to go on living.’
Part of the lifting of the Curse meant the men would be given a choice when the time came. There were two options—death, or remain vampire forever. Long ago they had decided on life, as I had.
‘Actually, I like what I do. Gives me a purpose in life,’ Sam said.
‘The Eldership will still need enforcers,’ I stated.
‘Got no problem with that,’ Terens said, and expertly twirled the sword in his hand.
‘Neither do I,’ Cal agreed.
‘Jake, if you’re asking Alec and Laura to hold off, I reckon you ought to do the same with her ladyship. I don’t believe she’s in any immediate danger and besides, we can keep an eye on things while Alec here can deal with those other two—Timur and Karel,’ Sam suggested. ‘There’s only the four of us left now and we need to stay together, unless, of course, you… feel something for this woman?’
Jake’s gaze roamed the faces of his three companions. All nodded agreement with Sam.
He released a pent up breath. ‘If I do feel something for her, it’s none of your business!’
‘Hell it is!’ Cal got up from the weights machine and strode toward him.
‘Ah, shit!’ Terens swore under his breath.
‘Whoa, whoa!’ Sam stepped into Cal’s path. ‘There’s no point you two going at each other.’
The two men faced each other, their nostrils flaring. But Sam’s words had an effect. Cal and Jake were close friends, and the fear of one or either of them leaving was enough to create a tense situation.
Sam addressed Jake. ‘You said something about Milena contriving the situation to get you over there?’
‘Okay. What if she exaggerated a bit and it’s not really protection she wants.’ Jake’s face darkened. ‘Now hear me out,’ Sam hurried on. ‘What if she simply wants you?’
‘He could be right,’ Terens agreed. ‘There’s some prestige in having one of the original legionaries as a lover. I ought to know!’ He gave a crooked grin.
Jake considered it. ‘It’s probable but that doesn’t mean –’
‘What? That she won’t make the most of your position?’ Cal retorted. ‘This is Milena were talking about!’
Jake threw his head back. ‘Okay, I’m listening.’
Sam continued. ‘Hold off giving her your answer; delay it. Did you talk to Luc?’
Jake shook his head. ‘No time.’
‘Well, maybe you should. Let him and Marcus involve themselves in political entanglements, not you. That’s not our job.’
‘Don’t want to lose you, man,’ Cal said.
Jake bowed his head and thought a while. ‘I haven’t decided anyway. I’ll wait. See how things pan out.’
Terens came over and slapped him on the back. ‘Bed her, by all means, but no need to wed her. The only entanglements you ever need get involved in, brother, are the long, curvy type which wrap sweetly around your back.’
Jake shook his head, but laughed along with the others. They were almost back to the easy camaraderie they’d always enjoyed. But, the tense lines along Jake’s mouth didn’t disappear entirely.
I had my own worries. What if Laura was already pregnant? We’d made love a number of times. As a newly invested Ingenii, she was at her most fertile. So, it wasn’t just the imminent Pledging ceremony that concerned me.
Never had the stakes been so high, nor more personal.
Bloodpledge is coming in June. Pre-orders will be available from May.