Readers, if you want some songs to read by, I have a few playlists on Spotify. These are songs that have inspired be, and that speak to the nature of the story, the setting, and the characters. In the case of No Distance Greater than the Stars, a few of the songs are actually referred to in the book. They should make for some great music to read by. You can also see the bands I follow, and maybe discover someone new that way. Happy listening!
After a land has long since become enshrouded in legend, and the light of its glorious past is filtered by the dust of ages, it falls into danger of facing yet another peril. And while that peril should like to disprove the realm’s glory, often it is that a greater legend is born. In a world where history is no different from legend, and prophecies are promises from the gods, unyielding in their faithfulness, reverence and wonder shall never cease. The legends and prophecies written in holy text might not be fully understood, but they are true nonetheless. Even the most esoteric of tales cannot be dissolved by time; the future shall look back upon them to watch the warrior emerge from the flames and tears to prove the might of his spirit.
Legend, in all its richness of glory and tragedy, had birthed the most majestic kingdom known to Lorata. In the grassy plains that roll from the cliffs of Dragonridge Mountains to the waves of Blueshade Ocean, Onsira stood proud and deeply respected. Its rich soil brought verdant life to the plains, dotting it with woodlands cut by streams and ponds. Onsira had long been ruled by a monarchy, its bloodline tied to the greatest of all heroes: Loracaz, Champion of Jenh.
Generations had passed since the hero’s great feat, years that were ruled in peace under centuries-old traditions. Onsira was a kingdom governed by elves, but it welcomed fae-kind as friends. It had even found peace and mutual respect with the dragons, difficult though their history had been. It was a safe and honorable kingdom, said to be blessed by Goddess Jenh herself, and its people prospered.
Late in the fifth millennium of Lorata’s recorded history, that age-old peace came to its end. For those who believed that it would never leave the kingdom, it was a juncture of utmost tragedy, the desperate culmination of the actions of His Royal Majesty, King Z’Lé. For the elves who had put their trust into his dream of uniting the four realms of magic and the four races, he had become a figure of cruel betrayal. His people had feared him ever since the day that he invited ambassadors from Thiizav, the kingdom known for it devotion to Métius. The king’s people began to worry that their queen had made the wrong choice in taking Z’Lé as her beloved.
The Onsiran citizens protested the collection of taxes in order to support the construction of a temple for the one god who had no place in Onsira: Métius, ruler of the Abyss and all the demons who resided therein. Complaints about the taxes brought King Z’Lé’s wrath, and he did not hesitate in jailing those who tried to prevent supplies from arriving at the site of the temple. It had been an act of treason, the king decreed, to prevent the unification that he so desired to create. He had lost the mercy that Onsira had been known for, and cared not that he was feared and reviled.
All the while, Queen Arialla could do nothing to stop him. She did not agree with the harshness of Z’Lé’s punishments, but the goal of unification that Z’Lé sought was to important, and too well under way to get in the way of. She was as nervous as any of her citizens were about demon king, but if she let that fear guide her, how could she bring about unity? It was for that dream that she had chosen Z’Lé, and she could not give up on it.
This logic, however, denied something greater. If Arialla had wanted deny the nobles from Thiizav their embassy and keep Métius out of her kingdom, the king would have gone ahead without her blessing. King Z’Lé had begun to dominate the throne long before commissioning the Temple of Métius to be built. No decision was final without his word, and while the queen laid resting, he would decree many of the laws that would bring his goal of unification to completion. In the name of the alliance of the gods, he broke from one Onsiran tradition after another without even a thought.
Zarrek, the second son of the royal family, grew up as the dark temple was completed. King Z’Lé took the child with him to oversee the raising of its twisted spires, and though he was just a babe, Zarrek watched, transfixed, as each block of rich black stone was set into its place. It worried Arialla to know that her son was so close to that source of evil. He would not bend to her concerns, though. Although the queen did not want her sons to partake in the darker aspects of the unification, the king insisted upon it in the name of true unity.
With all that he had done, King Z’Lé had forever changed the face of Onsira. Its proud heritage was now hardly better than a memory, and the people were resentful that they could not contest what their king was doing. He expected them to forgive what Métius had done to Goddess Jenh centuries ago, and he decreed that devotion to her alone would harm Onsira’s chances for a unified future.
In truth, Jenh was the pillar of the kingdom, and Arialla was a direct descendant of her champion, the realm’s founding ruler: Loracaz I. Métius had captured the goddess ages ago, in an attempt to steal away her life and magic, and Loracaz had been the only one able to rescue her. Welcoming the lord of evil back, even in the name of unity, was an insult to the worshipers of the goddess.
Z’Lé overruled any concern for the threat of the demon lord by declaring that the legends and prophecies were too ancient to be trifled with. Jenh had forgiven the dragons, whose jealousy was the root of all acts committed against her. Even her promise that the great hero would return to Lorata, should Métius ever again threaten the world with his evil, seemed unnecessary. It was time for Onsira to grow into an empire of unity, rather than a simple kingdom devoted to a goddess.
When Zarrek was merely five years old, he was initiated into both the Temple of Jenh the Elemental Mother, and the Temple of Métius, Dark Destroyer and Lord of Demons. In the evening of that same day, the king announced that he would unite all of Manastaecies under his rule. He declared himself Emperor of Unified Onsira, and a new age was born. The old green banners were pulled down from the palace walls, and replaced with a new tapestry, one of Z’Lé’s own design. Instead of the traditional leaf, the imperial banner was a long, vertical tapestry that contained the symbols of all four deities, even the demon lord, sewn onto a background of pale grey.
Arialla, now forced to call herself empress, could now understand how he could go so far,
To Z’Lé, Onsira being ruled by an elvan family meant neglect for the dragons, and it was that neglect that had ignited anger in the hearts of the dragons of ages past. Being that he was from one of the mountain provinces, where dragons outnumbered the elves, he was the best authority on the current disposition of the flying creatures. Arialla had once trusted his conviction that the dragons should be welcome everywhere in Onsira. Nobody had ever suspected that it would come to this.
He who had begun as a charismatic, idea-laden man, able to win the heart of the princess, changed into an irascible, demanding, and vengeful beast of an emperor, more like a dragon than an elf. When Arialla had fallen in love with Z’Lé and made him her king, he had been a gentle ruler, his only request being that dragons and elves should learn to befriend one another. It had been a strange mixing at first, for most elves were frightened of such immense and powerful beasts, but Z’Lé had worked hard to create a peaceable relationship between the races.
It became apparent, however over the years that his initial success, and the subsequent trust placed upon him by the elves was only his method of preparing for the darker aspects of what he called unity. That unification seemed to lie primarily between Jenh and Métius, ignoring the other two faiths almost entirely. Though he’d allowed temples to the holy god of purity and the celestial goddess of the bards to be built, he took no interest in them, and not even Zarrek bothered to learn from the other two temples.
Z’Lé took no pains to insist that such sacred buildings be built, as he had for Métius. Where he had overseen the building of the black temple at every stage, he had appointed ministers to ensure that the other two were erected, and left them to make their own decisions. Even the funding for the Temple of Métius was far more generous than that budgeted for the Temples of Kearr and Aamh combined.
When the people of the land could no longer bear to live under Emperor Z’Lé’s cruelty, his unfair laws and extreme punishments, they began to beg of Arialla to make him cease his actions and restore the traditions and former laws of Onsira. To their dismay, she could do nothing, what with him dominating the throne. Even when she reminded Z’Lé that the elves were dying of hunger and sickness because of his demands, he asserted his power over her.
Matters only worsened after that. Z’Lé had amassed a powerful and innumerable following of loyal soldiers and noblemen over the years. Even the dragons were willing to follow his command. They believed in his dream, in the future that Z’Lé had promised them. His followers ignored what most called tyranny, insisting that it was part of the process of incorporating the four alignments; what good was a ruler with a pure heart in a kingdom that allowed Métius within its borders? Blindly, they supported him, defending him with their lives.
The hope of the people laid in the hands of Prince Loracaz II, Zarrek’s elder brother and the first child born to Arialla and Z’Lé. To finda way out from under the emperor’s tyranny, the citizens implored him instead of the empress. The prince was the first person to be named after Jenh’s champion in all the centuries since the hero’s daring feat. He had much in common with the legendary hero, greatest of which was his pure love and devotion for the goddess; he spent much of his time in the temple dedicated to Goddess Jenh, studying her magic and legends, and often left offerings for her on the royal altar.
What the Onsiran people now held most dear was this: ages ago, after Goddess Jenh had been rescued from the clutches of Métius, she had made a promise to the elves of Onsira: should evil ever again threaten the land, her champion would return. Loracaz was the one man who could put a stop to tyranny and suffering and banish Métius back to the Abyss. Even if the emperor did not believe in the prophecy, the elves and their fae brethren did, and they prayed each day that their prince would soon awaken to his destiny and restore Onsira to its age-old glory.
This chapter is told from the point-of-view of Stefan Nilsson.
Leila got up from the couch when the wind started to blow stronger and the sky got darker. I watched Emory follow her, then went on talking to Justin, who was telling me about the art he’d been doing. I noticed Kari going over to her as well; she’d been curious about Leila ever since we’d met– and leery of me, though I can’t hold it against her, considering that I’m more than twice her height. I was giving her time to get used to me, and to see that I had no intention on harming her.
Then I saw one of the vampires come and go, and then Kadri’s glowing hands. I remembered the reading of the ballad a few days ago, the way the musicians had described meeting Leila’s ancestors. When Owen Moss had first met Aubré there had been glowing, and now this haltija’s hands were glowing as she reached for Leila.
I practically jumped out of my chair, then called for Jean-Marc to follow me as I crossed the room to the balcony. Justin followed along, evidently curious about what had me to excited. Before I knew it, Larsa and Killian were also in the doorway with us.
Leila knelt down in front of Kadri wo that they could look eye-to-eye. Kadri was excited– thrilled, actually. Leila seemed a bit more apprehensive, probably due to all of us suddenly watching. She smiled, and when they linked hands, the soft, leafy green glow expanded to swirl around them both. It go brighter as the color faded to white, and then the light faded in dozens of little sparkling pops.
Kadri giggled as though it tickled her. “It is you!” She cheered.
“It is,” Leila said, speaking softly. I don’t think she knew quite what to say. “I didn’t even have to go out on a big quest to find you.”
“No, I came to find you!” Kadri told her excitedly. “I told you, my homeland is very far away. Ooohh, I was hoping it would be you! But I was so nervous when you didn’t speak up earlier.”
“Yeah,” Leila laughed, a little nervously. “So much was going on at once. I’m glad you came to find me; it’s been a wild past few days, and after helping the vampires with Brielle, I don’t know how I’d manage to undertake a quest.”
“Yes, finding me would be a huge quest,” Kadri agreed. “Even though that’s taken care of now, we still have to find the key, and your palace– oh, and I want to learn all about your instrument!”
“We don’t have our oboes with us,” I pointed out.
Kadri gazed up at me. “Is that what it’s called? Oh-bow?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Leila and I both play oboe. The thing is, I had no idea this place even existed, and she didn’t bring the key.”
“You have the eighth key?” Kadri asked with wide-eyed excitement.
“Not yet,” Leila giggled. “It’s the number seven key left to me by Great-Uncle Morrigan.”
“Ooooohhhh…” Kadri stood there thinking for a moment.
“There’s a lot you yourself still don’t know about Terrans, isn’t there?” I asked. “And about becoming a musician.”
She nodded. I would have expected a shy nod, having to admit such a fault, but hers was much more… emphatic, I suppose I could say. There was an eagerness about her; some might even have called it naïveté, but I don’t think was that bad– not entirely. She wanted to know things, and she was admitting to not knowing, but her level of energy… Well, thankfully the responsibility for teaching her did not fall to me alone.
“Okay. Well, Kadri, when I found out that Leila had a mission here in this world– and that she was accepting it– I told her I’d help her. I play professionally, but she’s been more focused on her writing these past few years.”
Kadri looked back to Leila. “What do you write?”
“Oh, all sorts of stories. Most–”
“We can discuss that later,” I insisted; Kadri was clearly easily distracted. “For now, I think the three of us need to sit down with Brom and make sure we’re all on the same page.”
“The same page of the book containing the Ballad of Ríocht Ceoil?” she asked, her eyes glittering in a way that made me give Leila a hopeless look.
“Well, Evander will be with us, too,” Leila said as she took Kadri’s hand and led her inside. She flashed me a reassuring smile. “He has been very good at explaining things. And Jean-Marc will be with us.”
“He’s the seventh musician!” Kadri announced.
Leila nodded. “Yes, and you’re the eighth. You know Kadri, I’m starting to actually get excited about doing this. Come on, let’s have more tea while we talk.”
All of us sat in the the salon, the sort of living room that led to the various other rooms assigned to the musicians. Kadri sat next to Larsa, Aubré, and Tobias, showing them her magic stones and talking about what they did. Backthorne had learned on our way upstairs that Erik had taken away Larsa’s bag for fear that the light stones could be used against the vampires, but he wasn’t worried that Kadri had her own; the hostility they had worried about before was gone, and even if it wasn’t, the magic light could not do that much damage, and Blackthorne’s shadow abilities could block it out.
Evander helped Lord Thorne’s staff bring in tea and cookies, along with an assortment of fruits and little sandwiches. Kadri was hungry after riding all morning and afternoon; she would usually forage for berries and whatever else she could find if she wasn’t near a tavern around lunchtime, but that day she’d kept riding a little longer than usual.
Killian struck up a conversation with Nikolai and Sir Maël as they had tea and biscuits, and they seemed to be getting along pretty well. Stefan sat right next to me on one of the loveseats, making sure I had plenty of sandwiches and whatnot; he didn’t seem all that hungry himself. Emory and Justin were nearby, as were Jean-Marc and Brom, and we were all talking about or experiences in Tierney Ríocht.
The wind picked up while we were all there. I could see through the windows that the sky was a dark gray, making it seem as though night was falling early. I got up from my seat and headed over to the balcony to get a better look. It took Emory a few moments to realize where I was headed, and he hopped up from his chair and followed me.
“Leila, hang on.”
Emory rushed past me onto the balcony and gazed all around. “See how fast the sky is darkening?” he asked when I caught up to him. I gave him a sidelong glance. “This isn’t like the storms back home. that’s–“
“A ghost wind,” Kadri finished for him. I looked down and realized that she was at my other side. “That’s why I was riding further and faster than I usually do.”
“How bad does it get?” I asked.
She looked up at me with big eyes. “There will be a huge thunderstorm,” she told me, “and the rain will come down really hard.”
“That’s not even the worst of it,” Emory added. “Some of the more malicious shadow creatures come out during these storms.”
“I see… So what do we do about it? Can they get into the castle?”
He shook his head. “They won’t bother the vampires… or the werewolves. Even if one of them wanted to, Grandfather’s castle is a safe place. it’s more a matter of staying indoors in order to avoid the temptations of the trickster types.”
I nodded. I was going to ask something, but Evander came to the doorway to speak to me.
“Lady Moss,” he said, Matthias has come to request a word with you.
“Matthias?” I asked. “Is he wanting me to visit Ingrid?”
“He wouldn’t say, milady.”
“All right… he can come in, if he wants.”
“Of course, milady. I’ll show him in.”
Evander nodded, and once he he went back inside, I realized that Kadri was gazing up at me in amazement.
“Oh, it’s okay,” I assured her. “Matthias is a vampire, but he’s very respectful. He won’t harm us.”
Her astonishment only grew after I said that.
“Ummmm… Is everything okay?”
“You…” she breathed, her wide eyes fixed on me. “You’re a Moss? Leila Moss?”
“Yeah.” Then I thought back to when we’d met, and our journey back to the castle. “We didn’t really say more than our first names earlier, did we?”
“All the Terrans who’ve taught our musicians have been descendants of Tiernan Moss…” Her words were breathy, laden with her reaction to that fact.
I nodded. “Morrigan Moss was my great uncle. I have to admit, I never really kept track of my older family history, but Jean-Marc has told me a thing or two. Oh, and Killian is my cousin.”
“Is he a Moss, too?” she asked.
“No; his mother was, but she changed her name when she married, so Killian’s last name is Riordan.”
“I see… The Moss family must be very big after so many centuries. What about the tall one?”
She glanced back into the main room, and I followed her gaze. “Oh, Stefan? No, he’s related to Larsa.”
“Oh! So he is Stefan Báltu?”
Emory did his best to hide a smirk, and Kadri gave him a confused look.
“I’m sorry,” he chuckled. “I just see Larsa and Stefan as far too different to have the same surname. Don’t let my sense of humor make you think I don’t respect both young men.”
I gave him as smile, then told Kadri, “Stefan’s last name is Nilsson.”
“I see, I see.” She was very focused on her thoughts for a couple minutes, and then she asked me, “Will you change your name to Nilsson some day?”
I felt the heat in my cheeks almost instantly. I covered my mouth with my hand and turned away. “Wh– Umm… wh-why would I do that?”
“It’s what Killian’s mother did,” she explained, so matter-of-factly that I could hardly contain myself.
I turned around, relieved to see Matthias in the doorway. As soon as I laid eyes on him, he knelt down.
“Prince Emory, you’re here too…”
“At ease, Matthias,” Emory told the vampire. “Your respect is appreciated but please, speak freely.”
He nodded, be seemed no less nervous. “I thank you both for how much you have done for Ingrid and Brielle so far.”
“You’re welcome, Matthias,” I told him with a smile. “How are they feeling?”
“They are a good deal better, Milady…”
“They still need quite a bit more, don’t they?” Emory asked him, getting right to the point.
“Ah– y-yes, my prince.”
Matthias’s timid reaction made me realize what he’d come for.
“I can pay them a visit in a little while,” I told him.
“After dinner,” Emory added. “It’d be best for us to have a large meal before we share again.”
“Of course, my prince. I am forever grateful for your generosity.”
Emory nodded. “Will you tell them for us? If they’re awake yet, that is. I’m sure they’re just as curious as you are.”
Matthias quickly agreed, and he took his leave just as quickly as he’d come. I turned my attenntion back to Kadri.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. She’d removed her gloves, and now I could see that her hands were glowing a soft, sage-like shade of green. “You’re…”
“Leila Moss,” she whispered, “you’re the one I’ve been– the one I was sent out to find. You’re the one meant to teach me your music so that I can help protect Tierney Ríocht. May I take your hands, Leila?”
And she held her hands– her tiny little hands– out towards me, wanting to touch me, but also very shy about doing so without permission.
If Stefan thought I was just going to sit in the shade like a good little girl, he was fooling himself. I’ll give him credit for not tell me to stay there, though; he knows me well enough. By the time I caught up with them, Stefan and Blackthorne had dismounted and talking to someone I couldn’t yet see. I didn’t exactly have time to focus on that, though, because there was a sleek white unicorn right next to them.
“Stefan, wh– wow! Oh wow… that’s…”
Blackthorne looked over at me. I wasn’t sure if he was disappointed that I’d followed, or if he was just going to concede that he should have known I would. He had so much control over his facial expressions that it was sometimes hard to tell.
“Yes, Leila, it’s a unicorn,” he confirmed for me.
“Yeah… It’s beautiful,” I breathed. “And hey, you have nothing to worry about, right? Unicorns are creatures of light; they only time I’ve ever seen one hurt anybody was in that one horror movie.”
Blackthorne did not seem impressed. “There is a level of respect to be maintained between light and dark.”
“Respect, huh? I think that’s more your grandfather talking than anything. You’re not usually this… stand-offish.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’ve always been yourself– unapologetically, without compromise– but you also let other people be themselves. You also don’t discriminate.”
“You remember me well, even after all these years.”
“Well, you’re kind of unforgettable,” I told him. I ignored the way Stefan narrowed his eyes when I said that. “Blackthorne, light and shadow don’t need to be at odds with each other.”
“Ah, there!” I heard a small voice say. “I got all the sand off.”
I glanced down to see a small person– not even three feet tall– looking up at us with bright yellow green eyes. He or she looked young, but wasn’t a child. I was reminded more of a gnome or a halfling. The little person seemed to be in awe of the three of us, and a wide smile crossed their face.
“You’re all Terrans!”
“We are,” Blackthorne replied with a friendly chuckle, “but I’m still wondering what brought you all the way out here.”
“My family sent me,” they said, their tone bright and matter-of-fact. “I’m supposed to find a Terran who only recently discovered Tierney Ríocht.”
I shared a knowing look with Blackthorne and Stefan.
“Ah, well that won’t be me. My grandfather has been bringing me here to visit for about ten years now.”
The little person looked to me, then to Stefan. “Can you play music?” Then they looked past Stefan. “Ooooohh, maybe they can play music!”
I turned around to see Justin, Larsa, and Killian approaching us. I assumed they’d decided that it was safe to join us, since we were all standing around chatting.
“Well…” I began, “actually, yes, a few of us can.”
“Oh, amazing!” Larsa cried when he got closer. He quickened his pace. “Wow, a unicorn! So pretty– ohhhh, and a haltija! Hei, hallå!”
“A hal-what?” I asked. I realized too late that maybe I shouldn’t have asked quite in that tone. They didn’t seem to mind, though.
“Hei!” the small person replied, grinning even brighter at Larsa. “You’re, right, I’m a haltija! Not many people know that, you know.”
“They’re more from Finnish mythology than Swedish,” Stefan explained.
“And Estonia,” Larsa added. “But they call them haldja. In Sweden was usually just say tomte.”
“Yes, yes,” the little person agreed. “We are here to guard and protect Tierney Ríocht. And sometimes we help people with other things.”
“Ye mean like brownies?” Killian asked.
“Mmmmmm, maybe a little,” Larsa told him. Then he knelt down before the haltija and offered his hand. “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Larsa!”
They shook hands, and I couldn’t help but notice how tiny the haltija’s hand seemed compared to his. “I’m Kadri Oja,” they replied. “Can you play music, Larsa?”
“Well, I can drum a little…”
Their smile brightened. “I want to hear your drumming! I wonder if it’s anything like Lord Nikolai’s drumming.” Then, before Larsa could respond, they turned to Killian. “What about you?”
“Oh, ye know about the musicians? O’ course ye would. So ye’ll hae heard of the bassoon.”
Kadri thought for a moment. “It the the reeeaallly long one?”
“It is. I’ve been playin’ it for o’er ten years now– probably closer tae fifteen. And I teach it, too.”
“Fifteen is pretty good for a young human, right?” Kadri asked. “Sir Maël learned it about two hundred years go.”
“Aye, he told me much the same.”
“Hmmm… So you two can’t be the Terrans I need to find…”
Kadri looked up at Stefan. He looked down at them. I think he intimidated Kadri a little because he’s so big, and they looked a little uncertain. At least, I thought I would have been intimidated by him if I were their size, but they must have been used to so many of Tierney Ríocht’s species being taller, because they seemed curious rather than nervous.
“You’re so big. Is your instrument big, too?”
“Not as big as Killian’s!” Larsa answered for him. “Wow Stefan, can you imagine if you played tuba? She’d have a really hard time learning that from you.”
“Uhh… Yeah,” Stefan said, looking dubious. “But… Wait, if you’re looking for a Terran who can play music, does that mean you’re going to be your world’s next musician?”
“Stefan, don’t grill her with questions!” I told him.
“Why not? Don’t you think it’s weird that they–” He looked Kadri over again.
“Oh!” Larsa cried. “I get it now. Stefan doesn’t realize you’re a girl, Kadri.”
Kadri giggled a little. “I am, I am. But sometimes I forget that people outside of the Haltija can’t always tell the difference.”
Stefan nodded. “Thanks. Anyway, I thought Terrans had to go out and seek the person they’re supposed to teach.”
“Ooohh, but finding me would have taken so long!” Kindri said. “My village is far, far away. Very far.”
“Farther than the reindeer can run?” Larsa asked. I Don’t know if that was some sort of Sámi phrase, but I thought it was cute anyway.
Kadri nodded. “The reindeer live all around our land, and they don’t really like to leave it. The elder let me ride Lorelei instead.”
“Is that the unicorn’s name?” I asked. She nodded. “That’s so pretty.”
She grinned contentedly at me, then noticed the unicorn pawing at the sand. “Oh, did you find something, Lorelei?”
Kadri knelt down and picked up a little white stone. It shone in the daylight, slightly pearlescent.
Karsa leaned in close to get a good look at it. “Ooooohhhh, that looks like one of the magic pebbles I was using to fight off the werewolves the other day!”
She looked up at him with big eyes. “A Terran who can use magic stones?”
“Ja, Tobias helped me learn how. He said that my people are very close to nature, and that’s what allows me to use magic items.”
“Tobias the fae– The violinist Tobias?” Her eyes shone brightly– and brighter still when he nodded. “How lucky that you got to meet him!”
“I’ve meet all the musicians, actually,” Larsa told her.
“Really? All of them?” Kadri asked, and suddenly she grabbed his hand in both of hers and stared into his eyes. “Larsa… Do you have a second name?
“It’s Báltu,” he told her.
“Larsa Báltu…” she breathed, suddenly lost in thought. “It’s such a handsome name, but you’re not the one foretold by the Ballad of Ríocht Ceoil. I think you could be a big help to them, though. Can you show me what you can with this stone?”
Larsa looked over the shimmering white stone that she pressed into his palm. “I could… but wouldn’t it be a waste? This is a healing stone, and nobody here is hurt.”
His response had her grinning. “Wow, you even know the difference between that and the light stones!” She shook her head when Larsa tried handing it back to her. “You should keep it; I have plenty of my own.” She patted the leather pouch attached to her belt.
“Are you sure? The bag I had was taken from me when we arrived here.”
She turned around and looked up at the castle Larsa was pointing at. “Is that where you’re staying? What a dark castle! I’d have to check my map to be sure, but I think it’s one of the vampire lords’ castles.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” Blackthorne told her. “It’s my grandfather’s castle.”
Kadri looked surprised. “Wow, you’re the grandson of a vampire lord? And you’re friends with musicians and magic-users? It sounds like so many things changed while I was on my way here.”
“Oh, you’re in for quite a few surprises,” I told her. “If you come with us, there’s room in the stables for Lorelei, and I can introduce you to Jean-Marc and the other musicians.”
Kadri’s eyes went wider. “There are even more musicians staying in the vampire lord’s castle?! What is going on there?”
“I can tell you all about it once we’re inside. You’ve probably have a long journey, and it’s about tea time for us anyway.”
Kadri seemed to be a mix of nervous about going into a vampire’s home, and excited about meeting so many musicians. She agreed to come with us, even though I don’t think she knew yet exactly who I was yet. Stefan helped her onto the unicorn, and she gave him a long look as he walked back over to Sleipnir; then her eyes fixed on me as I got onto the legendary horse with him.
Kadri was amused to see the moose, and fascinated by Sleipnir having extra legs. All in all, she seemed really excited to be in this part of the world. I don’t think she’d ever left her homeland before then. I don’t know how long ago she’d set out to start looking for me, whether it was soon after the first time I’d come to Tierney Ríocht, or if it was a little more recent, but we’d soon have plenty of time to talk about all of that.
Blackthorne led us up the hill and into the stables. Lorelei seemed a little nervous at first, but she quickly warmed up to being around Moonglow in the other horses. Kadri explained that unicorns usually preferred to eat sweet grass and flowers, but she could manage okay with whatever the rest of the horses in the stables were eating. She could gather some flowers for her later on, once things settled down.
Blackthorne didn’t think that his grandfather was awake for the day just yet, so he didn’t bother going to his room to inform him that he’d invited in another guest. Instead to the suite of rooms where Jean-Marc and the others were staying. Evander opened the door soon after I knocked, and seemed overjoyed that our new friend was an haltija.
“Oh, how very wonderful for Tierney Ríocht!” Tobias exclaimed as he shook her hand. “A fellow being of magic and joy!”
I have to say, meeting Kadri and having the others be so happy that she’d come was just what I needed to make my birthday a happy one.
The beach beneath Thorne Castle was just like any other beach: lots of soft sand, salty air, some driftwood here and there, and little signs of life. Elan wasn’t entirely impressed by the seaweed, so he munched on grass closer to the hill while Larsa ran ankle-deep across the water.
“Oh– oh, it’s cold!” he announced as he came hopping back.
“Yes, it would be, considering how far north we are,” Blackthorne told him.
“Aren’t you used to it,” Justin asked, “being from Sweden and all?”
“Kind of… But I’ve been in Portland for over a year now, and even back home, he had an indoor pool,” Larsa explained. “If I had to go in colder water, I had a wetsuit.”
“Oooooh, cool! I’ve never worn one of those.”
“They’re like a second skin. Mine is super warm, and I got it customized with Sámi colors.”
They went back to running along the beach, chasing waves and looking for fancy shells in the sand. Killian joined them for a little while, and eventually took a break to spread out a blanket he’d brought and relax in the shade under the cliff.
Leila and I walked at a more leisurely pace, chatting about this and that. We got far enough along the shore that the only voices we could hear were each others, and from there we went back to the edge of the woods to pick some fruit and sit in the grass and tell stories.
She told me one about a selkie who was basically held hostage when the man who loved her– well, supposedly loved her– hid her seal-skin. If Leila had been a selkie, I could never do that to her, no matter how much I wanted her to part of my life. She pointed out that love makes people do crazy things, and it’s different for everyone. I guess she had a point.
The merrow were the Celtic version of mermaids, and they weren’t– as Leila put– all sunshine and rainbows. They had sharper, more aquatic features, and were actually really fierce. That’s how it usually is with Celtic creatures: more danger, less whimsy. Some merrow maidens have been known to enchant human men and lure them out to sea; I had to promise her that I wouldn’t fall for such tricks.
After a while, we picked a little more fruit and headed back to the others to share it. Larsa hardly ate because he was too busy telling me about the nearby cave he and Justin had explored. They had even found a few gems and interesting stones, but Blackthorne insisted that they put them back until they could get permission from his grandfather to keep them. What they found out in the sand was fine, but he was a little uncertain about the caves.
“The foundation of the castle goes down into that hill,” he explained. “Grandfather won’t tell me how far down, or whether it connects to those caves in any way, but I see no reason to take risks with his domain.”
“Wait… Would he punish you?” I asked.
“I doubt it. Really, it’s more a question of courtesy and res–” Blackthorne paused. His eyes shot to the western stretch of the beach.
“What is it?” I followed his gazed and noticed something bright on the horizon. what should have been a dull, hazy blur was instead vivid white and shining. It seemed to be moving as though it had a body–and that body was approaching us.
“Woah, that’s really bright!” Justin exclaimed.
Blackthorne stood up, frowning as he stared it down. “What creature of light would trespass on my grandfather’s land?”
“The beach is his, too?” Leila asked.
“His domain, yes,” Blackthorne confirmed. He stepped over to Nox. “I’ll go see what it is.”
He was on his horse in seconds.
“Should I –“
“No, Justin,” Blackthorne told him. “I won’t be long.”
He took off down the shore, and although the others watched him go, I refused to sit there and wait. If he was worried about it, so was I, even if it was as simple as Lord Thorne’s anger being invoked. I didn’t want Leila getting caught up in any situation involving a creature that shouldn’t be there.
“Stefan!” she cried when I got up and leaped onto Sleipnir’s back.
“He shouldn’t be going alone,” I told her.
“And you shouldn’t be going at all.”
I went anyway. She was screaming my name as Sleipnir charged across the sand, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I was doing this for her.
“Never one to miss the action, are you?” Blackthorne asked when I caught up with him.
“Seeing something bother you is a big deal,” I pointed out.
“Heh… I see your point. Hopefully Leila doesn’t try to follow; she has a will all her own.”
I knew that. In fact, I appreciated that about her. But I was just as willful.
“At least we have a head start.”
As we raced towards the white glow, it moved towards us. Galloped, really. It was something on four legs. We got closer. It was a horse. Even closer. A horse so purely white and clean that it had an aura. It was almost pearlescent.
“That’s not a horse!” Blackthorne called to me.
The hell it wasn’t! What did he — then I realized that he was right. Of course. A creature of light, pure and glowing. What else could I expect to find in Tierney Ríocht?
Blackthorne pulled Nox to a stop. “Woah, boy. Take it easy.”
Sleipnir drew up beside him and nearly reared up. I held his mane tighter.
the white creature slowed down as well, and it did rear up, neighing and snorting at us. Then I realized that it had a rider; a small one, but certainly nobody to ignore. ‘Had’ was the operative term, of courses because they immediately tumbled down onto the Sand.
Blackthorne settled his horse and climbed down to help the small figure.
“Are you all right?” he asked as he knelt down beside them.
“Oooooohhhh… ow.” the figure sat up and rubbed their head. “Wet sand….not so soft.
“You seem mostly okay,” Blackthorne noted.
The small figure accepted his hand and got to their feet. I couldn’t yet tell if it was a boy or a girl, what with their yellow and green tunic with decorative embroidery at the edges, sage-green leggings, and tiny leather shoes. Their cap was round and poofy, and it matched their tunic ; it also had a sort of flap coming down to cover their ears, neck, and back of their head. They had on sandy-brown riding gloves made of buttery-soft leather and stitched with strips of leather dyed an assortment of colors. All in all, they could not have been more than three feet tall.
“Ooh, thank you,” they said in a soft voice that really didn’t give away their gender. They quickly became busy dusting the sand off their clothes.
“No trouble at at all,” Blackthorne replied. “Now, can you tell me why you’re racing through a vampire lord’s domain on a unicorn?”
To his credit, Blackthorne– unlike Larsa– dropped the subject the fist time I asked him to. He seemed a little disappointed that I denied having the kind of feelings for her that he thought I did, but at least he respected my wishes. That was a relief, since the staff brought Leila and the others up soon after that, and I didn’t want her– or any of them– to see me arguing with him.
“So, Blackthorne,” I began as soon as everyone had their plates full, “seeing as how your grandfather says we’re not prisoners here, I’d like to explore the beach down below. Leila especially sounded interested in it.”
He gave me a long, knowing look; I was relieved that he had the courtesy to not point out that I was doting on her– well, possibly doting on her.
“That sounds really fun!” Justin chimed in when Blackthorns didn’t reply right away. “We can go, right, Blackthorne? Ingrid and Brielle are doing a lot better, so we can go outside for a while and–“
“Oh they’re feeling better?” Leila asked. “I thought it would take a lot longer for them to regain their strength.”
“I was worried that it would take quite sometime,” Blackthorne said, “so I fed Ingrid a little early this morning.”
Leila stared at him. “You… You did? But I thought you didn’t…”
“You’re right that I didn’t want to be disturbed. Still, since I’m here, there was no point in leaving the burden to you alone.”
“Wow,” she said, clearly in awe of his kindness, “that’s… I really appreciate that, Blackthorne. You always were a nice guy, even if some people in high school didn’t understand you.”
That had him smiling. “I simply do what’s right. And if that’s taken care of, I do what I like.”
“Ohh– tell me you like going to the beach!” Larsa added excitedly.
Blackthorne chuckled a little. “It’s all right, I suppose. We can go down there, if you’d like, so long as the day is bright.”
“Right after breakfast?” Larsa asked, about ready to bounce out of his seat.
“Wait, why does it matter how bright it is outside?” I asked.
“Because at night,” Blackthorne explained, “the shadow creatures take over the sea and the shores.”
“What, like they took over the forest when Stefan tried to rescue Leila?” Larsa asked.
“Most likely,” Blackthorne said with a nod; he couldn’t confirm much, as he hadn’t been there that night.
“What sort of creatures?” Leila wanted to know.
“I imagine all the mythological sea creatures you’ve ever heard of,” Justin said. “Sirens, kelpies, leviathan…”
“Leviathan doesn’t come near the shores,” Blackthorne reminded him. Then to Leila, “There are also selkies and merrow; I’m sure you understand the dangers of them.”
She nodded. “They’ll beckon you in and drag you under.”
He nodded. “Thankfully, they shun the daylight, so they won’t be bothering us.”
The conversation turned to other things as breakfast went on. After we’d had enough to eat, and a little time relaxing, we headed downstairs. As it turned out, Blackthorne’s tower was one of the highest points in the castle, bested only by his grandfather’s chambers, so we had quite a few floors to descend. Justin and Larsa pretty much raced down them, laughing and making plans for being outside.
“I have tae say,” Killian told Blackthorne, “it’s incredible tae see him so happy. Ye’ve done ‘im a world of good.”
“Don’t say that as though you didn’t brighten his day back when you were together.”
“Ye… ye’re really goin’ from hittn’ me tae complimentin’ me?”
“Can’t I?” Blackthorne replied. “Like I explained yesterday, I didn’t like how things ended, but I’d be lying if I claimed he wasn’t happier after meeting you. There is a difference, though, is there? Between you and me…”
“Aye, a lot,” Killian agreed. The two had gone so far ahead that they were out of earshot, making Killian a little more comfortable in asking, “So, bein’ here… and bein’ with you, did Justin gain some sort of magic or ability?”
“Sort of like Larsa?”
“Ah… Aye, in a manner o’ speakin’, though Tobias and Aubré say that there was already magic inside him.”
“Tobias…” Blackthorne repeated. “He’s the fae one, isn’t he? He’d know better than anyone when it comes to magic. The closer Larsa’s people live with nature, the greater power here.”
“The lad loves his cultural roots,” Killian told him. “Am I right, Stefan?”
“Hmmmm…?” I think I’d been too focused on making sure the stairs weren’t too narrow for Leila that I’d only been partly listening to them. “Oh, Larsa? Heh, for being from such a young generation, he really embraces the old ways. The elders adore him, and he learns everything he can from them about the Sámi deities, the sieidis, and so forth.”
Blackthorne smiled. “All that playfulness, but he embraces his culture. And he has your love, Killian. I can see why he has the magic he does.”
“Aye, and he’s really excited about it. But what about Justin?”
“Well…” Blackthorne sighed. “What he can do is vastly different from what I can do. No contrary, but…”
“Justin we very badly hurt, Killian. I won’t describe it to you, but no sooner had he mostly recovered from being in the hospital– he’d even gotten the central line removed– than he was attacked. I refused to allow Grandfather to give him the embrace, so the shadows couldn’t heal him.”
“Light and magic,” Blackthorne explained– though really that didn’t explain much.
“Does that mean his powers can hurt you or the vampires?” Leila asked.
“Nothing that strong. Those healing potions Larsa has? Justin has been to the source.”
“The source?” Leila repeated.
Blackthorne nodded. “I can’t say too much, but because of what healed him, he is safe from anything in the darkness that may wish to harm us. He always heals quickly from minor scrapes and the like.”
“Oh, so you’re the sword,” Leila noted cheerfully, “and he’s the shield,”
He thought for a moment before replying, “That is as reasonable a summation as any other.”
“Can he do anything else?”
“I think I’ll let you figure out the rest over time, Leila,” he replied.
We got back to ground level, where Blackthorne led us through the halls towards stables and the garage-type chamber. By the time we got there, Justin was running back in and calling for his husband.
“Little Moon, I’m right here; what’s wrong?”
Justin was a little short on breath when he stopped in front of Blackthorne. “Moonglow!” he gasped. “She… there’s a really huge horse letting Moonglow snuggle up to him.”
Larsa walked in a little more calmly. “It’s just Sleipnir,” he told us. “They’re being nice.”
Blackthorne turned to me with wide silver eyes. “Sleipnir? Odin’s legendary horse?”
“The very one,” I confirmed with a grin. “He’s amazing. Actually, Leila got to meet him before I did.”
“And Nikolai and the centaurs before me,” Leila added.
Blackthorne looked down at Justin. “That is a bit of a surprise, isn’t it?”
“Yeah…” Justin breathed. “Wait, isn’t Sleipnir the horse from Loki who…”
“Loki’s child from when he became a mare and distracted the giant’s workhorse?” I finished for him. “Yep.”
“Woah,” Justin chuckled. “He’s huge!”
“Wait till you see the moose,” Larsa told him.
“You brought a moose?” he asked, raising a brow. “But you said your people take care of reindeer.”
“They do,” Larsa said with a nod. “But I haven’t found any reindeer here, so Evander let me ride his moose so he could sit in the carriage and talk to Jean-Marc.”
“In Tierney Ríocht, most of the moose live near the faun villages,” Blackthorne noted.
“Yes,” Leila said. “Evander is the faun who helps the new musician who come from Earth.”
“Come on Justin, let’s go find Elan!” Larsa grabbed Justin’s hand, and they were back outside in seconds.
“Do ye need me tae calm him down?” Killian asked as we followed at a more casual pace.”
“Oh, he’s all right,” Blackthorne assured him. “I know he acts as sweet as ever, but Justin will let him know when he’s has enough.”
I was relieved to hear that he was no push-over; Justin had struggled enough growing up, and I didn’t want him to feel like he had no voice.
Leila stepped outside ahead of us and headed straight over to Sleipnir. She greeted him sweetly, cooing and speaking in soft tones. He seemed excited to see her; I can’t really blame him, seeing as how I felt the same way when I saw her. Blackthorne was pretty impressed to meet him, and afterwards he introduced his stallion: a solid-black Friesian with a long mane and tail and silky fur.
“This is Nox,” he told us. “He’s the offspring of Grandfather’s favorite horse.”
“He’s so magnificent,” Leila said. Sleipnir snorted, and she turned back to him. “Oh, Sleipnir, you know I think you’re incredible; don’t be jealous.”
Once he and Larsa had located the moose, Justin came back in to get his horse ready. Moonglow was a sleek and timid fjord mare with a black body and white tail and mane. Blackthorne had taught him how to care for her, even though they did not visit Tierney Ríocht often and relied on the stable-workers to keep her pampered. I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded changing that, though. He really did look like a young prince on that horse.
Once Nox and Moonglow were ready, I helped Leila onto Sleipnir and then joined her. We ventured outside to see Larsa and Killian already on Elan’s back, eager to head to the beach. Blackthorne showed us the path that wound around and down the hill, which cut through the spars woodland. The day was cool but sunny enough, although I could see gray in the distance. I was glad we were heading out then, because I wasn’t sure if clouds would be coming our way later.
This chapter shifts to the point-of-view of Stefan Nilsson.
Sleep came a little easier now that I knew Leila was safe. I don’t mean that it was easy to get to sleep– my bed still felt cold, my room somehow too quiet, even though quiet was all I’d wanted for the previous few night– but it was still better than when I’d been worried about what the vampires and werewolves planned to do to her. I dreamed of being on the beach with her, sleeping on a blanket on the sand, with only the stars above us. She fell asleep in my arms in that dream, and the next one I remember having involved her dressed as a Celtic queen and riding a unicorn right alongside me as I rode Sleipnir. I wore the clothing of a Viking lord, and had a great-axe at my back.
I woke up and immediately felt lonely. The sun was just starting to come up over the horizon, so I decided no to bother Leila yet, and instead went to take a bath. There were plenty of clothes in my wardrobe to choose from after that; I chose an off-white long-sleeved shirt and a brown leather vest with matching pants and tall, dark boots. It was a cool morning, so I also pulled on a blue suede overcoat.
Someone came to knock on my door soon after that. I thought it might be Larsa, but it turned out to be Justin. He’d changed out of his Terran clothes and put on a doublet made of black and indigo brocade, and form-fitting pants to match.
“Hey, wow, you like nice in period clothes,” I told him.
His chocolatey-brown eyes shown as he smiled up at me. “Thanks… you, too. Umm, so… Blackthorne sent me to get you.”
“Okay, I’m ready to go.” I followed him down the hall a little before asking, “Aren’t we getting Larsa and Killian?”
“Not yet,” he replied, and led me to the stairs. “I don’t think they’ll be ready for a while, anyway.”
“Ah, I get it. How’ve you been doing, seeing him again?”
“It hasn’t been bad, if that’s what you’re worried about. I was surprised, but I’m not mad or jealous.”
“That’s a relief,” I said as we got to the top of those stairs, then headed down the hall to a winding staircase. “Where was your wedding, by the way? And was Lord Thorne able to attend?”
“It was at a vineyard near Silver Star Mountain,” he told me. “It was amazing, Stefan! The house was covered in ivy, and the air was fresh and clean. We had it at night.”
“Of course you did,” I chuckled.
We got to the top of the stairs and went down a little way. Justin opened a pair of dark wooden doors and welcomed me inside. The room was rich with the aromas incense, and the temperature was just the right balance of the heat from the fire fighting off the morning chill outside.
“This is our tower,” he said, closing the doors once we were in. “Home away from home.”
The main room of their suite was bigger than my entire apartment back in Portland. There were plush couches in dark colors, wooden tables and chairs– probably walnut, judging by the color– carved centuries ago, candelabras of all types, bookshelves, a fireplace, and even an iron chandelier. It spoke of gothic architecture and a little Victorian influence; everything that suited Blackthorne perfectly.
There were only a couple other doors in the room: what I assumed to be a small office, a privy of some kind, a humble pantry and water source (which made sense, being this far up in the castle), and a balcony. There was also another winding stairway, which Justin led me up.
“Our bedroom is up here,” he said, speaking softly. Then he gestured around. “There’s a full bathroom there, and a walk-in closet, and a smaller balcony.”
Their bed was bigger than any king-size bed I’d ever seen on Earth. It was also a four-poster, with heavy curtain in crimson, silver, and black. Blackthorne wasn’t on it, but instead sat in a meditative pose in front of a crackling fire. His eyes were closed, so I stayed quiet, wondering if Justin shouldn’t have spoken either. He knelt down beside his husband and hooked their arms together.
“Welcome back, Little Moon,” Blackthorne said in a velvety voice. He turned and kissed Justin’s forehead, then twisted around to look up at me. “Good morning, Stefan.”
I nodded slowly. “Good morning. I hope we’re not interrupting…”
“Not at all,” he said as he got up. “I sent him to get you, after all. I just meditate to pass the time.”
Blackthorne had on leather pants that hugged his muscular thighs; there were decorative laces running down the sides. his shirt was a soft gray, and the cuffs and collar, while not outright ruffled, had waves of extra fabric. The vest he wore matched Justin’s doublet, and he wore a sapphire brooch on a dark chain.
“Can I offer you tea or coffee?” he asked. “Breakfast is being prepared as we speak, and the staff will show the others the way up here.”
We went back downstairs and sat at the dining table, which had a silver tray on it with the teapot and coffee carafe. Backthorne set out our cups and saucers and poured Justin a cup of tea.
“We have Earl Grey today,” he said, “but I might be able to very another variety.”
“I’m with with coffee,” I told him. I took a couple of the shortbread cookies to snack on and relax into a chair.
Once he’d poured my coffee and his tea, he sat down next to Justin.
“It really is good to see you again.”
“You, too,” I said. “Oh, Justin was telling me you had your wedding near Silver Star mountain.”
A fond smile crossed Blackthorne’s face, and he took Justin’s hand to kiss his fingers. “We did. It was… It was more enchanting than I could have ever asked for. Grandfather and my mother’s family, my adoptive family, and even Justin’s parents worked together to help us make the ceremony something that we’ll always treasure.”
“I’m so excited to see the pictures!” Justin chimed in. “The photographer even had a drone, and her assistant controlled it and took a bunch of aerial photos.”
“That’s incredible! Congratulations, both of you. Seeing you both happy together…” I shook my head. “Actually, it’s a pretty big coincidence that you were by Silver Star. Leila lives over by Northwoods.”
He nodded. “Yes, she’d have to have inherited Lord Morrigan’s house as part of the catalyst for being able to come here.”
“Wait– did you know Leila got the house?”
“No,” he replied firmly. “Grandfather had told me that Morrigan had passed away– he keeps track of the musicians and their Terrans, seeing as how the shadows need Tierney Ríocht as much as the light does– but I didn’t know that the next Terran had already arrived. You remember how surprised I was to see her yesterday.”
“Heh, okay… So let me ask you this: how well do you know Xanthus?”
He did a double-take when I said that name. “Xanthus? He works for my grandfather, Stefan. He’s incredibly loyal, too. In fact, he helped us when it came time to heal Justin from his near-fatal wounds. Why do you ask?”
He could tell that I wasn’t pleased by the way I was frowning. “He accosted Leila at the club,” I told him. “I don’t know why he was there, but between that and Leila getting kidnapped, I don’t trust him.”
Justin gave Blackthorne a worried look.
“Well…” Blackthorne began as he refilled my coffee, “you know why Grandfather sent for her. I’m sorry it went that way. As for what happened at the club…” He signed and shook his head. “He’s strange sometimes, especially when he and Erik have been arguing. Satyrs are promiscuous; they can even be unfaithful brats at times. Does Grandfather know about it?”
“Do you really think I’ve had time to submit a complaint card?”
Blackthorne chuckled at that. “I’ll bring it up with him,” he assured me. “I have to admit that I’ve been focused on work and the wedding for the past year, so I may have missed a few details.”
“I can’t think of any excuse for him to be bothering her like that, though,” I pointed out.
He nodded, then watched me for a long moment before he spoke again. “You’re more protective of her than you are of anyone else.”
I shrugged. “Killian and Larsa can take care of themselves.”
“And each other,” he added.
“But you were protective of her in high school, too,” Justin said.
“Not really,” I scoffed.
“You were,” Blackthorne countered. “And you still are. But you’ve never done it in a way that undermines her”
“Okay,” I said, taking another cookie. “So what?”
“Well…” Justin started, then faltered. Then Blackthorne encourage him to continue. “You seem pretty tense. I mean, I know you act cool and chill, but you looked ready to rip Ingrid off of her yesterday. And then last night… it was just little things, okay? Even with two gay couples in the room, you looked ready get get between her and anyone who bothered her.”
“She’s my best friend, and we’re in a vampire castle in a strange world we can’t get home from. Of course I’m being protective.”
“Grandfather and Erik told me about the way you fought at Jean-Marc’s manor,” Blackthorne said. “You’re beyond protective, Stefan.”
“Heh… okay, but Larsa–“
“Larsa’s magic is really cool!” Justin said. Then her smirked and sat back to focus on his tea.
“Is there a point in all of this?” I asked.
“There is, yes,” Blackthorne said. “I have watched the two of you for less than a day, and I know how fondly she looks at you. I can promise you, Stefan, that if you tell her how much you love her, she’ll confess that she loves you just as much.”
After I’d given Ingrid enough blood for that feeding session, we went back to my room to relax for the evening. The sun was slowly setting, coloring the sky with yellows and purples. Justin seemed to be enjoying being back in Tierney Ríocht, although Blackthorne wasn’t nearly as thrilled. Still, he seemed to be warming up to the idea the more he saw Justin being happy.
Stefan and I sat with Blackthorne as he told Killian everything that had happened to Justin and he’d moved away. Not only had Justin been depressed about moving and bullied in school, but he’d spent time in the hospital after weeks of stress and hardly eating. Then the bullies had attacked him again– in the city rather than the school– and it had been so much worse than the first time. Lord Thorne had been the one to save him, and had brought him to Tierney Ríocht to find a way to heal him.
Blackthorne hadn’t intended to tell Justin his secrets that early, but once he knew, he embraced all of it. After that, Justin was hardly ever apart from Blackthorne. They moved to Sacramento together, and Justin finished his high school education online while Blackthorne went to college. Justin worked part-time and took care of their house while Blackthorne worked high-paying job in engineering. They were perfect for each other, and clearly very much in love.
Killian was happy for them, and both he and Justin shared their remorse for not having ended their relationship cleanly when the move had happened. Killian also accepted Blackthorne’s criticism for not being more insistent on giving Justin more ways to contact him, especially since he’d hardly survived that period of his life. I was just thankful that after they’d said what they needed to say, the two of them were able to be friendly with one another.
Larsa and Justin, on the other hand, were fast friends. They were already sitting together in another corner of the room, talking about anything and everything, and randomly giggling at whatever one of them just said. Blackthorne trying putting a stop to that when Justin took his shirt off, but he assured him that all he wanted to do was show off his tattoos.
“Can I see yours, too, Blackthorne?” Justin had already summarily given Larsa permission to call him that instead of Emory, even though they’d just met. “Oh, and Stefan can show off his!”
Blackthorne smirked and replied, “If you show me your tattoos, then I will consider it.”
“Oh!” Larsa’s voice went high and his cheeks turned red.
Blackthorne’s eyebrows rose. “Do you not have any?”
“Umm…” He turned even redder.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed about not having tattoos, Larsa,” I told him. “Killian and I don’t have any.”
Then I noticed Killian trying to hide a laugh.
“What?” I gasped. “Killian, did you–“
“What, did Killian get a tattoo?” Justin ran over to us excitedly.
“Oh, I ne’er could, lad,” he said, then pointed at Larsa. “But he cannae show you his.”
Justin’s smile faded a little. “Why not?”
Even Stefan was laughing now.
Blackthorne looked around at everyone. “Ah, I get. It’s because of where it is, isn’t it?”
Larsa’s cheeks were even redder, and he looked away.
“No way…” Justin breathed. “Is it on his–“
“Little Moon,” Blackthorne said, using his pet name for Justin, “I think it’s a bit soon to get so personal with him.”
“It’s on his inner thigh,” Stefan told us. “It’s just a little reindeer in the style of his culture. He can tell you the story of it if he wants to, but most people don’t even know he has it. He usually just jokes around if someone asks if he has any tattoos, so he doesn’t have to lie or tell them about it.”
Justin accepted that answer and went back to showing Larsa what he had. On his chest a sort of coat-of-arms, which he said was similar to one that Blackthorne had. It wasn’t finished yet, but now that they were married, he’d soon be getting the last few details and adding color. He had a few bats on his upper arms, and a castle with a full moon behind it on his lower back. He also talked about wanting to get a serpentine dragon winding down his leg, with its head near his foot and its tail reaching up to his belly, but that was a long way off.
The six of us had dinner in my room that evening. Evander stopped by briefly to ensure that I was well, and reported that he and the other musicians were content having dinner in Jean-Marc’s room. They’d been giving me space to make my own decisions; for them, it was enough that I was safe and being well-treated by Lord Thorne.
It was interesting to see the dynamic between Blachthorne and Justin, who was know for being picky and eating like a bird. Blackthorne was good at keeping him eating, though; he had to be, considering how well he’d filled out in the years since he’d had to move away. Larsa seemed to catch on to Justin eating less– he was sitting right next to him, with Killian at his other side– and made up challenges to see who could eat the most of whatever food he chose. Justin’s eyes lit up when he saw the bowl of blueberries, and he won that contest bye a mile.
“That’s okay, I like lingonberries better,” Larsa chuckled as Justin cleaned up the blueberry juice from around his face.
“Isn’t that what he got at Ikea?” Justin asked Blackthorne. The way he looked up at him was so filled with affection that I couldn’t help but admire what they had together.
“Oh, the stuff at Ikea is okaaay,” Larsa jumped in, leaving Blackthorne only the chance to nod. “If you can it fresh, though, it’s way better! Sometimes I help my mother gather it in the forest.”
“You go foraging?” Blackthorne asked.
Larsa nodded. “Of course! My mother and father send me out to gather lichen, berries, wood… whatever they like.”
“Isn’t it snowy that far north?” Justin asked as he checked the bowl for more blueberries and frowned when he found none.
“Super snowy. But I have plenty of warm clothes, and sometimes I get to take one of the reindeer with me to help.”
“That’s awesome!” Justin replied. “Killian, are you going to go there some day? He could show you all the best places, couldn’t he?”
Larsa gave Killian a starry-eyed look. “Please come pick berries with me? I’ll give you my warmest gloves!”
“Is that an open invitation to Sámpi, lad?”
Larsa chuckled. “You’ve always had an open invitation to Sápmi, silly. Now I just have to convince you to come.”
Justin started snickering. Larsa looked over to see him red-faced.
“…oh. Oh– I get it!” Then he was cracking up, too. “I get him to do that all the time.”
Killian’s cheeks flushed, and he looked away. “Why did I let ye two sit together?”
“Because unlike other boyfriends, I’m not jealous of your ex-boyfriend being here,” Larsa told him. “Besides, he has a gorgeous husband now, so I have no competition when it comes to your heart.”
“You guys are so cute together,” Justin said. “It’s so cool that Stefan’s cousin hooked up with Leila’s cousin. It’s one big happy family!”
I gave him a warm smile, then looked to Blackthorne, curious as to what he thought of everything. But it was hard to tell, because he had one of those Mona-Lisa smiles that had always kept me guessing back in high school. He was somewhat stoic, but more positive than cold. At the very least, he wasn’t upset.
After everyone had had their fill and Justin and Larsa went back to joking together, Blackthorne eventually decided that he wanted some private time with his new husband. If they couldn’t have their honeymoon alone in their private cabin, they’d be having it at Thorne Castle. Nobody could argue with that– nor would they want to. Blackthourne had his own suite on one of the castle’s higher levels, and he lifted Justin up into his muscular arms to carry him up there.
“I’ll invite you up for breakfast, if you want,” he said as he headed towards the hallway.
“The sounds great,” I agreed. He was about to pass through the door when I called after him. “Wait, Blackthorne, when– what day was it on Earth when you got here?”
He gave me a smirk and told me, “It was Saturday… a little after midnight.”
“Matthias interrupted us!” Justin whined. He ignored the admonishing look Blackthorne gave him. “He has the worst timing.”
“Okay,” I said with a little giggle. “Thank for telling me. I won’t keep you any longer.”
Larsa dragged Killian away soon after that. Claire came by with a couple servants to clear away the dinner plates and help me out of my gown and see if I needed anything else. I want down to the soft white chemise when I happened a glance at the balcony and realized that Stefan was out there, leaning on the railing. I had Claire leave with the other servants, then headed out there to join him.
“It’s a pretty view, isn’t it?” I couldn’t decide on any other way to start the conversation, so small talk it was.
He glanced my way and nodded. There was a gentle breeze flowing through the night air, and I wanted to reached up and brush the hair out of his face.
“Stefan…” I said, still trying to get him talking. “You… you like the ocean, right?”
“I do,” he replied, looking back out at the view. It was too dark to see much, be we could hear the waves crashing on the shore below, and the air was with with the smell of kelp and salt.
I moved a little closer to him. I could feel his warmth, which was comforting in the way it was so constant, but his scent was slightly different. I didn’t mind that he hadn’t been able to bring along his cologne, though (or that he’d declined borrowing anyone else’s). His natural smell was kind of nice, and I’d gotten used to it over the years.
“It’s kind of cold out here, Leila,” he said as he wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “Did they give you a robe or anything?”
“I’m okay,” I insisted. Actually, I much preferred his body heat; I just couldn’t tell him that. “Hey Stefan…?”
“Hhhmmmm?” He was still staring out at the ocean. The moonlight reflected off the crests of the waves, and I wondered what swan beneath the surface.
“Let’s try going to the beach in tomorrow, okay?”
He nodded. “Yeah… I think that’d be a great way to spend your birthday. But do you think they’ll let you go out? They seem pretty intent on you feeding that vampire. And can I really not do it for you?”
“Stefan…” I whispered.
“What? I have the blood of a warrior!”
“Yeah, but…” I laughed softly. “How did you know…”
“I heard what Blackthorne said,” Stefan told me. “It’s Saturday, and judging by the way time has been passing here, it will still be Saturday on Earth when we get up in the morning.”
“That sounds so weird.”
He shrugged and turned to face me. “Maybe,” he said, his voice going softer, lower. He gazed into my eyes and brushed back a stray lock of hair. “But if anyone deserves extra birthday time, it’s you.”
I gave him a bashful smile. “Thanks, Stefan.”
“I just wish I could give you your present,” he sighed. “We don’t even know if the door connecting Jean-Marc’s house to yours would have opened by now, because we’re stuck way out here.”
“It can wait. It’s enough to know that you care.”
“Leila…” he began. He wrapped his other arm around me and held me against his chest. The way his heart race, it seemed that he wanted to say something important.
“Let’s get some sleep, okay? That way we’ll have more energy for going down to the beach.” His arms loosened a little, and he smiled down at me.
“O-okay…” I breathed. Then the very talk of sleep made me yawn.
We went back into my room. Stefan closed and locked the balcony doors, pulled the curtains, and checked all of the windows. He made sure I had everything I needed for the night, and then gave me one more hug.
“Good night, Leila,” he breathed as he held me tightly. “Sweet dreams.”
I almost asked him to stay. He could keep me warmer than any fancy medieval blanket. His arms, his scent… everything about him soothed me. But how could I ask him to stay when he was just a friend? My very best friend, who’d fought werewolves and vampires to defend me, and who had raced to a vampire lord’s castle to make sure I was safe. I couldn’t make our friendship awkward by asking him for more than that.
This chapter reverts to the viewpoint of Leila Moss.
I relaxed as best I could on the edge of Ingrid’s bed.. Even though she held my arm tightly, I knew she was trying to be gentle. Her pale hazel eyes were full of worry and weariness, as well as gratitude. I had never in my life expected to actually be giving blood to a vampire, willingly or not. The ones Lord Thorne had introduced me to so far had hardly been different from humans. Aside from the fact that I’d been kidnapped, I didn’t feel hunted, and I wasn’t being attacked.
Ingrid’s bite had only hurt for a moment; it was almost like the needles of two syringes going in. It wasn’t that I was numb, just that I wasn’t in constant pain. Like I’d told Stefan, it was a lot like giving blood at the Red Cross. I was feeding Ingrid for the second time when Lord Thorne brought him in; the first time had been just after breakfast, when I’d told him that I would help Ingrid and Brielle as best I could, but if my blood wasn’t helping them, I didn’t want to end up as weak as Sir Maël.
Now that he was overseeing the feeding, Lord Thorne could ensure that I didn’t give too much, that I took breaks to rest and recover, and that I had plenty to eat. I felt safe knowing that he was looking after me, everything else aside. We’d talked enough over the couple days that I believed he did have Tierney Ríocht’s best interests in mind. He also wanted to take care of his bloodline, which now included Brielle, regardless of how she’d been brought into it.
When we’d come in to tell Matthias that I would feed his fledglings that morning, it had been disappointing to find that he’d gone missing. He’d only had a little longer to wait for my answer, and even Lord Thorne was uncertain where his might have gone. Now that Matthias was back, there was a lot going on, and the room was getting crowded.
Watching Larsa run out of the room, chased by Killian and then Stefan, would have been funny if the shouting hadn’t made me so uneasy. When I heard the familiar name being tossed around, the only thing keeping me on the bed was Ingrid. I didn’t want to rip my arm away and risk tearing my wrist wide open, no matter how curious I was about what was going on.
When Lord Thorne walked calmly out to the hallway and Blackthorne came in with but a few words from him, it reminded me of an expert parent. I think Killian’s parents had been like that, able to have their children cooperate with hardly any effort. There was clearly a well-established rapport in place between them.
Blackthorne froze and stared at me as soon as he recognized me. “So you’re here, too.”
I stared, back, not knowing what to say to him. My mind raced, reminding me of the dream I’d had of him in the vampire castle. I had to tell myself repeatedly that he couldn’t have known about it, but I still couldn’t shake the eerie feeling running down my spine.
He stepped closer and leaned down to push a lock of hair out of Ingrid’s face. I couldn’t read his expression, but at the very least, he wasn’t yelling anymore. Then he turned around and sat down in the armchair where Stefan had been. He rubbed his hands over his face and watched us a for sense tense moments before speaking.
“Hello, Leila,” he said, sounding weary and stressed. “How have these past few years treated you?”
I smirked and shook my head. “Life was pretty normal for a while there… college, friends, work. Lately, though, things have gotten pretty interesting.”
“Only lately?” he said with a sort of laugh. Then he sat back and rested his ankle on his other leg. “Well, I bet you have a lot of questions.”
“And you don’t?”
His smile widened. “I always did like your spirit, Leila. And yeah, I have questions, but not as many as I’m guessing you do.”
Oh man… That told me that he already knew a lot about what was going on. There were definitely some interesting conversations ahead for us.
Then Matthias entered the room. His voice caught in his throat when he saw Ingrid feeding from me. He glance over at Blackthorne, and then Erik, and then back at me. He looked mortified.
“Lady Moss…” he gasped, his voice quavering.
“Ah, I see what all the shouting was now,” Erik said, his voice rich and cunning. “You went to get Emory because you thought she wouldn’t feed your darling fledglings.”
‘Emory.’ I had only heard Blackthorne’s name a few times back in high school. He didn’t like to be called by his given name by his peers, and I’d had precious few opportunities to hear any adults speaking to him. It was a handsome enough name; elegant, old-fashioned, and not too feminine. It wasn’t very common either, much like the man himself. Interesting that Erik and Matthias called him that and not ‘Blackthorne.’
“So all three of you know each other,” I said.
Matthias dropped to his knees near me, muttering some sort of rushed apologies. Blackthorne glanced at him, but didn’t seem impressed by his behavior.
“Yes,” he said, sounding slightly disappointed. “I also remember that it wasn’t so long ago that he took Ingrid as his fledgling.”
“That’s what I was told,” I agreed. “So Matthias went to get you? But why? I mean, I guess he told you about Brielle, but why you?”
He gave me a smile that said, ‘we have so much to talk about.’ “I… I think we should wait for everyone to be in here.”
“Sure. So… ummm… what was all that yelling about?”
Blackthorne’s smile faded. “Ehh… yeah, of course you heard. In my defense, it’s been a very rough morning for me.”
“I’m all ears,” I said. Clearly I couldn’t go anywhere with Ingrid still needing to be fed.
He rubbed both hands over his face. “We weren’t supposed to be disturbed for anything less than the most dire emergency wherein I was the last possible person able to help Tierney Ríocht,” he told me. Then he glared at Matthias and grumbled. “So imagine my surprise when this vampire shows up in my bedroom and interrupts me and my new husband.”
“Husband?” I repeated. I thought back to what Stefan had told me about finding Blackthorne and Justin online. “Wow, congratulations!”
“Thank you,” he said flatly, still glaring at Mattias. “He told me that one of the musicians was going to die if I didn’t come and feed Ingrid immediately. He completely left out the part about a member of the Moss family being here.”
“I’m so sorry, Prince Emory!” Matthias cried. He he still kneeling and keeping his head down. “And Lady Moss, I’m sorry I didn’t trust you better.”
“Prince Emory?!” I gasped.
Blackthorne made a weary expression and rubbed his temple. “They call me that, but it’s a complete misnomer. Just… don’t let it bother you. What I was going to tell you was, when I saw Killian out in the hall, I was already pissed off.”
“And I’m sure you remember he things ended between him and Li– Justin.”
“You mean how Justin moved away and one day completely ceased contact with Killian?”
“Yeah, Killian was pretty heartbroken about that,” I said. “But… full disclosure, Stefan told me you and he were talking online. Some bad stuff had happened to Justin in Wyoming, and you went to save him…”
“And now we’re married,” he finished for me, holding up his left hand to show my a thick silver band with black and red crystals in it. “Well, there’s a lot to say about what happened in Wyoming, but the end result is, seeing Killian like that… I lost it on him.”
“You–” Then I remembered all the shouting. “Oh. Ooohh…”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” another voice said. “The bleeding stopped.”
I twisted around to see a young man with feathery black hair enter the room. Killian had one around his shoulders, and the other around Larsa’s. Stefan followed them in. Blackthorne immediately got out of his chair and let them put Killian– whose face was a little messy from what looked like a nosebleed– in it. He found a simple wooden chair to occupy instead, and avoided Killian’s gaze.
Then Lord Thorne swept into the room and sent Matthias out to get a couple more chairs.
“Well, this has certainly started out as an interesting reunion,” Lorde Thorne said. “Lady Moss, I never realized that you went to school with my grandson.”
I think my jaw fell open at that remark. I stared at him, unable to speak to ask for an explanation.
“Emory Thorne,” the vampire lord went on, “is the only son of one of my children on Earth.”
“Didn’t his father…”
“I hope you remember enough that I don’t have to retell that history,” Blackthorne said. Clearly that part of his life weighed heavily on him. I nodded.
“Emory’s father was unworthy of my bloodline,” the vampire lord went on. “Still, Emory has always been a precious child, and I am proud that I was able to tell him the truth of what I am.”
I looked over at Blackthorne. “So you’re a quarter vampire… does that make you a dhampir?”
He spent a few moments thinking about how to answer that, and I could tell by his expression that he wasn’t thrilled with the term. “Yes and no. The common lore around dhampirs on Earth isn’t completely accurate, but… well Tierney Ríocht and Earth do have their interactions.”
“Ooohh, did you start dressing in that style when you found out that vampires are real?” Larsa asked, as excited and curious as always.
Stefan glared at him. “Why do you ask questions like this?” he groaned.
“What?” Larsa replied, as though his question had been perfectly reasonable.
Blackthorne didn’t seem to mind. “Heh… I was goth long before Grandfather told me the truth. It was more of a convenient coincidence.”
“Don’t forget, Emory, that it was openness to the shadows that made me willing to tell you about this world.” Lord Thorne added.
Matthias returned with the extra chairs, and while everyone else took a seat– Larsa in Killian’s lap and Justin between them and Blackthorne, Lord Thorne told him to sit on the bed to oversee Brielle and Ingrid. He gave me a worried look, and seemed for all the world like a a puppy being punished for being very naughty.
Larsa looked Blackthorne over again. “So if Killian, Leila, and Stefan knew you before, I’m surprised they didn’t make the connection when they met Lord Thorne.
“We were kind of busy, Larsa,” Stefan growled.
“I would have at least thought about it,” Larsa said, “if I had a friend named Blackthorne.”
“I’m sure ye would hae, lad,” Killian told him. He avoided looking Blackthorne’s way. Justin watched him, still concerned about the nosebleed he’d gotten. “But right now, Lord Thorne, I’m curious as to why Matthias fetched ye’re grandson.”
Matthias started breathing hard when he heard that question. One look from his grand-master, though, and he clenched his jaw and lowered his gaze.
“I shall tell you,” Lord Thorne began. “When it comes to those who are better at feeding vampires than others, there are several… characteristics. Humans from Earth are more nourishing, most especially descendants of the Moss family.”
“Then wouldn’t I be, too?” Killian asked. “If it would put less strain on Leila, I can help.”
I noticed Stefan roll his eyes and shake his head. “I don’t understand why you’d throw yourselves at them after what they put Leila through.”
Justin looked between me and Stefan. “What happened?”
“He had her kidnapped and brought here,” Stefan told him, scowling all the while.
Lord Thorne remained stoic despite the emotion in the room. “If I may continue…? Far more powerful than the blood of a Moss from Earth is that of those able to come here; specifically, those like Lady Moss. Creative, musical, believing in magic and wonder. The other source of powerful nourishment is my bloodline. My descendants can sustain my vampires much better than most humans, though there are sanctions against seeking them out even for those who are allowed to visit Earth. And because my grandson embraces the shadows and is more closely related to me, his blood is especially rich.”
“Are you kidding me?!” Stefan snarled. “You could have summoned him at any time, yet you ordered your lackeys to bring Leila here?”
“Stefan,” Blackthorne said in a warning yet calm tone, “yelling at him will not achieve anything.”
“You really do need to find a way to ease your temper,” Lord Thorne said, as calm as ever. “I did not send for my grandson because by the time Ingrid and Brielle came here in need, his wedding was fast approaching, and I had already promised that he would not be disturbed.”
“Of course you’d get married in October,” I said, sharing a grin with him.
Stefan narrow his eyes at Lord Thorne. “So Leila had to be grabbed by a bunch of wild werewolves so that Blackthorne and Justin could enjoy their honeymoon?”
“That is the truth of it. As I told Leila, Emory was only to be summoned if there was no other way to save Brielle.”
“And you couldn’t have fed her yourself?”
“My blood is a gift and a treasure,” Lord Thorne told him. “Feeding Ingrid would make her more powerful than her master.”
“It would also make him responsible for continuing to feed her,” Blackthorne added. “It would allow her to feed Brielle, but she would also exceed Matthias, and from what I’ve heard, they went against everyone else’s will with what they did.”
“But if Brielle died…” I reminded him.
Blackthorne scoffed. “A lot of the people of this world are worried about a musician dying. I think that another one could be found to take her place.”
“That is a point of contention that we need not discuss right now,” Lord Thorne said. “All that concerns us now is that Leila has been gracious enough to feed Ingrid, who will then be able to feed Brielle. Perhaps once they are well, she will stay and talk with us about music.”
“And magic!” Larsa added with an eager grin that had both me and the vampire lord smiling.
I was trying to sort out my thoughts, making sure my wanting to keeping her safe didn’t undermine her own intelligence and self-determination, when we started to hear shouting coming from the hallway.
“Don’t make me ask you again, Matthias!” It was deep and commanding, the voice of a man who did not tolerate nonsense.
“I’m taking you there,” another voice replied, “but you have to keep your voice down.”
“You, of all people, have no say in how I speak,” the deeper voice snapped. “Where is my grandfather?!”
Then there was the stomping of heavy boots.
“No, wait! Just–”
“What is going on out there?” I asked, worried that this angry man would be a threat to Leila.
I noticed right away the knowing look that Erik and Lord Thorne shared. He was about to speak when Larsa chimed in instead.
“Ooh, it sounds like Matthias is back. I’ll go let them know we’re in here.”
Larsa knew better than to rush out of the room like that. Whenever I’d visit him when we were younger, he loved to get into things– well, more like situations. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude– that was something different– but it was just as impish. He was naughty but not malicious, and he always had his mother trying to teach (or re-teach) him how to behave. I think he did it for the attention, which normally wasn’t a problem, but now he was running headlong into what might turn out to be dangerous.
“Larsa, no!” I called after him.
“Grandfather!” the man shouted again. “Come out and explain yourself!”
Then there was a smaller, gentler voice. “…calm down. I’m sure it’s…”
“I’ll go look after him,” Killian said, and he left the room, too.
I rubbed my temples. “Why can’t they just stay out of trouble?” I groaned. I would have much preferred that this ‘grandfather’ who was being asked for go out and settle the matter. Sighing, I got up and went into the hall as well; they couldn’t have protected themselves alone against at least two angry vampires.
“Hey guys!” Larsa called. What in the world had him behaving so recklessly?
“Larsa, get back in here!” I hissed. “That vampire is pissed off!”
I tried grabbing his arm, but he wouldn’t budge.
“Who are you calling a vampire?” the deeper voice demanded.
I gazed down the hall at him. He was tall, almost my height, and dressed completely in gothic-style clothing, from the long black leather jacket to the sturdy Doc Martens and the silver jewelry. His hair was long, down to his thighs, and a deep, dark shade of auburn. Except– but could it be? The striking steel-gray eyes conformed it: I knew that man. I was used to him dying his hair black, and he was a lot bigger now, but I recognized him.
“Blackthorne…” I whispered. And I instantly wanted to take it back.
But it was too late; Killian had already heard me, and I saw the recognition in his expression, too. Blackthorne looked from me to Killian, then down at the man at his side. He, too, was dressed in all black, with boots that went up to his knees and a collared silk shirt with delicate embroidery. His jewelry included little stud earrings– just barely hidden by his feathery chin-length hair that was naturally black– and a pendant depicting bats flying in front of a full moon. He was much leaner than Blackthorne, and nearly a foot shorter than him.
“Killian…?” the smaller man breathed. He clung to Blackthorne’s jacket. “Is that…”
I looked straight at Killian, who was still staring at Blackthorne. That was enough to confirm it, though.
“Oh wow, it’s really you!” A wide grin crossed his face. “Blackthorne, that’s Killian! Remember?”
I don’t know what the little guy was thinking, announcing it like that. Why did he think Blackthorne would be happy to see the one who–
I didn’t have time to finiosh that though; he was already yelling.
“You!” Blackthorne snarled, glaring at Killian with all the weight of his rage and pain. He started walking towards him, his expression dark and furious. “You irresponsible bastard! Do you have any idea–“
“What?” the smaller man cried. “Blackthorne, no!”
He couldn’t do much to stop Blackthorne from readying his first and dashing towards Killian, but he did at least try. At first, Killian didn’t seem to realize what was going on. Then again, the last time he’d seen Blackthorne, they’d been on friendly terms. I still hadn’t had a chance to tell him some of the things I’d only recently learned, so of course he had no reason to think otherwise– not that would have changed things much, though.
“Killian, watch out!” Larsa cried. He wrapped his arms around him and shoved him backwards.
It’s a good thing he did, too, because Blackthorne’s fist would have landed a lot harder otherwise. His little friend hadn’t been able to do much to hold him back, but between him and Larsa, Killian was saved from what probably would have been a broken nose.
“He almost died because of you!” Blackthorn growled. He stood over Killian, who was now laid out on the floor with Larsa draped over him.
Killian reached up to touch the blood that was already pouring from his nose. “What…”
“Arrghh, why are you so–“
“Blackthorne, stop!” the small man said. He stood in front of him and placed his hands on his shoulders as he tried to calm him down. “I’m okay. Everything is fine. You took care of me, remember? He didn’t know…”
I wasn’t sure what to do first: yell at Blackthorne and get him to come to his senses, or check on Killian. The decision was made for me when Lord Thorne appeared in the doorway.
“Emory,” the vampire lord said. He sounded like a stern parent, one who’d established enough of a rapport over the years to not have to raise his voice, and to be able to get his point across with fewer words.
Blackthorne narrowed his eyes at him. “What the hell are they doing here?!”
Lorde Thorne gestured to the room where Leila was still feeding Ingrid. “Come, we shall discuss all of this once you have regained control of your temper.”
Blackthorne looked between me, Killian, and everyone else. Then he made a frustrated growl and walked into the bedroom without another word. The vampire lord then looked to the other man in the hallway, who was dressed so perfectly in the style of the eighteenth century that I was certain he was a vampire.
“So that’s where you went, Matthias.” Lord Thorne sounded sorely disappointed. “We shall deal with the insubordination of what you’ve done later. For now, go attend to your fledglings.”
Looking thoroughly deflated, Matthias lowered his gaze. “Yes, grand-master,” he murmured before disappearing into the bedroom.
Lord Thorne crossed the hallway and knelt beside Killian. “I hope you can accept my apologies on his behalf.” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it to Killian’s bleeding nose. Larsa watched him for a moment before taking over.
“Is he okay?”
I looked up to see the man who’d tried holding Blackthorne back still in the hallway. He came closer and knelt at Killian’s other side.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry!”
“It’s not your fault,” Larsa assured him. “I don’t know what that guy has against Killian, but I notice how you tried to stop him.”
“They have a lot of history,” I explained.
Larsa gave me a puzzled look. “What? That big guy and Killian? I doubt it; he doesn’t go for huge muscular guys.”
The black-haired man laughed. “Oh– oh, that would have been a sight to see!” Then he looked back down at Killian. “But really, are you okay?”
“Aye… I’ll be fine once the bleedin’ stops,” Killian assured him.
“Okay, let’s sit you up, babe,” Larsa said. “I don’t want you choking on blood.”
He start moving Killian, and the other man moved to help him right away. They leaned him against a wall and sat on either side of him. Lord Thorne, meanwhile, stood beside me and watched.
“How’s he doing?” the black-hair man asked after a few minutes. “Did the bleeding stop? Should I get another handkerchief.”
“Killian?” Larsa asked. “Do you need another handkerchief?”
“Ye two hae me thinkin’ I’m seein’ double.”
“Oh no, how hard did your head his the floor?” the dark-haired man asked. He looked to Larsa. “Should we get him to a bed?”
Larsa giggled. “I always want to put him in my bed.”
The other man stared at him. He blinked slowly, and then his cheeks turned bright red. “Oh! Wow, you– you’re, ummm…”
Larsa had an impish grin on his face.
“Okay, so you’re his– his boyfriend? Or should I say husband?”
That had Larsa blushing. “Mmmm, I like how that sounds! Killian, can I call you my husband?”
Killian look up at him. “What’re ye on about now, lad?”
The black-haired man chuckled. “he still has that Irish accent,” he noted. “You seem to have one, too– well, not Irish, though. And I heard them call you Larsa. Where is that from?”
“Sámpi,” Larsa replied with a proud grin. When he saw that the other mad didn’t understand, he added, “Northern Sweden.”
“Oh, you’re Swedish!” Then he looked up at me. “Aren’t you Swedish, too, Stefan?”
“I–” I was a little surprised by how casual this guy was acting even after Blackthorne had nearly knocked Killian out. “Yeah, I am. Actually, Lara is sort of a cousin to me.”
“He is?” Then he was grinning. “Your cousin and Leila’s cousin got together? That’s really sweet, actually. And he’s cute!”
Larsa turned even redder. The man turned back to him.
“It’s nice to meet you Larsa,” he said, offering his hand. “My name is Justin. Oh, and I’m really sorry my husband his your boyfriend. I didn’t expect he’d ever do something like that.”
I stared down him. I knew there’d been something familiar about him, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it until then. Could I really be blamed for not recognizing him sooner? He’d been impossibly skinny back in high school, and even the pictures I’d seen online had him looking thin. Now, in person, he’d really filled out; he looked healthy, even glowing.
“Justin…” I whispered.
“Really?” Larsa’s face brightened as he took in Justin’s features. “Wow, you look great! And– oh man, I never thought I’d get to meet you!”
Larsa took Justin’s hand in both of his. “Oh, and isn’t this cool? You’re in Tierney, Ríocht, too!”
“Wait… what?” Justin asked, very much confused. “I don’t…”
“I’ve seen pictures of you in Killian’s photo albums,” Larsa explained. “We’ve talk a lot about our past boyfriends.”
“He… he told you about me?”
“Yeah!” Larsa was oblivious to how stunned Justin was by all of this. “You were his first, right? He was so worried about you when you moved away!”
Justin turned his head to look at Killian. Killian gazed back at him.
“Ye’re… ye… can it really be?”
“Did you seriously not recognize me?” Justin asked.
“Maybe he hit his head harder than we first thought!”
“Larsa, I’m fine, lad!” Killian insisted. He was busy examining Justin’s face. “Ye’ve changed so much, Justin…”
He nodded. “I know,” he whispered.
“Ye… ye’ve really filled out.”
Justin nodded. “I’ve been eating better.”
They stayed at each other for long moments before saying anything else.
“Justin– eh… sorry, lad, go ahead.”
Justin gave him a faint smile. “Killian… after I moved away… No, before that– I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to– actually, no…”
“It’s all right, lad,” Killian said when he saw the pained look on Justin’s face. “I’m nae angry about it. I’m just relieved that ye’re all right.”
“No, Killian, listen, I never thought I’d see you again,” Justin insisted, “but now that you’re here… Oh wow…”
Larsa laid a hand gently on his. “It’s okay… just sit down… breathe, take your time.”
Lord Thorne stepped forward and knelt beside Justin. “Ah, so this is the one Emory told me about all those years ago.”
Justin looked up at him and nodded. “Yeah… this… Killian is my ex-boyfriend.”
“I see… how fascinating that you had a connection with him.”
“What– what do you mean?” Justin asked.
“Well, Killian is a Riordan, but his mother was a Moss before she married. If this is the Killian you knew back in Portland, then surely you know Leila as well.”
Justin gazed up at Lord Thorne is awe. “Leila Moss…” he whispered. Then his eyes shot to Killian. “Killian, your cousin… didn’t write stories– a-and play music? And she’s here?!”
“Aye, lad,” Killian replied.
Justin hopped up and gave the vampire lord a wide grin. “You have a Moss visiting you!” He looked really excited about that.
“I do indeed, little prince. She has been quite lovely to speak to. Now then,” he said as he stepped over to Killian and held out his hand, “can you stand? Let’s go back into Ingrid’s room and have a chat, shall we?”
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