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How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying)
Author:Kerrelyn Sparks

How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying) by Kerrelyn Sparks 

 

Chapter One

When Zoltan Czakvar entered the armory of his Transylvanian castle, his gaze automatically shifted to the arrow that had killed his father. Barely visible where it was mounted on the far wall, the arrow still made him stop in his tracks. Still made his nerves tense. Dammit. He should rip the bloody thing down, toss it into a fire, and be done with it.

 

Since he was a man who prided himself on never quitting until a job was done, the arrow served as a painful reminder of his one major failure. He’d never found those responsible for murdering his father and destroying his village. Unfortunately, those events had transpired in 1241, so any chance at success seemed long gone.

 

He had tried. God, how he had tried. Starting at the age of fourteen, he’d traveled with that damned arrow for years, desperately searching for anyone who might know where it had originated. A curious design was carved into the wooden shaft of the arrow, making it unique. But no one ever recognized it. It remained a mystery to this day, mocking him and reminding him of all he had lost.

 

With a sigh, he set down the ice chest he had carried down the dimly lit spiral staircase. When this part of the castle had been completed in the fifteenth century, this cavernous room in the cellar had become the armory. The medieval pikes and battle-axes were gone, but an assortment of swords and crossbows remained, along with a modern array of firearms and ammunition.

 

Like most of the castle, the cellar was now wired for electricity. He switched on the lights. Although the far corners of the room remained dark, the nearby walls gleamed with an impressive display of swords that reflected the light and eased his sour mood. Like loyal friends, they had served him well over the centuries. A good sword was still the weapon of choice for him and his older undead companions. His modern friends were different.

 

He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes until the appointed meeting time.

 

The supplies he’d brought down the night before were neatly arranged on the long wooden table. A few knives. A box of cartridges for an automatic handgun. Another box filled with some shotgun shells and hand grenades. And a long box containing modern arrows. He moved the ice chest to the end of the table. The dry ice inside would keep the bottles of synthetic blood cold for days.

 

“Hey, Zoltan,” a voice emanated from the spiral staircase. “Are you down there?”

 

Damn. It was Howard, his new security guy. Zoltan turned to face the huge were-bear as he bent over to keep from clonking his head on the low entrance into the room. “No need to check up on me. I’m fine. I thought you were taking your wife out to eat.”

 

“I am. She wanted to clean up first.” Howard’s sharp gaze wandered about the room, then lingered on the supplies on the table. “So this is the armory.”

 

“Yes.” A week ago, Zoltan had hired Howard’s wife, Elsa, and her team of renovation experts to do some work on the crumbling east wing and tower. They’d jumped at the chance to feature a real Transylvanian castle on their home improvement television show. Meanwhile, Howard had barely seen his wife for the past six months, since he’d been stationed in Japan. His boss, Angus MacKay of MacKay Security and Investigation, had asked Zoltan to accept the were-bear as his new head of security so the couple could enjoy some time together.

 

Zoltan knew that was only an excuse. For the last three centuries, he had served as Coven Master for Eastern Europe. One of his duties was protecting his constituents from the evil vampires known as Malcontents, so he’d pissed off his share of enemies over the years. More recently, he’d broken up a band of Malcontent human traffickers. Angus was worried they would seek revenge, so he expected Howard to do a complete overhaul of the security measures at both the castle and Zoltan’s townhouse in Budapest.

 

Zoltan had reluctantly agreed. How could he decline, when Elsa had begged him to agree with such a hopeful expression? She’d been excited all day, waiting impatiently for her husband, who had arrived about an hour ago. Bad timing, as far as Zoltan was concerned, since he had a secret meeting scheduled to begin in eight minutes.

 

“I’m sure you’re eager to be with your wife,” he told the were-bear, “so I’ll give you a tour of the castle tomorrow evening. Or, if you like, my assistant, Milan, can give you a tour in the morning.”

 

Howard nodded. “I just met him upstairs. He . . . talks a lot.”

 

Zoltan winced inwardly. No doubt Milan had been trying his best to keep Howard from coming downstairs. “Why don’t you take one of my cars into the village? Milan can show you where the garage is.”

 

“He already offered to do that.” Howard frowned. “You know, as your new head of security, I have to tell you I’m shocked by the lack of it around here. I’ve spotted only one surveillance camera, outside by that iron gate—”

 

“The portcullis, yes.”

 

“And it’s not working.”

 

“I see, well . . .” Zoltan walked toward him, motioning toward the staircase. “We can discuss it tomorrow. Enjoy your evening.”

 

Howard didn’t budge. “As far as I can tell, everyone in the castle knows you’re a vampire.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And that restaurant you recommended—I called to get directions, and the guy asked if I was staying at the castle with the local Vamp.”

 

“There was no need to call. There are only two streets in the village and one restaurant. You can hardly miss it.”

 

“That’s not the point! Zoltan, how many people know you’re undead?”

 

He shrugged. “Quite a few, I suppose. This is Transylvania, after all.”

 

“It’s too big of a risk. You should do some of that mind control stuff and erase their memories.”

 

With a sigh, Zoltan glanced at his watch. He only had six minutes. “It’s their memories that provide my security. The people in this area know that they and their ancestors have been safe for generations because of me. I’ve protected them from Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Hungarians, Prussians, Germans, Russians, and countless gangs of thieves and brigands. The villagers would never let anyone harm me. You might call them my first line of defense.”

 

Howard tilted his head, regarding him curiously. “So that’s why the mortals I talked to claim you’re a hero? Even so, I have to object—”

 

“So do I. If I’m such a bloody hero, why am I alone?”

 

Howard scoffed. “How would I know? I’m worried about your lack of security, not your lack of nookie.”

 

“Eloquently put.” Zoltan motioned toward the staircase. “And on that note, you shouldn’t leave your wife waiting.”

 

“I’m serious about this, Zoltan. It doesn’t matter how many loyal friends you have. It takes only one enemy to kill you.”

 

“Indeed.” Zoltan gestured again toward the stairs. “We can discuss my imminent demise tomorrow. Have a good evening.”

 

“Why do I get the feeling you don’t want me down here?” Howard asked.

 

“He doesn’t want you to see me,” a voice said from a dark corner.

 

With a groan, Zoltan turned toward the Vamp who had just teleported in. “You’re early.”

 

“I’m starving.” He stepped into the light, dropped an empty ice chest on the table, and retrieved a bottle of synthetic blood from the full ice chest.

 

Howard stiffened. “Russell.”

 

The ex-Marine gave him a wry look as he wrenched the top off the bottle. “Howard.” He took a long drink.

 

Howard’s gaze narrowed on the items on the table, then switched to Zoltan. “How long have you been supplying him?”

 

Zoltan shrugged. “About two years.”

 

Frowning, Howard crossed his arms. “You mean since the time he went AWOL?”

 

“Thereabouts. Would you rather he starve to death? Or be forced to bite people?”

 

“We’d rather he report in every now and then,” Howard growled.

 

Russell paused with the nearly empty bottle an inch from his mouth. “Don’t mind me. Just keep talking about me like I’m not here.”

 

Howard shot him an annoyed look. “You think we don’t worry about you? Angus keeps sending J.L. and Rajiv to China to search for you.”

 

“I know.” Russell finished the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ve had to bail them out of trouble a few times.”

 

Howard snorted. “They wouldn’t have been in trouble if they hadn’t been looking for you.”

 

“I didn’t ask anyone to look for me.” Russell snapped a new clip into his handgun, then wedged it under his belt. “I suppose you’re going to tell Angus I was here.”

 

Howard glanced at Zoltan. “You never told Angus about this?”

 

Zoltan shook his head. “I don’t work for Angus.”

 

“He’s your friend. And he’s Russell’s sire.” Howard turned to the ex-Marine. “Aren’t you supposed to have some loyalty toward him?”

 

“He didn’t change me.” Russell stuffed the pockets of his old coat with more cartridges for his handgun. “Master Han did. Angus just finished the job. It was Zoltan who took me in and helped me adjust.”

 

“We would all help you,” Howard insisted. “Do you think we wouldn’t feed you? Or give you supplies?”

 

Russell dropped the shotgun shells into a worn canvas bag. “You would, but there would be a price. You would expect me to answer your questions.”

 

“It’s called cooperation. We’re on the same side, you know. We all want to see Master Han dead.”

 

Russell’s eyes flashed with anger. “He’s mine. Your kind of help just gets in the way. You’re too damned busy trying to save his soldiers—”

 

“They’re mortal,” Howard argued.

 

“They agreed to join him in exchange for their superpowers.” Russell slid a new knife into each of his boots. “They made their choice. It’s not my problem if they have to pay for it.”

 

“Their superpowers came from a demon, so when you kill them, they go to hell.”

 

“Like I said. Not my problem.” Russell hooked the hand grenades onto his belt.

 

Howard sighed. “Will you at least go to Japan to see what’s happening? I’ve spent the last six months there with our team of doctors and scientists. They’ve turned more than a hundred of Master Han’s soldiers back to normal.”

 

Russell scoffed. “Brilliant. Now they have only nine hundred to go.”

 

“Howard?” Elsa’s voice called down the stairs. “Are you there?”

 

“Just a minute!” Howard paused at the entrance to the stairwell. “Come back tomorrow night, Russell, so we can talk.”

 

“No thanks.” Russell opened the box of arrows.

 

Howard frowned at Zoltan. “I’ll talk to you when I get back from dinner.”

 

“No hurry. Enjoy your evening.” Zoltan watched as the huge were-bear wound his way up the narrow stone staircase. “The minute he’s out the door, he’ll call Angus.”

 

“If he waits that long.” Russell swung the quiver off his back and set it on the table next to the box of arrows. “I’ll just fill this up and be on my way.” He glanced at Zoltan. “Are you going to be in trouble now?”

 

Zoltan snorted. “What can Angus do to me? If he’s in Japan, it might already be daylight there. He’ll call me when he wakes up so he can grouse at me, but in the end, he’ll thank me for taking care of you. He’s not a bad guy, you know.”

 

Russell gathered a handful of arrows from the box. “We have different priorities.”

 

Zoltan nodded. Angus and his employees, like Howard, wanted to protect mortals from bad vampires, but Russell simply wanted Master Han dead. The evil warlord had attacked Russell during the Vietnam War, leaving him in a vampire coma for forty years. When Russell had been discovered in a cave in Thailand, Angus had completed the transformation process so Russell could wake up and join the ranks of the Undead. For the last two years, Russell had been searching Master Han’s massive territory, waiting for his chance to kill the evil vampire.

 

Russell shoved an old arrow aside to make room in the quiver for the new arrows. Zoltan blinked, hardly believing his eyes.

 

“Wait!” He lunged toward the quiver. The feathers of the old arrow looked familiar.

 

He pulled it out, his heart racing at the sight of carvings on the staff. Had he found a duplicate after eight hundred years? He zoomed over to the arrow mounted on the wall so he could compare the two. The arrowhead on the new arrow was modern, but otherwise, the two were exactly the same.

 

He turned to Russell. “Where did you find this?”

 

A wary look crossed Russell’s face before he turned away to finish stuffing the quiver with new arrows. “I wouldn’t know. I teleport all over southern China, northern Myanmar, and Tibet. And I scavenge along the way. I could have picked it up anywhere.”

 

“You have to remember.” Zoltan approached him. “It’s important.”

 

Russell swung the quiver onto his back. “I have no idea.”

 

“You’re not trying.” Zoltan gritted his teeth. “I have to know—”

 

“I can’t tell you.”

 

Zoltan’s heart stilled. Russell was purposely keeping his face blank. “You mean you won’t tell me.”

 

“I have to go.” Russell grabbed the ice chest. “Thanks for the supplies.”

 

“Wait!” Zoltan leaped forward and latched onto Russell’s arm just as he began to teleport.

 

As soon as they materialized, Russell shoved him away. “What the hell are you doing?”

 

Zoltan quickly regained his balance and looked around. Countryside. Treeless, rolling hills. Yellowish grass nearly to his knees. A half moon and countless stars gleaming in a clear sky. “Where are we?”

 

“You shouldn’t have come. Go back home.”

 

Zoltan showed him the arrow, still grasped in his right hand. “This is the only clue I’ve found in almost eight hundred years. Tell me where it came from.”

 

“I can’t.”

 

A streak of anger sizzled through Zoltan. “I’ve been helping you for two years, so you will tell me—”

 

“I can’t!”

 

“Dammit, Russell!” Zoltan clutched the arrow tightly. “It’s because of an arrow like this that I became a vampire. I couldn’t stand the thought of dying without knowing what happened. I had to stay young and healthy to keep searching for the truth. I gave up my mortality for this, so tell me where you found the damned arrow!”

 

A pained look crossed Russell’s face. “Fine. Two weeks ago, I was following Lord Liao and a troop of soldiers when they were attacked by a smaller force. I figured the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and they were taking some heavy casualties, so I helped them. We killed most of Lord Liao’s soldiers, but of course, he teleported away. I was wounded and fell unconscious. I would have died when the sun came up, but they saved me.”

 

“Who are they?”

 

Russell groaned. “The only thing they asked for in return was that I not tell anyone who they are and where they live. I’m sorry. I really do appreciate all you’ve done, but I can’t say anything more.”

 

“Very well. Keep your mouth shut and point in the right direction.”

 

Russell snorted. “Why is this so important to you?”

 

Zoltan lifted the arrow. Moonlight gleamed off the steel tip. “An arrow much like this one killed my father.”

 

“You want revenge then?”

 

Zoltan shook his head. “I’m sure the culprit is long dead. I want answers.”

 

Russell shifted his weight. “Sometimes there aren’t any. Just go back home. They want to be left alone.”

 

“Who are they?”

 

“Go home.” Russell teleported away.

 

Zoltan lunged toward him, but he was gone. “Dammit.” It was just as well. Russell wasn’t going to give him any more information.

 

Pivoting in a circle, Zoltan took in his bearings. The middle of nowhere. No weapons on him, other than the arrow. He took out his cell phone and checked his location on the GPS. Tibet.

 

He considered returning to the castle to grab more weapons and a coat. Even though it was the middle of May, spring was late here. A cold wind was blowing from the north, ruffling the grass that had yet to turn green.

 

On his phone, he spotted the nearest village, over a hundred miles to the southwest. Why waste time going home? He could be at this village in half an hour, asking questions.

 

He set off at a brisk pace, excitement building inside him. This was a lot more interesting than what he normally did every evening. Work in his office in Budapest. He was dressed for work—white dress shirt, red tie, an expensive Italian suit and loafers. Not at all suitable for an adventure in Tibet, but if he got into any sort of trouble, he could simply teleport back home.

 

Tibet. Did the people who had killed his father travel all the way from Tibet? When he’d searched for them centuries ago, he’d covered Eastern Europe, western Russia, and the Middle East. Finally, in the northwestern part of India, he’d given up, unable to believe that anyone would travel that far to kill someone in Transylvania.

 

Was his father’s murder somehow connected to his mother’s mysterious background? She’d been from the east, but no one knew where exactly. His father, a merchant who traveled the Silk Road, had fallen in love with her and brought her home.

 

Could she have been from Tibet? Zoltan’s pulse quickened. After almost eight hundred years, he might finally get some answers.

 

He teleported as far as he could see, then repeated the process until he was close to the village. The landscape gradually changed, growing more hilly and forested. He teleported to a high branch of a pine tree so he could survey the village. It was nestled in a valley along the sides of a stream. No electricity. A few lanterns were lit along the one main street. He checked his cell phone. Out of range. If he returned, he’d need to bring a satellite phone.

 

He dropped to the ground, adjusted his suit and tie, then sauntered casually into the village. An old woman was hunched over a homemade broom, sweeping her front porch.

 

When Zoltan greeted her, she straightened, eyeing him with suspicion.

 

He greeted her again, using English and giving her a smile. Then he showed her the arrow. “Do you know where—”

 

She launched into a tirade of angry words, shook her broom at him, then rushed into her ramshackle house, slamming the door behind her.

 

Zoltan sighed. He should have realized there would be a language barrier. Over the centuries, he’d learned nine languages, but the Tibetan spoken in this village was not one of them.

 

He spotted a man sitting on another porch, drinking from a leather pouch. “Good evening.” He lifted the arrow. “Do you know where—”

 

The man stumbled to his feet, muttering under his breath. Then he waved his arms as if trying to chase Zoltan away. When that didn’t work, he spit in the dirt, then rushed into his house and slammed the door.

 

Silly human is trying to get himself killed.

 

Zoltan turned toward the voice but saw only a dog resting on a porch a few houses down the road. Of course. Since early childhood, Zoltan had possessed the strange ability to communicate with animals. They were often his best source of information, since the conversations were purely mental and devoid of any language barriers.

 

He walked slowly toward the dog, sending him a message. Why would my questions get me killed?

 

The dog jerked to a sitting position. What was that?

 

It’s me. Zoltan stopped in the street, ready to teleport away if necessary. It was always hard to predict how an animal would react. Most dogs were friendly, but every now and then, one would feel threatened and attack.

 

What? The dog tilted his head to the side and quirked his ears. Are you talking to me?

 

Yes. I have the ability to communicate with animals.

 

Are you kidding me? The little spotted dog leaped off the porch and scampered toward him. Can you really talk to me? Can you hear my thoughts?

 

Yes. And you can hear mine.

 

Holy dog poop! The dog pranced around him in a circle. This is so awesome! I didn’t know humans had thoughts. Some of them don’t seem very bright, you know, so I wondered. Have you always been able to do this? Could you do it when you were a puppy? You must be a weird human. I think you smell a little weird. Do you like to eat? I like rabbit. Would you like to be my friend?

 

Sure, Zoltan replied as the dog circled him for the fifth time. This was obviously one of the friendly dogs. Can you relax a little bit?

 

Why? Are you having trouble keeping up? I’ve always suspected humans are slow. You don’t smell like the other humans I know. I could pee on you so you’d smell better.

 

No thank you.

 

The dog suddenly jumped and looked to the side. What was that?

 

I’m not sure.

 

I think it was a rabbit. I like rabbit the best. Are you hungry? I am. If you throw your stick, I’ll bring it back to you.

 

Zoltan showed the arrow to the dog. I’d like to know more about this stick and the people who made it.

 

The dog sat in front of him and tilted its head. Do you have any food with you?

 

No. But I could pat you on the head.

 

The dog’s tongue lolled out while it considered. Okay.

 

Zoltan patted its head. Good dog. So what do you know about the makers of this arrow?

 

The dog’s tail thumped on the ground. They’re hunters. Fierce warriors. The humans here are afraid of them. You should stay away from them.

 

Zoltan rubbed the dog’s ears, and its tail wagged so hard that its rear end wiggled. Why should I stay away?

 

Because they’ll kill you.

 

Zoltan paused. Where are they?

 

You stopped petting me. And I shouldn’t tell you, cause you’ll get yourself killed. I’ve always suspected humans aren’t very bright.

 

Zoltan patted its head. What a smart dog you are. Where are they?

 

In the mountains to the south. Do you want to play with me now?

 

I have to go. Thank you for your help.

 

You’re leaving? But we just met. And you’re my friend now.

 

You’re a good dog. Zoltan gave it another pat, then zoomed out of the village.

 

Wow! The dog’s voice grew dimmer. You’re really fast for a human. I bet you could catch a rabbit. Just don’t get yourself killed, okay?

 

Neona pressed a hand into the round earthen mound where her twin sister, Minerva, was buried. Two weeks had passed. Two weeks since half her soul had been wrenched from her. Tears sprang to her eyes, and the same litany of questions ran through her mind.

 

How can I live without you? How will I face each day? Her hand fisted around a handful of dirt, squeezing it into a hard ball as a jolt of anger ripped into her grief. Why didn’t you fight harder?

 

A tear rolled down her cheek, and Neona dropped the clod of dirt. She knew the answer. Seven years earlier, her sister had given birth to a son. Male children were not allowed in Beyul-La, so Minerva had been forced to give the little boy to the Buddhist monastery thirty miles away. Her broken heart had never quite mended.

 

At first, Neona had tried her best to alleviate her sister’s pain by putting up a cheerful front. But as Minerva’s despair had grown more entrenched, frustration and regret had seeped into Neona’s heart. She and her sister should have defied the queen and kept the baby boy.

 

With a sigh, Neona lay back on the grassy hillside and gazed up at the stars. How could they have defied the queen, when she was their mother? They could have ended up banished from Beyul-La. How could they have left their home and everything it meant to them?

 

Neona loved Beyul-La. It was the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas. In all the world, she suspected. It gave them life and purpose, while the outside world seemed to promise only hardship and death. But there had been times when they’d lounged on the grass, stargazing, that Minerva had claimed they were prisoners.

 

“Look how vast the sky is,” Minerva had said. “The world around us must be just as wide. Do you not yearn to see it?”

 

Neona had attempted to soothe her sister’s unhappiness by repeating the words they’d heard since childhood, the mantra that had comforted them for years, making them feel special and important. “We are the chosen guardians of this sacred valley and its secrets. Our mission is noble and necessary.”

 

“What is noble about being forced to give away my baby?” Minerva had muttered bitterly.

 

With a sigh, Neona wiped the tears from her face. The mantra no longer provided comfort. And her sister had escaped the only way she knew how. In death. The battle two weeks ago had claimed her and four others.

 

“Neona!” a sharp voice reprimanded her. “You shouldn’t spend your life here among the dead.”

 

Neona sat up to see Lydia approaching her. For a few seconds she considered reminding her old friend that she had some of her family members buried here among the dead. A line of five new earthen mounds now marred the hillside, alongside one older mound covered with grass. But the haggard look on Lydia’s face stopped Neona from speaking. Lydia was suffering in silence.

 

All the warrior women of Beyul-La were suffering. The battle two weeks ago had been devastating. In a matter of minutes, their number had gone from eleven to six.

 

Lydia stopped halfway up the hillside. “The queen has sounded the alarm. An intruder has crossed into our territory.”

 

Neona leaped to her feet and rushed down the hillside. “Only one?”

 

“It appears that way.” Lydia accompanied her to the small village of a half dozen stone buildings with thatched roofs.

 

The other women were there, lighting a few torches before the main campfire was extinguished to leave the valley in darkness. Then the five women hurried to the cave where Neona’s mother, Queen Nima, was waiting.

 

The torches were slid into brackets on the stone walls, and the large room brightened. Pink- and cream-colored stalactites glistened with moisture high overhead, and sparkling water fell from a fissure in the stone wall, splashing into the pool below. Behind the pool, a narrow corridor wound deep into the inner recesses of the sacred mountain. In front of the pool, there was a wide stone floor, worn smooth over the centuries.

 

Queen Nima paced across the floor and motioned to the owl perched on the back of her throne. “He has spotted one male intruder, invading our territory from the north.”

 

Lydia’s niece, Winifred, muttered a curse. “Do you think it could be Lord Liao?”

 

“Possibly,” Nima replied. “Or one of Master Han’s soldiers.”

 

“They’ve never gotten this close before,” Neona said. The battle two weeks ago had occurred forty miles from their border. The women warriors of Beyul-La had borrowed horses from the nearby village to travel that far to fight the enemy, for it was imperative to keep the sacred valley a secret.

 

“No man can be allowed to see Beyul-La,” Nima warned them once again. “Freya, take the eastern territory. Winifred, the west. Neona, the north. And Tashi, the south. Find him. If he’s a lost villager, show him the direction home. Threaten him with death if he returns. If he’s one of Master Han’s men, kill him without hesitation.”

 

The four women bowed their heads to acknowledge the acceptance of their orders.

 

Neona rushed to the area where they kept their armor and weapons. She always wore the breastplate and helmet left by her father, a warrior from Greece.

 

“There are only six of us now,” Winifred said as she slipped on a metal-studded leather breastplate.

 

“We know that,” Lydia muttered, watching her one remaining daughter, Tashi, put on armor.

 

“I think we should each consider having a daughter,” Winifred continued.

 

“Perhaps,” Queen Nima replied. “We will discuss it later. First we must deal with this invasion.”

 

“Oh, I see what Freddie means,” Freya said, coming to her sister’s defense. “The intruder might have potential.”

 

“Exactly!” Winifred nodded. “He could be fair of face, strong, and fleet of foot.”

 

Lydia snorted. “More likely, he’s a stumbling fool who has lost his way and doesn’t have the sense to get home.”

 

“But if he’s a good specimen,” Winifred argued, “we should consider taking his seed.”

 

Freya sheathed her sword. “I hope I find him.”

 

Winifred scoffed. “It was my idea. I should be the one to find him.”

 

With a laugh, Tashi handed them each a coil of rope. “Here. In case you need to tie him up.”

 

Neona frowned. Freddie and Freya seemed awfully eager to have a child. Didn’t they care that they would have to give the baby away if it was male? Neona had tried only once to get pregnant, but when the seed had failed to take root, she’d secretly rejoiced. After seeing the pain her sister had gone through, she was afraid of falling into that same trap of despair.

 

“Very well,” Queen Nima conceded. “You will take the man’s seed, but only if he is exceptional. Our daughters must be warriors, superior in mind and body. And don’t forget the main purpose of this mission.”

 

Neona nodded, while the other women murmured, “Yes, your majesty.”

 

With a growing sense of unease, Neona slid on her father’s helmet. It was brass with a black plume and decorated cheek guards. She’d always wondered what had happened to the brave Greek soldier who had journeyed so far from home and become the father to her and Minerva.

 

When she was young, she’d asked her mother, and Nima had said he’d gone back to Greece. Then she’d warned Neona never to speak of him again. Over the years, Neona had come to suspect that her mother had not told the truth.

 

“Stay true to our noble cause,” Queen Nima reminded them. “Once you are done with the man, kill him.”