Samael Veles considered himself to be a solid judge of character, but he still wasn’t a hundred percent confident about what his king had gotten them into. Supporting the uprising against the High King of dragon shifters was a dangerous gambit.
But his king, Gorgon Ejderha, had been leader of the Black Clan for longer than any king of the other five dragon shifter clans—white, blue, green, red, or gold. He hadn’t remained in power that long by acting stupidly or rashly. Which was why Samael hadn’t argued with the orders that put him where he was now—standing in the throne room of Gold Clan’s mountain, backing the man who’d come to claim that throne.
Brand Astarot had mated a phoenix. A fucking phoenix.
Phoenixes were a prize sought by every creature. Particularly dragon shifters, whose right to rule as High King over all the clans was dictated by who mated a phoenix.
Kasia Amon’s appearance, after no phoenix had been seen in over five hundred years, had rocked the dragon shifter world and given Samael’s own king hope where none had existed before.
A plague had infected the dragon shifter kingdoms since the last phoenix had died, and that sickness had a name.
Pytheios. The Rotting King of the Red Clan.
With no phoenix, Pytheios had named himself the de facto High King. He’d put kings loyal to him on every other throne, Gorgon holding his seat through sheer luck and masterful political maneuvering. With Pytheios in power, the world had grown darker every day—fewer mates found for their people, more dragons going rogue, and more of their clans falling into poverty.
Except a second phoenix had been revealed. Skylar Amon, Kasia’s sister, was now mated to Ladon Ormarr, the King of the Blue Clan.
One phoenix was something to celebrated, if she was real. But two… Impossible for a creature so rare, only one had ever been known to be born each generation. They could be lies, a show, a trick to turn the tide of the uprising against Pytheios.
But Gorgon supported this alliance, and Samael, Captain of the King’s Guard, was here as Gorgon’s representative, backing Brand’s play.
He just wasn’t happy about it.
The old men sitting on the dais, the Curia Regis council for the previous—and recently slain—gold king, didn’t seem too impressed by Brand’s claim to the throne so far.
Samael checked the corners, checked the doors. Getting into this mountain had been too easy. They should have been stopped. At the very least, Brock Hagan should be here. As the son of the previous king, he would be the man with the most legitimate counterclaim to the throne.
Suddenly, Brand’s body wavered as though they were all witnessing a mirage in the middle of a castle, a sign the man was shifting.
Samael planted his feet while trying to appear at ease, waiting for what came next. There wasn’t space here for a gold dragon in full form, but they’d already discussed this demonstration, so he made no move to give the gold rogue room.
Brand brought forward his wings only. The men on the dais went slack jawed, and even Samael had to admit to being impressed by Brand’s display of control.
Brand stared down the old men and spoke. “I state this for all the gold dragons within range to hear…”
Dragon shifters communicated telepathically when in dragon form. Brand was doing that now, communicating to every shifter near him.
“My name is Braneck Astarot Dagrun. Son and only living heir of King Fafnir. Slayer of the false king Uther. And the man whose mark you bear on your hands. I am the rightful King of the Gold Clan of dragon shifters, and I will take my throne.” Brand pointed to the empty gilded chair on a raised dais behind where the men of the Curia Regis sat.
Interesting that he didn’t list his phoenix mate as a credential for that claim. Why not? Because he wanted the throne on his own merit? Or because she wasn’t truly a phoenix?
Samael’s mind spun with dark possibilities.
Do your duty.
He had orders—support and protect the new gold king. Samael did a quick sweep of the room, listening outside the doors for the running of feet, soldiers to come to the aid of the viceroys still seated on the dais.
Quickly, Brand introduced all representatives of his allies in the room—including Samael as Gorgon’s man. The Blue and Black Clans stood together, and the Gold Clan would stand with them. “They are here as proof of the support I bring with me,” Brand said. “I can take my throne by force, but I would rather save my people from the bloodshed. Swear allegiance to me now and you’ll live.”
The previous king’s viceroys paled with each word Brand uttered. Two of the men sitting before Brand covered the marks that could be seen on the fleshy part between their thumbs and forefingers. The king’s marks. Magical marks that showed a dragon shifter’s loyalty to the king of their clan—now Brand’s family insignia, though some of the gold dragons still bore the now-dead king’s mark.
Finished with his claim, Brand lifted his head. He listened for answers from the people who’d heard his telepathic message, and the room sat in silence for a long time, tension piling on tension until it reached screaming pitch. Until one corner of Brand’s mouth lifted in a smile that would make the most hardened warrior wary.
“My people have spoken,” Brand murmured. “Bow to your king.”
One by one, each of the men stood and knelt. All except the oldest. Brand gave a single nod to one of the men on his left, who took that man into custody and led him out of the room quietly. Not for execution, but imprisonment.
A damn miracle that this had happened without a single death.
A movement in the back corner of the room caught Samael’s attention, and everything inside him stilled, readying for a fight. He didn’t move yet, waiting to confirm the threat.
Except nothing stood in the room over there. Another check showed an ornate mirror hanging several feet above the floor. He must’ve seen the movement of someone in the room, and no one here was a threat. Not anymore.
Not that he relaxed.
“Brock will not sit by for this without a fight,” another of the viceroys warned.
Truth. The son of the previous ruler should be defending his father’s throne. All reports showed he’d gone into hiding, leaving his people unguarded. Coward.
Samael did another sweep, using all his senses, not really listening as Brand addressed the comment and then had the Curia Regis ushered out of the room. Taking a throne shouldn’t be this easy. Holding it would no doubt be more difficult. They couldn’t let down their guard. Not yet.
As soon as the door closed behind the departing viceroys, Kasia threw her arms around Brand’s neck. “You did it,” she whispered.
Brand scowled, as if he didn’t like that. “It’s not over yet,” he murmured before claiming her lips in a kiss so reverent, Samael glanced away, feeling the need to give them privacy.
The way the new dragon king watched his mate, with possession and something more in his golden gaze—adoration, love, desire, protectiveness… Phoenix or not, their mating was real. Fated. Samael couldn’t deny that, not after being around this couple for five minutes.
A movement over by the mirror snagged his attention again. He looked harder, and another flash drew his gaze…inside the mirror.
What in the seven hells?
The reflection was moving, glowing almost, with…flames? Except the brightness didn’t flicker through the throne room.
Slowly, Samael slunk nearer for a better angle. The second he got a full look, his body went quiet. Then his dragon rumbled in his head, a long purr of a sound. The reflection in the mirror was that of a woman, tall and willowy with strawberry-blond curls wild around her face lifted by the flames that danced over her body. Only a very few fire creatures had that kind of power. Was she a dragon shifter? Her manner of dress, though—almost medieval in appearance—brought him to ghost. But ghosts didn’t light on fire.
Whoever—or whatever—she was, she seemed to be watching the proceedings with interest.
Samael turned his head, searching for where she would have to be standing in the room for that mirror to pick her up, except no one was there. He whipped his head back—she hadn’t moved. She was definitely there.
Am I seeing ghosts now?
Brand and Kasia parted. “I need to talk to Ladon,” Brand said. “Now.”
Together, they led the remaining men in the room away, but Samael lingered, moving toward the mirrored image. She’d smiled watching Brand and Kasia together.
Why did she care? What was going on here?
With a final step, Samael moved directly in front of the mirror, directly into her line of sight, staring her down.
The woman froze. Except she thawed as quickly as she’d turned to ice, her glacial eyes turning darker blue as her gaze skated over him. The way she took him in, with an almost childlike innocence—it was as though she didn’t know he was standing there watching her check him out. What did she see, anyway? A hardened soldier who’d achieved more than anyone had ever expected he could?
Her aura of soul-stirring susceptibility reached through the glass and wrapped around him. A conflagration of emotions exploded inside his chest—dark need, harsh possessiveness, and the strangest sense of knowing. The flood of it left him almost dizzy.
Her own gaze flickered. Awareness flared in her eyes—he saw it. He was sure he saw it. Only that awareness was quickly replaced by a cold fear as her gaze connected with his. The woman held still, not even daring to breathe.
“Who are you?” he demanded. The words came out harsher than he wanted, his dragon pushing to be released.
With a gasp, she stumbled backward, and the image suddenly changed. He found himself staring at his own reflection, his black eyes stunned.
A glance down revealed the same shimmering mirage-like waves that had surrounded Brand earlier. Except this was involuntary. Instead of booted feet, Samael stood on talons, black scales rippling up his legs.
“Fuck.” He shook off the shift, regaining control over his dragon, who’d pushed closer to the surface than ever before.
Samael never lost control.
Mine, the beast inside growled.
Samael balked, turning his back on the damn mirror. She couldn’t be his. He had no idea who she was…what she was. She could be a spy for Pytheios, for all he knew.
No. Better to forget this happened. If he saw her again, he’d get the truth from her. Now and always, his duty lay with his king.
Today, Meira Amon would mate a dragon shifter.
Not for the first time in her life, she wondered if fear could kill a person. Her heart was beating so hard it hurt. Not that she would back down. Her heart had to settle down eventually, right?
Phoenixes, after all, were able to choose their own mates, rather than rely on the fates, and that’s exactly what she’d done. She’d chosen.
Gorgon’s shock when he discovered not one or two but four phoenix sisters in existence had been the sharpest emotion the man had given off in the very short time she’d known him. Her and her sisters’ existences had been miracle that some dragon shifters might not believe to be real, but the king, at least, believed them and had accepted her offer to mate.
She’d partially expected the fates to give her a sign that she was doing the right thing mating King Gorgon—a dream, a gust of wind with creepy timing, a bolt of lightning, even. No such luck. Love and loyalty had driven her. She might not be her sisters—never having come close to Skylar’s form of rash bravery, or Kasia’s version of steady courage, or Angelika’s bright confidence—but Meira was starting to find her own kind of resolve.
Including, any minute now, walking through the massive double doors that led to the throne room in Ben Nevis, the mountain stronghold of the Blue Clan, to bind herself to a good man, but one she didn’t love.
Oh gods. I’m really doing this.
They’d taken a few months to plan the ceremony. Neither Kasia nor Skylar had had a mating ceremony, simply skipping to the physical part of binding their lives to their mates through fire and sex. Gorgon had insisted that all dragon shifters needed to see that at least one of the phoenixes had done things the proper way, which was why they’d risked waiting as arrangements had been situated to the smallest detail.
Not quiet months, unfortunately, with constant attacks from the Green and White Clans. The Red Clan, meanwhile, had remained unnervingly silent, more concerning than direct attacks.
What was Pytheios up to?
Meira had a hard time hating anything or anyone, but her hate for that man threatened to consume her, the emotion a physical flaying of her heart. Every single day.
Hate for the man who’d murdered her father and grandparents before she was born. Who’d sent her mother into hiding, pregnant and alone, until he tracked her down and killed her, too. More horrors that she’d learned recently could be laid at his feet. All in pathological pursuit of a crown and power.
Meira would do anything to help stop him.
Offering to mate a dragon shifter king fell under the heading of “anything.” The tie that would bind the Black, Blue, and Gold Clans together.
If it turns the tide of the war as the legends claim, it will be worth it.
She’d made her decisions, ones that set her future in stone. A future that only needed her to open the door before her and step through.
If only her legs would stop shaking.
Needing to bleed off the tension buzzing through her, Meira fluffed out the skirt of her midnight-black mating gown, the color of her new clan. The sparkling jewels in all the colors of the dragon shifter clans—black, white, blue, green, gold, and red—sewn into the delicate material flashed and glittered with the movement.
Angelika, the only one of her sisters whose existence had still not been revealed to any but the three allied kings, was already inside with the wolf shifters their mother had sent her to for protection. She would continue to pretend to be one of them, hiding her existence from all but a handful who knew the truth.
She had been pissed as hell not to be included in the ceremony, storming into Meira’s room the day she found out, luckily when only Kasia and Skylar had been around to witness.
“I’m supposed to be part of this day,” Angelika had grumbled.
Meira had taken her by the shoulders. “You are.”
That had earned her a wrinkled nose. “Yeah. Sitting at the back of the room with the rest of the rabble.”
“Wolf shifters aren’t rabble.”
They’d stared at each other a second before both snorting. “To us, maybe,” Angelika had said. “But as far as most dragon shifters are concerned…” She’d shrugged.
Meira had said nothing, because there was nothing to say. Angelika wasn’t wrong. Dragon shifters called the wolves mutts behind their backs, sometimes to their faces. But they were men to be trusted as far as the sisters were concerned. As long as the wolves were keeping Angelika’s existence secret, she had to pretend to be mated to one, which meant she wouldn’t stand at the front of the great hall with Meira today.
But at least Angelika was there.
Kasia and Skylar moved to stand in front of her, their overbright smiles hiding their doubts.
Their emotions pelted her anyway.
Of the powers she’d inherited when their mother had died, being an empath was one she could’ve done without. It was what had driven her to bury herself in technology rather than interact with people. Computers and code were consistent, predictable. People were less so, even for an empath like her.
Right now, her sisters’ concerns wrapped around Meira like thick blanket, stifling and suffocating.
Telling them she was okay wouldn’t make it go away—she knew, because she’d tried. Instead, she just blocked the emotions.
“You look so beautiful.” Kasia took her hands, giving them a squeeze.
Dressed in a silken gold gown the color of her own clan, her dark-red hair pinned up, Kasia was equally stunning. So was Skylar, beside her in a matching gown of blue, black hair also intricately coiffed, though she’d chafed under that decision. The sisters had inherited their drastically different coloring from the combination of their phoenix grandmother and mother, white dragon shifter father, and red dragon shifter grandfather. Her sisters’ glacial white-blue eyes reflected her own worry and anticipation.
“Better than any fairy-tale princess,” Kasia teased.
Meira managed a chuckle at that. Of the four, Meira had been the one who’d preferred the earlier eras they’d lived through. As the modern age had dawned, she’d fallen in love with fabled tales of knights and princesses that reminded her of those times. A reminder of chivalry and gallantry and a different way of life. “That’s clearly what I was going for.”
Skylar snorted but otherwise kept her derisive thoughts to herself. They were all well aware Meira had had little choice in today’s events, swept along by tradition and the need for all three clans to put on a show for the rest of the dragon shifter world.
“Ready for the last touches?” Kasia asked.
At her nod, Skylar picked up a small gold chest, ornately decorated—a traditional token for Meira’s soon-to-be mate—and placed it in her hands. Then Kasia lifted the sheer black veil with matching jewels decorating the edges, settling it over Meira’s face, clouding her vision and giving everything around her a darker cast.
She glanced in the mirror off to the side. Only instead of herself in that reflection, for a heartbeat she honestly expected to see…him.
A memory she should do her best to forget.
That day when someone had seen through her magical ability to turn mirrors into portals had shaken her to the core. No, not just someone…Samael Veles. Ever since then, when she looked into mirrors, a small part of her expected to see him standing there, demanding, hard, and suspicious.
Except she didn’t. Instead, she saw him in person all around the mountain or at Gorgon’s side. The only person in this place whose emotions were locked down so tightly, she had no idea what he felt, or what he thought of her and of this mating.
She jerked her gaze from the mirror and put a stop to all those thoughts, facing her sisters’ expectant expressions instead.
“I wish Mama could be here.” She smiled, trying to take the sting of her longing out of her words for herself but also for her sisters.
“She is,” Kasia whispered. “In spirit.”
Kasia and Skylar stepped closer and put their foreheads to hers through the veil, like they’d done since they were children, a show of solidarity.
Meira closed her eyes. Spirit wasn’t going to help them win this war, or help her take this step.
Raw. The only word that could describe Samael Veles on this day.
Meira Amon’s mating day.
Like a fresh kill ground up in the butcher’s shop. Like a gaping wound left by the slash of dragon claws followed by a blaze of dragon fire disintegrating his flesh from the inside out.
He’d looked into a mirror and seen a woman. That was it. He’d seen her for a handful of seconds before he’d scared her away. At the time, he’d hardly been able to reconcile what he’d seen. A woman in a mirror like a damn ghost.
She was no ghost, it turned out, but she’d been haunting him all the same.
Raising a steady hand—his hands never shook, no matter the provocation—he knocked on the heavy wooden door to the small chamber situated just off the front of the throne room. This chamber was usually reserved for the king and his Curia Regis of advisers. Today, however, three men stood inside waiting.
Samael offered a brief acknowledgment to Brand and Ladon, their allied kings. Then he turned his attention to his own leader, Gorgon. More than a king to Samael. His mentor, his friend, and after all this time without a family of his own, a father figure.
“All is ready,” Samael said.
At those words, he struggled to quell the beast inside him, his dragon thrashing against what was about to happen. Even now, the smoky scent of his own fire wound around him, stronger, the beast close to the surface. Months of his dragon raging, lambasting him from the inside. The rage had grown bad enough that Samael didn’t dare loose the animal side of him anywhere near Ben Nevis while Meira Amon remained safely ensconced there with her sisters. Not until her mating was complete.
He’d seen her for a moment in a mirror, and the next time she’d shown up in his life, she’d offered to mate his king. Samael knew his reaction to her, to this, was extreme. Unreasonable, even. And only growing worse the longer he’d been near her.
He knew what it meant. This kind of immediate possessive response could only indicate one thing. But Meira wasn’t human, fated for only one mate. She was phoenix, and she got to choose. He had a choice, too, one he’d already made—to stay out of it.
The animal half of him, though, was all instinct and fighting this mating hard, but the man knew where his duties lay.
Though duty could only carry him so far. What in the seven hells would he do when his new queen came to live in Ararat, the mountain fortress of the Black Clan, making it her new home?
Nothing. That’s what you’ll fucking do.
This would go away. The gods and fates would have heard his many prayers and would take this…this endless ache of wanting…from him once this day was over. Once Gorgon claimed his new mate and the fates deemed each worthy of the other.
Then it would be over. Done with.
Samael could go back to doing what he’d been forged by the gods to do. He might not have been born to it, with not a drop of royalty in his bloodline, as lowborn as they came. Regardless, he’d damn well earned his place as Captain of the King’s Guard. None could match his fighting skills, nor his intuition for danger. Nor his loyalty, dammit.
Gorgon turned to the other two kings. “I will see you out there.”
Samael moved to follow Brand and Ladon out into the throne room, but Gorgon cleared his throat, so he stopped. As soon as the door swung shut behind the other two with a loud thunk, his king took him by the shoulders, his gaze deadly serious.
The fathomless eyes of a black dragon shifter peered at him from a face that was all angles. Older than Samael by close to eight hundred years, Gorgon’s black hair was peppered with gray. How the man had yet to show more signs of the brutal aging an unmated dragon dealt with after he passed a thousand was a damn miracle.
“I need you to swear an oath to me, Samael.”
He’d never seen Gorgon like this before, almost nervous, except the king was never nervous, not even when Pytheios deigned to visit in person. Dragon shifters wouldn’t follow that kind of weakness, and Gorgon had been king longer than any other currently on a throne. Longer even than the rotting king himself.
Shoulders back, Samael returned his king’s gaze with a steady one of his own. “I’ve already sworn you my fealty and my life. What more do you need?”
“Anything, my king.”
“First, I have appointed you my Viceroy of War.”
Samael jerked, shock a physical jolt of sensation. A position on the king’s council? A political position that was typically reserved for someone of higher-ranked bloodlines. “No—”
“You are my captain and my best fighter. I trust you and lean on your guidance. I have faith in you over every other dragon within the clan.”
Samael leaned his fists on a nearby table and shook his head. “The clan won’t accept me in that position, and you know it.”
Not with his muddy, lowborn bloodlines.
Gorgon held up a hand. “It’s done. I’ve already informed Adish.”
The king’s beta, who was in Ararat representing the king to his people while Gorgon was here securing the clan a phoenix mate.
Samael clamped his lips around more words of protest. His king had clearly made up his mind. The clan would be pissed and resentful, and no doubt would protest. Hell, they’d barely tolerated his position as captain of the guard, but they’d have to deal with that later. For now, he nodded. “And the other thing?”
“The other thing…” Gorgon paused and almost seemed to gather himself. “If today goes wrong, swear to me you’ll give Meira the same oath of fealty that you gave me. Protect her from the backlash. Our people will not be pleased, but she will be their queen. With or without me.”
Rejection punched through Samael. “My king, no—”
Gorgon gripped him tighter, fingers digging into his flesh. “Swear it to me, Samael. She is a phoenix, even if her sister Kasia ends up being the only one who inherits the fullness of those powers. Our clan needs her.”
Black dragons might be the quiet, contemplative shifters of all the clans, but they were proud, and danger didn’t make them so much as blink. They shouldn’t need anyone. “No clan has ever been led by only a queen.”
With a huff of a laugh, Gorgon dropped his hands. “Maybe that’s what’s been wrong with us all this time.” His expression hardened. “Do you swear?”
For this man? Anything. “I swear.”
But Samael was confident that he wouldn’t have to uphold that oath. If anyone was deserving of a phoenix for a mate, this king was.
Gorgon’s shoulders dropped fractionally, but even that much said enough. Shock reared up as the king pulled Samael into an embrace, almost as he would a son, and just as abruptly released him. “Go. Protect your king and queen on their mating day. All will be as the fates decree.”
Samael executed a stiff bow, one he reserved only for those times when he wanted his king to know the honor coursing through his veins like wildfire at the responsibilities accorded him.
Following the king out of the chamber, Samael shut the door behind him and swiftly made his way down the side of the throne room, passing behind massive mirrors that stood every twenty feet around the circumference. Though he barely glanced out over the crowd gathered to witness the mating ceremony, he took in every detail, every scent, each covert glance in his direction, even the taste of the room.
No threats as far as he could ascertain, though with the stench of wolf shifters blending with the natural smoky scents of dragon shifters, it could be hard to tell if a threat was nearby. Thanks to those “guests,” necessary or not, he’d need to be extra vigilant.
Passing through a smaller door at the back, he entered the vestibule outside the throne room, and his dragon rumbled and settled inside him in almost a reflexive way.
Meira stood with her sisters, achingly beautiful in her midnight-black mating gown, which shimmered, almost like an optical illusion, with a rainbow of colors that reminded him of dragon scales in the sunlight.
She’d worn black for her mating day. His colors.
Not your colors, asshole. Her new clan’s colors.
Her bouncy curls were hidden from view, and he could just discern her face behind a sheer black veil. A minor break with tradition. Most veils were not sheer, hiding a mate’s face from the man pledging himself to her until the ceremony concluded with him removing the veil. Why had Meira chosen to show her face?
So that Gorgon would be sure he was mating the right woman. Samael had no idea how he knew that to be true, but he was sure of it.
That kind of thoughtfulness seemed so…misplaced…in the dragon shifter world. He hated the idea of watching her harden through the years, or worse, be broken by the cruelness of their world.
“Are you sure?” Kasia asked her.
The same question had plagued Samael for months. The logical side of him knew exactly why she was taking this step, appreciated her bravery, even. And Gorgon was a good man who would care for her. But the way she seemed to float through life with a baffling kind of unresisting nature, like a leaf blown haphazardly by the wind, had him grinding his teeth with frustration any time he came near her. He’d swear she didn’t really want this.
Meira nodded at her sister, her natural grace and long neck making the mundane action regal. Her vibrant reddish-gold curls at odds with her quiet nature, and those ever-changing eyes fascinated him. Her hands were slim and graceful with long, tapered fingers. The growing obsession to see their paleness against his bronzed skin gnawed at him. She was taller than her sisters, willowy, and would fit just under his chin if he held her.
And she smelled of jasmine and smoke. His personal weakness.
His dragon prodded him to go to her, but Samael gritted his teeth against the urge, like razors scraping the inside of his skin, and shut down that instinctive response. Instead, he stood to post at the side of the doors.
No one would harm the two people he was now sworn to protect to his dying breath. Not on his watch.
On an unseen signal, the doors opened just enough for Kasia and Skylar to enter ahead of Meira.
Facing the door, she glanced neither to her right nor her left, keeping her gaze straight ahead, eyes blank, and suddenly she appeared almost small, as alone and afraid as the last memory he held of his young sister, only ten years of age the day she died.
“My queen.” The words passed his lips before he had the conscious thought to speak.
Gods, she was beautiful…and terrified. Holding herself together by a thread, he’d bet. The tidal wave of need to wrap himself around her and shield her from anything that could put that look in her eyes was impossible to deny and still unwanted. She was not his.
Samael had stop himself from doubling over to keep his dragon inside.
If you can’t have her, you can still help her.