Light buzzed behind his eyelids. The throb of the airship’s engines groaned through the hull, a constant vibration that threatened to drive him mad.
The Duke of Malloryn blinked, a sense of urgency forcing him to swim up through layers of consciousness.
With the return of his faculties came the pain, and he almost cast up his accounts as he came back to himself. Agony lanced through his back, his shirt clinging to blood-crusted skin where they’d whipped him.
The brutal beating he’d taken when they first brought him aboard ached within his very bones. Blood dripped from the barely healed gash in his side where Dido had planted a knife between his ribs when he’d dared to taunt his torturer. But there was no point dwelling on pain.
Malloryn lifted his heavy head and took stock of the situation.
They’d hung him from a set of chains in the hold, winched high enough that he was forced onto his toes. The strain to his shoulders told of torn muscles, but it was the blinding ache in his ribs that made his vision waver. Broken, he suspected.
Getting out of here might prove difficult.
Especially if you’re heading where you think you are.
Sound echoed through the airship. Shouts. Loud bangs. Someone cursing in Russian, a confirmation of his greatest fears.
The airship finally docked, landing jarringly. They'd transferred him aboard the airship two days ago, when the kraken submergible Dido had stolen docked in Königsberg.
The knot in his stomach grew tighter. He knew where he was. There'd be no hope of escape here.
The Crimson Court was the most dangerous place in Europe. Malloryn had allies here, but he also had enemies. And even those who'd done him a good deed in the past would consider the price and what they could gain from it before they moved to help him.
He was all alone with no hope of escape.
He swallowed hard, the first flare of panic swirling through him. All his games, all his spies, the information empire he'd tried to build, and it came to this.
There was not a damned person who could—or indeed would—save him.
He saw Isabella's face again. Recalled her bitter words the night before he married another woman: "You love nothing, Malloryn. You care for nothing. Our lives are but mere pieces on a chessboard to you. I hope one day you realize you have nothing. I hope all your games are cold comfort to you when there is not a damned soul in this world that truly cares for you."
Could he even remember what love felt like? He tried to recall Catherine’s face but there was nothing but regret and guilt, a twisted morass of violent emotion in his chest as his mind tauntingly replayed the moment she died.
The moment Isabella died.
I'm so sorry.
But did it matter? His grief would not bring her back. His grief had never brought any of them back.
And he realized Isabella's face was starting to overlay the memory he had of Catherine. The two women merged into one in his mind, both their faces staring at him accusingly.
"Balfour did this," he whispered to himself.
But for the first time in years he found no comfort in the familiar words. Vengeance could not slake the tide of guilt.
Because he knew the truth.
You did this.
You cost both of them their lives in your foolish quest for vengeance.
And now you're going to pay for it.
A metallic echo vibrated through the doors to the hold. Malloryn's head lifted, bruised muscles aching through his back and ribs as he focused intently.
The doors began to slide open, revealing two bobbing lanterns. Malloryn flinched at the sudden increase in light and the portent that shivered through him.
"Well, well, well, Malloryn. Have you missed me?" Dido purred, sauntering into the hold. She tugged her black leather gloves from her hands, finger by finger. The gleam of her white-blonde hair was gathered into a neat chignon, and she wore gold epaulets on the shoulders of her blue military-style coat. A leather over-corset adorned her slim waist, and there were a pair of knives at her hips.
"Cannot say I have." Malloryn tipped his head back to stare at her arrogantly. He'd be damned if she'd see him on his metaphorical knees. "I prefer the whip to be in my hand, love."
Dido trailed a fingernail over his chest, pressing a little more firmly across his broken ribs. "I’m certain I can teach you to enjoy it. Maybe this time you’ll beg me for mercy."
"I don’t beg anyone."
"That just means we haven’t found the right sort of motivation. Yet."
Behind her, a second woman materialized from the gloom, her silvery hair cascading down her back and a black leather eye patch covering her right eye. Where Dido gave him a faint smile as if to say, oh, what fun we shall have, the other dhampir's expression remained cold and forbidding.
Jelena, he presumed.
The Ivory Kraken.
Obsidian had told him about the pair of them. "They serve Balfour with an almost fanatical obsession. And they are dangerous."
"This is the great Malloryn?" Jelena mused in a thickly accented voice. She poked him in his broken ribs, and Malloryn caught the hiss behind his teeth. "He does not look so dangerous to me."
Dido captured his face, her grip cruel on his jaw. "We have clipped his claws, I think."
"Have you?" Malloryn forced himself to meet her eyes. "So others have believed in the past."
Dido’s eyes narrowed, but Jelena merely smirked.
"Ah, brave man," she taunted. "We shall see how brave you are when I am allowed to toy with you. I am not as kind as dear Dido. And I have brought gift." She turned and snapped her fingers. "Bring my gift."
Two men wheeled an enormous gold box into the hold, shaped somewhat similarly to a sarcophagus. The man painted on the top of the lid was screaming. Jelena sauntered around it, and then flipped the latches. The lid rose, revealing dozens of spikes inside it.
Malloryn froze. Not a sarcophagus. An iron maiden.
Jelena turned a crank, and every spike vanished with a sharp jerk. With a malicious smile, she released the crank and they sprang back into being with a steely rasp.
Anyone inside it would be skewered with razor-sharp needles from top to toe.
"Do you know what I enjoy most about torturing blue bloods?" Jelena asked, producing a knife from the sheath at her waist. "They can survive almost anything."
The craving virus that made a blue blood more than a man could heal virtually any injury. He'd always thought of it as a gift before.
The knife trailed down his chest, its tip slashing through his nipple.
Malloryn sucked in a sharp breath.
"Nobody is coming to rescue you," Jelena said.
He'd accepted that fact the first morning he woke, bound and gagged in the hold of the submersible.
The Company of Rogues he'd formed would know exactly what had happened to him, but this was the Crimson Court. This was Russia. His protégé, Gemma, might want to try and mount some sort of rescue attempt, but surely the others would talk her out of it.
He didn't want her here.
He didn't want any of them here.
Even if, for one selfish second, his lungs seized with dread and he came close to praying.
Better for all of them if he died.
But one look at Jelena's smile and he knew he wasn't going to be allowed that mercy.
"You're all alone," she whispered, the knife skating across the planes of his lower abdomen. "All mine to play with. And I will break you."
Jelena stabbed forward, and the knife parted muscle and flesh with a blinding flash of heat. Malloryn's vision went blank, and he hissed again. Clenching around the blade, he fought to hold on to consciousness.
"Jelena," a familiar voice chided. "That is no way to treat our guest."
Every inch of Malloryn went cold.
Heels and a cane clicked slowly on the floors as the pair of dhampir parted. Malloryn blinked as the lights half-blinded him. All he could see were the tips of the stranger's shoes in the rim of light that surrounded him; a rich brown leather that was polished to a sheen. The rest of the man was pure shadow as someone hauled the light's glare vertical in order to blind him.
"Ah, look at you, Malloryn. You haven’t aged a day."
"I’m ashamed to admit I cannot quite say the same," Malloryn rasped. "I thought I'd killed you."
The man laughed a little, under his breath. More of a throaty hum, really. "You came rather closer than I would have cared for." He leaned forward, his leather-gloved knuckles tightening on the hilt of his cane. "Ah," he said, light limning his pale hair and the outline of his face as he leaned closer. "Did you miss me, Malloryn? I missed you."
"No." The word passed his lips in pure denial as the stranger revealed a face he knew so intimately.
He'd placed that nightmare to rest years ago.
But here it was again, resurfaced.
"Balfour," he said, as Lord Balfour smiled.
"Hello, Malloryn. Nobody is coming to rescue you. Nobody would be that stupid. I believe this is called checkmate?"