Westland, Kingdom of Gwydion
The Wolf King’s lips, soft and warm, pressed to the back of Eden’s hand. His firm grip held her in place, leaving no question he was the one in charge.
The male’s eyes sparkled. They were a fetching shade of pastel blue, so dazzling they seemed to glow. For a second, she was sure she had seen those eyes somewhere before.
They were his best feature, not that the rest of him wasn’t attractive. His skin was a light shade of olive, substantially darker than her own porcelain flesh. The contrast made his cerulean irises stand out.
Both his skin and eyes distinctly marked him as wolf. The Burghards all had similar coloring, or so she had been told. Eden and her sisters lacked much experience with beings outside of Gwydion.
Atop Kellan’s head grew wavy, light brown hair, almost reaching his shoulders. A light stubble covered his masculine face. She’d expected a full beard to shroud his rugged jaw, thinking the Burghards would be as hairy as the animals inside them. Eden liked that he did not appear beastly, aside from his size.
He was large, even for a wolf. He stood almost a head taller than the male accompanying him, and that male, Foley, easily dwarfed Eden. He was the King’s second in command and travelled with him often.
The visitors made quite an imposing duo. Not only were they tall, their frames were thick and sturdy-looking, reminding Eden of the giant sequoias growing along Gwydion’s northern border.
They wore similar grey tunics and fitted black trousers designed for horseback riding. Tunics weren’t usually so snug, but Kellan’s muscled body was impossible to hide under his clothing.
His steely eyes missed nothing. They took in every inch of the small meeting room and the people in it. Kellan had long known the girls’ father, King Edward, as well as their grandfather, Flynn. He didn’t have to spend as much time studying them—trust between the males had already been established.
The bulk of his consideration was on Eden and her sister, Evelyn. They were the only beings in the room needing an introduction and, thus, earned a thorough examination.
When Kellan was introduced to Evelyn, Eden took the opportunity to observe him intently. He had the look of a male who would run to meet danger head-on—and win. He was so obviously built for battle she thought he might have been created in the forge and not birthed.
His rugged appearance was appealing. She could see how so many females found him fetching.
Eden had hoped she would be attracted to her betrothed, that she would feel some sort of a carnal response when they finally met. It would make this whole situation easier to stomach. She reasoned with herself that a physical foundation was better than no foundation. At least it would be a starting point.
Unfortunately, despite his nice-looking exterior, Eden felt nothing. No butterflies. No hint of womanly desire. Just a simple appreciation for his warrior-like physique.
It was the same with every male she’d ever met. Countless men had caught the eyes of her friends in town. Some of the girls had pursued the males relentlessly. Eden lacked any sort of inclination.
Granted, she’d been betrothed since shortly after her birth, so it could be that her mind wouldn’t allow her to consider any other possibility.
Eden knew Kellan was a good man. She tried to focus on that instead of the more superficial things. She did not want to be small-minded, but one of her greatest apprehensions, where this arranged marriage was concerned, was her ability to perform her “wifely” duties.
She’d overheard many young females profess their longing for a husband capable of satisfying their needs—whatever those were. Eden could see the need to procreate, but apart from bearing children, what was the allure?
She understood the mechanics and had been taught her body would soften and allow for the intrusion. Even so, the appeal of being a willing participant was lost on her.
Eden had never felt, much less understood, the drive to couple. When Mara, her governess, warned her of the sexual proclivities of wolves, Eden was beside herself.
She had prayed lust would take root, so the rest of what was expected would occur without difficulty. Judging by this first meeting, her prayers were not going to be answered.
It was just as well. Her fate was never of her own design. It had been decided by her parents before she’d left the cradle. It was foolish to think she’d be lucky enough to have what she wanted.
Kellan stared at Eden, as though he was looking for something. It made her nervous, which troubled her. Eden wasn’t one to get nervous, especially from someone’s stare. She was the daughter of royalty, raised to control her emotions and calmly influence those around her. She was by far the most level-headed of King Edward’s children.
She was also the most studious. Eden loved learning and had taken it upon herself to learn all she could of Imperium. If she was to rule in the North, she needed to be armed with knowledge. She’d assumed if she was well-educated on the people of Burghard, she’d be better equipped to handle their king.
Finally being in his presence, she understood nothing she had done could have prepared her. He was not a creature to be handled.
Eden supposed some of her unease could be attributed to the fact the sizeable male in front of her could shift into an animal. The wolves of Burghard were warriors. Their shapes huge. Their senses sharp. Their teeth even sharper.
Eden was a Princess of Gwydion, an elemental. She had magic within her, but aside from setting him on fire, she was no physical match for Kellan’s strength or speed up close. If he could reach her, he could easily kill her before she even knew she was being attacked.
Elementals were considered the weakest of the beings of Imperium. The wolves were the strongest. They were quick and natural-born hunters, easily taking down creatures three or four times their size. She-wolves were smaller, but just as deadly.
By marrying Eden, Kellan was giving up any chance of finding a she-wolf of his own, of finding his mate. Eden found herself feeling a little sad for Kellan.
The only reason a king from another faction would consider a marriage with an elemental would be for political gain. In Kellan’s case, he believed binding himself to someone with an affinity to nature could help with Burghard’s dying forest.
She supposed if she had to be married off into one of the other factions in Imperium, the Wolf King was a good option. Wolves were known for being very considerate with their wives, so Eden should not fear a lack of care. Neither should she fear his strength. He’d never harm her.
The demons of the Sundari Kingdom, in the Southland, were also physically stronger than the elementals. Eden had learned they could mentally control others, but they were predisposed to fits of madness. This made them very dangerous.
As for the Prajna—the vampires—in the Eastland, they were the most mysterious. Eden’s father had warned his children the Prajna were not to be trifled with. They were known for being cold and calculating. Nearly as strong as wolves, and allegedly much faster.
Eden had never met a vampire. They rarely travelled, and it had been years since Edward had seen one. His accounts were meant to caution his daughters, yet Eden found her father’s stories fascinating, as opposed to frightening.
She understood the need to be logical and make decisions without emotion. Sometimes she envied the Prajna, in that regard.
She was also painfully curious about what was inside their mouths. Burghards used their teeth for hunting and fighting. The Prajna’s fangs were for feeding. Allegedly, they could only feed from other vampires of the opposite sex. It seemed an awfully personal activity to perform at the dining table.
Her attention lingered on Kellan’s canines, wondering how often they’d been used in his many years. He was more than 200 years old. Wolves aged slowly in comparison to elementals. By now, he would have torn into many a hide with them.
It was odd to think about the differences between the races, especially in terms of lifespans. Though, if he imprinted upon her, her life force would be tied to his and she would age at the rate of a wolf.
His thumb swept across her knuckles, distracting her from her musings.
“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Eden,” he said.
“Likewise, my lord,” she replied, forcing her eyes away from his teeth and planting a demure smile on her lips.
Eden, who prided herself on her ability to control her reactions, slowed her respiration to ensure her heartbeat remained steady. With his animal’s near-perfect hearing, he would know if the pace altered and she refused to tempt his beast.
Kellan seemed about to say something else when the door opened, and Nora, Eden’s youngest sister, stood in the doorway. Eden tilted her head, taking in her sister’s condition. She constantly worried about Nora and her health.
When their mother, Elora, gave birth to Nora, something terrible happened. Elora died and the force of the magic leaving her body was so strong it ripped a hole open in Nora’s soul. Nora had to continuously replenish her energies, drawing off the power of nature.
Nora looked well-enough, much better than she had earlier. Her eyes were bright and curious, one green and one pale blue. Eden frowned.
Studying Nora’s right eye and then both of Kellan’s, Eden suddenly realized why the color had looked so familiar. His were the exact same shade as Nora’s one cerulean iris.
Kellan’s grip on Eden’s hand tightened, but he didn’t seem to be aware of it. As he straightened to his full height, the birthmark on Eden’s palm began to pulse, painfully.
The crescent-shaped mark, which never had any feeling in it before, had become itchy lately. It reminded Eden of the sensation in her fingers when she was about to call forth fire.
The longer he held onto her, the more the mark burned. She extracted her hand from his grasp and the pain immediately receded.
Eden and Kellan locked eyes. His chest was still, as though he wasn’t breathing. When he slowly began to turn away from her, he inhaled deeply.
Eden looked at Evelyn, whose mouth was open in confusion. They stared at one another, then at their sister.
Kellan took in another pull of air and took a stride closer to Nora. Evelyn made to step forward, but Eden grabbed her arm and shook her head.
Kellan was a wolf. He’d caught a scent that had forced him to move away from Eden, towards a female he had never met. A female who had one pastel blue eye, the same as his. He drew deep breaths like a compulsion, like he would die without more.
Eden was smart enough to know the King of Burghard would only turn his back on his affianced for one reason. He would only behave in such a way, risking the arrangement he’d made almost two decades ago, for one reason.
The Wolf King had scented his mate.
Eden should have been alarmed. She should have responded in some manner as Kellan crept closer to her youngest sibling.
Eden was the first-born daughter of the most powerful elemental to ever live, had more power inside her than anyone, other than her family, knew. She should be reacting.
As the atmosphere in the room tensed, everyone remained still, watching for what Kellan would do.
Nora held the wolf’s gaze. She wasn’t frightened in the least. This was good, Eden thought. If they were fated, Nora would be a good match.
Unfortunately, Nora was only a child. Someone should intervene and tell Kellan to back off. Eden was tempted, yet she did nothing. She was too busy concentrating on not visibly reacting to the knowledge there was no possible way she would be the one to marry the wolf.
She would never be Queen of the North. Her heart rejoiced as she forced the oxygen in her blood to decelerate, never giving any outward sign of her thoughts.
Her fate was now her own—she was free of the wolf. She was free to choose her own path.
* * *
Eastland, Kingdom of Prajna
Viktor roughly maneuvered the female to turn away from him. This time, as he pistoned in and out, he preferred to not look upon her face.
He lifted her hair from her neck, laying it across her opposite shoulder. With his left hand, he held her jaw. The second he touched her skin, he felt an ache on his palm. He ignored it, driven by his hunger.
His fangs extended right before he struck. His bedmate moaned in ecstasy. Two long pulls on her blood and the ache had grown into a painful burn. He released her jaw and rotated his hand to get a look at the cicatrice on his palm.
It was glowing. The mark he’d had since birth, the one he’d thought would lie dormant for eternity, had just woken. He glared at the crescent shape, resenting the faint silver light emanating from within.
It reminded him of a sinister smile, mocking him with its ill-timed appearance. Viktor closed his eyes in total disregard for what it meant. He knew, ultimately, Fate would have her way.
For now, he would do as he damn well pleased.