Authors: Marian Tee
They trusted her to do what was right…no matter what.
Soleil cleared her throat delicately. “Here’s the plan…” The walls started to crumble as Soleil made a series of gestures, a sign language known only to enforcers.
Fleur and Aurora concentrated on Soleil’s instructions, their expressions remaining calm as they read between the lines.
The plan was…that there was no plan at all.
Soleil was totally lying about help coming. Everything about this had the rotten scent of betrayal and ambush, and it had been executed perfectly. If help did come, it would be too late.
Soleil continued to sign, and Fleur and Aurora struggled to stay expressionless.
“Are we all clear on this then?” Her dimples flashed again, and the rookies’ anxiety lessened even more.
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” they roared energetically, their confidence restored by their leader’s calm manner.
, Fleur thought, her mood turning unnaturally grim. Soleil was telling them that as the city’s last line of defense, they had to place duty above all else.
Aurora didn’t answer right away. Soleil’s plan was to detonate her grenades, which all officers were trained to use in case they were compromised.
The grenades would take out the commander, but it would also get rid of a large number of imps, maybe just enough for them to have a fighting chance for survival.
But Aurora didn’t want a fighting chance for just them, and as the supposedly ‘brainy’ one of their group, she pressured herself to come up with an alternative.
“Aurora?” Soleil needed both officers’ cooperation for her plan to work.
“I’m thinking,” Aurora mumbled.
Soleil shook her head. “We don’t have time---”
A narrow section of the dungeon’s wall collapsed.
“Take your positions,” Soleil commanded, and the rookies, resolved looks on their faces, followed right away.
A handful of imps burst out of the hole.
The battle ensued, and Soleil bided her time while keeping an eye on her team, making sure that no one was taking any unnecessary risks. She slipped her hands into her pockets, her fingers finding and wrapping around the twin grenades.
The last ace she had up her sleeve
, Soleil thought, but in this case it was in her pants. If things weren’t TARFU, she would have laughed at her own quip.
Aurora suddenly appeared by her side, grabbing Soleil’s arm as she muttered, “I’ve thought of something.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Call your heartkeeper.”
Soleil didn’t even hesitate. “No!”
Half of the wall crashed.
Her time had come.
Soleil prepared to run, but Aurora’s grip on her arm tightened, and the other woman insisted in a yell, “Call him! Your plan might work, but it’s not going to be without casualties, and you know it! But if you call him---”
“Call him!” Aurora pointed at the rookies. “If you care for them---” She knew she was being heartlessly manipulative, but she didn’t care. “If you want to give them the best chance for surviving tonight---”
“I hate you, Aurora.
A whisper, but Aurora knew she had won. Thank God.
Soleil gently pushed her hand away, and Aurora let her.
“I’ll call him.” Soleil backed up a step. “But I’m also not going to wait for him to answer because…” Her upper lip turned up in an unusually mocking smile. “I do want to give everyone the best chance of survival.”
Aurora’s eyes widened.
But it was too late, and Soleil had run past everyone, heading straight to the horde of imps.
“NO!” Aurora screamed and tried to run after her friend, but there were too many imps between them now, and she finally had to admit defeat.
Fleur reached her, demanding, “What’s the plan?”
“Help Soleil get to the center,” Aurora answered tonelessly.
Pain flashed in Fleur’s eyes.
Aurora furiously blinked back her own tears.
But they only allowed themselves a nanosecond of grief before throwing themselves into battle, knowing that it was what Soleil would have wanted.
Soleil was about three-imp-layers deep into the horde when she realized that her plan just might not be good enough.
A middle-level demon stood next to the hellhole, and as it locked gazes with Soleil, she knew there was a very good chance it might tear her throat out before she could even detonate the grenades.
The demon charged towards her with a roar, and Soleil’s reflexes kicked in. She rolled, crawled, and twisted, everything purely guided by her instincts. And all the while, she called to
the man whose heart she was fated to keep in exchange of her soul.
Can you hear me?
Soleil called out to him with her mind, with all her heart, even thought the tiniest part of her thought it was too late.
The demon caught her just as she ran out of bullets. Its claws raked her body and pain engulfed her, but she managed to kick it away, the silver-coated soles of her boots leaving burning marks on its face.
The demon screamed.
What a baby,
Soleil thought dizzily as she managed to pull the grenades out of her pockets.
The demon snarled at her, hitting Soleil with its tail and breaking her ribs in the process.
She snarled back, thinking absently that death was the only thing that could make her act this…childish. She was suffering from internal bleeding, with possibly severe injuries to a vital organ.
She calculated the time it would take her to die, and it wasn’t that long.
If you can hear me, please just save my soldiers.
Soleil closed her eyes as she started to unclip the grenades.
But nothing happened.
Instead, she felt wind so strong blowing over her, stinging her face, and somehow that wind managed to snatch the grenades out of her fingers. She heard it explode in the distance, and her eyes flew open.
The grenades had been thrown into the hellhole, and it vanished a moment later, Hell protecting itself from more attacks at the expense of its spawn. Placing her hand over her wound, she looked around dazedly as she heard a tremendous cry of pain. Following the sound, she saw the demon that had attacked her falling to the floor, its decapitated head rolling towards her before it was crushed under the weight of stampeding…imps.
The imps were running away – from what?
She tried to see what was after them and caught sight of a streak of white, too fast for her eyes to follow as it slashed its way around the room.
He had come.
A cacophony of cries and squeals filled the basement hall, imps dying left and right---
Then she saw her soldiers breaking inside, fighting---
Nausea hit her, and she fell back to the floor.
She closed her eyes.
And almost right after, she found herself being lifted and cradled in powerful arms---
Pain pierced her throat, and she choked.
Blood filled her mouth.
In her mind, she heard his voice for the first time.
Why have you only called for me now?
“Le Marquis di Lunare,” the butler announced regally, and as the baron’s visitor strode forward, the butler bowed and did his best not to run away.
There was something different about the marquis,
the butler thought with a shiver of fear. Terrifyingly different, with the way marquis had made the vast parlor feel small and suffocating with his commanding height and dark presence.
His employer was all smiles, however, the grey-haired baron offering his hand as he said, “A pleasure to welcome you in my humble abode, milord.”
“The pleasure is mine,” the marquis replied with suave charm, “especially since you’ve been kind enough to meet me even at such short notice.”
“It’s nothing,” Charles dismissed it even though he was quite impressed at the other man’s show of respect, which was unnecessary, considering Charles was inferior in ranking. He gestured to the chaise, saying, “Have a seat, milord.” He pulled a bell, and a maid appeared to serve them tea and scones.
From there, both men effortlessly fell into a pleasant stream of civility, the two of them tacitly agreeing to use the time to size each other up.
Charles raised his cup for another sip, thinking that everything he had heard about Ilie Marcovici being an incurable rake was likely to be true.
Like most Corinthians, Ilie was dressed elegantly, and his choice of colors was bold but refined, with his burgundy coat a good match for his tan-colored breeches. He wore his hair simply, too, unpowdered and tied back with a plain black ribbon. No doubt the marquis was aware that his icy-blond locks were more than eye-catching enough to have all ladies swooning over him.
There was a lull in their conversation, and the marquis murmured, “I would have left my card and waited for your response if the matter wasn’t urgent.”
“Urgent, you say.” Charles’ tone gave nothing away.
“Yes, milord. Extremely urgent, actually.” The marquis’ lips curved in a smile, revealing the briefest glimpse of fangs. “’Tis why I’ve given you as much time as possible to make your decision.”
And now it was time to play,
only he wasn’t going up against any ordinary nobleman.
This was Ilie Marcovici, and one should never forget that the marquis came from one of the kingdom’s noblest shapeshifting lines as well as being the bastard of the Duke of Lunare.
It meant Ilie was part-wolf, part-demon, which in turn made the marquis one of the most ruthless creatures of the world.
“Baron?” The marquis set his cup down, his movement so elegant it was hard to imagine that his blood DNA would make him a monster in human standards.
Not at all intimidated, Charles said pleasantly, “It depends.”
The marquis frowned.
“On what your intentions are towards my daughter,” Charles finished.
, Ilie thought.
Most otherworlders upon meeting him the first time were either obsequious or terrified out of their wits. But the Baron, a mere human, and an old one at that, was speaking to him like they were equals.
It was a surprise Ilie welcomed. It would not be fun, after all, to have a toad as a prospective father-in-law.
Leaning forward, he said gently, “May I now dispense with the formalities?” At the older man’s nod, he continued, “You are aware she’s my heartkeeper, Baron?”
“For quite some time now,” Charles answered truthfully.
This was yet another surprise, but not as pleasant, and Ilie demanded, “Why didn’t she tell me?”
“Why did you have to be told?”
“Touché.” Ilie leaned back against his seat, his expression grim. As the demon in need of a soul, he
the one who should have sensed it first, the way---
Ilie didn’t allow himself to finish the thought. Instead, he forced himself to concentrate on more important matters, like claiming his heartkeeper.
“You have no objections if I claim her?”
“As long as she doesn’t object to it,” Charles answered.
Ilie frowned. “You are not the usual kind of Chalysian father. Why is this?” Both humans and otherworlders would have jumped at the chance of having an essential connection to the Marquis of Lunare, but so far, the baron was treating him no different from the usual suitor.
Charles smiled. “You really don’t know?”
Ilie raised a brow.
“I love my daughters like they’re my flesh and blood,” Charles answered simply. “So if you, a half-demon, is who she wants, then I’ll be more than happy to walk her down the aisle.”
Ilie relaxed. “In that case, she will be my heartkeeper.”
Charles laughed at the marquis’ confidence.
“My daughter is presently at ANEX. You may still catch her there if you leave now.”
Ilie’s eyebrows shot up. “I thought that school was only for otherworlders.”
“She and her sisters are special,” Charles answered briefly, not willing to say more than what was necessary. “It’s why they became who they are now.”
Les Trois Belles Lames
, yes?” The Three Lovely Blades, the Baron’s daughters were called. “You don’t mind that they constantly put their lives in danger because of their work?”
Charles shrugged. “I mind, of course. I hate it terribly, but I also know that I would hate it even more if I stand in the way of their happiness. And
believe it or not, milord, is what make my girls happy.”
“Foolishly risking their mortal necks going after otherworlders who could eat them alive?”
“You could put it that way, I guess.” Charles laughed. But his smile soon faded as he said, “Or you can also think of it as their vow not to let history repeat itself. I’m sure you’ve done your research about me before coming here.”
“Yes.” Ilie saw no need to deny this.
“Then you know I’m their adopted father?” At Ilie’s nod, the baron continued, “The Orpheline bloodline –
bloodline – is entirely made up, one where an ex-soldier like me is given a fake background to raise orphans left by their otherworlder parents.”
Ilie was stunned. “My heartkeeper isn’t entirely human?”
But he had been close enough to her
, he thought. Shouldn’t he have sensed this?
“She’s completely human. She and her sisters are what your kind calls…” Charles’ lip curled in disgust. “
A freak of nature, the word meant in Chalysian language. Otherworlders mating with humans were not uncommon, and in rare cases when these pairings produced offspring who were purely mortal, the hapless babies were thrown away in the Woods of the Wraiths to be eaten.
“It was your job to rescue them, wasn’t it?” Ilie guessed tautly. His fists were tightly clenched, the realization that his heartkeeper had been treated in such a way making him murderous.