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I knew the dead man hanging in the square: Liam was his name. My mistress�s stallion, one could call him, bid by her almost-husband, the Imperial Vampire Prince Nikolai, to sire a babe in his stead. Liam swung in the breeze, noose tightened around his neck. His face was unnaturally swollen, his eyes wide open and glazed.
Dead, just like that.
Dead, just like my father.
It was an unpleasant sight, and I turned away. I�d expected him to be pardoned by the Prince. After all, Liam had been chosen to sire the new princess because he was the Prince�s human grandson several times over.
But when Liam had tried to murder the Princess Consort, he�d endangered the royal baby and lost all favor at court.
And my father had lost his life, leaping in front of the knife and suffering the mortal wound instead. A hero, a saint, they were calling him, though he�d been hated and feared across kingdoms during his life.
I called him selfish. How could he throw away his life in such a way, knowing that both his daughter and son needed him�and knowing that this one act would endanger the life of his son hundreds of miles away.
I blinked away tears. I seemed to be doing that nonstop since I could no longer sum up the energy to cry. I fingered Father�s medallion, hanging at my neck for comfort.
I forced myself to behold Liam again. I wished I felt some satisfaction, some healing from the death of my father�s murderer, but I did not. I only wanted for the past to change: I wanted that Father would live.
Court politics were all selfishness. The attempted murder of Princess Consort Daniella had been the plot of Patriarch Se�n of the Old Religion and Queen Anca of the Asias, but I thought Liam had really been motivated by a rage of jealousy rather than a desire to empower Queen Anca.
Lightning flashed across the sky. The rain held off, but the fog did not. The London weather was apt for a funeral, but I missed the heat of my homeland, Persia.
I made my way down the uneven, brick-laden streets to the Cathedral Sangre, where the Archbishop Alexandru was hosting the service. My little brother waited in Persia with no knowledge of his father�s death�and worst of all, he was in grave danger of becoming a victim of Queen Anca�s retribution.
When I stepped into the Cathedral Sangre, I was only partly surprised that no more than five humans were in attendance. I didn�t know them; Father had been the Priest of Discipline for Queen Anca of the Asias, and on that basis alone he had been hated across kingdoms. The people called him a hero now, but they were too busy celebrating the Princess Consort�s survival to bother with my father�s funeral.
I was glad.
Archbishop Alexandru greeted me, taking my hands in his. �Kiana,� he said. He led me to my father�s casket. The windows were stained red: the Order Sangre liked to make humans bleed. I glanced in the pew where my father had been stabbed, and the remnants of that night had darkened the wood.
Before I saw Father reposed in his casket, I stepped back. �I don�t want to see him like this, Your Eminence.� An inexplicable jolt of terror ran through me. I burst into tears and again started to cry.
Archbishop Alexandru touched my arm gently. �It helps, Kiana. It hurts, but it helps.�
I didn�t see how. Of course, I knew Father was dead, but looking at him lying there as still as stone would erase all hope that I would wake up this evening and he�d be alive, that this would�ve all been a bad dream.
I rammed my heel into my shin to stop myself from crying. I bit my lip next, and when I wiped away my tears, my vision cleared and my crying stopped. I took a deep breath and forced myself to step forward.
My father�s face was a rock, none of his gentleness or caring, just as I�d feared. I touched a finger to his cheek, surprised when it was not solid. It gave me the courage to wrap my hand around his forearm, to close my eyes and imagine for a moment that I held my father�s arm and he was alive. But he was too cold, too frozen in death to imagine he was alive.
�I�ll give you a moment,� Archbishop Alexandru said.
As he stepped away, I recalled the last words I�d spoken to Father: I�d told him I was ashamed of him. As the Order Sangre�s Priest of Discipline in Persia, he was forced to do the bidding of Queen Anca, which meant he�d whipped humans bloody and run their hearts through with a sword when thus commanded. Worse, he�d claimed he�d had no choice if he�d wanted me and my brother to live, so I bore the weight of his sins as well as my own.
I wished I�d been able to make peace with him. He�d been a kind and loving father and I�d loved him, no matter what he�d done for the Queen. The Order Sangre in Asia was corrupted by the Queen, who had bent and rewritten the catechism to suit her political purposes and control the masses.
The door banged open, and Princess Consort Daniella and Imperial Prince Nikolai stepped in. I stared in astonishment, both touched and shocked by their attendence. Prince Nikolai�s face was drawn and ragged�whether from the death of his grandson or the pain of staying awake during midday, I didn�t know.
Princess Daniella rushed up the aisle to me. She wrapped a hand around my arm, burst into tears, and bowed her head. I waited for her to say something, but she did not.
I curtsied. �Thank you for coming, Your Imperial Highnesses.�
Prince Nikolai gave a nod. �Please accept our deepest condolences.�
�I am sorry about Liam,� I offered.
�Thank you, Kiana.� He glanced around at the sparse audience as his wife looked at me with beseeching eyes�I didn�t know what she wanted. Surely not my comfort?
�I gathered that he wanted a service free of vampires, as he wished it to be held in the middle of the day. I hope I did not overstep by attending. I felt we would be remiss if we did not pay our respects, given the circumstances.� He sighed. �And express my gratitude.� He had the courtesy to wince as he said it, at least.
I curtsied again. �You both are welcome to attend.� I was most surprised that Princess Consort Daniella came. Though I was her personal servant, she�d watched my father kill her beloved tutor, and while Queen Anca had killed her friend, she blamed my father for that, too.
She finally spoke. �I did not love your father, but I owe him my life.� Prince Nikolai put a hand on her arm, as if to quiet her. I, however, appreciated the honesty.
�As I owe mine to you.� I curtsied again. If they had not taken me in, the Queen would have used me to further control my father; he feared it would be my death, and so he�d begged the Prince to take me with him to London, with the promise that if ever his life could serve the Princess, he would gladly relinquish it.
I hated that he�d made that promise.
Even more, I hated that he�d honored that promise.
The violins began playing a terrible, heartbreaking melody. We all sat down, and the service began.
After the service ended and everyone left, Archbishop Alexandru joined me on the pew. �He was a man of faith, though he was forced to the Queen�s bastardization of his religion.�
I could not help my surprise. �He chose the Order Sangre?�
�He didn�t tell you?�
I shook my head. Father had spoken rarely of religion; we�d been forced to memorize every word of the catechism so we�d always have the correct answers for the Queen, but we were not allowed questions or discussion. Father once said that such things bred thoughts that were dangerous, because vampires could
read our minds.
�He loved a vampire once.�
My jaw dropped open.
Archbishop Alexandru didn�t react to my surprise. �She was killed by a human. That was when he came to France to the seminary of the Order Sangre. He hoped, one day, that vampires and humans would live peacefully together, grateful for what each race offered the other.�
I stared at my shoes. �If he believed that, I never heard him speak of it. He never taught any such thing.�
He smoothed his black robe and straightened his red cape. �Such beliefs are dangerous where the Queen holds power. He spoke of it to me a few days ago.�
The tears came again. I didn�t bother wiping them away. �Did he tell you of our last conversation?�
The Archbishop answered without elaboration: �Yes.� When I said nothing, he added, �He stood for the Rite of Judgment, and afterwards the Rite of Atonement. I know it�s not a comfort, but in retrospect, it seemed your father was preparing for his death.�
�You whipped my father?� I accused.
�It was his faith, Kiana.� I cringed at the coldness that had crept into his voice; I took his tone as a warning that he would not stand for any further disrespect.
�Your Eminence,� I began, hoping my address of him acted as an apology of sorts. �You must know I am also guilty for every drop of blood my father spilt.�
Mayhap I expected him to deny my responsibility in the matter. Instead, he said, �And so it is you who must right the wrongs in the Asias.�
Again, my mouth dropped open. �How?�
�I do not know, child.�
It was such a stunning and impossible charge, I could not think of a thing to say.
�You have not had your First Chastisement. It is time, is it not?� he said.
I shook my head. I�d watched my father die yesterday; I�d attended his funeral today, and he wanted me to be whipped as well?
�I am guessing, considering how quickly you desired his funeral, that you will be leaving for Persia tonight.�
I said nothing. I feared someone would stop me, if my intent were known.
�If you go into Persia without the Rite, the Queen could use it to kill you.�
�I don�t care if I am killed,� I said. I was surprised how truthfully I meant my words.
Prince Andrew entered the cathedral, wincing in pain from the sunlight. I knew immediately he must be a younger vampire than Prince Nikolai. As he made his way down the aisle, his form gradually relaxed.
Archbishop Alexandru stood. �Your Imperial Highness, I wish for Kiana to undergo the Rite of First Chastisement before she enters into Asian lands.�
�As you wish,� he said dismissively. �Perhaps in a few days, though?�
�I don�t wish,� I said.
Prince Andrew raised his eyebrows.
The Archbishop said, �It must be today, if she is leaving tonight.�
Prince Andrew frowned. �She will not be leaving tonight,� he said, giving me a frightening look.
The Archbishop said nothing.
I cleared my throat. �Why have you come, Your Imperial Highness?�
�The Empress wished me to escort you home. The Imperial Guard stands outside.� While Prince Dmitri concerned himself with the politics of court, Prince Andrew led the military with the enthusiasm of a child playing with toy figurines. �Come,� he ordered me.
I obeyed instantly, thankful for escaping the Rite of First Chastisement.
As we left, Archbishop Alexandru pushed a book into my hand. �So you may learn the true ways of the Order Sangre. Please return for the Rite before you leave, Kiana.�
I stared at him a moment, then decided to do him the courtesy of the formal leave-taking due an Archbishop. I dropped to my knees and loosened my collar. His little rod struck below my nape; the smarting brought tears to my eyes again. Then he rested his hand on top of my head. �Go in peace, and I will pray for your safe journeys. May your blood burn with blessings.�
I couldn�t help it: I looked at Prince Andrew and thought of how vampires could bestow those blessings.
Prince Andrew laughed, a startling, foreign sound after such a somber day. Whatever had inspired his mirth, I could not join in.
We walked back to the castle in silence, the guardsmen clicking their heels on the streets behind us, until my curiosity could no longer be controlled. �Your Imperial Highness, Prince Nikolai has promised that I would be included in the trip to Persia.�
�We plan our strategy this week; we depart the next.�
My brother would be two weeks dead by the time we arrived, and I�d be all alone in the world. No family, no friends � no one.
�Is not speed of the essence?� I asked. �She has swiftly left and will arrive in Persia just as swiftly. If I wait, my brother will die.�
Prince Andrew gave me a kind look. �Queen Anca has taken Patriarch Se�n on a tour through Russia. The clash of the Orthodox religion and her Order Sangre has been causing much bloodshed. She is hoping to add an Orthodox priest to stand with Patriarch Se�n. If she can slightly alter each religion to resemble the other, she thinks the religious strife will calm down, and she will once more have full control.�
�Is it true that she changed the Order Sangre as much as Archbishop Alexandru suggests?�
Prince Andrew opened the door to the back kitchens of the castle. It seemed odd for him to enter here, but as he led me to the servant�s wing, I understood: he was escorting me home. �The Order Sangre has changed much over the years. Humans do love altering religions to suit their political purposes. Queen Anca�s brand of the Order is from centuries ago. It is the Archbishop�s predecessors who have changed the Order, not Anca.�