The dread boom came again—the throb of catapults, and ballistae bolts slamming against the massive darksteel doors of Vár Csjethe. Each blast shook the ancient castle to its very foundation, dust and broken bone sifting down from the moonlit vaults. The stained glass had shattered months ago, and beneath their splintered memory, Vladmira Grigelf stood, attuned to the toils of the enemy beyond her doors. An enemy that shared her blood.
Brother, will you stop at nothing?
Slowly, she tilted her neck to one side then the other, feeling the groan of cold sinews. The tips of her fingers were tinged blue, her hands aching from hours of wielding her bloodblade. She was born to battle, but the dead of winter in Vespertavia was perilous to her kind. Too long in the bitter, brumal cold, and a vampyr—even an ancient Grigelf—would be nothing more than a glittering statue.
Tonight, daring the brutal Vespertavian snow squalls had been worth it. She still tasted death on her fangs. The last four vampyr imperators. Once her most trusted field generals, they had turned on her years ago and aided her brother in seizing her crown. How long the nights had been. How I longed to embrace you one last time, my imperators.
Traitors all, they had deserved the cruel pain of the Marrowing. Blood, bone, and fear—they had witnessed the true power of a Grigelf queen. Vladja relished the taste of them.
Decai had not counted on his sister’s skill. Or her trust in a human.
“Vladja.” Grace’s small hands on Vladja’s arm sent a shiver across her unliving flesh.
For centuries Vladja had felt nothing but the chill numbness of the grave and turned earth, of decomposition and decay and endless nights locked in waking misery. Until Grace had plucked her from the sepulcher’s rotted grasp and delivered her from her brother’s treachery.
They had dared everything—the ancient laws, blood bonds and betrayals, and a war of gods and mortals, where every breath was a struggle between life and bitter death. They had dared, and they had won. Even now, trapped within the castle of her birthright, her brother’s ravening husks and revenants clawing at her doors, Vladja felt secure in one thing: Grace was at her side. Vladja might have been the rightful ruler of Vespertavia, but Grace was her queen.
If only I could show her.
The booming came again, and Vladja tensed beneath Grace’s touch. She wanted to answer it, to howl her fury at those who came to destroy her. She had been a beast once. She could be a beast again.
“Vladja.” Grace tugged gently this time.
Reluctant, Vladja came away from the doors.
Alone, Decai’s mechanical engines could not breach the defenses of Vár Csjethe. He would play another card, and soon—he had many—but for now the seat of her future queendom was safe. Grace was safe. Content with small victories, Vladja went with her lady to the hearth. The heat seeped in through her gargoyle-skin leathers and melted the chill from her unliving flesh.
She closed her eyes, glad of the moment’s respite. How long had it been, she and Decai locked in this useless struggle? Even now she could feel it. The weight of the Throne of Bone. She didn’t need to look upon it to feel its pressure, to hear the whispers of the Ancients whose blood had forged it.
The Throne needed a monarch to claim it.
She dared not. Her brother dared not. Twins, they were the only Grigelf left. Neither of us is worthy. Neither of us can solve the Dark Enigma.
And every day, Vespertavia fell further into a ruinous winter.
With her quiet strength, Grace led Vladja by the hands, across the flagstones, across a floor sealed with the bones of all her ancestors. With every footfall, Vladja felt them resonate within her blood. The Ancients: her grandfather, his father before him, and his before him, all the way back to the Time before Reckoning. If they judged her now, would they find her worthy? Her gaze fell to her hand, her fingers entwined with Grace’s. Her father, Vladimir Grigelf, had always favored her. The Ancients were more fickle. They would favor her only on one condition.
So long as she never took a mortal to her bed. There is a way…
With a stunning smile, Grace let go, the skirts of her glittering sapphire gown furling about her as she darted up the stairs toward the Throne. She passed beneath the sky vaults, and in the wintry moonlight, her skin flashed stark white, her eyes both luminous and dark.
Vladja looked upon her with such longing she felt her monstrous heart might shatter. There is a way…if you can kill her.
Her Lady of Skins, chosen of the God of the Hunt.
Grace was radiant in life. Vladja could never steal that away from her.
With a heart-slaying smile, the Lady reclined on the Throne of Bone. Even after so short a time, her lithe body was at home upon the bleached spinal columns and skeletal barbs of the great chair. She sat there as if she knew the risk she was taking.
“Vladja. My Vladja.” Her gentle voice resounded, more powerful than the pounding on the doors. If she had wanted to, Grace could speak in the tongues of beasts. It was how they had first communicated, back when Vladja was more animal than Grigelf. “Come here.”
Vladja went willingly. She knew she shouldn’t. The Throne…the Marrowing.
Grace reached for her, tangling her fingers into Vladja’s short black hair. “You killed tonight.” One small hand slipped to Vladja’s collar, fingers trailing across the black gargoyle-hide leathers. The Grigelf queen smiled around her fangs as Grace traced the scars on her longcoat. Neither vampyr claw nor fang could penetrate her armor. Scratches and scrabbles, they were already healing, the gargoyle hide’s living leather sloughing off the damage as though it were never done.
She remembered the first time it had been damaged in Grace’s presence—the midnight skirmish on the Battledowns, the night Vladja had met the Companions. In the aftermath Grace had tried to mend the leathers in kindness for the Grigelf’s aid. The look on the Lady’s face when the longcoat reknitted itself was something Vladja would never forget.
And I shall never forget what happened after.
With gentle insistence, Grace pulled her down into a kiss. Blood smeared their lips, and Vladja realized she’d bitten hers. Her Lady of Skins sucked gently at it, tonguing the torn flesh. Her grip tightened, and Vladja relished the tension she felt in her lover’s body—Grace responding to her primal needs. She arched on the Throne, and Vladja straddled her.
The Throne. The Dark Enigma.
The moonlight had shifted, casting skeletal shadows across Grace’s face. Vladja took the omen with stoicism. The riddle of the Throne and its terrible consequence always hung over her. We are safe. As long as I do not allow her to have me fully.
Smiling in bloody innocence, Grace ran her tongue across Vladja’s bottom lip, then bit her hard. Fresh blood flowed, and the Lady sucked and licked, chasing the crimson flow down the Grigelf queen’s chin, over her neck, and between her breasts.
The scent of copper struck the air like harp strings, and Vladja felt her fangs elongate. The urge to bite ached across her body and stabbed deep into her core, but she mastered her ardor.
Beneath her the Lady moaned. Her lips were scarlet, and Vladja reveled in the sight of her, lusty and bloodstained. Lifting her chin, she kissed Grace deeply, seeking the taste of blood deep inside her. Grace bucked against her, urging her body against Vladja’s. “My queen.”
“Not yet.” How Vladja wished it could be true. But she needed no other reminder than the seat of bones beneath them. Not until I solve the Dark Enigma and take back my kingdom.
Desire, defiant and burning, ignited within her. She toyed with the neckline to Grace’s gown, then tore it. Grace cried out against her mouth, small breasts exposed, fair and perfect. She squirmed, but it was not to get away. Vladja groped her, and Grace’s nipples sprang taut at her touch. Without pretense the Grigelf queen closed her mouth over her lady’s breast and sucked. Tonguing the nipple, she grazed it with her fangs, exulting when Grace shivered beneath her.
She longed to pierce that orb and drink from its bloody fount.
Grace’s hips bucked against her, and she moaned in need. Vladja could smell her now—the wet sweetness of her sex, the sensual juices that slicked her skin and clung the skirts of her courtly gown to her inner thighs.
Just a taste.
Vladja allowed herself the delicious lie.
Slowly, she drew sharp fingernails down over Grace’s hips, dragging at the sweat-damp silk, shredding it into ribbons. The sound of cloth tearing maddened her, but she forced control over her base desires. The salty sting of Grace’s sweat, the velvet slickness of her pussy. How Vladja longed to bury herself in her lady’s most secret flesh.
The Throne will not register that as a sin.
Blushing, Grace spread her legs wide and tugged the ruins of her skirts up, exposing herself. The pink lips of her sex were flushed and glistening. Vladja could taste her on the air.
Desire burned away rational thought. Grasping Grace’s thighs, Vladja splayed her lady open and buried her face in the sensual heat.
GRACE CRIED OUT, writhing as Vladja devoured her—lips, tongue, and teeth working to make her come. Bucking in her lover’s iron grip, she thrust her hips into Vladja’s mouth, her hands scrabbling for purchase among the shattered clavicles and grasping skeletal fingers.
It had been thorns once, or so Vladja had told her. The Throne of Thorns in the days before the Grigelf had become the reigning monarchs. Grace imagined the sting of barbs biting into her arms and legs, the scent of full-blown roses perfuming her flesh.
Beneath her the Throne of Bone throbbed in response to her cries, quickening her excitement and stringing her body with delicious tension.
Her thighs ached, but Grace opened wider, resting her calves on the arms of the grand chair while Vladja took her. The scrape of broken bones against her soft skin heightened her arousal. She could not look away as the dark queen tongued her pussy, licking her folds, sucking them into her luscious mouth. Vladja’s lips and chin were soaked with Grace’s wantonness. Growls issued from the Grigelf queen’s throat, vibrating across her lips to shock Grace’s needy clit.
Panting, she rested her head back. The climax was building within her, the burning pleasure in her belly and thighs, between her legs, matched by the pulling pain in her left hand. It began at the wrist and radiated downward through her fingers—a pain of change, of transformation. A ribbon of panic seized her, and she looked once more upon her queen.
Vladja gave her one last, long lick and slid her leather-clad body along her lady’s until she was straddling Grace once more. She shrugged out of her longcoat and let it hit the floor. “Go on, then.” Her voice was soft, lilting with gentle humor. “Now you will not ruin my coat.”
Grace exhaled and let all her fear and doubt rush out with her breath. A jolt racked her, spasming from her left hand. The sound of bones crackling and knuckles popping was loud even against the siege outside. Grace gasped. In the span of two heartbeats, her fingers elongated, crooked, grew an extra knuckle. She breathed out again, feeling the pain leave her. Soft as new grass, fine hair sprouted, coating the flesh in a deep, verdant green. Spatulate claws sheared from her fingertips.
The RigerClaw, the hand of a god. It had been her gift for her part in the GodsWar. Her gift and her sacrifice, for there were many in her homeland of Dáoine who did not know what to think of a lady with the hand of a monster.
If they only knew.
The extent of Grace’s abilities—that she could transform in every way. A blush began to crawl along her cheeks. She might have been a lady, but Vladja had no such compunctions. Nor was she afraid of the other ramification of her lady’s transformation. Already, Grace could feel a hardness in the pit of her belly. It raced down her thighs and coiled within her core. If she willed, it could spear outward and become velvety, hot flesh. Riger, God of the Hunt, was also the god of fertility. As his chosen Companion, Grace was expected—designed—to propagate regardless of her lover’s gender. At the same time, both female and male.
Just the thought of being with Vladja like that set Grace aflame. Her hands tensed reflexively, claws digging into the Grigelf queen’s spine. She dragged downward, and leather tore like wet paper. Vladja arched, her lips parted as a gasp of pure pleasure escaped her. Blood stained Grace’s fingertips. She felt it, scented the coppery tinge. And with a sudden clarity she smelled Vladja’s arousal. It quickened within her, and she loosed a moan. The hardness within her spasmed. She could not hold back her mating instincts for much longer.
Vladja knew. A smirk curved her full lips. She slipped her thigh between Grace’s and pulled her close. The cool leathers were a blessing against her torrid pussy. She rode her queen, gasping, urging herself against the friction on her clit. It crested, every fiber of her on fire. Vladja’s lips found hers, her tongue thrusting into Grace’s mouth forcefully, leaving her panting like a beast. One hand slid down. The Lady held her breath as Vladja parted her.
Two fingers shafted her hard and deep. Grace cried out, her human hand tangling in Vladja’s black hair as she came in a molten gush. Her pussy clamped down hard, demanding her queen’s roughness.
In that moment her hardness sprang free. In her delirium she nearly grabbed Vladja, tore her leather breeches off, and shafted her with her cock. The desire to shove deep into her queen and spill herself was almost more than she could bear. Mortal flesh was no match for the desires of a god.
She clawed at the Throne, gripped a fanged skull, and snapped it.
Vladja never allowed Grace to touch her. Grace wanted to howl her frustration.
But Vladja knew. She always knew. Sliding down between Grace’s legs, she took her lady’s erection in her sword-calloused hands. “My Lady of Skins is very hard tonight.”
“Please…” The growling of beasts tinged Grace’s voice, and she was suddenly so very grateful for Vladja. She accepts me. A lady with the hand of a monster.
Her gaze flicked to her hard cock. A lady who is no longer a lady.
Vladja’s full lips parted in a sinister smile, and she took Grace all the way to the back of her throat. The sudden wet warmth sheathing her nearly pushed the Lady over the edge. Precum spurted, but she held back her load. Biting her lip, she struggled for breath as Vladja sucked her, pumping her shaft with that sweet mouth.
Grace bucked, spearing that wet hole. She brought her hand to the back of Vladja’s neck and shoved her cock deeper. Her eyes rolled back, and she imagined herself taking Vladja from behind, pumping into her tight cunt, filling her up. She fucked Vladja’s mouth with abandon, thankful they were both monsters. No human could have withstood her. Vladja took every inch she had to offer.
Pleasure burned to pain inside her, but she staved it off. Watching Vladja suck her cock, knowing it was right, safe, allowed—Grace needed that like she needed to breathe. “Vladja, my love.”
With a grin and a growl, Vladja slid her fingers to the hilt, touching the deep spot within Grace’s cunt. A sharp cry escaped the Lady, her pussy quivering as she came. At the same moment her cock bumped the back of Vladja’s throat, and she let go, releasing her jism in a flood. With lusty abandon Vladja swallowed her, cum spilling from her lips, running down her throat.
Grace chased it and then licked a trail from her queen’s breasts back to her mouth. She tasted her essence on Vladja’s lips, and a shuddering sigh escaped her. Her human hand fell to her queen’s leather breeches. “Let me. Please.”
She hated the way she sounded, but in five months and countless fuckings, Vladja had never allowed her. Grace was desperate for her. Vladja would please her any way she needed—with hands and mouth, with her thigh between Grace’s, straining until they both shuddered with climax. But never had Grace actually touched her, felt her skin, the slickness of her hot pussy. She could smell her now—a feminine, musky scent that drove her wild.
She tugged again. “Vladja.”
The Grigelf queen pulled away. Grace’s desire turned to ashes. Am I just her toy? A pretty doll for her to play with?
Hurt permeated her body, and she was suddenly, keenly aware of her nakedness, her wantonness, her freakishness
. She caught Vladja’s longcoat and dragged it up to cover herself. Shame burned across her cheeks, and words her dark queen had spoken long ago resurfaced, “Shame is for humans, not for monsters.”
But which am I?