For the sixth time that day, Valdís straightened Dougal's bow tie. His hazel eyes stared off over her shoulder while her matching eyes scrutinized her work. Her long, pale fingers fanned out over the front of his tux, and his muscles tensed and twitched under them as she smoothed and adjusted his jacket. When, at last, she stepped back, he sighed. His head spun with the rush of air. Whenever Valdís stepped close, Dougal couldn't breathe. The cold clung to her, and it leeched out, sucking all the warmth from the small room. He might have shivered, if he weren't well past numb.
"He looks every bit the picture of the anxious groom," she said. "Don't you agree, Aideen?"
His sister sat by the door, in a high-backed armchair. Clutching one padded arm, she flicked her bright blue eyes over Dougal then back to the stained glass window. She said nothing.
Valdís squeezed at Dougal's shoulder, and he shuddered. "You've nothing to fear, my son."
"Yes." His sister stood, staring at him with eyes the same color as their fathers. "You are, [brother]. You do not have to do this."
The words twisted hard into his chest. "Yes, I do. I won't let you—"
"Who are you to decide whether I live or die? No." She waved him off then turned toward the door. "I'll not fight with you on your wedding day. This is your choice."
She left. He blinked at the door as Valdís straightened his tie for the seventh time. She smiled. Speaking in platitudes, she fussed over him. He dropped his eyes to the intricate curls and sharp angles carved into the thick weave of the carpet. The room was heavy with his mother's scent, cold and dark as the forests of fir and cedar white with snow. He'd been to the far northern lands she had claimed as her home when she came to this world. Not with her. It had been centuries after his father lost the use of his legs, after she took Aideen and left them. And now she paced the room. Now she lectured him about all the things he must do: to keep his new wife happy, to fulfill his role in his new family, to honor his family name. He'd heard it all before, and it was no more comfort now than the first time. It only made sense, she'd explained, for the only son of Valdís, all that remained of the Nordbo aristocracy, to marry the last of Arcadia's noble lines. Never mind that all the titles meant nothing now. Never mind that not a one of the wedding party or their guests were mortal kin. Never mind that Valdís had arranged this marriage to secure a cure for Aideen. Never mind that the marriage also ensured the safety of all her other daughters. Never mind that Marina Xylander, his blushing bride, was a soulless bloodsucker who if not regularly fed the flesh and blood of men would wither into a hideous monster. No, this was all about preserving the last vestiges of the dying nobility. His lip twitched as his mother said the word "children" then all he heard were the distant echoes of her voice. He had fallen back into memory, into that stormy day. Trapped indoors with his sister, they'd begun running about the house. He slipped and fell into his mother's vanity. It fell to the ground with a crash. His mother came running. She snatched him up under the shattered mirror and toppled furniture. Shaking him by the arm, she hissed, "What a fuck up you are. If you ever have children, I'll strangle them in their cribs."
In that small room, so full of her cold, he shivered as his mother cupped his cheeks in her hands. "Don't make that face, darling boy. She is a good match for you. You'll see." She smiled.
Twisting from her, he grumbled, "I'm sure you're right, Valdís."
"Mother—please, call me mother." She offered him her hand.
He stared at it, but all he saw were the bruises left behind in the shape of those long fingers. "That’s the first time you've ever asked me to."
"I know. I never wanted a son, but here you are when I need you most."
"Why'd you leave? Athair needed you. How could you—?"
She grabbed his arm. "Not today." Her fingers twisted into him, and he winced. "You will not ruin this."
Knuckles rapped against the door. Smoothing his sleeve, she smiled then kissed his cheek. He stared at her as she went to open the door. The three eldest Xylander brothers, Stavros, Petros, and Silas, each bowed to Valdís as they entered and she left. They resembled one another. All had dark hair, dark eyes, tanned olive skin, with faces like ancient statues. They crowded around Dougal, and Stavros clapped him on the back. Dougal disconnected. He went through the motions, chuckling and shrugging as they teased him. Their accented voices were a deep hum surrounding him. They herded him to the altar. He stood as rehearsed with hands clasped before him. He did his best to smile, to bow his head to guests as they filed in. The grand stone cathedral echoed with their voices above the low murmur of the organ. He wasn't there, amid all those fragrant summer flowers, before all those strangers. This was not happening to him. He was the unwanted son, the professional fuck up, the degenerate. That kind of man did not belong here. That kind of man did not find himself forced into an arranged marriage with a young heiress. That kind of man did not find his life fundamentally altered for the better and yet still find his mind wandering to a dingy apartment, to a woman with red hair and black eyes...
"Do you smell that?" Stavros snapped.
Dougal glanced back at him. A foul expression distorted his features. Dougal smelled only the summer flowers, the mingling of the guests' perfumes and colognes, the earthy incense used by the priests. He shook his head, but Stavros was intent on an usher who gave some sort of hand signal. Petros swore, and Silas kicked at his shin.
"What is it?" Dougal asked.
"A hunter—just one. Won't be a problem."
A dark smile lingered on Stavros' lips, and Dougal tried not to think about it. Couldn't be her. She had left, gone back to whatever wild corner of the world she had come from, and it had been months, at least a year he'd last seen her. That had been in the crisp fall of the Northern Isles, the sun dipping low behind her set her hair ablaze, her eyes as black and empty as ever as she promised she was done with revenge, done with hate, done with fighting. Now, it was in the middle of a muggy Arcadian summer, it was Marina's wedding day—his wedding day.
The guests had all taken their seats. A hush had settled in the cathedral. He stared at his mother, clutching Aiden's hand in both of hers. Valdís smiled at him, but his sister would not look at him. He didn't bother looking to his half-sister or their partners. They were no more familiar to him than the faces farther back or across the aisle. The cathedral echoed with the bridal march, and the doors to the narthex opened. Marina was a vision of white and veils and lace. Dougal watched her father lead her, step by step, up the aisle. His mother's words came back to him: stand still; stand straight; look at her, and don't look away. He tried to, but as she approached, his hands began to sweat, his chest to tighten, his head to spin. He looked to his mother, but she nodded back to Marina.
Her veils obscured her face. Could she even see him? His attention strayed to the pews packed with guests, a full cathedral full of strangers. His friends were either human or without pedigrees stretching back to the dawn of time. Or lost. They weren't even the sort that the guests here would snub. They were the sort the guests wouldn't see. None of his kin had ever had any kindness for Dougal, and now he was marrying Marina, now he was surrounded by family and friends. All he wanted to do was bolt, but then he felt the weight of his sister's gaze.
Her lips framed silent words: "Go. Now."
He dropped his head. Took a deep breath. Focused on Marina. She was here, now, the last strains of the march echoed the words inside him. Her father gave her hand to Dougal. Gloved in delicate lace, it gripped his tight, and he led her to kneel beside him, before the bishop. The service began with the triple invocation of the Holy Mother as the bishop drew the circle of her symbol above their bowed heads. Dougal understood a word in twenty grumbled by the age bishop, but he had rehearsed the service so many times with his mother that he'd bet he could perform the rite as well, perhaps even more enthusiastically than the bishop. Dougal lost himself to the rhythm of the bishop's gravelly Arcadian and waited for the proper cues. He said all the right words. He squeezed at Marina's hand as she said her parts. They stood together, and he lifted her veils, layers of tulle and lace. Her dark eyes stared up at him.
He whipped around to see a blond woman sprinting down the aisle. Frowning, he blinked at her as she knocked into him and threw her arms about his neck.
"A stor mo chroi," she smiled, and he lost himself in her black eyes as people gasped. Not all at once, but in ripples through the cathedral as they realized what they were seeing. "I came as soon as I heard."
Dougal felt the weight of Marina's hand, still squeezing at his.
"Who is this?" she demanded but then dragged them both along. "They'll kill her. She can't be here. Hurry."
Stavros started barking her name. She ran, and Dougal followed. Aislinge giggled as she sprinted ahead. Pushing open the door to the small side room, she waved Dougal and Marina in. She threw her weight behind it as she slammed it shut. Feet planted, she braced against it, and it jerked and bucked as shoulders pounded the other side. She held it shut. Giggling again, she rapped her knuckles against the wood."My will is absolute," she chuckled. "I will not be denied."
"Who are you?" Marina snapped.
"Macha," Aislinge said. That had been the first name she gave Dougal.
"The raven of war? You keep interesting company, Dougal."
"I had intended to take him."
"Do you have any idea what's at stake here? We have to do this. You have to leave. They will kill you if they get their hands on you."
"They can try. I'm not so easy to kill."
Marina grinned. "I can see why he likes you. Why do you like him?"
"He makes me come and respects my boundaries."
Dougal shook his head. "This isn't happening. This is another fucked up anxiety nightmare."
Aislinge laughed. Marina reached over to pinch at the back of his hand. Jerking it away, he sighed. She held her hand out to him.
"You should have told me about her."
Nodding, he stepped back. "What is this?"
"You can trust me. I have no loyalty to my kin, much like you, or do I mistake you?"
He took her hand but looked to Aislinge. "You've got to leave."
"I'll come back for you."
"Please," Marina said, and they both stared at her. "Leave—you must—"
Kicking off the door, Aislinge charged at Dougal. She crashed into him and knocked him down, under her. Like a sudden storm, like a dark dream late in the night, she was there and kissing him then gone. Stavros knocked the door open, and all Marina's brothers came bursting in. Nine men, rushing and pacing and searching for some sign of where the hunter had gone, they filled the room. Marina knelt over Dougal and bent to whisper in his ear.
"Deny you knew her. Tell them nothing." She reached up to brush fingers up his neck then tear red lines down it. Hissing, he grabbed at her wrist. She twisted loose. Smearing bloody fingers across her chest, she scratched at her own flesh. "Blame it on her. Follow my lead."
Grabbing her by the arm, Stavros yanked her up to her feet. He shoved her back. Petros caught her against his chest, and she shoved and screamed at him. The shrill cry rang sharp and loud through the still cathedral. He released her. She stepped up between Stavros and Dougal as he scrambled back then up onto his feet. Over her shoulder, Stavros glared at Dougal.
"Explain." Stavros' voice was a low growl.
"Isn't it obvious? A hunter exploited the situation and attacked us." Marina began to shake. "On my wedding day!" she sobbed. Stumbling forward, she wept, and Stavros rushed to hug her tight.
Silas dragged Dougal from the room then. Petros instructed ushers to begin guiding the guests to the reception hall. Dougal tried to duck back into the room, but Silas held Dougal by his arm. When he started to twist, Silas slammed his heel into Dougal's foot hard enough to bring tears to his eyes.
"None of that," Silas hissed. "You're treading water as is, barbaros. Go much deeper, and you're like to drown. Understand me?"
"Yea, sure, you had me when you stomped my fucking foot. I'll behave. Let's go to the hall."
"Stavros said your mother had you well trained." Petros smacked at Dougal's back and pushed at him until he started walking between the two brothers. "Welcome to the family."
Silas laughed. "Congratulations."