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Prince Lauden, AI generated for entertainment purposes only

Prince Lauden of the Vampires

Belladonna crest AI generated for entertainment purposes only

The Belladonna Crest

Chapter Two: Lauden

A Prince's Duty

Prince Lauden walked briskly up the steps in the underground portion of his palace, the click of his boot heels on the stone echoing throughout the cavernous hall. When he reached the top, he leaned against the wall to rest. It had been too long since his last feed.

"Caspian!" he called out when he saw the dredge coming up from the kitchens and heading for the above-ground floors.

The boy turned and bowed at the waist. "My prince?"

"Send Seraphina to my rooms."

"Right away, my lord." The dredge scampered off.

Continuing to his chambers, Lauden thought how much easier life would be if he could just take his feeder as consort. Seraphina had been with him since birth, and he was accustomed to her. But that wouldn't satisfy the Prophecy. The signs of its validity were numerous—over the years more and more creatures from the Ephemeral realm were showing up in the Umbral, which indicated that the borders to the Fringes were disappearing. That could only mean one thing: The Great Divide was closing, and when it had closed completely, the two realms would overlap. They had very little time left to do what needed to be done.

His father, King Haver, was against an alliance with the Ephemeral, claiming that the Prophecy was nothing but a story created to scare and steadfastly refusing to allow his son to taint the Belladonna bloodline by wedding a Fae. But now the king was sick—mysteriously so, for very few things could kill a vampire—and, in the end, it had been ridiculously easy to take the ring off his bony finger. Lauden now wore the royal signet ring bearing the Belladonna crest, and with it, he ruled the Umbral realm.

Entering his private chambers, Lauden closed the heavy green drapes that adorned the window that looked out over the dungeons. He'd been questioning the prisoners—three goblins who had been caught sneaking onto the palace grounds—all morning. They'd said they'd been chasing a herd of luminari—deer-like creatures that glowed in the dark—that had crossed over the Fringes from the Ephemeral. A plausible story, since reported sightings of griffins, unicorns, pegasi, and other creatures not indigenous to the Umbral flooded Lauden's inbox every day. Lauden could only hope there was still time. The Fae prince would be arriving in twenty-four hours, and while the day couldn't come quickly enough for Lauden, he both anticipated and dreaded it.

What was he to do with a Fae for a husband? And a male, at that. He might have been able to stir up some interest in a female.

A knock on the door announced Seraphina's arrival.

"Come," Lauden barked, sitting up straighter on the chaise lounge.

Seraphina's long skirts rustled as she walked in and shut the heavy door behind her.

"Prince Lauden. I have been awaiting your summons. You have gone too long between feeds again," she scolded.

Lauden found the woman's familiarity with him irritating. He knew his own body, and he was the bloody prince, for fuck's sake. And while he'd admitted having her for a consort would be easier, the fact was she wasn't his consort and had no right to tell him what to do. Reaching for her wrist, he sank his fangs into the bluish veins under her pale skin. Seraphina barely managed to perch on the edge of the chaise lounge before she fell into a swoon as Lauden greedily drank from her. For over a quarter of an hour, he steadily consumed her blood, warm and thick due to several humans in her lineage. It took sheer will to force himself to stop before he completely drained her.

Straightening his clothes, he left her there to rest, distractedly ordering a servant to see to her before heading upstairs to his mother's rooms.

****

"Prince Ayrie is permitted to bring two people with him to our realm," Marona Belladonna told Lauden as she stood at one of the two long windows of her parlor, looking out at the misty crags, the trail of her red dress pooling behind her like spilled blood. Her long, brown hair was styled in a complicated coil on her head, and loops of pearls hung from her neck and wrists. His mother was a beautiful woman but her unhappy union with his father kept a frown on her face most of the time. "I have prepared their rooms on your floor."

"Is it really necessary that he sleep so close to my chambers?" Lauden absently turned the heavy gold ring around and around his index finger as he lay sprawled on the red velvet settee, drowsy from the large meal he'd just consumed.

"Would you rather walk through half the palace to bed him every night?" his mother asked coolly.

"Surely it won't take that long to get him with child."

Turning to him, Marona spoke sharply. "We don't know how long it will take, so you will bed him regularly until it happens. And, Lauden, it's important that you keep an eye on him. You cannot just invite him here, wed and bed him, and then ignore him. He will be your husband. It will be up to the both of you to usher in the Continuum. You know this. We have spoken of it often enough in our planning."

"He and I are to produce an heir," Lauden corrected. "I'll be lucky to be able to rise to that challenge, let alone to suffer his companionship. No, mother, the Fae prince and I will not be spending any more time together than strictly necessary to form the alliance. I don't need his help to run things."

Marona turned a stony face back to the window.

Lauden knew his mother was angry with him for disregarding her instructions so easily, but it was his way of coping with the heavy stress heaped upon him in the past few days. They had just managed to obtain the ring and send for the prince of Fae; he hadn't had time think beyond that.

In the distance, a wolf howled and, after a few beats, another answered, as though reminding the prince that he was doing this for his people.

"I will keep him close until the child is born," he relented. "Then the Fae will be moved to another part of the palace." He thought of something. "I'm not going to drink from him. Ever." He'd never consumed anyone's blood but his feeder's, and, even if he'd wanted to drink from the Fae, he couldn't be sure his blood wasn't laced with magic.

"Of course not. You have Seraphina for that, and Ayrie will be your husband, not your mate."

Because true, fated mates were said to drink only from one another. Lauden shook his head. "You don't really believe in that, do you, Mother?"

"Of course."

"Then, if they are real, why have we never come across any?"

"There are several in Cleves," Marona said, her tone bitter. She'd been very young when she'd been taken from her family and brought to the Belladonna kingdom to be raised in King Haver's court to be his consort. She obviously resented her husband's refusal to allow her to see them or to let them meet their son.

"Well, perhaps one day we can have her here to visit," Lauden said. "Father might have forbidden it, but I am in control now."

He watched his mother's face slowly relax and her mouth form something close to a smile before he changed the subject.

"Have you ever seen a Fae in person, Mother?"

Waving a hand so he would make room for her on the settee, she sat beside him.

"No, but I've heard tales. They are said to be very beautiful and very engaging. You will have no trouble welcoming him in your bed, I feel sure."

"Beautiful and engaging won't make up for the fact he's a man," Lauden said distastefully.

"You may be a grown man, but you are very young, still," Marona said enigmatically.

They were interrupted by a knock on the door.

"Enter!" Marona called out.

A female servant took a step inside and bowed. "King Haver has awakened. He wishes to speak to the prince."

Lauden shared a look with his mother. The king had been in and out of consciousness for days, and incoherent whenever he spoke with the doctors. If he was asking for Lauden, he must be doing much better.

Lauden stood. "I suppose the time has come for me to tell Father the way of things now. He won't be pleased."

"No, he won't. But it shall be satisfying, yes?" This time, Marona's smile was genuine.

Yes. Very satisfying indeed.

****

The palace was built in the dank caverns of the mountains, two massive, stony crags concealing the entrance. Only the great hall, kitchens, and Queen Marona's suite of rooms were built above ground—the rest went on for miles beneath the earth. In the king's chambers, the darkness was broken only by the dancing flames from several large candelabras around the room. Lauden stopped several feet from the bed when he saw the king was sucking on the neck of one of his feeders, the woman's head listing to the side, her face deathly pale.

Averting his gaze, Lauden turned to the nearest wall and studied an elaborate green and indigo tapestry depicting a battle between the Belladonna vampires and the ogres. All of the tapestries in the castle except for those in his mother's rooms, which were red and gold and had botanical themes, bore the Belladonna colors and portrayed victorious battles of the clan.

Hearing the dull thud of his father's drained feeder hitting the floor, Lauden turned around to meet the king's weak, yet steely, gaze.

King Haver had once been a very handsome man, tall, dark, and broad. Now, ravished by this mysterious illness, he was but a husk of what he'd once been. His skin was gray, his cheeks sunken in, and his dark eyes dull. His once thick beard was no more than patchy white stubble. Unlike his brunette parents, Lauden's hair was a dark blond, as was the close beard on his face, and his eyes were not brown like theirs, but a piercing green.

Gaze fixed on his son, Haver licked the last drops of the feeder's blood from his lips.

"What is this I've been told? That I've been asleep for days?" he demanded, then immediately fell into a coughing fit that lasted minutes.

"It is true, Father," Lauden said when it ended.

"And what have you done to try to figure out who has cursed me?" Haver asked hoarsely, even though his own mage had told him he'd cursed himself with his refusal to meet the demands of the Prophecy. When Lauden didn't answer, Haver grumbled, "Just as I thought! Nothing at all. You are a miserable excuse for a prince. I shall have you beaten before the court."

And he would, too, Lauden knew, if he could. The weight of the gold ring on Lauden's index finger assured him that his father's days of tyranny were well and truly over. Obviously, the king had not yet noticed the ring missing from his own finger, or that would have been the first thing out of his mouth when Lauden arrived.

"Why did you summon me, Father?" Lauden asked, allowing a note of annoyance to creep into his voice.

"Insubordination! You should be on your knees, you ungrateful wretch! And where is that cur of a mother of yours? Off bedding half my guard, I'd wager."

Lauden's back stiffened, but he remained silent. The servant had not mentioned that Marona was to come, too, and Lauden didn't want to get the girl into trouble, as she was one of his mother's favorites.

"Talon tells me there was another griffin sighting recently," his father said. "I want you to organize a hunt for the next several days. If there are any bright beings hiding in our forests, I want them killed immediately."

"I thought you refused to believe creatures from the Ephemeral were crossing into the Umbral," Lauden said shortly.

"Don't you question me! I said if you find any. Of course we both know that you won't."

The time had come.

"I'm afraid that will be impossible, as I shall be occupied for the next few weeks, Father."

"Occupied!" Haver spat. "Doing what? Fucking that bitch of a feeder? What could be more important than doing your king and sire's bidding?" Exhausted from his tirade, King Haver fell back on the emerald green cushions on his bed. Sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip, and his breathing came in harsh, labored pants.

"I am to wed the prince of the Fae, Father, and then I expect to be occupied making an heir with him." Cool satisfaction settled over Lauden as he watched his words slowly register and the king's face morph from angry, to shocked, to outraged.

Eyes practically bulging from his head, Haver struggled to sit up. "What say you? You cannot have just told me you are bringing a filthy Fae into my kingdom and linking him to my name!"

"That is, in fact, what I am telling you, Father."

"I will strangle you with my own hands! I will not allow this…this abomination to take place. Lyonel! Talon!" King Haver called to the guards posted outside the door as he sank back onto the pillows, his tired, sick body refusing to cooperate with his will. When the guards hurried in, the king pointed at Lauden. "Seize him! Take him to the dungeons, chain him to the wall, and feed him to the viper at sunset."

Lauden restrained the shiver that attempted to crawl up his back at the thought of the huge serpent—the king's favorite means to get rid of prisoners. His father used to make him sit with him on the other side of a window and watch the thing go after someone who had disobeyed or displeased him.

Lyonel and Talon's eyes shifted to Lauden.

"Well? What are you waiting for?" King Haver shouted, his bony chest heaving.

"They are waiting for my orders," Lauden said calmly. Slowly, he lifted his hand so that the gold of the ring caught the gleam from the candles.

The king's gasp initiated another coughing fit, this one lasting even longer than the last.

Turning to leave, Lauden couldn't manage to feel sorry at the way his father gasped for air. He'd long ago stopped caring about the cold man who had sired him.

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