CHAPTER 1

1648

Dominic Dragonseeker took a long-suffering breath. This boy was going to be the death of him. He was actually as close to feeling annoyance as he had ever been, a colossal feat seeing as emotions had been largely lost to him for years. Bastién Moret was strong, intelligent, charismatic and brave in the extreme. A natural choice for leader. But he was also arrogant as hell and too young to know what was good for him. Dominic folded his arms and studied the boy in question, who was looking slightly mutinous now that his plans had been challenged, and by a clan- head no less.

'Highness.' The word dripped sarcasm, it roiled Dominic's stomach to have to use such language but the boy's upbringing demanded it. His father the king was a portentous ass and his mother a sixteenth century airhead, plus he had been running around in human social circles where pompousness was encouraged. The result was that he had acquired the presumptuousness of the privileged, that sense of entitlement that set Dominic's teeth on edge. 'Highness,' he repeated through gritted teeth. 'I assure you I have looked at the ...problem...from all possible angles. And you are most decidedly bonded.'

'That cannot be. I am betrothed - to be betrothed - to Elana, the Drostan heir.'

Dominic lifted a cynical brow. A human? He was to be trothed to a human? 'That is no longer possible. You have recognized your true mate.'

'It must be a mistake !'

'You have recognized your mate,' he said again through gritted teeth, feigning a patience that he did not feel. 'And that is a fact.'

He watched as the dark brows came together and the firm chin jutted forward in a childish expression of mutiny. He could almost see the wheels turning furiously inside that quick young mind that would have been so useful had it been turned towards more constructive pursuits. Instead, he had been encouraged to be flighty and fickle and it was a tribute to the boy's true nature that he hadn't ended up being completely worthless. Despite being surrounded by fawning followers, he wasn't one to sit indoors preening and his time spent outside around his father's lands and among his father's people had opened his eyes to what was needed to keep the place prosperous. He had the natural leadership quality that made things happen and people follow his lead, and of course it didn't hurt that he was almost ridiculously good-looking, as spectacular a specimen of male youth as Dominic had ever seen - and he had seen plenty. And of course, he also had a good deal of help.

And some of the help was coming their way now. Dominic muttered an oath for he had hoped to be able to have the boy to himself a bit longer, to sway him to reason. But Bastién was almost never alone, there always seemed to be someone or someones hanging around, fawning and hanging on his every word.

Two young men were approaching and as they came close he recognized them as Bastién's most devoted stooges, his closest friends and confidantes. Philíppe Lùtair's mother had been part of Dominic's own clan, Aodhan Lathuma was a defector from one of the highland clans that were forever at war for some insult or another. One clasped Dominic's arm in ritual greeting, the other gave a flourishing bow.

Philíppe and Aodhan were Bastién's principal enablers. He came up with the ideas and they provided the means and orchestrated the opportunities by hook, or, in the case of Aodhan, usually by crook. Dominic didn't know what the boy had done to earn the two idiots' undying devotion but they had surely risked life, limb and, yes, sanity for him. They were both equally devoted to his every capricious whim, but it never ceased to amaze Dominic how different they were. Philíppe's stride was straight-backed and purposeful, Aodhan had a lazy lope. Philíppe was sweet-natured and softspoken, with a cleanshaven face, dark curly hair, and dark curly eyelashes, Aodhan, on the other hand, was a lanky beanpole of a Carpathian, with a shaggy mane and what seemed like permanent stubble on his cheeks, like he was always meaning to grow a beard but never seriously got around to it. Philíppe was always impeccably put out—even his battlegear was immaculate, metal parts polished to a mirror shine. Aodhan always looked like he had just fallen out of bed, his hair and clothes were always slightly rumpled, his eyes hooded like he had just opened them from sleep. They both covered up for Bastién but Philíppe always looked harassed doing so and there was always a slightly stressed-out look in his soulful eyes, a tiny worried crease between his dark brows. Aodhan, on the other hand, was perpetually relaxed, or at least looked it. Nothing fazed him or his lazy good humor. Dominic wasn't fooled however. Beneath that unkempt hair and those shaggy brows the eyes were blackbird bright, the mind behind it sharp as a newly-whetted knife.

'My Lord,' Philíppe spoke in soft tones to Bastién. 'The lady has been secured.'

Dominic's brows lifted and he turned flashing green dragonlord eyes onto his kinsman. 'Explain.'

The young man swallowed, Dominic saw he even began to sweat a bit. Good, he thought. The dimwit may have sworn fealty to Bastién Moret but he the hell still knew who was boss.

'The Lady Katalin, sir, she has been … secured.'

"Explain "secured",' Dominic gritted through clenched teeth.

This time it was the smooth-talking Aodhan who replied. 'Secured, my lord, meaning she is safe, comfortable, her every need attended to.'

'Where?'

It was a moment before the tall knight ( if he could be called that ) replied. 'On the premises, sir, in very comfortable quarters.'

'And, pray tell, are the quarters the lady finds herself in locked?'

'They are… secured, sir.'

He turned his steely gaze onto Bastién, still standing there with arms folded, like a stubborn child refusing to be budged. 'You kidnapped your own mate? You have her under lock and key?'

'I had to be sure she was secure while I considered my options.'

'Options?' Dominic was as close to ranting as he had been in centuries. 'You don't have any, you foolish boy! You may fancy yourself a human with endless choices, but you are not. You are Carpathian with all the strengths, weaknesses, frailties and , yes, duties, that that lineage entails, and you have most decidedly, and with finality, found your true mate!'

'I feel nothing for her.' That brought Dominic up short, but then the boy faltered a bit under his withering gaze. "Well,' he hedged. 'No more than I have for other women I have encountered.'

'She's not just any woman, you idiot!'

The boy fell silent but continued to meet Dominic's eyes straight on. The ancient Dragonseeker had to take a steeling breath. This boy was not one to be bullied into anything, however young he might seem. He was forced to take pause, to admit that this situation was going to be trickier than he thought, not easily remedied by insistence, threats, or exertions of authority (after all authority was not authority until it was acknowledged by all parties in question, and this particular party certainly did not acknowledge his). It had been a shock to everyone for the boy to have recognized a mate at such a young age – Bastién had not yet seen twenty-three summers. Most Carpathians he knew, himself included, had had to wait centuries – in fact he himself was still waiting.

Oh the little idiot wasn't averse to the girl, not at all. In fact he had dallied with her a while for she was pleasant-looking enough and young enough and her sweet innocence had been a challenge he couldn't resist. But as a mate? Oh no, Bastién Moret felt he was entitled to a far more spectacular mate, not a quiet, rather mousy daughter of a baronet of a very, very small county. He had not understood the pull of the bond, it was only now that he was beginning to comprehend the gravity of what was between him and the girl.

'I need to talk to your uncle,' Dominic said at last. Emile Moret was the voice of reason, perhaps the only voice of reason in this ridiculous place. Obviously he wasn't going to get anywhere with this spoiled brat, especially not with his two goons backing him up.

'It won't do any good. He can't make me do anything I don't -'

'Nevertheless I will talk to him.'

'He is in his chambers, sir," Aodhan Lathuma said smoothly. 'I can take you.'


'I am sorry, Dominic. I had a hand in that.'

Dominic stared with considerable incredulity at his long time friend. 'You?!'

Emile Moret sighed a great sigh. He was younger than the ancient dragonseeker, but had always been levelheaded and wise. Until now? 'What Carpathian do you know who hasn't waited centuries for recognition?' he said to Dominic, his dark eyes truly troubled. 'We didn't know it would happen to him so young! We thought to marry him to the Drostan girl, unite the fiefdoms and solidify our hold on the area- and her human life would sputter out long before Sebastién even got a whiff of his true mate.'

'Was the boy aware of that plan?'

'He thinks himself in love with Elana. There was no need to even let him in on it. He has not seen twenty-three summers, Dominic!'

'Nevertheless his recognition of Katalin is true and valid. It's strange that he doesn't feel the pull, or perhaps he does but not very strongly- but then again he has not had colors or emotions lost to him yet. Perhaps it is less of a shock, feels less profound - '

They exchanged troubled looks. This was one situation where their years did not serve any purpose for there was nothing in Carpathian history to draw on for counsel. Nothing like this had ever happened before - Carpathian men historically had to wait so long for a mate that some ended up walking voluntarily into the dawn. Noone had ever recognized without having lost colors and emotions first and the shock was often overwhelming for both parties. To go from both emotional and visual greyscale to a world exploding with colors and feelings was usually the most profound experience possible for a Carpathian – but obviously it hadn't been for this boy. Twenty-two ! He was barely a newborn by Carpathian lifespan standards.

'I don't know what to say, Dominic,' Emile sighed again. 'There has been no official announcement yet, but we have given our word to Drosta. It would be a great blow both to the economy and the security of the area for the marriage not to push through.'

Dominic remained silent, pursing his lips, racking his brains. They lived in troubled times and certainly this Carpathian – human alliance that Emile and the boy's father Arnaud had orchestrated was unprecedented. If it worked out it would be greatly beneficial, not just to the Moret family and their holdings, but likely for Carpathians everywhere.

Aodhan Lathuma spoke up from behind him, startling both men. In their agitation they had not realized the young man had stayed to listen. 'If I may, sir, your highness, ' he said, unfazed by the thunderous looks the two turned on him for his audacity. 'May I make a suggestion? In the manner of humans perhaps a marital arrangement could be made? One of convenience?'

Dominic's countenance turned from thunder to lightning. 'Are you proposing,' he roared - the idea was so preposterous that he felt the dragon in him suddenly trying to get free, he was practically breathing fire - ' to make Bastién's true mate his mistress?'