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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Mark of the Empress, by M. Dalto


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Chapter One

A kiss was supposed to be a sign of affection, or used to seal a pact, or even bestowed as a final goodbye.

It was never supposed to bring someone back from the dead.

Alex had already mourned, grieved, and accepted the loss of her husband.

She and Crystal spent a month trying to save his life after he appeared through the Key, wounded and poisoned.

She said her farewells. She accepted their fate and was ready for both of them to have some semblance of peace and carry on.

Yet there he was, sitting across from her with a mug of coffee between his hands as though it was just another day in their mundane existence.

Treyan was supposed to be dead, but she brought him back to life.

She didn’t know which scared her more.

“I suppose it’s not that surprising, when you think about it.”

Treyan broke the silence, snapping Alex from her train of thought, and she looked to her husband as he took a sip from his mug. “You received the Mark from a kiss. Why should its powers not be transferred in the same manner?”

Alex’s hand went to the starburst-like burn scar between her brows, ever warm to the touch. “But you were dead.”

“And so were you, if you recall.”

She tried not to and brought her hand down to her own mug of coffee before her.

“So, what do we do now?” Alex asked, softly blowing at the steaming cup between her hands.

The question lingered between them for a moment, as if each were weighing the severity of the inquiry through the uncomfortable silence. Finally, Treyan shrugged, his attention focused again on his own mug.

“Whatever we do, we’ll do it together just like we have in the past, and we’ll survive doing it.”

She didn’t want to think of the need to survive or otherwise, so Alex quickly changed the subject. “You still don’t remember anything?”

Treyan’s inability to remember exactly how he arrived back at her apartment in Boston proved to be more of the mystery.

Alex watched her husband for a minute, and she could see the flashes of memory from his last moments within the Empire as they ran through his mind.

Treyan shook his head as if trying to clear away the haze. “I remember confronting Reylor in the library while he hovered over the Annals, and I remember the agony of the sword coming down along my back.”

Alex’s brows furrowed and she pursed her lips. The last person she wanted to think about was Reylor. The banished Lord Steward should have remained in the Borderlands and left the Empire alone. Instead, he infiltrated their sanctuary and turned their own people against them.

She gritted her teeth at the thought. If she ever got her hands on that spy of a Mistress, she truly believed she would murder her. It was Bria who so cowardly attacked Treyan, and it was Bria, through whatever poison she coated on that blade, who inflicted Treyan’s back with such a severe wound that it sent them all through a month of torment.

Bria who, in the end, caused Treyan’s demise… or would have if not for one perfectly timed kiss.

Her musings were interrupted by the startled cry of an infant waking up from yet another nap. Even after a month, the actuality of the baby belonging to her remained fresh and new. Yet every time she heard the familiar cry from her daughter’s lungs, the initial smile that came to her face quickly turned to a frown as she remembered the son they had been forced to leave behind.

“I’ll get her.”Treyan stood before she could move, the look on his face almost sympathetic as if he knew where her memory took her.

Alex’s eyes met his before he left the room, and she had to remind herself Sarayna was his daughter as well.Instead of arguing, Alex simply nodded. She watched her husband retreat down the hallway of her one-bedroom apartment. Having Treyan with her in her realm, and knowing him for who he was instead of some wannabe-stalker-turned-rescuer, sent butterflies through her stomach. Regardless of what had happened, or what brought him to the Otherrealm, he was hers and she his, and they now had a family together. She shouldn’t need anything more. And yet there was still so much she wanted.

With her mug in hand, Alex stood from the small breakfast table in the kitchen and padded into the living room where she would be able to look out to the familiar city street.

From her ground-floor apartment, she watched the sun kiss the cityscape as a soft breeze rustled fallen leaves down the sidewalk. It was October—just over a month since she and Sarayna fell through the Key’s portal, but it felt like it was only yesterday when Treyan first brought her to the Empire.

With a slight smirk, Alex remembered it might possibly have only been yesterday.When she returned to Boston, bruised, battered and fresh off the birthing bed, her best friend Crystal had informed her that it was only two days—forty-eight hours at the most—since they were last together. For Alex, however, almost a year of her life had passed within the Empire. In that time, she became the Queen Empress. She married the Empire’s Crown Prince. She gave birth to the twins that could continue their Prophecy. The cold grip of despair returned to her heart as she recalled those final moments with their stolen son.

While Sarayna was soothed by her father in the next room, their son Lexan remained with Reylor, Betrayer to the Empire. Neither of them knew what Treyan’s brother planned to do with their son while he was in the former Lord Steward’s custody. Alex’s grief quickly turned to fury as she clenched the coffee mug so tight, she didn’t care if it shattered between her hands. She imagined it was Bria’s scrawny little neck between her hands.

“Alex?” Treyan startled her from her murderous rage as he lingered in the entryway with the baby cradled in his arms. The sight calmed her nearly instantly as she looked at her husband gently holding their daughter.

She was their daughter, just as Lexan was their son.

“Alex plastered on a smile as she walked toward them, but the look on Treyan’s face told her he wasn’t falling for it. Placing her cup down on the side table next to the couch, she reached out for Sara, but he didn’t appear to be ready to give her up. Instead, he gave his wife a knowing glance as if he was trying to assess the current state of her mental readiness.

“I’m fine,” she assured him as she again motioned to take the infant. He finally released Sarayna into her mother’s care, though she could tell in the way he watched her that he remained hesitant. Alex couldn’t blame him—her emotional stability aside, he had been without his daughter for so long, perhaps he needed the comfort as much as Alex did.

She cradled Sarayna against her, the child’s small head nestling right into the crook of her neck and returned to the window before Treyan could sense her unease. Sara, however, watched her mother with the attentive alertness unique to an infant through the bright blue eyes of the Empireborn. Eyes exactly like her father’s…As well as her uncle’s before he betrayed the Empire.Alex shook thoughts of Reylor from her head as she returned her attention to the scenery outside her window. That bastard would die, too, if she had anything to say about it.And she did.She was the Empress, after all.In her arms she held the future Crown Princess who would, in her own time, search for her King Emperor, bring him back to the Empire, and inevitably begin her own Prophecy.Even though they weren’t there any longer, it still mattered. It had to matter.

What was any of what they had—and what they will go through—worth if it didn’t?

She knew Treyan was watching her, and she glanced over her shoulder to where he leaned against the doorjamb of the living room. He smiled at her, holding his own mug again, and she returned the sentiment with her own small grin.

Coffee was what first brought them together, and now it was coffee they drank as they tried to piece together all that was lost.

What were they going to do?

Alex held her daughter tighter to her chest. The question haunted her ever since she and Sarayna came through the Key within her living room’s fireplace not less than a month ago, and even more so once Treyan arrived soon after. If it wasn’t for Crystal, Alex didn’t know how she would have gotten by on her own. Her friend was no stranger to shock and refused to leave Alex’s side while she helped her through it.She was lost deeper in her thoughts than she realized for the next thing Alex knew, Treyan was standing behind her with his chin resting on her unoccupied shoulder as his arms wrapped around her waist. His touch always calmed her body, if not her mind, and she let out a sigh of relief as she leaned back against his chest.

“It will be okay, Alex,” Treyan whispered against her neck. “We’ll find a way to get home.”

Alex closed her eyes and scoffed. “And then what?”

"We will take back what is ours.” His tone grew serious and she glanced at him, trying to get a better reading on his intent. He kept his gaze down, but she knew well what he implied, though it was the first time she had heard him vocalize it so vehemently.

Taking advantage of Sara falling asleep on her shoulder, Alex stepped out of Treyan’s grasp. “I’m going to put her back down,” she said quietly as she left to lay the newborn in the bedroom.

Truth be told, Alex didn’t have an answer, or a plan, or an opinion on the matter of returning to the Empire. Ever since she came back, her life revolved around caring for their daughter while making her ailing husband as comfortable as possible during his last days. It wasn’t until Treyan’s recovery that she finally considered returning. Of course, in her heart she hoped they’d be able to return to the Empire, but those aspirations seemed to dwindle the longer they remained in Boston. The longer they delayed, the more time Reylor had to prepare for them. Lexan would grow so much older than his sister… Would he even acknowledge them as his parents? Or would his loyalty, love, and devotion belong solely to Reylor?

As she quietly shut the bedroom door, she wondered if her sleeping daughter would ever see her father’s realm again. Or meet her brother.

Treyan had made his way back to the couch by the time Alex returned to the living room. The sun from the window reflected on his black hair, and she swore she could see hints of dark blue highlights in the midnight-toned mane. Maybe he sensed her watching him because he looked over his shoulder with his striking smile that always made her need to catch her breath. His eyes still shone with the same unnatural blue that seemed to capture the sunlight within his irises. As with the first time they met, Alex was drawn to him by some force beyond her control, and she was soon next to him on the couch, allowing herself to be comforted within his strong arms. His warmth calmed her while she snuggled against him, and they remained as such for a few moments longer before a knock at the apartment’s door captured their attention.

“It’s probably Crystal coming back to check-in,” Alex assured him as she stood from the couch. Picking up her mug, she reached her other hand out for his. “I’ll get a new pot of coffee brewing; we’re going to need it.”

Nodding, Treyan handed her his mug but remained on the couch. He seemed uneasy at the mention of Crystal, a stranger he didn’t know coming into the apartment where their remaining child slept. He’d need to get over it, she mused to herself as she walked into the kitchen. Without her, neither of them would have much to stand on, literally and figuratively.

She wondered if Treyan’s uneasiness stemmed from the awkwardness of having to deal with a drunken Crystal when they first met during Alex’s birthday gathering. She smiled while trying to imagine Treyan ever in an awkward position.

The knocking continued incessantly, and Alex was beginning to get annoyed.

“I’ll be right there!” she yelled toward the door. Hurriedly, she finished filling their mugs, taking a sip from hers as she headed to the foyer. With her free hand, she unlocked the three newly replaced deadbolts and opened it to welcome her friend.

The mug dropped from her hand and shattered on the floor when it was evident the visitor wasn’t Crystal at all.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

Chapter Two

Treyan sprinted into the foyer the moment he heard the mug hit the floor, but was as dumbstruck as Alex the moment he saw who stood behind the wrought-iron bars of the outer door. Covered in a cloak from head to toe and much the worse for wear, he’d always remember the face of the woman who had stabbed him in the back.

Literally.

Bria stood before them. The Mistress looked as though she had been through Hell and back, with her dark hair akin to a rat’s nest, her eyes sunken and dim, and her traveling clothes torn and dirty as though she hadn’t bathed in months. Her gaze remained downcast and her arms protectively wrapped around herself, holding shut the black cape with what appeared to be only a satchel slung across her chest to call her own.

“What are you doing here?” Treyan asked in Lelriera, the language of their Empire, through clenched teeth. It was easier for him to convey how he felt in his native tongue, and he knew that Alex could at least understand the overall message. It was one of the determining characteristics of being the true Queen Empress of the Prophecy, after all.

The dialect brought Bria’s attention to him, and the red eyes given to those who betrayed the Empire pierced into his. Both he and Alex recoiled in surprise, and Treyan barely missed the whispered “please” that escaped her lips before Alex launched into a tirade.

“I knew it! You filthy, disgusting whore! This is all your fault! You betrayed me! You betrayed me! You betrayed your prince! You betrayed your Empire, and all for that fucking bastard!”

Alex lunged for the door, but Treyan, with the reflexes of the trained prince—no, king—that he was, caught her in an embrace before she hurt herself. Or worse, before she ruined the only connection they currently had to their former home. Bria’s eyes were wide as Alex continued to bombard her with slurs and insults. “Empress, I—” she began.

Treyan quickly turned to the former mistress and motioned for her to be quiet as he wrangled Alex and “tried to instill some sense of reason into her stubborn brain.After moving his wife back into the kitchen, she immediately started pacing, as though looking for something else she could break in place of the face of their unexpected visitor.

“Alex.”

She whipped around to face him, utter astonishment on her face. “Treyan, what is she doing here?”

“I don’t know, and we’re not going to be able to find out if she remains on the front doorstep.”

“You want to invite her in? With our daughter sleeping in the next room?”Treyan sighed.

“So you suggest we send her away?”

“Other than slitting her throat, yes.”

Treyan’s eyes widened with astonishment at her outburst. “Alex.”

“She deserves nothing from us other than the sweetest death, and even that would be too kind.”

“Alex,” he repeated, his tone tinged with subtle warning.

“Perhaps we should have her assaulted, take away her newborn child, and mortally wound her beloved just to see how she feels then.”

“Alexstrayna!”

Treyan rarely used the Empress’s full given name, so hearing it quickly stopped Alex in her tracks. He knew she was upset, and with every reason, but he would not tolerate any any thought process akin to his brother’s.

Stricken, she sat down at the small kitchen table, her face in her hands as the weight of it all seemed to crash upon her at once. Treyan sat across from her, knowing he now had her undivided attention.

“Alex, listen to me,” he began with a glance over his shoulder at the half-closed door that blocked Bria from their view. “Right now, we have standing outside our door the only other person in the world who knows what we’ve been through, and somehow—some way—she is here. And since she is here, perhaps there is a now a way for us to get back.”

Alex removed her hands from her face and looked up at her husband. “Why is she here?”

Treyan sighed. “I don’t know, but something tells me she’ll advise us of that as soon as we allow her in. I don’t think she would have sought us out, knowing our history, if there wasn’t a reason.”

She glanced over to the door where Bria waited, then over her other shoulder to where she could hear Sara begin to awaken for her next feeding.

“Let me take care of Sara—the treasonous bitch stays here,” she demanded, motioning to the table where they both sat. “I’ll be damned if she gets anywhere near my daughter after what she did to our son.”

Treyan watched Alex depart down the hallway to the bedroom, and only after he heard the door slam shut did he get up to welcome their visitor into their small humble abode.

~

Bria sat with her back to the apartment’s door as she faced down the stares of the Crown Prince and the Queen Empress. Treyan sat across from her, and Alex remained standing protectively in the archway that led to the hallway toward the bedroom.

The Mistress looked worn and tired, almost older, and in desperate need of a bath. Whether it was from travel or time, it was clear she had not been allowed the luxury of bathing. By the smell, Treyan realized as he took a slight sniff of the air and quickly covered his nose, it very well could have been either.

The coffee he offered her remained untouched as the mug grew cold before the silent betrayer. He could sense Alex fuming behind him, as if they shouldn’t have even offered her that, but he remained with his back to her as he took it upon himself to lead the conversation. Treyan was enjoying the unexpected confrontation about as much as she was. He was also born to be a diplomat and was trained in being civil even in the most testing of circumstances.

“Bria,” he began again in Lelriera, keeping his tone as steady as he could. “Obviously your presence here has left us quite startled. Please, tell us why you are here, and how you came to be so?”

Bria looked up with her blood-red stare and glanced between the two of them before focusing her attention on the full mug before her. She was afraid of them as much as they were furious with her. Good. Let her feel as though what came out of her mouth next determined her very fate.

With an unsteady breath, Bria began, “I assure you, my Prince, that I would not be here unless it was of the utmost importance, and for that, I fear that the time it has taken me to come here might already make me too late.”

“Too late? For what?” Treyan coaxed.

Bria looked between the two of them and around the room as though fearful that someone else may be listening.

“If she’s not going to talk, she can leave,” Alex growled from the doorway.

Treyan glanced at her over his shoulder, and she looked away to avoid his stare.

Turning back to Bria, Treyan let out a breath. “Bria, we cannot help you if you cannot tell us what is amiss. Please, what is going on? What’s happened within the Empire that made you decide to search us out?”

Bria’s lip began to quiver as tears came to her eyes. “It’s… it’s my Lord Reylor.”

He sensed Alex tense behind him.

“I’m afraid he’s gotten himself into a situation he’s never going to escape from alive!” Bria’s head collapsed into her hands as she began to sob.

Of course it involved Reylor. Bria betrayed them for Reylor while within the Empire, so what other reason could she have for traveling so far if not for him?

On the evening of Alex’s coronation, the same evening Treyan had proposed and their relationship was consummated, Reylor had infiltrated the palace, restrained Treyan, and kidnapped Alex. Somehow, Reylor already knew Alex was pregnant, or would be, and through his perverted reasoning and forbidden Dark magics, he was able to manipulate the Prophecy of Fire and Light to his advantage, releasing her only once he knew his spell was complete.To this day, they still did not know exactly what happened during Alex’s time within the Borderlands. Alex was confident she was assaulted, though there was no physical evidence or memory to justify her accusations.

Treyan didn’t want to counter her claim, but if Reylor had cared for her as much as he swore he did, why become so aggressive? So unforgiveable?

“Reylor hadn’t left them much time to figure it out either. Through Bria’s betrayal, their son Lexan, mere moments after he was born, was stolen and taken from them while the palace around them began to crumble due to Reylor’s vengeance against the Annals. It was all because of him that they were in their current situation.

The more Treyan thought about it, the more he realized that it very well could have been Bria who continued to keep Reylor informed and allowed him access to the palace undetected on the night of the coronation.

A sense of Alex’s unease resonated behind him, but he kept his attention solely on Bria. “What has Reylor gotten himself into this time?” Even saying his name was like poison on his tongue.

Bria shook her head. “My Prince, it’s not what he’s gotten himself into, but I fear it’s what he’s been involved with ever since he was banished.”

Treyan felt his muscles tense. He never discussed his past with his brother. The less that was spoken of Reylor, the better.

“Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell us exactly what’s going on?” Alex broke in, now inserting herself into “the conversation at hand.

Bria jumped as though she’d forgotten the Empress was there, but cleared her throat and began. “It was soon after I was selected to be one of the Empress’s mistresses upon her coronation. I was beside myself—serving the Empress had been a dream of mine ever since I was a child.”

Alex’s scoff was audible, but Bria continued. “I was making my final preparations before leaving my cottage for my new life at the palace. I never heard him arrive, and it wasn’t until he had called my name from within the confines of my home that I realized he had appeared as though out of thin air.“‘Do you know who I am?’ he had asked me,” Bria explained. “Who in their right mind didn’t know the story about Reylor the Betrayer? He didn’t scare me. In fact, being that close to him thrilled me in a way I never knew I could feel. He stood there in my cottage, dressed all in black leather, the setting suns glimmering on his dark blond hair, and the red of his eyes piercing into my very heart.”

“Oh please,” Alex hissed. Treyan scowled, and she rolled her eyes.

Bria continued as though she had not been interrupted. “He could have asked anything of me, for the power and lust that exuded from him left me drunk with pleasure. From that moment, I would have done anything for him, and that was exactly what he had hoped.“His plan was simple. I would monitor the comings and goings within the palace, and report back to him nightly.”

“How?” Alex pressed.

“Orb,” Treyan and Bria responded, in unison.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do, my Prince. I swear I didn’t,” Bria pleaded to Treyan.“I assume he rewarded you for your services?”Bria blushed and averted her eyes from their stares.Apparently so.Treyan leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest as he tried to mentally put her story in context. “In between your communications and these trysts, he convinced you to spy on us, and “report to him as soon as the time was right.” He swallowed, almost dreading the next question he was about to ask. “Did you know beforehand what he was going to do with the Empress?”With wide eyes, Bria started frantically shaking her head in denial. “No, my Prince, not at all! I didn’t know the Empress’s fate until she returned. If I had known what he was going to do...” She stopped and bit her lip.“What was he going to do, Bria?” Treyan asked. Bria remained silent.Treyan assessed Alex’s composure with a concerned look in his eyes as his wife moved forward, arms wrapped around herself as she stood next to him. Bria looked just as concerned for the Empress’s well-being as he did, but instead of acknowledging the Mistress, Alex nodded to Treyan and motioned for him to continue.He leaned forward on the table, clasping his hands in front of him. “When the Empress returned, and you discovered what Reylor had done, why did you not come to us—either of us—and disclose what he had tricked you into?”

Bria turned away from them again, as though afraid to answer, but Alex didn’t seem to buy Bria’s act, and wasn’t going to accept her silence any longer.

Walking from her spot next to Treyan, she leaned on the table between the two of them, her attention focused on Bria, her eyes drilling into those that refused to look at her. Alex’s tone was harsh and she whispered through her clenched teeth.

“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”

Sitting taller in her chair, the former mistress grew more confident than she had “been since she arrived, and almost possessed a challenging demeanor as she turned to face Alex, her eyes burning into hers.“Yes, Empress. I am.”Alex peered at her for a moment longer, a thin smirk on her own lips, then straightened up, turning to Treyan. “She gets nothing from us. She can find her own way home to save her bastard.”

“Empress, please,” Bria sputtered.

“Alex,” Treyan found himself inquiring as well.

“Enough! Both of you! Listen to yourselves. Here she is, groveling for our help without an ounce of forgiveness behind it, and here you are, getting sucked in because she happens to mention your brother. Well, I’m not having it. I’m not. I won’t. Not after everything that he’s done—everything she’s done—to this family. Our family, Treyan! Whatever the two of you decide, you can do it without me.”

Alex marched from the kitchen and down the hall, slamming the bedroom door shut, leaving her husband to fend for himself with the Empire’s newest traitor.


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