The sun hung warm and high in the sky as Heldon and his attendants carrying the offerings approached Opalgate territory.
Heldon led from the front, shoulders back, and mouth set in a hard line. The resentment he had toward this mysterious envoy had festered overnight into a cold, hard determination. He'd take Opalgate coven for all the silver they're worth.
The breeze blew his charm earrings and the faint scent of the enchanted forest that surrounded Opalgate.
“We're almost there!" Heldon announced, finally spotting the majestic maple tree that marked the hidden entry through the forest. He picked up the pace like a soldier anticipating a charge.
He'd prove his brother, all of Kalent, and especially this despicable envoy wrong.
As Heldon strode through the meadow, his long dark braid swishing against his back, a figure came into view, leaning against the trunk of the maple tree.
The sun dappled his sun-blessed skin and his wavy golden blond hair that rippled wild and free just at his strong jawline. His arms were raised with hands clasped behind his head which accentuated his toned arms and broad shoulders. Even through his tailored pearlescent white uniform, Heldon could tell this man was built.
“Is he taking a snooze?" Heldon whispered to himself, transfixed. The man was sunshine dipped in moonlight and couldn't look more out of place on the edge of vampire territory.
The hair picked up on the back of his neck and triceps and snowflakes darted through his bloodstream. A thread in the center of his chest reeled him in closer to the mystifying man relaxing in the shade.
After a few more steps that took far too long, he still couldn't figure out who or what he was. It was when Heldon spotted the spear leaning up against the tree that Heldon put it together.
Opalwhite uniform. Spear. Dashing.
This couldn't be the Opalgate envoy. Since when did vampires have skin bronzed from the sun? Since when did they cut their hair short and wield spears instead of swords?
He licked his lips, on guard as if he took one step into the shade of the tree's massive canopy, he'd be in this man's domain. His survival instincts simmered on high alert, screaming this man was not human.
However, his heart-shaped Jawforcer magic mark tingled and glowed, signaling he wasn't an immediate threat.
“Envoy Acera?" Heldon called out, voice lacking authority due to how dry his mouth suddenly became.
Immediately the man's eyes opened and Heldon's chest clamped in shock from their wild intensity.
Eyes the color of honey and leaves in the sun zeroed on Heldon with surprise. Gracefully, he straightened up off the tree, but instead of reaching for his spear, he reached out to Heldon.
Heldon's chest gave way and softened when the bronze sculpture of a man looked at Heldon with unguarded wonder. He stood a head taller than Heldon, which was typical for vampires, but instead of having their lithe, slender frame like glass, his physique was as built and solid as mahogany.
“Tival Acera, Envoy of Opalgate, at your service, and who do I have the pleasure of greeting?" The man's tone lacked the arrogance that most vampires had, but when he smiled, a flash of small fangs confirmed his heritage.
Suddenly, Heldon remembered his bitter anger. That despite his disarming smile and his warmth, Tival Acera chose to make a mockery out of him. He was not to be trusted.
“I'm Heldon Flay, the Jawforer negotiating for Kalent. You requested me personally, envoy Acera. Don't you remember?" Heldon said with the warmth of a glacier. Heldon held his ground as the vampire approached him.
The envoy's chiseled face broke open in genuine interest as his burning gaze traveled up and down Heldon's body. Heldon's neck flushed pink. He was not used to being ogled, it made him squirm.
“Please call me Tival. I'm glad you came, but you're not what I was expecting. Not at all." Tival chuckled and Heldon swallowed. He had the kind of smile that lit up his entire face and it was absurd, it caused Heldon's knees to go numb.
“Well, envoy Acera, perhaps you should have done your research. Shall we be off? This is rather urgent." Heldon kept his tone clipped and professional.
Tival's smile faltered and his eyes dimmed for a second before he regained composure.
“Of course, Heldon. This humble envoy is at your service." Tival winked at him, and Heldon's neck blushed pink up to his ears.
His wink caused terrifying warmth to cascade from the base of his skull down to his toes.
No, he wasn't attracted to Tival. He was just jittery from adrenaline.
“You may call me negotiator. I'm here on official business, not a social call." Heldon warned, his lips thinning into a hard line. He'd get what Kalent needed and leave Opalgate but an unpleasant memory.
“Did I offend – nevermind. Let me lead the way, negotiator." Tival said, smirking like a cat. He turned to grab his spear with a flourish. It was then that he saw a jagged scar running from behind Tival's ear down his bronze neck and disappearing under the collar of his silk uniform.
How did he survive a wound like that?
Tival grabbed his intricate wooden spear, which was as tall as Heldon, and pointed the blade toward impassible forest undergrowth. Upon command, the tangled thicket receded back, revealing a cobblestone path.
It took all of Heldon's self-restraint to not ask Tival how a vampire could command flora. Perhaps he thought a magic trick like this could intimidate or impress him.
He wouldn't ask. He wouldn't give this peculiar vampire the pleasure.
“With this path we will make good time. Thank you." Heldon nodded once and waved to his team with the wagon.
“As I said before, negotiator, I am at your service," Tival replied, not missing a beat as he strode out of the protective shade and into direct sunlight. Heldon's heart skipped a beat on instinct, he'd turn to ash!
Heldon's lips parted as the sun illuminated Tival's wavy curls and glinted off his spear.
“I believe gawking is rude, negotiator," Tival smirked and Heldon set his jaw. He was about to retort when he noticed Tival's skin had begun to flush bright pink. The sun. He must be sensitive to it, so why did he gallivant off as if it didn't faze him?
Heldon just scowled as they entered the enchanted forest. It was still day, but the forest loomed all around them, casting dark shadows and eerie mist.
A massive crash behind the treeline reverberated the ground.
Heldon grabbed the hilt of his saber, ready for a beast to pounce.
“Don't worry negotiator, you're safe with me. Nothing in this forest would dare mess with me or anyone under my protection. They're just…curious." Tival's mischievous smirk melted into a small, reassuring smile. Heldon had noticed the previous red flush on Tival's high cheekbones had already faded.
Tival's easy posture and tone almost coaxed Heldon into feeling safe.
“I'm just supposed to trust you? Really?" Heldon kept his grip on his saber.
Tival dropped his spear and it clattered to the cobblestones.
“I'm standing unarmored and unarmed in front of you," Tival pointed out. “Go ahead, stab me in the back if you think I'm luring you into a trap."
“No!" Heldon, alarmed, shot that down fast.
Tival turned, amused.
“So, you do trust me, at least a little bit." Tival wiggled his eyebrows and picked up his spear.
Heldon didn't look at his backside as he bent over.
“It'd hardly help my negotiations with the Opalgate trinity if I killed their envoy." Heldon countered, satisfied with his response. He was usually pretty good with his responses and quips, but most things Tival said put him on his heels.
“Ha! Oh, I am quite sure they'd throw you a lot of extra coins if you did." Tival barked out a dark laugh and it unsettled Heldon.
“Out of all the many envoys I've dealt with, you've been the most inviting. Any vampire coven would be smart to have someone like you." Heldon stated as if he pointed out the sky was blue.
Tival stopped dead in his tracks and Heldon immediately glanced at the trees in a fighting stance.
“I'm glad my charms weren't completely lost on you, my surly negotiator." Tival spun fully around, his saucy smile lit up his face like a sunbeam.
“I'm not your…surly anything! I regret saying anything. I take it back." Heldon indignantly sputtered back. All of his wordplay from his experience as a negotiator left his head entirely.
“Don't you know as a negotiator that you can't take words back?" Tival laughed like this was the first bout of fun he had in years.
Heldon rolled his eyes, what a brazen twit.
They traveled the rest of the way in a mostly comfortable silence, all the while Heldon tried to not to gawk again at Tival's broad back and long legs. He rehearsed his speech and had even taken his hand off his saber as he strolled.
And true to its name, the ornate, opalescent gate caught the rays of sunset brilliantly as it swung open.
Before Tival passed through the gates, he turned to Heldon. The blonde tongued out his lower lip as if expecting Heldon to strike him for what he'd do next. He fully entered Heldon's space, his neck bent down, lips almost grazing the shell of Heldon's ear.
Heldon's breath hitched, and time spun to a stop.
“Inside I can protect you, but only if you stay close to me. We have visitors from another coven." Tival's warm breath tickled Heldon's ear and he finally inhaled. The fragrance of sandalwood, earth, and fresh rain pulled Heldon in. All he had to do was tilt his jaw up and his lips would meet Tival's neck and…
No. Tival set him up to fail.
His people, his brother, were counting on him.
“I can take care of myself, envoy Acera. You made a mistake underestimating and patronizing me, and I'm fed up." Heldon pushed past him, he didn't need some cock-sure vampire anomaly treating him like a child.
A dark pinch of pain bit Heldon in his chest and threw his walls back up. What hurt most was Tival was partially right because he must have let his guard down if he had to put it back up.
He walked through the gates into Opalgate with his head held high.
“What? Hel–Negotiator, wait." Tival called out harried, but Heldon continued on. It was time to introduce himself to the only three vampires that mattered – the Opalgate trinity who led the coven.
Tival caught up to Heldon as two armored guards opened the thick black double doors.
“I know how important this negotiation is, and I know you despise our kind, but I am only trying to help you," Tival whispered out, his eyes wide in desperation.
“You can help me by performing your duties as an envoy which are formally introducing me and then leaving me alone. I don't need any more help from someone like you." Heldon's voice sparked hot with resentment.
Heldon was familiar with the 'good envoy, bad monarch' ploy, and he wasn't about to fall for such a novice trick.
“Right, right, of course. I'm at your service." Tival murmured, voice empty and distant, eyes downcast. His broad shoulders sagged slightly as he led the way down the luxurious, sconce-lit hallway.
Heldon's treacherous heart jumped.
Inexplicably, he wanted to take it back, to tell Tival that he overstepped, that he didn't mean to be so cruel.
Yet Tival had a point earlier. You can't take words back.