Castle Helvita, Horde vampire stronghold
RUSSIAN WINTER, IN AGES LONG PAST
What fresh humiliation does this day bring?" Ivana the Bold asked her son, Lothaire, as guards escorted them to the vampire known as Stefanovich-the king of the Vampire Horde.
And Lothaire's father.
Though only nine, Lothaire could tell his mother's tone held a trace of recklessness. "And why wake you?" she demanded of him, as if he could explain his father's rash ways.
The summons had come at noon, well past his bedtime. "I know not, Mother," he mumbled as he adjusted his clothing. He'd had only seconds to dress.
"I grow weary of this treatment. One day he will push me too far and rue it."
Lothaire had overheard her complaining to his uncle Fyodor about the king's "tirades and dalliances, his increasingly bizarre behavior." She'd softly confessed, "I threw away my love on your brother, am naught but an ill-treated mistress in this realm, though I was heir to the throne in Dacia."
Fyodor had tried to comfort her, but she'd said, "I knew I only had so long with him before his heart stopped its beating. Now I question whether he has a heart at all."
Today her ice-blue eyes were ablaze with a dangerous light. "I was meant for better than this." With each of her steps, the furs that spilled over her shoulders swayed back and forth. The skirts of her scarlet gown rustled, a pleasing sound he always associated with her. "And you, my prince, were as well."
She called him "prince," but Lothaire wasn't one. At least, not in this kingdom. He was merely Stefanovich's bastard, one in a long line of them.
They followed the two guards up winding stairs to the king's private suites. The walls were gilded with gold and moist with cold. Outside a blizzard pounded the castle.
Sconces lit the way, but nothing could alleviate the gloom of these echoing corridors.
Lothaire shivered, longing to be back in his warm bed with his new puppy dozing over his legs.
Once they reached the anteroom outside of Stefanovich's chambers and the guards began opening the groaning gold doors, Ivana smoothed her hands over her elaborate white-blond braids and lifted her chin. Not for the first time, Lothaire thought she looked like an angel of yore.
Inside, lining the back wall, was a soaring window of jet glass inlaid with symbols of the dark arts. The stained glass kept out the faint sunlight visible through the storm and made a fearsome backdrop for the king's chair.
Not that the towering vampire needed anything more to make him fearsome. His build was more like a demon's, his shoulders broader than a carrying plank, his fists like anvils.
"Ah, Ivana Daciano deigns to obey a summons," Stefanovich called from the head of his long dining table. Every night his eyes seemed to grow redder, their crimson glow standing out against the sand-colored hair that fell over his forehead.
The dozen or so courtiers seated with him stared at Ivana with undisguised malice. In turn, she drew her lips back to flash her fangs. She found these courtiers beneath her and made no secret of it.
Seated to the king's left was Lothaire's uncle Fyodor, who appeared embarrassed.
Lothaire followed Ivana's gaze to the seat at Stefanovich's right hand-a place of honor usually reserved for her. Dining plates littered with the remains of a meal were spread before it.
Occasionally, young vampires ate food of the earth, consuming it in addition to blood. Perhaps another of Stefanovich's bastards had come to Helvita to live amongst them?
Lothaire's heart leapt. I could befriend him, could have a companion. As the king's bastard, he'd had no friends; his mother was everything to him.
" 'Tis late," Ivana said. "All should be abed at this hateful hour."
Fyodor seemed to be silently warning Ivana, but she paid him no heed, demanding, "What do you want, Stefanovich?"
After drinking deep from a tankard of mead-laced blood, Stefanovich wiped his sleeve over his lips. "To see my haughty mistress and her feeble bastard." The king stared down at Lothaire. "Come."
"Do not, Son," Ivana bit out in Dacian.
Lothaire answered in the same, "I will, to spare you." As ever, he would do whatever he could to protect her, no matter how weak he knew himself to be.
In her expression, anxiety for him warred with pride. "I should have known Lothaire Daciano would never cower behind his mother's skirts, even in the face of such a red-eyed tyrant."
When Lothaire crossed to stand before the king's seat, Stefanovich shook his head with disgust. "You still cannot trace, then?"
Lothaire's face was impassive as he answered, "Not yet, my king." No matter how hard he tried to teleport, he could never succeed. Ivana had told him that tracing was a talent that came late to the Daci-they had limited need for it in their closed kingdom. She considered Lothaire's inability yet another sign that he took after her more than after a mere Horde vampire.
Stefanovich seized Lothaire's thin arm, squeezing. "Too frail, I see."
Lothaire was desperate to grow bigger, to be as formidable as his warrior father, if for no reason other than to protect his mother. Not that Princess Ivana needed another's protection.
"By all the gods, you shame me, boy. I should have wrung your runtling neck at birth."
Lothaire heard these criticisms routinely, was used to them.
His mother, however, was not.
With a shriek, Ivana snatched up a carafe of blood, hurling it at Stefanovich. It shattered a pane of black glass just behind him, unleashing a ray of muted light.
The courtiers hissed, scattering throughout the chamber. The beam seared inches from Stefanovich's unmoving elbow before a day servant scurried to stuff the hole with a wadded cloth.
"My son is perfect." Ivana bared her fangs, her blue irises gone black with emotion. "Other than the fact that he bears your stamp upon his face. Luckily, he inherited his keen mind from my royal lineage. He's full of cunning, a mark of the Daci!"
Stefanovich too bared his razor-sharp fangs, his eyes blazing even redder. "You tempt my wrath, woman!"
"As you tempt mine." Ivana never backed down before him. Whenever Stefanovich struck her, she struck him back twice.
Ivana had told Lothaire that the Daci were coldly logical, ruled by reason. Apparently, Ivana the Bold was the exception.
Fierce as the blizzard raging outside, she even goaded Stefanovich to get his attention, lashing him with her barbed tongue whenever he stared off into the night. She had once admitted to Lothaire that his father dreamed of finding the vampire female who would eventually be his-Stefanovich's Bride, the one who would make his heart beat for eternity.
The lawful queen who would bear his true heirs.
Ivana smoothed her braids once more, so clearly struggling with her temper. "You mock your son at your own peril, Stefanovich."
"Son? I don't claim him as such. That boy will never compare to my true successor!" Another gulp from his tankard. "Of that I am certain."
"I am as well. Lothaire will be superior to any other male in all ways! He's a Dacian!"
Lothaire watched this exchange with deepening unease, recalling the warning his uncle Fyodor had once given Ivana: "Even Stefanovich can grow jealous of your knowledge and strength. You must bend, ere his love for you turns to hate."
Lothaire knew his uncle's warning had come true.
For Stefanovich looked murderous. "You believe your kind so much better than mine-"
A female drunkenly staggered into the room from Stefanovich's private chamber. A mortal female.
Lothaire's jaw slackened, and Ivana pressed the back of her hand over her mouth.
The woman was dressed as a queen, her garments as rich as Ivana's own. She was the one who'd dined at the king's right hand?