Lothaire could scarcely imagine such a place.
"After all our wanderings, I feel we are close, Son."
That first night, as they'd wended through the terrifying Bloodroot Forest that surrounded Helvita, she'd feared Lothaire wouldn't make it through the freezing night. Again and again, she'd tried to teleport them to Dacia, only to be returned to the same spot.
He'd survived; she'd exhausted herself.
Now she was too weak to trace, so they plodded toward another village, one that might provide a barn to shelter them from the coming day's sunlight.
Unfortunately, each village teemed with filthy mortals. They always gazed at Ivana's beauty and the foreign cut of her clothing with awe-then suspicion. Lothaire received his share of attention for his piercing ice-blue eyes and the white-blond hair forever spilling out from under his cap.
In turn, Ivana ridiculed their unwashed, louse-ridden bodies and simplistic language. Her loathing for mortals continued to grow, fueling his own.
Each night before dawn, she would leave Lothaire hidden while she hunted. Sometimes she'd return with her cheeks flushed from blood, and triumph in her eyes. A slice of her wrist would fill a cup for him as well.
Other times, she would be wan and sullen, cursing Stefanovich's betrayal, lamenting their plight. One sunrise, as he'd drifted off to sleep, he'd heard her mumble, "Now we sleep with livestock, and I must drink from the flesh. . . ."
Ivana slowed, jerking her head around.
"Are they following us, Mother?" Humans from the last town had been more hostile than in any other, trailing after them, even into the wilderness.
"I don't believe so. The snow covers our tracks so quickly." She trudged on, saying, "It's time for your lessons."
During each night's journey, she instructed him on everything from how to survive among humans-"drink from them only if starving, and never to the death"-to Dacian etiquette: "outbursts of emotion are considered the height of rudeness, so naturally I offended my share."
And always she extracted vows for the future, as if she thought she'd soon die?
"What must you do when you are grown, my prince?"
"Avenge this treachery against us. I will destroy Stefanovich and take his throne."
"Before he finds his Bride."
Lothaire dutifully answered, "Once his fated female bloods him, he'll become more powerful, even more difficult to kill. And he will father a legitimate heir on her. The Vampire Horde will never follow Stefanovich's bastard while his true successor lives."
"You must be utterly certain that the Horde will swear fealty to you. If your effort to claim the crown is unsuccessful, they will annihilate
you. Wait until you are at your most powerful."
"Will I have to go red-eyed to fight him?"
She stopped, tilting her head. "What do you know of such matters?"
"When a vampire kills his prey as he drinks, he becomes more powerful, but blood stains his eyes."
"Yes, because he drinks to the quick, to the pit of the soul. It brings strength-but also bloodlust. Stefanovich has become one of the Fallen." She added vaguely, "And it will be all the more torturous. For him, in particular."
She gave Lothaire an appraising look, as if deciding something about him. "Think not of these things," she eventually said, making her tone light. "Never kill as you drink, and you will never have to worry about them."
"Then how will I . . ." He blushed with shame. "How will I ever be strong enough to slay Stefanovich?"
Ivana reached for him, pressing her frozen hands against his cheeks, raising his face. "Forget all you've heard from your father. When you are older, immortal males will tremble before you in dread while their females swoon in your wake."
"You are perfectly formed and will grow to be a magnificent Dacian, a vampire to be feared. Especially once you become blooded." She peered up at the cloudy sky, snow dotting her face. "And your Bride?" Ivana met his gaze once more. "She will be incomparable. A queen that even I would bow down to."
He squinted at her to see if she jested, but her demeanor was earnest.
Lothaire hoped he found this female quickly. He knew that when he was completely grown, his heart would slowly stop its beat, his lungs their breathing. As he became one among the walking-dead vampires, he'd feel no need for females.
His uncle had once chucked him under the chin and said, "Just when you've forgotten how much you miss the cradle of a female's soft thighs, you'll find your Bride, and she'll bring you back to life."
Lothaire cared naught about bedding, but the idea of his heart stopping horrified him. He asked Ivana, "How long will it be till I can find
She gazed away, saying in an odd tone, "I know not. It might take centuries. Outside of Dacia, female vampires grow scarce. But I do know that you will be a good and faithful king to her." Then she asked, "And what will you do when you possess the throne of the Horde?"
"Unite with your father, aligning the Daci and the Horde under one family crest."
She nodded. "Serghei is the only one you can trust. Not my brothers or sisters with their scheming and plots. Solely my father. And of course you can trust your Bride. But what of everyone else?"
"I'm to use and discard them, caring about none, for they matter naught."
She curled her forefinger under his chin. "Yes, my clever son."
They spent the next few miles in this manner, with her teaching him the intricate customs of the Daci as they tried to ignore the cold. A lowering sky threatened even more snow; dawn would claw through the dark in mere hours.
Lothaire shivered, teeth and baby fangs chattering.
"Silence," Ivana hissed. "The humans did follow." She scented the air. "Gods, their smell aggrieves me!"
"What do they want?"
She murmured, "To hunt us."
"Wh-where can we hide?" They were in a wide valley with high plateaus to the east and west. The mortals advanced from the north. Mountains loomed far to the south.
She gazed around despairingly. "We must make it to those mountains. I believe that is where we'll find the pass that leads to Dacia." She gave him a shove. "Now run!"
He did, as fast as he could, but the snow was too high on the ground, blinding bits of it raining down too swiftly. "We'll never make it, Mother!"
She snatched his arm and attempted to trace with him. Their forms briefly faded but wouldn't disappear. Gritting her teeth, she tried once more, to no avail.
Releasing him, she spun in place, searching for an escape-then stilled, listening. Her eyes shot wide. "Father!" she screamed, the sound echoing down the valley. "I am here! Your Ivana is here."
No one answered.
Mortals in the distance gave shouts as they neared.
"Papa?" She swayed on her feet, her expression . . . lost. "I know I sensed him and others."
So had Lothaire. Immortals of great power had been here. Why not rescue their princess?