Yet his bitterness staggered under the weight of another feeling.

Loss. All I feel is . . . loss.

"And La Dorada?" he asked. "Did you have a run-in with her?"

"Her ring has been returned, your transaction completed," Stelian said, adding against the rim of his flagon, "Gods help the poor souls in that book."

Lothaire already mourned his ledger, his squandered fortune. He would start a new book! Perhaps he and Dorada could trade debts like baseball cards. . . .

Kosmina cleared her throat. When all eyes turned to her, her face turned bright red. "W-we fear Queen Elizavetta is behind the guard of the Ancient Scourge. Th-there's no way to circumvent them." The chit was socially inept, more backward than he'd ever believed Elizabeth to be.

"Your uncle knows a way around the Scourge," Lothaire grated with disgust. "But I won't be using it."

Carafina thought to force him to reveal where her sister was? Everyone assumed he knew-simply because he'd been the one to sink her in the first place.

Perhaps I oughtn't to have chosen a seabed with frequent seismic rifts and a strong current?

When he'd told others he had no idea where Furie was, he'd spoken the truth.

To this day, Lothaire couldn't find the Valkyrie queen, despite Hag's help. Even if he could, he would never ransom Elizabeth. "Ugly on the inside!" she'd screamed. "I could never love you!"

She truly hadn't fallen for him.

For him.

Which indicated that she was an idiot. He had no time or patience for them.

Damn you, Elizabeth, why . . . ?

Stelian tsked. "Feelings stung because of one measly beheading?"

They knew she'd done this to him? I'll kill them all-

"She left an eighth of an inch of tendon," Stelian added. "Plenty for regeneration."

Lothaire narrowed his gaze at him. "You're the one who voted against restoring me."

"That I am. Seemed wise then, and even more so now that you've lost your queen."

"I haven't lost her."

"I'm no expert with females"-the others rolled their eyes at that-"but I believe an attempted decapitation communicates the need for some space."

Lothaire didn't like this Stelian smart-ass.

In an innocent tone, the Dacian asked, "Isn't that the modern term for it?"

Viktor said, "We've already assembled a party to negotiate with the Valkyries. If that fails, I will happily lead the siege." Black flickered across his irises, as if the idea of a war aroused him.

So this one likes to fight. "Disassemble it. Carafina can rot waiting." At the male's incredulous look, Lothaire said, "I don't want my Bride retrieved."

Mirceo said, "Whatever happened between Queen Elizavetta and yourself should be subordinate to the good of the crown-"

"Do not speak her name again," Lothaire murmured, "or it will be your last utterance."

Mirceo's lips parted in surprise. "If this is what you . . . command, my liege."

"Not used to taking orders, are you, Mirceo?" Lothaire gazed at them one by one. "You all assume that I want your kingdom? Perhaps I prefer the fucking Horde!"

Another gasp from Kosmina, with more furious blushes.

Stelian said, "Go to the window, look out."

Uncaring of his nudity, Lothaire did. With a choked sputter, Kosmina traced away, while Mirceo chuckled. "There are garments for you, Uncle. Take care not to set a new fashion."

At the window, Lothaire stared out, agog. Why did Ivana ever leave this place?

He was in the fabled black stone castle of Dacia, the one circled by fountains of blood.

The magnificent structure sat high upon some rocky vantage-from here, he could survey a kingdom that stretched on and on, before fading into a mist on the horizon.

Soaring caverns rose above; cobblestone streets wound through the fog below. The architecture was old-fashioned but ornately constructed with carved stone.

At the top of a high cavern, a giant prism diluted the sun's light, shining it over the entire kingdom-muted rays that illuminated all, but didn't burn. Not even a vampire's skin.

And everything I see is . . . mine.

When he could manage words once more, he informed them, "My coronation will be held as soon as my throat heals. I will accept your vows of fealty then."

This was truly happening-the imbeciles were inviting him to rule this fantastical kingdom.

"Very well," Stelian said with unconcealed disappointment. "Will you take a new regent name?"

A vampire tradition. Lothaire's own uncle Fyodor had taken a new name when crowned by the Horde-one which meant rule without end.

Ah, not quite, Uncle. "No. I've done too much PR with the name I have. I'll be known as King Lothaire, the Enemy of Old."

He'd still have his vampire war, but the sides would be changed. I'll use the Daci to lay waste to the Horde. He had no problem reversing himself; he switched alliances with ease.

And then he would be done. He'd have everything he'd ever wanted. Then he'd know happiness.

I knew happiness before. But she stole it from me.

With one swing of her sword. Of all the blows, of all the torture, that strike had hurt him the worst.

Why, Elizabeth . . . ?

Fists clenched, he ordered them, "Leave me to dress."

Leave me to relish the idea of my Bride trapped in a hellhole filled with malicious Valkyries. Arch-Fury Carafina would terrorize her. Belligerent Regin would have her throat. Would Nix save Elizabeth, or let nature take its course?

I hope the latter. Perhaps he should send his female a parting gift, as she'd once said.

Yes, to inform her that I'm now a king, and have forsaken her.

The princes traced away one by one, with Stelian muttering, "A red-eyed king who spurns his Bride. Gods help us all. . . ."

Chapter 53

This is a kill-or-be-killed scenario, leech," Regin the Radiant, a glowing-skinned millennium-old swordswoman, told Ellie in a baleful tone. "So raise your weapon and prepare for your end. 'Cause I'm about to take your head."

Ellie yawned. Ten days of this was getting old. "Girl, I don't wanna play video games anymore."

Regin's berserker mate, Declan, had been having meetings with some other berserkers concerning the Accession, so Regin had been hanging here every couple of days, glowing on the couch, playing games with Ellie.

At first, Regin had been excited to meet her because Ellie had done what Regin had dreamed of for centuries. "Buy this leechly leech assassin a mug of the thick stuff! Took down Lothaire? No shit? Describe it second by second in a breathy voice. . . ."

The only thing the Valkyries hated more than vampires in general was Lothaire in particular.

Of course, Regin would have succeeded in "collecting Lothaire's head and fangs."

Yet after a couple of days, Regin had realized that Ellie still had feelings for the Valkyries' archenemy: "Not cool, hillbilly, not cool."

Why hadn't he come for Ellie yet? From time to time, Nix had visited, keeping her informed-even if she wasn't always coherent. Through Nix, Ellie knew that Lothaire was indeed recovering and had been invited back to Dacia to rule.


Serghei was no more. Lothaire had become a king.

Just as he'd always wanted.

Ellie had gone through so many emotions when thinking about him-guilt, anger, longing.

Was all forgiven? Hell no! She was still furious at him. That didn't mean she wasn't pining for him to rescue her. Ellie knew he could-she believed he could do just about anything. But after nearly two weeks, she had to wonder if King Lothaire was ever going to reclaim his queen.

She'd asked Nix, "If he's healed, then why hasn't he come for me?"

"Who?"

"Uh, Lothaire."

"Not ringing a bell . . ."

"Can I send a message to Dacia, to explain what happened?"

Eyes bright with anticipation, Nix had cried, "Who are we sending a message to . . . ?"

Now Ellie told Regin, "We'll play tomorrow. Besides, isn't it time for my cup of dinner?"

Regin's amber irises flashed silver with ire. "I am not your blood gofer." She gave a shriek that hurt Ellie's sensitive ears. "Suck my dick, Vampirellie-suck it."

Pissed, Ellie drilled her knuckle into Regin's arm with all her new vampire strength. Nix had told her in the beginning, "If any of my half sisters step out of line, go mountain on them."

Ellie had learned there was no other way to deal with Valkyries. If they liked females who took zero shit from them, it was just a matter of time before she was Ms. Popularity here.

"Bitch!" Regin screamed. "You can only skate by on Lothaire's takedown for so long."

Nix had told everyone that Ellie had attacked Lothaire on purpose, and the near decapitation of one of the Lore's most feared villains had made Ellie a creature with which one did not fuck.

"Bring it, Regin, any day of the week."

"Next time I will brangit. And your blood is in the microwave, slore." Then she stomped away.

Apparently, this was how Regin treated all her friends.

Ellie shrugged. Each of the Valkyries was eccentric in her own

way, from the vacant-eyed Nix to the daunting Cara-who was part

Fury, a breed of warrior females that even the Valkyries gave a wide

berth.

Though many of the dozens who lived at Val Hall were wary of Ellie's vampirism, she thought she was growing on them. When they forgot themselves, the Valkyries were kind of fun.

They were all half sisters, basically a big family unit, with all that came with a family of this size-feuds, cussing matches, favoritism, and unwavering loyalty.

In a way, Ellie was right at home here.

She sighed. But she still missed her own friends-Balery and Thad-and her own family. . . .

Ellie's gaze dropped to the couch, to Regin's forgotten cell phone. Her eyes went wide. After ten days of browbeating her captors to let her make a call, Ellie still hadn't persuaded them.

As carefully as she would cradle an egg, Ellie collected the phone. Did she dare call her family, let them know she was alive?

She'd just started talking herself out of it when she realized she at least had to tell them they could safely come out of hiding now.

Besides, she still refused to accept that she couldn't see them, that she'd never return to her mountain.

Though she understood Lothaire's caution about mixing immortal strength with human frailty-Vampirellie never met a doorknob she didn't break-she believed she could train herself to control her strength.

And what of the warning that she should never needlessly reveal the Lore to humans? Well, her family had had their blinders pulled off long before now. First with Saroya, and then with Lothaire.

If the gods wanted to punish Ellie, she'd remind them that hosting Saroya in her body for six years was time fucking served.

On that thought, she dialed her mother's cell. "Mama? It's me. Ellie."

"Oh, Lord Jesus in heaven, I knew you wasn't dead! They told us you'd been shot in some prison escape, but I knew you still lived! Why ain't you come home?"

Ellie could hear the bafflement in her mother's tone, understood it. If she was alive and out of jail, then she ought to be home-end of story. "I will in the future. Sometime. But it's . . . complicated, Mama. And really hard to believe."

"Well, let me see if I can't keep up and keep my eyes in my head."

Where to begin? So much had happened. How much should she reveal to her mother? "First, tell me how Josh is doing."

"Josh is getting even more rambunctious, unruly, and willful, so naturally the family's proud as all get out-"

Valkyrie shrieks sounded in the next room.

Mama cried, "What in the hell was that?"

"The TV! Let me turn it down." She sped to the door, closing it and locking it-by breaking the knob. Shit. "How's everyone else doing? How about you?"

"Oh, honey, we're all managing just fine," she said brightly. Too brightly.

"Tell me how bad it is, Mama."

An exhalation into the phone. "We're scraping together mortgage payments each month, but Va-Co's holding our feet to the fire, girl."

Ellie's fangs sharpened, violence simmering inside her.

"All our men are back in the mine."

"What? But they swore they were done with that. What about Ephraim's store?"

"In this economy? All closed down. It was either the mine, or we'd lose the mountain. Most of your cousins are just happy for the work."

"I'm gonna figure out a way to send you money, okay?"

"Ellie, just tell me about you. Start from the beginning."

She nibbled her lip. "Remember that red-eyed demon everybody saw that night?"

"The one we're hidin' out from? The Mothman?"

"That'd be him. Only he's not a demon or Mothman, and you don't have to hide any longer. He'll never hurt you." Lothaire could never break his vow not to harm her family-she'd seen firsthand how binding those vows were.

"Then what is he?"

After a hesitation, Ellie admitted, "He's a vampire. He's the one that broke me out of prison. His name's Lothaire Daciano." Merely saying his name brought on a pang. You took my name the instant I claimed you. . . .

Mama sputtered, "V-vampire? Oh, Ellie, you're about to give me a heart attack. Are you sure?"

"I'm sure-I've seen him drink blood."

"Jesus! Did this . . . vampire hurt you? Are you with him now?"

"He came to be protective of me, took me traveling over the whole world. He'd thought that Saroya freak was his mate, but it turns out I was."

"Is Saroya still killing?"

"She's gone, Mama. Forever."

"You're cured! Why didn't you tell me that first?"

Because I was cured of one thing only to become afflicted with something else-something you might have an even harder time accepting. "Um, it hasn't really sunk in that I'm free of her."

"Are you still goin' with that vampire feller? Or do I need to send our menfolk to collect you?"

"No way, Mama! Unless you want them all killed. Besides, I'm not with him at present. I kinda got nabbed by some of his enemies. A bunch of gals. They're very decent though," Ellie quickly added. "I get all the food I can eat"-blood I can drink-"and we watch soap operas together. I've got my own room"-which used to belong to some kind of ice princess-"and they treat me real nice."