Not that Ellie relished being a prisoner, but until she could figure out all her new powers, being in a protected, sunless environment wasn't all that bad.

Every hour here she was learning more about the Lore, and the girls were good company. Never kicking my ass much more than I kick theirs.

One of the first things she'd learned? Fighting was kind of fun when you never stayed hurt from it for long.

"I don't mind it here at all, really." In a way, she was grateful to be in Val Hall. Because for whatever reason, Lothaire hadn't come to get her.

Deep down, Ellie knew she had nowhere else to go. That knowledge was terrifying.

"They're teaching me all about vampires"-myself-"while I wait to see if Lothaire will come ransom me."

Nix had been a lifesaver, hooking Ellie up with the same tracing tutor who'd taught Thad-though Ellie wasn't allowed to see or communicate with the boy himself. Thad was too loyal to Lothaire, and the Valkyries feared he'd divvy information about her to their enemy.

The tutor, a halfling vampire/Valkyrie named Emmaline MacRieve, was utterly lovely, with bone structure to die for, petite fangs, pointed ears, and long golden locks. She'd been genuinely encouraging when Ellie had started to trace. Well, to waver. Though Ellie hadn't quite gotten the hang of it, she practiced every day.

But she could tell Emmaline was keeping her distance, and something about the halfling kept tugging at Ellie's memory, making her wary as well.

Emmaline had probably had some kind of bad personal experience with Lothaire. It seemed like everyone in the Lore had a story to tell about that vampire.

"If he ransoms you?" Mama demanded. "I thought you said he's protective of you. Why wouldn't he?"

"We kinda had a falling out. But I'm confident he'll come 'round." Please come 'round, Lothaire!

"What is he like?" Mama asked, lighting a cigarette. "That blood-drinker?"

"He's tall, handsome, rich as the day is long." And quite the celebrity.

In the mortal world, Lothaire would've been a heartthrob actor-who'd merely committed an average of a couple of murders a day, for millennia.

As "the Bride of Lothaire," she'd gained some notoriety as well, among Loreans curious about the death-row mortal who'd somehow survived the turning to vampire. When no other female on record had.

"He's also a powerful king among his kind," Ellie said. "Famous in his circles." Infamous for his underhanded ruthlessness.

Yes, Ellie had heard all about his misdeeds, knew everyone in the Lore considered him a diabolical fiend. But in the end, she'd decided that while he might be a fiend, he was still her guy.

She sighed again. Was he hers? She wondered that every minute of the day. Would he never come to collect her?

In her mind, what it boiled down to was that they had a lot of work to do on their relationship; now that she wasn't roidal with new vampire rage, she was ready to dig in.

As long as he comes and gets me, I'll kick his ass into shape, but we'll work it

out.

Either it was taking him a long time to heal-or he'd decided not to come for her.

Surely an immortal of his advanced age would be mature enough to discuss their differences.

"What happens if he don't come, Ellie?"

Good question. "I'll figure something-"

"Yo, why's this door locked?" Regin yelled from the hall. "Who the hell is Vampirellie talking to?"

"Mama, I gotta run! But I'll send money when I can."

The door came splintering down, revealing Regin, glowing like phosphorescence. "You don't even know how dead you are, leech."

"Love you, Mama, love everyone, talk soon!" She hung up the phone. By accidentally crushing it-

Regin launched herself at Ellie.

Ellie braced for impact, closing her eyes as dizziness overwhelmed her. Waiting . . .

Then came a crash at the TV console. Regin hollered, "Imma be fucking you up!"

When Ellie opened her eyes, she was across the room and Regin had just collided headfirst with the TV.

I traced? Finally! That dizziness-when had she felt it before?

In the fight with Lothaire! Had I traced even then? No wonder she'd reached him with that sword swing.

How she wished she could explain that to him!

For now, she had a pissed-off Valkyrie to deal with. But Regin could never catch her now that she could vanish! "What's the matter, lightning bug? Forget how to change the channel? Ha-ha-ha, Valkyrie, you can't catch me," Ellie taunted in a singsong voice. "Hillbilly on the run, on the ruh-hun!"

When Regin vaulted the sofa, Ellie traced once more, but Regin anticipated her reappearance and barreled her to the floor.

"Ow!"

Then Regin proceeded to show her true colors, making Ellie punch her own face. "Why are you hitting yourself? Huh? Vampire, stop hitting yourself."

"Vampire?" Nix questioned from the doorway, her hair wild, her gaze unfocused. That rabid bat of hers perched on her shoulder, heatedly flapping its wings, as crazed as its owner. "In Val Hall?" Her amber eyes grew silver, the colors swirling. A weird electricity began to crackle in the air.

Every one of Ellie's heightened immortal senses screamed DANGER. Surely not from Nix?

Leaving the bat behind, the soothsayer attacked, backhanding Regin, sending her across the room.

Before Ellie could react, Nix had her knees shoved into Ellie's shoulders, pinning her with freakish strength. Hair straggling over her wan face, Nix murmured, "Helen paid with a broken heart. Furie paid. Emmaline-"

"Nix! It's me, Ellie! What are you doing?"

The soothsayer canted her head like an animal. "You don't know where Furie is . . . ?" Lightning blasted outside, thunder quaking the house.

"Nixie, easy!" Regin clambered over, yanking on her sister. "We were just fucking about." But even Regin was no match for Nix's power.

Finally, Nix allowed Regin to heave her away, both of them landing tangled on the floor. The soothsayer blinked in bewilderment. "What has happened?"

Ellie cried, "You're askin' me?" Then regretted her tone when Nix suddenly looked exhausted, sickly even.

Her bat waddled toward her, hopping on her arm, seeming to soothe her.

"What the fuck, Nix? You're a regular shit show these days!" Regin disentangled herself from her sister, shooing the bat away. "You went all Ride of the Valkyries on Vampirellie."

Nix frowned at something unseen to Ellie, then sighed sadly. "And I fear between the two of us, I'm doing the better. . . ."


Chapter 54

King Lothaire, the mad king.

He rather liked the moniker, heard it often said in the sentence: "What has the mad king done now?"

Not because he'd lost his sanity, but because of his behavior-rarely sleeping, wandering the streets at all hours, plotting to send his new subjects into war with the Horde at the earliest opportunity.

This twilight, Lothaire was holding court. He sat upon his gilded throne, decorated with gold-dipped skulls. His design. If he'd had a queen, her throne would have been similar. Of course, her skulls would be daintier.

But he had no queen.

The royal cousins who acted as his council knew to gauge his sanity, opening the court on nights when Lothaire seemed more lucid and composed.

For the last three weeks, those kinds of nights had been surprisingly frequent.

He and Elizabeth had exchanged blood, which meant he had an unbreakable tie with her mind. Unlike the one with Chase, the link to his Bride was keeping Lothaire relatively sane.

A blessing-because he refused to let anyone believe he suffered due to his "regicidal Bride."

Lothaire was not to be an object of pity. How many times had he made fun of heartbroken males? How many times had he sneered to them, "Aww, did we masturbate through the tears last night?"

As fate would have it, the tie to Elizabeth meant he could survive without her. He no longer needed her; luckily, he no longer wanted her.

Lying to yourself, Lothaire?

When he intoned to the court, "I will see my council, alone," subjects scattered as if they were on fire. It was time for a meeting with the royals, now that he knew them intimately-from routinely spying on them. "Clear the gallery. Including you, Hag."

She glared, no doubt wishing she'd never accepted her position as royal oracle.

After his coronation, a formal affair that was farcically mired in tradition, Lothaire had traced to Hag's for a potion-to erase Elizabeth from his memory completely.

The fey's home had been deserted, looking as if it hadn't been lived in for a hundred years. No scents lingered, no footsteps in the sand leading away from the entrance.

He'd traced to the nearest town to make a phone call, stealing a cell phone from its distracted owner-some fuckwit who'd been saving orphans from an inferno or some such-then dialed Hag's number. "Where the hell are you?"

"Away. I don't want to get in the middle of you and Elizabeth."

"The middle!" he'd roared, regretting that he'd struck Hag's name from his ledger. "If you're not with me, you're against me-there is no middle! You're my goddamned soothsayer."

"And some of your enemies have discovered our connection. I'm being pursued, as we speak, by the king and queen of the rage demons. They seek my aid to find you-as well as the queen's sister, who's been missing since the breakout on the prison island. Good luck to them with the latter," she'd said cryptically. "Mariketa the Awaited, Portia the Stone Sorceress, and many more nip at my heels. In any case, your business is concluded, your tasks complete."

"Not all of them." One left. He still wanted the Horde crown, still planned to deal that retribution. "You're to be my new royal oracle. You won't be found if you're within my realm."

Since she'd arrived her attitude left much to be desired. Even now she glared at him before leaving the room.

Once he and the five royals were alone, Lothaire took his time studying them. All were unmated.

Trehan was blooded, but had no Bride to show for it. Mirceo was the youngest of the males, only thirty, and would soon freeze into his immortality, losing all sexual ability. His heartbeat was erratic-and slowing.

His sister, Kosmina, was too immature to even contemplate a male of her own.

Lothaire had no idea whether Viktor's or Stelian's heart beat. They both used an old spell to cloak it. Which Lothaire found intriguing.

Viktor would probably have no time to rut anyway, since all he did was fight. I've met ghouls who were more peaceable.

And of the sixth royal, the hidden one they didn't think he knew about? My investigation continues. . . .

With a bored air, Lothaire turned to Stelian. "None of my subjects asked a boon of their king?"

The big vampire shook his head. "They fairly much live in fear of you."

"Whyever is that?" he asked blandly.

Grinning, Mirceo asked, "How are you finding your accommodations, Uncle?" He was the head of the castle guard. He liked Lothaire, found him amusing because he was unpredictable.

As I once found Elizabeth.

"They're adequate," Lothaire answered, not a lie, though his sitting room was the size of a ballroom. If he weren't a puzzle master, he could get lost in his labyrinthine new castle. "Why, Mirceo, I don't believe your heart has beat much since you've come in." Not more than one thundering spurt. "And you no longer need to breathe?"

The young vampire stifled his stricken expression. "Unfortunately, this is true, Uncle." He acted stoic about it, but in secret, he was out each night frantically screwing anything that moved, as randy as Lothaire had been in the same situation ages ago.

Just last night, Mirceo had been happily tonguing a female's breasts while a male suckled him-until poor Mirceo had . . . lost enthusiasm.

"Fear not," Lothaire said, "you probably won't even notice that it

seems like everyone else in the world but you is constantly fucking like animals."

With one comment, Lothaire could make both Mirceo and his prudish sister deeply uncomfortable. Like bowling a spare.

Stelian quickly changed the subject. "You've been traveling a great deal." As the oldest of the royals, he was the Gatekeeper, the most powerful position after king. Stelian was the one who decided who would enter or leave Dacia, and he alone taught his people how to use the mist to go out undetected.

He'd seemed surprised-and disgruntled-that Lothaire had learned to control it so easily.

But Stelian was quick to add that only he knew all the esoteric powers of the mist.

Give me time.

Nevertheless, the Gatekeeper must have been doing a damned fine job if even the Book of Lore hadn't tagged Dacia. From his spying, Lothaire knew that Stelian was easygoing-until someone tried to leave without authorization.

Then? Even Lothaire had raised a brow at his chilling response.

"I do travel much," Lothaire agreed. To shore up his sanity even more, he often returned to his apartment and took Elizabeth's scent into him, burying his face in her silk nightgowns, her pillow.

Though it wasn't the same as touching her, her scent-coupled with their blood tie-was enough to get him through most nights.

He wondered what the Daci would think of their new king if they found out he carried his Bride's lingerie in his pocket at all times.

But then, what maddened vampire king didn't carry his queen's lingerie in his pocket?

"The capital is boring," he told Stelian. It was-even though other species were welcomed here. Provided they never left.

Which meant there were nymphs to take care of randy young vampires like Mirceo.

"You do remain within the mist when you go abroad?" Stelian asked. "Unseen by all?"

"How else would I be able to return?" Lothaire-speak. He'd ordered Hag to devise a beacon for him alone-because sometimes Lothaire liked to be seen.

Part of him wanted to outlaw the mist completely, to make his subjects announce themselves to the world. Otherwise, Lothaire was just the king of a realm that no one knew existed.

In other words, he was the tree in the forest that silently fell-when no one was around to be crushed.