But the cocooning mist did protect the Daci from invasion and plague. Plus, with every excursion, they were basically all out spying, which he wholeheartedly endorsed. . . .

His impetuous cousin Viktor said, "I understand that you observed our soldiers sparring. What did you think of them?" He was a general, and justifiably proud of his battalions.

The army was honed, disciplined, and masterful with swords. In fact, the Daci were obsessed with all medieval arms-maces, throwing daggers, whips, battle-axes.

As soon as a Dacian wielded a weapon, a coldblooded single-

mindedness suffused him. Already ruled by logic, he became even more focused, able to predict his opponent's moves.

Much as I do.

"The soldiers were a shade too worried about martial honor," Lothaire answered. All that skill and might-and yet they waged no wars but among themselves? "Not to worry, Viktor. I'll see to that. In any case, they will serve me well enough in my war against the Horde. Unless you're concerned about the defense of my hidden kingdom."

Viktor tensed, clenching his fists beneath the table. Blooded or no, he had a brash, querulous nature that ensured he was a loner among the reserved and logical Daci.

And Lothaire's fair "niece"?

Though Kosmina was twenty, she'd been sheltered by the overprotective male royals to a damaging degree.

Apparently, Lothaire's naked male body had been the first she'd ever seen.

Pity, Mina, that you'll forever find all others lacking in comparison to Uncle Lothaire.

Yet though she was so ignorant of sex and sin as to be childlike, Kosmina was a killing machine, a mistress at arms with blazing reflexes.

Half simpering schoolgirl, half lethal assassin.

Lothaire had noticed that her ears were pointed, compliments of some fey ancestor-who'd also gifted her with that uncanny speed. He asked her now, "And what is your function? Or do you exist only to be coddled?"

Face hot, she stuttered, "I-I . . ."

Lothaire talked over her, saying, "I understand you have never ventured outside of Dacia, wouldn't know an automobile if it hit you in the face, which it might-if you're not, say, familiar with fucking cars."

Her eyes went wide.

He should send her forth from Dacia, dispatching her to investigate a particularly rambunctious covey of nymphs in Louisiana. "Kosmina, you are distantly related to a female called Ivana the Bold. Act like it."

Covering her mouth with her hand, she traced away.

Lastly, he turned to his cousin Trehan, an assassin in charge of an elite band of killers. He was the most dignified of all the cousins, the most "Dacian" of them, and so the least amusing to spy on. He often stared off into nothing, doubtless thinking about whatever Bride had blooded him, then left him.

Lothaire steepled his fingers. "Ah, Trehan, only a female could make you look like that."

"You would know," he replied icily.

While Mirceo was out glutting himself in every murky corner of Dacia, Trehan always traced back to his apartments alone, spending his lusts into his own hand, often multiple times in a night-while Lothaire rolled his eyes in disgust.

Yet don't I do the same?

Not for long; Lothaire had decided that after this meeting, he would reacquaint himself with other females.

He was an all-powerful king, and he'd definitely read interest as he'd walked the cobblestone streets of his realm. Evidently, his subjects still enjoyed pretty on the outside.

Yes, an all-powerful monarch was about to commence his hunt for a bevy of concubines. So where was the happiness?

Lost.

He now knew what he was missing, because he'd felt it briefly-even before he'd had his crown.

Lothaire had concluded that each being had a unique key to his or her happiness. Mine was Elizabeth. Because of her actions, she'd robbed Lothaire of his key.

His fangs sharpened. He'd killed others for less. If you're not with me, you're against me. . . . His instinct was to punish, his mind seizing on revenge.

"My liege?" Stelian said, brows raised. "What revenge are we contemplating this eve?"

Have I spoken aloud? "We'll resume this at a later date," Lothaire bit out, then traced to his suite, pacing from one side of his bedroom to the other.

All he'd wanted was to suffer no more betrayals. He hadn't even desired Elizabeth's love, not particularly. But he had believed that her loyalty would follow it.

Why had he been unable to win her?

In the past, any female he'd bedded would follow him around for years. But not his Bride, the one he'd wanted above all others.

She didn't want me back. And I can't understand why.

As he tried to solve the puzzle that was Elizabeth, his mind would race through their past interactions. I never told her how I felt. But for fuck's sake, I tried to die for her. She knew me better than anyone; she was clever enough to figure out my feelings.

Maybe I ought to have told her she was clever . . . ?

He remembered deeming Saroya so arrogant that she would never suspect someone might not desire her. He remembered feeling as if there was a lesson inherent for him.

I was so arrogant I never realized Elizabeth wouldn't desire me as I did her.

Most nights he kept himself busy, but in the lulls he could feel her, could perceive her presence across their blood tie. Though he'd tried to delve into her emotions, the distance was too great, and he could barely discern his own, let alone another's.

All he knew was that she felt no fear. So she must be safe.

What am I going to do without her?

When he managed to sleep, he reached for her again and again, aching for her with both his body and his soul.

He despised her for that!

His heart pained him as nothing had before, made him want to howl with misery. A sharp, stabbing agony flared with every beat.

"Elizavetta!" he roared to the ceiling, clawing at his chest. He hated that his heart beat for her alone, that she'd brought it to life. . . .

Brought me to life.

Like an animal chewing off its own trapped, rotting limb, Lothaire dug at his chest.

Chapter 55

Package!" someone cried from downstairs.

From Ellie's temporary room, she heard what sounded like a dozen Valkyries speeding down the stairs.

-"Who's it for?"

-"Gotta be me!"

-"Shut up!"

-"No, you shut up!"

Ellie sighed, still marveling at how acquisitive her Valkyrie jailers were. She'd seen them stealing clothes in complex heists, sword-fighting over jewelry, pouncing on each other to wrest away new weapons.

Now that she'd learned how to trace, Ellie considered teleporting down there and scooping them all, but she didn't have the energy. Her appetite had deserted her. Not to crave food-or blood? But compared to the rich flavor of Lothaire's dark, dark blood, the bagged stuff was nauseating.

It'd been over three weeks since she'd been brought to Val Hall, and still she waited for him to come rescue her.

In that time, Ellie had forgiven Lothaire for turning her into a vampire. Though she occasionally felt like a circus freak-with her eyes growing black and her fangs sharpening for seemingly no good reason-being a vampire wasn't too bad.

On occasion, she even liked being this strong. Such as when pummeling mouthy Valkyries.

Ellie had forgiven him for a lot of the things he'd done, once she'd realized that what Lothaire said and what he did didn't always mesh.

Though he'd mocked her for being a lowly mortal, he had tried to burn himself to death in order to save her life-and she'd been mortal at the time.


Their last day together, he'd behaved like a tyrant, ridiculing her; yet in the hours before, he'd made love to her as if he cherished her.

When he'd said they weren't equals, that didn't necessarily mean he thought she was stupid or worthless. He'd told her, "Bullshitting Dorada? I couldn't be prouder, Lizvetta."

Again, she'd kind of been mortal still. . . .

At times, Ellie would dream the briefest taste of his memories, seeing their night of lovemaking from his point of view. Or she'd experience some kind of intense connection to him.

But his thoughts and emotions were always so frenzied, impossible to unravel for a novice like her.

All she knew was that she missed him so much, that it felt like grief-

"It's for the vampire!" someone yelled from downstairs.

Ellie shot to her feet. From Lothaire? Who else?

Light-headed, giddy, she traced down to the crowd, throwing elbows to get through to the center.

There was just no other way to deal with Valkyries.

Did Lothaire want her again? Was he even now trying to free her? "Let me have it!"

With a casual hiss, one of the younger Valkyries surrendered it.

The elegant packaging was stamped with some royal-looking seal, addressed to her from Lothaire Konstantin Daciano, Sovereign of Dacia, the Realm of Blood and Mist.

Ellie tore open the box, casting everyone an excited grin. Off went the top-

Her fingers went limp. The package dropped to the floor, jostling its contents. A bloody black heart tumbled out.

When it settled at her feet, she shoved her palm over her mouth to keep from vomiting. Why would he do this? How . . . ?

The crowd parted for the steely Cara, Nix trailing in her wake.

"Read the note, vampire," Cara ordered.

With shaking hands, Ellie collected the crisp parchment.

Elizabeth,

With my compliments.

You will never get your claws into another one of mine.

Rot in hell,

L

Nix clasped her hands over her chest, sighing, "He gave you his heart. That's so romantic. So much better than a candy heart. Those get stuck in the fangs, you know."

"He's not coming for you," Cara said in a disbelieving tone.

Ellie shook her head, numb. "No, he's not."

"Then you're not leverage." Cara's violet eyes flashed. "Your usefulness has ended. Nix has advised me not to kill you. So you're on your own."

"You're freeing me?" You're kicking me out?

"Why should I keep you here?"

Because I have nowhere else to go! Ellie couldn't live with her family. She had no close friends but for Thad and Hag, and their loyalties were first to Lothaire.

Ellie had become a vampire . . . for no reason. She'd be all alone in his world. He didn't even want to talk to her, to discuss what had happened, much less to work on their relationship.

He'd abandoned her to . . . the Lore. After he'd taken her from her family.

At that thought, all her rationalizations about him disappeared. That bastard! Gonna live in this world, Ellie? Then get hard, get mean.

Take care of your own business.

Lothaire had told her, "It takes bold strokes to live in the Lore."

She could be just as crazy as all these freaks. I'm Appalachian! She would go mountain like they'd never seen!

Ellie whirled around on Nix. "Can I get a package back to him?"

She saluted Ellie, chirping, "I'll see to it myself."

Driven by searing rage, Ellie faced Cara. "Give me a blade."

Whatever Cara saw in her expression had her tossing a knife. Ellie clutched her fist around the hilt.

Then, to the sounds of a shocked chorus of Valkyries . . .

-"Oh, come on, the vamp won't actually do- DUDE! She fucking did it!"

-"Ellie's my best friend."

-"I liked her before I even met her-you hate her compared to how much I like her."

-"She'll never pay cover in the Lore again."

. . . Ellie made Lothaire a heartfelt gift of her own.

"Is he sane today?" Stelian muttered as he and the other royal males traced into the council room.

They'd asked to meet with Lothaire tonight to evaluate his new rule.

Yes, his coherent and stable nights had been surprisingly frequent; tonight wasn't one of them.

Lothaire rubbed his tongue over a fang. I've got your evaluation.

In the council room, there'd once been an ornate round table, indicating equality among those seated.

He'd had the table destroyed, replacing it with a rectangular one. A throne dominated one end. No chair at the other.

And if Lothaire got any pushback on his redecoration, there'd be no council at all.

He was actually getting pushback on other things. Stelian was often too drunk to be afraid of Lothaire and so foolishly spoke his mind. Mirceo usually thought Lothaire was kidding, believing he could jest with his uncle.

Without his Bride, Trehan cared not whether he lived or died. Viktor longed to battle his king, taking every offense in the mean spirit with which Lothaire intended it.

Kosmina adored her new "foulmouthed but well-intentioned uncle." Because, as she put it, "Perhaps we aren't meant to understand him. Perhaps he's as much a puzzle as he is a puzzle master."

Hear, hear, Kosmina. But I'm still sending your ass to Louisiana.

Maybe the royals needed to witness a demonstration of Lothaire's unmatched power. As yet, they merely thought him a besotted fool who'd been laid out by his female.

Still reeling . . . After weeks in Dacia and numerous days of dreaming, Lothaire still had none of Elizabeth's memories. His consciousness seemed to sidle at the very edge of them.

He knew that vampires never saw anything in their visions from which they couldn't mentally rebound.

What lies in Elizabeth's memories that could scar me worse than I already am?

Stelian cleared his throat. "Before we get started, we'd like to talk to you about your queen."

Lothaire steepled his fingers. "Obviously, I have none."

Mirceo said, "You're a monarch with a Bride, my liege. That means she's our lady, and we serve her. Right now, she's a target for your enemies."

An eighth of an inch of tendon. "I don't bloody want to hear this!"

Stelian said, "If for no other reason, you require your Bride for heirs."

"I need none. I plan to live-and rule-forever." So heirs were unnecessary. But what about simply having children? He'd grown pleased at the idea of offspring with Elizabeth. Yet another thing she stole from me! He narrowed his eyes. "You scowl, young Viktor? My ruling for eternity doesn't delight you?"

The towering vampire stood, his fists balled. "Your agenda is not what we envisioned, Cousin. You seek to plunge us into a new war and believe we should reveal ourselves to all in the Lore? This will no longer be Dacia."