With his quiet intensity, Trehan said, "We vowed allegiance to a king and a queen."

Viktor added, "We swore to protect Queen Elizavetta-"

In a flash, Lothaire lunged out of his chair, tracing forward to slam Viktor's head against the table. "I told you never to mention that name to me!"

Viktor freed his sword and launched a strike, but Lothaire caught the blade, squeezing it. "If you're not with me, you're against me." His blood gushed over Viktor's disbelieving face. "You've erred for ill." Lothaire gave a brutal yank, hurling the weapon from him.

When the others drew their own, Lothaire swept through the room with a speed they couldn't comprehend. Claws bared, he disabled his opponents-rending a tendon in a dominant arm, slashing a hamstring. . . .

Back to Viktor. He palmed his cousin's head. "Now," he grated as he began crushing Viktor's skull. "Do we all concede that we do not fuck with Lothaire? That I might be your relative, but I will always be the Enemy of Old?"

Stunned, reluctant nods all around.

"Above all things, I am your king." He stared each one of them down as they fought to catch their breath or stanch a bleeding wound. "You obey me. Your undivided allegiance is to me. Vow this."

Unlike Elizabeth, they'd be bound to him. But I'd wanted her loyalty more than anyone's, more than anything.

Once each royal had made his vow, he released Viktor, who crumpled to the floor. "Lothaire endeth the lesson."

They dragged Viktor away, then traced from the room, all but Stelian, who clamped a gushing arm. "You've earned a lifelong enemy in Viktor."

"I've earned respect!"

"Viktor's too much like you to take the lesson you set out to teach him."

Lothaire absently licked the gash in his hand. "Then he'll soon perish under my rule."

Stelian shook his head. "Now that political ambitions have been neutralized among us, your cousins are a good and true lot. They could unite as a family once more, if you would but lead them."

"You've missed the point, Stelian. They might be good and true." Lothaire bared his fangs. "But I am not."

Hag strode in then, clad in conservative Dacian garb-stained with hot-pink and neon-green potions. "We need to talk, Lothaire." She'd told him she'd address him as sire as soon as he called her Balery.

Or when hell froze over.

"What is it, Hag?"

"I don't know what, exactly when, or how-but the first threat to your kingdom looms . . . soon."

Chapter 56

Where am I gonna go?" Ellie asked Nix as she scratched at her new bandage. She and the Valkyrie, who seemed lucid today, stood on the front porch of Val Hall, waiting for the sun to set.

Though most of the coven had wanted Ellie to stay, Cara had put it simply: "She lingers; she dies."

Despite being penniless, with only a single change of clothes, a hoodie, and a quart of blood packed in a grocery bag, she would heed Cara's decree.

"It was never supposed to go like this," Ellie told the soothsayer. "How will I feed myself or protect myself from the sun? How do I make a living?"

Nix's palms flew to her cheeks. "I meant to teach you how to join the typing pool!"

"I'm serious, Valkyrie! I can't exactly use my degree to get a job. I don't even have an identity I can use. Hey, maybe I can go to New Orleans, get a job in a Lore shop somewhere?"

"I suppose this would be a bad time to tell you that many beings will kill you on sight just for being a vampire. Werewolves, Furies, berserkers, and witches would try to do you in before they ever got around to figuring out who you are and why they should fear you. I've been sending out memos, but these things take time."

"Why would Lothaire cast me off like this? 'Rot in hell?' What was that?"

"I know, right! Over one near decapitation? Unfortunately, he's still stewing-could stew for decades. Time doesn't mean the same thing to the very old. Think of it this way: Lothaire has lived so long that three weeks would feel like scant hours. His internal clock is telling him he's been away from you for an afternoon."

"So I should just wait for him to see reason? After that package, why would I want to be with the unbalanced undead?"

"Well, don't forget that he came to me for help to save you. Considering that he loathes me-thinks I betrayed him-this was huge."

"Did you betray him?"

"Yes. Often." She shrugged. "Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind."

"I don't follow-"

Nix shoved her into the front yard, into the light of a blazing afternoon sun. "Flap your wings, little butterfly!"

Ellie traced back in; the wraiths tossed her back out. She hunched and hissed, but her skin . . . wasn't burning.

"What is this, Valkyrie?" She stared at her unmarked arms. "How is this possible?"

"Did you hear Lothaire when he made his wish to turn you?"

Ellie shook her head slowly.

"He's exceedingly bright. Surely he would have phrased his wish to, say, 'make Elizabeth a vampire with all their strengths and none of their weaknesses.' "

Lothaire had told her he had a surprise for her. He had listened to her when she'd told him how much she would miss the sun.

And he'd given her a gift no other man could.

All the sunrises for eternity.

Unfortunately, she'd all but beheaded him before he could present his offering to her.

She raised her face to the light, still in disbelief. I'm truly free.

After years of captivity, of answering to others, she could go wherever she liked, do whatever she pleased. She could travel the world-without fear of burning.

But Lothaire's selfless gift-after all, he could never enjoy it with her-only reminded Ellie that there had been a chance between them. When tears welled, she dashed them away, embarrassed for Nix to see.

Needing her family, if only just to watch them from a distance for a spell, Ellie collected her bag and hastily waved good-bye to Val Hall, to the wraiths, to Nix.

"Adieu, Queen Ellie!" the Valkyrie called.

"Thank you for everything, Nix." Ellie shrugged into her hoodie, pulling it over her head, just in case someone happened to spot her. Then she traced to the woods near her mother's trailer.

The forest blanketing the mountain was old growth, the pines and hardwoods so dense that sunlight barely reached the moist ground-not that she

had to worry about that any longer. As she strolled along familiar paths,

she gazed up, watching the taller treetops rake a steady ridgeline breeze.

Her senses were so acute now. Here, she could smell the very earth. The sound of the cicadas was like a roar in her ears.

Every time she stepped on green pine needles, their crisp scent erupted. A bite of evergreen.

Like Lothaire's scent.

Don't think about him, Ellie! Look forward, never dwell.

From the edge of the woods, she spied her old trailer, finding it dingier than ever in the daylight. The aroma of cooking food carried from within. Though no longer appealing to her appetite, it smelled like home.

How would she ever be able to leave this mountain again? She knew she couldn't stay, but where could she go?

Ellie briefly considered living in one of the exotic locales Lothaire had taken her to. And how exactly would I get blood from Bora-Borans-

Oh, there was Josh! He played with some of his cousins on a broken-down, rusted swing set.

Look how much he's grown! His dark hair had more of an auburn tint than hers did, but their eyes shared the same color.

How she'd missed her baby brother! As she watched him, she got lost in memories of him as a chubby toddler, recalling how he'd barreled around the trailer like a Weeble, always leading with his stubborn chin.

Those tears of hers gathered and spilled-

"Hands where I can see 'em, or I'll blow your head off!"

Uncle Ephraim. In the woods behind her.

She froze. Oh, my God! So much for not making contact with her family.

And he was such a quick trigger, she wondered if she could even trace away before a bullet plugged her. Trace away to where, Ellie?

"Hands up, I said!"

She dropped her grocery bag, raising her hands. "It's me, Uncle Eph. It's Ellie." She eased around, then uncovered her head.

His weather-beaten face paled, his wide jaw slackening as he lowered his gun. "Ruth!" he yelled in the direction of the trailer. "Ruth, come quick, your daughter's losing her eyes!"

Ellie cried, "What?" Oh, the tears! "Wait, I'm not losing my eyes! Don't call her-"

Too late. Mama came charging out in her house slippers, nearly tripping down the steps. "What is it?" She shoved her thick red hair out of her face, tossing a cigarette.

Ephraim covered Ellie's shoulder with his callused hand. "Just stay calm, girl, and we'll get you to a hospital fast as lightning."

"I'm fine. This is just how I cry now." As if that made any sense.

But when her mother reached them, she took one look at Ellie and shook her head sadly. "Ellie Ann, are them tears? What'd that feller do to you?"

When Josh came bounding toward them, Ellie whirled around. "Send him down the mountain. I don't want him to see me like this!"

Mama headed him off, shooing him back to his friends, then said to Ellie, "You best come in."

She nodded, and the three of them trudged to the trailer in silence. Inside, once her mother got a closer look-her gaze darting over Ellie's tear tracks, black claws, and small fangs-comprehension dawned.

"Oh, Ellie," she murmured, "don't you know that when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas?"

She knows what I am! How would she react? Will she shun me? Be disgusted?

"Don't mean I ain't gonna love your flea-bitten hide."

Ellie wanted to sag with relief. When Mama opened her arms, she was tempted to run to her, but stopped herself. "I can't be hugging anybody yet. I'm kinda strong-like."

Ephraim gazed back and forth between them. "Ellie, I think you got a heap of talkin' to do."

Nodding gravely, she sank onto the living room's shabby couch, unleashing dog fur and dust motes to float through the sunlight streaming inside. Then she began to outline her new abilities and immortality, her need for blood. . . .

Once she'd finished, Ephraim appeared dazed. "Gonna have to ponder all this awhile. But the fact is: you're a Peirce. No matter what you got turned into. And we do right by our kin. So just tell us if you're gonna need"-he swallowed-"to drink or anything. I'll hunt, help out where I can."

Mama crossed her arms over her chest, huffily leaning back in her recliner. "I want to know more about the vampire that did this to you."

So Ellie told them about Lothaire as well-leaving out the mind-blowing sex, of course-summing up with: "And then he gave me his heart in a box and told me to rot in hell. He didn't even want to talk about what had happened, just sent me a kiss-off!"

"I'll kill him," Ephraim grated, his eyes glinting, which made Ellie choke up all over again. When he saw her blood tears, her uncle vowed, "I'll kill him dead to rights, Ellie Ann. He sets one foot on our mountain and he's a dead sumbitch."

Chapter 57

You have a visitor, Lothaire," Hag called.

"A visitor? In my supposedly hidden kingdom?" He bared his fangs at Stelian, who merely raised his brows. "By all means, show in my uninvited guest."

It was Nix, carrying a small gift box.

"How did you get in here, Valkyrie?"

She peered around, golden eyes wide, then whispered, "Get in where?" Her hair was windblown, and she had dark smudges under her eyes. She wore a crinkled peasant blouse, a long flowing skirt-and one boot.

"You're getting worse." Why didn't he have the energy to hate Nix as she deserved to be hated? On the island, she'd told him, "There won't be a next match, vampire." Because he couldn't be bothered?

"You were getting better," she said. "Before. Not so much now."

"If you're here to negotiate Elizabeth's release, save your breath." An eighth of an inch. Took my goddamned happiness away.

"I'm not. I'm only a messenger from Elizabeth. You sent her your heart in a box, and she responded."

At once, he traced to Nix, snatching the package from her. As Lothaire lifted the lid with a sense of dread, Nix murmured, "Hint: it's the middle one."

Elizabeth's fragile finger. Seeing it severed like this brought on a visceral reaction-pain shooting through his own hand, radiating throughout his regenerated heart.

He closed the lid with a swallow, sentimentally pocketing the package.

"You gave her your heart, and she gave you the bird." Nix sighed. "Songs will be written about this."

Stelian laughed, choking on his mead.

Then Elizabeth truly does hate me.

Don't give a fuck.

"My coven went wild over this, by the way," Nix said. "Absolutely adored that feisty vamp. If I don't find our queen soon, they'll probably put her name on the ballot."

So much for their tormenting Elizabeth. The Valkyries had never seen her coming.

"And now your queen is on to the next chapter of her eternal life."

Which is, which is . . . ?

No, don't care! Don't-

Damn it! He seized Nix's arm, then traced her to his private suite, high in the castle. Too late, he remembered the state of his rooms. Since he'd allowed no one inside to clean, they were in . . . disarray.

"Remodeling, vampire?" She surveyed the area, taking in the furniture he'd destroyed and the wall he'd punched so many times it'd finally collapsed.

All because of Elizabeth!

Nix frowned. "I liked it the way it was before."

"Before? Naturally, you've been here?"

She shrugged. "So you don't want to know what your Bride is up to?"

Can't lie. "I haven't come for her, have I?"

She strolled to the sitting room window, peering out. "Understandable. They say even you are frightened of her. And by they, I mean me. But the rumor's catching on. You'll thank me for that later," she promised, sauntering to his desk and rooting through papers. "It must have taken you days to regenerate a heart. All that pain . . . If only I could find a male so romantic."