Once Kristoff had grown old enough to seek his birthright, he'd had no army, so he'd started making one, siring troops of turned human warriors.

Murdoch sat down uneasily. "What are we doing here?"

"Questioning your brother," Kristoff said. "About his crime."

Striving to make his tone level, he asked, "What crime would that be?"

"One of the worst."

The worst crimes in their order were treason and drinking living blood straight from the flesh.

There'd been no treason. Though Murdoch didn't particularly care about Kristoff's cause - he'd agreed to join the king's army because he'd wanted to live - Nikolai had always fervently believed in what the Forbearers stood for.

And drinking living blood? When Murdoch had seen Nikolai earlier, he'd been content, but he'd still been pallid, still lean. His eyes had been closed, so Murdoch hadn't been able to tell if they were red.

"My liege, you know Nikolai," Murdoch said. "He's a loyal soldier." Besides, Nikolai would've told Murdoch if he'd planned anything.

"Exactly."

Murdoch fell silent at that, knowing from experience that Kristoff would say no more. As a natural-born vampire, Kristoff was unable to lie, so instead he often ignored questions and answered others cryptically.

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As they waited for Nikolai, Murdoch restlessly glanced around the decaying room. So many memories haunted this place. Here Nikolai had made the fateful decision to try to turn all of their dying family.

Murdoch remembered that time as if it were yesterday.

After he and Nikolai had risen from the dead, they'd traced home and had found their sisters and father dying of plague. Sebastian and Conrad had been stabbed through by Russian marauders and barely clung to life.

All in this room... How the girls had wept when they'd comprehended that they were dying. How filled with rage Sebastian and Conrad had been to be turned into vampires against their will -

Nikolai suddenly materialized. He was black-eyed with fury, his fangs dripping. He must have sensed intruders, and thought them a threat to Myst.

"Wroth, I pity the being who wishes to harm your Bride," Kristoff said.

Murdoch nearly whistled out a breath at Nikolai's appearance. His face had been beaten. His clothing was filthy, his shirt tattered and marked with blood.

Nikolai seemed to be grappling for control. "I would not wish to attend you in such a condition. I'll go wash and change - "

"No, we know you are eager to get back to her for the remains of the night," Kristoff said, then added in a proud tone, "Congratulations, Wroth. You've now been blooded and claimed your Bride." He studied him. "Recently. Though it appears she didn't acquiesce to you."

Did Kristoff think Myst had fought Nikolai? What the hell had happened to his brother since earlier this day? If Nikolai had been content earlier, now he looked determined.

"I'd like to meet her," Kristoff said.

"She is resting."

Murdoch thought he heard her in the bath upstairs. Leisurely bathing? If they'd fought, then why was she not fleeing Nikolai?

Kristoff said, "I suppose she would be resting. In fact, we'd wonder if she weren't."

Two of the elders snickered until Nikolai shot them a quelling scowl.

Kristoff steepled his fingers. "And you drank her blood this night?"

Deny it, Nikolai.

"Did you take her flesh as you did so?"

No, steady Nikolai would never commit this crime, the one punishable by death. Should Kristoff decree it, Nikolai would be chained in an open field until the sun burned him to ash.

When Nikolai's eyes narrowed, Murdoch's hand slipped to his sword hilt. Five against him and Nikolai. Likely the brothers wouldn't make it out of Blachmount alive.

How fitting.

Nikolai's shoulders went back. "I did."

No, brother... He hadn't restrained himself. But why were his eyes clear?

Kristoff ordered, "Take off your shirt."

Murdoch caught Nikolai's glance, tensing to fight, but Kristoff said, "Stand down, Murdoch, no one's dying tonight."

A lashing then? Nikolai removed the shirt, too proud for his own good. His gaze darted to the stairs; even now he worried for his Bride.

"Toss it on the table."

Frowning, Nikolai did. Murdoch caught the scent just as the other elders did. Kristoff had detected traces of Myst's blood, and now they all did as well. Like the others, Murdoch's hands went white on the table, but for a different reason.

Murdoch was reminded anew of Daniela's blood - and of his dream, recalling how he'd pierced the supple flesh of her neck, sucking from her... "And what was it like?" he absently asked, his voice hoarse.

Nikolai didn't answer. Then Kristoff raised his brow in a wordless command.

After a hesitation, Nikolai grated, "There is no description strong enough."

Murdoch barely suppressed a groan and was surprised that no one noticed the hectic drum of his heart.

"How did she feel about your bite?" Kristoff asked.

Again Nikolai was silent.

Kristoff's stare was unflinching. "You resist answering your king on the heels of confessing to our most reviled crime?"

Nikolai resisted because he'd accepted Myst as his. As his family. Wroths protected their family's honor.

Answer him, Nikolai - you can't protect her if you're dead.

Nikolai must have been thinking the same thing. Though distinctly unwilling, he bit out, "She found extreme pleasure from it."

She'd liked being bitten?

Kristoff relaxed back in his chair, his demeanor pleased. He asked those at the table, "Do you think I should forgive Wroth his transgression? For which one of us could have resisted the temptation when she was our Bride and her exquisite blood called?" The king stared at the shredded garment marked by a Valkyrie's blood.

Murdoch masked his shock. For centuries, this had been law. Forbearing from drinking the flesh was how they'd earned their name. Was this a license to drink from one's Bride?

"Continue as you were," Kristoff told Nikolai. "But if your eyes turn red, know that we will destroy you."

Nikolai is free to drink his Bride, to take her blood at his leisure. Murdoch envied him. Again.

Nikolai was stunned as well, but recovered enough to say, "I was coming to Mount Oblak tonight to tell you that Ivo was spotted in New Orleans."

Ivo the Cruel was a leader in the Horde, and their armies had battled in the past. In fact, Mount Oblak had once been his holding.

"He's looking for someone," Nikolai said. "I suspect it could be Myst."

That made sense. She'd been Ivo's prisoner, had already been in his dungeon when the Forbearers had taken the castle.