Sabine had refused to budge. Rydstrom allowed this because she remained here. If she stayed, he thought they might have a future.
Did Rydstrom go out of his way to see her? Every damned minute that he could. He was searching for her this very afternoon. She wasn't at the hot springs, nor at the particular bluff where she liked to sit.
But from that height, he spied her playing dice down in the camp, gambling with others. When Rydstrom sank down to watch her, something sharp jabbed him. A basi­lisk scale? He peered around him and found more strewn about. Had she been sitting up here with the dragon?
He ran a hand over his side, over the tattoo. All those years ago, Rydstrom had been marked with the image of this beast, never knowing that a sorceress would captivate both a dragon-and a demon.
Now she was laughing as she played dice, likely saying outlandish things. But her companions always thought she jested. They were awed by her beauty and mysterious air, by the illusions of gold that gleamed on her and the bold paint that masked her face.
They simply thought she was a merry queen-that one did not ever want to anger.
As Sabine could make the dice appear to be anything
she wanted, she was doubtless bilking others of their gold. He suspected Sabine was stockpiling her winnings in a secret location-
He heard someone approaching . . . Durinda. They hadn't spoken more than a couple of words since her revelation, and he grew tense.
"They love her now," she said, sitting beside him. "Amazingly. You know she still calls the children spawn and uses the pronoun it when referring to any of them." She made her voice like Sabine's-condescending and unamused-as she said, "'It smells fusty ... If it wants to give me your family's savings, then who are you to naysay?'"
Before Rydstrom could defend Sabine, she said, "But she is actually behaving like a queen. An unorthodox one to be sure, but a queen just the same."
"You believe that?"
Durinda nodded. "Sabine had the power to fend off a dragon, and made the choice to protect these people. And she's told the girls-the ones that she confused terribly about horse monikers-that she would give an educational class on . . . things of that nature. Yes, she did ask for gold in return, but one could argue that was merely taxes for government services. If given authority, she would enact social change."
He recalled what Sabine had said about the igno­rance of the women, the medieval state of Rothkalina, the lack of infrastructure.
"And she's right about the fighting," Durinda contin­ue 'quietly. "It can solve problems. We lived in a gen-
teel society where we weren't as strong as we could have been. And when we were defeated, we were wholly unprepared for centuries of tyranny." She met his gaze. "Do you think Sabine would rest if she perceived her kingdom to be vulnerable?"
Never. He couldn't ask for a fiercer queen.
"You know, it's given me hope," she said. "If two people as unlikely as you and Sabine can be mates, then maybe the male I'm journeying to wed is the right one. I am optimistic."
This relieved Rydstrom greatly. He felt himself relax­ing around her once more. "Do you think your new husband will allow you to keep Puck?"
"I do hope so. Because if not, your queen has offered to take him."
His brows shot up. "What?"
"She told me, 'I'll be taking that demon boy person.' When I reminded her that Puck wasn't her pet, she rolled her eyes at me and said, 'Hellooo, that's what I'm trying to remedy"'
He felt his lips quirk.
"Interestingly, Puck found gold under his pillow in exchange for his tooth. I suspect she made herself invis­ible and slipped in our tent, though she vehemently denied involvement and called me a name I won't repeat here. Puck is beyond ecstatic."
Rydstrom had already accepted that he needed Sabine. He hadn't dared hope his kingdom would embrace her like this.
Maybe she was exactly what Rothkalina needed. Fate
had gotten it right.
There were only two problems. First, Sabine wasn't truly his queen. And after she learned that he'd deceived her, she wouldn't be likely to forgive him. Secondly, Rydstrom planned to slay her brother at the earliest opportunity.
He'd considered talking to her about Omort, the future, and the fact that there would soon be a war- Rydstrom anticipated striking this spring. But for now, he'd decided it would be better just to get her to New Orleans, back to his home before she could bolt.
"I also came here to tell you that the portal keepers have begun arriving for tomorrow," Durinda said. "They come with information-the Lore is abuzz with tales of your brother claiming the sword from Groot the Metal­lurgist. Our Cadeon has succeeded."
"Any word of how he's done this?"
Durinda shook her head. "Not yet."
Two weeks ago, Rydstrom wouldn't have given a damn how. But now he feared Cadeon had turned over his own woman for it.
Rydstrom had expected his brother not only to betray his female, but to hand her over to a madman bent on breeding with her-and Cadeon might actually have done it for the sake of the kingdom.
Rydstrom's gaze was transfixed on Sabine. If so, he's a stronger man than I am.
Sabine had an urgent decision to make.
For the past two nights, she'd adored sitting up on the bluff, keeping time with the dragon, gazing out at her sleeping subjects, and watching the silhouette of Rydstrom as he paced in his tent for her to return.
But the portals were opening at noon, mere hours away, and she still hadn't decided if she was going with
As she gazed down at him readying his people, with his shoulders back and looking so kingly, Sabine debated her course of action. She was free and could easily escape. But those same worries about traversing Grave Realm and what she could expect from Omort plagued her.
And more, she was only a day away from getting into Rhydstrom's house, into his life. By all accounts, Cadeon was ever closer to the sword. Maybe Sabine should jour' ney with Rydstrom just in time to collect that sword for herself? Lanthe would get her message and come for her in Louisiana, providing her escape well before the mor-sus was supposed to hit in twelve days. And ultimately, the sisters might have their queendom . ..
Or maybe she and Lanthe should ally with Rydstrom? Sabine had told him she'd always be on the winning side, and now the tides were turning. Rydstrom looked like a warrior king who could defeat Omort. If the rage demons could get the sword, the balance could swing decidedly in their favor.
But if Sabine allied with Rydstrom, there would be more to deal with than mere war and destruction. The demon wanted her . . . affection.
He wanted a future with her-her entire future. This eternity idea had her spooked. She hadn't even been out on a real date, had never seen the same male twice, and now she was supposed to promise her eternity to a demon she'd known for only weeks?
There were actually times that she'd been tempted to. When she recalled those interludes in the wild when he'd caressed and licked her body, teasing her to a fever pitch again and again, she no longer grew outraged- she grew aroused. She longed for him to touch her, even to bed her again.
And then, over the last two nights when she'd woken alone, sleepily hunting for his big warm chest, she'd thought, Why not try whatever he was offering? So what to do? What to plot!
Just then, Sabine realized that Rydstrom caught sight of her. As if he sensed she was considering running, he'd had his gaze on her all morning. His brows were drawn, a question in his eyes.
In answer, she gave him a lewd hand gesture. He grinned.
Oh, my. Sabine had never seen him smile. And it was divine. She frowned down at her chest. What was that? Why, that might have been a tender feeling.
He started toward her, and she couldn't say she was broken up about that. When he reached her on the bluff, he sat beside her. "It will soon be time to leave, Sabine," he said. "I never formally asked you before, but will you come with me to my home-our home-in Louisiana?"
"Do you have gold there?" she asked. "No, but I could get some." "Are you rich?"
"In that realm, if you're an immortal, you'd have to be an idiot not to be."
"Is your house nice and big?"
"Our house is a showplace, a mansion built centuries ago in a district known for its gardens. I've always taken pride in it-it's one of the most expensive and coveted in the city." He seemed eager for her to see it.
"You're not used to having to ask for things," she observed. "Is it difficult to ask me to come with you?"
He shook his head. "It might have been. If I didn't want you to so damned badly."
Sabine had once heard that Cadeon was the smooth talking brother of the two, but she thought Rydstrom's gruff admissions were much more intense and meaning­ful than any smooth talking could be.
"Why do you want this so badly? Because I'm fated to
"No, because I know we can have something more
She gazed into his green eyes and saw honesty-and desire. He wanted her, and he wanted her to see how much. She couldn't seem to look away.
"If you come with me, you won't regret it."
And if she didnt see where this could lead with Ryd-strom, she might wind up regretting it for the eternity he wanted from her.
"I will, then," she finally said. "But I have some conditions." When he waved her on in that kingly way of his, she said, "The parity is done. We start this as
"Agreed. As long as we start this."
"And I will only commit to six days with you. After that we'll reconvene."
"Why only six days?"
"Six is my favorite number," she lied.
"No, it's not."
"You're right. But it's still my condition."
"We never speak of Omort during this time."
After a hesitation, he nodded, then said, "I have some as well. You'll have to be honest with me."
"I will be, as much as I can."
"Sabine . .."
"Look, that's a really big concession for someone like me to make."
He exhaled. "You have to give this thing between us a fair try. Can you do that, cwena?" He stroked his thumb over her cheek.
Sabine frowned just as he grinned. She hadn't flinched.
New Orleans, Louisiana
"We have to walk?" she murmured, exhausted from the rough crossing.
The coordinates Rydstrom had given the portal jockey hadn't gotten them directly to his house.
"It's not far. Just six houses down."
She could tell he was anxious for her to like his home. She admired what she'd seen of the posh neigh­borhood, but she was too tired and chilled to be excited for him.
The portal they'd just come through had felt as if it had been hacked through space. Compared to it, Lanthe's thresholds were seamless masterpieces. No wonder she could only create one every so often.
"Are you sad about Puck?" he asked.
"Just tired." In truth, she might like to see the little punk again. He'd been bawling for her. Which shouldn't have shocked anyone.
"Chin up, demon boy person," she'd told him with an awkward pat on his head. Then she'd given him a note that she'd had translated into Demonish. When he'd read it, his eyes had lit up, and he'd nodded gravely.
"What did the note say?" Rydstrom had asked.
"It said that if he is bad enough, they will send him to come live with me."
Rydstrom had given her that look-the cross between perplexity and bewilderment, the one she believed he used only for her. The one that said, "Surely, you're kid­ding. I really want you to be jesting."
"Here it is," he said when they came upon an estate with towering wooden gates and stone walls covered with ivy.
The grounds were immaculate, the mansion stunning with its Corinthian columns and wraparound veranda. The effect as a whole was opulent but tasteful. The sul­try air was redolent with the scent of gardenias.
"How big is this place?"
"Plus or minus twenty-thousand square feet." At the front entrance, he said simply, "I want you to like it here."
"I'm sure I'll love it if the inside is anything like the outside." So tired. Sabine shivered.
He held her hand as he opened the door. At once, the smell of sour beer and cigars wafted over them. She put her free hand over her mouth.
"What in the hell?" he muttered as they journeyed deeper inside.
In the sitting room, beer-soaked Playgirl magazines lay over clearly expensive antique furnishings. Cartons
from drink mixers were strewn over a wooden floor. Two empty kegs floated in barrels of melted ice-atop luxury ous oriental rugs.
She followed Rydstrom's gaze up. Above them hung a resplendent bronze d'ore chandelier with chains of rock crystal gracing filigree arms. From one of those arms dangled a ... thong.
He was growing more and more furious. "This looks like Cadeon's pool house."
Sabine didn't care what it looked like. She just wanted a bed-in a place that didn't smell like this.
Surveying the destruction, he absently said, "Maybe Rok did this?"
When they heard laughter outside, Rydstrom stormed toward the sound, dragging her along to a terrace that overlooked manicured grounds-as well as an oversize pool that was chock-full with dazzling females. They were all clad in bikinis. Or less. Topless chicken fighting was currently underway.
"Your friends visiting?" she asked archly.
"I don't know half of them. Looks like Valkyries and witches."
Witches? Usually, she'd be on guard around a group of them, but these females were tanked. Out of habit Sabine probed for their powers, not finding anything there she'd get out of bed for.
But Rydstrom's attention had narrowed on one woman-a petite beauty sitting on a chaise longue, smoking a cigar and talking on a cell phone.
She wore a red string bikini, stilettos, and a tiny T-shirt that said, "Heels Tall. . . Bikini Small." Her hair was as black as night, shining in a glossy mane over her shoulders.
Sabine could hear her say, "No, we're not paying for him!" A pause. "Because you sent him to the wrong house! He stripped for the elderly widow next door. From what we understand, she's keeping him and his plastic nightstick." Another pause. "Do I sound like an anatomist? How should I know- Hello? Helloooo?"
"Who is that?" Sabine asked Rydstrom.
"Going to bloody kill her," he muttered.
Before Sabine could ask again, the female caught sight of Rydstrom. "Demon! You're back." She tossed her cigar into the pool, hurrying over to them. "And you poached the sorceress from Team Evil. I knew you could do it!"
When she drew her sunglasses back to rest on her head, she revealed pointed ears-and vacant golden eyes. But Sabine still sensed great power in this female.
To Sabine, she said, "I'm Nïx, the Ever-Knowing, Soothsayer to the Stars." She extended a hand.
Sabine raised hers, ready to fight the notorious Valkyrie. "Rydstrom, what in the hell is this? You know we are enemies."
"Nïx won't do anything. I promise you."
"Won't I?" Nïx asked, her expression deadpan. Then she smiled, flashing small but noticeable fangs. "I'm in no mood to kill the demon king's love today!"
"Kill me, Valkyrie?" Sabine scoffed. "I can make you see things that will turn your brain to soup."
"A-gain," Nïx sighed, unfazed by the threat.
Sabine probed the Valkyrie's mind, finding easy access- With a stifled gasp, Sabine just as rapidly with­drew her probe. Chaos, utter chaos.
"Welcome to my world!" Nïx said with an exaggerated wink. "Now, sorceress, I'm trying to win you over, so let's not quarrel. And let's not speak of you-know-who. I'll even grant you a boon, a foretelling." Nïx briefly gazed at the sky, then back at her. "Your sister will receive your avian-dispatched message in two hours. Though covered in pigeon poo, it will be legible."
The Valkyrie knew about the message! "Is Lanthe worried? Is she safe?"
"She's safe," Nïx said. "As of right now. That's a real­time quote and might not be applicable to the future. Is she worried? Lanthe senses you're safe with the demon-she doesn't believe Rydstrom will harm you in any way."
Sabine experienced so much relief, she almost felt like she owed Nïx.
"Wow. You sorceress-es-eses always had the most enviable garb," Nïx said. "And the makeup!" She ran a forefinger under her eyes and then down her cheek.
In response to the compliment, Sabine said, "I thought you'd be ... bigger."
Rydstrom stepped between them. "Nïx, do you want to explain to me what the-"
"A dorseri!" the Valkyrie suddenly exclaimed. "Yes, yes, of course!"
"What's that?" Rydstrom asked, as if he were used to interruptions like this from the soothsayer.
Nïx nodded sunnily. "That's what we should call a Sorceri and demon halfling!"
Sabine cast Rydstrom a look askance, but he shrugged. "Yes, Nïx that sounds about right, but for right now, I need to know what's happening here."
"We heard that the folks were going to be gone for a bit," she explained. "And by folks, I mean you, Cadeon, and Rok. We don't have a pool at Val Hall, and they don't have one at the Animal House of Witches." She hiked her thumb over her shoulder at the swimming witches. "So we moved in."
"Then move out! And get my house cleaned up."
She gave him a military salute, then snapped her fingers at a pair of witches, sprawled on nearby loungers. "You two. You can do a cleaning spell."
One slurred, "But Nixie, I'm really pre-hungover."
Nix's eyes went wide. "Do it, or the photos go live!"
The witch shook her fist to the sky, crying, "Damn you, Valkyrie! Damn you and your digital ways!"
Nïx turned to the rest of them and called out, "Par­ty's over, because the demon king's lame. I mean home. The demon king's home!"
The crowd grumbled, most of them unsteadily filing out of the pool. A buxom dark haired witch strolled by topless. "Hiya, big guy," she purred. "You remember me? Carrow? Mariketa's best friend." She ran her finger over his chest as she passed.
The only reason Sabine let "Carrow" live was because Rydstrom didn't turn to ogle her from the back.
As soon as the cleaning witches started chanting, power surrounded them. Sounds drifted from the house.
The grounds grew immaculate, the litter vanishing. In minutes, the pair was done. They went for a high-five and missed.
"There, all better now," Nïx said as she turned to Sabine. "Dearling, you look peaked. You should rest."
"Yes, I'll show you to our room." Rydstrom put his hand on Sabine's lower back, "Nïx, I'll be back," he said over his shoulder as he whisked Sabine inside.
Now that the odor was gone and the mess cleaned, Sabine noted other details of the mansion, like the rich wood paneling and high ceilings throughout. Fans lazily circled overhead. The demon had taste.
When they reached a spacious room upstairs, he said, "This is ours." It was so large, it had a sitting area. A balcony overlooked the pool.
The bed was immense, and she eyed the rich bed­dings hungrily. When she sat at the edge of it and removed her boots, he strode to a chest of drawers, pull­ing out an undershirt.
"Here's something for you to wear for-"
By the time he'd turned back, she'd already stripped and crawled under the covers, half asleep.
When Rydstrom returned, he told Nïx, "She didn't need this commotion, Valkyrie. I didn't need it." He ran a hand over his horn.
The crossing had been grueling. And he didn't think Sabine would admit it, but he suspected she'd been upset by Puck's teary good-bye. She'd frowned and said, "This is . . . uncomfortable. The demon boy makes me. uncomfortable."
"Dirty Rydstrom, you wore your sorceress out!" Nïx appeared as mad as ever. "She's not like your typical demure demonesses, you know."
"I know this." Gods, he was glad of it. "Damn it, Nïx, some of your guests are still in the pool."
"I've got this." To the others, she called, "Hey, witches, did you see that redhead who was just here in the wicked cool clothes?"
One called back, "The one dressed up like a sorcer­ess?" while another declared, "I'd do her."
"Well, she's a real sorceress. She's Sabine the Queen of Illusions-"
That got them surging for the sides of the pool, some of them crying out: "The bitch will gack our powers!"-"She'll make us insane!"-"Where is my intoxibong?"
With a contented sigh, Nïx said, "I think Sabine's introduction into New Orleans Lorekind will be fraught with moments like these."
"Is Sabine safe here? When will Omort strike?"
"Well, there actually was a benefit to our invasion of your home-the witches put a protection spell on the perimeter. Something about a probation officer com­ing after Carrow." She shrugged. "Anyway. No one but those who live here can enter your property without invitation."
He'd been planning on setting traps. This was better. "How long will the spell last?"
"As long as you don't cancel the credit card I found in your drawer."
He inhaled for patience.
"I also had them put a spell on your weapons armory so that it can't be broken into. You know, getting ready for the arrival of The Sword."
Rydstrom had a sizable stone armory in his study. It had been lockable. Evidently, it was now invulnerable. "Then my brother is on his way here. Is he safe?"
"Yes, yes, enough with your abject thanks, Rydstrom. I already know my help is priceless, and that you should name your firstborn daughter Nïx. To answer your ques­tion, Cadeon is fine. He claimed that sword at great risk to himself." She tapped her chin. "He also wrecked your million dollar Veyron-"
"He did what?" That car had been Rydstrom's pride and joy. There were only three hundred of them in the world, and he'd expressly forbidden Cadeon and Rok from even touching it.
"Actually it was Holly, my niece, who crashed it. Which, naturally, has made her a hero among Valkyrie everywhere. Totaling the demon king's seven-figure ride? She'll never pay cover again-"
"Why did you let Holly go with Cadeon in the first place?"
"Because I'm impish?"
"Did Cadeon . .. give Holly up to Groot?"
"Yep. Cadeon chose bro's before ho's. But Holly, the little trooper, managed to get free all by herself. Don't look so astounded. She is my niece." Nïx fluffed her hair. "And then Cadeon rubbed out Groot."
"So Cadeon and Holly are together, then?"
"Cadeon gave her up to a psychotic murderer. She's not exactly chipper with him. But don't worry. She'll
come around when she finds out he always planned to come back to save her."
Rydstrom was relieved to hear that, but he was still tense about his own situation. Six days to win Sabine. He'd taken his woman to his home, where she lay naked in his bed. He believed she would receive him tonight.
And he was nervous. I want to make love to her ... to get it right for her.
"You're going to do fine tonight, tiger. Relax."
He hated that Nïx could read him so easily. "Are you saying that as a soothsayer?"
Nïx shook her head. "More as a female who's lived three thousand years. So I have to skedaddle now."
"Contact me if you hear anything else about Cadeon."
"B'okay. Will do." Over her shoulder, she murmured, "There's a thunderstorm brewing, Rydstrom. A bad one. Better be ready."
He surveyed the sky. Not a single cloud marred the blue.
"Wake the hell up!" Sabine shot up in the bed, blinking around her. "Is someone here?" she murmured, seeing no one in the luxurious room with her. How long had she been out? It was already dark outside.
"Are you up yet?" a voice said, laying words in Sabine's mind.
"Ah, gods, Abie, I've been searching this city for you!"
Sabine swung her legs over the side of the high bed. "You're . . . here?"
"I got your message at Tornin and opened a portal here. I've been scouring this place hour after hour."
"Are everywhere. But you have to get back for your dose-now! Where are you?"
"With the demon. In his home." In our home.
"Can you escape him?"