Castle Helvita, Horde vampire stronghold
RUSSIAN WINTER, IN AGES LONG PAST
What fresh humiliation does this day bring?" Ivana the Bold asked her son, Lothaire, as guards escorted them to the vampire known as Stefanovich-the king of the Vampire Horde.
And Lothaire's father.
Though only nine, Lothaire could tell his mother's tone held a trace of recklessness. "And why wake you?" she demanded of him, as if he could explain his father's rash ways.
The summons had come at noon, well past his bedtime. "I know not, Mother," he mumbled as he adjusted his clothing. He'd had only seconds to dress.
"I grow weary of this treatment. One day he will push me too far and rue it."
Lothaire had overheard her complaining to his uncle Fyodor about the king's "tirades and dalliances, his increasingly bizarre behavior." She'd softly confessed, "I threw away my love on your brother, am naught but an ill-treated mistress in this realm, though I was heir to the throne in Dacia."
Fyodor had tried to comfort her, but she'd said, "I knew I only had so long with him before his heart stopped its beating. Now I question whether he has a heart at all."
Today her ice-blue eyes were ablaze with a dangerous light. "I was meant for better than this." With each of her steps, the furs that spilled over her shoulders swayed back and forth. The skirts of her scarlet gown rustled, a pleasing sound he always associated with her. "And you, my prince, were as well."
She called him "prince," but Lothaire wasn't one. At least, not in this kingdom. He was merely Stefanovich's bastard, one in a long line of them.
They followed the two guards up winding stairs to the king's private suites. The walls were gilded with gold and moist with cold. Outside a blizzard pounded the castle.
Sconces lit the way, but nothing could alleviate the gloom of these echoing corridors.
Lothaire shivered, longing to be back in his warm bed with his new puppy dozing over his legs.
Once they reached the anteroom outside of Stefanovich's chambers and the guards began opening the groaning gold doors, Ivana smoothed her hands over her elaborate white-blond braids and lifted her chin. Not for the first time, Lothaire thought she looked like an angel of yore.
Inside, lining the back wall, was a soaring window of jet glass inlaid with symbols of the dark arts. The stained glass kept out the faint sunlight visible through the storm and made a fearsome backdrop for the king's chair.
Not that the towering vampire needed anything more to make him fearsome. His build was more like a demon's, his shoulders broader than a carrying plank, his fists like anvils.
"Ah, Ivana Daciano deigns to obey a summons," Stefanovich called from the head of his long dining table. Every night his eyes seemed to grow redder, their crimson glow standing out against the sand-colored hair that fell over his forehead.
The dozen or so courtiers seated with him stared at Ivana with undisguised malice. In turn, she drew her lips back to flash her fangs. She found these courtiers beneath her and made no secret of it.
Seated to the king's left was Lothaire's uncle Fyodor, who appeared embarrassed.
Lothaire followed Ivana's gaze to the seat at Stefanovich's right hand-a place of honor usually reserved for her. Dining plates littered with the remains of a meal were spread before it.
Occasionally, young vampires ate food of the earth, consuming it in addition to blood. Perhaps another of Stefanovich's bastards had come to Helvita to live amongst them?
Lothaire's heart leapt. I could befriend him, could have a companion. As the king's bastard, he'd had no friends; his mother was everything to him.
" 'Tis late," Ivana said. "All should be abed at this hateful hour."
Fyodor seemed to be silently warning Ivana, but she paid him no heed, demanding, "What do you want, Stefanovich?"
After drinking deep from a tankard of mead-laced blood, Stefanovich wiped his sleeve over his lips. "To see my haughty mistress and her feeble bastard." The king stared down at Lothaire. "Come."
"Do not, Son," Ivana bit out in Dacian.
Lothaire answered in the same, "I will, to spare you." As ever, he would do whatever he could to protect her, no matter how weak he knew himself to be.
In her expression, anxiety for him warred with pride. "I should have known Lothaire Daciano would never cower behind his mother's skirts, even in the face of such a red-eyed tyrant."
When Lothaire crossed to stand before the king's seat, Stefanovich shook his head with disgust. "You still cannot trace, then?"
Lothaire's face was impassive as he answered, "Not yet, my king." No matter how hard he tried to teleport, he could never succeed. Ivana had told him that tracing was a talent that came late to the Daci-they had limited need for it in their closed kingdom. She considered Lothaire's inability yet another sign that he took after her more than after a mere Horde vampire.
Stefanovich seized Lothaire's thin arm, squeezing. "Too frail, I see."
Lothaire was desperate to grow bigger, to be as formidable as his warrior father, if for no reason other than to protect his mother. Not that Princess Ivana needed another's protection.
"By all the gods, you shame me, boy. I should have wrung your runtling neck at birth."
Lothaire heard these criticisms routinely, was used to them.
His mother, however, was not.
With a shriek, Ivana snatched up a carafe of blood, hurling it at Stefanovich. It shattered a pane of black glass just behind him, unleashing a ray of muted light.
The courtiers hissed, scattering throughout the chamber. The beam seared inches from Stefanovich's unmoving elbow before a day servant scurried to stuff the hole with a wadded cloth.
"My son is perfect." Ivana bared her fangs, her blue irises gone black with emotion. "Other than the fact that he bears your stamp upon his face. Luckily, he inherited his keen mind from my royal lineage. He's full of cunning, a mark of the Daci!"
Stefanovich too bared his razor-sharp fangs, his eyes blazing even redder. "You tempt my wrath, woman!"
"As you tempt mine." Ivana never backed down before him. Whenever Stefanovich struck her, she struck him back twice.
Ivana had told Lothaire that the Daci were coldly logical, ruled by reason. Apparently, Ivana the Bold was the exception.
Fierce as the blizzard raging outside, she even goaded Stefanovich to get his attention, lashing him with her barbed tongue whenever he stared off into the night. She had once admitted to Lothaire that his father dreamed of finding the vampire female who would eventually be his-Stefanovich's Bride, the one who would make his heart beat for eternity.
The lawful queen who would bear his true heirs.
Ivana smoothed her braids once more, so clearly struggling with her temper. "You mock your son at your own peril, Stefanovich."
"Son? I don't claim him as such. That boy will never compare to my true successor!" Another gulp from his tankard. "Of that I am certain."
"I am as well. Lothaire will be superior to any other male in all ways! He's a Dacian!"
Lothaire watched this exchange with deepening unease, recalling the warning his uncle Fyodor had once given Ivana: "Even Stefanovich can grow jealous of your knowledge and strength. You must bend, ere his love for you turns to hate."
Lothaire knew his uncle's warning had come true.
For Stefanovich looked murderous. "You believe your kind so much better than mine-"
A female drunkenly staggered into the room from Stefanovich's private chamber. A mortal female.
Lothaire's jaw slackened, and Ivana pressed the back of her hand over her mouth.
The woman was dressed as a queen, her garments as rich as Ivana's own. She was the one who'd dined at the king's right hand?
"A human?" Ivana's shock quickly turned to ire. "You dare bring one of those diseased animals into my home! Near my only offspring?" She strode forward to shove Lothaire behind her.
Though adult vampires were immortal, Lothaire was still vulnerable to illness.
"The human is Olya, my new mistress."
"Mistress!" Ivana cried. "More like a pet. Her kind live in dirt hovels, sleeping amongst their livestock!"
Stefanovich waved for the woman, and she coyly meandered over to him. "Ah, but she tastes of wine and honey." He turned to his brother. "Does she not, Fyodor?"
Fyodor flashed a guilty look at Ivana.
Pulling his pet into his lap, Stefanovich sneered, "You should sample her, Ivana." He bared the mortal's pale arm.
Ivana's eyes widened. "Taking blood straight from her skin! I would no more sink my fangs into a human than into any other animal. Shall I bring you swine to pierce?"
They were staring each other down, their expressions telling, but Lothaire couldn't decipher exactly what they were saying.
Finally, Ivana spoke. "Stefanovich, you know there are consequences, especially for one like you. . . ."
"My kind revere the Thirst," Stefanovich said, "revere bloodtaking."
"Then you revere madness, because that is surely what will follow."
Ignoring Ivana's warning, he punctured the woman's wrist, making her moan.
"You are revolting!" Ivana blocked Lothaire's view, but he was fascinated by this sight, peeking around her skirts. Why had she taught him never to pierce another?
Once he'd finished feeding, Stefanovich released the mortal's arm, then kissed her full on the mouth, eliciting a yell of outrage from Ivana. "That you drink from their skin is foul enough, but to mate with their bodies? Have you no shame?"
He broke away from the kiss. "None." He licked his lips, and the mortal giggled, twirling Stefanovich's hair around her finger.
" 'Tis too contemptible to be borne-I will no longer!"
"And what will you do about it?"
"I will leave this savage place forever," she declared. "Now, slaughter your new pet, or I shall return to Dacia."
"Be wary of ultimatums, Ivana. You will not relish the outcome. Especially since you cannot find your homeland."
Ivana had explained to Lothaire why the kingdom of Dacia had remained secret for so long. The mysterious Daci traveled in a cloaking mist. If one abandoned the mist, the Dacian could never trace home on his own, and his memories of its location would fade.
With her first sight of Stefanovich, Ivana had lost her heart, following him back to Helvita, leaving behind her own mist, her family, her future throne.
"I will find it," she averred now. "If it kills me, I shall deliver Lothaire to the Realm of Blood and Mist, a land where civilized immortals rule."
"Civilized?" Stefanovich laughed, and the courtiers followed suit. "Those fiends are more brutal than I!"
"Ignorant male! You have no idea of what you speak! You can't comprehend our ways-I know this, for I tried to teach you."
"Teach me?" He slammed his meaty fist on the table. "Your arrogance will be your ruin, Ivana! Always you believe you are better than I!"
At that, the courtiers went silent.
Between gritted teeth, Stefanovich commanded, "Take back your careless words, or at sunset I'll throw you and your bastard out into the cold."
Lothaire swallowed, thinking of the fire in his room, his beloved puzzles atop his desk, his toys scattered over warm fur rugs on the floor. Life at Helvita could be miserable, but 'twas the only life he'd ever known.
Apologize, Mother, he silently willed her.
Instead, she squared her shoulders. "Choose, Stefanovich. The fetid human or me."
"Beg my pardon and seek amends with my new mistress."
"Beg?" Ivana scoffed. "Never. I am a princess of the Daci!"
"And I am a king!"
"Leave Ivana be, Brother," Fyodor murmured. "This grows tedious."
"She must learn her place." To Ivana, he ordered, "Beseech Olya's forgiveness!"
When the mortal cast Ivana a victorious sneer, Lothaire knew he and his mother were doomed.
ONE MONTH LATER . . .
"Stoke that hatred, Son. Make it burn like a forge."
"Yes, Mother," Lothaire grated, his breaths fogging as they trudged through knee-high snowdrifts.
" 'Tis the only thing that will keep us warm." Ivana's eyes gleamed with resentment, as they had ever since Stefanovich ordered them to leave Helvita.
On that night, Lothaire had heard the smallest hitch in Ivana's breath, had seen a flare of surprise. She'd known she'd made a mistake.
But she'd been too proud to remedy it, to bow down to a human.
Not even for me.
All the court had gathered at the castle's entrance to watch Lothaire and the haughty Ivana cast out with only the garments on their backs.
To die in the cold. They would have perished long since had Fyodor not slipped Lothaire coin.
Lothaire's puppy had followed him, wide-eyed and tripping over its own paws, panicked to catch up with him. While Lothaire stared in disbelief, Stefanovich had seized the dog by its scruff, snapping its back.
To the sound of the court vampires' laughter, the king had tossed the dying creature at Lothaire's feet. "Only one of our pets will perish on this day."
Lothaire's eyes had watered, but Ivana had hissed at him, "No tears, Lothaire! You draw on your hatred for him. Never forget this night's betrayal!" To Stefanovich, she'd yelled, "You will realize what you had too late. . . ."
Now she absently muttered, "By the time we reach Dacia, I'll have made your soul as bitter as the chill trying to kill us."
"How much longer will it be?" His feet were numb, his belly empty.
"I do not know. I can only follow my longing for such a home as Dacia."
As she'd told Lothaire, her father, King Serghei, ruled over that realm, a land of plenty and peace. 'Twas enclosed in stone, hidden within the very heart of a mountain range.
Inside a soaring cavern a thousand times larger than Helvita stood a majestic black castle, circled by dazzling fountains of blood. The king's subjects filled their pails each morning.