"Romantic? It was to mark the end of our relationship. Keep her at Val Hall forever, if you like."
"Oh, no. She's gone. Whereabouts unknown."
His gut tightened. The cloaking tattoo around her ankle had faded with her transformation. Would Elizabeth be safe outside of the wraiths' guard?
Who was he kidding? She was a vicious female-a vampire who'd taken him down!
"Ellie did mention something about seeing the world."
He wanted to tell Nix, "I couldn't care less," but his throat burned on the lie. "You do know that there's a bounty on her head?"
"The one Kristoff posted?"
"Kristoff?" he bit out. The Gravewalker will be receiving a visit from me-
"He's on walkabout currently. He'll be back at Oblak in a few weeks. If I remember, I'll be sure to let him know you'll be calling on him."
"Do whatever you like," he snapped.
"Fear not, very few Loreans would target Ellie. After what I've told everyone she did to you? Plus, they know better than to use her as leverage-since you seem not to want her."
Don't I? He still reached for her in his bed, only to find himself clasping nothing. Upon every wakening, he roared with frustration, shaken anew that she wasn't with him.
"You can keep up the façade, Lothaire, pretending how wonderful it is without her. But we both know you miss her."
"Perhaps I simply miss a female-any female. I wager I'll be the one vampire who will forsake his Bride and enjoy others."
Starting today, he would. His plan to install concubines had been delayed by his regenerating heart. Then he'd lost enthusiasm for the idea because his new heart hurt worse than the other. But no more delays.
Nix examined her claws, as if his statement was the height of absurdity. "Do you know how many times I've heard that?"
He traced in front of her, slowly backing her toward the wall. "Ah, flower, would you like me to demonstrate how quickly I've forgotten her?" he asked, voice dripping with innuendo.
In a breathless whisper, she said, "Yes. Kiss me, Lothaire."
He quirked a brow. Could any male turn her down? Nix was stunning-and apparently willing. He brushed her tangled hair back from her face.
I always knew she wanted me. What female wouldn't?
Elizabeth. Because I'm ugly on the inside.
Ignoring thoughts about his Bride-and his contentious past with Nix-he leaned in closer . . . closer. He grinned as he imagined Elizabeth finding out about other females in his life, discovering that he was bedding scores of them without a thought devoted to her.
Not a thought. I'll kiss Nix-and it will be better than with Lizvetta.
Better than the night he'd first claimed his Bride, helping her take him inside her body? Better than the night he'd turned her? When she'd kneaded his flesh with her little claws as she'd fed from him?
The way his heart had beat in time with hers . . . the way she always ran circles around him . . . the way her chin would jut stubbornly, her gray eyes fierce . . .
Just before he reached Nix's lips, he froze.
Better with the Valkyrie? Fool, it can't be better.
Rage erupted. "Ahhh!" he bellowed. "It's her! That bitch has ruined me!"
He punched the wall beside Nix's head; she yawned.
"You knew this would happen! You knew we'd never kiss. Yet you said I defied foresight."
"Doesn't take a soothsayer to see how much you ache for her, Lothaire. She's your missing puzzle piece. You'll never be complete without her, no matter how many ethereally gorgeous Valkyries you bed."
Elizabeth is my happiness, he thought again. "I could hate her for what she did to me."
"Because of one unsuccessful beheading?" She tapped her claw to her chin. "Wow. I never thought you were such a pussy. I'm rethinking our friendship."
He bared his fangs once more. "It's not about my neck! She betrayed me." She'd feigned affection for him. For him. "I've had enough betrayal in my life. From my father, my uncle, from you."
"Don't play coy, Valkyrie. I know of your treachery. You warned Stefanovich of my impending attempt on his life. He listened well."
She shrugged nonchalantly. "I did tell him-but only after I explained to you that I intended to do exactly that. I repeatedly told you to be patient, to trust me, but you wouldn't listen. You set out anyway."
"You were my oldest friend! I never thought you would truly contact him."
"I acted for your greater good, to turn your fate in a different direction, before tragedy struck."
"Tragedy?" He turned to pound his fist on his desk and it shattered into splinters, papers flying. "What could possibly have been worse than what occurred? I suffered six centuries of hell because of you! Do you know what it was like in that grave, to have insects boring inside my own living corpse, picking at my flesh? No idea when it would end . . . the blood tree growing within." He lurched on his feet, memories threatening to overwhelm him. "It . . . fed. I prayed for death. Anything to make the pain end!"
"If Stefanovich hadn't caught you, then you wouldn't have your Bride."
Inhale for calm. Exhale. Draw from the tie with Elizabeth. "What are you fucking talking about?"
"Have you never wondered why I would betray"-Nix made air quotes-"you?"
"Because we are natural enemies. Instinctively you despise what I am. It was only a matter of time."
She perched on the study's window seat. "If you hadn't been caught by Stefanovich, you would have died in the Horde invasion of Draiksulia."
"There was no Horde invasion of the fey plane."
She snapped her fingers. "Exactly. You, as well as all our Valkyrie allies, were spared. From just a whisper in your father's ear."
His lips parted.
"And had you perished then, you never would have made contact with Saroya-who would have killed even more while in Elizabeth's body, leaving no time for an attempted exorcism." Nix's vacant golden eyes shimmered. "I saw your Bride's alternate future as clear as day. One fall morning, Elizabeth did the laundry for her mother, folding clothes off the line. Then she took her father's Remington and walked into the woods alone. She tucked the barrels under her chin. Blood, brain, and bone splattered over leaves."
"I saw it all. Still think me a betrayer?"
I wouldn't have Elizabeth if not for Nix's actions. He didn't have her anyway! Then his eyes narrowed. "Why did you leave me so long in the grave? You were there the night Fyodor released me-I saw you in the woods."
"My foresight doesn't work with you. I was only able to find you by reading Helen's fate. You know what she became to you."
"Yes." My aunt. "An embarrassment."
"Speak ill of my dead sister again, Lothaire, and I'll take my crazy somewhere else."
"Somewhere outside of Dacia?" He waved his arm. "If you could find this kingdom all along, you might have told me how! I spent centuries searching. As you well knew!"
"You weren't ready to find it yet. Would you rather have warred with them or become their king by invitation? All it took was patience, which is what I told you again and again. But you never listened to me. You broke the trust between us-not me."
"Even after all the antagonism between us, I came to you for help just weeks ago. You turned your back on me and sent Dorada straight to my home! Don't you dare deny it."
"I was hoping Dora would find your addy okay. MapQuest is sometimes hokey."
His fists clenched tight, his shoulder muscles knotting with tension.
"You wanted Elizabeth, and you needed Saroya gone-without breaking your vows."
Nix had sent Dorada to help him?
"My plan was brilliant."
"And risky." If Elizabeth hadn't thought on her feet . . . We'd both be dead.
"Great risk leads to great reward, does it not?" Then Nix chuckled. "I do enjoy telling Loreans, 'Be advised that your blood debt is now being serviced by La Dorada, effective immediately.' "
He was rocked by these explanations. My millennia's worth of hatred for Nix was unfounded?
Who would be his nemesis, if not Nix? In the entire Lore, she was the only adversary worthy of him. Which was one of the myriad reasons he hadn't retaliated after she'd betrayed him.
Can always kill her, but can never bring her back. . . .
In a contemplative tone, she added, "You saw Dora when she was jubilant from a long-awaited victory. Most of the time, she's so apocalyptic. And now she has evil and good pawns to wage her war. I'll have to fix that in the future." Nix frowned, and suddenly she looked very, very tired. After seeming to count on her fingers, she murmured, "How will I remember to fix that in the future?"
At length, she glared at Lothaire. "I'm risking an apocalypse for you, and you don't even want to be with Elizabeth!"
"She nearly beheaded me! I've never been closer to death in all my years!"
"So now you're pouting in your castle. After the miseries you've inflicted on legions? You can dish it out, but you can't take it?"
He stabbed his fingers into his hair. "It simply is."
"How?" she insisted.
"Because I think . . . because I was falling in love with her!"
"Then why isn't she here with you now?"
"It was unrequited!" He'd shocked himself by saying that aloud.
Lothaire Daciano, a king, admitting to falling for a female who disdained him?
"Do you believe that because of her dream memories? Or because of her actions?"
"I can't see her memories, Nix. But I know why-it's because vampires don't see what they can't handle!" I can't handle knowing she played me. She'd bested him. "Just tell me what I . . . tell me what should I have done differently, to make her love me."
Nix rolled her eyes. "Where to begin?"
"Why should I help you with Elizabeth, anyway? You've betrayed me worse than I ever did you. Why did you strike out at Furie instead of exacting your revenge directly on me?"
"Where would be the sport in that? You're more crazed than I am! Why can't you find Furie, soothsayer? Is she another blank spot in your visions? I never doubted you would locate her."
"Would that have changed your decision to imprison her?"
"No. I followed my king's orders. You of all people should know why I was bound to obey him in all things."
"In any case, will you help the Valkyries find Furie now?"
"As I told Regin, I don't know where she is."
"But you did once, Lothaire. You are the one who chained her to the bottom of the ocean."
"For your interventions in the past, I should be honor-bound to help you," Lothaire said. "Alas, I have no honor."
Her face fell. "I can't help you like this. You're more eaten up with hate than I'd ever thought, and more ignorant about females than I'd ever imagined. I'm wasting time I need for other things." She turned to leave.
Behind her, he called, "I drank Commander Webb, Valkyrie. I have his memories. I know you were working for him."
Lothaire also now knew that Webb had probably been . . . reborn. As an immortal.
Before Lothaire had bitten him, the wily bastard had popped a sample of blood, like a cyanide capsule. As Webb died, he'd had the blood of an immortal running through him, one so powerful that even Lothaire had been overcome after drinking it.
Webb would rise, as gods only knew what.
Perhaps I ought to tell Chase all the dark secrets I've learned about his surrogate father, to relieve some of his guilt.
And to prepare him.
But Lothaire was still Lothaire, and blood tie or not, Chase was still a dick. I don't give without receiving.
Yet hadn't he with Elizabeth?
Nix turned back to him, her face marred with fatigue. "I wasn't working with Webb, I was using him."
"How would your allies feel to learn of your connection to him? Through Webb, you sent a witch to the island. Hell, you sent your own sister. I wonder why you gave him my name to add to the capture list. Yet another betrayal."
She tilted her head at him, her eyes gone silvery. "Had to catch you before you used the ring, Lothaire. One more second and you would seriously have rewritten the wrong female. You do not even want to contemplate what would have happened to your Bride if Saroya had been made a vampire, with the ability to trace. . . . And more, I needed you on the island for six purposes: Wendigo extermination, saving Thaddeus's life, giving Chase blood to stabilize him until his berserkertude took over. I forgot the others," she said with growing agitation. "No matter. Your takeaway: sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind."
"So after this night, am I supposed to feel beholden to you? Do you expect me to just turn off my animosity toward you?"
He couldn't even if he wanted to. She was right; he was eaten up with hatred.
"I see Furie drowning, but can never find her. She is my sister! And you wouldn't spare me that?"
Perhaps I ought to tell Nix where I left her. . . .
But there was more on the line. "You and I both know to whom she's bound. Sinking her was also strategic."
Nix looked dejected. Lips moving silently, she hugged her arms around her chest.
Understanding hit him. In order to help me tonight, she has hurt herself in whatever way. "Nix?" She was weary, bewildered, hardly the malicious being he'd thought her for so long.
In Old Norse, she asked him, "How will I remember the apocalypse?" Her voice was haunted, her slim frame shaking. "There's so much to see, to remember, so many faces . . ."
For all that the memories had been shadowing his thoughts, visions of the future had been obscuring hers. He'd played his one Endgame; apparently, she'd been playing thousands.
"How?" she cried. Lightning flashed, bolts inside the great caverns of Dacia for the first time in history.