"I traced to Kaderin." When Sebastian saw Kaderin dig a phone from her jacket, then slip through the doorway, he turned back to Riora with his jaw clenched. "She was my destination."
Riora's lips curled as if she were delighted. Suddenly, her eyes seemed to burn. "But, vampire, that's impossible."
In a distracted tone, he said, "Perhaps it was considered so before, but - "
"How did you do it?" She placed her forefinger on the altar and used it to press herself up to a sitting position at the edge.
He hurriedly explained how the variable constraints couldn't be separated. You couldn't have one possible and the other impossible when they were so similar. If it was a feat of mental dexterity and sense-memory detail, then it followed that tracing could be taken to extremes not seen before.
"Ut-ter-ly fascinating." She turned to the small man, fanning herself. "Scribe, I think I'm in love. He's like my very own foot soldier! How shall I reward him?"
Scribe said, "To tell by his grinding teeth and bulging jaw, I'd say he has only one desire at present." Sebastian saw that Scribe did not appreciate his interest in the Valkyrie.
"Oh, yes. Kaderin." Riora sniffed. "I'm jealous, vampire, and let down. And later I shall cry."
Sebastian sensed power in her, fickle power, and until he knew what he was about in this world, he thought it wise to tread carefully. "I... meant no offense."
Scribe cleared his throat, and as if the words were tortured from him, he said, "Goddess Riora, it's incumbent upon me to tell you that your attraction to this male is quite possible. I daresay his winning over Lady Kaderin is, given her history, impossible."
Her eyes widened, and she nodded sagely. "Ah, you are right. This is why I keep you alive - "
"What about Kaderin's history?" Sebastian interrupted.
Riora squinted at him as if he were a bug she'd never seen before, actually leaning her head in closer to his face. "You spoke over me. I've conflicting impulses to boil you and coddle you."
"Goddess, I apologize," he said, but he continued undaunted. "You mentioned her history... "
As though the trespasses were forgotten, she whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "Vampires have behaved very badly toward Kaderin. And, well, you're a vampire."
His fangs sharpened at the thought of her being hurt. "What was done to her?"
She ignored his grated question, and asked one of her own. "Do you have any idea how high you reach for one such as her?"
In fact, he was well acquainted with that idea. Though Kaderin abhorred what he was, he couldn't be more pleased with her. When she'd hopped up onto this altar next to Riora, he'd seen that the goddess had nothing over his Bride.
Still, he raised his chin. "I have wealth to spoil her and strength to protect her. She could do worse for a husband."
"Arrogant vampire." She chuckled. "She's the daughter of gods."
He swallowed. And that would be why she outshone a goddess.
"Still feel so confident?"
He hadn't been before. Now he wondered if even the minuscule odds he'd given himself were overestimated.
She asked, "Do you plan to win the key for her?"
"Wouldn't want it for yourself?" she asked. "Imagine the possibilities."
"It is hard for me to believe it would work," he admitted. "Is there any proof it will?"
"No. I have no proof, at all." Riora sighed. "Just the word of Mr. Thrane."
Sebastian ran his hand over the back of his neck, but the movement made his chest muscles scream in protest. "Then can I ask why you are convinced it will work?"
"I am convinced it will work, vampire, because it's impossible for it to work!"
Just when he wondered if rational discussion with her was possible, she suggested, "You should take this day to learn about Kaderin."
This definitely struck Sebastian as a worthy plan. "I would love to, but I lack the resources to learn anything."
"Resources abound. Kaderin likes the now, and Valkyrie are amused with evolving human culture. Yet you do not seem to know much about this time. Read as much as you can get through today. And listen to the TV out of the corner of your ear."
"TV. I don't own one."
"I daresay Kaderin does, and I can say with certainty that she won't be at her flat today."
Trespassing in his Bride's home when she wasn't there?
"Scribe knows her address in London." A look passed between them, and Scribe's pale face seemed to darken as though flushed.
"Yes," Scribe said with a thinly veiled sneer. "If you go there, remember that Spike TV and the Playboy Channel will hip you to our times as well as anything. Start there."
Sebastian would be sure to steer clear of whatever he'd just suggested. He glanced at the door once more, though he knew Kaderin was long gone.
"Still antsy?" Riora asked. "You can trace to her at any time."
"You said there are prizes all over the world. I do not know that I can trace halfway around the earth, much less accurately to her."
She murmured, "It would seem impossible. But in the past, she's always stayed on this side of the earth at the start. Close by Europe. Low-hanging fruit. That's the way she's always worked. And since dawn's less than an hour away, you would trace to her right into the sun... "
Surveying his chest, she said, "Let her go, knight. Besides, you need to heal. I fear Bowen hasn't had all his shots."
Trust a mad goddess and her vengeful scribe? Beggars couldn't be choosers. And you don't have a friend in the world.
"Right." Sebastian nodded firmly. "How far can she get in a day?"
Russian Ice Station Kovalevska, Antarctica Eight hours later
Prize: Three mirror amulets, used as glamours, worth twelve points each
V oila," Regin said to Kaderin, pulling down her fuzzy purple scarf. "I told you I'd get you a snowcat. I told you I had Russian connections. And what is that?" She tapped her chin. "Hmmm. Oh, yes, let me look. A snowcat."
Kaderin cringed at the black-market vehicle before them. This junker was supposed to take them to the amulets closeted in the Transantarctic mountain range?
She had seen similar vehicles used to groom snow in the States. And so she was aware that this one, purchased from Regin's Russian connections, was... subpar.
Of course, when Kaderin had called the coven, she'd gotten none other than Regin.
Kaderin glowered at her, pulling her farther away from the five Russian humans who'd choppered them to the abandoned station. The ex-military crew was a small phalanx of a larger consortium that sold off military equipment for the Russian mob.
Regin had told them she and Kaderin were scientists; Regin sported disco swirl snow boots.
Kaderin had been forced to abandon the sleek Augusta 109 helicopter, leaving it and her pilots behind on one of the helipads of an unregistered icebreaker. Apparently, neither the Augusta nor the pilots were comfortable flying in the extreme low temperatures here. The Russians' helicopter, the Arktika Mi-8, was - fitting, since it was a Cold War relic.
And now, this sad, sad little snowcat.
She'd known better than to let Regin assist her with this multi-leg jaunt, much less meet her. Yes, Regin did have the military contacts Kaderin had known she'd need to get south - really south. And yes, Regin had sworn she spoke Russian, which was about the only Baltic language Kaderin didn't have a handle on.
But the easiest way to get disqualified from the Hie was to draw human attention to the Lore, and Regin's utter lack of subtlety - and her glowing skin - kept Kaderin wary.
When asked why her skin was so radiant, Regin had been known to answer, "Eight glasses of water every day. Skin polish! Fateful swim in a radioactive lake... "
"Regin, why is the cab wooden?"
She tilted her head, puzzled herself, then rallied to say, "Just on the outside. Inside? We'll be like joeys in a pouch, not that we're going to die of cold anytime soon, even if it is negative fifty right now. Hey, did I mention the bucket seats, baby? This is the Cadillac-o-Snowcats."
Regin is young, Kaderin reminded herself. Only ten centuries old.
"Lookit, it's not like we have much choice about the snowcat, anyway. This is as far as the crew will take us."
"I still don't see why we couldn't just fly all the way to the mountain range." Kaderin gazed longingly at the Arktika - even that tin bucket of a whirlybird was preferable. Two soldiers had anchored it down and were keeping it running - it was night in Antarctica in the middle of austral fall, and if the helicopter rotors stilled for even a few seconds, they would freeze that way.
"You will if the wind starts whipping up," Regin answered. "Freak katabatic winds aloft. I learned that word today."
Aloft or katabatic? Kaderin was tempted to ask.
"Besides, at that altitude and in this season," she continued, "the rotors would definitely freeze. And we don't have an automatic thermoelectric anti-icing system. We're all manual."
As if to illustrate "manual," two other soldiers were spraying a de-icer on the less intricate snowcat engine, a secret cocktail of calcium chloride that was stronger than any on the market, black or not. The last soldier, the leader, Ivan, was a tall blond of exceptional good looks. He took another swig from a flask of vodka that never froze, then gave a bow to Regin.
Earlier, he and Regin had been playing slap hands, gloveless, in subzero temperatures, because "it hurts worse in the cold."
Regin waved back at him, smiling sunnily even while muttering, "Young, dumb, and hung. Where do I sign?"
Kaderin pinched her forehead. She had finally decided to ask the coven for help and wound up with the most frat-pledge-esque of the Valkyrie - and the one she'd dreaded facing.
Regin's mother, the last survivor of a vampire attack on the Radiant Ones, had been on the verge of death when rescued by WĘ«den and Freya. She'd been scarred with bites until the day she died, years later. Even on her beautiful glowing face.
Regin had learned to count by them.
Kaderin began pacing. "You shouldn't have come, Regin."
"You had two prerequisites." Regin plopped down on a snowbank. "And I do believe I have Russian ex-mil contacts, and I speak the language - "
"Oh, come on! I've since learned that you do not by any stretch. You think Dostoyevsky is Russian for 'How's it hanging?' "
She blinked up at Kaderin as she paced by. "Then how do you say it?"
"I - don't - know."
"Then how do you know it's not Dostoyevsky? No. Really." She blew a bubble with her gum - possibly the first to do so at this location - but it flash-froze, and she had to crunch it back to gum consistency with her molars. "Obi-Wan, I was your only hope."
Regin knew Kaderin did not appreciate Star Wars references. "There had to be someone," Kaderin insisted.
"Would you rather Nïx had come?"
Nucking Futs Nïx. "As a matter of fact, she was on the list of prizes. Or at least, the hair of the oldest Valkyrie was."
"No wonder!" At Kaderin's raised eyebrows, Regin explained, "Right before we took off, Nïx called to tell me she went into the Circle K to get a People and some madman sheared off most of her hair." She added, "Nïx thinks it's 'becoming.' Kind of like an early Katie Couric or Tennille of Captain and - "
"What?" She stomped one of her hyper-pink and purple snow boots. "What'd I say?"
"Myst could've come."
"I told you, she's busy."
Kaderin said, "And you never told me with what."
She hiked her shoulders and averted her eyes. "Dunno with what."
"Regin, I've told you what's at stake."
"I know. And we're totally going to win the key."
Kaderin didn't miss that Regin had slipped we're into that sentence. "What is taking them so long? These amulets are decade-long glamours. We're going to be overrun with trolls and killer kobolds wanting to look human."
Regin snorted, she laughed so abruptly. She bent all the way over, elbows past her knees.
"Damn you, it isn't funny."
Once her guffaws died down, Regin said, "You are the only person on earth who calls them killer kobolds. That's such a slippery slope away from killer gnome."
"Have you forgotten that they took my foot?" She'd just been frozen into her immortality - mere days earlier - otherwise, it would not have regenerated. In any case, it had hurt like hell. "And when was the last time you lost a body part?"
Regin gazed up solemnly. "I lost a finger in the Battle of Evermore."
"Oh." Kaderin frowned, then cried, " 'The Battle of Evermore' is a Led Zeppelin song!"
"Yeah. But wasn't it written about us?" Regin's eyes widened. "Hey, speaking of songs, lookit what I made for our snowcat ride." She pulled out an iPod, careful to keep it rubbed warm. "A snow-trip mix!"
Kaderin saw red and pounced on her, shoving her into the snow. She ceased when she registered that Regin was too dumbfounded to fight back. The Russians stopped what they were doing, staring, no doubt wondering why two scientists were wrestling in the snow.
Kaderin stood, giving Regin a hand up, and eked out an unpracticed smile for the Russians.
"Tetchy," Regin said, brushing off her clothing. "Seems somebody's shucking their cursey-wursey."
Only ten centuries old. Only ten centuries...
"It's not a curse. It was - it is a blessing." She lifted her chin, not wanting Regin to know she'd begun to feel again - and that she didn't see that woeful development ending anytime soon. If Kaderin's coven mates found out, they'd be so happy, making a huge deal out of this. Which, coincidentally, could now embarrass her. "I apologize. The stress of the Hie makes the blessing waver at times - " She broke off when a helicopter flew over, a Canadian flag on the tail. "You said we couldn't fly!"
"Wow," Regin said casually. "They must have an automatic thermoelectric anti-icing system."
Just as she was about to destroy Regin, Ivan called out, waving them over to the snowcat. Kaderin pointed at Regin but couldn't manage words. Regin pointed back with a wink, then turned to grab their gear, including their swords hidden in ski cases.
Shake it off. Focus.
After Ivan opened their doors and they climbed in, he pulled down his mask and leaned in close to Regin to say something very earnestly in Russian.
Regin translated. "He says if a storm blows in or if we're not back by a certain time, they'll be forced to leave us."
"How much time do we have?"
"They've got enough fuel to keep the rotors creeping for four hours." Regin tapped her chin with her gloved fingers. "Four hours or possibly forty minutes. I can't be certain, since my knowledge of Russian really does blow," she admitted baldly.
Before Kaderin could say anything, Regin raised her hand and lovingly scrunched Ivan's cheeks. She waggled his face back and forth, then pushed him back with a forefinger against his lips so she could slam the door shut.
"Hey, there's more than one amulet, right?" Regin said when they were alone. "You don't get extra credit for being there first."
Kaderin slid her sword out of the case in the backseat, readying for trouble. "No. But they could set traps."
"And how are kobolds going to chopper out here in the first place?" Regin asked. "I just can't picture the critters at the helipad, you know?"
"They can turn invisible and stow along. I unknowingly sailed one all the way to Australia in the last Hie," she said, then added, "Sadly, he had an accident and wasn't quite up for the return trip." When Ivan gave them another formal bow, Kaderin frowned. "What type of scientists did you tell them we are, anyway?"
"Glaciologists from the University of North Dakota studying a sudden massive fissure caught by satellite. I thought there was a certain irony in saying we had to act swiftly about a glacier."
"Dakotan glaciologists, huh?"
"If those guys want to believe two preternaturally foxy Valkyrie - one of whom is sporting disco snow boots - are scientists, who am I to naysay?" Regin blew a bubble, revving the engine. "Let the science commence."
Another helicopter banked over them.
At sunset, when Sebastian traced to find his Bride and his skin flash-froze, he realized the goddess had duped him.
He'd spent the entire day in Kaderin's townhouse, having traced from the temple to London, then hailed a cab. Just minutes before dawn, Sebastian had arrived at the address Scribe had finally surrendered, then traced inside.
In her home, after drawing all the curtains, he'd discovered he could, in fact, "listen out of the corner of his ear" to TV while he speed-read through newspapers. Yet he'd discovered nothing new about Kaderin from her Spartan, nondescript living space. If he hadn't smelled her scent on her silk pillow and finally found a collection of weapons, shields, whips, and manacles in a closet, he might have wondered if Riora and her Scribe had even given him the correct address.
And now this.
"Low-hanging fruit," Riora had said. "She'll stay close by Europe," she'd reassured Sebastian. Yet he'd appeared in the wake of an unwieldy vehicle choking out black smoke as it crawled over an icy plain.