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Blood Red Kiss
Mount Oblak Castle, Russia
FIVE YEARS AGO
If the overgrown vampire didn’t stop staring at her, even his talent with a sword wouldn’t keep his head upon his shoulders.
The thought made Myst, an immortal known as the Coveted One, grin as she watched two vampire armies battle from her cell window. She leapt up to the sill, curling up and resting her forehead against the reinforced bars.
The poor warlord with his broad shoulders and jet-black hair was about to join a legion of other males—the ones whose last sight had been her smiling face.
She tilted her head when he ducked and ran through an enemy. He was a big male, at least six and a half feet tall, but surprisingly fast.
She knew fighting and liked his style. Dirty. He’d cut with his sword then strike out with his fist, or dodge a thrust then throw an elbow.
What she wouldn’t give to be down there fighting. In the middle. Against both sides. Against him.
She fought dirtier.
His attention continued to stray toward her; once he’d even killed while his gaze was still on her. She’d blown him a kiss, sincerely, choosing to see it as a tribute.
He found time to glance back even as he thundered orders to the army of rebel vampires. His strategy was brilliant, she grudgingly admitted, even though some of his men used firearms.
Loreans scorned human weapons like these. Guns could only kill humans, which was beyond unsporting.
Yet pesky bullets—aside from ruining couture—hurt. They could immobilize an immortal for precious seconds, long enough for a dirty fighter to take a foe’s head. Used enough times, they could help take an “untakable” castle like Ivo the Cruel’s.
Ivo. Her jailer and tormentor.
Myst hardly cared that he was about to have his ass handed to him. Her situation wouldn’t change, because these rebels, turned humans known as the Forbearers, were still vampires.
A blood foe is a blood foe is a blood foe. . . .
An explosion rocked the castle, then another. And another. Debris rained from the dungeon ceiling. In neighboring cells, low beings—those who made up the creature-feature underbelly of the Lore—howled.
With each blast, their wails increased in volume, until . . . the battle was over.
Silence. An aftershock here and there. A muted whimper.
The defense of this castle was no more.
Invading rebels searched for enemies, but Ivo and his men weren’t fight-to-the-death sorts. They’d probably teleported. He who fights and runs away, lives to run away another day. Ha.
The sound of heavy footsteps echoed inside the dungeon. Someone was making his way down the corridor, directly to her cell. . . .
The warlord appeared on the other side of the bars.
From her perch in the window, she examined him. He had thick, straight black hair that hung over his face in careless sections, as if he’d sheared them off with a blade. Some hanks were kept from his field of vision with those small ravel plaits like the berserkers used to wear. His body was powerful, his muscles swollen from use.
She wanted to purr—central casting had just sent her a fierce warlord!
“Come down from there, woman.” Deep voice. Russian accent, moneyed, aristocratic.
“Or what? You’ll lock me away in a dungeon?”
“I might free you.”
She was at the bars before he’d had time to lower his gaze from the window. Had his squared jaw slackened a touch? She listened for a quickening of his heart, but he had no heartbeat whatsoever.
So the vampire was single?
His eyes were clear of the red haze that marked bloodlust, which meant he had never drunk a being to death. But then a Forbearer never took blood straight from the flesh.
Even after beholding her face up close, he didn’t immediately shove the key into the lock to free her. Yet his lips parted, exposing his fangs for her to see. His were kind of sexy—not too prominent or even much longer than a human’s canines.
When she saw the short, splendid scar that passed down both of his lips, her lightning struck just outside. Scars, any external evidence of pain, attracted Myst. Pain forged strength. Strength begat electricity. This one could give it to her.
He might even be missing an eye under a thick hank of hair.
She stifled a throaty moan as her hand shot out to brush his hair back. But he was quick, catching her wrist. When she curled one finger in a beckoning gesture, he released her, allowing her to reach forward. She brushed his hair back, revealing a hard-planed, masculine face covered with grit and ash from the battle.
He was still in possession of both of his eyes, and they were intense. Flinty gray.
She dropped her hand and gripped the bars, lazily stroking them as her gaze dipped to his mouth again. She was surprised by how carnal she found it, especially since the vampire could use it to hurt her.
The gold chain she’d worn around her waist for millennia now felt heavy on her.
“What are you?” he asked in his pleasingly low voice.
She realized his accent was actually Estonian, not Russian. The general was from neighboring Estonia, which made him a kind of Nordic Russian (though she doubted he would appreciate that description). She frowned at his question and pulled back her hair to reveal her pointed ear. “Nothing?” She parted her lips and tapped her tongue against her small, dormant fangs. No recognition.
Rumors in the Lore held that King Kristoff and his Forbearers knew little of their fellow immortals. The male before her was an army leader, a general most likely, and he hadn’t a clue she was a Valkyrie.
Killing these Forbearers would be easy for her and her sisters. Too easy. Like being your own secret Santa.
Myst had just confirmed rumors of asses and elbows—and this army’s inability to differentiate between the two.
“What are you?” Nikolai demanded again, surprised his voice was steady.
When he’d seen this female in the light, he’d felt like exhaling a stunned breath—if his kind respired.
Flawless skin, coral lips, flame-red hair. The eyes that flickered over him were an impossible green.
She was strikingly lovely, with a beauty only hinted at from a distance. On the battlefield, he’d been recklessly drawn to her.
Though she clearly expected him to recognize her kind, he could determine only that she wasn’t human. Her ears said fey, but she also had the smallest fangs.
“Free me,” the creature said.
“Swear fealty to my king, and I will.”
The way she held the bars was suggestive; everything about her was . . . suggestive. “I can’t do that, but you’ve no right to keep me here.”
His brother Murdoch passed by, raised his eyebrows at Nikolai’s discovery, and muttered in Estonian, “Sweet Christ.” Then he walked on.
Why was Nikolai unable to do the same? “What are you?” He wasn’t used to his questions going unanswered. “And what’s your name?”
Another stroke of the bars. “What do you want it to be?”
He scowled. “Are you a vampire?”
“Not the last time I checked.” Her voice was sensual. He couldn’t place her drawling accent.
“Are you innocent of malice against us?”
She gave a dismissive wave. “Oh, good gods, no. I love to kill leeches.”
“Then rot in here.” As if she could kill a vampire. She was scarcely over five feet tall and delicately built—aside from the generous breasts showcased in her tight shirt.
When he turned to go, she called after him, “I smell smoke. Ivo the Cruel burned his records before he fled, didn’t he?”
Nikolai stilled, clenching his fists because he’d have to return. “Correct,” he grated at the cell once more.
“And this new king’s army is full of Forbearers—turned humans?” she asked. “I’ll bet you chose to attack this particular Horde stronghold—over the four others, including the royal seat—because you needed Oblak’s records.”
How did she know their agenda so well?
Nikolai could plan battles and sieges—he’d earned his rank by this victory alone—but he knew nothing of this new world that would help to advance the army. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one.
“The blind leading the blind,” King Kristoff had muttered when they’d found the records reduced to a smoldering heap of ash.
“You think to bargain for your freedom?” Nikolai said. “If you do happen to have information, I can torture you for it.”
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” she said with a laugh. “I dislike torture and grow sulky under pincers.”
The things in the other cells, many of which he never could have imagined, howled at that.
“Now, let’s not quarrel, vampire. Free me, and we’ll go to your room and talk.” She offered her graceful hand to him. A smudge of ash was stark against her alabaster skin.
“I don’t think so.”
“You’ll call for me. You’ll be lonely in your new quarters and will feel out of sorts. I could let you pet my hair until you fall asleep.”
He drew in closer to ask in all seriousness, “You’re mad, aren’t you?”
“As—a—hatter,” she murmured back.
He felt a hint of sympathy for the creature. “How long have you been in here?”
“For four long . . . interminable . . . days.”
“Which is why I want you to take me with you. I don’t eat much.”
The dungeon erupted with laughter again.
“Don’t hold your breath, female.”
“Certainly not like you, Forbearer.”
“How did you know what I am? And who we are?”
“I know everything.”
If true, she had a wealth they lacked.
“Leave her,” Murdoch called at the gateway of the dungeon. His brows were drawn, no doubt in puzzlement at his brother’s interest.
Nikolai had never pursued women. When he’d been human, they’d either come to him or he’d gone without. He’d had no time during the war. As a vampire, he had no such need. Not until he could find his Bride.
He shook his head at the insane, fey creature, then forced himself to walk on. But he thought he heard her whisper, “Call for me, General,” making the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
He followed his brother to Kristoff’s new suite. Their king was gazing out into the night from a generous window—one that would be shuttered at dawn. When he turned to them, his gaunt face looked weary.
Kristoff was the sole natural-born vampire among them. Killing his own kind must have been difficult for him, no matter how crazed the Horde had become—and no matter that they followed his uncle Demestriu, who’d stolen his crown centuries ago.
Nikolai had no such hesitation. He was weary, but only because hacking through the Horde had overworked his sword arm. “Were any of the records salvageable?” he asked with little hope.
If the vampires of this castle had spent as much energy fighting as burning, they might have kept Oblak. To Wroth’s disgust, they’d fled. He didn’t understand it. When defending your home, you fought to the death.
Kristoff answered, “None.”
The rules of this new world were complex and often counterintuitive. Without those records, their own ignorance would defeat them.
Kristoff, the rightful Horde king, had been raised by humans far from Demestriu’s reach. For centuries he had lived among mortals, hiding his true nature and discovering little of the Lore. His army consisted of human warriors he’d turned as they died on the battlefield, so they knew nothing more than he did.
Nikolai had thought vampires were mere myths until Kristoff had stood over him like an angel of death, offering eternal life in exchange for eternal fealty.
The Forbearers were trapped in a kind of twilight—no longer human and yet universally shunned by all the factions of the Lore. Those beings hid in the shadows, fleeing from whatever land Kristoff’s army occupied, working together to be one step ahead.
Loreans had kept themselves hidden from humanity for ages. That same effort went into keeping Kristoff’s soldiers in the dark.
“Any sign of Conrad or Sebastian?” Kristoff asked.
Nikolai shook his head. He hadn’t seen his two other brothers since shortly after they’d been turned. But natural-born vampires often clashed with turned humans, so he and Murdoch had distantly hoped the pair might be in the dungeon of this castle.
“Perhaps the next Horde stronghold.”
Nikolai nodded, though he doubted it. He feared his brother Bastian was dead and believed the mind of the youngest, Conrad, was unreachable even if he could be found. The two had not appreciated the eternal life Nikolai and Murdoch had forced on them.
Murdoch seemed unconcerned that they hadn’t located their brothers, but then he generally seemed unconcerned about everything.
Though they shared similar looks, he and Nikolai couldn’t have been more different in personality. Nikolai believed in Kristoff’s cause, seeing many parallels to his own past, and wanted to continue to fight. Murdoch didn’t particularly care. Nikolai suspected his brother fought only as a favor to him—or because they had nothing else now.
“Nikolai found a being in the dungeon,” Murdoch said. “She seems to have extensive knowledge of the Lore.”
“What kind of being?”
Nikolai answered, “I have no idea. She appears fey, with pointed ears. But she also has small fangs, and her fingernails are more like . . . claws. She’s not a vampire.”
Kristoff frowned at that. “Perhaps she’s born of more than one species?”
“Possibly.” More speculation. Nikolai was sick of it. He wanted to know the rules of the game.
So he could dominate it.
“Find out everything you can from her.”
“She won’t talk,” Nikolai said. “I’ve interrogated enough to predict that. And she hates vampires.”
Kristoff’s eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll treat her as the Horde would. If we haven’t extracted information from the rest of the prisoners by tomorrow night, torture her for it.”
Nikolai nodded, but the idea sat ill with him. As a human, he’d been merciless to his enemies, but he’d never tortured a woman.
She isn’t truly a woman, he reminded himself. She was a Lore female, and their army’s survival could depend on the knowledge she held.
Perhaps he’d never tortured a woman because he’d never needed to.
As he made his way to his new chambers, Nikolai realized the creature had been right. He was going to call her up to him.
To do what with her, he didn’t know.