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Elder Vlad stood by the desecrated mausoleum peering down at the charred male corpse. Blue blood slowly blackened beneath the visible pulsing veins in the paper-thin skin of Vlad’s bald head while his black irises completely overtook the whites of his eyes. The Vampires around him were quiet and still under the blue-white wash of moonlight in the cemetery, awaiting his permission to investigate. Fury threaded through his body like dark tendrils of hatred, although the ancient vampire remained stoic.
“Who did this?” His rhetorical question was uttered between his fangs with deadly calm. He already knew the culprits; his angry query was simply a command for external confirmation. Elder Vlad glanced up, holding his top hunter lieutenant’s gaze, and impatiently waited for an answer.
“We believe it had to be Unseelie Fae, Your Excellency. Just like the others.” Caleb dropped to one leather-clad knee, allowing his long spill of platinum hair to flow over his shoulders as he more closely examined the Vampire ash. The black leather coat Caleb wore dusted the ground, billowing out around him from supernatural fury.
“Undoubtedly death by daylight invasion,” Caleb said, suddenly looking up baring fangs as his rage kindled. “I suspect that Monroe Bonaventure went to ground, sleeping here in his mausoleum for fear that since the mansions of so many others had been recently overrun that his might be as well. But they found the poor bastard anyway.”
“He was my sixth and last viceroy in the region.” Elder Vlad paced away with silent footsteps, beginning to levitate from his unspent anger, and then he turned quickly to speak in a burst of rage to the assembled hunters. “We are of the caste Vampyre! We are the eternal night! That we fear anything is sacrilege! We are the definition of fear in the supernatural world! It is our kind that has always been at the top of the food chain for millennia! By all that is unholy, I vow that there will be merciless redress for this offense. Tell me, dear Mara, what clues have you uncovered, before I formally declare war…. Transylvania will want to know why and I shall give them indisputable proof.”
Mara traced the edges of the broken door hinges and locks around the opened crypt with her fingers. Only her long brunette hair moved in the gentle night breeze as she stopped for a second to peer at Elder Vlad, remaining momentarily eerily still.
“This metal was fractured by sudden freezing … temperatures so cold that a mere tap would have shattered them,” she finally said. Her smoldering dark gaze beheld Caleb’s ice blue stare for a moment before returning to Elder Vlad. “Our local Seelie Fae do not work with such extreme temperatures,” she murmured, her voice sounding like a seductive forensic expert’s. “Nor do the wolves.”
Elder Vlad narrowed his gaze and looked off into the distance. “No, they don’t, do they.”
Mara shook her head. “Sir Rodney is many things, but a fool he is not,” she said with a low hiss between her fangs.
“Your orders, Your Excellency?” Caleb asked, rising to stand with his head bowed before the ancient leader of the North American Vampire Cartel.
“Fix this,” Elder Vlad murmured. “Make sure the Unseelie have a list of names for which we demand blood restitution. And do be sure to let Queen Cerridwen of Hecate know how very displeased I am.”
“Queen Cerridwen of Hecate,” Rupert announced, bowing before Sir Rodney as he entered the war room with Garth and a formidable retinue of palace guards.
“Cerridwen,” Sir Rodney said in an even tone, offering her a slight bow while refreshing his Fae ale. “And to what do I owe the rare pleasure—especially at this hour, unannounced, and well after I have declared war on you via Fae missive for your treason of siding with Vampires against my kingdom?”
“I was set up, Rodney. Purely and simply.” Queen Cerridwen casually shed her mink coat and walked forward, allowing it to pool on the floor behind her. “I received your missive and I suspect that you received mine stating that all is forgiven. We are not at war … what has been between us has been a bitter disagreement at times—something that occasionally happens amongst evenly matched rivals—but never war. However, we are now under siege.”
“Rivals,” he said flatly, his sapphire gaze holding hers for ransom.
“Among other things,” she said softly. “Is that not sometimes the outgrowth of passion … for lovers to become rivals?”
Her cool gaze warmed him as it slowly raked him from head to toe.
“You don’t mean that,” she murmured. “I have known you a long time, my summer prince. Your warmth always belies the coldness of your words.”
Sir Rodney glanced over her head at his men who rimmed the room in protection, noting how they bristled at the queen’s blatant attempt to lure him into complacency with feminine charm.
“And your coldness always belied your warmth, Cerridwen. Therein always lay the conundrum.”
“Touché. Evenly matched in words and wit, as I said.” A sad smile overtook her face as she walked closer to stand before him. “We may have fought, but the one thing you never lost was my respect.”
He nodded. “And I never lost respect for how dangerous you can be when crossed, Cerridwen. Forgive my hesitancy to simply allow bygones to be bygones. I have felt your wrath, and men died behind it. We did not fight as a couple; we went to war. So let us not play games tonight. State your cause or leave my castle.”
“Very well,” she said, lifting her chin. “I have traveled long to come here before nightfall, as have my guards. Surely hospitality is not so lacking that you would see us unsheltered against Vampires in the dead of night?”
“Rupert, please bring the lady refreshment and have her men placed in the dungeon under heavy guard—albeit with food and ale.”
“Thank you,” Queen Cerridwen replied in a tight voice, keeping her unblinking gaze on her ex-husband.
“Aye.” Sir Rodney waved his hand before her to motion for her to be seated at his round table. A chair drew itself away from the table, waiting for her to fill it, but she declined.
“There is no need for me to sit here and break bread with you, Rodney, as I am clearly not trusted. Should you cough from swallowing your food too quickly or somehow accidentally choke on a quail bone, your men would have my head thrust in the guillotine. Therefore, as long as my guards are fed, I am fine. But the information I have brought you is vital to our Fae way of life.”
She kept her eyes on her ex-husband’s back as he walked away from her with a cup of ale in one hand and the other clasped in a fist at his spine. Despite the years and all the raging water under the bridge between them, it was hard not to study his regal posture and broad shoulders or the way his dark brown hair spilled over them. That sight was almost as compelling as his deep blue eyes and his strong jawline.
“You make me sound like such a lout, Cerridwen … and yet trust is hard to come by between us, for good cause.” He turned away from the window and stared at her.
“Yes, it is, Rodney,” she said in a gentle tone that lacked its usual bitter edge. “I thought we would live a long and passionate existence together—you ruling the summer and I ruling the winter—but after the first century you grew bored of me and the nymphs and human conquests were too much of a temptation. I do know about trust becoming a difficult commodity to own.”
“Back to that again,” he said, taking a slow sip of ale and sending his gaze toward the window once more.
“It never left that,” she said more coolly than intended.
“It never does … but there were other things, too.”
“Yes. Like your weakness for the human condition and my disdain of it.”
He looked at her hard, ale held mid-air. “Have you not learned from what we have recently experienced that there are those of that species that have honor?” He paced to the round table and set down his ale, waving Rupert to set down the silver-domed tray of refreshments he’d brought in for the queen. “They are weak; they own no magic but rush in anyway to do that which is heroic. Some of my men would not be here were it not for the humans that Sasha Trudeau led into battle with us against Elder Vlad and the horror he conjured up from the demon depths.”
“Time improves vision and perspective,” Queen Cerridwen said carefully, and then released a weary sigh.
“Not understanding that, taking such an intractable line against the humans … allowing your subjects to harm them with foul tricks for sheer amusement is what drove me from your bedchamber, Cerridwen—not my so-called wandering eye. I do not claim sainthood, but I was indeed yours without rival for a very long time … until my opinion no longer mattered and I began to feel as though I, too, was one of your subjects.”
Both monarchs looked away and crossed the room in opposite directions, oblivious of the uncomfortable guards who stood stone still during the emotional exchange.
“Milord,” Garth finally said, diplomatically trying to restore order. “There is a matter of state business that Queen Cerridwen has brought tonight … and mayhap we should learn more about this potential Vampire threat?”
Queen Cerridwen lifted her chin as she faced Sir Rodney’s top advisor. “Word has traveled tomy castle doors like wildfire that someone has opened Vampire graves to daylight invasion and has made it appear to be me, using permafrost as asignature. I was left a list of names of the sun torched and given twenty-four hours to answer for my actions. The last grave that was opened was that of Monroe Bonaventure, Elder Vlad’s sixth viceroy.”
“Your calculated coldness is legendary, Queen,” Garth said evenly, his sarcasm biting as he thrust his shoulders back. “Permafrost befits your methods. We well remember the dead roses in the outer gardens, not to mention the dead guards. If you have gotten yourself into a dilemma with your previous cohorts in crime, you may well be in too deep for our assistance. You were in bed with the Vampires at one point. We, the Seelie, also have long memories and we fail to see what this has to do with us?”
She spun on Sir Rodney, tears of anger and frustration glittering in her pretty eyes. “All of that nasty business of temporarily siding with the Vampires was a matter of court record, and you learned that in the swamps of this godforsaken land! I was duped by Elder Vlad, coerced into an arrangement with him against you, thinking you had attacked one of my vassals in retribution for what happened with a rogue member of my court. But once I learned of his duplicity, I promised him that the Fae had very long memories and there would indeed be a cold day in Hell for him to pay for ever making me raise arms against you. However, someone beat me to that promise and has now forced my hand, and, therefore, I suspect, his.”
“Aye … the Fae do have long memories,” Sir Rodney said quietly.
“Can’t you forget the past and understand that we, the Unseelie, are soon to be under attack in the northern country? How long before the Vampires attack the Seelie as well?”
“I cannot forget the past, Cerridwen, any more than you can.”
Her ex-husband’s voice was quiet and sad, like a low rumble of rolling thunder that she felt in her belly. Just the sound of it and the tone of it made her clasp her arms about herself.
“No, I guess we cannot ever forget the past, can we?” she said, swallowing hard. “I should not have come here seeking an ally. My apologies for imposing. Upon first light, my guards and I will be gone.”
“Leave us,” Sir Rodney said, turning away from Cerridwen to stare at his guards.
“What? …,” she murmured, horrified. “Now? At night with Vampire patrols in the hundreds with a bounty on my head? Do you hate me that much, Rodney, that you would—”
“Not you, Cerridwen…. Garth, Rupert, clear the room so that I may speak to my queen privately. Thank you.”
“Milord?” Garth said, glancing at Rupert and the others in sheer disbelief.
“What about my request was unclear?” Sir Rodney said, growing agitated. His gaze remained steady on his men until Garth conceded.
“As you wish, milord,” Garth said in a tight tone of voice, and then bowed and withdrew from the great room, taking the rest of the men with him.
Stunned silent, she watched Rodney’s men leave, now better understanding the part of the past that Rodney was referring to and clearly couldn’t forget. For a moment, she hadn’t been sure he’d remembered what they’d once shared; it had been so long ago and his initial reception of her was so distant. He’d seemed so angry when she first arrived, his voice and remarks still lingering with old hurts from wounds that had cut bone deep. Itwas the same part of their past that she could never fully divest herself of, either; the hurt and the passion was all intertwined, and something that neither his old advisors nor hers would ever fully comprehend.
“Have you eaten?” Sir Rodney asked quietly as the large double doors closed, then went to the table to pour her a goblet of wine.
“Not since yesterday,” Queen Cerridwen said in a soft tone as he brought her the chalice. She accepted it from him, allowing her fingers to gently graze his. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome … but that is not good. We must rectify your nutrition before you waste away. My kitchen staff is at your disposal, if what Rupert has brought isn’t satisfactory.”
Excerpted from Left for Undead by L. A. Banks.
Copyright © 2010 by L. A. Banks.
Published in October 2010 by St.Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.