Tonight Murdoch might be forced to kill his king.
He had sworn fealty to Kristoff and his Forbearer order, but he was loyal to Nikolai above all others.
After Lukyan left, Murdoch quickly stuffed Daniela's note in his pocket - and donned his sword. He would strike down Kristoff in a heartbeat if his brother was in danger.
When he traced to the great room in Blachmount, Kristoff intoned, "Sit, Murdoch."
Kristoff was at the head of the timeworn table, flanked by four Forbearer elders from Russia, some of the first ones he'd turned -??his own countrymen.
Within their order was a tense alliance between the Russians and Estonians. Kristoff thought the realm of the Lore superseded human concerns and wars. But history was difficult for Murdoch to forget.
Russians had killed him and most of his family.
"I imagine Nikolai will be down shortly." Kristoff was analyzing him. Would he hear Murdoch's beating heart? And if he did, would he say anything about it?
The king often acted in ways that were incomprehensible to Murdoch. He'd demonstrated blistering wrath toward some subjects, and unexpected leniency to others.
Kristoff was a natural-born vampire, not a turned human, and was as shrewd as he was ruthless. As a boy, he'd had his crown stolen by his uncle, Demestriu, the current leader of the Horde. Kristoff had been smuggled out of the capital before Demestriu could assassinate him, then raised in hiding by humans.
Once Kristoff had grown old enough to seek his birthright, he'd had no army, so he'd started making one, siring troops of turned human warriors.
Murdoch sat down uneasily. "What are we doing here?"
"Questioning your brother," Kristoff said. "About his crime."
Striving to make his tone level, he asked, "What crime would that be?"
"One of the worst."
The worst crimes in their order were treason and drinking living blood straight from the flesh.
There'd been no treason. Though Murdoch didn't particularly care about Kristoff's cause - he'd agreed to join the king's army because he'd wanted to live - Nikolai had always fervently believed in what the Forbearers stood for.
And drinking living blood? When Murdoch had seen Nikolai earlier, he'd been content, but he'd still been pallid, still lean. His eyes had been closed, so Murdoch hadn't been able to tell if they were red.
"My liege, you know Nikolai," Murdoch said. "He's a loyal soldier." Besides, Nikolai would've told Murdoch if he'd planned anything.
Murdoch fell silent at that, knowing from experience that Kristoff would say no more. As a natural-born vampire, Kristoff was unable to lie, so instead he often ignored questions and answered others cryptically.
As they waited for Nikolai, Murdoch restlessly glanced around the decaying room. So many memories haunted this place. Here Nikolai had made the fateful decision to try to turn all of their dying family.
Murdoch remembered that time as if it were yesterday.
After he and Nikolai had risen from the dead, they'd traced home and had found their sisters and father dying of plague. Sebastian and Conrad had been stabbed through by Russian marauders and barely clung to life.
All in this room... How the girls had wept when they'd comprehended that they were dying. How filled with rage Sebastian and Conrad had been to be turned into vampires against their will -
Nikolai suddenly materialized. He was black-eyed with fury, his fangs dripping. He must have sensed intruders, and thought them a threat to Myst.
"Wroth, I pity the being who wishes to harm your Bride," Kristoff said.
Murdoch nearly whistled out a breath at Nikolai's appearance. His face had been beaten. His clothing was filthy, his shirt tattered and marked with blood.
Nikolai seemed to be grappling for control. "I would not wish to attend you in such a condition. I'll go wash and change - "
"No, we know you are eager to get back to her for the remains of the night," Kristoff said, then added in a proud tone, "Congratulations, Wroth. You've now been blooded and claimed your Bride." He studied him. "Recently. Though it appears she didn't acquiesce to you."
Did Kristoff think Myst had fought Nikolai? What the hell had happened to his brother since earlier this day? If Nikolai had been content earlier, now he looked determined.
"I'd like to meet her," Kristoff said.
"She is resting."
Murdoch thought he heard her in the bath upstairs. Leisurely bathing? If they'd fought, then why was she not fleeing Nikolai?
Kristoff said, "I suppose she would be resting. In fact, we'd wonder if she weren't."
Two of the elders snickered until Nikolai shot them a quelling scowl.
Kristoff steepled his fingers. "And you drank her blood this night?"
Deny it, Nikolai.
"Did you take her flesh as you did so?"
No, steady Nikolai would never commit this crime, the one punishable by death. Should Kristoff decree it, Nikolai would be chained in an open field until the sun burned him to ash.
When Nikolai's eyes narrowed, Murdoch's hand slipped to his sword hilt. Five against him and Nikolai. Likely the brothers wouldn't make it out of Blachmount alive.
Nikolai's shoulders went back. "I did."
No, brother... He hadn't restrained himself. But why were his eyes clear?
Kristoff ordered, "Take off your shirt."
Murdoch caught Nikolai's glance, tensing to fight, but Kristoff said, "Stand down, Murdoch, no one's dying tonight."
A lashing then? Nikolai removed the shirt, too proud for his own good. His gaze darted to the stairs; even now he worried for his Bride.
"Toss it on the table."
Frowning, Nikolai did. Murdoch caught the scent just as the other elders did. Kristoff had detected traces of Myst's blood, and now they all did as well. Like the others, Murdoch's hands went white on the table, but for a different reason.
Murdoch was reminded anew of Daniela's blood - and of his dream, recalling how he'd pierced the supple flesh of her neck, sucking from her... "And what was it like?" he absently asked, his voice hoarse.
Nikolai didn't answer. Then Kristoff raised his brow in a wordless command.
After a hesitation, Nikolai grated, "There is no description strong enough."
Murdoch barely suppressed a groan and was surprised that no one noticed the hectic drum of his heart.
"How did she feel about your bite?" Kristoff asked.
Again Nikolai was silent.
Kristoff's stare was unflinching. "You resist answering your king on the heels of confessing to our most reviled crime?"
Nikolai resisted because he'd accepted Myst as his. As his family. Wroths protected their family's honor.
Answer him, Nikolai - you can't protect her if you're dead.
Nikolai must have been thinking the same thing. Though distinctly unwilling, he bit out, "She found extreme pleasure from it."
She'd liked being bitten?
Kristoff relaxed back in his chair, his demeanor pleased. He asked those at the table, "Do you think I should forgive Wroth his transgression? For which one of us could have resisted the temptation when she was our Bride and her exquisite blood called?" The king stared at the shredded garment marked by a Valkyrie's blood.
Murdoch masked his shock. For centuries, this had been law. Forbearing from drinking the flesh was how they'd earned their name. Was this a license to drink from one's Bride?
"Continue as you were," Kristoff told Nikolai. "But if your eyes turn red, know that we will destroy you."
Nikolai is free to drink his Bride, to take her blood at his leisure. Murdoch envied him. Again.
Nikolai was stunned as well, but recovered enough to say, "I was coming to Mount Oblak tonight to tell you that Ivo was spotted in New Orleans."
Ivo the Cruel was a leader in the Horde, and their armies had battled in the past. In fact, Mount Oblak had once been his holding.
"He's looking for someone," Nikolai said. "I suspect it could be Myst."
That made sense. She'd been Ivo's prisoner, had already been in his dungeon when the Forbearers had taken the castle.
Nikolai ran a hand over his face, his concern evident. "I need to go - "
"We'll take care of it," Murdoch interrupted sharply. "For God's sake, you stay here and... enjoy... everything." Everything I can't.
Kristoff returned his attention to Nikolai, eyeing him shrewdly. "Find out as much as you can from her. And you will tell us if the memories follow the blood."
After a short nod, Nikolai traced from the room.
His brother hadn't just been spared, he'd as much as had a slap on the back from Kristoff. The king was no doubt thinking of an alliance with the Valkyrie.
And I have a Valkyrie Bride. But Murdoch could never drink her anyway, was a danger to her.
If Nikolai had succumbed, knowing he was breaking the laws of their order, then Murdoch didn't stand a chance of controlling himself with Daniela. And she would find no pleasure in it, had told him she could die from it.
Kristoff stood. "Now, which of you will volunteer to accompany Murdoch to New Orleans where this coven full of Valkyrie is located?"
They all shot to their feet.
One asked, "Does this mean we can drink from our Brides? Without repercussions?"
"Only if they're immortal and can't be killed from blood loss. I believe that's why Nikolai's eyes are still clear," Kristoff said absently, his gaze focused on Murdoch. "A word," Kristoff told him, ushering him aside. "You are charged with protecting Myst the Coveted. This match between her and your brother is critical. Scour the city for Ivo until the sun drives you back."
In the past, Murdoch had searched those city streets for his brother's sake. Now he would do the same for Myst, a female he'd hated for years. "And when I find him?"
"Take him out."
"Is there anything you'd like to tell me, Murdoch?"
"Your heart beats," Kristoff observed. "Don't worry, the others won't notice. Turned humans rarely think to listen for it. When did this happen?"
"A mere five years after your brother. While I've waited millennia." Did Kristoff envy them?
Doubtless. The natural-born vampires had the same pressing drive to find their mates. They were born fully alive, growing much like mortals, until they neared the age when they froze into their immortality. Then with each day, their hearts would beat less, their breaths - and sexual need - gradually diminishing to nothing until they could become blooded.
Just like the Forbearers, the natural-born vampires knew exactly what they were missing...
"Is your Bride by any chance a Valkyrie?"
When Murdoch hesitated, Kristoff's eyes flooded black with anger. "Need I remind you that I'm your king? And I've just shown mercy to your brother."
"She is a Valkyrie."
"Have you been able to learn anything about the Lore from her?"
"I'll be able to find out more in the future," he said, hedging for some reason.
"The future? She's a Valkyrie - the odds are against her wanting anything to do with you."
Murdoch's shoulders straightened. "She told me she wanted to see me again." Before he'd threatened to bite her. But she'd still left her number. "She even gave me her contact information." He pulled the note from his pocket, displaying it.
Kristoff raised a brow at the X s and O s, the puffy hearts. "Call her," he challenged.
Murdoch took his sat-phone from his jacket, then dialed the number. It rang several times.
"Hmm. Not waiting by the phone for your call?"
Murdoch heard a voice-answering service clicking on. Kristoff did as well and said, "Probably in the shower, then?"
But a woman's voice said, "If you've reached this message and you weren't trying to contact Regin the Radiant" -
- "then I know three things about you. One of my half sisters just tooled your ass and never wants to see you again. B. You're pop-culturally illiterate not to know that this number is a song. And three, you'll never tell another male about this humiliating prank, so the number trick can be continued indefinitely. If, however, you called for moi, then say something to amuse me after the beep."
Murdoch's anger was boiling. Just as he was about to unleash his wrath in a message, a computerized voice said, "Mailbox is full."
That little witch...
"I understand you had a reputation for being popular with women," Kristoff said as he collected Nikolai's bloody shirt from the table. "You'd better recognize that a Valkyrie is not exactly your typical woman."