Deep Kiss of Winter


So this is Icergard, Danii thought as Jadian gave her the grand tour of the castle the next day. I'm definitely getting a Fortress of Solitude vibe.

When she'd awakened, sharp-eared Icere maids had smiled shyly as they laid out a gown of the softest silk Danii had ever imagined, along with Svana's crown.

A fire had burned in a hearth of ice - a blue fire that emanated cold.

Which was just cool.

Last night, it had been late here when Jadian had sneaked her into her new royal chambers. He'd thought it "politically unwise" for the Icere to see their new queen's face wet from tears, her body lifeless, with her neck bearing the unmistakable mark of a vampire.

"As in most factions of the Lore, vampires are feared and hated here," he'd explained.

Without wonder. She still couldn't believe that Murdoch had bitten her. "What did you do to him?" she'd asked.

"I left him in ice. I would have killed him, but you ordered me not to fight."

"And you follow my orders?"

"You're my queen," he'd said simply. "One who'll be crowned in three days, if that's acceptable to you."

"It is. But what are the Icere going to think of me?"

"They're going to love you as they did your mother... "

Now, as he showed her around, she tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but her mind was troubled over the events of the night. Murdoch's bite had been the worst pain she'd ever experienced, and yet she'd felt some kind of connection to him.

He'd taken her blood, lots of it. Would he dream her memories? At the idea, embarrassment suffused her. Would he know how lonely she'd been?

Gradually, her neck had healed, but she was still uneasy, fretful. Guilt weighed on her. She didn't believe she'd brought on the attack - or that she'd deserved it in any way. But she still felt complicity, because she hadn't repelled him.

She could have frozen Murdoch, could have blasted him with the fury of that blizzard. Instead, a fatalism had swept over her, as if she'd been waiting forever for his bite.

Myst had taken pleasure from it, as had Kaderin. It'd been a nightmare for Daniela -

"Do you regret coming here?" Jadian asked, rousing her from her thoughts. He was gazing straight ahead, his face impassive, but she could sense his tension.

"No, not at all."

"You are quiet."

"Uh, I'm just amazed by what I'm seeing." In truth, Castle Icergard was an engineering marvel. Built beneath an invisible dome of ice, the structure was bricked with baguette-cut diamonds - each half a foot long. The prisms at the ends of the diamonds glinted unrelentingly, like a Valkyrie's worst nightmare. Good thing I'm immune. "It's remarkable," she added.

"It's... home," Jadian said simply.

Inside the castle, elaborate designs were carved into all the walls, with smaller diamonds embedded throughout. Thin sheets of polished and etched ice comprised the windows. Chandeliers of ice hung from the great-hall ceiling, their lights that cold blue fire, shimmering like the aurora borealis dancing in the night sky.

The more Danii saw, the more she loved it here. Ice, ice, and would you like some ice with that ice? Here, plants grew from it. The people held it sacred, just as other cultures worshipped the sun or the earth as life-giving.

Earlier, any of the Icere they'd come upon had been reserved, but as word got around that Danii was personable, more approached her.

A female even asked her to bless her baby girl. Danii swallowed nervously as she gathered the babe in her arms. She'd never in her life held one.

The mother said, "Welcome home, Queen Daniela."

As Danii traced the backs of her fingers over the baby's soft cheek, tears welled.

This is where I belong. Where she'd always belonged.

I am home.

The cell door slammed behind Murdoch, Nikolai, and Sebastian.

"We're screwed," Sebastian muttered.

Murdoch did not disagree.

When the three had shown up at Mount Oblak ready to go to war, the king's guards had instead forced them into a barred suite.

These chambers were used for political prisoners. Here were facilities, a shower. Yet no one could trace inside or out, and the walls and door were mystically reinforced.

Luckily, the three brothers hadn't been taken to the dungeons below, filled with Ivo's old torture devices. But then, Kristoff had made it clear he had no intention of torturing them.

Or freeing them - until they gave up Conrad. Which they would never do.

How long would the king keep them here? Weeks? Or more? At the thought of a protracted imprisonment, Murdoch swore under his breath. Though he had decided not to go after Daniela, his resolve hadn't lasted long. No matter what, he was deeply ashamed of hurting her, and wouldn't rest until he'd apologized to her.

Now he paced, barely listening to his brothers.

"We knew this might happen," Nikolai said. "A one-in-a-thousand chance."

"How did Kristoff find out?" Sebastian snapped.

"He has ways."

"Ways? As in Lukyan or some other Russian," Sebastian said. "When I find out who informed on us - "

"You'll do what?" Nikolai demanded. "We're the ones at fault here. We broke the law."

"But how can Kristoff expect us to give up our own brother?" Sebastian shook his head. "Conrad would be powerless against his men, unable to defend himself, unable to escape."

"We might as well swing the swords ourselves," Nikolai agreed. "But if we think Myst and Kaderin are going to just sit around and accept our capture, we're deluded."

"Kristoff must know they'll wage an attack," Sebastian said. "As soon as they find out what happened, they'll likely plot to take this castle and execute him."

When a chill night breeze sieved through the barred window, Murdoch crossed to it. He sucked in air, feeling hot, claustrophobic.

"Murdoch?" Nikolai said. "Are you even listening to us...?"

How could I have bitten Daniela? When he loved her. And what was fifty years? He could wait an eternity. But he couldn't get to her to tell her this. Frustration strangled him like a noose.

In Murdoch's absence, would Lord Jadian continue kissing her? His fists clenched. Kissing my Daniela. When he punched the wall, he broke every bone in his hand, the protected stone mocking even his immortal strength.

Murdoch turned in time to see Nikolai and Sebastian share a glance. They had to know that he'd been blooded - even Conrad had heard Murdoch's heart beating - but they'd said nothing over the last several months. Probably because of all the secrets they'd been keeping, as well.

"What the hell is going on with you?" Sebastian said.

Murdoch knew he must be shocking them. For so long he'd been carefree. "Don't want to be here," he muttered. The need to talk to his brothers pressed on him, but he volunteered nothing, keeping at least one vow to Daniela.

Only now did he understand why she'd been so secretive about them. I wouldn't have bet on a future with me either. Definitely wouldn't have advertised it.

When dawn came, his brothers slept, but Murdoch dreaded dreaming about her, stealing more of her memories. Hour after hour, he paced, feeling a madness creeping over him. The bars were keeping him from her. Silently, he strained against them. Want to be with her. He couldn't budge them.

Eventually, exhaustion ruled and he passed out, unwillingly slipping into dreams. This time, he saw the reflection of a young girl - he knew it was Daniela - gazing back at him from a mirror. A striking woman with the same unusual coloring as Daniela was behind her, fitting a crown atop her head. Her mother? They spoke to each other in a language that sounded similar to Icelandic, but he understood it...

"You already know the way," the mother said. "You just haven't remembered it yet."

Then came a more recent memory: Daniela staring at her ice carvings, wondering, Are these clues how to get to Icergard...?

Murdoch woke in a rush, shooting up from his cot in the middle of the day. "It's so bloody hot in here!" He yanked off his jacket in irritation.

When Nikolai rose to stoke the fire, Murdoch grated, "No, no fire! Put it out." He imagined frost. Blood served cold. For once, he craved being back amid the ice at the lodge.

Sebastian was awake as well and frowned at him. "It's actually cool."

"How can you say that?" he snapped, unable to contain his aggravation. Then he stilled. Were his breaths... smoking? He traced to the suite's bathroom, gazing in the mirror. His breaths didn't fog the glass. As Daniela's didn't. Blue tinged his lips and under his eyes.

My God. The reason he'd felt so hot - her blood was running through his veins.

Nikolai had told him that Myst's blood made him even stronger. Sebastian had said the same about drinking Kaderin's.

Why couldn't Daniela's make Murdoch more like her? He gave a shout of laughter. I've found a way to touch her!

Then his heart sank. Just when I've lost her. He was trapped by his own king, by his loyalty to his brother...

Another day dragged by, then two. As their imprisonment wore on, Murdoch began returning to his normal temperature, which maddened him even more. He couldn't lose this coldness - otherwise he'd have to hurt her again.

If he was ever freed from this bloody cell. And if she'd ever let him drink her.

"Nikolai! Where are you?"

Murdoch shot awake, his gaze darting. He could have sworn he'd heard Conrad - in Oblak - yelling for Nikolai. But all was quiet, his brothers still sleeping. He must've dreamed it. Strange, he usually dreamed of nothing but Daniela.

With a weary exhalation, he rose. More than two weeks gone. The brothers and their king were locked in a stalemate. Would they stay here indefinitely?

As he did every night, Murdoch tried and failed to drink enough to sustain his weight. Then he prowled from one wall to the next, deciphering more scenes from Daniela's life that he'd witnessed in sleep.

Her memories were becoming clearer to him. When he dreamed, he felt how lonely she'd been, how she'd tried not to nurse hope over Murdoch. Once a rogue, always a rogue.

He'd done so little to set her mind at ease, had done nothing to make sure she understood her loneliness was over. I never told her I'm in love with her. Instead, he'd voiced his doubts.

During one miserable day, he'd seen her memory of that night with Jadian and had learned her thoughts as she'd kissed the Iceren.

She'd been thinking about Murdoch. Danii had chosen him over a male who could touch her, a nobleman of her own kind who could kiss her. She hadn't been thinking about bailing on Murdoch at all. At least not before he'd hurt her, attacked her.

This situation was intolerable. To be kept from Daniela now? Murdoch wanted her so much, he'd once actually considered betraying his brother -

"Nikolai!" The word boomed down the castle corridor, echoing.

Nikolai and Sebastian shot awake.

Dear God. "Was that...?"

"Conrad," Nikolai said. "He's here."

Maybe I'm not home.

Danii sat upon her throne, among her own kind in a paradise of ice, and she was... bored.

Days ago, she'd been crowned with much fanfare. The Icere had prepared banquets, carved sculptures in her honor, and played music. Plus, they'd declared a snow day at the castle - literally, it had fallen from the ceilings.

And since the festivities?

Jadian was a constant bodyguard, always nearby, always solemn. Most of the fey she'd met could be described as "serious." She'd figured this was an aftereffect of having an evil dictator ruling them for so long - but had learned this was just their nature.

Here, there were no practical jokes, no sisters bent on thieving her clothing. No gorgeous vampires to tackle into the snow.

Time seemed to be moving as slowly as the glaciers surrounding them. She wondered if it was possible to expire from boredom. The study begins... now.

To make matters worse, she missed Murdoch like an ache. Every day, she dwelled on what she could have done differently. Perhaps I shouldn't have kissed another man? Just a thought.

But that indiscretion hadn't mattered. She and Murdoch had already been finished. Danii had thought they would be together forever, but he hadn't agreed, hadn't believed that they were worth the fight -

With a sudden flush of guilt, she recognized that maybe she hadn't truly committed either. Hadn't she herself given them a one-in-fifty shot? She'd been betting against them from the beginning, might as well have gone and signed Loa's book...

Across the throne room, Jadian turned to her with his brows raised. Since she'd arrived, she hadn't seen him smile once. There'd been no more flirting from him. She'd concluded that he was devoted to his people, had probably only kissed her to sway her to come to Icergard.

His name of Jadian the Cold was well earned. Thinking back over his fight with Murdoch, she recalled that Jadian's pulse had never gotten elevated. He'd been indignant, ready to die for his queen. But he hadn't been ready to lose his temper for her.

Aside from being unemotional, he had a reputation for cold-blooded ruthlessness. Her ladies-in-waiting had told her how he'd blamed the death of his wife on Sigmund, conspiring relentlessly for years, only waiting for Daniela to be located before striking.

They'd also spoken of sordid rumors that Jadian had once kept a seductive fire demoness as his prisoner hidden in the dungeon...

He crossed to Danii then. "You are unhappy here." It wasn't a question, but he did sound disbelieving.

"I... it's been a big change."

"You'll grow accustomed." He was no-nonsense and logical to the point that most Valkyrie would deem him a buzz kill. But he was beloved by the orderly people here.

"Jadian, I was recalling our kiss."

He stiffened, as if he thought she'd want to resume some dalliance with him. "What of it?"

"You weren't thinking about me."

"And you were imagining that I was a vampire," he said with the tiniest hint of irritation, adding, "my queen."

Busted. It was too true. Though Jadian was as sigh-worthy a male as she had ever seen, she still longed to run her fingers through dark hair. She yearned to gaze up at gray eyes that turned black with lust. "Was it just a play to get me to return with you?"

He shrugged. "You needed to be here."

So their kiss hadn't even been real. Now her curiosity redoubled. What would a real one be like -

"And you need to accept that this is where you belong," he said.

Yes, no longer was she living in the sweltering heat of Louisiana, surrounded by people she couldn't touch. No longer was she in a relationship that was doomed by her very nature.

Here, the broken doll was all fixed. And I'm miserable.

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