The snow swirls around her, and she stands with her back to me, her body enveloped in a bright red cloak. Crimson . . . Mihaela’s color. The queen who once ruled the Dragomirs looks like a splash of blood against the expanse of white, and yet she is as strong and substantial as the jagged Carpathian rocks that rise out of the lonely Romanian mountain where we always meet.
I step toward her, not understanding. Why doesn’t she turn to greet me? “Mother?”
And then Mihaela Dragomir does turn, her face obscured by the cloak. And in her hands she holds an object, something she presses against her chest the way a nun would cradle a cross. But Mihaela is no humble, pious sister, and that thing . . . It is no holy relic.
The stake . . . The bloodstained stake . . .
Lucius’s stake, which he used to destroy his uncle—and which he’d once nearly used to—
Thrashing, fighting off something that seemed to press against my chest, I struggled to sit up and opened my eyes to see firelight flickering against stone, and for a second I wasn’t sure where I was.
Gradually, though, my surroundings sank in. I was in Lucius’s home—our home. In our bed. That pressure on my chest . . . it wasn’t . . . it was just the heavy blankets that we always needed in his—our—huge, chilly bedroom, even though a fire burned in the fireplace.
Taking a deep breath, I stretched out my arm and rested my hand on his shoulder, reassuring myself that everything was okay. As long as Lucius was with me, I’d be okay.
Still, images from the nightmare came rushing back.
The stake, which I hadn’t seen since the night Lucius pressed his fangs against my throat and recreated me as a vampire . . .
Why had I dreamed about it? And why had my birth mother—who would never harm me—been holding it?
I’d started dreaming about Mihaela back in Pennsylvania, and those dreams had become more frequent since I married Lucius and moved to Romania. It was like my mother, destroyed shortly after my birth, was trying to protect me as I tried hard to follow in her footsteps and become a ruler, relying on a journal she’d left for me for help. A posthumous wedding gift to guide me as I learned to be a princess.
My heart started beating faster again. Was I learning? I was trying . . .
Wriggling back down under the blankets, I moved toward Lucius in the massive bed—in which, as he’d once confessed, he’d probably been expected by the Vladescu Elders to take my life, conveniently removing his Dragomir bride from power and allowing the Vladescus to have unchallenged dominion over both our families. I kicked at the covers, sort of swimming through them, suddenly impatient to be right next to him.
Everything in his home—our home—seemed so big sometimes. Including the burdens.
Lucius slept on his side, facing away from me, and I pressed myself close to his back, feeling the coolness of his body. I shared that coolness, too, since he’d bitten me, sealing our fate and a decades-old pact that had decreed our marriage in the interest of stopping a war between our rival families. Pressing tighter against my husband—how weird that still sounded—I listened to his steady breathing, which always calmed me down when I got nervous. Lucius wasn’t scared. He thrived on ruling the clans. That was what he’d been born and raised to do.
Or did he worry sometimes?
“Lucius?” I got up on one elbow and shook him gently, needing to see his dark eyes and hear his deep, reassuring voice. “Lucius?”
“Yes . . . yes?” he mumbled. He rolled onto his back and fumbled for me under the covers, which were expensive and stiff and made me miss the soft, worn-in flannel sheets on my bed in Pennsylvania. But how could a princess ask for flannel? “Yes, Jessica . . . ?”
Resting my hand on his chest, I felt it rise and fall so slowly that I wondered if he had already fallen back asleep. But I couldn’t help asking in a whisper, so the guards outside our door wouldn’t hear, “What does it mean if a vampire dreams about a stake?”
Lucius didn’t answer, and I realized he was definitely sleeping—probably exhausted from yet another day of struggling to unite our obstinate families—so I lay back down and nestled against him again. In response to the pressure of my body, he turned and pulled me close, so I could feel the entire length of his powerful warrior’s body against mine, like a shield at my back.
High on top of that Romanian mountain, in the heart of a confusing castle that I supposedly governed but where I still got lost in the twisted corridors, the night got very still. Even the crackling fire seemed to get quieter. After a few minutes of forcing myself to forget about the nightmare, I started to drift off to sleep again, when suddenly Lucius muttered, barely whispering, his breath chilly against my neck, “Betrayal.”
I stiffened in his arms. Was he answering my question or caught up in his own dreams? His own nightmares?
Even if it was the latter, that wasn’t exactly comforting. Did my husband have disloyalty—treachery—on his mind? And Lucius, like all vampires, put great stock in dreams . . .
“Betrayal.” I said the word out loud, trying to make sure it was even what I’d heard him say. “Betrayal.”
At the sound of my voice, which was soft but audible enough to break the profound mountaintop silence, Lucius, seeming to get restless, wrapped his strong, scarred arm tighter around me, so I was trapped against his chest.
I took his hand and tugged to give myself some space to breathe. He didn’t let go, though, and I tried to move him again. Against my fingertips, I could feel another deep scar—an X on his palm that marked him as mine, cut into his flesh at our marriage ceremony—and his wedding band on his left hand. His dominant hand. The one he’d used to wield the stake when he’d held me in a very different way, in that same castle, not too many months before.
Of all the grim chambers in the Vladescu castle—not counting the subterranean dungeons, of course—the one that served as a courtroom had to be the worst.
Like every other room aboveground, this one had a fireplace with a blazing fire, but the flames seemed more hellish than cheerful. They cast scary, shifting shadows on the gray rock walls and definitely didn’t do much to warm up the stark décor, which consisted of a semicircle of benches for witnesses, a worn spot on the stone floor where the accused would stand, and a long table, where I sat next to Lucius in a hard, straight-backed chair. The Elders waited in similar seats on either side of us, all of the ten older vampires sitting remarkably still.
Shifting in my chair, I tried—and failed—to get more comfortable.
I should sue the people who designed the My Little Pony Crystal Rainbow Castle I played with in kindergarten. They led me to believe that castles were filled with rainbows and cupcakes and pastel-pink furniture. Not stone and fire and . . . blood.
Turning a little bit sideways, I tried to meet Lucius’s eyes, but he was staring straight ahead, obviously preoccupied. He was also very still, except for his left hand, which absently rubbed his jaw right where he had a small scar. I knew that meant he was hiding tension, and the butterflies...