When I woke up I was horribly thirsty. I knew why. That fucking Judas traitor had hit me so hard, if I'd been mortal it would have killed me. At the least, he probably shattered my skull. While I was dead to the world my body healed itself, and now I was unbelievably thirsty. I cursed myself for turning down Sinclair's offer to share dinner. It had seemed so morally upright at the time, and now it was probably going to get me killed.
I opened my eyes. I was in a windowless, cellar-like room. Cement walls and floors. Chilly as hell.
"Asshole," I croaked. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Asshole, you there?"
"Yes," Donald said, with the nerve to sound apologetic. He straightened up from whatever he'd been doing and gave the chains around my ankles an experimental tug. "Sorry about that. For what it's worth, this is really for the best."
"Oh, okay, then I'll just stop worrying. Jackass. Just tell me why, you jerk. Sinclair takes good care of you. He's the good guy. I heard you and Tina have been with him for, like, fifty or sixty years. So why the double cross? Were you always an asshole, or is it a recent development?"
"Nostro is my sire." Donald said that with a simple dignity that made me want to kick him. "Everything I am is because of him. When he asked me, years ago, to go to his enemy, how could I refuse?"
I tugged at my wrists. Nope. Don't know what I was chained up with-titanium? cold silly putty?-but it wasn't budging. Wrists above my head, ankles spread wide...and this slab was really cold. "Let me get this straight, jackass. Nostro ripped you open and drank from you like a fountain while you were alive, and you think you owe him?"
"It wasn't like that. He released me. He freed me."
"He turned you into a Happy Meal, and you were dumb enough to think it was a favor."
Donald slammed the knife I hadn't noticed he was holding into my upper thigh. There was a 'chunk!' as the tip imbedded itself in the slab of stone I was chained to. It stung like crazy, but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
"I've been stabbed before," I sneered. "Barely a week ago, in fact. And I've been audited...you don't scare me." I wriggled again...no go. In addition to the indignity of being clobbered with a case of plum wine, dragged to the bad guy's hideout, and chained to a stone altar (did Nostro keep a hack scriptwriter on the payroll to feed him cliches?), my clothes were in tatters. Donald had been busy with the knife before I woke up. "You'll have to do better than that."
Donald bent close to me, so close I could see the candlelight gleaming off the gel he used in his hair. It occurred to me for the first time that he looked like an egret. "I threw all your new shoes into the fire," he whispered in my ear.
I howled in agony and thrashed ineffectually. "Bastard!" I wept. "You'll pay for that."
He straightened up, lips tightening with disgust. "You make my gorge rise."
"I bet you say that to all the girls, you overly-moussed nancy boy."
"You care more about your pretty fripperies than anything else. You, the queen? Never. Not while I'm around to serve my master."
"Hey, I never asked to be the queen, jerkweed. It wasn't exactly on my Top Ten List Of Things I'd Like To Do After I Die. I'll renounce the throne, okay? I never wanted it anyway."
"It won't work. They'll never let you alone." He sighed. We both knew 'they' meant Sinclair. "It doesn't matter now. You'll die. You'll never rule."
"Let me get this straight. You believe I'm the queen, even though your master doesn't. And the book of the dead was right, you just don't like it?" I tried to ignore the image of lavender Blahniks roasting in the fire, turning black, the room filling with the stench of burning leather...
"Exactly so. I tolerated your presence when you had no intention of helping Eric Sinclair. When you were a cute young vamp for him to coax to his bed. But the moment you changed your mind-"
"It was clobberin' time. Yeah, I got that part. Listen, answer a question-how the hell do you kill a vampire? Specifically, how will you kill me? You can't toss me into the pit this time, because the Fiends are scared of me. And you can't lock me in a room facing east and wait for the sun to do your dirty work. A holy water facial won't do it, either."
Donald looked worried for a brief moment, then shrugged. He gestured to his left, and I looked where he was pointing. There were several swords propped in the corner. "You'll be a bit tricky, but cutting off your pretty little head should do the job nicely."
I grimaced. Yeah, I didn't really see any way around that one. "You know something, Don-Don? I'm actually kind of glad it's come to this. Me or Nostro. Because I am sick to death of this shit-the kidnappings and the treachery and who's side are you on...it's so fucking childish. How can any of you stand it?"
"We know our place." He jerked the knife out of my thigh. "A pity you never did."
Hey, maybe I was the queen! At the least, I wasn't in a hurry to get on my knees for Nostro or Sinclair. Bully for me. "Well, chatting's been fun, but we should probably get to it, right?"
"You want to have your head cut off?"
"Anything's better than lying here, freezing my ass off and smelling your mousse. Suave is all wrong for your hair type, by the way. So where is your psycho boss, anyway? I would've expected him to be in here with forty or fifty of his closest underlings."
Donald smiled. "He's killing Eric and Tina. But he'll be right along."
I quit smirking. Part of the reason I'd been so flip-other than the complete absurdity of my situation-I mean, come on, half naked and chained to an altar?!?-was because I'd been expecting Sinclair and Tina to rescue me.
"The day Nostro gets the drop on Eric Sinclair is the day I..." I couldn't think of anything absurd enough.
"...get your head cut off," Donald finished helpfully. "I signaled my tribemates, of course, as soon as I had you. Some of us brought you here, and the rest set fire to Sinclair's mansion. We had the place surrounded, and anyone who made it out got a holy water shower. Not that anyone will. Vampires are incredibly flammable."
I thrashed ineffectually. That gorgeous Victorian, crammed with priceless antiques. And my new shoes! And Sinclair and Tina, and their ladyfriends, and the guys who were in Donald's harem! And my new shoes!
And it was all my fault. Sinclair and Nostro had been at war for years and years, but it was my presence that escalated the situation. They might have stayed at an impasse for another hundred years. But for me.
"You fucker," I said helplessly.
"All's fair in love and etcetera," he said lightly. "Also-aaagggkkkkkkk!"
I stared. There was a long metal blade sticking out of the side of his neck. Just as my eyes had adjusted to what they were seeing, Tina wrenched the sword out of Donald's neck and swung again. He ducked away from her. She instantly turned and smashed the sword down on the chains between my ankles. And again. And-
She spun and ducked, and Donald's blade went whistling over her head. I kicked and wrenched as hard as I could. She'd weakened the chains, and if I could just-
I kicked free of the chains and flipped my feet over my head, quickly, to gain momentum. Now I was standing behind where my head and shoulders had just been. The chains were biting into my wrists but I ignored the pain; instead I braced my weight against the altar and pulled as hard as I could. There was a tearing-both of my flesh and the chains-and then I was free.
"Oh you fucker," I said breathlessly, turning. I felt as mean as Ant on her worst day. Mighty would be my wrath! "Now you're gonna get-yuck!"
Tina was kneeling before me, holding Donald's head by the hair and very plainly trying to hand it to me. "Majesty, I beg your forgiveness for the indignity you suffered and offer you the head of our enemy as-"
"Put that thing down," I said impatiently. "I can't talk to you when you're shaking his head like a damned maraca." She dropped his head and I yanked her to her feet and gave her a hearty smack on the mouth. "That's for that whole 'nick of time thing' you seem to have going on." I kissed her again. "And that's for cutting off the bad guy's head." Mwah! "And that's for being so cute." Mwah! "And that's for not being dead."
"Sure," she said, fending me off with an elbow. "You're all affectionate now, when there's no time. Let's go."
"We split up to find you. Since that honor was mine, I imagine he ran across Nostro instead. Now I have to show you to your people."
"My-" She'd tossed me a sword, then grabbed my arm and was pulling me along so fast I stumbled to keep up. "My people?" I glanced back, more than happy to be leaving the cheerless little room I'd worried I'd die in. Donald's headless body was twitching all over, then shuddered and went still. It didn't turn into dust and whirl away, just lay there like a puppet with its strings cut. And its head missing.
"The only reason I got back here in time to help you was because I told Nostro's people you were the foretold queen."
"Yeah, but how'd you avoid being barbecued?"
"The underground tunnel, of course," she said with bare impatience. She was still hauling me along like a sack of feed. "Donald left too quickly with you-a rather large error of judgment which I'm happy to say cost him his head. Eric and I got out and came straight here. I was prepared to fight my way in, but instead told everyone I ran across that I was there for their salvation and our queen. And, for a wonder, no one tried to stop me. That tells me they might be ready. If I show you to them, they may yet turn on him."
"No," she said grimly, hauling me up a flight of stairs, "they're too frightened. To stop me, but also to help me. Though I've noticed that when we put you into the equation, interesting things happen. So we'll try. And if I see Nostro I'm going to have his balls for breakfast."
"Thanks for the visual. That's so weird, the way you'll be explaining things all proper and stuff, then talk about balls for--"
"There!" She pointed; there was one hell of a brawl going on in the ballroom. At least thirty people were fighting and kicking and punching and clawing at each other. Nostro and Sinclair were probably in the middle of it.
Tina dropped my hand and waded in. I turned and ran. Past the ballroom, past the swimming pool, all the way outside. I knew what I wanted-now how to find it?
A teeny, red-haired vamp scuttled around the corner right into me, clearly having no interest in joining the fight. When I seized her arm, she squeaked and shrank away from me.
"Where are the Fiends?"
"Please-don't-don't hurt me--"
"The Fiends, twit! Where does your boss keep them? I know they're locked up around here somewhere."
She blinked up at me and when I got a good look at her I felt sick. She couldn't have been more than fourteen when she died. She weighed, at rough guess, about eighty pounds. Scrawny as hell and with the biggest brown eyes I'd seen outside of a pet shop. A teenager forever. Perpetually in the throes of adolescence...I couldn't think of a worse fate. Sinclair was a pig, but he wasn't killing teenage girls. If I hadn't already made up my made to fight Nostro until he was in little pieces on the ground, I would have done it in that instant.
"Their cage is behind the barn," she said in a small voice. "I can show you just pleasedonthurtme."
"Relax, cutie. This is shaping up to be your lucky day. You'd better stick with me. It's dangerous in there."
"Oh, dangerous? Tell me! I thought the Korean War was bad. I'm--I'm Alice, by the way." She relaxed a little as she realized I wasn't going to use my sword to cut off her head. I might be a vamp queen, but I wasn't about to turn into the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. No 'Off with her head!' for this dead monarch. I'd leave that stuff to Tina.
"I'm the Queen, Alice." Korean War, let's see, that made her-forty? Fifty? I'd never get used to this. "Nice to meet you."
The Fiends sent up an ungodly racket when they saw me. I groped and was relieved to find Donald hadn't relieved me of my cross...probably he hadn't been able to touch it, or had forgotten about it. Anyway, I flashed the Fiends and they went into their abject cringing routine. Then I took a deep breath, smashed the locks on their cage with a few punches, and stepped inside.
"Uh...your-uh--your queenness...I wouldn't..."
"It's okay. I think I've got their number." I held out my torn, bleeding wrists. I could still bleed from a pulse point, it seemed, just not as well as when I was alive, and not as hot. The Fiends crawled toward me, sniffed me up and down, then lapped from my wrists. Their breath was cold. Their smell was indescribably bad. "What are these things?"
"They're vampires who weren't allowed to feed when they rose." Alice was clutching the bars and watching us with big scared eyes. "They become animals when that happens...they lose their sense of self. All they know is hunger."
"Is it fixable?"
Long pause. "I...don't know. No one has ever been able to-I mean, my lord Nostro wouldn't-"
"Say no more. Alice, are you with me or against me?"
"...I? I think-I think I'm with you." She stared at me through the bars, then lowered her gaze to my cross, which was still giving off its brave little light. It reminded me of the Snoopy nightlight I'd had as a kid. She looked away, then looked back, as if drawn. "You're so brave and...and strong. And you seem like you would be-if the book of the dead is right-and it must be right, for how can you--"
"Today, Alice, could you answer my question today? I still have to save my new friends, kill Nostro, and get home in time to set the VCR to tape Martha Stewart."
"I'm your servant," she said softly. She squeezed the bars so hard I heard metal groan. "Forever and ever."
"Swell." Would I ever get used to people instantly throwing me their allegiance? Lord, I hoped not. "Here's the plan."