Serpent's Kiss

By: Thea Harrison

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS



Once again, I have a lot of people to thank:

To Luann Reed-Siegel, who has done an amazing job on copyediting.

To publicist Erin Galloway at Penguin, who has been friendly, patient, informative, prompt, dedicated, and enthusiastic.

To Janet and Don, who offered.

To my beta readers Shawn, Kristin, Anne, and Fran for their prompt, intelligent feedback. You guys are awesome!

To Lorene and Carol, as always.

To Matt, for his continuing goodhearted, generous work on the website.

To my editor, Cindy Hwang, and my agent, Amy Boggs. Thank you again, for everything you do.

And last but most important, to you, the readers. Without you, none of this would be happening. I’m eternally grateful.





Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.

The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

For the Elder Races, this generally involves bloodshed of some sort and a spate of funerals.





—AMBROSE BIERCE ON REVISING THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY





ONE



“I am a bad woman, of course,” said Carling Severan, the Vampyre sorceress, in an absent tone of voice. “It is a fact that I made peace with many centuries ago. I calibrate everything I do, even the most generous-seeming gesture, in terms of how it may serve me.”

Carling sat in her favorite armchair by a spacious window. The chair’s butter-soft leather had long ago molded to the contours of her body. Outside the window lay a lush, well-tended garden that was ornamented with the subtle hues of the moonlit night. Her gaze was trained on the scene, but, like her face, the expression in her long almond-shaped eyes was blank.

“Why would you say such a thing?” Rhoswen asked. There were tears in the younger Vampyre’s voice as she knelt beside the armchair, her blonde head turned up to Carling like a flower’s to a midnight sun. “You’re the most wonderful person in the world.”

“That is very sweet of you.” Carling kissed Rhoswen’s forehead, since the other woman seemed to need it. Although the distance in Carling’s gaze lessened, it did not entirely disappear. “But those are rather disturbing words. If you believe that of someone such as I, you must acquire more discernment.”

Her servant’s tears spilled over and streaked down a cameoperfect face. Rhoswen threw her arms around Carling with a sob. Carling’s sleek eyebrows rose. “What is this?” she asked, her tone weary. “What have I said to upset you?”

Rhoswen shook her head and clung tighter.

Rhoswen was one of Carling’s two youngest progeny. Carling had stopped creating Vampyres long ago, except for a few extraordinarily talented exceptions she had discovered in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Rhoswen had been part of a shabby Shakespearean theatre company, with a voice of pure gold and a fatal case of pulmonary tuberculosis. Carling had turned Rhoswen when she had been a frightened, dying eighteen-year-old. She allowed the younger woman greater liberties than she did her other servants. She endured Rhoswen’s strangling hold as she thought.

She said, “We were talking about the events that led up to the Dark Fae Queen’s coronation. You persist in believing that I did a good thing when I healed Niniane and her lover Tiago when they were injured. While the results might have been beneficial, I was merely pointing out what a selfish creature at heart I really am.”

“Two days ago,” Rhoswen said into her lap. “We had that conversation two days ago, and then you faded again.”

“Did I?” She straightened her back, bracing herself against the news. “Well, we knew the deterioration was accelerating.”

No one fully understood why very old Vampyres went through a period of increasing mental deterioration before they disintegrated into outright madness, then death. Since it was rare for Vampyres to achieve such an extreme old age, the phenomenon was little known outside the upper echelon of the Nightkind community. Vampyres lived violent lives, and they tended to die from other causes first.

Perhaps it was the inevitable progression of the disease itself. Perhaps, Carling thought, in the end our beginning contains the seeds of our eventual downfall. The souls that began as human were never meant to live the near-immortal life that the Vampyrism gave them.

Rhoswen’s tear-streaked face lifted. “But you got better for a while! In Chicago, and later at the Dark Fae coronation, you were fully alert and functioning. You were present for every moment. We just have to keep you stimulated with new things.”

Carling regarded her with a wry expression. Extraordinary experiences did seem to help, as they jolted one into alertness for a time. The problem was they only helped temporarily. To someone who has witnessed the passage of millennia, after a while even the extraordinary experiences became ordinary.

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