"Regin also said your red eyes mean you're going crazy."
"Surely she phrased it more colorfully than that?" Regin was a loudmouthed attention whore who thought herself amusing.
Thaddeus ran his hand over the back of his neck. "She said, 'Look at me, I'm Lothaire, I am the walrus, koo-koo-ka-choo.' Or something like that. She told me you were gonna be even loopier than Nix. Is that true?"
Nix the Ever-Knowing, the Valkyrie oracle. His nemesis for millennia, she'd thwarted more vampire schemes than all the other factions' soothsayers combined.
"Crazier than Nix? Impossible." She was much worse off than Lothaire. He wondered if she'd foreseen Saroya. The only good thing about Nix? She was so maddened that she often forgot her visions.
But what if she had remembered? What if Nix conspired against him even now? White queen moving against black king on the chessboard . . .
Thaddeus muttered, "Your eyes are changing by the second. Worse than I've ever seen them."
Uneasy leaving my Bride alone. Mercenaries and assassins from all factions hunted him constantly. Whenever powerful Loreans owed him blood debts, they usually opted to send their best warriors for Lothaire's head. "Occupational hazard. But the benefits are fantastic."
"What was that, Mr. Lothaire?"
Yet now they would target Lothaire's Bride. He reminded himself that technically Saroya couldn't be killed.
But I want her in Elizabeth's comely form. Thinking about her gray eyes, sexpot lips, and fantasy-worthy figure, he again determined it crucial to secure her body for Saroya.
Not to mention her delectable blood. She tastes of wine and honey-just as his father had said. Lothaire's fangs sharpened even now.
"What about wine and honey?" Thaddeus asked. "You're not making sense."
I spoke aloud? As if to dislodge the memories, Lothaire shook his head hard, inadvertently stepping back into the line of the wraiths.
"Watch out!" Thaddeus cried.
Before Lothaire could trace out of their path, they'd clawed at his face, leaving bloody furrows.
"Are you all right, Mr. Lothaire?"
Pain. Grasp at a thread of lucidity. Show no weakness, demonstrate no madness.
When blood dripped to his lip, he darted his tongue for a taste. He detected a top note of Elizabeth's blood mixed into his own, and it calmed him.
The wraiths slowed, and their leader gazed at him with a spectral face.
"I alone know how to destroy you," Lothaire grated. "Touch me again, Scourge, and I will demonstrate."
She shrieked; Lothaire smirked. "I knew you when you were pretty."
Her face flashed to her former visage, that of a beautiful Macedonian warrioress.
In a contemplative tone, Lothaire asked, "Didn't I do you when you were pretty?"
Another furious shriek, then she was swept away in the tide of their tempest.
Lothaire shrugged. "Guess I did." Onward to Chase.
Thaddeus persistently followed. "What do you want with DC?"
"I'm going to reach inside his mind and read his thoughts."
Imploring the sky for patience, Lothaire bit out, "I drank blood from him, and then I later gifted him with my own. We've a bridge between us forever."
"So that's what you meant when you warned Regin about unbreakable ties."
Thaddeus planted himself in front of Lothaire. "Why should I let you mind-meld or whatever with DC?"
Lothaire gave a bitter laugh. "What can you do to stop me? Now step aside." He almost added, "Or I'll kill your beloved adoptive mother and grandmother for your insolence," but the rana arose in his throat.
Which meant that would be a lie. Why would I not murder two insignificant humans? Why would he feel even a scrap of allegiance to Thaddeus?
Because there was one instance with the boy that affected me. A demonstration of loyalty . . .
Thaddeus put his shoulders back. "I could raise the alarm."
And I could snatch your throat out before you took a breath to yell. But because of their past interactions, Lothaire would spare him this eve. "I plan to use Chase's memories to find Commander Webb-the one who ordered our abductions and those tedious experiments. The one who could still hurt your family."
The one who holds the key to my entire future, in the shape of a ring.
The young man's fangs lengthened. "I want to hunt him too."
"Why would you possibly think I need help carrying out a blood vendetta?"
Don't I? Lothaire had yet to complete his age-old ones. He recalled Olya, that human female in Helvita, recalled how badly he'd wanted to murder her. She'd been drained by Stefanovich long before Lothaire could get to her.
He remembered the mortals brutalizing his mother. "Avenge me!" she'd screamed.
Only now was Lothaire on the cusp of retribution. To find Serghei at last . . .
"Don't care if you need it, Mr. Lothaire. I'm hankering for vengeance too. Besides, we are friends. And friends watch each other's backs. Just like you and me did on the island."
In the heat of the escape, Lothaire might have saved the boy a few times, without receiving anything in return from Thaddeus, but only because it served Lothaire's own ends.
He'd also endangered Thaddeus's life repeatedly.
Lothaire cut off further arguments with a curt: "We'll discuss this later." To make the statement true, Lothaire envisioned the extent of their "discussion."
Thaddeus would ask, "Can I go with you?"
Lothaire would reply, "No. Now, fuck off."
"I'm gonna hold you to that, Mr. Lothaire. Now what exactly are you looking for with your mind-meld thing?"
Below the window of Chase's room and out of the way of the wraiths, Lothaire answered, "He must have visited Webb's hideout. If I can access that memory, I can trace directly to it, as if I'd been there myself."
"Then access it, and let's go kick ass!"
"Step one is you shutting up."
Thaddeus nodded eagerly. "Right on."
Lothaire steadied his breathing, calming his heart as he listened for Chase's own heartbeat. Once it began to grow loud in his ears, like a repetitive quake, Lothaire briefly closed his eyes-but he still could see. Straight into Chase's afflicted mind.
Lothaire found . . . blackness there. Blankness.
No thoughts, no dreams. Is he in the grip of death?
Gods, to have his own mind at rest like this? Might be worth dying. He delved deeper, but all was quiet.
There'd be no thoughts of Webb anytime soon, and Lothaire couldn't scratch at all the scars in Chase's mind to search for a specific memory. He might as well try to navigate his own. At least he knew where the black holes were, the quicksand traps and points of no return.
He released his hold on Chase, exhaling with frustration. Nothing to show for his trespass, no new information.
His claws bit into his palms. Chto za huy! Must have that ring! Kept from him though it was his.
Thaddeus asked, "Did you find Webb? Anything to help our mission?"
"Our mission? I didn't see anything to help my aims! You say nothing of this-of anything concerning me-to anyone."
"Why should I keep secrets from my other friends? Do you mean any of them harm?"
Lothaire didn't have time to do any of them ill. "I don't. Not yet," he added to prevent the rana.
After a hesitation, Thaddeus said, "Okay, I'll keep it close to the vest. But I need to know how I can get in touch with you. What's your number?"
Lothaire stared at him. "Number? Why do you want this?"
Thaddeus rolled his eyes. "One more time. Because-we're-friends. I plan to help you with Webb, and give you some backup against Dorada. They said she'll be coming for you."
She is. When last Lothaire had seen her-mummified, hideous to gaze upon-she'd been shrieking, "RIIIIINNNNNGGGGG," as she hunted him through the Order's prison, her Wendigo lackeys prowling beside her.
He'd had quite a surprise waiting for them all. . . .
"I said, I want to meet the missus."
Lothaire tensed, slowly craning his head around at the boy. "Missus?"
"They say you've got your Bride now."
"They meaning Nix." Lothaire bared his fangs, felt them drip on his tongue. Yes, he'd toyed with his enemies, threatening their families, mocking their frenzied reactions while he was ever cold and calculating.
Unaware of Lothaire's rising impulse to do murder, Thaddeus continued, "There are a lot of folks around here talking about the bounty on your lady-"
Before Thaddeus could blink, Lothaire had his hand around the boy's throat, squeezing. . . . "What's the bounty? Who posted it?"
Foolish, Lothaire! Why hadn't he acted uncaring? Why reveal his crazed possessiveness of Saroya?
How smug I was in the past, confident I'd never care about anything enough to reveal a weakness.
Thaddeus bit out, "I don't know what it is . . . but they said it's priceless. Don't know who . . . posted it."
Priceless? "Someone set hunters on our trail? Then he's sent me meals to torment. If my deadly Bride doesn't get to them first." Lothaire released Thaddeus with a shove that sent him sprawling to the ground.
Between wheezes, the boy said, "I knew you had a lady, then! You made some comments. . . . That's why you would've done anything to get off the island." He was delighted by this, scrambling to his feet and dusting himself off as if nothing had happened. "That's the reason you screwed us all over. I knew you weren't as bad as Regin and Nix and Cara and Emma and-"
"Enough!" The soldiers of the Vertas army-the supposed white hats in the Lore-acted holier-than-thou. Yet they would punish a female who'd never harmed any of them?
Hypocrites in league.
Have to turn her into an immortal as soon as possible. Saroya had to be able to defend herself, to trace in escape if necessary.
"Well, then, what is she?" the boy pressed. "Not a vampire, 'cause Regin told me there were no female ones left. Maybe she's a demoness or a witch?"
Can't think . . . can't think. Why this interest from Thaddeus? "Did they plant you here, to get information from me?"
"No, of course not!"
Even if Lothaire kept Saroya behind a boundary, nothing in the Lore was foolproof. Panic tightened his chest.
Return. Never leave her unguarded again. To Thaddeus he grated, "You forget you ever knew me, boy." Then he disappeared.
When Lothaire returned to the apartment, he found Elizabeth just setting out from her room.
Against his orders.
She'd removed all that makeup; though Lothaire was loath to admit it, he found it an improvement. She'd also changed into jeans that lovingly outlined her pert ass-a fact that offset the worst of his anger.
Going exploring, are we? When he imagined her little mortal brain struggling to process her new environment, he decided to shadow her, making himself invisible so he could study her reactions.
When she entered the first unlit bedroom and the lights came on automatically, she spun in a circle, demanding, "Who's there?" Then she stepped out of the room. The lights clicked off. "Oh."
In the living room, she pressed a button for the TV. When it rose from a console, she went wide-eyed.
The theater room elicited an exclamation: "Hoo!" Which he supposed was Hillbilly for "Excellent."
In the kitchen, she peeked into the refrigerator, grimacing at his pitchers of blood. As Lothaire dimly wondered what the mortal chef had thought of his stores earlier today, she sniffed one, then quickly returned it. She investigated the cabinets, finding them all empty. After examining the appliances, she sang, "Meet George Jetson."
Whatever that meant.
In fact, her exploration consisted mostly of button pushing and jumping back in fear.
She might as well have been in a foreign land. She seemed alternately suspicious and dazzled.
But in the main foyer, she gazed up at the crystal chandelier for long moments, tilting her head in different directions, following the complex design with her gaze.
Lothaire could see the prisms of light reflected in her wide gray eyes. She had . . . intelligent eyes. Perhaps more was there than he'd allowed himself to see.
He stared at the delicate shape of her face in profile. From this angle, he could see her lips were a touch fuller in the middle, giving them that bow shape.
She was so fragile. Touching her would be like handling gossamer. Claiming her would be impossible. She had to be stronger.
The idea of himself in a blood rage, desperate to spend deep inside her . . .
He ran his hand over his face. If he took her in that state, he could rend her in two, could pulverize her bones.
She rubbed her nape under that fall of lustrous hair, then self-consciously tucked a lock behind her ear. Did the mortal actually sense him watching her?
Some humans possessed a kind of sixth sense. Few of them ever seemed to trust it.
A vampire is eyeing you like prey. Can you feel it, Elizabeth?
She narrowed her gaze, peering around her.
Can you feel me . . . ?
After a moment, her suspicious mien turned determined. With a purposeful stride, she returned to that first bedroom. Inside, she worked the bedside table away from the wall, then dropped to her knees.
What is she doing? he wondered vaguely, his gaze locked on her rounded ass and taut thighs-until he heard the wallpaper ripping. He traced to mere inches from her to get a look at what she was up to.
She'd been digging for a phone jack. Without a phone? Why?
She would search in vain. There were none in the apartment. All had been removed and plastered over.
By the third bedroom, she must have concluded the same, because she sat back on her heels and blew her hair out of eyes. "Sumbitch."
Now she'll put her head in her hands and cry while I look on impassively.
Instead, she slapped one thigh, then rose, marching to the kitchen. Retrieving a butter knife and a chopping blade, she returned to the television console, maneuvering the weighty piece away from the wall.