"So perhaps I'm not completely evil?" He gave a humorless laugh. "Most of the time I'm the one who manipulates creatures into desperate positions. For instance, I'll fatally wound a loved one, then offer to save her."
"Those targeted names are in for one hell of a surprise, huh?"
Elizabeth was cleverer than he'd initially deemed her. "Precisely."
He dragged his gaze from the pages to her face, inspecting it as he might a painting he'd found superficially appealing only to discover layers, nuances.
He shook his head hard. No, if Saroya were at the fore, he'd be feeling this desire, this fascination even, for her alone.
"What do you usually demand of them?"
"I don't often collect on these." His debtors always assumed he'd demand their firstborn. Like I'm fucking Rumpelstiltskin? What would Lothaire do with countless squalling babes? Raise them in a kennel? "But when I make my move to take my thrones, their accounts will come due."
And the world will quake.
His lips curled as he reviewed some of the newest entries: two royal members of the Lykae Clan MacRieve; the sea god Nereus; Loa the voodoo priestess; Gamboa the demonic drug lord; Rydstrom Woede, king of the rage demons.
"All that work to get those thrones?"
"Yes. Anything for them." He'd fought side by side with a Valkyrie he hated when all he'd wanted to do was exact revenge on her. He'd aligned with various demonarchies, convincing some that he was the devil incarnate, dedicated to leading them back to hell.
He'd sworn fealty to a vampire king-one who'd sat upon Lothaire's own throne.
"If your kingdoms are so important, then why'd you lose them in the first place?"
"I couldn't expect you to understand the political machinations of vampires."
She tilted her head at him. "None of your debtors ever welsh?"
"Vows to the Lore are unbreakable."
"Then I'm surprised they don't just try to kill you."
"Oh, they do, constantly," he said. "And now they'll be coming after you, thinking to trade you for their debt or to cash in on a bounty. Then, of course, there are the retribution seekers, bent on avenging whatever murders I've committed." He leveled his gaze on her. "I've committed
She didn't look away. In fact, he got the uncanny impression that she was studying him.
The insect wants to understand the magnifying glass.
"Is that why you're called the Enemy of Old?"
"Partly. Also because I show up like a plague every couple of centuries, killing masses of beings before disappearing." Sometimes disappearing involuntarily.
"There's an actual bounty on my head?"
When Lothaire found out who'd posted it, blood would run. "My Bride would already be target number one in the Lore. Now thousands will fight for the reward-and they'll believe that you are mine. They'll be using oracles to track your movements. So if somehow you were able to escape this boundary, you'd be abducted in seconds. They would do terrible things to you."
She raised her brows. "I can only imagine how bad something would have to be for you to call it terrible. But if they're offering death, don't forget that I want to die."
"Some foes would take your life. Most would keep you. An anatomically incorrect sea god would love nothing more than to plumb your depths and steal your virginity. My vampire enemies would keep you alive for food, piercing you nightly for decades. Demons would consign you to their notorious harems, where you'd be whored out for all the many creatures who'd pay handsomely for a chance to humiliate Lothaire's Bride. You'd learn to polish demon horns in the most degrading ways."
She swallowed. "Harems and whoring and horns, then?"
"Suddenly the fate I have planned for you doesn't seem so egregious?"
She returned to the settee, sitting less stiffly than before. "Just to be clear. My fate, as you intend it, goes like this: In one to thirty days, you'll send my soul packing-to wherever souls go-and my family will never be harmed by you."
"Approximately," he replied, using one of his favorite go-to words. The girl would assume he addressed the number of days. Actually, he spoke of the "soul packing" portion. Her soul would be extinguished-
"By approximately, do you mean the one to thirty, or the rest of it?"
Little witch. "The question you should've asked is why the days are so variable."
"Lothaire. Why are the days so variable?"
"I've told you I need a special ring to make Saroya a vampire. The same ring will free your soul from your body." Not a lie. "It might take me weeks to locate it."
"I see. Not that I'm complaining, but if you're supposed to be searching for something, then why were you trying to sleep tonight? Isn't this pretty much your nine-to-five? Shouldn't you be out tracing the pavement even now?"
She made him sound lazy.
No one worked harder than he did on his seven little tasks: find the ring, dispose of the human's soul, turn Saroya into a vampire, kill La Dorada, claim the Horde crown, find Serghei to burn him alive, conquer the Daci.
He took no pleasure from life, enjoyed no amusements. Everything served his Endgame.
Wearied just to think of all that work, he leaned back in his chair. And again, he got the feeling that she was studying him. "Sleep and work are one and the same now."
"I don't understand."
"When I drink blood straight from the vein, I can harvest my victim's memories. I see his recollections in my dreams, reliving them when I sleep. I feel the bite of cold on his skin, the pain of his injuries, even his death at my hands. Recently, I drank from a man who knows where the ring is. Now I have only to get at that memory, but it's easier said than done. I have to wade through a lot of them."
She ran her fingertips over the graze on her neck. "Will you dream mine?"
"Likely. Cannot wait for fond remembrances of squirrel stew around the trailer hearth."
She parted her lips, no doubt to deliver a cutting retort, then stifled it. "How do you know what's a regular dream and what's from someone else's life?"
"I don't dream anything but memories, and only theirs."
"No wonder you're crazy. But I affect your sanity, don't I?"
"Saroya affects my sanity. You're merely a placeholder."
"So if the ring equals my death, then every time you sleep means I'm closer to dying?"
"Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes."
Finally she gazed away, saying quietly, "Would you give me advance notice?"
"No. No more than you would those deer you hunted."
"They were animals!"
"Are you much more?" he asked in a thoughtful tone. "And what would you do with your advance notice?"
"I'd want to write to my family."
"Ah, Ellie Ann's last letters. How touching. But there's no room in the Lore for sentimentality." When he folded his arms over his chest, she seemed to be making a mental note of it.
He'd actually felt a jot sentimental earlier when he'd realized that Chase might die-and with him, Lothaire's sole hope of a vampire line. Am I to leave nothing of myself behind?
Long ago, Lothaire had created vampires on occasion, but they always predeceased him. He'd lost his taste for it.