"Did you get paid to behead people while you drank them to death?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Drinking another gives you his memories. Drinking another as you kill him also gives you much of his strength, even some of his mystickal abilities. And beheading is one of the only ways to slay an immortal."
"Have you killed women and children before? Or humans?"
"Why would I bother to?" He seemed genuinely perplexed.
Somewhat reassured by his answer, she asked, "How did you become a vampire?"
His face was drawn with anger. "Nikolai decided to drip his tainted blood down my throat just before I died."
"He didn't have to bite you?"
"That's only in the movies," Conrad said. "Blood is the agent of the transformation, and death is the catalyst. It's this way for any species to be turned in the Lore."
"It's that easy to become a vampire?"
"Easy? It doesn't always work. And if it doesn't, you die."
"Who did it to them?"
"Kristoff, a natural-born vampire - and someone I have no intention of speaking about. Ask something else."
"Very well. Can you still eat food?"
"Yes, but I have as much interest in eating food as you would have in drinking blood." When her expression screwed up with distaste, he said, "Exactly. Though I do enjoy a good whiskey."
So had she. She had a stash of it in her studio. "What about your teleportation, your tracing? How far can you go?"
"We can cross the world - not just the living room of a haunted manor." She pursed her lips at that. "But we can only travel to places we've previously been or that we can see."
"And the Accession?"
"Phenomenon in the Lore, every five centuries or so. Families get seeded and immortals get sowed. Fights break out, and factions war. Lots of immortals get to die."
N®¶omi had heard these uncanny men speak of the Lore, as if it was a separate sphere of beings. She'd heard them talk about Valkyrie, witches, ghouls, and the "noble fey." There were werewolves and wraiths - and apparently all these beings... interacted.
"Are mermaids real?" she asked.
She gave a wide-eyed gasp, unable to hide her excitement. "Have you seen one? Do they have big tails? With scales? And what about Nessie? Is she real? Does she bite, and is she actually a Neddie - "
"How old were you when you died, ghost?" he interrupted with a patronizing mien. "Did you reach any level of maturity?"
She straightened her shoulders. "I was twenty-six."
Brows drawn, he murmured, "How did you die so young?"
How to answer? She couldn't very well admit that she'd been murdered without going into details. And the details made her sound weak. But then, being murdered was the ultimate weakness, wasn't it? Only someone who'd succumbed could understand.
This male would understand, her mind whispered. He would comprehend like no other the pain she'd endured. "I was murdered," she eventually answered.
"What do you suppose?"
"A jealous wife shot her husband's pretty mistress."
"You think me pretty?" When he gave her an impatient look, as if they were retreading old ground, she felt a flush of pleasure. "I was never with a married man."
"A spurned lover pushed you down a flight of stairs."
"Why do you assume it was a crime of passion?" she asked.
"Then your feeling's right. My ex-fianc®¶... stabbed me in the heart." Saying the words out loud sent chills racing through her. "He did it here. And I woke up trapped on the property, unable to leave, unable to feel."
The vampire's red eyes... softened. His voice a rasp, he asked, "Why would he do that to you?"
"He couldn't accept it when I broke it off with him." Louis had told her again and again that he would rather die than live without her, that nothing could make him let her go. "He turned the blade on himself right after me."
Conrad tensed, getting that violent expression again. "Is he here?"
"No. I don't know why I'm here and he's not, but it's the one thing I'm thankful for."
He relaxed marginally. "When did it happen?"
"The twenty-fourth of August, nineteen twenty-seven. On the night of my party celebrating my move into Elancourt. I'd just finished restoring it." The rundown estate had called to her very soul. She'd lovingly overseen every tiny detail of its restoration, slowly bringing the manor and gardens back to life.
She'd had no idea it would be her eternal home... .
"Enough about him," she said, shaking off the pall of Louis. Now that she was here with Conrad, she was determined to enjoy this conversation.
The second-ever conversation of her afterlife.
"Why do you think you became a ghost?" he asked.
"I was hoping one of you might know."
"I haven't heard the subject talked about much in the Lore - ghosts are a human phenomenon - but I understand your kind is very rare. In all my years, I've never seen one before you."
"Oh." She hadn't expected him to impart the secrets to all ghostly life, but a tad more trivia might have been nice.
"Are you... buried at Elancourt?"
"How strange that question sounds, non? Well, unless something went horribly wrong, I was buried in the city, in the old French Society's aboveground tomb." N®¶omi's... remains were in a coffin amidst that towering vault. There were at least thirty other bodies within. "But then, crypt robbers might have stolen my body for voodoo rituals."
He frowned at her. "Are you jesting about this?"
"Tell me, Conrad, what's the etiquette when speaking of one's own dead body? No jesting about one's bones? Am I gauche?"
He gave her a look that said he would never understand her, and might not bother trying to. "How did you come by this property?"
"I bought it. All by my female self."
"And how would you afford it?" His tone was tinged with disbelief.
Typical. "I worked," she said, unable to disguise her satisfaction. "I was a ballerina."
"A ballerina. And now a ghost."
"A warlord and now a vampire." She couldn't help but chuckle at the disparity. "What a pair we make."
He studied her. "Your laughter... seems out of place."
"Aren't ghosts supposed to be steeped in misery?"
"Right now, I'm enjoying talking to you - so I'm happy. I have plenty of time to be unhappy later."
"Are you usually unhappy?" he asked.
"It's not my nature to be, but my present circumstances are hardly ideal."
"Then we have that in common. N®¶omi, when my brothers return, I want you to steal a key to my chains."
She breathed, "Steal? Moi? Never."
"I saw you taking things from them already," he said. She gazed up at the ceiling, resisting the urge to whistle with guilt. "Why did you exchange pebbles for your thefts?"
"Well, it's one thing to take something from the living, another to give. I wanted to hear someone say, 'Now, where'd this pebble come from?' well after the fact - it would be like a record of my existence. I thought it would prove me real."
"And now, because I interact with you, you know you're real?" When she nodded, he said, "Then you'd think you'd be more appreciative, more inclined to help me. N®¶omi, I'm going mad just lying in this room hour after hour."
"You're already mad."
He cast her a glower. "Aren't your kind supposed to be territorial? Get me that key, and then you can be all by yourself again."
"I'm not always alone here," she said. "Families live here at times. And contrary to most ghost stories, I adore having people here. Even if they can't see or hear me, they at least entertain."
"When were the last ones here?"
"Ten years ago. A charming young couple moved in." The husband and wife had been dazzled by the incredible bargain they'd gotten on Elancourt - having no idea it was the scene of a "grisly murder-suicide," as the papers had called it.
The two had worked diligently to restore and modernize as much as they could themselves. When their first baby had come, N®¶omi had cosseted the little girl, rocking her cradle and putting on floating puppet shows, helping out the exhausted parents as much as possible. Yet when the toddler had begun to cry for an invisible puppeteer, the parents had gotten spooked and moved.
N®¶omi had been heartbroken - and alone for the next ten years... until Conrad and his brothers had come.
"You've never frightened anyone away?" he asked, as if that was precisely what he would've been doing in her position.
"In truth, I do get very territorial with vandals. I scare them off - and they never return," she said proudly.
"I've already done much more damage to your home than some vandals. Yet you won't help me leave?"
If she gave him a key, he would be gone before the chains hit the ground. And she knew she would never see him again.
Merde, that pang hurt. She inwardly shook herself. "Even if I could get it, why would I give it to you? So you could make good on your threats against your brothers?"
"You would give it to me because, if you don't, then I'm as much your prisoner as theirs."
"Why are you so keen to get away from them, Conrad? They're only trying to do what's best for you."
"You know nothing."
"Then tell me why you hate them so much. Because they turned you?"
He gave a bitter laugh. "That's not enough?"
"It was a long time ago, and they're doing so much for you now. They aren't sleeping. They trace across the ocean, warring against evil vampires when it's night over there, and then they rush back here to try to help you."
His expression inscrutable, he asked, "Do you hate?"
"Pardon? As in hate a person?"
He nodded. "Picture who you hate most in the world."
"That's easy - Louis. The man who stabbed me."
"Imagine dying and then waking, only to be bound to that miserable fuck for eternity. Would you not resent whoever put you in that situation?"
Oh, Lord, he has a point.
"They took from me my mission, my comrades, my life as I knew and wanted it - "
"Would you rather be dead?"
She could see there was no convincing him of anything different in this matter.
"You've heard that I have all kinds of factions gunning for my head," he said. "It's only a matter of time before they find me here. I need that key, ghost."
"My name's not 'ghost.'"
"Mine's not 'd®¶ment.'"
"Touch®¶, d®¶ment," she said blandly.
"Damn it! I've told you not to call me that - "
Murdoch suddenly appeared in the room.
Call you what?" Murdoch asked, but Conrad only shrugged. "Even with your one-sided conversations, you still seem a hundred times better already." Murdoch wasn't nearly as surprised as he should be about his progress.
They had an ace in their pocket. Conrad narrowed his eyes. They know something I don't about the bloodlust. "If I'm so much better, then free me."
"Can't do that. You could relapse. It's not even an option until you're drinking bagged blood, and you go at least two weeks without a rage."
Barely reining in his temper, Conrad said, "Am I to stay here the entire time?"
"No. Of course not. At the end of the next week, we're tracing you to a meeting about the Accession. A huge crowd is expected, with Lorekind from all over the world attending. Thousands of females will be there - Valkyrie, sirens, nymphs. You might find your Bride among them. Especially now, on the cusp of the Accession. We're also going to search for Nïx, a Valkyrie soothsayer. She's been aiding us with you. When we can find her."
Conrad had heard of Nïx the Ever-Knowing. She was powerful and supposedly as mad as he was. But whereas his mind was clotted with memories, hers was filled with visions of the future. "Why would she help you?" Just because Sebastian and Nikolai had married Valkyrie didn't mean the rest of their kind accepted vampires. "Leeches" were universally hated in the Lore, even the clear-eyed ones.
"We're not entirely sure," Murdoch admitted. "But she could help locate your Bride."
"And what about your Bride, Murdoch? Your heart beats. Sebastian and Nikolai know it. You can't hide it."
When Murdoch stood and crossed to the window, N®¶omi relocated from her window seat to the spot beside Conrad in the bed. The first female ever to move away from Murdoch in favor of another Wroth. He felt a surge of satisfaction.
"I've made a vow to my Bride that I would tell no one, and Wroths keep their word." Murdoch ran his hand over the back of his neck. "I ask you not to bring it up to them."
"It's none of my concern - just as my Bride isn't yours," Conrad said.
"But we believe finding your female could help you recover fully."
"Fully recovered still means I'm a vampire."
"That's true," Murdoch said. "Everything we're doing will be wasted if we can't convince you that some vampires aren't evil. Not all of our kind have to be destroyed."
"What did Nikolai mean about controlling the memories, pulling them up at will?"
"You can learn to do it - but you have to be stable first."
Stable? When was the last time he'd been stable? "What have you been injecting me with?"
"A sedative and muscle relaxant concocted by the witches. They also put some element in it that's supposed to make you more susceptible to your Bride's influence. If we can help you find her."
Son of a bitch. "You don't say." His gaze landed on N®¶omi. She tilted her head at him.
Was she... his? Was this why she affected him so strongly? Then why hadn't she blooded him? Especially if he was more susceptible to her from the shots?
He inwardly shook himself. No, it wasn't possible. She wasn't truly alive. "What witches?" Conrad asked. "Mariketa the Awaited?"
"How did you know about the Witch in the Glass?"
He didn't remember Mariketa from his own experience but from the memories of one of his victims. "Someone I drank must have."
Conrad's casual tone had Murdoch raising his brows. "We couldn't ask Mariketa for assistance with this. Her male is Bowen MacRieve, the Lykae who helped us capture you. It happens that he wants you put down. At the tavern, he told us he'd give us two weeks to get you straight or he'd come destroy you himself."
"Why would he wait? Why assist you?"
"Sebastian saved MacRieve's life recently. He also spared the Lykae from what he considers a fate a thousand times worse than death."
"Then why come after me at all?"
"You're a fallen vampire who showed up not only in his town, but in a place he and his mate patronize. A little too close for his comfort. So MacRieve is sympathetic, but only to a point."
And the Lykae's witch could easily scry and find Conrad. Yet another enemy bent on destroying him. The line begins here, gentlemen.
"Conrad, the three of us have vowed to bring you back from the brink, even with you spitting and bellowing if we have to. I'm asking you, as your brother, to just... try."
How far are they willing to go?
Conrad shook his head. What am I thinking? Imagining a recovery from this? He'd made his choices. He'd suffer the consequences.
Even if there was a way, he wouldn't have time. Pain shot through his arm as if to punctuate his thoughts.
If the curse of the mark was true, then the fact that Conrad had begun dreaming of N®¶omi could mean far more than he'd imagined.
He needed to get free and hunt that bastard. If he could defeat Tarut and take the demon's blood, Conrad would truly be the most powerful male in the Lore. He would be unstoppable.
Which would help him defeat his next set of opponents: the Woede.
Months ago, Conrad had unwittingly drained a warlock who'd known a critical secret: the only way to defeat Rydstrom's usurper.
Now Conrad was the last living being with that information - not that he consciously knew what it was or even how to find it.
Rydstrom would kill for what was in Conrad's mind. So would his brother, Cadeon the Kingmaker; as a mercenary, that demon had seated five kings. But he couldn't quite reclaim his own brother's crown.
Conrad said, "You risk much, taking me to the gathering."
"It will be wild there, so we'll stay on the periphery of the crowd and see if any female catches your fancy."
Conrad was to skulk in the bushes at some field party, looking for a woman. My degradation is complete. He willed himself not to look at N®¶omi. "I have no interest in having to care for and protect a female that I don't get to choose for myself." Even as he said the words, he lost himself musing what it would mean if fate had chosen N®¶omi for him... . Could Conrad find a way to bridge their existences? To make it so he could claim her? He'd dreamed about taking her - if it was a fraction as good as his dreams...