The Asian man stares at me with a mixture of disgust and caution, and I cannot help but feel offended. Of course, I would not look proper dressed in rags and filthy like a coal merchant! The audacity of my captors is simply incredible.
I finally leave my cell to the sight of a short corridor of the same stone. A single torch provides enough illumination to see everything clearly, which surprises me a bit. The passage is dotted with what I believe to be murder holes. How very quaint. I must have collapsed and been magically transported to some Scotsman’s demesne.
Ogotai locks the door behind me and I move forward, quite eager to be away from this dreary place. As I am about to reach the second door, the naked blade of a saber taps my shoulder.
“Hold. Move to the side.”
I turn around with outrage, although I remain silent. How dare he draw a blade on me? The master said I was to obey Jimena and he is not her.
HE HAS NO RIGHT TO GIVE ME ORDERS, I WILL TEACH HIM THE MEANING OF PAIN AND…
A hand grabs my raggedy shirt and propels me into the wall.
He threw me like a doll!
My back hits the rock and explodes in blinding pain. My head follows suit and my teeth rattle from the impact. Agony radiates in every bone, only exacerbating the discomfort I am already in.
His hand drills my chest in the wall. My bones creak and groan under his abuse. I frantically scratch his arms so that he lets me go but I stop when I feel a metallic cold against my neck.
“I will have no attitude from you, fledgling.”
There are red spots on his sleeve. It seems that, in my panic, I scratched him bloody. My nails are dark as black pearls, and quite sharp to boot. When did that happen?
The blade of his weapon leaves my neck and its tip buries under my chin until I start yelling. Oh God, what have I done to deserve such treatment? Why must they be so cruel? It hurts!
“Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes!” I whimper.
How I hate to debase myself, but what can one do against such wanton brutality?
Slowly, the man lets me go, although his blade remains drawn. I stay still and massage my poor chest. Terror starts creeping into my mind and awakens primal instincts. I want to run, but I cannot. The door is locked. I do not even know where to go.
Ogotai patiently works his set of keys and I finally walk out to another stone tunnel. This one, however, is different.
It appears that my jail is but one of many. Several blocks made with thick walls cover most of the area, lit by the occasional torch. Each cell has four walls and a passage that would allow the wardens to circle it completely.
The murder holes I noticed let visitors look inside the corridor and, I assume, shoot through them as well. I do not know what manner of beast is normally held here, but I would complain about being treated that way, were it in my power to do so.
The Asian man guides me through the labyrinth of passages to a massive door made of the same silvery metal as my shackles. He pushes it open with little effort. How strong can this man be?
I walk up a set of stairs to several landings with more doors, but Ogotai does not let me stop. Eventually, we cross one last metal gate and finally emerge into a proper building.
And what a building it is.
I want to take a deep breath and celebrate being out of this accursed hole in the ground, yet I find myself at a loss. Who in their right mind would spend the fortune required for something like this?
A hallway spreads to my right and left to an intersection and a dead-end, respectively.
Closed doors alternate with subdued alcoves supported by Doric columns. The ground is made of marble and the walls of pink granite. Tapestries and paintings hang everywhere, leaving an impression of subdued elegance.
Never in a thousand years would I suspect that such a place exists in the Americas! I believe I would need to cross the Atlantic, to Buckingham or Versailles, to find a match for this gaudy display.
And the owners of this place have me at their mercy.
I shiver once more. I thought I had seen wealth, how naïve I was! These people are no rakes and outlaws out for a quick ransom and a ride West. Why, were I to escape and come across a lawman, who would he believe? A filthy waif or the masters of this place? My testimony would be the ramblings of a madwoman.
What have I gotten myself into?
The excitement offered me a moment of clarity, as if external stimulus could lift the veil upon my mind but soon enough, I find it hard to focus again. Why did I want to escape? I want to see that man again; it is my heart’s fondest desire.
Ogotai leads me up another set of stairs and down another corridor. We come across a man in a suit that would leave him drenched in sweat if he were to step outside, a pair of women in maid outfits who exude a pleasant smell, and a slip of a girl in a white dress.
Every time we pass someone, Ogotai holds my neck and forces my head down so that I cannot meet their eyes, not that I need much encouragement. My embarrassment is reason enough.
Finally, the warden leaves those endless alleys and forces me into a bedroom. Before I can even start to panic, he bids me to get cleaned and slams the door shut.
Once again, I take stock. The room itself is rather small, which is only sensible as there are so many of them. It is also lavishly decorated in shades of red and gold. Whoever designed the baroque hallways clearly extended his influence on my new lodgings.
The bed has four posters and takes the entire middle of the room with a writing desk and a chair lining the side wall. The living space is partitioned by white panels and I find a copper tub on the other side, as well as amenities and another surprise. This place has hot running water.
I prepare a bath and rid myself of that vile potato bag I was wearing to slide in the bath with a sigh of pleasure.
I do not know if I should attribute how I feel to my previous ordeals or the state of my body, but the very act of washing myself has never been so pleasant.
Water caresses my skin with its silky touch as the heat of the liquid seeps into me, to my delight. I could almost forget how thirsty I am. Oh, how silly, there is now water to be found! What was I waiting for?
I bring the warm liquid from the tap to my lips and take in a hasty gulp and I know without a doubt that, unfortunately, it will not do. How strange! Is it the symptom of some disorder? Well, I will think upon it later.
When did my skin turn so white?
Summer reached Louisiana a few weeks ago and I remember a light, but distinct tan, and yet now I look as pale as a Canuck. My nails are also black and quite sharp, which I cannot explain. One more mystery to add upon the pile.
Or perhaps I should realize whAt I haVe beCome why I do not feel hunger?
Wait, there are more urgent matters to attend. I must be presentable. If that warden comes in while I am still undressed, I shall surely die of embarrassment. There is only so much humiliation a proper lady can tolerate in a single day.
I scrub myself vigorously and enjoy every moment of it. After drying myself, I find undergarments and a simple linen dress on the desk, which I promptly don. They do not fit me, exactly and are a bit tight around the waist, and yet I find I care little.
It feels so nice to be decent again, and the sensation of soft fabric on my skin is simply divine. I luxuriate in it until I am disturbed by an insistent knock.
I open the door to see two men outside. Ogotai stares me down without emotion, the other man is younger and dressed as a servant.
My thirst surges at the scent of him. Such an intoxicating perfume! Before I can lean forward, Ogotai’s hand grabs my neck once more. Ah! Must this man irritate me so! I want to CLAW HIM APART LIKE THE CUR HE IS!
I force myself to swallow. I do not want a repeat of the cell scene. Those ruffians made it clear they would resort to violence given the opportunity. Except that handsome gentleman of course.
“You will cease when ordered.”
The servant looks at me with undisguised fear. His chocolate eyes are fixed on my smile as he starts blabbering in some unknown language I care not about. His attempt at retreating is stopped by the Warden’s steel grip on his neck and only serves to whet my maddening Thirst. It bites into my chest and drills into my mind, demanding satisfaction. Nothing matters but that merciless craving.
How peculiar, the sight of a terrified man makes me… giddy? And even more thirsty? This abduction has made me a moNster. What? No, this ordeal made me a little bit hysterical. Yes. Just a little tense. Nothing to it.
I chuckle as I grab the man firmly between my arms, and then as he vainly tries to push me away. I am still laughing when his eyes meet mine and grow unfocused.
I sigh as I take in the musk of his terror, with just a touch of desire. Scrumptious. I smile as my fangs puncture the skin of his neck and I can finally, FINALLY, slake this godforsaken Thirst.
I am transported, I am ravished, I am undone.
If there is one way to transcend time and space, this is it. No dervish and no prophet, no shaman and no mage would come close to this divine experience. Not with all the incense and prayers of the world.
I love it, love it, love it.
A piercing pain brings me back into the real world. The warden’s clawed fingers dig into the muscles of my neck, forcing my jaw open inch by inch. The young servant is dragged away, still mesmerized by God knows what.
I swallow as the pain turns my vision white. I stop moving. This is just too much.
“You will lick the wound closed. Do it now.”
With the tip of my tongue, I manage to clean the precious nectar from the young man’s skin even as the trickle stops. I waste not a drop. Eventually, Ogotai pulls him away further and he collapses against the wall in a daze. The expression on his face is content, for some unknown reason. I, however, am not. I need more. MUCH MORE.
“Aaaiiii!” I cry.
Ogotai’s hand does not relent. His other arm, now free, forces my own in a lock behind my back. I arch myself to prevent the agony from becoming too much. I barely struggle against his hold. My frustration is no match for the constant pain and the prospect of dislocation.
The horrible Thirst finally abates. It retreats into the recess of my mind like a wary tiger, pacified but not gone.
I am myself again.
Wait, what just occurred?
I cannot recall.
Something to do with nourishment.
Ogotai pushes me away and I fall on the bed. With a yelp and scramble, I am upright again. I am not so innocent as to not understand the implication of being in a bedroom with a man and the Warden makes me wary.
Fortunately, my apprehension was unfounded this time. Ogotai bends to the servant to, I assume, check on his well-being. Apparently satisfied, he stands back up and bids me follow him.
We leave the room, and I do my best to keep up with the tall stranger. Torpor once more makes my limbs heavy and my mind weary, yet I refuse to yield.
We descend back to what I assume is the ground floor, and shortly reach a thick set of gates made out an essence of wood I do not recognize. Ogotai opens one with ease and shoves me in.
The room I find myself in is, without a doubt, a training room. It is an extremely wide rectangle surrounded by an unadorned wall of grey stone. Racks of weapons line my left, targets my right and the far wall is adorned with benches.
I am surprised to see that the ground is stone covered by a layer of sand, reminding me of this illustration of the Colosseum I once saw in a book. Why, if a lion and a gladiator were to strut in to the sound of a brass horn, I wouldn’t even bat an eye.
The only person present besides us is a woman with black curls tied in a bun. I cannot decide whether she shocks me or impresses me more.
Her face is handsome, rather than beautiful due to an unfortunately squarish jaw and yet she exudes an aura of gentle grace that is only enhanced by a scandalously fitting leather armor. Her appearance makes me once again question my sanity.
I know that Napoleon’s “Cuirassiers” would ride into battle with a steel breastplate, but she looks more like a poacher than a soldier and besides, the gentler sex should not dress so, it is just not proper.
She ignores us as we approach until there can be no doubt that we come to address her. With a frown, she sheathes a blade she had been cleaning and turns to us.
Her cold aura is as strong as Ogotai’s yet more refined, and I believe she’S oNe of thEm, I mean I believe it is the source of her self-confidence. Is she an Amazon, to stand here before that man without fear? I surmise that some horrible accident befell me, and I am now in the thrall of some potent concoction that causes me to hallucinate.
“Courtier”, she replies with a sneer.
There is a flash of anger on Ogotai’s twisted face, quickly hidden.
“You are to induct this fledgling while her master attends to the important matter of the conclave.”
“What kind of master would bring a fledgling here? Is she so flawed that she cannot be left unattended?”
“You may relay your concerns to Lord Nirari. I am sure he will be delighted to hear your objections, squire. The order is passed. I bid you farewell.”
And with this, Ogotai turns around and leaves us both stranded. I harbor some hope that this person would take pity in my plight, but those expectations are too soon dashed.
The disgust on her face reminds me of Lady Moor’s, only hers is laced with fury. I instinctively take a step back.
A sense of danger dissipates my lethargy and I realize that the Warden set the stage masterfully so that there is no chance that I would find a friend here.
I still do not understand what is happening. My mind is barely working. I am a woman playing an intricate card game without having been taught its rules and I am even forbidden from asking for help.
The woman seems to resolve herself to the situation and gestures me to join her next to a rack. I gaze at rows upon rows of medieval weapons, including some that must have come from barbarian kingdoms.
Never have I laid my eyes on so many bladed, pointy and blunt instruments, coming in all shapes and sizes. One is just a chain, with a blade at the end, and I simply cannot fathom how that could be a sensible weapon.
We both stop and she looks at me expectantly.
I have no idea what to do.
Does she expect me to pick a weapon myself?
I feel panic rising in my chest. Eager not to displease the harridan, I desperately look for something to defend myself and I find it. I grab it and hold it protectively before me.
“That is a shield.”
I nod in approval. Obviously, it is.
“Are you provoking me, fledging? Can you even talk?”
“Yes, sorry, yes I can talk, and no I am not trying to provoke you.”
“And what, pray tell, can you wield?”
I do not remember much, but I do know for sure that my… father? Yes, my father, whose very face I cannot recall, would have never allowed me to take up fencing. Wielding a blade is so unladylike.
Louisiana is already the dumping ground for France’s debtors, whores, and scoundrels. There is no need for us landowners to act as savages as well.
With that said, I did hunt for fur and meat, and there are enough escaped slaves to make leaving the plantation without weapon a foolish endeavor.
“I am a good shot with a flintlock rif -agh!”
The woman’s face turns into a mask of rage. She grabs me by the collar and in a seamless gesture, throws me across the room.
My mind blanks.
The world turns and twists before my eyes. I land, painfully, on my shoulder, and still I slide on the ground.
Eventually, I stop against a machine.
A second later, I hear the crash of my shield against a distant wall.
Pain steals my breath away. I cannot think.
I do not know how much time I spend here, sobbing hunched on myself. Everything hurts, I am so tired, and I am still thirsty.
Why why why why why?
Something cold pokes my ribs painfully. I open an eye to see that evil hag looking down. She uses a dull training sword as a poker. Oh, why, why must she be so cruel?
“Well, fledgeling, let me see you fire that rifle of yours.”
“What are you waiting for?”
And she stabs me.
The tip of the sword pierces into my chest, not enough to kill me but enough to hurt.
This new agony only adds to the old one and I go over the edge. I cannot do this anymore. Their cruel games, their pointless aggression, their cold demeanor.
I did not ask to be here, ridiculed and humiliated at every turn. Abused. Tortured. And for what? What sinister game are they all playing, that they do not deem me even worthy of knowing the rules? I just want it to be over, I just want to die.
Papa, please come save me, I can’t take this anymore.
And so, I bawl like a baby. Sobs wrack my body and tears stream down my face.
I wait for the armored hellion to continue her abuse, crying all the while, and yet it does not come.
A pair of hands picks me up gently and sets me against the stupid mannequin. I keep my eyes closed in terror.
A finger brushes my chin and holds my face up.
After a few seconds, I dare open my eyes.
The woman’s face is frighteningly close to mine. She stares at my cheeks with wonder.
“Fledgling, I have a request.”
“Can I please lick your tears?”
Is this woman entirely insane? This request is completely senseless! And yet, there is suddenly a longing on her face so powerful and so pure that my breath catches in my chest.
“Please… Please, I beg you.”
My instincts tell me that she speaks the truth, as unlikely as it seems. It is all so very surreal that I find myself speechless. Is this the same person who tossed me across the room like a ragdoll?
I must decide, and against my better judgement, I agree.
I close my eyes as she slowly leans forward. A cold slip moves across my skin and I force myself not to yelp. This new sensation is so strange, and yet so intimate that I dare not move.
The cold tongue traces the other side of my face. Immediately, I hear a gasp and a sob. I open my eyes once more to witness a spectacle that defies common sense.
The woman, whose posture had been so flawless before is now sobbing before me. A pink tinge colors her and as I watch she slowly collapses forward.
A protective impulse guides my left hand to the back of her head. I pat it in a soothing gesture. Her black curls are the softest thing I have ever touched.
She tenses, at first, but soon she leans into my gesture and for a moment, we just lie here.
My pain fades away quickly. Was I wounded? No, probably not.
I let my arm fall. This feels so delightful. I believe I may just fall asleep right now.
I blink. The Amazon is looking at me with her usual frigid mask. Have I dreamt the whole encounter? Surely not! Why, her skin is still rosy.
I gulp in fear.
“Do you know who I am?”
I shake my head, too scared to cause another bout of mindless rage.
“I am Jimena, squire of clan Cadiz and quartermaster for this underkeep.”
“Can you understand anything I said?”
“You are Jimena.”
She sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose.
“How old are you, exactly?”
“I am nineteen.”
“I had not heard about Lord Nirari siring a fledgling, especially not one that could talk. What has he taught you then?”
“Lord Nirari, your master.”
“I do not know that man.”
“What do you mean? You are his, I saw your fangs.”
I silently gape at the woman. Fangs? Master? I am dealing with a raving lunatic!
Jimena looks at me in utter disbelief.
“Did you happen to meet a tall man with brown eyes and brown hair recently? Dark, imposing?”
“And incredibly handsome,” I reply with a dreamy voice. “Yes, and he did tell me to call him master. Is his name Nirari?”
“Yes, and when, exactly, did you see him first?”
“Why, this very morning, in my cell!”
Jimena appears increasingly agitated, and I still cannot say whether I am mad, or she is. At the very least I learnt the name of my kiLl… my master. Nirari. Such an exotic name. Perhaps one day it can be mine as well.
“I need you to tell me the truth.”
“Oh I will, the master told me to obey you in all things.”
“I see. Well, please do tell, is your earliest memory of that very same cell?”
“Yes! Oh my G…” I cough, my throat suddenly obstructed. Jimena winces in sympathy.
“Yes. I woke up there yesterday. Or at least I think it was yesterday. It is hard to tell the passing of the time without sun or the clock.”
“And you feel as if your mind fails you, as if your memories were hidden behind a veil?”
“Yes!” Finally, someone who understands my plight! Oh, I could cry in relief!
Instead of answers though, Jimena just stands and starts pacing.
“Is it some sort of affliction?”
“Yes. Yes, it is. You will also notice the paleness, the sharp nails. And the Thirst.”
“Does it get better?”
Jimena stops pacing and stares into the distance.
“No… no, it does not.”
I wait patiently for her to elaborate. I can learn more about my circumstances from her, provided I do not agitate her further. I hope she hurries, as I find myself more and more eager to return to my bedroom. Perhaps there I shall find something to drink.
“What is your name, do you remember?”
“Well met, Ariane. Has Lord Nirari mentioned a ceremony?”
“He said that if I do well, I may draw his essence in three days and live.”
Jimena mutters to herself, and I unfortunately manage to hear what she says. The woman can swear like a sailor!
“Well, young Ariane, you find yourself in a delicate situation. However, you gave me something quite rare, and something that can only be gifted, not taken. Powerful emotions are such a precious thing. For that, I am grateful and shall endeavor to assist you.”
She helps me up.
“You are afflicted, yes, and I am sorry to say that there is no cure.”
“What? I… I have never heard of such a disease! And is that why I am your captive? Because of this condition?”
“Indeed. You may consider the veil over your mind as a sort of anesthetic that will shield it during the transition.”
“But… I don’t want to-”
“Shh,” she says, “'tis a terrible thing, I know, yet you are still Ariane. Always remember, that you are still your own.”
“Y-yes, I am Ariane. I am my own.”
I stagger forward.
“Ah, you must be exhausted. Rest on my shoulder, that I may guide you to a room.”