My best friend locks arms with me as we walk the streets of New-Orleans. Already the sun creeps past the horizon and the dying light paints the cobblestone red. How daring we are, two young women, out with no chaperones!
“It is so good that you came amiga, for alone I would never have dared!”
“Think nothing of it, Constanza. I have a good reason to attend this ball as well. It is said that Lady Le Moyne opened a distillery in Haiti and has an eye for business. It is truly fortuitous that she is there tonight, and I would be unwise to miss such an occasion.”
Blond locks brush my shoulder and I find myself staring in a pair of laughing chestnut eyes.
“Ah my poor Ariane, is it always business with you? You should keep an eye open for a husband instead. Then he can open that distillery you crave, while we spend our days in merriment!”
“Psssh! Licentious woman, you shall not tempt me so! And besides, men cannot be trusted. Even Papa said so.”
“Ah amiga, your Papa is not here tonight, and truly I understand now, that I have to find you suitors of a more mature kind.”
“Whatever do you mean?!”
“Hahaha, fret not amiga, and look! Here is a new contender!”
I follow my best friend’s direction to the entrance of the manse, only to recoil in terror. In front of the double door stands a monster out of the grisliest tale.
It stands taller than any man. Its skin is white as the moon and it is completely hairless. Eyes the color of the abyss drill into my soul. I want to run; I try to run but I am paralyzed. My best friend holds my arm in a death grip. A deep gash mars her pretty face and her eyes take on a mad glint.
“No, do not leave, he is the one just for you. A perfect match, for one who tries to reach above her station.”
I cannot move, I cannot even blink. I am forced to watch as the monster steps closer. It grabs my head and exposes my throat. The last thing I see are eight merciless fangs.
I wake up in a bedroom that is not my own. Memories slowly come back to me and I find myself in a turmoil. I have some hope now that I found an ally in Jimena, and yet I have little doubt that she speaks the truth.
I am indeed afflicted by some unknown condition. The realization almost crushes my spirit and for a while, I sit under the velvet canopy, too stunned to move. It does not last though for Jimena bids me join her and I must obey.
I stand and make myself ready. The ill-fitting dress I wore yesterday is still clinging to my body. A few drops of blood have stained the front and back, yet I do not recall being wounded. Curious.
This specific guestroom is similarly equipped as the previous one, so I quickly take another bath after making sure the door is locked. It takes all my willpower not to luxuriate in the sensual feeling of warm water on my skin, despite how thirsty I am.
After drying myself, I find that someone left a strange looking grey ensemble by the entrance. I put it on. To my surprise, it is extremely comfortable, with the notable exception of the area around my, hmm, posterior, which is too tight.
Nevertheless, it does not limit my range of movement in any way. What a great find! Oh, if only I could wear this in polite society, but it has trousers, and this simply will not do.
Difficulty strikes when I try to sort the bird's nest that my hair has become. There is not a mirror in sight! How do they expect a lady to show her best without a mirror to attend to herself I wonder? Does Lady Moor… oh. She probably has servants of some sort.
Fortunately, my hair easily parts under my tAloNs fingers, and I believe I am at least somewhat presentable. They do not expect me to appear in polite society in any case!
With everything done, I leave.
Fortunately, it does not take me long to find the training room. I take the stairs down and wander a bit until I find the double doors.
During this, I only come across one maid who avoids my eyes as she rushes by. She has an enticing scent, but I do not let it distract me. I am, after all, expected. I only hope that Jimena has something to drink, this Thirst is killing me.
I find her at a table, cleaning an elaborate fencing foil. Next to her is a short and stocky woman in a peasant dress. She has short black hair and stares at me with a frown and worried black eyes.
As I come closer, I realize she smells divine, why, I just cannot stop myself-
Jimena halts me with a hand on my shoulder.
“Oh, sorry, where are my manners! Good morning Jimena, and you as well madam. Hmm, it is morning, isn’t it?”
Jimena returns my greeting with a nod and a smile.
“Not quite. This is Aintza, she is a retainer for the Cadiz clan.”
“Oh, greetings Aintza.”
The woman does not answer. Instead, she nervously swallows, and I find myself fascinated by the movement of her neck. Such a pretty neck, so very fetching.
“I need your attention. Look at me.”
I turn to her and realize she is much closer than I am comfortable with. She takes my hands in hers. Her skin is soft and cool.
“Do you want to get closer to Aintza?”
“Are you feeling thirsty?”
“Yes, quite so. It is almost unbearable.”
“Close your eyes. Good. Now, I want you to think about a place where you are safe. The safest place you know.”
“But I do not remember my past…”
“Your mind does not, but your heart can. Do you remember what I told you yesterday?”
“I am mine. I will always be mine.”
“Good. Let your heart speak, Ariane. You are safe. You can see around you. What do you see?”
“I-I don’t know. I am so very thirsty. I just NEED A FEW DROPS FROM--”
“No! Stop! Good. It will work better because you are thirsty. Now, try again.”
At first, I find the entire exercise silly.
Why, it feels like one of these hogwash meditation exercises those charlatans claim can cure blindness? Jimena, however, does not relent. She guides me with a soothing voice.
When the Thirst becomes too much, she grabs my neck in a firm hold and it helps me remain in control.
Eventually, I feel it.
On the edge of the sugar cane fields stands a log cabin. It is barely large enough for a single bed, a chest and a small fire pit. It was never meant to be lived in. It is merely a shelter, unadorned and unpolished. The only thing that matters is that it is safe.
I drag myself up on the straw mattress. It smells like soap and sunshine and I know I can wait here for him to return. A cool wind rustles the trees outside and carries the smell of rain on fresh soil.
Now that the weather is better, he will come back shortly and hopefully bring me something to drink. In the meanwhile, I will just hug Mr. Scruffybear. Mr. Scruffybear is such a gentleman.
“Good. Now, does it not smell so nice?”
“Good, now lick it.”
I lick something exquisite. It must be the world’s very best bonbon. Someone moans in pleasure, and I know I should be shocked but cannot make myself care.
“Good, it will turn the pain to pleasure, and now, just follow your instincts.”
I bit down delicately. Something soft and warm parts under my teeth like the sweetest of fruits, and once again the delicious nectar comes to sate the Thirst.
It is so good, so very good.
And yet, it feels duller, somehow. It does not compare to before.
There is a partition between the feeling and me. I am enjoying myself, but part of me also sits in the bed of my cabin with Mr. Scruffybear.
“Slow down and listen.”
I can hear mostly two things. The first is a woman moaning most shamefully. I am not too naïve not to understand that she…
Hah, I cannot even make myself finish the thought.
The second is a heartbeat, and it has been beating increasingly faster.
“The heartbeat is too fast. When it is so, you must stop. Stop now.”
I do so immediately. The Thirst has abated enough that the urge is no longer so pressing. I also remember my master’s instructions. I must obey Jimena in all things.
“Excellent. Now lick the wound clean.”
I do so. I am overcome by a feeling of strong intimacy and were it not for my strange state, I believe I would be blushing.
A moment later, I open my eyes. Jimena is holding Aintza in a princess carry. I dare not mention how inappropriate this all is, not to mention Aintza’s rosy cheeks! Why, if someone were to come right now, I would surely die of embarrassment!
“Do you know what just happened?”
“Hmm, you told me to find a safe place, which I did, and then…”
I frown in confusion. What happened then? I cannot seem to recall.
“I do not remember. Is it this accursed affliction?”
“Yes. Do not worry, the veil in your mind will be lifted when you next meet your master, or so he said.”
“Oh, this cannot come soon enough…” I reply in a dreamy voice. Before I can embarrass myself further, Jimena turns around with a sad smile.
“You should not be too hasty. Not all knowledge is good to take. Ah, I am not good at this. Stay here while I bring Aintza to safety. As you wait, I want you to remember that safe place you found. When you suffer from the Thirst, or when you quench it, you may find it again. This is important Ariane. If you must remember but one thing, remember this.”
Jimena leaves and I am left alone. I can already feel that call of torpor even though I must have awakened not an hour ago. To distract myself, I inspect the training dummies.
I am simply astonished when I realize that some of those are automatons! How wealthy must those lords and ladies be, that they can afford such intricate machinery for such a trivial task? I can only assume that they are from Europe, for duels are still a way to resolve a dispute among nobles.
My musings are interrupted by the sound of the door opening and closing behind me. I turn from my inspection to greet a returning Jimena and instead recoil in surprise.
There are now two people in the room, only a few steps from me, and I have never seen them in my life.
How can they already be so close?! It is impossible! Unless…
What was I thinking about? Hmmm. It matters not. There are people in front of me and I haven’t greeted them yet.
I curtsy, even though I do not wear a dress. Master told me to sTop RunNing to behave, and I shall do so.
And I wait.
The woman on the left is wearing a richly embroidered cream gown with green eyes and shockingly red hair. She is extremely beautiful, and both her aura and her posture remind me of Lady Moor. A younger Lady Moor at least. Perhaps a relative?
The black-haired man on the right is dressed in an assorted cream jacket that went out of fashion a century ago, and yet I would never call him on it.
With his chiseled jaw and handsome face, he would be at home as a Shakespearian actor in the fanciest theaters of London. His own aura is blander, yet similar to that of his companion. While she is sneering, he appears to be a victim of the most dire form of boredom. His blue eyes dismiss me almost immediately.
I have not grown to the age of nineteen without learning how to spot trouble. Whatever they want, I must delay it until Jimena returns without drawing their ire. And so, I remain silent.
Time is on my side, and the newcomers know it too. The woman’s sneer turns into a scowl as the first round goes to me.
“We came to see the latest spawn. Tell me, spawn, do you even speak?”
Jimena, I beseech you, wherever you are, come back with all haste!
“Are you referring to me?”
“Obviously! Who else do you see in this pathetic hovel?”
I must thread the needle between aggression and passivity. Too meek, and she will escalate. Too witty, and she will retaliate. I let silence draw as long as I dare before continuing.
“In case you were still waiting for an answer, yes, I can speak. Is that so surprising?”
“It is. Lord Nirari seldom chooses them sharp, you see, he prefers to go for… other attributes.”
What is it with everyone expecting me to be a simpleton!?
“Although this time he may have made an exception.” She says, eyeing me critically.
Does she expect me to lose my composure so easily?
“Are you perhaps related to Lady Moor?”
It appears that I hit the mark. Her face freezes and her eyes turn calculating.
The man’s head turns to the door and he voices a warning.
She continues, unfazed.
“And why do you believe that?”
“You have all the bark but none of the class.”
I COULD NOT RESIST, HAHAHAHA. Oops.
She was just waiting for an excuse. She moves, and I can see it. Something sings in my veins like the leftover of a good dream, and so, I move as well. I go to grab her backhand and manage to catch her fist.
This was a terrible idea.
She is not quite fast, but the strength behind her strike is unthinkable. I am launched through the air as if I weighed nothing.
By chance, I manage to roll on the ground without hurting myself too much. Her power is truly inhuman! If her backhand had landed, I would have had to collect my molars from the farthest door. How can a slip of a girl like her…
Wait, what was I thinking? I do not know; I know however that I am in danger.
I grunt and pull myself on my knees. I somehow ended up between two of those automatons.
“Time is short, Melusine.” Says the man, as impassive as ever.
Melusine strides towards me, wearing on her face the promise of pain. Their urgency must come from Jimena’s imminent return; therefore, I only need to stall for a few moments.
I am, however, spent.
This affliction has sapped my strength. My limbs are heavier than they were a minute ago. I will not be able to fight her. I will not be able to escape. In desperation, I do something that I can only attribute to my addled mind. I catch the side of the nearest automaton and pull its lever.
At best, I was expecting the dummy to rotate and buy me a few moments. Instead, the unthinkable happens.
A complex imprint flashes in the automaton’s chest and basks it in crimson. It shudders and steps down from its wooden support, and then it stretches four arms ending in wicked blades. Its eyeless head finds the closest moving target, Melusine.
I am too stunned to move. Sorcery! Sorcery of the vilest sort!
I barely notice the man pulling his astonished companion behind himself, when a voice sweeps the room in one mighty roar.
Jimena walks in with the confidence of a lioness. Her eyes find the dummy, which moved a bit forward for some reason and then settles on Melusine with an amused sneer.
“It is good to see clan Lancaster attempt to remedy their abysmal lack of martial prowess. With that said, you could just have asked me instead of scurrying around the proving grounds like rats.”
“Watch your mouth, Squire.”
I jump as both doors shut without any visible intervention.
“You should take your own advice.”
A heavy silence falls in the room as Jimena closes the distance with the two outsiders. Before she can reach them, the man takes a step forward and offers a formal bow.
“Squire Jimena, it appears that we have come here by mistake. Perhaps you would consent to open the door?”
Jimena stops and considers for a while.
“You will leave the fledgling alone while she is in my care.”
Is that all? After all of this, they are free to leave?
WE SHOULD CUT THEIR LEGS AT THE KNEES AND MAKE THEM CRAWL ON THEIR STUMPS!
No, it is a perfectly reasonable outcome for this farce, and I am delighted to see the back of them.
They leave without a word.
“I suppose I should start to train you to defend yourself.” The woman sighs after the gates close.
“With all due respect, Jimena, I think not” I respectfully disagree. “I need to understand who those people are, and the reason for their animosity. Why, when we first met, were you not goaded into attacking me by Ogotai?”
“You are correct, young Ariane. Ah, but I am bad at this. Where should I even begin?”
“You could start by telling me why I am a fledgling and you a Squire, and why does Lady Moor despise me so.”
Jimena stops to consider, then quickly nods in assent.
“Very well, but please bear in mind that I will remain intentionally vague, lest your mind obfuscates some of the information.”
“I assumed that I would be unable to learn more about the affliction until I meet my master once more.”
“Indeed. Now, to begin. Newly turned… Afflicted, start off as drones. They are mindless and pitiful creatures who only react to obey their master’s voices. Most remain in that sorry state for a few weeks at most. Others never move past it.”
I shiver in disgust, what a dreadful fate!
“When drones recover enough of a sense of self, they receive, ahem, their master assists them, and they become fledgling, as you are. A fledgling is essentially a young afflicted.”
“Jimena, my dear, are you not mistaken? I have not yet received that help you mentioned! Am I still a drone?”
“Yes, and no. Someone who has reconstituted a sense of self is always treated as a fledgling. Receiving help is but a formality.”
“No, Ariane, do not think of it. Your master will assist you when the time has come."
“He told me to behave… And I--”
“Did not roll over and bend to Lancaster curs. Worry not, Ariane.”
“Thank you, Jimena.”
She graces me with one of her rare smiles.
“Ah, what a refreshing young lady, but let us continue. Once a Fledgling is deemed an adult, after a few dec-- after some time--”
Did Jimena almost say decades? Surely my ears deceive me, I would not want to wait until my hair grows grey to emancipate! Not that it matters, as soon as I may, I shall go home.
“--they become Courtiers. This title is earned by the grace of their clan and is universally recognized by the others. Those two from before, Melusine and Lambert, are Courtiers.
Those who, ah, master their affliction become masters. Masters do not need the recognition of their clans. Their rank is obvious.
Masters who control a territory are often called Lords. Above them are the clan sovereigns and their councils, and we will address this later.”
“What about Squires?”
“Ah yes. Knights are the military arms of the clans. They are trained and deployed by a separate Order and enjoy some measure of autonomy. Squires are Knights in Training, as well as disgraced Knights.”
Jimena looks at me expectantly. I can tell this is a test of my personality. I have known the woman for only two days, and I can already tell that she is honest and straightforward, perhaps a bit too straightforward.
“When Ogotai, and later Melusine addressed you as Squire, they meant it as a slight, did they not?”
“Correct. They riled me up on purpose and I fell for it.”
She steps forward and I recoil. My reaction hurts her, I can tell.
“Jimena, I am sorry, I…”
“Do not apologize, Ariane. I raised my hand against you yesterday. I only have myself to blame for your apprehension. I shall now explain to you why your situation is so precarious. Ah, where to begin. Hm. We are currently in Louisiana.”
I have not been moved to a forsaken corner of the earth, at least.
“This region has changed hands quite a few times. As a result, a smattering of people now live here: the original Chitimacha, Choctaw and Coushatta, the French and Canadian French, the Spaniards, Africans and now the Anglos.
Usually, clans do not mix, and those unique circumstances have required some level of adjustment. You see, clans are quite territorial.”
I almost scoff at the thought. Why would diseased people be territorial, and why include savages and slaves in the decision process? Unthinkable.
“The clans who call this place theirs have gathered to negotiate spheres of influence. There were to be four: the Cadiz, the Lancaster, the Roland and the Ekon clans of Spanish, English, French and Guinean Gulf origin, respectively.”
“You include slaves in your discussions?” I scoff.
Something flashes in Jimena’s expression.
“Ah yes, I forgot to mention. We… Afflicted, do not care for each other’s skin color. You would be well to remember it.”
“Well! How very… progressive of you.”
“You will understand why, in due time. For now, I expect you to treat others with respect, no matter their race and gender. It is for your own good.”
I will do as she asks; I am to obey her in all things.
“The issue comes from your master. Lord Nirari is your sponsor, so to speak. You are affiliated with him no matter what.”
Jimena leads me to a comfortable bench and holds my hands. I find the gesture quite touching coming from the Amazon woman.
“Lord Nirari is not unlike the sovereign of a clan. He is a bit of a rogue, and his arrival was unexpected. Nevertheless, he was welcomed with utmost courtesy. You see, insulting him is considered an exotic form of suicide.”
My face must reflect my astonishment, for Jimena decides to explain a bit more.
“Your master’s way is that of the ancients. He deems the rules of hospitality sacred, yet every slight is met with ruthless vengeance. He is universally feared and reviled, and his reputation reflects on you.”
“What!” I interrupt, scandalized, “He is A bEasT the very soul of kindness! A gentleman of refinement! How dare they slander him so?”
Jimena does not interrupt my ranting; instead she looks at me with pity. How I wish I could convince her.
“Nevertheless, his reputation is well established, and he is known for, ah, not caring about the fate of his protégés.”
“Jimena, I am so confused. Does he have a clan, or not? Do I?”
“He, well, he is just known as the Devourer, and to my knowledge only one of his Spawns, besides you, still lives. You are the third member of his line."
“I am sorry Ariane, your legacy will always be known, Lord Nirari’s afflicted are quite distinctive.”
Her attention flickers to my mouth.
“I do not understand! This makes no sense at all!”
“You will, in time. I am sorry.”
I am too astonished to reply. None of this makes sense. A mysterious disease? Clans and politics? A clan of three?
“Jimena, please, tell me the truth. Am I hysterical? Is this some asylum where the mad are left to live their insanity?”
“Ariane, believe me, you are not insane.”
I am not insane.
“This is a difficult time for you, yet if you are tenacious, and if you display a better political acumen than my own, I am confident that you will thrive.”
“Thrive? I do not want to thrive! I want to go home! I just want to go home…”
I try to hold it but despite my best efforts I start crying.
“May I… may I please drink your tears?”
Nothing that happens in this madhouse can surprise me anymore. I nod in assent, then yelp as Jimena pulls me in her embrace. Before I can react, she licks my cheeks! How daring!
We stay there. I would be otherwise offended at her familiarity and yet I realize how much I owe her.
If what she says is true, and I have no reasons to doubt her words, then my master is a bit of a pariah. Our acquaintance taints her reputation.
Her honesty and loyalty are costing her and yet she defended me. I can only be thankful that I met her.
“For an afflicted, you cry a lot.”
I feel so comfortable in her arms. I was already tired before my confrontation with that horrible harridan and now my entire body feels so heavy. I believe I shall take a quick nap.
Just a few minutes.