The man throws me on the ground.
“As agreed, she is yours,” he says without a care.
I can barely lift my eyes to see the hem of a blue dress.
This is all too much.
I finally understand.
I remember dying.
I am now a monster.
I have been a monster for four days.
I drink blood.
I am damned, an abomination. And the people in the corridor, they were priests.
I killed a priest.
That boy on the first night, I killed him too.
And before that, my last nights as a normal person, I… He…did things to me.
This is not a nightmare, I know it with perfect clarity, just as I know that I should feel hysterical but cannot, I should wish for death but I do not. Something in me is broken.
Old age may have robbed me of my mind, eventually, but what streams my consciousness, what moves my heart now is not the spirit of a person. It is much colder.
Already, the tears I shed have dried on my cheeks. Panic has receded, replaced by cold certainty. I am no longer the Ariane that danced and drank fine wine on that night, the one who suffered, fought and begged for freedom then for a quick death. I am not her. Not entirely.
I am a vampire, and I want to live.
I may have been robbed of the future I envisioned but I will not throw away this pathetic excuse of a life until I fulfill this promise to myself. I am Ariane. I am my own. I will live, and I will go home. They cannot take this from me. I will not let them. Never. As Jimena said, patience and determination will carry me.
She helped me. She showed compassion, kindness, honor. Are they not all monsters? I turn my head left. There she is, her armor reddened by blood but otherwise unharmed. She looks forward like a soldier at a parade. As I look, she turns to me briefly.
Long enough to see the pity in her eyes.
I need to think, to evaluate. I need time.
“Not so fast you old monster. You think me daft? You would have me believe Moor’s servant betrayed us all and you had nothing to do with it? Both of you plotted our demise!”
“Those are preposterous accusations Gaspard, and you should know better,” Lord Ceron answers.
“All of you are too blind to see it but I will not be made a fool!”
“Careful,” says Master, and the clearing goes deathly still. “It sounds like you insulted me twice.”
“And what would you know of honor? You hide behind a false code and vile sorceries!”
“Oh? You believe me weak of arm, young Gaspard? Would you wager your eternity on it?”
“You will regret those words you decrepit husk! I accept your challenge. No magic, only our blades and us.”
I turn my head in disbelief to the blond bearded man. Gaspard, the representative for clan Roland. Is he serious?! Can he not tell how utterly outclassed he is?
“Witnessed by Clan Ekon,” the tall black man declares in a low rumble.
“Witnessed by Clan Cadiz,” Lord Ceron adds.
“Witnessed by Clan Lancaster. Farewell Gaspard, I cannot say that I will miss you,” Lady Moor continues with a voice as cold as it is uncaring.
The group moves away and I push myself up to Lady Moor’s icy eyes.
“Well, are you going to hug the dirt like a scullery maid for much longer?”
I stand up before her and grind my teeth in silence. I do not know the rules that regulate vampires and therefore I do not know how freely she can kill me. I need to make her believe that keeping me alive will be more beneficial than finishing me off.
“You serve me now.”
“Yes, Lady Moor.”
“Will I have to discipline you?”
“No, Lady Moor.”
“Humph! At least you know your place now. Even monkeys can be taught, it seems.”
That trollop, I so want to WRENCH OFF HER HEAD.
So this is what it is.
I can feel my own mind, twisted and corrupted like the surface of a lake, and there is something else, something deeper. When I was alive, I was prone to feeling anger, but this is different.
It is like a twisted thing that prowls beneath the surface, pitiless and predatory. It is the part of me that fought those priests and took Ogotai by surprise, and if I release it, it will not throw harsh words.
Right now, it is of no use to me. Any resistance on my part will be met swiftly and mercilessly.
Mistaking my silence for complacency, Lady Moor smirks and moves away.
I do, and finally take the time to check around me.
We stand in the middle of an exquisite garden. The mansion dominating it might have been a sight at some point. Now, only blackened beams and collapsed walls remain. Somebody dug a path from the outside to the massive steel door at its heart.
Bodies of those battle priests litter the grass although most seem to have died in some sort of defensive line. Collapsed tents and slain beasts form a grisly spectacle somewhere at the edge of the property. I can spot servants packing belongings in coaches in the distance, so it seems some of them survived.
Vampires gather around a flat circle in silence. It seems that each lord has between two and five followers who stand behind them. I want to join Master, yet I place myself behind the Lancasters. Melusine turns in my direction and smiles cruelly. I do not react.
The two combatants enter the arena. Lady Moor takes a white band and releases it without ceremony. I can see every detail on the Roland Lord’s arrogant face: his pride, his disdain, the certainty of his victory.
I shall never be so utterly brainless, and thus I promise to myself to keep the beast in check.
What follows is a lesson, and this lesson is not for Gaspard. It is for the rest of us.
One moment the Lord stands at the edge of the circle, the next moment he is right next to Master in a perfect lunge. His black bladed sword kisses the edge of Master’s deep blue coat without touching it. Master has one hand on Gaspard's sword arm and the second deep within his chest.
Gaspard's expression turns from triumph, to surprise, to pain, to horror. A torrent of black blood rains on the ground and the Roland clan representative staggers and lurches, only kept standing by Master’s steel grip.
With deliberate slowness, Master ignores the man’s pleading eyes and releases the blade, which falls on the ground. He then grabs his throat.
What follows is a moment I shall never forget.
The sound of flesh tearing and bone breaking, the suction noise as the head is pulled minutely, the vertebrae revealed to the world with agonizing slowness.
It takes the man ten seconds to die in a flash of blue fire. Ten seconds during which Master reveals his true colors: he is utterly bored.
This is nothing to him, just another insect that needs its wings pulled so that the other vermin know better than to provoke him.
The local master did not even warrant the satisfaction of the kill. He was such easy a prey.
Master turns to the silent assembly with one raised eyebrow. Lady Moor bows to him.
“Melusine will show you to your ship, my Lord.”
I derive a small amount of satisfaction from the abject terror shown on the little harlot’s face.
Unfortunately, when Master turns to leave, I take a step forward despite myself.
I know I shouldn’t, yet I must try. He ignores me, completely. He leaves without a word, without even a look. I don’t understand. I have been a good girl. I did everything he asked… I did my best! So why, why…
The other vampires are perfectly silent, so my outburst and the following shame are witnessed by all. When I think it could not possibly get worse, I feel two claws grab my neck. Lady Moor’s cold breath on my ear makes me shiver.
“Not ten minutes in my service and you already embarrass me in front of my peers. It looks like you need discipline after all. Undress.”
Her vicious claws draw blood and I convulse in answer. Ah! This really hurts!
“Do not make me repeat myself.”
I can only be grateful that most other vampires leave to attend to other business as I slowly take off my gown, gritting my teeth. In short order, I stand in my smallclothes in the middle of the clearing, grateful that the view of my disrobed body remains hidden behind a curtain of green. This is the most indecent thing I have been forced to do.
I wince as a memory worms itself to the forefront of my mind. It is, in fact, the second most indecent thing I have ever been submitted to.
God, why did I have to die like this? What have I ever done to deserve such treatment?
Why have you forsaken me?
I do not receive an answer, not that I expect one.
I do not wait long. A bearded man soon reaches us. I recognize the insane blue eyes that greeted me in my cell back on the first day. He leers at me shamelessly! I try to cover myself as best as I can.
“Hehe, looks like Nirari knows how to pick ‘em…”
I hiss in outrage and he recoils.
“Enough Baudouin, she is more than you can tame.”
The man looks at me thoughtfully then throws me another dress, a humble apparel of white linen. I would never have let one of our estate’s servants walk around in this rag, and yet I treasure it for it is the only material thing I possess now.
I do believe that Lady Moor did not want me naked only so that the unspoken threat of this condition deters me from opposing her will.
As soon as I am covered, we leave to join the procession of coaches and carriages leaving the fortress ground. The remaining Roland clan members precede us as I recognize the twins. It appears that the death of their leader has not affected them in the slightest. I am horrified when I see where I am led.
Lady Moor turns to me, expecting a reaction, yet this time I manage to remain silent.
They are going to transport me in a cage like a circus animal. Oh, I so wish to make them SUFFER, but I need to exert patience.
Baudouin has a pair of manacles hanging from his shoulder, massive objects of cruel metal, and I have no intention of letting him come anywhere near me if I can help it.
Lady Moor gestures to the door and I get in wordlessly. It is a testament to my circumstances that I am grateful that the cage is clean.
Lambert silently rides a horse to my side. He pointedly ignores me and I am only too happy to return the favor.
Clan Lancaster is the last to leave the fortress grounds. Only a dozen servants are left to clean up the battlefield. Our little procession is made of six coaches and four carts including my own, and we depart in silence.
Despite my circumstances, I cannot help but look around me in wonder.
For the first time, I truly appreciate night in the bayou. The oppressing wet heat of summer is mercifully subdued at night, or perhaps I am no longer so afflicted by it.
Sounds and smells form a vast harmony and I spend quite a bit of time looking at strange arrangements in the leaves and barks of the cypresses, and ripples on ponds of brackish waters.
Every insect and every plant hold a new fascination for me as if I had never seen them before. I suspect that vampire vision is highly superior to that of humans to help us perform some foul deeds, and it brings me some consolation that my new senses can be used for more than just evil.
It is also my luck that the path is quite muddy, else I would be swallowing the entire caravan’s dust. We are in July and night is the only time when the weather is tolerable.
So, I am a vampire.
I have no idea what that means. Never have I heard of such a thing. I have difficulties admitting that monsters could live among humans, moving faster than the eye can see and digging into people’s chest at will without it being common knowledge.
Surely, people would ask questions upon having their blood consumed? If those battle priests know of us, why not call the colonial militia and give us the cannons? I am simply baffled. There are so many things I do not understand. Truly, I am a toddler once more.
Thinking on it, can I still bear children?
Would I even want to? Would they not be twisted things, just like me?
I abandon this line of thought. I will not give Lambert the satisfaction of seeing me cry a second time in a single night. I would also not want to ask questions. It appears that talking without leave is not looked upon kindly.
My cart is at the very tail of the procession and we advance at a snail’s pace, so much that we eventually lose sight of the rest. I assume that so many carts together in the middle of the night would attract undue attention, so I am only left with a human driver and the ever-taciturn Lambert.
Fortunately, the new experience of the night entertains me until we come across a patrol of three armed militia. They look at me questioningly.
I do not wish to resist at this point. Jimena’s promise is still clear in my mind and I do not doubt that Lambert could disable them in an instant, should I try to force a rescue.
I am therefore compelled to hear him explain how I am the wanton daughter of a tailor, who ran away from home after finding out I was with child, from an unknown father, no less.
I apparently murdered the babe as he was born so I could continue with my depravity. The faces of the men turn from wariness, to shock and eventually, to disgust as Lambert spins his tale. He is as good an actor as I took him for, and I note to myself that I shall never trust a word he says.
We leave the patrol behind us and cross a small village. The night comes alive with the smell of humanity. Under the stench of sweat and unwashed bodies, there is a perfume of vitality that makes my jaw ache. I pass my tongue over my fangs, only to find out that there are eight of them.
They have replaced all my canines, and the outermost incisive as well. Jimena mentioned that my bloodline’s appearance was unmistakable. This is certainly why. Now that my memory is clearer, the other vampires all have four.
This is grave news. It means that I must absolutely keep the sight of my teeth to myself lest my lineage is immediately found.
As I ruminate, we leave the village and come upon another patrol. This time, Lambert entertains them with a tale of my murder of the old man who welcomed me to his hearth, how I poisoned him and seduced his son to steal the family’s fortune.
Again, the looks of horror on their face are striking and I wonder why Lambert lies with such aplomb when there is no benefit to it. He is not even having fun.
After a while, the land gradually changes and we find ourselves next to a colonial house of massive proportions. For a while now, I have smelled the barest hint of brine in the wind and I remember that clan Lancaster has an interest in sea trade. I suspect that we may not be far from New Orleans.
The place of my demise.
Lambert opens the cage and lets me out. I follow him in silence across a grand entrance and a series of corridors. We walk past tastefully decorated rooms and a few submissive servants in blue uniform to a closed door. Lambert knocks and we go in.
The room is a boudoir of good size illuminated by candles. A handful of vampires lounge lazily on comfortable couches.
I am horrified, not by their number, but by their immobility. There is not a whisper of moving fabric, not a sigh. They are not even breathing. Shocked, I begin holding my breath.
I am still holding it as Lambert leads me to the forefront. I am still holding it as Lady Moor stands up from a throne-like seat to address the crowd.
The vampires shift their postures to show attention. I feel like I am watching a puppet show, so unnatural their movements are. I count seven in total.
Besides Lady Moor, Melusine, and Lambert, there are also a weasel-faced scoundrel, a bovine toad of a woman, a witless looking slip of a girl with crooked teeth, and a balding brute.
It finally occurs to me that Louisiana is not a land of exiles just for the humans.
“My esteemed clan kin, the conclave has reached a favorable conclusion and once more, Lancaster has risen to the top. The successful negotiations I conducted solidified our hold on New Orleans and its boon of treasure and cattle. Our success is assured.”
The grisly automatons clap politely, like the obedient curs they are.
“This victory did not come without its share of disappointment, however. As you know, we lost Caytlinn and were betrayed by Ogotai, may his soul burn forever.”
The assembly does not betray any sort of reaction. I do not believe that such a sorry lot would harbor any kind of sympathy for each other.
“We have received a new member as payment for service rendered by Lord Nirari himself. As the foremost clan in this land, the Devourer has favored us with his business and we will reap the benefits for years to come.”
Not if I can help it.
“Please welcome Ariane to our loving family.”
I feel like a piece of meat dangled before a pack of bloodhounds.
“She is yet very young, so it will be up to Melusine to rear her into a valuable and productive member of our community, for the good of all.
I notice the vilest and cruel of smiles on the red-headed harridan. Ah, truly, I will need every scrap of self-control I can salvage.
“And with this, I shall retire for the evening. There is much for me to do.”
The rest of them stand as she leaves. Melusine reaches my side and grabs my arms as if we were the best of friends before dragging me out of the room. I am surprised to see that I am quite a bit taller than her but it matters not. She has me, and she knows it. This will be difficult.