I open my eyes to total darkness. The pantry sized room they call mine greets me in all its misery. In truth, it is a cell, for what bedroom has a lock on the outside?
No nightmare tonight. A pleasant change.
I hear footsteps coming. I do not even have the luxury of privacy.
I have learned much in a week.
Vampires “die” at dawn and wake up at sunset or before. During that time, we are utterly defenseless. Sunlight kills us. Silver blades cut us deep. Fire will turn us into torches faster than one can say “arson”.
Our mind is prone to distractions unless we hunt. In return, our body is superior in all accounts and can heal even the most grievous of wounds, given enough time and nourishment.
We do not have to breathe, poison cannot hurt us and we cannot drown. Only the destruction of our head and heart spells a certain end. This implies that Ogotai may have survived his wounds if one of the priests supplied him with blood.
It is the Red of the Journey, the energy we need to consume to sustain the parody of life that animates us. It cannot be stored. It must be consumed from the source and without it, the predatory part of us will take over until it tastes the crimson nectar.
Vampires who lose control, sometimes fail to get it back. They must be hunted down like beasts.
The Thirst drives us. It taints every aspect of our existence. It can never be completely overcome, and it will never be truly sated. For fledglings like me, it is a daily struggle to control it, and then another struggle not to fall into torpor after we slake it.
For this, we have a few tools. Vampire saliva can make the bite extremely pleasurable, and then closes the wound so that it fades at record speed. Bitten individuals will develop an unnatural loyalty for the vampire, despite themselves.
Our eyes can confuse memory, though I am sure there is more to it than I was told.
I have not been allowed to leave the building so far, and every night a new human is brought to me. Using Jimena’s method, I have been able to stop feeding without Melusine hurting me too much. I can tell that she is disappointed, and the death of cattle would have been a good excuse for her to belittle me.
The logistics used in feeding eight vampires must be truly staggering.
That is probably how the battle priests usually find us. We have a few distinctive features, such as the claws and pallor but our fangs are usually hidden unless the grasp of the Thirst gets too strong.
We are not reflected by mirrors either, which I find quite silly. All in all, it seems that whoever created us meant for us to infiltrate the human world. Hunting us must be quite difficult.
When I asked about the priests, Melusine became unusually tight lipped and I had to drop the topic.
I hear soft gasps. Joan is gathering enough courage to knock on my door. She does not have the submissive behavior of servants who have bowed to vampires for a long time. There is a fire in her that they have not managed to extinguish. Melusine knows this, and that is why she is charged with being the first I see in the morning. I mean, evening.
If I drink her dry, Melusine has killed two birds with one stone. She is quite petty like that.
So far, I have managed to control myself, but it is becoming difficult. Melusine is stopping my feedings just a little bit early. Every night, I find my self-control eroding a bit more.
There is a knock on my door.
The courtesy is a joke and we both know it, yet I cling to any appearance of control and every scrap of manners to keep the Thirst at bay.
“Mistress Melusine requests your presence, Miss Ariane.”
I nod, not trusting myself to speak and she leaves promptly.
The scent of vitality caresses my nostrils and the Thirst punches me in the gut. I feel like someone scooped my innards with a frozen axe. Nobody has fed from Joan for a long time. So it would be fine if I had a taste. Just a taste. Melusine can punish me later. I need just a tiny, tiny mouthful. Just a few droplets.
No. I must not.
When I come to, my hand is on the handle of the door and Joan is standing still with her back to the wood. She is perfectly silent, her eyes closed and her face lax but I can smell the fear in her perspiration, hear it in the beat of her heart.
She is doing her best not to struggle, knowing that a mere move will set me off.
So very, very close.
Finger by finger, I release my hold and open the door for her. Only when I turn around does she leave.
That was the closest call, BUT I SHOULD RUN AFTER HER AND TACKLE HER TO THE GROUND! THEN--
I will not.
I get changed, mechanically, and reach Melusine’s office. She is in deep conversation with a richly dressed man with a fetching appearance. He does not know what he is in for. I can see it from his flushed face and the scent of his arousal. To be alone with a woman like Melusine is titillating him. His mind has yet to be tainted by one of us.
Melusine plays us both with a lengthy introduction. His initial frustration at being interrupted turns to pure lust at the sight of two beautiful women.
I can imagine the lewd pictures his twisted mind must provide. How many indignities must I be subjected to before it is over? I have only been here for a week; a week of constant battle against myself and Melusine’s petty humiliations.
Finally, I am given an opportunity to embrace him under some ridiculous pretext. My hands reach around his shoulders and I nuzzle his neck.
I am in the wooden cabin.
One lick, one bite.
I drank two more swallows than I was granted by enduring the pain of the hussy’s claws in my neck. She drew blood.
After I am done, she carries him to parts unknown while I attempt to scrub the memory of his erect manhood against my belly. How I wish padded pants were in fashion.
With a knock, two other vampires join us and Melusine resumes her “lessons”.
What follows is what makes my predicament border on the intolerable. I have already been robbed of my humanity, now the Lancaster princess is after my sanity as well.
Her teachings are a tragedy in two acts and four participants. First, she will demonstrate her knowledge of a specific topic, like the superiority of the Lancaster philosophy, with as much arrogance and derision as she can muster.
While she does so, my fellow students, the bovine Charlotte and witless Sophie will gush at Melusine’s intellect and overall superiority.
Praises must be properly heaped on and the princess will select a different favorite every day, who will receive her benevolence while the two others accumulate scathing remarks and disparaging comments.
Suffice to say, I only participate enough not to be punished.
After a while, she will test our understanding with tricky questions. She has a way to slide cutting remarks and casual humiliations in every sentence that is designed to leave the rest of us ashamed.
She expertly divides and conquers us, constantly pulling our group down but distributing just enough encouragement to foster a nasty form of competition. She gives her favor as easily as she takes it and does her best to keep us on our toes.
I can only grit my teeth. I am less insulted by her numerous slights and more by the fact that she thinks herself smart. She can only do this because my two companions have the intellect of a shrivelled turnip between the two of them.
I do not know who turned those two brainless twits into creatures of the night. I think they should have stabbed themselves in the groin instead.
“And so our numbers are limited due to the difficulty involved in creating a spawn. Ariane dear, can you tell me why?”
“Only a master can create a spawn and it takes a century on average to become one. The process itself is also taxing and will leave the Master weakened for years.”
“I am sure that you will be a master very soon, Mistress, I can already feel a presence,” Charlotte gushes, that sow.
“Quite so! Sometimes I cannot tell if you are passing by, or if it is Lady Moor!”
If battle priests were to bust the door open right now and set us all ablaze, I believe I would let them, and be grateful to boot.
“Of course, we Lancaster are always picked from the best stock.”
How can she say that with a straight face?
I see the malevolent glint in Melusine’s eyes and I can tell that I should have nodded along with the two stooges. Now I must endure her for a bit longer before she switches targets.
“Yes, and it is our duty to share the blessing of our good breeding with other bloodlines, don’t you agree Ariane?”
“Of course mistress and I will forever be grateful for the privilege of your presence. I consider myself lucky to be taught by no other than you.”
I can feel two baleful glares directed at me as I apparently overtake the two simpletons in the pecking order.
“Quite so, and surely you would feel grateful to be shown such favor, yes?”
I nod in assent. I do not like where this is going but I must play along. Whatever Melusine wants me to do, I will be compelled to do. My only hope is that she loses interest to pick on another.
“With the tragic betrayal of the ungrateful savage, we are in dire need of helping hands to manage the city. Surely you would consent to assist us, yes?”
I freeze. With no heartbeat and no need to breathe, we vampires can reach a state of perfect immobility, which I am displaying right now.
I absolutely need to show a hint of fear, and then submission. If she guesses the truth she might withdraw her offer just to see me suffer.
I pretend to swallow nervously and flinch, before giving her a nervous smile.
“Of course mistress Melusine, I would be delighted to repay the debt of gratitude I owe you.”
Please, I beg you, accept this lie. I would do anything to get out of this farce of a tea party if only for a few days. I will shovel horse dung by the cartload. I will crawl in the mud and catch frogs with my bare hands. Please, let me go.
Three sadistic smiles inform me of the success of my little facade.
“Then I shall begin private lessons tomorrow in order to prepare you! We would not want you to bring shame to your benefactors with your poor performance, after all.”
I barely manage to contain my excitement the next hour. I compel myself to look suitably worried and act more submissive than usual.
I may be able to go out.
I wake up to the whispers of gossip.
Cattle are a strange sort. They are unusually obedient and unerringly loyal, yet their other flaws feel exacerbated. They backstab, plot and slander to earn the favor of creatures that will never see them as more than blood sources and bed warmers.
They have their use, though.
After a week of being harmless, they have started to treat me with indifference.
They do not seek my favors due to my status as an outsider and rumors about my bloodline, and my lack of reaction means that they have lowered their guard when around me.
And so, I have picked up quite a bit of information.
Most of it disgusts me.
The Lancaster vampires are a petty, vicious and promiscuous lot. Each one has their flaws, their twisted desires, and vile habits. They are all detestable, each in their own special way.
Melusine enjoys breaking couples. She will track them for days, seduce and have her way with the fiancé and then arrange a public confrontation. The more violent the breakup, the better for her.
Lambert is a compulsive liar who preys after young and ambitious merchants. He will deceive and scam them until they are ruined. It is only at the moment of their fall that he will display something more than his usual apathy.
Charlotte is a violent bully with an inferiority complex. She enjoys breaking servants and I am convinced she used to be one.
Sophie has the wit of a boiled potato and half the charm. She does not behave too cruelly because she lacks the cunning to do so. It could be an act, of course, and I never let my guard down around her.
The weasel man answers to Wilburn and he is a serial rapist. Only his fear of Melusine has protected me from his attention. I surmise that he tried something on her, and she made the following lesson unforgettable.
The burly, bald man is named Harold and he has a chip on his shoulder. Every perceived slight against him eventually turns into physical punishment and no amount of pleading and promises changes his belief that everyone is insulting him behind his back.
If their continued existence is not proof that God has abandoned this world, I do not know what is.
“My name is Ariane, I am my own. I will live, escape, then go home.”
I repeat this sentence every twilight, in that small moment of peace before the Thirst turns me into a fiend masquerading as a person.
I say it in the tongue of Akkad, the language of vampires. I was surprised to learn that the others had to study it. I have no idea how the knowledge just slithered in my mind, and I would rather not ask.
Joan knocks on my door shortly after the Thirst hits. This time, I do not ask her in. Instead, I quickly send her away. I don one of my four outfits and get out.
All my clothes look shabby and out of fashion while being functional. I look like the daughter of a family that fell on hard times, all of this to feed the image of the world as it exists in Melusine’s twisted psyche.
They are not even comfortable, especially around my, well…
They are just too tight.
The rotund form of Charlotte blocks the passage.
“Mistress Melusine bids you join her in the training room. It is time that you made yourself useful, stray. You cannot just keep living off of our generosity.”
“Clan Lancaster certainly does welcome low-born in its ranks. It is such a shame some of us will never rise above their previous station," I reply.
Her fat jowls quiver with fury at my rebuke. Ah, but her master must have loved Rubenesque women, and been short-sighted and deaf besides. Perhaps he lived in some remote corner of Finland and she was the only woman within a month of travel. I can think of no other explanation.
Instead of leaving, her scowl turns to a smirk and I brace myself for the next inanity to be born from her addled brain.
“The Mistress will instruct you in the way of battle. Perhaps a correction will force some manners into you.”
“And perhaps I will need a partner to practice?” I insinuate.
I am Thirsty and this stupid sow is in my way. Let her see the fangs. Let her remember what my vampiric siblings are famous for.
She flinches and steps back when I pass her by.
I may be weak, like all fledglings, but she is even weaker. She is the dreg at the bottom of the barrel. I will make every encounter a slap to her pride until she learns to leave me be.
The Lancaster training room is on the first floor. If there is a basement, I have never seen it. Melusine is waiting. She is dressed in a strange outfit that bridges the gap between travel dress and armor. She is also holding a fencing sword. Sophie is already sitting on the side and Charlotte enters shortly after me.
This is not very auspicious. If Melusine invited spectators, it means that she intends to humiliate me. She gives me a training sword and demonstrates proper handling and some basic moves while the two clueless twits fawn over her “grace and elegance”.
Still no humans.
I am so Thirsty.
I return my attention to the little princess. Watching her reminds me of Jimena’s comment on the Lancaster clan. She mentioned their lack of prowess on the field of battle and I can tell from comparing the two women that it is accurate.
Melusine may have had some formal training, but she is no master. Her movements are too mechanical. She lacks the deadly grace and seamless ease of the Cadiz squire. Jimena had made every demonstration natural and effortless.
After a while, she orders me to copy her gestures and I do my best to learn. This is the most constructive activity I have taken part in since reaching this den of depravity. No amount of poorly-veiled insults will ruin my enjoyment.
The physicality of the activity even manages to distract me from the Thirst. Since I am not talking, or thinking, life is simple. I lunge, I cut, I move. I let my body and the monster within guide me. It already knows how to do it. I have but to listen and follow.
“Well, your posture is still awkward, but I suppose I should not expect too much from the likes of you.”
It seems my enjoyment was too obvious.
“We shall now start with a light spar and today’s most important lesson!”
Ah, it is time for the inevitable humiliation. I just hope it will be brief, and not too painful. Melusine retrieves an engraved glove of strange design. It is pretty enough to wear at a ball, I suppose, yet the amount of metal involved makes it look like some knight gauntlet.
“Now, attack me.” She says with supreme confidence.
Should I go faster? It will make me even more Thirsty.
In the end, my pride will not allow me to roll over and grant her an easy triumph. I move.
When I reach her, she lifts her gauntleted hand and speaks calmly.
I dodge left. Something smacks against my waist and leg. I am sent flying and spinning.
I smack against the weapon rack. Steel beams punch my side and I collapse on the floor.
My head is spinning, and the pain clouds my mind.
It hurts. Why fight this one? Cannot consuMe. Too stRong. DoOr. Out. PREY.
“And that is why no matter your efforts, you will never be able to surpass me Ariane. You were taken from mundane stock. You were never a warrior. You were, at best, a glorified peasant. I was chosen from a noble mage family and spawned by Lady Lancaster herself. No amount of time and no personal efforts will ever bridge that gap. The sooner you accept this, the better.”
“Yes, a mage. You are still an ignorant little thing, but don’t worry. I will let you witness my ascension, so long as you remember your place.”
I need the sweet nectar now. Need it, need it, nEed it.
The red-haired woman sees something in my face and grabs my neck. She takes me out. I do not resist, this time. She is leading me to blood. I know it.
We reach a black-haired woman. Cute. Delicious smell of terror. She knows. I smile. Tears. Beautiful.
Wait no, need to remember.
The log cabin.
Maybe not this time? Maybe this time I can just let myself go?
No, this is a trick. The red-haired woman hurt me.
I sit in the log cabin. Outside, the wind rustles the sugar canes and carries the smell of wet earth. I am safe. This is a good place. My name is Ariane. Melusine is a trollop.
Something is thumping. The rhythm is too fast and--
I pull out and lick the wound clean. Joan is unconscious and white as a sheet, but it looks like I managed to stop in time.
I will not give that harlot satisfaction. If I kill cattle, it will be because I decided it.
“Ah finally. Under my guidance, it appears that your self-control has improved! Even the spawn of the Devourer can account for something if they are guided by a stern hand.”
It occurs to me that her entire misbegotten farce of a clan is so twisted that she might actually mean it. In a few decades, I shall attempt to revisit the question while skinning her alive with a rusty letter opener.
“And now you can finally repay us for our kindness.”
Ah yes, I should show my appreciation for their precious gifts. The glorified wardrobe they call a bedroom and all four of my outfits.
I follow Melusine to the entrance. Apparently, twenty minutes of training qualify me for a soldier role. I spent that much time listening to Papa before he would even let me hold an unloaded pistol.
My mind wanders. I wonder how my family is doing. They must think me dead. I remember waking up in a hospital after…the first night.
I was in too much pain to remember much. I think Father was there. Then that man took me from the room and dragged me to a basement. I died there, on the third night. I push back unwanted memories.
If they see me again, they will know. There was too much damage. I would have born the scars my whole life.
Should I even attempt it?
I must. I want closure. I need to say farewell to what I used to be. Bury human Ariane’s hopes and plans. Grieve.
We reach the main hall and turn left to what I know is Baudoin’s office. I know he is mortal, but he is not cattle. I smell Lady Moor on him.
“You will assist Baudoin in whatever way he sees fit. I am a busy woman and shall return to more worthwhile pursuits while you run his errands.”
She turns around and leaves.
I knock on the door and a bored voice bids me come in. I close the door behind me and catch Baudoin staring at my backside as I turn around. I hiss softly, which is enough to remind him that I do not play.
“Yes? What do you want with old Baudoin?”
His accent is quite strange, and I cannot place it, even after hearing English spoken from Acadian and Choctaw mouths.
“I was sent to assist you.”
“I do not want help from a fledgling of less than a year! This will require a delicate hand. Lady Moor herself said I could have Melusine for this task.”
I need to add sloth to Melusine’s long list of flaws.
“She did mention not wanting to run your errands.”
“Is that so? Well, you tell her to get back here, lest I tell the Lady, heh?”
“Of course Baudouin, I shall convey your message.”
“No, wait.” He says as my hand grasps the handle. He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. Baudouin’s office says a lot about the man himself.
I am suitably impressed by the organized stacks of documents, the cleanliness and the stress on function over form. Under his appearance of a perverted and deviant highwayman, he is, in fact, a perverted and deviant businessman.
Which is infinitely more dangerous.
“Perhaps, you will do.”
I can understand the pain of forcing the little princess to do anything productive.
“What is it that you need?” I ask him.
The man sits back in his comfortable chair.
“A young rogue by the name of Andre Villemain had the audacity of taking over one of our warehouses. Yesterday, he and his merry band broke in and set up camp among crates of our finest china.”
Baudouin waits to see if I react. I gesture for him to continue. If he needed Melusine, it means the situation needs to be resolved with a scalpel, not a hammer.
“Normally I would sicc the boys on them and be done with it. Unfortunately, Villemain is the son of two rather important people and killing him would sour our professional relationships.”
“I assume they cannot rein him in?”
“Unfortunately, Villemain is at the age where one rebels against authority. Due to his lineage, he believes himself untouchable and flaunts his status to all who would listen. Worse, he attracted a gathering of children from good families and any bloodbath could impact our bottom line for years to come.”
“You need someone to convince them to get out without resorting to violence?”
“Not too much violence at least. He is quick to anger and your, ah, fellow immortals tend to be heavy-handed. I need a delicate touch. I also need to send a clear warning. We simply cannot be trodden upon. That is why I cannot bribe him.”
“This will require a delicate balance.”
“And now you know why old Baudouin is troubled, lass. What can an artist like me do without proper agents to carry my will?”
“I am willing to try, but I require something in exchange,”
The cunning negotiator’s eyes suddenly turn cold.
“And what would that be?”
“Only general questions about the world. Despite my lessons, there is still much for me to learn.”
“And Melusine’s choice of materials is not to your liking? Let me guess, you know everything about clan Lancaster’s noble history?”
“Since the war of the Two Roses, decade by decade.”
He laughs softly.
“Very well, as long as it is nothing too serious. You would not try to turn on old Baudouin now, would you?”
“Of course not.”
I smile. He swallows nervously.
I believe I shall never tire of the effect the eight fangs have on people.
“Before we leave, there is a small matter of security. I am sure you understand.”
I am immediately wary.
“I will require you to wear this while we are outside.”
He stands up and walks to a safe. A moment later, he retrieves a richly decorated bracer from it. It looks like jewelry that gypsies would wear. All gold and bright color.
“What is it?”
“A tracking object, linked to Lady Moor herself.”
“Yes. Should you try anything that could damage me or the clan, she will be able to track you and disable you. That means our reputation too. And don’t you try to remove it. Better people than you have failed.”
I measure my desire to get out of this filthy den against my unwillingness to be chained like a dog. Eventually, I choose to preserve my sanity over my dignity. Besides, if it comes to that I may be able to chop off my arm and reattach it later.
I am that desperate.
The bracer is frigid against my skin and I can feel something dormant in the pattern of gold and stones that decorate it.
“Let us go then.”