We step outside and something stops me in my tracks.
The night, in all its glory.
The oppressive heat of deep Southern summer days has cooled down a bit. Life in all its forms has come out to enjoy the small respite. I smell water from the sea and from the marshes, life in the trees and the scent of humanity.
The woodsmoke and the cooking meats, the alcohol and the sweat and under that, all this vitality. I hear people and hunting things. Insects. Some distant music. Men and women dancing, drinking, and singing their worries away.
Tomorrow, news of capricious floods devastating fields and villages may come, as they do every summer, but for now, they forget.
I look at the many roofs and the burning lamps, and above it, the sky.
There are so many colors, so many patterns I had never noticed before. The Milky Way slashes the sky like the thrown brush of an irate painter.
At the center of this incredible vista looms the strange eye I first saw. Just as I look at it, it stares right back, and I can once again feel an alien presence.
It does not threaten nor promises, it does not even judge. It just watches quietly.
Perhaps I have somewhat come to terms with my new nature because I find it soothing. Even the ever-present Thirst takes a place in the background.
An insistent pull on my sleeve wakes me up from my reverie. I expected anger from Baudouin, but he only displays patient amusement.
“I always wondered how your kind sees it. You all look like it contains a Faberge egg, or a tarantula.”
“You know of what we see?”
“The eye? Aye, Lady Moor mentioned it. She calls it the Demon’s gaze.”
“It is not a demon, but a Silent Watcher.”
“Lord Nirari used the exact same term. I guess his blood runs true eh?” He sighs “They say every vampire who looks up sees the eye staring right at them. Scary stuff, aye.”
I have nothing to reply to that. We walk towards the docks and pass by the brand-new Spanish buildings around the Vieux Carré. The bells of the Saint Louis Cathedral grate my ears. It is midnight.
“Is something the matter Ariane?”
“I walked here, not a month ago. In that exact same street.”
“Ah, I forgot. I am not used to working with one so young. We will have to adapt, lest you are recognized.”
“You make it sound like you are an old man.”
As it turns out, he is. Baudouin is Lady Moor’s human servant. They are bound together and so long as she lives, so does he. Only masters can bind someone so.
I learn more useful facts from him in thirty minutes than I ever did from that slovenly whore.
Clan Lancaster rules most of the English part of New Orleans while clan Ekon wormed its way into the Creole population. Clan Cadiz only has a nominal presence. The Roland are all in Baton Rouge. What is left of them is, anyway.
Clan Lancaster is renowned for its business acumen and “recruits” heavily from mage families, with whom they are constantly at war.
Clan Lancaster makes good money from the trade of slaves and foodstuff. Most of the profits are paid as a tithe to the Main House in England.
I am sure this vexes Moor to no end.
Mages are another part of the magical population. Baudouin informs me that he will give me a more detailed explanation of the global magic community if I prove myself a trusted associate.
He knows much about vampires.
Fledglings apparently need more blood just to function. Physical exertion consumes a tremendous amount of energy and is discouraged during the first two years. In fact, it appears that fledglings need to be reared for quite some time before they are able to enter society once more. The youngest of us are either feral or apathetic. There is no in-between.
I seem to be the exception, though I am not sure why. Master is not known for siring spawns of notable intellect.
Baudouin learned about my confrontation in Jimena’s training room. I am quite fast for a newborn, but also very fragile and physically weak. This is good to know. Master is very old and I had hoped that it would make me stronger but it seems life does not work this way.
Vampires dislike firearms, bows, and crossbows because those are peasant weapons. Many powerful vampires predate the use of gunpowder. This is yet another sign of profound arrogance and imbecility to me until I remember Master and Gaspard moving faster than even I could perceive.
Perhaps this makes the use of ranged weapons pointless among us. I still see no reason not to use it on humans.
Speaking of humans, the battle priests are members of the Order of Gabriel. They are dedicated to the extermination of all magical beings. They also despise the Irish, the Mexicans, the Jews, the poor, and women. Truly, a charming lot.
Quickly, we reach the warehouse and I halt Baudoin before we come in sight. Those streets are silent but for laughter coming from our destination.
I drag him through a nearby alley and approach the target from the side. It looks more like a barn than anything else. It is made from a dark wood that smells faintly of rot and is large enough to hide a sloop.
I move my befuddled companion towards the entrance but stop before turning the corner and getting in view of the door. This is where the laughter is the loudest. I track a ray of light to a small hole in a plank.
“It is too small to see through, Ariane,” says Baudouin with derision.
I stare him in the eye, place my clawed index against the opening and push.
The damaged wood bends and breaks under the sharp nail and my finger digs completely. The raucous conversations mask the small noise I made.
I did not break eye contact.
Baudouin pales a bit, even though he must have seen more impressive displays of strength during his many years of service. I successfully hide my relief that the wood yielded. It would have been quite embarrassing otherwise.
I look in. Dull oil lamps cast a yellow blaze on a dozen men and women in the midst of a drunken revel. They are all young and flushed with heat and vitality. The girls show just a bit too much skin than their parents would allow. The men’s smiles have a wolfish quality.
The Thirst wakes up from its slumber. Greedy thing, you were already fed once tonight.
Like a princeling on his throne, a dashing young man in an open leather vest, brown pants, and boots sits at the forefront. He has black hair, an opera pirate beard, and dreamy grey eyes. He currently holds on his lap a cute blonde woman in trousers whose generous bust is revealed by a ample cleavage. A tall and strong bearded man stands close with a wary eye on the door.
There is no doubt in my mind that the rakish lad is Mr. Villemain, the person I will have to convince. His pretentious mannerism and cocksure air strike a nerve in me and I take an instant dislike to him.
I also discover another interesting fact about myself. While I used to judge group dynamics around power play and cliques, what I notice now is entirely focused on hunting.
This is a herd. It has a dominant male, a dominant female, and a powerful beta. I see who will fight and who will flee. I see who I can isolate easily and who the easiest prey is.
The runt of the group is a mousey girl with heavy glasses who stares fixedly at dear Andre with what Papa would call “des yeux de crapaud mort d’amour.” Eyes of the toad dying of love. Poor thing. I know better than most what infatuation can do when one’s chosen’s heart is as black as tar.
“Baudouin, find out who I cannot touch.”
With his help, I identify three men and two women whose disappearance would cause an uproar. Andre’s second and the blonde woman are not among them. Excellent. A plan starts to take form.
“How much time do I have?”
“Until the next delivery arrives, that would be three days from now.”
“That should be more than enough,” I reply and walk to the doors.
There is no sentry outside, which does not surprise me. Andre is quite confident in the protection his name grants him.
I open the door in silence and enter peacefully. I initially believed that the princeling had chosen this place because he wanted to ransom its content, but I may have overestimated him. The smell of overwrought sex is pungent in here.
The dark corners of the warehouse provided the group with long-awaited intimacy. I am confident that some of the ladies present will regret their decisions in a few months when the consequences grow too big to be hidden from their parents.
The bearded man is the first to see me and he takes out a cudgel, only to stop in his tracks when he notices my appearance. Gradually, the assembly falls silent as they realize the presence of an intruder until Andre is forced to turn his attention away from the blonde woman’s left nipple to address this new development.
The hussy has the audacity to look at me with rage as she readjusts her top, furious about the interruption.
“Well well well!” says the imbecile as the men chuckle “Are you lost, sweet thing?”
“No, you are. This is a warehouse, not a club.”
Anger flashes in the man’s eye.
“Would you kindly leave? My employer needs this place.”
The blonde woman whispers something in his ear with a sadistic smile and he nods. Some of the boys start jeering and “complimenting” my backside. The temptation to shred them all and bathe in their viscera grows by the minute yet I successfully resist it.
“Why don’t you stay awhile and play a few games? Then we will consider your proposal…”
“I will take this as a 'no' and shall return tomorrow to see if you have changed your mind.”
I turn around to leave.
“Not so fast!”
I reach the door.
“Hey, you slut! George, get her!”
When George steps out, I am already gone.
Now they know what their sin is, I just need to hand the punishment.
“So, what did you learn today little sister?”
I sip slowly from the glass of water and try my best to ignore the cookie jar atop the kitchen counter. The familiar room is bathed in the reddish light of late afternoon. A stew slowly boils in the hearth.
“We learned about anatomy, and the various functions of organs!”
Big brother Achille scoffs.
“What do women need to know about such things?”
“Women produce superior nurses and doctors!”
“Well, I remember when cousin Sylvie lost her water on the carriage Montfort, and only one of us panicked, no?”
“Alright, alright! I guess! So, tell me about organs.”
“Well, there is for example, hmm, the liver! It cleanses the blood and it produces bile which is necessary for digestion.”
“Is that so? And where is the liver situated?”
“It’s huh, hmm, in the chest! Right side. Around here?” I reply while pointing a finger at the middle of my chest, to the right.
“Hah, no. A bit higher. Well, let’s find it together!”
I am bound spread-eagle on the table now. My chest is bare. What is happening? Achille is approaching me with a sharpened pick.
“Wait, no, please! Please don’t! Achille!”
“It’s for your own good sister, that way you’ll remember for sure! There it is…”
“There! We found it on the first try! Now, if you want to reach above your station to become a doctor, you can.”
“Noooo please, stop! It hurts!”
“Ah, yes, but it will not kill you, as you are an abomination now! Good news, sister. And now, the pancreas. There!”
“AAAAAAAhAHAhaaaaaa no please… Please!”
I take a deep breath and release it. What an unpleasant nightmare.
“My name is Ariane, I am my own. I will live, I will go home.”
I take another calming breath as the phantom pain of cold blades in my stomach makes me wince.
I may no longer sweat, nor does my skin peel but there is still a scent to my body. It is not entirely unpleasant, I suppose, but I will have to take a bath later when I return from the warehouse.
Yesterday was strangely gratifying.
I am already dressed when a new servant knocks on my door. Joan is resting and this one lacks courage. I suppose I can hardly blame her when I almost killed her predecessor.
“I know where I need to go. You may leave.”
I walk to the back of the property and the pens. There are a few isolated cages where the Lancaster stow the problematic cattle.
“Good evening, Blanche.”
“M… Mistress Ariane! Please, please let me out! I promise I won’t…”
I bring the blonde woman closer to me and hug her tight. After a night of sex with the princeling and day out in the sweltering heat, she smells quite ripe. Her trousers are sticky with perspiration. I lick the two white scars on her neck, and she shivers with pleasure.
I did not truly taste her yesterday, only marked her. It takes all my self-control not to kill her on the spot. It would be so easy. I wouldn’t even be blamed.
Something stops me, a sense of ownership. Blanche is my first cattle. Or at least she will be after a few more bites. It would just feel wasteful.
I lick the wound clean and the Thirst recedes in the background of my mind, like a patient tiger.
“Of course Blanche, you know I only do this for your own good….”
“Yes, Mistress, mmmmh. I’m so sorry, we were just playing! I will tell Andre and he will understand, he is a good man! After you explain the situation to him, he will surely agree to leave!”
“Naturally.” I reply, smiling.
I let my captive clean herself a bit in a water barrel as we wouldn’t want to be stopped by the militia simply because of the smell. Before we set out, I stop by Baudouin’s office.
“Come in! Ah, Ariane, how may I assist?”
“First, you could stop staring at my bottom every time I turn to close the door.”
“I fear it is too late for me to amend my behavior, young one.”
“You old pervert. In any case, I should return to the warehouse tonight and have them leave.”
“What if they refuse?”
“They will not.”
Baudouin raises a dubious brow but gives me leave to go, as well as the small knife I requested.
I walk through the streets of New Orleans in a simple dress and a conservative hat, courtesy of Baudouin. I also carry the bracer and a leather satchel.
The cunning man mentioned it yesterday as we were walking back, and he was right. Clothes and behavior really allow one to blend in. I change the way I walk to appear less confident by slightly bending my back, lowering my head and affecting a subdued expression. Soon, I fade in the background. Just another maid on an errand, nothing to see and no one to notice.
It is a different sort of magic, the art of street artists and con men. The tricks of the mind. I find them exhilarating.
We reach the warehouse quickly. There is no merriment tonight. The place is deadly silent, but not deserted.
Andre is living in an illusion of his own making. His parents are feared and protect him, his friends are rich and admire him. Daughters of respectable families fall for his wealth and good looks and spread their legs for his personal enjoyment.
He is living the life. Yesterday he founded the seat of his power in some fat merchant’s warehouse. In his mind, they would have fun for a while then leave after being paid off, preferably before the place turns too rank; the first step towards the creation of his own criminal empire, perhaps.
Then I came.
Blanche stepped out at some point during the night to attend to some natural needs, with George keeping an eye out. I took him out with a small bite and kidnapped the girl. Bites make everyone pliable, if only for a while.
I knock on the door and receive no answer. I can smell people inside. They expected me to return after yesterday’s message.
I need them out. Fending off an ambush at this stage would be tedious.
“I am sorry, Blanche.”
I step back from the gate and grab her, then I break one of her fingers.
What a beautiful voice she has.
As expected, the door bursts open and what is left of the gang spills out in the streets with Andre at the head.
Only five of them left. All men. This is truly pathetic.
I force Blanche on her knees and grab her hair while she nurses her hand. Her quiet sobs are the only thing disturbing the silence.
I appreciate the moment. I find it fascinating that real life would match fiction so deliciously. Here we stand, at the end of act three. The male lead bristles with rage while his loved one bemoans her fate.
The trusty second’s eyes grow wide at the sight of me. The seeds of the plot are ready to germinate and their battered group ready to implode.
I shiver in pleasure. I am the playwright and I already know how it all ends: with my victory.
“Release her immediately! Or else!”
Yesterday, they would have rushed me with their eyes full of bloodlust. Tonight, they are wary, and broken.
I took out their princess. She sits on the ground in front of me in defeat, and after one day of search, they failed to find her, to rescue her. Hours of rageful and enthusiastic inquiries, then the feeling of powerlessness. Reality came knocking and they didn’t like it.
They have already suffered the casualties of those who were there for the guilty pleasures and banter, but find street fighting and kidnappings too pedestrian.
It is already over.
Before Andre takes a step forward, I remove the knife from my satchel and apply the blade against Blanche’s tender neck, hard enough to draw blood.
“No, Mistress, please. I beg you…”
It is too much for the one remaining noble. He drops his saber and runs away. This leaves Andre, George and two henchmen.
“You will pay for this you whore! You have no idea who you are messing with!”
“Andre Villemain, son of Gauthier Villemain and Alice Wintraub.”
“We know who you are, we know who your parents are, and we know what you have been up to. You came here high on pride and arrogance, thinking yourself untouchable. You thought wrong. Ah, but before we continue, this is a private conversation. The two of you? Leave us.”
The two henchmen look at each other and decide that it is not worth it. Now, only George and Andre remain.
“If you know my parents then you should know that you have messed with the wrong man!”
“Your parents disavowed your actions, Andre. They will not lift a finger. Even you are not worth a war with us.”
“As long as you draw breath, Andre, they will not retaliate. This means that everything you own and everyone you know is fair game, starting with Blanche here.”
I move the knife just enough to elicit a cry of pain.
“No, please wait! Wait. I understand alright? Let us all calm down. I will do it. I’ll just leave. Hell, I will even compensate you for the damage. Just please, let her go…”
Oh? He cares more than I expected.
“A reasonable proposal. Sadly, it will not suffice. George?”
I do… something. It is like drawing on a rope that is made of beads. The harder I pull and the more frayed my control grows. Still, a link is made. The bites I made yesterday sank something in their souls and now I have limited control over them.
“For Andre’s own good, bring him to me.”
“Very well, Mistress.”
George punches Andre who collapses on the ground like a doll with its strings cut. He takes the man in a gentle hold and brings him closer. I can feel him fight me, but my request is reasonable so far, and George is a natural follower.
The cold part of me enjoys itself and I finally understand those Lancaster inbred. This is entertaining!
“Understand, young Andre, that there is more to the night than you could ever imagine. We can tolerate joyrides and brash statements but this time you went too far. I am going to have to leave you with a reminder.”
I place the tip of the blade against the edge of his eye socket and carve downward. This will scar nicely, and since I am feeling generous, he can even keep the eye.
“Wait… What are you… No! Aaaaaaa!”
After I am finished, I calmly pocket the blade and stand up.
“And with this, we are done.” I say as he sobs and grabs his carved cheek.
My hold on George just broke and Blanche’s loyalty is tenuous despite the two bites. If I go any further, I will have to shed more blood than I planned.
“I expect the place to be cleared tonight. Farewell.”
I walk away. I can feel the tether that binds the two humans to me evaporate like morning dew with this symbolic gesture. I do not want to keep them with me, for the simple reason that they will be used as leverage by Melusine and the others. Any possession I gather must remain hidden, or it must be intangible, like status. I will not let her use them against me.
As soon as I am out of view, I hurry to the place where Baudouin and I first spied on the warehouse.
“You might as well eye socket.”
Smiling, the man himself walks out from a recess with his arms raised in mock surrender. I think a human could have passed him by a thousand times without ever noticing him.
“I hope you do not take this as a sign of distrust.”
“And if I had turned the street red, Baudouin, what would you have done? Scream for the…”
I gasp as I am interrupted by a sudden and violent pain. It shakes my bones and rattles my teeth and leaves me trembling after a brief instant.
“What… What happened?”
“I am sorry Ariane,” he says as he shows a golden band around his wrist, “The tracking bracer can also be used to inflict pain and disable its victim, and before you use that vampiric alacrity of yours, know that the bracer will punish you, should you touch me.
I hiss softly. What did I expect, that a clan full of liars and scoundrels would let me out of their house without a means to control me?
“Do not be too cross, little one. I will make it up to you.”
“Before we begin, I have to ask. Why did you wait one day? Why the kidnapping?”
“You want to know the reason behind my plans?
“Yes, I am assessing you as a potential long-term associate. I need someone to replace Ogotai, if only temporarily. Harold and Wilburn are ill-suited to tasks that require a brain. As Lady Moor’s human servant, I can shield you from most of Melusine’s petty vengeance should you take that role.”
Baudouin’s expression turns to scorn at the mention of the other vampires. I am reminded that under his unsavory appearance, he hides a keen intellect. Also unsavory.
"I have the Mistress’ trust when running day to day affairs. So long I guarantee that you are better used solving problems than entertaining that arrogant twit, she will leave you be.”
I consider his words for a moment. Getting out means the Cadiz can contact me more easily when the time comes.
“Can you truly protect me from Melusine? She does not strike me as one who easily admits defeat. She could just abuse you until you change your mind.”
“When you realized I hurt you, how close were you to striking me down?”
Baudouin is right. The predatory part of me, the part that always pushes me to violence was strangely silent.
“Vampires do not attack human servants directly unless they are desperate or unhinged. It is a rule that is engraved into your kind’s minds from the day you wake up again. Your very instincts will try to stop you.”
He is right. I was not tempted to retaliate. How tainted has my mind become? Is it still even my own?
“Melusine shall not harm me, and she knows the price of annoying the Mistress too much. Now, Ariane, do we have an understanding?”
“I shall not do anything that would rob me of the little dignity I have left. I hope we are clear on this, Baudouin.”
“Of course, Ariane,” he smirks “I would not force you to turn tricks. I have other agents for that.”
I hiss again but my heart is not into it.
I sigh. It costs me little to explain my actions.
“This group was fractured from the start. The leader had three associates with a poor background. The rest were scions of affluent families playing rogue. It was easy to make them confront the reality of the night. After that the mood was ruined, so to speak, and I just had to pick the pieces.”
“I see, and you judged that the best way to achieve this, to collapse their house of cards, was to abduct one of their members?”
“Perhaps not the best but certainly the most expedient. Few things match kidnapping as a wake-up call. Not to mention that I wanted a snack.”
He laughs with abandon, then: “Walk with me.”
As we reach the brighter lights around the Vieux Carré, Baudouin starts in a soft voice.
“You are nothing like I expected, you know?”
“I have seen many fledglings being reborn to this world. Most start off as mindless beasts, barely more than automatons. It is only after some time that they regain some semblance of humanity. You started as your old self and are now becoming more and more like a vampire.”
“Surely, my circumstances are not unique.”
“They are not; however, it is still quite rare. I cannot think of anyone who was quite so… alive, as you were when I first saw you.”
“I would prefer not to be reminded of this moment.”
“There is also the issue with you being so weak. Lord Nirari managed to foster spawns that would go toe to toe with knight squads in only a few years.”
“Give me some time.”
He shakes his head.
“No Ariane, I can already tell that you will not match this development speed. You are faster than most fledglings, and some courtiers, but your strength is almost human.”
I wonder how I can become more powerful. If I could be fast enough to dodge Melusine’s dark powers and then grab her by the ankle and…
I spent some time imagining the red-haired harridan slamming into walls until we reached the outskirts of the city. I then realize something.
“You said you used Ogotai for this kind of work?”
“Indeed. His betrayal has caused quite a few problems, as you can imagine.”
“Did you expect his treachery?”
“No. I was stupefied when he found his spine. You see, Ogotai is centuries old. He has suffered abuse at the hands of the Lancasters for longer than I was alive.”
“Perhaps Melusine sent him over the edge.”
Baudouin’s laugh causes a few late revelers to turn.
“Ahh yes, I can believe that. You see, Ogotai was part of a horde of warriors from the East who invaded Hungary. He made the mistake of hunting a local Lord and the vengeance was what you guessed. Ogotai lacks something. He has never reached the rank of Master and he never will, if he still lives.”
“Can Lords figure out the best candidates for new Spawns?”
“If some do, they keep it secret. Some clans heavily recruit mages as they keep some of their powers, but for the rest, I do not know. I do not know what makes one vampire much better than another.”
When we reach the house, a servant hurries inside and a few moments later, Melusine gets out the door like a devil out of a box. It occurs to me that I failed to warn her that I would not attend her circus act of a lesson. Oops?
She and Baudouin stare at each other and a silent message must have been passed, for soon Melusine retreats. As the door shuts, I catch a glimpse of her face. It is twisted by the blackest of rage.
Your move, witch.