“Lo siento señorita. Time is short, and you must listen.”
I shiver as Aintza’s warm breath tickles my ear. We are sitting on my cot and I find her gesture distracting.
“We finally have an opportunity to force your escape. Unfortunately, it will have to be tomorrow. Is there anything that you can give us to justify our help? Please, my mistress wants to assist you, but her hands are tied.”
“Would a list of clan Lancaster’s holdings, contracts, and associates do? It is quite comprehensive.”
Aintza’s eyes widen in surprise.
“Truly, you have gathered this much?”
“You are a prisoner, however. Do you have it secure somewhere?”
“Yes, and I shall give it to you, but I must ask,” I add warily, “what stops you from taking the document and leaving?”
“Señorita Ariane, you know of my mistress. Do you truly expect her to behave in such a shameful way?”
“I suppose not.”
“You can ask me again after you have fed, to assuage any doubt.”
“Will I not be fighting your Mistress for influence over you?”
Aintza shakes her head with a light smile.
“Please, let us do it. Everything will be made clear.”
I embrace the shorter woman, who obediently bares her throat. Unmarred skin greets me and the offering is just too tempting. I flick my tongue and she shivers and moans.
Hmm, that was most lewd, and now I feel somewhat uncomfortable.
“Please… please!” she urges me on.
Am I being molested? Bah, quickly, let me feed and think of this no more!
As I stand in my refuge, I realize something incredible. I am tied to the diminutive woman by a bond we forged months ago. That means that Jimena hasn’t touched her companion in that long! That also explains why she could reach me without being recognized as another clan’s human. There is no trace on her of the touch of another vampire besides my meager own.
I can only applaud the squire’s restraint and the servant’s loyalty. It also means that she has been prepared to infiltrate the Lancaster clan since before I even entered their service. My vampire friend truly is a woman of honor. I am sure this separation has cost them dearly.
I pull away long before I must. There is something too intimate about this experience that I am uncomfortable with. Aintza’s rosy cheeks and the smell of her arousal are enough to convince me that she and Jimena may entertain a Sapphic relationship. Oh dear.
“Ask me again.”
“Hmm, do you and Jimena intend to save me?”
“Yes, you will be free tomorrow night. We have a plan. They will think you dead, and thus will not pursue.”
“And what is that plan, if I may ask?”
“Hm, I want to tell you, but Jimena said that it will not work then.”
I want to question her more, but the sound of Harold’s footsteps dissuades me. I quickly write a few directions to one of my hideouts for her. Time matters not. I have waited for six months. I can wait one more night. I can almost feel it. I am Ariane, I am my own, I will survive and tomorrow, I will head home, to freedom.
I follow Harold through the maze in a dress reminiscent of what Melusine had worn during our extremely short sparring session. The warden turns back to me every five seconds, frowning at my bare arms. No shackles for this vampire! I can only assume that wherever we go, I may not appear as a slave.
Harold fully expects me to make a run for it. I have taken his measure, and I am far from confident that I could escape him, and so I am patient. I will not endanger Jimena’s plan for a harebrained scheme.
A short time later, I climb into a carriage and settle down as it leaves. Lady Moor sits opposite me, wearing the finest white robe. She stares at me with an assessing gaze. I feel measured, weighted and judged.
“Good evening Ariane.”
I bow slightly to return the courtesy. Vampire society is ruthless, yet polite. Manners and rules are more important, it seems, when everyone can remove spines from torsos with their bare hands.
“Lady Moor, greetings.”
“It seems that I have misjudged you. Baudouin’s assessment was mostly correct after all.”
My eyes widen in shock. This sounded suspiciously like a compliment and an apology! Or, at least, as close to one as this stuck-up, arrogant twit can manage.
They must be desperate.
“This leads us to tonight. Clan Ekon has issued a formal challenge, to be witnessed by clan Roland.”
“A challenge, my Lady?”
“The slave trade is picking up and those jackals want in on it. Nothing to concern yourself over.”
She waves a hand dismissively.
“As the provoked party, we had the choice of the form of the duel. What do you know about vampire conflicts?”
“I see. I would have hoped that Melusine would have taught...bah, it matters not. There are several forms of formal resolutions. I am sure that Kouakou would have preferred to fight me in a duel, but I will not sully my hands wielding a blade against that savage.”
I highly suspect "that savage” would give her a proper and well-deserved spanking.
“And so we will rely on champions. By rule, it cannot be a member of our House. In this desolate place, it would mean an expensive mercenary or a duelist. You have already slain Melusine’s contender and so you are our best candidate. Win for us, and I will officially let you become Baudouin’s right hand.”
Desperate indeed! Oh, but I must not look too eager lest she suspects something.
“Should I accept, I want to have the right to possess a weapon and a proper bedroom.”
“Yes, yes indeed. You will be given Caitlynn’s free room. She died during the raid on the fortress. You will also be paid handsomely and be allowed to carry a blade, and before you ask, no, I cannot have someone representing my clan walk around with a musket. Women do not carry muskets around town! Just leave it be!”
She knows me so well. I am amused to realize that “Musket” is “Fire staff” in the tongue of Akkad.
“You have a deal, my Lady.”
“Excellent! Now, as the offended party, you have the freedom to choose the weapon.”
I let Moor tell me about strategy with only half an ear. Now that the bracer is off, I feel so giddy.
In short order, we stop in front of a derelict theater with a Spanish façade of pitted stone. I walk in flanked by Harold and we reach an opulent entrance of yellow stone and red curtains. Two curved stairs lead upward to a circular promenade while a set of doors stands in front of us. Corridors open here and there, basked in shadows. Belying the decayed exterior, everything here is spotless. Without a word, Harold leads me to a narrow passage while Moor struts proudly forward. I follow him through twisted alleys, barely lit by the errand candle.
Freedom, so close I can taste it.
Harold opens a set of doors and the golden light of torches shines on a renovated opera house. The lodges have been left intact, but the ground has been entirely replaced by a sand arena. This must be where they hold blood games during the winter.
I can feel quite a few vampires in the tribunes, as well as a smattering of mortals. A small gathering lies ahead of us.
The silence is eerie.
Lady Moor and Lambert stand on one side, while Naminata and the man I recognize as Lord Kouakou stand on the other. The twins, who had been Gaspard’s subordinates back at the fortress, are in the middle. I meet my savior’s eyes and she lowers them with sadness.
I expected her to be more playful.
“I present to you our champion, Ariane of Clan Nirari.”
“There is no Clan Nirari,” retorts a frowning Kouakou.
“Then unaffiliated, not that it matters,” says Lady Moor with a smirk.
One of the twins raises his hand and both sides fall silent. Both are men with very light brown hair, brown eyes, and tan skin. They are rather short and have the muscles I would associate with dancers. They wear an identical beige ensemble and the whole effect is decidedly monochromatic.
“The Lancaster is correct Lord Kouakou. There were no restrictions on champion selection when you both agreed. A vampire from another house lent for the occasion is completely acceptable.”
I freeze in horror. Oh dear. I finally understand. So caught in the perspective of freedom, I ignored Aintza’s drunken remark. “They will think you dead,” she said.
This is going to be most painful.
“On this auspicious remark, let me present to you my representative: Squire Jimena of Clan Cadiz.”
I hear a sharp breath intake coming from Moor. She clearly did not see that coming.
“Since when are you a Cadiz lackey, Kouakou!? I thought--!”
“You thought our argument over the cane farms was unresolved, yes, I know.”
Lady Moor falls silent and I use this opportunity to stare at Jimena as she approaches. I thought I looked good in that strange battle dress I wear, yet she puts me to shame. She is regal in a form-fitting leather cuirass. Elaborate metal bracers adorn her forearms and her hand rests on the pommel of a sword of exquisite make.
“Both champions are approved. The parties may regain their seats.”
The others retreat and I am left with the twins and my opponent. Jimena’s face is a frozen mask.
The second twin turns to me:
“Ariane, as the offended party, the choice of arms is yours.”
“If I may…”
We both turn to Jimena.
“I advise you to choose a blade, young one. There is no need to make this worse than it is.”
How are they so serious?
“I am afraid she is right, young one.”
“Very well, I choose swords.”
One of the twins leaves and shortly comes back with a pair of identical dueling blades, made of silver without adornments. I pick one and Jimena, the other.
“This duel is to the death. You may begin when the door is shut.”
Hold on, what!? To the death!?
The twins leave at a leisurely pace.
“Do not let your circumstances dishearten you young Ariane, do your best to kill me.”
Then the door closes behind the judges.
I am sure she has a plan, and she was quite clear that I use this sword to the best of my abilities.
“Fight me, Ariane.”
I move, I try to swat her blade aside and lean in for a thrust, but she just lowers her blade then swipes it back up to deflect my blow. I keep moving more and more.
Every attack is deflected, every feint is ignored until I turn it into a real attack that is, and then it is blocked. I rush at Jimena like an enraged mantis and she dodges by the barest of margins. Sometimes, she ripostes but her moves are transparent, and I parry without difficulty.
I accelerate to the limits of my power and already the Thirst is back in strength. I try to grab her, I try to claw her. I try to kick and punch her. I attack her arm and legs. Nothing works.
This fight has lasted longer than the fight against the werewolf. I have completed no less than five quick sequences and am approaching my limits when something odd happens.
My head lurches, I stumble. My mind pops like a soap bubble. Every desire to fight evaporates and strength abandons me. My arms fall, the blade rolls on the floor.
What is going on? I am trying to think through a thick wall of cotton.
There is a blade in my heart. Thick red blood flows freely to my feet. There is so much of it.
Jimena approaches me with sorrow clear on her face.
Is it over, just like that?
There was a plan? No?
Her talons reach my throat.
With a ripping sound, she tears something and my vision falls to black with the sound of polite applause.
Night reigns absolute in the thorn forest. Vines as thick as my legs twist and cross from all sides. They are covered in massive spines that could punch through a skull.
It is getting colder.
I walk and the vegetation moves aside to let me through. Even when I know my skin should be shredded by the contact, I receive instead the briefest of caresses. It is not enough to give me courage.
It is getting cold. I hug myself to stave off the frigid air in vain. I should be home, but I do not know the way. I am lost. Papa must be worried. Perhaps he is already looking for me.
The stars, if I see the stars then I will at least know where the North lies!
As if by magic, I immediately reach a clearing of packed earth. There are stars above but they are too indistinct, I recognize no constellation. I know in my heart that something is missing, but what?
Ah yes, I know. Of course, silly me, there is always the Silent Watcher!
A veil parts and the ominous orb stares at me in unknowable serenity. Somehow, its presence feels sharper today.
My mind is like taken and flung across the earth. The jolt is enough to wake me up from my trance.
I am stunned. What just happened? But wait, there is no time to lose. I am dying. It is not the false death of our sleep but the true end that no one can come back from. I need to move, to fight. I stand up and sprint towards the cabin. I do not need to see it to know where it is. We are, after all, in my psyche.
A cold wind picks up and roars behind me. The forest twists and shakes to hold it back, in vain. I need to go faster. Suddenly, an enticing scent reaches my nostrils: blood most potent.
It smells incredible. I run even faster. I need it. Such vitality, such life, I must make it my own. It is simply irresistible.
I finally reach the log house and crash through the door.
I come to with a gasp and terrible cough.
AWAKE. THIRSTY. WOUNDED.
An incredible treat in my mouth and down my throat. Delicious. So strong. Not enough. Prey ahead, chained and whimpering. I reach the prey. I drink deep. Rush of life. No pleasure, too hurt.
I take a deep breath and cough. Blood droplets splatter on the bound corpse in front of me and my shoes. The battle dress’ front is completely red. The hole in my chest is already closed and I understand.
Jimena barely clipped my heart; even then the damage was massive. I understand the look on Gaspard’s face as he died. I haven’t felt this helpless since the night I met Him.
My throat still pains me. I cough again to try and clear the airway. More of the crimson liquid drips from my lips.
I take stock. I am in some wooden shed devoid of anything but the corpse of the tied man, a backpack and an oiled envelope on top of it. I approach the bag and notice a sheathed silver knife. Unbidden, a smile reaches my lips. She did it, Jimena did it! I am free!
Someone just screamed outside, I am not completely free it seems.
I approach the door in silence and stare through the keyhole. I am in a courtyard occupied by two people. The first one is Aintza and the second one is Charlotte. The bovine woman is holding the servant’s hand. Two fingers are already bent at an unnatural angle.
Curses, what should I do? If I come out, I may be found out and this will have all been for nothing, assuming I even survive, and yet, not intervening feels wrong. I have a debt of gratitude towards Jimena and Aintza. I am not foolish enough to assume that we made a fair deal. They went to great length to guarantee my escape.
Aintza is begging now. She might be slain. Curse it all. This shall not stand. I would never be able to face my friend if I let it happen.
I will have to risk it.
I open the door and the hinges squeal like a stuck pig. So much for discretion.
Charlotte turns her piggish face to me and erupts in triumph.
“Hah, I knew it! You thought you could outsmart old Charlotte? You will not escape our service so easily. Wait until the Lady hears of this, your punishment will be exemplary! To return our gratitude--”
“So the Lady does not yet know?” I say in a gravelly voice.
“No, but soon we shall all--”
“So only you are aware of this scheme?” I smile, making sure to show my fangs. This blood that was poured down my throat and the man that followed sated me, but the repairing damage is keeping the torpor at bay. I feel awake, strong, and quite happy. I am free, and now Charlotte comes to me without anyone knowing? This is just the cherry on the cake.
I watch outrage and pride turn to hesitation then to fear. Yes, realize now your predicament you brainless excuse of a frigid ham.
“Y-you would not dare.”
I step closer, slowly as that she does not panic. I do not want to run after her.
I stop at arm’s reach.
“I am this close to escaping, you fat sow. Only your wagging tongue stands between me and freedom so I ask you: why not?”
She turns to run and I move. The silver knife slides between her ribs and my hand on her neck buries her ugly mug in the dirt. She is so slow and pathetic. Turning your back to your opponent while they are so close? It is tantamount to suicide.
I adjust my grip and bring the blade out. She cries briefly and I use the distraction to stab her in the heart.
Her struggle immediately seizes. I hear a whimper as I drag her neck up.
“In life as death, you were ever at the bottom, cur.”
I drink her dry. When I stand up, a weak blue light starts to consume her lifeless body. I feel like I am watching a log disintegrate.
Even her taste was disappointing. Truly, a waste of essence to the very end. Oh well.
I turn to Aintza. She stepped away from the fight and is currently cradling her wounded hand. Her face is pale but resolute.
"You must leave Ariane, or you will risk us all.”
“Will you be alright?”
“Yes, do not worry, this is not my first time running a scheme for Jimena.”
“She does seem too honest for her own good.”
“There is not a devious bone in her whole body.” She adds with a warm smile and dreamy eyes. She loves her. If I had any doubts before, there are none now. Even with the bonds formed from our recent bite, Jimena is still the most precious person in the world to the petite woman. I feel a pang of jealousy in my heart but I quickly suppress it. I do not need it. I do not want it.
“I shall take my leave then. Thank you, both of you, for everything.”
“Godspeed Lady Ariane. Read the letter with attention, it contains everything you need to know.”
I nod and rush away into the night. After six months of servitude, I am finally free.
I made it. And now, I am going home.