“What is this place?” I ask as I exit the sarcophagus.
“We are inside the Tillerson plantation house Mistress. The largest and most expensive manor in a hundred-mile radius! The furniture was made by a famous Philadelphia artisan and it has no less than forty windows. Please note the wonderful Corinthian column on the front porch, so lovely.” Says Dalton, deadpan.
I am grateful that vampires rise fully awake.
“The Tillerson are very proud of the place, aren’t they?”
“Yes, Mistress. They explained everything in great detail. Took one bloody hour.”
“And I assume that we reached fort Barrington safely during the day?”
“And we have become their guests because…?”
“Why Mistress, how could Cornelius Tillerson let a good act such as this rescue remain unpunished? Of course, he must show the hero of the moment, sir Cecil Rutherford Bingle, to all of his posh friends! We are invited to the ball.”
“Loth has been unable to leave?”
“Unable and unwilling. We only arrived two hours ago, so leaving would have been unreasonable. Not to mention, suspicious.”
“What does suspicion have to do with anything?”
“We do not all have sir Bingle’s winning charisma, Mistress. See, the brave man credited us for many things. Except, I’m not exactly hero material and Loth is a bit odd. Not to mention a few widows and spinsters have been sweet on him. Never good to steal the women the first day in a new place, I can tell you. Was hoping you could use your legendary persuasion to smooth things out.”
And by "smoothing things out" he does not mean killing everyone here, this time.
“Very well, but I want to clean up first.”
“I’ll have the servants bring water.”
The bedroom I am in is small but well furnished. It is too impersonal to be cozy, but I can appreciate the effort. As I finish picking leaves and twigs from my hair a harried-looking black woman drags a pot of tepid water inside before leaving without a word. I have helped organize enough receptions to know that improvising one is a tiring and thankless ordeal.
The Thirst takes me as I finish putting on Nashoba’s earrings and a mother of pearl necklace. The royal blue dress I wear is too practical to be elegant, unfortunately. At least, it is well cut and should serve adequately.
I exit the bedroom and find myself in a corridor of respectable size, and I admit to being impressed. The Tillerson mansion is large indeed, and expensively decorated. I would think that more money than sense had been thrown at our surroundings. As the guest, however, I am also grateful for the care and will refrain from commenting.
Dalton has been waiting for me faithfully. I notice that he is much more polished than his usual self. He is clean-shaven and his hair is combed back and even waxed. He has become darkly charismatic, the kind of men fathers are afraid of when their daughters come of age. A well-cut suit helped him transition from outlaw to prodigal son.
Good. This image is more respectable than the last and should help him in serving me.
“Offer me your arm.”
“Mistress? You… Are Thirsty?”
“No! Well, yes, but that is not what I meant. Offer me your arm so that we may walk together.”
“Aaaah. Of course.”
I grab him and we move towards a set of stairs. I can hear quite a few people making merry below, as well as the scent of alcohol, vitality and sweat. And also…
I stop Dalton with a gesture and knock on a nearby door.
“Excuse me! Hello?”
It is soon opened by a mortified man in the uniform of a butler. One of his hands is behind his back to hide the proof of his crime: a half-empty bottle of fine scotch.
“Hrm. May I help you miss…”
When our eyes meet, I hit him with the full power of my hypnosis. With one small push, he tumbles back inside.
To my dismay, his bow tie is in the way so I must feed on his arm. Well, nevermind.
When I am finished, I return to Dalton and leave my donor in the haze he was so desperately seeking. It seems that it is impossible to find good help anywhere nowadays. Oh well, that is feeding taken care of for tonight I suppose.
“Where is Sinead anyway?”
“Oh, he mentioned something about filthy humans stinking up the air and left for the forest. If we’re lucky a wolf will eat him…”
“Not before I get my due I hope!”
“I believe, however, that some naïve daughter will give birth to a child with strange hair nine months from now.”
That sounded personal. I am starting to think that someone in his family may have rolled in the hay with the wrong species. Hum. I shall leave those thoughts for some other time as we approach our destination.
The ballroom is at the back of the property and it seems the party is already in full swing. Groups of revelers have spilled over the main hall and the garden beyond through open French windows. I notice the conservative yet expensive garb of wealthy landowners in light colors, but also more than a few army uniforms in dark blue, quite close to my dress in fact. I wonder if Loth did it on purpose? It would not surprise me, coming from the crafty old bugger.
We are stopped at the entrance by a man in a butler outfit who is as puffed up as a singing bird. The self-importance radiating from his scowling features is remarkable.
He considers Dalton with obvious distrust. I, however, seem to pass some kind of test. The condition of one’s skin in the South is an easy way to determine their position in society. Anyone with a white and healthy skin is hidden during the day and sleeps at night. Thus, they must be rich.
The dress and understated jewelry as well as my posture only reinforce this image. In half a second, the gatekeeper has deemed me worthy.
“Who should I announce, miss?”
“Oh! You are… Hm. Forgive me.”
The man is flustered by his breach of decorum. Well, I cannot blame him as I can already hear Loth’s roaring laughter.
“Miss Ariane Delaney!” Announces the man to the crowd, to the general indiff…
Why is everyone looking at me?
“Miss Delaney, over here!” says Bingle in the center of the room.
I bypass several groups of people, smiling and nodding to any guest meeting my eyes. Dalton follows me in like a shadow before merging into the crowd, unnoticed.
Soon, I arrive before a group of people who I assume are the instigators of tonight’s unexpected celebration. I notice in passing that Rose is absent from Bingle's arm. I hope she is not being snubbed.
“Miss Delaney, it is so good to see you! Here, let me present to you our most excellent and generous Hosts: Cornelius Tillerson,”
He indicates a jolly fellow with a large grey beard and mustache. His well-cut suit struggles to contain a gut, his nose is already quite red and his glass is empty, not the first one tonight I’d wager. The master of the house is a man who indulges it seems.
“… Lydia Tillerson…”
His wife is much younger than him. She is also gorgeous and elegant. With her slightly graying hair, she is the very image of a mature beauty. Loth would be pleased.
She smells of sex. This is rather interesting because her husband does not.
“… And their daughter Cecily!”
The last member of the assembly has unfortunately inherited her father’s traits, although I have seen worse. What she lacks in beauty, she makes up for in self-confidence, and her calculating eyes hint at a keen intelligence.
Since the introductions are done, I curtsy only for Cornelius to shove his hand in my face.
I give him my own fully expecting a proper kiss, instead the man pumps it like he expects me to spit crude oil.
“The heroine of the hour! Bingle here mentioned your courage! A true testament to American women you are, not like those pale flowers the Brits seem to like, hah!”
“Haha. Surely Mr. Bingle is exaggerating. He and my uncle did most of the work.”
“He also said you were modest.” He replies with a sly smile.
“Corny dear, stop hogging the poor woman, you will scare her!”
“Is it true that you deceived a room full of guard and clobbered one of them?”
Why does he make it sound so uncouth?
“Well, there were two of them. The other was guarding Dalton.”
“Hah! HAHAHAHA by God Bingle, you missed one! Aaaa thank you my girl, I have not laughed that hard in a long time. Now. Why don’t you and Cecily enjoy yourselves with the young people while we crusty old folks reminisce about the past! My friends would never forgive me if I do not give their sons a chance to court you. Now go! Enjoy and be merry, and come back to us when you have made the round!”
The young woman immediately locks arms with me while Cornelius and Bingle resume their previous discussions under the lady of the house’s tolerant gaze. She drags me from group to group and introduces me to more people than I care to remember. I answer a barrage of repetitive questions with all the charm and patience I can muster. Am I engaged? No but I have prospects. Is it true I manipulated a group of men and used violence on one of them in order to save my uncle and the adventurer? It certainly is. Someone heard that I shot a pistol in someone’s face at point blank range. That last rumor, which I deny in vain, makes me popular among the soldiers and younger people, not so with the more conservative fringe of the room. For some reason, I have a particularly warm reception from the women. I am willing to bet that quite a few of them would find swinging a club at their rivals a therapeutic experience.
I am leaving a group of scowling spinsters when I catch a warning sign from the corner of my eyes. Dalton is frantically gesturing in several directions.
Ah, it seems that I am being corralled. A few men in uniform are making their way across the crowd. I immediately spot the leader by virtue of his cloth being the shiniest, turn around and stop.
“What is it?” Asks Cecily.
“Someone could not wait their turn.”
To her credit, my companion does not inquire more. Instead, she moves closer to me to offer a united front.
In moments, a tall officer with a clean-shaven face and piercing brown eyes appears from the edge of a herd of guests. He is wearing a powdered white wig despite the sweltering heat. Whether it is by vanity or love for decorum, I cannot tell. His eyes fall on me with a frown.
Yes, I was expecting you. What I was not expecting is for you to smell of sex and of Lydia Tillerson. This is an abuse of his position as guest. It makes me want to kill him.
“Would you please...”
“And who might you be?”
The man’s face ticks in anger at being interrupted. This is a trick I learned from Papa. People in a position of power are not used to opposition. If they are thwarted, their first reaction will almost always be to threaten.
“I am captain Lannes of the United States army, and you would do well to follow me.”
“Is there an issue, Jonas?” Asks my neighbor.
You just lost the home advantage Jonas, let us see if I can take it for myself.
“I have some questions for your guest, nothing serious I assure you.” Says the Officer with a strained smile.
“Then surely you can ask them here.” I suggest loudly. A few people are starting to turn to us, sensing the tension in our respective postures. I could have been surprised that Cecily supports me instead of someone she lives with. I am not. My stay with the Lancaster taught me that people are always eager to employ newcomers as tool in an ongoing conflict. The rigid officer is not on his first offense, it seems, and Cecily is not someone I would offend lightly.
Now to see if he stays or retreats.
“I was very impressed by your uncle’s tale Miss Delaney. There is no need for hostility. I merely wanted to clarify a few points. As a member of law enforcement in those savage lands, it is my duty to shed light on your extraordinary adventure.”
Cute save, mortal.
“I notice that you still haven’t asked a question.”
“Your aggression does you a disservice Miss Delaney, it almost looks suspicious.”
“I confess, I am guilty of running out of patience. Ask your questions and be gone Jonas, we still have many guests to greet. “
Poor Jonas. You cannot touch me and we both know it.
“... Very well. What’s your relationship with the group of outlaws known as the Valiant Companions?”
“There isn’t one.”
“Really?” He smirks. “Then can you explain why you came here arm in arm with one of its members?”
“And who would that be?” I answer immediately. The immediate riposte catches him off-guard. If he expected guilt and fear, I am going to disappoint him.
“Do not play coy. I am referring to Mr. Dalton.”
“Is he a member of the Valiant Companions?”
“Curious, I would expect him to be in chains then, since he is an outlaw. No?”
I am aware that I am playing a dangerous game. The best would be to avoid the conflict. That would mean that they attempt to corner me for the rest of the evening however, and I am not letting that happen.
“Mr. Dalton’s pardon does not absolve him of his crime before the Lord.”
“I suppose that is between them then, was there anything else?”
“...Yes, in fact, there is. I find it hard to believe that a woman with an interest in ancient writings could manipulate a room full of guards and neutralize one with a single hit.”
“You are mistaken in your assumption sir. I have plenty of experience in making men do what I want.”
This gets me a few chuckles from the growing circle of people following the exchange. Wit will triumph over honesty here.
“As for neutralizing a guard, I come from a long line of hunters. The nape of the neck has ever been a vulnerable area.”
“Indeed. What an interesting pair you two are. Say…”
The officer asks a flurry of questions about Loth, myself, our relationship and so on. I am not sure what he expected. I created Ariane Delaney over six months ago. I know this persona as well as an experienced actor knows their favorite character.
After half a dozen questions the man relents and leaves with a polite farewell. I watch his back recede into the crowd and the spectators of our altercation return to their groups. We are departing this place tomorrow so we should be fine.
“Are you alright Ariane?”
I sigh deeply.
“I apologize for this display of hostility. I did not mean to ruin the mood of the party but I could not just stand there and suffer those shameless accusations.”
“Please, my friend, it is I who should be apologizing. Captain Lannes’ misplaced zeal has brought us no end of problems. He is as rigid as he is obtuse in his management of every issue to everyone's dismay. He cares not about spreading strife and misery so long as his precious law is upheld.”
“Fiat Justitia, Ruat Caelum?”
“Precisely. Justice should serve the common good in my opinion. If we could redeem as we punish, the world would be better for it. His way leaves us with no teeth and no eyes.”
We continue our round though I see that Cecily’s mood has plummeted after our talk. Her dislike runs deep.
We have just left my drunk “uncle” with a trio of mature ladies when Dalton crosses our path.
“I am sorry to interrupt Mistress. Rose needs your help.”
“She does? Cecily, I must beg your pardon.”
“Oh do not mind me Ariane, I have been a poor host for the past hour. Some fresh air will do me good. Take care, and do enjoy the party!”
“Thank you Cecily, We should meet again later.”
Dalton leads me through a servant access to a kitchen filled with rushing staff and a side corridor. Nobody questions our passage.
“Are you acquainted with the staff?”
“Yes, before you came I assisted them with the party preparations.”
“Well done, Vassal.”
“Thank you Mistress. It’s over there.”
I follow Dalton into a room that looks suspiciously like my own. We are still on the first floor, which means that this is the guest wing. I am surprised to see Rose is accompanied by a timid young woman in a grey dress, currently sitting on a large armchair. As I enter, Rose pats her companion's hand in an awkward attempt at comfort.
She is concerned and the girl, terrified. I can see it, and smell it. Curious.
“What is this about?”
“Rose…” says the newcomer. " I thank you, however I must beg..."
“Yes, yes, I will do as you say, though I do not approve. Ariane, I leave the young miss in your capable hands and shall return to the ballroom. Do let me know how things pan out, please.”
Rose leaves and closes the door behind her. I do not say anything, for her perfume leaves me no doubt. That girl is also a Vassal.
After six months of isolation, I have been found.
Before I can decide what to do the young woman stands up, gathers her courage and kneels with her throat exposed in the traditional supplicant gesture. How could I miss the two thin scars on her jugular? And why is she asking for me?
Can Vassals become someone else’s supplicant? Is this adultery?
Vassals are special, they are not cattle or prey but trusted seconds and aides. I feel towards her the barest hint of what I felt towards Baudouin: an unwillingness to harm, as if touching her were taboo. I now understand one of the most vital facets of their personalities: Vassals are willing. Dalton chose me of his own volition, fully knowing who, and what, I am, and this woman is the same. She seeks my help because I am a vampire, and to her vampires can be trusted.
It is decided, I shall assist her if I can guarantee my safety. Good Vassals are precious things and protecting one for a fellow denizen of the night is a matter of... Let us say professional courtesy. Although nothing compels me to do so, I shall assist if only for the goodwill it will get me.
Yes, I can feel it in my soul. I am no longer in danger. A supplicant is harmless to me, for they seek my power and in exchange, I will always be able to ask enough to protect myself.
“My name is Inez. I came here as an envoy for my Master to attend to some business matters. Unfortunately, I was followed here by my previous husband.”
Fear, no, stark terror mars her face. Now that I look further, I notice that she has a scar on her right brow and the telltale of badly fused bones. She also bears faded marks or her left cheekbone and her lip. I do not need to see her body to know that she has suffered some terrible abuse.
“I take it that you did not part amicably?”
Inez lets out a strangled laugh that quickly turns into a sob. Annoying. WEAK VASSAL. WOUNDED. Well, I can protect and calm her down, I even know how to do it.
I approach the woman and place my hand on the top of her head. I caress her skin with the lightest touch and let my claws part the strands of hair. Slowly, she regains some measure of inner peace.
“Thank you, Mistress. I… he, he is here for me. With his brothers and servants. I saw him. I left to hide but he will find me. He will never let me go!”
“Shhh. Your master is protecting you, I presume?”
“Yes. Rodrigo was warned and even punished, but he never takes no for an answer and never will. Oh, when my Master hears of this… Ah, it matters little. My nemesis is here now. I will not survive to see revenge, for his twisted sense of honor calls for my death! If I am not his then no one else can have me, he said.”
“Focus, Inez.” I add quickly. “And ask your favor.”
“Mistress, I cannot ask for mortal protection. Most judges believe that marriage is until death and many would return me to my husband to be disciplined! Please protect me!”
“If I guarantee your safety for tonight, what will you give?”
“Not blood, I cannot… I have nothing…. A favor Mistress? Please, I beg you. Lord Suarez always pays his debts.”
I have never heard from this man, which means he is probably one of the Charleston vampires. I am in a unique situation to create a bond I may use in the future, at the low price of defending this mortal. This is most likely a boon.
“A favor and secrecy from you and your Master. I do not want my presence here to be known.”
“Yes, I can promise this. If you save me your secret will be safe with us! Lord Suarez will agree, I would bet my life on it.”
“Agreed. Now hide behind the bed, quickly. You too Dalton. Now.”
They obey with commendable swiftness like proper Vassals. I sigh as I unbutton the top of my dress and slide it off my shoulder. Whatever happened to relaxing evenings? Is this a continuation of the Bingle effect?
Is the man contagious?
Footsteps close in on us, the same footsteps I have heard noisily checking rooms for the past minute. My door is banged open by a tall and virile man dressed in black. I take in warm brown eyes, a mustache, and an anchor beard before I turn with fabric hiding my bared breast.
“Oh no! Lo Siento!”
A little bit late for apologies mister.
The intruder slams the door closed and takes off, leaving his prize and his dignity behind. Let’s make sure he does not return.
“PERVERT! HELP! HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELP!”
I hear swearing in the distance. I rush to the window and see a form disappear in the tree line at a corner of the manicured garden.
I finish buttoning my dress as the Vassals emerge from their hiding spot. Dalton looks quite proud.
“I think we will not see him again tonight, Mistress.”
“And you would be mistaken, my dear Dalton. People like him do not give up.”
We drag Inez to the bedroom opposite ours, mercifully empty, and order her to lock herself in until she hears from us. The butler who introduced me is walking towards us with thunder on his brow by the time we are finished.
“Was it you who screamed like that? What happened?”
“A stranger entered the bedroom I was using to readjust my dress! This is scandalous!!!”
I describe the intruder with pleasurable anticipation. I could, of course, follow the man and incapacitate or even slaughter him. There would be a risk, even should the bodies disappear.
There is no need for this, however, I do not even have to dirty my hands. There will always be opportunities for violence and good hunts. Now is the time for an elegant solution.
“Are you saying that there is an intruder? Here? In the house of the Tillersons?!” answers the butler with outrage.
“I looked out the window and saw a shadow approaching the wall sir. I am so scared! Are we not safe even here, in this beacon of civilization?”
If the man inflates his chest any more, he will surely explode.
“This shall not stand. Rodgers, to me, let us see what this is all about.”
“I beg you sir, be careful!”
We go back the way we came. Before reaching the kitchen, we turn to a side door that is apparently used for deliveries and cross it. While I and a few servants wait on the sideline, the butler, a strong old man and Dalton walk stealthily into the treeline.
Less than a minute after. We see them rushing back.
The butler reaches us, looking a bit lost. My ever-useful Vassal takes the lead.
“There is a full carriage Mistress Ariane, with quite a few horses. I counted four men and there are probably more around the property. They have clubs and sticks.”
“We are beset by bandits! I must warn Mr. Tillerson.”
“No, they are not bandits. They only sent one man to look around and they have weapon to beat, not kill. They are looking for someone.” I add.
The butler looks at me with no small amount of confusion. Before my expertise in illegal activities is looked into, I lead the conversation towards more interesting grounds.
“It is time to call for reinforcement sir. I suggest we ask the soldiers for assistance.” I say, and turn to leave. Dalton immediately follows and the poor man is carried by the wave of the small group of servants we have gathered. People are starting to whisper excitedly.
We turn a corner of the mansion and reach its back. As expected, the party has spilled over and a large group of inebriated soldiers and male landowners is currently watching a weasely corporal in an ill-fitting uniform juggle an impressive number of knives.
“Hrm, gentlemen, please!”
Over twenty people grant me their attention.
“I am terribly sorry to impose upon your evening, however circumstances dictate that we beg for your help.” I add meekly. I then turn to the butler at my side.
“Hrm, yes! Gentlemen, my name is Jonathan and I am the butler for this estate. We have spotted a group of ill-meaning…”
I watch him recount his discovery and the inebriated minds of the group turns to violence with commendable speed. I am moving towards my goal and I have yet to use any of my vampire powers. This is fun and flattering! As soon as the butler is done I decide to stir the crowd in the right direction.
“Please, will you brave soldiers defend us? Who knows what those rogues are after!? They could be here to abduct women!”
“A threat!? A challenge!? Now that’s my kind of party!” yells a red-hair lieutenant with a waxed handlebar mustache. “Wilkins, take your men to the back entrance and circle around. Jackson you and your lads do the same from the delivery road. The rest, with me. When we start the scrap, jump them.”
The drunkest group moves straight forward with surprising stealth. I follow at a good distance while Dalton and the butler, and a quite a few civilians, join their improvised squad.
A moment later the line of men disappears into the trees except for the weasely man who climbs one of them. A minute passes and my hearing picks up hard breath and rustling until the lieutenant’s voice breaks the relative silence
“WHY GOOD EVENING LADS!”
Immediately after, the sound of war cries, charge, counter charge and a merciless melee starts and dies within the span of twenty heartbeats. It is not long before a procession returns to us from the garden gate. The soldiers line up with a few trussed up captives between them and I take the time to congratulate them and listen to their boasts one by one. WELL DONE PUPPETS. I AM PLEASED. Yes, quite pleased. This was done without anyone seriously hurt. Poor Jonathan has the beginning of what is going to be a spectacular bruise yet it does not seem to diminish his pride in the slightest. Well done my minions, well done indeed.
“You are making a mistake! We are here on a mission of honor to reclaim a liar and a whore! She will not escape her fate!” says Inez’s ex-husband.
“So you are after the women!” I retort before he can take back any control of the situation. The accusation is met with the righteous roar of the assembly. Yes, how dare they sneak about to steal your women...
“Don’t worry, "friend", you’ll tell us everything we want to know real soon. Come on lads, to the barracks!”
With a victory cry, the soldiers leave while the happy civilians toast their resounding victory and battle prowess. Soon, the enemy troops numbered in the dozens, were all the size of Goliath and carried enough swords to equip a regiment of hussars. Ah, what beautiful tales we get when male pride and liquor intersect.
I cross my arms, satisfied. And that, as they say, is that.