When we return to Higginsville, Sinead is long gone. Loth does not tell me where he went and I do not ask. The Likaean prince did leave a few things for me, the first being a letter.
My dear Ariane,
You are not a bad sort for a Nightwalker, and I am sure we shall meet again after you have grown into your new self. I look forward to it, and I have left you two things as a gesture of my appreciation.
The first is a primer on the proper use of Charm including quite a few tricks, meditation techniques, and my favorite subtleties. I wrote it in the space of two days as if in a trance! When we next meet, we shall have a little contest that I may see what you learned.
The second is half a gift and half an apology. I realize that you may not have drunk my blood the way you wanted it, and so I had Loth draw a smidgen of my essence and capture it in the precious receptacle you will find attached. Keep it on you, always. If one day you are in danger of dying, no matter how grievous your wounds, drink it and it will undoubtedly save your life. This contains the essence of a Fae Prince, given freely. Do not squander it! I will know!
Until we meet again, poppet.
I resolve to keep the tiny silvery tube around my neck, always. It hangs next to the pendant containing my father's message. Those two are my lifelines, one for the body and one for the soul.
The following months see us fall into a healthy routine. I spend most evenings helping Loth with various tasks related to research, both magical and mundane, as well as metallurgy. I even assist him as a nurse when his hospital sees an increase in traffic. My complete lack of queasiness is put to good use as my dear friend would insist that some of the tasks I am requested to perform will “forge the character”. I soon learn that the expression is a hypocritical substitute for “It is revolting, and now that I have an underling I don’t have to do it anymore.”
Loth also tests the limit of my physical power by, naturally, having me carry heavy loads for him. His final conclusion is that I am “as strong as a gravid troll and marginally better-looking.”
How he manages to sweet-talk all the county’s widows into his bed with that tongue of his, I shall never know.
The rest of my nights are spent in various activities. I continue my study of the Western standard rune system and look into several forms of shamanism as well. I also pick up drawing as a hobby despite Jimena’s advice to try music. My disastrous attempt to practice the violin at the tender of age of seven still weighs heavily upon my soul. I work on Movement by running around the woods as fast as I can and through knife-throwing and marksmanship training with Loth.
Dalton adjusts to his new duty with perfect ease. He has a way of appearing unimportant to people unless he wants to be noticed that makes him fit everywhere, and when he needs to make an impact his dark charisma is enough. He quickly endears himself to both the male and female population of our little town. The only issue is the rumors surrounding us, not that I mind much.
His presence makes bounty hunting trivial and fun. No longer do I have to work around my lack of acceptance. I only handle the fun part and my Vassal dutifully takes care of the rest. Many times, we cooperate to capture our mark in an entertaining way. This quickly gives him an ambivalent reputation, as well as a lot of respect. I also use this opportunity to practice both Senses and Charm.
We continue like this for a while until I receive a letter from my dear Jimena.
My dearest Ariane,
I cannot express the many emotions I went through upon learning of your latest adventures! A pierced heart? A rogue vampire? I have not felt this anxious since I helped in your escape. Please show some consideration for my poor heart, young one, and some more to yours as well! A fledgeling is not supposed to have theirs destroyed and particularly not twice in the span of a single year! Truly, if you were not of the Devourer’s line, I fear we would have lost you already.
Before all else, I should advise you on things I would have mentioned in previous letters, had I imagined that you would challenge Courtiers trained in the arts of war! Those matters concern armed conflicts between our kind.
The way to fight a vampire differs from the way we fight anything else. There are very few beings that can match our speed, therefore vampires slain in battles with other races are taken down by overwhelming damage. Vampires, on the contrary, will always aim for the heart first and foremost. Even the smallest wound will spell your end.
When we next meet, I shall train you in ways to protect yourself through martial techniques. Until then, do not practice mortal methods as you will develop bad habits. We do not move nor fight like humans, and thus their arts are not suited to us. It will be easier if you come to me with no preconceived ideas.
There are ways to improve yourself, however. One of them you already know. Those treks under the moon you mentioned will help you get accustomed to your body and will improve your natural dexterity. When it comes to moving, follow your instincts. I also strongly advise you to wear a suit of armor around your torso when you go to battle. You will find a blueprint for a standard Harcourt chest protector enclosed in this envelope. I am sure that your friend can assist you in its making.
It bears repeating that your bloodline can progress fast if fed with the blood of mighty foes. This makes your natural abilities on par with an experienced Courtier. It does not give you the experience of one. The creature you faced was unarmed and half-mad and so it was not in any way equal to the manner of opponent you would face, should a clan decide to take you down. Should you be discovered, I beg of you, flee. As long as you leave their territory, the other side will likely abandon pursuit and merely report your presence to the Knight chapter in Boston. I hope you heed my warning.
Now that this is out of the way, allow me to be the first vampire to congratulate you on reaching adulthood! Ah, but I remember it as if it were yesterday, a timid and lost woman standing awkwardly in my training ground! Even then, your personality shone bright and set you apart from the rest. And now, you have come into your own! My heart fills with pride, and I wish I could celebrate this auspicious night with you.
Now you are a Courtier and do not let anybody tell you otherwise. This means that the next step in our plan is a go! In eighteen ten, just over five years from now, there will be a major conclave of all vampires in North America. I shall use this opportunity to petition the current Speaker for your induction. If it is accepted, we will be allowed to register you as a member of an independent House under the Accords, and you will be beyond the reach of the Lancaster forever. Constantine will surely give you a task or two as reparation for being on his land illegally, though I would not worry about it too much. He is known for being a tolerant ruler and the new Continent is as much a place of opportunity as it is one of refuge.
I am pleased to learn that you want to use your time to build both expertise and capital. The pursuit of excellence is a defining attribute in the Followers of the Path, the faction the Cadiz clan belongs to. As a new vampire, I would advise you to learn an instrument. Art helps us maintain our humanity and Music most of all.
You also need to consider building your wealth. As you can imagine, mortal institutions are ill-suited to our needs and so I advise you to travel to the port city of Savannah where you will find a small branch of the Rosenthal Consortium. They are a neutral entity in the supernatural world, and they are as reliable as they are efficient. Open an account with them and remember that we all started small.
Lastly, we are fairly certain that the order of Gabriel no longer keeps an eye on your father, so you may now correspond more freely.
Aintza and I miss you, Ariane. When time permits, I shall meet you again in person. I must be careful as most of my actions are currently under scrutiny, indeed, I have been given a chance to regain my status and join the ranks of the Knights once more! My next mission will carry me to the everglades and last for a few months. If all goes well, I will be given a task and upon its completion, I would be reinstated. I cannot express how important this is for me my dear. Wish me luck!
With sisterly love,
Jimena de Cadiz. September 7th, 1804
February 1805, Savannah, Georgia.
The Rosenthal Consortium building is fairly small, barely bigger than my childhood home and yet it manages to draw attention from a full block away. I would call the local architecture basic, only because I am feeling generous. The most common adornment is a coat of paint slapped on the ubiquitous horizontal planks, even for public places such as the Town Hall.
The noble institution’s house is orange.
Its walls are made entirely of vertical carved white stones and bricks of the fiery color. It stands like a jewel, or a pustule, amongst its prude neighbors. The barred windows and the reinforced gates only reinforce the impression of being an outsider.
Without a word, Dalton fades into the shadows while I approach the guard.
He pretends to ignore me until politeness demands a reaction. He looks quite solemn, dressed all in black with a white shirt, and his pale face sports an impressive beard. I smell gunpowder from him and, quite interestingly, spelled items though he himself is not a mage. I taste it and recognize a specific aura. When the man meets my eyes, my suspicions are confirmed. The protections are designed to ward off influence, which extends to Charm.
Finally, an occasion to practice some of the tricks Sinead mentioned!
The rope between us glances off a smooth shield. I slowly change our bond’s color by matching it to his current mood. He is distrustful yet unworried. In the space of half a second, the string becomes one with the shield and goes through.
I give the man a polite smile with just a bit of suggestion, which he returns.
“Good evening sir, is this the Rosenthal Consortium, Savannah branch?”
“Indeed miss, and we would be happy to assist. Unfortunately, we are closed.”
That is fine, I will work on him until he believes me important enough to warrant special treatment.
“That is a shame, I was led to understand that you would operate after sunset.” Or so Jimena claimed.
The guard’s reaction is unexpected. He pales visibly and his pleasant smile evaporates.
“Ah yes, my apologies madam, we were not expecting you.”
He turns to the entrance and bangs a pattern on the door. He then takes out a key from a recess in his coat and manages to turn it in after a few nervous attempts.
The door opens invitingly.
“Go ahead, madam.”
Hum. How queer. Did they infer my nature from one comment? This would not be a trap, would it?
Unlikely. Jimena would not have sent me here without a warning otherwise.
I walk in a beautiful lobby. I thought the exterior gaudy and I was wrong.
The floor is entirely made of polished black stone with a massive white circle five paces across in its middle. Golden runes I do not recognize surround its edge. The walls are of the same black stone at the base, before going up in shades of bronze. The room is narrow and leads up to a high mahogany counter, behind which a teller is hard at work. Apart from the desk, there are only a few chairs and a medieval piece of armor holding a halberd as visible furniture.
Beside the door I just crossed, there is also one on the left, another on the right wall as well as, curiously, a barred window. I also spot a corridor on the far wall as well as stairs going up.
I immediately stop. This place is packed with magic. I already triggered some sort of alarm when I crossed the threshold which could not be avoided. I can also feel a significant amount of power coming from the circle, the suit of armor, the many doors and surprisingly, the counter.
The man behind it stands up, notices me and freezes. The barred window to the right opens to let another frowning man with a gun look through it. Upon seeing me, he also stops in his tracks.
Well, this is rather awkward is it not?
“I am here to open an account.”
I would rather make my intentions clear before the set of armor starts moving on its own.
“Ah, hm, I…”
The man behind the counter is what I would expect an accountant to be. He nervously tries to replace the monocle on his nose, but his trembling hand knocks it out of the orbit and it falls against his chest.
Silence fills the place. I wait.
Soon, footsteps can be heard from the stairs. They are slow and measured.
A moment later, a man calmly reaches inside the room and walks in my direction. He is slightly shorter than me, with combed back black hair and piercing grey eyes. His traits are sharp, aristocratic, and his expression is that of polite respect. His black suit is exquisitely tailored and shows understated good taste. He is also a Courtier, a powerful one. I would place him at the edge of something greater. His aura is also one of the most disciplined and controlled I have ever felt.
“Greetings milady, and welcome to our humble establishment. I am Isaac of the Rosenthal. I welcome you here tonight.”
“Thank you, Isaac, I am Ariane of the, well, Nirari clan.”
A complex set of emotions moves his otherwise unflappable countenance.
“Truly? Splendid, splendid! It is an honor and a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. Please, follow me.”
I take his invitation and we walk side by side. You could hear a pin drop here as neither of us makes a sound when our feet touch the ground.
He leads me up to the second floor and to his office at the end of an alley. We enter a spacious room lit by a single candle. A large window situated at its back gives us a view of rooftops and the clouded sky. Two comfortable leather chairs are on opposite sides of a large desk that speaks of hard work and obsessive organization. Stacks of folders are neatly arranged in wooden dividers and not a single document is currently out in the open, a necessity when one’s guest can see so clearly. Bookshelves filled with writings on law, economics, and philosophy give the place a cozy feeling.
“Take a seat. Make yourself comfortable.”
He sits with dignity and gazes at me for a while then leans forward with mild interest.
“Before we begin, I would like to ascertain your identity. Would you mind, ah, forgive my impertinence, would it be acceptable for you to show me your fangs?”
I wait for signs that he insulted me before admitting that this is not an unreasonable request. I am not carrying identification papers after all.
“Ah yes, all eight of them. Incredible. I had the honor of seeing your Master half a century ago in Geneva. He caused quite the ruckus!”
“I was told he tends to do that…”
He gives me a pointed look.
“Yes, yes indeed. An apt euphemism. Let me just say that I am delighted to see you. We were informed that lord Nirari had sired a new Spawn and I was rather miffed when I heard you were slain.”
“Rumors of my demise were exaggerated.”
“So it would seem! And now you come to us to open an account, bringing the number of Nirari holders to three. This is a historic moment for my clan.”
“Yes. Before we begin, I had several questions if you would not mind?”
“Of course not. If it pleases you, I can explain a list of our services, terms and conditions. Then, I would be pleased to go into more details if there is anything you would like to know.”
“That sounds perfect. First, however, I want to make something clear. My existence is not, let us say, approved by the current authorities of this land. Could this become a problem?”
“Ah, yes. Your concerns are understandable. We are a fully independent entity with ties to all governments and no obligation to enforce their rules. Privacy is valued enough that our autonomy is protected by consensus. As such, not only can I offer you our full range of services, I can also guarantee that your very existence will be kept confidential until you see fit to, ah, enter Society as a debutante.”
His expression is solemn.
“That is reassuring sir. If you please, I would like to know what services you propose.”
“Excellent, excellent! We offer a full range of financial services. This includes all manner of personal banking, assets and wealth management, transactions and safekeeping. We also offer legal advice, administrative assistance such as new identities for our long-lived patrons, which I assure, you will be needing at some point. We also deal with matters of insurance and inheritance…”
Isaac’s full presentation lasts an hour and is rather exhaustive. I doubt that I will need ownership of a company transferred between two fake identities any time soon, though it is still good to know that the possibility exists. In the end, I choose to create a checking account and invest the rest of the money I brought in a fund with a high, if volatile return rate. The crafty man offers me access to a strongbox as a commercial gesture which I accept but do not make use of. My most precious belongings all fit around my neck and in holsters after all.
I go down and signal Dalton to join me with our stash. I have almost four hundred dollars in total from bounty hunting and helping Loth with various tasks. It is easy to save when one does not need to spend on food and lodging, even after granting my Vassal a fair share.
Isaac invites me back up as we wait for my stash to be counted.
“I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
“Naturally miss Ariane, naturally. Though I must warn you that I may not share anything that would violate the privacy of our other customers.”
“I understand. You have confirmed that I have a sibling, and I would like to know if there is anything you could tell me about them.”
“Yes, easily. I forgot that you have been so far isolated from politics. Your brother is Svyatoslav. He is currently the most dominant figure in Saint Petersburg.”
“Truly? Is Russia part of one of the main factions I heard about?”
Isaac thinks a bit before continuing.
“Clans seldom respect borders, miss Ariane, therefore we never refer to ourselves as “Portugal” or “Switzerland”, but by clan or alliance name.”
Ah, first question and I already revealed myself as a yokel. Well done Ariane.
“Russia is home to two factions. One of them is a gathering of bandits, witches and cultists and is an alliance more in name than in reality. The second group is decidedly martial, and their closest allies are the Knights. They call themselves the Vityazi and dedicate themselves to the culling of dangerous magical fauna. I had the opportunity of visiting their headquarters in 1756 and I admit to being pleasantly surprised.”
“You have a good memory.”
“It is the defining trait of my bloodline. We all have a tidy mind served by an eidetic memory.”
“Forgive me for saying so sir, but I have only joined you for less than two years and there are already many things I would rather forget.”
“Not at all, not at all. Fortunately, we are able to take some distance from our worst recollections. Else it would make pain resistance training unbearable, I’m afraid.”
The delivery was so deadpan that for a moment I believe he spoke in jest, yet his face betrays nothing. I think Isaac just opened up to me a little bit.
“We are getting distracted. Your brother acts as a buffer between local groups of interest. His friendship with various key decision makers usually suffices. When it does not, well, he reminds everyone of the dangers of provoking him.”
“Is he that strong?”
“He is seven centuries old, miss, he was a prince of the Kievan Russ Confederation.”
Wow. If he lived for that long and fought as much as I believe he did then he must be a force of nature. This is my reality now, something I forgot for not spending time with my kin. Some of us have lived to see Rome fall. Perhaps they even participated.
“I could send him a message on your behalf, if you wish.”
Do I want to meet someone who would remind me of MastEr?
“That will not be necessary, thank you.”
I hate him and love him and hate him and… And I am being a bAd giRl. I should gather enough money to get a ship, look for his resting place and dig him out So tHat wE… No!
“It is nothing. Ah, is there a way for you to petition the… Speaker, so that my presence here is, shall we say, legalized?”
“Unfortunately, we are not a signatory of the Accords. We cannot petition them for what is essentially an internal conflict within clan Lancaster, if we are being strict. We can, however, pass along a message. I can tell you now that without anyone to vouch for you, getting recognized as an independent House under the Accords will be difficult.”
“What are the Accords?”
“They are a set of rules regulating the rights and duties of all vampires residing on the New Continent. They are rather lax. Most of them focus on protecting individuals and preventing distant conflicts from spilling over here. Are you aware that the three alliances are at war?”
“Yes, although I do not know the specifics.”
“And neither do we as alliances shift long before news reaches us. Under the Accords, local branches are forbidden from participating and so far the locals have managed to remain uninvolved.”
“How are those rules even enforced?”
“The current Speaker, lord Constantine, has a handful of troops and can call some more. No local clan has reached a critical mass yet and none are capable of offering a real challenge. For now.”
“Fascinating. This place is really meant for exiles and refugees. Ah, I meant no disrespect.”
I have no idea if Isaac is offended. The man has as many facial expressions as a marble statue. This would be unnerving were it not for my habit of doing the same to Loth.
“None taken. Truth be told, I am here on vacation.”
“On vacation? Truly?”
I look pointedly at the meticulous desk and piles of papers. This man could visit anything from the Niagara falls to Key West and he chooses to stay here and do paperwork? In Savannah of all places? The Silent Watcher save me from this lunatic.
“Do not let the circumstances fool you. My workload is very light, especially compared to home. I am catching up on quite a few books I have been looking forward to reading for a decade.”
“I was aware that Bankers work hard of course…”
“That is an understatement, and it is during relatively normal circumstances. Right now, Europe is burning from the fires of Napoleon’s wrath, we are anticipating trade war measures within the next year. The Masks are in the middle of a civil conflict and Eseru and the Followers of the Path are at each other’s throat. Trust me, I needed a pastoral retreat. When I learned my clan was looking for someone in a remote place for a two-year position I jumped on the occasion.”
That is the first time I have seen a real display of emotion from him. Even then it was mild, at most.
“I see. I only wish my country had more to offer than… This.”
“Not to worry, I have my books. The only thing I was missing was the company of my kind, and so your visit is most fortuitous, most fortuitous indeed! Say…”
“No… No, I should not. I am being terribly unprofessional. I beg your forgiveness.”
How queer! This is unexpected. This man came out as extremely polished and should I say, a bit pompous and now he is talking like a rake about to pull some villainous scheme? I am intrigued!
“Isaac, now that our business is done, I ask you, not as customer to member of the esteemed house of Rosenthal but from one lone vampire to another, what is it? Out with it.”
He looks flustered.
“Ah, well, hrm. Let us finish here and then perhaps we could resume this conversation outside?”
Curiouser and curiouser. The unfazed banker is suddenly losing his composure? All my expectations are destroyed. I follow the odd man outside through the lobby and out the main door with Dalton by my side. The guard gives a surprised look, though he refrains from commenting.
We soon arrive in a small flower garden, empty at this time. Isaac turns towards me and stops. He strikes me as someone who dispenses words carefully, therefore I give him the time he needs to formulate what I am sure will be a request. Vampires cannot be Supplicants because they can defend themselves, therefore it needs to be an equal trade between peers. I look forward to hearing it.
Finally, Isaac takes a deep breath just as Dalton starts to look a bit worried at our unnatural immobility.
My patience is going to be rewarded! I am sure it will be quite a tale.
“Ariane of clan Nirari, I would like you to provide support as I kill someone.”