Following our heroic return from opening a bank account and killing six people in the process, Dalton and I continue much like before. As a charming lad with good prospects and a secured income, Dalton starts receiving several discreet inquiries from good families to see if their daughters could be a match. He systematically turns them down. This only gives wind to the rumor mill. Now everyone says we are an item. Fortunately, we are protected by our good reputation and we are therefore seen more as an exotic pair than a couple of sinners.
This leads me to consider a relationship with him. I am certain that he would not hesitate. I am also certain that our lovemaking would be pleasant and concern-free and yet, I decide against it. Although I cannot reclaim what Master took, what I give is still mine to choose and I want my first consensual intimate moment to be like what Agna and Loth shared. I do not want to indulge; I want what they had. My feelings for Dalton are not that of a lover, and so we cannot have what I desire.
In the meanwhile, I, ahem, still have a way to entertain myself.
While I wait for the conclave and for Jimena to submit my petition, I am not idle. My present circumstances give me access to a wealth of resources to work with. Following Jimena’s recommendation on the pursuit of art, I am taking drawing classes.
Well, that is not entirely correct. Upon Jimena’s recommendation, I have picked up drawing. It is upon Loth’s recommendation that I am taking classes for it, under the benevolent mentoring of old Margie Mitchell.
What occurred, is that after a brief period of self-study, I showed Loth the fruit of my labor. He was not impressed. His very words were: “Don’t ye worry about yer lack of talent lass, ye got centuries ta learn. Now explain ta me how ye think that’s a house. Please, I could use another laugh.”
Rascal. Fortunately, my other pursuits are going better.
My study of magic runes and their arrangement has progressed enough that Loth started showing how to build, avoid, and disarm magical protections and alarms. It will at least allow me to know what things can do, and then, break them. Casting even the most basic ward is still completely beyond me.
When I ask how he knows so much about breaking and entering, Loth grows suspiciously evasive. He mentions something about a girl, a crown, and his good cousin Okri. I leave it at that.
Bounty hunting has become interesting. There is a new market for escaped slaves and after learning of it, Loth offered me a trade. I would hunt down the fugitives and instead of delivering them back to their owner, I would lead them to isolated houses or lost paths, where others would take them. Loth explained that he was part of a secret network called the Underground Railroad dedicated to helping slaves travel North towards Canada or West to Mexico. Ah, Loth, always the bleeding heart.
The rest of the bounties are the usual conmen, thieves, murderers, and rapists. Which leads me to tonight.
May 1805, Georgian Wilderness.
“That’s them, Mistress.”
Dalton points to a small gathering of people off what passes as roads in these parts. I see three wagons and three groups around one campfire. They unfortunately have a dog.
I study them. There is a couple of young farmers, probably married since the woman is heavily pregnant. I also note a larger family with many children being fed by a heavyset woman while her husband smokes a pipe. He is dressed in the black attire of a preacher. The last two members are a crone in a rocking chair attended by a woman with the absent face of a simpleton. None of them look to be Mr. Darius Hill, charlatan, and thug.
I like charlatans, they always have the best stories.
“And you say none of them saw your quarry?” I ask.
“Or so they claim, and they seemed honest. The thing is, it should be impossible. Hill followed the same path, and nobody remembered him in Salt Spring. Unless he went off-road before he came across this group, they should have seen something."
I keep looking. I don’t think they saw anything. They are traveling together for safety but there is no friendship here. If anything, the young couple and the simpleton are both wary of the preacher. He probably bashed their ears with threats of divine punishment during the whole trip. There would be no reason for a coordinated lie.
It looks like a trek through the wilderness is increasingly more likely, though that does not fit what I know of the man. A conman cons his way through travel. Murderers are more likely to go brave the wilderness.
No way! This is just precious.
I stare a bit longer until I am completely convinced I am right, and then stand up.
“My dearest Vassal, you have yet things to learn! Follow and observe.”
“Yes Mistress, I bow before your superior wisdom,” he deadpans.
How many vampires get sass from their Vassals I wonder?
We make our way to the camp from the road. The dog is the first to hear and smell me. His furious barks alarm the assembly, and both men grab a musket.
Dalton reaches the edge of the campfire’s circle of light. The flames reflect on his deputy badge, making it glint.
“You again?!” Roars the priest with outrage. Dalton remains unfazed.
The sound is too low for human ears. The dog barks, whimpers then falls silent.
I sidestep Dalton to get closer to the group. It is time for an exciting lesson.
“My dear Dalton, when following a prey, you must remember that...”
“Who gave you leave to speak, wench?”
We are going to have a problem. I consider killing their dog as a warning when Dalton intervenes.
“I did. Now stay silent.”
The priest stands up with rage at his treatment and opens his mouth but nothing comes out. The distinctive sound of a cocked pistol silences everyone.
“You would not dare firing on a...”
“Yes. I very much would. Now shut up, you are interfering with the duties of a deputy Marshall.”
Nicely done Dalton, now I won’t have to kill anyone.
“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted,”
The priest falls backward with a yelp and his family panics, for one second, until it becomes evident that Dalton fired a warning shot in the air.
When everyone’s attention has turned to him, my Vassal calmly holsters his pistol only to take out another one from his other hip. His countenance is perfectly at ease.
“The next one is for your knee.”
You could hear a pin drop.
“... many imbeciles only see danger when looking down the muzzle of a gun. And so those that prey on others have found ways to make themselves appear harmless until it is too late.”
I walk around the camp and stop in front of the simpleton.
“However, most criminals are stupid, and the disguise is often flawed. For example, senile women do not smell of cigar and liquor.”
I snag the hat from the “crone” head to reveal a bald skull. The wig has remained stuck to the coiffe.
“YOU BITCH!” screams Mr. Hill as he attempts to extract himself from the reclining chair with a face twisted by rage. An instant later, his hateful glare is buried under Dalton’s leather-clad foot.
Hill falls back down and screams. The simpleton screams, the couple screams, the priest’s family screams. My poor ears.
“Darius Hill you are under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon, battery, larceny...”
I watch Dalton work as he shackles the criminal. All this fresh blood dripping on the ground... I feel the Thirst awakening. I have been feeding on chalices for the past three days, and it is time for Mr. Hill to contribute.
“What is the meaning of this?!” yells the priest as he tries to regain some authority.
“You shared a campfire with a felon and a transvestite, that’s what it means.”
I smile and prepare to leave until I notice that Dalton is staring at the man, considering.
“You know, when I asked you the first time you said that God would reveal the soul of a sinner. And yet here he is, sharing a fire with you. Strange is it not?”
“What are you implying, you insolent scoundrel? Do you know who you’re talking to?”
“No, but you’re going to tell me. Name, surname, and place of origin please,” replies Dalton.
“I’m the Reverend Luther Boone of the Baptist church of the United States, with the grace of...”
“Date of birth and place of origin.”
“I beg your pardon?!”
“For the last time, you will give me your date of birth and place of origin, sir, or are you refusing to comply?”
“This is an outrage! I have never been treated like this! I’ll have you know...”
“You harbored a fugitive and now you’re refusing to cooperate with a deputy Marshall of the state of Georgia. You will answer my questions, or you will be detained. Is that clear?”
“IS. THAT. CLEAR?”
There is a moment of tension when I almost believe that the priest will lose his temper, until Dalton takes out another pair of manacles. The priest quickly looks around as if seeking support, however, the couple is looking at him warily and the simpleton is still sobbing on the ground. He swallows his pride and sits back down.
What follows is a short interrogation during which Dalton asks a few pointed questions. The others do not realize it, but I see what he is doing. His tone and phrasing are not inquisitive, they are degrading. Interjections such as “Is that so?” and “care to repeat that?” constantly destabilize his interlocutor, giving the vague feeling that Dalton does not believe a word he says. The treatment lasts until the red in the priest’s face no longer comes from his anger but from his humiliation.
When he’s done, Dalton turns away and before leaving, delivers a parting shot:
“I will be verifying these claims, sir, and if they are not to my satisfaction you can expect another visit.”
And then we disappear into the night, captive in tow.
The impression is only slightly ruined when the simpleton runs after us, bawling her eyes out.
“I think she likes you, Mistress.”
“Don’t even start.”
Our carriage is riding back towards Coolidge, the city where the now slightly anemic Hill was last seen. I believe that he grabbed the simple woman there and used her as a cover. We will drop her off as soon as we locate her abode.
Said simpleton can speak quite a bit when she is no longer so scared. I learned that she lives mostly alone in a shed and that she really likes rabbits. Tonight’s sortie is getting stranger by the minute.
My Vassal sighs heavily, not meeting my eyes.
“I am sorry Mistress. It won’t happen again.”
“Oh, no, far from me to rob you of your fun. It was a pleasant surprise, although, you understand my curiosity…”
I see something rare in my precious ally, embarrassment.
“It happened long ago...”
“Then at least tell me what caused your ire. You are usually so stern…”
Dalton takes a moment to gather his thoughts then he begins.
“There is a kind of person who enjoys being in power. They enjoy it so much, in fact, that they will try to make everyone around them less so that it remains. They beat their wife, they beat their children, they crush their spirits so that all there is around them is a bunch of broken cowards too afraid to stand up for themselves. Growth does not interest them, only control.
Now some of those men, like this despicable cad from before, they found a religion. That religion tells them that they are the chosen of God and they know the one truth, and that places them at the top of the bloody world. How happy they are. Now when they beat their family it’s to protect them from sin. And how do they know it’s sin? Well, since they are the chosen of God, if they don’t like it, then God must not like it either. And so it goes. An entire village of self-righteous feckless mongrels weeding out everyone who could cast a shade on their happy hegemony. “
It does not take a mastermind to understand where his resentment comes from.
“You did punish him beautifully.”
“Oh, no Mistress. The punishment is only getting started. You see, I did it in front of his kids. Now they know their father is fallible. Just an angry little man, really. When they are of age, they will remember this, and that one could face him and win.”
“The seeds of rebellion?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps none of them will have the guts, or they could all be like him. It doesn’t matter. I gave them something to consider. That’s more than I got...”
With this last statement, Dalton grows unusually subdued. I decide to leave him to his musings. The rarity of his displays of emotion could be a cause for concern in others, it does not bother me. The unity brought by our bond cannot be faked, nor destroyed.
“I will not let my resentment endanger our cause, Mistress.”
“I know. I trust you, and I believe I understand now why you trust me, trusted me, that day in the Valiant’s camp.”
“Yes,” he replies with a smile, “I will take an honorable monster over a hypocritical human any day of the week.”
We share a knowing smile and fall into a comfortable silence as the carriage takes us back.
Savannah, October 1805.
The guard opens the door the moment he recognizes me. The nervous accountant who handled my money last time trots up and speaks with reverence.
“Welcome back, Lady Ariane. Master Isaac will be with you shortly. If you would take a seat? Would you like something to dr... Uhhhh.”
“I am fine, thank you,” I tell the paling man.
Yes, a poor choice of words. I would not take him up on his offer anyway, it would be quite rude towards Isaac. Not to mention that I liked the sound of “Lady Ariane.”
The bean counter scurries back to the illusory safety of his desk while I take some time to study the magical protections of the place. I now recognize the set of armor as an animated golem, currently unpowered. The book Loth lent me mentioned that they were indefatigable and did not know pain. They are a good defense against a vampire although their slow speed can be a liability. The easiest way to deal with them is to outmaneuver them. Barring that, they have a core that would need to be destroyed.
The glyph on the ground is also interesting. It is a seal of Solomonic tradition, and although its full purpose escapes me, I believe it is related to the disruption of foreign magic.
“Studying the competition, Ariane?”
I stand up and curtsy before my host. My answer dies in my throat when I take in his presence.
Something has changed.
The cold aura that marks him as my kin has increased in power by a significant amount. Moreover, it seems to be in flux, growing as I look, and despite all this it is still as organized and disciplined as before.
“Well! Are congratulations in order?”
“Indeed! Indeed, they are. Let us be on our way and I shall regale you with the tales of my latest achievement.”
I refuse to take his offered arm which he accepts gracefully. We exit the building and leave on foot away from the docks, towards the more affluent part of the city. Dalton follows us at a short distance, ever vigilant.
“Your power feels like that of a Master.”
“Yes, after our little outing I came home and immediately collapsed into a long slumber. I learned much from that night, much more than you think. The insights I gained were enough to tip me over the edge. You are looking at clan Rosenthal’s newest Ascendant!”
“Congratulations once more. So what is the custom? Should I offer you a coming of age present?”
He shakes his hand dismissively.
“Normally there would be a ceremony and yes, gifts. Do not fret though, your contribution was already more than I could ever ask. And there is something else.”
“Well, those gifts would usually be very precious and as your financial advisor I strongly advise against any excessive spendings at the moment.”
“... Did you just call me poor, sir?”
“Of course not! Of course not, I was merely looking out for your best interest. As is proper.”
Isaac’s perfect poker face only betrays his inner smirk. If he were honest, he would have apologized profusely.
“Well, excuse me.”
“You are forgiven.”
I hiss playfully. Loth, Sinead and now Isaac, it appears that loners end up being comfortable in my presence. How else to explain the ocean of sass I must deal with? Even Dalton teases me on occasion. His deadpan deliveries can be scathing when something manages to stir his emotions.
Perhaps I am a refreshing breeze for them, someone who they know will not commit a betrayal. I suspect Master’s reputation could get him some allies, or even friends, if he weRe not sUch a...
Better not go there.
“We are almost there. As promised, the location is secured. You have my word.”
“Thank you Isaac, I knew I could count on you.”
“Indeed! Indeed, say Ariane, what you have is extraordinary. I am happy for you. Cherish the memories you make tonight.”
“I will. Thank you.”
“Enough of this, on you go!”
I enter alone the lobby of a small hotel. Signs of age and constant use mark the desk and furniture. Instead of being decrepit, warm colors and the smell of soap and flowers give the room a homey feeling.
The place is empty but for a heartbeat coming from the dining room.
I step in silently. If my own heart were still in motion, it would be fluttering right now.
He is sitting at a table, his back to me. His fingers tap a nervous dance on the scratched wood as he tries in vain to focus on a shipping manifest.
I sneak up on him with childish giddiness. Oh, but I haven’t felt this human in months! I place my hands on his eyes, covering them.
“Devine qui c’est!”
“Ma petite fille!” He roars with pleasure.
“Let me take a good look at you!” He jumps to his feet and catches me under the armpits. He lifts me in the air like I am made of straw and turns me around like a weird animal. I realize with pleasure that he regained his normal strength, though his hair has more grey in it than I remember. I try not to let it get to me.
After a few seconds, he returns his verdict.
“You’ve gained weight.”
“Lies! Calomnies!” I sputter.
“Hahaha fine, fine. Come on, sit down here and tell your old man everything.”
I give him a light recounting of the events after I left the house. As expected, I am interrupted almost immediately.
“Those damn fanatics hiring a mage? Typical hypocrites. Fucking pricks, I hope you gave them hell.”
“I did. Also, language!”
“Give me a break, daughter. Your aunt isn’t here.”
“So I can start swearing too?!”
“Do you want to?”
“That’s not the point!”
“Do as I say, not as I do, such is the privilege of every parent!”
I hiss in jest. When I realize what I have done, I freeze. I did not intend to show this side of me, however, my expectations are dashed. Instead of being alarmed at the inhuman noise, Papa steps closer.
“Can I... Can I see them?”
“It’s fine if you don’t want to Ariane, I appreciate that it can be difficult.”
“No, it’s fine.”
Papa takes my hand in his and rubs the talon, careful not to cut himself on the edge. At the same time I open my mouth and allow my fangs to show. He lowers his head to inspect them.
We both jump in surprise when we realize Isaac is in the room.
“Jesus man, don’t you scare me like that!”
“My apologies Mr. Reynaud. I merely wanted to tell you that everything is in order. You will find the signed contract in your quarters. And with this, I bid you a good night.”
He bows with perfect professionalism. I’m never going to live this down, am I? We stare in silence as he leaves.
“You entered a contract with the Rosenthal?”
“Yes, they were looking for a trustworthy contact with significant storage capabilities. Our location allows them to bypass other clans’ areas of influence.”
“That is good I, wait, hold on, wait, how do you know all of this?!”
“I’ll tell you if you tell me why Lucien asks me about you when his parents are not around.”
“Ah. Aha. Wellllll.”
My father crossed his arms and raises a brow which means I’m not getting out of this one.
“When I came looking for you, I passed by the manor first. Roger came out and Lucien trailed him.”
“They saw you? Roger never said...”
“I asked him never to mention me.”
“I see. As for why I know so much, well, your letters came from a vampire and I managed to get in touch with her.”
“What?! She never said so!”
“I asked her to keep it secret, I did not want you to worry.”
“Father, this world is dangerous!”
“And closing my eyes to it won’t save me, not since they took you. In any case, Achille has expanded the business and a lot of transactions we thought strange make sense now that we can account for hidden groups of interest. Also, Achille does not know it yet, but I am planning to leave you your rightful share of inheritance.”
“Tut tut, I fully expect you to look after your nieces and nephews, and their children after that. I want you to be around for a long time and I am charging you with protecting the family in the future.”
“... Alright, I promise.”
“Speaking of which, Achille’s wife Nicole is expecting their second child! And so is Constanza.”
The discussion continues on my family until I resume my tale. Eventually, I mention Dalton.
“We mostly hunt bounties together.”
“Is that what kids call it these days?”
“Hahaha joking. Well, remember to tell me in advance for the nuptials. I have to make arrangements.”
“Even if I did, we could not find a priest.”
“Aaaah who cares about that, I could do a pagan marriage. With that Nashoba lad attending us.”
After that, I have Dalton himself join us. They take the measure of each other and immediately hit it off. We finish the night on a pleasant note, and with plans for the future.
I have not felt closer to human Ariane in a long time. I wonder if it will be a weakness and I realize that I do not mind. If I manage not to get killed, I will be forced to see all my family die of old age. Perhaps their children too. I need to enjoy the present moment while I can, and safeguard those memories. It feels important.
I also realize that I am in a position to look after Achille’s descendants. I am too weak to make a difference now, and the descendants in question are mostly yet to come. This is still something to consider in the future.
This is all making me out of sorts. I know what I need, a good Hunt.