Sinead plops on my comfortable mattress and extends his arms with a satisfied smile.
“That’s my bed!”
“And it saddens me to see it go to waste. Goose feathers, the best one can find in this sad plane.”
I massage the bridge of my nose between two fingers. I should have said no. It was folly to accept this wastrel into my perfectly controlled life. I just need to stay at the top for two more years then I can have justice. What came over me, to risk everything so?
Ah yes, the prison.
“I have so many questions.”
“Ah mortals, so full of those. Always wondering about everything, all the time…”
“And you are any different?”
“Of course,” the Likaean answers with a shiny smile, “what my kind cannot infer will not be answered freely anyway.”
“Yes, well, you will have to indulge this ex-mortal.”
“Of course! I will make some allowance on account of your young age poppet, ask away!”
There are many things I wonder, and one that concerns me greatly.
“Alright, the first and most urgent one. How did you find me?”
I catch the pillow thrown at my head and resist the urge to shred it.
“Oh no no no! Please! You do not receive enough sunlight to afford to be so dim! How could I not know where you are?!”
What, is he tracking me? Wait… Oh. My hand goes to my collar, under which my two keepsakes are hidden. The first is the promissory note to my father that I would outlive him. The promise may be fulfilled, but the emotion and meaning in that yellow piece of paper remain.
The second is my emergency dose of Likaean blood in an enchanted silver canister, granted by the most insufferable creature this side of reality.
“You can really track this little blood?”
“This is my most precious of essence we are talking about here, you commoner!”
“Most precious!? If my observations are correct, you have been spreading 'essence' around with utmost abandon!”
“Psh! Beautiful women should never be vulgar, poppet. It is beneath you.”
“You give me lessons even though you have the impudence of… of… oh, the audacity!”
“While beneath me, you will find dear Louisa Watson.”
“I am already bored, how can you blame me if I feel cranky, I ask? Why is there no proper liquor in your bedroom anyway?”
I take a deep breath. The familiar gesture calms me, just like the belief that my location is still secure.
“I am abstinent.”
Sinead’s eyes flash in amusement and for a moment they shine with a golden color that poets dream of.
“That you are, though not entirely. I can tell that you know how to have a bit of fun.”
If I could still blush, I would. I usually manage to keep a certain distance from my employees and their patrons. The mysterious aura works in my favor when I need to feed or to avoid unwanted attention and so far, I have not found someone that I would be willing to take to my bed. As Debbie would put it, the odds are good, but the goods are odd. Not so with Sinead. He somehow managed to get under my skin in only two days. I have lost my composure more times since he deposited that first envelope than during the past three years together.
“Your imagination is truly a wild and impetuous thing.”
“Is it?” he answers with a smug smile, then reveals a book I had on my night table from behind him, opens it at a random page and reads in a falsetto voice.
“Oh lord Alejandro, I can wait no longer. I beg thee, sheathe thyself…”
“GIVE IT BACK THIS INSTANT!”
The uncouth rogue does not resist as I grab my… ahem, relaxation book and put it back where it belongs. So embarrassing.
“Would it not be nice?”
I turn around to face him. He is just standing there, looking awfully suspicious by not doing anything.
“To have someone who knows you and appreciates you for who you truly are? Someone mature and skilled you could depend on?”
When did he get so close?
“Would it not be nice to finally let go in the arms of a man you could have loved?”
His perfume is tantalizing. Seeing him again makes me miss Loth, Isaac, Dalton… I am so alone here, surrounded at all times by employees and cattle but not friends. I cannot bring someone in my confidence here, for how could I? How could I share what worries me with a mortal without sending them screaming to the nearest church? And I cannot expect anything valuable from cattle whose sole purpose is to please me.
The mortals are at it downstairs, and in the city around, night after night. Being merry. Embracing each other. Whispering things about love. Making it. Sinead is insufferable, and I would not trust myself with him, but perhaps just a kiss? To see what it’s like after waiting so long? What would be the harm? I should have had a kiss from someone brilliant and fetching for so long. I deserve it. I deserve to have someone take care of me, for a change. Sinead is witty, elegant and experienced, and he could charm the undergarments off a nun. Probably did it too, at some point. Perhaps I should try it.
I lean forward and at the same moment, Sinead steps away.
“Alas, it cannot be me. Not as crippled as I am now anyway. I could not stand to be the weaker partner, and you could not resist the temptation.”
“You are such a tease!”
“Not so poppet, merely trying to help you. You are still too afraid. You need to be in control but when you are, you only stay where you feel safe. It would take an older vampire with might, a delicate touch and genuine feelings playing a balancing act to crack your shell from the outside. I am merely trying to help you get out of your egg by yourself.”
“You are the very soul of kindness.”
“Hold on… I had questions! How did we ever get so sidetracked!?”
“Apologies dearie. Ask away, and be quick about it. I need to sample the bar downstairs.”
“Not so fast. Second question, how come I cannot smell you or detect your aura?”
“Without giving away precious details, know that I have found a way to contain my munificence to match your dreary world. As for the aura, surely you know they can be controlled, yes?”
“Hum. I know they can expand or retract, to match our mood?”
“Pfeh! You speak as if knowing when the tide comes is the same as controlling the sea. Child, I am talking about aura control. Control!”
“But, yours has disappeared! It’s completely gone!”
Sinead gazes at me as if I were the village dullard.
“I am prince of the Likaeans Ariane, why would I have anything but perfect mastery over myself?”
“It did not prevent you from being captured…” I grumble.
“True! You have to understand, however, that the very concept of having to hide was new to me. Not everyone can match your ability to scurry around and survive against all odds, poppet.”
“I think there must have been a vague insult here somewhere.”
“Whatever do you mean? How can I not admire your tenacity? Your uncanny skill at avoiding the foot of the mighty stomping down on you?”
“I am not a cockroach! And stop trying to distract me. How did you ever come here? I thought you were in South America.”
“Loth sent me to central America poppet, however I did not stay here. I have conducted a discreet enquiry that led me here, to the order of Gabriel’s prison. I want your help dismantling it.”
“And in return?”
“Why, I shall grace your humble halls with my presence of course!”
Silence spreads in the room as I cross my arms in exasperation.
“I do believe I have been more than generous in any dealing I ever had with you Sinead. You are abusing my kindness.”
“And on top of that, I shall grant you favors, yes!”
Favors. Sinead has no money, no influence over those who matter to me. What he does have is knowledge, and for us, knowledge is priceless.
“How old are you anyway?”
“Oh my dear poppet, I am so glad to finally interest you as a person. Know that time flows erratically in the kingdoms. It should come as no surprise then, that I may not give you a satisfactory answer. Just know that compared to us, your civilization is in its infant stage, and I am using civilization in its broadest sense here.”
Sinead’s eyes shine like gold and his face twists with savagery. In an instant, the affable trickster melts away and I can see the Prince beneath. I remember the figure in my dream more than twenty years ago, with hair of fire and eyes of molten metal. With a wave of his hand, he had sent azure flames to engulf the shadows hounding me, vaporizing them in a single instant. I know in my soul that they are the same person. The balance of power between us now is a grotesque reversal of what it could be, no, what it would be, in his native reality. Unaware or uncaring, Sinead continues his speech.
“All of us caught here and used as batteries for your kind represent a library of Alexandria’s worth of knowledge. Some have written pieces of poetry so beautiful that lesser beings have lost their lives hearing it. Others, sculptures and visual works so mesmerizing that one can admire them for centuries without ever growing jaded. They could make statues cry and yet here their voices are silenced, and their fingers broken by the basest of greed. There are no words in your coarse language, no insult dire enough to give justice to this tragedy, Ariane of the Nirari.”
I am struck before the incandescent display and just as he is done, the moment passes. He is back to being just Sinead the witty and rakishly handsome socialite.
“But let us change topic. I fear I may be a tad sensitive over this particular issue, it relates to my utmost desire you see.”
“Your utmost desire? What is it?”
“Why, nothing less than the complete liberation of every Likaean on this plane and their safe return back to the kingdoms.”
I almost sputter at the enormity of it. Complete liberation? Poppycock.
“Do you have any idea…”
“I have excellent ideas poppet, about everything. And you shall play a role.”
The Likaeans are incredible assets for the clans who own them. To forcefully liberate them on a large scale would force a war between the conspirators and the whole of vampiredom. Loth estimates our number at a bit over two thousand in total. Even if only one in twenty is a lord, that still represents enough power to defeat any force on the planet. I saw what Lord Suarez could do. To stand against a hundred like him is folly. Pure insanity.
“You are mad Sinead. I should give up on you and drink you dry before another one does it.”
“You should, Devourer, and yet you will not.”
I glare at him with all the outrage I can muster.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“Oh I am sure, I would not have survived and stayed prince if I were not an excellent judge of character. You have a cruel and violent streak in you, but it is always tempered by a profound sense of justice and honor. Is it not?”
“I wouldn’t say that…”
“You did not punish your cattle in anger for allowing me entry, because they could do nothing and so were not at fault. Many vampires would have made an example. You did not break the spirit of the agreement between us to drink my blood while I was weak, yet you could have. You faced the Herald, though you did not have to, and you killed it.”
Sinead approaches. He moves gracefully, like a dancer, not a predator like me. I find myself staring up in his too large iris. He slowly lifts a finger up to my exposed collarbone and touches my bare skin. The contact is intimate yet restrained. Respectful.
“I choose you as my knight in this endeavor for it is what you are. You will help me because I will make it worth your while, but mostly you will help me because I will stand for what you believe in, the right to exist and to be free.”
He almost got me there.
“You have a grand vision Sinead but you seem to forget. We are not Prince and Knight. We are two fugitives in a box of wood painted gold at the back end of nowhere. There are hundreds of vampires who can snap my neck in an instant and they are the ones we would have to face.”
“Not if my plan succeeds, and for this, I need one of the prisoners we will liberate soon.”
“My fiancée, Princess Sivaya of the Court of Blue.”
Oh, great now there is another one.
“Hum Sinead, I am not exactly aware of Likaean courtship customs…”
“It is considered an excellent omen if the husband has already fathered several bastards with lesser beings. Twenty is best, though the standing record is at six hundred and forty-seven known offsprings.”
I have absolutely no idea what to do with this information.
“Oh but do not worry, I do not intend to break it. So… Was there anything else?”
“Yes! Stop trying to distract me. The prize for my assistance.”
“And what would you ask?”
I open my mouth to speak then stop. Sinead looks like a teacher with a predictable student. He expects me to ask something.
“You will teach me how to hide my aura like you do.”
“And you will help me practice Charm.”
“Naturally, I am sure we can make this the entertainment.”
“And last, you will… Go downstairs and do your thing.”
His eyes flash dangerously.
“What do you mean?”
“Be yourself, be pleasant to be around, and witty, and charismatic. We offer a good service. What we lack is… Cachet. Credence.”
“I see. You want my aura, so to speak. The figurative one.”
I nod. Sinead leans forward, the very image of amused contempt. I memorize that fantastic expression for later.
“Of course, poppet. I shall do this for you.”
“For how else could I keep myself entertained while we wait for the snow to thaw?”
Marquette, March 1832
The geraniums are blooming in pretty shades of pink and blue. I make my way from one pot to another, pouring a little bit of water each time.
I am surprised they survive at all. I have slain so many people I have lost count, animals fear me and I am barren. I almost expected my touch to wither plants, yet here they are, uncaring.
Pouring water is soothing, a task that was listed as a ‘ladylike activity’ by that book on good manners I read twenty years and a lifetime ago. Perhaps there is some truth to it. You can also throw the metal sprinkler at someone’s head in a pinch.
Once I am done, I step out and take the report that Margaret hands me. Some issues, mostly negotiating new contracts, have been solved by Sinead while others by their respective managers. I note in passing that Kitty banished a girl for theft. Harrington had to break the arm of patron and Sullivan made a fuss, but could not press the matter. Ah, something interesting. There is a suspicious group of men camping a few miles down the road who have been coming to town to buy supplies and inquire about some escaped criminal woman. They have a precise description. I’ll handle that one myself.
I walk down the stairs. Tonight, I wear a comfortable riding gown in royal blue as well as a scarf of the same color. John is waiting, as usual, at the bottom of the stairs. When he sees my attire, he greets me with his big, ugly smile.
“We go for a midnight stroll?”
That sounded suspiciously like something Sinead would say.
“Did my friend explain what it means?”
John thinks for a while, his face scrunching in concentration.
“Yes, we are going on a midnight stroll, later. First I need to talk to the odd ones. Have them wait by my workshop, alright?”
“Thy will is my command,” he says, standing as straight as a grenadier on review. He salutes then leave.
I shake my head in disbelief and enter the main room. It has changed a bit since last time. We used to have a large scene at the back, where performers would dance or sing. Sinead made it into an elite place, separate and above the rest. The shows are now under his direct purview.
I am genuinely impressed by the results.
I was expecting my regulars to complain but Sinead enchanted them all. He is simply magnetic, distributing jokes, praises and rebukes so that the room revolves around his presence. Every night he presides over the assembly like a king hosting a decadent feast. Men come to pay homage, drink a glass with him and leave feeling… Special. He flatters some before the girls, asks others about their troubles, pats a shoulder here, shakes a hand there. They adore him. They worship him. They would do everything for him. My employees love him too, he is just that smooth. I even caught Oscar smiling and that happened twice since I hired him eight years ago. Truly, the man is a miracle, one that extends to business. Since he arrived, our sales have increased by twenty percent and our offer is diversified with very advantageous contracts. I could not be more pleased. In theory.
I am slightly annoyed that he is so much better than me. I cannot even blame it on experience. Sinead is just a peerless socialite. He could sell rotgut to a moonshiner and they would thank him for it, then invite him to dinner. Then he would abscond with their wife.
I enter the saloon to see that festivities are in full swing. A passably drunk duet is playing something while the crowd laughs raucously. A few stairs lead me to where my friend holds court.
Couches and low seats are gathered around a coffee table. The man himself is relaxing comfortably with a woman in each arm, Janet and Hilda if memory serves. They look at me as if I caught them red-handed. I let Sinead sleep in my room since I do not use it anyway, and most assume we are lovers. I made it clear that I was not jealous but the two pretty faces in front of me are still worried. They are caught with the alpha male by the alpha female.
With a smile, I dismiss their concern and lean towards my friend.
“It’s time, let’s plan the operation tonight.”
“Sinead, stop trying to stare down my cleavage, it is unsightly.”
“Ah but I can feel the touch of frontier spirit in my heart, urging me to explore yet untouched territories.”
“Keep exploring and the next thing you shall feel in your heart will be my right hand. We have work to do.”
“Yes yes, lead the way poppet.”
Honestly, I thought he was in a hurry. After extricating himself from his comfortable seat, my guest holds my arm and we walk downstairs to the basement. It holds most of our storage space, the laundry room and my workshop. My secured chamber, where I slumber, is hidden below.
The workshop is at the back of a corridor of brick walls, behind a secured steel door that would give most bank robbers a stop. Five armed men and one woman are waiting for us in silence.
I unlock the door and let everyone into my sanctum.
When I left Georgia, I only had clothes on my back. Several generous ‘donations’ from travellers and bandits gave me what I needed to get by, and when I reached Marquette I settled down and contacted the consortium. To my surprise, Loth had left me most of his crafting tools, with a letter arguing that he “could get much better stuff back home”. Lies, of course. He just used his usual gruff way of helping me and trying to make it seem like I am the one doing him a service. Besides that, there are also my weapons, my spare battle apparel, painting tools and other raw materials. They have all found their place here.
The room is a long rectangle taking half a wing with three exits, the one at our back, a trap door leading outside and a secret passage to my real ‘bedroom’ which houses the secured sarcophagus. The walls are of dark bricks with alcoves set at regular intervals. Support pillars dot the surface, against which I have placed lanterns. A large central table surrounded by wooden chairs occupies its center. On it, maps in yellow paper display the town and general area, with pins showing the most recently formed hamlets.
The newcomers look left and right at working benches occupied with current projects, the well ordered tools and the weapons rack. Especially the weapons rack.
Sinead whistles as he follows the shaft of my modified boar spear with a light touch. His gaze rests on the engravings on the blade, then on the smithy in the corner, then back to me.
“A woman of many talents,” he adds with a smirk.
The rest of the group sits heavily in their chairs. They are people of few words, just the way I like it.
The odd squad is composed of two Creek brothers, two escaped slaves, an old mute and a large woman with graying hair and a cruel streak a mile wide. They are the ones I call upon for all the discrete work that some may find unsavory. I can count on their discretion, not least because they do not have an ounce of credibility between themselves. I will admit that they are also a disciplined group and the old loner is a crack shot. Seeing as we will go after dedicated monster killers who have a tendency to bless everything around them, I figure that the time is right to recruit mundane helpers.
“Let us start. Sinead, can you tell us where the prison is and what we will be up against?”
“Well, I don’t know where it is exactly.”
He lifts a hand to hold my protests.
“I extracted all the information I possess by interrogating a member of the order. I never saw the compound itself, but I know how to get there and what we will find.”
He points at the area map towards Marquette’s North West.
“Two days travel from here, there is a small depression in the middle of a vast plain where our destination lies. The approach is completely devoid of cover, and under constant surveillance by teams of sentries with fanatical devotion to the order. Only the most steadfast of them are handpicked to guard it. I will mask our approach until we can close the distance and neutralize the watchers. Then we need to liberate the prisoners, destroy the facility and exterminate the staff to the last man. We can leave no witness, or we may attract more attention than we can afford.”
“Tell us about the facility itself.”
“There are four dug emplacements from where sentries look out situated at each corner, then there are four buildings of reinforced stone. One is the barracks, one is the processing building, there is also a warehouse and finally, the prison itself. The captives are all below-ground.”
“We will need to liberate the captives first, lest they are all slain by their jailors as soon as an attack starts.”
“Absolutely. There is a possibility that you may not physically enter the place, Ariane.”
The squad knows I am not fully human. Most of them probably assume I am some sort of witch.
“Here is what I propose. As soon as we are close enough, we eliminate the sentries silently. Then, one group goes down to neutralize the prison while the other places charges on the barracks. As soon as the target is rescued, we detonate the explosives and kill everything. Would that work?”
Shrugs and vague nods are the answers I get. The plan has the merit of being simple.
“I will provide the explosives. Ah, hum, while we are on the topic of setting things ablaze, do you know if they keep pigs around?”
Sinead lifts an eyebrow.
“I do not think so, it would go against their desires to stay hidden. Discretion is their best defense, and is quite hard to achieve when you have swine squealing in the wind. Why?”
Tom, one of the two black men, passes a hand through his large white beard before commenting.
“We need something to carry the prisoners, in case they can’t walk.”
“Good thinking. We will need a cart. Anything else?”
“How many of those folks are we supposed to kill?” adds Laura, the woman.
“Who are they?” asks one of the Creeks.
Silence descends on the table. I am not in the habit of being questioned by subordinates. This time, their concerns are warranted and I decide to answer.
“The order of Gabriel is a collection of religious fanatics dedicated to removing impurities from the world. The list of unacceptable people includes, but is not limited to, monsters, witches, shamans, heretics, loan givers, people who work on Sunday, Muslims, Jews, women who don’t know their place, idol worshippers, people who frequent brothels, girls who work there, drunkards, philosophers, artists who create indecent work, Arabs, the Chinese, people who eat meat during Easter…”
“Hold on,” adds Tom, “Just tell us who they tolerate. Reckon that’d be faster.”
“Themselves and those who live according to their version of the scriptures. And orthodox Christians.”
“No, they burn orthodox Christians as heretics.”
“Well… Alright I guess.”
“Good. We leave tomorrow just after sunset. Prepare supplies for five days, just in case, and your arms. Sinead I’ll give you something. I’ll also have a carriage ready and I’m taking care of the bombs. Dismissed.”
Two hours later, Marquette’s outskirts.
Midnight. Flat plains have a way to make the sky feel endless and for once, the sky is empty. The moon, the stars, and the Watcher dispense their diffuse lights to late travellers and thieves alike. Some inbred cretins raised a camp in the middle of a thicket by the road, a miserable affair made of three tents in a circle. A few men gather in silence around a blazing campfire in a futile attempt to fend off the chill of the night. Winter has not released its hold on Illinois yet, and their breath coalesces in little clouds before being dispersed by the biting wind.
Metis’ arrival silences their conversation. Fearful eyes glance up, and up, to the rider on top. Me.
“Bad time to be camping outside, is it not? The weather is inclement at this time of the year.”
“Who are you? What do you want?” asks one of them in the back.
“Excellent questions. You may call me Miss Lethe, and can you guess what I do? Hm?”
I do not expect an answer. They are taken off guard and probably need a moment to regroup. Those are farmhands dressed in mismatched layers of undyed wool. They stink. The only exception is a young man in a slightly better outfit sporting a bowler hat of all things. He is the one who questioned me.
“I am the proprietor of the Dream, finest bordello this side of the Lake Michigan. And you know how I recruit my girls? Can you take a guess?”
The farmhands all turn to the young man who is quite clearly the ringleader. He is still reeling from the surprise and the massive dark horse facing him is not easily discounted.
“I’ll tell you. The truth is, you will not find a child who, growing up, wants to become a whore. Those who come to me are desperate or starving, or on the run. Sometimes all three at the same time. Quite a few are already with child when I take them under my wings.”
Metis takes another step forward. She snorts and glares at one of the men, who swallows nervously.
“The stories are tragically repetitive. This one was beaten so badly by her brute of a husband that he broke her ribs. That one was raped by her uncle, or her father, or her older brother. This one was shunned by the community and forced to sell herself for stale bread or starve. Or sold by her family to some old swine. And so on, and so forth. It is a story as old as time, really.
“They come to the big city with sallow cheeks and the eyes of cornered animals, begging for scraps of food. Then I pick them up. I feed them and fix them. I turn them into… productive members of Society, shall we say.”
Metis stops mere fingers away from the fire. The dancing flames make her red eyes glint like a beacon in the darkness.
“What… What is this about?” asks the head clown.
“This is about you. Most of the time, my girls are broken goods and nobody wants them. Sometimes though, their relatives or spouses are incensed by the loss of their favourite piece of meat. And so here they come, snooping around like the world’s clumsiest sneaks. Soon we learn that our fair city is plagued by poisoners, thieves and debt dodgers that need to be returned to their owners for the sake of justice. You see where the problem lies, yes?”
“Annabel belongs with her family!”
“I don’t care about you, or your family. You can all go to hell. Annabel is mine now. Take your bumbling gaggle of imbeciles and go back to the filthy mudhole you crawled out of before I bury you all.”
“You have no right to order me around you glorified strumpet!”
“Look around you.”
Harrigan and a dozen of my lackeys come out of the shadows with muskets in evidence and the promise of violence on their loutish faces. The outsiders bunch up like sheep surrounded by wolves. They know how this will end.
“You may believe judges or religion will support your cause, and it will change nothing. I have the only right that matters. Power. When my men are done with you, you will lick your wounds and leave with your tails between your legs like the mongrels you are, or the next time I come, I will bring a shovel. Good night.”
I turn Metis around as the first sounds of wood hitting flesh reach me. Music to my ears.