September 4th 1833, Marquette.
I awake in the darkness. As usual.
I slide the sarcophagus’ lid open and make a note to oil the hinges. The blasted thing already looks too much like a coffin, no need to have it creak ominously.
The secured room I am in is bare, except for a survival bag, a dagger, and a single lantern. I light it and let its yellow glare shed light on the bricks around me. This is my haven. It only has two exits. One of them leads to a side street and cannot be opened from the outside, while the other leads to my bedroom’s hearth back inside the Dream via a small vertical shaft. I follow it and unlock the passage, checking for heartbeats. I detect no mortal though Nami’s polite aura warns me of her presence.
My bedroom is almost cluttered with prizes and mementos now, so much that I had to send a few paintings to storage. I have portraits of Sinead and his bride hidden away for safety reasons, as well as a few sketches of the Queen I made from memory. I wouldn’t want anybody to see those. Portraits of others are displayed openly, and in the center is a special gift for Loth which I will finish soon. Nami already picked her favorite rendition of herself, a nude unsurprisingly. She is beautiful in a lithe and dangerous way, and painting her would have been a real pleasure if it were not for her constant teasing.
The muse herself is currently looking out to the many roofs of Marquette. She wears a simple white shift that leaves her shoulder bare. The muscles there and on her back are toned and give her a fierce touch, like those Amazons I read about. Tonight, she is in an unusually contemplative mood and I join her in silence. She smells of vampire and fresh sex and I notice that her hair is mussed. Ah.
“I will leave tonight.”
I nod in silence, marking my understanding. She is a wanderer at heart, and I am even surprised that she stayed here for so long.
“You know, you are an unexpectedly competent city master. We Ekon have difficulties living in towns we do not control. The masters there usually require a degree of reliability that we are not always willing to provide. It is in our nature to come and go where the wind will lead us, not to sign contracts for years of service against a fixed compensation. You were kind to let me travel when I asked for it. Such leeway is rarely granted.”
“I see us more as friends and you as my guest, as you know. It was a pleasure to have you and I hope our paths meet again.”
“It will, I am sure of it. Please make sure you do not die, yes?”
“I promise to do my very best.”
She hugs me and I awkwardly pat her back. I am not very tactile to start with, not anymore, and the feeling of her erect nipples against my own chest is a bit, well, too intimate.
We exchange a few more sentences, mostly me making sure that she has everything she needs before she leaves. There are no emotional farewells like when I left Loth behind. We do not have that kind of relationship.
After I see her off from the dream’s inner court with John by my side, one of the girls comes to me with a message, a terse note by Merritt’s hand requiring my presence at the living quarters. On my way there, I come across a detachment of the Home Guard back from practice.
The Home Guard is one of my ideas though perhaps not one of the best. Following the Black Hawk war, increasing concern over security has led a group of local women to form a defense committee with the explicit purpose of arming and training themselves. It was made clear that they would never form an actual militia or be deployed, but only be able to defend themselves against roving bands of marauders, hence the name Home Guard. The initiative was mostly ridiculed by Marquette’s gentry and male citizenry until they called for my support. I knew that getting approval from the local council would be a near-impossible task, so I just purchased even more arms from the East and organized the whole thing in a discreet and efficient manner. There were only two dozen of them, and I was glad to share my love of ballistics. What was the harm?
That was a mistake.
After the first few training sessions, the local female gentry marched to the field and lodged a formal complaint about the trainees’ behavior, mentioning it was not ‘proper’ and that any sort of warfare was under the dominion of men. The wives of Marquette’s mining population came to show their support of the Guard and shared with the intruders their opinion of ‘propriety’ and in which exact part of their anatomy the malcontents could shove it. Followed a proper exchange of imprecations and threats that culminated with the intervention of old Marta Hartford, the spouse of a local caravan lead. An otherwise calm and composed woman, she had apparently had enough and unleashed the full might of her expansive insult arsenal. After a good ten minutes and a maelstrom of curses questioning the interrupting party’s beauty, wit, general hygiene, intimate hygiene, sexual preferences, weight, height, ancestry, eating habits, marital status and even species, the poor newcomers had left red-eared and mortified.
I noticed that the male population had wisely decided to lay low until the whole thing blew over, proof that frontiersmen’s survival instincts are top-notch and their down to earth wisdom, unequalled.
By that time, it was too late to withdraw my support as the issue had crystallized passions. This initiative undid hours of networking effort by Merritt with our more uptight citizens, and she still mentions it three months later. I don’t believe those old goats would have been of use to us anyway. Who in their right mind would refuse to fire a musket? It is such a relaxing occupation.
As for the Home Guard itself, their ranks have swelled to a hundred and they are quite motivated. They have become fairly accurate with practice, with most sessions ending in improvised tea parties where they mingle and gossip despite their differences in social status.
It’s not so bad, really.
I only wish Sybil Stenton would stop cackling every time she hits the target’s genitals. It is slightly disturbing. Especially because she is such a crack shot.
I leave the patrol behind and decide that since I am departing so soon, any major blunder I make now should only be seen as an experiment. They are not even that major anyway.
Soon, I reach the mansion used as living quarters for part of my employees. With a recent increase in business, I also used some of the lands next to the “coloured” quarter to expand. As a result, the place is much less crowded and only a few families now occupy it.
I get in through the main entrance and into the common room. Irma the housekeeper rears her ugly head through the kitchen door but recognizing me, nods soberly and returns to her business, which should be meat pies if my nose is any indicator. I climb up the step to the master bedroom and politely knock. A red-haired hurricane blows through and out, leaving me with a pile of documents, pamphlets and a childish drawing of what I assume is a cow.
“Gottagokeepaneyeonthekidsthanks!” it proclaims in passing.
I feel like life is moving on and leaving me behind. Is this what older vampires experience? I shake my head and walk in to see Ollie scrubbing spilt green paint from the floor with his shirt while Lynn is crying hysterically in a corner, holding a drawing covered in, incidentally, green paint. The culprit, an emptied pot of respectable size, has rolled under their bed leaving its blood all over the wooden floor.
I did not sign up for this. I signed up for mastery over mortal hordes, overseeing my numerous minions from atop a throne with the skulls of my enemies on the side and a handsome, virile man with a Claymore beheading those who disrespect me and don’t cover their nose when they sneeze. The man would be half-naked too. Playing nanny was not part of the deal, at any point.
Maybe I should just impress them? I hiss softly.
“Aunt Ari, I spilt the paint…” says Ollie on the edge of tears as soon as he lifts his eyes.
I sigh and consider just jumping out the window and running very fast.
“I see that Ollie, it’s not too bad. First, we’ll get you and your sister cleaned up then we will see about the room. Yes? John, tell Irma we have an emergency, please. Now, where is the bathroom? Go wash while I comfort your sister.”
Five minutes later, I ambush my supposed ally as she sneaks back in from the garden entrance.
“Alexandria Winston Pyke-Merritt.”
The mage winces visibly under the ominous declamation of her full name. I step from the shadows and cross my arms. Her answer is rushed and just a bit panicky.
“So sorry Ariane, I really had no choice. The warehouse was about to close, and I had to get that shipment of beer…”
“And the fact that your bedroom was looking like a warzone, screaming victims included was just a coincidence hmm?”
“Sooorry. Hrm, did Irma say anything?”
“She expects you in the kitchen.”
Another wince. Irma can indeed give an earful and under her roof, she is the queen. Merritt resolves herself to her fate, but not before delivering a parting shot.
“Oh, nothing new except for one thing. Mr Pruitt is retiring from the tannery business and he wanted you to meet his son. I told him you would be over there tonight.”
Ah, the treacherous knave. I grab her metaphorical arrow before it can bury itself too deep in my bosom and return it, plus interests.
“I will go then, oh, by the way, Lynn asked me for a trumpet for her twelfth birthday and I promised her one if she behaved. I will have it delivered before the end of the month.”
I turn away and leave, hiding my smirk as a desperate voice falls on my uncaring ears.
“A trumpet? Ariane? That was a joke, right? Ariane? I’m sorry! Waaaaait!”
Serves her right.
I walk to the tannery slowly, because I want to reflect and not at all because the entire workshop and its vicinity smells like a skunk mated with a three days dead Wendigo’s armpit. Even if I do not breathe, the insidious stench worms its way through my delicate nostrils and my vampire senses carry it in all its pungent glory to my unwilling mind. I need a distraction and the redhead was kind enough to provide one.
When Merritt first came here, she was like a cornered animal and her kids were not much better. Now, she seems much happier. She recently finished teaching tools for when Ollie and Lynn come of age and gain the ability to cast. I feel like she has finally settled.
I remember her saying that vampire-held towns were black holes where to stay after dark was to invite death, or worse. I would wager that her opinion has changed now that she is confident enough to leave her children with me. I wonder how others do it. Do Masks typically let citizens know of their existence? Do the members of Eneru rule like immortal aristocrats? I want to know, and soon, I will.
Earlier than I hoped, the tannery comes into scent and view. At the outskirts of town and downwind, the small building houses one of Marquette’s less developed, yet still vital industries. I walk into the main building and weave my way through the hanging skins and workstations to the back of the warehouse, where cured leather is stored to be later used in boots, tacks and machinery belts. Goodman Pruitt is bent over a desk, poring over a document while a young man with large droopy eyes stands at attention by his side.
It takes a few taps on the old codger’s shoulder from his assistant before he realizes he has a guest. He invites me in, and offers me tea and a conversation.
Pruitt is a respectable mortal. He started from nothing and made his fortune through hard work and dedication. He also never even entered the Dream and is still happily married. He apparently decided to retire and to leave his business to his eldest son. The purpose of the meeting is for the two of us to become acquainted. I am the tannery’s second most important customer after the mine consortium, having purchased quite a few cobbler shops where retired girls can find a source of income. It is just one more social call that is a vital part of any business where trust is of utmost importance, and so I carry out my duty with a smile. Staying in touch with mortals is important, they keep us grounded. After half an hour of getting to know each other, I wish the son and his old man their best and invite them to drink at my place sometime, an offer they decline with a blush. Then, I take my leave.
I head back to the Dream to take part in our next order of business. Someone came up with the idea of a poker tournament and I approved of it. I already allocated funds for the event but the finer points of organization and security are still to be determined. As I enter through the back door, one of the younger kitchen helpers runs to me to deliver a message. The envelope is thick and heavy, and closed with a wax seal bearing the rune of the Rosenthal.
I knew this would come within the next few days, but I did not dare hope. With what happened last time I tried to reenter vampire society, I was half expecting a last-minute hitch to my plan. Not this time apparently.
I have done it.
This is all so anticlimactic.
I go back to my office and close the door behind me, leaving John outside.
This is an important moment.
Inside the letter, I find a note and a heavy parchment filled in Akkad, with three magical signatures at the bottom. I unfold it and read with trepidation.
Ariane of the Nirari,
By the present letter, we, the Rosenthal representative for North America, recognize that you have ruled over Marquette, Illinois, for a period of twenty years. As such, you are recognized as City Master under the Accords with all the responsibilities and privileges thereof.
We wish you all the best in your future endeavours.
I close the parchment and take a deep breath.
That’s it, I did it. Under the Accords, no City Master can be considered a rogue and summarily executed. They have to be judged. Constantine may have sold me out for some reason but now he will have to acknowledge that I am not insane or break his own laws, which would spell his end as a ruler. I need but to signal the knights, in this case, Jimena because I am not stupid, and head directly to Boston for trial.
I find a protective tube I use to store my paintings and secure the certificate. It is not that vital anyway. The document can be produced again, even if it were lost. The only thing I need to make sure now is to survive.
I take the small note and read it. This one is in English.
My name is Sorrel and I am a mage in the employ of your allies. One of your acquaintances requested to speak to you by sending. Will you allow me on your territory?
I will be awaiting your answer by Marquette’s North entrance.
Interesting. I open the door and have Margie send a runner. Twenty minutes later, a knock on the door announces the arrival of the messenger.
Sorrel is a stately man in an expensive travel duster. He has a dark beard and deep-set eyes that take everything in the room as he enters. After Margie closes the door behind him, he bows smartly and loses no time.
“Milady, Salim of the Rosenthal requests an interview by sending. If it pleases you, I will call him now so that you may converse.”
“Greeting mister Sorrel. Yes, that is agreeable. Do you need anything?”
“No Milady,” he replies and grabs a leather bag by his side to retrieve a crystal orb with an intriguing aura.
The mage focuses and chants in a low voice. I feel a thread going from him to the artefact and then from the artefact to… somewhere. After a moment, smoke swirls in the recess of the sphere before parting to show me a nose.
I raise a questioning brow.
The nose retreats and I see that it is attached to a young man with caramel skin. He is clean-shaven with soft traits and large brown eyes. His face is crowned by curly brown hair in a small halo, that makes him look more like an artist than an accountant despite his sober attire.
“Is this thing working? Hello?”
Sorrel’s jaw locks fractionally as I hide my amusement.
“Yes, it is working. Am I addressing Salim of the Rosenthal?”
“Ah! Indeed, and you must be Ariane of the Nirari? It is an honor madam; I have heard so much about you!”
He… is younger than me.
This is not just his candidness. His gestures lack the grace and precision that comes with age for us. They feel a bit jerky to my experienced eyes. I realize that this is my first time meeting a younger vampire, though hopefully not the last. I feel strange. I always was the clueless newcomer and now, a youngling has heard of my prowess.
I feel flattered. I think I like it.
“Only good things, I hope?”
“Ah, yes of course! Is it true that you destroyed an entire compound of cultists by using swines set ablaze? Such tactics were recorded by Pliny the Elder as used against Carthage’s elephants, of course, but I never heard of any modern use! Quite an achievement.”
“Yes, haha, quite.”
Next time I see Isaac I’m releasing a boar family and a barrelful of firecrackers in his bedroom.
“But enough of this. I dispatched Monsieur Sorrel because of troubling rumors, rumors which I have since then confirmed. A man by the name of Sullivan has been making waves in Chicago and a fairly accurate description of your person has been shared by several intelligence organizations. As we speak, that Sullivan fellow has gathered a small army with the backing of a group we have not identified yet, and they are on their way South to, and I quote, purge Marquette of its devilish influence.”
I should have killed him when I had a chance. I have been too cautious and must now pay the price for my lack of foresight. Oh well, live and learn.
“We are pleased to offer you an escort to Boston that will safely deliver you in front of Constantine, before this army arrives.”
“Out of the question.”
Salim smiles lightly and his entire demeanor becomes lighter. What a change from the usual vampire’s guarded expression.
“Isaac said you would answer that. He says that he took the liberty of contacting Jimena to ‘arrest’ you just in case Anatole twists the rules even more than he already has. She is on her way. She will be in touch as soon as your town is deemed safe.”
“I appreciate it.”
He bows respectfully.
“You are most welcome, Ariane of the Nirari. I must ask though, is it wise to face that danger by yourself? This army is made out of roving bands of mercenaries and pardoned outlaws but surely, even this is too much.”
“Don’t worry, I was expecting something of the sort.”
“I was, and if they had not come, why,” I add with fangs displayed, “I believe I would have been disappointed.”