The dining room. Achilles is trying to look serious with his freshly grown adolescent beard. Papa’s eyes are full of mirth and my aunt Catherine’s are full of pride. Her husband Roger smiles peacefully as he eyes the cake with a hint of gluttony. It is so big and white and red! Covered in strawberries!
“Go on mon ange, blow the candles.”
I take a deep breath in and blow. So many little lights I need to extinguish. It takes a long time for every last one of them to die down but soon, I am finally done. Time to get a slice!
I stab and look up through the darkness. A desiccated man stares back with blind eyes set deep into his skull. Only parchment-like yellowed skin clings to it, not even a tuft of hair remains on his ancient scalp.
“Took you long enough…”
The mummified corpse falls on the rotten table with nary a sound, joining the others there. I drop the knife. It stays upright, dug deeply into a woman’s sternum. She has blonde hair and a face I know all too well. Deep tear tracks mark her cheeks. Her warm blood rolls on the table and drips on my lap.
The corpses are sitting back up and they applaud, but I can only hear one person clapping.
The scene disappears like sand in the wind, and we stand at the edge of my mental fortress.
My sire looks like a prince gone slumming. He wears a dark suit and white shirt with the top buttons opened. His dark curls hang loosely, making him almost relaxed. His smile is just on the edge of cynical with still a hint of pride.
“I wanted to be the first to congratulate you on joining the ranks of Masters. I hope you will indulge me and forgive my interruption of… whatever this was. It is, after all, the last time I can freely visit.”
“What do you want?” I growl.
“No need to be adversarial, Princess of the blood. As I said, I am only here to salute a great accomplishment. At first, you were only an amusement, and now you have grown into a true princess. You have achieved much in a relatively short amount of time and more importantly, you have done so in a pleasing way. Your enemies crushed, you allies loyal, and your debts fulfilled. You are worthy of being my scion.”
“You do realize that your compliments mean little to me. You played no part in my success, if anything, I thrived despite you.”
“Yes, as you should. Devourers are self-made, at least the three of you that still survive. We survivors are few, but we are quite formidable. I will leave you now. You can expect your coming of age gift within a month. Do try not to die.”
He steps back and disappears. The thorny roots which had started to slither towards him pull back like disappointed cats. He said it was the last time he could come here freely. That means from now on the fortress is entirely MINE. Anybody who DARES disturb me will—
With a step, I reach the border and the thick walls of sharp branches slide aside to reveal a parading figure in lean armor made of the white and blue of a summer sky. He struts in like a diva in an art gallery, annoyingly tall and annoyingly shiny. The Likaean prince lazily fixes his golden hair with an artist’s hand. The grass shimmers beneath his feet and takes on a different quality.
“Well done, poppet, well done indeed! I am so delighted with your progress! A few more decades and you will be more than marginally useful!”
“Sinead! What are you doing here?”
Before he can reply, another form joins him. Sivaya is radiant in her Likaean form. In shades of pearl white and ocean blue, she is beautiful and subdued. Her face is even more elfin and ethereal, almost too alien. When she moves, her steps are so light that not a blade of grass is disturbed, and only the barest hints of movements are revealed by her azure flowing robes. I address her immediately.
“Lady Sivaya, thank you for your gift. It was… unexpected.”
There is a long pause when both Sinead and I wait to see if she will reply. Eventually, she averts her head in a gesture that changes her entire demeanour from gracefully distant to plain bashful. Her voice has an ethereal quality as if heard through some echoing cave.
“You are welcome, vampire.”
Then she turns around and leaves. Sinead watches her as she disappears, looking thoughtful. Then he turns back and offers me another dazzling smile.
“So, you have broken your chains! You are your own woman, vampire, whatever. Think what lofty heights we will reach together! Can you join us now, or are you busy?”
“There is the small issue of the kill-on-sight order on my head and one of the most powerful clans on the planet trying to enslave me…”
“Pffft! Trifling matters. Wait until you have to unweave three plots against your life every month, then things get interesting.”
“That Court of yours sounds like a real treasure. Why, I believe I would have chosen exile voluntarily.”
“And thus you show your naivete poppet. The weak and unaligned are always taken care of, lest they become problematic later. But enough, I have not come to dispense lessons but to see whether or not you had squandered our gift. So, tell me, what did you use it for beside finally cutting the eldritch umbilical cord?”
“I killed an enforcer sent after me by a rival clan.”
“Only one? Disappointing.”
“Hey! Do it then you can criticize. Hrm. If I had known consuming your blood would allow me to go over the edge…”
“Tut-tut poppet, I will hear no recriminations or ifs, especially because you had ample opportunities to taste my fluids and didn’t.”
“I will wait for a month or so then make contact again. No sunbathing while I’m gone! Ta-ta.”
The tall armoured figure saunters away, leaving behind imprints of vivid green that do not fade. I stare at the wall for a moment and realize that my supposed fortress has seen more use as a receiving room than an actual bloody keep. Should I try to think up a nice gazebo, where we would all come and sit for tea? I am speechless.
With one last sigh, I decide to return to my bedroom. I miss Papa and Dalton tonight. I will look at their copied portraits and reminisce for a while. It will do me good.
I wake up in my bed and stare in alarm. Something is wrong.
A crimson ray pierces through the room’s heavy curtains and basks a spot in the wall in an ominous light. It is death, death and agony. Terror grips my heart and I stand up to flee.
Or at least, I try to.
I feel so weak. My limbs are heavy and my attempted jump turns into a tumble. I slip from the bed and crash awkwardly on the floor. I feel feverish and weakened. With a supreme effort, I manage to climb back up to my feet and stare back.
The ray is still here, slowly travelling up.
Dread seizes me and constricts my chest. All my instincts scream of danger. I walk slowly to the fireplace and press a button on the side. The secret passage to my safe room opens quietly.
I do not take it.
Something strange is going on. I need to understand. These instincts I feel are most queer and this ray of supposed doom is quite meek for a deathly threat.
I watch and resist the urge to cower. It slides up and up, then disappears, and with it, my weakness. In one instant, I go from feverish and weak to perfectly alert, as usual. Understanding makes me widen my eyes.
I saw sunshine. I was awake before dusk! I truly am a Master! This was not an hallucination. Then…
I close my eyes and relax. I feel it within myself. My essence. It is centred in my chest and expands outwards in veins and networks to my extremities. The channels are thin for now but they should grow, in time.
I try to hide my aura like Nami showed me, and though my control is already smoother, I have more difficulties. My aura flares and drops randomly. I am not too worried. I remember Isaac mentioning something similar. It will take at least a week before everything settles back to normal.
And now, for the moment of truth.
“Lord Nirari is a twit.”
I wait with bated breath which isn’t too surprising considering I do not breathe to begin with.
“Lord Nirari is a twit, a twit I say! Hehehe! Twit! Hahahaha!”
I can badmouth him! I can say bad things and I. Don’t. Care. This is fantastic!
“He is a twit and he smells bad! And he has poor taste in clothes!”
Those are lies. I am merely testing the limits of my newfound freedom.
“He can go and greet the sun! Hahahaha! Eeep!”
I jump in surprise when somebody knocks on the door.
“Ahem. Come in.”
Merritt’s tired face greets me. She stares at me with no small level of annoyance.
“Are you having fun?”
“I have no idea what you may be referring to.”
She rolls her eyes, something that Ollie has been doing a lot recently and that I associate in her with exhaustion. I got it easy, going to bed. She must have spent a lot of energy handling the aftermath of yesterday’s events.
“So, how are things?” I ask lightly.
“A lot happened while you were having your beauty sleep. Wallace’s men went after the stragglers for most of the day and made sure they couldn’t regroup. They think we’re safe now, especially with Sullivan dead. Most of the bodies have been cleared and there will be a service on Sunday for our own. We lost thirty-seven people all included and probably another four more before tonight. The rest should recover though we still have more than fifty wounded. The Home Guard lost six, including Penelope. Annabelle got two fingers shot off. Harrigan says your security lost three but many are wounded. The citizens lost seven, including Mr. Schrodinger. He died covering his wife’s retreat.”
I wince. I care so little for mortal lives, usually, that it feels strange when I do.
Merritt is not done.
“The militia found more than a thousand dollars in gold in their command tent. The council had an emergency meeting and decided that they would be used to repair the town and compensate the families of the victims. Marquette is still a mess and the barricades mostly stand. I expect it will take three days for things to return to normal.”
Merritt shows signs that she has something else on her mind, so I wait. She seems rebellious for some reason.
“Where did you disappear to? I was looking for you the whole night.”
“I killed the vampire attacking us in single combat then I collapsed.”
All her built-up aggression melts in an instant.
“I’m sorry, I had no idea. It must have been hard.”
I remember scraping the wall behind me to climb back up, covered in wounds and with a broken nose.
“Yes. Yes, it was.”
“Yeah, sorry. And uh, thanks. So, I got to ask… are you leaving?”
Ah, so that is how it is.
“We have already discussed it. I am leaving, this very night.”
“Could you not wait until everything is settled?”
“Knights are going to come looking for me sooner rather than later. I have to go, Merritt, we already had this discussion.”
“Well… I guess!”
And for one moment, she is the young mage I met fighting Ascendency. Despite all her experience, Merritt is still the same emotive woman who had stood up and faced a knight squad by my side, three days after meeting me.
“I will miss you too.”
“What?” she sputters, “Hmm, yes I mean. Arg! Let’s just go downstairs. There is still something I need you to solve.”
I nod and before leaving, grab the backpack I prepared. Everything else is already prepared for shipping.
The Dream is mostly silent, which surprises me. Battle has a way to make people seek the purest expression of life and little says life like mindless sex. I make my way down to the workshop where only Merritt’s family’s belongings remain.
She is standing next to an anvil. I am surprised to see that the heavy piece is splintered in its middle.
“What is this?”
She wordlessly points down and I walk around the smithing implement to see what caused it to break in such a way.
That would be the head of my spear. It’s still intact too! Sivaya does good work.
“Would you mind removing it? Teams of men tried and failed, and Mr. Sully wants it back.”
“Not at all.”
I brace against the solid piece of iron and pull the blade out with a shriek of tortured metal. I inspect the tip. It doesn’t look damaged. I’m impressed!
Merritt shakes her head and whispers “Vampires…” under her breath. I chuckle and she leads me back up, towards the main room.
As she opens it, I hear a plethora of heartbeats and soon it is too late to flee.
This is where the revellers were waiting. A legion of people lines the room wall to wall. They remain silent until I step in. Even the mayor is here.
He applauds first, then everyone joins him to create a thundering clamour that shakes the building.
I am… I feel… strangely emotional.
Somebody hugs me, one of the girls who had joined the Home Guard.
Before she can release me, another joins her, then another. Meanwhile, drinks and food are distributed around as person after person wishes me goodbye.
I was planning to leave unnoticed. One could argue that Sullivan came here because of me, that the army attacked us because I was there.
On the other hand, I did a lot for this city and I stayed when it mattered. I followed the spirit of Eneru, to rule justly. This is the conclusion of twenty years of reign.
I feel decidedly strange, and it is not because of my flaring aura.
I feel sad.
I am leaving Marquette for good. For the past three years, this moment could not come any faster. Only now, at the moment of my departure, do I realize all the good things I will have to leave behind, and the best thing of all is the people. How I loved to hate them. Those frontier men and women. Stubborn and filled with superstitions, judgmental and temperamental they are, but under that, there was a kind and courageous heart. They came through when it mattered the most, when others would have panicked and fled. I make my way through the crowd and greet Oscar, my bartender, Solomon the rescue, the Creek brothers and the other members of the odd squad, Kitty and the girls, Irma and some of the families. Regulars who come every week and citizens who never stepped in here before, all come and pay their homage. Little by little I start to accumulate gifts as well. Harrigan leaves me one of his lucky knives, which has a bat skull as a pommel. Ollie and Lynn give me adorable drawings of me beating the ever-loving hell out of wolves and the judge. They even drew the fangs. I get trinkets, carvings and enough cutlery and tankards to start another inn. All of it goes into a giant coffer that I will have to ship as well.
It takes me a solid two hours to run out of faces to greet. By then, each farewell is made longer by my interlocutor’s advanced state of inebriety, and I have to extricate myself from more passionate declarations than I had to face in the past five years combined.
I step outside to face the hardest farewell yet. I cannot bring anyone with me as I will technically be in “custody”, and every aspect of my travel, including nourishment and security, will be in the hands of the Knight.
The giant’s eyes widen completely and the bow of his horrendous mouth curves upward until….
His bawling sounds like a group of men blowing a pierced hornpipe. Before I can try to comfort him, he lifts me in his arms.
Ow, there goes my spine. That would have killed a mortal for sure…
I awkwardly pat his shoulder while he turns the front of my dress into his personal handkerchief.
“Don’t worry, we will meet again. This is just goodbye.”
It takes a long time before he lets go and when he does, he looks lost. I recognize in me an emotion that I almost never feel while awake. Guilt. The cattle will be sent to Charleston as part of another agreement but John is different. He is not cattle, nor Supplicant nor Vassal. He is just a man who offered me his loyalty. And now I leave him behind.
“I need you to stay here and protect Merritt. She is strong but she cannot notice everything like you do. You stay here and watch her back. I’m counting on you.”
The simpleton nods and swallows his cries, which only makes his face even more tragic as tears trail down his ruddy cheeks. I am not too worried. Merritt can certainly use a bodyguard.
Speaking of the red-headed devil.
“So, this is goodbye.”
I nod. It is.
“I must say, two years ago I would never have thought… but then… God, I’m making a mess of things ain’t I?”
“Ah sorry. Still can’t believe I’m taking over a large part of town on behalf of a friend who also happens to be an immortal creature from legends. I had to run for so long to stay away from the Pyke family and protect the kids. I was ready to die in exile, so to speak. Is this all real, or am I dying somewhere of fever?”
“If you are, stop dreaming of me facing mortal perils so often, pretty please?”
“Heh. Ah, enough of this. You take care and if those Knights cause you problems, I’ll come and kick their collective asses. Stay alive and come and visit sometimes.”
“Thanks Merritt. Be careful and write often. Goodbye.”
I grab my backpack and with one last wave, I ride into the night.
Then I stop behind a barn because John drooled all over my dress and I need to get changed.
Metis’ hooves join the sounds of the night in a rhythmical pattern. Beasts hunt, mate and die in a background of creaking wood and whispering wind. The scent of sap and dust is almost overwhelming.
The road leads us on top of a small hill. The land here is flat, with the odd copse of trees to bring some measure of variety to the otherwise uniform landscape.
I am nervous. This is it. A campfire shines clear in my sight, surrounded by three armoured wagons that an army would not dare assault. A small beacon has been lit, guiding me to them.
Jimena is here, but she is not alone. This is the moment of truth. For the first time since my escape, I will have to surrender my freedom to a higher authority and hope that they respect their own oaths. Normally I would never take such an inane risk, but this is the best chance I am going to get.
Metis presses forward. Next to the fire, I spot two figures in the grey lamellar armour of the Knights. Whoever else is there has decided to hide.
I take one last deep breath to keep my composure and discipline my aura.
Two sets of eyes track me as I dismount at the edge of the circle. I stop when I face them.
Jimena is as dignified as ever, except for the wide smile that widens further when she takes in my new essence. Anatole, on the contrary, looks like he swallowed a bucket of lemons. His hand never strays from the princely blade by his side.
“I see you have come to face your judgement. I was afraid you would run once more.”
With his blond hair, blue eyes and handsome face, Anatole still looks like the Prince Charming from fairy tales. The contrast with Jimena’s square jaw and tomboyish look is striking. The bombastic prick and the pragmatic friend. The judgmental hypocrite who invokes the rules and the honourable knight who follows them, in letter and in spirit.
I simply raise an eyebrow while Jimena adds in a slightly condescending voice.
“Should I read the warrant, ‘Captain’?”
The disrespect is barely veiled. Anatole glowers as he complies. His voice is coldly professional with a hint of scorn. His hands are tied, he knows it, and he knows we all know it. The powerlessness and rage in his posture are delicious and I find myself relaxing and enjoying the present humiliation.
“You stand accused of roguish behaviour and are ordered to stand trial before a jury of your peers and the Speaker. We will now take you into custody. You have a right to remain silent, you have a right to safety, and reasonable nourishment. You have a duty to uphold our instructions during your transfer. You have a duty to surrender any and all mundane and magical tools and weapons you may have, with no limitation. You may not keep company of any sort…”
“Including Metis?” I ask with surprise.
“Of. Any. Sort.” he replies with annoyance, “your transportation will be assured by my squad, and so will your safety. Are you willing to comply?”
He looks hopeful for a moment. I notice Jimena’s serene smile and her imperceptible nod. She is confident.
“I will comply, yes.”
I turn to Metis and release her from her harness. Once she is fully free, I turn to pat her but she surprises me yet again.
The proud Nightmare places her head on my shoulder. I am moved, and reach to caress her chin. As I approach she moves back, blows air into my face and gallops away with a neigh that sounds suspiciously close to a laugh.
“I see you have properly bonded,” Jimena comments drily. Anatole remains mercifully silent, focused as he is on my gear.
I approach and take out the spearhead, still not repaired, a silver pistol, three throwing knives and a dagger which I leave on the harness.
“Are you not a bit underequipped?” asks Jimena with a knowing smile.
“I know,” I reply, “I left my rifle and a few other things. I figured I would be travelling light.”
“Are you not forgetting something?” asks Anatole with impatience.
I think for a moment. Am I?
“Whatever tool you use to avoid detection.”
I take out my earrings. They join the pile of things that have helped me survive so far.
“Aisha, please come and verify that she is not hiding anything.”
As Anatole speaks, a secured door clanks open on the side of a carriage and the veiled female Knight who survived Suarez’s displeasure unscathed steps down, soon followed by the two other fighters. Her eyes are so dark they look like pits and with her perfectly controlled expression and aura, I find myself unable to read her. She picks Nashoba’s gifts with a subdued grace and inspects them carefully. The carved amber glints under the firelight. She nods.
“Does she have anything else on her?” Anatole asks as the rest of his squad exits the carriage.
The woman closes her eyes and faces me. I feel the softest touch of power, not exactly intrusive but annoying, nonetheless.
“Can we go now, or do you want me to frisk her too?” asks Jimena.
With sudden clarity, I understand the game. Jimena stands with her back to me and a deceptively calm appearance, clearly showing where her allegiance stands. Anatole faces me, which leaves his side open to Jimena. His stance is tense and his face furious, which I would be as well if a subordinate humiliated me so before both his squad and an outsider. Finally, the three remaining members of his squad sit on the sideline, showing neutrality and by extension, a lack of support to their leader.
The largest man of the squad is searching the hills for hostiles, probably. He is not a handsome man, and his shaved scalp makes him intimidating. I see that he found another shield and axe. The sneaky one with the knives leans leisurely against the carriage, and when our eyes meet, he winks. He is beautiful, with lush black hair and almond eyes so I suppose others may swoon. I have seen Sinead at work though, and I am partially immune to roguish charm. Too much trouble.
The woman is the strangest of the bunch. She is shorter than me and quite thin, and she carries herself demurely. Her only obvious weapon is a staff that I recognize as an old-fashioned focus. Mages these days much prefer gauntlets as they are small, effective and more importantly, innocuous. Carrying a magical staff around in a country that burnt witches to the stake only a century ago is not conducive to discretion.
With one last murderous glance, Anatole relents.
“Good, take her inside, we leave as soon as we’re ready.”
“I’ll do it.” Jimena answers immediately. Anatole stares coldly but says nothing as I follow my friend.
Anatole brought his whole squad to arrest me and escort me back, and they were waiting not in ambush, but at the very least fully equipped. I know that Knight squads are valuable resources and he still decided to come with everyone to complete a task that Jimena could have done alone without issue. He still wants me dead. Thank the Watcher for Jimena’s presence.
The inside of the carriage is surprisingly spacious. Furniture in ash and white velvet gives the room a cosy appearance and I feel like I just entered a luxurious cabin in some line ship. A secured sarcophagus and a well-provisioned weapon rack are the only thing out of the ordinary.
I love it.
“Welcome to my humble abode” Jimena declares proudly as a triplet of mortals lines out quickly, keeping their eyes down.
“Do you always travel with such arrangements?”
After they’re gone, Jimena locks the door, presses a rune and with a hum, magic is deployed. Any noise from the outside is cut off.
Jimena lifts me into a hug.
“A Master! You are a Master! I am so damn proud! By the Eye, you are full of surprises! How did it ever happen?”
“This is quite a story. I… got my hand on some Likaean essence.”
“The Fae? How did you… nevermind, keep it secret.”
“I drank it during my fight with Lambert and here we are.”
“You faced Lambert?” Jimena asks, suddenly serious, “Where is he now?”
“You killed him, didn’t you?”
I stare at Jimena with worry but if anything she looks ecstatic.
“You killed Lambert… My dream… How I wish I were here to see the look of horror on his face as he turned to ash. Well done, well done indeed.”
“I thought killing vampires was undesirable?”
“In political conflicts between Houses and Clans, yes. It is not the case here, as you were fighting for your own survival. We are not talking about territories changing hands here, we are talking about abject servitude. If anything, the killing of a major clan’s enforcer will improve your odds of forming valuable partnerships. A competent and reliable ally is worth more than gold in our circles.”
“That is good to hear, but perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. I am worried about Anatole, and I will admit that I was not expecting him.”
“Ah yes, I am sorry about this. He caught up to me as I was waiting for you. Do not worry overmuch. His honor as a Knight demands that he brings you safely to Boston.”
“I do not think much of his honor.”
“Let me rephrase then, the perception others have of his honor matters to him. He would not try to slay you on the way, I am sure of it. It would go poorly if he tried.”
She smirks and lifts her arm. A weapon as dark as the void drops into her ready palm seemingly out of nowhere. One moment she is unarmed, the other, she holds a long rapier with a triangular point and a tip so thin, it could probably pierce through a sheet of steel by its own weight. The guard is delicate and small roses adorn its hilt. A scale is engraved into the hilt. It looks elegant and lethal.
“A soul blade!”
“Indeed, my dear. I present to you ‘Justice’, made recently with the assistance of the Cadiz smith.”
“Beautiful. I believe congratulations are in order?”
“For the both of us. Were it that we could celebrate properly. I am afraid we will have to wait a few months for a valid celebration.”
“The trial will take months?!”
“Not the trial, your entrance into Society. Your petition to gain House status will be conducted as soon as you are clear. You can expect the Lancasters to fight fang and claws to regain control over you, however. They are experts on legal matters and they simply cannot afford to make this easy for you.”
“I… need a lawyer?”
“I have made contact with a few prospective candidates. Do not worry overmuch, you have made quite a few allies and the Lancasters, quite a few enemies. They sent Lambert because they knew they had no ground to stand on, though if we are not cautious, they could demand significant reparations. I will not let this happen.”
“I see. So what now, do I stay inside until we reach Boston?”
“Of course not. It will take a bit under a week, with the mortals driving us during the day and us driving at night. Our horses are low-blood Nightmares and they do not tire. You may walk around when we are encamped, the rest of the time I would recommend you always stay within sight of one of us and no matter what, never be alone with Anatole. For the rest, use common sense.”
“I still don’t understand why he hates me so.”
“He is a Roland. Their unbreakable will sometimes makes them stubborn to the point of stupidity, and such is the case here. Anatole is, the Eye forgive me the term, on a crusade to rid the world of everything that does not conform to his twisted version of peace and order. You also proved to be elusive and smart, a combination that is sure to infuriate him. The only good news is that he has used considerable resources to track you down without success, diverting them from more important operations. Constantine’s patience is at an end and his trust in Anatole’s judgement at an all-time low. You may have felt the tension in our group?”
“It would be hard not to.”
“The others would very much prefer to hunt dangerous rogues and the newly appeared packs of werewolves rather than spend entire nights trudging aimlessly through the back end of Illinois, I assure you. His position is weakened and that is why I am able to defy him openly.”
“Yes, that shocked me. I did not think that someone as honourable as you would pick a fight with a superior officer.”
“I’ll pick a fight with anybody if they’re being an asshole. Ah, we’re moving. Come on, tell me more about that Merritt girl you were writing about and then I will tell you about how I made Aintza my human Servant.”
It is good to see Jimena again, and I realize as we gossip, that I am not so worried anymore.