I stand in front of Constantine with my arms crossed while he adds the finishing touches to the official document. It is a mere formality but it appears the Speaker enjoys his formalities.
Once he is done, he delicately puts his pen down and crosses his hands before his mouth.
In the following silence, neither of us yields. In the end, Constantine speaks first.
“The tasks of a leader are many. It is our burden to take difficult decisions for the good of all.”
I lift a hand in the air to interrupt him. His eyes light with anger.
“You forget that I also ruled for twenty years.”
“Ruling a backwater city is not the same as ruling the entire continent’s vampirekind!”
“And that’s where you are wrong. Whether a group of five or five million, the basics are the same, only the scale changes. It is all about politics.”
“And that is what I have done. I needed Anatole replaced and you gave me the perfect opportunity. With your testimony guaranteed by Ignace, the Knights were compelled to have him replaced.”
“Rulers like you are fine with large sacrifices, as long as they are done by someone else.”
“Enough!” he yells, “I don’t expect you to understand…”
“I understand that you took the easy way out, just like Melitone said. You chose expedience over subtlety without considering the cost to me.”
“All Masters heal, eventually.”
“You have no idea what you are talking about. We cannot faint. We cannot escape. We only have our instincts as our teeth reform to be broken again and our fingers regrow to be mangled once more. You do not, cannot understand the horror and the agony. What you think of as three days of unpleasantness is HELL! Hell, you hear me? I would have walked through piled glass for the privilege of greeting the dawn after one bloody hour. My mind was broken. You do not know what you are talking about!”
I stop, realizing I was screaming. Constantine remains silent.
“I read the Accords, you know? You did a good job but that won’t help much. You probably think that by introducing a sound power structure, you would be exempt from petty politics. You are naïve. No system is good enough that it cannot be destroyed by nepotism, clan politics and power games. It would have been easy for you to outmanoeuvre Anatole after his show of incompetence. Instead, your so-called thoroughness has cost you my allegiance, that of a Devourer.”
“I care little about your bloodline young one, I am a Progenitor.”
“Do you know how many Progenitors have already perished?”
Constantine’s brows furrow.
“If you are threatening me…”
“I have no need. The Lancaster progenitor was slain, and so was Kalinin. You rely on your status too much and think yourself untouchable. You are not. For now, your so-called allies accommodate you, just like they accommodated this farce of a trial of yours, because they are still fighting and reeling from the previous war. Right now, it is convenient that the New World remains neutral and accessible to all, but as we grow and become richer, the temptation to take over resources and new territories will become too strong. They will come for you, eventually, and by that time you will have allies and subordinates, or you will die alone.”
Constantine considers me quietly. He shows no anger at my provocative speech which is a good sign.
“You are not the kind of woman who speaks in vain. Am I to understand that you would work for me?”
“I will never work for you, but I would work with you, under one condition.”
“You… want my blood?”
“Oh, don’t act so surprised. You must know how we Devourers gain strength. Your blood, freely given in secret, and I will do your bidding against compensation, while trying to forget the excruciating pain you have subjected me to. If you get caught in a power struggle, I will even help you instead of making sure you suffer as I did before mounting your head on a spike.”
“You are quite bold, I’ll give you that.”
I wait patiently while Constantine ponders my proposal. I am too weak to do anything to him, yet. The past few days have shown me that despite reaching masterhood, I am still a small fry compared to the real decision-makers. I may be safe from rogue hunts or arbitrary execution now, but I am still a pawn in a chessboard full of ancient and cunning creatures to whom mercy is but a weakness to exploit. I will take time to recover and I will enjoy the world, and I will also start working on the future. If I want to face the threats Aisha hinted at, I will need power both personal and political. I shall train, feed and find weapons. I shall also ally with those I can rely on, be they vampires, Likaeans or mages. Hell, I would even work with werewolves and forfeit their sweet, nourishing essence. And tolerate their stench. Perhaps.
Constantine sits back into his cushioned chair. He has reached a decision.
“Your words have merit. Melitone mentioned something similar and as much as I regret it, I must deal with the world as it is instead of as it should be. Here is my proposal. Complete a task for me and I will let you draw my essence under strict supervision. Afterward, you will be in my employ for a period of two years, during which you will have the liberty to refuse the tasks I give you. I will also compensate you more than generously for each one that you complete successfully. If your work is as satisfactory as your record hints at, I will grant you a territory to call your own and back you up should it be infringed upon, and then we can consider further collaboration.”
It sounds like a great deal…
“I will let you consult your loyal friends before you accept. As for the first task, Torran of the Dvor has asked for a protection detail while he is here. He asked for you specifically.”
“He is a Lord. Why would he need protection?”
“The Dvor are linked to their domain. Inside its boundaries, they have great powers to call upon, while outside they are weakened. Both Jimena of the Cadiz and Naminata of the Ekon vouch for your combat performance, and that is high praise coming from that firebrand and the Singing Spear of the Ekon. You also slew Lambert and you are a Devourer. You are more than qualified.”
“Do not mock me. I am neither able nor willing to protect anyone right now.”
“Just talk to him, then give me your answer.”
The Speaker hands me an official House declaration, properly folded. I know when I have been dismissed. I take the scroll and leave his office, greeting his mousy-haired secretary on my way out.
I turn to the butler as I exit. He has been waiting for me and made no secret of it. I consider that with so many vampires around, rules and tact must apply differently. The personal rooms and offices such as Constantine’s are warded of course, but the rest is not. Nami already taught me that etiquette demands I maintain my aura overt and non-threatening out of politeness, but what about the rest? Any whispers in Akkad will be heard from half a wing away. Everyone smells as soon as you enter the room if you have been intimate, and with whom. They know if you have been to the city or if you have been gardening, or if you haven’t bathed in more than a day. I am reminded of living in very close space with nosy relatives.
Suddenly, the notion of having my own sanctioned territory and only coming here to mingle sounds all the more attractive. I could strike a good balance between the countryside and its many exotic creatures, and the city and possible new bloodlines to add to my growing collection.
“Allow me to congratulate you on your ascension,” the man says in a soft and cultured voice. I do not reply and glare instead. I am convinced that Jimena came to him for help and he sent her away. This is not the kind of resentment I can simply give up on for the sake of expediency. The truth is that I hate them.
I hate them all.
Resentment is no longer the smouldering fire in my chest that it used to be when I was human. It is a cold and hard thing, both patient and quite unpliable. There is a debt, and sooner and later that debt will be paid. What Ignace said was wrong, my body is not something that must only be preserved for the sake of survival. I am also my body. By maiming it repeatedly as he did, he hurt me in a way that I had not been even when my heart was damaged.
Contrary to my expectations, the butler only smiles.
“Would you care to share the cause for your amusement?” I ask.
“Not amused, only relieved. If you had been all smiles after what was done to you, I would have known you to be a snake. Instead, you show me your teeth so I know you to be a wolf.”
“And I know you to be an asshole, what am I to do with this piece of information?”
“Language, young lady.”
He sighs, giving up.
“Not that I do not enjoy our current conversation, Lady Nirari, but I feel obliged to mention that your friends are waiting.”
Ah yes. I stop rubbing my fingers which are all there, intact, and indicate that he should lead the way.
“By order of the Speaker, the South Wing suite number two is yours for the month. You have also been granted access to a secured vault, should you prefer to slumber underground. Your friends are waiting for you in your personal quarters.”
We climb up a set of stairs, coming across two mortals in colorful dresses showing plenty of cleavage. Their cheeks are flushed and they smell of perfume and sex. The pair curtsies, keeping their heads bowed as we cross paths. I can feel through my aura that their vitality is a bit depleted, signs that they fed someone recently.
“Lord Jarek occupies the other suite,” Wilhelm comments in lieu of explanation.
We come across a Courtier in a form-fitting, daring red dress of expensive make who also bows as we pass by, and quickly reach our destination. The butler also bows before presenting the suite. There is a lot of bowing going around and, fortunately, I am not the one doing it.
“Here we are. We should discuss your introduction ball at some point. Come see me once you have recovered.”
I go in without waiting. The ball can wait. I want to talk to everyone.
As soon as I close the door behind me, everyone inside stands up to welcome me, even old man Erlingur. I notice that Sorrel, the mage who allowed me to talk to Isaac through a crystal focus back in Marquette is also present.
The small number of guests is at odds with the grandeur of the receiving room. Contrary to the rest of the manor which favors earthy tones, the decorations here are in shades of white and deep blue. The furniture is lavishly decorated with bronze and engravings. There are enough seats to host a party.
My friends have gathered around a central table upon which a few snacks and drinks have been set. Erlingur is nursing his second bottle, and looks distinctly tamer than before.
I approach with a smile. I am safe here, and surrounded by friends. All is fine.
I force myself to relax my shoulders. All will be fine. In time.
“Congratulations!” the yells erupt. I am quickly surrounded, though I also notice that they leave a respectful distance between us. I don’t want that. Nami is in front of me, so I grab her into a hug.
I trust Nami.
Clawed hands part my hair, rest against my neck for an instant, then trail down my spine. I shiver lightly at the intimate touch. A low rumble shakes her chest.
Suddenly, another pair of arms surround me from the back. Jimena’s scent is familiar and comforting. For the first time tonight, I truly relax, and let out a shaky breath.
“It’s not fair…” Salim grumbles. Our trio chuckles and they let me go. I join the small assembly and sit in a throne-like chair they left for me, facing the entrance. As if planned, everyone goes to a small pile of containers in the corner of the room that I had not noticed before. I give Jimena a questioning glance, but she just winks. Soon, my guests form a line and approach me one by one, Jimena first.
“Congratulations on becoming a Master! As I have mentioned before, reaching the stage of Master is a momentous occasion and a great cause for celebration. Even neighboring covens will often join the festivities. As your sister and the most important person in the room—”
Groans from the audience. Since she spoke in English, everyone can follow. I am appreciative of the favor she does the mortals.
“—it is my privilege to be the first to grant you these gifts I bear.”
She hands me a small crate filled with books.
“Go on, have a look!”
I pick them up one by one, amused, and read the titles out loud. The books themselves are of high-quality paper and either brand new or truly ancient.
“Vampire History Throughout the Ages, a Primer.”
“A Guide to Proper Etiquette and Not Ending Up Skewered and Beheaded.”
I notice that this copy is old and has seen good use.
“Lady Hornicia and the three brawny lumberjacks…”
I glare at Jimena’s impassive face while behind her, the group exchanges knowing smiles.
“… with Illustrations,” I finish, hearing a few “ooooh”. I notice that Sorrel is embarrassed. There goes my reputation.
The next books contain written guides on many things vampiric, including the infusion of essence and aura. This is of special interest to me as those are the first steps to our version of magic.
I thank Jimena with a smile and she walks back to her chair while Nami takes her place. I open her box, fully expecting something sordid, and take from it a strange shawl of a very light blue fabric. The garment is ethereal and practically floats in the air. I caress it, enjoying its soft and cool texture.
“This is so beautiful, what is it?”
“Tis called a cave shroud. Do not be alarmed when I tell you that it is in fact a spore colony from a rare form of magical flora. It is alive and will grow in length if it doesn’t perish. Only the Erenwalds know the secret of its making.”
I hold the piece of clothing between two hands and enjoy the smooth feeling. The shawl indeed has the lightest aura.
“It fears fire and the sun, just like us. Take good care of it.”
I wrap the shroud around my neck and immediately feel better, while Nami goes back to her seat and Sorrel takes her place. I am surprised that the mage would step before Salim, and he answers my questioning look by taking out his transparent ball and chanting a few incantations.
The crystal apparatus grows cloudy, then clears away to reveal a desk organized with manic attention. Isaac smiles as our eyes meet.
“Ah, Ariane. Excellent! Excellent, yes. Congratulations on reaching masterhood and House status. I was already glad to call you a friend, and now I am proud to call you a peer. I have prepared a small gift to celebrate your independence, please accept it as a substitute while I correct this unfortunate situation.”
“It is so good to see you Isaac. Your consideration is gift enough, I assure you.”
“Nonsense. I will not be found wanting, my dear. And while you are at it, I do have a request.”
“Please wait a bit before becoming a Lady, if possible. My heart can only take so much.”
I smile at his words, and after a few more pleasantries, we cut the call. We have not spoken for half a minute and Sorrel is already on the pale side. While the spellcaster sits to recover, I open his chest. Inside, I find a deed to a significant share of the coal company operating in Marquette, as well as a notebook enchanted to accept more pages. I set them aside with a smile.
Salim is next, and he offers me a card upon which is the address of one of Boston’s most up and coming tailors. He managed to get me exclusive services for two weeks. I will finally have the opportunity to replenish my wardrobe.
“Please, do not see it as a criticism of your current apparel.”
“Not at all. Thank you, this is very thoughtful, Salim.”
“You are welcome.”
After that, Aintza gives me a pair of small concealed pistols which I immediately love, and Erlingur delivers a massive crate with a small letter covered by Loth’s unmistakable scribbles:
Here is a suit of armor, hope you didn’t fatten too much and that I still got your measurements right. I’ll send you an experimental gun you might like as well. It is not suitable for humans but perhaps you can put it to good use.
I hope to see you soon,
I take out a black, heavily enchanted ensemble. It is to my old suit what a ball gown is to a maid’s uniform. Plates and scales cover every inch of it with glossy darkness, each enchanted separately and linked with minute precision. The chest is covered by a single large plate upon which a haunting rune is etched. It looks like a circle open at the top, with two wing-like lines going up and to the sides. Mid-way through the wings, downward formations have been placed, looking suspiciously like fangs. Forget discretion, this is an armor made for war. Anyone who sees me in that will know that I am here to kill, and that I can afford to do so in style.
I bet that thing could stop an enchanted blade, or a volley of bullets. It is a royal gift.
Now I understand why Loth always complained about poor tools and materials. This is what he can accomplish with proper instruments. This is what the true work of a centuries-old Master is. This is the dress of a Queen, made to clad her form as she drenches the world in blood. I love it. Love it, love it, love it.
I want to try it on.
Even the others are looking in wonder. I grab the thing and disappear through a door leading to a luxurious bedchamber in the same style as the receiving room. I quickly remove my last surviving dress and put on the armor, fastening it quickly.
The inner fabric is smooth as silk and though the armor itself is heavy enough that a mortal would struggle moving in it, it doesn’t hamper my movements in any way. I feel giddy and when I walk back out, the vampires cheer while the mortals look on with mixed dread and admiration. I wish I could use a mirror.
I decide that tonight is not the night for a test run. I do not know if I can just run around the property, I do not know if it would set nearby alarms and more importantly, I would not be able to appreciate it properly. I change back, and we have a pleasant time together, speaking about everything but politics and torture. Between Jimena’s knowledge, Salim’s wit and Nami’s and Aintza’s humor, the conversation is as effortless as it is pleasant. I also learn that I am free to organize my introduction party and that they look forward to it. When I mention Constantine’s offer, all agree that it is an excellent deal, almost suspiciously so. Salim wagers that Constantine is trying to mend our relationship while Jimena believes that the Speaker sees me as a potential enforcer. Nami merely asks that I make sure to have hunks on hand for when she decides to visit.
Sorrel is the first to leave, exhausted. Erlingur soon follows, but not before I make sure he leaves with the gift I prepared for Loth back in Marquette. Salim is next as he has work to do, and I smirk when Nami manages to drag both Aintza and Jimena away. She is the very soul of corruption, that one.
Once I am alone, I retire to the bedroom. Somebody left the secure sarcophagus I always use on a small dais by the bed. Before retiring for the day, I make a list of everything I will do next.
I need to plan the ball. I already know what I want to do, what sort of image I want to give.
I need to accept Constantine’s offer and get in touch with Torran of the Dvor, see what he needs.
I need to network while I am here, and find new creatures to sample.
I need to learn how to do magic.
I need to learn how to obtain a soul weapon.
Only when I have everything will I take the next logical step, replace Constantine as the head of our kind in North America. And not as Speaker. As Queen.