Wilhem’s office shows a lot about the man himself. The walls are covered with rough wood, giving it the mood of a log cabin. The furniture was handmade by a patient craftsman. There are few decorations, yet the carvings show a level of intricacy and dedication that only hours of meticulous work can create. The few paintings are of landscapes by day. Wilhelm favors forests and mountains.
In the corner, a grizzly head greets visitors with a silent roar. The hunting trophy would be tacky, were it not for the insane size of the beast. It would have been at least twice my size standing up on its hind legs.
From behind his redwood desk, Wilhelm addresses me with a slightly bored voice.
“The introduction party is a show of strength, milady. Branches of mighty clans display their wealth and power, while exiles use it to create new alliances. The party can be anything, from a masquerade to a hunt. The Ekon’s morbid festival is still the talk of the salons a century after.”
“I gathered this much. Can I use the ballroom?”
“Naturally. All our facilities are at your disposal.”
“Then I would like the ball to be in a week. Invite everyone.”
“Well, not the Lancasters of course.”
“An open invitation for the locals. Very well. What else do you need? What sort of event will it be?”
If Wilhelm is surprised, he does not show it.
“A vernissage. Yes, we can make it work. The ballroom will do nicely, if you have enough creations to exhibit, of course.”
Eighteen years spent hiding out in the boonies with only a flesh-eating capricious pony as company can be a tremendous source of motivation. It was that or collecting pretty rocks. And going slowly insane.
“You will reach the most people if the celebration occurs four days from now. It will also be enough time for Lord Suarez and Lord Ceron to come here. I was told that they had an interest in your success.”
“And that will give me time to get everything out of storage.”
“Very well. I will have Solveig act as an intermediary for the details. Was there anything else?”
“No. Goodbye Wilhelm.”
“Goodbye Ariane of the Nirari. My door is always open.”
Wilhelm writes a few notes while I leave. I consider his parting words on my way back to my room, maid in tow. The ‘butler’ is more of a steward, I decide, and these words he said indicate that I have his ear. It might be that he was just being polite, or perhaps he is enthusiastic about a helping hand joining his coven. I remember the difference Nami made in Marquette simply by taking the odd mission. Vampire Masters are useful enough that even the crustiest grumbler will try to stay civil. Time will tell if Wilhelm proves useful.
“I would speak with this urchin fellow. Now.”
“He is in a guest room on the first floor milady, should I have him fetched?”
My maid leaves on her errand while I return to my den and settle to wait. Jimena has left for the night, so I prepare a list of the paintings I want to exhibit and consider including my best takes on the Watcher. Those are special because they get the most extreme reactions from their viewers. As I am done, a polite knock on the door announces the arrival of my guest. He walks in and I immediately understand why Solveig would disapprove of him.
The man is a Courtier with a curious, flighty aura like nothing I have felt before. The cause for my faithful aide’s disapproval, however, is appearance. Urchin wears a blouse, beret and threadbare pants, something I would expect from dockworkers. His face and poise firmly place him in the alley thug category, and not just any alley thug either, the vile kind. He exudes sleaze and low cunning. His rat-like face and crooked nose, his messy hair and hunched back. His hair-covered, gnarly hands. His small stature. He is like the living embodiment of the scam, the duke of deceit, the devilish deviant. A gullible Samaritan would not trust him with a broken shoelace. And he’s ugly as sin.
I am honestly impressed.
“You must be Urchin. Come, have a seat.”
“Sit? Ah, sit. Thank you.”
Even his Akkad is atrocious. I remember that not everyone inherits the knowledge from their sire’s essence, yet surely, after all this time, he should have learnt. No?
“You wished to speak to me?”
“Ah. My Akkad, not so good. English?”
I frown with disapproval. Negotiations between vampires should be in Akkad. This is the proper way of things! Using English desecrates our interaction, makes it… weaker. I hesitate, though in the end, I allow it. This man’s command of the tongue is pathetic. We will get nowhere by sticking to tradition.
“You wished to speak to me.”
“Yes, Lady Nirari. I’ll be brief yeah? My name’s Urchin. A little bird told me you have a territory, yeah? I want to move in.”
My talons click on the varnished wood of the throne-like seat I chose. Sensing the mood, Urchin lowers his misshapen head with respect.
“As your follower, of course, beg your pardon miss.”
At least he didn’t call me ‘guv’nor’. I suppose I shouldn’t be too judgmental.
“And why should I allow you on my territory, Urchin?”
“I know my way around the city, I do.”
I stay silent.
“Also, I can do this. Watch!”
Urchin furrows his caterpillar-like eyebrows and something peculiar happens. His aura flares, then a tendril whips out and strikes me with blinding speed. I raise a hand in reflex over my heart while jumping in the air, but the tendril just moves past it and latches on the shawl I am wearing. Then, it moves back, leaving my neck unprotected.
In an instant, I am on him. I place one hand over his heart with the other around his neck. His large eyes widen comically but instead of resisting, he bares his throat. The gesture stops me.
“Give. It. Back.”
I take my silky property from his helpless, and quite frankly grubby hands, and fold it again around my neck. The smooth and cold fabric comes to rest against my skin and I immediately feel better. I need this. I need to feel protected and in control, at least until I make a full recovery. I take a small moment to luxuriate in the feeling before opening my eyes. Urchin is desperately trying to burrow into his seat and appear inconspicuous at the same time, failing miserably at both. I find out that I am no longer angry, and I reflect on what just occurred.
His ability is strange. It was not a spell; I am sure of it. It looked like an instinctive ability, something that a Courtier should not possess. Unless…
“You are a Vanheim.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You are Vanheim. A wild card. You are of the fourteenth bloodline, are you not?”
“I have no idea, miss. I just woke up one day and I was like that.”
“You do not know your sire?”
His face shows pain, betrayal, then burning resentment.
“I got thrown away like an old shoe. Don’t even remember my name, or who I was before that.”
Scorn. I can work with that. I can also work with something else.
“You may prove useful after all. I will allow you to serve and live on my territory, if you pay the price.”
“And what would that be?” he asks with a hint of apprehension.
“Only the absolute proof of your submission,” I answer with a fanged smirk.
I stand still as Solveig makes the finishing touches to my hairdo.
Goode delivered. The dress is of a very light pink color I would normally avoid, and of an interesting take. The design is asymmetrical, with a brighter piece of fabric draping over my right flank, elegant yet daring. Both my shoulder, back and cleavage are completely covered, therefore I do not show more skin than is appropriate. Instead, the lack of modesty comes from the design itself. The cut is quite close to the body, including a skirt with barely any flare, so that my shapes are easy to spot. Some would find this distracting. The rich fabric and flawless work mark the garment as the work of a master, and so the result is ambiguous. Conservative busybodies could stare with disapproval for hours without ever being able to pinpoint exactly where I cross the line. I admit that the old codger is worth every penny we paid him, though I cannot help but think he may not be as innocent as he looked.
To complete my image, I asked Solveig to pull my hair up, freeing my neck. I intend to wear the shawl even if the colors may clash a bit.
The maid inspects her work one last time, then nods to herself. I cannot see for sure what I look like. I hope that Torran will like it.
Also, I apparently care what Torran thinks of my appearance. Huh. I should probably not let this get to my head. He is probably just being nice. It is not because he is polite, respectful, smart, knowledgeable, interesting, handsome and thoughtful that I should be interested.
I review the list of selected paintings and circle two of them to send to the special exhibit. Out of all the efforts I have made to evoke the Watcher with an image, these are the most convincing. It is just unfortunate that humans would feel distressed by it, and so they will be hidden from the mortal attendants in a separate pavilion. Such a bother. Besides those, I have one large battle scene as a centerpiece, quite a few landscapes, nightlife scenes, and portraits of vampires and mortals alike. In total, I pick my thirty best works in so many years, with the exception of the gift I sent Loth. I finish this and go over the guest list, realizing that I have no idea who those people are. As promised, no members of the Lancaster clans are invited. Serves them right. I finish setting up John’s future living quarters when a knock on the door makes me put my pen down. Solveig walks up and lets Torran in.
He takes in my appearance and smiles brightly. I am inexplicably proud as I stand and curtsey, a gesture he politely returns with a short bow.
“You look ravishing, Ariane.”
Yaaaaaaa of course I do! Alright Ari, calm down.
“Thank you for your kind words. You don’t look so bad yourself.”
Torran is a bit on the strict side with a grey coat over white shirt and trousers. Wearing white is a statement for us, as the smallest droplet of blood will leave a stain. It speaks of great control and trust in one’s abilities. For us, white never speaks of innocence, for none of us has clean hands.
Nor would we pretend to.
Torran chuckles at my words and offers me his arm, which I take, relishing the feeling of solidity he gives off. We make our way down and out to a waiting carriage. As a true gentleman, he holds the door for me and pretends to help me up, then follows. I get a whiff of his scent as he passes by. It is the same cold spice as the rest of us, with a touch of something earthy, like midnight on a mountain.
“How are the preparations for your ball of the debutantes?” he asks.
“Pah, don’t mention it!”
I start by complaining about staff being disturbed by my innocent painting of the godlike entity that breached the barriers between the worlds and unleashed a plague upon mankind for its own obscure amusement, then talk shortly about Loth who got me started on painting, then of Bingle and yesterday’s meeting. When I ask Torran if he ever witnessed something similar, his answer surprises me.
“In fact, I have. We have several theories about their existence, the most common one being that they have the blood of powerful entities who use them as sources of entertainment, or who simply gave them their traits. We call them godlings. I personally came across a godling of love, a century ago.”
“It must have been horrible.”
“Not exactly. As you have surmised, powerful emotions are something we crave and the godlings cause them by their very existence. The whole love triangle, misunderstandings and brooding part I could have done without, however.”
“You must be correct about them being a source of feelings. I have rarely been as annoyed as when Bingle was around. Has anyone tried to conduct experiments on them?”
“Likely, though not recently. As I mentioned, they are discussed among those with an interest in the unfathomable. Theories abound yet only one thing is certain. No one captured or killed one on purpose, then lived to tell the tale. My theory is that they can die, but only from characters inside of their own stories.”
There goes my last-ditch solution to avoid the Bingle effect if we ever meet again.
“But enough about research,” Torran continues, “I wanted you to have this.”
I pick up his gift which happens to be a small booklet.
“The opera is in Italian. Do you speak it?”
“Not a word.”
“This is a summary of the story. There are also a few words on the actors themselves and Donizetti, the composer, if you are interested. Some people prefer to learn very little of the show before seeing it for the first time, so that they get a fresh impression.”
I nod and leaf through the booklet. The story is relatively simple, and takes a single page. I also learn that all the soloists are from a famous Spanish troop while the choir and orchestra are locals. We shall see how well they work together.
I am so excited!
It so happens that Boston doesn’t have a proper opera house yet. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on a proper edifice to rival those of the old world, the powers that be turned a barn into something that might pass. The carriage deposits Torran and me at the steps of the building’s entrance, not far from Faneuil Hall and its market. Some efforts were made to add Doric columns on each side of the monumental gates, and admission is done by doormen wearing impeccable suits and grave expressions.
It is not enough.
The building looks like what it is: a glorified animal pen.
Torran leads me through a small hall and throngs of spectators, up a flight of narrow stairs to the second floor, where our private booth is situated. Despite our restrained auras, we catch more attention than I deem wise from staff and guests alike. My pride will not let me try to fade into the background, however. I note with interest that the other visitors are not from the richest population of the city. Instead, we are surrounded by what appears to be merchants and their adult children. Perhaps the most affluent citizens do not deem opera as ‘proper’ fun.
By silent agreement, Torran and I neither mingle nor tarry. We walk along a semi-circular walkway, then pass through a small door and find ourselves on a dais overlooking the ground floor seats, the pit where the orchestra is busy setting up, and the scene, now shyly hidden by a massive curtain. There are four small seats crammed here, and my host and I sit on the central ones.
I will admit that whoever switched the building’s function from cattle to the fine arts made a real effort. It is just a shame that my eyes are too good to be fooled. The golden decorations are cheap paint slathered on by untalented craftsmen. The wooden carvings are the work of apprentices, littered with flaws, scratches, and holes. Even the smell of varnish doesn’t mask that of sweat and humanity. My excitement turns into a cold ball that sits in my stomach and burns it with resentment. So many unpleasant details accumulate and fray my fragile nerves, betraying my expectations.
Then the lights dim, and suddenly all those flaws no longer matter that much. The orchestra is tuning. In waves and groups, they prepare their instruments with chaotic accords that fill the air and make my body vibrate, until from many notes it becomes a ringing whole. Strings start, then they are joined by the wood and brass instruments in a glorious explosion of discord that stops as quickly as it started. The remaining whispers from spectators die off as all remaining lanterns are blinded to plunge the room into darkness.
I lean forward to see more.
The conductor lifts his hands, causing the players to raise bows and flutes with military precision. Then the true music begins.
I have heard groups, including a quintet on the street back in New Orleans. The songs they played had made me want to dance and sing. They had filled my heart and lungs with vivacious energy. The emotions I felt then formed some of my most pleasant memories. Even those moments do not compare to my experience right now. The orchestra transcends individual instruments in a harmony so breathtaking and unique that my jaw hangs open. This is unfair. This is madness. Wood, metal and catgut have no right to sound so hauntingly beautiful, to overwhelm me with such ease. I am no longer hearing with my ears. That simple explanation does not do the experience justice. I am hearing with my essence.
The overture fills the air with a joyous melody, soon joined by the wood instruments. They play together to create beauty as ephemeral as it is poignant, and they carry me, helpless, to the beginning of their tale.
The curtain lifts on a scene of village life. The mortals walk around under an illusory sun that doesn’t burn me in simulated chaos. They are so perfect. Their clothes are free of mud and their face of the ravages of exposure, and their idleness is as fake as my innocence. They move with disguised purpose to trap us into their story. Their voices rise to the painted heaven with power and grace unlike anything I have ever experienced at church. They tell me, in Italian, of their simple life. They tell me that the sun is too hot, an opinion I can only agree with.
The arias follow each other as the story progresses. Nemorino the peasant, played by a handsome lad with sandy hair, is in love with Adina, a rich landowner. And here she comes! The woman is not a classical beauty, but she is striking. Her dark and hooded eyes inflame those around and her steps are confident and proud. She shares the story she is reading of Tristan and Isolde, how the brave warrior stole the favor of the beautiful Irish princess from his uncle thanks to a love potion. I wonder if those really exist. And behold, the young peasant gets ideas! Oh, you cad, you want some alchemical assistance in your courtship, don’t you? I have maimed some for less. And look, a newcomer! A dashing officer with his platoon arrives. He aggressively courts the cold-hearted beauty, caressing his square jaw and showing his muscular figure. A little while later, Nemorino declares his love but Adina sends him packing. She wants a lover a day! Hah, you do you, my girl. And now, a solution appears in the person of a quack doctor with a large gut, who sells the naïve boy cheap booze disguised as an elixir of love. Shenanigans ensue, ending with Adina promising to marry the officer, Belcore.
The curtain falls. The first act is over.
It was… It was…
I turn to Torran and try to express what I feel, but words fail me. I end up helplessly flapping my arms.
“You seem pleased.”
“Yes! It was so… All their voices together! And the acting! And the instruments… And… And everything! It was so great! I don’t know what to say!”
Torran’s face was a mask, yet when he hears my words, he relaxes completely and a soft smile shines on his lips. I can tell that it was important for him that I enjoy myself. He now looks as pleased as a cat who found the pot of cream.
“I am ecstatic to hear that, Ariane. I enjoy and play music myself.”
“Really? What do you play?”
“This and that, though my favorite instrument is the organ.”
“The organ?” I ask with surprise, “but, aren’t most of them in churches?”
“Exactly!” he exclaims with sudden passion, “this is ridiculous! The best organs are in the hearts of cathedrals and basilica, and what do they use it for? To animate the mass with stale hymns and flat Kyries! The waste! Ah, the things I could do with those wonders of art and engineering… Did you know that…”
I stare with amusement, and a bit bewildered, as Torran lists all the best organs, their impressive sizes and the time it took to build them. He is clearly an enthusiast. Being locked out of the best instruments remains a sore spot, not to mention that stealing one is completely unfeasible. After that, we quickly discuss the performances of the various singers. Torran observes that Nemorino is nothing special, but Adina is a prodigy, playing her role perfectly at the age of twenty-one. I was going to ask about the part of the quack doctor, Dulcamara, when the door to our lodge bangs open and a man sneaks inside, slamming it close behind him.
I gently massage the bridge of my nose.
The INTRUDER is, of course, Bingle.
By my side, Torran stands up.
I always thought him to be pleasant, with an edge. Now I realize that he is the edge. He radiates offended nobility and threat, and the most interesting fact is that he does it without his aura. His power only slightly circles but never escapes his steel grip to spread across the place, and yet, I gaze at him and shiver.
Before he punishes the newcomer, I place a light hand on his sleeve and mutter ‘Bingle’, causing him to sit back with a knowing smirk.
The walking calamity who invaded our privacy still wears his dark suit, with top hat and silver cane, giving a new dimension to the term “conspicuous.” In short order, the annoying mortal turns to us and realizes that the lodge he chose as a hiding spot is occupied, and recognizes me in one swift motion.
“By jove! My fair rescuer, in this place?” he whispers.
I did not realize it last time because of the surprise, perhaps, but Bingle sounds just as positively English as his relative.
“What are you doing here?!” I hiss in a low voice.
“I am here to save a life and solve a crime, milady. The soprano, the woman who plays Adina, is in possession of a most precious gem. The rakes I am trying to avoid are after it, and her!”
By the Watcher. Why? Just why?
“If I do not reach her first, she will never return home tonight. They will make sure of it. Milady, I know I have no right to ask, but I fear that alone, I will fail. Please, will you not help me? It would be a most noble and valorous act, worthy of your valor.”
“You are absolutely correct, Bingle, you have no right to ask.”
“Ahem,” Torran interrupts softly, “dearest one, would you please save her on my behalf? Singers of her quality are rare. Her disappearance would ruin the entire season,” he finishes in Akkad.
The opera season, ruined? That simply will not do.
“Oh, very well. After the second act.”
“Milady, time is of the essence,” Bingle urges.
“I assume that they will not try to abduct her mid-performance, yes?” I ask, annoyed, “It can wait.”
ENOUGH. I grab him by the shoulder. The young man winces at the pressure as I pull him close enough to bite his nose off.
“Listen here, young Bingle. I am having the time of my life enjoying my first opera ever, after a very, very difficult week. I will watch Nemorino steal the cold Adina’s heart or die trying, even if I have to dismember every last mortal in this room. So, you will sit down and watch the show, or I swear I will tear off your arm and shove it down your crumpet-eating, tea-drinking throat. Is that clear?”
“Ariane?” Torran asks in a soft and slightly worried voice. At the word, Bingle’s face enters a mesmerizing metamorphosis. From apprehension, he switches to incredulity, wonder, then excitement.
“Ariane Delaney… It’s you… It’s really you!”
Ah god fucking dammit. Now I’m in it for sure.
“Father mentioned you so many times! I thought he was embellishing the stories but no, the legend was true. Incredible! You really did not age, and this blazing spirit! But, were you not in Georgia?”
“That was almost thirty years ago. I moved.”
“Astounding! I cannot believe my eyes, Ariane Delaney in the flesh. Oh, thank God. With your help, we will surely get to the bottom of this!”
“I assure you He had nothing to do with the situation. Now quiet, or it is to the bottom of the river you’ll go.”
Bingle Junior lifts his hand in surrender, and it doesn’t take long for spectators to regain their seats, the light to darken and the show to resume. The magic is intact, and I let myself get carried away by the otherworldly music. Adina and Belcore’s wedding is in full swing, a ruse by the cruel beauty to make Nemorino jealous. A lot of effort for such a small result but oh well, she is a rich single lady who lives in a village. Perhaps she is supremely bored? In the meanwhile, the poor peasant has conveniently inherited a fortune making him suddenly popular. More shenanigans ensue, following which Nemorino contemplates the single tear he saw in his beloved’s eye in a heart-wrenching, sublime aria that makes me gasp with pleasure. Una furtiva lagrima! All leads to a happy ending between the lovers with Belcore remarking without spite that there are plenty of fishes in the sea, and the quack doctor claiming undue recognition for what inebriation achieved.
It is finished.
The actors leave the stage, under thunderous applause.
I lean back into my chair, close my eyes.
That was perfect.
I turn to see an indescribable emotion in Torran’s eyes. His smile is soft and just a little sad when he tells me, with his strange lilt:
“Sometimes, I wish I could forget everything and experience music for the first time again.”
I nod. Yes, this was a life-changing experience, one I will never repeat. As a mortal, I could have died before attending a single opera, and how is that fair? How is that sane? Madness, I say. Utter madness.
“Yes, yes. We should depart now so that we can be backstage before the singers return.”
While the artists salute the crowds, we quickly make our way out into the small concourse circling the second floor. Torran guides us to the right up till the end of it, then down a set of stairs hidden behind a heavy curtain. At the bottom of it, a heavyset man turns, his eyes widening when he recognizes Bingle. Without pausing, Torran slaps him into the wall.
I realize with satisfaction that the unfortunate thug is still breathing. Leaving bodies lying around is oftentimes more trouble than it’s worth, unless we are assaulting a remote location and everybody can mysteriously perish in a tragic house fire. The situation is only exacerbated by the presence of the godling. Judging by what I have seen so far, he would probably complain about the sanctity of life or measured response or some such annoying concepts. Personally, I only care because a corpse could have the opera closed for an enquiry. The horror.
I take a look around. We are on the ground floor, in a part of the structure not meant for public access. No gaudy decorations adorn the walls here. We are in the naked guts of the structure where magic is made. Piles of props, seats and leaflets line our way. We make a sharp right through a door, into a passage with a gate leading outside. High windows give a glimpse of the stone walls of a nearby office. Directly in front of us, the artist entrance lies closed, guarded by a heavyset man with crossed arms and a stubborn air.
I have a lie ready. I will just pretend to be the actress’ childhood friend. From Madrid. I will even utter the few Spanish words my friend Constanza taught me, if I can remember them.
In front of me, Torran does not slow down.
“Stand aside, boy,” he says calmly. The doorman takes a short look at the impeccably dressed herald of doom bearing down on him, evaluates his chances after refusing a rich and influential man, and finds them wanting. He obeys.
Or we can just do that.
Torran did not use his aura at all. I am slightly annoyed now, and decide that I will not use power at all next time I try to convince a mortal. I’m sure I can do it just as well!
The staff area is currently empty, and I assume it will be another few minutes before the artists stop drinking in the adulation of the spectators and pass through here on their way home. We find ourselves in a well-lit, large room with a way to what should be the pit. Discarded instrument cases litter the ground, as well as food, music sheets and even a lonely sock. Three private rooms share the cramped end. We head there.
“It will save us a lot of trouble if we can avoid the attention of the entire orchestra by waiting for your friend in her private quarters,” Torran comments.
“Indeed, sir, very astute,” Bingle comments. He must be unused to basic common sense. I am not even remotely surprised.
We check the first room, which contains an impressive number of empty liquor bottles.
“The director’s room,” Bingle says, “singers avoid strong alcohol since it can damage their voices.”
Torran nods, and we inspect the next one. That room has a small mirror, a pile of faded bouquets in the corner, and enough makeup to repaint the Sistine chapel. Flashy costumes and fake jewelry are strewn haphazardly across the cluttered ground.
“This is the right place,” Bingle claims with a smile. Torran and I wait until he turns away from the mirror and take position by the far wall. I notice that envelopes are tied to the flowers and retrieve an opened one.
“Madame, your lips...”
Ah, this kind of correspondence.
As we wait, Torran and Bingle finally introduce themselves properly. Upon learning that my companion is from Hungary, Bingle says a few words in Magyar. I can tell his pronunciation is horrible, though the vampire does not seem to mind. This is a neat trick to break the ice, and I make a note of it.
Eventually, the diva herself closes the door behind her, takes a deep, exhausted sigh and turns to find her sanctum desecrated by a troublesome trio. Before she can release a mighty scream, Bingle gives an impeccable bow, and addresses his scared rescue.
“Senorita Diaz, please, do not be alarmed.”
Her yell dies in her throat, replaced by a panicked croak. I am surprised as her last name is listed as “de la Vega” on the leaflet.
“Who are you, how do you know my real name, and how dare you break into my room you maldito?”
“Forgive our intrusion. My name is Bingle, and these are my friends Ariane and Torran. I came here on behalf of Princess Padma, to warn you of a terrible danger!”
I barely have time to raise an eyebrow at the mention of royalty before Bingle starts the most outlandish tale I have ever heard. That Diaz woman was apparently given a jewel by Princess Padma of the kingdom of Mysore, for safekeeping. Indeed, that jewel is part of a trio of precious stones that adorn the mythical Scepter of the Tiger, a royal ornament that the princess wishes to hide from her evil and manipulative uncle. Should he lay his hands on them, he would be able to reforge the artefact and claim the throne for himself! But alas, the secret was leaked, and the ruby and emerald of the Tiger already fell within his hands. Princess Padma called upon the illustrious adventurer Bingle to protect the last sapphire and its guardian from a most cruel fate!
What a pile of rubbish.
“I can scarcely believe it,” Diaz whispers with a worried voice.
Yes, neither can I.
“I never thought this day would come that we are found out. I must warn my cousin, then we must escape.”
Gah! After a last look of shared disbelief, Torran and I follow the pair out. The other players are surprised to see strangers in their midst, but since Diaz vouches for us we continue unmolested. The diva knocks on the third door where we are answered by the man playing the quack doctor. Without his wig and fake belly, he appears significantly younger.
“Sara? Qué está pasando?” he asks.
“Oh Miguel, we are found out! Foes have come after us and the jewel. We must escape promptly.”
Alarm fills the poor lad.
“How? They probably have us surrounded?”
“If I may,” I interject. When their attention is on me, I expose my plan.
“We could leave with a large part of the orchestra and choir. These thugs will never dare to assault a large group. We will leave their encirclement, then disappear once we are far enough.”
“A splendid idea, Miss Delaney.”
To be fair, I used that trick with Constanza back when I wanted to dodge ugly suitors after mass. They do not need to know that though.
Without any prompt on my part, Torran steps forward and he sort of… inflates. Not physically, though, and not through his aura. I do not know how, but suddenly he has become the center of the room, the person around whom all groups orbit. He claps his hands once, and the sound reverberates like thunder through the entire room. Silence smothers all conversations.
“Your attention please! I am Prince Torran Dvor, from Hungary. I cannot express how pleased I am to find such brilliant artists here, so far away from Prague and Vienna. It would be my honor and pleasure to invite you all to the Blue Jay for refreshments as a gesture of my appreciation.”
Whispers of glee at the offer of free food and drinks spreads like the plague through the eager musicians. They grab their effects and rush to the exit like a swarm of locusts spotting a wheat field. We are carried forward, and spill in the streets where a pair of men with hungry eyes see us go by without recourse. I almost stop in my tracks when I casually Charm one of them, feeling the lightest resistance.
Torran easily makes his way to the head of the horde and leads us forward with a sure step and enough speed to force our pursuers to scramble after us. We leave large streets and stone buildings behind for a more narrow street filled with people, then into a three-storied hotel and restaurant. A butler with jowls and a receding hairline looks worriedly at the approaching crowd, then recognizes the man at its head.
“I am sorry to intrude upon you, Sylvester. Do you happen to have a private room we may use?”
“Of course sir, right this way. May I ask what the occasion is?”
“Certainly,” the vampire answers as he leans in. He makes up a story about a scorned lover and a daring escape for the poor diva, a tale of unrequited attraction that leaves the stoic waiter with the barest hint of a mischievous smile. Bingle, Diaz and Miguel speed to a backdoor for a quick escape, but not before I reassure the astounding adventurer that he can get in touch with me by leaving a message here. Then, the rest of us are led to a separate room where the musicians are promised drinks and appetizers. After a few minutes and some excuses, Torran pays the bill in advance and we leave through the front door.
“I admit that I am curious as to why you would allow him to keep in touch with you. From what I can tell, you find his presence unpalatable,” my companion casually remarks.
“Yes, but I think I figured out why we were drawn into his story. I just need to confirm my theory. And I’m quite Thirsty.”
“Well, we picked up a tail.”
“Two birds with one stone. We should turn here.”
We make our way in a narrow alley that only holds service entrances. Our pursuer rushes in only a few seconds later. I grab him and inspect his throat, ignoring the weak complaints. Mortals do not scream when they choke.
“Observe,” I comment as I point at two barely visible fang marks. They are very recent, and the cause of my prey’s small resistance to domination. Torran’s eyes widen slightly at their sight, for he knows what we face.
“We were not brought in for amusement. We are here to balance the scales.”