It has been one hour since the end of the exam. Hopkins mentioned a complication and an opportunity and I decided to stick with him and see how things develop. Right now, I am not too worried as I patiently wait inside the White Cabal Council building, their seat of political power.
I have to give it to the Cabal, they have a vision. The council building is a large, two-storied square edifice with plenty of windows and a cupola beneath which an amphitheatre serves as the hub of their decision-makers. Both the architecture and the furniture are austere and painted all white, with minimum embellishments. It gives the place an air of dignity that helps visitors forget that this alliance is young and still fragile.
A few pieces of art tastefully placed attract the eye, and I am pleased to see that they chose quality over quantity. The paintings are all neoclassical, static and disciplined. I can appreciate their work though I prefer the passion and colors of the romantic movements. It illustrates the creativity and fire I admire in mortals that much more.
Also, some neoclassical artists have probably never seen a bare bosom in their life. Seriously, how can they so easily ignore the effects of gravity? Ah, I should not complain. Not that there are any exposed female nipples in the antechamber of this majestic institution anyway.
As I muse and inspect a faithful reproduction of “Oath of the Horatii” by David, which shows the three Roman brothers as they prepare to fight to the death for their city, a commotion comes from the corridor leading to the exit.
The alley I find myself in circles the large chamber at the center of the building. Stairs lead up to a mezzanine and some offices, while large windows give me a commanding view of the city outside.
As for why I am not worried, the reasons are two-fold. First, the only force that would pose a mortal danger to me is firmly on Hopkins’ side and therefore, on mine. Secondly, I am well-protected by twenty Rosenthal mercenaries in their emblematic grey uniforms.
That is why, when a large group approaches, I do not react, I do not stand up. I do not even avert my eyes from the masterpiece of civic duty and brotherly love before me.
Bannings, their grizzled leader, approaches the newcomers.
“Halt,” he commands as his men close rank with their hands on their pistols, “may I ask your business here?”
“I have no need to justify my presence at the heart of my own government!” exclaims the leader of the troop of mages who just appeared. I can tell from their aura that those men know how to fight though they do not carry the uniform of the Cabal soldiers. There are a dozen of them, some young, some old, all nervous.
“If it’s your government you want to see, the door is behind you to your right.”
“I’m not here for the door, I’m here to take the vampire into custody in the name of the Council!” the man declares with far more confidence than he should. I can taste his fear under the cover of a bravado fueled more by pride than common sense.
I do not react, nor do I need to. I was right to bring an escort, and Hopkins, always two steps ahead of his opposition, was right to give me some company.
“Who is this I hear making such bold statements? Is that you, Garrick?” asks a calm voice. An old man with a flowing white beard and kind chocolate eyes gently pushes Bannings aside to stand between the two groups.
“In the name of the Council? There was no such order, as we both know.”
“Councilman Frost?! Stand aside, this is no business of yours.”
“Of course it is, young Garrick, of course it is, since you just claimed a legitimacy you have no right to. Tell me, is this a coup? Are you rebelling against us and all of Avalon? Trying to seize power?”
“What? No! We only wish to preserve the—”
“Then why do you lie so shamelessly, young Garrick? Why do you usurp the Council’s authority? Under whose orders are you really here?” he asks, and the younger man clicks his mouth shut. I can appreciate that Councilman Frost is smooth, much smoother than the other man who looks more like a follower and lacks the older gentleman’s political acumen.
“Let me explain something to you, young Garrick, because though you may be a brilliant lad, you do not have the years of experience that I have.
“Imagine that you don’t want two people to be married. The easiest way to do that is to have their families fight, yes? So you send a member of your family to attack a member of their family, there is a fight and the marriage is cancelled. Now, the important part to remember here is that you do not need to win the fight. You only need the fight to happen.”
Garrick frowns, unsure as to where the old man is going while his followers shuffle nervously.
“You, Garrick, have not been sent to subjugate the vampire but to create an incident, and I can prove it.”
“…I sincerely doubt it.”
“O ye of little faith, tell me, you know that the vampire you were sent to disturb is the one who saved our men during the disaster, yes?”
At that, low whispers spread through the ranks.
“So? Vampires have no allies but themselves. Do not be naive.”
“Oh no, you do not understand. I am more concerned about the means than the cause. Why, I remember little Sola telling me how the vampire ripped apart the warded steel door of the cellar they were hiding in with her bare hands. Oh, and that lad Emmett said she moved so fast you could only follow her from the flying pieces of men she left behind, that her claws were shredding through their armors like a hot knife through cheese. I think the survivors have started to call her the Red Maiden on account of the rivers of blood she shed that night.”
Some of the mages behind Garrick are starting to reconsider their night out.
“And your plan, my dear, was to show up here with your merry band and… what exactly? Do enlighten me.”
“The… the might of our magic…”
“Did I mention that she slapped away or dodged every spell thrown at her tonight? Yes. Slapped. Not shielded against or dispelled. Slapped.”
“Our greatest strength is not the magic we wield but our adaptability, training and coordination. We are not as savage as werewolves, nor as fast as vampires. We cannot match the raw power of blood mages and other warlocks, yet we still endure. By being prepared, smart and using the tools we have to their best effect. The first and best tool you have is your brain.”
“A brain that sits on top of your stupid shoulders, sadly unused. You absolute tool. Get the fuck out, Garrick, and don’t ever let me catch you again acting like a complete dolt, or God help me I’ll remind you little shits why they called me Frostbite. Aye?”
Lots of smacking around, tonight.
Garrick looks at the old man in front of him, whose aura has started to condense threateningly, and the trained soldiers by his side. There are also noises of boots hitting the ground in cadence outside. He assesses his chances and for once, caution prevails. He turns tail and scampers with his cronies in tow.
The old man comes back to sit by my side with a heavy sigh. I address him.
“Very convincing, Mr Frost.”
“Thank you, miss. If we old farts can’t protect the new generations from their own stupidity, then the world is doomed.”
I do not think I was included in the “old fart” comment. Probably.
“Nevertheless, I hope we get called in soon. My presence here obviously exacerbates tensions,” I reply.
“Not to worry, Hopkins usually does things fast. Ah, here they are.”
The door to our side opens and the humdrum of whispers suddenly invades the corridor. The entire room is warded against sound and possibly other means of spying, therefore it was until now impossible to eavesdrop on the tumultuous debate going on inside. Now that the wards are disabled, a delicate hearing is no longer required to follow the proceedings. In fact, even Frost winces.
“You are fools to let this creature into our sanctum!”
We step in. The Council room is a small amphitheater made not out of benches, but out of massive wooden thrones each bearing a different symbol. The first half-circle consists of only seven seats while behind, two more rows of smaller chairs make up the rest of the assembly. A single person sits facing the rest behind a bare pulpit. He wears a ceremonial robe in white that fails to mask his gut, as well as a mighty scowl above an impressive pair of chops. As we get in, he smashes an abused gavel on the depressed wood in front of him. If this session is the norm, I give the pulpit another three months tops before it collapses under the man’s relentless assault.
“Order! Order! Councilor Pruitt, you do not have the floor.”
He then turns the incandescent focus of his gaze to me, then reaches inside his garment to reveal a lozenge pendant shimmering with colors. I cannot read the artefact’s aura since the room is saturated with auras, but I can guess.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please reveal and verify your protective amulets, thank you.”
All present follow suit, including two guards by the door who eye me warily. Frost also reveals a defensive charm. I find it revealing that his own looks like a cross between a diamond and an icicle.
The seated mages move to their neighbors, checking for defects. When they are certain that their minds are adequately shielded, they turn to the gavel man and nod. I do not try to taste the talismans nor probe their defenses, even though I am curious. It would not be worth it, and I may even get caught. Indeed, one of the main chairs, an old woman as wrinkled as a raisin, inspects me with a curious monocle.
I perceive a tendril of essence sneaking towards me.
Caution is one thing, disrespect, another. I block the probe and give the old woman a meaningful glance. Her brows rise in surprise, then she gives me an appreciative nod.
I return my attention to the man at the center, who Hopkins explained to be the President. His role is to oversee the Council and make sure everything goes according to the rules. To do so, he must forfeit any other position for life to limit the risks of partisan behavior. Similarly, he does not have voting powers. Only the seven members of the Council representing the administration, army, education, treasury, research, intelligence and diplomacy can decide the course of the White Cabal, their uneven number helping to prevent deadlocks.
“Good,” the man continues, “now I believe Councilman Frost has a proposal to bring forward?”
I am left standing while the old man ambles to his own chair. He sits back heavily and answers.
“I do. The Chair of Diplomacy would like to bring forward a proposal of formal alliance between the Cabal and the vampire House Nirari, represented here by Ariane of the Nirari.”
“What?!” the irate man from earlier erupts from the side, “Frostie, have you lost your goddamn mind? Hopkins let that thing move freely around our children! She must be purged, both of them must be purged!”
The objector is a well-dressed mage with a hook nose and an elaborate dress. He is loaded with powerful artefacts, more so than any mage I have met before. I remember that the President called him Pruitt.
“Watch your tongue. I am done with your talks of tradition and values, they have proven their worth tonight.”
“What?” the man screams, “I demand an explanation for those words, Frost.”
“Easy enough. I supervised tonight’s exam at the request of Councilor Hopkins and I was shocked when your son ran away and left my granddaughter to die.”
“You old imbecile, this is a trick to move you to betray us and what we stand for!”
“I saw it happen with my own eyes. Your precious Cornelius turned tail and bailed out, leaving others to cover his retreat. If that is the lineage and greatness you claim, I’d rather have little Margie marry a donkey!”
Interestingly, Frost’s aura starts to bleed out in the air and the temperature drops. I remember that Sola’s aura removes corruption. His looks a bit more aggressive.
“Order, order!” the President repeats with a tired voice, a sign that he has said these words far too many times.
After pounding his poor pulpit like a battering ram on a fortress gate, and threatening to have Pruitt forcefully removed, he finally restores a semblance of calm. Hopkins uses this opportunity to expose his project. The terrible performance of Cornelius Pruitt gave us an opportunity to push an agreement between my House and the whole of the White Cabal rather than just the military. Instead of a garrison, I could have an enclave with families, a library, workshops, everything. The people who would move in would certainly be the more agreeable members of their organization, further bolstering our cooperation.
This is the third advantage, the one Jonathan had hinted at during our conversation earlier. It was heavily dependent on Cornelius Pruitt’s poor performance, a hazardous prospect in my opinion. I was proven wrong and Jonathan’s uncanny ability to predict human behavior once again surprises me.
He would really make a good vampire. Not that he would ever accept.
As for me, as long as I remain in control of Marquette I will have the means to guarantee the alliance. There is a possibility that my plan to take over Illinois with Lady Sephare’s support does not pan out, but even if this is the case, I am still City Master. It would take a war to dislodge me and Constantine would not allow it.
After Jonathan is done talking, the President turns to me. I am now the focus of at least seven archmages, their guards, and their subordinates currently sitting in the amphitheater’s higher tiers. This is almost flattering.
Silence descends upon the assembly. I still haven’t moved nor talked. Simply, I do not have the floor, and as their guest I am bound to follow their rules.
As a courtesy.
If one of them starts flinging spells all deals are off.
Nothing untowards happens. The President simply swallows nervously before addressing me. The entire room holds their breath.
“Ariane of the Nirari, do you approve of Councilor Hopkins’ proposal?”
“I do,” I reply, and the people present shift in their seats. Hopkins warned me of the rarity of such a situation. For most of them, this is the first time seeing a vampire with their own eyes, not to mention conversing with one.
“You will truly defend us if we are attacked?” the woman with the monocle asks with disbelief. Gah, she doesn’t have the floor! Why are they all breaking their own rules so easily?
“Alliances between mages and vampires are nothing new,” I remind them, “an agreement was reached between several clans and cabals to take down the Lancaster progenitor, for example. Although those were temporary, nothing prevents us from forging a more permanent pact.”
The mages mull it over for a moment, then the monocle woman raises her hand. The President gives her the floor so that probably means we can have a conversation.
“What’s your interest in all of this?”
“Besides additional fighters in case of conflict, I could trade resources with you such as knowledge, training, enchantments…”
“Can’t you have your own enslaved mages for that?”
I tsk at the insinuation. As if I needed them enslaved.
“I don’t keep people as cattle unless they show hostility.”
“So, any mage can just show up on your territory and live there?”
“You come to my lands, I will give you a chance to negotiate an agreement to stay if that is what you wish.”
“The vampires have been only too happy to leave us alone,” she continues, “why change anything now?”
I think of Sephare and Washington.
“You are mistaken. You are left alone because nobody has deemed it worthwhile to expand into your territory. Yet.”
Whispers erupt around me.
“Lords do not operate on the same time frame as you do. Just because there have been no conflicts does not mean that there will not be any in the future.”
The next question takes me off-guard.
“Would you fight by our side against other vampires?”
A very good question, and also an easy one.
“If we enter an alliance, I will let it be known that you are under my protection. Any vampire who attacks you will know that it is a declaration of war upon me. Remember that our agreement is defensive in nature; if you attack a clan you are on your own.”
A few of the councilmen nod in understanding. In the end, a table is brought and a contract drawn.
The Cabal is allowed an enclave in Marquette in the nicer part of town. Within their controlled area they can do as they please so long as it does not endanger me. I place a limit to their number and to the business interests they can develop and acquire outside of the enclave itself. They are not allowed to interfere with my activities, even if I slay humans, a condition that I thought they would object to more vehemently.
We add a few more terms including the possibility to trade for services and an exit clause to allow for a peaceful end to the pact, just in case. I read the contract with attention once it is done, and find no obvious loopholes, so I sign it and its copies, before leaving the room.
The councilors were wary at first, but after I failed to sprout horns and wings, the whole negotiation became a tedious affair. As I exit, I consider a significant problem I had been ignoring for the past month.
I have no plan.
Rather, I have plenty of plans but no vision, no clear destination in place. Tactics I know, strategy, on the other hand…
I don’t think I have had any strategy since gaining House status.
Such a thing is as dangerous as it is stupid and quite unlike me. Even signing two agreements in such a short time was hastily made and not particularly smart. I reacted. There is even a small chance that I bound myself to a cause I may later regret.
I climb in the carriage that will lead me to my retreat for tonight. I accepted Jonathan’s hospitality, and will therefore slumber in a safe room under his house. If he did not have the soldiery under his control, I would never have taken such a risk, even with Loth’s impregnable sarcophagus to protect me.
I relax in the seat and continue with my introspection.
What is my long-term goal?
To kill my sire and his mother before either one of them becomes unstoppable. Or at least disable them permanently.
How do I manage this?
By accruing power, disabling Malakim, and forging alliances with people and organizations. I don't even know if it will suffice. That step is simply the necessary condition to even find a way to deal with them. From then on, there are several ways for me to progress.
One, on the diplomatic front, I should find a way to secure an alliance with the Cadiz and Constantine himself. I also need to secure the state of Illinois, if possible. Finally, I need to make sure the pact with the White Cabal goes well. This is the priority. The ultimate goal would be to become queen of the Americas.
On the power front, I need to keep practicing what I already have until the state situation is resolved, then I need to study magic. Once I have solid foundations, I will keep training and find new and interesting people to consume.
Beyond that, I have several opportunities to explore though they will have to wait.
I nod to myself. I had the right to take some well-deserved rest after what I endured. Now, it is time to be a little more proactive.
Jonathan joins me an hour later and we sit in his cramped yet comfortable living room, him nursing a cup of tea. I notice the small telltale signs that the man is exhausted and respect the fact that he hides it remarkably well.
“What did you think about the new recruits?” he asks.
“Not much. Some had potential, some less. They are still horribly green.”
“You are correct, of course. I hope tonight’s ordeal will be a wake-up call for some of them.”
“Like that particularly arrogant team?”
“Yes, them. I will be running them ragged for the next three months.”
“Surely you are exaggerating,” I lightly object, “they showed maturity for such young people. Isn’t three months too much?”
Jonathan lifts one imperious brow.
“Do you know, Ariane, that Cedric made some considerable effort to gather information about you after your encounter?”
“Oh? He is preparing for a rematch?”
“Indeed not. He was trying to find out if you had a boyfriend.”
I ponder this revelation for a moment.
“You know what, you are right, beat some sense into them.”
Sitting before my desk back at the Manor three days later, I consider the fact that I have made a mistake. Specifically, Urchin claimed he could now write, and though I somehow doubt he could master both orthography and calligraphy in so short a time, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“Urchin…” I start, holding his “report” of what happened in my absence.
“During my second life, I have suffered countless indignities”
“I have been shot, stabbed, eviscerated, burnt and partially exploded.”
“I had silver nails driven into my gums and my fingers repeatedly severed with what amounted to a silver-coated gardening tool.”
“I was driven half-mad by Thirst, enslaved, caged and humiliated.”
“And despite all of that, reading that report of yours is still one of the most grating, disturbing experiences I have ever had to face.”
“I am sorry, Milady.”
“It is a nonsensical amalgam of barely readable and horribly misspelled sentences that could not be called English by the most generous of teachers working in an asylum for the criminally insane.”
“If I were to read this anathema to grammar aloud, I shall surely conjure up a demon, which would then wail in despair at the treatment and promptly beg to be sent back to hell.”
“I apologize, Milady.”
“Henceforth, you shall read what you wrote aloud before delivering it to me, and if you cannot make sense of it yourself, you shall write it again.”
“I understand Milady.”
“Or I will go over every mistake and use your own intestines as script to illustrate my points.”
“Very well, Milady.”
“You may go, the timing is ill-chosen for your Akkad lesson.”
“Very well, Milady, goodbye.”
I watch the man’s retreating back. I remember that I should not be too harsh in my treatment of my own subordinates, however after what that little scoundrel did to the written art I could simply not stand by and allow this ignominy to go unpunished.
We ride through the woods in silence.
Torran did not ask questions when I dragged him from his paperwork, nor did he question me when I told him I needed his help. Instead, he just followed with grim determination. Truly, he is as intense a supporter as he is a lover. I can only be thankful that he is so firm and solid in his character, and that his spirits are always up. That kind of thing.
Truly this relationship has been more fulfilling than I had ever hoped.
Metis and I emerge from the dense thicket first, soon followed by Krowar and my lover. A small pier stands before us, upon which a canoe waits where I left it. The lights of Boston shine from somewhere on the left while on our right, the ocean beckons.
I dismount and rush to the small ship, but Torran intercepts me and sits first.
“I will row,” he declares, and I let him. We push away from the rickety wood and make for the sea. I direct Torran to a cove and endure the scrutiny of his steely glare.
“If you are in trouble my love, tell me now. Two heads are better than one.”
“It is nothing bad, I just really need your presence for this,” I reply.
“I am intrigued. Ah, is this it?” he asks as we come in view of a one-mast skiff moored not far in the distance. I nod and we approach then board it.
I rented this small ship for two days and had one of Wilhelm’s men sail it here under the cover of secrecy.
So far so good.
I climb first and find the packed clothes next to the tiller, just as I instructed.
“Here, put this on please. I will be right back,” I tell Torran. He is looking more bothered by the minute and yet he still does as I request. I climb down a hatch to the single deck and check around. Behind a row of crates, there is a very comfortable mattress as well as my own disguise.
I don it and climb back upstairs.
Torran looks just as amazing as I expected in a light blue officer uniform that fits him perfectly. He is currently inspecting the sea, leaning sensually against the railing. The sensual part might be just in my head.
“Captaaiiin...” I whisper suggestively.
Torran turns and his eyes widen as he takes in my appearance.
The scandalous pants, the outrageous open vest that leaves little to the imagination.
His mouth forms a perfect o as I place my fists on my waist and push my modest bosom forward, clearly showing that I am not wearing anything underneath. We will be separated for a while to pursue our own projects. I want to make sure he remembers me, and doesn’t get any ideas.
Then something happens that I was not expecting. He throws his head back and chuckles. The chuckle turns into a cackle then a full belly laugh that shakes his entire frame. He is still laughing when I push him down.
Torran takes a slightly embarrassed expression as I draw him. He is completely naked and stands proudly, looking into the horizon. I, on the contrary, am not naked.
I am wearing the tricorn.
My hand flows on the paper, drawing lines while I commit the colors to memory. I am distracted by a splash behind me just as Torran looks on with alarm. I turn to see a fishwoman staring at us. She smells of magic.
“Not this kind of night. Shoo!” I declare.
She does not react. Her eyes are fixed on Torran.
“No ogling,” I warn.
She does not reply. A dark tongue slides from her lipless mouth, tasting the air. She then turns to me.
“Nirari. Strong,” she observes with a raspy voice.
Then she’s off.
The carriage stops at the bottom of the manor’s ascent next to a small gathering of buildings meant to house less prestigious human visitors. The door opens and I smile as my minions walk out with tired expressions.
Sephare requested that I take over a district for her. It will require a solid dose of diplomacy and finesse. For the rest, I will have them.
The first to step down is one of the Creek brothers, who took the name Crews. Crews wears Western frontier clothes mostly made of leather as well as a war axe which is currently tucked away in his luggage. He greets me with a silent nod and lines up to wait for the others, his one surviving eye coldly inspecting his surroundings.
Crews is a man of few words, even before losing an eye to the Merghol hounds. It is now hidden behind an eyepatch that does little to mask the impressive claw scar on his cheek.
The second man to climb down is David King whom I bought in Kentucky, after his father asked this of me as a dying wish. The free man now sports a cowboy hat and a most impressive bushy beard. Oh yes, he will do nicely. He tips his hat and goes by Crews’ side.
I eagerly await the next two. First comes John with a beatific look on his horrifying mug. By the Watcher, but did I miss the big oaf. He drags his wife behind him, whom I meet for the first time.
Six feet three, brown hair, blue eyes.
The build and face of a veteran British grenadier.
I feel so very sorry for their children. If one person’s appearance could be improved by being smacked in the face with a brick, it will be what comes out of that... woman’s nethers. Watcher, why did I even think about that? Arg. Some things should never be.
Unaware of my growing horror, John jumps forth to introduce me to his slightly bashful absolute mudspout of a woman. I smile at the pair and wish them my best wishes for their matrimony, exerting once more all of my self-control and vampiric poise to chase the image of these two together from my vulnerable psyche.
John is completely oblivious to my discomfort. He just bounces around with beatific happiness while his snaggletooth trog of a wife looks on with a mix of apprehension and distrust I associate with women fearing a rival. I would like to comfort her and assure her that she has nothing to fear, the two of them being in a category of their own. Possibly a species? I refrain. It would be in poor taste to do so and although I mock the woman’s appearance in my mind, I have no reason to offend her in reality.
And so, I smile and play the good host. John and his wife shall have a separate house for the duration of their stay while the two others have single rooms in the barracks. Solveig already arranged everything at my bequest.
As I am about to turn around, I am surprised to see both Lady Sephare and Lord Jarek ride down the slope on nightmares. Jarek’s humongous mount makes every mortal take a step back.
“My dear Ariane,” the Hastings woman starts with a honeyed voice, “those are your dear associates who will accompany us, yes? What a, hmmm, colourful lot.”
Her face betrays nothing and her tone is just as pleasant as before.
Have I just been firmly rebuked? I have no idea.
“They have proven themselves on numerous occasions and will be the more conspicuous members of my retinue,” I reply somewhat defensively.
“Lovely, well, I am sure that you have a lot of catching up to do. Ta ta,” the Lady smoothly replies, before leaving. I am still not quite sure whether or not she’s mad.
Instead of following her, Jarek climbs down from his monstrous charger and silently steps to John. He’s completely ignoring me.
I realize with surprise that they are about the same size, which places both in the category of height of people who always bend a bit before entering any buildings.
They face off in perfect silence.
Then, with slow purpose, Jarek grunts and takes a strongman posture, contracting arms and chest to display his impressive muscles.
John is different. He is not as lean and corded as the ancient vampire. His body is broader but also just a bit softer. He looks a bit less like a trained knight and more like someone who could break a bear’s spine with his bare hands then carry the carcass over his shoulder to the nearest town.
John turns to me.
I don’t know what to do so I just sign “go ahead”, which means that he will do as he pleases.
My loyal defender huffs and puffs and places his fist over his head, his shirt protesting the abuse. Three buttons are on the very edge of popping, held together by faith and stubbornness.
The two hold the pause for a few seconds.
Then they both deflate at the same time.
They shake hands.
Jarek climbs back on his horse and leaves without a word. He still hasn’t acknowledged any of us. I am at a loss. Is this a mortal thing? I turn to John’s wife who looks just as helpless as I do. Or at least I’m pretty sure she does. Hard to tell for sure.
I take a few seconds to recover, then direct everyone to where they belong. Enough silliness.
We have a city to take.