Washington, two nights later.
The venue Lady Sephare chose for her meeting is the top floor of an elegant gentleman’s club she recently took over. The guests are led up through the deserted building by a butler exuding disapproval at the uncouth louts defiling his august halls with their unwashed bodies, grimy clothes, and rancid breaths. The gaping wastrels are then invited to sit at a long table in a large reception room upon which refreshments have already been served. When we come in, some of the rowdier ones are quaffing shooters of twenty-years-old Bourbon without ceremony like the absolute degenerates they are.
Besides myself, Sephare brought a protection detail of men in top hats and dark suits, all of whom are wielding canes. Separate, they could be any upper-class gentlemen out for a stroll. Together, they look exactly like what they are: high-end enforcers. They silently take position at every corner of the room, in front of both entrances and along the open windows.
As for the woman herself, she looks positively enchanting in a diaphanous green dress that reveals the curve of her alabaster shoulders.
Our host walks forward and claps twice. Immediately, the room falls silent. When the new Lady of Washington speaks, she does so in a smooth and melodious voice that lulls me, rolls me into its rhythm until listening to her words becomes the most natural thing to do.
“Good evening gentlemen, welcome to my humble establishment! My name is Sephare Hastings and I cannot express how delighted I am to see you all here gathered tonight—”
“A shrew? The new boss is a shrew?” one of the leaders erupts. He bares his teeth, two of them black, and stands up with fury.
What Sephare does next is an exercise in control. She lifts the hem of her dress and runs behind the man with a speed that is just at the limit of what humans should be able to do. Too surprised by the suddenness of her reaction, the would-be rebel only manages to turn his head slightly before the diminutive blonde woman grabs it and smashes it down on his chair’s frame. Once, twice, thrice she strikes, and with the last impact, a dreadful snap resonates throughout the hall as the man’s neck bones shatter.
Sephare drops the dying man who collapses face first on the table. Once more, she displayed just the amount of strength that a human could reasonably wield, but twice the savagery.
The lady calmly removes her white gloves which she hands to one of her bodyguards while another fetches replacements from an inner pocket. She studiously puts them on in the ensuing quiet, the pathetic rattles of the paralyzed criminal the only perceivable noise.
It takes him a good twenty seconds to choke to death. His mouth opens and closes like that of a beached fish while his bulging eyes search the room for a salvation that none can grant.
Two of the guards grab the man under the shoulders as he takes his dying breath. Good idea, less of a mess.
Sephare makes sure the gloves fit before resuming her speech in the exact same pleasant tone.
“Please, kindly do not speak out of turn. Now, where was I? Oh yes! I am so glad you all decided to join us tonight! I have grand projects for your fair city, and I am sure that by working together, we will achieve all our dreams! Isn’t that exciting?”
The hardened felons mumble and bob their heads in respectful assent. Nothing like breaking spines like twigs to make a memorable first impression, it seems.
“Over the next week, I will be meeting each one of you in private to better understand your position and your strengths, and see which responsibility you can be granted. We have a lot of work to do and many rewards to reap, so let us all do our best together, yes?”
The barely veiled threat coupled with the promise of power and money smooth the mood of the visitors, which turns contemplative. How can they refuse when they have been presented with the alternative?
In short order, the meeting is adjourned, and I follow her to her office without a word. She closes the door behind us as I take in her workspace.
Sephare chose a corner office with a view on the Capitol building’s cupola half-hidden behind tall trees. A large desk of dark wood has been placed below the window offering said view for additional symbolism. As expected of Sephare, a corner of the office is dedicated to tea and its consumption. What does surprise me is the windowless wall currently covered with maps teeming with pins and colored notes.
I mechanically aim for the tea table but Sephare stops me with a gesture.
“Hold on, Ariane. Before we sit down, I wanted to ask you something.”
“How many bloodlines have you consumed so far?”
The non sequitur catches me off-guard. I count in my head. I have the Lancaster essence several times over, the Cadiz essence from Jimena, the Natalis essence from that rogue thirty years ago. Nami shared the Ekon resilience with me. Oh, obviously I have the Devourer essence. Who else? I have the Amaretta from Aisha, Erenwald from Ogotai and Vanheim from Urchin. That one is still inactive for now. I am still missing six.
“Am I correct in assuming that you do not have Hastings essence?”
“You are. Wait, are you implying what I think you are?”
She nods. When she next speaks, the coldness in her voice would chill mortal listeners. To me, it only means that she is dropping the mask.
“You have proven your worth as an ally beyond my expectations by completing your tasks so thoroughly,” she begins. I wince in reaction.
“Oh, do not be so harsh on yourself. The librarians could not be saved, and the gangs would not have bent without bloodshed. It only took you less than three weeks to complete the conquest and bring me its remaining leaders. Do you know that the witches practically begged me to protect them from you?”
She smiles at the memory, her thin fangs displayed in a show of greed and gluttony. Then, her expression returns to seriousness.
“I was sorry to hear about your losses. Feel free to replenish the ranks of your servants from the local population. As long as you do not go overboard, I will not begrudge you your share of the spoils. Now concerning the matter at hand, you have proven yourself to be everything I hoped for. That is why I shall offer you my blood.”
I stare, askance. My surprise is simply too much.
“I am of course grateful,” I reply, “but I have to ask. Why?”
“Why would I help you gain power? Do you know what will happen to this land soon?”
“Err. I have not considered the fate of the nation. I was busy staying alive.”
Sephare grins, as if I had told a joke.
“Fair enough. In the short term, this territory will be partitioned into areas of influences belonging to their respective Houses, independent from the clan or not. The Cadiz already control much of the south east from Charleston to New-Orleans, Florida and beyond. The Roland are more concentrated in the north east, and the Lancaster are struggling to get back into the game. Jarek is headed to Mexico. Even your precious Torran is working on creating a Dvor enclave. Everybody is scrambling for land right now.”
“Indeed. In this race, we newcomers are at a significant disadvantage. That is why we should stick together. As promised, I will help you claim Illinois, and then we may start solidifying our respective positions for the next great game. Can you guess what it will be?”
I already considered it many times.
“The old continent vampires will try to gain control.”
Sephare smiles like a proud parent.
“Precisely. So far, the presence of Constantine has been an effective deterrent against any… heavy-handed attempt at conquest. In time, it will not suffice. Do you know that even with our coming, there are less than twenty lords here?”
“It does indeed. When it comes to true war, not those regulated skirmishes, but true vampire war, only Lords matter. Anything below is but fodder. It might be hard to understand for someone who has never seen a war Lord fight…”
“You do?” she asks.
“Yes, I saw Lord Suarez take out a knight squad. He… dismembered them.”
“Then you understand. Mortal conflicts are resolved through several factors such as numbers, quality, strategy and determination. For us, battle-trained Lords and Ladies are the deciding factor, and we have precious few of them. We need another deterrent.”
“You mean me?”
“Yes, I mean you. It took you a mere three decades to become a Master and you are still sane. This speaks of a natural ability to grow as well as the means and willingness to Devour your foes. If you are a Lady by the time they are ready to come, they shall have to think twice before committing to the task.”
I hesitate at that.
“I am not some invincible champion, you know?” I object, but Sephare just shakes her head.
“I have seen you spar with Torran.”
“Your speed and strength are already above the average Master and you are still so young. And your style! Marvelous.”
“I was told that it was rough.”
“Yes, as expected from someone with only a few decades of experience. Do you know why Torran did not try to change it then? Why he merely helped you hone it through rigorous combat.”
“My style is good?” I ask, surprised.
“Of course. Your movements are the closest I have seen to that of a rogue in my entire existence.”
I gape at that revelation. A rogue? I fight like a rogue? This does not make sense.
“You are much more precise, cunning and unpredictable than a real rogue of course. In truth, it might become your greatest asset yet.”
Sephare pauses to gather her thoughts and resumes her pacing.
“Many of our kind’s fiercest warriors were combatants in their mortal lives. They learned how to fight and move using their bodies to the best of their abilities and this experience, those habits, are conserved during the change. Most train with sword, or spear, or mace, under the strict tutelage of the best master at arms they can find. It is a mistake.”
I think I am beginning to follow.
“You learnt to fight after you became a vampire, therefore you fought with your new body using new instincts. There are no unfortunate habits or reflexes for you to forget.”
“I must protest. Surely, a sword master at the top of their art would be more dangerous.”
“Not so, for only when nature and style are one can a vampire achieve true fighting mastery. Some of the knight masters at arms have succeeded. For now, your own controlled chaos is already a terrible weapon against one used to traditional fighting styles. You have but to continue on your path, see what works for you. All existing schools were started by one person.”
“I do not believe I am that kind of genius.”
“Not at wielding weapons, perhaps, but at being a vampire.”
I do not reply to that. She is not the first to credit me with such a strange achievement.
“So, Ariane, I will help you, and when the time comes, perhaps we will keep our kingdoms and then, who knows?” she asks with a mischievous smile. She then pulls her sleeve up and extends her arm.
Her aura is concealed, the natural state of those of us with great control. Despite her best efforts, I can still feel her underlying tension. The act of offering blood is one of exposed vulnerability. It goes against our very instincts. I step forward and take the arm without ceremony. I know the experience is uncomfortable for her, and hurry a bit out of politeness.
I lick once to prevent pain and bite down.
Sunlight hits my hood from the side. It feels like standing next to an open oven. Even turning my head is an impossible task. She says it will become easier, in time. She says my sense of taste will return. She says many things and I do not like it.
I was playing, testing my limits on those supposedly honorable bachelors and faithful husbands. It was good fun seeing them reveal their true colors and base instincts but I did not mean to attract her attention.
I love her, of course. She is so great! But I do feel like I was robbed of my decision.
I manage to deflect the tip of the man’s sword before he buries it into my chest. I manage a riposte but the enemy Master slaps it away with frustrating ease. He pushes me back until my back hits the table. I roll over it and send a silver plate flying at the man’s head. The attack buys me a few instants. It is enough to sprint past him and throw another plate. As I go through the door, I collapse a cupboard towards my pursuer. He kicks it, but the heavy piece of furniture is blocked by the narrow frame. I turn around.
The man stops.
“Well done. You are getting better at this. We will start working on manipulation next session. We move to the kitchen.”
The Rosenthal battle master is here to teach us how to survive and escape. Our relative weakness would make us easy prey to other vampires in a straight fight, and that is why I vow never to be caught in one.
One more afternoon, one more night. One more ball and one more game to stuff my sire’s portfolio with one more asset, one more unneeded favor. The bitch could already topple a government with some efforts, what else does she need? At this point, she is just playing because she cannot stop. One more party, one more knife in the dark. I need out. I need to get away from her pervading influence or I will go mad. I am too well-known though, with too many grudges against me. I need a fresh start.
I pull back and lick the wound clean, then lead the exhausted Sephare to her chair before sitting opposite her. I close my eyes and within moments, I am inside of my mind palace.
In the stone square where the statues of my conquest are gathered, her form kneels.
I return to the real world to find a visibly excited Sephare pouring me black tea. She is still weakened, and yet her enthusiasm is catching.
“You can use our powers my dear, can you not?”
I feel a new instinctive way to appear more mortal, move more humanly and even bring a pink sheen to my cheeks by expanding a bit of power, an ability I can surely develop with a bit of practice. There is something else as well, though as expected, her main ability eludes me.
“Yes, although not at the same level as you. I will never be able to walk under the sun for example.”
“Indeed? A pity. Nevertheless, please try the tea now!”
I pick up the steaming cup and dip my lips in the infusion. The warm liquid rolls on my tongue, the taste light and pleasant.
I can taste it. I can swallow.
I allow myself to smile as I put the cup down.
“Good? Hm. We all have one dish that we relish above all others. Would you care for some cake?”
My mind rebels at the very thought of anything solid.
“I fear I am still limited to liquids,” I inform my host. Her smile does not lose any of its strength.
“Oh, I am sure we will easily find—”
I interrupt her by raising my hand.
I sniff the air like a bloodhound. There, this smell. The strong and unmistakable perfume of roasted beans, a powerful accent and a deep fragrance.
“Is this coffee I smell?” I ask with unbridled excitement.
The deep, heart-wrenching sigh of abject betrayal that lifts my companion’s dainty chest speaks of a disappointment beyond words.
It takes only a week for me to wrap up everything and then return to Boston with John and a few promising administrators.
As for the others recent hires, it turns out that Jack, Wallace’s protégé and my agent, has managed to save their lives when the Mudmen and witches took over the warehouse to rescue the hostage. Most of them decide to stay in their home city under the employ of Sephare. The few who do not are given the funds and means to reach Marquette.
As soon as I arrive, I leave John in the arms of his worried ‘tender half’ Gladys and have King and Crews’ personal effects sent back home. David King had no family left, unfortunately.
Solveig ends up in my service once again and I find myself in the same room as before, now sadly empty. It will take Torran another week to finish his work and return, Nami traveled away to catch a giant squid, and Jimena is off on some confidential knight business which leaves me without company. As a result, I make some efforts to get acquainted with the manor’s population.
Melitone, Constantine’s Servant happens to be around and I take the time to thank her for her assistance. The bubbly woman dismisses my thanks immediately and embarks on a rant against the Speaker during which I learn that they are twins and that she does not hold him in high regard. I end up spending a few afternoons with her as we are both painters. Melitone is strange. She moves almost too well for a mortal.
With Wilhelm of the Erenwald, the steward, I learn how to take better care of Metis. Although he is busy as the butler and master of ceremony, he still takes the time to visit the stables at least once per night and I manage to learn quite a few tricks from him.
For example, Nightmares love having their teeth brushed, something that Metis now demands during every visit. I also learn that Nightmare teeth brushing is a spectator sport and that participants are encouraged to have a way to regrow fingers.
The other thing I learn is the Nightmare’s fondness for having sweet grass dipped in their drinking water. My big pony will gaze at the infusing liquid with unwavering fascination, sometimes using her nose to stir the concoction.
It then occurs to me that Nightmares are deceptively malicious tea drinkers with a monotonous, meat-heavy diet. Therefore, Nightmares are English. The revelation helps me understand and tolerate Metis’ snorting antics with renewed patience.
Wilhelm also helps me repair the blue ethereal shawl Nami had gifted me. It had suffered from the fire and had been reduced to a single strip. With his help, I restore the ghostly living fabric to its former glory.
Besides Wilhelm, I also get to know a few visitors from various clans, including Roland exiles who are the first members of their clan not to attempt to kill or capture me. I also spend some time with Constantine’s secretary and assistant, a mousy woman who happens to be a Rosenthal renegade.
They are apparently extremely rare.
The woman, whose name is Sophia, carries a blade everywhere. It is her refusal to forfeit violence and bend to the clan’s rigid laws and hierarchy that prompted her self-exile. She is only too eager to ‘test my mettle’; unfortunately, the fight is extremely one-sided.
She relies on her memory and mind to analyze patterns and compare them to the styles she already studied in order to gain an edge. Apparently, my own style is far too chaotic and unpredictable for her to succeed. Add to that my superior reach and even without using much of my speed and strength, she still doesn’t stand a chance. We practice for a few hours, mostly for her benefit, though I manage to become familiar with different schools of fighting which she imitates with mechanical precision.
When I mention developing her own style, she agrees with me in principle, but observes that she has difficulties doing so as she simply lacks the mental flexibility.
I find that I enjoy myself more than I expected.
During that week, I also receive a few messages. Ricardo successfully arrives in Marquette with my newly looted tomes. He and Merritt finally broker an uneasy peace after bickering over laboratory equipment. My financial assistance in creating two separate labs proved vital.
I also learn from my witchy deputy that the White Cabal moved in successfully, and that they have so far respected their arrangement to the letter. They were quite surprised to find a completely independent practitioner on my land. In a worryingly short amount of time, my poor friend received one duel and three marriage invitations, all of which she answered with extreme prejudice.
I stock up on coffee beans, to Solveig’s complete disbelief.
Finally, I pay Urchin. So far, all I had given him was pocket money on top of a blood supply. I did pillage a few resources from Alexandria and decide to give the Vanheim Courtier a bonus, as a gesture of kindness. To my surprise, he decides to spend most of it on clothes.
I direct my minion to Wilhelm and possibly the help of the tailor Gunther Goode who had so masterfully renewed my wardrobe. Only a true expert could salvage the situation anyway. To my delight, the work is accepted, and Urchin soon parades the manor in a well-cut grey suit that fits him like a glove.
The Vanheim reject is almost respectable now that he no longer wears rags. And because he substituted his beret with a nice bowler hat. And since he takes regular baths. And combs his hair. Also, he walks, instead of skulking. And his back is straight which means he does not look like he is constantly plotting some unsavory plan that involves sneaking into women changing rooms. The improvement to his diction helps as well. He even stopped leering.
All in all, I would say that I did good work. He is almost no longer a rescue.
With everything going reasonably well, for once, I hire the help of Salim and officially submit my claim to the state of Illinois.
There are no specific rules concerning this sort of claim. Constantine remained purposely vague when listing the requirements in his laws. In order to be eligible, one must demonstrate sufficient martial power and have the means to control their territory. The rest is up to the Speaker, who is free to accept or not depending on if he believes the candidate has contributed or will be contributing to the community.
I wiped out a Gabrielite base and an actual horde of Wendigos. That has to count for something.
On the second day of December and three days before Torran is set to return, I am finally summoned to the Progenitor’s office.
Winter has come to Boston. A heavy cover of snow blankets the entire bay, including the manor. The air grows crisp and pleasant and the nights long and productive. I sometimes ride through the pristine cover of white powder shining like crushed diamond when I successfully coax Metis out.
Tonight is different. I knock on the door leading to the Speaker’s antechamber and Sophia ushers me in without fuss.
“He is expecting you,” she says quietly.
I must admit that for all his flaws, Constantine does not keep people waiting.
“House Nirari. Come in,” he mutters as he finishes reading a report. Once I am sat, Constantine tucks the piece of paper away and removes a file from one of his many drawers. He opens it with slow and precise movements to remove my petition. I realize that the other documents contained look like the intelligence report he put away. He has been keeping an eye on me.
Constantine gazes at me from above his hawkish nose, assessing. I wait. The memories associated with this place surge and for a moment, I am tempted to pull on my fingers and check they are fine. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that I was tortured not two months ago. It feels like an eternity. I suppose that I should be grateful.
“I have no objection with your claim,” he says softly. “You have the means to control your state. You have, without a doubt, the martial might. You have proven yourself reliable and helpful on several occasions, including when you rid us of pests. You even have an unusual network of allies and acquaintances, as the trial proved.”
“I sense a but,” I reply with annoyance.
The Speaker nods.
“You have taken no steps to control the Great Lakes region, the location with the most potential, and this gave others an opportunity to make a conflicting claim. I was about to notify you of this fact to give you an opportunity to compete when you submitted your own petition, which is fortunate. Now, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to decide between two Houses.”
“What?” I sputter with uncontrolled outrage, “who would dare?!”
Constantine raises a tired hand to stop my furious tirade before it can even begin.
“Since a land can only have one king, I will figure out a way to select the most deserving party through a contest. You will be notified when the matter is decided. As to your question, the competing house is House Cadiz.”
Shock. Horror. Betrayal.
Constantine smirks bitterly. His parting remark stings more than I anticipated.
“You have had your first taste of true vampire politics. Welcome to my world, Ariane.”
“Lord Ceron will see you now,” the voluptuous Courtier announces with no trace of condescension. She leads me to an intimate office in warm tones and closes the door behind me. Lord Ceron stands up and bows while I respectfully curtsey.
It helps that I took the time to calm down. Incidentally, a pair of training dummies from the manor’s armory were mercilessly savaged by some barbarian with an axe. If anyone asks, I was otherwise engaged at that time. Somewhere else.
It hurts that the Lord did not change at all since the time he and I allied back at the fortress. It is with his assistance that Jimena extracted me from the clutches of the Lancaster.
He was well rewarded for his efforts with comprehensive details on Lancaster economic assets, a condition of his assistance. In retrospect, I was incredibly naïve to think of us as allies.
Lord Ceron looks as good as the first time I saw him. He still has the same deep blue eyes and curly dark hair around a handsome face, and this time I can tell that his imposing muscle mass marks him as a brawler more than a fencer. Or at least he was before he was changed.
“Good evening Lord Ceron, I hope you are well.”
“And you too, Ariane. Please, take a seat.”
I do so, hold my hands before me and start immediately.
“Is there any way you could withdraw your claim on Illinois?”
A pause. Lord Ceron considers me with widened eyes and chuckles, the old vampire equivalent of a full belly laugh.
“Ah, little one, your honesty is refreshing. I thank you for that. As for your question, I shall answer it with candor. You and I are after the same thing, therefore, we will compete for it. One of us will get it and the other will not. Such is our way.”
“There must be a reason why you would be after this land in particular,” I reply.
“Yes, the land itself. My faction within the local Cadiz clan is looking to expand, nothing less, nothing more.”
“I see,” I note without much surprise. An agreement at that point was a long shot to begin with. I can tell that Lord Ceron is considering a reply, and so remain quiet until he decides on what to say. I do not have to wait long.
“Since we have been on good terms for so long, I feel the need to speak plainly. May I?” he politely requests.
“The Cadiz branch I lead does not do this to spite you personally, we are merely rushing to consolidate assets while the current race is still at its beginning. To be direct, we are wary of Lady Sephare, your ally, and thus moving against your interests proved logical from our perspective. You may see her as only one amongst many, as do most of you who were born on this land, and you would be sorely mistaken.”
Ceron relaxes in his chair as his eyes grow distant.
“I opposed her quite a few times when she was fighting on the side of Mask. Do you know what differentiates one of us from a true villain?”
I do not react, indicating that he should continue.
“Villains have no bottom line. It might sound like a trite remark, but rest assured that it captures the essence of the problem. We are monsters. We kidnap, torture, and assassinate without batting an eye for that is our nature, and despite all of this, we still have a code, limits to how far we will go and who we will target. Sephare does not share such qualms. Do you know why she truly left the old world behind?”
I did request a briefing on her from the Rosenthal, and I also caught a glimpse of her memories when she shared her essence with me.
“She needed a fresh start. Her political situation was growing untenable.”
“Correct, yet incomplete. The reason why she ended up in dire straits is not through outside machinations but as a direct result of her own actions. She was marginalized within her own faction for attempting to assassinate Progenitor Hastings’ husband. Out of spite, I may add.”
I stare at Lord Ceron, waiting to see if this is some sort of joke.
“There is no definite proof, of course, or she would have been flayed one layer at a time, leaving her head and heart intact until the very last moment. She was still strongly suspected, so much that Hastings herself had no choice but to make her a pariah. She provoked her exile through her own hand, or at the very least, as a consequence of her reputation. And still, you elected to throw your lot with her, despite our warnings.”
Ceron smiles magnanimously.
“Your regrettable decision is not something I wish to hold against you in the long run. We may appear at odds right now, however this sad state of affair between us does not preclude a future agreement. We are not so heartless as to deny you your city. An arrangement could be made.”
For an instant, I am almost tempted to seek an agreement. It does not last.
Devourers do not give up before the game has even started. Lord Ceron should have known, just as he should not underestimate the resources I can pull to get what I want.
“We merely find ourselves at opposite sides of the chessboard,” he continues, “as always, this is not personal.”
“It is always personal for the one being attacked,” I retort, “You speak of her deviousness and lack of limit as if you were incapable of it yourselves? I cannot help but note that you did not attempt any sort of communication on the issue. Instead, you opened the hostilities without giving me the basic courtesy of an ultimatum. Now you stand here with a smile as if your maneuver constituted some sort of harmless prank. It does not.”
I click my talons on my chair and force myself to stop lest I start raising my voice. I must not display any anger. This is a game, only a game, whose rules have stayed unchanging for centuries.
In the end, Lord Ceron is correct. There is nothing personal about his clan’s scheme because there is nothing personal between us. We are neither friends nor even allies, and that makes us fair game for each other. We will now compete, with the loser graciously bowing out with their body and followers intact.
I will play that game.
I may not be the most intelligent and calculating vampire around, but I have a few strengths and one of them is that I know when to rely on the assistance of a skilled ally. By provoking me, the Cadiz have unleashed the very evil they had sought to contain. They think Sephare too devious? Not only will I call for her, I will also ask the support of the most devious and manipulative entity this side of reality.
I am going to bring Sinead into this battle.
Then, they will know devious.
“Good luck,” I tell him as I leave. It will not suffice.