The Dream. My old bedroom.
Marquette is still bustling with activity, but the nature of the night shifted. Perhaps leaving the city gave me the distance I needed to come to a realization.
Marquette is no longer a godforsaken mudhole.
When I came here for the first time it most definitely was. Now, even at night, ladies and gentlemen decked in good if conservative clothes walk the street, going to some fancy restaurants or the newly opened theater house. Even the Dream’s clientele has visibly improved compared to when it started. The rowdy lights and loud songs are muted, and I notice that Merritt wisely decided to make Harrigan’s security force shave and bathe.
The world is changing, including the things I built...
That is fine. I am changing too. I hope I will keep changing quickly enough. Torran told me tales of others who were left behind, who allowed themselves to drift. They do not truly fall, but their influence dims as they retreat to ever more parochial villages, their hearts filled with bitterness and the mistaken belief that they were cheated.
I must never let that happen to me.
With a sigh, I adjust my newest dress and open the window to jump out. That dress is the answer to an age-old dilemma. How can I appear as a leader of men without a dress that can also double as a mainsail? How can I walk through a salon and a battlefield with the same aplomb? And finally, is there a way to wear a dress and jump from a roof without said dress ending over my head, my unmentionables thus revealed for the entire world to see? I used to make do with good cuts and holding my hands on the sides of my knees but no longer! I have a new secret weapon.
Based on the battle dress design, I asked for a traditional cut above the waist with just a bit of cleavage to expose my collarbones. The forearms are left bare so that I can wear bracers if the occasion calls for it.
Below the waist, I wear trousers with a single layer of dress-like fabric sewed on. That way, it looks like a dress until I start running. Only then do the trousers become visible. So it’s not cheating!
Besides that, the new and improved battle dress also comes with a heart protector and some sheathes but no room for pistols and no additional armor. It is quite sturdy though, courtesy of Boothe, Wilhem’s tailor.
This one is red. I am making a statement.
Our war room is set in a new office building close to Merritt’s home and Marquette’s warehouse district. As soon as I am far enough away from the Dream, I don a dark cloak and walk the streets without worry. I could not afford to be recognized in my old establishment but out there, the old wisdom is still to not look too hard at the passing strangers.
The office is large, with three stories, proper windows and a side warehouse to store anything we might need ranging from spare wheels to muskets. The silver ingots used for crafting magical implements are kept in a safe upstairs.
As I confidently step inside, a pair of guards notice my approach. The younger one frowns and grabs for his shouldered rifle but he is instantly stopped by his partner, one of Harrigan’s veterans. The greying soldier shakes his head and the recruit swallows nervously before resuming his guard.
“Evening, gentlemen,” I generously greet as I go by.
“Mam,” they reply in unison.
Ah, it is good to be home.
Melusine is waiting for me in the soberly furnished lobby, just as I requested. Her own secured vault is under the main dormitory, the very same place where Jonathan blew up my shed, while Urchin’s is right here. He should already be upstairs.
“Have you slept well?”
“Your facilities were adequate, though I must ask, how did those two children know of what I was?”
“Merritt’s children? I did not hide my nature from them.”
“Is that wise? The little girl asked me to braid her hair!” she huffs, scandalized.
“Well, did you?”
Melusine half-pouts half-hisses.
“Then it was wise,” I reply with a knowing smile.
The proud Lancaster keeps growling behind me as we climb up to the top floor, passing a few employees still working at this late hour.
“I only did it because red hair needs a delicate hand! Ours is the rarest and most beautiful of colors.”
Melusine huffs and averts her gaze. The cubs have claimed yet another victim.
“Believe what you will!”
“Oh, I always do. Here, we have finally arrived.”
A guard in a leather overcoat opens the door to the state room, and we walk in.
A crowd has gathered around the central table upon which several maps have been drawn. There is Urchin, impeccably dressed and currently twirling a knife in his hands with preternatural speed. He apparently picked up on finger acrobatics and this is possibly the first time I have seen him move with vampiric grace.
Next to him, Sinead is helpfully showing my minion a few tricks to test his limits. He and his fiancée must not have been far to come this quickly. A lucky break, for me that is. For the Cadiz? Not so much.
Then there is Merritt, currently conversing with a Cabal mage I am pleased to see again.
John is not here, and the reminder of his absence dampens my good mood. Even if he was useful in the ambush and I thanked him for it, I can tell that something is bothering him. At his request, I granted him his first vacation since he entered my service and he has been spending more time with his wife.
I am not sure what to think. John was never Vassal material. They are meant to help us maintain our humanity while John draws out my own controlling tendencies. He is the perfect puppet, loyal to a fault, but also lacking the wit and initiative that Dalton had. At the same time, he has always been special, and I find that the distance growing between us darkens my mood.
Thankfully, I am quickly offered a distraction from those sad musings.
Melusine comes in after me and gapes like a complete bumpkin, to my utter delight. Oh, to savor the moment. To remember it forever!
“Pick up your jaw Melusine, we have work to do.”
“But… No! It’s… What!? HOW! A Fae HIGHBORN? HOW?”
She keeps protesting as I drag her forward, past Urchin who bows smartly without stopping his game.
“HE IS UNCHAINED! Ariane? Your Fae highborn is free! Free!”
“Hello poppet, and what a titillating morsel you have brought me tonight,” the prince declares in his usual velvety voice. Sinead has shed his disguise and his amber eyes and golden hair shine with an otherworldly glow. Wisps of blue flame dance in his pupils and his crooked smile only widens at the Lancaster’s surprise. Sinead apparently decided that if he was not going to hide, he would be the most visible of all in a white suit and garish golden shirt.
“I am delighted to see you, Sinead. Rest assured that these two are sworn to secrecy.”
“Of course, my dear, you are not the sharing type. Oh, but what is this I sense in your aura? You found yourself a lover?”
Is ‘well laid’ somehow written on my face? I hope not.
“Yes! And quite a capable one at that,” I retort with vengeful pride before realizing that it really is none of his business.
“Perhaps we should spend some time together so that you can compare,” Sinead replies in smooth and seductive Likaean.
I frown at the term he chose for sex. Likaean obviously possesses several words and idioms for lovemaking, and the one he picked implies feelings shared in a casual relationship. Very daring of him indeed.
“If only you could handle… all of my urges,” I reply in the same language, to Melusine’s renewed disbelief. The poor thing is positively flummoxed.
Sinead raises his hands in surrender, though he does not withdraw his offer and that is telling. He then rotates to let us pass.
“We can discuss more later, poppet. Let us start that war council of yours. I am eager to play.”
I nod and drag the nonplussed Melusine to our next guest, Merritt. I note in passing that the concentration of redheads in the room is much higher than in the rest of the country. Is there something with me and gingers? I shall have to study the question.
“Merritt, meet Melusine of the Lancasters, a semi-competent mage. Melusine, this is Merritt, my second in command,” I announce, making the presentations.
“Oh hello,” Merritt greets semi-guardedly.
“Are you the mother of Oliver and Alynna?” Melusine asks with interest.
“Oh my God, did they do something? Alynna did not ask you to help her, did she?” Merritt asks with concern.
“…no no,” Melusine replies, just a bit sheepish.
Oh, the blackmail material. Yes!
“Merritt is in charge of Marquette when I am not around. She will assist us in getting the supplies we need in a timely fashion,” I add to save my ally.
“And the reinforcements too if things get out of hand. Go finish your round Ari, we have a myriad things to go over,”
With a smile, Melusine and I turn to the Cabal mage.
“Good evening Frost, I did not expect to see you here.”
The old man smiles, his demeanor going from stern to grandfatherly in a heartbeat. His white hair and beard are impeccably trimmed, and he wears a dark grey suit that really complements his image of a benevolent elder gentleman.
Until the smile turns almost feral.
“There were mentions of werewolf packs. I have to see it with my own two eyes.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but there should be a lot of traipsing. Should you not leave this to the younger generation, someone less important?” I ask.
Frost considers me, tilting his head to the side in a gesture that vampires would consider predatory. I am amused, and keep a carefully neutral expression.
Frost is trying to determine if I insulted him. I can feel Melusine’s aura behind me shift from restrained to interested.
Eventually, Frost and I smile at the same time, aware of each other’s game.
“Do you know how long I have been at this?” he asks.
“A very long time? I know your aging slows as you grow in power.”
“You are correct, young one. I am, indeed, very old. Ancient, even! I asked to come here, because I do not want the younglings to risk themselves on what could be a very dangerous mission, you see? I am old and disposable.”
He grins and crosses his arms, waiting.
The excuse he gave me was a false one. Not quite a lie, a half-truth. What reason could he possibly have to come here? Interest in me? No, he had plenty of opportunities before and I am not so fascinating.
And finally, it strikes me. His lack of concern, his game, the eagle-like gaze and the head tilt. Frost is not just a kindly and protective senior member of the Cabal’s government. Besides that, or rather before that, he was a killer. Yes, I see it now, in the certainty of his stare. There is a… hungry quality to it.
“You miss it, don’t you?”
The grin widens.
“The hunt,” I continue. Melusine steps up and now we are a triangle of apex monsters. Oh, Frost might be a mortal and his envelope is now frail, but the aura I feel underneath that he briefly revealed, that was interesting.
“I hope you bring me something new and exciting, Ariane dear. A few more years and I might just die in my bed, and wouldn’t that be a shame?”
“Some consider it the best kind of revenge.”
“And they are completely wrong, it is merely the most convenient. Ah, but look at me rambling. I believe you have done all the little social niceties expected of you, so why don’t we move to the meat of the subject?”
“Quite right. And I hear the last two guests coming.”
As promised and a few moments later, the door is thrown wide open by an impatient Melitone.
The Servant and I have interacted only a few times, but it always struck me how similar she and Constantine are. They share the same aristocratic and exotic look, the same no-nonsense attitude and the same impatience to a world that does not move at their speed, nor matches their rational intellect. The only difference is that Melitone is slightly shorter and pretty, and that she is abrasive and direct where Constantine is distant and patient.
“I found this stumbling in the street. Is this yours?”
“Oh, evening everyone! Does anybody want some carrot cake? It’s my specialty!” a disheveled witch declares with a wide grin.
Some things apparently do not change.
When I met Violet in Alexandria, the dream-focused witch had been a bit lost and isolated. I can tell that she has made some effort with her appearance tonight, with even her winter dress sort of color-coordinated with the rest of her outfit. Her hair is also combed, for once.
Alas, she ruined the impression with some obvious last-minute rush. She chose a ditzy bright pink shawl that horribly clashes with the rest of her outfit, possibly because of the unexpectedly frigid air. The wind has blown through a badly attached ribbon and now brown strands erupt from a prim and proper bun. It would be barely acceptable in a teenager and Violet is obviously in her thirties.
I welcome her with a sympathetic smile. She will be instrumental in our next operation, and I am always willing to tolerate idiosyncrasies in talented individuals.
“Put the cake on the table, we are ready to begin,” I offer. As everyone settles in silence, an employee comes with refreshments including a cup of black coffee for myself to everyone’s disbelief.
I choose to remain mysterious and to not explain myself. Being mysterious is a form of gloating.
Both Sinead and Frost fall on the cake like Mongol raiders on a farming village, and both of them congratulate Violet for her excellent use of cinnamon, to the witch’s dismay.
“It was supposed to be a secret ingredient…” she mutters under her breath, apparently surprised at so many refined palates.
After we are done with pleasantries, I quickly explain our mission, including the possibility of having to face large numbers of coordinated werewolves which I justify as this being a possible cause of so many groups of scouts being spotted. Indeed, scouts are used to draw maps and maps are used to wage war. Before I can ask my advisors what they think we should bring, however, Melitone raises her hand.
“I am sorry for being the bringer of bad news, Ariane. Unfortunately, we received a rather rude missive from Mornay, official Master of Detroit. I’ll summarize the content for you and remove the flowery crap. He does not trust outsiders. He will only allow you to bring a second and five mortals. That’s it.”
I blink, stupefied.
“I am sorry, was I not to assist him?”
Melitone takes a placating expression.
“No need to protest, Ariane, you are preaching to the choir. The Roland clan called for help and since we accepted we are bound by the conditions they impose on us.”
“Fewer resources means worse results. Are my competitors under the same constraints?”
“I am sorry Ariane, you already suspected that Lazaro and yourself would not face the exact same trials. Rest assured that your additional difficulties will be taken into consideration.”
I say nothing, but I know what the reality is. A failure is a failure, and excuses will never turn it into a success.
“Very well. Then Melusine will come with me. For the mortals I’ll take Frost and four of his retinue, unless we are meant to bring in our own nourishment?”
“That would be a terrible breach of etiquette on Moray’s part. He would not dare it.”
I nod, and the rest of the council is dedicated to organizing our party. While we can only enter Detroit proper with a small group, nothing forbids me from having reinforcements around. Urchin will wait with mages and soldiers in a nearby village while we do our best to convince Moray that we are, in fact, here to assist.
An hour later, everything is set and it is finally time for a second council, one of a darker nature.
As the others leave the room, Sinead heads towards the liquor cabinet and helps himself to a crystal glass of amber liquid. He finds the room’s most comfortable chair and collapses into it, somehow managing to make the gesture both lazy and elegant.
“How is Sivaya doing?” I politely ask in his language. His expression is guarded, and the circumstances are making me feel unusually awkward.
“She is well,” he replies in English, “Her collaboration with your dimension mage, Ricardo, is going swimmingly. He figured out a reliable way to lock on specific realms using frequencies she had apparently regarded as too weak to matter. His success stings her pride, but her esteem for humans is growing as a result.”
His voice is neutral. This distance between us worries me.
“That is good to hear,” I comment.
“Ask me,” he orders curtly, apparently out of patience.
I take a breath and state my request, one I had so far only alluded to.
“Please help me take over the state by sabotaging my competitors.”
Sinead grins, though his smile has an angry edge. He sips from his cup and leans forward. In a heartbeat, he goes from dilettante to deal broker.
“You annoy me slightly, Ariane, do you know why?”
I shake my head. Who knows what that wastrel finds vexing?
“I could tell from your message that you need some assistance in making the other group… ‘look bad’,” he quotes with disdain.
“You are still underestimating me, poppet. You still think of me as a schemer and a rake, as superficial as my acting would make you believe. Sabotage? Pfah! You expect me to send contradictory orders, sow discord, attack supply routes and spread false intelligence, do you not?”
“If that is the case,” he retorts, “you only needed that Hopkins lad you mentioned. He would have done perfectly, yet you called me. You must understand that the mortals and I do not play on the same field. I am no human operative, poppet, I am an artist. A Likaean prince.”
His stare drills into me.
“You said that your ally, the Lady Sephare, knows much about your foes?”
“Yes, though be careful as she is three parts scorn and one part black tea. For the rest, you can rely on Violet to pass messages and I can bankroll all of your costs.”
“Excellent. This will be enough for a proper demonstration.”
Sinead tilts his head and looks through a window. He grows contemplative.
“I told you what games we play, and where true victory lies, but you forgot. Or you did not believe me, which I can understand. No matter then, I will give you a taste of what it means to play the true eternal game. Go wage your war, make your alliances and subjugate new foot soldiers Ariane. You will absorb yourself in your struggles and forget about me and the request you made. Only when the last pieces fall in place and the king is checked will you remember what you caused, and the rule I thought I had taught you.”
I must look suitably lost because the Likaean sighs heavily.
“The best victories are achieved when no one ever figures out you were playing the game, poppet. Rather than creating long term tensions with the Cadiz like obvious sabotage would, they will blame their failures on circumstances. Only the most suspicious old monsters will look for signs of foul play and when they do not find them, your reputation will grow. They will consider the Devourer princess and wonder: what if? What if she made it happen? That, my dear, is the perfect triumph from whence a legend grows.”
“Nice words,” I reply unamused, “you will forgive me if I wait for results before marveling at your unparalleled genius. And speaking of growth, I finally figured out where mages come from.”
Now that I know that he will help me, there was another topic I wanted to raise with my most indiscreet of friends.
“Congratulations on finding out how babies are made, Ariane.”
“Stop trying to distract me. I always suspected but I had little proof, until now that is. Do you know that we have a slew of mage toddlers born from mundane mothers recently?”
“Is that so? How fortunate.”
“I am talking about your bastards, Sinead.”
The Likaean smiles slightly. Most of the babies were born from those of my employees who did not take the necessary precautions. At first, I was merely suspicious of the unusually high number of births, yet only a look at the babies’ hair was enough to understand the situation. They were like molten gold, like Sinead’s own.
“You already knew it,” I conclude at his lack of reaction, “you knew that mage bloodlines come from a Fae ancestor.”
“I find it amusing that our children are stronger than us. In our home worlds, they would be but amusing toys with little potential, yet here they are the only ones who can alter reality with any degree of success, simply because they happen to be local while we are not,” he continues with no trace of resentment.
So, he did know.
“And now you so happen to have a new generation of spellcasters growing up in your domain,” he continues, “free for the taking, and with your own retainers to train them. You are most welcome.”
I freeze, stupefied.
“You… did it on purpose?”
Sinead swirls the liquor in his glass with that typical air of light condescension that heralds the start of yet another lesson.
“My actions can benefit you while still being pleasant for me, a lucky happenstance if you will. The mortals have a term for that, I believe. Was it serendipity? Yes, serendipity.”
He licks his lips, tasting the word. When he returns his gaze to me, any hint of amusement is gone.
“Any prince of Summer who wants to live past the age of ten learns how to sow seeds and achieve multiple goals with a single word. Those mages growing in your backyard will be of use to you unless I overestimate your recruitment skills.”
I frown, realizing the obvious.
“You ‘help’ me far too much, Sinead, especially when I do not ask for it. What are you really after?”
The Likaean does not answer. He upends the glass and swallows its content, his face growing tense.
“We both know that we like each other and that all our arrangements and pacts are but formalities. You have already assisted me more than you should have, and I have returned the favor through my teachings. What do you want me to say, that I find you endearing? That from the moment you saved me from the cult, I have watched you with a longing only made more dire by the thrill of my inevitable doom, should I act on my heart’s desires? Should I explain how your shows of kindness and ruthlessness, of efficient violence tempered by the odd bout of adorable quirkiness are like a breath of fresh dew on the withered fields of my happiness? There, I said it.”
Did he just declare?
“Now be a dear poppet, and grow strong quickly so that I may return home, and you can finally see me as I am.”
I remain silent.
Sinead’s expression is candid with the smallest dash of vulnerability. I can imagine how incredibly rare it is for someone of his rank and stature to bare themselves so. The pitiless society he came from would chew him then spit him out if he were to reveal this degree of vulnerability.
As for his honesty, I do not doubt it. Just as he started talking, he opened his aura to me without restraint. I can taste it even now, in all its fiery glory. I do not think that even a master at control could imitate the genuine affection it radiates at that moment.
And I realize that I do like him, after a fashion. I like Torran very much. I will not betray his trust, yet Sinead is and has always been the forbidden fruit.
A fruit I do not intend to pick.
“I will not follow you,” I admit after a while even though I suspect it will hurt him.
“I am sorry Sinead, but my world is here, and it apparently needs me. I will not leave my life behind to go gallivanting in that cutthroat court of yours.”
Contrary to my expectations, the Likaean appears unaffected by my rejection. He finally closes his aura and walks towards the door, a sign that our conversation is at an end.
“I know. In any case, you asked your question and I gave you an answer. I want to go home, and I want you to survive and grow. Let us work towards that end, yes?”
Then he leaves without turning, closing the door’s state room behind him.
I would be lying if I said I was expecting this. I always knew that the way we helped each other went far beyond whatever arrangement we had, I never thought that Sinead would openly explain why.
Well, it does not matter. I have Torran and I am not interested in building a harem, especially from people I cannot entirely trust. Sinead plays too many games on too many layers. Sometimes, it scares me.
With a sigh, I gather a few maps we will need and head towards the Dream to pack.