Eleven vampires stand around two corpses. Melusine silently took her place by my side, while on the left, the knight squad and Jimena arrayed themselves in a V formation. The last face of this uneven triangle is formed by the Cadiz. Lazaro and another master stare at Fenris’ remains with glassy eyes. Next to them, a woman with dark curls and a man with grey eyes under blond hair show various expressions of grief and regret. Their party has suffered the most from this adventure.
It occurs to me that we have reached a critical mass. Four hundred werewolves could overwhelm anything short of a battle lord if the vampire were to stand and fight. With nine masters, we have an army.
“What happens now?” Lazaro asks with a wary voice.
“As per our agreement with the Speaker, we follow Ariane’s plan. Their warlord Augustus will lead his packs north and disperse them.” Sergei answers in a tired voice.
Lazaro nods, seemingly resigned. His companion does not.
“Is that it? Was your outrage just a show?” he hisses with obvious hatred.
“You are in no position to criticize me, Reyes, and particularly not before our friends,” Lazaro retorts with a chastising glare, but the other is unfazed.
“Your friends, perhaps, not mine. You can take your honor and image and go greet the dawn.”
“Last warning Reyes, you have exhausted my patience.”
“Is that a challenge?”
The words were exchanged in a clipped, fast tone. The rest of us do our best not to stare.
This is unprecedented for me. Until now, all vampires had stuck to a strict etiquette. This public outburst surprises me greatly. What manner of conflict could have caused two warriors who have fought side by side to despise each other so?
“I accept your challenge.”
“Witnessed by the knights,” Sergei announces with obvious regret.
Melusine discreetly bumps my arm.
“Witnessed by clan Nirari.”
“Witnessed by clan Lancaster,” she says in turn.
“The duel will take place before our fortress in half an hour. Make sure your affairs are in order, Reyes.”
“And the same to you.”
The Cadiz then split up. The Masters disappear, each in one direction. The two Courtiers remain, looking quite lost. They exchange a glance then leave together at a much slower pace.
The awkwardness remains. Such an embarrassing display, unworthy of us. The only good thing is that there were no mortals to witness our shame.
“We will go to the Cadiz hold, Ariane,” Sergei says with a complicated expression.
“Can I count on you to make sure your… ‘allies’ vacate the area?”
And soon, only Melusine and I are left.
We inspect the mass of werewolves walking back to their camp in a strange mix of elation and grief. Some are in wolf form, some, in human. There is some fighting, some crying and a lot of hugging. Augustus and a few of his lieutenants are at the tail of the formation, helping along the most apathetic members.
The ferals have been rounded and corralled, for now.
“Could you please get Frost and Melitone to the hold while I talk to Augustus?”
The redhead blinks and returns her focus to me.
“Oh, and one last thing,” I add, because I am now certain, “you have proven yourself over the past few days. If you want to take over the north, it is yours.”
“If we win,” she replies with a small smile.
She is right. The contest is not over until Constantine passes judgement. I do believe we have an advantage now, but it will also depend on whether the Speaker considers an Augustus-led horde as a greater danger or not. Melitone’s support does not imply her brother’s approval.
Melusine runs to the trees and I leave Metis, who had impatiently been waiting behind, to snack on prime wolf cuts. I walk back to Augustus on foot, taking my time.
From that distance, the horde is a strange thing held together by some vague herd instinct. The packs, once united, now start to dislocate in units of varying sizes. I am reminded of a drunken crowd at the end of a summer feast, only, with more sorrow and slightly less clothes. They are a sorry lot.
When I reach Augustus, even his guards only give him a passing glance before turning their efforts to the most catatonic members of the group. Many of them are women, I notice. It figures.
The leader himself is still standing strong to offer a powerful façade to those who look up to him for comfort. His monolithic aura shows no weakness to those with inferior senses. Only my own expertise reveals the turmoil underneath.
“Ariane,” he soberly greets.
“How are you doing?” I ask, both out of concern and out of respect.
“Now is not the time to be introspective.”
“I suppose,” I reply.
It takes a minute before he finally asks his question.
“So, what happens now?”
“You can leave as promised. The other vampires will adhere to the bargain I made.”
“That is tremendous news,” he says with a heavy sigh. He rolls his shoulder under the coat which he has donned once more, and I can tell that the burden on his mind has lightened ever so slightly.
“You should probably still leave quickly.”
“I know. We will walk north as soon as possible. My new pack and I will… dispose of the ferals, in a humane way.”
I do not speak. What is there to say? How would I feel if I had to kill Jimena after she turned rogue? Words of comfort would not suffice.
“I am concerned about food. We are running out of supplies and we have no way to sustain such a large group.”
“I am sure I could negotiate the purchase a herd or two,” I inform him after thinking about it. It would be best if the risk of creating more ferals was reduced, in case starvation pushes some over the edge.
“That would be appreciated. I have no way to repay you for now, but I would consider it a favor.”
“It is done,” I declare. I always have a small stash with me when traveling with many mortals. It will be enough to buy a few dozen sheep from nearby villages, even if we must pay a premium.
“Good. One last thing before I forget. Your, ah, minion was looking for you.”
“Jeffrey, you mean?” I reply, thinking about the little blabbermouth.
“Yes. He’s over there.”
I follow Augstus’ finger to Jeffrey’s scrawny form. The little goof is waving frenetically with a stupid smile plastered on his face from the back of the formation. June stands next to him looking bored.
With a frown, I join them feeling like I am being summoned.
“Hey bosswoman! When are we leaving?”
“What do you mean, we?”
“Well I said I’d be your man, right? So that means I gotsa follow you to your town, right?”
“Aw come on, you wouldn’t throw me out like an old sock, would you? Forcing me to go back on my word like a scoundrel? Was I not a good lad?” he asks with puppy eyes. June’s eyes roll in their sockets.
“Well, I suppose you were useful, true,” I admit reluctantly.
“It’s settled then! Me and my friends will live on your land and sniff out your foes and piss on their doors and whatnot.”
“Hold on,” I interrupt, “what friends?”
“Come on bosswoman, I told ya I was a leader, yeah? There are plenty of lasses and lads here who don’t want to return north. Ya know, on account of losing everything, the horrible memories, and abuse. They can come with and we will all do the things. All the things. Great hunts all around. Your own personal horde to call, except on weekends. And during the full moon, yeah?”
A handful of girls and two boys of uncertain age detach themselves from the stragglers. Their faces show a mix of fear and determination.
They did honor their promises.
“Well, I suppose it would be acceptable,” I concede. Having a handful of werewolves at my beck and call would certainly be an advantage. I would perhaps have the prestige of being the first vampire to command such a group! As for the smell, there are plenty of forests and wild lands around. I can probably buy them a farm out of the way until they are needed.
No sooner have I accepted, than ten other wolves detach themselves from the group. Then twenty more. Then another twenty. Eventually, over fifty werewolves stand in a half-circle around the very proud and very naked young man.
“That’s settled then, thanks bosswoman! Everyone, follow June to the camp and grab some clothes. We must link up with Frost’s lads before dawn,” he yells to the crowd.
I smile and pretend that I did not just get played like a fresh daisy by a butt-naked guttersnipe half my age. Well done, Ariane, queen of the smelly mutts. Well done indeed. Now you need to buy a whole bloody village with attending woods. Farewell, my savings I had stashed to build myself a gun factory. Farewell! Thine demise is mine to bear. Out, out brief candle!
The group I just took ownership of gathers in a large pack that now walks with a more determined step. Their cohesion separates them from the rest of the horde, and so does their appearance. I notice that many of the members look younger and that almost half are women, a significantly higher proportion than normal.
And then a shape emerges from the retreating mass. A man I had not seen for a long time.
Alistair’s sandy hair is the same, but his green eyes are now deep-seated in a face made more angular by hunger.
“Mr. Locke,” I greet him with a smile. The man stops and his posture changes. He stands straighter, and pretends to salute me with an imaginary hat. The move is elegant, and I find myself chuckling.
“Ariane. A pleasure as always. I apologize for my state of undress as I remember that nakedness makes you uncomfortable.”
“Well if you turn to your left, you will see hundreds of butt cheeks quivering on their way to a camp so…”
“You have grown accustomed to it.”
“I have pushed those sights to the back of my mind and after this crisis is over, I will have to paint ten landscapes to wash away the sight of all those genitals.”
“Ah yes, a lot of painful memories were made here,” the man announces somberly, “at least it is over.”
“What will you do?” I ask to distract him.
Alistair shakes his head before focusing on me again.
“Did I mention that my father was a doctor? The call to heal remains. A lot of people here will need help to recover and I will provide it. We need a larger pack for a while, and Augustus has the power to bring us together. Besides, he, most of all, needs help.”
“I wanted to ask; I see no elders among you. Do you also never age?”
“No, we can age, albeit more slowly. We were just not given the opportunity to do so,” he replies with a bitter smile, “ah enough sadness. I came here to tell you that we would take the last horn with us.”
I almost forgot about that.
Gathering tools of control is unwise if the would-be controlled are aware that you are doing it.
“And also return this. Here,” he says, and gives me a bramble.
The root-like appendage is still lively despite the current season. Its many thorns shine ominously, ready to rend the flesh of those foolish enough to approach it. Alistair is holding it by its severed base, which appears to have been cut by a tool of unnatural sharpness.
In fact, it looks eerily familiar. Those thorns line the walls of my mind fortress.
“Alistair, where did you get that?” I ask in a deceptively calm voice.
“It grew where you broke the chains, Ariane, and then it fell off. I figured that you would not want others to notice. Not to worry, I doubt that anyone else paid attention during the fight.”
“I see,” I reply. I pick up the strange piece of vegetation between two talons. It flashes purple and disappears into nothing.
Alright. Consider me disturbed. I raise my eyes to the Watcher but I get nothing. It feels more distant now that the main event of the night is completed.
“You are a woman of many secrets, Ariane,” Alistair continues, his eyes as wide as saucers.
“Indeed. I just wish the secrets were not kept from me as well. Please forget what you just saw, yes?”
“My lips are sealed.”
The conversation comes to an awkward close as I stare speechless at my now empty hands.
I cannot fathom what just happened. I need to consult with Torran. He will know something, or who I should talk to.
In the meanwhile, I have a duel to bear witness to and I am already quite late.
We gather in a circle, spaced evenly. There are ten of us in battle regalia, most still covered in drying blood but none hurt. Twelve fighters in total. A force sufficient to depopulate a small city in a single night.
Of course, and given the occasion, I would prefer to attack the twelfth man. Constantine’s torturer has an air of meekness that I do not trust and by his side, an executioner axe hangs with its blade well-used. He was not supposed to interfere, but I assume that a clause in his orders permits him to defend himself.
Behind us, the stocky form of the Cadiz hold offers a fitting background to this scene from another age. A duel under the stars, for honor and glory.
All the mortals keep their distance, including Melitone who is currently standing next to a curious Frost. The two opponents slowly walk from the fort’s interior, now clean and proper. Lazaro gets in first. He wears an old-fashioned ensemble that makes him look like a conquistador or an opera villain, in yellow with trims of gold. In contrast, Reyes has chosen red. The angry color clashes against the background in a statement that is addressed as much to Lazaro as it is to us.
I still have no idea what would cause such a rift between the two allies. I was late and could not afford to ask questions. Now the time to do so has passed. The atmosphere is heavy with the promise of a violence and no lust for vengeance or retribution comes to make us forget that one of us will be ash before the hour is done. There will be no winner here tonight.
“Before we begin, we knights are in the habit of seeking a last-minute arrangement. Can you two, who were once friends, not reach an agreement and let reason prevail? Have you not already lost enough?”
“For the death of my Servant and friend I demand the punishment of Lazaro’s little minx. I will have satisfaction, one way or another.”
“Miguel’s death was his own doing. You will not touch a hair from my Servant’s head.”
“I won’t have to, because she will not survive your fall, Lazaro. I should have spiked myself the night I decided to follow you.”
“Yes, you should have.”
They draw. Sergei sighs dejectedly before letting them loose.
“You may begin.”
They launch themselves at each other with a resentment that only a broken friendship can bring. Rather than anger or fear, they show expressions of outrage mixed with anguish and for the first time in my life, I find myself regretting having to see such a spectacle.
Lazaro fights with a sword and dagger while his foe favors a foil. Reyes is more nimble but the Cadiz leader compensates by forcing him back through powerful swings.
I note in passing that I could probably kill either of them, though fighting them both would be impossible.
Eventually, the challenger finds an opening but it proves to be a ruse. Lazaro masterfully baited him into an attack and manages to parry with his dagger at the last moment. Though the foil draws a dark line across his flank, Lazaro’s counter strike is devastating, carving his opponent’s chest almost in twain. The combat ends shortly afterward with a stab and a sweep.
The body falls on the ground with a burst of blue flames. Grey ash against stained snow.
Only sobs come to greet the victory.
With two red lines marring his cheeks, Lazaro cleans his blades and carefully replaces them in their sheath. Sergei’s voice rings hollow as he announces the obvious result.
I look at the ground and contemplate my own mortality. If Jimena had been slightly wrong, this is all that would have remained of me on the arena’s sand all those years ago. The Cadiz Master had been centuries old. How much knowledge had he accrued, how many lives did he touch, to finish here like this?
I am not sure that I like this resolution very much.
To my surprise, Lazaro turns to me after he is done. All the other vampires have already moved away to leave him to his grief.
“I apologize for this display, señora. A shameful end to a shameful attempt. If you still want Illinois, it is yours. I withdraw from the competition,” he declares, then turns away.
Melusine walks up to me. She had been waiting nearby. She crosses her arms but says nothing. Melitone joins us as well, her striking and confident face now showing some distress.
“I believe… congratulations are in order?” she starts hesitantly.
At first, I keep silent as I feel a small tug in my essence. It reminds me of those calls of fate that have served me well so far, only this time it appears more deliberate.
“I need a walk. I will return soon,” I answer, my rebuke to her remark left unsaid. I turn around and walk to the closest edge of the forest.
I slowly cross the packed snow, many prints bearing witness to days of battle and maneuvering. I quickly reach the woods and hide under the canopy. Then, I follow a small path that snakes between several rocks up to a clearing.
I stand facing a tall stone raised like a menhir, with a wind-battered pine tree at its top. The tug stops.
I smile in defeat. I am after all, reaping the consequences of my actions. And so, like all good audiences played by the actors, I clap.
The sounds echo throughout the tiny opening. In the distance, a bird takes flight.
And from behind the stone, a man emerges, his hair the color of gold and his eyes like two spheres of amber. He walks with absolute confidence and bows with graceful disdain.
“Incredible performance, Sinead. I can but wonder how you did it.”
“Must you? Or you could just accept my genius for what it is, and not let knowledge pollute the mystique I aim for,” the Likaean casually declaims as he approaches me.
Do I need to know?
I want to know.
“There was no way you could have predicted the duel.”
“Of course, there were ways. Violence was one of the possible outcomes of the conflict between those two. Lazaro could also have called for a trial. But then, a trial would have shown the Cadiz fragmenting to a Speaker who favors harmony above all else. And if Lazaro had lost, why, the Cadiz would have been disqualified by the death of their candidate.”
Sinead is quite close now and I taste something manic in his aura, something that seeks release but cannot, and I think I know why. This thick reality constrains him, and the height of winter only makes those shackles heavier. The prince is suffering and at the same time, he is pleased by his success. The storm of emotion erodes his normally unflappable character.
Sinead rests his finger below my jaw and pushes up until our eyes are level.
“You are still a child, poppet. We Likaeans do not play with stochastic events, we use them as a veil of deceit. A word from yours truly, a few falsified letters, and two Servants who should have known better found their way out of the Cadiz defenses. A dangerous tryst at a desperate time. A passing patrol. Tragedy strikes, and here we are. Reyes’ Servant loses his life while Lazaro’s does not, thus creating a rift that cannot be bridged. Sorrow leads to resentment, for who is to blame?”
I place my hand against his chest to push him away before he gets too close. He is warm under my palm, with an enticing perfume. My jaw aches with the desire to KILL HIM because he touched a Servant, and yet… such a WORTHY lover he would be.
“I do not need to control every occurrence to guide a plot to its satisfactory conclusion, my dear. Schemes are not strongboxes to shackle but waves to ride,” the man continues.
He is flirting with danger and I think he likes it. It annoys me because the burden of control is placed solely on me.
“Was the show to your satisfaction, poppet?”
“I am very much impressed,” I reply in Likaean, and I am. To control events to such a degree with so little time to prepare involves a large amount of skill and just the tiniest bit of luck. Impressed? I am amazed.
“I only wish you had not killed the Servant.”
“Ah, yes, the old taboo on leaving the pets alone. You are but victims of your nature, poppet.”
“Why do you try me so?” I reply with a frown.
“Think nothing of it, my dear. I am merely suffering from intense frustration and shall return to your home base promptly. Why, I believe your dream mage would enjoy my company.”
“What!? Leave the poor thing alone! And Merritt too!”
“Oh, the grieving widow. It has been long since I last had guilty sex.”
“I take my leave,” the man replies. He steps back behind the rock and his aura disappears.
In one moment, only the tracks in the snow confirm that our meeting was not a phantasm. Even his smell is gone, and I cannot hear a heartbeat.
I could track him, but I will not. He helped me tremendously tonight and I will allow him to make an exit. Besides, I cannot be sure that I will remain in control if tensions rise.
The death of Reyes’ Servant bothers me on a fundamental level. I do not know if Sinead anticipated how deeply upset I would be, and I am starting to think that he would have done it anyway.
There was something a bit spiteful in his demeanor tonight, though it did not seem aimed at me. He was still more aggressive than normal.
He was still quite obviously trying to dazzle me, and he did succeed. I suspect he was also punishing me for underestimating him, only, he had remained playful so far.
Could he…. be jealous?
No. No it cannot be. Not someone as detached and arrogant as him. Surely the tension is getting to his head. If he were truly jealous, he would not be going after all those other women, would he?
Pah, stop it Ariane, this is all in your head.
The walk back to the hold is a lonely one, until a mage sprints from the direction of our camp.
“Miss Ariane?” the man asks, out of breath.
“Councilman Frost says… he says that something happened. He was resting his eyes when he got a dream message from Marquette. Mage Merritt was attacked. She is grievously wounded! And the assailants took her kids!”