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Ezekiel clasps his hands and frowns in an attempt to look more respectable.

“Following a, ahem, rather forceful insistence from one of the members of our little coterie…”

Three pairs of eyes turn to me.

“…I shall introduce the arcane mysteries of rituals slightly ahead of schedule. Now, Terrence, please remind us how we normally get the symbolic element of casting.”

“From the prepared circuits in our own gauntlets, or I guess you could slap some on the ground with a bit of chalk.”

“Yes indeed,” Ezekeil answers, bristling at the informal answer, “and what are the limits of such methods, Margaret?”

“They place the burden of visualization on the will of the caster, forcing her to exert herself tremendously,” the dark-haired girl answers with the solemn voice of a bishop at mass.

“Correct. You cannot glance at your gauntlet to look at the runes for help, especially not while in the middle of intensive tasks.”

Such as running away from me.

“And so, the gauntlet and its runes are a convenient yet demanding tool. Rituals, by comparison, allow us to cast spells of great powers provided we have… what, Ariane?”

“Time, material, location, and company,” I automatically answer, quoting Loth.

“Company?”

“Some spells demand several practitioners working in concert. Like Skargard artillery spells. You need three people for that if you want more than a few shots.”

“Yes, yes indeed. Hmm. We will address such spells at a later date. A much later date, as they require a very high degree of training, compatibility, and trust between the casters.”

We all look at each other without comment.

“Anyway,” Ezekiel continues with some embarrassment, “you are correct. A ritual requires a proper surface to inscribe the rune. The materials themselves are quite important as well because using chalk will barely give you an edge. Time is, of course, necessary if you want to write down more than three symbols. A ritual is therefore demanding, but they make casting a spell significantly easier. Any spell with more than twelve symbols will require a circle, even for the more experienced mages.”

I bet Frost could do twenty and look you in the eye with a smirk as he cast it. Not to mention Semiramis. Ezekiel knows a lot of theory but few people.

“It is still a bit early, but you have all been diligent and I think a small break is in order. We shall head outside to a proper ritual location.”

Terrence raises his hand, droopy eyes widened in apprehension.

“When you mean outside, you do not mean the city proper, right?”

“No, Terrence. We will go to an abandoned barn a few hundred yards away. I merely wish to limit the risks of our living quarters catching fire.”

“Okay…”

I am slightly annoyed by the use of that detestable acronym, and so I decide to tease the lad a bit as we climb up the stairs and out into the empty alley.

“What is the matter Terrence, afraid that some horrible fiendish creature will descend upon you?” I ask with a bit of fang.

“Not at all,” he deadpans, “merely that I must call her mother and listen to her whine until the rooster crows.”

I smile at that. Wit! From that bore! Perhaps I judged him too hastily.

“You know, I could rid you of her, for the right price…” I whisper in a sulky voice.

“I’m afraid I must refuse. I would not want to deny the devil his last few years of tranquility.”

Alright, that was not bad. I allow myself a chuckle.

Terrence and I close the procession as we four cross our way through the abandoned district, with Margaret sometimes casting an incredulous glance backward. I realize that I only look slightly older than them, and it was apparently enough for the socially deprived young man to form a bond.

We must be quite the show, them in crimson robes and me in my more traditional blue one. I suspect that any pedestrian witnessing the moment and trying to guess which one of us might be the blood-drinking immortal monster might act on false assumptions. In any case, it does not take long for Ezekiel to lead us to a derelict factory.

The older man fiddles with the rusty lock protecting the gate into the inner courtyard. He finally manages to coax the thing open and we make our way through piles of rotten crates and broken supplies. The building itself is pockmarked bricks and misery, slouched like an old bar fly under a filthy coat of grayish snow. Only after we have entered its innards does Ezekiel allow himself some light and my companions stop stumbling around. The smell of mildew had, outside, been tolerable.

“Jesus, what a dump,” Margaret swears, finally breaking her queen of darkness persona.

“Yes, well, at least we do not risk collateral damage,” Ezekiel replies defensively.

“Except on ourselves,” I finish. I can survive a falling building, but between the frail mage and a support beam, I would bet on the harder contestant.

“I assure you that I have used these facilities before and we are quite safe. Here,” our fearless teacher says as he goes around the derelict building, lighting lanterns. They cast dancing shadows on the walls as they come to life one by one.

In the center of the empty floor sits a silvery circle dug into the grimy floor. Contrary to my expectations, the interior is clean besides some dust and the terrible smell fades away from the continuous influx of fresh air coming from the still-open door at our back.

“The circle you see will serve as a base for the following ritual. You will draw the remaining symbols of the classical mage bolt using the paste you will find in the container by the entrance, then cast the spell at this target.”

At the end of the factory, Ezekiel has painted a series of large concentric circles with a bull’s eye in the middle. I can tell from the numerous impacts marring the wall that we are not the first to test the old wreck’s structural integrity.

“Let us start the exercise. Margaret, you go first. Do you remember the runes?”

The young woman straightens her back and marches through the dust like a duchess at her own wedding. She picks up a pot of paint and brush and marches right back. The impression is only slightly ruined by her difficulties opening said pot. Eventually, she applies a thick paste inside the circle forming the four necessary runes for a bolt: power, momentum, projectile, and direction. They are all rather basic and it does not take long for her to succeed, then link them together according to the western standard runes of inscription. Power comes first, then she links momentum and direction together as a secondary principle with direction as the catalyst. She delicately places the pot and brush on the side and stands in the middle of her work with a hint of worry.

“You are doing well, Margaret. Just cast,” Ezekiel encourages her. She turns to us and we all show signs of support. Reinvigorated, the apprentice witch raises a naked hand and bellows:

“Bolt!”

Her croaking voice does not prevent her success. A translucent bolt of force erupts from the edge of the circle, distorting the air in a wide area. A thud sounds as the missile impacts the far wall and more dust rains down from the rafters.

The mortals sneeze.

Ezekiel trots over to open the door of the far end to create a draft of fresh air before tuberculosis and the Watcher knows what else wipes out the newest generation of mages in one fell swoop. I have rarely been so glad not to have to breathe.

Ezekiel’s foresight is proven when he steps to the circle and peels off the now solidified paste, removing the symbols cleanly and easily. We will each have the opportunity to work with a pristine setting.

Terrence is next. He appears much more worried at first, and yet he calms down and focuses as soon as the tracing begins. He takes no break between drawing and casting. The pot is barely down before he, too, successfully impacts the target.

We clap as soon as our arms are no longer covering our heads.

Finally, my turns come.

“Hold, Ariane. I know that casting does not come so naturally to you, and I made some inquiries. I believe that you would perform better if we were to add a blood rune to your construct.”

“I thought we would work without blood magic?” I ask, a bit surprised.

“Indeed, and this will be valid in the future. In this case, we will make an exception. It might take too long for you to activate all four runes and the purpose of the exercise is to experience ritual magic anyway. Adding a blood rune will bring the spell closer to… the nature of your condition,” the man finishes hesitantly.

Ah, I see. I was repeatedly told that vampires take on blood magic more easily than its less sacrificial counterpart. It would be unfortunate to limit myself to learning what I am good at, but for the sake of the exercise… I suppose.

“Remember that power is no substitute for technique and effort.”

“I know,” I inform the man somewhat drily. I take the brush and step in the circle. I trace the runes at four times the speed of the mortals, drawing both on my control and my drawing experience. Power. Momentum. Projectile. Direction. I finish and place the pot on the side.

The last part will be done without a brush.

I pull my sleeve up to reveal a pale forearm, place a talon against an artery and slice deeply. The two young ones hiss in sympathy but I ignore them. The pain is nothing compared to…

“Which fingers?”

I push the memory away and smear two fingertips with dark blood. Tracing the last rune is a time-consuming and tedious process, not least because I need to add ‘paint’ several times. Eventually, the work is done.

The blood rune is visually different from the rest. Power is square and undaunted. Momentum is lithe and spiked like a lightning fork, but blood is alive. It twists organically like some nightmarish being. I feel kinship with this one. It was drawn from another script, more ancient and primal than the well-ordered code now used by astronomers and mathematicians. It speaks of dark caves lit by a tentative fire while a storm roars outside, of defeats and victories. Of squelched organs.

I expose my still butchered arm and feel the ritual ease the spell into my mind. Power from blood. Momentum and projectile from power. Direction given to the birthed arrow.

A trail of dark fluid snakes up from the jagged tear into a needle-thin dart. I feel more pain now, deeper, more intimate as the aura is forcefully dragged from my essence. The arrow is me and from me and it awaits my will.

Never since casting that first darkness spell have I felt magic click so easily. I understand blood on a fundamental level that no mage can ever hope to attain, no matter how hard they study. The ancient power is there, for a price. One I have paid many times.

“Blood bolt.”

This time air is not displaced, and the noise is not a blunt sound of impact, but the ghastly crunch of material brought over the edge of its mechanical resistance. There, in the bull’s eye, now stands a minuscule hole. Beyond that is the black of the night.

I lower my hand. The power is spent.

“And this is the might of well-executed blood magic,” Ezekiel ends in a satisfied voice.

“This is just plain stupid! How can we hope to stand against her kind with that pathetic little blast you showed us? We should learn blood magic too,” the girl whines.

“You will learn magic my way and at my speed, Margaret. First, it will take you years of practice to wield blood with such mastery, and second, if you think it will be enough to save you from a vampire, then I’m afraid that you are sorely mistaken. Enough! We are here now, and you will keep casting until I give you leave.”

“This is just unfair…” the woman eventually grumbles.

“My presence is giving you the wrong sort of expectations, Margaret. You are infinitely more likely to face a bandit or an enemy practitioner than you are to face any one of us. Besides, Ezekiel is correct. You do not want to fight us, even with magic,” I explain in a rare attempt to better our relationship.

“If you are so bloody strong, why do you even learn magic to begin with?”

“Given the same choice as me, would you not?” I answer with patience.

Margaret stops to consider, her black brows furrowed in annoyance until she comes to a realization. Her expression softens then, until the naked ambition fades to reveal the rather young mind under it.

“It’d be a shame not to.”

“Precisely. Magic is a versatile tool. Combat spells are but a small part of it.”

With this, we return our attention and efforts to ritual casting with one major difference. As each student painstakingly redraw his runes, the other leans towards me like a Florentine conspirator.

“Is it true that you can slap a man’s head off without blinking?”

“Yes, we do not need to blink.”

“Can vampires get erections?”

“Get your mind out of the gutter, Margaret. Also, yes.”

“If you only drink blood, does it mean you only have to pee?”

“We are magical creatures, Terrence. We do not ‘digest’ per se.”

“If you wake up at twilight, does it mean that you can wake up inside a steep valley then run up the mountain and then it’s day again so you fall asleep?”

“I have no idea.”

“Is it true that you can slip under a steel door?”

“Technically yes, but the steel door will not survive the experience.”

And so on and so forth. Eventually, the questions tarry as the pair starts stumbling around like drunkards, yawning terribly. Ezekiel wisely decides to call it a night and we escort them back to their quarter where they promptly collapse.

“A moment of your time, Ariane. I have prepared what you asked. Are you quite sure you want to proceed that way? I could still come with you.”

“Do not concern yourself. I have a plan.”

And now is the time to implement it.


Mireille of the Rolands is tall, with wavy black hair and piercing green eyes that remind me of a discount Lady Moor. She could be the old harpy’s plain and less bitchy cousin. She wears a sensible dress the color of pine needles, of thick fabric, padded to ward off the winter air. She is not submissive. I would say that she acts carefully polite as she sits on her throne-like chair in the middle of a cozy boudoir. Mireille is a Courtier and her aura is not fully under control. It sometimes surges and bursts like a bubbling pot.

“A killer you say?” my host asks with a frown. The light of her hearth covers one side of her face like carefully applied powder while the other remains deathly pale. Her concern appears genuine.

“Yes.”

“I was made aware of the deaths you are referring to. The lack of reaction of affiliated factions led me to believe that those were just accidents.”

“Those are, without a doubt, murder. The signs are clear.”

“Hmm.”

I already explained the reasons for my involvement. Mireille accepted my explanations without comments and with her undivided attention. I am pleased that she does not share Noel’s apathy.

“This is extremely preoccupying. So far, we have maintained a rather hands-off policy in the hope that it would lure more mages here. I can tolerate squabbles on my territory. An indiscriminate murderer is a different matter, one I cannot ignore. I will track them down. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

“I would not come to you with just suspicions,” I interrupt her. “I have a way to track the culprit.”

“Do you now?” she answers with obvious surprise. I nod and take a compass-like contraption from a satchel by my side. It is clearly magical in nature and emits a faint aura.

“I suspected that the scenes of the murder might have been destroyed to hide what, or who, was taken from them. That is why my associate and I scoured the houses of the victims for personal objects in an attempt to work a tracking spell. It seems that I was wrong, as there were indeed no survivors that we can tell. There was, however, one hit. A faint one. According to the mage who made the working, it should link to a personal belonging with some blood on it. Hopefully the killer made a mistake and left it in their lair.”

Mireille is suddenly more animated. She tilts her head, eyes unblinking.

“Would this work? Should we go now?”

“That would be for the best. I was hoping that we could go together for my own tranquility of mind.”

“Naturally. As long as you agree that this is my Hunt, as we are operating on my territory.”

“I understand.”

I do not. Torran let me have the lead on a few Hunts and I am not sure how he managed to shelf his pride. She is weak, or at least, weaker. I took the initiative. How DARE she…

But no. I must be patient.

I grab my cloak and fasten it as Mireille equips herself with a short cutlass. We leave her small mansion, passing a few maids on the way. The atmosphere is relaxed and the mortals barely spare us a glance. Business as usual.

Outside, I activate my tracking spell. The construct awakes and the needle spins once in its glass before settling west. Mireille and I walk on foot through fields and forests, leaving no trace behind and requiring no light. We are two ghosts in the night.

It takes us an hour before the air grows wet and the smell of frigid water hints at the appearance of the Schuylkill. The forest grows denser now and we are forced to circle around snow-covered thickets until we find a path cut through the vegetation. Barely larger than a deer trail, it carries us deeper until the sky is crisscrossed by layers of naked branches. We soon emerge onto open ground and the river now flows before us, placid in all its murky glory. A single chair made from severed logs and rotten twine thrones in its middle. Empty bottles line its feet in single file like goslings following their mother. A fishing spot.

“Right,” I say in a low voice.

We continue with some difficulty. Undergrowth as dense as this one is not easy to navigate, especially now with the biting cold making every twig a rigid claw waiting to shatter. There are no thick trunks we could latch onto and jump either.

Fortunately, fate is on our side. The line of trees recedes in favor of waist-high grass growing on uneven ground. We hop from tuft to tuft for a few minutes longer and finally arrive in view of our destination.

A few dozen yards away, at the river’s bend, someone built a tiny misshapen lodge hanging over the flowing waters. The main floor is at the top of a small mound, then a covered corridor dips towards the river and a small room that will be washed down at nature’s first tamper tantrum. Not a light in sight, as I expected.

“I hope this trip was not in vain. Shall we?” I offer.

“What if this is a home?”

“A home would be lived in at night,” I reply with conviction.

We approach from the low ground and I force a shutter open. The snap of flimsy wood causes no reaction.

I climb in, Courtier in tow.

“Aha!” I cannot help but declaim with Binglesque glee. The interior of the room is filled and well-used, belying its decrepit appearance. Turpentine saturates the air in a thick cloud coming from three barrels stashed in a corner. Other supplies are separated in orderly piles on the swept ground. A single desk sits against the wall to the right of the passage leading up. There are no lanterns.

“I think we found our foe’s den,” I idly comment.

“Well, he’s obviously not here,” Mireille observes, “can you check the workspace for hints to his identity?”

“Certainly.”

I step forward with confidence and immediately dodge low and to the left as her cutlass misses my head by a finger. I turn and claw her across the throat before the return hit.

Black blood spurts from the wound.

Black blood no longer spurts from the wound. She healed. I stop the blade with an armguard. It bites into the steel sheet with a resonating clang.

Fast.

I dodge under a swipe and my return strike eviscerates her. Once more, her wounds close at an alarming speed, as if time itself lost its grip on her body.

The next hit slides against my left shoulder, opening a long furrow. Need to focus.

Instead of falling back, I push forward. She gives up on the reach advantage and starts using her weapon as an overly large knife. She is relentless and ignores my counterstrikes. No Courtier should heal that fast from a Master’s talon.

“You can’t have him! He’s mine! I am so close! So close!” the woman shrieks. Her aura buckles like a wild thing. Strikes and blows rain upon my defenses as she has little care for defense. I focus on blocking and deflecting, managing to land a few wounds myself though they quickly heal. Eventually, they take their toll on her mind if not on her body, and she pulls back. We glare at each other.

“How did you even know?”

“That it was you? I was not sure until I found your little hidey hole yesterday.”

“You what? How?”

“There were too many elements pointing at you. All three attacks happened either on or at the edge of your territory. They all took place in public places, not homes. They were the work of an independent agent, not someone aligned with one of the many mage factions dotting this political landscape. The most decisive clue, I think, was that you started all your fires in such a cautious yet inefficient fashion. We can approach fire rationally but, deep inside, we will always fear it, won’t we?”

“That’s it? Suspicion? That was all you had?” she sputters, furious.

“It was enough to follow you here. This construct I used does not point out to one of your victim’s remains, but to a beacon I placed on the door behind you. And now, you fell into my trap.”

Mireille steps back, eyes darting to every corner of the room. The fear she shows is proof of an erratic behavior, and yet she does not feel like a rogue. I think I understand now.

“There is no trap. You lie!”

“There is one, and you already sprung it. By attacking me. You see, killing the mages on your land remains your prerogative and I have no right to protest. You are not breaking the Accords by doing so, therefore I have no right to interfere.”

She freezes as she realizes that she acted on instinct and the price thereof.

“Until you attacked me without provocation to cover your tracks, of course. Now, House Roland is in serious violation of our written agreement, a hospitality contract that I paid for.”

I smile.

Our kind has a visceral reaction to our lairs being breached. I expected her to act as soon as she realized that she was made. What I did not expect was for her to accompany me here. My original plan was to wait for her outside of her mansion, then follow when she would inevitably come to erase the evidence of her actions. She might not be breaking the Accords, but she certainly does not have Noel’s authorization to slay his people on such a large scale.

Like most successful plans, mine relied on accounting for many possibilities. Confronting me meant breaking the Accords. Erasing the proofs meant that I would catch her red-handed and report her to Noel. Cutting and running would have solved my problems. Finally, turning the tables by using a scapegoat would have been countered by the many proofs I have collected and the oaths I could take. In every case, I can swear on my honor that I saw her sneak into the killer’s hole and that she had the key. It would have been enough for a thorough interrogation.

“One last thing, my dear,” I continue, “most Courtiers of sound mind would have realized that being in an enclosed space with a Devourer is the trap.”

“I don’t—”

I am done listening.

I must admit that playing the polite student for so long has been taxing on my patience. I have a right to unwind a bit on Mireille since she has been quite naughty. Truly, no one could reasonably deny me this moment of cathartic relaxation.

Still smiling, I grab the room’s entire desk, claws dug deep, before swinging it around and into the charging Courtier.

“Oof!”

The piece of furniture smacks her across the torso and propels her into the wall like a fancy pin. I grab the improvised disciplinary implement with both hands and swat it down with gusto. She will heal.

“You”

Smack.

“Do not”

Smack.

“Break”

Smack.

“The Rules”

Smack.

“Of hospitality”

Smack.

“With me!”

The desk breaks apart at the last strike. Mireille crawls away, left leg shattered. Since I am not a complete animal, I seize her right foot to send her crashing into the far wall.

“Even with improved healing, broken bones take a while to set.”

Interestingly, Mireille and I should be about the same age. We do not, however, share the same experience.

“No, wait! Please!”

I grab her by the wrist and arc her over my head, ending the pretty display of acrobatic dance in a crate of ceramic containers. They shatter on impact with a satisfying crunch.

I feel better already. I allow the poor Courtier to extract herself from the debris. She sits back down, hands raised.

“Where is the fae whose blood is in your vein?” I demand.

For a moment, Mireille’s face twists with an expression of the hottest rage. I do not punish her for it. She is not truly defying me, she just has difficulties letting go of her treasure. I can tolerate her taking a minute to bury her ambitions.

“There is a trap door upstairs, under the bed. Lift it and climb down. You will find him there.”

“You harvested his essence?”

“Yes. I always keep a container on me in case something like this happened. Not that it helped much…”

“What were you trying to achieve? Did you think the potent blood would hasten your growth?”

“It does not work as well for us as it does for Devourers, but we can still grow faster with a constant supply of potent essence.”

“Did you attack the mages for the same reason?”

“Yes. There is only so much blood I can take from only one person.”

“Then know that your belief is wrong. You are brittle. The power you gathered has no outlet and it will escape your grasp sooner or later. You took a great risk for little reward.”

“Little reward?” she scoffs, “You are so far from the realities of our kind, Devourer. It matters not to me what you have been through. The only thing I see is how you strut around town like you own it and be treated like an equal by the haughty lords and ladies of the land. I want to be strong and free and pushing power into myself was very much worth the risk.”

“Not if it breaks you and eventually, it would have. Do you know why most Devourers do not live past twenty years?”

This sentence stops her. Deep in her rational mind, she must be aware of the cost of power.

“My siblings are forced to consume too much, too fast, and it destroys them. Pah, enough of this. I am not here to convince you. Do you yield?”

This time, her hesitation provokes me. I grab by the neck and dig two claws in her tender flesh, bringing her face next to mine.

“I yield!”

I stop mid hiss and force myself to relax. Spirit is one thing. Defiance when you are defeated is another.

“I yield. You win.”

I drop her unceremoniously. I want to see her prize now. The covered corridor leads to the upper floor you would expect in any hovel: a small bed, a cooking spot, a pantry. I lift the wooden frame to reveal the passage beneath. A few steps dug into the rock lead to a sort of cave lit by a single lantern.

At the bottom of the stairs, I find a Likaean boy, a cot, a stained bucket and a single lantern letting out a pathetic glow. The frail youth cradles the source of light like a drowning man a buoy and I cannot help but feel a deep resentment towards Mireille whom I left mostly intact on the floor. This is not our way. We defang our foes by turning them into cattle, or we kill them, or we come to an agreement. Only personal vengeance should justify that horrid treatment. Not greed. Never greed. She should not have drained him like a leech, night after night to grow stronger. We are not leeches. We are hunters.

The boy has very dark hair and abyssal eyes, showing just one little star of interest as he spots me. But soon, the realization of what I am turns hope into despair. A single heavy sigh shakes his skeletal frame and his gaze turns back to the glimmer cradled in his filthy hands. I approach slowly and kneel by his side.

But I do not speak.

Because I now realize my predicament.

I want the kid to be free. My friendship with Sinead has changed my outlook on liberty and Nami’s presence has only served to reinforce this impression. I am not some champion of light. I merely believe that mortals and other creatures shine the most when they can be themselves, and it is at their brightest that they are the most delicious. Ethics and gastronomy rolled in one ideal: freedom.

Truly, I am a benevolent being.

But I cannot save this one. If I bring Mireille to Noel and take the Likaean for myself, she could share his existence with her clan as revenge or in the hope of lessening her punishment. If I kill Mireille, I will likely be found out and at the very least be banished, my captive taken as reparation. The repercussions of this decision could hurt me diplomatically for decades to come. No matter what, I will condemn this child to slavery.

I stare at the tiny being. He still ignores my presence.

I must kill him. This is the only salvation I can grant.

It feels wrong.

My inner rules forbid me from killing a child, though would that not be mercy in this case? Sometimes, death is preferable to the alternative. Especially for one as young-looking as this one. He is already broken.

Sometimes, I must break rules in order to…

Oh.

I am a complete idiot, am I not? When we are faced with contradictory rules and promises, we keep those we deem the most important.

I step away from the kid and climb back up, then walk down the covered stairs down to the room where I left Mireille. I smile at her pleasantly, and she looks more terrified at my expression than when I had my claws at her throat.

“You can give the child to me willingly, stop your killings and pursue power through training and study. If you do that, I will forget the whole debacle and we can both go on our merry way. That is the first option.”

I step closer until the symbolism of my standing form above hers leaves no room to interpretation.

“In the heart of Constantine’s fortress hides a Master by the name of Ignace. My ransom for breaking the Accords and attacking me despite our treaty will be three days in his care. I am convinced that your House will be more than happy to throw you to the wolves for what you have done. Ignace will undress you and bind you to a chair, then, together, you will explore the meaning of pain. You will learn to recognize every organ in your body and every strand of muscle as he removes them with surgical precision. He will peel off the skin from flesh inch by inch until you beg him to die.”

“Enough! I know of Ignace.”

“Then realize that this is your second choice.”

She looks at me with narrowed eyes.

“I could inform Noel and Lady Berenice of your proposal.”

“And I would receive at most a slap on the wrist. I am not working against them by trying to keep that fae for myself. I am not technically breaking the terms of our agreement. You, however…”

“Yes, yes, I get it. What do you propose?”

“I am sure we can agree to a carefully worded treaty…”


 

It takes us only ten minutes to reach a compromise. By the time we are done, Mireille has seemingly accepted that the child was lost to her in any case and that it would be better to avoid punishment. I keep an option open to add terms after consulting with Salim, in case she finds a loophole, in exchange for no additional reparations. All in all, I think I covered myself well.

When I step down from the ladder, he completely ignores me until I start speaking.

The Likaean language comes slowly and haltingly. I have to think hard to get the right inflection and I am limited by my lack of information. Should I use the official vocabulary of declamation? Or a more polite greeting between unknown parties? Or should I assume that my rescue is as young as he looks and try for a more familiar tone to comfort him?

In the end, I use the most neutral tone I can because I want to avoid mistakes.

“Greetings, young one. My name is Ariane. I associate with the Court of Summer. May I ask for your name?” I say in Likaean. As the words cross my lips, their truth is carried in our small basement by the meaning I impart to them. My name really is Ariane. I truly am associated with the Court of Summer and its most disreputable prince. The weight of the sentence falls upon us with finality, and with it, hope returns.

Slowly, the desperate mask of the boy melts to reveal the pain underneath. Tears flow from his eyes in great droplets as he grabs my arms with surprising strength and lets out a panicked babble. His voice is young and musical though made raspy by dehydration. I let him talk, too fast for me to understand, until he stops to catch his breath.

It gave me the time to prepare an answer.

“I apologize, young sir, my words are that of a child. You must speak slowly.”

Likaean is as infinitely complex as it is versatile. Young sir refers to a noble son of unknown origin. Child indicates that I have issues associating sounds with meaning. Sinead’s book mentions that the most powerful sovereigns can create gardens and charnel pits by declaiming poetry.

The child slows down and his eyes aim up, to freedom. I silently hoist him over my shoulder and flinch at the stench of his unwashed body. The trip up is short, and he soon stands outside the main door, looking up the cloud-covered sky. I use dry wood and a bit more terebenthine than is wise to start a fire and haul him back in as soon as he gets the shivers. Snow and an iron basin are enough for an improvised bath. I wash his hair while he shoves syrupy apples down his throat with wild abandon.

“What about my captor?” the boy asks after he is clean, dressed in clean clothes, and filled with enough sugar to start his own distillery.

His voice is slow and measured, and just a bit condescending. Likaean is the same language across their many worlds and those who cannot learn it are not held in high regard. He does not understand yet that our reality is different.

“I defeated her. I will bring you to my honored friend, Prince Sinead of the Court of Summer.”

It grates a bit to use such a highly polite term for such a licentious scoundrel, but apparently it was the right thing to do because he looks at me with renewed wonder.

“Oh! Apologies! My name is Makyas of the Court of Wings and Keyholes.”

Hmm. I must have misunderstood that one.

“Wings and Keyholes?” I repeat. Those are unusual words. Perhaps I am mistaking them?

“Wings,” the boy patiently whispers and I hear a fleeting sound of a dove taking flight, “and Keyholes,” he continues as I perceive the word not as a passage but as a leaky thing, a flaw from which secrets escape.

“The tiny Court!”

“I am pleased to meet you, Makyas of the, errr, Court of Wings and Keyholes.”

“No no! I am pleased. In your debt now.”

I am almost certain that this Likaean is quite young. Younger than most, in any case. I need to contact Sinead because I am disinclined to act as a nursemaid.

“Right. I will protect you for now. It will take a few days before help arrives and we can take you to a safer place.”

“Yay! I am in your care. Can you sing?”

“This question is taboo.”

“So, no.”

Maybe I should just drain him a bit, as payment.

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A note from Mecanimus

It's chapter 100! Whew, what a ride that was. When I started writing Journey almost two years ago, I did not know that I would eventually receive enough support to live from it. It's all thanks to the community! So, you have my eternal gratitude. Let me state again that Journey will eventually be available entirely and freely. Eventually. In the meanwhile, you can still get advance chapters on Patreon, just not now because it's the end of the month and you would be charged twice.

One last thing. I finally managed to get the story on Top Web Fiction. Please go and boost me so that I can feel good about myself and attract more victims readers. You know you want to. Link below.

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Mecanimus

  • Shanghai

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