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Sinead comes in person to recover his newest ally and I realize a few interesting details. First, Makyas of the Court of Wings and Keyholes is slightly more intimidating than I gave him credit for, if Sinead’s reaction is to be believed. Second, Makyas is obviously not a bashful child. He drops the act as soon as he finds himself in the presence of a prince and I get a glimpse of the playful malice beneath.

Sinead also uses the opportunity to flirt outrageously. I should have expected it.

I also learn that the Likaeans are busy working on a way back and, apparently, the space magic developed by Ricardo in Alexandria is the key. Sivaya is confident that she will finish a valid spell by the end of the century. When I remark that it is a long time, I am informed that creating an entirely new branch of magic in a rigid reality is a time-consuming effort and that I am welcome to try myself.

Sinead’s condescending delivery is truly without a match.

In any case, I foresee more shenanigans in the future and let them go on their way.

Over the next few months, I manage to keep up my magical studies with the mortals through immense effort and the occasional application of blood magic when some spells become too complex. No matter how hard I try, my fire spells remain pallid and pathetic and my light spells are timid things, bright enough to be seen from afar but never seeming to give the mortals any visibility. On the contrary, anything related to blood, shadows and illusions comes to me naturally.

I get no more issue from Mireille or any of the local Roland vampires afterward, though I do continue sword practice. I eventually come to enjoy it, relishing the flexibility that swords can offer.

On the home front, I have to handle a slew of issues from the care of Sinead’s illegitimate children to the growth of the slave catcher population moving north from Kentucky. My dream mage also marries a cake maker to no one’s surprise. With the rescued children and the White Cabal’s presence, Marquette’s mage population explodes. Strangely, the werewolf population explodes as well even if they cannot bear children. Every time I pass by, there are more of them following me around with their nose in the air, only keeping a respectful distance because of Metis’ fearsome reputation as an ear thief. Any attempt to wiggle the whole truth from Jeffrey ends in a two hours declaration involving his cousins, nephews, friends from the coast, the Illuminati, that fisherwoman from Ottawa with the thick thighs… As far as I understand, their village’s fame has grown as the safest and richest werewolf haven and it attracts a lot of those who would not do so well in traditional pack structures. I understand that many of those prefer to be left alone and that the new town, amusingly named Moonside, affords them the tranquility they crave. Jeffrey assures me that they will fight when called and that is, in the end, all that I care about.

I still wish they would stop trying to smell me. I find it extremely vexing.

Last but not least, I use the opportunity of a payment for a protection detail to ask for blood from Salim of the Rosenthal, which he secretly accepts. Their essence is certainly one of the most useful I have ever consumed. I can now recall things much more easily if I focus on them, and some tedious tasks like reading reports become significantly more relaxing. I complete them as if in a trance. Making paperwork less tedious is without a doubt one of the mightiest powers in creation.

Unfortunately, better memories only make the following ordeal that much more painful.

I knew this day would come. I knew it from the beginning, but I always managed to push the thought to the back of my mind. I had so much to do. There were always new foes to fight and problems to solve, things to learn. Now it has come and I am at a loss.

I bump my head against Torran’s chest in a rare display of public affection. Others might see but I care little. I breathe in deep and the cold spice of him overwhelms the brine on the air to both soothe me and distress me even more.

His hand pats the back of my head. We do not speak. We are beyond words. Everything that was worth saying was said a long time ago.

The fact remains that I have my life here and he has his own back in Hungary. There is no bridging that gap, not when it takes months of travel between our territories. A Dvor can only stay so long away from his fief, after all. Torran will bring his fledgeling back with him and that is it.

I feel a strong mix of emotions now, not enough to cry but enough that it feels… good. I am alive now because of what we shared and must now leave behind. The bittersweet emotion dulls the throb of undirected anger threatening to overwhelm me. There is simply no one I can gut, stab, set on fire or detonate to keep him around and I find that extremely aggravating.

The pier around us is silent, despite sailors loading the last of the goods and supplies they will carry over the Atlantic. No one interrupts us but still, I let him go. I am delaying the inevitable.

“I release you from our bond, my star,” Torran finally says, his face showing no emotion.

“I release you from our bond,” I answer, finishing the ritual.

It hurts as much as I expected.

I can appreciate that we will not see each other for years, possibly decades, and that it would be unfair of me to expect celibacy from him in the off case that I might come back. I still feel robbed. I do not want to share.

If I come to visit and find some tart hanging about, I might just do something unfortunate. I warned him it would be the case, therefore the responsibility of any future dismemberments will be placed solely at his feet.

I leave the pier behind and walk round a warehouse. The city is mostly silent at this time of the night. I stop and lean against some stupid door.

Fuck.

I wait for some time. It doesn’t get better.

Someone comes, a familiar aura.

“Sister,” Jimena answers with a soft voice. She is dressed in a form-fitting leather armor, not in knight garb, for once. She drops a heavy-looking backpack and takes from it a case, which she gives me. I unpack it to reveal a weapon.

A pistol, to be precise.

Never have I witnessed its like. It is the work of a mad genius, nay, a revolutionary! I caress the smooth, silvery surface and ask with unmitigated wonder.

“What is this thing?”

“A prototype based on the design of a weapon dealer by the name of Colt. It can shoot six times before being reloaded. They are not even producing it yet. The cartridges go into that barrel over here.”

“Marvelous!”

“So, there is a group of outlaws who just robbed a Rosenthal carriage outside of town. Would you like to go kill them and get paid?”

This time, the emotion is too strong and a single ruby pearl drops down my cheek.

“Jimena, you are the best sister I could ever ask for.”

The smug woman catches the tear before it can drop and raises it to her lips, licking it after I give her leave.

“Aaaaah. Of course I am. I know you well and this is what you need. Now go and test this barbaric tool of yours.”

“Heathen!”

 

At a corner of an empty road, beyond an overgrown path and the moss-covered room of a hunter rest, a few men have set up camp. They dug a pit and lit a fire there, counting on the remoteness and the wild vegetation to hide the smoke from inquisitive eyes. It was, of course, not enough.

The sentinel is the first to notice me strutting forth with my fancy dress, my coat and the undeniably imposing leather tricorn which is totally appropriate and I would dare anyone to object.

The man squints at my approaching figure. His beady eyes widen in surprise as I enter the light halo of his dusty lantern. He stinks of alcohol.

“What the fuck?”

“Language, mongrel.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

I tut loudly, a gesture of intimidation that is known to make mortals cry, if they know what is good for them.

“I am the law around these parts. You and your little friends have been very, very naughty.”

“You insane bitch. You got some plums coming here at night, I like that. Maybe I can reward you if you make me very happy.”

“I’ll only be happy when you hang from the neck until dead, rascal.”

The sentinel takes the affected smile of someone who is convinced his interlocutor suffers from severe delusion and who is ten seconds away from beating some sense into them. He shifts his coat aside to grab and take out a knife. I mirror his gesture with one small difference, one he realizes as soon as he ends up face to maw with the business end of the six-shooter.

It will always fascinate me how some objects are clearly weapons. My pistol might be a prototype, but there is no mistaking the keen line and metallic gleam. This is a tool of death.

“What the hell?”

“Hands in the air and you might just live to see the day. I am the hand of the law and my reach is long indeed!”

Somewhere behind me, a bush swears in Akkad and lets out a muffled laugh.

“Shit! Everyone! Help! A madwoman!”

“You won’t escape your punishment, miscreant!” I yell in my loudest human voice as if I were as self-righteous as a Gabrielite.

I lightly jog after the fleeing man until we arrive at his camp.

“She’s right behind me! Shoot her, shoot her!”

A man fires a musket and the bullet misses me completely. What is he even aiming at? And now he is just standing here like a moron, gaping at the shadows.

I shoot him in the chest. He falls with a dreadful shriek and the rest of his band finally realizes that they are under attack. They pile on behind crates of supplies and fire back.

I skip behind a thick trunk and take potshots at those who break cover, making no particular effort to aim. I have plenty of bullets in a bag and this is the time to experiment.

“It can’t be just the one, there are too many bullets flying. She must have help!” one of the men says in a panicked voice.

“Maybe it’s a whole band of she-devils!” another replies, “They’re here to cut off our cocks! I told ye not to touch thoses lasses!”

“Shut your mug!”

“Your sins are many!” I shout with a gravelly voice, “and you should all repent! Repeeeeeent!”

Hah, I can see why the Gabrielite would risk dismemberment. This is fun! I leave the cover of the trunk and empty all six bullets in my left gun in quick succession.

“She’s got this strange gun! Do you think that’s why?”

“Then it must be empty! Let’s rush her!” a brave soul screams and then jumps on top of the crate.

I shoot the man down with the right gun like the dog he is. I then open the contraption to reload.

Instead of doing it cartridge by cartridge, I just remove the entire barrel and replace it with a fresh one. This is such a revolutionary invention! I am witnessing history in the making!

“Noooo she shot Jerry! Jerryyyyyyy!”

“Let me die, fools. Run. Run for your lives!”

How very dramatic. It reminds me, I should buy an opera ticket for the Queen of the Night by Mozart. An opera in German! I will go alone, have the waiters bring me a cup of coffee and throw chocolate wrappings on the heads of the rich folks below. It will be grand. Or I could bring Nami and enjoy the outrage. Hmmm.

A bullet hits the trunks fairly close to my head, showering me with splinters.

Right! I am already in the middle of something fun! Carpe diem and all that.

I lean to the side and shoot at the ass of someone attempting to crawl away. He howls and his friends drag him back. There are only three of them now, including one who is no longer so cheeky.

Heh.

I turn once more and, this time, flick the hammer with one hand while I press the trigger with the other. This allows me to shoot faster but I am still limited by the physics of the gun itself. Otherwise I could shoot even faster! Incredible!

Could I make an overly large version of this? Hmmm.

“We surrender!”

“WHAT REALLY? ALREADY?” I scream in utter annoyance.

My legitimate question is received in stupefied silence. Jimena walks to me with a chuckle as I vociferate and grumble.

“Why? How can they be such cowards?”

“They are bandits, Ariane, not fanatics dying for a cause.”

“But I killed bandits before and they hardly ever surrendered!”

“Did you even leave them enough time to do so? To understand their desperate circumstances?”

“Well…”

“Or did you just enter the fray and happily slaughtered them?”

“I was not done with the test! I want to shoot at them and play with them and have them squirm. How dare they stay here like useless sacks of flesh while Torran is leaving me? They have no right. It should not be happening like this! He was the first man I loved in a romantic capacity in my entire Watcher-forsaken life, the only one I can even think of being intimate with. I love him dearly. I feel good with him, as myself and without a mask. He accepts me and my lack of experience and all my little flaws and he is patient and caring and loving. He knows so many stories. Also he can kick my ass. And he builds swords. Fuck!”

“Ariane…”

“It is not fair! There are so many wastes of space already here, why can’t they go and he can stay?” I finish sulkily.

Jimena remains silent. She reaches up to lightly tap the top of my head. Because it is Jimena, I let her.

“Errrr,” a male voice says from behind, “can we please lower our hands or?”

 

Torran’s departure leaves me irritable and ill-tempered for a few months during which I take a more hands-off attitude to ruling Marquette and my budding business empire. Following Salim’s advice, I also invest in the real estate of my territory, apparently a vampire tradition. I sink my time and undirected anger into magical and physical training with the occasional help of a few war-minded Masters like Nami and Jimena. I also try to involve guns in my combat style but soon realize that the task is extremely arduous and that my training partners object to being shot at mid-practice. I will have to return to that at a later date.

The year eighteen thirty-six brings an interesting event in the Natalis territory. Texans conduct a revolution and manage to capture the Mexican general Santa Anna, forcibly bringing him to the negotiation table and leading to the birth of the Republic of Texas. Lord Jarek’s territory is no longer part of Mexico as a result.

The new State of Arkansas joins the union, giving us a new, clearly delimited territory, which is granted to the returning Lancaster. Lord Marion is their new leader and he takes the time to come and greet me, bearing offerings and a juicy trade agreement that finally allows me to set up a proper gun factory. Because of this and his overall politeness, I support his claim even though deep inside I am fuming. A few diplomatic agreements and he obtains a state! Pah! Back in my days, you had to wallow knee-deep in werewolf blood to get a tiny piece of land. Those newcomers do not know how good they have it.

The entry of Arkansas brings forth a burning issue, that of slavery. The growth of the abolitionist movement leads to massive frictions and each new state that enters the union threatens the fragile equilibrium between the two sides. For now, Illinois is not a slave state but there are slave-catchers operating on the southern border while in the north, abolitionists assist fugitives on their way to Canada. Although I stick to my belief that a happy human is a tasty human and that no man, or woman, can truly be happy as long as they do not have free agency, I limit my actions to keeping the less honest catchers off my area of control through heavy beatings whenever necessary.

At least three different clans have a vested interest in the institution, including the Cadiz whose financial interests are closely tied to the South and its plantations. Vampirekind is thus equally split on the subject. The Ekon, Roland and I are firmly in the abolitionist camp with Sephare herself calling it ‘odious’, while the others argue that treating people as property is as old as history itself and therefore natural, if unfortunate.

I do not see this ending well.

In the meanwhile, I continue learning from Ezekiel until, in the month of January eighteen thirty-seven, Margaret disappears.

The compass definitely points to the factory in front of me, showing me that the girl still lives. The building is decently new and obviously busy during daytime. The paint of the massive double gate is fresh and the many windows clearly show a neat interior.

“That is not what I expected,” Ezekiel says. Without his ridiculous red robes, he looks more like an actual professor and less like some cheap, farcical villain. His keen eyes fix the brick surface of his target as if they could bore right through it.

I know what he means. Margaret has gone missing and she has ways of contacting us. I am going for kidnapping, mundane or otherwise.

“Let me infiltrate the place, just in case,” I request.

To my surprise, Ezekiel does not argue.

“Agreed, but be warned that after five minutes I shall break in gauntlet blazing. If you find some crime afoot, this is your window to reach a diplomatic agreement. After that…”

Ezekiel’s vehemence does not surprise me. The man is surprisingly protective of his pupils, a habit I can respect. I leave without a word and crawl up the wall with the grace and expertise of the consummate cat burglar. This is not my first breaking and entering.

I find an improperly latched window and open it with minimal noise and damage, then suddenly hear a gasp.

We are in the factory district and the place is mostly empty at this time so I expected no company. Cursing my carelessness, I turn around to find a very drunk man holding a half-empty bottle of gin staring at me with bulging eyes.

Hmm.

I must strike a dashing figure, stuck like a lizard to the sheer wall in my conservative grey dress. Fortunately, the man has given me the very tool to defuse the situation. I wave at him with a manic smile then move into the building. I hear a curse, then the brittle noise of shattered glass followed in turn by barely coherent screams about she-devils and absinthe and whatnot.

Crisis averted.

The clock is still ticking however, and I quickly make my way outside of what appears to be an accounting department and down two sets of stairs. I realize on the ground floor that the door to outside is warded, and that it looks like professional work.

Fearing a trap, I slow down and focus on my senses. There, behind a wall covered in advertisement posters, is a breathing person and what feels like a strong shield. The air tastes like nervous sweat. Fresh.

I sigh and kneel to fix my dress to my leggings so that it does not trail everywhere, then I lightly jump up and crawl across the ceiling like the world’s prettiest bat.

People never look up.

I pass the corner and find a set of stairs leading down into a well-lit basement. A man stands in the way, gauntlet down but active. The air before him shimmers with a half-deployed ward of respectable power.

He is also wearing a White Cabal battledress.

My unexpected opponent is very young, although a bushy dark beard would lead people to think otherwise. He is not exactly inattentive either and I salute his discipline.

In fact, his appearance reminds me of…

No way.

“Cedric?” I ask in surprise, recognizing one of the students I had enjoyed terrifying, I mean, one of the students I had generously prepared for the vagaries of the life of a combat mage by direct request of his chief instructor.

The man jumps in fright and lets out a rather girly scream, then he looks up as his shield activates.

His frown turns to an expression of pure delight, then morphs to a mask of aloof confidence. He leans against a railing, twirling his mustache.

“Oh, Ariane of the Nirari, fancy seeing you here.”

“Cedric, is everything alright?” a voice comes from below.

“We have a guest, people!” Cedric declaims proudly as I drop from the ceiling and smooth my dress. We almost look the same age now. I do not believe I will ever get used to this.

Before testing this team, Jonathan had warned me that they were perhaps the most talented group Avalon had ever produced and therefore fully expected them to fail spectacularly, which they did. Their arrogance and recklessness caused their loss despite some rather impressive individual displays of skill. I see that this lesson was not lost on them when three people climb up the stairs slowly and in tight formation.

I recognize the man in the front as the leader, Reginald. He holds the shield, while behind him, the two ladies of the group cover him. The first is a dark-haired girl with brown eyes and a magnetic charm, Mina. Her gauntlet practically shines with power begging to be unleashed. The second is an aristocratic young woman with blue eyes and blonde hair, holding a silver sword at the ready. They all stop when they see me but to their credit, they do not lower their guard.

“Oh. Hello,” Reginald says with a slightly shameful expression. Our last interaction was indeed quite the humiliation for the fearless leader.

I notice that the last member of the team is missing.

“Is Will circling around to attack me from behind?” I ask, until I focus on my aura control and realize that the sneakier member of their coterie is, in fact, right around the corner behind his allies.

“Ah, no, he is right here. Now, let me ask the fateful question to get it out of the way. Do you happen to have in your custody a young female warlock with dark hair, pale skin and a chip on her shoulder the size of Bunker Hill?”

“Would she have a tendency to say things such as ‘behold my dark power!’ and ‘you cannot comprehend my might’?”

I sigh.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Yeah, we have her, she’s downstairs. Unhurt. Apprentices of the dark arts are always so full of themselves,” Cedric explains, pleased.

“Yes, Cedric, pompous fools the lot of them. They always need some harrowing experience to remind them of where they stand on the food chain,” I remark, pointedly.

Cedric has the grace to blush while Reggie and his two flankers close the distance. The shields are still up, I notice. Will steps out into the open with an embarrassed smile.

“Would you consider releasing her into my care?” I politely ask in a way that merely hints at the fact that this is not a request rather than heavily imply it.

“Of course, it’s not like she’s the one we’re looking for, don’t you think so guys?” Cedric states as he turns to his friends with a winning smile.

They remain unamused.

“I think that you talk too much,” the blonde woman retorts with a freezing voice that carries just a bit of German. Her name is Carmella if I remember correctly.

“Stop trying to flirt with the immortal mage-eater Cedric, she already told you you were too young and that beard changed nothing,” Mina adds with genuine concern.

“Nonsense,” Cedric scoffs as he turns a delicate shade of tulip, “I did not grow it to look more mature and impress her!”

A very, very awkward silence spreads across the assembly. The shield mage pales as he realizes that his blabbering has become his downfall.

“Really? I had found the timing suspicious, of course, but to think…” Carmella observes.

“Gee, Cedric, you wax your mustache for that?” Reginald adds with disgust.

I clap my hands once to garner their attention and stop, nay, postpone the merciless hazing.

“Please focus for one moment. Can I recover the witch?”

“If you guarantee us protection from her retribution, such as it is, we will gladly give her to you,” Reginald quickly answers.

“It is done then. Please wait a moment while I inform my associate.”

Everyone smiles pleasantly as we wind down our spells, including my own blood-magic shield-piercer.

Allied, yes. Stupid, no.

I return to a fitful Ezekiel and inform him that I reached an agreement with the kidnappers and that they are not, in fact, kidnappers, but merely allies of mine who defended themselves. I can see the doubts in his eyes though he is smart enough not to voice them. To call a vampire a liar is a painfully vain exercise.

I return to the White Cabal hideout and their basement to find that stacks of crates filled with metal parts were set aside to leave an open space. In it, the five war mages have created a workshop centered around a massive circle. Margaret is not in it. She was set aside, lying on her belly atop a pile of tarp and liberally tied with ropes, arms behind her and feet held up. She looks one skewer away from a roast pig.

Tear trails line her cheeks, the poor arrogant thing. I detach her and she stands up, massaging her wrists to help with the blood flow and trying her best to melt into the wall. Perhaps there is a spell for that?

“So, I have a standing argument with one of the lads back in Avalon. He says that vampires and mages are natural enemies while I say that it’s vampires and werewolves. What do you think?” Cedric asks me excitedly.

“I think you are both mistaken,” I reply sweetly, “from our perspective, you are all prey.”

A distinct chill freezes everyone in the room. William, who stands close, takes an instinctual step back.

All but Cedric.

“Hmm that makes sense,” he comments as if I had shared a great pearl of wisdom. In a way, I have. He just did not get it.

Cedric caresses his lush beard, staring at the ceiling with a penetrating gaze as if it held the secrets of the universe in its dusty recess.

“Anyway,” Will continues with an embarrassed glare, “I now understand why we have been deployed here. The environment is sufficiently challenging while we have an ally who can potentially come to the rescue. The Black Dog thought of everything.”

“Speaking of allies, would you consider assisting us?” Mina asks politely. I notice that both Will and Reginald give her their full attention as she makes her plea. There is a longing in their gaze that I easily recognize.

“We are looking for a ring of human traffickers who sometimes manage to intercept refugee mages as they get off the boat. Despicable people! We are here to dismantle their local branch and prevent them from preying on the weak!” she boasts with undisguised pride.

Hmm.

Will steps forward, the first to realize that asking me to act out of the kindness of my heart is a doomed prospect.

“We were given special shaped charges by Jonathan. They are designed to direct the blast in one direction only, thus sparing the people and materials engulfed in a normal powder blast’s area of effect. Perhaps you would consent to come with us and operate them yourself?”

Ooooh, the crafty lad.

Does he think I am the kind of woman who would assault an unknown foe for the chance of understanding a prototype explosive?

Because he would be absolutely correct, but I cannot have him win so easily. It would set a dangerous precedent.

“That sounds fascinating. Good luck with that,” I inform a slightly crestfallen William.

“We would compensate you for your time, of course,” Reginald adds in a respectful voice.

“Yeah! I volunteer my blood! Are you thirsty?”

“Not now, Cedric. Ariane of the Nirari, our foe uses magic to hide themselves that renders the most standard tracking spells useless. We believe that this is extremely potent magic and one of our secondary objectives is to recover it. I believe that I can negotiate for not only access to this spell but also our help in mastering it, should you join us,” Reginald continues.

I do not need a way to hide thanks to Nashoba’s earrings. It could still be extremely useful to mask allies or even understand how to find somebody.

“Deal. Now show me those shaped charges you mentioned.”

As the night progresses and we work together, I realize that I do not mind keeping an eye on the team. They are pleasantly competent and getting to know them and be known and relied on in return improves the chances that Jonathan’s alliance lasts for more than one generation.

We eventually find the kidnappers and even get the help of both Ezekiel and Salazar as well as a few local mages. Peace soon returns to the city and I get a new blueprint for my trouble.

I spend the next four years alternating between Philadelphia and my own territory, stopping my studies only long enough to handle the odd crisis that my competent underlings cannot easily handle. Merritt eventually remarries too and hires several associates, which I allow after vetting them and just a little bit of intimidation to make sure they understand that I will not tolerate duplicity. Urchin develops into a fine enforcer to my pleasant surprise. He develops his own fighting style which revolves around pulling objects out of seemingly nowhere and shoving them in someone’s back, or shooting them in the face with one of the many tiny pistols he had specially made.

Marquette develops relatively quickly while Chicago expands at a vertiginous speed with a little help from Melusine’s peerless business acumen, allowing the both of us to consolidate our positions. I do not object when she recovers a few Lancaster exiles and even negotiates with Lord Marion to make sure there is no resentment left. Slowly, political blocks form around the Cadiz on one side and the Roland on the other, with a third force made from us weaker clans. The occurrence of issues and decisions that must be taken collectively continues to increase, leading us to today.

I look down at Lady Sephare’s intricate golden curls as she climbs down the stairs before me. We proceed by pair, the state leader and their second side by side with Constantine leading the way.

I chose Melusine, not that there was much competition.

Servants, soldiers and employees stick to the walls of the fortress’ cozy interior and watch us pass with a bit of awe, as is suitable. We have enough political and physical power here to overthrow a small nation.

The corridor widens and we soon tread a crimson carpet to a set of double doors guarded on each side by Constantine’s bodyguards, acting as mysterious as ever. Our combined auras, though peaceful, have a curious effect on our surroundings. We are not mingling with mortals this time, we are walking together with a purpose and a queer feeling of harmonization changes the texture of reality ever so slightly.

It tastes thinner.

I wonder if the others feel it too.

The gates open for Constantine and we follow him into a large circular room wide enough to contain a cottage. Sophia, Constantine’s assistant, is already sitting behind a large writing desk at the far end.

The floor at the center of the room is made from concentric rings of stone. As we approach, the Speaker lifts a gauntleted hand and seventeen slide up, one by one, with barely a noise. I count one for each pair of representatives and one for him. Finally, stone thrones rise up from the nineteenth ring to accommodate us.

We pretend not to be impressed while Constantine feigns indifference at our lack of reaction. Lesser minds may gasp and whisper at such a mighty display, but I know better. In a few hours, the attendants will realize that naked stone makes for a poor cushion. Not everyone benefits from my, ahem, padding.

We take our places in silence. The massive central table is split like a pie by minor light magic so that each present state is clearly shown by its flag when applicable, and its name in large, blocky letters. Right now they are all greyed out. Only the Speaker’s pie slice is lit in light red. He stands up to address us.

“Welcome to the first Pan-American Council of Princes. The purpose of this reunion is to align and decide on major events. As previously stated, we will take decisions by vote at the end of a debate with me acting as arbitrator. You will notice that my side of the table is lit while the others are greyed out. When someone has the floor, their side will, in turn, be lit. If you do not have the floor you should refrain from interrupting. Disruptive behavior will be punished.”

As if we would act like rowdy children.

“The first order of business tonight is the issue of slavery. With the recent ruling on the Amistad affair and the continuous clashes between abolitionists and their opponents, I have deemed it necessary that we establish guidelines all Houses should follow.”

Immediately, the atmosphere grows heavy. Kouakou and Naminata in particular fix Ceron and a few others with barely disguised hostility. They wear their traditional red and yellow boubous with disdainful pride, the bright colors offering a stark contrast with the drabber outfits worn by their rivals.

“Several members of this assembly volunteered actionable plans. We will listen to their proposals and discuss their merits. House Ekon, you have the floor.”

“Thank you, Speaker,” Lord Kouakou replies in a smooth bass. He stabs a talon in the flesh of his thumb, then places the pearl of dark blood on the stone surface. A few runes flare and a map of North America appears on the table.

The next hour is spent in controlled arguments. We remain polite at all times and discussions do not heat up because most of the negotiations already happened behind closed doors. This is mostly a show of strength and of eloquence.

The Ekon argue that each state leader should decide who to favor on their own territory, leaving them free to act as they see fit. In the case of the Ekon, that means facilitating escapes and freely financing groups such as the Underground Railroad. The Cadiz retort by claiming that slaves can be regarded as House assets, as such their recovery should be allowed across all territories. They add that abetting escapes is technically theft and that any House engaged in such activities should be considered hostile according to the Accords. At this stage, the fanged smiles strain noticeably.

The Ekon predictably counter with the observation that, as soon as the fugitives reach a state where slavery is illegal, they have the right of ownership over themselves and could not be reacquired without breaking the laws of said state. Any attempt to recapture slaves would be poaching, still according to the Accords. The arguments go back and forth for almost an hour before Lady Sephare asks to intervene. She makes a reasonable and impassioned speech about the dangers of giving access to one’s territory, and while the practice of slavery was an ancient tradition, the right of every vampire to protect their territory from outside influence should supersede it. An escaped prisoner must be considered lost, and that is that.

Her case is backed by every state leader who does not want foreign agents freely roaming their territory, including myself. The slavers among us will have to keep an eye on their merchandise themselves. We win that vote with a comfortable majority.

As Constantine announces the result and Sophia writes it down for posterity, I consider that it merely pushes the conflict back to unofficial support and funding of various groups. Nothing is truly solved yet.

The second order of business is land control. The Union recently gained the states of Arkansas and Michigan, while the republic of Texas was formed from Santa Anna’s blunder. At the same time, the Roland have expanded into Quebec. The question is whether to intervene into mortal affairs and steer the formation of borders in a certain way. This discussion is much more consensual, and we quickly agree to leave them to their own devices. We would only intervene by mutual agreement and if we consider our interests at risk.

Once all agreements are made, Constantine calls an end to the proceedings and we file out in silence. We climb back up to the fortress’ living quarters and split up without comments. As soon as we are all dispersed, Melusine and I do not have the time to reflect before we receive an invitation to visit the Ekon quarters. With this, the diplomatic dance begins anew.

 

Over the next five years I focus on my spellcasting and even start to experiment with complex rituals and my sire’s spells. They are nasty things of power and rage, efficient and refined yet… inelegant. There is a spell that uses blades following randomized movement, one that sets up invisible caltrops of deleterious energy, one that is specialized in flaying its target alive… I still study them all and realize that Nirari truly is talented, even though he relies more on power than subtlety,

Ten years have come and gone when suddenly, I find a letter waiting for me on my desk back in Marquette. This one bears the mark of the Rosenthal postal service and I freeze as I recognize a familiar cursive. I delicately pick its creamy surface and slide it closer, my eyes widening in disbelief. I had not seen this specific handwriting in decades.

It could not be…

I flip the envelope and read the name of the sender with ever increasing surprise.

It is.

 

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A note from Mecanimus

This chapter needs a rewrite. I know that. Sorry. Anyway, THANK YOU EVERYONE I reached third place on the top web fiction thingie. I appreciate everyone's help. It touched me a lot. I hope you have a nice weekend.


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Mecanimus

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