The lieutenant who so generously lent me his tent chose candles to light its interior. The soft yellow glow basks the insides in a cozy brilliance. It gleams on medals, blades, and the shiny buttons of his spare vest.
In contrast, my nephew’s expression is dark indeed. Upon learning that a relative had come, he had stormed in with righteous outrage. Now, his inquisitive eyes roam from John’s imposing form to my more familiar one. Eventually, curiosity needles him forward.
“Do we know each other?” he asks coldly.
Ah, yes, the arrogance of youth. I am pleased to learn that incarceration left his spirit undampened.
“You can consider me as a… relative of sorts. I came here on your father’s request, Richard.”
“And how come I have never heard of you before?” he demands.
“The request,” I go on, “was to keep an eye on you and make sure you do not lose your life pointlessly. I came here tonight to offer you a legitimate way out of your current employment, should you want one.”
Richard scoffs and the gesture reminds me of my brother. His eyes are the same blue, though his hair is brown, and he is leaner than Achille used to be. I notice a rebellious fire in his stance that my sibling always lacked. My brother was always content with the status quo.
Richard wears the uniform of the dragoons well.
“Look, I don’t know who you are miss, but if you expect me to believe—”
“Where are we?” I calmly interrupt. Anger fills him and I am once more reminded that I look like a young woman, not some grizzled authority figure to be instinctively obeyed. I could solve all my issues with a hint of Charm, but that is not why I came here.
“Where are we? We are in Mexico!”
“No, we are in your commanding officer’s tent, the use of which I was graciously offered to conduct my business. It should tell you more than you need to know about our respective positions. Now, I will repeat again, do you want to leave the service of the army and return to Louisiana without any legal consequences?”
I can tell from his uncertain glare that Richard has trouble accepting my presence. Thankfully, John comes to the rescue as he used to. Truly, we have lost nothing of our teamwork.
He shrugs and readjusts his posture. Massive muscles roll under his well-cut clothes like tectonic plates, attracting the eye as they readjust for maximum comfort. Great swathes of cloth groan and strain under the titanic pressure and buttons stretch to their very limit in a display that never fails to catch the eye. John captures Richard’s attention, forcing it up to a pair of condescending dark eyes.
A primal chemistry occurs in my nephew’s mind, one that has guided his species for millennia. It goes like this:
The human mountain range before me could probably snap my spine between two fingers. He looks like he lifts boulders for fun.
I should respect him.
He obeys the woman.
Therefore, I should respect her.
And there lays the crux of both my joy and my annoyance. My appearance is a lure to lower the guard of the most careful of foes. That same appearance prevents me from being taken seriously by those unfamiliar with the size of my network and bank account. Instead, they will fear John, the colossal paragon of virile masculinity, silently admiring the humongous size of his biceps. Even though I could massacre him in mere moments.
Life is strange.
In any case, Richard finally takes us seriously.
“I know what father thinks of my endeavor, miss. We had words. I must also admit that the one battle I have been in rid me of some of my preconceived notions on war. None of it matters, because I took an oath.”
My nephew searches my expression. Perhaps he expected a rebuke? He soon resumes his argument.
“I took an oath to defend my country and I fully intend to fulfill it.”
I resist the urge to remind him that he is hardly participating in a defensive war. It would be hypocritical of me to criticize someone fighting for more territory.
“And there is something else,” he adds after a delay, “I am fighting for my men.”
His expression changes as he speaks, going from declamatory to thoughtful. He turns his gaze to the flickering light of a candle as he delves into his own mind.
“At first I thought we would crush their army in a heroic fight. Charge their lines with sabers and bayonets in one glorious assault, with God on our side. When we got caught and surrounded with Thornton it was a different affair. Messy. Confusing. And the smell! But what mattered is that I gathered my people and tried to get them out and when we failed, I kept us together. Two of the lads from the squadron tried to run for it by themselves and got shot down. Another squad got overwhelmed almost immediately. It was then that I realized how much of a difference I could make. Not for the whole war, mind you. For those around me. I think that was the first time I truly understood what responsibility meant.”
Richard stops there and I can tell from the steel in his voice that he will not allow himself to leave so easily. I am intrigued, and decide to test his resolve.
“Richard, my coming here was your father’s dying wish,” I tell him with a soft voice.
Surprise then grief animate the soldier, in a controlled display. He is troubled. I can taste it.
Richard readjusts himself in his seat as his eyes shine with unshed tears. I give him a moment.
“My father is dead?” he finally asks.
“And his dying wish… was that I would come back?”
Hah! He got me there. Schooling my expression, I reply earnestly:
“No, his last wish was that I should protect you from dying pointlessly. He would not rob you of your choice, even if that choice leads to your death.”
“Then… I believe that I will stay.”
I allow myself a smile. If he stays, I have to stay. That was my promise. I cannot stop him from dying in battle, but I can protect him from night-time ambushes, politics, and magical attacks. Although the task will be time-consuming, I admit that I would have been disappointed if he had broken his oath.
Hopefully, the war will be brought to a swift conclusion.
Two nights later.
The Accords constrain few freedoms when it comes to the management of one’s territory. Constantine understood from the start that a federation of vampires from very different backgrounds could only be achieved by leaving the grumpy old monsters to their own designs whenever possible. Conversely, the rules defining intervention in each other’s territory, general defense of our kind, and intervention in human conflicts are strictly defined. I keep a copy of the official document with my baggage just so that I can follow protocol to its last exacting detail.
In this case, I was given leave to travel by Lord Jarek but not leave to stay, which leads me to the Natalis sovereign’s personal hacienda by the sea.
I need to negotiate my status as a long-term guest.
I also need to ask him a few questions concerning John. He and Owens are now taking care of his security from a Natalis base by Fort Texas. The front remains calm, for now, and I have no choice anyway.
Metis and I follow a path along the beach, passing by shrubs and palm trees. The air smells of the ocean, damp earth, and orange trees. Jarek’s domain begins at a pair of white columns dug into the ground at an angle, as if by a giant. I suspect that it might actually be the case.
The hacienda soon comes into view.
The Natalis compound is a curious collection of buildings showing vastly different architectures. The main building is a square block of yellow stone under a gently sloping roof made of red tiles. Lanterns decorate the inner courtyard and its vaulted promenade to show tables covered with food. It is also the only concession to local preferences. As I follow the path through a well-maintained lawn, I spot what looks like a medieval castle, a large house with a high roof covered with thatch with its entire façade displaying the wooden beams underneath the plaster. There is even a sort of massive circular hut.
Even at the late hour, the land is filled with workers and their many children. The people are definitely on the muscular side of the scale. Even the bookish ones look like they could run miles without trouble. One such person approaches me with the uncertain manner of one who suspects I might be important, but not exactly how important.
“I am Ariane of the Nirari,” I start.
“Oh, of course! Lord Jarek has been expecting you. This way, please.”
Owen probably warned him of my coming. I climb down from Metis’ back and follow after the subservient man to the side of the hacienda and onto a rectangular field dotted with athletic tools, deserted at this time of the night. In the distance, tilled fields alternate with wildland filled with shrubbery. Towers rise here and there, occupied by men with muskets.
My surprise increases the deeper we travel into the property. I pass by a longhouse coming right out of one of Loth’s memories followed by a boxy construction of harsh white stone with deep blue shutters and a flat roof. The carnival of architectures finally calms down when the path snakes to the sea and along the beach. There, the locals have built a jetty that stabs into the sea with a large rock at its end. The stone is a monolith of smooth black rock upon which a man sits. Its shiny surface reflects the light of torches making it look as if fireflies were trapped within obsidian depths.
My sense of perspective plays tricks on me as I take in the man meditating at its top. Either the pier is very narrow, or the man and the stone are quite large. Of course, I know which is which.
“Did you create a path to that stone? It looks quite lovely,” I ask of my guide.
“No no,” the man replies with a hint of fear, “he liked the stone, so he grabbed it and moved it there.”
I look at the size of that massive boulder, standing at the edge of being a geographical feature. Alright then.
Lord Jarek opens his hazel eyes to watch us approach with a benevolent smile. He wears loose black trousers, a white shirt, and a red sash around his waist. He looks positively piratey.
The merry costume does a good job of hinting at his massive musculature instead of emphasizing it so that a passerby could mistake him for something other than a warrior. I assume that I am meeting him at his most casual, in the heart of his domain. I appreciate the implied show of trust.
“Good evening, Ariane of the Nirari,” he greets as we reach the bottom of his rock.
His voice is very deep with a gravelly quality that I find rather attractive. His face is handsome too, in a squarish, manly sort of way. I am not surprised that he would be so popular with the gentler sex during his short stay in Boston.
“You may leave,” he informs my guide who then scurries away. Then, he pats the stone by his side and, with a short jump, I join him on his unusual throne. We watch the hacienda for a while in companionable silence, with the sound of waves providing a rhythmical background.
“Do you like my domain?” he finally asks.
“I find it beautiful. If you allow me a question, why are there so many different types of houses?” I ask.
Jarek’s expression grows wistful. He searches my face for some unknown sign. Although I am not accustomed to such a direct, confrontational gaze, I allow it. I can tell that this is important.
“Do you know how bloodline powers came to be?” he asks.
I need to be careful not to reveal too much.
“They reflect the desire of the Progenitor, yes?”
“Correct. I briefly met the first of our kind. He turned me,” he announces.
I am quite surprised, and he can tell.
“Yes, I am old. Natalis was a simple man, a tortured man. When he was changed, he received the two things he had been craving: more strength and tranquility.”
“Yes, tranquility. A storm of thoughts and reflection rages in all minds, be they that of vampires or mortals. Suggestions, ideas, criticisms, memories, your spirits fly from one concept to another like bumblebees to flowers. Natalis found the constant noise abhorrent and had it suppressed. This is our weakness.”
“Is this truly a weakness? You make it sound like meditation,” I object.
“Our tranquility is born from emptiness,” he explains while staring in the distance, “not calm. Our power robs us of initiative and idle reflection. It is, after yours, perhaps the greatest burden imposed on a bloodline. It has cost us our independence and our status on many occasions. Painted us as simpletons. The current Natalis holds in Europe are poor and scattered as a result. But not here.”
He points at the visible buildings.
“I invited my brothers and sisters and told them to build what they wanted for once in their life. They flocked to my banners in unexpected numbers and turned this domain into a proper village. The locals were only too happy to be under our protection from raiders and beasts. They think we are sorcerers, and do not mind the blood and nightly habits.”
“Those houses are personal projects then?”
“Yes. One of our Vassals is an excellent architect. He has helped us bring those projects to fruition, and we had our fun helping. Amusingly, those are not always childhood homes. Christiana’s house imitates the Mediterranean style she saw during her stay on the Greek island of Santorin.”
“The white house with the blue roof?”
I keep quiet for a while, and wonder who, when presented with such rich variety, would choose to live in that hut I saw. Oh, well.
“You did not come here to discuss architecture, I take it?” Jarek notes with an amused smile.
“My apologies, and you are correct. I want to bargain for the right to stay in your domain.”
“And keep an eye on your nephew?”
“Until the war ends, yes.”
Jarek ponders my request for a few seconds.
“You will assist me with a task of my choosing, and handle your own nourishment. You are allowed a retinue of no more than ten people at any time. In return, you will hunt up to one target a month. You may also call upon me to protect your relative in your absence, should you have a need to travel.”
“Those are generous terms,” I observe.
“We are allies, are we not? Besides, this is not even close to the greatest service I have done for you.”
Jarek turns to me and I am caught in the intensity of his stare. I am reminded now that he is ancient and powerful even when his aura remains politely subdued.
“Is it?” he insists.
“John,” I say.
“Indeed. Though you may want to call him Doe in public, as we already had a John.”
“Why what?” he answers with deceptive lightness. Ah, a game.
“Why did you release him from your service to be by my side? John is a competent and loyal subordinate, and he is still a fledgling. You could have just detached him for a week instead of leaving him under my care so freely. It does not make sense.”
To my surprise, Lord Jarek chuckles. The deep laugh rumbles in his chest like a small avalanche.
“You assume much, little Devourer. For example, you assume that I frenetically gather assets and underlings like you do. Or like Sephare does. I have my haven and I have my friends with more on the way. One fledgeling will not make a difference.”
Jarek lifts his hand to forestall my protests.
“You are scrambling for power. Newly ascended Masters do the same while Sephare does it because she cut herself from her powerbase, though admittedly, her latest stunt had already cost her their support. I do not function under the same imperatives. I intended to return John to you shortly. Your sire’s timing merely forced my hand.
“And before you ask, no I do not treat all my allies with so much care.”
“Then why me?”
“Because you are a Devourer.”
There it is again. Allies and enemies alike treat me the way they do because of my bloodline, not because of how I act.
“I see that my words frustrate you,” Jarek states in an amused tone.
I immediately school both my face and my aura.
“I will explain myself for your sake. When your sire came to me to request free operation within my land and secrecy therein, I accepted his terms because I had no choice.”
I gaze at Jarek in wonder. It is quite unusual for a lord to admit weakness.
“I am a second-generation vampire, like you. My martial prowess is almost unequalled among the Natalis and others. I stand at the pinnacle of physical power and yet, I do not stand a chance against your maker. At all. Nothing will ever narrow the gap between us.”
Lord Jarek cracks a sliver of basaltic rock from the monolith under him between his fingers and flicks it in the ocean.
“Bloodlines are not made equal. None can match the intellect of the older Rosenthal lords, or the guile of the Hastings. We were never meant to balance each other. In terms of combat, Devourers are in a class of their own if they live long enough. You are still a fresh and small little thing, and yet your power already matches that of a trained master while you have been one of us for only half a century. In another hundred years, you could be among the deadliest fighters in the world”
“You want me to oppose my sire,” I state, “but it is impossible.”
“For now. Perhaps forever. It matters not. Any odds are better than zero. You are our only hope of ever matching Nirari and his second, so when I learned that you had been captured I dispatched Owens and our newest fledgling to your location. I ordered the pair to stand ready to assist you when you escaped and, as I expected, you did. I left Doe with you because you might need more help and this is as much as I can get away with.”
Something he said bothers me.
“I am not the only living free scion. I know of Svyatoslav.”
Jarek shakes his head.
“Your brother chose another path. He roped himself in codes and obligations. His oaths are both armor and shackles. He picked the bow as his soul weapon too, thus forfeiting your emblematic power.”
I remember Torran mentioning it and shake my head, still disbelieving. Why would he use a bow as a soul weapon? The crystallized essence is meant to be used to fight against our own kind as it would be wasted on anything else. And he chose a bow? Unthinkable, from my perspective. I hold guns in high regard, and I still know better than to rely on something that runs out of ammunition so quickly to fight against another vampire.
“Your reaction speaks for itself, young one. Only you walk in the steps of your progenitor.”
“I really cannot catch up,” I observe. Again, Jarek does not seem disappointed.
“If we are to oppose him, your strength alone will not suffice. It will, however, be the bare minimum required to even think of fighting. You understood that. That is why you have not scoured the land imbibing blood wherever you went. Your Hunts have been efficient and you have taken time to learn how to duel, and apparently how to cast spells as well. This is the proper way. If you cannot win a contest of strength, then do not fight a contest of strength.”
“You have been keeping tabs on me,” I reproach. My arcane training is not common knowledge.
There is not even a hint of amusement in the old monster’s eyes.
“Of course, I have. Me and the others. You are not the only investment we have made to improve our chances, but you are one of the more promising.”
“You are preparing for conflict besides fighting my sire?”
“Indeed. We expect our European cousins to start testing us quite soon. There are some on this land who will side with them and others, like me, who would rather be left alone. A Devourer could be a game changer if you survive that long. ”
“You seem quite confident that I would side with you,” I remark, a bit miffed that they would assume so much.
“I am,” he answers calmly.
“Your aura has changed,” he remarks after a few seconds, “I know what you have been through.”
My aura? Could it be because I went rogue?
“Do not worry, those of us who can tell have been through the same thing. There is no stigma. Remember the pain and more importantly, remember that you endured it. I wish to return to my meditation. You may stay here at any time you wish in the future. I will contact you when I have decided upon a task.”
For one moment I consider asking about the spikey growth that appeared when I went mad, but I know when I have been dismissed, and so I stand, curtsey, and climb down the rock. A female Vassal with pale skin and a lazy smile awaits me at the end of the pier to show me to my quarters.
As we walk, I think.
I should have expected Jarek and the others to plan for an eventual conflict with the major clans. They are the ones who can actually do something, and also those who have the most to lose. I did not imagine that they would try to nurture me as a sort of deterrent against them and my sire. Sometimes, I find it difficult to assess exactly how important I am to various factions. This time, their hope in my potential saved my sanity.
In any case, I must now focus on finding tools and knowledge to use against my kind, and the sooner I get started, the better. As to who can help me, why, the answer is obvious.
My friend glares at me with disdain though there is mirth in his brown eyes.
“Oh, great one, the Rosenthal consortium is simply amazed by your insight. We need powerful artefacts and magic to oppose Lord Nirari! What a revelation. We, who have been the custodians of our kin for the past few centuries, have never ever considered that we needed a contingency plan in case he threw the gauntlet! Truly, the light of thine intellect shines upon thine unworthy—”
“Yes, yes, I get it, I am not the first to come up with this obvious idea” I interrupt, rolling my eyes, “please spare me the sass and tell me if I can join your merry band of peaceful murder planners. You need a hand to wield those mysterious tools, no?”
Salim’s face wavers in the mirror I use to contact him, courtesy of the Natalis. My control is not yet perfect. The mirror’s surface undulates like a sea at low tide from the power I feed it. When he speaks again, his voice is serious.
“Am I to understand that you intend to go against your sire if you can?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Ariane, I need you to be sure. If you wish to commit with us there will be binding agreements. We have a friendly and fruitful relationship going, retracting your proposal would not go well.”
“Yes, I am quite sure.”
He pauses for a moment, giving me a chance to reconsider. I have no need to do so.
“Very well. I will contact my hierarchy. Expect us to get in touch very soon. Goodbye Ariane.”
I close the connection. The die is cast and all that. In a way, meeting Nirari and Malakim was salutary. It reminded me of the end game.
There is another I could contact, who could grant me much power. I focus my attention on the mirror once more and push south, very far to the south. Soon, a connection is formed and I pour a torrent of power in the construct to stabilize the link.
The face of a small boy with a beret on top of his fluffy dark hair appears, bobbing up and down with excitement.
“Oh hello there!”
“Greetings Makyas, I would speak with Sinead, if you please. I have a business proposal for him.”
The childish countenance falls away and what smirks now does so with sharp little teeth.