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I approach most of my problems with the same tried and true methodology. The first step is to identify the cause, the second step is to remove the cause with extreme prejudice.

So far, I could not seem to apply it to my current issue, taking Richard out of the Mexican-American war.

Indeed, the continuation of hostilities is not due to a sudden revival of Mexico’s scattered armed forces, but the very reason why their armed forces are scattered to begin with: they do not have a unified, functional government to agree on terms of surrender.

I am stuck in the south, away from my power base.

The first three months of eighteen-forty-seven are spent on several projects. Most of my time is dedicated to spying and keeping an eye on the ever-changing tides of war, and solidifying my alliance with the growing Natalis clan. Many a White Cabal agent finds employment among their magic-deprived ranks, thanks to my work as an intermediary. I also back Melusine’s many financial projects, including the completion of a canal and the first railroad in Chicago. I foresee that Melusine’s seat of power will eclipse Marquette in barely a few years and I do not mind too much. First, I have an interest in many of her endeavors and second, she cannot match the level of control, and thus safety, that I have over my land.

The rest of the time is spent getting my behind kicked by Lord Jarek in sparring duels.

That man is a monster.

Even my most powerful spells barely make him flinch. I have yet to force him to use his Magna Arqa, and I have rebuilt my ribcage more times than I care to count.

Besides training sessions, I also bring Sheridan up to speed on vampire customs and diplomacy. It takes an unreasonable amount of time, including exposure to my latest rendition of the Watcher, but he is finally convinced that we are not, in fact, hell spawns.

No.

Those are clearly the werewolves.

Nothing I can say convince him that “unholy crosses between man and beast” can be anything but the work of the Devil.

All in all, I had fun.

Then, in April, I finally get my chance when Richard is wounded at the battle of Cerro Gordo, in the Mexican Heartlands. The medical mage I handily keep around makes sure that his arm does not get infected, but the wound is still quite serious and would require a long convalescence. Richard and I have a bit of a falling out when he realizes how many lives medical mages could save and how I let some of his men die in vain. My answer is that I simply do not care about them. Sheridan’s answer is to remind the young man of the treatment of sorcery in an aggressively protestant army in a combat situation. Sheridan’s answer wins the argument.

I convince Richard to come home to rest and then, since the hostilities are petering out like a moist firecracker anyway, to accept the recommendation he received to enter West Point.

The war is over for him.

We board a Natalis ship from Veracruz back to New-Orleans and then home. Our little group arrives at my family compound a bit after sunset.

June welcomes us on the stairs before the entrance. Her tired eyes light up when she sees her uncle, his arm still in a sling, but otherwise safe and sound.

“Richard, bienvenue chez toi,” she welcomes him in French.

“I am glad to see you, comment vas-tu?

The pair catches up before June sends him inside for a late dinner. She turns to me with a sheer expression of relief.

“Hello Ariane, and gentlemen,” she greets. Sheridan and John politely remove their hats and I make the introduction. To her credit, she does not appear intimidated by John’s presence even after I revealed his true nature. I credit John himself for his performance. He developed a way to slouch that makes him appear as a sort of embarrassed, clumsy boulder. The disguise grants him a deceptive gentle giant aura that the fair sex often finds comforting.

June and I send the men inside and I take her for a short stroll around the property.

“You have such a nice dress,” she compliments nervously. I am wearing a new iteration of the classic semi-battle apparel with reinforcements around the chest area, as well as vambraces. This one is violet with blue undertones.

“Thanks. It has pockets,” I tell her with a little bit of pride. I prove their existence by removing a knife from a recess near my waist.

“Wow, how did you manage that?”

“I threatened the tailor’s family.”

“No, I mean, nevermind. So huh, thank you for bringing him back.”

“You are welcome. I merely fulfilled my obligations to my brother.”

“Right. We had a funeral. It was calm and sober. Serene. He would have liked it, I think.”

She seeks my approval. No, comfort. Sheridan’s presence has a peculiar effect on my psyche. Beyond his ability to advise me, I feel that I care slightly more about things I had discarded before, such as other people’s feelings. Without realizing it, I had let my nature erode my interest in ‘useless’ pursuits. Torran’s departure had not helped either. He always knew when to drag me away from the pursuit of power and influence in favor of the art of ‘carpe diem’. With him gone, I have pursued my projects with relentless focus.

Nirari’s presence reminded me of the end game but perhaps I should remember to unwind, from time to time. I should paint the drawings I made. And invite Isaac out while he is here.

“I am sure he did,” I comfort June with a soft smile, “my brother cared deeply about you. You were his pride. He told me so while I was there.”

She blushes.

“He… he did?”

“Achille mellowed out in his later years. You would not have recognized him if you had met him earlier. Despite his best efforts, he remained someone who was very private with his own emotions. Deep inside he saw himself as a stable rock upon which the family could be built, like our father was for us.”

“I see. So that’s why…” she finishes. She tilts her head downward with the absent air of someone lost in their own thoughts.

“What troubles you, child?” I ask.

“Hah. You asking me while looking so young…”

I consider leaving the Hasting essence unused and decide against it. I am not here to impress a mortal. I am here to spend time with my family, my mortal roots. Power games mean nothing and gain me nothing.

“Ahem. Yes. My dad sued me.”

“I beg your pardon?” I exclaim, outraged.

My anger finds echo in her, and outrage soon replaces shame on her lovely traits.

“Our lawyer read grand-pere’s will. My dad wanted the house to clear his gambling debts but Grampa only left him a single letter that literally just said: ‘you were my life’s greatest disappointment’, so now he claims that I poisoned his mind.”

That little… Gah! I forgot that every family has their black sheep.

“My own father…” June continues, her eyes brimming with tears.

I grab her and pull her into my embrace. She immediately cries and I somewhat awkwardly pat the back of her head. Her hair smells of sunshine.

“Do not worry, June. I will take care of this for you.”

“Oh… I did not mean to…”

“I know, I know, you do not want to bother me. I will not come back often, but I will promise you this: you can keep living your life as you see fit, and I will be the invisible hand that turns aside fate’s worst blows. You are a good person, June. I hereby choose you as my contact for the family. I grant you leave to reach out to me in times of need, though do not forget that I will not protect you from the consequences of your own actions.”

June nods emphatically, then stops, considering. She has learned not to trust a free meal.

“What do you ask in exchange?” she asks.

“Nothing more than what you already do. Think of me as a… reclusive, rich, powerful, grumpy aunt that still wants to stay in touch with the family.”

She laughs this time, her joy dispelling her earlier dismay. I find that it… pleases me.

“I can do that.”

April 1847, Savannah.

My destination is quite a sight. Made of white stone — but not marble — the Rosenthal Consortium Regional Headquarter manages to appear wealthy without standing out too much. Careful engravings attract the eye, while barred windows and a monumental steel gate give off the vague impression that it would be unwise to show up without pressing business. I am rather sure that no spells are involved. The construction was just designed to be intimidating from the ground up.

I am quickly let in by very polite attendees and leave John to loom over a pair of clerks.

“Come in,” Isaac says as I knock on his door.

I do so, and take in the sights.

My friend chose well. His office overlooks the Savannah river and its many ships, offering a breathtaking view even at night. The desk offers the same understated elegance and anal-retentive obsession with order and cleanliness I have come to associate with him. Salim, at least, does not use a color code to differentiate three different types of litigations.

I will admit that Isaac looks gorgeous, even when slumming it. His dark hair is only a bit scruffy, and his impeccable suit gives him a young scion of a ruling family aura that fits his composure perfectly.

The vampire himself sits on a dignified leather chair, head held between his hands. A single gas light illuminates his work plan and the small pile of missives lying there.

“Hello Isaac. Trouble?” I ask as I shuffle in.

He offers me a seat with a casual gesture before flipping a letter to the side.

“Oh, Ariane, please do not mind my somber mood. I am delighted to see you. Delighted. Just… troublesome matters, such as revolutions in France, Germany, and Sweden. Hungary too. And a small book published earlier in London that has sent our seers in a frenzy,” he complains.

“A book?” I ask with a raised brow. He throws me a copy of the offending material and I inspect the cover.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Whatever,” I scoff, and toss it back to him, “should you not be pleased since you are here anyway?”

“No, for the same reason that your house being on fire does not become good news if it happens while you are on a trip,” he deadpans, and I feel a bit stupid. Isaac is a competent manager. Of course, he will be made to solve issues upon his return, and delay will only compound the difficulties.

“Sorry about that. You can always desert and join us, you know?”

He glares.

“Have you perhaps met Sophie?” he finally asks.

I am a bit surprised by the non sequitur.

“Sophie? Constantine’s secretary?”

“That would be Lord Constantine, Ariane. Be careful, for lords take offense easily. And yes, I am referring to her.”

“So?”

“She is, ah, persistent in her pursuit.”

The revelation strikes me dumb for a moment.

“You would not consider switching sides because Sophie lusts after your scrumptious self and her attention scares you?”

I never expected the fun I could get from seeing the placid vampire squirm.

“Not exactly scare. And there are other factors, of course. I enjoy my current position and all the knowledge I derive from it.”

“Excuses, excuses.”

“You need but to suffer the romantic attention of a Rosenthal once to understand what I mean,” he replies, unamused.

“Oh? Are you volunteering?” I tease.

“Hmmm. I do not love you as our kind sometimes does. I do find you fascinating, witty, brilliant, and dangerously attractive.”

“You are correct Isaac, I had not suffered Rosenthal attention before. I give you a passing grade.”

Isaac seems at loss for words.

“As my first courting present, I am proud to offer this to you,” I announce.

I grab the wrapped painting by my side and present it to him.

“Hold on, that is not… Should I not be the one who… Did you paint this yourself?”

“Of course!”

“May I?”

“By all means.”

Isaac reveals his gift with meticulous patience, cutting every string until he can unfold the paper. I drew a portrait of him as seen from above, taken as he was extolling the properties of his treasures back at the auction. I believe I managed to capture his congenial persona except for the eyes. They glance upward with a certain shine that shows the sharp mind underneath. They seem to search the spectator’s soul to uncover plots and duplicities. This is the mask of a man over the brain of a god. A true Rosenthal vampire.

I think he likes it. He does not speak for a full two minutes. His inspection is so very thorough, I think that he would remember every pigment and every stroke.

Finally, he returns his attention to me, expression inscrutable.

“I accept your courting present and hope that the subsequent sex will not get in the way of our friendship.”

Wow, that was unexpectedly fast.

And both Jimena and Nami did mention that vampires frequently engaged in casual sex with those they trusted.

And it has been a while.

And I am curious.

And, perhaps, a little bit lonely.

And I trust Isaac on a deep level. He was the first to help me understand our society.

And he looks really, really good in that suit.

Hmm.

I… think I want to try that. I push on before I can overthink the situation.

“That will depend on your performance, Isaac.”

“I will hold you to that.”

And off we go, with the Master of the place taking the initiative with an enthusiasm I would never have imagined from someone who was hesitating to hunt a prey.

It turns out that the Rosenthal Consortium’s second floor contains a secured bedroom. I just go with the flow and admit that Isaac is an experienced partner. We do not love each other, but I manage to ignore the nagging remnants of mortal guilt that would otherwise ruin the experience to just let go and enjoy myself.

And so I do, for a good hour.

“I hesitate to ask, but did you end your relationship with Torran?” he asks, as we rest under the covers after the act.

“A bit late, no?” I retort, amused, but he shakes his head.

“Relationships between vampires follow different codes. Since marriages and families do not cement our unions, we make arrangements however we see fit. You could have ended your relationship, or opened it while you are separated.”

“I see. To answer your question, we are free to pursue companionship with the understanding that we will claim each other next time we meet.”

He nods in understanding.

“A wise agreement between lovers who hold each other dear.”

We relax in bed for a while longer and Isaac proves that he can put his memory to good use. He had clearly been paying attention to what I like. We have more fun and I take a pleasant bath afterward to give myself some time to recover, and also because my hair looks like tumbleweed.

Alas, all pleasant times must come to an end. We eventually return to his office, where he shows a table containing a map, the official reason for my visit.

“We have made progress in translating the path to the dragon claw.”

“Alleged dragon claw.”

“Have some faith, Ariane, you never know what might be listening.”

I know what is watching and it does not care. Bah.

“The map, Isaac.”

“Yes. We called upon the minds of the prominent expert in the Sea Peoples, a Professor Fergusson, from Oxford. He and his assistant deciphered the text with incredible speed, and we have narrowed the starting base to an island south of Kos, in the Carpathian sea.”

“That is great news.”

“Not so much, because the island does not officially exist,” he answers, pointing at a small expanse of blue in the heart of the Mediterranean. I recognize Crete to the south, where the minotaur was said to have his labyrinth, and Rhodes with its lost colossus to the east, though, arguably, I had no notion of where that island was before looking at the map.

“Could they be mistaken?”

“Indeed not. The navigation records are quite clear, especially the traveling distances and times recorded in the recovered parchments. There are a few possibilities that we have to account for.”

“The island was submerged?”

“Possible, but unlikely. We have no records of any era with catastrophe consistent with an entire island disappearing beneath the waves. My guess, and our Progenitor agrees, is that the Sea Peoples managed to hide it with magical means.”

“What, an entire island?”

Anticipating my protests, Isaac lifts his hands in a calming gesture.

“Let me explain before you object. The place we are looking for is a sacred location. It was used as a rallying point for the fleets to conduct ritual ceremonies before they launched expeditions on whichever shore was unlucky enough to attract their gaze. It was not large. No more than five kilometers of diameter.”

“I remain unconvinced. Five kilometers is a lot to camouflage.”

“There could be something on the island that makes it special, something that would incite a confederation of raiders to choose it as their most sacred spot, despite worshipping different gods. Something that would draw a dragon in.”

“Hmmm. Perhaps. Your hypothesis raises the question, if it remained hidden for so long, how are we to find it?”

“I am glad you asked! We have designed a powerful tracking spell that only someone with an immense amount of aura and a good knowledge of blood magic can possess.”

“Did you now?”

“It will be set in a stella and dropped in the main cabin of a ship sailing soon to Gibraltar.”

“How soon does it depart?”

“Whenever you are ready. You may bring your Vassal but I will ask that you keep Doe here, on account of the amount of blood he requires as a fledgling as well as other… diplomatic issues.”

“I understand.”

“After you have arrived, you will transfer to the Corbeau, one of our exploration ships. Professor Fergusson and his assistant will already be on board, along with a team of researchers and helpers. Key members of the expedition will be made aware of your nature. You will have the power to stir them as you see fit, though we advise you to let them do their job.”

“Of course, they are qualified, after all.”

“Do you agree?”

“Yes. I will take part in this expedition. Hopefully, It pans out and we get a nice weapon out of it.”

“Even if it does not, perhaps you can use this opportunity to tour Europe. I am sure that Loth and Torran would be delighted to see you again. You can take a month or two.”

“Hmm. That does sound tempting. A pleasant trip followed by a holiday tour. The only way that this could go poorly would be if the captain was named Bingle, haha.”

“Bingle?” Isaac answers with a frown.

And there it is. My heart freezes in my chest — even more than usual — a great feeling of dread assails my mind.

Please no.

“As in Miranda Bingle? Professor Ferguson’s assistant?”

Ah.

Ah, indeed.

Ah.

I calmly place my hands on the table. I calmly grip it until the wood groans, then, I calmly smash it against the wall.


The Atlantic, two weeks later.

“I’m booooored.”

A bang on my large cabin’s door.

“Not that bored! Go away, Sheridan!”

The Corbeau’s executive cabin is vast and luxurious even to the exacting standards of vampire nobility. It contains a bedroom, a bathroom, and a receiving room of great size, richly decorated by furniture that can be locked in place in case of bad weather. Polished wood and lush rugs cover the walls in warm colors, giving guests a feeling of cozy intimacy. The armory I brought with me only makes the place more interesting. At least, to me. The best feature is the throne-like chair on which I am currently sitting.

I turn to my domain’s temporary occupant. My cabin occupies the back of the back of the ship, and it includes a large rectangular hatch to the outside. My sarcophagus rests on rails aiming into it with an addition stuck around for the duration of the trip. Should the vessel ever be compromised, either I or Sheridan can launch it and I will safely rest under the waves until nightfall when ballasts will lift the heavy piece to the surface of the water. The purpose of the system is to render any attack on the ship for the purpose of killing me pointless.

Said hatch also serves as an ingress point for the world’s strangest castaway.

“A bother, don’t you think so, Sirryn dear?”

The fish-woman replies with a throaty sound, her malevolent yellow eyed fixed on the door. She has scars on her greenish tail, across her pale white chest, on one cheek going backwards and she is missing parts of her fins and two webbed fingers. She looks like she was on the unpleasant end of a canister shot. Her nose is absent, replaced by twin vertical slits but that was from birth, so it does not technically count.

Her only notable belonging besides her bag is a strange wristband of pink stone, the material encircling a purple gem as if it had been weaved around it. For all I know, it was.

She showed up two days into the trip, flopping on the wooden board after banging on the hatch. I did not have the heart to chase her. I was already languid with ennui.

“Ariane, we need to talk!” a voice yells from behind the door.

I grumble since I can imagine why he wants a discussion.

Simply, I have fifteen hours per day of activity. I have been reading, I have been casting, I have been practicing forms of spear and sword. I have written two essays on the inevitability of our appearance to the mundane world, which I will send to Lord Constantine when we make landfall in Gibraltar. I have written three odes and seventeen dirty limericks, with Melusine only starring in three. I have tried knitting and realized I disliked it. I have filled one of my books with various drawings taken from my memories. I even found out a way to enchant the barrel of my next rifle.

It has not saved me.

So, the Watcher forbid me, I have started playing pranks on the crew. I could not help it.

Ghostly apparitions in the window? Done.

Strange noises on the hull as people try to sleep? Done.

Items that mysteriously disappear then reappear when no one is looking? Absolutely.

Perhaps enchanting a piece of wet cloth to slap the butt of the next person visiting the lavatory was a bit too much. The scream woke up the captain.

Rather than facing me directly, as the man was smart enough to know where the disruptions were coming from, our brave skipper asked an equally bored Sheridan to intercede with me and limit my shenanigans. The gall of this man, trying to make me responsible. I am older, therefore, mathematically more mature.

“Ariane, this is serious. There are pirates!”

Do my ears deceive me?

“Pirates?”

“Yes! Pirates!”

“Oh! Yesssssss! PIRATES!”

Finally! Finally! Miranda bloody Bingle came through! I thought her aura of undaunted catastrophe would only activate upon our meeting but no! Lo and behold, some action.

“We are letting them board us without resistance since it’s almost night. Can we rely on you to solve the problem?”

“Of course, you can. Do send them my way.”

Ooooh boarding action! It has been, what, ten years since the last one? How exciting. I wish I could have been on the main deck.

I quickly move my throne to face the door. I also grab a coffee table and place it to the side to hold my two revolvers. Finally, I change into full battle regalia: Loth’s armor, the obsidian gauntlet, the knives, the spear which I leave to the side. I apply a small enchantment to the lone lantern to give the light a blue hue, then I settle to wait. Sirryn comes to stand by my side and hides her presence.

I find the fish-woman curious. I am still unsure as to why she is sticking to me. It cannot be the food since she barely touched the salted cod I asked for her, preferring to rely on her own supply of multicolored algae and strangely preserved flesh she drags from her scale bag. Our conversations are often one-sided. She barely speaks more than five words per day, and all her sentences start with ‘Nirari’.

The most curious aspect of our unexpected partnership might be my reaction to her presence. She is a predator. I am a predator. So far, I have always felt strongly about those who would intrude upon my territory. Syrrin is still an unknown, and yet her presence does not bother me in the slightest, as if we were complimentary instead of competitive.

I dismiss the thought. Heavy footsteps announce the coming of quite a few guests.

A discreet bang on the door.

“Come in,” I offer, and Sheridan walks in first, hands in the air.

That immediately ticks me off.

The man who follows has a long brown beard and the sort of clothes designed to look like a navy officer’s uniform without being one. He stops when he spots me, and his mouth hangs open to reveal blackened teeth.

The lout currently holds Sheridan’s colt, muzzle pointed at my Vassal’s back.

That will not do at all.

More men follow. They look like unkempt sailors. Many show dubious hygiene and faces turned scarlet by alcohol abuse. The smell of my space downgrades from that of a salon to that of a barrack. I scrunch my nose in displeasure.

A good dozen men spread in a half-circle around me, all gaping like a bunch of fools and fouling the air with their fetid breath. My mood plummets.

Ah, well. Let us make use of this diversion, at least.

“Poras Dei Malkan.”

With a massive clang, the metal door seals behind my guests. They all jump at the same time and Sheridan uses the opportunity to withdraw to a darker corner of the room. I can feel his fury from here, a rare occurrence. It must chafe his manly pride to allow criminals on board. He is more of a ‘to the last drop of blood’ kind of lad.

I admire that he would place the safety of the sailors above his pride.

Tick tick tick. My nails play a little tune on the throne’s lacquered arm. Progressively, the sorry rabble of imbeciles populating my private quarters returns their attention to me.

“I was told that you had demands?” I ask, amused. A smile reveals a hint of fangs, not enough to be terrifying, just enough to leave them uneasy.

“Nah we don’t. We were just on our way,” the captain immediately babbles. Half of the crew nods emphatically while the rest still waits for their intellects — such as it is — to come back to life.

Hmm.

I find it both admirable and slightly disappointing that some people would exert common sense ten minutes after committing an act of piracy on a well-patrolled trading lane.

“Oh no, be my guests. I insist,” I finish in a lower pitch.

I Charm all of them at once and force a step forward. I hear a few muttered prayers. A white noise rings in my ear as they do so.

“First order of business, you will return his weapon to my friend. Now.”

The captain mechanically throws the Colt to Sheridan, who grabs it with relief. His anger abates. Good.

“Now, I’d like to know whose brilliant idea it was to attack this specific ship.”

Silence.

“No privateer with two bits of sense would risk what you risked boarding us, so I will ask again, who decided it would be a good idea to attack us?”

“What are you all doing?! Let’s kill the bitch!” a voice declares from somewhere.

Finally, someone with a spine and no brain on top.

The culprit is revealed when his brave companions take a step away from him. He is an angry one, I can tell, skin carmine and eyes bulging. I can feel the violence underneath. He is a man used to it.

“Oh? And how would you proceed?” I ask him.

After taking a few seconds to process the question, he steps forward and takes out a pistol with unnecessary flourish. I get a good view of the badly maintained barrel when he waves it under my nose. I should kill him just for that.

“Enough of your bullshit, woman...”

“Shoot.”

Silence, once again, descends upon the rabble.

“Shoot,” I repeat.

I am curious. I know that this will not kill me. I do wonder how much it will hurt, however. A tiny part of me thinks this is ridiculous, that I should just kill them and be done. The rest is bored, and knows that boredom is a dangerous thing. I need a little bit of play, a tiny hunt, something to keep me on my toes. Being shot in the face by a pirate might just be the thing.

“Shoot, you pu—”

A click. I watch, mesmerized, the powder ignite when the frizzen hits the rusty pan.

White.

Something blows into my face. It feels like being slapped, burned, and stung at the same time.

Ow.

Ow.

Ow.

Alright, ow. That hurt.

I open my eyes, blink a little bit, and blow air out of my nose. Black powder rises, which I fan away with the back of my hand.

The sailor and his mates let their jaws hang open, aghast.

I realize that the bullet has come to rest against my left lower molars. I push it with my tongue. Hot! And vile. Ugh.

I spit the piece of lead on the carpet.

Somebody swears.

“My turn, I guess,” I remark.

I snap the shooter’s neck and send his corpse careening against the hull, for intimidation and also because it really hurt. Reminder to self, avoid the cloud of heated powder whenever possible.

I grab a handkerchief and wipe my face, trying to digest the latest piece of information.

Normal bullets no longer harm me. At all.

I have changed so much in the past thirty years. I have gained many advantages. Sheridan’s presence reminds me that I have lost some as well. I should rejoice at the disappearance of one more weakness, and yet I cannot help but wonder what the cost was. I used to be… more human, at first. I think. I find it hard to remember how it felt.

I have forgotten.

I return my attention to the present. I do not want melancholy to get its apathetic grasp on me.

“Where were we? Ah yes, you were going to tell me why you attacked my ship, before I paint the room red.”

The following interrogation is as inspiring as it is unpleasant, with every minute those idiots spend here increasing the risk of having to delouse and fumigate the entire room. They were ordered to intercept us by a contact in a small port called Casablanca, in order to retrieve ‘any cargo’ we might be carrying, including the more peculiar ones. I suspect some rogue cabal fishing for artefacts with disposable assets. Isaac is going to have a field day. He loves to pull the string of clues until he reveals a fat, secretive lumps of rich bastards who think themselves smart.

“I understand. And you saw no problem with taking the contract,” I summarize while tapping a talon on the coffee table.

The captain has the decency to look embarrassed. His men huddle behind him smelling of fear and piss. More muttered prayers form an irritating drone at the back of my mind.

“This world is vast, and filled with dangers,” I continue. “Take it from someone who had survived for a long time, the most important thing you must know when stealing from someone is to know who, exactly, that someone is, and whether or not you can afford to cross them. Some companies will learn of a stolen shipment, write it down in their balance sheets, and contact their insurer. That would be the majority. There are others, like the Rosenthal Consortium, to whom this ship belongs, that need to protect their reputation. It means vengeance. It means that they will hire pirate hunters or…”

I lean forward and this time I show my fangs.

“... things like me, to send a clear message. That is why you little newts should have known better.”

I lean back.

“But since I am feeling generous, I may consider letting you go if you play just a few games. Well, most of you, in any case.”

Hope shines in their yellow, bloodshot eyes.

“First order of business, you are going to thin your own ranks,” I start with a grisly smile that hints at unspeakable horrors and advanced psychological torture.

The captain whips his pistol out and points it at a tub of lard of a man with filthy blond hair, pulls the trigger, then brains him.

All over my books.

My precious books! Covered with brain matter from a man with the cortex of a dead opossum. My only rampart against boredom. Soiled!

By the Watcher you cockless little AAAARGH! You should have waited for me to state the bloody rules! What is wrong with you lot!?”

I am already grabbing my spear when a voice interrupts me, a warm baritone with a Texan accent.

“That’s enough, Ariane. Let them go.”

How dare he…

My anger surges, then dies like a wave against a rock, broken by instinct and belief. Sheridan is here for me. He is merely playing his role.

“I said I may let them go,” I hiss.

“No more semantics. If you were to kill them, and that was your prerogative, you should have done so from the get go. Do not play cat and mouse with human lives, Ariane. Respect the spirit of your word.”

He…

Hmm.

Semantics and tricks are part and parcel of what we are. I also mentioned several games, and I did say ‘may’. I do not believe that I am breaking the spirit of my word, as he said.

I could argue with him. It would be a waste. Sheridan has decided to be my conscience. I do not need to be technically correct with him because he is on my side, and so I decide to let it go.

The pleasure of killing them lost its appeal anyway.

“Leave my ship,” I begrudge, “and remember the rules, because another one of my kin might not be so generous.

One gesture, and the heavy door unlocks behind the pirates.

The room is blessedly devoid of disease carriers five seconds later. I consider that nothing prevents them from turning their guns on the ship, but I dismiss the concern. It will be night quite soon and the ship is sturdy. I will simply slay them all if they develop a collective case of insanity.

“I am worried about you Ariane, you were not like this when we attacked the cult.”

“We were on a schedule,” I reply, “I do not take as many risks playing with my food if there are lives at stake.”

Sheridan seems to accept my explanation, yet soon a new worry twists his traits into a scowl.

“Speaking of which, you have not, you know...”

“Fed from them?”

“Yes.”

“Well, someone ruined the mood and decided to let them leave.”

“I... I see.”

He looks sheepish. I wave his concerns away.

“Do not worry yourself. That was no worthy hunt. I will simply drink from one of the volunteers, as always. I am convinced that there will be ample opportunities to hunt before this trip is over.”

“Very well.”

“Now please leave me.”

“Right, good evening to you.”

“And have someone come clean all that brain!” I tell his retreating back.

Hmph.

Syrrin lowers her camouflage and point at the corpses

“Nirari. Give. Flesh.”

Her raspy voice sounds strange in the open air. It also annoys me that, after me insisting that there would be no flesh for half of the trip and her looking at me like at a child who claims the dog grabbed the cookie jar, her incredulity turns out to be warranted.

I never fail to deliver, do I?

“Yes, yes. Just don’t eat his liver, or you may suffer from alcohol-induced coma.”

Syrrin ignores my warning. She opens the latch and a blade of sunset light reflects on the side of the room like a long red gash. I hiss softly. I do not believe that I will ever forget the burn I got in Alexandria.

And now I am bored and reminiscing, again.

This has to be the most disappointing pirate experience of my life. This debacle also served to underline a few important details.

Sheridan is not Dalton. He sees himself as my conscience and as my protector, someone who will steer me towards the light (the non-burning kind). I will never compare them aloud because it would be a pointless and harmful experience. The Texas ranger was never meant to emulate another man. He has his ways, and that is fine. I will merely require a few adjustments in my expectations.

I am also changing. Evolution of character is a natural thing, a comforting thing, because it reminds me that I am still learning, and growing. At the same time, my recent tendency to play with my prey worries me. It could simply be the lack of true challenges in the last two months, at least since Lord Jarek stopped bashing my face in during our spars. It could also be an instinctual response.

If my nature turns more cruel as time goes by, I fear that when the time comes to fight the two old monsters, I might choose to join forces with one of them instead.

No... no, that would not be me. Toying with our preys qualifies us as a... whatever we are. I merely need to question my own actions. As long as I ask myself if my behavior conforms to the rules I set for myself, I will never be truly lost.

As for boredom, I just thought of something.

A few weeks ago, when I amused myself with that entertaining little band of thieves, I came across a mildly competent mind mage. I allowed him to enter my mind fortress so we could have a bit of fun together. I realize now that I could perhaps develop a more battle-oriented setup. It could be a lot of fun.

I close my eyes and meditate. I am now in the palatial bedroom of the imaginary castle of my psyche. The Watcher casts its purple radiance on a chaotic landscape of mazes, statues and gardens. Strange white flowers bloom on the dark roots and thorns that form the fabric of this space.

Time for a little bit of experimental landscaping!

I spend another week like this, mostly occupied with experimenting with mental warfare. I do not even need a partner to practice on. My instincts can gauge the deadliness of my creations.

I cannot wait for another mental confrontation.

Then, one night, Sheridan wordlessly drags me to the deck. We watch the green and grey of the shore rise to a sheer cliff gently sloping towards a bay and its many buildings. The Rock of Gibraltar stands guard over the entrance to the Mare Nostrum and its ancient treasures.

At long last.

Europe.

 

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A note from Mecanimus

Hohoho.

No spawn so far but definitely before next Friday so you don't get a chappie next Friday. I needed a break anyway. Take care out there!


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Mecanimus

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