She was standing in the church. Her flowing white dress hid the worst of her curves and showed off the best. It had taken weeks to find and she felt truly beautiful in it. Harrison was there, his tuxedo pressed. He looked so handsome. She was so... content. Things had just worked out so perfectly. A gloriously drama-free period of dating had flowed easily into an equally pleasant and un-objectionable engagement. All she had to do was say two simple words, three letters total, and she could continue in humble happiness for the rest of her life.
She opened her mouth, but there was no sound. Harrison beamed at her, his eyebrows raised, waiting for her to make the great commitment to a life of non-conflict and simple joys. She tried again, but nothing came forth. Where was her voice? She started to cry, silently. She wanted to say it. It was so easy to just fade into his happiness. Why could she not say the words to complete this moment? There was a cake, and a DJ, and a hall, and hundreds of friends, family, coworkers and people she only saw at funerals and family reunions. She had to say it.
She fell forward, tears streaming down her cheeks. Harrison wrapped his arms around her, holding her. She could feel them tight to her chest. He was warm. He smelled of apples, and linen closets. He was happiness-made-man, here for her. She tried again to say the words but remained silent. His arms tightened. She gasped for air, feeling the boning of her dress cutting into her side. She started to feel faint. Harrison kissed the top of her head as he continued to hold her, the pressure increasing. She tried to scream.
“Woah, woah,” Daryl said, his arms wide as he tried to give her room on the small twin bed. “Are you okay?” He was shirtless and his chest bore the red lines where she had tried to claw her way out of his embrace.
She blinked as she realized where she was and who she was with. She recognized the who, but not the where. She stared around, wild-eyed, trying to remember. Her last waking thoughts were in an ambulance. They were going somewhere, to see Daryl’s friend. They were going to see Daryl’s friend, Stacy. She glanced around the small bedroom. Various movie posters for bad sci fi movies covered the windows, blocking out the light. The space was cramped, holding little more than the bed, and a beat up dresser. The whole space reminded her of college.
Daryl put a hand on her arm. She was still wearing the paramedic coveralls from the night before. “It’s okay,” he said reassuringly. “We’re at Stacy’s place. It’s cool.” He gave her arm a squeeze.
Daryl smiled. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
That was enough for Regan. She fell into his arms and closed her eyes. He held her close, his bare chest warming her cheek. She sighed and put her hand on him, gently stroking his skin with her fingertip. It felt good to be held. It felt comfortable, again. She missed this feeling so much, the comfort of a man’s arms around her.
A voice from the other room cut into their solace. “You motherlovin’ d-bag camper!”
“And that,” Daryl said, letting go of Regan, “would be Stacy.”
Daryl led her out into the living room of the small apartment. An old couch sat in front of a massive flat screen TV. A diminutive stick of a girl was angrily shaking her fist at the game, where the virtual body of a slain soldier took up most of the view. Her mousy brown hair hung loose around her head. She used her arm to brush some of the locks up and out of her field of vision. “Okay, no one touch Aaron. When I find his prone ass I am totally going to-”
“Hey, Stacy,” Daryl interrupted. “Regan’s up.”
Stacy waved a hand and continued playing. Regan watched from behind the couch as the on-screen soldier ducked and wove around the industrial wasteland until he came upon another soldier. Stacy started to shake with light giggles. With a few taps on her controller, several parcels were dropped into place. “Oh Aaron...” Stacy sang into the small mic clipped to her ear. The orange flames of a massive explosion filled the screen to Stacy’s obvious delight.
“Okay guys, I have to go. My friend finally got up and we need to get some dinner.” She pulled the ear piece off and tossed it with the controller onto the steamer trunk cast in the role of coffee table. Twisting on the couch she smiled up through her hair at Regan. “Tuesday is clan night. I’ve got to at least make an appearance.”
Seeing Stacy’s face, Regan stared with surprise. This girl could not be older than fourteen if that. Her full green eyes twinkled with a youth Regan could only barely remember seeing in the mirror. A snug white t-shirt showed off her narrow shoulders and slender arms, disappearing into a wide black corset under her breasts. The cotton hem of her tan skirt brushed over her thighs, revealing slender white legs and bare feet.
“You okay?” She offered a hand. “Daryl said you had a rough night.”
Regan nodded and shook Stacy’s hand. “I’m still a little out of it.”
“We’re all like the first few days.” She scooted over on the couch to make room. “Daryl, can you get her something to drink?” He nodded and stepped over to the miniature kitchen area off to the side. Regan walked around to take a seat so the two could talk. Stacy continued, “I want to say I’m sorry about your maker. That kind of stuff is just wrong.”
Regan was not sure how to respond to that, and settled on a simple, “Thank you.” An awkward silence formed, broken finally by the ding of the microwave. Daryl brought over the coffee cup full of blood, the green markings on the side of it declaring the drinker, “Always a Huron.” Regan took it happily and began to drink.
It was a unique taste. It had the same fresh rush of blood she had felt the night before, but there was something else to it. She smelled it before taking another drink. The more she drank the more she could remember her favorite coffee house, ordering a tall mocha, loaded with flavor syrups. “Is there coffee in here?”
Stacy shook her head despite her grin. “There’s a donor I know who gets himself good and hyped up on designer coffee before giving. Adds a certain edge to it, a regular jolt to start the night.” Her fingers had found Daryl’s hand, weaving into his fingers playfully. “So, Daryl, what do you say to picking us up something tonight? Nothing too loaded, but something fresh?”
Daryl turned away, his jaw tight. He stared at the television, and the game’s main menu screen.
Stacy pouted. “C’mon, Regan could use something straight from the source and you know I hate having to be direct.” Daryl still said nothing. Stacy slipped her hand from his and used it to brush the hair out of her face, again. She rose up on her knees which still put her small frame below his eye level. Reaching up she gently turned his face to look at her. Regan was sure that her eyes flashed a vivid, unnatural shade of green when he finally looked at her. “You will get us a boy to drink from who is not drunk.”
Daryl’s voice was low, dull, and unthinking. “Yes, Mistress.” She kissed his chest and then sat back down. Regan watched as Daryl walked mechanically to the door and let himself out onto the building balcony.
Stacy nodded, her lips tight. For the first time since Regan had met her, she was not smiling. “He is, and I hate doing that to him.” She picked up the remote and turned off the TV. She shook her head, causing a few strands of errant hair to drop down between her eyes. “But it’s really the only way to get fresh blood.”
“How did you do that?” Regan was trying to avoid thinking about the obvious implication that this child had been the one to place Daryl under her spell as her thrall. She had assumed it was the Earl, actually. She had hoped that it was to the Earl. That, at least, she might compete with. But there was something that unnerved her about a boyishly handsome twenty-something addressing a high school student as “Mistress”. She tried not to let it show.
“Don’t know. I just do it.” Stacy shrugged. “It’s one of the things that I just started out trying and, well, eventually got to work.” She adjusted her legs to sit cross legged on the couch, pressing down the front of the skirt for modesty’s sake. “No one’s told you how any of this works have they?”
Regan could feel the blood along her temple, pounding. All of the frustrations of the last two nights were coming to a head, again. She took another drink of the blood and shook her head. Aside from one talk with Daryl two nights ago, and an experiment with her non-bullet-proof hide, she still knew precious little about her new state. It seemed that life was being played by a whole new set of rules, and her only option was to try not to break too many before she met the same fate as her Maker.
Stacy knit her brow in concern. “That has so got to suck. I mean my Maker was a total creep, even for a Book, but at least he was there to coach me through the basics.” She looked at the steamer trunk and then back at Regan. “What about me? I could be like a big sister to you. Show you around.”
Regan coughed. “You’re half my age.”
Stacy crinkled her nose in a pained expression. “The body may be fifteen, but I’ve been around more than twice that. One of the first things you learn is that the outside rarely matches with the inside.” She put a hand on Regan’s shoulder. “Listen, I didn’t know your Maker, and I don’t know what she did to piss off the Earl. You don’t have to hang around here, but, well, if my Daryl thinks you’re alright, then you’re good by me. Plus,” she added looking over Regan’s shoulder towards the door, “I’m kind of a loner. Not a lot of vamps want to hang around a kid. You’d be doing me a favor just giving me someone to share a meal with.”
Regan nodded, feeling the hunger in her gut stir with the mention of a meal. Reheated blood was good, but her body knew there was a better, a richer way to gain sustenance. “Are you sure I’m not going to be imposing?”
Stacy rolled her eyes a little. “Trust me, you’re not.” She gestured at herself. “I can barely make a dent into a human’s blood supply before I’m totally full. One of the many reasons that there are so few made before they’re eighteen. Small body, full of raging hormones, and prone to random behavior.” She grinned. “I always have tons of leftovers.” She swept her bangs up and along her scalp as she thought. “Okay, lesson one: Unlife is politics.”
“Politics as in Team Edward vs Team Jacob, or politics as in Game of Thrones?”
“Somewhere in the middle,” Stacy answered. “Thing is, think of it a bit like chess. In a game of chess you’ve got thirty four ‘things’ at work. Two players, and two sets of sixteen pieces. So really the majority of the ‘things’ are just pieces that the two players push around.” She gestured between the two of them. “You and me? We’re more than likely pieces. You don’t get to be a player until you’ve been around a long freaking time. Even then, it’s not a sure thing.”
Regan followed, though she was not fond of being compared to a simple chess piece. She continued to listen.
“And of course,” Stacy said, “most pieces in chess are pawns. You go forward, you block, you provide cover fire, but for the most part you’re there to get whacked before a more important piece does.”
“And,” Regan started nervously, “we’re pawns?”
“That’s where we start,” Stacy replied, sadly. “The good news is that it’s way easier to get promoted from pawn to castle or knight as a vampire than it is in chess. The key is to just stay alive long enough for someone to think you’re worth promoting.”
Regan nodded, taking in her situation. She had quite happily done exactly as everyone had wished her to. She had delivered the black rose to the Earl, probably insulting him. She had gone and dutifully won the gold Cross pen from Mr. Wright. She raised her eyes to the small teen across from her.
“How do I know you’re not one of the players?”
Stacy failed to hide her grin. “There’s hope for you yet. If you’re not asking that question of everyone and everything you meet, you’re doing it wrong.”
The two chatted a while before Daryl returned. He had a young man with him. Daryl had explained that his little sister needed help setting up her game system, and this undergraduate was happy to come up and lend a hand. Regan noticed the look of pride on Stacy’s face as Daryl introduced them, and then stepped back out on the balcony to leave the two to their meal.
* * * * *
For three nights, Regan and Stacy remained holed up in her apartment. Stacy was rather proud of her cover. She would change to a different wing of the complex every few years, register under a new name and by the time she had moved back again, everyone had graduated and moved on. Since she had taken up computer gaming, there few questions about why the windows were totally papered over, and the few she did get Stacy could deflect with simple, “Screen glare.”
Still locked out of her own townhouse, Regan had lacked a change of clothes. Stacy’s first impulse had been to open her closet to her little sister but that was quickly abandoned. Stacy’s largest clothes were a size six. Regan could squeeze into a size ten after three days of fasting, if she was lucky. Daryl had offered to break in, but online shopping with next day delivery seemed the most reasonable course. While Stacy kept suggesting Victorian-inspired blouses, full skirts and granny boots, Regan had consistently ordered her usual pencil skirts and men’s-styled shirts. The second night at the computer Stacy had shaken her head.
“Coins are Coins,” she had chuckled.
Shortly after that, Stacy had explained that she was a Book, the same as Jeremiah. She did not know where her bloodline had started, or who the first vampire to take the name was, but she did not seem bothered by it either. “It’s not in our nature to ask why,” she had explained. “I just want to know what I can do, not how I can do it.” The Blood of the Book was known for that natural curiousity and acceptance that some things simply were inexplicable. Regan had thought the name had referred to study and science.
“Supposedly,” Stacy had confided, “there is an actual book that contains everything vampires have ever been able to demonstrate, an encyclopedia of possibilities. They say that every major county has one at their library, but if there’s one here I haven’t seen it.”
She had continued on to explain that Coins were known for being shrewd businessmen, accountants, investors and merchants “Of course,” Stacy had admitted, “there could be a huge self-selection bias here too. Are Coins prone to be wicked-ass financial negotiators because of their blood or because they only take those kinds of people to make into vampires?”
Regan’s boss began to email her on Tuesday and by Wednesday she had gotten an agreement to work from home overnight. She cited a kind of post traumatic stress and new medications as to why her sleep patterns were completely off. His response had been professional and agreeable, though she wondered how long she could keep her job doing this. She could not bring herself to ask Stacy how she paid for the apartment, the periodic night class tuition and other expenses. It was one thing to talk for hours about corporate earnings; it was something completely different to make it personal.
She still got a nightly text from Harrison, usually around eleven, asking if she was okay and reminding her that he was there when she was ready. Emma’s notes were more frequent, but had a familiar feel to them, providing updates on her work, short questions for wine/food pairings and other common thoughts that had dominated their communication for the last few years. It was almost as though Emma had forgotten about Regan’s new status.
Friday night she had come out of the spare room to find Stacy waiting for her, coffee mug in hand. A spoon stirred the mug’s contents, apparently of its own accord. Stacy looked up when Regan stepped out into the room. The spoon slowed its quiet rotations and then came to rest against the lip of the mug. Regan stared amazed.
“How did you do that?”
Stacy shrugged again. “It’s just something I can do. I don’t know, though, if I’m making the blood twirl the spoon or the spoon stir the blood. I know it only works with a mug of blood though. I’ve been trying to stir Daryl’s coffee like this for weeks.”
“All she manages to do is leave me with cold coffee,” he added from where he was flopped on the couch.
Regan picked up her phone and unplugged it from the charger she had bought. A new email icon blinked on the screen.
Several of the Hunters you encountered Tuesday morning are having a small recruiting session tonight at midnight. I would consider it no small personal favor if you were to attend that meeting yourself, find out what they are planning and, if practical, discourage the recruits.
I would also like to thank you for the rose and remind you that it is profoundly unusual to have such a gesture made at a presentation.
“Lord Strathmore Rose, Earl of Detroit.”
Regan read it a few times.
“What’s up?” Stacy could pick up on her worried look. Regan turned the phone over. “What’s this about a rose?”
Regan filled her in quickly about the black rose that had been buried with her. Stacy’s face paled a little as she listened.
“Oh,” she said when Regan had finished. “It’s a really big insult to bring something to a presentation.” She handed the phone back over. “He’s probably mentioning it to remind you that you owe him one for not ripping your arm off and stuffing it in your ear.” She turned to Daryl. “Plus, aren’t you supposed to be his tonight?”
Daryl grunted and checked his own phone. “I am, but he hasn’t sent me any tasks yet.”
“Roses suck at making thralls,” Stacy explained, “so the Earl outsources it to us. I guess it’s something that all Books are good at.”
“So,” Regan started nervously. “Are Coins known at all for, say, going after hunters?”
Stacy shook her head. “Nope.”
“Do you think there’s any chance I can refuse to do this?”
Again, Stacy shook her head. “Nope.”
Our story continues into the Chapter 8 Addendum
It seems our heroine is a across roads. What shall she do?