Regan paced the short length of her kitchen waiting. She had a nervous energy, unsure what to do, but unwilling to start anything significant only to have it interrupted. A few times she started to work on some files for her one of her clients. Summers were terribly slow, the exception being a law firm that had shifted its fiscal calendar to end on September first. She found her tablet computer and started to sift through some of the records, trying to keep her mind busy, leaning over the kitchen counter.
Yet again she found herself forced into the role of the servant. Go get this. Go get that. Do this because I command it. Do not do this because we forbid it. Smile. Dance. Laugh. Cry. Obey. Obey. Obey.
Her fist came down with the kind of finality that only vampiric strength could provide, breaking through the glass of the tablet’s screen and sending shards flying in an upward spray. She swore as she stood again, and swept the destroyed gadget off of the counter and into the trash. She was going through computers at a faster rate than she had budgeted for and out of continued frustration send two jars, one containing uncooked noodles and the other dry lentils, smashing into the wall as well. She stood a few moments and looked over her miniature tempest of destruction, her blood spread in wide swatches across the granite backsplash. It was then that the pain in her hand began to register and she forced calm upon herself while she began to pick the shards from her tablet out of her hand.
The worst was that she knew her presence was going to be superfluous on this errand. If Jeremiah, the Lord and Master of the Great Library of Secrets and His Most Ookie-ness, was sending someone to fetch her and then go fetch this token or talisman or whatever, why did Regan even need to be there? Why not just let this associate do the heavy lifting and leave her well enough alone?
She did not ask for any of this, the dramas, the exclusion from the daylight, the threats to her friends. Last night had been amazing. Falling asleep in the arms of the handsome and mysterious Thomas had brought back a feeling of vitality and vibrancy that she had barely even conceived while she was mortal.
And just a few hours later all of that had been robbed away by a pompous ass with a book fetish.
Finally the doorbell chimed. She passed through to the living room and pulled the door open, grumbling under her breath about how often Jeremiah and his minions had simply let themselves into her home. The mythology she had always understood had held that vampires had to be invited into a home to enter it. She remained disappointed that it was one of the codes that did not seem to translate from fiction to reality.
Standing on her porch, to her surprise, was the golden haired assistant to the Earl: Klarissa. She was dressed as she often appeared to Regan, smartly in a fashionable blouse, and slacks with a crease so sharp she imagined it would easily slice a tomato. Regan frowned. She had enough on her plate this evening without adding the need to perform a task for the Earl as well as Jeremiah.
“I’m sorry, I have an engagement this evening,” Regan started before Klarissa could say anything. In response the younger woman smiled.
“Yes, you’re to come with me to the Earl’s estate, take possession of a token for Jeremiah, and then I am to take you to the library.”
Regan stared back, dumbfounded. Her mind tried to reconcile that the Earl’s assistant would work with Jeremiah. The two seemed to be rivals for power and status and Regan had done all she could to just avoid both of them. Klarissa clearly could sense Regan’s confusion.
“I’ll explain more in the car,” she said and turned to go down the steps of the porch. Regan stood another few moments before slipping into her boots, zipping them up, and following. She locked the door behind herself, and made her way down to Klarissa’s car. In a few moments they were on their way into the night.
“I don’t like doing this,” Klarissa said to open their conversation. “Just so we are clear.”
“Crystal.” Regan was already regretting waiting at all and not taking the initiative herself. It seemed she was always in the passenger seat.
“But apparently your involvement is important for whatever Lord Jeremiah is working on, and he doesn’t have time to wait around for you to get things right.”
“And what is he working on?”
Klarissa gave a shrug. “Honestly I don’t know. I have some suspicions but I’m not going to say anything. It is enough of a risk to even be involved at all; I’m probably best not knowing the specifics.”
Regan glanced sideways as the woman as she drove. “So, you’re helping Jeremiah even though you work for the Earl.”
“I don’t work for the Earl,” Klarissa corrected. “I serve the Earl. I am his right hand, his maid, his valet, his secretary, his enforcer, his lover and his companion. I serve as my maker did before me, and as her maker did before her.” She took her eyes from the road to lock on Regan’s. “I do as we are made to do.”
Regan shook her head. “You don’t have any choice in the matter? Couldn’t your maker create another assistant? Or couldn’t the Earl make one?” She reflected on her own maker, the one who had granted her the gift of unlife. According to the earl, Regan had been selected for this because she would make an ideal servant herself.
“The Earl of Detroit make an assistant?” Klarissa laughed. “Oh, it’s not that he’s above granting the gift of death from time to time, but they would be his heirs, privileged little children who need to have their blood brought to them in silver cups, mixed with the tears of virgins while they lounge about and ‘muse’ and ‘create’ and prepare to take over should the Earl ever meet the final death.”
“I suppose one of them making an assistant is out of the question, then.”
“If any of them lasted long enough to make a vampire, it’d be possible.” She chuckled again. “It seems that the Earl’s progeny don’t last once they leave Detroit. They get bored with life under their maker, venture out to find new ‘inspiration’ and then disappear.”
“The Earl sounds wonderfully popular.”
Klarissa did not say anything in response for a time. “He is old. Times have changed and he refuses to change with them. He still limits who has the right to make progeny, he refuses to allow new blood enter his county and keeps to a code of conduct that makes us little more than a race of immortal hermits.” Her eyes were sad and she did not turn towards Regan as she spoke. Regan could hear the sorrow in her voice as well, as though Klarissa were giving a eulogy for an elderly uncle. “He still has so much power and influence that most of the county are happy to hunt down anyone he tells them to, ignoring that when they do, the crimes they are enforcing are little more than simply being the creatures we are meant to be.”
“The creatures we are meant to be?”
Klarissa continued. “The old codes demanded that vampires keep their nature as secret as possible. Anything out of the ordinary could get a vampire hunted and destroyed by the mortals. Speaking too smoothly to a farmer’s daughter would get you accused of witchcraft. Being too close to someone who died under odd circumstances could get you burned at the stake. There was a good reason to keep our gifts as quiet as possible.
“But the Earl goes too far and always has. It is not just when one of us feeds in a public place that he calls orders them destroyed, but anything that could even be remotely seen as supernatural earns his attention. He rules Detroit with an cold iron fist and it’s time for a change.”
It was Regan’s turn to remain speechless. “So you’re helping Jeremiah overthrow him?” she asked finally.
“I’m helping Jeremiah create a challenge.” Klarissa shook her head. “There is no way that he has the power to pull off a successful coup. Even without me standing at his side, the Earl has dozens of loyal vassals, knights and dames all over the area that would rally to his banner if he called them. But having a rival may actually force him to let us live as we are meant to live.”
“And this challenge involves me.”
There was another long silence as the car made its way through the night time traffic.
Regan ventured another question. “Do you really think it’s worth it?”
Klarissa did not respond for a long while. The two sat in an uncomfortable silence. After a few minutes, Regan began to wonder if Klarissa had even heard the question. She was about to repeat it when the other woman began to speak.
“About a three years ago, I met Michelle. She was elegant, beautiful, wealthy, and regal. When she entered a room, men stood and women bowed their heads in respect. She could have been an Earless if she wanted but she had no desire to do so, none that she ever indicated when I was there to hear it. I was the Earl’s constant companion then, from when he arose at night until the lid of his coffin closed at sunrise.”
“He actually sleeps in a coffin?” Regan interrupted.
“He’s a traditionalist,” Klarissa answered. “My point is that she wasn’t a rival. She was just perfection personified.”
“I would say she sounds like she was far more than potential competition.” Regan watched Klarissa as she spoke. “You were in love with her.” It was an observation, not a question.
“I could have been.” Klarissa paused. “But she was also free as a vampire. She used her gifts and had no patience for a hermit’s life. She would walk into an art gallery and demand the respect of the room when she began her critiques. She could look at a sculpture and tell you every emotion of the strike of hammer on chisel as it was created. She commanded adoration at a level that even the Earl could not.”
“So,” Regan began, “from what you’re saying it sounds more and more like she was a rival without trying to be.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Love blinds us.”
Klarissa took an aggressive right turn, tossing Regan about in her seat.
“Are you going to let me talk?”
“Sorry. Please go on.” Regan pulled herself straight and adjusted her seatbelt.
“I wasn’t in love with Michelle. I was in love with her progeny, Piya. She was everything her maker was. And like her maker she was free with her gifts. I don’t mean she walked into a restaurant and ordered the waitress on a platter, I just mean that she did not abstain from being what she was. If she wanted a good table she would charm the hostess. If she wanted to feed, she would use her power to lure them into a shadow and make them forget if it did not go smoothly. She wasn’t blatant, but she wasn’t a prude.”
Regan reflected on the effort Klarissa had put into seducing her own friend Emma but said nothing. Instead she nodded and waved her hand to indicate she was still listening.
“The Earl told her to cease. That the next ‘transgression against the code’ would mean final death for her and shame for her maker. I remember meeting with her, begging her to just stay with us in the Earl’s house. She could be my consort, her thrall would bring us girls to feed on, and I could see to my duties to the Earl. She.... didn’t listen.”
“And you still haven’t forgiven the Earl.”
They arrived at the Earl’s home in silence. Regan followed the other woman through the doors and retrieved the envelope that awaited her, resting on a silver platter with her name written on it in a flowing hand. There was no one to greet them and they left as quickly as they had arrived. Regan wondered, silently, if the Earl was even there, or if he was at one of his other estates in the area.
They resumed their drive, Regan noting that their next stop would be the Library of the Straits. She felt the weight of the envelope in her hand. It had to contain a coin of some kind, though she did not open it to see. She thought about her conversation with Klarissa.
She had used her own silver tongue to escape a second death more than once. Was that a “crime” as the Earl defined such things? Was she courting his disfavor when she fed regularly on Shannon, the messenger she kept on retainer and who she had just hired as an assistant?
The Earl had ordered the death of her maker for violating his laws regarding the creation of vampires in his county. Perhaps she had been wrong to fight against Jeremiah if he truly did wish to oppose the Earl and create more freedom. She doubted that either of them would be easy to live under. She thought about how much she really just wanted to be left alone in all this, allowed to quietly tend her books and manage her financial empire on her own.
At least until she had enough to make a play of her own.
She blinked, and glanced sheepishly at Klarissa as though she had spoken the thought aloud. She had not, but felt the same guilt. Why not play the long game? She had the foundations in place to begin a slow and steady work of building the necessary portfolio to compete. A few quiet investments here, and a few shadow corporations there, and she could be poised to make a case for her own title of nobility in a few years. That was assuming she could keep herself alive that long, or rather not end up dead again.
Her mind was racing along the required procurements to that end as the car pulled into the haunting drive of the Library of the Straits. The stone guardians at the gate had changed, new victims Regan assumed, encased in living concrete and silently watching all who arrived. She failed to repress a shudder as they passed, thinking on the fate of those who opposed the Lord of the Library.
In that moment she began to question Klarissa’s choice to throw in her lot with him. She had to be aware of his practice of magical enslavement, had she not?
Before Regan could ask the car rounded the wide sweeping drive and came to a stop before the mansion’s main doors. Regan let herself out of the car, and waited for Klarissa to come around to join her. They entered together and stood in the massive main hall.
No one came to greet them immediately.
“Girls!” The voice broke into the silence of the hall with a touch of surprise. Looking up Regan watched as Jeremiah began to sweep down the main stair to greet them. “I did not expect you so soon, Ms. Fairchild. Usually you find some excuse to avoid me and my humble little house.”
Regan’s lips turned into a polite if forced smile. “Yes, well, I understand you need this.” She opened the envelope and drew out the gold coin within. She did not even look at it as she held it out towards Jeremiah. He came down to remaining few steps but made no gesture towards taking the coin.
Her smile grew in sincerity as she slipped a thumb under the coin and flipped it towards Jeremiah. There was a moment of surprise as his eyes widened, watching the golden disk twirling through the air towards him. He clenched his fists at his sides as he slide to the side and let the coin drop onto the carpet of the stair behind him. He watched it land, bounce on he velvet material, and then come to rest.
“Do you realize that that coin is three hundred years old? And here you are tossing it about like this is some grand wishing well?” He sounded disappointed, but the low boil of anger was clear below his words.
Regan folded her arms over her chest. “Was it? I just wanted to see it swiftly delivered so I could be on my way.”
Jeremiah drew a silk cloth from his shirt pocket and carefully picked up the coin. “And now it has been. This task is done. You are dismissed for the evening.” He turned to her and glared. “I will call on you soon for your final boon to pay.”
“I don’t owe you a boon,” she snapped back.
“Do you wish to keep your little blood doll employed? Or shall she be forced to quit her schooling to find work and pay her mother’s bills?”
“She is employed. She works for me now.”
His eyes narrowed. “Always so clever with me, girl.” He leaned forward.
Her hand landed hard against his cheek, her palm slightly cupped as she had done exactly once to Harrison when his hands would not leave her alone to let her work late one evening. She was barely aware she had done it until after the sounds of flesh on flesh registered in her ears. His head turned from the sudden blow, his eyes wide again.
There was no time to react to what she had done. Cold stone hands encircled her arms. She looked to her sides to see two of the library’s statues holding her fast, having leapt from their perches on the flanks of the main door. Klarissa was on the floor near the wall, having been, presumably knocked from her feet as the to guardians moved to protect their master.
“You have made a horrible mistake, little girl.” Jeremiah straightened himself up. “I may need you, but I do not need your consent. I will see that relic of times long dead deposed and the vampires of this county released from their bondage under him.” He took another step towards her, his eyes still intensely on hers. “I thought that Ms. Stephanowski could bring you to our side, but I see I was wrong. You are beyond hope.”
He turned to one of the statues. “Put her in the well, but cover it. We still need her for another night.”
She felt the hands close on her arms.
The story continues into Chapter 24
Our heroine has reached a crossroads. What, dear reader, shall she do?