Turned at a tender age, and left with no memory of her human life, Elisa, the beloved adopted daughter of Talante, has had many obvious difficulties in her near two centuries of life, but none so frustrating as her inability to find love – that is until a dire mission leads her to Derek, another vampire turned in his formative years, and the de facto leader of a clan of vagabonds: vampires who choose to take no sides in the war. But her happiness is only a prelude to heartbreak as she learns secrets of a past she thought erased, which may cost her the trust and love of the one who holds the greatest portion of her heart.
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“This is hardly meditation,” I heard Aiko say. I recognized her voice and her scent. “Hiding in a dark corner, with a bed sheet over your head and your knees folded up to your chest cannot be conducive to clearing your mind.”
She began to remove the makeshift canopy from atop my head. Quickly, I grabbed it and pulled it back to its former position. I hadn’t exactly been hiding. There was no way I could do that, not in the Lair, at least. This was my family’s home. Anyone could have found me with laughable ease; the same as my sensei had. Aiko’s presence alone was proof that they knew I was here.
It was then that I realized how I’d reacted when Aiko had removed the sheet. I reddened, chagrined at how childish it must have looked and was struck with a mental image of Derek teasing me. He would perhaps have done this and more, had he seen it, maybe even address me by that infuriating title of “old lady.”
Derek . . .
I gave a brief shudder at the thought of him, fingering the diamond encrusted heart shape of my tiny engagement ring. The sensation felt more like the ghost of pain, rather than the joy it was supposed to bring.
I caught Aiko’s orange spice scent, heard her light, catlike footsteps, and knew her thoughts long before she’d come into this unused room. Save Father, her mind was the most difficult of my family for me to read, but it had not always been so. Before her trauma, before the Others took her and tormented her, her heart had been quite easy to understand in spite of her natural rigidity and sternness. Now, she was guarded, cold, and for lack of a better word, broken. She had only talked to Father about what happened to her at the hands of Lothos, and only after being faced with the loss of her position as chief thaumaturgist. Still, even after three years of counseling and therapy, she had not fully recovered from those two months in captivity, and probably never would. Even now, she was not exactly dressed for company. Barely in her panties and a white tank top undershirt, I gathered she’d merely used her Jewel to fold space into this room. Her hair was slightly unkempt, and she was without the makeup with which she was usually so fastidious.
My recent experience might have done this to me as well had it not been for Derek. I wanted so badly to speak to her about it, but not here. Perhaps we would at last have common ground; perhaps I would be able to help her with the effects of her trauma. However, there was no way I could do so here, or like this, not while having problems of my own.
“Your sense of humor leaves a lot to be desired, sensei,” I told her. Truth be told, she never had much of a sense of humor to begin with, and even less in recent years.
“I wasn’t joking,” Aiko said flatly.
“Really, now? I murmured with sarcasm sharp between our minds. “I’d never have guessed.”
“I know you preferred Roland to come.” Aiko sighed as she removed the bed sheet from my head a second time. This time, I did not attempt to put it back on, but rather fussed with my curls, which tended to become unkempt rather easily because of their volume. “But he sent me in here to talk with you first. He thought you’d react better with me.”
I opened my mouth to speak, indignant at first. Though I’d evolved a newfound understanding of Aiko’s condition, my sensei had all the compassion of a brick! How could Roland have made such an unabashedly stupid decision?
But then I realized something that surprised me. I hadn’t understood it at first, but this plan actually made sense. I noticed something unbelievable. For the first time in years, I could touch Aiko’s mind. It was actually open! I could see that she very much wanted to talk.
“You’re in pain, Eri-chan,” Aiko said as she kneeled beside me and used her familiar name for me. She rarely did now.
“So are you,” I said, catching the landscape of her mind, with echoes of torment from areas she kept hidden from me. I wanted so badly to commiserate with her, to help her know that she wasn’t alone, but instead I only felt ashamed. I felt Aiko’s mental frown confirming my gaffe. Why would I put this back on her?
Shit, was the only word that came to mind.
“I’ve been in pain for a long time,” she said in a surprisingly even voice. Even more surprising was how she’d seemed to pay my words no mind. She had accepted her pain. It was now merely a part of her. She’d integrated it into her psyche. She’d even expected me to lash out like I had. “But this is about you, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” I admitted. I sent my feelings of contrition to Aiko, and felt her acceptance; not a word needed to pass between us for this. Then I took a deep breath, more to steady myself than anything else.
“I learned something . . . disturbing,” I said.
“Disturbing, how?” Aiko asked.
“This mission, it . . .” I swallowed, feeling a tremble of terror begin somewhere deep within my nerves. I forced myself to become steady. My ordeal was over. Derek and his clan were safe. I had won. My mission had been accomplished. There was no need to be afraid anymore. If I was lucky, I’d never have to face him again. “It became more . . . complicated than I thought it’d be.”
Aiko nodded, her gaze falling to my left hand. “I’m guessing this is part of your . . . complication?” she said as she handled my ring between her thumb and index finger.
“A small part, but not what I wanted to say,” I said and decided to no longer mince words. “Lothos got involved. Personally.”
Aiko froze. Her eyes seemed to flash a brighter shade of crimson as they widened. I saw a tremor shoot through her, and I watched as she gritted her teeth against her extending fangs. The flare of rage in her heart was like a jab to my sternum, but she mastered it, calming down only moments after flaring up. The rage was not aimed at me, but at Lothos himself and not solely because of me.
“Did he . . . hurt you?”
Aiko’s words were careful; her thoughts again sealed up and guarded, though I felt a residual echo of shame that surrounded the now closed door that was her mind.
“Not physically,” I said, then allowed her to see what happened.
I felt the storm of her shock like a peal of thunder. Had it been a true sound, we would have been deafened by its intrusion upon the silence of the room. It took a while for Aiko to steady herself from what I had showed her; it had been a long time since I’d seen her thrown off-balance like this. She muttered some phrase in Japanese that I couldn’t catch, swallowed, and breathed in deeply.
“You should go to the Master,” she said with a renewed sense of urgency. “He has been wanting to speak with you.”
“I know.” My voice was small. God, I knew that Father wanted to talk. He’d been waiting for me with patience for three nights. He needed to not only be debriefed, but I had to tell him about what I’d learned. My mind was an open book to him, the same as all of us, his children both by direct siring and through his lieutenants. He probably knew already what had shaken me so. I wanted so badly to speak to him of this, to ease my confusion, for him to dispel the lies and deceit that Lothos had tried to plant into my mind, disguised as truth, and allay my fears. Coward that I am, as soon as I made certain that Derek’s people were safe, I left him alone when he probably needed me the most! Now the ring on my finger felt more like a weight of shame: a reminder of a betrayal rather than the promise of my deepest longing fulfilled.
I left Derek alone . . . left him to go hide in an empty guest room in the very place Father could find me . . . but I was too afraid to go and talk to him!
“I’m a bloody coward,” I said. “And still a child.”
“Eri-chan, don’t you ever say that about yourself again!” Aiko snapped, the force of her words startling me out of my melancholy. She grasped me by my shoulders and made me look straight into her eyes. “No child could ever face Lothos . . . and I saw your memories. You were far stronger than I ever was. You dishonor yourself to think otherwise.”
I wiped at the tears that began to pool at the edges of my eyes. Broken as she was, my sensei’s convictions were abundantly clear. She saw me as few others did. Of course, she had trained me since the time that I was as much a child in mind as I was -and still am- in body.
I stood and tossed the sheet away from me. If one as torn apart inside as Aiko could see the strength within me where I was unable, then I believed I owed it to her to display that strength as well, whether it was truly there or not. I looked at my sensei as she stood by my side, and swore that I saw her give a faint smile. It was such a small thing, but it gave me hope for her. Someday, I was certain she would recover. Her concern for me was certainly proof of that.
I cast about with my mind for Father and found him: the only mind in the Lair whose gates were always closed except for the unique timbre of his presence. He was in his sitting room, as I expected, most likely waiting for me. “I’m going to see Father,” I said.
I saw Roland standing outside the door to the sitting room. Aiko, once I had assured her that I would be all right, had gone to her usual haunt at the training grounds. I met him alone in the hallway. At once, I knew that he was why she hadn’t followed me. The two of them had had a rather complicated relationship, made only more strained in recent years since Aiko’s ordeal. The two of them spent most of the time avoiding each other, and then Roland would suddenly vanish, only for an unlucky few to catch the timbre of their minds somewhere in the Lair as they broadcast their indulgences with each other in a manner that would take any human beyond exhaustion. I came to the conclusion that this was a coping mechanism that Aiko had developed, but I never questioned her about such a private matter. I was, of course, in no position to play psychiatrist to my sensei.
One passing glance at Roland’s thoughts was enough for me to know that like Father, he had been waiting for me and was about as worried as any mother for her daughter. Of course, I was, in a way, his daughter as well.
His mirrored shades, which he wore indoors or outdoors were uncharacteristically stowed away in the breast pocket of his gray turtleneck shirt. His eyes, which most people hardly ever saw, were soft, gentle, and strikingly beautiful for a man, but he concealed them with his shades as he tended to keep the company of humans outside our circle of knowledge. He could have easily used his Jewel to disguise their crimson, catlike appearance as his original human blue with round pupils, but instead, he chose to use the shades, explaining, rather pretentiously, that it “added to his mystique.”
“Had you been waiting for me this whole time?” I asked as I quickened my pace. My joy at seeing Roland should have drawn his attention instantly, but he had been somewhat distracted, lost in his own thoughts, and so he had never sensed my approach. I saw him turn towards me, a bit startled by my voice, and then break into a wide smile. He lowered himself to my level as I ran into his arms and hugged him.
In the days of my true childhood, Father had been more than generous with his attention and time, but as the leader of our clan, he had many responsibilities. Roland had always been like a second father to me, taking care of me whenever Father’s duties took him abroad. He told me bedtime stories, took charge of my schooling, and played with me when no one else had time.
“Poppet! I was right worried about you,” he said as I kissed his cheek. “I thought something might’ve happened to you during the . . . Crikey, but that’s new!”
When I noticed that his gaze was set upon my ring, I stifled a laugh. It wasn’t as if I never wore jewelry; how could something so small be so conspicuous? I knew of few in our clan aside from Amelia who had the talent of psychometry, so he could not have detected it by Derek’s emotions inscribed upon it. But then again, this was Roland. He had an eye for jewelry, as he always had some paramour that he tried to impress.
“So who’s the lucky man?” He asked as he turned my offered finger over gently, gazing at the ring’s shape and hues of reflected light as the hallway lights struck its tiny stones.
“His name is Derek,” I said. “He’s the . . . well, they don’t really have a leader, but if they did, he’d be it. They trust him.”
“Sounds like you’re speaking of a Vagabond.”
“That’s because he is a Vagabond.” I supposed Father had kept him in the dark about my particular mission.
Roland fixed me with a curious gaze. “So you’re going to marry a . . . wait. How could he afford a ring like this? Those are flawless pink diamonds encrusted in a 24 karat gold frame. Pretty high-class for a bum.”
“They’re not bums!” I protested. “They’re transients by choice.”
“Ah. Hobos, then?”
Roland laughed as I fumed, though I knew he was only teasing. Vagabonds were hardly “bums.” They could acquire money, and great amounts of it, as easily as any of our clan could, though it sometimes required resorting to less than scrupulous means. Long ago, there had been a devastating schism in both our ranks and those of Lothos. Certain members of our kind, disillusioned by our war, chose to take no sides. Vagabonds were their descendants. Their clan sizes ranged from individuals to close-knit “family” groups of sire and fledglings to small nomadic tribes, all scattered across the world, with no allegiance to anyone but themselves. They generally got along with each other, but shied away from us. Our respective clans, in turn, tended to stay out of their way unless they interfered with us, became a threat to our secrecy, or asked for help. The latter was far more likely these days, as Lothos and his minions occasionally used them for target practice, or hounded them if they took in defectors from his clan. Otherwise, they followed their own rules.
“Well, hobo or not, I know you think the world of him,” Roland said, and his face softened. “And of course, he thinks the world of you, considering the ring. All things considered, I hope he makes you happy.”
“I know he will,” I said, not bothering to hide my feelings. Idly, I played with the ring and smiled, then felt the sting of shame over how I had to leave Derek. It felt forcibly thrust upon me as a reminder to what was soon to come. Roland, however, did not seem to catch that part of my thoughts. Instead, he interjected with both an unexpected and rather inappropriate question.
“So, ah . . . have you two . . . ?”
“That’s private!” I snapped. Instantly, I submerged those intimate memories in a well so deep inside my mind that I was certain that Roland would not be able to detect them. “And you asked it in front of Father’s sitting room! What the bloody hell?”
“Sorry, sorry,” Roland said, making emphatic placating gestures. “I got a bit carried away, is all.” But you know the Master will probably look even deeper than that.”
I couldn’t challenge that; Roland and I both knew Father well enough to know that nothing remained hidden from him if he chose to look into the events of the past. Surprisingly, I was more comfortable with this prospect than I was with Roland doing the same. “I know,” was all I could say, but not without some irritation. This, however, was the least of my worries. Father was not overprotective, but he could be intrusive. It was never without reason, but it had the disobliging habit of involving the things you most wanted to remain unseen. And so I sighed, steeling myself for what lay ahead. Father was just inside those doors, and though all I could ever feel from him was that powerful presence, I was certain he knew that I was here.
“He’s waiting,” I told Roland as I faced the door. “I’ll see you after it’s done.”
“You’ll probably want to see Derek first,” Roland said. Then he held his hands up defensively at the withering glare I gave in return. “I didn’t pry, poppet,” he explained in a gentle voice. “That was something you’ve been thinking about since I saw you. I couldn’t help but pick it up.”
I frowned, letting go of my emotions. Again, Roland had been right. He was more sensitive to my feelings than most and was always my choice for moral support . . . at least since Aiko’s misfortune. I knew that I owed Derek an explanation. I could only imagine how cross he would be with me. My frown slowly gave way to a wan smile, and I hugged Roland’s waist.
“Thank you,” I said, as I felt his hand stroke the curls atop my head.
“As you said, he’s waiting,” Roland reminded me.
I nodded, and gave him the mental equivalent of a kiss before knocking on the door.
Father’s spacious, high-ceilinged sitting room was also his study. Near the entrance door and beside a fireplace set into the nearby wall to the right were several high-backed leather couches that surrounded a coffee table. A rounded cherry wood table surrounded by lacquered wooden chairs sat in the middle of the room and was used for meetings with his chief Lieutenants. Shelves upon shelves of books lined every wall of the elongated, rectangular room, broken only by alcoves where the windows were and the door to his chambers on the opposite side of the wall where the fireplace was built. Standing lamps were set at even intervals beside the shelves. Father had them all switched off at the moment, opting instead for the full moon’s light through the open windows for illumination. This was too dim for humans; but for our kind, it was more than adequate.
I sat across from Father at the coffee table. A carafe was set between us, and we each held a wine glass of its former contents. The blood was surprisingly fresh and warm, and almost as satisfying as that which had come from a pure source. Father had obviously made preparations prior to my arrival.
“I hope you don’t think I’m angry,” Father began. His brow furrowed ever so slightly as he brought the glass to his lips. Its contents left a stain that stood out upon his ivory skin like dye on a snow drift. “I’m just concerned. To say I was surprised that you came home, and then hid from me for the last three nights . . . well, I’m certain you would be confused as well.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t report to you, Father.” Despite the fact that I had not fed in three days, I’d barely taken a sip out of my glass. I was quite hungry, but still too nervous to feed. “Did you send an envoy?”
“I went to the site personally,” Father said.
“Personally?” I sat forward in my seat, almost spilling the contents of my glass. Not only had Father rarely done this unless it was a matter of extreme importance, but I couldn’t imagine how his arrival would have affected the vagabonds. They’d been distrustful even of me -more so once they learned who I truly was. I had to earn their respect by inches. How did they respond to Father?
“I spoke with Derek most of the time,” Father said, answering my thoughts.
I smiled with relief. “Then he’s awake?”
Father nodded. “He’d only just woken up when I arrived. I learned about you two quickly enough. His mind is quite well-guarded for a Vagabond, though. I never expected that.”
“Was he angry?” I asked after a very uncomfortable silence passed between us. I suspected that he had been waiting for me to ask it.
“Angry that you’d vanished?” Father wasn’t being accusatory; nevertheless, I felt as if his words were passing a death sentence. I bit my lower lip, unable to hide my shame, would that I could. I replied only with a vague nod.
“No, I wouldn’t say that he was angry,” Father said after slipping into a momentary thoughtful state. “But he was confused. I know you left him a letter, but I think he was expecting, or rather, hoping that someone from our clan would come and fill him in on what happened with you.” He grinned, and I heard him chuckle. “I just don’t think he expected me to show up, of all people.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at this myself. “So, what did you pry from his mind?”
“Pry?” Father fixed me with a blank stare.
“You didn’t interrogate him?” I was surprised, to say the least.
“There was no reason to,” Father said. “Derek was very forthcoming. He told me everything he could about what happened during the past month involving your mission . . . and involving you and him. Besides, it would be disrespectful to tear into the mind of my future son-in-law, wouldn’t it?” He gestured toward my left hand and smiled in his gentle way: the way that made me love him even more. “That’s a beautiful ring he gave you by the way.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling my face grow somewhat warm. I wanted to use that comment to derail the conversation, to distract Father somehow, but I knew it would be useless. He was too meticulous for that. And besides, he would immediately know my intent, so I didn’t bother. “So he told you everything?”
“Everything he felt comfortable giving,” Father replied. “There were some details he held back, but I didn’t dig any deeper. He told me that you would be able to fill in the holes . . . that it felt right that you should.”
“He would say that,” I murmured, turning away from Father. I took a deeper draft from my glass, nearly emptying it. The rush of pleasure from its contents gave me a bit more courage; nevertheless, I swallowed against my annoyingly tenacious remnant of fear. “And he’s right. There are . . . things I know that he doesn’t. Things . . . that I was told.”
“Told by whom?” Father asked.
I could no more hold back my tears than I could hold back my thirst when it would come. I drew in a ragged breath and bit my lower lip until even my retracted fangs threatened to pierce the skin. Though I could not detect even a trace of emotion from his mind, I saw my Father’s expression become increasingly less placid as he observed me. He leaned forward and placed his half-full glass upon the coffee table as his hands gripped the arms of his chair.
“Elisa . . . who was it?” I heard him say, even more insistent.
I could bear it no longer.
Only the senses of my kind can pick up movements made at preternatural speed. I saw Father rise from his chair and move forward, leaping over the coffee table and coming to rest on his knees before me, faster than any human could detect.
“Child, what did he tell you?” He said. God, I had never seen him this way, nor heard him sound so alarmed! Through the blurriness of my tears, I could see how his normally gentle eyes were wide, and his slittedpupils dilated. As Aiko had been when she saw what was in my mind, his fangs were extended, and his face was a mask of pleading and uncertainty. If I hadn’t known better, I would have said that he was afraid.
“Father . . .” I said as he took my hands into his own. “Aren’t you looking into my mind? Don’t you see it?”
“Your thoughts are a jumble,” Father said. His face was drawn as he shook his head, “and they’re suffused with so much emotion. You, me, Derek, Lothos . . . And I’m afraid that my own emotions are resonating with yours. This makes it difficult to see the whole story.”
I had never heard of this happening before. It must have indeed been a very rare situation. I had never known just how deep Father’s understanding of my mind went, but this was unmistakable. He had just admitted to being unable to read my mind. Despite my initial amazement, I tried to clear my thoughts, to push away as much of the emotional static as I could, and give Father as vivid a picture as possible. I knew that clearing this path would open him up to everything that I experienced, even things that I held private, but I could not afford to be embarrassed by more private details. I wanted him to know how it all came together, and what had happened between me and Lothos. Perhaps I would regret it, but even I had to know what this meant. I was terrified, but at the same time, I was determined.
“It really started in the beginning, when you sent me on the mission,” I said as I closed my eyes and opened myself to Father’s unknowable mind. “It’s . . . complicated . . . a lot more so than you could believe. I don’t want to do this, Father, but I need to show you the whole story.”
I felt Father’s hands touch my temples and guide me towards him. I leaned forward and felt his forehead gently touch my own. For a moment -the blink of an eye, actually, I was privy to the unfathomable depth of his mind. Ten thousand years of experiences: love, joy, rage, pain, tears, gladness . . . I was breathless with astonishment, despite the woefully ephemeral experience. All the memories flashed by my mind’s eye with incalculable brevity. I could hold on to nothing -and then a great door shut upon them. I had become aware only of Father’s presence once again and only as one is aware of an unseen person in the same room. He became a completely passive observer as my mind opened the stage of events that began one month ago.