It had been described as a common room, but in truth it was just as uncommon as the rest of the home, in size and expense. Off to the sides, there were little alcoves that had been cordoned off with curtains. People filtered in and out of their private meetings and goings-on. The center was where the attractions were. A whole array of delights, foreign and exotic, had been brought. The most bizarre sat at one end surrounded by a crowd of gawking gentlemen, yelling out absurd prices and joking with each other. Edam gasped when she realized what they had caught.
It was a crocuta, caged, chained and muzzled. Edam had never even heard one in her entire life. Agora was mostly bear country. It was hard to tell the exact size of the beast, a curled-up ball of fringed fur and spots. Even still, she was certain that if it were to rear up on its hind legs, it would be taller than her. It growled and whined before rising. White teeth flashed under the muzzle before the crocuta bashed its head against the bars uselessly, relenting as the men laughed on. It whined, and then let out a whooping, mournful laugh of its own.
As soon as it went quiet again, the men began the next round of bids on who would have the honor of hunting it down and killing it.
Other attractions were not so ostentatious. A section of the wall was dedicated to war memorabilia. The Kolet tricolor – red, white and gold – sat surrounded by aging guns and weapons. Many were tools that had been hastily re-adapted. A kitchen knife had been turned to a bayonet; a scythe remounted as a spear; a length of sailor’s rope tied into a noose. All of them had been turned into tools of the revolution.
Further along, there was another flag, tattered and age-worn. The old one, all black save for the emblem of a red serpent coiled into a circle. Their weapons were far better preserved. A pistol with golden filigree and an old, unwieldy wheellock mechanism sat on one side. The The sabers looked sharp as the day they were forged, the spears tasseled and ready. Even foci were well represented. Wands, hex-boxes, staves all arranged in a corona of warfare around the flag. There, Edam spied her mark.
She was, as he said, heavily pregnant. If Edam had to guess, she had to be at least eight months in. It was a look that suited her figure, broad-hipped and statuesque with soft cheeks. The only place she was marred was a small scar that colored her neck. If she was a vampire, the only way such a permanent disfigurement could have been achieved would have been with something made of silver. Edam approached carefully, ready to strike up the conversation.
“Goodness,” she said, “How far along are you?”
The woman turned, revealing a striped mask and a sly smile.
“Oh, five months. I think they’re twins. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss…?”
The woman extended her hand.
“Miaza,” she said, taking it, “I’m not really one for the whole masquerade business. Are you far from home?”
“Not too far,” said the vampire, “I was actually born just a few days from here. It’s a bit hard to be on my feet for so long, but what could I do?”
“Ough, you could say that twice,” said Edam, “We could find a place to sit.”
“I’m actually looking for someone. We could walk and talk, though, Miss Miaza.”
“I’d be honored.”
So they went through the chattering crowd. Many had gathered to look at an exhibition of a new kind of liquor that looked as green as grass. A servant offered her a thin glass of the stuff, and Edam nearly gagged from the scent of juniper and alcohol. She held it far as she could manage from her face before offering it to the vampire.
“Do you want this? It smells like medicine.”
She took it in her hand, and sniffed it.
“I think it is medicine. Wormwood. I’m trying to not drink too much tonight, though. Have to maintain a semblance of civility, right? And it’s bad for the babies.”
She passed the drink back to Edam. She felt very uncertain of what to do with her hands. She couldn’t fiddle with her hair or her dress – that would make her seem undignified. So she just passed the drink to her left hand, rolling it so that she could feel it swirl around.
“Right,” said Edam. Some part of her was starting to doubt her cousin’s reconnaissance. She seemed to be a perfectly innocent, if fabulously rich woman. She double checked the description in her mind. The striped mask, the curly dirty-blonde hair and a fine white dress. There wasn’t another pregnant woman that Edam could see.
“So, who are you looking to meet?”
“A cousin… twice? Three times removed? We came into touch by letter, through a go-between. I’m very excited to meet him. I told him what I was wearing, so he should be trying to find me.”
Edam looked around. There were four more vampires involved, at the very least, and any number could be at the party. Given how extended these families could be, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them all to be related in one way or another. She needed to seem non-threatening and sycophantic enough that they’d trust her and be willing to let her follow them for at least a little while, so that Danza and Imera could pick up on the trail.
“How delightful,” said Edam, “A little family reunion. I love it when that sort of thing comes together.”
“Why are you here?” inquired the vampire.
“Well, I’m a woman of many talents. Frankly, I’m trying to see if I could find a wealthy employer among these folks.”
She needed to keep her story relatively consistent. Staying as some kind of mercenary sorcerer who happened to end up running in the same circles as the upper classes felt natural for the situation, and the other guests who had her previous stories probably wouldn’t call her on it.
“Hm? What would you be offering?”
“I’m a bodyguard. A professional, trained in sorcery and the like, well-equipped to deal with attacks on sensitive persons for a reasonable price and lodging.”
The woman smiled.
“Are you loyal?”
“To the ruble,” said Edam, “But if you really want that assurance, you could always pay me enough that no one would outbid you.”
“Not much of an assurance.”
“Alright, I’ll admit it – I tend to get sentimental with my employers. Is that what you want to hear?”
The vampire rolled her eyes and gave a little giggle.
“I like you,” she said, “Do you play chess?”
“No,” said Edam, “Well, I did once or twice when I was young, but I never learned it in depth.”
“I like it myself. Would you be willing to learn?”
“I’ll consider you, then. I need a good thing to pass the hours. It’s been so terribly boring with my husband away. Playing chess against yourself isn’t any fun anymore, and none of my servants are any good at it.”
They continued on their slow circuit around the room, looking at some paintings that had been bought for the occasion. One triptych depicted scenes from the Scripture. Another showed a nude woman reclining on a bed, her modesty barely preserved by a bent leg and carefully placed arm. A figure, male, his head out of frame, pressed his fingers up against the linen sheets. Edam blushed under her mask. It seemed too obscene to be shown in public, and yet here people were, gawking at it. On the frame, a little plaque titled it “The Dressing Room.”
“Ah, a worm,” said the vampire.
“How can you tell?” Asked Edam.
“Look, the golden anklet – a decoration. It’s a sort of mark, to show that she belongs to the nobility. She’s a good one, too. It’s not closed, which means they trust her enough to let her take it off. Bad ones got closed ones made of iron or some other metal, I think.”
“How can one be a good worm? I thought it was a punishment.”
She shook her head.
“No, no. Criminals of certain calibers could have feeding imposed on them, yes, but most worms were willing.”
“They were slaves,” said Edam.
“They were the highest among the peasantry, except for the Masked Guard. It’s no wonder that they chose it,” said the vampire, “Look how comfortable she is with her blooded. She is a worm and a concubine, happy and secure in her position. Most of them were.”
Edam’s stomach churned with discomfort. A set of thin red marks dotted the painted woman’s arm. No one commented on her talk, but it felt old-fashioned. Almost every time she heard about the worms, half the talk was about how a select few of them managed to keep the wealth of their deposed relations. The other half pointed out that they had little other choice for advancement besides the military. And more than a few pointed out that if one had no recorded last name, they could be made into a worm with no recourse whatsoever.
The Shemarat, on the other hand, were almost never spoken of kindly. They were the branch of the military formerly assigned to maintain law and order in Koletya. By the time of the revolution, they had bloated and grown into a full army of their own, with cavalry, gunmen, sorcerers and commanders. It was only natural that they did such. If you joined, there was much less of a chance of the Shemarat visiting your family.
“I can’t imagine it.”
“Them being happy?”
“I suppose,” said Edam. She didn’t know herself. They began to move on to the next exhibition when someone tapped the vampire on the shoulder.
The man who had tapped her was a tall, burly man with a rather spectacular mask. It was carved in the shape of a buck, with a single real antler extending up from it. Combined with his clothes which were fine but weather-worn, it gave the impression of a person who was only half-regal. It seemed as if he had just come back from a hunting trip, thrown on his clothes and put his prize over his own face. There was a moment of recognition between the two.
The two embraced and hugged each other tightly while Edam stared at the two awkwardly. They pulled away from each other and looked to Edam.
“Miss Miaza, this is my cousin, Bena,” said Nonya, “He’s come a long way. It’s so good to finally meet you, Bena.”
“It really is,” said Bena, “And you, Miss Miaza. And what a lovely painting!”
He turned and put a hand to his chiseled jaw. He had very little stubble, and tanned skin.
“Fascinating, fascinating. Such elegant composition, and an excellent model to boot.”
Edam thought quickly on her feet. She had to woo. To make them like her.
“A drink, sir?” She asked, presenting the foul concoction to the man.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said, examining the color and raising the glass to the air, “To family!”
“To family,” said Nonya.
Bena swiftly drank all of it in one gulp. He grinned, and hiccupped.
“What a fascinating drink! I should bring this back home to Sondi.”
Sondi, thought Edam, That’s a flaw in the story. Sending a go-between all that way would be unwieldy at best. It’d be perfectly within the purview of a blueblood to perform some unnatural witchcraft to communicate over that distance, though. Or he’s lying about where he’s from.
“Sondi?” Asked Edam, “What’s it like there? I’ve never been.”
“It’s a beautiful nation. Gorgeous. Sunny nearly half the year, it never even snows in most places,” he said, “And that’s to say nothing of the people. I’ve never met a more honest and welcoming group of people. They were some of the first to take refugees from Koletya, you know.”
Edam nodded placidly. She knew enough to know that the first of those refugees were nobility who didn’t want to wait out the war.
“Bena, where are the others? Khatya and Agyis?”
“Oh, Agyis couldn’t come tonight,” said Bena, “She had a rather bad case of indigestion. The Khatya ran off somewhere. I think she’s in one of those private areas. Let’s find a couch to sit on, I need a rest.”
He led them all over to one, where they could observe the painting from a slightly further distance. Bena leaned back heavily and pulled out a small box from his coat pocket. With a single swift motion, he opened it, pinched out a portion of umber-colored snuff and snorted it. He then gently presented it to Edam.
“Would you like some, Miss Miaza?”
“No, thank you. You’re very generous to offer it, though.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. He took the opportunity to dose himself two more times before putting it away. He breathed heavily. Vice and intemperance alone weren’t proof, but they certainly were strong circumstantial evidence for vampiredom. The theory went that after so many years of eternal life, combined with being unable to incur any of the negatives of drinking and drugging themselves, the more intense medicinals became increasingly attractive.
“Ah, what a night. So, where are the rest of your guests,” asked Bena.
“They’re all unfortunately indisposed. They had an altercation with some locals and-”
She stopped very abruptly. Edam knew what she was speaking of. The other two vampires at Larena.
“What a shame,” said Bena, “An awful shame. Please, my condolences.”
“Yes, it’s horrible when something like that gets out of hand. Always a mess,” said Edam, “I do know some people around here. If there’s anything I could do-”
Nonya took the bait.
“You don’t need to do that. It’s not that sort of problem any which way. I do appreciate it though.”
A lithe, familiar figure made its way through the throng to the three of them. It was the Sondi woman again, her mask closed again now that she was no longer eating.
“Hello, friends,” she said, “I’ve been looking all over for you, an’gorām.”
Edam smiled lightly.
“You must be the envoy from Mishe,” said Bena, “I heard some people talking about you.”
“That I am,” said the Sondi woman quietly. There was a sudden tension in the air. She was speaking to Edam, but she was keeping her attention on Bena.
“How’s the weather there?”
“As pretty as a picture,” said the woman curtly, “But really. I’d love to talk to you privately. I really want to get your address.”
Edam rose and tutted. Whatever tension was there, she wanted to present with a sense of loyalty to these vampires.
“Alright, save my seat,” she said, “I’ll be right back after I make this appointment.”
They pushed their way to one of the unoccupied alcoves and entered. As soon as the curtain closed on the both of them, it felt as if they had walked into a different world. The crowd sounded distant and muffled through the thick fabric. The dim light cast the pagan’s mask into an eerie glow. Her eyes shone with a sharp and well-honed intelligence.
“You clearly don’t know who you’re dealing with,” she said, “Those two? They’re vampires. Dangerous-”
“I know,” said Edam, removing all affectations, “Keep your voice down. There are at least two more. My question is how you, a pagan who apparently only recently arrived in this country, know this?”
The pagan looked to the crack in the fabric where they had entered.
“I’ve been hunting four of them for over a year now. I intend to see all of them dead. My question is whether you’re planning on stopping me.”
She sounded deeply sincere – more than she had at the dinner before. It was an entirely different tone. Edam wanted to believe her. She needed the allies she could get.
She trusted, but she knew she needed to verify.
“Do I need a reason? They’re parasites,” she spat, “I despise them with my whole heart. My only request is that I kill the deer-masked one myself. Their unnatural immortality is an abomination against everything natural. I must set it right.”
The words were said with real conviction – she had seen less convincing performances from preachers who prattled on for hours.
“You’re in luck. I’m with the Inquisition. I’ve got two comrades upstairs, ready to track them.”
“Excellent. You go tell them, there’s two in the main hall, two in the private area two to the left of this one. I saw them go in there. When they come in, I’ll rush that display of weapons and use them to-”
“No, no, no,” said Edam, “We need to strategize. They told me that one of them isn’t here tonight. Agyis, I think. We’re trying to find their hideout so that we can ambush them all at once and make sure none of them get away.”
The pagan cocked her head, then rolled it back.
“Fuck. You’re right. I thought that Agyis might have been in another part of the house, but if she’s holed away, she could easily make an escape.”
Edam nodded in sympathy. The pagan paced to the other side of the small alcove and sat on a cushion. She sounded furious.
“I know,” she said, “I find them disgusting too. But we need patience here. That’s actually my job.”
“Your job is being patient?”
“Yes. The Order of Gnawed Sinew, devoted to Saint Mainos the Patient. I strategize, analyze and keep things under control, amongst other things.”
It was a badge she wore proudly. She didn’t have the self-control for that kind of thinking before she put herself to the discipline of sorcery and learning from the Inquisition. It took a special kind of discipline, a self-imposed kind that her uncle couldn’t have put on her, to study tactics and the elements of a well-laid plan.
Unfortunately, this fool had thrown flint into the grain mill. That meant a new plan was needed, quick, and she needed to be looped in. Otherwise, she was liable to create an even larger mess.
“Alright. Does Bena know you?”
“Seemed that he recognized the mask, at the very least. There were a few times I nearly caught them,” said the pagan, “For the record – I am Manguyaat. Not from Mishe. But most of what I told you was true. I can manage myself in a fight.”
“Alright. Alright. Let’s act like we just got into an argument with each other. My comrades are in the attic. During dessert, I’ll sit with the other one and give the signal to my comrades that they’re our other target. I’ll slip away, we inform them together. They’ll trail me and the group, and we can ambush them in their den. You’ll have your shot at them.”
It was a compromise, but it seemed to please her. Manguyaat nodded. Edam still had her doubts, but there was no reason why she couldn’t be integrated into the plan.
“I will advise you, as an expert in ecclesiastic law: if you cross them and you’re a pagan, I’m fairly certain they have the legal right to kill you.”
“Understood,” said Manguyaat, “I don’t plan on dying anytime soon.”
“Ready,” she said.
They both walked out at the same time. Manguyaat moved away into the crowd like a woman desperately attempting to maintain enough composure to stomp. Edam mirrored her movements and returned to the side of the vampires.
“Ugh, what an unpleasant woman,” she said, putting on a frustrated voice.
Nonya quirked her head.
“Apparently she had you marked out for body-guarding. Said that I was muscling in on her territory. As if there aren’t twenty other rich men in here ready to part with their money for a party trick.”
“Oh, yes. She really is unpleasant,” said Bena, “I heard her bad-mouth our family earlier to some other folks. So sad that some people hold grudges like that.”
He slurred a few of his words, and his cheeks had turned a bright red. The drink must have been even stronger than Edam thought.
“I see,” said Edam, “So, what do you think they’ll feed us next?”
“Something sweet, I hope,” said Bena.
Khatya was talkative to a disgusting fault. She was a skinny, simpering woman with an appetite to match the thinness of her belly and a thirst that went through what must have been an entire bottle of wine. Worst of all, she spoke and occasionally chewed with her mouth open, entirely bypassing the etiquette of the setting. She chewed through candied nuts, honey, and several hand-cakes while simultaneously complimenting every single person at the table. Her half-mask was covered with little turquoise stones that gave her the vague impression of a many-eyed spider devouring a fly.
Edam politely sat through the wet sound of her teeth gnashing against the food while pondering whether the silverware was really made of silver. She quietly set her plate down with the knife set over the fork – the signal for the fact that the last target was sitting there. Eventually, she found the time to excuse herself to the bathroom, and she saw Manguyaat slip away at the same time. They met near the washroom, headed up to the attic and explained the whole situation in brief. Danza was thoroughly unamused, narrowing her eyes in suspicion at the pagan’s arrival. Imera stayed thoroughly neutral in his demeanor.
“Are you certain she isn’t a double agent?”
“Certain, no,” said Edam, “But she seems convincing enough.”
“I’ve tired of these monsters that roam the earth,” added Manguyaat, defending her case, “I may not share your Godhead, but I know this. I have no principle that does not condemn those vambir to death.”
She pulled a knife from the folds of her dress, bright shining silvered steel. The air in the room seemed to chill as everyone reached for their own weapons. In one swift motion, she put the end to her thumb, a barest inch. Blood welled from the incision as she returned the knife to its place. She extended her cut hand.
“So I swear on my wrath, on my blade and on my blood.”
There was a furious intensity in her eyes that took even Edam aback. Trepidantly, she took Manguyaats hand, and shook it. Through the teeth of her mask, Edam saw her grin.
“I will take this righteous action with you,” she said as she shook.
“A full deal,” said Edam, turning to her brother and wiping away the blood with a handkerchief, “Are you convinced now?”
Danza and Imera looked at each other, then back to the two.
“Alright, it improves our odds,” said Danza, “But don’t try anything funny.”
“We’ll be watching you every step of the way,” added Imera.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Manguyaat. She released Edam’s grip, and leaned up against the wall.
“I do have some information of interest to you,” she added, “I’ve gotten a lay of their capacities as I’ve tracked them. Bena, the one in the deer mask, is a redblood. Very powerful sorcerer. I suspect he studied deeply when he was still alive. Whatever you already expect from him, expect more.”
That was to be expected. The rough theory was that vampirism fed in part off of mana and other divine forces present at the time it entered the body. Those with little stores of mana had ended up as the least of their kind, blackbloods, but greater ones became redbloods. Bluebloods, on the other hand, were in a category of all to themselves, being someone who was both a decent store of mana and a manner of performing witchcraft at their time of death. They were the rarest of the three, and certainly the most dangerous.
“And the other two?”
“Khatya is a blackblood. Looks like she ate recently. Don’t underestimate her, though. I haven’t fought her, but I’ve heard stories in her aftermath. She apparently once destroyed a solid brick wall with her bare hands. No sorcery or thaumaturgy needed. She had to grow new hands after, but still.”
Edam nodded. It wasn’t an uncommon tactic among vampires, especially blackbloods who were particularly numb to pain, sacrificing their own body. After all, if it wasn’t silver, it couldn’t leave a permanent mark on them.
“Agyis is a blueblood. All I know is that she’s made deals with many of the things you call devils over the years, and that she likes to burn her kills afterwards. She’s good at covering her tracks.”
“And the pregnant one? Do you have any clue about her?”
Manguyaat shook her head.
“I’ve been tracking the other four, but her? No clue. If I had to guess, redblood. Other than that, you’re on your own.”
“It adds up,” said Imera, “She did use some kind of ochre technique to move faster than she ought to have. Left her companions in the dust.”
“Alright, we’re agreed and ready. I’m heading back down. Plan continues as usual, correct?”
“Correct,” said Imera.
They walked back down together, towards the dining room once more. Something was off.
A man – not a servant – was peeking around a corner at her from one the side rooms. The instant she saw him, he disappeared back into the room.
“Did you see that?”
Manguyaat nodded silently. They looked at the door. Edam then looked up. There was a clay eye discarded off to the side of the hallway. The ampoule of mercury had been unwound from it. Imera would have told her about it, which means that this change was fresh.
“Help!” Yelled a voice from the door, “Help me! I think- Oh, Godhead-”
No more words were needed. If one of the vampires was preying on someone now, it was their prerogative to take them on. Edam produced her pistol, loaded it and cocked it before flinging open the door. Manguyaat readied her knife. They waited at the breach, and their eyes met. Edam held up three fingers, and counted down before flinging open the door.
Inside, two masked guests sat on a couch, looking entirely unthreatened. He looked to be a Gveert fellow, alongside a Kolet woman with short brown-black hair and a soft-looking black dress. Edam thought she looked rather pretty, discounting the gun in her hand pointed at the two of them. Edam kept her aim square on her eyes. To their side stood another, a blond man with a bird mask.
“Miss Manguyaat,” said the Gveert man, “I’m very sorry to interrupt your party, but we’ve got some questions for you.”
The words seemed distant and far away. Edam kept her eyes locked on her opponent. Something in them softened, and there was a thunderbolt of horrible realization. At first, she denied it – it couldn’t be her – and yet it was. She had the same figure, the same demeanor, the same way of aiming, the same damnable pistol. Even under the blank white mask, Edam could feel her, her face, her lips.
“Edam?” Asked Ana.