As I prepped my notes for work on Ties of Blood, I noticed that I have a lot of side characters who, for one reason or another, don’t get any “me” time. so, I’ve decided to remedy that in a collection of short stories called…
(You can find Arowenia, Claudius, Michael, Patrick and the whole assorted gang in Shades of Gray. This story takes place just shy of four months before the opening of that book.)
Arowenia stared at the reflection in the mirror. The child like face that stared back held large, liquid blue eyes and an expression devoid of any feeling. Above her, she could see the fluttering redheaded woman who hovered and primped, trying to tame Arowenia’s long blonde hair into an elaborate updo that would suit Claudius. A second woman stood behind her, handing out strings of pearls and bobby pins as needed.
“You’re going to look simply lovely when we’re finished,” the beautician-by-assignment cooed in her soft, honey southern accent.
“Like a doll,” the other agreed with a wistful sigh that betrayed her jealousy. Yes, she was jealous. Truth be told, both of the women probably were. The grass is always greener on the other side, but sometimes it isn’t easy being green. Sometimes, playing the porcelain doll was a cold amusement, if amusement it could be called.
The last string of pearls was threaded, and the women stepped back to admire their handiwork. Arowenia glanced into the mirror, but felt neither pleasure nor dissatisfaction. She only noted whether or not it would satisfy Claudius, and she believed it would.
“If you’re ready, my lady?” The redhead asked. A dimple at the corner of her mouth betrayed her opinion of the antiquated title, but there was a system to everything; rules, regulations and formalities. Without those things the system would break down and there’d be only chaos and a group of power hungry vampires vying for control. Too many covens were already like that, or so Claudius said.
Claudius. Claudius. Claudius. It always came back to him, didn’t it? The leader of the coven, the master of their futures, her mate in immortality whether she wished it or not.
Arowenia followed the two women through the hallway and then down the ornate, curved staircase into the marble foyer. Guests and coven members alike mingled in small groups, chatting and laughing politely, their tones as tinkly as the crystal chandeliers above their heads.
Despite the crowd, her eyes sought him out, almost unwillingly. He stood in the center of the largest semi-circle, his blonde hair pulled back into a tidy ponytail. His dress was as opulent as ever. A white shirt bore ruffles at the neck and wrists, and an ornately embroidered vest matched the cold green shade of his eyes. In one long fingered hand he gracefully held a golden goblet whose contents were a rich crimson.
As if he felt her gaze, he turned and a smile snaked over his boyish lips. Though he looked no more than sixteen, untold years hid in his eyes and revealed themselves in the steady strum of his aura. He mock toasted to her and held out his free hand, waiting for her to claim it. She understood the gesture, and moved to stand next to him.
“Arowenia,” he murmured, and brought her hand to his lips. “You look lovely.” He broke off and a tiny frown formed between his eyebrows. “Though I wonder that they chose peach instead of green. Hectia knows I prefer that we match.”
“Yes, of course,” she agreed tonelessly. “Shall I change?”
“No, no.” He brushed it aside carelessly. “I’ll speak to her later.” He turned back to his companions. “Come, I believe the music should be starting slowly.”
Arowenia took the arm he offered, and allowed him to guide her through the French doors and into the lavish ball room. A small orchestra was gathered in one corner, their faces hurried and pale as they arranged themselves. One long wall of mirrors reflected back the dazzling chandeliers and the array of well dressed guest. In the middle of the room stood a large carved fountain. In the center, a deep basin was balanced on the heads on three bat winged cherubs who each poured a pitcher of red tinted water into the pool below. Inside the basin, two naked teenage girls lay, half conscious, and packed in cubed ice to keep them from going into shock. Their bodies were curled around one another like a yin-yang, and each had one wounded arm extended over a trough circled the edge of the basin. Blood dripped from their rent limbs into the trough and collected in the crystal bowls that were set into the four corners of red tinted pool.
It was to this fountain that Claudius led them. He dipped his golden cup into one of the crystal bowls, then took a sip and sighed with appreciation. “You can’t even taste the drugs any more. Modern pharmacology has done wonders.”
His companions took cups from a nearby table and dipped a sample into their goblets. Heads bobbed as they swallowed, each agreeing that the flavor was unaffected. Arowenia let her gaze fall to the girls. Their pale skin was goose pimpled and their pink nipples stood cold and hard. Their heads were thrown back so that their long, pale throats were temptingly exposed. One of them moaned softly and her eyes fluttered open. For a moment, she held Arowenia’s gaze, and something flashed in her eyes; something pleading and desperate, but it disappeared under the influence of the drugs and her body fell limp again.
“Take a taste,” Claudius ordered and, without thought, Arowenia complied. She, too, nodded vaguely, though no one cared about her opinion, and then the group moved on.
The music started low and soft, then swelled to fill the room. Not too loud to drown out the discussions, but with enough volume to cover the sound of their shoes on the hard wood floor. Claudius discussed business, and Arowenia let her mind wander. Around them, couples danced, some like silk butterflies and some like bumbling raccoons. There would be no dancing for her, unless Claudius could separate himself from his business long enough, because no male was allowed to touch her. That was one of the endless rules and regulations that kept everyone in their proper places.
Claudius suddenly released her arm, and offered a polite, “You’ll excuse us, I’m sure?” Though he spoke it as a question, it was really a statement, and she only nodded wordlessly. He gallantly kissed her hand again. Then, he and his associates disappeared, no doubt headed for the library where they could sign away some part of their souls to him.
Alone, she drifted towards the row of opened French doors that led to the veranda. Vampires flitted in and out, and each took their time to show their proper respect to her as they passed her. Some simply nodded, while others went for a full out bow. With no real conviction, she acknowledged each in turn. Neither an inconvenience nor a pleasure. Like so many other things it simply was.
Outside, the night was deep and dark. The stars above glittered like a thousand diamonds and Arowenia gazed at them and thought about what lay beyond the sky. They said it was outer space, a never ending black ocean with planets instead of islands, but she couldn’t understand it. It was like China; something “they” said existed, but which she’d never seen with her own eyes. How was she to know that any of it was real?
She leaned delicately on the veranda railing and closed her eyes, savoring the early summer evening. The smell of fresh cut grass wafted on the breeze, and she could hear the bugs and the bullfrogs calling to one another. It reminded her of another time and another place; a world before Claudius and his “brothers” stormed her father’s castle and butchered everything in their path. Sometimes, in her dreams, she could still hear the guards’ screams, but she was numb to them now. It was so very long ago, and time healed all, or how else could they continue living year after year, century after century?
“Oh, uh, hey.”
She looked up sharply to find Michael, Claudius’s newest toy, standing next to her. He’d been the human hired to take care of the lawn until he’d gotten too nosey. Now he was one of them, though not quite. Less than the least of them, he was on the same tier as the humans servants Claudius kept, including Michael’s rather bizarre, but thankfully silent, brother.
She didn’t deign to answer him, only arched a cold eyebrow. Michael cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably. She could smell his fear and hear his heart pounding. When he didn’t speak, she finally demanded, “Yes?”
“Um, like, Claudius wants you.” He jerked his thumb in the general direction of the house.
She turned back to the stars and sighed inwardly. What did he want now? Hadn’t he just gone to speak privately with the other men? Why did he need her? Surely a porcelain doll on his arm wouldn’t help seal the deal. But, regardless of what he wanted, it was best not to keep him waiting.
Without a word, she turned sharply for the house and strode through the doors and back into the brightness of the ball room. Guests bowed and scraped, and Michael scrambled to catch up, but she ignored everything except the doors at the far end of the room. One room at a time. One step at a time. Never contemplate the final destination, just the steps that take you there, or you might go mad.
Michael’s all too human brother was waiting in the foyer, his blonde hair disturbingly messy despite the formal engagement. He drew no more notice from her than a mosquito, and she passed him by and walked towards the library.
“Um, uh, hey” Michael said quickly. “He’s, uh, in the sunroom.”
She didn’t bother to acknowledge him, only turned abruptly and headed in the opposite direction, towards the back of the house. The sunroom was a large glass enclosure filled with as many tropical plants as Claudius could get to grow. Gold bird cages peeped out from the foliage, and occasionally a bird would twitter or call, seeking comfort from its fellow prisoners. Many of the vampires found the sunroom a pointless addition, which was exactly why Claudius had added it. He wanted everyone to see that he had so much wealth that he could afford to spend it on trivial, outlandish things. Even after all these years, he was still desperately trying to prove that he was worthy; though, she didn’t know he was trying to prove it to.
The sunroom had a row of artificial lights just inside the door, but the rest f the room was thick with shadows. Her vampire eyes could see through the gloom, and she moved silently through the whispering plants, one hand holding her skirt above the floor, and the other gently folding back the larger leaves.
She reached the far side of the room, but Claudius wasn’t there. She turned back, a frown on her face, and found Michael and his brother so close behind her that she nearly crashed into them. Surprised, she jumped back into a large potted palm. Her arms flailed as she fought for her balance. It was the human brother who caught her under the elbows . For a moment she hung suspended, like a water drop ready to fall, but he righted her. She saw something flash across his face; some kind of regret, and then she remembered the hands on her arms.
She pulled away, and he jerked back, as if he’d been burned. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. His panicked eyes skipped around the room as if they sought something, and his nervous hands dived into his pockets. He pulled them out again and shoved a crinkling plastic bag at her. “Gummy shark?”
She drew away, confused. “What-” but she didn’t get to finish before someone grabbed her from behind. She struggled against constricting arms and opened her mouth to scream, but someone silenced her with a wad of perfumed silk that burned her tongue.
Michael and his brother drew away as she choked and gagged, both wide eyed and terrified. She tried to motion to them to do something, but realized the futility when she saw two more figures emerge from the shadowy plants. One was a dark skinned woman attired in a long, shimmery gown, and the other was a pale man with long golden hair and amber eyes. She’d never seen them before, but their expression told her that they weren’t going to help her.
The dark woman smiled cruelly and lifted what looked like a sack. Arowenia struggled, but she couldn’t stop her from putting it over her head. The world was lost to darkness and the thick stench of old dirt. On the other side of the sack, someone bound her wrists too tight and the woman’s voice purred, “There’s no time to be squeamish now, boys. You’ve both done very well.”
Arowenia was lifted and unceremoniously draped over someone’s shoulder, no doubt the man who’d first grabbed her. The only sound was the faint whisper of the plants as they moved through the sunroom. A door opened, and she realized they were exiting through the sunroom’s side entrance. She kicked her feet and made soft, muffled pleas, but no one seemed to hear her. Where were the guards? Why weren’t they at the door? There were always guards – guards everywhere waiting, watching. Where were they now? Where were they?
She squealed and squirmed, but they were outside and there was no one in the back gardens at this end of the house. These were the autumn gardens, and they wouldn’t bloom until September, so they were left shrouded in darkness and alone.
Her captors stopped, and she could only conclude that they’d reached the back wall. The man who held her muttered, “You first, and I’ll pass her over.” Whoever he spoke to obeyed, and she was handed up, wriggling and kicking, to another pair of hands. Her new captor grunted and swore under his breath, but he pulled her to the top of the wall and held her there, face down, while he waited for his companions.
She wondered who these vampires were, and why they were taking her. How had they gotten past the guards? How had they gotten in the house and out again without being observed? Why weren’t they being stopped now?
She was hauled down the other side of the wall and to a waiting vehicle. They dumped her in the backseat between the woman and the human. She could smell them both, something she should have done in the sunroom. But there was no reason to be on guard, then. Or at least, she hadn’t thought there was.
The ride was long and quiet. Her captors rarely spoke, and when they did their words meant little to her. Trapped between them in a car, she could do nothing about the bag or her hands, so she concentrated on spitting out the handkerchief. One step at a time.
By the time they reached their destination, she was free of the perfumed gag. There was no point in calling attention to it, so she stayed silent as she was heaved out of the car and carried inside another building. The footsteps of her captors echoed, and she guessed it must be a large room, possibly like the foyer at the mansion they’d left behind.
Another door opened and she was carried down the stairs. She felt the cold damp of a basement wrap around her, and heard the sound of stone grinding against itself. She was dumped to the cold floor, and then the stone ground again and snapped shut; a concealed door.
The chamber behind it was small and Arowenia shifted so that she lay on her side. The cold of the stone floor seeped through her light summer gown. The gown that was the wrong color. Why had they dressed her in pale peach?
She listened to the darkness and felt it listening back. Upstairs someone moved, footsteps across a floor, and hushed voices whispered. Who were they? Why had they taken her? She didn’t understand what she’d done, but she soon came to realize it had nothing to do with her. It was something to do with Claudius and one of his feuds. Though he didn’t discuss them with her, she knew he had many. None of them had ever touched her before, and she still didn’t understand how this one had.
But contemplating it was pointless. There was nothing she could do except wait for Claudius to come for her, leaving a bloody path of destruction in his wake, like he had before. For a moment, fear fluttered in her chest, a wild, forgotten emotion. A flash of the girls in the fountain came to her mind, and she could picture the one who stared at her, with terrified eyes, but, like Arowenia’s own fear, it hadn’t lasted, and the girl’s terror had dropped away into nothing. Yes, she was like them, only her drugs were the long, tired years that had drifted past, while she’d watched from a gilded window, never touching or being touched, until she no longer cared. And now, alone in the darkness of the secret chamber, with only her thoughts and her memories ,she found they were all cold and numb, like the ice that had chilled the young girls in the blood fountain, and she suddenly wasn’t sure whether she wanted to be rescued or not.