Avenari - Chapter 20
Andris set the bowl down with a soft clink. A drop clung to the corner of his mouth, but his tongue flicked out and caught it before it fell to waste.
Andris set the bowl down with a soft clink. A drop clung to the corner of his mouth, but his tongue flicked out and caught it before it fell to waste.
I sensed gravity in the air, as though the room itself held its breath. Something was going to happen. Something had to happen. My blood’s voice echoed like a frozen breeze in my head. It wanted me to see this to whatever conclusion we reached. The ancient stood motionless for what felt like the entire span of time itself, a tiny crease between the thin black brows which stood starkly against his pearl skin. Then…
“Lynn…please move away,” he whispered. His voice sounded strained, as though trying to hold something back.
Instead, I stepped forward. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Step back, I said!” he snapped, turning to me with a growl.
I gasped and did as I was told. His eyes…the whites had gone completely black, with irises the same color as the blood he had just taken. Even as I watched, the darkness drained from his hair, leaving behind strands like snow. “Andris…”
I couldn’t finish. In a blink, the entire chamber flooded with his thick, drowning power. He braced himself against the pedestal, trembling slightly as the energy burst from his aura.
As a rule, Shimaren didn’t require air to survive, but at that moment I felt as if I were suffocating. Pure, unfathomable energy constricted around my ankles and slithered upwards, crawling up my legs like serpents giving off a dense miasma. It was the opposite power of mine, magma versus the winter night, but along the edges of his, I could feel an unmistakable, icy chill.
No time to ask questions, said the blood.
Automatically, I withdrew my external senses and pictured myself reaching into my power core and pulling out a tendril of that writhing, nebulous energy. With the power in hand, I returned to the outside world and mentally cast it out like a net, letting it spread across the surface of his energy and relay information back to me.
Ice…fire and ice, right? He had said earlier that those were his triggers. If that were true, then Andris’ power was related to my own, in a way.
He merely stood there, staring at the basin. The scowl had vanished, but there was still something menacing about him. It was in his eyes, his silence—something.
“Akin to myself, standing alone as an anomaly in a world built upon similarities, quod sum eris,” he whispered, his voice reverberating through the energy. “I am what you shall be.”
I noticed that Nick had gotten to his knees, but couldn’t seem to stand under the pressure. Tatsune had moved to a safe distance, watching in curiosity. He was smart enough to know that Andris was dangerous. Being the Emperor, he had to save himself before all others.
Nick and I weren’t nearly as important, but…
“You’re talking differently,” I said, letting the blood direct my power to protect me. I could feel it shift around like a cold blanket to ward off the heat. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing has changed in so many thousands of years. It still tastes the same…”
He looked at me, directed the weight of seven and a half millennia on my young blood. “Sirelniam iymarenqire?”
Do you want to die? my blood translated for me. He was speaking Shimari.
I flinched, and my power nearly buckled under the gravity of his stare. “Are you Andris’ blood?” I managed to ask. One wrong move and my protective blanket could disintegrate.
“Qel. Lunari qel. Tirei.”
No. Not the blood. Thirst.
He smiled as though he could hear the voice, baring insanely long fangs and sending a jab of fear into me. He really wasn’t like us. Shimaren weren’t normal, by any means, but we at least tried. Our thirsts didn’t have the power to take over this completely, to manifest themselves as something more than an instinctive urge. Only our blood could do that, and even then it was limited. How could his thirst manage to control him so easily and speak so directly?
“Is Andris still in there?”
He smirked, but it lacked his usual playfulness. This was far more threatening, devoid of any and all good humor he may have once had. “He has caged me for so long…are you really willing to risk me gaining full control? The fourth line may be the strongest of you all, but against me it is little more than a nuisance.”
I gritted my teeth. I wanted Andris back now. “Don’t piss me off. I really don’t feel like hurting him, but I’ll kick your ass just fine. I’m sure that body can handle a beating.”
Something darker than black slithered behind his eyes, and he began walking towards me with a slow, predatory gait. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
I couldn’t move. The energy thickened like concrete setting around my ankles.
“What does it matter to you? You denied your own blood in rejecting him. Or are you just looking for something more dangerous?” He stopped close enough to touch me, glaring with those demonic eyes. “I believe I am dangerous enough.”
“I—I never rejected him! I’m just perfectly fine with how my life is right now!” I argued, shoving away my fear only to have it rush back and nearly overwhelm me.
“You lie. If that were true, then you would not have asked him to stay. You torment him.”
Before I could get another syllable out, his hand appeared around my throat, blocking my airways so that I couldn’t breathe, let alone talk. “I like your scent. That is why I have not yet decided to eliminate you. You are a threat, and I eliminate threats, but I do not feel like destroying you just yet.” Slowly, he leaned closer. “Do not think you can avoid me. Andris and I are two halves to the same whole. Without both, neither would exist. He may not be aware of my presence, but we have been through the same hardships and isolation.
“You may have pulled my mind from the madness, but do not think for a moment that I will trust you with him, Avenari of the Ploráverim. You are no different from the others. My weak half is blinded by emotion, but I see you—I know what you are. You feign acceptance even as you tie the noose around his naïve throat.”
Where was he? Was he somewhere within reaching distance? How could I break through his thirst? What could break through his thirst?
“Not—not everybody wants…to kill you,” I managed to croak, gripping his wrist tightly, yet finding it immovable. “Don’t make the mistake of hurting…the one person who gives a damn about you…Andris!”
His eyes narrowed. “You think you are clever. Words are meaningless.”
“Fine…then how about this?!” In a fit of incomplete reasoning, I jerked my head forward, throwing all of my strength into that one motion and smashing against his nose. He would heal. It was okay.
The shock sent a shudder through his powers, and I found enough wiggle room to escape his hold on me. “You little…!”
“Don’t ever call me little!” I shrieked, reacting automatically and punching him full-force in his diaphragm. He doubled over and lost his breath, and I rammed my elbow sharply against the back of his neck.
His head snapped up from the impact, and I caught a brief glimpse of retreating darkness in his eyes before he collapsed into a groaning heap. The power retracted, and I finally had a moment to regain my senses…and realize that I had just beat down an ancient with moves I had learned from TV wrestling matches.
Reality never ceased to amaze me.
“What…in the hell?” he panted, lying on his side and seemingly trying to decide whether to nurse his stomach or his head. His hair was returning to normal, filling with lustrous black yet again, and his eyes flitted between red and violet as he tried to understand what had happened.
It had been a necessary countermeasure. At least he was normal again.
“Welcome back. Did you have a nice vacation?” I asked, acid-sweet.
“Who—what?” He managed to turn enough to look up at me. His eyes finally settled down—indigo this time—but his nose was bleeding heavily.
The scent caught me before I could cover my airways, and I froze. It was all I could do.
“Dammit, that hurt,” he said, stretching the crick in his neck and slowly sitting up to wipe the blood from his face. He paused to stare at his bloody hand then gave me an indignant frown. “You broke it. You broke my nose, you crazy woman.”
“Get it away,” I whispered, closing my eyes and shaking my head. No! I would not let that blood control me!
Naturally, he ignored my request. “Huh. You broke it, so make it better.”
Without waiting for a response, he grabbed my arm and yanked me down hard to straddle one of his legs. I gasped and opened my eyes—two perfectly normal reactions, which were also absolutely devastating. From this close, the scent enveloped me in a hazy dream, and it didn’t help at all that he was now close enough to reach with my teeth.
He watched my reaction and gave me that special smirk, taking advantage of my shock and drawing me close against his body. “Kiss it better, Princess,” he murmured, slipping a hand up into my hair and holding it tightly as he brought his lips closer.
His scent…too much…
“What in the name of proper etiquette are you doing?!” someone shouted out of the blue. Before I knew it, whoever it was had grabbed my arm and ripped me out of Andris’ grasp, leaving me shaky and confused while I watched in disbelief as Nick roundhouse kicked the Crimson upside the head and sent him skidding across the hard granite. “Asshole! First you try to kill her, and now you’re pulling retarded stunts like that?! You really are an idiot!”
Andris let out a dangerous, earth-shaking growl, and was instantly on his feet, wiping away the rest of the blood and glowering at the kid with eyes like fire. “You little bastard. I’m going to enjoy beating you into submission.”
“Bring it on, Sunshine!”
“Die.” Like a lightning bolt, Andris struck hard.
Nick must have gotten a lot of power from the fourth line’s blood, because he managed to slip under the Nariuvne’s attack and counter with a full-body tackle.
Maker and fledgling both landed on the floor in an angry, struggling tangle. This carried on for several morbidly fascinating seconds, then:
They halted abruptly and turned to look at Emperor Tatsune, realizing that he was still there. Andris had Nick around the neck with both hands, but Nick had a handful of the ancient’s hair and was clearly trying to snap his spine in half. Both were almost feral.
The Emperor stood beside the basin with a look of utter exasperation sitting prominently on his aged face. “Now, really, I’d hoped for something new and curious, but I will not tolerate this sacred place becoming a wrestling ring. Please cease your struggles and stand, both of you.”
Giving Andris one last good scowl, Nick shoved him away and stood, dusting off his jeans. After a brief second the ancient followed suit, folding his arms stubbornly and glaring at nothing in particular. It almost seemed like he was embarrassed, but…
“Are you okay?” I asked softly, approaching carefully and laying my hand on his arm.
His eyes flickered crimson. “It would be nice if I could settle this with your pet.”
I frowned and glanced at the seething fledgling, then turned back to Andris. “No dice. I don’t need that kind of trouble. You promised that you wouldn’t jeopardize my plans.”
“I’m not. Me defeating him would change nothing for you.”
“Yeah, it would. You’re not to lay a finger on my friends, understood? After what just happened, I don’t want to hear complaints, least of all from you.”
He blinked in surprise and looked away. I would have felt guilty, but I was too busy trying not to yell at him.
“Can I kick his ass, though?” Nick piped in hopefully.
“You shut up and behave yourself!” I snapped. I was trapped with the dysfunctional duo! Honestly! I should have ditched the both of them at that nightclub.
The kid shut his mouth and gave me an apologetic look. Good boy.
“I can see that there is enough power here to handle Tivor,” Emperor Tatsune observed. “However, I wish to wait until the departure date and see how you three handle yourselves. You have not been together long, but I feel that you shall remain together for some time. I must stress that you should learn to coexist and maximize your powers.”
He motioned to the entrance. “That is all I have for you at the moment. Let us return to the throne room, and I will summon a servant to take you to your quarters.”
It killed me a little to stand before the Emperor of the Shimari Empire and let him judge our atrocious behavior. We went back to the throne room, and after several horribly awkward minutes, the door finally opened to admit our guide. She was slender and pale as a ghost, with elbow-length, platinum blond hair and large, cerulean eyes.
She couldn’t have been more than six years old.
Of us all, Andris was the most disturbed. He rounded on Tatsune without hesitation. “What is this?! You have child half-breeds!”
“They are useful,” the Emperor replied evenly. “They are perfectly capable of handling servant duties, and also act as donors for many of our residents. Sakura shall take you to your rooms. Others are available if any of you need to feed immediately, but if you wait, Quelos will take you to out to feed later.”
Andris’ jaw clenched. “I don’t eat humans—children, least of all. Lynn, Nick, let’s go.”
Nick and I looked at each other, asking the same, silent questions, but followed after the ancient anyway. Andris seemed to take the half-breed’s existence as a personal insult, but I had similar feelings. It wasn’t right to turn them so young—especially not as servants—but it seemed that there would be no arguing.
Wanting to pacify the volatile ancient before he did something rash, I quickened my pace and sidled up to him, gripping his sleeve so that he didn’t try to outrun me. “Hey, you all right?”
“I’m not a guinea pig,” he growled low. “And I won’t stand idly by while that bastard Emperor carries out his perverse whims.”
“Please don’t do anything crazy. I know you can do whatever the hell you want without consequence, but Nick and I make good hostages. I don’t want you putting us all in danger, and after what just happened…”
His scowl softened in increments. “I apologize…but I’ve condemned these things my entire life, and now he’s flaunting them like it’s nothing at all.”
“If I may interject, we are well-treated,” a tiny, bell-like voice interrupted. Sakura looked over her shoulder at us, with such large, intense blue eyes that it made me cringe on the inside. “Emperor Tatsune is a good master.”
Andris frowned. “That’s the problem. There should be no ‘master’ in this equation.”
“We were orphans scattered around the world. Our Lord gave us reason to live.” She wasn’t really arguing, yet her response would have warranted an argument from anyone.
Andris was happy to comply. “Death is better than servitude. Life is a joke, anyway. Exist, consume, and die—that’s life. Those who can’t die can only suck the life from others. Your so-called Emperor is an excellent example of this.”
“And you as well? You suck life from the living, do you not, Elder?”
Her words seemed to flip a switch, and just like that he shut down completely. “Don’t call me that. Andris. It’s Andris—nothing more, nothing less.”
Sakura silently observed his immediate withdrawal and turned back to the path ahead. She added nothing after that, but I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. It obviously hadn’t been fear. She had the Emperor in her favor. Perhaps there was something else?
“In the Brood Manor, does the title of Elder have some connotation other than what I’m used to?” I asked hesitantly, trying to avoid conflict with Andris, but too curious to let it go.
“Elders are Shimaren with seats on the Council.”
“Shut up!” the Nariuvne growled.
“Huh, so you’re one of them, huh?” Nick said with a cruel smirk. “Hypocrite.”
“You…I’ll deal with you later.” He turned to Sakura with eyes like bloody garnet. “Tell your master that I’m never joining that pathetic circus. If he wants me, he has to fight for it.”
“So quick to violence. That is why much of the Council is opposed to saving your seat, though the rest seem to think that it is a good quality.” She finally looked up, wearing a shrewd expression. “You would rule half and become an enemy to the rest. A precarious position, though with your caliber you could easily force the dissenters into submission. The Western Council would submit almost immediately.”
“I’m sick of power. I refuse to willingly take any more.”
She blinked slowly. “I see. May fortune grant you that wish, as naïve as it may be.”
The “naïve” comment seemed to hit all the wrong buttons with him, and I quickly grabbed his arm to prevent something regrettable from happening. He scowled, but finally backed down for the last, silent leg of our trek through the convoluted structure.
“We have arrived,” Sakura’s tiny voice sounded upon reaching yet another wide hall lined with doorways. “Lydian, Elder, and Nicholas—these are your rooms, respectively.”
“What did I just say?!” Andris cried, simply frustrated at this point.
I sighed and officially gave up. “I’ll leave these two in your care, Sakura.”
She bowed deeply. “Understood.”
Before Nick or Andris could say anything, I slipped through the door and locked it tight behind me, pausing to take a breath and clear my head.
Despite the acoustic-dulling aspects of the room, I could still hear Andris’ indignation over my abandonment and Nick’s irritation with the ancient loud and clear. My hearing had improved, thanks to the fourth blood, and the kid’s suspicions of his Maker had intensified for the same reasons. I had to admit that my own opinion had entered upon hazardous grounds, as well. After seeing Andris’ darker half, I wasn’t sure how much I trusted him anymore.
“Dammit,” I muttered, finally taking a look around.
The breath caught in my throat.
Such splendor…the rest of Ivanarke had been pretty amazing on its own, but to think that even the rooms themselves were so astonishing.
Gold and crimson colored every surface, save for the vast fireplace, which had been carved of black granite in ivy and scrolls. Gold leaf filled intricate pinstripe carvings as they twisted up the chimney to the molding, then shot out across a carmine ceiling to twine around an ochre paper chandelier at the center of the room. As I stared, the golden lines came together, like a magic picture forming the image of a dragon flying in circles.
Every wall had solid gold chair rails, wrapped around each other as loose braids. The plush sheepskin carpet covered a dark red hardwood floor, large enough to fill all but the barest edges of flooring beneath the monstrous four-poster. A mahogany desk worthy of a king stood against one wall, and several crimson velvet chairs rested before the fireplace. Off in one corner, a broad mahogany armoire stood behind a crane-adorned folding screen. Further along that wall and beside the bed was a single tall, narrow window.
Once I managed to get over the beauty of the place, my eyes traced to a gilded shoji door on my left. I could hear the flow of water on the other side, and without any direct input, my feet carried me through the opening.
I halted in disbelief, finding myself staring at an impressive replica of an outdoor hot spring. Showers lined the wall to my right, all with golden heads, and within the steaming water itself were piles of stones and boulders to complete the illusion. Even the ceiling had been painted a deep blue like the night sky, and bright, twinkling lights sparkled across the false heavens, arranged to mimic the real thing. The steam from the bath made it feel like a hot spring high atop a cloudy peak.
My plans changed immediately. I couldn’t let this opportunity go to waste.
Rather than hurrying to bed as originally intended, I turned my back on the glorious room and shut the paper door behind me. There was a bench near the door, and a dozen burgundy towels arranged on a shelf on the opposite side. I quickly stripped to my skin and grabbed one, tossing my clothes on the bench before setting the fluffy towel on another beside the water.
The shower felt so good, like gentle rain in the middle of summer, but the best part was when I finally stepped into the cloudy, mineral-rich water of the bath.
I walked out to sit on one of the rocks, so that I could rest with the water lapping around my shoulders. There had to have been something special in the water. Normal water didn’t feel this good. Was it the perfect temperature, or possibly a Shimari trick I had never seen before?
Heat radiated into my cold flesh, warming me to the marrow. I felt almost human. A gentle swirl around my feet and ankles helped shake off the uneasiness of our meeting with the Emperor. The soft pillow of waterlogged hair at my back chased away suspicions towards Andris. Cool steam against my face kept doubts regarding Nick’s adjustments out of my head.
I closed my eyes and sighed in contentment.
* o * o *
I must have fallen asleep in the water’s embrace, because the next thing I knew, there echoed a soft knock at the distant door in the main room. I jerked up in surprise.
Dreamless sleep. It felt almost like waking from rigor mortis, but groggier.
“What—who is it?” I called, blinking water from my eyes and pushing my hair from my face. Being a Shima, I didn’t have to breathe, and had therefore sunk to the bottom of the bath in my sleep. I’d done it before, but it still seemed a bit creepy to know that I couldn’t drown.
“It’s Andris,” responded the familiar voice, though it was muffled a bit. “Nick’s asleep—I don’t know how he does it, and I’m a little bit jealous…I’m about to lose my mind with boredom. May I come in?” He did sound a bit frazzled.
“Uh…okay, I guess,” I muttered, resuming my seat.
I could hear the lock slide over and the door click open in the next room. He could have come in at any time, yet he still bothered with permission? He got several points towards his socialization studies grade for that alone.
“Where are you?”
“In the bath,” I said. It felt too good. I didn’t want to get up and let him in.
The paper door slid over with a whisper, and I cracked an eye open to see Andris framed in the doorway. He must have left the coat in his room, and he’d changed into a black silk dress shirt, as well as different, less faded black jeans.
He stood like some dark god encountering his first worthy opposition.
“Don’t just stand and gawk,” I grumbled, raising a hand out of the water and motioning him to the nearest bench. “Have a seat. You can’t come in the water, though. I’m naked.”
“Naked…right.” He frowned, blinked several times, then looked away and took the proffered seat. “Were you sleeping?”
I nodded and sat back again, closing my eyes and sinking into sensation. “I shouldn’t have been, though. I don’t like sleeping under water. It makes me feel so inhuman.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to just accept the reality that you’re not human anymore?”
I smiled and sank in a little more. “Even if the laws of physics and nature have ceased to mean anything, we’re still humans. Our basic parts, physically and psychologically, remain human, even if the substance inside of them has changed. Simone taught me that it’s important to see how we haven’t changed, because it helps us keep balance. We’re not part of the human world anymore, but we have the power to make certain it will survive our presence.
“Even if we were an accident or a freak of evolution, there are good Shimaren and bad Shimaren. I know you’re good. I know Tivor is bad. Our purpose is to keep our own from ruining the world. Who cares about philosophy? All we need is purpose.”
He was quiet, but I could hear his heartbeat like a soft, steady drum, so I knew he hadn’t left. Plus, the steamy air carried the faintest trace of his scent.
My thirst wanted so badly to bite him again, but the incident with his thirst had done a good job of smothering my curiosity. Giving in to his more alluring qualities remained out of the question. Besides, it was nice to talk, at least when he wasn’t a depressed mess. I’d never had a chance to talk at length with an ancient other than Simone before.
“I don’t think we should exist at all,” he said at length, making rustling sounds as though fidgeting uncomfortably in his seat. “It’s abnormal…living forever without a moment’s sleep…and drinking blood. Every time I tried to stop I lost control. I would wake up weeks later, not knowing what I had done, yet seeing my handiwork everywhere. I hate it. I love it. This power is exhilarating and terrifying. I’m capable of—committed so many atrocities that I can’t even recall them all. I can’t possibly be good. There’s too much evil crawling in my veins.”
That finally broke through my bliss, and I opened my eyes again to frown at him. He sat forward, half-slumped to rest his elbows on his knees. All I could see was the top of that dark, shimmering hair.
“It’s not evil. It’s an animal,” I sighed. His depression just took all the wind out of my sails. “It’s an animal living symbiotically within us—but like us, it can think on its own. Reasoning with it should help.”
He didn’t even twitch. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re different from me. My thirst has no reason. I was too ignorant in the beginning to know how to train it. I just looked for things to make the pain stop. That’s why it hurts today.” He paused for a moment, then finally lifted his head and peered nervously at me through his raven curtain.
“I have to apologize for something. I lied, earlier, when I said that I don’t have to feed very often. To be honest, my thirst is constant. I can hold it to an extent, but the line between sanity and madness is so fine that I never can tell where the limit is. It’s like a switch, and suddenly I’m replaced by something monstrous. I kill Shimaren because that’s what the thirst wants. As long as I do that, I’m fine, but sometimes…”
Common sense once more lost its hold on my mind, and I slipped under the water to shoot across the bottom, bobbing up at the edge and grabbing his ankle in a firm grip. “Hey, did your blood want you to kill me back then, when I was little?”
Andris’ eyes tightened around the edges, shifting to ice blue. “Yes…”
“How come you didn’t go crazy then?”
He frowned, slowly letting his gaze slip to the side. “Your blood…the scent makes me calm,” he whispered. “I want it, but not because of thirst.”
“So…just by being around you, I’m keeping you sane? What happened back in the Emperor’s secret hideout, then?”
Oddly enough, he chuckled. “That was some of the most powerful Shimari blood I have ever tasted. It drowned you out for a few moments, but you managed to force it back.”
I grinned despite myself. “A little violence never hurt anyone.”
“Perhaps not to you, but the nose is the second most painful place you could have hit me. It still aches, Princess.”
“Second? What’s the first?”
He chuckled again, offering another little smirk. “For a man, below the belt hurts more.”
“Oh. Yeah.” With a nervous laugh, I let go of his leg and folded my arms at the edge, resting my chin on a wrist. “Hey, what was life like when you were still mortal?”
“Mortal?” His eyes faded, looking back to a long-forgotten age. “It was different from how things are today, that’s for certain.”
“Where were you born?”
“Hmm…I think it was somewhere near eastern Europe. I left so quickly that I never found it again. It snowed heavily in winter, and the summers were mild. My…tribe, as it were, traveled almost constantly in the warmer months and stayed at the foot of a mountain in winter.
“Men hunted for food and made clothing or tools, and just about everything was reliant upon the movement of the animals. Women took care of the children and the wounded. They cooked the food and skinned the kill and gathered plants for medicinal and comestible use. Children were precious. Everything was for their sake. I still remember my mother fussing over me whenever I got hurt playing with the other kids.” He let out a small laugh. “I was so weak back then. Even after becoming old enough to hunt with my father, I was still thoroughly useless.
“It was simple survival, but it wasn’t desperate. Those were quiet times. I didn’t really bother me that I aged more slowly than the other children did. The tribe’s seer had already informed everyone of this on the night of my birth. We didn’t have a calendar, per se, but we knew when the coldest day was, and the hottest day. Having been born on the winter solstice, she had predicted that I would be different from everyone else.”
I pouted in fascination, laying my head on my elbow to peer up at him. “Different how?”
He shrugged and leaned back on his hands, frowning at the ceiling. “For one, I looked different. Nature designed my people’s men to be large and stocky. I grew to be slim and tall very quickly, more like the women. My eyes and hair had too much red—everyone else had black hair and eyes. I wasn’t the strongest—though I had more strength than today’s humans do—but I was definitely the most intellectually gifted. Just…everything about me set me apart.”
“Even now, you’re going through the same difficulty, right?” I asked, studying his disconcerted expression. “I was the same way, as a kid.”
Stillness came over him, and he looked warily down at me. “Elaborate, please.”
“Well, I’m only half-Caucasian, so that got some negative attention at times. I was smarter than the other kids, too. The boys mocked me all the time, saying I should have been born a guy, because I acted like one. I kept getting sent home for fighting, even going so far as to break bones every once in a while—the other kids’ bones, that is.
“After mom…died…” I hesitated, frowning hard at the marble before forcing myself to meet his concerned gaze. “After she was gone, I stopped giving a damn. I nearly killed a kid and ended up getting banned from school. He just wouldn’t shut up, saying that my mother was better off as worm food.” My throat tightened, and I had to pause for a breath.
“It’s okay if you cry,” Andris said softly, refusing to meet my gaze. “It’s okay if you hate me, stab me, and tear me apart. If it’ll make you feel better, then do it.”
Slowly, the calm washed over me, until my throat relaxed and I could think straight. Again, I got the sense that he really would will his life away to anyone who could take it.
He closed his eyes, slumping forward to hide his windows behind black curtains yet again. “Really, Princess,” he said emptily. “Please, just put me out of my misery. You are my final victim. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m so tired.”
Well, hell. On impulse—thinking things through had never been my strong suit—my hand flew out of its own accord and snatched his collar, jerking him off the bench and plunging him into the hot water.
He splashed right back up with a look of complete bewilderment. “What was that for?!” he demanded, coughing up enough water to drown a person before finding his feet.
Instead of answering, I slipped forward until his face was mere millimeters from mine. “You’re much too good-looking to be so gloomy. I like it when you smile. I don’t want your life—I want you to be happy more often.” I glared evenly into eyes the color of daffodils, until the hue slowly shifted to a tentative viridian.
“Why?” he finally asked, clearly dumbfounded.
“Because your eyes are prettier when they’re emerald,” I replied, as though this were the answer to all things great and small.
They started to edge towards violet. “You don’t even know what that color means.”
“It’s some kind of happy, right? I like that color. It suits you, so wear it more often. If you’re so determined to cling to your monochromatic wardrobe, at least let your eyes show off.”
Now they were completely violet. “That’s impossible.” He turned away again. “Emerald doesn’t mean happy. It means something far more powerful…and hopeless.”
“Hopelessness is a false concept created by people who are too lazy to fight for what they want!” I grabbed his shoulder and gave him a shake. “Can’t you understand that? There will always be hope, as long as you’re not coward enough to give up.”
He stared at me for some time, and then blinked in apparent realization. His eyes flicked down to the cloudy water and returned to me as he reached up to take hold of my wrist. “You’re still naked,” he murmured, removing my hand and pulling it behind his back.
Rather suddenly, my bare front was flush against his body, and I unwittingly released a pathetic squeak of surprise. “H-hey, I was just trying to….” The train of thought left without me. That brilliant, unnatural color returned, like the last puzzle piece clicking into place.
“To cheer me up, correct?” he said, giving a faint, appreciative smile. His voice dropped low to a silky whisper, and he raised his other hand to wrap around my neck, tracing my jaw with his thumb and leaning closer. “Well, actions speak louder than words, Lydian.” Sweet sanity, water did amazing things when it clung to his skin and hair like that.
I closed my eyes and turned away, gritting my teeth to fight off the blood’s nearly irresistible cries for my attention. “Andris, please…”
“I want you, Princess, whether you understand what that means or not,” he said in a hush. His fingers slid up my back and neck as he pressed me against the stone, pinning me tightly, and shivers sang through my blood like the vibrations of a piano string. “I want you—all of you—and I will do whatever it takes to make you mine.” He bent over me, his breath hot against my throat, his fangs slipping into me like the exquisite blades of a skilled thief.
Again, the pleasure melted into my body like lava through paper, and I couldn’t help a soft moan as he stole my blood. He held me so close, so carefully…but Andris was possessive, and as much as I wanted to argue, I didn’t want him to release me. I wanted him to bite harder, to push the limit. Perhaps it would hurt, but something told me that it wouldn’t. Something in my blood told me that I would enjoy it very much.
More…I wanted more…but just before the link could close around my mind, he released my blood, letting me drift gently back into my body as he turned to my lips.
His taste clouded my thoughts so easily, and soon enough I was gripping his hair in desperation. Andris did things to me that I wasn’t sure I could ever understand. His mere scent, the few droplets he gave when I bit his lip, it was enough to send my blood into a faint. I wanted his blood on my tongue and his heat on my lips, and I never wanted it to end. I would rather have died than give it up at that moment.
Perhaps he really was meant to become my blood partner one day…
That thought brought me back with a start, and I jerked away from him in surprise.
“Wait!” I said, trying to clear my head and fight off my blood’s sudden shriek of anger. “Andris, wait a second.” He was breathing hard, staring at me with those eyes, and something inside of me twitched. It hurt, but it was good…like sensation returning to a frostbitten limb.
“Lydian, please,” he said, catching my wrist and pulling me back. “I have to have you…I think I might lose my mind if I can’t have you.” Without hesitation, he gently tugged my hair to tilt my head back, kissing my throat reverently as my ears sank below the water.
I could hear his heartbeat like a muffled drum, hear it race as his lips traveled lower…
“Andris…why are you so human?” It came out as a whisper, muted by the hot fluid of the bath, but I knew he’d heard me when his fangs hesitated against my skin. “You clearly want my blood, but for some reason it feels like you want more, like something else is motivating you.”
He froze for what seemed like ages. “And what if something else is?” he asked, shifting to a defensive tone. I raised my head to look at him, but his eyes were black, hiding more secrets.
He spoke haltingly, as though fighting with himself over which words to use. “When I say that I’m not a Shimare, there’s much more to it than the fact that sunlight holds no power over me, or that my appearance changes with time, or that I drink the blood of your people.”
I just stared at him, confused. “What?”
He seemed to realize that he was babbling. “Nothing,” he said quietly after a long pause. “I’m sorry. I think I’ve overstepped my bounds again.” At that, he pulled away and lifted himself out of the water to sit back on the bench, still drenched to the bone but apparently giving it no mind. His eyes lost their perfection, instead assuming the color of a winter sky.
“Are you sure you’re not deranged?” I shoved the blood’s annoyed cries to the back of my mind and resumed my spot at the edge of the bath, trying to decipher his behavior despite the overwhelming hindrance of having known him for so short a time. He seemed sad…or afraid?
“I’ve been deranged since gaining my powers. Nothing is bothering me at the moment, though, if that’s what you’re driving at.” His expression didn’t change, but that was no indication of anything significant. It just meant that he was filtering his emotions again. But forcing answers out of him would be too difficult at this point. The moment had already passed.
“Fine, be a sullen wreck and see how far that gets you,” I said.
His eyes darkened, but he didn’t look at me. “The sun and the moon, Princess. We sit at opposite ends of the spectrum of life. I can’t comprehend what it’s like to burn with the fire of existence. I’m a dead rock.”
“There you go again with the absolutes. The sun is the reason why the moon shines. I’ll take that challenge. Bring it on, sulky.”
“I am who I am right now because of you, so I suppose that’s not too farfetched.” Navy shifted back to peridot, and he smiled.
Another twitch shivered through my core…time for a subject change.
“You claim that I’m the reason why you can resist your thirst, why you couldn’t finish off my family, but that makes no sense. I was ten when you saw me. What the hell did I do to make a Crimson change his ways?”
An uncomfortable frown flickered across his face before it reverted back to the passivity of a Greek statue. “You didn’t do anything. You just were.”
That was not an answer. It left me even more baffled than before; therefore, it was definitely not an answer. “Go on,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant and coming off peeved.
My tone must have sounded funny, because he chuckled and shook his head, combing the wet hair back with his fingers. “Ah, you’re so direct. It was the blood, Princess. My blood had been silent for so long, yet suddenly it found something it wanted. I wanted to kill you to protect myself, yet I could barely contain the urge to make you my fledgling. Sometimes, fledglings are a necessity; sometimes it’s sentimental attachment. Every other time, it’s blind need.”
I didn’t get it. “And so you hung around while I grieved for my mother, when Simone showed up to protect me from you, when Sam and Ivan moved in practically next door?”
He nodded. “I even met you once, when you were in town shopping with the brothers. You flatly stated that I was handsome, but had a scary look on my face. What a precocious little girl you were.” He smiled at the recollection.
“What? Where was this? How old was I?” Instantly, my mind started going through memories, searching for that moment.
“Thirteen. I was sitting outside of a café, and while you were walking by, you caught me staring at you. I honestly didn’t know what to do, so I just shut down, as usual.”
His mental image popped into my head, and I grinned. “I remember! You were all dressed up, like a gentleman mortician, so you stood out…like, really stood out.”
“I liked what you said. It was nice to have someone speak to me so…deadpan. You spoke with no ill-intent or ulterior motives. That is almost unheard of in my experience.” He smiled a little, but it melted away after a moment, like a snowflake on a windshield.
“I don’t understand, though,” he added. “Fifty years is a long time, regardless of physical age. Now that your adult reasoning has developed, you should see me the way everyone else does.” The look he gave me was genuinely curious, as though I had defied all rational thought.
“I like you,” I said with a shrug. “You’re fascinating for what you are, but as a person you’re fun to be around.”
“Fun?” The blatant incredulity on his face was almost too much to bear. It was so…cute.
I was giggling before I could stop myself. Tiny red stains dotted the creamy marble, and when I wiped my eyes to see that tears were leaking out, I laughed even harder.
“I’m not following your reasoning,” Andris said, his tone guarded. He had somehow interpreted my giggle fit as an underhanded insult.
I waved my hand to cast aside his doubt. “You’re just adorable, sometimes.”
He frowned hard at me, waiting for my episode to get over with. Once I managed to calm down, he said stubbornly, “Adorable is a little much, don’t you think? It sounds so demeaning.”
“Fine, I’ll rescind that. How about sweet?” I raised my eyebrows.
His eye twitched before he let out a heavy sigh and relented. “Whatever you want. My thoughts on the matter don’t count, do they?”
“Very well, then you’re adorable. And little.”
“Oh, that was just wrong,” I hissed.
“Your thoughts on the matter don’t count.”
I leered at his smug look. “I’m done with my bath. Either get out or hand me my towel.”
An eyebrow quirked up, and he glanced at the towel beside him. “This?” he asked, holding it up.
I held out my hand, still grumpy about the ‘little’ comment. “Give it, then go.”
His response was a conniving grin, flashing all of his fangs in the light, and with a single snap of cloth he opened the towel and held it up. “Come and get it, Princess.”
“Put it on the bench!” I cried, mortified that he could even think that I would comply.
“Here, I’ll hold it in front of my face,” he said, chuckling craftily and lifting it enough to obscure his view. “I won’t look.”
There was no winning, was there? I was at a disadvantage—I shouldn’t have let him in!
But then we never would have had that nice talk. I liked that, the talking.
I bit back my compulsion to read him the riot act. Before I could change my mind, I planted my hands and slipped easily out of the water to land at a crouch. Cautiously, I stood, keeping my eyes on where his face would be, and approached the fuzzy red barricade.
It was like a flash of lightning. Once I was close enough to touch the towel, the ends swept down and around me as though it were a living thing, a Venus fly trap capturing an ignorant bug. Instantly, I was a butterfly wrapped in a particularly stubborn cocoon.
“Andris?!” I yelped.
His arms held tight, one around my shoulders, the other around my waist, so that I couldn’t worm my way out. “I couldn’t help myself,” he said, sounding not the least bit apologetic. “Let me ask you a couple of questions, and then you’re free to do as you wish.”
“Like what?!” Rage and delight were trying to rip my consciousness in half just beneath my skin, a fight fueled by the blood’s vindictive reaction towards my stubbornness.
Andris fixed that right up with a brilliant distraction. He turned to my nape, nuzzling my skin and letting his warm breath tickle through my wet hair. “Do we have a deal?” he whispered into my ear, tracing the shell with his lips before gently biting my earlobe.
An impossibly powerful shudder shook me to the core, and my insides turned to jelly, but I held myself together with my last ounce of free will and nodded in silence.
“Good girl,” he said, kissing behind my ear and making me shiver.
“What do you want to know?” I breathed, biting my lip to let pain distract me. It was all I could do to fight my blood’s insistent cries for attention.
At last, he set his chin back on my shoulder. “First, did you die a virgin?”
My jaw went slack, and it took me several long seconds to notice and lock it back in place. “Uh, what?” I said, too confused to know what kind of emotion I should have been displaying. The question was so abrupt.
“I thought as much,” he sighed. “Ivan, right?”
“Huh?” I hadn’t even answered! Was he going to do something to Ivan? If so, I would say Sam. The craven wasn’t expendable, but he was certainly fleet of foot.
“No, I’m not going to do something horrible if it is,” Andris said as though he saw nothing at all wrong with prying into my ex-love-life. “I’m just curious.”
I frowned, turning just enough to leer at him with one eye. “Um, then yeah.”
He looked thoughtful for a moment, then:
“Would you have been averse to having me in your bed?”
I wanted to shoot someone. Anyone. Pick a target—any target. This incoherent tangle of anger, bafflement, and shock had to go somewhere. “What?!” I cried again.
“So that’s a yes, you would have been averse?”
My mouth made a jerking motion, like the jaw of a puppet, until I managed to gather enough wits together to respond. “It would have depended on multiple factors. Age, for one. You’re physically what, twenty-something?”
“Twenty-two winters passed before I stopped aging.” He was calculating my response.
“Well, I was sixteen, and under the deviated influence of a vampire who was prepping me for being turned. Simone wanted me to do everything I could only do as a human before he turned me—though I hadn’t known it at the time.”
“So? If I’d made a good enough impression, and had the circumstances been right, would you have wanted me later on?”
Something wasn’t right…
“If you’re trying to apply those rules to right now, it wouldn’t matter what either of us wanted,” I said.
His gaze hardened slightly. “So…hypothetically, if you could, would you want to?”
“With—with you?” I tried to feel embarrassed, but was too confused to manage it.
He looked so serious, so I wracked my brain for a rational answer. Andris won hands-down if it was only about looks, but that didn’t matter. Sure, I liked being around him, even when he did weird things like this—and my blood certainly enjoyed his presence—but Andris scared me a little. I wasn’t even sure if I really knew him.
But…it was a futile effort, either way. It didn’t work like that anymore.
“Probably not,” I said at last, carefully watching his eyes in case I had to run for my life.
His reaction was not what I had expected—not at all.
Rather than getting angry, he smiled and laughed softly. “Thank you, Princess.” His arms tightened briefly, and then released me altogether.
Surprised, I spun to face him, but he’d disappeared again.
“Go ahead and change…or continue your bath.” His voice sounded from elsewhere, and I caught him leaving through the paper door. “I’ll go change into something dry, but do you mind if I come back? I’m sick of lying awake with no one to talk to.”
I stared dumbly for a time, before finally mumbling that it was okay with me.
“Thank you, Lydian.” With that, he vanished, still laughing.