Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
C'hnyel "Ciel" Sarven narrowly escapes being murdered by a vampire when another one, Lady Jaan Whitestar, offer her shelter. Afraid of the dark, she falls asleep to her rescuer standing a watch over her.
To know more, read Chapter 2.
Ciel woke up to the sound of people screaming at each other, “…you can’t just barge in there!”
Trish. Memories of a silver bracelet, of a beautiful scar of a face flashed behind Ciel’s eyelids. A graent.
The second voice was unfamiliar, deep, male, authoritative to the point of arrogance. “I need to talk to her!”
Ciel opened her eyes a slit, and found the lady immediately, reclined in an armchair, half shadows and half light. Oddly, that sight eased her.
“Hush, little one,” Lady Whitestar whispered. “You are safe.”
The door banged open, startling Ciel. A blanket she hadn’t been aware of slipped a few inches down her body. One beautiful white hand tugged it back up to cover her. The male voice boomed again, “What the hell are you doing to that kid?!”
“I’m sorry,” Trish apologized, “he just wouldn’t calm down!”
“Quiet, both of you.” The lady didn’t shout, she didn’t need to. “Patricia, bring in the lights and maybe a collation. Runner Grady, you may sit.”
The lady helped Ciel sit up and, in the light of the one candle, the girl saw that Grady, who looked every bit the Runner in a black uniform with silver studs, daggers at the ready, dangling next to a fearsome-looking pistol, seemed torn between an urge to obey and a stubborn wish to remain brazenly standing. Very handsome despite his stubborn chin and nose, he was a little older than Trish – late thirties, early forties, maybe – but just as blue-eyed and blond-haired. He flopped into an armchair just as his sister brought a tray in the library.
His angry eyes prowled, avoiding their hostesses’ gazes, and settled on Ciel, a spark of pity igniting in their depths. They were the color of lapis lazuli, and the look in them made Ciel feel grubby.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “Did she hurt you?”
How offensive…For all “Jaan” was a saÿrim, she had healed Ciel and taken her stupid request seriously, sitting with her for hours. “Yes,” she snapped. “No.”
She knew without looking that the lady was smiling. The runner seemed puzzled. “Yes or no?”
“Yes, I’m alright. No, Lady Whitestar didn’t hurt me.”
She did so hate pity.
Trish chuckled at something – maybe at her curtness. Meeting her eyes squarely, she asked, “Milk? Sugar?”
Both…? No, Ciel was too afraid to impose on the Whitestar household. They had done enough. One rug in the sitting-room was ruined, as well as the sofa and the blanket draped across her lap. Not to mention the dead vampire and that very rude runner. Then again, Lady Jaan Whitestar could obviously afford, not only the milk and the sugar, but a new rug, a new sofa and a new blanket.
“Please,” Ciel replied.
“Good. Healing burns sao. Sugar will help.”
If sugar was so good, maybe Saÿrimen should eat it! Ciel glanced fearfully toward the lady, afraid the vampire was reading her mind and taking offense. When no bolt of lightning struck, she looked down, embarrassed she had forgotten all about etiquette.
She had been taught, at the store, not to meet their eyes, not to speak before they did and never, ever to ask questions.
Simple rules, but easy to forget when the lady was so different, so…compelling. Her hair was a rich, dark red with strands of scarlet, gold and brown, and her catlike eyes shone. Ciel shivered. Even a street-rat knew that meant power.
Ciel was staring again and jumped when Trish handed her a cup. Reigning in her curiosity, she looked toward the runner, who took it as encouragement. “My name is Faran Grady. I’m a runner – a lieutenant. You can trust me. You can tell me the truth. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
She nodded. She understood – but didn’t trust. Sure, he was a runner. That was no reason to trust him. Runners, same as all men of power, scared her.
“She didn’t hurt you, you’re sure? Did she touch you?” he pressed on, frowning. “You wouldn’t necessarily feel her feeding off you. Especially if you were tired or upset.”
He clearly knew nothing about how it felt! Ciel, now furious, shot back, “I’m sure. And even if she did…? Who cares?! This…this…this…demon ate pieces of my soul! Lady Whitestar saved me.” She burst in tears. “Why are you…?!”
She hated that she always cried and lose all credibility when she was angry. Someone slipped a crumpled kerchief in her hand and she tried her best to hide behind it.
“Enough,” Trish pleaded.
“I need her statement! And then, I will bring her back home.”
Back in the Bowels. Back to the cold, the dampness of the river. Back to listening to the whores moaning against the wall of the Blue Rabbit all night long. Back to an angry Frances.
“Her brother’s on his way.” Ciel couldn’t help a quiver of fear – and she had the distinct impression that the lady noticed it. “Why don’t you take her statement tomorrow?”
“It’s not protocol.”
“Damn your protocol!”
“So your soul-sucker can make my witness disappear…?”
Ciel and Trish gasped. Nobody used the word ‘soul-sucker’ within earshot of a saÿrim. The lady, however, didn’t react to the insult, staring out the glass door into the night-swathed backyard, smiling to herself. Dawn was coming, sky blushing pink, the river running like fresh blood on the other side of the house.
Ciel sipped from her cup of tea, wishing the warmth would stay with her and banish the cold emptiness the now dead thing had left in her. “It’s fine, I can give him my statement,” she told them. She wanted to be done with the unpleasant man.
The runner dug a tiny recorder out of his satchel – a shiny leather bag with the Runners’ emblem, a hand carrying a lit torch. Ciel focused on it while its owner directed her statement with blunt, concise questions. His expression had settled into a frown and an encouraging half-smile, with no more pity. The only time the mask slipped was when she explained how his sister had shot the intruder.
Trish shrugged with the barest hint of pride. “Silver bullets.”
“You still shoot?” he asked, surprised.
“Like riding a bicycle.”
He stroked his gun, almost – but not quite – looking at Lady Whitestar and Trish visibly bristled.
“There are always poachers,” the lady said, breaking the tension, “but grabbing a girl from a public bus…” She shook her head. “So bold…”
“Bold?” the runner spat out. “Try ‘out of control’. Especially at night. And can we do but take away the corpses, come morning? Like we’re back to the fricking Three Bloody Winters.”
They all shivered, even Lady Whitestar. Nobody liked to be reminded of the Three Bloody Winters. Ciel had heard enough to be scared from the sailors at the Blue Rabbit. The old ones often scored a couple of free beers, late at night, to make you tremble in fear with stories of the Three Bloody Winters.
“Like a war,” they rambled, “Death, quiet, everywhere, like mist rising from the river. The Bowels drained, the Boroughs rioting.” Then, lower, “Saÿrimen were lynched.”
“That bad?” Trish asked.
Grady shrugged, his body-language eerily similar to his sister’s. “Not yet, but the numbers are headed that way.”
Ciel gasped. How many others had suffered and died the way she almost had?! Her eyes found the reflection of Lady Whitestar in the glass door, her patrician profile gilded in early morning sunlight, looking ageless. “The sao is thin,” she told them, no rhyme or reason to it.
“What does that mean?” Trish asked.
“Thin sao drains us – Saÿrimen too, makes us hunger. The Krimean war caused the Three Bloody Winters: as part of our winter campaigns, these three years, every caster and magician in the country was mobilized to feed magic – sao – to our weapons, to the Wards at our borders. But we are not at war now.”
“Then where is that sao thing going?” Grady mocked her. “It’s taking a vacation or something?”
Jaan started answering, then faltered, sought their eyes, each in turn. “I doubt that. You are the investigator, runner. Why don’t you find out?”
The doorbell rang, interrupting Runner Grady’s answer. “Ah, your brother must have arrived, C’hnyel,” Lady Whitestar guessed. “Patricia?”
Trish nodded, disappeared, and reappeared a few minutes later with Frances, still wearing his factory uniform, its blood-soaked greyness an unpleasant contrast to Lady Whitestar’s lavish interior. Ciel could tell he had been drinking but wasn’t drunk – not yet. He just moved carefully, as if uncertain of his balance.
She knew him, even the pieces that were pure drunken free trash. Her brother, whose eyes and hair were the same unremarkable brown as hers and whose skin was olive too. They were also both tall and rangy, emaciated from rarely eating their fill, although they had grown exceptionally strong and tough: Ciel went days without sleeping or eating and Frances could – and frequently did – carry dead cows over his shoulder.
His eyes narrowed on her and she started shaking. He was furious – at her stupidity, at being dragged into this push house where he stood out like a sore thumb. She rose to her feet almost without thought. He took two steps across the room and slapped her. She crashed into the delicate coffee table. It broke with a loud crack and she sprawled amidst the debris, where she curled up, expecting a blow that never came.
She heard…She wasn’t sure what she heard. The lady was at her side in the blink of an eye, trailing a hand along her side. Ciel happily welcomed the warmth it spread in its wake. The lady’s touch alleviated the hurt Frances had dealt her before she could truly feel it.
Tentatively, her body uncoiled. She looked up and saw her brother plastered against the furthest wall of the room, his face bloodless. Trish had a gun shoved in his mid-section.
“You can’t do that!” he screamed, his voice ridiculously high. “He’s a runner. He won’t let you!”
“He won’t raise a hand in defense of you,” Trish said in a vicious tone of voice. “You just assaulted a guest of Lady Whitestar’s. We may exact any punishment we see fit to.”
The runner nodded in confirmation, his expression one of profound disgust. Ciel knew Frances’s life was in danger. He was a shitty brother, but he was blood. She couldn’t stand by and watch him get hurt. “Please, don’t,” she begged the lady.
The vampire stared at her, her head tilted to the side, as if weighing Ciel’s determination in this, then, at long last, she smiled. “Enough, Patricia. Let Mr. Sarven go.”
Ciel felt herself deflate. It had been a challenging night and it would get worse yet: her brother would make her pay for this humiliation once they were alone.
Trish obediently tucked her gun away, a fierce glare on her face, and helped Ciel to her feet. Frances finally scraped himself off the wallpaper and looked around, frowning.
“Get up, Ciel,” he barked. “Let’s go.”
Trish held Ciel back when she would have gone. “Surely,” she told her mistress, “you can’t mean to let her go home with that brute!”
The lady didn’t look like she cared one way or the other. “We have no right to deny Mr. Sarven his sister.” Ciel’s heart sank. Nobody ever helped, Frances’ violence was a private matter. And even if the lady tried to meddle, it couldn’t possibly be for the best, could it? She was one of the demons. “Of course, by the same reasoning, he owes me eighteen gold coins.”
The lady slanted a sharp look at Frances, then at his sister. “I am afraid there is the matter of a rug in my sitting-room, not to mention this sofa and the blanket, the coffee table, or the Wards that got broken when your sister intruded on my privacy. Eighteen golds is a fair estimate, really. Wouldn't you concur, Patricia?”
Frances’s face went completely white, his mouth fell open.
“More than fair,” a grinning Trish agreed. “Generous, really.”
“My thought, exactly. Which is why I shall have to insist on receiving full payment tonight.”
It would have been comical if Ciel hadn’t just accrued an eighteen-golds debt. She couldn’t remember ever owning one gold coin!
“I…I…I…” Frances stammered. “I'll…I mean…I should get going.”
Stiffly, he turned toward the door.
“Frances!” Ciel cried out.
How could he abandon her in that house with those strangers?!
“Sorry, Ciel,” he threw over his shoulder, like she didn’t warrant one last look. “No damn bitch is worth that much. Especially a dumb one who can’t hold a job.”
Ciel couldn’t muster the energy to run screaming after him – or to run at all. Where would she go? She had nowhere and no one, and she didn't care anymore. Her passion for survival was gone…along with her soul and those eighteen golds!
“My lady,” she began, her voice toneless.
The runner interrupted her, “Don’t worry, she can’t really hold you to that.”
“Of course, I could.” Lady Whitestar trilled a melodious laugh. “I could be fitting her for a bracelet right now. If I so wished,” she added, patting Ciel’s shoulder. “Which I do not.” She knelt beside the chair Trish had helped their guest into. “I will not enslave you. All I ask is that you spend the night here. In the morning, we will talk again. Alright?”
The runner snorted. “I can’t let you railroad the girl. Don’t believe a word she says, Miss Sarven. Words mean nothing to Saÿrimen.”
“Stop scaring the girl, Faran!” Trish burst out.
“I’m protecting her! Whatever your…” The runner’s face grew red as he obviously tried to get the word ‘soul-sucker’ out but couldn’t quite manage it. “…mistress says, Miss Sarven’s debt stands until she’s got a written contract to that effect.”
“Quiet, both of you. C'hnyel…”
Ciel’s eyes turned to Lady Whitestar but the saÿrim was curiously blurry – and Ciel realized she had been crying big, fat tears. Slowly. Silently.
She couldn’t become a drone. She just couldn’t. People would stare. People would know. They would see it in her clothes, in the silver band around her wrist. They would pity her, despise her. She had heard of the things they did to drones. She had heard of the children born in servitude who got sold before they were of age.
“Hush, little one.” The lady patted her hand. “It will be alright. Show our guest to the yellow room, Trish. She is exhausted.”
“Lady, you can’t…”
“Runner!” she chimed, raising her voice for the first time. “There is an unusual charm to your insolence and, so, I do not hold you to the diktats of common courtesy, but you will bow to my authority when it comes to the running of my household. Miss Sarven is my problem, not yours.”
The runner’s face reddened. “Very well.” He bowed with stiff courtesy. “I must take my leave, then.”
“Not a second too soon,” Trish mumbled under her breath.
To find out how Ciel will have to pay her debt, read Chapter 4.