C'hnyel "Ciel" Sarven, attacked by a vampire (a sayrim), was saved by another, Lady Jaan Whitestar. Her brother manhandled her but left, abandoning her, when Lady Whitestar demanded that he compensate her for the costs accrued rescuing his sister.
Ciel has stayed the night in the Whitestar house, convinced she would become a slave (a graent) of the Lady's in the morning. Now, it's time to wake up.
To know more, read Chapter 3.
It was a wonderful way to wake up - in a nice, soft bed, smelling clean bedding, feeling fresh cotton and the bounce of a well-sprung bed, the welcoming softness of a feather pillow. it was the knowledge that people like Ciel didn’t own feathered pillows that woke her up. Fluffing them for their employers, yes. Sleeping on them, no. Frances’s job at the pork processing factory didn’t pay that well, and Ciel couldn’t keep a job.
Her eyes opened. Lovely bedroom. The wallpaper was golden with an off-white heron pattern. There was a delicate screen in a corner. A couple of armchairs formed a circle around a writing desk and a low table. On the table was a tea service of translucent china.
When Ciel got up and out of bed, silk whispered against her limbs, reminding her that she was wearing a borrowed nightgown of plain yellow, unadorned but expensive. Ciel, after looking vainly for buttons or a zipper, had butchered the delicate laces in the back with an angry double knot. She wasn’t comfortable wearing only night things – not even a bra – but her clothes had been taken away while she slept. All she could find was a heavy robe.
All that borrowed glory failed to lighten her bleak mood. Feeling a little numb and disconnected from the world, she tried to remember exactly how she had wound up there.
From what she had seen of it, the Whitestar house was one of those wooden mansions saÿrimen favored over the castles of indigenous nobility. It followed the classical H plan, with the kitchens as a nexus and a buffer between the servants’ quarters, the guest wing, the family wing and the reception area.
Ciel was under no illusion that she was a guest in the classical sense of the word, but they had given her plush accommodations with a wide view on a small garden squashed between two wings. She lifted the latch of the glass door and stepped out into a cold Fall morning. The first bite of icy air chilled her to the bone. She could hear a melodious gurgle of water, then a lark replying gaily. She drew in a breath that tasted of rain and smelled of Spring.
The sound of a footfall in the flagrant grass made her turn her head to see Lady Whitestar glide between the flowerbeds, sunlight like fire on her hair, strength and grace in the form of a lovely monster…
The saÿrim paused under a hundreds-year-old tree. Was it a chestnut or an oak? All Ciel could tell was that it wasn’t a silver birch or a weeping willow, the only trees she recognized with any accuracy. She decided to drag her feet over to the female who owned her to her last copper coin.
Up close, the saÿrim was striking but not intimidating. It was the eyes, Ciel decided. Most demonsstared right through you without seeing you. Lady Whitestar actually saw her.
“I am feeding,” the lady told her, a smile hidden in the small lines at the corner of her eyes and mouth. “May I?”
Tentatively, Ciel placed her hand in the lady’s and let her flatten it against the bark. A jolt of energy made her fingers tingle, over as soon as it had started, cool and a little heady. Ciel wanted more, she didn’t take her hand away even after the lady’s lifted off it. But it was over. “Was that sao?” she asked, in awe.
Ciel licked her lips. “It felt good.”
The lady laughed again. “Stars taste better, their song tastes like chocolate, cold and exotic.”
“Like chocolate…” Ciel repeated, all bubbling excitement.
“And the wind is lovely too, so light that it cannot be either sweet or sour. It is running. It is freedom.”
“Ah, humans…” Her smile widened. “Not as intoxicating.”
Ciel stopped mid-sentence. One didn’t question one’s superiors. With a kind smile, the lady explained anyway, “There is an illness we call starsung – bhestrani, an addiction to nonhuman sao. It is common amongst Saorimen.”
Emboldened, Ciel asked, “Are Saorimen the same as Saÿrimen?”
Pain flashed across the lady’s serene face. “No, they are not.” The lady twirled around and walked back toward the house. Ciel stood rooted in place, terrified she had offended the creature that held her fate in its hands! But the lady called her over her shoulder, “Come on, Miss Sarven.”
Ciel followed her into a schizophrenic little room that was a laboratory, that was a repair shop, that was a storage space. There were long counters laden with electrical wire, cuttings, phials, ribbons, etc. It was, without a doubt, a magician's workroom.
On one of the tables were heaps of white carton boxes, each bearing a well-known logo: the red chrysanthemum of Vitalia, the famous cosmetics brand. Vitalia products were infused with magic so potent that you could feel it through the shop windows. Which was as close as Ciel ever got to them: Vitalia catered to the wealthy – or rather, unless Lady Whitestar was a collector of Vitalia boxes, she catered to the wealthy.
“Look over there,” the saorim said.
Ciel obediently looked away from the enigmatic chrysanthemum. The lady was pointing to a row of small paintings of Saÿrimen of old that stood guard over a stack of plain boxes. Ciel moved closer to get a good look but couldn’t tell the males apart from the females. The paintings only showed faces, each carrying a strong resemblance to the lady: fierce women and delicate-looking men, all of them wearing their hair long and unbound.
Pressing her nose to the paintings, Ciel managed to spot a couple of older paintings, antiques crafted by a fey hand. The more recent portraits were plainer, human in their execution. Looking even more intently, she noticed that the white star symbol was prominently displayed in these last paintings while it was conspicuously missing from the older ones.
Pausing before the first Whitestar to bear the symbol and to have been painted by a human, Ciel glanced at the lady over her shoulder, “Who was he?”
She wasn't sure yet that the lady and her likes qualified as ‘men’ and ‘women,’ but it seemed rude to ask, ‘Who was that?’
“Ah,” Lady Whitestar said, “you are very intuitive, aren’t you, C’hnyel? He is the Whitestar – the first Whitestar magician and the first saorim. He was my ancestor. His name was…”
The name slipped through Ciel’s mind like water through her fingers, leaving nothing of itself behind. The lady shook her head as if chastising herself for forgetting human limitations.
“We just call him ‘the Whitestar.’ Humble-born but ambitious, a man who became a warrior dreaming of higher status.”
Yes, there was shrewdness and a deep hunger in those eyes. Ciel had learned to spot that look on the streets, and to expect backstabbing and trouble.
“We were not vampires then, the sao was so thick, our far-away land so ripe with it that we didn't need to hunt to survive. It came easy as breathing. We were a peaceful people before Humanity changed us.”
Ciel tensed, knowing she was about to hear the other side of a story she knew well. She had never before considered that there might be another side. Demons were senseless killers. Weren’t they?
“Ours was a twin-dimension of this one, of this world where Humanity was killing whole species, thinning the sao. Like water pouring out of a jug and into another, the sao drained out of our world, which started dying off. Eventually, a team was assembled to travel to your dimension and find out what was killing us.
“My ancestor captained that team. This land,” she said, raising a hand toward the garden, “was so poor in sao that the Whitestar, who would invent saorimal, also became the first saÿrim. His team had to prey on humans just to stay alive long enough to report back home. Those who couldn’t bring themselves to take human lives didn’t survive to go home and be shunned, treated like lepers.
“Their return caused an uproar. What they had found out, how they survived…” The lady paused. “It disgusted, it disturbed, and the hemorrhage of sao wouldn’t stop. Humans were busy destroying, corroding life and nothing could make them stop – not even the perspective of their own extinction.
“Sooner or later, our kind would start preying on theirs or go gently into the good night.”
Their fault?! Was she implying that it was their own fault?!
“There was talk of a trial. An outcast, defamed as a liar, the Whitestar left the army to take up the quiet life of a hermit, preparing for the day of reckoning when our land to become as poor in sao as yours.
“While he refused to be judged for the deeds perpetrated in the course of his mission, he believed that the consumption of human souls was not sustainable in the long term. A deep change had been wrought into him, not so much by the shock of killing humans as by the gruesome illustration they made, suffocating on their own filth. He made it his mission not to let his own kind waste their resources to the point of self-destruction.
“It was not a matter of fondness, for he could never grow fond of the creatures who had destroyed his orderly universe, but he was not unlike the first human who domesticated cows to drink milk every day, instead of running, pikes in hands, after mammoths. How wasteful to kill humans when he could feed off them without detriment to their health…”
Such coldness…Ciel shivered and wondered why the lady should be any better than the rest of the monsters.
“I am different,” the saorim said. “This is my world, my time. I was raised amongst humans – by humans too. To me, you are not cattle. I could never experiment as he did, abducting humans and killing them by the dozen to refine saorimal – the careful extraction and consumption of sao.
“He was late in forging this other path: saÿrimal had already spread its wings. Saorimal never grew beyond the small following he gathered: a mixed crowd of the skittish and the frugal, the smart and the weak. We are told that they were drawn to the personality and power of a man who had become the greatest mage of his time.
“His disciples called him a prophet, a savior, the White Star, which is how my kind called the sun in those times.” Again, one of those flowing words Ciel couldn’t quite grasp. “I am told that it was how it looked in their skies – a huge star, shining silver and white. I often wonder if my ancestors had it confused with the moon.” She sighed. “So much knowledge lost…
“He took Whitestar as his name and the crest of his house. He called his followers saorimen, which means ‘sao-eaters.’ The others, he called saÿrimen – soul-eaters. It became his legacy to their kind, apparently, a name that was an accusation and an insult all at once. They banished him, they forbade saorimal, but they never stopped calling themselves saÿrimen. Twin ways of life, the way our worlds were twins.”
“He was banished?”
“Yes.” The lady thrust her chin at the painting. “Can you guess where to?”
Ciel looked again at the portrait, with its human execution. “Here?”
“Yes. His followers…well, followed. Three to four hundred of them, too many to hide, and the White Star did not hide,” she added with a wry smile. “He went straight to the King. Can you imagine how that meeting went?” The lady chuckled. “I sometimes try to imagine the face the King must have made when he learned that there were billions of blood-thirsty creatures just a hair-breadth away. The White Star predicted that, one day, they would emigrate en masse. Much easier than abducting enough humans through the world-to-world portals.
“Five centuries later, the Saÿrimen proved him right. Only a thousand traveled here and settled all over the world. They were the srenta – our nobility. Terrified that supplies of human lives might one day run dry, they crossed into this world and locked it to all other portals.”
The lady seemed a little upset. She talked a long pause. “Sorry, we were talking about the King and the White Star…My ancestor struck a deal. Our existence would be kept secret, we would be fed. In exchange, we had to swear to defend all human lives. The White Star had to pledge himself to the King personally – a tradition which has been upheld by the most powerful magician of every generation of my line. Nine centuries of us.”
Quite a legacy. Ciel frowned, not because she was confronted with the most powerful vampire in the world, or close, oddly, but because the Whitestars and their gang had already failed their oaths. “Why didn’t you protect us from them, then?”
“From whom?” the lady inquired, as always exquisitely polite.
“From the Saÿrimen! You swore to protect humanity but, look, now they rule these lands like they have every right!”
If only the Saorimen had kept their brethren away from humanity…Ciel had heard of equality and freedom in the times before.
Lady Whitestar’s face went completely expressionless. “Humans run this country alongside them. We are powerful mages, but we do not preside over humanity’s fate. You have the rulers you choose and, four centuries ago, those rulers greedily welcomed the Saÿrimen for their gold and their magic. They even reinstated slavery. There was nothing my people could do. How were we to save Humanity from itself?” Her tone seemed to imply that Humanity had suicidal tendencies. “As always, it will be much harder to repair than it was to destroy. Enslavement began as the mistake of a moment, freedom will be a centuries-long process.”
Ciel’s head was spinning. The saorim was bending everything she knew out of shape until she couldn’t make sense of her own history. She stubbornly focused on the small truths that were part of her big assumptions, “Queen Fantine isn’t greedy!”
“True,” the saorim admitted with remarkable cheer. “Humanity lucked out in her.” Some of Ciel’s surprise – and, quite frankly, relief – must have shown because the lady almost laughed. “I am sworn to her personally, I know her well. She is a good ruler, but she is very isolated. Archblue is devious and the Saÿrimen have fortified their position over the centuries.” Ciel signed herself at the sound of that name. The saÿrimen’s ultimate leader scared her silly. “Fantine needs every bit of her political skill to vie with the Retzar for the Parliament. The nobles do not help. Fickle, useless, well-sated bundles of lace. As for the army…” The lady snorted – how unladylike… “It is in a sad state of disrepair. Really, who does the Queen have? Her Whitestar, of course.” She inclined her head and waved her hand, humbly pushing that away as a minor detail. “And the Runners, the Scythers – fearsome army, really. One magician and a gang of fanatics.”
“But we are behind her,” Ciel argued. “Everybody loves Queen Fantine. When there is news of her in the paper, even boring stuff like the milk quality bill, homeless people read it to each other, and the shop-girls know every dress in her wardrobe.”
“True, the population supports her, which is probably why she has not been assassinated yet, like many worthy leaders before her. Saÿrimen too, remember the Three Bloody Winters. They fear riots.”
Ciel frowned even more. “Maybe we should riot, then, and throw them out.”
“Where to? Every saÿrim alive today was born here, and none of us can go back.”
‘Who cares?’ Ciel wanted to shout. ‘Who cares?!’ Her revulsion at the demons was bone deep. The idea of cleansing the world of them gave her an urge to sing hymns. Fairness, after all, played no role in survival. Saÿrimen should understand that.
Ciel had forgotten how the lady seemed to read her mind. “How would you survive without saÿrimen? Or have you forgotten all about the Wards?”
Ciel squirmed unhappily. Pollution levels had just gotten downright insalubrious when the saÿrimen arrived. The weak had died first – the asthmatics, the children, the elderly. Otherwise healthy people started suffering from a recurring sickness of the lungs they called ‘the Hack’ because of the sound their coughing made.
Only a lucky few could pay enough human casters to live safely behind environmental Wards. But saÿrimen could sustain Wards for weeks almost effortlessly – longer with the help of a few reliable wardstones. They picked up the slack, the handful of individual Wards grew like mushrooms, encompassing entire cities.
Ciel never stopped to wonder to whom she owed the privilege of having been born an inwarder. Nobody envied the Outwarders’ short, violent lives.
“It has been four centuries,” she said softly.
“And these four centuries have seen nothing but increased pollution Outward. Royal envoys gauge it at all times. The best experts of our generation predict that it will be at least two decades before levels start dropping – and that is if we manage to keep to the environment-friendly standards we have established for ourselves. Maybe your children’s children will be able to do without the Wards but not you.”
“Can’t you saorimen sustain the Wards?”
The lady shook her head – and she looked almost sad. “Would we still be around to Ward you? After our long centuries of service to humanity, wouldn't you forbid us from feeding off humans? We would die of hunger or become so starsung that we would be dumb with it, mindless slaves.”
Uncomfortable thoughts, those, and her sense of fairness started niggling at Ciel despite her better intentions. Demons shouldn’t have a right to their own side of History, she decided petulantly, that muddled everything! She crossed her arms over her chest, stubbornly reminding herself that she had almost ended up as a snack to one scumbag of a saÿrim. Sweet reason had no pull over her hatred!
The lady laughed – a quiet, soft kind of laughter, as contained as the rest of her character. “Oh, C’hnyel…I make no excuses for Saÿrimen, I have no love for them. I just want you to understand who I am, what I am so you will see that saving you was merely fulfilling the oath I took when I was twelve. You do not owe me anything over yesterday’s incident.”
“You won’t make me stay, then?” Ciel found herself rubbing her arms, still chilled at the prospect. “Make me your graent?”
“I do invite you to stay and enter my service. As a free servant, though,” the lady added quickly.
“Why?” Ciel asked, light-headed.
Nobodies like her didn’t become free servants! Never. Paid handsomely, subjected to antiquated rules that protected them, free servants handled the skilled tasks Graenten couldn’t handle. Except for an odd talent for spluttering profanities in two dozen languages, Ciel had no particular skill to market and had drifted from job to job for years, hired and fired periodically. Considering that lack of skills, manners and education, as well as Frances’s drunken violence, why would anyone hire her?
“Because you asked. Because I admire bravery.”
Brave, Ciel? Dumb was more like it.
“Brave because I speak out of turn?” she asked.
The lady’s tone turned chiding, “Brave because, in the face of overwhelming odds, you fought back and won a small victory.”
Ciel thought about that tiny bit of soul she had snatched back from the saÿrim and, for the first time that morning, felt a modicum of pride. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did, brave girl.”
Ciel kept staring at the lady, silently urging her to finish explaining herself. The saorim’s smile changed, from a polite curve of her lips to a crooked grin. She seemed less of a painting and more of a person in that moment.
“It is not everything, you are right. You spoke in your brother’s defense, yesterday. If not, I would still have sheltered you for one night and seen to it that you did not end up on the streets once you left, but I would not want you close.”
“What does Frances have to do with everything?” Ciel asked, puzzled.
“Nothing. I do not care about him beyond the fact that you protected such a sorry excuse for a brother. Loyal people are rare, C'hnyel, among your kind and mine.”
“You want me because I’m loyal?”
Of course, she was loyal to her brother: the Bowels taught you not to bite the hand that fed, clothed and sheltered you.
“True loyalty,” the lady said, once again reading her mind, “goes beyond self-interest. It is honor, a willingness to put someone’s interests ahead of your own simply because it is right.”
“I’m not loyal to you.”
Simple truth – or was it? Ciel now owed her life to Lady Whitestar. Maybe it was only an oath Jaan Whitestar had sworn and upheld, but that was the saorim's business. To Ciel, it felt like a favor worth repaying. Was that loyalty? Was that honor? Frances would have called Ciel stupid for even thinking that way.
“I accept that I need to earn your loyalty.” The lady reached for a sheet of paper on the writing desk. “This should help.”
It was a formal remission of Ciel’s debt, legal and binding. It was more than the contract it seemed, however. It was a trick the saorim was playing, a trap for Ciel, playing on her gratefulness.
“I don’t like it,” she grumbled, trusting Lady Whitestar would understand.
“It is to be your decision entirely, Ciel.”
“Right,” she drawled. It was no decision at all. Damn, she should never have gotten on that bus! “I’ll agree to employment here on a trial basis. No more. I’ll be free to walk out of here any time I please. I…” She paused mid-sentence and looked down at the remission. “I’m tempted to tear this in halves and you know it. I’m not that stupid. I’ll try to pay you back but I'm keeping this as insurance.”
The lady bowed her head. “Fair enough.”
Now that Ciel has agreed to become a free servant of Lady Jaan's, what's going to happen to her? What does the Whitestar household hide?
Check out Chapter 5 to find out.