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Blood Fiercely Defended

Ch. 1

A face full of dragon fire hurts like a bitch. Anca put a fist on her hip and pointed a finger at the gray speckled dragon before her. “No fire at Derya!” The eighty-pound creature gave a small cough of flame. Anca could tell he wasn’t happy. “Don’t you sass me.”

The dragon’s long neck drooped in guilt.

“Go fish.” Anca pointed to the gushing river not far away.

The dragon gave Anca one last look before leaping into the air over her head. He banked right to avoid a pine tree and landed on the bank of a gurgling river. He stared at it seriously for a moment before plunging his head into the icy depths and reemerging with a salmon in his jaws.

“I am so sorry,” Derya said through her hands. Her expression almost made Anca forget that her face hurt, but not quite.

“He needs to learn not to play with you so rough yet.” Anca’s face was already starting to heal. Her skin stung as it loosened and morphed back to its usual caramel color.

“I’d heal,” said Derya.

“Yeah, in a couple days, and your beautiful dark skin would have scars for almost a week. My scars will only last a day. Besides, you’re my charge until you know this place well enough not to get trampled by an ogre.”

Anca touched her long nose. The skin was beginning to smooth, another couple hours, and she’d just have some wicked scars. “And pay attention to where you walk in their section.”

“The sod, right.”

“It looks just like grass but will lead you exactly where you don’t want to go.”

“How do I avoid it?”

“This conservatory is designed to be like a mountain side, so it is best to stick to the rocks whenever you aren’t sure where to put your feet. A geologist like yourself can tell us where we can add stone paths without messing with erosion or adversely affecting soil PH. levels.”

She looked around in wonder. “I used to dig in my mother’s garden as a child. I told her I was looking for unicorn bones. I never would have guessed how close I was to guessing the truth.”

“We are pretty far underground. The subway system is fifty feet above the ceiling of this place. Magick helps of course. Not card trick magic. Actual magick. The kind that bends light waves and levitates rocks,” said Anca.

Derya nodded as she tucked her dusty pink hair out of her face. She no longer had to worry about being judged by her looks, so she’d dyed her black hair. She confessed to Anca she had never explored what she wanted to look like before: she’d always worried about looking professional and making it as a scientist. As a black woman, she’d had a lot of hurdles thrown at her. As a vampire, those hurdles were gone. On the down side, she wouldn’t be able to go into sunlight without bursting into flame for at least a century.

Anca said, “We’ve been caring for these creatures for thousands of years. If we do something, even minute, that changes their environment; we want to know it won’t hurt them. Which is also why you might have to take some dragon fire to keep an elf safe every once in a while.”

“Not looking forward to that.”

“It is unpleasant,” agreed Anca.

“Do you want to go to the sick bay?” asked Derya.

“No, let’s finish our work here first. We should feed the dragons. I don’t want to be set on fire again because we didn’t feed them quickly enough.”

Anca put her black hair back in an elastic. The edges were a bit singed. She made a mental note to schedule a hair appointment to trim off the burnt hair before The Gathering.

She went over to a large wooden cart. Inside there was a potbellied pig trying to push open the door. She lifted the hatch and let it loose. The pig sprinted into the trees. Three dragons the size of Labrador dogs set after it. Some of the dragons were pack animals, so they needed to hunt their food. The rest were content to be fed more easily.

Anca took a bag off the cart. It was difficult to keep a hold of, as it kept shifting in her grip. She let the bag fall. Its side split open. Raw meat spilled out. She upended the bag to fully empty it.

 More dragons came forth. After a bit of nipping to establish the pecking order, they set to their meal. There was enough food for all. Some, like the dragon that had tried to play with Derya, hunted their own food within the conservatory. Others, the smallest breeds, the ones that could fit in the palm of your hand, didn’t eat meat. Those fed off the berries, insects and other plant life within the conservatory.

Anca watched as a fifty-pound dragon she had nicknamed Monarch came forward. The dragon was colored exactly like a monarch butterfly. She nudged a chunk of goat with her nose before encasing it in flame and then smacked it down with apparent satisfaction. Sometimes the dragons seemed almost human. She set about cleaning her snout so her orange colors gleamed.

A pair of bright yellow eyes peered at Anca behind the shelter of a curtain of needles. She clicked her tongue and held up her arm. The griffin took the invitation. Patterned in grays and browns, the four-legged creature glided through the air silently. Similar in stealth and appearance to their owl cousins, griffins were about the size of house cats.

Landing on her shoulder, he nipped at her ear, his feathered tail tickling her neck as it wrapped around her. On silent wings, he flew back to his perch. Meanwhile, an elf wearing a hat that looked like a mushroom cap scurried for the safety of the pine as well. Looking like tiny people, elves were dirty savage creatures that lived under trees. This one probably had a burrow dug among the roots of the pine.

This conservatory was the only place any of these creatures were safe. Anca tried to remind herself about that when she started feeling guilty about keeping them here. This was the charge of vampires: to protect these creatures from humans. Humans didn’t understand that these creatures should be preserved, not eliminated.

Vampires made great care-givers. Getting a face full of flame from a dragon wasn’t pleasant, but for a vampire, it also wasn’t fatal. Veia, or The Mother, had announced that she’d realized this thousands of years ago during The War of the Last. She had pledged that she, and all her immortal children, would safeguard these “mythical” creatures.

“Okay, we just need to chuck a couple bags of root vegetables and charred meat that way.” Anca pointed over a line of tall pines. She turned to Derya. “You know what? You do the first one. I know you must be dying to try out your strength.”

Derya took hold of the bag and swung it like a softball pitcher before releasing it. She grunted with the effort. It sailed through the air and just brushed the top bough of a forty-foot pine before it disappeared from sight. “Awesome,” she murmured.

Anca took hold of the second bag and casually tossed it through the air. It cleared the pine by ten feet. Anca watched it land thirty feet farther away than Derya’s.

Derya looked at her with her mouth open.

“You get stronger as you age.” Anca said.

They crept toward the pine and pushed aside the lower branches. In the distance, an ogre was sniffing the closer bag. Great, stupid creatures with a face like a toad, ogres were easily angered, so it was best to feed them at a distance. As long as Anca had worked at the conservatory, she’d never gotten an ogre to be friendly. She could calm them down with food, but she’d never touched one without the intent of subduing it.

“Oh look,” Derya said, with her head tilted. An elf was approaching. “Hello.”

“I wouldn’t --” started Anca.

The elf lashed out at Derya, scraping the length of her forearm.

“Ow! Asshole,” Derya said clutching her arm.

Anca shooed away the little creature.

“They’re vicious for being so small,” said Derya.

“Very territorial. That’s why it is best to let them approach you. Preferably while holding food or pebbles.” Anca examined the cut. “Let’s rinse this out.”

They went over to the river. Derya plunged her arm in the icy water. She winced slightly.

“You’ll heal,” Anca told her.

“Stupid Hollywood,” Derya muttered.

Anca could understand her agitation. Most new vampires felt the same nowadays. If they were isolated from their kind, at first they learned from movies that any injury they got as a vampire would heal instantly, but that wasn’t the case. Vampires heal more quickly the older they are. Younger vampires heal faster than they did as humans but far from instantaneously. A broken bone would take a couple days to heal for a new vampire. For someone like Anca, a two-thousand-year-old vampire, a broken femur would take less than a day.

“Alright, let’s go to the sick bay.” Anca deposited their cart in a storage closet near the exit.

When you were in the conservatory you completely forgot you were underground. Between the amazing setup and the magickal illusions, the environment was very convincing. The gurgling river was real and filled with real fish. The pines and cedars were real. Almost everything was real. The ceiling was covered in illusions that made it look like an actual sky. The walls were covered in murals that moved a little, just enough to confuse an inattentive eye.

They did what they could to keep the creatures safe and happy. Qamar had taken to playing his saxophone for the gryphons. (The horse-sized versions of the half mammal half bird creatures.) They loved his music. It looked like a bizarre concert. Who knew gryphons loved jazz?

They were finishing stowing away the cart and marking down what they’d fed and what they’d fed them when Tadashi and a small group of visitors came in through the door.

“Hey,” said Anca.

Tad gave a small bow as way of greeting. He was in charge of taking care of the dragons in their Japanese conservatory. Those dragons ate elephants, not pigs.

“Hello Anca, Derya,” said Ayiana, Tad’s wife. Her strong face shone with approval.

Anytime Ayiana was in France, she stopped by the conservatory. She had quickly grown to like Derya. New vampires were rare. It was even more rare that one would choose to work, their wealth being such that they never had to. Rarer still was a vampire that wanted to work in a conservatory. They had the greatest need but the fewest volunteers. The sexier jobs of security, intelligence and field operatives always got the most recruits. But no one had many. The halving of their population a few centuries ago had left them shorthanded on almost everything, struggling to survive. Plus, becoming a vampire was a potentially lethal process for both parties. About forty percent of the time, the human died in transition. About ten percent of the time, the vampire died trying to turn the human. A human had to be something special for a vampire to risk his life for. More often the human would just be asked to be a consultant and paid handsomely.

A unicorn wondered toward the group. Anca went back to the storage closet and handed apples and lettuce to the new guests. She offered a piece of lettuce to the stallion. He approached slowly. He knew Anca -- she’d been feeding him since he was a foal. The herd, or glory, of unicorns held back. Unicorns were naturally wary, part of why there was still a small glory in the wild that had as yet gone unnoticed. The other reason was Anca’s previous job, field work.

Field work had always been a risky job. It ended up being more about bloodshed than preservation. After two thousand years of violence, Anca had decided the only time she wanted to see blood was at lunch, breakfast or dinner… maybe a snack.

It was just as well. Field work had become very technical in the last century. Satellites hadn’t been a huge concern at first: they just learned their paths and made sure they were under cover when they came around. But soon, hundreds of satellites had become thousands and that was harder to avoid. And they didn’t just take pictures. Satellites could sense density and heat... keeping the creatures outdoors had become impossible. Thankfully they now had bigger conservatories and more of them. The one Anca was in had three chambers, each about the size of an NFL football stadium.

The rest of the glory of unicorns slowly came out of hiding. A foal approached Derya and her apple. It sniffed it suspiciously then took it from her suddenly. She giggled.

“Tad, you think you can show these people around without anyone getting eaten? We need to go to the sick bay.” She pointed at her face and Derya’s arm.

“Of course.” His voice was deep.

Anca and Derya went through the underground tunnel that connected the conservatory to the main building. The sick bay was in the lower level of the main building. Isobel was waiting for them. She was one of the rare trueborn vampires. Anca remembered when her birth was announced. It was a short five centuries after Anca had been turned. Her father had been an Ancient and her mother was almost as old as Anca. She’d grown up to be angsty. Isobell had struggled with her identity growing up. She’d never had the chance to be human. It was a world she didn’t know.

Human fragility fascinated her. She found focus in studying medicine. Now she ran the sickbay.

“Anca, what happened?”

“Pebbles tried to play fire tag with Derya.”

“She pushed me out of the way before I could get tagged as it.” Derya’s face was covered in guilt.

Isobel held Anca’s face in her hands. “You’ll heal fine, but we can have you rest on your birthing dirt just to be sure, speed things up. I know you have a lot to do before The Gathering.” She turned to Derya and took a closer look at her arm. “Same for you. We should rinse it out first, make sure no dirt heals into your skin.”

Isobel’s thick, golden curls threatened to escape from their bonds as she carefully cleaned Anca’s and Derya’s wounds. She insisted on smearing Anca’s face with an ointment and carefully wrapping it. She did the same for Derya’s arm. “We need to keep the dirt out.” Anca rolled her eyes.

“Careful,” Isobel said as Derya lowered herself into the healing pod. Isobel refused to call them coffins. “We aren’t actually dead,” she’d say.

“I think she can manage lowering herself. Her arm was cut, not amputated,” said Anca.

Isobel scrunched her round face at Anca, making her look even more like a sassy doll for little girls. Anca scrunched her face back, then wished she hadn’t. Her skin was still a bit tight.

“You next.” Isobel gestured at the healing pod next to Derya’s. Anca lowered herself onto the dirt, feeling it mold around her. “I’ll wake you when I think it’s been long enough.”

A couple hours later, Anca heard a knock on the lid of her pod. Isobel’s sweet face appeared when she opened the lid. “You’re all set. Derya’s going to stay a bit longer.”

Anca had no doubt she’d be back tomorrow, insisting she was fine and asking to go back to work. “Thanks Isobel.” Anca unwrapped her face and touched her skin. It was back to normal. She decided she’d ask Derya for a report on what she should have done differently with a summary on elf behavior later.

Anca headed to the training area. She could see sunlight through the tinted windows. It was early morning. Trig would be up. He was in town for The Gathering too, and she hadn’t sparred with him in a while. He was massive and knew how to throw a punch. She could use a challenge. Just because she was retired from field work didn’t mean she had to turn into a sissy.

“Anca!” She was lifted in a crushing hug the moment she stepped onto the mat.

“Trig for Gods’ sake put me down.” She caught her breath when she was released. “Good to see you too.”

“Good to see you. Where’s Derya?”

“She cut her arm --”

Trig immediately tensed.

“She’s fine. She’s with Isobel getting healed up,” said Anca.

“Good,” Trig exhaled. A piece of dirty blond hair fell into his face when he looked down at her. He tucked it behind his shoulder. “Hey, I heard from Meryem a couple weeks ago. She’s doing fine.”

“Thanks. I appreciate you telling me.” Meryem was an old friend of hers. They’d done field work together but had become a bit estranged since Anca had retired.

“Did you hear there’s going to be jousting again this year?” Excitement was written over every inch of his five-foot ten muscular frame.

“They have jousting every year,” said Anca.

“Yes, but this year, all of The Ancients are coming to The Gathering, and some of them are going to joust.” He bit his lip and raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to share in his excitement.

Held in one of the five main castles around the world, The Gathering was a bicentennial gathering (hence the name) of as many vampires as wanted to come. Each castle was located somewhere fairly secure, but with all the extra guests security was a real concern. The Ancients were first-generation vampires, the oldest and most ancient (hence the name) of all vampires. They didn’t always attend The Gathering; having all of them attend was going to be quite the occasion.

“You’re going to compete?” asked Anca.

 “Of course,” said Trig.

“Wait, why are they all attending?” asked Anca.

He scratched his beard. “Don’t know. It has been a bit of a headache, but I’m confident they’ve got it covered.” Trig used to be head of security. Most of the security they had now been trained by him. He was very proud of his students. He’d left teaching to pursue business and boatmaking, an old Viking passion of his. “Apparently some big news is going to be shared.”

“Huh, wonder what that is. Would you care to spar?”

As an answer, Trig swiped her legs from under her. “That’s a ‘yes’ then?” she asked from the floor. Anca and Trig were more like siblings than sire and sired. Many vampires saw them as a couple, which was ridiculous. They had tried dating in the late 1600’s, but they just found it weird. Their uncomfortable experiment hadn’t lasted long.

Trig feigned a kick to Anca’s ribs and then made to jab her in the nose. Anca noticed the kick was a feign just too late and took a big Norse fist right to the face. Her nose made a definite crunching sound. Maybe she was getting rusty.

She grabbed his arm with one hand and shoved the heel of her other hand into his elbow, dislocating it, blocking a left hook from Trig as she did so. She jabbed her knee into his stomach and swung her elbow into the back of his neck. He dropped.

Anca touched her nose. “Ow. You’ve improved.” Her voice was muffled slightly from the blood pouring down the back of her throat.

Trig rose slowly. “I’ve been training in some new styles. I could show you.”

“No thanks. I’m just doing this to stay in shape.”

“Have it your way. I think you’d enjoy a couple years back in the field.” He looked at the clock. “I should clean up for the council meeting.” He held his arm charily.

“Right, have fun with politics,” Anca said as Trig turned to leave. “Can you make sure this is straight, first?”

Trig held her face in his hands and then yanked on her nose so hard it nearly broke a second time. It was turning into a rough day for her face.

“Asshole!” Anca shouted swatting him away.

“It’s straight.” He laughed with a shrug.

Anca touched her long nose gingerly. It did seem straight. “Thanks. Your arm?”

He held out his arm with a look of chagrin.

“Breathe in,” Anca told him.

He took a deep breath.

“Breathe out.”

He exhaled, and Anca snapped the elbow back in place. He gave a slight groan and moved his arm around.

“Thanks,” he said. They touched knuckles in farewell. Anca headed off to the showers. By the time she was dressed, her nose was completely healed.

She felt like some food. The feeding areas were near the sick bay, so she swung in to give Derya her assignment first. Derya gave an understanding nod and accepted her extra work.

The feeding area was divided in two. Live feeding and “to go” options. Vampires preferred to drink blood right from the source, but it was far more practical to bottle it and store it for later. They had gotten creative over the years, too. Nate, the chef, had come up with some blends. He even took requests. Anca had asked for a smoothie that mixed her two favorites: blood of a vegetarian and plums. Nate had been happy to comply. Others began making requests, much to Nate’s delight. He now had a small seasonal menu.

 

 

Her Romanian heritage really shone here. Large, colorful flowers covered tapestries and pillows. A giant painting of the mountains of her homeland backdropped an iron khopesh (a nod to her Egyptian heritage) that graced her fireplace mantel. Everything made you feel comfy and energetic at the same time.

She kicked off her Aztec-patterned canvas sneakers and swapped her distressed black skinny jeans for sweats. She picked up her crumpled copy of The Broken Wings by Kahlil Gibran.

She wasn’t usually prone to love stories, but Kahlil’s writing was more poetry than story. Add that to the beauty that is the Arabic language, and Anca couldn’t resist. She nestled into her overstuffed couch and buried her toes in the small mound pillows. She was nearly done with the short volume when there was a knock on her door.

A bright smile spread across midnight skin popped into the door. “Mind if I come in?”

“Not at all.” Anca scooted over on the couch to make room.

Tall and gorgeous, Ode’s lithe figure glided over to the couch. She picked up one of Anca’s throw pillows embroidered with a three-petaled purple flower and tucked it under her arm. Ode was in charge of hospitality for the upcoming gathering. She was there to make sure the guests stayed blissfully unaware of how much was going into keeping them safe and entertained as they gorged themselves on anything they could ever want. She had just come from the council meeting Trig had run off to hours ago.

“Are you just getting done?” asked Anca.

“Yeah, what happened to your hair?”

“Pebbles tried to play with Derya.”

Ode slumped onto the couch. “Is she okay?”

“She’s fine. I pushed her out of the way before she could be tagged “it.” How was the meeting?”

 “It was pretty heavy.” Ode slumped deeper into the small pile of pillows she was forming, her voice low with fatigue.

“That bad huh?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Ode.

The door opened again. This time it was Anca’s best friend, Lita, that came in. “Heard you walk by. How was the meeting?” Lita settled into Anca’s outstretched arms, perfectly at ease on Anca’s lap.

“Terrible, by the sounds of it,” said Anca.

Lita looked at Anca’s hair. “What happened to you?”

“Pebbles tried to play with Derya.”

“We need to schedule you a haircut,” she turned to Ode. “What happened?”

“ Veia was asked to step down,” said Ode.

“What!” said Anca and Lita together.

“By whom?” asked Lita.

“Why?” asked Anca.

“Marcial. He said he’d been asked to,” said Ode.

“Who asked him to?” asked Anca completely confused.

“You know… he never actually said,” said Ode, as if realizing it for the first time.

“I can’t discuss this sober.” Lita hopped up and darted out the door. Her suite was one floor down.

“There was also some talk about the library, but it kind of got buried by Marcial’s thing,” said Ode.

“Understandable,” said Anca. “What’s going on with the library?”

“Security is way outdated, as usual. It was completely down for fifteen minutes the other week. Etena almost had a fit. She and Goran will be making a formal request at the next council meeting for an updated system.”

“Fifteen minutes? That’s really concerning. Someone could have broken in in that time,” breathed Anca.

“That’s what Veia said. She told them to make a formal request and at the next meeting they’ll be going over it and give them the appropriate funds. You know, supposedly,” said Ode.

Lita walked into the room holding six bottles of wine.

“All of our secrets are in that library we need to keep them safe,” said Anca.

“That’s what Etena said,” said Ode taking a bottle from Lita. “The library’s security was down for fifteen minutes,” Ode explained to Lita.

“Well that’s not concerning,” said Lita sarcastically. “Tell us more about this ridiculous request of Marcial’s.”

“Apparently him and “others” think it is time for a new ruling structure. Just want to ditch what’s been working for nearly ten thousand years,” Ode took a swig from her bottle. “I thought Nuru was going to tear his head off.”

Lita looked at Anca pointedly. “Nuru was there?”

“Shut it.” Anca pointed her bottle at Lita. “Shut it or I’ll shut it for you.”

“What?” asked Ode. “Oh, right you two used to…” She wiggled her eyebrows.

“Yup,” said Lita. “Nuru was offered the position of coven leader in Africa just after Anca took her job here in France. They’ve barely talked since.”

When Anca decided she was going to leave fieldwork behind, Nuru had been supportive, at first. He had expected her to bounce back. It became clear he thought she just needed a short vacation, that she’d return to field work quickly. That hadn’t happened. Nuru seemed restless. He didn’t like not helping in a more hands on way. When he was offered the position in Africa he had accepted, telling her that when she was ready to get back in the field to come visit him. A huge fight ensued. Anca was insulted that he thought this new part of her life was just a phase. That had been nearly a hundred years ago.

“Drama.” Ode sung into her bottle.

“Anca’s still in love with him,” said Lita.

“Shut up.” Anca slapped her with a pillow.

“Physical outburst! It must be true,” said Ode.

“You too.” Anca threw a pillow at Ode. “Besides what is worthy of discussion is the council meeting. What exactly did Marcial want changed?”

Ode put down the pillow. “He just said, and I quote ‘I have been chosen to bring an uncomfortable proposition forth to the council. I have been asked, to in turn ask you Mother, to step down.’ Which is ridiculous.”

“That is ridiculous,” said Anca. “Where does he… What gives him the right? He’s barely a century. He’s like an infant trying to tell his grandma she’s making the cookies wrong. Fuck you baby, these cookies are fucking delicious without your stupid input.”

“That was specific and oddly point on,” said Ode.

“Why would anyone think Veia should step down? We owe everything to her,” said Anca seriously.

“According to him, she’s incapable of change. Basically ‘they’ think The Ancients can’t keep up with the new times,” said Ode.

“Bullshit,” said Anca.

“I mean… I can kind of see his point,” said Lita.

Anca glared daggers at her.

“Hear me out before you stab me. The Ancients are nearly ten thousand years old. Most of mankind’s progress they’ve witnessed was gradual. Changes are daily now.” Lita shrugged as she swigged.

Anca narrowed her eyes. “I hate that there was nothing untrue in that.”

“That was pretty much the point that was brought up. They’re going to vote on it next meeting,” said Ode.

“Wait, vote on what?” said Anca.

“On whether or not we should change our ruling structure. A group of council members, including two Ancients, were selected to draft up a few options. They’re going to present it after The Gathering,” said Ode. “Lahari insisted that we wait until after The Gathering to even contemplate it. The next council meeting won’t be for three months.”

“Lahari’s always been very wise for her age.” Anca was surprised by the woman when she first turned in the 1930’s. She spoke with a wisdom beyond her years, quickly earning her respect. One of the most educated women in India at the time, the vampire that had turned her had seen that she could be a great asset. He hadn’t survived the turning.

“Yeah, it’s kind of hot,” said Lita.

“She is straight, you helpless flirt,” said Anca.

Ode laughed into her nearly empty bottle.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t look,” said Lita.

“You are hopeless,” said Anca.

“I’m hopeless? You’re the one with a fine piece of dick wondering around these grounds, and you’re here talking politics. We should come up with a plan.” Lita looked at Ode who nodded in serious agreement.

Anca did not like the look they were giving her. “Plan?” Anca was trying not to think of the accurateness of Lita’s ‘fine piece of dick’ comment.

“To get you back with Nuru,” stated Ode. She turned to Lita. “We should go to the salon in the morning. Brainstorm…”

“Yes, we can go to Cagnes-sur-Mer. Ria could come along,” said Lita.

“She might let us use that new car she’s been drooling over,” said Ode.

“Ooh, we could do some shopping. I am going to help you pick out the perfect pair of shoes. Your legs deserve a cherry on top, so to speak,” said Lita to Ode.

“I could really use a fuck me dress. I haven’t had a man in too long. I plan on being on the prowl at The Gathering,” said Ode. She looked at the carved oak mantel clock. “I should get going. Thanks.” She raised the bottle. “I’ll see you in the morning. We’ll talk shoes and dudes.” She said over her shoulder, walking out the door.

“Ah! A fuck me dress.” Lita smacked Anca’s arm. “That’s what you need! What outfit did he take off the fastest? Wasn’t it that patterned kalasiris you wore to The Gathering before last?”

“Did I tell you that?”

“Our rooms were next to each other,” Lita stated matter of factly.

“Oh.”

“He sounded like he liked it.”

“Please stop talking.”

“What? I’m sure you heard Olivia. She had a great time.”

“Please stop talking,” laughed Anca.

Ch. 2

The next morning, after coffee and a quick smoothie from her kitchen, Anca knocked on Lita’s door. “This was your idea! If you don’t want to go --”

The door snapped open. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Ode joined them on their way to the garage. They could see Ria was talking to another vampire through the massive garage door. Anca was always surprised when men didn’t drool in front of Ria, which wasn’t often. She was every car lover’s wet dream. She had thick black hair from her Italian ancestry and a petite frame from her Chinese ancestry. Her eyes were deep and dark framed by thick lashes. She had a round face and thin lips. She had curves in all the right places and she loved cars. There wasn’t a model made that she didn’t know about. She could strip down a model T or a 2018 Jaguar blindfolded.

She and Victor were staring at a 2017 BMW i8. Anca thought Ria might cry. Victor was holding the waxing rag loose in his hand.

“Hey ladies,” said Victor. “What can we do for you today?” His biceps flexed as he rubbed his hands together.

“We were hoping to kidnap Ria here for a shopping trip,” said Lita. “And maybe borrow a ride?”

“Well, not this one.” Ria gave the car a small pat then immediately inspected it for fingerprints.

“Your choice, then.” Anca laughed at Ria’s reaction. She scowled.

Ria chose a 2017 Porsche 911 that was a blast around the curvy country roads. Ria insisted on driving.

Ode gave mock objection, hooking her thumbs on her suspenders, shrugging in doubt.

“Ode, baby, you aren’t getting behind the wheel of this thing. We’ll have more fun if I drive.” No one could argue with that so, they were staring at the giant Sosno sculpture in confusion twenty minutes sooner than they had planned, even with Ria taking forever to find a parking spot. “I’m not putting my baby just anywhere.”

“Goodness, how’d you keep your figure after pushing this thing out?” asked Lita.

Ria had just scowled.

“I don’t get it,” said Anca. She cocked her head to one side, looking at the sculpture.

“Not sure we’re meant to get it,” Ode said as she squinted.

“I can’t tell if he’s in pain or not,” said Ria. “Why is he in a cube?”

“No idea.” Lita glanced at Anca’s hair. “Come on, I can’t look at that disaster much longer.”

The place Lita brought them to was classy. The stylists were professional and highly skilled. Anca left no longer smelling of dragon’s breath.

They swung by some boutiques that Lita’s stylists told them they just had to visit. They were able to find Anca a dress the showed off what little boob she had and made her gray eyes shine. The slit of the dress was so high, you could see her underwear.

 “Seeing as this is officially your fuck me dress, I don’t think that’s a problem,” said Lita.

After looking around, they found a navy-blue blouse with a V-neck so deep it almost went to Anca’s belly button to help Anca get Nuru’s attention before The Gathering. Lita bought more than anyone, as usual. How her closet was going to fit more shoes, no one knew.

 

Anca didn’t get a chance to try and catch Nuru’s eye with her new top. He found her as she was walking across the grounds the next morning. Her shirt had coffee stains, and she hadn’t done anything with her hair. She’d just had a short meeting about the diet of some of the younger creatures and how they were due to change over the next couple months. She was reading the files when he grabbed her shoulder.

She grabbed the hand and jerked it forward as she thrust her hips back putting a foot slightly to the side of her. Nuru tripped over the foot causing him to launch over her shoulder and hit the ground with a grunt.

“Nuru?”

“Hey Anca.” He smiled easily, as if he always said hello from the ground. He brushed himself off as he stood. He was an inch shy of six foot. He had a close cropped, well-shaped beard. His style was casual business man. His gray dress pants complemented his dark skin. The long sleeve t-shirt was rolled up to the elbows showing off his forearms in a way that was somehow extremely sexy. Anca felt the loafers would look too much on someone else but on him they worked.

“Reports?” he asked, looking at the files in her arm.

“Yeah.” She held up one of the files she was still holding. “How long have you been here?”

“Day before the council meeting, but I got in late.”

“Oh,” Damn it, Anca, get your shit together. Say something flirty.

“We should catch up. Drinks tonight at the Old Modern downstairs?” Nuru asked.

“Yeah.”

Nuru waved as he walked away.

Wait, what did I agree to?

Normally Anca would have gone to Lita for advice on what to do next, but she was working at the firm all day to make sure the people that would be taking care of her case during The Gathering knew what they were doing. Ode and Ria were leaving for The Gathering at that moment. They’d be pregaming on the jet; they wouldn’t be of a mind to give Anca advice. She doubted they’d see her call anyway.

She took a deep breath. Catching up over drinks. This could be a date. She thought it unlikely, though. If he had wanted it to be a date, he would have said, wouldn’t he? She decided to wear something that brought attention to her tits but could be seen as a casual night out look. The blouse she had just bought seemed perfect. They’d bought it so she could get his attention. Well, she already had it. She’d figure out if it was a date when she got to the bar.

 

Her heels clicked on the black marble echoing faintly off the walls as she walked down the stairs that led to the bar. Adagion, from the Russian ballet Spartacus, was being played on a grand piano. It created a feel of relaxed sophistication in the grand room. Petra, once a Russian ballet pianist, was sitting at the piano in the middle of the room. His face was filled with passion, eyes closed, fingers fluttering along the keys, his blond hair gleaming. The bar had a completely clear top about a foot thick with lights beneath it so the whole bar looked like a block of light; the standing tables were smaller versions of the same. The bar stools were gold with black leather cushions. The chandeliers looked like modern sculptures of glowing golden hoops.

Anca sat at the bar and ordered two fingers of brandy with a splash of water. Suddenly Lita was sitting next to her. “You needed a drink too, huh?” Lita was holding a wine glass that was almost empty. She wore a white lace off-the-shoulder cocktail dress. Her dark red hair was straightened so that it just brushed her collar bones. Amethysts winked the light into Anca’s eyes from her earlobes. Her lips were beginning to stain from all the wine.

“Idiots, the lot of them.” Lita was too caught up in her frustration to notice Anca’s outfit. “They were going to let that useless woman pass on her child support because she claimed bankruptcy. Nondischargeable debt, you fucks.” Lita ordered another glass by wiggling her empty one at the bartender.

A low Norse voice echoed off the walls. “Your substitutes not up to snuff?” Trig had just walked up to the bar. He was accompanied by Sarah and Victor.

 Sarah had taken advantage of being a vampire by leaving the reservation she had grown up on and now made her living as a freelance travel writer. Her love of travel was part of why she and Trig got along so well. She was wearing her usual leather jacket and relaxed-fit jeans.

“They are now. Only took all day. If they lose this case I’m going to bite every single one of them. Why are you here?” Lita asked him.

“I was just talking to Sarah and Victor about what Marcial brought to the council meeting. We decided we should get a drink.” He waved to the bartender.

“Marcial? This is a good place for that topic.” Nuru walked in. He hadn’t changed from earlier.

Merde.

“That’s what we thought,” said Victor.

Gods damn it. Anca thought this was quickly getting out of hand. She was supposed to be flirting with Nuru to see why he had asked her to join him for a drink; instead they had a small party on their hands.

“Sarah, you look fierce as ever.” Lita winked at her. Sarah smiled. Anca stopped herself from rolling her eyes.

“Hey now.” Trig wrapped a muscled arm around his girl. He gestured with his beer. “Nuru, I meant to tell you good job at the council meeting. The extra security measures from the witches seemed really good.”

“It’s been difficult. Magick is meant to manipulate the mind. Cameras don’t have minds, but I think we finally worked out how to trick them. With any luck we’ll even be able to keep the animals concealed. They could go outside again.” He addressed Anca with his last sentence.

“That would be great!” Her mind immediately buzzed with possibilities and concerns. They’d need more hands to watch the creatures outside. They’d need to be absolutely certain the magick was hiding them. They’d need to make sure their presence wouldn’t disrupt the local ecosystems and draw attention… the list was endless.

She was so fixed on her endless stream of new possibilities she nearly lost track of the conversation. Nuru and Trig were talking security. “…Those roof tiles baffle me. You’ll have to tell me more about them,” said Nuru.

“Not much to tell. They’re just reflective and block heat. It will decrease the castle’s visibility in thermal scans and confuse drones,” said Trig.

“That sounds like you just really simplified a very complex thing,” said Lita.

“Basically,” said Sarah. “There’s a lot of engineering behind it. It was Kennet’s idea wasn’t it?”

“The architectural engineer, right?” asked Victor.

“Yeah, when he’s not busy wooing women, he has some pretty good ideas,” said Trig. They all chuckled at that.

Nuru was now thoroughly engrossed in his conversation with Trig about their various security measures for The Gathering. The pianist had switched to a piece that sounded like it was from the Georgian era. Anca held in a sigh. Well this has turned to shit. She downed her brandy and ordered a double black spiced whiskey. Whiskey always reminded her of her times in the American West. The first sip took her back to that town in Montana. She smiled slightly.

“What are you smiling about?” asked Trig.

“I was just remembering Montana,” she confessed.

“When it was still being settled?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“You remember Mathew? You branded his ass. He couldn’t sit for a week,” Trig chuckled.

“You branded a cowboy?” laughed Sarah.

“I’d nearly forgotten.” Anca laughed heartily. “Actually, no I didn’t, the look on his face frequently gives me joy. Uh, he was an asshole. He kept branding other people’s cows with his own brand and then claiming they’d stolen them. No one could disprove it, and he was such a thug, no one dared face him directly.” She sipped her drink remembering. “Nuru didn’t you fight a guy in Madrid with a brand once?”

“I did. He was very upset about his face.” His laugh was deep, you could almost feel it in your own ribs.

Just like that they were exchanging old stories. With so many memories, it was easy to get stuck in the past. The drinks flowed, the laughter got louder and the smiles wider.

After too many hours, they started to calm down. Lita dismissed herself and stumbled away. Trig excused himself and wrapped an arm around Sarah, helping both of the ladies up the stairs. Victor had taken over the piano and was playing some Alma piece.

“I suppose I should be off,” said Anca.

“Well it was good to see you,” said Nuru.

“This was a good idea.” She started to leave.

“Anca?”

“Yes?”

“You look great.”

“Thank you. You too.” She turned before he could see her blushing.

Back in her flat, she let her thick quilt envelop her. She didn’t even bother to undress before falling asleep, mulling over the night’s events. She regretted it in the morning. Not because she had a hangover (another vampire bonus was that she avoided them) but because of her face. She looked like a drugged-out whore. Her makeup was smeared, and she had indents where the body chain had cut into her ribs all night.

“Ugh,” she said looking at her reflection.

Anca stepped out of her shower and changed into jeans and a black tank top. She found Lita in her sitting room with a cappuccino and a black coffee. She was wearing a loose low-cut cream tank top over a light gray bralette, stone washed boyfriend jeans and Jimmy Choos. “I just had a horrible realization this morning.” She said.

“What was that?” said Anca taking the black coffee.

“Were you and Nuru trying to be on a date?” her face was covered in concern.

“Honestly… I have no idea.” Anca sipped her coffee.

“Oh shit. I’m so sorry.” She sat back in her chair. “I should’ve known. You were wearing the blouse…”

“Don’t worry about it.” The coffee was warming her up, and her damp hair was starting to drip down her neck. “He said I looked great when I left.”

“Guys are so confusing.” Lita pushed her air-dried waves out of her face to sip her cappuccino.

“I know.”

They sat a moment, enjoying their coffee. “Sorry,” said Lita again.

“I’m probably just getting my hopes up. It’s been years.”

“Why the sudden interest? You guys broke up and haven’t spoken in almost a century. What changed?”

“Seeing Derya latch onto this life with everything she has… There’s a hopefulness to her like she thinks anything is possible. For some reason, when I thought of that, I thought of Nuru and how optimistic he can be. Even with being optimistic, he doesn’t lose sight of reality.” Anca shrugged. “I wanted Derya to have that kind of perspective. I want me to have that perspective. Then I realized I missed having him around.”

Lita nodded. “Derya made you realized that it wasn’t just the mind set but the person you missed.”

Anca nodded.

Lita contemplated her cappuccino, deep in thought.

“How did he ask you?” Lita looked over her cup. “For drinks I mean.”

“He asked if I wanted to catch up.”

“Ooh, that sounds like friendzoning,” said Lita apologetically. “Yet he said you look great… You’ll just have to wear the dress at The Gathering and see if anything happens.” She shrugged and sipped her drink.

“Yeah, I suppose.” Anca drank her coffee. “You know what we need to do?”

Lita looked at her.

“Pack,” said Anca.

“Packing day it is. I need another one of these. You’ll help me pack first.” Lita got up and walked out without seeing if Anca was following. Of course, they would do Lita’s packing first, as it would definitely take the longest. Anca smiled and followed.

Where Anca’s floors were a polished walnut, Lita’s floors were covered in a thick white carpet. Anca took off her socks, and Lita kicked her heels toward her overflowing shoe closet. Anca saw that she hadn’t unpacked the bags from their shopping trip. Lita grabbed Anca’s cup and walked into her kitchenet.

“I found out there was another topic of discussion at the council meeting,” said Lita.

“Oh?”

“Werewolves are disappearing in the Americas.” Lita said over her shoulder. “They asked for assistance in retrieving them or at least finding out who took them.”

“Did they get it?” asked Anca.

“Etena brought up the Vampire Werewolf Alliance of 1684. Part of it states we have to help each other in these kinds of situations. There was some heated debate, but they got the help.”

Vampires and Werewolves had made peace centuries ago. The witch hunts of the seventeenth century weren’t just for witches. Vampires, werewolves, anything supernatural was targeted. It was part of what sparked taking the protection of magickal creatures more seriously. Working together, some vampires and werewolves fell in love. Etena had been one of them. The werewolf she had fallen for hadn’t survived to see the alliance signed: something he had fought hard to make happen.

Lita handed Anca her coffee and sat down at Lita’s distressed white table.

“I guess that would be a bristly point for Etena. What was his name again?” asked Anca.

“Fulton. A Scottish beauty.”

Anca gave her a look.

“Just ‘cause I wouldn’t fuck him doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate what he had going on.”

“Fair enough.” Anca laughed. “I wonder what they’ll find.”

“Either drunks or a conspiracy,” said Lita. “Apparently some thought it was connected to The Ancients that went on holiday last month.”

“We don’t know they went on holiday,” Anca said.

“They were due for a vacation --”

“Yes, but they always told someone where they were going. They just vanished this time.”

“They haven’t been gone long enough to worry. We’ll find where they went when they get back won’t we?” said Lita.

“I guess we will,” Anca countered.

Lita narrowed her eyes at Anca who narrowed her eyes right back.

They spent the morning packing and drinking coffee. At lunch time they went to the feeding room for a fresh lunch. Anca was directed to an elderly man around seventy years old. She noticed some navy tattoos on his arm and asked him about them. He told her about how he was a fourth-generation naval officer. He told her about how his son and grandson were both in the Navy and carrying on the legacy. She was told about a mission in Russia and how he’d stopped a bayonet from taking his friend’s life. The resulting infection had lost him his left arm. She didn’t want to point out the missing limb. Often amputees didn’t like to talk about how they lost a limb. Sometimes they found it refreshing for someone to ask about it directly. Al was fine talking about his injury. He had been put in a home a few years ago: he hated it. When the vampire came looking for volunteer feeders, he had signed up right away.

Being a feeder was a good life. They got paid well, but that was only part of the appeal. Getting bit didn’t get you high per se, but it did relieve you of all your pain while the vampire was feeding on you. For someone like Al, elderly, in pain and lonely, being a feeder was a great option. Several times a day, he got visited by people like Anca who were happy to see him. Vampires would listen to the stories his own children had long grown tired of hearing. It also meant for a couple hours of his day, he didn’t feel his arthritis, he didn’t get phantom limb pain, he didn’t have headaches. He got to eat as much as he wanted of the best food you could think of. Al liked thick steaks, well-aged cheese, and bourbon. Not things that you typically find in retirement homes.

Anca began to feed after several minutes and encouraged him to keep talking. She was happy to learn about him. She liked developing a relationship with the feeders. She didn’t want them to feel like food.

After she’d been feeding a moment, he went silent. He wasn’t hurt; he was just enjoying the experience. She didn’t feed for long. She didn’t like to take too much from one person. Al might be visited three more times today. They had caretakers to make sure the feeders never got too low on blood. Feeders were also only allowed to work four days a week and no more than three days in a row. It was a pretty sound system. There had been instances of feeders dying, usually ones that had come from the street or ones that had been fed on by rogue vampires that didn’t know how to control themselves. The punishment for killing a feeder was pretty severe, so those instances were rare.

Lita was waiting outside growing impatient. “You were talking to them again, weren’t you?”

“Always. You don’t need to be so short with your feeders,” said Anca.

“I’m not being short; I’m being… efficient,” said Lita. They started down the hall. “You don’t need to find out the life story of every feeder you suck on.”

“And you don’t need to treat every feeder like a blood bag,” said Anca.

“I do not!” said Lita truly offended. “I respect them. They’re the reason we get to eat. I just don’t see why I would need to coddle each one every time I’m hungry.”

“Respect for your food gives you a better respect for life,” said Anca.

“That is so Nuru’s philosophy poking through. Sometimes I forget how good he was for you. You were kind of depressed before you guys got together. It’s nothing on you. After the witch trials we were all frazzled.”

Anca had started to protest.

“Plus, with your history, no one can blame you. You went through hell as a human.”

“And you didn’t?” said Anca.

Lita slowed her pace.

“We all learn to move on.” She muttered. They walked out onto the grounds. Trimmed hedges and a meticulous lawn stretched out around them. A fountain bubbled somewhere to their right.

The grounds were completely walled in. They were far in the country but the vampires preferred to keep a low profile. Even the feeders were carefully selected. They were housed in the main building. Anca and Lita descended the grand stone staircase out the back toward their building, one of two smaller buildings on the grounds.

“We are such cheery vampires,” Anca said with a small grin.

“We will be tomorrow. We leave on the same chopper, but you’re riding in with Etena the next day. I get to take a limo with a few choice guests,” Lita added a little bounce to her stride as they walked across the grass.

“Which makes you a very happy blood sucker I’m sure,” said Anca. Anca had to change and make some last-minute checks before she left. She wanted to make sure everyone knew their jobs, specifically the environmental controllers.

“What I’m not happy about are the new safety protocols. We need to give blood to cross the barrier the witches put up. All the technological stuff I’m fine with. Go ahead and scan my ear, eye, palm, whatever. Don’t make me bleed so I can get in the front door. Who do they think is going to try and attack us anyway? The boogey man? The Blood Brothers? I repeat myself.” Lita waved her hand with a chuckle.

“No, they’re dead, but there are plenty of others that could try and get in. Some vampires think humans are beginning to rediscover magick. Extra magickal barriers makes sense,” said Anca. She held the door of their building open.

“Doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it,” grumbled Lita.

“We could all use the peace of mind. Technology is making our discovery inevitable. France already uses ear scans to keep tabs of its citizens. One of these days, they are going to notice that a couple hundred of their citizens don’t age. When that day comes, we will be targeted,” said Anca.

“And it will be the seventeenth century all over again,” said Lita quietly.

Anca faced Lita; they were outside Lita’s suite. “Until that happens we are going to keep our creatures and ourselves safe and thriving. Okay?” said Anca.

“Okay.” Lita gave Anca a tight hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Anca gathered her files from her home office before heading to the conservatory.

 

The environmental changes were Anca’s biggest concern, so she pushed through a door with ENVIRONMENT stamped on it in white letters. She wound her way through a few cubicles then knocked on Mitchel’s door. “Hey Mitchel --”

He just about jumped out of his chair.

“Sorry, are you okay?”

“You just startled me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to how fast you guys are,” he said, checking he hadn’t spilled his water. Like most people that worked this sector, he was human. The vampire population was fairly low. They couldn’t do everything. They offered humans well-paying jobs, scholarships, legal pull for family trouble, whatever they needed in exchange for discreet help.

“I just wanted to run over a few things for the next month. You got a minute?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He half stood gesturing to a chair for her to sit down in.

“Thanks. I know this is your first time being in charge of a conservatory on your own for this long, and I like to be thorough. I really care about those creatures.” She opened her folder when she sat handing Mitchel some papers. “These were the numbers we had discussed before. Has anything changed? Any of the meters moving somewhere we didn’t think they would?”

“No, no, everything’s fine. We got this. Those meters are right where they should be. You can enjoy being away for a while. We humans can keep the meters where they need to be.” His voice was quiet and rushed.

Anca questioned him for a few more minutes and then popped her head into a couple more offices, basically asking different versions of the same questions. She checked with the electricians, the vets, the nutritionists, the landscapers, and the feeders. She ended up running from office to office for four hours. She felt the need to wind down before heading back to bed. She went into the conservatory itself.

Her feet knew this place by heart. Without thinking, she moseyed her way past the fairies staring at their reflections in a pond. One was fashioning a lily into a skirt. Anca found her way to the gryphons. The gryphon she had watched earlier was perched on a branch studying her quizzically.

Anca took a small piece of jerky from her pocket. The gryphon flew down, silently landing on her shoulder. Four sets of claws gently dug into her skin. She handed the jerky to him, and he ate greedily. She scratched his chest.

She knew she’d only be gone a month, but she already felt herself beginning to miss the conservatory. This was one of the few places in her life that offered her peace and purpose. That’s something hard to let go of. She produced a small ball from her other pocket. The gryphon perked up, ready to pounce. She threw the ball high in the air. With a great swoop of his wings, the gryphon flew into the air after the ball. Anca could have stayed for hours, but she could feel her long day catching up with her. After a final pat on the head for the gryphon, Anca went back to her suite where she was soon asleep under her quilts.

Ch. 3

Anca wasn’t considered a high-ranking guest, so she didn’t get the bullet proof glass clad vehicles like The Ancients or some of the sect leaders did. But she did get the helicopter, at least for part of the trip. She and Lita were leaving with a couple other vampires. Anca was exhausted from her time at the conservatory when she climbed in the helicopter. She’d only slept two hours. None of them bothered putting on the headsets. Vampire hearing meant they could hear each other without them and that the headsets didn’t do much good muffling the sounds of the helicopter.

“They better not drop my luggage!” Lita shouted.

“I’ll be happy if we just don’t crash!” Anca had had to strategically jump from a hot air balloon once. She did not want to relive that experience.

The view of the south of France was spectacular. There was so much green. With how much the world was changed by man in the last centuries, it was reassuring to Anca to see there were still places in the world that were at least a little like they used to be. The mountains were taller in some places, shorter in others. The rivers weren’t as blue anymore. The plains were a little browner. The sky a little grayer. But the people were more connected, and diseases were fewer. Not to mention toilet paper.

Anca was traveling from France to Florence Italy. From Florence they would meet up with more vampires and board a plane to Romania. Once in Romania they had cars to bring them the rest of the way to the castle.

Across from them sat Hanare and Isobel, one of the oddest couples Anca had ever met. Isobel gave Anca a wave. “How is your face feeling?”

“Perfectly fine,” Anca said.

“Hun, you must have done something wrong,” Hanare said seriously.

Isobel looked at Anca with concern.

“Look at her face! Something is wrong!”

Isobel scanned Anca’s face as if trying to find what was wrong.

Anca gave a small shake of her head.

Isobel’s expression indicated that she caught on that her husband was joking, and laughter spread across her face. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but she’d once revealed to Anca that she had struggled with her identity for most of her life. “Angsty,” her parents called her. She and Hanare had met in Hawaii at a luau. She said it was the first time in all her centuries that she had ever laughed so hard.

At one-point Hanare tried to start a game of charades. Seeing a full grown six-foot Samoan man trying to act out bunny rabbit was hilarious. His wife was in stiches by the time they landed. Hanare threw her over his shoulder the moment they were unbuckled. Her thick wavy hair brushed the back of his knees. She was still laughing when Anca entered the awaiting plane. The vampires on the plane obviously thought Hanare carrying his laughing five-foot two wife was also hilarious. Nearly the whole plane was laughing when Anca boarded.

She knew everyone on this flight. There were the pigment twins Hada and Janelle, so called for their vibrant hair. Hada sported long seafoam green hair. Janelle had an impossibly bright shade of red curls just shy of her shoulders. They would forever look like children and not just because they were turned when they were fifteen. When they had been turned, they had been near death due to anorexia. Only the bond of sisterhood had given them the strength to survive the change. They were both turned toward Isobel openly laughing at her situation. Hanare dropped Isobel and picked up Janelle, much to everyone’s amusement. Even Orinda was laughing. She worked as a sort of secretary in Italy. Her head was shaved, and she was wearing her usual turtleneck blazer look. She always looked serious, even when laughing.

Tadashi was talking to Wayne and Nate in the back. Nate gave Anca a nod of recognition. He was merely smiling. He had been turned in his late forties. There was a dusting of gray in his beard. Wayne was laughing openly. His smile could light up a room. He had nearly disappeared under his seat. He was so small Anca thought he could fit. Anca knew him from a yoga class of his she had taken.

One laugh in particular caught Anca’s attention. A deep, rich laugh that tickled her ribs and made her heart skip a beat, then beat very fast.

Nuru was on the plane.

She should have known he would be: she had seen her travel plans a few times before now, but somehow, she hadn’t paid close attention to the guest list. She had paid attention to the entertainment and the food. That didn’t mean her heart didn’t clench at seeing a young Italian woman sitting in his lap. There were obvious puncture marks on her outstretched arm. Nuru had blood on his lips.

Nuru looked up at the newcomers. His expression changed.

“He has to eat,” Lita whispered in her ear.

Anca nodded and sat in the first open seat. Lita sat across the aisle. Anca looked at her, confused. They always sat next to each other. Lita pointedly busied herself with her carryon.

Nuru was suddenly at her side. “May I sit?” he asked.

“As long as it doesn’t disrupt your digestion.”

Beyond Nuru, Anca saw Lita freeze and close her eyes, as if praying for patience.

“I forgot to eat, this morning. I haven’t fed directly in a long time. I figured we were celebrating…” He sat down slowly. “You want any?” He gestured at the woman now being fed on by the pigment twins. They fed on humans delicately because they were afraid of hurting them. They knew what it was like to be malnourished and light headed. They didn’t want to inflict that kind of panic on someone else.

“No, I’ll just get a bottle of something.”

“What would you like?” Nuru began to stand up again.

“Um, I think I’m feeling like drinking with my drink.” Anca smiled. He was right, they were celebrating. Her job was done until she got back to France. She could cut loose until then.

“You got it.” He went to the front where there was a full bar.

A small pillow hit Anca in the head. “What the hell?”

Lita slid in the seat Nuru had just left. “What is wrong with you?” She lowered her voice so Anca could just hear it. “You are trying to get back on that dick. He is obviously up for it.”

“Really?” Anca looked at Nuru getting something from the fridge.

“God, you’re hopeless.” Lita vacated the seat so Nuru could sit.

“Here you go,” he said. Anca took a champagne flute. The bubbly spirit had been mixed about fifty-fifty with blood, by the looks of it.

“Sorry if I seemed judgmental,” Anca said to the back of the seat in front of her.

“Don’t worry about it. We both work too much. Sometimes it’s hard to cut loose.”

Anca gave him a smile. She definitely got a bigger smile back than the situation called for. “How has Africa been treating you?” she asked.

“Things are all right. We actually seem to be making some headway. It’s nice to get out of the city.”

Anca knew Nuru spent most of his time pushing papers and working politics in Kampala in Uganda. His job was delicate and stressful. The vampires had been trying to form an alliance with witches across the globe, part of their plan to come out of the coffin gradually, so to speak. In Africa that had proved more of a challenge than other places. Some African witches still performed a type of magick that required sacrifices to their ancestors. The louder the sacrifice screamed, the more likely the ancestors would hear them and the stronger the spell would be. Nuru had been working on persuading them to end this practice before approaching them about an alliance. It was slow going.

“How’s the conservatory?” asked Nuru.

“The dragons have calmed down some since Tad showed up. The large gryphyns still favor Qamar. Brenna’s going to transfer to the South American conservatory soon. We’ll miss her. The elves didn’t bite her as much as anyone else.” Anca had begun to smile without realizing it.

“And yourself? You forgot how you’re doing.”

I suppose I did. “I’ll always love the smaller gryphons, my little fruit dragons. The environment is pretty stable. The guy in charge while I’m gone seems capable, a little nervous but I think he’ll do fine.”

“I’m glad things are going so well. Now,” he raised his glass, “a toast. To The Gathering and a good time.” They clinked their glasses and drank. “We are no longer talking about work. We are here to have a good time. We don’t get to let go and just be vampires very often.”

“Alright, what do you want to talk about?” asked Anca.

“What I want to talk about is fun times and carefree fun, but I’ve been thinking about the Blood Brothers a lot recently,” he said.

“Way to bring the mood down,” said Anca.

“I don’t know why they keep creeping into my thoughts.”

“More like nightmares.”

Nuru nodded in agreement.

“They are dead.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“They tortured themselves for kicks and broke apart our family. Yes, I’m glad they’re dead,” said Anca.

“I’m sure it was hard for you to hear about it. We were watching that church at the same time but stopped. Do you know why?”

“Exhaustion. You can only spend so many decades being paranoid before you stop looking over your shoulder. After a while, I stopped wanting to look. Sometimes I miss it though.”

“What?” Nuru shifted in his seat to look at her more directly.

“Being out. Out in the world not just cooped up in the --”

“Shots all around!” boomed Hanare.

Janelle came bounding down the aisle, her green hair bouncing, and handed Nuru and Anca each a shot. Janelle raised her own shot expectantly. Anca shrugged and the three of them drank. After takeoff, Hanare resumed his attempt at charades. Anca thought he was trying to mime whale. Turned out he was trying to mime penis.

During the short flight, Hanare convinced Wayne to try tequila, and the pigment twins got in on the charades. Every passenger was having a difficult time breathing by the time they landed. Anca hadn’t laughed that hard in years. Hanare let Isobel leave the plane on her own two legs. Wayne wasn’t so lucky. Wayne was also much wigglier. Hanare dropped him just before he stepped onto the ground. Wayne was fine. He did have trouble standing up. Anca thought his lack of balance had more to do with the nine shots of tequila she had just watched him drink than the fall. Even vampires could get tipsy after enough drinks. Especially ones still getting used to the heightened tolerance. Many made of the mistake of thinking they couldn’t get drunk. Watching them learn that they could was one of life’s simple pleasures.

They were all going to stay at Hotel Noapte that night. The vampires owned the hotel, one of their many sources of income. An entire floor could only be accessed by keycards. That floor had a feeding room, and all the rooms were for vampires only. Light tight rooms were specially fitted for with private pathways to the garage so they could avoid the human guests if they chose. This week, all the guests were vampires. As usual, most of the service and lower level jobs were staffed by humans who thought they were just hosting a private event, not vampires. The hotel had been receiving guests from around the world on their way to The Gathering. As Anca and the rest of the flight went into the hotel, numerous vampires were going out to get into cars, limos, or helicopters for their final leg to the castle. Anca gave smiles to all of them and even stopped to hug a few friends. Some vampires made the trip in one stretch, but for the sake of discretion most were asked to come gradually so Romania wouldn’t suddenly be swarmed by vampires. They were trying to stay under the radar, after all.

Anca barely had time to shower in her room before there was a knock on the door. With a towel wrapped around her head she opened the door. It was Lita.

“You need to find something sparkly to wear. They’re having an impromptu recital in the ballroom.”

Lita was already dressed in a shimmering emerald green cocktail dress. Her hair was in perfect vintage waves pinned back by sparkly silver barrettes. Anca hoped Lita wasn’t planning on jumping; she’d pop right out of that low sweetheart neckline.

They quickly dried and styled Anca’s hair and threw some makeup on her face before squeezing her into a sparkly black flapper dress. They giggled like school girls as they effortlessly sprinted down the hallway. Their heels made soft thudding noises against the plush carpeting. Anca stopped a moment inside the thirty-foot double doors to take in the spectacle.

Six crystal chandeliers, each as tall as a man, hung between spiraling pillars. Crystal glasses on golden trays were being offered by waiters in white dovetail suits. A giant stage dominated the far side of the room. On a smaller stage on the right side of the room a band was playing. 

Qamar was playing the saxophone. He was, hands down, the smoothest jazz player Anca had ever heard. His playing for the gryphyns was nothing compared to here where the acoustics were so good. Just like at the conservatory Qamar’s music was a flame that ignited the happiness in everyone around him. Petra was on the piano, his usual composer flung aside as he swayed back and forward using his whole body to play the keys.

Anca and Lita watched in awe as a flair bartender made them both martinis. The music changed from jazz to classical. They turned in their seats to look at the stage to watch the ballet that was starting.

Anca saw Willow taking pictures of the ballet. Her dark hair pulled back in a low bun. She looked like a black and white photograph her skin was so pale, and she never wore colors. An artistic choice, Anca supposed. She must have sensed Anca looking. She looked at her and Lita. She pointed at them both and lifted her camera. Anca nudged Lita; they put their heads together and raised their martinis. The camera flashed a few times. Willow looked at her camera a moment, then gave them the thumbs up.

They turned back to the ballet. Irina left the stage when the ballet was done and went straight to Petra, her husband. They had met when Irina was a professional ballerina in Russia where they were both from. He had been the pianist for her company. Irina had been injured when she later joined the army. After she turned, she immediately offered Petra the option of becoming a vampire. He had accepted without hesitation, insisting she was the only muse that could motivate his playing, and without his playing he wouldn’t want to live.

Anca tried to focus on the moment. When she looked at everyone, it was easy to get swept away by all the memories they brought up.

 “Damn.” Nuru had just walked up to the bar. His eyes were glued to Anca, perhaps a bit lower than was proper. He was wearing a black button up shirt with a gray vest and charcoal dress pants. Casually cool.

Anca smiled like an idiot.

“She means thank you,” said Lita.

“You’re welcome,” said Nuru. He bit his lip.

Damn why’d he have to do that?

“Do you want to dance?” asked Nuru.

Lita took her martini before she answered.

“Yes, I would.” Anca looked at Lita pointedly. “Hold my drink, won’t you?”

“I will until it’s gone.” Lita took a gulp of her martini.

The music had changed to swing. Qamar was now on the trumpet. The little band he led was playing “Quatier Latin” by Die Golden Sieben. Anca had danced to this very song at a Christmas party in 1934 in Germany. Nuru grabbed her by the waist, then as if remembering, held her right hand. They moved with the music back and forth. Soon Nuru was tossing Anca into the air. His feet were a blur as he got caught up in the music.

Nuru loved to dance, especially swing. Anca twisted with the beat, following Nuru’s lead she kicked her feet high. For a moment she thought she might kick Willow in the head. She was dancing with Nate much more wildly than Anca was dancing with Nuru. Nate looked completely lost. Ask him to make a consommé turducken or Béarnaise sauce, no problem. Ask Nate to two step, you might want to wear a helmet.

The crowd was loving the swing dancing so the band played a few more songs before switching genres. After a waltz and a foxtrot, the stage lit up for the next performance. This time an opera singer took the stage. Her voice was positively ethereal.

Anca and Nuru had gone to a standing table where Lita was chatting to Trig, Sarah close to his side. His hair was pulled back and he was wearing a button up shirt with dress pants.

“What’s got you so dressed up?” Anca asked. Trig rarely dressed up outside of work.

“I thought we might as well,” said Sarah, wrapping an arm around Trig. She had ditched her usual casual attire for a red satin dress. It was simple but flattering. She didn’t dress up much either. Anca didn’t always understand them as a couple. They had much in common, but they spent most of their time apart. Anca thought it was strange how two people could be in love and be apart from each other so much, but for them it worked.

“Your bodies work great together,” said Lita to Anca and Nuru.

Nuru laughed at that.

Anca smiled at the floor.

“I’m going to make a request,” said Nuru leaving the table. He walked over to the band.

Lita now gave Anca her full attention. “So?” she asked expectantly.

“It was nice. We do dance well together,” Anca confessed.

“I like him,” said Trig. “Always have. He treats you well.”

“Why’d you guys break up, again?” asked Lita.

“He kept prying, wanting to know everything about me,” said Anca.

“Oh no. A man that wants to get to know you. The horror,” said Lita.

“I’ve been thinking lately. I could stand to open up more. Maybe I should take some time off…”

“Yes!” said Lita and Trig together.

Sarah laughed at their unexpected agreement.

“It would be nice to go back to Africa for a bit. I haven’t been there in years. Morocco has changed so much,” said Anca.

Nuru came back to the table. “You’ll love it. The bridge between worlds. We could go after The Gathering. Maybe you’ll let me show you the remains of my old master’s home in Benin.”

“That sounds great,” said Anca with a smile.

“We all need to remember our past,” said Lita. “It helped shape who we are. Helped,” she pointed her finger at them, “not dictated.”

“Here, here,” said Nuru.

Anca thought about how different their backgrounds were. Anca had been born in the shadow of the Romanian mountains. Trig had been a Viking ship maker. Lita had been a midwife who was exiled after she was discovered as a vampire, among other reasons. Sarah had been a struggling student on her reservation. Nuru had been a sort of apprentice for a philosopher. Perhaps explained why he tended to be more serious than most of the people in whatever room he was in.

Most of their backgrounds were tragic. Trig had lost his sisters. Lita had the love of her life die in her arms. Nuru was torn from his family in a war. Sarah had grown up without drinkable water for miles (not the end of the world but still a depressing fact of life). Anca had lost her family to a conflict between her clan and a neighboring one. Incredible. Though you’d think those scars wouldn’t hurt anymore, her heart would still twinge when she heard a hammer strike bone.

Our past can shape us if we let it, but our choices are our own. We are each a spirit that we shape with our actions. Each day, each choice is a chance to redefine ourselves. Every cell in our body is reshaped in months. In a single year, you can completely change yourself, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. As Anca had lived a hundred lives, she’d changed herself countless times. Her attachment to her past was purposeful.

“To loving the past enough to move on,” toasted Trig.

“Cheers,” said Anca. They all raised their glasses.

A Persian man with a perfectly trimmed beard and thick hair approached the table. “Nuru, we need you upstairs.”

“No, we are celebrating. No work until after The Gathering,” he said.

“I’m afraid I must insist. I need you to come too Trygve,” the man said.

“Why me?” said Trig.

“Can you please just come.”

“Is something wrong?” asked Lita.

“No.”

Anca thought his easy smiled looked a bit forced.

Nuru turned to Anca. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said Anca.

Trig kissed Sarah’s knuckles. “Don’t have too much fun without me,” he said.

They watched the men leave. “I wonder what’s actually going on,” said Lita in a rare moment of complete seriousness.

“I don’t know,” said Anca. Her head spun with possible answers.

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