Copyright 2016 Marcus Kruger
Published by Marcus Kruger at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
~ Prologue ~
Gerik descended the stairs slowly, his eyes looking around the great hall. Every time he entered he was awe struck by the splendor of it all. How it was possible he didn’t know, but he was certain it was more splendid than before the fire. He paused at the base of the steps and turned, fixing his gaze on the stunning portrait at the first landing. His sire, dressed in his usual tight black trousers and crimson peasant shirt, unlaced, of course. All over his dark-as-pitch riding boots. The painting almost looked alive; the artist had done a tremendous job. The darkness of his sire’s eyes was true, complete with the indication of shadows within the pupils.
To the right of the stairs was the grand piano, twin of the one lost in the destruction. A high gloss ebony, its lid always propped open full. Directly opposite sat the harp, one of the few items to have survived the blaze. Tarnish had to be removed from some of the gold inlays, but it shone with the glory it always had. Gerik planned to learn how to play it at some point.
Between the two instruments, the double French doors to the balcony had been completely redesigned. Ornate stained-glass panels provided beauty as well as limited privacy between the balcony and great hall anytime they were closed. The handles to the doors were a distinctly cut crystal, as were most knobs and handles on doors throughout the Keep. Heavy crimson drapes hung on either side of the door, a bold change from the simpler black that was once there. Gerik wasn’t sure their purpose, since he never saw them drawn closed.
The finely varnished oak floors had, of course, been replaced throughout Haven, as had all interior doors. The bar opposite the stairway had also been replaced. It had not been badly damaged, but odors from the fire lingered in the wood of the original so it was torn out and the new one built. The heavy double front doors were another item from before the fire. It was unknown how the wood had managed to survive, but due to their intricate inlaid carvings, it was decided to restore rather than replace them.
Between the bar and the harp, the grand stone fireplace had also been restored, any and all indications of the previous havoc carefully removed. As was typical for the Keep, a low, gentle fire was kept burning all night, allowed to go cold only during day hours. All the plush chairs and settees were new; the settees a dark crimson to match the drapes on the French doors. Chairs were patterned, the colors and designs varied but serene.
The last large items to be replaced in the great hall were the large twin chandeliers that hung on either side of the room’s center. Gerik had no idea how the staff kept them so immaculately cleaned; he knew it was done during daylight when he slept. In truth, most of the staff was only out and working during the day, very few had been granted the trust to be present during the evening hours. Likewise was the upkeep of the walls and ceiling that always appeared freshly painted. Since there was never any paint odors, he again wasn’t sure how the staff managed them.
Gerik sighed as he took it all in, still somewhat in awe that this was now his home. His reverie was broken by the stirring sound of his lover’s voice.
“Good morrow, dear heart. You are looking … completely edible this eve.”
“Ah yes. You demonstrated that well last eve.” He chuckled. “So, you did rest well?”
“I did, but perhaps not as well as you. You didn’t even stir when I rose tonight.”
“Had to replenish the energy you so skillfully used afore we retired.” Another chuckle. “So then, no one’s here yet, I assume.”
“No. Though it is early yet. You are aware of course, that none may show.”
“Because of our relationship? My love, we have talked this to great lengths. I do not expect my parents to show; they have been against this from the moment I told them I was moving here. But not everyone is so closed-minded.”
“We shall see what we shall see.”
Gerik walked over and kissed his mate. “Stef, sometimes you say the most profound things.”
Stefano laughed and moved to swat Gerik’s butt. “How good of you to notice.”
Gerik tried a pouting face but instead broke into laughter. “You bring out the best in me. Or is that the beast. . . ?”
“Both, I hope.”
“Gentlemen, I am glad to see you are both here.” Viktor entered from the kitchens, paper and pencil in hand. “There are some final decisions to be made.”
Stefano sighed. “I thought everything was decided. What possibly could be left?”
“For one, you have not chosen between the quail egg and caviar or the foie gras. And if the latter, goose or duck, we happen to have both in the larder.”
“I had expected the egg and the pate, actually. Why would we not have both for our guests? This is the first open house we have held since the fire.”
“I would agree with Stefano. This is supposed to be a grand event. People should be talking about this for months.”
Viktor absent-mindedly tapped the pencil against the bar. “Yes, and how you convinced Master Stefano to agree to this is beyond me.”
Gerik laughed. “I could go into details, but I doubt they are for public perusal.”
Viktor paused only a moment. “I am neither public, nor able to be shocked or offended. However, since such talk will end up with the two of you upstairs and me without an answer, we best leave that stone unturned. Now then, about the pate, goose or duck?”
Stefano looked to Gerik. “Which would you prefer, my heart. Assuming that you still ate such.”
“I was always more fond of goose, myself.”
“Goose it is, then. Anything else, Viktor? Guests should be arriving soon and we have yet to dress for the occasion.”
“No one will be arriving for at least another hour, if not two. But thank you, gentlemen, for decisions made. I shall inform the cooks. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to hear they are to fix both the eggs and the pate.”
Stefano and Gerik watched him walk back into the kitchen in silence. Gerik chortled as the door closed, holding back as long as he could, before breaking into laughter. “What eats at him of late?”
“I have no idea. He has been on edge for a week now, and it bothers me. I’m not used to seeing him off balance. Hopefully it resolves soon.”
Gerik slid his fingers down Stefano’s chest. If we are to dress for tonight’s gala … we will need to undress first. And it would probably be wise to … lose any spurious energies before we don anything fresh.”
Stefano shook his head. “Your passions are insatiable, my heart, for which I am eternally thankful.”
The men shared tongues briefly before they headed to their shared quarters. Quickly.
… … …
The evening passed without any problems. As suspected, Gerik’s parents were not in attendance, nor were two other houses, which left only five houses present. Stefano found himself relaxing much easier with the fewer people present, not to mention with Gerik at his side. Before the evening ended, he had promised his guests that the next event he would have a string quartet present. His secret hope was that he be spared from playing at least once.
After the last couple left, Gerik flopped onto the settee by the fireplace and groaned. “How do you do this? Entertaining mortals, having all that pulse and heat so close. It was maddening.”
It was Stefano’s turn to chuckle. “Time. It takes time to tame the beast within. But you did very well tonight. I am proud of your growing knowledge of kindred life.”
Both men were startled as Viktor dropped a couple glasses which shattered on the floor behind the bar. “Blast to the heavens!” He looked at Stefano. “My apologies, Master Stefano. I seem to be more tired than I realize.”
Stefano nodded. “Understandable. Tonight was a flurry for quite a while. You maintained the drinks and food admirably, as always. Why don’t you have some of the help finish cleaning up and you can retire.”
“Too much to do, m’Lord. Just … too much to do.” He grumbled to himself as he stepped into the kitchens.
“Come, sit with me.” Gerik patted the space beside him. “I could use some closeness with the man who holds my heart.”
Stefano smiled and started across the room. He was about to sit when the heavy front doors burst open.
“Why is there no footman at this door? I would expect better!”
Stefano leaned down and whispered, “Speaking of irritable persons…” He kissed the top of his love’s head who was trying hard not to laugh. Stefano pasted a smile on his face as he straightened and turned to greet their new visitors.
“Sire. An unexpected pleasure to be sure. And Odessa. Good to see you both. To what do we owe this honor?”
“No answer? I ask why you have forgotten all propriety.”
“Yes sir. We just finished an open house to celebrate the restoration of the Keep and I let the men retire early in reward of their excellent service. So I have forgotten nothing. If I had known you were coming I would have arranged differently. I apologize for your needing to open the door yourself.” He paused to check his temper. “Now then … what brings you to Haven?”
Vargon raised Odessa’s hand he held and kissed her fingers. She leaned up to kiss his cheek, then patted his hand reassuringly. His voice quieted as he looked Stefano in the eyes and limped forward.
“It is time for you to be Prince.”
~ Power Shift ~
Stefano paused, momentarily nonplussed. When he spoke, his voice sounded strained. “Sire, Odessa, please, come have a seat so we may talk.” As the couple were getting comfortable on one of the settees by the fireplace, Stefano looked over his shoulder to his partner and chylde. “Gerik, please go get Viktor.”
“Yes, my heart.” Gerik left through the door to the kitchens.
“What do you need Viktor for?” Vargon narrowed his eyes, a sure sign of his rising anger.
“A moment Sire, please.”
Viktor stepped into the great hall followed by Gerik as Vargon repeated his request. “Once again, what do you need Viktor for?”
Stefano stood near the opening in the fireplace, his attention completely on his sire. “Viktor is family, sir. He is not just a manservant or friend, I trust him completely when it comes to the Keep, indeed all affairs at Haven. And I seek him out frequently for his deep wisdom. I wish him to hear this.”
Viktor cleared his throat. “I am here, Master Stefano.” His face showed no emotion while his mind was in chaos. Family? He considers me family?
Stefano glanced over his shoulder and smiled at Viktor, then turned back. His voice was softer now, more submissive in tone. “I’m sorry for having you wait, Sire. I just felt it was necessary. Please, tell me again why you have come.”
Vargon calmed at his chylde’s changed attitude. “It is time for you to be Prince. I am easily tired; trying to stay in touch with my territory is beyond just inconvenient with my leg.”
Stefano flinched, knowing the fire was responsible for the injury to Vargon’s leg. Kindred can survive much and retain appearance and vitality. Fire, however, changes the playing field. “Father, I am sorry, I don’t know how…”
Vargon held up his hand, silencing his son. “I know this. I know you did not intend the fire. I realize your anger was out of control.” His voice rose in volume gradually as he spoke. “ We both know what happened that night. If Viktor hadn’t reacted and sheltered us, neither of us would be here. And that act almost claimed his life. There is no reason for constant apologies. They do not undo what has happened.” He relaxed some as Odessa placed a hand on his. “They do not bring back my strength. So please, no more. Let it go. I have forgiven you. You must forgive yourself.”
Stefano nodded, wiping a tear from his face. “Understood, Father. Then I am more than a trifle confused. I only remember the lessons on becoming prince after the current one was no more. On how the first chylde has first claim, but others may try to take it, and may win it over.” He stopped, hesitating to ask the next question. “Sire… Father… are you… are you going to die?”
Vargon folded his hands with index fingers steepled. He tapped them slowly against his lips in thought. Finally he lowered his hands and raised his eyes to his son. For the first time to Stefano’s knowledge, Vargon’s eyes shone with sorrow and regret.
“No. There is another way to become Prince. It is called the Rite Of Passage, a ceremony where a Prince can abdicate his territory, his influence, and his power to another. I didn’t mention it because in my own pride I was sure it could never apply to me.” He laughed with remorse. “It seems I was mistaken. But know and accept, chylde of my heart, I do this willingly, knowing that all I give to you will be in solid, stable hands. You have grown beyond what I had believed possible at that grievous time. You are strong, my chylde. As you have said, you have Viktor at the ready. And with Gerik at your side I do not worry. Besides… selfishly I wish to see you as a Prince. I am proud of you, Stefano.”
Stefano nodded slowly then turned to look at his manservant. He spoke gently. “Viktor, a house brandy, please.”
“Yes, Master Stefano.”
“Odessa and I will each take one also.”
“Yes, m’Lord Vargon.”
“And me, if I may.” added Gerik.
“Of course, m’Lord Gerik.”
Viktor delivered the drinks in short order, serving Stefano last. As he started for the bar, Stefano briefly touched his shoulder, bring him to a halt.
“‘Master Stefano’. You have called me this all week. My friend, you knew of father’s decision.” It was not a question.
Viktor turned to face him. “Yes, m’Lord.”
“This is why you have been on the edge of the knife all week.”
“And you kept it quiet because my sire wished it so.”
Viktor raised a brow. “Yes, m’Lord.” His tone was as if that fact was a given.
Stefano smiled warmly. “You are a treasure to be valued, Viktor. Your devotion to my sire is to be commended and applauded.” Stefano’s voice cracked as he finished. “And I am very proud to call you friend.”
Viktor bowed slightly, his face still an unreadable mask, though his eyes were a bit more moist than usual. “Thank you, Master Stefano.” With that he returned to his post at the bar.
Stefano took a sip of his drink and turned to Vargon. “My Sire, my Prince, what is it I need to know?”
“There are several regions, camps, and kumpania within my territory. Each of these must be visited regularly. Any visiting kindred who comes within the territory for any reason must seek you out. If you are not within that area, they must keep their visit short – typically less than four nights. If you are present, they must request an audience with you. As Prince, it is your responsibility to be available for them to come to you. “
Stefano nodded slowly.” I understand regions. Haven and this island is a region. But I do not know a difference between a camp and a kumpania, as the latter is just Romanian for camp. A camp is where you and I met. All live in wagons, unless they wish to set a tent. It is a temporary place but unless they are removed, they stay in that one place. “
“Very good. Those in a kumpania also live in wagons, but they are travelers, nomads, never in one place long. They seek to see all they can in a lifetime. And they only speak Rom-Gypsy. “
“I haven’t spoken Rom-Gypsy in years, m’Lord. “
“Then I suggest you refresh yourself. A Prince must speak the language of the people with whom he visits. “
“How will I learn where each place is? I have never seen you with a map of any sorts. “
Vargon removed a key from around his neck and tossed it across the room. “Viktor, would you bring the tome?”
Viktor caught the key and stepped to the end of the bar. He opened the drawer at the far end to withdraw an ancient looking bound manual. He reverently carried it to Vargon, and handed it to him gently, along with the silver key on its delicate leather thread.
Vargon looked up at Stefano who still stood to the side of the fireplace. “This chronicles those who have been Prince of your island. For each it lists the lands they held and their location. The territory of Haven’s princes has changed numerous times – gaining land, losing land.” He turned through the pages as he spoke, stopping at the first blank sheet. “Here you will record your time as Prince. Places within my … your territory, when you visit them. You will record any chylde,” he paused to glance at Gerik briefly then continued, “the time and place you bring them over, and of course your justifications.”
“Justifications, my Prince?”
“A prince must always give cause for any chylde he brings into the realms of kindred life. It has been this way for ages, you shall continue the tradition. This is true of any chylde taken before the title of prince is gained.”
“Of course, my Lord Prince. Please continue.”
Vargon closed the tome and signaled Viktor to come take it. After releasing the book his eyes went back to his chylde. “In the ‘Rite of Passage’ you shall kneel before me, and listen closely as you are charged with the safety of your territory. You shall answer each question asked with honesty and respect. At one point in the ceremony you will be asked to offer your blood. You shall allow me to drink. Then you shall drink from me.”
Stefano stepped a little to the side and sat slowly in another chair. He drank the last of his brandy then glanced up as Viktor appeared at his side to take the glass. He turned back to his sire and nodded his head in understanding.
Gerik silently stepped behind the chair and laid a hand on Stefano’s shoulder.
Vargon looked between the men, his expression unreadable except for the small flash of red in his eyes. “Each land, kumpania, and camp will have a representative present for the ceremony. Each representative is your voice and your authority while you are away. Although you will have the right to change who is representing each place, I strongly recommend you keep them as they are. Any representative of a prince receives his position after severe testing. Again, all this is chronicled in the Tome of Haven. Do you understand all you have been told this night? I realize there is much you must learn and master, but again, I have faith in your ability. If I did not, we would not be having this conversation.”
“No, my Sire. I believe I understand the gravity of this situation and shall spend time in careful meditation over it all. Should I have any questions on the morrow or next, will you still be here? And when is the ‘Rite of Passage’? I assume not soon if we are to wait for the representatives to be present.”
“Odessa and I are returning to our camp on the morrow. Since the Rite of Passage is done only during wolfmoon, I shall be back two nights prior. The following evening your representatives arrive. If you have no other questions, it has been a long journey – my wife and I wish to feed before the next sun.”
“None, Father. I am honored beyond measure. I love you, my lord Vargon.”
Vargon stood. “And I love you, chylde of my heart.” He offered his hand to Odessa. After she had taken his hand and stood, he leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Are you ready, my love?”
“In a moment, dearest.” She released Vargon’s hand and stepped over to Stefano, who rose as she neared him. “Chylde of our sire, do not doubt our love for you. Vargon will be ever present should you come to great need. You will become prince, but he shall remain your sire. And I his wife. And as long as either of us live you can expect us to visit to hear of your adventures as prince.” She leaned up and brushed his cheek with the merest whisper of a kiss, then turned and stepped back to Vargon. “Let us go. I am famished.”
Vargon laughed, the sound of distant thunder. “Then let us go, my heart. Chylde, think on these things. You can refuse to take my place if you so decide. I do not believe you shall, but you do have the right.” Before they left, he took the thin leather strand and key from Viktor then tossed it to Stefano. “This is now yours. See that you care for it as you would your own life.”
Stefano caught the key as his eyes shone pure ebony. “I shall, Sire. Have an evening of peace. Should I not see you afore you depart on the morrow, know my heart goes with you. Always.”
Vargon smiled, then looked at Odessa as they walked to the door and left the Keep.
Viktor visibly relaxed before he spoke. “If you need nothing else, Master Stefano, I shall retire for the night. I have much to begin setting in place come the sun.”
Stefano bowed his head. “Of course, my friend. May your dreams be joyful and light. I shall see you on the morrow.” He waited until Viktor was gone then turned to Gerik. He pulled him close and crushed his lips in a kiss. When they finished he held up the key. “I need to see something. Come.”
Gerik followed him and watched as Stefano unlocked the drawer at the end of the bar. “Are you sure you wish to know? Unless it is not your turning that you are so eager to read.”
Stefano gently laid the book on the bar and paged through it, seeking the entry of the night he became kindred. “It is. And yes, I am sure. If justification is recorded, I shall know it.” He stopped as he ran his finger down a page. He found the passage and began reading.
“On the twelfth night of my stay in the Tyesh gypsy camp, I met a young man who had recently lost his wife and son. His heart was torn with intense grief, but it was not the grief that drew me. The lad emits great masculinity and strength of character. His eyes are deep pools of dark waters, he carries himself with grace, even during this time. His presence brought forth desires to finally take a chylde; desires that have been long buried.” Stefano paused, his mind racing. ‘Finally take a chylde’? It sounds like I was his first. He has always said it, but that cannot be right, can it?
“We walked for a while and he spoke of his pain. I became certain that walking in shadow could ease his burden; I had no doubt he was to be my chylde. There was no struggle, no hint of fear when I stepped behind him and kissed his neck. After he was brought across, his sorrow remained but lessened. He seems eager to learn. I have found a joy in him. My heart dances when I look into his eyes, at last I have a chylde, a son.” He stopped reading, unable to slow the flurry of thoughts flooding mind. I was his first chylde. His first. How can I be his first? He has been vampire – been kindred for centuries. And he never had a chylde before me? And now I have treated him like a diseased mortal. Like I care not for him. How am I supposed to face him again? By the stars, the rights ceremony! I cannot go through with the ceremony. But if I am not present, I will hurt him more than I have already. What am I to do? Fates protect me, I do not know what to do!
“Stef. Stef, are you alright? Stef . . . please, speak to me.” Gerik grasped Stefano’s shoulders. “What is it? What did you read?”
Stefano shivered. I cannot speak all that is written, not even to Gerik. Not yet. His eyes fogged over as he spoke; his voice was soft and muddled with confusion. “The rest is in Rom-Gypsy … I need to refresh my knowledge of the dialect before I can finish reading. I cannot understand most of the words. His meaning is clouded. I need to refresh the language in my mind.” Stefano slowly closed the book, pulled open the drawer and slipped the tome in. He then locked the drawer and turned to his chylde. His eyes glowed with unshed sorrow as he choked out his words. “Gerik, he speaks of me with unbridled compassion. Yet I have fought him and shown lack of respect. I have treated him bitterly. And worst, I almost killed him!” He visibly wilted as tears begin to flow. “What have I done? . . . What have I done?” He stepped forward into his lover’s arms as his grief overwhelmed him.
Gerik embraced him tightly, silently, as Stefano wept on his shoulder.
~ Weathering the Tumult ~
The storm whipped over the land, tossing waves against the jetty’s cliff face as if Poseidon himself were trying to dismantle the island back into the sea. Further from the sliver of land, above the cove, Stefano opened the balcony doors to better see lightning chase raindrops to the ground. Tempest-tossed twigs and leaves from surrounding bushes and trees swirled in the wind performing their own intimate dance of chaos. Stefano watched the sea pummel the distant finger of land then turned his attention to the clouds swirling overhead. In the severe intensity of the deluge he somehow found peace, gradually healing from his emotional upheaval three evenings past. I am fortunate Sire was not here to see my breakdown. I have caused him enough grief. He sighed, losing himself in the violent chaos outside until he felt Gerik’s hands slide around his waist and pull him backward.
“It is odd to have the doors open during a storm.”
Stefano rested back against Gerik’s chest. “Indeed. Normally storms come in from the sea to the mainland, thrashing the doors as they pass. This one is moving across the land to the water, very unusual. But it affords us a grand view of the storm’s majesty and power.”
“The wind howls as a banshee on moonlit waters.” He slid a hand up under Stefano’s tunic, running his fingertips lightly over the other man’s abdomen to his pecs; finally centering on a nipple. “It is good to be safely tucked away in our own fortress of wood and stone.”
Stefano released a low moan. “Careful, pet. You will wake the dragon if you keep that up.”
Gerik laid his cheek against Stefano’s shoulder as he moved his hand down, slipping fingers under the waistband of his sire’s trousers. “If I wanted to wake the dragon, I would just tug on his leash.”
Stefano’s abs instinctively drew in, allowing easier access below his belt. “Hush now, he’s already stirring.”
Gerik slipped his hand into a net of dark curls before the men were jolted from their growing desire by a solid, loud cough. Gerik withdrew his hands as he and his lover turned around to the waiting manservant.
“Gentlemen. Might I have a word with ye both?”
Gerik leaned toward Stefano and whispered, “I could come to hate that question.”
Stefano bit back a laugh as they crossed the room to stand at the bar, Stefano in the lead. “Of course, Viktor. Is there a problem with preparations for Father’s ceremony?”
“No, m’Lord, yet there is a matter that needs attended to at first convenience. I am sorry if I have intruded on a tender moment.” He shot Gerik a look that was anything but repentant.
Stefano nodded. “Pour us each a glass of house wyne, then continue, please.”
“Yes, m’Lord.” Viktor filled two glasses of the bloodwyne and set one in front of each kindred. He left the bottle on the bar for ease of refills. “Daruka has tendered her resignation as third cook.”
Behind Stefano, Gerik rolled his eyes as master of the keep replied. “Indeed? Did she give a cause for her decision?”
“She feels stifled here and that she can never advance. She claims the second and first cooks are derogatory towards her.”
“That does not sound like either Prospera or Fayon.”
“No, m’Lord, but it does mean you need to deal with Daruka afore she leaves Haven.”
“Agreed. Thank you for letting me know. Advise Daruka that I wish to bid her farewell before she departs.”
“Yes, m’Lord. That is all I require, except to tell you preparations for the Rite of Passage are proceeding on schedule. Thank you, m’Lord Stefano.” He paused briefly. “And ye also, m’Lord Gerik.”
Gerik smirked. “Nice of you to include me, Viktor.”
Viktor arched a brow. “Of course, m’Lord. Ye are in the room; it is only proper.”
Gerik stepped away from the bar, raising his voice slightly. “Proper? What do you care of proper? If Stefano hadn’t been here you would have simply ignored me.”
Stefano glanced between the two men but remained silent for the time being.
“I would never and have never ignored ye.”
“Oh Fates. A couple eves prior to Lord Vargon’s visit I asked you a question and you walked into the kitchen, disregarding me completely.”
“As I said to ye when ye first mentioned this, it was not my intention to do so. My mind was set on Lord Vargon and his visit.”
“That’s why you were speaking poorly of me when you left the room?”
“If I were speaking, I imagine it would have been regarding said visit. Certainly nothing against you.”
“You truly expect us to believe that?”
Viktor clenched his left hand but left his arm relaxed at his side. “What you believe is your matter, I suppose, Lord Gerik. I am sorry if you were slighted, I most certainly did not realize.” He slowly released the tension in his hand.
Gerik grabbed the bottle from the bar and threw it at the cupboard of drinking glasses and mugs. Stemware shattered in a shower of shards. Shelves broke and dropped the remaining glasses to the floor. Bloodwyne rained down, staining wall and floor. “I am becoming tired of…”
“Enough!” Thunder rumbled through the great room.
Both men turned to Stefano. Surprise registered on Viktor’s face, recognizing the word and the delivery to be as if Lord Vargon were speaking.
“By the Fates you two are acting like school boys fighting over who gets the ball.”
“Sire, I don’t think…”
“M’Lord Stefano, I highly doubt…”
Stefano held up his hand as both men started to respond at the same time. “I should make the two of you kiss and settle your differences.” Viktor and Gerik looked like he had asked them to bite the head off of a serpent. “Would you men please relax? I was trying to alleviate some of the tension with humor. I can see that is not going to work.” He shook his head. “I am suddenly becoming uncomfortably aware of how Sire has felt at times. Viktor, thank you for telling me about Daruka’s decision to leave. And thank you for the dedication toward the upcoming ceremony. You are released to go back to your daily routine.”
“Thank ye, m’Lord.” Viktor walked stiffly into the kitchens.
“Gah, thank you for getting him to leave.”
Stefano put his index finger on Gerik’s lips, silencing him. “You I am most displeased with. You know better than involve yourself in an argument with staff. I am positive Lord Falow did not let you speak that way to his servants.”
Gerik looked at the floor. “No, you are right. I should know better.” He raised his eyes. “It’s just that he is constantly…”
Again Stefano cut him off, laying his finger again against the man’s lips. “Let it go. When you have calmed to the place where we can speak of this without emotion, then I will hear what you have to tell me.” He replaced his finger with his lips, pressing ardently and moving to hold Gerik close. “If I remember correctly, we were speaking about a certain dragon…”
Gerik captured his sire’s lips, their tongues dancing feverishly. His hand slid down Stefano’s chest, over his abs, to his trousers. His fingers curled over the firm bulge pressed against the fabric. “Mmm. Let’s go upstairs before Vi…” He stopped himself. “We should go upstairs.”
- – - – -
Locked in the safe confines of his room, Viktor sat in meditation, working on releasing the thought train that kept him in an anger loop. I do not act like a child. Gerik is obnoxious and rude. Did I truly ignore him on purpose? Was I so woven into Lord Vargon’s issues that I ignored my primary responsibilities here? Candles burned down slowly, almost to going out before he finally opened his eyes. His normal calm and peaceful demeanor radiated throughout his room. He chuckled remembering Stefano’s commanding voice. Not yet through the ceremony, yet already he speaks as a Prince.
~ Meeting the Minions ~
Gerik stepped out onto the balcony to find Stefano at the rail, gazing off in the distance. He walked up to his sire and slipped an arm around him as stood at his side. “Are you alright?”
Stefano leaned to kiss Gerik’s cheek. “Fine, my love.”
“Worried about becoming Prince?”
“No. If anything I’m uncomfortable with the thought of meeting all these representatives from Vargon’s territory. Mostly thinking about Vargon not being the prince anymore.”
“You need to stop blaming yourself.”
“I do not blame myself… all right, I blame myself for his limp. I always shall. You cannot deny his limp is on count of the fire which was no one’s fault but my own. But him no longer being Prince – that is his decision. I worry more for his happiness than anything.”
“I’m sure Odessa is watching out for your sire’s happiness.”
“In which case you don’t need to.”
Stefano turned to face Gerik. “Sometimes you say the most profound things.” He winked and they both laughed. “You’re right, of course. Have any of Vargon’s representatives arrived yet?”
“Your representatives now. Or they will be soon enough. And no, none have arrived. Viktor says they should start arriving at any time now.”
“It is good to see the two of you at least polite towards each other.”
“An effort, at times. I don’t know if we’ll ever have the friendship you and he have. But I think we respect each other. I know I do. The more I learn of him and watch him, the greater my respect becomes. I can only hope he is the same way.”
Gerik leaned up and kissed Stefano. The kiss deepened between them and the moved against each other. Tongue to tongue, fingers to fingers they moved into a lovers’ dance, passion growing quickly between them. Gerik ran a hand through his sire’s hair when one of the balcony doors opened and Viktor stepped out.
“Excuse me, please.”
The kiss stopped and the two made space between them. Gerik just shook his head.
“I do not believe this.”
“Truly, m’Lord Gerik, I do not mean to intrude.”
“Apologies, Viktor. I meant I cannot believe Stefano’s and my timing of late. It is almost as if the Fates themselves are toying with us. If you are an intrusion, then there is something that needs at least one of us. I know you would not purposely do such.”
Viktor bowed his head slightly, his eyes shining. “Thank you, m’Lord Gerik.” He looked between the two men.” I just wanted to say the first of the representatives has arrived. He’s currently in his assigned quarters but I expect him down soon. Plus the others will most likely be here shortly. M’Lord Gerik asked that I let you know.”
Stefano spoke first.” Thank you, Viktor. We will be in shortly.”
As Viktor began to retreat inside, Gerik caught his gaze.” Thank you, Viktor.”
Viktor nodded to the side.” I am pleased to serve, m’Lord.”
The minute the door closed the men returned to their embrace. Gerik spoke first.
“I imagine we should get inside.”
“Agreed. I have a feeling setting our love aside will be more frequent after tomorrow eve.”
“Are you sure I cannot accompany you when you visit the different parts of your territory.”
Stefano sighed.” I am certain. I spoke at lengths with Sire and told you what he said.”
“Yes. The Prince’s attention must not be divided by family issues when he is holding audience with someone. I understand it, even why it is so. I just needed to check once more. I am sorry if I appear too needy.”
“Never apologize for needing me, Gerik. You can be sure I do not regret my need for you.”
Gerik opened a balcony door and held it for Stefano. Stefano, however, slipped Gerik’s hand from the door and replaced it with his own, then shooed his chylde through the door first. He started to close it but changed his mind and opened both doors full. As he began to walk to the bar, their first visiting representative descended the stairs. Stefano changed course to step over to the newcomer then extended his hand.
“Well met. I am Stefano, Lord of the Keep.”
The gentleman smiled and took the offered handshake firmly.” Ah, our future Prince. Well met indeed, Lord Stefano. I am Barzenn, spokesman for the Dressdary lands.”
Stefano thought for a moment then smiled.” Yes. I remember seeing your home on the territory map Vargon uses. I trust things are well in Dressdary?”
While Stefano and Barzenn spoke, five more representatives arrived, first two, then three more. Each was assigned a footman who took their luggage and led them to their assigned room on the third floor. Stefano had the top floor added after the fire and enlarged the rooms on the second to create four larger rooms. One was his and Gerik’s, which had separate sitting rooms if needed. One was for Vargon and Odessa – the last kept in case another prince ever came to visit. Vargon had told Stefano it rarely happened, but the Lord of the Keep was not going to take any chances.
Before all the present representatives had settled into their rooms, the last two arrived. The first thing to strike Stefano was all those present were male. He made his way around the room, greeting each and spending time with each discussing their particular place within the territory. Twice he called Gerik over to speak with someone that had requested it. Although Gerik didn’t converse as long as his sire had, he did finish any topic being discussed so as not to be rude.
Later, having concluded his many introductions, Stefano stood at the bar getting a house brandy when the front doors opened for Vargon and Odessa. One of the representatives gave a loud “finally”, but all had smiles and were glad to see their current Prince and his wife. The group divided as the couple moved to a settee by the fireplace; Odessa sat while Vargon stood behind her to address the crowd, which was now in an arc around the settee.
“Thank you, each of you, for being here. As you know, I’ve been traveling to each area represented here to inform you of my stepping down as your prince and to ask for your attendance. It pleases me beyond words that someone from every place within my territory is here. Since the time I met with you, does anyone have questions to be answered before the ceremony tomorrow eve?”
A short, heavy set, bearded gypsy spoke. He looked around the room as he introduced himself to the other representatives. “Harn from the Galaspis kumpania.” He turned to Vargon, “Can you tell us again why you have chosen this road and ensure us you are not being forced into it?”
Vargon smiled broadly.” I am pleased to do so. But first, Harn, how is your daughter? Is the wedding still scheduled?”
“She is fine. Giggly, but fine.” Harn replied. A few of the men chuckled before Harn added, “And yes, wedding preparations continue. It will still commence unless I find reason to skin the lad sniffing at Sarvana’s skirts.” The room erupted with laughter that slowly dwindled. Once the room was quiet, Vargon continued.
“All of you are aware of my injury; a few have even asked for the cause. I still believe the cause is of little importance and will not address it. What has breath now is the injury itself. It slows me, which my wife says is a good thing because now she can keep in step with me.” Again laughter. “Plus, I wish to be able to spend long periods with any of you and not have to worry over the duties of being Prince. This is my choice that I make freely. It is what I want.” His voice changed to carry the presence of a prince. “It is what shall be.” The weight of his statement wafted through the room.
Harn nodded. “Then I honor you and your decision.” He began applauding. Soon the entire room had joined in.
Stefano remained back near the bar. He also clapped, though his eyes misted over, allowing a few tears to slide down his cheek. . If I can carry even one small portion of their honor that Father carries, I will know myself accepted. They are incredibly strong men, solid wills, courteous … but how will they react to the ceremony? And what are their unspoken feelings?
Vargon stood quietly, humbly accepting the accolades. When it had rung through the great hall for a while, he held up his hand and waited for the room to become still.
“I look forward to seeing you all on the morrow. I hope to hear affirmations from each, though I will accept dissension. I simply trust I will hear none. Much is to happen this eve. If you haven’t already, each of you must feed. I haven’t seen any servant donors, so I am assuming you will all venture to the mainland. Be careful that you all stay distant from each other. If possible, use multiple mundanes. I shall be retiring early as I wish to be fully rested and refreshed for my chylde’s ascension.
“The great hall will be transformed, numerous decoration changes; the ceremony shall be in this room. I understand many of you would prefer outside, but there are inquisitives on the mainland and I don’t wish to give them cause for greater curiosity. If you have questions on this region or the Keep itself, Lord Stefano will be available to assist you. May the Fates guide and protect us all.”
Vargon stepped around the settee, breaking the energy flow in the room. Like prisoners having their chains fall off, the men began to mingle and move around the room. Most of them seemed to still cluster around him.
Stefano looked around the room, trying to smile for everyone. And so it begins. . How am I to become comfortable with Sire calling me ‘Lord’? Not to mention ‘Lord Prince’. And will he ever truly defer to me? He set his empty wyne glass on the bar and watched as the men crowded around Vargon, each wanting to personally give him their approval.
Gerik stepped to Stefano’s side and slipped an arm behind him.” Viktor, two house brandies, please.”
“Right away, Lord Gerik.”
The two kindred remained at the bar to observe what transpired. They sipped their drinks in silence.
Viktor tended to drink requests and cleaning up after spills and empty glasses. Occasionally he would glance at the two men, his eyes alive with sparks.
Ye shall be a fine prince, Stefano. Whether Gerik will have any true value is yet to be seen. Above all else, it shall be interesting.
~ Rite of Passage ~
Stefano picked at the collar tips of his burgundy silk shirt.” This thing is stiff; it pokes at my neck. And the color. I do not wear colors this dark.”
Gerik looked up from the chair where he sat, slouched with one leg over the arm of the chair.” Viktor says we dress for the prince leaving, not the prince beginning. And the color is fine. Yes, it is subdued, but this whole evening is to be subdued from what I can see.” He raked his eyes slowly over his lover’s form.” Besides, dressed in that ash grey jacket and trousers, you look … delicious.”
“Thank you, but that isn’t helping. I am too agitated to be romantic. Or lustful for that matter.”
Gerik stood and padded barefoot across the room.” Then let me worry about lust.” he said, then slipped slowly to his knees in front of his sire.” I am fairly certain I can get your mind off the ceremony for a minute or two.”
Stefano pushed on Gerik’s forehead, shoving him over backwards. As Gerik lay there, looking up at him, Stefano began to chuckle which gradually turned to laughter. The surprised look on Gerik’s face was replaced with an impish grin.
“See? It is working already.”
“Incorrigible. Does your sire know you act this way?”
Gerik crawled forward to kneel again in front of Stefano.” He usually encourages it, though of late I think he’s been a bit preoccupied.”
Stefano bent down to give Gerik a light kiss on his cheek. He put his index finger beneath his chylde’s chin and stood straight, coaxing Gerik to stand also. “More than just a ‘bit’, I’m afraid. As much as I would move the stars to be lost in our passions, I’m sure I would feel rushed afterwards which would turn my mood darker still.” He kissed Gerik’s lips briefly. “But I love you for wanting to be here for me. Even with that unnecessary remark about my stamina.”
Gerik arched a brow then began to flush. “Oh, that. Yes. Well. . . it was all part of my grand overall scheme to put you at ease.”
Stefano chuckled again. “Well, it worked. So I’ll let it slip for now. Remind me to disprove your statement when this … thing … is over.”
“Gladly, Stef. Though waiting through the ceremony will now be twice as difficult.”
“Good. You deserve it.” With that, Stefano gave another peck on the lips then sat in one of the overstuffed leather chairs and grabbed one of his boots.
“Here. Let me help.” Gerik moved in front of Stefano and helped him slip on his boots. The second boot was scarcely on when a knock sounded on their door.
“Lord Stefano? Lord Gerik? Overseer Viktor requested I tell you it is almost time and you should be downstairs already.”
Stefano recognized the young voice.” Perrin, Tell Viktor that we are coming.”
“Yes, Lord Stefano.”
“Gerik, get dressed. Your feet, straighten your shirt. I do not wish to leave you in our room.”
The younger kindred quickly finished dressing. He opened the door then paused to look back.” You really shouldn’t have lied to Perrin.”
“In what way did I lie?”
Gerik winked. “You told him we were coming. And you know that won’t happen until after the ceremony. Although I did try.”
Stefano playfully pushed Gerik through the door. “Out. Before I forget my manners and take you here.”
“In truth?” Gerik spun around and began walking backwards. “I’m ready, sire.”
Stefano shook his head and sighed. He suddenly reached out and grabbed Gerik’s forearm just as his chylde’s foot slipped, unprepared for the top stair.” Now turn around and mind your behavior. Try to remember why we are going through this.”
“Yes, Sire.” Gerik carefully turned to descend the stairs with Stefano following him.
Once downstairs, Gerik walked to the bar while Stefano moved off to the right of the fireplace. The representatives were standing in an arc again, each holding a glass of bloodwyne, though no one was drinking. Vargon stood to the left of the fireplace while Odessa sat in one of the chairs back behind the men who stood before her husband.
Vargon looked at Stefano and smiled. Stefano bowed his head in return. After waiting a few moments longer, Vargon moved to stand in front of the fireplace and looked at the men before him. The room became morgue-silent, an analogy Stefano shoved to the back of his mind to keep from laughing. From his first word, Vargon spoke in the tone of a prince.
“We gather this eve at the birth of a new age that rides the wake of the one before. You have all heard it said, time and again, ‘A Prince is for life.’ which, if the Fates allow, means forever.” A few men chuckled softly.
“There comes a time when every prince should sit back and examine their reign. ‘Is my territory expanding or contracting?’ ‘Do my representatives serve me gladly with honor?’ and most importantly, ‘Do I wish to maintain my realm?’ I say most importantly because a prince who does not hold reign with all their strength and soul, is a prince who must step down. This is not an option to be ignored. It is part of tradition going back to our First Father, indeed, all the way to Lord Cain.” Vargon paused to look around the room and ensure he had everyone’s attention.
“It has been one of my greatest joys to walk this plane as kindred. Greater still to serve you as prince. Yet, as I adhere to the laws of tradition, I find my longing to be prince wanes. It is not from a representative; it is not from land, camp, or kumpania. This has been true since I married Odessa, she holds my heart and my soul now.” He paused to look at his wife, then looked back to the room.
“At the time I wed, my first chylde was not ready to take the responsibility before him now. Since that time, with my instruction, he has become a strong, mature kindred. I no longer have qualms with his taking my place. But, before I proceed, as is also traditional law, I ask if anyone has any cause to doubt Stefano’s ability, or to keep him from being Prince of my territory.”
Vargon stopped and looked around the room for anyone against the ceremony continuing. Stefano kept his gaze on his sire. After several awkward, uncomfortable minutes, Vargon raised his glass. “We proceed in unity, bound together by territory, by region, by love.” He took a sip of his wyne, all the representatives followed suit. Vargon’s eyes shone as he continued.
“Stefano, chylde of blood and friend of spirit, will you accept the confidence held by those within my territory?”
For the first time since the ceremony began, Stefano shifted his weight slightly on his feet as he replied. “I am, Lord Prince, protector of all who live under your shadow.”
“Then come forward, my chylde, and take the greatest gift, other than life itself, one can receive.”
Stefano stepped forward and moved in front of Vargon. Standing this close he could now feel the power, authority, and acceptance radiating from his sire. He swallowed hard, hoping he remembered the lines Vargon had taught him. “I accept what is given, my Prince, and ask that you remove any impurities from me so I might reign as you have reigned, in honor and respect for your kindred.” He slowly moved to his knees, his eyes still locked on Vargon.
Vargon’s mouth twitched as if he fought a smile. “I take all and return all to you then, Prince of Shadow, Lord of Kindred, Heir of Vargon, your prince.” Vargon knelt on one knee in front Stefano, grasped both shoulders, and leaned forward. As his chylde tilted his head to the side Vargon injected his fangs, suddenly and without restraint.
Stefano hissed in pain but remained steady. He fought the urge to collapse as Vargon removed his teeth and began to drink. Just before he gave in and blacked out, Vargon stopped drinking, licked the wound, then stood again.
“Rise, Prince of Shadow. Rise to take your place, to govern in fairness and respect of all, maintaining honor firstmost.”
Stefano stood slowly, dizzy but managed to grasp his father’s shoulders. “I take from you the mantle of responsibility and claim you a free and independent kindred.” He almost fell forward but kept himself upright as he punctured the other’s neck and began to drink heavily. His mind slowly came back in focus.
Do not drink all. Do not kill. Do not take life. Stop. Stefano shuddered and stopped. He licked the wound to close it then searched Vargon’s eyes for any sign he needed to sit. Seeing only strength and determination echoing back at him, he turned to face the room.
“My kindred. Family in shadow. I accept your approval as Prince. I take on all that once belonged to Vargon. I shall protect all who live in the shade of my hand. I promise to kill any who seek to harm even one of my family. I so declare and so do reign.” As he made the final declaration, his voice deepened, took on an authority all had so recently heard from Vargon.
Before him eight kindred, representing dozens of souls, broke into a yell in unison “Long reign Lord and Master Stefano. Prince of our families.” As one they raised their glasses and took the remaining wyne in one swallow. Stefano remained as he was until all had come to greet their new prince, then finally turned to Vargon, who spoke first.
“Chylde of my heart, my son. I am proud of you this night. You have become more and exceeded all a sire could wish.”
Stefano stepped forward and embraced his sire and whispered. “I love you, Vargon. I owe all to you. I am sorry it took so long, but you will always hold a piece of my heart.”
Vargon broke the embrace and moved back to look Stefano in the eyes.
“That is all I have ever needed to hear.”
~ Let the Games Begin ~
The small lantern dimly lit the inside of the wagon where the men rested. Stefano laid stretched out with his arms under his head; Gerik was prone over him, between his legs. His chin was on his sire’s chest so they could look at each other. He stretched up and gave a gentle kiss.
“Thank you for allowing me to come on the journey around your territory.”
Stefano moved one hand to slip through the other’s hair. “Vargon assured me since this is not an official visit, I could bring you. I have sent word to each of the groups; they also know this is just for meeting everyone. Keep in mind, I may be called upon to resolve a pressing issue. If that happens, the elders will decide if you remain. Should they say ‘no’, just come back to the wagon.”
“As you wish, sire.” Gerik turned his head and laid it against his chest. “It is still odd not hearing a heartbeat. I suppose I’ll get used to it.” Getting no response, he lifted his head. “Stef?”
“Hmmmmm?” The answer was barely audible, even for a kindred.
Gerik grinned and kissed Stefano’s chest. He began kissing his way down, sliding himself slowly off his sire’s body.
“Gerik. I don’t have the energy for more.”
“No matter. You rest. I will do all the work.”
“Ngh…” Stefano arched his back as Gerik began once again to ‘wake the dragon’.
Their first visit was with Harn and the Galaspis kumpania. People began to gather as soon as he entered light from the campfire. Stefano started talking with the elders as the younger set moved out of ear shot.
Gerik followed the young people until one turned around and pointed a finger at his chest.
“You are not welcome. We did not ask you here. Go. Before harm can fall upon you.”
“I am chylde of Prince Stefano.” Gerik’s anger began to brew deep within him. “If you have no respect for me as kindred, you owe respect to my lineage.”
“Fah! The new prince is a fool. Trying to be what he has not the power to be. Where is his nanny? Certainly he didn’t come without her.” Laughter burst from those standing around.
Gerik stepped back, his eyes pulsing.
“Stop this! Both of you come here.” Harn stood between them and the campfire. “Now.”
The younger kindred began to gather around Harn until he stopped them. “Gregor and Gerik must present themselves. The rest of you best find somewhere else to be, quickly.”
Youth scattered in all directions like debris from a volcano. Gerik bit his tongue to keep from laughing.
“Gregor, speak. Gerik remain silent until I tell you different. Now then, Gregor, tell me what was happening here.”
“That one,” he pointed at Gerik, “tried to force his way into our gathering. When we questioned him he threatened us with him being chylde of our Prince.”
“I see. You now hold your tongue while I speak with Gerik.” He turned to Stefano’s chylde. “Tell me what was transpiring here before I stopped it.”
“Yes, my lord. It is true I was following them, hoping to be part of their conversations. However, this one”, he jerked a thumb towards Gregor, “called Prince Stefano a fool. Said he needed a nanny. I was about to respond when you called us.”
“As expected, two conflicting tales. But who speaks the truth? Who speaks the truth?”
Stefano had been watching from the campfire until the two young kindred stood before Harn. As his chylde was one of the two, he started walking towards them. He had just reached them when Harn asked his last question.
“May I be of any assistance, Harn? Otherwise I shall return to the fire.”
“A true prince. Appearing where needed when needed.” Harn smiled broadly. “Indeed you might have a solution. We have two tales of things happening earlier, but in direct conflict with each other. Would our Prince help me find the truth?”
“I would be honored to help Galaspis’ representative to the Chair.” Stefano stood before the two younger kindred. When he spoke his voice register rumbled with his authority. “I would know the truth. But should I ask both of you? You will both claim you tell the truth. So instead, I request that the spreader of falsehood speak and admit his error.” The sound of distant thunder.
He now stood in silence, just watching the two. Gerik stood quiet, hands clasped behind him, his eyes locked on his sire’s. Gregor began to fidget as if ants crawled over his skin. His eyes reflected terror as he struggled to remain quiet. Finally he could resist no longer.
“I am. I lied. I did call you a fool, Lord Prince. I was fond of your sire, he was good to the young ones here. Always had time to speak with us. I did not like losing that.”
“If you had just waited, you would have found me to be an equal to Lord Vargon in longing to speak with the youth of the camp. Instead you forged ahead in folly. And now you face my judgement instead of my friendship.”
Harn cleared his throat. “My Lord Prince, thank you for your divining the truth. All of Galaspis knows such an error can carry heavy consequences.” He shot Gregor a look. “Including death, when warranted.”
There was a stifled cry from somewhere in the crowd. Stefano paused, then hearing no more, stooped to pick up a small rock.
“Gregor. I now hold your future in my hand.” He held out the hand with the rock, then closed his fingers around it. “Speaking against an elder is cause for discipline.” The rock in his hand began to crack, shadow seeping from within. “Speaking against a prince, any prince, is reason enough for death.” He dropped the stone, it fell apart along the crack lines. “However,” he paused long enough for fear to register fully in Gregor’s eyes, then glanced around the crowd. “Who does this belong to?”
“He is mine, Lord Prince.” A woman stepped out of the crowd, great worry on her face. “I am Zolita, and this one is mine. He is new, young, he still learns to calm the beast within. Sometimes his mouth gets far from his mind. I would request leniency.”
Stefano turned back to the accused. “See how your sire steps forward in your defense? She places her honor under the executer’s axe.” Another pause. “Because she speaks with compassion and conviction, I shall grant her request.” Relief flooded Gregor’s face. “Yet there is still a judgement. You shall spend as much time as elder Harn decrees at his feet. You shall learn from him. And if you do not, Harn will send word, and I shall return with a much darker decree. I trust that is understood.”
“Yes, my Lord Prince.” Gregor dropped to one knee. “I thank you for your mercy and a second chance with my life. I shall learn all there is to learn. And I shall serve my Lord Prince as if my life depended on it.”
Stefano smirked. “As it does.” He looked to the side. “Gerik, come. We shall return to our own camp.”
Stefano bowed his head to the crowd. “I thank you all for your acceptance. I am proud to call you part of the shadow family. Meeting you was a great pleasure. I shall return on the second wolfmoon from now and hold audience with those who desire it.” He turned to the elder. “Harn, as always, it is good to see you standing. We shall talk more on my return.”
“Thank you, my Lord Prince. I am glad we are falling into place once again.”
Stefano looked at Gerik as the strode out of camp. “Proud of you, my love. You remained quiet, in place, standing still for the entire impromptu hearing. And I do appreciate your desire to protect my honor.” He stopped them and turned to look into his chylde’s eyes. “As much as I love you, I cannot protect you from your own tongue. You did no wrong tonight, but it could have escalated. You must watch yourself double when visiting another camp.”
Gerik grinned, the imp shown in his eyes. . “Maybe my lord and sire can help me train my tongue.”
Stefano chuckled and took Gerik’s hand as they headed for the wagon.
“I am sure I can find some exercises for both you and your tongue.”
~ Life Lessons ~
“Perfect.” Gerik lay back on his elbows, watching the waves.
They were on a northern shore beach, half way to their next designation. They had unhitched the horse and started a gentle camp fire then a swim before feeding. Water droplets became glitter and diamonds on their skin under the bright moon. Only half showing, but away from city and town, still very bright.
“Vargon brought me here once while we were waiting on the Keep’s construction. We spent nigh on a half-moon before we headed back to Haven. Or what was Haven before the Keep.”
“The Keep hasn’t always been named Haven?”
“The Keep has. But the name ‘Haven’ was used by Vargon for wherever he set camp … long before he turned me.” He stretched then sat up, arms on his raised knees. “It would be no surprise to me if he claimed the name back. He should have it. It is his, after all. Though I’m not sure what we should call our home, should he do so.”
“Many people in town call it the ‘Stone Palace’. Father …” he paused as sorrow flashed across his face. “…father always called it ‘The Place’.
“’The Place’ has a grand staircase; ‘The Place’ overlooks the sea; ‘It was good to dance at ‘The Place’; ‘The Place’ this and that.”
“You miss your parents.” It was not a question.
“At times, yes. If only he wasn’t so against us.”
“Perhaps sometime.” Stefano stood and offered a hand to his chylde. “Come. Let’s feed.”
“Feed? We are nowhere near any population. I thought you brought bloodwyne for this.”
“I brought bloodwyne in case it is needed. It is not needed this eve, there is plenty of wildlife.”
“I would not make a consistent diet of such, but for a night or two, they are fine.”
“So rabbits and gophers?”
Stefano laughed. “I would rather do with wyne than a gopher. Rabbits aren’t bad. But I have a better idea this eve.” He paused and turned as if listening. Or scenting.
“What is it?”
“Come.” Stefano led through a group of trees then stopped. “There. Concentrate your vision across the field. In the grove there.”
Gerik leaned a little forward and narrowed his eyes, searching. Suddenly he stood full and smiled. “He’s a big one. Nice large rack. F. . Father would approve.”
“Let us dine. Follow.” Stefano stepped into shadow and moved along the edge of the meadow. Tall grasses moved like caught in a gentle current, blown by the warm summer breeze. Flowers dotted the ground, a kaleidoscope of colors when the taller grasses leaned the right direction. The far grove of trees provided a canopy against the light, a safe place for a variety of animals.
Stefano swore under his breath as he stepped on burr runner, a small plant notorious for its abundant thorned beads. As he walk-hopped to a grassy area and flopped himself down, their intended meal lept into the dark recesses of the grove. He pulled up his leg and began gently pulling out the thorny burrs.
Gerik sighed. “There goes our food. All my time hunting and I have not seen such a fine deer. He would have satisfied, I believe.” He looked down at his sire. “Maybe if we had gotten dressed first?”
Stefano pulled the last from his foot and rubbed a hand vigorously across the sole. “Done, I think. And if we had taken time to dress, we would have missed timing with the deer. Which is not gone, just moved. Follow.”
Gerik smiled at Stefano’s one-word directions. They were never spoken as commands, though someone outside their relationship might take them as such. When he asked Stefano about it, the answer was equally concise. “Superfluous words. Why should I say ‘follow me?’ If I say ‘follow’, do you not know I mean me?” Gerik had laughed at it, he almost did at its memory.
Stefano wove soundlessly through the grove, being careful to avoid any more surprises. He made a couple sharp turns and moved into the bushes of a small glen. “I think the Fates themselves created this. Note how it is almost a perfect circle without a tree. Just the fine green grasses.”
“But why are we here?”
“Wait a moment. Watch.” After a few moments he pointed a short distance from them. “There.”
Gerik’s eyes widened as the buck stepped out and looked around the area before grazing. “How did you know?”
“Experience, dear one. You will learn in time.”
“May I take him down?”
“Yes. I would enjoy watching your prowess, my heart.”
Gerik moved slowly, each step carefully planned, occasionally seeming the wrong direction as he stayed in the low grass and moss, silent and still. When he drew near he paused and extended his fangs. In a blur he moved the last few yards and hit the animal on its side, knocking it to the ground. He moved like lightning to the neck and pierced an artery. The animal became quiet almost immediately as he drank. Stefano walked up and smiled.
“There should be plenty for both of us…”
Gerik nodded, not removing his mouth. He gestured with a hand and Stefano moved near, crouching low. As his chylde moved away, Stefano was on the animal in an instant, drinking hungrily. The deer’s eyes glazed over and its breathing stopped before he finished. Finally he stood, licking his lips.
“Exquisite. Just recently matured.”
“You can tell?”
“Like all things, with practice.”
Gerik knelt and ran a hand over the animal’s side. “It’s almost a fur, so soft. Just more stiff than true fur. It is a shame there are no muritor present to use the meat.”
Stefano arched a brow. “When did you begin speaking Rom-Gypsy?”
Gerik laughed and stood. “I have been studying for a while now, when you have been out or busy elsewhere. I wished it to be a surprise. I did say that right, didn’t I? The word for ‘mortal’?”
“You did indeed. And it is quite a surprise.” Stefano glanced eastward where the black sky was blending into a dark blue. “We need to prepare the wagon. Come.”
When they returned to the camp, Gerik began by dousing the remnants of their fire. Stefano ducked into the wagon and returned with four posts, each about two inches around and four foot in length. One end had been narrowed into a dull point. He tossed them to Gerik then slipped back into the wagon where he began unfolding a heavy dark material. He draped it through hoops along the braces of the wagon until he had made a light-proof cocoon. The one spot to be sealed was at the front of the wagon.
Stefano stepped out in time to see Gerik finish with the warding poles. He started by standing at a corner of the wagon. Then eleven steps diagonally away and he would set the pole firmly in the ground. The prince waited for his chylde to finish, then held open the wagon flap to let Gerik through and followed him in.
Once inside, Stefano sealed the last opening by folding one side into a pocket sleeve on the other. At this point no light could enter the wagon. Stefano turned to find Gerik had already pulled back the coverlets on the wagon floor. Each kindred opened a small box and took out a handful of soil. The dirt was then sprinkled on the bottom pad and then overlaid by a single coverlet, then each box was sealed. The men embraced for a tender kiss before they began undressing for the day.
“Stef, tell me again why we sprinkle the ground each night? It’s not required at the Keep to be redone every evening, why here? That much light does not come in.”
“Not much, but enough. And once the soil is contaminated by the sun, it must be replaced. So we clear out the old at the beginning of the night, and refresh it when we seal up while the sun is in the sky.”
“Perhaps I just have not fully grasped the power of the light of the sun. It explains why we are not up at all during light hours, even in the caverns of our room.” He paused, thinking. “And the warding poles – they will really hide us?”
“Viktor assures me that with the four properly placed, all mortal life will be kept away from our resting place. Should someone come close enough to catch the slightest glimpse, the wagon will blend away into the background. Vargon has confirmed he has used them for generations.”
Gerik stretched slowly then dropped to his knees before lying out fully. He watched as his sire finished undressing, his dark eyes alive with desire. Stefano laid next to him and they pulled into an embrace, legs entwined.
Stefano yawned. “If you rise first, wake me. We still have a lot of ground to cover before we reach Rensdale.”
Gerik grinned. “That you can count on, my heart.”
The next night they traveled quickly, stopping at one point to feed, but then immediately moved on. They reached their next location a few hours before morning broke through. They camped near the inlet of a small lake, the wagon nestled in bush and tree. As Stefano unhitched the horses, Gerik prepared a fire, but since they would be leaving momentarily, he did not light it.
“With it this close until dayfall, couldn’t we wait until next evening?”
“I told Turk we would arrive this night. We may need to return tomorrow eve, we shall see.”
The small village of Rensdale lay in a valley, surrounded by mountain and hill. The simplest routes in and out of the village were along the river that flowed through the area. By camping near the mouth of the river, Stefano had ensured their journey on foot would be gentle and easy.
As they drew close, both men admired the natural spires of stone that stood on either side of the valley’s opening. They headed for the fire burning in the center of town. As they passed by house and shop, people began to congregate around them. There were pleasant welcomes given by many,
Gerik began to appreciate his sire’s position by how quickly villagers opened to him. When they stopped near the fire, he turned his head slowly, sensing the air. He turned to Stefano, curious. “Mortals?”
Stefano nodded. “There are many here, though all are quite aware of our people. They live here, sleeping in the security kindred provide; then it reverses at dayfall. Typically most are subjugates.”
“They have drunk kindred blood? This is fascinating. I knew that relationship could exist, but never expected to see it on such a wide scale. Though I understand it. The villagers have protection and the kindred have sustenance. Yet not all are prepared?”
“Not the very young. They are first allowed to mature; many to marry and have their own children. Though all adults will be subjugates, not all will be used for feeding. And none are taken until done bearing children.” Stefano smiled and extended a hand in greeting as the village’s representative stepped forward.
“Well met, my Lord Prince. It is good to see you again.”
“Well met indeed, Turk. You are looking fit and fed.” Stefano looked at the people and various buildings. “Quite peaceful, Rensdale.”
Around the center stood houses and shops of varying shapes and sizes. From what Stefano and Gerik could see, the shops to be shorter while homes often had multiple floors. While a house would have the appearance of a cottage, shops had a more regal, almost gothic front. Typical cobblestone streets wound through the village, tying everything together. A large well was situated the western edge of center village which permitted people to get water without having to carry in from the river.
“It is, Lord Stefano. Very peaceful. A grand place to live. We have only one issue for your attention.”
“Oh? And that is?”
Turk thought a while before continuing. “Some of our subjugates would like to meet the new Prince. They had met with your sire on occasion and wish that to continue with you.”
“Please, bid them come.” Stefano leaned over to Gerik. “If you need, return to our camp. This can be very stressful for the beast when we have not fed of recent.”
“I shall, Sire. If I need to.”
Stefano turned to greet six mortals as they approached. He shook each hand, mentally holding back his own inner beast as his skin came in contact with the warmth of their hands. Gerik simply nodded his head in greeting when introduced, most would return it. He was thankful none tried to shake his hand; his hunger raged within him just watching Stefano come in contact. After the fifth greeting, he interrupted the proceedings and spoke to his sire. “My Lord Prince, I need to step out for a few minutes.”
Stefano smiled, pleased with the manor Gerik used to break away. “Of course, my chylde. I shall be here.”
Gerik left, walking briskly into the shadows away from the central fire. Once out of sight, he wrapped his arms around himself and groaned quietly.
“May I assist?”
Gerik jumped and turned to watch a mid-aged woman walking up. He composed himself, allowing her to keep speaking.
“I am Tranad, one of Turk’s daughters.”
“Well met then, Tranad. I am Gerik. I am only a trifle tired from our journeying, but I do thank you. “
“You hold yourself like one in great need, I am subjugate, Lord Gerik. I wish only to serve.” She stepped forward, her heat encompassing him. “Please, use me.”
Gerik’s hand shook as he lightly touched her cheek. “You are most kind, mistress, but I truly just need a moment.” He smiled at her. “But I may accept that offer, should we remain for tomorrow eve.”
She followed his motions, lightly stroking his cheek. Her eyes radiated desire, but whether to allow feeding or intimate contact was difficult to determine. “As you wish then, my lord. Good night.” She turned and walked away casually.
Gerik closed his eyes. No. I shall not partake without speaking with Turk first. Stef would not be pleased should I overstep my welcome by lacking proper restraint. I will not succumb. . I am Gerik, son of Lord Stefano, Prince and Sire. He slowly began to calm. Once he was back to his senses, he returned to Stefano’s side.
Stefano was speaking to a few of the village elders. There was some laughter, it was clear they were comfortable and accepting of each other. He slipped an arm around Gerik’s waist, then looked at him, brow raised. Strong emotions flowed from his chylde. Emotions and need. He turned back to the elders.
“If there is nothing else, and all is settled, I believe Gerik and I shall leave at next moonrise and continue our travels.”
Turk replied. “Of course, Lord Stefano. It has been a great pleasure having our Prince in our midst. We will hope for a return soon, but understand you have a large territory to cover, as well as your personal life.” He grinned at Gerik. “Gerik, it was good to see you again as well. You disappeared on us, are you all right?”
“I am, Turk – your concern is warming to the soul. I hope I may return sometime to learn more of Rensdale and its people.”
Stefano bid their final goodbyes and left, holding his love’s hand. They walked in silence until clear of the village where Stefano finally spoke what was on his mind. “Something troubles you, I can feel it.”
“I am sure you realized why I left the group. You were right, being that close to the mortals was weighing heavy on me. Then, while I was recuperating, Turk’s daughter walked up and offered herself. I, of course, did not feed. Not without speaking to her father first. And to you. I am still unclear sometimes as to proper protocol when traveling your territory.”
“You did well, dear heart. Your growth and maturity is a grand sight to witness.”
“Thank you sire. It is still an hour or more before we must retire. Did you want a fire for a while?”
“That would be pleasant, Gerik. Please do. I shall pull a couple of bottles and we can sit and talk, sire to chylde, prince to subject, or lover to lover. Whichever should arise first.”
Gerik grinned mischievously. “Arise? I may know the answer to that one.”
~ Sins of the Past ~
Their second evening home, Stefano and Gerik were entertaining Ferris and Liness Stonce from the mainland. The couple were friends with the Falows. The four had shared a late dessert and glasses of sherry at a table on the balcony so Lord Stonce could smoke his pipe. When he stood to empty the spent pipe into the ashcan, the light, sweet scent of cherry wafted from him.
“It has been a pleasant evening, but Liness and I should be returning home. “
Stefano and Gerik stood; Stefano shook the man’s hand.
“Thank you, Lord and Lady Stonce. It was nice spending time with you. Remember now, your eldest is welcome to come with you next time.”
“I’m sure she will be ecstatic. Come, Liness.”
Lord Stonce helped his wife stand. She said her quick good-byes and they headed for the front doors. The indoor footman had reached for one of the knobs when both doors swung. Vargon and Odessa stepped in and the two couples greeted each other. Vargon then offered his hand to Lord Stonce.
“I am glad we were able to see you before you left. It is a shame you and Lady Liness cannot stay a while. Perhaps next time Odessa and I visit we can meet over drinks.”
“I would enjoy that, Lord Vargon. Good night, then.”
A footman closed the doors behind the Stonces while Vargon and Odessa walked to the bar.
“Sire, Odessa, how splendid to see you both. To what do we owe for the honor of your visit?”
Vargon frowned as his eyes flashed once. “Is that sherry? Viktor, Odessa and I would enjoy a glass of the same. As to our visit, I’m afraid our woods have become infested.”
“Infested? That is sad news indeed. What blight has descended upon the trees?” Stefano set his glass on the bar; Viktor swiftly refreshed it with more of the sherry.
“Wolven? That is a blight indeed.”
Gerik had Viktor refill his glass as he interjected. “What are wolven? I don’t remember them from my lessons.”
Stefano sipped his drink. “You would know them as werewolves. I did not mention them because I would rather forget they exist. They are foul, spiteful creatures that have been at war with kindred since the dawn of their unfortunate existence.” He set his glass down. “Viktor, I believe I will need a house brandy. A double if you would.” Stefano turned back to his sire. “I thought the agreed settlement of peace declares they are not to venture into our lands as we are to stay from theirs.”
Vargon shook his head. “It appears one of their kind is disregarding that settlement. I did not wish the confrontation, signs of his presence were throughout the woods. As the warding sticks would not shelter the wagon, I brought my love to safety.”
Odessa stretched up to kiss his cheek. “And I love you for the compassion.”
Gerik entered the conversation. “You said ‘his’, my lord. How do you know it is male?”
“Only the male mark territory by slashing a tree then urinating on the area, and his signs and odor are everywhere.”
Stefano rook a long slow sip of his drink before he spoke again. “How many do you think there are? Is it one male with the usual harem, or a full pack?”
“I have not seen any. But I talked to a friend of mine in Silver Wolf’s pack and she…”
Stefano interrupted Vargon, confusion and dismay clouding his face. “Wait! You are friends with wolven?”
“Fair question, even if rudely posed. I have one friend who is a monthly wolven. She only turns during wolfmoon, unlike so many that have given up their mortal shell completely. According to her, word is out that a rogue male, name of ‘Draxis’, has been terrorizing various communities. I understand that he even killed several in his own pack before they managed to drive him out.”
“They should have ended him. By the Fates! Did it appear as if he was headed north? Or east? Your terri--- my territory lies in that direction from your camp, unless you moved it.”
“No, had not moved Haven. But now it is here, on the island. Safe from the likes of some wolven.”
Stefano looked to Gerik, who nodded in response. They both heard it; they would be renaming the Keep.
“All things as they are, I am weary and would like to rest. Odessa and I fed afore we arrived, and my mind calls to withdraw for a spell. Odessa, you are free to remain and talk if you wish. Stefano, Gerik, Viktor, I bid you all a restful night.” Vargon slowly headed up the stairs to his suite of rooms.
Stefano looked to Odessa, his face etched with concern. “Is he alright? I know he claims to be fine but I can’t help but worry. You understand that.”
“I do understand. And yes, he is fine. It’s not unusual for him to be tired like this, it happened even before the fire, so don’t try to take any blame. He truly is fine, Stefano. Our sire just takes it very hard when things he strives for are lost.” She stepped forward and patted his cheek. “That’s why he’s so pleased with you, brother-of-blood. I am going up to be with him. You two enjoy the rest of the night.”
“You as well, Odessa. Sweet respite.”
Gerik added, “Goodnight, Odessa.” He looked at Stefano. “She is a nice woman. Vargon did well in choosing her.”
Viktor spoke from behind the bar. “If you have nothing else, I will bid you a good night as well.”
“Goodnight, dear friend.” Stefano finished his drink. “And yes, Gerik, she is very nice. Vargon does seem to know how to find beauty, poise, charm, and intelligence in his children.”
“Don’t forget modesty.”
“Is that a slight?” Stefano laughed. “You must be repaid for that comment.”
Stefano lunged for his chylde, forcing thoughts of wolven and other troubles from his mind, at least for the time being. Gerik managed to dodge him and race for the balcony doors. The youth was also laughing by the time he hit the stone steps and charged for the beach, Stefano close on his heels.
. . . . .
A lone figure walked around the small meadow, following prominent wheel marks. There were kindred here earlier – their odor remains. He followed the tracks a few yards then stopped where the indentions in the grass ended. They slip into shadow. So my adversaries are not stupid. This could turn to be an enjoyable hunt. He bent low to pick up some of the crushed blades and rubbed them under his nose between thumb and forefinger. And if my sense of smell is accurate, which I know it is, my old ‘friend’ is one of them. What fortune to find him as well.
Draxis snarled, then released a long, mournful howl.
I sense you are near, Vargon, prince of the damned. And I find you.
~ This Present Peace ~
Viktor stood behind the bar, tapping his fingers his face a mask of frustration. What is it? I can feel it, almost a presence, but … of what?
The manservant looked up into his master’s eyes. “I’m sorry, m’Lord. I was lost in thought. What can I do for your this fine evening?”
“You can start by telling me what has you so troubled. Not an order, you understand, just a … concerned request from a friend.”
Viktor pursed his lips. “There is not much to say, Lord Stefano. I simply have the unsettling feeling of foreboding. I just cannot determine why.”
“Could it have anything to do with Father’s announcement of wolven?”
“That is most likely the cause. Thank you, m’Lord. I feel much less burdened.”
“I am pleased. I would like a glass of my brandy, please. And have you seen my chylde this evening? He is not in our room.”
Viktor set the glass on the bar. “Lord Gerik did come down earlier. He said he was going for a swim.”
Stefano headed for the balcony, glass in hand. “Excellent. I may join him, it sounds like a brilliant notion.”
Stefano stepped onto the wet sand and scanned the sea while he sipped his drink. Most times I have to plead with him to join me. I am glad if he is more comfortable in the water. Mayhaps he finds swimming as clearing for mind and soul as I do. He caught the flash of movement along one of the rock formations and narrowed his eyes to sharpen his gaze. I believe … yes, it’s him. But what is he doing? It looks like – is he? He is. He is climbing. Must be much more at ease, he didn’t care for the heights when I took him there last.
Stefano rested on one of the boulders in the area and watched his chylde. The rush of water over his bare feet was enjoyable. He took another slow drink, then stood up. What is he…? I do not believe he is actually going to jump? By the Fates, he just dove off the rock face! How deep is that area, I don’t remember checking.
Stefano set his glass down and had removed his shirt before the familiar shape surfaced a slight distance from his splash point. He watched in amazement as Gerik swam back to the same rocks and began climbing them again. Alright Stefano, relax. He is fine; not being reckless, though I am surprised at his climbing, not to mention diving into the sea. He will have much to explain when he returns. Now at ease, Stefano picked his glass back up before he sat and went back to watching Gerik.
The light of the wolfmoon shimmered on the surface of the water and surfed the waves in sparkles. A light breeze was blowing and the tide was rising, submerging more and more of Stefano’s legs. His gaze slipped from his chylde to the stars over the horizon.
I am at such peace. Even Vargon’s news of wolven does not seem to be of any importance at the present. I am in love with a man who loves me in return. My family is together and safe. I could simply …
His thoughts were broken by a splash of water in his face and a giggle. He refocused to his right and caught Gerik scooping water in both hands. His chylde looked at him and grinned, then threw the water again at Stefano’s face.
“Wake up Stef. You’ve been sitting here in a trance; I’ve been trying to talk to you for the past couple minutes.”
“My apologies, my heart.” Stefano stood and unbuttoned his trousers. He let them fall to into the water and kicked them in Gerik’s direction.
Gerik laughed as he ducked beneath the water-logged clothing. “You should warn someone before you throw things.”
Stefano stopped short as his eyes misted over. He shivered in the warm air and swallowed hard. “I … I suppose … I should.” His voice was distant, his gaze unfocused.
“Stef? What’s wrong? Did I do something? Are you feeling ill?” Gerik fired questions at Stefano rapidly, not giving time to answer.
Stefano shook his head then looked at his chylde. “Sorry, my heart. I was just reminded of an earlier time. A much earlier time.”
“Would you tell me of it?
“Come.” Stefano turned and walked to the stairs, then sat on a step. Gerik sat further down, watching his sire closely, as if he didn’t know what to expect. Stefano smiled and wiped a lone tear from his cheek. “I was so young then, younger than you when we first met. I was in training, learning simple matters – how to add or remove numbers; the different gypsy seasons and high-days; typical Rom subjects, I suppose. I had a good friend, his name…” He wiped another tear from his face. “his name was Nikolos.”
Gerik waited a few moments before speaking. “Go on, Stef. I would like to know more, if you would. But it looks like this is causing you great pain.”
Stefano reached down to stroke Gerik’s cheek. “It is a good memory. We were just playing in the meadow nearby – avoiding our training. It was a good day – winter time – snow was over knee depth. Nikolos had thrown a snowball at me while I was turned away from him.” He smiled broadly.” He yelled ‘Duck’ just before it hit. Knocked me face down in the snow. My reaction, once I brushed most of the cold from my face and chest, was to tell him he should warn somebody before throwing something at them…” He gazed into the distance. “In many ways, you remind me of him. The same playful spirit,” his eyes returned to Gerik, “the same incredible eyes.”
Gerik pursed his lips in thought. “Do you see him when you look at me?”
“What? No, my heart. I see you. The man I love. Perhaps your similarities to another drew my attention to you initially, but it is your spirit, your being, that I adore.”
“So then, what became of … Nikolos?”
Sorrow flooded Stefano’s presence. “The men of the camp were on a hunt – Nikolos had moved to circle in from the right, I was on the left.”
Gerik remained silent, listening and watching his sire.
“He never came out of the thicket. He was there, we heard a shout, and he was gone.”
“You never saw him again?”
“It sounds like he was very important to you.”
“He was,” Stefano stood. “But that is enough reminiscing. If I remember correctly, you had just …” He bent down and splashed water on Gerik.
Within moments they were waist-deep in the surging foam-coated surf, laughing, splashing, and pushing each other beneath the waves.
Later, while lying on the beach star gazing, Gerik rolled to his side towards Stefano. “I suppose then I’m glad I have a resemblance to him.”
“Him? Oh. Nikolos. Yes? Why does it please you?”
Gerik leaned in for a kiss.
“I would not have met you otherwise.”
~ An Unexpected Guest ~
Stefano drummed the fingers of his hand on the bar while he sat on a stool and watched Viktor run the numbers in the daily ledger. “Did he say when he’d be back?” Frustration emanated from him.
“No, m’Lord. Mas… Lord Vargon only said he was going ‘out’ and would return soon.”
“But you know where he went. You are too connected to him not to know.”
“I can sense general area is all, and before ye ask the answer is ‘No’, I will not break generations of protecting his privacy. Even for ye.”
“Fair enough, then. I truly do find your loyalty a strength.” He stood, unbuttoned the top of his trousers, then sat back down. The pants were his tightest; they looked uncomfortable. He was sans shirt and barefoot. “Foul things are going to strangle me.”
“I did offer to handle your laundry earlier this week. Ye know I would without question or delay. I actually do enjoy my station in life, m’Lord.”
“Yes, Viktor, I know. It is apparent in everything you do. I was just trying to … I don’t know what I was trying to do.” Stefano paused in thought before continuing. “Alright. You are right, I’m being stubborn for no reason. Viktor, I would be pleased if you would take on another duty here at the Keep. Will you handle the laundry for myself and Gerik?”
“Stefano, what is this?” Gerik walked down the stairs slowly, carrying a small oaken box.
“Ah… the memory box.”
“A place for keepsakes, that type of thing. It belonged to Allise. There is a small panel on the front that slides enough to unlatch the top.”
Gerik examined the box carefully, then grinned widely as he opened the small container. He set it on the bar and took some things out, then stopped. “It is all right if I look through this, isn’t it?”
“Of course, my heart. Memories are meant to be treasured and shared with those you love.”
“It looks like mostly finger bands and the like. Wait, this one is too large for a woman. What is this one for?” He handed it to Stefano.
Stefano smiled as he slipped it on his right index finger. “A marriage band. This one is mine. After … after I lost Allise and Niko, I put it in the box so I wouldn’t misplace it somewhere.” He slipped the band off and handed it back to Gerik.
“Yes, Niko was your son. I remember. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you by bringing this down.”
“You have not, Gerik. These are things I treasure, it is only right you learn their value.”
Gerik held out his hand. On his palm was a small circular item with a delicate chain and closing hook. “And this?”
Stefano picked it up, again with a wistful smile.” A ringlet. Worn on the ear. Something my troupe used to show affection and dedication for another. They were made in pairs.”
“A ringlet? But it is not round. That is, yes, it is round, but it has sides and edges.”
“Indeed it does. Six, to be precise. It is carved from stone, a fine crystalline, actually.” He handed it back. “Let it hang from your fingers and spin it in the light.”
Gerik gasped. “It pulses light. A blue light.”
“Yes. I have no idea how Ferin, he was our stonesmith, managed to make them. Because of the angled edges, it catches light and filters the blue. It almost looks like a heartbeat, the way it pulses.”
“And your wife wore the other one. So you wore both band and ringlet?”
“No. Actually, the mate to that ringlet was worn by Nikolos. Mine was worn in the left ear, his in the right.”
Gerik turned it a few more times before returning it to the box. “It is beautiful. Incredible craftsmanship. Impressive, really. All right, so what is this?” He pulled what appeared to be hairs tied by a thread from the box.
Stefano paused, his hand shook as he held it out for the hair. “Nikolos… that is, Niko, my son. From his first hair trim. Allise wanted a locket to keep it in. She planned on giving it to him … on his wedding day.” He wiped a tear from his cheek and handed the hair back to Gerik. “Possibly the one memory that still causes me to weep.”
Gerik replaced the hair and closed the box. He leaned forward and kissed his sire’s cheek. “I’m sorry for your loss and pain, Stefano, but I thank you deeply for sharing these memories with me. I shall put this back in our room.” With that he turned and reverently carried the memory box upstairs.
Viktor looked up from his ever-present ledger. “Your mate is an interesting study, m’Lord.”
“How so, interesting?”
“Many might be jealous of a lover’s memories from previous days. Lord Gerik seems to value your past almost as much as you do.”
“He has a gentle soul, a kind heart. He is the greatest joy in my life.”
“Who’s the greatest joy in your life?” Gerik grinned as he walked back to the bar.
“You, of course, my love.” Stefano replied, kissing Gerik softly as he sat.
Viktor closed the ledger and looked to Stefano. “I must speak to the kitchen help about any supply needs and contact the delivery market. If you gentlemen will excuse me.” He bowed his head then turned and walked into the kitchen. Gerik chuckled as the door closed and got an inquisitive look from Stefano.
“You find something humorous?”:
“More intriguing, I suppose. I was just noticing that Viktor will ask to be excused but leave before he gets a response.”
“If you listen, you’ll find he is not truly asking, it is more him saying we should excuse him because he is about to step away.”
“I’ll have to give closer attention. Stefano, I was wondering, should we get marriage bands or ringlets or some-such? Anyone who sees us would then know we are together.”
Stefano winked. “If they cannot tell by the lust in my eyes, they are blind. But – did you have something in mind?”
Gerik grinned, the imp in his eyes shone. “Well, I do know one place you could wear a band, assuming, of course, one could be found large enough.”
Stefano laughed and shook his head. “Can you remove your mind from my pants, even for a short time? Besides, how would anyone ‘know we are together’ with a band there?” He dropped his voice conspiratorially. “And by what do you mean ‘large enough’? I thought you found my size … ideal for your pleasure.”
Before Gerik could answer, one of the front doors swung open and Vargon stepped in, accompanied by a man neither Stefano or Gerik recognized. Stefano was pleased to see Vargon appeared in good spirits. They were apparently in deep discussion as they were walking slowly with several hand gestures. Stefano waited until they were at the bar and looked his direction, though Vargon spoke before his chylde could ask about the stranger.
“Jence, this is Stefano, Lord of this Keep and Prince of the region. Stefano, I met Jence on the mainland seeking for you.”
Jence extended his arm. “Prince Stefano, it is my distinct pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Jence, chylde of Baston, chylde of Orvis. I am here to request acceptance as a subject of your realm. I wish to reside within your territory.”
Stefano and Jence grasped arms firmly as Stefano spoke. “Jence, it is good to meet you. I thank you for seeking me out and abiding by the traditions of old. Tell me of where within my realm you wish to settle.” He released Jence’s arm as his was released.
“I desire living in the Arvus camp; I have a missive from elder Runick. He handed the sealed parchment to the kumpania.
Stefano carefully opened the page and read it smiling.” I know Runick’s hand, his signature, and the seal on his missive. As he has given permission to your request, I welcome you to the kumpania. Runick says here your wagon sits with theirs and that you have two meek steeds. What is your skill or trade?”
“I care for animals, my lord. It was my dream as a child; the Fates have surely smiled upon me to grant that hope. And they bless again with my finding the kumpania. I look forward to traveling with them, living with them, becoming one with Arvus kindred.”
“Well met, then. Viktor, wyne for friend Jence and my sire. Jence, may I introduce my chylde, Gerik.”
Jence extended his arm. “Well met, friend Gerik.” His eyes flashed with desire.
“Well met, Jence. I once considered the medical trade but didn’t take the studies.”
“Truly? What made you give up on medicine?”
“It is a long, boring tale of a spoiled rich child.”
“You have raised my interest, I would enjoy hearing more.”
“Once you are settled in Arvus, you should come back for a stay and we can talk more. We have plenty of spare rooms.”
“I would enjoy that.”
Stefano watched in silence as shadows swirled within the prince’s pupils.
~ Storm’s Fury ~
The storm surge pushed and pulled Stefano as he swam to his favorite resting place. Although the tempest’s center had not yet reached the island, the sea foretold of its severity. White caps pounded the shore mercilessly as winds began to rise. Stars were gradually swallowed behind ominous clouds that encroached the heavens. By the time he reached the level outcropping, his muscles were feeling the strain.
Stefano climbed above the water and laid down to relax. His gaze was skyward, but unfocussed as his heart debated with his mind.
I cannot lose another.
[_He loves me, there is no danger. _]
[_Jence wants him, I could sense it. _]
[_I can trust Gerik. _]
[_I cannot trust Jence. _]
[_Gerik will not be swayed. _]
[_Gerik is all too oft sex-crazed. _]
Gerik loves me. And Jence will be leaving soon.
Jence still has one more night before returning to Arvis.
[_Jence is no real threat. _]
I must protect that which is mine.
Stefano growled angrily and stood to dive into the raging waters. Cold assaulted his nervous system; his eyes stung from sand the storm had stirred into the sea. When he reached the small inlet to his beach, the rising tide helped him to the shore. He walked onto the wet sand and remained motionless as rivulets of salty sea water ran down his frame.
Finally Stefano shook his head, sending water spray everywhere. When he turned to grab his towel he cursed himself for its absence. This is what happens when I rush. Vargon was always trying to teach me to slow down, think first. It is just not part of me. He sighed and grabbed his shirt and tried to dry off. Unfortunately silk does not absorb much so he was still very wet when he gave up and tugged his trousers on. He left the top button open. This will keep his attention on me. He padded up the stone steps smiling as he imagined how his appearance would affect his lover. Water droplets glistened on his chest and back while his lower torso was encased in his trousers. It was if he never tried to dry, the fabric of the pants wet enough to cling to him like a second skin.
Because the storm’s magnitude rose, he stopped to close both balcony doors before fully entering the grand hall. He looked around the room and swore silently; Gerik was nowhere to be found. Not surprisingly, neither was their guest. The room was empty, the only sound being the crackle from the fireplace. Stefano turned to the stairs and quickly scaled them. He stood quiet a moment – not a sound. His next move was up the stairs to the third floor. He walked the hall quietly, listening at each door, but still heard nothing. By the Fates, where are you?
His hearing perked as the sound of the front door echoed up the stairs. He sighed in relief then headed back down, working on calming himself more at each step. Think first, act second. Get the full story before you kill Jence. He chuckled to himself. When he turned on the last landing he was jolted to a stop by the scene in front of him. Jence held Gerik by the shoulders; it was obvious his chylde did not want the attention being given.
Jence’s voice was deep with want. “No one will know, and I assure you it will be more than you could ever dream of.” He pulled Gerik closer, trying to kiss him.
Before Stefano could react, Gerik broke free and turned to kick out his left foot. He struck Jence squarely in the chest, sending the kindred stumbling backwards. Gerik’s voice filled the room.
“I am through being the ‘good host’. You will gather your things and leave our home now.”
“You are not Lord of the Keep. And you certainly are not Prince.”
Stefano stepped down onto the main floor. “No, but I am.” His tone clearly indicated he spoke in authority.
Jence released Gerik and stepped back, the desire in his eyes quickly replaced by fear and trepidation. Gerik took one look at his sire’s demeanor and knew a storm to match anything outside was brewing inside. “Sire, this one has been after me ever since you left for your swim. I have made every effort to squelch his advances. And now he refuses to leave because I have no authority in our own home.”
Stefano held out a hand; Gerik walked over and took it. Stefano pulled him close and spoke, his voice gentle. “You have all authority here, less negating my words. I saw enough to know you valiantly defended yourself, indeed our home as well.” He slowly raised his eyes to look at Jence, who stood near the bar. This time when he spoke, thunder echoed in his voice, the rumble of a distant threat. “You are to leave our home now. You are fortunate I am not banning you from my realm and putting a price on your life, though I am close. One word to Runick and you would never see the inside of your wagon again. I should just kill you here; I certainly have the right and justification! Do not try to explain or worm your way clear – I know what I saw, and I saw more than enough. Heed my words – if I ever see your face again, anywhere, or hear your voice or even sense your foulness, you shall pay the price for your actions here tonight. I will let you decide out how to avoid my visits to Arvis. That is, if the elders permit you to remain. Now go.”
Jence was half-way to the stairs when the balcony doors exploded. The branch of a large tree lay through one of the glass panels, the second door was torn from its hinges. Glass from both doors littered the room.
Stefano had crouched low with Gerik, shielding him as best he could. Once the initial turmoil was finished, he stood with his chylde and searched his eyes. “Are you alright, my love? Are you injured?”
Gerik placed a hand on his sire’s cheek. “I am fine, my love, my protector. I was frightened at first, but I calmed when you sheltered me. Did anything hit you?”
“Nothing, my love. It looks like we both are unscathed.”
“I cannot say the same for him.” Gerik pointed at Jence who was prone on the floor, not moving.
Stefano walked over to him and knelt as Viktor entered the room from the kitchens. A large shard of stained glass was lodged in Jence’s temple. The manservant surveyed the situation and spoke in time to stop Stefano from removing the shard.
“Leave the glass. Removing it would give free flow from the wound. Let me get my things.” He stepped into the kitchen and returned quickly holding a bluish bottle of liquid and some pieces of a red cloth. He knelt beside the wounded one and looked at Stefano. “You will need to help me.”
“Just tell me what to do, Viktor, and it will be done.”
Viktor handed him a thick fold of cloth. “I am going to remove the glass. I need you to cover the wound immediately. Apply pressure – we want to restrict blood loss as much as possible. There are only a few places where a kindred can effectively be drained of life. With him prone, this is second only to the heart.”
Stefano nodded. “Understood.” He rapidly covered the wound once the glass was gone.
“Good, just keep pressing.” Viktor opened the bottle and closed his eyes, and lifted the bottle with both hands. “By the Fates I call from all nature that which gives life. I call the healing of the oxen, the strength of the bear, the swiftness of the doe. Infuse my humble offering with your powers that I may save this man’s life.” Stefano and Gerik watched in wide-eyed amazement as a whisp of white smoke began to flow towards the bottle. It swirled in an ancient dance, twisting around itself before descending into the raised vessel.
Viktor reverently lowered the bottle, eyes still closed. “I thank you and call on the Fates to decree healing on this one.” He opened his eyes. “Now, remove the cloth.” As blood began to flow from the wound, Viktor placed two fingers lightly over it opening and began pouring from the bottle. A thick clear essence flowed out, falling on his fingers. Viktor’s hand shook and he cried out in pain as the area around his fingers began to glow. White light started to fill the room when Viktor shouted.
“Stefano. Gerik. Cover your eyes. Now!”
Both men closed their eyes and covered them with an arm. The felt a cool breeze for a moment, then suddenly only the storm could be heard.
“Uncover your eyes, it is done. The light is gone.”
Viktor still knelt beside Jence – the wound to his temple was closed. It was a light crimson, but the skin was definitely sealed over it. Viktor stood, uneasy on his feet. He appeared drained and old, extremely old. Stefano stood quickly and supported him. Viktor nodded slightly.
“Thank you. That one will need to rest. Put him in one of your upper beds. He will be quiet for at least three nights.” He spoke as a general ordering his troops, even with his weakened voice. “Now … I need to sit by the fire and meditate.”
Stefano helped him to the settee nearest the fireplace, watched to ensure the man didn’t topple over, then returned to Gerik’s side. “My love, look to the balcony doors, see if you can determine anyway to shut out the storm. I will take our guest back upstairs.”
Gerik headed for the demolished doorway as his sire slipped his arms under Jence’s unconscious form, then lifted him and headed upstairs. When he returned he looked beyond the piano in amazement. Both doors were in place and Gerik was fastening a heavy material over the second door. The first door was already covered.
“What are using to seal the doors?”
His chylde finished his work and stepped over to his love. “One of the heavy canvases we use over the wagon when storms come. I ripped it in half and fastened each half to the opening in the door. The door that came completely free I have set back in place and braced by the harp. I realize that is not wise, but I needed something heavy and the piano was too bulky.”
Stefano quieted any unrest in his soul over the harp’s position and leaned down to kiss Gerik. “You amaze me. You have completely closed out the storm. I am … beyond words.” He turned his head to listen. “The storm is breaking apart. Or moving past. Either way, calm ensues.”
As he hugged his chylde, the front door opened and a weather-beaten Vargon and Odessa stepped in. Vargon swiftly closed the door again and hugged his wife. “We are home safe, my love. As promised.”
“I never doubted.”
As they walked towards the bar, Vargon looked to the fledgeling prince.
“Pour me a brandy, my son. Then tell me what has transpired here – what happened to the beautiful stained glass doors, why is there blood all over the floor, and what is going on with Viktor?”
Stefano stepped behind the bar and began filling glasses.
“Sit down, Sire. This will take some time.”
~ Directed Rage ~
To his credit, Vargon listened to Stefano’s narration of the evening’s events without interjection. However, once his chylde had finished, he sat forward on the settee. Odessa remained silent as she sat beside him.
“While you have covered facts well, I find details greatly lacking. I hope you had no immediate plans, I intend to have my questions answered. This night.”
“Of course, Sire. I am just going to refresh my glass.”
“I’ll get it, love.” Gerik offered. He took everyone’s empty glass and headed for the bar.
“Bourbon for me, my heart. And not house. I need the alcohol.”
Gerik giggled. “Yes, Stefano.”
Vargon gestured at Viktor, who was still quiet, barely breathing. “He has been like this for how long?”
“Less than an hour. Gerik and I had barely finished talking about the balcony doors when you walked in.”
“Fine, then. If it should ever go beyond two hours, you will need to wake him, which is done by slowly dropping ice water onto his hands. First left, then right, and keep alternating, every few moments. Be certain the water is bitter cold and you start with his left hand.”
“What if he still doesn’t stir?”
“He will. Of this I am positive.” He accepted his glass from Gerik, took a sip, then turned his attention back on Stefano. “Now then, you are saying a tree came through the doors?”
“No sir. A large tree limb came through the one, shattering the glass while it knocked the other free of its hinges. This is why that door is secured with my harp.”
“Gerik, I must commend you on your astute thinking, and Stefano, I am quite pleased with your ability to maintain emotions when dealing with the damage, not to mention the current placement of the harp.”
Gerik bowed his head in gratitude while the other responded verbally. “Thank you. I will admit my temper flared initially, but Gerik’s reasoning was sound. To object would have been ludicrous.”
“Agreed, but back to the doors. I’m assuming Gerik, you removed the tree limb?”
“Yes, Lord Vargon. It was required in order to mend the doors at all. I only tossed it off the balcony; I imagine it will need proper disposal when the weather clears.”
“I never knew you to be the muscular sort, young one. Not saying you are lazy, just physically inclined would not be my first thoughts of you.”
“No offense taken, sir. I honestly didn’t think about what strength it might entail. Stefano had given instructions and as his chylde, I needed to carry them out. Debris also covered the floor; it needed attended. Since stained glass is notoriously thick, I had Viktor’s ‘First Attendant’ remove all the pieces while I tended to the door. I trust I made the right decisions.”
“You did, indeed. Well decided and acted upon. Did young Argest have any suggestions or thoughts regarding Viktor?”
“No, my lord. He did ask we let him know if Viktor’s trance lingered more than a couple of hours.”
“Viktor made a solid choice in him, then.” Vargon’s eyes drifted to the mage. “It appears my friend’s countenance grows more like himself and less … ancient.” He turned his attention back to Stefano. “The shattered glass brings us to our third mystery. Jence’s injury. But I wish to back that up, to his behavior prior to the hall exploding.”
“In that case, Sire, your questions will be best answered by my chylde, as he was the one present.”
“Well then,” Vargon took a sip of his drink as his gaze swung to Gerik. “I’m afraid you shall remain under my observation glass for a while longer.”
“It is my honor, Grandsire.”
“Grandsire?” Vargon’s eyebrow shot up in query. Stefano coughed and sputtered, trying not to spray his surroundings with bourbon.
“It is not a term kindred use. Nor is it a term I appreciate. It comes from the muritor world and denotes age, and therefore inappropriate for me.”
Stefano butted in. “We have not yet discussed that word, Sire. In truth, I have just begun instructing what words or phrases are to be stricken from his vocabulary.”
“Calm yourself, chylde. I am not angry. And you should remember from your own instruction that even if I were upset, protocol demands I would leave it to you to address it. It would not be my place to correct your chylde. More so now that you are Prince.”
“I remember, sir. I should have not answered in haste.”
“Good.” He turned to his wife. “Dessa, love, do you need your drink refreshed? Is it a great discomfort to sit through my inquisition?”
Odessa smiled up at him, her eyes glowing with her devotion. “Of course not, dearest one. It is never uncomfortable being with you. You are my sire, you possess my heart. Though I would like a house sherry.”
“Stefano, get your sister her drink. I have more questions for your young one.”
“Yes, Sire.” Stefano headed for the bar.
“Now then, young Gerik, you say Jence was behaving poorly from the start?”
“Yes, my lord. Sire had just gone for a swim when Jence asked to see the grounds. He showed great interest in the stables. I assumed it was because of his work with animals.” He paused to sip his blood wyne. Should have followed Stef’s example and had alcohol. We had toured the stables, Jence had many questions and compliments on our steeds. He seemed genuinely interested. It was when we stepped into the hay store room that he … he attacked me. I know of no other word for it. His hands were on me, his lips were on me. He growled like one of his own feral patients.”
“And you fended him off and returned to the hall.”
“Not at first, my lord. It took a bit of maneuvering to get free from his clutches.” Gerik stopped, deciding whether to go further. Vargon noticed the pause and leaned forward further.
“There is more. I can see it in your eyes.”
“I would rather not…”
“Prince. Speak to this chylde.”
Gerik jumped in before Stefano could answer. “He became more aggressive. It wasn’t until… that is, I didn’t feel truly threatened until he …” He took a breath. “…he shoved a hand into my trousers.”
“He WHAT?” Like a volcano, Mount Stefano erupted, crushing his glass in his hands. Bourbon splashed around them, Odessa wiped some from her cheek, which of course triggered hurricane Vargon.
“I will not tolerate such behavior. You will watch yourself around my wife…”
Odessa lightly placed her hand on his arm. “My love, it was not intended.” She licked the alcohol from her index finger. “In fact, the taste is more pleasant than I would have thought, for bourbon.” She held her hand up and winked at her husband. “Would you like to taste?”
Vargon stopped cold. His transformation took just a few seconds. The anger slipped away, his eyes shone, and he smiled. He kissed her fingers. “I shall save that pleasure for later this night.” He turned to Stefano. “My apologies, Lord Prince. We may continue when you are ready.” He bowed his head slightly and sat beside Odessa.
Stefano blinked, then did it again. I cannot have seen what I just saw. Not only did he defer for his wife, he submitted to my authority as Prince. He bowed. “My sincerest pardons, my Lord Vargon. Lady Odessa, my sister in blood, would you like to try a glass of bourbon? I have need to . . replace my glass. Not to mention wash.”
“No, Stefano. My sherry is enough.”
Vargon waved a hand at Stefano.” Go wash then. I have more questions for your chylde.” He leaned back and relaxed, smiling at Gerik. “You need not give any more details, young one. I have a clear picture of your guest’s actions. This would be the point when you returned to the hall?”
“Yes, my lord. I tried to order him from the house; he said I wasn’t Prince and couldn’t order him. Stefano was just entering from upstairs and came to my rescue at that point. He reminded Jence who was Prince, and instructed him to leave. That is when all of Hades walked in.”
“The remainder I know. The doors, the glass, Viktor’s expense at healing Jence.” He looked over as Stefano stepped up with a fresh glass of bourbon. “It seems your next decision, my Prince, would be what to do with the wounded one upstairs – once he is back on his feet.”
Their conversation was interrupted by an anguished cry outside the front doors. A moment later, both doors swung open, admitting a large, muscular grey-black wolven wearing brown trousers, ripped short at the knee. The shreds of a shirt hung from him like a vest. He looked around the room slowly before speaking.
“A party, and I wasn’t invited?” He strode forward confidently, curling his upper lip and bearing canines that glistened with saliva. He stopped half-way across the room and locked his gaze on Vargon, who returned the cold, spiteful stare. If the wolven had been feline-natured, he would have purred in pleasure. “And I cannot express how pleased I am to find you here.”
Vargon growled softly, though the sound seemed to fill the room.
~ History Repeated ~
Vargon remained seated, though his eyes never left the wolven. “Brave move, Draxis, coming onto kindred lands alone. Brave … or foolish.”
“Alone?” The alpha wolven snarled. “Laerf, Pozzt, here. Now!”
Two lanky wolven sauntered in the main doors, one grey over white, the other a ruddy brown over white. Both smaller in stature than Draxis, they each wore the same type of attire, though one had no shirt. They entered to stand just behind the big wolven, one on each side.
The grey one wiped his bloody jaw with an arm before speaking. “Yes, Alpha Master.”
Draxis pointed to the door to the kitchens. “Laerf, check beyond that door for anything else moving. Whatever you find you can eat. Pozzt, close and bolt those doors. I don’t want any surprises.”
Pozzt whimpered. “Why does Laerf get to eat when…” He was cut off mid-sentence as the alpha male spun, connecting the back of his hand with the ruddy one’s jaw. The smaller one flew back, landing just inside the front doorway. He stood and groveled as he moved, hunched over, to follow out the orders given.
Laerf came in from the kitchens. “Many warm bodies back there, Alpha Master. But none moving, think all sleeping. Shame. Would like snack.”
Draxis motioned toward the balcony. “Move that piano against the doors, put it so it won’t move. I want that exit sealed.” He turned back to Vargon. “You were saying something about my coming alone?”
Stefano winced as Laerf shoved the piano against the battered doors, then flipped it up on its shorter edge. The lid side now faced the room with the legs firmly against the doors.
“Be careful with that, oaf!” Stefano’s voice rang with authority. Laerf turned and snarled, then stopped short. He paused only a moment, then began to slowly move forward, not taking his eyes from the prince, almost as if stalking prey.
Draxis laughed. “It keeps getting better. Vargon no longer Prince and instead a child, an upstart, has the throne? Any more surprises, Vargon?” He moved a little closer and sniffed at Odessa.
“Like who this enticing flower is.”
“Stay clear of my wife, Draxis.”
“Wife?” The alpha howled. “Oh, friend, I shall stay clear. For now. But once I have removed one of your legs … or both … you can watch as I plant her with my seed.”
Vargon started to stand but Stefano spoke. “Sire. No.” Vargon shot him a look of displeasure, but the alpha male caught the reference.
The wolven walked to the bar and leaned on it, choking on laughter that seemed foreign to his speech. “A family gathering. I could not have wished for better.” Suddenly he turned and snapped at the smaller grey intruder. “Laerf! Get back. What are you doing? Move away from the kindred!”
“But, Alpha Master. I need to see…”
“You need to see nothing. Get here to my side and prepare for battle. If you are so keen on the prince, I’ll let you kill him.”
“No, Alpha Master.” Laerf started backing away, his eyes still locked on Stefano. “I … I cannot do that.”
“You dare disobey me?”
Laerf whimpered. “I cannot. I … I will not.” He spun with a glint of light and leapt for the front doors, throwing the bolt clear. The left door groaned on its hinges as he almost tore it free ripping the door open. As fast as he had leapt to the doorway, he was through it faster yet.
“Fool. I shall deal with him later.” Draxis turned back in time to catch a look pass between Stefano and Gerik. “Oh please tell me yes, this pup is offspring of the prince.” He faked a lunge at Gerik who darted to Stefano’s side. “Yes. My pack shall sing of this night for centuries to come. Pozzt. You may have that one.”
The ruddy wolven walked forward, sniffing the air. “Smells good, Alpha Master. Fresh. Will enjoy much. Thank you, Alpha Master.” He jumped toward Gerik as Stefano leaned to one side and grabbed the fireplace poker. However, before he was able to use it, a bright red light flashed across the room, striking Pozzt. The wolven tumbled through the air and crashed into the bar.
Draxis looked at his now-unmoving youngling before slowly turning his gaze toward the group. Beyond them, leaning against the far corner, stood Viktor, one hand clutching his side, eyes glowing with the same red light witnessed earlier.
“I had forgotten about you, magic-user. Forgotten how Vargon never travels without you with or near to him. Yet you are different, you don’t look as healthy as last time I saw you. In fact, I would say you look rather helpless. Perhaps that little jolt was the end of your powers. Perhaps I shall rip your throat from your body.”
“You might want to think before you make that move, flea hound.” The words were spoken slowly, and in pain, but all of Viktor’s discipline shone through them.
Everyone’s attention turned to the bar as a wounded but living Pozzt moaned and stood slowly, using the bar as support. Blood splattered from his lower lip, one canine and three molars lay on the floor in pieces.
Stefano paused only a moment before he moved in a blur, surging to the alpha male and swinging the poker. But instead of connecting with its intended target, the metal rod was snatched in mid swing by Draxis’ left hand. His right grabbed Stefano by the throat. “Not wise, little boy.” He threw the kindred away from him, sending him across the room, crashing into the piano. Gerik moved by instinct to his lover’s side, cradling the now unconscious prince close.
Draxis spun, his eyes on Vargon as the once-prince limped forward. “Wounded as well. You are full of surprises tonight. Sit. Or that delectable piece is mine.” Odessa grabbed his hand and pulled him back to her side.
The alpha wolven turned his attention back to the injured prince when a cry of wrath and hatred sounded behind him. Before he could react, Draxis felt Jence’s full weight strike his back. He stumbled forward, but maintained his footing enough to keep from falling. He reached a hand up over his shoulder to grab at the struggling kindred. His howl shook the rafters as he fought, unable to get a firm grasp but shredding the kindred’s shirt and back.
Jence shot a fleeting look at Stefano. “My Prince. I have erred. Let this atone.” He swung an arm around Draxis’ body; a silver dagger flashed in his hand. The blade sang as it sliced open the air and embedded itself into Draxis’ chest. The wolven stumbled once more, then fell forward. As he hit the floor, the hilt of the killing instrument was driven deeper, ensuring his demise. Jence’s body rolled to the side to lay beside the wolven, a steady flow of blood from the reopened wound on his temple. . Then suddenly, all was quiet.
Vargon stood and moved to Viktor’s side, helping him to sit. Viktor shook his head. “No. Go. Tend your chylde.”
Vargon motioned to Odessa who took his place with the manservant before he moved quickly to the crushed piano. As he knelt beside the two kindred, Stefano’s eyes quivered open.
“Gerik, the light…”
“I know, my love. I saw it too.”
Vargon arched a brow. “Saw what? What light? What are you two on about?”
Gerik held Stefano against him. “Lord Vargon. The wolven. The grey one. When he left there was a flash of blue light. A single, rapid flash.”
Vargon shook his head, still confused. “I did not notice. But what of it? What significance has a flash of light?”
Stefano spoke in a voice filled with anguish and laced with exhaustion.
“It means he lives, Sire. Nikolos . . lives.”