Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Aesthetics of Invention: Part 17

Part 17

Kenneth had traveled often with his parents as a child, staring out of carriage windows at rich rolling countrysides or at the glowing, ivy-festooned homes and mansions of mage cities. But every time they had traveled through a talentless town, his mother had bade him away from the carriage windows, the curtains tightly shut.

At the collegium, the talentless portions of the city were rightly referred to as slums. The talentless living there had little wealth other than what they made from selling either wares or unsavory services to magi. Kenneth had long avoided it, only venturing in once to get steel for his class.

And then he had met Thorn, and his life, and opinions, had changed.

Now the twisty, dusty roads he rode Jade down no longer seemed dreadful and filthy. The buildings, made of wood or cement and in some odd places iron and steel that skewed the building if it reached past three stories, told tales not of poverty, but of resilience and invention. Children darted past Jade, but she just flicked an ear, as placid as her owner.

Of course, there were still the stares. But with Thorn there, they were less fierce.

“I should have lent you some clothes,” Thorn said from his place on his horse, walking steadily next to Jade. “If you played the role of a talentless, you could truly blend in and see what’s it like.”

Kenneth watched as a woman carrying an enormous sack walked past, and she darted away faster when she caught sight of him. “I’m not sure I could pull that off.”

“Me neither,” Thorn said with a snort. Kenneth frowned, but figured Thorn was probably right.

“This way,” Thorn said, turning his horse. “Down to the square. You’ll see how we make our money, and trade ideas.”

Kenneth nodded, following Thorn down a winding alley and finally out to where a set of buildings had been built in a semicircle, forming a courtyard. People bustled to and fro, shouting voices reaching his ears from his place in the shade of the largest building.

“Heaters! Never fail!”

“Electric lights, and an easy to use generator!”

“Automata! Please the little ones!”

Kenneth stopped Jade as the sun streamed over his shoulders, pausing on the edge of the bedlam. Men and women in ragged clothes like Thorns stood at tables and displays filled with inventions. Other individuals, perhaps talentless but with one or two magi clear in their woolen robes, strode back and forth. At one display, where small clockwork mice crawled back and forth, money changed hands.

Kenneth stared. “This is where magi buy talentless wares?”

“Not just magi,” Thorn said, clucking his tongue at his horse to rein him in beside Kenneth. “Anyone who needs it. Not every talentless has the skill or training to make things, you know, so they buy it from those who do.” He nodded at the displays. “Every collegium student has to put up a sale their first year. If they can’t sell any of their items, they can’t move on in their training.”

Kenneth watched as a small metallic object trundled around the perimeter of the courtyard, followed by a man who was gesturing at it, getting the attention of a woman with a child by her side. Nearby, someone else sold another contraption that moved on its own, steam hissing from the top. It reminded him of Thorn’s contraption, that one that had made Jade nearly throw him and had led to their meeting. “What was your first sale?”

“A heater,” Thorn said. “Very basic. Easier to sell than prosthetics, though I’ve sold those too.”

“You have?”

“Of course. With something like that, though, its made to order. Clients come see me, and I design what they need. Or, designed. As I’ve come close to graduating, I’ve focused on my final project, and then of course there’s you.” A heavy weight formed in Kenneth’s stomach, but Thorn was smiling. “If I’m going to be an Enforcer, I won’t necessarily have the same line of work, will I?”

Kenneth stared again at the crowd, at the small child who was tugging on her mother’s sleeve, pointing at the toy. More money shone in the sun as it changed hands, a woman having just sold some contraption with whirring blades. It looked like a weapon, but the client held it in front of their face, air blowing their hair back. A fan.

This was what Thorn would be leaving, to follow Kenneth as an Enforcer. This had been his life. He could do a lot of good selling prosthetics.

“Are you glad to leave it behind?” Kenneth asked, twisting the reins in his hand.

Thorn raised an eyebrow. “Everyone leaves it behind, no matter what they do. If I had become a specialist, I would have opened my own shop. That girl there?” he pointed at the woman selling the fans. “Her work is grand. She’ll make her own shop, or her own line, of those fans and make a name for herself. No one wants to be here, selling their work with inventor’s college students, once they graduate. Things here sell cheaply, too, for the clients who can’t afford better things. But its where I got my start, and something I thought it would be neat to show you.” He sighed, a small sound. “But in a way you’re right. I suppose I’ll miss some part of it. The memories, maybe.”

“Oh.” Kenneth’s shoulders loosened. “So…” he swallowed. “Let’s get something.”

Thorn glanced at him. “Noble magi don’t need that sort of stuff. I know that much.”

“Not for me,” Kenneth said. His nerves fizzed. “For you. To remember it by.”

Thorn blinked, then broke into a smile. “Remembering the inventor’s college by buying something from the journeyman fair…” he laughed. “Whatever we get might break in less than a year’s time. But sure. Yeah, let’s get something.” His eyes gleamed with amusement. “Why don’t you surprise me?”

Kenneth nodded, urging Jade toward the displays. He knew exactly what he would get.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wednesday Briefs: Aesthetics of Invention part 16

Part 16 

Thorn didn’t want to think about the war.

He had indulged Kenneth, of course. Hearing about the past was important for Kenneth. He had to understand, as a mage, what talentless had gone through.

But Thorn had gone through it, and didn’t want to dwell on it. He had lost his parents, and he had lost his hand. It was over and done with. He wanted to look to the future, and enjoy his time with his new mage lover without worrying about what had come before.

“Come here, Kenneth,” Thorn said as he closed the door to his dorm room behind them. His blond lover had moved toward the bed and paused at Thorn’s words, his blue eyes wide at the tone in Thorn’s voice. Thorn wondered how many people, if any, had ever used such a commanding tone with him.

But Kenneth didn’t fight it. He moved obediently toward Thorn, a pleasant surprise.

“I don’t want you breaking any more of my things,” Thorn said with a laugh, craning his head up to place kisses on the underside of Kenneth’s jaw. Kenneth moaned, tilting his head first up to give Thorn access to his neck, and then down to connect their mouths. “I want you calm and focused so I can take you out today,” Thorn said, his voice breathy after the kiss.

He had all sorts of plans. He could take Kenneth outside the collegium, to lunch and then to the nearby park where many students tested new inventions. He could take him by the fountain, or the metal gardens, where people created art out of shaped metal.

He was proud of what talentless could do, and he wanted to show it all to Kenneth. He wanted Kenneth to understand it, and know that Kenneth loved him for more than just the magic he gave him. And to know that what Kenneth felt, what they both felt, was more than just lust brought on by the strange aether only mages could see. He wanted to prove that despite the war, mages and talentless could truly love one another.

Kenneth squirmed at Thorn’s touch when Thorn grabbed his ass, kneading the muscles and pulling Kenneth closer, feeling the thick, stiff bulge of his erection through his robes. Thorn was sick of those robes, and he began unlacing them near Kenneth’s neck, pausing when the knots became too complex.

“Take these off,” he said instead, and Kenneth obliged with words that must be magic, the laces undoing themselves beneath Thorn’s hands and the robes falling open. Either they were magic through and through or whoever had sewn them was some sort of weaving master, because how exactly they came undone was beyond Thorn.

But they revealed his prize—Kenneth’s toned torso and his jutting, weeping erection. All for Thorn.

Thorn licked his lips, his own erection tight and confined in his trousers. He unlaced them, his metal fingers clumsy. He needed to finish his new hand, the new design that would be twice as efficient. But he managed to undo it quickly, stepping out of his trousers and removing his coat and shirt. He wanted Kenneth, and he wanted him now.

They both paused for a moment, taking in the sight of the other. Thorn smirked at the look of intense, glazed concentration on Kenneth’s face as his lover stared at Thorn’s cock. Behind him, the electric lights flickered.

Thorn smirked. He had taken Kenneth twice before. Maybe what Kenneth needed to stabilize his magic was to give Thorn the same in return.

“I want you this time,” Thorn said. Kenneth’s gaze snapped up. “Can you handle that?”

Kenneth nodded, holding out a hand to stroke Thorn. Thorn took it in his metal one, entwining their fingers slowly, his hand not responding as fast as it once had. Kenneth didn’t notice, or care. Exactly the way Thorn wanted.

“C’mon,” Thorn said, pulling Kenneth toward the bed. He turned and sat down, Kenneth standing above him, and Thorn looked up, licking his lips. “I want you, Kenneth. Now. It’s your move.”

Kenneth breathed in deep whooshes, his cockhead red and dripping. Thorn grinned. “So hard you could chisel stone,” he said, quoting something one of his old lovers had said, running his hand down Kenneth’s pulsing erection. His lover moaned.

“The oil,” Kenneth said. “Where is it?”

“The drawer,” Thorn said with a point, and in a few sentences of gibberish the vial had floated out of the shattered drawer and into Kenneth’s hand. He stared at the chips of wood on the floor.

“Don’t worry about it right now,” Thorn said, his mouth twitching with an urge to laugh. “Just take me, the way I want.” He spread his legs, a clear invitation.

Kenneth slicked his erection, and when he moved to prepare Thorn, Thorn waved his hand away. “I’m ready,” he said. “I’m not some tender noble. Just take me.”

Kenneth smiled, some of the glazed lust leaving his gaze at the challenge, and moved over Thorn, the bed creaking under their weight as Thorn lay back. “Let’s see if you can control yourself inside me,” Thorn said with a grin.

Then Kenneth filled him, all at once, and Thorn gasped, shuddering, biting back a moan. Kenneth had hit the perfect spot, at the perfect angle, and fires was it good. He wouldn’t last long.

“Move, damnit,” Thorn said, and Kenneth did, thrusting, his body tensing over and over above Thorn. Thorn watched Kenneth’s abs tighten with his thrusts, and then met his lover’s blue eyes, staring into his face.

This was his mage, his lover, Kenneth. They were together, a noble mage and a talentless, regardless of the wars that had once been fought and the hate that still existed between their people.

He loved Kenneth. The words danced on his tongue, but they were swallowed by a moan when his climax took him by surprise, Kenneth’s soft hands on his erection drawing it out of him. He gasped instead, quietly, shuddering cum out onto his stomach. Kenneth followed almost immediately, hot wetness filling Thorn.

Thorn fought to get his breath, emotion and pleasure swirling through him all at once. He loved Kenneth. He wanted Kenneth to see more of his world.

He just needed to make sure Kenneth felt the same, and it wasn’t the magic causing all this.

“Good,” he said, pulling Kenneth down for another kiss and pushing away his doubts. He grinned. “Now I can take you out in public.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wednesday Briefs: Aesthetics of Invention part 15

“Time for the hard truths. Estimates are two hundred thousand dead,” Varlen said, Kenneth swallowing hard. He had heard that number before. “Mostly talentless.” He hadn’t heard that.

Kenneth had suspected that talentless had their own side to the story of the war. He knew his mother’s disdain for those men and women without magic was foolish, or at least short-sighted. Her words echoed in his mind. “Good servants, good inventors, but how could anyone who cannot see the power of our world be trusted with making important decisions? Put them in their place.”

His father had, of course, along with other war mages. Everyone knew the name Victeni. He was grateful to Thorn for defending him, but he couldn’t blame people for their reactions to the name. He wished he could learn more of the truth about what his father had done, but hearing about the battles, about mages burning down cities for transgressions and controlling what talentless could and couldn’t build, was hard enough.

 “We get past restrictions here at the college, of course,” Varlen said. “The governor here is easy on us, or maybe just too concerned with the magi collegium to pay attention. But if its for research, we’re allowed to build mostly whatever we like.” Kenneth didn’t fully believe him, but he believed the governor probably didn’t care. “And here the wards aren’t as sensitive as they are in other places. You have a lot of freedom here, Thorn. Other places, that won’t be true.”

Thorn nodded. Kenneth wondered what sort of hardships his lover had already experienced. He would ask—but the last thing he wanted to do was upset him.

Kenneth sighed. He hated being ignorant. But he had a feeling he always would be.

“So,” Thorn said as they left Varlen’s office, with promises to come back and ask more questions later. “Did that help you at all?”

“A bit,” Kenneth said. “I…I understand, on one level, what you talentless face. I see the inequality. But I don’t fully experience it.” He paused, glancing up at the electric lights that flickered as he passed by. “As a child I always thought talentless lived the way they did—in slums and such—because they didn’t have magic. They chose it.” Thorn gave him a smirk. “Later on I just ignored it. It didn’t affect me.” It hurt to even say. “And now, all I can know is that I will never know what its like.” He looked at his lover, at Thorn’s metal hand. “Does the thought of the future scare you?”

Thorn tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

Kenneth’s face reddened. “I mean…imagine it. No magic, controlled by mages. If you hadn’t met me…what would you do?”

Thorn raised an eyebrow. “I’m trained as an inventor. Sure, Varlen said the world outside the collegium is hard. Of course it is. But I’d have choices. I could travel as a merchant. I could stay here and sell my inventions to weak mages. I could work with talentless who require prosthetics. I’d never get rich, or live in crystal mansions or whatever you nobles do, but there’s an important difference between you nobles and everyone else--I don’t need it.” He pointed to another flickering bulb as they walked past. “Sure, we talentless are frightened of you mages. But the world must be frightening for you too, to have so much to lose. That’s why you fought so hard in the war, and did so many terrible things.”

Kenneth fell silent, pondering Thorn’s words. He had never thought of it that way. He examined the aether as they walked, peering at the shimmering lights and loops of the force that allowed his magic to work. The aether was the stuff of creation, controlled with magic. Once it had made sense that those who could control that would control society.

But not anymore.

As he watched it, his magic roiled, sending shocks throughout the aether and sending the lights flickering again. He sighed. He was spending a lot of time with Thorn, but his magic was still unstable. It would clearly take more time.

But he didn’t mind. The more time he spent with him, the more he learned. And the more he appreciated Thorn’s intelligence and his way of viewing the world.

He hoped more people would be like Thorn. But he had a feeling that not all talentless would be so forgiving after the war, especially if half of what Varlen said was true.

He was lucky to have found Thorn. To have found a man to be his lifemate, and one who was so intelligent, and gorgeous on top of it all. Thorn’s hips were taut and tantalizing as he walked down the hall.

A bulb shattered next to Kenneth’s head, and he jumped. Thorn shook his head with a quiet laugh.

“Perhaps we should see more than just the collegium,” he said. “If you want to see what the world of talentless is like, I’ll take you out. That way you won’t destroy anyone’s project, either.”

He took Kenneth’s hand in his metal one, his grip cool and strong.  “It’s fine, Kenneth. I don’t blame you for the war.”

His parents were gone. Kenneth had lost nothing, and never had. Thorn’s life had been changed forever, and would be again, if he became an Enforcer with Kenneth. The whims of mages always controlled talentless. Guilt constricted Kenneth’s throat. Thorn was too good for him.

“I’ll go with you,” he said. “Wherever you want. You choose.”

Thorn smiled, his gaze piercing as though he was trying to read Kenneth’s mind. “Alright then,” he said. “First, to my room.” His smile turned back into a smirk as he stroked down Kenneth’s shoulders and hips with his good hand, sending trails of pleasure in a shudder through Kenneth’s body. “I don’t want you upset, Kenneth. Just trust me. The war’s over, and things will be fine.”

Kenneth nodded, leaning into his lover’s touch, not caring when another bulb shattered overhead. “I trust you.”

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Checking in and NaNo 2014

I’m not a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month, but this year I decided to give it a try to pound out a good portion of Enforcer’s Book 6. The good news—I got much of the book done!

I didn’t make 50k, but that’s fine. I’ll keep working on it, and of course I will revise Enforcer’s Book 5 and submit it to my publisher soon. Keep an eye out for it!

NaNo has kept me busy, but also stay alert for more Wednesday Briefs. I’m going to try and get back in the swing of things this week!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wednesday Briefs: Aesthetics of Invention Part 14

“I wish to hear about the talentless’ take on the war,” Kenneth said. “What the war was like for you—and why it started.”

Thorn leaned against the wall, thinking over the memories of his first few years at the inventor’s college. He had always had a knack for working with his hands—well, hand, he thought with a rueful smile. Maybe it was because of his injury that he had wanted to go into engineering.

He could still remember the first prosthetic he had received, from a woman he had met when he moved from the orphanage in Allentown to one in Tiribek. The war had been over for four years. He had been 11.

“This will help you,” she had said. “It will take some getting used to, though.”

“Thorn?” Kenneth’s voice broke through his thoughts. “Do you want to hear too? If not that’s okay. I just thought…”

“Yes, that’s fine.” He had long thought about his childhood, how the war had affected his own life. But as to how it had begun…while he didn’t trust that anyone knew the full truth, it would be good to hear from Varlen.

If he started getting bad memories, he could always leave. He hated dwelling on the past. His life was tough. One of his deepest fears is that he would learn something related to his parents, something that would reveal that they had fought and brought the war to their home, and that was why they had died. He didn’t know what he would do if that were true.

But he couldn’t share those fears with Kenneth. Not yet.

“Before Jaquin, we were like the non-nobles are now. We could never really govern, and we had little say in the capital. But we were allowed to do our own things. Before the discovery of gunpowder, of electricity and technology, the mages ignored us. We didn’t have their capabilities.” Varlen gave Kenneth a nod that held no small amount of sarcasm. If Kennet noticed, he gave no sign.

“But is when we began to advance that the magi took notice. No longer did we have to live in lightless slums. We began living well, advancing with steam power. There were dreams then of achieving flight, of doing everything magi could do.”

Thorn liked to think those dreams were still alive.

“That was when the magi began passing laws. Certain inventions were forbidden—“no weapons of war.” Varlen made quotes in the air. “That meant no firearms. They forced us to hunt with bows and arrows if we wanted meat and had no access to a nearby farm. We would improve access, but inventions related to transportation were also forbidden. As soon as we began to show our true potential, the magi took notice of us and wanted to keep us down, where they thought we belonged.”

“But why?” Kenneth said. “Couldn’t the inventions have helped magi too?”

“Of course they could have,” Varlen snapped. “But when have humans ever been rational? The magi saw a threat to the status quo. We were there serfs, their peasants and servants. They wanted to keep it that way.”

“So that was when  Jaquin began to talk of revolution,” Kenneth said.

“No, he talked of revolution after a group of magi destroyed the center of talentless learning at the time,” Varlen said. “The college of Lisandra would make this college, and even your collegium, look like a schoolhouse. It was where we learned how to harness the power of steam and generate electricity. It was a monument, and its destruction the ultimate insult. That was ten years before the war began—Jaquin was just a boy then. And now, talentless never even hear of it. So much knowledge was lost, because magi can’t tolerate their power being challenged.”

Kenneth was frowning, but he didn’t rise to Varlen’s bait. “So why did it take ten years?”

“You’re a fool like every mage,” Varlen said with a roll of his eyes. “To rebuild. To construct, in secret, the weapons for war that were forbidden, and to raise the funds, by selling you magi your heaters and lamps and steel, to pay the armies.”

Thorn shifted his weight from foot to foot. He understood, on one level, why Varlen insulted Kenneth. The waste and pain magi had put them through couldn’t be denied. But… “Kenneth wasn’t responsible for any of that,” he broke in. “So don’t insult him.”

Both Varlen and Kenneth looked to him in shock. Thorn lifted his chin. “Kenneth is my partner, and if you insult him you insult me.” Privately, he wondered why some talentless saw fit to insult magi so brazenly when magi could kill them without fear of repercussion.

Then again, perhaps the embers of war still simmered hot, especially here. And while the talentless didn’t want war, maybe the magi didn’t either. Both sides were wary of just such an occasion, when the wrong talentless would be killed and the memory of Jaquin would spring up again.

The realization sent a shiver through him.

“Thorn, it’s alright,” Kenneth said. “I’m used to it.”

“You don’t have to be,” Thorn said. “Magi may have started the war. Maybe they are ignorant.” He turned to Varlen. “But continuing to insult them and refuse to learn from them is just as ignorant in its own way. Now how about you continue educating us without insulting my partner?”

Varlen stared for a moment, the only sound in the room the clock ticking on the wall. “You know,” he said finally, breaking the silence. “If anyone is going to date a noble mage, Thorn, I’m glad its you.” He snorted a laugh and turned to Kenneth. “By the end of this, he’ll probably have you in a leash and collar.”

Kenneth’s face reddened, and Thorn tried to put the alluring image out of his mind. “So then,” he said with a cough. “What was the impetus for the first battle of the war?”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wednesday Briefs: Halloween Special!

Since Halloween is coming up, we're taking a little break from Aesthetics of Invention for a special, extra long, Wednesday Briefs! This is a sneak peek at an upcoming project. I hope you all enjoy!

The pain of hunger, of bloodlust, woke me first. 

            “Get up.” Johann’s voice was second.

            My master’s command fired through my veins, mingling with my desperate hunger. I lunged toward his voice, my fangs snapping on air as iron shackles clanged against a stone wall and bit into my wrists. Light and heat from the torch in his hand made my eyes water and my skin prickle. Shadows danced around us in the dark stone room, bouncing off the wooden door behind him. 

            “Listen to me,” Johann spoke, and I lunged once more, his heartbeat loud in my ears. His scent was maddening, and I snapped my teeth again, my fangs cutting my bottom lip and the thoroughly disappointing taste of my own blood tinging my tongue. 

            “Kaiden!” Johann shouted, and I froze. 

            Kaiden, what are you doing here?” My mother’s voice was weak, breathy. She looked like a doll from her place on the bed. A broken doll with graying hair among tattered bedclothes. A roach scuttled on the wall behind her, and the scent of sickness and rot filled the room. “You should go. There’s nothing left here.” 

            There had always been nothing. 

            “That’s your name. Kaiden.” Johann’s voice snapped me back to reality, to the crumbling wall I was chained to. Johann sat across the room, his gun across his lap. “Are you understanding me, Kaiden?” 

            Kaiden. Not servant, not vampire. That was my name. 

            “How?” I asked, my throat dry from hunger and thirst. How had he known my name? I had no idea how long I had been here, and no moonlight penetrated the stone walls, but the lack of complete exhaustion told me it was still night. My weakness and hunger, however, told me it had been hours. I had never gone this long without some kind of blood before. 

            “There are some in the village who remember you.” Johann’s words hammered in my skull. “A young man with white hair and red eyes. A useless drunk who’s mother was a whore. They say you were a demon, and that she fathered you with the vampire.” 

            “That’s not true!” I growled, then stopped, the anger fading as fast as it had come. Why should I care? That was another life. I—no, Kaiden—was long dead, killed in an alley by a vampire. My master.

            I was dead. It didn’t matter anymore. My master’s orders were all that mattered. And he had said to kill—

            “Kaiden!” Johann shouted, and I blinked. “Listen to me. I can help you.”

            Saliva filled my mouth, and I swallowed. My fangs still pricked my lower lip. I could not find the words I needed, and growled instead, the scent of blood filling my nose. His heart beat loud in my head, a steady, calm drumming that inflamed my hunger with every pulse. 

            “Listen!” His voice cracked in the flatness of the stone room. “Do you want to survive as a man, or die as the demon everyone claimed you were?”

            My growling stopped. I looked up, meeting his dark eyes. 

            “Tell me, Kaiden.” The sound of my name chased away the biting, curdling edge of hunger. “Tell me what you think you are.” 

            “I…” Saliva and hunger thickened my words. “I am a servant.” My master’s orders boomed once more. Kill him!

            “You are not just a servant,” Johann said, his voice the only thing keeping me from snapping my fangs at him. “You are a thrall. A man turned by a vampire lord, bound by his blood, to serve him forever until you die.”

            I fell silent. I knew that. I hadn’t known the name, the term thrall, but I knew what my existence was. 

            “But,” and now Johann stepped closer, his scent overwhelming. His heart beat steady. “If you truly didn’t care about anything but blood, were truly the mindless thrall that the others were, you would have died with them last night. But you didn’t. Why?” 

            I blinked, focusing on his gaze. He stared at me, his torch burning in his hand. The light hurt, and I looked away. 

            “Why, Kaiden?” Johann said again. The torch in his hand hissed as the wood and pitch burned.

            “Why do you even ask?” I said. “I didn’t want to…” I trailed off. I was already dead. Saying that I hadn’t wanted to die would sound foolish. 

            But it was true. “I don’t want to die,” I said, a growl entering my voice again. “So if you’re going to kill me, I won’t let you.” 

            He stood, fast for a human but still slow to one like me. He left, the wooden door slamming shut behind him, leaving me in darkness so thick not even my keen senses let me see through it. I closed my eyes.

            His light footsteps echoed on stone for at least a hundred paces before fading. A large building then, but clearly not one in the village. I would have heard familiar sounds, and there was also the fact that no sane vampire hunter would imprison a vampire in a human town. 

            I leaned back against the wall. His scent still lingered in the room, along with the stench of mold and droppings from small animals. One of the other servants had always complained about her sense of smell—“The whole castle smells like rat crap,” she had growled at us, “except for master’s room.” 

            Master. Without Johann here, the order had faded, but it was still there. Kill the hunter. 

            I lunged once more against the cuffs, pain flaring down my wrist for a split second. Any harder and my wrist would break. 

            If I got my fangs in Johann, the break, and any other injuries I had, would heal. I could get out of the cuffs and hunt him if I tried hard enough. That would be what my master would want of me. 

            I prepared to lunge again when his footsteps returned. And this time his scent was mixed with something else—fresh blood. 

            My nostrils flared, hunger cramping my stomach. Deer, just like I had last night.
            It wasn’t human, but it was better than nothing. 

            “Here,” Johann said as soon as the door swung open. The carcass of a fawn was slung over his shoulders, and it hit the ground in front of me with a dull thud. “Have your fill.” 

            I was on it before he finished speaking, my fangs in the animal’s neck through the tough, fibrous skin. The blood was cool, not the fresh heart-pumped blood I wanted, but it still filled my stomach, filled my body with strength and took the edge from my bloodlust. 

            When I lifted my head, Johann was staring down at me, his expression flat. “Animal blood is all a thrall needs to survive, yes?” he said. “You have never had human blood before.” 

            I nodded, licking my lips. The puncture wound from my fangs was gone. 

            “Why did you attack me tonight?” Johann asked. “Tell me.” 

            “I don’t serve you,” I answered back. “

            “I could kill you, you know,” Johann responded, his heart still infuriatingly steady. “You are a vampire, and not a particularly powerful one. A thrall. The lowest of the low. Most do not have an ounce of intelligence. They are no more in control of themselves than that animal who’s blood you just consumed. So let me guess. Your master ordered you to kill me?” 

            I stayed silent. 

            “I thought so.” He nodded. “But you, Kaiden,” and when he used my name I paid closer attention, “are different. Slightly, anyway. You ran when you suspected your life was in danger. You planned. You are not mindless.” He leaned closer, and if I had not just eaten I would have snapped at him again. “And if you listen to me, and believe what I have to say, I think I can help you.” 

            I narrowed my eyes. “What could you possibly have that I want, that you’d be willing to give?” 

            He smiled. “Pretty words for a thrall.” 

            “You’re the one who said I was different.” 

            “Yes.” He nodded, pausing, the smile fading from his face before he took a breath. “What if I told you that you could become a vampire lord in your own right?”

            I fell silent, awash in the small sounds of vermin scuttling in the stones I was chained to and the steady beat and breathing of the human next to me. A vampire lord. Like my master. The beauty, power and grace of my master, would be mine. I felt no excitement at the prospect. 

            “You think I want power?” I finally said. Johann frowned. 

            “Do you want to die instead?” he asked. “Because your only option is death or moving on as you are—a vampire. Become a lord, and you won’t be such a slave to your own bloodlust.” 

            I stared at the human, his scent filling my nostrils. With my stomach full, he smelled different, a combination of spice and pine that I found pleasing for a different reason. 

            I wondered if becoming a vampire lord meant I could bed others the way my master did. 

            “How would I do this?” I asked. 

            He shifted his weight, tensing muscles the way I would if I anticipated an attack. “By killing your master,” he answered.

            Something in me thudded hard. Not my heart. It was deeper, an instinct I didn’t know I had that made me bare my teeth and narrow my eyes. 

            “I knew you would react that way.” Johann spoke louder, and I realized I was growling, my teeth clenched. “You’re a creature of instinct, a dog defending his master. But think, Kaiden!” 

            My name again. The room grew silent. 

            Johann moved, putting his back to me and turning back, a thoughtful pace. A very human thing. “If you kill your master, you will feel again. I mean really feel,” he leaned closer, sending his scent over me. I don’t think he realized it. “Feel emotion, feel pleasure beyond slaking your hunger. You will feel ambition. Your life will have meaning!” He met my eyes, his a startling gleam. “Don’t you want that?” 

            I dropped my gaze. In my mind, I saw the same image, of a woman dying on a bed. I tasted a hint of alcohol, a bitter tinge on my tongue. 

            I had never wanted anything. I had never thought my life had meaning. The realization made me feel deader than I already was. 

            “I had no life before,” I said, clinging to those memories. It was strange to do it. I had been so ready to forget, but now it seemed important that Johann understand. “You know. You spoke to the villagers.” I met his eyes this time. “They called me a demon. I had nothing. Why would you think I—”

            “You chose it, didn’t you?” Johann snapped. “You let him bite you.” 

            I didn’t blink. “Yes.”

            Johann rocked back on his heels, his gaze fixed on a point above my head.  I craned my head up. There was nothing there. 

            “Did you know what would happen to you?” he asked finally. 

            The emptiness I expected didn’t come. It was simple nothingness, not sadness the way it had once been, what had made me seek out my master. The vampire.

 “I thought I would die.”

“Perhaps that’s why,” Johann said, and his tone made me tilt my head. “Most who become thralls desperately want to live, and the vampire violates their wishes by giving them complete absence of life. But you…you wanted to die, didn’t you? So your master’s commands aren’t as strong as they should be. You chose it, Kaiden.” I swallowed. “For all the pathetic life you may have lived, you made a choice.” He sighed. “Was it really what you wanted? Because I could kill you, right now. It would be quick.” 

I leaned my head back, the stone scraping against my hair. He would give me what I wanted. 

No. What I had wanted. Before I had run from a hunter who I knew would kill me, disobeying my master’s orders. 

Regret almost climbed my throat. Regret for the life I once had, thrown away. 

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to die.” 

“Good,” Johann said. “Then you will come with me, Kaiden. And you will kill your master.”

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