“I should have run faster.”
Cain, god of death, was devoured by those who were supposed to worship him. His blood made them into vampires. In his grief, his twin brother declared that vampires chose to be vampires because of the evil in their hearts. All vampires must be destroyed.
Seraphin plunged into hell when Alexis turned him into a vampire against his will. He must be evil, if he is a vampire. His suffering at Alexis’ hands is his only comfort — it is his punishment for becoming everything he was taught to revile. Even after attracting the vampire hunters’ attention at the minister of trade’s ball, Seraphin is denied the solace of a righteous death. Alexis rescues him, fleeing to far away Venezia for a fresh, but Seraphin knows it will be more of the same.
But then Adrian’s Blessed Child pops out of the canals and into his lap. Kayto, a naive but lascivious blessed creature made in the vision of his feline god, refuses to leave Seraphin alone. Seraphin knew he shouldn’t have fed him. As much as Seraphin is drawn to him, he can’t allow himself to tarnish such a divine figure. But how can he protect Kayto, when he couldn’t even protect himself?
Alexis squeezed my hand until the bones cracked under the pressure. He smiled at me behind his sulfur-yellow ceramic mask, but I looked away.
Gentlemen in top hats and tails escorted their bulging lady companions into the ballroom as a footman announced them. A few, swathed to their eyebrows in silks and damasks, looked back to me over their shoulders, their lace fans beating frantically as scared rabbit’s heart.
His hand moved from mine to my shoulder so he could lean toward my ear. “They’re all talking about it.”
My own still heart flipped. They knew. They would have already called forth the Hunters to come kill us.
“Duc de Barnet spent half of his fortune renovating the hall for this ball. After his family had already spent as much as the annual tax revenue building it in the first place.”
He waited. The haute ton continued to stream past us, a faceless horde. The tension stretched. He knew I would answer. He knew he just had to remain silent long enough. I snapped my eyes shut, shivered, then replied, “But of course. It’s the Annual Masquerade.”
Even I, the poor Foundling child, knew of du Barnet’s infamous Annual Masquerade. For over one hundred years, it had been the event of the year. This year, the year 887 after our lord Le Chasseur, was no different. Most young ladies of substantial worth and marriageable status would rather cut their own ears off than miss it, no matter how that shearing would affect their prospects. Even the young girls at the Foundling Hospital would swoon at the thought of attending. Just to serve, mind you. The nuns knew to squash out such hope as to actually attend as a guest.
Work hard. Enter the military. Obey orders. Die in the name of our god Le Chasseur. And maybe the other three, Le Savant, Le Chirurgeon, and Le Commerçant.
The Masquerade included everyone of worth, and no one of little worth, except for one impostor lurking in their midst. A reputation could die at the hands of a delayed invitation.
“Ah, ah, ah. What should I do with such an uncultured little kitten?” My head jerked to the side, even though he didn’t nip at my ear in public. “You don’t discuss money in public. You object to such rude statements.”
“Of course.” Just let me go. “Yet they still talk of it.”
He laughed. “Of course.”
He smoothed down the edge of his coat and glanced at my cravat, even though he was the one who tied it. I may have, in a wicked moment of impropriety, re-tied it in my clumsy, green manner just for the chance to strike at him.
With one hand at my lower back, he guided me into the ballroom filled with Hunters, Sorcerers, Merchants, Surgeons, and the Great Families that bred them. It was the last place that either of us should be, yet Alexis just had to be there. He loved masques. For once he could pretend to be as beautiful as he wanted. Except on the inside. Never on the inside.
He should have just let himself die, then.
The footman inspected the note that I slipped him at Alexis’ behest. The others he sought to impress would have had their servant do so and he could not bear to do it himself. “Lord Alexis Laroche and Seraphin Laroche.”
We stepped through and the sight before me tore all nasty thoughts of him from my mind. I gasped. So this is what the ton took as their right.
The ballroom itself was larger than any room I had ever seen before. Even the boy’s dormitory I and some hundred other boys had stayed in had been smaller. The ballroom stretched so far and wide that the Duc had to hire a fifty-string orchestra just to fill it with music. I half expected that more of the room would reveal itself as we walked toward its horizon.
My eyes glanced upward, as if just by chance. I nearly fell under the force of my trembling knees. Above me the thundering image of Le Chasseur, the Hunter, stretched down his claws to smite me. His slitted eyes glared down at the world, cat-like ears pinned back in anger, standing on the backs of his dead prey. He looked like he could just fall from the ceiling at any moment, his claws ready to slit my throat. In a childish move, I crossed myself.
“He is quite intimidating, isn’t he?” An older woman stopped on the way to the refreshment table, holding her maroon fan in pudgy hands. She wore her masque, a red bird with extraordinarily long feathers. Unlike the women who wreathed themselves in fabric as per the fashion, she looked like she actually filled her dress. She smiled with kindness I did not deserve. “Le Chasseur at Forest Qin, after the God Cursed devoured his Brother-God Cain. This is the moment he transformed from the Light God Adrian to our Le Chasseur. Can you not feel his anger and his grief at such evil beings? Mascow was a true master.”
She leaned forward, snapped her fan together to rest along her arm. “My husband swears that any vampire who beholds it would kneel and offer their own head in offer to his majesty. To be destroyed by his servants is better than they deserve. Oh, but don’t look so worried, those so devote as to cross themselves with his shield need not worry. Only those with black hearts choose to become vampires.”
“My lady,” Alexis intervened with his molasses-like voice. I hated molasses. “Duchesse du Barnet, may I introduce you to my young ward, Seraphin?”
“Pleasure,” I muttered, after he gave my shoulder nudge, too fast for anyone else to realize.
“My darling Monsieur Laroche!” The Duc’s wife bubbled over like champagne at his recognition. Now that she had seen him, I meant nothing. “Why did no one tell me that you were coming!”
She had been so busy perusing the young men that she hadn’t heard the announcement.
He winked as he took her gloved hand, pressing his lips. “I couldn’t detain the Duchesse du Barnet for more than my share and deprive everyone else! Once I’m in your company, I can’t bear to remove myself.”
“If only my husband felt the same way.”
“He must be so busy with his new position as the Minister of Foreign Trade.”
What a sort these nobility were. One moment praising Le Chasseur, and in the second, consorting with his unholy enemy!
I looked away, and glittering caught my attention.
Du Barnet had devoted one whole side of the giant room to polished, silver mirrors that reflected the dancers spinning by. Alexis owned only two mirrors, one large and one hand-held, as part as his toilette. I had rarely seen one otherwise. They were not a cost just anyone could incur. Each one had to be imported from the city-state Venezia, famous for their glass work.
I left them, slipping between the dancing humans, drawn to the mirror. The ballroom might have been two, it reflected so well! The Duc shouldn’t peer to closely, though, or he may be jealous that the gold leaf in the mirror-world sparkled brighter than his own. I laughed, delighted at my flimsy remark, inspecting what I could see in it. Then my eyes drew down to my own image.
The laughter dropped. An impostor stared back at me. A young man, trimmed from head to foot in fine clothes that, to an untrained eye, could match any present, clothes that did not suit him but furthered his deception as a gentleman.
I reached out, brushing the smooth glass. He reached out too, matching fingertip to fingertip. His eyes… His eyes were dead.
I pulled my hand back, clenching.
What a joke this was. Alexis could dress me anyway he liked, it didn’t make me anything that I wasn’t. A commoner in a king’s tails, under the righteous eyes of Le Chasseur. Such a cruel jest.
I turned away. Hopefully, the Duchesse would keep Alexis occupied long enough… long enough for what? That thing would always come back. I crossed my arms to hold non-existent warmth in. Any time away from him was a treasure. A treasure to forget for a few moments what my life had become.
The gold gilt decked along every single line in the room shone like stars against the serene blue marble. Even if I could forget the people who never would have glanced at me before, that girl in the pale blue dress with a small smile and blank white masque, and the clothes I wore, and… the dull ache of a hunger I did not want to satisfy…
Every moment away from Alexis was a moment I could choose not to indulge. When he returned, he’d cluck at my refusal, and reprimand me like his pet. Then I couldn’t choose anymore. Choice? What choice was there in all of this? What choice had there ever been in my whole life?
I should have run faster.
The girl hid her smile behind her lace fan. Her eyes were the only human part that my sharp vision could pick out. She looked at me, shimmying her fan so that the white lace vibrated. She snapped her fan shut and opened it. Her pulse jumped in her bared neck. She must be interested in someone else, someone near me.
I stepped to the side, pretending more interest in the crowd. Enough of the men wore steel rapiers, dress versions of their usual weaponry. These rapiers held no stories, no power, but a Hunter could not be without his weapon, even if Le Chasseur at Forest Qin subdued rebel vampires. Really, what vampire would be so thick as to enter the Masquerade, when everyone knew it was held by an old Hunter family and attended by the most talented Hunters currently or retired from the Guild?
A sigh escaped my lips.
The girl stepped again to stand across from me. I looked away, pretending disinterest even though my skin felt like it could feel the pulse under the harlot’s low-cut dress. The dancers surged again, blocking her from my sight and I from hers, and I scurried further down.
Why must she tempt me? And why must I continue to ask such stupid questions to myself? Because Alexis was not present himself to torture me. Now I must pit myself against my own hunger, without the ability to even blame him for it. I laughed, an abrasive sound not unlike a dog’s bark. I could always blame him. He made me this way. That selfish, ugly, hideous man!
I leaned against the mirror. If he found out, and I hoped he did, he would scream at me later for embarrassing him. It was a better result than the alternative.
“Good evening. May I be so impetuous as to introduce myself?” I spun around. She tilted her open fan away so I could see her pursed lips. She looked into my eyes and I could not run away. “I am Miss de la Merais. And you are?”
“U-uh, Seraphin,” I stuttered.
“U-uh, Seraphin,” she repeated. “Is that one or two u’s?”
If I could have, I would have coloured.
“I know, it’s hard to speak about such an impossibly rude act. I had to do it, though. I just had to meet you, and you ignored my signals.”
She snapped closed and opened her fan again. In a low and impossibly unladylike voice, she whispered, “Come hither.”
I gulped. She took advantage of my stalled body and stepped closer, until her under-dressed cleavage nearly heaved against my chest. The pulse heaved too. It just pulsed there, as wanton as she was! The scent of so much blood running beneath her skin became too acquainted with my nose.
Instinctively, my lips pulled back, baring my fang.
She shrieked, splitting the ubiquitous sound of the fifty-string orchestra, and leaped back. “Oh Le Chasseur! Help me! Somebody help me please! He’s a vampire!”