The bone flail grazed Alidri’s temple, and she ignored the rivulet of blood that trickled down her cheek. In the brumal Vespertavian winter, it froze to her skin. So much for the fabled Batiste resistance to cold.
Even now, most of my people lie dormant
. Even after fifty years of the Thaw.
Annoyed, she brushed the frozen streak from her face. As always, the scent of spilled copper tingled in her mouth, making her fangs ache. She was a cruciatress, an ancient huntress, but hunting would come soon enough. This was battle.
And it was no time to care about her appearance. Her opponent circled, looking for an opening. The bone flail creaked in his hands, two feet of knotted spine and twisted sinew. It seemed a clumsy weapon, no match for the quickness of her twin stilettos.
Yet her blood already colored the spikes.
Alidri watched her breath plume out in the wintry evening. Since when did a rogue darkrider give her so much trouble? She imagined Vladja laughing at her, if the Grigelf queen could be said to laugh. Though rumor had it she was more and more given to mirth with the Lady Grace at her side.
Alidri saw her queen seldom these days and could not attest to her mood or whether she brooded or laughed at all. The cruciatress knew one thing though--the incessant buzzing at the back of her skull was certainly not worthy of laughter.
The flail chopped the ice at her feet, and Alidri danced back, cursing herself for her lapse in concentration. Her mind was rife with thoughts that would not obey her, first of her people and now of the Grigelf queen and her lover. It was easier to think of a successful love affair rather than her own. Adora, when will we--
. Alidri had been down that treacherous path again and again, even since before High Queen Vladja had taken the throne and Vespertavia’s eternal winter had begun to break. Alidri was a cruciatress, a huntress and torturess for the crown. Adora was an Ordög, a creature of lowly origin and fearsome appetite, a slave.
They could never be. Not truly. Not as Alidri wanted. And I shouldn’t want her.
The scrape of boots on frozen flagstones cut into her reverie, and the glare of snow and ice glinted off the darkrider’s bone armor and helm. In the moonlight he was grim and ghostly. Alidri could see how he and his people had once terrorized the snowy wastes of Westmarch all the way to the jagged peaks of Simurgh Reach. Before Vladja’s reign.
He danced forward, swinging the flail. The snow near her feet exploded, peppering her. She closed one eye, the sting of icy slivers biting her chill flesh. She was Unliving--a vampyress, the last cruciatress of her noble vampyr house. She felt no pain. She felt no fear.
If only those assertions could quiet the persistent drone in her head. Her cheekbones and jaw ached with it, as though pressure was building up behind her bones, behind her eyes. I am eight hundred years old, and I am laid low by a headache
. Snarling, she shook off pain and self-pity, and regarded her enemy.
Confidence oozed off him. He capered and preened. He knew if he could defeat her, he could win his way free, traitor to the crown or not. He’d been spying--spying, of all things, and for the Nobilis Houses. The Nobilis had sunk low in their politicking against Vladja if they needed to use darkriders as lackeys. Alidri was shamed she’d ever been a part of them.
She took a threatening step forward.
The spectators hushed in anticipation; some cheered. A few threw things. The vulgaris
. Alidri sighed. When had battle become a spectacle for commoners? She gazed up at the queen’s balcony. Vladja didn’t bother coming to see it anymore. Fifty years had passed since she had defeated her usurper brother and his gargoyle lover. Fifty years since Alidri had led the charge through the Spine Pass.
See what I have been reduced to?
Mock battles, executions--anything to keep ennui from claiming the vulgaris, anything to keep the fear of the Abyss strong in those who might stray from the crown.
And yet fifty years was nothing compared to the three hundred and fifty she’d spent yearning. For Adora. Unable to have her. The Ordög had always been slaves, even in the days when they were numerous--lowly beasts bent to the will of the vampyr. My own people... It’s a wonder she does not hate me.
This time when Alidri’s memories released her, she saw the darkrider coming. She stepped aside as he charged, all bluster and bravado, hoping to push her back with speed and strength. She had not shown him one-tenth of her true self. She stole a glance at Adora in her usual place by the darksteel gates. Her collar glimmered, a constant reminder.
Would she love me if I did not command her?
Alidri might never know. The laws of the land forbade any Ordög from being free, lest their appetites range out of control.
A whirring buzz aligned with the humming in her head, disorienting her. At the last, she jerked back, and the tip of his flail grazed her cheek. Alidri cursed herself again. More distractions. Even were it not for her headache, she would not have been at her best. Why was it she could no longer take these executions seriously? The darkrider had already given up his ill-fated mission on the altar of pain. Now all that remained was for him to die. The battle was a facade.
Another glance at Adora, and Alidri’s hands ached to touch, to caress. Now I must kill
. She spun, her green war-skirts and culottes billowing out in the frigid night air, her hands falling to the daggers at the back of her cincture.
Why had she not drawn them yet? Surely it wasn’t to impress Adora. Surely it wasn’t to impress a lowly slave.
She pulled her knives. As the darkrider came, she sidestepped and whirled around to his back. Off balance, he turned--too late--the terrible realization of how she’d played him for a dullard dawning like death upon his face.
Lips drawn back in a snarl, she daggered him, one, two, in the neck.
Blood spurted hot over the snow. Her fangs extended, and she yearned toward him. She stopped herself. She would not feed on a kill. Not before spectators. Not before Adora.
Adora who had seen her people slaughtered for their blood.
The only way to kill an Ordög is to drain its heart’s blood
. And so Alidri’s house had. House Batiste, known for skinning Ordög alive before they bled them. The House apothecaries had made toxins of the Ordögs’ essence, and the cruciators made weapons of their bones. With strap and sinew, House Batiste had cowed the ravenous eaters of the dead and brought them to heel. And House Batiste was hailed among the vampyr nobilis as saviors.
Alidri knew her proud heritage. House Batiste, who knew only how to kill. She flexed her back, bringing her arms apart, and sheared her opponent’s head off his neck.
His ruined body crumpled, and the crowd came to its feet in riotous fury. Cheers and catcalls for the once-great Alidri Batiste, last cruciatress of a dying age.
* * * *
Waiting in the shadow of the great fortress of her vampyr masters, Adora watched with interest as her mistress finished the fight. The scents of battle, sweat, and spilled blood stabbed deep into the Ordög’s belly, igniting the ever-present hunger pangs into urgency. She strove to breathe shallowly.
Mistress was unfocused today. Normally, she would have taken out her opponent in seconds. Was she finally starting to relish these spectator fights? Adora licked melting snow from her claws as though that might stave off her ravenousness. Doubt it.
There was something else Not Right with the Mistress.
The Ordög’s green skin twitched, and she shifted in her crouch. As always, the snow beneath her had melted to a poisonous soup. At least this time there were no flowers to wither. Adora could not help a sheepish hunch of her shoulders as she recalled the first time she’d accidentally visited Queen Grace’s garden.
. How Adora loved them. And how her love had killed them. For as soon as she drew near, they wilted on stem and vine. She’d yearned to smell them, but the Ordög sense of smell was not attuned to scenting at too great a distance. And being close to something normally meant its death.
Even the Mistress.
The Mistress. She was power and poise incarnate, skill and sultriness. Adora took another experimental sniff, this time searching for Mistress’s feminine musk beneath the reek of blood and death. There, just a hint. Musk and sweat, the hint of absinthe. Mistress was aroused. Battle always provoked her darker desires. It provoked Adora’s too.
She tried to push those thoughts to the back of her mind, but of course they would not go. They never went, her mind as disobedient as her desire. Instead, she tried to dwell on the Days of Bone when the Ordög had glutted themselves on fresh kills from the Gheist Wars.
Before they were subdued and brought to heel by House Batiste.
She shouldn’t want Alidri. Cruciatress, vampyress, captor, slaver.
Adora shrugged her shoulders, testing the weight of the darksteel collar. The barbs bit into her flesh, but the truth bit harder. They’d almost...a fortnight ago. Again. One more close call in three hundred and fifty years of close calls--Mistress leaning down to slip the leash on Adora’s collar, her breasts in Adora’s face, her bodice slipping lower. So near Adora could smell her. Feminine musk and wormwood. Kneeling before her, Adora had wanted to run her tongue along the pale perfection of her inner thigh, had wanted to chase the taste of her mistress to its core.
She squirmed, her thighs suddenly slick with excitement despite herself. The truth was a burr beneath her barbed collar. She could no more bring Mistress to pleasure than she could smell the flowers. Like the blooms and blossoms, the cruciatress would welcome her in, and she would die. Unliving or not.
I should not want her. My Mistress. My enemy.
It would be death to her. And then there were the Progenitors. Adora hunched deeper into the predawn light. Every time she thought of Mistress, the spirits of her Ordög ancestors rose within her, their thoughts, desires, their will a maelstrom that cried out against the injustice of their daughter’s desire. At the brink of death, the Progenitors had trusted Adora enough to become one with her. And with the funeral feast, they had yielded their flesh and the meat memories that came with it to her. She carried them--their reminiscences, their spirits, their very souls.
The least she could do was obey them.
Something in Adora fought against that notion. She had never cared much for lies. In word or in action. What was truth when you were about to consume someone’s bones? The gamey taste of the small ones, the florid taste of long bones, the sweet-warm tang of marrow. Her mouth watered, and her longfangs began to crowd in until her mouth was crammed with teeth. She smiled, and they bristled. From the corners of her eyes, she glimpsed them growing tusklike. Her mouth becoming an abatis. She knew Mistress disliked seeing her this way.
A monster. But a monster was what Adora was--monster limbs, monster form, monster mind and heart. And yet still she yearned. Mistress.
Adora crouched, focusing her mind away from the cries of the Progenitors to the gnawing hunger, pinching and pulling, in the pit of her belly. It was an Ordög’s fate to be hungry, always hungry.
Mistress approached, severe from the chill, her green silks billowing about her. The look of her tugged at Adora, and all the kindnesses remembered themselves to her: warm baths and warmer beds, Mistress letting her eat her fill after the last skirmish in the Battle of the Crown, even when High Queen Vladja had cautioned against it.
Her true name came as a command, and Adora was faintly glad she was not one of those ffaerie creatures for whom that was a natural binding. No. She fingered the collar at her throat. There were other things to bind her to Mistress. And Mistress to me
. The cruciatress had been Adora’s for nearly four hundred years. Near her, the hunger dissipated and became a dull ache in Adora’s belly. Because near her I desire something else. Something else entirely.
The Ordög stole a glance at Mistress. I do want her.
Adora’s monstrous heart constricted, and she resisted the urge to bound up to her. The Progenitors would feel Adora’s mental state, her emotions if she dared have any. Likely, they had felt Adora’s affection for her mistress escalating these past three hundred and fifty years. They would not approve of such attachment to the daughter of a Nobilis House that had slaughtered them wholesale.
Lust they could abide by. But they would not approve of love.
It seemed to make no difference to the Progenitors that Mistress hadn’t taken part in the Great Slaughter, that she was no longer part of House Batiste--the vampyr nobles that had ravaged the Ordög, burned their havens, drained their spawning pools, and bound them with darksteel collar and leash. No, Alidri had forsaken her family.
It’s only us now. Me and Mistress.
Carefully, Adora shielded her thoughts from her monstrous ancestors. They would destroy her if they knew. Consume her from within, body and blood and bone.
And so, when Mistress came near, Adora did not bound up to her. She flexed her claws, digging sharp divots into the frozen ground, and stayed earthbound.
Mistress stopped a few yards away and commanded her. “Adora.”
Obedient, Adora went. On all fours, she approached and nuzzled her mistress’s hand. It was the most affection she was allowed to show in public. The cruciatress had a reputation among the nobilis and vulgaris alike for the coldness befitting an elder of her race.
Absently, Mistress stroked Adora’s flame-red tresses. The Ordög leaned in, allowing her hair as a shield between delicate fingers and the touch of her own venomous skin so that Mistress might caress her longer before having to pull away.
Adora’s flesh rippled beneath that touch, and a yearning banked in her belly.
What would it feel like to be wrapped in her mistress’s embrace? To enter her body in the darkest hours of the night, feel her gasp and clench and spill herself on Adora’s fingers, her mouth...
Venomous by nature, her very skin a deadly hazard, Adora was condemned to never know. Mistress was vampyr nobilis, an ancient. As such, she could withstand Adora’s tainted touch for a time, but not forever. And certainly not the poison that would gush with her orgasm.
If such virulent lust were unleashed, it would kill Mistress outright.
A wintry wind blew the cruciatress’s emerald-green skirts across Adora’s field of vision, and for a moment, she felt as though she were drowning in the scent of absinthe. The Ordög knew the absinthe tincture Mistress consumed was a poor substitute for the blood-nectar she required, but it warmed her to think of the Mistress needing, favoring anything the same color as Adora’s flesh. These days, Adora liked to think they made a matching pair, that somehow the verdant hues of Mistress’s corset and culottes and war-skirts, and the green of her own skin branded them and bound them together.
Half a century ago, it had been easy. Adora had hated her, hated Mistress’s murderous House and every vampyr in it, servire, armiger, and cruciatress. Back then, Adora would have had her mistress’s death. Now it was different. Now, she would have other things. But Adora was an Ordög, a slave, cursed to never know such pleasures.
She could not embrace her mistress. No more than Mistress could kneel down on all fours. Forever separated by castes and cursèd anatomy.
Adora padded at her mistress’s heel as they left the arena on the fortress’s western side, and crossed the courtyard of bone and marble. Here, statues of the luminaries of House Grigelf glittered, icy and forbidding. Here was Vladimir, the first of the Grigelf, transformed by his love for a mortal woman. And here was Vladecai, the Traitor Prince, his gargoyle queen at his side.
Adora recalled Kazhmira, Queen of Gargoyles. She too had a monstrous heart. But she had fallen in love. Adora paused to gaze up, but that stony face--so like Kazhmira’s own--kept its secrets. A backward glance from the Mistress spurred Adora into movement. It took only a few of her odd all-fours strides to catch up.
They passed beneath the arch and into the fortress of Vár Csjethe. Mistress slipped through the corridors, a wisp of emerald-green in the shadows. Her footfalls echoed in the hollow halls, and Adora followed silently, wondering why after fifty years the fortress was still empty. Should there not be a full court of vampyr nobilis?
High Queen Vladja had called the vampyr nobilis back to her, but few from the Nobilis Houses had come. Adora heard the rumors whispered in the empty passages--the Houses did not approve of their queen marrying a human, even though Grace was a lady and even though she bore the hand of a god.
And so, Vár Csjethe remained largely empty, a refuge for monsters.