by Lara Hayes
For five hundred years, all Stela had known was a roving life in service to her maker, Fane. But in the last century her family has built a permanent residence in the abandoned freight tunnels beneath Chicago, where anonymity reigns supreme.
Navigating the modern world is not easy and Stela, once a fierce warrior, has traded the heat of battle for petty negotiation, her sword for a pen, and her station as Fane’s enforcer to now serve as her family’s financial liaison.
When a late meeting forces Stela to visit a nearby hospital, she crosses paths with the beguiling Elizabeth Dumas—a brilliant nurse who sacrificed her academic career to care for her ailing mother. Their charged encounter will threaten the secrecy Stela has sworn to uphold, and the bond they unwittingly forge will irrevocably alter both their lives.
Worlds collide and entwine in Terrible Praise, Book One of The Redamancy Series.
Lex’s Reviews - This is another debut book that I never once considered that it was. While this may be the first published book, it’s clear that Hayes knows how to write. I’m happy to say I loved the ending and it gave me hope. This is going to be a series so it ends when new things are just beginning. I enjoy different and more cerebral reads on occasion. And I like where the series seems to be headed, so I will be reading more.
By the time the elevator chimes its arrival, my senses are already muddled. My head feels lighter than it has in a long while and I struggle to focus. My eyes are drawn to the scalding bright white fluorescents behind the brassy redheaded receptionist. Our quarterly meeting is conducted face-to-face, and has always been my burden. Trusted associates though they may be, it takes every ounce of discipline to remain civil and controlled.
“Good evening, Opes and Sons. How may I direct your call?” The red hold lights blink incessantly in a never-ending queue of incoming calls. “One moment please.”
I flex my hands to conceal their tremble, and place my palms flat against the corner of the black marble desk as I wait for Rachel to acknowledge me.
“Good evening Ms. Radu,” she says. “Mr. Opes is finishing with another client. I’ll tell him you’ve arrived.”
Rachel keeps her head down as she rushes to say in person what could be relayed by phone. She reconsiders her haste and hesitates with one hand poised on the glass corner of the entryway.
“Can I get you anything?” she asks, courteous to a fault.
“No. Thank you, Rachel.”
“Please have a seat while you wait. Mr. Opes will see you shortly.”
Rachel vanishes and I indulge in a brief stretch, permitting myself to lean against the lip of her desk. If I sit, the urge to sleep will triple and it will take noticeable effort to stand again. One must appear infallible inside these walls, so I settle on presenting an impatient façade.
I can hear Rachel’s hushed nervous whispers bouncing off the granite tiles. She does not want to return to her domain to count the tense minutes as they pass in my quiet company.
Her heels click toward me and I raise my head. She keeps her chin down and stares at my feet.
“Mr. Opes offers his sincerest apologies, Ms. Radu.” Her voice is a soft but shaky melody to my ears. “He will collect you in a moment.”
I nod and take to pacing by the far wall, granting her the distance we both know she prefers. I appreciate Rachel’s apprehension. She is smarter than her predecessors, always keeping the bright emerald of her eyes hidden from the black of mine. She does not trust me so much as to fix her gaze on my dark sunglasses, though I doubt very much she could explain why. Perhaps her Irish forebears are to blame for filling her head with absurd superstitions.
Yet I can smell her fear—sharp and acidic—as she pretends to correct her lurid eye shadow in a small round compact she keeps on her desk. Rachel has never said a word of it aloud, but my reflection in the mirror startles her every single time. A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth as Andrew Opes appears in the lobby, hurrying his last client into the elevator. A fellow investor by the look of him.
Andrew does not trouble himself with small talk. Not while I have been made to wait, yet again.
Andrew Opes is an intolerable creature with a puffed chest and a perpetual strut. If only he had kept some of his hair after the age of thirty, or been born tall and broad-shouldered. If Andrew were not a slave to the drink, as indicated by the blood vessels webbing down the bridge of his nose, perhaps he would make for better company. He is not the hardened businessman his father was, though he tries desperately to dress the part.
He wipes his palms against the front of his wool trousers and offers his hand. “Kathryn, so good to see you.” His warm clammy paws close over my cool fingers.
“Andy. A pleasure.”
“Andrew, please. No one calls me that anymore.”
I suspect he knows that I insist upon the name to taunt him. A friendly jab at his transparent persona.
“Forgive me, Andrew. Old habits.” I put more emphasis on the last line than I should in front of Rachel, whose heart is pounding like a trapped hare’s. Andrew nods and clasps his empty hands, certain that I will repeat the taunt.
“Please, after you.” Andrew waves me through the glass partition and down the hall to his office, slipping silently in step behind me. His door is open, as are the blinds. My steps falter, as he breezes around my body and heads for the bar in the corner.
The effects of the evening sun bouncing off the wall of windows and spilling out against the dark wood of his desk are dizzying. This is his small revenge. Andrew offers me a drink that he knows will be declined. His fingers curl around a scotch.
My fingers knot into fists as I watch the setting sun drown in brilliant pink hues behind the tops of lesser buildings that frame the view of his penthouse suite. I remove my jacket and hang it on the rack beside his door.
Andrew’s father, Robert Opes, had kept a separate staff and smaller office in the dark basement of this building as a courtesy and a sign of respect to our family. For many years, he served as a loyal steward, managing our affairs. Robert was the face of Fane’s amassed wealth, and a true ally in every sense of the word. However, Andrew has spread himself out against the sky in this sun-drenched office, as a way of saying he does not need us when we both know that his enterprise, his father’s legacy would topple without our patronage. Andrew’s hubris is the sole reason my meeting schedule has been altered from biannually to quarterly, and Fane is wise to doubt Andrew’s competence. I suppose, were I in My Lord’s position, I too would charge a trustworthy servant like me to be my eyes and ears.
“Would you prefer the blinds closed?” Andrew gestures with a wide-open hand. A small, disdainful laugh escapes me as I walk around the side of his desk ahead of him, and take his seat for myself.
“Andy, I would not dream of troubling you with my preferences. Shall we get down to business?” I settle comfortably in his over-sized chair, back to the window and flirt with the idea of propping my heels on the corner of his desk. He downs the last of his scotch, his hostility visible only in the single finger he taps against the glass clutched in his fist. Andrew has more restraint than I credit him for, just not very much.
“Of course,” he says.
Andrew freshens up his glass and sets it carelessly on the table while he explains to me—as he does every quarter—how profitable the year has been for us. His verbose, self-aggrandizing yammering is of little interest as I review the numbers for myself. The glowing portrait he paints seems to correlate with the figures Rachel has printed for my visit. I question every quarter whether my abhorrence of him as a person warrants the skepticism I feel toward him as a businessman. I cut short his gloating ramble about the genius, if not underhanded plays he has made for the sake of my family’s fortune.
“Another strong finish it seems.” I lean back in the chair and Andrew takes a celebratory sip of his second scotch. “And yet again, I see no report on the Caymans.” Undoubtedly the largest single account Andrew has managed for a decade, and the one which fluctuates the most. The account my family transfers from on a monthly basis. Anonymity, after all, is expensive.
I tap the tip of my black fingernail expectantly on his desk. Andrew sets his drink down and leans back in his chair, his hands folded neatly over his swollen belly.
“Well, for the sake of your time, I haven’t included details of every account. Just the usual summary.”
The sun’s grip around my brain lessens with every passing moment and I feel more at home in my own skin, less like a passenger locked in a vehicle I cannot control. I slowly remove the sturdy black frames of my Wayfarers, and toss the sunglasses on the mountainous stack of papers towering between us. A familiar burn settles at the back of my eyes as they adjust, a single flame that flares and chokes. When my vision clears, Andrew looks quickly away and clears his throat.
“Thank you, Andrew.” It is easier now in the dim twilight to focus my eyes on his. He meets my stare with great reluctance. “Your concern for me with these meetings is touching. But I assure you…” I lean across his desk and flash a threatening smile. “Time is not as precious a commodity to me as it is to you.”
His boisterous veneer subdued, Andrew apologizes with something approaching sincerity. “I will have Rachel arrange the figures for us immediately,” he offers. I wave my hand in dismissal.
“Tell me the quarter is a success on all fronts and I shall believe you, Andrew.” He brightens and takes another slow gulp of his scotch. I reach for the family photo on the corner of his desk and watch his entire body coil. I hold his family in my right hand and trace his daughter’s face with my index finger. “Christine has grown quite lovely.”
Andrew stands abruptly and snatches the portrait from my hand, looking once over his beloved child’s face before he returns the photo to his desk. “I will have the figures sent to you first thing tomorrow morning, Kathryn. I am confident you will be pleased with them.”
After a few quick signatures, I reach for my sunglasses and stand on firm feet. Andrew adjusts his paisley-print tie and I take hold of his sweaty hand in a brief but strong shake.
“I am positive you would not give me cause to question your performance.” I walk around the side of his desk and sweep my jacket from its place on the coat rack, casting it over one shoulder. “After all, you would not want to jeopardize Christine’s college tuition. It is nearly that time, is it not?”
Andrew wraps his hand around the back of his chair and does not conceal the hate in his eyes. “Yes. This coming fall.”
“They grow up so fast.” I slip my arms into the satin-lined sleeves of my coat as I dig my words, like fingers, into his bleeding wound. “Good evening, Andy.”
My dark glasses are fixed to my face before I pass the receptionist’s desk. There is no need to scare the competent help more than I already have.
“A pleasure as always, Rachel,” I toss the social nicety over my shoulder as I step into the waiting elevator.
“Until next quarter, Ms. Radu.”
Rachel is standing behind her desk, and I do not miss her small sigh of relief as the steel doors close between us. I can practically feel her crossing herself.
The cool of the basement-level parking garage settles around my aching skull like a salve. A sojourn in daylight is as physically devastating as a marathon sprint on the surface of the sun, but every moment grows more tolerable as I reach the sanctity of my black Mercedes parked in the space reserved for special clients.
I crawl across the black leather interior of the backseat—not trusting myself behind the wheel—fighting with the sleeves of my jacket as I fling it to the floor. The second I settle on my right side, exhaustion hits me full force and I pound my fist against the floorboard. The burning in my eyes makes it difficult to keep them open and as I roll onto my back I pinch the bridge of my nose, which does nothing to quiet the screaming in my brain—as though colors themselves have sound.
There was a time before all this bureaucracy. Many blissful years before we had to trouble ourselves with keeping up appearances, or force ourselves aboveground in the daylight hours, when we were feared and revered in equal measure. A time when men like Andrew kept their eyes on their feet while they spoke, much the way Rachel operates today. A time when it was considered a slight to turn your back, and people backed carefully from the room thanking us for our patronage and generosity. I would have been well within my rights in those days—nay expected—to leave a man like Andrew pinned to the surface of his own desk with a letter opener, for so much as a misspoken utterance. In moments of his regular abject arrogance, my first instinct is still to reach for my saber. Even after all these years, I feel naked without its grounding weight knocking flatly against my hip. A simpler time, and one I find myself missing more with every passing year.
I shut my eyes as the dull thud in my temples joins the sharp roar of the blinding world.
* * *
I wake with a start, bolt upright in my car. An untimely sleep is a great danger, and I rip the back door open more forcefully than I should. The steel gives a slight protest in my palm as I slam it shut behind me. The air is cool and the sun has set completely. The wind carries with it the stamp of the hour: perfumes too honeyed and cloyingly sweet for office hours, the half-eaten remnants of discarded meals, evening flowers unfurled even in this concrete playground, all of which confirm that I have wasted several hours.
I slide into the driver’s seat and settle the key in the ignition. The dashboard clock illuminates: nine fifty-three p.m. I let my head fall back against the headrest. The hour is later than I would like, but there is still time to feed.
My impromptu slumber has steadied my nerves and my headache is manageable, but I am too weak for a proper hunt. I will need to meet with Fane when I return home, and he will want an overview of his financials. Fane will also need to eat. Business matters always leave him frustrated and peckish. With a weary sigh, I throw the car into drive and make my way to the only sure fare I have in such circumstances.
* * *
Emergency rooms are always bustling, and I prefer to enter a hospital there among the crowd. Window shopping, my brother calls it, taking inventory of the produce. The sick, the bleeding, the junkie frauds presenting with a myriad of fabricated symptoms in the hope that they will land a new physician. Someone who will not recognize them. But I do. I can smell their organs spoiling in their bodies, spot their dancing, nervous legs scuffing up the tiles.
Once, the easiest marks to take were the drunkards, stumbling home down darkened alleyways convinced that they were saving themselves steps, inebriated to the point that self-preservation was little more than the motor reflexes propelling them forward. Now there are all manner of mind-altering substances, the new science of intoxication.
Aware of security cameras in every corner I keep close to the stark white wall until the tiles underfoot gather into a blue and green mosaic in the center of the ground floor. There is a helpful map beside the elevator bank, detailing the wards. Long-Term Acute Care: Fourth Floor. The elevator opens and a nurse in green scrubs stops texting and looks up from her mobile. I adjust my sunglasses to suggest concealed tears and expend an empty sigh.
“Which floor?” she asks.
“Four, please.” I affect a tremble and lean heavily against the handrail.
Our ride is a quiet one. I keep my eyes to the ground, my head turned away from the red blinking light of the camera above the control panel, the all-seeing eye in this brave new world. When the elevator dings, I step around my fellow passenger to disembark and the nurse gives my shoulder a companionable pat.
“Hang in there,” she whispers. I watch her sad empathetic smile until the doors close between us, letting my mouth twitch just enough to appease her.
The nurses station in the center of the room is manned by a skeleton crew too weary to take note of me. I slip quietly along the deserted halls searching for a darkened room. I find several, but each with at least one friend or family member slumbering stiffly in an uncomfortable chair. Despite all measures to counteract it, the ward reeks of death, disease, disinfectant, and human refuse. How any creature could heal in a place like this is beyond me.
Then I see him.
Alone in the last room on the hall. No nurses fussing with his monitors. No visitor sleeping half-slumped at his feet. I take the chart off the wall and slink inside. Protected from prying eyes, I remove my sunglasses and tuck them in the pocket of my waistcoat. I strip off my jacket, draping it across the arm of a green plastic recliner tucked in the corner. The light above the sink near his bed buzzes like an insect. I switch it off and return to the door. The hall is completely empty.
“Just the two of us.” I smile at his warm, sleeping body and twist the lock. My eyes welcome the dark, soaking it in, and focus without pain for the first time in hours. I retrieve his chart from the end of the bed, and flip through the notes.
“William Moore, twenty-eight years old. Multiple gunshot wounds.” Chart in hand, I walk around the side of the bed and silence the beeping machines. His body makes no protest as he rests comfortably in a morphine-induced slumber. “Traces of methamphetamines in your blood on admission.” William’s soft blond hair sticks to the side of his face. “Your poor mother.”
The most endearing thing about humanity is its collective recklessness. With lives and hearts and bodies so fragile, one would think they would take more care to guard themselves against calamity and yet, the opposite is true. Human beings run headlong into danger, butting at the walls of their precarious existence with soft, fleshy skulls until life breaks in half and submits to them, or as in William’s case, they to it. I sweep his long sweaty unkempt mane away from his neck and tilt his head to the side. The blood surging in his veins calls to me, a part of him slowly becoming aware of the threat. I place my hand over his pounding heart and feel it gallop.
My lips graze his ear. “It does not hurt for very long.”
I wrap my hand around the back of his head and lift him away from the pillow. William grimaces in his sleep as I open my mouth and close my lips over the warm, thin skin of his neck. My perpetually white fangs descend from the ruby bed of my gums, and sink into his pitifully unprotected jugular as effortlessly as twin blades.
Silence replaces the beeping monitors in neighboring rooms, the polluted stench that has ensnared my nostrils finally abates, and everything that William is, or was, or might have been comes flooding into my mouth—carried to the core of me by a crimson tide. His last coherent thoughts come to life through his blood, and play out behind my eyes. I see his parents’ eager faces at some school recital. William’s crushing self-loathing as he watched his graduating class walk into the next phase of their lives without him. William when he held his stillborn son in his arms for the first and last time, dripping with birth fluids.
William’s body jerks in my arms and I hold him flush against me—careful not to jostle him, mindful not to spill a drop—and when the swoon hits me the wave sweeps William along with it. His body stills, I close my eyes and there is only this: the slowing of his weak heart and the waking of my own as he rushes inside, filling the empty, echoing chambers of my heart with warmth—with life.
Reluctantly, I pull away before I have ended him. Holding his head in my hand, I bring my left wrist to my lips and score the skin. I place my weeping wound against the two perfect holes in his neck and the skin beneath awakens. William’s skin soaks up the offering and his flesh begins to mend. I keep count of the seconds as they trickle past and slowly pull my wrist away as the matching set of puncture wounds shrink to pinholes before they disappear completely.
I take an indulgent moment to clean my wrist with my tongue and savor the last few drops of William that I find mingling with my own blood. Finally fed, finally whole again and sprightly with new strength, I retrieve a towel and a washbasin from the small en-suite bathroom. I resume my place at the side of the bed, and William’s body—noticeably lighter—rolls limply toward me.
“Live to fight another day, my son.”
I wet the rag and scrub the dried blood from his neck. He will not die tonight, but he will soon from the various traumas his body has sustained, as well as the significant blood loss. The darkness has him now. I cannot help but think his family will be better for it, assuming he has any left.
I tuck William back into bed exactly as he was when I found him, and make quick work of washing my own face in the bathroom. I hide the rag in the medical waste bin and empty the washbasin into the sink, watching the pink water swirl once around the drain and disappear. I take a last look in the mirror, pleased with the blush William’s blood has lent to my normally sunken cheeks, and tuck the ends of my gray silk blouse back into place. I delight in the sensation of William rushing through my veins and remove an errant piece of lint from the leg of my dark trousers. Now that I feel better it is a shame that there was no time for a proper hunt.
I grab my black blazer, settle it around me and reach for my sunglasses, but against my better judgment I do not fix them to my face. A feed always leaves me feeling invincible and besides, the hour is far too late to walk around in them inconspicuously. The interaction with the nurse in the elevator had been quick thinking on my part, and thankfully dimwitted on hers.
The hall is blessedly vacant. I take one step toward the emergency exit before a voice stops me in my tracks. Hushed and frantic, a young woman caught on the losing end of a heated debate. Her impassioned pleas reach me from the open door of a small waiting room, one of those ill-lit oubliettes with horribly upholstered chairs and sticky end tables strewn with last year’s magazines. Her desperation is palpable, and I linger in the hall edging closer to the doorway than I should, snatching at the threads of half a phone conversation.
The downside of a feed is that there is no such thing as enough. I always crave more, and this girl sounds so small, so furious, so full of life I cannot turn myself away.
“Mother, please. She is trying to help you.” I press my spine against the wall beside the open door and listen.
“No. Don’t you dare!”
“Lis—no you listen to me. I’ll be home soon, okay?” Her weary sigh reaches my waiting ears, and the weight of her exhaustion threatens my freshly procured vibrancy. “If you don’t want to eat it, don’t. I’ll make you something when I get there.”
“I am not taking her side.”
“Mother. Don’t you hang—” The abrupt end of the argument leaves her cursing. All the frustration melts away into silent agony, so potent I can taste the sorrow welling up inside of her. Her breath comes in shallow bursts as she steels herself against threatening sobs. I glance toward the red glow of the emergency exit and attempt to smother my own raging senses. I only manage to take two steps toward the stairs.
My fists clench and my muscles tighten, preparing for a sprint. I do not need to be seen here. I am poised to run, ready to vanish, but instead I find the starved snarl melting from my features. I turn around with soft, understanding eyes and bowed shoulders. A different kind of seduction and one I do not often employ.
“I did not intend to disturb you.”
The girl answers my apology with a terse nod. “You’re fine,” she says. “I shouldn’t be in here anyway.” She shoves her mobile into the loose pocket of her scrubs. “I was just leaving.”
I walk toward her. “Please, not on my account.” I make my way to the end table beside which she sits ramrod straight in the corner chair. Her hands grip the wooden armrests with white-knuckled frustration as I present her with a box of tissues. Clearly taking offense, she locks me in her stare and cocks her head.
“No thank you.” She watches me set the offering aside like the lowering of a loaded pistol, and her reaction is so harsh and unwarranted that I find myself questioning what I know of strangers, and socially acceptable behavior. I turn to leave before either of us can begin again, but the girl continues in a softer tone. “There’s almost never anyone in this room,” she states. “It’s no excuse. I shouldn’t be using it for personal calls.”
Not an apology, but certainly an attempt at civility. I take the chair opposite her, my eyes on the open door, compelled to linger a moment longer. There is much loneliness in this world, easy to forget when you are moored on your own island. The girl lets her head drop back against the bubbling ivory wallpaper, resigned to my presence and unable to resume her duties. She shuts her eyes and tries to steady her uneven breath. I seize the opportunity to examine her in earnest.
Dark hair, richer than chestnut, hangs well past her shoulders in soft, twisting waves. The long line of her neck, graceful, almost regal. Her skin is warmed by some far-removed ethnicity, making her neither fair nor tawny. She has a strong chin, faintly cleft, and a clearly defined jaw though her face is too soft to be square. I want to hold that chin in my hand and admire her closely for as long as I can before she screams. They always scream.
“Are you visiting someone?” she asks through her own distraction, picking at the tissue box. She does not look at me, I suspect too angry with herself. I fold my hands and rest my elbows against my knees, hunting for a response that will satisfy her curiosity and endear me to her in some way.
It certainly gets her attention. She regards me with thoughtful eyes. The silence stretches out and she rises from her seat to settle wearily into the chair next to me. The shift in her mood and our proximity is sudden, not exactly predictable, but then, this method never is. Trust takes time, and we have so very little. I listen for the steps of potential witnesses and calculate the distance between this hospital and the Carrington Funeral Home. Regretfully, I admit that I cannot dispose of her body before Derek closes for the night, and yet I make no move to leave.
“Why was she admitted?” the girl inquires with a soft voice, mellowed by genuine concern. Details, of course. She is a medical professional. This is becoming tedious as well as reckless. Someone will be making the rounds soon. They will find the quickly chilling body of William Moore and take notice of his silenced machines. Still, I maintain character.
“An infection in the blood.” The girl’s interested brown eyes run across my face as I search for the word. “Sepsis,” I supply, and I swear I detect an edge of skepticism in her carefully controlled expression.
“How long has she been here?” She shifts her legs toward me, craning closer in her seat, and my limbs respond in kind to match her posture, until I realize she is straining for a closer look at my eyes. “The hospital, I mean. We don’t have a septic patient on this floor.” A coolly delivered statement of fact. Naturally she knows the ailments of every patient in her rotation. I should have covered my eyes and kept walking. The last thing I need to worry about is concealing the body of a night nurse who noticed too much.
“A few days now.” I do not meet her heavy glare, instead turning away in my chair and straightening my coat to say with small gestures that I must take my leave.
“Is she conscious?” she presses, brushing a hand over the crook of my arm. Not to stop me, merely to slow me down as she angles closer to catch my eyes, which should be the last thing anyone sees.
“No.” I reach for the sunglasses in my coat pocket and stand up. The girl follows suit, the youthful expanse of her brow furrowed in thought. I have already moved to the open door when my curiosity gets the better of me. “Your mother…” I begin. The girl uncrosses her arms and shoves her hands into her pockets. “Is it dementia?” My young friend offers no reply, and I slip the sunglasses back into my coat prepared to coax the answer from her if I must.
“Parkinson’s Disease with dementia,” she relents in a faintly bitter and clinically dispassionate voice. “Some days…” the girl swallows thickly, “are worse than others, cognitively.”
I do look upon her now—I cannot help myself. Even in that awful pale blue uniform she is quite beautiful. I recognize her anger, the fury over her own impotence, and glance out into the hall. No footsteps. No sound at all but the beating of her heart. I could have her. I could leave her body in the stairwell and retreat unobserved. But that would mean retiring this location for a long while, and where would that leave the rest of my family when they are in need? Soft fingers on my face startle me from my musings as she tilts my chin toward her. The fact that I did not anticipate the touch troubles me.
“Your pupils are completely dilated,” she observes. “Are you taking any medication?” Those large brown eyes narrow as she stares deeply into mine. She is too observant for her own good. I close my hand over hers and fix her in my stare. Her fingers flex against my chin, just once, and then she sighs, wavers slightly like she means to pull away. Lost to our surroundings, to all the burdens of her heart and mind, her hand hangs limp in my grasp and a blank stare is all that she can muster. She looks younger this way, untroubled, almost happy. When I leave this place, she will remember me as nothing more than the most beautiful stranger she has ever encountered. I revel in the knowledge longer than I should. I push harder than I should.
“What is your name?” I ask, brushing her hair back around the shell of her ear. She smiles warmly.
“Elizabeth.” She leans into my hand, inches her body closer. The heat of her flushed skin is overwhelming.
“That is a beautiful name.”
Elizabeth, more in control than she should be in this state under my influence, asks for my name in return, much to my surprise.
“Stela.” The truth tumbles from my mouth without a second thought, not a moment’s hesitation. For a second neither of us can move, Elizabeth beguiled into blissful silence, and I, mute with horror. That name is not mine to give. Furthermore, it carries a grossly unfair burden for someone with so much sadness strung around her heart. I know nothing of this woman aside from what I gleaned from a private conversation I was not invited to hear in the first place.
“Stela,” she repeats with a wide smile that reaches her eyes and crinkles the skin at each corner. Those five letters wrap tightly around her tongue—she seems so pleased to receive them—curl their claws into the walls of her heart, and the deed is done. I lean forward because I can do no more damage than I have, and press a kiss to her warm blushing cheek. Elizabeth closes her eyes at the contact, and when I pull away to admire her face once more, her stare is heated by the desire coursing through her.
“Goodnight, Elizabeth.” I release her hand and take a step back. There is no trace of her icy exterior. She grins like a schoolgirl and I find myself returning that smile. For a while her troubles will be lost to her as she sits under the veil my stare has drawn around her mind. Perhaps when she awakens fully the world will seem less grim. It almost sounds like chivalry that way, but there is no altruism at work tonight. I want to see her again.
“Goodnight, Stela,” she whispers as I turn away and slip down the hall to the exit.
The stairs pass beneath my feet in blur—a fury of unspent energy—my movements too swift for the human eye. I shoulder my way out of a fire exit on the rear of the building and into the deserted parking lot, stopping only once to bring my fist hard against a lone steel Dumpster. The force of that blow sends the receptacle skidding over the asphalt on locked wheels, where it collides in an echoing crash with the concrete base of a streetlamp.
My Mercedes lights up when I press the key fob in my pocket, and for the second time this evening I pull the handle harder than necessary. The door makes a sharp scream, threatening to separate from its hinges as I hurl myself inside and collapse with my forearms braced atop the wheel.
I lean back in the driver’s seat and I catch my reflection in the rearview mirror. The blood has already begun to slow inside me and my pallor is fast returning. My fingertips cool quickly against the steering wheel. Vacant black eyes stare resolutely back at me from the mirror, haloed with a feline sheen from the stark light of the parking lot lamps. I close them against the weight of my own foolishness.
“What are you doing?”
I hang my head at my own inability to answer the simplest of questions and contemplate returning to the vibrating hospital ward to hunt the girl down. I am not in the habit of operating without a plan, and I certainly do not like to leave loose ends. But I make no move to exit my vehicle. I slide my key into the ignition, fully aware that I will have to deal with this woman soon enough. Soon but not now.
Tonight, I need to meet with Fane and review the affairs of the day. I must have my thoughts organized. He cannot know of this. He cannot know how rash I’ve been. How wildly trapped I feel in a service that has always been my heart’s only joy, unquestioning for centuries that to be his hand, his confidant, his loyal and humble servant was my life’s purpose. But when the role assigned to me changed from bloodshed to banking, so too did my enthusiasm for service. A century of monotony ensued.
“This too shall pass,” I murmur, and they are more than comforting words. A prayer of sorts, to return to the life I loved, to the warrior I was. Anything but the endless errands that comprise and consume my waking hours. But this is the world we live in now and I must crush this growing cynicism, this feeling of walking in a slumber when I am wide awake. I need to stop asking myself every evening when I rise why I bother. It is vain. Worse, it is traitorous, and I am neither of those things.
I chastise myself once more and whip my vehicle onto the black expanse of the whistling highway. I am certain that Elizabeth is a mistake that will keep for another night.
* * *
I park my car beneath the lazily strobing lights of the parking garage that sits atop my family home. Outside, the city begins to awaken. I hear the faint patter of weary feet dragging over buckling floors in windowless apartments. Is my drudgery so different? A century ago, the question would never have occurred to me.
The sweltering blush of the first rays of a new dawn threaten the black ocean of the horizon. I enter the passcode on a hatch that conceals the service entrance, slinking down beneath the pavement of a city so changed I scarcely remember its beginnings. With a wheezing, pneumatic sigh, the hatch shuts firmly above my head as I leave this world to the living for a few precious hours and slide down the steel ladder into the dank embrace of the tunnels below.
These underground service tunnels had fallen completely out of public memory. It was not until the nineties, when a construction company broke a retaining wall, flooding downtown Chicago, that the city realized the underground wasn’t a myth. The old tracks remain largely intact, a smaller set, heavily rusted, once used for freight carts. Pipes—water and electric—laced into the ceiling above, and warped cables dead center, running straight through. There is no breeze in the stale air, only the distant rumbling of the L, and though the moniker is short for “elevated”, the subterranean sections of the train are near enough to rattle our walls.
“What on earth kept you?” Lydia paces the entrance to Fane’s chamber like a caged beast, her arms flying out in such fierce exasperation that I am uncertain whether she means to strike or embrace me. Thankfully, she does neither. She runs a soothing hand down the length of her long black hair, pushing it back from her oval face and the wide obsidian eyes we share. When I do not reply, she cocks her head curiously, both hands firmly mounted on her hips as if to bar my passage.
“Is he resting?” I ask, stepping up against her. She flinches—predictably—and I reach around her body for the gilded handle of his chamber door, but she does not step aside.
“No one rests until his Stela is safely at his feet,” she chides. Lydia cannot insult me by ridiculing my fealty because it is fact, and this relentless jealousy is precisely the emotion that drives her further from Fane’s good graces.
She has always been weak-minded and I tired of her petty taunts ages ago. However, I do feel a pang of guilt that my carelessness has kept the whole household awake. Lydia senses this and grows bolder.
“One evening in the sun is clearly too much for you in your old age,” she delights. “If you are unable to complete a simple errand in a timely manner, perhaps I will bear the burden of next quarter’s meeting.” She brings her face near to mine as I count the ways I could end her pitiful existence, but the faint mark on the skin of her neck suggests that Fane has already fed at least once tonight. The relief that he may not need very much from me improves my mood considerably.
“You will move. Or I will move you.” I swipe a hand between us, brushing the front of her white sweater, and Lydia all but jumps to one side of the hallway. I smile knowingly as she mutters empty slander and rushes into Fane’s chamber ahead of me, announcing my arrival to our Prince.
“My Lord, Stela has returned.” She infuses those words with the rancor of one child tattling on another, and kneels in the entryway. Lydia has loved Fane from the moment she was named. There is no space in her heart for anyone else.
Fane sits in his chair, the mirrored skylight at the epicenter of his suite open to receive the only trickles of sunlight that ever reach this lair. The small corridor built into the tunnels above his head glistens as the first rays break and bathe the crown of his head in gold. “Thank you, Lydia, that will be all.” He waves her out of the room with the back of his hand, not even a smile to dismiss her. “Rest now,” he commands. Lydia pouts and turns with a flutter of indignation, sure to let her shoulder collide with mine as she retreats.
My jaw clenches and only the hearty laughter of my Lord pulls me back from the brink of altercation.
“Tell me, my dove. How can petulance exist in a being that has witnessed whole empires turn to rubble before her very eyes?”
I kneel beside his chair and bow my head, ashamed that her tantrums have any effect on me at all. “Lydia’s or mine, my Lord?”
He curls his hand to cup my chin and lifts my face to his. Despite the pain it causes me, I look upon his sun-struck face to find a gentle smile settled on his lips. “Lydia, of course.” He runs his thumb along my jaw, and I answer his smile with my own.
“Come,” he says. “Sit beside me a while. I will not keep you long. You have a very good reason for having made me wait.”
I stand on fatigue-stiffened knees and skirt the edges of stolen light that embrace him, to sit on the weathered lounge to his left. My head droops on my shoulders and with marked reluctance I fight to maintain eye contact. The gossamer strands of his pale golden hair are fire to my weary eyes, but the iridescent blue of his impatiently await my full attention. His muscles are tense, plainly visible in the stark glow of the sun reflected down upon him. They twist upon themselves in his shoulders, across his wide chest. The periwinkle veins that stitch him together beneath a single protective layer of flesh, web down his flexing forearms.
Not for the first time I note his very magnificence, the ethereal qualities that have always made him beautiful to me—his single layer of near indestructible skin, his fiercely magnetic, impossibly bright eyes—are why he cannot show his face aboveground and must entrust his children to oversee his affairs. Once more I am ashamed of my own folly, my ingratitude, and so I say nothing.
“I do so miss the sun.” A genuine lament. He tilts his face up to the light just as the sun passes, and the beam that ensconces him ascends back to heaven. My eyes immediately welcome the reprieve, and as it happens every morning, my Lord stands with a heavy heart and covers himself with his robe. “Tell me,” he says, tying the emerald silk sash firmly about his waist, “how does your Andrew fair this quarter?”
“He is not my Andrew, my Lord.”
Fane chuckles. “Of course. But even still?”
“He is well, my Lord. He sends his respect and good tidings.” My spirits rise as they normally do in Fane’s presence and I find my footing in the conversation, the trifles of my evening momentarily removed.
“I preferred entrusting our affairs to his father’s capable hands,” he remarks, absently rubbing the fabric of his gown between his thumb and forefinger.
“As did I, my Lord.” I reach for the report folded in my coat pocket. “But despite Andrew’s wanting personality, it seems he makes an adequate substitute.” I present Fane with the summary and his fevered, strong hand brushes my cool fingers. He reviews the numbers for himself.
“And the state of the Caymans?” he inquires and begins to pace.
“I found that curious, my Lord. We have seen no formal documentation specific to that account for over a year now.” He stands very still in the center of the room, staring at the papers, searching for something. “But Rachel will have the figures sent to me before sundown.”
Fane’s demeanor lightens and, pleased with my diligence, he trails a hand across my shoulders as he steps around the lounge to deposit the report on his writing desk. He will give it to Darius this evening, so that it may be properly recorded.
“Very good,” he says, joining me once again in the sitting area. He slips gracefully into the ebony arms of his enormous chair, a throne to any person of normal stature. “And on the off chance that the findings are bleak, there is a silver lining. You may finally have the good fortune to put an end to that horrid little man, after all.” We share a laugh at Andrew’s expense, and I shake the notion away before it becomes irresistible.
“I would not give Christine the satisfaction of an easy reason to terminate our relationship with her family’s enterprise and forsake the legacy she stands to inherit,” I confess, and pace along the window-like panels that line the front of his chamber. Floor-to-ceiling screens, blocked like lattice, illuminated this evening with an obnoxiously green forest-scape. A powerfully calming illusion, to be sure, but an illusion none the less, and one made all the more obvious by the fact that Fane never uses the accompanying soundtracks. The wind that rushes over the tall grass, between the leaves, and the specks of quick darting avian life are disconcertingly mute. He says the quiet helps him think.
“Ah, Christine,” my Lord sighs. “How has she grown?” Fane comes to stand beside me with crossed arms and more than a little teasing in his tone.
“She has grown lovely. She leaves for university this fall.” I stare at my boots and the glistening floorboards, thinking of the way I used a daughter’s place in her father’s heart against him today—a necessary evil—and push the fleeting emotion aside before Fane can sense it, unsettled that I should be anything but pleased with my methods, effective as they were.
“Well, then we will just have to tolerate Andrew for a moment longer.”
I shift my weight from foot to foot, marveling in the strain of each muscle, my body pleading for sleep. Beside me, Fane flexes his shoulders.
“My dove,” he laments. “I promise you, he will one day meet his end by your hand.” Fane brushes his fingers against the small of my back, beneath the edge of my blouse.
“If it pleases you, my Lord.” I place my hand over his, and Fane’s smile pulls his upper lip up over his shining teeth.
“What pleases me is what pleases you, Stela.” His warm hand splays across my skin. “Do I not always grant you that which you desire?”
I close my eyes and push the deepest dissatisfactions of my soul just out of his reach. “Always, my Lord.”
Fane tenses, his familiar touch held rigid and firm. “And what of this late hour?” he presses. The edge of his voice has sharpened with renewed curiosity, and he no longer distracts himself with the calming projection cast upon the windows. I can feel his eyes digging their way down to the truth, burrowing into my temple. I cannot avoid their depths for very long.
“I fell asleep.” I give him half the truth I hold and hope to fabricate the rest as I go. My hands are clasped in front of me like the child I am, and though I do not turn to face him, I keep my body relaxed—prepared to be turned by force if it suits him. Deeper he searches, pushing his way to my heart, rolling the words over in his mind and weighing them carefully. The words ring true, and the sincerity of my confession was not contrived in the least, nor is my embarrassment.
“You fell asleep,” he repeats in a slow, deliberate voice. He seems neither pleased nor disappointed. Finally, the grip on my mind loosens, like the unexpected slacking of a noose. Fane breaks his stare and once again resumes his seat, tapping his lips with a pensive finger. I collect myself quickly, careful not to show my relief through any physical display, and turn around.
Fane beckons me closer. I cautiously take his hand in mine, filling my mind with nothing but the panic I felt when I awoke in the backseat of my vehicle, focusing my thoughts entirely on that moment. Fane cradles my hand in his, raises his clear blue eyes to mine, and makes a final push for the truth.
I answer him with a push of my own, sending all the anger I harbor for myself hurdling to the surface of my wayward thoughts, and I funnel that fury into a single memory: the moment I ripped open the backseat door and took my first inhale of the cool night air. Fane’s lips press lightly against my knuckles, his thumb soothing the skin of my wrist with gentle ministrations.
“Falling asleep outside these walls is a very dangerous thing,” he warns.
“Yes, my Lord.”
“And falling asleep at our servant’s doorstep…even more so.”
I hold my body stiff against the threat of the impending lecture.
“Perhaps I belabor you too greatly with responsibilities that should be mine,” he says. I reach for him and place my hand along the side of his smooth face.
“To labor in your service is what I desire most in this world.”
For a moment Fane is content, his eyes bright and untroubled. He looks every bit the happy youth his ageless body suggests.
“Get thee to bed, my dove.” Fane turns his face into my hand, and places a kiss to my palm. “You have had a trying night.”
“As have you. I loathe to give you cause for concern.” I run my fingers through his fine gold hair. “Have you eaten, my Lord?”
Fane closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Enough,” he smiles. “If the mood strikes me I will call for someone I have taxed less.”
Exhausted by the sheer force it takes to thwart his searching stare as well as my own ridiculous antics, I bow my head and take my leave of him before he can change his mind. A little too gratefully, a hair too fast, and my obvious relief does not go unnoticed. Fane grabs me by the wrist, and pulls so frightfully hard that I bend backward over the arm of his chair and fall into his lap. He is not smiling anymore.
“Would you leave me without a taste when I will be so many hours without your company?” He poses a question that is not a question at all. When I attempt to arrange myself gracefully in his arms he holds me closer and leans his body forward until there is nothing to push against but him, which he knows full well I will not do.
“No, my Lord.” It was foolish to think I would leave this meeting without thorough inquiry. Foolish to believe I had completely dispelled his skepticism.
Fane’s hand cradles the back of my head as he brings my mouth to his. “Good girl,” he whispers against my open mouth. His teeth graze my lower lip and, as blood floods my mouth, we taste the iron left over from William Moore. Fane lingers in the blood, coaxing it into his own mouth with a firm tongue. I see my victim’s face, I hear the chorus of his monitoring machines, the stench of bleach, the sweat long since dried on William’s body. I hold that image as tightly as I can and think only of Mr. Moore. The weight of his body in my arms, the memories he showed me—I offer them up to Fane and wrap my arms around his shoulders until he finishes.
“Until tonight, my Stela.” He brushes the last rivulet of blood from my bottom lip and his grip falls slack around my body. I rise from his embrace without grace, wavering slightly on unsettled feet. I smooth the front of my blouse, and retrieve my jacket.
“Until tonight, my Lord.” I genuflect—a proper exit—remembering my place, and wait to be dismissed by a nod that takes noticeably longer to receive.
When my freedom has been granted, I depart with marked humility and retreat quickly to the safety of the hall. Nothing stirs in the darkness, the rest of my family long since retired. I slip inside the narrow ironwood corridor that barricades Fane’s chamber from the tunnels outside, headed for my dormitory, crawling silently. Only one light remains in the narrow enclosure, the intentional, unnavigable darkness—the candle perched above my hatch. The air in the tunnel smells of the snuffed-out day, my charred and flickering wick mingling with the dry air as I lift the wooden hatch and drop into my darkened suite.
The sconces dotted along the hall serve more as aesthetics to appease Fane than anything else. Everything in the fashion of his long-abandoned home in Brașov. I flip the light switch on the wall, and from the oak-concealed control panel choose a night surf scene for my windows. The small speakers mounted in every corner wake to life with the soft lapping of waves, and the glassy cry of gulls. The windowscapes were Darius’s idea, installed several years ago in every dormitory as a distraction. An inspired notion from my most curious sibling. My brother Bård procured the contractors, I procured the funds for materials and guaranteed discretion, while another of my family, Crogher, was in charge of overseeing the installation. The contractors, of course, proved painfully capable and inquisitive. They were handled, and their bodies were given to the hounds.
I throw my jacket over the arm of my sofa and fling myself across the expanse, imagining the salt from the spray and the cool seaside breeze tangled in my hair. I am tired, far more so than I have been in a great while, but I am positive that sleep is still hours away. I lay my face against the distressed leather upholstery and before I start searching for her, will myself to sleep. One defiant eye opens and falls upon the sleek steel casing of my laptop glinting in the light—a playful taunt. With a frustrated growl, I sit up and settle my feet on the floor. I know how all of this will end.
South Bayside Hospital’s internal records are easier to access than I anticipated and within minutes I find exactly what I should not have gone looking for in the first place: Elizabeth Dumas. Twenty-six. A degree in nursing from Claremont—the accelerated program—but prior to that, enrolled in a dual degree in Medicine and Medical Science from the University of Michigan. Two published articles on stem cell research, the last with a footnote indicating that Ms. Dumas was headed for Johns Hopkins the following fall for their prestigious Medical Scientist Training Program. Obviously, she never went to Baltimore.
An older article on her talent as a violinist when Elizabeth was in high school. A photograph of her when she was very young, standing beside her mother, Claire Dumas, with her instrument raised proudly for the camera. A wide smile on her round face, her mother’s hand clasped around her shoulder. Mrs. Dumas shows none of her daughter’s exuberance, her mouth set in a hard line, a severe beauty with perfectly manicured nails, dressed in an immaculately tailored navy suit A late pregnancy, it seems, from Claire’s intentionally variegated gray hair.
A single photograph in a public newsletter from 2002, and then nothing. No further scholarly articles. Not so much as a résumé floating in the ether. No record of Elizabeth on any social media. The silence is enticing. One moment Elizabeth was a precocious, budding talent, gifted in mind and musical ability, full of promise, and the next moment she was gone. The lack of information is intensely irritating as I rub my temples, and close the lid of my laptop.
There is no great mystery here. She is a woman like any other. Perhaps the pressure of school caused the abrupt discontinuance of further education, or nursing was simply her heart’s passion. I shake away the pointless musings and undress, throwing my garments into the fireplace. I can incinerate them tomorrow.
I feel cheated somehow, like Elizabeth has reached out and closed a door in my face. My thoughts circle her as I climb into bed and drift into a fitful sleep.
* * *
Standing on the shore of the Danube in Moldavia, the earth begins to drum beneath my feet. The wind whips my clothes tight around my body as the tide surges against the shore, cool water frothing between my small pink toes. Behind me, a lone figure looms atop the grassy mound, beckoning me back, waving skinny arms high above her head. She calls out, but the words are lost to the breeze. I scramble up the hillside, tugging on long grass with my small fists as my feet struggle to find foothold in the black dirt and sand.
At the summit, I see my mother bent before me. Her dark, curling black locks strike her flushed cheeks. She fusses over my wind-swept hair and wraps me in a warm wool cloak, licking the tattered edge of her own soiled dress to scrub the dirt from my face and hands. I pull away from her and she clicks her tongue, sweeping me up in her arms and taking off in a sprint toward the village. From over my mother’s shoulder, I see the river bob with whitecaps. The drumming has become a thunderous drone, and fearing a storm, I wrap my arms tightly around her neck. The vast gray sky has only a thin covering of clouds that the sun will burn through soon, and the rain is a fine mist that collects in tiny droplets on my lashes.
My mother pushes us through a large crowd where everyone waits, but no one speaks, and sets me down to stand beside her. She frets over my appearance again, she holds my hands in a firm grip, speaking with some urgency. The drumming echoes in my ears, drowning out her voice and I try to pay attention to her, but I cannot make out the words. She turns me around and holds my back flush against the front of her legs as the first emerald banner peeks up from the valley.
There appears one rider charging down the hill. And then there are ten. And then there are many. I want to turn and run but my mother fixes me to the spot. I settle for placing my hands over hers, pressed against my chest like a living shield. The horsemen encircle the great crowd, all of them on black horses save one. They part before my mother and me, making way for him to ride into their ranks and dismount.
His steed is white, double the size of any I have ever seen, and his armor—bright and silver like all the others—is draped with emerald cloth. He dismounts and stands beside his horse, patting its thick neck and watching us closely. As he removes his helmet the only sound is that of my own startled gasp. I have never seen another with hair the color of mine. Pale and gleaming, a finer yellow than that of his horse’s mane. His eyes are so light a blue that the sky itself appears sickly in contrast.
Another horseman rides into the crowd behind him, quickly coming to his side. My mother’s fingers tighten on my chest as the second horseman takes a quick glance around the crowd and settles on her face. He does not remove his helmet. Only two black eyes can be seen, nothing more of his face. He gestures to my mother and then to me. The Lord says something under his breath to his companion, and with the cuff of his armored hand strikes the second horseman across his helmeted cheek. The masked man falls to one knee and shakes himself, blood dripping from beneath his visor. Without another word, he stands and mounts his black steed, riding off alone.
The pale-eyed Lord approaches my mother on foot. He removes one metal glove and offers a veined, blood-red hand. My mother’s fingers wrap around my wrist as she extends my trembling arm to this beguiling stranger. I struggle away, but my mother pushes me forward. His huge palm swallows my wrist and he kneels to get a better look at me. My chest heaves under the force of my own broken sobs and frantic breathing, but as the stranger stares into my eyes the world grows quiet and soft.
The Lord picks me up and carries me to his horse. When he releases my wrist, I miss his touch immediately, and with one hand on the reins I reach for him as he returns to my mother. He places a hand on her shoulder, whispers something, and my mother falls to the ground in tears.
Mounting behind me, the Lord wraps one arm around my waist. My mother sobs into the earth, crying out to us, but once again her words are lost. A beautiful melody fills every fiber of my being in this Lord’s embrace and drowns out everything else, every care I have ever carried.
The horse beneath us rears as we turn to leave, and I notice a figure standing at the edge of the crowd. She is dressed in a drooping blue shirt, too long for her torso. Her legs and arms, naked in the unseasonable chill, are covered with goose flesh, and her long chestnut hair billows out behind her in the breeze. She covers her mouth with her hands, trembling with tears. All the calm leaves me, fresh panic seizing my nubile young heart, as my Lord speaks low in my ear.
I sit bolt upright in the dark, my fine covers a mess between my tangled legs as I kick them down the length of my four-poster bed. I go quickly to my washroom, splashing the cold water against my face and neck. I grip the sides of the marble sink and take in my disheveled reflection as the water runs in rivers down my chest. Fane’s voice echoes in my mind, requesting an audience.
For hundreds of years and in a dozen countries, I have had that dream. The memory of the day my mother presented me to Fane. But never in all my long life has it ended with anything other than Fane’s arm closing around me as we rode off toward Brașov.
The panic was not mine. The fear was not mine.
They were Elizabeth’s.
I dress myself quickly, and leave my chambers to answer my Lord’s call.