It was nearly dawn when my phone rang. If the time wasn’t an indication of who was calling, the fact that it was my permanent phone was.
“I do hope you know how late it is, Trent,” I answered without looking at the caller ID. “I was about to go down for the day.”
“No you weren’t. You were about to go post on those ridiculous chatboards pretending to be a four-hundred-year-old vampire.” There was a patina of derision over the amusement in Trent’s voice.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not pretending.”
“That makes no difference. No-one believes you on the internet, especially when you only post during the day.”
“What better place to tell the truth than where no-one will believe you? And unless you spend as much time on the chatboards as I do, how would you know my posting habits?” I waited for a moment to see whether he would dignify that with a response, and when none came, I asked, “What do you want, anyway?”
“Who, me? Who says I want anything?”
I rolled my eyes. “Because you never call just to chat.”
“What, are you lonely?”
“Well, too bad. I’ve got some important information for you. Have you heard that Marco’s in town?”
Trent knew that I had; he was the one who had told me that my old companion had arrived in San Diego two weeks ago. Marco was notorious for actually taking annual vacations, and every other year or so he would turn up wherever I’d settled just to piss me off. I’d taken to avoiding him like the plague rather than let him force me to move just because he spent time in my city.
He must have upset Trent and the rest of the Ring pretty badly, or Trent wouldn’t have called me. Instead of taking the direct approach to finding out what had happened, I said, “Why do you think I missed the Gathering tonight? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t because I felt like working for a feeding.”
“Maybe you should have been there.” Trent paused, but before I got to the point of giving in and asking what I’d missed, he continued. “He said he started a new Game last night.”
“Scheiß,” I breathed. “Didn’t he get a warning for doing that ten years back or so?”
“Come now, you should know what creatures of habit we can become.”
“But this isn’t the old world where the people have a healthy amount of fear for us still and pretend we don’t exist. If someone here figured it out, he might take it into his head to prosecute us for our kills. Or worse, we could be hunted again.”
“You don’t think I’ve thought of that?” Trent’s voice got very soft, and I knew that someone was going to feel the brunt of his anger soon enough. I just hoped it wouldn’t be me. “Marco will be shipped back to Rome in the evening, and any who want to remain welcome in this country will let that happen.”
I gave a low whistle. The Ring traditionally saved judgment for the second night of the Gathering, and punishment for the third. That Marco had earned his a night early bespoke the threat that the local governing council felt from him. “What about the fledgling?”
“That’s why you should have been there tonight. You’re the one who will bring him to us when he wakes.”
Just before sunset, I was crouched on top of a shipping container across from the one that matched Trent’s description: painted green with a compass rose logo, situated on the south side of the dockyard. I noted the red and blue containers on either side to satisfy any lingering doubts that it was the right one and waited.
While I waited, I cursed Marco for nine kinds of arrogant bastard for pulling this crap in my city. The Game was an old one, and cruelly simple: Turn an unsuspecting human and see how long he can survive on his own. The Gamemaker would take bets from the local vampires on how long that would be. After a certain period of time, normally from a week to a month, the Gamemaker would declare the end of the Game, and if the Player survived, he would usually be offered a place in the Gamemaker’s house at least equal to any other fledgling’s. Marco was the kind of Gamemaker who would collect his bets and then kill his Player. Finding strong stock to continue his line was never important to him; he made Games just to watch them unfold.
The practice of Gamemaking reached its peak around the time Marco and I were turned, though neither of us were the result of it. It’s been falling out of favor ever since, though it enjoyed a brief resurgence at the start of the Industrial Age, when people were flocking to cities like never before. It never really caught on in America, though. Maybe the vast majority of the vampires who emigrated from Europe felt like I did, that it was rather like playing god, and, given that I don’t believe in a god, quite pointless. Or perhaps they simply had better means of entertaining themselves. In either case, it hasn’t been permitted on this side of the Atlantic in at least a century.
A low metallic rattle interrupted my thoughts. The fledgling was up and testing the boundaries of his cage. He wasn’t making enough noise to attract attention yet, but…
“Hey, Gary, you want to hit Santiago’s later? I’ve just got this last container needs to get inventoried before I leave.” My attention automatically snapped to two dockworkers whose paths crossed on my right. The one in grey, Gary, was headed toward the gate and the end of his work day. The one who’d spoken, though, wore a green uniform and was coming down the aisle I overlooked.
“Yeah, you want help?” Gary asked, while I thanked my lucky stars for making at least this part easy. Tearing apart the container door would probably have made the news.
“It’s just a bunch of DIY furniture in boxes. I’ll manage.” Yeah, sure he would.
“All right. See you later, man.” Gary started off again and his friend turned back down the aisle on his way to the green container.
The rattling had stopped while the two men spoke, and I had no doubt that the fledgling was pressing his ear to the container door to listen for the dockworker’s footsteps.
When the man stopped in front of the container door to fumble for his keys, I dropped down from my perch. He turned at the sound of my feet hitting the pavement, eyes wide. Part of me wondered whether the ‘Rick’ embroidered on his shirt was for Richard or Ricardo while another part thrilled at the smell of his fear, chomping at the bit to take advantage of it.
Instead, I held eye contact with him, letting him grow calmer with each passing moment that I didn’t pounce on him. After his heart rate slowed some, I said softly, but firmly, “Rick, give me the key to this container.”
He glanced down to sort it out, breaking eye contact, but I’d held him long enough that he would look right back as soon as the task was finished. I took the proffered key from his outstretched hand when he looked back up.
“Well done,” I told him. “I am going to unlock this container now. When I have finished, I will return your keys to you. As soon as you have hold of them, you are going to forget me, and join your friend at Santiago’s for a couple of drinks. Then you will come in early tomorrow to take inventory of this container.” Far be it from me to interfere with the shipping industry. “Do you understand?”
Rick nodded mutely. Satisfied, I braced myself against the door to unlock the padlock that secured the latch. I wasn’t taking any chances that the fledgling inside wouldn’t try to charge the door. Once the lock was open, I tossed the keys back to their owner and watched as Rick promptly turned around to follow the same path that Gary had taken to leave the yard.
Once he was out of sight, I unhooked the padlock and unbarred the door. It creaked as I swung it open, but the only person close enough to hear was inside the container, anyway. When he didn’t immediately come after me, I stood against the other side of the door to wait.
“Three, two, one,” I muttered, and stuck out a hand to catch the oncoming fledgling. He twisted in my grip while I closed the door as gracefully as I could one-handed. It made considerably more noise this time, owing to the awkward angle and higher force I was exerting on it.
I was fumbling with the latch when the fledgling broke my grip. I stopped to watch him while he circled for a better angle on me. He attacked on my left side, only to find himself thrown into the corner of a container on the other side of the aisle. He stayed down for a moment, and I took advantage of it to close the latch on the green container door and re-lock it.
I turned around in time to catch the fledgling by the head as he rushed me again. I let him take a few futile swings at me from an arm’s length away before I pushed him back. Unbalanced, he sat down hard on the pavement.
“Cool it, kid,” I said. “I can’t guarantee that no-one heard that, so we don’t have much time to get out of here.”
The fledgling bared his teeth at me, not comprehending that I could possibly really want to help him. I understood that; the only vampire who wouldn’t make him feel instinctually threatened was on a one-way flight to Rome. With no time to explain the circumstances, I would have to show him that I didn’t intend him any immediate harm.
I had known it would come to this, but I grimaced anyway as I rolled up my right sleeve. There was never going to be time to feed him properly, so I’d fed again on my way to the docks, even though I had just done so the day before, and double-checked that I’d brought a knife along. I pulled it out of my pocket and flicked it open. I made another face as I dragged the blade across my own wrist. Self-injury did not sit well with me, but it was the only way to ensure that the fledgling would follow to the Gathering.
I crouched and held the cut to his lips. It only took a moment for the fledgling to latch on. While I let him feed on me, I noticed that he was small: short and skinny, the kind Marco liked to use best for Games. It was more fun for him when the Player stood as little chance as possible. The kid looked even smaller than he was thanks to a t-shirt that was two sizes too big on him and loose jeans.
The fledgling pulled back soon enough, with an expression that said that he hadn’t really cared for what I had to offer.
“It’s good enough in a pinch, but it’s far from first choice, isn’t it, kid?”
He made an awkward grunting sound in agreement; he obviously hadn’t quite figured out breathing yet. He probably would soon, but whether that would be before the night or the week was out was anyone’s guess. Provided he survived the night, at any rate. I could count the number of Rings that would probably let a Makerless fledgling live in this day and age on one hand, and none of them were on this side of the Atlantic.
“There’s better stuff where we’re going, all right, kid?” I said, pulling my sleeve back over my wrist. I stood and offered him a hand up, noting that the top of his head only came up about to my shoulder when he took it. “Come on.”
It took me a few steps to notice that the fledgling wasn’t following. He was facing the direction that the dockworkers had taken, mouth opening and closing like a fish’s. I took a quick breath through both my nose and mouth. Of course. The fledgling was still working on breathing, but Rick had been frightened enough to leave a faint trail in the air as he left, one which I could follow if I were paying close attention to the scent and taste of the air, and which the kid could obviously taste.
“Yeah, that’s the wrong direction, kid.” I took him by the shoulders and pointed him the right way. He made a few soft pops and tried to turn back. “But nothing. We’ve got somewhere to be before it gets to be full dark, and I imagine Trent will make us change our clothes when we get there.”
I gave him a gentle push in the right direction, but he was apparently confident in his ability to make a quick and non-obvious kill and make it to Trent’s in time. I was rather less sure. He took off down the aisle at speed. I caught up with him after a moment and threw him to the ground again.
He was back up on his feet almost immediately, but he didn’t try to run off again. He looked at me seriously, head cocked, and I used his attention to talk some sense into him.
“Look, kid, I will carry you if I have to, but I would really rather not. Besides, if you try to run again, I may decide that carrying you is more trouble than it’s worth and finish killing you, kid. So--”
“Not…a kid. Just…graduated,” he said hoarsely, looking very pleased.
Now it was my turn to look thoughtful and tilt my head. He must have managed to suck in a breath when I knocked him over and not immediately known what to do with the sudden air in his lungs. Then I realized what he’d said.
I couldn’t help it. I threw back my head and laughed, long and hard. “You could put it that way,” I managed eventually. “But you just graduated into a whole other school, freshman. Hang on, is that all you got from what I said?” The last thing I needed was a charge with selective hearing.
He shook his head. I gave him a long, hard look.
“So you’re coming?” Nod. “All right, then, follow me.”
I took off, scaling a container door with two steps up the side. I paused to check that the kid was, in fact, following, and watched him scramble up awkwardly. I let him get to his feet before starting again, sprinting the length of the container and leaping the aisle. I heard him land behind me just before hopping over the gap between the row of containers and the barbed wire-topped fence that marked the dockyard boundary.
I landed in a roll that brought me to my feet and turned to see the fledgling make his own landing, which consisted of two steps and a barrel roll. I offered him a hand up again and lifted him back to his feet.
We crossed the street at a brisk walk, headed east. I had to hold the kid back at a corner to make sure that the man on the other side of the light wouldn’t be crossing toward us. At the end of the next block, I turned the corner and stopped. Just my luck, the fledgling ran into my back. I glanced over my shoulder and met his puzzled gaze with a grin.
“You weren’t expecting to run the whole way there, were you, freshman? That would take longer and we’d be exhausted by the time we got there at that pace. No,” I said, pulling a remote out of my pocket and unlocking the white car we stood next to. “The upperclassmen get driving privileges.”
When we got to Trent’s, well, mansion was the only word for it, the last light was fading from the sky. Chris let us in at the back door, even though the crowd could already be heard from the main hall. Trent wanted to make his own entrance with the rest of the Ring before bringing us out among the Gathered.
We were led to a sitting room lit only by the fireplace and left with a decanter of blood and two glasses. A glance around the room told me nothing that I didn’t already know; Trent’s decorating sense was very modern, but it still somehow managed to have a Colonial feel. I took a moment to shrug out of my jacket, and when I turned around, the fledgling was drinking straight out of the decanter, a thin line of its contents dribbling down his chin.
“Polite company still prefers that you use the glass,” I remarked.
He stopped, and I watched as his cheeks started to flush from the blood while he concentrated on taking his second breath. “You’re polite…company?”
“No, but our host is, and he very much likes that his standards be observed in his house. Aside from that, it’s neater,” I said with a gesture at my own chin.
The kid rubbed his mouth and looked at me like he was about to argue. He was already focusing on taking another breath to do so, when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Chris there again with a fresh shirt for each of us to change into. Heh. I’d just been guessing about changing our clothes.
“Thank you, Chris. I assume you’ll be back when they want us?”
“Yes, sir. It shouldn’t be too long, I expect,” he said with an eyebrow arched around my shoulder at where the kid was still standing with the decanter.
“Hmm. All right, thank you.” I couldn’t say I was entirely surprised at the timing. The kid was probably the most interesting case of the night, and so would be either the first or last to be presented. I’d expected the latter, though, because that way the Ring could expect the attention of the Gathered through the whole evening. That they wanted him first said that they wanted to make an example of him and that they wanted the Gathered to remember their judgment for the rest of the night and let it color their perception of the rest of the Ring’s rulings.
Chris sketched a curt bow and left to return to the main hall. I turned around to find that the fledgling had been creeping up behind me to get closer to the door while Chris had been there. I wondered whether he would survive long enough to be taught the new property rules. I pressed the smaller shirt against his chest and stepped past without checking to see if he’d caught it.
“What is…this for?”
“Trent has a terror of shirts that don’t button up, and again, it’s his house, his rules. Clean your face off and put it on.” I pulled off my own t-shirt and threw it onto the same chair as my jacket.
“Because, freshman, we’re about to go see the city’s Ring,” I informed him, the response colored with some frustration that the sleeves on the new shirt were too short. “Like it or not, we do need to be somewhat presentable. We may not be human anymore, but we’re certainly not animals.” I rolled up the sleeves to disguise the length, taking the fact that some would attribute it to my usual habit of subtly underdressing as an added bonus.
He looked at the shirt for a moment longer before he tugged off his t-shirt. The blood must have been finally getting to his brain.
The kid didn’t manage to ask any other questions before Chris knocked on the door again to tell us that we had been sent for. He led us to the main hall, where the hundred or so Gathered vampires, all in far more formal attire than we wore, had taken places on the stairs or the upper floor. Irina (known by some as the Russian Amazon), Gabriel (the Golden Spaniard), Tristan (the Berserker, though I’d known several), and Trent (He with No Epithet) were seated in a circle on the ground floor, waiting for their first case. Waiting for us.
I led the kid into the Ring, bowed to each of the members, and stood facing the stairs as well as Trent and Irina. I didn’t look back to see whether the kid followed suit; he wasn’t really my problem and the nuances, at least, of his actions didn’t reflect on me.
“So this is Marco’s Player,” Irina said, almost disdainfully. I knew that the kid would never have warranted a second glance from her if it weren’t for the present circumstance. Most men didn’t. It wasn’t really a question, though, so I didn’t answer. “How has he behaved this evening?”
“He’s hotheaded, stubborn, and asks too many questions.”
“Oh, I’m sorry for…not knowing what the hell’s going on.”
All eyes were on the fledgling in an instant, and I could almost hear him shrink back, instantly aware that he had spoken out of turn.
“Case in point,” I continued. “He’s rational enough, though.”
“But he doesn’t have a Maker,” Gabriel said from my right, and I fought the urge to look over my shoulder at him. Not only was it poor etiquette to turn around in the Ring, but his expression wouldn’t have indicated one way or the other whether I had simply imagined the stiff undertone in his voice.
“True. We cannot Command the fledgling, so he is a risk,” Tristan agreed from behind my other shoulder. He sounded a little hollow, too, but he always did. It was why he’d been offered a seat on the Ring; he was only ever passionate in a fight and could be counted on to be rational, if not detached, in all other circumstances.
“I do not think he will be a problem,” Irina said.
“You never think any man will be a problem, darling,” Trent said dryly.
“They never are. It’s all about where you apply the pressure.” She looked Trent up and down, letting her gaze rest in his lap before removing it.
“I do hope you’re not suggesting that we remove body parts for misbehavior.” Even Trent couldn’t completely hide a smile when the kid squeaked behind me.
“Not at all.” Irina smiled sweetly, but there was an edge to it that said that she wanted to.
“What shall we do with him, then?” Gabriel asked. “We cannot let him loose.”
“If someone were to take him under his wing, as it were…” Irina suggested.
I couldn’t see half of it, but a look passed around the Ring.
“Yes, darling, I think that would work. Will any of the Gathered take on this responsibility?” Trent’s voice took on a more resonant quality to let the Gathered, who were listening to every word anyway, know that he was addressing the entire hall.
A low murmur spread through the crowd, but none stepped forward.
“Will you all condemn the fledgling to death? He may only be newborn, but he is one of us.”
The Gathered remained where they were, but I got the feeling that it didn’t matter what they did. I could feel the Ring’s eyes on me. I let out a small sigh. That had been the whole point of sending me to collect the kid, hadn’t it? To get me to take him with me.
“I will take him,” I said, and the murmuring ceased. I’d do it, but Trent had some ‘splainin to do.
A small smile crossed Trent’s face before he addressed the kid for the first time. “What is your name, fledgling?”
There was silence for a moment while the kid remembered that he needed air in his lungs to answer. “J-Jack,” he managed, finally.
“Kiefer,” Trent shifted his focus back to me, “do you agree to shelter Jack and to teach him our ways to the best of your ability, until such time as you feel that he can survive autonomously and anonymously?”
“And Jack, will you learn what you can from Kiefer, treat him with respect, and obey him without question?”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?” he said, and, before anyone could reproach him, added: “Yes.”
“The agreement is witnessed,” the Ring and the Gathered chorused as one.
“I know that you are anxious to depart that you may begin your charge’s education, Kiefer,” Trent continued on his own, “but I do hope that you will stay for the rest of the night, and perhaps fill two of the guest rooms for the day. I should like to speak with you when I have a moment.”
“Of course,” I said, and bowed to the Ring, motioning for Jack to follow suit before picking our way through the Gathered to find a vacant spot on the balcony. I would wait and watch the rest of the proceedings, and then Trent would tell me why he wanted me to take Jack home like a lost puppy.