By Will Greenway
I used to be a vampire. The dark castle on the lightning struck hill—short sold. The horde of cackling minions with questionable sanity—laid off. The custom coffin with pry-proof lid and goth deco interior—now a museum piece. Yes, the props of my blood-sucking centuries are gone. All I have left are my fangs and my title. My name is Gabriella Sarn Ariok, and I was once known as the Dragon Queen.
It’s a great day. The sun is out, the mountain flowers are in bloom, and the breeze is mellow and warm. I just had a marvelous dip in the hot-spring and a refreshing stroll down from the estate. I’m feeling perky wearing my three-piece crop-top djinni-style ensemble, the one that got me painted for the cover of Vilf Illustrated. Things have been going my way, I am three kinds of cheerful and it would take a lot to ruin my mood.
The town of Meadowshire is a cozy mountain community of a thousand or so that lives in the shadow of the Felspar freehold. Many are the times I’ve enjoyed walking down its cobbled streets, haggling with the shop-keeps, sampling the local cuisine or sharing a tune or two with the local bard.
The avenue lined with sturdy stone dwellings is bustling with activity, the good-wives are out shopping and gossiping, the crafters and vendors busy about their business. The mouth-watering smell of fresh baked bread and sweets is heavy in the air.
Basket in hand, I step up onto the wooden walk out of the path of a dairy wagon as it rattles by.
“Lady Gee,” the driver tips his hat in passing.
I smile and nod to him in acknowledgement.
“Lady Gee,” a sweeping lady says to me with a bow.
I incline my head to her.
I acknowledge a half-dozen more greetings as I make my way down the broad-walk and across the plaza. A coterie of a dozen or so of the town’s matrons stop pounding their laundry in the fountain to watch me pass. Some smile, most do not. While I am respected, many of the lady-folk do not appreciate my effect on their men. Words like ‘immodest’ and ‘trollip’ are breathed at my back. If only they knew how sharp my hearing was. I am not confronted by it. I like attention, even negative attention.
“Ariok!” A male voice shouts behind me. “How dare you show yourself here again!”
I sigh. It’s Jerald. I know it’s Jerald because he’s the only one in town that calls me by my surname. To everyone else, I’m Lady Gee, Mistress Gabriella, or, lords forbid—Gabs. To most, I am merely the well-heeled cougar that comes down from the Felspar hold on occasion. Aside from the growling of a few insecure wives, I am not viewed as threatening.
“I swear by Ra’s blazing light that you will burn!” Jerald screams.
As one might guess, Jerald has issues. He’s a retired paladin. He came out of retirement to retire me. I almost feel honored to give meaning to his otherwise dreary life. Honestly, I can’t imagine what he does between my infrequent visits to town. I fancy he annoys his children with stories of his glory days.
I turn and wave. “Jerald. Nice day. How are the wife and kids?”
From across the fountain plaza, the ex-ex-paladin frowns at me and adjusts the dusty chain hauberk on his once-broad shoulders. Summers of retirement have not been kind to Jerald’s hairline, or his face. The shining blue eyes, the brilliant smile and chiseled chin, these days, not so much.
“Seek not to vex me with dissembling!” Jerald blares, raising a wooden stake in one hand and a bronze ankh in the other. “Prepare to make peace with the vile deities that spawned you!”
“It wasn’t dissembling, Jerald,” I say, facing him. “I was remarking on the sunny weather, and asking after your family. Also, please,” I let out a breath. “We’ve been over this, deities were not involved in my conception; a little wine and perhaps an indiscretion or two, and definitely no vileness.”
“Grahhh!” Jerald hollers charging me with the stake thrust forward to impale.
I brush aside the sharpened hunk of wood and give his instep a kick. The lanky warrior belly flops on the hard cobbles with a hurt groan.
“Jerald, I abhor physical confrontations.” I fold my arms and let out a breath. “Honesty, darling you’re really in no shape to–”
I step out of range as he flails around trying to grab my ankle. On another occasion, such hostility would irritate me. It’s simply too nice a day to let attempted murder ruin my mood.
“Jerald, please, for the last time—I am not a vampire!” I point skyward to bright afternoon sun. “Perhaps it escaped your notice, bright ball up there, me, short sleeves, a tan, any of this registering?”
“You have fangs!”
I blow out my cheeks. “So, I’m a bit obsessed with red meat…”
“I saw you with that coven…”
He has me there. A decade or so ago, I happened to be having a little chat with the local vampire union when Jerald broke in on us. I had been pummeling a head or two to convince them to take the town off their menu. While my reasons were hardly altruistic, it was still a beneficial gesture on my part. I wanted to make the real vampires disappear, so I wouldn’t have to deal with getting staked myself.
I once tried to explain this to Jerald. Unfortunately negotiating with vampires and being a vampire was too fine of a distinction for his limited intellectual capacity. I mean, I spent several millennia as a vampire, my past is as dark as they come. There are plenty enough reasons to kill me, but lords and ladies, slay me for the right reason!
With Jerald being a local hero, I avoided taking his attacks seriously. The townies chalked up our short jousts to me being tolerant, and him being soft in the head. People knew about my fangs, but given my rather comely reflection and ample tolerance for garlic and sunlight, they’d come to accept the canines as an unfortunate birth defect.
Missing several more grabs at my legs, Jerald thrusts himself upright, pulls out a shiny new sword and begins trying to hack me to pieces.
I dodge the first few swings and in exasperation drop my basket and catch his wrist. “Jerald! Would you stop it! I have errands to do. I don’t have time for this.”
He struggles and frets and pounds at my hand with little success. I have a good hold and I won’t let go. I might no longer be a vampire, but I have the best enhancements that magic can create. While the enchanting of his sword isn’t strong—a solid strike would sting and draw blood. This is my favorite outfit! Blood stains? I don’t think so!
“Ergh! Damn it woman, unhand me!”
“You calm down or you’ll make me cross.”
“For Ra!” He shouts and swings.
I feel his knuckles score on the bridge of my nose, compressing the cartilage and impacting my cheek in a sharp blast of discomfort. He’s thirty summers past his prime but can still muster some focus. It hurts. It makes my eyes water.
I snarl. “That’s it!” I snatch the sword from this hand, and shove him back. “I am done.” I snap the weapon over my knee with a crack and flash of dying magic.
“Ah!” Jerald yelps, hands extended as he watches the last vestiges of the sword’s energies sputter out.
“I have tried to save your dignity, but you just don’t get it!” I throw down the useless shards of the weapon in a tinny clatter of metal. I put hands on hips. “You’re not defending anyone. I like this town, and I will continue to protect it if you’ll just refrain from assaulting me.” With a growl, I kick the wooden stake skittering across the square. “Do you want those vampires to come back? Do you want to go back to wondering who will be the next to disappear? Do you want that on your conscience?”
He stares at me with scared watery eyes.
“I thought not.” I point up the street to where I know he lives with his children. “Now, go home!”
With a dejected slump to his shoulders, the once proud paladin picks up the shards of his sword and retreats. I watch him go feeling guilty. Picking on children is not something I derive pleasure from.
With a sigh, I pick up my basket and return to my errand. The matrons at the fountain watch me with various expressions. Nothing bad is said about me.
Off the main square, I turn down an alley. Deep in the shadows, I find the doorway of a curio shop. Bells clatter as I close the door behind me, breaking the tomb-like silence. On shelves and all around the chamber are old dolls, bed warmers, snuff boxes and all manner of bric-a-brac from a dozen kingdoms, and five eras. Situated throughout the chaos, candles flicker in the gloom. At the back stands a huge iron-wood counter flanked by tall braziers. I sniff at the pungent scent of lava-wood incense curling into the atmosphere.
Balerian, the shop-keep melts out of the blackness and blinks at me with golden eyes. Dressed in a wolf-skin vest, he is a leathery wire of a man with short cropped black hair and a serpentine smile.
“Highness,” he bows to me.
“Balerian,” I respond, setting the basket on the counter. I pat the handle. “You’ll find the requested disguise amulets, the blood fruit and scrip for those bounties.”
He glances at the container but doesn’t move to touch it. “Thank you.” He tilts his head. “You were very patient with Jerald.”
“He’s an old man with children and grand-children, he has as much right to live as you. How’s Lourna?”
“The healer says she’s due in a score-day.”
“Have a name in mind?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Sarren if it’s a boy, Sarna if it’s a girl.”
I click my tongue and eye him. “Coincidence?”
“I think not,” he answers. “Our community owes you a lot.”
I shrug. “Yes, yes, yes, did you make sure the newcomers know the rules? I don’t relish having to crack any more heads together.”
Balerian stiffens. His kind, the kind I used to be, don’t like to be rebuffed. However, they do understand strength. “The last demonstration was sufficient.”
“Good. Honestly, I just pushed your clan into a practical arrangement; throwing one problem at another. The kingdom has problems with bandits and encroaching armies. You need to put food on the table.” I raise a finger. “The right target, with the proper royal endorsement, everyone’s happy—everyone’s safe.”
“Aye,” Balerian smiles then, showing his fangs. “How long before the King finds out he’s protecting our kind?”
“As long as the arrangement remains convenient, they’ll look the other way.” I lean forward. “Let me worry about that. It’s my job. Your job is to make sure fangs don’t stray.” I point outside to the town. “Savvy?”
“Savvy.” He fingers a long incisor. “I still don’t believe it, you know.”
“Half the town is shadow folk, and the old geezer picks on you.”
“You know humans,” I say. “They see what they want to see…”