The library was buried deep at the opposite end of the facility from my rooms. The place used to be a documents library where blueprints and print media had been kept when the warehouse had functioned. The stairs were dark, and a lamp was the best help we had down it. We needed to get around to laying new wires and lights, but other things kept winning priority in the warehouse.
Sanctus followed me down to the metal doors that opened into a massive concrete floor. “Does it run the whole length?” he asked, surprised to not be able to see the back walls for all the shelves.
“No, it runs to the end of the walls where the commons starts. There’s another storage basement on the other side, but the commons is a solid concrete base. Was used for making and operating heavy machinery. Couldn’t have the vibration damage the foundation.” I steered us around a set of stacks to the back corner opposite the stairs. There a couch and rug warmed the grey space. Book mold and pencil shavings. “Scriba?” I called, walking toward the back end of the stacks at the far end that hugged the wall.
A mousy woman sat on the floor, a little girl in her lap, reading a picture book. She looked up and smiled. “Lunam!” she greeted. Abby looked up and took a second to recognize me. She scrambled out of Scriba’s lap and jumped at me. I caught her sudden outburst and brought her up to hug her. She threatened to strangle me, how hard she clung to my throat.
“Vampire!” she greeted. Black currant and soap.
“Hey, Abby. Mind calling me Lunam? Everyone will know who you are talking about if you use my name. Sorry to have left you. Did you not like Maria Mater and her friends?” I asked as I leaned down for her to get off me. She clung to me for another second before letting go.
“No one talks like Sam and me,” she sniffled.
“Some people here do, just not a lot.”
“Sanctus does.” I looked up at him. He was watching us curiously. I waved him down to my level.
“Sanctus?” she asked, returning Sanctus’s curious look.
“Abby, meet Sanctus. Sanctus, this is Abby. Her sister Sam is around here somewhere,” I explained.
“Sam’s not my sister,” Abby said, giving me a confused look.
“I thought you shared a mommy or a daddy?”
“Half-siblings are still siblings, Abby,” I explained, perplexed.
“But Sam isn’t my sister.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Sam’s my brother.”
“Sam’s your brother?”
“Yes. Sam’s my big brother. The lady who came with the man made him wear a dress. Why did she make him wear a dress? My dress is pretty. I like it. This lady here let me make a flower, see?” Abby pointed to a paper flower pinned to her dress. I blinked at the slew of the one sided conversation. I looked up at Scriba who was watching us expectantly.
“Where is Sam now?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s down there looking at maps.” She pointed down the stacks.
“I’m going to leave you with Scriba for a minute and go talk with Sam, is that okay, Abby?” I asked her. She took a minute to think before turning and grabbing Sanctus by the hand. “You feel funny, mister. Can you stay? She doesn’t speak like mommy and daddy,” she asked.
The smile that tugged at his lips was something I wanted to see again and again. My brain filled in way too many images with ‘cute father material’. I blinked, trying to clear my head. “Abby was your name?” he asked, hunching down to her level. I threw the images out and just watched him come out of his shell.
“My name’s actually Abigail, but Sam calls me Abby,” she explained obstinately.
“It’s – it’s nice to meet you Abigail.” He crossed his legs and settled down across from Scriba.
“Scriba,” I directed. She stood up to join me. I pointed her to the opposite side of the shelves where we could be a little quieter. She waited for me to speak. She was always like this, not really speaking unless it was necessary. “Have you been informed of what happened yesterday? Maria Mater or someone explain the situation?” I asked.
“Maria Mater said you brought in a Providentia and Accendium yesterday. Said you offloaded the girls on her when Tempestatis and Cortex called you to get the new guy. The girls were pretty restless, so she didn’t stick around to say much more.”
A set of footsteps had her pricking up to walk to the end of the aisle. Pine and yeast bread. Cortex. “Lunam!” A call told me I had placed him right.
“Cortex,” I greeted.
“Figured you’d ignore it,” he sighed.
“Was trying to be efficient.”
He approached as Sanctus peaked around the stacks. Abby looked around him curiously to see what was going on. I motioned for Cortex to follow me further into the stacks. “No getting blood on all my books!” Scriba warned me off.
“I’m not scaring the Accendium,” I whispered back.
“Fine, but keep it away from the paper,” she cautioned.
“Am I that messy of an eater?” I turned to Cortex.
“You ain’t seen you take someone’s throat out.” Cortex took up Scriba’s side. I pursed my lips and raised an appraising eyebrow. “Hey, don’t go looking at me. You’re the one who needs a bib.”
“I promise I won’t go draining him out on one of your atlases, Scriba.” I raised my hand in a mock pledge.
“You’d better not, or else you get to dust the library.” She turned to go back to Sanctus and Abby.
When her footsteps had faded, I turned back to Cortex. He was watching me with a wary look. “Why are you always so scared of the newbies seeing you? You’ve been here for six years. I’d think you’d be used to it now.”
“Says the guy who mops floors when he burns,” I grumbled.
“It’s a Repercussion. We all have one down here. I really don’t see what the deal is.” He shrugged his shoulders, genuinely baffled.
“Six years, and you never looked up what the word Vampire means, have you? Do you even know where ‘Dracula’s thrall’ comes from that Maria Mater likes to quote?” I asked. I leaned up against a shelf and waited to hear Sanctus talking to Abby, his voice soft in the space.
“It’s Angelus. We don’t have Angelus dictionaries in here. Not like they’d dump someone and a batch of books with them. It’d be nice.” Cortex shrugged.
“Vampire comes from before the great disaster. From many centuries before. It’s an old word to describe a blood drinker,” I gave him the abbreviated version.
“So, other Ustor once did this?” He furrowed his brows.
“Ustor didn’t happen ‘til after the Pandemic in the Pergatorium. No. Vampires were thought to be evil, workers of an evil god named Lucifer, or the god himself. They would convert those they ate from into ghouls, mindless followers, or just bleed them dry. People feared their indiscriminate feeding patterns. The people would rise up against people they thought were Vampires. Shove garlic bulbs in their mouth, pull out their teeth, shove a stake through their hearts, decapitate them, bury them in a lead coffin on islands surrounded by running water. People were truly terrified of others like this. Firmly believed they existed and massacred hundreds for it,” I filled him in. “This is what I grew up knowing. Imperium doesn’t have legends like Vampire. So forgive me if I get nervous about the prospect of having someone go after me with a silver cross.” I kept my tone low so as not to draw attention from the other side of the stack.
“Jeez. That’s rather gruesome. Anyway. I have to be getting back to the transport. We’re heading out in thirty to run shipment.” He rolled his sweater up over his elbow and held his arm out to me. I hadn’t realized I had a raging headache until I finally relieved my Repercussion.
“Better?” Cortex asked when I had finished.
I nodded. “Who’s driving?”
“Tempestatis’s got that covered, like he usually does, boss. Don’t worry; I’m riding shotgun. I’ll take a nap on the way and be good by the time I start helping unload cargo. You didn’t take much anyway. I guess you really didn’t go overboard this morning.” He rolled his sleeve down and walked back down the stacks, waving on his way.
“Thanks, Cortex,” I said to the footsteps leaving me. The squeak behind me had me spinning. Elderflower and soap. They almost shared the same smell. Sam was watching me. “Morning, Sam. Nice to see you’re awake.” I smiled.
“Been looking over maps, Vampire. The lady pointed them to me, but I don’t know what I’m looking for. You’re not going to eat me, are you?” Sam asked.
“No, I’m not going to eat you, but I would like to see these maps Scriba has you looking through.” I motioned toward where Sam had popped up from. A couple shelves over and halfway down sat a long table spread out with several carefully hand-drawn maps of Urbs Aquarum and Flumen Griseo. Along the south and east borders was the edge of the Imperium walls.
“She pointed out this section, but I couldn’t understand what she wanted.” Sam circled a particular section of the map over Aurantiaco’s district.
“She wanted to see if you could remember where you came from, why you suddenly appeared in Aurantiaco territory. Abby said something. Mind clarifying for me?” I asked.
“She called you her big brother?” I kept my tone as gentle and neutral as possible. Sam looked away from me, cheeks burning. Fingers gripped the hips of the brown dress in frustration.
“The first lady you left us with. She was nice, but all she had were the long shirts. They were too big. A man and a woman came and took us. They put Abby in a dress and insisted I wear one too. I didn’t want to. I wanted pants,” Sam muttered.
“That wasn’t my question, Sam,” I clarified.
“You didn’t ask a question,” Sam retorted.
“When we first met, I was told your name was Sam?”
“Short for Samantha. Abby calls me Sam.”
“Do you want to be called Sam? We’ll try to get you home. If not,” I shrugged, “If you’re accepted into Caeruleum formally, we will have your Alias registered then. You have time to think of one.”
“No one else calls me Sam.”
“Cortex calls you Sam. Do you want to be called Sam?”
He nodded as his cheeks flushed and tears built up around his eyes. I reached and pulled him into me, engulfing him in a bear hug. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.”
“You’re okay with me being a boy?” He gulped, trying to keep from getting snot all over me.
“Just needed to be told.” I gave him an easy smile.
“But I told dad and he didn’t want to call me Sam.” The venom in his voice put me on edge.
“You told him you were a boy, and he didn’t like it?” I redefined.
“Abby gets me. But she doesn’t understand about dad. She shouldn’t know.” Lips trembling, he wiped at his eyes with the back of his arm.
“What happened to your parents, Sam?”
“I told dad that I was a boy. He screamed at me. He screamed at mom. He hit me. Abby started crying fire. He got angrier. He took us out of Inferis. I don’t remember. There were many tunnels. Many turns. Mom argued with dad all the way out. He took us to the surface. I – I don’t remember how it happened, but he found some guys on the surface. Mom was angry at him. He didn’t care. He hit her. She fell down. When she was on the ground she told Abby to find you. The men gave dad money, and he picked mom up and dragged her away. Abby doesn’t understand what was happening. He sold us.” He crumpled.
My heart was breaking. I squatted down next to him and picked him up, hugging him fiercely. “You know where you came up in Aurantiaco,” I stated. He nodded mutely. “All right. We’ll avoid it. Okay?” He looked up, surprised. “I didn’t know that they did that, Sam. I was going to try to get you home, but it looks like Caerulium is home now. That sound good?” I asked.
He bit down on his lower lip and rubbed at his eyes. He sniffed once more and nodded. I set him down when he had reigned in his emotions. He stood up straight. He looked like a proper cadet. “It sounds very good, sir.”
“What do you say to going with me to see Vestitor about some proper clothes?” I offered.
“Can I cut my hair?” he asked, hope filling his eyes.
“I think I know someone who can do something for you if that’ll help you feel better.” I led us back through the stacks to the rug and couch where Scriba, Sanctus, and Abby were sitting. Scriba was reading the story, and Sanctus was translating for Abby. They looked, by anyone passing by, to be the most normal definition of a family I had seen. A cold wash ran down my shoulders. Sanctus needed this. He needed to be shown what normal could look like. What freedom could look like.
I cleared my throat and interrupted that magical moment. Sanctus glanced up at me, his eyes shining. “I’m going to take Sam upstairs and see that he gets a proper change of clothes and a haircut. Are you good down here, or do you want to come with?” I asked.
Sanctus looked between me and Scriba before turning it over to Abby. “Luman says he’s going to get Sam some clothes, do you want to see where that’s at?”
“No, I’m liking the stories. I want to stay and hear more,” Abby cuddled further into Scriba’s side.
“Looks like I’m staying for a while longer,” Sanctus told me.
“You okay on your own?”
He glanced around the space before nodding his head. “I think… Yeah. I think I’m okay.”
“All right, Scriba, you’ve got Sanctus and Abby for the morning. I’ll come back with Sam in a little while. If you need me, I’ll be over at Vestitor’s or Forceps.” I waved as I left the library with Sam in tow.
Standing at Vestitor’s door for the second day in a row, I was realizing how much I depended on my community. How much had changed since my military days. Sam held onto my hand nervously as I knocked. Vestitor opened up on the third tap.
“Luman!” he was startled to see me back so soon. “And who might this be?” he asked, kneeling down to say hi.
“This is Sam. Sam this is Vestitor,” I held the introductions. “Vestitor, would you mind helping him find some more respectable clothing?” I requested as we entered the shop.
“He?” Vestitor cast a confused glance between me and Sam.
“He asked for pants.” I reiterated.
“He.” Vestitor nodded as he grabbed up a measuring tape and started pulling out clothing. He had the good grace to put up his folding screen for Sam and let the boy pick out his own clothing from the selected pile. Vestitor returned back to me as we waited. “Have Sam talk to Hyacinthus. Her son binds and makes his own. I’ve never had a request for it, so I don’t know how to make them, but Sam may want them in the coming years, and someone to talk to.”
I tilted my head at Vestitor. He returned the confused look. “I was about to ask you how you know all of this, but you do clothe most anyone living in here, don’t you?” I asked.
Vestitor shrugged and glanced back to the screen. “A lot of people come in and out of my door. How’s Sanctus doing on his second day?” he asked.
“Reading books with Scriba and Sam’s little sister Abby. He seemed more relaxed today. Thanks for your help yesterday.”
He shrugged, a grin easing on his lips. “It all comes with expanding Caeruleum.”
Sam peeked out from behind the screen nervously. “What do you think?” I asked him. He slipped out to show us his outfit, a plain pair of boys’ pants and a long sleeve shirt a size too big. “Does it make you feel good about yourself?” I asked.
He ran his hands along the material before looking up at us and smiling. “It does, sir. It really does.”
“Good. Let’s get you over to Forceps and then back to see if your sister wants lunch. I still need to figure out what I’m doing with you two.” I told him, handing chips over to Vestitor, who provided me with yet another bag of clothing, along with a spare change of clothing for Abby I had pointed out to him while Sam was getting dressed. I left the dress Sam had been subjected to with Vestitor as trade for some of the clothes.
“Sir?” Sam asked as we walked down the hall out to the commons.
“What’s up?” I directed him around the junk pile that Clavis was slowly melting down.
“You and dad? You grew up together, didn’t you?” he asked quietly.
“Same division. Bunked together, ate together, deployed together,” I said. “If his number really was 722, his first name was Sherlton. He came from the East end of New Taos. Wasn’t a great friend, wasn’t a worst enemy, just sort of flew under the radar for the most part. Sort of a low-key conspiracy theorist.” We continued through the commons floor to the other side of the building and into the halls.
“Why does dad hate me?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, Sam. Military taught us everyone can shoot and fit in a bodybag, regardless of who or what they were.” I pointed us down a side hall.
“That’s dark,” he told me as I opened the door to Forceps’s shop.
“They weren’t exactly wrong. Everyone fits in a bodybag.” I nudged him into the empty store and closed the door. I looked around at the bright tiled room. A mirror and chair sat in one corner. A couch and drawings on a table at the other end. A black drape blocked off another section. “Force?” I called out in the space.
“Hello!” A friendly high pitch answered from the other side of the black curtain.
“Got a customer for you,” I enticed.
“Give me a minute. Sit down!”
Sam looked up at me, confused. I motioned him to the seat in front of the mirror. He hesitated at the sight. I walked over to join him at the chair and gave him a cursory inspection. I shrugged and turned the chair around. He looked up at me, startled at the audacity.
Forceps finally emerged. Floral and grass. She pursed her lips at my change of location for her chair. “What is the honor, Nigrae Lunam?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“Sam would like to have his hair cut. You have any appointments coming in?” I asked.
She glanced at her nails, frowning. Sam looked up at me nervously. “Such pretty hair,” she eyed me.
“Sam’s the client,” I directed.
“Why won’t you let me get my fingers in that mane of yours one of these days, Lunam?” she teased as she pulled out her tools from the desk next to the mirror.
“As I’ve told you before, it’s to honor-”
“Your heritage and the family that looked out for you,” she sighed. “Yes, I know. You at least trim the edges out, right?” she pointed her scissors at me as she ran her fingers through Sam’s hair.
“All right, honey. What are we doing?” she asked. I translated. She furrowed her brows at me.
“She can’t speak Imperian?” Forceps asked.
“He cannot speak it yet, but we’ll remedy that soon.”
“Ah.” She turned back to Sam and pulled his long shock of hair up off his neck. “To the skin, short, shag, what sound’s good, kid?” She asked. Sam reached up to feel where Snip’s hands were as I gave him the list. He ran his hands along his ears, indicating a somewhat longer cut. None of us had the words we needed amongst the three of us to communicate what Sam wanted to get out of this visit.
“Let me work my magic and make him into the most handsome boy to walk Caeruleum streets,” she told me, taking twelve inches off in one good whack. Sam sat nervously in Forceps’ chair as hair accumulated around his feet. I collapsed couch and relaxed, flipping through tons of hand-drawn pictures of different haircuts and styles. They were beautifully rendered. “You draw all of these, Forceps?” I asked, waving a handful of papers.
“No, that’s Carmen’s work. Requies’s niece. I traded her free haircuts for a year for her to make me those samples. You like them?” she asked. She moved around and around Sam like a moth to a flame. He slowly relaxed under her hand.
“They’re good. She’s got a way with faces. Hey, isn’t this Maria Mater?” I pointed to a particular portrait.
“Carmen always liked how her hair lays like it just came out of curlers. I get some women in here who want that same look.”
“Does she know it’s in here?”
“Who do you think helps her keep that shape?” Forceps smiled over Sam’s head proudly.
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