Sanctus’s trench coat slipped on my left shoulder as I pushed the massive carved doors open to the Rubrum meeting chamber. It cracked with an ominous thud as the hinges protested. Ash piled up behind me. Clouds of grey and silver sifted the setting sun coming in from the high windows. I had used what power I could from Paul and Aurelia on my path of destruction if only to keep me civil in my approach to Gemma’s throne room. I had a short amount of time before people would turn into pulsing stars. A swamping mix of scents threatened a headache.
The chamber was a soaring cathedral of sandstone and tile. Tattered banners and threadbare tapestries hung from walls and columns. Gemma’s court had stepped out of a mythical fantasy, or at least, as close as they could with makeshift parts. Her hand-picked stood as a mob, dressed in fantastical costumes. Though the fabric was beautiful and would have made Vestitor swoon, the cut and fit made her followers look like performers in a circus. That might be an apt description for them. Her court of clowns.
Her throne, comprised of polished metal and repurposed velvet upholstery stood upon a dais made of a stack of rough slab marble. She had seen to a queenly dress of red. It was fluffy and frilly, laced with yellow thread and glass beads. A short crop rested precariously across her lap, a red lacquered nail tapping against it incessantly. I eased my gaze down her outlandish form to what truly mattered to me in that chamber. In her other hand, she held tight to a heavy length of chain. It lead to a brass collar circling Sanctus’s throat. His cord of knotted blue family ties peaked out from beneath it, now stained and dark. He sat, leaning against her throne and knee, naked to his feet. His skin was marked and marred. One eye was bruised purple. She had taken her frustrations out on him. Silent and trembling, he kept his eyes on the floor.
Relief washed down my spine when I watched him draw in a breath. She hadn’t killed him. Heat smoldered off my skin. She had put a hand to him. She would die today. “Gemma! So nice to see you. It has been years since it was just you and I.” I bowed congenially. The clowns quieted instantly, turning to stare at me.
“Nigrae Lunam? I do believe it’s been at least five,” she purred. “What is the pleasure of the Leader of Caeruleum dropping in so unexpectedly?” She raised her chin so as to look down on me. Unexpected my butt. What was her game?
“I received a calling card.” I pulled out a thin strip of fabric from my pants pocket. Her lips parted in momentary confusion before an egotistical smile made her teeth gleam like a ravenous dog. Her laugh echoed across the chamber. Sounded like Praesepe’s pet donkey.
“So you came to return it? I do believe Mons’s jacket has been mended since then.” Her voice was like listening to needles on tin. Mons was an apt Alias for her mountain that had helped ground me.
“Still, it reminded me that it had been a time since our last visit. Aren’t the leaders supposed to inform each other at least once in a while when lines are redrawn? Keeps our fighting to a minimum, yes?” I offered.
“Oh, yes. I forget. You weren’t born in Imperium. So you don’t really know how all this works.” Her sarcasm dripped.
“Do enlighten me Gemma. I am the baby of this odd family as you say.” I spread my right arm to the crowd, keeping my left rigid so the coat didn’t fall off. I had no hope of putting it on. It was too tight in the shoulder and chest and short in the sleeves. It served to make me look pretty dang regal off the shoulder in that indifferent egotistic way though if I were pressed to admit it.
“Yes, I do believe Aurantiaco and I have gotten together on several occasions to discuss our boundary lines. Seeing as your’s always ran up more against his side then mine, I never really thought it would matter to you to discuss it with me.”
“Well then. I’m here to discuss our lines,” I smiled. Her lackies might have nabbed Sanctus from me, but she still didn’t know. Her brows furrowed in confusion. Paul produced from beneath his coat a ring of three keys and Aurelia held out a golden circlet. Gemma studied the paraphernalia, uncertain, before her eyes widened in recognition.
I ran a finger along the line of Mercurius’s crown. “You see, Gemma. My lines have grown extensively, and I figured it was due time for us to talk.”
“You have replaced Mercurius?” Her voice shifted from derision to calculated appreciation.
“Massacred him and all his generals is more like it. Means we’ll be seeing to the grain and orchard crops from now on.” I held my hand out to Paul. He handed me the keys, and Aurelia set the circlet on my head.
“He must have really pissed you off for once. You two were always playing a rather polite game of cat and mouse up to this point. What did he do, ransack that greenhouse of yours your people are so proud of?” she smiled.
“No. Nothing as complex as that. Though he did try to take something that I had claimed as mine and had hold of something precious to one of my own. He wasn’t too keen on being lectured on the follies of his selfishness. The convergence of a windstorm and a wildfire. It never ends well with his type. Know what I mean?” I walked closer to her throne until her guards became restless.
“And now you have Caeruleum and Aurantiaco territories to oversee. I hope you can keep up with it all.” Her fingers tightened on Sanctus’s chain, pulling him closer to her. The shift of metal. His whimper. It echoed in the mortified hall.
“Just Caeruleum. No need to worry about me. I have plenty of help there.” I extended my hands to indicate Aurelia and Paul at my sides. They bowed in acknowledgment.
“Ah. You took Mercurius’s pets did you? I guess you would if you took Aurantiaco territory.” She yawned. “However did you get the things to obey you so calmly? Choke collars? I don’t see a leash of some kind,” she mused.
My skin ran cold, and it took way too much willpower to keep that disgusting mask of droll aristocratic entitlement plastered to my face. “You worry over me having no energy to control my new people. You expend so much energy, Gemma, on taming,” I replied sweetly, antagonistically, indicating Sanctus.
“It’s stubbornness knows no bounds. It takes many whippings to make it cower, to make it obey properly,” she lamented. I ground my teeth at the touch. It took me everything to continue my charade. Aurelia and Paul stood behind me, prepared.
“I never found that I needed the whips, Gemma,” I enticed. I snapped my fingers. Aurelia and Paul immediately knelt at either side of my feet, touching their foreheads to the floor. Their coats covered them completely from scalp to toe. “You see, Gemma, the Sancti already heel so prettily.”
Gemma watched in lewd curiosity. The gears were turning in her head as she flicked a contemptuous gaze at Sanctus. Intrigue her, play her, make her come to me. I didn’t want an all-out war with a bunch of Ustor. The wound to my gut hurt too much for me to be leaping about like a hare evading a pack of coyotes. I wanted her docile. “Two Sancti, Gemma, and they cower before me, no whip, no energy wasted. You should see what I taught him while he was in my possession. You might find you like him better after,” I suggested with a twisted smile.
“I thought your Caeruleum collar cute on it. Thought I’d keep it as a reminder. What could you possibly have done to make it behave? Though, you do have two Sancti that do as you tell them.” She rose, dragging Sanctus down the dais with her. He cringed at his tether, pulling at his collar, tripping over his short leg chains as she jerked him forward.
I cocked my head at her question. “You know,” I started as I pulled the trench coat off, “you randomly deposited him in Caeruleum territory, like you were looking to get rid of him, to perhaps gift him to me? Maybe you had run out of patience with his dawdling. At least, that was my thinking. I collected him. Put a couple months in on him. Why don’t you watch? I think it might interest you. At the very least, an evening of entertainment,” I offered. She raised an eyebrow at my coat.
“You took my coat rack quite effectively. I do miss having somewhere to put this, and none of your vast army or court seems to know how to properly meet a guest. They are failing you, Gemma. How about, as a gift to you, seeing as I forgot to bring something more appropriate for this fortuitous occasion, I’ll help you put them to your best use? If you’ll allow it, I’ll show you an easy way to control a Providentia, and then the others will fall in line nicely for you,” I admonished, casting my glance about the court.
She sighed with disgust. “They have been told on many occasions to gain some sense of decorum. What would you have it do?” She sneered, her eyes slashing Sanctus to ribbons. His colour had turned grey and mottled. He had stopped shaking, but that didn’t bode well. Cognac eyes had gone flat and unfocused on the floor.
Medicus was going to be screaming at me for this. “You see, you treat them as a ruler. Here, drop his chain and see. He will not run,” I directed the last statement at Sanctus, hoping to tell him what was coming.
“Surely you jest. It always runs. Reason I must keep such a tight leash on it,” she argued.
“As I said. Ruler,” I tsked. “Thinking too small. You treat them like a queen.” I pulled a piece of lint from the shearling and flicked it away.
“What would you have them treat me like other than a queen? I will be no replaceable president,” she laughed, though she loosened her death grip on the chain.
“You think too little of yourself if you would only call yourself a queen, Gemma.” I held her gaze, willing charm into every word until it dripped.
“Show me, Nigrae Lunam, what is better than being a queen, or a king for that matter? That gold crown does make you look like royalty.” She dropped Sanctus’s chain. The metal clanked to the floor. He stood motionless, afraid to raise his gaze.
I sighed a pleased breath. I slipped my finger and thumb along his family ties, and lowered my gaze to give him a speculative appraisal, allowing Gemma to watch me study him. “You see, Gemma? He doesn’t run.” I slid the coat over Sanctus’s shoulders and pulled the hood over his hair. “He makes a lovely coat rack, doesn’t he? It’s that mahogany colour in his hair. Just have to straighten it out or else it’ll wrinkle. Can’t have my best coat wrinkled. There, that’s better. Now I feel like a proper guest.” I relaxed my shoulders, playing up the charismatic charade. I motioned to the court around me as I drew Gemma’s hand in mine. I stepped into the lead position of a boxed step in a dance, letting her bell skirt swish against the concrete floor. She relented against my formal position, pressing into me. Her eyebrows curved up, perplexed as I spun her around, putting her back to my chest and drew a hand up the column of her throat. “You think too small if you think as a queen. Now, let me show you. What do these Sancti, saints in my native tongue, value most, queen?” I turned the question to her as I directed her gaze to Sanctus. She pursed her lips and studied his compliance. His fingers twisted together, shielding himself. His cheeks had pinked at my description of his hair.
“Watch, queen. Learning some proper commands is a good start. Remember,” I commanded, my voice flicking out as a stinging whip that caught his breath. Sanctus straightened at the order to look up at me. His eyes were glassy and terrified, but he was listening.
“What?” Gemma asked, curious, pressing up against me suggestively. She didn’t know Angelus. She felt like oil against me, her smell that of rose and necrosis.
“Worship the very ground I walk on.” I smiled sardonically as I kept Gemma tight next to me. Sanctus swallowed, his eyes going round as he immediately sank to the stone floor, completely covered from head to two with his new trench coat.
“What are you saying? You’re a god? Hades?” Gemma laughed at the performance as she looked at the three Sancti kneeling around me. The rest of the court joined in.
I pulled her closer to me until I could define every curve under her corseted ball gown. Her breath caught, and her cheeks went red. I studied her lifeless eyes, now that they were in front of me. Her eyelashes drifted down as her laugh turned from derision to nervous flirtation. I joined in with her in laughter to bolster her impression before cutting it short. “No, bitch. I’m the Vampire of the Urbs.” I snared her, puncturing her throat at the same time I finally let the fire in my blood boil over. The building shook under the pressure wave as the blast incinerated all those standing above the line of my waist. I lost a good shirt, my leather suspenders and the bandaging on my stomach that Medicus had insisted I use to keep pressure against the wound, but the hall was effectively cleansed. The upper half of Gemma disintegrated into dust in my fingers. The remainder of her torso and legs dropped away as other partial bodies did the same.
My stomach rolled as a ringing in my ears threatened to make me vomit. I spat, wiping my mouth of the ash that filled it. I knelt down to the same level as the siblings to escape the heat that was contained within the scorched tile and the rock. “You all okay?” I asked, touching their hoods.
Aurelia was first to respond. “Is it over? Did it work?” She peeked out from under her hood.
“Safe enough for the moment. You can design a building to be bomb-proof, but it’s harder to design people to be,” I reassured.
Paul threw off his hood to survey the damage in awe. “Glad you explained that earlier. That was terrifying,” he quipped as he helped Aurelia off the floor.
I turned to Sanctus, who was still cowering under his new coat. “Sanctus?” I reached out and gently ran my hand along the back of the hood. He startled at the contact. He sniffled in the darkness. “Sanctus?” I asked again, waiting patiently.
“She…she’s gone? She’s gone, right?” His voice was barely louder than the tread of boots as Clavis and Vestitor entered the chamber.
“If she’s still alive, all we gotta worry about is her kicking us to death,” Vestitor laughed as he surveyed the wreckage. Aurelia and Paul joined Clavis in waiting orders.
“Sanctus?” I encouraged, moving the hood off his head. He looked up at me, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Sanctus? Where does she keep the others? Do you know? We’re getting the rest out,” I asked softly, giving him something else to think about outside of the sadistic dead woman.
“Down,” he hiccuped as he finally sat back a little. “Downstairs. She has a labyrinth down there, but she keeps the cages there. The rooms on this floor are for official business. Upstairs are the apartments for her court.” He swallowed, glancing around, slipping his fingers into mine. If he could turn paler, he did.
“Right. Clavis, take Paul and fifteen down to clear the basement. Get everyone out, scavenge what you can. Vestitor, Aurelia, wait on Maria Mater’s party. Tempestatis and Cortex should be here before her. Find and guard all stairs leading to the upper floors until she gets here. Send ten to start clearing this floor. Have them go in pairs. No one ventures alone. I suspect more people loyal to Gemma will give you trouble. Be prepared for full-blown retaliation. Give them the option of either join Caeruleum or get out of Urbs Aquarum by any means they see fit. This will be a safe place for ALL Ustor. Post Praesepe at the basement entrance to show anyone sent up outside.” I was starting to lose my senses with Vestitor and Clavis standing so close to me and Sanctus at my knees. Aluminum, vinegar, sage, copper. My fangs had already made my commands sound like I was drunk. I leaned over Sanctus and melted through one of the links of the chain hobbling him. Clavis would have to take the manacles off later.
“You need to eat, Lunam,” Clavis hedged, glancing between Sanctus and me.
“I can’t take time right now, Clavis. I need for you to start sweeping the halls. There will be time later. I’ll have you take this blasted collar off him when we get back to base.” I pushed myself off the floor, dragging Sanctus up with me. I stumbled upon gaining my feet, my brain saying half of it wanted to remain on the floor. Sanctus looked up at me, puzzled as I started buttoning the trench coat on him.
“I’ll take him.” Sanctus gathered up the chain still dangling from his collar. Clavis blinked at Sanctus’s sudden command of the situation. Either that or the fact that it was the first thing Sanctus had told Clavis without having been asked a direct question first.
“See to him, Sanctus. We need to get this processed. We’ll send Cortex and Tempestatis when they get here.” Vestitor waved the rest of the team out of the court.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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