Past Lives: Purity teaser

They marched down the dank tunnel in silence. The earth around them seemed to groan and curse in protest of their intrusion; with each step they took, the wooden beams let out unhappy creaks. Or was she imagining it?

Five minutes into the hike, Caitlyn was desperate to end the deafening silence. But the only thing she could think of was the song.

She coughed to break the silence and remarked, “You, um, play the piano very well.”

“I have had a very long time to practice.”

She scoffed and glared ahead. He could just accept the compliment, rather than be an a—

“I would prefer you did not finish that thought, if you please,” he said, sounding irritated. “There is a root in your path.”

Despite the warning, Caitlyn’s toe caught on the root and she stumbled. A hand grabbed her wrist and hauled her upright before she could fall flat on her face.

She straightened out, gasping. “Thanks for that,” she said, breathless. “I’ve, uh, never heard a song like that before. Did you write it yourself?”

“A friend of mine wrote it.”

“Oh. It sounded very sad.”

“It is not meant to be.”

“Oh.” Caitlyn breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the barricade at the end of the tunnel. Whoever had used it last hadn’t fully closed it, and they squeezed through before continuing into the forest.

The night was warm, and crickets sang all around them. Feeling a long-awaited sense of calm wash over her, Caitlyn looked up at the sky, at the moon smiling wanly at them and the smudges of navy and violet across the dark sky. It was peaceful, beautiful.

With this new sense of ease and the joy of the upcoming opportunity to clean herself up, she quickened her pace to keep up with Fane, almost skipping alongside him. “Who wrote it?” she asked.

“Verity Romano.”

As enlightening as it was, these short answers weren’t at all helpful. She would just have to keep pestering him. “Word around the block is that you loved her. Is it true?”

This time, his expression was carefully composed. It was a blank facade, well-practiced. “Would it change your opinion of me if I said yes?”

“No. Well, maybe. Right now it seems like you don’t have a heart. If you loved her, then maybe you have a heart. And maybe if you’d loved and lost her, it’d explain why you’re so…” She trailed off when she saw the dangerous glint in his eyes. “Um, the lovely person you are,” she recovered lamely.

“You do not know when to keep quiet, do you?”

Caitlyn smiled and felt her cheeks head up. “Not really.”

Maybe it was the shadows playing tricks on her, but she thought she saw him smile and murmur, “Neither did she. Come,” he said, louder now. “The stream is not far from here.”

“You loved her, then?” She peered up at him through the darkness, picturing him standing next to Verity Romano. The ghost was a knockout; she must have been beautiful in life. And if he wasn’t so gaunt, he would be a handsome fellow himself; though he couldn’t really help his weight, as he only had blood to keep him going. “I’d understand if you loved her. She seems like a really nice person, and—”

“If I told you I loved her,” he interrupted, voice calm, “would you stop talking about her?”

“No guarantees.”

He pressed his fingertips to his forehead as if easing a headache. “Yes, I loved her. More than life itself.”

“And you’re miserable because she died?”

“Perhaps I have always been this way. Have you ever considered that as a possibility?”

She hopped over a fallen log, using his arm as support. “Maybe, if you’re anything like your father it’s a definite possibility.”

He suddenly stopped walking, and she turned to see him scowling at her as a muscle in his jaw jumped. “Must we continue to discuss my personality faults? This is not therapy.”

“I never said—”

He waved his hand to the trees ahead of her. “The stream is just through there. Be swift.”

Ghosts of the Past: Purity teaser

Muriel was not haunting her favourite spot on the balcony when he strode beneath it. Silence rang from the first room of the fifth corridor, where Harold’s poltergeist resided. Vlad had not been in the ballroom when he passed through to exit the double doors to the tunnel. No doubt Madalina would not be in Bran Castle far above. Mircea was far away and lost, save for a small memorial in the prince’s cold, still heart.

It seemed the ghosts of his past were quiet this evening.

Well, save for one.

“It has been far too long, mio vampiro,” a breathy voice said from behind him as he reached the top of the hill. The chilly evening was enhanced by a cloudy sky, and Bran Castle was filled with darkness. No lights flickered or glowed from inside; the tours had long since been closed for the evening.

He rested his palm on the cold, hard stone wall, pressing on the bumpy scar until it almost physically hurt. “Sixty-one days,” he said, shutting his eyes. Pat of him had hoped she wouldn’t come out of Purgatory this evening, hoped he could go about his business in peace.

“I have not been completely alone.”

He dropped his hand and turned to face her. “Have they been asking more questions?”

“They never stop.” She moved closer to him, and her big eyes were wide as she gazed at him. “The half-breed and her friends frequent this place more than anyone.”

Her voice, her presence—everything about her was disconcertingly cold. He could remember a time when he revelled in her human warmth. Even her innocent eyes, once comforting, were as pale and dead as the rest of her.

He hated ghosts. Congratulations were in order for Mircea—the only ghost of his past who did not insist on existing nearby, or at all. He was perfectly content in Hell. “I will speak with Madam Gwyther. She is a troublemaker.”

She nodded, but it was distant and slow. She was distracted. “I met a human girl recently. She asked questions as well.” She turned away and stared up at the sky, where the moon would be if there was no cloud cover. “She asked how long I was your prisoner.”

“Odd. Did you indulge her?”

“Yes. There were some… problems, as I did not know the proper English, but she understood. She seemed kind.” She lifted a hand as if she could cup the stars in her palm. “The heavens are truly beautiful. I hope to one day be with them.”

He watched her in silence. The longer time he spent in her presence, the heavier a painful block inside him became. This was why he hadn’t visited her in sixty-one days.

“Humans have visited the heavens,” he said after several long beats. Verity glanced back at him, confused, and he continued. “They built a device that could take them to a world beyond this Earth.”

A tiny smile perked her mouth, surprising him. Since when could a devout Catholic appreciate science? “Did they make it?”

Fane shut his eyes and turned his face away from her. His right hand was clenched around the scar, and his nails gouged his palm. “There are footprints on the moon.”

Bartending and generalness

I feel like I haven’t updated in an age, even though it’s not really been that long. On the 19th, I started my bartending practicum, the final stage in the course I took last month. I just finished the practicum last night. I spent every evening, 5 to 10, at the local Boston Pizza restaurant, and I think I was cursed with the most awkward days in BP history. They’re normally busy, but I was plagued with really slow days, except Friday, in which there was a half hour where four of us were behind the bar and we still weren’t up on the chits. But it was pretty fun, aside from nervousness (I got a stress coldsore by the third day) and unpaidness. I learned how to better pour beer, make general drinks like Caesars and Long Island iced teas, etc, and put away glasses. How exciting, yes? I decided that while I didn’t mind bartending, I never want to work in the food service industry as a server – which is what the bartenders at BP do as well. I don’t have the energy, patience, or hand-eye coordination for a job like that. Thank God I was only tending the bar while I was there.

So that was interesting. Enjoyable, but am I ever glad it’s over. I have much better things to do with my time – ie, sell books and be paid for it, and write my stories.

On that related note, Elisa has persisted and convinced me that I do need to finish the story/rewrites of my first major work of fiction, a little vampire ditty named Purity. Hatred for Twilight and what it turned vampires/vampire fans into made me subsequently hate Purity. I made some huge changes to make it more unique and more to mythological lore than urban fantasy, but I just couldn’t do it. So it sat on the backburner while I wrote OtArb and Changeling.

But something roused it, and Elisa convinced me that Purity had merit, and that yes, it is unique, but it’s also a vampire story in this new revival of vampires. While I hate the idea of notoriety of a subject made uber popular because of Twilight, it is not in the slightest like Twilight. While I’m going to fight to get OtArb traditionally published, I was convinced that Purity would sell well as a self-published ebook, and that I would have expert help getting it ready for sale. Maybe it’ll be well-off and end up lovingly taken in by a publishing house like the ridiculous and shameful Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. So I’ve begun my third and final because if I have to do this again I’m going to murder someone rewrite of Purity. It’s more serious, less stupidly angsty and dark, with more rounded characters. The story is pretty solid from my last rewrite, and the mythological races are pretty close to lore, with some alterations because I do want to make this my own.

I’ll do a further update on Purity at a later date, with more character information and races and whatnot. And I guess I’ve got to create a folder/page for it now. Le sigh.

So that’s pretty exciting. Thanks to a recent illogical computer crash, I lost several thousand unsaved words of OtK on MS Word, but have since regained my lust for it and am rewriting that part, so further progress has been made in that department. Changeling has hit her second major roadblock – I have the future mapped out, but I need a bridge to get there. I’ll get it in due time.

I’ve also felt like barfing for the past several days. Not sure why, but it is the worst feeling evar. And my wireless mouse finally ate it after probably four years in loyal service, so I’ve got to use the mousepad of my laptop until I get a new one. Bummer.

How are things elsewhere in the blogosphere? Has anything exciting happened in my brief absence?

Castle Dracula: Purity teaser

Tears finally broke free and slipped down Caitlyn’s cheeks.

She was being taken to the home of the vampires.

Memories flooded her, nearly crippling her with their sudden strength. They were things she blocked out of her childhood—memories of a time not long after her mother’s death, when she had lived in a haze. She had visited the museum with her father’s old housekeeper and sometime-babysitter; being the precocious brat she was, she broke free and was quickly lost in the crowd. Taken by an old man related to her mother, who she trusted. Put in a car she didn’t know, and taken away.

Her father’s business rival had kept her under lock and key, deranged by his desire to learn the secrets of her father’s success. She was eleven; she knew nothing. To convince her, he had her locked away with a monster with blood red eyes and a name from hell.

It took far too long, but light eventually pricked the distance. It wasn’t harsh electric light, but rather dim and flickering, and warm orange. An old wrought-iron sconce was jammed into the earth wall, and in it danced a small fire, just enough to lit up the door before them. It was plain and black, but there was something about it that was decidedly menacing.

Caitlyn was handed back to Coulter, and his great paws rested on her shoulders, keeping her still.

“Ready, boys?” Makarov grabbed the handles of the door. “Welcome to Castle Dracula.”

There had been hushed babbling before their entrance. At the moment the door opened, it immediately silenced and Caitlyn could feel hundreds of cold, hard eyes locked on her. The room they entered was large and vaguely circular, with walls covered by black drapes and a floor of exquisite marble. Ancient furniture lined the walls, and across from the door were two curved marble staircases that joined a balcony with five hallways. On the floor between the staircases was an old piano with a man at the bench, but no one played. The room was dim, lit only by torches in the same sconces as the one in the tunnel.

Men and women of all races and states of disrepair filled the room. Some were ghastly and pale and looked starved, so their musty clothes hung off them like rags. Others were rosy-cheeked and contented. But all of them had the same bold, brazen eyes; the colours that would be muted and plain in the faces of humans were brilliant and sparkling, full of life and completely animated. Everything, even the people, was immaculately structured, yet it seemed as though all was covered in a fine film of dust.

The silence was palpable. Caitlyn remained stiff, terrified even to breathe in case these predators decided to pounce. Her brain had shut off, and her body tensed, waiting for something to happen so it could decide whether to fight or flee.

Those eyes. Those hard, bright eyes were locked on her. Unmoving. Unblinking.

Caitlyn dropped her gaze and her breath suddenly returned with a painful wheeze. She had accidentally looked into the dark brown eyes of a scowling woman near the front, and her reptilian brain knew that this woman would kill her without a second thought. And she would enjoy it.

Her entourage nudged her forward, and she returned to full consciousness when a dry sort of cackle exploded from above them.

Every hair stood on end, and she glanced back. The sound seemed to come from two grotesque chimera-style gargoyles that flanked the door, but that was impossible.

There seemed to be no hurry, and her captors gave her a moment to stare. As she did, a gravelly voice asked in an unnatural accent, “What are you staring at, human?”

A deeper, slower voice just as rocky as the first drawled, “Why is a living human still in these hallowed halls? Vanessa, you have proven yourself to be intelligent in the past. Why is this girl in the halls of our lord?”

“I don’t know, Abaddon.” The voice was haughty and English, and when Caitlyn looked back around, she saw it came from the woman she had locked eyes with. She was staring now, her eyes narrowed beneath a dark frown. “Why don’t you ask the human’s escorts?”

“Bethany,” the first voice said, singsong. “What are you doing with a human? A living human?”

“Just ignore them,” Makarov muttered, and pushed Caitlyn forward. The crowd parted in silence, cutting a clean path to the staircases.

Forgetting her fear for the moment, Caitlyn asked, breathless, “What was that?”

“Two of the castle’s resident gargoyles,” Jacques-Marie Blanchard replied from behind her left shoulder. “They guard the door.”

“Abaddon does,” Makarov corrected, stealing one more glance behind them. “Asmodeus needs to be removed.”

Caitlyn swallowed a dry lump in her throat. Two of the castle’s gargoyles. That meant there were more of those things.

The crowd in the circular room remained silent as the grave as Caitlyn was escorted up the stairs and onto the balcony. They lingered there in the quiet, waiting.

The Silver Room: Purity teaser

Purity was my baby when I first began writing long works of fiction. She’s on hiatus – due to the largely vampiric nature of the story, and my disdain for all things vampire after Twilight killed it – but I am still in love with her characters. This is a scene from the very beginning, when the two main characters – Caitlyn and Fane – meet for the first time.

She shuffled up behind him, watching curiously as he ran his hand over the top of the wainscoting, which was designed with circular knobs in a very simple style. One of these protruded forward a slight more than the rest, and had a hole beside it. Wentworth reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and unearthed a tiny silver key without many decorations, with the exception of edging in gold and a little insignia stamped onto it. It must be the symbol of the Blade Corporation.

Wentworth slid the teeth into the hole and turned, then put the key back into his pocket and grabbed the knob. He gently rotated it, and a door, whose edges were hidden by the frame of the portrait, whispered open, revealing a room full of darkness. Before Caitlyn could see anything dangerous about a shrine of silverware, Robert nudged her inside and followed her, shutting the door behind them. They were instantly trapped in perfect blackness.

They stood in silence for some time. Well, almost silence. Caitlyn could hear her heart thudding dementedly away in her chest, and her breathing was loud in her ears, but there was something in the background that made icy fingers crawl up her spine. The room was chilling, colder than a fine sprinkle of snow. The invisible walls seemed to be swelling and deflating, breathing around them. Her hearing was randomly interrupted by a high-pitched clang, as if somebody was tapping two pieces of metal together—maybe forks? she thought with some amusement.

But what bothered her most was the whispering she heard in her head. It was a low male voice with an accent that sounded eerily like her father’s. She couldn’t tell what the voice was saying, but it sounded like a curse in some ancient tongue. A shiver rippled through her flesh, and she backed up on the grungy floor, bumping into the thin, skeleton of a man standing behind her.

She jumped and nearly yelped when the door opened again. She blinked against the sudden bright light, but when she recovered she tried to use the light to find out why exactly it was called the silver room, but she had no such luck. If this shrine was at all dangerous, she couldn’t tell.

The door shut before she could spot anything; when it eased shut with a click, the chanting in her mind instantly stilled.

The room was suddenly filled with the acrid smell of Blade’s cigar. He sounded like he was fumbling with something. This was confirmed when his gruff accent cut through the silence of the room with a demand. “Robert, hold this.”

“What is it?” Wentworth asked quietly.

“A candle. I can’t see a bloody fricking thing in here. Hold still.”

“Have you put more thought into connecting the electricity to the light here?” Robert wondered.

Blade made a strange noise in his throat as he lit a match. There was a brief flare of light as it burst to life. He touched it to the wick of the candle in Robert’s hand, and then shook it out, dropping it to the floor. Taking the candle from his employee so it illuminated every fine line on his chubby face, and made his dark eyes dance with something that resembled terror, he replied quietly, “Then it could see.”

A sudden low laugh ripped through Caitlyn’s mind, and she jerked backward, startled. Dread swiftly filled her form, and she pressed herself against the wall, close to Wentworth. Both men with her jumped slightly—they heard it too, but she could have sworn that it hadn’t been her ears that picked up the sound. It had been inside her head.

Now she was sure that that silver room did not contain silverware.

“Jesus Christ,” Al hissed. His knuckles were white where he gripped the candle. “Leave, Robert.”

“But, sir—”

“Bloody hell, if you say one more thing about the profits it could make, or how she’s just a kid, I’ll feed you to it myself! Goddamn it, Robert, get out!” the businessman snarled, glowering at the taller, stick-like man.

This time, she knew it came from somewhere in the room. The down hairs on the back of her neck and her arms lifted when the deep, quiet voice murmured teasingly, “Yes, say one more thing, Robert. Let him feed you to it.”

Robert was all too ready to comply. He stole one apologetic glance at Caitlyn, whispered, “Please forgive me,” and left the room. For the fraction of time the door was open, Caitlyn thought she saw something hunched over in the corner of the room—which, like the rest, had hardwood floors, wallpaper and wainscoting—but when the door shut, and they were once again locked in darkness, she chased the thought from her mind. This had to be a way of unnerving her so she would tell them about her father’s work. That was the only logical explanation for this madness.

Or was it? a dark part in her mind asked.

Caitlyn glanced up at Al, and felt a sudden warmth toward him. Whatever was in this room, it had to be worse than this man. This fat, crooked businessman was her only ally. Gross.

He licked his lips anxiously, his dark eyes flicking around the room. Clearing his throat, he said as bravely as possible, “Well, Miss Negrescu, I’m not going to ask you anymore about your father’s program right now, all right? I’m still going to ask about your father, but… well, let’s just get to it, hm? I don’t like this room much. I think the man who sold me this house forgot to tell me that it’s haunted,” he added, trying—and failing miserably—to sound nice. There was a panicked tinge to his voice, and the smile forced on his lips was pained and wavering. He was twirling the fat cigar in his fingers, and she could hear his toe tapping on the wooden floor.

“Ghosts aren’t real,” she whispered, too quietly for him to hear. It wasn’t something she believed, herself. After watching The Shining at her friend Emma’s house, she believed that the supernatural was far too real.

“Your father’s from Romania, isn’t he?” When Caitlyn nodded, Blade imitated the motion. “Yes, I’ve noticed he still has an accent. He isn’t from Bucharest, is he? That’s the capital.”

“He’s from Braşov,” she corrected, feeling her brows pull together. What did this have to do with anything?

“Ah, yes, that’s right. Thank you. You’ve been there?”


“To visit his rather large family, I presume. Tell me, Miss Negrescu, has he brought you to Bran Castle? I hear it’s a very popular tourist destination.”

“A beautiful creation,” something whispered in the room. Whenever that voice made itself known, the room seemed to get colder and colder, until her entire body was riddled with gooseflesh. Caitlyn couldn’t tell if the sound came from her mind or somewhere else. Maybe she was going crazy. Maybe his house was actually haunted.

“I’ve been there,” she murmured, swallowing a lump in her throat and wishing the candle lit the room better. They should have brought the lamp. Or a flashlight. She was glad she had the teddy with her.

“Have you heard the stories about Bran Castle, and Romania in general?” Blade asked, tilting his head to the side questioningly. “About how it was once populated by creatures called vampires? I’ve heard through the grapevine that your mother used to tell you stories about vampires. It’s odd, isn’t it? That she believed in Romanian creatures even though she was from Ireland? Or Canada, rather, but she lived in Ireland, didn’t she? Perhaps your father believes in leprechauns and pots of gold,” he added, chuckling. Caitlyn gawked up at him, wondering what he was getting at. “Your mother believed in vampires, and doesn’t your housekeeper, Abigail Johnston?”

Caitlyn shrunk back from him, feeling a frosty shiver penetrate her veins. “Vampires aren’t real,” she murmured. This time, it was something she believed. There weren’t any vampires in The Shining, and she and Emma had been too chicken to watch Dracula right after viewing the first film.

“Is that what you think? It’s what your father thinks, isn’t it? But in no way what Dierdre and Abigail think. See, Miss Negrescu, I’m a bit like your mother and housekeeper, I think,” he continued softly. He was sounding less calm now. Fear was edging back into his voice, threatening to overpower him. “I believe in them.”

“They aren’t real…”

“I believe the contrary, my dear. In fact… I own one.”

Another metallic click ripped through the chilly air, and a quiet voice with a growling accent hissed, sounding right beside Caitlyn’s face, “You could never own one of the strigoi morţi.”

The corner of Al’s mouth twitched downward, but he remained as courageous as possible. “May I introduce Fane Dracul?” he said, lifting his arm toward the center of the small room. The flickering orange light reflected off something shiny and silver, and Caitlyn stared in horror. This had to be a trick… an optical illusion… she was dreaming…

This dream was a nightmare. The thing before her looked like a man, but this was no ordinary man. Though it was folded on the floor in the corner, it looked like a giant. Its hair was deep ebony, and it caught light from the flame, which caused strands of reds, golds and deep browns to pierce the shadows of the long locks. And long they were. They were tied back, and fell in straight unison, interrupted by only a few waves, inches past his shoulders. A few loose strands fell before his face, covering eyes from hell itself. They were narrowed with menace, locked on Alfred Blade, and a deep, blood-chilling scarlet, highlighted with vermillion, crimson and dark orange. The colour of spilled human blood.

The flesh was pulled taut over hollow cheeks and a long nose. It was a stark contrast to the hair, as it was whiter than snow, but showed no spidery blue veins underneath, as fair skin often did. The chin was narrow and somewhat pointed, and the brow was smooth with immaculate black eyebrows.

This thing wore a bizarre assortment of clothes. Long legs were covered by black trousers, simple and classy, and the feet wore dress shoes that looked strangely modern yet old-fashioned at the same time. It wore a white shirt from some old era that had somewhat belled sleeves, and tight cuffs and collar, with a black waistcoat overtop. The buttons were golden. Underneath its neck was some sort of old-timey scarlet tie. The vest was formfitting, pulling the shirt close to its torso; it seemed to be very slim, on the edge of skinny, but looked powerful. Caitlyn couldn’t decide if it was beautiful or horrifying.

Even though thick silver manacles were clamped about its wrists and it was chained to the wall behind it, the thing emanated glory and royal magnificence. It was terrifying.

Caitlyn couldn’t look away, but desperately wished she no longer had the image burned before her eyes.

From Hell: Purity short story

“Our business here is finished, then.”

He tilted his head, smiling only somewhat. “I suppose it is—for now,” he replied in immaculate French. Smoke curled around his fingers and drifted up to his face, sickly sweet. Behind the thick smoke shrouding the room and their hushed conversation entirely in French, they were paid no heed by the others lounging in the parlour.

She pursed her lips. “And your end of the bargain?”

“We shall live up to it, sweet Béatrice.”

“It’s Vanessa now, Davide, and you would do well to remember that,” she countered, twisting her mouth in a grimace. The warning was clear, and her business done. She stood, her long skirts falling off the chair.

But his voice kept her in the smoky room a moment longer. “A new identity to renew yourself after the death of the king? Very well. Give my regards to the prince, Vanessa, and rest assured you have the protection of my pack wherever you dare venture in London.”

She scoffed and wove through the plush couches and polished tables that littered the parlour. Soon, the man’s animal smell was engulfed by the sweet scent of opium that hung over the room and she felt tension in her shoulders ease. Politics were still strained between her clan and his pack, from a failed revolution and the death of the king, but even she couldn’t deny they were her best option for protection while in England.

With a squeak of the door and a scuff of her boots, she stepped out of the gentlemen’s club and into the smoggy night air of London’s East End.

The reek of smoke, continuously belching from factory smokestacks, overwhelmed her in an instant. With it mixed the fetid slop dumped into streets and alleys; the fishy smell of the Thames; and a multitude of unwashed beings still prowling the night. She ceased breathing without hesitation, and began her trek toward the slums of Whitechapel; beneath the floorboards of a bawdy house was one of many safe-houses for her clan, ready to store those who made the trip to London.

She kept to the shadows and alleyways as she flitted in silence to the brothel. It was only the middle of the night, but she could feel acute weariness in her bones as the thirst set in. She had been awake, negotiating a contract with Davide and his fellow French nationalists, since the safety of twilight, and had not yet found an opportunity to care for her own wellbeing.

Even before she opened the door to the ramshackle brick building, she could hear the whores inside plying their trade. A small smirk found its way onto her face, and she quickly hopped up the steps to the door. Ah, the men of this city had no idea just what they were involving themselves with. What they were paying for.

The warmth of fire and smell of sweat and bodies greeted her as she stepped into the house. The door opened to a narrow hallway, with a cozy sitting room to the left and kitchen to the right. It was a small house, as they tended to be, especially in Whitechapel, but every bit of it was used to perfection. Rickety stairs led up to the second storey, with a second parlour and multiple bedrooms; and hidden beneath a carpet in the kitchen was a trap door to the cellar, where she and her compatriots could rest as they pleased.

She sighed and tugged off the black ribbon choker around her neck, the shell cameo toppling neatly into her palm. It would be a relief to free herself from this horrible, restricting corset and bodice, and simply lounge with the other ladies downstairs before her night progressed—

“What a beautiful pendant.”

She paused and glanced over her shoulder. Seated in an old wooden chair beside the door was a young man, smiling politely as he gazed up at her. “Thank you,” she said, barely lifting her lips in a smile as she tucked it away in the pockets of her jacket.

“May I ask where you got it?”

Well, she could spare a moment for this disillusioned male. She couldn’t climb into the cellar until most of the nosey humans had left, and she was feeling rather weak. She dipped her hand into the pocket and pulled out the cameo. “Here.” She handed him the ribbon and pendant. “A friend of mine gave it to me.”

The man smiled and held the necklace in front of him. She had long ago memorized the image stamped into the shell; a beautiful woman with curly hair and aristocratic profile. A woman long dead, who lived in the era of rebirth and art. He lightly ran his fingertips over the raised edges, his dark eyes twinkling in the nearby firelight. “Exquisite. I must admit I envy your friend, to be giving such lovely gifts to a lady such as yourself.”

She laughed at that, completely forgetting her manners. “Oh? You don’t even know my name, and you met me in a brothel. Who are you to assume what sort of lady am I?”

He laughed softly and stood from the chair. “I am Henry Francis Washburn, my lady, at your service.” With a deep bow, he cupped her hand in his and touched his lips to her fingers. “And though we meet in a brothel, I am only here as an escort to my younger brother, who insisted on enjoying the company of the ladies here before his wedding.” His moustache twitched as he chuckled, then he released her hand and straightened.

She smiled and tucked the cameo back into her jacket. “Vanessa Béatrice Estée Collingwood, a pleasure,” she said, and dipped into a curtsey.

“Ah, French? Of course. Your beauty rivals that of Parisian queens.”

“French through my mother alone. I was born here in London,” she admitted—and kept to herself that the London in which she had been born and raised was an entirely different city than the one of this modern, industrial age. “I hate to part your company so suddenly, Mr Washburn,” she added, spotting a friendly face grinning at her from the kitchen, “but I really must be going.”

“Of course. I do hope we can meet again, my lady.” He bowed again, and returned to his seat as she trotted into the kitchen.

“Vanessa, thank God you’re back.” The woman grabbed her arms and pulled her into the kitchen before quickly shutting the doors to the room. Her lips pursed and she began unlacing Vanessa’s bodice without a word of question. “Did you manage to make up a contract with the dogs?”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Vanessa slumped into the woman’s arms. “Yes. I have the extra protection of the local pack during my visit.” Once her chest was free of the restraining bone corset, she stretched, feeling the bones in her back pop and crack. “Anne, I have a favour to ask.”

“Anything, love. You know we’re all very pleased to have you here, helping out by the order of our king.”

“Prince,” she corrected idly. It was habit by now, and it had only been a mere seventy-nine years since the murder of their king. Shedding her jacket and handing it off to the plump little woman, she began to pull off her bodice and untie her skirts. “I have not found the time to feed yet tonight,” she said, shooting a sharp glance at Anne. Several other women were in the room, silent as they watched. “You know how the French dogs are.”

Anne scoffed and began folding Vanessa’s clothes without hesitation. “Tsk, the voivode ought to have just let them have their fun during the war,” she said, pointing her nose in the air, “then maybe they’d be more personable now.”

“Doubtful.” Thus freed from the constricting female fashion of the era and wearing only a loose cotton chemise, Vanessa padded over to a nearby mirror dangling from the papered wall. A shadow greeted her, little more than a smudge in the shape of her face and shoulders. “I do rather hope you have someone waiting.”

“Course we do, love. Lorelei!”

One of the girls, a pale American thing with startling blue eyes and naturally straight brown hair, stood from a chair in the corner and smoothed her hands over her voluminous dark skirts. “Yes, Anne?”

“Can you be a dear and see if Sarah’s done with that bloke upstairs? Would you like your fun with him too, dear?” Anne asked, turning her unnaturally bold brown eyes back to Vanessa.

She swiped her hands over her cheeks, clearing off some of the smudgy makeup applied earlier by one of the ladies. “Has he been drugged?”

“Of his own accord. Opium.”

“Hm.” She pursed her lips and turned away from the mirror. “No. Do you have anyone without intoxicants in his blood?”

“One, I think,” another lady replied. Pale, with dark brown curls and odd brown eyes that nearly bordered on amber, was sprawled in the corner near the kitchen hearth, picking at the dirt beneath her fingernails. Her accent was singsong; she was from Wales, unless Vanessa was mistaken. “Or you could pretend to be one of the ladies for the night and take one of the real men. There is a rather delectable gentleman sitting just in the front, outside the parlour.”

“In the hall? His name is Henry Washburn. He was awfully enamoured with me.”

The girls twittered with laughter, and Anne patted Vanessa’s shoulder. “And who wouldn’t be? Was it your pretty white face or ample bosom that did him in, eh?”

The women all laughed again, and Vanessa even allowed herself a small smile. “Actually, neither. He was astounded by my cameo pendant.” Padding across the room, she pulled the pendant from her jacket and held it out for the others to see. “It’s of my mother, during the Renaissance. Fane found it for me near to a century ago, while travelling France with Joachim Grey.”

“All a ruse, love. What man wouldn’t be infatuated by your perky breasts and nice round bum?” Anne slapped the posterior in question, making Vanessa flinch and hop away.

The Welshwoman snorted and shook her head. “How did you ever pass as a man in war?”

Vanessa rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. “Are you going to fetch me someone or not?”

Anne’s brows rose into her hairline. “Oh! No drugs or anything of the sort, Lorelei. Joan thinks we’ve someone who suits you.”

The American girl nodded and shuffled from the room. Raucous laughter and cries of pleasure seeped through the open door for just a moment; then it shut and they were left in muffled silence once more.

Once the girl was gone, Vanessa dug through the hidden pockets sewn to the inside of her skirts and petticoats, and unearthed several folded papers.

“Is that your research, then?” Anne asked, standing on her toes to peer over Vanessa’s shoulder.

“Yes. Have you any of the newspapers?”

“Oh, sure. They’re in the parlour.”

Vanessa nodded and pulled a silk robe off a hook on one wall. After tightening it around herself, she gathered her materials together and left the kitchen. As she crossed the hallway to the parlour, she stole a glance at the chair by the door. Empty. She clucked her tongue and slipped through the worn muslin curtain that stood in place of a door.

“That was a rather quick job, Miss Collingwood.”

Vanessa paused, papers still tucked under her arm, and spotted Henry Francis Washburn stretched over their single chaise longue, a newspaper folded between his hands. His jacket and hat were set neatly on a table nearby, and he seemed oddly at home, considering he was a gentleman in a whorehouse.

“You are rather bold, presuming I am a whore,” she replied crisply, and moved to the table where he set his coat. Uncaring for propriety—considering they were in a brothel and she was wearing only a shift and a long robe—she rifled through his pile of discarded garments until she came to the newspapers piled underneath. Armed with her research, she pushed his feet off the couch and made herself comfortable.

“I meant no offense.”

“And I took no offense.” She began to lay out the papers on the floor in front of her; newspaper clippings from journalists all around London, notes taken by several of her clan living in the area, and even a few pages in the delicate, looping cursive of the prince.

They sat in silence for mere minutes before Lorelei appeared at the entrance to the room, her white cheeks slightly flushed with pink. “Miss Collingwood,” she said timidly, her mouth curling into a sweet smile, “your room upstairs is ready.”

“Oh, brilliant.” She climbed off the couch and followed the girl through the narrow, winding halls of the building. The stairs creaked beneath their combined weight; the middle of each step was caved and worn thin from years of heavy traffic, and the railing looked as though it had toppled several times during the span of its life.

Every door they passed on the second floor was closed, but the sounds behind them were obvious. Despite being run by rather unconventional hostesses, the men who frequented the house had no idea its true purpose. It was a perfect setup. Vanessa only disliked how seldom she visited.

Lorelei led her to the final door on the right. She paused and gave a little curtsey. “He’s just in here, Miss Collingwood. Will you need anything else tonight?”

Vanessa cocked her head to the side and contemplated the girl before her. She was in her first decade, and hadn’t yet grown accustomed to protocol. “No. All I require is room to work. The parlour will do until I can go to the cellar. Thank you, Miss Morgan.”

The girl nodded again and vanished down the stairs, leaving Vanessa the only one standing in the hallway. She barely wasted a second and slipped into the room, shutting the door behind her and turning the key in the lock. The room was bare save for a rickety brass bed shoved against one wall; sprawled on it, arms and legs askew, was a middle-aged man with greying hair and blood soaking his front. His chest trembled with effort to breathe; perspiration misted his forehead. He was perfect.

In silence, she ghosted to the bed and lowered herself to the edge of the mattress. The man barely registered her presence, even as she tilted his head to the side to observe the deep gouges in his neck made by the other girls in the house. She smiled. Cuts in the neck of a man in a whorehouse. She ran her tongue over her teeth, and a shiver ran down her spine. So like the articles in the papers, and the reports from her fellows: deep cuts in the necks of whores in Whitechapel.

She leaned down and fastened her mouth over the torn flesh of his throat. He lacked the strength to cry out as her teeth sunk into his flesh and pierced the tender currents of blood running through his body. As she sucked in the warm lifeblood flowing freely from his neck, she lost herself in the ecstasy of the feed. This was why she was back in London, in the waning summer of 1888—because women had been found dead, organs removed and throats slashed, and all evidence pointed to a strigoi mort.

A vampire.