Eight Years Ago
I bowed awkwardly before the throne. “Greetings, Noble Aka Manah. I am Ling Yu, formerly of the succubi.” I had practiced the lines a hundred times in the mirror. I was pretty sure I had spoken clearly.
The vampire eyed me with distaste from his seat, a deceptively complex piece of furniture made of what appeared to be woven strands of lead. “Yes, of course. I have heard much about you. You were one of the Riven, correct?”
“No, Honored Noble. I was a Widower, follower of Xinivrae.”
That made the elegant vampire raise one perfect eyebrow. He was perfect in pretty much every way, a fact that vaguely disquieted me in ways I didn’t understand. He didn’t even have any obvious vampire toys, other than the eyes. That was the current style for the daevas, the vampires who served as the counterpart to the succubi. “Malcanthet’s sister? I have heard rumblings that she plans to split off her own culture.”
“I wouldn’t know, Noble.”
“Hmph. Of course not.” He waved his hand. “Well, all are welcome in Damavand. I was simply curious.” He held out his hand, and a servant I hadn’t noticed gave him a file. He glanced over it, then frowned. “You were pregnant?”
I nodded. “Gave birth a month ago.”
The warlord eyed me with shock mixed with horror, his mask of perfection shattering like glass. “You—but you’re eleven… ” He shook his head. “Someone get this poor girl a room immediately. And then schedule her an appointment to have her succubus toys removed.” As I was led out of the room, I heard him muttering behind me. “Freaking Malcanthet…”
Within a few hours, I had been set up in a small but comfortable room in the upper levels of the skyscraper, the single building that contained the domain of the daevas. Unlike Shendilavri, Damavand was not the sole building on its block, and was just a normal skyscraper without anything particularly special about it.
Judging by the room I was now in, it was a refurbished hotel, probably bought a few years ago when the daevas were first beginning to organize into a true culture. It was a good plan, especially for a non-aggressive culture, which didn’t have to worry about fortifying as much. The lights were a bit old, but they still worked, even if I had to jump to hit the switch.
There was a knock on the door, and I pulled it open with only some slight hesitation.
A different woman from before, a pretty young woman with fiery red hair and marble-black nighteyes, smiled down at me. She was only a couple heads taller, which meant she was short by most reasonable standards. I assumed she was another chamberlain. I thought the word meant ‘servant,’ or something. She had something held in her arms, a box of something I couldn’t identify from this angle. “Miss Ling. I hope you’ve had a chance to clean up? Perhaps even take a shower?”
I nodded once, not saying anything.
“Good.” She stepped around me smoothly and placed the box on the bed. It turned out to be filled with clothes. Not luxurious clothes, but nice enough to make me sit up and take notice. “I will help you change out of those rags. Your toys will take longer to remove, but it is a step in the right direction to making you look less like a succubus.”
I looked down at what I was currently wearing. It was a pretty standard succubus bra and panty pair in black, though I didn’t really need the bra yet. In Shendilavri, the outfit hadn’t earned me so much as a second look, but thankfully I had grabbed a robe to wear over it before fleeing the domain. That was in a heap on the bathroom floor now.
The outfit the chamberlain produced was something else altogether. It was made of some long, flowing black material in multiple layers, a conservatively cut floor-length straight skirt and sleeveless top, with a silky see-through layer that gave it a hint of sultriness.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an Indian dress, imported directly from Mumbai. It actually belonged to one of Aka Manah’s younger daughters. Thankfully, we were close enough in size that it hadn’t been difficult to adjust.
I frowned as I spun in the mirror. “It feels constricting.” If I had known it was a gift from my new warlord, I wouldn’t have been so rude.
Luckily, the chamberlain understood. She knelt behind me so as not to obscure me in the mirror and hugged my shoulders gently. “You’ll have to get used to wearing real clothes, little one. The succubi might prefer remaining a step and a half away from nude, but the rest of the city needs to see you in something more substantial.”
I nodded, a bit glum, but obedient. When I had left, I had known I’d have to make sacrifices.
The chamberlain stood and patted me on the head. “Now, I’ve already called your matron. She should be here in an hour or so—”
“What?” The shock shook me out of my reverie. “No, you can’t! She’ll take me back!”
“Back to your orphanage? Good! It’s not too far from here, so you can come visit whenever you like, but the domain of the daevas is still not the place for children. Not even the warlord’s younglings live here.”
“But the entire reason I joined the succubi was to escape that place!”
She frowned, then knelt down in front of me to meet my eyes. “Miss Ling. If there is something seriously, genuinely wrong with that orphanage, if your matron is doing… things she shouldn’t, please, tell us. You won’t have to go back, I promise.”
I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again, frowning.
My matron had always been loud and overbearing… but then, so were Xinivrae and the other succubus warlords. She never seemed to care about what I did except when I did something wrong, but with the number of kids in the orphanage, I guess she didn’t have a choice.
The chamberlain smiled, recognizing the resigned look on my face. “Yes, I suspected as much. Don’t worry, little one, that’s normal. We only learn how much we need our parents after they’re gone.” Her face darkened briefly. “One way or another.”
I shuffled in the dress. “…aren’t you going to ask?”
Now the vampire looked genuinely confused. “Ask what?”
“Ask why I left the succubi.”
She chuckled. “I’m more interested in why you thought it was a good idea to join in the first place.” Her smile lessened, but did not fade completely. “But seriously, take your time. Aka Manah would like to know, yes, for his records if nothing else, but you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
I nodded, once, but didn’t say anything.
The chamberlain stood and took my hand. “Now, come along. You need a tour.”
Damavand wasn’t much, all things considered. It was, in most ways, the same as any other random skyscraper, except that most of the windows were blacked out and no one bothered to turn on the lights.
But she still led me around the entire domain by the hand, carefully and patiently explaining anything I might have questions on. We started out in the Akoman sector, with its many libraries and reading cubbies, dark computers designed for vampire eyes scattered around. The paintings and drapes hung on the walls depicted famous libraries and people who I was told were great scholars. Da Vinci, Newton, so on.
The chamberlain pointed out the moment we left the scholar quarter, and pointed out the subtly different color of the carpet—which was very difficult to identify in the gloom—as evidence of it. The Nanghait sector was much the same as the Akoman, just with less books and more computers, most of which were manned by quiet vampires who smiled at us as we passed.
I stopped dead at the entrance to the Sawarl sector, a massive black pair of double doors covered in depictions of torture and pain, but the chamberlain just patted me on the head and pushed me forward. The oppressors’ quarter was, as one might expect, even darker than the rest of the domain, and what little I could see through the gloom hinted at chains and spikes on the wall. My guide assured me that I was in no danger, but hurried me through all the same.
Leaving Sawarl—through a pair of doors identical to the first—we came out in a hall with walls of pure white, kept clean and sanitary, reflecting the minimal light from the illumination strips in the ceiling like mirrors. There was no carpet, just dull white linoleum, unscratched and unblemished. The chamberlain told me that this was the sector reserved for the Zariz, the spies, and that they wouldn’t like me finding out their secrets. We didn’t see a single soul as we passed through, or indeed anything but the dull white walls and floors.
Tauriz, the warrior sector, was the first place we actually ran into people. Oh, we had seen a few everywhere but Zariz, but they had just smiled and nodded and been on their way. The Tauriz though, they greeted my guide like old friends, shaking her hand, hugging her, and nearly crying with sheer joy at her presence.
They were still warriors, though. Most of them wore body armor, and all of them wore weapons, from simple knives and swords to handguns and rifles. One of them, when he noticed me, picked me up with great battle-scarred hands and placed me on his shoulders, where I stayed for nearly an hour as the chamberlain slowly guided me through the subculture, pointing out barracks and armories, punctuated by helpful additions from the jubilant warriors.
It was all a bit of a blur, but eventually my ride plucked me off his shoulders and deposited me on the ground, patting me on the head jovially. I waved goodbye as the chamberlain pulled me away, not understanding the meaningful nods she exchanged with the leader of the crowd of soldiers.
I realized the second we left the warrior quarter. My guide quickly explained that the lights in this sector were left on for the ambassadors from other cultures the Indar might wish to entertain. Here—like the rest of the domain, but it was easier to tell here—everything was draped in silks, with the walls and ceilings covered in designs inspired by Indian architecture. It took me a moment to realize that we had reached the lower floors of the skyscraper, probably so that diplomats didn’t have to climb a million stairs.
Diplomats such as my matron.
“Mamma!” I managed when I saw her. Her skin might be olive-green and her eyes marble-black today, but when the person responsible for disciplining you if you didn’t go to bed on time liked changing her toys every few days, you learned how to identify her despite her outward appearance.
She stomped forward, glowering over me, using the full weight of her impressive height to underline her authority in a way that seemed to fill the entire room.
I gulped. Last time she had been like this had been the time I set the washer on fire. On purpose. It… had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Then she reached forward and drew me into a hug.
I was reminded of the last time I had seen her, a month ago. She had found me in the hospital when I was giving birth, and had stayed by my side the entire time without saying a word. And then, when it was done, she had kissed me on the forehead with tears in her eyes and just left.
Later, I found out I hadn’t needed to run as far as I thought. She could have found me whenever she wanted, but chose not to out of respect for my privacy. Ironic, considering the reasons I had left in the first place.
“Please extend my thanks to your Noble, Honored Nightstalker,” my matron said with a prim nod to my guide. “I greatly appreciate being informed of the whereabouts of one of my lost children.”
“I shall, but I am not a daeva, or even a vampire.”
My matron looked her up and down with a frown. “…all right. Then what are you doing here? I have little patience for games at the moment.”
She chuckled. “As I understand it, Mamma Gkika, you have a reputation for never having patience for games. But there is nothing wrong with that. I was simply in the area, and asked dear Aka Manah if I could show his newest nightrunner around the domain.” She curtsied. “But I am, as I said, not a vampire. I am simply Lily.”
The effect that this statement had on my matron was electric. Her face went through a dozen expressions at once, most of them some flavor of shock and surprise, until she managed to settle on a sort of understated reverence.
She bowed deeply. “I apologize, if I had known—”
“Oh, stop that,” Lily said, waving her hand. “I hate people bowing and scraping.”
My matron straightened, but still looked subdued. “I… hadn’t realized you were a vampire—I mean, that you had taken on some vampiric toys. I assumed you were still—”
“Yes…” my guide murmured, looking over her hands. “I’m not sure I like this package. I’m thinking of going back to demon for a while. Hm… should probably play around as a kemo first, though. Haven’t done that in forever…”
A sigh. “What did I just say about bowing and scraping?”
The vampire who wasn’t a vampire rolled her black eyes and knelt down in front of me. “Miss Ling. You’re a good girl, despite what Malcanthet and hers have tried to do to you. Aka Manah and his daevas will be good for you, help you re-acclimate to society.”
I had no idea what the word ‘re-acclimate’ meant, but decided to just stay quiet.
“But you need to stay with your matron,” she continued. “Damavand is no place for a child. In time, you can move in here for real. But I think you’ll end up moving away from the daevas entirely.” She finally noticed the blank look on my face and sighed. “The point is, follow your dreams. Don’t feel locked down, all right?”
I nodded, not sure what else to do.
“Good.” She patted me on the head one last time before standing and turning to my matron. “I will speak to the Noble, let him know you took her home. The dress is a gift, but make sure she takes care of it. It should be able to last a year or so.”
My matron nodded once. “Thank you, lady.”
Lily rolled her eyes again, but this time there was a smile on her lips as well.
Behind the Scenes (scene 246)
Flashbacks take forever for me to write. Ling scenes also take forever to write. Ling flashbacks, therefore, always kill me.