FIVE YEARS AGO
“You don’t have to do this,” Aka Manah begged.
“It’s already done,” the doctor said.
“Ling…” the warlord whispered sadly.
I hopped off the chair, then nearly lost my balance as dizziness took me. Laying down drugged on a table for a couple days wasn’t something you could bounce back from in half a second.
Thankfully, the warlord’s wife was there to catch me. She was wearing all black, as she had been for weeks now, and her face was an impassive mask. She helped me to my feet, but didn’t say a single word.
Damavand was dark again.
That had very little to do with the fact that I had removed my nighteyes.
I took a deep breath to regain my composure and overcome the dizziness, then bowed to the warlord. “Thank you, Noble Aka Manah, for the hospitality you have shown me these past several years. I can never properly repay you.”
The vampire closed his black eyes. “It’s… it’s fine, little one. I promise it’s fine.” He managed a weak smile. “You are welcome in my domain whenever you feel the need. Please, come back to visit every once in a while.”
I nodded. “I will, Honored Noble, I will.” I swallowed my anxiety and looked around with newly baseline eyes. Everything was so dark and cold. It had been so long since I had seen true darkness. “…which way is the exit?”
Aka Manah stepped aside. “Over here.”
His wife put her hand on my shoulder and started walking me in that direction without saying a word. I didn’t argue. The faster I got out of this crypt, the better. Luckily I hadn’t been living here, so I didn’t have to go through the extra step of packing up a room.
As we passed through the too-dark hallways, daevas saw us coming. Instead of smiling and waving and saying hello, they all dodged out of our way as fast as their legs would carry them. Doors slammed as quietly as possible, but didn’t stop the whispers from drifting out, rumors and hearsay mixing together into some unidentifiable mush.
We passed one door, cold and silent, still decorated with the stars and glitter Riya and I had managed to find in the basement. No one was hiding behind that door, no light or sound came from behind it.
I would rather have the whispers than the silence.
After what seemed like an eternity and a half, the Noble’s wife walked me out into the night air outside the domain itself, past well-armed guards in sharp suits. There was a sleek black car parked at the curb, waiting for me with its engine on but its lights off.
I bowed to my guide, and she did the same, her face stiff with restraint. Taking another deep breath, I turned to the car, and the driver immediately popped out and opened the door for me. I smiled at him, just a little awkwardly, and slipped inside without a word to anyone.
It was a beautiful interior, with plush fake-leather seats and racks of drinks for the passenger. It was less a glorified taxi and more a short limo, but I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it. I just pulled my legs up to my chest and sat, not even bothering to put my seatbelt on.
If the driver noticed my lack of concern for my own safety, he didn’t mention it. He just piled in behind the wheel and started driving, maybe a little bit slower than what you would normally expect.
The night was dark. For the first time in two years, the night was dark. There was the red glow of nightlights held by baselines—soft enough to not disturb the vampires—but it was still dark in ways that I had almost forgotten. Deep shadows that could hide any monster or ambush, faces with details obscured… the world of vampires was a world without shadows. Now I was stuck in one where everything was shadowed.
By Tezuka’s pen, I should have thought this through.
After what felt like years, we finally reached the orphanage. My matron was outside, wearing skin with a Chinese cast to it. Last I had seen her, she had been white. Irish, to be more specific.
She wrung her hands, trying and failing not to appear nervous as the car slowed to a stop in front of the short apartment block. She couldn’t see inside the car—the windows were tinted—but that didn’t stop her from trying.
I sat there, unmoving.
“Miss,” the driver said quietly after a moment. “You need to get out, miss.”
My throat felt as dry as sandpaper when I spoke.
He sighed. “Your matron is here. I’m not equipped to deal with this. Please, just get out of the car. She’ll make sure everything is all right.” He shifted in his seat. “Well… it will be better, at least.”
I sat for another minute.
“Thank you for the ride,” I said quietly as I opened the door and tumbled out.
My matron was there in a moment, pulling me off the road and onto the sidewalk. She waved briefly, and the car took the hint, driving off slightly faster than was socially acceptable. Neither of us paid any attention.
“Ling, what happened?” she demanded. “Damavand called a few days ago to say you were getting your toys removed, but they didn’t say why.” She knelt before me on the sidewalk, peering into my eyes. “You’re baseline again… outwardly, at least. But why? They didn’t kick you out or something absurd like that, right?”
“I left,” I mumbled.
“Yes, sweetie, I got that.” Her gaze was hard as stone. “Why.”
I couldn’t say it.
If I didn’t say it, then none of this was real. Then it was just a bad dream. I’d wake up tomorrow night to a world without shadows, and all of this would be forgotten. Dismissed and tossed aside as nothing but an echo.
“Ling?” my matron whispered.
She started. “The… warlord’s daughter? But—how? She’s deep in the domain, perfectly safe.” She frowned, not quite looking at me anymore, trying to think. “He babies her too much, if anything. And she has access to some of the best medicine in the city—”
“I killed her.”
A blink. “You what—”
“I wanted to go into the lab but she didn’t want to but I really wanted to and I made her—”
“Hey, shh, none of that.” She pulled me close, burying my face in her chest. It was wet and stuffy and how long had I been crying? “Shh, it’s okay, sweetheart. It’s not your fault, little one. Everyone makes mistakes.”
“But I picked the lock and dragged her over to the cage with the dog and it’s my fault—”
“None of that,” she insisted. “Did Aka Manah say it was your fault?”
“…no.” He hadn’t even gotten mad at me. He had tried to get me to stay.
“Then it’s not your fault. He is the Noble of Damavand, and his word is law. If he says it wasn’t your fault, then it wasn’t your fault.” She pulled away, so that she could look at my face, and wiped away my tears. “It’s as simple as that.”
I sniffed. “…she’s still dead.”
“Yes,” she admitted with a sad smile. “Yes, she is. But that is a tragedy, not a crime. Do you understand the difference?” She scanned my face, trying to pick out every tiny emotion. “This is something horrible, which you must move past. But that is all.”
“But nothing.” She shook her head. “People die every day, little one. You must accept that. You can’t save everyone.”
Slowly, I nodded. She smiled, stood, and took my hand, leading me into the orphanage where I had spent most of my life.
I knew she was right. You can’t save everyone—not even from your own mistakes.
The only thing you can do is save yourself.
Behind the Scenes (scene 253)
I got more attached to Riya than is healthy, considering I knew this was coming the entire time. It’s a problem I have.