It was Friday, December thirteenth. No… no, that was yesterday. Saturday, Saturday the fourteenth. I needed to remember that. Dates were important. Everything was important, but dates were important. If I lost dates, I was losing everything.
The mentats supplied by my chem glands kept my brain sharp. But if I lost my mind, my brain was just along for the ride. Needed to keep my mind to keep my brain. Keep my mind to keep my brain.
“Please, Honored Noble!” the vampire at the foot of my throne begged, weeping. “Have mercy.”
I sipped from a wine glass of unflavored blood. My father had ordered that no one was allowed to flavor their blood, and Balan had kept that ridiculous edict going for years. That would be fine, but Gazra had used up all my hidden stash of flavoring while I was gone. Bastard. I had ordered him to find more, but no one was selling to us right now. Not even anything as innocent as flavor packets.
The point was, my day was not going well.
I leaned down, shoulders held expertly to keep my cloak on. “Why, exactly, should I grant you mercy, Ningal? Did you give any to your sclavi, or to your husband, for that matter?” I leaned back. “You remind me of Xinivrae.”
The petite woman flinched as if she had been slapped.
Perhaps that was too harsh. I swished the liquid around in my glass. “Ningal, your story is a simple one. You were powerless and oppressed, so when you found power, you oppressed others. I am not interested in some petty vengeance.”
“Yes, Honored Noble.”
“I am interested in loyalty.”
“Honored Noble, I never stopped searching for you—”
“Yes. I know. You sent Inanna and her get after me.”
She flinched again. “Y-yes, but only as a test! I wasn’t sure it was you, and I knew you’d handle them flawlessly—”
Her mouth shut with a click.
I rose from my throne and stepped around her, robe trailing on the ground. “Do you know what my father’s favorite pass time was, Ningal?”
“…yes, Honored Noble,” she said quietly.
I ignored her. “He loved bringing the strong down low. So he would force powerful drugs onto his enemies, turn them into little more than pliable pieces of walking meat, ready to be brainwashed to serve his every whim.”
I placed my free hand on her shoulder. She was shaking like a leaf.
“Perhaps that would be justice. Make you a sclav, give you a taste of what it is like to suffer under another. It is not a lesson someone with your origins would normally need, but you have clearly forgotten where you came from.”
“M-my lady Fierna, please.” She gripped my leg, looking up at me with tears in her eyes. “Please, I’ll do anything. Just—just not that. Don’t make me go back to that.”
I smiled, and patted her gently on the head. “Don’t worry, Ningal. I am not my father. I am not you, either. I know what it is like to be trapped in a haze of drugs and worse. I would not wish that on anyone.”
“T-thank you, Honored Noble! Thank you so, so much!”
“But I still can’t trust you.”
I snapped her neck with one hand.
I stepped over her corpse. “Chamberlain. What was her power?”
The vampire standing next to my throne with a pad tapped through it. “Nothing that we needed. Another variant on consuming blood.”
I nodded. “Ah, yes. She was the one who gained fire powers based on how much blood she drank, correct?”
“Yes, Honored Noble.”
“Ah, well. If we need pyros, we can call the Canians.” I waved my hand. “Ia-o de aici.”
My sclavi moved quickly, picking up the corpse and dragging it down the hall to Ogrémoch’s lair.
The sclavi were still mindless, unfortunately. We had been studying my mother’s notes and her work, but there was only so much we could do when Bel wasn’t willing to help us. We were a culture of hedonistic idiots, not scientists.
Gazra stepped around the corner, holding a small paper bag in his hands. “Is this a bad time?”
I rubbed the spot where my fixer used to be out of habit. “Yes. But I don’t suppose waiting will make it better.” I nodded to my chamberlain, and he left without a word. “Are those my flavors? Where did you get them?”
“A nice old vamp in Little Romania. Didn’t recognize me.”
I frowned. “I was hoping people recognized you, but were still willing to sell.”
He shook his head. “No such luck. Things might go easier if you ask Ishtar for help.”
I rolled my eyes. “Please. I asked her for help in joining Necessarius in the first place.”
“And that worked out fine. She didn’t say a word to anyone for five years. Balan even had her tortured in the early days, but she still kept her mouth shut.”
I briefly considered punishing him for that, but decided against it. Ishtar seemed to have forgiven him, I had to as well. “I’ll consider sending an envoy to talk to her. See if she can get a meeting with… Glasya, perhaps. Or maybe even Aka Manah.”
“She’ll be happier if you go.”
I laughed, and finally grabbed the bag from his hands, carrying it over to a nearby table. “Yes, she would be far happier. But I have work to do here. It is important that the people see that the throne is filled.”
“You’re just using that as an excuse.”
I rolled my eyes as I rooted through the bag. Where were the cinnamon ones? He knew I loved cinnamon. “I could always send you.”
“…she might actually kill me this time.”
“Death by sex isn’t such a bad way to go.”
“It’s less fun than it sounds, trust me.” He shook his head. “Plus I hear her power has something to do with her endurance—during the Rampage, she didn’t sleep at all. She had enough stamina before.”
I sighed. “I’ll talk to Bathym.” He was one of the few people she had never tried to seduce. Some said that it was because he was gay, but she always just considered that a challenge. I had a feeling that they were related in some way and just hadn’t told me.
Gazra poured a glass of his own. He put the powder in first, as always. “Has there been any word from Bel?”
“Just curt refusals. I still don’t know if he’s ignoring me because he doesn’t think I’m Fierna, or if he does, and doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
He swilled his drink around. “I thought it would obviously be the first one. He always liked you. Didn’t your mom introduce you? Without your dad around to screw things up?”
I grunted, and drank my own glass. “Well, yes, but there was that whole thing about helping Malcanthet try to break the Mother Monster.”
Gazra winced. “Yeah, I should have thought of that. But didn’t she forgive you?”
“Of course she did. She forgave everyone involved. Except maybe Lupa herself. But Bel is… well, he’s Bel. He can hold a grudge.”
He gave me an odd look. “You described him as a big old nerd who likes playing with the toy maker.”
“Nerds are good at holding grudges. It’s similar to the problem with Ningal. Somebody’s powerless for most of their lives, then you give them enough to get a little revenge, and…” I shrugged. “You’ve got quite the monster on your hands.”
Gazra snorted and sipped at his drink again. “Bel only looks like a monster.”
“But he’s good at holding grudges.”
“Okay, fine. We’ll deal with Bel later. For now, Dracul will be willing to meet—”
“I think I’d prefer to focus on internal matters right now,” I said quickly. “I’m still worried about Balan’s loyalty, and a lot of the nightstalkers don’t like the sound of my idea to give the sclavi their minds back. Ningal’s death will help, but I need to make some examples—”
“Fi,” he said. “Don’t run from this.”
I closed my eyes. “You know I hate talking to that man. He treats me like a child.”
“Children run from their problems.”
I cracked an eye open. “I ripped my damned fixer right off my arm, don’t say I run from anything.”
“And before that, you were running around anonymously as one of Butler’s random goons.”
I glowered, and sipped my drink. “Why do I keep you around?”
He shrugged, and put his own glass down. “Maybe because you know you need someone to tell you when you’re being stupid.”
“I kill most people who do that.”
He was unconcerned. “Or to remind you about important things outside the culture, like the Dragon being the only person willing to meet with you, or the war that’s coming to the city.”
“Even if Bel started working with us today, we wouldn’t crack my mother’s secrets soon enough to fight. Our sclavi will just be a liability in a large-scale battle.”
“Or maybe I just have really nice hands.” He was behind me now, his nimble fingers working on my shoulder blades through the coat. “I think you have five years of knots here. Doesn’t Necessarius have masseuses?”
I smirked, even as I closed my eyes and let him continue. “Not covered under our insurance.”
“Maybe I should be upset about that on your behalf, but our insurance is still crap.”
“What about South Central Medical?”
“Went bankrupt a couple years ago.”
I groaned as he continued working on my shoulders. “Sânge și umbra… more problems to deal with.”
“You know the Dragon is good about helping with this sort of thing…”
I took a deep, tired breath. “He’s going to make us release the sclavi.”
“You want to release them!”
“Once we’ve weaned them off the physical chems, not just dump them in the street! If we—” He worked a knot in my upper back. “Ooh. If we release them, every single one of them will be snapped up by Butler.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad.”
I turned my head to give him a sidelong look. “For them? No, that would be fine.” I turned away again. “For us? It would be the death of the culture.”
There was a pause, as I leaned on the table while he continued massaging my shoulders.
“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
I turned around, knocking his hands aside. His face betrayed little emotion.
“You never wanted to be Fierna,” he said mildly. “You hate everything your father has built.”
“If Phlegethos falls, the Belians don’t fall with it,” I snapped. “They fracture. There will be a hundred different wanna-be warlords scrambling for control.”
“That didn’t happen when Malcanthet fell. Or any of a dozen kemo warlords I could name. Or, if you want to talk about vampires, when Perrikus died, or Tserron turned angel, or when Rimmon joined with Asmodeus.”
“We’re chem-heads, Gazra. Anybody could make a thousand more of us in a month, if they were following my father’s orders rather than mine. There’s no defense against getting injected with psycho and brainwashed.”
“But they won’t be Belians,” he insisted. “They won’t be your problem.”
“They will be. And they will be.” I shook my head. “Even if they’re not using my mother’s protocols, they’ll still be caused by me, by letting this culture break apart too fast. We can’t let this happen, especially not with war looming.”
Gazra sighed. “I know you’re not going to want to hear this—” He frowned, looking behind me. “Who’s that?”
I turned around. There was someone standing there in a black cloak, their face hidden behind the hood. That itself wasn’t too exceptional—vampires liked black, and they liked hoods. But hiding your face in front of your warlord was hardly polite. “You there. Arăta fața ta.”
They charged without a word.
Gazra and I split apart instantly, him countering the charge head on while I dodged back to grab the St. Euphemia I kept stashed behind my throne. Assassins would be ready for a warlord. It was surprising how few of them considered we might just grab a gun.
When I raised the Necessarian weapon and pointed it at the melee, I took in the situation at a glance. Our opponent was still cloaked, but was dodging Gazra’s superhumanly fast punches with ease. Gazra could go faster if he used his power, but that had tradeoffs.
“Impuscaturi!” I yelled. Gazra dodged back, out of my firing line.
Unfortunately, our assailant understood Romanian, and dashed forward, trying to keep Gazra within melee range so that I couldn’t shoot. Before they closed the distance again, I fired, just a short burst.
The assistant leaped back, dodging the bullets that tore through the table I had been standing next to just a moment ago. Whether through buffs or a power, this person had incredible reflexes, and would have to be trapped before—
My eyes caught something inside the robe. Just briefly, as it fluttered with movement, but I saw it.
White skin. Not Caucasian, white.
“Gazra!” I yelled. “Înger! Ochii tăi!”
With the charade exposed, the angel ripped off his cloak, revealing a muscular white androgynous body, every inch of his skin covered in glowing Hebrew script. I had never seen an angel with so much angelic script on their body, and briefly wondered why.
Briefly, because I was busy dodging behind my throne and squeezing my eyes shut.
Even facing the other way with my hands over closed eyes, the daybreak was so bright it hurt my eyes. It felt like staring directly into the sun, and any other vampire in the room would have been knocked unconscious by the sudden shock. Our sclavi would probably have been killed.
But Gazra wasn’t just any vampire.
The daybreak died as the angel cursed loudly in Hebrew. I got up and fired another short burst, enough to give the assassin pause and Gazra time to catch his breath.
The flow of the battle had changed. Gazra pressed the attack almost desperately, refusing to let the angel get out of reach. He sidestepped my bullets with ease and took advantage of the opening provided to punch the man in the face.
The angel stumbled, and then made the mistake of holding up his palm and shining a light in Gazra’s face. It was so bright that I couldn’t even look at it, and left a bright white afterimage across my vision from just seeing it for a split second.
Gazra didn’t react.
After all, he was blind now.
There was a boom, and I looked up to see that the angel had been thrown across the room, into one of the concrete pillars near the walls. Before he could recover, I unloaded the rest of my St. Euphemia at him. My aim was poor from his light, but it was almost impossible to miss at this range. Dozens of bullets tore into him and the pillar behind him, until he slumped to the ground like a wet rag.
“Gazra, check him.”
“His heart’s not beating,” he said, despite standing about twenty feet away. “Is he glowing?”
“No. Bring your eyes back.”
He grimaced. “It takes about an hour.”
I nodded. “Forgot.” I stepped down off the dais and to the corpse of our assailant, reloading as I went. “Call the nearest nightstalker. Should be Nya, two floors up.” Phlegethos was full of slaves, but still felt empty because there were barely a handful of masters. There were only a thousand true Belian nightstalkers—and most of them didn’t live here. “We’ll need a cleanup crew.”
“Understood.” He took his phone out, then frowned as he tried to remember where all the buttons were.
Smiling, I turned to the corpse. The angelic script on his skin was ruined in a lot of places, but I could still read much of it. It was a poem, which wasn’t unheard of, but it was a much longer one than usual. And I couldn’t find any detail on the angel’s Name or Caste. That was odd.
Wait… there was one line…
“’And with the dawn shall break the darkness…’” I read. “Gazra, what’s that from?”
He thought for a moment. “Mertion. The Platinum Heaven. It’s part of their motto.”
“…Raziel sent this one.”
Gazra frowned. “You sure? Wouldn’t Pistis Sophia be more likely? Raziel wouldn’t send just one assassin.”
“He didn’t. This was a scout.”
Gazra nodded. “He’ll be sending Evansheer next.”
“Probably. Might send a few more probes in first. Hopefully this one didn’t kill too many of our sclavi on his way in.” I leaned forward and sniffed the corpse. “Nothing really worth mentioning. Some angel brand soaps, a little bit of foundry smell…” I blinked, then sniffed closer. “Do you smell that?”
“I killed my sense of smell for a small strength boost. Why?”
I got up, stalked over to the door, and ripped it open.
The sclavi guards stood there, perfectly unharmed, staring at me blankly.
I growled and shut the door again. “The angel was coated in Belian pheromones. The sclavi thought he was an ally.”
“How did they get—”
“Doesn’t matter! What matters is that we need the sclavi sane again yesterday!” I stalked over to my throne and slammed my hand down on the intercom. “Chamberlain! Get me a cleanup crew and a meeting with the Dragon!” I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I turned to Gazra and pointed angrily. “You! You’re going to Ishtar, and she’s going to talk to Bel! We are getting this fixed, right now.”
He swallowed. “It’s—it’s going to take at least a day or two to—”
“Then GET STARTED!”
He ran out of the throne room at top speed.
I sighed, and cast my gaze around the room, looking for the flavor packets he had brought with him.
They had been on the table I had shot up.
Behind the Scenes (scene 271)
Fierna is a whole lot of fun to write. Gazra’s power is complicated, and I didn’t want to do another major info dump right away, but it will become clear later.