Bonus Chapter 8 – The First General

I, Count Jonathan Terrence Bleaksky–and that was Bleak Sky, like the one consistently overhead, not Bleak Skee, like a wintery sport involving poles, snowy hills and a severe lack of self-preservation instinct–consider myself to be a bombastic man, meaning one of great drive, determination, and immense flair for the dramatics of life, in both of my lives.

Yes, both; I certainly consider my two existences to be entirely separate, though it wasn’t as though I am saying I have ever actually died, as that is what the vampirism is intended to prevent in the first place, and those that called my kind undead were, while not wrong, seem to disregard that intention. Regardless, my previous life metaphorically ended as my new one metaphorically started. Metaphorically was not literally–indeed, it leaned more towards the figurative than anything substantial–but digression is required and so, onward this tale shall go. 

I was not born “Jonathan”, but I vastly prefer that name to my original and, as such, my previous one will and shall always be ignored and discarded, much like most of my past. Really, the only truly important things to note were the facts that I was born a human and made a living as an impresario–a manager of talents, yet not one of the stage myself.

Truly, while I adored the stage, loved the dramatics, pined for the stories, I found my calling to be more of one who supported the main actors. I loved to watch, and while performing could be–and certainly often was–quite fun, I preferred to be the man guiding the talent instead of being directed, even if I would participate from time to time. My own autonomy was rather important to me, and I had a strong drive to master my own fate!

Or so I told myself in my younger years.

I did tell myself the same in my middle years as well, told myself many things, but matters changed when one had an interesting encounter. An unexpected one, certainly, for while I was no stranger to the wonders of an opera house and was well aware that those of a most noble persuasion would tend and trend to visit such establishments, I truly did not expect to encounter a vampire, much less one from a Great House, that would deign to seek me out specifically.

Certainly, such a thing was not unheard of in Inrapaba. Many a performer, lovely people as they were, would find themselves holding the attention of a vampiric admirer, one fixated on their beauty and talent and seeking them as a partner for romance. Why, I had heard it said there was one Great House in particular that had a focus on turning such individuals in order to make proper grooms or brides to the noble seeking their love.

I wondered if this would be my chance. While I certainly loved the stage, I knew I couldn’t remain on it forever; such was the fickleness of the audience. 

While I was by no means resentful towards them–the lovely people who so adored my actors and my own performances–I knew I could only satisfy them for so long. Certainly, there were old actors, but the creep of mortality was something few people can ever truly ignore, and with age, the chances for a different flame to burn brighter than yours becomes ever the more likely. 

Further, with age comes the issue of health as the dear White Mother adores the elders, and often presses them ever so slightly too hard into her embrace. The touch of Rot was not something I have ever feared, though that is an absolute lie. No, truth be told, I was always truly, deeply afraid of being ill and infirm. Injured too. I hated the idea of losing my own health, and suddenly, one day, disappearing from that stage I adore to never be seen again, forgotten by a sea of changing faces looking to new stars. The irony of that fear was not lost on me.

I said before, I’ll say again, I was quite happy being supporting, the man in the background, or simply a bit player in the grand scheme of things, but anonymity didn’t settle right with me. I wanted people to know who managed the stage, guided the actors, directed their choices. And it was that drive for recognition that brought the attention of a very charming old woman to my troupe.

Her name was Countess Argelia Ethelinde Bleaksky, and she saw me perform on stage. We were down a man that night, an unfortunate occurrence that honestly was not as rare as I would have liked, and it fell to me in place as an understudy to portray the villain of the play, a bitter viscount seeking to rob his niece of her inheritance. A simple villain who could be altered at whim to suit whichever type of noble or merchant that was least popular in a given area, but one that leant itself well to immense chewing of the scenery, which I admit a certain fondness for.

Regardless, it came as a surprise when she came to speak to me. Certainly, as the manager I had expected her to ask after one of my many fantastic actors, but instead, she chose me. For a moment, it felt as if my ended as she pointed directly at me at our curtain call, all the air leaving my lungs in pure shock as I realized the offer placed before me.

However, I would be lying if I said I also wasn’t afraid of the prospect itself. How cowardly of me, afraid of death but also afraid of the option to evade it. 

Despite my skill as an actor, my apprehension must have been apparent to the Countess; as such, it was quite surprising to see a gentle smile spread across her face. She had quite a kind face, one clear of all lines of age yet feeling mature in its own way, somewhat round and prone to wide smiles. She was pale, of course, as all vampires inevitably are–even those of an initially dark skin tone would often turn more ashy and some even developed vitiligo–and her hair was a mix of black and white, typically falling around her head in curled ringlets that twisted downward in a manner similar to tornadoes, though she was prone to binding it up into a bun when she had more physical activities to attend to.

Altogether, my second impression of her, when she came to speak with me at the backstage, was that she seemed rather soft. She later refuted that notion when I saw her interact with someone she distasted, but in that initial moment, she was shorter than me, chubbier than me, and wearing a rather cozy-looking maroon gown, along with a little monocle over one of her red eyes. She honestly seemed shockingly unthreatening, particularly compared to how imposing she had seemed up in the audience.

Not that I would ever tell such a thing to her, no, it would be far too rude of me to say a thing like that, even if she did become my mother and ask me to be honest with her. Such things mattered, but so did avoiding offense.

And soon, with one last play performed with my troupe, to whom I bid a fond farewell, I left the stage, a necessary vacation as I had to grow accustomed to the changes I would face. 

Arriving at her manor, I was greeted by the rather splendid sight of her grand home, a peerless abode of modern wood and glass built amidst blackened stone and tall towers, as well as the man who would soon become my brother, an irritated look upon his face at mother bringing in “another stray”. Despite mother’s claims that dear Percival, a gaunt strigoi of a sour and dour disposition, meant well in spite of how he acted, I couldn’t help but feel that my relationship with him would be shaky at best upon our first meeting, where he quite literally looked down his nose at me while adjusting his glasses. My black-haired and blue-skinned elder brother-to-be seemed quite unimpressed with my bearing, but that did not matter to my mother-to-be, who proceeded with a tender care.

“I hope that didn’t hurt deary,” Argelia said after having bitten me, a concerned look on her face as she looked me over. 

“Yes, it just stings…” Shifting slightly, I couldn’t help but wince as I felt my entire body begin to change. “I must admit I didn’t think I would feel hunger pangs this fast.” 

“And that’s why I brought these.” Pulling out a small pouch, Argelia handed it to me. Opening it, I found several small balls inside. I picked one out, and squeezed it, examining the strange little ball of…something strangely semi-solid. “It’s a treat for vampires like us. It’ll help keep you satisfied until you’re ready to drink actual blood.”

“Oh, my thanks.” I examined it once more, then popped the gummy into my waiting maw. It burst with a sweet flavor much akin to a purple grape, and I found a few more in my mouth before I even realized I was tossing them in.

“Heh, you have quite the appetite. That’s a good sign.”

“Are there signs I should be-mm-searching for?”

“No, just little things that will show you’ve transformed properly. Oh, but you might have to be a bit careful, you’re definitely going to be stronger than before, so you might break a thing or two.” 

“Ah.” I suddenly became acutely aware of how expensive everything looked. 

“Don’t worry deary, accidents happen. Now, let’s show you the household. I have quite the space here, and it really is too sad not to share it with others. Oh, and, of course, you’ll need to meet the staff.”

“Of course. It would be rude to not know everyone’s name.” It was with immense nervousness that I followed her out, aching with a desire for more treats as I realized I had eaten all of them already.

It was certainly interesting seeing the “staff”, as it were. As someone who had grown accustomed to seeing the types of servants nobles kept around, I knew those sorts of people usually appeared to be well-groomed professionals, but for Argelia, it was as if she hired any folk she could find from nearby towns. They were certainly hard working, but “skilled” wasn’t exactly what I would call them. 

Young adults worked together to clean a floor that should only take one servant, the cooks chatting as though they were preparing a family dinner rather than a meal for their lord; it was shockingly casual, and surprisingly cozy. Likely because there really were entire families living in the manor, children included.

“Oh pish posh, I have a large house, I may as well use the space properly instead of leaving room after empty room collecting dust,” Argelia explained after I inquired on the matter, curious as to why a countess would share her home with so many others not of her family.

It became clear quite quickly that Argelia was not the typical vampiric noble, more inclined to charity and good humor than noble bearing and cold demeanor. When I pointed out such a thing to her at a tea time in her gardens, she laughed.

“Yes, I suppose that is true. Though most of the nobles I’m sure you’ve seen really aren’t a good indicator of our people as a whole. The lower nobles, and I don’t mean that as a jibe against them, though the poor dears really could do to relax sometimes, tend to act in this sort of uniform ‘nobility’, insistent on upholding their standards and bearings in little games of etiquette, but the higher nobles, myself included, tend to be more eccentric~ Though, some less pleasantly so.”

She sighed and took a sip of bloodleaf tea before smiling again. “You’ll be meeting a number of them soon enough. Thankfully, for your sake, since it’s a ball, they’ll all have to be on their best behavior.”

“Ah…wait, a ball? You’re taking me to one?” 

“Well of course! Much like the debut balls that other societies perform, I have to show off my lovely new son to everyone~.” Blushing a bit, I couldn’t help but feel a slight embarrassment at her words. It was strange. I had gotten used to the praises from the audience, but such a simple phrase from her was enough to fluster me.

Despite not fitting the common image of one, the more time I spent around her the more I was sure that Argelia was like the hero of a play. Kind, generous, charismatic. Even Percy, for as taciturn as he may be, seemed to respect her to some degree. All of it just made me want to support her even more.

Which, of course, meant being at my utmost at my first gala! Which further meant I had to keep my grandiose self to a minimum sadly, at the time. And I also had to practice my movements at every opportunity I had in order to avoid breaking anything with my new strength; thankfully, Argelia didn’t mind what I did break as I practiced.

And when the time came, I made sure I was dressed in my finest clothes, groomed to perfection, and holding a dashing smile at the ready. 

“Introducing the newly turned son of Countess Argelia Ethelinde Bleaksky, Johnathan Terrence Bleaksky!” Walking up to the balcony looking down upon the gala, I smiled, back straight, none of the nervousness I was feeling showing through as I played an ideal noble. It was a role I was less accustomed to, but one I was willing to give my all to perform as the viscounts applauded my entrance. 

“The nobility of Inrapaba is really only split into two groups,” Argelia explained later, swirling a wine glass filled with richly scented blood as she stood beside the large windows displaying the pitch-black night outside, “The lower and the higher. Where you may see all manners of nobility in other nations, such as the proud Jarls of Olafiba or the barons and dukes of the Light Lands, the nobles of Inrapaba are divided between the Viscounts and the Counts, the viscounts being the lower nobles and the counts being the higher.”

“My, you really do tend to repeat yourself dear Argelia~” one of her friends–a Madeleine Olivier Flayskin–teased, grinning behind her own wineglass.

“Oh pish, I simply want to convey my message properly. One needs to know the standing of certain people in order to know the proper etiquette with which to interact with them. Gods know these poor stuffshirts can’t live without their dear ‘manners’.”

Flayskin giggled again, beaming cheerily. Despite her somewhat morbid surname, Countess Madeleine was a cheery woman, blonde of hair and pale of complexion, her airy lightness contrasting with the deep reds and almost fleshy pinks of her shoulder-bearing ball gown. “Careful now~ You know those ‘dears’ have quite the ears~ Oh! Speaking of, Sir Terrence, do you know of the differences between vampiric races?”

“Yes, my lady,” I replied, back straight, shoulders squared, and confidence assured, “The moroi are vampires born from humans, while the strigoi are vampires born from elves or orcs. The latter are often referred to as ‘blueskins’ due to their skin typically taking on a bluish coloration. There are also said to be vampiric dwarves known as the dozloi, though they are rare in the Dark Lands, and some other subspecies. Notably, there are many races who cannot be transformed into vampires through conventional methods, due to them possessing a nature that cannot ‘mesh’ with our own, such as therianthropes and drakes.”

“Ooo, quite comprehensive~! Aw, you’ve taught such a good boy here, Argelia~!” Countess Madeleine giggled again and patted me on the head, which I bore with a stoic dignity. Such was the protocol when a younger vampire interacted with a superior. It was the curse of youth to be regarded as cute and pettable. “What else have you learned~?”

“Madeleine, dear, please don’t harass Jonathan all night,” Argelia requested, prompting a pout from the countess.

“Aw, you say that as if I’m a bother! I’m just expressing an interest in your new kin~ You’ve only ever turned one child before him, and you found that one at death’s door.”

It wouldn’t be polite for me to gasp aloud or make some other suitably dramatic gesture of surprise, so I was forced to simply raise an eyebrow in an expression of curiosity.

“Oh, did you not tell him Argelia?” 

“It’s such a dreadful story that I saw little reason to tell him.”

“Well in that case, allow me~.” Earning a huff and a role of Argelia’s eyes as she took a drink from her glass. “Now then, as you know, Argelia here can’t resist helping anyone who needs help.” 

“You say that as if it’s a bad thing,” interjected said vampire. 

“Not necessarily a bad thing, merely one that leads you to do eccentric things, Argelia~.”

“Hmph. You know, that sounds far less complimentary when I know you’ve referred to Bonabranch as ‘eccentric’, dear.”

“I’ve also referred to him as an insane bastard deserving of execution while the same most certainly cannot be said of you. Levels and layers, and you’re also distracting from the story of your caring rescue of a poor young trader who found himself so far in over his head.”

Argelia huffed and took another sip of her drink as Countess Madeleine giggled and continued, “Now, dear Percival Horace, at the time known as Purser Hoggard, was a simple swamp elf trader, of noble disposition, if not status, and virtuous demeanor, who so cruelly found himself betrayed and cut down by his own closest partners in business! Carved open from gut to gullet, it was a true miracle that he managed to pull himself into the path of our beloved Argelia, who took a kindness on the poor, unfortunate trader, who only delved into the business to save his sick…what relative was it? Nephew? Niece? Mother is a bit too cliche-”

“Alright now hush dear.” Argelia rolled her eyes, then graced us with an amused smile. “To be entirely honest, Percy was a smuggler, not a trader. He brought in illegal stimulants and narcotics up the rivers, and he wasn’t betrayed. He was actually attacked by rivals of his. Some anurans and drakes, I believe. He was quite grievously injured when I found him though. I’d gone for a walk along the riverbank and found him climbing up the river’s edge, dragging himself by his fingers.

“I admit, I admired his drive to live there, and there was little chance anyone capable of healing him through more conventional means could arrive quickly enough to help him, so I embraced my first child. While he can be a bit standoffish, he’s not a bad person, really.”

“Sure, sure, though I will note, dear Argelia, that you did save him out of necessity.” Countess Madeleine smirked and patted my shoulder. “That makes Johnathan here the first one you chose-”

“Madeleine.” Then the hand at my shoulder reflexively tightened as I saw what an angry Argelia looked like for the first time. Her crimson eyes shone with an eerie light and a cold wind, intangible yet clearly present, sent shivers up my spine. “Do take that back, if you would.”

The countess stared for a moment, her smile still frozen on her face, before she giggled, visibly relaxing. “Ah, certainly~! Sorry for that, I meant it as a joke.”

“I do understand that, and yet I took immense offense, so please, do not do that again.”

“Certainly, certainly, never again.” And thus the topic of conversation shifted, turning away from the Bleaksky family that I now found myself a part of towards other matters within my newfound community. However, as they spoke, I couldn’t help but look over at Percival, as the new information I had learned turned my eyes in his direction, where he stood with his own vampiric clique, of whom I would soon come to learn were associates of a sort that he met some time after turning. 

There was a third “rank” of vampiric nobility that was only rarely brought up, if just because it was not an official rank at all. No, it was simply the concept of an “elder”. An Elder Vampire was one that had lived a great deal longer than average, and thus maintained the sort of influence only a long-lived immortal could wield. Age was often held as an indicator of wisdom and authority, and vampires were no exception to this trend. As such, it was no surprise to most that a relatively young vampire would wind up seeking such wisdom, even if they came from different dynasties.

Certainly, there were those among the vampiric families who absolutely loathed one another and thus would be unacceptable to approach. If Argelia had ever learned Percival happened to have a friendship with one Count Benedict Bonabranch, for instance, perhaps things would have turned out differently. She didn’t though, and they didn’t.

That occurred later though, so some lead up would be more proper to elaborate on. I did go to a great many social gatherings in my time with Argelia, after all, and I discovered a number of interesting facts and trivia of the society I was now a part of, particularly as I was allowed, by social rules, to establish my own personality far more openly. Nobility carried with it a judgmental self-righteousness, and thus I had a “trial period”, as it were, where those of society needed to see me at my most inoffensive before I could actually act like my proper self.

It was limiting, yes, but also fascinating, acting in such a new way and role. But I digress.

Vampires formed dynasties–largely because werewolves called their families clans and some elder quite some time ago though it reprehensible to share any descriptors with our chief rivals in politics and conquest–and those dynasties formed alliances, often through marriage. Thus factions were made, and cliques were formed. Argelia’s clique was regarded as a more progressive one, for instance, though attitudes among those I met could vary and even the ones who advocated for pursuing peaceful integration with the other Dark Land powers tended to think my adoptive mother was generous to a fault, while those Percival interacted with trended more towards the traditionalist.

So they weren’t quite baby-eaters, though they were the type to say humans were only good for sex and dinner, often in that order; of course, I am being somewhat exaggerated in my recollection here. Certainly, every last entity Percival called a friend was a vile piece of garbage deserving of a swift stomping out, but they were far more subtle about it than one would think. I even recall thinking Count Everett Blueford was quite the gentleman when he bowed deep and kissed my mother’s hand in greeting. Then I overheard him bragging about how fantastic her chest looked from that angle and the impression soured like overripe fruit.

Even so, while I may not have liked them, I wasn’t certain that they were bad people until it was much too late. How young and foolish I was then. I suppose if I could change any one thing from that night, I would have wished to be by her side when it happened. Maybe I could have helped. Maybe it would never have happened. So many maybes.

I didn’t expect any danger that night. I had been a part of the Bleaksky family for twenty-seven years by that point. Certainly, there had been issues, ranging from rising Demon Lords to slight conflicts between noble houses. Nothing too major though, and nothing to make me think we needed to worry. The last real successful Demon Lord, at the time, had been Orast, and he’d died back in the 60s. It was now 2972, and I myself had turned sixty only recently. It was part of why we were even at the Hollow Moon Manor, home to the Moonsoul Dynasty.

The Moonsouls were considered a sort of outlier from the typical vampiric factions; rather than being progressive or traditionalist, they were eccentric. In essence, their ideals were so far removed from any traditional political structure that everyone was a little confused on how to deal with them and just gently pushed them to the side when they tried to interject on how the Dark Lands needed to focus on seizing their destiny and forming colonies on the moon. 

As descendants of Torva the Lunatic and his utterly bizarre cult, they worshipped a non-existent moon god and held the belief that vampires were said god’s children and descendants, and the natural destiny of our entire race was to eventually return “home” and ascend to become gods ourselves. Torva, back in his day, had chosen to seize his destiny by trying to crash the moon into Estus. Suffice to say, everyone thinks they’re weirdos, but we can also all agree that the lunar aesthetic of their manor is quite lovely, and most of the Moonsouls tend to be quite friendly people.

It was the head of their house, Count Declan Ambrose Moonsoul, who invited us all to the gala that night. As an outlier who wasn’t particularly hated by anyone, he had a surprising amount of genial relationships and swayed with a number of dynasties, so there were quite a few people from normally separate cliques present.

“Oh gods it’s Bonabranch,” Argelia muttered the instant she saw the arrogant patriarch of the Bonabranch Family, Count Benjamin Bentley Bonabranch, “Don’t look at him, don’t acknowledge him, we are a family of equal ranking and if we approach him the damned bastard will hold it over us for a century.”

“Aren’t you being a tad too hostile, mother?” Percival inquired as he adjusted his glasses; a rather constant tic of his, “He is the head of a major family.”

“On the southwest. We are a major central family. We do not neighbor, we don’t need to interact with him and I doubt he’ll be interacting with us. If he tries to approach us, it will be through one of his sons, and gods know he has too many of those…”

“Is there an indicator for which ones belong to him?” I asked in turn, glancing about the room. Some nobles did have colors they liked to display, such as the Moonsoul’s emphasis on royal blues and the Latesun’s fondness for warm oranges. And the Flayskin’s enjoyment of pink. And the Opalcreek’s propensity for white, and really, even the Bleaksky’s have something of a preference towards maroon, though I digress.

“Not especially. They just tend to wear black and brown. Bonabranch has a thing about looking ‘practical’.” The man himself did tend to dress as such, in a rather boring manner. While most wore more modern finery, the pale, black-haired moroi with a receding hairline and clean-shaven face, wore a thick, brown coat, lined with black fur, over black boots and dark brown pants, and as I looked, I did notice a number of men who looked like younger versions of him wearing similar clothes.

“Huh. Do they coordinate those outfits?”

“And their looks and hairstyles, from what I know. Bonabranch is obsessive about this sort of thing, the ass.”

“Really mother, do try to be more polite,” Percival reminded, sighing.

“Yes yes, I’ll be polite, away from him.” She sighed too, though for an obviously different reason, and idly fingered the red pearl necklace I had gotten her for her last birthday. It warmed my heart to see her wear it. It hurts my heart to think of it now.

The gala was fun. That was the issue. I was having genuine fun, because I was allowed to be myself. To act and overact, to greet the people I’d become friends with. The Bleaksky Family was well-established, if small, and that meant my mother had a number of friends who were quite interested in her youngest son. It was funny; I had turned sixty, but a number of ladies and gentlemen still regarded me as though I was still a young man, finding my place in the world. In many a sense, I was, and many of them were too.

Infuria and Melodia Taibi were two such people, as were Anna Coldteeth and Milo Latesun. Their families associated with my family, thus I associated with them, though there were plenty of other people I certainly considered friends at these sorts of galas. Not my brother’s sort, the Opalcreeks and the Bluefords, but sorts of my own. People who liked to laugh and didn’t think their blood made them like gods. People who knew they were people. 

Albeit functionally immortal people, but still.

So, it was to no surprise that when Argelia wished to go home, I requested to stay, even if just for a few hours. 

“Shouldn’t you go home with Mother?” Percival asked as Argelia prepared to leave. “After all, someone as young as you shouldn’t stay up so late.” He said that without a hint of irony and more than a little condescension, as though I really was a child. He did that often.

“Nonsense, Percival. If Jonathan wants to stay, he can stay,” Argelia replied, “He knows how to stay safe. And besides, if he needs help, you’re here.” 

“Hmph. Very well.” 

It didn’t quite register to me why he would be disappointed at my staying. I didn’t even think of it at the moment, beyond the idle thought he might be embarrassed of his younger brother being around his friends. 

I said goodbye to Argelia. I’m glad I did. I gave her a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek, a showing of fondness I always made sure to express. She wished me a good night and hoped I had fun with my friends, and I thanked her and wished her a safe trip back.

And she died.

Percival was informed first. He made a scene of it. Our mother had died in a landslide. The valleys around Hollow Moon were meant to be safe, but there were earthshakers in the cliffs, craggy quadrupedal monsters, leathery and somewhere between mammalian and reptilian. They were more a danger in mountainous areas, or low valleys. It was supposed to be safe, but they missed the monsters. Monsters cropped up so easily. It was hard to put them all down.

Such a tragic loss of life.

I don’t remember most of the month after that.

I did, but I didn’t. All the mourning, the condolences. I had lost another mother and this time I wasn’t a child, but I still felt like it. That low ache in my heart wasn’t going away, no matter the well-wishes. People kept coming by, telling me how kind she was, how generous, as though I didn’t know.

They didn’t find a body. The carriage was crushed. She was more than likely dust in the wind. It was all lost. 

A month passed and Percival made changes. No more families living in our estate. They were leeches, he said, taking advantage of our poor, naive mother. She’d needed protecting, can’t you see that, and these people did nothing to help her. Only took.

I wasn’t allowed to give them money or help them find somewhere new to live. I couldn’t fall into the same traps. I should have reacted more strongly, but at the time, there was still this sense of disbelief and deep sorrow, combined with the simple knowledge that I couldn’t act against the head of my household. It moved too fast for me. He was being kind, he said, in letting me still live in the manor.

He was arrogant.

I saw him holding the necklace one night. It was in his office, and he was examining it by candlelight. It was shockingly intact. No pearl lost, none crushed. As though it was lifted from her throat after she was killed. Taken with care.

They say grief has stages. Grief at the loss of a loved one certainly did, and my stages went quick before. Not quite, no, that’s a lie. I was stuck in sorrow. I was miserable. My second mother, my best friend, had died in some horrible tragedy no one could have ever expected.

But someone did. And the stages rolled back. Act Four slipped into Act One, and I tried to deny the sight. But I had my doubts. And the Third Act crept up in a strange way as I tried to make sense of it all and started looking in the right places. And I started looking into the right people.

And then fucking Bonabranch entered my household to express his condolences and speak with my brother and it all clicked into place as pieces in a puzzle and I was FURIOUS.

I found the families my brother threw out. I gave them my own money, and asked them about my brother’s friends. I asked around, and acted. All the while, I acted as the foolish younger brother, devastated by our mother’s death, and looking for solace in festivities and parties. Who kept going to friends’ houses, and even hosted galas at the manor. Who was ever so helpful in giving his brother a cover of a sort as he entertained guests and kept the Bleaksky reputation bolstered as Percival showed increasingly less subtlety in his dealings.

I was genuinely shocked to see how much money he had been skimming from our family to finance his own lifestyle. My brother had a thing for gambling, it seemed, along with many other vices. My mother allowed it, because for all his self-importance, he was barely a drop in her fortunes. She was generous, but she wasn’t stupid.

With her death though, he began spending more actively, surrounding himself with a cadre of lesser nobles who acted on his behalf. Men looking to finance their own ventures, women who lavished him with attentions, people who spoke about great expeditions or deep mines, and whatever else that could catch his attention and grant him that all important influence.

What was he influencing? Whose favor was he courting? The elders, of course. The traditionalists, who made so many visits to my house, claiming to have struck up a friendship with the Bleakskys, all because of Percival and his charisma.

I had to put up with it though. I had ideas in place, but not the evidence needed. The Moonsouls were less neutral than they appeared, I was sure. The Bonabranches, or more specifically Benjamin himself, was deeply involved in some greater scheme to earn the loyalties of the greater noble families. The Bluefords and Opalcreeks, I already knew were involved with my brother, but I kept an eye on those coming and going, who my brother sent letters to and which territories he visited.

Catherine Redtear, daughter of Alastor Redtear, visited our manor many times, as did Reuben Blackmire. I was somewhat surprised to find Percival was even in contact with the Lothurst Family, the “bride-makers”. That raised questions, not least because my brother didn’t seem the type to enjoy being “tied down”, as he called it.

New servants were brought in during this time, very shady men who seemed intent on reporting my activities to my brother. He wanted me to stay at the manor more often, citing brotherly concern. I knew he was checking who I kept in contact with, just as I did him. He genuinely seemed to think I was an idiot.

Friendships didn’t end, so much as I requested my friends keep their distance for a time as Percival attempted to influence me. It seemed he thought of me as little more than Argelia’s pet, a silly entertainer she kept around to make herself happy, and thus, I could be steered wherever he wanted.

My brother was a fucking idiot.

I was careful though. For sixteen long years, I was very careful in keeping my disgust hidden and my investigations quiet. I needed something to tear him down legitimately. I needed to work within the systems in place. I was certain there would be some way out, so long as I worked at it. No matter how demeaning my circumstances or how false my smile.

It was a very false smile I wore one cold Autumn morning as I greeted a young noblewoman who came to our estate. Not a vampire noble though, a human. Admittedly quite tall though, actually at eye-level with me. “Well hello there! You must be one of my brother’s friends, come in, come in.”

“Hello sir,” she replied, smiling back as she walked in and took a look around. She was wearing a dark coat over a black dress, along with a black hat with a veil on it. Odd choice of clothing, unless she was mourning someone. “I must say, you have quite the nice house here.”

“Well, as I said, it’s more my brother’s house. Ah, but where are my manners? Jonathan Bleaksky.” I kept the smile as I inclined my head. She wasn’t the type of noble I’d bow to, after all.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Jonathan Bleaksky. I am Lady Claire Valondrac.” She curtsied, observing her own manners well, at the very least. Most of my brother’s pawns were quite dismissive of me. The name Valondrac was new to me though. 

I thought back, trying to think if I’d heard it before as I gestured towards the stairs. “A pleasure in turn! Now, if you would? I’m sure you’re a very busy young woman, and I’m certain Percival would want to meet with you.”

“Oh, certainly. I am bearing some bad news, after all.”

“Oh? Well that’s awfully unfortunate. What sort of bad news?” For the briefest moment, I considered asking her to leave. Percival wasn’t violent with me, if just because he took more pleasure in being snide and condescending, but I’d heard some bad shouting at times and there were more than a few times I found myself consoling a crying and bruised “friend” of his.

“The tragic type. My dear husband died.” She didn’t sound upset in the slightest.

“Ah, my condolences. I’m sure the world is worse for Lord Valondrac’s passing.”

“Oh, no, Valondrac is my maiden name. My husband was Sir Dennis Claimond.”

“Oh.” I did remember that name. He was among the mining “barons” my brother courted. A rather pale old man who always gave me a creepy feeling. A very old man. Older than I was at the time, and married to a very young looking woman. “…How old did you say you were?”

“I didn’t, but I’m sixteen.”

I think my smile twitched, because she actually giggled then. “…I see. Well. Shall we go see my brother now?”

“Certainly. I haven’t seen him since my wedding, about six years ago.” 

My smile outright dropped then. It was the first time in sixteen years that I actually broke character. “He did what.”

I didn’t expect the smile she gave me. It wasn’t amused or mocking. It was surprisingly kind. “You had no idea, huh?”

“…Percival doesn’t tell me everything. Has he done this to anyone else?”

“What makes you think your brother was that involved?”

I blinked. “…What do you mean?”

“All I said was that he went to my wedding. Do you think he had a deeper influence in my parents deciding to marry their spare daughter off to a rich pedophile willing to pay a high bride price?”

“…Claimond was a ‘close friend’ of Percival’s. Is your parents’ land in Blekhon County?”

“Indeed it is. I don’t think they’d need much to be convinced though. They’re both shit at being parents.”

“He still probably helped it along. He could’ve put a stop to it if he cared to.”

She still smiled. It was natural, not fixed in place. Somehow, it felt stranger than if she had been forcing it. “He could’ve, yes. Thanks for confirming that. And I’ve checked. It hasn’t happened to anyone else, yet.”

“It won’t happen again.”

She nodded. “I know it won’t.”

Then she walked past me, heading up the stairs with a shocking confidence in her step. I stared for a moment, genuinely caught off guard, until she stopped at the top and looked back at me.

“So hey, I don’t actually know where his office is? So if you could get back to guiding me…”

“Oh. Right.”

I did take a moment to call for a servant though, one of the shifty men who gave Lady Valondrac a look askance as she cheerily waved back. I needed to make sure Percival was actually in his office instead of carousing, after all, so I showed Lady Valondrac the manor grounds in the meantime. 

“Your brother hung up paintings of himself?”

“Yes. To liven up the decor.”

“Liven it up? He strangled it in its crib.”

I was starting to like Lady Valondrac.

Soon enough, we went to the office, where Percival sat and faked working, scritching at blank papers with a quill as though he were actually doing something important and we were wasting his time just by being there. He was properly dressed, thankfully, in a black vest and white undershirt, and his then long hair was tied back in a ponytail.

“Come in,” he ordered, even as we both stood in front of his desk. He looked up, then frowned, no hint of recognition in his eyes as he stared at Claire. “I don’t know you. Why are you here to see me?”

“I am Lady Claire Valondrac, Count Bleaksky,” she replied, curtsying again, “My husband was the late Dennis Claimond, my lord. You came to our wedding.”

“Claimond’s dead? What?” He scowled, actually pulling a paper with real writing on it out from his desk. “The stupid sickly bastard bit it before the land deal could go through?! Damn it–Did you bring his documentation?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“What? Why not?” he demanded, scowling at her, “You realize those mining rights would’ve given me access–Jonathan, you’re still here. Why?”

I shrugged. “The young lady is in mourning, Percival. I would hate to leave someone in such deep sadness alone, bereft and out in the cold.”

“We’re in the manor, it’s not cold in here, and don’t take that tone with me. This isn’t a ball, you’re not putting on a performance, and I have no need of you.”

“I know you don’t. I’m here for the young miss here.”

“And I’m telling you–No, never mind, you’re not even worth the effort.” He was in a foul mood that day, and he turned his scowl back to Claire. “So Claimond’s dead then. Does that make you the inheritor of his lands? Or do you have an heir already?”

“She’s sixteen,” I cut in, not bothering to smile for once.

That earned a raised eyebrow. “And? Age is a number. What matters is ability.” He furrowed his brow. “Are you glaring at me?”

“Count Percival,” Claire interrupted, smiling, “I charge that you have failed in your capacity as liege lord of Blekhon County.”

“…Excuse you?”

“You have openly acknowledged your role in facilitating the illegal marriage of a minor to an adult, as per the laws set regarding the age of adulthood established in 2673 by the thirteen noble families of Inrapaba under the authority of Demon Lord Torva and ratified by the Churches of Plague, Blood, Thirst, and Debt. These laws, which establish the acceptable marriageable age as nineteen for humans, along with several other codifications of what was generally considered acceptable laws at the time such as standardized limits regarding blood price and squatter rights, are still upheld to this day by Inrapaba as a whole. And you did violate them.”

Percival blinked. He looked at me. I had no sympathy. He looked back at Claire. “…What in the world are you-”

“Note that these laws are enforced by the four churches, and a formal complaint has already been issued to the Plague Church, the Blood Church, the Dry Church, and-”

He stood, slamming his hands on the desk. “Would you shut up!? What kind of arrogant bitch walks into a man’s office and starts accusing him of violating some, some dusty laws no one even thinks of-”

“One who has cause, Count Percival. One who would also like to note that the Redsky family, the predecessors to your Bleaksky family, as well as the Redtear family, were among the signatories of this document.” Her grin went wide, and for the first time, I saw a shine of genuine, victorious malice in those eyes. “Which means you’ve betrayed a law signed in blood by your blood.”

“What-What in the world-”

“Therefore, Count Percival, I do hereby challenge you to a duel. Do you accept?”

“A duel. You’re challenging me-Are you insane!?”

“I will count that as your first refusal. Do you accept my challenge, Count Percival?”

“Of course I don’t! Jonathan, take this mad bitch out of my office at once!”

“Second refusal. Do you, Count Percival, accept my challenge for a duel, offered as a direct result of your offenses carried out against me?”

“I SAID NO! NOW-”

Claire’s hand moved up, and there was a hole in Percival’s chest. A burst of white fire erupted from her open palm and seared straight through him, the chair behind him, and the wall behind it.

He stared, his mouth moving soundlessly, before his hand slipped on his desk and he crashed to the floor, gaping uselessly at the ceiling.

“…You killed him,” I noted.

“Yup. You did hear him refuse the challenge three times, which makes you my witness. He violated the laws, refused the way out, and now I’m pretty sure that makes all his lands and titles forfeit to…well, me.”

“Interesting. He’s dead. You just killed him. Right?”

She blinked, glancing at me. “Uh, yeah? Definitely dead. I mean, I guess he’s still kinda-”

“His body is twitching. Those are death throes. You, Claire Valondrac, killed Percival Horace. All that is is a corpse. A twitching corpse.”

“…”

“Just so everything is clear. You killed him. That’s just the body.”

“Yeah. I killed him.”

I nodded. Then I walked over to Percival’s body. There was still air coming from it as its clearly dead hands almost looked like they were gripping at the hole in its chest. The eyes were wide, and it almost looked like it was looking at me in desperation. But that couldn’t be, because it was dead.

Therefore, it was a corpse my foot stomped on. “YOU EVIL BASTARD!” His glasses crunched under my boot. “ARGELIA WAS YOUR FUCKING MOTHER!” His nose broke. “SHE TOOK YOU IN WHEN YOU WERE DYING! SHE CARED FOR YOU! SHE LOVED YOU LIKE YOU WERE A SON INSTEAD OF THE MISERABLE GARBAGE YOU ALWAYS WERE! AND YOU TAKE ALL THAT AND SPIT ON IT!? YOU THROW AWAY THE PEOPLE SHE LOVED!? YOU DARE ACT LIKE YOU EVEN CARED IN THE SLIGHTEST FOR HER?! YOU CALLOUS-” Stomp. “-VICIOUS-” Crack. “-MISERABLE-” Crunch. “SACK OF SHIT!” Squelch.

I took a very deep breath, adjusted my jacket, and pulled my foot free. I wiped it on the carpet he’d bought, then grinned at Claire, who seemed curious. “That was very cathartic.”

“Yeah, I can tell. You good?”

“Oh, I’m wonderful.” I smiled, then bowed deep to my lady. “Thank you, Countess Valondrac.”

Now, while I do wish I could simply end our tale there with a “happily ever after”, life tends to be more complicated and, well, my young friend did just kill the head of a great clan within his own home.

I snapped my fingers, grinning as I worked through combinations on Percival’s safe. “We should host a gala!”

Claire glanced up from the papers she was reading, the ones Percival kept in his desk. “We should?”

“Yes! To announce your ascendence and start working on alliances!”

“Hm…what if I just turn the countship over to you?”

“No no, don’t do that. Keep it. It’ll act as protection from retaliation. Percival did have some friends, surprising as that might be, and all of them are just as terrible as he was. Well, there are some degrees of variance there, but you get my point.”

“Sure. Is Bonabranch one of them? He’s been writing to him a lot.”

“Yes, and definitely the worst of the bunch. There’s vile, and then there’s scum, and Benjamin there falls straight past both into the ‘sack of shit’ category.”

“Which Percival used to occupy?”

“Precisely.” My grin turned wider as the safe clicked and I pulled it open, finding yet more documents, some jewels, a rather eerie purple mask, and…a pearl necklace. “Hm. So, yes, we’ll need to be on the lookout for him.”

“Should we kill him?”

“Hmm…can you formulate a reason to justify doing so?”

“Hn…give me time, and maybe?”

“Put a pin in it, we can get back to such matters later. The bastard might be too powerful to kill off now, considering his current connections…”

“Right. They’ll be tricky when I’m trying to run things, huh?”

“Yes, they most certainly…” I blinked, then looked to Claire. “Run things?”

“Yup. I’m not stopping here.”

“Huh. Aiming for all of Inrapaba then? Orast gave a good try of that, back in the day-”

“Not just Inrapaba. All of the Dark Lands. Then the Light Lands, and probably the Frost Lands after that, considering how the Light and Cold are sort of allies so taking one will probably provoke the other. Frost Lands definitely need to come second though because the Light Lands are tricky, but more familiar. We’d need to spend time getting maps together, scouting some really cold territory…”

“…And the Sun Lands would come after that?”

“Yup. Unless I manage to find the Dusk Lands first. Those would probably be a good staging point, especially since the Sun Lands are easily the biggest continent on this side of the planet.”

“…On this side.”

“Yup!” She was grinning, her yellow eyes bright as she scanned paper after paper, clearly taking in as much information as she could. “We only really have legends of the other side, stories of the Shattered Lands and the Giant Lands, but hey, uncovering legends is part of the fun. Speaking of, there’s also legends of the Sky Lands, mostly coming from the Light Lands and Frost Lands, but it still bears investigating so we can try to take them too. Same for the Deep Lands, though those mostly come from Sun Land stories.”

“…You read a great deal, huh?”

“That I do! If there’s one thing my parents were good for, it was providing a huge library. Not much else.”

“Hmm. Well, I look forward to seeing you conquer those legends, my lady.” I grinned, then walked over and kneeled in front of her, my hand on my heart as I bowed my head. “And I look forward to helping you achieve your dreams. If you will have me.”

“…” I ignored the slight swallow I heard. Clearly, her throat was dry. “Of course, Jonathan Bleaksky. My first general.”

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