, Book 10|
Sept. 4, 2012
Barnes & Noble
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Time isnâ€™t always on a vampireâ€™s sideâ€¦
Iolanthe Tennyson has had a very bad yearâ€”due in part to the very bad men in her life. So, sheâ€™s accepted her cousinâ€™s invitation to spend the summer in Austria indulging in her photography hobby. There, rumors of a haunted forest draw Iolanthe into the dark woodsâ€”and into the eighteenth centuryâ€¦
Nikola Czerny is a cursed man, forced by his half-brothers to live forever as a Dark One. But his miserable existence takes an intriguing turn when a strange, babbling woman is thrown in his path. Iolanthe claims to know Nikolaâ€™s daughterâ€”three hundred years in the future. She also knows what fateâ€”in the form of his murderous half-brothersâ€”has in store for him. If only she knew the consequences of changing the past to save one good, impossibly sexy vampire…
A TALE OF TWO VAMPIRES
A TALE OF TWO VAMPIRES
The Incredible Adventures of Iolanthe Tennyson
â€śNipple tattoo, madame?â€ť
Thatâ€™s how it started, really. It didnâ€™t start at the airport, or at Gretlâ€™s house, or even the few days I spent sightseeing around St. Andras, the little town in Austria where my cousin Gretl lived. No, it started with an inquiry about nipples, and since Iâ€™m determined to set this all down for posterity, I will do my best to record exactly what happened.
Itâ€™s certainly the oddest thing Iâ€™ve ever lived through, but I probably shouldnâ€™t mention that, because according to the creative writing class I took seven years ago, thatâ€™s considered foreshadowing, and itâ€™s a grave sin when trying to explain how events came about. Iâ€™ll stick to just what happened without the benefit of hindsight from here on out, I promise.
Shoot, now Iâ€™ve forgotten where . . . oh, the nipple tattoos.
â€śEr . . .â€ť I blinked in surprise at the polite inquiry made by a spiky-haired woman in a short Lolita skirt and a red and white striped vinyl PVC corset that I was willing to bet made her sweat like crazy. â€śI donâ€™t think . . . on the nipple? That has to be impossible, not to mention beyond painful and into the land of downright insane.â€ť
The woman shrugged, dusting off a black leather barberâ€™s chair with a small cloth. â€śItâ€™s a personal statement that cannot be denied by all who see it. I thought perhaps since Madame was staring at the photos, Madame might be interested in one for herself.â€ť The womanâ€™s light gray eyes cast an assessing glance toward my chest. â€śSince perhaps Madame feels a need to emphasize what she has.â€ť
â€śYes, well, Madame may not have big boobs, but she isnâ€™t into pain at all, especially on her nipples. I wasnâ€™t staring at the photos of your past customers,â€ť I added, avoiding looking at the various shots of newly pierced and tattooed customers that bedecked one wall of the small stall. â€śI was intrigued by that bust you have in the back. Itâ€™s a phrenologistâ€™s head, isnâ€™t it? The kind used in the last century to illustrate the meaning of the bumps on peopleâ€™s heads?â€ť
â€śYes. It belongs to Justinia, my partner. She is in Salzburg tonight, but will return tomorrow if you wish to have her read your head.â€ť
â€śActually, Iâ€™m a photographer.â€ť I held up my small Nikon. â€śAmateur, but I hope to take enough photos while Iâ€™m spending the summer here in Austria to start a new career, and I just love the setting of that phrenologistâ€™s head. Would you mind if I took a few pictures of it?â€ť
She shrugged again, gesturing with a lazy hand at the back of the booth. â€śAs Madame desires.â€ť
â€śAre you guys going to be here for long? The . . . uh . . . sideshow, I mean?â€ť I asked, taking a few preliminary shots before digging out one of my filters to add a more stark look to the image.
â€śThe GothFaire is not a sideshow. It is a traveling fair featuring feats of magic as well as vendors purveying many curiosities and fantastical services that you will not find anywhere else in the world,â€ť the woman answered in a faintly singsong Scandinavian accent. â€śWe are not freaks or desperate attention seekers. We are learned in lore that has long been hidden from common knowledge. We are artisans, dealers in magic, granters of the most unlikely fantasies.â€ť
â€śWow, all that in one little traveling fair,â€ť I murmured as I moved to the side to get another series of shots with a second filter.
â€śWe are unique. Madame will find nothing like us anywhere else in the world. Here are mystics and philosophers, magicians and conjurers of the ethereal.â€ť
I had doubts that a tattoo and piercing artist could be described as ethereal, especially when viewed in relationship to oneâ€™s nipples, but kept that thought to myself, instead murmuring inconsequential comments as I satisfied my need to capture on film the fascinating old bust.
â€śIo? Youâ€™re not thinking of getting something pierced, are you?â€ť
I turned to smile at the middle-aged woman who stood clutching a plastic carrier bag, her eyes wide and wary. â€śNo, this kind lady was letting me photograph her phrenologistâ€™s head.â€ť
The spiky-haired vendor eyed first Gretl, my second cousin, whom Iâ€™d known since I was a small child, then me. â€śI can offer a discounted price for more than one tattoo, if Madameâ€™s friend would care to join her. I am happy to do a tattoo of a more intimate nature, if that is desired. I am told that my work on labias is unparalleled.â€ť
Gretlâ€™s eyes widened even more. I took her by the arm and steered her away from the tattoo artist, saying as we left, â€śI appreciate the offer, but I never jump into something without thinking it through, and that includes tattoos on my naughty parts. Thanks again for letting me have pictures of your partnerâ€™s head.â€ť
â€śDid you know that woman?â€ť Gretl asked as we moved down the center aisle of the fair. She cast a glance over her shoulder, as if she was worried the tattooist was going to chase us down and force us to have vagina tats.
â€śNot at all. But she was interesting, donâ€™t you think? Well, this whole place is interesting. How did you hear about it?â€ť
â€śAn old friend of mine works here. I went to see if she was here, but her booth was closed. The Wiccan lady next to her told me that she was off shopping, though, and she should be back any time. What would you like to do while we wait for her?â€ť Gretl stopped and looked around.
I looked with her. The GothFaire itself consisted of two rows of booths set up in a U shape and a large main tent standing at the bottom. Flyers rippling in the breeze proclaimed that two bands would be playing later in the evening, but a couple of magic shows were scheduled earlier. I glanced at my watch. â€śIâ€™d love to see the magic acts, but those donâ€™t start for an hour. How about we check out the palm reader? Or they have some sort of aura-photography thing. That might be fun. I wonder what sort of camera tricks they use to give people auras? Maybe I could examine their setup and figure it out.â€ť
Gretl laughed and nudged my hand, which was still holding my camera. â€śTrust you to want to see the photography booth.â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s why Iâ€™m here, after all,â€ť I said lightly, gesturing down the length of the fair to where a booth with a giant eyeball was painted on a wooden sign.
â€śYou are here to recover from recent events in your life, nothing more,â€ť Gretl said firmly, stopping me when I began to protest. â€śI would never be able to look myself in the face if I made you work while you were staying with me. You relax. You rest. You get your feet under you again, and then you will return to the States and find yourself a new jobâ€”a better one, one that will not have an employer who tries to grope you.â€ť
â€śI could have handled Barryâ€™s octopus hands if it had just been that, but when he found out I filed a sexual harassment charge, he cooked a few accounts to make it look like I messed up. Lying, despicable, boob-grabbing bastard.â€ť I took a deep breath, reminding myself that I had two and a half long months to get over losing my job and my apartment in the same week. A new home shouldnâ€™t be too hard to find, although this time Iâ€™d make sure the owner of the building didnâ€™t plan on selling it out from underneath all his tenants. â€śAnd photography is relaxing to me, Gretl. This is going to be the best summer Iâ€™ve had since . . . well, since the last time I spent the summer with you.â€ť
She laughed. â€śYou were sixteen then. Much has changed in St. Andras in that time.â€ť
â€śIt still seems to be the same cute little Austrian town to me.â€ť I nodded over her head to where a ruined castle perched on a hill. â€śPicturesque as hell, and so charming I probably wonâ€™t want to go back home at the end of the summer, just like I didnâ€™t when I was sixteen. Have I told you that youâ€™re the best cousin ever for inviting me to stay with you?â€ť
â€śYes, and I have an ulterior motive, you know,â€ť she answered, pushing me along the line of booths. â€śNow that Anna is married, I have the empty tree.â€ť
â€śEmpty nest? Yes, I suppose you do. But itâ€™s not like you donâ€™t have a lot going on in your life, what with your yoga classes and that program for encouraging new artists that you were telling me about on the way here.â€ť
â€śPfft. I am never too busy for family. Oh, look! Imogen is back. That is my old friend. I have known her for, oh, over thirty years. You will like herâ€”she has a way about her that makes everyone very comfortable. Imogen!â€ť
Gretl hurried forward to where a tall, elegant woman with long curly blond hair was arranging bowls of small polished rocks on a black velvet tablecloth. I followed slowly in order to give Gretl time to greet her friend. The woman turned and Gretl checked for a moment.
â€śGretl? Can it be you?â€ť The blonde started toward Gretl with a surprised but welcoming smile.
â€śYes, it is me,â€ť my cousin answered, her voice sounding odd. â€śBut you! You have not changed since the last time I saw you more than twelve years ago. How is this? What magical face cream are you using to look so young?â€ť
Imogen laughed, but the lines around her eyes were stark rather than happy. Her complexion was pale, normal for blondes, but it struck me that she was a little too pale, as if she was under a great strain. â€śIt is nothing but genetics, Iâ€™m afraid. You, however, look as wonderful as you did when we last met! And you are a grandmother! It must be all those yoga classes about which you wrote to me.â€ť
The two ladies hugged, and I was pleased for Gretlâ€™s sake to see genuine affection in her friendâ€™s blue eyes.
â€śI do not look even close to wonderful, but I am content as I am,â€ť Gretl said as she released Imogen. â€śNow I must introduce to you my cousin from the States. Iolanthe, this is Imogen Slovik. Iolanthe is staying with me for the summer.â€ť
We murmured pleasantries and shook hands. â€śYou are being a tourist?â€ť Imogen asked a few minutes later when she and Gretl had caught up on the most immediate of news. â€śAre you traveling around Austria, or staying in St. Andras?â€ť
â€śA little of each. Iâ€™m using this break as kind of a working holiday,â€ť I said, holding up my camera. â€śIâ€™m trying to make a start in the photography world, so right now Iâ€™m poking around St. Andras looking for interesting locations. Luckily, thereâ€™s a lot to choose from here.â€ť
â€śThere are many lovely sites in this region,â€ť Imogen agreed.
I eyed her. There was an air of fragility about her that intrigued me, and I wondered if there was any way I could capture that on film. She was certainly lovely enough to model, but a sense of tension seemed to wind around her, as if she were only just being kept from fracturing into a million pieces. It prompted me to ask, â€śWould you . . . this is going to sound awfully presumptuous, but would you be willing to let me take a few pictures of you? I canâ€™t pay you, Iâ€™m afraid, but Iâ€™d be happy to give you copies of any of the prints you want.â€ť
Imogen looked startled for a moment before smiling. â€śHow very sweet of you. Itâ€™s been . . . oh, so long I canâ€™t even remember when someone has asked to take my photo. I would be delighted to, although we are only in St. Andras for five days. We are taking a bit of a holiday, you see, and keeping only short hours for the fair until we move on.â€ť
â€śWell . . .â€ť I glanced at the skyline. It was dusk, and a dark purple had started to creep across the sky from the inky black silhouette of the mountains. â€śI know youâ€™re busy tonight with your pretty stone thingsâ€”â€ť
â€śRune stones,â€ť she interrupted, touching with reverence a deep purple stone bearing an etched symbol on one side. â€śI have an affinity for them, although I do occasionally read palms, as well.â€ť
â€śAh. Rune stones. Interesting.â€ť
She flipped a long curl over her shoulder. â€śRight now Fran is doing palm reading because she and Benedikt are . . . er . . . helping here at the fair. Benedikt is my brother,â€ť she added, turning to Gretl. â€śDo you remember meeting him in Vienna that time in the 1990s?â€ť
Gretlâ€™s round face lit up, a faint blush pinkening her cheeks. â€śWho could forget him? He was absolutely gorgeous. And heâ€™s here?â€ť
â€śYes, with Francesca. They were married a few months ago. Youâ€™ll like Franâ€”sheâ€™s very sweet, and she absolutely adores Benedikt, although she teases him mercilessly about the fact that women are prone to swooning over him.â€ť
â€śWow. He must still be quite the looker. You guys must have some really great genes,â€ť I commented before steering the conversation back to where I wanted it. â€śI know youâ€™re busy tonight, but perhaps I could shoot you tomorrow, if you are free.â€ť
â€śBenedikt is very handsome, yes,â€ť Imogen answered, ignoring my attempts to steer her. â€śHe resembles our father in that way.â€ť
The sense of tension in her increased, and I noticed she glanced over my shoulder, a flicker of pain passing across her face.
â€śYour father must have been a very handsome man, then,â€ť Gretl said with a dreamy look in her eyes that made me want to giggle. â€śI donâ€™t believe youâ€™ve ever mentioned him before.â€ť
â€śHe died when I was twenty-two,â€ť Imogen said swiftly, her gaze now on the stones that she stroked with long, sensitive fingers. â€śHe was destroyed by his two half brothers.â€ť
â€śOh, how horrible!â€ť both Gretl and I said.
â€śIt was very tragic. He inherited our family home, and they obviously coveted that, so they lured him into a forest one summer night and destroyed him.â€ť She stopped, obviously hesitant to go on. â€śIt is why I am here, as a matter of fact. The anniversary of his . . . death . . . is a few days from now. I try to make a pilgrimage to this area whenever I can, to remember happier times.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m so sorry,â€ť I said as Gretl murmured sympathetic platitudes. â€śI should never have brought up the subject of genes.â€ť
She sniffed back a few unshed tears. â€śNo, no, I donâ€™t mind talking about Papa. Before that horrible night, he was a good man, an excellent father, and I loved him very dearly.â€ť
â€śYou must miss him terribly. I assume they caught his killers?â€ť
â€śThey disappeared before they could be tried, unfortunately.â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s so sad. But Iâ€™m sure that wherever your father is, he knows how much you loved him.â€ť
She looked up at me, her eyes wide with surprise. â€śWherever he is?â€ť
I gestured toward the sky. â€śYou know, looking down on you.â€ť I had no idea what religion, if any, she subscribed to, so I didnâ€™t want to be too specific in my attempt to provide her with a little comfort.
Imogen gave a delicate little shrug, returning her gaze to the stones. â€śAh. Yes, Iâ€™m sure he does. At one time I had hope that Ben and I would find Nikolaâ€™s brothers, but we were unable to do so.â€ť
â€śNikola is your father?â€ť I couldnâ€™t help but ask. I didnâ€™t want to be nosy, but my curiosity got the better of me, and she honestly didnâ€™t seem to mind talking about him, so long as we kept off the subject of his manner of death.
â€śYes.â€ť She set down a stone she was stroking and looked up again at us, a little smile lighting her pure blue eyes. â€śNikola Czerny, the fifth Baron von Shey.â€ť
I blinked at her. â€śYour dad was a baron? A real baron? Does that make you anything?â€ť
She laughed aloud, patting my arm for a second. â€śYes, it makes me a woman.â€ť
â€śOh, Iâ€™m sorry,â€ť I apologized again, blushing a little at the stupidity that had emerged from my mouth. â€śYou have to excuse meâ€”Iâ€™m an idiot. But Iâ€™ve never met someone who was from the aristocracy before.â€ť
â€śMost of the nobility lost their power in Austria almost a hundred years ago,â€ť Gretl said gently, giving me a little squeeze on my arm. â€śAlthough I, too, did not know that Imogenâ€™s father was a baron. The title passed to Ben?â€ť
â€śNo, it didnâ€™t,â€ť Imogen said, her expression darkening for a moment before she gave us both a bright smile. â€śIt was all a long time ago, and we have much more pleasant things to speak of, yes?â€ť
It was a not very subtle hint that she was through talking about the subject.
â€śOf course,â€ť Gretl said soothingly, and made a date for the next afternoon to have tea and pastries.
â€śI hate to bother you if youâ€™re busy,â€ť I said, not sure whether she had responded to my request for a photo session because she was polite or because she really wanted me to take some pictures of her. â€śIf so, then I will totally understand. But if not, Iâ€™m sure we can find somewhere locally that would make a good backdrop.â€ť
Imogen looked up with a genuine smile. â€śNo, I am not too busy. I would love to be your model.â€ť
â€śOh, you must go to Andras Castle!â€ť Gretl said, clasping my arm. â€śIt would make a lovely settingâ€”â€ť
â€śNo,â€ť Imogen said quickly, her expression as brittle as ice. I blinked at the change in her demeanor. She suddenly relaxed and gave a forced little laugh. â€śIâ€™m sorry. You must think me very odd, but Andras Castle holds . . . bad memories for me. I would prefer not to go there again.â€ť
â€śOf course we wonâ€™t use it,â€ť I reassured her, curious at such a strong reaction to a ruined castle. Perhaps sheâ€™d been frightened thereâ€”when Gretl had told me about the ruins, she said that it had a bad reputation by the locals as being unpleasant to visit. â€śThere are lots of other places around here we could use.â€ť
â€śThe rose gardens?â€ť Gretl suggested. â€śThe town hall? The church? It is quite old.â€ť
â€śMmm . . .â€ť I scrunched up my nose as I thought. â€śTo be honest, Iâ€™d like to try something a little different as a backdrop for Imogen. Something to contrast with all that fair delicacy.â€ť
Imogen laughed, her expression once again changing like quicksilver. â€śIâ€™m sure you meant that as a compliment, but I assure you, I am anything but delicate. Fair, yesâ€”I got that from my mother. But delicate? No.â€ť
â€śAppearances are often deceiving,â€ť I agreed. â€śI think Iâ€™d like to see you set against somewhere dark and gritty. That would make for some wonderful depth to the picture.â€ť
â€śAs you like. Youâ€™re the expert,â€ť Imogen said with another of her little shrugs.
â€śIâ€™m far from that, but I see you . . .â€ť I narrowed my eyes and thought about an image of Imogen against the ruined castle. That would have been ideal, but there were other places that I could use. â€śOh! Gretl told me about this haunted forest near hereâ€”â€ť
â€śNo!â€ť Imogen all but squawked, drawing attention from the people moving past us. She shot them a reassuring smile before turning it on me. â€śIâ€™m so sorry. You must think me terribly emotional, but if you are talking about the Zauberwald, the woods near Andras Castle, then I must again say no. It is not a good place, that forest. I will not step foot in it again.â€ť
â€śI didnâ€™t mean to suggest somewhere that would make you feel uncomfortable.â€ť I thought for a moment. â€śI donâ€™t really know many places around here, but surely there must be some other location we can use that would give the same sense ofâ€”oh, I donâ€™t knowâ€”something otherworldly.â€ť
â€śOtherworldly? Yes, of course I can do that.â€ť She shot me a startled glance that quickly turned speculative, then amused, as if we shared a secret, something that struck me as hugely odd. I had only just met herâ€”how could we share a secret? When Gretl turned to greet an acquaintance who had called her name, Imogen leaned over to me, saying with a little nod at Gretlâ€™s back, â€śI had no idea you were not mundane.â€ť
â€śEr . . .â€ť Mundane? Was she making a dig at Gretl? I bristled righteously in defense of a much-loved cousin. â€śIâ€™ve always thought of myself as something . . . different, but just because Gretl chose a more traditional path in life doesnâ€™t mean sheâ€™s not a wonderful person.â€ť
â€śOf course sheâ€™s wonderful. Sheâ€™s been my friend for many years.â€ť Imogen smiled and squeezed my arm briefly. â€śAnd we all feel different at some time or other, donâ€™t we? At least until we settle in with our own kind. But who exactly are you? I realize it is rude to just come right out and ask you, but Iâ€™m sure you do not wish to speak of your true nature in front of dear Gretl.â€ť
I blinked at her, once again taken aback and unsure of how to respond, but luckily Gretl finished her chat and turned back to us, so I was content to simply smile in answer to Imogenâ€™s wink, and made a mental note to ask Gretl or her eldest daughter, Erica, to accompany me on the photo shoot. It was becoming clear that Imogen was a few apples shy of spiced cider.
â€śOh, there are Benedikt and Fran. Come. I must introduce you both to them. Benedikt will be delighted to see you again, Gretl.â€ť
I followed as Imogen bustled off with Gretl in tow over to where a tall man with shoulder-length black hair stood with a woman who was almost as tall as he was. The woman, who faced me, looked to be in her early twenties.
â€śWell, now, thatâ€™s interesting,â€ť I murmured, eyeing the woman named Fran. No matter how good Imogen looked, she had to be nearing fifty for Gretl to have known her for thirty years. Which meant her brother was probably in his forties or fifties, too, or he was a whole lot younger than Imogen. â€śEven if there is a big age difference,â€ť I said as I strolled toward them, â€śhe would be close to my age.â€ť
And yet his wife was probably twenty-two or twenty-three. I glanced at Gretl as the couple stepped forward to greet her. A puzzled frown pulled her brows together for an instant before she smiled, quickly returning to her usual charming self. When the man turned to greet me, I saw why Gretl had frowned. I stared at him for a moment, unable to believe what I was seeing. He was in his mid to late twenties, at least ten years younger than me, which meant Imogen was old enough to be his mother. Not an unknown situation, but not a common one, either. I realized that everyone was staring at me as I gawked so obviously at Imogenâ€™s handsome, much, much younger brother, and I pulled my wits together.
â€śSorry,â€ť I murmured, shaking first his hand, then Franâ€™s. She gave me an amused glance before leaning into her husband, her arm around his waist in a possessive move that Iâ€™d have had to be blind to miss.
I chuckled to myself, wanting to assure her that I might be single and not averse to finding a man, but I wasnâ€™t about to stoop to husband stealing and cradle robbing. â€śItâ€™s a pleasure to meet you both,â€ť I murmured.
â€śIolanthe wishes to take my picture tomorrow,â€ť Imogen told her brother. â€śShe is a photographer. She wishes to take me somewhere otherworldly.â€ť
The emphasis Imogen put on the word seemed to have some meaning for them, because they both raised their eyebrows for a few seconds. Ben slid a gaze to Gretl before returning it to me, saying in a low voice that couldnâ€™t have been heard by anyone but his wife, â€śAre you with the Court of Divine Blood? I donâ€™t recognize what you are, but Iâ€™m not very familiar with members of the Court.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m a woman,â€ť I answered, ironically echoing Imogenâ€™s words as I moved a few steps away from him. Clearly there was some sort of mental instability in Imogenâ€™s family.
â€śYes, of course you are,â€ť Fran said with a comforting smile that I didnâ€™t for one minute buy. Ben turned to answer a question Gretl asked him, leaving Fran chatting with me in a low voice. â€śWhat Ben meant was, what are you? Youâ€™re not a therion or a Guardian or a Summoner. Iâ€™ve seen those, and you donâ€™t look like them.â€ť
â€śI used to be an accountant,â€ť I told her, feeling that diplomacy was going to be my best bet if I wanted to get pictures of Imogen. It wouldnâ€™t do to offend any of Imogenâ€™s family by calling them crackpots. â€śBut Barry, my boss, kept hitting on me, and when I tried to turn him in, he got me fired. Illegal and reprehensible, but true.â€ť
â€śNo, I meantâ€”â€ť Fran stopped talking when Gretl turned back to us.
â€śIo, you donâ€™t mind that Imogen has asked me to sit with her for an hour or so while she reads the rune stones, do you?â€ť
â€śNot at all. Iâ€™ll just wander around the fair and see the sights.â€ť
â€śWeâ€™ll take care of your cousin,â€ť Fran told Gretl as we moved off. I couldnâ€™t help but notice that Fran wore a pair of long black lace gloves that disappeared into her shirt cuffs. â€śWeâ€™ll show you around and introduce you to all the people who work here. You might find someone youâ€™d like to photograph in addition to Imogen, you know. There are lots of interesting folks. My mother isâ€” Ratsbane! Whatâ€™s he doing here?â€ť
Fran had been steering me down the center aisle when she suddenly froze and glared to the side, where a blond man with a short goatee was strolling toward us. The man also froze when he caught sight of us, an expression of joy on his face as he waved an arm in the air and bellowed, â€śGoddess Fran! We have returned!â€ť
â€śI thought you said theyâ€™d gone back to Valhalla?â€ť Ben asked in a tight, low voice.
â€śThey had. Dammit, they promised me they wouldnâ€™t come back until I asked for their help again. . . . Excuse me a minute, Io. I have to deal with an old . . . friend. . . .â€ť
She hurried off to the blond man, who was joined by a second man, who also enveloped Fran in a bear hug.
â€śOh, Christ, not both of them,â€ť Ben said, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
â€śYou donâ€™t have to escort me around the fair, you know. Iâ€™m quite capable of trotting around by myself.â€ť
â€śIâ€™d much rather show you around than deal with those two lunatics,â€ť he said, nodding toward the nearest booth. â€śWhat would you like to see first? I canâ€™t vouch for the tattooing, but the demonologist is a friend of mine and can be quite interesting if heâ€™s holding a private group session.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m fine just people watching, if truth be told,â€ť I said politely, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. The words â€śdemonologistâ€ť and â€śprivate sessionâ€ť just seemed like an incredibly bad juxtaposition. â€śPeople are so fascinating if you have the time to really study them.â€ť
â€śTrue words. I wonâ€™t ask you any more about yourself, since Iâ€™m sure Imogen will pump you for all the information youâ€™re willing to divulge,â€ť he said, laughter rich in his voice as we moved on at a slow amble. â€śMy sister appreciates people watching, as well. Some might call her nosy, but in reality she just likes mortals.â€ť
Keep in the open, I told myself. Stay around other people. Do not, under any circumstances, go off anywhere alone with this bizarre man. â€śI really am not all that interesting, I assure you. I do feel bad about my horrible foot-in-mouth disease with Imogen, though.â€ť
He paused in front of a booth dedicated to personal time travel, shooting me a curious look. â€śPardon?â€ť
I made a little face. â€śI said I wanted to take photos of Imogen at the place your father met his end.â€ť
â€śMy father?â€ť Ben blinked. â€śMy father is in South America.â€ť
â€śOh, Iâ€™m sorry.â€ť A blush warmed my face as I realized that once again Iâ€™d verbally embarrassed myself. â€śI thought you and Imogen had the same father.â€ť
â€śWe do. Heâ€™s in Brazil, I believe. Or Argentina. Somewhere with lots of nearly naked young women and a high level of debauchery.â€ť
I stared at him in incomprehension. â€śHeâ€™s not dead?â€ť
â€śNo.â€ť He leaned in close and said in a low voice, â€śMy father is a Dark One. He canâ€™t die unless someone goes to quite a bit of trouble, and I can assure you that no one has done that in several centuries.â€ť
â€śSeveral centuries,â€ť I repeated, just as if that werenâ€™t the least bit startling, although, of course, my brain was screaming at me to run far, far away from the crazy man.
And then the thought hit meâ€”what if Imogen and her brother were having me on? What if they were teasing me, the ignorant little American tourist? What if they were waiting to see me freak out, whereupon theyâ€™d all have a good giggle at my expense?
The bastards. I wouldnâ€™t give them the pleasure!
â€śWell . . . three hundred? That seems about right. I think it was in 1708 that he flipped out. So three hundred and a bit.â€ť
I may not have had a lot of pride left that wasnâ€™t in tatters after the smear campaign by Barry of the Many Hands, but what I did have I gathered around me. â€śOh, that kind of Dark One. I thought you meant the . . . um . . . non-three-hundred-year type.â€ť
He looked at me as if potatoes had started a cabaret act on my head. â€śThe what?â€ť
â€śYou know, the kind that arenâ€™t around for three hundred years.â€ť
I think the potatoes may have begun a trapeze act, because the look he gave me was one of utter incredulity. That killed my idea of his pulling my legâ€”people who were teasing you seldom bore that sort of expression when you sussed out what it was they were doing.
â€śYou did say three hundred years, didnâ€™t you?â€ť I asked, suddenly worried that I misheard him. Maybe he had every right to look at me as if I was the odd one.
â€śYes.â€ť He continued to eye me. â€śMy father is actually older than three hundred years. Heâ€™s . . . let me see. Iâ€™m three hundred and nineteen, which means he must be around three hundred and sixty. Or seventy. Somewhere around that age.â€ť
What do you say to a man who claims heâ€™s over three hundred years old? I donâ€™t know what you would say, but I decided that the best thing to do was to agree with him and try to get rid of him.
â€śJust so. Those are my favorite kind of Black Ones.â€ť
â€śSorry.â€ť I cleared my throat and tried to sidle away. â€śI think Iâ€™ll justâ€”â€ť
Ben evidently wasnâ€™t having any of it. He followed after me, giving me a curious look. â€śThere are only two types of Dark Ones, Ioâ€”redeemed and unredeemed. My father is the latter, naturally.â€ť
â€śNaturally.â€ť I wondered whether if I dashed into the big main tent, he would come after me, or whether I could lose him in the crowd that was starting to gather.
â€śAlthough he did love my mother. In his own fashion. It was only afterward that he lost the ability to feel any such emotions.â€ť
â€śWell, you know how it is with Dark Dudesâ€”that happens.â€ť
He stopped me by taking hold of my arm, swinging me around to face him, his eyes narrowed on my face. â€śYou do know what a Dark One is, donâ€™t you?â€ť
â€śOf course,â€ť I lied, giving him what I hoped was a serene smile. â€śTheyâ€™re . . . um . . . they live a long time, and they . . . uh . . . hang out at fairs, and . . . er . . . do other stuff like . . . urm . . .â€ť
â€śBeing vampires,â€ť a female voice said behind me.
Eyes wide with disbelief, I spun around to find Fran smiling over my shoulder at Ben.
â€śSexy, sexy vampires,â€ť she added with a little sigh of pleasure.
Panic hit me then, hard and hot in my gut. I looked around wildly for an escape, throwing to the wind my desire to photograph Imogen. There was no way on this green earth I was going to spend any more time with people who thought they were three-hundred-year-old vampires!
â€śIo, let me introduce you to my ghosts. Theyâ€™re Vikings, and although theyâ€™re supposed to be in Valhalla, they claim they were sent back to help Ben and me with a little projectâ€”â€ť
I didnâ€™t wait for Fran to finish her sentence. I bolted, wanting nothing more than to escape the insanity that seemed to surround me.